Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | October 7, 2008

Maureen McHugh: Mothers and Other Monsters



Okay, let me first apologise for the two-day delay in this post. I’m sure all three of you who read this were very saddened that it wasn’t up as promptly as it should have been, but I should be back on form for next week. Now on to the review 🙂

What struck me most about this collection of short stories was, in fact, the decided lack of monsters. Of course it had mothers, and this is certainly not to suggest that there weren’t elements of the monstrous in each story, but merely that most of the characters’ monstrosity seemed to be confined to their own opinions of themselves. In fact, those furthest from being monsters were, perhaps, the mothers in the stories which had them, who seemed instead to be real people in uncomfortable and challenging circumstances, who do admirably to fight their darker instincts — to my mind, the mark of what distinguishes well between a person and a monster.

Of course, there was the very brief appearance of a creature that could easily be described as a monster, in ‘The Beast,’ but the story was left just unexplained enough to allow my feeble mind to accept the possibility of it representing something far darker than any physical monster. I’m no genius of literary analysis, so I’ll leave the interpretation to you.

Another thing that struck me as I was reading these stories was the genre. Normally (and I say this was a bit of sadness, really), capital-L Literature is kept segregated from sci-fi and magical realism. Less so the latter (one need only read the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to see the point where capital-L Literature and magical realism meet), but especially the former. If a spacecraft appears at any point in your book, then chances are you’re likely to have it relegated to the shelf at the back of the bookstore with the Star Wars novels, or else somewhere near the Dragonlance Chronicles, there to be ignored by the self-proclaimed literati. McHugh has, quite deftly, I think, snuck ghosts and spaceships and future ‘cures’ for Alzheimer’s into a work of traditional Lit. The world, I think, is better for it.

This collection of short stories deals with the complexities and frailties of interpersonal relationships, poses ethical and philosophical questions about everything from cloning to dementia, from the afterlife to the twinned troubles of divorce and remarriage. At times funny, tragic, worrying and thought-provoking, this collection is the work of a skilled craftswoman.

This is the first collection McHugh has released under a Creative Commons license. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, the Locus Award and the Lambda Literary Award, and the story “The Lincoln Train,” included in Mothers and Other Monsters, won the Hugo award. Her blog, No Feeling of Falling can be found here (though as I’m writing this, it hasn’t been updated since the end of July ’08).

Mothers and Other Monsters is released under a Creative Commons License Summary: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0. It can be downloaded here from Small Beer Press, or bought online here at Amazon.ca.

Back next week!

Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | September 28, 2008

Francis Heaney: Holy Tango of Literature



Before I get started with this week’s selection, I’d like to post an addendum to my comments last week about The Banjo Players Must Die. It occurred to me, while going through to pick out some of those typos (adopt for adapt, it’s for its, etc.) that there’s been another work of comedy that fits the description I gave it last week, “very funny, no punchline:” Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Of course there are also no hamster-rapists in that film.

As for the typos, Mr. Assad assures me that, “Persian carpet artisans always worked imperceptible flaws into their works in acknowledgement that only God can be perfect.” It’s a creative excuse, I’ll admit.

Now on to today’s work: Holy Tango of Literature by Francis Heaney.

This is the first work of poetry and plays that I’ve reviewed here, and it certainly deserves the first spot. Heaney has taken an approach to poetry that, to be fair, I’d never considered: what, exactly, would the results have been if famous poets and playwrights from history had written poems and plays whose subject matter consisted of anagrams of their names? Heaney assures us that it is, in fact, an age-old question that people have been pondering for generations. I will take him at his word.

If the concept is a little tough to get at first, a simple demonstration elucidates things quite nicely:

The letters in the name of the poet “William Carlos Williams” can be rearranged to form the phrase “I Will Alarm Islamic Owls.” Heaney, through what must have been painstaking research, has extrapolated from the works of Williams an approximation of what such a poem would have been like, should Williams have written it himself. I have included it below:

I will be alarming
the Islamic owls
that are in
the barn

and which
you warned me
are very jittery
and susceptible to loud noises

Forgive me
they see so well in the dark
so feathery
and so dedicated to Allah


Other gems which can be found in this collection include the poem “Toilets,” as written by T. S. Eliot, the sonnet “Is a Sperm like a Whale?” as by William Shakespeare, and two poems entitled “nice smug me” as written by e. e. cummings.

