Book Reviews

Aliens, Robots, and VR Idols

Full disclosure: I tried reading some of HP Lovecraft’s fiction when I was in grammar school — a collection of short stories that included “The Call of Cthulhu,” if I remember correctly — but I found it fairly alienating and also kind of depressing. Similarly, I never really got into Isaac Asimov (despite Will Smith’s best efforts), and though I vaguely recall reading and mostly enjoying William Gibson’s Neuromancer as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I failed to finish reading a subsequent Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, because I didn’t know what was going on and didn’t especially care to find out.

None of this is to disparage any of the above writers. I’m told by several friends and colleagues — and now by John L. Steadman, author of Aliens, Robots, and Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson — that their works are classics not only within their genre but of literature in English more broadly. Likewise, the profusion of Cthulhu-themed bumper stickers and tee shirts among steampunk hipsters alone has, over the past decade or so, made me wonder whether I am, in fact, missing out on something. Fortunately for me and others of my ilk, Steadman’s book does an excellent job of summarizing much if not all of each author’s oeuvre in loving detail. Think of it as the Rough Guide to Lovecraft, Asimov and Gibson Countries.

While much of the volume is given over to valuable summary, Steadman’s larger purpose is to explore, in his words, “the interrelationship between alien and humankind.” This examination reveals the limits and limitations of what Steadman describes as “the belief that humankind is at the center of the cosmos — the most important element in the cosmos, in fact.” This critique of what might broadly be described as Humanism resonates with the Inhumanism or Antihumanism of figures like Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry does much to undermine the notion that humans are the center of existence, and it also calls to mind the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who look upon humanity with a mix of curiosity and bemusement.

One question that Steadman returns to repeatedly is that of motive: What do the aliens in the authors’ works want? Curiously, the question itself reveals the limits of humanity’s ability to conceive of and understand the fully alien insofar as asking what aliens want assumes that they do, in fact, want as humans do. Perhaps this explains Steadman’s conclusion that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal” and that “when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers,” we are left with the disturbing vision of “humankind, short-lived and insignificant, alone in a vast, indifferent cosmos.”

Agitprop for Bedtime

Let’s just assume that if you’re curious about a book called Agitprop for Bedtime, you have a half-decent sense of humor and will be okay with a very short textual reimagining of the Kama Sutra titled “Laurel and Hardy Have Sex.” On the other hand, if you’ve ever wondered why you don’t get an erection the moment you hear the opening notes of the national anthem, then many of the pieces in Charles Holdefer’s latest collection of miniature polemics, story problems, and humdingers might cut a little too close to the bone for your comfort. For everyone else, it’s a jolly, twisted, phantasmagorical romp through the American psyche.

As with Holdefer’s Dick Cheney in Shorts, this latest collection has a decidedly political edge, with a wide range of targets that include gun rights, healthcare, for-profit prisons and blind patriotism. In many ways, he’s depicting the cartoonish landscape that programmers at Fox News would have their viewers believe lies just beyond the safety of their gated communities. It’s an America where Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein trudge dutifully from house to house like errant trick-or-treaters taking fire-arms from gun-toting citizens while lonely white men on diving boards leap to meaningless deaths in empty swimming pools. It’s a weirdly bleak vision of a nation divided, but a hilarious one as well.

The proceedings, laugh-out-loud funny as they may be to a particular type of reader, offer more than just slapstick comedy. They’re also surprisingly nonpartisan—or at least as nonpartisan as a book of this nature can be. The funhouse-mirror version of America that Holdefer depicts is one that implicates us all. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a short piece titled “Here Lies a Myriad,” which finds a young couple perusing the menu of a fine-dining establishment whose delicacies, served by heroes, include air strikes, naval destroyers, and infantry while what goes on in the kitchen remains (mercifully?) out of view. Our ignorance, it turns out, is as purposeful as it is central to our continued comfort.

Stylistically, Holdefer is not afraid to take risks and play with form. Plot and character in his short works are often implied and arguably Rorschachian reflections of the reader’s psyche. Personally, I can’t help reading “Kickstart Me Harder, Harder” as a knowing critique of my own (shameful, shameful) past dalliances with crowdfunding and the icky feeling that the practice engenders, while “Love Kit” reads like a work of art-by-instruction gone horribly wrong. Fun, in other words, for the entire family.  

At the end of the day – which, as the title suggests, is arguably the best time to read this collection – Agitprop for Bedtime is a real humdinger that dares to ask the eternal question: Is hell other people, or is it just the coffee shop where they all hang out?

