Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand’s literary punk fantasias, of which I’ve read eight so far including this collection, have quickly become some of my favorite works of literature. Halfway through the second story collected here I realized that she may be my favorite living writer. Across a variety of genres and lengths, Hand consistently brings an incredibly high degree of craft and art to bear on stories with a punk feminist energy that has worked for me every time. From nordic noir gothic, to fantasy, to historical mystery, to literary horror, to science fiction her voice adapts to the material but remains consistently her own. She’s not generally listed among the authors who comprise the New Weird (M John Harrison, Vandermeer, Mieville, KJ Bishop, etc), but her approach to genres, in that she largely ignores the borders between them, and her focus on language and atmosphere puts a lot of her work, including these stories, comfortably on the same shelf.

Last Summer at Mars Hill- Highly Recommended- A beautiful story of aging, grief, and loss that reminded me of Pavane For the Prince of the Air from her second collection. She said in the afterward that there was some wish fulfillment here in the particular way that magic intrudes on the story, but it really worked for me.

The Erl King- Canon Worthy- Hand is obsessed with punk and with many things counterculture and this riff on the fairy tale/myth of the Erl King draws in the aging survivors of Andy Warhol’s circle. It is a great story.

Justice- Canon Worthy- The best of the collection for my money. It’s atmosphere evoked the same landscape as Near Dark or No Country For Old Men. A feminist journalist is waved off the shocking and notorious case of abusive men and is put on to a weird spate of animal mutilations in rural Oklahoma. It gets stranger from there. This apparently made some people mad when it was first published. Good. It’s anger is well placed. It intersects with myth, but I won’t be more specific than that so as not to spoil the excellent climax.

Dionysus Dendrites (poem)- Highly Recommended- This poem resonated more after reading The Boy in the Tree and circling back to read it again, or it could have just been the effect of reading a fourth or fifth time. I’ve been on a poetry kick lately, and I was glad this was included in a collection otherwise completely dedicated to prose.

The Have Nots- Highly Recommended- This was both hilarious and sad.

In the Month of Athyr- Highly Recommended- One of two science fiction stories in the book. It works well, though I wish I had read her novels set in the same world, as I think that would clarify some things for me.

Engels Unaware- Highly Recommended- As the title indicates, a fantastical satire on capitalism and office life. Weird and horrifying in the right ways.

The Bacchae- Highly Recommended/ Canon Worthy- She said this was her attempt to write a JG Ballard Story. Having not read any Ballard, I can’t speak to how well it captures the spirit of his work, but as a modern day fantasy retelling of the titular myth it works like gangbusters.

Snow on Sugar Mountain- Canon Worthy- An orphaned boy who can shapeshift mourns his mother’s death as his life intersects with an aging astronaut. Hand said that it was an early attempt at trying to understand suicide. It’s a sad story but a beautiful one.

On the Town Route- Highly Recommended- This feels like an influence on Kelly Link. It’s got elements of Southern Gothic. A very disturbing story.

The Boy in the Tree- Canon Worthy- Hand said she started this as a scifi riff on The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen. It is that, but to say it was just that would be reductive. Great story all around. It also prompted me to read The Great God Pan this weekend, and I’m a few chapters into The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison, which she said was his riff on the same novella. The cumulative effect of reading all three stories in a relatively short period of time has been a great reading experience.

Prince of Flowers- Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy- It’s hard to believe this was her first published story. It’s a fully formed and realized literary horror story.

As I said above, I think Hand is probably my favorite living writer. I’m glad that I still have well over half her work yet to read. This and her other collection, Saffron and Brimstone, also comprised of mostly literary dark fantasy/horror stories, may well be my favorites of hers so far, though I’ve yet to read something I didn’t like. I will be returning to at least some of these, if not all of them, often.

