NOTE: the prices listed online fluctuate over time
- Downpour: Downpour, like Audible below, is subscription-based. For $12.99 per month you get one credit. If used wisely the credit can go a long way. For instance, if you were to get with the one credit Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, you’ve just invested in over 55 hours of narrative time. That’s like paying someone 23 cents per hour. Twelve credits a year amount to a $156 commitment, but you can cancel at any time, and get only one credit at a time. This is the same sum as an audible gold membership, so it really is quite even. What I love about Downpour is that they have more indie and hidden gems that are not quite so mainstream, and they constantly have sales going on. I also appreciate that they have a connection to Soundcloud (through Blackstone Audio) where…
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Introduction and Story Content
Beowulf is the foundational text in the English literary canon. It is the only epic in Old English and has been used as a source for a large portion of our vocabulary and understanding of Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was originally composed in an oral tradition and by whom but the manuscript itself has been dated around the year 1000 A.D. There is a large scholarly debate as to whether the manuscript was written in the early part of the 11th century or late part of the 10th century so the compromise agreement settled on 1000. The scholars who have tried to situate the oral poem itself based on syntax, word usage, vocabulary, and references to clans, people, and events include J.R.R. Tolkien who situated the origins in the year 700, about three hundred years prior…
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“Ricardo de Avila would have followed Coronado to the ends of the earth. Instead, Ricardo found the end of his mortal life, and a new one, as a renegade vampire-conquistador.”
The Immortal Conquistador is the 15th installment of the both collaborative, and (mostly) Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series—an urban fantasy series with werewolves and vampires–just what the doctor ordered. This book contributes greatly to the world-building components of Vaughn’s series as it provides a background on Rick the vampire’s origin story.
Set in Rome and Mexico City, we follow Rick struggle with becoming what he hates most, and dealing with components of his conditions and learning to accept them. Rick witnesses the history of western civilization in some of its most gruesome moments and must continue to live with all this knowledge. There is a lot of time hopping in this book but once you get into it it’s very easy to follow. This book leaves a lot of room for development and as it is only an installment I think we’re going to see a lot more of the characters present in The Immortal Conquistador.
What I love about Vaughn’s writing is that she takes you on a fun adventure and secretly sneaks in layers of complexity to her characters where you find yourself thinking about them for days on end. I can’t wait to see where this series is heading!
Last year I read Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician and was overjoyed when Tachyon sent me Ivory Apples. Once again, Goldstein writes a cozy feel-good novel imbued with magic. This book is heartwarming, accessible, and inclusive. It engages with the idea of fandom as much as it looks at complicated family dynamics. This novel follows Ivy whose great-aunt Maeve is famous writer Adela Martin, writer of a fantasy classic called Ivory Apples. Her readers had consumed her works in a very ‘fandom-like’ fashion, now becoming a familiar trend in a post-Potter world. The protagonists in this novel are very young and there are many elements involving school, growing, learning as well as finding out parts of oneself for the first time. Ivy, like her Great-aunt treasures the craft of writing and keeps it close to her heart even when questioned about it in school. Ivy’s relationship with Maeve is also founded on literature, as she received most of the children’s classics from her, and somehow Ivy’s whole world seems to be around Ivory Apples through the engagement with Maeve’s fans (and seeing as they are hard to avoid, some haters as well). The narrative takes a turn once the line between real life and fantasy is blurred. In the process of being thrown into the unknown, Ivy grows even closer to her family. It’s a wonderful bonding novel, ideal for anyone ages 10 and up! I see this being a children’s book, YA, and adult fantasy all at once.
Ivory Apples will be released October 15, 2019 and is currently available for pre-order.
Introduction and Story Content
Beowulf is the foundational text in the English literary canon. It is the only epic in Old English and has been used as a source for a large portion of our vocabulary and understanding of Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was originally composed in an oral tradition and by whom but the manuscript itself has been dated around the year 1000 A.D. There is a large scholarly debate as to whether the manuscript was written in the early part of the 11th century or late part of the 10th century so the compromise agreement settled on 1000. The scholars who have tried to situate the oral poem itself based on syntax, word usage, vocabulary, and references to clans, people, and events include J.R.R. Tolkien who situated the origins in the year 700, about three hundred years prior to it being set in text. Since then several scholars have verified and defended Tolkien’s stance.
The story of Beowulf contains 3182 lines and is divided into three almost equal parts, identified by the various ‘monsters’ the protagonists must face. Beowulf, a prince of the Geats, hears of his neighbour Hrothgar’s troubles. Hrothgar resides in his Kingdom of the Danes as the poem introduces itself “wē Gār-Dena” literally translated as “we, the Spear-Danes.” Hrothgar’s mead hall is terrorized by a monster named Grendel repeatedly. No man had been strong enough to face the monster and defeat him. The Geats (OE: gēatas) would be what is now South Sweden and was at the time a North Germanic Tribe, and the Danes (OE: danēs) were where Denmark is now. What is curious is that the first English epic and the first English hero is from Sweden, especially since the Viking Raids were detrimental to English monasteries, manuscripts, and culture. Although the Vikings were Nordic military and their attacks happened between the oral tradition of the poem and its immortalization in text, it is still interesting given these relations that the first English hero, is not English.
Beowulf defeats Grendel and there is much rejoicing, after which Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Beowulf and Hrothgar for killing her son. The idea of avenging was a widely accepted concept in Anglo-Saxon England, and many argue that Grendel’s mother is not so monstrous and uncivilized, because what she seeks is quite noble by Anglo-Saxon standards. Beowulf defeats her as well after which he departs and returns to Geat-land. Years go by, and near the end of his life Beowulf must face a dragon who has been guarding a treasure-hoard. In the process of defending his people and defeating the Dragon, Beowulf dies. The poem is concluded with a funeral service. There have been parallels drawn between the funeral mentioned in Beowulf and burial ship found at Sutton Hoo in England near Woodbridge, Suffolk.
In terms of content one may be able to see parallels between Beowulf and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly the dragon Smaug who is also sitting on a treasure-hoard in The Hobbit. Tolkien was not only one of the biggest Beowulf fans he was one of the few to make it canon. According to his biographers, when Tolkien gave a lecture on Beowulf in front of a large group of scholars:
“Tolkien’s argument changed forever the landscape of Beowulf scholarship. He said what everyone wanted to hear but no one had mustered the courage to say: that Beowulf was a great poem, a joy to read, a masterpiece of mythopoeic art.”
Tolkien brought Beowulf into scholarship studies by being highly influential, and yet his greatest contribution was brining Beowulf into mainstream culture. Due to the large success of Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit, Fantasy as a genre began to grow with a formula: landscape (maps), new language, and dragons were almost always present. The Elvish language Tolkien created was heavily influenced by Old English, and so, fans would work their way backwards and find their way to Beowulf. From my personal experience, as I was sitting in an undergraduate class of Old English, I noted that a large group of the class was sitting there because of their love for Tolkien (as they mentioned it outright).
As mentioned earlier, the manuscript containing the written text of Beowulf was written around the year 1000. According the British Library
“we do know that the manuscript was produced by two scribes, working in collaboration, but whose handwriting suggests that they were trained at different times, and were significantly different in age. The first scribe copied the texts at the beginning of the book, together with the opening part of Beowulf itself. His counterpart, clearly working at the same time and place, took over the middle of a line, and brought Beowulf to its conclusion, besides adding Judith. To judge by his hand writing, the second scribe was trained late in the tenth century; the first, in contrast, writes a script more typical of the period after 1000. The most likely time for them to have collaborated in the early decades of the eleventh century, possibly during the reign of Æthelred the Unread (978-1016), when England was subjected to waves of Danish attacks.”
The script itself is insular writing and a clear result of communal collaboration. Such scribes (monks) would evidently be in a monastery. The manuscript’s place of origin is also uncertain but the poem’s language is “Late West Saxon, but preserving earlier dialectical forms.” Given that we have no other proof in writing, academics have speculated and agreed that this manuscript remained in a monkish community until King Henry VIII had the religious revolt and reform across England.
The first person to write a name within this manuscript is Laurence Nowell (d.c.1570). Kevin Kiernan argues that Nowell most likely acquired it thorough William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, in 1563, when Nowell entered Cecil’s household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Nowell himself was a pioneer in Anglo-Saxon studies, and his signature on the opening leaf of this manuscript is on its opening leaf, dated 1563.
The inscription is not on the incipit page of Beowulf because the Beowulf manuscript is part of a larger collection within the “Nowell Codex.” Rather, the inscription is on the first page of the Homily on St. Christopher.
Soon after, the manuscript found its way to Sir. Robert Cotton (d. 1631). Cotton was a politician, and a collector of manuscripts, as well as printed books and other antiquities. Cotton’s method of organizing his large collection was based on various shelves having the bust of a Roman Emperor on it placing this codex under Emperor Vitellius’s. Cotton however, had a habit of binding together manuscripts and works that had unrelated origins. He pieced together the Nowell Codex to the Southwick Codex into one larger, leather-bound codex known as Cotton Vitellius A XV. In an essay titled “Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the ‘Little-Known Country’ of the Cotton Library” Eileen Joy wrote about the cataloguing of the Cotton Library. After Cotton passed away, Reverant Thomas Smith (1638-1710) and Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) were hired to catalogue his library. According to Joy:
“The Beowulf manuscript itself was identified by name for the first time in an exchange of letters in 1700 between George Hickes, Wanley’s assistant, and Wanley. In the letter to Wanley, Hicks responds to an apparent charge against Smith, made by Wanley, that Smith had failed to mention the Beowulf script when cataloguing Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV. Hickes replies to Wanley ‘I can find nothing yet on Beowulph.’”
The theory that Kiernan has on the matter is that Smith failed to mention the Beowulf manuscript because of his reliance on previous catalogues, or because he had no idea how to describe it, or because it was temporarily out of the codex.
