Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part Four

Our final post for 2010...another gleaning of reasons to be cheerful as we enter 2011.

The Shahnameh (the Persian Book of Kings), compiled and composed by Hakim Abu’l-Qasem Ferdowsi (940–1025, common era).

The Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge mounted a major exhibition of the Shahnameh this fall. In the words of curator Barbara Brend: "The most important creation of New Persian literature – the Shahnameh, or the ‘Book of Kings’ – has been defined as the national epic of the Iranian people, their ‘identity card’ (shenas-nameh) and an encyclopaedia of Iranian culture. It celebrates the survival of a civilization that originated some 7,000 years ago at a dynamic crossroads of cultures, the Iranian Plateau, extended at its peak from Anatolia and the Caucasus across Transoxiana to China, withstood countless invasions, absorbed diverse influences, and conquered its conquerors by virtue of its timeless values.

Twice as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey taken together [!!-Lobster & Canary], the Shahnameh blends Iran’s ancient myths and legends with accounts of major events in its past. Its 55,000 rhyming couplets chart the history of the Iranian world from its creation to the fall of the Persian Empire in the seventh century".

Ferdowsi is at once the preserver of Persian culture and one of the world's great authors. The Shahnameh is one of the great epics, Persian at its core yet a gift for all of us. For more, click here, and click here.

Paul Klee, The Goldfish (1925).

I have a framed reproduction at my work-desk, and another one at home. The first time I saw the original in Hamburg's Kunsthalle I stood transfixed for half an hour, a votary at the altar, glimpsing the numinous just beyond our daytime vision.

Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa, a major exhibition mounted this year by and at the British Museum. I wish I could have seen this, but the photographs alone indicate the stunning beauty, the detail, the empathy of these pieces, created c. 1200-1400 common era. (The photos above are--to the best of my knowledge-- copyright of the photographer Karin L. Wills; no infringement intended.) The "Ife Heads," produced by Yoruba peoples in what is today Nigeria, must surely put to rest outmoded ideas about what constitutes "African art." For more, click here and click here.


Michael Hedges, "Aerial Boundaries."

Victor Wooten, "Amazing Grace."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part Two

Following on December 24th's "Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part One," here is "Part Two." So much Beauty to celebrate, so much Truth to confirm, so much Love to feel. I will post "Part Four" as this year's final Lobster & Canary entry on Wednesday. "Part Three" is, of course, always reserved for Ian Dury and his cheerful Blockheads-- see the December 24th entry for more on that.

In no order of priority:

Jennifer Crow's "Tasting Books on her Lover's Hands" in Ideomancer (vol. 9, nr. 1, June 2010).
Click here for the original source, at Ideomancer. (Bravo to Ideomancer also for its handsome re-design this year.)

Kate Bernheimer, Horse, Flower, Bird (Coffee House Press, 2010), illustrated by Rikki Ducornet. One of my favorites for the year. Bernheimer, founding editor of The Fairy Tale Review (see my praise Dec. 19th for the FTR), is one of the best at reworking and re-imagining fairy tales. Less sanguinary than Angela Carter (less visceral than Margo Lanagan--but then who isn't?), less melancholy than Theodora Goss, Bernheimer has a style all her own: charming but with an edge, eccentric, sometimes reading like Edward Gorey, sometimes like Calvino or Borges. How to resist lines like these? "When first she found me, my friend and I and her sisters slept in a drawer" (p. 45). "And the girl's grandmother had a vengeance for birds. (She had very bad vision and once, mistakenly, got a chair upholstered in a fabric that depicted garish birds. Strangely, the girl's mother, whose mother this was, seemed to take some kind of wicked glee in the error, and never revealed it to her" (p. 97). Ducornet's delicate, shaded line-drawings perfectly complement Bernheimer's stories; each creature has his/her/its own personality, and -- as Bernheimer's prose does-- avoids mere whimsy with a sly turn of an eye, an enigmatic and possibly minatory gaze. Click here for more.

