Backlog Catch-Up // “Knock” by Fredric Brown

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

This is a day late and I’m cheating a bit this week because this pick isn’t all that random.

From my list of Items From the Nerd Canon I’ve Missed But Dread Admitting Lest I Lose My Nerd Credentials, this classic short story I haven’t gotten around to reading before now, despite having owned FROM THESE ASHES for quite awhile.

This piece is renowned for having one of the shortest stories in sci-fi. You’ve probably seen this reference before…

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…

With the way it’s been presented out of context sometimes, you’d think that was the entire story. What follows after this quote is, for the time in which it was written (1948), a short subversive tale about a scientist avenging the planet Earth in the aftermath of an alien invasion. Subversive because Brown knows all the questions you’ll ask yourself at the start – What does “last man on Earth” mean? Where’s the emphasis, on last or on man? – and he toys with them. Subversive because Brown takes some jabs at some Golden Age of Sci-Fi tropes. This isn’t the story of a stereotypical pulp scientist action hero smashing the aliens with technical ingenuity and  inevitably getting the last woman on earth in the end. It’s about a quiet, homely brainiac who wins with his brainiac knowledge combined with psychological manipulation, and leaves it entirely to the last woman on earth to make the choice to repopulate the planet with him… you know, or not… whatever…

And in that case, maybe it’s not all that subversive at least by today’s standards. But I would still call it an early baby step toward progress.

Backlog Catch-Up // “Riya’s Foundling” by Algis Budrys

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

Judith Merril, the editor of this anthology, employs Fredric Brown (one of my personal favorites) to introduce it by posing questions about the qualities which define “human.” Merril divides the stories into three sections. The first section — which contains Budrys’s story — juxtaposes humans against extra-terrestrials.

A lonely little boy with dimension-folding and other powers, transports himself to the dimension of a lonely female with powers of her own and whose nature is pitted against the boy’s desire to return home. And as the reader tries to parse the strange details and qualities of both characters and of each of their worlds, one doesn’t immediately expect to be confronted with such an array of heart-tugging, almost heartbreaking, emotions in such a small space as this story occupies.

Maybe my next reach into my reading backlog shouldn’t be so random — I know I have some more Merril (i.e. her writing), Brown, and Budrys around here somewhere…

Backlog Catch-Up // “Free Dirt” by Charles Beaumont

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

“Free Dirt” by Charles Beaumont
From THE HUNGER AND OTHER STORIES (1959, Bantam)

This is the story of one Mr. Aorta — See, already that sounds like the beginning of a Rod Serling TWILIGHT ZONE intro, which is fitting given Beaumont’s relationship to that show as well as the tone of this piece. First published in F&SF in 1957, it’s a cautionary tale of a lazy man’s petty dreams of avarice coming true thanks to some magic dirt. The wonder of Beaumont’s writing is that while you know Mr. Aorta is headed for a not-so-happy ending, Beaumont’s dreams go a step beyond what you expect.

Quickie Review: THE DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S INN

The Dead Mountaineer's Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective GenreThe Dead Mountaineer’s Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got this book as a gift and I was happy to get it; my reading of Soviet era science fiction has been nonexistent. This book is now my new standard for judging the “genre mashups” I read from now on. The book really is everything that Jeff VanderMeer promises it is in his introduction. It’s all here: shades of mystery, hints of the occult, and a bit of science fiction (some of which brought R.A. Lafferty to mind). A little surrealism and magical realism too, but with a twist. I loved how the Brothers Strugatsky almost always had a rational narrative explanation… which the reader is free to accept or reject.

There’s so much delicious meta in the book, too. In one scene, the main character breaks into a fellow guest’s room thinking, “I did this just like a hero in a spy thriller would have — I didn’t know how else to do it.” Meta is the book’s mission statement, in a way. It’s theme is how “The unknown makes us think — it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.” And, it’s a warning that, “You’re following the most natural roads, and for that reason you’ve ended up in unnatural places.” It’s elements like these, and the timelessness of the story’s setting that allows this 1970 novel to age well.

