BOOK REVIEW: Taboos and Transgressions ed. by Luanne Smith, Kerry Neville, and Devi S. Laskar

Taboos and Transgressions: Stories of WrongdoingsTaboos and Transgressions: Stories of Wrongdoings by Luanne Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This anthology collects twenty-four gritty stories of familial dysfunction, lives in poverty, and various forms of wrongdoing. While there is a common theme and all the stories are situated in a realist context, there is a rich variety among the stories. A few are sparse and obscure, but most fit within the usual page range and level of story development for magazine published short stories. But there is considerable diversity to the “wrongdoing” of the story, ranging from subjective peccadillos to outright felonies, with the protagonist sometimes being the perpetrator but other times being victims or witnesses. Most, if not all, of the anthologized stories have been previously published.

Among my personal favorites were: “The God Box” (Michael Gaspeny,) “The Tao of Good Families” (Soniah Kamal,) “I Still Like Pink” (Francine Rodriguez,) “She Sheds Her Skin” (Kyle Ingrid Johnson,) and “Goatmartie” (J.C. Sasser.) That said, your preferences may vary, and the most famous authors with included pieces are probably Kim Addonizio (“True Crime”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“Gargoyle.”)

While the title might suggest erotica or even pornography, the included stories are literary fiction and, while some mention happenings that are properly taboo, few really revolve around those activities. There is some prostitution and unsubstantiated allegations of bestiality, but readers need not be concerned that there is anything sexually or violently graphic among the stories. (Certainly, no more than one would read in Philip Roth or Erica Jong.)

If you enjoy gritty, realist short stories, this collection offers a fine and diverse selection of such works.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 2 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: November 24, 2020

 

This is a graphic novelization of several pieces of Neil Gaiman’s short fiction. The component works are all speculative fiction (i.e. taking place where the fantastical is possible,) and – more specifically – most would be classed urban fantasy — though there is a touch of horror.

The book contains four parts, and could be thought of as four stories. However, the first chapter, “Likely Stories,” is actually a collection of tales connected by being told in the same private after-hours club. So, the connective tissue is bar patrons trying to one-up each other with more intriguing stories. The pieces included are: “Feeders and Eaters” (the entry most likely to be classified as horror,) “Looking for a Girl,” and “Closing Time.”

The second story is “Troll Bridge,” and it shows a man’s repeated encounters with a troll who exists in the pedestrian tunnel under an abandoned rail line. These meetings begin when the protagonist is a young boy and continue until he’s middle-aged.

The penultimate story is entitled “Harlequin Valentine,” and it’s about an amorous Harlequin who develops an infatuation with a young woman and begins to stalk her. When he gives her his heart, it doesn’t go as expected.

The final story is “The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch.” When a writer is roped into a double date in which his date is a dowdy and humorless scholar, the night that had been a train of misery ends in a mind-blowing (if disconcerting) fashion.

This was an excellent read. While it’s a second volume, because it’s short fiction, the book is completely self-contained. One doesn’t need to read the first volume beforehand to follow these tales. Each of the stories is satisfying in itself. I’d read at least one of these stories previously (possibly more) but it didn’t feel redundant because the conversion of the textual stories to graphic ones gives each an entirely different feel. The art is clear and the various styles match the tone of the respective stories nicely. If you like Neil Gaiman’s work, you should definitely check this one out. [And if you’re unfamiliar with Gaiman, I’d recommend you get familiar.]

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishan

Temporary PeopleTemporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This book gathers twenty-eight pieces of short fiction, poetry, and creative writing – some surreal and others realistic – all with the overarching theme of the life of a guest worker in the United Arab Emirates (UAE.)

I picked up this book as my literature selection for the UAE (I’m working on reading at least one work of literature from each nation I’ve visited. I find it informs my experience with each country in a way that greatly complements the visit.) I wasn’t sure how useful this book would be for my purposes (which is in large part to gain insight into a culture that might pass me by as a traveler.) I wasn’t concerned about the fact that this book is about non-citizens who are temporarily located in the UAE, and thus the cultures I would be seeing would largely be from abroad. [The predominant ethnic group presented in these stories is Malayali, from Kerala in India, but one reads of Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, and many others.] For many countries I’ve visited this dislocation might be an issue, but the UAE and other Gulf States (e.g. Qatar) present a unique situation in that most of the work gets done by workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and – to some degree – other places such as Africa and even Europe. Seeing how this melting pot works was definitely more interesting to me than reading about the lifestyles of rich and unknown Emirati’s who live off their petro-welfare checks. My concern, early in the book, was that there’s a lot of surrealism (including the opening story) that would offer some level of metaphorical insight but little direct insight. However, by the end I felt that I did gain a taste of life in the UAE from reading this book.

