Happy Holidays–and Thank You (returning Jan. 9)

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(Thanks to Jeremy Zerfoss for the WFR holiday e-card.)

I would just like to wish everyone happy holidays, and thank you for reading both here and at Weird Fiction Review (where we just published our last, very exciting, posts for the year.)

It’s been a long year, but a productive one, and it has been enriched by knowing so many creative, talented, wonderful people.

This blog will be on hiatus until January 9. In the meantime, feel free to use this thread to tell me what you’re up to.

Also check out Omnivoracious.com, where some of my pre-scheduled posts, including overlooked books from 2011, will run over the holidays.

Much Love,

JeffV

Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin

The “bolt out of the blue” for me in 2011 was reading Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin,which, along with Michael Cisco’s The Great Lover, will no doubt influence me for some time to come.

Europa Editions published the English-language edition of Nothomb’s first novel in 2010; it was originally published in France in 1992. It concerns a Nobel Prize-winning misanthrope of a novelist named Pretextat Tach. Not only does Tach spout foul racist things, he also has a low opinion of women—his most bombastic and ridiculous statements concern them. At the same time, he has a sharp and penetrating mind, and as a conversationalist is a witty and disturbing match for almost anyone. When he’d diagnosed with cancer, he for the first time allows the press to visit to his home. One by one these interviewers succumb to Tach’s verbal traps and leave in disgust, horror, or tears. That is, until a female reporter visits who has done more than the usual homework on her subject. The battle of wills becomes an entire war, involving Tach’s creative output and the terrible facts of his past. Indeed, at the core of the novel is a vile act and an associated act that breaks conventions and taboos. Well, okay, so much of Decadent literature reached toward such things, but in a more modern idiom, there’s a fresh shock of the transgressive. However, the novel is also intensely, darkly funny—at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The observations about book culture and writers are, as they say, priceless.

What struck me about Hygiene and the Assassin is just simply that it takes on difficult and taboo subject matter and challenges the reader to pass moral judgment, perhaps even to toss the book across the room, and it also makes the reader uncomfortable even while you’re laughing…and then later, challenges in a much bleaker way.

It’s also a kind of demarcation point for those modern readers who, I think in part conditioned by the seeming “action” imbued by facebook and social media, which is actually not action so much as just more words…equate the actions in a book, the characters in the book, with actual real-world actions and people. Readers who think that the author is always endorsing the actions of the characters no matter what won’t like this book. Readers who think that crimes on a page are somehow roughly e-equivalent to meat-world crimes won’t like this book.

But I liked this book precisely because it was written without regard for what anyone might think. It isn’t prettied up. It isn’t given a nice wrap-up at the end to help the reader out. It just is what it is, telling the story it needs to tell. It’s sharp, incisive, mean-spirited, and often speaks the truth. You get to choose how you feel about what happens. When so many books seem so eager to please the reader, and to reaffirm what the reader already knows, Hygiene and the Assassin was refreshing. It felt like something without all the edges sanded off. Now, certainly, some might say it’s just sensationalistic, and perhaps they’d have a point. But at the moment I encountered it, the novel was an important reminder that writers need to turn their internal censors entirely off when writing to produce the best possible fiction. Nice is often just another word for mediocre.

Osama by Lavie Tidhar, from PS Publishing

I’ve been meaning to do a post about Lavie Tidhar’s fascinating and hypnotic Osama, from PS Publishing, and all kinds of things have gotten in the way, from dental surgery to sickness to deadlines. But with the holidays fast upon us, I’m blogging it now in brief at least—although it deserves better—so if you’ve missed it, you can consider buying it for yourself or for others.

Below the cut I’ve posted the publisher’s description of the novel, which is slipstreamy and sly and affecting. One thing not mentioned in reviews is how effective Tidhar handles the short chapters that comprise Osama. They’re not punchy or underwritten—they’re just right and with few words wasted. He’s also quite good in his characterization of Joe, the main character. The writing is beautiful without being fussy, cluttered, or overly lyrical.

You can buy Osama in physical or Kindle form on Amazon, or straight from the publisher. Rather think it needs a North American trade publisher.

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Shared Worlds SF/Fantasy Teen Writing Camp: 2012 Guests, Registration, Donations, SW Book

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Shared Worlds, the teen SF/F writing camp I help run along with Jeremy L.C. Jones out of Wofford College, South Carolina, has several announcements!

First off, our 2012 guest writers will include: Julianna Baggott, Tobias Buckell, Will Hindmarch, Karin Lowachee, and Naomi Novik. Ann VanderMeer will be our visiting editor guest. I will also be attending as an instructor.

