Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant VanishesThe Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some authors excel at writing novels. Others excel at the short form. A few are equally adept at writing novels and short stories. From my reading of The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami is not one of those people. Here’s why:

Murakami’s novels are lush affairs. By that I mean that his proto-typically lazy character has time. Time to develop interests, time to contemplate deeply, time to be affected, to become . . . something. The short form, by its very nature, does not allow the same luxuries. So when Murakami’s prototypical ambivalent protagonist shows in a short story (which they often do, in this collection), the results are unspectacular. What one might consider “breathing space” in a Murakami novel, a place where the reader can coast through the reading before returning to the more meaty, idea-heavy sections, becomes a void in his short work. Unfortunately, once in the void, there are two options: float silently away into space or explode as the vacuum’s pressure differential kicks in. More often than not, these types of stories simply fade away into an unsatisfying whisper. I can appreciate the difficulty in transitioning from one form to another. I started off as a short story writer, then pushed my way through novellas, then novels. It’s not an easy task to switch from one mode to another, and I’ve failed myself, many times. My notebooks are full of half-finished longer work and ideas that never really coalesced into full-formed novels. Murakami seems to have the opposite problem, soaring in his novels while stuttering in his short stories.

Thankfully, there are exceptions.

The collection starts off well enough with “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women,” an ethereal tale about a loveless marriage and a strange encounter in the lot of an abandoned house. This literary dream is the sort of thing Murakami is famous for, and rightfully so. This is a story that wraps itself around your head and doesn't let go.

“The Second Bakery Attack,” incidentally, the second story in this volume, is a downright wacky escape from responsibility, one of those adventurous, spur-of-the-moment, nearly psychotic events that you've always wanted to orchestrate, but never had the guts to carry out. It's a rampage, of sorts, but a darkly funny rampage.

The story “Sleep,” about a woman who loses the ability to sleep and seems to be none the worse for wear because of it, could have been brilliant. But the ending was terrible. It was just too abrupt and jarring, like the evil twin of deus-ex-machina descending out of an unseen trapdoor in the ceiling to drop on the reader with an unwarranted assault of the intellect. Reading this ending, I felt insulted. So much wasted potential!

“Barn Burning” had the tone of The Great Gatsby, but nowhere near the same depth of substance. A good story, but not great.

My favorite story of the collection was “A Window”. This one blew my socks off. It is one of the shortest works in the volume, and the most powerful. The main character is a young man who is hired to read and edit letters sent to him by women who want to become better writers. There's little to excite in the plot itself, but the emotion is deep and often poignant. Absolutely the most moving story in the book. This is one that should be anthologized for the sake of the next generation of readers.

“The Dancing Dwarf” came in a close second. It is a modern fairy tale, replete with spiritual possession, diabolical contracts, and the dire consequences of living up to such a contract. This one pushes beyond magic realism into the realm of fabulism. Its mood is different than any other story in this collection, truly horrific, and I wonder if Murakami couldn't fit this into a collection of darker work. I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

The title story is a very interesting tale, ostensibly about a vanishing elephant, though I suspect that the impetus for the story came from questions about quantum mechanics, probability, and scientific observation. But those philosophical underpinnings lie beneath many folds of pachyderm skin. As the elephant vanishes, the implications grow. A fitting ending to a short-story collection, no?

While the stories I've mentioned are strong and would have made an excellent collection on their own, the others detract from the “oomph” I like in short story collections. I'm a bit disappointed, to be honest, but the stronger stories hold the overall product up at an acceptable level. Don't bust the bank to purchase a copy, but do seek it out at your local used book store or library. It's worth that much, as well as a few hours of your time (if you're a slow reader like me). Recommended, with reservations.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Artifactual Books

I love a good book. By that, I don't just mean the words on the page. I love the book-as-artifact, the object itself, which, if carefully and properly created, impresses by its mere presence. I'm talking about a book that makes the room in which it lies better, no matter where it is. While I realize that there are a few trade paperbacks that are of a high quality (isn't that what the Philip K. Dick Award is all about?), I'm looking for something really special, something you're likely not going to find at your chain bookstore and only rarely at the best independent bookstores. Oftentimes, these books feature the work of obscure and experimental authors, but not necessarily.

