Category Archives: Canada

falstaff island

The Troop by Nick Cutter: Hungry Man Games of the Flies

I’m going to make one of those specious and ultimately rhetorical dichotomies just so I can start with a bang. There are two kinds of horror story: the one one that puts you off your lunch, and the one that makes you sleep with the lights on. This is one of the former. Oh, baby, is it one of the former.

The Troop by Nick Cutter begins with a vignette of a hungry man eating himself to bursting, and then vanishing into the underbrush. Our monster, then, or the monster is within him. The setting is Prince Edward Island in Canada, which has in Cutter’s hands a similar grubby small town feel as Stephen King’s Maine: multiple generations of gossip and expectations, a social stratification where the difference between the haves and the have nots is thin. We cut to the titular Boy Scout troop landing on Falstaff Island off the coast of PEI, a small island wilderness with no particular infrastructure beyond a cabin and a shed. The hungry man stumbles into camp, smashes the radio, sickens and then dies. We are then off and running.

A lot of blurbcraft about The Troop focuses on its similarity with Lord of the Flies, and certainly I’m not going to say that that comparison isn’t apt on some level. But sometimes I think the Lord of the Flies comparison gets used knee-jerkily. One could just as easily compare this with The Hunger Games - har har – and the comparison would be as accurate and as specious. Maybe it’s just that I encountered Lord of the Flies late, not as a kiddo nodding though A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and similar novels with young protagonists that are often foisted on the students before they can handle them. My young self mostly noted that Holden was a douche, for example, and the one scene I remember was him trying to scratch out the word fuck in graffiti so his sister Phoebe wouldn’t see. “Fuck you,” I thought. “Phoebe isn’t some delicate flower.”

I hit Lord of the Flies in a college Brit lit class that focused on the Angry Young Men, a (contested, like all literary movements) movement that originates in working- and middle-class British writers in the 1950s that focuses on class and violence and class violence, with a sideline in misogynist bullshit. The writers, reductively, tended to be bright boys who’d been plucked from their class neighborhoods and dumped into the less-charming Hogwarts of the British public school system on scholarship, with predictably brutal results. (If you are a Yank playing along at home, “public school” in British means the exact opposite it does in American.) (Also, my prof was more or less one of these, making his lectures fairly pyrotechnic. Teach what you know, oh baby.)

Golding’s novel has nothing of the “kitchen sink realism” of writers more closely associated with the Angry Young Men, but Lord of the Flies does certainly situate in the aesthetic philosophically, and philosophy is more or less the operative word there. Lord of the Flies is a pretty serious kick in the balls of the Robinsonade novel and all of the colonial and class garbage that goes along with imagining Tom Hanks and his beach ball Friday conquering the wilderness and the natives by dint of their superior skin color and technology. The characters are more or less tropes intentionally, with whole categories of persons like the younger boys functioning as a Greek chorus, Athenian mob style this time. Lord of the Flies isn’t about people, but People; not about a society but Society.

Which circles me back to The Troop. There’s much about The Troop that is predictable or stock, from the situation – cut off from the mainland with a threat! – to the cast of characters – the nerd, the jock, the spaz, the mad scientist. But the concern isn’t philosophical, which is not meant to be a dismissal but a description. Cutter’s got the sensibility of a short story writer, crafting brutal little vignettes in serial, end to end until the end that isn’t. His characterizations are deliberate, careful, the sort of non-sequential and almost tangentially important moments that are only important to an individual. An individual who interconnects with a society, lower case s, one that might be emblematic but isn’t – and this term makes my ass twitch – universal. There’s no predictable character-as-destiny – except as the most mordant joke – nor are the most horrifying things you find in The Troop the most horrible objectively. All I’m saying is that the death of a turtle can be way freaking worse than you’d expect in a narrative that includes the deliberate murder of a kitten.

I’ve been half-invoking gender in this review so far: my kinship with unseen sister Phoebe over monologuing Holden, my quick bristle about the casual chauvinism of the Angry Young Men. I realized recently that since the start of the year I’ve been alternating between horror and romance, novel by novel; squelching dread against ecstatic expectation and its fulfillment. Horror tends to be written by men for a male audience; romance by women for women. Alternating the two is a trip, especially because both tend to focus strongly on the body and its functions and fractures, but in extremely gendered ways. What I tend to like or dislike in either genre is incredibly personal, but often can be boiled down to my feelings of the author’s deliberation or care. (Sidebar: discuss why women tend to subsume their domestic panic into the HEA, while dudes go for bloodbath without cauterization. I know what Camille Paglia would say, but the semiotics of spurting makes this late model feminist tired.)

The all-boy horror novel is pretty common. A quick calculation on the back of a napkin shows that four of the last six horror novels I read fail the Bechdel test, with another one right on the edge. (Usual caveats about Bechdel: no, it’s not an indicator of poor quality; yes, it’s a hideously low bar.) As I was reading, I watched The Descent again, which has a similar set up: a group of single-gender characters – this time all-women – are confined with a lethal threat, and the thrills escalate. And I love both of these narratives for the care they take with their prêt-à-porter structures, wringing out some very deliberate observations about the ways single-gender groups interact, both in times of crisis and without. In The Troop, I felt the all-boy environment wasn’t an accident – a thoughtless reiteration of tropes, or the tendency of the genre to focus on the concerns of masculinity, or its capital letter version, Society – but a deliberate choice that focuses carefully on the social life of boys. Hoorah.

