Monday, October 21, 2013

Ravenna Gets

by Tony Burgess

tribe wipes out tribe in Rwanda, Nigeria, elsewhere. entire villages are mysteriously decimated in Peru, Algeria, elsewhere. neighbors slaughter neighbors in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. in Canada, the residents of the small town of Ravenna decide to massacre the residents of the equally small town of Collingwood. the first victims that we see: a mother caring for her sick child.

why? can there ever really be a reason for such things? a reason that makes sense, a reasonable reason, an explanation for atrocity? it is hard to imagine that reason.

"Andre has a red flag, Chiang Ching's is blue
They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai Yu
Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games
Hiding out in tree-tops shouting out rude names
Whistling tunes we hide in the dunes by the seaside
Whistling tunes we're kissing baboons in the jungle
It's a knockout
If looks could kill they probably will
In games without frontiers - wars without tears
If looks could kill they probably will
In games without frontiers"

17050283 I've read that this book is supposed to be a commentary on war. I believe it. or rather, I believe Burgess believes it. at some point in the story, the war analogy becomes clear - although not obvious. but when my mind was trying to figure out the Why of it all, that was the first thing that struck me. a metaphor for the randomness, the senselessness of life and death in war. okay.

but I'm not buying it. I think the novella is more about Burgess' feelings about the senselessness of certain kinds of lives, the lives of people he scorns, condescends to, holds in contempt.

the author is a very talented writer, there is no doubt of that. he creates these miniature portraits of different individuals, full of a certain kind of nuance, with prose that is by turns sharp and dreamy. and then he slaughters those individuals. every character amounts to a cameo appearance. there are two chapters in particular that stood out for me - both detailing the warped perceptions of the killers from Ravenna - that illustrate how Burgess has talent to burn. mesmerizing prose in those two parts. overall the writing is excellent, from beginning to end.

but here's the thing: don't pretend to be writing some statement on the senseless violence of war when your characters are people you hold at arm's length, small town people that you clearly view as pathetic, people who live lives that you consider worthless. because then you are not making a point about war. you are making a point about you, about how you view the world and the people in it. whether you realize it or not.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

by H.P. Lovecraft

Dear Mr. Lovecraft,

1293273813257I, Joseph Curwen, necromancer supreme, have rather a bone to pick (forgive my little joke) with you. I have noticed many problems with your narrative The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. First of all: that title. Surely you realize that I am the protagonist of the tale - not the fey amateur Charles Dexter Ward? I do not think it is too much to ask that the title of your document correctly identify its leading personage. Second: I have noticed a strong bias against scholars of the so-called "dark" arts in your work - a bias that clearly and unfairly slants your narrative in favor of such laughable nonentities as that impressionable youth, his hysterical parents, his meddling doctor, etc, as well as towards questionable groups such as the unimaginative bourgeoisie and the overly imaginative lower classes, and various small-minded institutions including the Church and the Mental Ward. Your insufferable bias against such studies - indeed, to all those who would bravely dig up graves, retrieve bodies, revive those bodies, and proceed to imprison, interrogate, and torture those revived bodies until certain ancient bits of knowledge are at last shared - is not just regrettable and close-minded, but genuinely insulting on a personal and professional level. For shame, sir, for shame! Your prejudices do you no credit. Third: I find your general attitude towards a humble wizard such as myself, as well as towards my peers, we who only wish to remain immortal, even if it means possessing and discarding otherwise useless youths (like Charles Dexter Ward for example), so that we may come to learn ancient knowledge and thus reshape the world and all of mankind, for the better good no doubt, well... I just have to say that your entire attitude towards my lifestyle choice is appallingly narrow-minded and shockingly judgmental. Very unbecoming behavior for a writer of 'horror' fiction!