Some small presses put out a special edition or two that are truly outstanding. Savoy Books' A Voyage to Arcturus is a good example of this. Yes, Savoy puts out some other great books, including my favorite book on writing, Michael Moorcock's Death Is No Obstacle, but nothing quite reaches the grandeur of A Voyage to Arcturus. The 2002 edition of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, published by Prime Books, is one of the finest books in my library. But Prime hasn't done anything nearly as nice before (definitely) or since (so far as I know).

So what publishers consistently bring out the finest artifacts as books? I'm sure there are a few that I am not aware of, probably several that are no longer in business. This sort of thing requires an investment, and, as I understand the publishing industry, shoestring budgets are the rule, rather than the exception. Besides, these sorts of books are oftentimes very expensive to produce and, therefore, there are few who can afford to buy them. Margins are thin and the audience is small. It's very difficult for a publisher to sustain business, given these constraints.

Thankfully, a few small presses persevere. I'm not sure if they have wealthy investors or if the owners are really keen on losing money. Maybe they've discovered some super-secret business model that defies Keynesian economic principles. But, money aside (a LOT of money aside), here are a few must-sees.

For consistency of presentation and quality, I am partial to Tartarus Press.  Their ouvre is that of dark fiction, well told, in an understated, crisp format that never fails to impress. Truth be told, if I had to have all of my books in one physical format, I would pick Tartarus to do the job. I've commented on their edition of Gustav Meyrink's The Golem. Tartarus books are, in a word, elegant. Once you've picked one up, you'll be able to spot one on a crowded bookshelf in a flash. They are the supermodel of books, so far as I'm concerned.

Atlas Press has been putting out a number of strange works, all expertly presented, for some years now. Of special interest are their Special Editions, including a numbered and slip cased edition of Hermann Nitsch's The Fall of Jerusalem, which includes a trifolded map of the subterranean city in which the Dionysian drama takes place.

Finally, Ex Occidente Press is producing some fine books, if you've got the money to spend. Like Atlas, their tastes run to the transgressive and obscure, but with a more contemporary tilt.

Thankfully, the internet makes these works attainable, at least in terms of having the ability to obtain the books, despite the price. There are few bookstores that can and actually do physically carry these volumes (and others like them)  and I'm guessing that these bookstores are likely only located in the largest metropolitan areas. Though they do not, so far as I know, carry titles by the publishers mentioned above, I'd still recommend that those passing through southern or eastern Wisconsin stop in at Woodland Pattern bookstore, in Milwaukee, for a taste of the sort of thing I'm talking about. Speaking of which, it's probably about time I made a trip back there. Hmm. Time for a road trip?

If you know of any others, I'd love to hear about them!

ADDENDUM: Since I posted this a month ago, I have stumbled on the wonderful textual artifacts produced by Egaeus Press. They look beautiful and I am hearing some great things about them from reviewers whom I respect a great deal. Oh, how I wish I had more cash for spending on fine books like this! These are real pieces of art for the reader of dark fiction and the collector of shadowy, beautiful books at very reasonable prices. A library full of grim elegance!

ADDENDUM 2: When it rains, it pours. It's my lucky week for finding publishers of beautiful limited editions, I guess. I have the delight of having "discovered" Centipede Press and their fantastic limited edition books. Their (sold out) edition of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War looks like a treasure. Anyone want to trade for my trade paperback edition? It's in really good shape!

