Book Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Beer & Marmalade Book of the Month

This past month, I’ve been watching the entire series of the revisioned Battlestar Galactica. It’s an awesome show, and I highly encourage people to watch it, even though there’s not an ounce of optimistic sunshine in it.

Believe it or not, Battlestar Galactica has a lot in common with Never Let Me Go, which I read in about three days. Not that it’s engrossing (though it is), but it’s a quick book to read. Both deal with the nature of clones, though where BSG’s clones are theiving, conniving, killing machines, the clones in NLMG are produced to give their body parts to others.

Hmm…actually, now that I think about it, they don’t have that much in common.

Whereas BSG is a wild, gritty roller coaster ride of angst and despair, NLMG is more on the quieter side. The story’s narrated by a Kathy H., who is reminiscing about her youth at Hailsham, a school which houses "special" children. Kathy is aware that she is "special", along with her best friends Ruth and Tommy. But just how special she doesn’t really know.

The book is told through Kathy’s memories, which meander and double back on themselves as she tells them to her unseen audience—other clones, no doubt. There is a certain structure to the narration, but it’s in no hurry to get to the point. If Kathy suddenly remembered something that happened before, she’ll tell it before coming back to her main story. Despite all this meandering, the narration works. We get a feel for Kathy herself as she tells her own story, an unsure woman who is not quite certain of her own memory as fact as she looks through the filter of maturity at her past.

Most of the book centers on Kathy’s relationship with Ruth, a bossy, domineering young woman who likes to manipulate people, and Tommy, an emotional young man who gets picked on by most of the school. Through the relationships, we get a wider picture of life at Hailsham itself, where facts aren’t mentioned outright and information can get downright political. The children are encouraged, not by their teachers but by themselves, to not stand out or make a scene. A young girl gets bullied by her classmates for asking a teacher why a woman called Madame comes to take their best artwork away. Though the children know they will eventually do ‘donations’, they don’t know outright what it means, nor are they encouraged to learn. Whether this passivity is bred in them when they were created, or if it’s just something the children came up with on their own, is not known.

The fact that they are clones isn’t ballyhooed right away. In fact, the word clone doesn’t appear until about 3/4 of the way into the book. What we get, then, is not so much a clone story, but a story about a bewildered young woman, always searching for the meaning behind her and others’ actions, spying upon and being spied upon, and never voicing her questions about her life, not until it’s too late. 

Perhaps this is where BSG and NLMG differ the most. I found the ending of BSG to be utterly bleak, even though they do reach their goal (of sorts). With NLMG, at the end, Kathy is resigned to her fate, and the last few chapters is tinged with sadness and regret. And she’s still passive: she doesn’t refuse to do her job, or try to run away. But, in telling her story to others like her, I think there is a spark of rebellion, her hope that the others would use her experience as a springboard. There’s no way of knowing, of course, but I like to think of it as a hopeful ending.

I don’t think NLMG was intended as a science fiction clone story. It deals more with silence and self-discovery, loss and regret, living one day at a time, and cherishing the memories one has, even the painful ones. It is a thoughtful, quiet story, well-suited for its slow pace. This ranks 4 out of 5 pieces of clone-done art. And if a gray haired woman named Madame wants to take it away, I’ll make sure she pays for it first. Not in lousy tokens, but in cold, hard cash.

Short Story & Willow Update (or why the best bar stories never get published…)

Last week our home routine changed again. Daniel has started kindergarten. His transformation into a bona-fide student went so smoothly, I’m surprised he wasn’t standing at the school’s doors at 6am with his new bookbag and lunchbox, calling out impatiently, "What time is it? Will school start soon? How about now? Now? Now?"

Thank God it went so smoothly. Much better than his summer school program back in June, when he got being mistaken for a Mexican boy and put on the wrong schoolbus. I would go into more details about this, but I’ve realized something: there are just some stories that are only meant to be told once, in the heat of the moment. Told any more times after that, and then the power of it wanes. When Daniel did not get off his bus and I spent the next two hours trying to piece together what happened, my emotions became so churned, that when we finally found Daniel (safe and sound, and in fact taking great delight at his impromptu ride) I headed down to the bar where my book club was meeting, where I spat out the most vitriolic, obscenity-laden, ear-blistering diatribe railing against the ignorance and ineptitude of the whole Madison bus system.

