McSweeney's #46

     The 41st book of the year, and the last I'll be reviewing here (for the time being, anyway), is the latest volume of McSweeney's, specifically McSweeney's No 46: Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America.
     From the subtitle (and the previous volume of McSweeney's) you might guess that this is a reprint anthology. Instead, they solicited new stories involving crime from thirteen Latin American writers that they thought the American audience should know about. Some are established writers, others are rising stars. I note that about half of them are living outside their country of origin.
     The collection is certainly solid, no clunkers in here. There is a remarkable consistency to the stories, however. They are universally bleak, and these short pieces didn't give enough of a sample to distinguish the styles. If I had been told they were all by the same author, I'd have believed it.
     The stories are not, for the most part, about solving crimes. They are not about the restoration of order. Injustice, corruption, and tragedy are the themes. Revenge is more likely to be the positive outcome (when there is one) than justice.
     Once again, I admire McSweeney's for bringing foreign writers to American attention (I note earlier Icelandic, Australian Aboriginal, and Rwandan samples from the volumes I've read). I'd be happy to read more by any of these writers.

The Three Fates

     The 40th book of the year so far is a translation from the French, by a Vietnamese writer, Linda Lê (whose family left Vietnam for France when she was about 14.). The English title is The Three Fates, and I picked it up because I was told that Lê was the Vietnamese writer to read (she is critically acclaimed in literary circles), and I was looking for Southeast Asian writers to add to my list for World Literature classes.
     I decided by the third page that I wouldn't be assigning this to my Seton Hill students. The first paragraph actually goes on until about the seventh page; the second one runs something like 11 pages. That's beyond what freshmen and sophomores who aren't literature majors are going to tolerate. The author doesn't care to control the narrative POV, either. In just a couple of pages we're given to understand that one of three cousins, referred to as Southpaw (she's missing a hand), is narrating the book in first person; but she shifts into third, into second, and into what I call Mythic Person as well, all in that first paragraph.
     That turns out to be a problem all through the book. One would call the narrative style "stream-of-consciousness" except that there is no consciousness to reliably stream. It headhops, often badly, within single sentences. There is no consistent viewpoint, and therefore there is no consistent reader experience. "Who is seeing this?" one might ask. "Whose thought was that?" Ain't no tellin'.
     I can be a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing. I can love me some Joyce or Pynchon. But with those writers (but not Finnegan's Wake) we get stories where something happens, and where there's a narrative viewpoint. Neither virtue is present in this book.
     Yeah, nothing happens. There is an event that occurs, but not until the last five pages; and it's something that happens, not a character choice. Then there's a choice to act by a minor character. That's it. So, in essence, the book has no plot.
     I have an acronym for a certain type of book, CWOET, that this book almost fits into. (It stands for Complete Waste Of Everybody's Time. Email me and I'll tell you what, in addition to Finnegan's Wake, is on the list.) I can't honestly put it there, though, because much of the writing is clever enough to have been periodically interesting. There's cleverness, and some wit. The author is clearly very intelligent, and widely read. I get that. I kept trying to like this. But in my opinion the cleverness is without sufficient purpose or depth.
     Take, for instance, an issue with metaphor. The book is named for the three Fates, and there are three female cousins with lead roles. One of them cuts some thread, near the end. Two of them are sisters. But they aren't actually the Fates, they don't play that role, except vaguely. Also, we are constantly told that they are the daughters in King Lear, and their father is constantly called King Lear, but they aren't all sisters, there is no Cordelia, dad isn't really at all like Lear, and so, unlike Eat, Drink, Man, Woman or Ran, this isn't an Asian version of Lear. What the reader experiences, then, is an enormous phony mixed metaphor that doesn't seem to carry the slightest weight.
     If the idea is that we have the story of three cousins and they aren't the Lear daughters and they aren't the Cinderella triad and they aren't the Fates or the Harpies either, nay, not even the Holy Trinity ... well ...  that would make a short story, at best.
     Phooey.

