There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories

I am coming down with something bad. I could feel the cement hardening in the cracks in my skull all day, and now my brain is both solid and lacy with an underwater stupidity. I had started reading some trash fiction this morning, as usually illness sends me crawling to comforting junk, but it didn’t suit this time. It turned out my misery wanted miserable company, which made There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya more or less the perfect companion. 

Sometimes short stories can be really constructed things, like a spring-loaded trap that snaps down hard on form or concept or what have you. These short stories are instead morbid and wry anecdotes, told with a sort of uniformity of structure, in a uniformity of locales. Which isn’t exactly true: when I could tell the time period, these stories ranged around from just post-War Soviet state to the now Russian Republic grumbling about New Russians. But poor, miserable, drunken, bureaucratic assholes are a time-transcendent fixture, as are the drear cabbage-redolent apartments and disconnective, though central, family structures. At a point, the whole collection started feeling like an extended rake joke, and I kept stepping and stepping on the tines that would aim the handle straight for my cement-filled head. Whether this will work for other readers is, as usual, up in the air, and it’s possible my single-sitting reading of this work helped my sense of the dark humor. 

One of the best set of classes I ever took was a Russian Literature and History two-fer in high school, and we decided to stage a reading of The Cherry Orchard. We didn’t know much about it, and the teacher (in a very interesting and, ultimately, rewarding choice) didn’t read up on The Cherry Orchard‘s very long history on the stage; she was not directing our impressions. It’s a pretty dire story, in terms of plotting, a family broken up and sold off, dashed hopes, dissolution. And we couldn’t stop laughing as we read, not at all. It got to be a pain in the ass because we couldn’t even get our scenes completed as the giggling took up from on to the other like an infection. Then we would all wonder, why the hell are we laughing at this? Though there are elements of farce, The Cherry Orchardisn’t unserious in its treatment of its characters, not running them as some kind of broad parody. 

Turns out, Chekhov intended it as a comedy, but its tragic aspects are inescapable. The laughter it provokes is uncomfortable, the burst of laughter after a startle. Many folk smarter and better’n me at theatre history have droned on about this at length, so let’s have an end to that and get back to Petrushevskaya, who manages to hit a Soviet version of the Chekhovian tragicomedy in a blur of miserable similarity. And who manages to do it turning Tolstoy’s famous aphorism on its head: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Here, this is what happened,” so many of these stories start, and then not quite tragic but nonetheless inconsequential lives continue inconsequentially until they end, or the narrative does. 

The whole business reminded me of the Grandma Dory’s ironic anecdotes of her childhood, her Bestamore locked in by a stroke for the last 20 years of her life, left minded by teenage granddaughters who had better business to attend to. Bestamore had a tendency to push herself out of wherever she was propped, rolling down hills and gurgling in a way my Grandma would imitate. I guess she was trying to say something, Grandma would shrug with an old woman’s shoulders, laughing past her childish cruelties. Grandma’s lessons are always subtle. Petrushevskaya has an almost dismissively reductive narrative voice – “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else. The girl was used to it and didn’t get too upset” – but the opening dismissals are almost always belied by strange, glancing connections and the fact that she is focusing on these dismissed lives at all. 

I often try, when I’m writing up collected short stories, to sort them individually: this one, this theme; this other, its voice. I’m not going to do that here because I think this functions best as an album, in the old school records-slotted-in-a-cardboard-box sense, but also in the sense of family album, all those nameless and half-remembered ancestors, sitting in a row of schoolchildren or dapper in their military swag or holding armfuls of children destined to die before the age of five. Here are the stories of unremembered lives lived in squabbled over apartments and stupid jobs. Amen.

a line of people in a black and white photo in front of building, one of which is my great-grandfather (though I don't know which) on the eve of his running from Lithuania during the Revolution
One of these men is my great-grandfather, on the eve of the Revolution which will send him out of Lithuania. I don’t know which one.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel.

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah.

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin meets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Lover has the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” – this means Canadian – city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will.

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome.

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

A strange book, to be sure. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord wears its influences on its sleeves so much that it’s more patchwork quilt than whole cloth. Star Trek (lots of Star Trek), Ray Bradbury, possibly Bujold (though it could just be similar influences, but the central characters remind me very much of Aral & Cordelia), the Janes Austen and Eyre (and I know it is monumentally unfair to conflate a real writer with a fictional character just because they have the same first name, but still I do it), the obvious Voltaire (or possibly Candide), LeGuin’s anthropology that often quests for the humaneness in our humanity. This is not going to work for many readers, especially after giving the usual your mileage may vary disclaimer about the influences. But the quilted quality, for me anyway, worked pretty decently with the the overriding themes of the novel: hybridization (as Mike notes, and you should read his review), the intersection of the domestic with societal, and love, love, love, baby.

