Wednesday, August 31, 2016

IMPERIAL WOMAN, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Pearl S. Buck's 1956 take on events of her own childhood


Open Road Media
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Imperial Woman is the fictionalized biography of the last Empress in China, Ci-xi, who began as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor and on his death became the de facto head of the Qing Dynasty until her death in 1908. Buck recreates the life of one of the most intriguing rulers during a time of intense turbulence. Tzu Hsi was born into one of the lowly ranks of the Imperial dynasty. According to custom, she moved to the Forbidden City at the age of seventeen to become one of hundreds of concubines. But her singular beauty and powers of manipulation quickly moved her into the position of Second Consort. Tzu Hsi was feared and hated by many in the court, but adored by the people. The Empress's rise to power (even during her husband's life) parallels the story of China's transition from the ancient to the modern way.

My Review: Few women in China's very long history have been as well-documented as rulers as Cixi. I suspect that Mrs. Buck, daughter of missionaries to China and a reluctant missionary herself, wrote of this larger-than-life figure because she felt great kinship with her. Cixi was an outsider in a closed world, the Imperial Court, but whose sterling native qualities gave her tremendous influence over that closed world. Buck was in much the same situation vis-a-vis the Chinese culture she was native to for the first forty years of her life. Her parents raised her to be bilingual in Chinese and English, gave her no model for a racist view of the Chinese, and allowed her to mingle with the children of their Chinese converts to Presbyterianism mostly without interference. This made her a fish out of water everywhere, but also gifted her with an amazing insight into the cross-cultural communication disasters that have plagued China's relations with the world forever.

Cixi was an intelligent young woman of relatively modest, though not humble, birth, gifted with great personal grace and beauty. Her enormous elevation to the relatively modest in Imperial Court terms position of Imperial Concubine afforded Cixi the opening to become a powerful woman; her excellent fortune in giving birth to the Emperor's only son allowed her to move well beyond the considerable but constrained power of a favored concubine/consort into a full governing partnership as a Regent for her son, with a council appointed by her late Imperial master.

Buck portrays Cixi as a schemer, but not a wastrel as she is often portrayed. Her intrigues had at their heart a sincere and abiding belief that dynastic continuity was the sole means by which the Chinese body politic could be served by their government as foils against the colonial depredations of the Western powers. All the pomp and the excess Cixi loved was put on for the demonstration of her dynasty's power and dominance. All the machinations she undertook were meant to keep her position—but so that she might continue to fight against China's diminution and beggarment.

Fundamentally, Cixi behaved no differently than the Communist Party has since Chairman Mao's death in 1976. She was a strong leader, and a flawed person; she was also too late to do much about the long, slow fall of her for of government. History's tides catch up with all governments eventually; the Party's current grandees know this, and are behaving in their stewardship of China as Cixi herself did 125 years ago.

As all Pearl S. Buck novels are, this gracefully told tale is a pleasure to read and a treasure house of outside/insider information and opinions now irreplaceable with the death of the author. It is an exciting story, a well-told tale, and a still-invaluable look into a difficult life lived in service to a misunderstood ideal. A must-read for all Sinophiles.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

MY TALL HANDSOME, a collection of poems in the key of love, lovingkindness, and power

(Mineral Point Poetry Series #4)
Brain Mill Press
$9.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The fanged fairy of Emily Corwin's forest-mud-stained collection asserts and sings with short rhymes and glitter-spells, and just as you've followed her into the deepest and darkest part of the woods, terrified, you're asked to run away together / and promise to never / do this heart-skipping thing / with anyone else.

Don't be surprised when you find yourself answering yes, yes, yes.

Confronting and darling, every word a perfect warm circlet of pink blood, My Tall Handsome raids every crystal jar on the lace-topped vanity for truth, poison, and song until you can't remember why you ever thought pretty was better than powerful, sugar was better than bitter medicine, or dancing needed more music than your own voice.


My Review: Kiki Petrosino, the editor of the Mineral Point Poetry series, says this of My Tall Handsome in her introduction to it:
These poems are unabashed in their enjoyment of the grotesque, but there is always intentionality behind Corwin's choice of imagery. Her speaker is inextricably, even ecstatically, bonded to her "tall handsome" lover, but she struggles to share the language of her rich inner life within the bounds of this relationship.What language is public? What is private? What tokens, allusions, and talismans belong only to the ardent pair?
I am reasonably confident that this paragraph puts into elegant words the central problem of any writer attempting to capture the inner flame of love by outlining its shadows on paper. It's a testament to the potery series' editor and the poet, Emily Corwin, that this collection both demonstrates the problem and shows a satisfying example of a successful solution to it.

"meet me tomorrow/in a brittle field / the stalks dry, ash-white/ rippling. / Look for me in a gingham dress. / I'll be holding blackberries / and a small axe / crooning in my arms." I can't recreate the effect of the typesetting myself, since I don't have that kind of tool-kit in these posts, but I can tell you that the *look* of the lines is as important to the reading experience, to the comprehension of the poet's purpose in selecting those words and interrelating them just so, as their existence on paper itself is. This is not to say that these are concrete poems, perish forbid!, that relic of the 20th century is (happily, at least in my opinion) as unfashionable nowadays as confessional poetry (much less happily) is. The look of a poem has always had an affect on how readers both understand and respond to it. It's one way in which the literate world attempts to hold on to the once obvious effect of poems as songs. After all, Homer (composite character that s/he is) was an ancient Greek rapper, singing his goddess-filled phrases before the communal fire and holding her/is audience enraptured and ensorcelled. Had that not been the case, The Iliad and The Odyssey wouldn't be remembered today.

Corwin is working in the unjustly maligned as unhip, devant garde Confessional furrow started strong and true by Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds and John Berryman (among so many others). Her confessions are, as were most particularly Olds's, the love-chants of a cisgender/heterosexual woman working out a reasoned response to the power dynamic evolving between her inner and outer selves, as well as herself and her beloved: "my tall handsome, you are always / hydrangea in my rib, popped open / always dazzle of salt on my punched lip"

I don't know how better to explain my pleasure in this read than to say that, in a properly ordered world, Emily Corwin would have a gorgeous retreat provided to her by a grateful music industry for her gift of the perfect text for hugely popular Lieder that would hold massive audiences spellbound for an entire evening of divine song.

Friday, August 26, 2016

FAIR DAY IN AN ANCIENT TOWN, poetry that's *saturated* with yearning

(Mineral Point Poetry Series #3)
Brain Mill Press
$14.95 trade paper & eBook bundle, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s April now, complains Allendorf’s speaker, and still no desperate gift of unreturned yearning.

The poems of Fair Day in An Ancient Town subvert the glorious, Romantic pastoral into a voice easy to imagine as Walt Whitman’s darkly clever younger brother. The object of affection is fake-tanned and an idiot but still crashes a dozen lush masturbatory fantasies—or the speaker and his lover meet as shepherds only to eat M&Ms and abandon each other on bingo night. O, the way his mouth confounded me / and folded on my mouth there in the fold, slyly sings one of Allendorf’s shepherd’s songs, O, the glory of his hairy arms, / the way they lit my eyes a little then.

Layering complex form, rhyme, and craft over lush horniness and hard wit, Allendorf effortlessly upends romantic poetry and exposes it to the twenty-first century. This is a collection to make the reader laugh out loud and think deep—and then find a way to be alone under the covers.


My Review: Alone hell! This collection could honestly be subtitled, "Inducements to Cruise for Action"! "I'll paint the memory/of you on my closed coffin lid and lard/my arteries with your untamed beauty." That's some hot longing goin' on there.

Kiki Petrosino edits these collections of work by poets from the middle of America, but does not find middlin' poets. This signed copy, #18 of 100, is a lovely object to hold as well as a pleasure of a trove to read. I'll give you a whole poem as a sample of the aesthetic at work here:

Never so great the shiftlessness. The rest
of the night, I'll stare into the wall
and think a poem about alcohol.
I'll write about the luxury that's failed
me so far this month. It's April now,
and still no desperate gift of unreturned
yearning. Usually, I'm writing reams
of crushy ones each day. Lush, bitter birds
that soar into the window one by one.
I just can't muster it. They hurt me some,
the poems and their people, all the pearl
of torture. I confess, I am afraid;
It's hard to sleep without a tiny veil
of pain to puff with breath and call a sail.