Overall Collection- Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 54/75

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

While reading Elizabeth Hand’s excellent short story collection Last Summer At Mars Hill this past weekend, I saw that her story The Boy in the Tree started as a riff on this classic horror novella. That story was later expanded into her first novel, Winterlong (which I haven’t read yet. She also mentioned that a short story by M. John Harrison, also called The Great God Pan, was published around the same time and was expanded into his novel The Course of the Heart. Since I had a copy of the Harrison novel I picked up at a used bookstore last year, I thought it would be a good reading experience to read the three in quick succession. Both the Machen novella and Hand story were excellent, as are the first three chapters of The Course of the Heart.

The Great God Pan has been on my radar since last summer when I read a lot of Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction. In the course of that I read that Machen was a big influence. And this novella, written decades before Lovecraft published anything is a clear model for the ominous circuitous approach that Lovecraft took to creating a mood of creeping horror. I’d almost say that much, if not most, of Lovecraft is an extended homage to this. That would be an overstatement, but here are multiple narratives about the search for forbidden knowledge that, when found, drives people to madness.

It opens with a Dr. Clark, who is fascinated with the occult and is attempting to write a work proving the existence of the Devil, is convinced by a friend to participate in an experiment attempting to see an occult reality. They essentially sacrifice a woman who is the first person driven mad by what happens, a rite revealed later to be even more disturbing than first glance. Throughout the rest of the narrative Dr. Clark and other  gather narratives of the effects of that night culminating in a true nightmare.

I enjoyed Machen’s prose which reminded me of Kenneth Graham (author of The Wind in the Willows) and his ability to create an atmosphere of creeping horror. This is the kind of story that gets in your head and lives there. It’s no surprise that Lovecraft picked up here, and that a century later it inspired great work by two of the best living writers (Hand and Harrison).  I suspect I’ll be returning to this novella at least several times.

Highly Recommended/ Canon Worthy

Free Online, Library Books, Etc 2020 10/35

Monday, July 27, 2020

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

After reading Tar Baby earlier this year and enjoying it as well as I did, I was less intimidated to start Song Of Solomon which I’ve had on the shelf for nearly as long. I don’t know what made me wait on these. When I read Beloved, Sula, and The Bluest Eye I really enjoyed them, especially Beloved. For some reason I had the idea in mind that the two I read this year were going to be academic exercises that I should like for political reasons but that would be dry and boring. I had no excuse. I repeat, I enjoyed the three books I read by her in the early 2010’s. But these are vital books, political, yes, angry, yes, but also alive and compelling. I really liked Tar Baby, but Song of Solomon is a flat out masterpiece. I need to reread Beloved, but if I can trust a roughly decade old memory of it, it’s the only of the five of her books I’ve read that is this good.

The novel begins on the eve of Macon “Milkman” Dead’s birth*, as an insurance salesman, believing he can fly, leaps from the roof of the hospital on Not Doctor Street. Milkman is the first black baby delivered in that hospital. His mother is the daughter of a prominent doctor. Milkman’s father is domineering. His aunt runs a wine house. His best friend Guitar subscribes to an angrier and more violent approach to life and justice. Milkman is adrift. His family history is a mystery, and he lacks motivation. He grows up during the Civil Rights period, but is disconnected from that movement. His family life and eventual quest to understand his family history and struggle to come to terms with his own displacement drive the action of the book.

While almost everything in the book could actually happen, the mood is phantasmagorical. It feels like a dark fantasy. The mood is horror adjacent. Morrison’s language is great, of course. And she wields it here in service of a compulsively, angry and moving story. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 52/75

*Morrison has a gift for character names; his aunt is named Pilate, and one of his sisters is named First Corinthians

Friday, July 24, 2020

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

I’ve been a Michael Chabon fan since around the time Kavalier and Clay came out in paperback. I watched the movie adaptation of his book Wonder Boys, but Waldenbooks didn’t have a copy of it. They did have Kavalier and Clay and I saw it had won the Pulitzer. It really blew me away. Later I did track down a copy of Wonder Boys and I read the library’s copy of Mysteries of Pittsburgh in a day. I got Summerland when it came out and, despite not caring for baseball, really enjoyed his take on YA fantasy. I still haven’t read his “late 20th Century Realist” (his terms) short story collections, but I’ve read his first two collections of essays and I had read all his novels save this one. Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are two of the best books of the century so far. His most recent, Moonglow was nearly as good. The only one I haven’t liked was Telegraph Avenue. So when I got into an online discussion this weekend about Chabon and remembered how much I enjoyed his work I got my copy of this, purchased not too long after it was published as a book (after being serialized in the NYT) off the shelf and read it in a couple sittings. While I don’t like it quite as well as some of his other work it is a highly enjoyable swashbuckler.

