Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman's Life

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Throughout this illuminating book, Gould delves into the deeper meanings behind fairy tales and myths - helping you to understand not only what your choice of fairy tale may mean for you, but also what you need to be doing during the three main stages of development: maiden, matron, and crone.
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Throughout this illuminating book, Gould delves into the deeper meanings behind fairy tales and myths - helping you to understand not only what your choice of fairy tale may mean for you, but also what you need to be doing during the three main stages of development: maiden, matron, and crone.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Gould expands on issues raised in her previous volume (Spirals: A Woman's Journey through Family Life) to show how the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel and other folk and modern heroines correspond to the real-life stages of women, from budding adolescence to wise old age, in this original, well-written book. "Fairy tales tell us that a day comes when we are due to wake up to a new reality, come to life again transformed... with a sense of wonder at how far we've come," she writes, "along with a twinge of nostalgia for the person we used to call me' but for whom we no longer have a name." Snow White, Gould suggests, reflects familiar mother-daughter jealousy, while Sleeping Beauty examines a girl's anxiety about the next stage of her life. While Gould concentrates on classic European fairy tales (the Grimm brothers; Charles Perrault), she also examines fairy tale themes in Greek myths (Persephone; Psyche) and popular movies and novels (Pretty Woman; Jane Eyre). Without interrupting the flow of commentary, she also refers to her own transformations as a woman and the perspectives of female acquaintances and family members. With its smooth prose and snappy fairy tale summaries, this book should have broad appeal to women's studies students, folk history buffs and casual readers searching for a better understanding of their own lives. Agent, Harold Ober Associates. (Feb. 22) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For Gould (Spirals: A Woman's Journey Through Family Life), the pinnacle of a woman's life is pregnancy and childbirth, and the titular transformations relate to fertility and reproduction, from puberty through menopause. Fairy tales serve to prepare women's psyches for these changes, the reward of which is the appearance of the Prince, the means to wife- and motherhood. Of the stories analyzed, few are actual fairy tales, while nearly a third are movies and novels. All of Gould's selections come from the Western world and appear to have been chosen for their ability to support her thesis; hundreds of fairy tales from other cultures were overlooked. This book will be popular with those who share Gould's belief that biology is destiny. A broader view of the meaning of fairy tales is given in the critical essays of The Classic Fairy Tales and The Great Fairy Tale Tradition. An optional purchase.-Suzanne M. Stauffer, Stevenson Ranch, CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A nontraditional and challenging vision of how female lore passed down from generation to generation sheds light on the changes experienced by women through different stages of life. Freelance journalist Gould (Spirals: A Woman's Journey Through Family Life, not reviewed) identifies three stages-maiden, matron, and crone-and divides her material into three corresponding but unequal parts. In each, she examines classic fairy tales, ancient myths, and modern novels, plays and films that can be viewed as retellings of these old tales to reveal what they have to say about women's lives and the biological, social, and spiritual transformations they undergo as they move from one stage to the next. Thus, the first section looks at, among others, "Snow White," "Cinderella," Jane Eyre, and My Fair Lady; the second includes "Bluebeard's Wife," Gone With the Wind, and Rebecca; and the last features "Hansel and Gretel" and the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Exhibiting considerable scholarship, Gould examines various versions of the tales as they have been revised and altered through the centuries. Her own experiences and those of such well-known women as Eleanor Roosevelt and Florence Nightingale provide further examples of transforming events. Disney fans will shudder as the very Freudian author sees sex everywhere: a key to a locked room, the spindle that pricks Sleeping Beauty's finger, and the tower that houses Rapunzel are all phallic symbols, while a drop of spilled blood signifies either a first menstrual period or the loss of virginity, and Bluebeard's forbidden bloody chamber is the male equivalent of a womb. Gould argues that the drive to procreate propels the maiden into the matron stage,during which the joys and stresses of bearing children and nurturing a family may create ambiguity and conflict. She is most specific when dealing with the biological and social transformations of stages one and two, and most uncertain when discussing the spiritual changes of stage three. Not entirely persuasive, but sure to provoke brisk controversy in women's-studies courses.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780394585321
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/22/2005
  • Pages: 401
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction : spinning straw into gold
Pt. 1 Maiden : the age of attraction 1
Ch. 1 Snow White : breaking away from mother 5
Ch. 2 Snow White : tempted by the witch's wares 21
Ch. 3 Cinderella : surviving adolescence 39
Ch. 4 Cinderella : stepping into the dance 59
Ch. 5 Sleeping Beauty : going to sleep a girl ... 86
Ch. 6 Sleeping Beauty : ... waking as a woman 107
Ch. 7 Sleeping Beauty, American style 127
Ch. 8 Beauties and beasts : borne on the back of desire 133
Ch. 9 Beauties and beasts : descending into the body 152
Ch. 10 Beauties and beasts : looking love in the face 169
Pt. 2 Matron : the age of attachment 187
Ch. 11 The white bride and the black bride : the discovery of two selves 193
Ch. 12 Rapunzel and Jane Eyre : confronting the madwoman in the attic 215
Ch. 13 The seal wife : hungry for intimacy, thirsty for silence 232
Ch. 14 Blubeard's wife and the Fitcher's bird : taking her life in her hands 255
Pt. 3 Crone : the age of the spirit 283
Ch. 15 Hansel and Gretel : life in the light of death 289
Ch. 16 Demeter and Persephone : the beautiful mysteries 312
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First Chapter

