Barrel Fever by David Sedaris

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Barrel Fever (1994) is a pretty good and quite funny collection of short stories, humor pieces, and essays that served as my introduction to David Sedaris, although I’ve quite enjoyed his appearances on a few podcasts I listen to.

Although Sedaris is mostly known as an essayist now, at least by me, anyway, he started out as more of a short story/humor piece writer, and perhaps it was a good idea to transition because I do think his essays (all at the back of the work in their own, too short section) are superior overall.

Barrel Fever, like almost all collections, and especially humor collections, is pretty hit or miss. But the hits reach heights of snarky, dark hilarity that make up for the lows, which aren’t bad so much as they don’t do much for me (with one exception I’ll get to below).

Highlights include:

“Music For Lovers” – An increasingly absurd piece about a man who does his own medical procedures, as well as his daughter’s, to increasingly absurd ends.

“My Manuscript” – Really good and hilarious fantasy of a teenage boy, more or less erotic fan fiction for his life.

“We Get Along” – An excellent one about a son and mother dealing with the aftermath of the death of the philandering father while cleaning out the basement they rent to tenants, most recently one the son had an affair with. Very funny but sad.

“After Malison” – Great tale of a sycophantic young writer desperate to meet her hero writer, full of disdain for people who aren’t like her or him.

“SantaLand Diaries” – The essay that made Sedaris famous, a beautiful, epic diary of his time as an elf at Macy’s. Just fantastic.

The lowlight:

“Season’s Greetings To Our Friends and Family!!!” – A story that makes me think 1994 wasn’t that long ago, now was it? Because this has not aged well and basically hinges on a cheap Asian language barrier joke.

That exception aside, Barrel Fever is a really funny and entertaining collection that leaves me primed to check out more Sedaris in the future. Maybe not the best introduction, if only because there are other books that are more essays than stories. I’ll find out.

By Bizarre Hands by Joe R. Lansdale

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By Bizarre Hands (1989) is a somewhat uneven but very enjoyable and at times downright grueling collection of brutal and comic bizarro and horror tales.

Lansdale floats around several recurring themes: the brutality of human nature, racism in the South (even though I think he goes back to the well of characters casually using the n-word a bit too often), and misogyny. He likes his monsters human for the most part but throws several weird beasties in, too.

I expected to outright love this collection based on my reading history with Lansdale but found it didn’t turn my wheels like I thought it might. But it’s still an excellent collection of stories overall, and entertaining throughout. A good read but not as great as I hyped it up in my mind.

However, there are a few tales that rise to masterful:

“Fish Night” – The opening story is a nicely wrought character study of two traveling salesman crossing through a desert that takes a poetic bizarro turn.

“The Pit” – An absolutely brutal look at two slaves, one white and one black, captured by backwoods hillbilly maniacs and forced to fight to the death. There is some difficult imagery here but Lansdale keeps a steady hand and brings us to a vicious end.

“Duck Hunt” – A vivid portrait of a young man’s induction into hunting culture turns blacky absurd and horrific. Hell of a central image.

“By Bizarre Hands” – Darkly comic Southern Gothic tale of a preacher with an unhealthy interest in preaching to mentally handicapped girls. Reminds me of Flannery O’Connor a bit – horrible and funny and sad. And fucked up, very fucked up.

“The Fat Man and the Elephant” – Another traveling preacher story but this preacher is considerably less psychopathic – he just gets visions from hotboxing elephant shit. Didn’t say he wasn’t still crazy.

“Down By the Sea Near the Great Big Rock” – Perhaps my favorite. A short but fantastic story of a family vacationing by the sea where intrusive violent thoughts build in each of them. Very pulpy and strange turn at the end.

“Night They Missed the Horror Show” – A masterpiece of pitch-black horror. A pair of racist assholes save their black football captain from a beating only to run into some truly sick shit. Drenching with the darkness of real human evil – no one is good here – even racist assholes don’t deserve this.

“On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” – Epic of fucked up bizarro zombie madness. Scumbag bounty hunter and psycho pedophile run into mad scientist messiah who’s controlling zombies and more than enough and maybe too much said. Weirdo wildness.

By Bizarre Hands starts well and ends very well but overall I do think it’s a little padded out for its own good. Yet the heights are truly tremendous. Reading Lansdale is like reading no one else in the world.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is a brilliant work of Cold War espionage. George Smiley is called back in from forced retirement to investigate a mole in the British secret service, with no support or authorization from the service itself, but rather relying only on a handful of like-minded allies.

The almost detective novel-like mystery unfolds in interviews and information gathering, break-ins and leaks, and tense clandestine meetings that feel like they could explode into violence at any moment.

Throughout we see the toll that espionage work has taken on these people, the gray morals they’ve been forced to adopt, and the utter paranoia that grips their line of work mixed in with a nostalgia for the good old days of spying (WWII) and anger at how many of them have been forced out by regime change.

I’ve previously met/read Smiley in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Looking Glass War but in those books he’s the cold operator and here we see him sweat and live and breath and piece together the situation with his experience and acumen. The large cast of other characters, spies mostly, are fully realized and with games of their own to play – whether bureaucrats or rough-and-tumble gunmen.

In some ways Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the most traditional spy novel of Le Carré’s I’ve yet read. There are more guns (if rarely fired) and spies bedding women and outright suspense in addition to the cynical themes and elusiveness and minute details I’ve come to expect from his work. The character Ricki Tarr, a low-level spy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, could potentially be read as a critique of Bond.

