Monday, September 30, 2019

THE LICE, fiftieth anniversary edition of Merwin's major 1960s collection, via Copper Canyon Press

The Lice: Poems
W.S. Merwin

Copper Canyon Press
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: This Fiftieth Anniversary edition celebrates one of the most ground-breaking books in American poetry. When first published in 1967, W.S. Merwin’s The Lice was ground-breaking. Its visionary urgency directly engaged the nexus of aesthetics and morality, exerting an immediate and lasting effect on the writing and reading of poetry. Like all great art, this monumental work continues to inspire.

As Merwin discussed in an interview, “The Lice was written at a time when I really felt there was no point in writing. I got to the point where I thought the future was so bleak that there was no point in writing anything at all. And so the poems kind of pushed their way upon me. I would be out growing vegetables and walking around the countryside when all of a sudden I’d find myself writing a poem, and I’d write it.”

My Review: Merwin died in March 2019. I first encountered his poetry in 2010, after seeing him in a documentary about the life of the Buddha. His even-tempered, self-deprecating way of puncturing the Deadly Seriousness of the other talking heads in the film was memorable; his poetic voice had to be as lovely, right?

Um. Rain in the Trees didn't wow me. It's from the 1980s sometime, and permaybehaps forty years of poeting had worn him down. It wasn't for me, as I am informed the polite formulation of "what the actual FUCK *is* this crapola anyway?!?" is phrased.

He died; I ran across that fact on Wikipedia; connected him with the nice old buffer in the Buddha thing and ILL'd this 1967 collection of Vietnam War-era stuff. It's a darn good thing I did. THIS poetry I like! Here is where the fortysomething poet whose professional life was contemporaneous with Ted Hughes, Robert Bly, Sylvia Plath, and Denise Levertov (all friends of his) and the Beats (not friends of his), those slashers-and-burners of whatever rules there were at that point, were working.

Merwin wasn't going to be a Beat, they were too raucous for him. He got Pulitzers (twice!) for poetry, he was the United States Poet Laureate, he translated Neruda, he translated Euripides, he translated Gawain and the Green Knight (Amazon link; no monetization) in 2002; he was a busy professional poet. His legacy will last a while longer, though I doubt he'll be as enduringly popular as Seamus Heaney or Neruda...not enough there, there...and he will find his way into anthologies for a while after that.

But this collection, second of Merwin's that I've read, is worthy of your eyeblinks. It says something deeply meaningful in a personal yet relatable way. Merwin wasn't a groundbreaking iconoclast, and some of his early stuff I've run across was so pretentious and self-important that I am amazed the same man wrote it as wrote these poems. His later stuff was, well, in a word it was tired. Overworked the vein, it collapsed. But this? Prime-of-life, peak-of-powers poetical punditry. Every poems means something, both on its surface and on its interior. Read a poem one way, it's pretty; read it another, it's shattering.

Let me get out of the way so you can see if you agree:

My shoes are almost dead
And as I wait at the doors of ice
I hear the cry go up for him Caesar Caesar

But when I look out the window I see only the flatlands
And the slow vanishing of the windmills
The centuries draining the deep fields

Yet this is still my country
The thug on duty says What would you change
He looks at his watch and he lifts
Emptiness out of the vases
And holds it up to examine

So it is evening
With the rain starting to fall forever

One by one he calls night out of the teeth
And at last I take up
My duty

Wheeling the president past banks of flowers
Past the feet of empty stairs
Hoping he's dead


The cold slope is standing in darkness
But the south of the trees is dry to the touch

The heavy limbs climb into the moonlight bearing feathers
I came to watch these
White plants older at night
The oldest
Come first to the ruins

And I hear magpies kept awake by the moon
The water flows through its
Own fingers without end

Tonight once more
I find a single prayer and it is not for men

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again
The thing that makes this book so lovely is that it includes a dozen or so facsimiles of Merwin's hand-written or typed manuscript pages, some on glossy photo paper and two printed inside the paper cover, that really bring the reader into Merwin's emotional orbit. Seeing the pages that he composed his thoughts on makes the typeset version of the poem (one is "Caesar," which I inserted above) that much more meaningful. His presence, albeit in mechanically reproduced form, is *there* and that causes no small amount of spiritual-connection thrums through my non-poetical soul.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

DEEP ROOTS, the Innsmouth Legacy's second novel, so eagerly anticipated!!

(The Innsmouth Legacy #2) Publishing
$26.99 hardcover, $9.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Aphra Marsh, descendant of the People of the Water, has survived Deep One internment camps and made a grudging peace with the government that destroyed her home and exterminated her people on land. "Deep Roots" continues Aphra’s journey to rebuild her life and family on land, as she tracks down long-lost relatives. She must repopulate Innsmouth or risk seeing it torn down by greedy developers, but as she searches she discovers that people have been going missing. She will have to unravel the mystery, or risk seeing her way of life slip away.

My Review: Second novel in what I devoutly hope will be an ongoing exploration of the Lovecraftian (or Cthulhu) Mythos by QULTBAG Author Emrys; this time it's the Summer Solstice, so we're six months after the events of Winter Tide. The writing is, as always, luxurious and replete with the most pleasurably unexpected moments of character definition:
Neko’s familiar dreams lay open above me. Twists of color, scattered images: buildings, imagined cities, the people on the subway. She twitched among incomplete ideas. They spilled over the edges of everyday reality, coloring directions that she wasn’t able to travel. (Aphra is speaking of her Nisei internee "sister" from the camps.)
He separated his hands, unraveling finger from finger. (Ron Spector, gay FBI agent, is described here. He is a man torn and mended one too many times.)
A pale man, gangling in a tweed jacket, walked hunched as if against blistering wind, arms tight across his chest. He caught sight of an awning marked in Chinese characters and shuddered, hurrying on. (Lovecraft cameo! And bloody well perfect!)
In every case, Author Emrys makes this kind of observation completely without fuss or fanfare. These are the characters, the behaviors and thoughts are theirs; no need to make a song and dance about it, this is what that person would do/say/feel. I trust Author Emrys implicitly to tell me what I need to know when it is most helpful for me to know it. This is a characteristic of all of her writing that I've read. It's why I will buy and read more of her stories as and when they come out.