I have turned the html into a pdf which can be downloaded here, but I strongly recommend you buy a physical copy this one, because books of great poetry are such lovely keepsakes, and as Heaney points out himself, it is “still the only book in the world that comes with collectible stamps that depict William Shakespeare trying to harpoon a sperm.”

Take care ’til next week 🙂

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Francis Heaney’s Holy Tango of Literature is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Generic licence. It can be found online in html form here, downloaded from rapidshare in pdf form here, or bought in a physical copy from amazon here. Heaney’s website/blog is Heanyland! I recommend a visit.

Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | September 21, 2008

Josef Assad: The Banjo Players Must Die || Peter Watts: Starfish



So I started reading Josef Assad’s 175-page farce about the end of the world, The Banjo Players Must Die, because I kind of wanted to know why, as the title suggests, the banjo players ought to suffer the aforementioned fate. But you know, like my mother always said, “if you don’t have anything nice to [blog], don’t [blog] it at all.” I should’ve known from the fact that the main character of the novel has an unpleasant attraction to hamsters that it would all end in tears. Verdict: Funny Book, No Punchline. And please for the love of all that is holy check for typos! Typos, man!

But that’s certainly not long enough for a week’s entry, so I metaphorically reached into the (also metaphorical) pit of books that is my filing ‘system,’ and pulled out an absolutely beautiful science fiction novel that I can’t wait to say good things about. Let the blogging begin.

Peter Watts’ 1999 novel Starfish takes place, for the most part, underwater. Its characters are verging on the posthuman to begin with: they’ve been mechanically modified to be able to survive at great oceanic depths for long periods of time. But it’s their psychological changes that, for me, make this book a glory of what I suppose you could call ‘on-the-cusp’ posthumanism. Watts has a singular knack for getting the reader inside the heads of all the characters (even the ones that are ‘villains’ — or at least villainous). I found myself developing empathy for them all, even when their interests clashed with each other. The conscious play with cognitive dissonance is brilliant, for starters. Moreover, the empathy the reader develops allows him or her to get dangerously close to some pretty profound psychological landscapes.

That Watts is, by profession, a marine biologist, would lead one to think that the book would be focused on the science. This book could have been a run-of-the-mill hard skiffy about people with metal lungs, which would have been okay, I guess. But instead, it’s a study of the changes stressful environments wreak on already fragile, even already broken, human psyches. They’re living in a world that is beautifully crafted, intricate in detail, with tons of throwaway ideas of what the future could be like, but that’s not the story. A lot of writers would be happy just to create a world like that and let it run away with itself, but Watts makes it the setting for an equally intricate plot played out by three-dimensional characters. It is those characters and their shift away from human psychological norms that really identifies this book, for me, as a kind of posthuman study.

As a general rule, I don’t like to give away much about the books I’m reviewing so that you, the reader, will go out and get them yourself. I hope I haven’t disappointed — go out and get it yourself. Read it!

That said, this book just screams for a sequel or two, and — praise God, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu (Kurzweil for some) or whoever you please — we have indeed been so blessed. I’m getting them now. I’ll let you know how they go.

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Starfish, originally published by the wonderful people at Tor, has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license. It can be downloaded here at the author’s site, or else bought from your local purveyor of hopefully recycled dead trees, or hey, you can buy it right now at amazon.com.

Oh, and if you want you can find The Banjo Players Must Die here. It’s released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.

Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | September 14, 2008

Cory Doctorow: Content



This is the first non-fiction book I’m reviewing on here, and it’s a trial. I wasn’t planning on doing non-fiction, but when this one came up I just had to (and no, it’s not due to an unhealthy obsession with Cory Doctorow, I promise ^__^). This is a blog about Creative Commons licensed materials, and this is a CC-licensed book that explains, in no uncertain terms, exactly why CC materials are so brilliant in today’s copyright-obsessed world. What’s more, it does it in a way that is at once both in-depth and easy to understand. So we’ll see how it goes.

Content is a collection of talks and articles by Doctorow given and published between September 2003 and December 2007, on topics ranging from Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology to the future of e-books to the future of the human race.

