Book Review: ‘Sourdough and Other Stories’ by Angela Slatter

Image from NPR.org.
Image from NPR.org.

Readers can dive into a short story collection at any point in the book–unlike with novels, which are usually read from cover to cover.

Not so with Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories. You could read the 16 gems in this book in any order, but to get the full effect of her nesting doll-like structure, you must read them in the order they were presented. How else are you going to realize that some protagonists are descendants of others, or that they all cross paths at some point? Sourdough is not just a masterful collection–it’s a masterclass in how to curate stories for a collection.

Now, I have huge To Be Read piles (yes, piles) that aren’t getting any smaller despite my reading more books this year than the last two years put together, because:

  1. I am also a Book Hoarder, and
  2. Even though I profess my undying love and loyalty to print books, I have to admit that the next best thing to getting books that will not ship to my damn country are eBooks.

I was planning to read something else for my job, but I ended up taking a peek at Slatter’s September-released The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings in my Kindle. Slatter said in her intro that it’s a prequel of sorts to Sourdough and Other Stories, so logically, I exited from my copy and dove right into Sourdough.

I don’t know if my attention span’s grown shorter or there just aren’t enough really riveting books coming out lately or some other truer reason, but there have been so many times when I picked up a book and read maybe a paragraph or even a chapter of, and then put it down, not at all drawn to it again. That was not the case with Sourdough. If I put the book down, it’s because my real life intruded on my reading time; otherwise, it’s hard to leave when the paragraphs look like this from the titular story:

My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.

It didn’t seem to bother her, perhaps because, of them all, she had the greater independence and a measure of prosperity that was all her own. Perhaps that’s why he loved her best. Mother baked very fine bread, black and brown for the poor and shining white for the affluent. We were by no means rich, but we had more than those around us, and there was enough money spare for occasional gifts: a book for George, a toy train for Artor, and a THIN silver ring for me, engraved with flowers and vines.

If that doesn’t grab you, then you have no imagination at all. You get a sense while reading Slatter’s collection that it’s like walking into a bakery–there’s 16 kinds of bread all laid out nice and crisp. But don’t think you’ll know what to get once you pick one up despite such labels like “Gallowberries” or “Dibblespin” or “Little Raddish.” Don’t think that they all taste alike either, oh no–though most of the stories end in a bittersweet way, they each have their own shape, their own distinct flavor.

The only time I felt unsatisfied after reading was after “Under the Mountain.” I got the sense that it and its prequel “Sister, Sister” would have been better next to each other as opposed to being interwoven between “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.” The reason I feel this way is because I feel that, while all the stories are connected, only three sets of paired stories are true sequels to each other, with the third pair being “The Story of Ink” and “Lost Things,” which were next to each other and a little earlier in the collection. “Under the Mountain” ends on such a terribly sour note while “Lavender and Lychgates” had an ending that was a little brighter than most that came before it.

I think Slatter’s stories trained me into thinking that there is hope for each character even beyond their stories, however grim–their appearances in later stories, which also happen to be later times, are proof enough–but “Under the Mountain” was different somehow. The doors of the troll kingdom closing on the protagonist Magdalene don’t just signify the close of the story, the collection; they’re a closing off of all possibilities for her redemption, for finding any love. Of course, a lot of other characters come to such an end elsewhere in Sourdough; I may have hoped that in the roulette of tales Slatter set up, the closing tale would be hopeful, too.

Ultimate favorites from the top of my head include “Gallowberries,” “A Porcelain Soul,” “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.”

I’m really excited to read The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. I feel like it’ll be a little bit like coming home.

Book Review: ‘How the World Became Quiet’ by Rachel Swirsky

Cover of How the World Became Quiet. Image via Amazon.com
Cover of How the World Became Quiet. Image via Amazon.com

Doesn’t that wonderful title just give you a sense of quiet devastation? But I’ll get back to that in a bit.

When reading an author’s work for the first time, I usually prefer getting my hands on a short story collection of theirs, if they have any. That way, I’ll have the option of looking at the rest of their work without having to leave for another webpage or something like that (and because I just really love print books). And if I perceive that their stories just aren’t my thing, well, there’s no loss or shame in having a book I didn’t like/finish. I know so many people whom the book might fit better with.

This book was my first foray into Rachel Swirsky’s writing, of which I’d heard so much about. I have to admit that I was a little hesitant because I couldn’t recall where I’d seen or heard her name before and no story of hers had come to mind.

