Archived Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

(I originally wrote this little review for a magazine at my University, back in Feb 2012.  I’m cross posting it here because I’ve been thinking about fairy tales a lot, lately, and seriously recommend this collection.  It’s still in print, too, unlike some of my other favorite anthologies.)

source: indiebound

I was a little wary when I opened the provocatively-named anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; a collection of “forty new fairy tales” compiled by Kate Bernheimer. Re-told, re-imagined and modernized fairy tales have become wildly popular lately- and I’ve left many a cinema and shut many a book feeling disappointed. Too often the director or writer makes an easy interpretation by amping up the sex and violence while just barely clinging to the bones of the fairy tale – at that point, why not just write an entirely new story? At other times I can barely spot a difference from the original folk tale besides a shifted point of view. After a while the poor, misunderstood wicked step mother’s perspective gets pretty old. So I didn’t let my hopes get too high when I began reading My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the collection’s major virtues is the sheer variety of authors who re-worked fairy tales and myths into their own style of story; greats of the genre like Neil Gaiman are filed among newer writers I’d never heard of, and even authors not always associated with fantasy – Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, for example – contribute to make the anthology wonderfully well-rounded. In her quest to present fairy tales as legitimate inspiration for quality literature, Bernheimer solicited pieces from authors “whose work had suggested ‘fairy tale’… whether in obvious or subtle ways.” She isn’t kidding about that.

Some of the stories were ridiculously fantastical, some verged on sci fi, while others had only the slightest hint of fairy tale hidden within the writing. The selection covers a whole spectrum but each story stands out as a shining example of its kind. In a way this extreme variety could seem jarring; Timothy Schaffert’s trippy and disturbing “The Mermaid in the Tree” preceded a story by Katharine Vaz which contained absolutely no magic and read like a realistic literary examination of a relationship. Staggeringly different in tone, the fact that both stories were based on “The Little Mermaid” surprised me. The stylistic disconnect between stories proved to be a good thing, though, as 533 pages of only a few writers’ voices would have been boring at best and irritating enough that some stories would go entirely unread. Instead we have forty new fairy tales told in forty unique styles, and something can be found within the anthology for every reader.

I would recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me to anyone with an interest in fairy tales, be it a residual love for the colorful films of one’s childhood or a growing fascination with folk tales and legends. It’s the sort of book you can read on the bus without fearing the judgmental glances of scholarly sorts (though they shouldn’t judge at all because at least you’re reading, right?). Kate Bernheimer has succeeded in convincing me, for one, that fairy tales can be fodder for serious literature as well as entertaining fluff, they just have to be wrought by the most capable hands in the business. I’m pleased and relieved to say that this is one book that I closed with regret rather than disappointment. I was sorry to reach the end and I hope to see similar endeavors on shelves in the future.

Overall: **** (4 stars)

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Book Review: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

 

 

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

 

This is the sort of big, clever, historical, dry book I really like. But, as a fairly obvious warning: it’s big, clever, historical, and dry. It won’t be the sort of book everyone likes. I feel compelled to admit that it took me nearly a week to finish The Accursed, and that’s a long time for me. The writing was complicated, the plot took enormous detours, and the “historian” narrator sometimes talked himself in circles. As it’s the depths of winter, and I have a comfortable reading chair, I can totally get into sprawling stories with an endless parade of characters. The setting and drama – and there’s drama a’plenty – captured my attention even if the novel’s pace was sometimes a slog. I happily kept reading through the superfluous chapters about socialism and the transcribed Christian sermons because I was determined to see what befell the characters. I’m also not bothered by academic prose. Many people ain’t got time for that shit. And that’s ok, but this will not be the best choice for those readers.  I’m giving the book 3 1/2 stars rather than 4 because I don’t know tons of folks to whom I would recommend this book, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

The Accursed is the history of mystifying, diabolical events plaguing the well-to-do families of Princeton in the early 1900s. Real figures like Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London play major roles in the affluent setting, though the fictional Slade family is at the curse’s center. The book contains extensive footnotes; chapters told in letters; diary entries; and an ever-changing cycle of points of view. We read about the story’s strange events, horrors which are inexplicable to so many people, through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of perspectives. I assumed that I knew who the main character would be in the first chapter, and got attached to the fellow, only to change my mind completely in the next chapter. And again, and again, the focus shifted. In situations like this, it gets hard to decide who is right, who is wrong, who is hallucinating, and who sees the truth. When unexplainable phenomena – and is it really phenomena, at that? – strikes a group of people set staunchly in their respective ways, everyone sees his or herself as a hero and a saint. The devil wanders in and out of The Accursed in several guises, and eventually it becomes hard to tell whether evil forces or human nature are to blame for so much humiliation, ignorance, passion, and misery.

It would take me ages to try and formulate a concise summary of the 688 page saga’s plot. A lot of stuff happens in Oates’s book. A stranger comes to town. Young women behave in ways their families could never have imagined. Political and social unrest presses in on Princeton, in the form of lynchings nearby and the rise of the working man around the country. The rich are fearful, the rich are scandalized, the rich write in their diaries about who won’t be invited to tea again anytime soon. There’s a nightmarish bog-kingdom where a supernatural villain imprisons his transfixed wives. There’s a big to-do about campus politics. A girl’s school is attacked by invisible snakes. Sometimes 1906 Princeton seems just as exotic as Bermuda and Antarctica, where certain characters escape from the claustrophobic social scene even though they cannot escape the curse’s reach. Mark Twain annoys the heck out of Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda, and that made me very happy. (Team Twain!) Men murder their wives, women think about poisoning their friends, Jack London is a jerk when he’s drunk, people travel in their dreams. The pages are many and the plot goes all over the place.

