Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’
When one hears the words “geek” and “dating” in a single sentence images of awkward guys wearing taped glasses, too-short pants, and pocket protectors come to mind. Most likely they’re inching towards a girl who’s out of their league and scurrying off just as she’s about to notice.
While it’s true that many geeks, whether self-professed or labeled by others, might need a bit more help than the average person when it comes to socializing, Eric Smith is optimistic. Smith, a geek of the self-professed sort, believes that geeks are well-prepared for dating and, to prove it, has written a guide specifically for this vibrant and varied subculture.
In The Geek’s Guide to Dating, Smith harnesses the innate passion that connects all geeks, whether they’re spending their paycheck at the record store, on video games, or the latest epic fantasy series.
For the release of his book, Eric and I chatted about the definition of “geek,” why they’re well-suited for romantic involvement, and gay geek culture.
Contextual Life: This is a basic question but I feel like you might have an interesting answer, what made you write The Geek’s Guide to Dating?
Eric Smith: Actually, the book idea came from Quirk’s publisher, Jason Rekulak. He’s one smart guy that loves pulling ideas out of thin air.
I’d been writing essays about the intersection of relationships and my geek life (a few of which you can see on the Bygone Bureau), as well as rambling about local geek culture on my blog here in Philadelphia, Geekadelphia. He encouraged me to take my love of all-that-is-geek and mash it together with a dating book, one that we’d potentially illustrate with 8-bit artwork.
It was a natural blending of interests for me, and incredibly fun to write.
CL: You’re the Social Media and Marketing Manager for Quirk. What did it feel like to write a book for your own company?
ES: It was interesting! I mean, how many authors get to see the day to day creation of their book? I got to see incredibly early artwork, the “dummies” (blank copies of the book) floating around the office, specifics about the print run, publicity updates right from my colleagues who sit next to me; all that good stuff. I even put my own book on the company’s website!
There were also some challenges though. I promote all our titles via our various social media accounts. On the blog, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, you name it. I had to make sure I was balancing out promoting my book with everyone elses! It sounds silly, but it’s something I’ve been keeping very aware of. I adore all our authors, and I didn’t want them thinking I forgot about them.
CL: Another basic question, say we just met at a social gathering and I asked you to define “geek,” how would you answer?
ES: After I recovered from the shock that you didn’t know, possibly after sitting down and taking a deep breath, I’d explain that a geek is someone who is so invested in a hobby or a passion, that it becomes a part of their everyday life.
CL: In your book you differentiate between different types of geeks, which one are you?
ES: Me? I’m a video game geek and (much like yourself) a book geek. I’m the sort of guy who gets a kick out of midnight releases, takes days off to play new games, and plans evenings around gaming with friends on Xbox Live. I also love surrounding myself with books, from comics to classic literature. I spend a lot of time writing about both of those passions and love doing so.
CL: I’m so far out of the video game loop it’s not even funny. What kinds of games do you play and why?
ES: You know, it’s never too late to start a hobby that’s cripplingly addictive, Gab.
I really just love a game with a great story. Perhaps that’s my book geek shining through. Games that have epic narratives really get me excited to sit down and experience a new world. Some recent favorites include the Mass Effect series, Bioshock series (Infinite was incredible), and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I still haven’t stopped making “I took an arrow in the knee” jokes.
CL: We’re kids of the 80s so I have to ask, what was your favorite Atari game?
ES: The Halo series holds a special place in my heart. I’ll admit it, I’ve even read the Halo novels. I know, I know.
CL: You seem to believe geeks have an extraordinary amount of potential for dating. This is counterintuitive. What made you come to this conclusion?
ES: I’ve always felt like geeks are social creatures at heart. We thrive in communities where people share our interests.
I mean, just look at an event like San Diego Comic Con, DragonCon, or [Insert City, Video Game, or Genre] Con. We descend on those conventions en masse, eager to meet our peers and talk to the people who produce the things we love.
You can’t play Magic the Gathering or D&D without a bunch of friends. There’s no going raiding in World of Warcraft by yourself. I mean, I’m sure you could find a way. It’s just more fun with others.
CL: Speaking of Cons, what’s one of the best experiences you’ve had at one?
ES: Probably two years ago, when I went to Philadelphia Comic Con in my Master Chief suit for the first time. I’d never tried walking a convention floor in a costume before, and I was actually a little nervous that my armor wasn’t going to size up to the rest of the outfits there. My best friend Tim (who runs Geekadelphia with me), showed up in his Stormtrooper armor, and we made quite the pair, wandering the con together.
People stopped me every few feet to take a photo and it took me all afternoon to make it from one side of the convention to the other … and I loved it. We made so many people smile that day. Such a great, great feeling.
Also, the 501st Legion invited me to change with them, which was great. I was getting suited up next to a Boba Fett and a Darth Vader. No big deal.
CL: You acknowledge that The Geek’s Guide to Dating is written from the male perspective and that you use the male pronoun throughout; however, you say that your “sweeping generalizations” apply to both sexes. Do you find that geek guys and geek girls adhere less to gender stereotypes?
ES: That’s an interesting question, and one that’s always a hot one in the geek community. Stereotypes and what makes a geek a geek. What constitutes a geek girl? A geek guy? I think, unfortunately for us, there are tons of stereotypes slapped onto those titles. Real geek girls should do this, real geek guys should do that … personally, I don’t think we adhere to them at all, but some people assume that we do, or worse, should.
Sidenote, the amazing writers over at The Mary Sue dissect this issue a lot, and way better than I can. This tag rounds up all their outstanding pieces.
CL: How does this stereotyping affect geek dating?
Then again, if you’re the kind of person passing those kind of judgements, I really don’t want you talking to or dating any of my awesome geek friends in the first place.ES: The way all things do when you make assumptions based on no facts. Negatively. You’re judging a girl or a guy before you get to know either of them? Well, you might be missing out on someone totally amazing.
CL: Agreed! So, big news, you recently got engaged. Meeting your fiance seems to coincide with the writing of your book. This leads me to wonder what your research was like.
ES: Hah! Yes, it was pretty serendipitous! We met a few months before I started working on the book, leading her to ask me if there will be a Geek’s Guide to Engagements and Weddings.
My fiancee was actually a big fan of reading dating books, so, while I was doing research, she let me borrow a few of her old books. It helped a lot with some of the sections in the book. I also let her read bits and pieces. Though as a very non-geek girl, she had plenty of questions. I didn’t mind though. It actually gave me a chance to teach her more about all the stuff I care about.
So I guess, in a weird way, my book helped me with dating as I was writing it.
CL: That’s beyond adorable. By now people can tell that you are a heterosexual guy. Your book focuses on heterosexual relationships but I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on gay geek culture.
ES: Just that they have an amazing geek network! Geeks Out! does outstanding work, and now there’s the Gaymer X video game convention. All geeks rally together to support their passions, so it’s really no different.
And their gay geek icons are pretty damn incredible. Ian McKellen? Neil Patrick Harris? Sean Maher? So awesome.
CL: Huge thanks for taking the time to talk about your new book. I hope every geek reads it!
ES: Anytime! Thanks for having me! And hey, if you’d like to watch some cute geeky couples talking about their relationships, there’s an adorable webseries tie in to the book. You can catch them on the Quirk blog and on Geekosystem every Tuesday! Here’s a link to the recent videos.
Here are just a few paperbacks coming out this month that have caught my eye.
Artful by Ali Smith
Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world—it is about the things art can do, the things art is made of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. A magical hybrid that refuses to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature. Ali Smith’s heady powers as a novelist and short story writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.
Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self by Jennifer Ouellette
As diverse as people appear to be, all of our genes and brains are nearly identical. In Me, Myself, and Why, Jennifer Ouellette dives into the miniscule ranges of variation to understand just what sets us apart. She draws on cutting-edge research in genetics, neuroscience, and psychology—enlivened as always with her signature sense of humor—to explore the mysteries of human identity and behavior. Readers follow her own surprising journey of self-discovery as she has her genome sequenced, her brain mapped, her personality typed, and even samples a popular hallucinogen. Bringing together everything from Mendel’s famous pea plant experiments and mutations in The X-Men to our taste for cilantro and our relationships with virtual avatars, Ouellette takes us on an endlessly thrilling and illuminating trip into the science of ourselves.
The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner
Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by editor Philip Gove, Webster’s Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating “artificial notions of correctness,” basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary’s revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called “the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars.” Critics bayed at the dictionary’s permissive handling of ain’t. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the abandonment of the old standard represented the unraveling of civilization.
Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain’t describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.
What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson
Bankers prowl Brooklyn bars on the eve of the stock market crash. A debate over Young Elvis versus Vegas Elvis turns existential. Detoxing junkies use a live lobster to spice up their love life. Students on summer break struggle to escape the orbit of a seemingly utopic communal house.
And in the title story, selected for The Best American Short Stories, two film school buddies working on a doomed project are left sizing up their own talent, hoping to come out on top–but fearing they won’t.
