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This Explains Everything

Author: John Brockman (editor)

Type: Non-fiction, essays

Full title: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works

Published: 2013

I read it: October 2014

this explains

Whenever John Brockman tosses out a question to his scientists and thinkers, the responses are delightfully wide-ranging. The authors of this book get to mull over three adjectives–deep, elegant, and beautiful–and come up with their favorite explanation to a problem in the past or present.

Though “favorite” is a fun allowance, it’s telling how many people acknowledge the top contenders. Susan Blackmore says it in the first sentence of the first entry: “Of course it has to be Darwin.” Hot on the heels of evolution by natural selection is Watson and Crick’s DNA. So deep, elegant, and beautiful are these particular explanations that several contributors deliberately choose something else to write about, confident that their colleagues will take the obvious ones.

The book is generally organized by chunking together essays of similar topics. There’s a lot of physics, which can be a bit dense for me, though I enjoyed plenty of others, such as:

Brains and minds:

“Overlapping Solutions” by David Eagleman

“Our Bounded Rationality” by Mahzarin Banaji

Cosmology:

“A Hot Young Earth: Unquestionably Beautiful and Stunningly Wrong” by Carl Zimmer (which gives an anti-answer through a good science story)

“Deep Time” by Alun Anderson

Culture:

“Why We Feel Pressed for Time” by Elizabeth Dunn

“Dan Sperber’s Explanation of Culture” by Clay Shirky

Ideas and theories:

“How to Have a Good Idea” by Marcel Kinsbourne

“In the Beginning is the Theory” by Helena Cronin

Physical systems:

“The Gaia Hypothesis” by Scott Sampson

“The Pigeonhole Principle” by Jon Kleinberg

Fun, specific concepts:

“Birds are the Direct Descendants of Dinosaurs” by Gregory S. Paul

“Why the Greeks Painted Red People on Black Pots” by Timothy Taylor

Playfulness with the topic itself includes a poem, several entries that question the definitions or usefulness of deep, elegant, and beautiful, and others that practice the art of short writing. The challenge of conveying a large idea elegantly within a few pages goes to the heart of the project. (Katinka Matson’s piece on Occam’s Razor reads in its entirety, “Keep it simple.“)

Like the other Edge books, this collection will confirm ideas and challenge them, unravel the world or solidify it. The love of science and learning drips from the pages, and the authors stand in awe of instances when “mysteries fell like dominoes before the predictive power of a beautiful theory and its elegant explanation,” as Paul Saffo puts it. What might we be able to explain tomorrow?

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2014 in Essays

 

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The Silmarillion

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1977

I read it: October 2014

silmarillion

When my wife and I got matching Tolkien tattoos at the beginning of the year, I felt a bit guilty that I had never attempted to read The Silmarillion. The paperback has haunted the shelves of my childhood home for as long as I can remember; even after going through LotR numerous times and one of the Book of Lost Tales, this one sat dormant. So I finally did it.

There’s no denying what everyone suspects: this book is for Tolkien completists. There’s not really a lot to grab the reader’s attention, as the creation stories and other sagas are a bit too omniscient to make for ultimately compelling stories. The proper nouns are legion, sometimes to the detriment of mythological clarity. I gleaned that the Valar are important, and the Maiar, and that those somehow led to the Eldar, a certain race of elves. It gets fuzzy fast. A large part of the tales concern themselves with Melkor, or Morgoth, the fallen angel/Satan character of Tolkien’s world, and those sections are usually interesting. There are some other cool beasts, like huge spiders and werewolves, and plenty of grand war and romanticism. But given the distant writing style, it’s a struggle to latch onto the characters, as glorious or poetically doomed as they may be.

Things get a little more interesting toward the end, during a part called “Akallabêth” (how cool is that word?) as well as the slim final section, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” Here we get to know more about Sauron’s early days when he could still take on a human form (I can see now a little better where Stephen King’s Randall Flagg came from). Of course he tricks the men into rebelling against the gods and Elves, to their demise. There’s also specific emphasis on Mithrandir (Gandalf) and it’s fun to identify the story threads that were used to flesh out plot points in the current Hobbit movies.

