The OF Blog: August 2011

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Table of Contents for The Weird released

The ToC for The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, was just revealed on Jeff's blog.  Now, I'm going to be biased due to a translation of mine, "Mister Taylor" by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso, appearing there, but I do think this 750,000 word reprint anthology will be one of those anthologies that readers of all stripes, particularly those who like one or more iterations of weird fiction, ought to own.  There are authors who have fallen from the limelight, authors from non-Anglo-American literary traditions, stories that are classics and those who just might surprise you.  Even if I didn't have a story appearing here, I'd want to own this one (it comes out in the UK in mid-October, with a possible US publication some time later) as soon as it was on the market due to the high probability that I would discover several outstanding writers/stories.

Also, when the associated Weird Fiction Review site launches near release date, expect some content related to this ToC there.  I am quite excited about this and hopefully there will be others excited as well. If you want to weigh in with your thoughts on the ToC or just to express your interest (or even disinterest, if that suits you more) in the stories, please leave a comment below.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Received a lovely gift in the mail this afternoon

I returned home to see that I had received an intriguing mail package from the VanderMeers.  I opened it up to see a lovely Mecha-squirrel inside.  Yes, squirrels are steampunks at heart.  Now I'm left wondering if there are any tentacled squirrels lurking about in this world to represent weird fiction.  Fear the (Mecha) Squirrel!

Why do you like what you like to read?

Relatively simple question, no?  Yet it is one that often does not generate more than simple responses that do not scratch deeper than the question's surface.  "I like ____ because of the characters..."  But what about the characters?  Some might respond with "I want believable, sympathetic characters."  Fair enough, except when there are works that revolve around characters whose mores are going to differ dramatically from the reader's:  "I don't like unsympathetic characters.  I cannot be sucked into the story that way."

Why can't you?  This is a question I often have when I read certain book reviews.  I am left wondering what the actual forest (the story's themes, prose, etc.) is due to the outsized coverage of the trees (how the reviewer tries to "relate" with fictional characters, often distorting the narrative to focus on this).  Granted, many people read just to react.  "Oh, that dastardly villain!  S/he shall get what's coming to her/him!" or "Yay!  These characters rock for getting what they so richly deserve!"  But should that be all there is to it?

I realize no two readers will parse a story in the exact same fashion.  One person's overblown cod-Wagnerian purple prose will be another's surrealistic treasure containing just the right mixture of mood, tone, and narrative voice.  But can someone be considered a "better reader" than another?  Some might be tempted to say no, that readers have their own particular "blind spots" and that some well-known literary critics are going to miss the whole damn point in favor of lambasting a populist work for its unimaginative characters, pedestrian prose, and recycled plots.  After all, these proponents of a literary egalitarianism might argue, there should be no "gatekeepers" and that a review from say a Pat's Fantasy Hotlist should carry more weight than a mini-review in The New Yorker due to the reviewer's presumed greater familiarity with the subject and his/her possible freedom from certain critical mechanics that might make the communication of the book's merits more difficult for those who want a scaled/starred review without "all that extraneous bullshit."

There is, of course, an audience for those sorts of reviews, but some might argue that certain literary genres (say various fantasy and SF subgenres) suffer from an overabundance of these sorts of reviews that serve as a checklist of "likes" and "dislikes" without much in the way of explaining why these are pros or cons in a particular tale.  It doesn't help when a hypothetical reviewer proclaims Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun to be a subpar work because "Severian is an unlikeable character" or "It is a confusing mess of a story that skips key moments in favor of silly asides to the reader."  Such comments, beyond lacking a basic awareness of the type of story being told, reflect a lack of commitment to delve further into that question of "Why do you like what you like to read?"

Perhaps others might answer this question differently, but for myself, why I like to read what I like to read presumes an undertone of doubt and uncertainty.  Why do I not read as many SF/F works as I did for most of the past decade?  Are my reading tastes changing and if so, why?  Am I getting the full picture or at least a representational sample when I read a work?  Can my views be changed by talking about it with another reader or reflecting back on it after a passage of time?  I believe such doubts are healthy when writing a review.  It forces me to keep asking other questions and being more engaged with the work as a whole.  For others, it'll be different, at least in how they approach the story and the questions they ask, but those who refuse to go beyond answering "why do you like what you like to read?" with certain formulaic responses that seem to derive from what the reader wants rather than being open to changing your expectations and thoughts to suit the text in front of you, those readers will likely be those whose opinions I dismiss with as much thought as they seemingly put into their often-vapid reviews.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Two new personal developments to share with everyone

I've been a bit too busy at work to post about these until now, but I have recently found that I was nominated for consideration for my translations of Augusto Monterroso's "Mister Taylor" (The Weird) and Leopoldo Lugones' "The Bloat Toad" (ODD?) for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards.  I'm very flattered to have my stories mentioned in conjunction with the others listed and it is an honor to be considered. 

The other personal news to share with readers is that I'll be assisting with the running of a new site, Weird Fiction Review.  I will be assisting Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, as well as Paul Smith, with blogging about most things weird.  It will be connected with the upcoming The Weird anthology, but there will be much more than that.  No more details can be provided, other than it should be launching in the near future.

That's about it.  Well, I had a better week at work than the ones before, but it's hard to beat near-perfect teaching days like today.  Although I suppose a beautiful sunny day might provide stiff competition.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The OF Blog Turns 7 Today

Although I've written more important things related to this earlier this year, I thought I'd note for those that don't keep up with these things that I started this blog on August 25, 2004.  Now that I'm on the downward slope of visibility due to a change of interests and my refusal to march to the rhythm of the Pied Piper of the New Shiny, it is interesting to see how things I used to care about just don't matter as much and that things that I barely dared to dream of (such as being offered the chance to help edit an anthology – the aborted Best American Fantasy 4 – or to translate short stories for publication later this year) are about to become a concrete reality for me.

Where do I go from here?  Well, expect a few new things in the coming months that will be revealed in their due time.  There will probably be some pleasant surprises in store as well, as well as a few downspells.  Shall be fun to discover each of these and to promote books and authors that might be too weird or too off the bog standard publisher ARC distributions to get coverage at most review blogs these days.  After all, isn't that the main appeal of this blog now that I don't cover most of the books that certain other blogs do?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Currently enjoying Anders Nilsen's Big Questions

After being made aware of Ander Nilsen's graphic novel Big Questions last week when Jeff VanderMeer mentioned me by name in a post on his blog about the book, I knew I had to check it out.  I'm currently a little over 60 pages into a massive multi-thread story of roughly 600 pages and I'm loving these little moments.  Yes, I feature a squirrel dialogue first, but the birds' conversations about life, the seeds, the universe is reflective in all the right ways.

Sometimes, there's a danger in seeking answers for philosophical questions, particularly if you question owls.

Hope these images and dialogues pique your interest.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sad news: Ann VanderMeer out as Weird Tales editor

I just learned that Ann VanderMeer is out as editor of Weird Tales.  This is very sad news for two reasons.  First, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Ann and her husband Jeff over the past three years and I think the world of them, both as people and as people who have excellent taste in literature.  Although I am confident Ann will bounce back from this setback and continue to be a major player in the presenting of new voices and different styles of weird, steampunk, and fantasy fiction, I cannot help but to feel this is a terrible development.

Second, I worry about the future of Weird Tales.  I had a two-year subscription recently expire (I had bought the latest via the iBooks store for my iPad) and I had planned to subscribe digitally.  This is due to Ann's efforts at making Weird Tales fresher and more up-to-date for readers such as myself who might have otherwise dismissed Weird Tales as being a hidebound relic more devoted to sucking at the mummified teats of H.P. Lovecraft than at furthering awareness of newer weird fiction writers.  Based on the little information found in the press release, it sounds like the new publisher plans on turning his back on the newer writers in favor of Lovecraft pastiches.  For some, that might be ideal, but for me that is unappealing, so it is with some sadness that I probably will not be following this new direction at the magazine.

But since there is little I can do but mourn, at least I can re-read with pleasure the issues that Ann did edit and rejoice in knowing that there were some excellent writers I was introduced to due to her time as fiction editor and then general editor.  That is perhaps the strongest tribute I can give at this time and I hope others hearing this will take the time to check out the stories that Ann promoted during her years at Weird Tales.  There are some gems awaiting those who do check out the magazine's website or the e-issues available for individual purchase. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bookish Lists

Steve Erickson books:  two hardcover, one tradeback, two e-books.

