Lazy Eyes by James Nulick

Book: Lazy Eyes

Author: James Nulick

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, experimental fiction, transgressive fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it straddles very fine lines that separate literary fiction from experimental fiction from transgressive fiction from outright strangeness.

Availability: Published in 2022 by ExPat Press, you can get a copy here.

Disclaimers: You will find my name in the “thanks” section in this collection, and I have edited works for James in the past. I also like James and consider him a friend and the readers of this discussion may have to decide for themselves if I like James so much because his writing is amazing or if I am fondly disposed toward his work because he’s so likeable. Safest bet is that it is probably both but as usual I will make my case.

Comments: James Nulick is one of the most under-rated writers working. There are a handful of names I frequently say this about, including Ann Sterzinger and Hank Kirton, and it never fails to baffle me that each one of them isn’t far better known. Each book James writes should be the book that makes his name, so to speak, and this short story collection is no different.

I think one of the reasons that James has yet to achieve the renown he deserves is because it is very hard to pin down his style. Part autobiographic, part utter fiction, his work combines a direct, often visceral confessional tone that he mixes with magical realism. His unflinching look at the worst people can do is balanced with his keen insight into why bad people are unexpectedly good, and why good people so often fail morally. He marries that unyielding yet sympathetic gaze with otherworldly examinations of life and death that are so fantastic that they are akin to fairy tales or alternative takes on religion. His work is complex yet accessible, dark and hopeful, discrete and irreal, and in a literary world where people need writers and their works summed up in a couple of sentences, it can be hard for the genuinely innovative and interesting to reach the audience their talent is due.

Lazy Eyes seems to me to be a continuation of James’s 2021 novel, The Moon Down to Earth. Moon is a remarkable work in which James took the stories of three very unlikely people – an Hispanic super-morbidly obese, bed-bound woman, a white elderly widower, and a young mixed race aspiring musician – and showed the cosmic threads that wove them into a common human tapestry. The invisible strings that connect all the characters can be small things, like common cultural touchstones, to larger issues of coping with loss and abuse. James honors their individual natures while also showing an almost Jungian commonality that removes barriers of sex, gender, race, and age from the inner lives of extremely different people.

In Lazy Eyes, James picks up the central theme of unlikely connections and takes it a step further. No longer bound to the physical, human-dominated world, James created a universe wherein the line between animal and human experience is erased, one where death isn’t the end of personal growth and achievement, and one in which we create our own haunted lives. Cats dream of ascendance, the dead don’t die, and mannequins become sons in James’s strange but instinctively familiar world. Graphic and emotional, visceral and ethereal, relentless and sympathetic, the way James writes is so sui generis that it can only be called Nulickian.

It’s somewhat difficult to discuss these stories the way I prefer. I don’t want to spoil them, of course. There’s also a challenge that comes when one is presented with a series of stories that handle concepts of ceaseless transformation. It’s altogether more difficult when those stories need to be read together in order to understand James’ conceptual world-building. And then you need to bear in mind that I guarantee you there will be one or two elements from these stories that will haunt you or will intrigue you as you try to understand the numerology (and possibly angelology as I believe there are hierarchies among the spirits in these stories) that James salts throughout. I personally found myself ferreting out the meanings behind the numbers nine and fifty-seven, and want to talk about it in depth but am exercising rare restraint. I also never want to see a stick of beef jerky ever again. If you read this collection – and I think you should – please let me know the plot points, meaningful details or strange cosmic filaments that remained with you long after reading.

Since I am trying very hard not to spoil these stories, I am going to limit myself to the pieces that spoke to me the most. There isn’t a clunker among the ten stories in this collection, covering varied topics like alien (species) invasion, dark and fatal magic, or the difficulties of coming of age when one is different or anxious to be different. The stories that stuck with me the most were those that demonstrated the most world-building, verging almost into slipstream as James takes the mundane and makes it fantastic while never leaving behind the very specific, emotional literary effort that defines his style.

My favorite story in the collection is “Doe,” a heartbreaking look at how the dead never really go away, not even when they are nameless, not even when an argument can be made that they never really lived. Having no name and being literally dead on arrival, however, do not mean that the dead don’t stop growing after death. There is a balance in life and death, in body and soul, summed up in the best line in the story:

God is, if anything, symmetrical.

What is remarkable in this particular story is how grounded in reality it is – sadly it is very much a story that can be said to be ripped from the headlines over and over again – while also dabbling in ideas of what it means to be haunted, of why the dead may be both unwilling and unable to lie down. “Doe” makes no distinction between crushing guilt and spiritual revenge, and in fact I wonder if the point of this piece was to give a new insight into human conscience and what is behind our inability to shed the negative emotions we carry after we’ve done terrible things. We may create our own psychological prisons but we may not be the jailer who holds the key to freedom. This story also challenged my sense of what I supposed was my own moral stance regarding life and death, forcing me to consider the idea that simply not being does not mean not existing and wondering who, if anyone, has the right to make decisions regarding life and death when conscious existence may continue forever. This story reminded me a lot of Stewart O’Nan’s The Night Country, a book about dying young and how those left behind can be haunted in vastly different ways.

