BOOK REVIEW: When a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González

When a Robot Decides to Die and Other StoriesWhen a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 15, 2021

This book isn’t for everyone. There are two factors I believe a reader needs to be aware of going forward. First, shocking and taboo plot devices are used throughout; so, one needs to be mentally ready for bestiality, necrophilia, cannibalism, and enslavement. Second, while this is nominally science fiction, it’s not nerd’s sci-fi, but rather English Lit / Humanities major sci-fi. Which is to say, scientifically- / technologically-minded people are likely be occasionally distracted by thoughts like: “that’s not how that would work,” or “why did he use that word? It doesn’t make sense in that context. Is it just because it sounded vaguely techy?”

For those who are still reading, the stories are more than just shock for shock’s sake. They are thought-provoking, and the taboo topics both engage readers on a visceral level, but also engage readers on an intellectual level as symbolism. While it’s far from great sci-fi, it’s fine psych-fi (a subgenre that – like sci-fi – deals in speculative futures, but which focuses more on changes in human modes of interaction and ways of behaving – rather than on the effects of technological advances.) “The Year of the Pig” was probably my personal favorite. That story explores family dynamics, cultural proclivities, and personal psychology in a smart way.

If the opening paragraph didn’t scare you away, you’ll probably find some compelling stories in this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges

The Aleph : including the prose fictions from The MakerThe Aleph : including the prose fictions from The Maker by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the seventeen stories of The Aleph, plus about twenty short pieces of prose fiction from The Maker. Borges was one of the best writers of the twentieth century. His writings are mystical, philosophical, imaginative, provocative, compact, and thick with ideas and references to great literature from Don Quixote to Shakespeare to Greek Mythology. Much of Borges work has a fantasy / speculative component, but it never feels like it’s for its own sake, but rather to convey ideas of a philosophical, psychological, or spiritual nature. One might think that such short writings by a man who was clearly obsessed with a few key ideas (e.g. libraries and labyrinths) would get stale, but far from it.

The collection known by its titular final story (i.e. “The Aleph”) makes up the bulk of the book, and offers some exceptional stories – e.g. “The Other Death,” “Deutsches Requiem,” “The Man on the Threshold,” and, of course, “The Aleph.” The stories engage the readers with issues like mortality, fate, courage, and mystery.

The pieces from “The Maker” are short, few more than a couple pages and some just a paragraph. The most famous piece included is probably the brilliant “Borges and I,” but other important pieces include “The Maker,” “Everything and Nothing,” “The Yellow Rose,” and “The Witness.”

The book has notes and back-matter by the translator / editor, which can be useful for readers who aren’t acquainted with Latin America or the broad canon of classic literature Borges regularly references.

I’d highly recommend this for those who enjoy though-provoking, philosophical fiction. It is a thinking person’s read, but yet many of the pieces are highly engaging as stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #6)The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short story collection is the sixth book in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and – as the title suggests – it marks the return of the famous fictional detective after a hiatus. Doyle had tried to kill off the Holmes character so that he could work on other projects. At the end of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” Doyle leads us to believe Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, wrestled off the Reichenbach Falls, plummeting to stony deaths.

In the first story in this collection, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” we discover that Holmes didn’t die, and has been exploiting his reputed death, playing a game of cat-and-mouse against the remnants of Moriarty’s gang, notably the deadly, Col. Sebastian Moran. The other twelve stories of the collection stand alone among the larger canon, and follow the usual Holmes narrative weave. Most involve murder, but there is one (“The Adventure of the Three Students”) that involves a “crime” as mundane as test theft, and in some cases, e.g. “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the murder is a secondary issue. Each crime is solved using the intense observation, out-of-the-box thinking, and leaps of intuition of which only Holmes is capable. Usually, the guilty party is brought to justice, but, in some cases, Holmes follows his own moral code, deciding not to assist the authorities in cases for which he believes the crime justified, or unavoidable.

