Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

Moore, Lorrie, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? at Goodreads
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? at IBList

Rating: 5/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

As an avid radio listener throughout my teens, I first came across Lorrie Moore by accident when I heard a live reading of her famous short story "How to Become a Writer." Normally, especially at that age, I would quickly seek out other works of newly-discovered writers I enjoyed, but in the case of Moore, though I continued to stumble upon the story throughout the years, along with one or two others, I never actively searched for more of her work. About a year ago I came across a bent copy of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and finally read the book last week.

Moore's second novel, currently bookended by Anagrams (1986) and A Gate at the Stairs (2009), is a short work that reads like a memoir, a narrator's personal guide through a specific time in her life. (Memoir, however, is simply another kind of fiction, another kind of fabrication; while there are certainly elements from Moore's own life present in the work, it does not read like autobiography.) The narrator is on vacation in Paris in the midst of a seemingly failed marriage, and interspersed with brief conversations with and thoughts of her husband, hearkens back to a summer in the 1970s during which she was obsessed with popular best friend Sils.

The work focuses on the relationship, the narrator's insecurities and very much on the decade. Though it is well written (very well written), it is lacking. The plot is incidental and awakens late in the work, which generates an uneven read. (Ironically, this is one of the threads running through Moore's "How to Become a Writer," as protagonist Francie is being criticized for her lack of plot.) The ending is rushed through, acts as an epilogue and is unnecessary. I would have liked to have been left in the uncertainty of the past as mirrored by the uncertainty of the present, as the two narratives should coincide. Or perhaps the present should have also had its own epilogue? But not really.

While I did not care much for the work as a novel, it is a fast read and worthy of a read for Ms. Moore's writing skills are impressive. The characters are solid and real, and the small town universe they live in is constructed with great care.

Now to seek out more of those fine short stories...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (1604)

Marlowe, Christopher, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, 1604

Doctor Faustus at Goodreads
Doctor Faustus at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

This past year, 2014, marked the 450th birthday of Christopher Marlowe, an event overshadowed by the 450th birthday of a rival playwright, a certain William Shakespeare. While I studied the latter quite a bit in school, I managed shockingly to survive both a bachelor's and a master's in English without having read the former's important and renowned bit of theatre.

Most interesting about Marlowe's Faustus is not that an open atheist can write a work that at a glance matches the overt morals of The Summoning of Everyman and other medieval morality plays, but that critics can wonder why an atheist would write such a piece. Though on a surface level the play appears to be retelling the Faust legend with the purpose to scare Christians (and non) from practicing sin (and magic), it is the struggle and inner turmoil the play is most concerned with, and not on damnation. Granted the focus does shift, as Marlowe weaves base comedy into the work. That inclusion, however, assuming he did write or commission those particular scenes, is a reflection of stylistic conventions of the period, such as the use of a chorus narrator, rather than an attempt to illustrate the play's main ideas.

The story of a brilliant intellectual with few worthy lifelong prospects sells his soul for a handful of years of pretty much anything he wants cannot ignore either the concept of Christian salvation/damnation nor the idea of an individual's terrible sacrifice for seemingly so little. In light of this the attempt of scholars to figure out exactly who wrote which parts of the play seems to add little value to understanding the work, though it has other significance. The central ideas concern the desire for higher knowledge, so that the inclusion of works on magic are not an attempt to link the supernatural with the almighty, or to denounce medieval notions of magic, but rather part of a man's search for knowledge beyond that of the corporeal world. This idea is highlighted by Faustus's questioning Mephistophilis on astronomy, and later his continued attempts to seek truth from a science that takes us beyond the world that encases us physically.

Important to the play is understanding the controversies of astronomy at that time. For many centuries to openly theorize about new ideas of the solar system and beyond was challenging to the point that the theorist was risking his life. How humans viewed the solar system and the Earth's place within could easily contradict the doctrine set forth by the Vatican. Was Marlowe using astronomy to illustrate that his protagonist was seeking ideas beyond the realm of the known physical world, or subtly commenting on the different views, Catholic or otherwise, of man's place in the greater universe?

