Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"The Toy Theater" - A Short Story by Gene Wolfe, a master of the Science Fiction Fantasy Genre, 1971

I offer my Great Thanks to Mudpuddle and Fred of Fred's Place for suggesting I read Gene Wolfe

"“You will learn. You have already learned more difficult things. But you will not learn traveling with just one. If you wish to learn three, you must have three with you always, so that you can practice. But already you do the voice of a woman speaking and singing. That was the most difficult for me to learn.” He threw out his big chest and thumped it. “I am an old man now and my voice is not so deep as it was, but when I was young as you it was very deep, and I could not do the voices of women, not with all the help from the control and the speakers in the dolls pitched high. But now listen.” He made Julia, Lucinda, and Columbine, three of his girls, step forward. For a moment they simply giggled; then, after a whispered but audible conference, they burst into Rosine’s song from The Barber of Seville Julia singing coloratura soprano, Columbine mezzo-soprano, and Lucinda contralto. “Don’t record,” Stromboli admonished me. “It is easy to record and cheat; but a good audience will always know, the amateurs will want you to show them, and you can’t look at yourself and smile. You can already do one girl’s voice very good. Don’t ever record. You know how I learned to do them?”

I am greatly enjoying slowly getting back into science fiction and fantasy works, something I read avidly years ago but neglected for a long time.  I was inspired to venture back into fantasy worlds, partially through rereading Dune by Frank Herbert.  I also have recently began to read Olivia Butler and I greatly enjoyed "Green Magic" by the American master Jack Vance.  I was additionally delighted to read works by two young Filipino writers, Isabell Wong and Alyssa Yap whose development I hope to follow.

Going on the strength of recommendations from Mudpuddle and Fred of Fred's Place I decided to read a short story by another acknowledged American master, Gene Wolfe (born NYC, 1931, his best known work is the tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun).  I downloaded a sample of The Best Short Fiction of Gene Wolfe and was happy to find a story I could read, "The Toy Theater" first published in the popular  anthology series Orbit edited by Damon Knight, in 1971)

"The Toy Theater" is a really fun to read story.  A marionettist has just landed on the planet Sarg.  I like how Vance just plunges us right into an alternative universe without a lot of explanation.  Sarg was found with no life of but suitable for humans and earth plants.  It is preindustrial.  It looks like the main occupant, maybe the owner of the planet, is one Stromboli, a marionette master famous through the known universe. Our narrator has come to study with Stromboli.  Marionettes are very much in vogue everywhere.  We meet Stromboli's wife in their house, in the style of a Tuscan villa.  We sit in on the lessons, we come to respect the great artistry involved.

As he awaits in the buggy to take him back to the space port, his visit over, instead of Stromboli's butler, a doll, a woman, Lilli comes up in a buggy and says she will take him to the space port.  It appears she is a marionette, created by Stromboli to be his mistress.

I don't want to spoil the very interesting close of the story.  I found no work by Vance online.  I have two of his short stories in anthologies I have been given and will read them soon.  Maybe I will tackle The Book of the New Sun one day.

Mel u

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"One of Us" - A Short Story by Farah Ahamed (2015)

Farah Ahamed on The Reading Life- includes links to her stories

"One of Us" - On Two Serious Ladies

"“And she’s Yemoja,” Fatima said. “West African goddess of power and destruction, made from malachite. She weighs a tonne; I wouldn’t try and lift her if I were you.” She laughed. How like a miniature she was, with regular features, soft, smooth skin, a small nose and bulging eyes. Her lips looked like they’d been carved and her eyebrows as if they’d been painted on. I dropped my hand.
“They keep us busy,” she said. “You wouldn’t think it, but they need constant looking after.” She pointed to an oriental figure of a half-naked woman sitting cross legged holding a flute to her lips. “Look at her, our female Buddha. She’s hand carved from ivory. Notice the intricate calligraphy and jewelry on her skirt and headdress.”
“Where did you find them?” I asked.
“In different places,” replied Rashid. “But we know instantly when we see them if they’re one of us.” He smoothed Cleopatra’s head. “Aren’t they intriguing? Each one is exceptional.”  “With a special meaning for us,” Fatima said. Using both hands she lifted a figure from the stool. “See Pannie, our satyress made of cement.” Holding it in one hand, with her other, she rotated its head making a terrible grinding sound. She turned it upside down and blew inside the hollow cavity. A cloud of dust flew out. “Sorry, honey Pannie.” She tweaked its jagged horns, and ran her fore finger lightly over its open, sneering mouth where its tongue curled back convulsively. I looked away, but she drew me back when she said, “Rashid tells me the two of you are thinking of moving in together.”

