Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

My 2018 review (lightly edited) followed by thoughts this time around:  This is my fourth time through this masterpiece, the first since 2012. It's a set of three interconnected novellas.

The first is flat out one of the best things ever written. A man, referred to as Number 5, returns home from prison and recalls his life before prison being raised by his father who was a mad scientist/brothel owner/former slave trader who performs experiments on him. It's set in a city, Port-Mimizon, modeled on New Orleans on one half of a set of twin planets, Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, that have been colonized by humans (specifically from France) some generations before. It is beautiful, heartbreaking and absolutely brutal in its depiction of human capability for cruelty. But it's way subtler and more enjoyable than that description would indicate. While I haven't read Proust, the opening is famously modeled on the opening of Swann's Way, and the writing is some of my favorite anywhere. Themes of memory, slavery, colonialism, identity, pedagogy, robotics and genocide are all at play here. Despite all of that, play is a key word because there's a lot of subtle punning around Wolfe's name and shots taken at Academics. Wolfe doesn't forget that he has to tell a good story to carry all that weight and doesn’t slip into didacticism. Even his exposition here is handled gracefully.

The second novella purports to be written by an anthropologist who is a minor, if significant, character in the first section and a prisoner in the third. It's the most confusing part of the book. It reads like a bumbling colonial anthropologist recounting a myth of the people who were native to the other half of the twin planets. This is complicated by the fact that the identity of the author is ambiguous (though I think he can be identified after reading all three novellas). There's a lot to parse out here and I'm not sure I fully understand it, but I was able to enjoy it immensely. The themes from the first section are at play here as well, but from another angle.

The third novella reveals the extent of the cruelty, evil and absurdity of the government of the planet from the first section. It is reminiscent of Kafka. It takes the form of a series of interviews of and conducted by the anthropologist, his prison diary and his diary of his trip where he gathered the material for the second novella seen through the eyes of a government official who reads/listens to them out of order because the labels have fallen off. Here more of the extent of the slavery (including sexual slavery) becomes clear and the horror of the situation is brought home. It ties up the three novellas thematically.

I love this type of storytelling, learning about a place through very different perspectives and genres. Wolfe has a subtle touch and there's a lot to consider. I've been meaning to reread this for a while and was prompted to finally do so because The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast is doing a close reading and discussion of it all fall.

2019 re-read:

I stand by most of what I wrote about this last year. I think some of my trouble with the second section was that trying to overcomplicate it. This is tempting with Wolfe, because he packs so much into every story. This time around, though, I think I have a better grasp of what happens in that section.

I even more fully stand by the first novella. The Cerberus of the title is a three headed dog that guards the main character’s home, which is a mad scientist’s den housed in the depths of a brothel. It was only on the fourth reread last year that I realized that if Cerberus was guarding it, it must be hell. The house, and by extension the city of Port-Mimizon and the whole society on Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne, is hell. Slavery still exists. It’s not explicitly said, but at least some of the women in the brothel have to be slaves. Number Five’s father is performing genetic experiments and the “failures” are sold in the slave market.

Taken as a whole, the book is incredibly effective at showing how hellish colonialism is for the the colonized; it is equally effective in showing how it turns the colonizers into monsters. There is a lot more going on in the stories than just that, but this is what stood out to me this time.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It can be confusing on a first read (especially the second part), but rewards the effort that it takes to sort through. And, despite that description, and despite its bleakness, it manages to be entertaining. It belongs on the shelf with things like Pale Fire, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterward and Cloud Atlas; that is, works made up of parts that function on their own, but, when taken together, add up to something more. This is firmly in my reread every year list for the time being.

Canon

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

I was assigned My Antonia for a class in undergrad (between 20 and 25 years ago), but I didn’t read it. A couple of years ago I did, and it really blew me away. After a reread last year, I consider it a masterpiece. I went on to read five more Cather novels, including this one. My Mortal Enemy was the other that I liked nearly as well as My Antonia, but I’ve liked all of them, with the exception of the ending of O, Pioneers, in which I didn’t completely buy Alexandra’s choice to forgive Frank. Or rather, not that she forgave him, but some of the reasoning and some of what she said to him just felt strange, and I was not sure what Cather intended.

Some of that same sense of not fully understanding what Cather was getting at troubled me here as well in the early parts of the novella. This is the story of a society lady, Marian Forrester told primarily through the eyes of Niel Herbert, a young boy who grows up thinking of her as a paragon of virtue and womanhood and is very distressed when she commits adultery and later falls into bad company after her husband’s death. Niel’s ire is mainly focused on Ivy Peters, a lawyer who comes from a lower class and becomes a particularly crass type of capitalist in adulthood.

For the first two thirds or so of A Lost Lady I thought it might join O Pioneers near the bottom of Cather’s novels for me. Cather seems to always be concerned with class to some extent or another in her books, but the way the book talked about it and the way the point of view characters talked about Mrs. Forrester didn’t sit well with me. In the other books I’ve read, her attitude seemed to be very practical; you should work hard and make sure that you’re able to live comfortably. Here the point of view characters seemed to buy into class as reflective of character in a way that felt wrong. This isn’t the first of her books to talk about the main female character through the eyes of a male. It was near the end of the book before I realized the extent of its irony, and the extent to which it is a repudiation of Niel Herbert’s point of view. I still need to think more about Cather’s view of class, but her attitude toward women’s place in society is clear.

Cather is a writer I’ve come to really love. If I prefer My Antonia and My Mortal Enemy to this, it is a testament to those books and no slight towards this one.

Recommended.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand is my favorite author discovery of the year. Starting with Wylding Hall last spring I read five of her novels and they were all somewhere on the spectrum of good to great. After reading this collection, it’s clear that she is as good at shorter length as she is at the longer. The novels were a variety of genres, and she proved equal to all of them. These stories (two novellas and six short stories) vary, but not quite so much. They could be all be loosely called literary horror/fantasy/magical realism. They sit would sit comfortably on the same shelf as the stories of Kelly Link, Lucius Shepard, Caitlin Kiernan, Carmen Maria Machado, Jeff Vandermeer, Michael Swanwick and even Gene Wolfe. The afterward revealed that she loves Wolfe and WH Auden, which would have sold me on her if I was not already all in. These stories meet Wolfe’s criteria for good stories; they are enjoyable on the first read, but (unless I’m seriously mistaken) will yield greater insight upon rereading.

The first novella has one of the best titles I’ve come across recently: Cleopatra Brimstone. The name is both a fictional (I think) species of butterfly and an alter ego of sorts adopted by the main character. I’ve read enough Elizabeth Hand to recognize a couple of her main hallmarks: trauma and a post-punk bohemia. Jane, a retiring but brilliant entomology student, is assaulted and withdraws from school for a time. She has connections in London and moves there for a while. She begins to volunteer at a local zoo working with butterflies and comes into contact with that punk bohemia. I don’t want to spoil the ways in which it turns into a horror story, as I was surprised by it myself. It’s a bleak story, and a beautiful one.

The next story, A Pavane for the Prince of the Air, is perhaps the least fantastical on a first reading. It is a beautiful story about community and grieving death. This one lingers in the mind long after reading it.

The Least Trumps, a novella, is, I think, one of two stories by Hand I’ve read before in a collection about a decade ago. In it a reclusive tattoo artist (who lives on an island within an island) discovers a pack of tarot cards owned or created by and mentioned in a series of fantasy novels she grew up on. Again, the ways it moves into fantasy are worth discovering without being spoiled. It is one of the standouts in the collection for me.

In the story Wonderwall Hand immerses the reader in that punk bohemian milieu that she excels so well at. The magical realist (and I think that’s probably the best term for this story) flourishes here really make the story. Seeing genre flourishes added to someone who genuinely understands punk really works. Hand does something similar in the Cass Neary books, though with noir rather than fantasy.

The final stories are grouped together as The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations. In the afterward she attributes these stories (and the novels Generation Loss and Mortal Love) to a correspondence with a friend. She said she sees this friend seldomly in person; the stories carry the motif of distant friendships through some reimaginings of elements of myth. They are very good.

