Failed Fiction Forays

I don’t usually set reading goals, but at the start of this year I felt that I’d fallen into a bit of a rut. A bit of a rut. A bit… (thud!) So I devised what middle management types call soft goals (unless I made this term up), meaning that it’s not so important whether I achieve said objectives. Mostly I’m looking to stretch myself in new literary directions, hence the vague guidelines for choosing reading materials.

Goal number one is to read fiction books written in 2015. Titles tackled so far include:

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The problem is, other than The Rosie Effect, none of these books have captured my interest enough to finish reading them. This is a bit unusual for me, to hit so many titles in a row that I put down unfinished. And once again I find myself turning to comfort books: detective pulp, cozy mysteries and nostalgic books I’ve read before. Maybe this makes a strong statement about my current psychological state, but for today let’s just look at the books I have abandoned.

Doctor Death:  A Madeleine Karno Mystery (2015) by Lene Kaaberbøl
This book contains a perfect blend of elements I look for in stories: Victorian times, early criminology techniques and a strong female character trying to transcend the role assigned to her. And yet, after about two-thirds of the book, I had no interest in continuing. Perhaps the story itself is not compelling, or a bit confusing, but this is one I really wanted to like but did not. Briefly, Madeleine’s father is a coroner. She assists him but is not allowed to do any of the fun, dirty work that she wants to do. When he’s injured and a murder occurs, she is called upon to do work that would normally fall to father. Finally, she gets a shot at the big league (so to speak). My excitement for the book is rekindling as I type this description, but still I cannot overlook that the story was slow-paced and didn’t seem to move forward.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2015) by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Described as quirky, even “Twin Peaks meets the Brothers Grimm,” by The Telegraph, this book seemed right up my alley. And there were some odd moments that partially fulfilled my need for the bizarre: classic books in the library rewriting themselves until discovery and destruction by the librarian, an incestuous group of authors bound together since childhood who regularly engage each other in a brutal game, and the supernatural disappearance of their mentor (amidst spontaneous localized weather inside of her house). However, the quirkiness was more sparse than expected and I found this to be another book I wanted to like but ultimately did not.

The Last American Vampire (2015) by Seth Grahame-Smith
The concept – vampire mythology mixed with historical events – is a potentially engaging one, but its realization (being interviews with and narratives by the main character done up in a journal/scrapbook fashion) left me cold. Then again, I have a low tolerance for vampires.

Dorothy Parker Drank Here (2015) by Ellen Meister
What if the ghost of Dorothy Parker spent decades haunting the barstools of the Algonquin, waiting for a worthy partner to spend eternity with? Well, what if? I became interested in Dorothy Parker through a historical fiction series set in early Hollywood, so I thought I might enjoy this book as well. Admittedly I’ve not got very far into the book, but on the other hand I don’t feel motivated to continue reading.

So what have I learned from this exercise? I seem to have entered my dotage. Rereading favorite books and sticking with favorite characters is where I’m currently at in the world of fiction. It’s not a bad place, and I’ll continue to try new titles, but for now … what were we talking about?

Heartwood 5:3 – Adventures in Immediate Irreality

BlecherFor a moment I had the feeling of existing only in the photograph.

To read this book is to put yourself into the hands of a writer of uncommon sensitivity, insight and intelligence.

Structurally, Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality is composed of short, episodic chapters chronicling events in the life of the narrator from his boyhood to his years as a young man. They explore childhood haunts, early experiences of sexuality, his fascination with the cinema, fairs, waxworks, and things to be found in dusty attics. There are weddings and funerals, fever dreams and moments of equilibrium, and through it all an extraordinary perceptiveness.

Blecher’s primary concern is with the subjective mind and body confronting a world of everyday objects and matter amid places so vividly experienced as to seem somehow unsettled or even cursed. Attention to sensory perception abounds as sights and smells and sounds and textures are distilled in the many potent images and scenes. Sex and death commingle, waxwork figures take on a greater reality than living people, and the intricate webs that Blecher carefully spins he just as brilliantly collapses upon themselves. Hypersensitivity and melancholy rule the day and create for the narrator a sense of crisis arising from nothing more than living among things in the sensible world. Dust, mold, muck, blood. Sunlight. An uncanny interchangeability between subject and object; the mere membrane that separates certitude from incertitude. For Blecher, it’s as if Proust’s madeleine moments result not in wonder and fascination, but in vertiginous existential crises of dissociated identity, of being inexorably in the world but also separated from it.

