Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 1.26.2017

Book from: Personal collection, recommended by Marbiru (thanks!)

Weaving back in forth in time, moving from character to character, the author tells the story of Indonesia from its Dutch colonial days, through the Japanese occupation during World War II, and into independence as a modern state. Kurniawan’s characters are broadly drawn, but they aren’t one-dimensional. Dewi Ayu, the most sought-after prostitute in the seaside city of Halimunda, is a shrewd, fearless, and resourceful woman but an ambivalent mother. Her lover, Maman Gendeng, is a romantic thug. The soldier Sodancho is both an illustrious revolutionary and a self-serving racketeer; he’s also a rapist. 

Reading this novel was like eating ice cream, or cake, or your favorite food, and just shoveling every bite in before you finished chewing (much less swallowing) your last bite. Every sentence, every paragraph, every story swelled and crescendoed and flowered and blossomed it seemed until impossible infinity. Just a rich luscious reading experience overall.

Maybe it’s obvious from the title and blurb, but the motifs are women drawing power from their physical beauty and wiles and men drawing power from brute force and violence. The novel is composed of intertwining stories featuring a constant interplay of beauty vs strength, one force always trying to subdue the other and the actors being driven mad trying to achieve dominance. It’s a cautionary and desperate tale of the futility of drawing upon beauty for true strength, especially if for ill-intentioned ends, and that the lust for and reliance on beauty ultimately devastates. At the same time, so many of the characters are unable to comprehend why anyone would love an ugly being, and that confusion and cognitive dissonance becomes a fixation towards the end. Even though this sounds heavy handedly black and white, it works because it is commentary that is delivered in this unabashedly absurd and dreamlike way.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.

Swing Time is a dense, simmering novel of ideas, with markedly artful prose: flowing, full of rhythmic momentum, and patterned after the book’s title, swinging smoothly and slyly back and forth in time. The narrator uses these swerves in time in order to conceal or displace acute moments of shame or pain; Smith uses them in order to more thickly layer themes and symmetries. I found the rhythmic flow intoxicating, and it was the main reason I finished the book at all since, two chapters in, I was otherwise so turned off that I considered quitting.

I had two difficulties with the novel. First, the narrator’s voice has a bitter, narrow chippiness to it. Though I’m often keen on unsympathetic protagonists, I object to that particular flavor of bitchiness. This narrator is pretty virtuosically passive-aggressive, a defining flaw that’s pathetic at best.

Second, reading Swing Time made me realize that I find it hard to enjoy narratives about female rivalry. It’s been such a blessedly absent force in my life that I felt acutely uncomfortable, even impatient, being asked to dwell on it at length: “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY” (This realization resulted in me revising my plans to read the Neapolitan Trilogy.)

Still, the book is so rich that even as some fraction of my reading attention was always squirming impatiently, there was also always something new and prickly-interesting to be considered – an insight of character, an angst-inflected vision of ’80’s or ’90’s London, the surreal juxtapositions of Western influence amid village life in West Africa (young men wearing wristwatches with no batteries…).

Probably the most vivid element of the book to me were the sharp specificities of feeling and observation that the narrator relates as a person of mixed race. When encountering other black women, for example, but especially those with mixed families, she continually notes skin tone, facial features, the race of each parent. All these behaviors are deeply familiar to me as a mostly acculturated first-gen immigrant kid (though not of mixed race), sharing that underlying unease of “where do I fit in” and “am I _____ enough.” The moment that I remember as the book’s most heartbreaking is when the narrator sees her white father’s children from an earlier marriage to a white woman, and realize that they look like they have everything to do with her father; and her – nothing.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.14.2017
Book from: Gift from K. – THANK YOU!

So fucking dark and anguished. Julia Gfrörer’s Laid Waste is a desperate song about human love amid plague-stricken Europe – like a graphic novel cousin of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Grasping, bony fingers and limp corpses.

Gfrörer intercuts long passages of the deepest existential despair with wisps of dark humor – two children flatly discussing how best to avoid breathing in the smoke from a bonfire, for example – and with the fragile suggestion of divine grace. Better, though, than the questionable blessing of unlooked-for survival, is the desperate strength of human connection: “Everything outside of this is darkness.” “Yes.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so deeply, with both mind and body, the vast loneliness and despair of one of history’s darkest periods – and humanity’s baffling, tragicomically stubborn resilience in the face of unrelenting loss.