“The Black Doberman” would be hard for me to discuss even if I were not resolute regarding spoilers in this discussion. Because it disturbed me, I reread it a few times to try and define the uneasiness I felt. This is the story from which the title is derived, as the titular Doberman is named Lazy Eyes. This story is a gut punching combination of Bret Easton Ellis-style empty materialism, post-feminist yearning for traditional domestic titles, and a subtle sort of Freaky Friday role-switching as a character eliminates a rival in her romantic relationship only to take on the moral and social worth of her defeated foe. Best line in the story:

My entire life has been an unattended funeral.

The female character in this story is despicable while also being very pathetic, which then made her even more despicable because the god in my own symmetrical heart wants those who feel pain to be kind, strong, and brave. There is an intelligence that comes from personal misery that allows people to see how others feel the same way, yet this character refused to see the link between herself and that which she hated. There was a similar disconnect at play in “Doe” and it feels very much as if the unattended funeral is the end result of not seeing the tendrils of connection. Being deliberately cut off from the ebb and flow of life and how it affects conscious experience is itself a lonely death in the world James created.

“Dark Web” surprised me with how much more I took away from it after a second read. I suspect most of the stories in this collection will offer up more and more with additional reads. Anil and Ridhi are a couple working at home during the Covid shutdowns that closed many offices. Each stake their claim in the house – Anil becomes a chronic masturbator in the basement as he toggles back and forth between Pornhub and work, and Ridhi works in the kitchen in between her forays onto Reddit. James took a basic story, that of the couple who grows apart when forced to be very close, and subtly embroidered the theme of connection into it. When something genuinely strange happens that disrupts the tiresome routine that Anil is frantically trying to break free from in unseemly ways (like masturbating in public near other joggers while walking his dog), the loss of routine and real intimacy ensures that Anil finds himself just as haunted as those who suffered genuine deaths in this collection.

Beyond that, James draws attention to certain bestial elements of Anil’s viewpoint that closely mirror other, very different minds in this collection. Specifically, he imagines his wife’s ass and thighs, but refers to them, tellingly, as “hind quarters.” Anil is not diminishing his wife, nor is he a closet zoophile. Rather, James is showing the ways that the bestial and the humane can become intertwined because, in the magical world in Lazy Eyes, the animals think as humans do, and their thoughts, betrayals, and desires are very similar to those of humans. Anil is protective of his dog, lamenting planting trees that could poison her so he keeps her safe, creating a close connection with his dog. Not so much with his wife and when it may be too late, he merges the protective love he has for his dog with the protective love he wished he had had for his wife.

This, by the way, is an excellent example of what happens when you dig around in these stories a few times. I can’t think of a book with similar characterization and handling of plot wherein subtle phrases and descriptions reveal a yarn-like skein of connection. It’s genius.

“Strange Captive” broke my heart. It ended on a very hopeful note, but it’s still a rough story. The dark revelation of this story is that you read it in one of two ways, depending on that which horrifies you the most. This isn’t a wishy-washy piece, speaking of dark things without the courage to describe them accurately from the mind of the captive, but rather another example of the commonality between experiences that is the backbone of this collection. The hell of it is, even though the events in the story are specific and defined, I still ended the piece wondering what it was I had really read. The final paragraph and exacting details do not equivocate but my own personal horrors made it less clear.

“The Beautiful Sister” is a surprisingly unpleasant look at a teen girl who strikes out at her older sister in an absolutely calculating way. She’s seeking redress for years of what she considers abuse and dismissal and I was surprised at how much her anger shocked me. Was the revenge she sought so terrible if an adult and her boyfriend did not shrink away from helping her? This is a connection I may not understand, having been raised an only child. Perhaps the tension between siblings can result in such reactions. We have plenty of examples of it, with this story standing as a sort of witchy Cain and Abel update, but my experiences lack that specific tendril attachment. With that in mind, it might be interesting to read this book to see what you don’t connect with as much as what you do.

I won’t mention too much about “Spiders” because I genuinely cannot think of a way to discuss the story without completely spoiling it, but I want to mention that I read this story not long after reading articles about how it is that octopuses give human beings the best way to examine alien minds that we can find while confined to this planet. I had also recently seen the 2015 film Evolution, a minimalist horror story demonstrating the way humans could one day find themselves exploited for the benefit of a completely different, though somewhat visibly familiar species. Both media examples colored how I reacted to this story.

In fact, it was interesting how many of these stories, very unique in world-building and theory-creation, I read on the heels of or alongside media that traveled similar paths. The 2021 film Lamb comes to mind, as well as lower-rent movies on Shudder about angry teen girls who avail themselves of darker magic that seems a bridge too far considering the slights that caused them to lash out. I find coincidences like that meaningful though I seldom can pin down the meaning. Interesting nonetheless.

It’s a very rare short story collection when more than half of the stories are each worth the price of admission, as I like to put it. This collection is definitely worth reading and I highly recommend it.

Leaves from the Smorgasbord by Hank Kirton

Book: Leaves from the Smorgasbord

Author: Hank Kirton

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, flash fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because the collection begins with this disclaimer:

Most of these stories were written while I was either going through chemotherapy or locked in rehab. That might help explain things. Or not.