Given as I am to this slight preoccupation (obsession) with copyright and the state of information technologies, I often find myself trying to explain to other people why these topics are so important. Most of the time I find myself failing miserably. More often than not, I’m greeted with blank stares communicating either a complete lack of interest or a desperate need to get. away.

Now I can just give them this book.

In this collection Doctorow has managed to make complicated issues simple, conversational, and funny. This is not an easy task.

Beginning with an outstanding foreword by John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead lyricist and EFF co-founder (author of the 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace), Content takes its readers on an amusing (and at times irreverent) jaunt through the major issues affecting us — users of technology — today. In essays ranging in length from a couple to a couple dozen pages, he explains (in a talk originally given to Micros0ft’s Research Group!) why DRM will never work, why giving away free e-books is good for authors, why we’ll never live in a meta-data utopia, and why copyright is broken (and how to fix it).

One of my favourites is a talk entitled “Ebooks: Neither E, Nor Books,” in which he explains why e-books will never replace paper books, and why they’re still great: “the reasons to love ebooks have precious little to do with the reasons to love paper books,” he writes. They have different uses, different niches, and different reasons for being. Another jewel is the interview with Ray Kurzweil about the future of the human race.

Now, being a collection of writings on very interrelated topics, there will be passages that you feel as though you’ve read before. More so if, like me, you sit and read this book over the course of two days. Don’t do that. Get a copy, be it electronic or paper, and read an essay at a time. Put it down and wander off in between. Go circumvent some DRM tech to put a song onto your iPod, or research your local politicians’ stances on copyright policy, then come back to the book. Read it for entertainment, and you’ll come away having learned an awful lot.

Maybe then I won’t seem so crazy next time you ask me why I’m writing this blog.

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Cory Doctorow regularly posts from a hot air balloon to boingboing.net while wearing a cape and goggles. Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future is available under a Creative Commons U.S. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license in .pdf form from his website craphound.com, and on dead tree from online retailers like amazon.com. The cover (shown above) is copyright 2008 Ann Monn.

Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | September 7, 2008

Very Short Stories Illustrated by Josh Webb



This week, a treat: A CC-licensed collection of 6-word stories, written by William Shatner, Joss Whedon, Ursula K. LeGuin, Cory Doctorow (of course) and more, all illustrated by the talented Josh Webb.

As you may or may not know, Ernest Hemingway once famously boasted that he could write a short story in six words. To prove himself, he produced this gem:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.


Enter into this tradition this very short book of very short stories: a compilation of six-word tales, commissioned by WIRED magazine in 2006 and illustrated by Josh Webb. There’s not a hell of a lot that one can say about stories this short, but, thanks to the marvellous invention that is the Creative Commons license, I can post them here for you to read for yourselves! Enjoy!

















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Please check out Josh Webb’s site, at joshwebbillustration.com, where you can download a .pdf version of the book for yourself, and even submit your own very short stories.

Keep reading, keep writing!

Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | August 31, 2008

John Sundman: Acts of the Apostles



Last week, I wrote about a book in which Cthulhu rises from the depths to be fought off by Jack Kerouac, and the requisite ability to suspend one’s disbelief in order to enjoy such a book. Now, for me, that’s actually an easier feat than suspending my disbelief for this week’s book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s eminently more plausible: advances in technology could indeed lead to dangerous weapons being used by shadowy organizations (see: “manhattan project“). Yet the problem with writing a work such as this is that it tries to maintain a level of realism that Cthulhu-mythos books know they can’t get away with.

To avoid too many spoilers, let’s use another famous book for an example, one involving a code, by a certain Leonardo from a little town in Tuscany. Certainly, many people found this to be a more believable scenario than R’lyeh rising from the deep. I think this is evidenced by the number of absurd documentaries on the “real” secrets of the grail, and tours to see the sights from the book. (On a side note, there’s a lovely little chapel of the Knights Templar I saw in Laon when I went there to see the cathedral, but I digress).

For me, however, it’s easier to take one large break from reality and run with it than to try to imagine that in -this- reality (the one in which I’m happily living and in which consequently my general expectations about everything apply) there’s a massive conspiracy within the catholic church to hide the fact that Jesus’ great-great-great-great-etc. granddaughter’s alive and well.

