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Kate Bernheimer – My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

November 24, 2010

143. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer (2010)

Length: 554 pages
Genre: Short Stories, Fantasy / Fairy Tales, Modern Fiction

Started: 03 November 2010
Finished: 11 November 2010

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? A new Fairy Tale anthology from authors that aren’t all necessarily fantasy authors? Yes please!
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 27 October 2010.

A book of fairy
tales, without one mention of
a single fairy.

Summary: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a collection of new, modern fairy tales for adults, primarily (although not exclusively) collected from authors who are not normally known for writing fairy tales or other fantasy. They take as their inspiration both classic stories from the likes of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, as well as lesser-known fairy tales and myths from around the world. Some are retellings, some are reinterpretations, and some are continuations of what happens after the familiar part of the story. Some stories stick very close to their source material, while others take elements of the original tale and venture much further afield. Some are set in fairy-tale time, while others are set in the modern world, but all attempt to capture traditional fairy tales in a new and modern light.

Review: Bernheimer states in her introduction that we all have an intuitive sense of what constitutes the basic elements of a fairy tale, and that we can identify such stories even when the specific details are unfamiliar to us, and even when there are no fairies involved. And while I think that’s true, I think her definition of those “basic elements” and my definition aren’t always in agreement. In my mind, fairy tales have both a rhythm to them and a focus on telling a good story that many of the pieces in this collection lacked.

In general, I was a little bit disappointed with this collection, and I think that the widespread lack of focus on telling a story was the reason why. This is part of the reason that I tend to read more young adult novels, and less “modern” or “literary” fiction: the emphasis in young adult novels is frequently on telling an interesting story, while I’ve found that in “adult” fiction, the story oftentimes takes a back seat to doing fancy things with the language, or making unconventional stylistic choices, or what have you. (These aren’t absolute divisions by any means; there are plenty of YA novels with breathtaking use of language, and plenty of “adult” novels that tell a great story.) In any case, I was expecting a collection subtitled “Forty New Fairy Tales” to tell me forty good stories – made into “adult” fiction by making deeper or more complex plot and character choices, and by not shying away from some of the darker realities behind the magic – but still not stinting on the story part of the story. Quite a bit of what I got, however, were short pieces that may have used fairy tale tropes as a springboard, but which seemed so focused on the style rather than the story that they no longer had a proper fairy tale feeling to them.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy much of the book. As a whole, the stories were generally well-written pieces of work, and I could see what the authors were trying to accomplish with most of the pieces. There were also more than a few stories that I really enjoyed on multiple levels. My two favorites are pretty representative of the range of styles and settings encompassed in this collection: “The Color Master” by Aimee Bender is set in a traditional fairy-tale kingdom, and involves a series of royal orders for dresses of increasingly unlikely hues; while Stacey Richter’s “A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility” is the formal report of an emergency room incident involving a meth addict who claims she’s a princess. Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” was also a standout, and a nice illustration of how you can use an unconventional style while still telling an interesting story (although how he got from his stated inspiration of The Odyssey to a tale of a girl whose sister became addicted to self-tanner, I may never understand.)

So, while it wasn’t quite what I was expecting or hoping for, it wasn’t a bad read, either. It’s just… for a collection of modern fairy tales, I would have found it more satisfying if more of the authors had focused more on the “fairy tales” and less on the “modern”. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Although fairy tale and fantasy aficionados might be the most likely to pick this collection up based on its title or cover, I think that it’s primarily geared towards readers of modern fiction who are normally reluctant to venture into the Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Table of Contents:

