Book Reviews

Thirty Years of the Mississippi Review

Jeff VanderMeer • February 29th, 2012 • Book Reviews

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This 850-page rock thumped down on the doorstep yesterday with an emphatic “you’d best take me seriously” look in its eye.

Thirty years of the Mississippi Review, including fiction and poetry by Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Samuel R. Delany, John Barth, Rick Bass, Robert Olen Butler, Raymond Carver, Rita Dove, Miranda July, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Wells Tower, and, well, about 200 other contributors, it looks like.

All taken from Frederick Barthelme’s long reign as the editor. I kinda think you can’t miss this one.

Amelie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin

Jeff VanderMeer • December 19th, 2011 • Book Reviews

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

Jeff VanderMeer • December 16th, 2011 • Book Reviews

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

Jeff VanderMeer • December 15th, 2011 • Book Reviews

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

Jeff VanderMeer • December 9th, 2011 • Book Reviews

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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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Things That Make Me Ecstatic: Twelve Planets Series with Lucy Sussex, Sue Isle, and Tansy Rayner Roberts

Jeff VanderMeer • October 20th, 2011 • Book Reviews

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Ann just got these titles in the mail from Twelfth Planet Press, the first in their new Twelve Planets series. All three are story collections.

Nightsiders by Sue Isle (intro by Marianne de Pierres) – “A teenage girl stolen from her family as a child; a troupe of street actors who affect their new culture with memories of the old; a boy born into the wrong body; and a teacher who is pushed into the role of guide tell the story of The Nightside.”

Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts (intro by Helen Merrick) – “The world is in greater danger than you ever suspected. Women named Julia are stronger than they appear. Don’t let your little brother make out with silver-eyed blondes. Immortal heroes really don’t fancy teenage girls. When love dies, there’s still opera. Family is everything. Monsters are everywhere. Yes, you do have to wear the damned toga.”

Thief of Lives by Lucy Sussex (intro by Karen Joy Fowler) – “Why are certain subjects difficult to talk about? What is justice? Why does it matter? Why do writers think that other people’s lives are fair game? And what do we really know about the first chemist? Welcome to the worlds of Lucy Sussex.”

In my opinion, Twelfth Planet Press is one of the best indies in the world, and this new series is compact, sharply designed, well-thought-out, and featuring a good mix of established and newer writers. I just love it thus far—and Ann’s contributed an introduction to the next book in the series, a forthcoming title by Deborah Biancotti.

You can order these books at the Twelfth Planet Press website. But why not go one better—you can also subscribe to the series there.

Alisa Krasnostein is the mastermind behind Twelfth Planet Press, and she’s up for a World Fantasy Award this year. She fully deserves to win.

Book Lover’s Quest: Big Questions by Anders Nilsen Needed Big Book–Huge, Glorious, Awesome Book!

Jeff VanderMeer • August 18th, 2011 • Book Reviews, Uncategorized

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Big Questions by Anders Nilsenand I have had only a passing acquaintance until now…when the awesome Drawn & Quarterly Press decided to drop a metric ton on me in the form of a huge hardcover book that has been lovingly and exquisitely designed. Wow wow wow—absolutely beautiful in all possible ways.

Huh? Wha? Why? Who? say those amongst you who care not for the tactile creativity that is a well-designed book printed on a real honest-to-god offset press as opposed to in html e-purgatory.

Let me then take you through a little guided tour of how the pleasure centers of the book lover’s brain light up when encountering this kind of artifact, especially so unexpectedly…

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George R.R. Martin–and The Delighted States, Now with Lit Mags!

Jeff VanderMeer • July 15th, 2011 • Book Reviews

IMG_0121(What do lit mags have to do with Martin? You tell me.)

