“Urchins, While Swimming,” by Catherynne M. Valente (2006) E

Date read: 8.5.09
Read in: Clarkesworld, Issue 3
Reviewer: Emera

Catherynne Valente‘s short story “Urchins, While Swimming” left me wide-eyed and breathless. It’s a simple, sorrowful, beautiful story, filled with unforgettable imagery and lyrical language. It’s about love between mothers and daughters, and falling in love, and the Russian rusalka myth. (Unless you already know it, you might not want to read it until after you’ve read the story.)

Below, a few of my favorite lines:

“The stars were salt-crystals floating in the window’s mire.”

“Artyom ate the same thing every day: smoked fish, black bread, blueberries folded in a pale green handkerchief.”

“…she did not say we drag the lake with us, even into the city, drag it behind us, a drowning shadow shot with green.”

For this story, Valente won the 2007 StorySouth Million Writers Award for Best Online Short Story; very cool, and deserving. Kakaner also lent me her copy of Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden this weekend, and now I’m even more excited to start it.

Also, since both of us are so partial to short fiction, we’ll probably be inaugurating a secondary review index for short stories alone, which will require a monumental amount of effort, but hopefully be rewarding.

Go to:
Catherynne M. Valente

Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid (1990) K

Date read: 11.17.07

Book from: Borrowed from Stephane

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Lucy is 19 when she comes to America from the West Indies to be an au pair and escape her restrictive life. Her employers are the picture-perfect family– the parents are in love, they are rich, and they have perfect children. However, Lucy soon discovers that they are not what they seem, and all the while, she searches for her own niche in society as she transitions into adulthood.

Review

This novel was perfectly delectable in so many aspects, from writing to character development to story. Lucy as a whole relies on atmosphere and instead of action to propel the story, and it is a sort of eerily muffling yet discovering atmosphere. For every experience in America, Lucy would recall either a relevant or triggered memory from her time in the Indies. This juggling of worlds created delicious tension between old and new, responsibility and free will. The tensions between Lucy and the family members, particularly the wife, were so strange that sometimes I would stop and look at the cover of the book to reorient myself and remind myself that yes, I really was reading this seemingly innocent, slim novel with an artwork of a teenage girl on the cover.

Lucy herself is an incredibly atypical heroine. She has an objective and extremely cynical outlook on life, and you only slowly learn about why this is through her past. The expert sustaining of Lucy’s character and narration, as well as the delicate yet exposing portrayal of sexism and racism, are certainly testaments to Kincaid’s literary skills. I was incredibly lured by this book as soon as I started, and could not put it down until the end– Lucy’s story is real, tangible, and heart rending without resorting to dramatics. Kincaid’s autobiographical foundations are definitely visible in this novel which probably are what make Lucy such an honest and touching novel.

Go to:

Jamaica Kincaid

The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E

Date Read: 7.9?.09

 

Book From: Personal collection

 

Reviewer: Emera

Jessamy Harrison is eight years old, the British-born daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father. Extraordinarily precocious and sensitive, she spends hours by herself and often falls into inexplicable screaming fits and fevers. One summer, her mother brings her to visit her grandfather in Nigeria. Even among her cousins there, Jess feels unwanted and out of place, until she meets Titiola – “TillyTilly,” as Jess calls her – an odd, mischievous girl living in an abandoned building on the family compound. TillyTilly is soon Jess’ first and best friend, and delights Jess with her waywardness and strange tricks. However, as their pranks become increasingly vicious, Jess begins to realize that TillyTilly is becoming an uncontrollably destructive force in her life.

Helen Oyeyemi famously wrote The Icarus Girl at the ripe age of 18, while studying for her college entrance exams. (She ended up at Cambridge.) When I tell friends this, they tend  to raise an eyebrow and ask if it reads like it was written by an 18-year-old. Amazingly, it doesn’t. Oyeyemi’s writing is elegant and meticulously stylized, only occasionally venturing into the overwrought. Her portrayal of Jess is astoundingly compelling. The reader immediately and intimately enters her perspective and begins to understand how tormented and frighteningly fragile she is, despite being (or because she is) so young. Much of the impetus to read onwards, in my experience, came from the desire to see Jess safe and healed from her fears. I was increasingly terrified for Jess as the novel went on, and some of the scenes in the book reach truly nightmarish pitches of horror. The half-articulated, hallucinatory style of the darker, mythical elements actually reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Continue reading The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E

Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby (1978) E

Date read: 7.29.09

Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

Requiem for a Dream, although probably better known to most through Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film, is one of the most acclaimed novels about addiction. It charts a few, terrible months in the lives of a small circle of friends and family in New York in the 1970’s, all of whom are led into addiction by their own hopes for fulfillment and wholeness.  Harry Goldfarb, his friend Tyrone C. Love, and his intelligent, artistic girlfriend Marion dream of making it big by selling heroin, only to become paralyzed by apathy, self-loathing, and dependence on the drugs that once seemed to be their ticket to success. Meanwhile, Harry’s lonely, widowed mother Sara comforts herself with chocolate and endless television. When a chance phone call seems to promise her an appearance on one of her beloved television shows, she becomes reinvigorated by the conviction that she must lose weight, precipitating an obsessive cycle of dependence on diet pills.

