You Should Read: Karen Joy Fowler’s WHAT I DIDN’T SEE, AND OTHER STORIES

I read something new because I liked a previous book enough to get another by the same author, or because I want something fun and quick enough to shut my brain off for a few hours and the cover (or blurb) suggest to me that this book will be worth the risk, or because it was suggested to me as a “must read” by someone I trust (though there are very few of those). Fowler’s collection of short stories was one that was recommended to me, and I am now in the position of both appreciating the suggestion and passing it along to you.

I’d read at least one of her stories online, the one about the woman whose daughter is dating the vampire, which is called “Younger Women” and can be read online for free. That story was wonderful. That story isn’t in this book, having been written after, but you can see the bones of it in what Fowler has done before. The subtlety of a story told without any unnecessary bits shoved in to make it this genre or that. The hint of sadness that is visible but presented as if the bearer isn’t sure yet whether they have reason enough to be sad, and are leaving up to you to decide for them.

There are times that she takes inspiration from other stories, mostly fairy tales, but instead of retelling them she shows you the most important moments of someone who was only peripherally affected by the story you might have heard before. “Halfway People” does this, with its swan brother and the woman who knew him for a short time; “The Dark” does it too, with plague and rats and the piper that always hangs around where those things intersect.

Some of the tales she retells aren’t yet fantastical enough to interest Grimm but are, at least in the US, just as well known. Fowler gives John Wilkes Booth a literary half-life with both “Booth’s Ghost” and “Standing Room Only”, the second being (I think) her most “genre” story of the bunch, when you figure out the twist I don’t plan to spoil for you.

According to Wikipedia there is some controversy over whether Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” deserved the Nebula award it won, on the grounds that it was neither fantasy nor science fiction and therefore didn’t meet the genre requirements for the award. I can’t say whether it should have won under that criteria, because it didn’t feel like either of those things to me, but I have been thinking lately that both sf and fantasy are settings, not genres, and real genres are things like “adventure” and “romance” and “thriller” and “alternate history political intrigue”. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t much matter what the setting is because the story is moving and beautiful and questioning its own sadness, as Fowler’s stories tend to do.

And if it must be genre, in this instance, we can call it alternate history (because what is told is a fiction that never happened exactly that way in real life) or feminist pulp adventure tale (because it is most definitely that) or literary fantasy, because what happens in the story is not magical but is fantastical. Good enough for me.

I liked every story in the book. I thought “The Pelican Bar” was cruel in that it revealed something heartless and yet unsurprising – the way people can abandon the children they don’t understand. It was brilliant in that it didn’t falter in the telling. No words out of place or misused, no sentiment awkwardly stuffed in without need. But then I think all of her stories are the same way, which is why I adore Fowler’s writing, and this book, and these stories.

“Always” made sense, again. We must all have those moments where we slow down, quiet our internal selves, and feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. How else can a story about living forever seem so familiar? “The Marianas Islands” had the same sense of comfortable relation, as if the narrator is a distant cousin telling family tales we’ve heard before but weren’t there to experience first hand.

My favorite, in that it was heartbreaking and immediately grabbed me and made me cry, was the final piece in the book, “King Rat”. It reads as if it’s non-fiction, and I know that I could look it up (the Internet is full of facts like these) but I wouldn’t want to know if it wasn’t.

Reading the book took most of a day because, like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link’s work, Fowler’s stories are too much to read without pausing in between like a marathoner grabbing water every few miles. He’d never make it to the end without refreshing himself and neither should you barrel through a collection like this without stopping to let your brain breathe. At 200 pages, it’s hardly long, but certainly long enough.

Go, read. I’d hate for you to have missed out on knowing what it feels like to have read it.

* Note: I bought my copy from Small Beer Press, and you should too.

