26 June 2012

The Book of Lost Books (Stuart Kelly)

During last summer's literally epic GRRMarathon, the following mystical convergence occurred: 1. I read a scene wherein a character* is reading The Book of Lost Books, and thought to myself, "Man, I wish this was a real book." 2. Mere days later, I came across Stuart Kelly's `1The Book of Lost Books while shelving at Housing Works! Tragically, I didn't have the spare cash to snap it up on the spot, but I didn't forget, and my lovely sister gave it to me for Christmas. This being June, I finally got around to reading it. (Also I finished my fiancé's Christmas present! It's a sweater! Just in time for 90-degree weather!)

And it's everything I'd hoped, a commonplace book of works we'll never read, a bibliophile's catalog of tantalizing impossibility. Kelly's cheery, digressive prose shares the sad fates of reams of writing gone astray or destroyed over the millenia; sure, everybody's heard of Aristotle's lost work on comedy (for certain narrow definitions of "everybody"), but didja know Homer's first epic was a comedy, the Margites? Whole Greek and Roman authors' oeuvres have disappeared, such as the works of Agathon, an Athenian playwright who wrote the only known tragedy with an original plot (Antheus), or those of Gallus, a Roman poet praised by Ovid and Virgil. Kelly even rattles off a list of Greek writers we only know about because Aristophanes makes fun of them, a depressing legacy to say the least. Then there's the case of Menander, a comic dramatist whose wildly popular plays were lost during the Middle Ages--until fragments were discovered in the early 1900s . . . and, uh, nobody liked them very much.

Kelly doesn't limit himself to the ancients, of course, and he expands the definition of "lost" to include unfinished works--The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, which cuts off in the middle of a sentence--and those planned but never written, like Goethe's answer to Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, a scientific epic to be called "The Romance of the Universe," or Milton's Arthuriad. Cervantes had to put aside part II of his pastoral drama Galatea to counter a spurious Don Quixote sequel with his own, which leaves the mad knight safely dead at the end (luckily, no one thought to bring him back as a zombie).

Even relative modernity is no assurance for an author. All of Hemingway's work up until 1922 was in a case stolen from his first wife's luggage. Polish writer Bruno Schulz's novel Messiah supposedly languishes in the KGB archives to this day. Dylan Thomas managed to misplace and re-find his play Under Milk Wood three times.

And mercy, I do so hope that Mr. Martin doesn't add to Kelly's list.

*Research indicates said scene appears in A Feast for Crows--the reader is Lord Rodrik Harlaw, oddball bibliophile among the ironborn and uncle to Asha and Theon Greyjoy.

18 June 2012

Angsty teens, Japanese and Nautical-American.

Two great comics, linked by high-schooler protagonists (but not much else).

First, Shuzo Oshimi's The Flowers of Evil, and Angsty Teen #1, Takao Kasuga, who spends his time reading Baudelaire and Having So Many Feelings No One Understands UGH . . . and then one day he succumbs to temptation and steals his crush Saeki's dirty gym uniform. Too late, he learns his crime was witnessed by Nakamura, the weirdest, angriest girl in his class. She's willing to keep her silence, for a price--but she prefers mind games to money. She thinks she's found a kindred spirit in perversion and contempt--and though, in this first volume, Takao vehemently denies they've anything in common, I can't wait to see whether he decides to embrace his inner Baudelaire.

This side of the Pacific--and possibly floating on it--there's Dave Roman's and John Green's Teen Boat! The comic's tagline sums it up neatly: "The angst of being a teen! The thrill of being a boat!" and takes it from there . . . our eponymous hero can, in fact, transform into a yacht. It's a great premise, done to giddy perfection, as in the first arc, where Teen Boat tries to get in good with the jocks by letting them have a party on his nautical form. Manages both to skewer superhero and teen-fiction tropes and play 'em straight. Recommended for pretty much everyone, except maybe my friend Greg, who's terrified of open water.

20th Century Ghosts (Joe Hill)

So I'm looking to my right at the little "Labels" section in my Blogger settings, at how I've picked "reviews: sci-fi/fantasy" to classify this post, and it's bugging me, as it often does, that literary taxonomy is so inexact, that the terms are so slippery, that they keep changing and then you have to keep explaining the new names: like Weird Fiction, which I really like, and which is probably the best blanket term for the amazing stories contained in Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, encompassing as it does science fiction, fantasy, horror . . . non-realistic (but, of course, not unrealistic) narratives. For the most part. ARGH START AGAIN

Joe Hill is great! Horns was great! Heart-Shaped Box was great (and scared the PANTS off me, yeesh)! And the fifteen stories in 20th Century Ghosts are all great, in fifteen different ways.

