Review: Reckoning 2 (Dec 2017)

I got a copy of this over the summer, and finally got a chance to read it this fall. Now, with the third issue about to drop in December, I’m glad I discovered I should be paying attention to what this small magazine is offering.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect, or wonderful, or for me. On the surface, it’s a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays growing wild like plants in a field; like any wild bunch of things, it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which, and what works together with other creations in that setting instead of merely being there at the same time. There are essays which seem like stories – one that works and one that doesn’t – and poems I wanted more from, stories I would have cut down. But in between, there’s brilliance.

Before I get further into my review, I have to stop you right here and ask: have you read Innocent Ilo’s “To the Place of Skulls”? It’s easily one of the best and most impactful stories I’ve read this year, and I am honestly surprised that I haven’t seen more people talking about it. If I had to pick one story for you to read from this year’s Reckoning, it would be Ilo’s. So well-crafted it reads like it’s a far simpler story than it really is; the kind of craft that leads you into a dark and heavy place before you know it, without forcing you there, without feeling saccharine or unsupported. There’s nothing I don’t love about this story (except the subject, of course, which is both fiction and just barely, maybe tomorrow, going to be true somewhere).

Luckily, I don’t have to pick just one, from this thick annual magazine that editor Micheal DeLuca envisioned to showcase “creative writing on environmental justice”. With six poems, five essays, twelve stories, and art, there’s going to be something for everyone. Even the work I didn’t connect with has a purpose – like “From Paris, With Rage“, an essay framed as a story, which mostly focuses on teaching readers how to deal with being arrested at a major ecological protest, if that’s something you need to know. I was comforted, seeing a high level of quality work through a magazine of this size, because it tells me that it’s not a combination of good stories and bad ones, or well-written compared to badly constructed. It’s work that suits my tastes and what I needed to read at that moment, and other work that isn’t written for me. Maybe it’s written for you.

The work I did connect with, I’m grateful to have read. “A Wispy Chastening” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires is exactly what flash fiction should be: tightly written but hinting at vastly more than is on the page, allowing you to fill in the blanks in your head to supply the worldbuilding that wouldn’t fit into the word count limit. Marie Vibbert’s “Fourth-Dimensional Tessellations of the American College Graduate” is another one of my favorites – even if you don’t have a soft spot in your heart for bees like I do, it’s a cleverly winding tale of young adult attachment, and the way we collect the people who complete us, whether we like them or not.

Both “The Bull Who Bars the Gate to Heaven” by Zella Christensen and “A Hundred Years From Now” by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam are excellent poems that are simultaneously both stories and messages, and while some of the other poems here I felt lacked something, or tried too hard, these two were perfect as they are. Marissa Lingen’s “The Shale Giants” is another flash fiction story, but its word count barely constrains its slow-moving mass of rock and building resentment. Definitely worth reading.

Girl Singing with Farm” by Kathrin Köhler, is a weird science fiction story both beautiful and heartbreaking, but one that also hints at a happy ending, and even the possibility (never certain) is something most other pieces in this issue don’t offer. “Rumpelstiltskin” by Jane Elliott is one of the better uses of this particular fairy tale I’ve read in a retelling. A father slowly losing everything to a global famine recounts how the world came to be this way, and through his recollections, you get a glimpse of where the fault lies.

The answer is the same for much of Reckoning: the fault lies in ourselves. Maybe if we open up to more creative environmental writing, we’ll figure out how to fix some of what we’ve broken before it’s too late. (At the very least, Reckoning aims to get you thinking about the problem, which is the first step.)


Ebook released December 21, 2017.
e-ISBN: 9780998925226
Weightless Books
Amazon
Barnes & Noble

Print edition released June 21, 2018.
ISBN: 978-0-9989252-3-3
248 pages, 67,000 words.
$20, free shipping

What I’ve Been Reading: Lynda Barry’s CRUDDY

Some books about children are for children; Lynda Barry’s Cruddy is definitely not.

First, a warning: this book contains themes, sometimes graphic descriptions, of subjects and events which might be triggering to readers, including suicide, murder, child abuse, child sexual assault, racism, sexism, ableism, mistreatment of people with special needs, drug use, runaways, institutionalization, and animal abuse.

