ghosts

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.24.11
Book from: Personal collection

“Of all the things Anya expected to find at the bottom of an old well, a new friend was not one of them. Especially not a new friend who’s been dead for a century. Falling down a well is bad enough, but Anya’s normal life might actually be worse. She’s embarrassed by her immigrant family, self-conscious about her body, and she’s pretty much given up on fitting in at school.

Anya really could use a friend – even a ghost. But her new BFF isn’t kidding about the “Forever” part . . .”

Great characters, great dialogue, fabulous art. Brosgol’s style is elastic and rounded, equally ideal for conveying weightless movement and solid figures; the same could be said of her writing.

The resolutions to Anya’s emotional and social conflicts head towards conventional teen-movie territory, but Brosgol has such a light touch (her sharply contemporary dialogue often comes in handy) that none of the “wholesome realization! reconciliation and mutual understanding!” moments feel too heavy or forced. The climax, in particular, surprises by deliberately backing off of a too-easy, emotionally violent “conclusion.” I love how honest Anya comes to be about her own shortcomings. I’m also rather in love with her acerbic, squinty, spiky-skinny best friend Siobhan:

Siobhan
Siobhan, Exhibit A.

I found the comic a clear-eyed exploration of how so much of what makes teen girls unhappy – social pressure, body image, embarrassing family, lack of perspective – can come close to making some into little monsters of selfishness, and how they/we (been there, not so long ago) can come to back away from that brink. All in all: Anya’s Ghost is funny, scary, sad, and beautifully drawn.

(I first found Brosgol’s work, by the way, through the Draw This Dress Tumblr she shares with Emily Carroll, where the two post their lively illustrations of historical and sometimes not-so-historical fashion. Anya actually models a Victorian bathing suit in one post!)

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Vera Brosgol: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.8.11
Book from: Personal collection

An ironic title: Carter’s take on “waywardness” and “wickedness” is far more subtle, of course. The women in this anthology – all written by women – are canny, worldly, self-directed. They are leery of others’ plans for them, and quietly attentive to their own desires – which is not to say that they are selfish, necessarily*, though they run the gamut when it comes to moral fiber. The mother in Elizabeth Jolley’s “The Last Crop” cheerfully cons a kindly doctor when she decides that she’d really rather keep and cultivate her inherited land after all. The women and girls in Jane Bowles’ “A Guatemalan Idyll” are capable of disturbingly calculated callousness – the youngest, Lilina, “[chooses] her toys according to the amount of power or responsibility she thought they would give her in the eyes of others.” The particular toy she considers in this story, a pet snake, ends up beheaded due to her (deliberate?) carelessness; Lilina’s only comment is, “Look how small her head is. She must have been a very small snake.”

(In a wonderfully horrible play with point of view, Bowles half-distracts us from the impending violence in this scene by shifting the perspective to another character just long enough for the snake’s death to occur in the interim. [The other character, a boy, is meanwhile observing that he dislikes Lilina “probably because he suspected intuitively that she was a person who could fall over and over again into the same pile of broken glass and scream just as loudly the last time as the first.”] The aggregation of such effects in this story left me strangely unsettled, and, like the visiting traveler who eventually “escapes” from the Guatemalan women, feeling like I’d awoken from a fever dream.)

I’ve gotten way off track – there’s so much to talk about in each story. Carter’s own point about the morality of these women, questionable or otherwise, is that the range represented is a normal one. The women here are well-characterized individuals, flawed and proud individuals of varying ages and desires and backgrounds, rather than one-note femmes fatales or whores or shrews. They frequently “act out” simply by resisting, by hunkering down and continuing to dig out their own paths. The protagonist of Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Plums,” a Ghanaian student named Sissie who is touring in Europe, looks askance at the advances of a lonely German housewife, and in the end sloughs her off and keeps traveling. Throughout the story, she registers an ironic combination of pity and quiet contempt for the German woman and for whiteness in general, reflecting that “it must be a pretty dangerous matter, being white. It made you awfully exposed, rendered you terribly vulnerable. Like being born without your skin or something.” (The German woman’s son and husband are both named Adolf, it’s worth noting.) By contrast, Sissie goes through the story shielded, observing and untouched, sometimes even cruel, behind her armor of self-respect.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.4.11
Story from: Read it online here

“… The owners of Harrowby Hall had done their utmost to rid themselves of the damp and dewy lady who rose up out of the best bedroom floor at midnight, but without avail. They had tried stopping the clock, so that the ghost would not know when it was midnight; but she made her appearance just the same, with that fearful miasmatic personality of hers, and there she would stand until everything about her was thoroughly saturated.”

