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Eugene Weekly : Books : 10.12.06

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A Touch of the Weird

Eugene writer spins vivid, graphic tales.


CATALYST, fiction, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Tachyon, 2006. Paperback, $14.95

Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a hometown literary hero, a successful writer who actually lives here even though she doesn't teach at the UO (she does teach workshops at LCC). She's funny, warm and connected to the Eugene community: Her writing group, the Eugene Wordos, meets at Tsunami Books, and she serves on the board of the Young Writers Association. She loves the Downtown Library, where, now that there's wireless internet access, she occasionally pulls up a comfy chair to a convenient table, plugs in her laptop and gets to work.

A prolific short-story writer (like many of the Wordos, she says, because "that's what we know how to workshop"), Hoffman provided one of the most vivid tales — "Flotsam" — in 2003's superb young adult (YA) fantasy anthology Firebirds. This month, she has two novels coming out: Spirits that Walk in Shadow, from Viking, and Catalyst, from independent publisher Tachyon. Although Spirits is billed as a YA novel, Catalyst, just over novella range and starring a teenager, also might fall into the YA genre … except that Hoffman says she didn't write it for young adults. "It's so graphic," she says of scenes in which protagonist Kisrin first has contact with aliens and in which Kisrin and his creepy enemy make up — and out. But it's less the sexual scenes — no more graphic than, say, Judy Blume's Then Again, Maybe I Won't or the new A Tale of Two Summers by Brian Sloan — than the emotional complexities that make Catalyst akin to adult work like Octavia Butler's hauntingly powerful Xenogenesis series.

The narrative itself wanders through a place that's dreamlike and often horrific. Kisrin's dad, a smart scientist, gambled and drank away their future on a different, better planet called, tongue firmly in cheek, Hitherto. Now they're on a planet where his mother has a good job. But Kisrin must put up with a hellacious human in his class, a hottie who's a big bully and who loves to torture him with her augmented fingernails (no kidding — they're petrifying, sometimes literally). This sounds mildly hilarious as a metaphor for teenage life, but the bully, Histly, disgusts and terrifies Kisrin (and the reader) more than the usual YA mean girl. Things could change when Kisrin discovers an alien colony on his planet, but then again, Histly's family is wealthy, in power and casually sadistic. "Originally, the planet was called Cigarette, where all the research scientists with no morals could go to do any damn thing they want," Hoffman says. So Histly's family, on the planet Hoffman renamed Chuudoku, isn't exactly unusual.

And though the plants aren't precisely tobacco, Kisrin also encounters some super-icky flora that root in people's backs and provide anesthetizing narcotics. The people themselves become addicted little colonies, and the plants are just as much a part of exploitative life on the planet as the aliens Kisrin stumbles into, spider-like creatures (Hoffman actually calls them "the spiders") who don't like Histly very much and have an agenda for Kisrin that he can't quite grasp.

Readers may well want to rescue Kisrin, trapped in a world where everyone wants to control him. Even his mom describes him as "always somebody else's creature." Tenuous hope slides in, but the final pages don't exactly resolve Kisrin's struggles. Hoffman doesn't have plans to write sequels although this book wasn't planned either. "I was just writing it to see where it goes," she says. And now she's attached to her protagonist. "I empathize with him, and I worry about him, but I think he's going to figure some stuff out," she says. Any reader, young or not, will be rooting for that resolution.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman reads and signs at 5 pm Saturday, Oct. 14 at Tsunami Books.


BOOK NOTES: Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney discuss Home Ground, 7 pm 10/12, Gerlinger Lounge, UO. Garrett Epps discusses Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America, 7:30 pm 10/12, 175 Knight Law, UO. Nina Kiriki Hoffman reads, 5 pm 10/14, Tsunami Books. Heather Coburn Flores discusses and signs Food Not Lawns during the annual seed swap, 3 pm-9 pm 10/15, Maitreya EcoVillage. Bob Welch reads and discusses My Seasons, 2 pm 10/15, Barnes & Noble. Eugene Independent Booksellers' Association event with Robert Bly (Iron John) reading, 7:30 pm 10/17, The Shedd. $15. 346-4331. Robert Bly signs books, 3 pm 10/18, Tsunami Books. Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) and Kate Lynn Hibbard (Sleeping Upside Down) read, 8 pm 10/19, Knight Library, UO. David James Duncan delivers the 2006-2007 Clark Lecture, "Why the American West Needs the Asian East," 7:30 pm 10/24, 180 PLC, UO. Poet Judith H. Montgomery and novelist Michael Strelow read, 7 pm 10/24, Downtown Library. Cheryl Strayed reads from Torch and Randy Sue Coburn reads from Owl Island, 7 pm 10/26, UO Bookstore.


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