Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Revenge-ElevenDarkTalesYoko Ogawa shares the same elegant, pared-down aesthetic of Kazuo Ishiguro and/or Akira Yoshimura.  Like them, she exerts remarkable control over her prose narrative.  And, like them, the fact that something significant is occurring is not always immediately apparent.

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales provides eleven intimate encounters with love, loss, desire and, yes, revenge.  The violence committed by Ogawa’s characters is particularly chilling, often presented as an afterthought.  The situations into which the reader is pulled are eerily familiar,  like in dreams.  The stories are imbued with a sense of artistry.

Afternoon at the Bakery begins with a woman waiting at the counter of an empty bakery to purchase strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday.  An elderly woman wanders in and sits beside her.  They trade small-talk, and in the course of their conversation it is revealed – very matter of factly –  that the birthday boy is dead.  He suffocated (perhaps years ago?) playing in an abandoned refrigerator.  The elderly woman sympathizes and then she leaves, promising to send back the baker if she should see her.  The mother continues to wait, seemingly with unlimited patience.  Eventually she notices the baker in the kitchen, clutching a phone and crying.  She wonders at the cause of the girl’s tears but decides not to interrupt.

People passed by the shop window – young couples, old men, tourists, a policeman on patrol – but no one seemed interested in the bakery.  The woman turned to look out at the square, and ran her fingers through her wavy white hair.  Whenever she moved in her seat, she gave off an odd smell; the scent of medicinal herbs and overripe fruit mingled with the vinyl of her apron.  It reminded me of when I was a child, and the smell of the little greenhouse in the garden where my father used to raise orchids.  I was strictly forbidden to open the door; but once, without permission, I did.  The scent of orchids was not at all disagreeable, and this pleasant association made me like the old woman.

On first reading, that may sound a little too simplistic of a plot.  The author is using a classic bait and switch scenario – pull a reader into a seemingly average, everyday situation and then draw back the veil.  She keeps the action and revelations balanced on the edge of what is possible.  Ogawa performs this trick over-and-over-again throughout the collection, yet the novelty never diminishes.  And even when things begin to feel unsteady, she uses the (authentic) emotions of her eleven narrators to steady us.

Every story is told through the first person, introducing a new storyteller who brings a new set of emotions, responses and perspective to events.  So one woman’s confessor becomes another man’s creepy uncle.  These tales are linked together by a delicate cord of tenuous relationships.  As the book progresses the number of connections grows and the cord becomes a net.

Part of the fascination of Revenge is derived from the joint discoveries of what the next connection will be and where it will occur.  A woman who wears her heart outside her chest, a surgeon’s jealous lover, a black-sheep uncle, a college student’s patroness, that crazy neighbor you made the mistake of talking to once… Ogawa binds the macabre and the mundane with brilliant results.  She and her translator Stephen Snyder make it look easy – allowing the action to move at its own, languid, pace.  Together they are carefully constructing prose environments, emotional tableaux, frozen in time like the scene in a Vermeer painting.

Or like Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill.  It’s been a favorite of mine since college.  The artist  has thrown together an assortment of mostly common, everyday items – except for the skull.  And it is that one disparate element which sets the tone and defines the viewers response.  Claesz was a 17th century “Haarlem painter who gave extraordinary presence to familiar things”.   It’s the gift given to every true artist:  that ability to draw back the veil and show the rest of us what is not always immediately apparent.

Publisher:  Picador, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 312 67446 5

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FEED by Mira Grant

Milk & Cookies. Chocolate & Peanut Butter. Zombies & Bloggers. The best things in life come in pairs. Mira Grant’s Newsflash Trilogy takes her readers into a world where the people no longer trust the conventional news media, we’ve cured cancer and the common cold… and side effects include lots of moaning and attempting to eat your neighbors after you die.

Georgia (George) & Shaun Mason are brother & sister bloggers. The year is 2039 and they’ve just hit the big time. One of the lead presidential candidates has made an unprecedented decision – to include bloggers as part of his media team. Senator Peter Ryman is the first person to run for president who was under the age of 18 when “The Rising” occurred, and that means he remembers the suffering that occurred when the traditional news outlets lied and only the bloggers were left to tell the truth. He’s chosen the Mason siblings – and their friend Buffy – to report on his campaign.

FEED introduces the reader to a new blogger world order. George is a Newsie – she reports straight, un-doctored truth and her reputation is impeccable. Shaun is an Irwin – thrill seekers (think Steve “the Crocodile Hunter” Irwin and the guys from Jackass) who provide valuable survival tips spiked with a heavy dose of suspense. Buffy, a “Fictional” – author and poet, as well as a techie extraordinaire – rounds out the trio.