The Scene That Would Not Die

If you fancy yourself a historian of all things punk, then you’re going to need Ian Glasper’s The Scene That Would Not Die on your bookshelf. Published by Earth Island Books, it’s the fourth and final volume in Glasper’s loving, meticulous, and exhaustive chronicle of the UK punk scene(s) beginning with 1980. Following The Day The Country Died: A History Of Anarcho Punk 1980-1984, Trapped In A Scene: UK Hardcore 1985-1989, and Armed With Anger: How UK Punk Survived The Nineties, Glasper’s latest tome covers that last twenty years of punk and ends in the present day. It’s a history that bears witness to the dawn of social media and the early days of music streaming and finds contemporary musicians continuing to play the music they love while anxiously pondering its future in the shadow of Brexit and COVID-19.

First and foremost, The Scene That Would Not Die is a reference book. Explaining his decision to list the bands he profiles in alphabetical order, Glasper notes of his previous books that readers tend to “cherry-pick their chapters” and that “very few read the book from front to back.” Yet even though the book reads like an encyclopedia of bands whom — despite decades of dedication and, in many cases, by design — you’ve never heard of, the entries call out to each other like voices in the night as musicians cite their influences, jump from one band to another, or straddle multiple bands at once. What emerges is the story of a community bound as much by a love of hard-driving guitars and heavy, pounding drums as by a suspicion of mainstream culture and the trappings of a consumerist vision of success.

Not surprising, perhaps, is the fact that many of the bands featured in this volume are as dedicated to political issues as they are to their music; indeed, for most of them, the two go hand-in-glove. Veganism, anti-fascism, anarcho-syndicalism, and socialism are a few of the stances that the musicians profiled herein embrace. Nonetheless, as Justin Wood of two-piece anarcho punk band 51st State insists, the real joy of his brand of punk is that it’s “a little bit like a reset button that shakes you up from the consumerist negativity of our current culture and world.” What’s more, he adds, the punk scene on the whole “is a really broad church, and there is such a wide range of music within it… There is such a variety of bands, holding different views and politics, but all exist within punk, and this does mirror the broad scope of humanity in society; I think that even though this can be a frustration, it is probably human and it should be a nurturing and positive scene.”

The book also goes a long way toward replacing the shopworn Sid-Vicious-inspired stereotype of the punk-as-mindless-ne’er-do-well with an incredibly erudite and socially-conscious model. Take, for instance, the ruminations of Chris Dodd of Bad Breeding, who comes off as a cross between a scholar of Marxism and a character from a Don DeLillo novel when he discusses the future of not just punk but humanity as a whole: “For me, I’ve always seen a return to class analysis as the crucial tenet in pushing for radical deconstructions of the systems and frameworks that purport to govern our lives. This will become ever more apparent as the climate continues to rapidly evaporate and it becomes starkly obvious that our current economic mode runs counter to the existence of life on earth. There’ll be no time for navel gazing or liberal point-scoring when the earth is either ablaze or underwater.”

As the above and many, many other passages of The Scene That Would Not Die suggest, one of Glasper’s strengths as a historian is to let his subjects do the talking. When he does interject, it’s only to provide context so that the bands he’s chronicling can tell their owns stories, or to offer discographies and select-listening lists (including some very helpful URLs at the end of each entry). And while the ease of finding this music certainly signals the end of an era when to be aware of a band like Atterkop meant being neck-deep in a scene of like-minded individuals, the good news is that punk will never die. As unlikely as it may seem that punk can, in Glasper’s words, remain “relevant and meaningful to a risk-averse society in the face of such instant gratification,” the fact that the genre is always moving forward, “never past tense,” means that “as long as someone wants to stand up and ask ‘Why?’ or say ‘No!’ in a loud, angry voice, there will always be a place for this feisty subculture.”

Review by Marc Schuster

Always Reading as a Writer: Curtis Smith Interviews Clifford Garstang

Cliff GarstangClifford Garstang is the author of House of the Ancients and Other Stories, recently released by Press 53, as well as two previous story collections, In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know and a novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley. He is also the editor of the anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. A former international lawyer, he now lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. To learn more about Cliff, visit CliffordGarstang.com, and to learn more about his new story collection, visit Press53.com.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the House of the Ancients. You’ve published a couple collections with Press 53. Can you discuss your relationship with them? What rewards do you find with working with a publisher you’ve worked with before?

