Book Review: xoOrpheus, Ed. Kate Bernheimer

I read xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, edited by Kate Bernheimer, last year, and am only getting around to reviewing it now. Usually I try to force myself to write my responses to what I’ve read no more than a week after I’ve finished it; I’m a fast, enthusiastic reader, but I have a terrible memory and will often struggle to recall plot points, or character names, or anything deeper than a surface recollection. (Is it true playing Sudoku helps improve memory? If so, I need to get on that…but I’ll probably forget.)


In this case, spending a bit of time away from short story collection xo Orpheus was a good thing. It helped me to determine which stories actually moved me and gripped me beyond the short time I spent reading them, which stories went completely and bafflingly over my head, and which stories produced images or descriptions that are still lingering in my mind today. In a collection that I found to be somewhat frustratingly uneven, some distance was necessary for a more tempered–and hopefully more helpful!–review.

xo Orpheus is a collection of fifty “new myths,” or  myths from a variety of times and cultures that have been altered without becoming unrecognizable. Many are the familiar Greek myths that many of us were raised on–including several different takes on the myth of Persephone–while others come from cultures that may be less well-known to a modern Western audience. Still, all of them dealt in some way with the same very human themes: love, death, loyalty, fear. Life, really. Some of the stories take myths and adapt them for contemporary settings; others expand upon the original myths in their intended time and place by giving us a new point of view or an epilogue. I commend the idea behind this collection, because as Bernheimer herself says in her introduction, myths themselves are timeless; they have had a hold on the human imagination for centuries, and have certainly not lost their grasp on us yet.

I’ve highlighted below the stories in xo Orpheus that made the biggest impact on me, but the beauty of a collection this large, spanning so many authors and so many myths, is that there is truly something for everyone. For example, while some of the more postmodern offerings (“The Story I am Speaking to You Now,” “Belle-Medusa,” “In a Structure Simulating an Owl”) were not to my taste, I know people who would have delighted in their unconventionality!

The stories I personally found the most interesting, the most horrifying, and the most moving:

Joy Williams’ “Argos” is a mediation on Odysseus’s hound, and on the pain and disloyalty we visit upon those who love us the most unconditionally–our pets. (This one may have made me cry a little.)

Sabina Murray’s “The Sisters,” about a vanished graduate student and the professor who tries to track him down via a society of Emily Dickinson enthusiasts, had a slow-burning, gothic creepiness to it. And I’ve always been partial to tales of women dealing out vengeance, justly or not.

The collection’s graphic novel, “The Caliph of One Thousand and One Nights,” is haunting. It is the story of a caliph who becomes all-powerful and all-knowing, with no one able to look upon his face. While it may sound simple, this is by far one of the most jarring and gripping stories of the collection, ruminating on the power of illusion and the mind’s ability to deceive itself. The ending is a real punch to the gut.

“Killcrop,” by Victor LaValle, is simultaneously the most terrifying and the most realistic story of the fifty. While we take for granted that, in fairy tales, creatures like fairies and ogres exist, in real life we often cast at least a sideways glance at those whose belief systems include creatures like foundlings. “Killcrop” takes that premise and runs with it, ending up in a very uncomfortable place. LaValle is the author of the collection whose other works I am particularly looking forward to discovering.

“Lost Lake,” by Peter and Emma Straub, casts Persephone as the child of divorced parents who will soon be forced to choose between them. The Demeter and Hades figures of the story are cast in diametric opposites that nonetheless allow the reader to see how difficult it would be, as a child, to choose one over the other. Again, the story raises questions that are not entirely answered by the last page, but the mystery our main character tries to solve–what, exactly, goes on in the forest of Lost Lake, by the behest of the story’s Hades figure?–is just sketched out enough to allow our minds to imagine the worst.

Heidi Julavits’s “Dark Resort” takes a tragedy–an accidental drowning–and shrinks it down to the level of the choices we make when faced with an unstoppable threat to a loved one. In the story, a couple on their honeymoon is separated by a rogue wave, and the groom needs to decide–and fast–how to respond. The slightly supernatural aspect of this story hurts it, in my opinion, but it is still a very sad, very human tale.

“Sleeping Beauty,” by Gina Oschner, is a very self-contained little story that nonetheless contains some lovely language and description. The story’s final image, of a man and a woman creating steam in the cold, has stuck with me when many of the collection’s others have faded.

And if none of these stories as I’ve described them tickled your fancy, rest assured that there are at least two or three stories in xo Orpheus that would. It is thematically aligned, but the flavor of each story is unique enough for every reader to enjoy.

I received this book for free from Penguin Books through NetGalley for reviewing purposes.

xoOrpheus was published on September 24, 2013, and is available now for purchase.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Perhaps you’ve read of me. I am the hound old Argos. I once belonged to the hero Odysseus some twenty-seven, twenty-eight hundred years ago.”
Other Reviews: Something to Read for the Train, The New York Times, A Reader of Fictions

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