Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Jason Heroux, Good Evening, Central Laundromat

Heroux, Jason. Good Evening, Central Laundromat. Quattro Books, April 2010.

Good Evening, Central Laundromat at Goodreads
Good Evening, Central Laundromat at Quattro Books

This review was salvaged from oblivion by author Jason Heroux. It appeared in the online cultural journal The Rover in July 2011, and, as is the fate of many web journals, The Rover is a thing of the past. Since unlike print we don’t have copies floating around, it is left to readers to print or repost content in order for the review to remain in circulation. Luckily for him, and Mr. Heroux himself, he posted the entire review on his blog.

And now I am reposting it here.

The novella, little read it seems, is worth hunting down, and I am looking forward to a re-read.


Cameron Delco’s girlfriend Viola is losing her voice, his friend Ray has asked him to attend his assisted suicide, and a pigeon has taken up residence in the Laundromat he and Viola own and operate.
Cameron is the narrator of Jason Heroux’s surreal novella Good Evening, Central Laundromat. Though a fairly average guy, Cameron proves to be an appropriately passive narrator for these events. He takes things in stride, acknowledging the odd occurrences but unwilling or unable to consider their significance. The world around him seems to be changing, yet Cameron himself is slow to develop.
Cameron is the glue holding his world together. Simply by maintaining his routine — from running the Laundromat to attending to Ray — a strange new reality takes shape around him. Though he refers to Ray as a ghost, it is in fact Cameron who is wandering through life without leaving a solid impact on the world. Ray, on the other hand, is obsessed with his own place in the world. “I know I’m already dead and everyone’s just pretending I’m alive,” he tells Cameron after failing at his first suicide attempt. “I was hoping if I went through the motions and killed myself I could finally end it all.”
Good Evening, Central Laundromat is an attractive and slim little book, part of the Quattro Books novella series; a great series that has allowed this unique and highly entertaining read to find an audience. It is a surreal work filled with healthy ambiguity, dealing with notions of existence, of going through the motions of living, and of our impact on the world and the people around us. The prose is simple and straightforward. This allows the odd elements to appear natural so that, like Cameron, we are able to accept these events at face value and move ahead. Of course there is a great deal happening beyond the surface and we read on intently, wondering whether Cameron can awaken and break the tired cycle that has become his life. The Laundromat, with its own cycles, is emblematic of both Cameron’s routine and his unwavering commitment to that routine. The title itself is ambiguous, referring to Cameron’s telephone greeting while also evoking his daily presence at the Laundromat, as though he were greeting it.
The dialogue is excellent, the conversations natural whether the topic is infused with the commonplace or by weighty observations. There are some nice touches to enrich the mostly straightforward prose, from elegant similes to ambiguous statements: “I couldn’t hear any traffic,” Cameron says when trying to sleep. “The roads were clear. Everybody was where they had to be and no one was going anywhere.” The greatest irony is that the only character seemingly going somewhere is the one who believes he has already died.
With Good Evening, Central Laundromat, Heroux has succeeded in creating a unique work that is simultaneously thought-provoking and entertaining. It is great to encounter a work that is not only unique but refreshingly well written.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Thomas Tryon, The Other (1971)

Tryon, Thomas. The Other. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, May 1971.

The Other at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

The tagline to the 1976 Fawcett Crest paperback edition of Tom Tryon's first novel reads: "You have never read a novel like this one." The proclamation, as bold as it is, is fairly accurate, even as we near 2020.

Image result for Tryon, Thomas. The Other.Well into the economic depression of the 1930s, the Perry family lives in relative comfort, subsisting on the meager yield of their aging farm. During this particular, sweltering summer, thirteen year-old twins Holland and Niles pass their time playing imaginative games and guarding their little secrets. Yet the atmosphere is heavily strained, and their relationship seems to be deteriorating as the family is dealing with the tragedy of their father's recent, violent death. It is the story of a family suffering from depression, amid a broader societal Depression.