But hey, that could be just me. Judging by the number of people that bought the aforesaid book, it may well outnumber the sales of every Cthulhu-mythos book ever made combined. Maybe not, but I bet it’d be close.

But back to “Acts of the Apostles,” Sundman’s Kurzweilian-conspiracy novel. This man either has a stunning grasp of both chip design and biomechanics, or else he’s got a hell of a gift with the ol’ BS. It’s a finely-crafted thriller that keeps things interesting for the duration, and when all is said and done, he does actually do a good job with the conspiracy theories. Sadly he wrote it before 9/11, so he couldn’t tie in that or the current Iraq civil war (sorry, I think the preferred terms are “failed state” and “insurgency”), but he does manage to squeeze in everything from Saddam Hussein to Gulf War Syndrome to AIDS in a single overarching theory, which in itself is quite a feat.

Following the falling-apart life of software designer Nick Aubrey, the novel bounces between Massachusetts, California, and Switzerland, charting the course of the 1990s and its relation to the rapid pace of technological advancement. While it may anticipate the fusion of man and machine just a little prematurely (Ray Kurzweil is thinking 2050 at this point), if you like technological thrillers and fear the coming singularity, this is the book for you.

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Acts of the Apostles is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial license and can be downloaded in .pdf form at wetmachine.com or bought in a form more likely to survive the coming technological apocalypse here.

Next week, a treat: Very Short Stories

Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | August 24, 2008

Nick Mamatas: Move Under Ground


First let me make clear that on this blog I do not make artistic distinctions between “genre fiction” and “literature,” by which I mean that you will not read snooty comments about how a science-fiction (or Lovecraftian horror) story lacks the sophistication of a work of Real Literature (that amorphous mass that constitutes, primarily, stories about Real Life or something like it). If I don’t like a book, I’ll dislike it for something else, bad writing, for instance. The inability to spell-check. Plot holes. Hell, if a book has these things, it probably won’t even show up here, as I won’t likely be able to make it through reading it.


Second, let me assure you that this book, though not Real Literature, is clever, well-crafted, and at times even poetic. But there’s a measure of suspension of disbelief that must take place in one’s mind before one can fully enjoy this book. Allow me to demonstrate.


Before you read this book, a test: picture, if you will, that it is the 1960s. Jack Kerouac has gotten sick of being famous, and has retreated to Big Sur to be alone with his typewriter. Now picture R’lyeh rising from the depths of the ocean, “squares” (businessmen, churchgoers, etc.) turning into buglike monsters and Shoggoth, Cthulhu sitting high in the sky with his beard of tentacles stretching across America, while the cult of Azathoth grows strong surrounded by cold fire in Manhattan. Now picture Jack Kerouac, accompanied by Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, riding across the country to save the world with the help of Buddha and the ex-demon Kilaya.


A question: does the combination of the above content bother you too much to read an entire book about it?

If not, Move Under Ground will be an excellent read for you.

If so, may I suggest something more mundane for this week. Maybe some Agatha Christie.

If you don’t know what the words “R’lyeh,” “Cthulhu,””Shoggoth,” or “Azathoth” mean, it’s time for you to play everyone’s favourite game: Wikipedia~!


But if you are going to read this book, let me assure you of what a mind-blowing treat you’re in for. Mamatas has, in the true spirit of the information age, mashed together and remixed two completely disparate worlds — Kerouac’s America and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos — and produced a work of such insane intensity that you won’t want to put it down. Even if, like me, you have no idea what’s going on at times.


Also, if I may suggest as a musical accompaniment to your reading, the recent Nine Inch Nails Creative-Commons Licensed Album(s) Ghosts I-IV really fits the bill. Somehow Cthulhu-Armageddon and Trent Reznor go together well.


This is a work of horror, in its most metaphysical sense. Be prepared for unexpected things to happen. Read some zen koans. Study the Dharma. You never know when Cthulhu might rise from the deep, and you might need to know some Old Knowledge to defeat the Elder Gods.


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Nick Mamatas’ Move Under Ground has been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License. It can be found in electronic form at moveunderground.org. It’s also available on chewed up and spit out trees from Amazon.com. Also, if you just want to send the author a dollar (or pound, euro…) you can click here.


