BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Ruby Slippers, Golden TearsRuby Slippers, Golden Tears by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This anthology consists of 22 pieces of short fiction written by 21 authors and connected by the theme of “fairy tales.” These are variations on traditional folk and fairy tales written for adult audiences. Some are more recognizable than others either because they follow the original more or less or because they start with a more or less well-known tale. (Make a note, these aren’t for bedtime reading for the kids– unless you’re willing to shell out for therapy. Some are dark and some deal in adult sexual themes.)

 

“Ruby Slippers” by Susan Wade: A modern, journalistic hearing of the “Wizard of Oz.”

 

“The Beast” by Tanith Lee: What does a woman’s new husband do when he goes out, and where does he go? A variation on the theme of “Beauty and the Beast.”

 

“Masterpiece” by Garry Kilworth: This is a deal-with-the-devil story in which an artist must make a perverse decision between his masterpiece or something else dear.

 

“Summer Wind” by Nancy Kress: This is the first of three pieces that play off the Briar Rose / Sleeping Beauty concept. A prevailing theme is one of making a less passive sleeping princess.

 

“This Century of Sleep or, Briar Rose Beneath the Sea” by Farida S. T. Shapiro: This is one of the few poetic pieces in the anthology. It reconsiders the Briar Rose [Sleeping Beauty] fable.

 

“The Crossing” by Joyce Carol Oates: This is the last of the stories built around Sleeping Beauty. It’s a period piece set neither in ancient times nor the present day.

 

“Roach in Loafers” by Roberta Lannes: This is a humorous retelling of the tale in which the elves come each night and save the over-burdened cobbler.

 

“Naked Little Men” by Michael Cadnum: This time, instead of a cockroach, it’s naked little men that come to do the work.

 

“Brother Bear” by Lisa Goldsmith: Part Goldilocks and part tale of marriage in the animal kingdom.

 

“The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” by John Brunner: An arrogant, despicable, and dense Chinese Emperor summons an artist who draws dragons, insisting the artist introduce him to a dragon. This story goes in the “be careful what you wish for” file. It’s among my favorites of this anthology.

 

“Billy Fearless” by Nancy Collins: Another outstanding story. Billy is fearless and he’s suffered for it because his father and others think he doesn’t have any sense. (He’s not the sharpest tool.) But one day he finds himself in a situation in which his fearlessness might work to his advantage.

 

“The Death of Koshchei The Deathless” by Gene Wolfe: This is based on a Russian folk tale of the same name, but shedding the superstitious / supernatural elements to give it a bit of realism.

 

“The Real Princess” by Susan Palwick: The story’s basis is “The Princess and the Pea.” The story is built around a sadistic king of an impoverished kingdom and the “Real Princess” who comes to live with him.

 

“The Huntsman’s Story” by Milbre Burch: The Huntsman from the Snow White fairy tale, but in a brusk style and with a key difference.

 

“After Push Comes to Shove” by Milbre Burch: A poem on the Hansel & Grettel theme.

 

“Hansel & Grettel” by Gahan Wilson: This short story re-imagines the two children not as impoverished waifs but rather as wealthy trust-fund kids who travel the world, ending up at a fancy resort that represents the siblings’ second brush with stumbling into some place that could be bad for them.

 

“Match Girl” by Anne Bishop: A little abused orphan girl finds her fire. This is a prime example of a story not for the kiddies; it’s got a bit of an S&M undertone.

 

“Waking the Prince” by Kathe Koja: This is a variation on “Sleeping Beauty” with an obvious change in gender roles and the modern outlook that comports with said change.

 

“The Fox Wife” by Ellen Steiber: Based on Japanese folklore in which foxes are clever and conniving souls. A samurai’s trophy wife becomes possessed by fox spirit. This was among my favorites. It’s also one of the longer pieces.

 

“The White Road” by Neil Gaiman: A poem based on the English fairy tale of “Mr. Fox.”

 

“The Traveler and the Tale” by Jane Yolen: This one is a bit different. It’s a sci-fi tale that suggests fairy tales are injected into society in order to have some effect on behavior.

 

“The Printer’s Daughter” by Delia Sherman: This is also one of my favorites. It’s a take on the Pinocchio story. What’s fun about this version is that the totem brought to life is made out of proofing sheets. Since the printer mostly prints booklets of bawdy tales and, on the other hand, religious tracts, the girl that comes to life can only speak in two ways: one that would make a sailor blush and the other is quoting scripture.

 

Short story anthologies usually don’t included much in the way of ancillary matter beyond an introduction (and sometimes an epilogue,) but this one has a several pages of recommended reading at the end for those who are interested in learning more about fairy tales and how they come to be translated into modern forms.

 

I’d recommend this book for those interested in fairy tales of a form suitable for adults.

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