In What’s Important Is Feeling, Adam Wilson follows the through-line of contemporary coming-of-age from the ravings of teenage lust to the staggering loneliness of proto-adulthood. He navigates the tough terrain of American life with a delicate balance of comedy and compassion, lyricism and unsparing straightforwardness. Wilson’s characters wander through a purgatory of yearning, hope, and grief. No one emerges unscathed.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Electric, exhilarating, and beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go introduces the world to Taiye Selasi, a novelist of extraordinary talent. In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from Accra to Lagos to London to New York, it is at once a portrait of a modern family and an exploration of the importance of where we come from to who we are.
A renowned surgeon and failed husband, Kweku Sai dies suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of his death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Moving with great elegance through time and place, Ghana Must Go charts their circuitous journey to one another and, along the way, teaches us that the truths we speak can heal the wounds we hide.
Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production by Nato Thompson
A fog of information and images has flooded the world: from advertising, television, radio, and film to the information glut produced by the new economy. With the rise of social networking, even our contemporaries, peers, and friends are all suddenly selling us the ultimate product: themselves.
Here curator and critic Nato Thompson interrogates the implications of these developments for those dedicated to socially engaged art and activism. How can anyone find a voice and make change when the world is flooded with images and information? And what is one to make of the endless machine of consumer capitalism, which has appropriated much from the history of art and, in recent years, the methods of grassroots political organizing and social networking?
Highlighting the work of some of the most innovative and interesting artists and activists working today, Thompson reads and praises sites and institutions that empower their communities to see power and re-imagine it. From cooperative housing to anarchist infoshops to alternative art venues, Thompson shows that many of today’s most innovative spaces operate as sites of dramatic personal transformation.
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide; Eric Selland (translator)
A bestseller in France and winner of Japan s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat, by the acclaimed poet Takashi Hiraide, is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living. A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo; they work at home, freelance copy-editing; they no longer have very much to say to one another. But one day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. It leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. Soon they are buying treats for the cat and enjoying talks about the animal and all its little ways. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife the days have more light and color. The novel brims with new small joys and many moments of staggering poetic beauty, but then something happens
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic; David Williams (translator)
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.
Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.
Glyph by Percival Everett
Baby Ralph has ways to pass the time in his crib—but they don’t include staring at a mobile. Aided by his mother, he reads voraciously: “All of Swift, all of Sterne, Invisible Man, Baldwin, Joyce, Balzac, Auden, Roethke,” along with a generous helping of philosophy, semiotics, and trashy thrillers. He’s also fond of writing poems and stories (in crayon). But Ralph has limits. He’s mute by choice and can’t drive, so in his own estimation he’s not a genius. Unfortunately for him, everyone else disagrees. His psychiatrist kidnaps him for testing, and once his brilliance is quantified (IQ: 475), a Pentagon officer also abducts him. Diabolically funny and lacerating in its critique of poststructuralism, Glyph has the feverish plot of a thriller and the philosophical depth of a text by Roland Barthes.
On Loving Women by Diane Obomsawin; Helge Dascher (translator)
On Loving Women is a new collection of stories about coming out, first love, and sexual identity by the animator Diane Obomsawin. With this work, Obomsawin brings her gaze to bear on subjects closer to home—her friends’ and lovers’ personal accounts of realizing they’re gay or first finding love with another woman. Each story is a master class in reaching the emotional truth of a situation with the simplest means possible. Her stripped-down pages use the bare minimum of linework to expressively reveal heartbreak, joy, irritation, and fear.
On Loving Women focuses primarily on adolescence—crushes on high school teachers, awkwardness on first dates—but also addresses much deeper-seated difficulties of being out: fears of rejection and of not being who others want one to be. Within these pages, Obomsawin has forged a poignant, powerful narrative that speaks to the difficulties of coming out and the joys of being loved.
Her first English-language work, Kaspar—a retelling of the life of Kaspar Hauser, the mysterious German youth who was raised in isolation and murdered just a few years after emerging from his imprisonment—was critically lauded for its simple but expressive storytelling, and for the way it portrayed traumatic material compassionately but without self-indulgence. Preview.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.
Small press HiLoBooks has been reviving stories from the “Radium Age,” a term coined by publisher Joshua Glenn to mean the era in science fiction encompassing 1904 to 1933. The Clockwork Man, having come out last week, is their most recent title in the series.
Written by Edwin Vincent (E.V.) Odle, a British playwright, critic, and short-story author, The Clockwork Man is considered by many to be the first cyborg novel. Unfortunately it came out in 1923, the same year as Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., which succeeded in taking all the glory.
For years The Clockwork Man languished in obscurity, ultimately becoming out-of-print. Joshua Glenn, having heard about the book, was tired of waiting for someone else to reissue it, found a first edition, and brought it back to life.
A forgotten classic, first serialized online at HiLoBrow, now published in paperback with an introduction from Annalee Newitz of io9, The Clockwork Man should be on the shelf of every science fiction fan.
Here’s an excerpt:
It was just as Doctor Allingham had congratulated himself upon the fact that the bowling was broken, and he had only to hit now and save the trouble of running, just as he was scanning the boundaries with one eye and with the other following Tanner’s short, crooked arm raised high above the white sheet at the back of the opposite wicket, that he noticed the strange figure. Its abrupt appearance, at first sight like a scarecrow dumped suddenly on the horizon, caused him to lessen his grip upon the bat in his hand. His mind wandered for just that fatal moment, and his vision of the oncoming bowler was swept away and its place taken by that arresting figure of a man coming over the path at the top of the hill, a man whose attitude, on closer examination, seemed extraordinarily like another man in the act of bowling.
That was why its effect was so distracting. It seemed to the doctor that the figure had popped up there on purpose to imitate the action of a bowler and so baulk him. During the fraction of a second in which the ball reached him, the second image had blotted out everything else. But the behavior of the figure was certainly abnormal. Its movements were violently ataxic. Its arms revolved like sails of a windmill. Its legs shot out in all directions, enveloped in dust.
The doctor’s astonishment was turned into annoyance by the spectacle of his shattered wicket. A vague clatter of applause broke out. The wicket keeper stooped down to pick up the bails. The fielders relaxed and flopped down on the grass. They seemed to have discovered suddenly that it was a hot afternoon, and that cricket was, after all, a comparatively strenuous game. One of the umpires, a sly nasty fellow, screwed up his eyes and looked hard at the doctor as the latter passed him, walking with the slow, meditative gait of the bowled out, and swinging his gloves. There was nothing to do but glare back, and make the umpire feel a worm. The doctor wore an eye-glass, and he succeeded admirably. His irritation boiled over and produced a sense of ungovernable childish rage. Somehow, he had not been able to make any runs this season, and his bowling average was all to pieces. He began to think he ought to give up cricket. He was getting past the age when a man can accept reverses in the spirit of the game, and he was sick and tired of seeing his name every week in the Great Wymering Gazette as having been dismissed for a “mere handful.”
He looked out the window, and there was that confounded figure still jiggling about. It had come nearer to the ground. It hovered, with a curious air of not being related to its surroundings that was more than puzzling. It did not seem to know what it was about, but hopped along aimlessly, as though scenting a track, stopped for a moment, blundered forward again and made a zig-zag course towards the ground. The doctor watched it advancing through the broad meadow that bounded the pitch, threading its way between the little groups of grazing cows, that raised their heads with more than their ordinary, slow persistency, as though startled by some noise. The figure seemed to be aiming for the barrier of hurdles that surrounded the pitch, but whether its desire was for cricket or merely to reach some kind of goal, whether it sought recreation or a mere pause from its restless convulsions, it was difficult to tell. Finally, it fell against the fence and hung there, two hands crooked over the hurdle and its legs drawn together at the knees. It became suddenly very still—so still that it was hard to believe it ever moved.
It was certainly odd. The doctor was so struck by something altogether wrong about the figure, something so suggestive of a pathological phenomenon, that he almost forgot his annoyance and remained watching it with an unlighted cigarette between his lips.
The other week I was asked to contribute to the popular science fiction and fantasy website SF Signal. They have a series called “Mind Meld” where they ask authors and bloggers to answer one question posed to them by the moderator. I participated once before and what I’ve found is that like contributing to the series because I start off unsure if I’ll be able to come up with an answer. Being asked to come up with a short post about something I never would have thought of on my own allows me to stretch my brain. Luckily, both times I’ve been able to come up with a few hundred words.
You can read the entry in full here. There are tons of book suggestions from others and well worth a look. Below is my answer.
Q: What are your favorite “road trips” in science fiction and fantasy? What makes a good road trip in a genre story?
With summer in full swing travel is on the minds of many. Even if you’re staying put, the season conjures up of visions–and perhaps memories–of long car rides to beachfront locations, hours spent with family in close quarters, and days or weeks with only the most necessary amenities. It’s now mid-July and time for the outdoors, open space, and new adventures; a break from the tedium and habits of the day-to-day.
Whether you’re staying home this season or currently packing up your things, all of this makes summer the perfect time for stories featuring road trips. The protagonist is usually shaking off the constraints of everyday life and seeking something new. A good travel story creates a certain suspense that is inevitably propelled forward by the sheer momentum of whatever vehicle is used–a horse, a car, a spaceship. The circumstances set the pace: Is the character in a hurry? are they lost? do they have direction or is it simply an escape?