Second, we’re now open for registration for the 2012 camp, to be held July 22 through August 4.

Third, we now have a dedicated donation page. Donations help offset expenses, allow us to offer more need-based scholarships, and are tax-deductible.

Fourth, a PDF of the Shared Worlds student writing book from 2011, designed by Jeremy Zerfoss, is now available on the SW website. If you download it, please consider making a donation to Shared Worlds! Thanks to Prime Books, who will be helping provide the print version in the next month or so.

Many thanks to Amazon.com for a grant that help ensure Shared Worlds continues to thrive. Thanks for donations from, among others, Warren Lapine and Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman. (Donate! You’ll feel good!)

Below the cut, find more on our guest writers for 2012…

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Lisa L. Hannett’s Bluegrass Symphony: Ann VanderMeer’s Intro

I first met Lisa L. Hannett when I taught at Clarion South in 2009, and I was impressed with her originality and her prose. (She also looked like she could kick my ass, although that’s neither here nor there.)

Flash-forward just a couple of years and she has several short story sales and a collection, Bluegrass Symphonyout. The collection is just the opening salvo in what promises to be a great career. As I said in my blurb for the book, she “shows a stylistic flair and depth of story…Her fiction is smart, confident, and in her own voice.”

Publishers Weekly wrote: “Hannett’s first collection shows off her fondness for lush imagery, unsettling concepts, indirect prose, and multilayered plots…a collection for fans of weirdness, wonder, and oft-disturbing twists.” (There’s more info on the publisher’s page for the book.)

Falling roughly into the category of dark Americana fantasy/horror, the collection has a definite cohesive mood and tone. Ann VanderMeer wrote the introduction, which I’m happy to reprint here, so you can get a better sense of Bluegrass Symphony. You can also read Lisa’s blog entries about the collection here.)
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An Interview with Haruki Murakami

Omnivoracious just posted my interview with Murakami, which was fun, especially asking him this question:

Time Magazine recently provided a list of your novels ranked by the number of cat appearances in them. When you were a beginning writer, is this one of the future realities you anticipated, and do you find it funny or odd that someone was tasked with counting Murakami cats?

Taking the Weird Questionnaire…Do You Dare?

Over on Weirdfictionreview.com, Edward Gauvin has reproduced a “Weird Questionnaire” developed by the French. I’ll leave you to peruse the details over there, but over here I am posting my answers to what are at times uncomfortable questions. Perhaps you too will answer the questions and post your answers. If so, please cross-link to Gauvin’s post.

1. Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.

There was a whirring in the back of the shop that did not equate to the clocks, but was not a cricket, either, and nothing he could think of explained it.

2. Without looking at your watch: what time is it?

12:01

3. Look at your watch. What time is it?

12:03

4. How do you explain this?—?or these?—?discrepancy(ies) in time?

Discrepancies in time are mostly about the ways in which our activities stretch or shorten it. But also about the ways time has become fragmented. The discrepancy in the time as it exists and my idea of time is so small because we have no way of escaping representations of time in this age.

5. Do you believe in meteorological predictions?

Yes, to some extent.

6. Do you believe in astrological predictions?

No, except inasmuch that those who believe in them are then thus influenced in their behavior. They are haunted by these predictions and through the haunting sometimes they come true.

7. Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?

Yes

8. What do you think of the sky and stars by night?

Overwhelming and troubling and sad and unknowable and in that vastness there is an odd comfort because it keeps humankind’s accomplishments small and in a tiny corner of something larger.

9. What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?

A bad book of SF stories by a Catalan writer named Manuel de Pedrolo from the 1960s.

10. What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?

Transformation. I am continually transforming them from their purpose when I enter them, especially the more ornate they are. I don’t care what they’re really for—I just keep seeing them as something else, and repurposing the parts of them as if they were the parts of something else—the ribs of a behemoth, instead of cathedral arches, for example.

11. What would you have “seen” if you’d been blind?

I would’ve seen more texture, which is itself an entirely other land that we tend to forget, and I would have noticed more the way that in cathedrals the air pushes out and in in strange ways and how there can be pockets of quite icy air and it can be hot other places, and although this has a real explanation, the encounter of it on the skin is often unexpected and raises a kind of primal response.

12. What would you want to see if you were blind?

I would want to completely absorb myself in texture and touch. This is a world that would be, in the context of blindness, perhaps both scary and at the same time revelatory and would change my entire perception of the world. In fact, I might want for a time to only have the ability to absorb this kind of sensation.