Availability: Published by Crumbling Asphalt in 2017, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Oh god, that disclaimer tore my heart into several pieces. And filtering these stories through that disclaimer ground those pieces up into a sort of heart hamburger. I don’t know Hank Kirton very well. I know him in that vague way many of us know each other – he read my site, I read his books, sometimes I see him on Twitter, I wouldn’t recognize him in real life though he might recognize me if I haven’t changed my hair in a while. But even though I don’t know him, I still know him because there are too many times his words have stepped off the page and recognized me and I waved back. Those words know me because Kirton and I share similarly strange cultural references. They know me because Hank Kirton writes in a way that gives shape to some of my thoughts, creating cultural links between unlikely ideas. There is a confluence of ideas, concepts, and milestones that happens when I read Kirton’s short fiction.

I still think of his story “Jelly” every time I hear Ulver’s “Nowhere Catastrophe.” Had Kirton heard that song before writing “Jelly”? Did it somehow influence him? It makes me wonder because the two pieces merge so seamlessly, a story and a song about human transformation into music, the written and musical notes at the end of a transfiguration.  Because he is able to tap veins so similar to my own, I think of Hank Kirton, the Writer, several times a month. Which is awful because as I consider him in his role as the Writer, I had no idea he was suffering as Hank Kirton, the Human Being. I know now. I have the physical representation of his time in hell right here in front of me, waiting for me to finally discuss it. I keep putting it off because this year is the decade anniversary of my own time in hell, a different sort of hell than Kirton’s but similar enough to show me that, again, I know Kirton, in the most miraculous and miserable ways possible.

Leaves from the Smorgasbord is a collection of 32 stories but is only 181 pages long. Kirton is a master of flash fiction, but routinely nails longer stories, too. This collection begins with “Hello,” a story about a desperate fifteen-year-old girl reaching out for help as she experiences a bad acid trip. She randomly dials a number in the middle of the night, and reaches Don, a 47-year-old Asian man who is sufficiently alarmed and kind enough to stay on the line with the frightened teen until she feels settled and safe. Then the rug gets abruptly pulled out from under the reader with a nasty slap in the face. When I finished this piece I recalled Johnny Truant’s story of salvation in House of Leaves that turned out to be a lie that any astute reader understood was a lie. I missed the lie and had a warm feeling of relief, that Johnny, strung out and without tether, was finally going to be okay. At the end of that lie and “Hello,” I felt the same sense of “how the fuck can I, an adult in Current Year, still buy into and feel comforted by treacly examples of human beings at their best?” But I do. And it still feels bad when my faith in mankind is tested and mankind fails. But this story is also pretty much a fantastic way to begin a short story collection written by a man who was undergoing chemo or detox as he wrote it. Goddamn it.

This story was strange for me because it was short, consisted solely of dialogue, yet I felt like I knew Don at the end.  I had the sense that even though there was no way I could really make such an assertion, Don was the sort of man who, even after being set up for cruelty, would not hang up the phone should another person call in the middle of the night, needing someone to talk to. I don’t think Don was ultimately bothered much – he was probably just relieved to learn no one was really in any sort of trouble. Don is sort of a placid lake onto which tiresome stones were skipped but ultimately his surface would smooth out once more. Don is a stable mooring to which the other stories are secured, keeping the reader from drifting out into a miserable sea of bad, baffling and surreal behavior.

Hank hits way too close to home for me with “Blimpo Saves.” It’s 1971 and Neal, a stoner up way too early on a Sunday morning, eating a bowl of Frankenberry cereal, is watching a Christian cartoon wherein a blobby clicking atrocity brings the love of Jesus to the children unlucky enough to be awake and watching television before the sun comes up on the Sabbath. Neal becomes increasingly disturbed by Blimpo. The kids in the cartoon translate Blimpo’s weird clicks but Neal senses that there is some sort of unholy Morse code behind the clicks, and Blimpy triggers a paranoia I’m so completely familiar with.

Blimpo says, “Click-click clickety click.  Click click click!” and Neal shivers as if he’s just heard his own epitaph.  The kids translate: “You don’t have to be scared of God’s love. It will protect you.” They say this to a frightened cartoon puffin named Paul.

Then Neal wonders if the kids translating Blimpo are actually Satanic minions, a reasonable conclusion to reach.

Neal begins to resent Blimpo for giving him The Fear. He decides Blimpo is a misguided messenger for Christian deliverance.  Those clicks of his are jive, he tells himself, mere jive, but this notion offers no consolation. He wants to change the channel but is afraid to move. He feels hypnotized by Blimpo’s clicks, his swollen ping-pong eyes.

Neal’s feelings about Blimpo closely mirror my own about Jon Konrath’s fine lunacy. But I also know what he means about Blimpo, a gross Christian pablum panderer that I sense may be based on the eerie and unwholesome JOT.

Did you ever see a JOT cartoon before you had the vocabulary and life experience to explain why watching it felt so very, very wrong? God, that thing was absolutely horrible, but at least Jot could speak.  And actually, now that I think about it, clicking would have been better than that chirping voice that shows that the Uncanny Valley can have an audio component.

