Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: White Fang

When you read a fair amount of books, you will discover a handful of authors who are beyond good. Reading their stories isn't like reading at all, but instead like opening up a Christmas present. There aren't many and this feeling can't be set in academic stone. This is a very personal experience, and one of the best feelings I know of.

Some of those authors for me are: Jack London, Peter S. Beagle, George R. R. Martin, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Harris. Sure, not all of their books will be stunning, but when I sit down with one of their books, I've got a smile on my face and I consider time with them, time well spent.

Jack London is one of those authors that normally come up once or twice in English class, and despite school forcing the book down kids throats, still manage to be greatly enjoyable.

White Fang is adventure from the start.

“Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land.”

A small dog sled team is moving through a cold, desolate northern landscape, and they are being trailed by starving wolves. Things end badly for the team over the following days, and the brutal opening scenes set the stage for this novel of savage brutality and what use, if any, are of love and kindness is in a world that lives off of life.

“It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offense to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement.”

For those who have read Call of the Wild---White Fang is an interesting counterpoint to that novel. This wolf, White Fang, is of the wild from the start, and the novel is about leaving the wild, and living under human masters, or “Gods” as dogs see humans in the novel.

Brutality and oppression of the weak serve as the main source of tension throughout the narrative. There are few hopeful scenes in the first three/fourths of the book. But that is the joy of reading Jack London. The rules of the game for our characters are unforgiving.

The most powerful scenes take place near the end in a climactic battle between White Fang and another canine foe. White Fang ends up in the hands of an abusive weakling---and here, the story snaps into unending, driving conflict, and London dismantles abuse with concise clarity:

“Beauty Smith enjoyed the task. He delighted in it. He gloated over his victim, and his eyes flamed dully, as he sung the whip and club and listened White Fang's cries of pain and to his helpless bellows and snarls. For Beauty Smith was cruel in the way that cowards are cruel. Cringing and sniveling himself before the blows or angry speech of a man, he revenged himself, in turn, upon creatures weaker than he. All life likes power, and Beauty Smith was no exception. Denied the expression of power amongst his own kind, he fell back upon the lesser creatures and there vindicated the life that was in him.”

For me as a reader, this kind of direct honesty in scene and character are rare things indeed, and London shows it the way it is, without malice or glee.

The novel continues on, and there are ruminations on the importance of love and affection in a master (though, a lesser brutality and fear are still required to keep order...) Things conclude on a somewhat heroic, if unnecessary, note. But when a book captures my heart, I can forgive much.

And this book truly did.

"White Fang" is adventure, one well worth the time. "Call of the Wild" and "The Sea-Wolf"are also great reads---the latter being a phenomenal sea adventure.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Collection: Cthulhu Fhangton, Baby! And Other Cosmic Insolence

Will Ludwigsen has married the heart with horror, and the results are quiet simply some of the finest short stories around. After I stumbled upon one of his stories in Asimov's, I've been huntings like mad to track the other ones down. Most of his stories are short--some of them only a couple pages long. There's a kind of miniaturization in his stories. Rest assured, interesting characters and stirring emotions---horror, humor, love---are all there, he just manages all of it with very few words.

His only collection, “Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby! And Other Cosmic Insolence” was published in 2006.

Consisting of a nice mix of his early stories, not just horror, this slim book comes in at about 150 pages and contains 16 tales of varying length. I wasn't disappointed, at least most of the time.

Before the stories begin, there is a great amount of spouting on about horror and humor (and even a warning in the Introduction; this-might-rub-you-the-wrong-way-some-of-the-time. He was right.)

But this over indulgence in humor only occurred once or twice to the point of distraction. In most the stories, the humor is tempered, and melds well with the other emotions, and the story at hand

Which brings us to the most important part. The stories! There were lots of children as protagonist and antagonists, and all of them were written great. In “Soured” a boy is at a roadside dinner. Outside, there is a milk truck. As he goes out and walks passed the truck, something delightfully horrific occurs:

A splash echoed inside.

Brandon stopped. Could that have come from the truck? No. Someone spilled some gas or turned on a hose to spray insects off the windshield.

He stepped closer and pressed his hand against the tanker. A vibration wriggled through his arm to his spine.

Something bumped against his hand.

Brandon yanked it away.

In another story, “Billy,” a little girl lives on a farm that raises genetically engineered creatures called "beefboxes". For being such disgusting animals, you start feeling bad for the poor things when the little girl bonds with her beefbox named Billy. But soon she learns what beefboxes are REALLY for, and interesting things follow:

"...they don't feel anything at all!"

"Our beefboxes are animals! Billy is an animal!"

"No, Janine, none of them are. Remember when you were real little and you used to sleep with that old sock? You called him teddy and went to bed with him every night. But then one day you realized he wasn't an animal but just an old sock. I'm sorry to say, love, the beefboxes are the same way."

"Then why don't any of them ever go away to be steak?"

"They do all the time. We use the forklift to load the boxes onto trucks while you're at school. You never knew because they all look the same."

I jumped off the fence and clenched my hands into tiny fists. "They do not! Billy is different!"

Mystery is a big part of this collection. No just the genre, but the feeling. Will knows how to tell a good mystery. “Bingo” is about retired police dog that doesn't know the job really ended. Actually, the roommate is a pothead, and he is hoping Bingo will help him track down free goods. “And Justice for Doll” is pares mystery and humor with success, as the court room is made up of a grandpa, brother and sisters, and a bunch of creepy dolls.