Leaf and Tendril

     The latest John Burroughs collection I have finished is the 1908 volume called Leaf and Tendril. This volume consists of reflections on science and natural history, including some discussions of evolution. I was amused to see that several of the topics were nearly identical to those in the Stephen Jay Gould collection I recently finished, as were the conclusions.
     Let me back up and make a few remarks about Burroughs, who is getting a bit of a revival these days, but is less well known than he deserves. I discovered his works by happy accident. I began collecting the Riverside Literature Series in my early teens, and his essays appeared in a couple of the first volumes I came across. I found them mesmerizing. His typical nature essays have a topic (like the varieties of apples that grow in New England, or the bad things that happen to bird nests) and they wander from anecdote to anecdote, and then wind down. They generally don't try to hammer home a point, but there often is one. Observation is everything. He's not as memorable as Thoreau, but he isn't trying for constant life lessons and metaphors. The essays are quieter, and more knowledgeable.
    Burroughs was a clerk in Washington, DC during the Civil War, and started writing essays about natural history. DC has Rock Creek Park because Burroughs observed that it would make a great park. Later in life he would be friends with Theodore Roosevelt, and go camping with him in Yellowstone; and encourage the National Park movement. Likewise he participated in the Urban Park movement and the Rural Cemetery movement. He also engaged in some literary criticism, and was the major early advocate of Walt Whitman.
     Having "discovered" Burroughs, I pieced together a complete works at the St. Louis Book Fairs. Most of the set were from two complete works; one from an amateur naturalist, the other discards from John Burroughs School in St. Louis. (Yes, they liquidated the collection of their namesake.) Then I did a Very Bad Thing. I kept putting off reading the collection, because I treasured them.
     Okay, I've grown up and gotten over it. When I realized that I was systematically putting off the "best stuff" until "later" ... well, I decided to read the best stuff before the weak stuff, mostly. My life has been better since.
     Back to this volume. Because it's more meta than observational, I enjoyed this less. Much of the thinking is old news to me (and recently covered by reading Gould), even though Burroughs wrote it long before my time. But there is sound writing and sound reasoning in here.
One paragraph that stood out for its time was this one, his evaluation of where the environment is headed:
"Again, one cannot but reflect what a sucked orange the earth will be in the course of a few more centuries. Our civilization is terribly expensive to all its natural resources; one hundred years of modern life doubtless exhausts its stores more than a millennium of the life of antiquity. Its coal and oil will be about used up, all its mineral wealth greatly depleted, the fertility of its soil will have been washed into the sea through the drainage of its cities, its wild game will be nearly extinct, its primitive forests gone, and soon how nearly bankrupt the planet will be!"
     My other quote is from one of the observational essays in this volume, "A Walk in the Woods." It's the concluding paragraph, in which he discusses stone walls.
"The more padding there is in a stone wall, the less enduring it is. Let your stone reach clean through. A smooth face will not save it; a loose and cobbly interior will be its ruin. Let there be a broad foundation, let the parts be well bound together, let the joints be carefully broken, and, above all, let its height not be too great for its width. If it is too high, it will topple over; if its interior is defective, it will spread and collapse. Time searches out its every weakness, and respects only good material and good workmanship."

A Light in the Attic

     My wife and I have been reading Shel Silverstein's A Light in the Attic as a bedtime ritual; a light verse to end the day on. I wasn't raised on Silverstein, so this is actually the first volume of his I've ever gone through.
     Silverstein was clearly one of the favorites of my Poetry Writing students, as many of them brought in selections for reading aloud. I can see why, in that many of them are quite clever. His illustrations, of course, add to the effect.
     My favorite is probably "The Dragon of Grindly Grun," but I'll admit that I found these poems more cute than memorable. Perhaps because I wasn't raised on them.

The Royal Game

   I've had a copy of the Compass Books edition of Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game (the link takes you to a collection with two more stories in it than my old 1959 paperback) on my to-be-read shelf for probably three decades. When the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel brought his name back into public attention, I decided it might be time to finally read the dang thing.
   The collection is three of his most famous novellas (novellas were his favorite form): "The Royal Game" (also translated as "Chess" and "Chess Story"), "Amok" and "Letter from an Unknown Woman."
   The conventions of the stories remind me of Joseph Conrad crossed with Edgar Allen Poe. Two of the stories are told as stories-within-a-story; one is related to the narrator on the deck of a ship, the other is a letter the POV character receives. Two of the stories take place on ocean liners. All of the main characters are over-wrought, and there are several suicides. (Since Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil, supposedly over the loss of Viennese culture, I guess this shouldn't be a surprise.)
   The title story (the reason I picked up the book originally) begins by discussing the new World Chess Champion who is mainly interested in money, and seems to have no intellectual interests outside of chess. He is challenged to a game by his fellow ocean liner passengers, demands to be paid, and things run awry when an unknown player joins the group and helps force the champion into a draw. The rest of the story reveals how this person came to be a chess expert, without being known to the public.
   I sensed the use of the characteristics of a couple of grandmasters from the period in this tale, and echoes of Marcel Duchamp's disappearance into the game. It touches on the issue of "chess madness" in a perceptive way, here and there.
   "Amok" is a tale of a European in the jungle, and how he misbehaves when he thinks he has an arrogant, rich woman in his power. It's a fine tale of obsession and reversal, but the premise is, um, melodramatic.
   But that melodrama is nothing like what the third story achieves, a fairly unbelievable tale of devoted love in the face of thoughtless sensuality. It's an over-the-top groupie story, and it felt artificial throughout; even though its insight into a certain kind of narcissistic personality is fairly interesting.
   The stories are strong, the realism less so. An old-fashioned feel to all three.
   On the other hand, he reminded me of the existence of coal porters as a vocational tribe, and that may inspire a story of my own.

