Apr 24, 2008

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall edited by Kate Bernheimer

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall is a collection of essays about fairy tales by women writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Terri Windling, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Midori Snyder, Julia Alvarez, Joyce Carol Oates and many, many more. These writers approach their favourite fairy tales from many different angles. The essays are very diverse – some are traditional literary criticism, others almost read like short stories. All are very personal in their own way, and I found most of them immensely satisfying. My favourites made me gain a new appreciation for both the writer and the fairy tales being discussed. Many of the writers were new to me, but I’ll definitely be reading more of their work in the future.

Let me tell you about some of my favourites in more detail:

In “An Autobiography of Scherezade”, Julia Alvarez writes about growing up under a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and hiding under the bed to read The Thousand and One Nights. She also writes about her long struggle to become a writer after moving to the United States.

In “It is You the Fable is About”, Rosellen Brown discusses the impression that Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales created in her as a child. Reading this essay brought back so many childhood memories of my own. She says that back then she didn’t register the fact that these tales often end in a hopeful note – it was the horror that stayed with her. This was very much my experience with stories like "The Little Mermaid" or "The Little Match Girl".

Patricia Foster’s essay is called “Little Red Cap” and it’s one of the ones that read like a short story. She writers about “Little Red Riding Hood” and her relationship with her body throughout her life, and does so in a way that is touching, funny and very engaging.

In “Trust”, Fern Kuppler relates the tale “Hansel and Gretel” to her experience as a stepmother, and also to taking care of her father when he was dying of cancer. The result, as you may imagine, is a very moving and insightful essay.

In “Transformations”, Terri Windling writers about the journey the heroines of fairy tales such as “Donkeyskin” have to embark on to find themselves and rebuild their lives, and relates it with her own experience of leaving an abusive stepfather behind at age fifteen and building a new life for herself.

My very favourite essay was Linda Gray Sexton’s “Bones and Black Pudding”. This is a beautiful and very touching essay about the fairy tale “The Juniper Tree”, her complex relationship with her mother, the poet Anne Sexton, and her own life and experience as a mother. It’s a superbly written piece that made me want to read everything she’s written.

There are many more essay that I’d love to tell you about – namely the ones by Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin and Midori Snyder – but then I’d be here all evening. Hopefully what I did say was enough to make you curious. This is an essential book for any lover of fairy tales. It’s also highly recommended for those interested in the workings of the imagination and the creative process.

Kate Bernheimer also edited Brothers and Beasts, an anthology in which male writers such as Neil Gaiman, Gregory Maguire, and Christopher Barzak, among many others, discuss their favourite fairy tales and their influence in their work. I’ll be getting myself a copy very very soon.

Other Blog Reviews:
A Garden Carried in the Pocket
Educating Petunia


  1. It sounds really interesting! I'm sure I'd like it. Thanks for the review.

  2. When I first learned the "original" stories behind many of the fairy tales, I was surprised at how earthy and violent a lot of them are. I think each of us has a particular fairy tale that resonant very powerfully with our own life experiences.

    I wonder if the local library has a copy of this title. For some reason, I am interested in what Terri Windling has to say about "Transformation".

    Say, have you heard about this title yet? A little late for the Bookworm Carnival you will be hosting, but it sounds so fun: The Folklore of Discworld

  3. Hi Nymeth, now you've convinced me that I have to get this book!!! I love your review of it (as always....you should get a job doing book reviews!) and now I"m really curious and interested. Great job! oh, and "Brothers and Beasts"...anything with Neil Gaiman in it is a must....oh dear, I think my to-get list is taking over my purse!!! :-)

  4. I rarely read short stories although I have a few of those in my pile. And this one sounds interesting though. Thanks for the review, Nymeth! :)

  5. Robin: I think you'd like it, yes!

    Nicola: I really thought it was :)

    Dark Orpheus: I think so too. I hope you manage to find this book at the library. Terri Windling's essay was a great one. And I hadn't heard of that book! Thanks for the link!

    Susan: You so need to read this book! And thanks...if only anyone would pay me to read and write, I'd be happy :P But I don't think that'll ever happen. Anyway, yes, Brothers and Beasts is a must for Neil's contribution alone! But I bet there are some other pearls in there as well. I was surprised that so many of my favourite essays in this book turned out to be by writers I had never read before.

    Melody: I hope you enjoy the short stories you have in your pile.

  6. Yep, you accomplished your goal...you definitely did make me curious! This sounds like quite the interesting book!

    You sure have been a reading dynamo lately! *said with more than a slight tinge of envy*

  7. How serendipitous that you reviewed this and I am offering another of her books for the giveaway this weekend. I look forward to snagging a copy to read for myself.

  8. This really sounds intriguing, I love having the chance to peek behind the scenes and learn about what motivates, drives, and inspires writers. Once again, a GREAT review!

  9. Yep, I'm curious indeed! It sounds like it would be a great read.

  10. OMG. They do have the "Mirror, Mirror On the Wall" at the local library.

    They have more than one copy. They have TWO! It's a miracle!


  11. Interesting. Very, very interesting. All those writers. Plus Margaret Atwood. I mean gee, I'm a fan of Atwood (although it doesn't show in my blog because I've read most of my Atwoods in the past ten years at least). Haven't seen this book here so maybe I need to sharpen my searching the shelves skills yet again.

    The Brothers and Beasts anthology sounds like a good read as well. Aaah!!!

  12. This sounds really good. I've read another review of it somewhere (can't remember where), but I need to try to find it.

  13. Nymeth, this sounds fantastic, another addition to me ever-lengthening list of things to buy!

  14. Debi, I'm glad to hear it! April's been a really good reading month for me...I only hope this continues!

    Carl: Isn't it? It was only this week that I first heard about that book of hers, and I was so excited to learn that she had worked with Nicoletta Ceccoli! I'm keeping my fingers crosses for your giveaway, but in any case I will order that book soon.

    Ken, glad you liked it :) I love peeking behind the scenes too.

    Iliana: I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up!

    Dark Orpheus: yay! I can't wait to see what you think of it.

    Lightheaded: Atwood's essay was great - she has such a unique sense of humour. The other one sounds great too, yes...I can't wait to get my hands on it.

    Lisa: Maybe it was at Jenclair's blog? She reviewed this one last year, and that was how I first heard of it.

    Brideofthebookgod: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

  15. OK this is definitely going on my list. It has essays by lots of authors I love and I really do ned to read something by A.S. Byatt. I never knew Terri WIndling was abused as a child, it makes me very interested to read her essay being titled Transformations.

  16. I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of essays, but this one sounds very interesting--and a great list of contributors also! I'll have to look further into this one.

  17. Rhinoa: I think you'll really enjoy this book! I didn't know that about Terry Windling either. Her essay was very inspiring. As for A.S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye is a great one to start with.

    Trish: It's very very rare for me to read a book of essays...this must have been my second or third one ever. It was great, though! Very different from what I was expecting.

  18. This collection of essays does sound really good! I have found over the years that I do enjoy reading essays, especially when it's related to stories. Great review, Nymeth!

  19. This sounds really, really good. I've been liking anthologies and essays a lot more lately, so I'll have to pick this up!


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