Chapter 1

Snow White: Breaking Away from Mother

The youngest heroine in this book, at least the youngest emotionally, is a girl who hasn't yet completed her first transformation of consciousness: puberty, which eventually produces an independent sexual woman from a dependent child. Snow White's body has begun to change by the time her story is under way—we know this from the violence of her stepmother's reactions to her beauty—but her self-awareness hasn't taken into account the biological upheaval starting to take place inside her.

Adolescence involves a break with the past, as well as a thrust toward the future. Without any choice, either too soon or too late to suit her, a girl loses the flat, lean body that she took for granted and finds that she has become a sexual creature, obscurely desired or threatened from all sides. At this stage, she must learn to see herself as separate from her background, her parents, and her home, with as few recriminations as possible toward those who made her what she is at present. She must picture a future different from the present, taking place against a background that she can't visualize, in which she will answer to another name. Possibility opens up in front of her, dazzling her with its prospects, but at the same time she finds herself stripped of the protection she has taken for granted until now. Liberation is always a loss as well as a gain.

How, and when, do women get to know themselves as self-willed sexual beings, distinct from their families? By looking in a mirror, especially during adolescence, which is not at all the way a boy learns to know himself. Teenage girls peer into mirrors all day longto find out how others see them, what impact they're going to have on the world around them, what can be improved or projected better or awaited, and what can only be deplored—critiques in the mirror's voice that change from hour to hour. ("Flat," says the mirror. "Still flat. You'll never get a man, not with those goose bumps you call breasts. Why don't you rethink your hair? Some streaks—that might be good. Or a French braid. And don't stand like a Girl Scout at flag-raising. You want to smolder. . . . That's better. You know what? You've got potential, girl. Your day is coming.")

This isn't the time-wasting obsession that adults think it is. Like it or not, an adolescent girl recognizes that she's an object as well as a subject, a soul encased in a carcass that's the material she was given to work with in order to attract a mate and advance nature's program of making a mother of her.

At any age, can a woman stand in front of a mirror for more than thirty seconds and acknowledge herself simply as an object in space, without correcting her appearance in some way—running her fingers through her hair or wiping the corners of her lips—while making some silent comment about her looks, more often than not unfavorable?

In short, looks matter. We can manage to be more than the body, but there's no way we can be less.

"Snow White" is a story about looks, looking and being looked at, a glittery tale of a window, a snowfall, a mirror, and a coffin made of glass. The females in it are a good mother who looks out the window at a fresh snowfall, a bad mother who looks only at her own reflection in the mirror, and a daughter who lies still as death and is looked at. But any story that deals with looks and looking is necessarily a story about time, which is a force that defeats beauty.

