Speculative fiction from ChiZine

Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall (ChiZine Publications, $11.89/$9.99 ebook).

They Do the Same Things Different There by Robert Shearman (ChiZine Publications, $11.89/$9.99 ebook).

The Family Unit and Other Fantasies by Lawrence Klavan (ChiZine Publications, $11.89/$9.99).

While ChiZine Publications—and its parent, ChiZine—say they’re not arguing over genre anymore (dragons = fantasy, unless they’re bioengineered dragons, then = sf, or maybe if it’s a dragon apocalypse, it = horror, to use their example). That’s a good thing, from a reader’s perspective, because what these collections of fiction give us is just plain weird in the best possible way.

Having already run across some really good books—Melia McClure’s The Delphi Room  and David Nickle’s The ‘Geisters (read for fun and didn’t review)—it was pleasantly surprising to find that all of these worthy titles are from ChiZine, a house that asks us to “embrace the odd.”

Nothing’s better when it comes to reading than embracing the odd.

In Helen Marshall’s collection of stories, we get odd in some intriguing ways—more than once, intriguing interpretations of the rivalry that accompanies the impending arrival of a new sibling.

In “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects,” a child who seems to be “special” in either the extremely-bright-for-her-age or extremely-slow-for-her-age way (and we’re never quite sure which) thinks that the twins her mother is carrying are swallowing everything in the house. 

"Lessons" was a bit too vague even for a collection of the odd, but "The Gallery of the Eliminated" covers similar ground in a much more emotionally satisfying way, as a little boy named Walter has mixed feelings about the arrival of his new sister. But the baby dies, and his family seems to disappear. He goes with his father to the titular "gallery of the eliminated," and we discover that some things—giant sloths, for example—can come back from extinction. But only some things, and there’s a dark undercurrent here that very aptly ties griefs small and personal to grief large and universal.

There are a couple of what we’d call sf stories in the style of the late, great Ray Bradbury—“The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass,” about a strange antique telescope that allows a boy to see back and forth in time, and “Supply Limited, Act Now,” in which a group of children get their hands on a shrink-ray that probably isn’t supposed to work as well as it does.

Far and away the best stories in the collection, though, are those that veer furthest from traditional genre fiction and more into the land of the odd-but-literary. “In the Year of Omens,” which was included in one of Ellen Datlow’s anthologies, Fearful Symmetriesis one such, as is the first story in the collection, “The Hanging Game.” A personal favorite, though, is ”Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta,” in which a sorority girl falls in love with Death. This isn’t a Meet Joe Black morality tale, but rather a socially-aware satire of relationships and expectations.

In fact, that sort of satirical bent lies beneath the first story in Robert Shearman’s collection, “Luxembourg,” in which the entire country just disappears one day. This leads to some difficulties for Juliet, who loses her husband Colin when he’s on a business trip there.

One of the best things about this, as speculative fiction, is that the absurdy premise is just that—a premise. The heart of the story lies not in the weird thing that happened, but in the way that the characters react to it, as well as in our reaction to the characters’ actions. We willingly suspend our disbelief about the most absurd element because the characters are drawn in such a way and behave in such a fashion that we find something with which to engage.

Some of Shearman’s stories tend to lean toward horror—“That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love,” about a girl who only believes in love that destroys what she loves, and ”Sounding Brass Tinkling Cymbal,” in which children must cut off and tame their own tongues in order to become speaking adults—but the true horror comes not from the monstrous elements but from recognizing the typical inhumane humanity that underlies them.

Lawrence Klavan’s The Family Unit and Other Fantasies rides a rush of paranoid anxiety—and manages to induce a great deal of it, too. It’s also a genre-straddler, but in Klavan’s case, impending doom is the genre—and that’s refreshingly open-ended. 

The title story has a mysterious corporation making an offer on Arch’s family, and the anxiety is existential in a very weird way. Klavan’s background as a writer of graphic novels and screenplays is evident in the pacing and use of attention-grabbing detail at just the right point in the story to pull us farther in rather than allowing our attention to shift. 

