Book Reviews

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

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

IMG_0277

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…

(more…)

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):

martin

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.


(Click image to find out more)

Reading: Books in Progress

Jeff VanderMeer • July 3rd, 2011 • Book Reviews

IMG_0108

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…

(more…)

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

Work Lingo and Writing

Jeff VanderMeer • June 26th, 2011 • Book Reviews

The current issue of Harper’s has some great stuff in it, including an excerpt from Mark Kingwell’s introduction to The Wage Slave’s Glossary by Joshua Glenn, out next month from Biblioasis. Kingwell’s intro codifies certain things I believe about the world in general, particularly the idea of “collective delusions” that we almost all buy into, perhaps so the world won’t seem so scary or perhaps because it’s necessary to have a functioning society. Money clearly is becoming ever more of a collective delusion, especially in a dysfunctional U.S. system. There are also delusions that come over us temporarily like viruses, infected the majority and leaving the minority out in the cold: believe or you suck, basically. Luckily, these tend to be temporary or contained to certain subcultures or communities.

Kingwell talks about a number of delusions we buy into with regard to the workplace, chief among them the sanctity of work itself. A short excerpt:

The routine collection of credentials, promotions, and employee-of-the-month honors in exchange for company loyalty masks a deeper existential conundrum–which is precisely what it is meant to do. Consider: It is an axium of status anxiety that the competition for position has no end—save, temporarily, when a scapegoat is found. The scapegoat reaffirms everyone’s status, however uneven, because he is beneath all. Hence many work narratives are miniature blame-quests. We come together as a company to fix guilt on one of our number, who is then publicly shamed and expelled. Jones filed a report filled with errors! Smith placed an absurdly large order and the company is taking a bath! This makes us all feel better and enhances our sense of mission, even if it produces nothing other than its own spectacle.

Sounds like a few places I worked at before I became a full-time writer, one of which I wrote about in my novelette “The Situation,” which you can read here. (What’s the collective delusion of writers, you might ask? That this crazy career is sustainable indefinitely and that the right words matter…and sometimes buying into those delusions is enough.)

Interestingly he also name-checks three office novels: Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, and Ed Park’s Personal Days. Kingwell calls all three hilarious, but believes their humor is a sign of doom, not liberation. “Indeed, the laughs render the facts more palatable by mixing diversion into the scene of domination—a willing capitulation, consumed under the false sign of resistance.” That’s a pretty sick reading of the uses of satire, but point taken. Perhaps it takes a horror writer with the sensibilities of Kafka to make satire a tertiary purpose, since I find Thomas Ligotti’s office stories not a capitulation but a clear embodiment of doom in which humor occurs almost as part of a natural process, like steam off of the head of a just-benched football player in winter.

References to philosopher Harry Frankfurt and his use of the term “bullshit” satisfy on a very gleeful level. In the workplace, bullshit can be defined as “Jargon, slogans, euphemisms, and terms of art” used as weapons. Bullshit is an evasion of normativity that “produces a kind of ordure, a dissemination of garbage, the scattering of shit. This is why, Frankfurt argue, bullshit is far more threatening, and politically evil, than lying.” The bullshitter doesn’t oppose truth–s/he ignores it entirely. (Cue: footage of certain political candidates, bloggers on the internet, etc.)

The victory of work bullshit is that, in addition to having no regard for the truth, it passes itself off as innocuous or even beneficial. Especially in clever hands, the controlling elements of work are repackaged as liberatory, counter-cultural, subversive: you’re a skatepunk rebel because you work seventy hours a week beta-testing videogames. This, we might say, is meta-bullshit.

In writing, bullshit, meta and otherwise, manifests as cliches in its most basic form, but complex forms of writing-related bullshit manifest as precepts that wound a story before it is finished, an inability to closely observe and report on the details of the world, and, well, too many other ways to list here.

You could read Kingwell’s introduction as a discourse on corrupted narrative—like a story with no center that is nonetheless told in a clever or convincing way, the equivalent of the worst type of escapist fiction. If everything human-made around us, including our stories, once existed as an idea or thought from someone’s imagination, then Kingwell’s saying we need to be better storytellers, better dreamers, at both the micro and the macro level. Waking up like the guy in the first Matrix movie to find you’re just a pod dangling among a million other generic pods can be depressing, but at least it’s real…maybe. Or it might just be superior CGI. Perhaps bullshit has no hidden core. Perhaps collective delusions are the point.

A Hidden Gem: Richard A. Kirk’s The Lost Machine

Jeff VanderMeer • June 11th, 2011 • Book Reviews

In a wasteland ravaged by plague, Lumsden Moss steps out of a decaying prison. Armed with a satchel of yellowed notebooks containing the fragile memories of five murdered children, he is determined to track down and confront their killer. Lumsden, accompanied by a stranger, begins a long journey to the vast City of Steps where he is forced to confront the horrors of the past and present.

