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02-28-13: My Life in the Bush of Books


Readers can pretty much guess that I love genre fiction, no matter what it is called or where it is shelved in the bookstore. And by genre fiction, here I specifically mean, the weird, the outré, the science fiction, horror, fantasy, the sort of stuff that you may be told will rot your brain, turn you into a social undesirable, give you a skin condition, or alienate you in a fantasy world that will render your ability to make real-life decisions difficult.

Now, I like a lot of other stuff too. I try to vary my reading so every sort of book seems fresh. That said, there is a lot to be said for short story collections, which are uncommonly common in the genre fiction world. So with no further prevarication, I offer a look at some top picks in this realm, some that you should probably buy pretty quickly before they sell out. Believe me, they will and they should sell out.

First and foremost among the to-be-sold-out titles is 'The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler and Other Strange Stories' by Reggie Oliver (Tartarus Press ; February 4, 2013 ; £14.95). This trade paperback re-print of his 2005 hardcover from the same publisher comes signed, and includes new illustrations by the author — an they're every bit as amazing as the stories they accompany. As with 'The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and Other Strange Stories,' Oliver displays an impressive range here, offering great characters in imaginatively weird stories with superbly crafted elements of the fantastic that burrow into our perceptions. Oliver's prose is consistently top-notch with drawing attention to itself and his characters come to life in the span of the stories. The supernatural, surreal and fantastic elements are lightly used but highly effective.

The real power in this collection is Oliver's ability to use the weird and the supernatural to address a variety of characters and lives with an ease that itself seems supernatural. The title story is a great example; the collection of note seems to come from an alternate history, but its effects in this world are unsurprisingly unhappy. "The Garden of Strangers" plays with the "story told in a café" plot in a subtle and imaginative manner. Every story here is of the highest calibre, all of them reminders of how a single, seemingly-limited genre, "horror" can be used to explore every avenue of life. There are some 200 copies of this book. If you enjoy variety and the allure of the supernatural and surreal, you cannot go wrong with 'The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler and Other Strange Stories.'

In 'Free Range Chickens' and 'Elliot Allagash,' Simon Rich carved out his own unique ground, where charming innocence and sweet cluelessness are hijacked by the weird and surreal perspectives humans manage to bring to bear on life. With 'The Last Girlfriend on Earth and other Love Stories' (Reagan Arthur / Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group ; January 22, 2013 ; $19.99, Rich once again proves himself to be stranger than any reader might surmise to be possible, and yet — so real and there that every eccentricity becomes endearing. This will prove to be the case even if you find charm, sweetness, cluelessness, eccentricity, all of it seriously annoying. Rich brings a wild imagination and an extremely disciplined technique to these short stories that make this book easy to read and hard to put down.

The book is divided into three sections; "Boy Meets Girl," "Boy Gets Girl," and Boy Loses Girl." The first story, "Unprotected," offers readers the most intimate narrator they'll ever hear from. "Dog Missed Connections" is the canine version of craigslist, and if even if you don't have a dog, you'll be hard pressed not to laugh out loud. Rich enjoys exploring the lives of the our supernatural overlords in stories like "Cupid," "Center of the Universe" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." A "NASA Proposal" is the official query about what everyone hopes to do in space. In "Is it Just Me?" a young man find out his ex is dating Adolf Hitler, who at the time is apparently not composing any symphonies. The title story offers Rich's version of zombies, which involves dating Bill Clinton. There's weird, and there's Simon Rich.

Karen Russell's first collection of short stories, 'St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves' was an auspicious debut, and not just because the first story later became the seed for 'Swamplandia!' Russell's work offers readers stories that ring emotionally true even when they are deeply weird. Her latest collection is 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove' (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House ; February 12, 2013 ; $24.95), and it goes deeper and weirder, offering up visions of human silkworms, and yes, vampires in a lemon grove with a good reason to be there.

Russell's short stories are hermetic capsules of rich, disciplined prose, carefully crafted to create worlds that feel like ours even if it is clear (we hope!) that they are not. "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979" is a great example of this. When young Nal discovers that the omens he finds ripple into his reality, what at first seems like a story of adolescent discovery shifts sideways into a work with more disturbing undertones. "The New Veterans" is a story centered on a tattoo that is more than ink on skin and is guaranteed to get under the reader's skin.

Russell likes to annihilate the difference between external physical reality and our perceptions of that reality with seemingly normal stories that edge into the fantastic, or clearly fantastic stories written with the discipline of kitchen-sink epiphanies. "Reeling for the Empire" has a very disturbing premise that is played out with matter-of-fact realism. The inversion of reality is itself upsetting — and always a revelation when it comes in a great story. 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove' is a superb collection of weird stories.