You'll find this to your taste, or not; but the collection is well represented by this poem, so make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

MOONSTONE, who feels very much like he WAS there despite the novel's subtitle

MOONSTONE: The Boy Who Never Was
(tr. Victoria Cribb)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$11.99 ebo0ok editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The mind-bending miniature historical epic is Sjón's specialty, and Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is no exception. But it is also Sjón's most realistic, accessible, and heartfelt work yet. It is the story of a young man on the fringes of a society that is itself at the fringes of the world--at what seems like history's most tumultuous, perhaps ultimate moment.

Máni Steinn is queer in a society in which the idea of homosexuality is beyond the furthest extreme. His city, Reykjavik in 1918, is homogeneous and isolated and seems entirely defenseless against the Spanish flu, which has already torn through Europe, Asia, and North America and is now lapping up on Iceland's shores. And if the flu doesn't do it, there's always the threat that war will spread all the way north. And yet the outside world has also brought Icelanders cinema! And there's nothing like a dark, silent room with a film from Europe flickering on the screen to help you escape from the overwhelming threats--and adventures--of the night, to transport you, to make you feel like everything is going to be all right. For Máni Steinn, the question is whether, at Reykjavik's darkest hour, he should retreat all the way into this imaginary world, or if he should engage with the society that has so soundly rejected him.


My Review
: The first two paragraphs:
The October evening is windless and cool. There is a distant throb of a motorcycle. The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound. Holding it still, he tries to work out the distance; to hear if the bike is coming closer or moving away; if it's being ridden over level or marshy ground, or up the stony slope on the town side of the hill.

A low groan escapes the man standing over the kneeling boy. With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock. He groans again, louder, in increasing frustration, thrusting his hips so his swollen member slides to and fro in the boy's mouth.
I don't have any idea what I was expecting from this story, but this surely was not it. I had heard tell of Sjón as I expect most serious readers will have done. I hadn't either noticed or encountered those who had mentioned the fact that he is perfectly comfortable discussing the meatiness of sex and the cultural hypocrisy that surrounds sexuality all over the world. I haven't heard of Iceland being particularly enlightened about queerness. Combine all these lacks and you get a surprised old man gaping at the first page of this internationally acclaimed novel, wondering (not for the first time) if those warbling from the treetops about how wonderful this book is have really read it.

Color me cynical, I guess.

Máni Steinn, Moonstone in English, has led a stressful and unhappy life. His loss of family and inability to fit in to his peer group are central to his sense of himself as Other, not one of the lads or lasses. He creates his own family of sorts by turning tricks for his cash and living his real life in the cinemas (two!) of Reykjavík. The boy lives with his great-aunt because no one else could or possibly would take him in. As she is well past her prime and unable to do a lot for him socially, Máni is left as free as any misfit could ever wish to be, enabling him to act freely and without fear of discovery as he memorizes the important things in a lad's life: the sound that each unique vehicle in the small country makes, the faces and trades and residences of his tricks, the existence of the Cool Kids' Set and their activities. This being 1918 Máni is about to learn something of the outside world in stark and cruel relief. The Spanish Flu is creeping up the shores of Iceland where it will alter his life forever:
The photographer hands the boy three krónur:
--I'm afraid you won't be as busy for a while, pal.

The boy shrugs and heads back out into the rain.

The photographer was one of his first gentlemen. It was from him that he acquired the photograph of Muggur. The picture shows the artist in a black suit, with bangs down to his eyes and a roguish smile on his lips. There is a cigarette in his hand, which he must have lowered the instant the shutter opened.

The movement of his arm is sketched in the air as if Muggur had made a brushstroke in time.
The moments of 1918 will be limned in Máni's mind's eye forever. As well as World War I reaching its spavined conclusion, 1918 saw Iceland freed from the long colonial rule of Denmark and one of its immense supply of volcanoes erupting near to Reykjavík. For Máni, all of this was merely background noise as his survival from the flu and his discovery in flagrante delicto with a Danish sailor on the day that Iceland's independence was formally announced leads his unsettled life into yet another configuration. His adoration for the film world and its probable effect on his abnormality is clearly analyzed by a famous doctor whose henchman Máni had been until the dalliance with the Danish sailor comes to light:
Anyone who has observed a child playing with a doll will know how intently the child examines it by touch as well as gaze. Fingers and eyes probe the physical form with the precision of a master surgeon who has been assigned the duty of dissecting a body to the bone. Every nook and cranny is inspected; nape of neck and ear, groin and instep are caressed.

In the same fashion, the cinema audience scrutinizes the light-puppets on the silver screen, and whether it is the curve of Asta Nielsen's back, Theda Bara's naked shoulders, Pina Menichelli's sensual eyelids, Clara Kimball Young's slim ankles, Musidora's Cupid's bow, Gunnar Tolnæs' strong fingernails, Douglas Fairbanks' firm thighs, or Max Linder's soft eyes, the body part in question and its position will become the focus of the viewer's existence and etch itself into his psyche, while the size of the image and the repeated close-ups of lips, teeth, and even tongues will exacerbate the effects until few have the strength to resist them.

Film is thus immoral by its very nature, transforming the actor into a fetish and fostering perversion in the viewer, who allows himself to be seduced like a moth to the flame. The difference lies in that the cinema audience's appointment is with the cold flicker of the flame rather than the searing fire itself.
(itals in original)
It amazes me the facility with which Sjón operates equally lyrically when describing the antiquated views of the doctor and the simple survival techniques of Máni. Never does one feel like a foil for the other. In this compact and beautiful novel, each character is accorded that respectful tacit acknowledgment of his or her uniqueness and validity.

Such a terrific feat in life, still less in art. This story is a joy to read; Sjón is a welcome addition to my pantheon of superb writers, and his translator Victoria Cribb earns my slack-jawed admiration for her sterling craftsmanship and fearless honesty in searching out the exact, precise word that conveys the very shade of meaning one can sense was there in the original; and last but far from least, Farrar, Straus and Giroux gets a prolonged standing ovation for making this joyous discovery possible for the US audience.

Thank you all. And happy birthday, young Sjón, on the 27th of August!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

CARE GIVER, an inside glimpse of the steady march towards nothing that is dementia


Livingston Press
$7.00 SALE trade paper, available now

Gordon Lish praises CARE GIVER!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Care Giver leads us through a kaleidoscope of events as a failing old man pens unmailed letters to his lost love from a nursing home bed. A caring paperboy aids the man for a passage to his promised land, and becomes the unexpected inheritor of the man’s hallowed highlands. As the boy seeks to build his own life on those gifted lands, he too is haunted by visions of a lost soul, and finally makes ready for his own deliverance in the high peaks.

This strange story unfolds as we consider the man’s letters, the boy’s writings, and the photos and clippings all found among the boy’s belongings. If you’ve ever been troubled by someone’s incurable suffering, then read Care Giver. It is at once a testament to forbidden mercies and to the power of enduring faith. For me, it rings of the utter truth.


My Review
: In the emerging literary genre of dementia fiction, this short novel stands out for its brutal, unsparing honesty of presentation. In alternating sections, too short to be chapters, Bob Brown's stream-of-consciousness narration of his deteriorating grasp on his own mind juxtaposes with the short, sibylline utterances of John Fulton, a kind-hearted and shy young paperboy who becomes the living anchor of Bob's world.

Bob writes letters, from his addled 81-year-old brain, to his long-lost love Margo Jones. The more letters he writes to her, the more we are treated to a ringside seat in the spectacle of a mind's disappearance. The mixture of times present and past is complete and the distinction, for Bob, is gone; for us, the strands of meaning are tightly twined and are mutually supportive narratives, often seeming to merge like hairs in the plaits of a braid: Tightly spaced, closely woven, touching all down their lengths, forming one constructed object and still made up of discrete parts. The book emphasizes this joined-but-separate quality of narrative with the two men's voices alternating and with the liberal use of photos throughout the book.

John, the boy who brings Bob his paper, is a shy kid of seventeen when he meets the old man. He's like all young people in that all things come back to himself in reference. He's a good man, though, because he spares moments of his life to spend with the slowly disappearing Bob. He listens. He asks questions, engages with the person before him. John straightens pillows and leaves the elder to sleep when he's been drugged and never flags in offering his precious gift of attention.

The beauty of writing this book from the PoV of the dying man and his care giver, his giver of caring beyond the physical, is wondrous. The end of the story is already known, the end is the ending...and the ending is a lovely thing. Only Bob speaks...we see the photos he cherishes enough to will them to his young best friend...we hear his letters, last ones ever, to his Margo....