I started reading horror late. I can trace it right back to the birth of my first child and the severe body trauma of that event, one that had me overcoming my girlish squeamishness about viscera, one that reworked my sense of what is scary. I’m not afraid of being torn open from the inside anymore; that’s a done deal. But I’m terrified of that call from the behavior specialist from the school, my 11-year-old son in a paroxysm of pre-adolescent pain. He’s on a godamn island of sometimes terrified boys, and there is little I can do at this point to help, short of momishly unhelpful stuff. That I didn’t recognize him exactly in the cast of The Troop is an ugly comfort; these are other mother’s sons. Not that it makes it any better, in the end. Good job, Nick, if that is your real name.

 

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me an ARC.

the n-body problem

The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit.

Horror can seem a little rule-bound at times. There’s a monster, say a zombie. You work out how it’s defined – it’s a living person infected with a rage virus, or a dead person who is reanimated. It can run, or it can’t. It can climb, or it can’t. It doesn’t like sunlight or it doesn’t care. You figure how to kill it, or immobilize it, or cure it, or you die and join it. You figure out if everyone is infected, or if it’s transmissible, or how long it’s been since the first outbreak, the last outbreak. You set up communities that function according to rules that dovetail into the rules for the monster. In this way, you make the point that the true monster is human. Ba dump tss.

The opening of The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, despite a seriously questionable level of sanity from the first person protagonist, seems to start with rules in mind. It’s been 20 something years since the first dead person didn’t stay dead. It’s not so much that they became flesh-eating corpses, but that the dead just never stop moving. After the initial panic died down, they had millions of wriggling undead bodies to be disposed of. End result: they start shooting them into space. Our protagonist – who I would like to note is off his nut – is spending his time plying some serious hypochondria and chasing a man called Dixon. Dixon is a traveling horror show who rolls into town and convinces the entire town to kill itself, presumably so they can go to space because it’s so pretty and peaceful up there. Then he plays in their corpses.

You can kinda see how this set up might unfold: the requisite show down between Dixon and Bob (which is not the protagonist’s name, but I think the only one he ever gives); the boy Bob picks up serving as a generational example of What Has Changed; some pyrotechnics with WasteCorp, which is the multinational company that has shot a billion wriggling corpses into space; maybe even a sequence in the cold airlessness of space, the sun rising over the black orb of the planet in wavering stabs of light. Burgess occasionally gives you glimpses of these narrative possibilities – like a searing fever dream that takes place in space, the corpses turning sunward like flowers – but mostly he just laughs inscrutably and delivers some of the sickest shit and stomach-dropping plot turns I’ve ever seen.

There is an xkcd for everything.

The n-body problem is a mathematical problem going back to antiquity for predicting the motions of celestial objects in gravitational relationship with one another. This is certainly a problem if you don’t understand that, say, the stars and planets are not in a fixed orb rotating around the earth, but it’s apparently also difficult to solve using general relativity. Frankly, there’s a lot of wonky maths that I don’t get in the explanation. Obviously, this book is named The n-Body Problem because of one billion corpses in space and all that, but I think there might be another reason too: Burgess is taking a big, gory dump on post-apocalyptic conventions, just absolutely hazing you and your expectations. Solve for x, bitch.

Another possible title for this novel: Trigger Warning for All Things.

So you want to see some marauding cannibals and rape gangs? Boom, only he turns the rape gangs into a mordant joke, and denies you the prurient thrills that so much apocalit delivers in the form of sexual assault. How about a blood bath? Boom, only this time it’s a swimming pool, and the blood is still shimmering in that uncanny way of the undead here. The sickness is so sick it’s downright funny at times, these horrible laundry lists of horrors that numb until, wait, what the holy hell was that? The whole thing is completely bonkers, transgressive in a way that goes beyond the usual transgression of body horror, of which there is plenty. Nobody’s going to yell, “Oh, the humanity!” when the zombies start falling from the sky in some half-assed coda.

“They look like cherry blossoms. Opening and then falling apart in the wind.”

I guess I could go on, but I’d probably get into spoiler territory. I just want to note, quickly, that there’s something here that reminds me of Ice by Anna Kavin. Ice is a strange, mid-century post-apocalyptic novel written by a functioning heroin addict which is about, insofar it is about anything so easily spoken, two men fighting over girl. The landscapes rear up in the same ways, the connectives cut with a box-cutter, the identities fragile and mutable. And the iceIce made me incredibly uncomfortable – often in ways The n-Body Problem does not, owing to certain perversions I have about mid-century novels – but there’s still a central discomfort that feels the same to me. This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from content – though, I did mention this was sick, non?- but some deeper, more chthonic level which implicates me in the proceedings. If I were still rating things – I’m trying not to – I’d leave this similarly unrated, because no metric as childish as stars – their motions cannot be solved for anyway - can get at my response.

So yeah, thanks to sj for turning me onto this, but then also what the fuck did I just read? 

 

gilmour

David Gilmour is a Bad Canadian

I’m not interested in reading books by David Gilmour. In an interview with Random House two days ago, Gilmour stated:

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” he says, making an exception for one female writer.

“Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories,” he says. “But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.”

Instead, Gilmour says, “[w]hat I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

CBC

Now I know what you’re thinking: here goes another one of them Feminazi queer-loving bra-burners trying to impinge on this man’s free speech. So he doesn’t like the squawk-talk and jibber-jabber of female writers, gay writers, or Chinese writers? What’s it to you? Fair enough, imaginary Internet commenter.

But he’s said something much worse. You might want to sit down for this. David Gilmour, Canadian author, doesn’t like other Canadian authors.

