Books You Should Read: Etgar Keret’s THE NIMROD FLIPOUT

I got loaned a copy of this book last week, and since its owner was a little nervous about parting with it (not that I would damage it, but that I might love it and not ever want to give it back), I moved The Nimrod Flipout to the front of my queue and read it right away. It took most of the week, since Keret’s stories seem innocuous enough but have an odd depth that rises up to smack you a few minutes or a few hours after you finished each one, so I couldn’t read the collection in one sitting.

There is no complexity to his word choices. There are a few fantastic elements, enough to get him into the “magic realism” genre label, but even when they appear the story isn’t about the thing that happened as much as it is about the people it happened to. The collection is full of tiny stories, short stories, moments in time that span a page or three and no more. Keret tells you everything you need to know in simple words, short sentences, and normal-seeming anecdotes. Yet his writing is so moving, so emotionally true.

The secret to his power as author is that he tells stories a certain kind of person will resonate with. Disconnected, sad, lost, unloved, or unloving? These stories are for you. That isn’t to say that a person who was genuinely happy and had always been so wouldn’t be able to grasp the beauty of Keret’s work. At least, I think they would still get it. Since I don’t know anyone who’s never been hurt, who’s never wondered if the relationship that they were in was really love or was it instead a matter of convenience for one of them or the other … I feel safe in recommending this book to everyone.

Most of his main characters are male but not exclusively and when Keret writes women he does so with the understanding of a man who’s known real women, loved them, and saw their good qualities, rather than a man who’s writing only the fantasies of women he wishes he knew or the worst-quality nightmares of women who wronged him. There are more than a couple of men who’re in marriages that aren’t quite working for them, or watching their friends about to get married to women they wouldn’t have picked, but even then Keret shows where these women were loved, once, before things went sour, and you can usually see where the husband plays a major part in the failure to stay in love. He writes mostly men, it seems, not for any reason other than he is one, and he has male friends, and he knows their stories.

There are cab drivers honking at young women in order to not think about what they’re really afraid of, and men in love with women doing odd things they don’t quite understand (like sunbathing nude on the lawn or turning into a hairy fat guy at night) but who nonetheless love them. There are talking fish – who, granted, might talk more if they weren’t so depressed  – and love dwarves and suicidal soldiers and shrinking parents that fit in your pocket, but the stories never seem to be about that. They’re always about the people these things happen to. They’re about us, really, deep down, and the things we see after Keret reminds us.

More classic scifi: RA Heinlein’s TUNNEL IN THE SKY

20120423-204008.jpg Tomorrow, at dawn, you are going to be shoved through a doorway that opens into a world you have never seen. You do not know if the world you are about the enter will be tropical or arctic, desert or jungle. You may emerge in a dawn-history swamp snarling with giant reptiles; you may slither on the ice of a world gaunt beneath the fading light of an aged and lonely sun…

Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons* in 1955, TUNNEL IN THE SKY is part of Heinlein’s “young adult” series of books. Since the accidental discovery of gate travel, an overpopulated Earth was shipping its hungry citizens off as quickly as it can, colonizing the Universe (or dying, trying). A degree in an off-planet career path, like colonial lawyer or emergency doctor or expeditionary leader, would mean the difference between being a subordinate, a working-class member of the group, or someone trusted with a leadership position.The bulk of the characters in the book are 17 or 18 years old, with a few in their early twenties and a few more about 15. The only adults are shown, briefly, at the bookends of the story. A group of 100 or so students, from three high schools and one college, are about to take the final exam in their Outworld survival course. With no one to guide them, they’re on their own – and the price for failure is death.

Instead of surviving for ten days and being called home, the kids find themselves waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Eventually they gather together to make a new society for themselves, since the old one seems to have forgotten all about them. Though there are elements of Lord of the Flies, this is a kid-friendly book, and Heinlein keeps the death and gore down to a warning level. You see enough to take their predicament seriously, but not enough to turn this into horror. In fact the narrator, Rod, has an easy-going way of talking and thinking that keeps the story from becoming too scary and helps propel it into an adventure story. Think Swiss Family Robinson, instead.

