BOOK REVIEW: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow WallpaperThe Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short story, written in the last decade of the 19th century, tells the story of a sad woman’s descent into madness. The lead is an upper-class lady, wife of a doctor, and is staying in a rented mansion with her husband and her husband’s sister (who acts as their housekeeper) through the summer. The protagonist has been diagnosed with a depressive disorder with hysterical tendencies, and the story serves as an indictment of the way in which mental illness was treated.

It’s not clear what the true nature of the protagonist’s mental or emotional infirmity was at the beginning of her move to the summer-house, but it’s clear that the treatment makes her state of mind much worse. That treatment was a so-called “rest-cure,” and it prohibited her from working, writing (which is now known to be quite therapeutic), or doing much else, save for staring at the walls – hence the title. As happens when the mind is shut-off from external stimuli, it starts to form its own stories that become projected into the individual’s world in the form of hallucinations. In the protagonist’s case, these hallucinations play out in (and behind) the irregular wallpaper pattern.

The fact that the woman’s husband is a doctor, ironically, contributes to her worsening condition because she accepts his “treatment” as being formulated by a great authority. As much as it is an indictment of the specific treatment offered (i.e. “rest-cures”), it may be even more of an indictment of the belief that there exists an infallible authority on the mind. A humbler doctor might have listened to his patient, and adjusted course when it became clear the patient was getting worse under the existing treatment.

This is a very quick read. It may be slow in places, as one might expect of a story that involves a substantial amount of staring at, and contemplation of, wallpaper, but as her condition becomes more serious the story becomes gripping and the nature of reality more in question. The edition that I read contained drawings.

I found this story both intriguing and thought-provoking, and would recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young couple falls in love in an undesignated Middle Eastern country, but when violence flares out of control they are forced to flee. The novel follows this couple as they cross through various “doorways,” moving from one country to the next, trying to find someplace where they can settle into a peaceful life.

What makes this love story so intriguing is its exploration of the varied ways in which individuals cope with the challenges of refugee life. The male lead, Saeed, is close to his parents, who are professionals, at the beginning of the story. He’s been raised in a middle-class devout but moderate Muslim household. Saeed seeks out his own people and takes solace not only in Islam, but in the culture of his countrymen more generally. His girlfriend, Nadia, is on the outs with her family because she moved out on her own and she was too modern and progressive for the tastes of her traditional family. She’s a non-believer, and the religion and culture with which she was raised are objects she is more than willing to put in her rearview mirror. (To make it interesting, Nadia wears the burka, not because she is devout, but because it’s somewhat successful at keeping the guys from pawing her. This makes her appear devout, when she is anything but.) Nadia tries to assimilate into whatever community she finds herself. What begins as a comfortable “opposites attract” set of differences becomes an ever-widening chasm as the two are exposed to the stresses of refugee life.

This book is written in a sparse style. It does a lot of telling versus showing. However, that seems to work because some of what it does show the reader is so visceral that some straight-forward exposition of the character’s feelings forms a palate cleanser. The story is specifically vague about how the characters move from place to place. This is clearly on purpose to capture the nature of refugee travel, which is so different from the looking out windows and snapping photos that ordinary travelers do. It also allows the author to portray the refugee routes as portals that open and close on different locales as authorities on either end shut them down. They aren’t the firmly established transportation corridors ordinary travelers move through, but rather ephemeral windows of opportunity.

There are little vignettes about individuals apparently unrelated to the story in each chapter. Through them, I think the author just wishes to convey the global nature of this phenomenon. I didn’t find these bits added much, but the also didn’t take up much space or time, and so didn’t detract from the story.

I enjoyed this story. It reads clearly and quickly, and has a nice tight theme and story arc. I’d recommend it for fiction reads, particularly those interested in a story about being a refugee in the modern world.

