Top Ten Tuesday: Nautical Novels

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

April 6: Books I’d Gladly Throw Into the Ocean (submitted by Beauty & Her Books)

Since there aren’t many books I’d gladly throw in the ocean (even if I strongly dislike it, someone else may like it! That just seems like such a waste!) I decided to take the ocean theme in it’s own direction. These are my top books set at/near/on the ocean.

Just an early disclaimer: I have read a lot of the sea set novels that we now think of as for children (though are some aren’t) like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island. My opinion varies depending on the book but for one reason or another a lot of them don’t resonate with me. So this won’t be a list of novels with “the most” ocean presence. But they’re books about the ocean that I enjoyed.

1.

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Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier– The sea plays a role in a lot of DuMaurier’s Cornwall set work (it certainly plays a key role in the plots of Jamaica Inn and Rebecca) but it’s most prevalent in this tale of a married woman’s dalliance with a pirate.

2.

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Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter-Naslund– I suppose this list is a good place to confess that I’ve never actually read Moby Dick, so that won’t be on this list. But the ocean takes a strong role in Una’s epic as well. I actually did really like this book, but it didn’t make me want to read Moby Dick more. I was actually more interested in what Una was up to while Ahab was off at sea.

3,

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Circe by Madeline Miller– Parts of this novel (based on a character who shows up in The Odyssey) take place at sea. Other parts take place under it, and still others take place on an island, but the sea is present throughout, so I’m counting it as “nautical.”

4.

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The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware– Not only a whodunnit, but also a “did it even happen?” set at sea. A travel journalist sees someone thrown overboard on a cruise. But no one else saw anything and no one is missing.

5.

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Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon– If I hadn’t specified “novels” in the topic, I might have been tempted in include Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. But since I did, I’ll go with this novelistic interpretation of it. It’s told from two perspectives: that of the princess who marries the prince that the mermaid loves, and the mermaid herself.

6.

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The Pirate Captain by Kerry Lynne- Like Pirates of the Caribbean meets Outlander. That’s really the best way to describe this book. It’s a lot of fun, as long as you’re not looking for it to be anything deeper (no pun intended) than that. I want to read the second in the series but it’s long (over 750 pages) so I’m hesitant to dive in (again, I’m really not doing this on purpose!)

7.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck– Years ago, I read this short novel about a poor pearl diver with a sick son. But it’s haunted me for a long time. When he finds a huge pearl the family’s fortunes change, and his family dreams of a better life. But the pearl may be more of a curse than a blessing. It’s a retelling of a Mexican folktale, in which diving, pearls, and the sea, play an important role.

8.

Foe by JM Coetzee– This is the third book on this list that reimagines a sea set classic. In this case, Coetzee imagines that a woman named Susan Barton tells Daniel Foe (Defoe’s name before he fancified it) about her experiences on an island with a shipwrecked Cruso (Robinson Crusoe) and his manservant Friday. But Foe changes up the story a bit to make it more marketable. Barton turns Cruso into her own invention in the story, and then Foe turns that into his invention. It’s really about the enigmatic nature of storytelling, but the ocean (and an island) are strong settings throughout.

9.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys- Wow, yet another classic reimagining with a strong nautical element. Jane Eyre isn’t nautical at all, but this tale of the madwoman in the attic, begins on the shores of the Caribbean.

10.

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell– I was obsessed with this book as a kid. It’s based on a true story about a girl who spent 18 years alone on the Island of San Nicholas, off the coast of California.

Retellings Can Also Be Original

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Billy Porter (photo: Broadwayworld.com)

I read earlier that actor Billy Porter will be playing a genderless fairy god-person in a new film version of Cinderella. My response to the news was mild curiosity. It’s an interesting idea, that has the potential to be done well. Whether or not it is done well depends on a lot  of factors. But then I read several comments bemoaning yet another film adaptation of Cinderella. People were asking why we can’t have fewer reboots and more original stories.  For the record, I think that fewer film reboots is a great idea. But I don’t consider retelling a fairy tale to be an unoriginal remake, unless the filmmakers don’t think outside the box. There are a lot of original unique ideas that stem from fairy tales.

