Tag Archives: 2015

38. Death in Spring, by Merce Rodoreda

11 Nov

Death in Spring, Merce Rodoreda

Well, Death in Spring is the most fabulously gruesome and disturbing book I’ve read in a while.

It’s the last novel by Spanish writer Merce Rodoreda, originally published in 1986 in the Catalan language, translated into English in 2009 and published by Open Letter books.  The book is an allegory for life in Spain under the dictator Franco, and takes place in a village overrun by wisteria, undermined by a rushing river, swarmed by bees and girded with awful customs that deny the inhabitants all desire and dehumanize everyone they touch. The pregnant women wear blindfolds so they cannot see any men other than their husbands. A “prisoner” is kept and forced to neigh like a horse. Dying people’s throats are filled with rose-colored cement to trap their souls after death. The villagers are brutal and complicit, and the whole thing is overseen by “Senyor,” a crippled man living on the hillside above the village.

In the first section the main character watches a man commit a ritual suicide, chopping open a tree and climbing in it. The tree then seals itself around him with bubbling green resin. Every inhabitant of the village has a tree with their name on it. The boy describes it thus:

The trunk looked like a splayed horse. The tree was as wide and tall as a man, and I noticed the seedcase inside. It looked slightly green in the green light of the forest, the same color as the tree trunks in the nursery. The man poked the seedcase with the pitchfork, first on one side, then the other until it fell to the ground. Smoke rose from the gap left in the tree. The man put down the pitchfork, wiped the sweat from his neck, and rolled the seedcase to the foot of another tree. Some leaves were  caught on it…. He was weeping. He stepped backwards into the tree.

Later the narrator tells us that, “I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.” After this event the villagers find out what happened, return to the tree, exhume the still-dying man and fill him with rose cement so his soul cannot escape. And then the boy develops a strange passionate affair with his stepmother, an odd, child-like woman only a few years older than him.

We never know, really, what the seedcases are for or what the nursery is for or why the villagers must visit the buttermilk fountain. The point, I thought, was to convey the horror of a society devoted to senseless violence and turned in upon itself, where the end goal—in so much as there is ever any goal in a totalitarian state—is to crush the inhabitants’ souls.

In this telling of the tale, too, the inhabitants create the system perhaps more than Senyor, the dictator. Here is a part when the hero prepares to swim under the village, a forced passage that often causes mutilation or death:

I remember the sound of water. I don’t know whether it was because of the women or the sound of the river, but I thought about two types of water. One good, one bad. They all wanted it. They had contrived to do it. They were bored and needed it to keep living. Everyone’s face bespoke a craving, although what they wished was not really clear to them; they just wished it at whatever cost. I never realized they had all joined together to do this to me: men, women—even the pregnant women—the old men from the slaughterhouse, the man in charge of blood, the faceless men….

In the metaphorical language of the book, the ‘good’ water is desire, greenness, but it is corrupted or impossible for these people. Even the protagonist succumbs:

From the damp sprouted a new-green stem, topped by a bud. The bud grew large, the green streaked with the color of crimson dust. One day I had curled up, waiting for the flower to blossom. It made a clicking sound when it opened and the flower released the leaves. I plucked it, and bitter, viscous water spurted from the stem. If you touched it and rubbed your fingers over your lips, you got sores. All of a sudden I realized what I desired: sorrow. The stones scattered in the mud were patches of sorrow.

It doesn’t seem like it’s his fault, more like his destiny. Though he does turn away from love (I think) at one crucial part near the end.

Here’s a last bit about water, as close as he comes to good desire, and a decent sum-up of the author’s project for the book:

Tenderness changed me into water and everything that fled from me was in that water. I don’t know why, I don’t know what those mornings were because no words exist for them. No. No words exist. They have to be invented.