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BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Circe is a minor goddess / sea-nymph in Greek mythology. While her father is the powerful Titan sun-god, Helios, she is the runt of the litter. She has a weak voice by godly standards, has few and limited powers, and is sympathetic to the fates of humans in a way that is considered ungodly. (The latter was strengthened by her affinity for Prometheus, the god who introduced fire to humanity and was subsequently punished by having his liver eaten each day by an eagle.) Circe’s underdog status would only go so far in producing an interesting story, but things become more intriguing when she begins to develop her skill as a witch. This makes her more powerful, and the increasing power of a minor deity threatens greater gods. Some of her abilities as a witch may result from her divinity, but it’s made clear that even mortals can practice witchcraft. Her gift for witchcraft is especially prominent in her abilities of transformation.

Circe’s adverse reaction to the Cinderella treatment she gets at home in addition to the increasing and unexpected threat she presents as a witch – seen when she turns a mortal into a god and another nymph into a monster — gets her exiled to an island. While it would seem that her story would get uninteresting while she’s exiled to a remote island, she’s visited by a number of mythic figures – mortal and god alike – who keep her tale fascinating, these include: the master craftsman Daedalus, the messenger deity / trickster god Hermes, and – most crucially to her story – the heroic king of Ithaca, Odysseus. She also makes a couple of trips off the island, such as when her sister, Pasiphaë, gets a special dispensation to temporarily break the exile in order for Circe to attend to the birth of Pasiphaë’s child. (This might make it seem that the siblings were close, or at least liked each other, but that’s not the case at all. The only family member she has a decent relationship with is her younger brother, Aeëtes, but he is not so much warm to her as he is tolerating of her affections, and even that alliance of convenience is doomed.)

Miller presents readers with a Circe who is both sympathetic and intriguing because she’s no match for the forces arrayed against her and can only survive by her wits and self-knowledge. Circe’s diligence in practicing her craft and her knowledge of her strengths and limitations allows her to persevere in the face of great dangers. She faces hordes of horny sailors, familial dysfunction, and, most crucially, a dire threat to the child who results from her dalliances with one of her most prominent visitors. The story features the many twists, common in Greek Mythology, resulting from gods and men trying to outwit the Fates, but it’s also the straightforward story of a mother who’ll do anything to keep her child safe against a hostile world.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers of fiction, regardless of whether they have a specific interest in Greek Mythology. It’s a great story, well written, readable, and featuring characters who one can love and others who one can loathe.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

The Man Who Spoke SnakishThe Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I read this book as part of my continuing effort to read at least one book from every country to which I’ve traveled. Kivirähk’s book came highly recommended for Estonia on a list by diplomats who were asked to provide a book that offers insight into the country where they served. At first blush, this book seems like an odd selection for such a purpose because it’s a fantasy novel (rather than the character-centric literary fiction that typically offers deep insight about the culture from which the book’s characters reside.) However, I came away from this book feeling that I had learned something about the Estonian national character, if while immersed in a question which has much broader applicability.

The book revolves around the tension between the forest people and the those who’ve moved to the villages. The main character is among the last of the people who live in the forest. Among the traditional skills he learns is how to speak a language called “Snakish,” which is not only the language of snakes, but which also serves as a kind of lingua franca (common language) among many of the species of the forest. A central question of the book is whether this man will be the last to speak Snakish – representing mankind’s expulsion from the natural realm. He is a boy at the beginning of the book, and as he’s learning Snakish, the only other speakers are advanced in age. In essence, the book explores whether the old ways will survive, and – in particular – the ways of humans living in nature instead of thinking themselves above it.