Then, afterwards, when the room still ringing from my profanity-laced hollering and the group, in all their wisdom, got me a well-deserved Mike’s Hard Lemonade, I found myself thinking, wow. That was good!

I have since told the story since to other people, but it’s not the same. For one thing, I’m calmer and had a chance to think about it. And I’m also owing up to part of the whole mess, so the story loses its emotional impact. ("If we hadn’t lost the wristband he was supposed to wear…") And even if I did get upset about it ("Never mind that even if he did wore the wristband, they would’ve ignored it; much like how they ignored the wristband of the Mexican boy they claimed was my son…) it pales against the initial blizzard of frustration and rage I felt.

The profanity was the best part. I never swear all that much in public, and even among friends, I occasionally use a tame ‘hell’ or ‘damn’. But that night, whoa, I swear, the bar we met at got few more cracks in their ceiling from the words I was using (and I don’t regret it one bit—in fact, according to Time Magazine, it’s actually good for women to swear now and then. Acts as a pain reducer. Who knew?).

On the plus side, I did sell two stories in August. (Don’t worry, what I wrote above is related. You’ll see.) One will be published in October, the other sometime in Spring next year. So I crossed them off my list and took a look to see what other stories I had floating around the magazine markets.

Only two.

There’s one story that’s currently at Writers of the Future, so I should be hearing from that sometime this month. There’s another story that’s a rewrite request that I’m waiting to hear back on hopefully by this month as well. But as far as new stuff goes, I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Which means I better get some new stories out there to circulate, stat.

It’s not like I don’t have any stories to send out. I did a ton of writing back when Daniel was in summer school, so I actually have several finished stories sitting on my hard drive. Thing is though, these are all first drafts of stories. I wrote them as fun freewriting exercises and just never had time to go through them again. Or I figured I’d do some research first before I return to revisions. Then there’s one story I wrote a long time ago. But when I started the second revision of it, it started to get too wordy, too long-winded. The second draft was killing the story, so I set it aside to think on it some more, then promptly forgot about it.

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been of the opinion that good stories need to be revised twice, three times, four, maybe even five or six times before it’s ready to send out to markets. And I still stand on that. I’m working on a short story now that I know I’ll need a heavy duty revision for—it requires some research for it to be just right. It is a jewel that will need some good polishing to make right.

But I’m also wondering if my story-writing has improved as such that I can take some stories I wrote, do a general pass for spelling, grammar and punctuation, and just send them out. No toying with plot or point of view. No countless freewrites to figure out what the story’s theme or playing around with words to make it more lyrical. Just make sure it flows well, then send it out.

It’s a risky thing to do. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to revising stories (and that’s the last time you’ll see me use the word ‘perfectionist’ when describing myself). I don’t want my stories to be merely good. I want them to be great. But who am I to determine if a story is ‘great’ or even ‘good’? The only way to find that out is to let someone else read them. But I can’t do that if they’re only sitting on my hard-drive. And there’s a possibility that the more revision I’d do, the less effective the story gets. There are some stories that do require carefully planning and revising, and there are some stories that are best when they were written in the heat of the moment, so to speak. Those stories work so well the first time, to rewrite them again would be an injustice, just like the school bus mix-up story. When I told it to my book club, it was perfect. I can’t recapture that again. (See, told you it was related.)

So here’s what I’m going to do. Starting this week, I’m going to start submitting a story a week. That means it need to be pulled off the hard drive, given a once-over to make sure it looks good, then find a market and send it off by Friday. If I do this for five weeks, it gets me five stories out in the market field. (I wanted to start this last week when September started, but with all the first day of school fun, I was pretty busy). So my goal is to have five stories submitted to markets by October 9. I’ll put a progress meter on the blog to show how I’m doing.

