Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Transparency (Short Stories Vol. 2)

Transparency is the debut collection of short stories from Frances Hwang. All of these stories are very well constructed and full of emotional complexity. They are also deceiving and intriguing, in the sense that so much of these characters is held just out of sight of the page, yet she is able to convey the desperation and turbulence to the reader through her beautiful language and careful construction.

This is a remarkable collection that will engage a wide range of discerning readers. Two were in Best New American Voices and, as you can see from the blurbs and back cover copy, the collection is heavily lauded as both well-written and relevant to the "immigrant experience."

Each story is a delicate collision: between family, friends, cultures, generations. Frances Hwang chronicles believable characters in complex situations; her sly prose weaves turbulent emotions underneath a patina of decorum.

While I must admit that Frances is a former mentor at the University of Wisconsin and there isn't a more generous person I've met, that isn't why I love these stories. They are all carefully and meticulously written, yet the characters themselves are thrust into challenging emotional conflicts, often causing pain or confusion they've intentionally ignored or they've been unaware of to seep to the surface through the cracks in their daily lives.

In this manner, these stories are similar to those in The Dead Fish Museum--believable characters placed in complex realities. In Transparency, the results are less surprising, more mundane; the emotional weight is the same, though, and that is the reward of this collection.

Whether you are interested in compelling and complex characters and conflicts, well-written literary stories, polished prose, or social, cultural, and generational chasms, Transparency is a refreshing and memorable read--and likely the first offering from a writer who will be critically notable and widely-read in the very near future.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I Love You, Beth Cooper

I Love You, Beth Cooper is the textbook definition of painfully funny. The story of Denis Cooverman; valedictorian, geek, punching bag; is full of those high school land mines that most awkward teenagers stumble into endlessly. The difference for Denis, is that he uses his graduation speech to take a chance and throw off the anonymity that intelligence and studiousness has brought him thus far. From a pool of sweat rapidly forming in his shoes, Denis has shakily spoken the five words that may change his life and could bring him everything he's ever wanted.

Too bad Denis threw in all that other stuff about his (thinly veiled) classmates' secrets and failings. And, is now really the time to proclaim your acceptance of your best friend's homosexuality? Oh, and did he totally overlook Beth Cooper's commando-trained meathead boyfriend? Looks that way. Probably not smart. So, trashing your classmates, outing your only friend (though they protest to the contrary) and evoking the homicidal rage of a trained killer. You've got to wonder if that speech was such a good idea.

I Love You, Beth Cooper is a book filled with humor and cringing in equal measure. A book for anyone who has tilted at social windmills or gathered their courage in a last-ditch attempt to speak up for themselves. Or, for anyone savagely pummeled by a commando for pledging his love to a cheerleader.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Icelander - Dustin Long Interview

Icelander is Dustin Long's first novel. Published by the good folks at McSweeney's in May of 2006, Icelander is a meta-fictional mystery from multiple perspectives, a behind-the-scenes adventure involving the daughter of famous mystery sleuths, a movie star, and a subterranean fox-worshipping Icelandic culture. Very witty, with some great moments of comedy, absurdity, and plot twists.

The Milwaukee McSweeney's Book Klatch, whose secret lair is deep underneath the Downer Avenue shop, communally authored nine (or ten) questions for Dustin, who obligingly answered via email. (Dustin also recommends some great reads at the end.)

Icelander is out in paperback on June 1, 2007 - but I recommend the reasonably-priced and more attractive McSweeney's rectangular hardcover edition, featuring silver sparkles and the best endpapers I've ever seen.


Nine Questions for Dustin Long from the Milwaukee Klatch

1. Why did you decide to set Icelander in an "alternate universe" and how did that effect working with ficticious footnote references, such as the the Memoirs of Emily Bean or Valison? Though we considered it an alternate universe, what were the calculations behind cognates like "New Uruk" and "Upstate New Uruk" and to the parallels between Valison and Nabokov/Pale Fire/Lolita? Why the Orson Welles bust? William Gaddis?

