Three Word Reviews: Five Favorites for Free Reading

As some of you know, I was married just last Saturday. Therefore, I am bringing you a review I wrote a while back, when I had time on my hands and could foresee this future me who wouldn’t:

In the interest of supporting some of my favorite short stories, and the interest of mincing words, I bring you the second installment of five of my favorite stories reviewed in three words. This exercise began during a busy time of year, when I foolishly thought that writing three-word reviews would take less time. Oh, how wrong I was. Choosing only three descriptive words out of all those available is a maddening exercise, though certainly one I enjoy doing, or else I wouldn’t have repeated the experiment. The difference with these favorites is that they’re all available for free online. Enjoy!

“The School” by Donald Barthelme
From Sixty Stories
Free read: http://www.npr.org/programs/death/readings/stories/bart.html
A teacher attempts to teach his students about life through a series of class pets.
Surreal. Humorous. Brilliant.

“Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente
From Clarkesworld 71
Free read: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/valente_08_12/
Nominated for the 2013 Hugo and Nebula awards and framed by hokey retro advertisements, “Fade to White” tells of an alternate 1950’s where coming-of-age means young men and women undergo fertility testing – nuclear fallout has rendered many infertile – before being paired in an elaborate ceremony with a Husband or Wife.
Lyrical. Surprising. Intriguing.

“Fatso” by Etgar Keret
From The Nimrod Flipout
Free listen: http://vimeo.com/9116496
A man’s girlfriend transforms each night into a large, hairy man, which the narrator is surprisingly okay with.
Strange. Poignant. Funny.

“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
From Asimov’s, July 2008
Free read: http://www.kijjohnson.com/26_monkeys.htm
A woman struggling with finding her lot in life purchases an act from a man at a state fair: the act includes 26 monkeys who disappear, nightly, on stage, only to return with tokens of the places they have been.
Fun. Hopeful. Mysterious.

“Five Ways Jane Austen Never Died” by Samantha
Henderson
From Fortean Bureau
Free listen: http://podcastle.org/2011/08/16/podcastle-170-five-ways-jane-austen-never-died/
For a reviewer who has yet to read a Jane Austen book or be drawn in by the Austen lore, I was surprised to love this short story, in which five vignettes detail fantastical life endings for Jane Austen.
Intelligent. Poetic. Believable.

Collection Review: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master

Aimee Bender is one of my favorite writers, so when I heard that she was coming out with another short story collection, The Color Master, I was psyched. What I didn’t realize was that several of the stories in The Color Master are based on fairy tales. Surprise, surprise: those fairy tale stories are some of my favorites in the collection. I like Bender best when she takes an element from outside this world and transplants it into our world; her non-fantastical stories are still, in their way, surreal, filled with strange, unsettling voices. But these non-fantastical stories don’t speak to me on the same level as stories such as “End of the Line” and “The Healer,” two of Bender’s earlier stories which I heartily recommend.

There are a few of these gems in The Color Master. The title story is a prequel to the well-known fairy tale “Donkeyskin.” Bender’s story, however, doesn’t follow the princess and her father but a group of people who design clothing with colors to match natural elements. The main character, an apprentice colorist, is nervous when the sick master colorist informs her that she is dying and that she has chosen the apprentice as her replacement. The coloring process involves a near-mystical, intuitive selection of elements which combine to make the clothes mimic, for example, the moon, the sun, or the stars. The colorists utilize objects such as a strand of white hair, or shards of opal. The color master is enraged by the story of the king in love with his daughter, and requests that the apprentice put her anger into the dress. But the apprentice doesn’t know how, and she doesn’t feel much of anything, least of all anger. It’s a beautiful story about finding your own way, your own passion, in the world, and Bender tells it beautifully. A subtler theme of the ways women are often wronged in the fairy tale world also flows throughout the story.