Cotton however, hired a ‘librarian’ named Richard James (d.1638) to write an index at the beginning of the two combined codices. He seemed to have dismembered the Psalter for use as binding-leaves in 1612 and sewn the two codices, Southwick, and Nowell together. In an attempt to make sense of what is in in it he pasted a parchment page at the very front with a legend/index.The final product of what was in the codex is as follows, according to the British Library:
“This manuscript contains four separate items, bound together for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631):(i) f 1: Psalter leaf (now removed to form London, British Library, MS Royal 13 D I*, f 37); (ii) f 3: Medieval endleaf, containing historical memoranda; (iii) ff 4–93: Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia (ff 4r–59v: imperfect); Gospel of Nicodemus (ff 60r–86v: imperfect); Debate of Saturn and Solomon (ff 86v–93v); homily on St Quintin (f 93v: imperfect); (iv) ff 94–209: Homily on St Christopher (ff 94r–98r: imperfect); Marvels of the East (ff 98v–106v); Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (ff 107r–131v); Beowulf (ff 132r–201v); Judith (ff 202r–209v: imperfect). f 2 is a 17th-century Cottonian endleaf.”
Because Robert Cotton would ‘catalogue’ his manuscripts by means of which Roman Emperor’s bust would be above it, this manuscript, sewn together, happened to be under Emperor Vitellius. Thus it being 15th on the first A shelf, it is known and still labelled to this day as “Cotton, Vitellius MS A. XV.” Sometimes in papers when scholars refer to Beowulf alone they may bring up the Nowell Codex as its own entity and discuss it as such. The British Library however, knows it by the Vitellius name and that is how it is catalogued.
The leaf detached from a fourteenth-century English Psalter (f.1), was reunited in 1913 with other parts of the same volume, the early modern contents-page (f2.), as mentioned before was written by Cotton’s ‘librarian,’ and a late-medieval English endleaf (f3) containing historical memoranda in Latin and Anglo-Norman French.
After Cotton passed away, his son, and then grandson inherited it, but by 1702 the Beowulf-manuscript, was given to the nation and eventually moved to Ashburnham House at Westminster. This particular manuscript was there almost untouched or studied and was left of it. In time some parts deteriorated, as mentioned, it was bound in leather and the pages were parchment so it was susceptible to pests and mould. It had survived about 700 years thus far, and on October 23 of 1731 there was a massive fire where hundreds of manuscripts were severly damaged either by fire or water and thirteen of them were completely destroyed. The collection was moved to the British Museum in 1753. But the manuscript remained in its original biding, and mothering was done to stop the dry, brittle pages from disintegrating. In about 1786, about 50 years after the fire, Danish scholar Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin came to the Museum, looking for documents relating to Denmark. He made two complete copies of the manuscript (the first time ever a copy was made), one by a professional copyist and the other by himself.
Torkelin returned to Copenhagen which was then bombed in 1807 by the British (Napoleonic Wars). Thorkelin’s house burned, but the two transcripts were saved. This aided Thorkelin in producing the first printed edition of Beowulf in 1815. Over time, the original manuscript back in England, was severely deteriorating. Keeping in mind that no one was tending to it, and it had recently survived a fire. The margins and even some of the text itself gradually crumbled.
Because Thorkelin brought Beowulf to light, in 1833 there were preparations for the first (modern English translation) English edition of Beowulf so the manuscript was brought up for examination when for the first time curators noticed that the neglected manuscript was in critical condition. Luckily, Thorkelin’s transcription of the manuscript helped us piece the missing text together. In 1845, the British Museum took steps to preserve what remained. The manuscript’s restoration is owed to Sir Frederic Madden (d.1873), keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, and Henry Gough, who rebound its leaves in 1845. They mounted each leaf on a paper frame and the manuscript was rebound. The tape still obscured some of the letters as you can see in both figures one and two above. The translation used frequently before more translations appeared was that of William Morris associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and A.J. Wyatt, published it in 1895 as The Tale of Beowulf, Sometime King of the Folk of the Weder Geats.
After that the text came to surface, more translations were in the making. Some would directly translated, as others tried to maintain meter, and rhythm. Others would try to make poetic renditions. In time, Tolkien and the Beowulf/Anglo-Saxon scholarship had grown into what was discussed in the introduction. The 20th century was a renaissance for Beowulf and it was immediately incorporated in the English curriculum.
In 1973 the British Library took hold of the manuscript, where it remains today. I was assured in an email from the British Library that:
“[the Beowulf Manuscript] is regularly displayed in our Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, under controlled temperature and light conditions. The amount of time it can spend on display is carefully regulated, and it is frequently removed for periods of rest.” 
I asked the British Library if the manuscript has gone any treatments in terms of conservation, particularly in the times it is not on display. The response I received was:
“Dear Andreea, I asked the curator responsible for the Beowulf MS (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) and he replied as follows: I’m not aware of any information we hold about the conservation of the Beowulf manuscript and this hasn’t happened since I’ve been at the BL (about 10 years).”
Post-Thorkelin bibliographers and scholars such as Sir Frederick Madden and John Josias Conybeare contributed to the production of study-worthy manuscripts of Beowulf by creating their own transcriptions and collations. Equally as significant were the many translations of Beowulf that have been surfacing. While some maintained direct translation, others like the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, tried to adapt it in a poetic style to resemble a folk/poetic song. Many people have translated and published their translations of Beowulf, Heaney’s being the most recently famous. Tolkien himself had translated Beowulf and his son Christopher recently published in 2016, Tolkien’s translation. It being in the public domain, and widely studied, the amount of scholarship on content, language, syntax, history, and literary analysis, as well as existing translations are countless. This phenomenon is not included in the manuscript’s history, but the content is now immortalized.
Kiernan did not digitize only the original Beowulf, he also digitized Thorkelin’s two transcriptions as well as Conybeare’s and Madden’s. The beauty of Beowulf’s digital form is that one may look at the copy of the medieval manuscript alongside Thorkelin’s transcription and interact with the digital transcription simultaneously using it as a study aid in translation for content, but also in the study of bibliography. By comparing variations in the different copies and through different lighting Kiernan observed for instance how Nowell or a post-medieval forger may have tried to ‘freshen up’ some of the writing as it is visible through the layers of ink on the palimpsest. Kiernan preserves and shows in his digitization project all the details revealing the long history mentioned above of the manuscript’s provenance—such as script, inscriptions, etc.
In addition to the facsimile-like scans of each transcript, the manuscript, and variations in writing, the website contains metadata. There are glossaries, indication of recto and verso, bright light digitizations (and in response to ultraviolet) to give the student the full bibliographic experience without missing a single detail. Kiernan’s intended audience for this work of art is not necessarily the English student as it does not include various translations of Beowulf such as
Seamus Heaney’s or even Conybeare’s. Kiernan includes only the raw materials (including access to an Old-English translation) to give the student a similar experience to interacting with the primary sources only. In the website including the digitization project, particularly in the acknowledgements section Kiernan attached a presentation titled “Electronic Beowulf Archives, 1993-1997” where Kiernan writes:
“The equipment we are using to capture the images is the Roche/Kontron ProgRes 3012 digital camera, which can scan any text, from a letter or a word to an entire page, at 2000 x 3000 pixels in 24-bit color. The resulting images at this maximum resolution are enormous, about 21-25 MB, and tax the capabilities of the biggest machines. Three or four images – three or four letters or words if that is what we are scanning – will fill up an 88 MB hard disk, and we have found that no single image of this size can be processed in real time without at least 64 MB of RAM.”
In the same spirit he marks that the backup files and images were saved on banded microfilm by the University of Kentucky in storage.
The Digitization project of the Beowulf epic is only small portion of an approximate thousand years of preservation and scholarship in relation to its existence as print culture and as text. The set-up of the digital form of Beowulf forces the contemporary student to understand the manuscript’s provenance and history in order to navigate the website. In its set up a student may view different ‘versions’ of Beowulf and collate and compare them alongside a transcription, and various guiding aids for translation from Old English. In addition there an option to see the palimpsest through bright light and in response to ultraviolet.
As a bibliographer and person keenly interested in the material and print culture of a manuscript I was convinced that the story of the Beowulf manuscript has ended in Digitization. However, in a moment of inspiration I decided to experiment by reverse google-image sourcing the incipit page of Beowulf. The first page is most famous and the first word is as contested as its dating. I’ve personally read several papers inquiring whether “Hwaet!” the first word on the incipit of Beowulf means: ‘Lo!’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Hear,’ ‘pay attention,’ or other possible interpretations. I took this first page and reversed it online. I wanted to see in what ways has the Beowulf manuscript, as it exists today has been appropriated online. My findings resulted in something else which was: readerships. By tracing the first page alone I could find what kind of people use Beowulf and for what purposes. Something that could not be traced in a pre-digital era, now can be. I found the page had been used in settling debates on what Old English looks like on websites and social media. In addition the page had been used on many blogs on literature.
There was a 2010 version of Kindle using it as a screen saver, it was used commercially in a poster sale, among blogs (some personal including headings such as ‘works which inspire me’), Buzzfeed quizzes such as “who were you in a past life.” The digital traces of Beowulf indicate a lot more than its existence as a form of ‘digital print culture’ as it also contextualizes the ways by which readers use it. The readership and usage of Beowulf give a better understanding to what people know of Beowulf, or the misconceptions around it, including traces of its digital format. Although the links to Tolkien and public academic forums were traceable in this experiment, private academic databases like OMEKA for instance do not show in a google image reverse search or other privately-set blogs/or journals. Thus, Beowulf’s digital afterlives might be even more detailed and vast than its many ownerships prior to digitization. I hope that future scholars will consider exploring the present usage of the ‘Beowulf manuscript’ in contemporary media and find the ways in which it has been used, read, or interpreted.
The reverse-image search is a pure manuscript study, whereas in terms of text there is a lot more online. The text opens up opportunity for hypertext as in: one clicks on a word and finds translations of it or a link to an explanation of what that person did, what the historical event was, and so on. One link leading to another, one page nested in another.
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
 Beowulf, Line 1
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.15.
 Zaleski, Philip, and Carol Zaleski. 2015. The fellowship: the literary lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams.
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Prin
 Kiernan, Kevin S. 1981. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp 7.
