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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

Currently reading

McGlue
Ottessa Moshfegh
Knife Fight and Other Struggles
David Nickle
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon
The Good Lord Bird
James McBride
Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (New Edition)
Derek Bok
Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem
Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s
Kim Newman
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
James Gleick
Complete Novels
Dashiell Hammett, Steven Marcus
The Pioneer Detectives - Konstantin Kakaes A fantastic long article tracking a scientific puzzle and the quest to unpuzzle. Kakaes writes lucidly and generously, but also concisely, about the way a desire for the unknown fuels (and complicates) the search for knowledge. It's a cool depiction of how science gets done--the making of the sausage, a messy process belied by the post-solution myths of discovery and clarity. I particularly liked the tussles between engineers and theoreticians--the friction between heat and gravitas, technical and cosmological design.

The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 2: They Rule - Jonathan Hickman Loony. Bloody. Smart. The kind of hyperbolic counterfactual that explodes over the familiar historical landscape and casts new light and shadows everywhere. But, again: loony as hell.
The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies - John  Langan
Full review at Bookgasm:

When John Langan’s first collection, MR. GAUNT AND OTHER UNEASY ENCOUNTERS, came out in 2008, he quickly became a writer’s favorite — the kind of artisan who knows the genre inside and out, whose every story displays a deep understanding of where horror comes from and what it can do.

As he put it in his incisive afterword, he set out to take all these horror tropes that seemed somewhat exhausted and see if he could make them snarl again. Drawing from Poe, Jameses (M.R. and Henry) and Lovecraft, the stories in GAUNT are precision-tooled beauties, elegant and haunting.

No wonder his fellow writers fell over themselves with praise. And perhaps no great surprise that, at least for this reader, the work seemed a tad chilly. The kind of art that is so very well-made, I step back to “ooh” and “ah” but, at that distance, never get walloped, never lose myself in the telling. I enjoyed the book the way I enjoy Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, but not like the way as a small boy I devoured (and lost sleep because of) Stephen King’s THE SHINING.

Whatever qualifications I had about him before are decisively dispelled by Langan’s newest book, THE WIDE, CARNIVOROUS SKY & OTHER MONSTROUS GEOGRAPHIES. Without sacrificing any of that aesthetic razzle-dazzle, he also produces visceral storytelling bliss. It’s the finest single-author collection of horror literature I’ve read in some time (knocking Laird Barron off that throne), and it’s some of the best damn literature, period, I’ve read in the last few years.

As with his previous collection, each story riffs on some new trope and tries out some new technical trickery. For instance, “How the Day Runs Down” is a mash-up of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN and the zombie apocalypse. And it is amazing. The wit and care of the pastiche would be sufficient pleasure, but there are moments (as in the play) where the spectacle of death and the fuzzy solace of some salvation (here or hereafter) are superseded by a deep, thoughtful, open-ended grief.

The next story couldn’t be more different. “Technicolor” looks like an academic lecture, a prof blathering on to a class about Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” — carefully teasing out the import of the color scheme, contextualizing the work in terms of Poe’s life and some contemporary phenomena … until after a while, we readers are sucked into the tale, seduced by the way analysis shades into action — and Langan springs his trap. Fans of Poe will be astonished at the intelligence of this design, but you don’t have to be a prof to lose yourself in the pleasures of this text.

I could keep going: The next story is a brilliant revision of vampire mythology told in straightforward action-adventure mode, and subsequent tales riff on werewolves, the state of humankind after the Old Gods have taken dominion, and (in the second-person perspective) an exorcism of a statue in upstate New York. The weaker stories are still top-notch, but the three (or four) stand-outs are flat-out masterpieces.

.......
Night Film - Marisha Pessl Full review at Bookgasm:


Marisha Pessl’s NIGHT FILM draws from a deep well of cultural anxieties — and equally pervasive and compelling fascinations or enthusiasms — about the dangerous seductions of story. Horror literature is rife with tales of readers lost in the fictions they obsessively sought to understand. So, for that matter, are congressional hearings, chockablock full of harangues against media violence, comic-book perversions, video games that seduce TEH CHILDREN.

If you want to get fancy — and, hey, it’s BOOKGASM; we’re fancy — an even greater anxiety about images pervades Western thought, according to historian Martin Jay. Stories are dangerous scams, and images overwhelm our capacity for critical insight, or even free will. The I is lost through the eye.


