Eight even-briefer-than-usual reviews as I do some catching up: Peter Haining's The Hero, The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, Libba Bray's Beauty Queens, Max Brand's The Streak, Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife, Pat Cadigan's Chalk, Patrick Ness' The Ask and the Answer and Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three.
Cold War thrillers, domestic fiction, horror, young adult fantasies, Westerns and... everything else. A genre pick n' mix.
Peter Haining's The Hero (1975) was terrible. I mean, I was expecting 'bad', but this was terrible. A Cold War thriller, it posits a world filled with peace-and-love-for-all except for the evil Chinese. An ordinary English civil servant is chosen to run an impossible mission behind the 'bamboo curtain': to photograph a doomsday device before the Chinese use it to level the West. A parallel narrative follows a group of film-makers as they make a movie of our hero's adventures. Neither are particularly appealing, and the conclusion is both senseless and distasteful. Oh, also racist. And filled with plotholes and paranoid conspiracy theories. If I were the type to give stars, here's an instance where I wouldn't.
The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (1967) was my first experience of the man's work. I'm still going to plow on, as I'm extraordinarily interested in "New Journalism" as it applies to, well, blogging. A few stories fell flat with me - "The Time of Her Life", "Advertisements for Myself on The Way Out", "Truth and Being, Nothing and Time", "The Notebook"... all seemed, well, either overly deliberate or too linked to the mores of the time. Others, say, "The Patron Saint of Macdougal Alley", "The Paper House", "A Calculus at Heaven", "The Killer" are some of the best I've read. I suppose any survey of a career this diverse is going to have its ups and down, but I'm pleased that some were so good.
Libba Bray's Beauty Queens (2011) made me laugh out loud a half-dozen times. A dark, slapstick comedy about teenage pageant competitors stranded on a desert island while a bumbling Evil Corporation does Evil Stuff in the background. Ms. Bray takes wonderful pokes at reality television, consumer culture, nepotism, television, the South,... pretty much everything. But beneath it, there's a really lovely positive message about doing what you love and being yourself - whoever you are. Very highly recommended, both as a charmingly progressive book and a hilarious one.
Max Brand's The Streak (1936) follows "Blondy", a young (and useless) cowpoke as he inadvertantly becomes the gunslinging hero of Jasper Valley. His two older and wiser friends follow along, picking up the pieces and getting him out of scrapes. Kind of a comedy, at least, as much as Brand ever does comedy, but also a little forlorn. Unlike the convention for this sort of story, Blondy doesn't even try to be the hero: he keeps telling the truth, but everyone else is so keen to have a legend that they don't believe him. The Streak is also a late period Western: there are automobiles, for example, and the town of the story is second-generation, not frontier. I can't help but see the two as related: as the "Wild West" has vanished, the townsfolk are so desperate for adventure that they force it upon others.
Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967), by Sue Kaufman follows Tina Balser, an increasingly frustrated (and very wealthy) housewife with two bratty children and a shockingly shallow husband. They live in Manhattan, where Tina juggles her husband's vast collection of couture suits, her children's bizarre illnesses and her marriage's slow descent into failure. Tina internalises all of these problems: as everything around her spirals out of control (even as people tell her how easy she's got it), she blames herself - clearly she's going insane. Ms. Kaufman's book is funny, poignant and powerful, it is hard not to slip into Tina's shoes and feel her pain. Also, love the conclusion, which extends the theme: everyone is unhappy and lonely; everyone needs a little help. (Interestingly enough, this was made into an award-winning film which has never been released on DVD. Boo.) (Double interesting: comparing it to Judy Blume's Wifey, out a decade later. Ms. Blume's protagonist is in an extremely similar predicament - and comes to largely the same conclusion. Mad Housewife is much, much better - I'm not sure why, but I think it is because, despite her insecurities, Tina is never self-loathing. She does speak and act out, and that's the core of her 'madness').
Pat Cadigan's Chalk (2013) is the latest chapbook from This is Horror, who persist in creating beautiful, thoughtful novellas from some of the best contemporary writers. Chalk continues their string of literary successes, Ms. Cadigan's short tale of friendship and the weird is unsettling and beautiful. Two girls share a friendship based on envy: Dee comes from a sprawling, noisy family while our nameless narrator has only her chilly single mother. Dee longs for silence and some alone time - our narrator wishes for friends and warmth. The two spend their days not-hiding from their families. To actually hide would get them in trouble, the trick is to be someplace completely reasonable, but not be seen. When Dee stumbles on a bit of magical - certainly uncanny - chalk, the rules of the game change rather dramatically. The girls can disappear... but do they want to? Chalk is less about friendship than desire - the sinister results thereof, and how one person's dream can be another's nightmare.
Patrick Ness' The Ask and the Answer (2009) - the second of the Chaos Walking trilogy which NO I HAVEN'T READ BEFORE NOW SO PLEASE STOP YELLING AT ME ABOUT IT (geez). Um. Hm. So, two things Mr. Ness does well: perspectives, cruelty. I mean them both in the broadest possible sense, and when you combine the two, you get books this excellent. The Ask and the Answer is about two different factions fighting for the 'soul' (or at least, the political control of) of a city. One is a group of terrorists - or are they freedom fighters. One is the secret police - or are they guardians. By the end, rather suitably, we are left with an infinite number of questions and no definitive answers; Mr. Ness is as cruel to the reader as he is to any of his characters. Who is right, who is wrong, that depends solely on where you're standing, and can change from moment to moment. What we do learn is that, with a single step back, it both sides look suspiciously the same, and violence, no matter how well-couched philosophically, is just that. My illustrious university spent four years teaching me that real education is about learning to ask the right questions. Mr. Ness teaches that same lesson over the course of a single kid's book.
Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three (1964) - like my reread of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, another cautious revisitation of a childhood favourite. And, like Ms. Aiken's book, Mr. Alexander's has successfully passed the test of time. Taran is a no one: an orphan who, after much squawking and complaining, is given the sarcastic title of "Assistant Pig-Keeper" by the farm's phlegmatic blacksmith. Still, the pig is important, and when she runs away, Taran sees no choice but to follow her - even as she sprints into Dark and Forbidding parts of the forest. Taran's adventures include encounters with many of the world's most interesting powers - the noble high prince, a delightfully flaky princess, a spirit of nature, an evil sorceress and, above all, the Horned King - evil warlord of Arawn himself. Mr. Alexander draws heavily on Welsh mythology (which... yawn), but, more importantly, writes compellingly about the nature of heroism. Even as a kid I remember these books being unique: it isn't about Taran finding-and-achieving his destiny, it is about a collaborative effort, where being a good person counted for more than being a chosen person. Taran, Eilonwy, Fflam and Gurgi make a misfit collection of heroes, none of them are particularly spectacular and they bicker all the time... but they try really, really hard. Sometimes the hero is the dude that wields the Big Flaming Sword; sometimes the real hero is the person that delivers it.
Thinking ahead to The Knife That Killed Me (review coming Wednesday), there's an important message about agency here... Taran is, essentially, a 'sidekick'. He's an ordinary boy in a world filled with great supernatural powers and princes with vast destinies. But Taran, unlike Knife's Paul Vardeman, still feels like the hero of his own story. He can't rule the world, but he can rule himself. Perhaps that's why I gravitate more towards The Book of Three. Although in both books the reader is led to understand that the world can be too big, too much and too overwhelming, in Mr. Alexander's book there is still exists individuality, while Mr. McGowan's focuses more on the inevitability of being subsumed. (Again, as a warning - not as a thesis, but still, very depressing.)