Meet me in the moon room by Ray Vukcevich

Sometimes I enjoy reading a book that makes me close the book, stare into the distance and think ‘what the actual fuck did I just read!?’. Meet Me In The Moon Room by Ray Vukcevich is one of those books. It is a collection of 33 surreal short science-fiction stories. An example of why I describe the stories as surreal is the story where a man uses a turtle as a toupee and a snake as a moustache and thinks nobody will notice. Also, there is the story where people turn into bicycles or where a couple visits a planet where they are forced to carry a fishbowl with a barking goldfish. Even though all those stories sound ridiculous, Jay Vukcevich has the amazing talent to make them sound logical while you are reading them.

Each of the 33 stories has those creative outlandish elements. Vukcevich’ mind must be a very interesting place. I enjoyed reading this book because with each story my mind got new ideas to think about. Most of the joy I got from reading this book was picturing all the things he described, such as the barking goldfish. This makes this a very good book for people who love daydreaming and want some fantastical inspiration to do so. Who has ever thought of a story where somebody put a paper bag over his head and got lost before? However, despite the fact that I loved the images in this book, it still took me over a year to finish it and it’s only 250 pages. This is not necessarily a problem, but sometimes it felt as if Vukcevich was so proud of the outlandish ideas he had for his stories that he forgot to write a plot. Some stories are not more than a surreal idea and those stories left me confused. I don’t mind if people write bizarre stories, but in my opinion, originality is not enough to make a good story. It should also have a point to make or an interesting plot. Especially in short stories, a strong plot is important. It does not help that there is no overall theme to this collection to pull the book together. Each story stands on its own and tells its own bizarre story. I will discuss three stories to give you an idea of what to expect in this book.

The first story is Mom’s Little Friend. This story is about two children saving their mother from a nanobot invasion in her body and mind. Nanobots are super small robots and in the story, they are used to keep the body safe and healthy. However, their way to keep the body save is to not allow it to do anything. The best way to stay safe and alive after all is to stay indoors and move as little as possible. In the story, the children find a high bridge and force their mother to bungee jump to scare the nanobots out of her body. The theory is that exposing their mom to a high enough risk will create an adrenaline surge which will chase the nanobots out of their mother’s body. This story got me hooked on the book because I loved the outcome of the story. It was interesting to read that the solution in the story for over-protective nanobots is over-exposure to danger. Also, the build-up of this story is very good. It takes a few times throwing their mother off a bridge before the nanobots give up. While doing that, the nanobots and the children argue with the nanobots. In that way, you learn more about their origin, their motives and how they work.

The second story I want to discuss had me screaming and is called Home Remedy. This story is about a man who has an imaginary bug infestation in his nose. Perry, the unhappy victim, tries to rid himself of the bugs in his bathroom while his girlfriend demands to get in to use the washroom. While his desperation to get the bugs out of his nose grows, his girlfriend gets more and more demanding. Perry starts to use heavier and heavier tools and methods to rid himself of the bugs. That is where my screaming started because he starts poking things up his nose and I could image that vividly. It starts relatively innocently by spraying bug spray in his nose which makes ‘a fire rage through his nose and into his head’ as Perry describes it himself. Later there are tweezers and ice picks involved to kill the bugs in his head. I was worried about the life and sanity of Perry. What I liked about this story is that it is a horror story in a very domestic setting. I expect stories about ghosts, murderers and evil ghouls to scare the living daylight out of me, but in this story, I was terrified by a guy in a bathroom trying to remove a bug from his nose. This shows good storytelling in my opinion. Also, this story had a very good build-up where things escalated quickly.

The last story I will discuss is A Holliday Junket because this story is so very very strange. This is the story where people are required to carry a fishbowl with a barking goldfish in it all the time. The barking goldfish eats kamikaze spiders which are as big as a basketball and attack your face to suck out your eyes. When you’re attacked the only thing you can do is put your face in the fishbowl for the goldfish to eat it. The protagonist and his girlfriend visit the planet for a holiday, but upon hearing about the spiders and the fishbowls they want to leave as soon as possible – the need to carry the fishbowls was not in the brochure. Escape is not easy though, because they must touch heads to communicate (don’t ask me why) and the heavy fishbowls make it hard to connect because they are super large. However, I did not really get why they were struggling to meet heads so much because it did not sound like a big problem. This made me think whether the story was meant as some sort of slapstick because of the futile and clumsy attempts to connect. Or maybe it has a deeper meaning about human connection. In this story, carrying the fishbowl leaves people isolated because they are too big and heavy to manoeuvre around freely. The only way the couple could reconnect was to drop the fishbowls in danger of their own lives. The bliss they experience at that moment made this story a romantic one as well. This story is a good example that Vukcevich’ stories are interesting, but do not always make much sense.

