Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.5.2014
Book from: Library

Fashion Beast is a 10-issue comic written by Alan Moore, Malcom McLaren [yes, THAT Malcolm McLaren - father-of-punk Malcolm McLaren], and Antony Johnston, with art and colors by Facundo Percio.

“Doll was unfulfilled in her life as a coat checker of a trendy club. But when she is fired from the job and auditions to become a “mannequin” for a reclusive designer, the life of glamour she always imagined is opened before her. She soon discovers that the house of Celestine is as dysfunctional as the clothing that define the classes of this dystopian world. And she soon discovers that the genius of the designer is built upon a terrible lie that has influence down to the lowliest citizen.”

Such a whitebread back-cover description! Some high-concept terms that get at it better: Beauty & the Beast in a rotting, faintly fascist retro-future city on the brink of nuclear winter, with a lot of gender ambiguity and sundry, Gormenghastly gothic touches.

Surprisingly, despite all those Emera-tuned keywords, I didn’t love this, and primarily because I didn’t enjoy the art. I quite liked Percio’s penciling (especially pacing of gestures and facial expressions from panel to panel), but the colors are everything I dislike about digital color in comics: every surface airbrushed into metallic smoothness, plus periwinkle shadows for everyone’s skin in case they didn’t already look enough like metal. Also, for a comic that’s about clothes wearing people rather than the other way round, the fashion is disappointingly boring: all basic, flat Neo-Edwardian silhouettes. I wish it had exerted more visual seduction.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the comic, found it to be a rich text that I thought through repeatedly in the days after I’d read it. It’s a darkly cheeky satire on celebrity and image – very similar in themes to Watchmen, really, but more winking, a bit more knowingly confected, and targeted more specifically at myths of creative genius, and consumerism. All the fancy is anchored by characters who are developed just enough to read as prickly, human, and sympathetic.

I can’t seem to find this review anymore, but I’d read one that mentioned the troubling note of the erasure of the initially apparently queer characters: the girl who looks like a boy who looks like a girl, ends up clinching happily and heterosexually with the boy who looks like a girl who looks like a boy… I wish I could find that review to credit it, because it made the ending of the comic click for me: “But that’s the POINT!” The provocateur who seeks validation and fame by way of the establishment ends up becoming the establishment; the consumerist machine chews its way forward; the walls close in again. Also, everyone’s going to die in a nuclear apocalypse anyway.

And some great side stuff - the creepy background notes riffing on the hollowness of fashion – the use of uninhabited, remote-controlled suits to patrol and reclaim irradiated areas, for example. Who cares why they would be suits rather than just robots (most elements of this dystopian world barely hold up logically), when it’s such a great image?

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Alan Moore: bio and works reviewed

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China Miéville’s essay on forbears and mascots of the Weird, “M. R. James and the Quantum Vampire,” was republished over at the Weird Fiction Review back in 2011; I finally got around to reading it lately. It’s characteristically baroque and acrobatic.

I’m putting down here some of the highlights, mostly for my own clarification and reference:

  • The assertion that the tentacular is the avatar of the Weird, on the basis that the octopus is ontologically challenging (shapeshifting, armed and/or legged, both swimming and walking, etc.) and without folkloric precedent as a Big Bad Beastie. (But what about the kraken, in “[h]is ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep” [thanks Tennyson]? Could that be said to be more of a literary precedent than a pervasive folkloric element? Eh. Unconvinced; it seems like a convenient omission to me.)
  • The lack of historical & folkloric precedent being another hallmark of the Weird, as opposed to the Hauntological. Hauntology is a Derrida thing and I make no claims to being a connoisseur of Derrida, but my understanding is that its principal claim is that the present exists only with reference to the past. Miéville here uses it very literally: referring to the condition suggested by ghost stories, where ghosts represent an intrusion or remnant of an actual, historical past. The Lovecraftian Weird, by contrast, invents the history, the mythology, the tradition that reemerges to disrupt the present. Being literal about that dimension at least: the horror is not that of the return of the repressed, but the return of the invented, the return of the never-was.
  • That M. R. James’ work, with his beastly, insistently tactile and physical, yet historical ghosts, represents a pivot and transition between the Hauntological and the Weird.
  • And witness the documentation of Miéville’s skulltopus obsession. Hah.

 

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China Miéville: bio and books reviewed

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The secret attic that inspired Charlotte Brontë’s vision of the madwoman in the attic is now open for visits in Yorkshire. The real Thornfield, it turns out, is the manor of Norton Conyers, which dates to the Middle Ages; its present architecture is mid-18th-century.

