For our fourth episode of the Books & Bites podcast, we discussed books inspired by fairy tales and mythology. Listen to the full episode, or read below for my recommendations.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology, retells Norse myths and would be the perfect book to discuss for this month’s theme.
That is, if I’d read it.
And since our copy is currently checked out, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about another book by Neil Gaiman that is heavily influenced by myth and fairytales: The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
As the narrator says near the beginning of the book:
“Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”
Gaiman has written a book for adults who do want to read about Narnia and myths and fairies. The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins when the narrator, a middle-aged man in town for a funeral, is drawn to the farm near his childhood home where three generations of Hempstock women lived. Sitting by the duck pond at the end of the lane, he remembers being seven and a series of strange events that began after a neighbor killed himself. The book is about childhood and the mysteries of adulthood; it’s about making sense of life and death; it’s about connecting to and understanding the world around you, both seen and unseen.
The Hempstock women are ageless, and they have mysterious powers that are slowly but never completely revealed to the boy. The women not only have the power to protect the narrator from evil, they also have the power to feed him hearty, comforting foods like pancakes and porridge. Early on in the book, Lettie Hempstock serves him “warm porridge from the stove top, with a lump of homemade blackberry jam, my favorite….” The narrator says, “I swished it around with my spoon before I ate it, swirling it into a purple mess, and was as happy as I have ever been about anything.” The description reminded me of eating a bowl of porridge with berries on the Isle of Skye in Scotland last summer. It was foggy and cool, and after a week of bad hotel Scottish breakfasts, the hot cereal tasted just as the narrator describes: perfect.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fast, easy read, and it would be just the book for a lazy Saturday. Start it while eating a bowl of oats to fortify you for the journey ahead.
Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty
by Christine Heppermann
In her author’s note, Christine Heppermann says that while men took credit for writing down fairy tales, “the original tellers were, in all likelihood, women. And those women were sneaky. They understood that including fantastical elements in their tales—golden eggs, singing harps, talking frogs—worked to mask a deeper purpose.”
Heppermann works within that tradition, retelling fairy tales for a contemporary audience of teenage girls, young women, and the people who love them. The 50 poems included in Poisoned Apples explore body image, gender expectations, the beauty myth, and consumerist culture. Here, beauty becomes the beast, and Little Bo Peep becomes a librarian who steals her favorite books to keep them safe. Little Red Riding Hood is retold in a poem called “A Shape Magazine Fairy Tale,” which begins:
“One day, while out walking in the woods
at a steady pace with short bursts of speed,
the girl met a wolf and told him, what big
smudge-free lashes you have!”
Other poems deal directly with contemporary life, such as the poems “Abercrombie Dressing Room” and “Photoshopped Poem.” All the poems are smart, funny, and brave. They made me remember my own teenage years and wish I’d had a truth teller like Heppermann to guide me through them.
The book includes black and white photographs that reflect on similar themes as the poems, add a nice visual weight, and should particularly resonate with the intended audience.
Because so many of the poems in this book are about body image and anorexia, it made me want to eat something really subversive—the kind of thing that society tells girls and women they shouldn’t eat, like a big, messy, juicy burger. Toss in some fries and a shake, and don’t even think about feeling ashamed or guilty.