Mini Reviews, Vol. 8

MiniReviews
Sometimes, I don’t have a lot to say other than, “Man, I liked this.” So, here are some things I’ve liked recently.

alt text The Janus Tree by Glen Hirshberg

Two stories from this anthology that are going to stick with me: “You Become the Neighborhood” and “Shomer.” “You Become the Neighborhood” has a rather ambiguous path and maybe a zigger ending, but, man, the ending is enough to make any arachnophobe uneasy. “Shomer” is a more direct tale and more indicative of Hirshberg’s ability evoke creepiness. In both cases, Hirshberg takes what is “normal,” points out the shadows and uncertainty, and then populates those places with… well…

Interestingly, this collection also includes “Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey,” which would seem to be the short story jumping off point for the novel Motherless Child. This is a great place the get a taste for that in-progress trilogy.

alt text “Kindred Spirits” by Rainbow Rowell

A charming tale about…waiting in line. Okay, waiting in line for the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it’s also about expectations and assumptions. Elena loves Star Wars and expects to be part of a celebration of that love. Instead, she faces that embarrassment that sometimes occurs when you love something deeply and slightly irrationally—even when among other fans of that thing. The notion of the “true fan” is handled lightly along with how we casually judge others without knowing anything about them.

alt text “Mystery of Asgina Lake” by Caren Rich

It might be the end of the summer vacation for many, but it’s just the beginning for Ella and Lena. This is a solid monster tale from Caren Rich with a great action climax that left me wondering, “What was that ting?!” I also loved that Ella and Lena were just casually tomboyish geek girls. Ella is gung-ho for adventure and Lena goes along, but with a good stock of comic books to keep boredom at bay. Originally included on the Fantastic Creatures Fellowship of Fantasy anthology.

The Janus Tree is 5.5/10 Books of Summer!

Deal Me In, Week 26 ~ “Charles”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Charles” by Shirley Jackson

Card picked: 6
From: The Lottery, and other stories

The Story
I don’t know whether I’ve read this story before or whether I’ve simply heard about this story before. “Charles” might be the most famous of Shirley Jackson’s domestic tales.

The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave goodbye to me.

Laurie returns from kindergarten with tales of Charles, a kid who enjoys one-upping himself in terms of misbehavior over the next three weeks. Laurie relates these tales with glee, and his parents are alternately appalled and amused by the shenanigans. “Being a Charles” even becomes part of the family’s lexicon. Indeed, Laurie has been influenced by this other boy, becoming a little more independent and insolent.

Laurie’s mother misses the first PTA meeting and it’s three weeks into the school year before she has the opportunity to potentially meet Charles’ mother. By the time that the meeting ends, no mother has stood up to apologize for her son’s behavior. Laurie’s mom approaches the teacher and chit-chats about Laurie and about Charles, who must be a handful. The teacher tells her that Laurie seems to have be having a hard time adjusting. And, by the way, there is no Charles in the class…

Jackson leaves us with this ambiguity: is Laurie doing all the things he reports, or are his stories fibs to make his new behaviors look tame? The teacher doesn’t come out and say “Your kid’s a nightmare.” And after Laurie’s mother has been somewhat judgmental about Charles’ absent mother, what might the other mother’s think about her, who missed the first PTA meeting?

Deal Me In, Week 22 ~ “Dorothy and My Grandmother and the Sailors”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Dorothy and My Grandmother and the Sailors” by Shirley Jackson

Card picked: 9
From: The Lottery and Other Stories

The Story
It’s fleet week in San Francisco and our narrator and her friend Dot have been warned about sailors.

My mother told us about the kinds of girls who followed sailors, and my grandmother told us about the kind of sailors who followed girls.

Even when nowhere near the Bay, the girls feel the heavy weight of the possible vague danger that the sailors represent. Despite that, Dot, the narrator, the narrator’s mother and grandmother, and the narrator’s Uncle Ollie (former sailor himself who served as a radio operator in ’17) have a day out to go coat shopping and attend the launching of the fleet, which includes a tour of a battleship.

During the tour, our narrator becomes lost and is helped by an officer that she assumes is a captain. But to the horror of her grandmother, she learns that he is a marine!!! To recover from the trauma of being politely helped by a sailor, the women stop for dinner and a movie. Alas, the movie theater is over booked and the girls take two seats separate from Mother and Grandmother. Eventually, the seats next to Dot open up, but before the elders can take them, two sailors sit down!!! And, you know, proceed to watch the movie. Dot, especially, freaks out and the girls and their guardians cut the evening short.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a male friend about the amount of vigilance that being female sometimes entails. He was very dismayed that women go around being scared in many situations that are (sometimes literally) a walk in the park for him. But sometimes, I do think that women let fear get the better of them. It’s a fine line between being safe and making every molehill into a mountain.

