A Wild Swan and Other Tales

By Michael Cunningham with illustrations by Yuko Shimizu

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, 144 pages)

Who is this author?

Michael Cunningham is one of those fortunate authors whose work has garnered well-deserved critical praise and an enthusiastic following among readers.  He won a Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award for The Hours, and his seven novels also include A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, Specimen Days, and By Nightfall.  He also wrote Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown, where the New York-based author spends a lot of time.

Yuko Shimizu is a Japanese illustrator based in New York, where she teaches illustration at the School of Visual Arts. You may have seen her work in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, and she has also illustrated a book for children, Barbed Wire Baseball.

What is this book about?

No one is too old to enjoy a good fairy tale, and in A Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham has reworked 10 classic stories for contemporary readers.  Here you will find old favorites in new guises: Rumpelstilskin,  Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Monkey’s Paw, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel,  a man with one arm and one swan’s wing and more. Here you will read the truth about happily ever after and the real motivations of the heroic or hapless characters that populate these stories.  Beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu add power to his brilliant reinventions.

Why you’ll like it:

Cunningham writes beautifully, and wittily. Retelling stories that you thought you understood gives him the opportunity to delve into human (and not-so-human) emotions and decisions in a way that opens new doors into old tales. His version of Rumpelstilskin, which ran this year in The New Yorker, turned the tale of the manipulative little man inside out, causing an unexpected upwelling of pity for this poor deformed creature who only ever wanted a child of his own to love. In this book, Cunningham skillfully transforms the familiar into something rich and strange.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “The novelist Michael Cunningham’s reimagined fairy tales in A Wild Swan, beautifully illustrated by Yuko Shimizu in a style that recalls Aubrey Beardsley with a touch of Maurice Sendak, are fractured in more ways than one…”I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters,” [Virginia] Woolf wrote in the diary entry Cunningham used as an epigraph to The Hours. “I think that gives exactly what I want: humanity, humor, depth.” Cunningham has performed a similar operation on the 10 tales he has selected for transformation. Andersen and the Brothers Grimm were notably sparing in character motivation. For the stories in A Wild Swan, Cunningham has dug out caves of humanity, humor and depth behind some well-known characters.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “The latest from Cunningham offers elegant, sardonic retellings of 10 iconic fairy tales, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Rapunzel.” Using present-day details and distinctly adult observations to imagine what happens before, after, and behind the familiar narratives, Cunningham explores the often disastrous transformations wrought by love and need. Having expected “ruin to arrive in a grander and more romantic form,” the title character in “Crazy Old Lady” is undone by loneliness long before a tattooed pair of siblings (“those young psychopaths, those beaten children”) arrive on her candy doorstep. An unnamed but recognizable Snow White conducts a bedtime negotiation with a partner still erotically fixated on her past; in “Little Man,” a gnome spins straw into gold to win the child he desperately longs for, something “readily available to any drunk and barmaid who link up for three minutes in one of the darker corners of any dank and scrofulous pub.” Though grounded in the inevitable disenchantment of human life—“Most of us can be counted on to manage our own undoings,” the introduction notes wryly—Cunningham’s tales enlarge rather than reduce the haunting mystery of their originals. Striking black-and-white images from illustrator Shimizu add a fitting visual counterpoint to a collection at once dark and delightful. “

“Five out of five stars,” says The Independent . “While there was darkness in the original tales–blood, butchery and much else–Cunningham’s collection brings emotional light and shade where there was none . . . The comedy in these stories works brilliantly, but it does not uncut the tragedy of its lonely and quietly tormented outsiders . . .”

Says Library Journal: “It’s easy to imagine why an accomplished writer would turn to fairy tales for material: they offer strange, even peculiar plotlines yet are completely familiar to most of us. In this brief collection, with illustrations by Japanese illustrator Shimizu, based in New York, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cunningham modernizes a selection of tales, slanting the language toward modern life. For example, in the title story, the swan prince’s brothers “married, had children, joined organizations.” “The Monkey’s Paw” stays faithful to the fairy-tale genre (ageless, supernatural) but is hopelessly dark. In others, the usual perspective is twisted around: “Jacked,” the “Jack and the Beanstalk” tale, focuses on the misfortunes of the giant and his wife rather than on Jack’s luck. “Beast” is no saccharine cartoon “Beauty and the Beast,” but a succinct exploration of a marriage based on pity. Perhaps the best of the lot, “Steadfast: Tin,” touches on the story of the steadfast tin soldier but doesn’t inhabit it. VERDICT Cunningham’s sardonic prose can condense the story of a marriage, for instance, into a few powerful pages, reflecting on loss, commitment, separation, and the changing nature of love over time. A treat for adult readers.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An assortment of fairy tales revised and thrust into the present day. Cunningham lightly touched on folklore for allegorical purposes in his 2014 novel, The Snow Queen, but here he approaches the genre head-on: these stories are each inspired by a particular tale, usually updated to add a dose of grown-up realism to its relationships. “Poisoned,” for instance, turns “Snow White” into a piece of flash fiction about pillow-talk role-playing, while “Steadfast; Tin” is a rewrite of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” that opens at a frat party. Cunningham clearly admires these stories for their flexibility, the way they can, with a twist or two, make room for mature observations about love and sex: his take on “Hansel and Gretel,” “Crazy Old Lady,” reimagines the witch as a much-married woman exiled for her sexual appetites, “a goddess…of carnal knowingness.” And in “Beasts,” he considers whether it isn’t so much the inner prince but outer animal that Beauty admires: “She wondered to herself why so many men seemed to think meekness was what won women’s hearts.” To that end, Cunningham embraces dark and sometimes-bloody characteristics of these stories as rendered most famously in the Grimm Brothers, but he also writes more open-heartedly about them, as in “A Monkey’s Paw,” which extends the original story (which ends with a couple wishing their zombified resurrected son to disappear) to a somber but compassionate conclusion. These rewrites are all elegantly told and nicely supplemented by illustrations by Shimizu, who gives each story a one-panel image that evokes Aubrey Beardsley in its detail and surrealistic splendor. But between the stories’ brevity and borrowed plots, this collection also feels like a busman’s holiday for Cunningham, who thrives in more expansive settings. A likable and occasionally provocative set of variations on kid-lit themes.”

When is it available?

Cunningham’s book is on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library, and that’s no fairy tale.

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