This is the second science fiction novel I’ve read in the last month that focused at least as much attention to their interpersonal and romantic upheavals as to the more traditionally science fictional elements, and I find I like this a good deal. (And, the science fictional stuff here – like aspects cribbed pretty hard from some of my least favorite things, like Star Trek’s The Chase – were the least interesting part of the story for me.) Space opera especially can be very dudes-in-smoking-jackets-avuncularly-solving-society-with-reason, and that this book takes that reasonable computation – here is how we will solve our problems with Science! – and then puts the rubber to the road is actually quietly subversive. Yes, that’s a very nice theory you’ve got there, but when you resolve that plan down to specific human beings, who tend not to run to spec, you’re gonna have some problems. And the problems are not with the people, but with the plan.

Speaking of Star Trek, the opening is very much what happens in the third act of the most recent Star Trek movie – so spoiler alert on that, if you haven’t seen it – where the entire planet of Vulcan is destroyed, leaving a smattering of Vulcans in exile traumatized by genocide and weighted with the monumental task of rebuilding/preserving an entire culture. (I suppose this also happens in Star Wars when Leia’s home world of Alderaan is vaporized – seriously, that is not a spoiler – but that’s treated so topically as to be callous. Hey, a boy’s quest to manhood is way more important.) Ms. Lord notes in her afterward that this idea for her was sparked by reading about the lingering effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people and displaced millions more. Because of a quirk of timing and culture, women were killed disproportionately, leaving sometimes whole communities of family-less men. A culture without women, without children, is not one that going to survive. (The reverse is true, certainly, but that’s not what happened.) So this is where we are with the Sadiri as well, and Cygnus Beta is suddenly a pioneer settlement filled mostly with Sadiri men.

Because the Sadiri are pretty much Vulcans – cool, mannered, intellectual – they build a little plan to entice (functionally) mail-order brides from the pluralistic society of Cygnus Beta to act as the new mothers of Sadiri. Ambassador Spock is tasked with surveying outlying communities for quanta of Sadiri genes, and mid-level Cygean bureaucrat/scientist Grace Delarua is sent along with him and his team. This is a pretty terrible idea – the whole assessing ladies for their breeding/genetic potential – and Grace even knows it. But whatever, road trip! We’ll just sort this shit out on the way. There’s a lot of sly commentary on racial construction in the novel – how the ways people look define how others respond to them, how racial characteristics are constructed and enforced, etc. (I actually laughed when someone exclaims “But slavery is illegal!” when the dawning realization that they are dealing with a culture predicated on slavery hits the group.) Which makes the white-washing of the cover that much more discouraging; I don’t think there is one character in this novel described as having white skin, and certainly Grace (who that is?) does not. But this has been going on in sff covers for a long time, witness the very dark-skinned Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea who has been subjected to whitewashed covers and “color-blind casting” (snort, as if) for decades. I kind of can’t imagine Ms. Lord had anything to do with this cover decision, and boycotting her work is punching a bystander, so I don’t really know what the solution is here. Strongly worded email to the publisher? Vocal bitching? Heaving dramatically ironic sighs?

The story is told mostly in Grace’s voice, which, as I gestured to in my last paragraph, is pretty breezy and chatty, sometimes irritatingly so. Sometimes less than snappy banter goes on for too long, and there are occasional dips into preciousness. But I think part of it is deliberate. Grace has an encounter with someone (trying not to go spoiler here) which is a pretty brutal assault on her mental autonomy, and it took me several chapters to have the magnitude of the assault sink in, partially because Grace jumps up and dusts off. Well, are we getting back to work or what? She’s got the glossomania of the traumatized, running scads of cheerful commentary on everything but the injury (not unlike Rae from Sunshine.) Mr Spock is doing the same thing, in his way, retreating into logic and genetics as solutions to a problem that is cultural, and therefore infinitely more non-linear. (To put it super dorkily; jeez.) It’s only through a series of glancing conversations – ones not about their traumas at all – that I began to see the avoidance mechanisms at work. Very subtly done.