Reminiscent of Rod Serling, the weird that turns up in these stories is in fact aimed at teaching us some truth about our inner workings, whether it’s the post-storm refugees who seem to want help but may be after something more, or the weirdness of how arousal arrives when we least expect it. What shines through, powerfully, in these stories is the simple reality that the weirdest things happen the closest to home.

The Great War as graphic novel

Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics, edited by Chris Duffy (First Second, $24.99).

White Death by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard (Image Comics, $14.99).

The centenary of World War I—the “war to end all wars”—has given us plenty of books, but for the most part, these are historical volumes aimed at shedding new light on the big picture. Many of these are outstanding books, to be sure, but unlike the literary work of the period, they don’t carry the weight of what the war did to those who lived and died in it.

These two graphic novels, however, have the ability to carry that weight; to make us feel it as if we shouldered the burdens ourselves. That’s the real power of marrying text and images, of course, but these are not documentary works. Instead, they use art as another aspect of language to give us a fuller, truer picture of what the Great War really felt like for those who were ground up in the sausage-maker of history.

Above the Dreamless Dead, from First Second and edited by Chris Duffy, makes use of a wide-ranging literary canon to put words to the cannon fire by taking poems (including some rather bawdy soldiers’ songs) from the war and asking contemporary comics artists to illustrate them. 

The range of styles among the artists aptly complements the literary styles, from bold strokes by Hunt Emerson for a drinking song that suggests soldiers would be more successful and happy as pimps to Wilfred Owen’s master work, “Dulce et decorum est,” illustrated in a blurred, shadowed style by George Pratt. 

All the great poets and writers—Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and the novelist Patrick McGill—are included. But there are also some lesser-known works—Francis Edward Ledwidge’s “War,” and Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches”—that have great resonance when combined with art.

This is an amazing volume, successful as a historical document about the Great War, as a literary anthology, and as a graphic novel anthology.

White Death, by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard, is set in the Italian Alps, where the Italian Army and the Austro-Hungarian Empire slugged it out on icy plateaus and steep, snow-filled valleys. 

The story is of Pietro Aquasanta, an Italian who was living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire when war broke out and was conscripted into their service before Italy entered the war. When he was captured by the Italian forces, he was offered release to fight in their army.

He is a man who belongs to both—and neither—side.

But he is also a native to the alpine terrain, and when he starts an avalanche to save some of his comrades, he reveals a new engine of war: 

"An avalanche is like a war. It starts small, then escalates, consuming eveything."

The black-and-white art is perfectly suited to the grotesquerie of trench warfare in blizzard conditions; stark, but not at all bare. 

And perhaps that’s the point: We don’t need full-color gore to understand how shattering it must have been to build defenses out of the bodies of one’s fallen comrades. But we do need to bear witness to the shattering.

A reader’s philosophy
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, $16.95).
We’re fortunate that Peter Mendelsund is a reader. There’s no doubt that he’s one awesome artist—he designs books and their covers for Alfred A. Knopf, including the lovely cover for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—but it’s really intriguing to find out not only how much but how closely an deeply someone with a design bent reads.
What We See When We Read is one part epistemology, one part visual philosophy, and one part reader’s memoir. That means it’s entirely absorbing, as Mendelsund walks us through the way that our mind creates images for us, using the clues that authors embed in literature.
Because he’s such a visual guy, this (incredibly well-designed) book includes images and drawings, as well as maps of “real” literary space (locations in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) and the graphic arc of narratives. One senses that reading is never a passive act for Mendelsund; the good news is that—at least for the readers to whom both this book and this blog will appeal—it’s not passive for the rest of us, either.
More than anything, What We See When We Read is a reminder that reading is active engagement. Our minds, our memories and our consciousness—as well as the visual centers of our brains—are working at a rapid clip when we’re immersed in literature. 
Mendelsund’s book will be fascinating for those of us who read as he does; it certainly re-affirms the collaboration that occurs between the literary work (and the author who produced it) and the reader to create an entirely new experience each time we read.

A reader’s philosophy

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, $16.95).

We’re fortunate that Peter Mendelsund is a reader. There’s no doubt that he’s one awesome artist—he designs books and their covers for Alfred A. Knopf, including the lovely cover for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—but it’s really intriguing to find out not only how much but how closely an deeply someone with a design bent reads.