How does the book, 57 years old, come across to a modern reader? Continue reading

You Should Read: Ray Vukcevich’s BOARDING INSTRUCTIONS

The 33 stories in this collection are bite-sized samples of weird worlds we never quite inhabit but suspect are out there. The style has much in common with the Karen Joy Fowler and Aimee Bender collections I recently reviewed, but Vukcevich has a tendency to break the story down further, stripping away all of the befores and afters until only the singular moment remains. He does the Gallagher thing with the sledgehammer and the watermelon but only actually shows the wet, pink, bits dripping off the plastic-covered woman in Row 2, Seat 6. All of the rest you have to guess at, but given the parts we do see, the context is clear and the rest of the audience can be imagined, if necessary.

Some of my favorites from the collection are:

  • “Grocery List” – this is nothing more than a hand-scrawled grocery list for things like tofu and beer and blunt objects and poison and apologies. Wait, what? Read it again. Somewhere in between those words scribbled down the page is a story.
  • “Over Here” – the author notes that this story was originally written for an anthology. The structure of the book was that it was entirely made up of stories to honor a little girl who’d been hit by a military convoy truck in Iraq. The editor of that antho was a soldier who’d been there when it happened, and wanted to find a way to bring some closure to event. Vukcevich responded by giving us his trademark weird self, talking about anime characters and clavichords, but also turns the dead girl’s ghost into a superhero and gives her a best friend. The story is kind and affectionate and more than a little sad.
  • “Human Subjects” – what if aliens took over our brains and made us do stuff? You know, in the name of science. And what if you had met a girl that turned your head inside out and made your heart dance and she had an alien too? This story is the answer to that question.
  • “Wages of Syntax” – Vukcevich plays with PoV here, showing us three different main characters in a single short story, but it works. Fate, language, romance, and rubber ducks.
  • “Cold Comfort” – It takes a certain kind of lonely to pretend to be a freezer.
  • “Fired” – Vukcevich writes as much science fiction as he does anything else, but this is one of the few set in the far future. Space liners, augmented dating, and alien fire women, all making it very hard for one man to get lucky.
  • “Gas” – It’s hard to fit into society when your breath can actually kill people, but when your choices are “give up” or “make it work”, what can you do? Mixes in music, gas mask performances, and the things we do to find the right husband for our offspring.
  • “Glinky” – I loved this story. Noir and children’s television and the ability to change your world one step to the left at a time.
  • “Love Story” – one of my favorite pieces. I, too, want to have lived a good, long, life, be old with someone I adore, and scandalize the children.
  • “Some Other Time” – Again, Vukcevich shows you the results of a tragedy, the effects it has as the sorrow leaches into your daily life and the things you do to forget the pain. The story just happens to take place on an alien world, with a handful of colonists struggling to survive, but the act of being a parent – even a bad one – remains the same.
  • “Strong Suits” – Ah, traumatic brain injury, and the relationships we have with our lover’s clothes. Read this, and then think about what your significant other’s wardrobe means to you.
  • “Tubs” – Strip a man’s life down to one room, some torture, and a bathtub full of cold water, and this might be what you end up with.

The stories in this collection are short, quirky, quick to read, and almost all of them will make you think sideways for a moment. I’m so glad I read it.

You Should Read: THE 1977 ANNUAL WORLD’S BEST SF anthology

I picked this up at a library book sale a year or so ago, and promptly forgot all about it. If I had read the table of contents, I would have sat down and read the book immediately. Joanna Russ! Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”! Tiptree! It wasn’t until I bought new bookshelves and rearranged my collection that I realized what my spare dollar had gotten me.