Among my favorites of the collection are: “The Adventure of the… Norwood Builder,” …Dancing Men,” and …Missing Three-Quarter,” but there’s not a vast standard deviation of quality or style in these stories. They are all intriguing and have their own distinctive features while showing Holmes’s quirky brilliance. This is definitely a must-read for Holmes fans.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alien Stories by E.C. Osondu

Alien StoriesAlien Stories by E.C. Osondu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

 

This collection of short stories by Nigerian author, E.C. Osondu, examines the alien life. While many of the pieces use extraterrestrial aliens as a plot device, it’s easy to see that terrestrial alienation is the topic under consideration. Most of the pieces are of the soft science fiction variety, focusing on the psychological and relational elements more than the scientific detail. That said, a few of the pieces read as purely realist fiction. Some of the pieces focus on what it’s like to be an alien (of some variety,) but many of the stories focus upon how others perceive the “alien.” I should point out that the tone of the collection tends to be lighthearted, and so while it might seem that a collection based on the theme of alienation would be a bit melancholy, that is not so much the case.

This volume is part of the American Reader Series (#36) put out by BOA Editions. The collection includes eighteen stories. The first story, “Alien Enactors,” imagines individuals trying to convey information about their native culture in a recreational setting (called “the Ranch”) that is very market driven. The enactors are obsessed with ratings and with pleasing customers and the story is a commentary on what it is like for an émigré to enter the globalized world.

“Memory Store” was one of my favorites of the collection, because it sets up a fascinating thought experiment. The premise is that there is a store where one can go and sell one’s memories, and once one has sold a memory, it is lost to one forever. [Like selling blood or other bodily fluids, it mainly attracts those in relatively desperate states.] As a sci-fi plot mechanism, it makes for an interesting idea, but when one thinks of it as being about the trade-off of loss of past as one integrates into a new cultural environment, it becomes a powerful analogy.

“How to Raise an Alien Baby” is presented as a discussion of rules aliens would need to follow to adopt a baby from Earth. The story provokes one to think about how strange it can be for a child to enter a completely new cultural environment.

In “Visitors,” an alien couple have moved into a small village, and the lead characters are a couple who are having said alien couple over. The arrival of this alien couple invites incessant questioning about why they would pick such a place. For those who’ve lived only one place, it seems to be a common thought to wonder why anyone in their right mind would choose to live there – of all places. We also see a divergence of views toward aliens. The wife is more open-minded while the husband remains suspicious.

“Feast,” which is set on Alien Feast Day, features a child’s eye contemplation of aliens, and the endless questions such a view inspires. As with the husband in “Visitors,” the children try to grasp what aliens are really like, why the are so different, and – in the process – they stumble, misestimating the differences between the aliens and themselves.

In the story, “Mark,” a grandmother imparts wisdom via a story about the “Red Planet.” The journey described in this extraterrestrial tale is an analogy intended to prepare others a different kind of travel.

“Spaceship” is another of my favorites from the collection. In the story, aliens leave a broken-down spaceship at a village, just as someone might leave a car along the highway until it can be fixed. What is brilliant about the story is its description of how the locals begin to impart meaning upon the ship’s presence. All things, good and bad, that happen in the village are linked to the whims of the broken-down spacecraft. It serves as a commentary on superstition and religiosity.

In “Sacrifice,” each year an alien spacecraft visits, requiring one village youth to be surrendered to the aliens. There’s a sort of “Hunger Games” selection processes that isn’t discussed in detail, but which arrives at a presumably random “tribute” each year. However, when an only child is selected, the mother gets up in arms about it.

“Light” is about personal transformation and how it may seem to be a magical and spontaneous occurrence to others. In the story, a light from the sky lands up on the lead character, and, with it, she experiences a profound personality change.

In “Traveler” a local and an alien (“foreigner”) converse in transit.

“Debriefing” is one of the stories that isn’t of the science fiction genre. It imagines the advice that an African would receive upon arriving in the United States. It’s sort of a “do’s and don’ts” of living in America for the alien resident. It’s amusing in some places and disconcerting in others.