Kate Castelli's "Chairs at Twelve Chairs," an exhibition of her multitudinous studies of chairs, an exploration of line, form, and space. Kate makes us re-evaluate what we thought we knew about the most mundane of objects. Through March 1, 2011 at Twelve Chairs in Fort Point, Boston, sponsored by GLOVEBOX, a organization that links artists with non-traditional exhibition spaces. For Kate, click here; for GLOVEBOX, click here; for Twelve Chairs, click here.

Pascal's Triangle playing "Time Remembered" (by Bill Evans), at the Blue Note, NYC, in May, 2010. Pascal Le Boeuf on piano, Linda Oh on bass, Joe Saylor on drums.

Nicole Kornher-Stace's Demon Lovers and Other Difficulties (a chapbook produced by Goblin Fruit, 2009). I mentioned this in my 2009 round-up; I continue to immerse myself in Kornher-Stace's powerful vision. One passage to whet your desire: "Oh, I could draw you stars: such stars/ as shatter into tesseracts, a sun and moon/ contained in each, and angels wandering the vertices,/ wayward as a wish. ..." (pg. 11). Kornher-Stace tells a story, linking our daily reality with the fears and suspicions we harbor beneath. Her language is powerful without being overly rich, her imagery rooted in folktale and the European Romantics without being trite. For Kornher-Stace, click here. For Goblin Fruit (which I note in the Dec. 19th entry), click here.

Dutch Still Life Paintings from the 17th Century. Here is "Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar" completed by Willem Kalf in 1669. I spend hours gazing at works like this (see also van Beyeren, Aelster, van Huysum, Heda, Bosschaert, Claesz, de Heem) losing myself in the virtuosity of the surfaces, the mimetic brilliance leading me into the painter's fabulistic world of roemer glass, half-peeled oranges, flowers combined out of season, reflections, hams with knives embedded, lutes, globes, skulls, ornate time-pieces, birds bundled and dead...and lobsters on platters. The Dutch "Golden Age" genre painters would be tickled to know that centuries later we are still fascinated by the calm worlds they purported merely to depict, and that we continue to debate their meaning.

Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear, "Mongoose" (in Lovecraft Unbound, edited by Ellen Datlow, 2009 from Dark Horse Comics), which starts this way:

"Izrael Irizarry stepped through a bright-scarred airlock onto Kadath Station, lurching a little as he adjusted to station gravity. On his shoulder, Mongoose extended her neck, her barbels flaring, flicked her tongue out to taste the air, and colored a question. Another few steps, and he smelled what Mongoose smelled, the sharp stink of toves, ammoniac and bitter."

Stories like this are rare for many reasons: collaborations seldom work well; humor, empathy and horror almost never appear (convincingly) in the same story; an action tale that makes you think is hard to pull off; getting us to believe in an entire universe within the span of c. 25 pages is a feat worthy of Poe or Lieber. Monette & Bear overcome all these challenges. You can hear the story told at Norm Sherman's The Drabblecast (click here, and go to Episode 170, posted July 3, 2010, and Episode 171, posted July 10, 2010). You also read their first story in this series, "Boojum" (published in 2088, and anthologized several times already), at the Wired site: click here.

Edith Wharton's gloriously named A Motor-Flight through France, originally published in 1908, and re-issued in 2008 by Atlas & Co., Publishers (NYC). Light-hearted, with superb renderings of the architecture, and especially the frisson one feels approaching a French town for the first time, through the inevitable allee of pollarded lime trees, into the central market place with its church to one side and cafes on the other. Although a memoir of a journey, the book might as well be a novel, given Wharton's technique and colorings. "After packed weeks of historic and archaelogical sensation, this surrender to the spell of the landscape tempts one to indefinite idling" (pg. 145). Indeed! Atlas deserves kudos not only for the authors they are republishing in their "Pocket Classics" series, but for the attractive book design and high-quality production at reasonable price to the reader.

Uncork a favorite wine, bring out your favorite cheese...reasons to be cheerful!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part One

'Tis the season for thoughtful happiness, and giving thanks for beauty discovered, re-discovered, and won. Here are a few of the many things that made me happy this year:

Richard Barnes, "Animal Logic" (2009).

Barnes, "Murmur" (2005).