Pessl’s central conceit is reclusive horror filmmaker Stanislas Cordova and the strange suicide of his daughter, Ashley. Cordova’s films — descriptions of which Pessl parcels out over the course of this brick of a novel — cobble together elements of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma, and lurid Technicolor giallo, like the work of Dario Argento. The films’ legendary horrors don’t just startle viewers, they consume them.

As his career progressed, tragedies in his life seem to echo in his work, making the films darker and darker. (Or vice versa: The descent into his aesthetic obsessions may have bled over into his life, infecting all around him.) Rumors abound, hints and allegations of satanism, witchcraft, snuff filmmaking — the films eventually become undistributable, but circulate in literal underground showings, found by obsessive fans via graffiti advertisements (and, later, in ways illustrated with the novel’s own multimedia game-playing, through the web in both mainstream and deep “dark web” backchannels).

But it isn’t just the movies that invite (demand!) viewer interpretation. A complex web of signs seem to weave together this rumor, that death, that stray cinematic trope repeated in his many films.

Enter disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who was previously thrown off pursuit of Cordova’s life by a (possibly) false lead that he was suckered into printing as fact. When Cordova’s daughter commits suicide, in ways that seem to have crossed his path, McGrath sees a chance for redemption, or revenge. He undertakes to learn about Ashley’s last minutes, and to connect — always connect — every element of her life and death back into the Master Plot found throughout Cordova’s oeuvre and existence.

Aided by two strays, McGrath begins the complementary work of investigating and interpreting. In these stories, the act of understanding — making sense of a fictional work, teasing out the hidden truths behind the opaque symbols — is a journey. And a dangerous one: The darkness doesn’t stay onscreen, but seems to creep out into the world all around the reporter.

Suffice it to say that, even at this length, the novel demands the same kind of rushed reading, invokes in its readers the same breathless thrill of discovery (and the delicious dread attendant therewith). I enjoyed NIGHT FILM quite a bit, racing through it over the course of a couple days.

But the invocation of the darkest films seemed to this maybe-jaded reader a bit pallid. It is always difficult in fiction to try and convey a sense of unimaginable horror, and the accounts of Cordova’s work always seemed to me too timid or imitative to be that compelling. (A repeated image of Ashley’s red coat reminded me of the red-cloaked girl/vision/demon in Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW, a film that burrowed right behind my 12-year-old eyes and resisted repression for many long, sleepless weeks.)

All too often, I kept thinking of the films and filmmakers, the previous stories and horrific images, from which Pessl seems to borrow. Perhaps it’s that the images she deploys don’t really resist interpretation, despite how often we’re told they defy meaning. As an evocation of its own horrors, it seems two-dimensional, a well-crafted thrill machine that never revs past the propulsive fun of plot to sync up with your own worst nightmares. McGrath gets lost, while I felt comfortably detached — told of horrors, rather than forced into grappling with them myself.

Still, NIGHT FILM has a real motor. Many readers will feel a deeper dread than me, and Pessl’s evocation of character — McGrath, his companions, the oddballs they meet at asylums, sadomasochistic raves, witchcraft boutiques, dank city tenements — is a constant delight. The tale is well-told, if not quite as dangerous as its hype may lead one to believe.
Penny, n. - Madeline McDonnell A mother's advice to her daughter:

. . . when a woman wants to have a baby all she *really* has to do is keep still. (Well, first she puts on her laciest negligee--yes, yes, just like this one--and then she lies back on her bed like so, with her hair spread over the pillows like this, and her eyelids low and her lashes lush, and then she does it--she keeps perfectly, *perfectly* still--and she waits for the man to come in and climb on her like a kind lion.)

This wonderful novella is full of tough love and strange beliefs and language language language. Penny is a young woman trying to untangle the relationship between words and world, between a lover and a lost cause, between etymology and the way meanings explode in the knotty contexts of people, power, the past.