When I was a kid, there was a locally-produced show in Dallas that came on before church called The Children’s Hour. The host, a well-intentioned man, I am sure, entertained children in a Christian manner, showing Christian cartoons and offering commentary. Puppets were involved. I am unsure what the goals of that show were but I suspect that they didn’t mean to plant seeds that bloomed into atheism. But what sort of lessons did they hope to convey, showing JOT, this minimalist biblical burden on children who don’t need to ponder the moral relativity of not getting dirty when they can’t even really speak properly yet? JOT was twitchy, man, with those hands (dirty or clean) that disappeared when he wasn’t moving.  Where was his nose?  Why didn’t his mother notice her small son had hands caked in mud, spit in a tissue and wipe him down before sending him off to Sunday school? Better yet, why didn’t the dumb creature just go back inside and wash his hands quickly before it was time for church?  If he could open the door and get out into the yard, he could have gone back in and quickly washed his hands. But then they’d have had to teach us how dawdling made Jesus cry so there was really no way out of being taught a largely irrelevant moral lesson about how being a small child capable only of the thoughts of a small child was probably an affront to God. The only truth I could find was that devout children as portrayed in cheaply-made cartoons were very stupid.

After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones

Book: After the People Lights Have Gone Off

Author: Stephen Graham Jones

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, weird fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Ultimately this may not be an odd collection but this book creates the feeling that the reader is consuming something wholly new. Too often originality in content and voice in the horror genre are somewhat odd, sad to say.

Availability: Published by The Dark House Press in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I already know, writing the first sentence of my discussion for After the People Lights Have Gone Off, that I will be using the delete key quite a bit. I find it difficult to put into words why some stories in this collection were the literary equivalent of throwing a lead weight over the side of a ship and why some stories soared, excellent examples of literary horror at its best. Some of Jones’s stories were so perfect that I felt that familiar pull of envy that comes when I read something so wonderful that I wish I had thought of it first. But some of Jones’s stories were impenetrable for me, leaving me wondering if he missed the mark or if I was just too dense to understand what he was trying to convey. Ultimately I decided I just wasn’t the sort of reader to appreciate those stories, that taste was at issue and not talent.

The hell of it is, this has been a pretty dense year for me. Sort of muddy and brackish. I don’t feel as on the ball at the moment as I have in years past. But what made me decide that my divided reactions are righteous was analyzing why I am so divided about the stories in this collection. The answer is that while Jones has a distinct voice, he is also a malleable writer who is moving around within his chosen genre. The stories that have a familiar ring to them are written in a style that makes them seem fresh, but Jones also ventures out into new territory, with strange ideas and storytelling techniques that can be maddening when one is the sort of reader who needs the conclusions to be neater. Jones may luck out and find readers who love every bit of his work, as he twists the horror genre into new shapes, but chances are he’s going to end up with a substantial number of readers who love it when he’s wearing a particular storytelling hat but less so when he puts on another.

One hat that Jones kept on throughout this collection is the “weird” hat. Much of this collection could be considered weird fiction, which may be one of the reasons why some of the stories didn’t work for me. I like weird fiction, as a rule, but this horror subset lends itself well to muffled storytelling, mushy conclusions, entire story lines that can be up for interpretation. I’ve been clear in the past how I feel about such writing. That sort of remote remove in writing irritates me because it is too often a cop-out, a lazy attempt to force the burden of storytelling onto the reader. Jones, when his writing is up for interpretation doesn’t echo the laziness of others who write this way, and this entire collection is refreshingly devoid of irony, but even purposeful, earnest writing that employs this sort of post-modernist equivocation will likely always ring false to me.

Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz : A Look at Cora

Book: Slaves of New York

Author: Tama Janowitz (if she has a blog or an official site, I cannot seem to find them)

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book is one of my favorite books of all time and I just need to discuss it here.

Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:

Comments: I’ve had a hard time writing, lately. I’ve got around half a dozen nearly complete entries, with at least twice that many partially finished discussions. I sort of know why I haven’t been able to finish them all but I also think that thinking about the reason why is irrelevant. I’ll finish them when I finish them. But in the middle of all that unfinished writing, I found myself wanting to discuss in detail one of my favorite books. Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz is in my Top-Twenty-All-Time-Favorite-Books and I’m sort of surprised I have not discussed it here yet.

The literary Brat Pack has gone to the rats, it seems. Donna Tartt is still doing well but she has yet to match the mind-blowing talent she showed in her very excellent novel, The Secret History (which I also cannot believe I have not discussed here yet). We still have Bret Easton Ellis doing things, good and bad, mostly entertaining in a rubbernecking-on-Twitter sort of way. I think Jay McInerney is still alive but I never liked him much in the first place. Same with Susan Minot. The two best Brat Pack writers in my estimation are Tartt and Tama Janowitz, and Slaves of New York is Janowitz’s masterpiece.

It really is a masterpiece.Though there are some pop culture references that age it a bit (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, y’all!), this book has held up well because the stories are character-driven and the situations reasonably universal. Struggles between relationship dependency and independence, faith in one’s skill and talent, difficulties with parents, depression, anxiety and neurosis –  it’s not going to read too archaic to modern readers. The stories had a period of acclaim but then more or less disappeared from the literary landscape. I see plenty of buzz around Bret Easton Ellis’ current and older works but very little about Janowitz, and even less about this short story collection. That’s a shame because this collection, while being funny and clever, is also so well-written that its power isn’t necessarily obvious after the first read.

I used to read Slaves of New York a couple of times a year, then it trickled down to once a year, then every other year, but it’s still a book I revisit. Each time I read it, I find myself marveling at something new I pick up in terms of plot and characterization. This book has proved to be a strange barometer of where I am as a human being, because over time my identification with specific characters has changed. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that this novel is a paean to neurosis, a goddamn hallelujah to nervous, miserable, delusional, yet ultimately likeable headcases. If I love a book enough to reread it continually because I identify with characters, it’s a safe bet the book will be populated with neurotic people.

