Nonfiction

Oxford Exchange in Tampa: Book Haul

Jeff VanderMeer • March 28th, 2013 • Book Reviews, News

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We meant to work all day while still here in Tampa, but took some time off this afternoon to go to the Cigar City Brewery and then Del Rio’s for dinner (a great Cuban place). But before that, we stopped by the Oxford Exchange Bookstore, which was recommended to us by Liz at USF (thanks!). What a great, well-curated, unique bookstore! Definitely worth it. I haven’t bought books in awhile, and I’m sorry to say I splurged. (Well, not too sorry.)

In this first photo, just a few notes. I’ve wanted the Lethem collection for awhile—can’t wait to dig into that. Snow I have in another edition, but the font was just not right for me, so this Everyman edition is a godsend. Weirdlife is about the search for unusual lifeforms. It’s a good refresher as I dive into the second Southern Reach novel, Authority, on a couple of areas of interest.

Peter Nadas’ sprawling novel set during the middle of the last century just was too enticing to pass up—just an amazing-looking book that I’m going to be immersed in, I’m sure. Ann wanted Miss Dreamville and the new Karen Russell collection, so I added on Swamplandia, to give it another go. The Nabokov biography I had to buy since I collect all things Nabokov, including nonfiction about him. This is probably around the 80th book in my collection. Its slant is that there is a lot of politics and whatnot in the backdrop and subtext of the master’s work. To which I say, well, DUH. Too bad a world-class style and verve can blind us to what’s staring out right in front of us.

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Ann also wanted the New American Haggadah, which looks fascinating for a number of reasons. Viola Di Grado’s novel from one of my favorite imprints, Europa, just grabbed me from the first paragraph and I couldn’t pass it up. Similarly, Speedboat by Renata Adler, a reprint from the 1970s, captured me and wouldn’t let me go. It’s from another of my favorite presses, New York Review of Books, which does such a wonderful job of bringing fiction into the world that might not otherwise be in print. Buying How Fiction Works was another case of having an edition where I hated the font. This more portable, better-designed edition I’m already having more luck with. I don’t agree with Wood on everything, but it’s useful to engage with his ideas.

I was so happy to find The Best of Archy and Mehitabel—a lovely set of poems/adventures featuring a cat and a cockroach. Without Michael Moorcock mentioning Archy to me a decade ago I never would’ve discovered these too joyful miscreants. Ann wanted the Book of Nice, which I pointed out was from the same publisher has her perennial favorite Bad Cats. And the Oxford Exchange also has lovely notebooks, of which I purchased two.

The ambiance of the Oxford Exchange bookstore is rather amazing—the curating of the bookstore is eccentric in a meaningful rather than frivolous way. It is on the small side, but it makes the space count, and the selections seemed to hit my sweet spot rather more often than not. The many props, including manual typewriters and card catalogues, lend a real weight to the place as well. Beyond the bookstore is a more general gift store, a coffee shop, and a restaurant. All of it combined lends itself to a great experience—and across the street is the University of Tampa, with its steely minarets and nice river walk. I highly recommend you check out the bookstore if you are in the area.

Lindsay Stern’s Town of Shadows

Jeff VanderMeer • September 25th, 2012 • Book Reviews

Every once in awhile something exceptional pops up unexpectedly—in this case Lindsay Stern’s Town of Shadows, which was published this past month and which I just learned about last week. Stern’s still in college, but the book reflects a mature voice and is of definite interest to anyone who likes the darkly fantastical.

Going into overdrive, our managing editor Adam Mills has interviewed Stern for Weirdfictionreview.com, have posted an excerpt, and also posted a review. Check it out. This is why we get excited about fiction. This is the cool stuff. (Like what you read at Weirdfictionreview.com? Donate!)

