Thursday, 27 June 2013

What happens when you read a book over and over again

I'm sure many parents can relate to the demands of being asked to read the same book over and over (and over) again. I would therefore like to introduce you to Madeleine the City Pig. This is the kid's favourite book at the moment (by favourite I mean we have renewed it from the library three times so far, we face frequent tantrums because of it not being read enough - this is favourite with a capital "F").

As we cuddle up for yet another bedtime reading of Madeleine the City Pig (with me getting sleepier and sleepier as we turn the pages) each reading of this book has lead me deeper into an analysis of the story of Madeleine, the city pig, caught up in the familiar rat race of modern life.

Madeleine is a pig. She lives in big city, drives a fast car and has an important job, yet something is not right; there is an undeniable and ever-growing gap in her life.

She is unhappy. I think we can all relate to her postmodern angst and feelings of alienation (or wait, perhaps she is experiencing existential angst?). Either way, she goes on a search for happiness and tries different hobbies from swimming to acting, yet a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world prevails for poor Madeleine.

Ultimately her search for meaning takes her on a physical and metaphorical journey to the countryside, which leads her to the self discovery: she does not belong in the city, she is a pig.

However, before Madeleine's Eriksonian identity crisis can be resolved and the disonnance between her outer and inner sense of self is healed, she must free herself from the shackles of capitalism. She does this symbolically by removing all her clothes (I'm sure Freud would have something to say about this too, but I probably shouldn't mention it here) and phoning the Managing Director from the rather ominous Company  to quit her job. 

Her final anti-materialist action of breaking her mobile phone, severs her ties to capitalist economic organisation and the owner of the means of production and shows solidarity with the other farm pigs. 

Hey, maybe her rejection of luxury consumerist items is more of a symbolic neo-Marxist statement against globalisation and multinational corporations? And pigs... hey, pigs must means something! Orwell... Animal Farm....of course (at this point I'm usually getting quite tired and confused), but let me not digress.

Finally Madeleine has found happiness with the other pigs on the open field with the pond, where she is (sans expensive clothes and mobile phone) "rolling in the grass and swimming in the pond". Images of a rosy setting sun, butterflies and bunny rabbits add to the strong sense of the pastoral idyll and conclude this story of self discovery and journey to true fulfillment.

Then I close the book, place it next to my kid's bed and kiss her goodnight. She sure has an interesting taste in literature!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Where is the magic?

I know, it's been quiet here, but:
time flies
there are just not enough hours in a day
how the weeks rush by
I can't believe it's the middle of June already
you blink and you miss it

Broken camera, work, work, work, over-crowded supermarkets, ticking time, strong coffee, folding laundry, finding thin slivers of time between getting home and bedtime to do some writing, wondering to myself 'where is the magic?', finally coming up for air with weekend picnics in the garden and reading fairy tales together. Then starting all over again.  

All the clich├ęs.  That's what happened.

I know it's a bit old now, but this kind of reminds me of David Foster Wallace's now very famous commencement speech:
The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude. But the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.
Taken from this video. It's definitely inspiring enough to watch again.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Snow White and the disneyfication of the fairy tale

Been a day of musing over cups of tea about this.

Around about this time each year I go to Toys R’ Us to purchase a present for the big birthday celebration where my kid goes to day care. Each year I decide to have a look at their book section to see what they have because I like giving books. Each year I’m sorely disappointed with what I find myself looking at: a range of Disney princesses in their uniformly bright colours, the book spin-offs from various animation successes (Cars, Finding Nemo) and colouring-in books (seriously, people, colouring-in books don’t count!). Each year I go around and find some bewildered looking shop assistant and ask them if they’re sure these are all the books they have. Each year I end up speaking anxiously to the manager about their selection.  Each year they give me the phone number of their head office.

Last year I phoned the Toys R’ Us head office and spoke to the buyer for children’s books (without any success clearly) and wrote a letter to the paper. I am aware that Toys R’Us isn’t called Books R’Us (which people have pointed out to me), but when I stare jealously at the impressive DVD and gaming section they have, I can just as easily say they’re not called DVDs R’Us either.  Clearly children’s literature isn’t considered fun enough or entertaining enough to warrant much shelf space in a toy store.

Anyway, the point of this blog post is not to discuss my obsession with the book selection of toy stores, but rather the uneasy feeling I get when I stare at those inanely smiling Disney princesses with their flawless, generic features. I want to talk about Snow White (and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) and the disneyfication of the fairy tale.

Image from here
Many of us won’t remember how we know fairy tales – we just seem to have always known them. This common or shared knowledge can be referred to as our common repertoire of fairy tales.  If the Disney-dominated bookshelves of toyshops are an indication of demand, then it is probably true that these days the version that we all “know” is that of the Disney movie.

But these are not the original fairy tales. The first written records of these oral stories date back hundreds of years and make it clear that they were not originally intended specifically for children, as we assume they were today. In a version of Sleeping Beauty recorded by Giambattista Basile in 1634, for example, the prince is so taken with the looks of the sleeping princess that he climbs into bed with her and enjoys “the first fruits of love”. Then he leaves her pregnant, but still sleeping. She gives birth to twins but doesn’t awaken until one of them sucks hungrily at her finger and, in so doing, removes the poisoned piece of flax that enchanted her.

Recognisable versions of the fairy tales we know today first appeared in print in 1697 in Charles Perrault’s collection aimed at entertaining the French court. Much later, in 1812, the brothers Grimm published their first edition of German folktales. Clearly, fairy tales have come a long way from oral folklore to Disney product. Versions have changed over time and become less scary and more child-friendly as we would define it today. Disney has in many ways sanitised the fairy tales of the past.

In his chapter entitled Breaking the Disney Spell (from Fairy tale as myth myth as fairy tale), Jack Zipes makes the point,
“It was not once upon a time, but at a certain time in history, before anyone knew what was happening, that Walt Disney cast a spell on the fairy tale, and he has held it captive ever since. He did not use a magic wand or demonic powers. On the contrary, Disney employed the most up-to-date technological means and used his own ‘American’ grit and ingenuity to appropriate European fairy tales.”
As a result, Zipes argues, 
“If children or adults think of the great classic fairy tales today, be it Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, they will think of Walt Disney. Their first and perhaps lasting impressions of these tales and others will have emanated from a Disney film, book, or artifact.”
It would seem a pity if the only contact children have with fairy tales is the sanitised, mass-produced Disney version and that the rich, varied history of fairy tales is lost. I’m not suggesting that Disney is all bad, but that it would do well if, as Zipes suggests, the spell was broken and that among the Disney spin-off books could be found more of the traditional versions as well.

Just a thought...

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Good places to read a book

Every now and then, between dropping the kid off at creche and arriving at work, I sneak off to a quiet place where I can read my book uninterrupted and have a cup of coffee. Self-indulgent. A little mid-week luxury. I have to admit, I afforded myself quite a number of these to get through Anna Karenina.

It's no surprise that The Glenwood Bakery hits the spot; strong black coffee, a lovely, buttery croissant and a book make for a fabulous combination. When I go there, I'm always reminded of my Swiss grandparents, who would spend a couple of month visiting Durban when we were children. They loved the warmth, the sea air, the palm trees, but their main complaint was that there was no decent bread to be had. I feel, had the Glenwood Bakery been around then, they would most definitely have approved! There's nothing like bread to recreate a sense of home.


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