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Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing
by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds.)
291 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Fantasy/SF

After only managing to skim a few stories back in 2007 when I borrowed it from a friend, I finally bought this "alternative" and obscurely-acclaimed anthology and read it for my monthly Book Club. I only found 3 favorite and 4 hated tales out of 19 total, but--surprisingly--my overall impression is quite positive. Interfictions has earned a place on my long-term bookshelf.

If you aren't familiar with the concept of interstitiality, I would recommend reading Heinz Insu Fenkl's laborious introduction; otherwise, it is probably best left to the academically inclined. In contrast, definitely read Sherman and Goss's conversational "Afterword: The Spaces between" (although you still should read the stories themselves first, for necessary context).

So let me begin with the favorites, first. Jon Singer's "Willow Pattern" is probably the shortest story in the collection, and to me also one of the most interstitial. As Goss says, there isn't another story out there that combines science fiction and china patterns. After my first read-through, my only thoughts were, "Oh, that was pretty." Two years later, I began to "get" the SF aspects; I still don't entirely grasp the point simmering deep beneath the surface, but this flash piece epitomizes what I love best about genre--the extra layer of depth waiting to be plumbed, a depth unique to alienation and surreality.

For pure story pleasure, the title goes to Csilla Kleinheincz's lyrical and poignant tale about a man and a lake: "A Drop of Raspberry." Translated from the Hungarian by Noémi Szelényi, it is interstitial in its superrealistic treatment of surreal/fantastical events (yet tonally different from magic realism). Kleinheincz also happens to hail from the same country as Goss, and she is Hungarian-Vietnamese--too cool!

Finally, "Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom" by Holly Phillips (also coincidentally a Canadian author) is a cross between mainstream and fantasy that seduced me into caring despite a seeming lack of originality. The protagonist is a writer, even, which typically repulses me. But I suffered along with her as she waited for news of her beloved, and the last scene made me stop for a moment to smile.

Then we have the have-nots, those stories that flatly did not work for me. However, of the four I would only label one terrible per se; the rest are a matter of conflicting tastes. For instance, I found Karen Jordan Allen's "Alternate Anxieties" a pretentious deconstruction of Story using the trite writer's-notes conceit; but another reader might think it a brilliant piece of experimental fiction (the experimental classification does tend to draw such extreme opinions). Similarly, I was confused by the mythological underpinnings of Joy Marchard's "Pallas at Noon"--another "writer" story--and I thought that Chloe's (Allen's) poem, once revealed to the reader, was frankly incomprehensible.

In my review of Loghorrea, I have previously blasted Leslie What for her unthinking vilification of a chronic illness; her story here, "Post Hoc," thankfully commits no such sins, but I thought the story unoriginal, uninterstitial (save for the "liminal" post office conceit), and largely unengaging (the main character, anyway--I did like Joe the postman). It's not a bad story, though, just not a very good one. I would rank it above Rachel Pollack's "Burning Beard," an explicitly hip yet faithful retelling of the Biblical life of Joseph. Personally, I'm not a fan of Biblical allusions (even when written by a literary master like Milton); Pollack is considerably less skilled than Milton, and her retelling comes off as trite and silly rather than uniquely interstitial.

Some stories just did nothing for me. I don't understand Anna Tambour's story "The Shoes in SHOES' Window" at all--only that the world appears to be Communist-esque?--and unlike Singer's tale, it gave me no superficial pleasure. After praise heard through the grapevine about K. Tempest Bradford's "Black Feather," I was disappointed to read an unremarkable fairy-tale variant that didn't seem particularly interstitial. Veronica Schanoes's "Rats," a fictionalized biography -slash- Cinderella story about two depressed drug addicts destined for love, was too consciously grungy for me. Similarly, "Timothy" by Colin Greenland could be read as an eroticization of bestality if one were so inclined. And I was unconvinced by the m/m relationship in "A Map of the Everywhere" by Matthew Cheney, which is interstitial by virtue of sheer weirdness but failed as a tale first and foremost.

Some others, I enjoyed but did not love: I liked the collective narrator of "What We Know of the Lost Families of --- House" by Christopher Barzak, a horror tale that doesn't aim to scare. Mikal Trimm's "Climbing Redemption Mountain" wasn't as good as Kleinheincz's version of superrealistic surrealism, but it did emotionally satisfy. I likewise enjoyed reading Vandana Singh's "Hunger," especially the POC focus and all the foodie details, but found her sole fantastical element extraneous--the story is much better read as straight realism, which would not be interstitial. Two other translations also fail to live up to Kleinheincz: Léa Sihol's "Emblemata" from the French by Sarah Smith was interesting for its Buddhist philosophy but just missed the cut for favorites; Adrián Ferrero's "When It Rains, You'd Better Get out of Ulga" from the Spanish by Edo Mor had no plot and not enough theme or insight to make up for said lack. The anthology's closing piece, "A Dirge for Prester John," was typical of Catherynne M. Valente's style in its outlandish, monstrous imagery.

