30 August 2010

Third Bear Carnival Winner!

photo via Shorpy.com

Step right up, folks!  Dr. Eric Schaller, Prestidigator & Mime, and I, your humble host, have consulted with our oracles and soothsayers, and after centuries of deliberation, we have discovered a winner of the Win a Unique Third Bear contest.  We were amused by all the entries, and thank everyone who participated.

Congratulations are due to Alys for this contribution:
The Fourth Bear is always there, waiting just out of sight, around the corner, behind you, where you’re not looking, to snatch the only custard doughnut, or the last piece of pie. She hoards these things, as dragons do gold, in her den. She sleeps on a bed of stale pastry, and eats it in her sleep. Sometimes, children have mistaken her for a witch. She keeps her teeth and claws polished clean, but her fur is sticky with chocolate and cherry jam and other substances best not inquired into. 
(Alys, please email me your mailing address, and I will send the book to you!)

28 August 2010

Mother (contra Brody)

Two of Joon-ho Bong's films previous to Mother, 2003's Memories of Murder and 2006's The Host, impressed me greatly, and Memories of Murder is certainly among my favorite films of this century (that sounds so much more impressive than "this decade"!).  Mother didn't get me in the gut the way Memories did, but it's certainly an excellent film: compelling, thought-provoking, and visually rich.

27 August 2010

Third Bear Carnival: Finale

When I came up with the idea for the Third Bear Carnival, I quickly knew one post I wanted: something by Ann VanderMeer, Jeff's wife, who first knew him as a very young and mostly-unpublished short story writer, and who was one of the first editors to publish him with any frequency.  She was Ann Kennedy back then, and it's partly the stories that put her on the path to becoming Ann VanderMeer, because in Ann Jeff found his perfect reader and his perfect love.

It took a bit of convincing for me to get Ann to write about her relationship not only to her husband, but to his stories.  Ann thinks of herself as an editor and not a writer, but she sent me a contribution back in July, and I've held onto it until now.   Much as I love what everybody else has contributed to the Carnival over these past weeks, and grateful as I am to each them ... well, this one's special...

Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer Stories: A Personal Reminiscence
by Ann VanderMeer

The earliest VanderMeer stories I read came from The Book of Frog, a self-published chapbook of stories that contained all manner of frogs and toads. In some stories the creatures were featured prominently, but in others, they were merely a whisper. I had to force the then young man of 20 (who was trying so hard to grow a beard) to allow me to purchase a copy (he wanted to give it to me).

“Nonsense,” I said. How will you ever be a full-time writer if you give your work away?” And then I bought five copies; perhaps one of the best investments I’ve ever made (and I am not just talking about how rare and valuable those copies are now).

I knew back then from reading those early tales that this was a writer to watch. He might find those stories sophomoric and simple, but there was a passion to the writing. And heart. And a great deal of playfulness.

He sent me stories for The Silver Web (a magazine I was publishing in the late 80’s early 90’s). One was a god-awful story about a high school girl going to her prom and some secret fantasy world hiding in her closet. I turned that one down quickly only for Jeff to tell me it was a test of my editorial taste. Yes, of course it was, I believe this. I did publish many of his stories during the years of The Web; “Heart for Lucretia” – a far future science fiction piece that fully illustrates the real sacrifice of sibling responsibilities, “Henry Dreams of Angkor Wat” – a surreal look at the horrors of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, “Black Duke Blues” – a story about a gifted musician in New Orleans (this one won him the Florida Individual Artist Grant) and “So The Dead Walk Slowly” – a zombie story long before zombies were popular. Each one more different than the last and yet so uniquely VanderMeer.

Jeff has always had a fondness for animals, as you can see from his fiction. From frogs he moved onto meerkats, then squid and now bears. He tells me that he doesn’t like talking animal stories and yet…his frogs talk. So do his meerkats. And in his latest new story, “The Quickening,” there is a talking rabbit. I think. At least, it seems to be talking (and it looks like a rabbit).

