BOOK REVIEW: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The Only Good IndiansThe Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Release: May 19, 2020

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Stephen Graham Jones’s new book shows the unfolding fate of four close friends, American Indians of the Blackfeet Nation, who seem to have run afoul of something in the spirit world. I say “seem to” because the author is skillfully strategic in how he unpacks the story and how he presents reality (blending a hard-edged reality of life for Indians on and off the Reservation with the surreal in a way in which the reader isn’t quite sure what’s real.)

This is horror, and it chills and terrifies as horror readers might hope for, but it’s not just horror. (By that I mean it’s not the gruesome elements that make the book, they just make it more visceral.) The story builds characters that one is fond of and can empathize with, and it even sneaks in a moral (which is the best way for a story to have a moral.)

We learn about the demise of the first friend, Ricky, in a prologue — an end that everyone believes resulted from Ricky getting beat to death by some modern-day cowboys outside a bar. There is a ten-year jump cut, and the first half of the book tells us about Lewis, who has moved off the reservation and is living with a pretty non-Indian woman that everybody – including Lewis – realizes is out of Lewis’s league. Lewis is increasingly losing his mind. We know that, but what we can’t be sure of is whether it’s the run-of-the-mill kind of losing one’s mind, or whether it’s the kind of crazy that is the only reasonable response to an even more insane world.

The remainder of the book tells us about Gabe and Cassidy, the two friends who’ve continued to live on the reservation and are still in close contact. Gabe, we learn, has a failed marriage that resulted in one child, a girl with prodigious talent for basketball. He’s prone to over-drinking and was issued a restraining order to keep him from going to his daughter’s ball games – an order that fails to keep him from attending but succeeds in getting him to tone down his expressions of pride and support. Cassidy is shown as the responsible one, but one is led to believe that is the recent result of a relationship with a woman, Jo, who has had a calming influence on him. Jo’s success in straightening out Cassidy creates a strain in the bro-mance between the two friends.

I don’t read much horror, but was hooked by this book. The characters are developed and interesting enough that one isn’t just waiting for the moments when the axe drops (that’s an expression, don’t expect actual axe-induced fatalities.) In between, one is enrapt with questions like whether Gabe can thaw his relation with his daughter, and whether the next generation will end up better off, worse off, or the same as that of the four friends. Throughout there’s this issue of the characters having one foot in the past (traditional Indian tribal life) and one in the modern world, and that is an uneasy and unappealing spot to be in – too little of the community and confidence of the tribe and too little of the wealth and well-being of modernity.

I highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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POEM: Kurtz & Marlow of the Mind

Everyone has a darkness to navigate.

I chased my Kurtz into the river’s savage tracts  —

steamboat long since left behind —

portaging to lands above the cataract ledge.

You’ve heard it said, “You are every character in your dream?”

That thought flickered into my awareness

just as I realized I felt as much Kurtz as Marlow.

My sole consolation was that my Kurtz was dying.

And since I felt that one man can’t die two deaths —

[wishful thoughts of legacy be damned]

I felt my Marlow would outlive my Kurtz.

But when Kurtz-of-Dreamland sucked his last breath,

he didn’t stick to script with “The Horror! The Horror!”

Instead, he said, “Box my bones up for the elephants.”

Which seemed as nice as remembering his fiancée’s name —

as far as I was concerned.

BOOK REVIEW: The Weird ed. by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark StoriesThe Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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For a book themed by such a niche genre, stories of the weird, this book covers a huge amount of ground. Over 1100+ pages, the book includes more than a hundred stories. While the book mostly consists of short stories, it does include several novellas and a novel excerpt. Not only does the book cover temporal ground (from the 19th century through writers of today), it includes works by authors from India, Japan, Nigeria, Benin, Iran, the Czech Republic, and many other nations besides the numerous British and American entries. It includes names you’ll know from mainstream literature, such as Haruki Murakami, Ben Okri, and Ray Bradbury, as well as a few of the best-selling authors of all time such as Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. However, it also includes names that you probably won’t have heard of unless you are a huge fan or an amateur historian of this cross-cutting subgenre (more on that descriptor to come.) It’s telling that only one author has more than one piece in the anthology, and that seems to represent an attempt to gather the very best pieces from each. I won’t say every great author of weirdness was included, but a whole lot of them were — whether the weird was a momentary diversion for him or it was the whole of his writing career.