– Introduction by Kate Bernheimer
– “Drawing the Curtain” by Gregory Maguire
– “The Pelican Child” by Joy Williams
– “Ardour” by Jonathon Keats
– “I’m Here” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
– “The Brother and the Bird” by Alissa Nutting
– “Hansel and Gretel” by Francine Prose
– “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin” by Kevin Brockmeier
– “With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold” by Neil LaBute
– “The Swan Brothers” by Shelley Jackson
– “The Warm Mouth” by Joyelle McSweeney
– “Snow White, Rose Red” by Lydia Millet
– “The Erkling” by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
– “Dapplegrim” by Brian Evenson
– “The Wild Swans” by Michael Cunningham
– “Halfway People” by Karen Joy Fowler
– “Green Air” by Rikki Ducornet
– “The Mermaid in the Tree” by Timothy Schaffert
– “What the Conch Shell Sings When the Body is Gone” by Katherine Vaz
– “The Snow Queen” by Karen Brennan
– “Eyes of Dogs” by Lucy Corin
– “Little Pot” by Ilya Kaminsky
– “A Bucket of Warm Spit” by Michael Martone
– “Catskin” by Kelly Link
– “Teague O’Kane and the Corpse” by Chris Adrian
– “Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay” by Jim Shepard
– “Body-Without-Soul” by Kathryn Davis
– “The Girl, The Wolf, The Crone” by Kellie Wells
– “My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This is What Happened” by Sabrina Orah Mark
– “The Color Master” by Aimee Bender
– “The White Cat” by Marjorie Sandor
– “Blue-Bearded Lover” by Joyce Carol Oates
– “Bluebeard in Ireland” by John Updike
– “A Kiss to Wake the Sleeper” by Rabih Alameddine
– “A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility” by Stacey Richter
– “Orange” by Neil Gaiman
– “Psyche’s Dark Night” by Francesca Lia Block
– “The Story of the Mosquito” by Lily Hoang
– “First Day of Snow” by Naoko Awa
– “I am Anjuhimeko” by Hiromi Ito
– “Coyote Takes Us Home” by Michael Mejia
– “Ever After” by Kim Addonizio
– “Whitework” by Kate Bernheimer

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Despite its heft, this collection is a tiny hall of mirrors in the world’s giant house of fairy tales.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. xxv: “Tolkien, that philologist turned bard and pantocratur of Middle-earth, called it faërie, that which “holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”” – the ruler of everything.
  • p. 15: “And then Olga realized: Why not visit the only place on earth where no one will turn her away, where they’ll always be happy to see her, where they’ll sit her down, make her tea, ask how she is and even invite her to stay over; why not visit their old landlady, from the dacha, where they lived so many years in a row when Nastya was still little, and she and Seryozha still hoped for a better life?” – a Russian country house or villa.
  • p. 186: “Madame Ernestine Swarth, the mezzo-soprano whose farewell performance at the Mudpuddle Hall had been selling out nightly for three years, happened by that evening and lifted the black veil of her feathery sinamay hat to look over Rapunzel’s shoulder as she sketched.” – a material used in making hats made from the Abaca tree, handwoven and bleached.
  • p. 354: ““I suppose not,” said the wolf, who’d had a hunch the saving catholicon of the bread would not make it to him in time.” – a universal remedy; panacea. I could figure this one out from knowing the word “catholic”, but I’d never seen the noun form before.
  • p. 358: “The girl remembered the delicious wolf soup her grandmother used to make her and felt a fond stirring in her own kishkas.” – Slang: the innermost parts; guts, based on a dish of the same name that involves a beef or fowl intestine stuffed with a mixture of flour, fat, onion, and seasonings, and roasted.
  • p. 359: “The girl, with a face like a rusted skillet, clutched the bread, and when she saw the huntsman, she went, stem to stern, red as the end of the world; the huntsman took one look at the girl and thought Bolshevik and decided no brazen-faced rose that rutilant was worth deflowering, bread or no bread, and he pumped the bladder beneath his arm and took another slug of wine; and the naked old crone?” – glowing or glittering with ruddy or golden light.
  • p. 363: ““I’m going to Barcelona,” said Gary. Now, that really ceiled me.” – to overlay (the ceiling of a building or room) with wood or plaster. This doesn’t make a lot of sense in context, but since the story involved some mis-use of words, I think I’ll let it slide.
  • p. 459: “However, I am starting to see the interconnectedness of all cultures and stories and so I decided to explore this favorite tale as the märchen that it was often considered to be.” – folktale characterized by elements of magic or the supernatural.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2010 3:24 am

    So… are you going to kill and eat someone now that you’ve read this? (Sorry; still cracking up at the “this book encourages cannibalism!!11 review that made the rounds around Twitter the other day :P).