Steven Gould follows up 'Jumper' and 'Reflex' with 'Impulse' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; January 8, 2013 ; $25.99), a smart, intense story of lots of stuff; parenthood, growing up, setting boundaries and just to make it all a bit more fun, teleportation. In 'Jumper' we met Davy, who was able to teleport. In 'Reflex' met his wife-to-be, Millie, who was also able to teleport. Now, in 'Impulse,' we meet their daughter Cent, and it won't come as any surprise for readers to learn that Cent can teleport. This is a talent that makes teenage rebellion a bit harder to handle.

Gould's secret in these books is to seamlessly combine three fairly simple ingredients. He gives readers great characters informed by emotional relationships and problems that feel gritty and realistic, sweet and familiar, rough and right-on. He explores the many implications of a simple fantastic element, teleportation, with great élan, logic and joy. And he combines the above two elements into ripping yarn plots that make these books intense page-turners. He writes crisp prose and never gets in his own way, and there are several outstanding set-pieces so cleverly conceived and well-written that readers will want to read them more than once. Be careful when you start this book, because the chances are that you will read it almost as if it is a short story. He writes a novel that is centered on a classic genre trope that simply feels like a modern thriller.

The strength of good genre fiction is that readers can easily "get away" from reality and enjoy the reading experience while getting perspective on the reality to which they will inevitably return. With luck, that return is never complete. The fact of the matter is that all reading is the mental equivalent of a good vacation. It takes you someplace you've never been and gives you memories with which to measure what you find upon your return. What was once familiar should seem strange, because, now, you are strange as well.

02-26-13: Karen Russell Floods 'Swamplandia!'

Life in the Afterdeath

Editor's Note:
Here's a perfect example of why reading is so rewarding. Books come out at a pace so relentless that you can read full-time and more and still manage to miss a Pulitzer Prize finalist that is truly, deeply weird. In case you have been in your own swamp, hardcover first editions of this book are still reasonable, at least from Ziesings. Hesitate at your own peril.

We're not going to see the end of our own story. We'll be dead. The best we can hope for is to see the slow unraveling that precedes the end, to be aware of the decline and manage a grim joke or a stern smile beforehand. Perhaps we'll be able to inspire those who follow with a funny story from our lives, and amuse ourselves as well. Being weird helps in this regard. American oddballs are a hardy clan. What's one more boot when you're used to getting kicked around?

Karen Russell's 'Swamplandia!' is a peculiar, powerful portrait of the American oddball. Russell's intense prose lens likes to focus the burning sunlight of Florida on her human ants, the Bigtree family, until they start to smoke. The story begins after an ending — Hilola Bigtree, the gator-wrestling wife and mother, falls victim to cancer. She leaves behind her husband, The Chief, her son, Kiwi, her oldest daughter, Osceola and her youngest daughter, Ava. The Bigtrees have lived and raised their children in their home-grown theme park, Swamplandia! — forever, so far as Ava is concerned. But without Hilola, the balance is tipped and the center does not hold.

Russell's novel runs on an engine of hot prose that captures the reader in the minutia of low-down life on the actual edge of the American Dream. She runs it hot and cold. We get drop-dead gorgeous description of the Florida swamps, from exotic plants to rotting trash heaps, in sentences that evoke a slow apocalypse. Her sophisticated grammar and exotic vocabulary are a joy to read. Then, she throws in a sentence that is so funny, such a great joke, that you want to read it three or four times just to make yourself laugh again — and you will laugh again. It's a tremendous treat to wade into Russell's weird universe.

The characters we meet are every bit as strange as they need to be, and that is plenty strange enough. We spend the most time with Ava and Kiwi, and they are both great guides to a place that is not so nice to visit and definitely not somewhere you'd want to live. Ava is our main mooring, and she's quickly unmoored. She's smart but not precocious and we learn a lot from her observations of things we know but she does not.

Ava tells her story in the first person, and as a reader, you'll have the feeling that she is sitting in the room with you, spinning her yarns and presenting them with an authority that she does not actually possess. Kiwi is almost precocious, but so unworldly as to overpower any advantage his intellect might be inclined to bestow upon him. The Chief managed to get where he is pretty much without ever having to mature, while Osceola has stepped off into a girly adolescent otherworld. They're a pretty standard American family, taken out to the edges of the acceoptable and left to fester with Hilola.

