BOOK REVIEW: The Velderet by Cecilia Tan

The VelderetThe Velderet by Cecilia Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The dual protagonists of this novel, Merin and Kobi, live in a society in which equality is the supreme value, and in which sexual freedom is nearly complete (except where it bumps up against the aforementioned value.) For many, this would be a utopia, but the problem for Merin and Kobi is that they crave subjugation. That might seem an unusual desire, but one need not look far to see how urges develop for little apparent reason other than a person being told that such activities are prohibited or taboo. Merin is a straight female serving as legislative worker bee. Kobi is a bisexual male who bartends at a leisure club that not only serves drinks but facilitates virtual reality cyber-sex. The two are roommates (part of equality is a pairing of unattached without consideration of gender or sexual orientation), and one evening in a buzz-fed stupor Kobi admits that he would like to know what it’s like to be enslaved.

This story in which these two try to figure out how to develop an underground community of those who revel in power dynamics as part of sexual activities, plays out in a larger geo-political and historical context. It turns out that the reason that this society (i.e. the Belledonians) is so keen on equality in all activities is that they were once a slave-owning empire, and they basically killed off another race of people who they’d enslaved (i.e. the Gehrish.) So, it’s a guilt-driven policy. As the individual level actions play out, this society is in trade and security negotiations with the Kylarans, a more technologically advanced society that still practices slavery. There is a fear that the Kylarans might decide not to trade as equals but to colonize the Belldonians.

The resolution of the story brings this sadomasochism fight club story line into contact with the larger geo-political story, and that raises the stakes and presents one with varying philosophical stances on the dominant – submissive relationship. While the Belledonians had brutally oppressed the race they subjugated (i.e. the Gehrish,) the Kylarans have a much more traditional, protocol-driven, and complex approach to these power dynamic driven relations. For example, leaders must spend time as slaves before they can progress upward in the chain of command.

As I hope has been made clear, this book combines erotica with sci-fi and sex scenes are ubiquitous and kinky. Readers who are squeamish about such matter will probably want to steer clear. However, if one isn’t disturbed by sex, and sexual power play, this story is readable and intriguing. I would recommend it for those who are intrigued by stories at the nexus of science fiction and erotica.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This collection of eight smart short stories is most well-known for the eponymous story that served as the basis for the movie “Arrival.” The stories are sci-fi, but in the broadest sense of that word. “Speculative fiction” is probably a more apt descriptor. At any rate, the pieces all have nerd appeal and offer philosophical food-for-thought as well as entertaining stories.

1.) “Tower of Babylon:” The Biblical myth re-imagined. What if god didn’t sabotage construction by introducing varying languages and spreading humanity to the four winds? What if, instead, the tower did eventually reach to the heavens?

2.) “Understand:” A man who suffered severe brain damage due to a fall through thin ice, is put on an experimental medicine that begins to stimulate neurogenesis on a massive scale. The protagonist becomes preternaturally intelligent, realizes that such super-intelligence is considered a threat, but is able to keep one step ahead of the ordinary minds who pursue him. That is until he runs into another patient who had a similar accident and treatment. A thinking man’s “Lucy” (referring to the Scarlett Johansson movie), this piece considers the question of how different people would use such a gift, and whether differences could be reconciled.

3.) “Division by Zero:” If a scholar’s life was invested in an idea or way of thinking about the world, but then the scholar proved that that way was in error, might it cause a descent into madness and even a crumbling of one’s world?

4.) “Story of Your Life:” This is the story that the Amy Adams’ movie “Arrival” is based upon. The protagonist is a linguist charged with helping to communicate with a newly arrived alien species that has a very different approach to language. In the process of learning their language and interacting with them, she begins to see the world as they do – time being an illusion. Stories from her daughter’s life, which the lead character has seen in full before conception, are interspersed with the description of her work with the alien language.

5.) “Seventy-Two Letters:” This is a golem story. In this world, names have the power to animate matter and golems can be created. (A Golem is a living being created from inanimate matter; the idea comes from Jewish folklore.) The story ads a layer to the question of what would be created if humans could make a simulacrum of themselves – e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster style – and asks the reader to consider what would be the reaction to the dawn of an era in which the golems might be able to make themselves.

6.) “The Evolution of Human Science:” This is one of the shorter pieces and is also the least story-centric entry. It considers philosophical questions around the development of meta-humans.

7.) “Hell is the Absence of God:” This story is also not as story oriented as most of the others, but it is thought-provoking. It revolves around a support group for people who’ve lost significant others in tragedy and asks one to consider the various approaches to belief in the wake of tragedy.