If you still want to give Cruddy a try after all of that… you should. It’s probably the best-written depiction of a troubled child’s life that I’ve ever read. It’s perfect in a lot of ways. It’s hard to read, because it unflinchingly flays open some of the worst things a child can go through, but it’s easy to read, too, because Barry writes clean. Her tone is even throughout; there are no missteps, no awkwardly written passages. You meet Roberta, the 16-year-old narrator, on the first page, and until the book closes, there’s nothing to kick you off the ride.

It’s a hell of a trip, though. Nothing about Roberta’s life is easy or comforting, and even what seems positive for a moment is only in comparison to how crushingly terrible everything else is. But that’s the thing about a life in desolation — little moments of joy that other people, happier people, with more good in their lives, that might never be noticed, instead take on a monumental property. A shared moment can be enough to pin a life on.

Barry makes sense of the little moments and the big ones, weaving them all together so well you barely notice which is which.

I wasn’t surprised by any of it, but I suspect that’s because my childhood was not very different from Roberta’s. Better in some ways, worse in others, with some parts in common, and other parts that didn’t have to be shared because the overall feeling of growing up unwanted, unliked, outside of everyone else: that, I recognize. For other readers, it might be too hard to keep turning the page. That’s okay. But if you can get through it, Cruddy is a masterclass in writing about survival, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, from the perspective of a child whose parents (and their lack of parenting) made her a perpetual victim.  The story, Robert’as voice, feels real. It’s possible, probable, and tangible, even though we wish it couldn’t be.

Read it because you want to know what life is like for people with worse luck than your own. Read it because you want to know how to write terrible, unimaginable, darkness without losing a grip on the light. Read it because it is beautifully written, in a way that makes it appear simpler than it is, to make even those dark parts easier to digest.

Read it because though almost everything Roberta tells you about her life is bad, Cruddy is perfectly, solidly, good.

What I’ve Been Reading: Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy

There are two things I have to admit before we can talk about the Southern Reach trilogy:

  1. My partner and I have a secret, special place online… a shared folder of ebooks. This magical spot includes every DRM-free file we’ve ever bought, plus all the digital books and magazines we’ve gotten free at cons, as contributor copies, or in giveaways. Between the two of us, we have hundreds of reading options, collected over a decade.
  2. Last November, he got me a tablet for my birthday. It was inexpensive, a few years out of date, and doesn’t run very quickly, on purpose, because I wanted something with a 10 inch screen that I couldn’t use for games. I wanted a reading tablet, something to help me get through that giant digital to-be-read pile. The tablet I was gifted is absolutely perfect for the job.

So, you’d think I read a lot. I haven’t been. For a couple of years, I haven’t been able to get into a headspace for reading for pleasure, so unless a book or story promised to enhance my writing techniques or was for research, I put in the “someday” pile and moved on.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, US cover.

Last week, I opened up Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy. I’d put off reading it for a long time, partly because I had this idea in my head that it was going to be hard to read. Smarter than I am. Too literary for my mood. More… something, than I was ready for. It’s not.

Annihilation is so well written that it feels easy. I didn’t notice the work that must have gone into writing it at all, even though it’s my job to analyze writing, break down work into its component parts. I planned to, when I started reading, but I forgot about studying the technique as I got into the story.  Annihilation is that rare kind of beautiful epic which creates an entire world yet effortlessly flows from the page as fast as you can move your eyeballs. I tore through the first book and ended up reading the whole trilogy in two days. Continue reading

What I’ve Read This Week (with links)

I read a lot of news, articles, and essays, but rarely remember to share the ones I find interesting. I’m making an effort to be better about that. This week, I read…

Fiction:

Ken Liu’s “Cassandra“, at Clarkesworld (review forthcoming)

Non-Fiction:

On New Orleans’s Mardi Gras Indians: “A Once-Guarded Tradition Spills Open In New Orleans’ Streets” by Eve Troeh (NPR)

  • Looks at the evolution from the black Indians as mysterious strangers, to the recent focus on community and youth outreach programs. Includes 5 min podcast. Short, but it might intrigue you enough to read a little more. Wiki, Houston Cultural Crossroads, Mardi Gras New Orleans, are places to start, and photographer Eric Waters has some beautiful images here. As a corollary, you might also be interested in the Baby Doll dance clubs and the Skull and Bones Gang (both articles via Nola.com). Also, this article on Big Chief Bo Dollis’s passing includes video from his funeral, and music from other Indians.