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Next Week… A surprise. (I haven’t decided yet. You’ll know when I know. ^__^)

Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | August 17, 2008

Kelly Link: Stranger Things Happen

As promised: no Doctorow, no Sci-Fi. This week, anyway 🙂

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Kelly Link’s collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen is unique in my experience: traditional narrative fiction it is not. The most straightforward of the tales involves a girl who is slowly disappearing and the girl who wishes she could follow; the least, a four part symphony on the previously unimagined places where shoes and marriage meet. If I had to describe my first impression of the book, I would place it as a strange hybrid, a cross between Diane Schoemperlen for its dreams and poetry, and Clive Barker for its nightmares. I could read this collection a dozen times and learn something new each time, and still never understand it fully.

The collection has a love affair with the half-remembered fairy tales of childhood, a paranoia of the loss associated with relationships, and a terror of the dark, quiet places where anything might dwell. The stories range from the first, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, about a dead man writing letters home to his wife from an island where fluffy white blobs falls from the sky and the ocean waves are made of teeth, to The Girl Detective, where an archetypal nancy drew must travel to the fairy tale underworld of a midnight dance club to find her mother, while the narrator looks on from the treetops (or, on one occasion, from the branches of a potted ficus in a Chinese restaurant).

Some of the stories are like kaleidoscopes filled with fragments of dreams and nightmares, going from whimsical to horrific and back again with the slightest of movements. Shoes and Marriage does so in the contrast between parts two and three: in the former, two lovers on their honeymoon attend a tantalizing and bizarre beauty pageant at the end of the world, in their hotel; in the latter a woman married to a dictator collects the shoes of all the people her husband has killed. All is reconciled in the happy ending in part four.

For all the sparse and allusive prose, this book is surprisingly evocative. The narrative often comes off as distant, distracted, but one by one the stories will rope you in, pulling you into worlds worthy of the imagination of Márquez and his magical realism. It is dark, at times very much so, but even at the worst moments there is enough hope to draw ourselves out. The foreword to the book says the stories all have happy endings, and while I emphatically disagree with that assessment, I think it may simply be because the ones that aren’t explicitly happy are open-ended enough to let you hope — or, for that matter, despair.

Things you will learn from this book: that you can get to Hell via the London Underground; that you can put a ghost into a cello and then regret it later; that sometimes following a map made of shattered mirrors will get you where you want to be, even if you don’t know quite what to do when you get there; that survival and travel can be closely linked; that the girl detective has saved the world on at least three separate occasions (not that she is bragging); and that stranger things do happen, especially in this book.

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Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License. It is available for free download from Small Beer Press, and on dead tree for a small fee from places like Amazon.com.

Coming next week: Nick Mamatas: Move Under Ground.

I was going to post up a review of Kelly Link’s short story collection, Stranger Things Happen this coming Sunday, but that’s going to have to wait until next week. Instead, I’m posting up a review of just one story, and not one by Kelly Link. Not that I have a problem with her — I’m actually rather enjoying her book. However, my nym is involved in a community theatre production of Richard III this weekend (as opposed to my pseudonym — you won’t find the name Thom Eaves on any posters), so when I saw that Tor.com had published online its first Creative-Commons licensed story, well. I had to, didn’t I?

So this blog, such as it is, is temporarily becoming a love-in for Cory Doctorow. And science fiction. Next week, I promise: no Doctorow, no sci-fi. Really.

So today: “The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away,” a short story by Cory Doctorow, in honour of the speedy progress of Tor.com and reduced workloads for me during stressful times. Did I mention I’m the one playing Richard III? Right.

 

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With his new short story “The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away,” Cory Doctorow is certainly on form again. While taking place in a creepily plausible “future” North American security state, where misfit geniuses end up in monasteries to crunch data all the way to enlightenment, the story is primarily about a man trying to fit into the world.

Having spent sixteen years cloistered in his ever-watchful community, the protagonist, Lawrence, has learned to quantify and analyze every single thing he and his fellow monks do: from eating to reading to sleeping. He’s learned to use the same scrutiny which, as a teen, he used to deride others, on himself, and by the act has found a kind of peace.

