Last night, Kurt and I went to see They Might Be Giants at The Pageant. TMBG is one of our favorite bands of all time, and we’d never seen them, a serious omission. It’s the first time we’ve been to a concert in a long while. We saw a couple of bands play events in Jackson (Joan Jett at the fair, for example) but I think the last time we saw a band in a venue was when we saw Ozomatli at the House of Blues in the Crescent City…oh, I don’t know, like six years ago or something. Pre-Sophia.

So, you know, it was loud. And I’m old. But The Pageant is a really nice venue, much more comfortable than I thought it would be. There was seating, even though it was general admission. The sweaty pit was isolated from the seating, which was a scattering of coffee tables and some bar stools along a u-shaped counter. There was more to the audience than a bunch of fifteen year olds, which was a relief. And They Might Be Giants are amazing talents. Their session guys are amazing, and John and John are geniuses. I’m serious about that. GENIUSES. You know, it’s obvious that their ability to crank out a zillion songs about any old thing in any genre is part of their gift, and they leveraged that fully at the show.

Set List, as I remember it, and probably somewhat out of order or incomplete:

  • Istanbul not Constantinople (This included all the queer, warbly keyboard sounds of the 6 minute version of this and it was a great way to start the show.)
  • Alphabet of Nations (They did a cute ABC thing at the end with sets of other nations. Sophia would have loved it. I dug it.)
  • Damn Good Times
  • Doctor Worm (“I’m not a real doctor but I am an actual worm”.)
  • Snail Shell (Their rendition of this beloved song was fabulous.)
  • Experimental Film
  • Venue Songs Mini-Set (This was an amazing set of songs about places where they had played during their 2004 tour, when they made songs up about each venue right before they played it. They read a narrative between the songs that was really engaging and funny. The songs themselves rocketed through genres in a way that was both reverent and satirical, as well as incredibly enjoyable.)
  • Museum of Idiots
  • John Lee Supertaster
  • Clap Your Hands (They called this the They Might Be Giants anthem, and asked everyone to stand while it was played, which made me happy and bouncy. Another one that I know Sophia would have enjoyed.)
  • Thankfully shortened version of Malcolm in the Middle theme song (It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I thought it wasn’t necessary.)
  • Birdhouse In Your Soul (I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t play this. How tired of it they must be! But then I realized that what makes it new again is the crowd. They love it, and they projected so much energy when it was played that I had to get up and dance and yell “after killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts!!!” along with everyone else.)
  • Don’t Let’s Start (love, love, love this one almost as much as “Sleeping in the Flowers”. John Linnell thanked the audience for the impromptu Conga line that started during this song, which was sweet. How did he even notice?)
  • Drink! (This song called for audience participation. John F. explained that anytime he said drink we were to say “drink, drink” in a fast waltz tempo. It was fun.)
  • Memo to Human Resources
  • I Am A Grocery Bag
  • The Guitar
  • Working Undercover for the Man (In his intro, John Flansburgh said, “And remember: The Man is a euphemism for….the Man.”)
  • Encore 1 : Fingertips (We were astonished that they could pull this off live. Unreal. Did I mention that these guys are geniuses, yet? John Linnell was hilarious during “I don’t understand you” and John Flansburgh did some miming during “I’m having a heart attack” that made me guffaw. They started this off saying they’d like to play all night, but they only had 18 more songs. I knew then it would be Fingertips, but I still couldn’t believe they could make it work outside the studio.), Ana Ng (ah yes, a classic, a favorite. We were very glad to hear it.)
  • Encore 2 : Older (this was just as quirky and cool as it is on the album), Robot Parade (lots of marching from side to side of the stage and saluting and so forth. Fun.), Cover of Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” with Corn Mo (Corn Mo was the opening band…or opening person, whatever. He was a little – strange – like a cross between Meatloaf and Elton John with an accordion, but he had an amazing singing voice. I don’t remember being this impressed with someone’s live singing voice since I saw No Doubt open for Public Enemy a zillion years ago. He did that thing where when he started to sustain and crescendo on a note he pulled away from the microphone and it still got louder. Yeah.)

They didn’t play “Sleeping in the Flowers”, alas, but it was still a good show. I was really glad I went. They did this really powerful wall of sound stuff that kind of distorted some of the songs from what I was used to, and made the lyrics impossible to hear (so it was good I knew most of them already) but which was really immersive. I know that large portions of the crowd were screaming along with the lyrics, but I can tell you I didn’t hear the audience at all, they were unable to overcome the amped stage sound. TMBG had a decent light show to accompany their music, but remained four accessible guys dressed in jeans and t-shirts rocking out. It was great, the perfect show for me now in my dotage. I’m not saying Rock in Rio wasn’t awesome when I went to it, but I’d rather chew off my own hand than go to something like that now.

I love St. Louis because I can go someplace comfortable and see one of my favorite bands. I want to live here forever.

iTunes says I was listening to Au Contraire from the album The Spine by They Might Be Giants when I posted this. I have it rated 3 stars.

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Thanks a million to my friend Legomancer, who left a comment alerting me to the new teaser trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’ve now watched it more times than I’ve watched the Serenity trailer. It’s spine-tinglingly beautiful (I don’t know if those are naiads or mermaids rising up before Cair Paravel but wow). I’m not convinced Jadis is quite right (she’s got some seriously weird contact lenses, and the whole point is that Jadis pretends to be human…though she may end up being fine, it’s hard to tell), but other than that it’s perfect. I pulled it up with Sophia, and asked her if she wanted to watch a movie with me on my computer. Sure, she said. So it starts up and she’s miss twenty questions : “Who is that? Where are they going? What is that? Where are they? Why is it snowing? Why does she say it’s impossible- oooooooooooh ASLAN!”

And if my not quite four year old daughter gets it, then they did it right. I hope I can take her to see it when it comes out.

I’m so ready. Bring it on.

