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12-01-12: My Life in the Bush of Books

Around the Inner Worlds

Books can take readers very different places. By virtue of exotic settings, books can transport readers to places they may never go and more often than not, worlds that do not and perhaps cannot exist. But with equal ease, readers are also transported to new inner worlds, to experience this life, this world with a perspective that they certainly could not achieve, even after reading the book. But those places and perspectives inform every second of our lives after we experience them while reading.

Let's start with the Steampunk, since the genre has been declared dead. Given the current popularity of zombie fiction, we can simply presume that these enjoyable steampunk titles are examples of a fiction subgenre that is itself a zombie; that is, this is truly zombie fiction. Steampunk is the living dead genre that does not know it is dead, so the authors go on writing entertaining books.

Cherie Priest is arguably the Priestess of Steampunk (I hope I'm not the first to say that!), and the Clockwork Century series that began with 'Boneshaker' continues in fine form with 'The Inexplicables' (Tor Books ; November 13, 2012 ; $14.99). Rector Sherman, haunted either by the memory or the actual ghost of a child he helped to escape into Seattle decides he must follow his charge to lay his guilt, or the ghost itself to rest. Once there, he finds that nothing is as expected, other than bad getting worse. Zombies by any other name do smell as sweet, steampunk fog is far worse than what we get here, and the critters described by the title are problematic. If you liked 'Boneshaker,' 'Dreadnought,' and 'Ganymede,' then this is a must-read. Fun, grotty and weird are great qualities in a book. As a bonus, MacMillan is now releasing the series in the UK, so readers there can get on board, starting with 'Boneshaker' (Pan MacMillan ; 08 November, 2012 ; £7.99).

Ann Vandermeer handles all the Steampunk short stories you could wish for, spilling over now into 'Steampunk III' (Tachyon Publications ; October 8, 2012 ; $15.95) Nicely designed and printed, 'Steampunk III' offers a selection of writers from around the globe, and familiar names that would make it of interest no matter what the theme; and consider that your preconceptions as to what can be included under the rubric of "Steampunk" are about to be tidily exploded. Bruce Sterling, Lev Grossman, Cherie Priest, Catherynne M. Valente, Karin Tidbeck; any of those alone might push this into the buy column. And not only do you get their fiction, but as well, non-fiction by Amal El-Muhtar, Margaret Killjoy, Jaymee Goh and Austin Sirkin. For a dead genre, Steampunk is doing pretty well. The entertainment level you'll find here is so high, you'll forget you're reading.

As far as inner worlds go, few have mastered the form like Robert Aickman. Tartarus Press, to my mind doing the finest work one ca find between boards, issues the last of their Robert Aickman collection reprints 'Intrusions' (Tartarus Press ; November 1, 2012 ; £32.50). Forget about anything other than the best stories to capture the ineffable nature of human existence and indeed, spirituality, in the broadest, and in Aickman's hands, the most disturbing sense of the word. Aickman's prose is poetic, plain, and nuanced in a manner that makes his work utterly unique. To a degree, these are stories that point out the potential problems with telepathy, not that any of them deal with such a mundane concept. But rather, they offer readers perfect perspectives into the minds of men and women in such a manner as to make it clear that we really never, ever, can truly understand one another. Even when we see the world as perfectly as Aickman shows us; here, in stories like "The Fetch," "Hand in Glove" and "Letters to the Postman" -- we can never really, truly understand how those other minds work. In Aickman's world, we are all ghosts, haunting ourselves, trapped inside our own skulls.

For the non-fiction version, flip over to Oliver Sacks' 'Hallucinations' (Alfred A. Knopf ; November 6, 2012 ; $26.95), a lovely tour of our inner world and the way we fill in the blanks of the world around us with our own inner lives. For me, the draw here was Bonnet Syndrome, as I once knew someone who lived in that world. But Sacks as ever combines great writing, great insights, and personal revelations as he tackles what to me is the core of being human — those times when our minds overtake the world, when our sense of invention gets out of hand. To me, it seems as if this was the book that Sacks has been writing towards since the beginning of his career. Of course, I am only the ghost trapped in my own skull, haunted by the books I've read. At least that's how it feels.

Stef Penny's 'The Invisible Ones' (Berkley / Penguin Putnam ; December 4, 2012 ; $16) takes readers into another inner world, that of Ray Lovell, a private investigator who starts out the novel in a bad place. I'll let readers discover that place, but I can say that Lovell's has Romany blood, and that makes him the perfect man to look for Rose Janko, the estranged daughter of Travelers who went missing years ago. The novel takes readers through two worlds, two unique perspectives and is engagingly told in a manner that makes it hard to put down. It's best read and then passed on to the person next to you; once you finish it, you'll want someone to talk to, but not until they've read it as well.

