Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 149760186X
251 pages, eBook
Published 3rd June 2014
(original publ. 2006)
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Cleopatra Brimstone”
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
“The Least Trumps”
“Wonderwall”
“The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations”
“Kronia”
“Calypso in Berlin”
“Echo”
“The Saffron Gatherers”

There is a wonderful duality on display in this fabulous collection from Elizabeth Hand and a complexity of readings that make it a powerful piece of literary fantasy. First there is the title alone. Saffron and Brimstone evokes the biological and chemical. Or two forms of the biological (botanical and animal as in the brimstone moth).  Or two forms of similar animals (brimstone moth vs. butterfly). Or two conflicting aromas, pleasantly fragrant and sulfurous foul. Or two conflicting styles held in careful balance, the achingly dark and the moments of peace and hope.

These are indeed Strange Stories. They fit into the typical paradoxical mold of Hand’s work, new interpretations and celebrations of the classical and old, for example the New Age or neo-paganism themes of “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”or the mythological inspirations behind “The Lost Domain”. The organization of the collection itself represents a dichotomy, four thematically-linked novella length works followed by another set of intentionally linked (though originally published separately) tales that make up “The Lost Domian”.

Yet, there is nothing outlandish about any of the stories here, despite fantastic or mythological elements, they all seem so familiar. This oxymoronic effect of strange familiarity is achieved through Hand’s mastery of the novella length. With all of their strangeness, or even horror, Hand fills her stories with details that verge on the mundane, that could be thrown away to achieve a short story that had the same plot and even themes, but would then end up horribly disfigured in style and tone. It is this extra space of the novella and details of the ordinary moments of the character’s life that grounds the stories in a reality and provides humanity to the characters. Again, a duality between the fantastic and the mundane, sometimes splitting the story (as in the opening “Cleopatra Brimstone”) into something that feels like two separate linked plots, a before and an after.

This transition between before and after characterizes the themes that link the first four novellas of the collection. Metamorphosis is rendered most literally in “Cleopatra Brimstone” with its symbolic inclusion of butterflies and the transformation of the protagonist into an agent of dark revenge fantasy after the trauma of rape. Representing the most blatant duality with Hand the author herself, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is brilliant and staggering despite its overt themes and clear autobiographical aspects.

The three novellas that follow continue this theme of metamorphosis, albeit with increasing subtlety. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is more akin to literary short fiction to anything genre, chronicling a man’s transformation into death from cancer and the transitional effects this has on his partner and friend. This beautiful tale is an emotional wringer, exploring death and mourning from a holistic point of view that shows how human lives and deaths have the power to transform. “The Least Trumps” and “Wonderwall” continue this exploration of transition, focusing on female protagonists at two stages of life, when older in relation to a mother and friends from the past, and when young at the height of rebellious angst. Each are exceptional and begin to thematically bridge with the second half of the collection by moving further from a focus on metamorphosis and increasingly onto desire.

I personally did not enjoy “The Lost Domain” nearly as much as the other half of Saffron and Brimstone. (Aside: The reason is their relation to Greek myth. I wasn’t a lit or Classics major, haven’t read much of mythology since high school, and what I have read drove me nuts or to boredom with its complex interconnected characters. Classical myth in literature is like immunology in biology to me – full of headache-inducing names and memorization.)

However, I do recognize the quality of each of the pieces here. As story variations, I read them as treatments on the theme of desire, much like Blatnik’s Law of Desire collection that I recently reviewed. Again here, Hand is exploring desire from its inherent property of being ultimately unattainable. Of the four variations I appreciate “Echo” the most, due in part to my actual familiarity with that myth, its apocalyptic setting, and having read the story at least twice before (its original publication and its recent inclusion in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 that I also just reviewed. Getting to read “Echo” again in conjunction with the other stories of this series is worthwhile, given their original separate publications.

I’ve enjoyed previous works by Hand that I’ve had the opportunity to review through the same publisher: Last Summer on Mars Hill and Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. I enjoyed them both, but this collection has impressed me the most with its focus and purity. Though Saffron and Brimstone has been out for a number of years, this new eBook  release by Open Road Media offers an excellent cheap option to either introduce yourself to Hand’s talents or revisit her superb prose.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Best American Short Stories 2013, Edited by Elizabeth Strout

The Best American Short Stories 2013,
Edited by Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
AISN: B00AXS6BK2
387 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
Source: NetGalley

The announcement that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature came as I was reading this new collection, right as I was about to start her story within it. I began it with some trepidation, because I have yet to read a story by her that I enjoy or appreciate (though I have only read a handful), and again, I found it hard to keep my attention within it. I felt this way about several stories in this year’s collection, with a few exceptions none seemed particularly strong.

Oh they are all good. And I know that Munro writes expertly. But they aren’t what I would consider the ‘best’. The story by Millhauser disappointed most severely. I typically adore his stories because they are filled with a certain magical wonder and tackle themes commonly present in sci fi or fantasy. The story here however, alternating between a Biblical retelling and a writer’s insomnia felt abnormally excessive and flat with a melancholy in place of the wonder I expected.