    I’d prefer an emphasis on the “fairy tales” rather than the “modern” myself, but this is a book I just can’t NOT read.

    • November 26, 2010 11:22 am

      Nymeth – Ha! I hadn’t seen the cannibalism review, but if I see anyone with a long blonde braid, they’d better watch out!

  2. November 24, 2010 9:00 am

    I love the title of this book and have been curious about it, but don’t think I’ll read it, because I’m not a big fan of fairy tales.

    • November 26, 2010 11:26 am

      bermudaonion – If you get a chance to pick it up and skim it, you might want to, since a lot of the stories are modern-day, “normal” stories, not fantasy, and with only the barest hint of fairy tale underneath.

  3. November 24, 2010 10:09 am

    I haven’t had a lot of luck with themed anthologies, but I love fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. Not sure if I’ll run out any buy this one, but i’ll library it for sure. And who can say no to a title like that?

    have you seen Jim Knipfel’s These Chilren Who Come at You With Knives? It’s a collection of kind of dark and twisted and fractured and rather depraved fairy tales.

    • November 26, 2010 11:27 am

      Redhead – I haven’t heard of that collection, but it sounds great! I’ll have to see if I can track it down.

  4. November 24, 2010 10:23 am

    This sounds quite neat overall. I really enjoyed the anthology of essays that she edited (women writers, fairy tales, Mirror, Mirror On the Wall), but have lost track of her since. Thanks for the reminder!

    • November 26, 2010 11:28 am

      Buried – I hadn’t heard of Bernheimer before… I like fairy tales in general but have not read much (or anything, really) on the scholarship of fairy tales, but it sounds like something I should check out!

  5. November 24, 2010 10:30 am

    Drats, I mean, still sounds good but I thought it would be more based on the stories as well. BUT am still looking forward to giving it a read at some point!

    • November 26, 2010 11:31 am

      Amy – There are definitely some stories that were great; I don’t mean to give the impression that the whole thing is a modernist wreck. There were just a handful of stories where I wanted to tell the author “yes, yes, that is a masterful command of the English language you have there, now can you get back to telling me a story?”

  6. November 24, 2010 1:53 pm

    I do love the title of this collection and it includes some favorite authors so I will be reading it, skipping stories I don’t enjoy. Thanks for the review!

    • November 26, 2010 11:32 am

      Gavin – That sounds like a plan! I do think this book would have been better if I’d skipped around a bit more, instead of trying to read it straight through.

  7. November 25, 2010 12:36 pm

    OK, so I only skimmed the review because I just picked up this book yesterday and also know that I will not read it until 2011. As Ana said earlier, this is just a book that I couldn’t NOT pick up.


    • November 26, 2010 11:33 am

      Christina – I’ll be interested to see what you think when you do get the chance to read it! One of my favorite things about anthologies is seeing which stories people respond to that I didn’t, and vice-versa.

  8. November 26, 2010 11:06 am

    I’m all about the stories — what a shame that’s not the focus here. The neat thing about fairy tales, to me, is how purely they’re about the story. The characters are types, the relationships are basically tangible, so it’s all just about the story.

    • November 26, 2010 11:36 am

      Jenny – Agreed! There were some stories here that did it really well, including some that had nothing really magical or fantastical about them (Updike’s Bluebeard in Ireland, for one). But some of the other stories had their fairytale roots a lot more evident, yet they still seemed more focused on the style than the substance.


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