The organization is chronological, and the book stands a single-volume education on stories with weirdness, bizarreness, or surreality at their heart. I used the term “cross-cutting subgenre” to describe the theme, and, I’m not sure I even understand what I meant, but these stories have a super-genre – e.g. horror or literary – but they necessarily have this element of strangeness. In other words, while some of the stories might be labeled “horror,” that genre classification is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for inclusion. Many of the stories aren’t particularly dark, and just because a story horror doesn’t mean that it’s weird enough to be included. The stories generally take place in a world that is recognizable, but with a hint of the surreal and with some level of strategic ambiguity as to the nature of that surreal element. This allows the collection to include examples as dark and visceral as “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson or as quirky and amusing as “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be” by Gahan Wilson.

I couldn’t possibly go through all 110-ish of these stories, but will say that it’s a phenomenal collection. If I had to make my own personal top ten list it would be (in no order but the one in which the stories came in)

1.) “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers: A man moves into a room under the pretext of investigating a string of suicides only linked by residence within the apartment.

2.) “The Night Wire” by H.F. Arnold: A man in a newspaper office with a gift for simultaneously transcribing from two wires receives incoming reports of an ominous fog.

3.) “The Mainz Psalter” by Jean Ray: A mysterious ship journey ventures into bizarre territory and the crew starts disappearing one-by-one, leaving nothing more than gruesome stains.

4.) “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury: A man tries to understand how a crowd seem to form almost instantaneously at the site of a car accident that he survived.

5.) “Sand Kings” by George R.R. Martin: A nasty little man buys some otherworldly pets that prove difficult to maintain.

6.) “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler: In a recurring theme for Butler, she writes about an alien species that appears to be beneficent toward humans, but shows that where a power disparity exists beneficence is an illusion.

7.) “Shades” by Lucius Shepard: A Vietnam vet turned journalist returns to Vietnam on a story about one of the men who died in his unit.

8.) “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” by Marc Laidlaw: A renown photographer somehow has her own suicide photographed and this leads to questions of the nature of art and the degree of passion it evokes in people.

9.) “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson: A man who self-cauterized his own amputation in order to kill the man who cut his hand off is drawn into the shadowy world of a bizarre cult who honor voluntary (and unnecessary) amputations.

10.) “Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham: A father helps his daughter send out a picture cutout of herself for a school project. His daughter inexplicably starts experiencing PTSD like symptoms around the same time the father starts getting disturbing anonymous photos through the mail.

I don’t know how representative my top ten list is, but hopefully it gives one an idea of the nature of stories included. Though, as I said, it’s hard to give nutshell commentary on such a diverse work. It was even hard to come up with a top thirty, there were so many great inclusions.

I’d highly recommend this book if you at all enjoy weird tales. I got a copy on Amazon at a bargain price, especially considering that this is about four books worth of great stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Portrait in Poems by Evie Robillard

A Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B ToklasA Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas by Evie Robillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available March 3, 2020

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This work provides a biographical sketch of Gertrude Stein, her partner Alice Toklas, and their life together in Paris. The vehicle is free verse poetry, although it reads more like a children’s book than poetry. That may sound as though I intended it as a burn, but that’s not the case. The marketing materials for this book present it as a child-friendly picture book, if not entirely marketed in the children’s literature market. What I mean to say is that the writing is simple, literal, and isn’t filled with complex metaphor or cryptic description that one might expect in adult works of poetry.

The book is illustrated in a child-centric manner as well, with whimsical, unintimidating, and colorful art.