My (Science-loving, Steam-Powered) Heart Beats For Atomic Robo

Sometimes a girl needs a little fun in her life. A moment to enjoy some good old fashioned science-fuled ass kicking. A happy ending would be nice too. So, what’s a girl to do? I got my hands on volume 2 and 3 of the Atomic Robo trade paperbacks.

If you haven’t heard of Atomic Robo, go read my review of the first book.

This series is written like someone handed Brian Clevinger a list of all the things that make my heart sing. Tesla, mad science, heroic action, Carl Sagan, giant robots, evil Nazis, and Scott Wegener’s adorable art style? Oh, pitter patter.

Vol. 2, Atomic Robo and the Dogs of War, collects the five-issue mini-series, complete with cover gallery, pin-ups, and bonus stories. It shows more of Robo’s adventures in World War II, introduces a plucky British heroine, and there’s some evil genius-designed weather cannons.

It also has a brief appearance by James “Scottie” Milligan, a Scotsman and a hero. He was Scott Wegener’s grandfather.

That the creators of this comic wrote in Wegener’s grandfather, in order to allow him to live again in Atomic Robo, is the biggest part of why I adore this book. It’s written and drawn by people who want to be a part of this world, so much that they will populate it with their favorite things, their joys and sorrows and loved ones. This is he one great power we have as writers – the ability to remake the world in whatever image we want, to fix its flaws, to ressurect the dead, to make it right. When it’s done well, as it is in this case, it’s breathtaking.

Vol 3, Atomic Robo and The Shadow From Beyond Time, combines AR with my other great love: HP Lovecraft. I did tell you they write this series just for me, didn’t I? Let’s start with the fact that “Tesla Heavy Industries” had, in 1926, a storefront office with “Science While You Wait!” painted on the window. Throw in the Tunguska blast, Howard P Lovecraft babbling like a mad man, Carl Sagan, lightning guns, tentacles, and … I don’t want to give away the rest of the story but if you like that sort of thing, this is the book for you.

Oh, and Robo’s wearing argyle socks. I’m just saying.

You Should Read: Brian Wood’s DMZ (graphic novels 1-3)

    

Set in a near future where a second American civil war rages, a lone journalist is stranded in the middle of New York City, now a brutal no-man’s-land. Mirroring current events, DMZ is an unforgiving look at what a ‘war on terror’ can do to a civilian population.

I’ve been told that I need to start reading Brian Wood’s Vertigo series, DMZ. I meant to, I really did. From what I heard, it was exactly the kind of book I like: dark, gritty, urban, bleak, yet full of unexpected hope. I looked forward to it, but wasn’t certain when I’d find the time. Now that it’s coming to an end, I finally picked up the first three graphic novels, which collect issues 1 to 17, and … it’s everything I was told to expect.

The story begins with Matty Roth, photo intern, being dropped into the middle of a war zone. As if being left behind weren’t bad enough, he’s got people shooting at him and strange girls pointing guns in his face and an alarming tendency to faint under pressure. Poor Matty. He can get out or he can bunker down and turn his misfortune into a chance at the big time, a chance to be the only working journalist in the DMZ. Which just happens to be Manhattan, caught in the crossfire between what’s left of the USA and the “Free States” currently occupying New Jersey and points west.

Wood shows a NYC we can imagine without having to squint too hard. It’s a brilliant premise, turning a city with as much cultural weight as NYC has into a hotly contested battle zone. It turns familiar territory into a whole new world, an alternate history two steps to the right of where we are now. To say that Wood loves this city is an understatement – it serves as both backdrop and character for two of his other titles, New York Four/Five and The Couriers, and he lives in Brooklyn – but in DMZ it’s transformed.

There are all kinds of little bits of fun in the book too, meant for people who have a vague idea of what New York is, as both a historical landmark and a place where the cutting edge is sharpest. Central Park? The Zoo? The Flatiron Building? They’re in the books. Art installations and vegan restaurants and Chinese gangsters and tattooed girls whose thong underwear is visible over their low-rise jeans? Here. All the bits of truth that become ideas when they filter out of the city and into popular media can be found, eventually, in DMZ, but they serve as anchors, pulling the book back into our world, and giving us landmarks to guide us along the way.