A girl named Snow White lives with her stepmother, a Queen obsessed with her own appearance, who possesses a magic mirror. But in a palace ruled by this mirror's pronouncements as to who is the most beautiful in the land, how is it that the heroine has no mirror of her own, or, if she has one, lacks the heart to use it? Who has convinced her that her looks aren't worth bothering about, since no one will pay attention to her anyway? While the Queen glories in her superiority, her stepdaughter, who is just coming into her own beauty, has no idea what she looks like, none of the usual self-consciousness of adolescence, which is how we know that she hasn't yet gone through the turmoil that is about to engulf her.

A child's first mirror is her mother's eyes, which determine what reflections she'll see for the rest of her life. If a mother admires her daughter—let's say the girl is eleven or twelve years old and prepubescent—the girl learns to use an actual mirror as a tool for self-study. (I didn't say if the mother "loves her daughter," since we don't know how to recognize love in its many guises. "Admires" is the operative word here.) She does this because of the confidence her mother pours into her.

Snow White, on the other hand, has no picture of her future as a sexual creature when we first meet her. Except for the Queen, she's the only female in the palace; there are no siblings or friends, no other images of womanhood in front of her. Her stepmother is what it means to be female; her stepmother is Queen, but the girl is nothing like her stepmother and, what's more, never will be, which means that there must be something the matter with her. The longer she scrutinizes the older woman, the more of an outcast she feels in a woman's world, scrutiny being the female equivalent of male sparring as a way for two people of the same gender to gauge each other's strength.

But there are sexually mature girls, there are even grown women, who don't acquire their own mirrors because, for one reason or another, their vision has been blinkered by their mothers and they can't bear to come face-to-face with their unaccepted and unacceptable selves.

"I was around fourteen—maybe fifteen—when my mother paid one of her rare visits to the house where I was being brought up by my grandmother," said a friend of mine who is now the mother of three children. "I was coming out of the shower when she walked into the bathroom and saw me naked for the first time in six months. Maybe more. From her look of shock, I understood what she was seeing: my developing breasts, nipples that had grown darker and slightly puffy, pubic hair, rounded hips and belly. She left in a hurry and shut the door. I looked in the bathroom mirror, which had been there all along, of course, but I didn't see beauty reflected back at me. I saw danger. I loathed the body that was causing this separation between us. From that time on, I did my best to make myself disappear: anorexia, hair hanging over my face, baggy T-shirts to hide those breasts. All the sad disguises. Not until I was in the delivery room years later, giving birth to my first child, did I understand the power and beauty of a woman's body."

Like many of the best-loved tales, the Grimms' story of Snow White starts with a wish.

On a day in the middle of winter, a Queen sits beside her window, watching a snowstorm while she sews. Suddenly her needle slips, she pricks her finger, and three drops of blood fall upon the snow: always three, the magic number. The red drops look pretty on the snow, and she thinks to herself, "Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the ebony window frame."

White, red, black. Seeing nothing but snow in front of her, the original Queen, who is the Good Mother, has summoned the ancient trinity of colors to compose a wish-child. Together they form a series, putting us on notice in the opening sentences that this will be a magical story in which each color, in turn, will determine a stage in the life of the child created by the wish. The heroine, who will be more luscious than blood on snow—life on top of death—will move through three phases of life to reach a fourth stage her mother has never dreamed of—gold—while, at the same time, her future stepmother, who cannot stage-manage her own colors, will be nudged against her will from red into black.

At the moment when the Queen makes her wish, the earth sleeps beneath the falling snow, pure but barren, and awaits its reawakening the way Snow White will sleep in her glass coffin later on, and so the first color to appear on the scene has to be the heroine's name: Snow White.

White is innocence, virginity, purity, light without heat, a window into the future, but white by itself is sterile. Something more than snow is required to produce life.