In “The Devourings,” a woman with an ogre for a husband finds herself distraught and unable to stay with him when he accidentally devours all of their children. After a period of grief, she finally leaves him. She wanders the woods, choosing not to leave the land of the ogres. She carries with her a cake that replenishes itself once it’s halfway gone and a cloak that mimics sunlight, to help her hide on her journeys. “The Devourings” is about the difficulties of marriage, about loving someone despite their, sometimes egregious, faults. It’s also, in a gesture of brilliant humor, about the life cycle of a cake that can never be completely eaten.

In “A State of Variance,” Bender tells a more modern fairy tale; a woman stops sleeping but one hour a night. It’s not intentional; she feels just as rested after the one hour as she used to after eight. But her dreams begin to drift over into her waking life, so that she starts to live this surreal existence, unsure which reality is real to others, such as her son with a completely symmetrical and therefore untrustworthy face, and which are real only to her. A story of growing older, and family, “A State of Variance” is another example of Bender’s exquisite sense of humor.

“Americaa” tells the story of a young woman named Lisa who, with her family, one day begins to find objects in their house that have just appeared there; the story isn’t about, as you might suspect, who has been putting them there, but rather is a coming-of-age story. Bender is at her funniest in this story, and several others in the third section of the The Color Master — the collection is divided into three parts — which seems to contain the stories with the most comedy, though no less heart.

The final highlight of the collection for me, and the only one that appears outside of the third section, is the haunting “Tiger Mending.” A woman and her sister travel to Asia; the sister, a seamstress, has been recruited for a secret job and asked that her sister be allowed to travel with her. When they arrive in Asia, the nature of the job is revealed; the seamstress will be helping to sew tigers’ skin back together. She wants to know why the tigers’ skins are coming off, and so she asks her sister to help her uncover the mystery. The image of the tigers emerging from the jungle to be mended by women with gentle hands was borrowed from Amy Cutler’s painting of the same name, which for me gives even more power to the story. This one, too, is subtle, but like all of Bender’s work, told from a character whose distinctive voice makes me believe that I know her from my own life. In this way, Bender’s stories make me believe that sometimes the mystical really does lurk in our own world, if we only know where and when to look.

The Color Master is available for purchase through Amazon.

Guest Review: "Pop Art" by Joe Hill

As some of you know, there are three major things happening right now, for me: I’m hosting my annual Art & Words Show on September 21st; I’m going to be a program participant at FenCon in Dallas the weekend of October 5th; and I’m getting married on October 12th. Those three producers of stress plus the regular day job and the writing makes for a busy schedule. Therefore, I bring you a guest post by my friend, fellow writer Matt Switliski.

Matt Switliski is a writer, editor, and teacher currently pursuing a PhD in English. His work, which spans several genres, has appeared in print, online, and on stage. Devoted to the short story, he nevertheless hopes to one day have a story big enough for a novel. He keeps a blog on writing, books, and other topics (occasionally) at iamrazorwing.livejournal.com.

I did the math, which is a big deal for me. Since I started keeping track of my reading a few years ago, I’ve read, on average, one hundred and eighty stories every year. I’m not sure how that compares with the totals of others, but to me that seems like a lot. When Bonnie asked for guest posters, I brainstormed a list of stories that, for various reasons, have stuck with me. I wrote down authors and titles without any forethought or long musing, just knee-jerk reminisces. Two dozen stories, that list. I’m sure I could have remembered others, but this bunch stood out to me, among hundreds.

Arbitrarily, I picked one: Joe Hill’s “Pop Art.” In his introduction to 20th Century Ghosts, Hill’s first collection, Stoker-winning author Christopher Golden calls “Pop Art” “transcendent”—“[t]he single best short story I have read in years.” I don’t know if I can parse out the hierarchy of the great stories I’ve read—lately or period—but I do agree with Golden that “Pop Art” is something special.

I think part of the story’s success lies in its originality. It begins, “My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.” Fantastic literature, for all its capacity to push the boundaries of the real and the possible, has a definite tendency to rely on iconic images and tropes. As someone with a deep affinity for folklore and fairy tales, I don’t consider that a bad thing. Still, it’s refreshing to come across something new like the inflatable Arthur Roth, a twelve-year-old afflicted by “one of these genetic things that plays hopscotch with the generations, like Tay-Sachs.”

