BOOK REVIEW: Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishan

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

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: And the Earth Will Sit on the Moon by Nikolai Gogol

And the Earth Will Sit on the MoonAnd the Earth Will Sit on the Moon by Nikolai Gogol
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection contains five short stories by the esteemed 19th century Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. (According to marketing materials, the finalized edition may have a sixth story located in the book’s second half.) For a small collection, it’s a diverse set of stories including surrealism, speculative fiction, and grim and gritty realism. That said, there is a theme that runs throughout, and it’s the social humiliation and envy of being in the middling territory of a hierarchical / aristocratic society.

The first three stories, which are among Gogol’s best known, are set in Saint Petersburg, and feature low-level bureaucrats. In other words, the bottom tier of the upper crust – not peasants, but poor relative to what they were expected to maintain and lacking status compared to almost everyone around them. Whatever else is going on throughout these stories, these characters are striving to save face — and the odds of doing so are against them.

“The Nose” is a story in which a barber finds a human nose in a loaf of bread he’s eating for breakfast. [Lest this seem gross beyond measure, the story is completely surreal / dream-like and there is no gore.] The barber recognizes the nose as one belonging to a civil servant who is one of his regular customers. The barber panics and pitches the nose in the river, trying to get rid of the evidence. The story picks up with the civil servant who lost the nose, and his attempts to discern its whereabouts.

“Diary of a Madman” is – as the name suggests – a chronicle of a man who descends into madness. Gogol does an artful job with pacing. He begins by establishing a lead character that one might find quirky, but not particularly insane. Then we see the character as he registers a conversation between two dogs in the street. As the story continues, at first the only anomaly is the man’s belief that dogs communicate in words (spoken and written) and that he can uniquely understand them. Then, when the man begins to believe he is the King of Spain, his madness becomes complete and all-encompassing. It’s interesting to see how Gogol communicates this madness, down to the change of sensible diary headings (i.e. the date) to bizarre substitutes.

“The Overcoat” is a story about a poor civil servant whose coat is falling to shreds, so – though he can’t afford it – he invests in a new one. While the story is mostly realistic, it does take turns into speculative territory near the end. However, the themes of envy, obsession, and the glee of apparent upward mobility (even if it’s for something as superficial as a new coat) provide the story’s tension.

The book takes a little turn at this point. The first three stories were set in Saint Petersburg, but the latter stories are set out in rural villages.

“Old World Landowners” is about a cute old couple who owns the lands encompassing a village and surrounding territory. It is Gogol’s take on a myth from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” but instilled with a grimmer, more Russian, sentiment. The couple are not only adorable, but are essentially the glue that binds the community.

“The Carriage” is about a gentleman from a small and boring village. At times, a military unit takes up residence in this village, and – when they do – they instill life in an otherwise bleak small town. The gentleman comes to visit the General and his officers — desiring to impress them. He is most proud of a Viennese carriage that he recently acquired. He invites them to lunch the next day, but all does not go as planned and the man is faced with utter humiliation.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. Despite the nineteenth century prose, the stories are readable and engaging. While the stakes are more often saving versus losing face (as opposed to life-and-death) Gogol does a great job of building the feelings of humiliation and woe – even for readers from a very different form of society. The stories may feature uniquely aristocratic Russian circumstance, but they still work because they deal in universal human emotional experiences.

I’d highly recommend the book for readers of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete WorksThe Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are quite a number of volumes entitled “the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe,” or something to that effect. It’s almost always inaccurate, but most include more than the casual Poe fan would enjoy reading. The book I read included Poe’s one novel (some include a partially written 2nd novel,) many of his essays, all of his short stories, and all of his poems (in that order.) Note: I’m not complaining that the book didn’t include every single piece that Poe published. That would include a large amount of literary criticism of writing that has long been forgotten (in most cases, for good reason.) It does include a biographical sketch of Poe’s life and a “History of Horror” essay by an unnamed individual as ancillary matter.