Anyway, I predict that there will be many reviews of this book that dismiss it as just a love story, but The Best of All Possible Worlds – very overtly in places – reads to me as that sly kind of women’s fiction that says occasionally dangerous things about how we construct our societies, very gently and chattily drawing out our idealized visions of how people work and resolving them down to individuals. The syllabus is not the moment of insight. That Ms. Lord pulls this off in the historically all-male fantasy playset of the space opera is charmingly subversive as well. So, as I said in my opening, an odd book, patchy in places, with the kind of narrator who can even set the teeth of those inclined to like her voice (and for those who aren’t, forget about it). This book puts the soap in space opera, and I enjoyed greatly what came out in the wash.

I received my copy from NetGalley.com

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Collapsing Sadness

When I was in junior high, I knew this girl who claimed to be a test tube baby. She claimed a lot of fantastic things, like that she had no sense of smell because of the scientific tinkering of her experimental origins, and some other odd physical anomalies. I pretty much knew this was bullshit, but this was back before I could spend 15 seconds typing into a screen on my cell browser “first test tube baby US” and get the name and birthdate of Elizabeth Jordan Carr, born on December 28, 1981. Ms Carr was the 15th test tube baby in the world – as the NYTimes article notes,” in vitro,” the more commonplace term now, means “in glass” – born a full 7 years after the girl I knew had been born. I remember questioning my friend gently about her sense of smell: do you have trouble tasting things? Is it all just bland like you have a cold? Oh no, I taste everything fine. Oh, I thought, bullshit. We were never close or anything – in truth, I didn’t like her much – but I let all this slide.

Even with my somewhat flimsy adolescent class sense, I knew how poor her family was. They – she, her mother, and a round-robin of her mother’s “boyfriends” – lived above a corner grocery, the kind that sells Campbell’s soup for double its price, cigarettes and 3.2 beer. Her family didn’t even have a phone, but used the pay phone on the corner. They weren’t the only ones, and there was this complicated set of protocols and negotiations when you called it – gather ’round children, because pay phones used to exist, and they used to accept incoming calls: the guy who would bang on the door to the stairs leading to their apartment, leaving the phone hanging, the guy who wouldn’t, the corner store owner with an angry, thick accent who would go through periods of 86ing her family (I think for non-payment of their credit, but also for more noise-centered complaints). Corner store owners used to extend credit, young’ens, in a notebook-under-the-register kind of way. They still may, if the great gossiping neighbor center who is Mohammed at the corner store on my block is any indication. I’ve certainly walked out of S-Mart with goods I didn’t have the money for, but just because I forgot my wallet like an idiot. I could be into him for hundreds if I were closer to the edge. There but for the grace of God, etc.

So I knew what she said was bullshit, but I got why she was running that line of bullshit. The science fictional aspects of her supposed conception added a shine of dramatic ethics to her impoverished upbringing. Again, children, this was long enough ago that the whole concept of “test tube babies” had this op-ed worthy hand-wringing about it. You could still run the false-Darwinian line about how in vitro fertilization was violating the spirit, if maybe not the letter, of survival of the fittest with a straight face – nevermind any business about God and His Will and whatnot – and you could run it without hitting millions of children who have been conceived this way since then. I myself know at least a half dozen. I’m not saying that the ethics of in vitro fertilization have been solved or anything. I got into a surprisingly fractious argument with my husband about a specific messed up situation created by IVF, and we concluded our argument with the understanding that even people who generally agree about the broad moral questions are going to get tripped up by issues of gender, personhood, and ownership. At a certain point, all that crystalline logical scaffold teeters and collapses into hard core interpersonal gut-reaction.

Catarina is five years old when her father returns one day with an android named Finn. Cat is five, so she doesn’t quite get what Finn’s extraordinary assistance might mean. There have been automata and AI in this scorched, rebuilding world, but Finn is unique, more and less human than anything that came before. But five years old does not mean but be. She decides Finn is a ghost, because that makes sense to five. My daughter just turned six on Christmas, and we recently had a long conversation about how the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy are obviously me, but Santa is real. As much as I’ve always believed in not running bullshit on my kids, I just didn’t know what to say there. I figure in a year or two the world will inevitably crush her understandings of Santa’s precise reality, and it’s not like I need to be the messenger there. Which is one of the many things that clove me about this story: the way I completely empathized with both parent and child, feeling the hard shocks of understanding when Cat’s mother snaps at Cat’s choices – I wasn’t built to be a housewife; no girl is – while bleeding for the casual judgement. Jesus, what we do not in the name of love, but because of love and our studied ignorances. Finn acts as tutor to Cat, and the world and its ethical understanding changes around them as they change. They move from a world in which the term test tube babies dissolves into the commonplace in vitro fertilization, but that doesn’t mean the hard core interpersonal gut-reaction is just semantics.