  • Introduction (Donald A. Wollheim) – Is pretentious too strong a word to use for this guy? From his intro to the blurbs he puts at the beginning of each story, as if having to defend why he chose to reprint it, he comes off as thinking his readers don’t know as much as he does, which is always off-putting (and usually wrong). Ignore him.
  • “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss – I thought this story worked a little too hard to make a point about the ways in which we fail as humans today, by showing what the future (65,000 years into the future) version of us would think of us. The current us is a long-dead specimen, an ugly point on the physical evolution of humanity, a museum piece. From this perspective, future-human sees our flaws and waxes philosphical about them. The story did bring up some interesting ideas about umwalt and the potential for humans to be influenced by outside sources; I’ll file some of them away for later.
  • “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” (John Varley) – I liked this quite a bit. The odd things throughout the story were suitably explained by the end, and I can see it as a precurser to a lot of cyber-fiction I like from more recent authors. Fun settings, from the “Kenya Disneyland” on the moon to the world the main character creates for himself in his head.
  • “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” (Michael G. Coney) – The narrator here is hard to like. He’s telling an anecdote from his youth, but he doesn’t have positive things to say about anyone it. He essentially just bitches about his old friends until we catch up to him in present day, where he has an opportunity to reconnect with one of the people he’s been talking about – but chooses not to, on the grounds that they have nothing to say to each other. So, we just have to listen to you bitch, and there’s no character arc, no resolution at the end? Eh.
  • “The Hertford Manuscript” (Richard Cowper) – Maybe if I cared more about HG Well’s Time Machine, or hadn’t already seen/read a million adaptations from that story, I’d have been more impressed. This goes along with a few others as being probably innovative in 1977, but boring today. It’s not badly written but the framework of the story – an old book handed down by a dead aunt with a secret inside – wasn’t original even in 1977.
  • “Natural Advantage” (Lester del Rey) – Wonderful. It presents aliens as the main characters, with Earth/humanity as an outside force that is met and re-met, but doesn’t go on the journey. It has a little of that “humans are teh awesome and will always win” propaganda common from the time, but it doesn’t overwhelm the heart of the tale. The way that the aliens cherish humanity is what gives the story its emotional weight. To be seen, from the outside, as worth remembering, worth missing … that feeling makes the last paragraph of the story work.
  • “The Bicentennial Man” (Isaac Asimov) – I’d seen the movie but hadn’t read the story until now. I liked it! I can see why it was so influential, and it’s one of those classic tales that, if you like robot stories, you’re going to want to have read.
  • “The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” (Barrington J. Bayley) – This story tried to do so much. It introduced several novel ideas, but in the end the author chose the easy out of tossing the main character into a void so none of the science had to be explained, or, you know, work. It felt lazy.
  • “My Boat” (Joanna Russ) – Like Coney’s story, this one has a narrator recounting an incident from his teen years, but not only is the anecdote far more interesting (even though it coves many of the same themes, including a male friend leaving him to spend time with a new female) but it also has a conclusion that leaves the reader hopeful and enchanted. It’s one of the best pieces in the book.
  • “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (James Tiptree, Jr.) – I had to try to forget everything that came after this story because by now I’ve seen it redone a hundred times, but looking at it by itself, it’s quite good. It has a very strong opinion about the (assumed) primal dominance of men and the utopia of a women-only society, which I don’t actually agree with, but the philosophy is present inside of strong storytelling. There are definite bad guys but there’s also a mostly harmless guy to show the range of male personalities, instead of simply writing them all off. I’m also not sure if I agree with the idea that the main society in the story would actually have slowed way down the way it did, but I liked that the author took the future to the logical conclusion for the rules she set for it. Bonus points for logical follow-through, always.
  • I See You” (Damon Knight) – I rarely like second-person perspective, but it fits the story here. The author alternates between 2nd per, talking to you, and third-person, talking about the inventor of a device which changes people’s perspective, and is what makes the way he talks to you make sense. It isn’t the best story in the collection but it is a solid way to end the book. Definitely recommend to people who are interested in that kind of PoV shifting. The science isn’t as novel as the storytelling, but with an author this deft, it doesn’t need to be.