Growing up in the 90s I was a huge fan of 1960s counterculture. I was into the Grateful Dead and devoured the literature of the time period. With the amount of drugs everyone did, and then wrote about, their books might as well have been categorized as fantasy. From Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, these were tales of misadventure and chaos. However entertaining these stories were to me in my teen years, true fantasy and science fiction offers something more than reality is able to provide.
Three books immediately come to mind that, if you haven’t read already, you should pick up before the fall is here. The first is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The story begins with a character named Shadow, a man newly released from a three year stint in prison. With his wife recently killed in a car crash he no longer has a reason to go home. Aimless and heartbroken, he accepts a job from a stranger and sets off on a quest across America. What follows is a familiar landscape set slightly askew by fantastically eerie characters based on Norse mythology and a haunting mystery to be uncovered.
Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is another book that came to mind as I thought about road trips. The protagonist, Miriam Black, has an unfortunate power: she can see the way people will die just by touching them. When Miriam, also an aimless wanderer, hitches a ride with trucker Louis Darling and shakes his hand she sees that they will be together for the next thirty days, for better or worse.
Finally, there’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, undoubtedly the lighter of the three. Hitchhiker’s is the story of Arthur Dent, an unwitting Earthling who is taken away from his planet moments before it’s destroyed. Dent and his saviour, Ford Prefect, travel through the universe encountering dangerous aliens, inhospitable climates, and bad poetry. It’s a true comedy of errors. This unintended exploration of space will make you think twice when you start to complain about your summer vacation.
While realist road trips take you on a ride through lands you might never travel to, their science fiction and fantasy counterparts take you worlds beyond your imagination.
Here are some excellent paperbacks to get your April started off on the right foot.
Frequencies: Volume 2
Featuring original work by Sara Finnerty on ghosts, Roxane Gay on issues of belonging in Black America, Alex Jung on the gay sex trade in Thailand, Aaron Shulman on a frontier town of Guatemala, Kate Zambreno on Barbara Loden, and more.
Point of Impact by Jay Faerber (writer), Koray Kuranel, (art)
A gripping, provocative murder mystery from acclaimed writer Jay Faerber and stunning artist Koray Kuranel begins with one woman’s murder and branches out to follow the investigation by three people with personal connections to her: her husband, an investigative reporter; her lover, an ex-soldier; and her friend, a homicide detective. Her death will change all of their lives.
Check out a 6-page excerpt from Point of Impact
Read an interview with Jay Faerber on Comic Book Resources
Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé
From the author of A Novel Bookstore comes this delightful story about friendship across racial and economic barriers set in contemporary Paris.
Édith can hardly believe it when she learns that Fadila, her sixty-year-old housemaid, is completely illiterate. How can a person living in Paris in the third millennium possibly survive without knowing how to read or write? How does she catch a bus, or pay a bill, or withdraw money from the bank? Why it’s unacceptable! She thus decides to become Fadila’s French teacher. But teaching something as complex as reading and writing to an adult is rather more challenging than she thought. Their lessons are short, difficult, and tiring. Yet, during these lessons, the oh-so-Parisian Édith and Fadila, an immigrant from Morocco, begin to understand one another as never before, and form this understanding will blossom a surprising and delightful friendship. Édith will enter into contact with a way of life utterly unfamiliar to her, one that is unforgiving at times, but also full of joy and dignity.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle–and people in general–has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence–creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.
The Crisis of the European Mind by Paul Hazard
Paul Hazard’s magisterial, widely influential, and beloved intellectual history offers an unforgettable account of the birth of the modern European mind in all its dynamic, inquiring, and uncertain glory. Beginning his story in the latter half of the seventeenth century, while also looking back to the Renaissance and forward to the future, Hazard traces the process by which new developments in the sciences, arts, philosophy, and philology came to undermine the stable foundations of the classical world, with its commitment to tradition, stability, proportion, and settled usage. Hazard shows how travelers’ tales and archaeological investigation widened European awareness and acceptance of cultural difference; how the radical rationalism of Spinoza and Richard Simon’s new historical exegesis of the Bible called into question the revealed truths of religion; how the Huguenot Pierre Bayle’s critical dictionary of ideas paved the way for Voltaire and the Enlightenment, even as the empiricism of Locke encouraged a new attention to sensory experience that led to Rousseau and romanticism. Hazard’s range of knowledge is vast, and whether the subject is operas, excavations, or scientific experiments his brilliant style and powers of description bring to life the thinkers who thought up the modern world.
Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz
The Death of Lysanda collects two macabre novellas by one of Israel’s greatest writers. In the title piece, we meet Naphtali Noi, a recently divorced proofreader, critic, and “creative” taxidermist, given to hallucinations and soon perhaps to add murder to his hobbies. Ants tells the story of a married couple, Jacob and Rachel, who discover that an army of the titular insects is threatening to destroy their rooftop apartment—but Rachel seems to be on their side rather than her husband’s.
In fragmented prose halfway between the Old Testament and the playful stories of Julio Cortázar, these tales take to pieces the psyches of two men—and a nation—at war with themselves.
Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast by Maeve Gilmore
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels are widely acknowledged to be classic works of high fantasy, on par with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this series, Peake created the vividly detailed world — at once gothic and surreal — of Castle Gormenghast. When Peake died in 1968, he left behind the tantalizing pages and clues for the fourth and concluding book in the series.
Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn Peake’s widow, wrote Titus Awakes, based on those pages left behind by Peake. Fans of the Gormenghast novels will relish this continuation of the world Peake created and of the lives of unforgettable characters from the original novels, including the scheming Steerpike, Titus’s sister Fuchsia, and the long-serving Dr. Prunesquallor. Published a century after Peake’s birth, this strikingly imaginative novel provides a moving coda to Peake’s masterwork.
Absolution by Patrick Flanery
A bold and exciting literary novel set in South Africa that contemplates the elusive line between truth and self-perception.
Absolution is a big-idea novel about the pitfalls of memory, the ramifications of censorship, and the ways we are silently complicit in the problems around us. It’s also a devastating, intimate, and stunningly woven story. Told in shifting perspectives, it centers on the mysterious character of Clare Wald, a controversial South African writer of great fame, haunted by the memories of a sister she fears she betrayed to her death and a daughter she fears she abandoned. Clare comes to learn that in this conflict the dead do not stay buried, and the missing return in other forms—such as the child witness of her daughter’s last days who has reappeared twenty years later as Clare’s official biographer, prompting an unraveling of history and a search for forgiveness. Part literary thriller, part meditation on the responsibility of the individual under totalitarianism, this is a masterpiece of rich, complicated characters and narration that captures the reader and does not let go.
Over the past few years there’s been growing interest in apocalyptic scenarios and the arts have thrived because of it–film, television, books. But back in 2000, when fascination with civilization’s demise was still very much of the underground, there was Deadenders, a 16-issue comic collaboration between writer Ed Brubaker and artist Warren Pleece.
Although Deadenders is set in post-disaster New Bedlam, USA, 20 years after “the cataclysm,” it has a distinctly British vibe: Vespas, mod haircuts, the occasional Royal Air Force logo patched onto a leather jacket. The story opens with a monologue and we learn of the “visions” the narrator’s had since the age of ten and that his cousin recently died on Christmas Eve of a drug-related incident involving the narrator’s stash. His life, like all that surrounds him, is a mess.
The world of Deadenders is one of destruction. The panels are dark and grimey as if dusted with soot and resignation. The narrator, a teenage boy named “Beezer,” and his friends live in Sector 5, the hardest hit region; the sun, a distant memory. While Beezer and his dejected friends do the normal things teenagers do–roam the streets on their scooters, hang out at the local diner, fall in love with each other–they also mourn together the death of their friends and save each other from dysfunctional households.
Teen drama can be entertaining in its own right, however, the question still remains: what are these visions and why does Beezer keep having them? This quest for truth makes up the bulk of Deadenders. It’s a somber tale with drugs, secrets, and strong bonds between friends. In other words, a classic.
Deadenders at Vertigo
Ed Brubaker on The Nerdist Writer’s Panel
Interview with Ed Brubaker at Comic Book Resources
Warren Pleece’s website
Interview with Warren Pleece at Comic Book Resources
Welcome to 2013. To kick off the new year, here are a few paperbacks coming out in January that have caught my eye. As always, feel free to add your picks in the comments.
The Heroin Chronicles edited by Jerry Stahl
The latest entry in the Akashic Drug Chronicles Series, featuring brand-new stories by: Eric Bogosian, Lydia Lunch, Jerry Stahl, Nathan Larson, Ava Stander, Antonia Crane, Gary Phillips, Jervey Tervalon, John Albert, Michael Albo, Sophia Langdon, Tony O’Neill, and L.Z. Hansen.
Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor
Looking back, Martha could’ve said no when Mr. Booker first tried to kiss her. That would’ve been the sensible thing to do. But Martha is sixteen, she lives in a small dull town — a cemetery with lights — her father is mad, her home is stifling, and she’s waiting for the rest of her life to begin. Of course Martha would kiss the charming Englishman who brightened her world with style, adventure, whiskey, cigarettes and sex. But Martha didn’t count on the consequences. Me and Mr. Booker is a story about feeling old when you’re young and acting young when you’re not.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron- fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings.