 

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Disney’s 2015 film adaptation of Cinderella, based on their 1950 animated film (photo: vanityfair.com)

I suppose that because my own creative  work is based on fairy tales this is an issue that’s close to my heart. But truly believe that fairy tales make rich artistic source material because they’re both flexible and powerful.  Various critics have attempted to identify precisely why fairy tales endure. In Why Fairy Tales Stick(2006) Jack Zipes says:  “we respond to these classical stories almost as if we were born with them, and yet we know full well that they have been socially produced and induced and continue to be generated this way through different forms of the mass media.” While that’s true certain images call to mind a fairy tale in ways that transcend media. Show someone pictures of a fancy shoe, a clock and a pumpkin and it’ll call to mind Cinderella. The images may have nothing to do with the story itself but they’ll call the story to mind because these stories are so much a part of us. Some may say that’s because we’ve been bombarded with the fairy tale nonstop. And there may be an element of truth to that.

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The Glass Slipper (1955) (Photo: moirareviews.com)

But fairy tales have never been simple stories. Many people associate fairy tales with their Disney adaptions. If they’re aware that the Disney films are, in fact, adaptions, they’ll often refer to “the original story.” As if such a thing exists. But most fairy tales have diverse sources. Often Disney will draw from predominantly one version  over another, but that’s not to say that’s the “original.” Most of these stories are drawn from oral tradition and mythologies.

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The Slipper and the Rose (1976)  (photo: thehunchblog.com)

Because they come from diverse sources, fairy tales can be told for many reasons. In an essay called Wearing Tiaras: On Fairy Tales, Community and Happiness, Ruth Daniell argues that:

If fairy tales can grab our attention more quickly than other forms of storytelling—and certainly they grab our attention soonest, as they make up so much of what children first encounter—then don’t we need them, as much or more as other media, to tell us that violence is wrong, that everyone should be able to be happy?…Sometimes it’s easier to deal with trauma in less direct ways. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine a happy ending for a princess than for yourself. Sometimes it’s easier to become the princess than waiting for the world to right itself.

She goes on to say that:

 Children of all genders—not just girls—can and should, if they want to, enjoy fairy tales. We can aspire to a variety of ideals and receive reassurance from a wide range of characters. Yes, a patriarchal society chose its canon of fairy tales, but many of them are—despite their problems—wonderful stories, and, too, there exists beyond the (popularly) known canon even more stories, some of them wilder, stranger. Some have deeply feminist themes. I believe there are responsible ways to share fairy tales—by sharing a diverse range of them, by talking critically about the ways in which gender, class, violence, love, et cetera is depicted in them—and I think it’s worth doing that work to do so. The stories make us, but we make the stories. We can make the stories. We can reclaim the old stories. We can make new ones. We can disrupt the gender roles, we can normalize new kinds of love stories, we can imagine new kinds of ways of being happy.

In other words, if fairy tales are stories that can be enjoyed and shared among a diverse audience for many reasons, then isn’t there room for many tellings?

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Cinderfella (1960) (photo: alchetron.com)

Since I started this by talking about Cinderella, I’ll continue discussing that. There have been many films based on Cinderella made for many reasons. I’m going to highlight a few:

The Glass Slipper (1955) was made as a vehicle for star Leslie Caron who had a background as a ballerina. It features a score from Bronislaw Kaper and three ballets choreographed by Roland Petit.

Cinderfella (1960) retold a gender reversed Cinderella for the purpose of highlighting the comedy of star Jerry Lewis.

The Slipper and the Rose (1976) was a high profile musical adaption of Cinderella starring Richard Chamberlin and featuring the songs of the Sherman Brothers.

Ever After (1998) is often seen as a modernist, post-feminist reinterpretation of the story with the magical elements removed. It’s set in Renaissance-era France.

Cinderella(2015) is a live action adaptation of Disney’s 1950 animated film.

The target audiences for these films were largely different: fans of Jerry Lewis’ comedy might not also like Leslie Caron’s dance heavy adaptation or the Sherman Brother’s tunes in The Slipper and the Rose. Similarly, fans of Ever After might not take to the magic in the 2015 Disney film.  All of these films purposed the story for their own target audience.

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Ever After (1998) (Photo: bustle.com)

In literature, Cinderella has been retold or recalled in worlds that range from Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister to Carolyn Turgeon’s  Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story to Stephen King’s Carrie (I explain a bit about this here)! All of these books have different tones, aim to do different things and use the conventions of different genres. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder uses sci-fi tropes and conventions and makes her Cinder a futuristic cyborg. In Bound, Donna Jo Napoli roots her retelling in historical fiction and Chinese Cinderella tales. In Ash, Melinda Lo writes a LGBT friendly retelling. Yes all off these authors retell the Cinderella story we all know. But more than that, they use the story to highlight different ideas. They bring originality to it, in turning it around and looking at it from different angles.