This is a collection of linked short stories, taking place in New York City, with a couple of outliers. The characters show up in walk-on roles in other stories, each story in this collection can stand alone, and each story is worth reading. Sometimes the links are subtle – one character speaks of having to rehome a cat that hated her boyfriend. A friend of hers took the cat in, and that same cat shows up in another story, tormenting a different man. (And that story, “Snowball,” is a look at a male neurotic, Victor. If you are prone to acid reflux, pop a Zantac before reading this story because Victor will give you sour burps. Victor, a nervous, anxious, miserable man, was portrayed by the suave, cool Chris Sarandon in the film adaptation of these stories. It’s hard for me to think of a film that was as completely miscast as Slaves of New York. John Wayne as Genghis Khan comes close. Skip the film, read the book.)

Of all the characters this book, there are three characters whose stories resonated with me at different times in my own life. Cora meant a lot to me when I was still quite young. Eleanor came up in my 30s. Marley, while I don’t necessarily see him in myself, is infinitely more understandable to me in my middle age. This depressive, neurotic, delusional trio, respectively, will make up the basis of my look at Slaves of New York. Cora, Eleanor, and Marley – my Disordered Trinity. To prevent this from being the longest discussion of a single book written by the Internet’s most verbose book lover, I will discuss each character in a separate entry. And yes, this will likely be a discussion of a story that may be longer than the story itself.

Let’s begin with Cora.

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls

Book:  Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls

Author:  Alissa Nutting

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, fantasy, humor

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because Alissa Nutting is my neurotic literature heroine.

Availability: Published by Starcherone Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I was reading this book when my mother died.  It’s a strange feeling to be writing this discussion because Mom was alive when I began this book and dead when I finished it. I think this is a book that will have extreme sentimental value for me for the rest of my life.  I’ll probably remember in vivid detail all the stories in this book until the day I am on my own death bed.  It’s a good thing this is a very good book in almost every regard.  If you are going to have a book burned into your brain in such a manner, best that it be a good book.

It’s not so surprising that I adored this collection – I raved about Nutting’s look at a female sexual predator and had high expectations for this book.  This collection is less concentrated in terms of content and style than Tampa and the varied nature of this collection shows Nutting’s skill as a teller of many types of stories.  She handles mundane yet self-aware neuroticism like an updated Tama Janowitz (whose seminal summation of ’80s New York, Slaves of New York, I will be discussing here soon).  She dips in and out of fantasy and magical realism with a deft hand and plenty of humor.  She is a keen observer of the human condition and tells her stories with great sympathy for her characters, even the ridiculous ones. I love this collection so much I am not going to limit my discussion to just a few stories, as I often do to save readers from an obscenely high word count. So be warned, many words beneath the cut.

Pinkies by Shane Hinton

Book:  Pinkies

Author:  Shane Hinton

Type of Book:  Fiction, short stories, flash fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Is Odd:  Because it’s not immediately clear which Shane Hinton wrote this book.

Availability:  Published by Burrow Press in 2015, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  Shane Hinton has a bit of Jon Konrath in him, or maybe Jon has a bit of Shane in him.  Or maybe they both have a bit of someone I have yet to read in them both. But this collection shows that Hinton has an eye and ear for the absurd in daily life, though he ventures into the speculative more than Konrath does.  And I only mention Konrath because I found myself chugging NyQuil Cough formula like it was soda the other day and ended up having a bad dream about that infant-mouse-covered snake on the front of this book.  In my dream the snake had charmed the mice like a sort of reptilian Charles Manson and they were ready to do his bidding, except I also think the snake was female. A lot of it I’ve forgotten, which is probably a good thing. But I did have the nightmare. That much I do know.

Before I begin to discuss this book in earnest, I want to mention that there is some interesting meta going on in this collection, and meta I have seen in other books recently.  I don’t think it’s happening enough to call it a trend, but this summer I managed to read three books wherein the characters were named for the authors.  Hank Kirton named a couple of characters in his short story collection Bleak Holiday after himself.  Brian Whitney’s Raping the Gods sports a protagonist named Brian Whitney, which may be because the book is autobiographical (and I am afraid to find out if it is indeed autobiographical).  And every male protagonist in Pinkies is Shane Hinton.  One story boasts dozens of Shane Hintons.

I can feel the desire to go on at extraordinary lengths rising up because I genuinely enjoyed this collection, so I’m going to limit myself to the stories I liked best.  Every story works on some level – there wasn’t a clunker to be found – but I decided to limit myself to four of the sixteen stories in this slim volume.  Let us all cross our fingers that such a measure keeps my verbosity more or less in check, but I think it’s safe to say this is going to be very long, because this is a good collection and because this is the first book review on Odd Things Considered and I feel self-indulgent with celebratory bookishness.

Beware of God by Shalom Auslander

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Beware of God: Stories

Author: Shalom Auslander

Type of Book: Fiction, short stories

Why Did I Read This Book: I have heard Shalom Auslander on NPR programs and on PRI’s This American Life and found him deeply interesting so I looked up all his books and put them on my Amazon list. And eventually ordered one.