Clifford Garstang: I have been working with Press 53 since they published my first book in 2009 and I have a great relationship with the Publisher and Editor, Kevin Morgan Watson. It has gone beyond my own books, though. I remember going down to North Carolina to do some readings shortly after that first book came out, and as Kevin and I were driving down the highway I told him I thought a literary magazine would be a good fit for the press. Kevin said he’d been thinking the same thing, and by the time we got to the event we had worked out a lot of the details, including the name, Prime Number Magazine. I stepped down as editor of the magazine after five years, but it’s still going strong and will celebrate ten years of publishing this July. After my second book came out in 2012, I pitched an idea to Kevin for an anthology of stories set all over the globe. He loved the concept and the result was a three-volume series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, which came out from 2014-2018. So when this new collection was ready, it was a no-brainer to take it Press 53. Kevin and I have become friends, I know what to expect from the process, and there are no surprises. I also know that Kevin knows short stories—he loves them—so it’s great to listen to his advice. But he’s also going to listen to what I have to offer, as well. I’ve also helped out with his new literary conference, the High Road Festival of Poetry and Short Fiction, as a contest judge, and other projects.

CS: I talk with my students about understanding the themes that obsess us—and I think that often we don’t really see them clearly until later in our careers. And once we understand these themes, we can work with them instead of wrestling blindly with them. You have a number of books under your belt now—can you identify any such themes in your work? If so, has the act of writing altered your understanding of these concepts?

CG: It’s great that you share that wisdom with your students, but my guess is they’ll have to rediscover that lesson on their own. First of all, I don’t usually start writing a story with a theme in mind. I start with a character, a situation, or an image, and let the story unfold organically. It can be messy, but eventually I’ll get wherever my subconscious is taking me and recognize what the story wants to be about—its theme. Then I can go back and revise so that the story’s elements generally point in the same direction. When I assembled my first story collection, which was linked by the setting of the stories and a number of recurring characters, I realized that they were also linked thematically. The next book, which was very different in terms of structure and setting, also dealt with some of the same themes. And the novel that came out last year does, too. I don’t think you have to be a psychiatrist to note that maybe, just maybe, I was saying something about myself by tackling those themes in three books. Now, though, I think maybe I’ve moved beyond them and am beginning to explore different subjects. Maybe.

CS: I enjoyed your novel last year from Braddock Avenue Books. With this collection coming so soon after that, I’m guessing that in the previous years, you went back and forth between that book and this collection. If this is the case, how do you approach balancing two projects in various stages of completion? Do you work on one as long as it’s calling you then put it away and return to it when it calls you again? Or do you set aside specific periods of time and give yourself guidelines to follow? What are the rewards and challenges of having a couple projects versus having a singular focus?

CG: I have a complicated to answer to what you probably thought was a straightforward question. The novel that came out last year was a long time in the making, but then so was the story collection. There was a point at which I was writing two books at the same time—sometimes working on one in the morning and one in the afternoon—but the new collection of stories wasn’t one of them, at least not as a fully imagined collection. Some of the stories were written more than ten years ago and some were written last year. But more or less simultaneously I had an idea for two different novels, and I was pushing them both forward until I realized how insane that was. I put one of them aside to focus on the novel that became The Shaman of Turtle Valley, the book that Braddock Avenue Books published in 2019. But it takes time to find an agent and then a publisher, so while that was happening I returned to the other novel and also kept writing short stories, although still without thinking of them as a collection. Finally, when Shaman was under contract and I had also found a publisher for the other novel (it’s coming out from Regal House Publishing in 2021), I was able to look at the stories I had that were finished—most of them already published in magazines—and several that were still in draft form and start putting together a complete manuscript. When I was happy with it, I sent it to Press 53 and they took it. It’s an accident of the publishing industry that it’s coming out now, a year before the other novel, when it was finished more recently. But to actually answer your question, I don’t think working on two novels at once is really tenable. On the other hand, writing short stories can provide a great break if you need to get away from a longer project for a while, which is often advisable. And of course there are times when you’re just waiting for something to happen—for an agent to get back to you on a query, or for a publisher to read your manuscript—and you need to be doing something. For me, that would be writing. 

CS: You’re very involved in the literary community—and I assume you get a lot of hits for your annual ranking of literary journals. First, when did you start doing this ranking—and what motivated you? Can you explain the process of how you compile the rankings? And then a question about the literary community in general—do you see one’s involvement in it as a privilege? An obligation? What hopes do you have for our community in these strange times? And speaking of strange times, can you address the challenges—and perhaps the unique opportunities—to releasing a book now?