Now, I’m not Canadian, but I’ve played one on tv, and some of my best friends are Canadian. My accent is in the ballpark, and if I drop in a couple “ehs” and “take off, hosers,” I can pass for one. From my intimate knowledge of the Canadas, I know that it is Canadianly constitutionally mandated that every time you have a conversation about any subject, you are required to note which famous people are from Canada. Talking to nerds? You know, Shatner is Canadian. Doing the chicken dance from Arrested Development? Michael Cera is Canadian. People with huge boobs? Boom: Pamela Anderson.

But that’s not all. The Canadian constitution requires that you don’t ever shittalk whole classes of Canadian citizens in front of Americans. You just can’t even do that, or Mounties will triangulate your location and force you to eat a bowl of moose cock and a case of Molson for your reeducation. I presume that right now, Gilmour is being very politely set upon by men in really hot red outfits while they prize his mouth open to accept the ungulate tumescence. (Oops, I started slipping into some of my Due South fanfiction. Is it hot in here?)

Due-South

So there you have it: David Gilmour has committed treason. Now, I know that I’m not allowed to write reviews based on author behavior anymore, but I think maybe Goodreads should make an exception in this case. I’m not dismissing Gilmour because he dismissed all writers who have a vagina, or are homos, or them Chinese. Obviously, that’s his right as a professor of literature who has been entrusted with educating Canada’s tender youth. That’s just table stakes for the Western Canon. But when you mess with the Queen, you get the horns, David. Who’s that knocking on your door?

Zombies Hate Stuff and I Love Them For It

Zombies Hate Stuff is stupid. Also, I loved it. These are not mutually exclusive things, obviously. After reading it twice – and “reading” is altogether an active verb for a book with 80 words and 56 pictures – I left it on the kitchen table, the way I do, and the kids picked it up. I spent the span of a salad preparation listening to my son read this out to my daughter – let me see! she’d yell, and he’d dip the pages – which he did twice before losing interest and wandering off. This left the girl, who is just out of kindergarten, sounding out a series of things zombies hate, or don’t mind, or really hate. For example, zombies hate kittens:

a zombie menaces two kittens

Zombies don’t mind magic:

a zombie being pulled out of a magic hat

But zombies really hate moon penguins:

moon penguins pointing a gun at a zombie

This is the kind of book I wish I had ALL THE IMAGES so I could show you my favorite, and then decide that wasn’t my favorite, and then show you my REAL favorite. For example, this might be the best:

a zombie spitted on the horn of a unicorn

Because I read the whole collection of Zombies Vs. Unicorns looking for a zed/uni combat, and I hate to say, I was disappointed. That someone has slaked my bloodlust on that front is worth something. Also, the author description of this book is hugely adorable: 

My history with the undead boils down to this: I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time in 2004 and thought it was really cool, so I started adding zombies to my paintings. Not gross, rotting ghouls like you see these days, but classy zombies who understand the importance of a good suit and tie. (The small amount of research that I did do showed that nine out of ten victims prefer being eaten by a professional living corpse who looks the part, versus some slacker zombie who thinks that it is actually okay to wear pajama pants in public.) Getting back to my incredibly enthralling artistic evolution: first I painted lone zombies wandering through pretty landscapes, then I unleashed the walking dead on a series of unsuspecting penguins, and finally I turned the ghouls against the entire world in a series of pieces entitled “Zombies Hate…” whatever. Eventually it occurred to me to organize all these random zombie hatreds into a book.

I mean, don’t you just want to hug this dude? I do. Unleashing zombies on unsuspecting penguins is the kind of genius that this country needs right now. 

So, I’m glad I got to work on vocab with the kids – you pronounce the qu like a k in mannequins - and I’m also glad I’m going to have nightmares about that outhouse zombie. It’s rule #3 after all. 

still from Zombieland

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Tango in 29 Essays

“Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irrestistably real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

Walter Pater

I’m not too embarrassed to admit I’ve written just pages of garbage about The Beauty of the Husbandthat I will not be posting, now or ever. Anne Carson absolutely fries my circuits; she makes me synesthetic and incoherent. I keep trying to explain why I quoted the much neglected and almost ridiculous Walter Pater, a quote that came to my mind like driftwood dredged by a storm and then bobbed, insistent.

I went to visit my aunt and grandmother once. They both live on the south shore of Lake Superior. I took my kids to the lake, to the municipal park with creosote-soaked railroad ties as playground equipment, cordoning rusting swings and concrete habitrails. It was half-spring, that odd interstitial season where the ice had broken to finger-shaped bits and then rubbed themselves warm on the surface of the lake. When the wind blew, the floating ice tingled on each other in this quiet bell noise that could be missed but for listening. 

There were heaps of this black stuff, like a soft, black wet sand, running in ribbons up and down the shore. There was an old guy spading it into a used five gallon plastic bucket. What is that? I asked Kristen. Oh, that’s sawdust from the sawmills what were on the lake at the turn of the last century. It blows up onto the shore in the spring, and people work it into their gardens. The land there is peat and clay. She might even have had a name for this anaerobic sawdust, but I can’t remember it anymore. That’s this book: a disinterring and re-interring of the forest duff of the emotional history of marriage. 

Duff? Another word I learned on the shores of Lake Superior. The New World had no earthworms before the Europeans came, and those wriggling creatures are an infection. Duff is the crust of decomposing matter on the forest floor, and invasive worms change this composition at its fundement. The outside wiggles in, and it can’t be spaded out. The litter should build, not be eaten away like fingernails. 