The child must also be as red as the drops of blood that flow from her mother's finger. The Queen has felt a prick, just as Sleeping Beauty will be pricked by a spindle. "Prick" is a word we still use for penis; in street language, an upraised middle finger is understood as a sexual act. The Queen's blood is the same as menstrual blood, so common that the loss is scarcely noticed, even though it signals life's capacity to regenerate itself. But it's also the blood that flows from a ruptured hymen when a woman loses her virginity and conceives a child, which is what has happened to the Queen here.

Blood is red, the womb is red, the vulva is red, especially when stimulated. Paleolithic cliff tombs were painted red, to show that the earth, the body of the goddess, is the womb of life as well as its tomb. Above all, sex is red, as in Eve's apple, a virgin's "cherry," Persephone's pomegranate or the Devil's cloak, the red-light district, red shoes, red satin boxes shaped like hearts and filled with candies to be licked on Valentine's Day, or a Scarlet letter A for adultery, embroidered in gold on a Puritan gown.

White and red together make a child's story, as in "Snow White and Rose Red," but a crucial element is lacking: the perspective of time. The Queen's child must also be black as the window frame (black as a raven's wing in other versions), a strange condition to insist on before birth, since black is the color of unconsciousness and death. Put together, the three colors paint a picture of time and growth, the phases of the moon as crescent, full, and waning, which correspond to the ancient goddess in her triple phases as Maiden, Matron, Crone.

These colors are on the earthly level, however, leading to the fourth and final color: gold. In "Snow White," the golden element is hidden until the story is nearly over.

But fairy tales are no simpler than real life. The heroine can't move directly from white to red, from childhood to sexuality, without passing through a period of blackness, which in the first three stories in this book—"Snow White," "Cinderella," and "Sleeping Beauty"—takes the form of either work or sleep.

Cinderella works while living among the ashes. Sleeping Beauty sleeps. Snow White does both, as she moves from her mother's palace through the dwarfs' cottage and into a coffin before finding a home of her own. In each case, an interval of darkness shrouds the heroine while she goes through her transformation from one plane of existence to the next.

This may be why we remember certain patches of childhood and adolescence vividly, and others not at all. Or why we remember ourselves at school—a junior-high actress starring in the school play, a girl in the cafeteria gossiping with friends, a success on the hockey field—but not as bodies at home. What we can't remember happened during the dark spells, when we couldn't bear to look at ourselves yet.
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Reading Group Guide

"What's your favorite fairy tale?" Joan Gould asks in the Introduction to this brilliantly original book about the hidden meanings in fairy tales and what these beloved stories reveal about a woman's life.

Whether your answer is "Cinderella" (most women's choice), "Hansel and Gretel," or another tale, your favorite conveys something significant about you, your experiences, and your soul-- something perhaps not obvious to outsiders and possibly not entirely clear to you.

Throughout this illuminating book, Gould delves into the deeper meanings behind fairy tales and myths--helping you to understand not only what your choice of fairy tale may mean for you, but also what you need to be doing during the three main stages of development: maiden, matron, and crone.

"This is a book about women," Gould writes, "specifically about fairy tales and the way they illuminate the metamorphoses at each stage of a woman's life: those shifts in consciousness as well as biology that propel women from one level of being to another." As Gould expertly addresses the transformations many women experience--marriage, childbirth, and widowhood--her keen observations may surprise you, and it is through these revelations, that Gould truly works her magic.

The story of Sleeping Beauty allegorizes the role that waiting plays in the attainment of womanhood; "Rapunzel" illuminates a bride's ambivalence toward her impending nuptials; "The Seal Wife" acknowledges a mother's sense of loss of self to the demands of her family. Most poignantly, through the myth of Demeter and Persephone, Gould grapples with the final stage of a woman's life, the unexpected expansion of a woman's spirit in old age.