Dustin Long: Complex question, but I’ll do my best to answer it in full. I guess the larger answer would be that the alternate universe resolved a whole cluster of concerns in a fairly simple way.
I knew there was a huge back story, for instance, but I didn’t want to burden the reader with hundreds of pages of exposition about it, so I just made it part of the background of the world (The Memoirs), and used footnotes to fill in wherever I thought it was necessary (which is not to say that’s all the footnotes are there for). Of course, to a degree, any work of fiction is set in an alternate universe, but the presence of Vanaheim does make this one a bit more altered than most. Looking at it from the opposite end, then: the fact that this story was at least partially about Vanaheim necessitated me setting it in an alternate universe. Is that too tautological? New Uruk was a way of further signaling the alterity of the universe, I suppose, but it was also inspired by some of Nabokov’s playful state names (Utana, for instance), and by the fact that the original Uruk was sort of the birthplace of literature. For the Valison/Nabokov thing, that doesn’t have much to do with the alternate universe, but more with the fact that I’d been reading a lot of Nabokov and decided the best way to avoid being unduly influenced by him would be to externalize my Nabokovian impulses in a character, perhaps a villain. I think it works in Icelander, but with my new novel, I’m trying to avoid being derivative even in a self-conscious way. Orson Welles? It was basically either going to be Orson Welles or Ethan Hawke, and Orson just seemed more likely. The bust was just a little detail I put in for my own amusement, though thematically I also thought it fit. F for Fake, as well as a bit from early on in The Crying of Lot 49, where it’s mentioned that Pierce Inverarity has a bust of Jay Gould above his bed, and then within a page or so he’s doing a Lamont Cranston impersonation. So the Shadow, as well. And The Third Man had that sewer scene. And Valison’s death and the subsequent dealings with his estate kind of struck a Citizen Kane chord with me. There’s probably a touch of evil in there, too, and maybe some Magnificent Ambersons. I didn’t expect anyone to get as much out of it as I do, but it just seemed like a nice symbol of a lot of things that were going on in the novel. And then it broke. Gaddis? The Recognitions fits better than JR does, thematically, but I thought the radio adaptation joke was worth a little thematic fudgery.

2. Icelander has several points of view: the multiple first person perspectives that often provide nuanced conflicting accounts and details of the same events; the third person narrator, who is presented as omniscient; the editorial of Treeburg. What was the reasoning for the varying of voice and perspective? Does it have anything to do with the idea of fact/clue-finding and sorting of information with respect to the mystery genre and to the act of reading in general. Does the presence of an editor to the text reflect a questioning of the narrator/author's relationship with both the reader and the text? An acknowledgment of artifice?

DL: Yes?

3. Some of the character names appear referential (MacGuffin, Van Cleef), while some seem to be more Pynchonian distractions (Constance Lingus, Ymirson). Can you discuss the importance (or insignificance) of the names you've given your characters?

DL: Just kidding. To answer question 2 in more detail, part of the concern with voice had to do with the theme of the emergence of Our Heroine’s own voice, which bubbles up through free indirect discourse in Prelude, comes out but doesn’t dominate in Ludo, and then completely takes over in Cluedo. On a practical level, third person was the best suited perspective for Prelude because I wanted to set up the world with the condensed flashbacks, but it was also epistemologically interesting. How does an omniscient narrator know everything? Does he (I’m using “he” as a neuter pronoun, here) really know everything, or is he just trying to sound convincing? The presence of the editor draws attention to the fact that the book you’re reading is a text within the world that you’re reading about, written by a character in the world that you’re reading about, so you have to wonder w
ho this character is and what his slant is. Likewise in Ludo, if one person is writing this, how does he have insight into all of the different points of view? The “nuanced conflicting accounts” sort of highlight the limitations of individual perception, and this problem is obviously one that interests the narrator. Yes, the editor definitely serves to call the narrator’s position into question (though the editor is not exactly reliable himself) with regard to both the reader and the text. Yes, artifice and authenticity were definitely two poles that I tried to tangle the plot thread around. Also, yes again, the fact/clue-finding aspect is something that the mystery genre brings to the forefront, but which I think relates to the act of reading in general, and the varied, conflicting points of view model that process nicely for the attentive reader, I think. Now on to question 3:

"3. Some of the character names appear referential (MacGuffin, Van Cleef), while some seem to be more Pynchonian distractions (Constance Lingus, Ymirson). Can you discuss the importance (or insignificance) of the names you've given your characters?"

Names and the process of naming in general are very interesting to me. The troll that built The Hall of the Refurserkir, the fact that Our Heroine’s name is withheld... But even apart from the character names, the idea of naming provided a basic theme on which the book was built. Iceland’s concern with linguistic purity was one of the things that got the book rolling in the direction it eventually went. Blah blah blah, Wittgenstein, blah blah blah. But I’m not really answering your question, am I? Some names are more important than others. Names like Constance Lingus, Hubert Jorgen, and Philip Leshio are mostly just illustrations of Valison’s sense of humor, as he was the one who came up with their pseudonyms. Ymirson is Jon Ymirson’s real name, however, and I wanted it to have certain resonances (Ymir, being the first living being in Norse mythology and also being frost giant, as opposed to Surt who hails from fiery Muspellheim; Iceland having the patronymic naming system; Radcliffe Emerson from Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series). MacGuffin and Van Cleef were nods to my sources as well as interpretive clues for the reader, though in the world of the book they can also be seen as further manifestations of Valison’s humor.

