Mirror, Mirror: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

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“Pretty is as pretty does,” my grandmother must have told me thousands of times.  And one can never really believe a mirror anyway.

At least not in Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which begins:  “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years, I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  This is the voice of Boy Novak, a girl.  The first narrator.  The daughter of a brutal and sadistic rat catcher whose absent mother is never discussed, living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-something.

Boy runs away to idyllic Flax Hill, Massachusetts, a town where “people make beautiful things . . . [where they are] interested in the process, not the end product.”  Boy marries a jewelry artist named Arturo and becomes stepmother to his young daughter Snow.  But after Boy gives birth to Bird, she sends Snow away.

In Boy, Snow, Bird, it is not only the mirrors that are untrustworthy.  Things are more often than not the opposite of how they appear.  This is the first novel by Ms. Oyeyemi I have read, but according to the New York Times, she is thirty years old and a five-time novelist.  Besides the fact that I hate her a little bit for that accomplishment, I love her writing.  The following is from the section of the novel narrated by Boy’s daughter, Bird, who also has an issue with mirrors.

Sometimes mirrors can’t find me.  I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there.  Not all the time, not even most of the tie, but often enough.  Sometimes when other people are there, but nobody ever notices that my reflection’s a no-show.  Or maybe they decide not to notice because it’s too weird.  I can make it happen when I move quickly and quietly, dart into a room behind the swinging of a door so it covers me the way a fan covers a face.  Maybe I catch the mirror off guard somehow.  It starts to look for me — “look for me” isn’t quite right — I know mirrors can’t see.  But the image in the glass shifts just a little bit off center, left, then right, then back again, like its’ wondering why it isn’t reflecting all that standings in front of it.  I know a girl just came in; now where’s she at?

In its review, the New York Times says, “Oyeyemi picks myths and fairy tales because she sees the blood and guts behind the glitter and ball gowns. In essence she’s a writer of rather enchanting horror stories, but like the candy-colored blood of the dead ballerinas in Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film “Suspiria,” her violence is all the more gruesome for its misleading pulchritude.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/books/review/boy-snow-bird-by-helen-oyeyemi.html

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The author herself admits as much, saying she writes retold fairy tales.  “And fairy tales teach lessons, she says. Lessons like ‘Everything that you see is not necessarily what it is. You have to find another way to know things. You have to find another way to know things. There is inner vision. And then there’s exterior vision. There are levels of seeing.'”  http://www.npr.org/2014/03/07/282065410/the-professionally-haunted-life-of-helen-oyeyemi

In Boy, Snow, Bird, beauty is desired, deceitful and dangerous.  And perhaps that is the point of the Brothers Grimm original tale as well.

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.

Soon after that she had a little daughter, who was as white as snow, and as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony, and she was therefore called little Snow White. And when the child was born, the queen died.

After a year had passed the king took to himself another wife. She was a beautiful woman, but proud and haughty, and she could not bear that anyone else chould surpass her in beauty. She had a wonderful looking-glass, and when she stood in front of it and looked at herself in it, and said,

            “Looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall,

dfd91135db5fde17a2f44144a2e79482                                              Who in this land is the fairest of all?”

The looking-glass answered,

    “Thou, o queen, art the fairest of all.”

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth.

I highly recommend Boy, Snow, Bird for your book club.

MENU

Just for giggles, I’ve designed a menu based on Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarves (none of whom make an appearance that I can see in Boy, Snow, Bird).

Doc:  Mix a pitcher of Gin & Tonics and pour into a beaker.  (Tonic originally contained quinine as a malarial prophylactic.)

Sneezy:  Anything with black pepper.  Steak au poivre, chicken with black pepper are the two that come immediately to mind.  Here are ten more:  http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/04/peppery-peppercorn-recipes-truffles-monkfish-gratin-10-best

Dopey:  Bugles chips (tiny little dunce caps) to dunk into bugles-original-flavor1

Grumpy:   Buffalo Chicken Wing Dip.  Spicy, yummy and just hot enough to put a little fire into your soul.

