Summer Indie Book Reading

While I’m currently reading Ivy Ngeow’s Overboard, which might turn out to be the best Indie book I’ve read yet and will most certainly warrant its own in-depth post, here’s a rundown of some recent Indie books I finished and the reviews I posted on Goodreads:

 

The Hanging Artist by Jon Steinhagen (novel)

The Hanging Artist is a very specific kind of entertainment. If the premise (Kafka awakes in a sanitarium to meet a giant talking bug and then is sucked into a bizarre murder mystery) sounds too strange, then it probably will be for you. But if it sounds great (like it did to me) then by all means buy, buy, buy.

Kafka makes for a great amateur detective, and apart from the inherent absurdism of the premise, Steinhagen’s greatest treat for this reader was the screwball detective dialogue between Kafka and the giant bug, and Kafka and the Biede character (an investigator from the mysterious society that wants to employ Kafka’s skills). Then there are all the suspects and various theater folk, each uniquely drawn and memorable, and the playful “nocturnes” following a Hanging Artist performance where acquaintances of theater patrons are dropping dead. The mystery actually had me guessing, and the solution to the crime is appropriately bizarre.

Witty, dark, and sometimes silly, The Hanging Artist makes for smart, surreal escapism.

 

Susan M. Lane has given us quite an interesting and psychologically rich collection of short stories with Secrets. Admittedly, I was turned off by the opening story about a serial killer that was so well done as to almost give me a panic attack. I wasn’t sure I could handle the collection if all of the stories were that intense. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did.

There are a number of stories about people queued up in lines: at the grocery store, a fast food drive-thru, a bank…and Lane is quite adept at capturing the banal tension of these everyday occurrences, how the act of waiting and observing other people can be stressful, and sometimes the smallest misunderstanding or slight could be triggering. In these stories Lane head-hops from person to person, diving deep into their fears and worries and pasts, revealing the secrets behind the everyday people we encounter…secrets we’ll never know just by observing them.

Misunderstandings (and prejudices) that lead to violence (the closing story is all too relevant today) is another key theme running through many of the stories.

Not all of the stories hit home for me, and some of the more noir ones, though fun, seemed like throwaways. But Lane’s craft is…crafty. And I would highly recommend her collection for those who enjoying reading stories that highlight the darker side of humanity and revel in twists of fate.

 

The Pup and the Pianist by Sara Flower Kjeldsen (novella)

Fascinating, quick-paced adventure novella about a young lad named Max and another unlikely survivor stranded on the Galapagos after a disastrous naval skirmish during the Napoleonic wars.

Vivid descriptions and judicious use of metaphors overcome some odd wording and grammatical puzzlers. The author was clearly trying to capture the spirit of the era both in the writing style and tone.

The character development is excellent and heads in directions I did not anticipate.

Reviews by D. H. Schleicher

There is Weird Wild Heartbreaking Beautiful Stuff to be Found in The Deep

The Deep is a wildly imaginative bit of fiction anchored in universal truths and spun creatively from real trauma. It is simultaneously a collaborative work based on the mythology created in experimental rap songs, and a uniquely singular novella. Like its main character, the mysterious Yetu, it is both plural and one. It’s quite unlike anything I have ever read. If I tried to ensnare and then relay its essence, imagine if Toni Morrison wrote a piece of science-fiction. It’s that soulful, and that weird. But to reduce it to that type of blurb would do it a disservice.

A fantastic underwater utopia inhabited by strange sentient creatures (the Wajinru) who are descended from pregnant women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade, communal memories, climate change, the end of the world…it’s all woven into the rich tapestry of Rivers Solomon’s tome which reads like an epic poem. Rich in metaphors and bold imagination, it channels both the grief and the triumph of the marginalized.

Love who you love. Own your past. Create your future.

For all the heartache, the novella builds to an amazing closing line that left this reader reeling.

There is hope in the chaos.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Turning the Screws

Henry James’  classic novella from 1898, “The Turn of the Screw” opens with a group of friends discussing ghost stories:

“I quite agree–in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was-that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch.  But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child.  If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children–?”

“We say of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that two children give two turns!  Also we want to hear about them.”

Whereas Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula is most thought of as the ultimate example of a horror story expressing the dangers of Victorian Era repression, there is no tale more subtly crafted around the theme than Henry James’ ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw.”

What has kept readers like myself up all night lost within its pages is the slow, methodical pacing and build-up that lead to a shocking climax.  Part of the suspense is in laboring through James’ carefully constructed, sophisticated, overly wordy, and charmingly antiquated prose.  You read on because you get a creeping sense of the disturbing subtexts while waiting almost painfully for something to happen at the end of all this analysis and talk.

Reading the novella in turn brought me to watch the 1961 film adaptation The Innocents.  It astounds as one of the best examples of a film honoring the spirit of its literary source material while standing alone as something purely cinematic.  It’s also creepy as hell in that very reserved old fashioned Victorian Era kind of way.  I highly recommend reading the novella first, and then viewing the film to compare and contrast.

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CAPTION:  Oh, let’s not get hysteric.  What would Freud say?

Atmospheric Translation of Classic Ghost Story, 5 May 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is a wonderfully atmospheric film translation of Henry James’ classic Victorian Era ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw.” Highlighted by stunning black-and-white cinematography from Freddie Francis (who later worked on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man) and fabulous set designs, The Innocents stays very close to James’ text while adding a few cinematic elements (like the music box, highly suggestive visual symbolism, and the reading of a macabre poem) as it weaves its tale of a governess (Deborah Kerr) trying to unravel the mystery surrounding some strange apparitions on a lavish country estate where she cares for two young children displaying some odd behavior.

The brilliance of the film and the original story is in the ambiguity. There are two logical interpretations: the governess is slowly going mad, or the estate is haunted. Regardless of which interpretation you take, there is still plenty of room to intertwine the disturbing Freudian subtexts involving the governess’ repressed emotions and what the children have actually seen, heard, known, or experienced. I can’t think of a more refined or subtle exploration of what happens when an adult transfers or projects their own psychological hang-ups onto children in their charge than James’ quietly suspenseful potboiler.

The performances are a bit melodramatic at times, but note perfect in their proper context, with Kerr prissy but sympathetic and the children expertly performing the sudden turns from innocent angels to sinister manipulators. The Innocents does feature some dated sound effects that come across as annoying rather than creepy, but the visuals and the shrieking climax are what will stick with the viewer. Unlike recent (and for the most part very worthy) modern updates on the story like The Others and The Orphanage where a twist ending reveals the only true interpretation of the ghastly events, The Innocents leaves it all to the imagination of the viewer. The imagination, it seems, can be a very dangerous thing with which to play.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055018/usercomments-130