View all my reviews

The Mind of a Chef; Writing; Reading

THE MIND OF A CHEF. Been watching a lot of this show over the past few months, not on Netflix, but on my local PBS station. The thing I like about The Mind of a Chef is how the episodes – mini-documentaries, really – are generally so well done that I find myself investing in the lives of these various chefs, who I might not otherwise care that much about if they weren’t swaggering around the world on semi-drunken, binge-eating travelogue shows.

WRITING. Taking a cue from Warren Ellis’s newsletter, I’m going to talk about my current works in progress by giving them code names. Not because of any contractual obligations about confidentiality, but because I’m superstitious. I’ve always felt that talking too much about what I’m writing takes away some of the urgency to write it. It’s just possible that I’m just so lazy that I’ll look for any excuse. Either way, I’m going to make more of an effort because I’ve been told lately that people like knowing what writers are working on. And so…

  • PROJECT RUST: An essay for an anthology series I’m trying to crack into. It’s about 800 words about a certain sanctuary in my hometown. Gonna give it another pass or two and send it in.
  • PROJECT FLOSS: Novel that’s currently in index cards, hidden under a blanket on a table in my lab. The toes, chest, and nose are poking through. Gonna have to suck it up, switch the Jacob’s Ladder back on, and make it walk.
  • PROJECT FIELD: A short story I’m wrestling with from an idea that won’t go away. Just as well because my problem has always been follow-through. It’s been on the back burner, but I just saw a call for a story anthology for which this piece could work.


READING. Just finished Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology from Belt Publishing, because Cleveland Rocks. It’s a little frustrating though that I’m going through about 10 books simultaneously, and this one I picked up and devoured this essay collection in three days flat. Will probably read Car Bombs to Cookie Plates: The Youngstown Anthology next because it has pieces from, among others, Ed “Al Bundy” O’Neill and Christopher Barzak. And then I really need to get back to my reading queue before I start Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, but it’s tempting, since it’s her episodes currently showing on The Mind of a Chef.

And so turns the circle…

World Fantasy Convention 2015; Borgesian Philippines; What I’m Reading

WORLD FANTASY CONVENTION 2015. Took a hop northeast from Ithaca to Saratoga Springs last weekend, despite the Piss Poor Harassment Policy kerfuffle. Managed to not only keep my running streak of being on WFC programming (3 for 3), but I actually appeared on two panels: “Real World Nomenclature, Taboos, and Cultural Meaning” (There’s a pretty good summary here.) and “Bibliofantasies.” Or, as I call it, “Bibliofantasies 2: Electric Bugaloo” since I was also on a panel of the same name at WFC 2012. After all, how the fuck else I could I sit on a panel with Michael Dirda, John Clute, Robert Eldridge, Paul Di Filippo, and Gary Wolfe? The socializing, always the best part of any con, was more targeted now that I’ve been at enough of these things not to fanboy over everybody in the room, and to instead spend the time with people – old and new friends – that I want to spend time with. Okay fine, I finally got to meet Jeffrey Ford and squee about what a big fan I am. Happy?

Not a hoax. Not a dream sequence.

BORGESIAN PHILIPPINES. Missed a talk by Gina Apostol, author of the upcoming novel William McKinley’s World on the Philippine-American War. In it, she makes the disturbing observation about how hard it was to find first-person Filipino voices in records of the period, and where she did find it “…occurring mainly in captured documents within military records, the Filipino voice being a text within a text, mediated, annotated, and translated by her enemy.” There’s a bittersweet Romantic tragedy about how this mediated story of the Philippines casts it as a place that’s as fantastic as Borges’ Tlön. This is relevant to a project in progress….