The main reason I haven’t read his realist short stories is Chabon’s own fault in a way. In an introduction to a McSweeney’s genre story collection he edited, he seemed to all but call those stories boring. I’ve been primed to not like a book before, but never by its author! In the afterward to this, Chabon clarifies that he still stands by those stories, which was a relief. Still, Chabon’s enthusiasm for genre work was evident in Kavalier and Clay. One of the things that drew me to him was that he was an excellent mainstream writer who was making the argument that genre fans and authors have been making for years, that every genre had great work in it, and just because something was not SF or Crime or whatever, it wasn’t automatically better than works in those genres. He put his money where his mouth was with a fantasy YA novel, a novella in the manner of Arthur Conan Doyle and an amazing alternate history noir. And here he continued that trend with a book that is basically sword and sorcery without the sorcery.

(As an aside, that same McSweeney’s collection Chabon edited had a story called How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became A Famous Oklahoma Lawman which was my introduction to one of my favorite writers, Elmore Leonard. As much as I like Chabon for his own work, I’m as grateful for the literary introduction.)

The novel begins with a great fakeout, which I will try not to spoil. The story concerns two jewish bandits (Gentlemen of the Road) one African and the other Frankish who get caught up in a civil war. The serialized structure gives the book tremendous energy. I have to admit to having not read Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock who were the template for this type of story, but this made me more likely to pick up some Moorcock at least. This is far from my top Chabon book, but it is very good. A fast paced well written adventure story that I enjoyed thoroughly.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 53/75

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

It is very strange that I’ve not read Red Harvest before. It is reputed to be one of the greatest of crime novels by people whose opinion I trust. I had previously read Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and enjoyed it. And, most of all, I knew that it was a heavy influence on my second or third all time favorite film, Miller’s Crossing. Red Harvest also provided the Coens with the title for their debut film, the excellent neo-noir Blood Simple. Miller’s Crossing is not a straight adaptation, but it wears the Red Harvest influence proudly.  In addition to lifting the occasional line (“What’s the rumpus?”), the structures are similar as one person plays various crime bosses and syndicates off of each other in spectacular Machiavellian fashion. The main difference is while Tom from Miller’s Crossing is a criminal underboss himself, The Continental Op is a PI.

The Op is hired by a newspaper man whose father is a fading crime boss in the town of Personville, called Poisonville, for an unclear purpose. The newspaper man is murdered while the Op is waiting to meet with him. The father, the aging gangster, then hires the op to clean up the town of the other criminal elements as he is unable to control them anymore (he later tries to go back on that, of course). The first murder is solved relatively quickly and the rest is given to hardboiled maneuvering among the criminal set in Poisonville.

The dialog is quick, the prose is lean and the plot barrels along. I read this in two or three sittings last Saturday. For me the delight of this book is two fold; it is both a great crime novel in its own right and it doubles as a Coen Brothers decoder ring. So much of their style can be seen here. I’m looking forward to more Hammett. I’ll likely read The Thin Man next and might reread The Maltese Falcon later. I will certainly be rereading this periodically in the years to come.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 51/75

Monday, July 20, 2020

Paradise Lost by John Milton

I’ve read some Milton before. I remember the sonnet that begins “When I consider how my light is spent” from either a high school or college class. I’ve even read sections of Paradise Lost before. But I’d never read it in its entirety until recently. After reading Confidence Man by Milton and Palimpsest by Valente I was in the right mindset for dense language. I dip into my poetry books regularly, but I hadn’t lately. I listened to some lectures on Blood Meridian that mentioned how the Judge from that novel was in part based on Satan in Paradise Lost. Someone on the Coode Street Podcast said that people who enjoy fantasy who hadn’t yet read Paradise Lost should do it. Since I’m trying to read mostly books of which I have unread copies this year it seemed like the perfect time.