Here is an example of how quickly these stories come alive, of the miniaturization I was discussing before. This is the opening of one of my favorite stories, "Nessmas":

Ian awakened from a deep slumber with a jab from his wife's elbow to his side.

“Listen!” Marian rasped in the darkness. “Do you hear it?”

Dazed and blinking, Ian strained to listen. Outside the window about the bed, the dark water of the lock slapped against the new dock. A car wooshed by too fast for these narrow roads. A gentile breeze washed through the trees and rustled the leaves beneath them. An owl hooted somewhere far away.

The scene is instantly alive. Outside the windows, something washed up from the lake, and both characters, later in the story, bond together as they try and figure out what to do with what washed up.

Of course, not all the stories worked, but nothing failed outright. I enjoy Lovecraft as much as the next man, and I felt a touch of guilt for not laughing while reading the title story. I guess that makes me a loser. Also, the ending story, "Exit Laughing", was a little weak, and it's never a good feeling ending a collection with a not-so-great story.

Will Ludwigsen has some craziness in him. This collection is proof, and his more recent published stories are proof in action. Would I recommend this collection for a new reader? Probably not. Instead, I would tell them to sample of his current work. No doubt that would be all it would take to send readers out, hunting down his book.

Me? I'm excited for what comes next.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Edgar Allan Poe is an amazing story teller, no doubt about it. The thing is, his language is so rich and full, it can be a intimidating to jump into his longer works as a novice reader. He is defiantly a writer in love with the language, with words.

I finished reading, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket".

His only published novel, it was written in 1838.

Aurthur Gordon Pym is seeking adventure, so he stows away on board a whaling ship (in a severely claustrophobic manner). The story immediately moves in an interesting, strange directions. What follows is an adventure whose scope is wide, as Pym somehow ends up in South America, and finally, the South Pole.

A striking element is the amount of graphic violence in context with the time the novel was published. There are several, quiet brutal executions. There are scenes of cannibalism.

There is drunken sailing ( fact, now that I think about it, drunkenness comes up again and again, from tipsy at the dinner party, to absolute comatose at the wheel.)

One delightfully creepy moment: Pym is floating on the wreckage of the whaling ship after a storm, starving to death with what is left of the crew. Then, far off, they see a ship coming towards them. The men on the ship are smiling and waving at the survivors. I'll let Poe tell you the rest...:

"The brig came on slowly, and now more steadily than before, and--I cannot speak calmly of this event--our hearts leaped up wildly within us, and we poured out our whole souls in shouts and thanksgiving to God for the complete, unexpected, and glorious deliverance that was so palpably at hand. Of a sudden, and all at once, there came wafted over the ocean from the strange vessel (which was now close upon us) a smell, a stench, such as the whole world has no name for--no conception of--hellish--utterly suffocating--insufferable, inconceivable. I gasped for breath, and turning to my companions, perceived that they were paler than marble...Shall I ever forget the triple horror of that spectacle? Twenty-five or thirty human bodies, among whom were several females, lay scattered about between the counter and the galley in the last and most loathsome state of putrefaction!..."

"As our first loud yell of terror broke forth, it was replied to by something, from near the bowsprit of the stranger [the smiling man], so closely resembling a scream of a human voice that the nicest ear might have been startled and deceived. At this instant another sudden yaw brought the region of the forecastle for a moment into view, and we beheld at once the origin of the sound. We saw the tall stout figure still leaning on the bulwark, and still nodding his head to and fro, but his face was now turned from us so that we could no behold it. His arms were extended over the rail, and the palms of his hands fell outward...on his back, from which a portion of the shirt had been torn, leaving it bare, there sat a huge sea-gull, busily gorging itself with the horrible flesh, its bill and talons deep buried, and its white plumage spattered all over with blood..."

"The body...resting as it did upon the rope, had been easily swayed to and for by the exertions of the carnivorous bird, and it was this motion which had at first impressed us with the belief of its being alive. As the gull relieved it of its weight, it swung round and fell partially over, so that the face was fully discovered. Never, surely, was any object so terribly full of awe! The eyes were gone, and the whole flesh around the mouth, leaving the teeth utterly naked. This, then, was the smile which had cheered us on to hope!..."

The novel never quiet reaches the intensity of the floating wreckage scenes, but there is much action throughout. As the narrative develops, the plot moves away from realism, and into the realms of the fantastic, especially in the last portion of the novel. There are some stunning scenes: great, floating icebergs that are dumping waterfalls from their melting walls of ice; the wafting fog of the steaming South Pole waters; a man slipping overboard off a ship and falling through ice, never seen again.

Although, the novel does have some drawbacks. Chiefly, there is a disjointed feeling throughout, a lack of unity in the piece. It is clear that Poe is a master of the short form, and he applies those strengths--his precise, vivid imagination, his brevity, his humor--but the result, at times, is the feeling that Pym is a collection of long, related episodes.

While not an easy read, Arthur Gordon Pym was well worth the time. Hidden throughout this short novel is a treasure trove of "Poe moments" that, more than once, shocked me with the same gleeful, cringing horror I felt when I first read, "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Tell-Tale Heart". And, for me, those moments are the most important things of all.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Debt...

The faster you read them, the more you buy, the higher the pile of books awaiting you rises and looms. It is a feedback loop. Reading books is not a linear activity, of course. It is, instead, a vast interconnected network of webs that grows in complexity with each book read.

Each book read excites several other books, sending sparkling impulses through the web.

I will review novels, short fiction, online publication, and print magazines---basically, anything I have stacked on my shelves.