Richard A. Kirk is best known as a rather mind-blowing artist whose commissioned work has accompanied the fiction of masters like Clive Barker and Caitlin R. Kiernan. His art demonstrates a knowledge of the Grotesque wedded to his own unique aesthetic. That aesthetic is texturally complex and uses precision of detail to create marvelously outlandish art. Kirk strikes me as the kind of creator whose devotion to discipline provides structure within which he can unleash a wild imagination. The composition of his images often evokes a misleading sense of stillness. Action has either just occurred or is about to occur. But these images aren’t actually static—the movement is simply occuring at the micro-level as a form of acute seeing. As part of this intensity of vision, the environment around the subject matter is rendered in as complex a way—a living way—as the people or creatures foregrounded.

The fiction of Kirk, as exemplified by his first book The Lost Machine, shares many of these virtues, translated craft-wise for the demands of text.

The protagonist Lumsden Moss, a former school teacher, outlives a prison and sets out on a quest to track down the person he believes really committed the crimes. Along the way, he encounters an odd man named Irridis. Irridis has a halo of floating glass around his head—a deadly halo that functions as a weapon.

On their journey to the city where Moss believes he will pick up the trail, they bond despite Irridis’ sometime merciless qualities. A scene in which they are attacked by feral boys is rendered in a clear-eyed, economic way that exemplifies Kirk’s overall approach. When one boy fires at Irridis “Moss watched with horror as a plume of dust exploded up from Irridis’s shoulder. Incredibly, the shot did not seem to faze him….The glass objects whirled in a circle around his covered head like a deadly crown…The boys raced off down the the trail, but Moss heard the ripping of sticks as Irridis’ glass disks flew after them. Within seconds the disks returned and resumed their positions. Speechless, Moss could only stare down the empty, quiet trail.”

A lesser writer, lacking the necessary discipline, would have shown Irridis’s attack on the boys. Instead, Kirk evokes the “empty, quiet trail” to show they’ve been killed, and then cuts to these sentences: “Moss could not bring himself to look at the boy’s face. Leaving Irridis in the clearing, he carried the child to the beach and buried him.” The action itself is unimportant: what matters is how it came to occur and what happens after.

On a more macro level, the economy of the text impresses, in that Kirk isn’t afraid to skip days here and there in the journey to get to the important points. There are few wasted words here, and as a result the text holds the reader’s attention much more easily. This is especially important because at the novella length each exchange between Moss and Irridis must carry weight and establish character. In an odd way, there’s a luminous quality to their journey created by what’s been left out.

Similarly, Kirk brings his artist’s eye to The Lost Machine. Details have clarity because he knows better than to clutter up the text with more than the one or two compelling images that matter, before moving on to the next scene. For example, in the prison Moss comes across a dead fellow inmate: “Mr. Box had arranged the songbirds’ eggshells in a mandala pattern on the flor…Dead now, he sat in the passage with his back to his cell door, head bowed to his spread fingers where the latin names of innumerable songbirds were written in ballpoint pen. The eggshells crunched beneath Moss’s boots. Even though Mr. Box was in no condition to lecture him, Moss felt shame redden his ears.”

As their quest moves to the city of their destination, pleasing complications occur, as when Moss visits his sister, nicknamed Strange Buttons, to get “buttons” as offerings to three other sisters who may have information about the real murderer. What are the buttons? “They were indeed button-shaped but comprised of a spiral arrangement of seeds…In the center of each was a dehydrated spider with its legs folded inward. The spiders were stitched to the buttons with the same red thread she used for her labels.” The purpose of these buttons is as interesting as the description, and just one of the ways in which Kirk brings freshness to weird fiction. These scenes evoke pleasant, non-derivative echoes of a Decadent literature updated to the modern era.

Another delight for the reader is Kirk’s Gene Wolfe-ish approach to the milieu, which is possibly a post-collapse (or fantasy) Earth in which some people are called witches but there are also mechanical men. Folk cures side-by-side with science. In one great description Kirk writes, “At dawn, moss saw three women dropping loads of crumbling asbestos into the sea…On the strand the hulking remains of a great ship loomed in the fog, covered in the oxyacetylene scribbles of the shipbreaker’s dissection.” Such details might be thought to rest uneasily with talk of the supernatural and even with the rotting walls of the Kafkaesque prison Moss emerged from, but through some alchemy of the prose it all fits together to create a unique setting.

