Sep 5, 2008

Brothers & Beasts edited by Kate Bernheimer (and thank you!)

Wonder tales can transfix us with horror as well as with beauty, but they always also engage our intellectual powers, provoking forms of curiosity that lead us to explore what they describe and to understand that the beast lurking in the woods may be our next of kin. Like the women writers in the companion volume to this one, the men here are committed to more than moments of rapture. They relentlessly explore the dark side of fantasy, recognizing that violence and horror coexist with wonder and beauty
From the Foreword by Maria Tatar

Like its companion book, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Brothers & Beasts is a collection of essays about fairy tales. While Mirror, Mirror was dedicated to female writers, this one is dedicated to men. Contributors like Neil Gaiman, Christopher Barzak, Gregory Maguire, Jeff VanderMeer or Steve Almond write about growing up with fairy tales, fairy tales and creativity and the importance of stories, among other things.

Brothers & Beasts is quite a bit shorter than Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, and that’s a big part of the reason why I didn’t enjoy it as much. There was just less to love. If you’re only going to read one of these books, I’d recommend going with Mirror, Mirror, but this one is also very much worth reading. I liked how diverse the essays were. Some authors followed an adventurous approach and wrote experimental essays of various kinds, some of which read more like stories. Others were more conventional, but most essays contain some great insight on why fairy tales matter.

Some of the highlights were:

“The Boy Who Went Forth” by Christopher Barzak, in which he relates the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Boy Who Went Forth To Learn What Fear Was” to his own experience of growing up in a small town in Ohio. The boy in the tale is considered mad and stupid simply because he is different from those who surround them – he doesn’t fear what they fear. And of course, the same happens in our world – those who are different are often chastised.

“Kitsune” by Alexander Chee, in which he writes about Japanese and Korean tales of fox women, his childhood and his multicultural background, and the process of writing his first novel, of trying to find the right shape for the story he had to tell.

"Four Poems”, where Neil Gaiman comments on his four fairy tale poems, “Instructions”, “Locks”, “Inventing Aladdin” and “Boys and Girls Together”. The fact that this essay felt familiar even though I’d never read it before made me smile. A lot of it was about his deep belief in stories, which is, like I explained some time ago, one of the main reasons why I love his writing as much as I do.

“The Boy Who Could Not Be Scared”, an essay where Willy Vlautin (novelist and leader of the band Richmond Fontaine) approaches the same fairy tale as Christopher Barzak, and writes about family, childhood, stories, love and loss. I love this passage, in which his grandmother explains to him why the boy in the tale discovered fear at last:
Because he gets scared, he becomes human. Because, my grandmother said, love makes you human. And the loss of love is pain, is fear, and is sadness. The boy’s wife had hurt him. Before he had nothing to lose, and now, of course, he did.
I also really enjoyed the Foreword and Afterword by fairy tale scholars Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes. This is a book that will appeal to lovers of fairy tales, but also, like Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, to those who are interested in storytelling and in the creative process in general.

I’ll leave you with a great passage from Gregory Maguire’s essay, “The World Turned Upside Down”. He perfectly sums up not only why I love fairy tales, but why I love fantasy in general:
We need to practice the art of believing in survival so that when we need to survive, we recognize the concept. Why these fanciful conceits, these marmalade skies, these mutant chickens, these motherless children in fairy tales? Because by being a notch or two different than our own world, they can be noticed; they show up against the static and the smudge of dailiness. Then, when we look back at out world, we see with renewed vision, with rested eyes and restored spirits. The static isn’t so impenetrable, the smudge no longer so bleary.
(Have you reviewed this book? If so, please leave me your link and I'll add it to this post.)

I'd like to take a moment to thank those who nominated me for the Best Fantasy Blog category of the upcoming Book Blogger Appreciation Week. I'm flattered and honoured, especially to be in the company of some of my favourite blogs! Thank you so much.

I was actually initially surprised that so many of the finalists in different categories were blogs I had never heard of before. But the again it makes sense, since my own "circle" of book bloggers is only a fraction of those that exist out there. It seems that book blogging is becoming more and more widespread, and I have the feeling that it's here to stay. I look forward to seeing what else Amy has lined up for Book Blogger Appreciation Week.


  1. I ordered Mirror, Mirror and Brothers & Beasts after reading your review back in March or April - I'm gonna try to hold them until Once Upon a Time comes 'round again, but my willpower isn't always very strong...
    ...of course you were nominated - yours IS the best fantasy book blog - BBA week looks to be fun!

  2. I was surprised by how many blogs I didn't recognise as well! I have so many blogs in my feed reader...I would have thought I was across most of them.

  3. I was soooo thrilled to see your name on the finalists for the fantasy category!!!!!! So very, very, very deserved! Good luck!

  4. Congrats on your nomination Nymeth - so excited for you!

    Oh and another little surprise for you - you've won my copy of The Amnesiac. Send me your snail mail when you get a chance :)

  5. Aww Ken, thank you. You know, I kind of thought of saving this one for the next Once Upon a Time as well, but it was just calling to me from the shelf :P Ah well. Anyway, regardless of when you pick them up, I'm sure you'll enjoy these!

    Marg: Same here, and then there are those bloggers I don't subscribe to but are familiar between we join the same challenge, comment on some of the same blogs, etc. It really was surprising!

    Debi: Thanks for wishing me good luck! But you know, I'm totally happy enough to have made the finalists and I'll be thrilled to see either Chris or Carl win!

    Iliana: Thanks, and yay! I look forward to reading it. I'll e-mail you my address.

  6. These books sound perfect for me. It's my birthday on Thursday so if I get any money from relatives I might use it to buy them or see if they are in the States when I go next weekend for cheaper.

    Congrats on your nomination!

  7. I've been wanting Mirror, Mirror ever since your review of that awhile ago, now this one sounds really great too! What a cool set of authors.

    And a huge congratulations to you!! When I first saw the finalist pool I thought, "you've gotta be kidding me"...I even had a tough time choosing who to vote for, lol. It would be an honor to lose to either one of you though!

  8. Rhinoa: They are perfect for you! And how cool that you're going to the US - is it New York? Have a great trip!

    Chris: Likewise! And I think that you'll really enjoy both this and Mirror, Mirror :)

  9. Congrats on the nomination, Nymeth! It is very well-deserved! :)

  10. Thank you, Melody :) I'm flattered that you think so.

  11. congratulations! you totally deserve it. I nominated for a different kind of award here:)

  12. Thank you, dear Valentina :)

  13. They definitely sound like they are both worth reading! I love essays about fairy tales. I hadn't realized how much until I first discovered Terri Windlings writings. Thanks for the reviews, Nymeth!

  14. Congrats Nymeth! I was really surprised at how many blogs I didn't recognize either. It seems like a year ago the booking community was much smaller, but it's exciting to see it growing!

  15. Big congrats on the nomination! Judging from the blogs I too have never heard of on many of the lists, I need to do some reading!

    I think I'll have to look into "Mirror, Mirror" too. Thanks for the heads up on this! And, good luck!

  16. carl, you'll surely enjoy both books :)

    Trish: I have that impression too, but it is exciting! And thank you :)

    J.S. Petyon, thanks! Mirror, Mirror is such a great book. I hope you enjoy it.


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