Review: xo Orpheus

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: xo Orpheusxo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths by Kate Bernheimer
Published by Penguin on September 24, 2013
Genres: Anthologies, Mythology, Short Stories
Pages: 576
Format: Paperback
Source: Publisher
AmazonThe Book Depository

Fifty leading writers retell myths from around the world in this dazzling follow-up to the bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me.

Icarus flies once more. Aztec jaguar gods again stalk the earth. An American soldier designs a new kind of Trojan horse—his cremains in a bullet. Here, in beguiling guise, are your favorite mythological figures alongside characters from Indian, Punjabi, Inuit, and other traditions.

If "xo" signals a goodbye, then xo Orpheus is a goodbye to an old way of mythmaking. Featuring talkative goats, a cat lady, a bird woman, a beer-drinking ogre, a squid who falls in love with the sun, and a girl who gives birth to cubs, here are extravagantly imagined, bracingly contemporary stories, heralding a new beginning for one of the world’s oldest literary traditions.

Today, I have to write a review I don’t really want to. See, there are negative reviews and negative reviews. Sometimes a negative review is really satisfying, because the book was, at least by your own estimation, perfectly horrid and/or rage-inducing. Times like today, though, the book is quite good in its own way, but that doesn’t happen to be a way that coincides so much with your taste. I always feel so bad when this happens with a review book, because I feel like I should have known better than to accept it, but you really can’t always know these things. Anyway, from as objective a standpoint as I can get to, xo Orpheus is a great read for scholarly folks, with stories that can be unpacked and considered, but which consisted largely of stories which do not work for me personally.

As I read, I listed the stories one by one and rated them, and I’d say nearly half received 2 star ratings, which, in my ratings schema, means it’s not without merits but is not for me. To a large degree, this disparity stems from the aims of the collection versus my goals as a reader. Had I been taking a course on mythology, reading original stories and then digging into contributions to this anthology afterward, I imagine xo Orpheus would have been a highly rewarding educational experience. That may sound condescending, but there’s really little I enjoy more than discussing literature. Much as I love the myths, there were quite a few in here with which I was unfamiliar and more that I had not read in over ten years. Given the subtlety of most of the stories in the treatment of their chosen myths, I often couldn’t divine the mythical connection.

The other reason I recommend this for readers who like denser, educational works is that many of the stories felt too smart for me, too pretentious. Now, I actually love some pretentious writing quite a lot, but it all depends whether I understand it. Also, being a character-based reader, most of the stories didn’t give me enough of that, since their primary focus was on writing and putting a huge twist on a classic myth. Then, of course, there’s the whole aim of xo Orpheus as a whole, which I’ve been puzzling over since I read the introduction. Kate Bernheimer describes xo Orpheus thus:

Yet “XO” Orpheus wrote to his beloved, and “good-bye” this books says to the old relationship of literature and myth, of myth to the human. Even the whimsical stories in here, even the most violent ones, reveal a gaping anxiety, a primal fear, leading to sadness about what we have done.

The introduction talks about how mankind has entered a new age and that, to accompany that age, a new mythology must arise. From what I can tell, this is an age where the humans are the gods. But, honestly, I’m just guessing here. I can barely make heads or tails out of the overall theme of this collection. Of course, if the introduction had just been “Hey, we felt like it would be cool to retell some myths,” I would have been totally on board and not spent the whole of each myth trying to use that tale as a divining rod to the thesis of the anthology. I just so badly want to know what it means, and I do not.

The collection did include several stories that I did find quite magical, thus performing my main goal for the reading of an anthology: hooking me up with new authors. Joy Williams’ “Argos” is perhaps the briefest story in the collection, but the most emotionally resonant with me. Argos, Odysseus’ dog was ignored by Homer, but Williams gives him an important new role. Aimee Bender’s “Devourings” takes place in a world of ogres and humans, and is one of the strongest characterized myths in the collection. A human and ogre have married, but it’s not an easy partnership. In “Daphne,” Dawn Raffel considers poor Daphne’s life as a tree and brings it to a tragic conclusion. Author Maile Meloy retells the story of Demeter and Persephone as a tale of divorce, Persephone shipped between her two parents in “Demeter.” Gina Ochsner’s “Sleeping Beauty” is set in icy Russia. Madeline Miller’s story “Galatea and Pygmalion” delves into what their relationship is really like and how it evolves. “Talking Shadow” by Kate Bernheimer tells the story of a girl and her shadow self that haunts and compels. In “Wait and See,” Edith Pearlman’s colorful tale based off the story of Anansi, she focuses on a boy with pentachromatic vision. This is getting a bit long, so from this point a list of stories I really enjoyed: Victor LaValle’s “Killcrop,” Ben Loory’s “The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun,” Kevin Wilson’s “What Wants My Son,” Kit Reed’s “Sissy,” and Sigrid Nunez’s “Betrayal.”

There were a lot of fascinating stories in here alongside the ones that did not work for me. Most of the ones that appealed to me were more traditionally mythic or clearer retellings. In a lot of the other cases, I’d read the story and then the bit at the end where the author explained their inspiration and find that I wasn’t getting where they were going with the story at all. In some cases, the mythological element seemed shoehorned into another story in an effort to get a story done for the collection.

xo Orpheus leaves the reader much to ponder. It’s one to savor for readers who enjoy precisely this sort of anthology and can understand the book’s mission (or just do not care that they do not understand). For those of you more like me, who love mythology but aren’t sure about the book as a whole, I still recommend checking the book out from the library to read the stories that have the most appeal to you, even if you don’t read through the whole thing. That’s one of the beauties of an anthology: picking and choosing. Had I done that, rather than listening to my need for completion, I would have been much happier overall.

5 responses to “Review: xo Orpheus”

  1. Even though this one didn’t work for you I have to thank you for drawing my attention to it. It’s not a book I would have otherwise heard of, but my work involves looking into a lot of myths and retelling them so the resonate with young children today. While this book isn’t directly linked I always love looking at the different ways people interpret ancient stories for modern audiences and am always looking for new sources. Although, I have to agree, it’s not something I would pick up if it wasn’t for work.

  2. Kayla Beck says:

    This is precisely my cup of tea from what you’re saying. I haven’t heard of xo Orpheus, but I’m probably going to look into getting it. Thanks for sharing even though it wasn’t for you!
    Kayla Beck recently posted…Spooktacular Giveaway Hop #2 (INT)My Profile

  3. I was offered a review copy of this one, but then I looked at the length and unless it got really good reviews, I just would not accept it. Now I feel validated in that!

    I think you are right though, I bet people who like analyzing and unpacking things will totally dig this book!
    April Books & Wine recently posted…Allison: All The Truth That’s In Me | Julie Berry | Book ReviewMy Profile

  4. Jana says:

    Thanks for posting an honest review, especially the collection of tales didn’t appeal to you. I completely understand why you felt like the book was lacking in many parts, even though everything you wrote just makes me want to read it more! “xo Orpheus” sounds like it would be right up my alley, and I can’t wait until my next library trip. 🙂

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