While the bio-blurb suggests there are “twenty-eight linked stories,” this isn’t really an accurate statement. There are twenty-eight “chapters,” divided into three parts, but many of these chapters wouldn’t be considered “stories” in any conventional sense of that word. [To elaborate with an example, one “story” is just a three-page list of different careers / states of being of foreigners in the UAE. Some of the works are poems and others are micro-writings.] Issue might also be taken with the term “linked” as well, there are a couple tales linked by characters or events, but mostly they are only linked by the theme of being a stranger in a strange land. This isn’t to say that there are no stories. There are, and several of them are excellent. Personally, I got the most out of the longer pieces of short fiction. These are the works that really stuck with me. The short, experimental works will surely find a readership that loves them, but for me they were mostly just a kind of palate cleaner.

The stories that most gripped me were:

-The tale of a woman who rides around fixing [and sometimes finding] construction workers who fell off a building. This one effectively presents the idea of the foreign laborer being treated as a disposable commodity.

-The man who destroys a phone belonging to a small business owner when he goes into a jealous rage. This is one of the stories that really hammers home the trauma of familial separation and long-distance relationships.

-The story of children molested by an elevator. [I warned you that some of the stories are wildly surreal and / or symbolist. The book’s blurb relates the work to Salman Rushdie, and one can definitely see shades of that author’s influence.] What struck me about this story was the idea of growing up too fast in this life as a guest worker’s dependent.

-A boy whose bicycle is stolen undergoes a series of traumas. This one has a lot to do with being ground down and then lashing out to save face. The boy whose bicycle was stolen didn’t speak Arabic and thus stood out to the police as someone they could treat as they wished, and this spurs him to want to pay the unkindness forward.

-The man who takes a job selling laundry detergent, literally dressed as a clown. This story is about the humiliation suffered by one who has to take whatever job he can get, and – once in the job – he’s seen as someone who can be tread upon by others, having lost all dignity.

-The Malayali man who returns home to India rumors that he’d been to jail for something that his neighbors find unconscionable. Another on-going sub-theme of the book is life in a highly moralistic society, and the troubles that that creates for the common man – particularly when there are extremely few available women of a status that one can approach.

This is by no means a complete list. There are other good stories as well. These are just the one’s that I found particularly resonated with me. The idea that the guest worker is not only temporarily a person but partially one as well runs through the book.

I’d highly recommend this book if you enjoy short fiction, and / or you are interested in life in the UAE.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Hidden Girl and Other StoriesThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Out: February 25, 2020

 

This smart collection of speculative short stories by Ken Liu is mostly science fiction, but includes a few works of fantasy (including the titular story, which is what one might call “martial arts-fantasy” – i.e. imagine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with more magic.) Depending how one counts up the stories, one could call the collection nineteen stories or sixteen stories and a novella. The novella, broken into three parts, is “storified” enough that its sections are interspersed among the other stories.

Liu doesn’t neatly contain his stories within boundaries of genre. In some cases, he jumps through time — including historical fiction, contemporary / near future, and distant future within a single story. He also takes on social issues like the Japanese internment during World War II in “Maxwell’s Demon” and the blight of technology on social interaction (best shown in “Thoughts and Prayers.”) There are hard sci-fi stories that show intergalactic travelers in a distant future, such as “The Message,” but there are even more that peer into the worries of the near future, such as artificial intelligence or the replicating of human consciousness in computers.

The novella imagines a world in which companies have captured the consciousnesses of great, but dying, minds for their own purposes. It then explores considerations such as: what happens when a great mind gets tired of being trapped as an acorporeal intelligence for the benefit of a company, and what does humanity mean in the context of fully replicated human minds?

I found these stories to be both intriguing and thought-provoking. I enjoy a good story, but stories that make one think deeply hold that much more allure. I’d highly recommend this collection for fiction readers. Whether or not you read genre fiction, you’ll find stories of great appeal.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed. by Jay Rubin

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short StoriesThe Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories by Jay Rubin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book contains 35 short stories by many of the most prominent Japanese writers (at least among authors whose works are translated into English,) including: Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, and Haruki Murakami (who contributes the book’s Introduction as well as two stories.)