INGREDIENTS:
2 (10 ounce) cans chunk chicken,
drained
2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese,
softened
1 cup Ranch dressing
3/4 cup Tabasco
1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
Heat chicken and hot sauce in a skillet over medium heat, until heated through. Stir in cream cheese and ranch dressing. Cook, stirring until well blended and warm. Mix in half of the shredded cheese, and transfer the mixture to a slow cooker. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top, cover, and cook on Low setting until hot and bubbly.

Sleepy:  Dried cherries, almonds, dark chocolate chips mixed together.  Why?  Because they all make you sleepy!  And it’s yummy! http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/g796/sleep-inducing-foods/?slide=13

Bashful:  A blush wine

Happy:  Cupcakes with little happy faces.

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MUSIC

There are several ways to go here.  You could do some moody, New Yorky jazz from the 1930s.  I would play The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love c.d. all the way through.

MOVIE CASTING

Arturo:  Javier Bardem

Boy:  Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones certainly has the look for it

Boy’s mother:  Tilda Swinton

Snow:  Lily Collins (maybe but she’s already played Snow White I think — so maybe some unknown who is younger).

HAPPY READING!

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The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills

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Readers of daeandwrite not living under a rock will have seen that Harper Lee is about to publish her second novel, entitled “Go Set a Watchman,” a “newly discovered” novel written in the early 1950s, according to Harper Lee’s legal representative and her publisher Harper Collins.  Harper-Collins has today revealed the cover of Go Set a Watchman, above, which recalls the look of the original cover of To Kill A Mockingbird with elements of black tree branches and light green leaves against a solid background. http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780062409850

Readers of daeandwrite may also remember that I’ve written of my concerns about the publication of this new find before:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/the-tale-around-the-tale-harper-lees-new-novel-go-set-a-watchman/.

My concerns have not lessened after reading Marja Mills’ recollection of her years of friendship with Harper and Alice Lee.  Mills, a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, went to Monroeville, Alabama, hoping against hope to meet with Harper Lee, the famously reclusive author for an interview about the Chicago Public Library’s selection of To Kill a Mockingbird as the first selection in its One Book, One Chicago program.  Although initially given the Lee run-around, Mills eventually became not only friendly with, but confidantes and neighbors of Harper and Alice Lee.

Mills gets no further than page 46 before she detailing Harper Lee’s aversion to publishing another book.  This incident below is in 1963, mind you.  Well after the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Questions about her second book began to rankle.  She wasn’t making the progress she hoped, and preferred not to disclose the specifics of the novel she had been working on for more than a year at that point.  The expectations of a second novel were overwhelming.  When you start at the top, she told those close to her, there is nowhere to go but down.

Her decision never to publish another book took on the aura of a dramatic decision she had made early on after the overwhelming success of To Kill a Mockingbird  Her choice to live out of the public spotlight and begin a half century of silence seemed equally stark.

But the decision not to publish again was far more gradual than that.  As I got to know Nelle (Harper Lee) and her friends, I learned that, rather than a grand decision, the shape of her life was dictated by a series of choices made at different points along the way  For many years, she thought there might be a second book.

At age thirty-four, Harper Lee had a stunning achievement behind her, and a world of promise before her.  Naturally, she planned to write more.  She would turn her keen eye once more to the complexities of character and community.  In To Kill a Mockingbird and in future work she envisioned, the rich particulars of her corner of the Deep South could illuminate something universal.

“I hope to goodness every book I write improves,” she told an interviewer, only half in jest, in 1964.  “All I want is to be the Jane Austen of south Alabama.”

Then:  silence.

(Emphasis mine).  In 1964, Harper Lee was well-aware of having written what would have been the forerunner of To Kill A Mockingbird.  And clearly, had no intention of publishing it.  She made no reference to it, or even considered it.  She was thinking of, considering and planning future work, not thinking of past.