WHAT I’M READING. My personally inscribed copy of Mary Rickert’s collection You Have Never Been Here, worth the cover price for the single previously unpublished story “The Shipbuilder.” Pieces of The Best American Travel Writing 2015 edited by Andrew McCarthy, for another project in progress, Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules!, and when I can, Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost). Yes, that’s an awful lot of nonfiction, I know. What’s your point?

Quickie Review: SEVEN GOOD YEARS by Etgar Keret

The Seven Good Years: A MemoirThe Seven Good Years: A Memoir by Etgar Keret
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to read essay collections for facts, details, or wit. And if I stumbled across the occasional bit of truth or wisdom, so much the better. Now this could be my bias towoard Etgar Keret (#2 on my I’ll Read Anything They Write List), but this collection is brimming with both. Okay, maybe more of the former than the latter… but I think even Keret would say that.

Remove the surrealist and speculative elements from Keret’s writing and you’re still left with his sense of the absurd, with keen observations of (by way of projections onto) other characters, and not surprisingly, his friend Uzi who, just like in the stories, offers advice such as…

What you need isn’t a bunch of lies from a PhD in clinical psych. You need a real solution: a nest egg in a foreign bank account. Everybody’s doing it.

Not every essay reached me; there were a couple that left me scratching my head. But I’m used to that experience reading Keret’s short stories, so I’m okay with it.

View all my reviews

Quickie Review: RIVETHEAD

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly LineRivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Rivethead from the perspective of someone for who lived through the time period this book was written in. Very little of this touches my direct experience except vicariously though the stories of people I’ve known who have lived a version of the life described herein. I mention this because, as in my reading of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, I do have a slightly stronger connection than someone reading this to get off on Rust Belt Chic ruin porn hipsterism.

Those sorts would paint Hamper as a working class revolutionary, an embedded journalist exposing the truth of life at the bottom of the American auto industry in Flint, MI in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Certainly, the book’s blurbs lead you to that line of thinking. But Hamper’s and his cohorts’ enemies weren’t really General Motors, its then-Chairman and CEO Robert Smith, or even the shop foremen of the Truck and Bus plant. Hamper writes, “Our only adversary was Father Time”, that is, the interminably slow second hand of the clock, plodding toward the end of your shift, during which your only choices are to either occupy your mind with plots to sneak out of the plant, inventing workplace-unsafe and semi-violent games like “Rivet Hockey” and “Dumpster Ball”, or numbing your mind with chemicals. Anything to escape the tedium of the “unskilled labor” for which men like Hamper were programmed. Hamper doesn’t (intentionally) expose a corporation’s secret agenda; he’s writing about what he’s living, with skills he gleaned from Catholic high school education, reading and writing poetry, listening to Mothers of Invention albums, and taking LSD. The result is prose that simultaneously delights even as it shames you for thinking, “This, from a shoprat?”

Hamper is very much a product of his time and place, a Boomer writer using WWII and Viet Nam War references to talk about the Midwest cultural clashes surrounding him: Salaried employees vs. hourly employees. Foremen vs. the shoprats. Fathers vs. sons. Mars vs. Venus. Art rock vs. Classic rock. Living and writing within his comfort zone vs. the life he could’ve had, and actually sampled through his association with filmmaker Michael Moore. (The book is worth the price of admission just to read an account of Moore outside of Moore’s narrative.) Thing is, you wouldn’t think a book of pieces written in the late ’80s/early ’90s would be as even-handed as it is about the US auto industry’s competition with Japan, and so you learn things like about how GM didn’t just try to instill a fear of Toyota in its workers, but of Ford, as well.

Consequently, being a product of his time and place, the writing shows Hamper’s exposure to the background radiation of racism, classism, misogyny, body-shaming, slut-shaming, homophobia, and ableism you’d expect from someone who grew up the Midwest in the ’60s and ’70s. (One plus: the use of the word tranny in the book only ever refers to an automobile’s transmission.) I have no reason to believe Hamper would espouse or display the above; I doubt he would in this day and age where he continues to do the occassional reading. But neither does Hamper try to disabuse you of the notion that some of his family and coworkers might.

