Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015: A year in books

According to my (religiously updated) Goodreads feed, I read 75 books in 2015 (not counting academic readings for my PhD project). Here is how the numbers break down:


2015 was the Year of Epics for me, for multiple reasons. I started out by reading 26 of them for my A to Z Blogging Challenge theme - you can read about all twenty-six of them here. In addition, I also took part in Epic Day for the first time, in February and in November, telling the opening story of the Irish Táin. Under Cathryn Fairlee's mentorship (with the help of the J. J. Reneaux Mentiorship Award from the National Storytelling Network) I developed two new storytelling performances based on the Shahnameh (Persia) and the Dietrich Cycle (Germany). As I am writing this, I am already working on my part for the next Epic Day that will feature the Tibetan Tales of the Golden Corpse.

Projects I supported

I try to put my money where my mouth is - or, in this case, where my reading is. On Kickstarter I supported (and then read my copy of) Moonshot, an indigenous comics collection (gorgeous and much needed); The Secret Loves of Geek Girls (super fun and much needed) (no really, this should be distributed to all teen girls free of charge); and The Book of Water, a volume of Irish legends by storyteller Susan Carleton (currently in the mail). I also served as an advanced reader and reviewer for storyteller Steffani Raff's The Ravenous Gowna collection of original stories that all have something to do with different concepts of beauty (read my review here).

New books in good series

A couple of sequels to series I follow have been published this year. Marissa Meyer came out with Fairest and Winter, the last two volumes in her epic sci-fi/fairy tale saga The Lunar Chronicles. They were both amazingly written, subtly re-told, full of storytelling Easter eggs, and very, very likable.
I also continued reading Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories series, with The Pagan Lord and The Empty Throne. Even though The Last Kingdom BBC show fell flat for me (mostly because of horrid costuming choices), the book series is still awesome.
Philippa Gregory published The Taming of the Queen, the closing book in her Tudor series, about the life of Catherine Parr. It was dark, but well written, and made a very likable character out of the woman most people only know as "the wife that survived Henry VIII."

What my friends talked me into this year

I finally got around to reading World War Z. I absolutely loved it. I am not a fan of the zombie genre, but the whole "oral history" approach was right in my wheelhouse. It was extremely well done, logical, smart, and entertaining. I wish they had made a TV show out of it instead of a movie.
A friend threw Rogue Squadron at my head, since everyone was all up in the Star Wars hype. I thought I have long outgrown the Star Wars books - but I was wrong. Right now I am on the second third volume of the X-wing series, and I am getting a great nerdy kick out of it.
A storyteller friend of mine suggested that I should read Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry, since I love adaptations of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I did, and she was right. Apparently it is another classic that has evaded me so far, but I am happy I finally picked it up. It is quirky and lovable.
My mentor Cathryn handed me Tom O'Neill's Old Friends. It is a novel based on the Fianna legends, which made me instantly suspicious - I am very, very picky about adaptations based on my favorite stories. This was a pleasant surprise. It was more of a collection of new Fianna tales, rather than a novel - and O'Neill proved that he knows exactly what makes these heroes likable. Thumbs up. I will definitely read the sequel.
One of my favorite (and most surprising) recommendations of the year came from Hannah Givens over at Things Matter. I picked up the Sunstone graphic novel series based on the review she wrote during her A to Z blogging series. If you told me a year ago that one of my favorite reads of the year would be an erotic BDSM graphic novel series about an adorable lesbian couple... well. Waaay out of my comfort zone. But it was. Also one of the cutest. And a much better love story than most YA romances I read this year.
Talking about that...

Adventures in YA land

Every once in a while a sort of craziness seizes me and I venture into reading currently popular YA novels - either because they are based on folktales, or because they will become a movie soon. This year's experiments did not go exceedingly well. I wrote about some of them in a previous post, but here is the gist: The Wrath and the Dawn (based on Scheherazade's story) seriously hurt me in the storyteller; The Court of Thorns and Roses (based on Beauty and the Beast) was meh (although it picked up some speed at the end); Still Star-Crossed (sequel to Romeo and Juliet, soon to be a TV show) was kind of painful; the Selection ("let's see if we can re-do the Hunger Games, but with only the dressing up parts") was a painfully dull rendering of The Bachelor; Fallen was a large pile of horrible clichés... and The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly was actually fairly well done (also the darkest). Five out of these six were built on the exact same, currently popular YA cliché - Mary Sue, love triangle, revolution of some sort. People need to stop copy-pasting the Hunger Games. Seriously.


