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November 4, 2010

Book Notes - Various Authors ("My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

2010 is the year of the adult fairy tale. Collections by Jim Knipfel, Kate Bernheimer, and David Sedaris have amazed and impressed with their modern takes on this timeless literary form.

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales may be the most impressive adult fairy tale collection of the year. Edited by Kate Bernheimer (one of the leading proponents of the modern fairy tale), the roster of contributing authors is diverse and talented (Aimee Bender, Kevin Brockmeier, Michael Cunningham, Kelly Link, Lydia Millett, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, John Updike, among others), but it is their stories inspired by classic folk tales that astonish and entertain.

In their own words, here is the collaborative Book Notes music playlist for My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales:

"Introduction" by Kate Bernheimer

One song hovers over this entire collection for me and the influence of fairy tales on my literary body of work. I saw the movie Rocky at a Cape Cod drive-in one magical 1970s night, piled with my siblings into my mother’s VW bus. "Gonna Fly Now," the theme song from the movie, has the sound of fairy-tale triumph. (Yes, it is dorky, as we were too in our bell bottoms and striped velour sweaters.) The song announces that bruised underdogs who work hard will not only survive, but also will fly—what a beautiful concept. Fairy tales are often about the weak overcoming the strong and their happy endings are contained inside a brutal, narrative form. And fairy tales are themselves underdogs: burdened by cliché assumptions that they are not "literary" at all.

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me seeks to set the record straight about these strange and poetic stories of hundreds of years ago—and now. It’s an honor to present songs for fairy tales selected by contributors to you.

"Snow White, Rose Red" by Lydia Millet
based on Snow White and Rose Red, Brothers Grimm

It's a toss-up between the newly minted "Scary Lullaby," by Portland musician Megan Pickerel, which appeared on a recent CD of songs for fairy tales put out by Fairy Tale Review, and one of my favorite old Mekons songs, "Waltz," off the album Curse of the Mekons (1991). Scary Lullaby: "You can't stop the monsters/From living under your bed/You can't stop the shark/From biting off you head." My six-year-old likes to sing this in the car. Waltz: "Lovely assassin/Go puncture the surface/Dressed up like a lifeguard/You watch the bubbles break will never come home, now/You will never come home." I like to sing this in the shower. Both capture the blackness at the heart of the story, the dark currents that run beneath the surface of domestic life.

Neil LaBute, "With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold"
based on Rumpelstiltskin, Brothers Grimm

Some strange part of me finds the story of "Rumpelstiltskin" a wildly romantic tale so the musical equivalent would have to be imbued with the same kind of reckless, painful spirit with which the Grimm Brothers first conceived it. the only girl for the job has to be Liz Phair. her song "Shatter," off the Exile in Guyville album, perfectly captures the kind of longing and desperation I see at the core of my update, and more importantly, it's music that deserves to be played every day so its doubly appropriate here. Viva amour fou!

Michael Martone, "A Bucket of Warm Spit"
Based on Jack and the Beanstalk by Joseph Jacobs

I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines
And shivered when the cold wind blows

I like very much the sunlessness, the darkness of the song and the vertical image of the of the straight pointing pines under-storied by the thick black canopy of those interlocking, interlaced leafy shivering needles. There is in it too that deep stillness and the minute animation of dust on the tongue, of motes in the eye. The song works best (when not sung live) played back with the hissing static, the pop and crack of the needle in a wax or vinyl groove, the media cackling with a voice breaking, the whipsawed words sanded away. There are so many versions. Leadbelly's of course, and Bill Monroe's addition of the longest train, the steam steaming and the whistle sighing. There is Nirvana's unplugged ache of it, the lumber and rust in Cobain's quaking interrupted yodel. But the best match for the story is Roscoe Holcomb's high lonesome howl, another tarnished needle, that punctuation of that punctured puncture.

"A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin" by Kevin Brockmeier
 based on "Rumpelstiltskin," Brothers Grimm

I can't think of a song that better suits my story than Laurie Anderson's "The Dream Before," from her great neglected album Strange Angels, the entire first verse of which would itself fit beautifully into this anthology: "Hansel and Gretel are alive and well / And they're living in Berlin / She is a cocktail waitress / He had a part in a Fassbinder film / And they sit around at night now / Drinking schnapps and gin / And she says: Hansel, you're really brining me down / And he says: Gretel, you can really be a bitch / He says: I've wasted my life on our stupid legend / When my one and only love / Was the Wicked Witch."

I know, I know, my story is about Rumpelstiltskin, not Hansel and Gretel; Francine Prose, whose "Hansel and Gretel" appears in the anthology, should sue. But the way Anderson's song carries its fairy-tale duo into a modern setting, as if no one whose life had been actuated in story could ever truly die, along with the spare floating keyboard arrangement and the lyrics' quiet mixture of bizarreness and melancholy, leading finally to a Walter Benjamin vision of history as an angel being blown backwards into the future, wishing to repair the past but unable to reach it---all these qualities make it the perfect accompaniment for my poor broken Rumpelstiltskin.

