Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pastoralia by George Saunders

Hooray! A new treat! Saunders short stories are a real breath of fresh air! Like so many new writers I’ve enjoyed over the years, I owe this one to Terry, so thanks!

Pastoralia is a rollicking treat – much like In Persuasion Nation. Again, we’ve got the same mismatch of characters in unusual situations. From the domestic squabble between a fake caveman and woman in a living diorama, to the poignant romantic misadventure of a loveless misogynist, there’s a lot here.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is even better than Pastoralia. Unfortunately, I seem to have loaned my copy to the slow reading MotherTucker a few months ago, so I don’t have it here to reference. But, off the cuff: another collection of short stories which are so weird and fast paced that they can be dizzying. The writing has a particular style which I would probably describe as intentionally forced and conversational. (“You would not expect me to take you there, would you? No you would not.”) Such that the reader is constantly in a strange sort of one way conversation with the narrators, or is listening to these sorts of one-sided conversational monologues. The title track to this book, CivilWarLand, is heartbreaking in its way – telling the tale of a Cival War themepark which falls prey to urban decay in a rather unusual manner. The whole piece ends up being a comi-tragic lament for our civilization in decline. Solid work, Mr. Saunders!

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

Eh. Maybe I was just getting tired of Saunders by this point, but the socio-political commentary of “The Brief and Frightening Reign” ended up coming across just as a sort of silly-stoned experiment. The plot in brief: Two nations made up of very small populations of strange mechanical creatures clash along a border. Phil, a nobody with delusions of grandeur ends up misusing mob rule and becoming a sort of demagogue. Under his brief, frightening reign the citizens of the lesser of the two countries have their rights badly trampled. In a sort of anti-IMF parody, they are loaned resources as such usurious rates that soon they are all homeless and have no country left. You get the idea. It’s silly satire but without the usual Saunders wit and pathos.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

With images of a Will Smith trailer running in my head, and hopeful visions of one of my favorite horror novellas finally brought to life, I loaned this collection of short stories to The Professor during our fall trip to Tofino. She didn’t get a chance to read it on that trip, but I snared it and read it again, for the first time in ten years or so there in the beautiful bar room of the Wickannish Lodge, surrounded by twisted tree-trunks worn smooth by wind and water.

Mattheson’s most famous work has inspired generations of horror writers. Stephen King speaks reverently of him in On Writing, and, I think, Danse Macabre as well. The stories are edgy as hell for the time they were written, mostly in the 1950s. You’ll feel echoes of Twilight Zones and other pop-horror and sci-fi tales on each page. In some ways, this book forms a backbone cannon for modern pulp grist as much as do Poe and Lovecraft.

The title story bears no resemblance whatsoever to the crap that Will Smith peddled on the silver screen this Christmas. It’s bleak, fascinating, post-apocalyptic and gruesome. And it contains one of the finest ending sentences of any horror story I’ve ever read:

“A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”

Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

A cute lawyerette in H-town this summer recommended this novel to me over cocktails in a treehouse one sunny afternoon. A week later, my mother recommended it as well. So I picked up a copy at Half-Price Books. I enjoyed it but wasn’t blown away. It was cute…

The novel involves the framework story of an old man, fading into the convalescent senility of the elderly in a nursing home. His memory is sparked by a rivalry with one of his fellow residents, and he recounts for us a love story wrapped up in a post-Great Depression circus tale. The framework story doesn’t work particularly well for me. An identical trick was used to better effect in the framework tale from The Green Mile, and a similar one worked beautifully in The Blind Assassin. By this time around, it feels like it was lifted from a “framework story template guide.”

The main narrative is engaging. Details of circus life, the wickness both petty and great in which the owner of the bigtop and his minions engage provide some compelling villains. There’s sufficient sex and alcohol to keep things at least a little lurid. An elephant is the hero of sorts, which is cool. Overall, when the narrative sticks to the past it’s quite deft, if a tad predictable.

Nice work, Mrs. Gruen. I’d read another of your novels.

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