Barnes kindly met with me in April; Lobster & Canary hopes to feature him in 2011. Barnes captures the natural world through his lens better than anyone since Elliot Porter, and no one equals him at unveiling the interplay behind the scenes of humans with other species. For more, click his site here.

Vicki Graham's The Tenderness of Bees (Red Dragonfly Press, 2008) was a lovely revelation, full of succinct, warm,evocative observations and queries on nature and our place in it. (Read Graham while looking at Barnes.) Hints of Dickinson and Gerald Manley Hopkins, with a touch of Annie Dillard. Two samples: "Sing. Take the warbler's note/like a bead in the throat/ let the sound fill/ the heart's silent spaces." "No poem has the symmetry, the stark clarity/ of the Golden Crowned Kinglet's eye stripes/ white on black." For more on Graham, click here.

Helen Oyeyemi, White is for Witching (Doubleday, 2009). One of the most remarkable novels I have ever read: quite literally haunting, macabre, weird, a story of retribution. Oyeyemi is a Wunderkind, having written her first novel while in high school; she is today just barely 26 (!), with three novels and two plays published. Her prose startles in its originality, her plots are unexpected, her characters troubled and troubling. For another review of White is for Witching, click here.

D.M. Cornish, The Foundling's Tale, Part Three: Factotum (Putnam, 2010). At last! The finale of Cornish's brilliant Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy was published mid-November...I am setting aside time in January to read and savor this, to learn the fate of Rossamuend Bookchild. Cornish's illustrations are the cherry on top. For more on the Monster Blood Tattoo, click here.

Kenny Garrett, "Beyond the Wall" (from the Nonesuch album of the same name, 2006).

A trip to China inspired Garrett to create the album Beyond the Wall. The influence of Coltrane and McCoy Tyner is evident. Pharoah Sanders partners with Garrett on sax, and Brian Blade provides his usual combination of delicacy and decisiveness on the drums. For more on Garrett, click here.

John Brunner, The Traveler in Black (Ace, 1971). A favorite from my youth, which I bought used at Arisia this year. I wrote about The Traveler on June 13. "As you wish, so be it."

Pam Grossman, Phantasmaphile (ongoing). Pam's Phantasmaphile is a must-read blog--special bliss for me every couple of days when I get the latest addition dropped into my e-mail box. Pam has a discerning eye for the occult, the arcane, the off-kilter; she is, no surprise!, a co-founder of the innovative, weird arts & event collective The Observatory in Gowanus, Brooklyn. She and her playwright husband Matt (Blue Coyote Theater Group) are a warm-hearted, multi-talented pair to watch. Check out Phantasmaphile here.

Josh Dorman, Equine (2010). Serendipity of the purest sort on a cold winter day earlier this year when we happened to stumble upon the Dorman exhibition at the Mary Ryan Gallery in Chelsea...down the rabbit-hole, through the looking-glass, we never wanted to leave his endlessly engaging geographies and bestiaries. Many artists pretend to creating other worlds: Dorman is the true sorcerer who does so. See more of his work by clicking here.

Ellen Kushner, The Man with the Knives (special limited edition, illustrated by Thomas Canty, April 2010, by Temporary Culture/ Henry Wessells, New Jersey). A strong tale, beautifully depicted, by two of the best (reunited!) in the speculative arts. A memorable moment for the Lobster and the Canary: Ellen signing our copy at the NYRSF December reading (which she and Delia Sherman headlined, as is becoming tradition). You can read the entire story and see even more of the illustrations at click here.

Poets House (Battery Park City, NYC). I spent many hours at Poets House this year, immersed in their peaceable kingdom, surrounded by poetry beyond measure, breathing in that vatic air. Poets House is one of my all-time favorite reading places...I encourage you to make it yours, if you are in the NYC area. Click here for more.

Timothy O'Keefe, "Poem in the Key of Luminarias" (The American Poetry Review, Sept./Oct., 2010). O'Keefe's debut collection won this year's FIELD Poetry Prize. "Luminarias" grabbed me from its first lines: "A pack of doorways pressing relentless together/ so as to form the hall in which I walk toward/ famous blackout you." Whoomph, right in the mind that one goes. Later in the poem: "We are overfluent in coral days/ where each sky is a cake, a birthday cake/ because we've candled it so." O'Keefe is one to watch as well-- click here for another example of his craft.

