Got Me Wrong by Kevin Akstin

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  Got Me Wrong

Author:  Kevin Akstin

Type of Book:  Fiction, short story collection, gently weird

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  It’s not the full-bore weird I generally discuss on this site, but it is one of those books that is neither fish nor fowl.  It’s not lit fic but it’s not wholly experimental.  Complete inability to classify a work is often a very good sign it is strange in some manner.

Availability:  Self-published on the Lulu platform in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  Before I begin this discussion, I want to point something out about this self-published book:  it is far better edited than most books that come from small and even large publishers.  When I received this book in the mail and saw it was self-published, I had a small twinge of trepidation before reading it.  My distaste for the increasingly slap-dash efforts that go into editing books is hopefully well-known by now and I feared I would have to gently tell yet another aspiring writer that I could not discuss his or her book because the editing was so bad all I would be able to do would be to savage it.  Sometimes I like savaging books, but most of the time I don’t enjoy it and will not throw the same disgust I lob at say, Edward Lee, at a new and struggling writer.  It was such a relief that such concerns did not play out with Akstin’s book.  It is impeccably edited.  Some of the spacing and indentations in my copy are a bit off but when the grammar is spot on, I can overlook wonky paragraph alignment.

One day I will weaken and stop beating this drum, but reading poorly edited books is a chore.  I don’t like it when reading is a chore.  Proper editing elevates even the most mundane novels and it certainly helped Akstin’s  stories.  Akstin’s writing style is not one that I am fond of, but clean writing goes a long way in making even that which is not my cup of tea something I am willing to drink.  Though I think these stories would have been more memorable had there been more immediacy, I can also admit that applying my specific tastes to these stories and finding them lacking would be a disservice to Akstin’s goal because even as he writes of miserable, desperate people, he is telling the stories of very disconnected people.  Immediacy and emotional depth would have spoiled that necessary disconnection.  This book is full of addiction, fault memory, aborted and lost children, and brutal fights, and the muffled way the characters experience these traumas ring as distant as a Carver story but without the minimalism.

When I read this collection, I didn’t feel kinship with the stories. Despite having a glimpse into the lives of strangers, at times intimate looks, I never felt like a voyeur, looking through windows with a telescope.  I felt like a clinician peering at slides under a microscope. It’s the distance in the prose that created that feeling.  In this collection of 16 stories, Akstin presents a common theme of madness, guilt and a great desire for atonement with a creepiness that permeates all the stories.  What made these stories interesting is that even as you feel like a dispassionate observer, there is a maddening yet compelling fuzziness to some of his endings that forces you to interpret the story, further driving home that reading his work is an act of interpretation, not connection.  You are looking at the disease cells under a slide, not talking to the patient.

There were a few stories in the collection, as in all short story collections, that worked better than others.  To keep this from becoming overlong, I’ll limit myself to the stories I liked best.  Be warned: there will be spoilers.

Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Museum of the Weird

Author: Amelia Gray

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, flash fiction, bizarro, gently weird

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because the stories, if not technically classified as bizarro, are bizarro nonetheless. And when they aren’t bizarro, they are gently weird.  Sometimes outright weird.

Availability: Published by The University of Alabama Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I have a favorable disposition toward women named Amelia. I knew a girl in high school named Amelia Beebe and she was one of the most interesting people in high school, but whitebread suburban high school experiences being what they are, I don’t think she and others realized it. I also have a favorable disposition toward those who love cats and the first entry I saw on Gray’s blog was a discussion of losing a kitty to feline leukemia. We lost a kitty to the dread disease and my heart bled for her, reading that entry.

Lest you think I am going to give this book a favorable review because of my various favorable dispositions, please note that I did not know about the cats before I started writing this review, and already had my opinion about the book pretty well formed. Of course I knew her name is Amelia before I began discussing the book, but since I can find it in myself to detest writers with my own name, her name played into my decision calculus hardly at all.