Full ofarchetypal figures known to us all, this wonderfully perceptive work is also populated with narratives from the lives of ordinary women. These personal stories-- of Sleeping Beauties who fell asleep in puberty and awoke ten years later to find themselves married to the wrong man, or the right one--illustrate the rich insights that are to be gained from familiar story figures. Replete with a wealth of wisdom about the private battles and public roles each woman must face in her life, Spinning Straw into Gold explores the choices, demands, and changes a woman must face every day.

1. Let's start with the opening line of the book: What's your favorite fairy tale? The first story that comes to mind is apt to be the one that reveals the most about your inner self and the family history that shaped your life. Bear in mind that ten women who name "Cinderella" may have in mind ten different aspects of the story.

2. The book's subtitle refers to "the transformations in a woman's life." Do you think that a man goes through transformations as marked as a woman does when she bleeds with her first period, like Sleeping Beauty pricked by a spindle; when she loses her virginity; when she marries, becomes pregnant, bears a child; when she reaches menopause and realizes that her fertility is at an end? How many male transformations can you think of?

3. Which transformation do you remember most vividly in your own life? At the time, were you aware of what Joan Gould calls "the shift in consciousness as well as biology that propels women from one level of being to another"?

4. Would you call falling in love a transformation?

5. "Snow White"
Have you ever had a moment when you saw yourself -- or your daughter -- transformed into a young woman? What were your reactions?

6. At what stage do you suppose you broke off with your mother -- no matter how close the two of you may have been, and may be now -- in order to become yourself? Was it in high school, the first week of college, after your first sexual experience or first paycheck? Or some other time?

7. In the Grimms' story, written in the 19th century, the dwarfs play the role of fathers, insisting that the girl must learn to cook, bake and sew, if she's to stay with them. In the Disney movie, Snow White is instantly transformed into the perfect little mother, in charge of a troupe of messy, adorable little dwarfs. (They're her own size in the old story.)
What does this say about the changing image of fathers, or men in general?
Have you heard women complain that their husband is one more child in the house?
What does it say about our picture of motherhood?

8. "Cinderella"

When you were a teenager, did you think you were as attractive or sexy looking, as your classmates? What feature bothered you most -- breasts, hair, hips, complexion? Clothes?

9. Were there any "wicked stepsisters" in your life -- biological sisters, classmates or friends? Looking back, can you think of any ways in which they influenced your life in a positive direction?

10. Has anyone played the fairy godmother role in your life, or have you played the role for someone else?

11. In modern "Cinderella" stories, the fairy godmother is turned into a superior human being who teaches the bedraggled heroine the social graces she needs -- like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Have you ever been attracted by a teacher, doctor, psychiatrist or sports coach, because you thought this person could transform you into someone finer?

12. Pretty Woman and The Color Purple are two modern versions of the "Cinderella" story, with the glamorous singer Shug Avery playing the roles of both fairy godmother and Prince in The Color Purple. What other versions can you think of? Does Extreme Makeover fit the bill?

13. "Sleeping Beauty"

Joan Gould considers depression, anorexia, bulimia, drug addiction, and alcoholism as modern forms of sleep. Have you gone to sleep at any point in your life? What form did your sleep take? What was different in your life when you woke up?

14. Great artists and scientists often report that they came to their most inspired solutions or creations in their sleep. Was something ever clear to you in the morning that wasn't clear when you went to bed?

15. The parents of Sleeping Beauty are told that she will sleep for a hundred years, and then a Prince will awaken her. Do you think that she woke up because the hundred years had ended, and then she saw the Prince? Or did the Prince awaken her, at which point she decided that she had slept long enough? Which matters -- the right man or right time? Or both?

16. Can you imagine meeting the right man at the wrong time in your life -- when you're too young to settle down, or already married with children? Can you imagine the reverse, when you feel you're more than ready for marriage, but no Prince appears?

17. "Beauty and the Beast"

4. The story of "Beauty and the Beast" begins with the Beast and the heroine's father fighting over the rose that symbolizes Beauty. She risks her life, in order to save her father, by entering the Beast's castle in his place.
Consider your relationship with your father. Were you ever his princess, and how did that affect your future relationships with men and your image of yourself?
How did your father react to your boyfriends? Did you feel that you had to find a young man who could match your father? What role did your mother play?