Steven Erikson books:  five hardcover, seven tradeback, two mass-market paperbacks.

Seventeen books around my laptop on the table.  Only two have been read in full.

Some random title words:  maze, murder, sea, nightmare, questions, sun, thousandfold, saints, parts, human, death.

328 books have been read so far in 2011.  I keep track using pencil and paper alone.

Padilla.  Cortázar.  Ramírez Heredia.

Pavić, Živković, Miéville.

The Birds, Rubáiyát, She Stoops to Conquer.

Lyan Ward, Eric Basso, H.L. Mencken.

Lisboa Triunfante, A Sombra Sobre Lisboa.

A carved statuette of Jesus bearing the Cross, facing toward the Velveteen Rabbit.

Torture Garden, To Kill a Mockingbird, Blood Meridian

La montagne morte de la vie.  La nausée.  Les Misérables.

The Imitation of Christ next to Caine Black Knife

Eudora Welty glancing shyly toward Glen Cook.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting shelved with Animalinside and Sharp Teeth

Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony nestled against Stepan Chapman's The Troika

Seven Naguib Mahfouz books, all in English.

The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard.  Remembrance of Things Past.  The Sandman.

Don Quixote.  The Female Quixote.  And six volumes of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Ten Days That Shook the World.  The Nationalization of the Masses.  Darkness at Noon.

Голоса, Teach Yourself Swahili, Beginner's Basque

Three more:  The Palm-Wine Drunkard, The Postmortal, The Rules of Attraction.

A metal bookcase, rarely glanced upon these days.  Nearly 100 books there.

Poetry from Gilgamesh to Homer to Ginsberg's "Howl."

Stacks on the floor, books leaning on shelves, full boxes scattered on the floor.

Romantic, Goth, Weird, Modernist, Postmodernist, Poststructuralist, Second Empire, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Futurian, Continental, Apologetic, and all ways in-between.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Trying to sum up emotion for this year's Hugo winners

Let's see how much I fail at this, shall we?

  • BEST NOVEL: Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
    I can count to two.  Apparently some others cannot. 
  • BEST NOVELLA: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
    Apparently subpar Chiang wins on name recognition alone these days.  Surprised?  Not me.
  • BEST NOVELETTE: "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele (Asimov's, June 2010; also in audio)
    My emotions are flatlining at this point.
  • BEST SHORT STORY: "For Want of a Nail" by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's, September 2010)
    Didn't read; no comment on the story.
  • BEST RELATED WORK: Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O'Shea (Mad Norwegian)
    I'm sure this title fits the stereotype of those who vote for these things.
  • BEST GRAPHIC STORY: Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment
          Shouldn't they rename this award the Phil and Kaja Foglio Award, since I don't recall anyone but them winning it?
  • BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM: Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner)
          Well, we can see that flash is more important than substance in these movie categories, n'est ce pas?
  • BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, SHORT FORM: Doctor Who: "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang," written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes (BBC Wales)
           Yep, much be a real dearth of SFnal TV episodes on the syphilic SyFy.
  • BEST EDITOR, SHORT FORM: Sheila Williams
    Usual Suspect
    Same here
    Good choice.
  • BEST SEMIPROZINE: Clarkesworld, edited by Neil Clarke, Cheryl Morgan, Sean Wallace; podcast directed by Kate Baker
    Another good choice.
  • BEST FANZINE: The Drink Tank, edited by Christopher J Garcia and James Bacon
    Not my circle.
  • BEST FAN WRITER: Claire Brialey
    Not my circle again.
  • BEST FAN ARTIST: Brad W. Foster
    I'll never be in these circles.
          I approve.  One of the very few story-related awards that jibes with my personal tastes.

The Hugos rarely appeal to me; I typically place much more value to the World Fantasy Awards and that certainly shall be the case this year.  What's funny is that I've found more stories of interest that could be labeled broadly as SFnal on the Booker Prize longlist than I found among the still-unread stories on the Hugo shortlist.  Taking two novels and combining them into one for award purposes I consider to be pathetic and bush league.  But I cannot summon up much vitriol because I've been moving on from this scene (well, it's never been my scene, but it's even less so in recent years than now).  It's just a generic ballot these days and while I'm sure I could fork over $50 or so to cast ballots for deserving books/stories, it'd likely end up being footnotes in the also submitted spreadsheet pages.

Best to look at these as gauges of what a particular subset of 1,000 or so people value than as any real indicator of quality that will endure longer than the time it takes to remove the decorations from the banquet.  Now to do more important matter, such as deciding whether to finish reading Mary Horlock's The Book of Lies first, or to continue alternating between Margaret Atwood's about-to-be-released In Other Worlds:  SF and the Human Imagination, Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare, David Lodge's soon-to-be-released A Man of Parts (deals in fictional way with the life of H.G. Wells), or Anders Nilsen's humongous graphic novel, Big Questions.  Some things I value more than analyzing awards; reading new works would be one of them.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Extracts from recent reads

"It's time you looked in my eyes," she answered, but she meant:  time I looked in yours.  Time for a personal act of revolt.  Time to throw your oh-so-highly intellectualized sense of chaos into a true chaos of the heart and senses.  She didn't much care anymore if he tossed her out of his life for it; she had about decided it was time for that too.  They had never understood each other.  If she had understood him, she would have known that for almost a year now, since his wife had vanished with their child in her belly, in his mansion of memory he had become increasingly lost and trapped.  If he had understood her, he would have known she was a dream-virgin when he met her, and so wouldn't have been surprised to wake one morning soon afterward and find that she had vanished too.

Only one house, number 13, has been permanently occupied throughout the war by its owner, Mr. H.G. Wells.  During the London Blitz of 1940-41 he was frequently teased with the suggestion that this might prove an unlucky number, to which he responded, consistent with a lifetime's contempt for superstition, by having a bigger '13' painted on the wall beside his front door.  He stubbornly refused to move to the country, saying 'Hitler (or in male company, "that shit Hitler") is not going to get me on the run,' and stayed put in Hanover Terrace as, one by one, his neighbours slunk off to safe rural havens and their houses were occupied by sub-tenants or left empty.

For a long time I used to go to bed early.  Though the art of reading is not widespread in these parts, I confess myself to be a devotee of the practice and, in particular, of reading in bed.  It is peculiarly pleasant, I have found, to lie with the book propped up against the knees and, feeling the lids grow heavy, to drift off to sleep, to drift off in such a way that in the morning it seems unclear where the burden of the book ended and my own dreams began.  A narrative of the manners and customs of some exotic people is particularly suitable for such a purpose. 

She was unrecognizable.  Her face had grown weathered.  It looked scorched.  Deep lines in it like the paw of an extinct mammoth.  Her gray hair - the dye once maintained so religiously allowed to grow out - standing in a misshapen frizz more like a desert plant than the hair of a human being.  At its top it was abrupt and unlevel from trimming it herself with a pair of kitchen scissors on her back porch.  She did this because she needed the money to put toward Jaime.  Her body had changed to resemble that of a female predator.  She was now lithe, her muscles lean yet bulging beneath her flesh which was drawn tight around her bones.  She looked athletic and lethal.  Her eyes seemed to have grown.  Big white things staring out unblinking in skittish alarm like something nocturnal and scrappy.

Did I mention we had a boat?  I've got a photo of her here.  She was called La Duchesse and Dad built her from scratch in our front garden.  It took two-ish years and destroyed all the rose bushes, which upset Mum très much.  But Mum only had herself to blame because she was the one who suggested Dad take up a hobby.  She said he worked too hard and needed an escape.

The little boy named Ulysses Macauley one day stood over the new gopher hole in the backyard of his house on Santa Clara Avenue in Ithaca, California.  The gopher of this hole pushed up fresh moist dirt and peeked out at the boy, who was certainly a stranger but perhaps not an enemy.  Before this miracle had been fully enjoyed by the boy, one of the birds of Ithaca flew into the old walnut tree in the backyard and after settling itself on a branch broke into rapture, moving the boy's fascination from the earth to the tree.  Next, best of all, a freight train puffed and roared far away.  The boy listened, and felt the earth beneath him tremble with the moving of the train.  Then he broke into running, moving (it seemed to him) swifter than any life in the world.