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I love Ray Bradbury. I had recently been thinking that it had been too long since I’d read over any of his stories. I remembered with fondness and nostalgia the wonder of discovery on reading The Illustrated Man, the aged before their time feel of the pages of my cheap copy of The Martian Chronicles, the thrill of seeing the thick eyebrowed author himself pull the page out of his typewriter at the beginning of the TV show I watched late night during my early college days. What a master of the short story form. It was quite a delight to discover that he is still writing and publishing. Unlike so many others of the authors I loved in my young adulthood, this one is not only still here, he is also still writing and I still love his stuff. Others have died, or ceased writing, or somehow lost their luster for me. So Bradbury has a special place in my heart, and it was with near reverence that I approached Cat’s Pajamas. I can’t say that it doesn’t seem weird in the extreme to be reviewing his work. I have honestly never thought about his work in that critical way before, and simply enjoyed it for its ability to whisk me away. This probably has as much to do with his gift as it does with the age at which I first encountered him.

What an extraordinary volume this is! It spans over fifty years of stories, starting from tales created in the late 1940s to pieces written as recently as 2004, all but two never before published. It also spans every possible genre, from fantasy to horror to romance to humor to tragedy. This book has included every possibility of the type of writer Bradbury might have exclusively been. To think that he was (and is) all of those incarnations in one iteration boggles the mind. It’s amazing to think that some of these stories sat mostly forgotten in his basement for decades before being given out to us an audience. I liked the order the stories have been placed in, which is not chronological. Each story has its date included beneath the title. Old and new stories abut, speaking to and of one another in a discourse that is layered, subtle and fascinating. For example, the last line of the story “The Island” (1952) is “Then, and only then, did she stop crying.” while the first line of the story that follows it, “Sometime Before Dawn” (1950), is “It was the crying late at night, perhaps, the hysteria and then the sobbing violently…”. The placement of the stories (for which, to be fair, I do not know if I can give Bradbury the credit as perhaps this was the work of his editor) is just as skillfully executed as the stories themselves.

There are some really strong, standout pieces in this collection: particularly the racially charged opener “Chrysalis” (1946-1947), the old school, apocalyptic “Sometime Before Dawn” (1950), the creepy “A Matter of Taste” (1952) and the unabashedly tender “Cat’s Pajamas” (2003). The volume is easy to read and compelling, with the vast majority of the stories included as courses of a banquet to be relished. This is still a master at work. However, during my progress throughout the book, I realized that I love old Bradbury far more than I love new Bradbury. The new stuff is not as good, and I’m not sure I can exactly pinpoint why that is, though of course I shall try. There’s the failure of “Sixty-Six” (2003), for example, to make me feel any of the righteous anger which propel the characters inside it, though I’m certain I’m meant to be cheering for them. Or arriving at the end of “The John Wilkes Booth/Warner Brothers/MGM/NBC Funeral Train” (2003) and thinking “Zuh? Was that supposed to mean something to me?”. Or even realizing with a kind of disappointed jolt, when I read “Ole, Orozco! Siquieros, Si!”, that this premise had been done better by others. The primary thing I noticed, however, was the decline of his ear for dialogue. It’s as though he’s slowly become deaf to the cadences and subtleties of conversation. Maybe it’s an attempt at being more realistic, and maybe people talk in ways that are harsher, more boring and too blatant today. Whatever the reason, too many of his characters are reduced to saying “My God!” and “Bastards!”, sometimes several times a page. Maybe they always did this and I didn’t notice, but I don’t think so. The earlier stories included here have a lot less of those interjections than the later ones and while I have no essential gripe with an occasional interjection, it does seem kind of a cheap shot to keep using that (and not much else) as a telegraph for a character’s emotion. Even though it bothered me in most stories, even this objection is not an absolute rule, since one case where pages of single word interjections worked surprisingly well is the mischievious “All My Enemies Are Dead” (2003). To be fair, a good number of the later stories are just wonderful, such as the outrageously comical “Hail to The Chief” (2003-2004) and others that I’ve already mentioned.

I want to draw attention to one more tale that I find hard to categorize, but that I thought was superb, and that’s the simultaneously disappointed and hopeful “We’ll Just Act Natural” (1948-1949). Bradbury himself, in the introduction, describes the story as a sort of what-if about himself, an examination that’s none too charitable. The story has such a well-spring of conflicted emotions, and is written through a powerful lens of love, so that I found myself very moved by it, despite its simplicity, lack of robots or aliens, and its uncharacteristic zero ending. It puts me in mind of painters who work at still lifes, a set of simple objects, a mundane tableau which through careful work of a master’s stroke reveals a deeper truth than what it depicts.

Ultimately, my criticisms are little more than small quibbles, to be expected with such a broad and varied collection. It is well worth reading, especially to anyone who has enjoyed Bradbury in the past.

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So I went back and tried to dig up some more Bear stories. And I succeeded. I still think “One Eyed Jack and The Suicide King” and “This Tragic Glass” are the top of that heap, but I’ll go over the rest just to be thorough. Some of these are on her own site, and some of them are in online magazines. It would be interesting to know the order in which she wrote them. I’ll list them in the order of the copyright statement (and alphabetically underneath that) but of course that’s not a good indicator of when the pieces were written, as some that have been recently published may have been floating around in various submission piles for a while, and I’m pretty sure the copyright statements on her own site refer to when she threw them up there, not when they were written. This time fuzziness presents me with some uncertainty as to whether I dislike mostly her earlier stuff, or I dislike certain veins of her writing, or simply that some of her stories didn’t work for me. Oops, I guess that tells you before I even get good and started that I didn’t like everything I read.

