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Kate Bernheimer – XO Orpheus

January 16, 2014

101. XO Orpheus: Fifty New Myths edited by Kate Bernheimer (2013)

Length: 546 pages
Genre: Short Stories; Contemporary Fiction

Started: 26 November 2013
Finished: 27 December 2013

Where did it come from? From the publisher for review.
Why do I have it? Although I didn’t have the best of luck with Bernheimer’s previous anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, I love mythology, and I like the idea of this collection, so I thought I’d give it a try.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 23 September 2013.

Myth-making in the
modern age: does it have to
be so depressing?

Summary: Most people think of myths in terms of the ancient world, gods and goddesses and togas and warriors and great beasts. But mythology speaks to us as much today as it did to people back then, and the stories and the lessons that it contains are just as applicable to our modern world. This book asks authors to retell or re-imagine their favorite myth, recasting ancient gods and heroes in their roles in the modern world, and creating new myths in the process, new forms for the old stories.

Review: I love mythology, and stories that use mythology in new ways. (Witness: 2012/2013’s binge on Rick Riordan’s books.) We read D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths in 6th grade and I begged my parents to buy me my own copy and I never looked back. (I’ve gone as mythological figures for several Halloween, although that’s partly because it’s easy to re-accessorize your basic toga for a whole new costume.) The old stories still have power for me, and I love authors that can harness that power and use it to make something new. So this book should have been a lock for me, but in trying to make the stories new and modern and dark and edgy, I felt like a lot of the stories really lost something – whatever it is about the myths that I connected to in the first place.

So in her introduction to this book, Bernheimer says that in the modern age, when humans have powers that can rival those of the gods, our myths “reveal a gaping anxiety, a primal fear, leading to sadness about what we have done.” I see where she’s coming from with that, even if I’m not sure that I believe it, and it’s true that it’s certainly reflective of the stories in this collection. But I found the unrelenting bleakness of so many of the stories in this book kind of disheartening, and disquieting, and it made this book not entirely satisfying, and often times hard to want to go back to and read more.

There were some stories I really liked. Several stories in this volume re-imagine Persephone as a child shuffling between divorced parents, and two of them really stood out for me. “Demeter”, by Maile Meloy, was my favorite in the collection by far. I’m not quite sure why it struck me the way that it did – I’m not a mother, let alone a divorced mother with shared custody who has to give my child up for half the year. But the characters in this one were vivid, the imagery was beautiful, and it was one of the few stories that left the reader with at least a spark of hope. “Lost Lake”, by Emma Straub and Peter Straub, was another of my favorites; it also used the child of divorced parents as a basis but focused more of the experience of Persephone in the Underworld. I also really enjoyed “What Wants My Son”, by Kevin Wilson. It was one of the more literal “bring the ancient gods and demigods (in this case, Helios and Phaeton) into the modern world” re-tellings, and as such sort of reminded me of Riordan, but it felt honest and like it had some sense of humor about itself. Several of the other stories – “Modern Coyote” by Shane Jones (a trickster/Coyote story), “Killcrop” by Victore LaValle (changelings), “Slaves” by Elizabeth Evans (Maenads), and “Sissy” by Kit Reed (a combination of Sisyphus and Oedipus) – were all very well done, and very effective, but too disquieting to say that I exactly enjoyed them. “The Status of Myth” by Kelly Braffet and Owen King had some really beautiful moments, but didn’t quite come together for me (even though I recognize that it was supposed to be disjointed.) Two of the shorter pieces, “Argos” by Joy Williams and “So Many-Headed Gates” by Sheila Heti were both quite lovely.

There were also stories that didn’t work for me. The stories that I had the hardest time with, and frequently wound up skimming or skipping, were those that were translated from other languages (mostly French). Maybe something got lost in translation, or maybe modernist French literature is just not for me, but these stories were just not my cup of tea. In general, those stories that tried to be the most “literary”, the most experimental with the language or the story style or the story concept, were usually my least favorites. As I said in my review of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, I like stories that focus on telling a good story, and that’s especially true when the inspiration is fairy tales, or mythology – two forms where the universality and the power of the story itself is what should be the star of the show. And in this book, a number of the stories got there, but too many of them didn’t for the collection as a whole to really bowl me over. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think people who read more contemporary “literary” fiction than I do may have a better time with this collection than I did. It’s an interesting idea, but the final product wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it would be.