The stories are arranged into seven sections that are apropos for modern Japanese literature: “Japan and the West” (3 stories,) “Loyal Warriors” (2 stories,) “Men and Women” (6 stories,) “Nature and Memory” (5 stories), “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” (5 stories,) “Dread” (3 stories,) and “Disasters, Natural and Man-made” (11 stories.) This organization scheme, which might seem random applied to most literature, offers some insight into the Japanese mind and experience.

“Japan and the West” reflects a Japan in the vanguard among non-Western nations entering into developed nation status. For a time, Japan sat in the unique situation of being the only rich nation that wasn’t majority Caucasian, and the uneasy balancing act that many Japanese felt is reflected in these three stories. “Loyal Warriors” reflects the long shadow of the feudal samurai era, and – in particular – the custom of ritual suicide. It’s true that “Men and Women” has a certain universality to it, though the individual stories speak to the Japanese experience and history. The section entitled “Nature and Memory” is really more about the latter than the former, and the stories all reflect a concern about remembering, forgetting, and the imperfection of memory. “Modern Life and Other Nonsense” explores the modern corporate existence. “Dread” are the horror stories, a genre that has a lengthy history in Japan. “Disasters, Natural and Man-Made” reflects Japan’s experience with many devastating earthquakes and two atomic bombs.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll not describe or comment upon all the stories. Instead, I’ll pick out a few that I found particularly moving. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many gems among the others. But my intention is merely to give the reader a taste of what is in this volume.

– “The Story of Tomode and Matsunaga” by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro: A writer receives a letter from a woman whose husband has a history of pulling extended disappearing acts. She asks for the writer’s help because she believes he may know her husband. The writer makes a connection to an acquaintance he has frequently socialized with in bars. The writer notices the man’s appearance in town seems to line up with the dates the woman gave for her husband’s disappearances. It might seem like a mystery solved, but the two men look nothing alike.

– “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima: A junior military officer comes home and tells his wife that he has been put in the untenable position of having to arrest his comrades. Deciding that there is no honorable path, he decides to commit seppuku (ritual suicide,) and – given societal norms – this means his wife, too, will be expected to end her own life.

– “Smile of the Mountain Witch” by Ohba Minako: A mythical mountain witch is transposed into a modern urban setting.

– “Peaches” by Abe Akira: A man revisits a memory from his youth involving his mother and a cart of peaches, realizing that events couldn’t have happened as he remembers, he reconstructs events as he re-imagines his story.

– “Mr. English” by Keita Genji: We meet an office worker who seems like a bit of a jerk, but as we get to know his story, he is humanized.

– “Hell Screen” by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: A prima donna artist painting a hellish artwork for his Lord insists that he must have seen scenes to accurately depict them, and thus he is drawn into the hellishness of his work.

– “Filling Up with Sugar” by Suwanishi Yuten: A woman’s mother has a rare and incurable disease in which the body slowly turns into sugar.

– “Hiroshima, City of Doom” by Ota Yoko: As the title suggests, this is a story of the devastation of Hiroshima by atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War.

– “Weather-Watching Hill” Saeki Kazumi: This description of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami reads a bit like a journalistic account.

– “Same as Always” by Sato Yuya: This is a chilling tale of a mother who uses the release of radiation as a result of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant melt-down as a pretext for murdering her baby in a way that won’t look like murder. It’s so wrong in so many ways, but extremely evocative.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. The stories are great, and I would highly recommend it for readers of short fiction – particularly if one enjoys the cultural insight that comes from reading translated literature.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a collection of 18 science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury, featuring: space travel, androids, time travel, and alien invasions. However, many of the stories use science-fiction – space travel most extensively — to investigate down-to-earth subjects such as: religion, marital relationships, war, and race relations. The fact that the collection deals in everyday subject matter allows it to retain its relevancy. The sci-fi is definitely dated, from the fact that “Martian” is used as a synonym for alien to the Cold War themes, but the stories are still worth reading because they are well-crafted and continue to be thought-provoking.

The stories of this collection are integrated by the titular story. The Illustrated Man is a character who had his body covered in tattoos to continue his employment with the carnival, but the witch who tattooed him made shape-shifting images that told stories. The story of “The Illustrated Man” is the last in the collection, but there’s a prologue that sets it up. It’s not a novel-in-stories, however, as the stories aren’t connected — other than being collected into a universe of this character’s flesh. The end of several stories feature a quick reference to the Illustrated Man narrative arc, but generally there’s no other connective tissue to the stories.

Here is a brief overview of the stories:

“The Veldt”: spoiled kids are given access to a technology that goes one step beyond virtual reality to what might be called mentally constructed reality. They create an African savanna, and things go awry.

