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The Furs had been married seven years but had no children, a situation in those fecund days that caused them both grief. Mizpah was a little cracked on the subject and traded one of Bill’s good shirts to a passing emigrant wagon for a baby pig, which she dressed in swaddling clothes and fed from a nipple-fitted bottle that had once contained Wilfee’s Equine Liniment & Spanish Pain Destroyer but now held milk from the Furs’ unhappy cow – an object of attention from range bulls, rustlers and roundup cowboys, who spent much of her time hiding in a nearby cave. The piglet one day tripped over the hem of the swaddling dress and was carried off by a golden eagle.

Another first for me – I have never read Annie Proulx before today. I must confess that was a deliberate choice. I have some sympathy with the likes of B.R. Myers, who has argued that as a novelist she is representative of a certain turn away from genre fiction, yet another literati exploring the faultlines left by Woolf and Joyce with modernism.

On the other hand, I figured a book of short stories would be an interesting introduction to her style, that should it prove not to my liking, could be dispensed with quickly.

Fine Just The Way It Is I understand is another in a series of books by Proulx about ordinary folk living in countryside  Wyoming. The tales featured here are set in various periods of American history, although two relate to the adventures of the Devil and his personal secretary, satirical visions of a Hell that is not all that far removed from the world we know.

Family Man opens the proceedings with a tale set in the present-day of an elderly man being visited in a retirement home by a young relation. She hopes to record his memories of their family’s past, something he only agrees to do with the understanding that this will be a true account of what happened, not some sentimental memoir. His life has led him to The Mellowhorn Home, with its insistence on group activities and a lack of privacy. One of the nurses even eavesdrops on Roy Forkenbrock’s account of his past. Ultimately his experiences, the history of his family (and the painful secret he chooses to unburden himself of) becomes just another trivial story, swamped in an age of sensationalist reality television.

Them Old Cowboy Songs returns to the pioneer era of 1885. A young couple make a stake on a plot of land and the man goes off to find work, leaving his wife Rose behind, pregnant and alone. The story opens with a chilling note that many folk who lived in these times ‘had short runs and were quickly forgotten.’ It makes for a timely warning as to the couple’s fates and the random dangers of the wild country. Testimony of the Donkey skips back to the present day and has another couple, this time separated by a spurious argument, with one of them leaving to hike on a mountainous trail by herself. What follows is a horrific description of the human body being subjected to exposure and crippling thirst.

Proulx has a reputation as an archivist of an idea of America, like McCarthy, unveiling some notional ‘true history’, of the country through the prism of fiction. Whether it be the cost of isolation on the pioneers, the prevalence of homosexuality among men left to themselves, or the slow erosion of identity caused by modernity. It is easy to see why her stories have proved so popular with Hollywood. She is offering a counter-point to their own mythology of the Old West, a shock to cinema-audiences who have grown bored with stories of cheerful manifest destiny.

So it was some surprise to encounter fantastical stories thrown into the mix here. There are the aforementioned ‘Devil’, interludes, I’ve Always Loved This Place & Swamp Mischief, as well as the bizarre The Sagebrush Kid, which is quoted above and slowly drifts into horror fiction.

Even when her stories fail to keep me gripped throughout, in each I found at least a momentary shock, a passage that impresses with its callousness, or randomness.

The jury is out. I am eager to learn more about Proulx.

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All passion in the end enslaves you, and if I felt in bondage to Bach and music at that time, it was because I still had doubts about my ability to make beautiful music each time I decided to play.

(taken from ‘bach (pau) in love’ by Subhas Jaireth)

I am sick and tired of hearing about the ‘death of the short story’. To my mind short fiction is in very rude health, having already colonised the virtual plains of the internet years before the lumbering novel woke up to the danger posed to the physical book by online writing. The e-book  represents an opportunity for poets and authors to be more radical, to present their ideas in a new, novel format that does not carry the same expectations as the physical novel.

