Reading Roundup: Cataclysms, Memoirs, and Other Things

So, I’ve been gone from the blog for a while, for various reasons, chief among them my ongoing work at Weirdfictionrevew.com, preparations for my move to Lawrence, KS, and the demands of my regular day job. It feels like I update this in spurts, anyway. I run for long stretches of time where I only half-feel like I need to write something, or I feel like nothing is ready to share or worth sharing yet, and then it all bottlenecks until I let loose a handful of entries before retreating into the ether again. I wish I could do this more regularly, but at least I’m becoming more openly honest about my tendencies.

There are definitely more posts to come here, ranging from my thoughts on some recent horror film and fiction (some quite good, some truly horrible, a lot in-between) to a definitive update on my move to Lawrence and what I’ll be up to for the rest of the summer. For now, it’s time for another reading roundup! This is all material I’ve read over the past few months that I felt worth sharing with people. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Circus_of_doctor_laoThe Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles Finney: This one’s a classic of fantasy literature that I finally got around to reading after I acquired it a few years ago. It came to my attention as a precursor to a novel I enjoyed in my childhood, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (which is overdue for a personal reread). The premise, naturally, involves a circus led by a Chinese man, the titular Dr. Lao, for a stop in the good ol’ small American town of Abalone, Arizona. There’s a parade through town, which introduces readers to both the mythological inhabitants of the circus (a sage, a sea serpent/dragon, a Gorgon, a mermaid, etc.) and the inhabitants of Abalone. After that comes the circus itself, which we’re led to experience through the viewpoints of the various citizens and their respective wonder (or lack thereof) at the strange sights and events, all of which ultimately lead to an awe-inspiring final act for the show involving a god and possible human sacrifice…

It’s a deservedly classic book, and also deeply weird. The book is driven by an ultimately cynical, weary core, with a sense of frustration in people (especially small town America) who do not recognize the wonder and beauty in special events. The people of Abalone are largely ugly, petty, and shortsighted, even in the face of Dr. Lao and his friends. Dr. Lao himself is a great character: to the citizens’ faces, he validates their most simplistic Oriental stereotypes, but behind their backs he lambastes their racism and stupidity in most articulate style. It feels like Finney is training his sights on the more loathsome attitudes of his time (the 30s), and he does so with notable humor, mainly through the use of sarcasm and irony. The edition I have (from Bison Books, TPB) also reproduced the surreal, whimsical illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff, which made for a delightful bonus.

Cataclysm-Baby-Final-Cover-FrontCataclysm Baby and How They Were Found by Matt Bell: Taken in tandem, these books make a sturdy case for Bell as an excellent writer with a unique, notable voice. Baby is a novella-length collection of vignettes about children born and raised during or in the aftermath of various disasters and apocalypses (a case of the title being surprisingly literal). It also takes the form of a baby name book of sorts, so you wind up with 26 linked flash and short stories. Overall, they’re dark and haunting, suffused with incredible imagery and staggering emotion without sentimentality. Found, meanwhile, is a collection of short stories by Bell that predate Baby, at least in terms of publication, and features several stories well worth reading: “The Receiving Tower,” about a group of amnesiac soldiers manning an outpost after a barely-remembered apocalypse; “His Last Great Gift,” about a preacher building a strange machine from blueprints inspired by supposedly divine visions; and “Dredge,” one of the most inventive and twisted detective stories I’ve ever read. Bell is a great choice for fans of genre fiction who want to explore more literary writers and stories, namely because he can play so effectively with genre-based expectations (like in “Dredge”) or write science fictional or fantastical stories that the reader can identify as such while lightly touching on familiar tropes and topoi, if at all. I personally can’t wait to read his new novel.

the-stone-godsThe Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson: I’d been meaning to read this for a long time, and it did not disappoint, although it’s a bit erratic at times. The premise of the novel is fascinating: humanity has made quantum leaps in technological advancement, especially in terms of posthuman body manipulation, but it is also stuck in a state of arrested adolescence, where the potential of our technological achievements is hamstrung by our immaturity (women alter their genetic code to be “locked in” at pubescent or pre-pubescent ages, for example). Meanwhile, the environment is left so destitute by industry and technological development that leaving Earth is a very real necessity. The novel springboards from this initial premise and ultimately becomes a meditation on several themes – the limits of evolution and human achievement, the nature of love and lust, the cyclical nature of destruction and creation that humans are seemingly shackled to – tethered to a series of linked characters, both human and nonhuman.