Like her storytelling, Gfrörer’s art feels both delicate and terrifyingly honest. It establishes a territory somewhere between Dürer and Egon Schiele. Meticulous hatching contrasts with wavering, slightly uncomfortably organic shapes. That wavering quality creates a strange sense of movement even when she’s working through one of a series of mostly stationary panels, which compel us to wait and watch and feel with her characters. With most other artists, the inconsistency of shape and anatomy would register as a technical shortcoming; with Gfrörer, it’s another means of expression.

I feel very, very lucky to have been introduced to Gfrörer’s work through a generous gift from friend K.; I plan to write about the two other comics he gifted me, Black is the Color and Flesh and Bone, over the next few weeks, and hope to buy the rest of her comics soon.

Go to:
FLOOD Magazine: Sex, death and suffering – a conversation with Julia Gfrörer, author of Laid Waste

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.2.2016
Book from: Personal collection

Thanks to Kakaner for reminding me that I had a serviceable, if brief, draft of a Machen review lying around –

(I find this cover so upsetting)

Collection contents, with favorites in bold: 

The Great God PanThe White People, The Inmost Light, The Shining Pyramid, The Great Return, The Novel of the Black Seal, The Novel of the White Powder, The Bowmen, The Happy Children, The Bright BoyOut of the Earth, N, Children of the Pool, The Terror

I find Machen simultaneously infuriating, and delightful and unforgettable. The first because his stories are so goddamn long, pedantic, and fussy – even for my easily delighted-by-Britishness tastes – and his prose, though cultivated, is basically conventional and uninteresting to me on the sentence level. Lots of things are described as “emerald,” for example.

Where he wins me over is

1) that same lengthiness… which sneakily builds and builds atmosphere and suspense, even while I was superficially chafing at his repetition and persnicketing, so that afterwards I was left quite a bit more uncomfortable and spooked than I had realized –

and 2) the ideas. Machen is famous for being a mystic, and I was rather dazzled watching him elaborate, in a dozen different configurations, the same basis of horror.

Machen’s is an ontological horror, where evil, sin, and wrongness arise from violation of categories and hierarchies: human and animal, human and proto-human, human and supernatural. The essential pagan in me is somewhat baffled by his strict definition of the primitive supernatural (Pan, fairies) as evil, baleful and actively malign (in contrast with Lovecraft’s other beings, which are rather colossally indifferent to humanity). This point remains emotionally and conceptually obtuse to me, but I find dreadfully fun his execution thereof. I’m particularly entertained by just how graphic and pulpy he gets at times, which seems at odds with his stodgy scholarliness.

More beautiful and transfixing, though, are the stories where the details of death are more obscure and metaphysical. “The White People” stands out in this respect, in addition to being of a narrative type that I love – cryptic young women’s diaries, which document a slow seduction or transformation into the magical. (See also Robert Aickman’s self-evidently titled “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal.”)

The psychogeographic stuff is fun too, but I’ll have to leave it to a future reread to write about that. Also, so much Wales!

Related reading:

Lovecraft the terrible, the ridiculous, the great
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925) E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2017
Book from: Personal collection – grateful thanks to C. for this gift!

Something is rotten at Crook, the decaying English manor house that is the setting for McGrath’s exuberantly spooky novel. Fledge, the butler, is getting intimate with the mistress. Fledge’s wife is getting intimate with the claret. Sidney Giblet, the master’s prospective son-in-law, has disappeared. And the master himself – the one-time gentleman naturalist Sir Hugo Coal – is watching it all in a state of helpless fury, since he is paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak.

The Grotesque is simultaneously a whodunnit and pageturner (though from the start it’s insisted that we believe that it was, in fact, the butler), and a thorny psychological thicket of doubles, shape-shifting, adultery, and madness. It made me think of a sniggering, Gothic cousin of Brideshead Revisited, as they share the snarled-up Roman Catholic British aristos, the homoeroticism, the acute class anxiety, and the character of an impish, loyal, dark-haired daughter. “Grand Guignol edition of Wodehouse” also covers it rather well, especially when it comes to names – Sidney Giblet you’ve seen already, and the local village is called “Pock-on-the-Fling.”

The book’s not even 200 pages long, but every page is thick with wordplay (Sir Hugo, for example, puns on his entrapment within the “grottos” of both his own skull and the nook under the stairs where his wheelchair is often left – I had forgotten that “grotesque” comes from “grotto”) and psychological feints. The narrative dodges back and forth across time – a structure that Sir Hugo claims to be a function of his increasingly unreliable wits, but of course also results in the juiciest revelations being put off for last.

