Quickie Review: SYLLABUS: NOTES FROM AN ACCIDENTAL PROFESSOR

Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental ProfessorSyllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first sought out Barry’s comics years ago because Filipina! Okay, part-Filipina but enough to hook me with a panel of an elderly woman, sitting on a couch with one elbow resting on her raised knee, declaring “Ay, nako!” But Syllabus was my first encounter with one of Barry’s artistic how-to books. It’s a compilation of syllabi, courses, and exercises she’s used in the various classes she teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Other artistic how-to books emphasize the importance of play, but this is the first one I’ve read that has shown me exactly how to leverage that idea. Barry’s thesis is that when we were drawing or writing as children, the last thing on our minds was whether or not we were creating works of art; at least in my case, she’s right. And thus, I get something extremely valuable from this book: a method for RE-training myself to suspend any judgement at all about writing as I’m writing. (That stuff is for editing and polishing later.)

Syllabus gets 5 stars because after a mere two weeks, the exercises within–more or less in practice; definitely in principle–have already yielded dividends as far as filling some of the gaps in my writing practice that I’ve been struggling with since the day I started. I can feel the techniques reshaping my artistic process the way I used to feel muscles being shaped while working out (another experience I haven’t had in awhile), and it feels great!

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Quickie Review: BITE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF FLASH FICTION

BITE: An Anthology of Flash FictionBITE: An Anthology of Flash Fiction by Katey Schultz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good number of pieces here actually didn’t hit me the way I like flash stories to hit me. Possibly I’m a little inured to that these days. And yet when I considered each piece and what I took away, I discovered a few stories with layers of subtlety. Yes, I realize not every piece of flash fiction has to slap me in the face to be effective. And yet, it was a little difficult for me to distinguish some of the slower-burning pieces with pieces that only fit the flash rubric in terms of minimal word count. Those latter pieces might be complete stories, but they could’ve been told–might as well have been told–in two or three or five thousand words. There were gems from some of “the usual suspects” in flash fiction that I like to read: Bruce Holland Rogers, Tara Masih, Sherrie Flick, Tom Hazuka, et al. But my joy at reading those stories was tempered by the ones that didn’t impress so much. I’m rating this 4 stars, but it’s really closer to 3.6 for me.

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Quickie Review: THIS WON’T TAKE BUT A MINUTE, HONEY

This Won't Take But a Minute, HoneyThis Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An opinion about a book of 30 microessays and 30 flash fiction stories shouldn’t be very long. The essay half is on writing; it’s now in my top 5 of writing resources. Not every flash tale resonated with me but “Unfriendly Cashiers” is any indication, each story holds a grain of real truth.

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Quickie Review: THE EYES OF THE CAT

The Eyes of the CatThe Eyes of the Cat by Alexandro Jodorowsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pure impulse buy at my local comics shop. I’ve been on a Jodorowsky kick lately (I’m working my way through his films and have already read The Incal and some of The Metabarons) so this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The first graphic novel collaboration between Jodo and Mœbius gives us twenty-four full page illustrations with minimal dialogue, as part of Jodo’s attempt to do something unconventional while trying to subvert commercial constraints. (He says as much in his introduction to this 2013 edition.) While the story is short enough to warrant grumblings about the collection being overpriced, it has everything you’d expect from any Jodorowsky/Mœbius tale in Métal Hurlant magazine: surrealistic sci-fi illustrated by a master. On top of that… again, we’re talking about full page Mœbius here, so while the collection could’ve (should’ve?) been cheaper, I was happy to pay what I paid.

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Quickie Review: STORIES FOR NIGHTTIME AND SOME FOR THE DAY

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the DayStories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s no way a reader and writer like me was going to pass up a story collection from someone whose work appears in The New Yorker, The Antioch Review, decomP, Monkeybicycle, PANK, et al., and whose book is blurbed by Ray Bradbury and Gary K. Wolfe!

I get the accusations about the book being “gimmicky”. I get that some readers require characters to have things like names other than The Man, The Woman, or The Octopus. I get that the structure of these stories can seem repetitive. While the language, characterization, and descriptions of setting are stripped-down, it’s done so strategically. There’s still enough sense of character and place for relatively whole stories. Stories that are as instructive as any fable, complete with a moral–but which are as subject to interpretation as any myth.

When a story ends, so endeth the lesson. And while the lessons might not be profound necessarily, I think that’s the point. The lessons are truths we (should) all know. What’s profound is how Loory illustrates these truths with a mix of the real and unreal. Loory deftly places his character and the reader in all sorts of fantastic worlds. And what they find there is what we find here: the Kabat-Zinn truism of, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I know some writers and critics in speculative fiction for whom this would absolutely stick in their craw. And some of those folks intersect with those I know who don’t much enjoy short stories, let alone short-short fiction. They tend not to be people I drink with, anyway.

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Quickie Review: THE MEMORY GARDEN

The Memory GardenThe Memory Garden by M. Rickert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review is probably biased. I’ve been a fan of Rickert’s writing for almost a decade. As far as I know, I’ve read her entire published oeuvre, and have gone on record talking about how much I love it. I even had the pleasure of telling her face to face a few weeks ago!

A lot of Rickert’s shorter work is often populated by the walking wounded. Characters who are often terribly aware of whatever darkness (some kind of guilt, trauma, tragedy, maybe some secret) pervades their lives. It often isolates them, as those who might share that grief–well-meaning lovers, family, community–move on. And while sometimes (not every time) I’m left with a sense of a character’s transformation, of some tiny newfound strength or hope in the future, I would fear what tomorrow could bring them.