I think I was reminded of Pater for two reasons. First: Pater is such a poet of the moment, the hyper-Romanticism of that one shining event caught and crushed like a firefly so that it leaves its luminescent ichor on your hands. This is the opposite of a marriage. Not that marriage is a drudge, or a slog, but it is not a moment. Carson always invokes the weirdest muses for her works – here she keeps cutting snippets of the boy Keats, whose consumptive unconsummation of his romantic life made his Romanticism burn. I could speak of speaking urns if I could go off to Italy and die, taking my hard and gem-like flame with me. I can’t though. I’ve got obligations. 

Second, I feel like poetry is often argument. The three-part sonnet, with its terminating couplet like the prestige in a magic trick. Ta da! The morals of the epic, however sloppy, spent like rage. This poem is a series of arguments, undertaken in the kitchen, that never rightly resolve to the prestigious coda. Pater’s moment’s aren’t argumentative – they just are – but they reside on a spectrum of the emotional like a teeter-totter. An argument enacted a thousand times is a habit, in black or white like nuns. It is worn like shoes. A moment casts those shoes off, or steals them. So Pater is my wrong muse, like Keats is Carson’s.

I don’t know. The thing about The Beauty of the Husband, the thing I think makes me impossible, is the Woolfian argument, the quantum leap that dances from q to r through a lot of impossible, everyday connectives that only make sense in the black body radiation of my heart. I can’t even argue it right. I’ve only lit one end, and the light is both lovely and small. I’ll dance it to the end. 

Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction

This review is something of a mess, written over months, and at least four separate reading sessions. Which works in some ways, because Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is a mess. I thought it was a short story collection, and while I admit it’s my bad for misreading the term “anthology”, it’s not the best anthology. I can’t tell who Grace Dillon, the editor, thinks she’s writing for. Heavily academic, full of lots of jargon and dense, offhanded references to theory, writers and history that blow past your average reader. I have a good background in science fiction, and a shakier one in Native (North) American history – a minor in college coughcough years ago – and I could barely keep up. 

I probably should have just given up, but it got to be a grudge match: Grace Dillon, you will not defeat me with your horrible introductions and promiscuous use of epigraph. There’s a lot of very cool material in here, a lot of both explicit and implicit criticisms of science fiction as a genre, new and odd angles on science fictional narrative, etc etc. It’s a good place to get a broad polling of indigenous voices in a genre that is often extremely colonial in nature, which is what I was looking for when I picked this up. 


It’d also be a good place to start building a syllabus or a master’s thesis, but as a pleasure reader primary, I didn’t take much pleasure in that aspect of the anthology. Quit freaking mansplaining what is going on and just cut to the chase! The excerpts should have been doubled in size and the introductions cut to a paragraph. Terms, in general, should have been better defined – I don’t think there was an articulated definition of either science fiction or indigenous, which might seem like talking down to the reader, but in an anthology predicated on contested things like genre and identity, I think more down-talking would have been preferable to the over-the-head talking.  

So I’m going to give this points for existing, and for having fairly strong selections, but I’m going to take many of them away for the huge editorial drag going on. 


—–

This was the book I brought to read while standing in line to vote. W00t. 

Notes in progress: 

So far the short stories have been excellent, but the introduction and prefaces to the individual stories are written like a Master’s thesis, by which I mean pretty jargony and hung up on some really abstruse stuff. The editor has this pretty big boner for the concept of slipstream science fiction, and it’s often pretty cool watching her twist herself in knots trying to make some of these stories come off as science fictional. It works a lot of the time, like the odd, dreamlike story “Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters” by Diane Glancy which centers on the technological intrusion of the icebox – culture transmitted through technology and all that. Plus, it’s just really beautifully written, despite the dialogue being in dialect, which I normally loathe. 

“Custer on the Slipstream” by Gerald Vizenor is a harder sell, at least the way it is being sold here. At first glance the title seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the Master’s thesis – slipstream! fiction! – except that it’s referring to the 70s version of slipstreaming, which is using the wake of rig to pull your car along. I’m not saying it doesn’t count in the collection or anything, but it seems (at least partially) like this is a mordant satire about the concept of “Indian time” – you know, “he runs on Indian Time, therefore he never shows up at the right hour” – instead of being about “slippage” and “culturally constructed expressions of time space that run counterfactually with national narrative” or whatever. (These are not direct quotes; I am being a bitch here.) 

Without even explicitly naming the concept of Indian Time, Dillon seems to fall into the usual apologia about how Native people are more in tune with the planet and nature and stuff – and, I don’t actually dispute that time sense can be, and often is, culturally constructed – I just kinda get bothered by implicit justifications for racist terminology that use other stereotypical characterizations of Native America. The perception of the concept of Indian Time, by both whites and native people, might more be a function of the crushing poverty and often physical remoteness of most Indian Reservations, which might make it hard to show up at the BIA to treat with Custer at the hour set for such an event. (Which is, of course, not even getting into the fact that much of Native America is urban.) Which is kinda the point of the story – partially – so all this talk about slippage feels like it’s missing the point. In other words, I think this story works in the collection, but not for the reasons outlined in the intros.

Anyway, then onto an excerpt from The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, which I enjoyed until I had to just stop reading. In the intro, Stephen Graham Jones has some really interesting stuff to say about reading science fiction as an indigenous person – how so much sf encodes Western Expansion narratives in ways that are, of course, totally racist, but at least the SFnal shift makes chinks in the colonial narrative that your usual Cowboys and Indians story doesn’t allow. Sure, Klingons are noble savages – indeed, down to using Crazy Horse’s famous exhortation that “It is a good day to die” as a war cry – but there’s a red-shift in the characterization. Badump tss. 