Etchings, published by Ilura Press, is an excellent showcase for up-and-coming writers and artists. Like many anthologies it does not limit itself to a certain genre, but it also pieces on art, photography, interviews and book reviews. Seeing as the cover image for this issue is Adam Elliott‘s Mary and Max, I will lead off with Janelle Moran’s interview with the film-maker. It treats not only of Elliott’s career as a storyteller/animator/director (he pauses to query how exactly he should describe himself given his many roles), but of the processes involved in launching a career as an independent in today’s film industry, as well as his pride for Melbourne and its artistic reputation. The interview itself is a very insightful and enjoyable one, as the subject gives very generous material, explaining that he looks forward to interviews as a form of ‘free therapy’.

For the most part Etchings showcases poems and short fiction from a range of international authors. Subhas Jaireth’s tale, quoted from above, is a delicate and sensitive investigation of mortality and artistic legacy, with the life of Bach becoming a fascination for two men. Kafkaesque by Nora Nadjarian is itself both a pastiche of Franz Kafka’s paranoiac Freudian fiction, as well as a short mediatation on his literary legacy. I have always hated the adjective ‘kafkaesque’, which brings to mind a Robert Crumb drawing of tourists in Prague wearing t-shirts with a profile of Kafka on them. Yet Najarian’s choice of title is perfect:

The man said: Let me tell you this. I am the reincarnation of Franz Kafka.

I believed him because his ears were pointed and his voice was melancholy.

Simonne Michelle-Wells presents a story on body dismorphia, Catching the Drops, which explores not only the suffering caused by the condition, but the degrees of deceit routinely employed against family members. The story ends on a surprisingly surreal note more in common with horror fiction. It Could Have Been Any Party by Amelia Schmidt also mines tropes of body horror, reminiscent of Brian Yuzna’s Society, or William Gibson‘s The Belonging Kind.  Alice Godwin’s The Apothecary is more magic realism than horror, but excels at achieving a surreal sense of disturbance. Out of the stories on offer, Godwin’s is my pick of the bunch.

toy heart charnel house by Autumn Christian is both fantastical and melancholic, describing a family wracked by the suicide of a child in a futuristic setting. A process known as ‘reconstruction’, has been invented, designed to help the grieving process by rendering the personalities of the dead into a artificial body construct. This of course only introduces more problems:

One of my co-workers told me once that there’s this syndrome where people think members of their family are being replaced by impostors. It’s called Capgras syndrome. Ever since we started reconstructing people, the frequency has skyrocketed.

What does that mean.

It means nobody is really who we think they are, and we know it.

The poetry collected here is also notable for the delicate imagery on show. Kevin O’Cuinn’s Untitled #11 describes the creeping dischord that can enter into relationships, with little resentments building into a divide between partners. He ends a description of an uneasy night spent in bed with the image:

a today will

appear in the window

like an uninvited guest

Anthony Noack’s Milk is beautifully understated and unpretentious in its sense of wonder. It made my wife smile when I read it out, so thank you Mr Noack.

Etchings is an excellent series, a welcome showcase for some excellent writers and artists and comes strongly recommended. With thanks to Ilura Press for my review copy.

‘I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!’

I think Steve Aylett inoculated me. Like Burroughs, once you read him your brain changes by increments. This is why I always liked Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Actually Daniel Dennett gave it much better expression, describing memes as a host of larvae in your brain that grow and develop into new viral ideas. This astonishingly disgusting image nails the idea behind ‘infectious culture’.

Welcome to my long-winded digression! Aylett infected me and now I am ready for George Saunders’ own invocation of manically surreal humour.

My edition is actually features the title novella, as well as a collection of short stories gathered under the banner In Persuasion.

The initial story describes the rabid assent of the eponymous Phil, a tyrant in waiting whose hatred of the bookish and weak-limbed ‘Inner Hornerites’, leads him to form a border militia of ‘Outer Hornerites’, who enforce an ever shrinking border surrounding their neighbours, demanding more punitive taxes each day. While the number of patriots called to his cause do not outnumber the Inner Hornerites, they are strong and tall, having been raised in the wide open spaces of Outer Horner.