4. The ending to Icelander could be interpreted into varying degrees of resolution. How do you feel about the resolution? Is it definite? Is any resolution truly definitive? Does the uncertainty of authorship and reliability of the narrators reflect these thoughts?

DL: It’s tricky. I don’t like the way that The Turn of the Screw, for instance, presents the reader with two distinct interpretive possibilities and withholds any real basis for choosing between them. Conversely, I don’t have much interest in a completely closed system with no room for interpretation, either, because I don’t
think that’s very reflective of the real world. So I wouldn’t say Icelander is entirely open-ended, but it’s not definitively resolved, either. The more you dig, the more things will come together, I hope, in a way that suggests a conscious design (rather than just a bunch of babble that anyone can interpret any way he sees fit), but I suspect there will always be ambiguities. To me, this reflects the limitations of knowledge and the complexity of truth in the real world. I have my own sense of how these ambiguities work in the text and how they might be resolved, but I don’t want to close off possibilities that might resonate better with other readers. Have you read Cerebus? I find the later issues very interesting in that my interpretation of the significance of the happenings is very different than the writer’s interpretation, and I’m pretty convinced that I’m right. It’s sort of an ideal case, in my mind, because it’s not that anything is willfully denied to the reader (I don’t think I deny the reader any knowledge, either, but some things are only obliquely hinted at, so Dave Sim does me one better), but rather the book just represents the unknowability of some things in this universe really well. And the unknowable things are some of the most interesting things to ponder. To reference another comic book, I think there’s something in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman about how mysteries are more satisfying than secrets, because you can ponder a mystery forever, but a secret is just a single answer. But back to Cerebus, it’s the ambiguities that make the difference of opinion between me and Sim possible. Along with the uncertainty of authorship and reliability of narrators, this all represents part of my larger concern with epistemology in Icelander.

5. Our Heroine often fit the part of the reluctant Heroine. We found it interesting (and endearing) that she often rejected or failed to meet the expectations placed on her by the other characters due to her mother's reputation. How does this relate to the expectations of the reader and the trappings of genre writing? How was your writing in Icelander affected by reworking and bending genre?

DL: The expectations of mystery genre readers align fairly closely with the expectations of the characters surrounding Our Heroine, I imagine. She is, perhaps, a literary character trapped in a generic world. Although that implies a hierarchy that I don’t really believe in. I think Raymond Chandler is higher art than Alice Sebold, for insta
nce. In general, I think genre fiction has an easier access to the fantastic, and that’s something that has always interested me. “Minimalist” realist fiction bores me a little, unless it has a sense of humor, and I think humor always edges towards the fantastic. I can’t take something seriously if it takes itself too seriously. I was a kid in the 80’s, so I’ve just always thought Jedi and ninjas were cool, and I don’t see why serious art can’t be cool in the same way. But the mystery genre in particular is amicable to a lot of the themes I wanted to explore. On the other hand, I think I needed a character like Our Heroine to explore them in the way that I wanted to. I read a lot of mysteries as research for this book (Elizabeth Peters, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, M. C. Beaton are names that come immediately to mind as I hazily recollect), but I didn’t want the book itself to be a mystery, exactly. That’s Emily Bean’s world. Our Heroine’s story is more about a person figuring out who she is and overcoming the expectations of who people want her to be. Or maybe it would be better to say that it’s about her figuring out what she wants to do with her life, despite the situation that she was born into, as I think it’s more a question of action than essence. But regardless of how I phrase it, I think it’s something that anyone can relate to, whereas it might be hard to relate to someone whose only concern is solving mysteries. Does this answer your question?

6. Is any genre open for reworking?

DL: I don’t see why not, as long as it’s done with a purpose beyond “reworking the genre.” With Icelander, the choice came about as a result of where the novel was going in my notes. So, as long as the decision evolves naturally out of where the novel’s going, I don’t see why any problems should arise. But maybe I’m wrong
about this. Maybe another writer could productively take a genre as a starting point, but I think that, if I tried it, it would result in a very artificial book.