Le Carré does not hold the reader’s hands – he slips information towards us without beating us over the head with it, allows very important things to happen offscreen, and requires us to read the nuance between the characterizations and the very fine line-by-line prose. A masterpiece.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) is a really funny fantasy dictionary/atlas with a playful meta structure. Jones builds her work as if fantasy quests, or, more meta-fictionally, every fantasy story ever, is a tour arranged by Management.

Each entry (including such topics as DARK LORD, THIEVES’ GUILD, or WARRIOR WOMEN) is a  brilliant cataloguing of generic fantasy tropes and clichés that she provides a logical and often hilarious explanation for.

There are dozens and dozens of references and in-jokes towards popular works of fantasy, as well as the scores of hackwork that fester in the field. (Especially seems to be poking fun at the ’80s publishing landscape.)

Tough Guide is a brilliant idea and well executed. The visual design is well-done, as well, from the cover to the map to the little icons on the margins of each definition. I especially am in awe of her how her concept allows her the privilege of not necessarily having a hard joke every time – the definitions that aren’t funny are just accurate – thus you never feel cheated or bored.

It’s like a fantasy The Devil’s Dictionary or a proto-TV Tropes and, much like any humorous compendium of disparate entries, best enjoyed slowly.

The House of Souls by Arthur Machen

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The House of Souls (1906) is a collection of four near novellas of the supernatural by the Welsh fantasist and sometimes horror writer Arthur Machen. These stories are set in an England beset by hidden worlds and pagan cultists and gently mad upper-class scientists.

“A Fragment of Life” – More like A Fragment of Novel. By that, I mean, it very much reads like a novel Machen was trying to write but more or less gave up on. It pretty much stops out of nowhere, reaching only the most generous reader’s definition of any kind of conclusion. However, what is here is a really intriguing mix of naturalism and mystic yearning in this tale of a tender married couple and the emotional and spiritual journey of the husband who hears the call of a far off land.

“The White People” – A very weird fantasy, playing on fairy tales and witch myth and paganism, that is not quite a horror story although there are several horrific elements. An unreliable narrator writes of an almost psychedelic dark fantasy. In some ways it feels like another novel cast-off like “A Fragment of Life” but this one exists much more satisfactorily as a short story.

“The Great God Pan” – The first true horror story in the book. It plays with many of the same elements as the previous two: ancient paganism and hidden worlds and such but takes a decidedly more sinister approach. A story of stories within stories and discovered documents in the grand turn of the century horror fiction tradition. An experiment reaps bad. Machen describes a monster here that is mostly off-screen yet terrifying. Ends with a burst of vivid body horror. The only downside is how driven by coincidence this story seems. Machen is very good but his stories are somewhat haphazard and seemingly cobbled together – – – there is nothing tight here plot-wise. It’s all in the mood and hints and flourish of the prose.

“The Inmost Light” A final tale of esoteric knowledge and upper-class occultists, with an even more vivid off screen monster. There’s a very mysterious circle of pagan conspirators who dance at the corners of this tale but much of their purpose is left obscured. The little brother of “Great God Pan”, especially with its rogue scientist and female test subject.

The House of Souls is throughout very interesting, and pleasant to read, if rarely actually horror, as Machen’s reputation seemed to me. Line by line, Machen moves with a beautiful eye for landscape, a fine attention to characterization, and a throbbing heart of wild weirdness.

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber

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My Life and Hard Times (1933) is a pleasant, gently funny but fairly slight batch of autobiographical reminiscences. Thurber focuses his very short book (115 pages in this paperback) on his childhood and does a vivid job of bringing to life early 20th century Colombus, Ohio.

The book is really a series of very short stories, almost family tall tales, with a couple more essayic pieces. The entire work is very diverting and entertaining but does not stick around the mind all that much. Thurber and The New Yorker, of which he was a staff writer and cartoonist, referred to works like these as “casuals”, and that is how they feel in both ease and impact.

Two pieces really standout in reaching the heights of almost screwball farce: “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Day the Dam Broke”. But even the less substantial stories are delightful in their view of Thurber’s madcap family, especially his quasi-senile Civil War Union veteran grandfather. Thurber illustrates scenes throughout in his scratchy cartoonist manner.

 

The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander

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The Kestrel is the second novel in the Westmark trilogy, and, like many good sequels, it deepens the themes and muddies the morality from the first book. Theo, the printer’s devil and main protagonist of the series, has been exploring the kingdom to get an honest feel for the people and the land when an assassination attempt is made on his life. Meanwhile, a faction of Westmark noblemen and military officers conspire with the king of neighboring Regia to invade Westmark and force Queen Augusta, the Beggar Queen, from the throne.

War breaks out and it’s a nasty, tough business – even if this is more or less a children’s fantasy novel. Things get truly dark as Theo joins with the partisan troops of the democratically-minded Florian. Alexander doesn’t flinch from the sins of the soldiers, even the “good” characters, the ones whose aims we sympathize with. There is a toll to the violence and a growing amorality as tough decisions are made and callousness in the name of their cause prevails.

The conflict between monarchy and the rights of commoners – a burgeoning democratic spirit – deepen, as well. This is a story with a lost princess reclaiming her throne that did not end there but instead asks if she even deserves a throne in the first place. I’ve never seen this element in a fantasy series before and I admire it greatly. Alexander is asking some tough ethical questions here in the frame of a children’s story and he doesn’t force feed any trite answers down our throats.

The Kestrel may be a darker sequel but it still has plenty moments of fun and is entertaining throughout. If Westmark is to Star Wars then The Kestrel is to The Empire Strikes Back. It remains to be seen whether The Beggar Queen is this trilogy’s Return of the Jedi. P.S.: this is a secondary world fantasy series without one ounce of magic! It’s truly doing its own thing.