In the first, Kronia, named for an ancient Athenian festival honoring Cronos, the narrator moves through a fractured timeline. She narrates how she met her friend and how often they spent time together and the timelines switch throughout. It’s a bit confusing at first, but once I figured out what’s happening found it clever and entertaining.

In Calypso in Berlin, Calypso, nymph of ancient myth, continues to live into the present day and is an artist. She lives in isolation but eventually moves to Berlin. This is a spectacular story; a subversion of the standard artist/muse trope. It’s a beautiful meditation on art and an incredibly effective horror story. An absolutely chilling last line. Perfection.

Echo is a blending of the myth of Echo and Narcissus with a sort of post-apocalyptic communications breakdown. This is the one that most needs a reread to get its full effect. Still, the emotion of not being able to connect with a loved one over distance really carries the day.

Finally, The Saffron Gatherers is concerned with art and a long distance couple that is considering moving to San Francisco. I don’t want to talk too much about it so as not to spoil the way it plays out.

All in all, this is an amazing collection. Hand is a master at prose, at characterization and bringing genre effects to bear onto a variety of literary styles. The Least Trumps, Calypso in Berlin and maybe Cleopatra Brimstone were the real standouts, but there’s not a bad story in the bunch. Her themes of working through trauma via art (even though that doesn’t always work) and the beauty in the bleakness of the world, present in nearly all of her work I’ve read were well realized here. I’m sure I will return to these stories many times.

Canon Worthy

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

This was the only still-in-print Octavia Butler novel I hadn’t read before.* I had put this off a bit, because The Parable of the Sower, to which this is a sequel, was probably my least favorite among her books. It is more didactic than anything else she wrote and the ideology overwhelmed the rest of the work for me, even though I didn’t find that ideology objectionable. I’m happy to say that, while Parable of the Talents, is still very interested in the Earth Seed ideology, it is powerful enough of a story and work of art and of sociology that it isn’t wrecked by that focus. It is one of the most prescient science fiction works I’ve ever read. And simultaneously one of the scariest and most hopeful ones.

The most remarked on thing about this book, in the age of Trump, is that in 1998 it posited a religious presidential candidate, named Jarret, in a postapocalyptic America (circa 2030) whose campaign slogan was “Help us make America great again.” He appealed to Christian America (both in the general sense, and in that he named his denomination that). When his more extremist supporters did things like burning nonbelievers alive, taking children away from their parents to be raised by Christians, and starting up reeducation camps (which included raping the inmates even as they tried to turn them away from their sins), he condemned “the burnings, but [did] so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear.” The world that Butler portrays is much worse than where we actually find ourselves. Also, Trump is in no way a believable Christian, whereas Jarret is in full on televangelist mode. Still the parallels are stunning.

One of the things Butler is so smart about, as an online acquaintance put it in relation to Kindred, is how easy it is to ignore suffering when it is not your own, or that of those close to you. In Parable of the Talents that is extended to the idea that idealogues (in this case Christians but it is true of other groups as well**) are often unwilling to admit the cruelty of the more extremist adherents of their ideology is even happening, let alone in their name.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of convincing someone to leave an ideology without replacing it with another that functions in the same way. Think of ex-conservative Christians who become secular leftists, or of someone taking the leap from one religion to another. These things happen all the time. I’m skeptical of ideologies, whether religious, political, economic, identity-based, or philosophical, that, explicitly or implicitly, claim to explain everything. Things happen for more than one reason, and I’m wary of anyone who seems too certain. This is not to say that these ideologies can’t give some genuine insight or truths. For instance, while I’m agnostic, I can squint at the Christian doctrine of original sin and say, “There is definitely something deeply broken in humanity.” I’m not a socialist (though I’m much closer to that than I once was), but I can look at discussion of income inequality and say, “If you keep privileging the wealthy, eventually something in the political order will break.” This is as good a place as any to admit that skepticism toward ideology is in itself an ideology, and I’m stuck with that paradox. Still, if, like me, someone was an adherent of an ideology for years, it’s very tempting on exit to move into another that offers similar certainty. Science Fiction is a genre well-suited to this theme. The answer here (and in the last scifi book I read that dealt with this, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny) seems to be no. Indeed, the Parable books seem to be Butler's attempt to give the world an ideological alternative to religion, particularly in its more fundamentalist forms.

The story of the book is that of the rise of the secular religion Earth Seed, whose main tenets are, “God is change” and “Earth Seed's [humanity’s] destiny is to take root in the stars.” Because God (the only constant) is change, it can be shaped. Rather than Heaven, you have the heavens. There is no personal God here. But Butler recognizes the need for community and a purpose. This isn’t quite existentialism, though it’s pretty close. Shaping God, in Earth Seed’s terms is not too far off from creating meaning. It would be easy to see it as another iteration of the argument between secular humanism and Christianity and other religions. That is quite right either, though it is close to that. By providing a purpose (education and building towards going to space) and community it functions in the way that more traditional religion does.

The book is very much concerned with ideology, but is much more successful than its predecessor at not allowing the book to become a gospel tract of sorts. It is still more didactic than most of Butler’s work, but the structure of the novel works to counter that somewhat. The story is that of the experiences of Lauren Oya Olamina, the founder of Earth Seed, her brother Mark, a preacher in the Christian America Church founded by President Jarret,  her daughter Asha Vere who was taken from Olamina as a baby by Christian America and raised by strangers and the rise of the Earth Seed religion. The structure of the book consists of the journals of Olamina, narration decades later by her daughter who has discovered her identity, her brother Mark, and a few chapters of a book written by her husband. Olamina and Mark were driven from their home as children and both have been through a lot of trauma. Mark turned to the church. Olamina created an Earth Seed community that puts a lot of her ideology into practice, Acorn. That community is smashed and turned into a reeducation camp by Christian America and some truly horrific things happen to the inhabitants. There is enough of a story as the three main narrators eventually meet again, and Earth Seed becomes a major social force and the extremist president and his more radical followers fall out of favor. Asha Vere is somewhere on the atheist/agnostic spectrum and is bitter towards her mother and toward Earth Seed. Vere’s skepticism and the rotating narration helps counteract the tendency to turn the novel into a sermon.

Like all Butler’s work there is beauty and brutality. Despite the didacticism, I am very sad to have not gotten a third book, which I might not have predicted after the first volume. It is worth reading for its prescience and insight into the current political climate. It is a blunt repudiation of religious fundamentalism. But it’s also a fascinating study of ideology, and an argument that we need better education and should be trying to get to space. Earth Seed is an interesting take on a secular religion. The closest I can get to explaining my own ideology is to triangulate between an Existentialism tempered by the understanding that people’s range of choice and freedom is limited and variable, whatever Wendell Berry, Robinson Jeffers, and Annie Dillard are on about and a heavy dose of skepticism or at least lack of certainty. Earth Seed is not that, but not too far off on the first two counts. It is very certain, though. It does a good job of offering hope, both in the continued existence of humanity in the stars and in the fact that Jarret’s time ended. It was horrible while it lasted, but it was not the end point of history.

Butler remains among my favorites, and while I am more likely to return to her other works than this one, it is an excellent and thought provoking book.

Highly Recommended


*I have a .pdf of her out of print Survivor and the two posthumous stories left to read to be a completist with her.

**See the American leftists of the mid 20th Century who supported the Soviet Union under Stalin long after that was a tenable position.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith has a particularly nasty view of, for lack of a less cliched term, human nature. In this book there are sociopaths, victims, self-aggrandizers, incredibly shrill people. Up until a quarter of the way through, I thought I had found the first Highsmith novel I would start and not finish. Highsmith’s main characters usually fall into those categories, but in this one they seemed more one note than in others. Fortunately once the machinery of the story went into motion, the book became compelling.

The book begins with a psychopath named Kimmel following his wife’s bus as she’s attempting to leave him. The first time the bus stopped, he brutally murdered her, but has set up something of an alibi. Walter Stackhouse, a handsome well to do lawyer, reads about this and intuits what happened even though the crime was attributed to a drifter. He himself is in an unhappy marriage. His wife commits suicide, but the similarities to her death and Kimmel’s wife put Stackhouse under suspicion. He is not guilty of the murder but acts more and more like he is. It all unwinds from there.