And this is his strength; writing fiction that has so many layers. When you read one of his stories you are immediately grabbed by his command of the language, the beauty of the words he puts together. You get caught up the characters and sucked right into their screwed up yet amazing lives. And it doesn’t matter if the character is a talking rabbit or a risk-taking surgeon, the president of an alternate United States or even a version of Jeff himself. Because they are all so honestly who they are. And you just gotta know what happens to them next.

When I first started reading VanderMeer, I used to hold one back. What I mean by that is I would leave one story unread until he wrote another one. Silly, I know (and it drove him crazy), but I wanted to make sure there would always be a new story for me to read. Now I am privileged to be on that short list of readers who see the work first. So all I can do is continue to encourage him, and give him the space he needs, to write the next one (‘cause I’m kinda selfish that way).

So yeah, I’ve read all the stories and I’ve read them in every version. Plus I’ve read all the stuff that didn’t go in. And when the final book (or magazine) comes out, it’s such a treat for me to sit and read the stories again just for pleasure as a reader, not an editor and not for critique or commentary. (I must have read at least 100 versions of his novel Shriek, yet when I sat down with the hardcover in my hands, I still cried when Janice considered herself so alone in the world she wished to leave it and I felt a hitch in my heart when Duncan discovered Mary’s betrayal. )

When I immerse myself into Jeff’s world through his fiction, I can’t help but be taken back to the time when I first encountered each tale. Much like listening to certain songs can take you back to the time when you first heard that song, so each of these stories is also a piece of my personal history. “The Quickening” reminds me of that trip to St. Augustine when Jeff picked up that postcard that sparked the story (he wrote the first few snippets then, making me impatient for him to write the whole damn thing so I could read it, damn it!).

“The Secret Life of Shane Hamill” takes me back to that crazy time when Jeff was doing a promotion for his book Secret Life, by writing a customized, unique secret life for each person who bought the book from Mark Ziesing (Ann, it will be easy, only about 10-12 stories – OMG why are there 200 people buying the book???). And he hand-wrote each one. Seriously ... I know because I spent hours seeking the “right” paper for him to use. And they are truly things of beauty.

I can’t read “Predecessor” without remembering when he woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me about a truly wacked-out dream. By the time I arrived at work a few hours later, there was this amazing story in my inbox. Forget about that customer whose computer system was down, I HAD to read this RIGHT NOW.

 Not all the memories are blissful, however. “Errata” takes me back to the worst time of my life. And every time I read it, I cringe and hold my breath because I know where it will go. But how can you appreciate the good times if you don’t have those dark moments, too? So I read it again ... and again. And each time the pain is a little bit less and the creativity of story overwhelms me.

And “The Situation?” Well, of course this is a version of his corporate working life before he became (thankfully) a full-time writer. I KNOW these people and he portrayed them perfectly. He might have even been too kind. So yeah, when I read this, I hear their voices, those turkey-heads. “Lost;” I remember sitting in the blue chair early one morning reading this story and my heart just going out to this poor, poor guy. And feeling a bit lost myself as my daughter was going through some rough times and I didn’t know how to help her.

“Three Days in a Border Town,” is, I believe, the last story he’s written (so far) that takes place in the same world as Veniss Underground. When I first read this I was ready for the rest of the novel. Because these are people and this is a world I want to know more about. At the time Jeff said there would be more. And maybe there will.

OK, so now this book is out. And Jeff is out of town. So this means I can sit back and relax and relive these stories once more. Heaven...

26 August 2010

Catching Up

The end of summer continues to be busy for me (in good ways), and I've neglected a few things I should have linked to. Actually, I've probably neglected many things I should have linked to. For now, though, just a few...

I'm continuing to explore Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics over at Gestalt Mash, one issue each week. Last week was issue 5, "Passengers"; this week issue 6, "24 Hours".