It's a very funny book. It's told in a manner that manages both utter strangeness and the comforts of the story arc. It has odd moments--never more than three or four lines between 'em--like that strange "kind lion," where the sounds and the functions of the words collide, deriving sharp new flavors from familiar ingredients. McDonnell is a wonderful writer, and this is a fine little book. Thanks to Edan for the rec!
The Year of the Storm - John Mantooth Good book--thanks to karen for the rec.
Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel - Martin Cruz Smith Martin Cruz Smith has written a slew of fine novels which reveal his fluency with distinct narrative voices. From the industrial baroque of late 19th-century Britain (Rose) to Oppenheimer's atomic labs (the underrated Stallion Gate) to the days right before Pearl Harbor in Japan (December 6), Smith meticulously shapes each propulsive story to showcase a style emergent from (and evocative of) each specific setting. That capacity for language underpins his most famous creation: the detective series centered around Russian detective Arkady Renko.

Smith writes solid mysteries in the procedural vein: the pointillist's eye for detail has the feel of social realism but produces, at each novel's end, the 'sudden' emergence of the full picture, the crime's perfect solution. But rarely resolution, particularly with Renko, a man unsettled and discontented to the very core. He is occasionally left adrift by the revelation of plots and murders, sometimes safer and with some new relationship, but an unease persists.

That discomfort is a by-product of Smith's cultural critique. This series is often justly touted for its cultural acuity, his insights into Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. This latest--Tatiana--continues his developing portrait of the country's evolution, from the entropy of the Soviet collapse through more recent "democratic" upheavals. As in the previous outing, Renko tussles with the thuggish underbelly of Putinland, the deep tangles of State corruption and all manner of global crime. Big money seems to be circling around behind the mysterious death of journalist Tatiana Petrovna. Renko's investigation takes him to Kaliningrad, and allows Smith room to interrogate the intersections of WWII and Cold War politics with the new globalized economy.

Tatiana's work as a journalist also is a convenient--perhaps too-convenient--mechanism for capturing a slew of recent crises, from the sinking of submarine to Chechen terrorism/rebellion. At times, they mystery seems more obviously McGuffin, allowing Smith room to reveal Russia, but more window-dressing than narrative center. Still, there is a strong central mystery, and some nifty code-breaking.

But what always stands out for me is that language. In some ways, he is a worthy successor to Chandler, another writer more interested in a dazzling metaphor than precision plotting. But Smith's prose amplifies the sense of Russia--his figurative language, his characters' dialogue, the simple way he describes a room feels almost translated. His lovely writing doesn't just surprise, it shapes and reveals a sense of other ways of thinking about the world. Arkady's questions are like "walking all around a horse before buying it;" a gangster's smile is a "hook in the mouth;" a church is a "dead telephone." Every page surprises -- even when the mystery flags, there is a constant sense of discovery.

Readers could come at this novel without prior knowledge of Renko or previous events, although fans of the series will be delighted to see the return of Zhenya and Victor. But it's not merely a worthy addition; Tatiana easily stands alone, another strong work by a wonderful writer.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler Yup. That good. Review to come.

There are so many things I love about this book. Here is one:

Because school was not making me feel the things everyone thought I needed to be feeling--valued and indispensable--I was transferred in the first grade to the hippie school on Second Street. The kids there didn't like me any better, but name-calling was not tolerated among the hippies.... I had a wonderful first-grade teacher, Ms. Radford, who genuinely loved me. I was given the part of the hen in _The Little Red Hen_--inarguably, the lead, the star turn. This was all it took to convince Mom that I was flourishing. Her catatonia had been replaced by an implausible buoyancy. [My brother] Lowell and I were fine. We were such good kids, basically. Smart kids. At least we all had our health! Every gangplank a seesaw.
Is there any character in all of fiction more isolated than the little red hen?


Locke & Key, Vol. 3: Crown of Shadows - Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodríguez These are so very good. I'm being a little stingy, giving 4 stars to each volume, but collectively.... outstanding.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America - George Packer
There was a kind of competition to swallow American life whole--to mirror and distort in prose the social facts of a country that had a limitless capacity for flux and shock.


For a good stretch, I thought Packer was racing away from the pack, stealing the brass ring from all comers in the attempt to capture that mythical beast, "America." And even in closing, I'll continue to rave: the book is damn good, equal in so many ways to his ambitions.