The Mythos itself is replete with amazing, juicy weirdnesses like the Mi-Go, or as the Deep Ones call them "meigo," betentacled crustaceany Outer Ones whose corporeal presence in out tediously limited and limiting 4D spacetime isn't remotely complete; entire segments of the creatures exist in dimensions we cannot access with our sensory equipment. Here's one image of the beings, slightly off from what Author Emrys's evocation of them summons in my brain but better than trying to word-paint them for you (or spoil the book's amazing evocation!) so you can get some traction on where this story *is*:

The Outer Ones are repugnant to Aphra, our main character; they aren't right, the way she knows that she herself isn't right to "People of the Air" like thee and me. But they are practically speaking immortal, unlimited by mere 4D spacetime's demands, and so vastly more intelligent than merely mortal Humanity; they have developed a (strange) moral code they adhere to, they are very much creatures of deep philosophical thought:
Doesn’t Nyarlathotep tell even you to ask the most dangerous questions, and travel as far as you need, wherever you need, to find the answers?
(Nyarlathobuddha, sounds like to me.)
To accept, without trying to change, the errors of the universe. Worse, though, to let our haven enforce the illusion that the universe can always be altered. Architecture as debate. Very much my thrice-mate’s style. (Spoken by one of the Outer Ones allied with Aphra about the leader of the Outer Ones's opposition.)
We seek the civilizations capable of living with difference, who can look on the vast and variable universes without fear, who can recognize wisdom wherever it’s found.
This, then, is the heart of the Outer Ones's need in our dimension: They are learning about us for their own purposes, not quite like the Yith, those truly immortal and utterly amoral scholars and recorders in the Archive of the entire body of knowledge that all beings in all dimensions have accumulated:
They boast of all they’ve learned, but write nothing down and call their work finished when all they’ve done is talk. They see everything and learn nothing; they are an embarrassment to Nyarlathotep.
The Mi-Go need something. This is value, for them, created value that pleases Nyarlathotep. The Yith? As we learned last book, and as several of Aphra's confluence (her metaphor for created family, logical as opposed to biological family) continue to wrestle with the aftermath of in this story, they aren't interested in what the knowledge they are collecting is, they are only determined to collect it, however and wherever they can, consequences be hanged. Which is why Winter Tide took place in Arkham and at Miskatonic University; and now that the Outer Ones are the opponents, where better to acquire truly useful knowledge than New York City?

Author Emrys agrees with me. She celebrates the very things that make this my home:
New York is full of immigrants and the United States is used to taking them in—we may be able to help you.
The city’s rhythm was constant when I paid it mind, but fickle in its effects. It could buoy me with excess energy, then wear me out a moment later with the pace of its million heartbeats.
Outside, the breeze brought relief: still rich with sweat and trash, but topped with the remnant of sugared pastry and the homesick scent of hot dogs.
New York, for all its height and humanity, was a breath from the ocean, and would pass in a geological instant.
Gigantically and brobdingnagianly replete with differences and conflicts and all the other things that vastly increase a culture's store of knowledge and wisdom, New York is the perfect place for the Outer Ones to set up shop! Add in the borning Cold War, the incredible postwar economic boom, and the seaport...well! I ask you! What better stewpot, pressure cooker, percolator of a place to locate a spy ring! Which is what the Outer Ones are...their internal factions can't agree whether to continue to passively watch Humanity boil itself or, out of deep savior complex fantasy needs, to intervene and "help"/force us to behave:
We needed Nnnnnn-gt-vvv’s passivist faction to reassert their influence and to hold sway over what their species did on Earth.
But Aphra and Company need to adjust their prickly, offended sensibilities to the Outer Ones's very real intent to help fellow creatures on a path to self-destruct:
You think we don’t understand family, but we do. We recognize many kinds of family, many kinds of connections that matter. We understand duties beyond obedience, and loyalty that can transcend species. We’re not the demons you think, tempting children away from the safe shadow of the gravestone. We serve a greater purpose too.
But help ain't help when it ain't asked for, is it. And that is where the whole rushing, roaring climax of the story leads us: What help are we willing to ask for? And what price offering to help a species that, in the main, wants to vomit when your pandimensional person enters its members's frames of reference?

Good times.

The attentive will recall that I gave Winter Tide four and a half stars two years ago. Then the attentive will cast their eyes upon my less-than-four-stars rating for this book. Then consider the warbles of pleasure in this story and its writing, its very universe, that have occupied me for over a thousand words. "What gives, Papaw?" the attentive will ask.

Freddy and Frances, excess baggage in general; S'vlk, Obed Marsh, and Shelean; not one of these characters has a hope in hell of making a lasting impression on the reader. They are competing for attention with characters the reader has already invested in and much more heavily than possible with them. I have read this book twice, a year apart. That was deliberate and calculated. I wanted to be absolutely sure I felt that I was fair and reasonable in my annoyance and subsequent chastisement of almost a whole star's docking. (I mean, it's not like Author Emrys will be hurt and dismayed about my review or like there'll be any kind of backlash; but it's an article of faith with me that I should behave online the way I would in person and I'm always quick to praise and deliberate in disappointment.)

The extra characters add little, detract much, and cost a great deal of forward momentum. The fact is that I'm always shifting gears, like driving a five-speed sports car up Lombard Street in San Francisco during rush hour. The issue grows and becomes very distracting by halfway through the book. I want the urgency of Winter Tide to continue, and with the immense broadening of this story, it does not.

I did not want to offer false praise, and I haven't; I did not want to stint on what I feel is merited celebration of Author Emrys's reimagined Mythos, and I do not think that I have; but, in the end and after a year's thought and consideration, I can't help but share Aphra's prayer for Cthulhu's help in her desperately overworked mind's ease:
Ïa, Cthulhu, help me sleep in the shadow of others’ dreams. Teach me patience in the shadow of frustrated desire. Teach me stillness in the shadow of ever-changing threats.

