Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reviews: Lindqvist's Horror Short Story "Itsy Bitsy;" SF classic "Flowers for Algernon"

As far as vampire books and movies go, nothing can touch the cold, brutal elegance of Let the Right One In. With Halloween around the corner, I may have to watch it again (the Swedish version; I hear the American film is quite good as well but I'm not interested). In the meantime, author John Alvide Lindqvist has a free horror short story available, Itsy Bitsy.

Frank is a paparazzi photographer intent on getting a debt-clearing photo of an actress and her  secret boyfriend. To this end, he's set up camp in a tree on the property beside theirs, with his camera trained on their pool area. When the elusive couple finally appears, Frank clicks away. The results are not what he expected, and when he returns to the spot to figure out what happened, he finds that he was not the only one waiting for someone to come to the pool.

I read reviews before I buy. While I try to avoid spoilers, in this case, it was the lack of spoilers which threw me -- not well reviewed, most readers found the story vague and confusing, and often said they had no idea what happened at the ending or what it meant.

I decided, hey, it's free, and Lindqvist's style and imagination appeal to me, so I'll give it a shot. That said, if I had gone in without reading reviews, I would have figured out what was going to happen by the middle. Instead, I thought that I must be wrong, and I waited for the inevitable cloud of doom to descend on the ending.

While I can't speak for everyone, obviously, let me say this -- the ending is not ambiguous. Lindqvist laid the groundwork and left clues all along, and while the requisite horror "monster" in this case is completely strange and somewhat amorphous, it's just what he puts on the page.

Was I horrified? Not really. The last horror book to electrify me was Hill's Heart-Shaped Box. That's a pretty high bar. But I was quite fascinated and, truly, felt tension and dread at Frank's demise. In addition, the style is fantastic (I'm starting to believe all Swedish writers have a terrifically crisp style that turns words and phrases on their heads) and the pace is brisk. It's not bad, it's a quick read, and it's free. Get it.


Flowers for Algernon is often called science fiction (sure, sure, I can see it), but it's far more potent as an allegory for man's search for knowledge. To that end, Keyes often clubs the reader over the head with references to the Biblical Garden of Eden, characters in the university's science department who are arrogant and cold (and therefore destined to fail), and Charlie's own insistence on being seen as a real person. Despite that, Keyes has written an astoundingly powerful and clean, subtle story arc that delivers the message and leaves the reader transformed and emotionally wrecked.

Yes, I was a wreck when Flowers ended. All along, Keyes kept me uncomfortably glued to the page, with scene after scene of the awful, joking treatment that Charlie receives at the hands of his "friends" in the bakery or the distant repugnance he's handled with by the professors at the university where he receives experimental surgery to turn him into a genius. Deft and knowing, Keyes exploits our fears of the mentally retarded, our feelings of superiority, and puts us squarely in Charlie's place. And when Charlie's intelligence grows--past the point where it can be measured--he is once again beyond the realm of understanding, and left alone, by himself, to bear the brunt of fear and hostile jealousies.

Charlie's humanity is apparent throughout, and his struggle to understand, in an extremely short amount of time, what has happened to him not just after the surgery but during his entire life, is compelling. With flashbacks to a tortured, misunderstood childhood and present-day fumblings with women, he is a fully-rounded character like no other in fiction.

I'll make the assumption that everyone, even if you haven't read it, knows Charlie's and Algernon's stories. But that's no reason not to read this; while I felt Buck's Pavilion of Women was thought-provoking (see my previous review), Flowers far outstrips it and packs a wallop of an emotional punch, as well.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck

 After a year and a half reading drought, broken only by spots of tortured page-turning, I've been on a reading roll. Four books in two weeks.

It's hard to say which has been the best of the lot, but certainly Pearl S. Buck's Pavilion of Women has provided some of the most engrossing and thought-provoking reading. The story of a woman in China in the early 1900s, it traces the spiritual growth resulting from her fortieth birthday decision to no longer engage in sex with her husband, but to instead move to a building in their compound and live a "peaceful" life. She buys a concubine for her husband to take her place in bed (a decision which, even then, was somewhat shocking). Additionally, she's a bit of a meddler, and wants to see all of her four sons married and producing children. To this end, she hires a foreign tutor for one of her sons, in order that he might become more attractive in the eyes of a "modern" Chinese woman. Of course none of her carefully planned and orchestrated decisions turns out as she might wish, as the emotional lives of people are far more complicated than the cool reserve she herself portrays.