Requiem for a Dream is one of the most grueling, brutal films I’ve seen, and for this reason I found myself reluctant to break into the novel. Once you begin, however, you feel a sense of commitment to the characters, an obligation to hear their stories out and follow them to the end, despite the sense of doom that pervades the novel from the very beginning. Continue reading Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby (1978) E

Coolest random tidbit from a random book of the week

From Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages: of the 500 invented languages that Okrent profiles, the two most commonly spoken today are Esperanto and Klingon.

This is probably one of those things that everyone [in nerd land] already knew but me, but still. Wow, Trekkies. I was always a Star Wars girl, but color me impressed. (Also, this makes me wonder how the number of Klingon speakers compares to the number of people who would declare Jedi as their religion.)

We don’t sparkle…

…but we do hunger immortally. And if we could stalk books and watch them sleep, we probably would. Below, find some of our most yearned-after books, over which sighs have been heaved and wallets have been fingered.

Emera’s delicious unattainables

  • Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Signed, limited, $200 (HarperCollins, 2009) – The first Neil Gaiman novel I read, and still one of my most beloved. “Deluxe Limited Numbered Edition, signed by Neil Gaiman, with a full cloth jacket in a fabric-bound slipcase. Includes two-color text and endpapers, and two full-color illustrated spreads. Limited to one of 1000. ” According to the man himself, it is also “several thousand words longer than the current US edition” and “has a bunch of odd, previously stuff in the back — my original outline for the BBC series and such.” Aiiiieee.
  • Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition.  Signed, limited & lettered editions currently on preorder, $300/$900 (Subterranean Press, 2009). Over 50 stories, essays, introductions, two full-length screenplays, full-color plates, “deluxe binding” on the lettered edition… excuse me while I expire in this corner. Subterranean Press: elevating book-shopping to a whole new level of debauchery.
  • Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version. Signed, limited, out of print (Subterranean Press, 2007) – Beagle’s original, abandoned draft of his classic novel, featuring a modern setting and a completely different cast, apart from the unicorn herself. I always knew I would regret not buying this the instant it came out, which was at about the same time that I became aware of small press. This was also before I had multiple jobs and thus disposable income. Curses! It’s been unavailable on every book site that I watch, oh, pretty much ever since then, but I have put out watches for it on both Amazon and AbeBooks (which has a book-watching tool far superior to Amazon’s – Amazon’s commits you to buying the item if it ever becomes available, without your being able to review the condition and price first). It will be mine, someday.

On the other hand… stuff that’s significantly more attainable and will in fact be coming home at one point or another:

  • Kage Baker’s The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, a steampunk mystery novella about exclusive prostitutes who also happen to be the intelligencers of a secret organization. One reviewer described it as “James Bond in the 19th century.”  Could this sound any more AWESOME? Also, Kage Baker has a really cool name.
  • Caitlin Kiernan’s Alabaster, a dark fantasy short story & novella collection about an adolescent, albino, monster-killing girl named Dancy.  Again, sounds awesome, I love the cover art, and Caitlin Kiernan is one of those authors whom people keep telling me I’d like.
  • Peter S. Beagle’s Mirror Kingdoms. A “best of” short story collection. I preordered this in large part because I was smarting at not being able to find TLU: The Lost Version, and because I was resolved not to repeat the incident. Also, preordering of either the trade or limited editions is currently discounted – I got the normally $60 limited for $48, and Subterranean preorders give you free shipping. Win-win.
  • Finally, fellow bibliophile/blogger Vega, of The Athenaeum, was kind enough to obtain a signed copy of The Unicorn Sonata from Peter S. Beagle himself at San Diego Comic-Con for me. A thousand thanks!!

——–

Kakaner’s Objects of Desire

  • Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. First edition. $1000. ‘Nuff Said.
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffeneger. First edition, signed, $225. I’m a bit torn about this possible purchase… the only copy I can find is a bit worn and stained. However, to still my grabby hands, I have pre-ordered this. I can’t wait for October 1st!
  • Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein.  First Edition ~$5000. These books are the reason why I feel it is important to make money… have an income in general. Of course, with a name like Heinlein, one should totally expect to spend at least this much money. At least there’s hope! There seem to be a couple copies floating around, although I would totally hold out for a signed edition.
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. 1st edition, 8th printing, signed. This will probably be pretty high on my list, despite the fact that I already own four… other… editions…

What I Currently Have…

  • The Scar, by China Mieville. Limited 1st Edition, signed, #407/1000. Gold-edging, ribbon marker, overall droolness.
  • Ender in Exile, by Orson Scott Card. Signed 1st Edition. I’d always wanted to see Card’s signature in real life… it’s powerful! Huge round, loopy OSC. What a treasure =)
  • The City & The City, by China Mieville. 1st Edition (well, technically I think), signed, and personalized at a China Mieville author event I attended! Incredibly treasured, and sits proudly next to The Scar.

