Short Story Collections, Collected and Collectible
To be honest, at this point in my reading life, I've lost a bit of the compulsive collecting impulse that used to drive my reading and buying. I'm more interested in reading than investing; but the reading itself is a form of investment; certainly, it is a way that I invest my time, and I do so with great care. Short story collections are ideal palate cleansers for reading between novels, but reading through a collection non-stop can be equally rewarding. These collections are going to be a bit harder to find, but are well worth the effort.
Translated fiction seems to be in the air, and the titles on offer are nothing less than stellar. Take, for example, two new books from Hieroglyphic Press, 'On the Hill of Roses' by Stefan Grabinski, translated from the Polish by Miroslaw Lipinski and 'Requiems & Nightmares' by Guido Gozzano, translated from the Italian by Brendan and Anna Connell.
Stefan Grabinski (1887-1936) has long been on my radar; I reviewed 'The Dark Domain,' back in the stone age for OtherRealms magazine. 'On the Hill of Roses' (August 2012 ; £30), the newest Mark Samuels, an introduction by Miroslaw Lipinski, the master translator of Grabinski's work, and seven stories; six from the original Grabinski collection, and one new that had been serialized. Grabinski is like no other writer you will encounter. His work is evocative and disturbing. He plumbs inner depths of perception to discover rot and horror. The stink of death is never far, but it is his language, with which he explores worlds both internal and external, that is outstanding. These are not stories in which a turn of plot reveals a hidden trap or truth, but rather, prose examinations of reality. Lipinski's translations never feel translated; he lets Grabinski's poetry seep into the reader's mind, lets it burrow like a worm into a corpse. Truth will emerge, never pleasant, but ever powerful.
Guido Gozzano (1883-1916) is in fact best known as a poet, but his work in 'Requiems & Nightmares' (August 2012 ; £30) is marked by a nicely under-written plain style. Brendan Connell's introduction is exemplary in that he gives the facts of Gozzano's life without re-hashing the plots of the stories. These are left for the reader to discover, and it is a discovery well worth your time. Gozzano's work treats the world we live in as a starting point for the dreams we have of the world, and often deftly joins the two. They're written with lots of dialogue and quick to read but linger in memory. Gozzano creates an atmosphere of openness that frees and empowers the imagination. Brendan and Anna Connell do a fine job of staying out of Gozzano's way, letting the casual feel of these stories speak for themselves. Gozzano is an interesting discovery, with a unique style and feel unlike any other writer. This is precisely the sort of book that many readers will be looking for; beautiful and unusual, but very accessible.
Both these volumes from The Hieroglyphic Press are more than impressive. They're gorgeous hardcovers, with lovely dust jackets featuring art by Eleni Tsami, printed on heavy paper. You'll be surprised by how heavy they are to pick up. And while I stated earlier that my compulsive collector side had dimmed a bit, these books went quite a ways in kicking it back into gear.
Jeff and Ann VanderMeer created Cheeky Frawg Books just to highlight their favorites from the new batches of translated fiction now coming to our attention. If 'Jagannath: Stories' by Karin Tidbeck (November 2012 ; $11.99) is any indication, then we're in for a good dose of great ODD. There are thirteen stories in 'Jagganth,' covering just about everything that is not normal, from horroresque pieces like "Some Letters for Ove Lindström" to more science fictional works, such as the title story. What's most interesting here is that in spite of all the variety of tone and subject, Tidbeck's collection has a wonderfully unified feel of the simply bizarre. There are a lot of skewed perspectives on display here, but it's a similar skew. The format of this book, an oversized, slim trade paperback is very nice. It feels good to hold, even as what you read makes you feel weirder and weirder.
I have more books in the hopper for coming columns; the challenge now is getting this batch posted and up so you can grab these before they disappear. This where compulsive collecting comes in handy. It makes sure you get the books you're going to want before you actually know that you're going to want them. These books may be hard to find now; bit soon enough, finding them will become as unusual as anything that happens between their covers.
08-20-12:Brian Castner Makes 'The Long Walk'
A Life, Exploded
Brian Castner tells us that he is capital-C Crazy. He is home from the war, running. Then he is in Kirkuk; then home, in bed; then in Hawija. The fragments speed by us, jagged edges of prose torn from a life. Restless, fatigued beyond redemption, terrified, confident; Castner is all of them at once, and none of them. He is telling us a story, the story, his story, all the stories are colliding in front of us as we turn the pages. Lives merge and emerge, emotions shatter. 'The Long Walk' is a short, literally explosive reading experience.
Castner was a college graduate with an engineering degree who liked the challenge of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams in the Air Force. The washout rate was high, and in 1999, when his foot went into the door, it looked like a good gig. He was in Saudi Arabia in August of 2001. Afterwards, things grew dangerous.
Make no mistake; 'The Long Walk' is an intense and powerful work of non-fiction that reads very much like a novel. This is because Castner made the smart decision to structure his book as if someone had set off an IED in the midst of the chronological narrative, and in fact, that's pretty much what he does. The resulting narrative fragmentation is anything but random. When Castner puts the pieces of his life back together, he does so with an artfulness that finds order in the chaos and meaning in the seemingly arbitrary events that are juxtaposed in the story. Our reading experience maps to his life experience, and we make the connections that he did. It's a smart but difficult path to pursue that Castner handles with ease.
Castner's story is full of shades of grey; he makes it through the intense training, gets assigned to a detail, but then, in an understandable effort to deal with the bureaucracy that has been built to protect the soldiers but can hinder effectively fighting the war, he makes a decision that gets him sidelined. His memory of the worst parts of war is perfect; his memory of the best parts of his life at home is fragmented. He knows that he is capital-C Crazy but finds ways to deal with it. There's a gritty, intense sensibility at work here that makes this book almost impossible to put down.
For all that the book is about how war blows stuff up, including straightforward chronological narrative, 'The Long Walk' is very well plotted and constructed. Castner takes us from gritty scenes of war to thoughtful consideration of war theory to the trauma of notifying families of the dead and the new neuroscience of Tramatic Brain Injury, TBI, that seeks to explain what is happening. There is resolution, of a sort, and as readers we drive towards that, are compelled to read to the final word. 'The Long Walk' is an immersive, engaging vision of what happens to the men we send to war, at war and at home. Castner's shattered memories will merge with yours, his perceptions will alter yours. Reality is not so continuous as we'd like to think and chronological events need not be experienced contiguously. We all edit our memories and our stories; Castner's version of his life will ultimately inform our own.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]