35. The Martian, by Andy Weir

29 Sep

The Martian, Andy Weir

Let’s preface this by saying that The Martian is an excellent thriller. The premise of the book on which the current movie starring Matt Damon is based is that a botanist/engineer gets left behind on Mars and has to survive, relying on the supplies left by the space mission, his science-nerd skills, and his aw shucks American optimism and ingenuity. Here’s how it starts:

I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.
For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

This casual, humorous voice then walks the layperson through the NASA technology left behind, and how Watney will hack it to stay alive. He needs more food, more water, a means of communication with Earth, and not to make any big mistakes that will get him killed. It’s amazing that a guy growing some potatoes and doing chemistry experiments is such a page turner, but it really is. Could this be the first space procedural? I bought this book in an airport and it was at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list, so obviously everyone who has picked it up has been glued to it, and I was too.

I also have now discovered that The Martian was originally self-published, which makes it even more likable.

However, at the same time as I read all 435 pages with great relish, the part of my brain that thinks was screaming in agony.

The character is admittedly supposed to be the kind of happy optimist who deals with stress by making jokes, but his endless “Whee! Yay! I’m alive!” delivery—or, sometimes, “I have a hell of a backache. I’m sick of this”—became simplistic and grating. Also, everything he tried mostly worked, which life mostly doesn’t, and so by the end when he drives 3,200 kilometers with only one minor accident, and then gets launched into space in a shuttle with a hole in the top…. it was all so flat it was impossible to care. Sure the adventure probably needed a person incapable of introspection to deal with the stress, but a person incapable of introspection doesn’t bring much to even the most fabulous adventure.

The worst part, though, was the portrayal of the politics back on earth, where the whole world pulled together to save one man’s life!!!! All of NASA worked around the clock, sparing no expense!!! Every space program was gutted and reorganized into a save-Watney mission! China got involved!! Six other people risked their lives! Watney explains that “they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.”

I do believe that individual human beings in crisis situations often behave heroically, and Watney’s fellow astronauts risking their lives to return for him seemed reasonable. But the American government makes decisions that result in many, many people getting killed every. single. day. for reasons of politics and expedience. Those people are usually not heroic and adorable like astronauts, but still, if you weigh all lives equally, it’s hard to enjoy Weir’s fantasy. Look at the ongoing tragedy of the Syrian refugees, or what happened to the low-income residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Where’s the basic instinct of every human being to help those people out?

Obviously people read thrillers to get away from reality, and I should too, but I can’t do it.


33. Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

9 Sep

Stanislas Lem Solaris

Stanislaw Lem is a cult Polish sci-fi writer from the 1960s, who has written some of the most intense and twisted books I’ve ever read about alien contact, with this one, Solaris, being the most famous and one of the best. People in America have heard of it because of the 2002 George Clooney film directed by Stephen Soderbergh. There’s also a very famous Russian adaptation from 1972 by director Andrei Tarkovsky.

The book starts, as Lem books tend to, with a guy strapping into a one-man space pod and launching himself into the cosmos. In this case he’s Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, going to a research station on the planet Solaris. Things start to go wrong immediately, even in flight, when Kelvin’s capsule goes off course and the space station doesn’t answer his emergency call. He lands, and finds the place trashed. Of the three scientists aboard, one is dead and the other two seem to have gone insane…..

The planet Solaris is covered by an enormous ocean, which Kelvin is there to study. It’s only in chapter two that we learn this:

“…it had been accepted that the ocean was an organic formation (at that time, no one had yet dared to call it living). But, while the biologists considered it as a primitive formation—a sort of gigantic entity, a fluid cell, unique and monstrous (which they called prebiological), surrounding the globe with a colloidal envelope several miles thick in places—the astronomers and physicists asserted that it must be an organic structure, extraordinarily evolved.”

And where is this delightful creature, in relationship to our protagonist, Kelvin?

“….some hundreds of meters below the metal hull of the Station, obscured at the moment by the shadows of the four-hour night.”

Anyone wishing to avoid spoilers should stop here, and go read the book, which is terrifying and spectacular.