The villagers are enamored with all things foreign. They are passionate converts to Christianity. They gaze admiringly upon knights and monks. They take up any new technology that is introduced. (Needless to say, the time of the story is ambiguously pre-Industrial revolution, when agriculture and feudalism prevailed.) While the villagers look upon the forest people as backwards, just as people today might assume the forest-dwellers to be more superstitious and simpler, what we read is a twist in which the forest people find the villagers to be superstitious and woefully out-of-touch with the ways of nature. The villagers live in fear of nature because they have separated themselves from it, and – following the newly introduced Christian beliefs – they believe they are above nature and that all other creatures are under their dominion to do as they see fit. Of course, nature doesn’t yield easily to the desires of man, and the villagers are forced into the contradiction of thinking themselves superior to nature while at the same time being terrified of the creatures who live in the forest and – for that matter – the forest itself. The simple dichotomy of good and evil that foreigners have introduced is also in contrast with the more nuanced and, arguably, more sophisticated views of the forest-dwellers.

What the reader sees in this story mirrors what we have seen in our world, which is that mankind’s culture continues to leave a progressively bigger mark on the natural world – but not without a cost. On the other side of the coin, aboriginal ways are dying out. In a way, it’s the story of human development shrunk down to the scale of a few characters.

This is an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it for all readers. The story is intense and keeps one reading, but it’s thought-provoking at the same time as it entertains.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim

Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War PreludeMarvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This two issue comic book was released in advance of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It revisits the events of previous movies adding a few snippets of new material here and there. Of the new material, much of it elaborates upon events that are known to have happened behind the scenes of earlier movies. Not surprisingly, given Marvel’s penchant for secrecy, there are only a few frames that offer insight into activities that a fan who’d seen all the preceding films would be in the dark about.

I’m assuming that anyone considering reading a prelude to “Infinity War,” by this point, has already seen that movie and relevant preceding films such as “Captain America: Civil War,” the first two “Avengers” movies, “Guardians of the Galaxy 1,” and “Doctor Strange.” If that’s not the case, and you want to avoid potential spoilers, stop now.

The first issue recaps “Captain America: Civil War” while providing insight into what happens with Captain America’s team in the wake of that film, at the end of which they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Much of the issue is verbatim repetition of the events of that movie. There’s also elaboration about the Black Panther’s assistance to Winter Soldier (Sgt. Barnes) via his genius sister Shuri, as well as a scene showing what Captain America, Black Widow, and other team members are up to in the aftermath of the breakup of the Avengers.

The second issue consists largely of Wong schooling Doctor Strange on the powers of the infinity stones and their current whereabouts. Those who’ve seen all the films know that five of the six stones were accounted for before the third Avengers movie. Only the whereabouts of the soul stone remains in doubt. This book doesn’t solve that mystery and merely offers a cryptic comment about the soul stone’s power. As Wong is describing events, the reader is shown flashback scenes from the movies and post-credit scenes that explain where each stone is and how they were used in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “Avengers 1 & 2,” “Doctor Strange,” etc.

If you are an intense fan who craves every new bit of information, you may enjoy combing through this comic book. Otherwise, it’s mostly of use for those who are planning on seeing “Infinity War” but who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 1” (which contains a brief piece of exposition that clarifies the nature of the stones), or the previous “Avengers” films. I don’t know how big that demographic is, but I suppose new fans are coming along all the time. I wouldn’t recommend you purchase the prelude expecting anything new and earth-shattering. The art and dialogue are all well done and inline with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.

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BOOK REVIEW: Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal

InheritanceInheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I read at least one piece of literature from every country I visit, and I picked this book for Singapore. In a way, it’s an odd choice because – while the book is set in Singapore over a two decade period — the story revolves around a Punjabi Sikh family. The family consists of single-parent father, two sons, and a daughter who is the youngest child. The father is a police officer who’d been posted to Singapore before it became an independent country. (Singapore is a small [in size, not necessarily in population] island nation that was a British colony, was under Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and then was briefly part of Malaysia — before gaining its independence in 1965.) Given the facts that: a.) Singapore is so fundamentally multi-cultural; b.) the setting substantially influences the nature of the story; and c.) the author lived in Singapore long enough to convey its feel, I stand by my choice.

The story revolves around the damage that can be done by shame and the dark side of traditional values – especially when transplanted into a society that is highly competitive, orderly, but also indulgent. That’s where the importance of the Singaporean setting comes into play. While it’s a strict society that prides itself on order, Singapore is also a mega-Asia metropolis where anyone can find a dim recess to do whatever he or she wants.