THEY CALLED US ENEMY, a graphic memoir superior to almost every text-only memoir I've ever read

GEORGE TAKEI; illus. Harmony Becker

Top Shelf Comix
$19.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei's childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon -- and America itself -- in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.

George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father's -- and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten "relocation centers," hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei's firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother's hard choices, his father's faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

What is American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.


My Review
: A graphic memoir? Me? And give it five stars?!? Never. Will not happen.

Yet here we are:

The horror of interning United States citizens based solely on the color of their skins!

Oh wait...we do that now..."interning" being synonymous with "incarcerating"...well, anyway, it's appalling and abominable. The Takei family is rousted out of their Los Angeles home by Executive Order 9066. They're shipped as far away from the Pacific Ocean as they can get: The Great State of Arkansas! *shudder* A swampy bit, as well...the Takeis weren't familiar with the climate, hot and humid summers with cold and snowy winters; the worst of all possible worlds for Mediterranean-climate natives!

George, brother Henry, and sister Nancy are lucky, however, as their father is a take-charge kind of a guy with a glad-handing streak as well as organizational capabilities, patience in abundance, and a generous heart. Mama Takei is sure her family will be okay despite everything because she is going to by-god *make* things okay. Her efforts to clothe and entertain her family, her strenuous work ethic keeping the children clean and as healthy as she can, mean that they're better off than the Takeis help them. Because of course...those with nothing find a way to share with those who have even less.

There were good times as well as bad. Takei senior, as a helpful and useful inmate, got the family occasional privileges, like the use of a Jeep for a day out:

Not everyone in Arkansas thought the Japanese belonged in the camps. Not everyone in the US agreed with this vile act, this blot on the national escutcheon.

But tell that to the men who were young and patriotic enough to want to serve their country in the global war against fascism.

Their mistreatment at the hands of the democratic institutions designed to defend a citizen's life, liberty, and ability to pursue an existence that will make them happy radicalized them, leading to protests and horrors of oppression still worse than internment at Federal penitentiaries.

The tale ends, as we all know, when the war is over...but the country's wounds aren't healed so much as papered over. Now the returning African Americans, veterans and war workers, would need to gain civil rights...and there were injustices against the Japanese Americans unaddressed...and so on and so forth, to this good day, with others now in the victim role. Takei specifically draws parallels with the Muslim refugee crisis and the Hispanic emigration atrocities. He lived it. His voice carries authority: What we-the-people are allowing, even (I am nauseated to say) enjoying, to occur to Hispanic families is unconscionable, inexcusable, and proof that the lessons of history are lost on far too many of us.

Takei's journey took him into our living rooms on Star Trek: The Original Series, and its many sequels. He's spent his many years since riding that amazing introduction back into our lives advocating for positive social changes and fairer, more equal access to the USA's immense and unprecedented benefits for all. His life has been very well-lived and spent generously working to bring the American Dream into reality, only for *all* Americans.

Be like George, as the meme says.

(Only I like this one better.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

FRIDAY BLACK by a brave new voice in speculative fiction, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah


Mariner Books
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In the stories of Adjei-Brenyah’s debut, an amusement park lets players enter augmented reality to hunt terrorists or shoot intruders played by minority actors, a school shooting results in both the victim and gunman stuck in a shared purgatory, and an author sells his soul to a many-tongued god.

Adjei-Brenyah's writing will grab you, haunt you, enrage, and invigorate you. By placing ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, Adjei-Brenyah reveals the violence, injustice, and painful absurdities that black men and women contend with every day. These stories tackle urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest and explore the many ways we fight for humanity in an unforgiving world.


My Review
: A young African American man writes speculative fiction about the alt-present/near-term future from the point of view of the deeply disadvantaged, the ones whose American Dream is a nightmare. An editor sees it, is probably appalled but is certainly moved, and for a minor miracle of a wonder, buys this amazingly assured debut collection of stories by first-generation American Author Adjei-Brenyah. Wherever he saw an odd, he beat it, did the young author. Syracuse University MFA? Now, with this man's debut, that means something to me, where before I'd never have so much as fluttered an eyelid as the words crossed my field of vision.

And speaking of vision, this cover is something special, isn't it? (He's no slouch in the handsome derby either!)

A statement of the powerful reading contained within. This detail image is so pretty I can't resist sharing it:

Author Adjei-Brenyah says, "I do bad at school because sometimes I think when I should be learning." (p29) I nod. I totally understand this kid who's speaking. As the school day unfolds over the next four pages, the Long Big War and HowItWas class, and not only am I clear on how we got here, I'm pretty darn sure that somehow he's come back from the future to warn us what's coming. And man is he pissed off. You won't blame him when you read the collection. Note absence of conditional in previous sentence. Not if, when. These are stories you need.

As is my habit, I'll offer some impressions of each story a la my quondam pal Bryce in his inimitable Method. (He did it better than I do, I'm only aping the form.)

