Five by Five Books #2: “Skin” by Kathe Koja (1993)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite books, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Protagonist Tess Bajac is a talented metal sculptor who enters into a creative partnership with dancer Bibi Bloss and her posse of night (club) creatures. Their performing arts troupe — dubbed Surgeons of the Demolition — incorporates ever-increasing acts of ritual violence into their work, with Tess and Bibi’s collaboration resulting in a move toward powerful bio-mechanical syntheses. As their work grows stronger and finds its audience, Bibi engages in increasingly obsessive efforts to mortify her flesh through extreme body modification. Tess is torn by these developments: she knows that her work is achieving transcendence through her collaboration with the Surgeons, but she struggles to accept responsibility for — or to even want to be knowledgeable of — what Bibi slowly becomes. Skin is ostensibly a horror novel, but its grounding in a gritty, believable, industrial urban artscape lends it a resonance that few Gothic, fantastic, period, or supernatural horror novels achieve.

Who wrote it? Kathe Koja published five challenging speculative fiction/horror novels between 1991 and 1996, with Skin sitting smack in the middle of her initial print run explosion. Her first novel, The Cipher, won the Bram Stoker Award and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, ably demonstrating how well many of her works straddle traditional genre definitions. After publishing a short story collection called Extremities in 1997, Koja embarked upon a successful career as the author of young adult fiction through most of the early 2000s. She returned to intense and evocative adult fare with 2010’s Under the Poppy and its recent sequel, Mercury Waltz. Koja is an ensemble member of Nerve, a contemporary creative troupe that has brought her written work to stage in florid, interactive, theatrical environments.

When and where did I read it? Late 1990s, when we still lived in our townhouse on Harvard Drive in Watervliet, New York. I discovered Kathe Koja on a Saturday morning back when Katelin and I would make a father-daughter visit to the William K. Sanford Town Library in Colonie most weeks, so she could hang out in the kids’ section and load up on an assortment of reading material for the week, while I scavenged the grown-up shelves for my own edification. On this particular Saturday, something had recently reminded me of William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat, which I had read in early high school days, so I went to grab and re-acquaint myself with that title again. Koja’s The Cipher was nearby on the shelf and caught my eye, so I grabbed it, checked it our, read it, and loved it. I then moved on through the rest of her early works from there, with Skin being the one that has retained the most resonance for me over the years.

Why do I like it? Kathe Koja does an absolutely extraordinary job of accurately portraying the shifting inter-personal dynamics associated with creative collaborations in evolving, amorphous or open group settings. I’ve read some reviews that criticized the “minutiae” of these interactions, but they feel very real, and they give the work much of its emotional depth and structural heft for me; this, of course, may be a function of my own experiences with such creative collaborative communities, but it works. As a long-time devotee of hard industrial culture of the Survival Research Laboratories and RE/SEARCH Publications varieties, (not to mention a fan of the garish Tetsuo: Iron Man), I was also deeply impressed at the care Koja took in exploring the motivations, manifestations, and ramifications of the creative bio-mechanical desires of Skin‘s protagonists. The story moves quickly, and characters flit in and out of the narrative (as happens in real life), and while you know early on that the whole thing is likely to end awfully, there’s a certain grandeur to watching the story arc play out to its inevitable conclusion. At bottom line, Skin is a wonderful oddball in my list of favorite novels, very different from what I normally read, and I applaud Kathe Koja for creating a powerful work that easily transcends genre stereotypes or expectations.

A five sentence sample text: “She remembered her real school, welding school: truck bodies and they had let her watch, they thought she was cute or something, had not driven her away. Hot, always, and the big ventilators going on and on and on, the endless revolution of blades big as bodies, rod and arc and the fountaining shine like stars ground to pieces, the endless eclipse one must not watch. Fascinated, silent, in roll-down pants and her hair skinned back, baseball cap and wanting to make the fire, make the metal run; she had never gotten over it, the idea of liquid metal. She remembered the smell of scorched clothing, heavy coveralls burned straight through, everything seen through the underwater gloss of welder’s goggle, the helmets most exotic; round-head spacemen with flat square eyes, the world’s most faceless mask. She had seen men — it was all men, only men — hurt, burned, once she saw a man drop the fluxless tail end of his welding rod into his low-cut shoe: hideous and funny his screaming dance; he had danced her into taped-up pant-legs as an article of faith.”