I read most of this aloud to myself, and that alone, especially in the early books or chapters was a great experience. It really gave me a better grasp on the language. Once Blake’s idea that Milton was “of the party of Hell” because he made Satan more interesting than anyone else in Paradise Lost got in my head, I couldn’t shake it. I think I can say that I probably would have found the early books much more interesting than the latter anyway, but I can’t be sure. And Satan certainly reads like a protagonist for the first third of the book. Even before I started watching Milton lectures on YouTube I could really sense the tension between Milton’s Puritanism and his obvious identification with Satan in the poem. And the guy on that podcast was right: so much imagery in fantasy either comes from this or at least was prefigured by this. There are battle scenes that as described could be from one of the Lord of the Rings movies. Given the book’s influence on theology and Christian Apologetics (the purpose of the poem was to “justify the ways of God to Man using the free will argument*), it makes sense that its influence on fantasy is overlooked.

As much as I loved the first third of the book, I'm not ashamed to say I found the rest a slog. I’m enjoying the lectures that are revealing things I missed, but the actual reading of the back two thirds was borderline tortuous. And these lectures are highlighting the density of allusions in the book. I doubt that most people in Milton’s day could have gotten all the allusions either. A lot more than I did on my own to be sure, but part of the book is Milton showing off his erudition to the detriment of the work.

It’s also worth mentioning, that despite a surface attempt to give culpability for the fall to both Adam and Eve, the book very much blames Eve.

The language is as good as its reputation. Reading those early books out loud was a great reading experiment and if the rest was as interesting story wise, this would almost be automatically canon for me. As it is I would recommend reading the first 3-4 books out loud and then pass on the rest.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 50/75

*Though that is certainly complicated by his identification with Satan and the fact he doesn’t convincingly shake the idea of God’s foreknowledge as causal.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Alien Virus Love Distaster by Abbey Mei Otis

Abbey Mei Otis writes stories that seethe with the understanding of class in America and what it’s like to be of the poorer strata. She writes with humor at times, but the lasting impression is of sadness and powerlessness. This collection, her first, really works both in its component parts and as a whole. Through peeks into several strange worlds, some closer to ours than others, but all rooted here in some way, those themes of class remain constant even as their expression varies wildly.

The true highlights of the book for me were If You Lived Here You’d Be Evicted by Now and especially I’m Sorry Your Daugher Got Eaten by a Cougar. The former is a horror story rooted in class and the way the poor are pitted against each other, but is no sermon. It is truly disturbing, and has one of the most unsettling openings I’ve read recently. The latter is reminiscent of Kelly Link (though it remains in Otis’s voice) in the way that it starts with some strangeness and gets increasingly weirder and more true-feeling as it goes along. The other highlight (for me at least), Teacher, was in a parable mode, and it illustrates well the idea that it’s hard to teach to students whose basic needs aren’t met. Why should they care?

Only one didn’t work for me at all, it was the one case where the themes became more important than the story, or so I felt at the time (I was very tired when I read it, so I should probably give it a second chance). All the others were somewhere from enjoyable to very good indeed. Otis writes good prose and brings science fictional/fantastical/magical elements into mundane-ish situations with a sure hand. She has a real gift for naming stories. The collection sits comfortably next to Link, Vandermeer, Kij Johnson and the like. Even if you don’t read the whole thing, you should at least seek out I’m Sorry Your Daughter Got Eaten by a Cougar, which is an all-timer.