The Finkelstein 5 made me want to vomit. I had to google it to be sure it wasn't reportage. Emmanuel's chant of "Fela St. John, Fela St. John" will haunt my nightmares. How we can look at ourselves as we shave and titivate in our sparkly mirrors is beyond my emotional comprehension. There is a slow-motion genocide against African Americans and this story shouts, "they released the brakes! and the hounds!" at the top of its paper lungs. 4 stars

Things My Mother Said is, in 500 or so words, a complete and compelling worldbuilding sketch. This man has the chops. 3 stars

The Era is an updated Brave New World/This Perfect Day tale about industrial mood management; its effects on high schoolers, families, hierarchies; it packs one helluva wallop as deeply undesirable "shoelookers" claim another "dumb/slow" clear-born, someone whose parents didn't use OptiLife™. Chilled me more than a martini in a shaker. Haunting for its deep anger. No one should ever think for a second that the Millennials' kids are safe.
She steps to me. I stretch my neck out for her and close my eyes. She puts one hand on one side of my neck. Her hand is warm plus strong. She stabs the injector needle in. My head feels the way an orange tastes. I open my eyes and look at her. She waits. I look at her more. She frowns, then gives me another shot. And then I feel the Good.
Soma, anyone? Extra treatments? Yes, Author Ira Levin, I see your vision refuses to die as it steadily approaches. 5 stars

Lark Street is one fucked-up fever dream of guilt, loneliness, bad decisions, the crushing weight of morality grinding a boy into his mortality's disease vector.
An impossible hand punched my earlobe. An unborn fetus, aborted the day before, was standing at my bedside. His name was Jackie Gunner.
"So, I guess you didn't have the balls?" Jackie Gunner said. His voice was a stern squeak. My eyelids rolled open. He was a tiny silhouette on the end of my pillow. Smaller than a field mouse.
"Well, say something, Dad." He said Dad the way some people say cunt. "Do you even feel bad?"
"Yeah," I said. "I feel real bad."
"I feel real bad," Jackie Gunner repeated. "Is real bad a hole big enough to fit our lives in?"
"Our?" I said.
"It's a metaphor, Daddy," said a new voice, this one shy, charming even. A second tiny fetus climbed up my comforter onto my bed. Her name, I knew, was Jamie Lou.
There is no hiding from consequences in Author Adjei-Brenyah's world. 4.5 stars for some frankly unworthy-of-him gender stereotyping.

The Hospital Where brings us on a w-verb-filled journey through a young writer's bargaining with the Twelve-Tongued God (I love this concept!), who promises him Everything in return for his abject servitude to Story. It's gloriously weird; it contains multitudes (of winks); it resonates with the agonized scream of an abandoned boy demanding his daddy not leave. What, indeed, have you done.
Soon I was staring at a small entryway sign that read RADIOLOGY I. In the hall there was an extremely old man in a wheelchair. He groaned steadily. His white skin looked stretched and spotty. It seemed someone had forgotten him or maybe was using him to prop open the door. There were so many tubes going in and coming out of him that I couldn't imagine where they began or ended. I walked past quickly. Farther down the same hall, a black guy in a wheelchair stared in my direction with eyes so empty I thought they might suck something out of me.
Shivery horripilatingly pure prose telling of a son's psychotic break...or possibly his father succumbs by degrees to cancer in an uncaring, unfeeling system with classist assumptions informing its death-care. 5 stars

Zimmer Land felt so real to me that, again, I had to google it to be sure it wasn't. It's what I feel about the oddly innocuous-sounding "first-person shooter" games that scare me, disgusting visceral violence as the perp sees it, made more revoltingly real. Living, breathing Black men get shot (but not harmed...physically) for a living. In a world where George Zimmer is free but Trayvon Martin is dead, it's almost pornographic. No, it isn't. Scratch the "almost."

The first day of Zay's new job in Zimmer Land's Creative department, a job his ex landed for him thus dragging him up from a mere black body in a safe place for a white "patron" to enact his violent racist fantasies on, is moved an hour earlier; his boss "forgot" to tell him, one senses because his boss was nudged that way by the company founder...a Zardoz-like holographic head whose body is in Cabo schmoozing the banksters for R&D money...since the founder is dating Zay's ex. Corporate politics, racism, end-stage capitalism (the park is about to allow minors in to experience the thrill of murdering a black man). What a piece of work is Man, man. 5 stars

Friday Black reminds me of why I don't do shopping during the xmas rush. I'm not all the way sure it's fiction. The insane stuff-lust that I've seen on news broadcasts as hordes violently rush displays of useless brummagem objects in a desperate race to Buy to Have to Possess the Latest...! Deaths are still rare on Black Friday...for now.... 3 stars

The Lion & The Spider interweaves the Trickster Anansi outwitting the boastful Lion with a son's fear, rage, betrayal as he learns his father is a human being without losing his need to be a son. A well-made story, if not precisely to my taste. 3.5 stars

Light Spitter takes us inside the void created when the world shovels its shit into a kid who has no way to say "no, NO, it hurts, NO" so the weight piles in-on-up until a gun answers the taunts. Horrible, horrible cruelty answered by the sneer of ballistic ammunition. Added bonus: Author uses homophobic slur! Lovely. 4 stars

How to Sell A Jacket As Told by IceKing is the continuation of "Friday Black" told by the same narrator a few years down the line. IceKing's still at the top of his game pushing crap onto people who probably don't need it, but time's ticktickticking. No one wants to be trapped in retail forever. It's not my favorite setting or PoV plus it's got a w-bomb in it, that. 3 stars

In Retail is the other side of the rivalry from IceKing...not gonna lie, even six pages of it was no fun, I don't think this is the place Author Adjei-Brenyah needs to be setting his focus. Maybe it's all out of his system now? I for one sure hope so. 3 stars because it's not like it's poorly written, I just don't like it

Through the Flash is the hell of Eternity, the unceasing wretched quotidian repetition of one then another then another cycle of waking, eating, without end. A future bleaker than any dystopia you've ever read, packed into 27 pages full of the bile of human cruelty, the scalding freeze of knowledge without wisdom, the immutability of lives meant to be impermanent frozen into a rictus of deathlife.

So now we come to the hardest thing for Humanity to bear: Boredom. Not hunger, not violence, not anger. Boredom is the thing that will kill a human being from the inside out. A human will resort to violence and will court anger to escape from the misery, the unending loss, lack, void that is Boredom:
It's very hard at first for some people. But then if you figure that you are infinite, you are supreme and therefore the master of all things, and it's silly to be sad about things like how much your hip is always going to hurt or how you're so old that the flu means a life in bed or how gone forever your mother is.
The 1993 film Groundhog Day always seemed to me to be a singularly vicious and cruel torture-porn exercise. But hey, I never thought Don Rickles was funny even as a kid. If I laugh at someone's misfortunes or disabilities, it's because I hate 'em personally. In general it's just not fun or funny to watch someone suffer, especially of boredom.