And for Amazon.com's Omnivoracious blog, I interviewed Nnedi Okorafor, author of the wonderful novel Who Fears Death. (And Nnedi has just been interviewed over at Tor.com, too.)

Finally, my favorite internet item this week: a film called "Words", presented as an extra feature to a Radiolab program.

Third Bear Carnival: "The Magician"

I've got one very special post saved for tomorrow, but this post will end my own contributions to the Third Bear Carnival. To bring things to a close, I recorded a reading of a very short story hidden in the Afterword to the book, called "The Magician"... (It may take a few seconds to load and buffer.)

[Direct link]

24 August 2010

Win a Unique Third Bear!

The Third Bear Carnival will come to an end later this week, and in honor of that, here's a contest.  I have a copy of Jeff VanderMeer's Third Bear collection that includes a unique cartoon by Eric Schaller, drawn on 24 July 2010.  This is the only copy of this cartoon that exists, at least as far as I know (most of Eric's cartoons are reproduced in bulk by the many small, innocent children he has imprisoned in a sweatshop deep beneath Dartmouth College).  It is drawn on the title page of the book, which in all other editions is unillustrated.

Here's how you can win this unique copy of The Third Bear:

In the comments to this post, write a description/explanation of 100 words or less about The Fourth Bear.  (Yes, we know all about the Third Bear now, but what is the Fourth Bear?)  The deadline is this Friday, August 27, at 12pm Eastern Standard Time.  Eric and I will then consult, and the entry that we agree is most interesting will be the winner.  All results are final and utterly subjective.

Barring unforseen claims upon our time, or an inability to come to an agreement (and thus the need to institute a mud-wrestling match between ourselves), we will announce the winner here on Monday, August 30.

16 August 2010

Sandman, Batman Realities, Etc.

Last week was a busy one for me, and I completely forgot to post a link to my latest Sandman Meditation, this one on the fourth issue of the series, "A Hope in Hell".  I'm tempted to say that just as Sandman seems in the later issues in the Preludes & Nocturnes collection to be finding its feet and style, I'm beginning to feel like I sort of know what I'm doing with these columns, but I know if I say that then writing the next one will be nearly impossible.  And really, no matter appearances or what I think at this moment, I haven't any idea what I'm doing.  And that's okay.

Speaking of having no idea what I'm doing, my latest Strange Horizons column, "Real Action", has just been posted, and as occasionally happens with these things, I read it over and disagreed with myself.  I like the structure of the ideas in the column, but I think that structure led me to simplify some of the points, and in particular to elide important complexities in the idea of "reality" in action movies, especially action fantasy movies like The Dark Knight.  No big deal, though ... those complexities now give me an idea for another column...

For far more insightful writing about Christopher Nolan than I am capable of, be sure to check out two posts by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell: "INCEPTION; or, Dream a Little Dream within a Dream with Me" and "Revisiting INCEPTION".  The vast amount of discussion of Inception on film sites has been fascinating to me, even though my feelings toward the movie itself were lukewarm -- I'm with Jim Emerson in finding it "more fun to theorize about than it was to watch", though I don't think I found it as tedious when watching as Emerson did.  This summer's been pretty weak as far as blockbusters go, so maybe everybody's just so thrilled to have a movie to talk about that's not 100% stupid that Inception's getting an inordinate amount of time and thought.  No matter.  What else are film geeks supposed to do?

Well, we could all read the last interview with Francois Truffaut, which Richard Brody just posted (the interview was conducted by Bert Cardullo, though).  (I know it brands me as an inveterate middlebrow, but Truffaut is my favorite French filmmaker after Jean Renoir.  Oh well.  Godard, Rohmer, Renais, etc. aren't lacking for passionate admirers, so my basic, unpassionate admiration is unlikely to cause the world to stop spinning on its axis...)  Brody follows this with some thoughts on Truffaut.  Well worth reading.

