I first saw this book on someone’s blog but unfortunately I have a bad habit of not writing these things down and I can’t remember the name of the blog. When I saw it at the bookstore days later, I grabbed it to read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. Forty new fairy tales, and the list on the front cover gave the names of Aimee Bender, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Joy Williams, and Francine Prose, to name just a few. Oh, the sweet anticipation such a book can bring! I looked at it lovingly, relishing in knowing I had more than five hundred pages filled with magical stories.
I should probably state right now I enjoyed most of the stories in the book but not all. A couple of them I didn’t finish. There was something about the setting, or in some cases the wording, that just didn’t resonate with me. Some authors blended fairy tales with present day reality and in some cases I found the result awkward. Others succeeded in creating that seamless fantastical story that stemmed from something old and grew into something interesting. And on some of the stories I may have missed out simply because I wasn’t familiar with the fairy tale and felt like this was an impediment in enjoying the story.
What I liked were the explanations written by the authors at the end of each story – what fairy tale their story was based on and what inspired them to write it the way they did.
The stories I did like, however, were truly beautiful, and here are the best:
Baba Yaga and the Pelican Child, by Joy Williams
This was quite interesting, because I’ve come across a few Baba Yaga tales not long ago, in the Penguin Classics “Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov”, and while I didn’t finish that book, I read enough variants of it to make the whole story familiar. This version describes the house in the woods where Baba Yaga, her pelican child, a cat and a dog live together peacefully, until one day a stranger arrives and changes everything. He brings them sorrow, but fear not, the story doesn’t slide all the way into gloom; it also has a funny side and a more philosophical one. I loved it for the lesson it teaches and for this passage:
After this, Baba Yaga continued to fly through the skies in her mortar, navigating with her pestle. But instead of a broom, she carried the lamp that illuminated the things people did not know or were reluctant or refused to understand. And she would lower the lamp over a person and they would see how extraordinary were the birds and the beasts of the world, and that they should be valued for their bright and beautiful and mysterious selves and not willfully harmed for they were more precious than castles or the golden rocks dug out from the earth.
I’m Here, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Olga is a woman over forty who feels emotionally abandoned by her family and friends. In her attempt to recover a semblance of usefulness, she goes back to the house of her landlady, where she used to live many years ago. What she finds there, and the dialogue that follows gives the impression that something very strange is going on. The interpretation of the ending is up to the reader – because reality and imagination go hand in hand, it’s a bit difficult to choose a straight answer. A bit like the movie “The Life of Pi” – what was real and what wasn’t?
I liked it for the unexpected twist and also for this:
‘Baba Anya, I came out here thinking this might be the last refuge for me.’
‘There’s no such refuge for anyone on earth’, Baba Anya said. ‘Every soul is its own last refuge.’
The Brother and the Bird, by Alissa Nutting
This is a truly creepy story of a weird family manipulated by an evil woman. There’s also a juniper tree, a murder and a disturbing dream. This is the story that gives the name to the book:
‘My mother, she killed me’, the voice sang. ‘My father, he ate me. My sister, she saved my bones….’
Hansel and Gretel, by Francine Prose
The way this story starts made me feel curious and repelled at the same time. Curiosity won, so I kept reading. Hansel and Gretel (or Polly and Nelson) are newly married and visiting one of Nelson’s friends, an Italian artist named Lucia. She’s the mother of his former girlfriend, “the love of his life”, whom Nelson hasn’t seen in years. This makes for some awkward conversation amplified by the out-of-place behavior between Nelson and Lucia. Years later, when Polly comes back to the place for a visit, she is reminded of the whole experience and gathers a new understanding of what it means to be young and foolish.
‘At that time, I often did things because they seemed like a good idea, and I often did very important things for lack of a reason not to.’
A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin, by Kevin Brockmeier
Told from the narrator’s point of view, this was one very unusual and entertaining story. Half of Rumpelstiltskin is just that, half of somebody, and the way the story unfolds, you’d think this is the most natural thing in the world. Half of Rumpelstiltskin also has a job, goes out just like everybody else and has to face comments regarding his appearance.
In the shower, Half of Rumpelstiltskin scours himself with a bar of marbled green soap, a washcloth, and – for the skin of his extremities, as stubborn and scabrous as bark – a horsehair scrub brush. He lathers. He rinses. He dries himself with a plush cotton towel, sousing the water from his pancreas and his ligaments and the spongy marrow in the cavity of his sternum. Half of Rumpelstiltskin is the only man he knows whose forearm is a hard-to-reach place.
The Color Master, by Aimee Bender
This is one lovely story which combines colors and textures into a beautiful re-telling of a fairy-tale in which a king wants to marry his own daughter. To celebrate the wedding, he asks for unusual clothes for the future bride – a dress the color of the moon, another, the color of the sun. These are not so easy to make, and the whole process is described – the selection of colors, the dying of the fabric, all supervised by the Color Master whose health is faltering. But there are other ingredients that go into these special clothes.
‘Remember, the Color Master said. She sat up, in bed. I keep forgetting, she said, but the King wants to Marry his Daughter, she said. Her voice pointed to each word, hard. That is not right, she said, okay? Got it? Put anger in the dress. Righteous anger. Do you hear me?’
Blue-bearded Lover, by Joyce Carol Oates
A very short but intense story, whose mystery pulled me in from the first sentence. There’s a poetry to the language, and a darkness in its words. Will the young wife open the door? Will she die like the others before her?
A Kiss to Wake the Sleeper, by Rabih Alameddine
A young girl on the brink of womanhood, sickness and sexuality are brought together in this story – a combination that works well to create a hybrid that serves not only to remind of the old fairy tale but to give it a twist that is truly modern and unexpected.
He seemed surprised at the lack of a response. I wanted to tell him that it was not his fault, that she had not wakened, had not moved, in a hundred years. I wanted only to save him time, to protect him from frustration. I wanted to tell him she was not the one for him, not at all. But he bent his golden torso and smelled her, inhaled deeply, and I almost fainted.
My rating: 3/5 stars
Read in April-May, 2014