Human scientists have been experimenting on the ocean for years, either without result, or with results they’re unable to acknowledge.  The ocean has now decided to experiment back, by providing the human occupants of the station a near-perfect reproduction of the person they most desire, basically peeling out the nastiest inner layer of the subconscious, and making it visible. The love-creatures are superhuman, made of the alien substance, and display an imperfect grasp of personality.

Lem is a hard-core gearhead, though, and he doesn’t care that much about love, desire or shame. The set-up is a device for a speculation on alien contact, on the theory that we can’t make contact because our selves, mainly our desires, will get in the way and blind us. This happens for political reasons—Kelvin discovers that evidence of previous experiments by the ocean has been dismissed—but mostly for psychological ones. There’s a thought-gulf too large to cross. Men, in their perversity and solipsism, desire alien contact, but only of the type that reflects them. The ocean, in Lem’s figuring, gives men just what they’re looking for.

It’s a brilliant, fast, creepy read….. I highly recommend it.


32. In the City of Shy Hunters, Tom Spanbauer

30 Aug

In the City of Shy Hunters, Tom Spanbauer

Here’s what Rob Hart from Litreactor has to say about Tom Spanbauer:

I’ve been planning to write this for months, and I’ve done everything I could to put it off. The reason for that is because I am afraid to write it. No matter what I write, I’ll never get across the thing about Tom Spanbauer’s writing that touches me so deeply.

The sensation of reading his books is that, while you’re reading them, it’s like he’s placed his hand on your chest, the warmth and pressure and intimacy of it reassuring you that you are alive, and you are not alone.

That doesn’t cut it. It gets close, but it’s not there. The best I can do is approximate.

I think Rob does get pretty close. I’ve written about Tom before. His latest book, I Loved You More, was one of my favorites of 2014 and just won a Lambda Award for gay general fiction. In the City of Shy Hunters is his AIDS classic, about New York in the early days of the epidemic. The hero, Will, is a Spanbauer stand-in who shares many points of his biography. He’s a gay man from Idaho who has come to the city to search for a lost love, a Native American named Charlie Two Moons. Charlie is a drop-out from the writing program at Columbia, and as the novel progresses and Will doesn’t find him, we begin to fear that he won’t, and that Charlie, like nearly everyone else, is a casualty of the epidemic.

Spanbauer makes a beautiful use of refrains, like his hero having “my mother’s nerves” (she killed herself) and “language my second language” when he’s nervous. One of the best is when he takes moments with people he’s loved and lost to AIDS, and claims the moment is still ongoing.  (In the below, “the monster” is AIDS.)

The monster’s heavy footfall.

I had to sit down right there on the curb, my head between my knees, my sensible black shoes on New York City pavement.

Big sobs, snot running out my nose, my chest up and down, up and down.

Who knows how long I sat there. I’m still sitting there.

I can’t think of a more generous and ongoing way of keeping a person in our hearts. Even the dead are not alone, thanks to Spanbauer’s wonderful humanity.

The book is more than just a tragedy, though it is that. It’s also a great old-time NYC book, evoking days I caught the last edge of when I moved to the city, when the East Village was alternative and Thompson Square Park was frightening. Will works as a waiter in a midtown restaurant that he calls Cafe Cauchemar and makes me think of Cafe Un Deux Trois (who knows if that’s even still there). The extended scenes of restaurant politics and after-hours partying deserve their own book. Here’s a scene of him at an alt performance space:

I felt I belonged there in my seat. Things had meaning and purpose. Fiona and Harry were my friends and they were up there on the stage and the audience was waiting—you could feel the anticipation, the hope of theater to lay bare the human heart. And I was there, I wasn’t in Jackson Holeewood or Boise, I was avant-garde in Manhattan in a basement theater on the Lower East Side.

The New York one can write things like this about has vanished as well.

30. The Imago Trilogy, by Octavia E. Butler

3 Aug

Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler

I have just completed my fourth re-reading of Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler, also known as the Imago Trilogy or the Xenogenesis Trilogy, one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction, an eye-popping, queasy, deeply uncomfortable imagining of the issues that would arise if the human race were sexually absorbed by aliens.

