CLUBHOUSE: Review: augur magazine #5 (literary fantasy mag)

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

AUGUR MAGAZINE issue #5, Vol. 2 No. 2.

Publisher: Kerrie Seljak-Byrne, Augur Magazine Literary Society, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Managing Editor: Alexander De Pompa. Senior Editor: Mado Christie. Poetry Editor: Terese Mason Pierre. Graphic Fiction Editor: Amy Wang. Editor: Victoria Liao.

Cover Art: Lorna Antoniazzi. Interior Art: Ann Sheng and Liv Winston.

FICTION:

give me, i give thee – by C.A. Schaefer

Premise:

Good girls refrain from self indulgence, particularly sweets and cakes. As a result, they habitually spew diamonds and other precious gems from their mouths. They are welcome in Church and are girls their mothers are proud of. Possibly they are popular with men and marry well. Good girls are called “Diamonds.”

Bad girls love everything sweet. They can’t control their cravings. As a result they spit up toads whenever they speak, and sometimes noxious reptiles. The only place for them is to work in factories, or, better yet, to dwell in nunneries. Bad girls are called “Toads.”

The protagonist and her lover are both Toads, except that the former is some sort of mutant as she occasionally spits up false or low quality gem stones. An unusual pair. They don’t mind the gangs of teenage boys who go around smashing toads (the amphibians, not the girls). But some guy has gone beyond mere toad smashing.

Review:

Well, huh. Definitely not the sort of fantasy I’m used to. The frequent references to food has no effect on me. I like food. I like sweets. But not something I obsess over. The ubiquitous references to assorted amphibians and reptiles are vaguely interesting, but ultimately repetitious. The various gem stones referenced lend a surreal aspect to the description, if not to the story. I’m a bit of a sucker for surreal imagery, so find that somewhat appealing. Despite the fact there is so much that means little to me, the overall conglomeration of detail renders the story memorable, difficult to put out of mind. Not something easily dismissed. Undoubtedly intentional on the author’s part.

Now, I note that the author lives with her wife in Salt Lake city in Utah, which is Mormon country. Having read the Book of Mormon forty odd years ago, and spoken to many Mormon Elders, I am somewhat aware that Mormons have rather set and inflexible views concerning the relationship of the sexes and the role of women. No easy thing, I suspect, to be a Lesbian living in Salt Lake City.

On first reading I noted that the lovers were lesbian and that men scarcely appear, so I assumed that the story was some sort of metaphor concerning societal expectations of women even before I got around to reading the notes on contributors to the magazine. The information in the above paragraph merely confirms my interpretation, in my view.

So, in essence, the message of the story is that it sucks to be different. But it is more nuanced than that. America has always been a struggle between opposite extremes, between libertine licentiousness and puritanism, between the right to do whatever you want and powerful pressures to conform, between freedom and authoritarian mind-control. Or, to put it another way, on a visit to Seattle decades ago I remember passing a burlesque house with a big sign stating “40 beautiful naked girls! (And 2 ugly ones!)” and then, a little later, a storefront evangelical church with a sign “Jesus saves!” Yep, America in a nutshell. Multiple-choice lifestyle and morality.

The story isn’t saying that good girls are good or bad girls are bad. Nor is it saying that good girls are bad and bad girls are good. I think it is simply stating that all women, no matter what their inherent nature, face the consequences of social pressures dictated (it is implied) by the perceptions of males and that the best thing to do, the only thing you can do, is cope as best you can and enjoy life on your own terms to the best of your ability. That’s how you avoid being crushed. That’s how you preserve your individuality.

Consequently, I see the story as being fundamentally optimistic. I also see it as a kind of dream reverie on the topic of life as it passes by. Not a nightmare by any means. More of a slightly surreal and mostly neutral meditation on the way things are.

It also occurs to me that the lust for food which helps define whether a girl is good or bad is really a stand-in for how any individual girl copes with her lust for sex, i.e. the “traditional” forbidden desires. But then, I’m male, so maybe this is just an example of typical male thinking, i.e. how any subject or topic is “obviously” a substitute for sex or sexual repression, or sexual fantasy, or sexual … well, you get the idea. I think I read somewhere years ago that studies showed the average male thinks about sex at least once a minute. Maybe the average 16-year-old does. I’m 68 and have calmed down quite a bit. As a result I can readily concede that it may be true that nothing in this story has anything to do with sex, that it is entirely about coping with social expectations and living your own life.

To sum up, my interpretation of this story may well be flawed, simply because I’m male. Could be that women will derive far more meaning, and satisfaction, from its narrative than I can.

One thing for sure, it has a quiet, ultimately positive beauty that lingers in the mind.

beauty, sleeping – (Poem) by Lynne Sargent

Premise:  

The negative influence of a mother-in-law on any woman intent on being a wife and mother.