The notion of life as stage and stage-set are everywhere in Blecher. As mentioned earlier, the wax museum especially captivates him, but also the cinema, and fairs, with their side-show spectacles. The artificial blossoms into reality while the real world around him flounders, meaningless as the drift of stars. Most remarkable to me is the concentrated attention Blecher gives his experiences, deftly weaving their sensory fullness into the particular scenes and the fluctuating waves of his agitation.

Blecher has been compared with Kafka and Salvador Dali, but the writer most closely associated with him may be Bruno Schulz, with his similar images of moldering objects, dust and heat, dress-maker’s dummies in stifling fabric shops, and the irreality of particular places.

Maybe it’s best, at this point, to let this most interesting book speak for itself. Here are a couple of passages in which the narrator finds himself immersed in the powerful aura of everyday things:

We could find additional melancholy antiques in another abandoned upstairs room, this one in my grandfather’s house. Its walls were lined with strange paintings in large gilt wooden frames or smaller pink plush ones. There were also frames made of tiny seashells assembled with meticulous care. I could gaze on them for hours. Who had pasted the shells? Who had made the tiny, agile movements that brought them together? Dead works like these gave instant rebirth to whole existences lost in the mist of time like images in parallel mirrors sunken in the greenish depths of dream.

All at once the surfaces of things surrounding me took to shimmering strangely or turning vaguely opaque like curtains, which when lit from behind go from opaque to transparent and give a room a sudden depth. But there was nothing to light these objects from behind, and they remained sealed by their density, which only rarely dissipated enough to let their true meaning shine through.

____________

Max Blecher was born in 1909 and spent most of his life in Roman, Romania.  He was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis at nineteen and died at the age of twenty-eight. He corresponded with such 20th-century figures as André Breton, André Gide and Martin Heidegger.

Further reading:
Max Blecher’s Adventures – The Paris Review
The Immediate Unreality – Dialogue on the Threshold
Beyond the Visible Plane – 3 a.m. Magazine
Brute Matter: Max Blecher’s “Adventures in Immediate Irreality” – Michigan Quarterly Review

Spot-Lit for May 2015

Spot-Lit

These titles – from established, emerging, and under-the-radar authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases based on a consensus of advance reviews, publisher interest, and bookish social media. Click the montage below and then the Full Display button beside each title to read summaries or reviews or to place titles on hold.

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Notable New Fiction 2015 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

Best of the (Half) Decade

Today I saw a list of the top 100 books written in the past half-decade. We were not amused. Items chosen were limited almost exclusively to adult fiction, and the fiction itself seemed to be fairly narrow in scope. So quite obviously it’s time for a better list. Created by me.

Books chosen have all been read by yours truly, which skews the list’s contents, confining it to items I find attractive. Obviously some wonderful books will be absent. But of the 80 or so books written since 2010 that I’ve read, diverse genres including autobiographies, humor, YA, juvenile, graphic novels, mystery, supernatural fiction, travel, historical fiction, and true crime have been explored. Allowing for a potentially well-rounded list.

And now I give you: The Top 13 Books Written Since 2010!

  1. Let’s Pretend this Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (2012) Perhaps the funniest book I’ve ever read. Written by the Bloggess, a woman who recounts pant-wettingly hilarious scenarios whilst openly discussing her severe coping issues, this book is guaranteed to shock, perhaps revolt, and leave you aching from unquenchable laughter.
  1. Insane City by Dave Barry (2013)
    I have a soft spot for ridiculously complex, filled-with-coincidences plots. In a way, it doesn’t even matter what the story is about as long as the screwball comedy aspect is well done. Dave Barry is always enjoyable and this is perhaps his greatest effort. The plot is not even remotely describable in less than 10,000 words, so suffice to say: Florida, wedding, Russian gangsters, angry strippers, and pythons. Standard issue Dave Barry.
  1. At Home by Bill Bryson (2010)
    Bill Bryson has become my guru. Don’t understand science? Read Bryson. Need a better handle on the English language? Bryson. In At Home he explains how dwellings evolved and where names of house parts came from, all while imparting abundant information about western civilization. Funny, understandable, a compelling read.