This is territory Highsmith returned to in the much better later novel A Suspension of Mercy. In both cases, it is somewhat difficult to believe that people acted in the way the protagonists did, considering they were otherwise intelligent people. But in the later book the characters were more well drawn out and the insights into human behavior were sharper. The Blunderer is good, but is probably my least favorite among the Highsmith I’ve read.

Mildly Recommended.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Stone Sky by NK Jemison

When I read The Fifth Season a couple of years ago I was blown away. It’s a masterpiece of worldbuilding; science fiction disguised as and mixed with fantasy. It’s a far future Earth wrecked by tectonic shifts on a scale we have never experienced. There is now a single continent around the equator and there are humans still, but who have long since forgotten several of the civilizations that follow ours. Technology exists, but is a weird remnant of the past for most people. Origenes (or ragas in the hateful slur used against them by “stills”) are people who can sense, and to varying degrees control or displace, tectonic activity and are feared, needed, and hated for their power. People live in communities with a rigid caste system. What government there is controls the origenes in order to prevent or at least mitigate fifth seasons, times in which the tectonic activity makes the world even more inhospitable to people than before. There are obelisks that float in the sky, repositories of a mysterious power left over from an ancient civilization that come heavily into play in the second and third books. There’s a lot more to the world, but that first book sets it all up brilliantly. It begins with a powerful origene triggering the mother of all Fifth Seasons, and whose motivation plays out over the course of the first and second books. Everyone goes into survival mode and things play out from there. The first book is so cleverly structured that it made me like second person narration, which I usually dislike.

The Stone Sky is a worthy capstone to the trilogy. Essun, the main character of the series, who, among other things, is trying to repair the Earth and stop the seasons for good while finding her estranged daugher, has an amazing arc. I don’t want to go into too much detail so as not to spoil the first novel, but suffice to say she goes from a government trained origene to an outcast hiding her power and that of her children, to climate refugee, and further. Her power grows as she learns more and more of what has been hidden for her. In the second two books as the task she has taken on becomes broader and clearer on a worldwide scale, it simultaneously becomes more personal as her daughter is also gaining power and is working to a counter purpose.

The books are very smart about class and race. It is unflinching in the depiction of the fact that years of oppression have consequences. And yet it leaves room for personal decisions as well. The origenes have had their power and decisions shaped by outside forces, and there is no getting around that. The range of choices the characters have is extremely narrow. But Jemison somehow finds a way to give them agency within that range and holds them responsible for what they do with that agency. Both society and the individuals in it are culpable for the wrecked planet. It ties ecological catastrophe and cultural repression together in a very convincing way.

But that’s not to say that the books are sermons. These themes collide on a very personal field in a compelling story. The Fifth Season is a masterpiece, and if I liked the sequels slightly less, it’s only because exploring the world comes with slightly less surprise than in the nearly perfect opening volume. The story moves along at the right pace. The prose is excellent. The created vocabulary is easily decipherable from context, and it doesn’t take long before it flows as well as the standard English. The varying tenses and persons used to differentiate which characters are being discussed is distracting at first, but absolutely justified by the ending of the trilogy. I haven’t read the competition (certainly not all of it), but I have no qualms in saying that all three are worthy of the Hugo awards they received.

Highly Recommended. (Canon Worthy for the first volume)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Billy Budd and Other Stories by Herman Melville

After I finished this year’s reread of Moby Dick, I thought it was weird that I had read it eight times and had not read anything else by him.* I’m pretty sure I was assigned Bartleby the Scrivener either in High School or College because I remember having a cheap edition of it. But if I actually read it, I had completely forgotten it. As I read (and really loved) that story in this collection, I had no memory of it at all. I am pleased, and not at all surprised to report that, based on this sample (with the possible exception of Benito Cereno, which I’m still mulling over), Melville’s other work holds up well. It includes five of the six stories collected in the Piazza Tales and replaces the other with the posthumously published title story. Like Moby Dick, I suspect I’ll need multiple rereads to get these, but in most cases I won’t mind that at all.

It took a few pages to get into Billy Budd, Sailor. Melville is not a direct writer, and here takes quite a while setting the scene and the characters in place. This is true of Moby Dick as well, of course, but my familiarity with that book offsets any (or at least most) of my frustration with the discursive path Melville takes to get to his point. In Billy Budd, that point is an ethical question about the law and intention. Budd is falsely accused and then in frustration strikes and kills his accuser. He did not intend to, and the accuser was very much in the wrong. Yet Budd had to hang for the killing. Apparently this is often posed as a legal puzzle in some law schools. It makes sense. There’s a broader application to contemporary discourse as well, I think; to what degree does intention matter? Budd didn’t mean to kill Claggart, but Claggart is dead. How much do the circumstances extenuate. It’s hard to say. Melville doesn’t make it clear either. He means for the reader to have to think about it. I liked this, but on first reading it was one of the weaker stories in the book.

In The Piazza, the narrator builds a piazza onto his house in the remote hills. The surroundings put him in a fairy tale mood and he imagines another house in a distant spot in the wilderness. Living there is a woman thinking the same of his house. It’s written in ornate language that attempts, mostly successfully, to cast a spell on the reader. It’s ambiguous whether something actually supernatural is happening, and the implication is that the rest of the Piazza Tales were spun from that same porch. It also has somewhat of a moral warning that lands somewhere between cautionary tale about living in a fantasy world and not falling prey to assuming someone else has it better. I thought it better than the title story, but it is still a little lighter than most of the book.

Bartleby the Scrivener, though, really deserves its place as a standard text. It had a surprisingly eerie tone for a story about resisting office life. The theme of resistance to the death in life that happens in bureaucratic jobs has long appealed to me, and the end to which it is put here reminded me a lot of The Moviegoer. Binx Bollings statement that “everydayness is the enemy” wouldn’t have been out of place here. The criticism of the pursuit of wealth and being tied too much to the job is expressed with the atmosphere of a horror story. Like Moby Dick, it seems to be a precursor to the existentialists of the next century. I am certain I didn’t fully grasp this story on this read through, but I do look forward to revisiting it often.

Benito Cereno was the story I wrestled with the most. One of the many things I like about Moby Dick is the diversity of the cast of characters. Every character, regardless of race, is given agency. Which is why I was taken aback when this story, written several years after Moby Dick, seems very much in line with the more racist views of the time, at least on the surface. The story deals with a whaling ship that comes across a slave ship in which the slaves are eventually revealed to have taken over and the titular captain has to pretend that all is normal for the point of view character, the captain of the whaling ship. That captain’s judgement is called into question early on. “Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano's surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.” I was surprised when an English Professor friend said that he and his wife, also an English Professor, thought this was Melville’s best work. They see it as highly critical of slavery, and the narrator as unreliable. I’m not used to third person narrators being deliberately unreliable, so I didn’t initially read it that way. In that reading it indicts the reader’s perception of the leader of the slave revolt. He should be the hero of the story, but is portrayed as evil, and like Humbert Humbert, the narration is showing readers something about themselves. I fear this is reading a contemporary viewpoint back onto the text, but I’m almost willing to give Melville the benefit of the doubt based on Moby Dick. I’ll have to reread it before I make too strong a call on it.

The Encantadas were probably the best part of the book for me. The title is another name for the Galapagos islands and take the form of a series of sketches of the place. Rereading Annie Dillard recently well prepared me for these. They really ride the line between fiction and creative nonfiction essays. They are beautiful evocations of nature and the desolation of the place. These are just beautiful, and along with Bartleby, are the most essential pieces in the book.

The final story, The Bell Tower, is a proto-science fiction/feat of engineering/horror story. It’s the most straightforward storytelling I’ve yet seen from Melville, and it is very effective.

Melville’s writing in this collection demonstrates that Moby Dick was no fluke. He’s genuinely great. His style is more discursive than most contemporary writers, but the work it takes to get into his mindset is well worth it. He’s prescient in the way he approaches existential questions. His obsession with death is on display, as is his wit. I will certainly be returning to many, if not all, of these.

