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My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a collection of stories inspired by classic fairy tales written by a wide array of contemporary authors.

The title of the collection is a phrase borrowed from the Grimm’s Tale of the Juniper Tree, reinvented in this collection in Alissa Nutting’s story, The Brother and the Bird.  It’s an excellent title as it calls to mind so many of the dark and complicated threads that make up the fairy tales we all know so well: family, betrayal, murder, violence, and complicity.

The stories within the collection, each “riffing” on some extant bit of folklore, explore the marrow and whimsy of the genre with varying degrees of success.

Most of the writers deal in creative retellings or explorations of familiar themes, but a few seem to delight in simply wallowing in the grotesque, describing evocative but disconnected images and happenings in a truly esoteric and brutal phantasmagoria.  These few did nothing for me.

I like the shit, blood, and viscera in my fairy tales to be a menacing undercurrent that bubbles over and bursts vividly to the surface of the narrative from time to time, not a stagnant pool that the author feels compelled to drown me in.

Still, there are instances of the sublime in the collection that make it well worth picking up.

In the previously mentioned, The Brother and the Bird, Alissa Nutting creates one of the most terrifying step-mother’s you are ever likely to find in a genre that is rife with them.  When she describes the woman, perpetually clad in hairnets and bright yellow cleaning gloves, you can practically see and smell a toxic curl of cleaning poisons hissing off of the page.

I enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s story, Orange very much.  It is a tale of self tanning gone fantastically wrong and it is told cleverly and exclusively through the answers to unheard questions in a government interrogation.  I’m not always a fan of Gaiman, but I found this to be delightfully funny and blessedly short in a collection of heavy and lengthy tales.

The real stand out in the collection for me was Aimee Bender’s The Color Master.  It is an exploration of the doings of some unseen side characters in the classic French tale, Donkeyskin.  The entire thing is so gorgeous and lyrical, I won’t embarrass myself by trying to describe it any more than that.

I’ve enjoyed my near constant immersion in fairy tales these past few months, but I am definitely ready for something longer and with a steadier plot.

Onward!

Fairy tales interest me greatly.  They are alluring in their apparent simplicity and inherent power.  They are visceral, dark, violent, and often funny.  Within their confines, both terrible and magical things are possible.  Sometimes punishment is just, sometimes it is arbitrary.  Though the main character may be rewarded with good fortune in the end, they will not arrive there without suffering unheard of horrors first.

Amazon has many free kindle collections of folk and fairy tales organized by culture of origin.  Since I have some Czechoslovakian heritage, I decided that this particular collection would be a good place to jump in.  There are only fifteen stories in this collection, so it’s an easy read.  If you’re a fan of fairy tales in their purest form, where really crazy shit happens for no apparent reason and there’s rarely a moral or a point at the end, then you should enjoy this book.  It might not hold you rapt for hours at a time, but I enjoyed reading a story or two before bed in rotation with more in depth reading.  Did I mention it’s free?

Recurring themes in these stories include the virtue of hard work, the inability of royalty to accomplish anything without the special help of their subjects, and magical self-multiplying gold coins.

Of course, one of the most satisfying parts of reading fairy tales is seeing the wicked get their just deserts.  In this regard, these stories don’t disappoint.  In one tale, the devil himself comes up to earth to drag a wicked mother and daughter screaming into hell, but my favorite grisly end of a villain appears in the tale called, “Rattle-Rattle-Rattle and Chink-Chink-Chink.”

In the story, we get the familiar motif of a beggar who, after being treated well or poorly, is revealed to be a powerful being.  Usually, the kindly host or hostess is rewarded with riches or salvation, while those who treated the stranger poorly are left to live in squalor.

The inhospitable cottage dweller, Dorla, is not so lucky in this tale:

Then Dorla was very frightened and she hid in the corner.  Long Beard broke open the door and he caught Dorla and he shook her out of her skin.  It served her right, too, for she was a wicked, spiteful girl and she had never been kind to anybody in her life.

Long Beard left her bones in a heap on the floor, and he hung her skin on the nail at the back of the door.  Then he put her grinning skull in the window.

I’d love to see the Disney version.

Just Kids is a memoir detailing Patti Smith’s relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  It’s Smith’s own coming of age tale, which happens to be thoroughly entwined with his.  I came to this book without any real foreknowledge of Patti Smith.  I knew who she was of course, had given Horses the mandatory listen in college, but for whatever reason, it hadn’t stuck.

The music didn’t resonate with me at the time, so I’d filed her away in that “to revisit at a later time and with a different self” folder in my mind.  I did so in reading Just Kids, and where she had failed to grab me with her music in my early twenties, here, with her words, she got her hooks in real good.

The book is the chronicle of a friendship, lovingly told. It was enjoyable and, as a creative, I also found it instructive and encouraging.  We watch two successful careers unfold in very different ways; his through sheer will and desire for recognition, hers through a relentless exploration of herself and the modesty to not accept any opportunity that she doesn’t feel she’s earned.

After the ordeal of a teen pregnancy and giving her child up for adoption, Patti Smith made a vow to do something more with her life; she was going to live for art.  She’s one of those people who just took off for New York without anything more substantial than a hunger for experience and expression.

If there is any real key to her success in life, at least as it appears in this book, it would seem to be her openness to, curiosity about, and compassion for the people she encounters.  We see this first as she meets Mapplethorpe- literally one of the first people she comes across in New York.  After an inauspicious initial meeting, they’re shortly again thrown together and from there they’re inseparable.

Driven by his ambition and her curiosity and compassion, the two of them move through a series of living situations that increase in habitability by small degrees; for instance they trade ovens full of used needles for the infinitely more pedestrian head lice.  Eventually, they land on the doorstep of the books’ third main character, the Chelsea Hotel.

The hotel has recently changed hands and is closed to the public for renovations, so you can’t go there now, but all the same, even if you could wiggle your way past it’s tiny lobby, you wouldn’t be able to visit the wonderland of its past.  Many artists have passed through its walls, and just as many have written about it, so there are all sorts of ways to experience the hotel.   Here, in Patti Smith’s hands, the building, while never lacking in mystery or the charge and chaos of artistic energy, seems far less sordid and dangerous than many of the depictions I’ve read before.

In Patti’s Chelsea, Edie Sedgewick’s lighting her room on fire is a mere rumor of the past, and room 100 would still be open and non-descript for another decade or so before Sid and Nancy would check in and make it notorious.  By Smith’s side, we wander the halls, as if through a giant doll house, each room a diorama crafted with care by an eccentric child living within.  Luckily for us, Patti is invited to play in many of them.

Smith spends a lot of time plumbing the depths of their relationship to identify the more subtle ways that they influenced one another, but their importance in one another’s self-discovery is never more sweetly illustrated than in a repeating anecdote from those amorphous middle years between them, a time before their paths were set:

He agonizes over finding the right images for his work, she tells him he should take his own pictures.  She hums Edith Piaf tunes while leaving scraps of poetry crumpled up around their loft, he gathers them lovingly and tells her she should sing.