The speculative framework for the books is that after an apocalyptic human war, when everyone on earth is dying or dead, a race of deep-space-traveling aliens comes along and offers a sort-of choice: Survive, while mating with us and breeding with us to create a third race, or you all die. The choice is framed through the personal struggles of the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, a young black woman from Los Angeles who is the first kidnapped/saved human the aliens wake up from suspended animation on their space ship, and who is tasked with convincing other humans to cooperate.

The beginning is the perfect waking-up-in-a-locked-room-mystery. Lilith awakens, with no idea where she is. “The walls were light-colored—white or gray perhaps. The bed was what it had always been: a solid platform that gave slightly to the touch and seemed to grow from the floor.”

She proves to be strong-minded and adaptable:

“When her body calmed and became reconciled to reanimation, she looked around. The room seemed dimly lit, though she had never Awakened to dimness before. She corrected her thinking. The room did not only seem dim, it was dim. At an earlier Awakening she had decided that reality was whatever happened, whatever she perceived. It had occurred to her—how many times?—that she might be insane or drugged, physically ill or injured. None of that mattered. It could not matter while she was confined this way, kept helpless, alone and ignorant.”

The aliens are terrifying and repulsive to humans, but find humans erotic and compelling. They are vastly more evolved, deeply condescending, and can manipulate human bodies on a molecular level to produce pleasure. They stick their tentacles into us, drug us, and produce spectacular, instantly addictive sensations. They live in three-person, three-gender groupings, have wild sex, and hope to add human partners to make five-person households, plus children. Anyone who won’t cooperate with them, they sterilize. Eventually everyone ends up back on a repaired earth, either as a collaborator, living and breeding with the aliens, or as a resister, sterile and angry. Lilith is a collaborator, but is tortured by it. She has a family and is attached to her alien partners, at the same time as she cannot forgive them for coercing her, and cannot forgive herself for betraying humanity, which will cease to exist as a separate race after the last resister dies.

Butler is famous for being a black, female science fiction writer who came to prominence in the ’80s, and is unusual in the genre for putting “soft” “women’s” issues like reproduction, sex and love at the heart of a hard sci-fi series. She’s asking difficult theoretical questions—What kind of sacrifice is more noble? How much violation should we take for a good cause?—but always embodying them and grounding them in fully-realized characters’ lives.  It’s simply my favorite type of speculative book.

I was sad to notice on this reading, though, that as a speculative work about gender and sexuality written in the 1980s, the book has dated. Butler—in this work at least—has fairly intense gender essentialist views—men are biologically more violent and prone to wander, women are more domestic and care more about babies—and leaves same-sex pairings entirely out of her framework. In a book about extreme reproductive technologies and genetic mixing, nowhere does she question the idea that it takes a man and a woman to reproduce.

Another somewhat sad note from 2015, apparently the publisher has decided to tart up the cover to make the book look more lightweight and appealing to women, or something. Here’s the latest. I cannot imagine the author would be pleased.

Lilith's Brood New Cover


29. The Next Scott Nadelson, by Scott Nadelson

27 Jul

The Next Scott Nadelson

Oh, my beloved Hawthorne imprint, whose every book I like.

The Next Scott Nadelson is a memoir about a guy living in Portland who gets dumped by his fiancee and is depressed for a while, but eventually gets over it—that is to say, it’s a memoir about an ordinary person reeling around in the dramas of ordinary life. With something like this it’s all about the rendering of detail and the level of insight the person is able to achieve into their dramas. Scott Nadelson writes wonderful detail and treats himself gently but unsparingly.

It’s really, really good.

I enjoyed the parts about Nadelson’s depression and suffering—who doesn’t like to read about someone else moping, especially when they’re up-front about it? Here’s how the book begins:

“A few years ago, when I was still living in Portland, single and shadowed by a persistent and unaccountable sense of failure, I gave a reading in a downtown bookstore. It was late winter, and I didn’t expect anyone to show up.”

