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Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category


You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead, your next stop: Karen Russell’s third book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

Sound familiar? At 31, Russell wasn’t even born when Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone transfixed millions of Americans every Friday night from 1959-1964. But she shares in the show’s legacy, its groundbreaking combination of genres — sci fi, fantasy, horror, fiction and suspense — that portrayed ordinary people crossing a threshold into the extraordinary.

A sixth sense seems to steer Russell, who has built a literary reputation by locating the uncanny in the most improbable places. A home for wayward girls became a finishing school for the daughters of werewolves in her debut short-story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves.

In her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, Swamplandia! a dilapidated theme park on an island off the Florida coast yielded a Southern gothic tragicomedy about a family of alligator wrestlers and their call-and-response with the spirit realm.

In this new group of eight stories, Russell once again peers through her color-it-weird kaleidoscope to report on characters trapped in upside-down, looking-glass worlds. (more…)

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Do we choose the books we read? Or do they find us?

It’s a question that’s always fascinated me. It’s one reason I like wandering into a bookstore or library and having no particular plan in mind. Or having a plan but junking it in favor of a certain sudden clicking in my synapses that says, Walk down this aisle. It’s the Zen of finding books.

I like stumbling onto books. Finding them in unexpected places: a table at Anthropology. A gift shop. A review in a magazine I only read at the dentist’s office.

One of the best stacks of books I ever took home were six two-for-a-dollar’s on the tables at a library sale I happened on one afternoon in St. George, Florida. Each one answered some question I barely knew was in my head until I started reading.

You can’t do this on Amazon.com. It’s trying too hard to get your attention, with the giant best-seller lists and the “related to items you’ve viewed” and “recommended for you.” Amazon will never “get” us, anymore than an online Tarot card reading can tell our fortune.

The books that have ended up in my house lately are all about children: unwanted, given up for adoption, unable to fit in—one is even a changeling. Who knows why? It’s not as if I set out to do a roundup of books about the subject. It’s the kind of synchronicity that makes me wonder, the way you’d wonder about the meaning of a recurring dream. But like a dream, much of the pleasure comes from letting it work on you, not getting too crazy about extracting the meaning.

I used to love picking through the advance readers copies at local independent bookstore Tall Tales when I worked there. I liked that so many of them were sleepers, authors you’d never heard of. I used my Zen of Reading on those unknowns a lot; it’s how I found Nell Freudenberger, Greg Bottoms, Lydia Peelle, Julie Orringer.

They still let me go through the ARCs at Tall Tales, and recently, just like old times, I found The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch, sitting there under the radar between a couple of young adult books, its gray paper cover-bra (hiding a bared breast) still intact. If you haven’t heard about this book yet, it’s Yuknavitch’s memoir of growing up with an abusive, violent father and an alcoholic mother and how she escaped—into a world pretty much like the one she left, except that she became a sort of combination of her parents, a violent, risk-taking alcoholic and heroin addict.

Chuck Palaniuk loved it (though he may not count, being in her writing group). The Rumpus Book Club did a long interview with the author (here it is, uncut) that ended  with their suspicions she might be the mysterious columnist who advises the lovelorn and the desperate at Dear Sugar. Yuknavitch is also the author of three novels and claims Kathy Acker as one of her influences.

Swimmer, compassionate survivor, and mother, Yuknavitch advises those touched by “the great river of sadness that runs through us all” to collect rocks. “Own more rocks than clothing,” she says, and “sometimes feel lithic, or petrified, or rupestral instead of tired, irritable, depressed.” For it is rocks, she tells us, “that carry the chronology of water.” But before she was able to get to the safety of rocks, she was “a burning girl” who had to do enough drugs and sex and sex and sex and sex until her “life, and what it was and wasn’t, simply left.”

