The Merry Spinster, Mallory Ortberg; Christina Traister, narrator (Brilliance Audio 978-1-9786-0777-4, $26.99, 5 CDs, 5.25 hr., unabridged [also available on MP3-CD and as a digital download]) July 2018.
The narrator of this short-story collection reads with great feeling and expression. It is therefore a pity that the emotions being exhibited by these modern responses to fairy tales and classic children’s fiction primarily seem to be cynicism and contempt. I am surprised that Ortberg (now Daniel Mallory Ortberg, who announced his transition around the time of the book’s publication) did not narrate himself and that these stories are so depressing. His Slate advice column and its related podcast (which established him as an authoritative and cheerful audio presence) typically come across as far more optimistic about human nature than this book would suggest. Yes, there’s something deeply disturbing about Andersen’s original ending to “The Little Mermaid”; I’m not sure having the sea creature in Ortberg’s version slaughter the callous prince and his bride makes me feel any better. And the stories only seem to go downhill from there.
The deconstruction of fairy tales by modern authors is a well-worn trope; certainly, the darker and often misogynistic themes are worthy of exploration and condemnation (Terri Windling’s The Armless Maiden and a multitude of Ellen Datlow anthologies come to mind), but most authors still express a certain kind of respect for the past, even as they rip it to shreds. Ortberg seems to find nothing redeeming in the old, beloved stories that he puts under his harshly lit microscope, which include tales by Grimm, Charles Perreault, Hans Christian Andersen, and even Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows).
Clever and thoughtful, while leaving an unpleasantly bitter residue in one’s ear.
This review and more like it in the October 2018 issue of Locus.
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