Sunday, May 27, 2007

FreeBooks #7: A Dancing Bear by Mark Osher

Poor Fenton Bland. His life at college is rapidly spiraling out of control. It's bad enough that he's stuck in the class of Professor Ivan Lego, whose theory of socioliterology -- the concept that any writing is wrongfully oppressive because "it owes its very existence to a foundational act of suppression, namely, the suppression of non-language" -- is taking the academic world by storm. It's even worse that he's inadvertently given Pamela, a student activist with whom Fenton shares a deep, dark shame, the idea to strike a blow for the disenfranchised by campaigning for the release of a notorious serial killer. Still worse, Fenton's relationship with his lesbian faux-vegetarian deadbeat housemates is worse than ever (not least because of the dead cat). But worst of all is that the student Maoist group that Fenton joined solely for the purpose of getting close to the beautiful Charmaine is singularly focused on announcing itself by assassinating someone, and Fenton is stuck right in the middle of the plot.

Don't worry if you don't have a good sense of what "Maoists" are. Neither do I. Nor, for that matter, do the members of the Maoist group. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Mark Osher's delightful A Dancing Bear such a spot-on primer to the college experience. It's all there: the students whose big plans and grand statements are undermined by their own lack of understanding (and ability). The academics whose outré theories are driven by self-promotion rather than genuine relevance. The everyman stuck in the middle, trying to do what is right but restrained by his own passivity. And, of course, the university public bathrooms:

No gent in his right mind had ever employed this door more than twice, in very quick succession: once on his uninformed way in; and once more, about two seconds after that, to effect an appalled and lifelong departure. For behind this door lay the most deplorable block of toilets on campus. Clearly, something had gone badly wrong in there. It was as though at some point the facility had been officially forgotten, had slipped outside the purview of whatever body or agency was meant to stand between such places and anarchy. Maybe during an administrative restructure it had vanished into the grey area between two spheres of responsibility. Maybe every cleaner in the university just assumed some other cleaner was cleaning it. In any case, it was beyond redemption now. The cubicle doors swung crookedly from busted hinges, like wounded soldiers being helped along a trail. The lights buzzed and flickered like dying flies. . . .

And the stench … the stench was the stench of the jungle. No man who smelled it could possibly retain any of those frayed illusions concerning the supremacy, or even the adequacy, of his gender. But the really alarming thing about this reek was this: it kept getting worse. Which could only mean one thing. People kept contributing to it. Somewhere on campus there existed men who were still prepared to use this facility – men who thought it a fit venue in which to bare the most intimate parts of their flesh. Who were they, these men? Chillingly, they had to be out there in the general population, blending in, walking past you every day without your knowing it. Maybe they were your friends, your tutors. The guy with the mysterious grin who ran the bakery. The shuffling first-year with the bad skin and the walkman. Elderly professors who wore sneakers with their slacks and accused your essays of being “prolix,” hardy old campaigners who probably took broadsheet newspapers in there and settled in for the long haul. The insane. The incontinent. Fugitives from justice. The damned.

A Dancing Bear is consistently hilarious, combining effective satire of academic, political and individual pomposity with regular moments of slapstick, laugh-out-loud humor. However, equally impressive is the novel's philosophical heart. For all of its worthwhile silliness, A Dancing Bear also is concerned with deeper questions that confront all collegians, and, for that matter, all thinking people. Can I steer my life where I want it to go? Or am I locked in to a path set by outside forces or simple inertia? What would it take to change my life? A Dancing Bear seamlessly works these weighty themes into its rollicking tale, ultimately proving satisfying on many levels.

All told, A Dancing Bear is a brilliant success and is highly recommended. It is available for free at the official website (which is very amusing in its own right), either as chapter-by-chapter webpages or as a printer-friendly RTF file of the complete novel. The novel is also available as a free downloadable audiobook. As the website notes, "the world is fast running out of excuses not to read this book."

Monday, May 21, 2007

REVIEW: Noah, Penny by David Skinner


Thirteen year old Penny knows that she is not beautiful. But she also knows that she loves Noah, and only wants him to love her back.

Unfortunately, Noah is awkward and unreadable. Does he feel the same way? They've been friends for years, but this is new terrain.

