Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books, November 30, 2012

Six today and his world is all about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Angry Birds, Superheroes. Where did his love of animals go? I am sure it will resurface soon. The skinniest kid alive but the sweetest. He is his Phil's biggest fan and vice versa.

Next week is Ray Bradbury week. Hope you all will join us to celebrate one of the greatest writers of our time.

 Ed Gorman is the author of the Dev Conrad and Sam McCain series of crime fiction novels. You can find him right
I've written here before about Richard Neely. He wrote non-series crime novels that pretty much covered the entire range of dark suspense. I mentioned that in the best of them the weapon of choice is not poison, bullets or garrote. He always prefered sexual betrayl.

Plastic is a good example. Using amnesia as the central device Dan Mariotte must reconstruct his life. Learning that the beautiful woman at his bedside all these months in the hospital--his wife--may have tried to kill him in a car accident is only the first of many surprises shared by Mariotte and the reader alike.

What gives the novel grit is Neely's take on the privileged class. He frequently wrote about very successful men (he was a very successful adverts man himself) and their women. The time was the Seventies. Private clubs, privte planes, private lives. But for all the sparkle of their lives there was in Neely's people a despair that could only be assauged (briefly) by sex. Preferably illicit sex. Betrayl sex. Men betrayed women and women betrayed men. It was Jackie Collins only for real.

Plastic is a snapshot of a certain period, the Seventies when the Fortune 500 dudes wore sideburns and faux hippie clothes and flashed the peace sign almost as often as they flashed their American Express Gold cards. Johny Carson hipsters. The counter culture co-opted by the pigs.

The end is a stunner, which is why I can say little about the plot. Neely knew what he was doing and I'm glad
to see his book back in print. Watching Nerely work is always a pleasure.

ROADSIDE PICNIC by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
(Review by Deb)
Recently, a tape from the 1980s surfaced of the late Steve Jobs discussing—in amazingly prescient detail—the future of computers.  At a time when few people even had a home computer, Jobs was already talking about cloud computing, hand-held delivery devices, and the i-pod prototype.  As Jon Stewart of the Daily Show observed after Jobs's death, it’s like we had a visit from an extraterrestrial who left before he could explain how everything is supposed to work.
This is exactly the position of humans in ROADSIDE PICNIC (first published in the Soviet Union in 1971, and anthologized in the west in 1977): It has been a number of years since extraterrestrials visited the Earth, an event referred to as the “visitation.”  They landed simultaneously in six places, stayed for a couple of days (as one scientist puts it, almost as if they had a roadside picnic), and then left—never to return, but leaving behind an assortment of debris and areas of uninhabitable land called “forbidden zones.”  (As a side note, it’s indicative of how effective anti-littering campaigns have been in the last 40 years that we probably now find it hard to imagine leaving a picnic site without picking up our trash—so the “roadside picnic” analogy, with debris strewn far and wide, isn’t immediately recognizable to us.)
Scientists (and black-market scavengers called “stalkers”) periodically visit these forbidden zones to retrieve the material left behind.  No one is really sure how the aliens used these items, but many are bent to human purposes, such as sparkling bracelets that ease pain and disc-like batteries that replace fossil fuel in cars.  However, there is also great danger in the zones—mine explosions, sudden violent winds, searing heat, gravity-defying earth shifts, and a deadly quicksand-like “slime”—so that most countries have completely shut down access to them.  The only zone that is relatively accessible is in the city of Harmont, which is where ROADSIDE PICNIC takes place.
The book is essentially a series of inter-connected vignettes, most of them featuring a stalker named Red Schuhart, that take place over a number of years following the visitation.  Red’s steely nerves and extrasensory awareness of danger have made it possible for him to make successful excursions into the zone. He is considered one of the best stalkers and is even occasionally employed in a semi-official capacity by the government to retrieve items for scientific study—although there is far more money to be made selling the items illegally on the black market.  But Red’s luck starts to run out when a scientist dies after he returns with Red from an official visit to the zone.  Later, during an illegal foray into the zone, Red’s partner, a stalker named Burbridge, sinks into the slime. Red could have left Burbridge to die, but instead helps him get out.  (It is honorable acts such as his rescue of Burbridge that set Red apart from other stalkers and make us like and admire him despite his dangerous and criminal activities in the forbidden zone.)  As a result, Burbridge survives but loses his legs, and Red ends up in prison—requesting that his share of contraband profit go to support his pregnant girlfriend, Guta.
When Red is released from prison several years later, the city of Harmont is in visible decline. Despite constant vigilance, the government can’t stop a criminal syndicate (under the direction of the legless Burbridge) from making frequent excursions into the zone, flooding the market with artifacts, many of which cause harm or are used in a dangerous way by the shadowy underworld figures who buy them.  In addition, the dead of Harmont are rising from their graves and wandering back to their homes.  This phenomenon is not presented in a spooky, zombie apocalypse way, but in a matter-of-fact tone that makes it easy to accept that Red’s dead father is now living in the apartment with Red, Guta, and their daughter.  The daughter, never called any name but “Monkey” because her body is entirely covered with hair, is suffering from such severe genetic mutations that doctors determine she is not actually human. These mutations are undoubtedly the result of Red’s visits to the zone, but he repeatedly returns there, unable to resist the lure of both the money and the adrenaline rush that the visits provide.
Eventually, Burbridge persuades Red to venture once more into the zone, along with Burbridge’s rather naive and idealistic son, to retrieve the Golden Sphere, an almost mythic item that supposedly grants wishes. Red knows that either he or Burbridge’s son must die in order for the survivor to reach the Sphere—although whether Burbridge or his son realizes this is left somewhat ambiguous.  The last few pages of the book are unbearably tense as the men approach the Sphere while attempting to dodge horrific phenomena, such as skin-blistering heat and a booby-trap known, for reasons that soon become sickeningly obvious, as “the meat grinder.”  The ending can be seen as hopeful, cynical, nihilistic, or all three, depending on your perspective and how you interpret the final paragraph.
If you plan to read ROADSIDE PICNIC, I strongly recommend the 2012 edition, which includes an informative introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin and a long afterword by Boris Strugatsky in which he details the fight the brothers had with the Soviet censorship apparatus.  It took years of tweaking and constant demands for minor word and text alterations before authorities finally approved the book for publication in 1971; it would be another 20 years before the book appeared as the brothers originally wrote it.  Boris Strugatsky’s recent death (Arcady died in 1991) makes his afterword even more poignant.  Strugatsky writes that for decades he kept the hundreds of letters and memos that went back and forth between the brothers and the censors.  He had intended to eventually publish a book documenting the nonsensical, Kafkaesque changes that the bureaucrats required to deem ROADSIDE PICNIC acceptable.  But by the mid-1990s, Strugatsky realized that it was unlikely that anyone would still be interested in the petty squabbles and in-fighting of the now-defunct Soviet bureaucracy and gave up the idea of developing the book.  So ROADSIDE PICNIC stands alone—a testament to the writers’ stubborn refusal to surrender in the face of almost overwhelming government opposition to a simple idea, encapsulated in a rather ironic way by the book’s final wish:  Happiness for everybody, free, and no one will go away unsatisfied!