Availability: Published by Simon & Schuster in 2005, you can get a copy here:

Comments:I guess I’ve only ever heard Shalom Auslander speak about serious subjects, like the existential fear he at times experienced when he decided to distance himself from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. I started reading this book knowing that he was a man steeped in Judaism, but I had no idea how flat out funny he is. He writes with a wry sense of humor, a startling awareness of the human condition and a sharp prose that somehow manages to be both a tiny bit jaded yet steeped in sentimentality. Not an easy feat, to be sure.

This collection has 14 short stories and there is not a clunker in the bunch, so I won’t even have to do the “Here are the ones I loved/Here are the ones that didn’t work” split that I do in so many of my reviews of short story collections. All the stories were worth reading so I get to discuss the the ones I considered the cream of the crop.

“The War of the Bernsteins” discussed a married couple wherein the husband’s excessive need for piety makes his wife nuts and combative. She begins to counter Mr. Bernstein’s every excessive attempt at righteousness but with a mind to her own soul.

The spiritual mathematics consumed her,

On the outside chance that there actually was a World to Come, she certainly didn’t want to sacrifice her own rewards in the next life just to ruin his. Mrs. Bernstein didn’t mind going to the Seventh Level of Hell, so long as she could walk to the edge, look down below and see Mr. Bernstein burning in the Eighth.

After engaging in mental calisthenics and spiritual algorithms, she begins her sin campaign.

She used nonkosher wine for Kiddush. She put milk in his coffee after serving him meat. She put pork in the chulent. She put bacon bits in his salad, and told him they were imitation.

She continues to wage war against him, forcing him into more and more acts of piety, until she finally, very sensibly and quietly, cracks. I am honestly unsure if I know why I love this story so much other than that I think I have known all too well this sort of warfare and rejoice that my own life contains none of it. I think it was simply that clenched-jaw, angry words cloaked under false sweetness, years of resentment disguised as edgy banter that we have all been forced to witness over a tense dinner was placed in a new setting. Sometimes a fresh look at old situations are all a story needs to be wonderful. Well, that and a clever hand, which Auslander has in spades.

“Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp” was also a winner. A bite at the self-hating Jew, of course, but not entirely. There is more at work here than the same old Woody Allen schtick.

At 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary morning of May 25, Bobo, a small male chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness.
Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull. He grabbed his head in his hands and ran shrieking around the Monkey House…

Bobo quickly learns that no one wants to deal with the psyche of a self-aware chimp, and that he also lacks the capacity to explain himself as his larynx did not evolve with his brain, and finds himself aping, as it were, the behaviors of chimps as he observes them. Their behavior sickens him and he finds himself filled with more self-loathing, and worse, regret.

One day, in a fit of pique, Bobo throws a pile of shit at another chimp, misses and nails the glass enclosure. He likes the results and begins to paint the glass walls with shit.

By the end of his first week of consciousness, Bobo had painted large Expressionist shit murals on every wall of the Monkey House. He began with simple studies: an apple, a monorail, cotton candy. By the end of the first week, he was creating sweeping tableaus which he saw as scathingly satirical attacks on chimpanzee culture and primate mores. His Self-Portrait was a devastating attack on racism, his Unhuman Stain a poignant plea for self-respect and dignity, his Life in the Monkey House a searing assault on political power and corporate gain.

The shit paintings fetch a hefty price on the art market but the zoo finds the expense of replacing the glass too dear so they provide Bobo with paints and canvas but the therapeutic benefits elude the self-aware chimp. A self-aware existence proves too much for Bobo, as it does for many artists who struggle with existential questions. Then another chimp finds himself becoming self-aware and the circle becomes complete.

“Look at us,” Kato thought. “A bunch of fucking monkeys.”

“Somebody Up There Likes You” tells the story of Bloom who escapes the death God had in mind for him because he was driving a Volvo, and he ends up contemplating the idea of whether or not there was indeed someone up there who liked him. The answer is a playful look at the relative omnipotence of godhead and an interaction between God and Lucifer reminiscent of the trials of Job, but rather than testing Bloom, the man becomes a thorn in the side of God and Lucifer.

“Holocaust Tips for Kids” shows how a school’s day-long program for Holocaust Remembrance Day affects deeply a grade-school boy who begins to plan for what he will do if the Nazis ever come back for him. He makes plans to hoard food for his inevitable years spent in an attic, but figures a treehouse would do okay as well as it seems unlikely a Nazi force would search all the treehouses in his neighborhood. As deeply disturbing as this story has the potential to be, the impact of Auslander’s humor prevents it from being a complete exercise in psychological horror. Bruce Lee, Ninjas, The Godfather, the positive attributes of Florida during a Nazi invasion and the necessity of being in good shape when the next Holocaust happens all are a part of the musings of this boy as he contemplates the worst that can happen. It seems horrible to find amusing the following line:

When they put you in a cattle car, try to get a spot near a window.

But how can you not see the humor and how can you not mourn both the loss of innocence that leads to such thoughts as well as celebrate the youthful mind willing to come up with such contingencies to survive. It is a gift to make the truly uncomfortable humorous.

“God Is a Big, Happy Chicken” was my favorite story in the collection. Yankel Morgenstern dies and goes to Heaven and discovers God really is a large chicken who largely does not care about the world of humans.

“Fuck,” said Morgenstern.

“You know,” said Chicken, “that’s the first thing everyone says when they meet me. ‘Fuck.’ How does that make me feel?”

