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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “Old tales, new tricks”

    The concept of re-telling fairytales for modern audiences certainly isn’t new. Children’s books like “”The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales”” and theatrical updates like “”Into the Woods”” and “”Once Upon A Mattress”” take these perennially re-told stories and try to make them new.

    Re-imagining fairytales often involves humor and farce, which is fine in children’s books but leaves a gulf for adults who love the old stories, but also love real, ambitious literature.

    Editor Kate Bernheimer and 40 of the freshest voices in fiction today have set out to change that. Bernheimer’s anthology “”My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me”” contains 40 stories, each in some way based on a different, very old story, from “”Baba Yaga”” to “”Jack and the Beanstalk”” all the way to “”The Odyssey.”” Some big names in contemporary fiction can be found in the volume — Michael Cunningham, who wrote “”The Hours,”” screenwriter and playwright Neil LaBute and author of pretty much everything Joyce Carol Oates all make appearances.

    And their stories. Oh, their stories. These tales aren’t just retreads of the originals, replacing a magic wand with a laptop here, making a character flatulent there, as with past attempts at modernizing fairytales. Instead, most of these stories are complete in and of themselves, wildly inventive, spooky and heartrending and even magical. They draw on their source material in marvelous ways, finding the kernel of honesty, the moment that matters, in a familiar story and taking it somewhere breathtaking and new.

    Shelley Jackson’s “”The Swan Brothers,”” based on “”The Six Swans”” by the Brothers Grimm, plays with the idea of multiple versions of one story, and incorporates characters and endings of multiple interpretations into one wheeling, fractured tale. The source material is already eerie: a sister must save her brothers, who have been turned into swans, by weaving them each a shirt out of stinging nettles, and then grapple with an evil queen who has stolen her children. Jackson’s version capitalizes on this eeriness and enhances it, allowing it to speak volumes about family, sacrifice and the nature of art. Characters of Jackson’s own invention, like a woman with hands made of silver and the gay lover of the youngest swan brother, round out the archetypal tale and bring it to life.

    The story from which the anthology’s title is derived, Alissa Nutting’s “”The Brother and the Bird,”” from “”The Juniper Tree”” by the Brothers Grimm, is delicious and spine tingling. It’s good enough that I don’t want to give even a moment of the story away, suffice to say that the title comes from a chilling song sung by a little boy who may or may not have been chopped up and baked into a pie.

    Not every story is perfect. Some, like Joy Williams’ “”The Pelican Child,”” try too hard to fit a modern moral into an ancient tale. Williams’ version of the Baba Yaga myth ends on a high-and-mighty environmentalist note that sours what was otherwise a creepy, fascinating tale. Neil LaBute tries a little too hard with his “”With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold,”” which re-imagines Rumpelstiltskin as a young man obsessively in love with his former teacher. But even these less-than-stellar attempts are not flops; they’re just not quite as awesome as the rest of the book.

    The best thing about “”My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me”” is that it works in two directions at once. The pieces can all stand alone as surreal and wonderfully imaginative short stories. But at the same time, they beg the reader to re-visit their source material, and be reminded of how exciting the fairytales in our cultural lexicon are.

    If you’ve forgotten the weirdness of “”The Bremen Town Musicians”” or have never read the non-Disneyfied ending of “”The Little Mermaid,”” this book will both vault you forward through those stories and pull you back to the equally wonderful original texts.

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