There’s a lot of Old Testament going on here, in story as well as form. Evil never seems to be something housed within men’s hearts, but placed there from malevolent sources. The most intriguing parts are when men rise up to argue about their mortality, and face their options about how to deal with “the ordering of their life, such as it might be in the lands of swift death and little bliss.” As is obvious to most modern readers, Tolkien’s story is largely about quests to understand the role of humans on a grand mystical, often religious, scale.

Regardless of the effort needed, Tolkien fans ought to still find pleasure here. It’s in the yellowed pages and that distinct typeface. It’s in the smell of the book and the magical yet fallible worlds. It’s in the sheer existence of the lengthy Index and Appendix where all those creative names are listed. It’s in the bulk and breadth. It brings me back.

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Novels

 

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The House on Mango Street

Author: Sandra Cisneros

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1984

I read it: September 2014

mango street

When we held a book exchange for my birthday last year I was pleased to end up with this one, contributed by my friend Monica. I wanted to make sure to read it while I still had recent memories of Minneapolis in mind. Especially summer living, when I could sit out on the balcony and feel all the other lives tight and close on a narrow street.

In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros tells of a young girl turning into a woman in 1970s or 80s Chicago. Esperanza is not buying that the house of the title–the one her large family moves into–is the type of house they need. Instead of the glorious escape from apartment life that her parents hinted at, it’s crowded and imperfect. But the book is just as much about the second part of the title: all the characters who make up life on Mango Street.

Esperanza’s keen eye catches everyone around her, child and adult, able and infirm, most of them of Mexican origin like herself. She wonders what these lives say about her own, such as an older girl who yearns to escape, who waits for “a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.” She reflects on destiny and concludes that “I think diseases have no eyes. They pick with a dizzy finger anyone, just anyone.” Esperanza is an “anyone” in transition to becoming a “someone” and loves Mango Street only at an emotional distance. She wants it to be better, fairer, or she wants out.

The slim chapters of Cisneros’ book make for quick reading. Each vignette centers on a person, situation, or concept, often describing the games and growing pains of Esperanza and her friends. Some parts, like “Four Skinny Trees,” are elegant prose poetry. By the book’s end, our protagonist has entered puberty and is not the same girl who moved into the house on Mango Street. She is ready for something of her own: “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”

This sharp slice of young adult writing stands as a snapshot of a particular time and place in America, and is likely to remain relevant in classrooms for generations to come.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2014 in Novels

 

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Wolf in White Van

Author: John Darnielle

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2014

I read it: September 2014

wolf in white van

This review was originally published on The Stake.

With his first novel, John Darnielle has migrated into a new medium, a journey that was no great leap. The creative force behind long-running band The Mountain Goats, Darnielle is no stranger to storytelling. I’m a devoted fan, so it’s inevitable to look for similarities or shifts in voice, style, and content. Wolf in White Van, centering on a young man with a disfiguring facial injury, is a story of psychological exploration clearly birthed from the same fertile fields of the mind that writes songs like “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature” and “New Monster Avenue.” It’s about small moments, hidden meanings, and the contours of our inner lives.

Even though the main character, Sean Phillips, lives in social isolation, his tale is not one of mopey self-loathing. Nor is it a self-affirming, renewed-joy-in-living account of someone in recovery (even if Sean does sometimes feel an affinity to Conan the Barbarian). Throughout the book, which can be read as an extended diary, the protagonist seeks only to chronicle and understand. More specifically, he struggles to understand others’ need for understanding (his need for self-understanding is mostly obscured to him, even if apparent to the reader). The people closest to Sean, especially his mother and father, desperately need reasons, to be able to explain the root of things, to know the causes that led to the physical trauma that put their son into an extended hospital stay. Sean witnesses others’ attempts to “draw some lesson from a place no lessons were.” He wavers between this idea that no lessons exist and his own curiosity about whether there could possibly be a narrative to frame his situation.