8.) “Liking What You See: A Documentary:” This clever piece imagines a technology that prevents wearers from being able to recognized beauty (and ugliness as well.) As the subtitle suggests, it’s presented as if it were a documentary that is following a college’s debate over whether to require the student body to use said technology.

I enjoyed this collection of stories. “Understand,” “Stories of Your Life,” and “Seventy-two Letters” are gripping stories, and all eight are thought-provoking and well-written. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of short fiction, particularly speculative fiction.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Careless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love Poetry

Careless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love PoetryCareless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love Poetry by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the third in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets though not – strictly speaking – translations of these poets’ work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.” This book is different from the preceding volumes in a couple of ways that result in it having a different feel. First, the poems anthologize from the works of various poets rather than having a single inspiration. Second, they changed artists, and the artwork bears little resemblance to the previous volumes except with respect to being erotic in subject matter.

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to the anthology which serves as the basis for the poems included, as well as to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach. The source matter is said to have been originally anthologized by a Bengali Buddhist scholar named Vidyakara.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and black and white line drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems. Unlike the previous collections, it is quite clear where one poem begins and the next ends because these are attributed to different authors.

The artist who did the drawings is M. F. Husain. The drawings are not only monochrome, but are more crudely drawn and stylistic. (I’m not suggesting the artist is less skillful. They may well be purposely cruder, intending to reflect a historical artistic style rather than being modernistic like the previous volumes. The previous volumes’ art was very 1980’s.)

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes or romantic pop culture references, these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliché and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Unchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Amaru

Unchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of AmaruUnchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Amaru by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the second in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Amaru) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Amaru and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach. Amaru was a Sixth Century poet and anthologist. As for why Nandy rewrote, rather than translating from the Sanskrit, he offers an Italian quote that says that poetry translations are like women, “the more beautiful, the more unfaithful.”

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear. One can choose to read them as short pieces or as a longer flowing pieces.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes or romantic pop culture references, these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari

Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of BhartrhariUntamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the first in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Bhartrhari) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Bhartrhari and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes (except this one which appears to be taken from an American romantic comedy film), these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essays by Ralph Waldo EmersonEssays by Ralph Waldo Emerson by Emerson Ralph Waldo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are many collections of Emerson’s essays in publication – some more complete or more recently compiled – but the one under review here was originally published by the Charles E. Merrill Co. in 1907. It contains eleven essays, including selections from both Emerson’s First and Second Series. There are around 700 end-notes that provide points of clarification. The front matter includes a brief biographical statement on Emerson, a discussion of critical opinion of his work, and a list of his writings.

Rather than discuss the essays as a whole, I’ll describe each in turn.

1.) The American Scholar: a major theme in this essay is avoiding pretentiousness and not neglecting to see the virtue in the simple and unrefined.

2.) Compensation: Emerson had an interesting philosophy on this subject, believing that everything that belongs to one or which one ought to have will come to one. There is a Taoist feel to this essay, e.g. “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else: and for everything you gain, you lose something.”

3.) Self-Reliance: This is my favorite essay, hands down. It’s full of pithy, powerful, and quotable statements. e.g. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” Even where it’s not so concise and quotable, it delivers important ideas.

4.) Friendship: There is a quote that I think is quite illustrative of Emerson’s thoughts on the subject: “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”

5.) Heroism: Consistent with the ideas in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson proposes that the route to heroism is in trusting oneself and having inner confidence, rather than in trying to satisfy the dictates of society.

6.) Manners: Emerson was a fan of a polite and genteel nature. This may seem at odds with his general inclination to avoid pretension or elitism, but if one treats all people with polite respect, then these ideals do not conflict.

7.) Gifts: Related to the earlier essay on compensation, this piece decries getting caught up in giving opulent gifts and thinking it a grand virtue, while it doesn’t criticize gift giving all together.

8.) Nature: This is the subject that one likely most associates with Emerson and his friend and protégé, Thoreau. As one expects, Emerson suggests one spend more time in nature. Something interesting I found in this piece was his rebuke of pseudo-science. Not that it should be unexpected, but one must consider that the line between science and the occult wasn’t as fully formed as it is today and Emerson was a mystic. But consider this: “Astronomy to the selfish becomes astrology; psychology, mesmerism (with intent to show where our spoons are gone); and anatomy and physiology become phrenology and palmistry.”

9.) Shakespeare; or, The Poet: While honoring Shakespeare, Emerson points out that our recognition of brilliance isn’t recognition of originality. e.g. “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.”

10.) Prudence: Emerson insists that sagacity in managing oneself and one’s affairs is crucial.