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto
Thelonius Monk (not his real name) travels to Russia and meets Linda Evangelista (not her real name) in Saint Petersburg. They journey to Yalta, where he promises that he will make her red hair famous in the fashion magazines. In fact, he’s drafting a novel about her—his notes for the novel comprise this Encyclopedia. Thelonious and Linda think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Unwittingly they parody Russian fascination with America and its fixation on beauty and celebrity. Their conversations combine advertisement copy and art criticism, their personalities are both bohemian and commercial, and their aspirations revolve around frivolity and enchantment.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a novel that defies chronology and conformity, and finds the sublime in the trivial, ranging from meditations on Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and toothpaste.
My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin’s heartfelt and hilarious autobiography tells the story of his childhood, the challenge of identifying and perfecting his talent, his subsequent film career and worldwide celebrity.
In this, one of the very first celebrity memoirs, Chaplin displays all the charms, peculiarities and deeply-held beliefs that made him such an endearing and lasting character.
Re-issued as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, My Autobiography offers dedicated Chaplin fans and casual admirers alike an astonishing glimpse into the the heart and the mind of Hollywood’s original genius maverick.
Castle Waiting, a graphic fable by Linda Medley
Castle Waiting is the story of an isolated, abandoned castle, and the eccentric inhabitants who bring it back to life. A fable for modern times, it is a fairy tale that’s not about rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, or fighting the ultimate war between Good and Evil — but about being a hero in your own home. The opening chapter tells the origin of the castle itself, which is abandoned by its princess in a comic twist on “Sleeping Beauty” when she rides off into the sunset with her Prince Charming. The castle becomes a refuge for misfits, outcasts, and others seeking sanctuary, playing host to a lively and colorful cast of characters that inhabits the subsequent stories, including a talking anthropomorphic horse, a mysteriously pregnant Lady on the run, and a bearded nun.
Testing the Current by William Mcpherson
Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on the Island, and sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. But curious as he is and impatient to grow up, Tommy will soon come to glimpse the darkness that lies beneath so much genteel complacency: hidden histories and embarrassing poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the “help”; the mockery of President Roosevelt; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.
November is upon us and the paperback releases are looking good. This month, keep your eye out for this excellent crop of new books—mostly originals.
The Ballonist by MacDonald Harris with an introduction from Philip Pullman
As in the best of Jules Verne or Albert Sanchez Pinol, “The Balloonist” is a gripping and surreal yarn, chilling and comic by turn, that brilliantly reinvents the Arctic adventure.
It is July 1897, at the northernmost reach of the inhabited world. A Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a young, French-speaking adventurer climb into a wicker gondola suspended beneath a huge, red-and-white balloon. The ropes are cut, the balloon rises, and the three begin their voyage: an attempt to become the first people to set foot on the North Pole, and return, borne on the wind. Philip Pullman says in his foreword: “Once I open any of MacDonald Harris’s novels I find it almost impossible not to turn and read on, so delightful is the sensation of a sharp intelligence at work.
Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
Kafka was an attractive, slender, and elegant man–something of a dandy, who captivated his friends and knew how to charm women. He seemed to have had four important love affairs: Felice, Julie, Milena, and Dora. All of them lived far away, in Berlin or Vienna, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he loved them: he chose long-distance relationships so he could have the pleasure of writing to them, without the burden of having to live with them. He was engaged to all four women, and four times he avoided marriage. At the end of each love affair, he threw himself into his writing and produced some of his most famous novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.
In this charming book, author Jacqueline Raoul-Duval follows the paper trail of Kafka’s ardor. She uses his voice in her own writing, and a third of the book is pulled from Kafka’s journals. It is the perfect introduction to this giant of world literature, and captures his life and romances in a style worthy of his own.
Granta: The Best Young Brazilian Novelists edited by John Freeman
Since Granta’s inaugural list of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 – featuring Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes – the Best of Young issues have been some of the magazine’s most influential and best-selling. In 2010, Granta looked beyond the English-speaking world with Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.
Now, in an issue fully translated in partnership with Granta em Português, the magazine celebrates emerging talent from Brazil, many translated into English for the first time. Authors include Cristhiano Aguiar, Vanessa Barbara, Carol Bensimon, Javier Arancibia Contreras, J.P. Cuenca, Miguel del Castillo, Laura Erber, Emilio Fraia, Julian Fuks, Daniel Galera, Luisa Geisler, Vinicius Jatoba, Michel Laub, Tatiana Salem Levy, Ricardo Lisias, Chico Mattoso, Antonio Prata, Carola Saavendra, Leandro Sarmatz, and Antonio Xerxenesky.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme
If you’re up $16,000 at the casino and missing dinner with the woman you love, how do you find the strength to drive away? If you give up your career and your beautiful wife and find yourself drinking vodka and fixing cars for a living, is that necessarily a step down? In Hush Hush, Steven Barthelme gives us a simultaneously twisted, heartbreaking, and hilarious account of learning to quit when you’re ahead.
The collection, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning “Claire,” exposes the surprising dignity in lying on your belly in the pouring rain, in ringing your ex-girlfriend’s doorbell at 4 A.M., in sleeping with your dead wife’s best friend. Co-author with his brother Frederick of the brilliant and devastating casino memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, Steven Barthelme seems to cast an eye at his own history and the characters he’s known. These are men and women who are down — but stirringly, not quite out. An unmissable, arresting book from one of the most seminal short story writers of the last twenty years.
The Other Side of the World by Jay Neugeboren
Charlie Eisner is a journeyman whose friend Nick convinces him to move to Singapore, where he falls in love with the vibrant and endangered world of nearby Borneo. One night, at a party in Nick’s Singapore apartment, Nick dies mysteriously, prompting Charlie to return to New England, where he discovers that Seana O’Sullivan has moved in with his father, Max, a retired professor with a beguiling and antic disposition. Seana, one of his father’s former students, is a wildly successful and provocative writer who is equally wild and provocative in life. Together, she and Charlie set out on a road trip, first to pay respects to Nick’s parents, and then on a journey where “weird things happen if you make room for them.”
From the forests of Borneo to the mean streets of Brooklyn and the haunting towns of coastal Maine, The Other Side of the World is a grand, episodic novel and yet another virtuoso performance by one of America’s most revered living writers.
The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House with an introduction from Francine Prose
The Writer’s Notebook II continues in the tradition of The Writer’s Notebook, featuring essays based on craft seminars from the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, as well as a variety of craft essays from Tin House magazine contributors and Tin House Books authors. The collection includes essays that not only examine important craft aspects such as humor, suspense, and research but that also explore creating fractured and nonrealist narratives and the role of dream in fiction. An engaging and enlightening read, The Writer’s Notebook II is both a toolkit and an inspiration for any writer.
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The follow-up to Caitlin Moran’s breakout hit, How to Be a Woman–A hilarious collection of award-winning columns, available to American readers for the first time ever.
Possibly the only drawback to the bestselling How to Be a Woman was that its author, Caitlin Moran, was limited to pretty much one subject: being a woman. Moranthology is proof that Caitlin can actually be “quite chatty” about many other things, including cultural, social, and political issues that are usually the province of learned professors or hot-shot wonks–and not of a woman who once, as an experiment, put a wasp in a jar and got it stoned. Caitlin ruminates on–and sometimes interviews–subjects as varied as caffeine, Keith Richards, Ghostbusters, Twitter, transsexuals, the welfare state, the royal wedding, Lady Gaga, and her own mortality, to name just a few. With her unique voice, Caitlin brings insight and humor to everything she writes.
Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand
No one is innocent, no one unexamined in Shirley Jackson award-winning author Elizabeth Hand’s new collection of stories. From the mysterious people next door to the odd guy in the next office over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.
The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini with an introduction from Teller
Originally published in 1906, The Right Way to Do Wrong was a masterclass in subversion conducted by the world’s greatest illusionist. It collected Houdini’s findings, from interviews with criminals and police officers, on the most surefire ways to commit crime and get away with it.
This volume presents the best of those writings alongside little-known articles by Houdini on his own brand of deception: magic. Revealing the secrets of his signature tricks, including handcuff and rope escapes, and debunking the methods of his rivals, he proves himself to be just as clever and nimble a writer as he was a magician—and surprisingly free with trade secrets! All of which makes this unique selection of works both the ultimate anti-etiquette guide and proof that things are not always as they seem.
Let’s be honest, a roundup of horror and dark fantasy books around Halloween is pretty obvious but such occasions are good opportunities to read books otherwise forgotten or overlooked the rest of the year. There’s a mood in the air during the fall season that lends itself to this sort of reading–the weather is colder, the nights are darker, and, at least in October, the neighborhoods are awash in plastic skeletons and jack o’ lanterns. This year, I’m making an effort to drag some seasonally suitable short story collections off my shelf.
If you’ve been putting off reading masters of the genre, if there are new authors who have caught your eye, or if you have a few neglected scary books currently on your own shelf, be obvious, pick them up, dig them out, and embrace seasonal reading.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Recalling a dinner party he and Angela Carter had attended, Salman Rushdie, in his eulogy for Carter, called her “the most brilliant writer in England.” Her writing, known to have a feminist streak, was dark and fantastical. There is no better place where all three are on display than in her short story “The Bloody Chamber,” and the collection in which it appears The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. More than a retelling of fairy tales, they are a complete rewriting, some vaguely recognizable only because of the makeup of the characters.