What We See When We Read is one part epistemology, one part visual philosophy, and one part reader’s memoir. That means it’s entirely absorbing, as Mendelsund walks us through the way that our mind creates images for us, using the clues that authors embed in literature.

Because he’s such a visual guy, this (incredibly well-designed) book includes images and drawings, as well as maps of “real” literary space (locations in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) and the graphic arc of narratives. One senses that reading is never a passive act for Mendelsund; the good news is that—at least for the readers to whom both this book and this blog will appeal—it’s not passive for the rest of us, either.

More than anything, What We See When We Read is a reminder that reading is active engagement. Our minds, our memories and our consciousness—as well as the visual centers of our brains—are working at a rapid clip when we’re immersed in literature. 

Mendelsund’s book will be fascinating for those of us who read as he does; it certainly re-affirms the collaboration that occurs between the literary work (and the author who produced it) and the reader to create an entirely new experience each time we read.

Many people, many peoples
Assimilated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1940-1943 by Katarzyna Person (Syracuse University Press, $34.95).
One of the major problems with most representations of the Jews of Europe during World War II is with the stereotypical fashion in which a very large, very diverse group is portayed. This academic history, which will be of most interest to historians and students of Judaica, provides a necessary and useful analysis of the reactions and experiences of Jews who never in a million years expected to find themselves among other Jews.
They were, in fact, assimilated—or at least mostly so—into the cultures of the countries that were their homes. Assimilated European Jews tended to think of themselves as German, Polish, French, Austrian or Italian first; their Jewish identity was a cultural, ethnic or religious marker, but not their primary identity.
What the Holocaust did was to thrust a non-homogenous group of people into a single identity: Jew. Nothing else mattered; not personal accomplishment, level of acculturation, profession, or even political leanings. 
The Warsaw Ghetto held an exceptionally large and diverse group of Jewish communities and individuals, which makes Katarzyna Person’s analysis of the process by which they learned to live together—under extremely stressful and dangerous conditions, with the “transport to the East” hanging over their heads—a rich and thoughtful history.
By 1941, word had gotten out about the concentration camps, and most residents of the Warsaw Ghetto had at least heard that extermination was at the end of the line. Person concentrates on exploring the diversity of those who continued to live in the ghetto, under ever-increasing privation and brutality, until the final attempt to empty it by the Nazis was met with armed resistance.
While Assimilated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto is scrupulously researched, it’s also accessible for the non-specialist. Person’s writing is straightforward and she’s careful to explain terms as they arise in the text. But the biggest contribution this book makes is to expand upon the diversity of the Jewish communities of Warsaw. Despite being forced into a single category by the murderous machine of the Holocaust, in Person’s telling, we can see just how varied and vibrant were the cultures, talents, and experiences we lost.

Many people, many peoples

Assimilated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1940-1943 by Katarzyna Person (Syracuse University Press, $34.95).

One of the major problems with most representations of the Jews of Europe during World War II is with the stereotypical fashion in which a very large, very diverse group is portayed. This academic history, which will be of most interest to historians and students of Judaica, provides a necessary and useful analysis of the reactions and experiences of Jews who never in a million years expected to find themselves among other Jews.

They were, in fact, assimilated—or at least mostly so—into the cultures of the countries that were their homes. Assimilated European Jews tended to think of themselves as German, Polish, French, Austrian or Italian first; their Jewish identity was a cultural, ethnic or religious marker, but not their primary identity.

What the Holocaust did was to thrust a non-homogenous group of people into a single identity: Jew. Nothing else mattered; not personal accomplishment, level of acculturation, profession, or even political leanings. 

The Warsaw Ghetto held an exceptionally large and diverse group of Jewish communities and individuals, which makes Katarzyna Person’s analysis of the process by which they learned to live together—under extremely stressful and dangerous conditions, with the “transport to the East” hanging over their heads—a rich and thoughtful history.

By 1941, word had gotten out about the concentration camps, and most residents of the Warsaw Ghetto had at least heard that extermination was at the end of the line. Person concentrates on exploring the diversity of those who continued to live in the ghetto, under ever-increasing privation and brutality, until the final attempt to empty it by the Nazis was met with armed resistance.