The ideal reader for such a work has an interest in Poe as a person or an interest in literary history (and, particularly, the history of stories of the weird, dark, or surreal.) That isn’t to say that there is no value in reading beyond Poe’s greatest hits (i.e. stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”) I found some treasures among the lesser known works (e.g. for story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for beautiful writing “Landor’s Cottage,” and for insight into Poe as a writer “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”) That said, such “complete” works include pieces that: a. have not aged well; b. are experiments that didn’t turn out spectacularly; or c. beat to death one of Poe’s obsessions (e.g. being buried alive.) This is particularly noticeable regarding his essays, which largely violate item “a.” If you just want to read the very best of Poe’s stories and poems, you can probably find a more selective volume. (Though I would recommend reading his novel.)

Poe only completed one novel, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It’s my contention that this book would be much more widely known and read if it had a title that was less wordy and more exciting. It’s the gripping tale of a young man who stows away on a ship that suffers a mutinous and ill-fated journey. It can be broken into two parts. The first part, which I found the most intense, covers the period from when the ship launches until it becomes unseaworthy after a storm. The second part takes place after the protagonist is rescued, and the rescue vessel eventually experiences its own dire fate involving crossing paths with indigenous people.

The essays are – as one might expect – the least engrossing part of the book, but there were only eight of them. There is an article on a chess machine hoax and other happenings that might have been quite well received in Poe’s time. There are also some pieces on philosophy and theory of literature that might be of interest to literary historians, but few others. There’s an essay on “Philosophy of Furniture” that I have a hard time imaging was of interest to any one in the past, or in the present, but I could be wrong.

Poe is most well-known for his short stories (even the poem “The Raven” tells a story,) so unsurprisingly this is the biggest section with about 67 stories. Besides his many spectacular macabre and strange tales, Poe is known as the inventor of detective fiction. Poe’s Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes by about a half a century, and the two sleuths are veritable twins – excepting the former is of Paris and the latter from London. It’s not only that Dupin has the whole, “from the flour dust on your cuff I can tell you were near the La Vie en Rose bakery last night at nine o’clock” thing going on, the two stories are told in a similar fashion (Dupin has his own less well-developed Watson to tell his tales and serve as a foil.)

The final section of the edition I read was Poe’s poetry. As was the norm at the time, the poems were rhymed and metered. (Whitman didn’t publish his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” until about six years after Poe died, so “free verse poetry” was still considered a nonsensical oxymoron.) Many of Poe’s poems are intermediate in length, though “Al Aaraaf” is fairly long and there are several that are sonnet length or thereabouts.

Apropos of his time, Poe’s writing can be wordy and needlessly complicated. You’ll find a lot of untranslated quotes that assume any reader will be fluent in French, Latin, and German. I enjoyed reading the “How to Write a Blackwood Article” in part because I learned that Poe’s pretentiousness wasn’t just his preference. In that article, he rails against some of the practices that he uses copiously because it was the only way to get his work published. I don’t necessarily buy that Poe was completely opposed to pretense (he wrote a “Philosophy of Furniture” for heaven’s sake.) He was no Mark Twain. But at least he recognized that greater simplicity was possible ideally, and he was by no means one of the more ponderous or plodding writers of his day.

If you decide to read the complete works, you might want to pay attention to the book’s organization. As I said, the version I read was organized: novel, essays, stories, and poems, and, within each category, alphabetically. I have no problem with the macro-organization (though I would have shunted essays to the back.) However, there are more useful ways to micro-organize than alphabetically (chronologically by publish date, for example.)

I have bizarrely eclectic tastes and interests, and Poe is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this volume immensely and found it well worth reading (enough to read a “Philosophy of Furniture.”) If you just enjoy Poe as a storyteller and weaver of dark tales, you may want a more selective volume.

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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

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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.