Helmet for my Pillow

     My wife read Robert Leckie's classic memoir of World War II, Helmet for my Pillow, subtitled From Parris Island to the Pacific, right after the Spielberg's miniseries The Pacific brought it to our attention. I hadn't had time to read it before I taught the World War II class, and used Eugene Sledge's memoir instead. (I think I'd still make that choice, but it's a tough call.) Now I've finally gotten to read this one, myself.
     The term "classic" is appropriate here. Leckie was a journalist before and after the war, a machine-gunner and scout during the war, in the First Marines. He fought on Guadalcanal, on New Britain, and on Peleliu. He also got to rest and refit in Melbourne, which gets detailed treatment in this book, showing how that worked from the inside. Those of us who haven't lived through a desperate war with most of the men of a certain age shipping out, have no idea what that does to society.
     Leckie is poetic, even lyrical, but also rather brutally real. He gives his fellow soldiers nicknames, and gives the officers mostly scathing ones. (He clearly hated the class distinction between officers and men, and especially notes the times when officers stole from him, and abused their position.) "Souvenirs", the Marine who carried a pair of pliers to remove gold and silver teeth from dead Japanese, is mentioned several times.
     Some of his descriptions are likely to live for centuries. Seeing the night battle of Savo Island, not knowing what was happening; and finding that the Navy was gone the next day. Gone. Or the battle along the Tenaru.
     Because of its literary elements, we would now call this Creative Nonfiction. I recommend it.

Year's Best SF 18

    The Year's Best SF 18, edited by David G. Hartwell, was a distinct pleasure to read. The pleasure began with the very first story, "Old Paint." Megan Lindholm tells the story of a family that inherits grandpa's old car, a woody-style station wagon, whose technology is way behind the times. Mom even makes her teenager learn to drive it, rather than just tell it where to go. Very uncool. When the youngster takes it to a shady nano-paint place, and the car catches a nasty virus, well, this tale starts taking unexpected turns.
     John Barnes's "Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh" struck my fancy, and since I haven't read much Barnes in the last decade, it also brought back old times. "Two Sisters in Exile" by Aliette de Bodard, "Waves" by Ken Liu, and "Nahiku West" by Linda Nagata (whom I've also missed) were other favorites.
     Finally, Nikki J. North's story "Branches on My Back, Sparrows in My Ear" is a strong piece on communication between generations. I liked the punch it didn't pull.
     I found the collection both entertaining and inspiring.

The Hollow-Eyed Angel

     The book I took to WPF Residency this June was Janwillem van de Wetering's penultimate Grijpstra & DeGier mystery novel, The Hollow-Eyed Angel. My review of the previous volume indicated that Grijpstra, DeGier and the commissaris had all retired, and that I found that the retirements undermined the nature of the series. Imagine my confusion when I started this book, and the commissaris is back on the payroll, though nearing retirement. And then I discovered that Grijpstra and DeGier were also still in the office.
     ???
     I don't know if van de Wetering was working on two novels at once, and published the second one first; or if he intended to end the series with the previous volume, and then decided to back up and do the book where the commissaris retires. In any case, this book precedes the other in time.
     It also follows the pattern of the other book in setting much of the story in the United States (New York City, in this case), rather than Amsterdam. The excuse is that the uncle of a volunteer policeman has been found dead under mysterious circumstances in Central Park. The local police have declared it an accident or suicide, and pushed it aside. The nephew thinks this needs investigation, and so he approaches the commissaris.
     The commissaris was set to attend a police convention in NYC anyway, so he decides to investigate. Complications ensue, involving four grimaces.
     I liked this book better than Just a Corpse at Twilight, as it seemed to adhere to the established nature of the main characters better. Turtle has a key role, which is also a positive.
     Sadly, I have only one more novel in the series to read (and Wikipedia tells me it follows Just a Corpse at Twilight chronologically, so everybody will be retired again) and then the short story collection The Amsterdam Cops. Another title in the series was announced before van de Wetering died, but it must not have been completed because all mention of it disappeared. I should probably, for interest's sake, write the estate and find out what happened to that.