This book is a lonely and frightened and confused old man's orison to the lost god of love.

FOR YOU, MADAM LENIN is on sale! A novel of the domestic life of a revolutionary


Livingston Press
$10.00 SALE PRICE trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenin's comrade/wife, was an only child. Where she went, her mother went also. In Siberia and Europe, Lenin and the two Krupskayas shared close quarters: two- and three-room apartments.

Lenin obliged to live with an in-house, sharp-tongued critic, Nadya Krupskaya and Lenin trying to run a revolution while living with mom/mother-in-law, the daily rituals and domestic lives of subversives--fictionally promising territory.

For You, Madam Lenin covers pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and the Soviet experiment post-Lenin. Trotsky with his abundant hair, Stalin with his webbed feet, Lenin's lovely mistress Inessa Armand, and half-blind Fanny Kaplan, Lenin's would-be assassin, are all present and accounted for.

But the novel belongs to the two Krupskayas. In this version of events, the male triumvirate Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin doesn't outshine Russia's long line of tough, resilient, radical female luminaries.


My Review
: I like historical novels, I'm interested in Russian history, and I'm culturally in tune with the idea of a husband being the butt of womanly's such a common trope, after all. Mothers-in-law don't come much more beady-eyed and observant than Krupskaya Senior.

I don't know that I'd ever so much as given a second's thought to Lenin's domestic arrangements. If anything, I assumed pretty young cadres were at his beck and call. I can't say from my own original research how much of this novel was fictionalized, but I'd certainly say the *feeling* is convincing.

The narrative told from Matushka Krupskaya's point of view is, in fact, charming in its illusionlessness about Lenin's failings as a husband and as a leader. His susceptibility to a pretty Parisian piece, Inessa, surprises his mother-in-law not at all. She admits she thinks Inessa is a lovely, fun girl. But she remains her daughter's mother, so much so that she is Nadezhda's emotional ballast through the inevitable trials of being a famous man's wife. (This part I know to be fictional, as Krupskaya Senior died before the October Revolution.) What impact that has on the power couple, well, three is a crowd didn't become a cliché for no reason.

The other narrative voices, all anonymous omniscient and convenient, are there for the author to offer commentary on the events unfolding before the Krupskayas. It's handy from a plotting point of view, and the "interrogator" of history is at times amusing, but it feels a bit contrived. Krupskaya Senior is telling the story to some unnamed someone, us the readers; the omniscient narrator is too; then the interrogations by History of, for example, Marx's daughters is thrown in, and none of the scenes is terribly long...well, it's choppy out here on this Russian lake.

What sold me on the novel, concerns aside, is the delicate and ever-so-charming arabesque of a life Meads makes for the three women at the heart of things: Mother and confessor, critic and protector, sad survivor and acerbic battler; passionate advocate and wife, lover and beloved, widow and guardian of the flame; and soft, worshipful, accepting refuge for an aging man's sad and defeated needy heart. None of the three can be in any orbit except Lenin's, and in all their actions, they choose this course. They choose to be Lenin's womenfolk. Not because That's What Women Do. Because, first to last, each is committed to the vision of himself that Lenin shows her.

Tart, critical, practical, obsessive, and passionate. Not one of these women is ever less than herself in these pages. That's a lot to say for a trio of wildly different fictionalized people. I'm glad I read it.

THE BRICK MURDER: A Tragedy, and Other Stories earns my happy respect for quality writing that's still fun

THE BRICK MURDER: A Tragedy, and Other Stories

Livingston Press
$6.00 SALE PRICE trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: THE BRICK MURDER: A Tragedy, and Other Stories is a funnily tragic collection of stories that always borders on wondrously correct incorrectness. A manic and angered sub-sub-librarian learns about cultural differences from a manic and angered patron. A junior faculty member gets paid to befriend a senior star philandering poet. Three kids and a rabbi discover the awful truth that God really is a process God. A token black man Bob the Negro accomplishes revenge in his work place at a price. And, a brick plays a momentous part in a tragedy. This collection comes one short of a dozen, but nothing short in its style and reach.


My Review
: Sixth winner of the Ruby Pickens Tartt Award for First Fiction Collection Kurt Jose Ayau brings an outsider's eye (meaning he doesn't squint through the same Galileo-era telescope) to short fiction. He doesn't write plotless blobs of pretty sentences, like the Writerly Reviews publish, he writes STORIES, with beginnings, middles, and endings. Sometimes they aren't in the usual places, but they're there. Livingston Press grants this prize annually to an author who has never had a collection of short fiction published, naming it after a WPA Writers' Project worker who went all over Depression-era Alabama collecting the oral histories of former slaves. Tartt's work never appeared under her own name until after she died. The publisher honors her unsung service to literature by awarding the prize of publication to a previously unheard or ill-attended-to voice. Ayau's collection is eleven pieces strong, and there are far more hits than the few near-misses in these pages. The title story takes us to the last moments on Earth of a pompous, arrogant blowhard ex-military teacher. He's typical of most of the full professors I've ever known, completely oblivious to anything but him/herself and his/er hobbyhorse; well, this time, it costs the old fuffertut dearly. Like, everything. I took great Schadenfreude in this revenge tale. As Ayau is a professor at a military school, I wonder if it's not simply wish fulfillment....

"Official Friend", "Calling It Off", "Sand Castle", and "Culture Clash" all ring their various changes on the theme of identity and its roots; it's evergreen territory, this, and Ayau rakes through the fallen treasures to very good effect.

"At A Loss for Words", "Outsourcing", and "By the Numbers" are tales of betrayal of trust, the scales-falling-from-their-eyes moments that are physically and psychically painful; in at least two cases lethal....

"Murray and the Holy Ghost" and "Spawning" are told from the eyes of children, and are, to my mind at least, the least successful in the collection. Both revolve around those last moments of innocence before the quotidian world of adulthood crunches the child's illusions about himself, his universe, and his most treasured fantasies. Ayau's child voices are well presented. I just don't like that story's effect, no matter how well it's told, and I am also a little tired of kids carrying stories in fiction. Too many iterations of that here lately, and frankly I'm over it.

And then there's "Bob the Negro." What a story that is. I hope it's anthologized in every future work that pretends to deal with race in America. Hugely successful sales maven Bob takes a job in a regionally successful, all-white company in Podunk, New Enland. He energizes the sales single-handedly. He makes friends of one and all. He's on top of the world! So he thinks. Disturbing hints of a different reality make it through his oblivious, overachieving shell; he lays traps to discover exactly what his suspicions tell him could be going on; and then, when his worst fears are exceeded, he pulls a major bonehead maneuver and loses everything...except success, which he can't keep away with a barge-pole. This story is the chef d'ouevre and it alone is worth the $6 the book costs. Buy the book, read the story, and come tell me about it if you disagree...but I suspect you won't. It's that good.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

ON THE TWELFTH NIGHT, a blazingly creative finish to Monstrous Little Voices

(Monstrous Little Voices #5)
Abaddon Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Anne Hathaway – contented wife of a glovemaker and aletaster, proud mother of three – has her life turned upside down when strangers, oddly familiar, come to her door and whisk her husband away. What is their business, this terrible danger they say we all face? What is the lattice, and what part must her Will play to save it?

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Imagine yourself in Jonathan Barnes's shoes: you're invited to participate in making an anthology of prose extensions and reimaginings of playwright William Shakespeare's retronymed Tuscan Wars fantasy universe. The editors are hotshots. The publishing house is terminally cool. This sugar/adrenaline bolus would lead any writer to need immediate doses of Ritalin and insulin. Then comes the dose of ricin, the silver hammer this collective Maxwell brings down on your head:

You're wrapping the main narrative thrust that four gifted and talented other authors shaped and directed into a satisfying conclusion, and you're doing it as a response to Twelfth Night.

Holy shitsnacks. *I* can feel writer's block coming on out of sheer terror.

In my review of Adrian Tchaikovsky's EVEN IN THE CANNON'S MOUTH, I called attention to Helena's description of a "place between the pages of the world's book," as a central factor in making all five of these novellas make sense (something modern audiences insist on, silly buggers) as a universe. Clearly I don't know if that conceit is original to Mr. T or if it was part and parcel of the pitch to the authors. I therefore claim no special knowledge of the origins of "the lattice" either. The two conceits seem to me to be different points of view on the same underlying reality. Whoever thought this up, however it was disseminated to the writers, it is a piece of bloody brilliance that knits up many raveled places in Shakespeare's own fictional playhouse-cum-universe. It is, in fact, a small bell-ringer for me as part of the explanation of Shakespeare's troubling and sudden blooming into a major talent from humble, nay untermensch dimensions lowly, beginnings.