Third Bear Carnival: "The Surgeon's Tale" and "Three Days in a Border Town"

When deciding on whom to invite for the Third Bear Carnival, one person I knew I really hoped to convince to join us was Micaela Morrissette, because Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, and I had become aware of her short fiction at the same time -- when we read her story "Ave Maria" in Conjunctions 49 and immediately decided to reprint it for Best American Fantasy 2.  (We weren't alone in loving the story -- it won a Pushcart Prize, too!)  She has since gone on to all sorts of wonderful things, including publishing an acclaimed story in Weird Tales, "Wendigo".  My first encounter with Micaela, though, had been way back in 2005 when my story "The Art of Comedy" appeared on Web Conjunctions and Micaela helped with the layout and formatting.

And now, with Micaela writing about two of Jeff's stories, it feels like we've all come full circle!  But more importantly, here are some wonderful, and wonderfully-written, insights on Jeff's work.

(Be sure to check out the Carnival link collection, too, because folks from around the world and around the web have recently posted their contributions.  And we've still got a few more coming later...)

On "The Surgeon's Tale" and "Three Days in a Border Town"
by Micaela Morrissette

“The Surgeon’s Tale” and “Three Days in a Border Town” are both love stories, or erotic tragedies; and the universes in which the stories occur bump and rub each other in places. Each takes place in a Weird but decrepit dimension that postdates the collapse of a stronger, richer civilization. In “Three Days in a Border Town,” that past can be read as the readers’ own present, the here and now; and this creates a relevancy, a poignancy that is echoed in the despairing ache of the tone. Despair, enervated but grim, bitter, and ruthless, is everywhere in the stark, moistureless ecosystem of this reptilian narrative, in its dusty, mirage-ridden desert and crumbling border town.

13 August 2010

Miéville on Marechera

L. Lee Lowe just sent me a great link to a podcast interview with China Miéville for a new series called "The Books that Made Me".  Lee and I share an interest in the writings of Dambudzo Marechera, and I had known, but forgotten, that China also shares this interest.  One of the six books he lists as fundamentally formative in his life is Marechera's Mindblast.  Of Marechera's published work, Mindblast is the hardest to get a copy of, having been published only, to my knowledge, in Zimbabwe.  (I've managed over the years to at least find library copies of all of his other books, but not that one.)

Miéville has talked about Marechera and Mindblast before, and in a fascinating 2003 interview with Joan Gordon he said
I first read [Marechera] a decade ago, but came back to him recently and read all his published work. He’s quite astonishing. His influences are radically different from the folklorist tradition that one often associates with African literature. He writes in the tradition of the Beats, the Surrealists, the Symbolists, and he marshals their tools to talk about the freedom struggle, the iniquities of post-independence Zimbabwe, racism, loneliness, and so on. His poetry and prose are almost painfully intense and suffer from all the problems you’d imagine—the writing can be prolix and clunky—but the way he constantly wrestles with English (which wasn’t his first language) is extraordinary. He demands sustained effort from the reader, so that the work is almost interactive—reading it is an active process of collaboration with the writer—and the metaphors are simultaneously so unclichéd and so apt that he reinvigorates the language.
The new podcast is especially compelling because of the passion with which he speaks of Marechera's writing.  I very much share his desire to see some publisher release a collected edition of Marechera's works, and hope, too, that some of the lost novels are discovered one day gathering dust in the Heinemann archives...

Farewell to the BAF

Jeff VanderMeer has announced that the Best American Fantasy series, for which I served as series editor, has been cancelled. I've known about this for a while now, but reading the announcement was a particularly sad moment for me, because I'd been looking forward very much to seeing what the next few books would look like, with new series editor Larry Nolen taking over for me, new resources to open up the literature of Latin America to the book, and exciting guest editors lined up: Minister Faust, Junot Diaz, and Catherynne M. Valente.

There are lots of reasons why we couldn't bring the series beyond three volumes, most of which boil down to the fact that we weren't able to find a way to reach a large enough audience to be profitable. As Jeff wrote, "BAF did not having a wide margin for error. A cross-genre fantasy year’s best that focused not just on genre magazines but also on literary magazines, that required sympathy and generosity from both the mainstream and genre, as well as the right placement in the chains, was always going to be a difficult sell."