Molly Gloss’s Phenomenal “The Grinnell Method” at Strange Horizons

Jeff VanderMeer • September 13th, 2012 • Culture

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“She followed Grinnell’s famous method of note-taking: Her notebook, small enough to slip in her pocket, was an abridged record of bird sightings, cryptic behavior notes in a shorthand of her own invention, quickly-sketched drawings and maps, details of weather and vegetation, travel routes and mileage that would be difficult to remember with precision later in the day. It was scribbled in pencil, and none of it well organized—it all ran together….The Journal, written in pen at the end of every day, would be considerably fuller and neater, her notes organized, sorted out, edited, expanded, with detailed observations of behavior recorded at the back, on separate pages for each individual species. For the Journal, and for Species Accounts, she created a narrative, free of sentiment or much personal reflection—a scientific document, not a diary, but with the skeleton of facts dressed in the clothes of complete sentences, so as to be readable by any stranger looking over her shoulder. All manner of facts might prove important to a student of the future, this was Grinnell’s belief. Nothing in nature should be assumed insignificant.” – From Molly Gloss’s “The Grinnell Method”

Sometimes you encounter a story that speaks to you on many levels at once, in which you recognize something very personal. Molly Gloss’s “The Grinnell Method,” serialized (Part 1 and Part 2) at Strange Horizons the last two weeks, is one such story for me. “The Grinnell Method” does many things wonderfully well, but at the forefront is its ability to convey a sense of the natural world in a clear yet lyrical way. I recognize, transported to a different terrain, many of my own hikes at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge here in North Florida. I recognize also those elements of silence, surprise, observation, and strange beauty that one encounters when immersed in that world. The details in Gloss’s story feel personal, they feel lived-in, and they reflect a profound sense of place. These are remarkable achievements that also push back against ideas of false urgency in narrative and the idea of what is or is not interesting in fiction. “Nothing in nature should be assumed insignificant,” she writes, and she makes the reader experience the truth of these words. There are so many tour-de-force descriptions that I’ll reference only one and let you read the rest in the story, because that is, in part, the point of the story: “When she came out of the trees onto the bayshore, a great flock of wigeons and pintails flew up in unison against the dark sky, turning so the undersides of their wings caught the seam of sun at the horizon. The tide was out, and her shoes left a trail of shallow pug marks in the narrow strand of bayside beach. Crab molts were thick, and the mud was stitched with the lacy tracks of sanderlings and plovers as well as the spoor of deer, who liked to come down to graze the tidewater marshes at evening.”

What is the story about? It is in a sense irrelevant because of the way the story lives in both the moment and the past; this is not what some call a “plot driven” story, even though that idea comes fraught with all kinds of faulty assumptions. But the details are these: in the early 1940s, a woman naturalist is cataloguing bird and other life in a Pacific Northwest coastal landscape when she encounters an odd phenomenon. This phenomenon appears to the main character in the constrained, narrow way in which it must: to be observed and documented but without a wider explanation. To say the story is not plot-driven and that it contains indelible portraits of the natural world does not mean that “The Grinnell Method” isn’t aware of the era it depicts—exactly the opposite. We are made aware of it abruptly and pointedly from the beginning when she “sat on the dirt like a Jap”—this from the perspective of the young boy who helps transport her gear for her expedition; Gloss does an excellent job of remaining in a place with regard to point of view where she can be tight-in on her protagonist but also open up at times to give us glimpses of other people’s thoughts and opinions. (For example, both a postal worker and a girl who may want to also become a naturalist.)

We are also aware of the role of women in the world—the ways in which her interaction with the natural world are impacted by the world of humans beyond. For example, the observation a few pages in that “Universities don’t mind teaching girls, they just don’t like to hire them”; this in reference to the woman’s attempt to pursue a scientific career as a naturalist. Indeed, throughout the story she conveys the recognition that in order to survive in that world she must be a magnitude better at her job than her male cohorts; thus, the careful way in which the story opens, in which we are presented with her careful observations of nature, the great care that she takes with everything. It is not just the marker of someone good at what they do, but also someone who has to be superb at their job. And this: “Employment opportunities would disappear completely if she were to marry, and therefore she would never marry.” The awful power of this—that this means so much to her, despite the possibility of an impulse for another life—is not undercut by sentimentality. This is just the way things are—and the very descriptions of nature undercut sentimentality, explain the allure of her work; the “backdrop” is foreground in part for this reason.