The stories range from recommended to canon-worthy.



*When I said that to a friend, he said, “Yeah that’s the weird part of that sentence.”

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

I think I’ll remember this year, in book terms anyway, as the year I discovered Elizabeth Hand and George Eliot.* Curious Toys is the fifth of Hand’s books I’ve read, and maybe the best. Though that is picking by degrees from a very good group. Generation Loss really blew me away, but the more I think about Wylding Hall and Waking the Moon, the more I love them. Available Dark is as tense as Generation Loss. Between those first four books Hand showed herself to be a master of genre switching: horror, fantasy, nordic noir. She can do it all. In Curious Toys she adds historical thriller to that already impressive list.

Anyone who has read any of the Cass Neary books, knows that Hand is drawn to outsider art. It’s no surprise then that she would want to write about the artist and writer Henry Darger. I’ve heard bits and pieces about him before, but this is the first time I’ve thought about him in any extended way. Darger worked a day job as a custodian at a hospital and after he died they discovered thousands of pages of a fantasy novel and hundreds of accompanying drawings and watercolors. Darger is a supporting character in this, as is Charlie Chaplin.

The main character, Pin, is a 14 year old girl who goes in disguise as a boy. Her mother has taken a job as a fortune teller at an amusement park in Chicago. She runs errands, delivers drugs for Max, an actor who does one of those acts in which he plays male and female characters by turning opposite profiles. The other main players are her mother, Francis “Fatty” Bacon an ex-cop who works at the park and Glory (Gloria Swanson), an actress she is in love with. Pin moves between the sets of the film industry which is still active in Chicago at the time and the world of the amusement park. She meets Henry Darger when they both witness what the disappearance of a child; Pin later discovers the body.

The book is set roughly 20 years after the HH Holmes murders at the 1890 world fair. Those murders loom over the proceedings as another serial killer active and some of the older cops reflect back to their experiences at the fair. It would be reductive to say this book is a cross between The Devil in the White City and carnivalesque works like Geek Love, Nights at the Circus or Swamplandia, but that is a pretty accurate accounting for the feel of the book. That’s not to say the book is derivative. Hand is far too good a writer for this to be mere copy work.

There is a darkness and bleakness in Hand’s work that I really love. This darkness is most clearly expressed in the Cass Neary books, but is on display here as well; The killer hunts young girls, poisoning them and then dressing a life size doll in their clothes. This has probably moved ahead of Generation Loss, the first Neary book, for me because that bleakness doesn’t quite reach the nihilism that characterizes Neary’s outlook. Curious Toys does not flinch from the darkness, but doesn’t entirely despair either. It is perfectly structured. There are several people who may be the killer and as each is eliminated as a possibility, the tension grows. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the ending is satisfying, but plays fair with the subject matter and attitudes of the time period. To the extent that I know the history of the time, she plays fair with that as well. The prose, as always, is excellent. I loved this book and will be rereading it, I suspect, for years to come.

Canon-Worthy

*And probably as the year Moby Dick (and possibly Peace and Middlemarch as well) passed Pale Fire as my favorite novel. And the one that cemented Caitlin Kiernan, David Mitchell, William Gibson and Donna Tartt among my favorite writers. And I finally looped back around to more Austen and Karen Joy Fowler. And when I discovered Jill Lepore. I’ll remember a lot of bookish things, but Hand and Eliot are high on the list.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith

If anything, I like Ripley Underground more than The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s incredibly tense from near the beginning. It picks up a few years after the main action of the first book, and Tom Ripley is living in luxury in France; partially due to the money he inherited from a character in the first book, partly from his recently married wife’s income, and partly from several grifts he has going. The one that provides the initiating action for the novel is that he has partnered with an art gallery and an artist to continue to produce work under the name of a more successful artist who killed himself. The artist’s work has reached a new height of popularity, and there is a big operation including smuggling, merchandising and a steady output of new works, and Ripley gets his cut. But one collector spots an inconsistency in the newer work and starts asking questions. Ripley impersonates the dead artist, now allegedly hiding in Mexico and things spiral out from there.

Highsmith does a great job evoking Ripley’s world of wealth and the sociopathic lengths to which he’ll go to protect it. If you’ve read the first book, you will see some of the twists coming, but there were several genuine surprises mixed in. Highsmith is a master of both tense action and portraying sociopaths. This is true across five of the six of her novels I’ve read.* She is relentless in her bleak view of human nature. It’s difficult at times to know whether she’s trying to say everyone has this darkness in them or if she sees her sociopaths as separate from the rest of humanity. While I tend to think the former, I’m not sure that she would agree. In either case, she uses her insight into people’s nastier tendencies to great effect in her books, this not least among the ones I’ve read. I was in the mood for something bleak and seedy, and this checked that box nicely.

Highly recommended, though you should definitely Talented Mr. Ripley first if you ever plan to read it. The 1999 adaptation is excellent as well.

*The other was The Price of Salt( the basis of the movie Carol) which, as a romance, has no relentless sociopaths in it. I also highly recommend it!


Monday, November 25, 2019

Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible

One of the dangers of growing up reading the Bible is that it's easy to miss the experiential horror of much of what happens because of encountering it before reaching emotional maturity and because of familiarity. Returning to them years later as an agnostic the horror can still be vague. Often a separate work will make me think of something that escaped me in all my reading as a child and into adulthood. Most of the sermons I heard growing  Noah's Ark wisely focused on the animals and not the genocide. Most mentions of Noah’s post-ark drunkenness focus on the reaction of his sons and whether they honored him or not. Aronofsky’s movie Noah, whatever its faults, does remind you that if you had just seen everyone in the world die, you might want to get drunk yourself. Similarly, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling actually gave Abraham’s choice to sacrifice Isaac weight in a way that hadn’t considered before I read it (though admittedly I read that before I admitted to myself I wasn’t a Christian any more). Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror* nearly did the same thing with the stories of Hagar, Tamar, the unnamed concubine from Judges 19, and the daughter of Jephthah. I often joke (though there’s an underlying truth) that I’m surprised that my very strict parents let me read the Old Testament given all the sex and violence.

These are stories that I’ve already considered before in a more critical way than when I was a believer, so the effect was not as strong as that of the Kierkegaard and the Aronofsky, but sitting with the stories was a very uncomfortable experience. I picked up a copy of this years ago when it was on reserve for a class at the library where I used to work and finally got around to it. While Trible is clearly a believer trying to reckon with these passages and use them to challenge the church on the way it treats women, I’m glad I read them after I drifted from the faith. Like many who have left Christianity some of the more shocking content of the Old Testament forms one of the signposts on the road out.* Judges 19 has been especially troubling to me for a long time. Trible says that the narrator disapproves and is setting up the reader to prefer the era of Kings over that of the Judges. That is not a bad argument, but it doesn’t really answer everything. One of Trible’s recurring arguments is based on De Beauvoir’s Subject/Object binary. Even as she uses the passages under study as an argument to the church to fight against misogyny, she never quite escapes the fact that the text approves of putting women in the Object category. This didn’t ruin the book for me; it is very much worth reading.

I am generally against academic prose. It is usually stultifying and often just bad. Despite some tendencies in that direction, Trible mainly sticks to a heavily annotated close reading of the text from a feminist perspective. I don’t know enough about academic textual criticism to say whether the book succeeds on that level (though the fact that it is taught in classes speaks in its favor). I found the prose dense, but worth wading through. These stories are disturbing, and sitting with them in this way and in this much detail was at the very least thought-provoking.

Recommended if you have a stomach for academic prose and with a content warning for brutal rape.

*It’s the inverse of something Chesterton said of Catholicism. There is often not one cause for losing the faith. Rather a series of smaller things that eventually add up to unbelief.



Saturday, November 23, 2019

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I first read Jane Austen, after many years of being told I should do so by many people in my life, in 2006. That year, I read Pride and Prejudice for pleasure and Mansfield park for an English class and with pleasure. Given the thirteen intervening years, I remember Pride and Prejudice relatively well. I loved the satirical tone and the clever dialog and characterization. I remember both my enjoyment of Mansfield Park and the class discussions of it more than the actual book itself. I’m sure that I started Northanger Abbey at some point, but I didn’t get far into it. I’ve been meaning to circle back and read the four I haven’t and reread the two I have but just haven’t. I’ve finally been nudged into it by my recent reading of The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.