Amrit, the young woman in the family, is the single biggest point of shame for the father – and, to varying degrees, the rest of the family. She drinks to excess, is promiscuous, is generally dismissive of traditional values, and all of this ultimately results in her being unmarriageable [at least not in a traditional wedding to a family of equal or greater status as is so coveted in Indian culture.] Early in the book, she disappears for several days and throws the family into a lurch. One would think that concern for Amrit’s well-being would be the over-riding emotion during her absence, but it’s tainted by fear that she’ll make the family look bad. The problem is that Amrit is bipolar but no one recognizes this because all the family can accept is that she is misbehaving – perhaps because she never got to know her mother. Because of this, she doesn’t get treatment for her condition until long after she should have. The fear of her being seen as “mad” and the effect that would have on her ability to be wed keeps the family from helping Amrit get the medicine that would allow her manage her impulses and make better decisions.

The middle son, Narain, is a quieter embarrassment to his father. While Narain is not the kind to go on benders or to draw attention to himself, he is gay – in both a culture and a country that are intolerant of homosexuality. At the beginning of the book we see him being sent away to America to college after being prematurely discharged from military service. His father thinks college in America will make a man out of Narain, but what it does is expose him to an environment which is more permissive but at the same time which drives him away from the Sikh values with which he was raised. In short, it does exactly the opposite of what the father hoped for, and we can imagine Narain would have gone through life playing a part as dictated by traditional norms (getting married, having children, and either repressing his sexuality or leading a secret double-life) had he not spent time abroad.

Even the eldest son, Gurdev, is a disappointment to the father despite the fact that he lives life by the traditional script, marrying a wife who has traditional Punjabi values, and having three children who are successful in school. (Though the fact that they are all girls may be an unstated element of the father’s disappointment, it seems to have more to do with the fact that a cousin who was orphaned and spent time with the family is progressing more quickly in his occupation than Gurdev.)

I enjoyed this book and found it quite illuminating. One sees how tradition and modernity come to loggerheads, and how the outcome is influenced by taking place in a setting that is still trying to get a footing on how to be a country – as Singapore was at the time. It seems fascinating how culture and traditional values form – for good or for bad – blinders. The father can’t fathom that Amrit has a mental condition, not just because he’s in denial, but because it’s not a construct that’s part of his world. Narain, at the start of the book, is extremely aware of cultural norms (e.g. in the opening, we see that he won’t step on so much as a brochure because it’s a violation of the tradition he was raised in to step on the written word.)

I’d highly recommend this book. It’s especially good for those who are seeking to gain insight into Singapore, Punjabi culture, or who want to see how mental illness is swept under the rug to the detriment of all involved.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Spy in the House of Love by Anaïs Nin

A Spy in the House of Love (Cities of the Interior #4)A Spy in the House of Love by Anaïs Nin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The novel’s lead character, Sabina, is an actress who has a series of extra-marital affairs over the short period covered by the novel. Intrigue is generated at the book’s beginning when Sabina contacts a character that we know only as the “lie detector” and petitions him to watch her. The lie detector follows Sabina throughout the course of her sexual dalliances with four men other than her husband, but the reader is only made explicitly aware of his presence during Sabina’s conversations with him, which bookend the events of the novel.

One might presume this novel would be categorized as erotica or romance, but it’s not so graphic as to be typical of the former, nor so much of a celebration of romance to count as the latter. I’d place this work simply as literary fiction. It focuses on the character of Sabina and the conflict that resides within her – on the on hand, she craves the attention of multiple men; but on the other hand, she is in turmoil about this need. The lie detector serves as a confessor, and by having her activities known to someone she hopes to be unburdened. The language is often verges on the poetic.

I enjoyed this novel both for its language and its reflection on the inner conflict of the human condition. I’d recommend this work for readers of literary fiction.

