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At the Mouth of the River of Bees

December 3, 2012

Kij Johnson is an author new to me; I heard of her from two different directions at once this fall. The first person to mention her to me was the mother of one of Eleanor’s college friends who is a science fiction editor (and a good one; she won this year’s Hugo award for “best editing, short form”) and the second was Ana at Things Mean A Lot. Eleanor is going to get to meet Kij Johnson at a convention this spring, so when we found a couple of her books, I read the short stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees first and loved them, and she read a novel entitled Fudoki, which she picked as her book of the year (for our Christmas newsletter).

The first story in At the Mouth of the River of Bees is entitled 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss. It’s about a magic act done with monkeys and it is wonderful and quirky and sad and has the most beautiful ending imaginable: “They hear the refrigerator close and come out to the kitchen to find Pango pouring orange juice from a carton. They send her home with a pinochle deck.” Doesn’t that wring your heart? Oh, it does mine…but I’ve read the rest of the story. Part of what is wonderful about this story, in particular, is the way that it gives away its secrets.

The Bitey Cat is another sad and wonderful story, told from the point of view of a three-year-old who survives a fiercely loyal pet. The Horse Raiders takes such sadness further, into a wild and alien landscape where a girl’s best friend is still her dog. My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire is a bit of comic relief in the collection, with the joke on its naïve narrator. And the title story, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, is the best in the volume, with just the right mix of journey, mystery, and sentiment. Even Wolf Trap, which could have been the most predictable story in the collection, manages its moments of mystery, as it’s never clear in any of these stories how a human will react to an animal or how alien one human or animal can seem to another.

There are disturbing stories here, like Ponies and Spar. What is disturbing in them is spelled out for readers, highlighting the wonder of the stories in which the metaphors simply come alive.

The penultimate and longest story, The Man Who Bridged the Mist, has the fewest animals in it; they are reduced to shadowy fearsome shapes, obstacles to human endeavor and probably unchanging in a world where humans are changing things around them.

The last word in this collection is the story The Evolution of Trickster Stories, about what happens to pets after animals have learned to speak. What happens, in the end, is that “people believe stories and then they make them real.”

All of these stories will appeal to sentient beings who will try to see creatures they can’t always understand or control “not as slaves but as friends, freeing themselves as well.” Shifting perspectives, piercings through of unexpected intelligence, and fear of the unknown are stirred around in this collection until a new flavor of science fiction emerges.  I developed a taste for it.

There’s a metaphor we could make real in the comments–have you ever taught yourself to like something?  I tried hot and sour soup for about a year, at least once a month, until I grew to like it.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2012 9:17 am

    This sounds like an interesting and thoughtful collection of short stories. As far as teaching myself to like something? The first thing that popped into my head was beer in college. lol

    • December 3, 2012 10:06 am

      Beer is an acquired taste for some of us; I was learning to like it when I figured out it gives me migraines, so I stopped trying it.

      • Karen D permalink
        December 3, 2012 11:37 am

        I have still not learned to like it, really. I have found perhaps 1 beer that I have enjoyed, ever. A few others I could tolerate to be sociable.

        • December 4, 2012 7:57 am

          Not drinking beer can make you appear snobby. I tell my beer-drinking friends that parties at my house are always BYOB, because no one wants beer picked out by non-beer-drinkers.

  2. December 3, 2012 9:20 am

    Fortunately for me, I guess, I loved hot and sour soup from the get-go. But I do try new things, even things I don’t think I’ll like–on occassion. I’d love to hear one of these stories on Podcastle or some other form. I’d like to try one before I buy the whole set. 😉

    • December 3, 2012 10:05 am

      Oh! I meant to link to the stories that are available online. I went back and put a link to them on the author’s name.

      Try 26 Monkeys for a first taste.

  3. December 3, 2012 12:57 pm

    Now you need to read her novels! The Fox Woman is my favourite, but Fudoki is also wonderful.

    • December 4, 2012 7:58 am

      We plan on switching books when Eleanor comes home for Christmas break, so I’ll get Fudoki then.

  4. December 3, 2012 6:52 pm

    Coffee. I detested it until my early 30s. Now I love it.

    • December 4, 2012 8:00 am

      I still try it every now and then–the latest time was when Eleanor was here for October break and she ordered some kind of caramel and whipped cream thing at Starbucks that she told me was very high in calories and very good. I tried a sip. But it had coffee in it, so I didn’t like it.

  5. December 4, 2012 9:28 am

    I thought of beer too. I hated it as a teen but since the drinking age went down for beer (for a brief moment) but was still 21 for everything else, it was the only thing I could legally drink then. The key to enjoying it, though, was being able to afford good beer. Not the rot gut kind. Usually, I can’t make myself like anything. I have to discover it at the right time or (with food) have it prepared in a way that makes me change my mind (slightly). Like brussel sprouts. Ugh. But, my sister has sauteed them before and they were not bad. But still not something I’d fix for myself.

    • December 4, 2012 2:54 pm

      Eleanor shares your idea that they key to enjoying it is to be able to get good beer–she likes dark beers. Oh, not that college students drink (!)

  6. December 4, 2012 2:41 pm

    Oh this sounds interesting.

    On a side note, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I ordered C-D-B based on your post about it and my son and I have been enjoying it! What a good time it is!

    • December 4, 2012 2:55 pm

      Glad to hear you like it! That book is a bit of an acquired taste, isn’t it? It takes you a few to really get rolling with it, and then it’s hard to stop.

  7. aartichapati permalink
    December 8, 2012 4:36 pm

    I had Johnson on my watch list before, but this lovely review reminded me of WHY she is on there. I definitely need to look out for her more closely. Thanks for such a lovely review.

  8. April 22, 2014 6:09 pm

    I just read “The Bitey Cat”, and I was moved to tears by this story. But I was a little lost at the end. I know that the the cat disappeared and was not seen again, but the part where the little girl would see her at night, “until she grows too old and forgets to look for her” was a little unclear to me. Was it that the cat became a figment of her imagination, and then she just stopped thinking about her?

    • April 22, 2014 7:10 pm

      Maybe. I think that’s certainly the way the little girl’s mother would tell the story. The ambiguity of the ending, I think, is a way to re-examine how reliable such a young narrator can be. We often think that a young child’s story of a “monster in the closet” is just over-active imagination. What if the cat was real and nobody believed the child because the story is too fantastic?

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