I must admit that I have often wished that we could declare a moratorium on vampire novels. Generally I inelegantly express this sentiment just before another work comes out that proves me wrong. And here I am, doing so once again just as we're blessed with Glen Hirshberg's 'Motherless Child' (Earthling Books ; October 1, 2012 ; $40), a superbly gritty and intense novel that neither knows nor cares about genres, literary or vampire. Hirshberg is the sort of author who brings an authentic voice of the sort of people you might know, caught up in circumstances beyond our imaginations, to the printed page. Natalie and Sophie, single mothers, meet the Whistler — and his mother. It proves to be unfortunate for all concerned, other than the reader who will be gripped with the white-hot fury of Hirshberg's ability to write great prose, great characters and great sleaze in a novel that makes you feel. He peels away the American dreams of motherhood and rock and roll to their bloody core. He writes as if possessed by a falling angel. And he brings a genre that deserves to die to shuddering, bloody life. He's probably damned by all this, but readers won't give a damn. A great novel about vampires is a great novel. Put a stake through it.

Happily we have entered the time in our lives when writing great episodes of Doctor Who is seen as a plus, and Cornell's Father's Day is a standout. His forthcoming novel 'London Falling' (Pan Macmillan ; December 6, 2012 ; £12.99) is a kick-ass version of the supernatural cop genre that readers will hope to become a series long before they finish reading this book. DI James Quill, about to make a huge drugs bust, is out of luck when his suspect dies in jail. He puts together a team to solve the crime, but the solution proves to be worse than the problem. The suspect has ties not just to the drug world, but to an invisible world, where the rules are unhelpfully different. Expect inventive supernatural tropes to bump up against gritty, CSI reality, and witty dialogue. Cornell manages to synthesize two great genres — UK copper novel and UK supernatural horror with charm, humor and intense excitement.

And there are more inner worlds to come. Every day, every reader steps into a new inner world. Books are our best form of meditation, a way of exploring not just outer worlds, but inner lives that we could never lead ourselves. The best news is that this group is just the tip of the iceberg. The variety you find here is to my mind a good map of how one reads best — across the menu.

11-28-12: Chris Ware Constructs 'Building Stories'

Our Buildings, Our Stories, Our Selves

Story is integral to our sense of self. Our sense of what elements make up a story, how they should be arranged to tell a story and how they are related are all part of how we create our own identity. Chris Ware started the work that eventually became 'Building Stories' in an arena in which words were, as a practicality, problematic.

With this challenge, Ware created the first character visually, and she eventually became the foundation, the cornerstone upon which he crafted what has become, in this incredible assemblage of art pieces, a complex Dickensian vision of modern American life spanning three generations. 'Building Stories' is a true masterpiece of storytelling as art, and the art of storytelling. With simplicity and stunning invention, Ware re-imagines this world, makes it his own, then offers it to readers in a collection that defies definition but invites imagination.

'Building Stories' consists of 14 different formatted stories collected in one box, sized to approximate an old fashioned Sunday newspaper, folded in half. Inside the box you'll find huge Sunday-funny size stories, slim miniatures that unfold to a couple of feet across, a "Golden Book" style hardcover, and pretty much everything else beyond and between. There's so much stuff in this box that it is easily some of the best money you can spend on books and reading.

Most of the stories center on one building, and there are different sets of characters who pop up in different contexts, not all them consistent. This is, of course, deliberate, a sort of alternate personal history that lets Ware view our American lives from a variety of angles. The stories are poignant and powerful, and in spite of Ware's initial constraint (or self-imposed restraint), the overall feel here is most closely duplicated by Charles Dickens, with his panoramic views of London. This is a visual work that has the feel of rich prose.

Ware gives readers no idea how to approach reading the material in the box. There are no titles, there's no order or numbering to guide us as to where to start and what to read next. This makes the collection infinitely re-readable, a story that can tell and un-tell itself in a variety of fashions. Beyond the tough-but-fragile young woman who anchors the work, readers will meet her landlady (based on Ware's grandmother), a troubled young couple, assorted neighbors and even the characters in the books she reads to her child. We find them at many points in their lives, and the building as well, which has its own voice.

Ware's illustrations have a level of abstraction that makes it clear we're looking at art, but a gorgeous style that is evocative and poignant. He knows how to put together a page and a panel with just enough tiny details to bring the reader emotionally into the scene, to make the emotional connection that one makes with fiction. The simplicity of his style makes it possible for him to put together long and layered stories without inducing a sort of artwork overload that can hinder rather than help the readers' involvement in the story.