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5 Characteristics I Look for in Travel Literature (w/ My List to Date)

Recently, I’ve begun to read at least one piece of literature from each of the countries I visit. While I’ve done this for the last several countries I’ve been to, now I’m going back to fill in the gaps from past travel.

 

I don’t want to be doctrinaire about the books I choose, but I’ve learned a little about what I find the most beneficial. While some people who do this insist on reading a novel from each country, I’ve been much more open to a range of forms, including: poetry, short stories, and — in a case or two — creative non-fiction. One reason I’m flexible this way is that the novel isn’t the basic unit of literature everywhere in the world. I don’t want to read a pop crime novel published by an expat that offers zero insight into culture just because that’s the only novel I can get my hands on in English. Short story collections have proven at least as insightful as novels because one sees more lead characters put into more diverse situations, and poetry can be as well — as long as it gives a sense of place and people.

 

I should also point out that I’ve violated almost all of these suggestions when something caught my eye — often to great effect. #5 and #1 are really the only ones upon which I insist.

 

5.) Offers insight into the culture of the country at hand. I don’t want to sound like a literary fiction snob. I read a lot of genre fiction and the occasional commercial fiction, but this is one area where I find literary fiction is best. In large part this is because literary fiction tends to be character-driven and that depth of character usually transmits some insight into culture. When I went to Nepal I read Samrat Upadhyay’s Mad Country [short stories] and learned a great deal about the people of Nepal from various walks of life.

 

4.) Authored by a national of said country and set there as well.  The second part (set in the country) seems like it would be non-negotiable, but I’ve certainly violated the first part  (local author) and can imagine violating the second (local setting) as well. The key is that it must do #5 (cultural insight, that’s the point after all.) To give an example of a violation of the local author proviso, for the time being at least, I’m going with George Orwell’s Burmese Days as my pick for Myanmar (Burma.) I may change that at some point, but it definitely offered insight about more than one of the items on this list.

 

To give an example of how one might violate the setting clause and still benefit, I’ve had Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Tablerecommended to me for a Sri Lankan book. It features a Sri Lankan boy on a ship headed from Colombo to England and thus (as I understand it) is only briefly set in Sri Lanka. Sometimes, when a national is abroad, one gains even more cultural insight — i.e. it becomes easier to see culture through the state of contrast. (It turns out that I’m reading another novel set in Sri Lanka entitled Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, which promises to offer me insight into not only Sri Lanka, but also into the craziness that is the sport of cricket.

 

3.) Teaches me about some historical happenings of the country in question. In some sense this is always true because even a contemporary novel deals in history by the time it’s published. However, I tend to prefer a time-frame during which something interesting was going on in the country, but not so far into the past that there is disconnect with the people I interact with in my travels. For example, for Vietnam, I recently read Novel Without A Namewhich features a North Vietnamese soldier as a protagonist, and it’s set during the last days of the war with America.

 

2.) Exposes me to a diverse set of characters. It’s a definite plus if the book shows how more than one element of society lives. A great example of this is Gagamba, a book by F. Sionil Jose, that I read in conjunction with my trip to the Philippines. In it, one peeks into the lives of rich and poor alike, as well as seeing Filipinos who’ve been living abroad and expats living in the Philippines, all this contrast makes the shadowy shapes of culture clearer.

 

1.) It’s a good read. It’s as simple as that. It must be a book I’d want to read regardless of whether I was trying to check off a box on travel literature.

 

Here’s a list of countries I’ve been to with my selections for that country — if I have one. There are some countries (e.g. USA, Hungary, India, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom) from which I’ve read a lot, but I’ll stick to presenting one that is an exemplar vis-a-vis the criteria above.

 

I’d love to receive recommendations, particularly for those countries I don’t have anything for yet.

 

Austria: The Tobacconist (recommended to me, not yet read.)

Belize:

Botswana:

Cambodia: First They Killed My Father  (I’ve read some fiction set here, but this non-fiction is the best.)