581151289624I will admit that there are many good things within your story. You have been accused of indulging in intensely theatrical purple prose; personally, I find your style of writing to be highly atmospheric, thrilling, and surprisingly enjoyable overall. The narrative itself is involving and even rather intricate. You have also been accused of tellnotshow-itis. I did see some of that in your lengthy flashback to my own story (the tragic tale of an unjustly accused and persecuted investigator of the supernatural - a former pillar of the community! oh how the small-minded love to tear down their betters!)... but that was merely a story within a story, told secondhand, and so I forgave it. Conversely, the last third of the novella - where the insufferable Dr. Willett finds my secret underground cavern and its attendant labs, cells, sacrificial altar, and deep well-cages for the unruly undead - that is written in an exciting and tense you are there style that I much appreciated. I was quite pleased with your descriptive powers and I cheered frequently at every gasp of horror uttered by the unimaginative and mulish Dr. Willett. And last but certainly not least, regarding the public accusations that detail your racism: as a necromancer who does not discriminate based on race when choosing my various living, dead and undead victims, I was specifically on the look-out for any race-based judgments. I am happy to note that I saw no example of that sort of foolishness. Well, save for the black cat unfortunately named "Nig". That made me quite uncomfortable.

But back to my grievances! Most repugnant of all: the ending. You seek to reduce me, sir, to conquer me as I have conquered death! I laugh in the face of that. Ha! Ha! Ha! From tiny particles of dust I shall rise again. And when I do, know that even your currently deceased state shall offer you no refuge.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A House of Pomegranates

by Oscar Wilde

Once upon a time there was a little collection of fairy tales called The House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde. I opened this book up and found a whole different book than the one I had expected! Is that a good or a bad thing? Well, I suppose both.

My familiarity with Mr. Wilde is pretty much based on his decadent excoriation of decadence and beauty-for-beauty’s-sake The Picture of Dorian Gray and his brilliant and perfect and of course sublimely witty The Importance of Being Earnest. I figured I would be getting more of the same, or at least a little of one and a lot of the other or some such combination. Nope.

spoilers ahead...

The third story “The Fisherman and His Soul” is fascinating. Starting off as a vaguely familiar tale of a lovelorn young fisherman who gives up his soul to be with the mermaid who has stolen his heart, it quickly moves in stranger directions. There is a witch who falls in love with him, who brings him to a moonlit satanic ritual to meet her diabolical master, who declares her love and then shows him how to cut his soul free. Then we learn about his cast-out soul’s journeys. Such journeys! The soul learns about Knowledge and Wealth and Lust. And, most surprisingly, the soul has terrible powers and with those powers does terrible things. A phrase uttered by the soul as he recounts his acts to the fisherman, “And I did a strange thing, but what I did matters not…”, is repeated three times and it is unnerving, chilling. Why does the soul do the terrible things it does? Apparently because when the fisherman cleaved his soul from his body, his soul got none of his heart. A heartless soul! Strange. His soul is soulless. For some reason I have always identified the soul as equaling the heart, part of a kind of trinity: Body, Mind, Soul (Heart). Wilde does not see it that way. The soul returns to the fisherman repeatedly, telling him of his adventures, always trying to reunite with him in the same body. And finally the soul does tempt the fisherman away from his undersea home, despite the peace and satisfaction that the fisherman has achieved with his mermaid love. The soul leads the fisherman astray; he compels him to do terrible and cruel and inexplicable things. There is an unhappy ending. And then there is a kind of happy ending, poetic and transcendent and, yes, strange.

6329642What does it all mean? Hard to say. Of the four stories, this one reminded me the most of Dorian Gray, in its emphasis on decadence and on the idea of breaking up the psyche into different parts. Elsewhere the spirit or soul is usually seen as a kind of agent of transcendence; yet here it is the fisherman who has achieved true transcendence - without his soul. Perhaps the soul is the form of the fisherman’s unconscious. The fisherman reaches his own transcendence by achieving his strongest desire, by falling in love: a love that is connected to his heart and one that is a palpably <i>physical</i> love. The mermaid is described in language that defines her as a beautiful and very material being: a body of ivory, a tail of silver and pearl, each separate hair a thread of gold. What is Wilde saying? That we can find our own riches in the physicality of love? That we don’t need those terrible adventures that force us to confront the true nature of Knowledge, Wealth, and Lust, that these are all Outside Forces that are in the end truly meaningless? That the fisherman's soul journeys towards a kind of living death and, later, in his attempt to use "good" and "evil" to influence the fisherman - that he is constructing a false binary of good vs. evil, an ultimately meaningless duality? That pure transcendence can be found in the romantic and sexual desires of eros, within the heart that acts as the fulcrum of the, er, "pleasure principle"? Love = the Id, and that's not so bad, not bad at all? Or at least love equals whatever the id was considered to be, prior to Freud? Sorry to bring up Freud, I know he’s unpopular & discredited & all that, but the fisherman's actions do seem to exist as the opposite of Freud's “reality principle” - in his disinterest in deferring gratification of his desires, in his rejection of the circumstantial and material reality that his village priest invokes to stop his quest to lose his own soul. Is the heart the true agent of transcendence, one that is linked to regeneration? The ending points me in that direction... flowers blooming on unconsecrated ground, over the body of the dead fisherman; a narrow-minded priest suddenly finding himself lost in his own passionate moment of transcendence and connection to the beauty around him.