This immersion in nature from the first page to last is not just about understanding the natural world but also about understanding character: this is the world the woman works in and has developed a deep understanding of. Immersing the reader thus makes it all the more startling, all the more wrong, when the strange phenomenon makes its appearance. It is a feeling of wrongness that permeates the page in a way it would not otherwise. Merging with the sense of something wrong is the way in which Gloss weaves in the past, in the tragic story of the woman’s brother, and his impact on her life. By the time the reader comes to the last pages, the story has added momentum and depth and sense of mystery. There is a thematic, subtextual confluence with the surface of the story that feels unforced and natural.

“The Grinnell Method” will leave the reader with questions about the inexplicable, but all of the answers the story provides are there, in the moment, for readers who understand that some tales satisfy utterly and completely in this sentence, and this one, and the one after that.

(Still, I would follow this woman anywhere, across any landscape, and some small part of me hopes that she will reappear in some future story. I also hope that “The Grinnell Method” receives some awards consideration at year’s end.)

Atlas by Dung Kai-Cheung

Jeff VanderMeer • September 2nd, 2012 • Book Reviews

My google feed brought me this possible gem today: Atlas, by Dung Kai-Cheung. I’m buying it right now.

Here’s a description:

Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections — “Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs” — the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.

Much like the quasi-fictional adventures in map-reading and remapping explored by Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, Dung Kai-cheung’s novel challenges the representation of place and history and the limits of technical and scientific media in reconstructing a history. It best exemplifies the author’s versatility and experimentation, along with China’s rapidly evolving literary culture, by blending fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in a story about succeeding and failing to recapture the things we lose. Playing with a variety of styles and subjects, Dung Kai-cheung inventively engages with the fate of Hong Kong since its British “handover” in 1997, which officially marked the end of colonial rule and the beginning of an uncharted future.

Japan Times has this review, which reads in part, “The faux-scholarship in this section is beautifully done and is equaled, though in a different vein, in the next part, where we move from theory to The City, an entity approached not directly, of course, but through maps and documents such as Round the World on the Sunrise by John Smith, a chronicle of, among other things, Smith’s movements on Aug. 9, 1907, the day he spends in Victoria. In Smith’s account, with characteristic subtlety, Dung mocks colonial travelers and the memoirs that reveal their odd interpretations of cultures to which they can only condescend.”

Interview with the author here.

Dean Francis Alfar: Read New Fiction, Buy His New Collection

Jeff VanderMeer • August 29th, 2012 • Culture, Fiction, News

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Dean Francis Alfar is an excellent short story writer whose second collection How to Traverse Terra Incognitais now available on Amazon and elsewhere in e-book form. The book comes with blurbs from such luminaries as Hugo Award winners Ann VanderMeer and Lynne M. Thomas, among others.

Not familiar with Alfar? Here’s what you need to know.

Alfar is a Filipino playwright, novelist and writer of speculative fiction. His plays have been performed in venues across the country, while his articles and fiction have been published both in his native Philippines and abroad, such as in Strange Horizons, Rabid Transit, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and the Exotic Gothic series. His literary awards include the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and then Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award. He is an advocate of the literature of the fantastic, editing the Philippine Speculative Fiction series, as well as a comic book creator and a blogger. Alfar is also an entrepreneur who runs several businesses. He lives in Manila with his wife, fictionist Nikki Alfar and their two daughters.

So here’s a proposition for you, since I’m a big fan of Alfar’s work. Below the cut, Alfar is allowing me to post “Enkantong-bato,” his entry from the bestiary anthology Ann and I are editing—totally new fiction, not found in the collection, free for you to read. Exclusive to this blog post and only available here for the next month. BUT, if you read and enjoy it, please do me favor and go buy How to Traverse Terra Incognita. The fact is, you’ll actually be doing yourself a favor!

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Brit Mandelo’s Beyond Binary Interview

Jeff VanderMeer • August 27th, 2012 • Book Reviews

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Over at Omnivoracious.com you’ll find my feature on the excellent anthology Beyond Binary, including quotes from an interview I conducted with editor Brit Mandelo. Go check it out and recommend it to your friends! And below you’ll find Mandelo’s full answers to a couple of the questions; I couldn’t include everything due to length considerations.

What do you think makes SF/F ideal for exploring ideas and issues related to gender and sexual identity?