As a printed work, 'Building Stories' is never less than remarkable. It is unmistakably a work of careful collaboration between the writer and the production department at Pantheon, with an eye on top-notch quality. This goal has been achieved. The colors, the formats, every physical aspect of what you end up holding in your hands is so pristine as to remove all barriers between the reader and the work that Ware is presenting.

Given the elaborate presentation and high price tag, one might be tempted to conclude that 'Building Stories' is for a pretty select audience. But Ware's work is amazingly accessible to any reader and any attention span. It's easy to start anywhere and once you do, you'll find the pull of Ware's world to be very powerful indeed. This is a book that should be on anyone's list, one that is easily shared in a household because everyone can be reading (or re-reading) different parts at the same time. In this and every other sense, 'Building Stories' does exactly what the title implies, in a truly three-dimensional manner. As we read, as we experience Ware's world, we can use the tools that Ware offers to re-examine our own lives and how we build our own stories.

11-26-12: Charles Burns Infests 'The Hive'

Dream Lives of the Lizard-Men

We like to think of the world, and our lives, as a serial affair. I say something; you reply. One thing happens. It causes another to happen. Time moves in one moment to the next. Charles Burns, in his new graphic novel trilogy, clearly sees the world differently. In the first book, 2010's 'X'ed Out' and now, in 'The Hive' we see the world in layers, in colors, we dream and we are awake at the same time.

Burns graphic novel annihilates the barriers between moments, between lives and breaks down our serial timelines. It blends gritty reality and an equally gritty surreal dream-world to tell a story not of how life is, but rather, how it feels. Read 'The Hive' and you will be dreaming in gorgeously designed and rendered color.

Make no mistake; 'X'ed Out,' 'The Hive' and the forthcoming final book in the trilogy, 'Sugar Skull,' are all required reading if you want to truly experience Burns' unique story and storytelling skills. Each book is 56 pages long; you can easily read them in one sitting — the first time, at least. They're best read in order, and they are well worth re-reading.

Because Burns is telling his story in a parallel, rather than a serial fashion, re-reading is probably a must. You have to let Burns open a door in your brain, and then let his story and characters crawl in. It won't be that pleasant an experience, in that Burns is not trying to offer the reader any sort of comfort. But it is a superb work of art, and the experience of reading these books is not to be missed.

As book-objects, Pantheon and Burns have given readers something to die for, probably literally given the distressing storylines. They're large (10" by 12"), with heavy board covers and thick pages. The presentation is clearly part of the story. There's a feel of the forbidden here. a whiff of pornography mixed with a heavy dose of unsettlingly adult themes. The printing and production values are top notch, and the price is incredibly reasonable.

As 'The Hive' opens, we find ourselves in a classic 1950's-style romance comic book. But the language is nothing ever seen on this earth. When reality intrudes, it's not the reality you and I wake up in; Burns' Tintin-like figure is taking a break while the lizard-men holler at him to get back to work. Burns takes us deeper into this alternate world and fills it out with new characters. He does an amazing job at balancing the sinister and the sweet, then wakes us up into something a bit more familiar.

The familiar, of course, is shot through with the Forbidden, flashes of nightmare art and punk noise performance, sex that slides into violence, and the tedium of staying up the entire night. Art about art collides with lovingly-rendered grubs and maggots with faces leering up from food trays. Fathers die, beds float downriver, layers of color remind us of where we once were, and where again we might be. Life is pulled apart, mixed with dreams and nightmares, then put together by Burns in a manner that is tantalizingly just beyond reach.

Burns' sense of story is powerful. Despite the largely, lushly illustrated nature of these books, they feel like prose. Burns burrows his way into the readers' minds in with raw, powerful imagery that connects with the story-experiencing part of brains in much the same way as words. There's clearly a mystery at work here in the connections between the two distinct worlds and the sinewy tissues that connect them. 'The Hive' offers readers the second part of the question and the second part of the answer.

No matter how the story concludes, 'X'ed Out' and 'The Hive' are pristine, pure injections of nightmare and story, roiling unchecked into the real world. All of our hopes and dreams and fears reside not in the world, but in our minds, and the way we tell ourselves our own story to make it all work. We do indeed live our lives in a serial fashion, one moment to the next. But we put together our stories afterwards, editing out the bits we don't like. With 'The Hive,' Burns picks up those scraps from our personal cutting room floors, he mixes in our forbidden dreams and desires with the daily grind of a workplace where your co-workers are angry lizards. You can wake up after reading 'The Hive.' When you do, you will realize that waking up in your own life might not be quite so pleasant as you'd hope.

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