If you think about the impossibility of the premise—particularly as Hill reveals that Art has no heart or lungs, can’t blink, can’t speak—the illusion quickly shatters. But Hill commits to the strangeness so earnestly that I find it hard to not be swept along.

That earnestness owes much to the unnamed narrator. Rather than put Art, for whom being inflatable is routine, at the center of the story, Hill gives us the narrator’s perspective on Art. Perhaps surprisingly, the narrator doesn’t find Art weird or alien. He accepts Art, possibly because Art accepts him.

The narrator is not a Nick Carraway analogue, a kind of unobtrusive camera through which we can view the action and the story’s real star. He has a presence, narrative weight. His home life consists of a father on disability who watches TV and suffers migraines and a berserker pit bull named Happy. At school he cultivates a “reputation as a delinquent and possible drug pusher.” At first I had a hard time understanding why he builds such a façade when he admits to being so lonely, but I think it’s a response to his domestic troubles—he has no models for healthy relationships and the kids at school who figure most prominently in the story are bullying jerks. Only when he defends Art from those actual delinquents does he find someone who will listen, someone who proves to be a decent human being. Interesting, when you consider that Art is a human being in a rather loose sense.

Like his father Stephen King, Joe Hill can manage quiet character pieces in addition to visceral horror, and the range in 20th Century Ghosts attests to that. “Pop Art” strikes me as one of the best here because I rarely see in fantastika small stories that center on the friendship between two boys. Although there is a strong bond between Art and the narrator, it isn’t without minor antagonisms that make the emotional notes ring truer. “In a friendship, especially in a friendship between two young boys, you are allowed to inflict a certain amount of pain. This is even expected. But you must cause no serious injury; you must never, under any circumstances, leave wounds that will result in permanent scars.”

The story likely has particular resonance for me because neither of these boys fit in. Besides Art’s “condition,” his communications are routinely misinterpreted, adding cause in the eyes of Billy Spears and company “to kick his ass.” He’s fascinated by outer space and death, two ideas he marries beautifully in my favorite passage: “You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”

As for the narrator, his displacement seems like an unlucky turn of events, one he embraces by carrying a switchblade to school and reading alone on the monkey bars at recess. His mother suffered a mental breakdown, leaving for Florida and sending letters “about sunspots and gamma rays and the radiation that emanates from power lines, about how the birthmark on the back of her left hand had moved up her arm and onto her shoulder.” His father dismisses any attempts at communication—“You’re killing me here with blah blah this, blah blah that.” The kids at school, jerks. Even when he meets Art’s mom and feels love toward her, he swerves around the vulnerability by calling her a moron for her belief in life’s spiritual oneness. He doesn’t know how to belong, but he does know—perhaps because it’s easier—how to alienate those around him, even if they’re worth getting to know. Art, of course, is the exception. For anyone who’s had a period in life when it seems like only one person in the world understands, and how fragile that understanding is, like a stray sharp edge would wipe it from existence, “Pop Art” has more than a kernel of emotional truth to it.

In case that weren’t enough, Hill also gets a lot of imagistic mileage out of Art’s condition, a blessing and a curse to the young Roth. Art gets tied to the leg of a lab table “in a squeaky granny knot, head, arms, body, and all.” The reigning bullies whack him into the air with a wiffle ball bat, trying to get him onto the school’s roof. Yet Art recognizes his specialness has a use, too. He thinks he’d be a perfect astronaut, being nearly weightless already and having no muscles that could atrophy. In a game they call Spy Satellite, the narrator loops Art to a bunch of balloons to take pictures from the air. And when Art tries at the end to find the sky’s opening into space, “his left arm pulled high over his head, the balloons attached to his wrist,” it is the most fitting final glimpse of him we get, the ending (of Art’s story) we’ve been gently drifting toward.