In the epilogue, Mills recounts that Nelle suffered a serious stroke in November 2007 and thereafter underwent months of hospital treatment and rehabilitation in hopes of being able to walk again.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and Nelle moved permanently into an assisted living center.  Nelle was, according to Mills, “able, for a time, to keep up with some reading, to hold the kind of conversations she used to with friends, to get out a fair amount.  She had good days and bad days.”

But, according to Mills, in her at least annual visits over the next several years, Harper Lee continued to decline.  Although the time frame is not completely clear, it appears that sometime between 2009 and 2011:

Things became increasingly difficult as Nelle’s condition worsened and her memory failed, as had [her sister] Louise’s, who died in 2009 at age ninety-three.  By the time I saw her a couple of visits later, she was not the Nelle I knew.

Another recent update is that, based on an anonymous tip filed by a self-proclaimed doctor and friend of Harper Lee concerned she was unable to give informed consent, the Alabama Human Resources Department is investigating a claim of elder abuse.  Articles from the Washington Post and New York Times outline the issues and cover the story in varying depth:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/03/12/report-alabama-investigating-possible-elder-abuse-in-connection-with-harper-lees-new-novel/http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/arts/artsspecial/harper-lees-ability-to-consent-to-new-book-continues-to-be-questioned.html?_r=0

Harper Lee wrote these beautiful words:  “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

It would be a sin to take advantage of one as well.

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Vintage Arthur Singer illustration

Revisiting Holly Golightly: Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

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Remember Holly?  Black dress, ropes of pearls, impeccable posture?  Rather a socialite? That’s Hollywood Holly; Audrey Hepburn style.  Truman Capote’s original Holly, from his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was something quite different.  In addition to unashamedly making a living as a call girl, the novel Holly had a non-Hollywood ending and her description, though similar, differed in important ways:

[T]he ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light.  It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker.  For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks.  Her mouth was large, her nose upturned.  A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes.  It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman.  I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was two months shy of her nineteenth birthday.

Capote himself is said to have based Holly on his friend, fashion model Dorian Leigh, and wanted Marilyn Monroe cast in the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3561782/The-story-behind-the-song-Moon-River.html.

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Dorian Leigh                                          Audrey Hepburn                             Marilyn Monroe

It’s difficult to think of the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s without reference to the movie.  But once you dive into the book, you will be just as enchanted by Capote’s prose as by Ms. Hepburn’s portrayal.  The novella takes place in a New York Brownstone, the summer of 1943.  The unnamed narrator, who Holly calls “Fred” in remembrance of her brother, is a writer, struggling to get published.  Miss Golightly lives upstairs in the same building and they are first acquainted, face to face, when Holly appears on his fire escape, trying to escape a “date” who has bitten her on the shoulder.  She is wearing a robe and nothing else, as the narrator discovers when she shows him the bite.  From there, a friendship develops and Holly reveals parts of her soul.

“You know those days when you get the mean reds?”

“Same as the blues?”

“No,” she said slowly.  “No, the blues are because you’re getting fat or maybe it’s been raining too long.  You’re sad, that’s all.  But the mean reds are horrible.  You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of.  Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is. . . . What I’ve found does me the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s.  It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.”

When our book club read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we came in character, black sunglasses and pearls to a woman.  It was fun and a nice photo op.  (I’d love to see your book club’s photos by the way!)

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MENU

Martinis

Canapés with a 1940’s flair:  like smoked salmon on rye toast, baby potatoes scooped out and filled with sour cream and topped with dill, celery stuffed with pimento cheese

Or you could just serve breakfast New York style:  mini bagels with cream cheese, omelettes, bacon (or veggie bacon).

For dessert, put out a bowl of candy hot tamales.

MUSIC

From Breakfast at Tiffany’s

She played very well, and sometimes sang too  . . . She knew all the show hits, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill; especially she liked the songs from Oklahoma!, which were new that summer and everywhere.  But there were moments when she played songs that made you wonder where she learned them, where indeed she came from.  Harsh-tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie.  One went:  Don’t wanna sleep, Don’t wanna die, Just wanna go a-travelin’ through the pastures of the sky . . .

Don’t forget Moon River, by Henry Mancini.

Happy Reading!