And Jonathan Barnes plays it for all it is worth by describing it from the standpoint of the most innocent imaginable bystander: abandoned wife Anne Shakespeare. Oh my, how bold and perceptive a narrative choice. Anne is always, in every imaginable way, the unwinner of every iteration of Shakespeare's fame. Read Robert Nye's take on her, MRS. SHAKESPEARE: The Complete Works. Her fictional memoir is as affecting in its portrayal of a loud, vibrant, lively fun-loving woman as Barnes's is in portraying Anne as a passionate woman in love with a restless man. Both takes, along with so many others written over the course of centuries, require Anne to sacrifice herself to Will's outsized persona.

Only in this novella, an entire playwright's canon of pathos is loaded onto Mrs. Shakespeare's broad shoulders:
Afterwards, they went inside and they sat by the fire and they talked of the life that was left to them, and for a little while, they thought not of the past at all, but only of the future.

EVEN IN THE CANNON'S MOUTH, fourth novella in Monstrous Little Voices and a follow-on tale to Shakespeare's As You Like It

(Monstrous Little Voices #4)
Abaddon Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Illyria’s Duke Orsino has raised new, powerful allies, and in a last-ditch attempt to win the war, Don Pedro and his brother John, wise old Jacques and the physician Helena sail to Milan to appeal in person for the wizard Prospero’s aid. But unseasonal storms drive them onto the Illyrian shore, and into the hands of their enemies...

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to being my tippy-top very-best favorite in the collection! It is not because of any lack or failing that Tchaikovsky's entry comes in at 0.999999999999 of 1 in my affections, it is the happenstance of placement. This fourth of five novellas takes on As You Like It, a dear favorite play of mine; but the tale does so very near the close of the collection's business, and so is constrained to bring major thematic strands together while working within the conceit established for the whole endeavor.

A lesser writer would be sunk by meeting these rigorous demands. Tchaikovsky makes doing so look effortless and makes his audience chortle, snicker, giggle, and all while mopping away strange bits of moisture from the corner of the eye. No idea where those came from. But here's the rub for me: I sense that there was a lot, nay a plethora, of material that Tchaikovsky whipped in to the crème Chantilly that is Even in the Cannon's Mouth and was compelled to jettison it to serve his multiple masters.

I realize I could be completely wrong, Tchaikovsky isn't an intimate of mine and doesn't confide his secrets to me; but read this:
"You are most kind," Viola spoke over him. "And pray, will you not join us, who has such respect for learning?"
They passed some moments exchanging compliments, then sent the noble Spaniard off for more mugs, consigning him to the seven-deep scrum about the tapster. Viola let Feste ramble, watching the two foreigners try to follow his baffling loops of logic. At last she said, "Aye, we two are belike the foremost men of learning in all Illyria, and yet you see how fortune treats us! I myself have converse with angels and airy spirits most nights, and have studied with no lesser man than Doctor Dee, while Father Topaz has honed his craft in the invisible college of Verrucoporcus and conjured the stone philosophical. It has been many a cold week since last a stranger showed kindness to two poor scholars such as we."
This grace note off the mash-up within pastiche inside hommage shows the attentive reader just how much pruning must have gone into keeping this novella a novella and not a stonking tome. (Saint Quinculencus? HA!) A mind this well furnished and a spirit this inclined to playfulness must be severely disciplined to keep things concise.

The form Tchaikovsky uses to frame his tale is also an aid in this task. Acts and scenes and stage directions function as a corset does in assisting the costume to cover more fleshed-out bones than it could otherwise. They're in the spirit of the Bard, they're familiar to the audience likely to pick up the book, and they're practical. It isn't a small feat to understand all that and use it so seamlessly for all those purposes that the typical reader passes them all by unthinking.

These passages reveal the immense and demanding task behind the seemingly effortless storytelling going on in the foreground:
"We are between the pages of the world's book. Each scene and moment of our lives is pieced together in this space before it's served to us. We are where none of us was meant to be."
May I just say YES to this? And:
Parolles was still at his fictional Battle of Lepanto. Already he had travelled on a cannonball and hauled himself out of the water by his own hair. Each listener had tried to challenge the lie--Orsino, Don John, and Sir Toby among them--and each challenge he slew, and then piled up the bodies to reach even greater heights of the absurd. Where his words might have taken him, when the newcomers broke in, was past all guessing. Some men, when given rope, refuse to hang themselves but weave a ladder to the moon.
Aside from the humor and the dignity of the passage on its surface, there is in concert with the passage above a deep structural function to those ideas expressed. This becomes more obvious when the book has been consumed whole. But there is something, some gravitic effect like dark matter, that pulls the reader towards these moments and carves their importance on the awareness paid into any work of fiction.

Yet all without any sense of didactic purpose or clanking of barely invisible plot machinery. That, my friends, is the best quality of writing going today.

Monday, August 22, 2016

THE UNKINDEST CUT, Macbeth immortal, The Tempest family dysfunction, and Julius Caesar with the gender roles swapped in true William Shakespeare-meets-21st century fashion

(Monstrous Little Voices #3)
Abaddon Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Lucia de Medici sought only to marry, ending a war that has engulfed all the world from Navarre to Istanbul; but she has been lied to, and made into an assassin. Now, armed with new knowledge and accompanied by the ghost of her victim, she sets out to find who so deceived her, and to what end, and to try and restore the damage done.

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Have the hankies ready. There is a reason Newman is known for dark fiction. This is a supremely clever narrative conceit, driven by the fact that even the smartest and most experienced practitioner of an occult art can fall over human frailties like motherhood, misplaced trust, the need to fix people, places, things.
Her mother's face was pale in the lantern light. She looked tired, and older than Lucia liked to think she was. The deep red velvet of her cloak made her look ill in contrast. "Dear heart, I have always told you the truth. I cannot tell you because I cannot see it."
"Have you lost your gift?"
"You can see the future for others, then, still?"
Her mother's sigh was one of a woman tired beyond words. "Sweet child, rest now."
Unquestioning faith meets unshareable burden. I'm familiar with that.

As burdens go, parenthood's the heaviest imaginable to most mortals. Add in the unfathomable weight of governance. Then top it all with a "Gift" of supernatural power. No wonder la chère Madame sa mère sighs wordlessly. You would too. Adding yet more weight to the burdens Lucia and her mother must carry is the reason that the future must be scryed in the first place: Lucia's impending nuptials to Francesco de Medici will finally, once and for all, put an end to the Tuscan Wars that bedevil this fantasy Mediterranean and draw in the rest of the world, magical and mundane. If they can be brought to their successful conclusion.

So what constitutes success? Do forms have more value than substance? If forms are observed and goals attained by that measure, what cost exacted on the meat-puppets voids success?

Prospero, Duke of Milan, enters the stage with his cruel loss poisoning his never-sanguine personality and clouding his tiny remaining window onto human nature. Lucia's task is to remove him from the stage. Does she succeed in this task if, in accomplishing it, she uses a "One Ring to Rule Them All"-level evil artifact that in its use summons the violent, murderous immortal remains of Scottish King Macbeth to unleash his blood and horror onto the world Lucia's charged with saving?

In the end, the narrative noose that Newman draws about Lucia's neck is clear to the poor child. She has been used by forces far, far more powerful than it is safe for mortal beings to interact with.
Her face was wet and her throat raw. Everything seemed too dull, too slow to be real.
"Yours is not the face of love redeemed," Prospero said, not unkindly. "Take a moment to restore yourself. I fear you grasped that magic's nettle for longer than you should have."
Love redeemed? Love squished under the thundering hooves of the Universe's largest cavalry, yet left breathing and suffering. It is a sadist's delight, this tale. Lucia, standing in for the reader, makes the best decisions she can based on the best and most trustworthy information she has; that the information is unreliable and the decisions terrifyingly misinformed mean that we/she must now suffer the single most painful coming-of-age moment of them all:

You don't matter.

THE COURSE OF TRUE LOVE, a prose sequel novella to A Midsummer Night's Dream, the delicious comedic play written by William Shakespeare

(Monstrous Little Voices #2)
Abaddon Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Pomona, a gifted hedge-witch of advancing years in fair Illyria, is walking about her own business when she spies a fairy gentleman trapped in a secret garden. Vertumnus, King Oberon’s emissary to the Duke, has been taken captive by proud Titania, and a war is in the offing... unless Pomona can prevent it.