“…We’re the all-purpose opiate of the new millennium: We report the news, we make the news, and we give you a way to escape when the news becomes too much to handle.” – Georgia Mason

Grant has created a brave new world, and if she’d stopped there I’d still want to read FEED just to explore it. But of course she gives us more than that. The story really gets going when tragedy (and zombies) strike on the campaign trail. And then strike again. And again…

Mira Grant is a pen name of Seanan McGuire. If you read BookSexy you know I’m a huge fan of her October Daye novels.  This new series has all the same strengths and weaknesses. I’m an acolyte of the Robin McKinley school of world building – throw the reader into the deep end and let them learn to swim. McGuire’s…um, I mean Grant’s… technique is the exact opposite. She explains everything and she explains it more than once. It annoys the hell out of me – Because, really, who is George (the narrator for most of the book) explaining all this stuff to? In the October Daye books the explanations can be justified because Toby describes a world that theoretically exists parallel to our own but is hidden. But Georgia would logically assume that anyone she’s talking to is a contemporary and would already have a handle on the zombie situation. This inexplicable need to dumb down the narrative keeps a really good genre novel from becoming a great one.

But, even with its flaws, FEED is still fantastic – better than most zombie movies. The characters are people readers believe in and care about. You can’t help yourself. And, I’m warning you now, when McGuire’s holding the pen anything can happen and no one is safe. The story twists, turns and ties you up in emotional knots. I laughed. I cried. (Seriously, I really did cry). O.K., it’s not going to win a National Book Award… but who cares?

“Zombies are pretty harmless as long as you treat them with respect. Some people say you should pity the zombie, empathize with the zombie, but I think they are likely to become the zombie, if you get my meaning. Don’t feel sorry for the zombie. The zombie’s not going to feel sorry for you when he starts gnawing on your head…

If you want to deal with zombies, stay away from the teeth, don’t let them scratch you, keep your hair short, and don’t wear loose clothes. It’s that simple. Making it more complicated would be boring, and who wants that? We have what basically amounts to walking corpses, dude.

Don’t suck all the fun out of it”. – Shaun Mason

Publisher:  Orbit, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 316 12246 7

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Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders by Neil Gaiman (Audio Book)

Neil Gaiman made comic books cool before…well…. before comic books were cool.  Three years after DC Published The Watchmen, Gaiman’s The Sandman came out on the Vertigo imprint, and helped pull the medium out of adolescence and into the realm of serious literature.  (It was also one of the first comic books to attract a loyal female readership).  The 75 book series was different from the standard superhero and mutant fare.   It immersed its readers in fantasy, mythology & literary history, – overlapping an archetypal past onto the modern world.   William Shakespeare, Orpheus, Lucifer, and Cain & Abel were all recurring characters.  It was in many ways the introduction of the graphic novel to the “literary” world.

So it was no surprise that when Gaiman moved away from comic books and into writing novels that he stayed with the fantasy genre.  Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boyes , and of course Coraline, are all wonderful and I can’t recommend them enough.  But on a 5 hour trip to Pittsburgh I decided to purchase Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders from Audible.com.  I saw the collection of short stories, poems and prose as a return to Gaiman’s comic book roots; where each issue was  an installment in an overall story arc.  While I don’t regret my selection, I do have mixed feelings about it.

At 10 hours and 51 minutes long, read by the author, I didn’t finish the whole download during the round trip . I could have, but frankly it would have been a bit much.  These stories were much bloodier and heavier than I expected.  (There was also quite a bit of sex…  Not a bad thing – just unexpected).   They are on the whole haunting.  Days after reading one it will linger in your mind.  Frequently, even though you’re pretty sure you can read between the lines or predict what happens after the story ends – you realize that you can never really be sure, can you?  I mean, he never actually tells you… does he?  All this adds up to an unsettling collection with too little humor, and what humor there is being pitch black.  Gaiman creates a mood wonderfully, but in this case he has used his powers for evil.  After each sitting I turned off my ipod feeling rather bleak.

Don’t misunderstand, I enjoyed Fragile Things.  A few stories are quite funny (I only wish there had been more).  I particularly liked one with a nice twist about an author’s struggle to write a terrible, and unintentionally hilarious, Gothic novel entitled Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire (also the title of the story). Another favorite was about a pair of boys crashing a party and attempting to pick-up girls, which has an interesting take on the Men are From Mars & Women from Venus phenomena – quite literally.   Two more stories which gave me chills (in a good,  ghost-story-told-around-the-campfire-with-a flashlight-under-your-face kind of way)  were about young boys meeting eerie playmates, featured the same red door knocker, and were both told using  frame stories. (Probably not a coincidence).  I’d strongly recommend skipping the story entitled Feeders & Eaters altogether if you have a delicate stomach.