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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: Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay

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

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Finger by William S Burroughs

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

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Ruby Slippers, Golden TearsRuby Slippers, Golden Tears by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This anthology consists of 22 pieces of short fiction written by 21 authors and connected by the theme of “fairy tales.” These are variations on traditional folk and fairy tales written for adult audiences. Some are more recognizable than others either because they follow the original more or less or because they start with a more or less well-known tale. (Make a note, these aren’t for bedtime reading for the kids– unless you’re willing to shell out for therapy. Some are dark and some deal in adult sexual themes.)

 

“Ruby Slippers” by Susan Wade: A modern, journalistic hearing of the “Wizard of Oz.”

 

“The Beast” by Tanith Lee: What does a woman’s new husband do when he goes out, and where does he go? A variation on the theme of “Beauty and the Beast.”

 

“Masterpiece” by Garry Kilworth: This is a deal-with-the-devil story in which an artist must make a perverse decision between his masterpiece or something else dear.

 

“Summer Wind” by Nancy Kress: This is the first of three pieces that play off the Briar Rose / Sleeping Beauty concept. A prevailing theme is one of making a less passive sleeping princess.

 

“This Century of Sleep or, Briar Rose Beneath the Sea” by Farida S. T. Shapiro: This is one of the few poetic pieces in the anthology. It reconsiders the Briar Rose [Sleeping Beauty] fable.

 

“The Crossing” by Joyce Carol Oates: This is the last of the stories built around Sleeping Beauty. It’s a period piece set neither in ancient times nor the present day.

 

“Roach in Loafers” by Roberta Lannes: This is a humorous retelling of the tale in which the elves come each night and save the over-burdened cobbler.

 

“Naked Little Men” by Michael Cadnum: This time, instead of a cockroach, it’s naked little men that come to do the work.

 

“Brother Bear” by Lisa Goldsmith: Part Goldilocks and part tale of marriage in the animal kingdom.

 

“The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” by John Brunner: An arrogant, despicable, and dense Chinese Emperor summons an artist who draws dragons, insisting the artist introduce him to a dragon. This story goes in the “be careful what you wish for” file. It’s among my favorites of this anthology.

 

“Billy Fearless” by Nancy Collins: Another outstanding story. Billy is fearless and he’s suffered for it because his father and others think he doesn’t have any sense. (He’s not the sharpest tool.) But one day he finds himself in a situation in which his fearlessness might work to his advantage.

 

“The Death of Koshchei The Deathless” by Gene Wolfe: This is based on a Russian folk tale of the same name, but shedding the superstitious / supernatural elements to give it a bit of realism.

 

“The Real Princess” by Susan Palwick: The story’s basis is “The Princess and the Pea.” The story is built around a sadistic king of an impoverished kingdom and the “Real Princess” who comes to live with him.

 

“The Huntsman’s Story” by Milbre Burch: The Huntsman from the Snow White fairy tale, but in a brusk style and with a key difference.

 

“After Push Comes to Shove” by Milbre Burch: A poem on the Hansel & Grettel theme.

 

“Hansel & Grettel” by Gahan Wilson: This short story re-imagines the two children not as impoverished waifs but rather as wealthy trust-fund kids who travel the world, ending up at a fancy resort that represents the siblings’ second brush with stumbling into some place that could be bad for them.

 

“Match Girl” by Anne Bishop: A little abused orphan girl finds her fire. This is a prime example of a story not for the kiddies; it’s got a bit of an S&M undertone.

 

“Waking the Prince” by Kathe Koja: This is a variation on “Sleeping Beauty” with an obvious change in gender roles and the modern outlook that comports with said change.

 

“The Fox Wife” by Ellen Steiber: Based on Japanese folklore in which foxes are clever and conniving souls. A samurai’s trophy wife becomes possessed by fox spirit. This was among my favorites. It’s also one of the longer pieces.

 

“The White Road” by Neil Gaiman: A poem based on the English fairy tale of “Mr. Fox.”