7. What's the inspiration for the Refurserkir?

DL: It was my understanding that that the “berserkir” (or, in English, berserkers) took their name from wearing bear shirts (though a friend informed me that recent research suggests “bare shirt,” instead). According to Saxo Grammaticus, they drank bear blood, and some sagas suggest they thought they could take on the powers of the bear. The lesser known ulfhednar were like berserkir, but with wolves. The arctic fox is pretty much the only native mammal in Iceland, so I thought the warriors of Vanaheim might use it as their totem animal, relying more on cunning and stealth than the rage of the berserker or the ferocity of the ulfhednar. Refurserkur means “fox-shirter” in Vanaheimic. Plus, as I said before, I think ninjas are rad, and so when I came up with the idea, basically, of Icelandic ninjas, how could I resist?

8. Would you ever consider revisiting these characters? Would it be in a genre setting?

DL: No plans for anything at the moment, but I wouldn’t say “never.” The setting would depend on the characters revisited. Wible & Pacheco would have to be in a genre setting. I think Our Heroine is beyond the mystery genre, now.

9. How do you write--do you start with a "road map" or do you allow the work to take you wherever it ma
y? How many drafts did Icelander go through before the final published product? Where there any substantial edits made by your editor at McSweeney's? Are there any parts that didn't make the final that you could share with us? Anything you wish you could've added after publication?

DL: Long, digressive answer: I only recently figured out a method that works for me. I don’t write short stories well or often, but I’d written four “novels” previously, and they were all horrible. I use quotes around the word “novels” because length is really the only criterion by which these things I wrote might deserve that appellation, and I think the badness of the latter two, at least, resulted mostly from approaching the novel-writing process in a wrong-headed way. The first two were written in high school, so I won’t bore you with details of my process at that time. The latter two were written in college, and they suffered from too much pretentious structural blueprinting at the inception. I was planning things like how many chapters each section would have, what time of day each chapter would be set at, etc. before I’d really thought about the characters, the plot or anything basic like that at all. And both books were completely lifeless as a result. My ambitions were grand with those two—I wanted to write the next Gravity’s Rainbow—but I ended up with the worst sort of pretentious crap, redeemed only slightly by a sense of humor about how crappy it was. With Icelander, I decided to scale back and just try to write a little book well. Also, I wanted to write a book that my then-girlfriend would like, and she didn’t like Pynchon. So I had to completely change my modus operandi.

My girlfriend was in Egypt and I was in Berkeley doing construction when I decided I was ready to start a new book, and I came up with a few ideas, almost none of which made it into the final version of the novel. The sound of snow plaughtting against the window is just about the only thing. But anyway, when her time in Egypt was up, in December, I flew to Munich, so did she, and we proceeded to travel together. Luckily my construction job had involved building a school, which meant prevailing wage f
rom the government (highest paying job of my life), and so I was able to afford a few months of travel without going into too much debt. While we were in Germany I wrote the word “Icelander” in my journal, referring to a story I’d heard in a Scandinavian Studies class the previous year about a guy who thought his whole life was ruined because he moved a stone from one side of the road to the other without asking the local fairies for permission first. For some reason, that story kept popping into my head; I was strangely fascinated by it. The story that I had settled on for my new, as yet untitled novel was going to be about a day in the life of this ordinary guy, in a little town, whose girlfriend has gone away somewhere and who just has the letters and journals she’s left behind to help him reconstruct their past, but that turned out to be (a) too close to reality (b) too close to Haruki Murakami and (c) not very funny. I had written an earlier scrap about children with their faces pressed up against a snowy window that I thought might be the beginning of this novel about the guy and his girlfriend. I had also written the word plot in the middle of a page, and it sounded like snow hitting a window after I thought about it for a while in a snowy town in Germany. Then we left Germany for Italy, where I wrote the words “rogue library scientist” in my notebook and attached it to the girlfriend. Then I reversed the sexes of the characters, though I still didn’t know the plot. Then we went to Turkey and saw an underground city. Then we went to Jordan and saw Petra, which is where the grail castle is in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Petra made a big impression, but then we went to Egypt and I was going back through my notebook, and the word Icelander was sitting there by itself, and I eventually attached all sorts of little side notes to it (linguistic purity, genetic purity, patronymic tradition) that contrasted interestingly with a lot of the forgery and artifice that I was beginning to think about for some other reason, probably connected to Egyptian antiquities, so I moved Petra and the underground Turkish city to Iceland. I still wasn’t sure how that was all connected to this woman and her missing library scientist boyfriend, though. Somewhere along the way, possibly in Turkey, my girlfriend had given me an Elizabeth Peters book to read to prepare me for Egypt. She really liked mysteries, but I had only ever read the hard-boiled variety, and Elizabeth Peters was surprisingly great. But so once I got back to the States, lots and lots of mystery novels provided the connections between the underground city, Petra, and the woman and the library scientist.