I didn’t know much about Stein, and had only heard the title of the book, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” in which much of this book’s source material presumably resides, and so this was a nice background, without getting too deep in the weeds.

If you’re a Stein fan and are interested in introducing a kid to her biography, or if you have your own limited but adult interest in her life, this is quick read to get you up to speed.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems to See By ed. by Julian Peters

Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great PoetryPoems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Available March 31, 2020

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This anthology of twenty-four classic poems is set apart by the artwork used to convey the illustrator / anthologist’s view of each poem. The poets are all virtuosos, including: Dickinson, Angelou, Cummings, Langston Hughes, Auden, Seamus Heaney, Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats, Poe, and Eliot. The poems are sometimes, but not always, among the most anthologized of the respective poet’s work. I would say that most poetry readers will probably find something that they haven’t read, but – even if not – it’s worth re-reading them as you enjoy the artwork.

The illustrator, Julian Peters, makes a bold decision to use the widest variety of artistic styles in an attempt to more aptly capture the tone of each poem. I recently reviewed a similar book, Chris Riddell’s “Poems to Live Your Life By,” and that book used a consistent style through out (which isn’t to say that tone and reality / surrealism didn’t change.) I’m not an artist, and don’t really have a vocabulary to describe the various artistic styles employed, but will attempt to give one some insight. There is the obvious shift between monochrome and color strips, but even within each of those categories there is great variation. Some monochrome strips were mostly gray, while others were exclusively black-and-white. Color works ranged from shocking dayglo to subdued pastels to dominant single color (e.g. blue) pics. Various poems were represented by a modern comic book style art, an old fashion comic strip approach, those which looked like paintings, those that were highly realistic, those that were surreal, those that were retro-chic, and even one [for Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”] that was in a quilt-like style.

I enjoyed this work tremendously. Most of the poems were short works, single pagers, and the fact that I’d read possibly all of them before wasn’t a problem because these are the kind of poems that should be revisited. Only the postscript poem, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was of substantial length.

I’d highly recommend this book for poetry readers, particularly those interested in are of imagery and how it’s conveyed and perceived.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems to Live Your Life By selected & illustrated by Chris Riddell

Poems to Live Your Life ByPoems to Live Your Life By by Chris Riddell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an anthology of forty-eight poems arranged into eight life-related topical areas. The connective theme is poems that the editor, Chris Riddell, found to contain valuable life lessons. The span runs from Rumi to poets of the present day. It’s a nice selection in that it includes not only old and new (thus varied styles of verse,) but also greater and lesser known poems and poets. [That’s not to say that any of the poets are unknowns, but some of the oldies are remembered through the ages more than others, and some of the newer individuals are better known for other activities – e.g. Neil Gaiman (novelist / storyteller,) Leonard Cohen (recording artist,) and Riddell, himself (graphic artist.)] There are several much anthologized inclusions that almost any poetry reader will have read, including: Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” and the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” However, there are many lesser known gems as well, many by masters of poetry such as Seamus Heaney, Christina Rossetti, and Philip Larkin.

The eight topical areas are: Musings, Youth, Family, Love, Imaginings, Nature, War, and Endings. Most of the sections contain five or six poems, though — tellingly — Love contains the most at twelve and War the least at three.

While Riddell not only selected the poems and include a couple of his own, he also illustrates the book. There are beautiful line drawings throughout that offer insight into Riddell’s interpretation of each poem.

I enjoyed this anthology. As I said, it’s a beautiful selection of poems, and the artwork is skillfully done as well. I’d highly recommend this book for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this counterfactual novel, the Axis powers won the Second World War, and America has been divided between Germany and Japan. I recently re-read this book, having watched the Amazon Prime series that is loosely based upon it. [FYI – the plotting and details are considerably different between the book and the series, and — while many major characters and a few key events are shared between them — they are not recognizable as the same story. Though I believe both are good, each in its own way – and the world is quite similar between them.]