 

“The Traveler and the Tale” by Jane Yolen: This one is a bit different. It’s a sci-fi tale that suggests fairy tales are injected into society in order to have some effect on behavior.

 

“The Printer’s Daughter” by Delia Sherman: This is also one of my favorites. It’s a take on the Pinocchio story. What’s fun about this version is that the totem brought to life is made out of proofing sheets. Since the printer mostly prints booklets of bawdy tales and, on the other hand, religious tracts, the girl that comes to life can only speak in two ways: one that would make a sailor blush and the other is quoting scripture.

 

Short story anthologies usually don’t included much in the way of ancillary matter beyond an introduction (and sometimes an epilogue,) but this one has a several pages of recommended reading at the end for those who are interested in learning more about fairy tales and how they come to be translated into modern forms.

 

I’d recommend this book for those interested in fairy tales of a form suitable for adults.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Cat’s Pajamas by Ray Bradbury

The Cat's PajamasThe Cat’s Pajamas by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20 short stories by Ray Bradbury written between 1946 and 2004. Bradbury was the master. Besides his imaginative gift for storytelling, he was a torch-bearer for language that was both beautifully crafted and highly readable. Bradbury often used words poetically but without detracting from story. I believe he did so through sparing and careful use. I also appreciate the way Bradbury smoothly moved between genres, and the fact that his stories could have a moral without being moralistic.

I’ll list the stories in this collection with just a few words about each.

 

1.) “Chrysalis”: An unlikely friendship develops. A story about race.

 

2.) “The Island”: The dangers of isolation. Tension skillfully ratcheted up.

 

3.) “Sometime Before the Dawn”: Why does the neighbor cry late at night?

 

4.) “Hail to the Chief”: What if Senators wagered America at an Indian casino?

 

5.) “We’ll Just a CT Natural”: This is one of my favorites, but it doesn’t have a complex story or involve clever sci-fi elements. It’s just a woman waiting for a visit from a man who she used to nanny, but who’s made it big as a writer. Two simple questions keep one glued to this story. Will he show up? If not, how will she handle it?

 

6.) “Olé, Orozco! Siqueiros, Sí!”: This is a commentary on what is art in the modern art scene.

 

7.) “The House”: A couple buys a fixer-upper, but there are mixed feelings between them.

 

8.) “The John Wilkes Booth / Warner Bros / MGM / NBC Funeral Train”: How time travel would spawn a history-entertainment complex.

 

9.) “A Careful Man Dies”: A hemophiliac author who’s writing a tell-all meets his match.

 

10.) “The Cat’s Pajamas”: A couple of lonely cat people vie for ownership of a stray that they happen upon simultaneously.

 

11.) “Triangle”: As in, “love triangle.” A take on the story of X loves Y, but Y is indifferent to X; while Z loves X, but X is indifferent to Z.

 

12.) “The Mafioso Cement-Mixing Machine”: It’s a metaphorical cement mixer, but it’s useful for—as a mobster might say—“takin’ out da trash.”

 

13.) “The Ghosts”: The children are enchanted with them, but their father wants to drive them off. The difference between how children and adults see the natural world, in a nutshell.

 

14.) “Where’s My Hat, What’s the Hurry”: A man goes through his little black book to find a woman more responsive to the “city of love” than his wife has been.

 

15.) “The Transformations”: This is another story about race and walking in the shoes of another.

 

16.) “Sixty-six”: This is a prime example of the genre-fluidity of Bradbury. It’s a murder mystery, but not just a murder mystery.

 

17.) “A Matter of Taste”: Human space explorers travel to a distant world and meet a species that is wise, benevolent, helpful, but they can’t get past the alien’s creepy appearance.

 

18.) “I Get the Blues When it Rains”: The fickle nature of nostalgia.

 

19.) “All My Enemies Are Dead”: A man tries to console a friend who believes it’s time to die upon seeing the obituary of the last of his enemies.