  • The Banana Bread Poem” : Now I’ve done plenty of complaining about how much I hate my own poetry here. But see, now I have to face up to the fact that it’s not just my poems I hate. It’s everyone’s. There are people who get a pass in this category : Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Ruben Dario, and…hmmm, I’m sure there’s English language poets (or for that matter, women poets) whom I give a pass to, but none come to mind at the moment. At any rate, by and large I not only hate my own poetry, I don’t think much of anyone else’s either. I don’t think it’s an axe I’m grinding, or a peeve, or a prejudice, but maybe it is. I can say I didn’t hate this poem, but I didn’t love it either. Meh. It had moments – glimmerings – but it was way, way, way, too long. The line “Food is love” was too obvious, and as an attempt for effect she repeated it a bunch of times which near had me screaming, “Stop! I get it.” Still, a gem or two there, like this :

    “Fifty years, and three generations
    spot these pages like the backs of her hands,
    like the rinds of outworn fruit.”
    Nice, huh? It’s dated 1996, so it may be among the oldest things she has publicly available. Why is it that everyone thinks they can write poems? Why is that where people start? Is that something that comes from elementary school? I don’t mind if people express themselves, but most poetry is just drivel. Emotional sneezes, pages of green snot and phrases covered in germs. You wouldn’t show me your hanky after you’d done that to it. Why your words? I understand the desire to expel that stuff and I definitely indulge in purging myself the same way. That doesn’t make it less ugh, though. Ok, sorry, that turned into a kind of side rant not completely related to the poem itself. The poem itself : Meh. A few moments, lots of blather. Moving on.
  • The Dying of The Light“: Right, so this was a poem also, but I liked it considerably less than I liked “The Banana Bread Poem”. I give it a wholly indifferent shrug. I’m somewhat intrigued by the fact that it was a collaboration (as I always am) but it reads like two poems interlaced instead of a unit constructed together, so…ehhh, I’m not impressed.
  • The Company of Four“: Now, we’re talking. Back to stories, yay. Her notes indicate that this is one of her older pieces. I liked it. She made mention of it being written in present tense, and usually I’m not at all bothered by that, but since she mentioned it I kept kind of focusing on that and at the end I was wondering, like she did, why she had written in present tense. What did she think that was accomplishing? How did that help? I suppose it was trying to draw on the sense of never-endingness, of cycle, and of immediacy that the story was trying to speak to. I don’t think she needed it. Which made me reflect on my own stuff. I did a lot of present tense writing once upon a time. Not as much now, but I did it because I thought I was bringing a sort of immediacy to the work when I used present tense. I did so with deliberation, and it bugged the crap out of me that one of my writing professors always complained about my use of present tense. He complained about all kinds of things in my writing, primarily because I didn’t (and don’t) write like Hemingway, whom I hate, and he loved. So I disregarded out of hand most of what he told me, but it occurs to me that he may have been right about this present tense thing. I’m glad I can see that now. Right, this isn’t at all supposed to be about me, so let me get back to the story. It was good and it was engaging. If it had not been hers, in fact, I probably would have liked it better than I did but I already had the advantage of having read some of her really great stuff, so this suffered from being less polished and more beginnerly. It was no comparison to “The Tragic Glass” and “One Eyed Jack” which I loved, but the seeds are there. It is the same hand, though less practiced. She’s particularly good at plot, and that shows here. I liked her handling of names and the mystery of naming in this one as well. That’s well-covered ground and hard to tread with originality and interest, but she manages. There were elves, and I usually hate that, but I didn’t mind so much in this case. If you can win me over like that in a subject I usually reject out of hand then you’re doing something right.
  • The Devil You Don’t“: This was a solid story. The landscape was vivid and convincing, as were most of the characters. There was good tension. Some of the main character’s motivations are not as evident as I would have liked. The narrator arms herself early on in the story and dresses up in men’s clothes, but you’re not sure with what purpose in mind (though you’re in her mind, so it’s annoying that you aren’t shown the motivation). Perhaps Bear was aiming for extra tension but the uncertainty confuses, especially when nothing much happens as a result. I liked the way she weaved familiarity with threat – is the new arrival someone she knows or just someone whose motivations she recognizes? If it’s someone she knows, has he come to punish her or relieve her of the guilt she carries, and are these the same thing? Is he on her side? And what side would that be? All that interplay was superbly executed. The voice of the narrator was especially strong, and she gave her lead character some really great lines. Some of Bear’s sentences are a little heavy-handed : “He frowned–no, sneered at the world with lips that betrayed a certain sensuality, arrogance, and old pain.” and “His spurs made a little sound as he walked, reminding me of the sound made by a rattlesnake, or dried leaves blowing across stone.” Still, even the overwritten sentences are lyrical to some degree. I was pleased when one of the other pieces starred the same character as this one. In fact, this story and “Ice” work better if read together than either one does on its own, although there’s some repetition that becomes unnecessary, but I suppose that can’t be helped. There’s also a lovely contrast of landscapes between the two stories that adds a dimension to the character that otherwise isn’t explicit.
  • Ice“: Another great story. I’ll have to admit to some scarcity of knowledge of Norse myth that interfered with what I could take in on this one. I know who Loki is and all that, but I was a little lost on the hierarchy of heaven’s warriors. I gather that the protagonist is some kind of holy footsoldier, and not a full on valkyrie, but not much beyond that. I also wasn’t sure on the mechanics of the Light/not Light business, but I was willing to take what I was told at face value and roll with it. I’m generally a reasonably good suspender of disbelief that way. I like the way this story was just one person’s view of a huge cataclysmic event, and I really liked the author’s choices on the circumstances which allowed the narrator to survive. Great opening line. I’ve been looking at that a lot, great opening lines, because I so rarely have them.
  • The Chains That You Refuse“: This wasn’t one I liked. It was alright, I don’t mean to imply that it was dreadful or anything, but I didn’t like the ending. It came off a little too rainbowy for me. There were, perhaps, things I didn’t catch about the story, but I don’t have the interest level to give it a second reading. I’m not the most astute of readers and things sometimes slip past me or go over my head, but neither am I particularly slow. I figure I must have missed something because if I didn’t there’s nothing much there. While it’s true that authors should not have to dumb down for the sake of readers, it’s also true that if you want to reach a wide audience you have to speak to that wide audience and a substantial number of us are going to peg right on average for comprehension skills. It wasn’t a problem with the use of second person either. The story was just a little too, I don’t know, melodramatic, I guess. I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • Old Leatherwings“: This was probably the best of the lot. I think it’s just behind the favorites I reviewed earlier. Unlike “Chains” this one had a fantastic ending. Just great. And it seemed to have humor alongside its dose of drama, which in my opinion makes it more realistic. I loved all the characters in it. I loved the fairy tale twist, and the setting right of the things gone wrong for too long. It was eloquently written too, wonderful phrases like the wry “Maybe my hogs will butcher and smoke their own selves come fall.” and “A white tree thrust between the tumbled granite blocks of his rude shelter, an accusing finger pointed at the sky.” It was a delightful read and I can easily recommend it.