#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)


McPhersonville’s Moment in the Sun

On March 22, 2014, Wikipedia (the world’s sixth most trafficked website) featured “Burning of McPhersonville” as its “Picture of the Day,” prominently displayed on its front page. I’ve posted a screen capture below (click the image to see a larger, linked version):

burnmcpherThis was a jaw-dropping surprise for me to see, since McPhersonville is the teeny, tiny, remote, no longer incorporated Low Country South Carolina hamlet (we always call it “The Village”) where my ancestors have lived for generations and generations. (I am eleventh in line of descent from the first permanent English settler in South Carolina). One of the mentioned houses left standing during the burning of McPhersonville was, in fact, my family’s home at the time. (Though, in all fairness, they deserved to have it burnt down, too, as one of the largest slave-owning broods in the region. Just saying).

McPhersonville is so seemingly insignificant in the grand narrative of South Carolina that I actually had to be the one to create its Wikipedia page, on April 13, 2006. The only image I included in that original page was the William Waud sketch of the burning shown at left above, which all these years on has risen in stature to being named a Wikipedia Picture of the Day. Huh!

If you follow me on my Facebook page, then you’ve actually been looking at McPhersonville regularly for quite some time, since I use the following topo map as my cover image:


I particularly love this map (found online), because right next to “downtown” McPhersonville, someone has hand annotated a surveying benchmark with the legend “Cocock.” Presumably, this is a misspelling of “Colcock,” the name of my mother’s mother’s family who owned this land all the way back to pre-Revolutionary days.

Cool and cool again!

Part II: And Why Iowans Should Be Rooting for UAlbany on Sunday Too

Thank you, Iowan friends, for warmly embracing UAlbany’s cause yesterday, as we happily watched the Great Dane Men’s Basketball Team take down Mount Saint Mary’s and earn a spot against overall #1 seed, Florida, in Orlando on Thursday night.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the UAlbany Men gave #1 Connecticut fits in 2006, so I’m optimistic that they’ll also put on a strong and credible performance tomorrow night. The 2006 Team’s motto was “Why Not Us?” I think that’s just as germane for this season: some day, some #16 seed is going to knock off some #1 seed, and until the final buzzer Thursday night, UAlbany is still alive on the list of team’s that have a chance to do it.

So I hope you’ll continue to watch and to pull for this scrappiest of underdogs, given all of those strong Iowa connections I mentioned yesterday. UA! You Know! Go Danes!

But, dearest Iowan friends, your work on behalf of the Great Danes is not yet done, because the UAlbany Women’s Basketball Team will be playing the Big 12’s West Virginia on Sunday on a neutral court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a #2 vs #15 match up. While the Men’s presence in the Big Dance this year was something of a surprise, since they finished the regular season in fourth place in the America East Conference, the Great Dane Women have been Bracketology locks pretty much all season. This is their third straight visit to the NCAA Championships, and they go in this year with a 28-5 (15-1 Conference) record, and a #4 ranking in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25.

I gave you a bunch of reasons to root for the Men yesterday, and they all apply to the Women too. But there are even deeper connections between Iowa and the UAlbany women, designed to appeal to both Cyclones and Hawkeyes alike. Continuing our numbering from yesterday’s column, consider this:

7. Head Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she was a Parade Magazine and USA Today High School All American.

8. She played for legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer at the University of Iowa, making two NCAA Tournament appearances (including and Elite Eight and a Sweet Sixteen finish) with the Hawkeyes.

9. From 1994-2000, Coach Abe (as she’s know about UAlbany) was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for Bill Fennelly’s Iowa State Cyclones. During her time on staff, the Cyclone Women earned a Big 12 Championship and four NCAA Tournament appearance, also earning and Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen finish, as she did as a player.

10. From 2002-2007, Abrahamson-Henderson was head coach at Missouri State University of the Missouri Valley Conference — no strangers in these parts, as they played home and home series with Drake regularly — earning three conference championships during her tenure.

11. Coach Abe’s husband, Michael Henderson, played with the Harlem Globetrotters. That doesn’t have anything to do with Iowa, mind you, but it’s just way cool.

While UAlbany doesn’t feature any Iowa-bred players on the current Women’s roster, their team is exciting to watch, and represents the true globalization of modern college sports, with players from Nigeria, the British Virgin Islands, Canada, Jamaica and New Zealand on the roster. They took the formidable University of North Carolina women to the wire in last year’s Big Dance, and I guarantee you they will not be intimidated by the West Virginia.

Yesterday, the Great Dane Men beat the Mountaineers of Mount Saint Mary’s. On Sunday, I want to see the Great Dane Women beat the Mountaineers of West Virginia. Doesn’t that just have fate, or kismet, or whatever, written all over it? I think it does.

So rifle your closets, Iowans, and pull out whatever purple and gold you can find, and join me Sunday in celebrating the UAlbany Women as they make us all proud.

Once again: UA! You Know! Go Danes!

Watch out, West Virginia. The are Great Danes in the house . . .