Anoushka Shankar, talking about her CD Rise (2006). Shankar describes the traditions she has woven together to create her Grammy-nominated Rise. I've blogged about her cross-cultural work with The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra-- her commentary on the act of creative collaboration is both insightful and inspiring.

Rachel Contreni Flynn, "Small Gray House" (in jubilat 17, published 2010). A compact poem of belonging, self-exile and protection, encompassing home, with echoes of Grendel's longing. "The red house frightened her/with its furious air." "She often wakes to a shadow in her room,/a smoky-black curve darting backward." Don't read this while reading Oyeyemi's White is for Witching...or you will not sleep at night.

On Sunday I will present more Reasons to be Cheerful (call it Part Two). In the meantime, here is "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part Three"...from the late, lamented Ian Dury and his inimitable Blockheads (1979):

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorite New Periodicals

So much doom-laden talk in 2010 about The End of Publishing and The Death of Books and The Demise of Reading...obviously much is afoot, with digital devices upending distribution and the recession continuing to take its toll on traditional publishers and booksellers...yet, in the midst of the upheaval, innovators are making their way, often using the digital tools that have so unsettled the established, here are Lobster & Canary's favorite literary newcomers, all periodicals founded within the last five years, in no particular order:

Goblin Fruit: A Quarterly Journal of Fantastical Poetry (launched in 2006). Founders Amal El-Mohtar, Jessica P. Wick and Oliver Hunter have a keen eye and ear for verse that is fey without being twee. Consistently good, with a unified style across the many contributors, the whole adorned with perfectly matched drawings. Drawing primarily on European folk traditions, grounded in the English and German Romantics, Goblin Fruit poets include modern stylists such as Sonya Taaffe, Thedora Goss, Nicole Kornher-Stace, JoSelle Vanderhooft, Jane Yolen, and Cat Valente.

The Fairy Tale Review (launched in 2005). Founding editor Kate Bernheimer has set up a caravanserai for marvelous new takes on our oldest tales. The FTR, with its cover illustration by Kiki Smith, brings together scholarly experts (Marina Warner, Maria Tatar, Jack Zipes) and a dazzling array of authors as diverse as Dan Beachy-Quick, Jedediah Berry, Rikki Ducornet, Francine Prose, Donna Tartt, Kim Addonizio, Paula Bohince, and Aime Nezhukumatathil. Stir in a dash of, say, Rimbaud or Kurt Schwitters, and FTR dishes out a heady meal.

Alimentum: The Literature of Food (founded in 2005) is literally a feast! Apercus about appetizers, descriptions of all that makes us enjoy dining, notes and art about food preparation...and handsomely produced. Check out their reviews, their art gallery, and-- how cool is this?--their "Menupoems."

Uppercase: A Magazine for the Creative and Curious (first issue, spring 2009). Oh bliss! Janine Vangool opened UPPERCASE Gallery in Calgary four years ago--the magazine is an extension for the eclectic, dynamic community of artists, designers, artisans, and "visual enthusiasts" she has assembled there. One of the best launches in the past decade, with an idiosyncratic mix of bold, playful work, spanning font design, textiles, film, elegant scrapbooking, Pantone chips, all manner of ephemera, with good reading recommendations and smart essays.

Elephant Magazine (started in 2009). "The Art and Visual Culture Magazine," Elephant takes us to artist studios around the globe (Paris, Sao Paolo, Berlin, Madrid), and explores the crossroads of artistic practice. Who else inquires into the "world of Do Not Disturb signs," analyzes "the Incredible Shrinking Subject, or, the art of miniaturized worlds," wonders how "bicycles influence fashion," or peers at how artists are updating the collage? Best of all: thoughtful manifestos. Writing about art for folks who believe in the power of art.

The Sienese Shredder. Artists Trevor Winkfield and Brice Brown founded this ambitious, weighty, beautifully produced and cleverly curated annual in 2006. In their own words: "Each issue brings together poetry, critical writing, visual arts, unpublished rarities, oddball ephemera and other culturally significant material in a way that is exciting, contemporary and fresh. Contents can include writings by visual artists; art by writers; poets as installation artists; photographers as poets, and the range of contributors moves from the well-known and up-and-coming to the unknown or forgotten. As an archival project, each issue of The Sienese Shredder comes with a CD recording of a well-known poet reading or a musician presenting a retrospective sampling their work."