I kind of don’t want to get into the mechanics of the plot, because I’m not sure concrete action says anything about the long tides of lived lives. Cat grows; she goes to school; she marries. That’s just facts. But about halfway through, I sat up on the couch and said to my husband, this is so sad, I’m not sure I can take it. I spend the next half of the book near weeping, and if I’m going to be honest, weeping. We are such disastrous creatures, humans, and it’s not such a huge surprise that the consciousnesses we create will be disastrous too. Part of this is that on a very overt level, this is an unrequited love story; this is an emotional response to intrusive technology, and the cultural scaffold is less important than the teetering and its fall into the personal.

I was very careful in the last paragraph not to use the word romance in relation with Finn & Cat, which I think belies in me a certain discomfort with love and sex and the domestic in fiction. Certainly, the term romance applies in many ways, though more in its capital-R incarnation: the Romance. Romanticism attempted to inject strong emotion into the bloody warfare of Classicism, valued folk art as authentic craft, got its rocks off on rocks, trees, and landscape. That’s all in here: a brooding, personal recollection of the world after ecological disaster, with an eye towards the beauty of that devastation; the folk art of weaving that Cat takes up, confusing her scientist parents, and on some level, herself; the near-Gothic near-Freudian setting of the family home, with the father in the basement and the android in the aerie. The opening section, with Cat catching fireflies in a jar, was almost too much for me – such vividly worn shorthand for wonder – but I promise this works long term.

Anyway, at some point, Clarke tips her hat to Kazuo Ishiguro and Maureen F. McHugh, and I smiled at the tip. We’re at the edge of science fiction here that thrills and bleeds with the literary wasteland of cool sentences and felt emotion, that understands that it’s not about whatever jibber jabber about the great Frankenstein’s Oedipal monster, but his daughter, growing up in a world that has transmuted from test tubes to in glass, but in glass in another language. There was a comment thread recently about this odd edge of genre, about how at a certain point science fiction sails over the edge into some more literary metafiction, and the literary metafiction sails right back, and they stand silhouetted on the water. Ishiguro’s clones, McHugh’s chimera, Atwood’s genetic engineering, Whitehead’s zombies, Boudinot’s Age of Fucked Up Shit – these creatures and stories all fall into this strange edge of the science fictional or the literary, one or the other or both in a quantum uncertainty.

But The Mad Scientist’s Daughteris also a romance. It is about love. It is about love in the most collapsingly personal way there is. God, and it’s so, so sad.

I didn’t understand why this novel had been published by Angry Robot, because, so far, what I’ve read from that publisher has been much more pulp sensible. (I am not using the term pulp as a brush-off or indicator of poor quality. Pulp doesn’t give a shit where it’s shelved.) But in writing this review, I get it now. The literary and the science fictional have been doing a dance since New Wave, running the ethics of technology met up with our humanity and the inherent surrealism of such a project, into a martial art of which part of the bookstore to shelve such a thing. Add in romance – the stories of love and the childhood bedroom, of uneasy marriages and disappointed parents – and the dance becomes something…maybe not new, but old, the way we who have lived through gigantic technological upheavals – and that is all of us – navigate the old, messy questions of consciousness and emotion in new mediated ways. This book takes a cell phone and calls that payphone on the corner. Who answers will break your heart. Or, in any case, it broke mine.

I got my copy from Netgalley and Angry Robot, in exchange for a fair review. Thank heavens.

Warm Bodies: Romeo and Juliet Across the Grave

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is a chatty little first person narrative, welcoming the reader into the dreamy emo head-thoughts of a zombie called R. In terms of monster stories, the zombie is your least psychological of the beasts, tending to stand in for more large target ideas like consumerism or colonialism. So running a zombie narrator who waxes all Kerouac about how living with a bunch of Dead people who do nothing but ride escalators (hat tip Dawn of the Dead!) and form these little phony families based on nothing but a bunch of phony phoniness is pretty funny. I’m so alooooone even when I’m with (dead) people! I speak, but it all comes out in grunts! Nobody understands how I feeeeeeel! On one of his forays out to find living food, R eats the brains of a young man called Perry, who was in love with a girl called Julie. R, through the memories embedded in Perry’s delicious brain, learns the value of insta-love, semi-abducts Julie back to his love nest, does some eye-gazing with Julie, and generally behaves like your usual stalkerish romantic hero. Awww.