Many of Vukcevich’ stories in this collection made me wonder whether there was some deeper meaning behind the stories I was missing, or that there was no point to them at all. The answer is probably a bit of both of them. That makes this a very hard book to judge because, on the one hand, I loved some of the stories, but also some I did not get. The stories that were good were brilliant because they gave me images in my mind even Hollywood cannot think of. Also, they often were funny or revolting, such as the bug story, which made me wonder again what’s going on in Vukcevick’ mind. Although he did not manage to execute all of his ideas well because some stories felt he just threw a strange idea on paper and left it at that. The ideas still make the book worth reading, especially if you look science-fiction and the strange and fantastical. Don’t rush reading this book though, because it is better to take time to make a movie in your mind out of every idea in this book. In that way, even if you didn’t like the story it will give you plenty to think about whenever you’re bored.

Trying to speak French drunk and other confusing things award for being a fun, but very bewildering book to read

 

Ray Vukcevich, meet me in the moon room (Easthampton, 2001)

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The Prince of Mist (El principe de la niebla) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

‘The Prince of Mist’ sounds so stately to me. It calls to mind an image of a mysterious, wistful, tall figure of a certain benevolence. The Prince in this book is nothing like that. He is the threatening creature from your nightmares: an evil clown who plays a grim game with children in a seaside town, manipulating even the laws of nature. He is a prince only in the sense that he is powerful and his elusive presence creeps through the story like a tentacle of fog.

Before telling you what the story is about, I feel like I have to make a disclaimer: from what I have heard and seen from the story It by Stephen King, this story is nothing like that. You might find this a relief or a disappointment but in any case, I encourage you to plough on, because this book is worth reading in its own right. It’s about a boy, Max Carver, who is told on his thirteenth birthday that his family will move from the city where they currently live to the seaside, to escape the war (it’s 1943, in an unspecified European country). Max is not happy at all with his father’s decision, and neither his eldest sister, Alicia. When they arrive on the platform in the village, Max notices that the station clock is slow just as his other sister, Irina, picks up a stray cat. She begs to keep it, and her parents agree.

The Carver family’s new house was built by a surgeon, Dr Richard Fleischmann, who lived there with his wife Eva and their young boy, until the child drowned while playing on the beach when he was seven. Only a year later Dr Fleischmann died and his widow moved, but for years no-one wanted to buy her house until Maximilian Carver, Max’s father, the eccentric watchmaker came upon it. Max and his family start to warm to their new surroundings quickly, as the house is beautiful and the village welcoming. But soon, Max starts to notice strange things around him: Irina’s cat seems to watch him with an expression of malice and the clock at the train station is not slow but goes backwards. Strangest of all, there is the walled garden near the house that is filled with statues of circus figures: a lion tamer, a contortionist, a fakir and many others, all circled around a clown. And that clown doesn’t always seem to hold the same position.

Max befriends a boy in the village, who is a few years older than he is: Roland, the son of the lighthouse keeper. Roland tells him that his grandfather, who cares for him as his parents have died, is the only survivor of a shipwreck near the coast where they live. The two go diving at the place where the remains of the ship still are. Max discovers to his horror that the symbol of a six-pointed star, that was all over the circus garden, is on the tattered flag of the wrecked Orpheusas well. Max, Roland and Alicia, tired of incomplete stories about the past, start to investigate the mysteries of the shipwreck and the house, and uncover the truth bit by bit.

If you know this author from The Shadow of the Wind, you know how beautiful his writing style is. He can do anything with it, make you feel anything with it. Carlos Ruiz Zafón has his own light magic that makes you dream away with his books until you are completely in their grip. This is lovely when he tells about love and warm, lazy summer afternoons, but terrible when he describes grief or the creeping feeling that someone you care about is in danger and you can do nothing about it. This short novel, his debut, has already perfected that feeling of impending doom. Information is revealed bit by bit via different characters or by foreshadowing by the author, meaning that you often know more as a reader than the individual characters do. At the point when Max starts to piece together all the facts, the reader is already overcome by a feeling of panic because danger is so clearly nearby. The books speeds up until the frantic ending, which had me gasping for breath.