It is her writing that ensured a rave review. Fanciful, strange, unsettling, oddly sweet, vaguely sickening, amusingly awkward, Gray has a writing style that ensured I went back and reread a couple of stories immediately after finishing the book, just because they were that good.

There isn’t a bad story in this collection, and my innate hypergraphia is taking a nap at the moment, so I will just focus on the best of the bunch.

Let’s begin with “Waste.” This was one of those stories that, as I read it, made me feel like I was going a little insane. It’s a strange piece that I found compelling despite the fact that I find eating pig horrifying. Perhaps I liked the story because Gray’s characters explore the whole, “when does it stop being pig and become pork.” A man who works collecting medical waste from doctors’ offices shares odd culinary experiences with his neighbor, a woman with lovely collarbones who works as a line cook in a vegetarian restaurant. Olive is an exotic foodie, creating culinary experiences out of the strangest meats, making a sickening but sweet sacrifice that Roger may not wholly appreciate but at least his experiences with medical waste gave him the stomach to cope. As a woman who loves to cook, is meat-shy, and given to feeling deep disgust for any body process that would require a medical waste pick-up, it was unusual how much I enjoyed this story. Sometimes I enjoy having my disgust pinged, I guess.

Food horror actually played a significant role in this collection. In “Dinner” a woman finds herself with the unenviable task of eating a plate of hair in order to ensure her relationship continues smoothly, even though no one particularly knows why the plate of hair is on the table or even why it is important. A short, short story, this read more like the retelling of an unsettling dream than a story, a dream I have not had myself yet understood.

This dream-like element to storytelling continues in “A Javelina Story” wherein a hostage negotiator finds himself paired with five javelinas at a hostage scene wherein boy scouts are tied to chairs. The pigs just want to eat, the hostage-taker misinterprets their actions and everyone learns an odd lesson.

Many of the stories are flash fiction, so short that you don’t really process the punch until you feel the bruise on your psyche. Take “Unsolved Mystery.” Very short piece about the investigation into a serial killer with a bonesaw. These are the last two lines:

What I don’t say is, God’s a clever bastard and I do respect him. He’s everywhere.

“Thoughts While Strolling” does what it says on the tin. This story spoke directly to my particular sense of humor.

Jim Hale better train his dog.

That dog runs the perimeter of Hale’s yard, treading the ground until he makes a ditch. Dog says, “Hey, come over here.” When you do, that damn dog gives you a recipe for lemon bars which omits egg yolks and disappoints you sincerely. 

Later in the story:

Frogs croaking.

Turn them over and tickle them, the young boys say to the girls. After much conversing and screeching, one brave girl picks up a slick frog, green as a fig. She flips it over so delicately in her small palm that the boys stop their shoving and feel strange for watching. The girl extends one slender finger and runs it slowly up and down the frog’s exposed belly. When the frog urinates on her, she looks at the boys with loathing. She will later go on to swallow two goldfish alive.

“Diary of the Blockage” made me nervous because I can all too easily see this story happening to me. After a particularly upsetting incident involving a large iron pill, Mr Oddbooks can tell you that I will likely die from a foreign matter lodged, “it seems, between my esophagus and windpipe.” The narrator of the story tries to get the substance to come up but cannot. And much like me, she finds it hard to seek help for her problem:


I did not call the doctor. I went so far as to find my insurance card, but I could not imagine the remember Miss Mosely, well she has had a thing lodged in her throat all within range of anyone with half a mind to be within earshot of the the office window. I feel very sincerely that bodily functions have their place, but why would the toiletries and makeup and personal privacy industries all be such multimillion dollar successes if the place for those bodily functions was in public? To say otherwise is to disrespect culture.

This story was really on the mark for me, a neurotic who is determined to stay well enough that I never need to avail myself of a bedpan, though I did once vomit on one of my cats because I was  slow moving due to leg surgery and had stomach flu. I sense this story may be a pregnancy nightmare, too, for the lump in the throat later takes on a life of its own, in a way. All I know is that it was very important to the paranoid part of me that now takes my evening pills in far smaller clumps.

