Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen
(Small Beer Press, 2001)
Ray Vukcevich, Meet Me in the Moon Room (Small Beer Press, 2001)
Carol Emshwiller, The Mount (Small Beer Press, 2002)
Carol Emshwiller, Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories (Small Beer Press, 2002)
Kelly Link, ed., Trampoline (Small Beer Press, 2003)
Angelica Gorodischer (translated by Ursula K. Le Guin), Kalpa Imperial (Small Beer Press, 2003)
This review will be a little different than the book reviews I have done so far, in that
Before talking about Small Beer Press, I have to start with Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. In 1996, Gavin J. Grant started LCRW as a reaction to the magazines he saw while working at the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop in Boston. None of them had the right mix of fiction, poetry, reviews, and art that he thought would make a good magazine. He also wanted to be able to publish the remarkable fiction of then-girlfriend-now-wife Kelly Link, as well as new and older writers that he felt were falling between the cracks of traditional publishing. His taste tended toward "slipstream," fiction in the interstices of mainstream literature and contemporary fantasy, though he has not restricted himself to that subgenre. In the seven years since its inception, stories from LCRW have been reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and The Best of the Rest, and have won the Nebula, James Tiptree, Jr., and World Fantasy Awards.
In the year 2000, Grant founded Small Beer Press and decided to take the first step toward book publishing with a chapbook series, producing 4 Stories by Kelly Link and Five Forbidden Things by Dora Knez. The chapbooks were meant to be mini-collections, intentionally designed as low-priced editions, so that a reader could be introduced to a new writer without having to shell out $17 for a full collection. He has since published Alex Irvine, Judith Berman, and Mark Rich in this chapbook format. The good reviews for the chapbooks and the 'zine began mounting, and Grant was soon confident enough in his design and production capabilities to start full-on trade paperback book production the next year.
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link was Small Beer's first effort in 2001 and has since gone to a third printing. It has been lauded in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Strange Horizons, and Tangent; been blurbed by Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Lethem and Peter Straub; and considered by China Mieville as one of his top ten reads. It was a Salon Book of the Year, as well as a Village Voice Favorite. Very impressive, considering that this was a new author's first collection from a small press.
Link received an M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (which is a mere hour and a half from where I live), studying under our state's current Poet Laureate, Fred Chappell. According to Karen Joy Fowler, they almost didn't let Link in to the Clarion workshop in 1995 because her writing was so good, but they did anyway, and she taught there this year. She sold her first short story to Asimov's in 1995, and in the years that followed has won numerous awards for her fiction. When you see her on the street or at conventions, she is almost always smiling.
Stranger Things Happen collects eleven of Link's stories, "one of which," Link has inscribed in my copy, "should be read while sitting in a tree." Each tale has a dreamy, surreal quality, as if your perceptions are being changed even as you are reading it. She plays on the tropes of fairy tales and Greek myth, making them more explainable or more enigmatic as her whimsy sees fit. Two stories feature a journey into the underworld; in "Travels With the Snow Queen," the narrator must retrieve Kay from the icy queen's clutches, and in "The Girl Detective," Nancy Drew (who is never named, but of course we know who she is) must find her mysteriously absent mother. Each story is crafted with a poet's ear, the language made beautiful by the simple act of arranging words. This is a collection not to be missed.
For a change of pace, the next book published by Small Beer was Ray Vukcevich's Meet Me in the Moon Room. Vukcevich (pronounced VOO-suh-vitch) has published widely within the field and without, assaulting the entire literary community with his strange short-short stories that always leave the reader feeling like he is not seeing the world from an eccentric-enough angle. He lives in Oregon, working as a programmer in a couple of university brain labs, and participating in the well-known Wordos writers group.
This collection of thirty-three surreal, weird, and absurd stories contains two of the best story titles I've ever seen: "By the Time We Get to Uranus" and "Poop." That these two titles are the only scatalogically-inclined in the book says perhaps more about my sense of humor than the author's, though Vukcevich has an uncompromising and intelligent wit. The fact that most of the fiction in this collection is limited to the short-short form allows the author to slam you with an idea or joke, then pull away just as quickly, leaving you gasping for breath. His stories are loopy, serious, whimsical and unsettling all at the same time. They will bend your brain farther than Dali or Barthelme ever could.
In 2002, Grant and Link published The Mount (winner of the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award) and Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories, both by Carol Emshwiller. Though she had written three previous novels and three short collections prior to these books, for some reason Emshwiller hadn't been carried aloft and extolled as one of literature's most imaginative wordsmiths as much as she deserved. Maybe now she will be. She divides her time between New York City, where she teaches at the NYU School of Continuing Education, and the Sierras in California. Her favorite writer is Kafka, and that influence is felt in the simplicity and structure of her fiction, which she makes look much easier than is normally possible.
The Mount is the story of Charley and is told almost exclusively in his voice. Charley lives in a world that is ruled by aliens referred to as Hoots, short bug-eyed creatures with floppy ears and hands strong enough to choke a human in seconds (kind of like Dobby from Harry Potter on steroids). The legs of the Hoots are so weak to be almost vestigial, and so they must use humans as their mounts. It is never explicitly revealed how the Hoots conquered the human race, but it may have had something to do with the way they emit sound, a deep soul-shaking "ho" that can incapacitate anything with auditory capabilities. The Hoots seem to be benevolent rulers, but humans are still being ruled over, which doesn't sit well with some. Charley is liberated by his father through a violent raid on the stables where he is housed, and is brought to live with the other Free Humans living in the mountains, something the Hoots aren't quick to forgive.