Slice (begun in 2007), featuring poetry, fiction, non-fiction, artwork in a happy melange. Most important: Slice is committed to finding and helping launch the careers of promising new talent, showcasing such alongside heavyweights on the order of Salman Rushdie, Tana French, Lisa See, Paul Auster, and Jonathan Lethem. Slice has quickly become a darling of the Brooklyn lit scene.

A Public Space (started in 2006) is another meteoric success out of Brooklyn, erupting seemingly fully formed. Founded by former Paris Review executive editor Brigid Hughes, APS is "an independent magazine of art and argument, fact and give voice to the twenty-first century." I am most taken with their essays, which illuminate a hidden corner or unexpected turn.

Shimmer Magazine (started in 2005). Shimmerzine, founded by Beth Wodzinski, offers "speculative fiction for a miscreant world." Quirky, hard-to-classify stories, often with a dark undertone, typically with lush prose. Lots of metamorphoses. Some issues are themed, e.g., "the clockwork jungle book," "the pirate issue." Some of the authors: Jay Lake, Nir Yaniv, Claude Lalumiere, Kuzhali Manickavel, Aliette de Bodard. Plus, always gorgeous cover art and intriguing illustrations (Mary Robinette Kowal is art director).

The Quarterly Conversation (begun in 2005). Some of the very best reviews and criticism anywhere. Founder Scott Esposito and his team (spiritual descendants of Walter Benjamin!) are trenchant, fiercely intelligent, honest. Good at covering literature from around the world, and excellent at ignoring (or deriding) "genre boundaries." No holds barred, e.g., "Contra Lev Grossman," "The Bolano Myth." High expectations on themselves and on their readers, with the earnest punch of the Modernists. Who else is crafting manifestos like their "On the Right Way to Write Criticism (wherein we do something we have never yet attempted: we direct our Editorial Energies against our own publication)"? Be sure also to read Esposito's editor's blog, Conversational Reading.

Three Percent (launched in 2007, at the University of Rochester), "with the lofty goal of becoming a destination for readers, editors, and translators interested in finding out about modern and contemporary international literature." With effective, clean lay-out, a growing inventory of reviews, and a great set of links, Three Percent is an essential clearinghouse for Anglophones looking to connect with other literatures.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

More Novels

So many stories yet to swim in...

Three more that I must get to before (before, before), at least judging from their opening lines:

"I arrived in this port with very few belongings: four shirts, my calligraphy implements, and a heart in a glass jar."

Pablo de Santis, Voltaire's Calligrapher (orig. 2001; translated from the Spanish, 2010 by Lisa Carter).

"That winter there were reports in the newspaper of an iceberg the size of a galleon floating in creaking majesty past St. Hauda's Land's cliffs, of a snuffling hog leading lost hill walkers out of the crags beneath Lomdendol Tor, of a dumbfounded ornithologist counting five albino crows in a flock of two hundred. But Midas Crook did not read the newspaper; he only looked at the photographs."

Ali Shaw, The Girl with Glass Feet (2009).

"Her father had laid his magnifying glass down on the map unrolled before him. A mournful sea monster loomed below the lens. Although it was the middle of the day, the blindness shrouded the bookshelves that rose behind him in false dusk. Only the large window over his head and the desk were still bright and clear.

'Nonna was blind when she died,' Carolina said."

Carey Wallace, The Blind Contessa's New Machine (2010).

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Favorite Novels Read This Year

A few fish plucked from the oceans...