When KKK Was Mainstream” by Linton Weeks (NPR)

  • Less than 90 years ago, the KKK was considered a major part of life and culture in America — so much so that they sponsored charity events, weddings, funerals, baseball games, and parades — even though they were outspoken about their racist beliefs, and had over 4 million members on the rolls. They walked around the streets in their robes and regalia. They were considered “just another club”; accepted as they enforced as “whites only” spaces the whole of a community.

About the Forbidden City and other Asian-American Nightclubs: “These Nightclub Entertainers Paved The Way For Asian-Americans In Showbiz” by Heidi Chang

Charlie Low opened Forbidden City in 1938, and from exotic dancers to comedians to acrobats, he made sure the club had it all. It was even featured in major media outlets, including Life magazine. But that didn’t shield performers from the mostly white audiences’ racial taunts. According to music writer and broadcaster Ben Fong-Torres, “Even while they were entertaining — not unlike the blacks who entertained in New York City at the Apollo [Theater] and the Cotton Club — they would still be subjected to racism. So even though you are the stars of the show, to which these paying customers have come to attend, they still feel superior to you and make … racist remarks to your face, or shout it out from the audience. And I think that was pretty difficult for most of these entertainers to take. But as [singer] Larry Ching said, ‘I had to. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in the business.'”

Twenty-One Dresses” by Pari Dukovic, Jessamyn Hatcher (New Yorker)

  • A look at what it takes to preserve antique clothing — in this case, from the illustrious Bell Epoque fashion house “Callot Soeurs”. Includes photographs.

Interviews:

Alejandro Jodorowski, “A Hundred Years Is Nothing” by Camilo Salas (Vice.com)

Reviews:

Juan Vidal’s review of the English translation of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (NPR)

  • I loved what Vidal has to say about the book, which sounds as if it’s perfectly nestled in the center of that Venn diagram that describes my love for SF, literature, and detective stories. I bought it immediately! (Right now, Amazon has the paperback on sale here, and if you buy it that way, you can read the beginning online for free.)

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #168

Steady on Her Feet, by K.J. Kabza

3/5*

Starts a little slow; the presentation of the placard would have been better a little farther down, once we’d already had a taste of Kabza’s delightful world to bite into. Still, it picks up slowly over a few paragraphs, and then suddenly you’re off and running, fully immersed in a genuinely (darkly) entertaining adventure. Like being chased down alleyways at night, when you only think you know where you’re going, the story moves along through the expected twists and turns, until it curves too sharply into its finale. The end makes a sort of sense, but the character reveals aren’t well-established, and require a lot of disbelief to keep you from tossing the whole thing out when the kind and/or stupid suddenly become gleefully malevolent. Too bad, because until then, the story was quite good, but it’s clear that Kabza had an end in mind when writing, and was going to get there regardless of whether or not the rest of the story supported it.

A Screech of Gulls, by Alec Helms

5/5*

The story begins with the listing and naming of things, and in the explanation of those names, the story unfolds. This is a lovely, languid, way to infodump, and I’m always glad to see it done well. It carries on with details and objects, setting the scene by telling you about the things in it as they come up, instead of all at once. This is a worldbuilding sort of fantastic reality, the kind that clearly takes place somewhere and somewhen else, but Helms never overwhelms with useless prose. There are new words in the dialogue that make sense because of context, rather than relying on an explanation, and that shows Helms thinks we’re smart enough to understand — a respect I always appreciate in an author. In the end, the story is so simple, but it’s beautifully told, with the weight of realism and solid emotional impact. Worth reading even if you’re not a fan of “fantasy” because this one isn’t, really (there’s little to no magic, it’s just not a story from our world) but it is extremely well-written.