I read The Chronology of Water over a period of a few days, and each time, felt as if I’d been sitting in the corner of a bar with a woman articulate enough to tell me her whole story, and by telling this story, she was saving her own life. Not everything she had to say was as funny as she thought it was, and not everything she’s done was as wild and gender-bending and shocking as she seemed to believe, but the telling is courageous, much of it brilliant. I can think of at least one beautiful burning girl I’ve known who would still be alive today if she’d been able to transform her pain into words this way.

Here’s a taste of Yuknavitch’s style, from the chapter on her mentor, Ken Kesey, at The Nervous Breakdown. And here is an essay she wrote for The Rumpus about books—”Those thingees with covers and pages that you hold in your hands? Smell like paper and trees? Portable brain defibrillators?”—that found her.

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In the story that Chris Adrian (The Children’s Hospital) turned into a novel, The Great Night, Titania and Oberon, queen and king of the fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sit out yet another night at a hospital with their changeling human child, who has been diagnosed with leukemia. As the royal fairies struggle to understand disease—they never die, don’t even get sick—the doctors fight to save the baby. What a heartbreaking story this is, and Adrian’s decision to transfer the sadness of losing a child to a fairy’s limited vocabulary creates the perfect analogy for our own human experience with death and dying: Despite our greater knowledge and ability to speak to the doctors, are we really any more clear on why? Do we do a better job of accepting the loss? Wouldn’t we, too, like to destroy the doctors and the entire hospital, and punish the underlings who let it happen?

I found Adrian’s book through my favorite source of new book links and information, Shelf Awareness. Their subtitle—Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade—couldn’t be more apt. Every weekday, if you subscribe, you’ll get news of independent bookstores, new books, industry news, and reviews. Their brief description fired me up to find the story, “A Tiny Feast,” that inspired Adrian’s book.

It took them both a long time to understand that the boy was sick …. Neither of them had much experience with illness. They had each taken many mortal lovers, but had cast them off before they could become old or infirm, and all their previous changelings had stayed healthy until they were returned, unaged and unstuck from their proper times, to the mortal world. “There was no way you could have known,” said Dr. Blork, the junior partner in the two-person team that oversaw the boy’s care, on their very first visit with him. “Parents always feel like they ought to have caught it earlier, but really it’s the same for everyone, and you couldn’t have done any better than you did.” He was trying to make them feel better, to assuage a perceived guilt, but at that point neither Titania nor her husband really knew what guilt was, never having felt it in all their long days.

They were in the hospital, not far from the park on the hill under which they made their home, in the middle of the night—early for them, since they slept all day under the hill and had taught the boy to do the same, but the doctors, Beadle and Blork, were obviously fatigued. The four of them were sitting at a table in a small windowless conference room, the doctors on one side, the parents on the other. The boy was back in his room, drugged with morphine, sleeping peacefully for the first time in days. The doctors were explaining things, earnestly and patiently, but Titania was having trouble following along.

Read the rest here in the New Yorker. It becomes the third chapter of The Great Night, set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in the summer of 2008. Adrian adds three humans who find themselves lost in the park, each one reeling from a broken heart. What they don’t know is that the longest night of the year is about to get a lot longer: Titania, desperate to reunite with her estranged husband, has unleashed an ancient power that will, among other awful things, pretty much eliminate the “glamour”—a spell that has separated the fairy world from the human since time immemorial. Their new mortal friends, busy reviewing their failed relationships, are swept into the path of the fairies; they join forces to survive. Adrian blends fantasy and reality for this witty, sexy, often hallucinatory retelling of Shakespeare’s play, after which you will think twice before cutting through a city park on a night in midsummer.
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Shelf Awareness has a regular feature called Opening lines from a book we want to read, usually chosen by editor Marilyn Dahl. After reading the opening lines to Ryan Van Meter‘s If You Knew Then What I Know Now, I wanted more.

Ben and I are sitting side by side in the very back of his mother’s station wagon. We face glowing white headlights of cars following us, our sneakers pressed against the back hatch door. This is our joy—his and mine—to sit turned away from our moms and dads in this place that feels like a secret, as thought they are not even in the car with us. They have just taken us out to dinner and now we are driving home. Years from this evening, I won’t actually be sure that this boy sitting beside me is named Ben. But that doesn’t matter tonight. What I know for certain right now is that I love him, and I need to tell him this fact before we return to our separate houses, next door to each other. We are both five.