To this end, Sean finds comfort in his own uses of fiction. The book jumps among a few key years, and the younger Sean was absorbed in favorite movies, books, or albums (always on cassette tape), which sustained him. Later, in his post-trauma state, he is “faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit.” He survives by giving life to a rough sketch in his brain, and eventually constructs a full world in the form of Trace Italian. This play-by-mail game is set in a post-apocalyptic America where the main goal is to reach a stronghold in the middle of the Kansas wasteland. Sean is the creator-god, writing and sending an array of text-based “turns” for his paying subscribers to choose from. He makes an independent living, but more importantly he taps into something in others that he knows he feels himself:

Who doesn’t want to rise above the obstacles in his pathway? Who wouldn’t want to go down in flames? And for those of us who can’t or won’t rise above, who doesn’t at least want to hear stories about how it might be possible for some triumph to eventually happen, given enough luck?

The images and themes in Sean’s mind—which extend into his invention, Trace Italian—are pure Darnielle. Here is where existing fans will find familiarity: in the snippets of mythology, in the flash of backstory about a lone conqueror, a pile of skulls, a band of weary travelers. Ancient signs and symbols that hint at former lives; animals that prowl through dark ruins. Codes on cave walls and maps that lead… where? In his songwriting, Darnielle often reflects on how humans engage with the mystery that confronts them, especially in dire circumstances. Here, he writes his protagonist as someone who admits, “I think sometimes I hear things as riddles that aren’t really riddles.” Through his game, Sean makes meaning because he sees so little meaning around him. Yet for all the wandering of his mind, he is reassuringly level-headed in his zen-like quest to know himself, as well as accept the outward ripples he accidentally creates.

Because while the intentions of Sean’s fictional world are good, its effects spiral uncertainly. Some of the most directly satisfying parts of the novel are the chunks of Trace Italian placed throughout—including the text of full “turns” and the letters that players write back when making their moves—as well as the unsettling feeling the reader gets about what the game has inspired. In his attempt to create something genuine and complete, it’s possible some of Sean’s intensity has seeped into the psyche of a few unique players. When he finds himself involved in a legal case, he pierces deeper into the shapes and sounds of the game, its basis in his mind. How deep is too deep? Are there places where no one can really go? Are there games that are simply too difficult to win?

When Sean reflects on his game, he tells about the origin of the concept and says “there is something fierce and starved about first ideas.” It’s easy to see how the book itself may have been a first idea that took hold in John Darnielle’s mind some untold number of years ago. The fierceness is there, even if it’s a bit rough around the edges (Sean again: “Sometimes I have trouble finding the edges”). The tenacious writer has hundreds of songs to his name (“prolific” falls short here) and I don’t think it’s a disservice to call Wolf in White Van an extension of that songwriting, something that simply wouldn’t fit into three and a half minutes. The style is conversational, fluid, with scenes that fold in on themselves then out again. While a couple sections are belabored—a meditation on cleaning out the medicine cabinet is not as moving as intended—others deliver the frisson of a lyric spun over a perfect melody. A scene of the wary, older version of Sean connecting with two teens in a liquor store parking lot over the topic of his hideously scarred face amazes in its detail and graceful humanity.

The small moments of personal revelation are the heart the story. While the novel does finally swirl toward the moment of violence that changed Sean’s life, the traumatic events are mostly placed outside the central narrative. Darnielle is not interested so much in the television cliffhanger—the exploding car, the spray of blood, the horror clang of minor chords when the monster jumps out. These are taken for granted. They happen, will always happen. Instead, he wants to explore all the other moments that radiate backward and forward from those sudden dramatic fractions of time.

If you were to play Trace Italian, you would read the game’s opening scenario, in which you wake up alone in a bitter wasteland. Like it or not, you are still alive. Sean’s directive is clear: “You may now make your first move.” Your mind must direct your body, and there is no time to reason out every alternate path ahead or every motive pushing from behind. That comes later. People fill in the gaps when it suits them, and you may realize “that maybe people do things for no reason, that things just happen, that nobody really knows much.”  This is simply the world you are in.

