Leaflet Review: Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation by Tim Manley

Cover of Alice in Tumblr-land by Tim ManleyPeter Pan finally has to grow up and get a job, or at least start paying rent. Cinderella swaps her glass slippers for Crocs. The Tortoise and the Hare Facebook stalk each other. Goldilocks goes gluten free. And Rapunzel gets a buzz cut.

Here are more than one hundred fairy tales, illustrated and reimagined for today. Instead of fairy godmothers, there’s Siri. And rather than big bad wolves, there are creepy dudes on OkCupid. In our brave new world of social networking, YouTube, and texting, fairy tales can once again lead us to “happily every after”—and have us laughing all the way.

In case my earlier discussion of using fairy tale motifs in creative writing didn’t tip you off (or the mention of my folklore-emphasizing master’s degree, etc.), I’m a bit of a fairy- and folktale nut. My most recent read in the realm of fairy-tale retelling is Tim Manley’s Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation.

First, I should point out that the book is an outgrowth of Manley’s Tumblr blog Fairy Tales for 20-somethings. (As such you can probably guess that this isn’t for your kids—insert language and content warnings here. My warnings for the book are stronger than for the blog: the book is more explicit, includes more sex-involved storylines, etc. Take a glance around the blog, and if that pushes your boundaries, don’t pick up the book.) But the book does some things that are ill-suited to a blog-style project, and I’m going to focus on those things.

The book, like the blog, has a mix of stories with different characters from different fairy tales (with little to no carryover between fairy tales). Each “fairy tale” story ranges from a couple sentences to a few paragraphs long. (Side note: His definition of fairy tale is very broad and inclusive. If it’s a Disney movie, it probably qualifies for Manley as a fairy tale. Aesop is fair game too.) Although there are overarching narratives for several characters (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Rapunzel, etc.), no character has two consecutive fairy tales if you’re reading the book cover to cover. Technically most of the tales could be read independently, but the most “bookish” parts of the book, the ones toward the end of the volume, normally require the background knowledge of Manley’s interpretation of the characters.

It’s these sorts of tales that I’m going to focus on for this review. While the blog constantly puts out standalone tales—whether they be humorous or poignant—that sort of telling is ill-suited to a coherent book that is supposed to be read and remembered as something other than a gag book. (Gag books have their place, make no mistake. But that’s not what Manley is doing here.) In the book Manley has selected posts from the blog, rewritten some of them, and added many, many more tales to give characters overarching narratives with problems, failings, successes, and ultimately, an inner calmness and peace. While the book describes many stereotypes and tropes of the lost, confused, bewildered, or befuddling generation of today’s American twenty-somethings, it is not a book that ends on the note of being lost, confused, bewildered, or befuddled. Every recurring character finds a way to reconcile his or her questions and instability into some form of calm willingness to press on, innovate, and engage with life.

All in all, I think the book does a good job. As with the blog, there are some tales (and some arcs) I consider more successful, humorous, or emotionally impactful than others, and there are some I don’t particularly care for. In that way it is like many anthology-style books that include multiple discrete storylines: some are bound to please more than others. I would even argue that until the book fully engages with being a book—until we start getting the closure that doesn’t sit well in an ongoing blog-style context—it feels a bit weaker than the blog. But in the end, Manley pulls it off. Since each tale is so sort, it really doesn’t take that long to get to the end either, so overall it’s worth a read.

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

My Mother She Killed Me ... CoverFirst, let me apologize for my extended absence. I was in the middle of moving across several state lines, and when I got to my new home it took a certain company quite a while to get the internet up and running in my house. Because I’m not keen on composing blog posts while using the internet at Denny’s, I let the blog linger. But I’m back with a series of book reviews on what I’ve been reading for the past month. They’ll also stand in for my weekly roundup this week—no internet means I haven’t a clue about anything that’s been going on this past week or two.

To start today’s review, here’s the copy from the back cover of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, an anthology edited by Kate Bernheimer:

Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Chris Adrian, Lydia Millet, and more than thirty other extraordinary writers celebrate fairy tales in this thrilling volume—the ultimate literary costume party.