Larry Nolen, the new series editor, had just sent a set of 65 stories on to Minister Faust for consideration when the decision to end the series was made. He has posted the list of those stories for all to see, and to offer a glimpse of what might have been.

The books are still out there, and I'm proud of all three of them -- each volume is different from the others in tone and style, but the three stand as a testament to the breadth and vigor of short fiction being published today.

04 August 2010

The Things

Over at The House Next Door, John Lingan offers some thoughts on both the 1951 and 1982 films of The Thing, films well worth viewing and an essay well worth reading.

The 1951 version is credited as directed by Christian Nyby, but most evidence points to Howard Hawks, who is credited as producer, having done most of the work we'd generally associate with a director.  (For the whole story of this, see Todd McCarthy's wonderful Hawks biography.)  John Carpenter, who directed the 1982 version, is a devout Hawks fan, but interestingly, The Thing is a much less Hawksian movie than some of his others.

I like both versions very much, though Hawks's seems to me relatively minor in comparison to masterpieces like Scarface, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo, each of them among the greatest films to come out of Hollywood. The Thing is wonderful on a variety of levels (though perhaps least on the level of genre: Hawks doesn't seem particularly interested in the monster movie elements).  Hawks's works are studies in humanism, and The Thing, with its science fictional trappings, gave him a special opportunity to explore that humanism on a kind of species level.  Robin Wood says of the ending:
The climax of the film gains great intensity by [Hawks's] determination to keep us aware of the strength of the opposite position.  The Thing, when at last we see it clearly, loses much of its terror.  In medium long-shot and from a medium-high angle, it ceases to look huge, and its close likeness to a human being (the human being of a future to which [the scientist] Carrington looks forward) becomes evident.  (I can't imagine why people find this a weakness of the film: do they really want a goggle-eyed robot?)  The impossibility of communication becomes almost poignant -- it looks as if it would be so easy to talk to.  It is destroyed: we watch a marvellous, if terrible, being reduced to a small pile of smouldering ashes, on which the camera lingers to allow the spectator a complex reaction: we have been made to respect Carrington's viewpoint sufficiently for us to find the outcome a triumph not unqualified, a reaction shared by the characters on the screen, who stand by in stunned silence.  We also realize Hawks's position here is not the simple anti-intellectual one that could be read into Bringing Up Baby: the Thing has been destroyed by science.  One of the points that emerges is that science is for man's use -- Carrington's viewpoint would turn everything topsy-turvy, making man the servant of science.
Lingan does a good job of summing up some of the central differences between the two versions when he writes
Carpenter takes Hawks and Nyby's basic plotline and removes the madcap pacing and romantic subplot, relocates the action to the southern hemisphere, and leaves his camera to linger on the desolate landscape in his early scenes. The narratives and small physical locations of The Thing from Another World [the title of Hawks's film changed once Carpenter's was released] and Rio Bravo informed Carpenter's earlier films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, yet in The Thing, ostensibly his most direct homage, he almost literally rips up the script and starts again; his film is a grim existential nightmare more indebted to Agatha Christie and Samuel Beckett than to Hawks's warm professionalism.

03 August 2010

Third Bear Carnival: "Finding Sonoria" and "Three Days in a Border Town"

David A. Beronä is Dean of Library and Academic Support Services at Plymouth State University, and author of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels. He was instrumental in helping to organize last year's "Illustrating VanderMeer" exhibit, and so I thought he might enjoy joining our carnival. David posted this piece as a downloadable document on his website, and I asked him if he wouldn't mind my posting it here as well...

