Book Review: THE MERRY SPINSTER by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Fairytales are often as repulsive as they are fascinating, and in The Merry Spinster, Daniel Mallory Ortberg dials up the intensity of both sensations up to 11. These short stories are all retellings of myth and legend (with a few Bible stories thrown in), and they’re the only retellings I’ve ever encountered that retain all the opacity, awe, and terror of the originals. Sometimes that opacity is a little much–I didn’t understand a word of one story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”–but usually it’s thrilling. I’m a fairytale nut and it sometimes feels like I’ve consumed every story under the sun already. Reading The Merry Spinster felt like uncovering a treasure trove of lost work from a favorite artist, something exactly in the style of the originals, but wonderfully new. Much of the praise of this book centers on Ortberg’s wit–and his wit is indeed brutally sharp–but what I liked best was his obvious understanding of what makes fairytales work. In the end, it’s not about wit, plot, or character, though those are nice–it’s about pure, raw, turbulent emotion, and luckily, The Merry Spinster has that quality in spades.

You can read my full review below.


9781250113429

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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  • publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 208 pages
  • list price: $17.00

Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with–if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible.

The Merry Spinster, page 1

I converted to Christianity just before Christmas, 2016. After years of atheism, it’s still something that feels mildly embarrassing to me, like I gave up somehow; I’ll admit that in many ways, I’m not very good at being a Christian, though at this point, God and I have reached the point of no return in our serious, if wary, relationship. (I relate strongly to this piece by Hanif Abdurraqib about why he still fasts for Ramadan despite being a less-than-fully-observant Muslim.)

I write all this because Daniel Mallory Ortberg has created something almost biblical with The Merry Spinster, not in the sense that it is remotely holy, but in the sense that it is polyphonic, inscrutable, and often terrifying. The love, loss, and vengeance in these stories is loud and in your face; it feels like it’s instructing you, though you don’t quite understand the lessons. And I mean these things in the most positive way possible.

The strongest story in the collection is the first one, “The Daughter Cells”; in this retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid is more alien than girl. She goes to land not so much for the love of the prince but out of a bureaucratic desire to improve the efficiency of humans and a more personal one to gain the prince’s soul. In message, if not in tone, it reminded me of films and books like Annihilation and Contact; two species meet and harm each other entirely by accident. The thing is, those examples have hours and many pages to set up their premise; Ortberg achieves the same thing in a scant 25 pages. I’ve never read anything like it.

While in my opinion the collection doesn’t quite return to the heights of “The Daughter Cells” after that 25th page, most of the other stories are nearly as compelling. Ortberg does particularly interesting things with gender, playing with pronouns, names, and titles in intriguing and unsettling ways that meant a lot to me as a nonbinary person. (Ortberg has talked about how writing this book helped him come to terms with being trans.)

In particular, “The Thankless Child”–the second story in the collection and a loose retelling of “Cinderella” among other fables–provoked me to think harder and deeper. Its protagonist is named Paul, but she uses she/her pronouns. (It jarred me at first, but after all, so many “boys’ names” have been reclaimed as “girls’ names” anyway…why not Paul?) She lives in a desert hellscape where salt is currency, and her godmother is a supernatural and vengeful being who is jealous of Paul’s dead mother. Gender roles are fluid–couples fall into the “husband” and “wife” roles depending on their aptitudes, not their genders–and it fundamentally alters the Cinderella story in ways that surprised me. “Cinderella” is one of the most-retold stories imaginable (Ella Enchanted is my personal favorite retelling), yet Ortberg still manages to make it fresh.

Other stories are straight-up terrifying rather than just unsettling. “The Rabbit,” a sinister retelling of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” particularly upset me (in a delicious way). Another story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” is just as creepy, but much less effective because it’s so confusing. (Ortberg has a loopy prose style that usually works well but sometimes seems to waffle and double back on itself.)

Every story in the collection feels like a major risk, and some don’t pay off as well as others. I really didn’t like the “Mr. Toad” story, and others, like “The Wedding Party”–about a couple arguing before their courthouse wedding–were interesting but not emotionally effective for me.

But in a way, I love that uneven, unpredictable quality in The Merry Spinster: because it’s not only a short story collection, but a short short story collection at only 208 pages, everything flies by so quickly that even the parts that drag didn’t drag down my enjoyment too much.

The word that pops up again and again when I think about The Merry Spinster is “unique,” and not in a passive-aggressive Midwestern way–it’s genuinely unique and thoughtful and experimental and wonderful. It scratched an itch I never knew I had, and now that it’s been scratched, I’m sad that there aren’t more books in this niche. Ortberg’s next book will be a memoir (currently titled Something That May Shock and Discredit You) but I hope he returns to this well soon. ★★★★☆


My copy of The Merry Spinster came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 5.18.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got three short books in my bookbag that each carry a big, emotional, firecracker punch. Let’s dive in!


Straying by Molly McCloskey

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9781501172465the premise: Alice, a young American woman, moves to Ireland in the late 1980s, settles down, marries an Irishman…and then embarks on an affair that shatters the life she’d carefully created for herself. Years later, grieving her mother’s death and recovering from years of working in war zones, Alice returns to Ireland and discovers that her marriage and the affair that ended it may not have been at all what they seemed.

why I’m excited: I’m a big fan of stories that hinge on an affair–there’s so much inherent tension in cheating that it’s no wonder it’s such a trope. Lately, I’ve also been seeking out books set in countries other than the United States. McCloskey is a renowned writer in her native Ireland and part of Straying‘s plot is the alienation and culture shock Alice experiences when she moves away from the United States. Both of these elements add up to a novel I’m really excited about.

9781936787845Cove by Cynan James

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the premise: A man out kayaking at sea is struck by lightning in a sudden storm. He awakes with his memory gone, still adrift in a hostile sea. Relying on instincts and imagination, he sets out for home in an ultimate man-against-nature adventure.

why I’m excited: This is a tiny book: it’s made up of barely 92 pages of spare prose. That’s great for me, since I much prefer short books to long ones (Larissa Pham recently tweeted that “the novella might be the ideal form” and I relate), and I also love nature and survival stories. I’m terrified of open water, so the kayaking element promises to be especially thrilling for me.

9781250113429The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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the premise: Ortberg transforms beloved fairy tales into eleven creepy short stories in this collection–“tales of everyday horror” seems to be the perfect subtitle.

why I’m excited: Two reasons: one, I love fairytales, and two, over the course of writing this book, Ortberg came out as a trans man, in part because of the way these stories challenged him to think about gender. (For more on that, you should read this excellent interview with Ortberg in The Cut. ) I would have been sold on this book regardless without that second part, but as a nonbinary person myself, I’m really excited to read a book by a fellow transgender person that pushes gender boundaries.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!