2298136The first and fourth stories, “The Young King” and “The Star-Child” are quite charming in their own way. Certainly the prose is beautiful, jewel-like. One is the story of a young king who learns that to love the beauty of material goods is to support the enslavement and oppression of the people who create those goods; in the end he achieves a glorious and godly transcendence in a church. The other is the story of a child who is beautiful, vain, and cruel; that child is transformed into an ugly creature and is then tormented until he achieves his own glorious and godly transcendence. Charm and jewel-like prose, yes, but I actively disliked both of these stories. I don’t have a problem with religious themes in my fiction; I’m a God-lover myself, so bring it on. But my God! The messages in these two stories were so trite, so mawkish… frankly, I became rather nauseated at the ever-increasing relentlessness and obviousness of Wilde’s goals in telling these tales. All that charm became charmless. Even worse, the themes of these particular tales almost act as a renunciation of some of the ideas present in the far more complex and satisfying story of the fisherman.

11666298The second story “Birthday of the Infanta” is a troubling and very intriguing little tale. Lovely and grim in equal parts. A Spanish princess, a king mourning the death (murder?) of his wife, sinister courtiers who may have sinister designs on the royal child… disturbing things bubbling away under the surface. And then all of that is discarded as we learn the story of a dwarf brought to entertain the princess on her birthday. His purity, his love, his connection to nature are all detailed movingly. As is his lack of understanding in how he is viewed by those around him - as an ugly joke. In the end, after seeing his reflection in a mirrored wall and so learning his true place in the world of man, in the world of the princess… he dies of a broken heart in front of his own image. The meaning of the story seems timeless. Unlike my experience with the two stories above, I was not remotely annoyed - perhaps because the story is so bracing in its clear-eyed sadness at the cruelty of the world.

A striking, resonant, and somewhat heartless ending... after our little princess comes across the body of the good dwarf, she fails to understand that her toy has broken permanently and is annoyed when told that the death was due to a broken heart:
And the Infanta frowned, and her dainty rose-leaf lips curled in pretty disdain. “For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,” she cried, and she ran out into the garden.

I found a lot of my own vague ideas given concrete form in Heather Marcovitch's excellent essay: 'The Fisherman and His Soul' and the Unconscious

Goodreads Deletions

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All Flesh is Grass, and so are all websites consumed by greed. I mean srsly, did you check out that twitter post from that one goodreads author showing how much this website is invested in making this an author-centric website? and how little it cares about the folks who actually produce content for this website? Simak would not approve!
the first wave was The Golden Agers and that's David and his buddies. the second wave was The Silver Agers and that's probably Nancy & Kemper & Dan and them. the third wave is just Stephen, he deserves his own wave. now he's gone, thanks a lot mean Golden Agers for driving him away. the fourth wave is Katrina Lumsden and her review for 50 Shades of Grey. the fifth wave will be all those people still to come who will write 5 stars review for all of the authors who pay Goodreads to merchandise their books and to drive away all those nasty reviewers who are mean to them and make mean shelves all about them. cause it's all about them. the sixth wave will be the Goodreads Apocalypse!


The Void; or, what lurks at the heart of Goodreads' new policy of censorship.


Moomins Cookbook, by Tove Jansson

I heard somewhere that Tove Jansson had a lot of orgies with the Moomins. and a fat ass. well, not that she had an orgy that included an overweight donkey, but rather that baby got some back, you know?