18. The Beast is opposed by the Hero, or Prince, who is society's champion. Did you lose your virginity to a Hero or Beast? Have you ever fantasized about a Beast in the form of a male associated with the physical aspects of life: a doctor, physical therapist, karate or kick-boxing instructor, cyclist or amateur sailor?

19. If you were the heroine in Casablanca, would you stay with your heroic husband, who is the gallant leader of the French Resistance forces against the Nazis, but hasn't much time for you, or would you decamp with isolated, alcoholic Rick (Humphrey Bogart), still wounded by his frustrated love for you?

20. The Matron stage of Life, with "The White Bride and the Black Bride" and Jane Eyre

Can you explain why two young women would be attracted to a King they had never met? Is power really the great aphrodisiac, as Henry Kissinger said?

21. Why is it always the White Bride who bears a child?

22. In Gone With the Wind, the White Bride, Melanie Wilkes, goes into labor for the first time while the Yankees are bombarding Atlanta. Neither she nor her baby would survive without the efforts of the Black Bride, Scarlett O'Hara, who doesn't like Melanie and doesn't much like babies, either. Gould says that it takes both White and Black Brides to mother a child, one for tenderness and the other for strength. Do you agree?
Have you seen these two natures in yourself as a mother? Have you ever become ferocious while defending your child?

23. Houses are often said to represent the woman's body, especially in stories and dreams. When a girl is of marriageable age, she moves from a humble home (her adolescent body) into the mansion of womanly power -- like Jane Eyre -- or she discovers that the house she has lived in all her life has hidden chambers, like Sleeping Beauty's palace. Have you ever dreamed about your house? Did it surprise you with space or windows you never knew you had?

24. Witches and Death
After the witch is defeated, Hansel and Gretel find jewels scattered on the floor of her house, which must have been there before, but weren't noticed. What are some of the joys of life that you tend to ignore until you find yourself threatened by death?

25. How do we explain the myth that says Persephone is Queen of the Dead, but she's also the daughter who returns to her bereft mother each year, bringing the flowers in her wake? Can death and springtime be connected?

26. Joan Gould calls the challenging last section of this book, devoted to the Crone, the Age of the Spirit. How can this be true? Can you imagine yourself as an old woman, seeing more clearly by the light of death than you did in youth?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2005

    This book should be a bible to every woman

    This book has changed my whole out look on life. I have never understood my world as a woman, until now. Joans book should be given to every woman. I plan on giving this book as a gift to every woman I know. I cannot think of a better gift than the gift of knowledge and understanding. That is what this book is all all about.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2005

    Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman's Life

    Like THE SECOND SEX and THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, Joan Gould's new book, SPINNING STRAW INTO GOLD, is less a book than an awakening. Half scholarly work, half exquisite prose, this work is profoundly moving, one of those books that illuminates a woman's life. Most girls love fairy tales, whether they are from mythology ('Demeter and Persephone') or Hollywood ('Pretty Woman'). In a fascinating work destined to become a classic, Ms. Gould tells us why we are drawn to one fairy tale over another. Insightful, warm, beautifully written, this is a marvelous book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2005

    Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman's Life

    With SPINNING STRAW INTO GOLD, Joan Gould has written a brilliant, instant-classic. There are so many truths in this book that it is impossible not to be amazed at its depth and scope. The fairy tales that all women think they know so well are explained in one 'aha!' moment after another. Joan Gould's book is an amazing work, and I can't recommend it enough.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2005

    A wake-up call to becomming alive!

    Spinning Straw Into Gold is a wake-up call to becoming alive! It is a powerful, inspiring and hopeful read ¿ driven to stimulate and, most of all, to awaken the reader to life¿s joys and potential. This is an important book for every woman and all ages. It is beautifully written ¿ every word is meaningful and precise. Spinning Straw Into Gold, is a guidebook to realizing your potential for ¿happily ever after.¿ I wish I had read this when I was 18! I loved it!

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