But “Pop Art” doesn’t quite end there. The narrator has a little more to tell us about life after Art, particularly his marriage to an inflatable woman. It’s like a final reminder of how he is our narrative stand-in. We should all be lucky enough to find people like Art—those who understand us, however unusual they may be—and later maybe we can find others who, even as we build futures together, remind us of our past, one touched both by sorrow and by joy.

Nebula Nominations: Part Two

Last week, in honor of the upcoming Nebula Awards weekend on May 16 – 19th, I reviewed four of the nominated short stories for this year. Now, I review the remaining three:

“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard
Clarkesworld 69
Free read: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/debodard_06_12/

Told in alternating second and third person, “Immersion” tells the intertwined stories of you – a woman addicted to the immerser suit that streamlines your appearance and your culture to that of the immerser’s creators, the Galactic – and Quy, whose family owns the restaurant in which you and your husband have come to discuss the pricing for a banquet. The you character is experiencing cognitive issues related to not having taken the immerser suit off for a long while. Quy is not keen on the suits, believing them to be, as they are, a tool for Galactic cultural domineering, and when she recognizes the you character as an immerser junkie, she seeks to help her. The two stories are woven together brilliantly, and the ending is goosebump good. Raises some deep, intriguing questions about cultural identity.

 

“Nanny’s Day” by Leah Cypess
Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2012
Free read: http://www.leahcypess.com/short-stories/free-story/

The story of a future in which a great number of children are raised by nannies. Some of the nannies, believing themselves to be better parents than the biological parents, have sued in the past for custody and won. When Margaret’s son tells her that he wants to live with his nanny instead of her, Margaret becomes worried that this will happen to her; a new clause has been entered into nannies’ contracts forbidding them to sue for custody, but Margaret comes to believe that they want to use her to test the clause in court.

“Nanny’s Day” feels, above all else, plausible, and its plausibility is part of what is most appealing to me. It is also an optimistic story, in which there are no bad guys, only people trying to do what they think is best. That Cypess doesn’t resort to the obvious is commendable, and there is an emotional core to “Nanny’s Day” that makes one feel for the main character; that being said, I do feel that this story would have a deeper impact if I were a parent. In fact, I intend to come back and reread this story once I am, in the far future. I empathize with the main character, and with the nannies, absolutely, but I can just sense, beneath the surface, an even deeper layer of meaning for those with children of their own.

“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu
Lightspeed
Free read: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/the-bookmaking-habits-of-select-species/

Told in five clever segments, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” tells of five alien species and, well, their bookmaking habits; the title is pretty self-explanatory. One species reads and writes using a proboscis on their body. Another reads the world around them. One of the smartest stories I have ever read.

Advance Review: Clockwork Phoenix 4

Highlights:

  • “Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl” by Richard Parks
  • “Icicle” by Yukimi Ogawa
  • “Lesser Creek: A Love Story, A Ghost Story” by A.C. Wise
  • “The Wanderer King” by Alisa Alering
  • “Lilo Is” by Corinne Duyvis
  • “Selected Program Notes From the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” by Kenneth Schneyer
  • “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
  • “The History of Soul 2065” by Barbara Krasnoff

 