CG: So many questions! To start, I’ve been doing my rankings of literary magazines for something like 15 years. It began as a tool for my process of deciding where to submit my short stories, because until then I was using a scattershot approach without giving it much thought, or rather, my choices were based on hearing from other writers that Magazine X is “good” or Magazine Y might like my work. Logic told me that I needed to be more systematic. It made sense to submit to the best magazines first, but how was I supposed to know what those were? Eventually I hit upon a formula that took into account the number of Pushcart Prizes and Special Mentions a magazine had won over a ten-year period. I settled on the Pushcart Prize, as opposed to the annual O. Henry or Best American Stories volumes, because I liked the way stories are nominated by magazines and contributing editors, which somehow made it feel more democratic than the other prizes. And I felt that my formula was as objective as I could make it. Yes, the editors are subjective when making their selections, but I’m not letting anything else influence the rankings such as my own feelings about the work that a magazine might be publishing. Initially, I only ranked magazines for fiction because that was what I was writing. I shared the list with friends and then, realizing that others might benefit, I posted the list on my website. Eventually I created separate lists for nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction, and I’ve been doing all three for at least ten years. (Another advantage of using the Pushcart Prize anthology is that it contains work in all three genres.) Second, I do think writers have an obligation to serve the greater literary community in some way. I do book reviews for the same reason, and I always post about books I’ve read on Goodreads, and sometimes on Amazon also. Especially for writers who aren’t published by the mega-presses, it’s hard to get noticed by the reading public. We can all do more to lift each other up by doing reviews and interviews (thank you, by the way!), and spreading the word. My advocacy on this subject isn’t entirely selfless, of course. I’m hopeful that while I’m talking about other people’s books, maybe someone else is doing the same for me. But another reason I still do the rankings is that I get a little thrill when I meet someone at AWP or an artists’ colony and they thank me when they discover I’m “that guy” who does the rankings. And third, boy these are strange times indeed. Personally I’m very fortunate because I’m not as severely impacted by the isolation we’re experiencing because of the pandemic as many others. I don’t teach, so I’m mostly just doing what I always did, which is writing at home. If anything, I’m more disciplined now that I can’t visit my favorite coffee shops. But like a lot of people, I’m using Zoom to stay in touch with friends and my book club and even to promote the new book. That’s maybe not a bad thing. I recently joined another writer for a reading from our new story collections. It was a Zoom meeting streamed live on our publisher’s Facebook page, so we had way more people watching than I’ve ever had at one of my bookstore events. Plus, the video is still on Facebook and I’ve sent it to some people as part of my promotional efforts. I will always love visiting independent bookstores and meeting with readers, but the way we do events may have changed forever. 

CS: As a consumer, how is the experience of reading stories and novels different for you? Do they hit different parts of your brain? Do they stay with you in the same way? When you’re writing stories, do you find yourself focusing on reading stories? Then let’s switch to the writer’s perspective—how is the process different for you? What do you find rewarding (and challenging) about the creation of each of these forms?

CG: I’m not sure I’m capable of answering this question from a consumer’s point of view anymore, because I’m always reading as a writer, looking at different aspects of craft and structure. With stories, especially, I’m looking for certain elements, as if I’m preparing to critique a student’s work (never mind that the student’s name might be James Joyce), and judging it by what I see or don’t see. I’m pretty sure non-writers don’t look at short stories that way, if they read them at all. As a writer, I don’t narrow my reading to the particular form I’m working on, unless there’s some structural peculiarity I might learn something from. Also, I usually have several books I’m reading at the same time—poetry, nonfiction, a novel, a story collection, sometimes a book on the craft of writing. Plus an audio book in the car (currently a memoir). As for the process of writing, I’m a bit schizophrenic. With stories, I have a pretty clear picture of the structure I want before I start, but I have no idea what the ending will be. With the novels I’ve written, the ending is just about the only thing I can picture in advance, and then I’m trying to write toward it. For me, one of the biggest challenges for both forms is deciding where the best entry point for the reader should be. That is, at what point on the timeline of the story do you put page 1? The answer in both cases might be to drop the reader into the work at a point where things are already happening, even if, as a writer, you’ve written pages and pages or thousands of words to get yourself to that point. Those aren’t wasted words, I keep telling myself, but the reader might not need to ever see them.

 CS: What’s next?

CG: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got another book coming out, a novel, to be released by Regal House Publishing in spring of 2021. I like to think of it as a mystery, because the protagonist discovers a family secret that no one will talk to him about. As a philosopher obsessed with the source of knowledge, he travels the world in search of this hidden truth. So there’s that. But I’m also pretty far along with a new project, the most ambitious book I’ve attempted so far. It’s a blended historical and contemporary novel set in Asia that deals with unequal power dynamics in a variety of relationships. Some days I think I’m close to finishing that book. This is not one of those days.

House of the Ancients front cover