Faustus's greatest sin from a Catholic perspective is perhaps denying that God will forgive him his sins if he were to repent and embrace the Lord. If he were clear on Catholic teachings, and at the time any literate scholar such as he would undoubtedly be clear on all the major Catholic points, just as Marlowe himself was certainly aware. Questioning the idea is therefore an important point in the play, particularly since he seems to be rejecting not God but the earthly teachings related to God. Moreover, assuming he is aware of Catholic doctrine, he nonetheless believes his own sins are beyond the power of God's forgiveness, which is perhaps, in a Christian world, the vilest form of hubris possible.

At this time I would argue that Marlowe is presenting the idea that man is moving away not from God, necessarily, but from the church. His exploration of astronomy and questioning of one set of contemporary beliefs, along with his act of incredible hubris, takes Faustus and his struggle away from the church.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Peter Straub, Mr. X (1999)

Straub, Peter, Mr. X, 1999

Mr. X at Goodreads
Mr. X at IBList

Rating: 7/10

The publication of Mr. X in 1999 proved to be Peter Straub's return to supernatural horror, a genre in which he'd established himself throughout the 1970s and 80s and for which he still most recognized. The work received general acclaim from critics, as well as the Bram Stoker Award in the novel category. It's the third of Straub's novels I've read, following Shadowland (1980; read many years ago) and its follow-up Floating Dragon (1982; read in 2013). Though I tend to lose interest in far-flung supernatural elements, I enjoyed all three books mostly for their character development which surpasses that of most horror-labeled authors. Though I haven't yet tried any of the thrillers he was focused on during the 1990s and later, these might appeal to me more, and I understand they were quite well received.

The main plot and its related threads begin well into the novel, as protagonist Ned Dunstan returns to his home town of Edgerton, Illinois, sensing that his mother is in danger. In Edgerton he takes on the task of discovering his father's identity, a man seemingly obsessed with Lovecraft to the point that he believes his works are fact. Over the course of a few days, Ned is being pursued by a dark entity he refers to as Mr. X, meets his doppelgänger, gets to know his eccentric family while learning their many secrets, and discovers that he has some latent supernatural powers. Amid all this he finds the time to fall in love with the wife of one of the town's wealthier and more influential personages, and thereby becomes embroiled in town affairs. A busy man, this is a busy novel to keep any character occupied.

The novel contains a general mix of family mystery, the supernatural, Lovecraft parody and some horror violence to transcend genre (it is a supernatural horror mystery, with strong elements of family drama along with small town life, which Straub presents with great realism). The novel is complex in both genre and plot, its mystery quite enmeshed in detail, and is quite a fascinating read on many levels.

What is most interesting is that in a novel whose plot is based entirely on some wacky supernatural possibilities, the characters (and the town) are presented with plain realism. Supernatural abilities aside, relationships are presented in complex terms and personalities are attentively delineated. An example of the complexities is the treatment of Ned's lover Laurie Hatch, and here I will offer up some minor spoilers.

Like any standard youthful crush, Laurie comes into Ned's life and, through his eyes, is presented as a kind of female ideal: a beautiful woman, highly compatible, who proves to be actively supportive, sympathetic and great in bed. Yet the ideal wears away as Laurie, over the course of mere days, falls from her the pedestal Ned has placed her on through some remarks from her almost ex-husband that ring believable. As the ideal dissipates, she becomes a real person in Ned's eyes, and our hero must contend with certain aspects of her personality that are not only non-idealistic, but downright threatening. Ambiguities abound around sweet mistreated Mrs. Hatch, who might in fact be an active treasure hunter. Moreover, the complexities with an inheritance set up for Laurie's son Cobden intermingled with her active involvement in Ned's affairs eventually point to the possible truth of Hatch's accusations. At the end we are left with an ambiguous portrait of Ned's lover, and whether she is innocent victim or treasure hunter, their relationship, should it continue, is irreparably marred by the possibilities suggested in the theories that Ned assembles regarding the timeline of Laurie's involvement in his affairs. Perfectly clear, no?