The title story, based on the French folktale Bluebeard, opens with a young woman, age seventeen, on her wedding day. She is to leave her family house and live in a castle with her new husband, a French Marquis. Their first night together she is entrusted with a ring of keys by her new husband as he is called away on business to New York. The palace is hers to explore–cabinets and safes and all–except for one room, which she is told never to enter. But, as is often the case with stories, both real and imagined, temptation takes hold and the girl finds her way to the west tower and into the forbidden space. Naturally, as one would expect, it was a setup, a trap, and the new bride must face the consequences.
In “The Tiger’s Bride” a young, Russian girl is a mere chip in her father’s gambling habit. After a losing hand she is given over to a beast as part of his winnings. While not a direct interpretation of The Beauty and the Beast, one can see the architecture in place. Meanwhile, the final three stories–”The Werewolf,” “The Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf-Alice”–are reimaginings, often grotesque, and cringe inducing, of Little Red Riding Hood.
Wolves, werewolves, and feral children populate The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. These short gothic tales, with their twists and turns, are subversive, unsentimental, often erotic, and champion women as the masters of their own destinies–the heroine of their own stories. If you’re looking for a classic of the genre, one that stands outside all the others, look no further than Angela Carter.
Opening paragraph of The Bloody Chamber
I remember, how that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman
Bestselling author Neil Gaiman is not in danger of being forgotten anytime soon. One of the most in-demand fantasy authors writing today, he’s often asked to contribute work to various anthologies and publications. People love his writing–and for good reason. His stories are well-crafted, the language rich, rhythmic, and vivid. Collected in Smoke and Mirrors are 29 short stories and poems, many previously published in magazines and included multi-authored collections.
In his thorough introduction, an annotated guide of what’s to follow, Gaiman begins by defining what stories are:
Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.
Fantasy–and all fiction is fantasy of one kind or another–is a mirror. A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality, but it’s a mirror nonetheless, which we can use to tell ourselves things we might not otherwise see.
He continues, explaining how each story came about, why he wrote it, and for whom. One was an outgrowth of an idea his agent had mentioned one year when angels were all the rage. “Troll Bridge,” one of my favorites, written for an anthology of fairy tales for adults edited by Ellen Datlow, is about a boy who encounters a troll on a walk and puts off the creatures demands over the years. It.
“Looking for the Girl,” narrated by a man mesmerized over the years by a girl he once saw in a copy of Penthouse, was written for, self-referentially, the magazine mentioned in the story. Another tale, written in 1983 and about haggling with assassins, came about when Gaiman fell asleep to a radio program discussing buying products in bulk.
Smoke and Mirrors features many nuggets of Gaiman greatness. If you’re a fan, chances are you already own this one. But if not, or if it’s hanging around on your shelf like mine was, grab it now, don’t wait, you won’t want to move until it’s finished.
In Sixty-One Nails, Mike Shevdon’s first book in his Courts of the Feyre series, Londoner Niall Petersen learns of special powers previously dormant inside him. His abilities, awakened on the Underground platform during rush hour, altered the course of his life in moments.
Dragged into a generations-old world of magic and danger, Niall must embrace his Feyre lineage, learn to move in the shadows, and save the world from the Seventh Court. He succeeds by the end of the book–and finds Blackbird, a female companion for his new life, in the process.
Now, in Shevdon’s follow up, The Road to Bedlam, Niall’s daughter from his previous marriage is involved in a tragic accident at school and the wrong people have noticed. Only when Niall hears her calling for his help through a mirror does he realize she’s not dead, as the doctors had led him to believe. With Niall on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter, Blackbird in her final months of pregnancy, and an unwanted houseguest at headquarters, The Road to Bedlam is just as packed with action, mystery, and suspense as its predecessor.
The contemporary landscape in which The Courts of the Feyre takes place and the fast-paced storytelling are two strong elements in the series but what strikes me most while reading is the way Shevdon makes you care about the characters. Niall’s a good-hearted guy–thoughtful and sensitive–and Blackbird is a feisty, independent woman who would much rather protect herself than rely on others You read compulsively–to find out what happens next, to know they’ll be okay.
The Road to Bedlam balances the tricky question of how much background to give: just enough for a newcomer to enjoy the current story but, at the same time, well-short of annoying those who come to it informed. Off to a strong start, The Courts of the Feyre series is an excellent example of modern, dark fantasy. Now that North America is heading into fall, this is the perfect set of books for those dark and chilly nights.
From chapter one:
The pool of light was no more than twelve feet across and, for this critical moment, defined my world. Beyond its boundary circled my attackers. They would not kill me, at least not on purpose, but they would hurt me if they could.
The blade in my hand was heavy, a training blade made of dark wood, the handle worn smooth by calloused hands and burnished with sweat. I held it level, two-handed, keeping my grip light but firm, giving it the potential for movement in any direction and leaving my assailants no clue as to how I would react.
It had been a long day, both physically and mentally. I was already aching and sore from earlier sessions and I was unlikely to leave this circle without further bruises to add to my collection.
I took a slow breath, rejecting the distraction of consequences. I had to stay in the moment and not let my mind wander. I had to deny them an opening, an opportunity to step into my circle and attack.
This was my circle. It had been made for me to define the space I could defend. Every day the circle got smaller, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot. I’d given up trying to predict how it would change, only acknowledging that it would not grow in size, only shrink.
A shift in the air brought me round as a dark figure danced into the light, blade arcing down at my head. I stepped forward and around, sliding my own blade diagonally upwards so that his slice glanced off my blade with a clack and swished down over my shoulder. I spun and sliced my blade where the shadow had been but it just whistled through empty air, the figure once again merging with the shadows.
“Too slow,” chuckled Tate, his deep voice rumbling from the darkness.
I stepped back into the centre only to have a figure leap in front of me launching a series of short diagonal strikes. I used my own blade to deflect each one, slowly giving ground, only to realise that her intent was not to strike me, but to drive me backwards out of the circle. Once outside the pool of light I would be at the mercy of anyone already accustomed to the shadow. I deflected the next slice and pushed the attacking sword away, using its momentum to break my attacker’s balance and letting my own point drop. I reversed my grip and punched the pommel hard into the attacker’s midriff.
There was an answering grunt as my blow sank home and the figure folded over, at the same time trying to tangle my wrist in her grip. I wrenched the sword away, lowering my stance to give me posture and drawing the blade up in a long slice. It found only shadows.
July is an exciting month in the world of paperbacks. These are the new releases I’m looking forward to seeing hit the bookstores in the next few days. Look for them as you wander around the front tables this weekend. The comments are open below, what paperback releases are you looking forward to?
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
by Cheryl Strayed
Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.
The Nervous System
by Nathan Larson
After a series of large-scale terrorist attacks, New York City is reduced to a shadow of its former self. As the city struggles to dig itself out of the wreckage, a nameless, obsessive-compulsive veteran with a spotty memory, a love for literature, and a strong if unique moral code has taken up residence at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Dubbed “Dewey Decimal” for his desire to reorganize the library’s stock, he gets by as bagman and muscle for unscrupulous politicians and underworld figures—as detailed in the first book in this series, The Dewey Decimal System.
In The Nervous System, Decimal, attempting to clean up loose ends after the violent events in the first book, stumbles upon information concerning the gruesome murder of a prostitute and a prominent US senator’s involvement. Immediately he finds himself chasing ghosts and fighting for his life, pursued by Blackwater-style private military contractors and the ever-present specter of his own past. Decimal confronts a twilight world of Korean hostess bars, childhood bogeymen, and the face of the military-industrial complex gone haywire—all framed by a city descending toward total chaos.
The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction
by Diego Trelles Paz (Editor); Janet Hendrickson (Translator)
The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction brings together twenty-three Latin American writers who were born between 1970 and 1980. The anthology offers an exciting overview of contemporary Spanish-language literature and introduces a generation of writers who came of age in the time of military dictatorships, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the birth of the Internet, the murders of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the September 11th attacks in New York City.
The anthology features: Oliverio Coelho, Federico Falco, and Samanta Schweblin (Argentina); Giovanna Rivero (Bolivia); Santiago Nazarian (Brazil); Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Antonio Ungar (Colombia); Ena Lucía Portela (Cuba); Lina Meruane, Andrea Jeftanovic, and Alejandro Zambra (Chile); Ronald Flores (Guatemala); Tryno Maldonado and Antonio Ortuño (México); María del Carmen Pérez Cuadra (Nicaragua); Carlos Wynter Melo (Panama); Daniel Alarcón and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru); Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico); Ariadna Vásquez (Dominican Republic); Ignacio Alcuri and Inés Bortagaray (Uruguay); and Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela).
by Enrique Vila-Matas; Anne McLean (Translator); Anna Milsom (Translator)
Dublinesque opens with a renowned and retired literary publisher’s dream: he finds himself in Dublin, a city he’s never visited, and the mood is full of passion and despair. Afterwards he’s obsessed with the dream, and brings three of the writers he published on a trip to the same cemetery where Paddy Dignam was buried in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where they hold a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age.” And then he notices that he’s being shadowed by a mysterious man who looks exactly like Samuel Beckett…
In this witty and poignant novel, perhaps his finest yet, Enrique Vila-Matas traces a journey that connects the worlds of Joyce and Beckett and all they symbolize: great literature and evidence of the difficulties faced by literary authors, publishers, and good readers, their struggle to survive in a society where literature is losing influence.
