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, 5.11.18

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 have three works of literary fiction that toy with gender, optimism, and expectations in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel

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9781616206307the premise: Set in the 1980s, The Optimistic Decade takes place at Llamalo, a “utopian summer camp.” As they learn camp survival skills through booms and busts, wars and protests, and dreams and mistakes, the novel’s five central characters push up against the limits of idealism and themselves.

why I’m excited: I love novels set in the recent past, and while there are plenty set in the ’50s-’70s, there are fewer about the ’80s. I think the title–particularly the “optimistic” part–says it all: so much of the ’80s feels both glamorous and naive in hindsight and I like that the premise of the novel (especially the back-to-the-land element) plays around with that.

A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley

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9781555978051the premise: This short story collection contains nine stories set in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each story probes at the ways the ways men make and interact with power, exploring facets of masculinity from elementary school through adulthood.

why I’m excited: I’m tired of the fact that the entire weight of “gender” fiction is placed on the shoulders of everyone who isn’t a man. That’s why I’m excited for this collection, which promises to not only be interesting from a writing and craft standpoint but also because Brinkley seems to be taking on masculinity from a man’s perspective. That shouldn’t feel fresh, but it does–and the buzz this book is receiving is more than enough to convince me to read it.

Eventide by Therese Bohman

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9781590518939the premise: Karolina Andersson, a solitary art history professor in her forties, becomes entangled in a ferocious, erotic game that threatens to uproot her personal and professional lives. When she begins to advise a postgraduate student whose research could turn Swedish art history upside-down, Andersson finds herself reckoning with much more than academic consequences.

why I’m excited: This is a relatively slim book that promises to pack a big punch. I love translated works (Eventide is translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) and this one tackles gendered double-standards, academia, and loneliness in a big, fascinating way. I can’t wait.


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!

Friday Bookbag, 4.27.18

friday bookbag

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

This week my bookbag is packed with all sorts of goodies: a mind-bending short story collection, a midcentury mystery, a “dystopian” literary novel with a twist, and a memoir of the complicated legacy of missionary work in Haiti. Let’s dive in!


All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

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9780399593000the premise: This collection of nine short stories spans centuries and genres is “united by each character’s struggle with fate,” according to the inside flap. The stories also explore science, religion, and the overlap between them, with settings ranging from Andrew Carnegie’s fiery steel mills to the Old West to futuristic genetic labs. At least, I think that’s the premise–short story collections are very hard to summarize before I’ve read them, so I hope I’m doing this one justice.

why I’m excited: This book’s cover is sublime, and I’m not too proud to admit that that’s what drew me in first. Second was the fact that short story collections are a delight to read; I love getting the chance to catch my breath between each story in a way that can’t happen between chapters in novels. Third, Anjali Sachdeva is playing with the boundaries of literary fiction and sci-fi in ways I find delightful. This is right up my alley.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

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9780316272476the premise: In the summer of 1965, the two children of Ruth Malone–a single mother and cocktail waitress–go missing. Malone herself is immediately suspect, her fashionable clothing and makeup, taste for booze, and interest in men making her a target of gossip in her tight-knit Queens, New York community. As the investigation and trial unfold, journalist Pete Wonicke is assigned to cover the case, and he finds himself increasingly entangled in Ruth’s mysterious web: is she a heartless murderer or an unlucky victim of misogyny and the rumor mill? The answer might lie in between…

why I’m excited: I eat up Midcentury stuff with a spoon (Mad Men is hugely flawed but one of my favorite shows for this reason), so a murder mystery set in 1965 New York? That’s a slam dunk for me. I also love books about journalists (check) and ones that dive deep into misogyny and the toxic and contradictory expectations we place on mothers (check). I can’t wait to get lost in this book.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

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9781941040010the premise: Peggy Hillcoat is kidnapped and taken to the middle of nowhere by her ultra-survivalist father when she is eight years old. He lies to her and tells her that the rest of the world has been destroyed, and the two share a harsh, isolated life in rural Britain for years before Peggy stumbles upon a pair of boots that lead her back to civilization, her mother, and a secret that threatens to tear her apart.

why I’m excited: I was trying to figure out why this title sounded so familiar when I realized that Our Endless Numbered Days is also the title of an Iron & Wine album. It’s the perfect title for this story, which puts a great twist on typical apocalypse stories. I grew up homeschooled on an extremely isolated and dysfunctional farm in rural Minnesota; like History of Wolves rang true for me back in October, I think this book is going to feel heartbreakingly personal, so I’ll keep a box of tissues handy when I read it.

The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving

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9781451690453the premise: Apricot Irving grew up in Haiti as the daughter of an environmentalist missionary determined to reforest the country’s devastated hillsides. In The Gospel of Trees, Irving reckons with that past, writing about the bitter legacy of colonization and the unintended consequences of trying to “save” a country you barely understand.

why I’m excited: Missionary work fascinates me because it’s so contradictory. It’s a supposedly altruistic act that often has terrible consequences. It’s rife with painful family drama (The Poisonwood Bible, anyone?) even though it’s all about bringing more people into a Christian fold that idealizes family. And its racial and colonial dynamics are particularly traumatic and messy. I’m excited to read this book, both because Irving has led an interesting life and I think it will be interesting to read about, and also because I hope it will help me sort out my own complicated feelings on this subject.


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!