The stories I most enjoyed were “The Provincials”, “Malaria”, “Magic Man”, “Miss Lora” (my awaited intro. to the popular Diaz) and “The Tunnel, or the News from Spain” the latter one I previously enjoyed in Glimmer Train during its initial publication. This year’s editor of this collection, Strout, comments that the stories picked are united by having strong voices that are true to the characters and the time/place those characters find themselves in.

That is absolutely accurate, and I enjoyed these stories for precisely that reason. The other stories she picked have that quality, but simply are not voices I found that compelling or cared to hear much from. This was most evident with Saunders’ “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, a voice I found painfully awkward and dull to read.

Like each year’s collection, one isn’t going to love every choice. Strout met her criteria for inclusion, but those criteria leaned a bit too heavily on style over substance or enjoyment for the reader giving the 2013 edition a bit more narrow of a reader base that will adore it.

Three  Stars out of Five

The Last Animal, by Abby Geni

The Last Animal, by Abby Geni
Publisher: Counterpoint
AISN: B00D0V44JY
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
Source: NetGalley

Two of the stories in this collection immediately recalled fond memories from when I first read them in Glimmer Train, so I was eager to read more of Geni’s short stories. I not only enjoyed those stories new to me, the collection gave me new insight and appreciation of those two pieces I’d already read. The Goodreads description for these stories and their unifying theme at the interface of humans with the rest of the natural world, particularly animals.

Literary fiction, particularly short stories is grounded in personal tragedy and social conflict, failures to communicate, and profound losses. Geni’s work falls easily into that cliché. However, what makes it specially unique is her juxtaposition of those personal conflicts onto humankinds relationship between the natural world and the fabrications of civilization and social nature. In each of these stories an organism (mostly animals) is used as a proxy for some role normally occupied by a human in the life of the protagonists (or a proxy for some aspect of the protagonist themselves). In this way the theme of ‘no man is an island’ is extended biologically to ‘humanity is not an island’, it exists in some sort of relationship with the natural world. This natural world is necessary, and it has the power of healing and support in the spiritual being of an individual.

Geni accomplishes this with masterful subtlety, never is the linking theme of these stories allowed to become overpoweringly overt, never is it preachy, it is an aspect linking the stories whose simple repeated presence begs for contemplation and analysis. Some readers may even come across with completely different insight into this theme of the natural world than I did, and this is the power of these stories. Her writing is precise and flowing, never convoluted or calling attention to its own cleverness, allowing the reader to ponder the themes and emotions of the story rather than cleverness of style.

Although the natural world appears as a symbol of connection, strength, and healing, many of the stories here are profoundly sad, and potentially ‘triggering’ for people who have faced the demons and losses that the characters in the story go through. The mature handling of the darker plots, (managing to powerfully convey empathy in the reader without driving them to utter despair and depression) is achieved through these connections to the natural world and the life that shares Earth with us, inviting the reader to consider how the beauty of life can similarly influence us for the better.

Five  Stars out of Five

The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher

The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher
Publisher: Open Road Media
AISN: B00DZEJRCA
502 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
(Original Publ: 1975)
Source: NetGalley

This was an introduction to Calisher’s writings for me, and while I appreciated her skills, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading most of these stories, particularly not in one continuous span, making it somewhat difficult to review. I could envision this being a book I’d like having a copy on hand to read from in small doses, or when wanting to study some masterful (albeit convoluted) portrayal of character.

Calisher’s stories are dense, and as it says in one of the introductions to this collection, you have to enjoy thinking in order to appreciate this. It can’t simply be browses, or read lightly. The stories almost all feature family and social dynamics in well-to-do New York city families, told in wandering, elliptical and often dispassionately reminiscing voice. This style creates a certain disconnect between the inherent, detailed humanity of her characters and the obtuse, cold fashion those emotions are related. Not unlike reading an academic discourse on the history of some tragedy, the style makes things distant, whereas the events and people described beg for close proximity.

Verbose and full of flowery latinate vocabulary, with foreign phrases of the upper class flung about to convey sentiments and mots justes not easily translated into English, Callisher even comes across as pretentious, populated with pretentious characters. Yet, that is the kind of world she is writing about, and using the styles of that world to communicate some basic emotions and conditions.

Despite all the challenges of her style, Callisher still manages to write with an easily noticeable beauty and rhythm. Her paragraphs have a cadence, some extending long, but then followed by one short. Her phrasing and choice of specific words gives the Academic, dispassionate text a certain poetry that makes it a little more empathetic and relatable, most particularly in her use of alliteration.

The opening story to this collection was easily my favorite, it contained a ‘plot’ and character explorations beyond the mundane family interactions and social atmospheres of upper crust NYC. Speckled throughout were others that I found fantastic, but most began to feel tedious. If you have a fond regard for literary prowess or the subject of Callisher’s writings (NYC) then this is just for you. If you simply enjoy a wide range of short stories and artistic writing then this may be something good to dip into on occasion without trying to barrel through.