There’s something very comforting about a person sharing his “persistent and unaccountable sense of failure.”

Nadelson then travels back in time, explaining how ended up a mere month away from marriage with a woman of whom he says,  “she struggled with depression, she had a temper, she didn’t like my friends,” and who dumped him for a drag king named Donny Manicotti,  leaving him “bewildered and devastated.”

Then he goes further back, to high school, when he felt a vague, incoherent waiting for some adventure to occur (the teen scavenger hunt set-piece from this chapter is hilarious), and then junior high, when he longed to be invisible.

It’s this invisibility and minor cowardice that he ends up linking to his adult failures, that he finds when he sets out to “look at what you don’t want to see.” At the end of a particularly wonderful chapter about being hazed at camp, he writes:

“Now, once again, as I picture my younger self standing in that doorway, so small and unassuming, hair tangled with cowlicks, shirt marred with grass stains, I have a terrible urge to call out. Go on, I want to tell him. Get it over with. If you can stop hiding now, you’ll save us so much trouble later on.”

Just beautiful. Made me cry.

Hiding and denying his own desires is part of Nadelson’s depressive strategy and, nearing the end of the book when he’s soon to rejoin the world, there’s a house renovation he walks by:

“On a quiet side street, where the ground sloped up abruptly and the houses were built into the hillside, an old Victorian had been lifted off its foundation and propped a dozen feet above the ground to make room for another full story beneath…. My initial reaction was outrage, which surprised me as much as the sight itself. Why should people want so much? Why couldn’t they be satisfied with a beautiful house as it was?”

He becomes obsessed, visiting the house nearly every day, wishing the owners ill, spying on them, disturbed by the air and space beneath the house and by it’s inhabitants’ obliviousness to disaster. The image of a house floating up in the air is a wonderful one in a book about a man trying to establish a self and a life–a house, if you will, to live in. The lesson of his obsession with it is not if his response is reasonable or spiteful, right or wrong, but that he cares, deeply, and will have to get a house—though a less obnoxious one—of his own.



28. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

25 Jul

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

The first few chapters of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are a tour de force of voice—so biting, witty and strange that the book is nearly impossible to put down. I skimmed them in a bookstore, and then forgot the book title, and have been itched and nagged at until re-finding the book.

The action launches in midstream, as a story told by a girl who was once a tow-headed toddler who couldn’t stop talking. She describes her child-self as “prettier than I turned out.”  This narrator tells us her family is fractured, then invokes the fairy tale of two sisters, one of whom speaks in flowers and jewels, the other in toads and snakes. Which one will she be? What shut her up? It’s all a mystery, a careening plot, every line a mordant masterpiece. Like this one:

“My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.”

When the narrator was a loquacious child, her father told her to “Skip the beginning. Start in the middle” of any story. That’s what she does in chapter one, launching into a set-piece scene when she is at college, overhearing a couple fighting in the dining hall. The girl, who has “beautiful biceps,” yells:

“‘Can everyone please leave the room so my boyfriend has more space? He needs a fucking lot of space'”.

She flips over his table to make some more room for him. I really laughed. And then our mild-mannered narrator is mistaken for the girl by campus security and by the end of the chapter they’re both in a squad car.

All of that and we don’t discover until a little later that the narrator in early childhood grew up with a monkey as part of a ’70s-era experiment, and that what we are really in for, among many other things, is thorny questions about animal rights. Surprise. The narrator thought of the monkey as her sister, and asks, “What if we treated animals as our brothers and sisters?” (The idea wreaks eventual tragic havoc on everyone from the experiment, human and animal alike.)

The chronology, construction, and plotting are mind-boggling-ly good.

All of this though, and strangely I didn’t love the book. I was put off by the Hollywood premise (girl raised with apes), and by the relentless slickness of the voice’s appeal. Of course we like girls who say they aren’t pretty. Of course we think animal cruelty is awful. Still, I would recommend it for anyone looking for something really readable and fun.