Watch out, West Virginia. The are Great Danes in the house . . .

Why Iowans Should Be Rooting for UAlbany Tonight

Following a late-season stumble, the University of Iowa men’s basketball team will be participating in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio tomorrow night against the University of Tennessee. The Hawkeyes’ travails (especially when contrasted with the ascendency of the Big 12 Conference Champion Iowa State Cyclones) have a lot of folks grumbling and out of sorts around here. And it could get worse, as it’s no gimme that the Hawkeyes are going to be able to beat Tennessee, who hung tough against overall #1 seed Florida last week in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

So to mitigate a potential week of disappointment and wounded pride, I’d like to invite all of my Iowa neighbors, of both Cyclone and Hawkeye persuasions, to adopt the University of Albany Great Danes tonight — as they are also in Dayton with the Hawkeyes, playing for a berth in the final field of 64.

Yeah, I’m partisan, sure. I got my masters’ degree from UAlbany’s Rockefeller College, and I later worked there as Executive Director of University Auxiliary Services at Albany, responsible for quality of living services (e.g. dining, book store, laundry, banking, vending, etc.) for the 20,000+ person campus community.

UAlbany earned its spot in the play-in game by winning the America East Conference Championship for the second year in a row as a #4 seed, beating Vermont and Stony Brook (who swapped places as the #1 and #2 seeds) both years to get there. They are facing the Mount Saint Mary Mountaineers, champions of the Northeast Conference — in which UAlbany was once a perennial powerhouse in football, before jumping to the Colonial Athletic Association.

So why should you, my fellow Iowans, root for the Great Danes of UAlbany? Because they have some seriously strong credentials that you’ll appreciate, as follows:

1. When the UAlbany men made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2006, they took #1 overall seed Connecticut down to the wire as a #16 seed, leading by 11 points halfway through the second half. They also hung in there with Duke last year as a #15 seed, so they will at least make it exciting when they play #1 overall seed Florida later this week.

2. The Great Danes’ star players in 2006 and in the following year (when they returned to the NCAA Tournament) were Brian Lillis — who grew up in Urbandale and went to Dowling Catholic — and Brent Wilson, who is originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

3. Their current starting center, senior John Puk, is from Waterloo, Iowa. Freshman Dallas Ennema is from Sheldon, Iowa, and looks to be a star in the making in years ahead.

4. They came to Des Moines two nights before last Christmas to play (and lose to) Drake at the Knapp Center. And, really, you know that was no treat for them, right? We owe ’em a solid for that trip, for sure. John Puk had a great Waterloo contingent rooting for him behind the UAlbany bench, which was cool to experience.

There’s also two bonus reasons for the Cyclone fans out there to root for UAlbany:

5. Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffrey’s prior job was at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, a northern suburb of Albany. Siena and UAlbany are fierce rivals in their local market accordingly, so rooting against Fran comes naturally for UAlbany people, including me, who are likely to be receptive to Hilton Magic accordingly.

6. The UAlbany Women are also in the big dance this year, as a #15 seed going up against #2 seed West Virginia. And I don’t need to remind you what West Virginia did to the Cyclones this year, do I?

So are you with me, Iowans? If so, clear your throats and repeat after me . . . . UA! You Know! Go Danes!

UAlbany Great Danes. John Puk (#44) of Waterloo, Iowa at center of frame.

UAlbany Great Danes. Senior John Puk (#44) of Waterloo, Iowa at top center of frame.

Five by Five Books #1: “Engine Summer” by John Crowley (1979)

(Note: This is one of an occasional series of reviews of my favorite books, structured by covering five facets of my reading experience, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Engine Summer is a post-technological road story about a boy named Rush That Speaks, who comes of age in a maze-like, clan-based community called Little Belaire. The story features a rich, anthropologically-sound depiction of a clan-based culture built around family “cords” and the art of “truthful speaking,” which precludes the possibility of misunderstanding or deception. Rush That Speaks sets out on his coming-of-age journey after his beloved, Once a Day, leaves Little Belaire to join the mysterious Dr. Boots’s List. He hopes that his journey will set him on the path to Sainthood, although his understanding of what this might entail is fragmented at best. The story of Rush That Speaks’ travels through the post-apocalyptic wilderness outside of Little Belaire is interwoven with a narrative conversation between the boy and an Angel, both seeking to better understand the other.

Who wrote it? John Crowley is a novelist, documentary screenwriter and academic, best known in popular literary circles for 1981’s epic Little, Big, for which he won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. An early version of Engine Summer called Learning to Live With It was among Crowley’s first long-form works, though Engine Summer is actually the third book in Crowley’s canon by order of publication. Engine Summer was nominated for the both the British Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1980. Literary critic Harold Bloom has been a champion of Crowley’s works for many years, citing him as one of the 20th Century’s most under-appreciated writers. Crowley is currently a member of the English Department at Yale University.