Moving onto less well-known authors, but equally treasured in my library:

  • Kings and Assassins, by Lane Robins. 1st Edition signed! Personally shipped by the author– everyone should read Maledicte. I own two copies of Kings and Assassins and one copy of Maledicte.
  • Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion.  1st Edition, self-published, one of 100+ copies, signed. I am of the strong opinion that Isaac Marion is going to experience great writing fame in the future. Although Warm Bodies isn’t necessarily my top choice when it comes to his works, his short stories (all available on his website) are delectable and must-reads.

——–

Anyone else out there hankering for oh-so-tantalizing books? Those teases.

“The most frightening American poet ever”

My knowledge of poets tends to be acquired in a desultory fashion, so I’d never heard of Frederick Seidel until I read “The Edge of Night,” an entertaining and well-written review of Seidel’s collected poems by  David Orr of the New York Times. Seidel is an anomaly as a professional poet, in that he’s rich and disconnected from the literary-academic world; apparently he’s also “one of poetry’s few truly scary characters.” This may seem nonsensical to you unless you’ve ever read a poem that made you wince, or cringe, or hunch your shoulders and shiver and try to forget you ever read it (and I don’t mean in a that-was-so-bad-I-wish-it-never-existed way, which of course happens too, and more frequently); then you should know how viscerally emotional and disturbing poems can be.

The excerpts of Seidel’s work featured in the review seem menacing, meaty (in both sense of the word), and evilly funny. I’ve read some pretty horrifying poems – I’m thinking of some of C. K. Williams’ early, angry poems here, one of which I would quote but am embarrassed to – and many cringe-inducing poems (mmm, Sharon Olds*), but I’m not sure I’d be consitutionally capable of reading a whole collection of Seidel’s work. The full poem featured in the review made me feel as though someone with too-cold hands had run their fingers through my hair the wrong way. Brrr. Orr also provides some useful, interesting commentary on Seidel’s place in modern American poetry, particularly his early relationship with Robert Lowell’s work and his later parallels with Sylvia Plath. Orr also comments on Seidel’s none-too-infrequent exclusion from anthologies – a fact that would also explain my lack of knowledge of him.

Also, I love articles that send me off on multiple fascinating tangents generally culminating in a trip to Wikipedia – in this case, Orr’s reference in the review to the perhaps apocryphal funeral tradition of sin-eating. Too cool.

*Sharon Olds is disarmingly adorable in person. If she ever reads near you, go. I didn’t like her poetry until I got to see her read it.

The City & The City, by China Mieville (2009) K

Date read: 6.03.09

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The City & The City is dark, brooding, and meticulous. It is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu who investigates a mysterious and highly delicate murder case. “Highly delicate” for Borlu soon discovers that he must invoke Breach, a mysterious judicial force that governs disputes in the rare case that they involve a crossing of the cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel. However, help is not so easily found and Borlu must undertake this investigation himself. Using not-exactly-by-the-book methods, Borlu uncovers mysteries of the murdered girl, the very archaelogy of these two odd cities, and Breach.

Review

Mieville pulls the reader in with promises of the same great and dark fantastical adventures of his previous novels– we concoct a terrible conspiracy in our minds when first confronted with the murder, we imagine the city divide must have come about as a result of a great otherworldly battle, we provide ancient magical powers for each mention of a mysterious artifact… and although these theories are shattered one by one as the novel progresses, we still imagine the epic Big Reveal will, in fact, prove all our thoughts to be correct. Instead, The City & The City is cold and harsh, and there is never a magical solution. There is definitely a depressing, suffocating atmosphere that comes from knowing that every death, every misunderstanding, every unnecessarily gruesome fact of life is caused for humans, by humans.

I have to say I harbored this niggling disappointment each time a plot turn indicated that there was in fact no magic. I was naive– I should have paid closer attention to the genre titles “noir fiction” and “weird fiction”, but Mieville has always had a way with enchanting the story no matter what genre. I found the mentions of Myspace and Chuck Palanhiuk highly jarring, but undoubtedly genius. These references really made the reader think and realize he was reading about a country off somewhere in the Middle East that existed in the same world at the same time, that if he travelled far enough he would perchance bump into the city of Beszel. This effect was definitely unnerving and brought the story closer to home.