I’ve heard Persuasion described as Austen’s best book. I’ve read so few of them, that I can’t speak to that other than to say I preferred Pride and Prejudice. I suspect it is mostly a matter of genre; I prefer satirical romantic comedy to straightforward romance. That said, Persuasion may be the more fully realized novel. The characters are well drawn; you can still see Austen’s attitude toward/ criticism of the society in which she found herself; she’s just less concerned with laughing at them in this case. Her prose is excellent and the novel flows well.

It does seem to buy into the idea that romantic love is the end all be all of existence. One thing I liked about The Jane Austen Book Club is Fowler’s criticism that Austen was more concerned with the wedding than with wedded life, though you do see bits of some of the marriages here in Persuasion. It also suffers by comparison to Middlemarch by George Eliot (which I recently read for the first time and was an immediate favorite). That novel shares some of this book’s concerns, but is way sharper about other aspects of life than romance.

That said, I enjoyed this thoroughly. Based on old memory, I still prefer Pride and Prejudice, but I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Austen’s novels over the next year or so. I’m thinking Sense and Sensibility next.

Recommended.


Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Flannery O’Connor is savagely funny. Her characters, grotesque and exaggerated, are always a few degrees off of reality. Her descriptions are always unflattering. But she was always able to spin surprising, harsh and insightful stories around them. She complained in The Habit of Being (her posthumously published collections of letters) that she was perceived as a sort of “hillbilly nihilist” (one of my favorite phrases of hers) when she considered herself a “hillbilly Thomist” (a devotee of Aquinas to the extent she understood him). In an essay in Mystery and Manners she said that she wrote such harsh figures because “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures” saying in effect that to express a Catholic worldview in a way that folks would pay attention to, she had to out-shock value them. And that she did on some level. Her world is touched with grace, but a grace that is often as horrifying as punishment. That is not to say she wrote thinly disguised sermons. Her stories were art first, though she thought they reflected her outlook.

Hazel Motes, the main character of this, is certainly a large startling figure. He’s a veteran who takes up street preaching when he gets back from service. The trick is he preaches a brand of nihilism, a church without Christ in which people need no redemption because there’s nothing from which to be redeemed. In a brief author’s note to the tenth edition, O’Connor set the stage by saying that she sees Hazel Mote’s integrity as springing from his inability to escape from Jesus, whereas she perceived critics to be saying it stemmed from the nihilistic message that he preaches until he finally succumbs to a self-flagellating form of Christianity; that his struggle against Christ was the thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about authorial intent, and O’Connor is weighing in on the side that it matters a lot. When I first read this, I was still a devout believer and was ecstatic to find a christian writer with literary cred. As hard as she was on nihilists, if you take her at her word about the substance of the book, she was as hard on Protestants. Another street preacher who is more of a grifter tries to pretty up the message of the Church without Christ: “Now, friends," Onnie Jay said, "I want to tell you a second reason why you can absolutely trust this church-- it's based on the Bible. Yes sir! It's based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and intirpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be intirpited. That's right," he said, "just the way Jesus would have done it. Gee, I wisht I had my gittarr here," he complained." Now reading it as an agnostic, I still think there’s plenty of textual evidence for O’Connor’s perspective (though I could be bringing in my knowledge of the rest of her work here). She certainly knew how to use irony. But that nihilistic reading is very tempting and plausible.

The glaring issue is O’Connor’s heavy use of racist language. I’ve always thought that she was pulling a similar trick to the religious one; she was using that language to tell us something about the character saying it while holding the opposite anti-racist viewpoint. Her characters are always morally worse than they perceived themselves to be, and this was a part of that. Also, if she was writing with any level of verisimilitude, the characters she was writing about would most certainly be racist. I still think that was largely what she was doing, but I’m less confident than I once was about that. I would certainly not begrudge anyone who disagreed with that assessment.

I was surprised that I hadn’t read this since 2002 (the first year I kept a reading log), and given that, how well I remembered it. It supports my theory that the books that really stick are the ones I’ve read multiple times. I read this at least twice and maybe as many as three times including that last readthrough. It could also be watching the John Huston adaptation a couple of times in the interim, an interesting take that seems to take the nihilism at face value. It could also just be that it’s a great book. Acidly funny and outright weird at times. It really moves along, despite not having a lot of sympathetic characters. Whether you read it as nihilistic or harshly Christian in the way it portrays Motes descent, it is very smart about the gap between self perception and reality. It is riveting. In the past, I had been dismissive of this in comparison to her short stories. As much as I still prefer many of the stories, I was pleased to find that I love this novel more than I remembered.

Canon.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor is savagely funny. Her characters, grotesque and exaggerated, are always a few degrees off of reality. Her descriptions are always unflattering. But she was always able to spin surprising, harsh and insightful stories around them. She complained in The Habit of Being (her posthumously published collections of letters) that she was perceived as a sort of “hillbilly nihilist” (one of my favorite phrases of hers) when she considered herself a “hillbilly Thomist” (a devotee of Aquinas to the extent she understood him). In an essay in Mystery and Manners she said that she wrote such harsh figures because “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures” saying in effect that to express a Catholic worldview in a way that folks would pay attention to, she had to out-shock value them. And that she did on some level. Her world is touched with grace, but a grace that is often as horrifying as punishment. That is not to say she wrote thinly disguised sermons. Her stories were art first, though she thought they reflected her outlook.

Hazel Motes, the main character of this, is certainly a large startling figure. He’s a veteran who takes up street preaching when he gets back from service. The trick is he preaches a brand of nihilism, a church without Christ in which people need no redemption because there’s nothing from which to be redeemed. In a brief author’s note to the tenth edition, O’Connor set the stage by saying that she sees Hazel Mote’s integrity as springing from his inability to escape from Jesus, whereas she perceived critics to be saying it stemmed from the nihilistic message that he preaches until he finally succumbs to a self-flagellating form of Christianity; that his struggle against Christ was the thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about authorial intent, and O’Connor is weighing in on the side that it matters a lot. When I first read this, I was still a devout believer and was ecstatic to find a christian writer with literary cred. As hard as she was on nihilists, if you take her at her word about the substance of the book, she was as hard on Protestants. Another street preacher who is more of a grifter tries to pretty up the message of the Church without Christ: “Now, friends," Onnie Jay said, "I want to tell you a second reason why you can absolutely trust this church-- it's based on the Bible. Yes sir! It's based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and intirpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be intirpited. That's right," he said, "just the way Jesus would have done it. Gee, I wisht I had my gittarr here," he complained." Now reading it as an agnostic, I still think there’s plenty of textual evidence for O’Connor’s perspective (though I could be bringing in my knowledge of the rest of her work here). She certainly knew how to use irony. But that nihilistic reading is very tempting and plausible.

You can't talk about O’Connor’s work without reckoning with her heavy use of racist language. I’ve always thought that she was pulling a similar trick to the religious one; she was using that language to tell us something about the character saying it while holding the opposite anti-racist viewpoint. Her characters are always morally worse than they perceived themselves to be, and this was a part of that. If she was writing with any level of verisimilitude, these characters she would most certainly be racist. I still think that was largely what she was doing, but I’m less confident than I once was about that. I would certainly not begrudge anyone who disagreed with that assessment.

I was surprised that I hadn’t read this since 2002 (the first year I kept a reading log), and given that, how well I remembered it. It supports my theory that the books that really stick are the ones I’ve read multiple times. I read this at least twice and maybe as many as three times including that last readthrough. It could also be watching the John Huston adaptation a couple of times in the interim, an interesting take on the material that seems to take the nihilism at face value. It could also just be that it’s a great book. Acidly funny and outright weird at times. It really moves along, despite not having a lot of sympathetic characters. Whether you read it as nihilistic or harshly Christian in the way it portrays Motes descent (and I lean towards the latter), it is very smart about the gap between self perception and reality. It is riveting. In the past, I had been dismissive of this in comparison to her short stories. As much as I still prefer many of the stories, I was pleased to find that I love this novel more than I remembered.