Like a great many children before and since, I was an inventor of other worlds.  Mine were rudimentary, as much worlds are when you're six or seven or eight, but they were emphatically not of this here-and-now earth, which seems to be one of the salient features of SF.  I wasn't much interested in Dick and Jane:  the creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me.  Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish.  Several-headed man-eating marine life seemed more likely to me, somehow, than Spot and Puff.

Now if you want, you can guess at the titles of these books (not all are available for street release), but I think it would be more interesting to see which extracts, if any, intrigue you and which you wish to see me review.  So what about it?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A short appreciation of an Antonio Machado poem

Ever find yourself thinking or dreaming of walking along the shoreline, even when you live several miles from even a minor river?  Do you ever stop to dwell upon the lapping of the waves and the pathless water?  How do paths come into existence?  Why do we beat them down, trod repeatedly over them, and often are reluctant to diverge from a chosen path?  Of what symbolic importance is the path?

These are some of the questions I always ponder whenever I read Spanish poet Antonio Machado's "Caminante no hay camino," written about a century ago:

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Traveler, your steps are the road and nothing more.  You are defined, perhaps, by the road you are on.  It does not matter whether or not you choose to be on this road, for you are on it and you are traveling on.  Traveler,  you must know, however, that there really is no road ahead of you, but instead possibilities that you must beat down in order to walk it.  If you turn your head just a little bit, glancing back, you might just see that path you followed you shall not follow again, for it has passed.  There is no road, traveler, but rather the wakes on the sea, twisting, moving, ephemeral always.

What use is it to look back on those choices made, those steps made to trod a certain path?  That is the lingering question whenever I stop to think of how to advise a student how to avoid relapse, for isn't relapse just a retrodding of a difficult and painful path?  Machado's poem seems to me to have multiple levels, going beyond a reflection of a life's journey and the possibilities inherent in the pathless (represented by the ocean).  It is mutable, protean even, in its applications.  Whenever I am sad and think of this poem, it gives me strength to see that the road beaten down does not have its future shaped.  If I am in a peaceful state of mind, it reminds me that there are peaks and valleys and that the unknown is not always a frightful place.  If I question life, the answer is whispered in code and I have something to puzzle out while I trod down new roads that I make to house my current wandering.  But what always sticks out is that even in the pathless wakes, there is still the possibility of journey and that can entail discovery, which excites me.

These thoughts, mutable as they can be, make me appreciative of poets such as Machado.  Hopefully, there is something in this appreciation that might appeal to you, traveler.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mid-August Used Book Porn and a Mini-Commentary

Bought a few books, including two replacement copies, during my latest trip to McKay's in Nashville.  Saw an interesting Steve Erickson novel, The Sea Came in at Midnight and snagged that for a couple of dollars, as well as getting the tradeback edition of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen (I bought the Prime hardcover edition back in 2003 and I finally got around to getting the updated edition for myself; I had earlier bought one for a friend living in El Salvador a couple of years ago).  The hardcover edition of R. Scott Bakker's The Thousandfold Thought will replace the Canadian ARC that I've owned for five years now.  Still weird to see an old forum screen name of mine appearing in the Acknowledgements.

Here are some of the foreign language books I bought:  four Spanish-language, two French, and one German, along with a copy of William Saroyan's The Human Comedy, which I seem to recall checking out from a library when I was in college well over a decade ago.  Not all that many books were purchased this time through, as I bought a DVD set for my classroom and two CDs as well.  Net loss of books on this one, as I traded in twelve books (duplicate review copies or books I knew I never was going to read) for the eleven pictured here.  The Erickson is off to a good start.  Hopefully I can find the time to read more print editions, as I've been buying close to two dozen e-books over the past month, as those fit in better with me reading during breaks at work or while I'm stuck in traffic. 

Thinking about taking a mini-break from reading shortly, due mostly to a bit of stress revolving around uncertainties at my job that I will not elaborate on, only to say it's more a case of deja vu than anything specific related to my own job performance.  Hopefully this spell will clear up in the next few weeks, as I would like to make this blog a bit more relevant compared to the past few months.  Maybe there will be a new audience coming in that will appreciate the changes in my reading over the past year or so; certainly seems there's more silence these days. 

Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang

"I'm over there in Row 14, Seat A, and my girlfriend, Grace Truman, is in the next seat over.  Grace, honey, could you come up here for a second, please?"  Mrs. Fang shook her head, embarrassed, but Mr. Fang continued to call for her until she finally stood up and walked over to her husband.  When she arrived, Mr. Fang dropped to a knee, opened the tiny box in his hand, and displayed the ring, her own wedding ring.  Their four days in the sun had caused the tan line on her finger to disappear.  "Grace Truman," their father said, "would you make me the happiest man in the world and marry me?"  Annie was sketching a picture of onlookers throwing handfuls of peanuts into the air as a married couple walked down the aisle of a plane while she waited for her mother to answer.  "Oh, Ronnie," Mrs. Fang said, looking like she might cry, "I told you not to do this."  Their father looked uncomfortable to be kneeling for so long but he would not stand.  "C'mon, honey, just say yes."  Mrs.  Fang looked away but her husband raised the microphone to her face.  "Just say yes into this microphone and make my dreams come true."  Annie and Buster had no idea what was going on but they both had the same sick feeling that things were about to get worse.  "No, Ronnie," Mrs.  Fang said.  "I will not marry you."  There were gasps from some passengers in the cabin and their mother walked bath to her seat, leaving their father on his knees, still holding the ring.  After a few seconds, he stuttered into the microphone, "Well, folks, I'm sorry to take up so much of your time.  I guess it just wasn't meant to be."  He then stood and walked back to his seat beside their mother and sat down, neither of them looking at the other.

The rest of the flight was so tense and uncomfortable in the cabin that a plane crash would have been welcomed to avoid the embarrassment of what had happened.

In the car, driving home from the airport, the Fangs did not speak a single word.  It had all been fake, a choreographed event, but they could not escape the dread that rattled inside their chests.  It was a testament to their proficiency and talent as artists.  They had affected themselves with the authenticity of the moment. (p. 39-40)

Artist.  Art.  Artifice.  Artifact.  Each stems from the Latin ars, which can mean skill, craft, technique, and something made through human effort and/or dissemblance.  There is something of each definition whenever we see a performance, as the enacted aims to resemble the natural, the authentic, as much as possible.  In Kevin Wilson's debut novel, The Family Fang, we see the ramifications of this striving to create a sense of authenticity out of artifice and performance.

The Family Fang operates on two thematic and plot levels.  The more obvious theme and plot deal with the parents' aim to create drama and intense emotion out of their acting out of emotional scenes as a wedding proposal, daredevil stunts, and song and dance shows, among the numerous performances.  The level of detail that goes into the parents Caleb and Camille's artifices is impressive, with frequent weird asides and consequences occurring.  It would be easy to think that the story deals primarily with them and their attempts to reproduce the natural in their performances, but that would deny Wilson's novel much of its actual power.

The heart of The Family Fang lies in the interactions between the two children, Annie and Buster.  As the story flashes back to their childhoods in the late 1980s and then back to the present, the reader experiences the two being "Child A" or "Child B" in their parents' shenanigans.  How does one ground him or herself when the parents are engaging in the most outre behavior in order to experience certain emotional rushes?  Take for instance the adult Annie's mini-controversy of going topless on the set of a movie she was appearing in and a co-star's observation that "it must be difficult to shift back and forth between reality and fiction, especially with such an intense role" followed almost immediately by her parents sending her an email that read:  "It's about time you started playing with the idea of celebrity and the female form as viewed object." (p. 48)  There is a conflict between Annie's real emotions and the front that she has had to put up throughout her life, first as the object around which her parents' performances would often revolve and then later as an actress.  This tension, which we see in her romantic relationships and her sometimes-awkward interactions with her younger brother Buster, adds a depth and seriousness to this novel that belies the outrageousness of her parents' behavior.