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Weird Fiction Review: Gift Picks, Kathe Koja, Jerome Bixby, Questionnaire, Leonora Carrington, and More!

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(more great jeremy zerfoss art…)

As we enter the final two weeks of content-posting for Weirdfictionreview.com for 2011 (we’re on vacation after Dec. 20), you’ll find a lot of wonderful material going live.

This week, for example, we just posted the following:

—A Holiday Book Gift Guide for the Weirdie in your life

—An appreciation of Leonora Carrington’s story by S.J. Chambers
Episode #7 of Leah Thomas’s amazing web comic “Reading the Weird,” based on Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” along with posting the Bixby story itself.

—Edward Gauvin’s Weird Questionnaire (fascinating stuff!)

—Kathe Koja’s surreal short story “The Neglected Garden”.
—Leopoldo Lugones’ 1906 short story “The Bloat Toad”, along with Larry Nolen’s short essay on translating the piece.

—An interview with Deadfall Hotel author Steve Rasnic Tem

So, go visit Weirdfictionreview.com, and enjoy! Thursday we’ll have a mini-update before our grand finale December 19.

“IN HIS BELLY”: VOTE MORD IN U.S. REPUBLICAN PRIMARIES

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MORD HAS JOINED REPUBLICAN PARTY. MORD MORE HARDCORE THAN ANY REPUB CANDIDATE. VOTE MORD IN IOWA AND ALL OTHER PRIMARIES AS RIP-IN CANDIDATE.

MORD ASK VOTER TO CONSIDER HOW MUCH BETTER MORD THAN ANY REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE:

—MORD NEVER MARRIED SO NOT CHEAT ON ANY WIVES BUT IF HAD WIVES WOULD DEVOUR THEM
—MORD BELIEVE IN LIMITED PROTEIN-BASED ROLE FOR FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
—MORD FIND REPUBLICAN VOTERS SUCCULENT
—MORD CHANGES MORD’S POSITION ON ISSUES EVERY DAY DEPENDING ON HOW IT AFFECTS PROTEIN INTAKE.
—MORD “STUMP” SPEECHES MORE VISCERAL, LESS COHERENT
—MORD’S ROCKS NOT HAVE STUPID WRITING ON THEM
—MORD NEVER NOT BALANCED ANY BUDGETS
—MORD ONLY WANT TO ARM BEARS

MORD MAKE ONLY TWO PROMISES IF WIN REPUB NOMINATION AND MORD BREAK NEITHER:

—MORD HONOR ALL LOSING CANDIDATES…IN HIS BELLY.
—MORD HONOR REPUBLICAN DELEGATES AT CONVENTION…IN HIS BELLY

MORD THEN RUN ON SURVIVAL PROTEIN PLATFORM AND SOLVE GLOBAL WARMING…IN HIS BELLY.

The Weird: The Generosity of a Story-by-Story Review

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(Thanks, Hannu.)

I found following along with Des Lewis’s real-time review of The Weird, in which he would read each story and then blog about it, before moving on, to be a fascinating experience. It’s not often that an editor (in this case, co-editor with my wife Ann) is privileged enough to get such a detailed, sympathetic, and informed read. It’s also an idiosyncratic read in some ways—a determined effort to find an underlying theme or meaning or commonality by a writer and editor whose literary interests are diverse and wide. If it skews, it skews eccentric yet universal. (In fact, eccentric because universal, given that people’s reading tastes often render something eccentric because their reading tastes are not universal.)

I was moved to want to write a post after Des finished for a variety of reasons.

First, that it was a heroic effort—to commit to reading so much and blogging about it, and that this deserved a tip of the hat. But more than that, to note that although The Weird has already had several reviews, only Des’s review contains the totality of the anthology and only a story-by-story encounter with the anthology really gets at whether or not it is of use, whether it has cohesion, etc. In doing this, Des was also sympathetic to the purpose of stories, was open to what they were trying to do, and displayed great sensitivity to the individual paragraphs and sentences in each story. (Which is not to say such sympathy meant he wasn’t willing to reject what he didn’t wind up liking.) This is rare, to be honest, in reviews, and although literary criticism does provide more of this kind of in-depth analysis, it’s in a different context. So I would argue that we need more *reviews* that are both in-depth and sympathetic. That display evidence that the reviewer has allowed the text to be not just at the center of their attention, but to have all of their attention. Which also leads to the observation that not every book deserves this kind of attention. (And, that anthology reviews in general, due to limited word count for many review venues, tend to be lacking and it is much more possible to skim an anthology and do a serviceable if surface review than to do the same with a novel.)

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