Review:  

There are a million mother-in-law jokes, almost all of them from the point of view of husbands. This may have changed. I am vaguely aware of several movies that have portrayed mothers-in-law as admirable catastrophes hurting/helping all concerned. As for myself, to be frank, I must admit that I have never given any thought to what it must be like to be a wife whose husband’s mother cannot forgive them for taking away “her” boy, or for fooling him into marrying beneath him. Must be a living hell.

This poem is very quiet and very perceptive. Though short, there’s a lot to unpack and ponder. And the topic seems very original, at least to me. It’s a low key, rather subtle poem that says a great deal in a mere 21 lines, or, to put it another way, implies more than it says. Makes one think, this poem does.

I can add that I have a soft spot for Lynne (as an editor, I mean, just to be clear) because her poem Meat Puppets, which was first published in issue #4 of my magazine Polar Borealis in 2017, was nominated for the “Best Poem” Aurora Award in 2018. She’s a very good poet.

dream circles – by Amanda Wan

Premise:

A dream about the relationship of two people meeting on a seashore.

Review:

This poem is structured like a dream in that perceptions shift rapidly and it is difficult to focus on what is “real.” Within this construction is an essay on the ever-shifting demands and changes inherent in a human relationship, possibly that of two lovers, who seem to be both intimate and distant at the same time throughout time. Lots of not-so-hidden angst present. Is love futile? Or a challenging conundrum worth pursuing? At least one incident contradicts the overall tone of melancholy regret. From this I conclude the underlying message is positive, or at the very least, no worse than reality itself. A most interesting poem.

Fortunately for me, when I walk along a seashore my mind is mostly blank. I doubt I will ever be able to write a poem as surreal or insightful as this one, but at least I get to enjoy the winds and waves whenever I feel like it. Sometimes being literal-minded is a blessing.

the book of revelation, appendix a – by Quinn Lui

Premise:

The world is coming to an end.

Review:

You probably guessed that from the title. But this isn’t the book about that event, it’s an appendix such as you might find at the end of any detailed work of history. It consists of original documents created by participants, offered as evidence to back up whatever the central theme of the history was. From the reader’s point of view all interest lies in what the historical figures quoted were complaining about at the time. The complaints, seemingly mundane and ordinary at first, turn out to have an unexpected significance.

One clue is that the end of the world takes place over the days of the week, albeit described as “Sun’s Day,” “Moon’s Day,” “Tyr’s Day,” “Odin’s Day,” etc. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what that implies.

There’s a lot to figure out. At first I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Then I suspected I was reading some sort of ghost story, but I wasn’t sure. Only at the end did everything become clear and fall into place. The ending is very satisfactory as it raises a number of issues concerning the end of the world which never occurred to me till now. Can’t mention them since that would spoil the story.

I’ll just conclude by saying the story is part spiritual contemplation, part tragedy, but mostly a mystery and a puzzle which is quite challenging. The ending makes sense, but not till you’ve read it. Quite an intelligent and clever bit of construction on the part of the author. I defy everyone to identify the main character before the author does. Bet you can’t do it. Bet it comes as a revelation to you.

it was/n’t – by Sfe R. Monster

Premise:

Graphic art to do with a somewhat Lovecraftian situation.

Review:  

A very few images with not much text. Typically Lovecraftian in that it attempts to describe the indescribable, and also typically Lovecraftian in that it projects as an external force one’s innermost and deepest fears. Maybe. The resolution is not at all Lovecraftian, given that it is positive, mostly, I think. The images, though simple, are striking, even visceral. Powerful stuff. Proof that less is more.

The final image strikes me as representative of what I would describe as “instinctual Canadian mythology.” Or, to put it another way, I’m not sure what I’m looking at but it seems very Canadian. The artist is indeed Canadian so maybe this observation is not so far-fetched.

The artist is also described as a “trans & queer,” so, I suppose I should interpret the graphics as some sort of statement about the forces of repression vs. inevitable yearnings to be free and true to oneself, but the piece doesn’t strike me that way. It seems more universal than that. Feels like a comment on the price everyone pays to survive, namely the doubts and fears and failures that every true adult learns to cast aside and rise above.

Or maybe I’m just revealing my limitations as a critic. After all, not once have I ever considered anything Lovecraft wrote as “sexual” in meaning. Freud has never influenced me. Jung, maybe, but not Freud. I think Lovecraft wrote about monsters, not repressed sexuality. I may be the only critic on Earth who thinks this way. I consider my point of view valid. After all, Freud himself once said “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”

Anyway, interpret the graphics as you will. I think it is a superb piece of art.

mouth dirge – (Poem) by Keith J. Castillo

Premise:  

A cry of protest over communication as is and the way it should be.

Review:

Oddly enough, my first impression is that this what was God was thinking in the moments before he opened his mouth and said “Let there be light.” This implies God created the universe out of a sense of frustration. Makes sense to me.