Buster himself serves as a reflection of both his sister and his parents.  We witness him recovering in a hospital after being shot in the face with a potato gun.  We experience his ambivalence about his family's affinity for acting and later, when his parents seem to have taken their proclivity for creating semblances of the real and emotional too far, we find just how deeply both he and Annie have been hurt by their "performances."  Buster and Annie's complex interactions with each other, their parents, and the outside world counterbalance the weirdness of their parents' actions, creating deeper levels to the novel than a mere glance at performance vis-a-vis reality.

By focusing so much on the possibilities and limits of artifice, the novel suffers at times from expectations built around its core premises.  There are times where one expects to see the strings tugging the marionettes around, especially true with the final performance, where there is little narrative tension due to the reader expecting artifice instead of an authentic plot development.  Although this weakens part of the enjoyment of the last quarter of the novel, it does not negatively impact the characterizations of Annie and Buster, as those two alone almost compensate for the deficiencies in plot tension with their dynamic, well-drawn characterizations. 

The Family Fang, despite the flaw noted above, was one of the most enjoyable debut novels that I have read this year.  It was in turns funny and poignant and almost always weird in its situations and scene resolutions.  The family dynamics were executed well, making for several memorable moments throughout the novel.  Wilson for the most part succeeds in keeping this story from veering away from the off-beat toward a caricature of itself and despite the relative weakness of the final performance, this novel raises some interesting questions regarding the effects of artifice and performance on those (especially the two children) seeking more than the appearance of something real.  Certainly a novel that will linger with me for quite some time.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

So I suppose I should care about this NPR list of "top 100" SF/F books/series, right?

For the past week or so, I'd notice a few posts on a blog here and there or a comment or three on Twitter urging people to nominate X number from X group for consideration for the NPR list of top SF/Fantasies.  I suppose such things are important for some because they can point out that such-and-such reflects what they value most in the field, but all I could think of at the time is "will it be middle-of-the-road with virtually all pasty-white males or MOR with a slight bit more sprinkling of females and PoCs?"

Having looked at the final list, I see it was a slight bit of the latter, but when I see Terry Goodkind's execrable SoT series coming in just ahead of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series barely making it, all I can do is shake my head and conclude that in aggregates, the selections are going to be baffling and full of shit, with only a few higher-quality yet more demanding reads breaking the monotony of the same old, same old, same old, old same.

It's almost like this was the Gemmell Awards, except the eligibility was extended for all published books available in English.  So now that I've pretty much stated the obvious in noting my disdain for such things, what else is there to do?  Should I develop a list of fictions worthy of entertainment/edification?  That probably would be boring, since who really cares about lists these days?  So I guess I'm just left wondering why I even bother reading such things and even trying to care a bit.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann's Animalinside

Currently reading a recently-published chapbook by Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai that consists of 48 pages of short writings inspired by paintings done by Max Neumann.  The result is something that is so stunningly visceral that I thought it might be better to snap a couple of photos than to attempt (and fail miserably) at capturing this short book's power in a traditional review essay.  Hope the little excerpts captured by the photos appeals to you as much as they do for me.

Lev Grossman, The Magician King

Everybody watched him.  The clock-tree's branches creaked in the soundless wind.  He didn't move.  He thought about Julia's warning:  some great change of our fortunes.  His fortunes were riding high right now, he had to admit.  He had a goddamned castle, full of quiet courtyards and airy towers and golden Fillorian sunlight that poured like hot honey.  Suddenly he wasn't sure what he was wagering that against.  He could die in there.  Alice had died.

And he was a king now.  Did he even have the right to go galloping off after every magic bunny that wagged its cottontail at him?  That wasn't his job anymore.  All at once he felt selfish.  The clock-tree was right there in front of him, heaving and thrashing with power and the promise of adventure.  But his excitement was slipping away.  It was becoming contaminated with doubt.  Maybe they were right, his place was here.  Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. (p. 14-15)

When I reviewed Lev Grossman's The Magicians in August 2009, I opined "the novel felt as though I had read of one youth's survival of his previous life and self and that the stage was now set for an interesting character study that would play off of the fantasy tropes that had been explored over the course of this first novel."  The Magicians was in many respects a first stage, a travel through juvenile things and immature desires, passing through despair, ennui, and suffering, to something else.  When that novel concluded, its protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, appeared to be a changed young man, no longer 17 and full of vague dreams and youthful angst, but a mid-20s adult who had suffered and lost much of what he had loved.  The Magicians could have ended on that note, could have allowed us to imagine Quentin growing to accept what he did possess after his love was lost, but there were enough glints of future developments that Grossman wanted to develop, which lead to the writing of the sequel, The Magician King.

The Magician King opens two years later.  Quentin, along with Eliot, Janet, and Quentin's high school crush, Julia, are now the kings and queens of Fillory.  Amid the questing and balls and hunts, Quentin is still uneasy about the contrast between the life of plenty he now has and the remaining guilt from watching his love, Alice, die during a confrontation with the Beast.  He wants something else, something that makes him more than just a king at name.  Some might think this is a reversion to the old Quentin, the moody, despondent spoiled kid of the first novel and to some extent this is true, but for most of this novel, Quentin continues to mature and to develop as a person and as a leader.

Yet Quentin is not the sole primary protagonist.  Julia, whose story from the early chapters of The Magicians to its conclusion was more hinted at than told, comes into her own here.  For most of the novel, her backstory of how she became a magician is told in alternating chapters with the "present" of the quest that Quentin and she takes to find seven magical keys during an oceanic trip to the uncharted eastern boundaries of the Fillorian world.  Julia's character is fascinating in how much she suffers, how deep she searches, and how she transforms herself in her quest to learn magic after her rejection from Brakebills.  Grossman does an excellent job in developing her voice and having her past experiences serve as an echo for the events unfolding in the literary present.

The Magician King differs from its predecessor in that Grossman is in greater command of the story.  Whereas The Magicians was more of a reaction to other fantasies and other novels, replete with references to Harry Potter, Narnia, and 1980s and 1990s social commentaries, The Magician King is a much more assured novel that has a stronger voice of its own.  Although Quentin and Julia do not forego the occasional snarky aside about their quest (after all, they have been there, done that, and do own the t-shirts), their search to find the keys to prevent magic from being removed from all realms is played straight.  This is a more mature novel, one that does not eschew the incisive commentaries made in the first volume, but instead feels more confident in developing those themes and showing that in addition to fantasies being more dangerous than previously imagined, that they are also essential parts of our own lives and have an intrinsic worth much more valuable than the symbolic quests or adventures might indicate.

All of this makes for a stronger novel.  Instead of outwardly trying to "subvert" tropes or to reveal the fallacies apparent in quest fantasies, as was his wont in The Magicians, Grossman here is content to let the story and characters tell their own tales, with the result that we see real growth in Quentin and Julia's characters throughout the novel.  This is not to say that we see full fruition here.  If anything, the latter events of the novel, especially at the conclusion, feel as though Quentin is taking body-blow after body-blow, leaving him battered and more rightfully fit to be disenchanted than at any previous point in the two novels.  Yet, he does not succumb to this and the novel concludes at an interesting stopping point.  Although Grossman has said there would be one more novel featuring Quentin, it would be interesting to imagine him going on from this point, continuing his development unseen by the reader. 