I applaud Sherman and Goss for their conscious shaping of geographic and cultural diversity, as well as their willingness to publish utterly unknown authors. I understand interstitiality a little more now, at least; I just wish that experimental fiction would constitute a smaller part of the (ironic) genre.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden
by Cathrynne M. Valente
483 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy

This book took me SO LONG to finish. I had heard continual buzz throughout the F/SF community and therefore had high expectations; when my friend finally lent it to me, I tried to read it but found the plot confusing and Valente's style distracting. She is quite fond of similes.

Because of its reputation, however, I felt that In the Night Garden deserved at least a complete reading. The beginning was too detached between stories, but as I persevered, I could appreciate the reoccuring characters and unexpected connections. Even the prose became less annoying, although I still prefer a different style of lyricality--Valente's is a tad too poetic without enough narrative grounding (I didn't much like her poetry either, at least in Apocrypha).

So what happens in the novel? ...I have no freaking idea. I loved the religious, sexual, and racial diversity. I loved the cover design. I loved the meta-structure, how stories are irregularly interleaved rather than perfectly nested (my favorite was Al-a-Nur); yay for convolution! But it's not a book easily summarized, only described. Having finished it, finally, I can understand why there has been so much excitement over the work. I'm not exactly the right audience and certainly not Valente's biggest fan, but I will definitely be picking up In the Cities of Coin and Spice (and not only because of the cliffhanger ending). The frame story captured my interest through sheer persistence; I sympathize more with Dinarzad than the boy. Essentially, an elfish girl lives in the Sultan's garden and tells stories to one of the Sultan's many sons--yet this simple description cannot possibly capture the essence of the tale as a whole. The narrative has an ethereal fairy-tale quality, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't for me. Nonetheless, The Orphan's Tales is the best fairy tale novel I have read, in this regard trumping even Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer (though overall I liked Kushner's better than Valente's).

Final verdict: so confusing but equally so fascinating. Do give Valente at least half the book to prove herself--the scales tipped at around 1/3 for me.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
by Catherynne M. Valente
121 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Poetry/Fantasy/Horror

I had such high hopes for Valente's work because of the consistently high praise from my flist. But as I'm currently stuck in the first hundred pages of In the Night Garden and as this review of Apocrypha will attest, I am sadly disappointed. Maybe it's my own fault for setting the bar so high, but Valente rarely manages to evoke that vital sense of wonder in this reader.

Apocrypha is a book of many poems, all fantastical or horrific. I had no idea that some were so dark; I do like dark fantasy, but Valente's version of gore is maddeningly repetitive. Every other piece uses cunt/breasts/womb, glass, or various gemstones. The macabre language ceased to shock me after the first two times, and by the time I read the last poem, "Z," I was yearning for the collection to finally be finished. To give Valente credit, her imagery is unique and lyrical; but all too often, her poetry echoes beautifully in my head with no real meaning or insight. I did like two poems in the collection, and since it is a slim volume, it will remain on my bookshelf. "Song for Three Voices and a Lyre" is an elegant feminist retelling of Greek myth, and the imagery of "Had He Never Come" actually ended with a surprising epiphany.

I will continue to struggle through Valente's much-acclaimed Orphan's Tales, but from the strength of Apocrypha I can only come to a poor conclusion--disappointing, in a word.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
"La Serenissima" by Catherynne M. Valente is gorgeous. The plot meanders dreamily at first, but by the end it all makes perfect sense. Magic is woven throughout in the thread of words and I love the revised Church. I don't think I understand it but I admire and revel. Valente's short-form pieces seem to be working much better for me than her poetry or novel; I've read snippets of both and they fit together like made-in-China jigsaw pieces, unfortunately shaped the same and thus impossible to complete.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
"Urchins, While Swimming"
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by Clarkesworld Magazine, "Urchins, While Swimming" is a lovely, melancholy short story based around the Russian myth of rusalka. I didn't quite understand a crucial plot turning point, but I accepted it--by then I was too caught up in the story to care. Valente's prose makes me yearn for more than just this taste; hopefully my Clarkesworld Books order comes in soon, because I have her poetry collection in there. I will definitely be reading The Orphan's Tales as soon as I have a free moment to savor it (and at least until after I finish reading my small borrowed-from-friends pile).

"Urchins, While Swimming" is free, too, so go read it!


keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)

January 2011



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