“Focus Group” presents a series of comments from individuals as if they were taking part in a focus group where they were asked “What are aliens like?”

The story “Child’s Play” revolves around two children who like to play a game that allows them to disappear into an alternative dimension.

Life changes for a bickering couple when the man finds a mysterious boon in the backyard in “Who Is in the Garden?”

“On the Lost Tribes of the Black World” is a story that is presented as if it were a scholarly description of the “Konga” tribe, a people forged around the singular act of drumming.

In “Love Affair” a lesbian émigré to America from Africa, Finda, tries to navigate the minefield of human relations. On the one hand, she learns from her grandmother that being gay isn’t something Finda would be likely to be able to pull off in their homeland, but still Finda isn’t finding her sexual orientation to be any picnic in America – despite the fact that she can be open about it. This is one of the most engaging stories in the collection.

With “The Home Companion” the collection shifts back into sci-fi territory, imagining a technology that can serve to combat loneliness by providing one with an intelligence with which to converse.

“Our Earthly Possessions” discusses just what a traveler has as he or she moves to a new land. The subject of memory, addressed in the second story, is revisited in this story from a different angle.

I found this to be a fantastic collection of stories. If you have any interest in what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, these stories will offer you insight into that condition. If you are experienced in that regard, the stories will resonate with you. It’s a smart collection of stories and will plant seeds of thought and help them germinate. If you read short fiction, I’d highly recommend this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kink ed. by R.O. Kwon & Garth Greenwell

Kink: StoriesKink: Stories by R.O. Kwon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: February 9, 2021

 

This is a collection of fourteen erotic short stories with a common theme of asymmetric power dynamics. [That’s an excessively syllabic way of saying Dominant / submissive, top / bottom, or Sadist / masochist relationships.] As is common with anthologies, a meaningful overall rating isn’t really possible. I found a couple of the included stories to be highly evocative or engaging, many were good, while others were just okay – plagued by the usual suspects that impair erotica such as characters without depth / intrigue or thin story. That said, none of the stories were poorly written.

To be fair, a broadly appealing erotica collection is a tall order. For one thing, erotica is the most idiosyncratic of genres. Like Horror, if it’s too tame for one’s tastes, it’s boring; if it’s too wild, it grosses one out — or otherwise become unreadable. [I suspect few (if any) readers will have the latter problem with this collection; some might have the former. (That is, given the likely readership demographic.) If you are picking up a book on kinky erotica, you are unlikely to be triggered or otherwise shocked or offended by anything contained herein.] In addition to the varied levels of intensity readers look for in erotica, there is the question of whether varied sexual orientations and identities are of interest to a given reader. This book covers a lot of ground in this regard, including heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender characters.

Because the anthology is so qualitatively and topically varied, I’ll say a little about each story.

1.) “The Cure” by Melissa Febos: I found this to be a strange choice for the collection and – particularly – for opening the collection. It’s about a lesbian who decides to have sex with straight men because she’s having trouble in her customary dating pool, but since she likes sex, she decides to pursue it in the form least laden with complication. So far, it could be fine, but it devolves into a laundry list of what she finds disgusting about intimacy with men. Now, one would expect a lesbian to find having sex with a man unappealing; just as anyone might when having sex outside their preferred orientation. However, it does raise the question: Why am I supposed to enjoy reading about this in a book of erotica? I think it’s fair to say that reading about people enjoying having sex is more erotic than hearing about people who aren’t enjoying their experience.

2.) “Best Friendster Date Ever” by Alexander Chee: This is a story about a hookup between two gay men who meet via a dating site, and who find themselves in a mutually appealing top / bottom sexual experience. While it’s not a story with a great deal of depth, it would have made a better opening because at least if features two people who are having intercourse because they like having sex with each other [as opposed to because there’s nothing on Netflix and each is the best the other can do on short notice.]