 Joy, Elieen. Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the ‘Little-Known Country’ of the Cotton Library”
 Kiernan, Kevin S. 1981. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
 “Digitised Manuscripts.” 2017. Accessed March 26. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv.
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
 Prescott, Andrew. “Their Present Miserable State of Cremation: The Restoration of the Cotton Library.” Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Courtier and His Legacy. (1997).
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
 Stansell, Zoe. “Library Question Answer On Behalf Of Mss@Bl.Uk”. 2017. E-mail.
 Kiernan, Kevin. “Madden, Thorkelin and MS Vitellius/Vespasian A XV” Library 8, no. 2 (1986): 127-132.
 Kiernan, Kevin. “The State of the Beowulf Manuscript 1882-1983.” Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984): 23-42
“Electronic Beowulf Archives, 1993-1997.” 2019. Accessed March 20 http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/eBeo_archives/
“What she gives us is something more subtle and strangely ephemeral. In a way, her best stories are acts of haunting” – Richard Kadrey, Introduction.
The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan was not my introduction to Kiernan, as I have encountered one of her short stories in the Unicorn Anthology, and I simply devoured her novel The Drowning Girl. She’s an incredible writer, one whom I greatly admire for her dark atmosphere and unique fantastical cosmic horror. This collection includes some of her best short works over the years ranging from 2005-present day. As readers we get glimpses into Kiernan’s growth as an author in the last fourteen years witnessing different styles and plots. Most of these short works have been either published independently in SFF magazines, or anthologized thematically, but here her strongest short works have been collected under one name. Kiernan has received the James Tiptree, Jr. and Bram Stoker Awards in the past, and is an author whose work I would recommend you explore.
Kiernan’s style of writing is not very traditional and her use of language is dark, disturbing, and grotesque, while simultaneously drawing you in and holding your attention. The reading equivalent of: ‘I can’t look away.’ Like in The Drowning Girl here too we find that water and fluidity is a reoccurring symbol in Kiernan’s works. I found that her stories managed to incorporate different arts in the mix, specifically film which was a very interesting take. For instance, “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” tells the story of a movie critic watching a film about Elizabeth Báthory, the Blood Countess weaving in the various arts, film, theory, and historical figures. Such interconnected plot-lines will be found in most of these stories. You will find twins killing people, a unique take on the unicorn, a science journalist investigating lighting strikes and finding the unexpected, art critics interviewing models of famous paintings, art exhibitions, and violins made of human remains. You will find a different fictional take on the “dysfunctional family” (and that is putting it mildly), and pays homage to Sci-fi classics with the incorporation of non-responsive abandoned ships. And as I mentioned, this collection covers a lot of ground: you will find a bit of everything in this book. What is truly intriguing and captivating in Kiernan’s work is her atmosphere and writing style. I will warn readers, however, that aside from the grotesque, there are many instances of swearing in this work (it did not interfere with my personal reading experience). It’s a thrilleresque experience, rough around the edges.
This collection is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Kiernan writes in a dark niche corner of literature, and I think she directs her writings at a very specific kind of audience. I would recommend this collection to you if you enjoy the works of: Shirley Jackson, Victor Lavalle, Nick Mamatas, Angela Carter, David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, or Cosmic Horror. If you have not read any of the listed authors, but you want to get out of your comfort zone and try something different, Kiernan might be a great place to start.
“Unicorns aren’t splendid, or any other such word…indeed, through my entire career as the Unicorn Guy – at the last, there is no a word to describe what a unicorn is. No word that I know , anyway.” – Peter S. Beagle, Introduction.
In the introduction to this anthology Peter S. Beagle explains, how, like a type-cast actor known for a prominent role, at times writers too get trapped with a certain label. For Beagle, the novel of The Last Unicorn and the subsequent stories, adaptations, and retellings that followed have made him known as: “The Unicorn Guy.” He explains that unicorns are not his favourite, and his most successful book is not the one he considers best written. He arrived at one valuable question: what is a unicorn anyway? Using the expansive malleability of fiction, this anthology features a large cast of writers contributing variations, and interpretations on what a unicorn could be. There are such varied takes on ‘the unicorn’ from the scientific, to the magical, to the gender-bending mystery.
“The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory” by Carlos Hernandez looks at the realistic interpretation of what our world would be like, and what explanation would be available for the existence of unicorns. A group of scientists discover a small tear in the fabric of the universe and people become immediately obsessed with hunting, gathering, and using the unicorn horn as a tradable good. The unicorns become endangered and in need of protection. This story was among my favourites, and a strong first story for this anthology. There are cautionary tales of all kinds in this collection, from the mixture of hunting and loving in Carrie Vaughn’s “A Hunter’s Ode,” to a more simplistic approach to the wonder of unicorns in “Ghost Town” by Jack. C. Halderman II where we follow a modest small town setting with a simple encounter: “Everyone comes to a place like this once in their lives…if your heart is right, you will recognize it for what it is. If your soul is hardened you will bass it by and never know.”
There are also tales in this collection on the darker more erotic side. I have recently become more acquainted with Cailtín R. Kiernan’s writing style and even so, I can honestly say her story “The Maltese Unicorn” will leave you in a state of shock. There are also more classic fantasy takes like the one found in “The Highest Justice” by Garth Nyx, and “The Transfigured Heart” by Jane Yolen. Far too many in this collection go right for your heartstrings like “Stampede of Light” by Marina Fitch: “Open a child’s mind and heart to the world, and you achieve immortality…whether they remember you or not, you’ll live forever” or a story by Beagle himself about a boy and an injured beast, the brief moments of friendship, and the intricacies of the healing process. There are many others in this collection, and they are all incredible voices contributing on the multi-faceted, and versatile existence of a unicorn in our collective imagination.
The collection ends on a poem written by Nancy Springer capturing the innocence and magic surrounding our fascination with unicorns. Reading this poem feels like walking straight into a Pre-Raphaelite painting. This collection is a great introduction to various authors and a great sample of their writing, in addition to various ways one can look at a unicorn.
This anthology is edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. The two have edited another anthology I reviewed two years ago called The New Voices of Fantasy. The Unicorn Anthology will be released soon by Tachyon Publications. It is currently available for pre-order.
In Early Modern England, children were not only in choirs, but they also participated in plays to entertain mayors, Queens, and Kings, in addition to travelling alongside acting guilds in larger cycle productions. There were, however, rare cases where deformed children or ‘monstrous chyldrn’ were paraded for a sum of money (payable to their owner) and for the entertainment of the crowd. One such record appears in the Norwich Record of Early English Drama for the 5th of June 1616 in the Mayors’ court Books XV.
“Humfry Bromely hath libertie to shewe in some howse within this Citty A strange Child with two heads. And that by the space of two days and no more But he ys forbidden to sound any Drume of vse any other meanes to drawe company then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said Child.”
This record is a source of three informative points: deformed children would be on display, public announcements for such displays were regulated, and it became the business of the mayor’s court to keep a record of these showings. Though the Norwich 1616 record shows no sign of payment, an account from the 29th of November, 1637 (also a Saturday) at Coventry in the Chamberlains’ and Wardens’ Account Book III under the subheading of ‘Rewardes to players’ reads “paid given to Walter Neare that went about the shew a child borne without Armes ij s. vj d.” The two shillings and six pence, (or half a crown) would have the buying power today of about $28-30 Canadian Dollars. Thus, Mr. Neare got paid a decent sum from the town’s treasury to go around and show a child who did not have any arms, just as it can be assumed Mr. Bromely was also paid to show a child with two heads.
In the late Middle Ages/Early Modern Period deformed children would scarcely make it to adulthood, yet the parents found it necessary to place these children in monasteries, on the steps of Churches, or journey alongside them on pilgrimages in the hope of a miraculous cure. Most importantly, the prevailing belief was that these ‘changelings’ were mitigating “guilt-feelings by transference” and physically reflected the sins of their parents. One popular method of connecting these ‘monstrous chyldrn’ to Biblical damnation can be found in the late 1500s on broadside ballads printed in the newspapers. These ballads were a “broad cross-section of ‘news’ ballads, miraculous happenings [and] monstrous births…which sometimes made use of religious judgements, but which (like criminal last speeches) appealed to their audience primarily on other grounds.” What Tessa Watt is describing is the intrigue audiences found in crude humour and entertainment. In his book Mirth Making, Chris Holcomb sustains that “deformity and conformity divide the social world into those who laugh and those who are laughed at.” Though this may come across as ignorant and insensitive in 21st century North America, in the late Middle Ages deformity was a laughing matter and an entertainment act of its own.
These two deformed children accounted and paid for in Coventry and Norwich were an ‘embodiment’ of human sins, impending doom, and a source of cruel humour and entertainment. Their existence and presentation were physical appropriations of the broadside ballads confirming doubts and incredulity. The fact that Bromely was forbidden “to vse the drumme” did imply that this activity was not universally tolerated in 1616 Norwich. However, Neare being paid a half-crown implies that wonder overcame the sense of guilt, as crowds indulged in watching a circus-bound, ‘monstrous chylde’; this shame went only as far as preventing a boisterous form of advertising in Norwich. According to the introduction in the Norwich REED volume, “the mayor and alderman were the guardians for public morality, as we can read in the Court Books of fines for swearers, drunkards, unlicensed ale-house keepers, ballad sellers, [and] wife beaters” (xxiv). Hence, a person caught ‘swearing’ might have been in much more trouble with the ‘guardians for public morality’ than one showing a deformed child.
If one is to consider a play in performance as the appropriation of a written text transferred to a physical presence, then perhaps the ‘shewing of monstrous chyldern’ can be better understood in performance by closely reading a broadside ballad. In an article dedicated to the religious interpretation of these ballads entitled “Popular Hermeneutics: Monstrous Children in English Renaissance Broadside Ballads,” Helaine Razovksy concludes that the three widely found interpretations of such ballads were that:
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the parents (if unmarried), and constitutes a specific warning;
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state and constitutes a general warning;
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state) and constitutes a lesson about the practice of interpretation
This interpretation of monstrous children creates a better understanding as to why the Mayors Court and the Wardens would pay for such displays—to maintain a sense of ‘morality’ by instilling fear, parading ‘proof’ all around. The Wardens of Coventry were in charge of rewarding travelling players and by doing so “they maintained the apparently unwritten agreement among civic officials in England that the names of the plays presented should not be mentioned” (xxxiii). Evidently, civic officials, though ‘indirectly,’ knew the presentation of deformed children and willing to pay a half-crown for it.