An incredibly well written novel, whose suspense and horror is overshadowed by genuine family tragedy. Stripped of its horror, The Other would be just as effective as a family drama, as its characters are excellently drawn, including the bit players in the New England town. As with most successful horror novels, we feel the tragedy that the members of the family experience because these people are so very real, and even if we do not like them, because they are so real we nonetheless empathize with what they are going through. The mother who is practically bed-ridden in grief; the preferred son who feels the need to minister to his mother; the grandmother who must care for that fragile boy whose entire family has, in some way, abandoned him; the guilt-ridden groundskeeper who suffers for an act of which he is not guilty; the grieving aunt and uncle; the pregnant sister about to bear her child.

These characters live in a contained environment that becomes so vivid as we read, Tryon might as well have drawn us a map. Sheltered in this wide open yet nonetheless claustrophobic environment, we see the events, both minute and tragic, through the eyes of the good twin. Niles, sensitive and caring, looks up to the cruelly mischievous Holland. Because Holland appears to have distanced himself from his brother and the farm, Niles is left to wander near aimlessly around home and town, immersed in his imagination and watched by his Ukrainian grandmother. Alongside his meanderings, we learn of family history and family dynamics.

Whereas many suspense novels of the period, including Tryon's strong 1973 follow-up, Harvest Home, have in the modern era become fairly predictable, The Other retains much of its initial power. It is not just the effective ending, but other unexpected revelatory incidents throughout the novel that strain our emotions. Because the novel is patiently paced, the build-up and end-result creep up on the reader, and I found myself to be more immersed in this world than I thought I was while actually reading. It's as though we were placed in a slow-boiling cauldron, comfortable at the outset, unaware that we are in fact being cooked alive. (With apologies for the analogy, but I recently completed Shogun.)

Well worth a read, even if your copy is as dilapidated as this one.

For additional information on The Other and its author, Thomas Tryon, please read this enjoyable and informative article by Grady Hendrix.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Aside: Now that was a good book! The Pleasures of Reading Dilapidated Books

Finished the novel at the local Tim Horton's & took a snapshot. It'll soon be in my recycling bin.

Recently I've been rummaging through books I've been hanging onto only because I want to read them. Most of these I've obtained as rejects from an annual book fair at which I volunteer, while others came from odd, random sources, including found lying in the streets. These books are so beaten I have no wish to keep them, nor to pass them along, no matter how rare they might be. (With the exception of Joan Samson's The Auctioneer, which, despite its dilapidated condition, I gave to a colleague I knew would appreciate the read and not mind the state of the book. A rare quality.)

In some cases I tear off and keep the cover. Either the cover is in surprisingly good condition (as was the case with The Other), or the edition is an old one, or I simply like the cover. Years ago a friend confided that she tore the covers she liked off old paperbacks in order to make boxes. At the time I was appalled: why would someone willingly ruin a book? But in cases where the book is already ruined beyond repair, I have come to realize that keeping the cover is, in its own way, a continuation of the use and memory of that book.

Besides the logical reasoning of this practice of hoarding torn books, keeping covers and recycling the rest, there exists a guilty pleasure I have recently come to acknowledge.

Since I was a child I was taught (rightfully) to respect books and treat them well. "Books are among my best friends," my lovely mother used to say. No matter their age, current state or to whom they belonged, I treated books with respect. I have always been careful even with library and school books. I do not eat while reading and am very careful with my coffee or tea, which I enjoy in the evenings while I read at home or in coffee shops.

Yet this recent practice of reading torn books has come with an unexpected sense of relief. Being  careless with these books, I feel that I am somehow letting go, dropping that rigid, near obsessive care with which I have always treated all books. Instead of the book itself, I can focus on the content. (Actually, I genuinely enjoy the combination and frequently a good edition can enhance the reading experience.) Rather than feeling guilt in damaging these already damaged books, I am instead receiving pleasure from stuffing a paperback into my back pocket, folding pages over as I read, and even carry a pencil with me as a threat of underlining! In short, I have become mad.

Yet before handling these books with careless abandon, I had already decided they were slated to leave me via a blue plastic sac, properly sorted with other paper products. Not as useless, perhaps, as that torn envelope, but like a cracked glass, they have served their usefulness and can continue being useful by being transformed back into pulp.