There are a couple subplots that play out to form the larger story. One of these involves Robert Childan, a dealer in Americana who [while he specializes in antiques] ends up dealing in jewelry made by Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy after unwittingly being used as a pawn in their plan to manipulate the two artists’ former employer. This line intersects with that of Mr. Tagomi, a high-ranking Trade Ministry official who is involved in grand strategy level issues, but who is a customer of Childan’s.

The other major line involves Juliana Frink, ex-wife to the aforementioned artist Frank Frink, who meets up with Joe Cinnadella, and travels with him to Denver. Along the way, Joe introduces Juliana to a novel called, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is a counterfactual novel in the world of the book that is substantially the same as the world as we know it (i.e. the Allies won the war and America becomes a hegemonic power.) Joe suggests that Juliana and he go to meet the author, who also lives not far within the Rocky Mountain states. “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” plays an important role throughout the book, and it is introduced to Childan by one of his customers as well. The controversial fictional book is allowed in the Japanese controlled territory, but the Nazi’s have banned it and are rankled about its existence. It’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the same-named “man in the high castle.”

As in the series, the Chinese “Book of Changes” (i.e. the I-Ching) plays a role. However, in PKD’s novel it is a much more substantial role. In the series, it is mostly Mr. Tagomi who relies on the I-Ching. In the book, Frank and Juliana Frink use it heavily — as do other characters. The use of an oracle in conjunction with the alternate history premise of the book puts questions of fate and free will at the fore, providing deep food for thought.

In the interest of full-disclosure, Dick’s portrayal of Juliana Frink comes off a bit misogynistically in places, though she is also shown as a character of great strength and intelligence. [In fact, when we meet her, she is a judo instructor, and her cleverness is put on display as well.] It can also be said that the rendered dialogue of both the Japanese characters and those who strive to emulate them [i.e. the Japanophile / sycophant Childan] is a little “inscrutable Asian / Charlie Chan.” That said, Mr. Tagomi is one of the most mature and self-aware characters in the book. It could be argued that making Juliana shallow and self-obsessed gives her depth of character. The book also came out in 1962, so the approach to presenting characters has changed.

I enjoyed reading this book the second time more than the first, and I got a lot more out of the process. I’d recommend the book for anyone interested in questions of destiny and freedom, or who just wants an entertaining story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God PanThe Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This speculative fiction novella mixes horror and sci-fi in a genre-bending work of intrigue. When I started the book, I was surprised to learn that it was from the last decade of the 19th century. The opening chapter, which is what I credit as science fiction, presents an argument that reality as we know it is just a veneer beyond which we cannot experience, and it’s stated not unlike what one would hear in today’s cutting-edge science and philosophical discussions. (e.g. It wasn’t greatly removed from what one might hear from Donald Hoffman, for example.) The mad scientist of the opening chapter proposes that he can, with “minor” neurosurgery [to the extent there is such a thing,] open the doors of perception to make available what lies beyond our reality. We are left to think that he has only succeeded in a lobotomization.

The rest of the book is more the Victorian Era horror that one is likely to hear the story described as. We are introduced to a series of mysteries that will gradually be tied together and related back to the book’s opening. A gentleman is approached by a beggar who – it turns out – was his classmate and should have been a well-to-do landowner, but who reported being ruined by having fallen in with the wrong woman – a not unusual story until one delves into the particulars. We further learn that a man had been found dead at this couple’s property before the woman disappeared. Later there are a series of murders that have a certain demographic of society all atwitter.

Despite the shortness of the work, it does present jumping perspectives (not within chapters, but between them.) However, it’s not hard to follow, though it’s a bit jarring when the first PoV change hits because it involves a new cast of characters and it isn’t clear how the events tie together. The reader who sticks with it will be benefited by the shift.