Hamper is often referred to as Flint’s answer to Cleveland’s Harvey Pekar. Hamper’s output and subject matter certainly bear a resemblance, from life on the job right down to the unique cast of secondary characters from the line. Neither men particularly want your praise or your pity. But even Pekar’s observations occasionally had bright, if rare, moments of optimism. Harvey wanted to show profundity hidden in the quotidian. Hamper, on the other hand, shows you absurdity hidden in the drudgery.

In the end, Rivethead is the story of a man embracing his destiny, for better AND for worse, and ending in a place you don’t expect but by which you shouldn’t be especially shocked.

The truth was loose: I was the son of a son of a bitch, an ancestral prodigy born to clobber my way through loathsome dungheaps of idiot labor. My genes were cocked and loaded. I was a meteor, a gunslinger, a switchblade boomerang hurled from the pecker dribblets of my forefathers’ untainted jalopy seed. I was Al Kaline peggin’ home a beebee from the right field corner. I was Picasso applyin’ the final masterstroke to his frenzied Guernica. I was Wilson Pickett stompin’ up the stairway of the Midnight Hour. I was one blazin’ tomahawk of m-fuggin’ eel snot. Graceful and indomitable. Methodical and brain-dead. The quintessential shoprat. The Rivethead.

View all my reviews

Quickie Review: NOTHIN’ BUT BLUE SKIES

Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial HeartlandNothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland by Edward McClelland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lest anyone think I read this just to latch on to the hipsterish aspects of the “Rust Belt Chic” trend, know that I was born in Cleveland a mere four years after the Cuyahoga River burned, and I grew up through most of the events in the “Burn On, Big River” chapter of the book. Take McClelland’s writing on Dennis Kucinich’s various rises and falls, for instance. No matter how much prominence he gained after reinventing himself as a national politician, and regardless of how many of his views I might share, I’ll always know him as “Dennis the Menace” because in the late 70s/early 80s, even a six year old like me could read a political cartoon in THE PLAIN DEALER and glean from how the grown-ups talked that that’s what everyone thought of him. We were reading USA TODAY in grade school when the whole the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing came up. And I had one of my first underage drinks just as the Flats was transitioning from a hotspot to a hive of scum and villainy. (I’d left before it finally turned into a “Scooby Doo ghost town“.)

All that to say that if McClelland, a native of Lansing, MI, did enough of his homework to get those sorts of Cleveland details right then it seemed likely to me that his notes about life in post auto industry Youngstown, Detroit, Flint, Lansing, etc. also has a genuine ring of truth. In fact, reading about the stories of these other places and some of the people in them felt like a rediscovery of sorts. I can imagine this is what it feels like for someone who has some weird personality quirk that never made sense to anyone until some previously hidden fact of biological or social history was discovered and gave you the context. I’d never heard the terms “bathtub Madonna” or “Mary on the half shell” before reading this book, and never knew how prevelant they were in other places similar to Cleveland, and yet I’d grown up seeing these little homemade grotto shrines to the Virgin Mary in every neighborhood I ever rode through inside Cleveland.

The book succeeds in giving me what feels like a thorough background about subjects I already knew, or at least in filling in the gaps about things I witnessed from a short distance. I was familiar with the socioeconomic patterns and movements of White Flight and gentrification, but this book clarifies the mechanics of it, particularly with respect to the decrepit housing and infrastructure it left behind (neither of which was really all that great to begin with). McClelland also lists a few examples of what happens when movements born of social justice to serve people crash and burn when they start becoming unsustainable, which many times has to do with internal personalities and politics, as much as whatever the latest company outsourcing or international trade plan is.