Alien Virus Love Disaster- Highly Recommended
Moonkids- Highly Recommended
If You Could Be God of Anything- Highly Recommended
Teacher- Highly Recommended
Sex Dungeons For Sad People- Highly Recommended
Not An Alien Story- Recommended
Sweetheart- Recommended
I’m Sorry Your Daughter Got Eaten by a Cougar- Canon Worthy
Rich People- Pass
If You Lived Here You’d Be Evicted By Now- Canon Worthy
Ultimate Housekeeping Megathrill 4- Recommended

Overall Collection- Highly Recommended

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 49/75

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Selected Poems Gwendolyn Brooks

I’m unsure of how to write about poetry, but over the past couple weeks I’ve been in the right mood and have been reading this and Paradise Lost (about which I will probably have more to say), mostly out loud to myself. Reading the poems aloud was a good move, because it allowed me to connect with the poems despite having less familiarity with them. I dip into Auden, Yeats, Robinson Jeffers and Anne Porter often, but I hadn’t read a whole collection of poetry in a while. I picked up a copy of this years ago for a class I took, or at least shortly after I had taken it, and remembered the excellent poem We Real Cool (at least partially because it was also in a collection that came with recordings of poets reading their work), but not much else.

I will say these are powerful. I will be dipping into this along with my regulars now, I think. To my mind, she was particularly good at sonnets; the collection contains several great sequences. Three of the non-sonnets that really stood out to me were Negro Hero, Lovers of the Poor and In Emmanuel’s Nightmare: Another Coming of Christ. But the poem that absolutely killed me and was my favorite in the book was A Sunset of the City.

This is a vital collection.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 48/75

The Sweet Hereafter

One of my favorite styles of storytelling, maybe my favorite, is the use of multiple unreliable narrators. I love the uncertainty this creates as the reader has to tease out why the various narrators might frame things the way they do. That was not entirely what I expected when I read this (though an acquaintance in a book group did mention the multiple narrators long enough ago that I’d forgotten); I picked up a used copy when I saw this on a list of recommended rural noir. This does have a rural setting, but it’s more a meditation on grief and its effects on communities than noir.

It’s a sad book. It starts with a bus wreck that kills 14 kids. The first (and last) narrator is the bus driver. The second is a father of twins who died in the wreck. The next is an out of town lawyer who tries to gin up a class action lawsuit. Before the bus driver wraps up the novel, there’s a section by one of the kids who survived but was paralyzed. I want to avoid spoilers, so I won’t talk much more about the plot.* Despite the unreliability of the narrators, by piecing their stories together, the reader is able to get a good enough view of what actually happens. Banks understands that motives are complicated; it’s implicit in the structure of the book, but the second narrator says it outright, "Who knows now? Fixing motives is like fixing blame--- the further away from the act you get, the harder it is to single out one thing as having caused it." That blame forms one of the strands of the ethical problems explored in the book.

But the overwhelming mood of the book is sad rumination on loss and the effects of grief on a community. I read the book in a couple of sittings on a day off, and for the first time I read an entire book and watched the adaptation on the same day. By expanding the role of the lawyer and adding a throughline of a reference to the Pied Piper fairy tale, the movie manages to capture the sadness of the book, though it loses the Rashomon quality that the multiple narrators gave. This is a very good, very sad book, and I will probably seek out more of Banks’ work.

Highly Recommended

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 47/75

*Except to say that it does deal with incest in one of the sections, so know that going in.

Palimpsest by Catherine Valente

I’m not exactly sure how to write about Palimpsest. It’s not quite like anything I’ve read before. The closest comparison I can think of Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, but while both are poetic explorations of impossible cities with lots of sex, I think that’s as far as the comparison can be taken. It took a little while to figure out what was happening, but once I got on its wavelength, I really loved it.

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been at least partially scraped away and written over. The city itself is written over the mundane world and is accessed in dreams. Four people, a beekeeper, a bookbinder, a locksmith and lover of trains all find themselves bound together. Each has slept with someone recently who had a strange tattoo and found a similar tattoo on themselves. Now they visit Palimpsest each night when they sleep. They are limited to the area covered by the map on their tattoo unless they sleep with a person with a different tattoo. It’s not the kind of book that you can spoil, but I won’t describe the plot further. It’s more a book to be experienced. It’s a cliche to say a prose work is like a poem or dream, but damned if I haven’t read at least three that fit that description this year (this, Dhalgren, and Dead Astronauts). And while that might be a pejorative in some cases, these three really work.

