Sunday, February 18, 2024

White Cat, Black Dog, by Kelly Link

Kelly Link's stories are often inspired, in some small or large way, by fairy tales, but they are modern stories and in no way emulations of the classic fairy tales. White Cat, Black Dog is her fifth collection, and it contains seven stories, the first concerns a white cat, and the last a black dog, thus giving rise to the book's title.  And it follows the flow of a typical story collection--the first few stories are high spots, and so is the end tale, while the lesser ones (lesser in the sense of being only slightly less good than the others) come in the middle.  The final story, "Skinder's Veil" (slightly associated with "Snow-White and Rose-Red), is the high point of the book.  It original appeared in an Ellen Datlow anthology a few years ago, When Things Get Dark: Stories inspired by Shirley Jackson. Though I highly recommend White Cat, Black Dog, if you read or sample only one of Link's stories, I'd suggest everyone try "Skinder's Veil."

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Saturnalia, by Stephanie Feldman

Saturnalia is set in a near future Philadelphia in an America that has been much altered by climate change. The city is now host to various pagan clubs and secret societies, with social climbers and elites mixing together, some with aims of getting a very valuable ticket out to somewhere safe. They hope to accomplish this via occult means, involving the successful creation of a homunculus, and a frightening mandragora. The story involves a small number of friends and former-friends, all with murky motivations that seem to shift a bit too easily. The main narrative depends upon something which happened three years earlier, but which is only gradually revealed to the reader via flashbacks. The prose is solid, and the plotting compelling and hallucinatory, as the novel enfolds over a short span of time. A few loose ends remain, but overall I very much enjoyed this book, especially in its opening up of a new world of occultism at play in a ravaged future.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Event Factory, by Renee Gladman

Event Factory is a difficult book to describe. It is called a novel, but it is very short for one, and it is published in a small size with spacious margins and double-spaced lines. The content is harder to describe. An unnamed female narrator has come to a surreal city called Ravicka, and from there it gets weirder. She is a kind of linguistic traveler who operates in non-sequiturs and fantastical imagery. Thus the style of the writing is the bulk of the impetus for reading the book. Yet it is tough to get into, though eventually one becomes accustomed to the rhythms of the events, and it it does lead to a kind of oblique ending. Moreso it makes the reader question what they want in reading something like this. Does one really enjoy a mysterious puzzle held at a distance from the reader via language and perception? I didn't, but I soldiered on to the end primarily because the book is short, and I was curious enough to want to experience the whole of it, whatever that might be. This is the first of a series of small books set in Ravicka, but my curiosity is now more than sated, so the further aspects of Ravicka will remain unvisited by me.
 

Monday, January 1, 2024

The Twits, by Roald Dahl

I was inspired recently to look to some Roald Dahl children's books that I didn't read when I was younger, and I picked The Twits to read first. It's an odd tale, concerning a very unpleasant married couple, Mr. Twit and Mrs. Twit, who prank each other when they aren't tormenting monkeys or collecting birds to make up a weekly dish, Bird Pie. The only plot to the book concerns revenge, and how the monkeys and birds work together to end the terror of the Twits. A pleasant read, of its kind, but not one of Dahl's best. It's pretty short too, and many pages have characteristic Quentin Blake illustrations, which add to the charm of the book. I understand that Neflix has announced a new animated movie of The Twits coming out in 2025. It will need more plot to turn this book into a film.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Novel, Who Needs It? by Joseph Epstein

As an essayist, I find the writings of Joseph Epstein appealing. I don't always agree with him, but what he says, and how he says it, can be quite engaging. The Novel, Who Needs It? is a longish essay, or a shortish book. In eighteen meandering sections--some very short, some very long--Epstein argues the novel is "the supreme literary genre." There is much wisdom sprinkled throughout the book, but his succinct conclusion is worth noting:  "Without the help of the novel we lose the hope of gaining a wider and . . . more complex view of life, its mysteries, its meaning, its point. . . . The novel at its best . . . seeks to discover deeper truths, the truth of the imagination, the truth of human nature, the truth of the heart." In answer to the question posed in the book's title, Epstein notes that we all need the novel ("even people who wouldn't think of reading novels"), and in this "great age of distraction we may just need it more than ever before."

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is the sequel to Aristotle and Dante Discovery the Secrets of the Universe. Published almost ten years after the first book, it nevertheless begins at the point the first book ends. Basically it covers the final year of high school, and the summer after, for the two teen protagonists of the title. The sequel is also rather longer than the first book. Parts of it are pretty good, part of it are contrived. As Aristotle comes out of his shell, three girls who were formerly despised antagonists become his instant best friends, and Dante recedes into the background for too much of the book, before petulantly bringing about a contrived ending. The book has the cheesy feel of a Hallmark tv movie, G-rated, with both melodrama and tragedy. Overall it was slightly disappointing, but readable.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I watched the new film Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe before I knew that it was based on a novel. It is a coming of age story of two Mexican-American teenage boys, set in El Paso in the 1980s. The film is well-acted and visually compelling, with an initial a slow pace that leads to some of the subsequent important scenes feeling rushed, with the motivations of characters mixed or unclear. This flaw made me wonder how these scenes were dealt with in the novel itself. And hands-down the novel is better in many ways, including with the particular issues which brought me to read the book. A high proportion of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the book, but the words are moved around and put into different scenes where they don't track completely smoothly in terms of context. I suppose this is a common issue with the process of turning a book into a film, but the it seemed a problem to me even before I read the book. Overall I liked the film, but the book is better.