How did the world come to be so small? How does Ama, our narrator, come to be the sole possessor of life and death in her eternally renewed Inferno? Ama tells us the Water Wars wrought some awful changes on the world we thoughtlessly squandered:
I don't know much about other grids in our state block, because way before the Flash came, the soldier-police—the state-sponsored war-coordination authorities—took away everyone's cars. Their slogan—"For us to serve and protect, you must conserve and respect"—is emblazoned on posters in the school, on the windows of some people's homes. ... Back before the Flash ever came, a lot of people actually loved the SPs. They thought they were keeping us safe. People believe lies, believe anything when they are afraid. That's another thing. Aren't we lucky that before the Flash all the soldier-police were deployed elsewhere?
So the Flash comes, the anomalous great horror of eternal and changeless repetition, and there is absolutely no one to stop the predators from consuming their fill of the prey's agonies.

Author Adjei-Brenyah understands cruelty and despair and the viciousness of the indifferent physics of the Universe far too well for someone who hasn't hit middle age. I'm sad for him. I'm grateful he chose to make his horror into art. I want to read more of his unnervingly precise images and his unpretentious prose before I shuffle off to, well, whatever it is that's next.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

ALICE PAYNE RIDES, second time-travel novella with badass mixed-race lesbian highway"man" Alice Payne

$3.99 eBook, $14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five


The Publisher Says: After abducting Arthur of Brittany from his own time in 1203, thereby creating the mystery that partly prompted the visit in the first place, Alice and her team discover that they have inadvertently brought the smallpox virus back to 1780 with them.

Searching for a future vaccine, Prudence finds that the various factions in the future time war intend to use the crisis to their own advantage.

Can the team prevent an international pandemic across time, and put history back on its tracks? At least until the next battle in the time war…


My Review: Back we go to the 22nd century, the Time Wars, and Prudence Zuniga's new base of operations with 18th-century pals Alice Payne, the lover of Jane, as well as the Holy Ghost...a mixed-race highway"man", and all-around badass; Fleance Hall, where she makes her home with Jane and her American Revolution veteran father and is dear friends with Constable Wray Aubry, her father's compadre during their time fighting the rebels in South Carolina.

Of course things on the Time War front are not easy: King Arthur of England is kidnapped from Brittany before John can kill him to become the Bad King John of the history you and I know. Who does it? Take a guess...I'll wait...and, once ensconced in Fleance Hall, Arthur's not going back to *become* King because he likes the 18th century too much. Check? Checkmate? Or just another day at the office for the Time War soldiery? Actually this bit is radically underdeveloped for my taste. We don't see much, and certainly nothing substantive, of young Arthur Duke of Brittany. He's never been King in *my* memory, and I'd've liked to see some hard graft in developing some kind of purpose for him. Never really happened, sad to say. The focus in a novella needs must be tight, and he's outside the cone.

Prudence, aware of the timeline's malleability to focus change, careful to keep her memories in a book outside the time stream. She realizes that General Almo has butterflied away her older sister Grace...of whom she carries no memories or attachments...and sets herself to Get Him Back while retrieving the sister she knows she loved. Even if she can't feel it anymore, the knowledge that someone used their power over the time streams to deliberately deprive her of her family makes her so boiling mad that her love for Grace might as well still be within her.

And Alice? Alice loses her father in 1789, but takes Jane back to 1780 to find out why he returned from the American War so changed. Bad move...the ripples in the time streams from their actions taken there are what put General Almo in mind of the plot to hurt Prudence...and now he has a new, truly terrifying, terrible weapon that bids fair to deprive Prudence of her wonderfully weird made family.

Here, at last, we confront the primary problem that plagues time travel fiction: If you're fighting a Time War, you can never truly win. The enemy can always jump before your latest victory and prevent it. Bummer, right?

Prudence is not a quitter. She's a brilliant, out-of-the-box thinker. And she's HIGHLY motivated to come up with an effective solution to that problem in order to use it on General Almo.

Reader, she succeeds. One of the cleverest endings for a time-travel tale I've read! The title aside, most of this book centers on Prudence, so let me share some of Author Heartfield's more pithy, elegant "tells" on Prudence's delightful character:
Prudence will seldom be drawn on the subject of the future. She protests that “the future” does not exist, that there are many possible futures, and that the future whence she came very likely no longer exists.
Prudence has long been a time traveller by profession; she is used to combing vocabulary and references out of her speech.
My mentor at the Academy used to say that time travel is like life: there are no rules, only consequences.
To cast Prudence in proper relief, there's something rotten about General Almo that is best shown, not told:
Your sister, like any other human or plastic fork or oak leaf on this planet, was the result of a million events that could have gone any other way. The individual has no inherent existence. A human life is ephemeral. A conjunction of cause and consequence. Each of us is just . . . information. And one piece of information is not any more valuable than any other. If time travel has taught me anything, it’s that individuals don’t matter.
But perhaps the best summation of the sheer joy of being alive and well in this topsy-turvy time-travel-enhanced Universe is Alice's rumination on what the point of it all truly is:
Does any of it matter? All things are true, might be true, have never been true. Knowing that makes the warmth of {her horse}’s neck, the flare of her nostrils, no less real. This life is all there is, all there ever is.
Yes indeed.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

LIE WITH ME, a récit about the formative powers of love translated by Molly Ringwald

translated by Molly Ringwald
$25.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

2023 UPDATE A French-language film of the novel got a decent review in The Guardian. Maybe coming to a North American arthouse near you?

The Publisher Says: The award-winning, bestselling French novel by Philippe Besson about an affair between two teenage boys in 1984 France, translated with subtle beauty and haunting lyricism by the iconic and internationally acclaimed actress/writer Molly Ringwald.