On the one hand, this is seriously funny and awesome. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – so much so that people who know me are rightly sick of it – but vampires are high-functioning zombies. Which is why I have a pretty serious gross-out going with all the hot single ladies in UF/PNR having sex with all those cold, sparkly corpses. A romance between a zombie and a human, in theory anyway, lays bare how gross corpse-lovin’ is. But! Quipping aside, I get that vampires are different monsters, in that they are able to complete sentences and sparkle, so when Julie falls right for Mr Decomposing R, whose dialog consists mainly of ellipses and body consists of gray flesh that doesn’t have an eight pack, I’m like, hahaha, good one. 

However, here’s my problem: I’m getting too old for this shit. Because, absolutely, obviously, and totally, this is a version of Romeo and Juliet, and I am a bitter, wasted crank when it comes to R&J adaptions. I believe fully, in the recesses of my black heart, that Romeo and Juliet are nitwits who must die to prove the situation is serious. They are a couple of bobble-heads kept apart only by familial feuding, because otherwise they are perfectly matched to one another; they are not the Socs vs. the Greasers at freaking all. They are the same race, same class, from the same town; they have similar ninny friends with the same ninny interests. There’s no real reason they’re kept apart, like, for example, R(omeo) eating Paris’s Perry’s brains and the brains of everyone Julie(t) has ever loved, including her mother. Romeo and Juliet are hormone-addled dorks who maybe don’t deserve to die, but it sure is nice when it happens, everyone all single-tear about how maybe forbidding the fruit made it a billion more times sexy to idiots. Romeo and Juliet aren’t admirable or commendable; they simply follow their groins to the logical conclusion, which is live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse. Bongos, bongos, youth culture, etc. Because if they didn’t die, they would have sold out just like the rest of us assholes riding our phony elevators. Hey, nonny nonny. 

Mr Marion does a commendable job trying to make the Living and the Dead the same kind of dead-at-heart automata – you’re not living, you’re just not-dying! – but I’m just not buying it. Especially because he never really owns R’s zombie nature. R is forgiven for Paris’s Perry’s brain-eating something like 50 times in the novel, as early as page 50-ish, and I’m like, what? R is looking a lot like a certain kind of vegetarian vampire I can think of – a high-functioning wanker who is handed all kinds of pussy just for crying over some Sinatra or whatever. Which, speaking of Edward Cullen (I was), when you get right down to it, Jacob would be a much better Juliet to his Romeo, in that they are both from feuding clans with similar magical powers, the same hierarchical families. Only the class difference is a thing, and maybe the race if you consider Jacob to be really Native American and not some kind of long extended hysterical imagining of Native America. Which I don’t, or do, depending on whether my tortured grammar here makes him anything but a war-bonnet on a German-American kid with killer abs. I’m reasonable sure there’s scads of instances of Edward/Jacob slash fiction which corrects this problem – though I refuse to google – but I just get a little big sigh when I see yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl redeem some brain-eating douchebag because she’s had a little tragedy mixed with a little art school. Awww. Bongos bongos. Hey ninny ninny. 

So, now that I’ve gone into full-on freak out mode, I would like to pull back from the ledge and note that I had a good time reading this. Even though I rolled my eyes a lot – the R&J thing is one thing, but the whole thing about how parents and culture is Square, Man, and They’re Keeping Us Down – the prose hurtles along in its first person way. The opening is stronger than the ending, for me anyway. I liked the whole wordless interchange and difficulty of communication of the zombie community, making their silent and decontextual way through the detritus of civilization. I pretty much live for that stuff in fiction. But later, blah, stop making out with corpses. But I’m an old, bony, mortgage-having square who would head-shoot the crap out of some animated corpse my daughter brought home. I’m not even going to apologize for that. 

And this is just more of an observation, but this was the n-th zombie novel I’ve read that treated the nomenclature for zombies like racially charged terms: I can’t believe she called me a corpse! On one hand I get it – zombies do have their roots in slave-uprising panic narratives, after all – but on the other hand, reads real cheap when you’re dealing with sexy romantic hero zombies and their manic pixie dream ladies. I’m all oppressed and stuff! Of course you are. :::pat pat pat::: Oh, and the edition I read had British spelling, which confused me no end. I had to google to make sure I wasn’t insane, and this was located somewhere in the contiguous 48. It is. 