What I read of The Fast Red Road was totally PKD style identity freak-out and pretty great, but as just an excerpt of a larger work, it was difficult to track what was going on. A slice of an identity wig out is hobbled, because so much of a wig out relies on a series of reversals that can only be considered as a gestalt. At that point I paged through the table of contents and figured out that roughly half of these entries are excerpts from larger works, which seems a little ominous to me. I have given myself permission to chuck things as I go if they refuse to work in single-chapter form. 

I started into the excerpt from Flight by Sherman Alexie, but then it was time to vote! 

Vote Vote! 

A few more notes:

This is not true, but I will say it anyway: the intro to the excerpt from Flightwas longer than the excerpt. Or boy did it feel like it. The section of this book I read on the plane yesterday was all bits of larger works, and Dillon’s intros are beginning to wear, though I don’t feel like I can skip them lest I not know what’s going on. The intro to Flight feels like a shoehorn job, because the very brief passage from Alexie’s story doesn’t feel science fictional at all, but more in line with coming-of-age identity mind-fuckery. That is a perfectly cromulent literary device, I’m just calling bullshit on every act of mind-fuckery being science fictional. Plus, and I hate to say this out loud, but I don’t like Alexie’s writing style all that much. I read a bunch of his stuff years ago until I learned I should probably just not. He’s really choppy and spare, and I can see how he’s good at what he’s doing, but he’s just not for me. 

The excerpt from Refugees by Celu Amberstone (which, annoyingly, does not appear to be in the database) was the first of these bits that got me wanting to read the larger work. Taking place on an alien planet which had been seeded with Native people seven generations before by an alien race, and are now in the process of folding in modern Vancouverans (-ites?), the ideas felt like stuff from Octavia E. Butler‘s Xenogenesis Trilogy, but written by John Crowley. Sort of. Not to be too blurbily reductive. The aliens are lizard-people, which has this really nice recoil to it, even while the (possibly hopelessly naive) damaged narrator – who was born on the alien planet – tries to understand what all the shouting is about from the Earth-born folk. There was a lot of nuance here, and motivations were murky and dangerously misunderstood – a pre-industrial utopia which might just be another reservation – conflicts between urban and rural. Really nice.

The Black Shipby Gerry William is hard core space opera, which is perfect. Space opera 100% encodes the colonial narrative in its little mechanical heart, and William is firmly aware of this, running the tropes with a twist. It’s like if Chickotay weren’t horrifyingly lame, all the potential of the conflict between the Federation and the Maquis running out into make-out sessions about Honor and the Chain of Command. 

Oops, I skipped over “Men on the Moon” by Simon Ortiz. I’ll get to it later.

Midnight Robberby Nalo Hopkinson is another one I’d pick up, partially because it turns out I dig her style. She’s got a way of blending folk tale and idiom into SFF settings – at least going from this, and the other book I’ve read by her, The Chaos- while having this just splendid sense of the weird. Reminds me a little of Sheri S. Tepper in that, although I think Hopkinson is more playful. Good use of dialect too. 

The other Gerald Vizenor selection – this time from Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles - did not turn my crank at all. I dig he foresaw the whole ecopunk peak oil situation in 1978, but the writing feels dated, and the excerpt goes nowhere. 

That could certainly be the fault of our intrepid editor’s choice of excerpt though, a problem I see in the next two selections as well: the first from Mindscape by Andrea Hairston, and the second from Land of the Golden Clouds by Archie Weller.  I was only able to get through the second selection with some teeth gritting – and I don’t think I got much out of it – and the first I was unable to complete. Which is not to say that either are bad, just that as small selections – often shorter than the editorial introduction – I couldn’t track the characters, cultures nor conflicts in a meaningful way. Throw in stylized dialect like in Golden Clouds, and I’m out. Books teach you how to read them; they build their characters and dialects and cultures so it isn’t an assault. (Certainly, beginnings can be assaults, but that is part of the learning process.) Being told how to read them in humorless academic introductions is not the same as the lessons you get in novels about how to read that novel. 

As uncharitably as I’m feeling about the editor right now – I am growing to hate her penchant for epigrams and academicese – I don’t think any passage would work, so it’s probably not her choice of passage that is at fault. These are complex, multi-cultural novels – not in the mealy-mouthed sense of multi-cultural, as buzzword for tokenism, but multi-cultural in the sense that its characters are all vocal and distinct cultural voices, and I don’t think we’re used to seeing that. Although there is absolutely a pan-Indian identity these days, the Native experience (in America, anyhow) is one of profound multi-culturalism, with hundreds of distinct tribes, languages and histories. And sure, some of my ancestors came from Sweden, and some from Wales, but that all just lingers on at Christmas. As a white person, I experience my Americanness – no past, glowing future – in a way that is monolithic: I am not Swedish-American or Welsh-American or any other hyphen American. I am American. Native people in the states have a second hyphen, or a third: they come from Native America, but they also come from a tribe, or tribes, or a profound and complex hyphenization. An other that is deeply individual. 

Things begin to pick up for me as a reader when I hit the “Native Apocalypses” section of this this book. I haven’t been making note of this, and I apologize for my laziness, but these excerpts and short stories have all been grouped under various headings: Native Slipstream, Contact, etc. I’m on much steadier ground when the end of the world is seriously freaking nigh. Which might be a thing with this collection: I am a reasonably assured sff genre reader, but I’m little hazier when it comes to aboriginal fiction. I imagine if you came in as someone with zero interest in either of those things, you would be seriously at sea. This collection assumes you can 1) tolerate academic writing 2) read sff 3) have even  passing interest in indigenous fiction. Add it up before you pick this up. 