Canon.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Collected Screenplays Vol 1 (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink) by Ethan and Joel Coen

Reading these screenplays, I felt like what I suspect people who know Shakespeare well and have seen the plays over and over again must feel when reading him on the page. I have seen all four of these movies many, many times. The Coens are my favorite filmmakers, and Miller’s Crossing is one of my very favorite movies, and the others are all beloved. What first drew stood out to me in the Coen’s work was the dialog; delightful lines that sound like no one in real life. These read nearly as well as the experience of watching the films themselves.

Having Roderick James (the pseudonym under which they collectively edit most of their films) write the introduction was a great in-joke. James tells tall tales about the tangled way that he ended up with editing credits, despite his editing decisions being ignored. He even says the scripts were better than the movies! The basis of this opinion was that it didn’t suffer from the editing that the films were after they were taken out of his hands.

Speaking of editing, it was interesting to see several scenes that were taken out of the movies. One that stood out was a scene at the end of Miller’s Crossing in which Verna tells Tom about Bernie’s funeral. It seems mainly designed to demonstrate why Verna is so angry at Tom despite knowing that he didn’t actually kill Bernie. The scene would have worked, but was condensed to one line spoken by another character in the film.

Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing would have worked just as well as crime novels. The dialog and stage directions could easily be adapted that way. In all three the dialog stands on its own. I love that Raising Arizona references both Flannery O’Connor (warthog from Hell!) and Faulkner (the Snopes brothers). All three have lines that I think about and quote regularly from having seen the films so many times. The Coens are masters at all aspects of their craft, but the writing was what drew me to them in the first place and is still my favorite aspect of their work.  I will resist typing out thirty of them now.

The scripts are Canon-Worthy, no surprise since I would consider the latter three films represented as canon.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I could tell that Moby Dick has settled into the mulch of my brain over the past few years when I was in a terrible mood at work recently and actually had the thought that I needed “a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable me to grin and bear it.” I was amused, but after time I was pretty happy about that. I want Ishmael’s voice and the mood of this novel in my head like I want the dialog from Deadwood or a Coen Brothers movie there, or the poetry of  Auden, Yeats, Jeffers or Porter.  Whatever else Moby Dick may be, it’s a five or six hundred page poem to madness, obsession, the implacability of death, the ocean and the whale. I heard a preacher say once that looking at vast things “gets the smallness out of you,” and Moby Dick serves a similar purpose; it very much gets me outside of my head.

The Seneca bit was a surprise to me, but there are lines and images from the book that I think about regularly. In reference to a rival whaling ship captain who went in chase of un-catchable Fin-Back whales thinking they were the more valuable Sperm Whales the narrator says, “O, many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dereks, my friend.” This I apply liberally to many discussions both in person and online when I or someone I’m talking to has lost the plot. There’s an image of Captain Ahab toward the end holding a flaming harpoon as he tries to calm his men that haunts me. I think of Stubbs saying, "I wonder, Flask, whether the world is anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though." I think about the image of the clam looking up through the water and not comprehending the world above the water. I think of tiny Ahab threatening Moby Dick even as he’s being destroyed. I think of how perfectly the first chapter captures the mood of restlessness that possesses me at times. I think about the line, "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own” which is as good a one line summation of existentialism I’ve heard outside of the TV show Angel* despite having been written nearly a century before Existentialism proper came along. He undercuts that a bit in the next few lines in which the joke is portrayed as a nudging joke among friends. The overall arc of the novel restores it to the level of existential quandary. I could go on. Like Middlemarch, which I read for the first time this year, every page is quotable.

Moby Dick has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as science fiction and fantasy. It evokes a sense of wonder, one of the many stated goals of SFF. It plunges you into an unknown world and builds that world out for you. This is especially true for a modern reader, but Melville seems skeptical that even his contemporaries would get it. That world is used to reflect upon and make observations about the world in which the reader lives. There is a prophecy that came true after a fashion. There’s a monstrous creature that is imbued with mythical significance. There is also a lot of exposition, often in chapters that could fairly be called what genre readers refer to as info-dump. The extended chapter on Cetology, the study of whales, is famously tedious as is the chapter on the color white. I was reminded, this time through, of Neal Stephenson going on for pages in Cryptonomicon about how computer monitors work. I usually skip the Cetology and white chapters on my annual reread of Moby Dick, but this year I pushed through then, and was glad I did. Even those chapters have several lines that made them worth reading. In the case of Moby Dick, as in the case of a lot of (though certainly not all) SFF, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses for me. I will not begrudge the person who bails on the novel during the Cetology chapter; I will say that once I pushed through it and reread the whole a couple of times it became one of my favorite novels despite those sections.

Moby Dick is a book that it is very easy to project onto; the reader will likely find what they want in it. What is Moby Dick? A story about the implacability of death? Of obsessive madness? An attempt towards a liberal (by the standards of its time) theology? A secretly atheist parable? A disguised gay romance? A hifalutin version of a Boy’s Own adventure tale? A precursor to existentialism?  A story of a far more diverse cast than the time usually produced with relatively positive portrayals of people from a variety of ethnicities (excluding Fedallah, and to some extent Pip)? An extended prose poem to some or all of these? I’ve long held that authorial intent matters more than the current discourse, at least on the internet, allows for. This book confounds that to some extent. I don’t know a lot about the circumstances that Melville wrote in, so I’m left to textual clues and to my own experience of the book. This is further complicated by a scene that reads almost as a series of monologues in a play as several characters in turn muse on the symbolism of the doubloon that Ahab has nailed to the mast and promised to the person who first sights Moby Dick. Melville seems to quite literally be goading the reader into multiple readings, or at least illustrating the way that different people will respond to it differently. I think that all of those readings, and many I haven’t thought of can plausibly be read into the story.

It’s clear that Melville conceived this as a shot at greatness; he says at one point, "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it." To my mind he has achieved that. He obviously went to great pains to render the events of the book believable to those who have not been on a whaling voyage in the first half of the 19th century. Beyond that I won’t make claims about his intentions. I will fall back on my experience of the book, which is one that I want to repeat annually, and occasionally lives in my mind between readings. As one of my annual rereads, it is clearly a favorite. With this reread, and one of Peace by Gene Wolfe and a first time read of Middlemarch this year, Pale Fire is not as secure in the spot of my favorite novel as it has been for the past several years. I’m ok with that.

Canon.

* The line from Angel is “If nothing we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do.”

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

This is the second time I”ve read The Drowning Girl, my first reread among the eight Kiernan books I’ve read. Her hallmark is mashing any and all genres, primarily the dark, bleak ones, into unique works of art. The strongest influence (evident across all the work I’ve read) is Lovecraft. But she’s also seems to be heavily influenced by the Modernists in some books, the Postmodernists in others, Lewis Carrol, William Blake, Herman Melville, 40’s noir, Le Carre, the splatterpunk subgenre of horror and so on. I’m sure I’m missing a lot. She focuses less on plot than on mood, prose, and aesthetics, though she plots well given that stance. Her prose is consistently excellent. Her work often veers closer to erotica than my taste and comfort usually allow for. She is incredibly upfront about depression and mental illness; often uncomfortably so (one of the things I most love about her work). Hers is a dark vision of the world. People are cruel, but every once in a while people can be good as well. She does not flinch from portraying incredibly gruesome acts. It’s a world where depression wins sometimes. I have to offer so many content warnings to various people when discussing her work, that it seems like I’m waving people off. I’m not, unless one of the content warnings lands for you. But she is the author among my favorites who unsettles me most and who I have the hardest time figuring out to whom to recommend her. But she is solidly among my favorites. Her books and their atmosphere

This book wrecked me this time through. It is narrated in the first person from the perspective of India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, an artist who suffers from severe mental illness. She meets a woman on the side of the road, Eva Canning, who in one telling of the story (and there are at least three here) is a mermaid or siren; in another she is a werewolf; in the third she is a victim of a suicide cult that worshiped a sea goddess. In all versions, Eva wrecks Imp’s relationship with her girlfriend. Things spin out of control from there.

