Month: June 2010

Murky Depths

If Mallard (reviewed last week) represents one end of the small-press spectrum (the off-the-cuff, in-the-moment, whip-it-out and get-it-done punk-aesthetic, if you will), then Murky Depths: The Quarterly Anthology of Graphically Dark Speculative Fiction represents the other end. Despite its slick appearance, however, Murky Depths doesn’t forget its gritty DIY roots. Part showcase for burgeoning talent and part fanzine, it’s the ideal mix of artistry and fanboy fawning.

Among the more notable pieces in the latest issue is “Dead Girls,” a graphic reimagining of Richard Calder’s novel of the same name. Evoking a strong manga vibe, “Dead Girls” touches on themes of race, sexual awakening, STDs, and eternal life – all in the context of a gothic(ish) vampire tale.

Yet Murky Depths is not just about comics and the artists and authors who create them. It’s also a collection of innovative horror fiction. Recent authors featured in the pages of Murky Depths include Juliet E. McKenna, Matt Finucane, and Andrew Knighton (among many talented others). Their stories, moreover, run a fascinating gamut from gothic horror to hardcore sci-fi. In short, if you can get your work into Murky Depths, you’re in great company.

Mallard 6 (comics, etc.): Your Mum’s a Recession

Imagination appears to be the theme of the latest edition of Mallard, a collection of work by writers and artists “new and not so new” to self-publishing (per the zine’s introduction). The art is a bit of a hodgepodge, but self-consciously so: Jo Billingsley’s untitled piece (in which ducks demonstrate the Doppler effect) reinforces the the mallard theme, while a number of single and multi-frame comic strips featuring stick people engaged in what artist Joe Badelley calls “exhilarating small talk” (e.g., “My favorite things are magnets, fish, tractors — in that order”) leavens the proceedings. Things take a turn for the bizarre towards the end of the issue with “She Sang the Vampire Song” by Iain Laurie — a wordless strip consisting largely of melting faces, bad teeth, runny noses, and vomit. Rounding things out are “Cactus vs. Bird,” which is largely self-explanatory, a short piece about a leaf falling from a branch, and a sketch of a vomiting pigeon.

Would I normally read something like this if left to my own devices? Perhaps not. At the same time, though, I’m glad that editor Tom England is doing what he does. His vision is as unique as the voices of the artists he’s promoting are bizarre. And who knows? The rising stars of the comics universe may well be lurking in the pages of Mallard Press titles today.

Now We Know Why It’s Called a Punch List

In Now We Know Why It’s Called a Punch List, John J. Parrino and Meredith L. Moreland ply the tools of the psychologist’s trade to the often difficult business of working with contractors and subcontractors, particularly with respect to remodeling one’s home. In many ways, the argument of this volume is similar to that of the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus franchise that purported to help the sexes understand each other in the nineteen-nineties. This time around, however, the cultural divide does not fall along gender lines but professional lines, as the basic premise of the book is that those in the home-remodeling profession speak a language of their own and have their own customs and personalities — and that those of us who require their services must take certain steps in order to interact most effectively with them.

That the authors offer a number of unflattering “universal truths” about contractors (e.g., they tend to start jobs later than promised or can be absent from a work site for days without explanation) might seem insulting if not for the fact that… Well, if you’ve ever taken off from work to meet with a contractor who failed to show up, you can certainly understand why the authors might, on occasion, grow frustrated with members of that profession. Additionally, Parrino and Moreland are at pains to point out that their book is meant in good fun. As the authors note, “An entire profession cannot be painted with a single brush.” In this light, the book does, in fact, provide the “satirical, humorous approach to stress management” that the authors intend.

By focusing on a fairly stressful endeavor that many of us have chosen to undertake from time to time, Parrino and Moreland have given us a guide that speaks to the more general issue of stress and how to handle it. The book, moreover, makes for a timely gift to anyone who is A) contemplating B) in the throes of or C) recovering from remodeling a home. Or, if you’re feeling especially adventurous, you might try buying this book for the contractor you love (or love to hate). But only if that contractor has a great sense of humor.

See Ya

Well into Cheryl Kerr’s See Ya, we learn that one of the characters “no longer thought of war in terms of countries and what they wanted, either for themselves or those they rolled across. He thought of the people, the little lives that were ground up or changed or ended in the machine of world events.” In many ways, this revelation gets at the heart of Kerr’s novel. According to one of the endorsements on the book jacket, Kerr has captured “the essence of war,” but her method for doing so is, interestingly, not to tell a “traditional” war story in  the vein of either Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or films like Saving Private Ryan. Rather, Kerr examines the ripple-effects of war by giving us a protagonist whose quest to better know her recently deceased father becomes an opportunity for self-discovery and a meditation on the meaning of honor.

When retired Colonel Matthew Rankin dies of a heart attack, his daughter, Manda, is devastated. Yet the subsequent and sudden appearance of a German citizen named Pieter Becker raises a number of questions about the colonel — most notably that of why he was photographed with Becker’s missing father, a former Nazi soldier, in Grand Central Station many years earlier. What follows is a journey that takes Manda and Pieter to places they never imagined — both geographical and emotional. In Kerr’s words, “There are rooms that exist, though no one will say so, so hidden are the entries. Some of these are secret chambers of the heart, some are alcoves and corners of the mind and some are real and dusty places with hidden, hard-to-find doors.” For Manda and Pieter, the quest for the truth takes them through all of these hidden territories and then some.