So that, in summary, is what I think of various and sundry of Elizabeth Bear‘s works. I checked my local bookstore for a used copy of Hammered but no luck, alas.

iTunes says I was listening to Satellite by BT when I posted this. I have it rated 4 stars.

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I’ve been turning over in my mind something from one of Merrie Haskell‘s recent entries on writing, and it is this : “1) Internet (after work) shall not exceed reading. Reading shall exceed internet, in fact, by a 4:1 ratio.” I spend too much time on the internet. The internet is my TV. I have no TV to cut out in order to gain more writing time, because I don’t watch any. Oh, but I spend plenty of time on the internet. So that’s what’s getting fleeced next. I’m not a big ratio person, but I think I can roll with an hour of reading buying me 15 minutes of internet. I think I need an egg timer, though. Oh and btw, blogging? That counts as internet. Reading blogs and writing in blogs both count. Maybe that, if nothing else, will finally work to make my postings more concise. I’d actually be happy enough with a 2:1 ratio, but why not set my goals higher? This means that despite all the new blogs I’ve found that I want to read, I’m not going to add anything to my regular list right now. I’m also going to be ruthless about giving people the hatchet or not fully reading their posts if they meander too much. I hope you’ll do the same for me. Neil Gaiman, of course, gets a pass no matter how far afield he wanders in his ruminations. (But you already knew that, didn’t you?)

So because I have a contrary nature, I have to immediately think of ways to defeat any rules I come up with (or borrow) to improve myself. Call it my inner hacker. In some situations, this urge might be a good quality. Like in… or when… or… confound it. Good quality or not, it’s my leopard’s spots, and it’s not changing anytime soon. And so I’ve been poking at the rule, thinking about what can be exceptions. One of the things I’ve decided to make not count against my internet time, is reading actual stories. So if I join a critique group and start reading for credits, for example, that won’t count against my 4:1 ratio (and it might even count for it, hah!). Also, reading fiction from online magazines like Strange Horizons is still reading (and also research into markets!), so it doesn’t count either.

I hadn’t realized that I’d read that many online stories until I started trying to find one in particular for this review and was stumbling through my history. Was that it? No. How about that one? No. And that one? No. So now I’ve got a good handful of stories to review, where I was really only thinking about doing one or two. Where to start?

The toss-away, I guess. “Alien Animal Encounters” by John Scalzi was amusing, quick to read, and enjoyable but of no particular depth. I imagine he tossed this one together pretty quickly. If you want a quick ten minute break story, this will probably be your ticket. It will demand nothing of you and give you chuckles in return. It will be over in just the right number of words and leave you smiling. Like a clever commercial, or a funny piece out of an earlier incarnation of The Onion. Still, I do tend to like a tad more meat on my stories, as a general rule, which is what makes this one the toss-away.

Next I’m going to talk about Elizabeth Bear. She has a new book out called Hammered that various and sundry internet people keep saying good things about, but that for some reason I’ve not been particularly excited about and hadn’t felt any urge to buy. Still, I kept hearing her name all over the place, so when I found some of her stories online, I read them. I’d be exaggerating if I said my reaction was wow, totally blown away, that was incredible. Yet without going that far, I will assert that she’s truly a gifted writer. I read five stories in all:

I listed those in the order I read them. There was about a month between my reading of the first and second stories, and about three days passed in my reading of the next four. Once I’d read “One-Eyed Jack” I was hungry enough for more to try and hunt down anything she’d written online. I do now have a keen interest in reading Hammered (but alas, no cash to indulge on new books).

“One Eyed Jack” is hands down the best of those stories, and the one I would recommend vociferously and without caveat to anyone out there looking for a great read and a taste of Bear. I relished the premise. I loved what was funny and what was serious and how these were juxtaposed. There’s some archetypes that are so played out you think they can’t be used in new ways, and then someone like Bear picks them up and breathes new life in them and makes them all sparkly again. I liked the pacing, the opening line, the characterizations. In short, I liked everything about the piece and can’t really think of a single ding against it. Go read it now, and enjoy. Tell them I sent you.

Second prize would have to go, in my opinion, to “This Tragic Glass”. Bear succeeded in making this tale riveting even though it was filled with elements that I would have thought so cheesy had someone told me about them instead of my having read them. Everything just worked perfectly within the story. It was a happy little clockwork of cohesion and coherence. I love it when every aspect of a story, no matter how disparate, just serves to pull it more decisively together. This story was so polished. Bear has an undeniable gift for language. I could have used just a smidgen less bludgeoning on how touch averse one of the primary characters was, but other than that it was a wondrous, magical tale. She also very deftly managed a largeish ensemble (for a short story) of characters here. I knew who everyone was: they were all necessary to the plot, and quite easily distinguishable.

We go a little downhill from here but I want to make clear that downhill for Bear is more like a small slope. “Two Dreams on Trains” and “Follow Me Light” are both fine stories that would be well worth the time it takes to read them, they just didn’t have quite the luster of the other two. “Botticelli” is fanfic and I found it fine and even clever in parts but not as meaningful as some of the other stuff. In particular the worlds in all the stories (except “Botticelli” which obviously takes place in a pre-established world) are expertly crafted. Even when the characters are not as convincingly drawn as I might like, the worlds are. I guess that both “Two Dreams on Trains” and “Follow Me Light” left me a bit unsatisfied because at the end of them I still had questions about the world. There were things I wanted to know that I couldn’t let go of just because she’d stopped, if you know what I mean. And even though I’d gladly have read more of the worlds in “One Eyed Jack” and “This Tragic Glass” the story resolution was enough to satisfy me in both cases, so I wasn’t hung up on little unexplained details about the world.

In short, Bear’s a genuine talent, and someone to watch for. If you find stories of hers online that I’ve missed, be sure and point them out to me.