For now: just make your move.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2014 in Novels

 

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Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Thomas Cromwell Trilogy (#1)

Published: 2009

I read it: September 2014

wolf hall

This is a conversational review between Laura Byers and me. It was originally published on Levi & Laura.

Levi: Hear ye, hear ye! Let it be known that Mssr. Levi and Mdme. Laura completed a lengthy tome on the nonce! Should we do our whole review like that?

Laura: I concur!

Levi: I don’t know if anyone would read past this next line, so I suppose we’ll play it straight. The book isn’t even Olde English anyway, is it? I’m not good with my historical eras. But the author did have kind of a dense prose style. Did you think the writing took some getting used to?

Laura: Indubitably. Mantel’s style required some effort, but I appreciated the unique rhythm after the first half. I may not have understood what was going on for a good chunk of the time (which Thomas is speaking? to which Duke of which country?), but it grew on me. I like a challenge.

Levi: I remember you started off pretty wary of the book, while I liked the opening parts about Thomas’ young life. You said you were waiting to get to page 100 before you decided whether or not to go on. I think that’s a fair maxim for any book. Then the tables kind of turned and you got in the groove while I struggled a bit. I have to say it was one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a while. I was determined not to lose the flow once I got going, for fear of putting it down and not picking it back up again.

Laura: Very true. I picked up a different book while in the middle of this one (a mistake), and was unwilling to change pace so drastically. I may have found the beginning of the book so-so, but it I think it was necessary to study the details of his childhood after all. It was difficult to judge his character throughout the book, but knowing some tidbits of his rocky upbringing helped piece things together. I heard you compare Cromwell to Petyr Baelish at one point. Do you stand by that, and would you declare him as an evil person or merely selfish in his ambitions?

Levi: So, Thomas Cromwell. He’s made out to be a sympathetic character, if perhaps a bit callous at times, a bit opportunistic. He’s far less evil than Petyr Baelish (or Frank Underwood, which was another passing comparison), but he does know how to climb that ladder. He says how the important changes in history occur between two men in a dark room, or over the transactions of a bank counter, instead of on the battlefield. It seems like a Baelish type of outlook on life. If you come from low birth, you have to use your wits to place yourself amongst royalty. Had you heard of him before this book?

Laura: I had, but I wouldn’t have been able to place him. I would have guessed him to be some lord or bishop, but it seems his role was much more complex. I agree that he was certainly a scheming fellow (even if that’s all I see in comparison to those other characters). He once made a comment to his son about what good was planning for the far off future if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow. It was as though a game of chess was being played, and instead of him being a piece, he was the player, advancing one move at a time. And who better to compete against him but the formidable Thomas More?

Levi: Wow, Sir Thomas More (he of Utopia fame). What an ass! I had no idea. He was all about torture, the strictest type of guy you could imagine. Thought himself on a righteous path of course. Cromwell mentioned, “This is what you forget, this vehemence,” if you let your guard down around More. These two played the long game against each other. Yet for all their rivalry, there was some admiration between them as well. It seems like More was respected in a lot of educated circles, so maybe Cromwell grew up knowing him as a respectable guy. More increasingly becomes a bigger part of the book, and it plays out all the way through to the end.

So let’s get to some other core people in the huge cast. The names can get really tricky when they repeat. Henry, Mary, Anne, Thomas (“half the world is called Thomas”). There are multiples of all those, but I suppose the important ones are Henry VIII, Mary Boleyn, and Anne Boleyn. What do you think of that crew? What did you think of them before Wolf Hall?

Laura: Oh, Henry. I was most surprised by his portrayal as a likable, humble guy who had merely fallen in love with Anne Bolelyn and wished to marry her at (almost) any cost. He was not nearly as much of a self-righteous horn-dog as I grew up believing him to be. At least, not in the years written about in Wolf Hall. He seemed to have some desire to do right by England and his ultimate ruler, God, before Cromwell worked his magic by convincing him to declare himself head of the church. Anne Boleyn is a totally different story — what do you think made Henry so susceptible to Anne’s seductions, when everyone else could see right through her tricky, snake-like ways?