The same religious interpretation of deformed children that Razovsky presents, might have been the reason why Mr. Bromely in Norwich was “forbidden to vse any Drumme…then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said child.” The advertisement for the ‘strange child’ was like the presentation itself, one that was solely visual.
In addition, the records show that this display of deformed children was more frequent than one would think. In the same 1616 record, on June 15 (only 10 days later from the Humfry Bromely record) the Mayor’s Court listed a Mr. Abell Gary with a:
“warrant signed by his Maiestie & vnder his Maiesties signed Aucthorisinge the said Abell to shew a child…they haue leaue to shewe the same till Wednesday next at night & no longer…they are forbidden to use any Drumme…other than A Trumpet at the windows of the howse where they showe”
June 15 was a Wednesday in 1616, thus ‘till Wednesdays next’ implies that the showing of this child by Mr. Abell Gary would be for an entire week. The record itself was only 10 days after Humfry Bromely—who had shown a deformed child for two days—meaning only eight days had passed in Norwich since the crowd had seen a deformed child (or at least written down).
This frequent display emphasized that there was a pressing moral and religious matter that the Majesty himself wanted to instill in his people, or that these deformed children were sensationalized and the crowds simply loved to be entertained by seeing such ‘monstrous’ or ‘strange’ children. Subsequently, a rising demand for such performances was created. However, due to the regulated advertising noted in the Norwich records, the religious damnation associated with deformed children from the late 16th century, encountered in the broadside ballads, was still an underlying component influencing the reception of such a display.
 The court normally ‘met on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the Guildhall’ thus, simply because it was written down on the 5th of June (a Saturday) it does not mean that it is the exact day the account happened.
Records of Early English Drama, University of Toronto Press. Toronto: Coventry (1981), Ecclesiastical London (2008), Newcastle Upon Tyne (1982), and Norwich 1540-1642 (1984)
Short version: Story means “truth” and tale means “to tell a lie”
The interchangeable usage of story and tale as having the same semantic connotation is relatively new and pertains solely to Present Day English. Within the English vocabulary tale has evolved and progressed natively through Germanic, West Germanic, and Anglo-Frisian which resulted in the Old English tæl. In contrast story/storie is a loanword imposed on the English language post-Norman conquest from the French estoire which developed through the Italic and Latin branch. Within the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction however, the two words came from separate roots and were not used interchangeably (nor should they be now). What becomes apparent in the history of the two words is the ‘truth’ aspect present in a story and that a tale brings forth a lie. For the purpose of understanding how each word was being defined by lexicographers I have examined dictionaries as far back as 1678 and have found that tale has been used to define story and vice versa. At times both were being used in defining history. The concept “narrative” is however at the base of all three within all dictionaries at all historical points thus being the cohesive agent of all three.
Tale evolved naturally into the English language. The Proto-Indo-European *del meaning “to recount/count” developed into the Germanic Talō which then separated into North Germanic and West Germanic talu (“*del”). North Germanic later divided into Old Norse/Old Icelandic which contains in its dictionary Tal as noun meaning “Talk, parley, conversation. 2. Speech, language. Tala 1. Discourse, speech 2. Tale, number and Tala as verb meaning to talk or speak. To record and to tell.” This shows the word had maintained its semantic value throughout this division. Anglo-Frisian tælu developed into the Old English tæl. In Joseph Bosworth’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary tæl appears as noun to be “a tale, number, series” but also “evil speaking, calumny, detraction…attack with blasphemy.” Interestingly enough “tale” as a number system finds its way into Portuguese as tæl coming from the Malay tahil meaning “any of several monetary units equal to the equivalent weight in silver.” This is quite amusing as it develops through a different branch and comes to a semantically-relevant homophonic word which in Old English is tæl. Another homophone of “tale” being “tail” maintains the same semantic value in Old Norse as it is tagl meaning the tail of an animal which at the same time in Old English was taegel also meaning tail. Tælan as a verb meant “to blame, rebuke, reprove, reproach, censure, accuse. To speak evil. To slander, to treat with contempt, scorn, insult, mock.” Throughout this division of language, the word brought along with it the implication that one would “recount” or “speak.” There is however a difference between speaking and telling. Elizabeth Closs Traugott writes in her work Regularity in Semantic Change that “tell primarily introduces a narrative…[and that] the reorganization of the lexicon occurred in Middle English with the introduction of talk (an early Frisian term) and the focusing of tell on verbal action (in OE tellan meant primarily ‘count’ or ‘recount; in sequence, i.e. ‘narrate’). Talk is the only word in English borrowed from Lithuanian, which has talkas for ‘talk’ and tulkot for ‘interpreter.’ Russian tolk meaning ‘sense’ and the verb tolkovant-‘to interpret.’ Thus tale as it became in Middle English, though it remained ‘an account’ it also brought along with it a trace of deceit and evil-speaking.
Story on the other hand, originated from the PIE root *wid-tor meaning “to know” or literally translated “to see.” This became in Latin historia which was a “narrative of past events, an account.” Istō/Istoc (root of historia) meant “to the place where you are, to the point you have reached, to this place.” The Latin equivalent for what we now use the word “story/tale” was narratio or fabulo, which we know to be ‘narrative’ or ‘fable’ (quite a different topic altogether). Historia divided into the Romance languages and in French became estoire which literally meant “a chronicle, a history.” The introduction of stoire/story into the English language occurred post-Norman Conquest in Middle English.
Looking at past lexicographers and how they defined story, tale or even history, it becomes apparent that all definitions contain “narrative” as a key concept of each word’s semantic connotation. Samuel Johnson in 1806, E. Cobham Brewer in 1882, and Rev. Walter W. Skeat in 1910 all use tale when defining story and vice versa. This brings to question why the merging of the two separate words occurred, and why the ‘deceit’ in what was previously known in OE tæl was no longer part of the definition of tale. Though the two separate are being used interchangeable tale did maintain the lie in other tangential words sprung from it up to Present Day English. Looking for instance at Johnson’s definition of storyteller and talebearer the distinction becomes much clearer. Johnson defines storyteller as “[story and tell] One who relates tales in conversation, a historian, in contempt” and yet he defines talebearing as “[tale and bear] The act of informing; officious or malignant intelligence.” Talebearing thus implies a gossip-like nature versus one delivering an informative speech.
The most interesting form in which the two words have appeared within a text together as “tale-story” was within Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England. It is the only text identified by the OED to have used the words together (hyphened). It is worth glancing at how Fuller used this hyphenated word and within what context (Fuller is speaking about Sutton of Salsbury and how he became wealthy based on an old pamphlet –advertising):
“Thus these mongrel pamphlets (part true, part false) do most mischief. Snakes are less dangerous than lampreys, seeing none will feed on what is known to be poison. But these books are most pernicious, where truth and falsehoods are blended tougher, and such a medley-cloth is the tale-story of this clothier.”
Mongrel, medley-cloth, and tale-story are used interchangeably by Fuller containing the same semantic implication. Mongrel he himself emphasizes to be “part true, part false” and medley-cloth was “a type of cloth woven with wool of different colours or shades mixed in the thread.” Thus, tale-story within this context is the mixture of a truth and a falsehood which means story remained a more reliable account and tale still brought along with it the ‘calumny’ and deceit encountered in the Old English even mid-17th century. Thomas Fuller wrote the book in the late 1650s and passed away in 1661. The book was published posthumously in 1662.
Joint words like tall-tale and fairy-tale emphasize the different aspects of a lie a tale contains. For instance the word tall is a figurative word within the English language which stands for something being exaggerated and has been widely used. Yet one rarely encounters “tall-stories” or “fairy-stories” because the implication would be that one had been there and the content of the account is based in a truth or a biographical occurrence that had once happened and simply been retold. Should one recount a truth with exaggeration it would no longer be a story, rather it would become a “tall-tale” and he/she would be Johnson’s talebearer rather than his storyteller.
This semantic property of ‘truth’ to story remains in Present Day English yet within narrower contexts. Authors like Alice Munro who publish a collection of short narrative accounts are not summed up by publishers as ‘short tales’ nor do they write that on the cover or on the title page. Rather, due to the mature content and the respect attributed to the content, the collected works would be referred to as Short Stories thus implying that parts of these narratives are true and have been appropriated for publication. Tales on the other hand are encountered within texts intended for children (beyond fairy tales) or within contexts where the lie is known to be there. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote his autobiography Living To Tell the Tale, with clear hindsight of what has been professed about his art. Magical Realism has been treated as “the truth of a five-year-old” or “telling a lie with a brick face” (as my English professor, Nick Mount, used to say). Evidently, even in present day narrative content with a more deceitful tone or intended for children is more likely to be labelled as a tale rather than a story.
Thus, by looking at the two words individually and tracing them to their reconstructed Indo-European root in addition to examining how they have been defined by lexicographers at various historical points it becomes evident that story and tale cannot always be used interchangeably (or at least they shouldn’t). The two are not only different but they are contradictory in meaning for one means “truth/to know” while the other means “a lie/to deceive.” The credibility attached to stories has remained through to Present Day English and the exaggerated (somewhat derogatory) connotation remains attached to tales. The possibility that idioms within the English language have contributed to the semantic property of a tale leaves much room for exploration on this topic.