And lastly, I’m going to review another Joe Hill story. I visited his site after he’d left a comment, and discovered that he has a pdf of one of his stories available for download. It says something about being available for active members of the HWA yadda yadda which I’m clearly not, but heck, I couldn’t resist it, especially not after seeing the spooky artwork for it. It’s apparently been nominated for some kind of award, and I can easily see why. “The Black Phone” is one of those white-knuckled grip reads. You just cannot put it down. Of course, at the end you realize the horror of it all was mostly your own imaginings of all the terrible things that you were so sure must happen (not that terrible things don’t happen because duh, it’s horror, only what you think is always so much worse than what is and this story illustrates that really well). Great closing line too, and I won’t say anything else because I don’t want to spoiler a really prickly, gooseflesh inducing read. Good pacing, lots of tension, great visual imagery. Go on, you know you want to read it.

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I don’t watch TV, but this still makes me laugh, especially the progression from mild distaste to utter confusion and disgust. So go read the funny Things I’d Probably Say If the Bush Administration Were Just a Weekly TV Show and I Were a Regular Viewer. [Link courtesy of someone in my friendly chizat room, I don’t remember who, though it was probably Legomancer].

iTunes says I was listening to At the River from the album Essential Selection Vol. 1 (disc 2) (Mixed by Fatboy Slim) by Groove Armada when I posted this. I have it rated 3 stars.

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It’s that time again, time to go over yet another short story anthology. I was pretty excited about this one, but ended up having to really struggle to get through McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon. I think it took me the better part of two weeks to read, and it only has 15 stories. Some stories were so long, and the buildup painfully slow, that I lost interest in the middle of them. If I can put the thing down for two days in the middle of your story, somehow it fails. If I’m not drawn back to it, and I’m not curious to see how it ends or what happened to your people and finishing your story starts to take on the sense of a chore, something’s not right about it. I wouldn’t deem any of the stories in it terrible, but some of them felt clunky and awkward and others dealt with subjects I’m just not interested in at all.

The contents listing is below, where I’ll discuss each one briefly.

  1. Margaret Atwood – Lusus Naturae : This was a disappointing way to start off the volume. I loved Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and would once have considered her among my favorite authors, but increasingly I have found her writing to be thin and wandering. This story should have been pretty strong, told in first person by an outcast, but it read like a summary of a story rather than the story itself. It also unsuccessfully tried to break the traditional short story unity (time, place, location) by spanning a lifetime in about six pages. It is probably the weakest story in the volume and it struggles with what it’s about. Needs more focus. I think had Atwood’s name not been attached to it, it would have been rejected. Then again, it’s possible I know nothing about how publishing works, and someone out there thought this was great stuff.
  2. David Mitchell – What You Do Not Know You Want: This was an intriguing piece of work. I think it must have been well-executed. I felt an inner struggle while reading it because I wanted not to like the story because I didn’t like the voice of the narrator. I’m fairly sure that voicing the tale in the words of a despicable character was intentional on the author’s part and I think it was compellingly executed. The story itself is strange, though, and you’re never sure what’s magic and what’s just broken in this guy’s brain. I suspect it draws on mythologies I’m unfamiliar with and that some of the characters would have more meaning for me if I knew more about what they were supposed to represent. I didn’t love this piece, but I can tell it’s good anyways.
  3. Jonathan Lethem – Vivian Relf : This story was well-written, but it did nothing for me. I thought it would grip me actually, since it dealt with deja vu, but it kind of uses that as a starting place and then immediately proceeds to depart from that to nowhere I’m interested in and ends up being a tale about relationships and moves from party to airport to dinner party to places where people are anonymized and I think I get what is being said but zzzzzzzzzz….
  4. Ayelet Waldman – Minnow: I was predisposed against this story, because of disparaging remarks made by Poppy Z. Brite in her journal a few months back, but I actually quite liked it. [SPOILER] Yes, the breast milk sex kind of squicked me, but I thought it fit and it worked in the context of the story.
  5. Steve Erickson – Zeroville: Blah blah blah, lots of references to movies I’ve never seen, talk about filming techniques yadda yadda, interesting premise and you really had me there for a minute with the talk about the left-hand side and the right-hand side, but really, a story about films? I could sort of sense the tension building but since even the resolution requires having analyzed movies I haven’t even heard of to be understood, this one was one of those stories clearly not directed at me. I give it a resounding shrug.
  6. Stephen King – Lisey and the Madman: Hmmmmm. What to say about this one? I liked it, I really did. It was quite an intense character study. It was well-paced (as to be expected, that’s King’s greatest gift, in my opinion). And yet. The writing was sloppy in places. I was surprised. Maybe he just tossed it off quick-like and didn’t cut the pieces that needed cutting. It also went on just a tad too long. There was a point to that, the slow time and the dragging and how everything was captured by Lisey’s eyes, every detail. But, it needn’t have been quite so long to have made its point, I think.
  7. Jason Roberts – 7C: Wow. This was the standout story of this volume. I’ve never heard of Jason Roberts. The blurb says this is “his first published fiction” but I don’t know exactly what that means. Is he a science writer that has just turned his hand to fiction? Is this the first thing he’s written? I don’t know. It’s a great, great story, though. Grips you, creeps you out, and leaves your mind whirling when the implications of what’s happening set in.
  8. Heidi Julavits – The Miniaturist: This story was well served by having been preceded by Jason Robert’s. It’s the same tone, and while not as ambitious, is carefully structured and well-told. A solid, enjoyable read. At about this time, I started again looking forward to the stories in this book.
  9. Roddy Doyle – The Child : Which is a shame because this story was mightily ehhhhh.
  10. Daniel Handler – Delmonico: But then there was this charming little piece, which I really enjoyed, despite its being steeped in worn archetypes. The setting and the people were great.
  11. Charles D’Ambrosio – The Scheme of Things: Only it was followed by this one, which is the one (there’s always one) from this anthology that I completely forgot and needed to look back into the book to remember anything about. It wasn’t terrible and I liked it while I read it but it didn’t stick.
  12. Poppy Z. Brite – The Devil of Delery Street: This story, like King’s, was a type of character study. I quite enjoyed it. I like reading about New Orleans, though, so its appeal may not be universal.
  13. China Mieville – Reports of Certain Events in London. Ok, this Mieville guy is just the bomb. How come no one is recommending his books to me? I’ve got to get Scar or Perdido Street Station and soon. This was the story in the work that made me sit up and go, “Ooooooh, I wish I’d written that.” Everything about it was artfully done. China is like one of those close up magicians who makes you think if you went home and practiced a couple of times with a deck of cards you could probably do this same thing and wouldn’t that just rock? I’m sure it’s harder than it looks, though, since the story I’ve read recently that works in the same way as this one with bits of found and described media as the focus of the narration had some holes and fell rather short of this. [That was “The Prospect Cards” by Don Tumasonis from The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14, which I reviewed here.]
  14. Joyce Carol Oates – The Fabled Light-house at Vinya del Mar: JCO is almost always, for me, a delight to read and this one was no exception. I love the way she gives respectful nods to all the authors that came before her. This was a creepy story, told in a fairly standard (for horror, anyways) journal style.
  15. Peter Straub – Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle: I enjoyed this story a great deal, but I suspect it has more meaning for published authors. The characters are, after all, a plagiarist, a publisher, a famous author and a reviewer. Yes, there’s plenty of jokes told about all types in it. It was a great ending note for the volume, horror with enough humor mixed in to keep you from having nightmares. I admit that I’ve never known what people see in Straub, but this story has gone at least a small ways to helping me see his gift.

