Anthology Review: Strange Medicine by Mike Russell

Strange MedicineStrange Medicine by Mike Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the author’s sophomore collection, following the highly enjoyable and equally absurdist Nothing Is Strange. Like its predecessor, “[t]his collection of absurdist vignettes follows in the footsteps of James Thurber, Bohumil Hrabal, and Donald Barthelme in offering social commentary on the modern human condition while riding the line between allegory and surrealism.”

If anything, this collection is tighter in its voice and subject matter. It’s equal parts “Man vs the Universe” and “Relationships between People.” Indeed, one vignette is titled “Dr. Dennis and the Universe” which contains perhaps the most quotable one-line of the entire collection with the thrice-repeated:

Sometimes the suffering of one individual is so great that it renders unjustifiable any purpose that the universe could possibly have.

Grief has never been better summarized.

Another tale seems to poignantly comment on today’s current American political mantra:

” . . . one has to adjust one’s beliefs if they are contradicted by evidence presented, doesn’t one?”

“No,” the Professor said, “one does not. I will never have to adjust my beliefs because my beliefs are correct. If evidence is ever presented that appears to contradict my beliefs, I can assure you that it will be the evidence that is at fault and not my beliefs.”

[from “Brain”]

My favorite tale was the allegorical, heart-warming/heart-breaking “Seventy-Two Bricks.” An engaged couple, Geoffrey and Tiffany, come across a seemingly misplaced bridge constructed of 72 bricks. Tiffany’s perplexed, but Geoffrey quickly finds two items laying at opposite ends of the bridge. He finds comfort in figuring out a connection between the disparate objects. Later that day, elsewhere, they find an identical bridge, and again two items at either end. Geoffrey notes the categorical connection, while Tiffany finds their initials right where she’d etched them into the first bridge.

Weeks later, the couple find a wall constructed of 72 bricks. Two items lie separated by the wall. And most curiously, the couple’s initials are etched into one of the bricks. Geoffrey despairs at not being able to determine the categorical connection between the 2 items and confesses that he has seen said bridges and walls his entire life. The bridges always cheer him, while the walls depress him. Not wanting to see her beloved despairing, Tiffany sets herself to the task of finding a categorical connection between the objects. When she does so, the wall transforms . . .

This collection is recommended. I received my copy of the collection directly from Strange Books through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Filamo” by Irenosen Okojie

2 of 5 stars.

Absurdism has a literary place for providing a neutral landscape by which to present social commentary. The absurdist landscape still has rules, even if they aren’t this world’s rules. And those stories still have trajectories and outcomes.

This one doesn’t offer those very things that provide entry into the story and a means to make sense of it. It explains itself as “a madness” which it offers in spades. But the madness itself follows no rules and isn’t limited to a single individual having a drug or psychological diversion. It merely piles on dysmorphic and amputational irrationalities without an endgame.

. . . he found himself stumbling outside into the grounds, disrobing by the darkened stream gleaming in the night. Naked, covered in bite marks, he hunched down to catch things from the water; Siamese green lizards who shared an Adam’s apple, a piece of jabuticaba fruit which grew another layer of purple skin each time you touched it, one cherub whose eyes had blackened from things it had witnessed upstream, a lung wrapped in cling film. Surrounded by his discontented small audience, Dom Emmanuel removed the cling film, crying as he ate flesh. It tasted like a man he once paid four gold coins in Tenochtitlan to keep him company, to be rough then tender with him afterwards, who had stuck his curious tongue into his armpits as if digging for his body’s secrets using a pliable instrument.

The images themselves are evocative. However, they never add up. Nor is the madness confined to just Dom Emmanuel, but rather to the entire Abbey and the saints that visit it. If only the tale offered a why.

This tale appears in the anthology An Unreliable Guide to London by Influx Press, London. I received my copy of this anthology directly from one of the contributing authors through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Record of a Growth” by Fanny Charrasse

3 of 5 stars.

Paranoia taints one’s view of the world. It can lead to second-guessing what one experiences and obsessing over the details. Schizophrenic paranoia takes that to another level with the entire baseline for reality getting reset.

This tale lies along the paranoia spectrum as at first Phil is only slightly annoyed by his girlfriend’s obsession with a mole on her belly that she thinks is growing. She wants him to measure it, but he mockingly measures a red stain on the wall that he claims to be worried about.

A few days later, the stain on the wall catches Phil’s attention–it does indeed look bigger, much bigger. Then, he starts to notice red stains everywhere. More each day . . .

While considered sci-fi by the author and publisher, I’d classify this tale as absurdism or horror-lite. There are no social context clues as to the framework of society merely a close-up on Phil’s world. Sci-fi usually hints at the larger state of the world or society.

This tale appears in the magazine Blindspot: Testing Reality, Issue #1 by the founders of Angle Mort. Their mission is to translate French science fiction into English to bridge the American and French science fiction communities. I received my copy of this issue directly from one of the editors through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “In Pursuit of the Swan at Brentford Ait” by Eley Williams

3 of 5 stars.

One-off creatures of urban legend and local folklore, such as Bigfoot, yeti, and Nessie, have fascinated and perhaps terrified humans for millennia. While most lurk at the darker edges of society where detection could conceivably be avoided, others loom large in urban alleys.