Works Cited: Fuller, Thomas D.D. The History of the Worthies of England (1840), “*del” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Derocquigny, Jules. A Contribution to the Study of the French Element in English (1904),“Isto/Istoc” Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary (2005), “Medley-cloth” The OED Online, Nick, Mount “Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Magical Realism” (Lecture, 2011), Lemon, Rev. George William. English Etymology or A derivative dictionary of the English language: in two alphabets (1783), Murray, James A.H. “Oxford English Dictionary.” X, XI. (1969-70), Philips, Edward. The New World of Words (1684), Skeat, Rev. Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1910), “storyteller” n.f. Def 1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), “tael” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “taelan” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “talebearing”n.f. Def.1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. Regularity in Semantic Change (2005), Tulloch, Alexander R. Word Routes: Journeys Through Etymology (2005), “*wid-tor” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2013), Zoega, Geir T. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (1926)
“Prepare to have your long-held opinions put to the test” –Marissa Meyer, Introduction
“A fracture is a break, usually in the bone, but also can mean a crack in the earth, an interruption of the norm. It can be a fault line, a fissure, a split, breach, disruption, splintering, fissure—oh and a breakup. It sounds explosive, can hurt like a sprain or reveal like a geode being split apart to show the jewels within” – Jane Yolen
Last year I read and reviewed The Emerald Circus and fell in love with Jane Yolen’s storytelling. Having just closed the back cover on How to Fracture a Fairy Tale I can’t help but wonder how such levels of creativity are possible. Just how many stories can a single person carry with them at all times? Once more, Yolen takes us through familiar fairy tales, legends, folklore, and even Judeo-Christian narratives and shows us different sides to them, adds depth to unknown characters, and even flips them—either by using a feminist editing pen, or painting over them with the values of progressive 21st century brushes (this flip is what Yolen refers to as a ‘fracture’ synonymous with ‘retelling’). In this collection Yolen flexes her creativity muscles, and like in The Emerald Circus we get a glimpse of Yolen’s work from various points in her career. Aside from the introduction by fantasy YA author Marrisa Meyer, this book is accompanied by Yolen’s own min-histories for how she came up with ideas, how each tale came to fruition, and what concepts she wanted to bring forward for discussion.
The retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin,” in this collection: “Granny Rumple,” and Yolen’s playfulness with Death personified are the two concepts I’d like to discuss in further detail from this collection.
In “Granny Rumple” we are presented with a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin looking at the ways Jewish people have been historically demonized. The story itself is well-written, and the conversation it begins is even more fascinating. In her explanation Yolen says that she first thought of Rumpelstiltskin as the representation of a Jewish person at Smith College while teaching a course on children’s literature. She writes that:
“the only character who does what he promises and isn’t lying is Rumpelstiltskin…the small man with the unpronounceable name who lives outside the walls of the kingdom and is allowed only one job—spinning straw into gold—does not lie…so of course he must be a demon who wants to use the (as yet unborn) baby prince in some disgusting blood rite…. that’s when I realized the ‘demon’ was a stand-in for a Jew. Someone with an unprounceable name who is forced to live outside the city walls.”
I thought this take was really something I would never consider without being faced with it in the format of “Granny Rumple.” The secondary figure that makes several appearances in various formats is Death. “Godmother Death” and “Sister Death” were by far my favourite as I am a fan of Death as a main character in general. They both reminded me a lot Neil Gaiman and in some instances the snarky dry humour of Markus Zusak’s Death narrator. Yolen states that her first story “Godmother Death” was actually started by an invitation from Neil Gaiman for an anthology but could never outright publish it because of DC owning copyrights. She explains: “I was using Neil’s character Death, in his retelling a wonderful, snarky Goth girl who is ageless and endless.” This character is once more represented in “Sister Death” which has a more folkloric presence rather than fairy tale retelling yet in this one Death isn’t one to be snarky, dry, or playful, rather, Death is presented as a sympathetic character. Yolen writes that this story “comes from the Jewish tradition of both ‘Lilith’ and ‘The Angel of Death,’ stories that make Death female …we writers have been stealing from tradition forever.” The presentation of Death as female, and the many ways historically in which women have been around Death, or associated with Death are tackled in this collection in a creative way.
Once again, I must reiterate that Jane Yolen knows the craft of storytelling and retelling. I think her collections open a lot of room for discussion both in reading circles and scholarship at large. Presentations of Death, Anti-Semitism, Sexism, and the bulldozing of old traditions and folklore are tackled by Yolen in such a creative way. She reclaims these narratives, and she presents them to us in this new ‘fractured’ way, creating a new tradition of her own.
This book will be out on November 15, published by Tachyon Publications.
I am very happy to be participating in S.M Beiko’s blog tour for the release of the second book in The Realms of Ancient Series titled Children of the Bloodlands. Last year I reviewed the first book titled Scion of the Fox (review here) and I enjoyed it immensely. This is a YA series set in Canada riddled with fae-like, gothic, sublime, and fantastical elements. Children of the Bloodlands continues where Scion of the Fox left off, three months after the battle of Zabor. The friend group is reunited, and Roan must once more face new monsters of great magnitude in different parts of the world, leaving the Canadian landscape behind and turning to Edinburgh, Seoul, and parts of the Underworld—all overpowered by Ancient’s influence on Earth. There are several reviewers involved in the blog tour this month and I will take a step back from doing my usual literary reviews focused on the narrative.
I would like to turn my attention to the artwork accompanying this novel, specifically the cover art and design. This aspect of book design is highly collaborative, and labour-intensive. Both Scion of the Fox and Children of the Bloodlands have been designed by the team at Made by Emblem. Children of the Bloodlands has a red cover and at its center is the figure of an owl. This artistic choice had been applied previously to the first book where its central figure was a fox in the foreground of a green forest. I had many questions regarding the process of creating such covers, and got in touch with Erik Mohr, the Creative Director at Made by Emblem. Erik has been working as an art director for over 10 years and has received numerous industry awards including the Society of Publication Designers, Canadian National Magazine Awards, Art Directors Club of Canada and Magazines du Québec. Erik has been very kind and patient, and answered all of the questions I directed at him about the artwork, and I can see why it would be an absolute pleasure for any author to work with him and his team. Here is our full interview:
What attracted you about this particular project, and what made you take on Scion of the Fox in the first place last year?
I have been a fan of Sam Beiko’s work for years. We had worked together on her previous book, The Lake and the Library, and she really wanted to work together on The Realms of Ancient series. I was super excited and loved the direction she wanted to see the cover taking. Book design can be really exciting for a number of reasons, but the best is working with incredibly talented people and the collaboration between the author and designer.
Does it feel different working on Canadian projects for Canadian authors versus magazine art for things further away?
We have worked on book covers for Canadian, US and British publishers. I have to admit that the Canadian market is normally very conservative. That said, we’ve had the opportunity to work with publishers who are willing to take risks and create really exciting book covers. The magazine work we do is very different from the book design work. But there is cross-over, too. Magazine work is very fast paced and every page needs lots of entry points and design elements. But legibility and typographic skills are mandatory in book design and it’s simple and little tricks that can make a big difference.
What techniques do you use when creating a book cover? Do you make a plan, do you make several covers and choose the best one, or do you just keep building on the one template?
The process for creating a book cover involves reading the manuscript or excerpt, discussing the cover with the publisher and author, lots of sketches, then lots of discussions, lots of revisions and then eventually the finished product. Sometimes the first sketch is bang on. Sometimes there are 20+ revisions. Designing a book cover is all about marketing the book. Many considerations can influence the design of the book: who’s the audience, what genre is the book, is it part of a series?
Do you read the novel in its entirety first and then decide what to extract from it for the cover art, or do you obtain an excerpt and an idea from the publisher and work with that?
It totally depends. Sometimes the cover needs to be designed before the book has gone through its final proofing. Or there are substantial rewrites happening. In that case, we read the synopsis. Sometimes if there are issues with the manuscript, there are exhaustive emails about the story to best communicate the themes and mood.
Would reading the whole novel be too distracting because there would be too much material to decide what to choose?
Not at all! It’s what we prefer! That way we can understand the story arc and what elements are significant and which are spoilers!
Did you coordinate that both books complement each other (green and red) and have one central figure in the middle on purpose or did it turn out that way by accident?
This was very much on purpose! We didn’t know what the characters would be on the second book cover, but we purposely created a simple and impactful cover featuring a central character. This made for a composition which could easily be adapted to other books in the series.
Do you paint or draw by hand, or do you use computer programs, if yes, which programs do you use?
We use Photoshop primarily. The process is basically a digital collage. We photograph textures and find stock photos online that we can use as elements. Then there is a lengthy layered process to achieve the final photographic image. This way, we are able to create surreal or fantastical settings and characters.
Is the author S.M. Beiko involved at all in the process of the book cover design?
Super involved! Sam is very creative. She draws, paints, designs, etc. So she always has great suggestions! We talk a lot about what the book is about and what she sees as a cover image.
–End of Interview–
Website of Author S.M. Beiko with further details on everything relating to The Realms of Ancient: HERE.
I would like to extend my thanks to Erik Mohr for answering all of the questions and for creating such beautiful covers I will proudly display on my shelf. Children of the Bloodlands will be released on September 25th–published by ECW Press. Many thanks to Caroline Suzuki, the Publicity Co-ordinator of ECW Press for sending me an ARC and including me in the Blog Tour project.
Done! I challenged myself to read all five nominees for best novel in the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 within a month and I officially finished them. Here are the links and names of the five novels I read for this challenge:
- The Bone Mother by David Demchuk
- Ill Will by Dan Chaon
- The Changeling by Victor LaValle
- The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun
- The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
I enjoyed all these works very much and I’m glad I took on this little project for a few weeks. Looking at some numbers and stats, my instinct says the winner will be The Changeling by Victor LaValle. My personal favourite was The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge. The Bone Mother sent me on an adventure looking at really cool Romanian photographs from a hundred years ago. The Hole was the first Korean book I’ve read in translation, so that was something new for me. Ill Will tested my ability to solve a mystery and interact with text presented in a new and interesting way, and forced me to learn about Satanic cults in the United States. Each one of these books brought something very different to this challenge. Of course, I have been wrong many times before, and all I can say is that I’m very excited to see who they will select as this year’s winner. There’s nothing as pleasant as making wrong predictions on the internet! All I can say is that whoever they choose there is no wrong choice here. The 2017 Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented on Sunday, July 15, 2018, at Readercon 29, Conference on Imaginative Literature, in Quincy, Massachusetts. If you have been following this with me, or reading my reviews for this challenge thank you very much for sticking with me and for your time!