Canada: Surfacing (not yet read)

China: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Czech Republic: The Good Soldier Svejk

Estonia: The Man Who Spoke Snakish (In progress. An unconventional choice as it’s genre fiction, but it came highly recommended and has not disappointed.)

Finland: The Year of the Hare (not yet read)

Guatemala: The President  (not yet read)

Hungary: Cold Days

India: The Guide

Japan: Narrow Road to the Interior

Kenya: A Grain of Wheat

Malaysia:

Mexico: Selected Poems of Octavio Paz

Mongolia: The Blue Sky

Myanmar (Burma): Burmese Days

Nepal: Mad Country

Netherlands:
Peru: Death in the Andes

Philippines: Gagamba

Singapore: Inheritance (in progress; another odd choice as the family that this novel presents is Punjabi, though they live in Singapore. and their lives are shaped by that locale. Some places, like Singapore and the UAE, have a lot of immigrants and it’s only fair to consider them through that lens.)

Slovakia:

Slovenia: I Saw Her That Night (not yet read)

Sri Lanka: Chinaman (in progress)

Thailand:

UAE: Temporary People (not yet read)

United Kingdom: A Christmas Carol

United States: Blood Meridian

Vietnam: Novel Without a Name

Zambia:

BOOK REVIEW: Human Is? by Philip K. Dick

Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader (Gollancz S.F.)Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20 of Philip K. Dick’s short stories written between 1952 and 1973 that explore what it means to be human. Dick waxed philosophical on the question enough that a large collection could be assembled that examines humanity from many fascinating angles. While the age of these stories (and their Cold War taint) might make them seem obsolete, there is more than one way in which this collection is extremely relevant today.

First, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be on everybody’s mind of late, and several of these stories feature machine intelligence as a means to understand what makes a human in a world in which there are other intelligent entities (in a similar vein, alien intelligence is also considered.) Second, Dick also asks us to consider the reality of a fictitious character who is alive in the minds of many and who might have more impact on the world than any living being. In our current phase of the information age, in which merchants of [dis-]information are becoming adroit at manipulating information and misinformation for their own desired effect, this seems a more crucial question than ever. Finally, there remains the age-old unresolved question of whether there is some x-factor beyond biology (i.e. a soul) that separates humanity from other forms of intelligence. While this is an old question, the fact that most people still believe there is a “soul” (by whatever name it’s called), even if most scientifically-minded people don’t see any reason to think so, means that it will continue to be a question with potential societal ramifications.

A sub-theme across these stories is the Cold War undercurrent of anxiety that the world could be turned into a dystopian wasteland at any moment. (In most of the stories, it already has been.) Again, if one can look past the references to the Soviet Union being cast as foe in many of the stories, one will find that the stories and the emotional zeitgeist aren’t as faded as they might at first seem.

The stories include some that movie-goers unfamiliar with Dick’s writing will know from Hollywood cinema (e.g. “Second Variety” (movie title: “Screamers,”) “Paycheck” (an eponymous film with Ben Affleck,) “Adjustment Team” (movie: “The Adjustment Bureau,”) and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (i.e. both “Total Recall” movies.) But it also includes some deep cuts and lesser known stories.

1.) Beyond Lies The Wub: The crew of a ship is divided over whether to make an intelligent alien a prisoner or dinner.

2.) The Defenders: Owing to high radiation in the wake of nuclear war, humans are living underground, leaving the war-fighting to AI machines. A group of military men make an expedition to the surface only to get a big surprise.

3.) Roog: A dog is more than the family pet they think him to be, it’s secretly a guardian against the Roog.

4.) Second Variety: The Cold War went hot and the US built AI metallic creatures to fight the Soviets. The problem arises when these intelligent machines developed their own ideas, building androids because a robot that looked human could get into the midst of humans for better killing. The Soviets – after taking heavy losses – discover from serial number placards on androids that variety 1 is a wounded soldier and variety 3 is an orphan boy, begging the question of what is the Second Variety? When Americans end up among the last survivors, the question becomes essential for them as well.

