I’ve been on one of those reading streaks where it seems like every book I pick up is flat out amazing. Lucky me!
Karen Joy Fowler’s WHAT I DIDN’T SEE is a fantastic, genre-bending short story collection from Small Beer Press. The first story “The Pelican Bar” (winner of last year’s Shirley Jackson Awards for best short story) is a punch to the gut. A bratty teen is taken away to a far away island for re-education (I almos typed, re-Neducation, a reference to a SIMPSONS treehouse of horror episode, but I stopped, because it would’ve shown how sad I am with always refering to the Simpsons…). It’s one of the most disturbing stories I’ve read in a long time. Other favorites include “Always,” the first person account of a woman who joined a cult with a leader who promises everlasting life; “Booth’s Ghost,” one of two stories that feature John Wilkes Booth; “King Rat,” a breif but harrowing story about a missng boy and the bus ride his father takes to look for him; and the stunning title piece, “What I Didn’t See,” which is a story about the first European woman to see a gorilla in the wild and what she wasn’t allowed to see. Fowler’s characters are vivid, the fantasical elements (when used) are subtle, used in a way to heighten the tension and the story’s core of realism as well. I’m very impressed, and wish I was good enough to write more than a few of these stories.
Mat Johnson’s novel PYM is a revelation. Chris Jaynes is a professor of African American studies at a small white college, but is denied tenure because he won’t be the token black on the Diversity Committe and he wants to teach Edgar Allen Poe in an attempt to find the root of Whiteness. He finds a slave narrative that seems to prove Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a fictionalized account of true events. Jaynes then takes a small, all African American crew down to Antartica to search for the lost island of Tsalal (a lost island of black people desrcibed by Poe in PYM). They get waylaid by Poe’s white Yeti-monsters instead! Part biting social and racial commentary, part satire/comedy, part adventure/horror story, part academic treatise, PYM is an utterly original novel. One so original, it shows there might just be some hope for big publishing. PYM is brilliant, brazen, fearless, angry, funny, weird, and totally unlike anything else you’ve read.