Levi: I couldn’t begin to fathom the mind of a king. It’s got to be a lonely existence — never physically, since you have chamber assistants who are there to hand you toilet paper — but because you can never truly confide in anyone. Then you have the stupid rule-by-succession thing which has everyone praying for sons. So Henry’s in the middle of this mess where he has the weight of an entire people on his shoulders, plus his own desires to be a good king (and be a good king = keep it in the family name by having a male heir). Add to that the religious burden, and I’m surprised he doesn’t jump out of a high window. Good thing Cromwell is there to take Cardinal Wolsey’s place (another Thomas!) as close advisor. He basically does all the king’s work for him, like try to keep Anne in line. I don’t really have any particular opinion about Anne, though it’s hard to comprehend a woman’s life back then, even a royal one. It seems like you’d always be a step away from complete failure, so I can see why you’d be ready to seize the moment.

Laura: She was absolutely the most interesting character to me. She was the catalyst that drove Henry to totally reform the church with the flick of her eyelashes. But more than that, she was cold and calculating. You wonder if she ever had any true affection for anybody but herself, and poor Henry Percy. She was so close to being discovered as “soiled goods” when Percy revealed their romance to the court, but he was as good as swept under a rug once Cromwell got a hold of him. How ridiculous to think that the topic of a woman’s virginity once had a place in the court. Before I go off on a tangent, let’s get back to Cromwell. Let’s not forget about his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, which occupied much of the front half of the book. Why do you think Cromwell was so attached to Wolsey right up until his death? I wonder if he thought of him more as a father figure than a client. Which also makes me wonder — who did Cromwell love in his life, and do you think that his losses made him more or less sympathetic in his affairs in the court?

Levi: Cromwell and the Cardinal, what a pair. Listening to them talk was like hearing the two cleverest people in the room trade words, while also being entirely devoted to one other. Cardinal. Where does that sit? Higher than bishop?

Laura: Isn’t a Cardinal right below the Pope?

Levi: Sure, I guess. All I can think of is the Cardinal Zins wine we found while reading this book. Anyway, it seems Cromwell was meant to serve. He liked to be useful, and he was great at what he did under Wolsey, and Wolsey wasn’t cruel, so it made for a good living. He probably loved both Wolsey and Henry to some degree, but I think Mantel made it clear that he also loved his wife (second wife?) and children. They didn’t all get a lot of time in the book, but he seemed to care for them.

So yes, I think Cromwell learned some sympathy. He was a great people reader. He didn’t seem overly malicious. But definitely manipulative when he needed to be.

Laura: Interesting. I would argue that he is less sympathetic after the tragedies of his home life. Later in the book, after he has lost almost everyone he loves, he ponders, “What is life but affairs?” and realizes that his home is where there is business with the king. So what is Cromwell’s ultimate goal? To realize a personal vision of some sort, or simply to please the king? I suppose that is what we have to look forward to in the next book of the trilogy.

Levi: Are you prepared for two more books of this density?

Laura: Have at me. Can’t wait to see who loses their head next!

Levi: Or who ends up in the Tower! Well, the next one is called Bring Up the Bodies, so I doubt you’ll be disappointed. I’ll tag along. I’m becoming a bit more enamored of English stories these days.

Laura: By the time I’m through with you, you’ll be a full on Anglophile like myself. Let’s start saving up for those tickets to London…

Levi: They do pounds, right? I still have a lot to learn. We need an accountant like Cromwell to shift some figures around, then we’ll be off.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in Novels

 

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The Casual Vacancy

Author: J.K. Rowling

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2012

Laura read it: August 2014

casual

I am pleased to introduce Laura Byers for my first guest review. It was originally published on Levi & Laura.

As the UK’s best-selling author of our time, J.K. Rowling knew there would be high expectations for her first non-children’s novel. Luckily, she met them. I was impressed at her talent for creating a not-so-idyllic small town and its colorful cast of characters that made this one a page-turner.