We drive at high speed along back roads, through woods, vineyards, and oat fields. The bike smells like gasoline and makes a lot of noise, and sometimes I’m frightened when the wheels slip on the gravel on the dirt road, but the only thing that matters is that I’m holding on to him, that I’m holding on to him outside.

Just outside a hotel in Bordeaux, Philippe chances upon a young man who bears a striking resemblance to his first love. What follows is a look back at the relationship he’s never forgotten, a hidden affair with a gorgeous boy named Thomas during their last year of high school. Without ever acknowledging they know each other in the halls, they steal time to meet in secret, carrying on a passionate, world-altering affair.

Dazzlingly rendered in English by Ringwald in her first-ever translation, Besson’s powerfully moving coming-of-age story captures the eroticism and tenderness of first love—and the heartbreaking passage of time.

My Review: I've spoken in previous reviews about the power of the (mostly) French art form, the récit, an ill-defined, "you'll know it when you see it" form of literary tale-telling. And all those ambiguous layers of the latter phrase, from straightforward "telling a story" to "tattling on someone" to "inventing a lie" are each present in the récit itself. The qualities I can suss out as being sine qua non for a work to be a récit are length—brevity is the soul of wit, lingerie, and récits—and interiority. Nothing describable as a récit can take place in "real time" or include voices not mediated by the narrator and/or author through a single tightly focused lens. If you've read Camus's The Fall, you've read a peak-experience récit. If you didn't like reading it, I venture to suggest that you not pay a lot of attention to the genre.

Brevity this book has: In 148pp, Besson tells the oldest gay love story there is: Boy meets boy; boy loves boy, is loved by boy; neither one says the right "wrong" thing to his belovèd to make the "forbidden" connection happen; and they go their separate, unequal, always intertwined ways. Interiority it simply is: All the words we read are Philippe's or Philippe's reports of conversations recently or distantly past. Philippe-the-narrator tells us several times that, as a novelist, he makes stuff up; he implies that he's done that habitually; so we're left to our own devices to decide about his honesty, his accuracy, and his intentions in telling us this tale.

I'm going to let you read Philippe-the-author and Philippe-the-narrator's words unmediated by my own commentary on them. In my own way, I want to honor the form of the récit as a review. The book is beautiful for many reasons. Translator Ringwald has made a beautiful thing in this book. I haven't read the French text, but I know enough from previous Besson encounters to believe this is a deft and charming rendering of his original. As to Besson's tale told...well..."is it autobiographical" is the first line of defense against immersion into the unreliability of Memory that this, a beautiful and moving and elegiac récit, invites its readers to experience. I recommend reading it, experiencing it, absorbing its beauties and funnies and rawnesses, without any additional removes from immediacy. Don't, then, place harsh lights on it or look for factual details in it; let it become the limpid waters of Monet's water-lily pond for your inner reader's delight and refreshment.

Chapter One (1984)
I'm not beautiful, but I get attention; that I know. Not because of my appearance, but because of my {good} grades. "He is brilliant," they whisper, "much more advanced than the others, he will go far, like his brother, this family is one to be reckoned with." We are in a place, in a moment, where nearly everyone goes nowhere; it garners me equal parts sympathy and antipathy.
Upstairs, after climbing a makeshift staircase, you would enter a room full of anything and everything. There was even a mattress. It was on this mattress where I rolled around in {his first love}'s embrace for the first time. We had not gone through puberty yet, but we were curious about each other's bodies. His was the first male sex I held in my hand, other than my own. My first kiss was the one he gave me. My first embrace, skin against skin, was with him. ... Today I'm struck by our creativity because at the time, there was no internet, not even videocassettes or cable TV. We had never seen any porn, and yet we still knew how to do it. There are things one knows how to do even as a child. By puberty, we would be even more imaginative. That would come fast
A million questions flash through my mind: How did it begin for him? How and at what age did it reveal itself? How is it that no one can see it on him? Yes, how can it be so undetectable? And then: Is it about suffering? Only suffering? And again: Will I be the first? Or were there others before me? Others who were also secret? And: What does he imagine exactly? I don't ask any of these questions, of course. I follow his lead, accepting the rules of the game.

He says: I know a place.
I discover that absence has a consistency, like the dark water of a river, like oil, some kind of sticky dirty liquid that you can struggle and perhaps drown in. It has a thickness like night, an indefinite space with no landmarks, nothing to bang against, where you search for a light, some small glimmer, something to hang on to and guide you. But absence is, first and foremost, silence. A vast, enveloping silence that weighs you down and puts you in a state where any unforeseeable, unidentifiable sound can make you jump.
He says that for me things are simple, that everything will be fine, that I will get out of it, it's already written, that there's nothing to worry about, the world will greet me with open arms. Whereas for him there's a barrier, an impenetrable wall, forbidding him to deviate from what has been predetermined.

Whenever he mentions this question of the forbidden I will try in vain to show him that he's wrong.
A few weeks later he'll take me for a ride. He'll pick me up at the edge of town, with a helmet this time. I don't know if it's as a precaution, to respect the law, or so that we won't be recognized, but I get on the back of the bike and hold on to him. We drive at high speed along back roads, through woods, vineyards, and oat fields. The bike smells like gasoline and makes a lot of noise, and sometimes I'm frightened when the wheels slip on the gravel on the dirt road, but the only thing that matters is that I'm holding on to him, that I'm holding on to him outside.
...there is often a staggering intimacy between us, a closeness beyond imagining, but the rest of the time our separateness is absolute. Such schizophrenia could bring even those with the strongest equilibrium to the edge of reason, and let's admit it, I didn't have much equilibrium to begin with.

There is the insanity of not being able to be seen together. An insanity that is aggravated in this case by the unprecedented situation of finding ourselves in the middle of a crowd and having to act like strangers. It seems crazy not to be able to show our happiness. Such an impoverished word. Others have this right, and they exercise it freely. Sharing their happiness makes them even more happy, makes them expand with joy. But we're left stunted, compromised, by the burden of having to always lie and censor ourselves.