This tale of fictional nonfiction is the research of an amateur crytozoologist seeking the proof for a horse-or-house sized swan of pink-to-purple plummage haunting the islands of West London. He draws from accounts and conjecture spanning hundreds of years as proof of witness. He also cites scientific studies that could explain the evolution of said creature or a biological explanation for the day-glo feathers. As with many legends, supernatural conjecture also comes into play as if scientific proof weren’t enough, or all sources were considered equal.

Most of all, this tale embeds a subtle humor lost on the narrator:

It was lucky that I lost my job so that I could devote all my time to my research, and luckier still that I was able to commit a whole extra room to my studies and to the paperwork once my wife left me. It is from here that I can make my phone calls, and fax my evidence on to the appropriate authorities.

This tale appears in the anthology An Unreliable Guide to London by Influx Press, London. I received my copy of this anthology directly from one of the contributing authors through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild” by Catherynne M. Valente

The Long Goodnight of Violet WildThe Long Goodnight of Violet Wild by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a subject, Death is often treated with allegory–and sometimes even absurdist allegory. This cloying tale wraps itself in cleverness making no bones about being absurdist and allegorical. While some images work–such as metaphysical, purple squirrels pregnant with possible futures–most of the tale reads as an ungrounded Suessical nightmare.

Violet lives in the Purple Country where everything and everyone is a shade of purple and named after a shade of purple. Her best friend, and paramour, Orchid, is taken from her by the time-space squirrels as all lovers are eventually fated to be parted by time. Violet takes on a journey across the rainbow of countries with her mammoth and unicorn to find Orchid and bring him back from death.

The representational aspect of language and metaphor changes across the countries with “loved one” variously meaning “needed one”, “one she’d eat”, “one she’d kill”, “hated one” and sometimes even straight forwardly meaning “loved one.” Emotions and concepts of money, tears, time, sorrow, stories etc. all flux in their symbolism. The cleverness is saccharine.

This tale appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016 edited by Rich Horton, which I received directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read Valente’s “A Delicate Architecture”, “The Lily and the Horn”, “Palimpsest”, and “Urchins, While Swimming”.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club” by Nike Sulway

3 of 5 stars.

Two bright bangles on an arm clang, a single bangle is silent, wander alone like a rhinoceros.

Khargavisana-sutra [the Rhinoceros Sutra] c.29 BCE

Where fantasy and realism tumble, absurdism lies in wait. Like the iconic Walter Mitty of The Thurber Carnival and Don Quixote, some go through life deeply in their own heads allowing their fantasies to color their realities. In this quixotic tale, a woman’s mantras, all taken from the The Rhinoceros Sutra, lead her to the same conclusion . . . wander alone like a rhinoceros. The tale intermittently describes the characters as doing normal things, such as baking, and writing and patronizing [and running, in Clara’s case] cafes and the characters as rhinos with grey, thick skin and plodding legs as they wallow in mud or recline in pasture.

Seeing the danger that comes from affection, wander alone like a rhinoceros.

Clara attends the Karen Joy Fowler Book Club, not that they’ve managed to meet yet, nor even to finish a book yet, but it’s a club never-the-less. When she pens a short story of her own, not a single reading club member can manage to peruse the tale, which is just typical. Life plods along like this all the time for Clara.

She’s neither estranged nor deeply connected to anybody. Her ex-husband has moved on to a new female. Her daughter lives close but when the daughter’s husband dies, it takes Clara nearly 6 months to find out. And then there’s her “friendship” with the reading circle that doesn’t meet. She does come close to bonding with one member, Belle. They go into business together running a cafe, and even become occasional lovers. But there’s something amiss amid all of the alone-ness. Could it be the looming, unavoidable extinction of the rhinoceros?

Give up your children, and your wives, and your money, wander alone like a rhinoceros.

This tale appears in a couple “best of” anthologies. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 10 edited by Jonathan Strahan, I received from Netgalley. The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016 edited by Rich Horton, I received directly from Prime Books.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Dinosaur Dreams in Infinite Measure” by Rachael K. Jones

3 of 5 stars.

Family relationships are messy things spanning years and an accumulation of micro-events. They get even messier when the traditional parent-child relationship turns on its head and decades-old roles upend. These themes are expressed in an absurdist landscape here as the narrator goes to her mother’s expensive-to-maintain, unmanned farm with its house crammed full of mementos and dinosaur paraphernalia in an effort to prepare it to be put on the market.

The mother is a retired geneticist that worked corporately but maintained as interest in dinosaurs that she fostered in her daughter. The daughter finds the house not ready to be shown, the mother not ready to move on in the least. Frustrated, she goes outside to find her mother’s yard full of dinosaurs–living ones.

The mother reveals her secret dinosaur-making machine that recycles junk into dinosaurs. Together, the duo empty the house of decades of accumulation to create a menagerie of ancient wonders . . .

This contest-winning tale appears in Writers of the Future 32 edited by David Farland. It’s illustrated by contest-winning artist, Preston Stone. I received this new anthology from Netgalley.

 
 
 
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