Your Voice in My Head: A Memoir
by Emma Forrest
Emma Forrest’s memoir was called “a journey of healing” by Interview magazine and “a beautifully written eulogy for the doctor she credits with saving her life” by Los Angeles Magazine. The book received acclaim from reviewers across the country, the movie rights were snatched up quickly, and Emma herself enchanted audiences at readings in New York and Los Angeles. Brave, brilliantly written, and anchored in the reality of everyday life, Your Voice in My Head is destined to become a classic of the genre.
An excerpt at The Guardian
Emma’s essay in The New York Times
Emma’s essay in The Paris Review
Emma’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to Your Voice
Maud Newton reviews Your Voice in My Head at The Awl
An interview with Interview Magazine
An interview with Ron Hogan
The No Variations: Journal of an Unfinished Novel
by Luis Chitarroni; Rhett McNeil (Translator)
A cryptic, self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plot points, anecdotes and tales, literary references both real and invented, and populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and produce their own ideas for books, characters, poems . . . A dizzying look at the ugly backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, envied or undeserved prizes, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, with the author and his menagerie of invented peers fighting to keep their feelings of futility at bay. A literary cousin to David Markson and César Aira,The No Variations is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
by Keith Devlin
Leonardo of Pisa—better known today as Fibonacci—was the first Westerner to recognize the power of the Hindu-Arabic number system (featuring the numerals 0 through 9), which offered a much simpler method of calculation than the finger reckoning and cumbersome Roman numerals used at the time. His book Liberabbaci (The book of Calculation) remade the West as the dominant force in science, technology, and large-scale international commerce. Leonardo of Pisa is best known today for discovering the Fibonacci sequence of numbers appearing in biological structures throughout nature, but despite the ubiquity of his discoveries, he has largely slipped from the pages of history. Keith Devlin, NPR’s “Math Guy,” re-creates the life and enduring legacy of this brilliant yet overlooked mathematician.
In Chuck Wendig’s debut novel, Blackbirds, a mix of gritty fantasy and noir, death and torture wait in the wings. Miriam Black, a broken-down, take-no-shit, young woman, has a terrible affliction: she can see the future. At the slightest touch, skin on skin, the other person’s death flashes before her eyes. She’s seen horrible things, fates she’s tried to alter but whose warnings have had no effect.
Now, while hitching a ride with Louis Darling, a lone trucker going her way, Miriam shakes his hand and witnesses his end. In just thirty days he’ll die a torturous death … while calling out her name.
In a fight to outwit a seemingly unalterable outcome, a battle between free will and determinism forces Miriam out of complacency and into the role of fierce heroine.
Wendig is the man behind the website Terrible Minds, a site where he offers weekly writing tips in his column “25 Things You Should Know About Writing.” Not your average instructor, Wendig’s advice has included “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character,” “25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story,” and “25 Things I Want to Say to ‘Aspiring’ Writers.” In one of his recent lists, “25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds,” under the second tip, “Your First Novel Usually Ain’t,” Wendig writes, “Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.”
Author, screenwriter, and all around “penmonkey,” Wendig took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his difficulty with plot, the importance of reading nonfiction, and what self-publishing and traditional publishing can learn from each other. After reading what he has to say, I urge you to follow Chuck on Twitter.
THE CONTEXTUAL LIFE: What made you start your “25 Things You Should Know About Writing” series?
CHUCK WENDIG: The writing advice in general is there for me above all else. I like to yell at myself. Whenever I run into problems with my writing or see funny things about the writing life, it feels a good place to both vent the steam and mine the “cray-cray.” That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? Cray-cray? Whew.
The “25 Things” in particular are my attempt to pare down the advice – which sounds, er, strange because those lists are pretty huge. But I pack a lot into ‘em, with each of the 25 items ideally being a weird Zen nugget of dubious writer wisdom.
This sounds like a good writing routine.
It helps me focus. Helps me tackle problems. Helps me help other authors, which in turn helps me by inflating my ego and making me feel like I actually know what I’m doing (and I most assuredly do not). Plus, on the barest, most simplest level, I’m writing. Any writing I do helps me to write better.
Plot is your trouble area. What have you done to overcome it?
Who told you that? Do you have cameras in my house? Is my computer bugged? Are you some kind of publishing witch?
Ahem. Yes. Plot is my biggest stumbling block. I countermand my own weakness by planning, plotting, scheming. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity. If I don’t outline, then the book is lost in the woods for 5,000 pages. Covered in briar scratches and hunted by bears.
How was it to plot the first book in a series?
I did not know that Blackbirds would be the first in a series, necessarily. It was written to stand on its own, with the hope that it would one day earn a second in its series (which Angry Robot Books was good enough to grant me at the outset).
The trick in plotting was again outlining. I wrote an epic – and frankly unfinished – first and second draft that was meandering, unfocused, so blurry that as an artist I must’ve been considered legally blind. I found the first draft recently and read some of it. The core of the story and character are there, but it’s almost painful to read the way it stumbles around, zombie-like.
The way I focused the book was… erm, unorthodox, and just goes to show that every writer digs his own tunnel into this practice and business. I won a screenwriting mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco, selfishly thinking to use it to help develop Blackbirds both as a film property and then as a revived novel. First thing Stephen told me was to outline, and I laughed. “Ha ha ha, ohh, silly-man-from-Hollywood, I don’t do that. That would steal my thunder. It would wound my creative spirit!”
But he kept on me. And grudgingly, I tried it. Suddenly, I had a story that was gaining focus – and by the second outline, had a laser-like focus. So my fumbly bumbly book suddenly had a spine and a place to go. It was a zombie no more. So, I write the script, then used the outline and the script to rebuild the novel. The book that will be published is almost no different than that first post-outline draft.
What I find interesting is that Blackbirds is both the start of a series but can be read as a standalone. I find that refreshing, why did you set it up that way?
It was important in consideration of selling it. I didn’t want myself or my potential publisher to be pinned down in either a single or a series book. Plus, from a reader’s perspective, I didn’t want them to pick this up expecting it just to be a part of a story. It’s a whole story. A real boy. Nothing missing. All fingers and toes attached.
The next book in the series, Mockingbird, will it also be written as a standalone?
Well, it’s not precisely standalone – I mean, it helps if you read the first one. But I don’t think that’s precisely critical, either. You could pick up Mockingbird and it still gives you the information you need to move forward into the story. Further, the concept surrounding Miriam is, I think, relatively simple to understand: she touches you, sees your death, and then the question becomes, can she do anything about that and how hard must she fight fate to achieve it?
You’re also a screenwriter. The draft of Blackbirds was massive — about 90,000 words. Did your screenwriting background help you pare it down?
The screenwriting thing is all about brevity and focus. Each page of the script matters – in screenwriting terms, a single page equals a minute of screentime, and a minute of screentime is like, in Hollywood money, a bajillion-fajitallion dollars. So, you can’t blow up your script to 150 pages and expect to sell it. You have to compress. You have to possess an elegance of language – only including the dialogue that matters and the most critical descriptions.
Though there’s a lesson for screenwriters, too – the script still needs to be readable. I don’t mean legible, I mean, write to be read. Write to entertain even at the script level.
So, from screenwriting I borrowed that level of focus, particularly in descriptions. Dialogue, less so – and even still, Blackbirds still has to feel like a novel, still deserves to dig deeper than what you get in a script and on screen. I didn’t want to abandon what makes novels awesome, but I wanted to take some of the beauty and potency of scriptwriting and jack that into the novel mold.
As such, the novel is pretty mean and lean, I think.
I think so, too. It really moves along. It’s also a visual story. Is this because of your screenwriting experience? What are some things you’ve carried over into your novel writing?
I do write more visually. Some novels spend a lot of time in character heads or dally in scenes that, on-screen, would never work – oh, how often you see scenes of dialogue where it’s like puppet theater, just two characters standing there as mouthpieces for their respective ideas. Over-sharing, too. “Let me tell you my evil plan!” Blah blah blah. An expositional karate punch to the reader’s mouth.
I try to keep things moving. Try to show instead of tell – though there’s certainly a place and a way to “tell” the audience things, and that’s okay, but even there you kind of need to nest it in a process of showing. The way a character tells something or demonstrates a thing is powerful and meaningful. Or can be, at least.
You consider the author Robert McCammon a major influence on your writing. You first read him in your teens and would still read him today. What’s made you stick with him? How has he affected the way you approach your writing, and writing as a career?
McCammon’s Stinger was not the first horror book put into my hand, but it was the first I read and relished. My sister tried to get me to read some Stephen King and, as a young teen, wasn’t into it. But then she put Stinger on my desk and it was like – BOOSH, mind blown. Next came Swan Song, and that book blew even Stinger away. Epic 1000-page post-apocalyptic nuclear America. Powerful and horrific and with a spate of incredibly strong and damaged characters.
That book alone is plump with writing lessons if you care to find them.
But at that point I was reading McCammon – or, rather, devouring his entire back catalog – as a reader, not a writer. I knew I liked writing and telling stories but I wasn’t really sure it was a thing I could do. (Though I certainly wanted to.)