Review ~ Moby-Dick

Cover via Goodreads

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville

‘Call me Ishmael.’

So begins Herman Melville’s masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. As Ishmael is drawn into Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to slay the white whale Moby-Dick, he finds himself engaged in a metaphysical struggle between good and evil. More than just a novel of adventure, more than an paean to whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting social commentary, populated by some of the most enduring characters in literature; the crew of the Pequod, from stern, Quaker First Mate Starbuck, to the tattooed Polynesian harpooner Queequeg, are a vision of the world in microcosm, the pinnacle of Melville’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is a profound, poetic inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?

I have a degree in literature, yet I had never read Moby-Dick. My reading in college was pointed toward pre-1800 and my reading for fun has been mostly post-1970 with a few exceptions. I have a wonderful huge gap to fill!

What Worked/What Didn’t Work

I decided this year to make an effort to point out what works/what doesn’t work in what I’m reading and, at the second review of the year, I’m stymied.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from Moby-Dick. Obviously, I knew this was a story about ill-fated obsession. I knew many of the names. I knew there were going to be long passages about whales and whaling, circa 1850. What I didn’t expect was just how odd of a tapestry this book is. There are adventure bits. There are poetical, metaphysical digressions. There is bawdy humor and Shakespearean soliloquies. And yes, a lot about whales and whaling.

The summary above kind of makes me roll my eyes because it plays up the “literature” aspects of the book. As a mostly genre reader (despite my degree), I think it’s those other things—all the boring reality, all the dirty adventure—that make Moby-Dick work. This novel is sort of a weird ride. Much like Shakespeare’s plays, especially if you’re reading/watching them for the first time, if you let the text carry you along, you get a sense of the thing. Will I read Mody-Dick again? Maybe. If I do, I’m pretty sure the next time would be a totally different experience.

Observation: The only writer I know of that “tastes” a bit like Moby-Dick (I won’t say Melville since I don’t know him well as an author) is Ray Bradbury.

Observation: Having read War of the Worlds and Moby-Dick nearly back to back, I get this sense that science was folded into literature more often in the past. Maybe this is a reflection of the times, maybe of the authors, maybe of the genres; I don’t know, but it’s something I enjoy.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/Pigeonhole, public domain, originally published 1851
Acquired: May 20, 2014
Genre:  According to Wikipedia: Novel, adventure fiction, epic, sea story, encyclopedic novel. I guess I agree.

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More #COYER Reviews
Generator Points Earned: 1
Generator Points Total: 5

Deal Me In, Week 37 ~ “The Daemon Lover”

20140105-160356

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What is Deal Me In?

“The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson

Card picked: Five of Spades
From: The Lottery and Other Stories

Thoughts:

“Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn’t it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you’ll see it’s even stranger than that…”

Unfortunately, we never hear about how it happened. Our protagonist, another female character that I don’t recall Shirley Jackson naming, begins this letter to her sister as she’s waiting for her fiancé, Jamie, to come for her so they can elope. She is nervous and wants everything to be perfect. Is her comfortable blue dress too severe? The alternative is an old ruffled print that seems too young for her. She is thirty-four years old, after all. No spring chicken, but she’s sure Jamie sees all her good qualities. Unfortunately, Jamie Harris never shows up. When he’s sufficiently late, our protagonist goes to where he says he lives (she’d never been to his place). She finds that he was a sublet tenant (maybe) who moved out the day (hours?) before. But she’s certain he’d been there that morning and tried to track his progress to to her apartment. He stopped to get his shoes shined. He stopped to buy chrysanthemums for her (an odd choice for his bride). But then, he went to another house, to a room in the attic, and will not answer the door…

This story can be read two ways and neither of them is comfortable. Since we, the readers, have never meet Jamie (he just left before we meet our protagonist), and no one our protagonist talks to ever quite knows who she’s talking about, it’s possible that this old maid (but with skills and talents and a nice apartment!) has made him up. Or maybe…everyone is humoring our protagonist. Or making fun of her. A thirty-four year-old woman in a ruffled print dress that is too young for her chasing down a some man in a blue suit? Well…haven’t you ever wondered if the people around you are just humoring you, or maybe even making fun of you, but you can’t tell for sure because maybe they really are telling the truth? And I wonder, is this a particularly female feeling? Or only the feeling of someone who has never really been “cool” or popular? (Am I tipping my cards too much to say that maybe this story isn’t comfortable to me because I still feel this way sometimes?)