The best story was “The Darkness.” A penguin and an armadillo meet at a bar. The penguin has Fought the Darkness and can speak of little else, and the armadillo has spread vegetable oil on her shell in an attempt to look pretty and shiny.

“You are a penguin and I am an armadillo,” the armadillo said. “My name is Betsy.”

“That’s a beautiful name,” murmured the penguin, who was more interested in the condensation on his glass. “I fought the darkness.”

“You did not.”

The penguin swiveled his head to look at Betsy. He had very beady eyes.

“What’s your name?” she said.

“Ray,” said the penguin,

“That’s a nice name.”

The penguin explains what he means by The Darkness and Betsy really wants to stay on track with flirting, changing the subject, but Ray demands his due.

“I suppose you think I’m some sort of lesser penguin, just because I fought the fucking darkness and tasted my own blood, because I haven’t protected a stupid fucking egg.”

Betsy felt tears welling up. Don’t cry, she said to herself. It would be really stupid to cry at this moment.

“I honor your fight. I did not mean to disrespect you.”

Ray sank back. “It’s no disrespect,” he said. “I’m just a penguin in a bar, drinking my gin out of a fucking highball glass for some reason.”

“I was wondering why they did that,” the armadillo said.

“Doesn’t make any goddamn sense,” said the penguin.

And it really doesn’t make any sense but the story is delightful nonetheless, encapsulating all that is so banal about so much of human interaction in these unlikely beasts as they attempt and perhaps succeed just a little at making some sort of connection. I read this one aloud to Mr. Oddbooks one night, unconsciously slipping into the redneck accent of my youth that I repress as second nature.

This collection was just too wonderful for me. A letter from a woman to her apartment complex complaining about the year’s Christmas decoration contest. One story told the strange tale of a man married to a paring knife and another married to a bag of fish. A man takes up residence in his suitcase, much to the dismay of his girlfriend. Vultures come and loom over an entire town. Bizarre, magical, strange, nauseating stories, all crafted from a mind so focused on my own nightmares and uneasy dreams that I felt myself becoming paranoid at times. Luckily, Gray is such a talented storyteller that her gift was greater than my nervousness and I highly recommend this book to all who find themselves wondering what would happen if one was able to splice Garrison Keillor, Bradley Sands and Raymond Carver into one writing force.

Naïve. Super by Erlend Loe

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Naïve. Super

Author: Erlend Loe

Type of Book: Fiction, gently weird

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it isn’t as full-force odd as some of the books I discuss here but it is definitely off the radar of what is mainstream. And to be perfectly blunt, it was a book written from a place of goodwill, of belief in the idea that life can be wonderful. Given that even most lit fic, even if it has a happy ending, requires a wallow, this book is unique in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, because I love a good wallow, but at the same time, a wallow-less book that does not pander to the reader is so rare that it is odd by default.

Availability: This translation was published by Cannongate Books in 2005, and you can get a copy here:

Comments: Ah, sometimes you just need things to be sweetly odd. Just a little strange, a little left of center. I ordered a copy of this book because I asked a clerk at BookPeople to tell me the oddest book he had ever read. His answer, obviously, was Naïve. Super. He was a tragically hip young person, as are most of the clerks at BookPeople, but this is Austin and I am getting old, so no condemnation. He described it as being the story of a man-child who spent all day bouncing balls. So you can see why I had to get it and then wait two years to read it. I wanted to read it but dreaded it.

There was nothing to dread. The tragically hip young man was describing with no small amount of irony the most irony-deficient book ever written since Jane Fucking Eyre. And again, not his fault, because when you’re a hammer, all the world looks like nails and when you are a hipster, earnestness may be hard to identify. I’m just glad he recommended it to me because I am unsure otherwise I would ever have known about this lovely gem.