Hauntings, the appearance of ghosts and other apparitions are presented as possibly (probably?) being memes in the Dawkins sense of the word; ideas that propagate themselves almost like earworms or songs that get stuck in your head (one of the best explanations of the word meme used in this sense I’ve heard). In the world of the story certain types of mental illness can make people more susceptible to these memes. There is a distinction drawn between the factual and the true. Finally Kiernan uses a quantum metaphor makes it possible that the various versions of the story, drawn from myth, memes themselves, can all be true; particle and wave. This is a horror novel about a woman assaulted by a werewolf, lured by a siren and who, while suffering from mental illness, has enough awareness to realize that she doesn’t know exactly what is happening, all of those narratives are possible. The prose plays into that structure as well. When Imp goes off her meds, the prose gets much more jumpy and deliberately disjointed. This is a perfectly structured novel.

And it is incredibly entertaining and affecting. My own anxiety and depression have never reached the heights of the narrator here, but I have experienced enough of it that this resonated very strongly. I appreciate that it ends as hopefully as a story this dark can. It doesn’t flinch, but it offers a path. You get the sense that Kinbote wrote Pale Fire almost as a suicide note; The Drowning Girl is more in the vein of Walker Percy’s idea of an ex-suicide. Someone who has stared down the barrel, knows that’s an option and chooses to keep going, at least for now.

It’s a legitimately great novel.

Canon.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Slade House by David Mitchell

I’ve been a David Mitchell fan since I first read Cloud Atlas in 2009. That book is brilliantly structured, exciting and moving. I subsequently read the next three books he published, the best being The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which is sorely in need of reread. That book had the first appearance of a character named Marinus. Marinus was a major figure in his next novel, a fantasy called The Bone Clocks, and in Slade House, a very effective horror novel.

I heard an interview with Mitchell (also including Neil Gaiman, with whom Mitchell seems to be in a well deserved mutual admiration society), in which he said his natural length for a piece of writing was novella length. This is evident in Cloud Atlas which is structured as a series of nested novellas. The Bone Clocks uses a similar technique, except that the novellas are placed linearly and each represents a decade in the life of the protagonist. I think this structure is one of the reasons I love Mitchell’s work; grouping related stories that reflect on each other into a whole (a la Fifth Head of Cerberus or City of Saints and Madmen) is one of my favorite modes of fiction. Mitchell is adept at capturing a wide variety of voices and this structure allows him to put that to good use in a single volume.

Slade House is a house that shouldn’t exist; it was destroyed during the war. But every nine years it (and its inhabitants) show up to claim another victim. Each chapter, save the last, is essentially a novella told first person from the perspective of the victim. I won’t summarize past that, to avoid spoilers. I will say that each character is well realized, and the book is effectively eerie. Given the array of genres Mitchell has written in the past, it should not be a surprise that he can do horror as well.

I really like that Mitchell is building a body of work that shares a world and shares characters between seemingly unrelated books. Cloud Atlas is the only one I’ve read multiple times, and it and Jacob de Zoet are still the best if memory serves. I’m hoping to get to the only two of his novels I haven’t previously read, number9dream and Ghostwritten by the end of the year and to revisit De Zoet and Bone Clocks next year. Slade House sits comfortably on the shelf with those, and reminded me how much I enjoy Mitchell’s work.

Highly Recommended.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Best Movies of the Decade (First Draft)

Here's my first stab at making a top ten movies of the decade list (and of course I could only narrow
it down to eleven). I will likely revise later this year:


1) The Lighthouse
2) Calvary
3) Annihilation
4) The Witch
5) Mad Max Fury Road
6) Winter’s Bone
7) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
8) Night Moves
9) Hail Ceasar
10) Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
11) Arrival


Here are the runners up, or rather the other movies I considered, in alphabetical order, and on
another day one of the top 11 might slip and be replaced by one of these:


Bad Times at the El Royale
Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Bernie
Blade Runner 2049
Boyhood
Black Panther
Cloud Atlas
Coco
Crimson Peak
Death of Stalin
Destroyer
Ex Machina
Faces Places
First Reformed
Get Out
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Her
Hereditary
Inherent Vice
The Invitation
Lady Bird
Leave No Trace
Life of Crime
The Lure
Mission Impossible Fallout
Moonlight
Noah
Only Lovers Left Alive
Phantom Thread
The Social Network
Spiderman Into the Spiderverse
Thor: Ragnorak
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri
Three Identical Strangers
Tree of Life
Weiner
What We Do In the Shadows

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Get In Trouble by Kelly Link

Kelly Link has become a favorite over the past few years. I had read an odd anthologized story here and there, but I really was sold when I found a used copy of Magic for Beginners in 2015. The title story of that collection is perfect as were several of the others. Her blend of believable relationships, out there fantasy/scifi/magical realist/absurdist ideas and the excellent prose make for indelible reading experiences. Most of her stories create a world as well-realized as any novel.

This collection opens with a strong one-two punch. The Summer People is a fairy tale grounded in the reality of impoverished rural life and being stuck in a job you hate. It’s about betrayal and escape and relationships. The ending is very sad, but there is a whimsy to it and a determination that keeps it from being too grim. The second is about an actor who is typecast as a vampire and his lost relationship with an old costar. I won’t summarize further, but it is very funny, scary and pulls the rug out at just the right moment and in just the right way.

“The Lesson” from later in the collection is perfect. A gay couple who have hired someone to be a surrogate mother go to an old friend’s wedding as complications arise in the pregnancy. There is a wishing well on the island. On this framework Link builds an eerie and fully realized story about choices and fate and love and contentment and fear. Granted I was sitting down as I read it, but I was frozen in place for some time after reading it.

I could keep pointing to standouts, but there were only two stories that didn’t work for me on the first pass. Link, though, is a writer who has earned a second look and rewards rereading, so I will withhold judgment until I read the collection again. Which I will. I wanted to add one of Link’s collections to my read every year list.* But now, having read all four, I can’t decide which one, so I will likely rotate between them. I can’t recommend her stories highly enough.

Canon-Worthy.


* Currently comprised of Pale Fire by Nabokov, Moby Dick by Melville, Wild Seed by Butler, Prater Violet by Isherwood and moving forward, Peace and Fifth Head of Cerberus by Wolfe, Holy the Firm by Dillard and Middlemarch by Eliot. This could do with some pruning, and there likely will be at some point (The Moviegoer, Till We Have Faces and Godric used to be on the list), but I’m not willing to let go of any of the current batch go at the moment.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud (and Wounds (2019) directed by Babak Anvari)

I saw Nathan Ballingrud on a panel at the North Carolina Literary Festival in 2014 and picked up his first book, North American Lake Monsters, on the spot. It is an amazing collection of literary horror stories, and is due a reread. I picked up a standalone copy of this novella (also collected in his new book Wounds) a year or two ago and haven’t gotten around to it yet. They’ve adapted it into a movie, Wounds (on HULU), so I thought I’d read the book before watching.

The novella is excellent. Will, a bartender at a hole in the wall bar in New Orleans finds a phone left behind by some college students. The students (who were underage) ran off after a brutal fight involving a man who lives in the apartment above the bar. Will starts to get texts from the phone depicting some type of gory ritual and gets drawn into some dark places. The strength of the book is the combination of the supernatural and Will’s descent. He is revealed to be an utterly empty person. One of my favorite types of stories is a person realizing that they are not good, or at least having all the information needed for that realization even if they continue to lie to themselves. This fits that bill.

The movie is a very faithful adaptation. If anything it makes things a little more clear. At first I thought that it over-explained, but I think that I was just anticipating what would happen because I had just read the novella. The texts on the found phone give a little more information, and a couple things that are implied in the book are outright stated in the film (though I suspect I might not have caught them had I not just finished the book). The movie’s strongest scene is the final one. It captures the horror of the book very well.