While Assimilated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto is scrupulously researched, it’s also accessible for the non-specialist. Person’s writing is straightforward and she’s careful to explain terms as they arise in the text. But the biggest contribution this book makes is to expand upon the diversity of the Jewish communities of Warsaw. Despite being forced into a single category by the murderous machine of the Holocaust, in Person’s telling, we can see just how varied and vibrant were the cultures, talents, and experiences we lost.

Save our economies, beat the buzzards
Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism Is Swallowing the World by Antony Loewenstein (Melbourne University Press, $24.99/ebook $9.99).
Antony Loewenstein, a journalist-slash-activist from Australia, takes an international approach to the rise of “vulture capitalism.” Another facet of the “disaster capitalism” so well dissected in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, vulture capitalism is an apt description for the increasing tendency of venture capitalists to move into an industry, take over the businesses there, strip them of any possible assets and wealth, then move on, leaving nothing behind but bare, bleaching bones.
First, Loewenstein is not anti-capitalist; rather, like that father of the free market, Adam Smith, he is inclined toward a system that places restrictions on capitalism to control for the sort of greed that is engendered when humans feel no connection to the industry or people in which they’ve invested. Vulture capitalism occurs when all the investors are interested in is return on investment in cash terms.
He’s focussed very closely on international examples of the post-9/11 security apparatus, looking at the privatization of security systems, refugee centers, and surveillance operations. This means that he’s also taking a look—albeit not as close as this reader would have liked—at the ways in which the security state benefits unrestrained capitalists.
But he’s not entirely glum. Instead, Loewenstein looks at ways that we can—from the bottom up—regain control of our economies and our industries, retaining the advantages of capitalist investment without surrendering the entire globe to a handful of big-bucks investors.
This is a smart and insightful book, and makes a wonderful addition to the literature on the greedy vultures. It belongs right next to Klein’s book and Matt Taibbi’s reporting.

Save our economies, beat the buzzards

Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism Is Swallowing the World by Antony Loewenstein (Melbourne University Press, $24.99/ebook $9.99).

Antony Loewenstein, a journalist-slash-activist from Australia, takes an international approach to the rise of “vulture capitalism.” Another facet of the “disaster capitalism” so well dissected in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, vulture capitalism is an apt description for the increasing tendency of venture capitalists to move into an industry, take over the businesses there, strip them of any possible assets and wealth, then move on, leaving nothing behind but bare, bleaching bones.

First, Loewenstein is not anti-capitalist; rather, like that father of the free market, Adam Smith, he is inclined toward a system that places restrictions on capitalism to control for the sort of greed that is engendered when humans feel no connection to the industry or people in which they’ve invested. Vulture capitalism occurs when all the investors are interested in is return on investment in cash terms.

He’s focussed very closely on international examples of the post-9/11 security apparatus, looking at the privatization of security systems, refugee centers, and surveillance operations. This means that he’s also taking a look—albeit not as close as this reader would have liked—at the ways in which the security state benefits unrestrained capitalists.

But he’s not entirely glum. Instead, Loewenstein looks at ways that we can—from the bottom up—regain control of our economies and our industries, retaining the advantages of capitalist investment without surrendering the entire globe to a handful of big-bucks investors.

This is a smart and insightful book, and makes a wonderful addition to the literature on the greedy vultures. It belongs right next to Klein’s book and Matt Taibbi’s reporting.

The deep end
Barracuda: A Novel by Christos Tsiolkas (Hogarth, $26). 
 

Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, Barracuda, carries a lot of water from an emotional point of view. As a coming-of-age story wrapped around Australian class and race discrimination with an act of violence at its center, that’s to be expected. 
At age 14, Danny was a swimming prodigy, with reasonable expectations of swimming in the Sydney Olympics. But in order to train with a good coach, he accepts a scholarship to an upper-class prep school, where his working class background and Greek ancestry make him an outsider beyond his scholarship status itself. 
Perhaps even more frustrating—from the point of view of the people around him in the novel, as well as for readers—is Danny’s general self-centeredness; it’s certainly common for teenagers, but it causes him a great deal of trouble that a less self-involved kid—say, his best friend Demet—might have been able to avoid. 
Using a narrative braided across several years, we follow Danny’s story and that of his older but not too much wiser self, Dan, who is homesick for Australia and longs to find some peace. 
As brutally honest about race and class politics in Australia as was Tsiolkas’ 2009 novel, The Slap, Barracuda is an honest look at a boy who is lost in the world and to himself.