So that’s the background I had before I did anything other than take notes. I started actually writing when I got back to Berkeley, but I also started taking more detailed notes, figuring out who the characters were, what the back story was, and also trying to figure out what direction the plot was headed in. I was going through lots of banal personal drama at the time that I knew wouldn’t make for a good story, but distorted through the lens of the world that was gradually emerging on the page and in my notebook, I realized how I could channel some of my angsty energy into my plot and give the book a sense of cohesion and direction that it hadn’t had before. Okay. I now knew who the characters were, what the world was like, and where I thought the plot was going, so I wrote an outline, and the three part structure with a prefatory note (initially much longer) and footnotes emerged as I thought about all that needed to happen. But other than that structure, not a lot of the outline remained intact through the end of the book. I constantly revised the outline as the book progressed and realized that characters wouldn’t do what I had planned for them and as I came up with new, better ideas along the way.

Three years after the beginning of my trip abroad, almost to the day, I finished the first draft. Now, I use the term “first draft” fairly loosely, because especially in Prelude I tended to revise as I went along. In fact, more often than not I would revise everything that I had already written before I would write a new page. Prelude took almost as long as the rest of the book. But so after I reached the end for the first time, I set the book aside for about a month and a half. Then I gave it a quick polish and sent it off to McSweeney’s and sent query letters to a few agents. The agents rejected me. Eventually, about six months later, McSweeney’s contacted me to say they were vaguely interested. About seven or eight months after that, they decided they wanted to publish the book, though they wanted to know how open I was to revision. I was open to anything that would make the book better, I told them. I hadn’t touched the book in over a year, and in fact I had started a new novel that didn’t pan out, and I needed a break from that, so revising Icelander sounded great to me. Most of the revisions were in the vein of my editor telling me stuff he didn’t understand, and me saying, “Really? I thought that was perfectly clear. I’ll see what I can do to make it clearer.” Or he would tell me that a certain section didn’t “sparkle” as much as the sections around it, and could I make it more sparkling, and I would say “I’ll do my best.” There were some slightly more directed changes, like he would think a certain section slowed things down and want to either cut it or speed it up, or he would suggest that some scene needed to be added and we would bounce ideas off of each other until we came up with something we both liked, but there was never a time that he forced me to do something that I didn’t see the wisdom in, and the book really wasn’t altered on that grand of a scale. There were some typos that made it into the final version, and I’d like to change those. I’d also probably change the name of The Memoirs of Emily Bean to The Adventures of Emily Bean, because the title seemed to confuse a lot of people. The biggest changes were in Prelude, which originally had a few more scenes with Nathan and Our Heroine hanging out and drinking tea in Our Heroine’s house for no good reason, and he also helped me streamline some of the explanatory scenes in Cluedo. Oh, he also suggested getting rid of as many colons as possible, and Prelude initially had titles to every little section, but that seemed a bit too precious.

All of which boils down to what? I guess that my writing style has become a lot more organic. I take little ideas and connect them until they start growing and producing new ideas out of themselves. For instance, my new novel is about a Jesuit priest in late 17th Century China. That sort of grew out of wanting to do a book that took place in a large area over a long span of time, which in turn had grown out of wanting to do something completely different than Icelander and reading the bit in Moby Dick about how to write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme. So I had this in mind, then I happened to read something about China in a geography book from 1910 that really made me consider the strange way in which the West has historically regarded the East. I realized at this point that I knew nothing about China, so I figured my main character had to be a foreigner (to provide a scapegoat for my own ignorance). And the Jesuits in the 17th Century seemed like pretty interesting foreigners once I’d done a little research, especially since they shared my interest in math, astronomy, and cartography. And then as I did more research about the period when they were around, I realized that Chinese history was at a very interesting point around that time, as well (the Manchurian Qing Dynasty had just taken over from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and I’d say about 50 percent of 70’s kung fu movies seem to be set in this time period as a result). And so having found a likely subject, I started doing lots and lots of research into Jesuits, Chinese culture and history, European history of the time, learning to speak Chinese, etc. and the more I learned, the more a clear plot seemed to emerge. I didn’t really know what the book would be about at all when I chose the subject matter, but I feel as if I’ve stumbled upon the most compelling story of all time. I do outline, but it’s more of an attempt at predicting where the story will go than it is a roadmap. When I actually sit down to write, inspiration often takes me on a new unexpected path. Of course, I delete about half of what I write. I also take notes all the time. I do a lot of writing in my head, too. Pretty much any time I’m out shopping or running or doing any mindless activity, I use the time to think about my book. And it seems to be working even better for this new novel than it did for Icelander. It’s already as long as Icelander and I’m hardly a quarter of the way through. Which I’m sort of nervous about, actually. Do people like long books? I do, but they always seem to get criticized as being self-indulgent. Oh well. As long as I’m happy with it, right?

