Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales

Kate Bernheimer’s ambitious brainchild My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a mostly delightful compilation of fairy-tale-inspired stories. The contributors include authors from Russia and Japan and widely recognizable names such as Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. Narrative styles are just as varied. Some are simple retellings; others contain only a wisp of the original fairy tale.

Kate Bernheimer and Gregory Maguire set the stage with their introductions. One can simply flip to the back of the book to learn more about the authors or to the table of contents for a list of stories and their origins. Each story has a brief afterward by the authors describing their inspirations. With such care given to selecting talented authors from around the world, it is surprising that no African tales are featured.

A few of these yarns don’t work without knowledge about their sources. Many of these writers milk the graphic grimness of tales for all they are worth, with results both memorable and tedious. Several stories are so disjointed they lose their purpose, and others feel too self-conscious.

On the whole, though, the creativity makes for a fascinating read. Here are a few of the book’s highlights. [Note: I unintentionally tended to lean towards the more realistic stories.]

Francine Prose’s take on “Hansel and Gretel” depicts a young woman’s visit to a wild artist’s Vermont home. This artist is her husband’s ex-girlfriend’s mother.

“The Warm Mouth” by Joyelle McSweeney is a nightmarish interpretation of “The Bremen Town Musicians.” A “mouth” collects diverse items such as dead bodies and road kill. This horrifying tale is reminiscent of a sickening dream.

“Dappelgrim” by Brian Evenson is a simple, Freudian retelling of the original, a dark story about a monstrous horse and its master – or is the horse the master?

“What the Conch Shell Sings When the Body Is Gone” by Katherine Vaz is one of this book’s best. This poignant meditation on marriage, friendship, and life shifts “The Little Mermaid” to the present day by focusing on a couple of cooks who are obsessed with water.

“Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay” (based on the Italian “Jump into My Sack”) by Jim Shepard may be the jewel in this collection. This searing short story connects the narrator’s detachment from his life to earlier traumas, and his marital tension to the tension in Alaska’s unstable Lituya Bay.

“The Color Master” (Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”) by Aimee Bender is a lighter, more fanciful story about a group whose job is to seek and mix colors for royalty.

“A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility” by Stacey Richter is an amusing version of “Cinderella” as told in medical records. Here princesses are drug addicts, and evil princes are dealers.

“Psyche’s Dark Night” (Cupid and Psyche) by Francesca Lia Block is a straightforward and romantic tale of an uncertain and aching love between an aspiring actor and a school teacher.

“The First Day of Snow” (“A Kamikakushi Tale”) by Naoko Awa is a short and somewhat mesmerizing tale about a girl who tries to free herself from the march of the “snow rabbits.” It’s difficult to get their chant, “one foot, two feet, hop, hop, hop,” out of one’s head.

One can either read this collection straight through or skip around. A few stories are chores, but most are surreal, hilarious, and disturbing. My Mother She Killed Me is actually quite a fun read.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Our Not So Distant Past

I’m not from Montgomery, and meeting someone who knew Martin Luther King Jr. is still a thrill. I work one block away from where Rosa Parks caught that famous bus. Walking by the former Greyhound Bus Station, where the Freedom Riders were beaten for trying to integrate interstate transportation, still chills and astounds me. A century before the Civil Rights Movement, the same area welcomed Jefferson Davis and saw the birth of the Civil War.
As an English major, I feel remarkably fortunate to work at a bookstore and publishing company. My employer, NewSouth Books, is interested in the human experience, originally publishing books that might be “local stories” of “national importance.” In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I was given the opportunity to write a short book about the Freedom Rides with the Alabama Historical Commission, which was working on opening a Freedom Rides Museum at the former Montgomery Greyhound station.
My job was to compile a lot of information into a slim volume, focusing on Montgomery’s reaction to the Rides. I was reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the time, so I secretly compared myself to the book's protagonist Mikael Blomkvist. He was a furious investigative journalist. The book I was to write would hardly be comparable to any tome he might create, and I was not creating a groundbreaking expose. Still, his passion for truth inspired me, especially during the times I felt the book would never come together.
But it did. There were two moments when I realized my book, The Freedom Rides and Alabama, was no longer a personal piece, but something to be shared because it was important. The first was when I saw a copy of its cover on the computer, with my name on it. The second was when I was asked to write the preface and dedication. I got to put my own stamp on it and thank those I loved and who were involved.
Most inspiring, though, was learning about the Rides themselves. I learned about the ugly terror that drove some to madness and the apathy which was almost more dangerous than the violence. I learned about the Freedom Riders' physical and psychological suffering as well as their fears and disagreements. This made their calculation, dedication, and love all the more remarkable.
I discovered that my previous view of history was wrong. History often isn't that far removed. History is always just a generation away, or a generation before that, and so on. Thus learning about the Freedom Rides taught me something about myself, the city I’m living in, this country, and the world.
The anniversary was remarkable. I met the authors whose books I’d read, the authors who had done painstaking, extensive research on the subject. Even more surreal was meeting the Riders and others involved in the Movement. These were the people I had read about and admired. They had changed the world and were some of the most important people in the country. I was still surprised to witness their warmth, compassion, and humility.
During the anniversary, books, television programs, and events across the country acknowledged the Riders. I felt that I was a tiny part of spreading the word about this act in our not so distant past. And it was gratifying and moving. I am so thankful for this opportunity.