This book was widely panned in its day, more for its shocking sexuality than its horror elements. However, it should be pointed out that the author uses strategic ambiguity for this matter, so there is no graphic sexual content. For example, one character may whisper in another’s ear the acts of depravity, but the reader is left to fill in the blanks according to the twistedness of their own particular psyche. For readers who enjoy the freedom to fill in the blanks, this is an interesting approach – others might not like the withholding of detail.

I enjoyed this book. It’s readable, despite the era from which it came. As I said, in some sense, it’s ahead of its time. The non-linear plotting builds the up the intrigue nicely. I’d highly recommend it for readers of weird stories, horror, or speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep MathewChinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Chinaman” is the tale of an alcoholic Sri Lankan sportswriter, W.G. Karunasena, who is attempting to write a biography of the man he considers the greatest cricketer to ever live, Pradeep Matthew. The two-fold challenge is that Matthew had a short and controversial career before disappearing off the face of the earth, and Karunasena is in a race to finish the book before the bottle finishes him off. [For non-cricket fan readers wondering about the title, Chinaman is a cricket term for a style of bowling. I also learned that a “ponytailed Chinaman” in Sri Lanka is (or was) slang for someone gullible.]

I try to read at least one work of literature from every country I visit, and I chose “Chinaman” for Sri Lanka, and am happy with my decision. While the book is very much cricket-centric, it does offer insight into the familial and community dynamics of Sri Lanka. Given the time frames discussed in the book (i.e. the 80’s and 90’s), we also learn a little about the civil war that was going on at the time. But most intriguingly, one views the politics and underworld that largely remain hidden to tourists, and so the book has that appeal. The book contains many explanations, diagrams, and drawings to help clue those, such as myself, who are ignorant of the game into the fundamentals, but it’s not just about cricket.

The book is presented as a novel that’s only sold as fiction for legal reasons, but my little bit of research [including a short author interview] suggests that that is just a plot device to add to the feeling of intrigue.

The last two of five parts of the book, while less than 15% of the pages, are presented from a different point of view. This is a bit jarring because the reader has developed a great deal of affinity with Karunasena, and that kind of connection doesn’t have time to blossom with his son, the second voice of the book. However, the last to parts do give the reader a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this book. It’s humorous and offers a glimpse into Sri Lankan cricket and everything it touches (which is pretty much everything.) I’d recommend it for fiction readers. Even if you aren’t a big fan of cricket, you’ll enjoy the story and the humorous dialogue. If you are a fan of cricket or want to know more about Sri Lanka, it will be particularly enjoyable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sonnets by Sri Aurobindo

SonnetsSonnets by Sri Aurobindo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This booklet collects together the 88 sonnets written by Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo was a guru who set up his ashram in Pondicherry because he was on the lam from the Brits, and Pondicherry was under French control at the time. Sri Aurobindo is a karma yogi (yogi of action and good works) who – together with a partner who the community came to call “Mother” – set up Auroville with the intention of making it a utopia.

The eighty-eight sonnets are arranged in two parts. The first seventy-four were written in the 1930s and 40s, and part II consists of 14 sonnets that were written between 1898 and 1909. The sonnets of the first part are more mystical and also more stream of consciousness. The poems of Part I use vivid language, but aren’t always easy to follow – if one is seeking a coherent meaning from each. The sonnets of part II are less sophisticated (and more easily interpreted) and feature a degree of angst that is completely absent in the latter poems (latter chronologically, earlier in the volume.) The sonnets presented are in varying styles. While they are all fourteen lines of pentameter, the rhyme scheme varies.

At the end of the book there are notes on the collection as a whole, as well as short notes on individual poems. There is also a short section in the back that shows a few of the poems under edits so that one can gain a little insight into the poet’s sausage-making process.

I found these poems intriguing to read. As I suggested, they aren’t always easy to interpret but they have a thought-provoking spirituality to them as well as some beautiful use of language. One needn’t necessarily have an interest in Sri Aurobindo to enjoy the poems, although they are overwhelmingly of a mystical / spiritual nature.

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