I think that the astounding range of possibilities speculative fiction offers for asking vital questions, reinterpreting or discarding contemporary mores, and breaking boundaries is what makes it ideal for exploring issues of gender and sexuality. SFF not only allows us to ask “what if?,” it also allows us to make real whatever we can imagine—the very nature of the form, as a literature of extrapolation and invention, opens up a field of discourse where everything has potential and anything is possible. This nearly unlimited ability to explore, expand, and explode definitions makes speculative fiction the only form that can effectively transcend and truly embody an equally vast multitude of potential gender and sexual identities.

In the same vein, Joanna Russ’s argument for speculative fiction is one that resonates with me, too, and I tend to quote it when asked a question like this. She said, “science fiction […] provides myths for dealing with the kind of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having.” In SFF, we can deal authentically with issues of identity and self in a way that is often effaced or barred from traditional literary forms; being able to twist and restructure reality in narrative is a powerful tool for social criticism. In fact, I’d say that the tools for social criticism are natural to and almost inseparable from the same narrative machinery that drives speculative fiction to begin with—that willingness to ask questions, to imagine, and to invent worlds that are not quite like our own. Speculative fiction, then, offers a golden opportunity for folks whose stories are often silenced to encompass their narratives, their identities, in a form that is—in a lot of ways, though this is a whole different argument—itself a sort of outsider literature.

I’m curious as to what kinds of effects stripping out gender referents has on fiction, in your opinion?

When done well, it can destabilize narrative assumptions about gender—and, even more so, reader assumptions. When we begin reading a story, we make assumptions based on hints and clues from the narrative, yes, but also based on our own implicit worldview. I’m as guilty of this as anyone; it’s just a way that we make meaning during the reading process. But, when a story manages to sidestep gender referents and craft a narrative not mediated by explicit gender, that’s something special: it forces the reader to step back and check their own assumptions about character gender, and destabilizes the assumption that everyone presents a specific gender. The thematic force of a narrative that rests on an agendered, neutrois or un-gendered person can also be pretty stellar, challenging mythologies of gender performance and the binary of male/female that the English language so commonly subscribes to. (And, on a craft level, writing without gendering a character is a pretty thrilling display of technical mastery. It’s hard to overstate the control and precision required to write, and write well, without pronouns or gendered language.)

More Weird…

Jeff VanderMeer • August 23rd, 2012 • Culture

Just a few things to mention in the aftermath of the Weird Tales debacle. I’m speaking for myself only in this, not for Ann VanderMeer. And if you’re not interested—no worries. There’s lots of interesting stuff upcoming on the blog that has nothing to do with this issue, including updates on Weirdfictionreview.com.

I’ll start with some links that I think are relevant:

—Adam Mills puts the entire incident into a wider context, which lacks only a few items, such as Marvin Kaye posting on author walls on Facebook soliciting stories prior to the announcement of the change in editors; the new editors discarding the electronic submissions portal; imposing erratic submission windows; and offering a terrible e-issue for last year’s World Fantasy convention made worse by a bizarre postcard advertisement that implied Neil Gaiman (or “Neil Fucking Gaiman” as they referred to him) and other World Fantasy Con guests of honor were in the e-issue (they were not). Maybe some of the information in Mills’ post and here will be of use for aspiring magazine editors re what not to do. Although, frankly, most of this appears to fall under the category of Duh.

—SFFWorld has an interesting discussion worth reading in its entirety.

—Larry Nolen offers up a cogent analysis of the controversial novel itself, with which I concur. There are certainly controversies that arise in which the interpretation is debatable. This is not one of them.

—The Guardian also offers a review that hits on some key issues.

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The Art of the Literary Fake–Now Online

Jeff VanderMeer • August 23rd, 2012 • Book Reviews

My essay “The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin)” is now online at the New Haven Review’s website. At over 9,000 words it’s my longest essay since I wrote about Angela Carter almost 20 years ago. I’m appreciative of the opportunity, courtesy of Brian Slattery, and I hope you enjoy the results. The essay references everything from mad penguin researchers to capybaras, bizarre crayfish dictionaries to Nabokov.