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is the last novel I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards Nominees. I think I accidentally saved the best for last because this was my favourite out of the bunch. What La Farge did with this work is really impressive because he had to work with one of the most controversial figures in Science Fiction history and somehow he examines possibilities without glorifying any of the negatives in H.P. Lovecraft. Only three years ago the figure of Lovecraft was removed by the Locus Fantasy Awards so it’s a difficult topic to work with so shortly after. Reading this novel was like peeling layers and layers on a dark flower and finding something new each time. Like a cubist artist, La Farge holds H.P. Lovecraft and the persona of this mysterious figure, but looks at it from every possible angle, considering each perspective. For one, this story isn’t really about H.P Lovecraft, it’s about a woman who is in love with a man who was passionate about a particular aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s life. This hierarchy of perspectives creates a distance between all that one may find problematic with Lovecraft. Each character being slightly flawed and a little unreliable still preserves the mystery. Allow me to explain a little of the plot and I will try to be less cryptic. The story follows Marina who is herself a psychiatrist. Her husband Charlie was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and one day simply vanished. The last thing we know is that he was by the edge of the lake. In trying to find out more about her husband Marina finds that Charlie was doing passionate research work on H.P. Lovecraft, in particular focusing on his sexuality, and if maybe he might have had a homosexual relationship with a young fan by the name of Robert Barlow. His lead was finding a Lovecraft diary also known in this novel as The Erotonomicon (playing on the Necronomicon). It was kind of interesting to consider that at the time H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘clues’ or proof trail of being homosexual might have been hidden by publishers or friends to ‘preserve’ his integrity whilst the racist and xenophobic parts of his biography were unashamedly left in, whereas today it would be exactly the reverse. I am a big fan of acknowledging that no one is good or bad, but a dynamic character with flaws and qualities alike and that the path to rehabilitation and education can help anyone no matter what they said or did in the past. Lovecraft did a lot of good for fantasy and sparked a series of subgenres. He was very unhappy and died in extreme poverty. I have always tried to keep that in mind, and La Farge just reminded me how interesting Lovecraft was and it’s making me want to go read the Necronomicon again.
Because the main narrator is involved in a mystery trying to find out more about her own husband, because Charlie himself is psychologically unstable (which automatically makes him an unreliable narrator), and because the ‘findings’ about Lovecraft have been filtered, hidden, and ‘rumoured’ the whole novel preserves an overall tone of suspense and eerie mystery. Even Charlie’s disappearance is something straight out of a Cthulhu story. No one is one hundred percent reliable, and no one has a definite answer on Lovecraft, which leaves the reader of The Night Ocean alone, left to come up with answers by connecting the dots. Also, Marina trying to understand Charlie, and him explaining Lovecraft to her in flashbacks/memories, and her learning more about him as we go along, we are introduced to bits of biography about Lovecraft, including the parts which make him a controversial figure. Like I said, this novel was very dynamic and it is presented in such a way that reminds me of a cubist painting. It is no small feat, and La Farge has succeeded immensely (in my humble opinion). This was a very difficult task and his writing is absolutely amazing. The way the story is told, the diverse cast of characters, the new parts of Lovecraft’s life to be explored, the incorporation of a female narrator to guide the story forward are just a few aspects of what makes this story so good. I also have to slip in that I was hooked on Charlie the moment he said he procrastinated by watching Lost…something I’m obsessed with. There goes my bias.
Definitely read this book if you love H.P. Lovecraft, mystery, science fiction, the macabre, steampunkish speculative fiction, and gothic atmospheres/settings. I mean…this is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee…so you already know.
If you’re looking for a fantasy book to pick up next here are some recommendations. Most of these are series (some VERY long) but it’s a good starting point if you are on the lookout for what to read next in the genre:
Print-out PDF here: FANTASY BOOKS
The Changeling by Victor LaValle is the fourth book I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 nominees. If I had to put my money down, based on what I’ve read so far and looking at its stats, I would say that this book has the strongest chance to be the winner. That said, I have not finished all five yet (still have one left). Also, The Changeling has just won the 2018 Locus Award for Best Horror novel.
This novel has “two starts” but for good reason. The first is Apollo Kagwa’s parents’ love story and the beginnings of Apollo. Apollo is mixed and from a low-income family. His father mysteriously disappears but continues to appear to Apollo in dreams/nightmares. Apollo grows up and becomes very involved in dealing/collecting/selling rare books and is himself an avid reader. As things progress he too falls in love (the second start) with Emma and together they have a baby boy. At this point the novel takes a term from slightly creepy and mysterious to supernatural stellar writing. I liked the way the Goodreads synopsis puts it without spoilers: “Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined.” That…is putting it mildly. This novel is a roller-coaster ride, and it somehow does it by creeping up on you. You start slowly and you’re being fed one odd thing at a time, until you find yourself so deep you forget how you got here in the first place. I had to consult the synopsis because by the end I wasn’t sure what would be considered a spoiler.
What I particularly loved about LaValle’s writing was the way he brought the dark fairy tale to the city: New York. As a passionate Lore fan and reading these kinds of stories with supernatural elements, I can’t help but notice they are almost always set in an isolated town, in a rural part of a very abandoned state, or in some very small place with few inhabitants. Dropping this dark fairy tale in New York while simultaneously poking at the very contemporary “here and now” elements of parenting, social networks, and media is something that I never considered could come together so well in one cohesive narrative. LaValle challenges the spaces one thought of as ‘safe’ due to their bright lights and overpopulation and turns this concept it on its head. Parallel to these writing techniques, unstable setting, and atmosphere LaValle still places at this novel’s core the essence of what makes us human in exploring our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to family, love, parenting, and how our origins, or ‘where we come from’ or the literal ghosts of our past can influence our present. I really enjoyed this book, and even though it took me a lot longer to read this one than the others it was worth the effort. I recommend this if you like Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and Cabinet of Curiosities, dark fairy tales, gothic atmospheres, and of course…Shirley Jackson.
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun is the third book I read for my Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 challenge (See more here). Pyun is from Korea and this novel has been translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell. The novel has been marketed as a psychological thriller about loneliness. Even before being translated or nominated for this prize Hye-Young Pyun has been compared Shirley Jackson and Yoko Ogawa “for her blending of the everyday with the gothic and the grotesque.”
The novel is short but very intense. As I mentioned earlier, it is the shortest novel on the list of nominees this year. The novel follows Oghi, a university professor who has recently been in a car accident with his wife. His wife passes away on impact during the crash, and he survives it, but is fully paralyzed and must have a caretaker. His caretaker is his “next of kin” which is surprisingly enough: his mother in law. There must be some difference in cultures here because I don’t see this happening in the West. We are told the narrative from Oghi’s perspective and the lack of mobility, the grief, and the flashbacks all accumulate to a very tense and suspenseful read, as you feel just as paralyzed as Oghi. Oghi’s tense relationship with his wife and mother-in-law pre-accident makes this story extra creepy and gives the reader a sense of uneasiness, but also the present due to his incapacitated state, and visions of the ghost of his wife. His mother-in-law is as strange as the plot and situation, she is a widow, just lost her daughter, but struggles with her half-Japanese identity. At this point I felt a little disjointedness from the narrative because I felt like something was missing—there’s a gap in my knowledge of understanding certain things relating to Japanese-Korean relationships and I missed out on a lot of the mother-in-law’s characterization.
What I absolutely admired about Hye-Young Pyun’s writing was the way she weaved the theme of “the hole” through this novel. According to her publisher: “The title of the novel is a play on words: a transliteration of the English word “hole,” 홀 (hol) is a Korean prefix meaning “alone” and most readily refers to one who is widowed.” The hole here is used as both fixating on the fact that both Oghi and his mother-in-law are alone and widowed, and also on the hole within, the hole of experiencing complete loneliness and despair. One reviewer on Goodreads noted that even Oghi’s profession and his thoughts towards the Babylonian Map of the World, dated to the 5th century BC has a hole at its center. Even visually, as you progress through the novel, each chapter is prefaced by a “black hole” which gets progressively larger before it engulfs the reader completely. I took a picture because it looks really cool.
Pyun’s ability to play with so many elements, themes, and characters in such a small space while simultaneously keeping the reader on edge is really admirable. Again, I think maybe some things got lost in translation, or maybe the translation enhanced it, I don’t know. It’s a little difficult to compare as this is the only novel on the nomination list that is in translation. The original has been published in Korea in 2016 which means a lot of thought and consideration was given to place bring this novel into this competition. I thought it was a great read, and I highly recommend it for people who enjoy the works of Han Kang, Yoko Ogawa, Daphne du Maurier, and yes, even Shirley Jackson herself.
Before assessing my own opinion in terms of literary merit, and what I believe Shirley Jackson-worthy literary books to be like, I looked at some previous winners and award patterns. First of all, I’m NOT a judge or a literary scholar by any means, this is just MY OPINION and personal project. I like examining these things and nerding out over them, so I looked at all the winners since the awards got started. For instance, if you tally up all the winners for all six categories (best novel, novella, novelette, short story, single-author collection, edited anthology) included there have been a total of 66 winners in the last 10 years (some years there were 2 editors for anthologies, and one year there were two winners in the same category). Of the total 40 were men, and 26 were women. Of the total winners 49 were from USA, 7 from Canada, 5 from the UK, 2 from Australia, 2 from Japan, and 1 from South Africa.
Some people have won the Shirley Jackson Award twice (or more), or even in more than one category in the same year. For example in 2010 Neil Gaiman won for best novelette, but also for best edited anthology for a different work. From the list of this year’s nominees for best novel, Victor Lavalle won in the past, in 2016 for best novella, and in 2009 for best novel.
I tried to look at this year’s nominees from a “numerical” standpoint in terms of readership and ratings (as of RIGHT NOW looking at Goodreads)
These numbers are of course very loose as many readers may not have Goodreads, or are like me and don’t like to assign a star rating to a book on Goodreads and merely “add it” with a written review of pros/cons.