Three  Stars out of Five

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Rustication, by Charles Palliser
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393088723
327 pages, hardcover
Published November 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

In British usage, rustication refers to a suspension from university; in the case of this historical mystery novel the rusticated is Richard, the opium-addicted, seventeen year old protagonist, fraught with the sexual urges of youth and the disappointment of his family. Richard’s banishment from school forces him to return to his recently widowed mother and hostile sister, in their newly acquired isolated home in the country.

Mysteries and uncertainties abound for Richard upon his arrival, the mysterious behavior of his mother and sister, the state of the home, the uncertain circumstances of his father’s death. Keeping his own secrets of what transpired at his school to precipitate the rustication, Richard struggles to deal with separation from the poppy and the hostility of his family and their neighbors. Coupled with the strife of family and social relations, the community soon finds evidence of a deranged mind or minds – mutilated animals, and vulgar, cruel letters sent to women. Richard’s troubles and his prying into the oddities of his family and the community eventually throw him into suspicion.

Written as a ‘found’ diary by Richard, one of the aspects of “Rustication” I did appreciate was his voice and character. He is a finely and subtly rendered seventeen year old of the era – or any era for that matter – in that he is extremely inconsistent. At moments he is vulgar, at moments he is a gallant gentleman, at times he is striving to do his best and help his family, at other moments he gives into the euphoria of the opium. And above all he is inconsistent in the objects of his desires, full of hormones, yearning and imagining sexual liaisons with near every eligible female who crosses his path, turning from infatuation to disappointment and disgust, and back to infatuation. Given the remainder of the characters are only seen through Richard’s eyes, they remain rather flat, and unreliably represented throughout. This is unavoidable with the construction of the novel, and I didn’t mind too much, given Richard himself was fascinating to me.

The book is also written with a lovely period Gothic tone that I enjoyed. However, these weren’t enough to bring me anything more than a mild entertainment through reading it. The plot is slow to start, focusing on family conflicts and the social games between various Houses (families) until half way through when the crimes begin to occur. The letters are vulgar indeed, but after one, you get tired of reading their depravity, obviously intentional bad spelling, and you say enough, get on with it. The story ties together the family issues, Richard’s history causing the rustication, and the crimes into one overarching series of scandals, cover-ups, and machinations. It ends up feeling like too much, and yet too little. The perpetrators of the crime don’t come particularly surprisingly and the lack of any other resolution leaves things feeling empty in what is already even a short novel.

Three  Stars out of Five

Courting Greta, by Ramsey Hootman

Courting Greta, by Ramsey Hootman
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1476711291
374 pages, paperback
Published June 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This novel was a pleasant surprise that I did enjoy despite its simplicity. Both the story and the writing are straight-forward, with no complex, artistic manipulations of the language and no surprise twists, making a quick read. Yet I enjoyed reading it the entire way, despite the predictability and its general positivity where things work out despite the travails of life.

It works because it is so straight-forward and simple. Hootman’s purpose here is not elaborate plot, exciting action, or rich, inspiring poetic prose. The novel is about characters, the protagonist and the woman he is courting, Greta. The majority consists of dialogue or the internal thoughts of the protagonist, little attention is given to the details of surroundings or the world apart from the one of the relationship between these two people. The story of their relationship, amid all of their eccentricities and metaphorical baggage is entertaining and enrapturing simply because Hootman is so exceptional at rendering the characters realistically.

I wish Hootman were able to achieve these strengths of characterization while still fulfilling other aspects of the novel, such as descriptions of the settings, or the personalities/histories of secondary characters who end up feeling terribly wooden compared to the fluidity of the novel’s stars. If you like touching and realistic stories of a developing romance then this is something you should without a doubt check out, but I’m not sure if a broader audience would appreciate it as much.

Three  Stars out of Five

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner

19829927Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316224642
208 pages, hardcover
Published August 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

There is a form of religious book called the ‘devotional’. One reads a selection from the holy text and then a brief commentary or anecdote related to that selection. I really have never liked devotionals. I don’t mind reading a selection, but usually find those commentaries and remarks to be weak, obvious, overwrought, and simplistic. They never match the beauty of the original passages or the wealth of interpretations that can come from one little snippet of text in relation to its whole.

This book is what I wish devotionals were really like. Not silly, feel-good, faux-deep reflections, but original works of intense spirituality and humanity that can invite personal reflection rather than one set interpretation or thoughts from someone else. This is a short collection of literary vignettes, brief explorations of characters and situations in short stories and microfiction. For that kind of work, this collection is superb. However, in one punch, even in this short volume, it combines to make a daunting read, one that loses its beauty and poignancy if reading all at once as I did. It really would work better to read in pieces separated by time and further experience, almost like a devotional.

The ‘stories’ here often have no actual plot, but instead are brief observations of something larger, a character trait, or an isolated incident of meaning. They are broken into sections that are not immediately obvious in their differences – many for instance would still fit in the ‘survivor’ theme of the first, large section. Interspersed with what I assume are autobiographical reflections by the author that match in style much of the fiction, each page likely contains a phrase or sentence of profound beauty and possibilities. If poetic prose is something you enjoy or are looking for something literary that could serve as a devotional of sorts, then I would recommend giving this a look.

Four  Stars out of Five