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Saturday 10 July 2004

Summer Reading on the Edges of Genre

by Jeff VanderMeer

I remember the first time I read Lovecraftís At the Mountains of Madness. It was summer, and Ann and I were at the beach. We sat there in our beach chairs, our toes sinking into the soft sand, while the sunís rays pressed against our faces like a hot iron. In front of us lay the riotous, wave-riddled ocean, from which the occasional merciful breeze would provide enough relief for us to fool ourselves into the belief that we werenít becoming the next in a long line of skin cancer victims.

Squinting against the light, I read my Lovecraft, set in a frozen wasteland. And when I got to the giant, vicious penguins, I started to laugh — and I did not stop laughing until the end of the book. Lovecraft sure wasnít an ornithologist, or he would have realized the dangers of using penguins for menace. But I also think that I would have had a different reaction had I been reading late at night, in a chair at home, with the lights dim, and, perhaps, the sound of some animal snuffling about outside our back door.

So please keep in mind, as you read the following list of "summer" reading at the edges of genre, that not all of these books were meant to be read at the beach, although each of these recent releases, in its way, provides marvelous entertainment...

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Grammar Is a Gentle, Sweet Song, by Erik Orsenna (Braziller, April 2004)

A grammar lesson disguised as a short novel (more precisely, a novella in novelís clothing), Grammar is a Gentle, Sweet Song follows the adventures of a brother and sister, Thomas and Jeanne, after being shipwrecked on an extraordinary island where words prance around like living beings and you can buy the perfect word for any occasion at the market. Rendered mute by the trauma of their shipwreck, the siblings, under the kindly influence of Monsieur Henri, one of the islandís residents, seek to unlock their tongues by exploring the mysteries of the island. Among the wonders they encounter is the idea of marriages between words:

To be frank, they were pretty odd marriages. More like friendships. It reminded me of how schools used to be long ago, before they were co-ed. In the kingdom of French words, the boys stay with the boys and the girls with the girls... The article would go into the City Hall through one door and the adjective through another. The last to arrive was the noun. All three would disappear from sight: the roof of the building hid them from view... They would come back out together holding hands and with a complete agreement — Le chateau enchante, "the enchanted castle" — or all feminine — La maison hantee, "the haunted house"...
And, later, this lovely bit of whimsy:
Iím going to let you in on a secret: adjectives are deeply sentimental. They think their marriage will last forever...which just shows how little they know the congenital infidelity of the nouns, that bunch of dedicated bachelors, changing their qualifiers as casually as their socks.

Not everything in Grammar is a Gentle, Sweet Song has the same playfulness, and the book falters when it becomes serious, but the playful sections more than make up for the miscues. The siblings are interesting characters, for sure, but the pleasures of the book exist mostly on the level of metaphor and are considerable.

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Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic, by Redmond OíHanlon (Hamilton, June 2004)

OíHanlonís last book, No Mercy — a hellish, surreal trek through a Congo ablaze with civil war on a quest to observe pygmy elephants — made Heart of Darkness look like a Gilbert and Sullivan farce. This time the naturalist/travel writer has written a book about trawling for fish in the treacherous seas north of Scotland. In so doing, OíHanlon exposes readers to an entirely new sub-culture: that of the deep-ocean fisherman, who goes out to sea not in a cockle shell but a technologically cutting-edge trawler whose construction and maintenance can cost a captain millions of dollars. The catches on such vessels can net a captain $50,000 a day in a good season.

The sense of peering into the unknown begins with OíHanlonís descriptions of fishermen whose thighs are thick as tree trunks from years of having to plant their legs while on deck to avoid being swept overboard by huge hundred-foot waves. When he describes the stunningly intricate technology behind the nets, we begin to feel as if weíre in a SF novel, and, then, when he describes the beasties from the deep sea caught in the nets, we find ourselves in a fantasy novel:

The monstrous chimera, the mythical freak, two or three feet long, was on its back, its creamy underside shiny with slime, its pectoral fins like wings, and where its neck should have been was a small oval of a mouth set with teeth like a rabbitís. It slid down, flop, onto the tray. Its foot-long rat-tail whiplashed after it.
But itís not all the drama of storms on the high seas, weird creatures, and weirder technology. OíHanlon has a knack for finding the absurd, darkly humorous side of most situations, and the book is full of uproarious anecdotes, a lot of them to do with seasickness. Trawler is a great book to read at the beach, since you can be thankful youíre able to enjoy the sea without hurling your guts into the wind, working 23-hour days, or being deluged by weather that can make a grown man cry.