After googling “The Daemon Lover” (sometimes called “James Harris”), I find that this is also the name of Scottish ballad about the Devil who lures away the wife of a carpenter after being away for seven years. Maybe our protagonist will meet Jamie again in her forties. Or maybe it’s all just been a devil’s trick.

ripnineperilshort
RIPXI Info | Reviews

Review ~ The Sisters Brothers

Cover via Goodreads

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

When a frontier baron known as the Commodore orders Charlie and Eli Sisters, his hired gunslingers, to track down and kill a prospector named Herman Kermit Warm, the brothers journey from Oregon to San Francisco, and eventually to Warm’s claim in the Sierra foothills, running into a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, a parlor of drunken floozies, and a gang of murderous fur trappers. Eli’s deadpan narration is at times strangely funny (as when he discovers dental hygiene, thanks to a frontier dentist dispensing free samples of “tooth powder that produced a minty foam”) but maintains the power to stir heartbreak, as with Eli’s infatuation with a consumptive hotel bookkeeper. As more of the brothers’ story is teased out, Charlie and Eli explore the human implications of many of the clichés of the old west and come off looking less and less like killers and more like traumatized young men. (via Goodreads)

I.

I’m going to start off by saying that I didn’t like The Sisters Brothers very much. This came as a surprise to me.

It’s a well-regarded book; in general, but also by reviewers I follow.  I like westerns, though I haven’t read that many of them. I like dark comedy. I didn’t think that my expectations were overly-high. I was definitely looking forward to some quirkiness. So, what’s the deal? I’ve spent a couple days trying to figure that out.

II.

I *did* like the voice. Eli Sisters’ narration evokes the time and the place. The first half of the book is part picaresque and part travelogue. It was Eli’s storytelling that kept me reading despite my reservations.

I did realize that I’m not much of a fan of picaresque novels. Actually, I haven’t read many of them. I don’t have anything against lower-class or below-the-law characters, but there is sort of an aggressive grayness to the characters and situations. For example, in the above blurb, seeing Eli and Charlie as traumatized young men is important to the narrative, but I’ve never found that lacking in the supposedly white-hat/black-hat westerns I’ve read.

III.

Eric and I have had some long talks about what makes good plot. If readers want to be surprised by a book, why do formulaic books work? How can you reread a book and still enjoy it? I think there’s a line that needs to be walked between being predictable and offering up the unexpected.

Honestly, at most points in The Sisters Brothers, I had no idea what was going to happen next. That’s not a bad thing. But even at the end, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. No. Clue. And that didn’t work for me. There was very little payoff for most of the quirky elements. I half expected an ending similar in style to The Departed, but no. Also, almost every event held the same weight. Crazy prospector with a chicken? Bead-stringing witch? Tooth powder? All are of seemingly equal importance to the narrative.

So, there it is. Now, on the plus side, I did finish this book and it’s given me a lot to chew on. That is worth something.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, HarperCollins (Ecco), 2011
Acquired: Dec. 21, 2014, Amazon
Genre: literary western

Deal Me In, Week 31 ~ “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish”

20140105-160356

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish” by Joyce Carol Oates

Card picked: Jack of Hearts
From: Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

Thoughts: Did you know that in his later life Samuel Clemens had a club of honorary granddaughters? They were all girls between 10 and 16 years-old. It was called the Aquarium Club and the girls were “angelfish.” Supposedly, this was all very innocent and well chaperoned; an old man without grandchildren, who liked children, was giving these smart youngsters the opportunity to have a good time. But for us as an audience, it’s maybe a little odd.

Not surprisingly, this is the situation that Joyce Carol Oates uses for this story. Nothing technically improper happens between Clemens and his latest angelfish, but through the use of letters written between aging Clemens and, well, aging Maddy Avery, we’re shown how destructive this situation can be. You see, the Samuel Clemens of this story abruptly severs contact with the girls when they reach age 16.

Lots of themes of aging, obviously. From Clemens’ POV, he is in the twilight of his life and career. He’s having a hard time writing and he’s outlived his wife and his one of his daughters. The angelfish make him feel young. From Maddy’s side, she realizes that she’s more valuable as a girl than as a woman. Maybe only to Grandpa Clemens, but maybe to the wide world as well. As is usual for JCO, this is not a comfortable story at all.