“Kaleidoscope”: An accident causes astronauts to be scattered into space, not dying immediately, but knowing the limited resources of their spacesuits will not last long. This is among the more popular stories in the collection.

“The Other Foot”: A white man is forced to take refuge on a planet that minorities had long-ago been relocated to, because now a war has made the Earth uninhabitable. The story deals with the tension between those who are willing to welcome him and those who think he should be treated as they once were.

“The Highway”: A man living and working near a desolate stretch of highway meets a rare visitor who tells him that war is upon them. One of the Cold War end-of-the-world scenario stories.

“The Man”: The Captain of a spaceship is disappointed to find that none of the locals come to see them when they land. Little does he know, they were just visited by a Messianic figure the day before. The tension is between the non-believing, skeptical Captain and one of his men who is a true believer. A commentary on faith and belief.

“The Long Rain”: Space explorers are demoralized by the unceasing rain on a planet they are exploring, a rain that threatens to send them into madness.

“The Rocket Man”: The son of a space traveler wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but doesn’t know how hazardous a life it is.

“The Last Night of the World”: This story asks one to contemplate what if one knew it was the last night before doomsday. Another Cold War-era sci-fi piece that hinges on atomic apocalypse.

“The Exiles”: A crew of space explorers is falling to inexplicable illness. This story has a great deal of literary allusion with Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens each playing a part. Like Bradbury’s most famous novel, the story considers the issue of censorship.

“No Particular Night or Morning”: This story considers the question of how one knows anything is true. It does so through the lens of a spaceship crewman afflicted with solipsistic delusions – or so his crew-mates assume.

“The Fox and the Forest”: In this time travel story, a couple has escaped a dystopian future into Mexico, circa 1938, but the authorities of their time don’t intend to let them get away.

“The Visitor”: The story of a man with powerful psychic abilities who is coveted by competing factions.

“The Concrete Mixer”: A Martian pacifist is forced to participate in an invasion of Earth, only to find that it is an ill-advised endeavor for reasons entirely different from he’d thought. The story revolves around the centrality of materialism and consumerism in American culture.

“Marionettes, Inc.”: One man gets a look-alike android to cope with a wife who hates him, and another gets one to contend with a wife who is smotheringly needy.

“The City”: Explorers find that the abandoned city they’ve been sent to explore isn’t as free of sentience as they’d thought.

“Zero Hour”: Alien invaders find an unexpected ally in the impressionable youth.

“The Rocket”: A man wants his family to see the stars, but lacks the resources to make the dream come true. So, he gets creative.

“The Illustrated Man”: As referenced above, this story tells the tale of carnival tattoo’d man whose body-art mysteriously tells stories through its images, with special focus on two special designs.

I’ve never found a Bradbury work I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. The writing is beautiful. The story-telling is skillful, and, even when the sci-fi details are dated, there are themes that remain relevant. I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of sci-fi, particularly those who like classic sci-fi.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay

Mad CountryMad Country by Samrat Upadhyay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

I’ve recently started reading at least one work of literature from each country I visit, and I picked this book up in Nepal as a first take on that country through the lens of literature. I couldn’t be happier with my selection. This book provided exactly what I was looking for in such a book, and more. What I want from such a book is insight into culture, lifestyle, and politico-historical context that can be difficult to witness through travel. Traveling a new country is like dating a new person; one doesn’t see the rough edges for some time. (Usually the relationship – in either case — is over before one sees into the murky depths.)

Over the course of eight stories, Upadhyay not only gives one insight into the nature of life for a variety of Nepalis (e.g. rich, poor, and middle class as well as young / progressive v.) older / conservative), he also shows the life of a hippie ex-pat gone native as well as presenting the worldview of a Nepali abroad (i.e. in America for college.) Where this book exceeded my expectations was in the skilfulness of tension-building employed in the stories. Often a book that achieves the aforementioned objectives does so in a way that is flat on story because it takes the character-centric orientation common in literary fiction. These stories are gripping as well as insightful, and don’t abandon story for character. It dances a beautiful line in that regard.

The first of eight stories tells of the trials and tribulations of an editor of a hard-hitting journalistic magazine, and the dual challenges she faces in taking on a corrupt regime while at the same time she has a friend who is going through a messy breakup. However the editor juggles these competing demands, we know she won’t escape some guilt of failing someone important to her.