ADDENDUM 3: The world keeps getting richer with beautiful books! Six years after this post, I have discovered more riches: please add Sidereal Press, Raphus Books, Hieroglyphic Press, and Sarob Press to the list! More to come as I find (and vette) them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Amazon, Goodreads, Questions . . . and an answer

Not long after the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon, I posted a rather skeptical open missive questioning the future of one of my favorite websites. Here is a portion of the email I sent to Goodreads in regards to my questions, under the subject heading "RE: Goodreads Joins the Amazon Family":

What does this imply, in terms of authors reviewing other author's work? Will the same restrictions be placed on Goodreads authors reviewing other authors' work, the same as Amazon has done? What assurances can we have that this will NOT happen?

What of works that are now published exclusively on a platform other than Amazon, such as Smashwords? Will the corporate interests of Amazon disallow reviews of such books?

Please take a moment to address these questions.

I was surprised, frankly, to get a direct response. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, given how . . . well, good Goodreads has been in the past.  Maybe my pessimism had let me believe the various conspiracy theories that are floating out there about how the acquisition must have already corrupted Goodreads. While more level-headed people are taking a "wait and see" approach (myself included), there are some who have run away from Goodreads virtually screaming, as it were.

So here is a measured and intelligent response from Kate Erickson, Customer Care Manager at Goodreads:

Hi Forrest,

I'm so sorry for the delayed response to your inquiries.  To clarify, we have no plans to change our reviews policy. All of your reviews and ratings will remain here on Goodreads.  And we’ll continue to be a home for all types of readers, no matter what books you love to read or how you love to read them.  You will still be able to review any book that you've read, even if it isn't available on Amazon.  As for the links to retailers, we have no plans to change these.  And it’s important to remember that members always have the freedom to choose where to buy their books – it’s their decision.

I hope that helps to allay your concerns, but please let me know if you have any further questions.

Best regards,

Kara Erickson
Customer Care Manager

Now, while I find the last sentence to be a little bit of an artful dodge (really, only a little bit), I'll say that this response has done a lot to put my mind at ease. Call me a sucker, but I believe her, at least for now. Again, I'm taking a wait and see approach, like many of you are, but I feel like I can ease back in my chair just a bit while watching the transition take place. Who knows, maybe we'll all end up enjoying the ride?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Moby Dick

Moby-DickMoby-Dick by Herman Melville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wanna know a secret? Lean over here and I’ll tell you: This is the first time I’ve read Moby Dick. No lie. 43 years old, never read it. That assignment in high school? Skipped it. Faked the report. Thank you, Cliff Notes. By that, I mean the guy named Cliff in my English class. He owed me a favor. A whale of a favor . . . And college? Bachelor’s degree in Humanities – I had to have read Moby Dick, right? Wrong. Just snippets. Excerpts. Then, feeling the guilt of being an educated American who had not read the book, I sat down to finally read it. This was, oh, about twenty years ago or so, I don’t rightly remember.

I started. But I didn’t finish. Why not? Because the book had a reputation, a monstrous reputation. It was big, boring, and scary, at least that’s what I was told. While I was reading comic books, fantasies, and role-playing game rulebooks in any spare time I had, my friends were reading Moby Dick. Or they had read it already and they were brooding on it. For years. I saw what that book had done to them. It didn't look very pretty from the outside.

But I have an addictive personality. Sometimes, I just can’t stop myself from reading. My curiosity – well, it gets me into a lot of trouble. And so it was that I was led, nay, possessed by some evil entity beyond myself (or maybe it was just embarrassment) to finally crack the spine and eat the marrow of, er, I mean, to read, yes, read what is considered by many to be Melville’s masterpiece.

Even then, I kept it a secret. I’m a multiple-book-at-a-time-reader (why does admitting that make me feel dirty?), so I’ve conveniently used the cloak of a few other books (even one, ironically, that involved whales) to disguise the fact that I’ve been covertly reading Moby Dick alongside these others. I know. I’m a creep, a literary lurker. Some kind of intellectual pervert. I can hardly help myself.