In your e-mail, you also asked what I’m reading now. The answer:

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, and Outlaws of the Marsh, by Shi Nai’an, both of which I highly recommend. I also just read the beginning of The Children’s Hospital, which is wonderful so far. I’m skimming The Name of the Rose, which I’ve read before. A couple less obvious books that influenced Icelander: The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien, and The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Oh, and back to what I’m reading, I just lucked out and found a history Master’s Thesis from 1930 in the UC Berkeley library, and it’s all about these Jesuit priests who are major characters in my new novel. Score!

Thanks for the provocative questions. It’s been fun. I hope it’s not too much work to wade through my rambly answers.

Yr obdt svt,


Icelander comes out in paperback from Grove on June 1, 2007 - and is currently available in a cheap sexy hardcover as part of McSweeney's Rectangulars.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Terror - Dan Simmons

If you've written a complex, period-accurate adventure set in the arctic, you'd probably have a read for 'hardcore' fans only. Add to that the fact that the book is over seven hundred pages long, spans years in the telling, and follows a half dozen major characters, and you've got an intractable manuscript fit only for the diehards, right? Wrong! I'd read Simmons before, but would hardly call myself a completist. In some cases the sheer volume of his work was enough to make my eyes dart elsewhere on the bookshelf. I am now ready to admit what a mistake avoiding this fantastic author was. If he went on for another seven hundred pages I'd devour those too.

Set among the crews of two ships trying to force a northwest passage through arctic ice, The Terror drags you in with tantalizing whispers of what could go wrong. It's not enough having to navigate through tons of ice in experimental ships loaded with sailors of all stripes. It's not enough that the expedition's leader is jovially unaware at least and criminally incompetent at worst. It's not enough that all of the great arctic explorers back home called it lunacy to make the attempt. No, those warning signs should have been enough, but a combination of greed, ego and desperation have conspired to throw these considerations aside. There is however, one consideration no one thought to explore. This is where the whispers of what could go wrong turn to screams. This place is uncharted for a reason owing less to nature and more to evil. There was no accounting for the possibility that at the top of the world existed a force alien to 'civilization', malevolent in intent, and more than a match for anything human minds and hands could bring to bear against it.

If the only people to pick up this book are the author's sizable (but not nearly big enough) contingent of fans, that would be the real terror. This book is essential to any reader who loves action, adventure, iconic characters pulled from the mythic tradition and the feeling on the back of their neck as the hair raises.

The Dead Fish Museum (Short Stories Vol. 1)

The Dead Fish Museum is Charles D'Ambrosio's second collection, following his acclaimed 1995 debut collection, The Point. He is a master at telling fascinating stories with believable characters forced to make hard choices, which often lead to the most wonderful and unexpected results. His prose is brilliant, yet clean, and matches his exceptional gift for storytelling.

Two of the stories, "Screenwriter" and "The Scheme of Things," appeared in the Best American Short Stories anthologies in consecutive years, and they are certainly two of the most memorable. While most of his stories are comparatively straightforward, realistic, and highly observational, "The Scheme of Things" is refreshing in its subtle bizarreness, a tale of two addicts, drifting through the Heartland, searching for ways to score cash to fuel the habit. The couple's path becomes complicated, of course, when the stay with a generous older couple. While this narrative move isn't exactly unexpected, D'Ambrosio's gift for dazzling language and the believable and unique human reaction surprise the reader, creating a memorable story.

"Screenwriter" is the perfect example of a memorable piece of fiction. I first read this story in the December 8, 2003 New Yorker, and, at a time when I was disillusioned with the homogeneity of the fiction. While I admit to being an initial skeptic of any story with a screenwriter, this masterful choice allows for the convincing observation and flowing and fractured (it is both) path. I was grabbed by the natural storytelling voice, the perfect details, and the appropriately awkward motions of the characters. Set in a psych ward, the combination of abbreviated jargon and the sprawling minds of its patients, the broken narrator allows us to glimpse the insanity of his fellow inhabitants - without allowing us to forget his own fragility and unreliability. As a writer, I find endings to be ultimately challenging; in "Screenwriter," D'Ambrosio approaches the romantic conclusion (in both senses of the term), but expertly inhabits the space between the gratuitous and easy payoff and the deflating, deconstructing failure. I had the good fortune of hearing him read this story two years later and it was like hearing a long-forgotten never-played favorite song on the car radio.