I decided to begin my fourth post on a short story by Farah Ahamed, "One of Us" with a rather longish quote so you can see for yourself her exquisite styling.  This is a very interestingly deeply disturbing work.  We see in it  how in a few pages a skilled artist can create years of relationships.  The setting of the story is not spelled out.  There are three on stage human characters.

Simran, the narrator, is making her first visit to the home her lover shares with his sister Fatima.  The room in which Simran is received is filled with small statues.  The sister shows Simran inherited from their father statues of Cleopatra, Fatima calls her "Cleo" and Ptolemy.  Both sister and brother are deeply bonded with these and the other artifacts of antiquity, from not just Egypt, Kenya and India.  Simran is disturbed or rather disquieted by the very deep triangular bond between her lover, his sister Fatima, and the artifacts.

I want to leave the fascinating denouement untold.  I will observe that Fatima has an illness which has denuded her body of hair.  Somehow I was brought to mind of the genetic diseases caused by brother/sister inbreeding in the final pharaonic dynasties.

I read this story several times.  It is a consummate specimen of the art of the short story.  You can read it on the link above.  I think this might be my favorite of her stories.

"One of Us" was first published in 2015 on a very interesting website, Two Serious Ladies, the title is taken from a novella by Jane Bowles.  I confess I have read much more by her occasional husband Paul but the little by Jane I have read has allowed me to understand her cult like following.  There are interesting works on the webpage and intriguing visual art.  It appears to be on a hiatus from accepting new work, I hope it is not permanent.

Farah Ahamed is a short fiction writer. Her stories have been published in The Massachusetts Review, Thresholds, Kwani?, The Missing Slate and Out of Print among others. She has been nominated for The Caine and The Pushcart prizes and shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize, DNA/Out of Print Award, Sunderland Waterstones Award, Asian Writer Award. She was highly commended in the London Short Story Award and joint winner of the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award.

I will post on another of her stories next week.

Mel u

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

White Mughals Love and Betrayal in 18th Century India by William Dalrymple (2002)

William Dalrymple is probably the leading non-academic historian focusing on India.  His White Mughals Love and Betrayal in 18th Century India won the highly prestigious Wolfson Prize in 2003 (awarded by the Wolfson foundation for best history book by a British subject).  As I am very interested in the 18th Century in Asia I was  eager to read this book.

British men, soldiers, East Indian Company officers in the thousands were sent to help rule England, in the 18th Century.  Very few English women went along, at most the wives of the very elite.  Naturally this lead to extensive fraternization between Indian Women and British men.  Dalrymple focuses on relationships between high society Muslim India Women, mostly from the largely Muslim Hyderabad area and Englishmen. (The rulers were descended from the Mughals, hence the name.) 

In several cases the men converted to Muslim, often required for a marriage, and became experts on Indian culture, often adapting the life style of their wives.  As depicted by Dalrymple, some of the matches were based in deep love, while other wealthy officers set up private harems.  By and large Hindu women were forbidden to marry Englishmen while Islam had no such provision.

Dalrymple goes into a lot of fascinating detail about social customs, trade, the British East India Company, marriage in the period, interfaith relationships, child rearing and much more.  I was fascinated to learn that Muslim law of the period allowed abortions up to the fourth month and to learn about how this was done.  

There are things I found lacking in this book.  It gives little account of the day to day lives of the English, what did they eat for example.  One thing annoyed me a good bit.  Every woman mentioned by Dalrymple is described as incredibly beautiful.  To me this suggests the women were commodities and that their value came from how close they approximated British standards of beauty.  Clearly the lighter skinned a woman was, the more beautiful the English considered her.  Buying into this without comment is not acceptable,  to me at least.  In 18th Century society it was second and third sons who went to India in search of fortunes.  

India in the 18th Century is an incredibly deep and wide area of study.  This book gets my endorsement for all into the history of Colonial India.

Mel u

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (1993)

Published in observation of the birthday anniversary of Octavia Butler, June 22, 1947
The Octavia Butler Society- Your First Resource

Octavia Butler on The Reading Life

Open Road Intergrated Media - Publisher of High Quality E Books of the works of Octavia Butler and thousands of other writers

Born 1947, Pasadena, California, died 2006

Octavia Estelle Butler was an American science fiction writer, one of the best-known among the few African-American women in the field. She won both Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. - from Goodreads

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents
I only recently, after a decades long hiatus, have gotten back into reading Science Fiction and Fantasy works.  During my time away authors have become world famous, won all the major genre works and died without me ever hearing of them.