David Anthony Durham, The Other Lands (2009). See my full review here October 17th, which begins: "David Anthony Durham's Acacia Trilogy is one of the most important projects within speculative fiction at the moment. (The first book-- The War with the Mein-- came out in 2007; the second-- The Other Lands-- in 2009; the third is due out fall, 2011; all from Random House). Having mastered the tropes of epic fantasy on his first time out (Durham won the 2009 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer), he is exploring in the Acacia series the intent and self-mythologies of slavers and the impact of enslavement on a global-societal scale. Acacia is world-building as a means to sophisticated, ambitious ends, the use of fantasy to comment on social relations and to imagine alternative power dynamics in our own world-- without resorting to allegory or sermon. Acacia thus belongs to the lineage that includes Plato's Republic and Timaeus, Campanella's City of the Sun, Johnson's Rasselas, besides Persian Letters, Candide, Diderot's Supplement au voyage de Bougainville, and so on down to Orwell."

Joyce Hinnefeld, In Hovering Flight (Unbridled Books, 2008). Delicately drawn, a moving exploration of memory, desires unclear even to those who harbor them, fraught relationships. All wound around the search for "Cuvier's Kinglet," a bird species that may or may not exist.

Olga Slavnikova, 2017 (Overlook, 2010, trans. from Russian by Marian Schwarz). The "most difficult-to-classify book of the year." Enjoyed without grasping its entirety, which was part of the enjoyment. Michael Froggatt, in his review (Strange Horizons, October 1, 2010), gets it precisely right: "Olga Slavnikova's 2017, the winner of the 2006 Russian Booker Prize, is a novel which confounds the reader at every turn: its prose style, characterization and narrative consistently refuse to conform to expectations. It stubbornly refuses to depict people or events in a way which recognizably reflects real life..."

Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns (2010). Another one of his love stories wrapped inside a billion-year epic. Reynolds is a poet of technology: clones are "shatterlings"; "aspic-of-machines" is the term for the nanobots and other medicinal therapies one applies as an unguent to wounds. Reynolds is especially good at the toss-off line that illuminates the deep trend, the broad sweep: "Cloning is a technology like making paper: it is not difficult if one knows how to do it, but extraordinarily tricky to invent from scratch..." (p. 97).

Iain M. Banks is the other current master of the billion-year spree, painting on an enormous canvas but always keeping individual human lives in the forefront. Banks and Reynolds are the heirs of Asimov and Herbert, and especially the Vance of the Demon Princes series and the Alastor novels. (Scalzi and Haldeman as the left-handed heirs to Heinlein?) Banks's Matter, another novel of The Culture, published in 2008 (Orbit), is at its heart a picaresque, with some of the best pert servant-clueless king dialogue since the 17th century. Or maybe it is a novel of ideas in the 18th-century manner, an anthropological inquiry...

Carmine Abate, Between Two Seas (Europa Editions, 2008, trans. from Italian by Antony Shugaar). My find of the year, as in "how come I had never heard of this author before?" Obsession in a Calabrian village, the pursuit of truthful memory, layers of history and emotion, the rebuilding of the ruined family inn (the myth-shrouded Fondaco del Fico)...

Gemma Files, A Book of Tongues (Chizine Publications, 2010). The debut of her Hexslinger series, set in a hyper-brutal American Wild West. Not for the faint-hearted. As Faren Miller put it in her Locus review (April, 2010): "...amping up the horror of a very dark tale...Files describes [the action] with a graphic, unflinching eloquence...Violent, sometimes foulmouthed, explicit in many ways, A Book of Tongues may discomfort anyone except the most seasoned fan of horror or homicidal westerns. More than one passage made me [i.e., Miller] wish I could 'read' with my eyes tight shut." Lobster & Canary felt the same way, and yet-- as Miller also goes on to say--the writing is so powerful and truthful that it elevates the story above mere squalor or obscenity. The gore reflects the horror as it is also depicted in the Iliad, in the Norse sagas, in Goodbye to All That.

Another fantastical, bloody Western--this time transported to Medieval Central Europe--is presented by Jesse Bullington, in his debut The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (Orbit, 2009). "We ain't thieves and we ain't killers," proclaim the thuggish brothers (latest in a long line of grave-robbers, murderers, and sundry scoundrels), "We's just good men been done wrong." Where Files is relentlessly grim, Bullington is funny, making slapstick out of bloodshed, antics out of death. His novel is one long yarn, the mayhem so outsized, the descriptions so broad that the entire thing is a burlesque. Rabelaisian. Mix Sam Peckinpah with Terry Gilliam, and you have the sense of The Brothers Grossbart.