Brontë paid a visit in 1839 – 8 years prior to the publication of Jane Eyre - and there heard about the 18th-century “Mad Mary” who had purportedly been imprisoned in one of the attic rooms, accessible by a hidden stair…

—–

For anyone who’s ever lingered over a particularly vivid description of food in a book: Dinah Fried’s photobook Fictitious Dishes features meticulously styled and photographed recreations of notable fictional meals. You can see photo selections and some background on the creation of the project here at Brain Pickings. (And then, if you’re feeling like cooking something up yourself, check out Kakaner’s collection of loving and lavish book-inspired recipes, Booklish!)

I actually laughed at the first photo featured at Brain Pickings because I had just the day before re-read the bit with the crab salad food-poisoning crisis in The Bell Jar: “There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends…”

There’s also something quite perverse about the bright lighting and colorful bits of produce in Gregor Samsa’s meal.

- E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.17.14
Read online at Subterranean Press.

In a corner of the great southern metropolis known to its citizens as Obsidia, in a sprawling district known to its inhabitants as Marketside, a squat, hollowed-out block of a building sits at the edge of a roaring traffic circus, windows gaping like broken teeth in an ivory skull. In the center of that century-old pile of stone, a young student named Gillian Gobaith Jessamine stands under the drooping brown leaves of a lemon tree, a frisson of morriña trickling through her as she observes a canary groom itself in the sticky summer air. The canary is bright yellow under a layer of soot, and a small ivory ring marked with a row of numbers and letters binds one leg: this tells her that the bird isn’t some wild passerine but a domestic, bred for a specific anthracite mining company, several hundred miles away. Gillian knows because she wore a ring just like that, a scrimshaw bone collar fastened tight around the pale brown of her neck when she was young, when she worked in the deep of the earth.

Livia Llewellyn’s “Her Deepness” is my favorite single work out of the contemporary sff I’ve read over the past year. Elegantly grim and sardonic, and shaped around a tentative sense of yearning, the novella begins with a thoroughly Gothic conceit – the protagonist is a magically talented carver of gravestones in a funerary metropolis – then rapidly swerves into a long, phantasmagorical trainride that carries the characters through the Beksinski-esque cityscape of Obsidia, out to an abandoned mining town. (Obsidia, the setting for several of Llewellyn’s short stories, appears to sprawl across much of an alternate South America.)

I found the descriptions of the city and train utterly transportative, a kind of dreamlike matrix for the uncomfortable workings of Gillian’s psychology, and her wary interactions with the people who have more or less kidnapped her on account of her powers.

The stuff about cultic resurrection of an old god is fairly standard, with the execution here reminding me more of my high-school days of reading Clive Barker, more so than the explicitly invoked Lovecraft. Looking more closely at that reaction, I realize that it’s a roundabout way of saying that I no longer find gore or body horror to be a particularly interesting or compelling device. (This is probably why I chewed over Llewellyn’s short story “Engines of Desire, whose climax centers more or less on body horror, several times without ever quite coming to be convinced by it.)

But here, all of the god stuff is rather a MacGuffin anyway – a point wearily argued by Gillian herself from the beginning. The real crux of the story is the confrontation forced between Gillian and her younger self, the self who worked in the mines, and left things behind there. Llewellyn works up to this confrontation with terrific, hypnotic intensity, the images that she chooses both honed and brutal.

The story ends with the sort of typographical trickery that I normally find silly, but here I was more than willing to give it a pass given the excellence of everything that came before.

Writing all of this is making me want to re-read the story soon. I look forward also to exploring the rest of Llewellyn’s Obsidia stories, as collected by Lethe Press in Engines of Desire (2011). She’s one of the few new voices in genre fiction that I’ve found really compelling and interestingly difficult in recent years.

Recommended for fans of the Bas-Lag books, and of Caitlín Kiernan.