So, fun little bit of brains and mayhem, but someone less bitter and cranky, with fewer readerly hang-ups, will probably like this more. Some of us have to work to pay the mortgage, you little shits, and it can’t be all eye-gazing and magical cures for zombiism. 


I got my copy from NetGalley.

Hound of the Baskervilles!

So, in interests of full disclosure, I’m “friends” with Jamie Chase who did the art in The Hound of the Baskervilles. I shouldn’t even scare quote that, because it could come off as bitchy. I’ve met him several times at Bubonicon, I’m friends with him on facebook, and I’m a pretty enthusiastic fangirl of his art style, but we’re not, like, borrowing each other’s clothes. He’s pretty awesome though, and I had a conversation with him and a bunch of other folk maybe two years ago about this Sherlock Holmes comic he was about to start work on. So I totally squeed when I saw the finished product on Netgalley. I remember when! That never happens for me. 


My art education is pretty heterodox. I worked as a picture framer for nearly two decades, so I have a scatterdash education in print-making techniques so I could identify a lithograph from a giclée – which, fun fact, the word giclée comes from the French word for “spray”, referring to the spray of ink from an ink jet printer. No one has any idea what’s going to happen with ink jet ink in 50 years – it might just fall apart or go blue like photographs – so art buyer beware on that front. Not that this has anything to do with anything, and the point of this paragraph is supposed to be about how I deal with art. 

You frame an incredible amount of populist garbage as a picture framer, so just because I never had an academic education, doesn’t mean I believe the line that fine art world is out of touch with human emotion and too avant garde for its own sake or something. I mean, yes, the fine art world is this ridiculous circle jerk, but popular couch art is depressing too. I ended up gravitating toward abstract and genre art in my second decade framing, and I super appreciate people like Jamie Chase, who are doing these really odd things with vernacular, stuff that looks initially like a straight take, but there’s this cloaked subversion in it. God, I love his stuff so much. 


So, anyway, I also have some deeply held beliefs about Sherlock Holmes. I read the absolute crap out of every single word Conan-Doyle had on the subject when I was a teen, in addition to some words other writers had on the subject too. (Like the series by local historian Larry Millett, which has Holmes solving fun Minnesota mysteries like in Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders.) Holmes, more than a lot of writing which gets fan-fictioned to death (like Jane Austen, for example), lends itself to adaption. Holmes is a pulp serial, and Conan-Doyle himself was seriously lax about chronology and canon. Watson took a bullet magically in both his shoulder and his leg while he was a doc in Afghanistan. You can fall into some serious nerd-fests trying to determine how many times Watson married and when exactly everything happened. Which is hilarious, because obviously Conan-Doyle was writing everything half-drunk, banging it out on a cost-per-word basis. There’s something brilliant about his slovenly prose, the way it rushes and jumps. The number of times he uses the word “ejaculate” to mean “exclaim” is enough to twss the modern reader into teh funnies. But Conan-Doyle’s prose fairly hurtles, immaturity aside, which makes a graphic adaption that excises most of the text a little sad. 

The Hound of the Baskervillesis an odd case, because it’s so incredibly famous, so iconic, but it’s not real typical of Holmes. Or, you know it is in the sense that Holmes tends to be really idiosyncratic. For one, Holmes stories tend to be urban, situated in the colonial crush or London, but there are a couple out in the Gothic hinterland, like the one with the bicycle or the one with the snake. (Sorry, I’m not bothering to look up their real titles.) So there’s precedent. The weird part is how focused on Watson Baskervillesis – how he’s left without Holmes for ages in the moors. Sherlock takes Watson down at the very beginning with the trick with the walking stick, and it’s pretty funny how that works – the authorial intervention of Holmes’s interpretive dick-move unsettling everything Watson observes in the later plot. 

Because, the other thing about Baskervillesis how soapy it is, how domestically Gothic. Stripped of the Doylian prose (sorry for this adjective), Baskervillesreads really Scooby Doo, what with the land deal mechanics of the plot and the fact you meet the villain straight away. (Spoiler alert, sort of, but there are very few characters here, in true Gothic style, and the red herrings are telegraphed in flaming semaphore.) So, on a technical level, I think a graphic version of Hound is a little hamstrung, especially one as faithful as this one, because the whole thing reads sillier than it does long form, what without all of Watson’s ejaculations. 

What? God! Why do you have to be so immature! 