Every story in this collection is deserving of discussion, but that's for another day, perhaps. Both the title story and "Up North" need specific mention at this moment, though. In "The Dead Fish Museum," three very different men work as set carpenters on a porn film location, with the constant tension of language and culture barriers, overwhelming sexuality, and a handgun. The latter is a haunting story about a husband's attempt to negotiate his emotional and psychological turmoil manifested by the adolescent rape of his wife by a family friend. Set at her family's winter hunting cabin, the tension and emotional weight of this story is crushing and unforgettable.

For fans of short fiction that borders on the absurd or fantastic, the review of Charles D'Ambrosio would likely - and unfortunately - scare you away, with allusions like Carver and Hemingway being dropped. D'Ambrosio takes you to the wonderful and unexpected destinations where all good short fiction resides; he does it with the metered language and careful pacing of minimalism, as well as with layered language, contemplative prose, and awing images.

The Dead Fish Museum
is an amazing collection. Each story is precious and savory, a product of D'Ambrosio's perfectionism. Check you shelves for a recent O. Henry or Best American Short Stories collection and you'll likely find a one of these stories. Or, pick up The Dead Fish Museum and start reading "Screenwriter," "The Scheme of Things," "The Bone Game," or the title story and get drawn into this collection that you'll read a few times before making a friend do the same.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Robert Olmstead

Critically acclaimed, wildly talented authors sometimes disappear from the publishing world without fanfare or notice: they just, *poof*, are gone. Fans will hunt with obsession to not miss out on the next new piece of writing from their scribal love - left unrequited forever, or perhaps to drift away, forgotten altogether. Then, without warning, they are resurrected with a new work, often resulting in what is praised as their best work ever. They exhilarate old fans and garner new ones, wholly deserved.

Robert Olmstead is one such author. His previous books have been consistently received with highest praise from some of the most respected reviewing bodies in the publishing world: the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the New Yorker, the New York Times and the NY Times Book Review. Lauded by such masterful writers as Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, and Tobias Wolff; recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and NEA Grant, Olmstead vanished in a puff of smoke nearly 10 years ago. Since then he has been a professor at an Ohio university, but no new works reappeared.

Then, this Spring, Coal Black Horse (official site) was published. Booksellers across the nation went crazy for this small, violent, beautiful fable of war and one boy's journey into manhood.

A perfect, beautiful child of Cormac McCarthy and Tom Franklin, this haunting story brings to life the bloody, horrific details that make up both people and land of the Civil War while illuminating the journey of a boy and his horse: a powerful, starkly honest path leading him from a boy to becoming a man. The graphic, violent images are both prosaic and poetic, but the lessons are only of hope and promise. One needs to travel through hell and back in order to see the brightest lights and be redeemed.

On June 6th at 7pm in our Downer Avenue store, you can meet Robert Olmstead to hear about this magnificent and memorable read that will have you gasping for more. Maybe, like me, you will be struck with a sudden need to read everything else by this forgotten master writer.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Soon I Will Be Invincible

I have to say, my expectations going in to Soon I Will Be Invincible were pretty high. As a comic collector of 18 years, I know what I like, and more importantly, what I don’t about the genre. Austin Grossman fulfilled and then exceeded my expectations, much to my surprise and enjoyment. The pitch-perfect evocation of time-tested comic book archetypes in a novel setting was feat enough to win my praise, but Grossman took the opportunity to explore the concepts further, fleshing out what most would see as stereotypes on first glance. In letting the villainous Dr. Impossible tell his own story to the reader, Soon I Will Be Invincible portrays the character as the underdog (albeit a maniacally fiendish and amazingly intelligent one) who just won’t quit. Sure, most comic heroes have that quality in spades (it seems to come with the spandex); but when was the last time you got the sense that the villain worked harder to prevail?

This book knocks some conventional comic book ideas on their ears, while preserving the spirit of the four-color adventures that only the bravest will admit to reading. For those still in the dark about just what comic books can be, this novel should be a wake-up call that there is a new mythology for those who care to study it, and it’s been around for close to seventy years. Austin Grossman joins the ranks of Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek and Grant Morrison as explorers, preservers (and when needed, challengers) of the traditions of the comic story. If Soon I Will Be Invincible is the vanguard of superhero fiction, I think the genre is off to a great start.