Overall, there was more to like than dislike, and at least half of the stories stood the test of time. If you see it, read it.

Note: My personal library has a decent-sized stack of “classic” science fiction, most of which I’ve read. There are a few recently acquired works, like this one, which I hadn’t read until this week. They range from truly “classic” era SF (40s and 50s) to late 70s “it’s not new so it’s old and it’s kind of important so we’ll call it classic“. I will continue to review the modern titles which I think you should be reading, but I because I think it’s important to know the books which influenced contemporary writers – including myself – I am going to start reviewing the older books too. You can find them under the classic fiction tag.

You Should Read: Aimee Bender’s THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT

I find myself wondering what genre Aimee Bender’s work falls into. Perhaps not all of her writing, but this collection of short stories. It is literary in the sense that she writes with an eye to the experience of having read her work, in addition to telling a story. There are elements of weird fiction, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, and other hints of genre in the stories, as if her writing is a bumper car and she’s bouncing off the edges of genre, trading paint. There are whispers of genre, where she never comes right out with it.

Like Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler, nearly all of her protagonists are women. Is it feminist fiction, then? I don’t think so, no more than anyone else who writes a female main character could be labeled as such. Her women are by turns lost and needy and heartbroken and seeking male approval and inappropriately sexual (and, also, sexy and smart and loving and warm and witty). It’s a collection of stories about a range of people who happen to be, mostly, women.

There is an intimate quality to Bender’s stories, as if we’re being let in on secrets. We’re reminded of the time that we, too, were empty or lost or aching to be touched, and it seems that we can only be reminded of those feelings by someone who has been there as well. Bender reads as a comrade. A fellow wounded soldier, marching on, because the only way is forward.

I think Bender falls under that umbrella we’re calling “magic realism” these days. You can determine the difference between magic realism, fantasy, and paranormal*, by the reaction of others to the weird events which are occurring. In a fantasy setting, magic occurs naturally. It may not be everywhere, but the world at large is not surprised by its existence. It is a thing that happens.

A paranormal or weird fiction story also features creatures or powers or events, such as a haunting or a mutant child or a werewolf running loose. However, society deems this strange. Government agencies get involved, or the townspeople hide the weird out of fear of reprisal. Everyone knows this should not be.

In a magic realism story, a weird thing happens, and everyone thinks it’s wrong, but no one does anything about it. The weird event serves to teach the main character something or to unsettle the reader. It doesn’t change the world but it may change the life of one little girl.

Bender’s collection is full of these stories. A woman whose boyfriend devolves, taking the evolutionary path back to the ocean. The authorities don’t get involved. He isn’t taken by a research center. His friends and coworkers stop calling to ask about him because she asks them to stop – simple as that. She watches him become ape, baboon, turtle, salamander, and yet, the story isn’t about his change. It’s about her discovery of what she can live with, and what she can’t – a theme I see time and time again in Bender’s work. In another example, a woman gives birth to her own (elderly, previously dead) mother, and the obstetrician, once he gets over his surprise, sends them all home. The story here is about letting go of the people you’ve lost, and the consequences of not letting go enough. It isn’t about the impossibility of having given birth to a full grown woman. That’s just the thing that happens in the midst of everything else.

I loved this collection. It’s another one that I have to pause while reading, to come up for air. Each story is its own moment and has to be felt as an individual experience. They’re moving, carrying themselves forward, taking you along for a stroll. You can’t stop the effect it will have on you once the story has started, and I’m certain that’s a good thing. It’s important to be powerless in the face of your fiction sometimes. We need to let go. It refreshes our brains and reboots our spirits and we can carry on with our own lives, a little changed, a little bit bigger than we were before. “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt” is a walk worth taking.

* I would argue that you can use “urban fantasy” instead of “paranormal” in most cases.