Read the rest of this first chapter here.

Thirteen more linked essays trace the author’s steadily increasing awareness of his difference from other boys, with some glorious passages about his secret pastimes, including a scene that will drive you crazy with joy where his grandmother lets eight-year-old Ryan help her set the table wearing a little girl’s blue party dress he found in a closet.

The bottom hem just skims the carpet as I shift my weight left and then right, my eyes in the mirror watching the full skirt tilting like a bell. I gather the folds of the dress in my hands, the way the women do on Little House on the Prairie, and bustle around for a minute or two before the door opens.

My grandmother. She just stands there and keeps her hand on the knob….

I say, “It fits me,” and sort of twist side to side.

“It does. It does,” she says.

Van Meter’s website.

The Zen of Finding Books works best in small independents and used bookstores (one of the best is the Atlanta Book Exchange on North Highland). Here’s some straightforward, smart advice on why you should shop locally.

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While reading and reviewing  Swamplandia! last week, I  looked into two writers Karen Russell mentioned in her acknowledgments. One was Kelly Link (like Russell, a Miami native), who writes fantasy and what is called “slipstream” fiction and has won a Hugo and three Nebula’s and has three books out: Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners and Pretty Monsters. Her story, “The Faery Handbag,” reeled me in as magically as the handbag acquired its contents.

If you called the faery handbag by its right name, it would be something like “orzipanikanikcz,” which means the “bag of skin where the world lives,” only Zofia never spelled that word the same way twice. She said you had to spell it a little differently each time. You never wanted to spell it exactly the right way, because that would be dangerous.

Read the full story here.

Another was George Saunders, of  CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. The critics love him, but always accuse him of being “dark.”

Here, in a December 2010 interview with Saunders about a recently published story in the New Yorker, the interviewer says it again: That story was dark. This one is even darker. I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but where do these ideas come from?

Saunders responds:

… One of the most truthful answers I’ve come up with is just to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, who said that a writer can choose what he writes about, but can’t choose what he makes live. Somehow—maybe due to simple paucity of means—I tend to foster drama via bleakness. If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I cleave the character in half, on his birthday. And then it starts raining. And he’s made of sugar.

Saunders makes some important points, particularly about the way fiction is often mistaken for reality. I was debating this very issue last night with someone whose arm I twisted into reading Barry Hannah’s Airships. “But I don’t get it,” he told me. Hannah’s wild scenarios made no sense to him. “What’s he trying to say?”

Still, the story about the sugar-guy being cut in half on his birthday in the rain is not saying: this happens. It is saying, If this happened, what would that be like? Its subject becomes, say, undeserved misery—which does happen.

Read the rest of the interview.

I searched everywhere to find out who designed the fetching cover of Swamplandia!, as I only had a galley with no art credit. If anyone has a copy of the book, clue me in. [Update: Luther Daniels Bradley, a political cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News, did the illustration in 1899.] Lately I’ve kind of had it with book covers, especially the ones of women from the waist down—just a skirt, legs and shoes.

All the more reason to love these witty, graphic-novel covers created for the Deluxe Penguin editions of the classics—

—illustrated by contemporary graphic artists like Chester Brown (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and by two of my favorites, Canadian artist Julie Doucet (Little Women) and Dame Darcy (Jane Eyre). Best of all, the jackets fold out with added panels and designs, like de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir, above, by Tomer Hanuka.

The genius behind it all is Paul Buckley, who heads up Penguin’s design department and has gone on to commission artists for Penguin Ink, which commissioned tattoo artists to do cover designs (see below, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber), and lots more.

See the full array here with links to the artists’ websites.

Buckley talks about the series and Penguin covers in general here.

Here’s another way to refresh an old standby. One of my favorite literary quotes appeared in an unexpected location recently:

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