Set 1

  1. The World’s Greatest Sleuth by Steve Hockensmith (2010)
    The Holmes on the Range mystery-solving series is durned brilliant. In this installment, the Amlingmeyer brothers travel from their usual Western climes to the 1893 Columbian Exposition and compete with famous detectives in the field of detecting. Murder, of course, ensues. Outstanding evocation of the Chicago fair.
  1. Yes Please by Amy Poehler (2014)
    Of all the autobiography/memoirs I’ve read, this was my favorite. Written in a personable, conversational yet well-crafted style, Ms. Poehler recounts life stories and shares bits of her wise personal philosophy, creating a sort of charming, amusing self-help manual.
  1. Bye Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins (2011)
    Brilliant historical fiction that examines the circumstances of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Through Collins we get to know Marilyn, the powerful people she mingled with, and the potential truths behind her death. After reading this book I was moved to learn more about her life and death, which indicates to me that Collins did a superlative job.

Set 2

  1. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (2011)
    A plane crash, abundant death, struggles to survive, nefarious politicians and Miss Texas all mix poetically in this waggish disembowelment of the beauty pageant industry.
  1. Who Could That Be At This Hour? By Lemony Snicket (2012)
    For a fabulous description of this fabulous book, read Carol’s fabulous post here. I’m not a huge fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I was blown away by this new mysterious series. Written for kids but equally intriguing for adults.
  1. The Rosie Effect by Graeme C. Simsion (2014)
    In this follow up to The Rosie Project, Don and Rosie are married and expecting. Don (who I suspect is on the extremely high-functioning end of the autism spectrum) approaches fatherhood as a problem to be solved, but Rosie is not sure if his lack of emotion will allow him to be a good father. Tension follows, communications break down, and the couple struggles to maintain their couplehood. A powerful, magical romance that shows how people of all kinds can enrich the lives of others.

Set 3

  1. The Yard by Alex Grecian (2012)
    Fascinating fictional look at the beginnings of Scotland Yard, the ridiculous caseload piled on the pitiful handful of detectives, and the ease with which murder could be successfully committed in the 19th century.
  1. The Dangerous Animals Club by Stephen Tobolowsky (2012)
    Stephen Tobolowsky is an incredibly versatile and prolific actor, perhaps most remembered as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day. This memoir tells tales of his intriguing life, but is also filled with philosophical musings and complex ideas. Funny and thought provoking.
  1. Deep Creek by Dana Hand (2010)
    Historical fiction based on a true story. When Chinese gold miners are murdered along the Idaho-Oregon border, white settlers don’t really care. The Sam Yup Company, a powerful Chinese firm, hires a local man to solve the mystery. Elegant, descriptive writing clearly depicts an unjust time.
  1. Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel (2011)
    This is one of the few graphic novels that has truly engaged me, featuring beautiful charcoal drawings and a fantastical tale of love, riverboat travel, and mermaids. Memorable, alluring and ultimately disturbing.

Set 4

So there you have it, 13 books, one for each month of the year! Read, enjoy, enrich and prepare for the next half-decade.

A Serious Vocational Error

One of the great things about reading fiction is the way you can visit a person’s, admittedly fictional, life and experience the world from a different angle. I’ve always found stories to be much more helpful in dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday existence than the numerous self-help and motivation works out there. Perhaps this is delusional and a tad unhealthy (you don’t want to pattern your life too closely on Mr. Kurtz after all ) but hey, it is the way I roll. I recently read three novels that let me examine different career paths and made me feel good about my own career choice. Ah the power of negative reinforcement.

The job: Middle school teacher
The book: Confessions by Kanae Minato

confessionsThis novel opens with Yuko Moriguchi’s farewell address to her middle school science class upon her early retirement. The reason she is leaving is the recent accidental death of her 4-year-old daughter on school grounds. As the address continues, however, it becomes clear that Yuko believes some of her students are responsible.  She also doesn’t believe the criminal justice system is up to the job of punishing them due to their young age. This is no simple tale of revenge, however.  The narrative shifts, with each chapter being from a different character’s point of view. This keeps you guessing as to what actually happened and who is really to blame until the very end. Even then, what is right and what is wrong isn’t entirely clear. A good book for testing your moral compass. It will also make you happy not to have chosen a career in secondary education.