I left this one for last because it is part of my job as a storyteller - and also my main source of reading for entertainment. Out of the 75 volumes this year, 25 were folktale collections. I read several collections of minority folktales from China, some from Southeast Asia, and also quite a few from indigenous peoples (mostly the Saami) from Siberia and Northern Europe. But since they will soon be featured in more detail on this blog, I won't list them all here. If you are interested, you can find them listed under my Goodreads challenge here.

All in all, it was a fun year with much reading. And some Christmas books are still in the mail!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

'Tis the Season for Faeries, Talking Animals, and Other Pagan Things

All this happened last week, but I am just getting around to blogging about it.

St. Al's, the local Catholic school, had a reading week just before Christmas. Since they are my adopted practice ground, they called me in to visit all the grades in one day, and share some Christmas stories. I was happy and excited for the opportunity - I already know the kids, the kids know me, and telling to them is always a fun experience. On top of that, I decided to completely re-do my holiday repertoire for this year, and gather some brand new, shiny Christmas stories.

I ended up taking 5 new stories to St. Al's for intensive testing, and all 5 worked out great. Two came from Taffy Thomas' amazing Midwinter Folk Tales collection (The Apple Tree Man and the Christmas Cat). One I discovered thanks to the amazing #FolkloreThursday people on Twitter - it is called The Faeries' Mist-Gate, and it comes from Rosalind Kerven's book. I found both Mist-Gate and Apple Tree Man in other, older collections of English folktales as well, and I enjoyed the research immensely. Apart from these three, I also crafted my own version of The Christmas Truce for the older kids, as well as a composite telling of the Little Camel, from Syria.

(Apple Tree Man image by Stephanie Law, visit the original page here)

I ended up visiting 8 classrooms in one day - every grade between Kindergarten and 8th, except for 5th (I don't know how the schedule missed them). I told for half an hour in each, which allowed me ample time to tell at least 2-3 of the stories in different combinations. In the end, I told the Apple Tree Man and the Mist-Gate 6 times each; the Christmas Cat 5 times, and the Camel and the Christmas Truce 3 times each. It was an intensive crafting experience, and I came out of it with my own, shiny new versions of all 5 of the stories.
The kids responded to all of them really well. They absolutely loved the Christmas Cat (God bless Taffy Thomas), were very touched by the Christmas Truce (although none of them studied World War I yet, so it was all like a fairy tale to them), and followed the Mist-Gate (my personal favorite) with tense excitement. The little ones were especially bouncy with holiday cheer; I got dogpiled by Kindergarten again (one of them asked if she could keep me and take me home), and a little girl almost hyperventilated when I walked into the classroom. All I had to say was "I have Christmas stories for you," and they were all ready for the magic.

Once again, I was amazed at the questions they asked in the end. Almost all of them wanted to know more about the fairies - why they don't like salt, why they don't like the sound of bells, and most of all, why they kidnap babies. Similarly, we talked about Christmas customs, apple trees, and the widespread belief that animals can talk on Christmas Eve (the little ones wanted to know if that was true; I suspect I might have caused some late night annoyance to some parents in town). The older grades had a lot of questions about WWI that soon turned into a pop quiz that I scrambled to answer well. In the end, I was happy I did my homework with all the stories - once again, the extra research I did in advance helped me answer all their questions.

I am very content with my new repertoire, and I had a lot of fun with the kids. It was the perfect ending to a semester, and a perfect opening for the holiday season.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Folklore Thursday: Inventing the English language

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

So, I am aware that I am supposed to have a new theme here, but I just stumbled across a story from the Peasant Bible that I can't not share with my English-speaking readers. Because it's about the English language, you see.

The invention of the English language

In the beginning of the World, the Lord Jesus was handing out languages to people. He had a large pot full of language pieces, and people lined up to receive their share. Everyone got a ladleful of language - "You shall speak Hungarian, you shall speak German, you shall speak Turkish," and so on.
Except fro the English. They were off somewhere doing 'business,' which is what the English usually do. By the time they got around to the language line, all the languages had been handed out.

"Whatever shall I do with you?" pondered the Lord, and then he had an idea. He turned the pot upside down, and shook out all the leftover odds and ends that somehow stuck to the bottom. It made a small, mismatched pile of language, which Jesus then handed over to the English.

"I know it is not much" he said "But I shall ask everyone else to pitch in too!"

And so it happened. Everyone gave some bits and pieces of their own language to the poor English. The Germans were the nicest, they gave the most words.
Ever since then, the English language has been as it is: A mix of odds and ends.