The Unwinding weaves a number of threads through the historical and economic upheavals of the last 75 years. Packer focuses on a select set of individuals (a working-class mother in Youngstown, a Washington insider, a tech mogul, a truck-stop then green-fuel entrepreneur), teasing out how their rich, complicated lives evoke signal shifts in American culture: the shift from industrial production to the unethical play of capital; the disruptions of social institutions; the limits of political power (or will); the dramatic inequalities amplified by the aforementioned shifts. These portraits are compelling--these are fascinating individuals, and Packer displays a poet's ear for their language, a priest's ear for their confessions, a novelist's eye for the intersections of self and system, a counselor's compassion for the great difficulties some of them faced. It is rich, deep, powerful reporting -- no simplistic punditry, no reductive thesis-hammering. I have not read anything this attentive and attuned to the way people live since David Simon wrote about Baltimore (on the page and on the screen).

Packer's equally strong in his attention to Tampa, a city where the foreclosure storm hit perhaps hardest, where the devastation of the popped housing bubble was most visible. He still zeroes in on individuals (a Tea Party activist, a local journalist, an immigrant hotel owner, a displaced family), but his telling is more explicitly analytical, using the local excavations to map the larger-scale cratering of the economy.

Where he stumbles--where the book fumbles its ambitions, a little--is in the inter-woven bits of American pie: prose poems and a few more general portraits of Major American Figures. Echoing Dos Passos (who Packer explicitly acknowledges in an afterword), he creates a timeline with punctuated prose collages -- pulling from news and pop cultural sources a dense page of slogans, songs, events, lyrics that illustrate both when we are and who we are. Where in Dos Passos such polyglot play is like having your ear to the ground, hearing the whole rush of American culture in a flood of language and signs, Packer cherry-picks a bit: the message is more pointed, more purposeful, and more reductive. And then there are the chapters on big players: Gingrich, Powell, Jay-Z, Elizabeth Warren, Oprah. When I got to the acknowledgments page, I realized that where Packer had interviewed extensively for the rest of the book, these portraits are drawn from the published record. In other words, they're not so much reporting as book reports. No surprise, in retrospect: while often throwing a good punch, they seemed thinner, were far less complex or compassionate than the other portraits. We don't see people, here, we just see pieces of an argument. And they vary in quality -- a brutal take-down of Newt G and of Oprah, a sort of lifeless hash about Jay-Z and Robert Rubin. They provide a complement to the book's portraits that I think is structurally interesting but thematically over-ripe, ironically diffusing some of the force of the book's whole.

All told, the book is excellent -- sets explicit, ambitious goals (in the quote at the top, from the section on Raymond Carver) that Packer meets in so many ways with his attention to his core individuals and his corrosive insight into the cultural shifts on-going in America. Its few weaker elements water things down just a little, but it's still strong medicine--and a compelling, propulsive read.
How I Got Rich Writing C Papers - Andy Hueller Holy cow!

This is a sneakily brilliant overview on how to write effective essays, disguised as a compelling first-person account of ne'er-do-well Charles Remington Dremmel* as he makes a good living off of a high school paper-writing industry (i.e., a bad living), while also seeking desperately to win a NerfWar, and definitely not seeking to get the attention of Lisa Kent, and reading a bunch of great books.

Not usually my thing. My son grabbed this at the bookstore today. I'd forgotten it was out.; we know Andy**, and Max recognized the name on the cover. So we grabbed it, 'cause that's what you do. You buy your friends' books. But then the other thing you do is step around them, stick 'em on the shelf with best intentions and great trepidation. ....'Cause, you know--what if it sucks? Or even what if it's perfectly fine, quite pleasant, with prose better than a poke in the eye? You still bite your nails, anxious not to say anything that could sour the next conversation, or stick in the writer's craw. (Hell, even if you loved it, you worry: will a rave come off as insincere? A puffjob for a pal?).

So I'm a wuss about ever reading these books by friends that I always buy.

And then there's the YAness. I will dabble in books aimed at middle-grade readers, sometimes "professionally" (as a teacher, interested in what's revving up the audience), sometimes alongside the middle-grade reader in the house. But, heck, a quirky book about a plagiarist? Nah.

But tonight, stricken by insomnia, not sure what the next book should be, I thought I'd read a few pages before crashing. An hour later, I'd whipped through it. And enjoyed the heck out of it.

