Tag Archives: tom mcneal

Grimm tales

Mark,

As you did, I found Far Far Away to be a very compelling read. In fact, it drew me in more than just about any book I’ve read this year. I liked the warmth and humor that permeated it, even when it turned truly, well, grim. I just opened the book at random, and found this:

“Yes, yes, all is well in Blixville,” said the baker, who seemed amused not just by the question but by all things, and why not? He was beloved in the town, and his shop was a pocket of warm benignity, as Jeremy could now see for himself. The glass-and-cherrywood cases were filled with a beautiful variety of breads and cakes, two small tables were brightened by vases of flowers, and the rich scents of baked dough, sugar, coffee, and chocolate made me yearn for my mortal sense of taste.” (p. 16)

Now, I admit that this paragraph is particularly poignant when you’ve read the whole book and know that the shop is far from a “pocket of warm benignity,” (and I just love that phrase!) but even so, there’s much to notice here: Ginger’s habit of asking “how are things in [Blixville, Conkville, Jeremyland, etc.]?; Jeremy’s (and Jacob’s)  immediate trust in Blix; Jacob’s position as omniscient but not omnipotent narrator–I thought it was a nice touch that he could smell, but not taste; and Blix’s self-satisfaction.

In many ways, the story is set up much like many of the tales themselves: beginning in the ordinary and everyday, and then moving into the evil and bizarre. Is it Bettelheim or someone else who talks about that fact that although the settings of the tales are “far far away” and exotic to us, they were normal to the original tellers of the tales: villages, cottages, woodcutters, bakers, etc.? Anyway, as you and Lauren mention in the comments, the whole  point of the opening is to build up to Sten Blix and his dungeon and how, to quote Michael Gruber again, Jeremy is “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.” So I don’t think your analysis of McNeal’s conception of a fairy tale (good protagonist/evil antagonist/happy ending) is entirely fair. I think he’s trying to do something a little more complicated here in the format of the story.

I do agree that the “Uncommon Knowledge” program was disappointing. I would have loved to have seen them use some of the less common Grimm tales, but, of course, there was no other way that McNeal was going to be able to have Jeremy fail, because Jacob would have known all the answers. And clearly, he had to have Jeremy fail in order to demonstrate his integrity–both for not using the answer that was being fed to him by the producers, and for realizing that even using Jacob’s knowledge was not quite fair play.

Actually, I think my biggest issue with the book is whether it is really a YA book. Even things like focusing on the more familiar Grimm tales says to me that McNeal was thinking of a younger audience. And the use of the Disney allusion was part of that–it was something they would know. Not that teens would necessarily know more about the Grimms and the original tales, but if the book were aimed at a more sophisticated audience, he might have done more hinting and less telling. Admittedly, the last third of the book was a bit intense, but I wouldn’t have any hesitation recommending it to an 11- or 12-year-old, especially one who was a fairy tale fan.

So, as you can see, although I liked the book enormously, I agree that it has flaws (I did give it 4 stars, not 5, on Goodreads!). But I can definitely see why the National Book Award people are considering it, and I think the Newbery Committee might look at it as well as the Printz Committee. I think the flaws are enough to keep it off either of the latter two lists, but who knows?

– Mom

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Far Far Away

Mom,

I’ve just seen on Goodreads that you gave four stars to Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away, which also made the National Book Award longlist, and is on Someday My Printz Will Come’s list of books to discuss this year.  I read it a week or two ago, so I suppose now it’s time to talk about it.  I have very conflicted feelings about this book, so I’ll try to get straight some of what I thought, but I’m very interested in your thoughts to try to clarify my own.

far far awayFirst, I’ll say that I found it incredibly compelling, from beginning to end. I was sucked into the characters of Jeremy and Ginger (less so Jacob – more on that in a minute) and was genuinely interested in all the various episodes.  The final section in the baker’s basement was frightening and amazingly well wrought, and I was generally pretty pleased with the resolution of Jacob’s “thing undone” to save Jeremy, Ginger, and Frank.

OK, my conflicts.

1) The use of Jacob Grimm. Probably my biggest probably with the book was McNeal’s strange handling of Jacob and the Grimm fairy tales in general. Most importantly, it seemed like an incredible waste of a potentially fabulous character. Why did the ghost need to be Jacob Grimm rather than some other figure from history or an imagined character? The two primary uses were in the quiz show and in Jeremy’s recounting of the fairy tales in the dungeon.

The quiz show, though, was a very thin reason for his presence (again, why couldn’t he be an expert on Abraham Lincoln, or someone). What’s more, the quiz show was incredibly poorly written. Of the five questions McNeal tells the readers, only one (the complex three part question that comprised the 6th questions on the show) was genuinely difficult. The rest were child’s play not just to Jacob, but to anyone with a basic (not “uncommon”) knowledge of the tales. The Rapunzel question in particular was offensively easy.  And of course, the final question, in which Jacob and Jeremy are stumped because they haven’t seen Disney, while being very clever in the context of the reader’s knowledge of those characters, could never, ever have been the real final question, precisely because it is so easy for everyone else.

As for the tales in the dungeon, I admit it was touching to have Jeremy recount them to Frank and Ginger, but it certainly didn’t seem particularly central to the novel that they be Grimm tales. Especially since (and this a larger point here) McNeal seemed to have a poor understanding of the Grimm tales. He constantly had Jacob making remarks about Wilhelm’s supposed beliefs about the tales that couldn’t possibly have been true–the one that stuck out for me was the idea that beauty=goodness, goodness=beauty. Even a cursory examination of two of the most famous tales, Cinderella and Snow White, should be enough to show anyone that beauty is very often evil in the tales.  (In the Grimm, as opposed to the Disney, Cinderella’s step sisters are beautiful). It seemed like McNeal was laboring under a conception of the Grimm tales as “fairy tales” the way we use that term in common discourse–like, “this isn’t a fairy tale”–a story with a truly good protagonist and truly evil antagonist, with magic and charm, and a mostly happy ending. Our recent discussion of Rumpelstiltskin is another great example of how that isn’t true.

2) The plot. I already said that I enjoyed each episode of the novel, but I still felt that the whole book had an oddly mis-shapen feel. The quiz show took a place of prominence in the middle of the novel, but didn’t really amount to much in the scheme of things. The abrupt shift to the horror of Sten Blix at the end came out of nowhere and didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book, despite being the novel’s strongest section. It would have greatly improved the novel to have severely curtailed the first 2/3 of the book, to maybe half the length, so that we got to the dungeon much quicker.

OK, your turn. Tell me why my criticisms miss the point of the book.

– Mark

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