Joyelle McSweeney, "The Warm Mouth"
Based on The Town Musicians of Bremen, The Brothers Grimm

Like the murdered child-prostitute Beauty, "The Cuckoo" by Clarence Ashley "wobbles/as she flies." This grainy recording, with its uncanny, reedy voice and manic, soursweet picking, is like a revenant, a wounded tissue gaping and gumming itself, but it goes on, it goes along, it wobbles as it flies, and it flies, despite its blow to the head, releasing force and ooze, just like the Warm Mouth, which is Beauty, which is Death.

Kate Bernheimer, "Whitework"
Based on Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Oval Portait"

In a previous Book Notes post, I paired my fairy tale in the collection with the Radiohead song "Everything in its Right Place." The song’s narrator calmly relates "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon," over and over again: terrifying, beautiful. Everything wrong but so right. It haunts like a grown-up nursery rhyme. "Whitework" is set in a domestic heaven or hell and its main character would find this song a sublime and unsettling comfort—like fairy tales are.

Lily Hoang, "The Story of the Mosquito"
Based on a Vietnamese fairy tale

"The Story of the Mosquito" is a fairy tale about greed and desire, an unsated lust not for bodies and sensuality but money and power. This story is a warning. Similarly, Bob Dylan’s "Like a Rolling Stone" is a warning. The narratives bear a striking resemblance: both tell of a woman who wants, a woman who claws and deceives her way into the nouveau-riche, only to fall, publicly and shamefully. Whereas Dylan’s protagonist maintains some dignity, my protagonist Ngoc, like so many other fairy-tale women, learns her lesson in an all too fatal and cruel manner: she is transformed into a mosquito—the most despised and despicable insect—and must spend the remainder of her life as a leech, repenting. 

"The Brother and the Bird" by Alissa Nutting
based on "The Juniper Tree" by the Brothers Grimm

In my story an old radio gets possessed with the voice of a murdered brother—there is something about electronic devices from other eras; I love how they become hefty fetish objects once technological advances render them obsolete. "Crazy" (by Willie Nelson, performed by Patsy Cline) seems appropriate to pour from raspy speakers as the stepmother reels through the yard clutching an ax and a bible while her genitals are on haphazard display. When Cline recorded the song her ribs were fractured, and this seems appropriate—the concept of making beautiful noise despite (or because of, as the song’s lyrics suggest) severe pain. In my story the brother begins singing after a glue made of birds and other capricious adhesives unite his severed body parts. I love the way fairy tales allow things (and people) to be broken and reassembled indefinitely. How horrifying, how hopeful that anything can return or appear again.

"Coyote Takes Us Home" by Michael Mejia
(Based on Tales from Jalisco, Mexico)

In the cantina where Coyote sits, Vicente Fernandez has been drinking again. Red-faced in the corner, he raises his head to belt out the chorus of "Volver Volver" like his huevos have turned to gold. Oh, that voice: it pets and pummels the heart. It blues your agave, amigos. And it catches in Lola Beltran's throat as she turns round and round on the record upstairs in your grandmother's dark bedroom: "¿Paloma negra," Lola and abuela ask together, "paloma negra dónde, dónde andarás?" And across the street at the Hotel El Jalisciense, the Mariachis Vargas yip and bark and aiyiyi like mad charros through the opening bars of "La Negra," while out in the plaza Banda Fresa's synced horns slap the asses of all the guapas bouncing to "El Guapo." And then some chingadero drops a peso in the jukebox and Los Cuates de Sinaloa start strumming their way through "Chuy y Mauricio." Me? I'm on the corner with diablito watching Pedro Infante ride a dove around a moon that's got your face, and remixing it all in my head, like those dudes, the Nortec Collective.

"Dappelgrim"by Brian Evenson
Based on the Norweigan tale Dappelgrim

Probably the most appropriate song (considering the nature of the story and the fact that I listened to the song more than once while writing it) is Caspar Brotzmann's "War Horse" off his album Der Abend den Schwartzen Folklore. That's a secret influence on the story that I don't mention in my note. Another influence was Pharaoh Overload's live version of "Black Horse." Both songs do something with repetitive structures nuanced by slight variation and also something with obsessive trancelike progression that I love. They influenced both the rhythm of the story and the claustrophobic feeling that there's no place to stand outside of the story itself.

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

Art & Literature review
Boston Globe review
The Columbus Dispatch review
Leap in the Dark review
Lucy Loves Fully Booked review
New Yorker review
St. Petersburg Times review

Shelf Awareness interview with the editor, Kate Bernheimer
The Sisterhood interview with the editor, Kate Bernheimer

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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