The deep end

Barracuda: A Novel by Christos Tsiolkas (Hogarth, $26). 

 

Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, Barracuda, carries a lot of water from an emotional point of view. As a coming-of-age story wrapped around Australian class and race discrimination with an act of violence at its center, that’s to be expected.

At age 14, Danny was a swimming prodigy, with reasonable expectations of swimming in the Sydney Olympics. But in order to train with a good coach, he accepts a scholarship to an upper-class prep school, where his working class background and Greek ancestry make him an outsider beyond his scholarship status itself.

Perhaps even more frustrating—from the point of view of the people around him in the novel, as well as for readers—is Danny’s general self-centeredness; it’s certainly common for teenagers, but it causes him a great deal of trouble that a less self-involved kid—say, his best friend Demet—might have been able to avoid.

Using a narrative braided across several years, we follow Danny’s story and that of his older but not too much wiser self, Dan, who is homesick for Australia and longs to find some peace.

As brutally honest about race and class politics in Australia as was Tsiolkas’ 2009 novel, The Slap, Barracuda is an honest look at a boy who is lost in the world and to himself.

0 notes

It’s never easy
No One Needs to Know by Amanda Grace (Flux, $9.99).

Olivia is an over-achiever; she struggles with classwork, but is at the top of the social heap at school and is a championship gymnast. 
Zoe is smart as a whip, but lives in a rough part of town, has to work or take care of her little sister all the time, and can’t take money for granted—in fact, she’s a scholarship student at the private school she and Olivia attend. 
Natch, they hate each other. 
But as Amanda Grace’s young adult novel, No One Needs to Know, unfolds, Zoe and Olivia get paired up for a class project, then Zoe starts dating Olivia’s twin brother Liam. 
And then things get really complicated, as Olivia and Zoe first become friends, then more than friends. 
On the upside, this isn’t your typical teenage coming-out novel; neither girl is particularly confounded about the possibility of being gay or bi, so, yes, it does get better. This is a far remove from the tortured coming-out young adult novels of the past. 
On the downside, falling hard for your twin brother’s girlfriend is a recipe for angst, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation. The conflict here comes from the fear of loss: friendship, a close sibling relationship, a chance at a better life. 
Written—as so much of contemporary young adult fiction is—in the alternating first-person viewpoints of Zoe and Olivia, one does wonder what Liam would have to say about all of this. 
Overall, though, No One Needs to Know is a captivating novel with teens who are emotionally real and honestly trying to find their way in the world.

It’s never easy

No One Needs to Know by Amanda Grace (Flux, $9.99).

Olivia is an over-achiever; she struggles with classwork, but is at the top of the social heap at school and is a championship gymnast.

Zoe is smart as a whip, but lives in a rough part of town, has to work or take care of her little sister all the time, and can’t take money for granted—in fact, she’s a scholarship student at the private school she and Olivia attend.

Natch, they hate each other.

But as Amanda Grace’s young adult novel, No One Needs to Know, unfolds, Zoe and Olivia get paired up for a class project, then Zoe starts dating Olivia’s twin brother Liam.

And then things get really complicated, as Olivia and Zoe first become friends, then more than friends.

On the upside, this isn’t your typical teenage coming-out novel; neither girl is particularly confounded about the possibility of being gay or bi, so, yes, it does get better. This is a far remove from the tortured coming-out young adult novels of the past. 

On the downside, falling hard for your twin brother’s girlfriend is a recipe for angst, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation. The conflict here comes from the fear of loss: friendship, a close sibling relationship, a chance at a better life.

Written—as so much of contemporary young adult fiction is—in the alternating first-person viewpoints of Zoe and Olivia, one does wonder what Liam would have to say about all of this. 

Overall, though, No One Needs to Know is a captivating novel with teens who are emotionally real and honestly trying to find their way in the world.

0 notes