There’s a reason that mythology and fairy tales are enduring: The larger-than-life characters and stories appeal to us, and there’s a certain elegant simplicity about the way things work out. Well, in this modern moment, we’re all very aware that things are a little murkier and more morally complex. In that vein, the new books in this week’s book club take the classic structures of myths and legends and update them through the more complex lens of intersectional feminism. If that sounds like homework, it’s anything but: They’re also compelling, funny, and sometimes even hopeful.
1. The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg ($17): Ortberg (who has come out as trans since the book’s publication) is one of the darlings of the online media world, and with good reason. Founder of the late lamented The Toast, Ortberg wrote articles that left us wheezing with laughter. His uncanny ability to take anything from literature or art history and give it a modern, ironic spin (Texts from Jane Eyre) kept droves of readers coming back. This is something he continues in his latest book, a collection of mixed-up and twisted fairy tales, folk legends, and Bible parables, which is an expansion from The Toast’s “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series.
It’s not just about making the stories sinister or dark — after all, if you look at most of them for a minute or two, you’ll know they already are, or at least have those elements. It’s about discussing gender roles and suffering and turning those ideas on their heads. In Ortberg’s work, gender and pronouns are fluid and redefinable, and men and women aren’t so much pitted against each other as they are both treated with empathy (along with a great deal of horror and humor). Along the way, there are critiques of capitalism, class, and culture.
“There once was a king who owned a great deal of what lay under the surface of the sea, and he happened to fill it with daughters. Another man might have filled with something else — potato farmers or pop-eyed scholars or merchant marines — but this one filled it with daughters, so there’s no use arguing about it now.” Ortberg’s diverse sources and influences range from this retelling of The Little Mermaid to one of the Book of Genesis, The Velveteen Rabbit to King Lear, with heavy doses of The Brothers Grimm, The Wind in the Willows, and Thomas Aquinas. It’s nerdy, feminist bliss.
2. The Red Word by Sarah Henstra ($16): “Sing, O Goddess, of the fury of Dyann Brooks-Morriss, teller of unbearable truths. O sing of the rage that kindled one young woman’s heart and the next until it drove us together from our homes, battlethirsty, into the secret places of the enemy. Sing how the young men scattered and fled as before the thunderbolt that lashes the sky.” This invocation to the Muses starts Henstra’s novel: The “word” in her title is “rape,” and her tale of rape culture and warring fraternity and feminist houses is given mythic properties.
Karen Huls, a girl from small-town Ontario attending an Ivy League school in the mid-’90s, wakes up dazed one morning of her sophomore year on the lawn of Raghurst. Raghurst is a staunchly ideological house for female students: “Committed feminists only,” it advertises. “Vegetarian/ vegan/macrobiotic meal-sharing…Queer-friendliness a must.” Karen has come from a party at the neighboring Gamma Beta Chi frat (nicknamed “Gang Bang Central”); when the Raghurst women ask if she’s been raped, she resists the term. “‘Rape’ was a sharp word, a greedy word. It was a double-sided axe brandished in a circle over the head. It drew all kinds of attention to itself.” Soon, though, Karen is taken into the circle of the Raghurst women, and dazzled by their fierce ideology, intellectual passion, and connection to a campus scholar of feminist mythology.
Torn between her growing affection for one of the frat boys and her house’s beliefs, Karen is worried when house leader Dyann vows to bring down GBC once and for all. As in many epic stories, a bold claim can come with a terrifying cost; (as Shakespeare might put it, “A plague o’ both your houses”). “Everyone knows the trouble with myth. The trouble with myth is the way it shirks blame,” writes Henstra. “It makes violent death as unavoidable as weather. All that tragic destiny lets everyone off the hook. Some bored god comes kicking up gravel and, just like that, a noble house explodes into carnage.” Henstra’s uncomfortable, provocative book doesn’t shirk anything; nothing is completely clear-cut or binary, and not only the “right people” suffer.
3. The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes and Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood ($18): Spotswood’s book is aimed at teens, but is for anyone with a thirst for stories that defy the patriarchy. The 12 stories that don’t usually get told, of diverse American girls coming of age on the margins of society, come from accomplished YA authors like Dahlia Adler, Erin Bowman, Dhonielle Clayton, Sarah Farizan, Meg Medina, Marieke Nikjamp, and Sarvenaz Tash (among others).
Spotswood’s second anthology of feminist historical fiction (after 2015’s A Tyranny of Petticoats) focuses on the radicals of society, “whether by virtue of their race, religion, sexuality, disability, gender, or the profession they were pursuing.” She points out that radical can mean untraditional, but it can also mean “cool,” and the stars of these stories are both. They work as Union saboteurs to the Confederacy. They study Torah at a time when it was forbidden to Orthodox Jewish women. They make feminist punk music, use magic, play poker, and walk tightropes.
“These girls will not allow society to define them. Instead, they define themselves, claiming their identities even though it was often not historically safe — and disappointingly, is not always currently safe — to do so. They learn to love themselves in all their perfectly imperfect beauty — which, as some of our heroines learn, might be the most radical act of all.” Though fictional, the women challenge the notion of one simple narration of what history looked like and what stories should be told.
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