In many ways, I found Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the darkest of any of Mieville’s cities to date. Beszel and Ul Qoma encapsulate the grimness of today’s most rundown urban centers, without the usual gems of beauty that one can find in Mieville’s other works. While New Crobuzon was covered with filth, death, and corruption, the reader was still made to understand the powerful potential of inner beauty– Lin’s amazing (although admittedly grotesque) artwork, the majestic surrealism of The Weaver, the slowly nurtured romance between Bellis and Silas– and in the end, the Baslag books were just as much about the good as they were about the bad.  And of course, the London underground setting of King Rat also contained an edgy artistically musical appeal. I didn’t see any of this hope or light in these cities– whenever I uncovered more about a good person or a seemingly magical concept, there was simply only… dirt and muck underneath. Basically, I didn’t come away seeing promise dangling on the ends of story threads in the same way I did for other Mieville works. This, perhaps more than the downward spiral to nowhere, frightened me the most and in many ways, made the story as a whole less appealing.

This is not to say that The City & The City isn’t another great work of art created by China Mieville. I was so accustomed to floating along in the waves of Mieville’s greatly fantastical settings and characters, only to find myself rudely shoved into a hard and entirely unforgiving setting. I am under the opinion that this novel is extremely mislabeled as a fantasy work…there is an explanation and a science behind everything plot turn, and ultimately, my point is do NOT walk into The City & The City expecting fantasy. Although I have not read much detective noir fiction, I can confidently say The City & The City must be among the cream of the crop– as usual with Mieville, you can see the literary quality dripping off the edges of each page and feel the weight of a great imagination.

Go to:

China Mieville

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008) K

Date read: 11.8.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Nobody Owens (Bod) lives in a graveyard, has ghosts for friends and family, and a mysterious neither-living-nor-dead guardian. As he grows up, he has to learn both the ways and secrets of the large graveyard as well as deal with the outside world. This foreign world is extremely dangerous place for Bod because the assassin of his family is still on the prowl. Throughout the journey of his childhood Bod basically learns about growing up– girls, beings which are neither living nor, and slowly, how to function in the outside world.

Review

Way to go Neil Gaiman! All those months of meticulously following the progress of The Graveyard Book on his blog certainly paid off– the day it was released, I headed over to my local bookstore, plucked one brand spanking new copy off the display, and settled into an armchair to read for the next couple hours. I read it all in one sitting, and in about a week, after procuring enough monetary funds, I immediately bought the book.

I have to say The Graveyard Book was spot on in so many respects– character development, pacing, storytelling… to name a few. Sure Bod lives in a graveyard, but his childhood frustrations and adventures  are so relatable. He has his own quarrels with his guardians, fighting against the constraints of the graveyard much like children do their own homes. The imagery is simply splendid, especially Bod’s adventures beneath the graveyard and all the different fantastical creatures. And, who doesn’t like ghosts, vampires, and other such creatures? I definitely felt transported into another world through that imaginary magic portal every child wants to travel through. Above all, I was definitely caught up in the snowball effect of the novel– you’re reading and the suspense and developments keep piling on until suddenly, you realize you haven’t been breathing for several pages. That is the feeling I’d been longing to experience again, that same thrill of reading Patricia Wrede or Brian Jacques or J.K. Rowling as a child with breathy light-headedness.

The Graveyard Book has replaced Coraline as my favorite Gaiman YA fiction. It is fantastical, yet down to earth at the same time, and strikes a wonderful balance between barreling trains of action and meandering scenes chock full of character development. Quite honestly, one of my recurring gripes with Gaiman’s works is they typically feel a bit cold, despite being terrifically written and crafted. I usually enjoy every minute of a Gaiman novel or comic, but come away feeling a bit dissatisfied, as if it didn’t successfully speak to me on a deeper level. The Graveyard Book, however, was warm and honest, and definitely a great read for any child or even adult.

Go to:

Neil Gaiman

Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

Oskar is an alienated twelve-year-old living in a decaying Swedish suburb in the 1980’s. He is brutally bullied at school, and fantasizes often about striking back at his tormentors, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper articles about murders as his inspiration. Two new neighbors move into Oskar’s apartment complex: one an older man, and one, apparently his daughter, an androgynous girl named Eli who smells terrible, walks barefoot in the snow, and only comes out at night, but is nonetheless befriended by Oskar.

If you know anything about vampires, you can imagine where this is going. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, translated by Ebba Segerberg) was a bestseller in Sweden when it was published in 2004, and gained further international attention when the 2008 Swedish-language film adaptation (IMDB) won a number of awards and became a surprise hit. I’m not sure now if I heard about the movie or the book first, but unusually for me, I ended up watching the movie first, and read the book shortly after. I enjoyed both immensely, but for slightly different reasons in each case. Given that, I thought I’d do a combined film and book review. Please note that mild spoilers follow.

Continue reading Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E