I enjoyed the heck out of this elegant mess, and read the first half especially with slightly unhealthy speed. I had to do a bit of thinking about why I didn’t utterly love it, and I think it comes down to the style: I crave continually surprising language, which in Gothics tends to translate to “really florid.” McGrath’s writing is very fine, with physical descriptions of characters being especially sharp and memorable, but for me, the imagery only rarely and the language never hits the heights of the sublime. This might be a constraint of character, as Sir Hugo prides himself on his cold-blooded propriety of thought; I’d have to read more McGrath to see whether his style has broader range.

The freshest and most lastingly troubling element of this book for me was the thematic stuff around ontological confusion, with Sir Hugo’s background as a gentleman naturalist, and his morbid embrace of the physical facts of reproduction and decay, providing fertile grounds for elaboration on this sense of “the grotesque.” The grotesque is also “a 16th-century decorative style in which parts of human, animal, and plant forms are distorted and mixed.” Sir Hugo, the paralyzed would-be paleontologist, is neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral: described as involuntarily grunting like a pig, and “a vegetable,” and “ossified,” he eventually converges with the looming figure of his beloved dinosaur fossil, which by the end of the novel has grown to be lichen-infested due to neglect and damp. Sir Hugo’s neurologist dismisses him as “ontologically dead” – internally, Sir Hugo shoots back that “I was, I believe, the most ontologically alive person in that room.”

All these uneasy mutations and meltings of category are artistically impressive, but also simply, humanly sad. The most cutting scene of the book for me was the one in which Sir Hugo reflects on how quickly his household writes him off after his accident. Setting aside the fair question of whether Sir Hugo, bastard that he is, might deserve much of what happened to him, this is really sharp, sad writing about the emotional reality of human disability and decline: “In fact, it was one of the most striking aspects of that first stage of my vegetal existence, the experience of seeing my family’s reactions shift from grief and compassion to acceptance and apparent indifference in a remarkably short period of time. Thus, I notice, are the dead forgotten; thus are persons in my state rendered tolerable… Our kinship with the grotesque is something to be shunned; it requires an act of rejection, of brisk alienation, and here the doctors were most cooperative, for they permitted Harriet and the rest of them to reject my persisting humanity by means of a gobbledygook that carried the imprimatur of – science! … [S]cience proposes, this is how I had lived, but science also disposes, and now I find myself frozen, stuck fast, like a fly in a web, in the grid of a medical taxonomy. My identity was now neuropathological. I was no longer a man, I was an instance of a disease…” This furious sorrow struck me as some of the only genuine emotion in a narrative otherwise composed mainly of self-absorption and guilty half-truths.

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Patricia Wrede Enchanted Forest Chronicles Cimorene Enchanted Earth Shortbread Cookies

View Recipe: Cimorene’s Enchanted Earth Shortbread Cookies

I’ve been mulling the flavor profile of one of my most beloved fantasy heroines– Cimorene, the princess from Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles— for quite some time. I wanted to capture the essence of Cimorene traipsing through forests, starting and stumbling upon gritty and fantastical adventures, and all with plenty of spunk and temper to spare!

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…and sail in hunt of Moby Peep.

Get your Deckard on: Youtube user Crysknife007 (of course) provides days’ worth of ambient loops from the Blade Runner soundtrack.

Consider recommendations for New York Times Okay-Sellers and others from the Book List of Book Lists.

“Inside the New York Public Library is a little red train that delivers books.” Really! And some excellent book-sorting porn, too.

 

– E

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Hiatus

Life intervenes. Sorry! Regular Wednesday posts had a good run while they lasted, I’m actually reading significantly more than I was last year, and ideas for posts are accordingly a frequent and wistful mental distraction for me, but we’re going to have to drop back down to Sometime Posting.

Thank you to those who have stuck with us through all the vagaries –

– E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Cover art by the wonderfully named Gray Morrow

“Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the Universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the Universe in confusion, dwindled, and died …

tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand-dunes that lay between his tall home and the gray line of the surf. Like swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over his downcast head. It was a catastrophe that had driven him from his tower, something that he had witnessed from its topmost room during the night.”

Such mixed feelings I have about this direst and 70’s-est of fantasy novels! On the one hand, who am I to say no to prose that is that dire, and that arch. (see: my obsession with Tanith Lee) Also on that hand, M. John Harrison’s blog is one of my favorites; I’m fascinated by his intellect and sensibilities. On the other hand, this is almost 50 years distant, the plot and characters are so silly and derivative (battles for the fate of an empire, the reassembly of a band of elite warriors in order to defend a beloved queen), and there are giant sloths that are meant to be taken seriously as noble and tragic creatures. I’m not sure even 12-year-old me could have managed that sentiment successfully.