11.) Circles: This essay covers a lot of ground in dealing with topics that are cyclical – though they may seem progressive. In parts it reminds me of the portion of self-reliance that says “society is a wave,” and which goes on to explain how it’s not a matter of society steadily advancing because it recedes on one side as quickly as it gains on the other. This can be seen in a quote such as: “New arts destroy the old.” I think a quote that drives to the heart of not falling into the illusion of believing fashions of the moment are an invariable truth can be seen here: “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with not past at my back.”

I highly recommend this collection of essays. Some have maintained greater relevance than others, but all offer some interesting food for thought.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Here Is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth

Here Is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern WorldHere Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

When stage magician, Nate Staniforth, becomes disillusioned with traveling around America performing magic tricks on college campuses — and the distinct lack of wonder that it entails, he packs his bags and flies to India to explore the centuries old magic traditions of the subcontinent. Part memoir and part travelogue, the first part explores how Staniforth got into magic and his struggle to achieve everything he always wanted, i.e. the ability to make a living performing magic – a desire far more would-be magicians have than the market will support. However, he finds a disjoint between the feeling of wonder and surprise that made him love magic and what he witnesses in the audience night after night – which include a heaping mix of indifference, skepticism, hostility, and even the occasional pious fear that he is dabbling in dark arts.

In India, he finds a mix of some of the same but also some very different perspectives on magic. One the one hand, he learns that magic tricks aren’t just a good way to break the ice with strangers, but also a means to bridge cultural divides. Sleight of hand doesn’t require perfect communication to build bonds between people. As he travels from Kolkata to Varanasi to Rishikesh to Hardiwar to Delhi to Jodhpur, he shares magic tricks with young and old alike, as well as getting to witness some of India’s magic. The highlight of the trip is when he meets with a family of street magicians from Shadipur Depot slum in Delhi, and can at last exchange ideas and learn about their long lineage as illusionists.

However, Staniforth also finds many Indians who are hostile toward the practice of illusions and magic tricks. To understand this hostility, one must know that historically “godmen” who used illusion and sleight of hand to convince individuals of their divinity were more common than those who practiced it as entertainers. This resulted in a couple different types of hostile witness to magic in India. On the one hand, there is the scientifically-minded individual who is distraught by the image of India as a land of superstition and naively pious followers. (A war on superstition in India probably made it harder to research this book because doing street magic is largely prohibited because of the history of duping people for personal gain.) On the other hand, there are those who are ardent believers who dislike magicians who do magic tricks because it contributes to a general skepticism about their gurus — who such individuals believe can actually do magic. It should be said that variations of those two types of individual could be found almost anywhere, including his home nation of America. What is more uniquely Indian is the individual who fits into a third category of simultaneously believing both of the aforementioned criticisms. That is, said individual believes that any illusion someone like Staniforth performs can be scientifically explained and is merely a deceit against the gullible, but at the same time this person believes that there are spiritual masters who can do “real magic.”

The title, “Here Is Real Magic,” could be received in many ways. However, taking it literally, as though the author believes that there are those in India with supernatural powers, isn’t consistent with the book’s message. In one sense, the title is meant to be controversial, but Staniforth is also indicating that he rediscovered wonder in India — not through the supernatural, but through surrender to the experiences he had there.

As an American who has lived in India for many years now, I found this book to be fascinating in places. I believe that it’s useful both as a call to rediscover the wonder that we usually lose somewhere before adulthood, as well as a primer into the similarities and differences between the Indian and Western mindsets on magic in the modern world. I’d recommend this book, particularly for anyone who has interest in magic.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The Devil comes to Moscow with his entourage of henchmen – a tram-riding cat, a fallen angel turned assassin, an ex-choirmaster, and a vampiress – and chaos and malevolence ensue. While most of the story unfolds in early 20th century Soviet Union, a few chapters focus on the story of the crucifixion as seen from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. We learn well into the book that Pontius Pilate is the subject of a novel written by the character who calls himself “the Master.” A love story between he and Margarita is central to the story, though mostly in the latter half of the book.

While Bulgakov’s book is whimsical and humorous in places, its theme is demons and supernatural beings acting in a rational, modern world that has abandoned belief in the supernatural. The Devil (who goes by the name Woland, a variation on a Germanic word for demon) and his troupe perform a black magic show that the audience assumes to be illusionism though it produces far more disturbing effects than a David Copperfield show. The story is a dark carnival tale (think Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” but not so much horror as a macabre comedy. One will also note that the relationship between God and the Devil is more on the order of Pratchett and Gaiman’s “Good Omens” than the Biblical rendition.)