There are some things to consider about each of these books that doesn’t even involve the content. This is me brainstorming:
The Hole is the shortest book on the list with only 198 pages, of that not even having the most favourable ratings, and it is the only book in translation (thus we cannot read it in the original language to fully appreciate its craft). Simultaneously it involves the work of more people since it is in translation. It is also the only book on this list with no audiobook accompaniment which usually reaches a wider audience which may have shortened its reach. IF it did win though, it would be the first winner from Korea. Hye-Young Pyun is also the only female nominee in the best novel category this year. The Bone Mother‘s presentation is in the form of a series of short stories or anecdotes rather than a novel in the traditional sense. It is also the only debut novel from the list, whereas all the other authors have published several works beforehand. Ill Will has also played around with presentation in the forms on non-traditional columns (something I have not encountered before in a novel), and The Night Ocean has at its center one of the most controversial figures in fantasy: H.P Lovecraft who just three years ago was dropped as the image of the World Fantasy Award. To be honest, from the list this novel got my attention most because I enjoy Lovecraftian fiction and I am saving it for last. Of course, the judges probably already knew this when they selected it, and as I have not yet read it, I will not pass judgement on it. Victor Lavalle has won the Shirley Jackson twice in the past both for best novel (2009) and best novella (2016) so he’s clearly mastered something the judges of the Jackson Awards appreciate. His book is also the only one with both high readerships and equally high percentages in ratings (highlighted in red above). I think the WISE thing to assume here is that these five novels have been selected for a reason, and that judges will place all prejudices or previous knowledge aside and look at each novel as it stands alone. Sometimes I wish these things were as easy as: I just enjoyed this one the most! But it’s so hard when they are all very very good! So far I’ve enjoyed the two books I read, and I’m currently in the middle of The Changeling, and almost done The Hole and they are both equally amazing and elegant to the previous two works I read. Reviews for the next three books will follow!
This novel involves two unsolved murders connected to Dustin Tillman, a psychologist, father of two sons, in his mid-forties, living in a suburb of Cleveland. The two murders are separated by a significant time gap, the first happening in the 80’s. Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle were killed and the blame fell on his adopted teenage brother Russell. Russell’s trial lacked any sort of physical evidence, as the jury simply took Dustin’s and Kate’s (Dustin’s cousin) word for it being related to Satanic cults. After a quick Google search I found that apparently there was a lot of hysteria during the 1980s over Satanic cults with many testimonies, physical, sexual abuse, and dangerous practices, and very prevalent in the United States, spreading to other countries by the early ‘90s. In present day, DNA testing proves that Rusty didn’t actually commit the crime and he has been released. We find this out in the first few pages as Dustin receives a phone call. The second crime involves one of Dustin’s patients connecting drunk college boy drownings sending Dustin on a “Clarice Starling” puzzle-solving quest. Suggestions of repressed memories, people’s perception of reality and truth, a lot of manipulation and the 80s Satanic rituals’ aftermath involving all the psychological side effects on individuals, groups, and society at large all play a part in this book that jumps back and forth in time between the 1980s and present day. Dustin’s own family has to observe, speculate, and deal with the hardship second -hand. The perspective from which we are told this story changes as well, and we are presented with “evidence” as if we too were participating in the solving of the mystery by means of text messages, or information laid out in ‘brainstorming’ format appearing in columns on the page.
This book had its own innovations, mainly in the ways it experimented with delivering information to its readers. By allowing readers to be a part of the decoding, and trying to figure things out, as well as leaving the end slightly ambiguous and vague, it succeeds in maintaining an overall mystery looming over the plot even after the story ends. It was an easy read, despite it being the longest on the nominee list, (I sped through it in two days) I don’t think it’s intimidating, and if it sounds like something of interest to you, I strongly recommend you pick it up. My issues with this novel nominated in this category comes from its lack of “Shirley Jacksonness.” Aside from the Satanic cults, this novel read more like a crime thriller, or a horror-mystery. I think it’s an excellent candidate for a horror or murder mystery award, and I’m glad to see it on the Locus Horror Award nomination list. I think it stands an excellent change of winning that one, I am just not sure it’s ideal for this category in this particular award series. I wouldn’t generally pick up something like this, so in a way this novel put me out of my reading comfort zone, but at the same time I turn to the Jackson Awards for a particular kind of supernatural, dark fairy tale element. There’s a sense that this novel was written for the screen. Perhaps it would make an interesting mini-series or full feature, but something in the way it’s written suggests that it was written for the screen more-so than a literary crowd. I am wondering if anyone else has read this book, and if so, what are you thoughts on this book, and its subsequent award nominations?
The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.
This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.
There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.
My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!
I know a lot of people on Booktube, Bookstagram, and reading blogs keep up with several literary prizes. The Women’s Prize, International Man Booker, CBC Canada Reads, Bram Stoker, and Pulitzer among the most popular. I decided this year to try to keep up with at least one prize: The Shirley Jackson Awards. This award was created in recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic. My favourite kind!
I am only going to read the novels nominated as I know I won’t be able to find the rest in time (most of the short fiction is found under publications that require subscription). I placed holds on the five novels which have been nominated for this prize at my local library. They will announce the winner by July 15, so I have about a month to get through these five novels, which should be achievable. I may end up reading 2-3 of the novellas but that is where I will stop. Here are the five novels nominated:
- Ill Will, Dan Chaon (Ballantine Books)
- The Bone Mother, David Demchuk (ChiZine Publications)
- The Changeling, Victor Lavalle (Spiegel & Grau)
- The Hole, Hye-young Pyun (Arcade Publishing)
- The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge (Penguin Press)
The full list of other categories can be found here. I will try to put a review for each of the five within the next month and see how I’d rank them.
Just an update, right now I’m also reading a lot of children’s stories and children’s literature. It’s a “fantastical” kind of mood I’ve been having. I wanted to take on this project because it’s nice to have an ongoing challenge that has a definitive end (July 15). Anything that would be stretched out over a longer period of time…well… I’m afraid I’d fail or lose interest. If you also want to keep up, feel free to join in! The public library should have all these, and you can join in the conversation as I review these. If you already wrote about any of them in the past, or will in the future on your own review blog and would like to share it with me, just put a link below, I’d love to read your thoughts on these. I will start with The Bone Mother by David Demchuck.
Earlier this year I read Nick Mamatas’s essay collection Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life. The non-fictional work covered the skill and resilience involved in producing a successful and ‘sell-able’ short story as a freelance writer without waiting for divine inspiration. I immediately requested an ARC from Tachyon when I heard that The People’s Republic of Everything will be published this year. This collection includes fifteen short stories involving a spectrum of science fiction, horror, political satire, and atmospheric settings. Mamatas is very Lovecraftian in his writing style, a presence felt even in his non-fiction. He’s written seven novels and has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, Wold Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and International Horror Guild Awards.
This collection incorporates a range of stories written over the last ten years. I enjoyed that each story is followed up by Mamatas elaborating on how the story was written, but most importantly, the ever-frequently-asked question: where do your ideas come from? I really enjoyed this aspect because at times short stories in the speculative genre that cross over can be so odd I’m not sure I know what to think of them. Mamatas explains how he came up with the idea and what he was trying to achieve for each one of these short stories. Two stories in this volume are about collecting correspondence to create a personality-emulator. Mamatas writes after “Walking with a Ghost” that he was fascinated by the friendship and correspondence between Jack Kerouac and H.P. Lovecraft and their cult following, and the idea that one can gather enough data on a person’s way of addressing to be able to emulate ‘personhood.’ Yes, there is an AI Lovecraft in this collection. The second story follows a Marx and Engels partnership in the style of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—told in a steampunk style. These are just two examples of the variety that can be found in this collection. In the middle there are some that struck a chord with me, particularly “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher” and “The Phylactery”–mainly because there was something very personal to them with a touch of humanity and interesting characters. There are a few stories published here for the first time for which even Mamatas has no further comments. Several of his stories focus on Communism and politics, and concludes with a novella (what used to be a screenplay) about the George W.H. Bush era and the invasion of Iraq which was picked up for a film and then dropped (but we get to enjoy it in novella format).
I have to say, I learned a lot of new terminology in this collection. For one, I never heard of dieselpunk before which according to a Google search is: “a genre similar to steampunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and postmodern sensibilities,” or as Mamatas puts it “like steampunk, but greasier and more efficient.” Mamatas extracts the essence of several sub-genres and cult followings that are in themselves so niche, obscure, and esoteric and creates a genre that is uniquely him. Mamatas quite recently came out to say that he was done writing genre fiction, but I don’t think he has a genre to which his writing belongs. Kerouac’s language, Lovecraft’s atmosphere, and Bukowski’s coarseness are already sub-groups in larger literary circles where such few people have heard of them, read them (enough to create a fandom). But then, Mamatas takes elements from each and incorporates them in a writing style that is also a sub-genre of a sub-genre like: dieselpunk, cyberpunk, etc. Take all that and place it in an urbuan fantasy setting, and you got yourself a Nick Mamatas short story. See!? Not very easy to define.
I liked his writing style. On a sentence-level Mamatas in not pretentious nor exclusionary. His fiction is accessible if you want to be taken into the dark corners of niche-speculative fiction. I enjoyed them very much, and like every short story collection there will be a mixture of what works and what doesn’t on an individual level.
This collection has been announced to be published on September 8, 2018.
I was lucky enough to read this book at the right time. I can see this novel being a hit or miss for so many people depending on the circumstances in which they come across this work. Here are some personal things that helped with fully grasping this novel at the right time: Earlier this month I read The First Bad Man by Miranda July and was introduced to a very particular niche-kind of narrating voice. When I was about to enter my first year of university an online group hosted by the soon-to-be second years in our program constantly repeated to newcomers: whatever you do, don’t be pretentious. My observations of Canada, coming from Eastern Europe, and studying Russian Literature in undergrad. All these come into play in my personal experience reading this novel.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman is what I would classify as a “campus novel.” It’s about young people trying to figure themselves out, trying to learn from the clean theory work, and realizing that it doesn’t match up to the messiness of the real world. To me, this novel read like The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, but written in the style of Miranda July. I think Batuman was more successful in the deadpan narration because her writing has an aesthetic that isn’t bordering the grotesque which had me very distracted in the July novel.