Russell's plot has everyone leaving Ava behind, for the best of all possible reasons. This is America, after all. We only abandon our children and siblings with the best of intentions, usually economic. While waiting for their return, Ava is visited by a traveling fixit-guy who calls himself The Birdman. Before you can say Southern Gothic, Ava is on a journey to the Otherworld. Of course, in the U S of A, our Otherworlds tend to be a bit on the ratty and run-down side of the equation. As Ava wanders, Kiwi embarks on a more common quest. He takes a job for a competitor on the mainland in order to help bring the family closer to solvency. Like many an American father, the Chief up and disappears.

Russell's vision of life on the rotting edges of our collective conscious is richly textured, often laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately, as odd and unresolved as we are. While so much American literature and so much of the American consciousness is concerned with the Apocalypse, after which there is nothing, or nothing recognizable from before, Russell hones in on the sort of ending after which you can still quite easily see and remember the good times that came before. The happy past is still palpable to everyone who once called Swamplandia! a home. The unhappy present seems much more likely to breed bad as opposed to good.

Reading 'Swamplandia!' one feels the power of Russell's prose set to service the awful averageness of our declining standard of living. Our lives are all going to hell. A too-large number of otherwise nice people are actually already working in hell, or they are going to end up there soon. Those who complain about life are often told to consider the alternative. 'Swamplandia!' is a powerful and funny literary afterlife, a testament to the prehistoric pull of the nuclear family in the next world.

02-25-13: Gregory D. Johnsen Escapes 'The Last Refuge'

News into Story

News reports are often described as stories, but more often than not, they're simply information, data points that are rarely connected. They're easy enough to read, and upon doing so, one can feel informed. In 'The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia,' Gregory D. Johnsen connects news stories that most of us have read or heard or seen reported on television to tell the story of Al Qaeda from its inception to the current day.

Johnsen finds the big story that connects all the news items, and creates character arcs from what might otherwise seem to be a simple series of proclamations, acts of terrorism, attacks and retreats. He finds the stories that didn't make the news, those that enable readers to get a deeper understanding of the major actors in the news and their motivations. 'The Last Refuge' is a timely and timeless tale of war and rebellion, of spies and subterfuge, an action-packed capital-S Story that is much more than mere information. This suspenseful, funny, harrowing, important book builds a world within our world that we think we know until we turn the last page.

If you think of 'The Last Refuge' as a sprawling, intricate spy novel, then you're well on your way to understanding why the book is so compelling to read. After a centuries-hopping introduction, Johnsen takes readers back to the 1980's, when Yemen was a divided country and the Jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets was an adventure and a proving ground. He treats names from the news with care and creates them as characters. We meet all the major players and get to know them as people, not terrorist threats.

Johnsen's prose is a big player in this book. It's pleasurably easy to read, but offers the sorts of details that nail down the reality of the people and places that he is describing. We never feel like we are reading a policy paper, a news report or being lectured to. Johnsen focuses on human stories and emotions based on intensive research. He creates landscapes and cities with the veracity of one who has traveled the region. He knows how to write in lots of names that are going to be difficult for the Western readers to wrap their brains and tongues around in a manner that makes it easy enough to read.

One of Johnsen's strengths in 'The last Refuge' is his sense of characterization. Both Bin Laden and Salih are exquisitely done, given life and texture that one would never find in the news. There's a large cast here, but the reader is never lost, and there are lots of characters who are offer visions of Al Qaeda and of the wars on the Arabian peninsula that we've not seen before. Hitar, the scholar whose prison education program created the next generation of Al Qaeda is a great example. His hope was to show the Al Qaeda rebels that their understanding of the Koran was wrong, but his aloof superiority made their beliefs even more hard-core.

Johnsen does more than just create great characters. He orchestrates them into character arcs and plots that entwine and unravel, often with an undercurrent of dark humor. You'll learn quite a bit about the incompetence and ineptitude that has plagued Al Qaeda in 'The Last Refuge.' It's sometimes quite funny. But it is equally chilling, as well, especially as Johnsen takes us to the end game, which emphasizes just how real all of these interpersonal relationships are, and how deadly the consequences of our own ineptitude are. Ultimately, we are looking at an organization that is re-energized and much stronger than the individual news stories coming across the wires would like us to believe.

But 'The Last Refuge' itself offers a large does of hope. Because Johnsen lets his readers make sense, lets his readers experience the story in his book, as if it were a particularly complicated work of political intrigue and suspense, the sense of nameless dread is dissipated. Johnsen's book points to the power of naming the thing, of telling the story as a means of getting control of those who are currently acting out that story. It's telling that Johnsen finishes his book without an traditional story ending. As readers, we know by this point that we too, are in the story — and we know, that alas, this story has not yet ended.

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