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Livia Llewellyn: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.13.2014
Book from: Library

Mira Grant’s Parasite is one of the 2014 Hugo novel nominees, and is a competent but bland thriller set in a near-future where, in answer to the hygiene hypothesis, nearly everyone is implanted with a genetically engineered tapeworm. The implants confer systemic health benefits and exude all necessary medications – including, in a nice detail, birth control for women who can’t obtain it in typical form thanks to state regulations. Naturally, things don’t go as expected: the tapeworms start taking over, triggering the parasite-mediated equivalent of a zombie outbreak. The protagonist at the center of all of this is Sally Mitchell, a young woman who suffered total amnesia following her implant-enabled recovery from a near-fatal car accident. The emergence of the “sleepwalking” tapeworm-zombies, their strange awareness of her in particular, and the discovery of suppressed information about the true nature of the tapeworm, all force her to begin questioning whether her new personality might be more a product of the implant she received, than of the human self she used to be.

All of this happens in a surprisingly dull fashion. The characters, the speculative elements, the social commentary, were all just barely well-defined enough to keep me reading; even the action sequences felt rote and, figuratively, bloodless. I started skimming around the 200-page mark.

What I got from this novel is that 1) parasites are cool and 2) scientific hubris is bad. I’m a microbiologist, so 1) is a gimme, and 2) is… well. The boilerplate zombification scenario frankly seems like a disappointing use of the timely and plausible-enough health-manipulation premise. I haven’t read it yet, but from what I’ve heard, Nick Mamatas’ 2011 novel Sensation sounds like a more sophisticated take on the intersection of parasitism and human agency and cognition, though without the medical angle.

With respect to the science, Parasite starts out vague enough to be plausible, but this goes pear-shaped around the middle of the novel, where talking-head exposition proliferates. Genetic engineering is discussed in a mystifyingly pre-Mendelian way, where genomes, rather than being modular structures with rather well-defined architecture, are fuzzy entities that must be “blended” properly lest they become “unstable,” like… radioactive smoothies??

It was frustrating to me that Grant obviously relishes the wiliness and tenacity of parasites, but doesn’t penetrate beyond a superficial and often confused understanding of biology. I’m not saying that a truly deep understanding is necessary - sf just has to sound right enough - but the representation of science in Parasite is both simplistic and inaccurate enough to undermine plausibility in really basic and distracting ways. For example, Grant’s scientists appear oblivious to the existence of high-school-biology-level vocabulary distinguishing different kinds of symbiotes, instead repeatedly referring to “bad” and “good” [engineered] parasites. Parasites are by definition bad, while commensal organisms are neutral or beneficial to their hosts, a distinction one would expect marketing-minded scientists to be eager to publicly reinforce.

Regardless, I realize that I’m a tough audience for this novel, but these are all things I would have been willing to overlook had the novel had enough interesting character-based, sociological, or other elements working for it, which was not the case. All in all, I might recommend Parasite to readers who are strongly interested in zombie-style stories with unconventional underpinnings, with the caveat that even simply as a thriller it’s not terribly exciting.

Go to:
Mira Grant: bio and works reviewed
Emera’s 2014 Hugo short story ballot

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I’ve reread Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber about once a year for the past 8 or 9 years (that is, since I was 17 or so, and effectively trepanned, Emily-Dickinson-style, by my first reading of the collection), continually refining and enriching my understandings of her stories – which are not, Carter said, “retellings” of fairy tales, but attempts to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories.”

All this time, though, I’ve never actually written down any of my thoughts about the collection – perhaps because it really has felt like one continuous reading, with no clear outlet or stopping-place. (“The woods enclose. You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up… Once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again…”)

But here, finally, is a first attempt: some thoughts about the “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” prompted by a conversation with friend J (and then rather painfully rewritten several times over the past few months).

That story has always felt the least conducive to extended inquiry: it’s so much lighter and subtler in palette than most of the other stories in the collection (Fragonard next to a Caravaggio, approximately?), and it hews quite closely to the original moral thread of “Beauty and the Beast.” Compared to the other tales in the Chamber, it’s still wickedly sharp-eyed, but less on-edge, less violently dramatic – dare I say, sweeter. Pleasures more straightforwardly tender.

But there’s a definite strain of ironic commentary woven throughout “Mr. Lyon” about wealth and privilege. By extension, this reflects too on the invisibility of those who are not privileged: the literal invisibility of the Beast’s servants takes on a distinctly uncomfortable cast when framed by this explicit awareness of class privilege. While the servant angle isn’t deeply explored in the story, the hint of it still serves to unseat Carter’s telling from the easily conventional.

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I just posted my review of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; one of the principal features of that book is the frequency with which other books appear in it, working as signposts, ciphers, thematic echoes, and ironic commentary. I was fascinated and delighted by this internal library, and decided to go back through after my first read to compile a reading list (with particular personal interest in Alison’s self-education as a young lesbian in the 1970′s).