(Note: I mashed this story up from two versions - one ends with the pot being turned upside down, and the other with everyone pitching in.)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Folklore Thursday: The limping star

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

Following my new theme of nature and star stories, today I will tell you about one of my favorite stars on the Hungarian sky: Sánta Kata, or, as you probably know her, Sirius.
Here is what you need to know about her:

1. Sánta Kata literally translates into "Limping Kate" or "Lame Kate" - seen from Hungary, this star is usually close to the horizon enough for the atmospheric disturbance to make it look like she is blinking (a phenomenon scientifically known as "twinkle, twinkle, little star"). This gave people in the old days the impression that she was limping along.

2. The most commonly known story about her is that she was supposed to bring lunch to the three harvesters (Orion's belt) out on the field (Orion's rectangle), but as she was in a hurry, she stepped on one of the scythes lying around, and ever since then she has been lame.

3. Another, less popular tale is a lot more interesting. According to this one, Kata was an angel who loved dancing so much she never stopped, until she danced one of her feet off. But even with one foot, she kept dancing, and God sent her to Hell for it.
(Well, this took a dark turn fast...)

4. Some beliefs say she is trying to reach the Big Dipper (which we see as a cart) to get a ride, but the harvesters don't allow her close enough.

5. There are legends that claim that the Milky Way exists because Sánta Kata was taking a jug of milk out to the fields. She got distracted by admiring all the stars, tripped, and spilled the milk all over the sky.
(I always wondered which one of our ancestors looked at the brightest, prettiest star on the night sky and thought "Wow, that one sure looks like a klutz." Then again, we also named the rainbow "the sucker.")

6. A Hungarian folktale refers to someone this way: "She was an old woman, older than the roads - so old, that when she was born, the Limping Girl still had two good feet."

7. In a Hungarian version of the Seven Ravens folktale, the girl looking for her (twelve) brothers stops for a night in the house of the Mother of the Stars. The lady lists all her children and what time they leave home in the evening - Sánta Kata is the last in line, leaving at two in the morning to bring food for the others. She is also the last one to come home after dawn. The Mother of Stars notes that it is unlikely she would have noticed anything, because she keeps tripping and stumbling over ditches and hedges. Kata repeats the same claim, and the girl moves on ask help from other celestial objects.

Which star or constellation is your favorite on the night sky?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Folklore Thursday: Beware of rainbows

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

Heads up: My book, Tales of Superhuman Powers, is $3 on Kindle within the USA this week! It contains 55 folktales that feature superpowers such as invisibility, shape-shifting, super speed, or eye beams (yes, really). Each story comes with sources, notes, and a list of popular culture connections.


Taking a break from the Peasant Bible, I am going to spend the next few Folklore Thursday posts to talk about legends and beliefs concerning natural phenomena, and constellations. To start us off:

Here are some things you need to know about rainbows
(According to Hungarian folklore)

1. If on spring rainbows the green is very vivid, that means the harvest will be good that year. If the red is vivid, it means the wine will be good that year. Yellow means wind (or good wheat, in some places).

2. Rainbow in Hungarian is called "szivárvány." It originates from the verb "szívni" which means "to suck" (yes, we literally named this gorgeous, rare natural phenomenon "the sucker"). It is believed that the rainbow always ends in a body of water. It comes down to drink. Alternately, it works as a gigantic straw for a mythical being in the sky who wants to drink some water. The water eventually falls down again the form of rain.

3. Occasionally, the rainbow can suck up some unsuspecting creatures along with the water. For example, if frogs or fish fall from the sky during the storm, people will say that the rainbow sucked them up into the sky and then dropped them back down.
(Apparently the rainbow is vegan)
Cattle might also be in danger.

4. Every once in a while, a human person can also be hoovered up through a rainbow into the sky. There are stories about a shepherd girl who got transported to the Moon this way, and she has been there ever since.

5. In some places, rainbow was known as "the fairy ribbon" or "fairy cloth." Fairies had the power to spirit people away (especially children) into the sky, by having them sucked up through the rainbow. Some of these children would return after 7 years, with no memory of their time spent in the fairy realm.
(Yes, reports of UFO abductions are not all that original. Supernatural got the idea right.)

6. Legend says that if you pass under a rainbow, or if you drink from the body of water that the rainbow is drinking from, you will turn into the opposite sex (male to female, or vice versa). This can happen to animals and humans alike.

There is a Transylvanian story about a young girl who happened to be drawing water from the well a rainbow was drinking from - and after that she spent her life constantly changing, female for one month, and male for the next, back and forth. She eventually got married, but her husband divorced her after the first month. [While this is a short little snippet, I would love to do a more LGBT+ friendly reworking of it. Or see any other storyteller out there do the same.]

Think of all of this next time you see a rainbow. Approach at your own risk. Have fun.