One of the best things about this volume was the artwork before each story done by Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame. All of the art was really good, and in some cases led me to eagerly anticipate stories that later turned out to be duds, but that’s hardly his fault, is it?

Overall this is a volume I do not regret reading, but am very glad I did not purchase. There are not enough stories here that I would be willing to re-read to make it worth the price, nor is there anything in it that I would classify as essential reading, so that I might want to own it for loaning purposes.

iTunes says I was listening to It Makes Me Wonder from the album Songs In Red And Gray by Suzanne Vega when I posted this. I have it rated 4 stars.

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Ok, it’s time to review a couple of anthologies. As you probably recall, I received Flights last year for my birthday and was very excited about it. I was especially eager to read Neil Gaiman’s story in it, called “The Problem of Susan”. I knew it was a Narnia story, about Susan Pevensie. I have always wondered about her myself, about what was wrong with wanting to be grown up. After all, one can’t really help growing up, right? It’s inevitable, and what’s so terrible about embracing that? So, I was quite eager to read this tale.

And now, I must confess that it’s taken me almost six months to write a review of this book because I hated that story. It was awful. It didn’t really address the question, it didn’t explain anything to me, and it was vulgar. I don’t really consider myself much of prude, but there was some really vile imagery in that account. I like Gaiman so much that I didn’t really want to confess how little I liked this short story. In fact, I was scared, for a minute, that I had stopped liking Gaiman altogether, and that I had only imagined that I liked his works. Then, I read The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14 and his fabulous, delightful story in it “October in the Chair” and decided it would be ok to say I didn’t much care for one of his stories if I could immediately follow it up with a story of his I did like.

And that brings us to here, where I review two anthologies side by side, just so that I can point out a Gaiman story that was really, really good to go with the one that was – well – not. I’m going to go over all of the stories in both books and evaluate them. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum, and warned. I will rank the top three or so stories in each.

Flights : Extreme Visions of Fantasy. Overall this was a great collection, with many stories that I expect to re-read. It is a collection I am glad to own, as opposed to having borrowed it from the library. The vast majority of the stories were solid. Some seemed less so by juxtaposition with a few outstanding specimens, but truly, very little in this collection was not worth reading. A number of stories were perfectly suitable, but they were so commonplace and standard that I wondered at their inclusion in a book touted as extreme visions of fantasy. These also suffered from the company of their betters, even when they were well-executed. At almost thirty stories, this collection was a great value, also.

