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That Kelly Link is a fearless writer who slaps fiction on your plate and dares you to eat it cannot be denied. In a previous review of her story collection Pretty Monsters I enthusiastically gave her YA writing a thumbs up, so I was relishing another crack at her quirky brand of prose with her latest collection for adults, Get In Trouble (Random House, 2015).

A number of themes and images run through these stories, if stories they truly be. Girls or women who are bored or bothered by boyfriends or things they don’t understand. Superheroes (too many, IMHO). Ghosts. Alcohol, always alcohol to fail as the longed-for panacea. And at the heart of everything, the stinking beast that is Florida. Link’s prose sometimes runs off like Hunter Thompson trying to figure out why he has two shadows, and so what if he’s just an ordinary housewife who doesn’t understand her husband?

Link loves to conflate the voice of the narrator with the voice of any number of characters in a story, dispensing with quote marks, throwing in cryptic catch-phrases that refer to a code that may or not reveal a meaningful connection or emotional truth. This makes the stories a bit of a struggle at times, though when the prose truly clicks, and Link reins in the overly clever cute stuff, it can be LOL funny. At their best, they leave a queasy feeling and give the reader plenty of space to figure out the meaning. At their worst, they’re repetitive and boring. Sometimes a story shows both.

None of the characters in these stories have what I would call an “aha!” moment. No startling revelations, no fateful choices, but more than likely a turning of some sort that changes the atmosphere from, say, gaiety to blurry apprehension. You have to sort through the rubbish for a payoff; readers more accustomed to having this neatly arranged by the author may lose patience. I won’t pretend that at times I grew weary of tripping through disgorged prose or pretentious characters who didn’t connect with me. But in most of the stories I would inevitably find a nugget or two—a wacky observation or cleverly turned phrase—and I’d do a mental fist pump, yes! Kelly, you still have it!

Here’s a quote from the final story in the collection, in a what-if world where pocket universes are de rigeur, at least in Florida, and the main character is a bureaucrat in charge of (I kid you not) inventorying “sleepers,” people who inexplicably fall asleep and have to be stored somewhere. Before the MC hunkers down in a climactic hurricane, she holds forth on a number of Florida’s tacky cultural icons, such as mermaids:

The mermaids were an invasive species, like the iguanas. People had brought them from one of the Disney pocket universes as pets, and now they were everywhere, small but numerous in a way that appealed to children and bird-watchers. They liked to show off and although they didn’t seem much smarter than, say, a talking dog, and maybe not as smart, since they didn’t speak, only sang and whistled and made rude gestures, they were too popular with the tourists at the Venetian Pools to be gotten rid of.”

It’s funny little observations and clever inventions like these that make Link a worthy read. I only wish there were more of them here, and fewer of the confusing, nonsensical ones.

Night of PanWith the recent popularity of the Percy Jackson middle grade fantasy series, Greek Mythology has also grown in popularity among both preteens and their teachers. Fictional treatments of such iconic figures as Jason, Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and even the god Pan have made the Greek myths familiar to young readers in a way that textbooks can’t.

There’s a reason why these myths continue to fascinate us well over 2,000 years since they were handed down to the Western World. The Greeks told stories filled with passion. Their heroes were capable of doing terrible things, and their gods acted in all-too-human—often lascivious—ways. Western drama as we know it was born in the religious dramas that gave us both comedy and tragedy. These myths greatly influenced all kinds of Greek thinkers—philosophers, mathematicians, rulers, playwrights—who in turn profoundly influenced Western thought in the Renaissance. We’d have no Shakespeare without the Greeks.

So universal do the Greeks seem to us today that it’s easy for us with Western postmodern values to forget how different from ours their cultural attitudes were. They had democracy, but also slaves, and women were treated as property as well. Warfare was glorified. Rulers often identified with a god who had the right to punish people as he saw fit. Once the ruling class ended the matriarchy of its ancestors, brutality was condoned or even praised.