Some readers will not be enchanted with this novel.  Those who did not fancy Grossman's explorations of fantasy tropes through the lens of disaffected, callow upper-middle class youth likely will not interested in Quentin or Julia's stories, despite their developments in voice and presentation between the two novels.  Yet this complaint of there being "unlikeable" characters ultimately rings hollow.  What Grossman achieves is an increasingly complex understanding of shifting perspectives as youth develop into adults without falling into that fallacy that fantasies are things best left behind as one matures.  If anything, The Magician King advances the argument that what is important about fantasy is not the quest trope but rather the self-awareness and development that come from it.  As Quentin comes to realize:

This, now, this stopped him.  He'd known that adventures were supposed to be hard.  He'd understood that he would have to go a long way and solve difficult problems and fight foes and be brave and whatever else.  But this was hard in a way he hadn't counted on.  You couldn't kill it with a sword or fix it with a spell.  You couldn't fight it.  You just had to endure it, and you didn't look good or noble or heroic doing it.  You were just the guy people felt sorry for, that was all.  It didn't make a good story – in fact he saw now that the stories had it all wrong, about what you got, and what you gave.  It's not that he wasn't willing.  He just hadn't understood.  He wasn't ready for it. (p. 397)

Yet by the time he does realize this, everything is changing.  However, Quentin has grown and he accepts this and this character developments makes The Magician King a triumph and it sets the stage for new possibilities with the maturing Quentin.  Yet again I find myself satisfied with the conclusion and yet eagerly awaiting the likely final volume in Quentin's development.  What more can a reader ask?  Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

2011 releases bought/received so far

Seems like I'm discovering quite a few interesting 2011 releases in a variety of genres.  For those looking for the new shiny, here is a non-chronological listing of 2011 books (and e-books) that I now own:

Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English

Alice LaPlante, Turn of Mind

Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time (already reviewed)

Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf

Jesse Ball, The Curfew

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia

Carol Birch, Jamrach's Menagerie

S.J. Watson, Before I Go To Sleep

Jim Shepard, You Think That's Bad (collection)

Minister Faust, The Alchemists of Kush

Chris Adrian, The Great Night

David Albahari, Leeches

Genevieve Valentine, Mechanique:  A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Rikki Ducornet, Netsuke

Nick Mamatas, Starve Better (non-fiction)

Helen Schulman, This Beautiful Life

Elanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints

Bradford Morrow, The Diviner's Tale

Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language:  The Archaeology of the Oath (non-fiction)

J.M. McDermott, Never Knew Another

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes

Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

Steven Erikson, The Crippled God

R. Scott Bakker, The White-Luck Warrior

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Roberto Bolaño, Los sinsabores del verdadero policía (Spanish)

Jeff VanderMeer, The Compass of His Bones and Other Stories (collection)

Peter Beagle, Sleight of Hand (collection)

Tibor Moricz, O Peregrino (Portuguese)

Michael Cisco, The Great Lover

Jonathan Strahan, Eclipse Four

Roger Manley, Weird Tennessee (non-fiction)

Jeff VanderMeer, Monstrous Creatures (non-fiction essay collection)

China Miéville, Embassytown

Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers, The Steampunk Bible (non-fiction)

Inky Johnson, Inky:  An Amazing Story of Faith and Perseverance (non-fiction)

Blake Butler, There Is No Year

David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band

Lila Azam Zanganeh, The Enchanter:  Nabokov and Happiness (non-fiction)

Ben Loory, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (collection)

Brandon Sanderson, The Alloy of Law

Gail Carriger, Heartless

Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch

Umberto Eco, Confessions of a Young Novelist (non-fiction)

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake, Titus Awakes

George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

Lev Grossman, The Magician King

Phil Edwards and Lewis Carroll, Snooki in Wonderland:  The Improved Classic

Tim Powers, The Bible Repairman and Other Stories (collection)

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, El ruido de las cosas al caer (Spanish)

Drew Magery, The Post-Mortal

There are a few other books lying about that I'll add to this list later this afternoon.  With only a few exceptions, these are books that I've read and the others are those I plan on reading shortly.  Think I might have some reason to think I'll have a comprehensive Best of 2011 selection based on the books listed here?  Now to count up how many this actually is – certain it is at least 50.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Phil Edwards and Lewis Carroll, Snooki in Wonderland: The Improved Classic

As a general rule, I do my best to avoid the so-called "literary mash-ups" inspired by the 2009 release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  On the whole, they have little appeal to me, as the premises usually too strained from trying to stuff together romance (and zombies/sea monsters) or political biographies (and vampire hunting).  The source text's writing is too different from the interjected comedic monster bits for there to be any real satiric or entertainment value from that.

So why in the hell did I choose to read a mash-up of a beloved classic, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and the "stars" of MTV's Jersey Shore?  Beyond my bemusement at all things Snooki, I suspected the whimsy Carroll employs in his tale (which over the years has been subverted to make all sorts of drug references) would actually mesh well with the vapid, alcohol-fueled musings of Snooki, J-Woww, the Situation, and others.  Plus, at only $0.99 at the Kindle Store, I thought it was worth the risk.

It was all very well to say 'Drink me,' but wise little Snooki was not going to do THAT in a hurry.  'No, I'll look first,' she said, 'and see whether it's marked "roofi" or not;'  for she had read several nice little histories about guidettes who had got herpes simplex, and spend summers away from the Shore, all because they WOULD not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them:  such as, that a guido with sores should not be kissed; and that if you wasted your time with a normal job, you would not spend summer upon the shore; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked 'roofi,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

However, this bottle was NOT marked 'roofi,' so Snooki ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of pickles, chicken cutlets, fried calamari, ham, pizza, and fine pasta,) she very soon finished it off.

From a kitschy point of view, this is pure brilliance.  This passage (and illustration) perfectly captures Jersey Shore's zeitgeist...or perhaps its confused monologues.  Whereas Alice might be cautious of poison, Snooki in the world of Wonderland is after the perfecting tanning spot (behind the door to the garden, natch) and her concerns are more of a drunken nature than little Alice might be.  Yet in her odd musing, Snooki feels as much at home in this bizarre scene meld as she would on the Shore.  It might not be Carroll's Wonderland, but Phil Edwards' Shore-infused Wonderland does make us wonder how Snooki and Crew can roam our land while being poster children for vapid reality TV.

Although there are longeurs where it feels Edwards could not think of how to Shore-ize Carroll's scenes adequately enough, we do get to witness bizarre scenes that do feel as much at home in New Jersey as it would in Wonderland:

"I dare say you're wondering why I don't put my arm round your waist," the Duchess Angelina said after a pause:  "the reason is, that I'm doubtful about the temper of your flamingo.  Shall I try the experiment?"

"HE might bite," Snooki cautiously replied, not feeling at all anxious to have the experiment tried.

"Very true," said the Duchess Angelina:  "flamingoes and tequila shots both bite.  And the moral of that is – 'Birds of a feather flock together.'"

"Only tequila isn't a bird," Snooki remarked.

"Right, as usual," said the Duchess Angelina:  "what a clear way you have of putting things!"

"It's a mineral, I THINK," said Snooki.

"Of course it is," said the Duchess Angelina, who seemed ready to agree to everything that Snooki said, "there's a large tequila-mine near here.  And the moral of that is – 'The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.'"

"Oh, I know!" exclaimed Snooki, who had not attended to this last remark, "it's a vegetable.  It doesn't look like one, but it is."

Yes, this is getting rather bizarre.  But what about that most philosophical of meats, the Chicken Cutlet?  Phlegmatic and lugubrious in turn, the Chicken Cutlet introduces Snooki to the basics of cutlet day-school education, waxes eloquently on Lobster Quadrilles, and then finishes things off with the singing of "Chicken Cutlet Night":

The Chicken Cutler sighed deeply, and began, in a voice sometimes choked with sobs, to sing this: –

'Chicken Cutlets, tender and sweet,
waiting for all of us to eat,
gather round and dine tonight _
Chicken Cutlets sound just right!
Chicken Cutlets sound just right!
Chick-ennn Cut-lettts!
Chick-ennn Cut-lettts!

Chicken Cutlets, leave calamari behind,
And lobsters we shall not mind,
So cut the lets and our stomachs shall quicken,
For a sweet taste of cutletted Chicken.
Chick-ennn Cut-lettts!
Chick-ennn Cut-lettts!
Chick-ennn Chick-enn, Cutlets!'

So strange, so weird, so...Jersey Shore and Alice and Wonderland united together as if the two had an all-night bender and discovered to their dismay and delight alike that they had used "the whole chicken" in their debauchery last night.  While this might not be the most appealing to those who seek edification through reading, in the world of asinine mash-ups, Snooki in Wonderland embraces its Inner Stupid wholeheartedly, creating a mash-up that is at times a brilliant satire of Jersey Shore.  For that alone, this e-book demands to be read by guidos and guidettes and those whose IQs are higher than the SPF they apply to their skin.

Friday, August 05, 2011

New poll up on international coverage

It's been a long time since I ran a poll here, so I thought I'd post one on covering books from non-North American or UK regions/countries.  You can vote for more than one of the choices listed to the right and I'll see what I can do.  I know I'm back in that cycle of reading more books in other languages.  Currently, I'm still re-reading/reviewing past Premio Alfaguara winners, although I might go out of chronological order in order to cover the recently-released 2011 winner and a couple of others that personally appeal to me even more than the high esteem which I have for virtually all the winning books.