This passion that can't be talked about, that has to be concealed, gives way to the terrible question: if it isn't talked about, how can one know that it really exists? One day, when it's over, when it finally comes to an end, no one will be able to attest to what took place.
...I hurry to get what I want before he changes his mind. I take the picture. In it, he's wearing jeans, a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves. He has the blade of grass between his fingers and he's smiling, a slight, complicit smile, almost tender. This smile devastated me for a long time after, whenever I happened to look at this photograph. It upsets me even now as I write these lines and contemplate the image, resting on my desk, right next to my keyboard. Because now I know. I know that {he} consented to this single picture only because he knew (had decided) that it was our last moment together. He smiled so that I could take his smile with me.

Chapter Two (2007)
I know that there are those who will object to my refusal to accept that he changed course, switched orientation, simply succumbed to a feeling that was previously unknown to him. I could be seen as upset, jealous, or even obtuse, and yet I persist in thinking that he put the same stubborn application into this as he did to his work. The same desire to forget himself, to return to the righteous path set out by his mother, the only one permissible. Does he end up believing it himself? That's the fundamental question. If the answer is yes, then moving forward in life would be possible. If the answer is no, then it is a life condemned to interminable misery.
(I correct myself because I've just been lying. Of course, it took time, a lot of time, before I admitted that everything was lost, before I decided to say goodbye forever. I kept hoping for a sign. I thought of initiating another meeting, I started letters that I never sent. Desire does not go out like a match, it extinguishes slowly as it burns into ash. In the end I gave up on all possibility of a reunion.)
...I live with a man with a man who is fifteen years younger than me and doesn't like boys but loves me. Who knows why? It's a vulnerable relationship, and I will be scared to disturb this precarious equilibrium. Calling {him}, talking to him, asking to see him again, would be anything but innocuous. I cannot say: This is only a phone call. I know it's more than that. Even if I were granted immunity, the act of calling him has the allure of betrayal (we come back to that, always we come back to it) or without going to that extreme, a gesture toward {him} would be a gesture of mistrust toward the man I live with—a decision to put distance between us, to admit to a love that is not enough.

Chapter Three (2016)
In that first moment, when he heard me say that I had seen you, he didn't move, but I swear he lost his balance. At that exact moment I was certain that he had been in love with you. That such a thing had existed—my father in love with a boy. I didn't need to ask him the question. I couldn't have found the courage anyway. Afterward, I said to myself: Maybe it was just a phase. Okay, yes, it existed, but it ended. He moved on to something else—to a life, a woman, a child...that must happen often, these things. I told myself: when he saw you on TV, it brought back the memory, but it was just nostalgia. A secret from the past...everyone has secrets; besides, it's good to have things that belong only to you. I could have stayed there. It should have stayed there. Except that two days after our conversation, my father brought us together to announce he was leaving.

Monday, September 2, 2019

LANNY, which by the time y'all see this, we'll know the Booker fate of


Graywolf Press
$24.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: There’s a village sixty miles outside London. It’s no different from many other villages in England: one pub, one church, red-brick cottages, council cottages and a few bigger houses dotted about. Voices rise up, as they might do anywhere, speaking of loving and needing and working and dying and walking the dogs.

This village belongs to the people who live in it and to the people who lived in it hundreds of years ago. It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present. But it also belongs to Dead Papa Toothwort, a figure schoolchildren used to draw green and leafy, choked by tendrils growing out of his mouth.

Dead Papa Toothwort is awake. He is listening to this twenty-first-century village, to his English symphony. He is listening, intently, for a mischievous, enchanting boy whose parents have recently made the village their home. Lanny.


My Review
: This book is on the Booker Prize longlist. That means I, to remain engaged with the literary world as much as I can be, want to read it. I should've made a moment in my headlong rush to consider the portent of finding this typographical sensibility-bashing right up front:
from p9 (set in the fashion of the spread above):
and then he hears it, clear and true, the lovely sound of his favourite.
The boy.

It would have the head of a dolphin and the wings of a peregrine, and it would be a storm-warning beast, watching the weather while we sleep.
Dead Papa Toothwart hugs himself with diseased larch arms and dribbles cuckoo spit down his chin. ... Surgical longings invade him, he wants to chop the village open and pull the child out. Extract him.
I am old enough to remember concrete poetry's last go-round in the 1960s. But good lawsy me, the concept of using text design, then typography, to force the reader to step outside the linearity of the ordinary reading experience has been around for quite some time (Aldus Manutius, anyone? Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii jangling a distant bell?), even predating by over one thousand five hundred years the invention of moveable type.

So yes, Dead Papa Toothwort's sections weren't a surprise to me, and I was a wee bit unhappy to encounter this dratted artsy-fartsy over-the-top goof in a book so short it needs to be marketed as a novella. Really. You, Author Porter, don't trust me to be swept along by your words, so you play silly buggers with the poor printers and binders. I wonder what the spoilage rate was on this title.

So let's look at this book's actual text, shall we? That way it's not me offering my opinion, as I can hear the GOTCHA!! Gangers tuning up their tutters to tut at me, in YOUR opinion, goes the intended-to-be-caustic dismissal of my tedious, overbearing man-ness daring to say I think something without hedging it about with disclaimers etc etc etc:
from p31 (Pete is speaking):
This, Lanny, is a significant place.


This is the point at which you can no longer be seen. The village is always watching, but past this point you're beyond their gaze.
Basically, a more loudly trumpeted and darkly foreshadowed plot twist I have not seen.

from p35 (dinner party narrated by "Lanny's Mum" the nameless-so-far actress/novelist):
I vote it's not the slightest bit weird, said Greg. He's Peter Blythe, he was pretty famous back in the day, so you're getting a bargain. And if they get on well, and he needs the company, go for it.

'Needs the company' is exactly why it's not right. It's unprofessional, said Sally.

Exactly, says Robert, waving his expensive salad tongs. Who needs the company? Are we lending out our son to stave off Pete's loneliness? Like conversational meals on wheels for sad old artists?