Not to mention I own too many books, and looking into moving soon, need to begin clearing out the house.

Other recent crumpled, coverless books read:

The Auctioneer, Joan Samson
Shogun, James Clavell
Digits and Dastards, Frederik Pohl

Thursday, December 5, 2019

James Clavell, Shogun (1975)

Clavell, James. Shogun. US: Delacorte Press; UK: Stodder & Houghton, 1975.

Shogun at Goodreads

Rating:     7.5/10

Shogun. A Novel of Japan
Like a feudal lord of old, Clavell manipulates this pawn of a book into the coffers of mainstream western society.

The historical romance that is Shogun, features English sailor John Blackthorn infiltrating the culture of imperial Japan, intermingling with the nation’s trade, religion, internal politics and international affairs. A kind of super man, Blackthorn is described as the greatest of sailors, able to commit to the complex internal politics of the country, alter its impression of western religion, and win the heart (and body) of its loveliest and most intelligent & respected interpreters. Seemingly, this sailor’s only fault is his temper, since even his ability to love (and the size of his “manhood”) is also described as unique. What grounds this character, other than the typhoon he encounters, is his ability to adapt to Japanese culture, and reject many of his former, European habits and thinking, which essentially tells us he is a mere mortal striving to become a better person. Clavell’s respect for eastern culture is evident, and we are reminded that this Englishman, though he is made samurai and does embrace Japanese customs, will always be lacking for his being European. The final sequence of Toranaga’s internal monologue proves this, as it turns out (no real spoiler here) that Blackthorn has always been a part of the plotting of Japan’s future landscape. He is essentially one among many instruments used by Toranaga in navigating the political landscape, and his destiny is pretty much settled by the Japanese lord even before the war of Crimson Sky takes place. The novel finishes with Toranaga, and the last vision of Blackthorn is him hopping away like an obedient puppy, clearly unaware of the scope of Toranaga's thinking.

Historically, Toranaga is based on Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became the military leader (shogun) of Japan--a difficult feat, rarely achieved. This achievement was made possible not only through his political guile and military prowess, but by his being open to Japan's involvement in international affairs. At the time, Japan was sought out and visited by European nations, who were seeking religious converts and economic trade, and while most of Japan was reluctant to open up to the world, Lord Tokugawa used these outsiders to best position himself internally.

Similarly, Clavell uses the outsider John Blackthorn (based on British sailor Will Adams) to position his novel in the American marketplace. Japan was a nation steeped in mystery, and Clavell's exaggerated depiction of feudal Japan, largely through the eyes of the westerner, awakened interest of Japan in the general public. This, of course, was helped by the widely successful TV miniseries phenomenon of 1980, in which Clavell himself was very much involved. And so, like a feudal lord of old, Clavell manipulates this pawn of a book into the coffers of mainstream western society.

Certainly, like the scheming Toranaga, Clavell worked hard on attaining grandeur. Shogun was the ninth best-selling novel in the US of 1975, according to Publisher's Weekly, and the highest rated American miniseries of 1980, according to the Neilsen TV Ratings (it was the second highest rated miniseries at the time, following the 1977 production of Alex Hailey's Roots). The popularity of the miniseries no doubt helped Clavell's 1981 novel, Noble House, to attain the top spot on PW's list of best-selling novels of that year. Apparently, following the airing of the miniseries, Shogun's paperback reprint attained stratospheric sales at the time, though I don't have specific stats or sources.

Despite its mainstream popularity, I enjoyed the book immensely. It was engaging and highly entertaining, written in a straightforward and linear narrative, bogged down only occasionally by the political dealings as the reader tries to keep track of the impressive cast of characters. Sex and violence were piled throughout, which all added to the entertainment. Though a hefty book, it does little dragging.