In addition, I'm working some on my French and Portuguese, as I just finished reading Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's Les dialoliques (She-Devils in English) and am alternating this weekend between José Maria Eça de Queiros' A Cidade e as Serras and Brazilian writer Octavio Aragão's A Mão que Cria (which has a strong opening premise; more later, as I did semi-promise Aragão a review).

I do have some Haikasoru books of Japanese SF/F to read in the future, so I might be willing to bump up some of those reads if interest for them is high enough.  Same for the tiny amount of other Asian, Middle Eastern, and African literatures I have.  Eastern European literature is also up for a closer examination, after reading a couple of excellent translations of Hungarian writers recently.  Plus, I do want to revisit some of the Serbian works I have, both in the language and in English translation, as fantasika is a continuing love of mine.

But as regulars know, my plans do change quite a bit, but perhaps with some pressure I might say more on a few things, such as commenting here on a request to know more about my thoughts on The Long Ships: 

I knew most of the story told there from reading saga fragments and summaries over the years, but Frans Bengtsson reworks them into a moving narrative that feels simultaneously "epic" and realistic, a trick not many authors have managed to pull off in this historical/mythical field.

Now back to reading.  296 books down, but I'd like to reach 300 before Sunday night.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Creepiness: Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All The Time and Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life

Creepiness is that sense of unease and fear, akin to weirdness, yet with a more palpable loathing.  An old lecher leering at prepubescent girls – that is creepy because it not only violates contemporary cultural taboos on February-December relationships, but there is also that belief that there is an undertone of violence embodied in those unwelcome glances.  Creepy can also refer to social dynamics that make us uncomfortable.  A young person raised in an affluent, multi-ethnic neighborhood would likely feel distinctly out of place if s/he were to visit a decaying rural area beset by factory shutdowns, virtually all-white enclaves, and hear open and coded references to familial associations with the Ku Klux Klan.  This is beyond weird – it is creepy to those outsiders because they are witnesses to things that are beyond their ken.  After all, who would "choose" to live in such a fashion?  Do "they" have any social morals?

Creepiness, of course, is all in the eyes of its beholders.  Some might interpret another's unease for being a subconscious dismissal of others' cherished social values.  Others might praise a so-called "creep" because that person did something similar to what they would have done in that situation.  Creepiness is fluid and dependent upon individual perspectives of what is permissible and which is out-and-out threatening.  In reading two recent 2011 releases, Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All The Time and Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life, I was struck by how in very different ways nebulous creepiness informs and strengthens elements of their narratives.  This is not to say that the characters in either novel are "creepy" in a cartoonish fashion, but rather that certain events, situations, and character actions could be construed in such a way that this pejorative could be applied and make certain events more visible because they provoke visceral reactions.  After all, creepiness is as much about us as it is about those labelled as creeps.

The Devil All The Time divides its action between the fictional southern Ohio paper mill town of Knockemstiff (the milieu for Pollock's earlier eponymous story collection) and West Virginia between the end of World War II and the late 1960s.  In feel, The Devil All The Time reminds me strongly of Flannery O'Connor's tales of charlatans, devilish bible salesmen, and the damned seeking redemption:

The banner outside the tent read THE PROPHET AND THE PICKER.  Roy delivered his grisly version of the End Times while Theodore provided the background music.  It cost a quarter to get inside the tent, and convincing people that religion could be entertaining was tough when just a few yards away were a number of other more exciting and less serious distractions, so Roy came up with the idea of eating insects during his sermon, a slightly different take on his old spider act.  Every couple of minutes, he'd stop preaching and pull a squirming worm or crunchy roach or slimy slug out of an old bait bucket and chew on it like a piece of candy.  Business picked up after that.  Depending on the crowd, they did four, sometimes five shows every evening, alternating with the Flamingo Lady every forty-five minutes.  At the end of each show, Roy would quickly step out behind the tent to regurgitate the bugs and Theodore would follow in his wheelchair.  While waiting to go on again, they smoked and sipped from a bottle, half listened to the drunks inside whoop and holler and try to coax the fake bird into stripping off her plumes. (p. 110)

Picturesque as the above image might be, it is part of a mosaic of images Pollock constructs that is at times repulsive and yet fascinating because of how intricately he ties in the lives of a serial killer and his whore girlfriend, the above-mentioned sideshow minister and his wheelchair-bound minstrel, a "good-hearted boy," Arvin, and his violent responses to those who do wrong, and then another minister, Preston Teagardin, whose schtick is perhaps the most revolting of all:

He'd wanted to go to a regular university and study law, but no, not with her money.  She wanted him to be a humble preacher, like her brother-in-law, Albert.  She was afraid she'd spoiled him, she said.  She said all kinds of shit, insane shit, but what she really wanted, Preston understood, was to keep him dependent on her, tied to her apron strings, so he'd always have to kiss her ass.  He had always been good at figuring people out, their petty wants and desires, especially teenage girls.

Cynthia was one of his first major successes.  She was only fifteen years old when he helped one of his teachers at Heavenly Reach dunk her in Flat Fish Creek during a baptism service.  That same evening, he fucked her dainty little ass under some rosebushes on the college grounds, and within a year he had married her so that he could work on her without her parents sticking their noses in.  In the last three years, he'd taught her all the things he imagined a man might be able to do with a woman.  He couldn't begin to add up the hours it had taken him, but she was trained as well as any dog now.  All he had to do was snap his fingers and her mouth would start watering for what he liked to refer to as his "staff."

He looked over at her in her underwear, curled up in the greasy easy chair that had come with the dump, her silky-haired gash pressed tight against the thin yellow material.  She was squinting at an article about the Dave Clark Five in a Hit Parader magazine, trying to sound out the words.  Someday, he thought, it he kept her, he would have to teach her how to read.  He had discovered lately that he could last twice as long if one of his young conquests read from the Good Book while he nailed her from behind.  Preston loved the way they panted holy passages, the way they began to stutter and arch their backs and struggle not to lose their place – for he could become very upset when they got the words wrong – right before his staff exploded. (p. 174-175).

This, perhaps, is too lurid for some.  Teagardin's casual descriptions of statutory rape, his manipulation of a trusting flock (not just the girls, but those audiences he would attract with his itinerant ministry), all this is unsettling to read, not just because many will find this to be disgusting, but because we might recognize with some consternation that this is much more common than we would like to admit.  This realization makes Pollock's mosaic narrative so compelling.  He recognizes the "lost" qualities of these "fallen" characters and similar to how O'Connor would utilize them in her stories he weaves these misfits and outcasts together to create a tale that not only creeps us out on occasion, but makes us think about those sinners and displaced saints that we know exist in our midst.  Pollock's prose is deceptively poetic.  He uses simple, direct turns of phrase to get at the heart of each character and the often horrific situations which they inhabit or have created around themselves.  The reader might feel dirtied by what s/he encounters, but it is a testimony to Pollock's talent that we do not turn away from that darkness that he explores here.

At first glance, Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life could not be any more different from Pollock's The Devil All The Time if it proclaimed its difference on billboards across the country.  Whereas Pollock's novel is set in a grim, hardscrabble rural/industrial wasteland, Schulman's novel is set in a tony 2003 New York neighborhood.  At its heart lies a professional family (two Ph.D.s, although one has relegated herself to a stay-home mom) whose nearly invisible tensions (the mom's half-regrets about her career choice, the father's ambitious brilliance working as a professor, the fifteen year-old son's confusion about where he fit in at a new school) explode into fury and self-recriminations after a scandal erupts.

Yet at its heart, This Beautiful Life depends upon ambiguity to keep its readers attention.  Jake, the son, becomes embroiled in the messy aftermath of a video sent to him by an eighth-grade girl who is hurt that he drunkenly rejected her at the party she recently hosted:

Her mouth filled the screen.  Purple lip gloss, clear braces.

"Still think I'm too young?"

She leaned over, the fixed lens of the camera catching a tiny smattering of blemishes on her cheek, like a comet's spray.  Her hair had been bleached white, with long blond roots, and most of it was pulled back and up into a chunky ponytail above the three plastic hoops climbing the rim of her ear.