The angel Gabriel tries to explain things to Morgenstern:

“But the Bible–” said Morgenstern.

“Don’t you worry about the Bible,” said Gabe. “We’ve got the joker who wrote that thing down in Hell. Gabe,” he said. extending his hand to Morgenstern as they walked through the Nothingness toward the Nowhere.

“As in Gabriel, right?” asked Morgenstern. “I expected you to be more, I don’t know–”


“I supposed,” answered Morgenstern.

“Asians all think I’d be Asian. Black folks all think I’d be black. It’s a funny world. I’m sort of the head ranch hand around here. I make sure Chicken has enough feed and water, I clean his coop. You know, general maintenance.”

“Couldn’t The Chicken just create his own food?”

“Not ‘The Chicken,’ just ‘Chicken.’ And no, he can’t create his own food. He’s a chicken.”

Morgenstern begs Gabe to let him return to Earth so he can warn his family, but once there, he is faced with a dilemma: better to be right or to live in ignorance and be happy. I feel I can tell you the quandry Morgenstern finds himself in with little angst about spoiling the plot because as much hand-wringing as goes on in these stories, the end is in no way inevitable.

I was surprised at how delightful these stories were. In fact, when I first opened the book I was expecting a memoir collection, snippets from Auslander’s life. That comes with the territory when you order books simply because they grab you in some way, eschewing the toilet of Amazon reviews (the occasional leaving may float to the top but at the end of the day, it’s still a turd), just amassing reading material on a whim. But sometimes that method leaves you with little, unexpected gifts. This book was indeed an unexpected gift and I highly recommend it.

A is for Alien by Caitlín R. Kiernan

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A is for Alien

Author: Caitlín R. Kiernan

Type of Book: Science fiction, short story collection, erotica

Why Did I Read This Book: Because CRK is one of my favorite writers of all time, full stop.

Availability: Published by Subterranean Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Caitlín R. Kiernan is a writer whom I have a hard time assigning to any specific genre, though she is a writer whose work generally has some form of slipstream in it, slipstream as defined by Bruce Sterling when he said, “…this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” Kiernan’s prose always makes me feel strange and everything I have read from her is undeniably dark even when good prevails because there is still so much more bad out there waiting.

This collection is mostly science fiction and I am notably not a fan of the sci-fi genre, but I read this anyway because Kiernan wrote it. I’m glad I read it because only two of the stories were not to my tastes. Much “hard” science fiction eludes me for the same reason I never found A Clockwork Orange to my liking – I get too distracted by the verbiage, which is often beyond my ken, and the story gets away from me. So I am at a loss to determine if any work of hard science fiction is good or not, though I am not someone who condemns a genre just because I do not like it. Two of the stories in this collection said little to me, so I was tempted to skip reviewing it, but the point of this review site is for me to review literally everything I read that does not end up on I Read Odd Books. So no chickening out.

This collection contains eight stories, some hard science fiction, some science fiction combined with erotica, some transhumanist analyses, and plenty of dystopia to last even the most jaded of readers for a long time. I admit that I prefer CRK when she is writing works that tilt more in the vein of horror – Alabaster and Daughter of Hounds are both in my list of Top 25 Books of All Time. But her essential themes remain even when her genre differs, and that is what matters I think.

A Whisper of Blood edited by Ellen Datlow

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Title: A Whisper of Blood: A Collection of Modern Vampire Stories

Author: Edited by Ellen Datlow

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection

Why Did I Read This Book: I love short stories. I love short stories about vampires. I love Ellen Datlow. I saw this in the bargain section at Barnes & Noble and I love cheap books. (It seems like I love a lot of things, doesn’t it?) It’s actually a book that contains two books of vampire fiction Ellen Datlow edited, Blood is Not Enough and a Whisper of Blood. So really it was a two for one bargain book. How could I lose? So I grabbed it and saved it so I could read it close to Halloween.

Availability: Released by Fall River Press in 2008, it no longer appears to be in print, but you can get a used copy here:

Comments: This is a hard one because overall most of these stories were entertaining and well-written. Yet many missed the point entirely or I am being too strict in what I consider a modern vampire story. I tend to think it is the former. Many of the stories really pushed the boundary of what it means to be a modern vampire story and not in a good way. In a “this really has nothing to do with vampires in any way, shape or form unless one redefines the notion of vampire to have nothing to do with the concept of a vampire in a context in which vampires are recognizable” sort of way. Yeah. Seriously, that mangled sentence is the mental gymnastics one must go through to find vampires in some of these stories.

A vampire does not have to suck blood to be a vampire. Most vampire fans also do not demand a strict adherence to vampire canon in order to find worth and entertainment in a vampire story. But on some level, the vampirism cannot be so postmodern in its interpretation of vampires that an audience has to analyze the story to the point of banality to find the vampiric element and too many stories in this collection demanded that sort of analysis.

I’m not going to discuss every story in the book but I’ll hit what I consider the high lights and low lights.

The ones that did not work for me:

“The Pool People” by Melissa Mia Hall uses rape as a metaphor for vampirism and while the story is intriguing, the fact of the matter is, this is one of the stories that stretches the notion of being a vampire. A teacher being assaulted by students is horrific, not vampiric. This story stretches vampirism into a metaphor for all modern violence and in so doing, stretches the concept of the “modern” vampire to the breaking point.