And the sudden appearance of Fyfe, an ancient elfin creature who's interested mainly in spying on the affairs of humans, is not making Penny's life any easier.


David Skinner's Noah, Penny is a contemplative, touching novella that, though brief, has a lot to say about how we relate to each other.

I first discovered Skinner over a decade ago, when I was wowed by his The Wrecker (Simon & Schuster 1995). That novel explores questions of good, evil and free will in a manner that, if infinitely more restrained in its imagery than Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, is no less effective for its subtlety. Whereas The Wrecker can be seen as a rumination on hate and violence, Noah, Penny, by contrast, is a charming meditation of first love. Although both novels are formally works for the Young Adult market, both offer tremendous rewards for the adult reader as well.

Quiet and a bit melancholy, Noah, Penny doesn't rely upon a formal plot. Rather, it explores Penny's situation -- and, ultimately, the nature of love and acceptance -- through a series of generally understated vignettes that follow her halting, uncertain relationship with Noah. Skinner demonstrates a deep, sympathetic understanding that matters of the heart are, ultimately, beyond rational explanation. Penny's story is sad and sweet and real in all the right places. And far from being a jarring intrusion in this otherwise naturalistic tale, the age-old Fyfe instead adds a perfect touch of magical realism, ultimately teaching that the questions Penny faces are not new, but are, indeed, eternal.


Noah, Penny is available as a paperback from Lulu, as are several other of Skinner's self-published books. (The Wrecker is available used on Amazon.) Skinner's website is located here.


The animated zombie movie City of Rott is not quiet or subtle. It is the extraordinarily violent tale of an old man seeking to survive -- and to find new shoes -- in a post-apocalyptic world populated primarily by the undead (or, more specifically, dead corpses controlled by alien space-worm-parasites). The violence is graphic and never-ending, if somewhat charming in its cheerful excessiveness.

I suspect that the audiences for City of Rott and Noah, Penny overlap very little. Moreover, Noah, Penny is far more successful and involving than the oft-monotonous City of Rott. Nonetheless, the two works are similar in at least two respects. Both focus primarily on mood and individual moments rather than a detailed plot. And both end on a note of grace that, each in its own way, celebrates the human spirit.

And as a special added bonus recommendation, check out this panel from the increasingly popular xkcd webcomic.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

An Abashed Return

So I've been gone for two months. But I'm back now. For good, I think.

Basically, I had a minor existential crisis. Really very minor, in the scheme of things: I’m perfectly happy with family, friends, health, and all the important things in life. My crisis was limited solely to the value of my reviews. In mid-March, I happened to read an article about how most books even from big-name publishers with real marketing campaigns only sell one or two thousand copies if they’re lucky.

I already knew this, but it drove home many of my doubts. Why, I wondered, do I bother writing reviews when I doubt that I will ever be able to persuade an appreciable number of people to buy these books that I enjoy so much. No author is going to sell thousands -- or hundreds -- or dozens -- or necessarily even a single copy due to a positive recommendation from me.

Then, just like in a poorly written, melodramatic novel (whether POD or otherwise), I had my epiphany. The friend of an author I’d previously reviewed happened to write to say that the author had happened to find my review (I always try to e-mail authors who I’ve reviewed, but this was one I hadn’t been able to contact) and that my review had “made his day.”

Now, I know that my positive comments were more a minor bright spot in this author’s day than a moment of unparalleled rapture. But still, this reminded me why I started my reviews: to let those POD artists (who, let's be frank, likely will never reach a big audience regardless of their talent) know that they’ve touched at least one person. I know that this is an exceedingly minor prize, but I hope it's worth something, and, I have to say, I think (hope) it may be enough to make this all worthwhile.

So I've neglected this site for a couple of months. But no more. I know I've been impolite, ignoring my fellow POD reviewers and, indeed, all of the e-mail I've received. But I have been reading, lots and lots of books, as well as checking out new movies and music. So I'm going to start answering my backlog of e-mail (if anyone still cares). I'm going to start posting reviews of all the great stuff I've read, seen and heard in the last few months. Because if I don't, who will? (Well, except for all of the excellent sites listed at right, plus all the new ones that have probably sprung up recently. Check them out too. But don't give up on me yet. The best, hopefully, is yet to come.)