It was his book Boy’s Life that clinched it. It’s a coming of age book, not strictly horror, but it’s also very strongly about storytelling. And that told me: this is what I want to do. I want to write. I want to tell stories.
Interesting note is that, not long after, McCammon retired – despite being a bestselling author he had troubles selling non-horror work and he was moving away from that genre. So he dropped off the map for years, which was troubling to me: and it was my first glimpse of how being a writer was as much a business concern as a crafty, artistic one. It showed me that this would be a tricky industry.
You read nonfiction as well as fiction and consider it something all fiction writers should do. What kind of nonfiction do you read and how does it help you with your writing? What are the benefits of stepping away from fiction?
I do think that’s important! Reading fiction is reiterative. You’re reading other people’s creative pursuits and the best you can do with that as inspiration and research is remix and regurgitate (and you can see in Hollywood how much of it is a remix culture – some of that is fun and clever, but the lack of original ideas can be troubling).
Non-fiction can still be creatively delivered but is not itself reiterative or regurgitative. You read non-fiction and you get ideas that cannot come out of reading someone else’s story. It’s a far more fertile seed-bed in terms of both idea-farming and bringing pre-existing ideas forward through research and pleasure reading.
You read fiction, you can learn the craft and pick apart what XYZ writer is doing. Which is good, and essential. But it’s also an act of diminishing returns. Non-fiction doesn’t suffer from that.
As to what I read?
I’ll read anything. My non-fiction shelves are 75% of my total bookshelf space, with fiction only taking up 25% of it. Right now I’m reading a book about ants. Specifically: Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. But I’ve got books on mythology and symbols and gun repair and Medieval weapons and warfare and the NSA and sex and culture and death and… well. The list goes on and on. And on.
In Blackbirds, your main character, Miriam, if she touches them, can see how people eventually die. What was it like to imagine peoples’ deaths? How did you come up with the idea?
Coming up with deaths are both fun and horrible. Some based in things I’d heard and seen. Others just straight up plucked from the twisted folds of my parasite-ridden brain.
The idea for Miriam comes out of that helplessness of death – both the helplessness you feel when your loved ones die and when you realize your own death is fast incoming.
A few years ago, there was a lot of death around you. At one point a few of your family members had passed away. I’ve heard it said before that much of fiction is working out personal problems. Do you think Blackbirds, specifically Miriam’s ability, which leads her to question free will, was a way of working out your thoughts on immortality? Maybe as a way to take control of it or maybe to face it head on?
Morality more than immortality – but yes, this is definitely me ripping off the scabs and letting the blood flow in an issue like this. Blackbirds in that way represents a harsh dose of reality (hey, holy shit, people die, you’re going to die, your dog will die, we’re all going to die) and also the fantasy (what does it take to move the seemingly immovable boulder of fate and force one’s free will by turning away the Grim Reaper’s hand?).
You’ve self-published in the past and were almost considering self-publishing Blackbirds before Angry Robot picked it up. What aspect of traditional publishing have you enjoyed so far and what are you looking forward to as your book goes out into the world?
I do think that writers these days – especially writers looking to make a living solely on their rampant penmonkeying – need to have a diverse publishing strategy which means taking advantage of all the publishing options that exist for us.
But while I do self-publish some work, I’m certainly enjoying traditional publishing, too. Listen, self-pub is tough stuff. You have to do a lot of stuff which is not writing – cover design and e-book formatting and needling self-promo. Admittedly, some of that is there with traditional publishing, but it’s amazing to me how much of what I do with self-pub just… magically gets done with traditional.
It’s like, out of nowhere reviews for Blackbirds started popping up like spring-time daffodils and I had nothing to do with it. And I see blogs talking about this kick-ass cover from Joey Hi-Fi, a cover I wouldn’t have earned by my lonesome, a cover that is most certainly a book-seller all by itself. (I cannot stress enough how lucky I got on the Kick-Ass Cover Artist lottery. I may not have won the Mega-Millions, but I won that one, for sure.)
I’m having a Blackbirds launch at Mysterious Galaxy in LA – also not an easy option for self-published authors. Sold German rights for it – not an easy option for self-pub. Talking to agents and filmmakers about film and TV rights – repeat after me, not an easy option for self-pub.
What are you working on now?
Eating some waffles.
Oh, wait, you mean creatively? Oh. Ahh. That makes more sense.
Well. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve got the third Miriam Black book outlined and ready to roll. I’ve got the start of a new series with Abaddon (tentative series title: Gods & Monsters). Got the next two of the Dinocalypse trilogy to finish now that the Kickstarter for that has gone through the roof. Plus, the Kickstarter for my Atlanta Burns novel, Bait Dog, went over 200% funded, so I’ve got that going on, too. I am, it turns out, a busy little ink-slinger.
Plus I do work with my writing partner, so there will be films and other digital endeavors. Fingers crossed on those!
Fingers crossed here. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having me, Gabrielle!
Whether they debuted in hardcover last year or are paperback originals now, here are some inexpensive reads for May. We have our work cut out for us.
Long Island Noir
Edited by Kaylie Jones
Original stories by: Jules Feiffer, Matthew McGevna, Nick Mamatas, Kaylie Jones, Qanta Ahmed, Charles Salzberg, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tim McLoughlin, Sarah Weinman, JZ Holden, Richie Narvaez, Sheila Kohler, Jane Ciabattari, Steven Wishnia, Kenneth Wishnia, Amani Scipio, and Tim Tomlinson.
This new addition to Akashic’s noir series reveal how Long Island has always been a playground for the rich and famous–and while it used to be that only a select few could afford it, now everyone wants a piece of the pie. The McMansions pop up like mushrooms, limiting resources and destroying an already taxed environment. It feels a little like Rome in its last days–a kind of collective amnesia and blindness to the outside world has taken over. Everyone knows this, but no one wants to do anything about it, because big money is being spent–and made. And as the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer and more disenfranchised; and greed only breeds more greed and violence. These stories cover the range of Long Island’s extremes, from the comfortably rich, to the horribly poor–people pushed to desperate acts in order to protect what they already have, or to try to take what they don’t from those who do.
Nom de Plume
By Carmela Ciuraru
Exploring the fascinating stories of more than a dozen authorial impostors across several centuries and cultures, Carmela Ciuraru plumbs the creative process and the darker, often crippling aspects of fame.
Only through the protective guise of Lewis Carroll could a shy, half-deaf Victorian mathematician at Oxford feel free to let his imagination run wild. The “three weird sisters” from Yorkshire—the Brontës—produced instant bestsellers that transformed them into literary icons, yet they wrote under the cloak of male authorship. Bored by her aristocratic milieu, a cigar-smoking, cross-dressing baroness rejected the rules of propriety by having sexual liaisons with men and women alike, publishing novels and plays under the name George Sand. Highly accessible and engaging, these provocative stories reveal the complex motives of writers who harbored secret identities—sometimes playfully, sometimes with terrible anguish and tragic consequences. Part detective story, part exposé, part literary history, Nom de Plume is an absorbing psychological meditation on identity and creativity.
By Tayari Jones
With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode. This is the third stunning novel from an author deemed “one of the most important writers of her generation” (the Atlanta Journal Constitution).
State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, State of Wonder presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.
As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest’s jeweled canopy.
By Keith Spera
The recent history of New Orleans is fraught with tragedy and triumph. Both are reflected in the city’s vibrant, idiosyncratic music community. In Keith Spera’s intimately reported Groove Interrupted, Aaron Neville returns to New Orleans for the first time after Hurricane Katrina to bury his wife. Fats Domino improbably rambles around Manhattan to promote a post-Katrina tribute CD. Alex Chilton lives anonymously in a battered cottage in the Treme neighborhood. Platinum-selling rapper Mystikal rekindles his career after six years in prison. Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard struggles to translate Katrina into music. The spotlight also shines on Allen Toussaint, Pete Fountain, Gatemouth Brown, the Rebirth Brass Band, Phil Anselmo, Juvenile, Jeremy Davenport and the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. With heartache, hope, humor and resolve, each of these contemporary narratives stands on its own. Together, they convey that the funky, syncopated spirit of New Orleans music is unbreakable, in spite of Katrina’s interruption.Keith Spera writes about music for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In 2006, he was a member of the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team.
The Angry Buddhist
by Seth Greenland
Seth Greenland’s timely new novel is set in the high California desert between the trailer parks and amphetamine labs of Desert Hot Springs and the classic mid-century architecture of Palm Springs. In this sun-blasted territory, with its equally arid social culture, a fiercely contested congressional election is in progress. The wily incumbent, Randall Duke, is unburdened by ethical considerations. His opponent, Mary Swain, a sexy, well-financed newcomer, does not have a firm grip on American history or elemental economics.
Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley
By Robert Sheckley, edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich
Robert Sheckley was an eccentric master of the American short story, and his tales, whether set in dystopic cityscapes, ultramodern advertising agencies, or aboard spaceships lighting out for hostile planets, are among the most startlingly original of the twentieth century. Today, as the new worlds, alternate universes, and synthetic pleasures Sheckley foretold become our reality, his vision begins to look less absurdist and more prophetic. This retrospective selection, chosen by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich, brings together the best of Sheckley’s deadpan farces, proving once again that he belongs beside such mordant critics of contemporary mores as Bruce Jay Friedman, Terry Southern, and Thomas Pynchon.