Two Stories from Jeff VanderMeer’s The Third Bear
by David A. Beronä

As part of a reviewing process that my friend Matt Cheney developed, I was part of a group each reading two stories from The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer. I chose the time when I had time travelling on a plane to read these stories. I found that a different setting (I usually read on my porch looking out over the hills in New Hampshire with the sound of birds in the background) physically took me out of my ordinary world, bound by gravity, into a unaccustomed world of different sights and sounds, which worked perfectly when I entered VanderMeer’s highly imaginative world.

In the first story, “Finding Sonoria,” a retired land surveyor, John Crake, discovers a stamp from the Republic of Sonoria from a collection he accumulated as a boy with the hope of traveling one day and discovering these distant countries. However, his stamps and his interest in travel waned as he grew older and settled for less, following a “path of least resistance.” John hires his friend Jim Bolger, an aging private detective down on his luck, to locate the Republic of Sonoria, which does not seem to exist on any map. The stamp and Sonoria become an obsession to each man. Jim, “in his little rotting house,” begins writing an imaginary history of Sonoria while John, “in the Murat Motel,” begins dreaming about Sonoria and finding a personal solace in his dreams that he is unaccustomed to having in reality.  Despite their differences, the two men share “the same world, all because of a stamp.” How both men resolve this imaginary country in their lives raises a personal question how we individually resolve the mediocrity or restricting conditions in our own lives.

Before continuing with the next story, I peeked out the window of the jet I was seated in and saw large fields in the Midwest and small groups of homes and buildings, representing an unknown town. When I sit on my porch reading and a plane passes overhead, I take a moment and think about the people in that plane and sometimes wave, though I doubt if anyone in the plane could see me from that distance.  It does not matter. I continue waving and I guess this action is more for me, claiming my own space, than for anyone else.

In the second story, “Three Days in a Border Town,” VanderMeer skillfully tells a story about a woman who is searching for her lost husband, a farmer named Delorn, who has been captured by a floating City that is “forever moving across the desert.”  With the use of the pronoun, “you,” the reader becomes closely associated with the heroine, a border guard in a small town called Haart; the strange customs in this desert border town; and her search for a “familiar,” which is a manta ray-like creature whose “tube of flesh, the umbilical,” after insertion into a host, reveals visions and knows how to find the City. We are left with uncertainty about the heroine ever finding the City and questions are raised about Delorn’s choice in leaving her. Is this a lifetime quest? The improvableness of her rediscovery of the City and Delorn brought up personal loss in my own life and I counted those losses I accepted without a second thought; those I mourned for an hour, a day, a week, a month or years, and the one that I refuse to accept and am walking aimlessly in my own desert every day.

At that moment, the pilot’s voice interrupted my thoughts on the plane and announced that we were presently flying over Kansas and, at our current distance from the ground, the temperature outside was 60 degrees below zero. I gazed out the window and was suddenly aware of my own vulnerability and the mind-boggling reality of where I was at that moment. It seemed the perfect time to continue reading Jeff VanderMeer!

Sandman Meditations: "Dream a Little Dream of Me"

My latest "Sandman Meditations" column has now been posted at Gestalt Mash.  This particular column seems transitional to me, bringing myself as a reader to the foreground, because sometimes that feels necessary; the next installment goes in the opposite direction to some extent, and I expect as the experiment continues I'll be trying out different modes of narration, simply because doing all 75 or so of them in the same way would get rather tedious for all of us...

Here's an excerpt:
The third Sandman poses some problems for me, someone who has read almost no DC comics and has only the vaguest sense of their characters and history. The vagueness and sense share a source: popular culture in general. You’d have to live in some remote part of the world, away from billboards and newspapers and televisions and radios, to avoid all references to DC characters, given how many of them have metamorphosed into stars of movies and TV shows. I was going to write a sentence in which I listed them, but then I realized I don’t know how many of the characters I’m thinking of are DC characters.  Many, I’m sure, are Marvel characters. In fact, I probably have a greater sense of Marvel characters than DC characters, because the only comic I read as a kid was G.I. Joe, and that was a Marvel comic, so there were ads in it for other Marvel comics. At least, I think it was a Marvel comic.  

continue reading...