My review of George R.R. Martin’s new novel was published by the LA Times on Tuesday. By late Tuesday, Reuters was reporting on the book and quoting me on the subject, except I never said that. I suppose I should say it here so as to make it true, but I won’t. Even though I agree with the quote, and also did an Omni feature about the novel here. It’s a great book. So much of a great book I spoofed it on Facebook as part of our Lambshead promotion (see SF Signal’s great review of the Cabinet):

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But mostly this post is about luring you in with “George R.R. Martin” in the title and then telling you about other things. (Maybe all of my informational posts will from now on include his name in the subject line…)

Like, Green Mountains Review, the latest issue of which has, in addition to great poetry and prose generally, a lot of translations in it. I can’t guarantee that all of it has a speculative element, although at least one is a fairy tale, but is having a dragon plopped down in the middle of your narrative all that important? Isn’t it more about the story? Hmmm? Anyway, here’s the translation section. Those who argue about the need for lit mags, many of which are supported by universities, should think about how such funding can be a potent source of fund for translations…

–Aandaal—”Tiruppavai” translated by Ravi Shankar
–Eugene Dubnov—”Winds of Estonia” and “Sparse Snow Upon the Beach,” translated by John Heath-Stubbs and Anne Stevenson, with the author
–Daniil Kharms—”A Fairytale,” translated by Katie Farris.
–Vladimir Mayakovsky—”They Don’t Understand a Thing,” translated by by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky
–Simona Popescu—excerpt from “Night and Day,” translated by Adam Sorkin and Claudia Serea

Meanwhile, Tin House, which always has a great mix of fiction and nonfiction, has its summer reading issue out and on newsstands now. They were the ones who put out the Fantastical Women issue I blogged about back in 2007.

I also picked up the 27th issue of the intriguing Salt Hill, a literary journal with excellent fiction this time around by Brian Evenson and “On Voyage,” a series of excellent short-shorts by the 2010 Calvino Prize winner Sharon White. This is some stunningly awesome surrealist/fantastical stuff by White–you gotta check it out. Not to mention great poetry in translation by Raul Zurita. You can order the mag right off of their website, too. Do it now.

Not to mention, the latest issue of my favorite mag I can’t read, Tahtivaeltaja, is now out, featuring Nalo Hopkinson.

What does any of this have to do with The Delighted States, the book? Not sure, except I’m reading it right now and it is indeed putting me in a delighted state, along with the Martin and the lit mags mentioned above. Maybe it’s all connected because all of it gives pleasure. Isn’t that a good enough connection? I think so.


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Reading: Books in Progress

Jeff VanderMeer • July 3rd, 2011 • Book Reviews

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For a variety of reasons—travel, project deadlines—I’m actually in the middle of reading several excellent, excellent books. Most I’m more than half-way through and I can recommend all of them on the basis that if each fell apart right now, on the next page I read, I still wouldn’t regret picking them up.

I am, however, afraid of them slipping through the cracks in terms of remembering to mention them, so I’m posting ordering links and info below right now, while I’m thinking about it. From top left to right, and then bottom left to right…

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Rikki Ducornet: Great Writer. Full Stop.

Jeff VanderMeer • July 2nd, 2011 • Book Reviews

I just wrote a short review of Rikki Ducornet’s new novel Netsuke for Omni. It’s a disturbing novel, in the best way, and pushes against what’s moral or decent. I don’t doubt it will be polarizing, and there’s something very compelling about the fact that even though Ducornet has had a long and distinguished career she’s not interested in being content or complacent in her fiction.

For those of you who must have this kind of information, the novel doesn’t have a speculative element but Ducornet is at heart a surrealist and any novel by her is fantastical at the level of metaphor—more so than a lot of “pure” fantasists. Simply put Ducornet sees the phantasmagorical in the mundane, in our reality. That’s one way you know you’re reading someone with a unique view of the world: it permeates all of their texts, regardless of the subject matter through the emissary that is their style.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ducornet—and she’s far from unknown in the “literary mainstream”—here’s a selectionof her novels and story collections to choose from. You can also read her Wiki, check her website, or read this interview She frequently does write fiction that includes some fantastical element. She has also illustrated books by Robert Coover and Jorge Luis Borges.

Evil Monkey: JRP?
Jeff: SOP