Book Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, Kate Bernheimer, ed. (2010)

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Something for everyone!

four out of five stars

Charmingly eclectic and oftentimes macabre, the forty stories found in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me reimagine, remix, and retell well-worn fairy tales from around the globe – including many of your childhood favorites (the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen make numerous appearances). Whether you’re a connoisseur of fairy tales like editor/contributor Kate Bernheimer or a newbie whose knowledge of fairy tales comes primarily from Disney films (guilty as charged!), there’s much to savor in this collection…as long as you come bearing an open mind and a wicked sense of humor, that is!

The fairy tales that make up My Mother She Killed Me run the gamut: while some retain their original European Middle Age settings, others are pulled into the present and updated for modern audiences. Some retellings are somewhat faithful and easily recognizable, whereas others are inspired, directly or otherwise, by a number of sources. All are what you might call “adult” in nature – but then weren’t all of the best fairy tales originally intended for mature audiences?

Naturally, some of the pieces in this collection are more enjoyable than others – and everyone’s likely to have their own favorites – but nearly all are at least mildly entertaining. The anthology begins on a strong note with “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” an unexpectedly animal-friendly tale in which author Joy Williams casts John James Audubon (of the Audubon Society fame) as a mass murdering villain. (It’s true! The founder of a wildlife “conservation” society slaughtered free-living birds by the thousands! Not especially shocking, since conservationists consider nonhuman animals “resources” to be harvested or hoarded, depending on the circumstances – as opposed to the sentient, self-interested creatures they really are.) By far my favorite of the bunch, it had me in tears by story’s end.

Unfortunately, “Baba Iaga” is the only story I’d describe as espousing an animal-friendly message. Which is fine, really; I didn’t expect this to be a vegan-minded collection. The early “score” just got my hopes up, is all. There’s plenty more to love in My Mother She Killed Me!

Among other noteworthy pieces are:

* “Ever After” (Kim Addonizio) – Set in the present day, seven little people have gathered together in a loft to await the manifestation of their Snow White, so foretold in the remnants of a book found by the group’s spiritual leader, “Doc.” (“This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house…work together and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real…”)

* “The Wild Swans” (Michael Cunningham) and “Halfway People” (Karen Joy Fowler) – Two tales inspired by Hans Chistian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans” – one, short and sweet; the other, lovely and lingering.

* “The Mermaid in the Tree” (Timothy Schaffert) – A young couple’s lives are profoundly changed when the boy, on the eve of proposing to his childhood sweetheart, rescues a mermaid from drowning among the garbage of Mudpuddle Beach.

* “Snow White, Rose Red” (Lydia Millet) – A homeless and downtrodden man is saved by two girls, rich and privileged sisters – and is able to return the favor when their abusive father threatens the family.

* “What the Conch Shell Sings When the Body is Gone” (Katherine Vaz) – A bittersweet story about loving, aging, and dying, “The Conch Shell” will leave you in tears. And possibly reevaluating some of your life choices.

The only story I flat out disliked is “A Bucket of Warm Spit”; the repetitive, heavily accented (even caricatured) language renders it virtually unreadable. Truth be told, I couldn’t get past the second page.

Quite possibly, the greater your knowledge of fairy tales – their history, origins, and the like – the more you’ll get more out of this collection. That said, My Mother She Killed Me is suitable for novices too – and just might compel you to go back and read (or reread) some of the originals. I know my wishlist grew by leaps and bounds as I worked my way through the stories!

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Oh, Jayne.
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(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote me hopeful if you’re so inclined!)

John James Audubon, murderer of children.

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

I started this post on my birthday, but it was shelved shortly thereafter when Jayne, always with the excellent timing, ate my book. $7 and a used copy later, and I’m back in business!

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So this is pretty cool. The very first piece in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales casts John James Audubon (yes, that John James Audubon) as the story’s villain: the embodiment of evil, Audubon is a mass murderer of birds – and a child-killer, to boot (the titular pelican child is but one of his many countless victims).

Joy Williams, the author of “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” explains the origins of her story:

When I was doing some research for a book on the Florida Keys some twenty years ago, I discovered that John James Audubon, despite his revered status, was a great slaughterer of birds. (Perhaps everyone was aware of this.) He killed tirelessly for pleasurable sport and would wipe out entire mangrove islands of its inhabitants because…well, because I guess it was easy once he got started. I do hope the curse of history will catch up with him. Perhaps Baba Iaga will be the great facilitator in that regard.

By story’s end, the anti-hero has taken to the skies, shining a magical lamp on everyone she meets, illuminating that which they’d rather not see – namely, the “humanity” present in all animals, not just those of the human variety:

[…] Baba Iaga 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 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. [More so, actually. – ed.]

But she could reach only a few people each day with the lamp.

Once, seven people experienced its light but usually it was far less. It would take thousands of years, tens of thousands perhaps, to reach all the human beings with the light.

Baba Iaga came home one evening – so tired – and she gathered her little family around her, the pelican child and the dog and the cat and said, My dear ones, I still have magic and power unrealized. Do you wish to become human beings, for some think you are under a hellish spell. Do you want to become human? The dog and the cat spoke. The pelican child had not spoken since the day of her return.

The dog and the cat said – well, I won’t tell you what they said.

But I will tell you this: I cried.