The unique resolution of Moss’s quest carries emotional resonance in part because of the tension at the level of craft between Kirk’s imagination and his restraint—the careful composition of Moss’s character throughout The Lost Machine wedded to original imagery and situations. It’s on the whole a masterful performance, even if there’s a predictability to one particular plot element. The novella is highly recommended and I am looking forward to Kirk’s future fiction with great anticipation. He’s definitely bringing a fresh voice to weird fiction.

Also including five illustrations by Kirk and featuring an introduction by Mike Mignola.

New York Times Book Review: Latest SF/F Review Column

Jeff VanderMeer • June 3rd, 2011 • Book Reviews

My latest column for the NYTBR is online and in the print edition on Sunday, their summer reading issue.

This time I covered the following:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – “Beukes’s energetic noir phantasmagoria, the winner of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award, crackles with original ideas.”

Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine- “Valentine’s novel has the stylized quality of books by Angela Carter like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and it displays similar pyrotechnics.”

Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle- “Ever since his classic first novel, A Fine and Private Place, Beagle has displayed a talent not just for writing fantasy but for documenting the frailties and bittersweet qualities of human relationships.”

Among Others by Jo Walton- “It’s a brave act to write a novel that is in ­essence all aftermath, but Walton succeeds admirably. Her novel is a wonder and a joy.”

I don’t just review books I like for this column, but in this case I recommend all four titles. I’ll be writing on the Amazon book blog about the column and these authors next week.

Reviews and Features: Mieville’s Embassytown, Stacey Levine, John Scalzi, and More

Jeff VanderMeer • May 21st, 2011 • Book Reviews

A few links to features, interviews, and reviews of mine posted recently.

—A short review of Pascal Girard’s study in high school reunion embarrassment, Reunion. This is a graphic novel in the cringe-inducing mode of Ricky Gervais.

—A fun interview with John Scalzi about his new novel Fuzzy Nation that allows me to ask the immortal question “Why Fuzzy, why now?”

—An interview with one of my favorite short story writers Stacey Levine about her new collection The Girl With Brown Fur. Including Moonbounce.

—A review of China Mieville’s Embassytown is now up on the B&N Review site and also, oddly enough, the Christian Science Monitor. I thought a lot of it was brilliant, but a third of it was just moving people around the board in a not-well-thought-out way. I don’t like to talk in reviews about how an alternate version of a novel might have played out, but (1) keeping the past-present structure throughout, (2) not killing off a main human and a main alien character and replacing them with pale substitutes we don’t care about, and (3) making the viewpoint narrator’s function more central to the action of the last third would have fixed it all. That said, it’s got more cool ideas on one page than most SF novels have in 300, it’s incredibly imaginative, and the writing is top-notch. I’d rather have read this novel despite the flaws than any number of others.

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce: Brilliant Novel

Jeff VanderMeer • April 22nd, 2011 • Book Reviews

I reviewed Graham Joyce’s Shirley Jackson Award-nominated The Silent Land: A novelrecently for The Washington Post. I thought it was a brilliant book, especially considering that two characters have to carry the whole thing. It’s also, from a writer’s perspective, an amazing example of control, and of writing skill, all in the service of the characters and the emotional resonance of the novel. Few writers have the chops to pull off what Joyce has pulled off, and I’ll be using chapters from The Silent Land in future workshops as examples of various writing techniques.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

In Graham Joyce’s brave and ultimately heartbreaking new novel, “The Silent Land,” a young married couple trapped in a deserted Alpine village must come to terms with strange events that test the strength of their relationship. In its melding of the bizarre and the personal, this tour de force invites comparison to the work of Haruki Murakami and Ian McEwan.

West Coast Book Haul: Lisa Goldstein to Nick Mamatas, Angela Carter to Banksy

Jeff VanderMeer • March 21st, 2011 • Book Reviews

IMG_9859

As you might imagine, even though we tried hard we wound up acquiring more books while out on the West Coast. Two favorite authors, both picked up at the Tachyon home offices in San Fran (they have a laser gun now and really interesting process flows on post-it notes). The Goldstein doesn’t come out until June—it looks really interesting.

Michael Blumlein
The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein

IMG_9860

The FOGCon book room, expertly run by Keyan Bowes, had many wonderful dealer tables, but the one that I must confess made my heart flutter a little was PM Press. They’ve got marvelous lines of left-wing nonfiction and, more recently, fiction that includes a lot of edgy or surreal SF/fantasy. I didn’t mean to bring home a cockroach killer, but who the heck could pass up such a fine-looking William Morris bio?! On the right is Crucified Dreams, which looks to be a very cool dark noir/horror antho, from Tachyon.

Crucified Dreams edited by Joe R. Lansdale
William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary

(more…)