Here it is! I’ve annotated some of the books with quotes or notes from the book (until I ran out of steam), and included dates where they were topical. They are listed more or less in the order in which they appear in the book.

Any corrections or additions are most welcome. Go forth and read!

READING FUN HOME

Alison’s father’s Cultured Reads

Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
Kenneth Clark – The Nude (“I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian.” Young Alison plays soldier in the background while her father reads this in the foreground.)
John Ruskin – The Stones of Venice (“But once I was unaccountably moved to kiss my father good night.” Bruce is reading this in bed.)
Rudyard Kipling – Just So Stories (“…some encounters could be quite pleasant.” Bruce reads bedtime stories to Alison.)
Albert Camus – A Happy Death (“A fitting epitaph for my parents’ marriage.” Alison finds it suggestive that Bruce was reading this shortly before his death.)
Günter Grass – The Tin Drum (Father and mother in “expatriate splendor” in West Germany after the war.)
Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby, The Far Side of Paradise (“Such a suspension of the imaginary in the real was, after all, my father’s stock in trade.”)
Nancy Milford – Zelda
Marcel Proust – Remembrance of Things Past
Erick Rücker Eddison – The Worm Ouroboros (“Maybe that’s what’s so unsettling about snakes.”)

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.16.14
Book from: Borrowed from C.

Alison Bechdel opens her tragicomic memoir by casting her closeted gay father as Daedalus, artificer of the labyrinth that enclosed their family’s lives, and somehow complicit in her own, Icarian “downfall” – her eventual realization that she was a lesbian. The labyrinth was for me the ideal opening image: I found Fun Home hypnotically meandering, manically meticulous in its assemblage and arrangement of cryptic, resonant details. Claustrophobic yet internally expansive in its explorations of space, meaning.

Most of all, I was in awe of how deep a reader Bechdel is of her own life. I had difficulty finding words to express how moved I was by the complexity and intensity of her vision, and the anguished detachment that keeps her in abeyance to this analytic lens. “[P]erhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.”

The last book that I read that wove together myth, history, and family with such complexity and vitality was Middlesex, which I found a thrilling read – but there’s a particularly sharp, human poignancy to Fun Home because you know that this is a real person looking back at painful, incomprehensible events – the core and substance of her own life – and making something rich, strange, and uncannily beautiful out of all of the intersections and patternings of father and daughter, family and art. It’s dark, spooky stuff – close reading as divination, intertextuality as invocation.

I identified so much with these elements of Alison’s personality: the recourse to narrative and archetype for “explanatory” patterns, the generally obsessive analytical bent. And, of course, the universal family dynamics – the struggle of a child to define herself against or around what her parents want, against what her parents represent. Here they’re shaped with particular sharpness by the fascinating inverted gender dynamics between her and her father. I’m haunted by the strangled potential of the one direct conversation that Alison had with her father, shortly after her coming out and only weeks before his death, about his homosexuality. He admits that he wanted to be a girl when he was little, that he wanted to dress up in girls’ clothes. And Alison leaps in to remind him how she always wanted boys’ clothes, hiking boots and short hair, when she was little. She does this with painful eagerness (how could he have forgotten?), hungry for the moment of identification and closeness, hungry to bring together their reflected selves to a rare point of convergence.

Artwise, I loved the often mordantly funny understatement of Bechdel’s illustrative style, its cool, reptilian composure a counterpoint to the American-Gothic perversity of the Bechdels’ lives. I did wish that the ink washes had darker darks, for more atmospheric drama in certain scenes – but obviously that’s a stylistic choice. It gives a ghostly, faded effect, appropriate to both the sense of imminent storm that never breaks, and to Bechdel’s curatorial reproductions of the numerous family artifacts that appear within. (I was so curious about all of the background details – like the fact that her brother is very specifically wearing a Frank Marshall t-shirt when the family gathers for their father’s funeral. How many of those details were recalled or researched from family photographs, and how many were invented or extrapolated based on more general period reference?)

By the end of the novel, I felt incredibly tender towards both Alison, and her father. As much damage as he did, his story is heartbreaking; I can’t help but hope that he would have found Fun Home a fitting tribute.

As my tribute to Fun Home, I’ve posted a full (and partially annotated) list of all of the books mentioned or read within its pages here.

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Alison Bechdel: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.25.2014
Read the story online at the New Yorker.