3.) “Trust” by Larissa Pham: As the name suggests, this story revolves around the issue of trust and the challenges that subject presents in a relationship of dominance and submission. When the couple goes on a getaway, the story mirrors the experience of trust-building in sexual encounters with the non-sexual circumstance of the male (dominant) driving off for the day without telling the female (submissive) that he’s leaving — or when / if he’ll be back. There’s some interesting insight into submissive psychology to be seen in this story.

4.) “Safeword” by R.O. Kwon: In this story, we see an issue that was touched upon in the previous on (and which later recurs,) which is what happens when one member of an intimate relationship is more into the kinky aspect than is the other. In this case, it’s a sadomasochistic relationship in which the female masochist is more desirous of the sadomasochistic aspect of the relation than is her male partner. The couple goes to a dominatrix so that the masochist can get what she desires and the man can learn to better pleasure [i.e. pain-ify?] his partner.

5.) “Canada” by Callum Angus: This atmospheric piece describes a girl’s relationship with a female to male transgender. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and – as the title suggests – it plays heavily on the setting, Canada, to create ambiance.

6.) “Oh, Youth” by Brandon Taylor: The story centers on an attractive young man named Grisha, and the appeal he has for some middle-aged people – particularly the infatuation that develops between the husband in a married couple that he is staying with temporarily during a college break.

7.) “Impact Play” by Peter Mountford: A recently divorced man enters into a serious relationship with the woman he was having an affair with when his marriage ended. He and this woman share an interest in kink and fetish sexuality that his previous wife apparently did not. We don’t learn much about his ex-wife, but we do learn quite a bit about his cousin, Betsy, whom he treats as a confidant and with whom he has a special relationship.

8.) “Mirror, Mirror” by Vanessa Clark: Diary entry of a well-endowed transgender escort. The story explores the fetishized nature of the main character’s occupation.

9.) “Reach” by Roxane Gay: A man and wife enjoy the former tormenting the latter with a steady stream of indignities as a fetish in their romantic life. It’s one of the more sensual pieces of writing in the anthology.

10.) “Gospodar” by Garth Greenwell: I would rate this as one of the two strongest entries in terms of story. It’s not the typical erotica in which the character comes out the other side of the story completely unchanged except for being momentarily spent. A submissive gay man meets up with a dominant in Romania that he learned about through the internet. The interaction starts off swimmingly, but it takes a hard turn south. The story is quite visceral, but provokes thought on the nature of consent where power dynamics are in play.

11.) “Scissors” by Kim Fu: This story is set amid a stage show in which sharp objects are used to undress a performer in motion. Attendees aren’t just after the prurient appeal of the striptease, but the vicarious visceral fear.

12.) “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” by Carman Maria Machado: This story has some superficial commonalities with the previous one – i.e. it largely takes place in a theater in which frightening shows are put on that feature a damsel-esque central character. However, it’s also quite distinct from the previous story. It’s the longest story and is the other entry that I consider strongest in terms of narrative qualities. The central character is a young girl [called “Bess” though that isn’t her real name] who becomes the protégé of the main character of the aforementioned horror show. The story is all about the changing nature of their relationship as the protégé grows from girl to woman.

13.) “Retouch / Switch” by Cara Hoffman: This ethereal piece is about fluctuation in sexuality and identity. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and features a dreamlike quality.

14.) “Emotional Technologies” by Chris Kraus: This piece frames the dominant / submissive relationship in artistic and philosophical terms. It’s erudite and among the most thought-provoking pieces in the collection. In particular, it discusses the role of an acting “technology” (most people would call it a “method”) that uses somewhat cruel and savage tactics to achieve the desired outcome. Because I’m a nerd who likes thinking about things that are “out there,” I really enjoyed this story. Others may find that the erotic adventure is undone by the philosophizing.

If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read so far, you should definitely give this one a read. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s well-written and has broad appeal. It takes chances in some ways, but stays inside the lines of most readers.

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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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