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

Table of Contents:
– Introduction by Kate Bernheimer
– “Anthropogenesis, Or: How to Make a Family” by Laura van den Berg
– “Argos” by Joy Williams
– “The Sisters” by Sabina Murray
– “Sawdust” by Edward Carey
– “Friend Robin” by Maile Chapman
– “The Veiled Prophet” by David B.
– “Henry and Booboo” by Elanor Dymott
– “Modern Coyote” by Shane Jones
– “Devourings” by Aimee Bender
– “Labyrinth” by Ron Currie, Jr.>
– “The Last Flight of Daedalus” by Anthony Marra
– “Daphne” by Dawn Raffel
– “Demeter” by Maile Meloy
– “Kid Collins” by Willy Vlautin
– “Sleeping Beauty” by Gina Ochsner
– “Galatea” by Madeline Miller
– “The Hand” by Manuel Muñoz
– “The Dummy” by Benjamin Percy
– “The Girl with the Talking Shadow” by Kate Bernheimer
– “Wait and See” by Edith Pearlman
– “An Occasional Icarus” by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
– “Killcrop” by Victor LaValle
– “The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun” by Ben Loory
– “Birdsong from the Radio” by Elizabeth McCracken
– “The Lotus Eaters” by Aurelie Sheehan
– “Slaves” by Elizabeth Evans
– “Drona’s Death” by Max Gladstone
– “So Many-Headed Gates” by Sheila Heti
– “The Status of Myth” by Kelly Braffet and Owen King
– “Narcissus” by Zachary Mason
– “Back to Blandon” by Michael Jeffrey Lee
– “The Story I Am Speaking to You Now” by Davis Schneiderman
– “The Brigadier-General Takes His Final Stand, by James Butt” by Imad Rahman
– “Dark Resort” by Heidi Julavits
– “Mystery Spot: 95065” by Karen Tei Yamashita
– “Lost Lake” by Emma Straub and Peter Straub
– “What Wants my Son” by Kevin Wilson
– “Thousand” by Laid Hunt
– “Belle-Medusa” by Manuela Draeger
– “The Swan’s Wife” by Aamer Hussein
– “Sanna” by Kathryn Davis
– “Madame Liang” by Lutz Bassmann
– “Sissy” by Kit Reed
– “In a Structure Simulating an Owl” by Ander Monson
– “Cat’s Eye” by Donají Olmedo
– “Betrayal” by Sigrid Nunez
– “A Horse, a Vine” by Johanna Skibsrud
– “The Hungers of an Old Language” by Brian Aldiss
– “The White Horse” by Sarah Blackman

Other Reviews: Cheryl’s Book Nook, Utter Randomonium
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: In the modern characterization of Orpheus, culled from diverging stories of antiquity, Orpheus is the best musician of all time – let’s make that the greatest artist.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 231: “Waffles sprinkled with powdered sugar that left fun mustaches; a few glasses of sparkling wine; a coney I’d won by shattering, with a single sand-filled ball, the flowerpot where it was buried up to its neck, a maxixe, a java, two waltzes . . . ” – a Brazilian dance in duple time, a precursor of the tango.
  • p. 232: “True, I was freed from gravity again, but inside a parallelepiped of approximately forty-five cubic yards, still a prisoner of walls, floor, and ceiling.” – A solid with six faces, each a parallelogram and each being parallel to the opposite face.
  • p. 233: “A letter informing me of Lorella’s death reached me months later, in the stalag where I stewed away the next four years.” – A German prisoner of war camp for officers and enlisted personnel.
  • p. 255: “Each wore Poor Alan’s family name like a badge on the pellicle of the speaker.” – A thin skin or film, such as an organic membrane or liquid film.
  • p. 340: “Their bodies pitch down fifty feet right into a jutting serac below.” – A large pointed mass of ice in a glacier isolated by intersecting crevasses.
  • p. 358: “But I also decided to write a story that obeyed the rules listed in the Dogme filmmaking manifesto.” – a group of Danish film-makers, formed by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who have a set of strict rules, such as not using artificial lighting, always filming on location, and always using a hand-held camera.
  • p. 429: ““The smell of a nanoctiluphe after a concert . . . “” – Not a real word. The only thing Google pulls up for it are other stories by this author.
  • p. 458: “Part of her floor shelters enormous birds of prey: lammergeiers, circaetus, wild vultures, eagles.” – bearded vultures; harrier eagles.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2014 7:55 am

    I liked the earlier collection more than I expected to — which is to say, there were still a lot of stories that didn’t work for me. I think I had a lot of goodwill for the collection as a concept, which made it easier for me to overlook its flaws.

    Anyway, I think you can safely conclude at this point that a Kate Bernheimer collection is not your thing, excellent titles and cool covers notwithstanding. :/

    • January 20, 2014 5:35 pm

      Jenny – Argh, yes, I should conclude that, but I know that I will probably keep trying as long as she keeps coming up with ideas that sound like I should like them, even though I know better.

  2. January 17, 2014 8:13 pm

    I wish I was better with short story collections. There are many that interest me, but I read like one story and then move on to something else…

    • January 20, 2014 5:36 pm

      Kailana – What has worked for me is leaving the collection on the nightstand and then doing a one-story-a-day policy. It takes forever but I do get through them eventually.

  3. January 18, 2014 5:15 pm

    I am interested in this book after reading your review. Curious at least. Thank you for the time taken – sonmicloud

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