Chase’s art is really sepia, with all the color bled out, and it took me a while to embrace it. I’m on record as a fangirl, but sometimes I have to be lead to the water before I drink. I was expecting something more Frazetta-pulp, more kaleidoscopic, because I think this would really work with stuff like The Sign of the Four what with its blow-darting aborigines and evil Mormons, etc, etc. But we’re in Goth-land here, and the Gothic is the world of the scary, soapy, reaction-shot close-up, and that’s what Chase delivers. Dude knows what I want before I want it. <3

So, anyway, I enjoyed this take on Holmes, but I think it’s a little hobbled by how the source material translates to the image, even with images as strong as this. I felt like the libretto – or whatever it’s called in comics – spent a lot of time hitting the obvious, quotable stuff in Holmes – the game is afoot! elementary! – while kinda missing the stuff that really makes Holmes the shit. But I seriously, seriously can’t wait for other Holmes adaptions from this team, because I think given this practice, they could come up with something mind-blowing. Eeee!

Revival: Speaking to My Soul

Oh dear. I adored this.

One’s obsessions are hard to sort for their influence in affection. Revivalcertainly plays to some of my obsessions: the undead, the bleak midwinter Midwestern locale, the Gothic/Noir sensibility that relies on understatement more than worn tropes. Like in Raising Stony Mayhall, these are heartland zombies, flyover zombies, more concerned with the strange (dis)function of small, isolated communities than screaming bloodbaths. This blood creeps instead of splatters. I fairly loved both Revivaland Mayhall, but another should-be slam-dunk for me, Ashes, with its Wisconsin winter and plucky teens, didn’t work at all for me. The play out of one’s personal obsessions doesn’t always run to something that sinks into the skin.

My mother and I once had a conversation about hometowns, about how people talk about them, and how we take those conversations personally. She’d had a conversation with someone who said some flip disparaging things about her hometown. They were true things to say, as far as observations from outsiders go, but to say those things to the local… maybe this was badly done. I’ve been careful since then about what I say to people about where they grew up. However, I love what I feel like are rightful depictions of the people I grew up with, the land and landscape, blahity blah, &c. Which is maybe why I never cottoned to Ashes: the opening was Wisconsin enough for me, but the whole cult-town thing felt like it was from central casting, one of those fictional places that could be anywhere (but you know, ultimately nowhere). Which is fine, and certainly not every book has to adhere to my sense of regionalism and placement. But good lord, when it happens, I flip the hell right right. When you speak to me from where I’m from, in the idiom of my location, I’m going to lose my shit.

The undead in Revivalaren’t biters, to steal terminology from Mayhall. One day, the day of revival – and I think only on that day – all of the dead in a small area around Wausau, Wisconsin get back up. It’s not a lot of people – 23 I think the authorities know about – but then there are the undead who aren’t known to be undead – at least the one who’s a main character anyway. There are also…other things. While the perspective is not overly tight on any one character, it’s got that situated near-locality that only glances at the larger picture. This is the locality of trauma, relayed in conversations and status updates in the days and weeks after the event.

It wasn’t so long ago that I watched horrified while a friend in Bryn Mawr, a neighborhood just on the edge of downtown here in Minneapolis, watched the bloody unfolding of the workplace shooting from split blinds, updating on facebook as it happened. It was awful, and it got worse last week with the school shooting in Connecticut. I stood in the snow waiting to get my kids that day – they the same ages as those gunned down – and the other mom whom I chatter with daily and I couldn’t meet each other’s eyes or we would lose it. “It feels like 9/11,” she said. Yeah, I thought, it does. I’m just as trapped miles from where it happened with my imagination running wild. All those classes letting out, their bodies whole and un-riddled with bullets.

Civic trauma is local, even when it happens a thousand miles away. The area around Wausau in this book is quarantined, for lack of a better word: CDC roadblocks set up, for fear that this revival might be contagious; local police working through the usual round of domestic disturbances and drunk drivers, while also trying to manage the suspicion of the motivations of the dead. One woman, an elderly revival, pulls her magically regrowing teeth out with a pliers because if she didn’t, her false teeth won’t fit. Shudder. Shudder, shudder. And shudder some more with how her story plays out. The time scale shifts and moves, not with strict linearity, but the bright hardness of events that matter. There’s the thin edge of how the larger world is sorting the local traumas, but it’s just a thin thought, a moment in the larger smallness of how life plays out, the cabin fever of trauma.

comic panels showing a zorse panicking then dying in the snow

There are points when this civic/personal trauma is maybe cut too obviously in the book, like when the CDC doctor dude – a man whose parents are strict Muslims – notes the parallels between the suspicion for the revived with the suspicion for the Islamic – but it still worked. Especially given his half-out-loud conversation with a near-girlfriend back east, who can tell he’s started smoking again by the quality of his voice, the deepening of utterance in the wake of some fucked up shit. The way no one ever says straight out what they mean, or what is going on between them, this is the left-out communication of my people, my landscape. Mum recently joked about reading Main Street and wondering why no one ever said what they meant, but she’s not a Midwesterner like I have grown to be. Not-saying is the language I understand.