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Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre (Faber and Faber, January 2003)

Vernon Gregory Little, as given comic voice by eccentric DBC Pierre, is as astute an observer of our societyís ills — media-created and other — as any contemporary writer, genre or mainstream. Little, accused of aiding another student shoot some of his classmates in a small Texas town, runs the gamut of institutionalized craziness, from duplicitous reporters to the machinations of the police. The way in which Little becomes ever more entangled in public perceptions of his guilt, fueled by innuendo, lies, gossip, and exploitation has the kind of blackly humorous quality found in classics like Catch 22. But another of the great pleasures of the book lies in its deft, swift descriptions of people: "After a minute, the door opens. A strip of buffalo leather scrapes into the room, tacked around the soul of Sheriff Porkorney." (If ever there were a line Andy Duncan could have written...) In its throw-away use of bizarre but brilliant metaphors and descriptions, the surreal tinge to the ever-deepening world of hurt Little finds himself, Vernon God Little reads just a bit like fantasy:

I fester and decompose in the back of a Greyhound bus bound for McAllen, under the tumor light, the twisted lava-lamp of sky, just a shell of meaningless brand names, a shelter for maggots and worms. Vernon Gone-To-Hell Little. And I didnít call for my mom at all, you guessed it. I didnít even eat all day. All I did was hammer myself to a cross.
By the time Vernonís journey has led him to Mexico, the reader is almost willing to forgive him even if he did help blow away a few students — and willing to write off modern society as venal, superficial, and, in a way, monstrous. Luckily, Vernonís so entertaining as a narrator that we donít mind our journey through a soulless hell. Vernon God Little is a page-turner with the heart of Candide, or at least the kidneys of Candide. And if thatís not summer reading on the edges of genre, then I donít know what is...

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One Day the Ice Will Reveal All of Its Dead, by Clare Dudman (Viking, February 2004)

In this remarkable first novel by Clare Dudman, the poetics of science take center stage, in a way Iíve rarely seen bettered in a science fiction novel. Dudman tells the life story of Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist who first put forth the continental drift theory. A first person narrative, it has an immediacy and poignancy rarely seen in historical fiction.

The sheer poetry and melody of the world as seen through Wegenerís eyes shimmers and glimmers in One Day the Ice... with all the power of a personal memory, as in this reverie about a reprint of the works of Ptolemy:

It is a printed copy I hold now, a late edition, the famous Parisian one of 1545. The paper is cream, thick, wizened with age, and the printing is imperfect — some of the curved Latin letters have bled a little from their molded fonts — for this is a new art, not yet properly mastered. The owners of these tables have made notes, and with time the ink has become a gentle sepia, unobtrusive, part of the book. I too am adding part of myself to the pages: oils are leaking from the skin of my hands and molecules of fat are smearing themselves invisibly on its surface. Part of the book is also becoming part of me: some of the ink is leaching minutely from the paper and into my pores, and some of the grains of the paper are detaching themselves, floating into the air and being drawn irretrievably into my lungs. In these small ways we are blending together, the wizard and his book of spells.
On another level, Wegenerís explorations of Greenland and other areas of the Arctic are as thrilling as anything to be found in the adventure fiction of Jack London, while the psychological insights into Wegenerís character — the way in which his theories were marginalized during his lifetime — also flesh out in compelling fashion the lives of his brother, his wife, and his parents. This is the best first novel Iíve read in the last decade, and compares favorably to Brooks Hansenís The Chess Garden in its exploration of the psychological mysteries of our world.

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In Our Hearts We Were Giants, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev (Carroll & Graf, April 2004)

Sometimes, to indulge in clichť, the real world is stranger than fiction. In Our Hearts chronicles the lives of the Ovitz family, known as the Lilliput Troupe, a troupe of dwarfs who survived the horrors of Auschwitz only because Mengele decided to use them in his eugenics experiments. As the authorsí research reveals, this kind of survival was just one step away from starvation:

Jewish gynecologist Dr. Gisella Perl, also from Sighet, was forced to work on Mengeleís team. In her book I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz, she recalls that "the healthy, the talented, the beautiful, were ruthlessly exterminated, but everything abnormal was a source of constant joy and amusement to our jailers, because only when comparing themselves with those freaks could they feel superior. There were days, though, when the midgets served other purposes than entertainment. Often, altogether too often, Mengele took great amounts of blood from their veins, in order to play around with it in the laboratories reserved for German Ďscientists.í The poor midgets grew paler and weaker as time when on, although Dr. Mengele paid generously for the blood he took, by giving them a double ration of bread on such days. The ordinary bread ration, the same we received, was insufficient even for midgets. I shall never forget the little lady midget who told me one day that the double bread ration made her so happy that she did not even mind the cruel, painful, and sickening process which made her earn it."
The amazingly upbeat attitude of the family through the war times and the ten hard years afterwards before they finally made it to the safety of Israel can be summed up in a statement by Perla, the youngest member of the family: "If I ever wondered why I was born a dwarf, my answer would have to be that my handicap was Godís only way to keep me alive."