Anyway, so Sherman Alexie’s “Distances” kinda blew my mind, and I’m sorry I said his stuff didn’t work for me. This totally does. I have a shine for narratives about the black plague, that enormous pestilence and upheaval that profoundly reordered European history. A third to a half of Europeans dead? Jesus. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen statistics that say that as much as 90% of the population of the Americas was dead by European diseases before the people of the interior even knew contact had occurred. ZOMG. Talk about your plague narratives. And talk about how for Native America, the end of the world has already occurred. There are stories of rivers so alive with fish that they could overturn the boat in the European discovery narratives, and that’s because the millions of people who used to fish those streams were dead. Jesus. Dillon finally starts speaking to me in her intros, pointing out the sterility of most Western post-apocalit, when the world would rightly explode with verdency if we were out of it. This is the line that killed me, every time Alexie wrote it: “Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying.” 

“When This World is All on Fire” by William Sanders is maybe more perfunctory as a short story – I could see some of the reversals coming – but I liked the more intimate reversals that were the set-up. The value of land changes as the waters rise, even the shitty, half-discarded land of the reservation, but the people, they keep being held to standards of blood and upbringing and jurisdiction. 

From The Moons of Palmares by Zainab Amadahy. I skimmed this one heavily again, because the set up was impossible for me to understand. The same excerpt problem again, though I could dig the space opera encoding from the not-Fleet perspective.

From Red Spider White Web by Misha. Well, this killed. I admit I have a long running love for the cyberpunk street-level diction, and this delivers the whole Sino-fetistist artist whackadoo milieu with a bullet. I dig the masks. I dig the main character selling her ass by the holographic proxy. I dig the scene where she holds the schoolchild down and undoes her masks like profanity. Hot damn all around.

 One more section to go!

Even though I had something like 20 pages to go, it took Herculean effort to pick this sucker up again. I had forgotten I even liked the armegeddon section, but for our last group of writings, we’re back to abstruse and hard to follow, as least as it comes to Dillon’s intros.

“Terminal Avenue” by Eden Robinson is a fine short story, and kind of a relief because it is a short story. Occurring right at the moment of a beating of a Native kid by faceless authority figures for his physical transgression outside a new, urban reservation, the story is impressionistic and almost Proustian in its digressions. The arm coming down reminds the boy of other happier transgressions, ones that didn’t end in a traffic stop. Native America is often conceptualized as rural – and certainly the reserves are, often harshly so – but urban environments have their reserves as well. Don’t cross the boundary lines.

From Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. Another selection, this time somewhat easier to follow, although the introduction completely fails to hit what seem to me the themes. Mordant, funny satire of commercialized Native America – con men in buckskin, Carlos Castaneda and his Yaqui bs – but met up with Native people using the commercial face of Native America to their own ends. Lots of terrorism and violence, which is interesting in post 9/11 world, because this was written 1991. Maybe Silko was right about the Ghost Dance.

From The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones. I just don’t even get this. Something about an android Lone Ranger and his embarrassed Tonto. I suspect the passage is too brief, and the intro fails to illuminate. Again.

From Star Waka: Poems by Robert Sullivan. You’d think something called Star Waka would be this big nerd joke about Star Wars slash Trek – the way waka sounds like war, but then turns out to be a boat, the way waka could be like walk, you know, or trek. And maybe that’s a thing in there somewhere, but as a single poem, it’s not.

And then that’s it!

Finally.

The Dirty Girls Book Club: In Search of the Apostrophe

This review has been brought to you by cold medicine.

I was outlining the plot of The Dirty Girls Book Clubby Savanna Fox for my husband, because that is how I roll, and I had a revelation. Let me spread the Good News to you as well. George “Two Orgasms” Malone is an ad exec or something who is brought in to head a campaign for a clothing company. The spokesman for this campaign is a Manitoba-bred hockey dude with a team call the Beavers. (Stop snickering!) He has a lot of fans.

bob and doug mackensie get an autograph from Rosie LaRose

She meets him wearing naught but gonch, he calls her a lesbian, and then they have sex on the conference table. You see, she’s a very serious business type lady who doesn’t believe in using her feminine wiles at work. She was also part of a chastity movement, and the first time she had sex was on her wedding night with her wonderful, now deceased husband, so it makes total sense she’d bang some dude who just called her a lesbian. It’s like if I’d made it with VirJohn. Honestly, I have no idea why any of this is supposed to make sense. Moving on. 

I was describing to the man that there are probably at least as many hockey scenes in this story as there were sex scenes when I had my revelation. You guys, this is Canadian porn. And as much as I love The Canadas, I am just not going to get what turns that particular crank. I can join in a little, because Paul Newman Omnomnom, but it’s just not in my American Constitution. (See what I did there?)


Paul Newman in Slapshot

So, I wanted to say some stuff about the book club in this book, but whatever has infected my sinuses has destroyed my ability to think or close read. For my part, the book club sections were far and away the most interesting part of this story, as I couldn’t ken the Canadinanity of the central couple. (Also, I found the sex-writing to be just gross – too much “plumpness” and “moistness” and “glistening curls” – icky.) 

