Monday, August 27, 2012

A Brown Study

My great-uncle died this morning. It wasn't unexpected; he was past ninety and his health had been in decline for some time, really since his wife entered a hospice when her Alzheimer's symptoms became unmanageable several years ago.

He lived halfway across the country and I only met him a handful of times, but my impression was of a massive man capable of surprising tenderness, who had a fondness for children. One of my earliest memories is sitting on his lap listening to the talk of my relatives as they related well-worn stories and roared with laughter at the youthful antics of people I would never meet.

What is interesting is that this impression is completely different from the one my father, aunts and uncle have of him. They grew up terrified of him—he was harsh, aggressive figure in their childhoods. Cruel. Mean. To them and to his own children. Could time have changed him so much? Or are my memories just snapshots of him on his best behavior?

His wife is my grandfather's elder sister—a larger than life character in her heyday, really even in her decline. Her wicked sense of humor, a harsher version of the teasing I associate with my grandfather, was legendary. I remember the last time they came out to my grandparents' for a visit, a few months after her diagnosis—my great-uncle was beside himself with silent appreciation when we all ignored her lapses, her disjointed statements and generally treated her like she was still alive, and still herself. It wasn't difficult; she was still a firecracker, teasing her little brother in a way no one else dared. My great-uncle seized both my mother and me in bear hugs when we got up to leave.

I doubt my father's, aunts' and uncle's sense of their uncle was inaccurate—they were afraid of him, and it wasn't because of a contrast in their day-to-day experiences with their own father. My grandfather has never been a gentle man. His teasing isn't always nice, and he's had little patience for the errors of childhood. If he didn't understand something he could (and does) become belligerent. He was demanding of his wife, and an inattentive, harsh father.

But my great-aunt and uncle lost a daughter to brain cancer some time before my great-aunt first showed signs of Alzheimer's disease. They watched their daughter die, as her body and mind gave out, and helped raise her children. I've wondered if the loss of one of his children and my great-aunt's illness is what caused this shift in his behavior. I can't imagine watching a woman so full of life (abrasive as she could be), his partner for more than fifty years fade away, a few years after watching your daughter do the same in the prime of life. It's been years since she recognized anyone or could feed herself.

Do people really change? I find myself hoping my great-uncle had indeed changed his stripes, that what I witnessed was his normal in his end days. I gather there was some grief between him and at least one of his children, and I hope there was some closure for them before he died. I hope my great-uncle made amends and found forgiveness for his trespasses, and forgave those who needed his pardon. I suppose we can’t ask for much more at the end of our days.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Look! Links!

Today I'm posting some links to short science fiction and fantasy stories I've read recently and found especially brilliant. Yes, I said brilliant. Because it's true. And because I can.

Issue 39 of Apex is excellent, particularly the gorgeous Murdered Sleep by Kat Howard.

Three from Daily Science Fiction, though you really should sign up for their free emails. Free quality fiction right in your inbox, five mornings a week.

Innocence, Rearranged by Annie Bellet

To Be Undone Of Such Small Things by Damien Walters Grintalis (I love her titles…)

The Mechanical Heart of Him by Cate Gardner (I rather love her titles as well, come to think of it...)

From Lightspeed Magazine, The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species by Ken Liu

And from Clarkesworld Magazine, Fade To White by Cathrynne M. Valente

So, go check them out and bask in the fictiony-goodness. ;-)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

This collection of literary short stories revolves around the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. "The hollow" is a downtrodden area full of drug addicts and inbred hillbillies, full of the violence and depression which comes with true want. Pollock's prose is skilled, his gaze unflinching as he looks on the existence of the people of Knockemstiff, from the mentally deficient to the speed freaks, to those one step from escaping the circle of poverty, emotional and material. He doesn't shy away from the violence of a father against his wife and children, the damage inflicted by a twisted mother on her child, the father on the son. He points out the hypocrisy of his characters' mindset as they condemn those around them, even as they make their own damning choices; he highlights their powerlessness to change their fortunes. Each word builds to draw these people to their inevitable place in their little world, the trap fate and circumstance has laid for them.