“Dirty Work” by Pat Cadigan flat out is not a vampire story. Period. Full stop. It’s an interesting science fiction tale but it has no place in a modern vampire anthology. I did my best, I questioned myself and asked if I was being too literal in my interpretation and came to the conclusion that asking for some form of vampiric behavior in a story included in a vampire anthology is not too much to ask. It’s a story of a “pathosfinder” who is overwhelmed mentally by an empath in a futuristic world. This was possibly the most tiresome story in the book for me, 35 pages of not very much happening at all, just… I think the issue is that I am not a fan of this sort of sci-fi, especially when I encounter it in a book ostensibly about vampires.

Interestingly, one of the other stories that did not hit me right was also a Pat Cadigan tale called “Home by the Sea,” wherein people are dead in a sort of post-apocalyptic world but still move around. They’re not really vampires so much as they are sentient zombies. A wife has sex with a man who is ostensibly still alive and he gives her the gift of life. Again, sort of entertaining, but also again, not really vampires in any sense, even modern. Vampires take life, they don’t give it, and given the zombie-like nature of the characters, it was hard to see what the point was of the story exactly other than just existing as a horror tale. It works as a horror tale. It does not work as a vampire story.

The last story I speak of in the “do not want” camp comes from Edward Bryant, “Good Kids.” This one I just plain didn’t like. In it, four girls in night-time child care facility discover their caretaker is a vampire. They turn the table of violence on him when they encourage the rest of the kids in care to act with them in an ending with a TWIST. Bleah to red herring endings and double bleah to precocious kids who as a group don’t speak or act as any kids I have ever known.

House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories by Yasunari Kawabata

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories

Author:  Yasunari Kawabata

Why I Consider This Book Odd: I knew it was going to be a helluva ride when I recognized the name of the man who wrote the introduction to the book.   The writer Yukio Mishima in 1970, failed to inspire a revolt in the Japanese military and attempted to commit seppuku, a form of ritual suicide via disemboweling.  He was then given the coup de gras and was decapitated by a friend who took part in the attempted rebellion.  When such a man gives the introduction to a book dealing mainly with thanatos, with a little eros thrown in, you’re dealing with a very odd book.  This may be the most deeply odd and disturbing work ever written by a Nobel Laureate, though heaven knows I find more and more incredibly odd works written by unlikely writers.

Type of Work: Fiction

Availability: Originally published in 1961, the copy I read was reissued in 2004 and is still in print.  You can get a copy here:

Comments: I finished this book weeks ago but the spectre of writing a  review completely stalled me.  I kept telling myself to get over here and write but I could not do it.  I don’t know exactly why but I suspect it is because I found this book enthralling and repellent.  Amazing and disgusting.  I consumed it rapidly and wanted then to vomit it back up.  Seldom has a book so engrossed me while leaving me so unhappy.

This book consists of a novella, “House of the Sleeping Beauties,” and two short stories, “One Arm” and “Of Birds and Beasts.”  Each work is horrific, beautiful, sickening and compelling in its own right.

“House of the Sleeping Beauties”:  Again, I find myself at war with other people’s descriptions of  what comprises literary eros.  Evidently, eros means soulless sex involving eggs, as discovered in Story of the Eye, or it means  a misogynistic look at a boring old man’s past encounters with women.  How can a book be an example of eros and thanatos when it is all death and no passion?  How can it be eros when there is no love, when there is no sex, when there is nothing but the limited emotional range of the protagonist, an aging man who seems to hate all women?  How can it be eros when the protagonist has no emotional depth or even revelation in sensation from a sex act?  These are rhetorical questions, as I understand why, in a sense, this book falls into the eros and thantos category, but my mind rebels against what many modern critics consider eros. (And perhaps the most important question is why did I read this book so raptly, and I am unable to explain that either, but I did and I suspect most readers find themselves similarly engrossed.)

The tale’s protagonist, Eguchi, is 67-years-old and visits the House of the Sleeping Beauties, a sort of brothel wherein the girls, all very young, are drugged insensate at night so that old men can sleep with them.  The word sleep here is literal, because the old men do not have sex with the sleeping girls as they are impotent due to old age. Eguchi hides what he says is his ability to sustain an erection from the Madam in order to be permitted to sleep with the girls (it may all be in Eguchi’s head – one is never sure if Eguchi is really still virile or if it is wishful thinking on his part).

Indeed, the Madam is not concerned at all with Eguchi’s member when she chides him not to do anything disgusting with the girls.  “He was not to put his finger into the mouth of of the sleeping girl…”  That line haunts me for some reason, but it is clear the proprietress of the House of the Sleeping Beauties does not think Eguchi is capable of any greater outrage against the sleeping girls.  And yeah, Eguchi sticks his finger into the mouth of one of the girls.  Of course he does.  That should almost go without saying.  That finger was the only penetration in the story.

Those who visit the house and go to bed with the drugged girls are themselves eventually drugged, but get to spend time with the sleeping girls while they themselves are completely conscious.  Though Eguchi tells himself that he could, theoretically, do whatever he wants to any of the sleeping girls without detection, tellingly, he never does.  Eguchi’s wants to lay next to a virginal, sleeping girl, because actual sex with conscious women causes him to be exposed to their messy, nasty lives, something he cannot bear.

Another verbose review.