The book club starts off bitching about the Man Booker prize over appies – O, Canada, don’t call them that – and then decide that instead of reading literary fiction, they will try their hands at erotica. Ahem. I suppose it is unsurprising, this being fiction and all, but the historical romance is this clobbering intertext about desire and stuff that the main character (and all of her book friends) read themselves against really personally. Like, they’re all worried about whether the near destitute widow will end up with the Comte or not, because of what that might say about their lives. SPOILERS. And, when she doesn’t, I was like, hold the phone. No, that is not a romance novel; it’s HEA or go home. The fact that everyone seems to think that the widow’s affair is “empowering” and will magic away the very real historical pressures bearing down on her – what? But whatever.

I do get reading romance novels personally, because I tend to take them personally. I have taken a number of them very personally indeed. But I just don’t get identifying with characters like this. Georgia is:

1. Smoking hot, but dresses really mannishly because she is not going to use her “feminine wiles” in the workplace.

2. A sexual neophyte despite having been married to her “soul mate”. 

I am:

1. Completely average looking (and I am not fishing here; I look like a person you know, not someone you see on tv). And while I work in a male dominated profession, I don’t really have to worry about dress code because I wear a uniform which might be mannish, but it is utilitarian. Sex appeal doesn’t factor in, either way. (Though, I have some funny stories about getting hit on in painter’s whites.) 

2. Someone who has been married 14 years, and was not part of any chastity movement before marriage. Let’s just say I know my way around an O, Canada and leave it at that.

My husband got kinda sniffy at me when I was making fun of Georgia’s two revelatory orgasms. Don’t judge other people’s sexuality, says he. And he’s right – there are lots of folk out there who never get to sing the Canadian national anthem for reasons of trauma or biology or psychology, or a combination of the three. But I’m not making fun of those people. I’m making fun of a character who has sex on a conference table because some asshole calls her a lesbian, and continues the relationship because (as far as I could tell) he gives her her first two whole Canadian anthems. O, Canada! I’m making fun of the idea that I have much in common with this grown ass woman who 1) doesn’t know the Canadian anthem and 2) has sex on a conference table minutes after meeting an asshole, and despite her convictions. I think the whole chastity movement is pretty much misguided and regressive, and even I think that’s a bad idea. 

Like Ana from Fifty Shades of Grey, I want to give George a wedgie, and take her down to the Smitten Kitten (link NSFW) so that she can learn her own Canadian anthem, one not attached to a gonch-wearing idjit. I get that he’s all earthy and from Manitoba and stuff, but he’s no Paul Newman. He’s probably not even Rosie LaRose. But then, that might be my America talking.

Mighty Ducks! Wooo! 

triumphant ending of the Mighty Ducks with Joshua Jackson
USA! USA! USA!

The Animal Family

I am not going to do The Animal Familyby Randall Jarrell justice, I know. This is incredibly beautiful, powerful, sad, wonderful stuff. My brilliant friend Georgeanna (and next door neighbor – Lyndale neighborhood represent!) pushed this into my hands when I freaked out about how wonderful The Last Unicornwas. She’s right – this is just as amazing, heartbreaking, literate, and poetic as Beagle’s stuff. Add in art from Maurice Sendak, and I am in hook, line and sinker.*

I am a land-locked soul, which is funny, because if I have a soul, it resides somewhere on a rocky beach on the north shore of Lake Superior. My soul watches the water, but it can’t swim, and spends its time trying skip rocks over the glass of the lake. Maybe this is why I freak out all day about selkie stories – freak out completely beyond the bounds. This isn’t necessarily a selkie story – she, who has no name, is referred to as a mermaid – but there’s something selkie-ish about the way the hunter and the mermaid find their connection on the spit of land between meadow and sea. Selkie stories** are about miscommunication and alienation and how they can be the basis of love, and how that is the most profound paradox to ever blow my mind.

 But she is a mermaid, not a selkie, and that works because selkie stories are usually massive bummers and this is not. I know from reading that if I am ever caught in an undertow, I am to swim at ninety degree angles against the pull, so that I may find myself in still waters. I’m not sure I would remember this if I were caught and drowning, but I know this now on land. I’m not a sea creature, and I can learn through telling, but that knowledge is incomplete and it always will be. I don’t know much about Randall Jarrell. I had this boyfriend once who loved him, and I hair-tossingly did not understand that love. (I was young. Shut up.) I associate him strongly with the WWII poetry that he is best known for:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  

 From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. 

 I guess he was also a critic, but criticism has a faster expiration date than poetry even. (Sorry, no offense all of Goodreads. We’ve lit our candles at both ends.)

 So a mermaid and a hunter find their strange love on a beach, and then they adopt a family of animals over the years: a bear, a lynx, a human boy. I can’t put my finger on why, but I found myself near tears at the oddest of points. And that’s weird. This isn’t the kind of tale that is determined to work your tear ducts – in fact, it is sweet and comic in its tone – but there’s this sorrow to it, an affectionate sorrow, an everyday sorrow, but a sorrow nonetheless. I don’t even know how to describe it. Here’s a passage, where the lynx is scratching the hunter accidentally in play:

 “Velvet paws! velvet paws!” The hunter would cry warningly.  

 The mermaid had got used to his saying it, but the first time she’d asked perplexedly: “What’s velvet?” 

 “I don’t know,” the hunter said. “But it’s what you say to a cat to get him to keep his claws in. My mother used to say it on the boat.” 

So the hunter said it and the mermaid and the lynx understood it, each in his own way – a little scrap of velvet between the forest and the sea.

Omigod, do you see it? Do you see how this is everyday, happy and sad all in the same smooth movement? I think I may be done reviewing for now. I go to freak out.

 *So I can’t decide whether I want to use the Oxford comma or not. Sue me.

 **I recently saw the movie Ondine, which is a selkie story set in modern Ireland. I loved it like crazy.

Disappointments: The Shepard’s Tale

No spoilers, browncoats. 