Wood has to be given credit for another bit of world building – even though the book is marketed at an arguably male (and white male, at that) audience, because that’s still the bulk of the comic book buying population, his characters are not only white or male. His main character is, sure, because we have to give the reader a person to identify with, but most of the other white males in the book are military, soldiers. Matty’s friends and neighbors are the people you’d expect to see living in New York today. To have whitewashed the city would have been an unforgivable sin, and one I’m glad Wood didn’t make. In addition, he gives us the full range of humanity’s potential, so that it isn’t just the white men who save the day, but the black architecture student, the hispanic female med student, the elderly Chinese “grandfather”, and so on.

Yes, of course, there are the punks and the thieves and the whores. It is still New York.

What makes DMZ work for me is that while there is a big war going on, and Matty, as the “outsider” does have to reflect on why it started and where it’s going, the bulk of the people in the story don’t have time for that kind of philosophizing. It’s not a book where people sit around a diner talking out their big ideas on long swathes of dialogue. There’s running and hiding and exploding bombs and dying children and conspiracies and fucking and making mistakes and trying not to die. A lot of simply trying not to die. It gives the story a frenetic layer of action on top of which can be thrown a little heavy thinking, if there’s time.

There are 72 issues in the series, before it ends, and I think I’m going to have to read them all.

Cover illustrations: Brian Wood, John Paul Leon
Colorist: Jeromy Cox 
Lettering: Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo
DMZ is co-created by Riccardo Burchielli

On the Ground. Collects Issues 1-5. ISBN 1-4012-10627
Body of a Journalist. Collects Issues 6-12. ISBN 1-4012-12476
Public Works. Collects Issues 13-17. ISBN 1-4012-14762

You Should Read: MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Synopsis: A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here—one of whom was his own grandfather— were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive. – Quirk Books

Yes, sometimes I read YA fiction. I don’t judge a book on whether it’s YA or not, though if I hear described first as “young adult” before hearing the plot I may not be interested. There’s too many books for whom the genre is the point of buying it, and I prefer books with strong characters, gripping language, and interesting new ideas. Which is to say that I’ll read YA if it’s just as good without the label.

When I bought Miss Peregrin’s, I didn’t know that it was marketed for younger people, only that it involved strange children and orphans and monsters. My kind of book! It turned out to be a wonderfully fast read – I started and finished it inside of three hours, though I didn’t do anything else but read during that time. Oddly, the publisher says the book contains 352 pages, while my ebook version only contained 225. I have to admit that after the ending I did a little Googling to make sure that my version wasn’t missing something. As far as I can tell, I have the full book, even down to the author’s notes at the end, but if that’s where the story is supposed to stop … well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

First the pluses: Weird, Cthonic cannibal monsters! Children trapped in time, aging without aging, and all possessing of mystical powers! It’s like X-men, in 1940, without the spandex outfits! Continue reading

You Should Read: M. Rickert (various stories)

It’s worth repeating: I love having friends who read because they introduce me to wonderful new writers, all of the time. Today’s great author is M. Rickert, suggested to me by the same person who gave me J.G. Ballard and Kelly Link and Ted Chiang and others. I read four of her stories, and here’s what I thought:

“Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account,” Fantasy & Science Fiction, Oct/Nov 2008: The pure and beautiful devotion of a young woman to an ideal that just happens to want her mother dead. The girl, the narrator, speaking to us as if revealing her thoughts to a journal she suspects will someday be read, tells us about just one aspect of her life: the executions of women who had abortions at some point in the past. By describing how this one part of society affects every part of her life, the story of a future America gone mad unfolds. Simply, easily, as if it is fact, as if it is true, and we can’t do anything now but watch it happen. Continue reading