5.) Impostor: Police take a man into custody who they believe to be an android with a dead human’s consciousness loaded into it, along with a bomb that could do tremendous damage. Of course, the man thinks they’ve got it all wrong.

6.) The Preserving Machine: A scientist builds a machine to preserve music, which he believes is at risk of being lost to future generations, but ultimately he learns that life always adapts and changes in unanticipated ways.

7.) The Variable Man: In a world in which decisions are made based on statistical models, the decision to go to war is in gridlock because the odds of winning stay close to 50/50. When a man from the future with a gift for repairing devices shows up, he upsets the apple cart by making the models unstable.

8.) Paycheck: A gifted engineer gets his memory wiped as part of a deal with a huge firm so that he cannot disclose any secrets about the top-secret high-tech project he was working on. He’s irked to find out that before his memory was wiped he asked for an envelope full of odds and ends in lieu of his lucrative paycheck. However, after being picked up by police, he soon realizes that the junk in the envelope was actually a well-thought out collection of useful items – if he can figure out how to use them.

9.) Adjustment Team: In a world in which a heavy hand has to periodically make major societal adjustments without people knowing, one man unwittingly becomes witness to these secret machinations. (Like “Paycheck,” the movie uses Dick’s concept without sharing the same character details and story details. However, I’d say “Paycheck” is closer to the story than is this one. However, it’s worth reading both because neither is exactly like the movie.)

10.) The Father-Thing: What if aliens could take over the consciousness of a loved one? How soon would one recognize the difference, if your father looked just like your father, but his behavior became a bit… off?

11.) Foster, You’re Dead: The “Keeping Up with the Joneses” mentality is a central theme in this story. A son wants one of the latest high-tech bomb shelters both because of Cold War anxiety, because it would be cool for a boy to have a subterranean lair, and because would be a prestige signal. The dad, however, is reluctant to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses.

12.) Human Is: A scientist, who happens to be married to a woman who finds him cold and distant, is body-snatched while he’s away on assignment on a different world. His wife is the first to recognize her husband has been replaced, but does she want the original back?

13.) The Mold of Yancy: This story is about a soft dystopia, but instead of Huxley’s vision of people being plied with drugs and free and easy sex, these subjects are kept docile by the folksy wisdom of a beloved character who’s a complete fiction (unbeknownst to everyone.) Everybody wants their kids to grow up in the mold of the great war hero, Yancy. [Note: Even with all the AI stories, this may be the most apropos for today’s world, information used to manipulate people’s behavior without any threat of force.]

14.) If There Were No Benny Cemoli: Like “The Mold of Yancy” this story explores the question of what it means to be human by considering the fictitious person as a societal touchstone. If you can make people believe in a person who isn’t, and to change their behavior accordingly, what have you created?

15.) The Days of Perky Pat: In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, people are passionately into playing a game which revolves around a character named “Perky Pat.” In a way, she is a surrogate for who they were before war transformed the world. What will happen when they expand out to play members of a neighboring enclave who have a similar “Connie Companion” game?

16.) Oh, to be a Blobel: In a war against an alien race, a former spy was genetically altered to appear like the enemy species. After the war is over, he discovers that he can’t be stably turned back to human form. He will revert to the amorphous form of a Blobel for several hours per day, and stressors risk causing spontaneous transformation. As he will never be able to be married and have children with a human woman – who would have him – a solution is suggested whereby he will marry a former Blobel spy who turns into a human form for several hours per day.

17.) We Can Remember It for You Wholesale: A white-collar worker, Douglas Quail, who wants to go to Mars, decides to go to a memory-implant clinic that can provide him with a vivid detailed memory of a vacation to Mars. But when they try to implant said memory, it’s discovered that he isn’t who he – or the company — thought.

18.) The Electric Ant: A man who thought he was human finds out that he’s actually an android. The identity crisis that follows causes him to contemplate suicide.