“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” (1894) is one of the most hilariously prim ghost stories you’ll ever read, a sort of ghost story of manners:

“You are a witty man for your years,” said the ghost.

“Well, my humor is drier than yours ever will be,” returned the master.

“No doubt. I’m never dry. I am the Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, and dryness is a quality entirely beyond my wildest hope.”

It also makes itself an easy target for feminist readings – the ghost, a “sudden incursion of aqueous femininity” (!), repeatedly intrudes on the Harrowby masters’ cozy quarters with her indiscriminately sloshy woes… (Aligns well with Chinese ghost traditions, too – tsk tsk, so wet, not enough masculine principle.)

The twist introduced in the last paragraph ends the otherwise trifling story on a surprisingly sinister note. It’s a troubling moment that drags the faintly misogynistic tone of the story’s proceedings to the foreground, and leaves them hanging there for your consideration.

This version of the story online includes some charming illustrations, but lacks the final paragraph, without which the story is far less interesting.

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John Kendrick Bangs: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 1.10.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

Snow White meets haunted-house melodrama meets quasi-vampire story with a decided hint of “Carmilla,” by the author of The Icarus Girl? Count me in. White is for Witching is the story of a family, and a house, distorted by the loss of a mother and a hidden history of trauma, xenophobia, and insanity. Miranda Silver blames herself for her mother’s death, and struggles with pica, a disorder that compels her to eat chalk and plastic. (I thought it might well be a pun on the “consumptive” heroine, in addition to hinting at Miri’s eventual realization of even worse appetites, and reflecting the novel’s motifs of misdirected desire and destruction from the inside out.) Her twin brother Eliot and bottled-up father Luc are too paralyzed by their own obsessions and griefs to do more than watch Miri on her slow course to destruction. In short, every character is an emotional closed circuit, furiously retracing the same neuroses without outlet or resolution. This includes, of course, the possessive and apparently sentient house, which has born witness to several generations of tortured Silver women.

For the first half of the book, I read with mostly detached fascination. Everyone is so icily clever and dysfunctional that I couldn’t really care about them, and as in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s prose sometimes verges on mannered. Paragraphs drift into prose-poetic fragments, and overlapping phrases signal transitions between narrating characters; I found the latter a particularly heavy-handed stylistic device. Similarly, many of the haunted-house tableaux – Miri’s waking dreams of streets lined with “pale people,” for example – are presented with an arranged, glassy nightmarishness, an alienating hyper-aestheticization. What saved the book for me from feeling (if you’ll forgive the pun) too lifeless was Oyeyemi’s dense layering of Gothic and folkloric tropes.

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Date read: 12.21.10
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

The cover-flap copy for this book is so absurdly, inveiglingly charming that I just have to post the whole thing:

What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a really literate, first-class thriller – one that chills the body with foreboding of dark deeds to come, but warms the soul with perceptions and language at once astute and vivid? In other words, a ghost story by Jane Austen.

Austen we cannot, alas, give you, but Susan Hill’s remarkable Woman In Black comes as close as the late twentieth century is likely to provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero one Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the nursery of the deserted Eel Marsh House, the eerie sound of pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most dreadfully, and for Kipps most tragically, the woman in black.

So, yep, a good old English Gothic. Hill provides a smoothly paced, carefully detailed ghost story, meditative in tone and full of lovely, eerie descriptions of the silvery salt marshes and sudden “sea frets” (fogs) that surround the requisite abandoned mansion.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of much other praise for the book beyond words like “accomplished” and “polished.” Hill’s easy mastery of all the conventions of the genre – the meticulously built-up suspense, the confident young narrator whose rationality slowly buckles – has the effect of making it all feel rather tidy and expected, particularly since her prose feels about the same.  In the twisty-turny thrillery department – I guessed the overall shape of the plot about 20 pages in, and foresaw most of the twists after that well in advance.

All in all, a pleasantly chilly read for a winter night, with one or two lingeringly unsettling images, but nothing that really bit deep.

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Susan Hill: bio and works reviewed

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Date Read: 9.26.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The story follows Doctor Faraday, a lonely bachelor who calls upon the residents of the once glorious Hundreds Hall and begins to form a friendship with the remaining family and staff that reside there. His friendship to the family becomes a crux on which they rely, and soon he finds himself involved in ever stranger circumstances at Hundreds Hall.  The interactions of the story are characterized by mysterious fires, writings, and sounds with the underlying ever-increasing tension of Faraday’s relationship to the mother and daughter of the house.

Review

It took me a really long time to review this because I couldn’t form a concrete opinion. Basically, there was good and bad, but the good was oh so good and the bad was characterized by raging mediocrity. Every time the scales tipped in favor of one side, I’d remember something to the contrary and the dilemma would reassert itself.