The story is exquisitely conveyed through Charley's simple-minded narrative, and we come to feel his inner conflict between his desire to be a Free Human and do what he wants, and the aspiration to please his Hoot rider, His Excellent Excellency, Future-Ruler-Of-Us-All. After all, it's the lifelong ambition of Sams and Sues (which are how the Hoots refer to human males and females) to develop strong legs, shiny hair, and a noble trot for their masters. Through the act of revolution by Charley's father, Charley's entire worldview is shaken to its core, and he must not only learn to live, but to be a human being.
Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories further showcases Emshwiller's command of the written word. The nineteen stories in this collection range from 1977 to the present and give us the wonderful range of the author's career. "Grandma" shows us that even superheroes can grow old. The narrator in "Nose" has always believed that her nose just wasn't meant to go on her face and she turns out to be right. "Creature", which won the 2002 Nebula Award, makes us believe that a top-secret weapon which looks like Godzilla can love to sing nursery rhymes and smile. Emshwiller's prose in the short form is just as effective and enchanting as in her novels, and she is a true American treasure.
Which brings us up to the present. Trampoline is Small Beer's first foray into the anthology, deftly edited by Kelly Link. The title does not refer to any theme or manifesto or question posed to the authors. It just is. Thus, there really is no common thread connecting all the stories, except that they are all extremely well-written. In the tradition of the acclaimed Polyphony anthologies, Kelly Link has assembled twenty slipstream stories that, while they might not bounce on the floor if tossed, will certainly leave the reader wondering how he or she got on without them before.
There are some of the big names in the field here (Jeffrey Ford, Karen Joy Fowler, Carol Emshwiller), as well as the up-and-coming hot young turks (Alex Irvine, Christopher Rowe, Alan DeNiro, Christopher Barzak), but some of the best stories come from those authors you may never have heard of. Richard Butner has been selling stories sporadically since 1988, and his "Ash City Stomp" (which inspired the cover art by Shelley Jackson, who also contributed the creepy "Angel" to the anthology) is one of his best stories yet. Samantha Hunt has almost exclusively been published in literary journals, and her whimsical "Famous Men" triptych plays wonderfully with the language. Vandana Singh, whose incredible first published story appeared in the first volume of Polyphony last year brings forth "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet," a tale from an upper-middle-class Indian household that is at times hilarious, thoughtful, and horrifying.
Link has done a fantastic job with the table of contents for Trampoline, balancing the stories against each other with the precision of a mix tape. There are swells and decrescendoes in the text as a whole, but the entire book consists of such good fiction that it'll propel you all the way to the end. Most stories average around fifteen pages (though the shortest is four, and the longest seventy-five), allowing you to taste one or two remarkable fictions before going to bed each night. It's a very well-put-together anthology, in both design and content, and it will mark Kelly Link as a significant editor in addition to her prodigious writing talent.
And finally, in the tradition of the works of such Spanish-speaking magic realists as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jose Saramago comes Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer, translated by the incredible Ursula K. Le Guin. Gorodischer is the author of nineteen books (novels and collections) in her native Argentina and has won numerous awards for her fiction, including the Mas Alla, Silvina Bullrich, Poblet, and Margarita de Ponce Award. She was born in Buenos Aires in 1929, and has spent much of her life in Rosario, Argentina. Kalpa is her first book to be translated into English.
Kalpa Imperial is that strange sort of hybrid book, not quite a novel, but not quite a short story collection either. Each chapter can be taken as a separate story, but they all add up to something in the end that is greater than their sum. Let's call it a compound novel. The book is subtitled "The Greatest Empire That Never Was," and each chapter tells a different story about a vast imaginary empire, all narrated by the same omniscient storyteller. There are tales of treachery, enlightenment, oppression, goodness, emperors, dynasties, and the natural history of ferrets. Originally published in two volumes The House of Power and The Greatest Empire the novel conveys the history of this gigantic world-spanning empire and those affected by the rulers who sit on the Golden Throne.
There is a subtle change between the first and second parts in this novel in the writing style of the storyteller's storyteller, Gorodischer herself. I was unable to find out how far apart these two sections were written, but it feels like part two is more relaxed, as if the author was more comfortable with her skills. My two favorite chapters "Portrait of the Empress" and "The Pool" are both in this section, though the first part is elegantly written too. I hope this book will gain Gorodischer the American recognition that she deserves, so that many of her other books will also appear in this country.
Small Beer Press is still a nascent publisher, but they are putting out more books with lasting literary value than most of the big publishers combined. Grant and Link have a great eye for wonderfully written fiction, bringing to the fore those authors who may have languished in the midlist forever. Their skills are so highly regarded that Terri Windling has chosen them to take over her editing duties at The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as sit on the advisory board for the Interstitial Arts Institute. I can easily see Small Beer continuing to flourish and grow and provide an outstanding voice in the field of fantastic fiction.
[Jason Erik Lundberg]
Find out more about Small Beer Press's book and chapbook lines, as well as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and ordering information at the official Web site.