Lawrence, however much he has grown as a person, is unprepared for the world outside, and finds himself in no short order stumbling through a world in which, because of the lack of privacy and one-way flow of information (toward the ‘Securitat,’ never away) everyone is a criminal. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that the reader follows along with Lawrence as he tries to surmount the ever-steeper learning curve without falling into (V for Vendetta reference) one of creepy Creedy’s black bags.

It’s social commentary along the lines that Doctorow has proven himself adept at following (drawing himself?), but it’s also a story about personal growth in and around the machines that change (and are changing) our world.

As a side note, one of my favourite moments in the story — I like the little details — is when Doctorow harkens back to Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town in the description he gives of Lawrence’s work at refinishing a set of stairs:

Once, he’d had the work-detail of re-staining those stairs, stripping the ancient wood, sanding it baby-skin smooth, applying ten coats of varnish, polishing it to a high gloss. The work had been incredible, painful and rewarding, and seeing the stairs still shining gave him a tangible sense of satisfaction.

Adam/Alan/Alvin/etc. goes through a similar process in Someone Comes to Town, and it makes me wonder if Doctorow finds some personal solace of his own in woodworking. But anyway.

Read the story; it’s up online now at tor.com. It’s protected by, and shared under, a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Sunday August 17: Kelly Link: Stranger Things Happen

Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | August 3, 2008

John Kessel: The Baum Plan for Financial Independence



While reading John Kessel’s latest collection of short stories there are two things that will strike you: the first is the feeling of being on familiar ground; the second is the feeling of distance, even isolation, that accompanies most of the fourteen tales. And perhaps that, too, will be familiar.

The first relies on the dozens of allusions to other works — references that seem to take little heed of genre boundaries or time periods. From the appearance of L. Frank Baum’s emerald city in an underground world, to dialogue from the mouth of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in the head of a madman, these stories revisit tales told before, but tell them in an always new and often unsettling way. While an incarnation of Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden challenges what amounts to a lunar colony’s matriarchy in one tale, in another Jane Austen’s Mary Bennet converses with Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein.

But this isn’t like popping a comfortable mix-tape in your dad’s old Chevy and going for a ride by the old haunts; it’s more like taking a slow trip down in an open-doored elevator through your estranged uncle’s apartment block. You catch glimpses of things you remember, hear clips of songs you know, but each is in an unfamiliar place and presented in a situation that’s just a little too menacing for comfort.

All of which brings us to that second feeling. Throughout the collection, there persists an idea that any meaningful human interaction is unlikely at best, and often painful if achieved. Old friends discover new wedges driven between them, families fall apart and romances fail. If you want a cheerful trip about people getting together maybe this isn’t the book for you. But I still think you should read it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t cheerful moments in the collection. In “The Red Phone” two oddball telephone intermediaries make a bond in a bizarre situation, and in fact the two pages of enigmatic writing that comprise the story “Downtown” are also two of my favourite pages of reading in the past several years. But there’s more to it than that. There are stories here that will challenge you to understand the way people act as individuals and as members of groups.

“The Invisible Empire” deals with a band of vigilante women taking the prevention of domestic violence into their own hands. The four stories that make up the “Lunar Quartet” — “The Juniper Tree,” “Stories for Men,” “Under the Lunchbox Tree,” and “Sunlight or Rock” — take place in a kind of matriarchal lunar society where sexual politics seems to take centre stage. In these stories Kessel doesn’t just take pot-shots at gender relations in western society, he wades in and wrestles with the topic in earnest. They work because he doesn’t oversimplify things or let the situations he sets up carry mere caricatures along for the ride. His characters develop with the stories and learn to face the realities of their situations, for better or worse.

At no point in this collection does it feel as though Kessel has taken the easy way out, and, indeed, if there’s one lesson you’ll come away with after reading it, it’s that there rarely is an easy way out. But despite the darkness, for its moments of introspection, revelation, and even elation, this book is worth reading. Is this a quick read? No. Is it an easy read? No. Is it a good read? Yes, oh yes.

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The Baum Plan For Financial Independence and Other Stories is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. It is available for free download from Small Beer Press, and in a tangible copy (for a small but worthwhile fee) from Amazon.com, among others.

Sunday August 3 (or perhaps a few days later, due to a shakespearean event): Kelly Link: Stranger Things Happen.

Keep reading, keep writing.

Thom.

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