Spinning houses and talking birds. Whispered secrets and borrowed hope. Here are new stories sewn from old skins, gathered from around the world by visionary editor Kate Bernheimer and inspired by everything from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and “The Little Match Girl” to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” and “Cinderella” to the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rumpelstiltskin” to fairy tales by Goethe and Calvino.

Fairy tales are our oldest literary tradition, and yet they chart the imaginative frontiers of the new twenty-first century as powerfully as they evoke our earliest encounters with literature. This exhilarating collection restores their place in the literary canon.

This collection won this years’ World Fantasy award for the anthology category.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fairy tale junkie. Base something on a fairy tale and I can hardly keep myself away from it for long. So when I heard about the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (edited by Kate Bernheimer), I had my eye out for it everywhere. It took a bit of finding, but I got myself a copy.

Overview

The collection is a gem. That isn’t to say I enjoyed every story (the charm of anthologies is that even if you don’t like every story, you’re bound to get plenty that you do like). However, each story added something to the fairy tale tradition. Some stories were retellings of fairy tales; some took a tale as a starting off point; some borrowed character or thematic arcs without matching up neatly on the details. After every story is a short snippet from the author explaining why he or she chose a particular base story and how his or her story was influenced by whichever the “original” (a dangerous word in fairy tales, but most authors pointed to a specific book they’d read as a child as their source).

The stories ran the gamut on genre: fantasy, magic realism, realism, environmentalist manifesto, daily log, and questionnaire all made an appearance. Many of the stories’ tones were dark (the anthology’s title aptly forewarns you of that), some were quaint, and a few really resonated with me.

Favorite Moments

It’s difficult to talk about an entire anthology, so I’ll talk about a few stories. My favorites were “The Color Master” by Aimee Bender (inspired by Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”), “Catskin” by Kelly Link (inspired by Joseph Jacobs’s “Catskin”), “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin” by Kevin Brockmeier, and “With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold” by Neil LaBute (both based on “Rumpelstiltskin”).

“The Color Master” is about the tailors and cloth-dyers that created the dresses that were the color of the moon, sun, and sky for the princess in “Donkeyskin,” the princess who is trying to invent impossible pre-marital tasks for her father so she doesn’t have to marry him. Unfortunately these tailors are very good at their jobs and create the impossible dresses the princess requires. The main character is torn between her exhilaration at meeting the requirements and her mentor’s revulsion at the attempted incest of the king. The descriptions are sublime.

“Catskin” was uniquely dark and bizarre, and it veered far from the story that inspired it (to be fair, Link says it is inspired by many fairy tales). “Catskin” manages to feel like a fairy tale while telling a completely new and intriguing story.

The Rumpelstiltskin stories are both very different, and both made me think about the funny little man very differently. “With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold” is really creepy, probably creepier because it’s a realist story, but it’s done very well and had my arm-hairs standing on end almost the entire time. It’s essentially the return of the Rumpelstiltskin stand-in character: he has found the mother and her daughter after years and approaches the mother on a park bench while the daughter plays on the playground, unaware.

Final Thoughts

The anthology does what it sets out to do: it displays how fairytale narratives infuse our lives, whether we acknowledge them or not. I was impressed with how the stories stretched and expanded what it means for a story to be based on a fairy tale. Each story gains something because it has a foil narrative—whichever “original” story you as the reader have in your head—and through that foil you interact with the story in a different way than you would if it stood alone. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me has stories that will appeal to a broad range of readers, many of whom wouldn’t believe they’d like a retold fairy tale. While I didn’t enjoy every minute of the book, I enjoyed the ride it took me on.

A few content warnings to those of you who are considering this book: some stories include rough language, explicit sex, and extreme violence. Fairy tales have a lot of psychosexual themes and many are inherently violent, and several of the anthology’s authors ran that route. If you’re squeamish (which I often am), dip your toes in a story before diving in—skip it if you want to. The charm of the anthology is that there are plenty of other stories if one of them doesn’t suit your fancy.