Sunday, January 27, 2008

Death and the Librarian

"Death and the Librarian" is a collection of Esther Friesner short stories. Now, the mere concept of this had me dancing in joy, because I think Friesner is a goddess with witty turns of phrase, so I suppose it was inevitable that there would be some letdown. I'm going to give an overall impression of the collection first, then touch on the individual stories.

Overall, I found this collection to be uneven. The stories swing between deeply serious and deeply funny, and I can't really point to any one story that sufficiently bridges the gap. Reading more than a couple stories in a sitting is something of a bipolar experience. The humorous stories are, as usual, excellent, though I wasn't sure they were Friesner's best. With one exception, I would have preferred to see any of these stories swapped out for "Twelve Steppe Program" from Warrior Princesses - but maybe there were rights issues. The serious stories generally seem to share an inherently introspective point of view, told largely through flashbacks with little forward motion, and they frequently leave gaps.

I noticed one common point with most of these stories that I truly enjoy: they all include some element of mystery, a puzzle to be deciphered. In a lot of cases, this is on the part of the reader, not the characters, but it's still enjoyable to ask, "What's going on?" in addition to, "What happens next?"

All Vows: In this story, a child who can see ghosts and a homeless man journey to DC to keep an important appointment. This is one of those aforementioned 'puzzle' stories, and if you're clever, you'll see what's going on quite early in the story. The prose is beautiful, but it seems to be more of a set piece than a distinct plot. I had trouble grasping that the narrator was male - with Corey being something of a gender-neutral name and so much first-person narration before the fact that "I" is a boy is indicated, my brain-voice got stuck in the feminine. This made the ending a matter of ... had to stop and reread 2-3 times to get it.

True Believer: Hysterical and surreal at the same time, this story brings a troupe of imaginary comics characters and the beliefs of a small boy to life, with hysterical results. The main character is his beleagured mother. All the loose ends in this story come together for some purpose - it's really a joy to watch them fall into place.

"White!" Said Fred: We've read the story about the genie outwitting his poor, hapless masters plenty of times. That said, this is a great execution of the idea, and the attitudes and understandings of the characters are portrayed in a top-notch fashion - even if you wouldn't want to invite them home for dinner.

A Birthday: It is the birthday of the narrator's daughter, Tessa - only there's something unusual about her situation and this specific birthday. The world in this story unfolds slowly, elegantly - but not quite enough. I found myself compelled to continue turning the pages, looking for the final piece, the last bit of understanding. I was chilled by the ending, but left with the sense that crucial worldbuilding had been left out. You can assume, but the story remains annoyingly nebulous. This story pulls off first person present tense phenomenally well (for reasons that become apparent near the end) - I didn't even notice it until I went back to write this review.

A Pig's Tale: This is the story that comes closest to melding the humorous and serious elements, so it's appropriate it comes about a third of the way in. In this tale, the pig from Alice In Wonderland sets out to find his own way in the world - a way where he carefully avoids the "prison" of meaning. And while the story is bizarre in ways I'm not entirely sure I appreciate ... wow. This argument is eloquent. The early pages of the story perfectly crystallize my (negative) feelings towards literary analysis.

Love, Crystal and Stone: A surreal story about a poet who meanders in and out of the literal and the metaphorical, the original grounding of elements in the real world of Granada wandering into a fairytale about the abduction of the moon. I need to go back and read this one again - I'm not sure I "got it" the first time. It is vastly absorbing just for the continuous play of poetic imagery, but difficult to follow.

In The Realm of Dragons: A boy whose uncle was beaten to death goes on a mission to seek revenge - maybe. Another serious story told primarily through flashbacks, the initial weaving of hallucination with recollection with present is tricky to follow and somewhat confusing, but push forward and all becomes clear. This is a gentle, enjoyable story with a simple moral at the end. This one is almost slipstream - it's not entirely clear that the fantastic element isn't all in the characters' minds.

Jesus At The Bat: Be careful what you wish for ... when a young baseball player wishes desperately for divine interference for his losing team, the results are spectacular. There are some points about this story that bugged me - baseball's still a team game; it seemed ineffectual to me to simply have a single amazing player, and I didn't really understand the characters' obsessions with the game. Maybe I just am not enough of a sports person. The hijinks at the end of the story are definitely worth reading, and the ending alone saves any letdown - but I still think this is the weakest funny story in the collection.

Chanoyu: Kamiko engages in a tea-ceremony with her master, all the while having an internal conversation with her "father" - and with a ritual slowness, the truth of her situation peels away. Here's the slow, elegant unfolding I praised in A Birthday done *right* - the gradual ugliness and truths revealed in this story are pitched and paced perfectly. The only complaint I have is that most of the story occurs through an "imaginary" introspective conversation, but like the tea-ceremony that gives the story its title, this story is a thing of precision and beauty.

Ilion: This is Friesner's 9/11 story, where a writer in New York after that fateful day is given new perspective by a messenger angel. This is a quietly beautiful story, gentle, without falling into pathos ... though I think it suffers, again, from a quality of little forward motion. Still, I can't help but appreciate the strong message of hope.

How To Make Unicorn Pie: In the tiny town of Bowman's Ridge, romance novelist Babs Barclay is a Transient despite having lived there for twenty years ... and she's about to discover one of those secrets the Natives just know. This is far and away the best story in the collection, snarky, tongue in cheek, wonderfully funny, and an excellent portrayal of that small town everyone knows is snubbing the Summer People. The rest of the story could be flat and I'd still praise it for the following lines, "I write romances. Historical romances. Books with titles like Druid's Desire and Millard Filmore, My Love." Luckily, the whole tale more than lives up to this kind of patter. Also ... unicorns!

Death and the Librarian: Death ... comes for the librarian, only to find she's been waiting for him for twenty-five years - but isn't quite ready to "give up the ghost" yet. There's a subtle tongue in cheek vein to this story that gives it a unique life, and death's transformations to suit the moment are surreal without being bizarre. This is a beautiful story that reminds me very much of Ilion in its timbre and denouement; these two seem to go hand in hand for a worthy conclusion to the collection.

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