  1. “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” by Robert Silverberg: A great story. I love it when an author can step into archetypes and make them into real people, as Silverberg does here. This was a good choice to start off the volume, with appropriate doses of mystery and obsession.
  2. “Perpetua” by Kit Reed: Although not a gripping tale, this story had a strong narrative voice that rang true. The world was fascinating also, a neo-victorian, machine-driven, apocalyptic landscape that seems familiar without seeming worn. It also has message, and weight, and lets you speculate about the fine line between a parent’s love and a parent’s desire for control.
  3. “The Edges of Never-Haven” by Catherine Asaro: I enjoyed this story when I read it, and thought the concept was intriguing, but it had the same effect that some movies do after you leave the theater, which is that its spell unraveled as soon as I’d read the last word. I found myself worrying on inconsistencies, wondering how things worked when they were offscreen, struggling to hold together a belief in the world. This doesn’t make it a bad story, exactly, but it’s not one you can relish afterwards, or mull over, as so many of the others in this book are.
  4. “Pat Moore” by Tim Powers: This was an excellent story, and my first chance to read anything by Tim Powers, though now I am anxious for more. At first I thought it was dragging a little, and I didn’t think I was going to like it, but it gained momentum and suspense as it proceeded and was so deftly orchestrated that I came to the ending truly invested in it. It’s a very close line between this story and the de Lint story for third place.
  5. “Six Hypotheses” by Joyce Carol Oates: This is the best story in this collection. Hands down, no argument, no possible other choice. It’s an outstanding story: lovingly Lovecraftian, riveting and deeply spooky. I thought it was so good that I literally forced my husband to sit down and read it before I’d gone any further in the book. It is among the best stories I’ve read in years. It will absolutely stay with you, floating up to your consciousness at odd moments to give you shivers. There’s a delicate power in the horror here, what is told and what is not told and the angles of themselves that the characters show when faced with the worst.
  6. “The Silver Dragon” by Elizabeth A. Lynn: This was an adequate rendering of a predictable tale. I enjoyed it, but wondered at its inclusion in the tome. It was so completely pedestrian, so exactly genre-framed, that I didn’t see anything remotely extreme or visionary about it.
  7. “Fallen Angel” by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: This was an interesting piece. It takes a familiar philosophical point of view, that the divine requires the demonic to function. Of course we’re taken along in the point of view of the demon, cynical and trapped, yet with a heart of gold. It worked together beautifully, but still seemed just a little contrived. Worth reading.
  8. “The Following” by P.D. Cacek: This was a very cool little ghost story that I very much enjoyed reading. The characters were very engaging. The story was heart-breaking without being maudlin.
  9. “A Tower with No Doors” by Dennis L. Mckiernan: I really liked this fairy-tale reworking of Rapunzel, but my husband did not care for it. Perhaps I have a weakness for fairy tales. Perhaps he has no patience with them. He did not like the narration frame, which I thought particularly clever. I suppose sometimes taking pleasure in a thing is less about artistry than about whether it strikes you just so, and makes a favorable or unfavorable impression.
  10. “Boomerang” by Larry Niven: Perhaps it was because this was a short-short. I can’t explain it. Maybe I just didn’t understand it. This story was so bad, though, that if it had been longer than about three paragraphs I would have been angry for my wasted time. Without qualms I can say this was the worst bit in the whole collection. Pointless and irritating.
  11. “Wonderwall” by Elizabeth Hand: I felt the same way about this story as I felt about Hand’s book The Glimmering, when I read it many years ago, which makes me think there’s something about her style that causes my reaction. There’s always an extra layer between me and the narration, a distance, like I’m reading a newspaper account that relays what’s happening in the story instead of the story itself. Everything feels remote, unconnected to me. The characters themselves have no impact on me and I’m never fully involved in what’s going on. As such, the story creates no deep emotions in me. I neither hated it nor loved it. It was there, I read it, it seemed alright.
  12. “Bload, Oak, Iron” by Janny Wurts: I very much enjoyed this story, although it was another one of those which made me ask where the extremes were. It didn’t seem to break new ground in any direction.
  13. “Riding Shotgun” by Charles de Lint: This was my first encounter with Charles De Lint, but it will not be my last. This was a superb story. Intricate, well-versed, satisfying. A most peculiar mix of the real and the magical, vividly described. I am eager to see whether all his worlds have this intensity, strange beauty, and realism.
  14. “Demons Hide Their Faces” by A.A. Attanasio: I have often looked at Attanasio’s books in the bookstore, attracted by their cover art. I’m interested in Arthurian stories, as well, and I have often considered reading The Dragon and The Unicorn. It is unlikely now, that I will do so, because of how little I liked this story. The language was overwrought and pretentious, and perhaps this was an attempt to set tone but I think it failed. The story was boring and predictable. The characters were eye-rollingly dim-witted.
  15. “Relations” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: A very skillfully pulled together story that uses juxtaposition to great effect. Quite delightful. This is the first time I recall reading anything by this author, and I would not shy away from reading more of her work.
  16. “Tourists” by Neal Barrett, Jr.: This story had a little more of the gross-out factor than I’m normally comfortable with in a tale, but none of it was spurious. It was quite good regardless, and though it’s a little heavy handed with its message, its characters were realistic and sympathetic. It was one of those stories which would make a good Twilight Zone episode, if you know what I mean.
  17. “The White Man” by Thomas M. Disch: There are two stories in this book that are not bad stories, but made me just shake my head and ask,”Why?” This was one of them. You know the old writing adage “Write what you know”? Well, I’m not saying I truly buy into that, and there’s ways and ways of knowing a thing and I like an author who takes risks and frames what he knows in new arenas. But this wasn’t that. This was a middle-aged white guy’s choosing to write a black, immigrant, teen point of view and never quite bridging the gap to authenticity. It can be done, I’m sure, but it wasn’t done here. I’ve been curious about Disch’s Camp Concentration for some time now, but it has fallen lower on my list of must-reads after this little debacle.
  18. Out of the Woods by Patricia A. McKillip: I think I read this story and liked it, but I just glanced at the opening and the ending of it to see if I could refresh my memory and came up blank. I guess that tells you something about it.
  19. “Perchance to Dream” by David Morrell: I didn’t expect to like this story, but I did, very much. Perfect for this collection.
  20. “Coming Across” by Harry Turtledove: This story wasn’t dreadful, but it was, well, I don’t know how to put it delicately so I won’t try : it was embarrassingly dopey. First of all it has elves, and I really find elves tiresome most of the time. Secondly, [*SPOILER*] it’s about elves that get AIDS. And yes, it’s as stupid in execution as it sounds in summary.
  21. “The Problem of Susan” by Neil Gaiman: Sadly, I didn’t like this story. I’m willing to say it’s just me, that I hold Narnia in too high regard and can’t see past the blasphemy to how good this one really is. I wanted to like it, though, and failed.
  22. “Keeper of Lost Dreams” by Orson Scott Card: Here’s another middle-aged white guy writing with a young black voice from the ghetto and again, failing to be convincing. To add insult to injury, this story – though interesting in some ways – is intolerably preachy. I love a story with a message; I hate a story wielding its message like a club and smacking me with it repeatedly. I’m probably the only person on the planet who reads science fiction but hasn’t read Ender’s Game. I’m not getting any closer to reading it now and have actually removed it from my wishlist.
  23. “Watchfire” by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts: I really liked this one, and I’m not sure why. I can’t put my finger on it, exactly, but I thought it was a really strong story. I’m always intrigued by works in collaboration, and sometimes look for the places where one pen ends and the other begins.
  24. “Tots” by Peter Schneider: Another story which was doomed from concept. [*SPOILER*]Kids pimped for to-the-death wrestling matches. And yes, I understand that it’s satire, but I just found it dumb, ok?
  25. “Jupiter’s Skull” by Jeffrey Ford: This is the story that I think Attanasio was trying to write and failed to. It’s quite good, another solid well-told tale that makes this collection as a whole as good as it is.
  26. “Death’s Door” by Terry Bisson: I told my husband, only half-jokingly, that I liked this story better when it was called Pet Sematary. I didn’t mind reading it, and it certainly wasn’t anywhere near the worst story in this collection, but this was a story whose concept was better than its execution (unlike others in this collection, whose execution was fine, but started from a concept that was just never going to work) and it failed to really get off the ground and soar. Certainly no story that deals so directly with death can be considered an extreme vision of anything. That ground’s been well-covered.
  27. “Bill, the Little Steam Shovel” by Joe R. Lansdale: This was cute and made me chuckle. I guess there’s something a little extra in it for parents, who may have to read asexual versions of this story a dozen times a day to their children.
  28. “Sleepover” by Al Sarrantonio: Some stories have a fairly narrow target audience, and I think this story does not work unless you have kids of your own. If you do happen to have kids, it’s utterly bone-chilling. I thought it was a great story, but a childless (or childfree, if that’s your preferred descriptor) friend of mine who read it found it meh.
  29. “Golden City Far” by Gene Wolfe: This was a fantastic story. I rate it second best in the collection. I first read Gene Wolfe in high school, when I got a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer. Indeed, it is one of the few books I had in high school that I have managed to hang onto. I am aching to go back and re-read this series, because I am slowly but surely realizing how much of a genius Wolfe is, and how intelligently he treats his readers. Do not expect to be coddled when you read Gene Wolfe. He will challenge you. If you rise to the challenge, you will be well rewarded. This story is no exception to that. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14. I read this to re-acquaint myself with what is going on in the horror genre these days in order to know how inadequate (or not) my own horror writings might be for submission. I enjoyed this collection, and felt it had several very fine stories in it, but I came away with the feeling that not much of anything remarkable is going on in the horror field. Which is good news for me, I guess, in terms of competition. And also good news for me in the sense that I just borrowed it from the library and didn’t pay money for it.