Writing stories based on a culture with such a different ethical point of view from ours can be quite challenging—particularly in stories for young people, which we as teachers and parents require toe the ethical line. Stories with human sacrifice, gods who rape, incest, and other atrocities are generally kept away from pre-teens; in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, for example, Herakles “swats” his family down instead of tearing them limb from limb. Percy Jackson only goes so far down this road as well—even when Percy slays a monster, it disappears in a cloud of gold dust rather than actually bleed to death.

Are there any novels out there for young readers that aren’t afraid to deal with the darker aspects of Greek myths? One such YA novel I read recently, Night of Pan by first-time novelist Gail Strickland (2014, Curiosity Quills Press) bursts out of the sword-and-sandal approach to Greek mythology with an exclamation point. The main character is not a storied hero, a wisecracking modern teenager, or a god. She’s Thaleia, daughter of a former oracle priestess at Delphi known as the Pythia.

Delphi played an enormous role in both Greek mythology and history. It’s a beautiful place, set on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, and for thousands of years the priests who ran the oracle grew wealthy from the kings who came from all over to seek information—or help—from the god Apollo. The Pythia sat on a three-legged stool over a gaseous vent, went into a trance, and spoke in tongues while the priests interpreted her babblings to their clients. While the Pythia was recognized as being important to the oracle, it was the priests—all male—who held the power and riches.

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

Strickland’s approach is contemporary. Thaleia is a feminist; she has visions and defies the evil priest who rules Delphi and nearly pays for it with her life. She not only survives, but with her newly-found god companion Pan she gains the strength to claim the role of Pythia herself. In so doing she gives one of the most famous prophecies of all time, one which inspires the Greeks to defeat the Persian conqueror Xerxes in the naval battle at Salamis.

But wait, there’s more. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that, prior to Salamis, Xerxes tried to attack Delphi, and was repulsed by Apollo himself when the god sent an avalanche to repulse the Persians. Strickland cleverly uses this as another way for Thaleia to flex her magical muscles as she calls on Apollo for help, and to the amazement of her community the god responds.

Thus this story straddles too genres—historical fiction and New Age-tinged feminist pagan fantasy. Just when I thought this was a realistic story, here comes Pan with his bag of tricks. Thaleia is a true child of nature, and she experiences Pan not as a scary would-be rapist but as delightful-smelling outdoor kitchen god of sorts. At one point I was convinced they were going to have sex—isn’t that what satyrs do?—but no, Pan just wants to inspire her, like a good contemporary man who wouldn’t touch jailbait.

So Pan is cool, if a bit smell-infused. The other deity Thaleia encounters is Apollo himself, a far more powerful god who ruled the oracle. (Note: at one time the oracle was not ruled by Apollo but by Gaia, the earth goddess. I doubt many contemporary Pagans would have any problem wishing Gaia’s Python had kicked Apollo’s butt instead of falling to one of his arrows). Here Strickland has a problem: does she present the god as sympathetic, despicable, or something in between? After all, his head priest is a violent misogynist. Strickland presents him as a kind of disembodied force of nature—no face, even. Of course the gods could present themselves to mortals any way they liked, but I would have liked if Apollo had appeared with some kind of human aspect to him.

I give Strickland props for creating an appealing main character in Thaleia, and putting her in an intriguing historical setting that shows obvious scholarship on Strickland’s part. At times I found myself a bit confused by events, and at times the marriage of historical and fantasy fiction strains a bit. But overall this tale’s most important function is to remind us that embracing one’s passion can lead to great success, no matter whether you’re a Pythia-in-waiting or a suburban kid about to experience all that wild stuff Pan was famous for.

So tackyOur lives are more than just our minds and bodies. They’re also our stuff. This truth hit home recently with the death of my mother, and subsequent frantic family parceling out of my parents’ possessions.