I was still a little hesitant as I read through the first story in How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, which was the Nebula-winning “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” In it, a murdered sorceress’s spirit is doomed to be summoned again and again over the centuries, until the ending of the world. It was gorgeous and detailed, but the scale of it completely surprised me and I couldn’t quite stop frowning at the text. But there was sharp insight in there and an entrancing melding of searing loneliness and hope beyond hope–I think that’s what kept me reading.

I wasn’t all too into “A Memory of Wind” either, although my guess is because I have reached my saturation point with Greek myths.

The story that finally made me feel glad about reading on was “Monstrous Embrace,” the third tale in this collection. Swirsky’s point of view character is–get this–the spirit of ugliness present in various aspects of a rather generic fairy tale prince’s life.

How the World Became Quiet is divided into four parts: Past, Present, Future, and The End. Most of the fantasy stories are in the Past and Present, the science fictional ones are squarely in the Future, and science fiction and fantasy are side by side in The End.

I usually lean toward fantasy in my reading, but I think I enjoyed Swirsky’s science fiction more. I think it helped–although it wasn’t that big of a reason–that Swirsky’s science fiction stories were shorter than the fantasy ones. I definitely breezed right through that section, whereas it took me the better part of August just getting through the Past and the Present. Those two sections have their fair share of novelettes, whereas the Future and the End have some very short ones less than a handful of pages long. The only story that I didn’t read in the whole collection was “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail,” mostly because the problem lay with me (I had trouble relating to rats, even ones with human feelings, and despite the initial comedic tone).

In her science fiction, she does not use jargon to a dizzying degree, nor does she spend too much time on exposition–and best of all, she doesn’t sacrifice the complexity of human (or post-human or sub-human, or even anthropomorphic animal and spirit) life in favor of a richer setting. Rather, the complexity I mentioned serves to enrich her settings. My favorite story has to be “Eros, Philia, Agape” which is about a human-looking android leaving his wife and adopted daughter in favor of figuring out what it means to possess and to love. I closed the book for a while and wallowed in the feelings that story gave me.

But that is not to say that the fantasy stories don’t have that kind of depth either. “Fields of Gold” was by turns funny, sad, horrifying, repulsive–and yet altogether illuminating. It examines the life and death of the protagonist Dennis, his marriage to antagonist Karen, his relationships with select family members, and what the afterlife might be like for each person (a sort of Five People You Meet in Heaven, although not exactly). It is interspersed with amusing bucket list items from Dennis’s life.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Rachel Swirsky has incredible range of length, voice, character, and ideas. But more than that, she has the gifts of weaving insight into humanity into incredibly poignant moments, of pushing what is harsh and ugly and dark to the fore and humanizing it, of seeing the stories in the margins, to quote “Scenes from a Dystopia” (which is completely surprising in how metafictional it is). She loves writing about the breakdown of human relationships and yet–and yet–within each story, she always puts a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe not a hope of things getting better, but finding hope elsewhere.

I went through a stage in my own writing wherein I thought of crazy ways to tell a story and then dismissed them as silly later on. I feel like Swirsky went through this stage also, but embraced those ideas and turned each of them into a gem whose brilliance is enhanced by the very simplicity of the container. Her stories are quietly devastating–but also quietly uplifting. Read them when you want to have your heart broken.

Book Review: ‘Ventriloquism’ by Catherynne M. Valente

The cover of the author's rare, out-of-print first collection of short stories. Image taken from SubterraneanPress.com via EvilHat.blogspot.com
The cover of the author’s rare, out-of-print first collection of short stories. Image taken from SubterraneanPress.com via EvilHat.blogspot.com

Reading Catherynne M. Valente’s writing is both like taking in a slow breath and being unable to do so. Her words spiral upward, outward, then close in on you, and you will grow dizzy simply trying to keep up with the barrage of living, breathing, sensual ideas.

At least, that’s how her first-ever collection of short stories made me feel. The rare, out-of-print Ventriloquism encompasses six years’ worth of tales, six years’ worth of experimentation both failed and wildly triumphant. And I must say, whether you love or hate her work, this is one hefty, heady mix.