I consider fairy tales to be powerful narratives precisely because they are open to so many interpretations. So maybe, when one is announced, we can be welcoming rather than roll our eyes. What matters is the execution, not the source material.

Fairy Tale Retellings

Since most of what I write is in the overall category of fairy tale retellings, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites in the genre. If there’s a specific tale that you’re interested in, mention in the comments. I might know some good retellings. I’ve read a lot of these over the years!

Novels

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Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth– Kate Forsyth is amazing. She’s  a long time fantasy author, with a doctorate in fairytale studies.  Her blog has some amazing background information on this book.  This Rapunzel retelling imagines three parallel storylines. Charlotte-Rose de la Force is banished from Versailles due to a series of affairs. She takes refuge in a convent, where a nun tells her the story of a young girl who is sold to a mysterious woman in exchange for some bitter greens. It also tells the story of Selena, the muse of the 16th-century artist Tiziano, who comes to be known as La Strega Bella. These three narratives are braided together (pun intended) to create the story of Rapunzel. Charlotte-Rose de la Force was a real person who wrote the Rapunzel story. Selena is also based on a real historical figure.

“I had always been a great talker and teller of tales.
‘You should put a lock on that tongue of yours. It’s long enough and sharp enough to slit your own throat,’ our guardian warned me, the night before I left home to go to the royal court at Versailles … I just laughed. ‘Don’t you know a woman’s tongue is her sword? You wouldn’t want me to let my only weapon rust, would you?”

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Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon– This is a retelling of The Little Mermaid, that has a sad tone more in line with Hans Christian Anderson than Disney. Princess Margrethe’s kingdom is at war. One day while walking along the beach she sees a mermaid rescue a nearly drowned man. By the time Margrethe reaches them the mermaid has disappeared beneath the waves. As Margrethe nurses the man back to health, she learns that he’s a prince of the enemy kingdom. But she falls in love with him, and certain that he was brought to her for a reason. Margrethe comes up with a plan to bring peace to both kingdoms. Meanwhile, mermaid princess Lenia is also unable to forget the drowning man that she helped to rescue. She’s willing to sacrifice her home, her voice, and her health to become human, to be with him. While the prince is a bit more two dimensional than I might like (I’d like to know why these two women love him so much) the fact that this novel presents both of these characters as heroines and puts them at cross purposes, makes it both poignant and compelling.

“There are people all over the world who carry the mermaid inside them, that otherworldly beauty and longing and desire that made her reach for heaven when she lived in the darkness of the sea.”

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Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier– This retelling of The Wild Swans kicks off a six book series, though it can be read as a stand-alone. Lord Colum of Sevenwaters (in Ancient Ireland) has seven children. Six sons and a daughter, Sorcha. When Colum marries a sorceress, Sorcha’s brothers are enchanted. They are turned into birds. In order to break the spell, Sorcha must weave shirts out of nettles for all of them, while remaining silent until her task is complete. The silence becomes more difficult when Sorcha is captured by the Britons and taken overseas. But she continues her task until she is confronted with choosing between saving her brothers and protecting the man with whom she has fallen in love. Sorcha is a wonderful heroine. She’s smart, determined, and strong but not in a cartoonish way. She has weaknesses too, that make her a well-rounded character.

“The man journeyed far, and he heard and saw many strange things on his travels. He learned that – that the friend and the enemy are but two faces of the same self. That the path one believes chosen long since, constant and unchangeable, straight and wide, can alter in an instant. Can branch, and twist and lead the traveler to places far beyond his wildest imaginings. That there are mysteries beyond the mind of mortal man, and that to deny their existence is to spend a life of half-consciousness.”

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Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier– This is a Beauty and the Beast story that is both fantastic and very human.  Eighteen-year-old Caitrin was trained as a scribe, but she runs away from home to avoid a forced marriage. She takes refuge at Whistling Tor, where Anluan, the crippled, cursed chieftain, lives in a house full of (literal) ghosts. When violence once again threatens her happiness, Caitrin and Anluan must stand together to break a curse.  By making Caitrin find refuge from an outside threat with Anluan, Marillier avoids any possible accusation of Stockholm syndrome, and creates a lovely, bittersweet romance.