That the clown in the garden is the antagonist of the story is no big spoiler. He is (or at least was, years ago) called ‘Cain’ and is an evil character that harks back to ancient stories of tricksters and fae like we know them from mythology and fairy tales. He has a dark magic, no pity, endless patience and many ways of manifesting himself. Like Rumplestiltskin, he grants wishes in turn for terrible payments. His victims don’t always know what they owe them and if they do, they don’t realise how dearly the payment will cost them. These trickster characters defy the rules of our world and use their cleverness for mischief – often in the persona of a joker or clown. Reading the story, you get a feeling like Ruiz Zafón hasn’t written Cain. He’s an evil spirit that belongs in many of mankind’s stories and has now resurfaced in this one. The sea fits with him perfectly. What could be scarier than an evil clown and the sea – also known for being treacherous?

The story is not just scary, though. Despite the inexplicable threat that hangs over them, the teenagers still enjoy a fairly normal summer for a long time. They swim, bike around, buy pastry from the baker’s and build bonfires. Max is thirteen, the age when you turn from child into a teenager. He revels in hanging out with an older boy and discovering the world apart from his parents. When Roland and Alicia fall in love, Max is both delighted and jealous for his friend’s attention. He looks up to Roland, but has to learn to trust his own strengths as well. As it turns out, he is quite clever and brave, qualities he very much needs with Cain around.

The book is only 200 pages long, but so intense that you can read it many times without it losing its fascination. You end up discovering new, clever details, because everything in this short novel has meaning. Cain is called after the first ever murderer, the sunken ship after a mythical figure who tried to make a deal with Hades to bring his wife back from the dead. Everything is intertwined and nothing accidental. I’m convinced that Ruiz Zafón has skill, but also tremendous talent and quite a bit of magic. So this is where I have to stop writing, because the magic you can only discover by reading it yourself.

White Rabbit Award for clocks that don’t behave as they should

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El principe de la niebla (Barcelona, 1993)

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Jo Robin

The Glass of Lead and Gold by Cornelia Funke

When I hear the name Cornelia Funke, I think of magical worlds that allow you to just drift off and pretend that all is well… somewhere else. She is the queen of fantasy for children and if you haven’t read her books growing up, you’ve missed out. But fear not: there’s still time! I’m an adult now (or I’m supposed to be) and I came across this little booklet and it took me right back to those sleepless summer nights I had as a child, curled up with a book in my bed. So here it is: a short review of a short but sweet Funke, to reminds us all of our too short childhoods.

Tabetha is a 15-year-old girl who lives in the city of Londra, a sort of mirror version of our London. Her mother died when she was very young and ever since she’s had to make her own way in the harsh world she lives in. On the one hand, Londra is a magical place where Will-‘o-Whisps brighten up fancy frocks and Fire Elves blow beautiful glass ornaments, but on the other hand Londra is a harsh Dickensian place, where poor people die of cold and hunger. This means that Tabetha, after the death of her mother, had no choice but to hide the fact that she’s a girl and become a ‘mudlark’. Now, a mudlark is someone who walks the riverbanks of the Themse, the Thames in our world, all day and tries to find something, anything to sell. Usually she only finds buttons, rope and the occasional coin, but on the snow-filled days leading up to Christmas, Tabetha finds a treasure.

When a rich but dodgy looking man asks her to find that particular object, she decides to pretend she has no idea and that she would never be able to find that in the river anyways. The truth is that she already has: she has found a shard of glass, and not just any glass, but a shard from the magical Glass of Lead and Gold. When she doesn’t quite know what to do with her newfound treasure, she luckily receives help, though unwanted at first. Help comes from Ofelia, a girl with only one arm, from the soup kitchen and the troll-woman who works at the same kitchen. Together they convince the most famous glassblower to restore the Glass of Lead and Gold, a glass that can turn sad tears into golden drops. Unfortunately, Tabetha isn’t the only one after the glass and when it gets stolen from her, all seems lost. But it’s almost Christmas, so anything could happen!