Comic book novel? Yes. Full of strange people, strange powers, strange ideas? Yes. The treatment that some of fiction’s most-underrated concepts and creators sorely deserve? By all means.

Favorite New Short Story Collections

Is it a myth that the short story collection is overlooked, that the era of the short story has passed? Certainly, the days of prominence for publications like The Saturday Evening Post are gone. The Atlantic has cut fiction from their monthly issue.

To us, the short story is undoubtedly not dead - rather it is flourishing and often the form for some of the most groundbreaking and genuinely unique writing. While there isn't necessarily a single magazine that satisfies the demand for short fiction (one could argue that The New Yorker does for a certain audience, though they don't often stray from the safety of established--and certainly talented--writers), there are several magazines that we love to pick up. For instance, we are particular fans of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Oxford American, Milwaukee's own Cream City Review, Hobart, AGNI, and Conjunctions as venues for new short fiction (and poetry).

Over the next few weeks, we'll tell you about our favorite collections, all published within the past year. Enjoy - and let us know what we we've missed!

Crooked Little Vein

If Chuck Palahniuk was kidnapped, Raymond Chandler was resurrected, their DNA was spliced together, and the mad scientists responsible for those events wanted something to read on lonely nights in the lab, Crooked Little Vein would be the result.

Fans of Warren Ellis’s comic book work know that he deconstructs genres as a function of breathing, and now he’s brought his particular insanity to the literary establishment. This book flouts conventions long held sacred in noir stories. There is no square-jawed stoic gumshoe. Our hero is a dead-end detective whose defining feature is his impossibly bad luck. Corruption is not so much railed against as resigned to. To say Ellis forgoes understatement would be an understatement. It’s all there in front of you, pulsing with strangeness and testing your stomach’s resolve. Crooked Little Vein is vintage Warren Ellis, and it’s time more people know just what that means.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thanks, Marisha

This past Monday, Marisha Pessl read from Special Topics in Calamity Physics at our Shorewood shop. Not only is her first novel critically acclaimed (The New York Times named it one of the Ten Best of 2006), it's one of our bookseller favorites, too. Marisha gave a wonderful and dramatic reading, explained her writing process and the genesis of her first novel, and answered a slew of questions from anxious and appreciative readers.

She was also kind enough to sign books for everyone in attendance, as well as some extra copies for our customers who couldn't make it. There are only a limited quantity of these signed paperbacks. If you haven't read it yet, stop into our Mequon shop and talk with Patti or with Jim at Shorewood--their excitement will be enough to convince you to read this inventive, witty prep-school mystery. (And their great comments will help, too.)

The Children's Hospital

As we get up to speed with our new blog, you'll find some older reviews posted here, like the following from December of 2006. Luckily, the books are still good five months later...

Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital is one of those rare books that is able to keep the reader both entranced and surprised page after page. It is a story of a hospital, adrift in a second deluge, its doctors, patients, families, and staff the last humans on Earth. While this premise seems to be more in line with speculative fiction, Adrian is able to keep the story human and intimate at all points. His unique background in both medicine and divinity likely makes him the sole person to be able to successfully tell such a magical and convincing tale.

Do not be scared by the number of pages or the immensity of the topic; this book is a joy to read and moves quickly and efficiently. In the human moments, centered on the sympathetic and brave Dr. Gemma Claflin, the reader is swept along by both the humor of everyday life in the floating hospital and the despair and gradiosity of the circumstance. And while Adrian does not shy away from the larger questions inherent in the premise, he addresses them subtly and through the actions and thoughts of his characters. Theology is tertiary to fascinating human experience and great storytelling.

The Children's Hospital is a very special book that I believe will be noted for its beauty and ingenuity. Be one of the first to enjoy this somewhat under-the-radar gem.

Here's another review from Taylor at our Bay View shop:

"The earth is submerged beneath seven miles of water. Four angels oversee the apocalypse. The hospital, for the thousand or so patients, doctors and families populating it, becomes their Noah’s Ark. Nowhere near as preposterous as the concept sounds, Chris Adrian handles his characters and the subject matter so masterfully that you believe every word; you can’t help but fall in love with Jemma in the first fifteen pages. Astonishingly beautiful and unsettling, poetic in it’s telling, and frequently profound without becoming pretentious, The Children’s Hospital is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read."

Chris Adrian's first novel is Gob's Grief, set during the Civil War and featuring Pickie Beecher and a re-animation machine powered by the body of poet Walt Whitman. Intrigued? Me, too. And, it's available in paperback.