When and where did I read it? I read Engine Summer in the early 2000s, mostly in our house on Cord Avenue in Latham, New York. I had heard of neither Engine Summer nor John Crowley himself until I read about the book and author in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. I was deep into a Philip K. Dick phase at that point, so I  went for a lot of the more “Phildickian” books (e.g. Alfred Bester, Thomas M. Disch, Roger Zelazy) recommended by Pringle before I decided to tackle Engine Summer. I actually picked it up somewhat by default because I finally reached a point where it was one of the few books left on the 100 Best list that the Colonie Town Library stocked and which that I hadn’t already read. The payoff for my wait, though, was immense, and I consider it one of my favorite books to this day.

Why do I like it? Crowley’s successes with language, story-telling, and the creation of a rich and believable world in Engine Summer are almost unparalleled in my experiences as a reader. The story’s pacing is slow and gentle, but that feels like a direct and intentional depiction of a world that is slow and gentle, too . . . until it is not. The conversations between Rush That Speaks and the Angel are artfully done, and it is in this narrative that the book’s climactic reveal unfolds. It was so perfect once it resolved that I literally went back and re-read the book again, and experienced it even more powerfully knowing what was coming. This gorgeous, bittersweet, and haunting book stayed with me in active thought for months after I read it, and I still find myself unexpectedly musing about Engine Summer all these years on, hence this first “Five by Five Books” report.

A five sentence sample text: “Little Belaire is built out outward from a center in the old warren where it began, built outward in interlocking rooms great and small, like a honeycomb, but not regular like a honeycomb. It goes over hills and a stream, and there are stairs and narrow places, and every room is different in size and shape and how you go in and out of it, from big rooms with pillars of log to tiny rooms all glittering with mirrors, and a thousand other kinds, old and changeless at the center and new and constantly changing father out. Path begins at the center and runs in a long spiral through the old warren and the big middle rooms and so on to the outside and out in the aspen grove near Buckle cord’s door on the Afternoon side. There is no other way through Little Belaire to the outside except Path, and no one who wasn’t born in Little Belaire, probably, could ever find his way to the center. Path looks no different from what is not Path: it’s drawn on your feet.”




#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)



1. I’ve been thinking of ideas for a new writing series, having recently finished another mega-review piece, this time with helpers easing the load a bit. Even with assistance from Wilson and Goat, though, that “Great Out of the Gate” project took a lot of time and energy, which is good, but hard to duplicate on a regular basis. So I’m pondering the idea of a series called “Five by Five Books,” which will provide the structure I like, but force it into manageable pieces that don’t lend themselves to the 25,000-word essays that I’m prone to create if not regulated. Here’s the concept: I will write about books I love on some periodic basis, and will cover five facets about my experience with each book, with each facet being covered in five sentences. The framing facets for each book would be:

  • What it’s about.
  • Who wrote it.
  • When and where I read it.
  • Why I like it.
  • A five sentence sample text.

That appeals to my sense of tidiness and structure. Does it have any appeal to any of you as readers, or am I better off sticking to what you know me for (long-form music stuff) than trying a new trick as a old blog dog?

2. I take convenience stores seriously, as evidenced by bullet number two in this post about things I expected to miss when I left Albany. So it’s with no small sense of import that I am now prepared to report, after two and half years in Iowa, that I have declared Casey’s as the best convenience store chain our region, giving it my official Indie Moines Seal of Approval, with various huttahs and wavings of hands. The chain’s distinctive red-roofed stores have become my desired stops whenever I drive around the state, which is often, and I will often go from town to town to town while on the road to get to the one with a Casey’s on the main drag. I’m also happy to have one about four blocks from my house, for those quick convenience emergencies, like “Oh wow, we don’t have any wine,” or “Gosh, some Twizzlers would be good right now, wouldn’t they?” While Casey’s doesn’t have the awesome ice cream selections that my much-missed Stewart’s offered in Upstate New York, they generally offer surprisingly good pizza, great donuts, good coffee, generous sandwiches, reasonably priced gas (especially if you buy the Iowa-subsidized Ethanol-fortified strain), and sizable beer and wine selections, sometime with large walk-in coolers, even. Plus, I appreciate the fact that there are no embarrassing misspellings in the name of their stores, unlike all the other convenience destinations out here, e.g. Kum n’ Go, QuikTrip, Git n’ Go and their ilk. Literacy matters to me, even when I’m just running out to get some beer and beef jerky, you know? Think of the children.