The initial draft of Clavell's novel is reported to have been well over two thousand (about 2,300) pages. At 1,210 printed small font pages in its initial paperback print, I doubt that an uncut version will be released (yet in this age of re-visiting the past for profit, it is improbable without being impossible). It is difficult not to discuss the novel without mentioning its length, as length alone has become as embedded in the novel as its setting or main characters. This single book has more printed words of fiction than the entire printed oeuvre of the likes of J.D. Salinger. And yet, the length is only daunting in appearance and not in fact, as the work is nonetheless a quick read. Therefore, I cannot pride myself in reading these twelve hundred-plus yellowed pages of small print, a copy of the 1976 paperback so used before I even opened it up that it quickly lost its cover, since many smaller books have proven to be a far greater time commitment.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Frederik Pohl, Digits and Dastards (1966)

Pohl, Frederik. Digits and Dastards. New York: Ballantine Books, June 1966. (my edition)

Digits and Dastards at ISFdb
Digits and Dastards at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     5/10

With the exception of "Fiend," published in Playboy, the short stories and novelettes in Frederik Pohl's Digits and Dastards were originally published in Galaxy Magazine and Worlds of If. Four of these five were published during the 1960s when Pohl himself was editor of both. Of the six total stories, five were published in 1963 or 1964, with the sixth in 1955. The stories are largely forgettable, though I did like "Father of the Stars" to a point. Not terrible, but as average as these are, none are memorable.

Alongside the stories are two essays on binary numbers, and a brief introduction that explains their conception. Dated but somewhat enjoyable to speed through.

The Children of the Night     6/10
Galaxy Magazine, October 1964. pp 158-194
Not too long after a war with the Arcturians, a race of aliens who decimated a human colony on Mars, a public relations firm takes on the challenging job of easing the aliens' bid to build a port in the town of Belport. (Yes, Belport, as in the unsubtle "beautiful port.") Relations chief Odin "Gunner" Gunnarsen must navigate the tense political and social realities of small-town America, made more difficult when he learns of the children living in the local hospital, who were permanently maimed by the alien race. An interesting read and perhaps the strongest story in the mix.

The Fiend     5/10
Playboy, April 1964.
The titular subject is Dandish, the sole crew of a ship transporting frozen colonists. He awakens a young woman, thinking he could have his way with her. An interesting enough idea, but unfortunately the female character is dated and not at all engaging, and the story does not do very much with its material.

Earth Eighteen     4/10
Galaxy Magazine, April 1964 (as "by Ernst Mason"). pp 106-119
A tour guide takes the alien traveller across a post-apocalyptic USA, where the human inhabitants are few. A cutesy idea which for me was not at all funny. After a couple of pages I admit I skipped some paragraphs.

Father of the Stars     7/10
Galaxy Magazine, April 1964. pp 110-127
Norman Marchand has spent his life devoted to space exploration and the dream of colonizing other worlds, and has succeeded years ago to raise the funds to send some ships carting colonists into deep space. Now elderly and nearing death, he is given a chance to visit deep space and catch up with one of the ships, thanks to a recently developed FTL drive. Depressed that someone can steal his glory and downgrade his life-long endeavor, he nonetheless allows his brain to be transplanted into an ape in order to make the trip.

Despite the sentimental ending, I did like this one, primarily because I found myself sympathizing with the protagonist, something I could not do for Pohl's other characters in these stories. Also, and I liked the brain-to-monkey transfer thing, as comical as it sounds, and thought Pohl did well in characterizing Marchand in ape form. Though it cross my mind we'd encounter a three-quarter submerged Stature of Liberty somewhere along the way. My favourite story from the collection.

The Five Hells of Orion     6/10
Worlds of If, January 1963. pp 6-31
A navigator in deep space finds himself captive on an alien vessel, with no recollection of how he arrived. The aliens, meanwhile, are letting loose a series of tests on the man. The story begins with back-and-forth point of view, and is interesting until the human fully takes over the narrative. The first third is quite good and suspenseful, whereas the middle section drags, and the last portion is rushed through. Oddly, the story's tone takes a major shift, beginning with a light humourous take on the aliens, and at the half-way mark maintaining a solely dramatic tone. The story reads as though Pohl was nearing a deadline and did not present the final draft he had originally intended.

With Redfern on Capella XII     5/10
Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1955 (as "by Charles Satterfield). pp 120-146
About to be set on fire by the local Fnits, Redfern is freed and becomes allied with a foursome hoping to dupe the planet's gullible inhabitants. The story starts off interestingly enough, but soon the characters do not transcend their comical stereotypes, and the story, dated as it is, is both sexist and ageist.