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: A moving, touching, lovely tale of love surprised. Heartfield creates, in Pomona and Vertumnus, a pair of seasoned travelers whose voyages on love's tides have left them on land and grimly content that it be, and remain, so. Neither, however, can resist a puzzle to solve, a clue to pick and unravel into a solution, so when Pomona accidentally sees into Vertumnus's walled prison yard-cum-garden and also through his enchanted appearance as an old hag, she cannot accept that her first vision is not the correct one and that her undignified descent into the enchanted courtyard is not showing her a lie when she sees Vertumnus's haggish countenance. The lie she knows her eyes tell her piques her curiosity, which once aroused is not to be stilled by the shrilling and shouting of tiny Queen Mab playing her role as jailer to the glamoured Vertumnus:
"And if you had seen this man, what of it?" squeaked Mab. "Why seek him with such ferocity? Whenever you think you glimpse a man, you charge toward the place he was last sighted and seek him behind any bush or tree? I advise you as a woman of some years myself: your fond chase will only make your quarry despise you more. Chase cattle, not men. You are, by your looks, not wealthy enough to atone for your wrinkles in the eyes of any man worth the hunting."
The woman set her lips together but said nothing. If she were a trap, sent here by Titania, she must have no awareness of it--or else she could play a part better than any mummer. She had wandered into this garden only to be taunted, to be called ugly and foolish by a bitter old gad-fly.
By Jove, he would prove the little harridan wrong if he were wearing his own appearance.
"You rere-mouse," he scoffed to Mab. "You speak of love as you would of farthest India, knowing nothing of either."
In response, she flew at him, her ghastly team stamping toward his nose. Without thinking, he caught her between his cupped palms for just a moment, but it was just long enough for Mab to work her magic on him. He screamed as pain spread from his feet upwards, all over his skin, and in his mind flashed a strange vision, so that for a moment he thought his prison was not a beautiful garden but a dank stone cell, smelling not of blossoms but of mould. ... Pomona put the book down on the bench and a hand on her hip. "Do not trouble the fairy, madam. She speaks the truth. I know full well I am no beauty. I do not seek a husband, here or anywhere. Show me the way out, then, I will trouble you no more. Where is the gate? I see none."
And so we have the traditional romantic beginning: meet cute, start by being antipathetic to each other, but unite in opposition to a third party. There's a reason that's an evergreen. It worked then as it works now. Get them juices flowin' and then let the underlying chemistry have its turn.

But wait, there's more! After all this novella is a follow-on to one of Shakespeare's most famous romantic comedies. We've already had mistaken identity, ensorcellment, a changeling child's fate revealed, immortality...what's next? Oh yeah! Ignition!
...he was never privy to Oberon's laughing whispers with Puck and his other councillors, and never invited to join the Hunt with the other favourites. He was always more than human but less than spirit.
If he were a true fairy, he would be gone now, off on the air like a sylph, vanished like first love. If he were a true fairy, perhaps--probably--Titania would not have been able to take away the powers she had given him so long ago.
Instead he was bound, and hurt, and limping behind this witch like a pig being led to market.
I don't know about women's feelings on the matter, but to me there is nothing sexier than a man under arrest and/or tied up. No wonder Pomona starts the cross-examination that, as always, elicits the startling details of the male love interest's past which are destined to warm her reluctant heart to him in his pitiable vulnerability. Heartsfield does not stint in assigning pitiability to Vertumnus! Changeling, outsider, neither fish nor fowl...well, what decent heroine could resist that?!

Not his rescuer, that's for sure:
"Truth is truth," she said. "Beneath, above, inward, outward."
"You say that, who saw me as a woman yesterday."
"And were you any different, when I saw you as something else than what you are? Would you have acted any differently than you had? You cannot seek your nature, you can only make it, moment by moment." ... "Then tell me, what is your nature, Pomona?"
"It is whatever I need it to be--or whatever the person paying me for my services needs it to be."
"So simple! But Rumi says the king knows not that he is a king when he sleeps, and the prisoner knows not that he is a prisoner. So what are we, then, when we are sleeping? When we are only ourselves, at night, naked and unoccupied?"
"Are you always unoccupied, then," she said, "when you are naked?"
That loud thud you just heard? Yeah, that was Pomona falling for Vertumnus. He's already fallen for her, his rescuer from Titania's cruel captivity. And now their world trembles because there is no enemy, human or faerie, who can stand against the certainty of mature people in love. It falls to the pair of them to avert the onset of still worse bloodshed in the Tuscan Wars, this imaginary seventeenth-century world war, as soon as they face down the wrath of faerie royalty.

Assuming they survive....

Sunday, August 21, 2016

CORAL BONES, being a prose sequel of sorts to The Tempest, the fine late play written by William Shakespeare

(Monstrous Little Voices #1)
Abaddon Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Miranda, daughter to Prospero, the feared sorcerer-Duke of Milan, stifles in her new marriage. Oppressed by her father, unloved by Ferdinand, she seeks freedom; and is granted it, when her childhood friend, the fairy spirit Ariel, returns. Miranda sets out to reach Queen Titania’s court in Illyria, to make a new future....

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Probably my favorite of the five novellas. I love the conceit of Miranda finding the life of a wife, after a girlhood and youth free of conventional constraints though rife with unconventional unsavorinesses, to be boring, constrictive, and evoking in her a deep sense of ambivalent unhappiness. I suspect that many folks who jumped from the frying pan of youth into the open fire of adulthood will relate to Miranda's plight and wish for her good fortune in discovering an escape route.

One of Meadows's sinewy strengths is in smithing beautiful, enduring phrases from Shakespeare's native tongue:
Ariel's cure is a nostrum that tastes of moss and sunsets, scratching my throat like swallowed earth. It sits in the core of me like ice, a steady coolth radiating outwards, soothing my fever; soothing me. I stare at the painted angels overhead and wonder how unlike them I must be, that I can leave my father and husband to think me dead.
Words, ordinary words that you and I use every day, seemingly effortlessly placed in a shimmeringly lovely arabesque; the mighty effort it took to bend the armature of thought the words bedizen is unobtrusive. Meadows makes the struggle look easy. That is talent coupled with an iron will and work ethic.

A trend in modern fantasy writing that I find very agreeable is the presentation of faery creatures as truly other, not either Goody Goody or Evil Wicked Mean and Nasty as was the case for so long:
Puck laughs, warm and pealing. "Your concern is touching, but deeply unnecessary. Did Ariel not tell you, child? I'm a trickster, and though my enemies try as they might, it's tricky to trick a trickster with even the trickiest trickeries. And in any case, should anyone try to trick me"--his smile turns vulpine, sharper even than his teeth--"they must do so in the knowledge that I'll trick back."
"A boastful thing, aren't you?"
"Modesty is for saints, which I most certainly am not."
"Indeed? You shock me, sir!"
"Excellent! I do so love to be shocking."
The words flow like cold spring water, deceptive in limpid clarity, hiding a swift current and slippery rocks ready to lift one's feet from their footings and dump the inattentive into an icy bath of surprise: teeth, wits, mind, morals, all are sharp instruments to this ancient, soulless trickster.

I believe that Meadows has speared the wriggling fish of The Tempest's--indeed perhaps all of Shakespeare's works's--essential message, alluded to but never declaimed outright, in this long speech Miran-Miranda (you'll see what this means when you read the novella) makes to Puck as they travel away from Ferdinand and Prospero and the rest of the ordinary (!) world, together:
I am--I know I am new to desire, and all my husband taught me was that wanting should be his province alone, with granting those wants my chore. Certainly, I envied him the decision, but it was not--is not--the whole of it. On the island, there was hardly need to think of myself as girl or woman, except inasmuch as my father told me to, for I had no real source of comparison. Caliban was inhuman, my father defined himself as a sorcerer more than as a mere man, and Ariel could be anything she pleased. But then there was Ferdinand, and for his sake--and for my ease--I took the role I'd been told to take, but though I tried to obey, it was...I wish I could say it was just the skirts, that I chafed only at the expectation of manners, but it wasn't that, Puck, it was language, the words, the feel of them. I never knew words could be so sharp, until the wrong ones cut me. But they weren't always wrong, that's the worst of it; some days I revelled in being called a lady, but then the day would pass, the sun would rise and fall again, and the same name felt like a collar, bringing me to heel; or else a corset, squeezing me into wrongish shapes for the adoration of strangers.
But are they wrong? I still don't know. But, oh, I wish--I wish--I could change as Ariel does, that flicker-flash between girl and man; I wish my form could be all the forms my heart desires! The moon has phases, does it not? We call it full and half and harvest, but through its wax and wane, it remains the moon, and we love it no less--must I be any different? I must not, for I am not. My heart is a moon, and some days I am full and bright within myself, a shape that fits my name, and then I fade, and mirrors show only a half-light shared with a silhouette, an absence my form reflects; and then, in the dark, I am dark altogether, until I regrow again. Why should such a thing be any more difficult to grasp than the fact that some think me dead, and yet I live? The contradiction is only in their perception of what I am; and though killing me would perhaps solve it to their satisfaction, it would not undo the truth of me.
I am struck speechless. I can only say to this eloquent outpouring, "Yes, Foz, yes. You got it. You get it."