“He was seated on the bench now. He had his left elbow on his knee, his right arm across his lap, his shoulders hunched, his head bowed. White face, red hair: snow and fire, like something from an old tale. The book I had noticed earlier was on the bench beside him, its covers shut. Around Anluan’s feet and in the birdbath, small visitors to the garden hopped and splashed and made the most of the day that was becoming fair and sunny. He did not seem to notice them. As for me, I found it difficult to take my eyes from him. There was an odd beauty in his isolation and his sadness, like that of a forlorn prince ensorcelled by a wicked enchantress, or a traveller lost forever in a world far from home.”

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Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley– I am one of the rare McKinley fans who prefer Rose Daughter to McKinley’s other Beauty and the Beast story, Beauty. Don’t get me wrong, I like Beauty but I think Rose Daughter’s more innovative while still keeping the spirit of the original story. I can see where the ending of this one might be a bit controversial among fans, but I liked it. We see Beauty have a different relationship with her sisters than we’re used to. They don’t always get along, but they basically care about one another. We also see that Beauty has really fallen in love with the Beast himself, rather than the castle and his wealth etc. There’s more complexity to this telling IMO.

“She looked up at once, pierced to the heart by the sorrow in his voice and knowing, from the question and the sorrow together, that he had no notion of what had just happened to her, nor why. From that she pitied him so greatly that she cupped her hands again to hold a little of the salamander’s heat, not for serenity but for the warmth of friendship. But as she felt the heat again running through her, she knew at once it bore a different quality. It had been a welcome invader the first time, only moments before; but already it had become a constituent of her blood, intrinsic to the marrow of her bones, and she heard again the salamander’s last words to her: Trust me. At that moment she knew that this Beast would not have sent such misery as her father’s illness to harry or to punish, knew too that the Beast would keep his promise to her, and to herself she made another promise to him, but of that promise she did not yet herself know. Trust me sang in her blood, and she could look in the Beast’s face and see only that he looked at her hopefully.”

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Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory McGuire This book tells us straight away that we should forget about the magical Cinderella story we knew. In 17th century Holland, the widowed Margarethe marries a painter and she and her two daughters move in with him and his daughter, Clara.  We follow the story of Iris, Margarethe’s plain-faced daughter, and Ruth, her mentally challenged sister, as they try to find a place for themselves in the world. They learn that deception can be found where you least expect it. But love can be found there too. The “wicked” stepsisters here have complex reasons for their actions. And love is usually at the heart of those reasons.

In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings…. When we grow up, we learn that it’s far more common for human beings to turn into rats….

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East by Edith Pattou– In the rural villages of Norway it is believed that children inherit the qualities of the direction in which they are born.  Nymah Rose was born facing north. North born babies are intelligent, unpredictable, and likely to leave home and break their mother’s hearts. Rose’s mother lies and says that her daughter was born facing the more obedient east. But destiny can’t be denied that easily. One night a white bear shows up at the house and says that if she goes with him her ailing, poor family will be happy, healthy and rich. Rose jumps at the chance. She lives with the white bear in his castle. But when her actions unintentionally harm her new friend, Rose must go on a seemingly impossible quest to save him. This story blends the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon with Nordic superstition, Norse mythology and Inuit mythology. It moves through the voices of each of the characters to give us a kaleidoscopic view of the world Pattou creates.

“I knelt by the design. Yes, there was the sun rising. But the white form I had always thought to be a cloud was a bear. I could see it now, upside down. White bear, isbjorn, stood for north. Father had not been able to help himself. The truth was there, too. Truth and lie, side by side.”

Short Fiction/Poetry

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter If you’re a teen or adult who loves fairy tales but hasn’t read this collection, please do so right now. I’ll wait. In these stories, Carter retells tales that we all know, Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood… But she retells them in ways that are humorous, dark, sensual, and subversive.

“There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption.”

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Transformations by Anne Sexton– In this collection, Anne Sexton adapts seventeen fairy tales. Each poem opens with a modern-day prologue in which Sexton, compares the tale to a modern theme. These touch on topics like desperation, memory, insanity, and deception.  Then she retells the story through this lens. Most of these poems have a sense of humor, but there’s an undercurrent of darkness as well.

“He turns the key.
Presto!
It opens this book of odd tales.
Which transform The Brothers Grimm.
Transform?
As if an enlarged paper clip
Could be a piece of sculpture.
(And it could.)”