The song began to play, Beyoncé.  I love to love you, baby.  She stepped aside, revealing her room in all its messy glory.  Above the bed was a painting; the central image was a daisy.  A large lava lamp bubbled and gooed on the nightstand.

She was giggling offstage.  Suddenly, the screen was a swirl of green plaid.  Filmstrips of color in knife pleats.  Her short skirt swayed along with her round hips.  A little roll of ivory fat nestled above the waistband.  She wore a white tank top, which she took off, her hands quickly finding the cups of her black bra.  The breasts inside her small, and at first she covered them with her palms, fingers splayed like scallop shells.  Then she unhooked the bra in the front and they popped out as if on springs.  Her hands did a little fan dance as they reached below her hemline and lifted up her skirt.

She'd done all of this for his benefit.  To please him.  To prove him wrong.  She reached out for the little toy baseball bat and the next part was hard to watch, even if you knew what was coming.

Except it wasn't. (p. 6-7)

Over the past decade, sexting, or the sending of erotic images via email or phone, has become a matter of concern for parents and school administrators.  It is a subject that affected me personally during the fall of 2008, when a student of mine purportedly received a racy photo from his science teacher (there was some debate on the particulars, minus the fact that somehow inappropriate images of her ended up on his phone) that led to her arrest and subsequent plea deal to give up teaching for two years in exchange for no jail time.  Witnessing the changes in his behavior following the controversy (he was suspended for two days for having a cell phone out showing those images to other students) was very tough:  he became more moody and temperamental following those who praised him for "being a man" and for those who blamed him for the teacher's firing.  He was a hero and a creep and that divided attention affected him visibly during the remainder of the school year.

Jake's situation is very much akin to this actual event.  He receives Daisy's racy video and puzzles over it, before ultimately sending it onto a friend for his take.  This in turn leads to a few more forwards until the video appears on a YouTube-like site, where it is viewed by millions.  This leads to a scandal in the neighborhood.  Jake is suspended for ten days due to the outrage it sparks at school (the girl also attends this private academy) and he is shown to be confused and hurt by the alternating praise and condemnation that he receives from teachers and peers alike.  He questions his own motives, pondering just how bad of a person he might be.  He ends up in therapy sessions and his parents bicker and despair over him and the house of cards-like social standing that they enjoyed prior to Jake's act.

This maelstrom of consequences stemming from Jake's forwarding of the racy email can be quite fascinating.  How should we view Jake?  Schulman goes to pains to show his internal and external conflicts, leaving it up to us to judge if he is a creep exploiting a confused, spoiled girl's infatuation with him.  Yet the unease around the parents' reactions to this event and toward each other  at times feels like voyeurism.  Do we take a sort of perverse Schadenfreude at seeing their (at times selfish) dreams and aspirations vanish in a cloud of sniping and arguments?  Do we blame Daisy (who barely appears in the novel) and if we feel so, what does that say about us and our own moral compasses (if such exist)?  Schulman expertly keeps juggling character perspectives around to keep us from settling on definitive conclusions, leaving readers to determine for themselves to ascertain the level of creepiness to be derived from this cautionary tale.

Pollock and Schulman largely succeed due to the ambiguities present in their narratives.  There are no "heroes" in either tale.  Instead, we see failed and ambitious characters striving to reach some point beyond their reach.  At times, their actions and motivations are revolting.  At others, they are strangely touching, even after we discover, perhaps to our chagrin, that we find such characters to be perversely attractive.  Such realizations unsettle us, make us pause before we judge these characters, their situations, and their settings.  This sense that we might condone or at least understand such actions could creep us out.  It also might explain why we on occasion are drawn to that which ought to revolt us.  Regardless of what it might be, this exposure of the uncomfortable can make for riveting reads and Pollock and Schulman provide that in spades with their latest novels.

Snooki in Wonderland: The Improved Classic

It was all very well to say 'Drink me,' but wise little Snooki was not going to do THAT in a hurry.  'No, I'll look first,' she said, 'and see whether it's marked "roofi" or not;'  for she had read several nice little histories about guidettes who had got herpes simplex, and spend summers away from the Shore, all because they WOULD not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them:  such as, that a guido with sores should not be kissed; and that if you wasted your time with a normal job, you would not spend summer upon the shore; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked 'roofi,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

However, this bottle was NOT marked 'roofi,' so Snooki ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of pickles, chicken cutlets, fried calamari, ham, pizza, and fine pasta,) she very soon finished it off.

I usually don't bother with literary mash-ups, but when it's SNOOKI from The Jersey Shore, then I'm willing to make an exception, especially since Snooki in Wonderland:  The Improved Classic is $0.99 on Amazon's Kindle Store.

If you ask nicely, I might quote more later.

July 2011 Reads

Productive second half to July led to me reading 67 books this past month, one of my most productive reading months since graduate school.  Since there's a lot to cover, not much besides the titles are listed below:

219  Brandon Sanderson, The Alloy of Law (review closer to its September release)

220  Gail Carriger, Heartless (nice rebound from the sometimes-lackluster third volume)

221  Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch (good, solid YA fantasy)

222  Clifford Simak, City (reviewed on SFF Masterworks)

223  Rikki Ducornet, Netsuke (recommended for fans of her earlier work; recommended for most, actually)

224  Blake Butler, There Is No Year (already reviewed)

225  Benevieve Valentine, Mechanique:  A Tale of the Tresaulti (good prose, but the circus setting did not interest me sufficiently to engage properly with this debut)

226  Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (solid)

227  S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep (debut that promised to be great until tacky, clichéd ending dropped it to the merely decent)

228  Richard A. Kirk, The Lost Machine (wonderfully weird, with the author's illustrations adding to the tale)

229  Umberto Eco, Confessions of a Young Novelist (non-fiction; one day I'll write some reflective essays based on these collected speeches)

230  Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (good)

231  Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake, Titus Awakes (interesting as much for the apparent catharsis it provided Peake's widow as for any debatable addition to the Gormenghast novels; in another milieu, it would have been viewed as being a promising but flawed effort, but within the context of Peake's unfinished fourth Titus novel, it is an uncomfortable read upon further reflection)

232  Lászlo Krasznahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance (very good, with some brilliant moments)

233  Hanan al-Shaykh, The Locust and the Bird:  My Mother's Story (biography of the author's mother growing up in early-to-mid 20th century Lebanon; good read)

234  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (already reviewed)

235  Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices (amusing read, but one that is distinctly inferior to each author's solo efforts)

236  Minister Faust, The Alchemists of Kush (damn good)

237  Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man (reviewed on SFF Masterworks)

238  George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons (already reviewed)

239  Jim Shepard, You Think That's Bad (very good story collection)

240  Charles Dickens, The Non-Fiction and Essays of Charles Dickens (fascinating)

241  Jesse Ball, Samedi the Deafness (excellent, quasi-poetic prose highlights this very good short novel)

242  P.T. Barnum, The Art of Money Getting (non-fiction; diverting read)

243  Ogdred Weary, The Curious Sofa:  A Pornographic Work (hilarious)

244  Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, A House to Let (see above comment about their collaborative efforts)

245  James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (excellent)

246  Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey's Clock (minor piece of his)

247  Upton Sinclair, The Metropolis (a few steps down from The Jungle)

248  Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (thought-provoking)

249  Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (re-read; play; very good)

250  Lev Grossman, The Magician King (review forthcoming this week)

251  Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String (solid 1990s debut effort)

252  John Ruskin, The Ethics of the Dust (good read)

253  William Morris, The Hollow Land (decent)

254  Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays (already reviewed)

255  Miguel de Unamuno, Dos Novelas Cortas (Spanish; one of the best of the Generation of '98)

256  Kathe Koja, Under the Poppy (very good)

257  Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (interesting short piece)

258  Miguel de Unamuno, Antología Poética (Spanish; see prior comment)

259  Anonymous, Poema de Mio Cid (Old Castilian; one of my favorite medieval epics)

260  Thomas More, Utopia (re-read; very good)

261  Philipp Meyer, American Rust (outstanding novel that illustrates why Meyer made The New Yorker's "Twenty Under Forty" list last year)