This isn’t something I’m doing for money or for show. It’s just a simple way for me to get some stories off my hard drive and out circulating until they find a place where they belong. Oh, yes, Willow is going along quite well. I just finished editing chapter seven, which ended on, I think, a wonderfully sinister note. I’ve been trying a new style of revision using Word 2007 comment feature—as I revise, if there’s something I’m really stuck on, instead of spending precious time trying to figure it out, I comment it with a couple of questions and continue on with the rewrite. The next time I open Word, I go to the comments first. Not only have I figured out the problem by then, but it also pulls me back into the story. I’m kicking myself for not doing this sooner—it would’ve saved me a whole lot of backtracking.

But I will get Willow done. Darn it.

Book Review: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

I am growing to become a huge fan of Kelly Link. When I first read her story “Lull” in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #16, it prompted me to send her an email, begging her how exactly she came up with her weird, surrealistic ideas to have a palindromic story that consisted of a poker game, a cheerleader playing spin the bottle with the Devil in a backwards-time world, and a man who lived with different clones of his wife.

Link never responded. Which is a good thing, I guess. I imagine if she had responded, it probably would’ve been something along the lines of: “I prick my finger at two in the morning, squeeze red droplets into a glass of sand, then go down to Menards where I dance in the parking lot, vocalizing whale songs until the ideas come to me and I write them down on a flat sheet of styrofoam with a toothbrush made out of ferret fur.”

Actually, it’s probably as as mundane as: “Well, I read a lot and I write a lot.” But where’s the fun in that?

Link’s website is a fascinating smorgasbord of all she’s involved with: Small Beer Press, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. But best of all, all three of her short story collections can be found there for free under the Creative Commons license. At the time I went there, only “Stranger Things Happen” were available, but now I see that all three collections: Magic for Beginnings (which includes the awesome Lull story) and Pretty Monsters are also available.

“Stranger Things Happen” is a good introduction to Link’s style, starting with “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” a story about a man who wakes up alone in the afterlife disguised as a hotel, writing letters to a wife whose name he cant recall. Link’s use of language is poetic and serene, with just enough surrealness thrown in to make things interesting.

Most of the stories in the book have a dash of fairy tale. “Travels With the Snow Queen” retells Hans Christian Andersen’s story from a world-weary, love point of view. “Shoe and Marriage” starts off with the Prince of the Cinderella story still looking for a lost mate. The Girl Detective stalks the 12 Dancing Princesses to find where they go at night (an existential Asian club, it appears).

But there are original stories too. Strange, surreal, and dreamlike. “Survival’s Ball, or, the Donner Party” mingles a toothache with a strange love affair that ends at a questionable party. “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” has a young man dealing with his girlfriend and her odd parents. “Flying Lessons” has a girl falling in love with a demigod. And “Louise’s Ghost” tells the story of two women named Louise who are best friends…I think…

Sometimes, Link’s stories tend to switch plots in the middle. What starts off as one story ends in another. “Shoe and Marriage” was like that, the Cinderella story suddenly turning into a a couple watching a bizarre pageant show on TV.  There are also some stories that get downright confusing. Louise Ghost”, never gives the last name of the two Louises, so it’s hard to differentiate who’s who. Oddly enough, it is my favorite story in the book.

And there are stories which are poignant. In “Most of my Friends are Two-Thirds Water”, the narrator, a woman dealing with unrequited love and lived in her father’s garage, resonated with me. Or maybe it was her feeling that she was competing with a bunch of blonds for the guy she loved. Or maybe it was that all the blonds look like Sandy Duncan and smelled like Lemon Fresh Joy. Probably the least surreal of the whole bunch is “The Vanishing Act”, (not that there isn’t surrealness there), the story of a girl and her cousin who comes to stay with her temporarily, and “The Specialist’s Hat”, the story of two twin girls who live with their absent-minded father in a strange house.

This isn’t a book I suggest reading beginning to end in one sitting. Reading it in bits and pieces works wonderfully though, and I can’t wait to dive into her other two books. This ranks Four Louises out of five.  One of them is in love with the cellist. You just have to read carefully to figure out which one.