These stories are probably more palatable read in a book, one at a time with long breaks between sittings… but I highly recommend the audiobook.  Gaiman’s readings are inspired – they transport you into the story.   His vocal expression may be what makes the experience so unsettling.  (He does the voices!)   For those of us who always loved Gaiman’s writing, its nice to know that he is a true storyteller in every sense.

Do NOT make the mistake of thinking that just because it feels like being read a bedtime story, these stories are suitable for young ears.  And I wouldn’t recommend them before bed.  I can’t imagine anything creepier than driving into Pittsburgh at 11PM listening to The Flints of Memory Lane, but hearing it right before attempting to go to sleep probably would make the cut.

Is it BookSexy?  Will it help to make you a more interesting person?  Well, yes… and no.  There is beautiful writing in Fragile Things, and beautiful stories.  You’ll find alot to talk about.  As a collection, though, it gets to be disturbing.   I suppose the same can be said about taxidermy.  One stuffed dead animal in a room can be an interesting conversation piece.  Twelve or fifteen is the Addams Family Mansion.

My advice:  It’s best to err on the side of moderation.  Parcel out these stories.  They’ll be easier to enjoy and the reading will last that much longer.

And should you ever come to a door with a scarlet door knocker in the shape of a demon’s face?…  Don’t knock.

Vive le Genre!

Lately there has been a renewed interest in genre fiction. Whether it’s Stephen King’s lurid covers on retro paperbacks in the grocery aisle, Michael Chabon’s serialized adventure story in the New York Times Magazine, or Arturo Pèrez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste swordsman-for-hire series, – the pulp novel is suddenly being taken seriously. And I’m glad. Books written & read for entertainment and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Graham Greene, Dumas, Dickens and Faulkner were the mass market darlings of their times. It seems that some books, like wine and Juliet Binoche, only get better with age. But before you jump into the latest crop of retro-flavored genre fiction, here are my recommendations to establish your street cred:

Wilkie Collins – Collins, who last topped the best seller lists in the 1860’s, is on the edge of most readers’ radars.  His best known works are The Woman in White & The Moonstone, so either would be a good introduction.  Both books are filled with over the top plot contrivances (complicated revenge schemes, heroines locked in asylums and Hindu jugglers to name just a few) that make them entertaining reads in ways the author probably never intended.  In addition to solid writing, Collins can arguably be credited with creating the English Detective novel.   Dubbed a “sensationalist” author, it is my opinion that his stories seem less dated and maudlin than his contemporary (and mentor) Charles Dickens.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Everyone has heard of Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle created a character so popular, who so captured the imagination of his readers, that societies exist to this day that study the short stories and novellas as canon.  While most are dazzled by the deductive reasoning of the hero, I contend that Doyle’s greatest stroke of genius is Watson. It is Watson who lends the tales the semblance of fact with his offhand references to past cases and conversational, first person narrative.  He’s much more personable than Holmes, and ten times more entertaining.  If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the man never seems to get the credit he deserves.  It is unquestionably because of John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the best short stories ever written.

H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft was another short story author who used first person narrative to brilliant effect.  His narrators mentally deteriorate in the course of their stories – slowly driven mad when confronted by alien and unspeakable horrors.  I need to repeat that… UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS!  Only Lovecraft could mold such a seemingly quaint old fashioned phrase into a vessel of terror!  Read him, you’ll understand.  They invented the phrase “blood chilling” for this man’s stories, and if they didn’t they should have.  You doubt me?  Google the Necronomicon.  A book that people, to this day, still believe exists. And which was entirely a creation of Lovecraft’s imagination.  Convincing readers that fiction is fact is impressive in anyone, but particularly so when the author wasn’t even trying.

Fritz Leiber – Fritz Leiber is the creator of my favorite swords & sorcery buddy team – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. This dynamic duo were cast in the tradition of fantasy heroes like Tarzan & Conan (Fafhrd is a Barbarian & the Gray Mouser is a Thief and former sorcerer’s apprentice), but they take themselves a lot less seriously. Two Lankhmar adventurers who have seen better days, their luck going up and down with the whims of fate, they first meet after each loses the current love of his life. Rakish, if a little shabby, they get themselves into and out of trouble (and under various female characters’ skirts) with the kind of panache to make James T. Kirk green with envy. Old Gods, underwater kingdoms, magicians & thieves’ guilds all make an appearance and add to the fun. Leiber has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps the stories light, despite some dark happenings. There’s a silliness about these tales which is a large part of their charm. Originally published in those old 60’s & 70’s magazines with names like “Fantastic Stories” (it doesn’t get any booksexy-er than reading them in the original), all the stories are collected in paperback editions that are a little bit more attainable. Lucky us!