  1. “October in the Chair” by Neil Gaiman : This is a great story, an homage to Bradbury that evokes him in the fondest way and leaves you with that peculiar sense that Bradbury’s stories always did, which is that much more might be going on, just outside the scope of the story itself. It has been too long since I read Bradbury, and intend to remedy that as soon as I can.
  2. “Details” by China Mieville: I’ve been intrigued by what people have said about Mieville, but read nothing of his until now. This story was creepy and peculiar and quite a good read. There was a solidity and completeness to his world, and all sorts of people that are doing unexplained things inhabit it.
  3. “The Wretched Thicket of Thorn” by Don Tumasonis: The only bad thing I can say about this story was that it did not move me. It was well-written, carefully paced and tightly (though somewhat predictably) plotted. All of that, and I could not be made to care about the people, or what happened to them.
  4. “The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky-Super-Scary-Hallowe’en Horror Nights” by David J. Schow: When I turned the last page of this story, I gave a little shrug. It was cute, I guess. The editor’s paragraph before the story gives Schow’s credits as a lot of film and scripting stuff, and I think that was evident.
  5. “Little Dead Girl Singing” by Stephen Gallagher: This was a very creepy story. Some of the described images are really persistent and disturbing. It works by not revealing what’s actually going on, which is the way I like my horror to work.
  6. “Nesting Instincts” by Brian Hodge: This was a classically grotesque horror tale. It was a good read, with a real shocker of an ending.
  7. “The Two Sams” by Glen Hirschberg: I’m going to have difficulty with this one. It was a ghost story, and I think it struck me in a very personal way. I wept almost continuously while reading it. I don’t expect other people would feel the same way about it. It was beautiful and very sad.
  8. “Hides” by Jay Russel: I’m not familiar with this author, but man, was this a great story. First of all, there’s some extremely clever wordplay. Then there’s Robert Louis Stevenson as a main character. Then there’s a real sense of authenticity in the way people speak, act, and are dressed. I completely believed the time and the setting. I was there. And then POW, what an ending. Great story.
  9. “The Unbeheld” by Ramsey Campbell: Well, I’m not sure what to say here. I know that there’s probably something wrong with me because everyone says Campbell is one of the greats of the field and he does nothing for me. Never has. I keep waiting for the story that opens up my eyes and makes me see how great he is, but I haven’t found it yet. This story was adequate, and he seems talented enough, but I just didn’t care for it.
  10. “Ill Met by Daylight” by Basil Copper: This is the one I don’t remember. As I’ve already returned the book to the library, I can’t re-read the opening and/or the ending to remind myself now what it was about.
  11. “Catskin” by Kelly Link: An odd one. I’m not sure, still, whether I liked it or not. More of a fairy tale than a horror story, really. It was well-written, though, and stretched my mind a bit.
  12. “20th Century Ghost” by Joe Hill: What a great nostalgia piece. This was a wonderful story and it was about so many things at once. Really good.
  13. “Egyptian Avenue” by Kim Newman: I generally like Kim Newman, and this was no exception, although I did think it dragged a bit in places.
  14. “The Boy Behind the Gate” by James Van Pelt: This was a really powerful and effective tale. It was one of those wonderful horror stories that you know gets much, much worse after the last word. I really admire that, when properly done.
  15. “Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea” by Caitlin R Kiernan: Since I’ve read this story I’ve also read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and there’s a definitely strong connection between the two. A good piece, which I enjoyed reading. I liked the subtlety of it.
  16. “The Coventry Boy” by Graham Joyce: Overall, I think this was a good story, but I found myself torn while reading it, and unable to really pin down what aspects of it I didn’t like. Maybe I’m just not that interested in stories about war. There’s nothing specific I can point to as a flaw in it.
  17. “The Prospect Cards” by Don Tumasonis: This was a great story concept. I liked the mystery of it, the half-tellings found in the postcards and the archivist’s descriptions of the collection. However, I couldn’t quite still my inner cataloger during the reading of it, and when the descriptions went a little over the top I was taken out of the story.
  18. “The Cage” by Jeff Vandermeer: This story is really hard to describe. Apparently, it’s set in a world which the author regularly writes about, and the world was really fascinating. I suspect this may be my favorite story in the volume, though it would contest for that position with the Gaiman story and the Russel story. It had some intensely evocative moments, and was completely shudder-inducing as well. The references to the history of the world was pretty compelling, and I’m interested in more.
  19. “Dr. Pretorius and the Lost Temple” by Paul McAuley: A fun, pulpy sort of ride. Not particularly deep, but very engaging. A nice note to finish off the volume on.

Right. I seriously broke my promise about shorter posts. I think it’s ecto‘s fault. On the other hand, it’s not like I’ve posted anything all week, so maybe if you pretend this is five short posts, it will all come out even.

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