Not least because it's so clear and casually brilliant at strategies for smart (and mediocre, and barely passable) essays. As a writing teacher, I'm a bit dazed by how Andy cuts through the misty fog of find-your-muse Elbovian romanticism, ignores the jargony Rhetoric of academese, and captures something about the *fun* of figuring out a good argument. Hueller's got the chutzpah to write as fine a writing guide as any middle-to-high-school class might need, and to make it an entertaining pleasure they'll want to read.

So, yeah. Holy cow.





*Not his real name
**We also know Andy's brother. He's a real jerk.
The Old Turk's Load - Gregory Gibson Gibson packs an epic crime novel into a sleek 300 pages: a dozen or so major players, each with 2 or 3 different agendas, pursuing a misplaced load of mob heroin. (Epic crime comes in units called Ellroys, right?). The sheer density of capers and double-dealings would seem to promise all kinds of leaden exposition, but Gibson's got a master's touch--the book flies, with a great deal of wit. Even better, it's real wit, not whimsy--characters say and do funny things, but as Elmore Leonard would put it, they don't know they're funny.

Fiend - Peter Stenson Full post at www.bookgasm.com:

Two scuzzy, “spun” meth-heads take their first glance out the window after a few days’ sabbatical from the world and get a glimpse of apocalypse: They see a small girl, a vision of “innocence,” approaching a fierce-looking Rottweiler, and they fear for her. And then the dog crouches in fear, cowers away, and the child leaps for it. Hearts hammering, they shriek and close the curtain. A couple moments later, they cautiously peek back out.

Innocence is standing two feet from the window, bloody like the First World War, and before I can scream and close the drapes, I take one close look, like really study her. Pieces of her flesh peel off her face like thin slices of gyro meat.


Peter Stenson’s FIEND opens with a needle jammed straight into your neck, and once your heart is thumping the novel feels like a three-day sleepless binge, rubbing your nerves raw. Billed as THE WALKING DEAD meets BREAKING BAD, it is another in the ever-circling skeletal family of zombie novels. The protagonists are junkies — turns out methamphetamine protects against whatever virus gets the “Chucklers” out chomping flesh — and the novel’s jitters stem as much from the itch of addiction as from the plague of the resurrected dead.

Some of these recent novels have shuffled away from the pack, riffing on the generic template established by George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a vehicle for post-9/11 cultural anxieties: Daryl Gregory’s glorious RAISING STONY MAYHALL is a sly zombildungsroman, a coming-of-age political fable, while Colson Whitehead’s ZONE ONE is a darker satire on the Age of Terror.

Others — like Alden Bell’s THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS, stealing its baroque prose from the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor, or this novel by Stenson, plucking its protagonist from Hubert Selby (or Darren Aronofsky) and the long tradition of drain-circling, self-destructive addicted schmucks — are less concerned with the metaphorical resonance of the mythology than the authorial showboating possible within the generic constraints of zombie horror.

What Stenson does very well is make his readers scratch at their skin. Yet his zombies are far less likely to make you twitch; it’s the skeevy jittery behaviors of his survivors that frays the nerves. At his best, Stenson uses apocalyptic horror as a complement to the paranoid dread of the drug novel. He captures a feverish intensity — and deploys a bleak, sick humor, visible right in that terrific opening sequence — in staccato, pungent prose. The book zips along, and the few moments of big action (a drugstore run that ends in a zombie siege; a confrontation with a gang of Canadian addicts) are written with style to burn.

Unfortunately, drug addicts, like zombies, have their frustrating generic tics. Protagonist Chase does an awful lot of mooning over his ex, whining about his bad choices, and repeating of those bad choices. (Much like most every drug addict. To be fair, the only fictional addicts I’ve ever had much interest in were Hunter S. Thompson and Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead.) At its best, FIEND breaks bad, but a little too often it felt a bit like the interminable whining of Rick et al. on that other AMC show.

Speaking of THE WALKING DEAD, let me give a brief shout for another recent riff on the Romero universe. While many of my friends rave about the cable series, I find it fairly often a letdown, constantly missing its opportunities to develop complex characters (or interesting events) in the steady, dread-beat rhythm of the post-apocalypse.

So when I read the cover summary for John Hornor Jacobs’ THIS DARK EARTH, I quickly set the book aside. Yet another zombie apocalypse; yet another ragtag band of survivors trying to keep their community strong against the viciousness of not just the shambling dead, but the predatory survivors; yet another protagonist thrown into leadership who struggles to acknowledge the better angels of his own nature.