Described on the cover as a "dark fairy tale," In Our Hearts... is a moving portrait of people caught up in historical events who came out of it alive through a mixture of luck and an unwillingness to succumb to despair. This, rather than such surreal images as Mengele singing to the dwarfs, is what comes through most strongly.

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A Serious Life, by D.M. Mitchell (Savoy, May 2004)

For the last few years, Savoy (Michael Butterworth, David Britton, John Coulthart), operating out of Manchester, England, has published some of the most beautifully-made books in the world — and not only beautifully-made, but classics. From a reissue of David Lindsayís A Voyage to Arcturus to Colin Wilson's The Killer to Maurice Richardsonís The Exploits of Engelbrecht, Savoy has made the statement that wherever truly original, truly inspired, and often quite surreal and daft books lurk, Savoy will be there to publish them in stunning editions (designed by John Coulthart).

But the story of Savoy is much more than just these past few books — it extends back into the era of Michael Moorcock's New Worlds magazine, when Savoy published paperbacks of work by Moorcock, Ellison, and others, and had a profound influence on the British book scene — not just because of the books they published, but because of their punk attitude toward publishing, and their willingness to push the boundaries of what they could publish without Manchester police confiscating their stock.

Their latest project may seem self-serving, but it isn't. A Serious Life, a 400-plus page book compiled by D.M. Mitchell, provides an overview and in-depth examination of Savoy's history and its impact on popular culture, including music and comic books. Mitchell's approach is to combine interviews with Savoy's founders with his own commentary on the press in the form of interconnected essays. Some deal with the "theory" behind Savoy. Some deal with particular topics, such as Savoy's relationship to the music scene. Some provide a historical backdrop. All are incisive and fascinating; Blake, Burroughs, and several other icons of transgressive or transformative writing make appearances. In one of the interviews, David Britton remembers the day he met Burroughs:

There was something magical about meeting him. I thought of him as a sorcerous "Tinkerbell" — and some of his inspiring talent might just dust off. Mr. Burroughs was Chaos Magick incarnate and, like the best oneiric spells, your memories of what was said and done are fractured. Just the "distant wonderland" of it all stays with me. It was a very important moment in our lives.
Sections on Michael Moorcock and New Worlds are of particular interest, but there isn't a page — all of which include a plethora of well-placed photographs and illustrations — that doesn't provoke thought or further discussion. Even if you don't care even a tiny bit about Savoy, you'll still enjoy this book.

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Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, by Iain Banks (Century, November 2003)

There is nothing genre-related about Raw Spirit except that a science fiction writer wrote it, and yet I feel this is sufficient basis for inclusion in this summer reading overview, especially since it gives me the opportunity to tell you that Iain (M.) Banks is a complete bastard. Not only has he written some of the most superlative space opera of the last twenty years, but now he has not only gotten the opportunity to travel around Scotland for six months drinking whisky on his publisherís dime but has decided to rub our faces in it by writing an entire book about his experiences.

Of course, itís not all about drinking whisky — itís also about Scotland and about Banks, to some extent. Itís about the culture behind the whisky. Itís about... but who am I fooling? Large portions of this book are just about drinking whisky:

The second whisky is 28 years old, is down to about 46 proof and is from a fino sherry cask... This stuff is just colossal. One taste (albeit a taste that takes a few minutes, from first amazed sniff to last lingering sensation at the back of the throat) and it goes straight to the top of the list. Very peaty, smoky, and salty, but thatís just the start.
Just the start? You mean thereís more?!
...thereís a rich creaminess here too, powerfully but sharply sweet in a way that would swamp a less muscularly peated dram but which here is part of a kind of dynamic of phenolic smoke and something like murky perfume. Itís a changing dynamic, too, like having some immensely complicated integrated equation of taste working itself out in your mouth, developing as itís held there to swirl from wood-smoke to sea-spray to sherry and back again; one moment it tastes like barbecued licorice, next itís changing, to honey-glazed fruit (though at the time my principal impression was, Wow!).
As I say, Banks is a bastard. A bastard capable of writing amazing fiction and now very entertaining nonfiction, but a bastard nonetheless. If you want some summer reading that points out the sheer unfairness of life while giving you a teasing taste of Nirvana, then Raw Spirit will draw you in like a beetle to a bug zapper.

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