Tuesday, March 22, 2011

HAJJI BABA: beautiful yet savage old book

          I worked for five years as a Library Technician in the children's room at the Santa Ana Public Library.  I loved it there. One of the many benefits was being able to snag old books that were being discarded, and I ended up with some real treasures.
          One of those treasures is a book called The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan by James Morier, "with a profusion of pictures" by Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge.  (I love that phrasing)  The book was published in 1937 by Random House, Inc.  (The copyright date was printed in Roman numerals and I had to look up a guide on translating them because I've totally forgotten.  D'oh!)
          Check out the fugly cover, but don't let it fool you into thinking there's nothing good inside:
Purple paisley? It's in a lumpy plastic slip-case, too, with the barcode slapped rudely on the front. Gross.
          But inside it's full of adventure, magic, and romance from the Middle East.  Also lots of sexism and violence.  One of the short stories is called, "The Tale of the Baked Head."  It's labeled "YA," and at first I thought they were just being prude about it, when really it should have been in the children's room. But after going through it, I decided that yeah, it's on the mature side.
          There are many beautiful line illustrations in black and white, such as this rather alarming and unexpected one:
I will leave the interpretation of this image up to you.
          There were about fifteen full-color plates originally, but one was ripped sadly in half, and several others were missing entirely.  The ones that are left, though, are beautiful, and really captured my attention because of the rich colors and the sometimes bizarre images and captions.

"Doctor, mashallah! you have good taste! The animal is fine!"

 Pssst... check out the HUMAN HEAD floating in the water:
"More screams and cries ensued"
"Your eyes have made roast meat of my heart"
"What bliss is like to whisp'ring love?"

"The cat must come from under the blanket"

Sunday, March 20, 2011

THE TWO CASKETS: Inspiration for Alice In Wonderland?

          There was an animated movie from my childhood that resonated with me enough to haunt me into adulthood.  I can't remember the name of it, but it was about a young girl who falls down a well to a magical fairy country.  I was a big fan of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, so it makes sense that this story with obvious similarities would appeal to me.  As an adult I've made numerous attempts over the years to find information about the animated movie with the girl who falls down the well, but without remembering the title I've had no luck.
          Then suddenly yesterday a direct link to it fell right into my lap.

Lang was sort of a Victorian-era Grimm, collecting folklore from all around the world
          I have several new editions of Andrew Lang's color-themed fairy books, and once in a while I read some, or flip through them, just because they're fascinating.  I picked up The Orange Fairy Book and randomly flipped to a story called The Two Caskets.  As soon as I started reading and noticed the first illustration, I gasped.  Girl down a well!
"That is an end of you she said"  "But she was wrong, for it was only the beginning"
          I realized immediately that it must have been the inspiration for that mysterious movie, and furthermore the similarities between The Two Caskets and Alice's Adventures In Wonderland struck me. 
          Consider the phrasing of the falling scene in each story.  Here's the line from The Two Caskets:

Down, down, down went the girl--it seemed as if the well must reach to the very middle of the earth.

          And here's the line from Alice's Adventures In Wonderland:

Down, down, down. Would the fall NEVER come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth.

          In The Two Caskets, the girl discovers a beautiful and magical land where animals talk, and even inanimate things like fences and milk pails talk.  Alice also encountered lots of chatty things and animals.
          In The Two Caskets, the fairy country is referred to as the "under-world," and of course Carroll's original version of Alice's story was called Alice's Adventures Under Ground.
          Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is bookended by scenes of Alice with her kitten, who is playing with a ball of yarn.  In The Two Caskets, a bunch of talking kitties follow the girl around with helpful advice, and one of the girl's main tasks involves two balls of yarn.

She found sitting round her a whole circle of cats
          And speaking of those balls of yarn, the task the girl is set to accomplish is to go down to the stream and wash a ball of black yarn until it turns white and wash a ball of white yarn until it turns black.  This totally reminds me of the kind of nonsensical demands the Queen of Hearts makes in Alice's story, such as painting white roses red.  And the way this task is accomplished is that when the girl fails to manage it on her own, some talking sparrows fly by and yell, "black to the east and white to the west!"  So she dips each ball of yarn respectively in the stream to each side and they magically turn the requested colors.  Is it too much to compare this kind of nonsense logic to the whole "one side of the mushroom will make you smaller and the other will make you taller" thing from Alice?

Take the black take the black cried the cats
          But which came first?  The oldest copyright in my edition of The Orange Fairy Book is 1906, yet it's a collection of traditional folktales from around the world, gleaned from numerous different sources, which seems to indicate the story itself is considerably older than 1906.  The particular source noted at the end of The Two Caskets is Thorpe's Yule-Tide Stories, but no date is given.
          Lewis Carroll wrote Alice's Adventures In Wonderland in 1865, but if the Two Caskets story had truly been around long enough to be considered folklore, then maybe he was heavily influenced by it.
          I'm not into reading annotated versions of classic stories because I don't like seeing things dissected, so this is probably not news to people who ARE into that sort of thing.  But it was an amazing and fascinating discovery to me.
          But I STILL don't know the name of that old animated movie!  Dammit.

Friday, March 18, 2011


          I never said I was nice or non-judgemental.
          Sometimes when processing new books, or when browsing books for myself at Barnes & Noble or Borders (dear, dying Borders...) I happen across an author photo that is just really distracting and seemingly at odds with the book itself.  This is unfortunate.
          We recently received this mysterious and cool-looking book called The Grimm Legacy, written by Polly Shulman.
Misty, sparkly, swirly, and intriguing
          As I removed the dust jacket so I could cover it in that clear plastic stuff (something I nerdishly REALLY enjoy doing) I noticed the author photo on the back inside flap:
The hat is bigger than the book
          Now, Polly...  The hat.  I just wish we'd talked about it first.  It's a very bold choice, and I feel that it overshadows the mood of the book.  I was interested in maybe reading the book until I saw this photo, and now all I can think about is that hat.  That damn hat. 
          Listen to this awesome description of the book:

          Lonely at her new school, Elizabeth takes a job at the New York Circulating Material Repository... no ordinary library.  It's home to the Grimm Collection, a secret room in the basement.  That's where powerful items straight out of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales are locked away: seven-league boots, a table that produces a feast at the blink of an eye, Snow White's step-mother's sinister mirror that talks in riddles and has a will of its own.

          That sounds awesome, right?!  But then I get trapped by that hat, and the rage it makes me feel.  Why do I have to look at it, Polly?  Why do you make me?
          When I Googled her name to get the author pic so I could use it here I saw OTHER pictures of Polly, without the hat, hair down, and she looks much better that way in my opinion.  Is this her FAVORITE hat?  Does it perhaps tie in with the book in some way unknown to me since I haven't read it yet, because the hat keeps me away? 
          It looks sort of like straw or something.  Did Rumpelstiltskin weave it magically for her?
          Maybe that's it, and she felt obligated to wear it for the author photo so Rumpelstiltskin wouldn't get pissed off.  That is what I choose to believe.