Now, as you may have guessed, this booklet is a classic Christmas tale. It has London, or Londra, snowy streets and, yes, a happy ending! Christmas tales are always best when they start off with the downtrodden and poorest of people, because Christmas, more than any holiday, favours them most of all. Also, there’s the brilliant seasonal element of fearing someone based off of their looks: trolls, in this case, who turn out to be very nice. I’m not quite willing to give away the end of the story, but it’s a brilliant solution and a triumph over the greedy rich gentlemen of this world. All in all, this book puts you in a wonderful Christmassy mood, because I’ve started counting the weeks, and it’s only February!

Cornelia Funke has a wonderful writing style and this book is no exception, however short it may be. Many know her Inkworld trilogy, of which I have reviewed the first book here, and that’s a great example of the way she is able to take you on a journey through magical realms of her imagination. She does this through the stories she comes up with, but also her page-turning style of writing. Interestingly enough, this book she wrote in English straight away. Cornelia Funke is German so most of her books are translated into other languages, but this one isn’t. I thought that was quite impressive.

I think what I liked best about this story is that it is both magical in a Christmassy sort of way, and at the same time all the characters and elements in the story are flawed like in real life. Tabetha is often harsh in her judgement, which comes from her years of fending for herself, but she often says things that she regrets later on. Ofelia has the same problem and she has trouble sharing her plans and trusting others. Trolls turn out to be nice, but a bit blunt and brutish. Mermaids and the river monsters are more likely to drown you than help the mudlarks. Fire Elves sound lovely, but they could burn you alive once they get angry. It’s still a tough world, so somehow that made Tabetha’s discovery of the glass still an exiting one. There may be magic in Londra, but life is still hard for the poor. Again, this review is just another ode to Cornelia Funke, who manages to make the magical ordinary in her mirror-version of London and the filthy mudlark, who just wants enough money to buy dry shoes, the one we’re rooting for.

Fairy Dance Award: For a little bit of Fantasy brightness in an otherwise gloomy world

Cornelia Funke, The Glass of Lead and Gold (London, 2018)

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Thura Nightingale

Barrel Fever by David Sedaris

We all have, or should have, that one friend who seems to find herself in strange situations more often than other people. Or that one friend who meets the strangest people on a daily basis. I am always a bit jealous of those people because their life sounds a bit confusing, but also very interesting. To make up for my lack of strange encounters, I read books and listen to the stories of those kinds of people. David Sedaris is one of them. All his books are short story collections, both fictional and stories based on his own life. Barrel Fever is his first book and in this book, there are twelve fictional stories and four autobiographical essays. The title Barrel Fever comes from one of those stories.

David Sedaris is a cynical middle-aged man. His job is to write stories about his life and to tour the world to read his stories out loud. Before his writing made him enough money to live off, he had a lot of strange and shitty jobs. Also, the way he talks about it, he comes from a bizarre family with story-worthy characters such as an ever-shouting and smoking mother. His sister is Amy Sedaris, the actress and comedian. All his odd jobs and the antics of his family serve as inspiration for his stories. In Barrel Fever most of the stories are fiction, but in his later works, he uses more and more experiences from his own life. Barrel Fever is inspired by a love for the strange with a massive dose of dark humour, which I suspect is inspired by his youth. This I will explain by discussing two stories of the collection.

I call David Sedaris a cynical middle-aged man because a lot of his stories seem to be based on his frustrations towards the foolishness of other people. In many of the stories in this book, the main character is a person who looks down on other people and who think the world of themselves. The way he writes the stories the characters usually end up making a fool out of themselves. Sedaris likes to make fun of other people and his aim is not to be liked but to entertain. In his newer work, he also makes fun of himself which makes those stories better. It makes us readers take his frustration less serious because he is as big an idiot at times as the people he writes about. It also helps to have more cohesion to include more stories about his own life. In this book, the first 12 fictional stories felt disjointed from each other. There was no common theme, except that they were all outsiders with some kind of grudge to the wider society. Each story on its own had fascinating characters, from soccer moms to scorned wives to a person fed up with the anti-smoking brigade, but overall the book lacked impact because of the lack of cohesion. In my opinion, short story collections are better with a central theme or an overlap in characters.

Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!! is one of the fictional stories. This story takes the form of those seasonal family newsletters some people write detailing everything that happened in their family in the past year. In the story, the newsletter is written by some kind of soccer mom high on pep pills, which is clear by the number of exclamation marks in the title. The letter starts relatively normal about her perfect son in college, but it soon escalates when her husband’s Vietnamese teenage daughter appears and starts living with them. She does not speak English and doesn’t show a willingness to participate in family life. At least, that is what pep pill soccer mom tells us. It becomes clear that pep pill mom is one of those people who think life has one big grudge against them, and that they are solely managing everything and are to be blamed for nothing. She wants her new daughter to listen to her wishes, but she refuses. The power of this story is in the slow escalation of events. It starts sounding like a normal dysfunctional family with a mother over-compensating to hide that fact, and it ends in murder.

Santaland Diaries is the last autobiographical essay in this collection and it’s about Sedaris’ time as an elf. The role of Santa’s elf is one of the odd jobs he was forced to take before his writing made him enough money. As an elf, he is Santa’s help in a big shopping mall where people go to take their picture with Santa and to tell him their wishes. All the elves must work together to make sure this process goes smoothly, especially because there can be hundreds of people eager to have their moment with Santa in one day. The elves first get a rigorous training and they are assigned a role, such as a cashier elf, the elf who brings people to Santa and the elf who ushers people to leave as quickly as possible once the photo is made. What makes this story great is the deadpan way in which Sedaris talks about the different people who come to visit Santa and about the particular challenges of each job the elves have. This is one of the stories that made Sedaris famous and it is easy to see why. The story is a satire on the pretence of happiness some families force themselves into during the holiday season and how capitalism has made a joyful encounter with Santa into a well-organized money-making machine (a print of the photo is 17 dollars). Sedaris himself has resigned himself with his job as an elf and tries to make the best of it by observing his colleagues and all the people who visit Santa. Maybe it is during this job where his love for analysing people’s behaviour manifested into writing.

It is hard to judge the general writing style of this book because it changes in each individual story depending on the characters. This is in itself an amazing achievement. For example, the second story about the soccer mom uses an exaggerated writing style and an abundance of exclamation marks. Every English student or writer would be ashamed to hand it in or publish it. It works for that story though, because we are not only told that the woman is unhinged, but it is also clear in her writing. It takes bravery to be a deliberately bad writer, which turned this story from average into one of my favourites. Sedaris changes writing style in the other stories as well. Something that is present in all his stories is wit. Sedaris can turn the most banal situation into a humorous one by exaggeration. His style makes me wonder if he himself experienced so many strange things or whether he manages to turn everything he experiences into a great story by exaggeration. The answer is probably a bit of both, and in the end, it doesn’t matter whether a story is true or not if it’s a great story.

All the stories in this book are oriented around dysfunctional or bizarre people. It is clear Sedaris gets a kick out of writing about this kind of characters and meeting them in real life. It reads as if through his stories Sedaris wants to understand all the directions the human mind can take to its extremes. This is true to a greater extent in Sedaris’ later work than in Barrel Fever though, because it has only four autobiographical stories. In his later work, it also becomes clearer how much an oddball David Sedaris himself is. For example, he has an obsession for taxidermy and doesn’t rest until he forces his boyfriend Hugh into buying some specimens for his birthday instead of just buying it for himself. Other reviews of Barrel Fever tend to be critical and I think that is because in his later books he does not only make fun of other people but also of himself. This makes him a more sympathetic author. Writing about oddballs leads to an endless collection of fascinating stories, but it also makes those people vulnerable. Weirdness is not always accepted in this world, and by only focusing on other people’s antics and hiding his own the stories lack sincerity. Including his own stories creates sympathy and trust that we, David Sedaris, his characters and us as readers are all one in our delicious weirdness. Together we make this world a more interesting place to live in.

In the end, this is not my favourite book by David Sedaris. Either Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favourite. There were some great stories in this book, but overall, they are not as polished and funny as the other books. Also, his own perspective is lacking too much for me. It is true that there are four autobiographical essays, but they don’t go much into Sedaris as a person. Maybe Sedaris was still discovering his style when he wrote this book or maybe he did not have the confidence to explore his own strangeness. This is his debut novel after all. Therefore, I am not sure if I would recommend this book, especially for people who haven’t read David Sedaris’ work before. David Sedaris is a sure recommendation but start with the other two books I mentioned. If you like those you can always come back to Barrel Fever.

Perfection comes with practice award for a debut that shows promise but isn’t very good just yet.

David Sedaris, Barrel Fever (Coronado, 1994)

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