 

20.) “The Completist”: Having everything may include things one doesn’t want.

 

I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of short fiction. While some of the stories are over sixty years old, they’ve aged well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Nightmares ed. by Ellen Datlow

Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern HorrorNightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an anthology of 24 horror short stories. Horror is a simplification; there are several cross-genre pieces (e.g. dark sci-fi, dark historical fiction, tales of the weird, etc.) as well as stories that have a realistic—but dark—tone. However, it’s all fiction linked by a visceral darkness.

These stories have all been previously published in various magazines or collections, and they were all written during the decade between 2005 and 2015.

1.) “Shallaballah” by Mark Samuels: A celebrity awakens in a hospital after a drunken crash that necessitated reconstructive surgery. It slowly dawns on him that the clinic isn’t what it seemed. This is an intriguing and distinctive tale.

2.) “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe: A horror writer has the family of an old friend to his house. He tells them that it’s the “least haunted house in the Midwest,” despite a gruesome history that suggests a place where evil comes to play. This was among my favorites. The horror writer character is well-developed.

3.) “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge: It’s never good when someone calls you in the middle of the night and asks you to bring a shovel. But sometimes it’s even worse than expected. I’ve read this one before. It’s a great premise and an engaging story. This anthology includes both stories that feel like they are realistically set in the world we know, as well as speculative fiction pieces. This feels like the former, but makes a shift.

4.) “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren: There’s a myth among anorexics of the Ash Mouth Man, whose kiss robs its victims of the ability to taste pleasant flavors. A dentist of a different ilk takes up with this mythical man. I’d place this one more as a tale of the weird than horror, but it’s on the dark side of that sub-genre. It’s well-written.

5.) “Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle: An abduction and abuse victim tells her story of being locked in a closet, but no one believes the part about her fantastic escape. This is a gritty and evocative piece.

6.) “Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files: This is an unconventional approach to story. The information content is conveyed by way of a file from a parapsychology institute after a coroner’s inquest of a psychic medium’s death proves inconclusive. I sometimes like this approach. Reading through a file fills a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, and offers the challenge of piecing together events oneself. This story was solid, but not my favorite of the bunch.

7.) “Hushabye” by Simon Bestwick: A man out walking in the middle of the night stumbles onto the scene of a young girl under attack. Strangely, there seems to be a metallic substance pouring between the girl’s mouth and that of her attacker. This is crime fiction with a supernatural twist.

8.) “Very Low-Flying Aircraft” by Nicholas Royle: A Royal Air Force air crew in Zanzibar shows off for some ladies with dire consequences. This one is in the realist vein. It feels like a story one might be told in a bar by a particularly gifted storytelling veteran.

9.) “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan: This tale seems to take place in the Hansel and Gretel universe. An unsavory merchant of the illicit woos a witch, and, surprisingly, it doesn’t work out as he’d hoped. This is a compelling story in the dark fairy tale sub-genre.

10.) “The Clay Party” by Steve Duffy: This one has a 19th century vibe, not only because that’s when it’s set, but because it’s conveyed through documentation as was a popular approach of the era. In this case it’s a newspaper’s reprinting of the diary of an individual from an ill-fated cross-continental convoy. (i.e. “Clay Party” as in Donner Party.) The diary approach worked well, being both easy to follow and having an authentic feel.

11.) “Strappado” by Laird Barron: Two hip and cosmopolitan lovers attend the performance art event of an artist deemed trendy and edgy by the in-crowd. The performance doesn’t work out for everybody. This was evocative, and was, perhaps, a cautionary tale about being too up for trendy and edgy activities.

12.) “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones: A snake-oil salesman knows something that the locals don’t, and it’s not about the efficacy of his product. This is another of my favorites. It’s a Western with a supernatural twist.