So it’s confession time. Time to repent and face up to reality. And the reality is: I really liked Moby Dick. It’s not nearly the daunting Leviathan that some led me to believe it was. Nor was it as boring as my little dalliances within its excerpts had initially indicated. No, actually, it was good. Really good.

And the book is not as "heavy" as you might think, at least not all the time. Melville’s sense of humor comes through, from time to time, in the book, and is rather endearing. Here, for example, he describes a painting of a whale and a narwhale appearing in the 1807 version of “Goldsmith’s Animated Nature”:

I do not wish to seem inelegant, but this unsightly whale
looks much like an amputated sow; and, as for the narwhale,
one glimpse at it is enough to amaze one, that in this nineteenth
century such a hippogriff could be palmed for genuine upon
any intelligent public of schoolboys.

There’s a sort of learned snarkiness in the narrator’s voice, though it’s not sharply critical. The kind of thing you’d appreciate around a table drinking tea with close friends, rather than the public humor of a stand-up comedian. This sense of talking with a (very erudite) friend makes the book “warm” in just the right spots, such as the point where Ishmael is getting to know Queequeg a little better than he'd like to. In time the narrator’s accepting attitude help us to accept not only Queequeg, but Ishmael himself, as well. We learn to trust him as our narrator.

Granted, there are moments, like the exhaustive (and exhausting) taxonomy of whales that tried the nerves (the optic nerves, in particular), and, yes, the language is archaic and even a bit esoteric at times. The alliteration can get a little tedious, too, even for a Dr. Seuss fanatic like me, as in this sentence:

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one
serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like
scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings,
made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a
silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white
bubbles at the bow.

But Melville – first off, the guy has chops. He can write a great sentence.

Secondly, he weaves dimestore philosophy throughout almost seamlessly, and I love works with a bit of the philosophical in them. Even in the descriptions of decapitated whale’s heads, the narrator waxes philosophical:

Can you catch the expression of the Sperm Whale's there?
It is the same he died with, only some of the longer wrinkles
in the forehead seem now faded away. I think his broad brow
to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative
indifference as to death. But mark the other head's expression.
See that amazing lower lip, pressed by accident against the vessel's side, so as firmly to embrace the jaw. Does not this whole head seem
to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death?
This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale,
a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.

Another example comes to mind, as the narrator holds a rope tied around his friend, Queequeg, who is rather busy working on a whale carcass in the water, all the time trying to avoid being bitten by the school of sharks that is feeding on the body atop which the poor laborer is walking. I love the implications of this "monkey rope", how we are, as humans in society, tied together and dependent on one another. There’s a simultaneous fear and warmth in the trust implied thereby. That tightrope between fear and warmth seems to be a comfortable spot for Melville. Not an easy trick!

And third, his characters are incredibly detailed, alive, even. Take, for instance, this masterful description of the genesis of Ahab’s hatred toward Moby Dick:

It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant
rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.
Then, in darting at the monster, knife in hand, he had but
given loose to a sudden, passionate, corporal animosity;
and when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably
but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more.
Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for
long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched
together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary,
howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed
soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad.
That it was only then, on the homeward voyage, after the encounter,
that the final monomania seized him, seems all but certain
from the fact that, at intervals during the passage, he was
a raving lunatic; and, though unlimbed of a leg, yet such vital
strength yet lurked in his Egyptian chest, and was moreover
intensified by his delirium, that his mates were forced to lace
him fast, even there, as he sailed, raving in his hammock.
In a strait-jacket, he swung to the mad rockings of the gales.
And, when running into more sufferable latitudes, the ship,
with mild stun'sails spread, floated across the tranquil tropics,
and, to all appearances, the old man's delirium seemed left behind
him with the Cape Horn swells, and he came forth from his dark
den into the blessed light and air; even then, when he bore
that firm, collected front, however pale, and issued his calm
orders once again; and his mates thanked God the direful madness
was now gone; even then, Ahab, in his hidden self, raved on.