For the last two years of her life, my mother Kim suffered from dementia and required round-the-clock care. Her husband Sam was gone, and she often forgot that he’d died, or even his name. His absence was a vast presence in her condo apartment, an apartment that the two of them had filled with all kinds of things. Art hung on the wall, figurines and Buddha statuettes sat on shelves and inside cabinets, along with my dad’s tennis trophies and framed awards from various service organizations and government committees. Antique furniture (and, as we found out, imitation antique furniture) nestled in every room along walls and in corners, and they all contained multiple drawers filled to the brim with things. Both my parents had walk-in closets full of clothing as well as various other items. They also had two full storerooms in other parts of the building. In other words, their space was stuffed with stuff.

Even though her mobility was limited, Kim’s hearing remained sharp, and if she thought anyone was going through drawers or closets or bookshelves she would object loudly. This kept me and my other family members from getting a jumpstart on organizing things to toss out or give away, and during her final days we naturally focused on her, not the apartment. No matter; we thought we’d have plenty of time after her death to sort everything out.

We didn’t realize how quickly the condo would sell—at a price double what we expected, and paid fully in cash at that. Escrow closed in a week. The new owners were champing at the bit to send in remodelers, and we’d barely scratched the surface.

My sister Sarah flew in from the East Coast and managed to keep the new owners at bay while we divvied up artwork, antiques, and other goodies. Thanks to some help from an appraiser, that was the fun part.

The rest of it, though, was hard work and taxed all of us. That’s because none of us realized the extent to which my parents—and my mother in particular—purchased and collected things, sometimes obsessively. In one drawer, for example, I found NINE separate shoehorns and about two dozen partly used dental floss dispensers. Their filled bookcases were only marginally organized, with romance novels tucked in between books on Asian art and histories of the Civil War (to name just a few categories). While packing books I just happened to open one up and—voila!—pressed between the pages were four 50 dollar bills. My mom also put cash in envelopes and stuck in them in various drawers scattered their apartment; you couldn’t just throw stuff out willy-nilly or you might miss some serious cash.

My mother collected every card and letter—did she ever throw anything away?—and often tossed them into drawers along with new photos, old photos, jewelry, half-eaten cookies, pens, post-it pads, notepads, writing pads, scissors, CDs, and of course shoe horns. Sorting the wheat from the chaff took hours and hours. With a deadline to get everything done approaching, I realized we hadn’t even touched a cabinet crammed with at least a dozen huge travel photo albums. I threw them into cardboard boxes and moved on.

Our movers came in and starting wrapping furniture up like tasty morsels for giant spiders that feed on chairs and desks and chests. It was about this time that a metaphor for my parents’ condo emerged in my mind: it was like the carcass of a giant spider, and we were the spiderlings feeding off it.

After the movers took away the stuff we were keeping, my sister departed and left the next step to me and my wife Denise (who, by the way, worked like a beaver and never complained a whit). A professional estate salesman came in and cherry-picked what he thought he could sell; surprisingly he didn’t much care for the antique furniture and asked us if we had more military paraphernalia. But he hauled away a bunch of stuff, and now almost everything was out to be picked over by us.

We invited the housekeepers and other employees at the condo complex to come in and take from what remained. But because we only had one day left, they had to do this at the same time the hauler we hired came in to clear the place out. Fortunately he was a friendly and agreeable person, though he worked with such astonishing strength and speed I could barely think straight.

As a result I made one very foolish mistake. A few days earlier I’d filled a rented van with stuff—mostly boxes—to take up to our Berkeley storage unit. But one of the items was a cabinet I’d forgotten to point out to the movers, so I and a pair of strong young friends I’d hired managed to get it into the van. Except that after we’d taken out the drawers to lighten the load we’d forgotten to load them onto the van. And the hauler would be coming the next morning.

No matter, I thought. The hauler will surely see them and put them aside for me.

Except, no. He assumed the drawers were junk, and by the time I asked him about them he’d already taken them to the dump, where now they were compacted pieces of wood and tiny metal handle pieces.