While I generally preferred Floating Dragon while reading, the ending of Mr. X was far more satisfying, and though I was more engaged with Floating Dragon, in a technical sense Mr. X is the better achieved book, and I believe through time it will grow on me. The way Mary Lawson's Crow Lake, which I enjoyed very much while reading, nonetheless grew on me over time primarily due to its complexities and character development.

The novel is certainly not perfect. There is a certain neurosis in the way characters are described via conversation. Straub feels the need to detail mannerisms to a point that it interferes with the story development and is at times genuinely annoying. Like Floating Dragon and many a supernatural novel, Mr. X does not need to be as long as it is. The lengthy development of Ned and his nemesis in the earlier parts of the book, from childhood to school experiences are utterly fascinating and well paced, so that when the older Ned arrives at Edgerton the change of focus and pace, along with the detail orientation, forces the second half to drag at times. Yet a minor complaint for a complex work.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Charles Lambert, With a Zero at its Heart (2014)

Lambert, Charles, With a Zero at its Heart, Hammersmith: The Friday Project, 2014

With a Zero at its Heart at Goodreads
With a Zero at its Heart at IBList

Charles Lambert's Website

Rating: 7/10

Among the many talented contemporary writers I've discovered through the excellent periodical The Fiction Desk is Charles Lambert. Having read and reviewed (positively) his two contributions to the publication, the short story "All I Want" from TFD1: Various Authors, and the novelette "Pretty Vacant" from TFD2: All These Little Worlds, I offered him, via Goodreads, a review of his latest book at Casual Debris. Within a few short days I received a copy of this very attractive little book, and took it with me to London and Istanbul, starting it in the former and completing the last few chapters in the latter.

Because life is riddled with all sorts of minor experiences, along Charing Cross Road I visited the numerous second-hand bookshops there, and on the shelves of Any Amount of Books was a copy of With a Zero at its Heart, selling for 6£, just under half the cover price. (In excellent condition, if you're interested. It might still be there, though this was about four months ago.) Lambert's book is, like life, riddled with an assortment of experiences, major or minor, each equally significant to the bearer.

     24 themed chapters.
     Each with 10 numbered paragraphs.
     Each paragraph with precisely 120 words.
     The sum of a life.

Toss in a final paragraph of a hundred and twenty words and you have a work made up of 28,120 words total. In this oulipian challenge, Lambert's writing is precise, as each paragraph, whether detailing an event or describing an object, must resonate on an emotional level in order that each fragment carry its own significance. There are some sections I found to be stronger than others, with "Danger" and "Colours" being among the weaker, but overall the work is consistent and engaging.

These fragments make up a whole that features a sensitive man in search of self via objects, sex and a plethora of emotions and experiences. There is no traditional plot, but the style offers the opportunity to form character more vividly than most plotted stories would. Removing traditional plot removes the character-building limitations that a structured story-line normally requires. Removing structure also lends the work a sense of chaos, making fiction more like life (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf). This is particularly appropriate here since the work is most likely semi-biographical.

The title references paragraph two of the section on animals: "He's presented with three white mice in a plywood box, divided by a wall with a zero at its heart." (p.38) These sections ate like chambers of the heart, divided and yet connected by an opening, making the heart whole. The novel is like a set of chambers made whole by its protagonist, his life and self being the zero that connects the various experiences and emotions depicted in the book.

The book is attractively designed by Vaughan Oliver, and the internal formatting and design are great (too bad about that typo on page 60). Another error is more technical. On page 129 watching the excellent Psycho in the cinema, "[t]hey both spot Hitchcock pass in front of a car." In the actual Psycho the director is standing outside the door, silhouetted in the glass, when Janet Leigh as Marion Crane walks in. Minor but distracting, at least for a Psycho(tic) fan. Though perhaps he is only pausing as he is passing by a car.

