This not your grandparents’ Bulfinch’s Mythology.  Bernhiemer has commissioned stories from contemporary writers from all around the world.  Their contributions, while inspired by a “classic” myth, are wholly fresh and new. What’s fascinating is that which the Ancients perceived as important or problematic, remain so even now and easily translate into modern sensibilities.  Indeed, these mythologies hail from numerous cultures and shed light on every other heritage as well.

Reading fifty new myths sounds like a daunting task, and the book carries a certain amount of heft.  But the beauty of a collection is that you can start anywhere.  I flipped through and found that two of my favorite authors were represented and immediately checked out their tales.

Shane Jones (Light Boxes, Daniel Fights a Hurricane) takes on the mythology of the coyote as a trickster and shapeshifter.  Rather than setting his story on a nondescript Southwestern mesa, in some era long past, Jones chooses to bring it straight into modern-day suburbia.  A young family — husband, wife, pre-school son and baby brother just home from the hospital — find it impossible to find normality in the mundane.

“I’m going to catch him,” said Adam.

Alan was walking around the backyard, stabbing his toe into dirt in random spots.  He waved at Adam and Adam waved back.

Ben rubbed Adam’s back, wondered what was wrong with his son.  Maybe the hospital had been too much.  Maybe he shouldn’t have witnessed the baby with the wires, the IV line stabbed into his hand, the oxygen tube inserted inside his nose.  Ben never thought to shield him from the images.  Even when the nurse drew blood from the baby’s foot, and Adam put his hand over his face, peeking between spread fingers, Ben let him watch.

“Catch him doing what?” asked Ben.

Adam drank from a juice box and with force collapsed it.

“Being a coyote,” said Adam.    ~Pg. 111

Often when such clarity and determination about ​the unreal is displayed by a child, the effect is unnerving.  And it achieves this in Jones’ Modern Coyote.

​Maile Meloy (The Apothecary)​ chose the Ancient Greek myth of Demeter — a mother who loses her daughter Persephone to the underworld for half of the year (hence the seasons).  In this adaptation, Demeter is a divorced mother who is dealing with sending her daughter off to her father’s for the next six months.   

She pressed her hands against her sternum to stop the ache. She had always know that Perry was mostly Hank’s. That cross-examining stare came straight from him.  She had his logical mind and his quiet stubbornness. But that didn’t make it any less painful to give her up.   

Finally she got herself home, parked beneath the big maple tree, and went inside her little house.  It was dark empty.  The refrigerator hummed.  She had no television — a fact that was eternally embarrassing to Perry — so she switched on the radio, to have some companionable sound.   ~Pg. 149-50

The premise is simple; it’s when her character must deal with her everyday life in the face of loneliness and a feeling of failure that the story finds its conflict.

Then there is Ben Loory, who seems put on this earth to write fables.  His book Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day is stellar.  Here he morphs the mighty Kraken into hope for the future of civilization.  Trust me — it makes sense when he tells it.  A giant squid (in real life a truly terrifying creature) becomes a sympathetic underdog under Loory’s pen.

Once there was a squid who fell in love with the sun.  He’d been a strange squid ever since he was born — one of his eyes pointed off in an odd direction, and one of his tentacles was a little deformed.  So, as a result, all the other squids made fun of him.  They called him Gimpy and Stupid and Lame.  And when he’d come around, they’d shoot jets of ink at him and laugh at him as they swam away.  ~Pg. 246

Loory uses simple language but tells intricate stories, and they are always fascinating.

If you are in search of a fresh, approachable collection of short fiction, or are looking to be inspired to write, explore the pages of XO ORPHEUS.

** A huge thank you to Joni at The Book Lady Bookstore for first including this review in her newsletter, which you can view here. **


Many thanks to ​Chris and Rebecca at Penguin for the review copy.

ISBN 9780143122425 | 576 pages | 24 Sep 2013 | Penguin | 8.26 x 5.51in | 18 – AND UP