But, boy, was I wrong. Where other authors have smashed and reconstructed the genre in new ways, Jacobs is content to fully embrace the conventions. The novel does nothing particularly new, but from its opening at the moment of outbreak in a rural hospital to its inspired riffs on the “frontier community” long after zero day, THIS DARK EARTH is leading the pack.

It’s got everything THE WALKING DEAD ought to: smart characters you actually care about; a rigorous attention to pacing; a devious understanding of how to play familiar scenarios for maximum energy and surprise; and prose that (as each chapter shifts point of view) is varied in form, but consistently excellent. Jacobs is a fantastic writer — and he shows how much life is left in the moaning mob, even when you haven’t got some new, high-concept frame.
The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes Very damn good! (Thanks, karen!)

How to begin?

3. The garden-variety fictional serial killer — or at least any incarnation after Dr. Hannibal Lecter — is like the world’s worst poet. Every creation is a baroque manifestation of personal desires and symbology. The cop is a New Critic, reading through the signs and severed limbs to see the True Meaning, and thus, capture the killer.

And the writers of such fictions are locked into the closed loop of genre, forced to travel the stations of the cross and genuflect at each utterly familiar landmark or plot point. Lauren Beukes is having none of this malarkey.


Harper Curtis is casually vicious. He does indeed, as he travels through time dispatching his Girls, follow some ornate sense of purpose, does cut and bind and disembowel with an eye toward his own perverse aesthetic. But Beukes mentions such details merely in passing, and she avoids the overdetermined internal monologues of childhood trauma which so often spawned the killer.

Harper just appears, pursues his agenda with commitment, but is prone to homicidal distractions, falls prey to fits of unplanned aggression. He simply murders, or he doesn’t; he simply does what seems right to him, with a great deal of malice but none aforethought.

He is not the generic Icon, yielding to the protagonist’s (and our) critical interrogations, due to be captured as soon as she (and we) solve the puzzle. He simply is. And Kirby’s pursuit is equally declarative, a quest which leads to questions that are never really answered. The goal is not interpretation, but revenge and resolution.

2. The house Harper enters in depression-era Chicago has a body, and an upstairs room with an array of strange small personal objects and names scribbled on the wall, in his handwriting. And he just knows what to do; he somehow knows that the house will take him through time, that he travels and tracks these names throughout 60 years of Chicago history. He finds these girls, and he kills them.

There is no explanation for the House. Or the homicides.

Yet there’s a mad genius to Beukes’ use of the time-travel conceit. Because time-travel novels echo the pathological determinism of the insane killer. Serial killers (or our mythical variants) must return to and repeat their crimes over, and over, and over again. The time-travel plot is a variant of such repetitive determinism, like a temporal locked room — characters move from point to point but do not escape the implications of events. Instead, we move inexorably toward them.

This creates great tension and dread, and THE SHINING GIRLS is a gripping read. We know the (book’s particular) plot and the (book’s generic-template) Plots here, know what has happened or will happen — and are in some ways, like Kirby or even Harper, trapped in the loop.

1. Lauren Beukes has written a high-concept thriller that manages to ground the hyperbolic pitch of its serial-killer-traveling-through-time plot (the misguided back-cover copy touting “THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE meets THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO“) in intense human feeling. Harper Curtis is no outsized Hannibal — he’s mean, dirty, malignant, mortal. Kirby Mazrachi is no supergenius hacker, no psycho-hunting savant — she’s a smart woman who fiercely pursues her attacker. The book moves, in every sense of that verb.

5. I loved it. And loved these characters. And loved the dizzying structural play. It’s as affecting and ingenious a thriller as I’ve read in some time.


Full review at Bookgasm.com
This Dark Earth - John Hornor Jacobs Full post at www.bookgasm.com:

Two scuzzy, “spun” meth-heads take their first glance out the window after a few days’ sabbatical from the world and get a glimpse of apocalypse: They see a small girl, a vision of “innocence,” approaching a fierce-looking Rottweiler, and they fear for her. And then the dog crouches in fear, cowers away, and the child leaps for it. Hearts hammering, they shriek and close the curtain. A couple moments later, they cautiously peek back out.