Excerpt:

“Play isn’t academically rigorous, can’t be easily quantified, and suggests a border that criticism cannot cross. The Quintus Erectus that lies peacefully in the morgue, awaiting dissection, suddenly slips through our fingers when we produce the scalpel, and then reappears, grinning at us mysteriously from a chair across the room. It’s as if a mischievous but highly intelligent ghost haunts the text. To speak of a ghost directly, and especially an unpredictable ghost, is to be seen as childish or superstitious, even though we are all childish and superstitious.”

Editors, Influence, and You

Jeff VanderMeer • August 14th, 2012 • Writing Tips

SF Signal just posted a podcast dealing with the aftermath of the writer Genevieve Valentine being harrassed at ReaderCon, which included the fall-out from ReaderCon not following its own zero tolerance policy. The panel consisted of Stina Leicht, Mur Lafferty, Jaym Gates, and Carrie Cuinn with Patrick Hester asking the questions. Hester didn’t do the best job in the world this time around, in my opinion, but the input from the interviewees is excellent.

One thing not related to Valentine or ReaderCon that came up during the podcast discussion was a report from a prior World Fantasy Con about an editor trading off of his influence to hit on women writers, especially up-and-coming writers where the power imbalance is very severe. The suggestion being, put up with this because I can help your career.

I mention this because I think it’s important that every writer, beginning or otherwise, know that this is absolutely, terribly, awfully wrong and no one ever should have to put up with this kind of behavior. Or any lesser variant of it. And also that no one editor out there has enough influence to have a dampening affect on your career if you have to tell them where to go. And that most all editors out there will be horrified and pissed off to hear of such behavior by a colleague and want to punch their teeth through the back of their face.

Beyond the harrassment, Valentine also was on a panel during which she was heavily condescended to by the male moderator. This is also not okay, should never be okay, and I don’t think it’s entirely out of bounds for audience members to address such an issue as it comes up—or other panelists to do so. The other general issue being men talking over women panelists, not listening to them, etc. Also not okay. Which should be obvious. (For my part, I tend to get into manic modes that sometimes coincide with being on a panel, and I will happily shut the fuck up if told to shut the fuck up, should I forget to stop going on and on. Although I also do try my best to self-regulate and be a responsible member of all panels I’m on—a good moderator is always appreciated in this regard, too.)

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In a different context, I got to thinking about the editor-writer power balance in general, outside of toxic situations. Which is to say, although I personally am beginning to enter the Old Fart stage of my career, I still often feel like an up-and-coming outsider—and that is certainly the vantage from which I usually conduct my conversations, whether in email or in person. I do not see much distance between myself and some writer in their twenties. If I drop a newbie writer a line, it’s generally in a relaxed and informal mode, for instance. But what I’ve come to realize is that no matter how I might see things, some beginners will attach more weight to your words than you yourself expect. And this, quite frankly, horrifies me. I love that people enjoy the books we put out, but please don’t give too much authority or…whatever the word is…to any editor or writer. Seek out those who produce books you love, learn whatever you think you can from them, and that’s it. (Besides, it has a calcifying effect on Old Farts…we tend to turn to stone much sooner, babbling out of our rapidly solidifying mouth-parts ridiculously boring anecdotes from the old days.)

This blog post feels as if I only kind of got at the meaning I wanted to convey, but hopefully it’s good enough.

Notable New Books: Beyond Binary, Lauriat, The Moment of Change, and Yesterday’s Hero

Jeff VanderMeer • August 14th, 2012 • Book Reviews


(The cool cover art for Lauriat)

I’m a little behind on blogging about some interesting books that’ve come my way. So here are thumbnails on four of them, all of which you should consider picking up…

Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Charles Tan. “Filipinos and Chinese have a rich, vibrant literature when it comes to speculative fiction. But what about the fiction of the Filipino-Chinese, who draw their roots from both cultures? This is what this anthology attempts to answer. Featuring stories that deal with voyeur ghosts, taboo lovers, a town that cannot sleep, the Chinese zodiac, and an exile that finally comes home, Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology covers a diverse selection of narratives from fresh, Southeast Asian voices.” Written up in Publishers Weekly and on io9.com. I’m still delving into it and finding it very entertaining.

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