So, the only complaint I have about this story is that I want MOAR and I want it NOW. This is pretty much the perfect package of my Midwestern cold and avoidance made inevitable and bloody and strange. This is all my obsessions made manifest, their closed mouths saying as much as blood in the snow. Uff da.

Cadaver: A Bittersweet Love Story

This may sound meaner than I intend, but the macabre sweetness of Cadaver: A Bittersweet Love Storyby Jonah Ansell made me like it despite the egregious poetry. For example lines such as:

LET IT GO!
Bequeath to me
The organ that was meant for she

Should be strangled with piano wire. I get you’re going for the rhyme word there, what with the she, and I know that English is a rhyme-poor language and all that noise, but it’s her. The organ that was meant for her. Don’t sacrifice grammar for the rhyme, or you sacrifice sense for artifice. That is a direct object, and while we don’t do a lot of case-changes in English, we do them with personal pronouns, and…I’m sorry. I get that my head is coming to a point here, and that this sort of thing will not bother many people. I am, as the kids say, just saying. (I don’t even know if kids say that anymore. Off my lawn.)

So, now that I’ve begun by flipping out about prosody and grammar, here is why I still liked this odd little book. First, this story was written for a brother for his sister on her first day in med school dissecting cadavers. That’s adorable, and also creepy. I love eavesdropping art – or maybe I just love the idea of it – art that was created by this one person for this other person, and then somehow, it ends up out in the world, and we get to pretend we know something about the artist and the audience of one. It might be that all or most art is eavesdropping art, everyone writing to that audience they imagine, which doesn’t, ultimately, include me but in the abstract, and I listen in behind my book. I like that idea. I like that I thought that while reading this.

The sister-character with her too-large square glasses and fearful little face cuts open the chest of her first cadaver. (Random aside: while I was taking Russian, I learned there are classes of nouns that are animate, and ones that are inanimate; this only become important when conjugating certain nouns or something? Living things are, obviously, animate. But there are – at least – two words for dead body in Russian, one of which is animate, and one that is inanimate. (Sub-aside: we were reading that Akhmatova poem about the true love who washes up on the beach of the Black Sea, which is why we were talking about this at all. His dead body was the animate kind of corpse, but not, like, in a zombie way.) Point being, we had this long conversation about what the English equivalent would be, and corpse we decided was the animate, andcarrion the inanimate. Cadaver, now that was a trickier case. Obviously inanimate, on one level, used at is almost always in medical or scientific contexts to strip the body and its attendant death of personality. But on another level, there’s this sense of industry and learning in this term, the vessel for occult and revealed knowledge or something.)

Once the sister-character pulls out the cadaver’s heart, he gets up off the table – but not, like, in a zombie way – and begs to road-trip to see his wife one last time. The road trip with cadaver parts were my favorite, him in his ass-showing medical smock, her at the wheel of a big American convertible. The prosody even tightened up long enough for me to stop hating it every second of my life, and there’s a quatrain or two I thought were honestly funny. Then he meets his wife and…well, the rest here is spoilers.

comic panel showing an old man and a child in a car, the child is driving. They both look very excited

The price of admission was probably paid by a link at the end of the book that took me to the short film version of this story, along with a password. The cadaver is voiced by Christopher Lloyd, for chrissakes! One point twenty one gigawatts! The doggerel sounds better coming from voice actors and not my internal Minnesota accent, and some of the switch-backs and reveals work better in moving pictures than still. I suspect the film came first, putting this book in the same category as The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, where the book is more of an artifact of a film than a full-blown work. (Not that I have a problem with that. It is, as the kids say, what it is. Get off my lawn.) Interestingly, or maybe only interesting to me, but I can think of many more books made into film than the other way around, stuff like Lost Thing by Shaun Tan. I pretty much want to eat everything that man does with a spoon, though. But not, like, in a zombie way.

Just kidding. Totally in a zombie way.

I received my copy from netgalley.com.