Throughout the novel, Kerr employs a number of different voices to get her story across. Much of the narrative is related by Manda in the first person, but some stretches are told via flashback, as when she discovers a diary left by her father, or when other characters bridge the gaps in Manda’s knowledge of past events. The effect of this is to suggest that history is not static, that it is an organic social phenomenon that changes with each telling and, in changing, alters our sense of identity on both collective and individual levels. It’s also to suggest that secret histories, those we carry in our hearts, may also be the most powerful, for as Manda discovers each new piece of information about her father, she comes to realize that he was more complex, yet also more noble, than she could have possibly imagined.

Like many novels and films about the subject, See Ya does not shy away from the horrors of war, but it also focuses on so much more, demonstrating that for all of our flaws, humans are capable of great kindness and wonder. Emotionally moving and well-crafted, the novel is a testament to the power of love in all of its forms and, above all, a tribute to lives of quiet, unsung rectitude.

Confined

In Confined, Mariana Dietl adopts an array of voices to tell the story of a woman named Elena Reyes de Basagalupo, who is locked away in a windowless room by her husband in Argentina circa 1979. The setting corresponds with the height Argentina’s “Dirty War,” which saw over 30,000 people become “disappeared” as the country’s military dictatorship attempted to suppress communist uprisings. Given the grim nature of the subject matter, it’s no surprise that Confined is itself a grim, often claustrophobic read.

The main action of the novel revolves around Elena’s efforts to find comfort — even a glimmer of it — inside the confines of her cell. Her husband, a mid-level militant, has locked her away and explained her absence from the world at large by telling her family that she has died. The resulting isolation, however, forces Elena to live in a world of memories, and soon she finds herself reconstructing the life that led to her eventual imprisonment. What becomes apparent as she does so is that her imprisonment began long before her husband locked her away. In short, Elena’s place in society could only ever be one of servitude and loyalty to her husband, her family, her government, and her church.

In addition to the largely omniscient third-person account of Elena’s story, Dietl fills in the blanks by inviting other characters to speak their minds on her disappearances. Roughly every-other-chapter consists of an interview with one or more of the people who knew the protagonists in her former life: her parents, her in-laws, the guards who watched over her, and a beloved grandmother, to name just a few. Such chapters are set off by a change in typeface — from Times New Roman (or something quite like it) to a sans-serif font. This technique is especially helpful, especially given the absence of chapter headings throughout the novel. Indeed, the novel itself is so densely packed with the voices of various characters and the psychological details of Elena’s imprisonment that it’s easy to get lost in the proceedings. The effect of this is to put the reader in a position similar to that of Elena: as the details pile up, we become walled in, victims of the overwhelming crush of history, politics, and other forces beyond our control. A dense, harrowing, and at times confounding read, Confined is, nonetheless, a moving book reminiscent of William Gaddis and Reinaldo Arenas.

Time Among the Dead

In the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This truism, however, belies a fact that anyone who’s spent any amount of time with an apparently “happy” family knows: each happy family is unhappy in its own way as well. Such is the case in Thomas Reyfiel’s Time Among the Dead. Evoking the Victorian sensibilities of works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the yearning for a better age inherent in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Rayfiel’s latest novel bears nostalgic witness to the passing of the age of aristocracy and the social mores that went along with it. What’s more, as the values and traditions of one era give way to the newfangled ways of the next, the uneasy relationship between the past and the ever-changing present comes into sharp and sometimes painful focus, only to reveal that even the past, or at least our recollection of it, is as fluid as any chain of events unfolding in the present.

At first glance, Time Among the Dead appears to be about the tension between the narrator and his shiftless grandson, Seabold. Under the pretense of tending to his ailing grandfather, Seabold arrives at the family estate to live the life of a country gentleman. The only problem with his plan is that the estate is nearly bankrupt, and Seabold has no real prospects for either love or employment — until, that is, he meets the daughter of a local peasant. Though the peasant’s financial footing is firm, he has no title, and so the narrator, William, the Seventh Earl of Upton, has no choice but to put an end to his grandson’s romance. William’s machinations, however, are complicated not only by the sudden appearance of Seabold’s closest school chum, but also by memories of a former life that William has heretofore painted over with the romantic sheen of nostalgia. The past, it turns out, is not what William has been making of it, and in many ways helps to explain his troubles in the present.

One thing that makes Time Among the Dead an especially intriguing read is the narrator’s prescience with respect to the audience who may or may not stumble upon his journals in the future. His desire throughout the proceedings is to set the record straight for posterity, whoever that posterity may include. Yet even as the narrator struggles to recall his past and record the present accurately, he is plagued with doubt and uncertainty, for the fragility of the mind coupled with the complexity of the heart precludes objectivity. Our knowledge of the past and present, Time Among the Dead insists, is always compromised, so the best we can do is work with the information we have and move tentatively toward the future.

A truly enchanting novel, Time Among the Dead offers readers a glimpse into a bygone era and suggests that what really sets humanity apart as a species is our peculiar talent for divining meaning in the present from the ceaseless tension between the past and the future.