The Casual Vacancy takes place in the English village of Pagford, where gossip is the way of life. The sudden death of the beloved Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town’s local council, leaves the citizens to recover and the vacant political seat to be filled. In the process, members of the community turn against each other and a war ensues. It’s not just prospective council members who are battling it out though. Married couples, parents and children, in-laws, old friends – it seems everyone has a bone to pick with somebody.

The story is told from several different perspectives. From the self-declared “First Citizens” right down to the people of The Fields – the rundown, drug-ridden area just outside of Pagford. The anglophile in me was satisfied with Rowling’s writings of the English countryside, cobblestone and flower pots, and quaint village shops. However, I also appreciated the brutally honest representations of each main character. Indeed no person is flawless, and it is refreshing in a way. You’ll find yourself disgusted, ashamed, and embarrassed for these folks, and at the same time you will root for each one of their selfish causes. You may even find that you relate to some of these characters in more ways than one.

Unlike her previous novels, there are no supernatural elements in the story. There are, however, plenty of coming-of-age plot lines which are all well worth the read. Rowling also nailed each adult character (the drug-addicted mother and her rebellious teenage daughter, the lonely 40-something salesman, the unsatisfied wives) with such precision that you wonder how many personal experiences she pulls from. If you’re a Harry Potter fan looking for a grown-up Rowling novel, you’ve found it. Get ready for a darkly entertaining novel.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2014 in Novels

 

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Author: Karen Russell

Type: Fiction, short stories

Full title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories

Published: 2013

I read it: August 2014

vampires

I was struck by the title story when I first read it in one of the Best American Short Stories collections, and always wanted to return to the warm Italian glow of that tale. It was one I had catalogued in my mind as “vampire tale; unique” which are fun to collect (I Am Legend sits up on that shelf as well). This take is more melancholy than dangerous, but still keeps the legendary feel of the creatures.

Although I liked Swamplandia! I was eager to get back to the Karen Russell I knew from shorter fiction. The collection only has eight stories, though a few are long enough that the whole comes in at well over 200 pages. Several of the stories go for the outright strange, relying on electric premises the reader must trust will hold true. “Reeling for the Empire” tells of women coerced into slave labor to the point they become physical silkworms, until one of them ponders a rebellious act. It’s physical and dreamlike. Even stranger is “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which select former U.S. presidents are reincarnated into the bodies of horses housed in neighboring stalls–yet who retain the minds and desires of the actual presidents themselves. It’s amusing and surprisingly works (and has to be fun for the author, like similar tales of imagined conversations between presidents).

Each story has something of the fantastical; the differences come down to amount and execution. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is an unfortunate misstep, more of a sketch than a story. It’s not clear what the tailgating is truly for, or whether or not the human characters live in our timeline or some imagined future. A bummer, really, because I do appreciate any Antarctic setting. Another story that falls a little flat is “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979.” It’s a somewhat straightforward tale of teenage wandering, first love, and familial frustration. Russell wants to do something important with the seagulls, but we are left with scraps.

The best pieces maintain a strong undercurrent of otherworldly tension. “The New Veterans” is a capable interpretation of what regret and memory means to a modern soldier come home, and the masseuse who attempts to help him recover. It drags a bit but is full of life and depth. An even better example of the author’s skill comes through in “Proving Up,” set amidst early American homesteading. The life of a family struggling to create an identity around house and home in the harsh Midwest feels alien yet tangible, with good drama that edges on horror.

The best story may be the last, because it has that delicate Russell balance of grounded and unreal. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is the story you came for: it grabs from the first unsettling descriptions of a scarecrow, as told through the remembrances of a high school boy. The murky humanity explored throughout is fodder for a fall day, and does for scarecrows what “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” does for its title creatures. These two stories are great bookends to a strange, colorful, challenging collection of stories, which is what I had hoped to experience. I’m confident Karen Russell will continue to come into her own.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Short stories

 

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