Moving to the polar opposite end of the literary spectrum, I loved Eline Vere by Louis Couperus (Archipelago, 2010, trans. from Dutch by Ina Rilke). Originally published in 1889, Eline Vere is routinely compared to novels by Flaubert, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Edith Wharton. A novel of manners about the cloistered, asphyxiating world of the 19th-century haute-bourgeoisie in The Hague. The eponymous heroine is an eccentric, subject to romantic fits and self-doubt. The pace is meandering, the details of drawing rooms numerous. Nothing violent happens...except once.

Galen Beckett, The House on Durrow Street (Ballantine, 2010), the sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent. Likewise a doorstop novel about the haute-bourgeoisie...but with sorcery, Lovecraftian threats, skulduggery in high places, mysterious doorways long bricked over... The prose lopes along, like a genial hound,resembling a cozy mystery (with Cthulhu lurking along the edges).

Danielle Trussoni's Angelology (Viking, 2010) is uneven but -- in its best bits-- engrossing. If you like Lukyanenko's Night Watch trilogy, or any of the urban vampire-hunter series (Saintcrow, Butcher, etc.), you will enjoy Angelology...and its likely sequel(s).

The King's Gold by Yxta Maya Murray (from Harper, 2008) is a good romp, "an old world novel of adventure" as the sub-title has it. Sharp and witty characters, literary/historical riddles, pulp action, a wash of the Gothic supernatural...Reminds me of the Special Agent Pendergast series by Preston & Child, also a little bit of Eco, and of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind.

We highly recommend N.K. Jemisin's debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit,2010). Jemisin has created a distinctive world, with idiosyncratic characters, vaguely Peakean in flavor, but entirely her own. We especially enjoy her dry wit, precise prose, and intricate plotting. Above all, we like her portrayals of the gods who have been enslaved: they are both more and less than human, raising a chill up the reader's spine while also tugging at our heart. We love them, fear them, do not understand them all at once-- we are as baffled, entranced and repelled as the heroine Yeine is by the immortal trickster youth Sieh and the terrifying (and terrifyingly erotic) Nightlord Nahadoth. Jemisin promises us two more in this series-- we await these eagerly.

Cherie Priest also does a fine job creating alien (eldritch, to use an overused but in this case very appropriate word) characters in Fathom (Tor, 2008, first paperback release February, 2010). The water elemental Arahab seeks to awake Leviathian from his slumbers deep below the earth's crust-- which will destroy the world. Yet Arahab is no caricature of evil: her actions have a defensible if wholly alien logic and ethic; she is willful, mercurial, but she weighs and measures, ponders, has doubts, is not merely hateful. If anyone is truly and one-sidedly evil in Fathom, it is the human Berenice, who betrays everyone, including her savior and patron Arahab. And then there is the enigmatic spirit called Mossfeaster: "From the feet up, the creature began to dissolve itself, not so much collapsing as letting the ground absorb it. But before the last of the shoulders, neck and head disappeared, it offered one final thought. 'You can help a thing who loves the world destroy it; or you can help a thing who hates it save it'" (page 100).

Spiritual quandaries also pervade Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress (Tor, 2009, first paperback edition 2010). Extraterrestials arrive to atone for a crime against humanity that no one on Earth knows anything about. "The Atoners" take selected humans to other planets to witness the consequences of this crime. Kress combines fast-paced drama with thought-provoking propositions. The revelations of the witnesses challenge deeply held beliefs; Kress is very good at describing how humanity reacts, in ways both trivial (celebrity tours, pop culture engulfment) and mortally important.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (Hodder U.K., 2007; first U.S. edition, Dial/Penguin, 2010) is really, really good. Finn has no memories of his past, but is now a Prisoner in the unimaginably vicious, squalid and vast prison-world of Incarceron-- a prison that is itself coldly intelligent, indifferently manipulating the fates of its inhabitants. There is and can be no escape from Incarceron. But where is Incarceron? That is the question for Claudia, daughter of the Warden, and her tutor, the Sapient Jared. As Finn and his deceitful, half-crazed companions desperately seek to escape the inescapable, Claudia (about to be married against her will to the Crown Prince) is furiously trying to locate Incarceron...all the more so when she and Finn stumble into conversation via a matched set of scientifico-magical Keys. Incarceron has it all: a twisting plot, flawed and believable characters, settings that live on after you shut the page. Peake and Vance come to mind, The Man in the Iron Mask, Dickens, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games... we look forward to Incarceron's sequel, Sapphique.