While the book is pure fantasy in its story, it presents a thinly veiled commentary on Soviet life. Part of the reason why the mischief of Woland and his lackeys goes unthwarted is because it takes place in a world where the government “disappears” people on a regular basis and in which the quashing of religion means that even seeing doesn’t result in believing. Anyone witnessing a supernatural act is written off as drunk, insane or – at best – easily duped.

Although, as I think about this, it might not be so much a contrasting and ancient and modern life as it appears. After all, Pontius Pilate is at the fore of the historical part of the novel. Pilate, who viewed Jesus as a harmless lunatic, was troubled by the decision to execute him when the violent figure of Barabbas was selected instead for release based on a Passover norm. (Hence, Pilate’s famously “washing his hands” to the whole business of Jesus’s execution.) In this light, it may be more of a general commentary on humanity’s simultaneous need to believe in, and inability to believe in, the supernatural.

This novel is well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for all readers.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a work of dystopian fiction set in post-pandemic America. It’s the Zombie apocalypse sans Zombies, but with something additional: arts and entertainment. The fact that, not only is there an arts and entertainment industry but that it’s central to the story, is critical to Mandel’s ability to set her story apart amid the sea of post-apocalyptic wasteland stories that have been gracing the shelves of bookstores in recent years. Other branches of dystopian fiction have entertainers (e.g. “Hunger Games”) – often in a morbid form of gladiatorial combat – but one of the ways that post-apocalyptic wasteland stories show how dismal and colorless life has become is to eliminate all mentions of art or entertainment – presuming that in survival mode people “put away childish things.” Mandel, on the other hand, places members of a traveling symphony that roams about performing music and Shakespearean plays among her core characters.

The title, Station Eleven, is the name of a sci-fi comic book. I won’t get into specifics as it’s involved in the resolution of the story in a way that I don’t want to spoil. However, I will say that emphasizing what seems like a minor element of the story (through most of the book, anyway) is interesting in that it’s another way in which the author shines a light on how art – highbrow or low – will inevitably shape human culture, behavior, and mythology.

Mandel also shows how, even in a world in which the majority of the species have been killed off, there will always be connections in the web of human interaction. Through out the book flashbacks to pre-apocalyptic happenings are offered, mostly around an actor who – if not patient zero – was one of the early casualties of the pandemic. The actor was married multiple times and sired one child that is known about, and these characters – as well as friends and acquaintances — are seen in pre- and / or post-apocalyptic settings. And this allows the reader to imagine a web of humanity surviving massive fatalities. Often in this sub-genre, at most a dyad (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”) survives, and that existence amid strangers is part of how the wasteland is shown.

This is a highly readable book, and well worth the read. Even if one is prone to think, “Ugh, another post-apocalyptic wasteland novel,” one will find something a bit different in its supposition that art is necessary and inevitable for humanity and that there aren’t enough degrees of separation to kill off all connections without killing off the species.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

LessLess by Andrew Sean Greer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The book’s eponymous protagonist, Arthur Less, goes on an eight-country world tour in order to avoid the wedding of his ex-boyfriend and the emotional turmoil inherent in that event. Faced with a looming invitation, Less isn’t up for the torture of attending, but neither can he decline without a good reason without seeming petty, sullen, or both. And, even if he does decline, he doesn’t want to be around the acquaintances who will pity him, attempt to comfort him, or both. With that in mind, he gathers together a collection of invitations for writing assignments, a writers’ conference, and an adjunct teaching assignment, and cobbles together an itinerary that will keep him out of the country until well after the wedding.

Less is a novelist of some renown, which is to say one of his books was highly regarded — though his others were far less so — and he long-lived in the shadow of one of America’s great men of letters with whom he had a long-term relationship. The comedic tone of the book is set by the hapless nature we see in the character. He finds himself a secondary figure in the high-brow world of American literature, but is never completely at ease and confident in that space. Of course, when he sets out traveling in Mexico, Europe, Morocco, India, and Japan, he finds himself even less at ease than usual.

There are various mishaps along the way that make this book comedic in nature, but it also has a nostalgic melancholy about it. Not only did Less’s relationship break up followed rapidly by his ex-boyfriend becoming engaged, but one thing will happen during his travels that he can’t escape – he will turn 50. This milestone causes him to reflect upon what he might have done differently, but also causes him concern that he hasn’t enough life left to make a good go of living – either as a writer or as someone who would like to be in a relationship again.

I won’t get into the ending in detail, but will say that I was pleased to see that it didn’t just peter out into Less’s return home, but rather leaves the reader with some food for thought via the turn of events one learns about.

Needless to say, I’d recommend this book for fiction readers – particularly literary fiction readers, though it is light, readable, and short for literary fiction. This book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

View all my reviews