You know what’s coming.
Published by: Subterranean Press, 2013
Hardcover: 340 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: She walks into my life legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties.
Subterranean Press proudly presents a major new collection by one of the brightest stars in the literary firmament. Catherynne M. Valente, the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and other acclaimed novels, now brings readers a treasure trove of stories and poems in The Bread We Eat in Dreams.
In the Locus Award-winning novelette “White Lines on a Green Field,” an old story plays out against a high school backdrop as Coyote is quarterback and king for a season. A girl named Mallow embarks on an adventure of memorable and magical politicks in “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While.” The award-winning, tour de force novella “Silently and Very Fast” is an ancient epic set in a far-flung future, the intimate autobiography of an evolving A.I. And in the title story, the history of a New England town and that of an outcast demon are irrevocably linked.
The thirty-five pieces collected here explore an extraordinary breadth of styles and genres, as Valente presents readers with something fresh and evocative on every page. From noir to Native American myth, from folklore to the final frontier, each tale showcases Valente’s eloquence and originality.
I’m still not a big short story reader, and I have found I prefer anthologies that collect many authors’ works surrounding a certain theme, rather than stories by just one writer, covering more topics. But Catherynne Valente turns everything she touches into gold. The variety of styles, themes, and characters collected in The Bread We Eat in Dreams shows off her unique talents and that she is one of the brightest stars in SFF writing at the moment.
As I say, I haven’t read many short story collections but never have I heard of one that starts so perfectly on the right note as The Bread We Eat in Dreams. In “The Consultant”, the titular character explains how we are all part of a fairy tale, we just don’t see it. How the popular cheerleader can be Cinderella, how the college professor’s student girlfriend can be the Little Mermaid, how any couple trying to have a baby can be Sleeping Beauty’s parents. It may be about fairy tales and how the pervade our lives but the style is that of a noir detective, solving desperate dames’ problems for them. It works beautifully.
She walks into my life legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties. Her shoes are red; her eyes are green. She’s an Italian flag in occupied territory, and I fall for her like Paris. She mixes my metaphors like a martini and serves up my heart tartare. They all do. Every time. They have to. It’s that kind of story.
The second story in the collection was also my favorite. It’s about Coyote, the trickster god, as a quarterback in high school. I loved everything about this story and would gladly nominate it for a Hugo if it hadn’t been published a few years ago. You can read “White Lines on a Green Field” on Subterranean Press’ homepage. I highly suggest you do.
Some of the stories and novellas I’ve read before. The poem “The Melancholy of Mechagirl” is the only piece of poetry by Valente that’s ever really gotten to me. I’m not much of a poetry fan. The other poems in the collection didn’t impress me much but that may be much more my own fault (for not understanding them or clicking with them properly) than Valente’s.
“Fade to White” and “Silently and Very Fast” (which I’ve written about here) as well as “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For A Little While” are still as hauntingly beautiful as they were when I first read them.
Among the stories that were new to me, some really struck a chord. “How to Raise a Minotaur” reads like a metaphor for a childhood of abuse, living with parents who don’t understand you. “Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus” is as funny as it is touching, and – another favorite – “We Without Us Were Shadows” tells of the Brontë siblings stepping into their own wild imagination.
There is a story about a teenager who played the (non-existent) fairy Fig in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a brilliant take on Red Riding Hood that shows something Cat Valente keeps saying in interviews: If you are in a fairy tale, if you are Hansel or Gretel, Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, even after you survive the terrible things that happen in the fairy tale, you will never be okay afterwards. Valente’s Red Riding Hood is just that character. She survived but she is broken, she carries the wolf with her wherever she goes, but she doesn’t want it to define her. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.
Stefan Raets reviewed the collection for tor.com and he keeps mentioning author’s notes that accompany each story or poem. These don’t exist in my edition (I got the 40$ trade edition instead of the limited one, maybe that’s the reason?) and I would really have enjoyed them, especially with the stories whose mythology I’m not already familiar with. I’m fine with Greek and Norse gods, some African and Native American mythology, but I’m completely lost when it comes to Japanese spirits and gods and fairy tale creatures. A little help would have been appreciated. EDIT: Aaaaand I found them online. Should have looked there before I read the entire damn thing.
The one tiny thing that annoyed me was this German passage in “The Red Girl” (the Red Riding Hood story):
Die Wahrheit ist ich laufen immer und der Wald beendet nie. Die Blätter sind rot. Der Himmel ist rot. Der Weg ist rot und ich bin nie allein.
Now would it have killed you to have someone who speaks German proof-read that? At least conjugate your verbs… for goodness’ sake, I’d have fixed it for you for free. And for those who are curious about what it means, here’s my ad hoc translation:
The truth is I’m always running and the forest never ends. The leaves are red. The sky is red. The path is red and I’m never alone.
That minor flaw aside, I believe Subterranean Press have outdone themselves with this collection. It not only combines some of the best, mostly myth-inspired tales by a phenomenal writer, it’s also simply beautiful to look at. The illustrations by Kathleen Jennings may be small but they capture each story’s essence. And don’t even get me started on that wrap-around cover. It’s gorgeous. As is the entire book. It now sits proudly on my Cat Valente shelf where I believe it in the best company possible. The shelf is overflowing with longing and myth and love for all things magical.
- The Consultant
- White Lines on a Green Field
- The Bread We Eat in Dreams
- The Melancholy of Mechagirl
- A Voice Like a Hole
- The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While
- How to Raise a Minotaur
- Mouse Koan
- The Blueberry Queen of Wiscasset
- In the Future When All’s Well
- Fade to White
- The Hydrodynamic Front
- Static Overpressure
- Even Honest Joe Loves an Ice-Cold Brotherhood Beer!
- Optimum Burst Altitude
- The Shadow Effect
- Gimbels: Your Official Father’s Day Headquarters
- Flash Blindness
- Blast Wind
- Ten Grays
- Velocity Multiplied by Duration
- Red Engines
- The Wolves of Brooklyn
- One Breath, One Stroke
- The Wedding
- The Secret of Being a Cowboy
- Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus
- We Without Us Were Shadows
- The Red Girl
- Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985
- The Room
- Silently and Very Fast
- What the Dragon Said: A Love Story