I felt bad about that, but not as bad as my sister when she realized she’d lost track of an emerald ring. My advice to her was to just let it go. We’d already made off with a ton of booty (though what to DO with it all???) and it was time to return to our regularly scheduled lives. Meanwhile, boxes and boxes of stuff remain, waiting and beckoning us to go through them, flotsam and jetsam from the wreck of our parents’ lives.

I’ve always had a thing for maps. It started when I read The Hobbit and found myself enchanted by the quaint illustrations of Misty Mountains and mysterious runes and wispy-lettered place names that let Middle Earth bloom in my imagination. Later I became fascinated by early Western maps of the New World, where legendary places like Quivera and El Dorado hovered tentatively in places the mapmaker had clearly only imagined. When I was a young man in Edinburgh, I even met a real cartographer, one of the few remaining mapmakers in the world who still made maps by engraving them with special tools on copper plates. His name: David Webster. While he was no relation—or was he?—I took this for a sign: maps were destined to be part of my life, somehow.

Maps of imaginary places continued to play a role in my private inventions, and now a map itself is an actual character in one of my works-in-progress. Thus when I was browsing my local library’s collection of middle grade fiction and my eyes fell on N.E. Bode’s The Slippery Map, I quickly snapped it up. I was curious to see how another author would use a map in a middle grade fantasy, since my WIP is also a middle grade fantasy. More than 270 Bode pages later, I now have a pretty good idea.

First of all, The Slippery Map is a story, not a map. It doesn’t even have a map, despite a wildly imaginative and times confusing array of places, invented creatures, and quirky people. It’s well titled because the story itself is sort of slippery. An orphaned boy (yes, another orphan story) with the reality-challenged name Oyster R. Motel lives in a nunnery and uses a map to enter into an imaginary world that he later learns was created by his parents when they were children—and his parents are still alive in this imaginary world. Oyster must not only defeat the assorted threatening creatures (Spider Wolves, Snapping Dirt Clams, etc.) that stand in his way by employing such oddities as menthol-flavored figs, he ultimately must face down Dark Mouth, an industrial tyrant who enslaves the various Perths, Wingers, Doggers, and other whimsical denizens of this imaginary world. Dark Mouth also holds Oyster’s parents captive. Oyster finds his inner hero to rescue them, but he also needs the help of the nuns who have heretofore raised him, who come flying through the map with habits flapping in a frenzy.

I must confess there were times when I could have used both a map and a glossary to keep track of the places and characters in this story. It dragged in places, as episodic children’s stories can do at times. Two qualities proved to be its saving grace, however: a dreamish sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, and Oyster’s own soul-searching.

For me, the most touching humor comes when Oyster is temporarily seduced into giving in to the “good life” by one Vince Vance, a two-bit TV celeb hired by Dark Mouth to be his happy-happy mouth piece to keep the poor Perth citizens down. Oyster’s first impression of him:

A pair of Vicious Goggles snarled on either side of him [Oyster], and this alerted a Perth in a nearby lounge chair. The Perth was wearing swim trunks, a foil sun-reflector on his chest, and a pair of blue sunglasses. He looked freshly broiled.”

This pathetic “celeb” takes Oyster on a tour of his mansion staffed by elderly Perths, with stupendous, loud, famous-sounding music and an exceptionally fancy kitchen. Sensing that Vince Vance wants to be famous, Oyster mentions Hollywood. Intrigued, Vance tries to locate Hollywood on the Slippery Map, but instead inadvertently brings in Sister Mary Many Pockets from the Nunnery from the other side. Vance later obtains the Map and again tries to locate Hollywood—this time bringing in the entire nunnery.

The nuns have all taken a vow of silence, but Oyster manages to communicate with them through his heart. Despite his many self-doubts*, Oyster’s heart is his super power. With it he not only saves people, he reintegrates them into his life, and isn’t that something we would all like to do?

*A note here: the author Bode constantly—constantly—gives us updates on what Oyster is thinking and feeling: “It was strange to be so close to them [his parents]. He realized he was scared to see them. How would they react? He wanted so much from them—all the love he’d missed his whole life. His chest felt heavy with all of his wanting.” The Show Not Tell Police must have had a cow when they read this book, but hey—it’s middle grade.