Innocence is standing two feet from the window, bloody like the First World War, and before I can scream and close the drapes, I take one close look, like really study her. Pieces of her flesh peel off her face like thin slices of gyro meat.


Peter Stenson’s FIEND opens with a needle jammed straight into your neck, and once your heart is thumping the novel feels like a three-day sleepless binge, rubbing your nerves raw. Billed as THE WALKING DEAD meets BREAKING BAD, it is another in the ever-circling skeletal family of zombie novels. The protagonists are junkies — turns out methamphetamine protects against whatever virus gets the “Chucklers” out chomping flesh — and the novel’s jitters stem as much from the itch of addiction as from the plague of the resurrected dead.

Some of these recent novels have shuffled away from the pack, riffing on the generic template established by George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a vehicle for post-9/11 cultural anxieties: Daryl Gregory’s glorious RAISING STONY MAYHALL is a sly zombildungsroman, a coming-of-age political fable, while Colson Whitehead’s ZONE ONE is a darker satire on the Age of Terror.

Others — like Alden Bell’s THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS, stealing its baroque prose from the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor, or this novel by Stenson, plucking its protagonist from Hubert Selby (or Darren Aronofsky) and the long tradition of drain-circling, self-destructive addicted schmucks — are less concerned with the metaphorical resonance of the mythology than the authorial showboating possible within the generic constraints of zombie horror.

What Stenson does very well is make his readers scratch at their skin. Yet his zombies are far less likely to make you twitch; it’s the skeevy jittery behaviors of his survivors that frays the nerves. At his best, Stenson uses apocalyptic horror as a complement to the paranoid dread of the drug novel. He captures a feverish intensity — and deploys a bleak, sick humor, visible right in that terrific opening sequence — in staccato, pungent prose. The book zips along, and the few moments of big action (a drugstore run that ends in a zombie siege; a confrontation with a gang of Canadian addicts) are written with style to burn.

Unfortunately, drug addicts, like zombies, have their frustrating generic tics. Protagonist Chase does an awful lot of mooning over his ex, whining about his bad choices, and repeating of those bad choices. (Much like most every drug addict. To be fair, the only fictional addicts I’ve ever had much interest in were Hunter S. Thompson and Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead.) At its best, FIEND breaks bad, but a little too often it felt a bit like the interminable whining of Rick et al. on that other AMC show.

Speaking of THE WALKING DEAD, let me give a brief shout for another recent riff on the Romero universe. While many of my friends rave about the cable series, I find it fairly often a letdown, constantly missing its opportunities to develop complex characters (or interesting events) in the steady, dread-beat rhythm of the post-apocalypse.

So when I read the cover summary for John Hornor Jacobs’ THIS DARK EARTH, I quickly set the book aside. Yet another zombie apocalypse; yet another ragtag band of survivors trying to keep their community strong against the viciousness of not just the shambling dead, but the predatory survivors; yet another protagonist thrown into leadership who struggles to acknowledge the better angels of his own nature.

But, boy, was I wrong. Where other authors have smashed and reconstructed the genre in new ways, Jacobs is content to fully embrace the conventions. The novel does nothing particularly new, but from its opening at the moment of outbreak in a rural hospital to its inspired riffs on the “frontier community” long after zero day, THIS DARK EARTH is leading the pack.

It’s got everything THE WALKING DEAD ought to: smart characters you actually care about; a rigorous attention to pacing; a devious understanding of how to play familiar scenarios for maximum energy and surprise; and prose that (as each chapter shifts point of view) is varied in form, but consistently excellent. Jacobs is a fantastic writer — and he shows how much life is left in the moaning mob, even when you haven’t got some new, high-concept frame.

The Good Hmong Girl Eats Raw Laab

The Good Hmong Girl Eats Raw Laab - Ka Vang A smart, thoughtful essay both political and personal. Using accounts from her friends, and her own experiences, Ka Vang crafts with lovely images and lucid analysis a call for shifts in gender dynamics--to bend traditions toward equality--in Hmong-American culture.

I'll admit that Ka is a friend, but there's no log-rolling here: it's of a piece with her amazing work as a playwright and fiction writer. I'm thankful to the Minnesota Historical Society for putting out these accessible, affordable essays--I look forward to exploring more of their offerings.