Note that this review is late so as not to conflict with my review of the same book at Black Heart Magazine, which you can read here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bookshops: Famous Book Store (New Delhi)

This past August my search for books in New Delhi led me through Connaught Place where many a bookshop can be found, and more variety than I imagine any quarter in any part of the world wouldn't dream of maintaining. The difficulty with second hand books in India is similar to that which I encountered in Turkey: due to heat and humidity, older books are warped, browned and spotted with mold. (Surprisingly, in the oddest backstreet shops in Istanbul I found many an old pulp anthology, including several Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and while all were dirt-cheap, most were unsalvageable due to decay.) Expecting to find variety in New Delhi, I was disappointed in my search for British editions of paperback anthologies, but impressed by the number and variety of bookshops available.

My time was limited, however, and while I'm sure plenty more books lie outside Connaught Place; I was only a few blocks away. Furthermore, additional bookshops exist in and around Connaught Place, including many booksellers who set up on the streets (and who, it is claimed by locals, sell pirated books that are often incomplete), and in about four hours I was unable to visit even the ones I knew about; my search having begun with this 2010 Hindustani Times article, and I managed to visit:

  • BMP Books
  • The Oxford Book Store
  • New Book Land (Janpath Market, below Connaught Circus)
  • ED Galgotia & Sons (B Block)
  • Jain Book Store (B Block)
  • Rajiv Bookshop (Palika Bazaar)
  • Amrit Book Company (N Block)
  • Famous Book Store (Janpath Market)
  • Anil Book Corner (H Block)

My favourite of these was Famous Book Store, a hard-to-find little shop just outside the Janpath Market (where I tried to purchase a Superman shirt for my twenty month-old son, but they did not have baby sizes). The shop was packed full, mostly with novels and children's books. I was tempted to purchase some books by the likes of Shaun Huston and Ramsey Campbell that were quite cheap, but since I've decided to no longer purchase mass market paperbacks (with perhaps some exceptions of the anthology ilk), I passed. One reason I nearly left empty-handed was that a store employee was shadowing me throughout what should have been my browsing pleasure. It was irritating. He did, however, dig through some piles to pull out a few odd titles I wanted a closer look at.

One of these titles was 50 Crime Murder Mysteries and Detective Stories, published in 2007 by Indiana Publishing House, a publisher located in New Dehli whose official email addresses are with gmail and yahoo, and whose website expired on October 28th of this year. The anthology has no credited editor and a table of contents that includes mostly people I have never heard of, alongside the likes of Ross Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, HRF Keating, and the Edwards Hoch and Gorman. It was wrapped in plastic and I wasn't able to peruse the contents or pages prior to purchasing, but at 195 (about $3) it wasn't much of a gamble. The production is inexpensive, with font I haven't encountered since I was in grade school; as though the pages are photocopies of newsprint articles. The shop did have other titles from Indiana House, mostly collections of authors whose works are in the public domain. Perhaps I should've purchased others, since they might now be extremely rare and valuable. If only I hadn't removed it from its original packaging! (I am not being serious here.)

In addition to my single purchase, the shop gave me a nice little cloth bag that fit the book perfectly (pictured at the top), and I took one of their business cards (above).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bete Noire #16 (2014)

Bete Noire #16, edited by A.W. Gifford and Jennifer Gifford, Dark Opus Press, 2014

Bete Noire #16 at Goodreads
Bete Noire website.

Overall Rating:     6/10

Issue sixteen includes, along with four short stories, visual art by Eleanor Leonne Bennett ("Shot Down 225"), Denny E. Marshall ("The Last Promise"), Wojciech Wolinski ("2") and two by Luke Spooner ("Backseat Driver" and "Group"), who is currently a finalist for the Spark Anthology cover contest.