The difference in Rickert’s debut novel The Memory Garden, is that Nan and her friends Mavis and Ruthie made it through to the other side of their darkness. They lived past a shared tragedy some sixty years into old age. Not unscathed, of course. The damage to their lives is done, and they drift apart. But one way or the other and with varying degrees of success, they each soldiered on to eventually move into and through their own individual guilts and traumas–and occasional blessings, too. Nan was given the care of Bay, an unexpected, maybe even undeserved miracle. And Nan chooses to raise Bay, even if it meant doing so in the shadows of everything that came before. Even if it meant more secrets.

It’s the sort of situation one falls into once life becomes about more than survival.

The Memory Garden‘s peculiar cast of characters gathered under even more peculiar circumstances shows us what any of Rickert’s short story characters’ lives might be like sixty years after a given tale, about a time when the past will, despite whatever life you might have lived in the interim and whatever you’ve done to put distance between you and it, demand to be reckoned with. And this is, at least as far as my memory of Rickert’s other work goes, fresh ground.

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Quickie Review: THE INCAL

The IncalThe Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ll be honest, I finally got around to reading this classic only after having seen Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. I’d heard of Jodo and his El Topo, and you can’t be any kind of comics fan without having at least heard the name Mœbius. Still, I came late to this particular party.

It’s absolutely true what people have said–you can literally pick out the bits that have been used in any number of sci-fi films over the past 30 years. I’d never read The Incal, but every one of Mœbius’s meticulously drawn panels seemed familiar. Jodo’s writing didn’t disappoint either–it’s a good example of a writer weaving his beliefs into a story while avoiding, IMO, turning the work into a tract.

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Quickie Review: JAGANNATH

JagannathJagannath by Karin Tidbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is technically incomplete. I finished this book back in September (’13) but didn’t write about it until now (January of ’14). I felt I couldn’t write about it because I didn’t (and still haven’t) rated the story “Some Letters for Ove Lindström.” (I’m still too close to the subject matter of that story.)

I know almost nothing about the Swedish/Scandinavian myths and didn’t think I necessarily had to in order to see the heart of these stories. Nor could I tell which stories were translated and which were written in English. It’s testament to Tidbeck’s writing, I think.

The collection started strongly and ended with a bang. The stories that didn’t move me were generally the ones where Tidbeck revisits certain themes without, at least as far as I could tell, adding anything new. Those aside, the ones that did move me are positively gut-wrenching.

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Coca-Cola Comic Book Orgy, or Quickie Review: HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR

Horse of a Different Color: StoriesHorse of a Different Color: Stories by Howard Waldrop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5 out of 5, with the caveat that I cannot be objective about this collection. Howard Waldrop is one of the few writers whose work I’ll buy the day it comes out, unseen and unreviewed.

If all Waldrop does is cleverly hide all sorts of historic/pop culture Easter eggs into most of his stories with barely any telegraphing, it would be a feat. Indeed, it’s a point of pride for me when I catch them. I immediately recognized bits of the Bird Man of Alcatraz in the story of the “Wolf-Man” of the same. But, here’s Waldrop’s trick: as always, there are moments I fail to spot the references, and it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the stories one bit!

More importantly (to me at least), Waldrop’s characters almost always convey some sort of bittersweet piece of truth or wisdom that can only be gained from going around the proverbial block a time or two.

I did let a sliver of objectivity creep into my reading, but I won’t mention it here (you can find it in my story-by-story comments on the actual goodreads review page). It’s more of a technical quibble, anyway. Whatever.

Also, “Coca Cola comic book orgy” is now my favorite Waldrop line. If I had a band, I’d ask his permission to use it as a name.

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Quickie Review: North American Lake Monsters

North American Lake Monsters: StoriesNorth American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Plain and simple, if this collection doesn’t win the Shirley Jackson Award or the World Fantasy Award for 2013, there really is no f**ing justice in the world.

I hung on every word in this collection. I was enthralled by every story, something I haven’t felt since reading M. Rickert’s Map of Dreams. Ballingrud takes some rather standard horror tropes and gives the readers more palpable and disturbing reasons to fear them. In a lot of stories, the horror/speculative element serves as a possible pathway that can be chosen by a given character. What’s disturbing is that often times that pathway represents a viable, sometimes even a preferred, life option.

I found myself giving each story a 5* rating. But that isn’t to say the collection didn’t have it its… well, I’m so reluctant to say “flaws.” That’s much too strong a word, in my opinion. Let’s say, “Things that took me out of the story for a micro-second, of which I took note before re-submerging myself back into it.” There were two.

In the cover blurb, Maureen McHugh calls the collection “Raymond Carver territory.” There’s definitely a “K-Mart Magical Realism” thing going on here. The opening scene in “The Good Husband” would’ve made me think of “So Much Water So Close to Home” even if Carver wasn’t referenced in the blurb. One of the tiny, tiny problems I had, though, was being so effectively grounded in each main character’s POV–very Carver-esque characters–that I couldn’t help but notice when these characters, as they’re written, would think in un-Carver-esque terms. A construction worker seeing something “in a rictus of pain.” An ex-con encountering something “soporific.” A homeless man smelling “the ripe, deliquescent odor of river water.” (Maybe it’s more accurate to substitute “Raymond Carver” for “Gordon Lish,” but that’s another debate altogether.)

The other matter depends on how cynical a reader one is. What I might, and in fact DO, interpret as this collection being an examination of a singular theme from multiple angles might be interpreted by another reader as “the same story over and over again.”

I feel like I’ve given too much time to these issues relative to the actual impact on my reading experience. But it’s important to note that even despite them, the quality of the stories is such that I unreservedly give this collection a 5* rating.

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