Sometimes, the film is better.

Such is the case with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky’s 1991 YA novel that was turned into a movie in 2012. Twenty-one years is a long time for a best-seller to make it to the screen, and after reading the novel recently I was curious to see what unspeakable horrors Hollywood would visit on it. I mean, 1991—not only was that before social media, before cell phones, before the Internet even—that I imagined the movie would be some kind of bastard marriage between worlds so different that it would be bound to fail, and fail miserably.

I’m glad I didn’t read any advance reviews of the movie, because discovering how wrong I was had a wonderfully powerful effect on me.

First, the book. The cover blurbs compare it to Catcher in the Rye. The main character in the story, a wallflower named Charlie, mentions Catcher in the Rye several times throughout, so the author is clearly telling us: “My character is awesome and relevant like Holden Caulfield. So, if you like relevant fiction that speaks to ‘today’s generation,’ you will agree that my novel is part of that canon.”

Charlie is like Holden in that he tells the story and is an angst-ridden teen. Other than that, the characters are very different. Holden suffers from an unnamed, existential anxiety that reflects the post-WWII nuclear age. He spends most of the time wandering around by himself. Charlie suffers from a buried trauma that isn’t exposed until story’s end. Meanwhile, despite his pathological shyness he makes friends with a pair of upper class highschoolers. He spends a lot of time with them smoking cigarettes, drinking, getting stoned, and then smoking more cigarettes. In between, he cries. A lot. And tries his best to impress us with his sincerity. He really does.

This guy was supposed to be a genius? He kind of seemed made of cardboard to me. Especially toward the end, he kept saying the same thing over and over again. As I read on I grew restless: isn’t something exciting supposed to be happening, about now? Instead of hearing about all the stupid people in his life? Like, doesn’t someone die, or at least try to die? By the time the Big Reveal happened, I was mostly relieved the story was almost over.

So I was expecting more of this when I popped in the DVD. The first pleasant surprise came when I saw that the character Sam, the girl Charlie has a crush on, was played by Emma Watson. I loved Emma Watson in Harry Potter, and she doesn’t disappoint here.

Then I realized that the movie doesn’t try to stick two eras together: this takes place in the early 90s, completely. As the movie progressed, I heard no references to Holden Caulfield. People drank and did drugs, but nobody smoked a single cigarette. So, yay for that.

Movies often have to cut out a good amount of both dialog and exposition, given the restraints of the medium. Often a good novel loses too much, particularly when a conceited director decides to make the movie “his creation.”

In this case, the novel’s author also wrote the screenplay. And clearly, in the 21 years since the book was published, Chbosky has thought about what worked in the novel, and what didn’t work.

For example, in the novel Charlie repeats himself. Over and over. Maybe that’s realistic, given his personality, but it makes for tiresome reading. In the movie, most of the repetition wound up on the cutting room floor. As a result, the film moves along at a nice clip—propelled by some really great acting, BTW. Three quarters of the way through, I had warm feelings for all the main characters, and felt touched by their problems because they had such lively personalities—personalities that never really came out in the novel. By the end I was wiping away tears and blowing my nose—my eyes and nose don’t lie, if they’re going at the end it means I like the movie.

So congratulations, Mr. Chbosky. I’m glad your YA novel found its way into my heart via my flat-panel TV. Even if it took 21 years to do it.

Does children’s fantasy have its own rules? Specifically, are atmosphere, whimsical setups, and a character’s imagination more important than plot and story arc?

I ask these questions with regards to a specific children’s fantasy I read recently: Christopher Pennell’s first-time novel, The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). This book, from the spooky-yet-cozy front cover illustration to the cutesy concept of musical rats playing on rooftops to the girl MC with quirky sleep habits, screams kid fantasy designed by hipsters. It checks in at a user-friendly 215 pages and features artsy doodlish illustrations throughout.