How to Count on Your Fingers     (essay)
Science Fiction Stories, September 1956. pp 85-102

On Binary Digits and Human Habits     (essay)
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1962. pp 69-80

I have the first 1966 Ballantine edition, in terrible condition, and am getting rid of it along with a stack of other old sci-fi books I had kept only to read. If anyone wants this mailed to them in a plain envelope, let me know.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Theodore Sturgeon, Starshine (1966)

Sturgeon, Theodore. Starshine. Pyramid Books: December 1966.
______. Starshine. Pyramid Books: March 1969. (my edition, pictured)

Starshine at Goodreads
Starshine at ISFdb

Overall Rating:     6/10

At the time of publication, many prolific genre short story writers were having small paperback collections published regularly. Since producing these thin paperbacks at the time was an inexpensive exercise, allowing the books to be sold cheaply, publishers released as many titles as possible (or as seemed reasonable). Often stories were reprinted several times across different collections, so that some of these collections mirrored each other by more than half their content (Brian Aldiss immediately comes to mind). In the case of Sturgeon (and others of course), once the popular stories saw print, publishers pillaged the pulps for the less interesting pieces, in order to continue releasing collections under these popular names. Therefore, the latter books during this run tended to be generally weaker.

Sturgeon's Starshine was his fourteenth collection, and the sixth published in English in the 1960s. Half the content was published in the early 1940s, and only one was published in the 1960s (in 1961), which was a straighforward  and fairly standard mystery. Slim in size and content, it contains only six stories, including three novelettes, which is unfortunate since weaker stories in a longer format are more painful to plod through than a bad short short. The collection is not terrible, merely average, and the only strong story, "The World Well Lost," had already been included in Sturgeon's respected second collection, from 1953, E Pluribus Unicorn.

"Derm Fool"     6/10
Unknown Fantasy Fiction, March 1940. pp 114-124
A taxidermist continuously sheds his body parts. A combination of body horror, science and comedy, that works surprisingly well as a quick, though forgettable read. The story lacks subtlety and features familiar comedic character types. An amusing read, sure, but not worth re-visiting.

The Haunt     5/10
Unknown Fantasy Fiction, April 1941. pp 106-117
A young man is in love with a seemingly mean-spirited, lively and tough young woman, and is frustrated at not being able to get through her protective shell. He recruits a friend to rig an old house so that it appears haunted, with the hope that by rescuing her she will fall for him. Predictable and less than original, what saves this story is its light tone and playfulness, which makes for a speedy read. For something like this, however, I need to be in the mood, since a comical genre piece can be infuriating if it's not what I'm hankering for.

Similar in tone and character relationships to "Derm Fool." Both stories feature a clever young man wooing a clever and hard-headed young woman, with a third character who is male, entirely comical and unappealing, who acts as a foil to progress the plot. "The Haunt" is far less original, however, and while the tone is amusing, the writing lacks the attention to detail of the preceding story.

Artnan Process     5/10
Astounding Science-Fiction, June 1941. pp 50-68
Here we go... A few centuries in the future, five hundred years following humanity's excursion to the stars, Earth finds itself in passive submission to Mars. Relying heavily on Martian uranium, the people of the red planet have slowly gained quiet rule, by providing Earth with the power source and making suggestions as to how we live, what we read, etc. Humans who do not uphold those suggestions are killed, but of course that does not keep the good people of Earth from developing an underground rebellion. At the same time, an extra-solar system race, the Artnans, have developed a way to cheaply produce the same type of required uranium, which they send to Mars in exchange for other materials. Two humans are sent to the Artnan world where they encounter three Martians, and the two races try to outwit each other in becoming the first to discover the Artnan process of developing the valuable uranium.

Part space opera and part hard sci-fi, the story is fairly interesting but much of it is quite dated, from the comical representation of the Martians to the technology and character relationships of our human men. Yes, men, since no woman is even referenced in this novelette. Part of me thinks the story is too long for what it is, but since my synopsis itself is lengthier than my commentary here, I shouldn't judge. Overall not bad, but also not good.