I must admit that the description of Madame Wu initially put me off. It was as if she was made of marble, perfect in every way, and her husband's vision of her as some sort of goddess seemed appropriate--for she barely seemed human. This must be Buck's intent, to create a chasm between the reader and Madame Wu, for our confusion in not understanding this woman is certainly, at last, reflected in the journey that Madame Wu must take as she realizes she does not understand her own heart.

Artfully done, the progression of a woman learning her own heart and mind, and finding love unexpectedly, is as delicate and lush as a Chinese brushstroke painting. As her understanding unfolds amidst the growing chaos of her coldly manipulated family, she is taken from tragedy to spiritual heights that most of us would envy. In the end, that is the only real complaint I've got with Pavilion of Women: Madame Wu, at the finish, approaches once again the marble perfection of the early section, making her distant from we readers, so far from emotional and spiritual divineness ourselves.

On the other hand, the changing philosophies on the page challenged me to consider my own notions of love, to broaden the parameters of my compassion, and to see the world through another's eyes--which last might, ultimately, be Buck's intent after all.

If this makes it sound as if Pavilion is a meandering philosophical read, far from it. Filled with dramatic events large and small and a cast of well-drawn characters, not to mention exquisite writing, Pavilion is a page-turner. And I found myself constantly thinking of Madame Wu throughout the day when I could not read. Even now, two weeks after having finished it, the book lingers in my mind, and that is the hallmark of something truly wonderful.


I'm finishing Flowers for Algernon today, and it's filled my mind with more questions and considerations than, perhaps, Pavilion, though of an entirely different kind. My thoughts on that book tomorrow. And if you've now got the impression that I'm only reading last century's classic fiction, fear not: I read two dystopian YA novels in between, and they were DA BOMB. No review? Ah, well, they are the first two of a trilogy, with the third coming out the end of October. I will not praise them to the heavens only to have you find out, tragically, that you must wait for the third -- because trust me, when I went to download the third book and realized it wasn't available, there was much weeping and pulling of hair and storming about the room.

So, Flowers will be finished tonight. After, of course, my yearly trip to the Ren Fest! Assuming I'll be in a state to read after having had more than my fill of pumpkin beer. :)

Monday, September 2, 2013

"Chicken" at 101 Fiction, and A Word to My Neighbors

It's fitting that 101 Fiction's inaugural issue in its new format concerns rebirth and seasons of change--eight bantam-sized tales under the banners of "phoenix" and "autumn." Read all 800 words meson by neutron, or download the PDF here.

My contribution is Chicken, in which the bird is cursed, and the matriarchal line finds its mouth filled with ashes. A favorite from the series is Kymm Coveney's Implosion. Vivid, violent imagery.

A wonderful selection of flash fic edited by John Xero.


If you were here last time I blogged (you were probably knee-high to a grasshopper then), I have completed my first goal, which was chapter one of the yarn. It's rough, I have ideas to change it, but no matter, it's a chapter a week, and I'm onto chapter two.


I have neighbors. We mostly do, in this world. I try, personally, to be a decent neighbor: keep my area fairly neat, not overgrown with weeds or encroaching on someone else's property. I keep the music to a tolerable level. I don't watch porn on the big screen t.v. with the curtains wide open at seven in the evening. My fornicating is tender and hot and kept to a reasonable level of noise; I've not found that screaming, anyway, does anything for the process. I think 1:30 in the morning is a good time to sleep, and not to light a fire in the backyard, bring out the radio, laugh like a horse's ass, and fuck my husband beside the climbing rose and hostas.

I'll give my neighbors this: they mow the grass often enough, and I don't give a shit if they want to cover their yard with resin cats with chipped ears and ten of those spinning laser-cut multi-color sun-catcher things they sell at every garden store. Hey, express your individuality on your own postage-stamp of earth in the way you see fit. Except...

For fuck's sake, don't scream and moan from 1 to 3 a.m. so that I can hear you over your turned-up-to-10 heavy metal, and if you decide to take your antics outside, expect me to call the police.

I will say this. The expression on their faces when the officer shined his light on them was hilarious. And maybe they'll get the picture now. Speaking of which, yes, they are the ones watching porn (A LOT OF PORN) on their big screen in front of a picture window with the curtains left open. While at first we laughed, I do think about the people walking by in the evening, and how some may have kids. That's a concern.

They're exhibitionists. I get it. But I'm not amused, and they can go somewhere else and let others, who may appreciate it, in on their lovemaking.

For the record, I'm down with whatever freakiness you got going on. Trust me, I've seen/read it all, and I may have participated in more than my fair share. I'm not offended.

I just want to get some sleep.