And ignore any of the official reviews you read about this book. Some utter asshole said it recalled Holden Caulfield and while I am not one who dislikes The Catcher in the Rye (actually, I love Holden and I love Salinger), I have to wonder if people are put off by that idiotic statement. The protagonist of Naïve. Super has about as much in common with Holden Caulfield as I do, and as a middle-aged woman who lives in the ‘burbs in Texas, I have remarkably little. We both dislike phonies and that’s about it. And that, dear readers, is why I seldom like to read reviews of any kind before I read a book and discuss it. I can’t imagine the number of books I would not have read had I taken anyone’s word on it. Having said that, I can see how it would seem very arrogant that I maintain a book review and discussion site. But while I know I am right, a sign of a certain amount of arrogance, I also write far more than the average reviewer because I’m verbose as all hell, but also because you should never take my word for anything. You should just read my words and hopefully I give a look at the book that is more than comparing it glibly to another book in a facile attempt to make myself understood.

Anyway, enough with my reviewer’s disgust.

The Hookie-Pookie Man by Ray Holland

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Hookie-Pookie Man

Author: Ray Holland

Type of Book: Fiction, gently weird

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Actually, this book is likely a better bet for my site for “norm books” but Ray Holland sent me this book with an eye to reviewing it here and since that was his preference, I’m discussing it here (I’m still easy like that, but the fact is this book has a gently weird plot line that means I only have to stretch my definition of what is odd moderately to discuss it here).

Availability: Published by Great Big Dog in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As I state above, this book likely will not strike the majority of the readers here as odd because it really isn’t that odd. But Ray sent me this copy of the book to discuss on IROB and I’m happy enough to oblige him. However, if you read here for full-bore oddness, you may want to give this review a miss because aside from some mildly strange plot elements – specifically, two women have a one-night stand with men from outer space and end up bearing their children and one’s son goes on a quest to find the other’s daughter, believing her to be his only chance at love – this is a book that is quite traditional. The characters are people you already know, the situations make sense, the plot is linear and overall, this struck me as less odd than as a book that could easily be a very well-received young adult novel.

All protestations of oddness aside, this is a well-written, well-edited, engaging book. It is, at its core, a book about individuality, the need for love, and personal loss. Though the book mentions sex, the one-night-stand is dealt with very demurely. This is a very sweet book, and many may scoff at sweetness, but at the time when I read it, it was very welcome. The discreet handling of human sexuality, while making no bones that it is important, combined with the overall sweetness and kindness, is why I think this might be a good young adult novel. But I also suspect that any young adult would roll his or her eyes and think me a quaint old woman for saying so. However, James Frey (whose redemption arc always points in the wrong direction, it seems) seems to think that after Harry Potter and wizards and Edward Cullen and vampires, the next supernatural rise in young adult fiction will be aliens, and if he’s right, maybe Holland is on to something.

But I think this book suffers from a thing that no writer should have to worry about when writing: it is hard to categorize. God knows when I tried to write the notion that one should be able to easily classify books was rammed down my throat often enough. But I think I know now why this simple minded and infuriating notion was so important to people who were not involved in the actual process of writing because The Hookie-Pookie Man is confounding to me. It is a bit gentle for people looking for a good space alien story. There is plenty of love quest and potential and thwarted romance but not enough sex or even culmination of romance to satisfy readers looking for a romance novel. All the characters are adults, though one has child-like tendencies, so teens might not be interested in the characters but the characters are gentle enough that adults might think it too tame. There is a sad, semi-violent ending that would upset those who want blander fare. The last time I read a book this gentle and sweet, it had Christian overtones and this book does not, so those looking for books with a message would not be satisfied with this book. Had this book no one-night-stands with aliens, I can almost see it as a nod to a writer like Hardy, telling the story of fatherless children searching for one another.

And all of that is a damned shame because lack of clear category works against this book. A niche helps books in ways we don’t realize until we find a book that really does defy category and that’s troubling because this book is worth reading and will likely fall through a lot of cracks. In fact, given that this book is self-published, I have to wonder if a regular publishing venture would have given this book the time of day, given the complete inability to pigeon-hole it. Maybe that is reason enough to discuss the book over here, as being so utterly unlabeled is, in this day and age, sort of odd.