The job: Office drone
The book: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

theroomBjorn, yes this book is a Swedish translation, shares a desk in an open office plan in a government ministry simply titled ‘the Authority.’ One day, while looking for the bathroom, he stumbles upon a room which is spacious and well appointed. To get away from the office hubbub and concentrate on his work, he frequently visits this room. The problem? No one else can see it. Even worse, when he enters the room, all that his fellow officer workers see is Bjorn staring at the wall and mumbling. It doesn’t take very long for objections to be raised, meetings to be held, and threats of termination to be bandied about. The entire novel is from Bjorn’s perspective, so there are definitely surreal elements that will have you questioning what exactly is going on. Primarily though, it is a funny and biting office satire that will leave you chuckling as well as scratching your head.

The job: Estate agent
The book: A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

apleasureandacallingWilliam Hemming does not suffer from job dissatisfaction. He loves showing people new homes to buy or rent in the small English town where he owns an estate agency. His job allows him to indulge in a rather odd hobby. Mr. Hemming keeps a key from every property he sells and likes to make return visits, unbeknownst to the owners. He is obsessed with viewing the minutiae of his clients’ everyday activities (making breakfast, doing laundry) but as a detached observer who never gets involved in their lives. The novel is entirely from Mr. Hemming’s point of view and you find yourself chuckling at his observations of small town life. When his darker side is slowly revealed, and his detachment turns into involvement with deadly consequences, you may feel guilty for laughing along. At the very least, it will make you consider having your locks changed at home.

So is using fiction to choose a career a sound policy? Perhaps not, but it sure beats going to a guidance counselor.

A Stroll Through the Pun Forest or Crime and Pun-ishment

BullwinkleHello poetry lovers. Today’s poem is a pun of stunning disregard for human frailties. It is titled, Names of Hair Salons:

Bangs For The Memories,
     Shear Hostility,
          The Best Little Hair House,
                                             Come Hair;
                              Hairway To Heaven
                                   Babalouise, Bang, Headonizm,
                                        Hair Today,
                                            Curl Up and Dye,
                                                 The Bobshed

But I jest.

It’s been called the lowest form of humor, which is a compliment in this case. Puns are illegal in 37 states (I made that up, but it’s an idea whose time has come), they are frequently annoying, and the people who regale others with punnage seldom bathe (also made up) [it’s TRUE!]. Yet puns are standard fare in the names of both hair salons and cozy mysteries. Why? Is it sadism run amok?

We may never know.

Pun also risesPerhaps you’d like to start your voyage with a thorough understanding of just what a pun is all about. Wellsir, I would recommend The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics by John Pollack. Penned by a former Clinton speech writer, the author not only explores the definitions and history of puns, but makes a case that they are significant to the rise of modern culture.

Next we’ll stroll over to the cozy mystery section and discover that puns in titles are completely out of control. There are puns on classic book titles (The Cakes of Wrath; Grapes of Death; Grape Expectations; Grey Expectations), movies  (Nightshade on Elm Street; Bell, Book, and Scandal; Arsenic and Old Puzzles; The Silence of the Llamas), Plays (End me a Tenor), Poems (Murder had a Little Lamb), songs (Bewitched, Bothered, and Biscotti), television (Ghouls Gone Wild), magazines (Deader Homes and Gardens) and musicals (A Little Night Murder).

Mysteries1

Had enough? Too bad. The most egregious offenders are puns based on common phrases. Choose your favorite from the following (the last one being my fave):

Three’s a Shroud          Thread on Arrival                 If Books Could Kill
Meet your Baker        Kill ‘em with Cayenne          Book, Line and Sinker
Hiss and Hers         Going, Going, Ganache      Animal, Vegetable, Murder
Read and Buried           Wined and Died                To Brie or Not to Brie
Skein of the Crime        Mallets Aforethought             Assaulted Pretzel

Mysteries2Cozy mysteries often have a hobby or interest associated with them, like archery or fan dancing. In these examples we have food (The Cakes of Wrath, Grape Expectations, and Kill ‘em with Cayenne to name just a few), bookstores (Book, Line and Sinker and If Books Could Kill), and needlecraft, knitting, crocheting (Skein of the Crime and Thread on Arrival) among others.  Cozies, rather than police procedurals, thrillers or uncozy mysteries, tend to be the books that have bepunned titles.