The Good: Superb writing and storytelling. Of course, it is apparent from Waters‘ four previous novels that she knows how to write, and once again she demonstrates her ability to spin a tale out of not an incredible amount of material. I was reading along the first 100 pages, and I was still, somewhat inexplicably, waiting eagerly to find out what would transpire during Faraday’s fourth visit to the same dreary hall. There’s no rampant drama or lgbt overtones that characterize her previous novels, which I found quite refreshing, as if I were here for the sole purpose of enjoying raw word manipulation.

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Date Read: 6.11.08
Book From: BurningBuilding, now Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

The summer I discovered Isaac Marion‘s fiction (or more correctly, Emera discovered and I piggybacked on that), I ran around my friends group trying to get everyone to read his stories. I basically spent all of a work day on BurningBuilding engrossed in his short stories, sometimes reading some more than once. Out of all these, the one I repeatedly recommended was Anna, a story I believe is impossible not to love.

Anna is the first person tale of a young ghost who wanders through earth and time, and one day, falls in love with a young boy and follows his life. The story is a mixture of emotions, atmosphere, and a small bit of dialogue that somehow come together to produce a sweeping epic effect. Its simple but beautiful prose is proof that one doesn’t need embellishments and flourishes to successfully tell a story.

The word that always comes to mind when I read Anna is “floating”. First of all, Anna… well, she floats, so I believe it is appropriate. But the word also captures the way Anna lives out her “life”, carried by a wind of time, sometimes skipping 10 years, sometimes 100. This ephemeral quality is also skillfully conveyed by Sarah Musi‘s illustrations, which feature a lot of flowing lines and a bit of whimsy.

In particular, Anna contains one of my favorite scenes ever:

“One day in high-school the boy met a beautiful girl, and they kissed under the football bleachers. Anna turned away, and wished for a strong wind to blow her far from there, but the air was still. She floated into a mountain instead, moving through the rock for miles until she reached the mountain’s heart, and closed her eyes there, feeling the warm, dark crush of the mountain’s life grinding around her.”

I love the idea of withdrawing into the heart of a mountain to mourn. It is such a powerful, majestic image (or maybe I just love mountains and am obsessed with Now We Have a Map of the Piano by Mum), and I like to believe the mountain also lends Anna strength for the rest of her journey.

As of this entry, Marion still has 25 remaining copies of Anna. These are gorgeous, self-published illustrated books on very fine, sturdy paper. If this sounds interesting, you should definitely purchase a copy before Marion becomes too famous =)

Go To:

Isaac Marion
Purchase Anna
Online Sample
Anna (2008) [E]

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Date read: 8.10.09
Read in: Coyote Wild
Reviewer: Emera

Yoon Ha Lee’s flash fiction (I did a word count out of curiosity – 223) “Behind the Mirror” is lovely, sad, and unsettling, and has one of the most memorable single lines I’ve read, that could be a poem all by itself. The story has an appropriately vanishing feel to it, a sort of silvery evanescence. I found one paragraph a little overwritten, which is troublesome in such a short piece, but it doesn’t really hurt the story as a whole.

“Behind the Mirror” appears in the first issue of online speculative fic/poetry quarterly Coyote Wild. Take a minute out of your day to enjoy Lee’s story. (That’s why I love short fiction – you can pop one in here and there so easily.)

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Yoon Ha Lee

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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

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Date Read: 2.2.09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

book anna

Anna is the wistful tale of a young ghost who falls in love with a human boy. When I first stumbled upon Isaac Marion‘s short fiction online, it was one of the stories that most enchanted both Kakaner and me. In 2008, Marion self-published a 50-edition print run of Anna, with illustrations by Sarah Musi.

I love the size and feel of the book, especially the old-fashioned font and heavily textured, off-white paper cover. There’s something very individual-feeling about self-published books, and with their slight imperfections, you somehow you get more of a sense of the author, and of the effort that went into making the book. Instead of it being A Copy of a Book, it’s A Book, if that makes any sense.

Musi’s ink illustrations are delicate, charming, and perfectly suit the feel of the story with their elegant, expressive minimalism. Her elongated forms, fine linework, and use of negative space struck me as being faintly Gorey-esque. The story unfolds simply and gracefully, with quiet gravity. The details of Anna’s existence as a ghost are particularly captivating: my favorite moment of the story might be when she sinks into a mountain, seeking the comfort of its solidity.

As of July 2009, about 25 copies of Anna are still available for sale on Marion’s site. You can also see previews of the text and art at the same link. I treasure my copy, so if you’re at all tempted, I would buy one while you still can.

Go to:

Isaac Marion
Isaac Marion’s fiction online
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion [E]
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion  [K]

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