The Idiot follows Selin, a Turkish-American young woman in the mid-90s, who is a first year undergraduate student at Harvard. She has a few eccentric friends and roommates and falls in love with Ivan, an emotionally unavailable Hungarian math major. The plot is overly simplistic. The first half involves campus experiences from first year undergrad at Harvard, and the second involves Selin following Ivan to Hungary under the pretext of teaching English to children in a village and becoming completely disappointed in a lot of aspects of her life, her studies, and her relationships. Before I elaborate on what I enjoyed about this novel and where it felt short for me, I’d like to list the two sentiments expressed by many other reviewers in places where readers couldn’t get along with the narration style or the characters. The first is:
“It’s basically a rite of passage for a college-age girl to go through that phase where she falls in love with an intellectually exciting but emotionally inept asshole.”
And the second is:
“Selin is an Ivy League student who does not need to hold down a job, has zero problems in life and seems to spend all day reading fun texts and thinking about, yes, herself. Still, she is pretentiously suffering from disorientation. Get a life, Selin, your #firstworldproblems are a bore. Full disclosure: I never had much sympathy for people who seem to want to crawl back to their high school (and mommy), because, like, college is, like, so hard and stuff. It’s not. College is a privilege, so grow up and get over yourself. It’s a mystery to me how Selin can have so little fun there without any apparent reason”
Accusations of pretentiousness, lack of self-awareness, first world problems, and white-girl-type relationship drama are reasons listed by people as to why this novel fell short for them.
My argument is that this novel about a person becoming self-aware. From the get-go if you don’t think most people at Harvard are already at the top of the college hierarchy then you didn’t start reading this novel on the right foot. I personally went to a pretty ‘prestigious’ and respectable university and met people of unmatchable privilege, and it doesn’t even come close to Harvard’s reputation. Given the setting, I would say Selin is quite humble. The novel is filled with deadpan comedy, situational humour, quiet bizarre moments, and Selin adjusting her headspace to make room for all these things in her life. You realize shortly after that Selin is very self-aware that despite being surrounded by some of the world’s ‘most intelligent’ people each one of them is ‘an idiot’ in various aspects of real life in the ‘real’ world. I think if I had to sum up this novel in one word it would be “realizations.” Reading it feels like you are walking through the simple actions of life with a very quirky friend, and the whole time you sort of hear life from their odd point of view. When Selin takes literature classes she says: “I wasn’t interested in society, or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant.” Stopping to think what that would mean in terms of discussion. There are many quiet moments like these where Selin just makes statements and observations and as a reader I found myself going ‘heh, I never thought about it in that light before.’ For example, Selin contemplates that Disney villains knew they were evil and prided themselves on it, whereas in the real world bad people think they’re the good guys, what it would have meant to really love certain historical figures like Lenin, or feeling trapped when you realize every one of your experiences is some form of oppression on some people somewhere at all times when you really want to do the right thing.
The novel is also filled with movie analyses, book references (particularly Russian literature), side-comments about these novels, cultural references, and a set of quirky characters. Selin is constantly grasping at experience and trying to form an identity while she is constantly disappointed that real life never matched her romanticized notions and expectations. That hit every college student experiences when they realize that even though they were the smartest fish in the small pond that is high school, they are now surrounded by thousands of overachievers, intellects, and people with a drive that is unmatchable: people who invent vaccines, Nobel Prize winners, and self-starting billionaries. There are no lessons learned really, the deadpan style of comedy is somewhat depressing at times, and the mixture of observations and ‘true to life’ experiences gives this novel a shroud of hyper-realism in a way. It feels like real life, while the characters are still part of the top 1%. What makes the novel fall short is its length. What starts out being charming and endearing becomes sort of dry and dragged out by its length. There’s only so much time one can spend with overly odd characters at a time, and only so many Zoey Deschanel movies one can watch in a row.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it if you like campus novels, if you want to be brought back to a time when you were surrounded by pretentious nerds, if you like quirkiness and odd observations from strange characters, and if any of the things I said above sounds like you might want to give this book a try. It really works if you’re in the right mindset for it. The Idiot was short listed for the 2018 Women’s Prize in literature. I found it worth my time, and I wish I could have discussed this with someone as I was reading it, so maybe a good book club choice? Overall, I think for a debut novel it’s excellent.
“The ship drifted on the horizon like a symbol of escape”
“I wonder…when it was that the world first went amiss, and men forgot how to live and to love and be happy.”
I loved this book so much! It’s exactly what I needed right now. Daphne Du Maurier is so skilled in creating a perfect atmosphere, exciting plots, and dynamic relationships between her characters. This novel is escapism at its best.
Frenchman’s Creek follows Dona, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who is part of London’s upper class. Dona married Harry years ago and had two children with him. She never liked propriety, or the aristocracy, and would try to visit saloons and infiltrate other parts of society but it never felt enough, and it never felt right. The passion and love between Harry and Dona had faded many years ago (and never really existed in the first place) and Harry stopped trying, being completely inattentive to his wife. He was so preoccupied with his projects and hobbies that he might as well have been single. Feeling trapped, Dona decided to leave Harry for the summer and spent her days in absolute freedom at their summer home/cottage Navron House, right by the coast. We get a sense that Dona wants to escape. She wants absolute freedom and adventure. Upon arriving she thinks to herself as she stands by the coast:
“this was freedom, to stand here for one minute with her face to the sun and the wind, this was living, to smile and to be alone.”
Upon arriving, Dona finds all of her household staff missing with the exception of a rugged man named William. Rumours around town are that in recent months a pirate and his crew have been robbing the rich families around Navron House. Dona finds all this quite odd, until she comes face to face with the pirate ship hiding right by her house in a creek by the forest. Dona develops a friendship with the captain of the ship, who is a Frenchman (hence the title) by the name of Jean-Benoit Aubéry. The pirate is dark, handsome, French, and an incredible artist. He loves the sea, basking in freedom, and has a fondness for birds, naming his own ship La Mouette (the seagull). The novel picks up from there and there are so many escapades, and Three Musketeers-like fights, and adventures, filled with excitement and passion. The whole time Dona must reconcile her position in society with her longing for escape, and her role as mother and part of the aristocracy with her pirate adventures. There are two prevailing themes brought up over and over in this novel. The first is contemplating what it means to be happy and free, and the second is the realization that excitement and absolute ecstatic happiness can only be experienced temporarily. Good, nay, great things cannot last for too long or they lose their charm.
William says to Dona:
“a man is faced at once with a choice. He must either stay at home and be bored, or go away and be miserable. He is lost in either case. No, to be really free, a man must sail alone.”
Later Jean-Benoit and Dona discuss life as a pirate and she asks him if this life has brought him happiness, to which he responds that it has brought him contentment. When asked to explain the difference he says:
“contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction. The mind is at peace, and the body also. The two are sufficient to themselves. Happiness is elusive—coming perhaps once in a life-time—and approaching ecstasy.”
The novel’s dominant feeling of uneasiness is best captured in this conversation between Jean-Benoit and Dona as she knows she must return from her first one-day escapade wishing their love-affair could last forever, and that her life could always be at sea. He says:
“you forget…that women are more primitive than men. For a time they will wander, yes, and play at love, and play at adventure. And then, like the birds, they must make their nest. Instinct is too strong for them. Birds build the home they crave, and settle down into it, warm and safe, and have their babies.’
‘but the babies grow up,’ she said, ‘and fly away, and the parent birds fly away too, and are free once more.’
He laughed at her, staring into the fire, watching the flames.
‘There is no answer, Dona,’ he said, ‘for I could sail away now in La Mouette and come back to you in twenty years’ time, and what should I find but a placid, comfortable woman…with her dreams long forgotten, and I myself a weather-beaten mariner, stiff in the joints, with a beareded face, and my taste for piracy gone with the spent years.’
‘and if I sailed with you now, and never returned?’
‘Who can tell? Regret perhaps, and disillusion, and a looking back over you shoulders…perhaps no regrets. But more building of nests, and more rearing of broods, and I having to sail alone again, and so a losing once more of adventure. So you see, my Dona, there is no escape for a woman, only for a night and for a day.’
To follow this story from Dona’s perspective and to know what she wants, what she is capable of, and to know that even those who ‘love’ her are not willing to join her in either adventure, or nesting, or misery is one of the ways in which this novel pulls at the reader’s heartstrings. The adventures she has are very Wendy-like: temporary. I would like to think that Frenchman’s Creek is almost like Peter Pan for adults. Both novels incorporate pirates, a woman trapped between a world of fun and one of responsibility, a woman longing for adventure, two younger children, and they are both filled with bird-references. (Totally cool fun fact, Daphne Du Maurier’s aunt was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies–the mother of the children who inspired Barrie’s Peter Pan). I don’t know if this book is too deep, or heavy in any way. It is light, and fun, with a bit of pain, but what makes this light narrative worth your time is that it’s very well-written. Daphne Du Maurier has such dexterity and uses language with such craft. The landscape alone will place the reader in an amazing state of mind. This is very much an escapist novel, and like Dona, the reader will temporarily go on an amazing journey. I highly recommend this book, it’s really fun, and has many funny bits (particularly when Dona pokes fun at the aristocrats in their faces without them realizing what she is doing).
I haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:
- Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
- “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
- Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451
This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”
- The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
- The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
- Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
- Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
- The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
- The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
- Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
- Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
- Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
- Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
- Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.
There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.
WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING
- Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
- Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
- Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham
What I plan to Do from Now On:
- No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count tracker
- No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
- Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
- Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.
Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’
What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something. Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”
This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:
“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”
The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.
“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”
This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:
“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “
In assessing these relationships Wallace states:
“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.
We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”
I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”
The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:
“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”
Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?
Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:
“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”
The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself. He writes:
“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”
But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”
By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:
“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”
Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.
Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.