19.) A Little Something for Us Tempunauts: There’s an accident with the first American crew of time-travelers, putting them into a closed time loop (i.e. like the movie “Groundhog Day.”) The question of the meaning of life in this story revolves around the unclear question of whether the tempunauts are alive or dead.

20.) Pre-Persons: In a future dystopia, abortion isn’t only legal; the age until which it can be carried out has been extended to 12. There are forces in society who rail against the government doctrine that a soul is attained precisely on one’s twelfth birthday, but that minority is considered to be the lunatic fringe.

This is an exceptional collection of stories, offering plenty to consider about the meaning of being human. Dick takes on the questions from several angles with a level of creativity only he could. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of science fiction or those who enjoy philosophical fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without a NameNovel Without a Name by Dương Thu Hương
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel’s protagonist, Quan, is a North Vietnamese soldier who, after ten years of war-fighting and surviving, has worked his way up to a junior officer position with a small unit under his command. Much of the story describes a road trip in the midst of war. One of Quan’s childhood friends who is now his superior officer, Luong, assigns Quan the task of going to visit a distant medical unit to check on a third common village friend, Bien, who is said to have had a nervous breakdown. Luong, further tells Quan to take some well-earned time off for a home visit, since the junior officer hasn’t been to see his home in a decade. In the latter part of the book, Quan returns to his unit after an uneasy home visit to see the father with whom he has strained relations (his mother ran away with another man), the neighbors he seems closer to than he is his own father, and his childhood sweetheart who has fallen on hard times — having had to accept that the two would never be married. On the way, back to his unit, Quan checks on Bien who he busted out of horrific conditions at a field hospital and got reassigned to a special unit with the non-Infantry, but macabre, task of building coffins. The book ends with another uneasy transition, the war’s end – which sees Quan’s comrades in celebration, but also not sure what to expect after an entire adult life spent at war.

Interspersed with the real-time events that occur as Quan travels through a jungle war-zone, one is shown flashbacks to some of the intense traumas of his years at war. These include friendly-fire incidents and the “only the good die young” effect in which it seems the most kind and virtuous are often the most perishable in times of war. There’s also a very human story that’s told about how war effects lives and transforms relationships – in some cases forging unbreakable bonds and in other cases building impenetrable barriers between loved ones.

I’ve read a few books on the Vietnam War, both fiction and non-fiction, but this may be the first I’ve read from a North Vietnamese perspective. What is interesting about that is that the experiences and themes are often not that different from one sees in works like Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers on both sides have similar day-to-day experiences from boredom to horrors, and it has largely the same effect upon the soldier’s psyches. One of the overarching themes this book has in common with its American-centric counterparts is growing disillusionment. Like the American soldiers who often couldn’t comprehend what they were fighting for (other than the survival of their friends and themselves), Quan’s core beliefs become challenged over the course of the novel. It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it seems equally true that there are no ideologues in foxholes. The pragmatic concerns demanded of the war-fighter make it hard to be an impassioned Marxist or an impassioned follower of any ideology. This is seen in one scene in which an older officer is put off by Quan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist message, and then later when the tables are turned and Quan converses with a young subordinate soldier who is even more disillusioned.

Of course, there are differences. Quan is much more at home in the environment of the war – though not exempt from the miseries of the jungle. It’s not like he’s been dropped on a different planet as it was for American soldiers who had no experience of tropical living. On the other hand, an American soldier could at least rest assured that his loved one’s were home in safety, but for Quan and his peers there is no reason to think family is any more safe than they. Of course, the concept of traipsing through the war zone on a home visit after years successively at war represents one important difference that is also fundamental to the story.

I found this book to be gripping and illuminating. It’s highly readable and relatable, even though there are flashbacks that take one out of a linear timeline; they are well done and not confusing. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who reads war stories, who enjoys translated fiction from other cultures, or who just wants a thought-provoking work of literary fiction.

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