Three favorites-among-favorites: "Best New Horror" is the tale of an anthology editor searching for fresh talent. It's glorious, recursive metafiction, and contains the best defense of genre writing I've read, to wit the narrator's insistence that "every fictional world was a work of fantasy, and whenever writers introduce a threat or a conflict into their story, they create the possibility of horror. He had been drawn to horror fiction . . . because it took the most basic elements of literature and pushed them to their extremes. All fiction was make-believe, which made fantasy more valid (and honest) than realism." <3 <3 <3

"Pop Art"'s about a kid whose best friend is inflatable. I suppose if you were boring you'd be all This Is a Metaphor For Disability, but that sucks the imagination out of it. And I'd rather just sit back in awe of Hill's imagination; because I've no doubt that a "real" inflatable person would be just like Art. And I sort of want to hug Art, and hear the happy little squeaks of his plastic skin.

"Last Breath," about a family's visit to a unique and macabre museum, could have been written by Bradbury or Poe, or filmed as an episode of The Twilight Zone. It's a timeless, impeccable little hit of spine-chilling, without requiring a lick of gore.

And the hits keep coming! Ghost stories scary and sweet ("The Black Phone," "Dead-Wood," "20th Century Ghost,"), a superhero-inflected revenge fantasy ("The Cape"), riffs on Bram Stoker ("Abraham's Boys") and somehow both Kafka and 50s monster movies in the same story ("You Will Hear the Locust Sing"). Some are brain-bending, like "Voluntary Committal," with its cardboard forts that lead places they shouldn't, and "My Father's Mask," which is . . . man, bonkers, I can't even really describe it. There are stories, too, with nary a supernatural element: "In the Rundown" takes a left turn halfway through, and then crashes through a plate-glass window. "The Widow's Breakfast" is a bleak-yet-hopeful snapshot of the Depression. "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" takes place on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but that's all that's horrific about it.  "Better Than Home" is just perfect, a bittersweet father-son story. With baseball!

"Best New Horror" name-checks Kelly Link, always a good way to get me on your side, but fitting, since I'd have to put Joe Hill up next to her in my personal pantheon of short-story writers, along with, off the top of my head, Shirley Jackson, Connie Willis, and the aforementioned-and-recently-lamented Bradbury. Now that's an anthology I'd like to read.

Heading Out to Wonderful (Robert Goolrick)

Robert Goolrick's first novel, A Reliable Wife, surprised me--in a very book-reviewer turn of phrase, I think of it as an erotic Ethan Frome (which I know, like that pickle dish wasn't sexy enough, rawr!). Heading Out to Wonderful, out last week, shares the meditative, old-fashioned pacing of Reliable Wife, but it's a very different story--and surprised me in a different way.

Wonderful is set in post-WWII Virginia, though the proverbially-sleepy small town of Brownsburg hasn't bothered to change much for decades. Into this idyllic stability comes Charlie Beale, with his set of butcher's knives and a (never-explained) suitcase full of cash. He's a loner and a wanderer, but ready to settle down, so he gets a job at Will Haislett's butcher shop, and is soon a part of his family, a second father to five-year-old Sam. Then he meets Sylvan Glass, the too-glamorous, Hollywood-obsessed wife of the town's richest man, who literally bought her from her backwoods family when she was seventeen. Using excursions with little Sam as a front, they start what they believe is a passionate affair, though it's clearly a slow-motion tragedy.

But while another author would be most interested in the clandestine couple, the ways in which love is always epic, the illusions we create of lovers even as we know we're doing so, Wonderful is really Sam's story. It's clear from the beginning that his older self narrates, and while he swears he wasn't wounded by the events Goolrick tells, it's hard not to ache for him, tagging along every Wednesday to the house Charlie buys Sylvan, marking time with comic books when they go upstairs. His hero-worship won't let him see what's being done to him, any more than Charlie's all-consuming adoration of Sylvan lets him understand what he's doing. Charlie loves Sam, doesn't mean to hurt him--but intent alone isn't enough.

16 June 2012

Great Granny Webster (Caroline Blackwood)

It's hard to talk about Caroline Blackwood's novella Great Granny Webster without talking about the woman herself: heiress and muse, alcoholic and raconteur (in a time when people still called other people raconteurs). And it's hard to read this slim little oddity of a book without seeing it as autobiographical: it's the pieced-together story of several generations of upper-class British women, from the unbending matriarch of the title (which I mean pretty literally; girlfriend has crazy good posture), through her institutionalized daughter, dancing with the faery folk alone in her dilapidated ballroom; her aging flapper granddaughter, lover and leaver of more rich men than she cares to count; down to the horrified narrator/ Blackwood analogue, trying to learn as much as she can about her family history in a desperate attempt to escape it.

As brief as it is, Great Granny Webster's a heavy read, a dispassionate catalog of madness, rigidity, and decay. Except somehow not as bleak as it sounds? Well, no, wait, it is. Yet there are moments of sly humor, like the Very Correct English servants forced to wear galoshes in the leaky Ulster castle where the narrator's father was brought up. And it's a great summation of decades of British social roles, Victorian to post-Empire, with culture-recurrent themes of class stricture and the past. A lot to cover in 103 pages.

Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn)

How Great Sharp Objects Is, Part 1: had to dose myself with Nyquil after reading it all evening, to keep myself from staying up till 4 a.m. to finish.

How Great Sharp Objects Is, Part 2: fifteen pages from the end the next day, I took the local rather than the express on my commute home so's not to be interrupted. And luckily I finished while still on the train, or I'd have taken a page from my constantly-bruised childhood and read it while walking.

Camille Preaker, a reporter at a second-rate Chicago newspaper, reluctantly returns to her Missouri hometown to scoop the story of two dead little girls, found strangled a year apart, all their teeth removed. It becomes quickly obvious why she's stayed away: her cold and passive-aggressive mother, Adora, is the proverbial piece of work, and Camille's thirteen-year-old half-sister, Amma, walks the line between pampered child and drugged-up Lolita with glee. Camille herself is far from unscathed, but she wears her scars on the outside as well--for over a decade she carved words into her flesh, an obsessive chronicle of pain and self-loathing.

Sharp Objects is best read in a few gulps, but you'll need a strong stomach: though there's no supernatural element, it shades into sheer horror, as Flynn dials up the dysfunction and malignancy possible in relationships between women--mothers, daughters, sisters, friends--to a fever pitch. This is part of why I loved it, I think, that's it's such a deliberate, unusual exploration of uniquely feminine damage, both suffered and inflicted. My favorite lines sum it up better than I can:
Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed.

03 June 2012

Mystery May fourfer!

The City & the City, China Miéville: First read this as an ARC back in '09, my first exposure to Miéville's work, and I felt lukewarm towards it at the time. While it's still not my favorite (I think Perdido Street Station and Kraken tie for that honor), I did better appreciate it this time around. It's a police procedural with a spec-fic premise that's way harder to explain than it is to read in his capable narrative: it's set in the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma (in the same nebulous part of the world as Jan Morris's Hav), which occupy the same physical space but have wholly separate governments, languages, and history--an inhabitant of either city grows up learning the art of seeing and unseeing, realizing in an instant whether a given passersby or building or vehicle is in his own city, able to be acknowledged and interacted with, or the other, whereupon it officially does not exist to them. Looking over the border is the direst of crimes, calling out the mysterious force called Breach. In this singular environment, Beszel policeman Tyador Borlu finds himself investigating a unique and complicated murder: the victim, American archaeology student Mahalia Geary, was found in Beszel . . . but killed in Ul Qoma. And when he finds out that she was obsessed with legendary third city Orciny, the mystery deepens. Miéville doesn't so much blend genres here as snort derisively as the very notion that blending is even necessary; like his cities, they're already part of each other, no matter how fiercely we to keep them separate.

The Guards, Ken Bruen: First in a series narrated by Jack Taylor, alcoholic ex-Garda (i.e., member of the Garda Síochána na hÉireann, Ireland's police force), now picking up private-eye work in between blackout benders. What makes this fast-moving Irish noir work for me, despite its pretty standard setup, is the lyricism of its writing--almost a prose poem in places. Bruen's habit of dropping the beginning of a quote to the paragraph after its tag provides a literal rise and fall to his characters' speech that I found especially effective.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith: This classic thriller hardly requires my praise, but I'm givin' it anyway. Tom Ripley is a small-time con artist sent to Europe by a college acquaintance Dickie Greenleaf's father, who pays his way hoping that Tom can persuade Dickie to leave his idle life painting in Italy to come home and join the family shipbuilding business. Instead, Tom decides to not just emulate Dickie, but become him, killing him and stealing his identity and the money that goes with it. Ripley's often referred to as a sociopath, but I think he's an even more chilling creature--completely blank, a malleable substance that reconfigures itself to the specifications of what those around him expect or want, not so much a personality as a gallery of masks.

And speaking of sociopaths, there's no other way to describe Wayne Ogden, the cheerfully amoral narrator of Scott Phillips pitch-black Midwestern noir The Adjustment. He's just returned to 1946 Wichita from years as a supply sergeant in Europe, a job he used as front for a black-market gamut of drug dealing, pimping, and thievery. Now he's back to work in "public relations" for Collins aircraft, his primary duties being to keep the company's head in booze and hookers, and cover up the consequences. This is not a book for anyone who needs a protagonist with any glimmer of redeeming qualities--being in Ogden's head is a harrowing and repugnant experience--but apparently I've no such requirement, because I loved it. Been meaning to read Phillips for ages--though he lives in St. Louis now, he's a Wichita boy, with a native's nonchalant knowledge of the city, and he's a Watermark Books favorite (I grinned goofily when Ogden makes a phone call "in the back of Gessler's drugstore on Douglas," said storefront now being occupied by Watermark). On the wall of their basement autograph galley, he's drawn himself looking chagrined at a podium, thinking to himself, "Dear God, there's not a single paragraph in here appropriate for a mixed audience. Next time I'm writing a NICE book." I, for one, am glad he hasn't.
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