The format was interesting, told backwards though time as Book got younger and younger, causality reversed. But…

I don’t want to say much more, but I’ll just note that my imaginary life for Book was very different, and the reveal on these sorts of mysteries is always bound to disappoint. We can imagine whole spinning, contradictory plots that don’t fold into the deck of cards of a life, one card on the other, the ante on the table, the dealer forced to claim the tall card. 

The hand never plays like I want it to. It’s not the fault of the hand. 

description

Review: Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson

I took the kids to the zoo on Friday because sometime late Thursday, I discovered they had the day off and we were suddenly at loose ends. The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St Paul is an old school, Victorian zoo, a municipal pasture that was fenced in to hold three deer gifted to the city in 1897. Various attractions were added over the years, such as the ominous sounding “Monkey Island” which must be where the flamingos live now in the summer, or Archie Brand’s Seal Show featuring a succession of sea lions named Sparky. There’s a statue of the original Sparky, as well as one of the first resident lowland gorillas, a male named Don, who lived out his days at Como Zoo. He’s currently stuffed and in a case at the Science Museum of Minnesota across town. 

a woman in what looks like 1920's garb with a huge fur wrap around her shoulders feeds a black bear
Watch your fingers. 

The zoo has changed a lot since I was a kid. Mum used to joke that you more or less pulled open a fridge to see the penguins, which continues to be true, but the polar bears recently got a multi-million dollar upgrade on their previous, frankly appalling enclosure. Two black bears and a grizzly were visiting from someplace upstate that had been washed out by flooding. But I like how the Victorian bones of the zoological garden are still showing at Como, all this post-Civil War Age of Industry and Expansion, that drops a fence over a pasture and then calls it tame.

an undated black and white photograph that shows three large metal enclosures in a grove with lots of people milling around and looking. It's not possible to tell what's in the cages.
(The two above photos are from the Como Zoo website, and do not have dates.) 

My kids and I stood out in the weak November sun and watched sea lions circle their rocky tank. They were the only seasonal animals still out; the single desultory ostrich and his warm climate peers disappeared into basements or wherever they go when not on display – and the flash of the dark body, knifing silently through the water to nose up with the sound of breaking surface tension (not a splash) and then disappear again moves me in that enclosed way of all zoos. They remind me more of dogs than anything, with their big brown eyes and doggy snouts, but I can feel the fur just under my skin, like I could strip off my hairlessness and dive in. Lord, but do selkies do it for me.

a line drawing of a selkie skin, empty and discarded

Mermaids are a little different. They aren’t layers of wildness and domesticity, but a bifurcation of the two, an uneasy stitch between scale and skin. Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudsonby Mark Siegel takes place slightly earlier than the founding of this zoo, 1887, on the Hudson river. Sailor Twain (“Don’t call me captain”) plies the river in his steamer in the employ of a drunken Frenchman named Lafayette. The story starts with layers though – a broken Twain sought out for his story by an enigmatic woman, all shadows and cloaks, and then tells the tale lappingly, incidents building, reversing so that you apply new information to old assumptions, reimagine as you imagine. The Hudson, like the Thames, is a tidal river, and it flows both ways depending on the moods of the tides. Twain’s recountings start with his offhand observation of a stag in the river, and then the discovery of mermaid on his boat.

a charcoal drawing of a stag's head rising from the water in silhouette, a steam ship in the background

My husband called the art here “sophomoric” because he’s a jackass, but I do see his point. Twain is rendered almost naively, his big round eyes and unruly hair under his captain’s hat offset by his almost Puritanically dark figure. The mermaid – her name is unpronounceable, but translates to South – is both fishily sticky and voluptuously sexy. They enact their doom on the charcoal canvass of Industrial Revolution America, all smog and late evening. It took me a while to cotton to Twain’s rendering – why so cartoonish, so simple? – but I eventually dug it for its childlike lack of wonder, its earnest simplicity. 

Twain in the background while the mermaid sleeps in a bed.

I’m waiting for someone to flag this image, because Goodreads has a no nudity clause (something which I generally agree with – the pornbots are bad enough without encouragement) and I’m pretty sure that’s a nipple slip there. But it gets really tricky with creatures like mermaids. Their strange unconsummated sexuality is the seam of their existence – it’s what holds them together. The mermaid in Sailor Twainis bare-breasted in most of the panels she occurs, and it is frustrating me no end that I can’t replicate them here. I went and dug around the history of the Starbucks mermaid for a while this morning – I knew she had run into trouble in places like Saudi Arabia and with Christian groups for doing things like having breasts and being a woman-ish creature. 

original Starbucks cigar-band logo, with the mermaid's breasts uncovered by her hair
Now I’m just being a scofflaw.

Like the strange Starbucks mermaid with her fishy “legs”, there are a lot of doubled storylines and doppelgangers – Twain’s wife convalescing from some unnamed illness that has her legs tucked unworking into a blanketed wheelchair, her church solo like the siren song of the mermaid, but pious and tamed. Siegel makes use of all the metaphorical possibilities of a steamer captain named Twain – so much so, that I occasionally laughed at how they were deployed. But I think I was supposed to in these little odd moments of levity. Mark Twain himself wasn’t afraid of the narrative wink – although his tended to be whole body gestures.

I pretty much loved this story because I love inevitable tragedy – mermaid stories never end well – and doppelgangers, and Industrial Revolution America, and strange sublimated sexuality and doom. I love it like watching sea lions in an enclosure thousands of miles from the sea.