I was startled to learn exactly how much politicians in other regions of the country are looking over the carcass of the Rust Belt and still see a couple of things worth stripping even now, like Great Lakes water. A part of me cheered when I read about the political pushback these efforts get; Michigan representatives basically saying, “You wanted to go live in that sand box [i.e places like Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, etc. which have lured people and jobs from Michigan]. Don’t come crying to us when you can’t find anything to drink.”

The one nit I have is that McClelland does a little too good of a job integrating various regional idioms of, to put it mildly, an insensitive stripe. It’s one thing to quote, or report a quote from, various sources and stories, like one in which a Daley political operative tells Chicago Latino voters, “We want you guys to be our minority, because we’re already sick of that other minority [emphasis mine].” But it’s another to uncritically mix them into your own narrative. The author writes, “[Latinos in South Chicago] had their own church — Our Lady of Guadalupe — and they were tolerated by Stosh and Chester [i.e. code for “men of eastern European descent”] at the ironworkers’ tavern, who figured it was them or the colored [i.e. the other minority].” And while I’m fairly certain McClelland himself doesn’t espouse these beliefs, that contention might be a tougher sell for people to whom I might recommend this book. I theorize (but could be wrong) that I’ll have to deal with this in the next book in my Rust Belt reading queue, Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line.

But then, personally, I’m a little (too?) used to it. After all, I grew up around that; hell I’m a Filipino-American who grew up in it. And if nothing else, this book goes a long way to telling me why.

View all my reviews

Currently Reading, Backyard Fracking, and Filipino Rondalla

CURRENTLY READING: All of my reading lately has been on the non-fiction tip. The last fiction I’ve read was a slog of a collection that I haven’t finished yet. (It has some incredible craftsmanship, but damn if most of the stories just don’t do it for me.) Anyway, what HAVE I been reading? I’ve made it into the Dark Horse years of AMERICAN SPLENDOR. I’m about halfway through NOTHIN’ BUT BLUE SKIES: THE HEYDAY, HARD TIMES, AND HOPES OF AMERICA’S INDUSTRIAL HEARTLAND by Eric McClelland which I discovered while perusing BELT MAGAZINE’s website. And lest you think I’m just now jumping on the whole “Rust Belt Chic” bandwagon, I’ll just say that I grew up during most of the stuff in Chapter 4 of BLUE SKIES (i.e. the Cleveland chapter). It’s been enlightening nonetheless to look at the historical context of my early life.  And, I just picked up BIOPUNK: SOLVING BIOTECH’S BIGGEST PROBLEMS IN KITCHENS AND GARAGES the other day at a bookstore discount table for $4, because there just has to be a story in here somewhere.

BACKYARD FRACKING: Something I forgot to mention when I wrote up having seen the short documentary BACKYARD at FLEFF. During the Q&A with the filmmaker, someone asked if she attempted to get any comments from the fracking industry. She says she did, and that it was rather easy to. She was granted tours through various rigs — sans her camera crew — and interviewed workers who apparently only had the same pro-fracking talking points. She reported being unable to find anyone with a unique pro-fracking story, which she attributes to the industry’s powerful propaganda machine. Power that was corroborated by an audience member with an account of the presence of energy companies in the independent film business and festival circuit. Know thy enemy and co-opt. Basic, really.

FILIPINO RONDALLA: Of course they’d have a Filipino Rondalla group at the Ivy League for which I work. To paraphrase the motto, “Any person, any extracurricular activity,” apparently. It brought back some childhood memories of my first visit to the Philippines when I was about four. I remember a candle dance and a tinikling demo, just like what I saw at the group’s concert last Saturday. That said, I have to acknowledge that this student display of Filipino culture–the culture of my parents–isn’t the culture of everyone in the Philippines. I fear for the non-Filipino audience members who may have left feeling armed with a proper overview of “Filipino culture”, and then trying to share this knowledge with, say, someone from the Visayas or Mindanao. They may not be received well.  After all, Filipinos have stabbed people for far less….

Next time, I’ll probably talk about the lung pox I’m fighting.