The Visible Filth- Highly Recommended
Wounds- Recommended
(heavy content warning for both)

I would also like to put in a plug for North American Lake Monsters. It’s very very good.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

I really loved this when I read it six years ago, but I didn’t remember it very well. After reading Didion’s excellent novel Play It As It Lays earlier this year, as well as my streak of reading books of essays lately, I wanted to reread it. As with any collection, the pieces are not equally good, but overall this is a great collection. The prose is perfect. As in Play It As It Lays, she takes a dim view of human nature. These pieces are brutal at times. But they are also tinged with a sadness that is part depression and part wistfulness that things don’t have to be the way they are. It never goes saccharine, but if there is an unsentimental version of nostalgia, this approaches it as nearly as any other book I’ve read.

The book is divided into three sections: Lifestyles In The Golden Land consists of pieces about Californians and profiles of some famous people, and closes with the title essay, an account of her journalistic visit to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. This last deserves its reputation as a sort of nail in the coffin of the liberal dream of the sixties. There is a sense, as she frames it, that even the people she talked to seemed to know that the era was flaming out. The other pieces in this section both demonstrate California’s appeal and show its emptiness and venality. Her profile on the reclusive Howard Hughes had some real insight into how we lie to ourselves and especially to others about what we actually want. The gap between self and self perception is well on display here. I’ve heard some people say she takes a condescending view towards her subjects, but I disagree with that assessment. I think she sees them through her bleak (almost nihilistic) worldview. If she finds her subjects suspect, she finds herself equally so.

The second section, called Personals, contained the essays that resonated with me most; On Self Respect and On Morality. I read both several times, and while I’m not entirely sure the extent to which I agree with her, they made me pause and reckon with them. In Self Respect, Didion says that, like Jordan Baker from Great Gatsby, we have to have the courage of our mistakes; that there is a cost to standing up for yourself. I know that my personality is such that I often will not stand up for myself, so this was a bracing, challenging thought. If this sounds like self-help, it’s a bleak form of it, and to paraphrase Sara Gran, you have to take help where you can get it. In On Morality, Didion talks about distrusting the casual use of the word immoral, especially when taken out of a specific context. She never quite says there is no morality, but she does think there is a heavy dose of cant in our discussion of it. People who have done evil things often do them because they were following their consciences, and so we could stand to be at least a little skeptical of our own. I will be returning to these essays often, I think.

In this second section there is also an essay on Hollywood called I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind. She had clearly thought a lot about the “studio system” that gets blamed for so many bad movies, and is very critical of the response to it from the burgeoning New Hollywood and from imported Art House Cinema. It is very easy to laugh along with her assessment of self important message movies, but I think she was maybe a little too harsh. Dr. Strangelove, for instance, wasn’t nearly as empty as she describes it. She was dismissive of Bergman as well. That said, I haven’t seen a lot of the movies she discussed, so I’ll not comment beyond saying that I also get frustrated with message movies, even if I more or less agree with the message.

In the final section she talks about California, and in the final essay about her sojourn in New York. I’ve never been to California or New York, so I can’t confirm her vision of either, but the writing does seem very rooted in those places. Her evocation of Sacramento was particularly good, or at least seemed so to me.

Overall, this is an excellent, bleak collection. She resembles Orwell very little, but she does one thing I do like, that he did as well. As best I can tell she is some stripe of left of center, but she does not let that descend into utopianism. She criticizes where criticism is needed. I appreciate that.


Highly Recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Movie Roundup 10/19/19 (Oculus, Too Funny to Fail, Annhilation, Joker, The Thing, Tigers are Not Afraid, Gary Gulman: The Great Depresh, The Seduction of Mimi)

Oculus (2014) directed by Mike Flanagan- This was my first Mike Flanagan movie, and it was way better than I expected. I picked it up from the bargain bin a couple years ago because I’m a mild fan of Dr. Who and Battlestar and Karen Gillen and Katee Sackoff are main characters in this. Sackhoff’s role takes place about 15 or so years before the main action. She is the mother of Gillen’s character, and the victim of abuse at the hands of her husband who is apparently possessed by a ghost who lives in a mirror. Gillen’s character is scarred by this, as is her brother. When the latter gets out of a psychiatric ward she has tracked down the mirror and coerces him into facing the ghost with her. The way the past and present begin to weave into each other and the grim ending are the main selling points here. This is a solid horror movie, atmospheric and extremely well constructed.  Recommended.

Too Funny To Fail (2017) directed by Josh Greenbaum- I didn’t see The Dana Carvey Show when it first came out, but a decade or so later I got the dvds and thought they were hilarious; particularly Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food (featuring Carell and Colbert many years before they were famous), Germans Who Say Nice Things and Grandma the Clown (maybe the bleakest sketch I’ve ever laughed at). This is a decent documentary about the creation of the show. There is one scene, when the characters are reacting to an advertisement for Home Improvement, their lead in, that is as funny as anything in the show. These are two of the most mismatched shows imaginable, and the reaction of the interviewees is priceless. Recommended if you liked the show.

Annihilation (2018) directed by Alex Garland - This is probably still my favorite movie of 2018. It’s based on a novel by one of my favorite authors, Jeff Vandermeer. The mysterious Area X is covered by something called “the Shimmer” of unknown origin that is slowly expanding. All teams that have gone in have disappeared never to return, save one soldier, the husband of Natalie Portman’s character. She joins an all female team of scientists and security personnel who go into the space. This is scific horror at its best. Just beautiful and disturbing. The ending is reminiscent of 2001 or Solaris. This is a great weird tale, and I will be watching it many more times. Canon.

Joker (2019) directed by Todd Phillips- I was very mixed on this. Despite my attempts to avoid it, I heard a lot of chatter about it beforehand (mostly in bad faith from people who hadn’t seen it yet). As I watched it, I couldn’t shake the discourse. I’m looking forward to seeing it a year or two from now with some distance. As is, I can say that Phoenix is very good (no surprise there), though I still prefer Ledger’s performance. There are some really good moments; I particularly liked the scenes with De Niro. It seems to be aimed both at the types of angry loners who write manifestos and the eat the rich crowd. I think it wants to portray society as it is, but the message is muddled. I’m not much for message movies, but this seems to be trying to send one. It seems unsure of what that message actually is. There are a couple of fakeouts in which scenes are discovered to be his hallucinations, which makes the ending of the film ambiguous in an annoying rather than thought provoking way. Right now I’m hovering between Pass and Recommended, but I’m mostly going to withhold judgement for a year or so.

The Thing (1982) directed by John Carpenter- I had seen this several times, but never on the big screen before. This is a horror masterpiece that manages to be both creeping terror and a gorefest. Seeing it on the big screen was a great experience. Canon.

Tigers are Not Afraid (2017) directed by Issa L√≥pez- This is a beautiful and gut wrenching movie in the tradition of Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone. A group of orphans in Mexico have to figure out how to live on the streets as they run from ghosts and the vicious gang that murdered their parents. It’s a toss-up which is more frightening. The balance between terror and pathos is perfect, with periodic moments of joy. This is definitely worth tracking down. Highly Recommended.

Gary Gulman: The Great Depresh: I really like comedians who talk openly about their depression and anxiety (Chris Gethard and Maria Bamford are masters of this). I’ve always thought Gulman was a master craftsman, and in this special he applies that craft to hellish depression he went through over the past few years. I’m glad he’s still around, and I’m grateful that he chronicled this here. All that makes it sound like it isn’t funny, but it is. Highly Recommended.

The Seduction of Mimi (1972) directed by Lina Wertmuller- For the first 30 minutes or so of this, I thought they were framing Mimi as a Being There or Forrest Gump type witness to history type character. I was wrong about that. Rather, it is a searing portrait of a fragile male ego. From the internal context of the film, it is also a satire on Italian society of the time. I don't know enough about Italy during the period to speak to how accurate that aspect is, though I'm willing to grant that business, crime and church had significant overlap. What I did recognize as a truth was a guy feigning an ideology to meet women; you see this a lot in the church as well. In the end, Mimi is a completely unsupportable character, but the film is largely an indictment of him, and by extension, Italian society (though, as I said, I don't have the context to parse that critique).
The film is beautifully shot, especially the foggy atmosphere of the first 30 minutes. This was my first Wertmuller and will definitely not be my last. Recommended.