I doubt that’s what the author had in mind. It is a very personal protest, perhaps indicative of the frustration every writer feels when struggling to say exactly what they mean to say. If so, rather ironic that the poem contains some precise and beautiful imagery.

I am reminded of the time Truman Capote appeared on the Johnny Carson show and described an event, waking up in a Moscow hotel room in a bed covered in snow because he had drunkenly left the window open, saying “I’ve never been able to write it,” and Carson replied “I think you just did.”

The poem reflects the manner in which the character wishes to speak, albeit in written form. An effective cry of frustration and protest regardless, though. Particularly meaningful for them as wants to stop being ignored.

snakeskin – (Poem) by Minying Huang

Premise:  

Wearing snakeskin for armour isn’t easy in winter.

Review:

A very abstract poem with lots of repetition to do with cold and warmth and losing scales and too many ribs and shedding skin and ripping open and? Individual bits of imagery quite vivid and yet I am unable to picture exactly what is going on.

At first I had a vague idea it has something to do with Adam and Eve, what with her being created from Adam’s rib and both being betrayed by the snake and so on, and thus the poem has something to do with the eternal problems of men and women relating to each other but I’m probably crazy for thinking that.

What then? Snakeskin as armour, yes, but apparently a living snakeskin, personified as “she.” There appears to be a need for the armour, but not much advantage to wearing it. Makes one vulnerable, it seems. Again, strikes me as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of a love affair, but what do I know?

I see that the poet is studying for an MA in comparative literature in Toronto and it is possible the symbolism of the poem depends on cultural traditions and mythology entirely unknown to me. Besides, the fact that she is a woman suggests my initial impression of what the poem means is all wrong. In truth I don’t know what the poem means.

Perhaps it is not about an individual wearing a snakeskin as armour. The multiplicity of ribs and lungs imply the character and the snakeskin are one and the same. So, is this poem really about a woman whose skin turns into snakeskin in winter as a futile protection against the cold? A poem inspired by the difficulty of an immigrant living through a Canadian winter? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. Ahh, the perils of being literal-minded.

Point is I’ve done a lousy job of interpreting the imagery, but admit it is both striking and vividly disturbing. Quite interesting, in fact.

One nice touch; the visual impact of the poem on the page is as sinuous as a snake.

when the white bird sings – by K.T. Bryski

Premise:

Catja is a full-grown peasant woman struggling to survive amidst winter cold and famine. Fortunately, the white bird on her shoulder helps her endure. Unfortunately, she ignores its advice and snatches an apple from the witch’s garden. Now she finds herself confined in the witch’s gingerbread house and being offered a steady diet of meat pies made from the bodies of little children.

Review:  

When I was young there was a popular song titled “White Bird in a Golden Cage” and it was so damned sad I switched off the radio every time it came on. To this day I can’t listen to the lyrics without tears welling up in my eyes. Don’t know why. Something about the combination of simply lyrics and the mournful melody rips at my guts. Normally I’m very stoic, or try to be, but this song brings out the sentimentalist in me. Perhaps speaks to my hidden fears more than Lovecraft ever did. Let Freud figure it out. He’s dead, so I don’t have to worry. I just know the song makes me instantly and exceedingly sad. I avoid it like the plague.

So, when I saw the title of the story, because of the “White Bird” associations I assumed it would have a sad ending. Most fairy tales do. This one is, of course, a variation on Hansel and Gretel, and an innovative and original variation at that. The ending is very sad, though probably not what you’d expect. A bit of a surprise, in fact. Not predictable at all.

As for the moral of the story, and every fairy tale has a moral, or at least a warning , I’m not quite sure. Maybe something as simple as “Winter sucks so you’d better be prepared to get through it” or, even simpler, “Never make mistakes.” The ending is downbeat and depressing. Nothing positive about it. I don’t see Disney ever making a movie version.

On a positive note this story is proof that even the classic fairy tales, seemingly hammered to death over constant retellings, can yet serve as inspiration for fresh and original interpretations that can intrigue and entertain the reader as much as any other horror story can offer in these jaded, modern times. The White Bird very much makes the story. It is the key to why and how this fairy tale impacts the reader. Well done, I say, even though I’m always a little resentful when a story leaves me feeling sad. I confess I prefer happy endings.

CONCLUSION:

There is nothing science fictional about this issue. It is completely devoted to literary fantasy and the above review is the best guestimate by a literal-minded critic as to what it is all about. Not a chore for me. It was fun to do. The issue was fun to read. I always enjoy a challenge and in particular I enjoy good writing and evocative imagery. That’s why I think you’ll enjoy reading this, too.

Check it out at: < Augur Magazine >

P.S. I wrote this review on an empty stomach with lots of coffee sloshing around inside. Seems to be the only way I can manage to think these days.

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