THE TEAPOT DOME SCANDAL: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country remains relevant

THE TEAPOT DOME SCANDAL: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country

Random House (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$8.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

***NOTE 7/11/18*** I'm amazed I wrote this review in 2012. Coulda been written today.

The Publisher Says: Big Oil bought the election of 1920 for Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio, because he was amenable to giving away huge amounts of money to the oil companies, including using American power in Mexico to undo the Mexican nationalization of the oil companies' assets there. Part of the payoff to the oil interests was assigning leases worth about $100 million (in 1920 dollars...well north of a billion now) in the US Navy's strategic petroleum reserve in several locations.

Including Teapot Dome, Wyoming.

It all unraveled, the leases were voided, and thanks to a crusading Montana populist Sen. Tom Walsh, several really rich and really corrupt men spent some token time in jail.

Despite his proven knowledge of the transactions, Harding's vice-president was re-elected in 1924 (Harding died in 1923, some suspect at Mrs. Harding's hand, so he would never have to testify before the Walsh Committee).

Oh for the good old days.


My Review
: This book was published in 2008, an election year. I do not think this was an accident. The GOP, a sink of depravity and greed since the Taft Administration, did not need any help losing that election...the fact that the sitting vice-president didn't run as the candidate tells you all you need to know there, the GOP knew what was coming and wanted someone else to take the blame for it...but this book, about a conspiracy of evil, greedy GOP pols, their money-men, and the full intent to defraud We-the-People for private wealth, was still well-timed.

Lest any stupid damnfool conservative start mooing about bias, I rush to report that the author does not say the words I've said. The author reports the facts as history has them. The Committee reports, the papers of all parties concerned, all extant documentary evidence, was used in a careful reconstruction of the actual events that led to the Teapot Dome Scandal, as we've come to call it.

The fact that the documentary evidence makes the conservatives look like evil, greedy rotters is just a bonus. Embrace the demon within, GOP/Tea Party supporters! Align yourselves with those who think nothing of splashing out millions to buy the votes and influence the course of the river of money that flows from any government into their own pockets, with the minimum of trickle-down into the Public Good.

Do it openly, and in full knowledge of what kind of rotten sleazebags you're supporting...they've never been any different. Read this book and see why.

2022 ADDENDUM Lest my ire seem more partisan than it is, I rush to assure all readers that Senator Joe Manchin ("D"—Corporate America) has demonstrated the continuing susceptibility of our representative government to overt, money-based rigging in favor of those whose greed exceeds their common sense.

MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES, a beautiful-looking and beautifully conceived and executed anthology of Shakespearean fanfic

MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World
Afterword by Dr. John Lavagnino
Abaddon Books
$5.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Mischief, Magic, Love and War.

It is the Year of Our Lord 1601. The Tuscan War rages across the world, and every lord from Navarre to Illyria is embroiled in the fray. Cannon roar, pikemen clash, and witches stalk the night; even the fairy courts stand on the verge of chaos.

Five stories come together at the end of the war: that of bold Miranda and sly Puck; of wise Pomona and her prisoner Vertumnus; of gentle Lucia and the shade of Prospero; of noble Don Pedro and powerful Helena; and of Anne, a glovemaker’s wife. On these lovers and heroes the world itself may depend.

These are the stories Shakespeare never told. Five of the most exciting names in genre fiction today – Jonathan Barnes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Foz Meadows and Kate Heartfield – delve into the world the poet created to weave together a story of courage, transformation and magic.

Including an afterword by Dr. John Lavagnino, The London Shakespeare Centre, King's College London.


My Review: I hereby make an Executive Decision to promote the works of fiction in this collection from stories, as the publisher describes them above, to novellas. Considered in terms of length, I think that's justified, if only barely; it's the depth of storytelling and the complexity of the interrelationships that lifts the tales out of storydom. Admittedly the authors each had a tremendous boost out of the story ghetto by working within the Shakespeare-verse. This has saved a tremendous amount of worldbuilding effort on their part as a certain level of background familiarity can reasonably be expected of readers attracted to the tales. The problems that come with working inside a set of conventions and premises not of one's own creation aren't to be minimized. Honoring the unknowable intent of the original creator, going with or against the tide of the original creator's fan-base's fixed ideas and assumptions about same, while avoiding the artistic death-spiral of checking one's own creative impulse at the door is a feat of no small proportions. Bravo to each and all for navigating these shoals gracefully and successfully.

Equally graceful and successful is publisher Abaddon Books's cover and interior design. The use of period-sourced woodcuts as cover images and interior part-title pages is visually and intellectually pleasing. Woodcuts are shorthand for a rustic or home-made aesthetic, and the ones chosen for use here as well as on the covers of the individually published novellas are appropriately playful in nature. They all capture the spirit of the project whole and entire as well as illuminating certain aesthetic choices made within the illustrated novellas.

I'll review the novellas individually:

The idea of the whole collection merits separate consideration.

And that right there, that little word "collection," is a big reason why the reviews of the parts are different from the whole. Is this a collection? Is it an anthology? I deliberated about that for some time. My love affair with Wikipedia's easily accessed and readily digestible information led me there first, where I found this indirect illumination of the distinction between an anthology and a collection:
Since publishers generally found anthology publication a more flexible medium than the collection of a single poet's work, and indeed rang innumerable changes on the idea as a way of marketing poetry, publication in an anthology (in the right company) became at times a sought-after form of recognition for poets. The self-definition of movements, dating back at least to Ezra Pound's efforts on behalf of Imagism, could be linked on one front to the production of an anthology of the like-minded. Also, whilst not connected with poetry, publishers have produced collective works of fiction from a number of authors and used the term anthology to describe the collective nature of the text.
(emphases added)
A collection, then, is a single-author sampling; an anthology has multiple authors. In the SF/F field there exists a long tradition of themed anthologies from Groff Conklin's many forays beginning in the 1950s all the way through 2016 Hugo-winner Ellen Datlow (for Best Editor, Short Form), and I'm confident that the form will continue into the foreseeable future.

I'll call this book a themed anthology. Its shared premise is that the Mediterranean world of Shakespeare's invention, in which he set many stand-alone comedies and dramas, was deliberately created by Shakespeare as an exercise in worldbuilding. While the modern concept of worldbuilding didn't appear until 1820, we attribute so many powers of prescience and invention to him that this latest one doesn't stretch his legend unduly. Five authors take a play or several plays from this loose grouping of works and, instead of retelling the source material, write prose sequels of sorts to the plays. I've seen several references to these novellas as Shakespearean "fanfic", but the amateurish clumsiness this mildly pejorative and deeply (if unfairly) dismissive term hauls as its baggage is insulting to the fine writers here included. It's factually accurate perhaps, but the connotations aren't.

A collection of Shakespearean "fanfic" is a terrific idea no matter what, one I hope we'll see more of, but this anthology came out tied to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Tying the publication of MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES to such a cultural milestone is genius and I hope the advance sales were monster (which would aid the project in remaining on the backlist forever). If anyone should profit from the Bard of Avon's legend, I'd love it to be modern creative writers working the seams of precious coal he found to invent new and exciting ways to delight and warm us by the collective hearthfire. Fires need fuel. The hottest fires use the best fuel. What better fuel is there than that which comes from time-tested sources? Four hundred years of mining hasn't exhausted this source.