An Uncommon Whore, by Belinda McBride

An Uncommon Whore; Or, The Story of Goodreads' Acquisition by Amazon
by Belinda McBride (Goodreads Author)


[spoiler tag] I am actually quite enthusiastic about reading this one! it looks enjoyable. but I really couldn't resist using the title for my own sordid little joke. [spoiler tag]    

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


by C.J. Cherryh

1598845well-respected and prolific science fiction author-cum-scifi-anthropologist C.J. Cherryh puts her considerable gifts to work in this introductory volume to her elephantine mega-series, as she begins a sensitive new tradition: fiction that is specifically geared to those unfortunate individuals who have no experience in reading, as well as to our fellows experiencing severe mental challenges. i for one appreciate the effort and am happy to report that the writing in this novel makes every attempt to be as repetitious, plodding, and as glacially-paced as possible, in order to allow the novice and/or challenged reader to fully grasp the ideas on display. to that end, each and every thought and concept and character bit is repeated extensively, often repeatedly within the same page, and upwards of a dozen times over the course of, say, two or three pages. surely this bold strategy will only serve to support those first-time readers in their endeavors, and can only help those challenged by low memory capacity and extremely short-term attention spans. the reader can literally forget or skip entire passages, and lo and behold, exactly the same commentary will reappear, again and again. bravo, Cherryh! this is certainly a step in a brave new direction. it is no wonder that this novel spawned so many sequels!

I have constructed a brief fantasia that illustrates this arresting technique:

Bren was extremely worried about the assassination attempt and was quite annoyed that his freedom of movement had been compromised. A worrisome Bren couldn't believe he had to suffer an escort everywhere! "I really am awfully worried that I can't phone home", said Bren, as he huffily realized that his ability to buy canned meat alone was no longer possible. "This really bothers me, I can't even leave my apartment without an escort!" notes Bren, as he paces his apartment in frustration. It was driving him crazy with annoyance and worry that not only had an assassin tried to kill him, now he couldn't travel alone anymore. He could not leave his apartment alone. After all, an assassin had just attempted to murder him. An actual assassin! Trying to murder him! It was all so worrisome. And as if the assassination attempt wasn't enough, now he couldn't even leave his apartment unaccompanied. "This is really very annoying and I feel awfully compromised, so much so that I am genuinely worried," reflected Bren.

okay, this novel gets some respect from me for two opening chapters (or "books", as Cherryh sees fit to call them) that are very well-written and genuinely riveting. and that have nothing to do with the tedious narrative that follows.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

by N.K. Jemisin

6437061a pleasingly old-fashioned fantasy - and by old-fashioned, i mean the opposite of the dense, complicated, multiple perspective, incredibly epic mega-fantasies that have had the most popularity over the past couple decades. this is something different. the language is straightforward, for the most part, and certainly beautiful at times. although the mystery is a complicated one, and deals with rather large issues such as the making and unmaking of an entire world, it still feels somehow 'miniature'. for the most part it takes place within one setting: the fabulous floating city of Sky. it also deals with gods who are enslaved to mortals. and yet there is an almost underpopulated feeling to it - we get to know only a handful of Sky's denizens and only a handful of gods are introduced. at times, it felt like i was reading an adult fairy tale or a lengthy fable. despite a couple sex scenes, a couple graphic bits of violence, even intimations of rape and molestation, the novel somehow felt... quaint. and this is not a complaint. the novel was refreshing.

i really liked the heroine: brave, sardonic, and no-nonsense. i also enjoyed the gods, especially child-god Sieh. loveable and strange little Sieh! a great character. many times when i've read about gods (similar to reading about aliens in scifi), i feel these are actually humans with unusual abilities - they talk and act and respond like humans. not so with Sieh, nor with the other gods. that is a true accomplishment.

the mythology was complex in a way, but as with the best myths, there was also a simplicity there. the mythology was genuinely mythic, a far cry from the dungeons & dragons style of mythology that i've seen in many other novels. not many stereotypically human motivations appear when the actions of the various gods are described.

overall it felt dreamy and arty and, somehow, minor note... and yet it is the first part of a trilogy describing the beginning and the ending and the renewal of all things.