I find the crazed prophet Gabriel of the ship Jeroboam to be fascinating, as well. In fact, all the certifiably crazy people in the story (Gabriel, Ahab and, later, Pip) are fascinating in their ability to lift the reader beyond the mundane with their mad, eloquent ravings. I’d love to write Gabriel's full story, or a similar one. Maybe someday . . . is there such a thing as “Moby Dick fanfic?"

Now, Melville’s seemingly erratic jump from 3rd to 1st person, back and forth, as well as his diversions into stage directions and drama would be considered the greatest taboo by many of the big-name book publishers today. Inconsistent narration? Crazy! Metafiction? No one will want to read that!

But they did. And they do. The popularity of Moby Dick attests to that. But if Melville were to submit his manuscript today, few agents would take it. “Too experimental,” they’d say, “try the small presses”. And some obscure small press, run from a kitchen table in a suburb on a shoestring budget, would eventually take it and publish it right into nothingness. Eventually, as word spread among a cult of readers, one of the larger presses might note that the book was getting some notoriety and ask for sales trends. “This is a whale of a tale,” they’d say as their pupils assumed the shape of dollar signs, “how did we ever miss it?”

If it was a whale, it would have bitten their corporate leg off.

Maybe that's what makes this book so good. It's a tough read. It requires some stamina. You'll probably need to grab a dictionary from time to time. Some parts will read incredibly slow and you'll need to re-read them. Others will be over before you know it and you'll need to re-read them. This is not a book for the casual reader any more than the Pequod's quest was a casual fishing trip off the coast. This book is deep water. But like any challenge that requires great effort, the results are worth it. Some might consider this read a quest in and of itself, even memorializing their participation in the quest. I don't blame them. Moby Dick is a sort of readers' rite of passage. Now I can say, with some sense of pride, that I am one of the initiated, forever baptized in the depths along with Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck, Stubbs, and all the rest. I know these people, or I knew them. I have smelled the blood of whales, the salt of the sea, tasted the iron of the harpoon, stood atop the mast and taken in the rolling immensity of the sea, seen the white whale rushing up from the watery dark toward my boat. I have served my time on the Pequod. And I say, welcome aboard!

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Friday, April 5, 2013

Life On Earth

Life on EarthLife on Earth by Stepan Chapman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite his Philip K. Dick-award-winning The Troika and a slot in the well-known Orbit series of anthologies, Stepan Chapman has a gift for obscurity. I tried, twice, to help him along, but for some reason Stepan remains a cult classic.

I think this is because Stepan is the proverbial Renaissance Man. He's written novels, short stories, is involved with puppetry and children's theater, and is noted in the small press for his quirky and surreal drawings.

And this last talent is what is on display in Life On Earth. These are not your normal drawings, either. The closest thing in the comic world is, I believe, Konny and Czu (an all-time favorite of mine and among my most prized comic possessions).

"Life on earth was depressed," the story begins. Story? Well, more like a fable. Here, Chapman has tied together a series of wildly disparate (and just plain wild) images in a sort of existentialist fairy tale. The story is not particularly strong, but on the whole, the book is quirky and just so darkly-cute that it makes the little goth crouching behind my heart snicker a bit. The imagery is out of this world - literally - there's no way you can place it on this Earth, and I wonder if the irony is intentional. That seems like something Stepan would do - just for laughs. Now, the book won't make you laugh, unless you have a very grim sense of humor. The characters depicted herein - from vaguely insectoid entities to malformed and tortured humans (this is not for kids, folks) - will make you cringe and, at the same time, fill you with self-loathing for that little smile that crept onto your face as you feigned disgust.

But it will make you think about your place on earth, about where you fit in, and mercilessly toss you between hope and cynicism. Where you end up after this game is over says a lot about what you think of Life On Earth.

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