13.) “Mr Pigsny” by Reggie Oliver: A Professor with some mobster relatives attends the funeral of one such gangster. The Professor is willed a Ming vase that he’d once admired, but ends up tangled up in the dealings between the deceased and a mysterious “spiritualist.” The spiritualist, Mr. Pigsny, is masterfully portrayed as both a quiet professional and spine-tinglingly creepy.

14.) “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley: A big, strong man and a little girl meet, and team up with, a party of four survivors in a demon-infested dystopian wasteland. Whether the odd pairing are truly allies, or, if not, what type of threat they present is not as was expected and made for a thought-provoking piece. I found this tale to be clever, and it revealed an unexpected theme.

15.) “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” by M. Rickert: A little girl makes enemies by cruelly dispensing with little forest creatures–fairies, perhaps. Her parents debate what they should do to stave off the wrath of their neighbors of another species. The title says it all. This is one of those stories that tactically reveal information to keep the reader wondering.

16.) “The Shallows” by John Langan: It’s not so easy for me to describe this story. There’s a lot going on. It’s what I’d call busy. The part of the story that resonated with me was about a stray dog that a family adopts only to have its (apparently-negligent) owner come and retrieve it. This was among my least favorite entries, but it was solidly written.

17.) “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska: A newly-wed man waits at Heathrow airport for the grandmother of his Polish wife. That present-day event brackets a flashback from the grandmother’s youth that helps to explain what seems like inexplicable old-world behavior. This is one of the shortest pieces, but it’s an endearing tale–even with the dark events of the flashback.

18.) “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn: This is an intense story about a family of four who go on a vacation that’s a sham. The mom and dad pretend they are taking the kids to Canada in their RV only to detour into remote parts of the Pacific Northwest. The depravity quotient of this family is high. Much of the story is brutally realistic, but there is a supernatural element with regards maps, which appear to be marked up differently to each member of the family. The maps play an important role in the unfolding of the story. This story is well-written and gripping, but, unlike the bulk of the works herein, it’s not PG-13.

19.) “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon: This is the story of a father and son living in a zombie apocalypse-ish—after the mother died. That may make this sound like one of the more derivative stories in the bunch, but the author creates a unique zombie “apocalypse.” This isn’t the dark and gritty world of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Here, the zombies are more of an inconvenience—like wild animals that get into one’s garden–rather than a swarming threat to life and limb. This is both an interesting take on the sub-genre, and an intriguing commentary on humanity.

20.) “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman: A girl requires the execution of her dolls from both her brother and later her new husband. She says she cannot love them fully as long as the dolls are there taking in her love. Creepy, that’s the word for this one. It has a lower body count (of living things) than many of the stories, and yet it’s as disturbing as they come.

21.) “Interstate Love Song” by Caitlin R. Keirnan: A couple of homicidal girls pick up a hitchhiker as they ride cross-country. There are some interspersed flashbacks that show that this isn’t their first rodeo, but, still, it doesn’t go like the others. This is a page-turner.

22.) “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix: Wouldn’t it suck to die because the post-Cold War bureaucracy didn’t have institutional memory of one of its doomsday technologies—especially one that lived next door? This is one of my favorites. Besides the fear factor, this story has a dry humor that I found amusing. Like a few of the others, this story manages to make a commentary without detracting from its entertainment value.

23.) “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud: A bookstore owner / occultist who used to work for a crime boss is strong-armed back into the life. What he stumbles into is even worse than he expected, but he makes a decision that will dramatically change his life. This was also an engaging story as well as a strong entrant in the anthology.

24.) “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey: A couple of burglars badly overestimate the ease of robbing an old man and what will come of it. It starts out a bit like a creepy version of “Home Alone”–with an old man instead of an eight-year-old, but then takes a turn into territory darker than Wild Bill of “Silence of the Lambs” fame.

This is a strong collection. There are several stories that have that cinematic quality that make for gripping reading. There weren’t any pieces that I didn’t at all care for, and there were several that hooked me.

I’d recommend this collection for those who like dark fiction.

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