Bloodchild, Butler's Hugo and Nebula Prize Winning novella, was my first venture into her work.  I loved this story about humans and aliens in a symbiotic relationship.  Next I read her time travel work in which an African American woman from contemporary California involuntarily time traveled back to a slave plantation in America, circa 1840.  The conception is brilliant and Butler executed it well.  I next made a bigger venture, reading her tetralogy Lilith's Blood.  I found the overarching idea, the earth being repopulated by humans rescued long ago by aliens interesting but I had to slog my way to the end.

Parable of the Sower begins around 2024, a hopefully not prophetic date when trump could just be completing his second term.  Set in a community near a totally in ruins Los Angeles, destroyed by drugs, an extreme shortage of water brought on by Climate Change, poverty and rampant lawlessness and corruption.  Our narrator, an African American woman Lauren Otamina, lives in a small walled enclave, with her father, her step mother and her brothers.  Her father is a preacher, in the old days both of her parents were professors.  Lauren has a hyperempathy, a condition which causes her to feel the injuries of those around her.  There is a highly addictive drug rampant which turns people into pyromaniacs.  Lauren and her family are in constant fear of roaming bands of scavengers.  Butler does just a wonderful job depicting a very believable dystopian vision of America.

One day scavengers burn down her small enclave, her family  is killed.  Everyone says things are much better in the northern states of Oregon and Washington and Canada is the new promised land.  These states have border guards but if you are lucky you can get through.  Lauren and a few other survivors set out north.  Butler makes the journey very real.

Lauren has her own religion.  Ultimately she learns of a safe heaven up north, owned by an older man she meets on her journey, where she hopes to set up a community.

I don't want to tell too much of the very exciting plot.  There is a sequel to this work, Parable of the Talents that goes further into the life of Lauren after she forms her community.  I hope to read it.

I greatly enjoyed this book.

Mel u

Friday, June 16, 2017

With Ballet in My Soul Adventures of a Globetrotting Impresario- a memoir by Eva Maze (2017)

More information on this memoir can be found here

With Ballet in My Soul Adventures of a Globe Trotting Impresario by Eva Maze is a fascinating very uplifting detail rich account of the author's nearly 100 year life.  We first meet her in pre-World War Two Romania, part of a Jewish family.  Eva is a teenager, her parents have the foresight in the face of Nazi threats to Jews to leave Romania.  They move to New York City and it is there Maze begins her life time love affair with Ballet.

The many photographs in the book let us see Maze was an exquisite beauty.  She fell in love with and married a man who was a combat pilot in WWII.  He obtained an important position with the then start up Pan Am airlines.  In the mean time Maze pursued lessons with Russian Emigre Ballet Masters in NYC.  She was already to old to be groomed to be a prima ballerina but she knew she would how always be involved with dancing.  We learn of her college years and I admit I was a bit shocked when she seems to admit she had an affair with an older very debonair man.  Her marriage survived this.

In 1948 her husband was transferred to the London office of Pan Am.  London was considered a "hardship post" due to food rationing.  Maze makes contact once again with famous Russian Ballet teachers and continues her education.  Every where Maze goes she jubilantly makes the best of things, her winning personality is very evident.

Next Pan Am sends her husband to New Delhi, a big cultural change.  I saw Maze loved the exposure to a new world this brought her.  She first begins her work as a professional dance impresario, organizing with partners a ballet tour of India.

I do not wish to give away to much more of Maze's career, she spends a lot of time in Germany and Paris.  She writes very openly about coping with the challenges of life over ninety.

I ended up really like this book.  It felt like Maze was almost a friend telling her life story.  Maze is an elegant highly cultured person with a charming prose style.

There are lots of wonderful photographs.

I throughly enjoyed this captivating memoir.

Mel u

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Green Magic" - a short story by Jack Vance, a master of the Science Fiction/Fantasy World (June, 1963)

I offer my great thanks to Fred of Fred!s Place, a blog I have followed for years and Mudpuddle for turning me onto Jack Vance

"Howard Fair, looking over the relics of his great-uncle Gerald McIntyre, found a large ledger entitled:


Open at Peril!
Fair read the journal with interest, although his own work went far beyond ideas treated only gingerly by Gerald McIntyre.
"The existence of disciplines concentric to the elementary magics must now be admitted without further controversy," wrote McIntyre. "Guided by a set of analogies from the white and black magics (to be detailed in due course), I have delineated the basic extension of purple magic, as well as its corollary, Dynamic Nomism."
Fair read on, remarking the careful charts, the projections and expansions, the transpolations and transformations by which Gerald McIntyre had conceived his systemology. So swiftly had the 

technical arts advanced that McIntyre's expositions, highly controversial sixty years before, now seemed pedantic and overly rigorous." From "Green Magic" by Jack Vance 