I didn’t read everything, however, having encountered many of the stories in The Melancholy of Mechagirl or in Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales. Maybe it’s just me (and it very likely is, as I often pick apart her writing even as I read a story–especially if it’s one of her form-heavy pieces), but I would have preferred it had the stories been arranged according to year published. Part of the joy of reading Ventriloquism was watching/reading someone whom many already consider pretty great improve again and again, even if the story just didn’t do it for me.  There is something about reading her poetic prose, which straddles opulence and unreadability simultaneously, and then recognizing how she scales it back for particular stories, especially toward the end.

I am thinking particularly of the last nine stories in this 35-story oeuvre: “How to Build a Ladder to the Sun in Six Simple Steps,” “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” (which is going to be a novel in 2015, yay!) “Oh, the Snow-Bound Earth, the Radiant Moon!,” “Golubash (Wine-Blood-War-Elegy),” “Secretario,” “The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World,” “How to Become a Mars Overlord,” “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica,” and “13 Ways of Looking at Space/Time.” Minus the last one (which I’d read in Melancholy) and throw in “A Delicate Architecture” and “The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth,” and you have my favorite stories of this collection.

What do they have in common apart from all having been written by Catherynne M. Valente? I…don’t know. Figuring out what particularly attracts me about her stories is like throwing dice. Whether it’s a detective story of sorts (“Secretario”) or a science fictional elegy about wine and war (“Golubash”) or a retelling of a fairy tale/epic or a narrative encased strange forms (an auction guide, a segment of a collection of folktales, the transcript of a seminar), Valente does not fail to enthrall at best, to pique interest at least.

“Here an author throws her voice—and a family of strange dolls speaks, as if by magic,” reads the intro on the jacket flap. But it’s not just dolls. She can make cities and mirrors and video games and practically anything else she puts her mind to speak, sing, scream. And while she’s at it, she’ll give you incisive insight into human nature, into the nature of story. She’s really good at dissecting patterns then flipping them on their heads for her own purposes.

The only issue I have with a few of them is that a handful feel like novels-in-waiting–and indeed, some of them did turn out so (“A Dirge for Prester John” = The Habitation of the BlessedPalimpsest; and now “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew” will be coming out in 2015 as Radiance). I’ve read in a lot of places that some people actually have novel ideas behind their short stories and that one must learn how to differentiate one from the other. Valente manages sometimes, and other times, she doesn’t. I am of the belief that her comfort length is that of the novella (have you read Silently and Very Fast? If you haven’t yet, you should).

And therein lies the problem whenever I review her work: I always end up talking about her range, assessing her breadth, unable to speak about her work on a micro level because I think to do that would take an entire thesis and a dissertation, and then some. The bottom line is, her fiction takes my heart in its lavishly decorated, well-manicured claws, rips it apart, then presents it again to me whole, but never quite the same.

And I cannot wait to read The Bread We Eat in Dreams.

Book Review: ‘The Melancholy of Mechagirl’ by Catherynne M. Valente

I came to know Japan through its anime and manga culture, through Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows” and Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams and the music of Yuki Kajiura, through the brutality of its soldiers toward the Philippines and other nations during World War II, through an array of sushi restaurants of varying quality, through statistics of its suicides, wacky game shows, offbeat products, gruesome urban legends, and Shinto creation myth.

Image taken from CatheryneValente.com
Image taken from CatherynneMValente.com

It will take several lifetimes to scratch the surface of Japan, but reading Catherynne M. Valente’s newest collection of (Japan-centered and Japan-tinted) short fiction and poetry, The Melancholy of Mechagirl, one gets the sense that—while by no means an in-depth look at the nation—she knows more than the average anime-addicted, J-pop culture-savvy gaijin ever will.

It is hard to talk about this collection of science fiction and fantasy without talking about the author’s two-year experience as a lonely young army wife in a rural military town in Japan. Valente seemed to know this as well, judging from the afterword in which she artfully summarized that experience and established it as the anchoring point of any of her even remotely Japan-related fiction. I read this afterword first because I was genuinely curious about her fascination with Japan, having first encountered and fallen in love with her work in the Orphan’s Tales duology and the Fairyland series. But nobody else need read the afterword first, as it won’t affect the reading of the nine stories and four poems, many of them about a lonely foreign girl—often a writer, too—stuck in a strange, fascinating country.

I’ve got to be honest, though. While Valente is at the top of her game in this collection, it’s her stories that manage to pull back or balance the lonely foreign writer girl situation that really strike a chord. Sometimes, the pain becomes too raw, too engulfing, and maybe at times too specific, as I can’t put myself in the shoes of any character imbued with this sort of angst? I find myself wanting to read more about, say, Kyorinrin and Tsuma rather than Kyorinrin’s roughly-imagined girl Akemi in the semiautobiographical, metafictional story “Ink, Water, Milk,” which is unique to the collection.