Anyway, the book’s plot is deceptively simple, as are most book plots until you discuss all the details: Two female friends have a tryst with humanoid-appearing men from the Hookie-Pookie planet, and end up pregnant. Dwight’s mother is more or less accepting of her son’s strangeness, but Amanda Lynn’s mother is not, and the two women lose touch. Dwight, becoming aware that Amanda Lynn is out there somewhere, wants to meet her because he feels she is the only person who could understand him. Dr. Herman Schnauzer, a Professor of Extraterrestrial Anthropology, becomes involved in Dwight’s search for Amanda Lynn, at first academically, but before long becomes personally invested in the quest. Herman has a relatively rich life of his own, and is himself in a sort of love quest, and things end horribly or as you might expect, given whatever world view you may subscribe to.

Holland has an easy, folksy writing style, but he also has a pretty good grip on the absurd. Combined, these create a sort of gentle weirdness. Here’s a section wherein he laid out evidence that Dwight is a bit unusual. It begins sweetly enough, with a kindergarten-age Dwight telling girls that they could get pregnant by eating candy bars that little boys give them. But then we see Dwight a couple of years later:

And then there was the time Dwight was caught spray-painting graffiti on the side of his school building:


1, The admission of Arizona as a U.S. state.
2. A man named Thurston Owsley coughing up blood on September 23, 1939 in Dove Pass, Vermont.
3. The invention of nylon.
4. The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
5. The release (but not the production) of the movie The Shining.

How does an eight-year-old come up with that.

As he investigates Dwight’s strange case, Herman is given to flights of fancy, as he develops a crush on Wendy, Dwight’s mother:

But succeed or fail, I hoped this little project would turn out to be a sort of bonding experience for us–for Wendy and me, that is–something meaningful we had done together and gotten excited about together. Many years later, we could sit on the front porch in our rocking chairs–old married couple–and reminisce about it as the beginning of love.


Poor Herman is as lovesick as Dwight, but as a middle-aged man, he should have known better. But clearly, he is a hopeless romantic, and while some could see this as borderline squicky, that he was only helping Wendy in an attempt to get her to love him and as such is the dreaded Nice Guy, I tended to look at Herman as shockingly naive for a man his age. But that “yeah” at the end shows that maybe Herman isn’t so naive after all. He’s given to flights of fancy because he can’t help it but he sort of knows how silly it all is.

Holland executes some very subtle but deft characterization throughout the book. Take the example of Melanie, Amanda Lynn’s mother, who is intransigent throughout the whole process. Melanie is outright hostile to the idea that Dwight and Amanda Lynn should meet, and while she is a shrill, devious, unpleasant woman, her denial about her daughter’s origins and distaste for the whole idea of them meeting is made very clear:

“…think about what those two pigs did that morning. They might as well have laughed in our faces and said, ‘Ha ha ha. Have a nice life, you two dumb bimbos,’ and then walked out the door. Believing their story is like saying it was okay for them to treat us that way. I can’t do anything about it, but I can maintain my dignity. My self-respect.”

For Melanie, her idea of self-worth trumped any sense that she needed to allow her daughter the chance to understand and express her alien heritage and have a bond with the only other person on the planet like her. Despite the number of smaller side characters, Holland manages to give them all a face and characteristics. There seem to be no cannon fodder characters in this book, but Holland also manages not to give the side players too much of a role lest they distract from the rest of the book. It’s a difficult balance but he pulls it off well.

I admit that I read this book during a time when I was reading a lot of bizarro, aggressive, intense bizarro, and may have welcomed the nice change this book offered, for bizarro is often a dive headfirst into a shallow pond. This novel, with well-fleshed characters, an involved plot given plenty of time to unwind, and a sweet yet often unsentimental tone, suited me well when I read it. Given that many of my readers here prefer far harsher fare, I am unsure if most would like this book but I did and consider it worth a read.