Digital Humanities scholar Dr. John Lavagnino contributed an Afterword to the anthology that provides a clear and concise overview of the aims, sources, and results of the project. It reads to me like a call to arms:
...Pericles returns to a plot resolution {Shakespeare had} used as early as The Comedy of Errors and found fascinating throughout his career: the astonishing reunion with those who seemed lost forever. That particular kind of wonder doesn't appear here, and indeed fits a play better than this book's new kind of exploration. Instead we get the richness of a fictional world that could continue rolling along forever, that could keep leading us to new places and startle us not by returning to our beginnings but by going on and on.
Aux armes (ou claviers), citoyens creatifs!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

CAHOKIA, or Take THAT Euro-exceptionalists!

CAHOKIA: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi

Penguin Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Almost a thousand years ago, a Native American city flourished along the Mississippi River near what is now St. Louis. Cahokia was a thriving metropolis at its height with a population of twenty thousand, a sprawling central plaza, and scores of spectacular earthen mounds. The city gave rise to a new culture that spread across the plains; yet by 1400 it had been abandoned, leaving only the giant mounds as monuments and traces of its influence in tribes we know today.

In Cahokia, anthropologist Timothy R. Pauketat reveals the story of the city and its people as uncovered by the dramatic digs of American corn-belt archaeologists. These excavations have revealed evidence of a powerful society, including complex celestial timepieces, the remains of feasts big enough to feed thousands, and disturbing signs of large-scale human sacrifice.

Drawing on these pioneering digs and a wealth of analysis by historians and archaeologists, Pauketat provides a comprehensive picture of what's been discovered about Cahokia and how these findings have challenged our perceptions of Native Americans. Cahokia is a lively read and a compelling narrative of prehistoric America.

My Review: Where today sits St. Louis, Missouri, there once sat a huge Native American city we call Cahokia, absent any other name for it, relating it to a creek that flows through the five-square-mile extent of the known city and suburbs. There are Indian mounds galore here, and there even is a state park over on the Illinois side of the river. Serious archaeology has been done mostly in front of the bulldozers and the plows of farmers, developers, and the highway builders. Pauketat is one of the region's many dirt archaeologists, the guys who go out and trench interesting sites and keep uber-meticulous notes and drawings and samples of stuff. (GOD doesn't that sound like a painful bore?) Thanks to him and his colleagues, we now know that some sort of major urbanization kick hit the area in 1054 and ended in tears about 1250. Why? (On both counts.) Who? What the hell? Those are the questions raised by the archeology, and treated in concise chapters in this book.

I am not joking when I say concise. This entire book comes in at 170pp of author's text, plus 15pp of notes and an index. Not a challenging read, right? Wrong. The information conveyed in these pages, with about the expected level of grace from an academic writing about his pernickety, obsessive specialty, is rich and deep. I found myself taking week-long pauses at times, not "oh god what a slog" pauses but "" pauses while my inner Bill and Ted tried to work out the IMMENSE and IMPORTANT implications of what I was learning.

Immense indeed. Native Americans are all-too-frequently hagiogrpahized as natural-world-lovin' harmony seekers. Oh really? Explain then, if you please, the six separate sites with as many as seventy sacrificed women buried in the trenches in front of which they were clubbed to death in this MATRILINEAL society? In ranks, meaning the next row stood there while the first row was clubbed to death. Why did the different-genetic-stock neighborhoods outlying Cahokia show the signs of poor diet and overwork that one expects to see in the lower classes, and that are absent from the downtowners? Why is there evidence from as far away as Wisconsin that the Cahokian religion was being proselytized and effectively forced down the throats of the locals via economic might?

Why are these Living Saints, as many counterculture woo-woos have it, suddenly shopping for shoes in the feet of clay department?

I confess that I am uber-gleeful about this. I do not subscribe to a worldview that, once upon a time, before icky-ptoo-ptoo Men got hold of things, there was a beautiful wonderful peaceful womanly world, and matrilineality is the last teensy vestige of that demi-Paradise. Ha! All these sacrifices, hugely overwhelmingly female, in a matrilineal society? Oh dear, got some blood on those girly-hands, don't we?

I also don't for a second buy the "living-in-harmony-with-Mother-Earth" story either. These folks stripped the local landscape bare and planted what supported their chosen life-style. No European involvement possible. When it all came to a halt, the violence of the Plains eternal wars began, and never ended. Massacres (google "Crow Creek" just for giggles), colonization, oh the fun that people have when the lid of powerful neighbors is lifted...all here, present and accounted for in the archeaological record!

So should you read this book? Not unless you're already interested in archeology. If you're a leftover hippie, it's likely to hurt too much. If you're wanting an overview, this ain't it. Definitely for the serious-minded reader.

Monday, August 15, 2016

PUBLISHED & PERISHED, a book of writers dishing on their dead colleagues

PUBLISHED AND PERISHED: Memoria, Eulogies, and Remembrances of American Writers

David R. Godine, Publisher
$18.50 hardcover, available ON SALE now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: We know the names on both sides of these coins; both the authors whose lives are celebrated, and the names of their friends performing the celebration. And what a list it is: Emerson on Thoreau, Henry James on Lowell, Howells on Twain, O'Hara on Fitzgerald, Tate on Eliot, Davenport on Merton, Merrill on Bishop. If there is a published pantheon in which the best of a writer's life and work is recorded for posterity by their closest friends, this book contains the holy scriptures. Here is a selection of well considered (and often shockingly honest) appraisals of the greatest names in American literature memorialized, eulogized, and sometimes criticized by their dearest friends and their closest peers. All are personal; many are poignant and in every case the reader reaches the final sentences knowing far more about the subject than before, not as they would from a scholarly entry in a biographical dictionary, but at first hand, close up, encomia written in flesh and blood.

These memoria consistently manifest an urgency on the writers' part to convey the personal, the intimate, the unknown. Katherine Anne Porter writes of Flannery O'Connor, "I want to tell what she looked like and how she carried herself and how she sounded standing balanced lightly on her aluminum crutches," John O'Hara starts his appraisal of Fitzgerald with the observation, "It is granted that Scott Fitzgerald was not a lovable man, but most of the time he was a friendly one, and that characteristic, in a man of his professional standing, is as much as anyone can ask."

Personal, forthright, and honest, these appreciations sound the notes of our literary past that still resonate in our minds.

My Review: I love browser books. Those tapas of the brain that publishers so seldom do really well, anyway. I like quotes, as I suppose is fairly obvious to anyone who's paid the slightest attention to me, for much the same reason as I like these all-too-rare interesting short-subject browsers: They point me at things I've never considered looking into, and remind me of pleasures I once experienced, and occasionally both together.

An example of the latter is the memoriam piece by Jonathan Yardley of one of my literary icons, Eudora Welty. I've derived huge pleasure out of reading Miss Eudora's stories, and a little less from reading her novels. I've never sought out her essays, for some reason, and now I think I must:

The novelist works neither to correct nor condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what's told alive. ... Fiction writing is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose.
--from "Must the Novelist Crusade?", 1961
Now I must, with almost a starved hunger, seek out and consume these hitherto unsuspected morsels of beautiful writing and clear thought that are Miss Eudora's essays. And all because I am a browser, a grazer, and I buy and hoard these weird collections of odd stuff like the memorial essays written by their peers to recently passed writers.

This sort of book isn't easy to do well because there is so much oddball cultural flotsam around that it's very hard to select a wide, but consistently good, sampling of it. Most often the entries into this genre are single-author collections like 52 McGs or Up in the Old Hotel, both delightful books; but they're one person's work, and therefore a certain level of accomplishment can be expected. How much tougher the task the editors of this volume set themselves, and how much more pleasing the fact that they succeeded.

I want to tell what she looked like and how she carried herself and how she sounded standing balanced lightly on her aluminum crutches, whistling to her peacocks who came floating and rustling to her, calling in their rusty voices.
I do not want to speak of her work because we all know what it was and we don't need to say what we think about it but to read and understand what she was trying to tell us.
--Katherine Anne Porter, about recently passed legend Flannery O'Connor
As beautiful as any sentences Porter ever wrote, or any O'Connor did. A rare pleasure to encounter such a heartfelt and simultaneously a clear-eyed assessment of a person's life and work: O'Connor was defined and consumed by disabling illness, and still had the spirit and strength to stand on her failing legs and whistle for peacocks. Don't know about you, but as a way for someone to remember me, that would make my ghostly ectoplasm glow with pleasure.

So make the effort to find one of these marvelous brain-snack boxes, and dip your weary-of-pretense or simply worn-out-from-outrage toe into a pool of good writing about good, dead writers.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

BAD MONKEYS, Matt Ruff's riff on Human Conditional crises


$13.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder.