Oh, fuck off, Robert, I said. Is it beyond your shrunken world view to imagine that something nice might exist without money ever needing to change hands?
Mum, Dad, and the Village arranging themselves on the sides they'll occupy when The Twist twists their collective nose hairs.

from p47 (Dead Papa Toothwort speaking, hence the boldface):
He leaves the village riding the smells from the kitchens, spinning and surfing, wafting and curling, from Jenny's lasagne to Larton's microwave stroganoff, Derek's hotpot-for-one, such rich sauces, so much sugar, was never so varied as this, not-very-recently-dead meat dressed in fancy flavours, he laughs, funny busy worker bees of the village stuffing their faces and endlessly rebuilding and replacing things. All they are is bags of shopping and bags of rubbish. He takes such offence to the smell of Pam Foy's stir-in jalfrezi sauce that he tears a bit of his nightmare skin off and shoves it through her window. A truly horrid dream. Sleep well Pam, he chuckles, as he floats homeward across the field.
Portentous. Are the frissons frissonning up your horripilating arms?

p61 (Lanny's mum, whose name we still haven't learned yet, is speaking):
One morning, I heard a little scream. A pained noise. Animal rasping. I couldn't tell where it was coming from. I didn't know what to do. I felt I needed a rural life-advice number I could call. Hello, there is tiny screaming, there is a small beast whining, and I am a depressed out-of-work actress and my husband is a city slicker who wouldn't know a cow from a boar.
The next page and a half aren't pleasant.
Now how do you feel?

I felt good.

I felt capable, competent, and clear-minded. I bleached the sink, washed the knife and returned it to the drawer. You and I have a little secret now, I said to the blade.
1) Actress? An actress who never hears or even thinks her own name? 2) What's your husband got to do with what happens? 3) ::eyeroll:: MEN WRITING WOMEN: WOMEN ARE NOT ALWAYS THINKING ABOUT US. GET OVER IT.

p68 (Pete is speaking):
I can usually see a way to understand terrible things. Satanic worship, decaffeinated coffee, cosmetic surgery, but Renoir's portrait of Madame de Bonnières? No. It cannot be understood or forgiven. And framed in gold plastic and spot-lit from above? No offence intended, Charlotte, there is not a chamber in hell hot enough for a woman of your taste.

Portrait of Madame De Bonnières (Henriette Arnaud-Gentil, Gräfin De Bonnière), painted 1889
This is a meditation in response to a local mum whose...discomfort...with Mad Old Pete the faggot coming to pick up Lanny for his actress mum, as she makes him wait outside her sacred child-stuffed grotto while she calls actress-mum to be sure she's not sending the child to be raped and murdered by the slavering pedophile. *sigh* Familiar with that one, I am.

p76 (Pete still speaking):
In the bus shelter as we passed there was the Henderson boy with Oscar whatsisname from Yew Tree Cottage and they were passing back and forth a joint as big as a church candle, a floppy, knuckled, badly-built thing, and my word it smelled nice. We nodded as we passed and I raised a hand in greeting.

WEIRDO coughed one of them, spluttering into giggles.

We walked on.

I was a little stuck for what to say and then Lanny asked, Do you think they were talking about me or you?
Tedious petit-bourgeois snobs with the cultural nous of parsnips judge what they can't understand and, as The TWIST!!! approaches, Pete's gonna get it in the neck.

Seriously. Everybody got that? Are we all on the same page now? Permaybehaps not...

p85 (Peggy Something-or-other, the Town Crone, is speaking):
It says, in small letters at the end of the {Domesday Book} entry {about their dreary little village}, barely legible but I've seen a photograph of it, Puer Toothwort.

Oh Peggy, I tut, you rotter, what a load of old bollocks.

It says it, Peter. It is written. He's been here as long as there's been a here. He was young once, when this island was freshly formed. Nobody was truly born here, apart from him.

So he's older than you? Surely not. Right then, must deliver this little artist home to his parents.

Night night, Peggy, sweet dream, sings Lanny.

Sleep well good child, she says. Sleep well, Mad Pete, and she winks.
Now, are you there YET?! Seriously, do. you. get. where. the. train. is. headed.

Oh, and the horriblity of the w-bomb puts the moldy cherry on the shit sundae with extra worms we're being served, doesn't it.

p96 (Pete is speaking again):
The sound in the village was all wrong. I went for my walk around the block and got the ill feeling and hurried back. The darkness was uneven, slippery. I sought refuge in my kitchen but the pressure between different objects in my house was all wrong. Something was bad. I had a glass of drink on the table, a newspaper and a pen, and the three of them were fit to lift off and explode. Things were closing in.
Now. Not even the most backward, most challenged reader can possibly misunderstand The Import of that last sentence. Wait...can't count on explain: PETE IS SOMEHOW AWARE THAT HE'S ABOUT TO BE BLAMED FOR A BAD BAD THING. Would you care to guess what that bad bad thing is, who the bad bad thing relates to? Anyone?

Now there are two more sections of this overblown sludge. I read them, but honestly, I do not think you need to. If you don't already know what happens, and allow me to assure you that there is indeed A Twist, please send me a message and I'll tell you.

Or I'll mess it up so the shy can still read it: Lanny survives to adulthood but Jolie the actress/novelist divorces tedious Robert and by goddesses they are well and truly better apart. The Toothwort thing doesn't end, it just stops. There's Pete and Lanny (now called something else) drawin' and drankin' in the purged-of-evil woods.

Seriously. We go all this fucking way and there are pages of typographical shenanigans and THAT. IS. FUCKING. IT.

I think Author Porter deserves some serious kudos for making the points he makes about how the very bones of reality are malevolent in some deeply alien ways. He doesn't spend a lot of time soppily sloshing tears and humidly summoning sobs, either, so there's that going for him. Hence all three of my stars. Seriously? Spare yourself. If this wins the (now-Man-less) Booker I'll eat your hat.


But the news is *excellent*: This book wasn't on the shortlist!