Fairy Tale Winter

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Fairy Tale Winter

Each season of the year has its own unique qualities. But, it's winter, more than any other season, that feels filled with magic. Maybe it's the quietude, the way an uncommon hush from a snowfall can feel like awe; or maybe just the way we still when  spending more time indoors, more time at home. Magic creeps into my reading taste this time of year, but I like to read things that feel fresh, too, in a way. Below are some books that aren't fully fantasy, but that have it creeping at the edges, like ivy on a wintry house. They play with familiar fantasy and make it more dangerous.

Hopefully these books will turn the expected into an experience that feels new for you, as well: slowed, but just as wild and remarkable as the season that inspired me to read them.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi's Gingerbread doesn't hide its fairy tale influence, letting the reader conjure all sorts of associations they've held about gingerbread just through reading the title. Gingerbread is playful, but with a bite, as it follows mother and daughter Harriet and Perdita Lee in and around their apartment (complete with verbal vegetation) and - of course - the gingerbread they make. The reader encounters Perdita as a school girl and sticks with her decades later as she digs into her mother's past to find her mother's long lost friend.
 
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Exhalation: Stories is full of sympathetic characters that draw on our own need for redemption, second chances and maybe understanding. Scientific discoveries and the uncovering of self braid together in this story collection in order to consider who we are as humans, and what that says about where we might be going - and how we get there. More properly in the science fiction genre than anything else on this list, with Chiang's thoughtful writing, this book shines a light on the magic it is possible to find in life.
 
A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham is no stranger to the otherworldly, so it makes sense that he would have a turn at fractured fairy tales. With illustrations by Yuko Shimizu, this collection finds the moments that slipped through the cracks of stories we think we know so well, resettling characters and ideas into convenience stores and the houses next door. Playfully dark, these stories answer Cunningham's question: what if the things we can only imagine became intruders of our reality; disrupting the familiar and crossing boundaries we've set in our minds about what is real, and what is just a tale.
 
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales ed. by Kate Bernheimer
Another dark turn at a fairy tale collection is this book of forty tales by authors including Gregory Maguire, Hiromi Ito, John Updike and Aimee Bender (among many others) these stories take inspiration from the 'classic' fairy tales and translate them into the author's voice. Dark in theme, as the title suggests, these stories play on the strangeness of what we grew up reading, turning it into something that even adult versions of ourselves find disorientingly spellbinding. However, with a melancholy throughline, these stories feel most like fairy tales in that there is a sense of wonder as well as disappointment, even in the face of magic.
 
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness
With the romantic sense of a dream, we're introduced to the protagonist of The Crane Wife when he saves an injured crane found at night in his backyard. The mysticism of the evening carries over when he meets an enigmatic woman who makes amazing paper sculptures that stir something in patrons at his store. Like the rest of the books on this list, there is an air of contemporality to the story, and viral marketing as well as millenial angst (in the form of his store's clerk) all play a role. But this story is notably inspired by mythology and carries the same weight in its movements and tone; slipping in heady reflections on the idea of sacrifice and what it is to truly know someone, as well as what a mystery it is to even truly know oneself.
 
The Witch by Jean Thompson
Finally, The Witch by Jean Thompson rounds out the list of books that hold the magic of winter, while still feeling warmly awake to the world we can sometimes find so prosaic. Tackling fables in a way that taps into the deep idiosyncracies that make us human, Thompson retools wolves and princesses in a way that gifts them free reign (through her imagination) of our world, with a sensibility that is both eerie, funny and caring.
 
Hopefully these tales will feel as warm to you as they do to me, and just as fitting for winter, a time when imagination blooms in complement to the weather's dimmed heartbeat.