Or sometimes, Valente manages to emulate the neatness and the strangeness of Japan a little too well, like in the aforementioned story or in “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai.” Maybe I have Victorian sensibilities, but I can’t seem to grow used to the idea of supernatural beings making love to inanimate objects (or inanimate objects making love to other inanimate objects, for that matter).

“Ghosts of Gunkanjima” is a sad story about the inhabitants of the abandoned factory-island of Gunkanjima, but I know Valente is capable of the kind of sadness that makes you stop reading for a little while and try to even out your breathing. The award-winning “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time” was gorgeously written and a fun read (even if the scientific terms went over my head) because of the comparison of different creation myths and certain points of rebirth in the life of a science fiction writer, but I felt there was still something missing from it.

The collection begins to pick up with “One Breath, One Stroke,” however. The dazzling parade of supernatural creatures somehow reminded me of a scene about walking into a kitsune wedding from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. There was something poignant about the struggle of Ko the old man and Yuu the calligraphy brush, who share the same body, trying to leave a house they can’t leave—the House of Second-hand Carnelian, whose one half is in the human world and the other in the supernatural world.

The kitsune wedding party catches the boy watching their procession. Screenshot from the movie. Image taken from LoqueCoppolaQuiera.blogspot.com
The kitsune wedding party catches the boy watching their procession.
Screenshot from the movie. Image taken from LoqueCoppolaQuiera.blogspot.com

“Story No. 6,” which is unique to the collection as well, is not your conventional story in that the plot is not in trying to catch the elusive Kami haunting old black-and-white reels of Japanese films, but in what happens to the characters and audience members that she takes along with her, never to be seen again. Also, it made me want to Google the films mentioned and find out if they really do have missing scenes and characters.

I don’t go looking for science fiction to read, but sometimes, the stories I do come across are good fun and not at all like the jargon-heavy, techno-savvy stuff that make up much of the genre. “Fade to White” is one such story. I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic USA where everything down to gene and marriage pairings must be regulated, as well as following the story of Martin, who dreams of becoming a Husband, and secretly part-Japanese Sylvie, who would rather not be a Wife. You don’t get to find out what the amusing corrected TV commercial scripts interspersing the narrative are about until the end, but it’s well worth it.

“Killswitch” is novel in that this is my first encounter with a piece of fiction dealing with video games, even if this one is about a near-unplayable game that terminates itself once the end of one of the playable character’s storylines is reached. With only 5,000 copies available, the said game has become an urban legend and people will do anything to crack the code.

The four-part novella “Silently and Very Fast” earns all of its commendations. It will take a little patience to get through the beginning, as readers are immediately introduced to the strange world of Neva and her highly-evolved artificial intelligence, Elefsis. The novella follows Elefsis’s entire life, beginning with his/her/its creation as a less sophisticated Jarvis of the house of celebrated computer programmer Cassian Uoya-Agostino, and his growth as he/she/it is handed down from one vastly different family member to another over hundreds of years. Neva is a lonely girl here, but combined and complemented with the loneliness of Elefsis, it’s a loneliness that circles you until it becomes a nest you can safely, comfortably get warm in. This novella definitely kicked me in the gut. I highly recommend it.

The novella's original cover as a standalone piece of fiction.
The novella’s original cover as a standalone piece of fiction. Image taken from CatherynneMValente.com  

 

I wish I were qualified to talk about the poetry, but I am not. I will say, however, that I enjoyed the titular “The Melancholy of Mechagirl” and its rolling bubblegum-pop scientific jargon. “The Girl with Two Skins” was highly affecting (and probably my absolute favorite among the four poems), and “Memoirs of a Girl Who Failed to Be Born from a Peach” both sad and amusing.

“The Emperor of Tsukayama Park” is probably the most “Japanese” of them all in that it uses a lot of nature imagery and evokes that sense of neatness and ephemerality that the Japanese prize and are known for. In that sense, it is also the one I understood the least, perhaps because it is the one poem less like fiction than all the others.

All in all, The Melancholy of Mechagirl is a lot like wine and a lot like Japan itself—a heady, acquired taste. But once the taste is acquired, I definitely don’t mind getting tipsy with it.