She tells police that she is a member of a secret organization devoted to fighting evil; her division is called the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons--"Bad Monkeys" for short.

This confession earns Jane a trip to the jail's psychiatric wing, where a doctor attempts to determine whether she is lying, crazy--or playing a different game altogether. What follows is one of the most clever and gripping novels you'll ever read.

My Review: "Clever" is a good word for this book. In fact, maybe "clever-clever" is better. "Jane Charlotte"? She needs a boyfriend named "Austen Brontë" in that case.

And that is the very last and final connection anywhere within the oddly shaped covers of the book to Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. From here on, we're on a profane and sometimes profoundly blue trip through the Halls of Micturation that form Jane's psyche. Is she addled? Drugged? One helluva fast-thinking sociopath, like in The Usual Suspects?

Dunno. About half-way through, I lost steam. See, this is the issue I perceive in so much bizarro/New Weird fiction. It goes on too long. It takes the joke, beats that sumbitch to death, scoops up the jellified meatiness, and then sets to stompin' on it in hobnailed boots. And after a while, one loses the desire to be on the sidelines looking on.

So, a month went by, and I picked the book up again. (It was stabbing me in the kidney as I got into bed one night.) Idly flipping to the Book Dart (if you don't have these, get some, they're amazing), I resumed reading with a slight smothered yawnlet.

*slog slog pantpant slog*

And I finished the book, unable to toss it aside for one reason: I had to know how the HELL this guy was gonna get off the horse at the end of the ride.

Good, good job, Sir Matt the Ruff. I did not see that ending happening.

Friday, August 12, 2016

5 Snowy Literary Escapes from this Summer of Climate Change Horror

This year most of us Northern Hemisphereans are experiencing unusually hot summers. Sadly, these “unusually” hot temperatures are going to become usual, according to a large majority of scientists across many disciplines. All of us here are avid readers, so we’re familiar with the concept of escape reading. We need to escape this borning reality real bad! What better way than to slink into a fairy tale, a comic strip, a thriller, so long as it’s set in the icy freezing cold?

I live on a boardwalk next to the beach on Long Island. The North Atlantic is never particularly warm to my Gulf of Mexico-trained bones, which is a good thing to me. I watch folks hauling all sorts of sun-avoidance gear to a perfectly sunny spot, where they slather on sunscreen, dig through the ice chest for a cold Diet Coke, and belly-flop on a tacky beach towel, open their beach read in the bright sunshine, and after a sweaty while scooch under the umbrella for a nap. Brightly colored chick-lit, wispy flowery romantic pastels, the occasional red-daubed thriller, all are well represented in the cover art of these about-to-be greasy throwaway tomes. Most of them will be consumed while beached and, assuming they don’t fall victim to the tide, end up in the Little Free Libraries that dot the beach entrances.

Why, I’ve always wondered, don’t these UV absorbers read something more like what they’re drinking? A little brain chill to go with the brain freeze? Permaybehaps a list will help! These are five great choices for the avoidance of this sweltering summer’s record high temperatures, whether tree book or ebook. I myownself recommend tree books for the beach as Kindles and Kobos and Nooks don’t like sand, but I’ve seen many an ereader both come and go seemingly unharmed (mostly those sealed in freezer bags). I hope these suggestions will spark a few other ideas for icy escapes. Leave them in the comments, please, I’m shvitzing over here.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a charming tale of the power of longing to create material results in the world. Like any good fairy tale, the story starts with the pain and regret of a deed this case the conception and birth of a child...that is causing the characters to drift apart. Their moment of abandon in the first snowstorm of an Alaskan fall leads them to create a snow-child, all unknowingly imbuing the snow with their longing for parenthood and fulfillment.

Be careful what you wish for. There is no such thing as an unmitigated blessing, and there is no certainty in asking the Powers That Be for a boon. It takes a costly lesson (or two or two hundred thousand) to teach us fool mortals this. By the end of The Snow Child, the lessons learned are chilling. Perfect for a day at the beach, or two, or three. At nigh on 400 pages, it’s not a mere afternoon’s pleasure, but a pleasure it is. You’ll never think “it’s snowing” in quite the same blithe way again. $14.99 or less trade paperback edition, ideal for sandy wet beaches.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie is a classic-era mystery by one of the world’s most praised and revered mystery writers. First published in 1931, it was a stand-alone tale (no Poirot and his little grey cells! No Marple and her knitting!) of crimes thought buried rising up from their unmarked graves to feed, zombie-like, on the perpetrators in the present day. Sadly, the whole world they inhabit gets to suffer along with the perpetrators; after all, crime doesn’t pay so much as it pays back. The setting of a snowbound country house with bored wealthy guests is chilly enough. When the pieces of the criminal puzzle start coming apart (or together, depending on your perspective), the emotional chills go from the fridge to the freezer.
What an awful place to live in England is...If it isn't snowing or raining or blowing it's misty. And if the sun does shine it's so cold that you can't feel your fingers or toes.
By the time you’ve finished this modest (288 pages) paperback, you’re unlikely to feel your fingers for a few hours. Though in this case it will be from gripping the darn thing so tight in sheer desperation to see why anyone would kill the victim, shifting to a desperate need to know what took someone so long to kill the bastard. $12.99 or less for the beach-friendly trade paperback edition.

The Day After Tomorrow by Whitley Strieber should ring the movie mavens’ dinner bell, seeing as it was made from this early example of cli-fic (climate-change fiction) into a Dennis Quaid vehicle back in the Aughties. A noisy climatologist gets to shout “I toldja so!” as New York City slips from sweltering to snowbound as Mother Earth finally flicks humanity aside like a dog does her fleas. Considering how much faster we now know the ice sheets are melting than was commonly thought in the Aughties, it’s another case of chilly-meets-chilling when you’re baking on the beach towel, dripping Hawaiian Tropic onto the 272 pages of your used paperback, contemplating just how much more likely this scenario seems than it did in 2004. For used it must be, as the book is out of print. That’s good news for the cheapskates among us (me!), since there’s no reason to pay more than $4 for it...and that’s only if you’re too busy/lazy to go shop the used book store and simply order one from Amazon. There are scads.

Ice Hunt by James Rollins is another of the cli-fic thrillers that started to trickle onto bookstore shelves in the Aughties. Rollins might not capture subtleties of human nature or nuances of atmosphere like Henry James or Marcel Proust, but there is not one soul I’ve ever seen peering intently through their sunglasses at Within A Budding Grove or Washington Square. Rollins is a beach-read writer, and does a damn fine job of work in this tale of Arctic derring-do. Ice Station Grendel holds horrifying, grim secrets that were left behind (more like fled from!) by the Soviet creators of the super-secret base, which are detected by stalwart Yankees from Alaska researching how to keep the world from drowning in ice-melt. Will the Noble Americans save the world from the lingering threats of evil old (and very, very cold) Russia? Take the 656-page, $9.99 or less mass-market paperback tour! It’s guaranteed to chill your core.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg isn’t cli-fic, but is very cold nonetheless. Smilla is a native Greenlander living in Denmark, where her father was from. Her life in her mother’s world has taught Smilla a thing or two about snow and the stories it tells, as well as about the European world’s insular refusal to see anyone not like them as valuable, real people. (Not like that’s timely or anything...and the book’s 25 years old.) Smilla involves herself in solving the murder of a young Greenlander living in Denmark, since no one there seems all that interested in doing it for her. Her determination not to let this expendable little life go unaccounted for raises many hackles, pokes many sleeping dogs, and never so much as sniffs above-freezing air. An ideal and deeply engrossing leisure read. Even if it’s a re-read for you, a second trip through the complexities of Smilla’s colonial Danish milieu won’t come amiss. Many details snap into focus on a second read on these 480 pages. At $16 or less, the trade paperback is a wee smidge pricey for exposure to sand and suntan lotion, but there was a mass-market paperback that left behind a good million or so copies to be had for pennies. As always, the less energetic shoppers can contact Amazon and spend $4 for a decent copy that won’t be painful to watch float away in the foam, should that nap coincide with an incoming tide.

There. A few ideas to be getting on with for this sweltering weekend. It's already almost 100° heat index here at the beach! Ecccchhhh. Excuse me, I'm booked on a flight to Ushuaia to meet the Antarctica-bound ship. Be back after Mother Nature's hot flashes subside.