Speaking of Collins, Mockingjay (2010, the finale of her Hunger Games trilogy) was everything we could have wished for. No punches pulled...down with the old boss, here's the new boss, same as the old boss...fight until the end and then fight some more. If dystopian our future be, let no one say that Collins did not prepare us...

Sharon Shinn, Fortune and Fate (2008, pb 2009), another in her Twelve Houses series. A melancholy tale of a knight errant (who reminds me a little bit of Lara Croft and Aeon Flux). Amadis of Gaul, Tirant lo Blanc, Palmerin of England, updated, clothed in sienna and umber. If you like Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, or Marie Brennan's Witch and Warrior, you'll like Shinn.

Warren Fahy, Fragment (2010). Best beach-read of the year! A loving pastiche, with nods to Jurassic Park, King Kong, Alien, and a thousand pulp stories and B-movies. Cries out to be made into a movie in its turn. (I love the details, such as the drawings of the spygers.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee: Porcelain Old as Tomorrow: Weiser, Isupov, MacDowell, Boyle, Antemann

[Greg Weiser, Idle Hands, c. 2005]

[Greg Weiser, Many, 2005]

[Sergei Isupov]

[Kate MacDowell]

[Shary Boyle; Lobster is uncertain, but believes this and the next are from Lace Figures exhibition, 2006]

[Shary Boyle]

[Chris Antemann, Highboy, from "Battle of the Britches," 2009]

[Chris Antemann]
[All images copyrighted by the respective artists, and displayed here solely for purposes of commentary; please respect the artists' rights.]

Porcelain as an art form appears to be making something of a comeback in the U.S.A. (Perhaps related to the resurgence of China?) Several artists are creating work as technically adept and aesthetically captivating as anything produced by Meissen, Sevres and the other 18th/19th-century European masterworkers...and arguably on par with the imperial Chinese themselves.

Among the "New Masters": Sergei Isupov, Kate MacDowell, Kurt Weiser, Shary Boyle, and Chris Antemann. Sharing a dedication to craftsmanship, each of the five has a distinctive style...and each is distinctively modern in their themes, ironic senses of humor, and use of the medium for social commentary. We get the best of all worlds, i.e., a classic medium updated to meet our current concerns.

Here at Lobster & Canary we raved (November 21, 2010) about Isupov's current show at the Barry Friedman Gallery in NYC, and we had the great pleasure of interviewing MacDowell (September 19, 2009) as well as noting that her work featured prominently in the NY Times (January 30, 2010). Please go to those Lobster entries for more, and for links to the artists' work (and their gallery representation).

Weiser is a master potter, and possibly the most traditional in his themes and style. He does not experiment much with the form of the objects, but uses the teapot, the globe, etc. to paint lush scenes that appear didactic without the lesson being immediately clear. Another twist: his style and use of color reminds me of Baroque Spanish and Italian still life (bodegones) painters such as Zurbaran and Garzoni, a tradition that pre-dates European porcelain production. For more on Weiser, click here and here.

Boyle is a multimedia artist who uses the porcelain not as a canvas but as sculpture. Her figurines and tableaus make powerful statements about voice and identity. But she too is interrogating the past, for instance, in recent work responding to Foggini bronzes as part of a commission from the Art Gallery of Ontario. For more on Boyle, click here.

Antemann takes Meissenware to its licentious, decadent extreme...her set-pieces lure in the viewer, who thinks the scene is a reproduction, until close examination reveals otherwise. Her puckish sense of humor prevails: these are delightfully devious works that enthrall in every sense of the word. For more on Antemann, click here.

For years I have enjoyed the solitude of porcelain galleries at the Museum fuer Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and at the Metropolitan in NYC. I wonder if I will soon get company!