Eats shootsOf course, many books sport punny titles. One of the best, in my inflated opinion, is Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book on the importance of punctuation (no commas would be a story about a panda, commas tells of a character involved in specific activities)

CalahanSpider Robinson, a most excellent author of science fiction tales, has created a series of stories set in a bar called Callahan’s Place. Its denizens, including extraterrestrials, a talking dog and time travelers, listen to visitor’s stories, offer comments, and generally pollute the atmosphere heavily with puns. I think this series of stories truly gave me an appreciation for the gross art of punnery. Nowadays I find myself engaging in it, often against my will, and I fear that it’s just a short step to miming my incarceration in an invisible cube.

I apologize for this blog, but just like with any disease, it’s good to know your enemy in order to best defeat it. Please don’t judge me.

A Serial Killer in Love

normalI read somewhere that the average person will walk by a serial killer 36 times in their life. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s another reason not to leave the house. Just to be safe. I found this hilarious postcard a few years ago. The scene on the front is a gorgeous blue purple pink sunset and ocean waves lapping the shore. Then off to the other side of the picture someone had written “I’ve seen enough crime shows to know that I don’t want to meet the love of my life while walking along the beach because he might be a serial killer.”

The killer in Graeme Cameron’s Normal is never named and the story is told from the first person point of view. The one thing I hated about this novel? I really started to like this guy. I felt the same way about the TV show Dexter. Dexter was a serial killer but he went after other serial killers so it was okay to like him. But the serial killer in Normal has a cage built in a secret basement underneath his garage. He keeps carefully selected women in there. When he goes grocery shopping and is the handsome man picking up apples or chicken and chit-chatting with other customers no one suspects there is a woman trapped in a cage far below his garage. And the dude doesn’t mind picking up a box of tampons! Okay, so the tampons are for the girls he kidnaps and eventually kills but any man who doesn’t mind picking up a box of sanitary items for a girl gets gold stars from me.

But something unexpected happens. The serial killer falls in love with the check-out girl at the grocery store. She falls in love with him too. With all that lovin’ he doesn’t feel the need to murder women. Except for one last girl that makes him feel like he’s the one trapped in a cage. Erica is a pretty girl who’s had it rough in life. She doesn’t trust men (especially when they lock her in cages). Her home life sucked so much that she hints she murdered her abusive stepfather. Now, I’m no psychiatrist but I’m willing to bet there are some daddy issues going on there plus a good old case of mush brain.

Erica is psychotic and she turns the tables on the unnamed serial killer. She’s not a terrified victim locked up in a cage. She is the thing in the dark water that rises up to take a taste of you. She scared me more than the serial killer himself. There were many times she could have escaped and the killer was hoping she would because she is freaking him out. Ever since falling in love with that grocery store clerk, he has no inclination to kill at all. He thinks about killing Erica because she puts her psychotic nose into his love life but can’t bring himself to do it.

The police are certain he’s the killer. His van has been seen on cctv (England has cameras everywhere) and other questions about the man himself have started popping up. The police visit his house, ask him a million questions and then leave because he’s a serial killer and it’s not like he’s going to blurt out “I chopped up a woman’s body because I got bored with her and then there’s my psychotic doppelgänger who won’t leave me alone and probably wants to spend the rest of her life with me. But not down in the cage.” By the end of the book, I found myself rooting for the killer and quietly chanting “Kill her!  Kill her!”

There was nothing normal about Normal. The serial killer is just as baffled as the reader when he falls in love and decides to give up killing. I tried to picture the next 40 years of this guy’s life: marriage, children, jobs, grandchildren. And then, life winding down as it so often does, he and his wife settle into their golden years. I can see them sitting on a porch, the sunset long faded. He turns to her and says “I used to kill girls.”