The World Well Lost     8/10
Universe Science Fiction, June 1953. pp 16-33
"Why must we love where the lightning strikes, and not where we choose."

In the distant future, Earth encounters the planet Dirbanu. Its people are protective, and the planet is shielded so that no one is able to gain access. Even farther in the future, Earth is visited by two aliens, and soon afterwards the planet Dirbanu, now a distant memory, sends a communication to Earth. They are requesting the return of the two visitors, who are criminal refugees. Earth sends a prison ship to Dirbanu, manned by two men, Rootes and Grunty.

So much detail for what becomes a satisfying story of prejudice. Where this story ends is unexpected (to me, at least), and in a good way. It is difficult to discuss its objective without giving anything away. By far the strongest story in the collection. Impressive also that this was published in 1953.

On the cover of the issue of Universe Science Fiction, where it originally appeared, there is a claim that this is "Theodore Sturgeon's most daring story."

The Pod and the Barrier     6/10
Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1957 (as "The Pod in the Barrier"). pp 8-48
In the distant future (yet again), a helpful race called the Luanae have guided humans to terrestrial planets where they can continue to survive and expand their race. Now, with Earth dying, they have directed humanity to a set of habitable planets, but to reach those potential new homes, humans must penetrate "the barrier."

A ship reaches the barrier on a potential suicide mission. A group of four experts in different fields, along with the ship's small crew, must test the barrier in the hope of finding a way through, or of dismantling it. The story is told through the point of view of one of the experts, an arrogant tough guy who learns to his disgruntled dismay that he is perhaps not the cleverest person aboard.

The best part of the story is the description of the Luanae and the history of the barrier. Otherwise the story is quite weak. The narrator does not work as he is not sympathetic, which resulted in his self-discovery coming across as irritating since it intruded on plot progression. The story development is slow, and the plot itself, though it is interesting and takes on an unexpected direction, is just not as interesting as the premise, so that the story descends from premise onward. The story may have worked better in the third person, or through a more objective or serious point of view; the occasional light tones for an uneven narrative and the humour is flat.

How to Kill Aunty     6/10
Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, March 1961 (as "How to Kill Your Aunty")
Bedridden after falling down the stairs of her home, an elderly woman suspects that her dim-witted nephew Hubert is plotting her murder. An entertaining story, though predictable. The final character revelatory moment is a good addition and does elevate the story in terms of character.

Surprisingly, this was included in Best Detective Stories of the Year (17th Annual Collection), edited by Brett Halliday, (Dutton, 1962). It would only be reprinted in a Sturgeon collection with the complete works series, nearly four decades later.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Briefly: E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993)

Proulx, E. Annie. The Shipping News. New York: Scribner, 1993.

The Shipping News on Goodreads

Rating:     7.5/10
Image result for 0-671-51005-3 shipping news

A less than average man is driven by tragedy to Newfoundland, where he must battle the harsh landscape and face the reality of his stained lineage. The fairly straightforward and interesting plot is told through a sparse, evocative style, which many readers have found challenging. The novel is among many to hold a reputation for readers failing to read past the first handful of chapters. Once gripped, as I was at the opening paragraph, a reader can breeze through the book as though it were written in the most straightforward prose. I suppose many readers are simply not gripped by the terse style.

Oft reviewed, I have little to add, and am not interested in engaging in the value of the writing as this is mostly subjective. While I enjoyed it immensely, I do understand why readers can feel distanced from the dry, sometimes harsh tone.

What I am interested in mentioning is the sharp contrast between that dry tone and the abundance of poetic imagery in the novel. With the frequent use of similes and other descriptors, Proulx seems to have worked hard at melding the imagery with the bleak writing. I preferred the bleak tone over the descriptors, but acknowledge the need for balance. Some of the visuals were excellent; my favourite being "Fog against the window like milk," but I found the overuse of similes tiresome, and found myself, in the latter part of the novel, glazing over them, like one might perform a routine chore without realizing it was being performed. The result is that I might have missed some other descriptive gems, and the loss here is my own.

But at least I had the opportunity to build a simile into my criticism of its overuse.

As of 24 December 2015