They are also not strictly speaking human. While never fully described the peoples of Inner and Outer Horner are mentioned to have vents, or exhaust shuts, or in the case of the senile President, several moustaches. Phil himself is given to loud, stentorious speeches about patriotism and values and the threat posed by the limp wristed Inner Hornerites, especially when his brain slides down a large rack affixed to his body. What manner of beast is this?

George Saunders is dealing with overt political satire here, but in a refreshingly pretension free, absurdist manner. The story feels like a depressed Terry Gilliam run amok on the Monty Python opening credits. There is anger expressed, but couched in deceptively manic and lurid imagery.

This is a style that Saunders continues to employ in the following short stories in this edition. my flamboyant grandson features an elderly grandfather just trying to give his grandson an entertaining evening on Broadway, but frustrated by run a gauntlet of invasive holographic advertising. I remember Steven Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report featured a similar scene of Tom Cruise finding himself assaulted by images of products and brands. The difference being Spielberg’s depiction seemed almost excited at the prospect of such augmented reality tech. Saunders portrays it as an affliction.

jon also tackles the increasingly dominate role advertising culture plays in our lives, once again depicting a future society ruled by images of comfort and excess. Here two lovers question whether their lives as commercial role models as any future for them as a family, as a part of a system that has no interest in the young life they are hoping to create. brad carrigan, american goes even further again, where television shows feature live action participants, at the mercy of reality altering ‘programmers’.

Throughout the collection there can be found a weary absurdism, a low mocking tone that fails to disguise a growing sense of despair at the future waiting for us.

I recommend a crash course in Burroughs, or Aylett first, however. Make sure you take your memetic shots.

Every story here has been a passion. Every story here has been written because I had to write it. Writing stories is like breathing to me. I watch: I get an idea, fall in love with it, and try not to think too much about it. I then write: I let the story pour forth onto the paper as soon as possible.

I actually regret choosing this book for the Book A Day challenge. Bradbury is a fine, literate writer, worthy of anyone’s time. However, as a collection of short stories We’ll Always Have Paris is a book that should be read slowly, instead of ploughing through as one might a novel. A short story should be given time enough to breathe and even be read a second time so that none of its nuances are lost. Maybe I should have read the whole thing twice, so. We’ll Always Have Paris is a great introduction to Bradbury for those who are yet to discover him. Known for his science fiction classic The Martian Chronicles or his dark fairy tale Something Wicked This Way Comes, this collection offers more neutral fare with tales of strained marriages, mysterious old men, troubled priests and affairs over mixed tennis.

There is often a surreal tone to these stories, with ordinary lives made strange by small occurrences and random events. Arrival and Departure simply describes an elderly couple swept away by enthusiastic plans for a night out. Hours pass. And they’re back into the same old routine. Troubled marriages are a recurring trope within the collection. Ma Perkins Comes to Stay takes a relationship straining due to emotional neglect and ends with the fantasy lives of lonely souls around America replacing reality. Un-pillow Talk features a friendship that has taken a wrong turn into an affair, and Doubles uses tennis as a metaphor for infidelity. While, the title story, We’ll Always Have Paris, has a married man encounter a stalker of an unusual stripe in the city of romance.

Bradbury mentions in his introduction that his favourite story of the bunch is the first Massinello Pietro, which he has dedicated to an acquaintance. It is a bittersweet retelling of actual events, with an old man being threatened with eviction due to his menagerie of exotic pets and habit of playing old records loudly in the middle of the night. Personally, I enjoyed Pater Caninus, an amusing fable about two priests and a very devout…dog. It has just the right amount of the uncanny. There is a world-weary tone to these stories, with an undercurrent of loss and missed opportunities. Fairy tale romances end with objective certainty but here, life with a loving partner is filled with doubt.

Bradbury is a master story teller who redefined American fantasy and science fiction by injecting it with literary style and well-developed plotting. His influence can be seen in contemporary writers such as Kelly Link, Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. Each of them has followed his lead in taking genres known for identikit plots and cardboard cut-out characters and introducing a note of the sublime. In short, Bradbury taught science fiction and fantasy some self-respect.

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