The erratic nature of the novel comes from its structure, being both episodic and cyclical, where different segments go on to inform readers’ perceptions of earlier chapters. The best part of the novel by far is the first and largest chapter, which reads like a tragic love story and a deeply awe-inspiring, profound look at life on Earth and the possibility of life and existence elsewhere in the universe. Subsequent chapters aren’t as compelling as the first, though. Overall, Winterson’s writing is incredibly sharp, and the characters she creates are very affecting. This is also one of those novels where the author’s worldview infuses everything in the book with a certain spirit (very reminiscent of Charles Finney’s in The Circus of Dr. Lao, actually), and you’ll either feel empathy with it or you won’t.

b354aca931db183b32cecffef2cf46a4Constellations by Nick Payne: This one came to my attention via a review from Tor.com. It’s a story about a young couple, Marianne and Roland, and the development (or stifling) of their love (or lack of it) over a period of days (or weeks, years, etc.). There’s a lot of that or stuff going on in Constellations, which can be explained by this stage direction at the beginning of the script: “A change in formatting—from Normal to Bold, for instance—indicates a change in universe.” So, it’s both a love story and a multiverse story, with the kinds of branching narratives you could expect from that kind of structure. For the most part, I did enjoy Constellations, but in the end I still felt the lack of something important. It’s not that it’s a bad story; far from it, as I felt a good deal of sympathy for the plight of the characters and laughed at their various failings when trying to connect to one another (neither one of them is what I would consider as being totally successful in having their shit pulled together). The problem is that in the end, the payoff of the entire story isn’t all that different from other multiverse/love stories. What gives the story novelty is its form (a theatrical production), not necessarily the story itself. It’s less successful as science fiction, but much more successful as highly literate emotional comfort food/tearjerker material. I think my response would be more positive if I got to see the play acted out, as opposed to just reading it on the page. There’s also the chance I may just be far too picky in my preferences…

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman: My introduction to the writing of Aickman came via his story “The Hospice,” which I encountered in The Weird. That story absolutely blew me away with its nuanced strangeness and menace. It’s one of the most inexplicable stories I’ve ever read, which is even more impressive because there’s nothing in the story that’s explicitly fantastical. Everything that happens in the story is realistically possible, if not plausible. The events of the story don’t feel too obscure because they happen with perfect clarity of detail; it’s the logic of the events and their sequence and meaning that feel obscure.

Cold-Hand1-332x500“The Hospice” is most certainly one of the highlights of The Weird, but it’s also the biggest highlight of the first proper Aickman collection I’ve read since then, Cold Hand in Mine. As an overall reading experience, I enjoyed this collection, but I also think it’s topheavy in quality; I enjoyed the initial four or five stories much more than the rest. Part of the reason there may be that I tried to read the collection in one or two sittings, which is probably not the way to read Aickman. It’s better to read the stories one at a time over the course of a week, to let them simmer properly. That said, I loved “The Swords,” the collection’s lead-off story, almost as much as “The Hospice,” and I enjoyed “The Real Road to the Church” and “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” just a step below “The Swords.” Aickman excels at these ambiguous moments of tension between sureness and doubt in the reality of one’s surroundings and the people around them, and in fact many of the stories here are oriented on an escalation to a point of maximum tension of this kind. I’m going to reverse my commentary on Matt Bell’s fiction earlier in saying that Aickman is a good gateway into fantasy and horror for people who are otherwise used to literary, mostly realistic fiction.

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz:  Schulz is another author I wanted to revisit after reading his story in The Weird – “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass,” one of my favorites in the entire anthology. Thankfully, I had a copy of Crocodiles handy (the Penguin edition with the foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer, which also includes the rest of Schulz’s output as a fiction writer). It’s a stunning, inimitable book that has remained in my mind since reading it. The entirety of the book is taken with the memoirs of a man recollecting his childhood in a small Polish town, living with his eccentric shopkeeper father and the rest of his family. That description sounds pleasant and down to earth, and Crocodiles is frequently such, but it is also one of the most surreal, inexplicable books I’ve ever read. At any moment in the narrator’s recollection, a realistic story about his father and his obsessions can soar into a meditation on multicolored paper birds that fill a room with their swirling flock, or a treatise on the nature of the soul as seen through the personhood of a tailor’s dummy. Time can and will dislocate itself multiple times within the same story, to the point that the reader feels like they’re dropping through different layers of reality and finding something stranger and yet more real each time.

street of crocodilesFirst instinct would dictate that these stories are fictions built around an imaginary character, Schulz’s way of reconstructing his childhood experiences through a surreal, fantastical filter. In the course of my research, I’ve discovered that these stories actually are Schulz’s autobiography, more or less. The stories that compose almost all of Schulz’s fictional output have their origins in letters that he wrote to a friend as personalized accounts of his life with his family, friend, and other people in his hometown. In the reader’s eyes, it doesn’t get more fictional that Crocodiles, but to Schulz this is straight-up nonfiction. It’s sometimes very humbling to meditate on perspective and how the reality or irreality of someone’s existence changes depending on the observer. Crocodiles and the rest of Schulz’s writing stands as the most powerful reminder I’ve encountered.

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