From his New York Times obituary, December 10, 2005:
Like Ray Bradbury, he was interested in the scientific apparatus of science fiction – space travel, time travel, extrapolated futures – only so far as it served his purpose. While Mr. Bradbury poetically mourns the failure to live up to our dreams of the future, Mr. Sheckley mocked the self-delusions that lead to dreams in the first place.
He reveled in the freedom the genre afforded him to dramatize the fears and anxieties of everyday life. When he wrote about the war between the sexes, he conjured a future in which disappointed lovers had the legal option of using real bullets to express their anger. When he wrote about alienation as a state of mind, he sealed the reader in an endless loop of disaffection that reduced the outside world to a hallucination wrapped in an illusion.
Because he leavened his darkest visions with wit and absurdist plotting, he is considered one of science fiction’s seminal humorists, and a precursor to Douglas Adams, whose “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (1979) seems to take place in a Sheckleyan universe. But Mr. Sheckley’s work is darker than Mr. Adams’s; the smiles he evokes leave a bitter taste on the lips. A better comparison might be to Kafka, a fabulist who never understood why his friends didn’t laugh when he read his stories to them.
What new paperbacks are you looking forward to this month? Comments are open.
There’s a certain amount of bracing one does before reading books about boys in the jungles of India and Africa written in the early 1900s by white authors. It was the height of the British Empire and feelings of racial and cultural superiority ran rampant; many viewed the native inhabitants of far-flung colonies as barbarous and backward.
As I began The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1894, I expected outdated and offensive language and uncomfortable representations of the local people. Other than a cursory glance at Just So Stories I’d never read him before and my preconceived notions stem from my tendency to conflate him with Joseph Conrad, an author of dubious reputation. Reading The Jungle Books was less about coming to a supposedly enjoyable classic than embarking on a sociological experiment.
The Jungle Books, as I found out, is not a novel but rather a collection of short stories, the bulk of which make up the the well-known tale of Mowgli, the Indian boy orphaned in the jungle and raised among the animals. The other stories, dispersed between, are unrelated sketches of other animal stories set in various locations.
After reading The Jungle Books all the way through, I found the ancillary stories a distraction, and of mixed quality. Some were cute while others are entirely skippable. However, going back to my reason for reading the book in the first place, I was surprised to find that, with the exception of one mention of “Mohammedans,” a derogatory term for Muslims not often used today, there was very little, if anything, that bothered me. It could be that I missed something but I believe I gave it a good, close read.
Instead, it was Tarzan of the Apes, first published in 1912, another story about a boy raised by animals in the jungle, that made me cringe. Unlike The Jungle Books, which can be found in the fiction and literature section, Tarzan of the Apes, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is found in science fiction. Because of this connection with genre I expected Tarzan to be the more enlightened of the two. With few exceptions, sci-fi tends to be progressive, often questioning society’s norms and pushing the boundaries of cultural understanding through use of metaphor. For me, science fiction has always seemed forward-thinking.
Like Mowgli in The Jungle Books, Tarzan is orphaned at an early age. His father, John Clayton, an English nobleman is commissioned to investigate conditions in a British West Coast African colony. He brings with him his pregnant wife, Lady Alice, but soon there is trouble on the ship. Officers are murdered and the couple is left ashore with their belongings — marooned in Africa. John builds a small fortified cabin and Lady Alice gives birth to a boy. A year later she becomes ill and passes away in the night; shortly after, John meets his death at the hands of a king ape. The baby, thereafter known as Tarzan, is adopted by the king ape’s mate and treated as her child. He grows up with no memory of his birth parents.
The story continues, following Tarzan through his adventures in the jungle — biologically a man but part ape, strong and agile, by nurture.
The problematic part of the story comes when Tarzan spies other humans and stumbles into a nearby tribal village a number of miles away. They are native Africans and portrayed as the typical savages you see in old movies and cartoons: naked children and adults in dried grass skirts with brass and copper jewelry and large nose rings. They are superstitious and practice torture and cannibalism. The scenes were difficult to digest and I found it hard not to wince.
As if that weren’t enough, the only other representation of black people is Esmeralda, the nursemaid of Jane Porter, an American woman who arrives when Tarzan is a man. She is part of an exploratory group who also find themselves stranded on the island. Esmeralda is the only character in the group who speaks in dialect — a near-incomprehensible Southern pigeon-English — while everyone else speaks proper English. Gore Vidal, in his introduction to the Signet Classic edition says this:
Aside from the natives who are underdeveloped flat characters, Esmeralda, an African-American, is the only other black character that appears in the novel. Weighing in at 280 pounds, she is nonetheless a trembling ‘frightened child’ (page 131) rolling her eyes from side to side before fainting in the face of the ‘terrifical’ (page 177) circumstances and ‘carnivable’ (page 242) animals roaming the ‘jumble’ (page 243). Her character is a convention, her malapropisms a joke. She functions as nothing more than a stereotype of black superstitious fear for purposes of comic relief. . . . Blacks are treated mostly badly in this novel as they were during the period in which it was written.
Unfortunately, for the liberal-minded, the story as a whole is interesting and highly readable, more so than Kipling’s comparable novel. While The Jungle Books suffers from its disjointed nature, the main story of Mowgli continually disrupted, Tarzan of the Apes is a novel in the proper sense — coherent and linear.
But this begs the question, a question many avid, careful, and contextual readers often ask themselves: “how much can one with twenty-first-century sensibilities bare to overlook?” For guidance we can, once again, look to Gore Vidal:
Reading ourselves into Tarzan’s adventure is not, however, without problems. From a twenty-first-century perspective, the book doesn’t always feel like an escape, because it can so easily be arraigned as an unfortunate manifestation of the period’s assumptions about race, class, and gender. If one were in a prosecutorial mood, it might be tempting to cast off Tarzan of the Apes and simply catalogue it as politically incorrect for its social and cultural values, but to reject the book on such grounds would provide, in effect, a rationale for editing out many of the writers contemporary to Burroughs, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. . . . A more productive approach is to recognize that such attitudes were pervasive in the culture contemporary to Burroughs, a strategy that doesn’t excuse or mitigate them but that attempts to create a better understanding of the novel.
The amount of forgiveness given to books and authors varies based on the offender and the offended. As someone who loves philosophy but with a strong aversion when it comes to anti-Semitism, I still haven’t read Heidegger. So, while Tarzan of the Apes, racism aside, is a great book, consider yourself warned. The Jungle Books, on the other hand, skip the stories in between and you’ve got yourself a great story.
The popular science fiction and fantasy website SF Signal hosts a weekly “Mind Meld” where they ask a bunch of people — editors, authors, science fiction and fantasy bloggers, and such — to answer a question. In the recent past they’ve asked for favorite scifi and fantasy movie soundtracks, thoughts on the current state of politics in science fiction, the best opening scenes, and what books everyone is looking forward to this coming year.
When I saw an email from the coordinator of the series, I was ecstatic. Finally, SF Signal wants me to contribute! Then I saw the question, “Who are your favorite villains in science fiction and fantasy?” I immediately said yes and then, just as quickly, knew I had some thinking to do. As a late-comer to genre fiction I skipped all those gripping stories as a kid. The ones that feature heinous characters. I wasn’t much of a Disney kid either so I didn’t have films to fall back on. The follow essay is not just a remembrance of a particular villain, it’s an exercise in defining villainy.
You can read what others came up with at SF Signal. There you’ll find some great essays with excellent reading suggestions. If you have a favorite villain, or guidelines for villainy, comments are open both here and at SF Signal.
MIND MELD: Who Are Your Favorite Villains In Fantasy And Science Fiction?
When I think of what makes a convincing villain, I think of stories where good and evil is clearly defined. No room for gray; the hero is infallible and the bad guy barely human.
Because I’m attracted to murky realism rather than the more exaggerated genres — superhero comics, epic fantasy, horror, pulpy spy novels — I haven’t had much first-hand experience with black and white worlds; and though Merriam-Webster defines a villain as someone who is “deliberately criminal,” the characters who are most memorable to me don’t fit the definition of villainy. Often you have a good guy with ethical fissures and a bad guy always on the verge of redemption. It’s this moral ambiguity that confuses things.
But I was determined. Before digging through my three-row-deep book shelves to go over what I’d recently read, I made it easy on myself and asked, what makes someone truly loathsome? I came up with something pretty fast: cruelty to children. Unlike the uber-fit men in comic books, their 6-packs wrapped in spandex, children are powerless: the ultimate victims.
Then I remembered, I’d just read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
On the first page of Dahl’s surrealist classic, James, a four-year-old boy living in England, is orphaned when his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros. Up until that point he’s happy; he’s had a good life. But then everything changes; he’s sent to live with his two cruel aunts. They beat him, force him into hard labor, isolate him, and, on occasion, refuse to feed him. The first few chapters are so unsettling, I was actually angry. I saw the abuse in my head, even as it was shown through language meant for kids. With every page I wished that James would take revenge, preferably with deadly consequences.
When the two aunts were finally run over by the giant peach, I cheered. It was a satisfying demise. Those two were true villains.