After rereading Dune by Frank Herbert, I realized there was about a fifty year gap in my knowledge of Science fiction and fantasy works.  Back in the day I liked Phillip Farmer, Isaac Asimov, and 

Robert Heinlein.  Only in the last few months have I begun to read in this area again.  I recently read and really enjoyed Clifford Simak's Hugo Award winning novel, The Way Station, several works by the powerfully imaginative Octavia Butler and two wonderful short stories by Isabell Wong and Alyssa Yap, both of Filipino ancestry.  I have also read a few short stories by writers like Karen Russell and Leonora Carrington that border on the fantasy genre.  I must not forget to mention a stunning debut novel Bald New World by Peter Tieryas.  I also reread Brave New World.  There are other genres such as steampunk that blend into fantasy and science fiction also.  Of course there is Horror Fiction.

I wanted to find out what I had missed in the last fifty years.  Who better to ask than the readers of my blog, as smart and as literate group as can be found on this planet.  

Both Fred and Mudpuddle said some of the work of an American writer, Jack Vance (born 1916, died 2013, both in San Francisco Bay Area) was perhaps superior to Dune.  I did some quick research, the literary output of Vance is huge, over sixty books and uncounted short stories, mostly published in pulp magazines.  His work is still under copyright and I could find only one short story online, "Green Magic", first published in 1943. I read this story and loved it.  It is squarely a work of fantasy, of dark magic showing us the dangers of reading the journals of deceased great uncles who made a life long study of the cycles of magic.  

The journal is read by Howard Fair, himself a student of the black, white and purple cycles of magic.  He has been known to conjure up a demon to liven up a dull party. He is shocked when he reads of his uncle's exploration of the green cycle of magic, something hitherto fore unknown to him.  He invokes a sprite from the green world, who warns him against a study of the green cycle.  Howard ends up spending hundreds of years mastering this realm.  Finally he longs for his old world and returns to his apartment only to discover he has been gone only two hours.  I will leave much of the plot unspoiled.  Readers of the great Irish fantasy writer

The very real fun in this story is Vance's creation of the theories of magic, simulating great learning in an arcane realm.  We see how Howard has been changed.

I really enjoyed this story and will venture more into his world.

At the link to "Green Magic" there are links to webpages with lots of information on Vance.

Readers of Sheridan de Le Fanu, the great Irish fantasy writer (extensively posted upon on my blog) and the early 20th century Welsh master Arthur Machen will feel at home in this story.   Maybe they are the literary Lolos of Vance.

Again my thanks to Fred and Mudpuddle.  I will hopefully this year read a few more short stories and at least his Hugo Award Winning works.

Mel u

Monday, June 12, 2017

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965, 835 pages)

Is Dune The Greatest Work of Science Fiction of all time?  What are your choices for this?

I last read Dune by Frank Herbert in 1967 (1920 to 1986). I  had no plans to reread Dune but I received notice in an E book bargains newsletter to which I subscribe that the Kindle edition was marked down temporarily to $1.95.  I remembered that I totally loved it in the long ago, I knew many consider it the greatest Science Fiction novel of all time, plus I wanted to see if I would still love Dune, so I bought the book. I saw a movie based on Dune directed by David Lynch 33 years ago.

Dune is set far in the future, the planets of the known universe are each ruled by a royal house.  Rulership is structured like European royalty.  At the head of the universe is an emperor, each of the royal houses are involved in continual power struggles with each other.  The novel centers on the rise to power of Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto head of house Atreides and his concubine Jessica, a Bene Gesserit.

I decided not to do much of a synopsis of the plot (Wikipedia has a decent one).

The emperor has decided to give house Atreides control over the planet Dune.  Dune is a desert planet, with no rain, Life revolves around water.  Dune is of great importance as only there can a spice that prolongs life and allows space to be navigated be found.

Just a handful of spice can buy a house on other worlds.  Dune was previously controlled by the house Harkoonnen, long blood enemies of the Atreides.  The duke suspects this is a trick by the emperor to destroy his house.

The plot is intricate and fascinating, Herbert goes into great detail about the religion and beliefs of those in the story.  It is a very "ecological" work, we are constantly aware of the power of water.  On Dune there are huge worms, some up to 400 meters.  They are integral to the production of spice.

I really enjoyed this reread, I was happy to see I could recall a lot of the book.

There are five sequels to Dune, some by Frank Herbert, some by others after his death.  I have not read any of these.  If you have, please leave some feedback.

Mel u