I know you’ve been raving about Margo Lanagan’s Yellowcake for months, but I just now got around to reading it. Because, you know . . . . short stories. I honestly don’t know why I so resist reading short stories. Over the years I’ve read some wonderful collections of short stories, but somehow it’s just so hard to pick up a collection and start reading.
Anyway, Yellowcake. I have some fairly random thoughts, so I’ll just throw them out there.
As always, I was blown away by Lanagan’s prose style:
“Their legs were stumps and their arms were lumps and their heads were great heavy pots of brains, fitfully electric.”
“The hair was spread, laquering path and and field like a syrup, materials for a thousand gorgeous bird nests.”
And so many more.
You mentioned in particular “Catastrophic Destruction of the Head,” which is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Tinder-box.” I re-read “The Tinder-Box” before I started Lanagan’s story. Interestingly, in reading it, I was struck by the opening lines about the soldier “returning from the wars.” I was thinking about how many fairy tales have that trope–tales like “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (also Andersen), “The Blue Light,” and others. And then Lanagan went and used that idea of the soldier returning from war to hang the whole twisted story on! I suppose we could imagine that he had PTSD, or at least was so damaged by war that he did the things he did. But oh, my! What a creepy, twisted, evil, yet compelling story!
In fact, I thought a lot about Lanagan’s source material here–fairy tales, myths, the Bible–and her nods to the original, while putting her own spin on it. For example, the ferryman’s (Charon’s) daughter was called Sharon. The neighbors in “Night of the Firstlings” were Gypsies (Egyptians). It occurred to me that Lanagan’s stories are very much like Rod Serling’s original “Twilight Zone” stories, which I read as a kid–they often start with something familiar and ordinary, and then . . . the twist into the odd, the strange, the almost-supernatural.
Another comment about short stories: I think that one reason they can be difficult is that because of the length and format, it is almost essential to start in the middle of things. There’s no time to build up and explain. So in “The Golden Shroud,” we don’t have the leisure to get the background of the Rapunzel story–we start at the end of the tale and go on from there.
Finally, when you brought up the book originally, one of our commentors wondered if it would be eligible for the Printz since most of the material was originally published elsewhere. I wondered that too, especially when I noticed that “The Point of Roses” was originally published in Black Juice, which actually won a Printz Honor in 2006. However, “The Point of Roses” was not in the American edition (nor the Australian edition, but only the British edition.) Also, I went back and re-read the Printz policies and procedures, and I didn’t see anything about portions of a work being previously published–it just says the book must be published in the US in the year of eligibility. Some of the stories were published in US collections, others were not. I honestly don’t have any idea how the committee will rule on this point. My gut feeling is that the book is eligible–but I’m not the one who will have to make the final decision.
Anyway, thank you for making such a strong push for this book that I finally felt compelled to read it. Some of those stories are going to stick with me for a long time!