Friday, July 27, 2012

Book Review: Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link


I love that Kelly Link has made a career out of the short form; it's risky and it's brave, and it's the fabulous and fleeting opposite of the trilogy epidemic* rampant in today's fantasy and paranormal genres.

The stories in  in Magic for Beginners are also fabulous and fleeting, some ethereal and full of dream logic, others quirky and postmodern. I'd have given it a full five stars, but there were two stories ("The Cannon" and "Catskin") that didn't really work for me, perhaps because I find that Link is better when she's injecting magic, melancholy  and her odd brand of whimsy into the everyday, rather than writing entirely in the more dreamlike fairytale vein. I won't dwell, because the rest of the stories are so wonderful I'm half-convinced I must be wrong about those two.  (Also, how great are Shelley Jackson's adorably creepy illustrations? I love the updated Leonardo which graces the cover.)

Most of the stories in Magic for Beginners are about average people in very peculiar situations. "The Hortlak" introduces us to Eric, a young man who works at the All-Night Convenience, an "experiment in retail" on the edge of "Zomburbia." Batu, Eric's co-worker, wants to discover what zombies like to buy, in hopes of creating a whole new market. Unfortunately the zombies, while not dangerous, can't seem to grasp anything more complex than the barter system, and bring in "shiny things, broken things . . . empty soda bottles, handfuls of leaves, sticky dirt and dirty sticks," to trade.  In "Some Zombie Contingency Plans," we meet yet another young man; this one steals art, thinks about zombies, crashes parties, and loves to talk to  strangers about their . . . zombie contingency plans. (There are no actual zombies in this story, but there is this great line: "Art is for people who are not worried about zombies." Think about it.)

It's not all about zombies, though. The titular story is (in part, anyway) about obsessive teenage fans of an ephemeral cult TV show called "The Library," which has "no regular schedule, no credits, and sometimes not even dialogue." In "The Great Divorce" we meet Alan and Lavvie -- he's alive, and she's dead, and they are negotiating their divorce with the help of a medium.

My favorites of all are "The Faery Handbag" and "Stone Animals." In the former, a young woman named Genevieve recounts the tale of a missing family heirloom: her Grandmother Zofia's "huge, black, and kind of hairy" handbag, which contains an entire town, a savage beast, her grandfather Rustan (he comes out to visit with Zofia every decade or so), and finally, Genevieve's own boyfriend, Jake. "Stone Animals" upends the classic haunted house story when a family moves into a beautiful old house, only to find that their things -- soap, flatware, the television, the cat, and their youngest child -- have become haunted. There is also a plague of rabbits on their front lawn. I can't begin to tell you what the ending of the story signifies,but oddly, that's perfectly okay. Expected, even.

Some of Link's stories circle back upon themselves with a self-referential postmodern glee (the closing story "Lull" in particular); other times they come untethered and float (or run, or drive) away. But at the center there is always a hint of darkness, of things lost, loneliness, the self-consciousness of the outsider or the obsessive. It's Link's potent mixture of cleverness, whimsy and pathos that makes her stories not only odd, but oddly moving.

* Not that there's anything wrong with a big, juicy trilogy -- or even more, say ASoIaF. It just seems these days it's expected that every book written need be the first in a series. Sometimes one book is the exact perfect number of books.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: Fevre Dream, by George R.R. Martin


George R.R. Martin writes a lot, having set his hand to everything from television scripts, to short stories, to epic series. Horror, science fiction, fantasy, he's done it all. He's also been at it quite a long time.  Fevre Dream, the story of a magnificent steamboat, her captain, and the vampires struggling for control of the Mississippi region, is one of his earliest novels -- 30 years old now -- but already his talent for world building was dazzling.

Let's get something straight up front. I can already hear people saying "Vampires? I am so over vampires . . .," and tuning out. But consider: this novel was written ages before the good vampire/bad vampire dichotomy became rote, years before they became rock stars, and decades before they sparkled. Do yourself a favor and try to approach it unjaded, because . . .

 Fevre Dream is also fantastic historical fiction, as much about the vanished world of steamboats and their captains plying the eternal river as anything else. Martin's magical way with details transports the reader straight to the Mississippi waterfronts of the 1850s. There we meet the blustering Abner Marsh, owner of the Fevre River Packet Company. Abner has come on hard times; his once-prosperous fleet reduced from six boats to one by the vagaries of fire and weather. And so it is we find him entertaining a too-good-to-be-true offer of partnership from one Joshua York, a mysterious, and very rich, businessman. The offer includes not only the purchase of half the company, but the promise to build Marsh the most glorious steamboat the river has ever seen. The catch? York will of course be in charge, and his retinue aboard . . . and Abner is to ask no questions.

Dubious at first, Marsh is finally seduced by the idea of a steamboat so fast that it can beat the Eclipse, the current star of the Mississippi. And when she's done, it's love at first sight:

   The mists gave way for them, and there she stood, high and proud, dwarfing all the
   other boats around her. Her cabins and rails gleamed with fresh paint pale as snow,
   bright even in the gray shroud of fog. Way up on her texas roof, halfway to the stars,
   her pilot house seemed to glitter; a glass temple, 
its ornate cupola decorated all around
   with fancy woodwork as intricate as Irish lace. Her chimneys, twin pillars that stood
   just forward of the texas deck, rose up a hundred feet, black and straight and
   haughty. Their feathered tops bloomed like two dark metal flowers.

Shrugging off any ominous associations, he names her the Fevre Dream, and the river's finest new showboat sets off with a full load of passengers and cargo, headed first to St. Louis, and on to New Orleans. It's the happiest day of Abner Marsh's life.

It's not long, however, before Abner tires of his partner's secrets and strange behavior. York sleeps all day, requests the Fevre Dream make unscheduled stops and disappears, sometimes for days, delaying the increasingly irritated passengers and, more importantly, spoiling the reputation of his boat before she has had a chance to prove herself. Suspicious, Marsh takes things into his own hands, searching York's cabin while he is away. What he finds there will thrust him, and the Fevre Dream, into the middle of a decades-long feud between two vampires struggling for ideological control of their species.

It doesn't surprise me to find beautiful passages and sensuous detail in a book by Martin, or complicated relationships and complex reversals of fate. He's a magnificent writer. But it's clear in Fevre Dream that he's still honing certain talents. One of the weaker areas is characterization, which in some cases (looking at you, Abner) is more vivid than subtle. He is not yet the creator of the ridiculously lifelike Tyrion Lannister, and ASoIaF  lovers might feel the characters approaching caricature some of the time. (So, really, Fevre Dream only suffers in comparison to his later awesomeness.) It's also hard to read old-school vampire stories with a straight face in the wake of the pop-cultural deluge. But do try to get past it:  a 4-star novel from GRRM is probably better than whatever you're reading right now.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Gaultier Exhibit

Yesterday I went to the fantastic and fabulous Gaultier retrospective at the De Young. The show spans almost four decades (77 - present), from mowhawks to Madonna to mermaids, and features the creepiest animated mannequins ever. It was also crowded as hell. I didn't bring my real camera; I thought for sure there'd be no photography; but lo and behold, coolness was in the air.  Fortunately, I had my trusty tablet; I got some fairly decent shots for such low light. Here are a few of highlights, and a link to the full set on flickr.  (Also? The guards at the De Young were all over video-shooters, so thanks for that video goes to the shoddy security at Musee des beaux Arts in Montreal. )