It gets harder to figure out where Hell has a hand in the novel’s events as the novel progresses, and, interestingly, the narrator himself isn’t too sure. The child of some minor characters in The Accursed, our narrator has set out to chronicle the events with an eye for including all the facts. All. The. Facts. Some readers will get really annoyed about this, because there are many details which could have been overlooked without altering the plot one bit. While constructing an in-depth study of a certain time and place – and the social complexities therein – Joyce Carol Oates may have been a little self-indulgent with the editing process. But I honestly had fun with this book. I liked the witty banter just as much as I liked the horrifying visions. I learned new things: before reading The Accursed I couldn’t have constructed two sentences about Upton Sinclair or Woodrow Wilson. Now I want to go find out what sort of people they really were. I also appreciated how the inherent racism and sexism of the time period was brought to light, without pardoning the characters for their ignorance. Some younger characters learn to be more thoughtful about their fellow man as their world changes around them, and some otherwise likable men and women tout hideous opinions which should make any reader today cringe. Oates neither excuses nor condemns the accepted judgements of the early 20th century. She just subtly reminds us how dangerous it is to think that certain races, genders, and classes deserve their misfortune. Because misfortune happens to everyone in this story, and it’s impossible to say if anyone deserves the fates they suffer.

I have recommended The Accursed to a friend who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, because the style and subject are similar. Both books are heavy with historical details and vivid characters. They each take a fascinating time period and introduce supernatural elements to the scene, thus exposing the ridiculous qualities of real life, which may as well be fantasy for all the sense it makes. I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell quite a bit more than I liked The Accursed, because I thought the supernatural elements were more cohesive and the plot was much cleaner. (You can read an old review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell here, which I wrote with my best book-friend.) That being said, fans of American history and literature might well prefer The Accursed. There were themes and structures of folklore in each book, each rooted firmly in the country of its origin. The nightmare world in The Accursed followed some grisly fairy-tale patterns which reminded me of Clarke’s haunting fairy lands. I can’t really compare The Accursed to other examples of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing, because it is so different from the few books I’ve read (like the YA novel I read over the summer). The writing here is so invested in the historical and biographical tone I almost forgot that such a curse never really existed. I’ll take that as a very good thing indeed, because if I’m drawn into a world so deeply I lose myself in it, then the book must be doing something right. Not all of you will like The Accursed, and it may not always be the right time to delve into such a behemoth, but if you’ve got time to kill and a mind for some complex drama, give it a try. At the end, you’ll be able to return to the real world more easily than some of the doomed characters you meet along the way.

High School Books Part II: After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age recommendation: 14+

The next library book in my high school novel stack was the first YA book by Joyce Carol Oates I had ever read.  I’ve heard good things about Big Mouth, Ugly Girl, but I ended up choosing After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away because I liked the cover and the long title was irresistibly intriguing.  This was a much darker story than The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and while I tend to prefer funny young adult books over tragic ones I will say that Oates made a lasting impression on me with this novel.  The writing was poetic and the narrative was fluid: I found myself so deep inside Jenna’s tumultuous mind that it got hard to extract my own thoughts and impressions from her stream-of-consciousness style and memorable voice.  

The un-glamourous school setting in After The Wreck was vivid, chaotic, and realistic.  It reminded me of the middle school I had attended, though the characters were older and, therefore, the stakes were higher.  We read about Jenna’s high school experiences after she recovers from a terrible car wreck – one which kills her mother and changes her forever – and moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new life.  After The Wreck is one part tragedy, one part angsty teen nightmare about addiction, one part coming of age story, and one part meditation on grief and forgiveness.  Because the narrator is going through her own personal development as well as the unimaginable suffering of blaming herself for a parent’s death, the difficulties she faces are more dire than any which I experienced as a teenager, but the difficulties she experiences at school are universal and unavoidable.  Untrustworthy and manipulative friends, unrequited love, substance abuse, frustratingly bad communication between adults and teenagers: these conflicts rear their ugly heads in most teenagers’ lives despite their varying backgrounds or past experiences.

Oates writes about the distinction between Jenna’s life “before the wreck” and “after the wreck” to keep the plot visible and clear, but the story really focuses on facing internal fears and external pressures.  In her new town, Jenna meets a mysteriously aloof boy called Crow who inspires her to confront her memories and overwhelming sense of guilt, but he, like the other supporting characters in After The Wreck, seemed a little two-dimensional compared to Oates’s complex protagonist.  I sometimes wished that we could get a more detailed look at such compelling figures as Crow and the volatile teenagers who adopt Jenna into their social circle, but I do think that the decision to keep the entire story from her limited point of view was important to maintain the story’s style and tone.

I would recommend After The Wreck to older teenaged readers who have a good chunk of time to devote to reading a harrowing (but ultimately hopeful) book.  Joyce Carol Oates’s writing style is so absorbing and compelling that it’s best to finish this book in one day, or one might risk going about their real life as though they were still in Jenna’s fragile consciousness.  Oates portrays the ferocity with which young people must face the worst parts of growing up in sympathetic detail.  I may not have laughed much while reading After The Wreck, but each page brought a flood of memories from my own angst-ridden teenage years to mind, and I vote that’s one sign of a well-done high school book.