Overall, it’s a solid collection. Pollock is a strong writer who gets his point across and is unremitting with his truth for Knockemstiff. Unremitting is the word for this collection. But the author's style, for all the grit in these stories, the raw truth of drug addicts and families rotting from the outside in and the inside out, remains cold. There is no sense of love for his characters, save perhaps a few of the children. All fates seem sealed, by circumstance and thought. The arc of their lives is predetermined by the content of their childhoods, and the struggle seems ceremonial. Pollock is not misrepresenting reality, but I feel there is a missing touch of compassion, not in content, but in tone. As nearly every character makes motions, intentions, toward change, toward fighting the current of their lives, the reader never believes they will escape and only a handful of characters seem undeserving of their fate. Pollock leaves it to the reader to infer the tragedy infused in every moment of life in the hollow.

I usually dislike comparing works by different authors, but as I was reading Knockemstiff I found myself reminded of several pieces in John Mantooth's debut collection published earlier this year. (My review for The Crow's Caw) Though Shoebox Train Wreck is a more loose collection, featuring a diverse set of characters and stories framed in more diverse forms than Pollock's, they both address the truth of rural poverty, and the quiet horror of much of life. What struck me was the touch of beauty Mantooth brought his pieces, the gracefulness in the depiction of the sorrow and deep-seated heartbreak in his character's existence. The first half of Knockemstiff is almost monochromatic, damning and unforgiving. There is no trace of humor or forgiveness, its compassion reserved for children with no hope of escape. The second half moderates this sense, but only slightly, and his characters are forever pulled back to the hollow and the slow death waiting there.

That said, even with its coldness, Knockemstiff is well-executed, with almost flawless writing. I can't say if I'd pick up another of Pollock's work, and though I hold little affection for this collection, I cannot help but respect his statement and workmanship. I reiterate, it is exceptionally well-written.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ahem. Hi. Erm…well, then...

SO…here we are. Or, rather, here I am. Blogging. Good lord.

My name is K. E. Bergdoll, writer, reader, and human. (Ignore all rumors to the contrary.) I'll also answer to Rook and Kate. After a more than a year practicing on Twitter, I’ve made the leap and finally built a proper blog. Yes, now you cyber-friends can hear my ramblings in more than a hundred and forty characters. I’ll try to be interesting. (Well. Let's just shoot for coherent, shall we?)

So, a bit about me is in order, I suppose. I’m twenty-five years old…aw, hell--check out my semi-amusing
bio. It'll be easier on both us.

Now, what will I be posting? Stuff about writing and books mostly. My intention is to post book reviews here on a fairly regular basis and I’ll also be promoting various things by other writers, because I’ve met some amazing people in the online writing community and spreading the word about their projects is a small thing to do. I will also likely post on various subjects making blogosphere rounds, and whatever nonsense catches my fancy. Because I like nonsense. Or complete randomness...I really do like randomness… Anyway, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

Earlier this year I became a reviewer for The Crow's Caw, a site dedicated to dark creepy-goodness in book form. It’s wonderful to have my name beside Bob Freeman, Nick Cato, Jordan Norton, Sheri White and our valiant leader, Jassen Bailey. I also post reviews to Goodreads, though Twitter is my favored hangout. (Come say hi)

As for my own work, I write largely dark fiction, though I’m an avid genre-hopper. I’m submitting short stories to various publications, collecting my rejection lumps with the grace required of a new writer—I like to think I take them rather well. I recently sent my first novel to its first reader. (Can you hear me trembling?) Upon its return, I shall begin work on the fourth draft, a process which will no doubt involve much of the cursing and staring into space that appears to be a necessary component of my process. I’m almost ready to talk about it. Almost. I will say it has serial killers. Yes, plural. Meanwhile, I've officially decided I am actually working on my second novel, which bears no resemblance to the first in genre or subject matter. And I'm definitely not ready to talk about novel #2 yet. Because I'm insecure secretive.

Okay, I think I'll quit while I'm ahead and say that does it for an introduction. I do hope to get better at this. I’ll be posting regularly, even if I have to dredge up YouTube videos of singing cats reenacting Star Wars to do it. Feel free to drop me a line in the comments, on Twitter, or send me an email. Thanks to everyone who reads and shares! ;-)