The Elizabeth Stories, Isabel Huggan

Eight stories tracing the growth of the child Elizabeth Kessler over a ten-year period (7-17) during the 1950s was published as The Elizabeth Stories by Oberon Press in 1984, and in 1987 by Viking Penguin in Great Britain and the United States, where it won the Quality Paperback New Voice Award in 1988 as well as the Best Fiction Prize from the Denver Quarterly. Huggan has won many awards for her writing.

I read the book in 1988 and enjoyed these stories about a girlhood in a small Ontario town very much. Elizabeth has a difficult mother who regards propriety as overly important. She is often misunderstood, often plays a subsidiary role in these stories but never plays a victim. I see this book is now categorized as YA but I don't remember it as anything other than a book of related stories about growing up. Are we not meant to take childhood seriously as adults? Huggan is a lovely writer and this is a model on how to write related stories.

Serge Angelini
Yvette Banek
Joe Barone
Les Blatt
Brian Busby
Bill Crider
Scott Cupp
Martin Edwards
Curt Evans
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
Nick Jones
George Kelley
Margot Kinberg
Rob Kitchin
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/Dan Stumpf 
Todd Mason
J.F. Norris
Richard Pangburn
James Reasoner
Gerard Saylor
Ron Scheer
Michael Slind
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple
Prashant Trikannad 


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday, Kevin.

Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting choices today. I've always meant to read Neely but never quite got around to it.

Never heard of ROADSIDE PICNIC but it sounds fascinating.

Jeff M.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Hey Patti. Thanks for the link, but I was hoping you'd link this one instead:

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Blimey, that was quick! You're like lightning!

Aiming to have something Bradburyesque for next week, by the way.



Charles Gramlich said...

haven't read THe plastic nightmare but it sounds like my kind of story. Twilight zoney, sounds like.

Yvette said...

Hi Patti, I posted one today. :)

J F Norris said...

Richard Neely is terribly underrated. One of the best from the 70s. The Walter Syndrome, The Japanese Mistress, The Sexton Women are all very good examples of modern noir. Anyone who likes Gil Brewer would like Neely. They have more than a little in common. The Plastic Nightmare has one of those all too rare gasp inducing endings. People may know it as the movie SHATTERED under which title Black Lizard reprinted it back in the late 1990s.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

This week I have a truly forgotten book:

Published in 1999 in a small printing, it is now out of print. Too bad, for her use of language is remarkable. She's an academic at Wake Forest, Google says, and has a couple of other novels to her credit "on moral issues."

My review is here:

Anonymous said...

OK, you guys convinced me. I ordered a copy of SHATTERED.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

It's a pity about the film, even with Greta Scacchi and all. Neely can be a little reductionist and bootlessly tricky, as with THE JAPANESE MISTRESS, but the novels I've read have tended to be solid, if feeling almost as if Neely felt a (commercial?) duty to go for the tawdry the way Stephen King goes for the grossout.

Todd Mason said...

Meanwhile, Canadians and Russians. Deb, good of you to help us memorialize Boris S...interesting approaches, the brothers took, even if the translations were a bit rocky (I gather, from the result). Huggan's book sound interesting...linked stories, as we indexers sometimes tag them.

I'm not sure I'm going to agree that Ray Bradbury was one of the greatest writers of our time, or even among the very greatest of fantastic-fiction writers. But I've liked and occasionally loved his work (aside primarily from the weak-tea verse he loved to engage in in latter decades) as much as the next guy, so I'll certainly be game.

Rick Robinson said...

I'm in next week, already have my Bradbury write-up ready to go.

Gerard said...

I know a six (almost seven) year old who also likes Angry Birds.

He also likes to pick up one of the cats, carry it around, and then shut the cat in the bedroom with him so the cat cannot escape.