262  Pétrus Borel, Champavert, les comtes immoraux (French; good)

263  Charles Dickens, Mudfog and Other Sketches (minor work)

264  Henri Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (good, weird fiction)

265  Marjorie Bowen, The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories (decent weird fiction collection)

266  Carol Birch, Jamrach's Menagerie (good novel that made this year's Man Booker Prize longlist)

267  F. Marion Crawford, The Witch of Prague (good)

268  Minister Faust, Shrinking the Heroes (very good)

269  Eliseo Alberto, Caracol Beach (Spanish; re-read; already reviewed)

270  Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships (decent)

271  Stella Benson, Living Alone (OK at best)

272 Max Beerbohm, Seven Men (decent)

273  Stephen Vincent Benét, Young Adventure, a Book of Poems (very good)

274  Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (very good look at Wollstonecraft's writing)

275  Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (seminal feminist work)

276  Edward Everett Hale, The Brick Moon and Other Stories (good)

277  Voltaire, Socrates (decent satirical play)

278  Sergio Ramírez, Margarita, está linda la mar (Spanish; re-read; already reviewed)

279  Manuel Vicent, Son de Mar (Spanish; re-read; review forthcoming)

280  Pierre Bayle, Letters of Abelard and Heloise (illuminating)

281  Clara Sánchez, Últimas noticias del paraíso (Spanish; re-read; review forthcoming)

282  Thomas Ligotti, Grimscribe (revised collection that contains one of my all-time favorite horror stories, "The Last Feast of Harlequin")

283  Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf (very good)

284  Algernon Blackwood, The Wendigo (interesting short novel)

285  L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (first time I read this in full; enjoyed it quite a bit)

Already off to a good start for August, with six more books/e-books complete.  Getting at least 400 books read this year is looking good and going past 500 isn't out of the realm of possibility.  Any of these you want to weigh in on or inquire about?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Sometimes, "non-genre" does "genre" well, or at least differently

All paradigm shifts answer the amoral craving for novelty.  Obama's election victory did it.  So did the Auschwitz footage in its day.  Good and evil are irrelevant.  Show us the world's not the way we thought it was and a part of us rejoices.  Nothing's exempt.  One's own death-sentence elicits a mad little hallelujah, and mine's egregiously overdue.  For ten, twenty, thirty years now I've been dragging myself through the motions.  How long do werewolves live?  Madeline asked recently.  According to WOCOP around four hundred years.  I don't know how.  Naturally one sets oneself challenges - Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t'ai chi – but that only addresses the problem of Time.  The bigger problem, of Being, just keeps getting bigger.  (Vampires, not surprisingly, have an on-off love affair with catatonia.)  One by one I've exhausted the modes:  hedonism, asceticism, spontaneity, reflection, everything from miserable Socrates to the happy pig.  My mechanism's worn out.  I don't have what it takes.  I still have feelings but I'm sick of having them.  Which is another feeling I'm sick of having.  I just...I just don't want any more life. (p. 7)

This quote, taken from Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf (released last month), underscores something that I've noticed from some so-called non-genre writers when they utilize SF/F genre staples such as a werewolf.  Whereas the werewolf in say something influenced (derived) from Stephanie Meyers' Twilight Saga might represent a conflicted, brooding, emo-inspired youth or where it might be a vicious, animalistic force depicting carnal lust and violence, here in Duncan's book (the opener of an apparent trilogy) the purported "last" werewolf  is shown going through a mid-life crisis of self-doubt and ennui.  For someone like myself who is entering mid-life, something rings truer in Duncan's werewolf than in others that I've read over the years.  Perhaps it's that sense of been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.

Whatever it might be, I have noticed that some of the more recent "genre novels" by "non-genre" novelists have brought something to the table that made me pay closer attention to their own works.  Take for instance Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  When it was published five years ago, several SF/F fans derided it for being (to them a post-apocalyptic novel) a genre trope-laden novel in denial.  True, there is the post-apocalyptic setting, but what made McCarthy's take on it more powerful was not its similarities to 1950s-1960s post-nuclear event SF stories, but rather its core of the father/son dynamic and their search for peaceful refuge in a world seemingly devoid of peace or rest.  It wasn't a matter of what McCarthy "borrowed" or "stole" but rather what he added.  It doesn't matter as much if it's viewed as a genre novel that contains a strong commentary on familial bonding and hope or if it's seen as a social commentary that utilizes post-apocalyptic SF imagery to make its point.  What does matter is if McCarthy achieved something memorable and by and large he has done so with The Road.

Next week will see the American publication of Lev Grossman's The Magician King, the sequel to his 2009 novel, The Magicians.  Two years ago, a lot of the controversy revolved around the "ripping-off" of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series in the form of the Brakebills magical academy and C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia for the setting (and many of the mechanics) of the fantasy portal world of Fillory.  Others did not like Grossman's novel because of the upper-middle class youth and their open insecurities and confused relationships; it read too much like an 1980s social commentary novel the likes of Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney might write.  There is something to that charge, something that appeals to me.  Perhaps it is Grossman's tackling of the consequences of escapist dreams co-existing with those capable of wielding magical forces.  Maybe it is the ripping away of aspirations to lay bare some rather brutal truths about the unfairness of life.  Possibly it is the traumas that make the fantasy world feel hollow and self-serving rather than something bigger, brighter, and better than "real life."  These things together make Grossman's last two novels refreshing reads.

Then there are authors who are doing weird fictions outside of genre imprints.  Jesse Ball's latest novel, The Curfew, tackles a dystopic future of a controlling government a bit differently than most dystopic fictions:

Who had overthrown it?  Why?  Such things weren't clear at all, just as it wasn't entirely clear that anything had been overthrown.  It was as if a curtain had been drawn and one could see to that curtain but not beyond.  One remembered that the world had been different, and not long ago.  But how?  This was the question that nagged at those who could not avoid asking questions.

The nothing that had changed at all was really beyond bearing.  Houses and buildings were full of desperate people who deeply misunderstood their desperation. This was due to artful explanation on the part of the government.  It is impossible to tell, many said out of the corners of their mouths, if the ministry is thinking well of us – if they are acting on our behalf.  Yet still there were acorns falling from trees, fish breaking the surfaces of ponds, etc.  In a long life, said many an old man, this is but one more thing.  Yet there were others who were young and knew nothing about the helplessness of life's condition.  Did they glow with light?  They did, but of course, it could not be seen.  And all the while, the grinding of bones like machinery, and the light step of tightrope walkers out beyond the windows. (p. 8-9)

The Curfew was an entertaining, thought-provoking novel not because it tackled the issue of a totalitarian novel head-on, but rather because it was obliquely referred to through metaphor and poetic turns of expression (Ball is a poet by trade).  The horror of the "curfew" builds slowly; we know there is something nefarious about the government, but seeing it through the eyes of its citizens makes it more monstrous because of how uncomfortably close it gets to describing a plutocratic republic.  By the time we get to the following dialogue, the action is more palpable because it is more implied than acted out directly:

Molly tugs on William's sleeve.

*Do you think that the world can be saved?

– The world saved?

William smiles.

– From what?

*Those people.  That, and, and Mother dying.

– That is part of our world, and can't be changed.  I don't know that I would want to live in a world where things had become better, but your mother was gone.  She always dreamed about that place, and I don't think I could go there without her.

Molly looks at her feet.  Then she looks out into the audience.  She appears to be looking right at them, one by one.

William draws in a deep breath.  He continues.

– But, for you, I want it to change.  One day you will be the only one of us three remaining, and then the world that includes us will be inside of you and nowhere else. (p. 185-186)

Ball's narrative works well because he hints at revolt and revolution against a repressive regime and he "shows" this through how furtive the opposition is to the "curfew" imposed upon them.   I especially enjoyed the subtle jabs employed by some of the characters because this felt more "real" to me than any imagined sudden open defiance to an insidious, established, totalitarian regime.

Perhaps this is where many people discover the appeal in these works noted above.  For some, the fantastical or SFnal are but window dressing for the spectacle that is human drama.  We can appreciate a good monster, but monsters as monstrums that evoke fear and wonder not because they are grotesque, but because they warn us through illumination of something within us.  These authors, in their own ways, do this through the use of genre elements to convey a sense of human curiosity and fallibility that is found more often in other literary branches than the purely speculative.  Sometimes, it does take an "outsider" to "steal" something to make something that if not quite sui generis, at least authentic to those readers who love a mixture of real-world concerns with the fantastic.
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