Politically, this has a provocative flavor: anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist. The conceit of the setting is that numerous high-technological societies have ravaged the earth’s resources, and fallen, leaving crumbling medieval cities that harvest glowing, deadly technology from wastelands to wage intermittent wars. Remaining civilizations, namely Viriconium, are burdened by a sense of their own impending failure; entropy is the order of the day. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is an obvious influence, and I assume there’s a lot of Moorcock in there too, but I still have yet to read any of his work. There’s also a lot of T. S. Eliot, sometimes pastiched very directly via the not-great poetry of tegeus-Cromis. (Sorry, Cromis.)

Aesthetically, let’s just say it: this book is fucking nuts. The main appeal of the book for me is really just Harrison’s visionary, desolate, cavernous nature-writing, which could so easily be translated to some kind of 2-hour-long Pink Floyd music video, and I wish somebody would. Here’s tegeus-Cromis, he of the nameless sword, traversing the rocky hills:

“In a day, he came to the bleak hills of Monar that lay between Viriconium and Duirinish, where the wind lamented considerably some gigantic sorrow it was unable to put into words. He trembled the high paths that wound over slopes of shale and between cold still lochans in empty corries. No birds lived there. Once he saw a crystal launch drift overhead, a dark smoke seeping from its hull.”

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Haunted Legends is a 2010 anthology of supernatural horror stories/weird tales/whatever, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. I picked it up when Kakaner and I went to Readercon in 2010, and have read it 2+ times since. The table of contents is stacked with major names: Catherynne Valente, Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Barron, Ramsey Campbell, et al.

The anthology is themed around local legends, and the presiding tone is chilly, regretful, and uneasy – there are only a few stories that read as more straightforward horror, like Joe R. Lansdale’s lurid creature feature, “The Folding Man,” which closes the volume with a punch and a leer (and won the 2010 Stoker Award for short fiction).

Since most of the authors are North American, most of the stories draw from those legends. Of those that are set abroad, several are objectionably maudlin and touristy, like Kit Reed’s “Akbar” (India) and Carolyn Turgeon’s “La Llorona” (Mexico). Others engage sharply with tourism or imperialism (Catherynne Valente’s tremendous “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” [Japan], Kaaron Warren’s “That Girl” [India]), and/or draw upon authors’ immigrant backgrounds (Ekaterina Sedia’s “Tin Cans” [Russia], Lily Hoang’s vicious “The Foxes” [Vietnam]).

There are also three hitchhiking/roadside phantoms total.

For me, the standouts are Richard Bowes’ “Knickerbocker Holiday” (which I’ll talk about below), and the stories by Caitlin Kiernan, Carrie Laben (a new name for me), Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne Valente, and M. K. Hobson (all of which hopefully I’ll write about later). Those hit my sweet spot so far as emotional complexity, prose, freshness of concept/execution, and pervasive unease are concerned. Laird Barron and Jeffrey Ford’s stories, which I think share a kind of darkly musing/amusing quality, also made me go “hmm” in a pleasant way.

—–

Richard Bowes‘ “Knickerbocker Holiday” opens the collection, and immediately made me wonder why I hadn’t read Bowes before, and where I could find more of him.

Last Sunday night the Dutchman flew, the Headless Horseman rolled in from Sleepy Hollow. It happened when I paid a visit that was in part nostalgia, but in larger part morbid curiosity, to a corner of my degenerate youth. I even kissed the fingertips of a very bad old habit of mine and told myself it was for memory’s sake.

Fanning myself! The rest of the story sustains this singular, dreamy, morbid flippancy; I couldn’t get enough of it. The narrator is one of a coterie of aging, not terribly glamorous fashion writers who gather to remember dead colleagues, from their youth working together in New York’s old Garment District. Unlikely connections to Sleepy Hollow emerge, laced with bad deaths and sexual unease.

I love the story in large part for its fragmentary yet rich evocation of ’70’s New York. That richness of sense of time and place seems especially appropriate given how lovingly Washington Irving worked to record his Dutch New York in all of his stories. Not much love here, though – instead of autumnal lushness, there’s only an autumnal falling-away, a sense of twist and rot.

Then there’s the painterly way in which Bowes handles the nightmare-like elements of this story. Painterly is the best word I can think of to describe it, and I find the effect utterly arresting – the few, silent, almost stately visions of the supernatural that he presents, simple scenes touched with an inexplicable threat. Like a Magritte painting, is what I’m thinking: simple shapes, arranged wrongly; a few lighted windows invested with unknown meaning.

I very much look forward to investigating more of Bowes’ short fiction.

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