The prose is dense and poetic without being too purple. Despite the dream-like quality of the story, there is a plot; there is ambiguity it is about the meaning of the work, not the action. The city is a palimpsest, but so are the identities of the protagonists, their tattoos and the culture that changes as they, and by extension the other inhabitants of and visitors to Palimpsest, do. This is a book that will take several readings to fully get, but on a first pass, I’m pretty sure it’s great.

Highly Recommended (though on reread it could be canon worthy)

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 46/75

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville

Whoo boy! I don’t know what I expected from this, but it wasn’t what I got (except on a prose level). Last year, on my eighth readthrough of Moby Dick, I realized that it had become my favorite novel and that it was weird that I hadn’t read anything else by Melville with the exception of a short story back in undergrad. So I read a collection that had Billy Budd and all save one of the Piazza stories and loved it. This was the next step, and maybe I expected something like the proto-version of Rififi, Le Cercle Rouge, Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, etc. but in Melville’s dense allusive prose. I was wrong.

There is a con man, constantly changing clothes, and only described by the clothes he was wearing, running a series of short cons on the passengers on a Mississippi steam boat on April Fools Day. It was published on April Fools Day1857, and it seems to be a joke played on the idea that we as humans can have confidence in anything. There’s no plot. It’s a series of short cons and philosophical ruminations on the nature of certainty and trust. I want to be careful not to read too much of modern day thought into the book, but if I read it correctly it blasts slavery, the idea of calling a woman crazy when she doesn’t act just the way she’s supposed to, the bible, capitalism, and just about every thing else. There’s a particularly savage passage in which he uses Paul’s bit about a righteous man vs a good man and how someone might actually die for the latter to remove all confidence in a slaver. But it does that for every person met in the book.

I read some Camus recently, and I can see why he considered Melville one of the great writers, and why he called him one of the few writers who could write the absurd. This is a masterful philosophical novel. One thing I was prepared for was Melville’s prose. All that time put in with Moby Dick paid off here. The language is similarly dense, if not balanced out by an adventure story framework. There’s a grandeur to the language that I really appreciate. This is reputed to be Melville’s most difficult novel, and between the two I’ve read that’s true. That said, it is a wonder. It’s not as good as Moby Dick, but what book is? Here, even more than in Moby Dick, he presages the modern novel and existentialist philosophy. It’s funny and profound. I will be returning to it many times, I’m sure.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 44/75

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Tar Baby by Toni Morrison

Sometimes when I contemplate reading an author who won, the Nobel Prize, I balk. It almost feels like homework. In this case, though, I really shouldn’t have worried. It’s been a while, but I read Sula, Beloved and The Bluest Eye and really enjoyed all of them, especially Beloved. Those are definitely due for rereads, but I had unread copies of several of her novels that I’m going to try to get through first. I enjoyed this thoroughly, and am mad at myself for putting it off so long.

Unlike the other books I’ve read by her, Tar Baby was set in the then current day of the early eighties. In the first chapter, a man called Son jumps off of the boat he’s serving on and winds up on a privately owned Carribean island, property of a retired candy magnate and his wife, a former Miss Maine, the Streets. Jadine, the protagonist is the niece of the magnate’s butler and housekeeper. She is a model with an advanced degree, financed by the Streets. Jadine and Son’s relationship begins as the veneer of civility in the Streets’ relationship becomes increasingly strained. Jadine’s privilege contrasts with Son’s upbringing and in that tension Morrison is able to talk about race and class with subtlety and insight.

The novel is an excellent melodrama with just a hint of magical realism. Morrison’s prose is as excellent as expected. The story moves from the Carribean to NYC and back very smoothly. I’m looking forward to the others I have on the shelf and a reread of Beloved. I think Song of Solomon will be next. I suspect I will eventually read all of her books.

Highly Recommended

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 45/75