The problem is that while it promises scary spooky excitement with a dash of quirk, it mostly just serves up quirk. The main character, a girl with the properly quirky name Carly Bitters Bean, casually accepts such oddities as rats that play musical instruments, accompanied by vegetables atop her roof that do the same. This, combined with her day-for-night nocturnal habits, might lead one to believe that she is in deep trouble. The trouble eventually does come, in the form of a whispering feathered monster named Griddlebeast, but Carly shows little fear or even astonishment. About halfway through her adventures she casually considers the fact that she may be losing her mind, but this thought gets easily discarded.

This rather blasé acceptance by her creates an emotionally flat storyline, and the events that follow—trying to save her rat friends, finding the secret of the woods—lack resonance or even much coherence. What should be at least a little nail-biting turns out to be fluffy entertainment. While I’m an adult, I know that kids who are old enough to read this book, and be amused by it, will not at all be thrilled by it.

The story has some promising moments, such as when Carly discovers mysterious stories inside library books, stories that give the beginnings of an intriguing backstory. Unfortunately, when it’s time for the orphan Carly (aren’t all child heroes orphans these days?) to learn about who she really is, the backstory doesn’t quite fit, and the appearance of yet another nonsensical quirky character to explain things feels dropped out of the night sky.

Nonetheless, I’m guessing that Houghton Mifflin decided that a safe nocturnal fantasy with a proto-goth girl character and the usual assortment of magical creatures written in an accessible style could occupy a few kid readers (and at least a few adult ones) long enough to make it worth their while. Christopher Pennell is not devoid of writing talent—I did read all it all the way through, which is more than I can say for some novels. But it takes more than that to put together a satisfying story, which means ratcheting up tension and making characters and situations serve to move the story along. This is not at all easy to do, and I wish Mr. Pennell good luck with his next effort at wrestling the Fiction Beast.

Most of you reading this will know who Robin Williams was, how he fought depression that ultimately led to his suicide. Far fewer will know who Walker Judson is, a fictional character in Janice Strubbe Wittenberg’s recently published first novel, The Worship of Walker Judson. Coincidently, I learned of Williams’ death right about the same time I completed reading about the fictional Judson. Both have been on my mind recently, but more than that, both—despite obvious differences—are men who had vast talents (humor, healing arts) who fell prey to their inner demons. So I decided a comparison was in order.

Comedians have long been viewed as having shamanic powers, using humor to expose our hidden fears in an act of audience catharsis. Robin Williams did more than just do this symbolically in the movie Patch Adams, in which he plays the lead role as a doctor who uses humor to treat patients. Fittingly, his character is a maverick who contemplates suicide after his girlfriend is murdered. After he bounces back, he still has to fight the state medical board on charges of practicing without a license. Just as in real life, his character is a misfit who struggles against conformity. In real life, of course, Williams didn’t bounce back, and took his own life—a victim of his own demons.

[spoiler alert!]

In Strubbe Wittenberg’s novel, Walker Judson is a faith healer who is also a nonconformist, though in a completely different way. Though blessed with the power to heal others with his hands, Judson is a passive-aggressive masochist, abused as a child, a chain smoker who also has a peculiar way of attracting females. Judson doesn’t take his own life, but he seriously compromises it, especially when he is convicted of sexual assault. He is in many ways a typical cult leader, and falls prey to the darker aspects of his own powers. And yet, paradoxically, he heals many—often without asking for anything in return—including a young woman who falls in love with him and becomes his acolyte.

Williams and Judson are both complex, charismatic, and in touch with powers that most of us only glimpse fleetingly throughout our lives. It takes a strong person to not let those powers destroy oneself, and in the end both men succumbed to those powers. Being a shaman carries inherent risks, but for those compelled to be one, the risks are worth it. I for one am glad that Robin Williams took that path; and those healed by shamans such as Walker Judson are undoubtedly glad as well. Who am I to judge them, after all?

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