“A Stone Woman” begins in a quiet haze of sorrow. Ines’ mother has died:

People had thought she was a dutiful daughter. They could not imagine two intelligent women who simply understood and loved each other.

As with many of A. S. Byatt’s protagonists, Ines is an older woman left in a position where society, and she herself, expect little else to come of her. To “solitude and silence” she resigns herself.

But the story turns, and turns, and turns again, impelled by a quiet vigor, a hungry, searching fascination with the natural world. Strangeness proliferates: Ines proliferates, her body sprouting clusters of crystals, nodes and veins of stone.

She saw dikes of dolerites, in graduated sills, now invading her inner arms. But it took weeks of patient watching before, by dint of glancing in rapid saccades, she surprised a bubble of rosy barite crystals breaking through a vein of fluorspar, and opening into the form known as a desert rose, bunched with the ore flowers of blue john. Her metamorphosis obeyed no known laws of physics or chemistry: ultramafic black rocks and ghostly Iceland spar formed in succession and clung together.

“By dint of glancing in rapid saccades” – !! Perfect. The story’s language is by turns minutely exacting, and bounding, gusty, electric. It encompasses the wonder of dictionary-language (Ines, again typically for a Byatt character, is a “researcher for a major etymological dictionary”) – hard, crystalline mouthfuls of Latin and Greek (botryoidal, hematite, icositetrahedral) – as well as the mythical, elemental Germanic sounds of gleam, rattle, stride, moss.

Likewise, the story’s emotional focus moves easily from particular quirks of character -

The English scholar that persisted in her said, “What does it mean?”

- out to larger, universal, mythical arcs of movement and transformation. It is a personal and thrilling fairy tale, rough and vital.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.4.2013
Book from: Personal collection

I began Gerald Morris’ series of Arthurian retellings (collectively called The Squires’ Tales and The Knights’ Tales) back when they first started coming out in the late ’90′s/early 2000′s. I remember starting with The Savage Damsel & the Dwarf in the yellow-lit, air-conditioned cool of the nearest public library when I was 16ish, and shortly thereafter hunched crosslegged in sticky summer weather over the pages of The Squire’s Tale. In a few weeks I’d read all the way up to Parsifal’s Page. Swift, witty, musing, and surprisingly gentle in moral tone despite their sharp humor and the grim fates that befall many characters, Morris’ novels fell in closely alongside my love of Karen Cushman’s medieval historical fiction, and of C. S. Lewis.

Almost 10 years later, I finally started catching up again with the series, and was delighted to find that Morris’ humanity as a storyteller registers even more deeply with me as an older reader. As my friend E. put it, the series is wonderful in embracing and illustrating “all kinds of different ways of being.”

The previous novels had as their protagonists fairly common YA types, though warmly realized: a half-fey squire navigating both mundane & otherworldly affairs, a whip-witted anti-damsel, and a Eustace Scrubb-ish prig who of course discovers valiance & humility under duress.

By contrast, Sir Dinadan’s major interests in life begin with drifting peacefully alone in the forest, and end with peacefully music-making (again, preferably alone) in the forest. I can’t recall another YA novel (suggestions welcome!) whose main character was so centrally concerned with solitude, and – crucially – was allowed to remain that way. Most children’s literature has social aims: the protagonists negotiate relationships (friends, family, romances), and struggle to assume positions of greater social responsibility.

Dinadan does indeed venture forth and meet all sorts of people, befriending some and looking askance at others. And, as Sir Tristan’s younger brother, he is dragged again and again towards the center of that most outrageously tragic of romances. But what he sees of Tristan & Iseult’s violent folly ultimately leads him to affirm his sense of sufficiency in himself and his art – even though his friendship with another “savage damsel,” as skeptic-minded as Dinadan, presents a tantalizing romantic charge throughout.

Without trivializing the essential tragedy of the violence and human wastefulness of Tristan & Iseult’s tale, Sir Dinadan affirms those who prefer to live small, live quietly and inwardly. I laughed often while reading, and closed the book feeling both heartened and melancholy. I plan to revisit Sir Dinadan often, especially since his quietness, skepticism, and steadfast unconcern with dramatic involvement reminded me of a very dear mentor of mine, whom I don’t get to see nearly enough. In Dinadan, Morris combines elements both of the fool and the hermit: capable of moving in society, he evenly judges the people and hierarchies he encounters there, but ultimately, contentedly, remains a man apart.

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Gerald Morris: bio and works reviewed

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