The second story is about a rich boy whose life is tormented by the fact that his mother abandoned him and his father and moved on to form a new family. The boy takes to impersonating a beggar, secretly hoping his mother will see him and will be shocked into change. The story is also about the young man’s wake up call to the fact that he’ll never have the killer instincts bred by necessity into those less fortunate that are arrayed against him.

The third story is about “the Sharmas,” a dysfunctional Nepali nuclear family in which the mother is pure shrew, the father is trying fumblingly to have an affair, the son is a dim-wit, and the daughter is dating a young man who everybody seems to think is out of her league.

The fourth story is about a girl in the early 1980’s Kathmandu who goes from the drug-addled life of a Freak Street hippie to going full native. Here we see what draws the foreigner to Nepal and to Nepalese people, as well as how attempts to escape into another culture can be as troubled as attempts to escape into drug-induced euphoria.

The fifth story is by far the longest and might be classed as a novella. It’s about a young man who becomes obsessed with an African girl that he rescues in Kathmandu. The piece has a very dream-like quality to it, and through much of the story one is left unclear as to what is real and what is the product of the lead’s mind. In fact, the title “Dreaming of Ghana” suggests this imagined state of affairs.

The sixth story is the shortest, and – as its title suggests – it’s about an “Affair before the Earthquake.” The story evokes the emotion of world events that cleanly bisect our lives.

The eponymously titled penultimate chapter follows a wealthy and powerful woman who is “disappeared” by a corrupt authoritarian regime when she tries to look into the similar disappearance of her son. It’s a fascinating tale about a prominent real estate developer who is disabused of the notion that she is too powerful to be man-handled by the State. We see her transformation as a prisoner as the wind is taken out of her sails until one wonders whether she would ever be able to cope in her old life after being cowed by prison life.

The last story, like the fourth, turns things upside-down a bit. In it we find a Nepali student abroad who finds himself out in the cold because of his strong views on race. He discovers he’s at odds with the other foreign students because he thinks they should be more outraged about the bias displayed against them. He identifies with the plight of blacks, but they don’t see him as one of them.

This is an intense little collection of stories and I’d highly recommend it. The stories are well-crafted and keep the reader intrigued.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Finger by William S Burroughs

The FingerThe Finger by William S Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is book #25 in Penguin’s “Modern” series. These short books (less than 100 pages) feature short works (poems, short stories, essays, speeches, and even a novella or two) from 20th century luminaries. In this case, the book consists of six short stories by the Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, who’s most famous for his novel “Naked Lunch” and for his affinity for heroin. I mention the latter not to besmirch Burroughs’ character, but because drug use (and the vices that sometimes travel hand-in-hand) is a fixture in Burroughs’ writing, and this collection is no exception.

Many, if not all, of these stories are in the same fictional universe, as suggested by repeated characters and locations — most notably the junky William Lee of “Naked Lunch” fame. [These stories were previously published in a collection entitled, “Interzone,” and the titular piece had an even earlier first publication in the book, “Early Routines.”] However, the stories are all stand-alone pieces and a couple of them show no evidence of being related. The one’s that do share common features don’t tell an overarching tale.

The six stories are:

1.) “The Finger”: An addict, Lee, cuts off his own finger (just the top joint) and is surprised by the reaction it incurs.

2.) “Driving Lesson”: An individual with no experience driving is asked to take the wheel, and given some bad advice to boot.

3.) “The Junky’s Christmas”: The spirit of Christmas overcomes an addict’s yearnings.

4.) “Lee and the Boys”: Lee and his various [non-sexual] interactions with young male prostitutes.

5.) “In the Café Central”: This isn’t so much a story as sketches of the various meetups simultaneously transpiring at a café. There is a table with: a.) a guide and a tourist, b.) a German expat and the annoying gossip who he uniquely tolerates, c.) a beautiful woman with bad teeth who is a wee bit sensitive about them.

6.) “Dream of the Penal Colony”: This hazy, little story is part a dream of being in a penal colony and part slurry of reality and the hallucinations of drug-addled drifter.

I enjoyed this little collection and would recommend it for someone who wants to sample Burroughs before diving into one of his novels. While the first story may have gotten the title role by virtue of its bizarre subject matter, I’d argue that “The Junky’s Christmas” is narratively the strongest. It’s not too hard to follow these pieces despite the fact that the stories virtually all feature unreliable narration by virtue of being told through the eyes of someone in the grips of substance abuse. Burroughs presents that mix of reality and drug-distorted world-view vividly and intelligibly. That said, if you’re expecting the world through sober eyes, you’re in the wrong place.

View all my reviews