There is poetry from James Frederick William Rowe ("Bristlecone"), Marge Simon ("Rock On"), J. J. Steinfeld ("The Art of Becoming Invisible") and Carol Hornak ("House").

For the short stories...

The Devils of Somerset, Mississippi by Jeremy Lloyd Beck     6/10
An atheist moves to small town Somerset to teach high school English, and his ideology quickly conflicts with the churchgoing townsfolk, particularly with their culturally ingrained racism. Well written for the most part, and a promising two-thirds is unfortunately capped off with an ending that does not address the author's most interesting ideas. I would elaborate, and am dying too, but as the publication was just released I shouldn't. Good concrete images and ideas that are well woven into the story body.

Transient Number Five by Christian Riley     5/10
A disgruntled man stalks a transient. A little flat.

Eyes of the Dog by Tobacco Jones     7/10
In a future totalitarian society, where children are raised in vast orphanages, one mother struggles to keep her two children at home. Divided into five sections, each with a separate character point of view, the story develops nicely, and the title eventually reveals itself, The strongest, darkest piece in the collection. What I like best about the story is not the cold society it depicts, but that citizens are each looking out for their own selves. This points to the true bleakness of this world, for since there is no one to challenge the system, the system will not only remain unchanged, but will strengthen in its resolve.

Blood Debt by J.D. Cano     5/10
Our narrator awaits his turn in a line-up of Aztec blood sacrifices. This piece is a scene that does not quite make a story.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Aside: Funding Publications

Without the various publications now available, the struggling writer concept would quickly metamorphose into the incidental writer, a writer who writes for self but has utterly given up on the dream of print. Publications need support, often financial, and the best way to support any publication is to purchase or subscribe.

At the age of thirteen I asked my parents, near Christmas, to gift me a subscription to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which they happily did. That excitement each month of receiving a collection of stories has remained with me ever since, though I've long since stopped that subscription. Since then I've held subscriptions to Prairie Fire, Riddle Fence, Prism International, Exile Quarterly, Grain MagazineDark Moon Digest, Glimmer Train, current favourite The Fiction Desk, and many others. Receiving a package from any publication, whether a journal, an advanced copy for review or a book via Book Depository or Bookmooch is a treat equalled by little else. In return for a subscription I receive not only fiction and articles, but  excitement and pleasure. Also, I am happy to know I am helping to keep the publication in print and the writers employed.

There are also funding projects available at times for both journals and one-off publications, and there are terrific ways in which readers can feel as though they are in some small way part of the publication. The first actual donation I gave was to Riddle Fence through a Rockethub campaign granting special subscription offers to those generous enough to support financially, and just the other day I was enticed to support Dark Regions Press for a shared world anthology project titled Madhouse. This particular campaign was attractively set up via indiegogo, and promised additional artwork and authors by offering "perks" to those helping fund the project. These perks range from copied of the final product to having a character named after the funder, or having a particular author kill off the funder in some creative way. I happily purchased a Madhouse Grab Bag, and having done so am suddenly quite excited about the project, which is to be delivered April 2015. (Though I'll likely forget about the entire thing until I receive a package from DRP.)

The recent publication Pulp Literature recently launched a kickstarter campaign in order to fund their second year as a paying print publication. I will soon familiarize myself with the publication (beginning tonight) and will likely make a donation/purchase to help them out as well.

There is still plenty of time to help fund Madhouse or Pulp Literature, if you're so inclined. Otherwise I would urge any reader and writer to support a publication with a subscription. A year subscription to most journals is equivalent to a meal or two (or three, depending on how you like your meals). They make excellent and unique gift ideas and generally look nice on a bookshelf. Moreover, in this age of electronic communication, it gives us something to look forward to in our mailboxes.

If you do decide to support a publication via a new subscription, let me know which one you've selected. Or let me know of others campaigns currently underway.

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