The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror
By Mallory Ortberg. (Henry Holt & Co., 188 pages, $17.)
Clearly, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I picked up this small volume of retold fairy tales, promoted as dark parodies of such familiar titles as “The Little Mermaid,” “Cinderella,” “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Fans of Mallory Ortberg, co-creator of the feminist website The Toast (the-toast.net), will recognize her jaded humor and ruthless satire in her re-imaginings of these 11 works, which range from Bible parables to short writings of Shakespeare and the Grimm Brothers, to happy, sappy Disney classics. But the happy and sappy has been banished to a land far, far away.
Described as “unsettling, dark and disturbing,” these are mean-spirited, mischievous spins on our sweet, childish fiction and folk tales. Ortberg adopts the voice of the original, but not necessarily the time (several are present-day adaptations). But the similarity to our beloved tales stops there. We’re talking murderous bunnies, tales of selfish greed and sociopathic characters who careen through our familiar fables with a psychological hacksaw.
Those who appreciate Ortberg’s biting satire in her “Dear Prudence” advice column at slate.com (formerly written by Ann Landers’ daughter!) or her bestselling “Texts From Jane Eyre” might enjoy these mean tales. But I’ll admit they were not quite my cup of tea — more like a witch’s brew or a pint of poison for the poor, pathetic Beast.
The Education of Will
By Patricia B. McConnell. (Atria, 270 pages, $16.)
In “The Education of Will” (newly out in paperback), dog behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell writes a dual memoir of her dog Willie and herself. Willie is a border collie pup she adopted at the age of eight weeks who was, in many ways, her soul mate: loving and snuggly and trusting with her and with all humans. (“Look! There’s another one! I’ve found ANOTHER ONE!” she imagines him thinking as he spots a random person and is filled with “puppy rapture.”)
But around other dogs, he was terrified, aggressive and downright frightening, even as a tiny two-month-old pup. In a scene early in the book she is shocked to watch Willie challenge a dog six times his size over a piece of dropped broccoli. She deals with dogs for a living; she knew how to break up that fight calmly. “But knowing how to handle it was one thing,” she writes. “Knowing that the puppy I’d already fallen in love with had serious aggression issues was another.”
As McConnell works to understand her puppy and train him to cope with his fears, she realizes that a huge obstacle is her own secret fears. Molested as a teenager, raped as a young woman, traumatized by witnessing a horrific accidental death, she harbors all kinds of terrors and PTSD that she has never dealt with, never even acknowledged.
Willie’s fears — irrational, perhaps; mysteriously deep-seated at such a young age — trigger memories in herself of feeling terrified and unsafe.
McConnell’s memoir is a fast read, weaving back and forth between her work with Willie, her memories of childhood, and her own work with therapists. It’s an honest examination of trauma, and a reminder that sometimes the creatures that save us are the ones who need saving themselves.