            With a release date of July 2013, Clockwork Phoenix 4 will provide some not-so-light summer reading. The latest in the series edited by Mike Allen, Clockwork Phoenix 4 was Kickstarter-funded, and the introduction to this volume has Allen explaining the reason behind this crowd-funded reincarnation, rather than the puzzle of an introduction which began the first three volumes. This volume contains eighteen original stories which can only be classified as speculative; most of them blur or even reject genre lines altogether. The common thread which runs through these stories is a sense of unsettling strangeness. There were several moments when reading that I felt physically altered, only to realize that it was the story and not my body which was causing the queasy feeling in my gut.
            That is not to say that these stories are not enjoyable; they are, in a discombobulating, shiver-inducing kind of way. And there were several of the tales which left me thinking on them long after I had finished reading. I can’t say that I understood all of the stories in this collection — there are a few, such as Yves Meynard’s “Our Lady of the Thylacines” and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” — whose surface-level meanings remain fuzzy, but I feel as though that confusion might add to these stories’ charm. For certain, there is not one story in Clockwork Phoenix 4 that I found completely absent of merit.
            In Richard Parks’ “Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl,” two personifications of two distinct clichés meet on a beach on several separate occasions. The Drowned Girl floats in the ocean until she washes upon a shore and upsets a community then promptly disappears, giving them an urban legend to pass down for generations. The Beach Bum falls in love summer after summer, a fling which the lovers will remember for the rest of the lives. Both characters exist mostly in the memory of the people they have left. Together they speak of their reasons for existing, their reasons for performing the same ritual again and again. This story has an unexplainable but beautiful sadness to it.
            Yukimi Ogawa’s “Icicle” is a simple, folkloric story of a half human, half snow-woman whose body boasts both a human heart and an icicle which rests poised ready to pierce her heart. Her fragility comes to be a burden when she decides to see the ocean, traveling far from the mountain where she was raised. Never having known her father, the story feels from the beginning as though that might be where her quest will lead. Not entirely predictable, however, the story does end on a disquieting revelation.
            A boy and a girl, a devil and a ghost, make a yearly bet — they never remember the results — on who can capture the most souls in A.C. Wise’s “Lesser Creek: A Love Story, A Ghost Story.” A tragic story in which the sense of entrapment is palpable, “Lesser Creek” also says something about gender roles, as the village’s perceptions of the two spirits differs greatly, and the methods with which they extract their souls both sets them apart and unites them.
            In Alisa Alering’s “The Wanderer King,” a post-apocalyptic story in which the apocalypse is never explained, society has been split into two factions: the Wanderers and the Fixers. Two friends — Pansy, a Wanderer, and Chool, a Fixer — find a crown and set off to find the dead body it belongs to, the king who will save them. An eerie tale of redemption as Chool seeks to atone for her own bloody past, of which Pansy is not aware.
            A woman has a spider-demon’s child and is then forced to raise her on her own in Corinne Duyvis’ “Lilo Is.” Short and sweet, “Lilo Is” explores a mother’s challenge to instill in her child a solid sense of self-esteem.
            Written as a program to a gallery’s art exhibition, “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” by Kenneth Schneyer is an innovative story told in an innovative way. The program notes feel like authentic program notes, complete with the program writer’s pompous discussion questions which often miss the mark completely. A vivid retrospective of an imaginary artist’s interesting life, with clues contained within the piece that there is much below the artwork’s surface.
            In Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly,” a woman with little time to live has her heart replaced with bees in a world where technology and life are intertwined. It’s a challenging story which will reward readers more familiar with the science fictional tropes in which the story deals, but I found the details of her transformation fascinating, and her search for her missing sibling hits home.
            “The History of Soul 2065” by Barbara Krasnoff is the story, told in ten-year increments, of a group of family and friends who meet each year for seder. The character Abram tells them, on the youngest member’s first seder, of a legend: originally, there were 60,000 souls in the universe which were broken into pieces. When all the pieces of a soul return to one another, “a part of the universe is healed and made whole.” The group decides that they are all part of Soul 2065, and a tradition is born where each year they tell each other one thing that has happened to them throughout the year. It’s interesting to hear the complete lives of so many characters, and the moment of realization that the story is not as simple as it first appears is a shock.
Available here for pre-order, Clockwork Phoenix 4also contains:
  • “Our Lady of the Thylacines” by Yves Meynard
  • “The Canal Barge Magician’s Number Nine Daughter” by Ian McHugh
  • “On the Leitmotif of the Trickster Constellation in Northern Hemispheric Star Charts, Post-Apocalypse” by Nicole Kornher-Stace
  • “Trap-Weed” by Gemma Files
  • “What Still Abides” by Marie Brennan
  • “A Little of the Night” by Tanith Lee
  • “I Come From the Dark Universe” by Cat Rambo
  • “Happy Hour at The Tooth and Claw” by Shira Lipkin
  • “Three Times” by Camille Alexa
  • “The Old Woman With No Teeth” by Patricia Russo