Thursday, September 7, 2023

Russian Secret Tales, by Aleksandr N. Afanasyev

Aleksandr Afanasyev was the major nineteenth-century collector of Russian folk and fairy tales. Unlike other collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, Afanasyev also collected bawdy folktales, though these are much less known that his fairy tales. Russian Secret Tales: Bawdy Folktales of Old Russia is one such collection translated into English. It first appeared in 1966, and was reprinted, with a new foreword by folkorist Alan Dundes, in 1996. The volume contains some seventy-four tales, some very short, others longer and presented in variant versions. The tales are ribald and quite fun. My favorite in the whole collection is "A Crop of Prickles" --yes, prickles are what you think they are; the translation for the most part avoids what might be considered obscene terms in English (so we occasionally read of two people futtering, or one getting futtered, etc.). Some of these tales are quite imaginative. In "A Crop of Prickles" two farmers are planting their respective fields with rye, but when asked by a traveler what they are planting, one farmer tells the truth, while the other lies and says he is planting prickles. And that is the crop he reaps, and when harvested produces comic results.  

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Tales of Patrick Merla

This slim collection was published in 1985. It contains nine stories (two of which are so short as to be negligible), puffed out with wide margins and blank pages to make up a page-count of 103. All are fairy stories, which the publisher says are "in the tradition of George MacDonald, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brother Grimm."  Well, maybe, but Merla's tales do not stand up well next to those by such classic authors. Edmund White, in a review of the book in the Washington Post of September 22, 1985, noted that: 

Often a Merla tale begins with a vice--pride, cruelty, greed--that is exercised with stubborn willfulness. Next a terrible fate befalls the vicious man or woman, who must then set out in a quest of atonement. After much suffering (and isolation), the voyager is forgiven and learns the error of his or her ways. 

Which is true, but White fails to account for the lack of fairy tale magic in the stories. They never engage the reader, and each story merely plods on until it reaches its end. There is no literary style, no wry modern perspective, nothing to make these routine tales stand out. John Gardner was writing such modern fairy tales (I reviewed some collections below) at the same time as Merla, yet Gardner did it much better.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

Most of the lists that I have seen of best fantasy novels of the 21st century include something by Jim Butcher, usually Storm Front, which is the first book of his multi-volumed series, "The Dresden Files," named after the main character, Harry Dresden, a Chicago-based "wizard" who works with the police to solve unusual (often occult) crimes. The series is currently up to seventeen novels, with more to come. Storm Front is plot-driven commercial fiction, written in the first person in Harry Dresden's own jocular and self-deprecating style. The mystery is engaging enough, but the prose reads simply like a fleshed-out screenplay, heavy on the dialogue. It's no surprise, then, that the SyFy channel produced one season of a show called The Dresden Files consisting of twelve episodes. Episode 8 is titled "Storm Front" and is partly based on this novel. Though disappointed by the novel (mostly because of the style in which it is written), I tuned into the series and watched all twelve episodes. Fun, but not great, and of course the series was cancelled after one season, so it barely got the chance to set-up its secondary world. I'm glad to have experienced one novel, but I'm not inspired to read any further.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

The Salt Grows Heavy, by Cassandra Khaw

This novella can perhaps best be described as body horror. It is the story of two characters: the narrator, who is called a mermaid but isn't one by usual definitions; and her associate, called the "plague doctor," who is given annoying and distracting they/their pronouns (my gripe is in the using of a plural term for a singular entity). The pair have escaped the destruction of the mermaid's husband's world, which has been devoured and destroyed by the unrelenting teeth of their daughters. The pair meet some odd children, mired in the worship and rituals of three mysterious surgeons, who kill, maim, and even bring the children back to life. Of course there is a clash between the differing parties. It results in an impressive display of different kinds of bodily mutilation. The prose is dense, sometimes smooth but often clotted. I'm not sure there is a point to it all. The ending is cliched. And oddly, after the acknowledgements at the end of the book, there is a seven page story giving the set-up for the book. If it is extraneous, why include it at all? Or rather, if is is essential, why isn't it at the beginning of the book? Much about this novella seems half-baked, when it isn't being deliberately pretentious. Intriguing, but with considerable problems.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War came out four years ago, but I've just gotten round to reading it. It's an oddly structured epistolary novella, concerning two female operatives on opposite sides in the time war. Red is with the Agency, while Blue works for the Garden. They start exchanging secret letters with each other, as they pass through various lives, time-strands--past and future--and differing realities. The prose is dense, and the set-up slow, but the reader is soon quite engaged. It won a Nebula and a Hugo for best novella, as well as other significant awards (from Locus, and the BSFA, etc.). I wouldn't have expected it to be a multiple award winner, though I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Boys Like Us, edited by Patrick Merla

This book appeared in 1996, and at that time, according to the editor, it was a few decades in the making. It sounds like a good idea in itself, as expressed in the subtitle: gay writers tell their coming out stories. It collects some twenty-nine essays by acclaimed writers, plus an introduction by the editor. The first essay is by science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, and it sets a high standard that I feared the subsequent essays couldn't reach, and they didn't. Delany's essay is introspective, and deeply thoughtful, in ways that most of the rest of the essays aren't, for many descend to being not so much coming out stories (drawing individual fences around that term), but merely stories of early sexual experiences. None of them are bad, most are well-written, and if personally insightful they aren't especially revealing of the societal web of meanings for the term coming out. The second most interesting essay after Delany's is that by poet Carl Phillips, which closes the book. These essays are now almost thirty years old. It would be interesting to read an entirely new collection of similar essays on what coming out means to current writers. 

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Yellowface, by R.F. Kuang

I read Babel last year, and heard murmurs about Kuang's next book, which was to be a satire on the publishing industry.  Yellowface is now out, and it is about the publishing industry, and other things, but its hardly a satire. It concerns two young women writers, one white (the narrator), the other Asian. They have a competitive sort-of friendship, and when the Asian writer accidentally chokes to death, the white writer steals her late friend's just completed manuscript, and rewrites it, passing it off as her own. Publishing success ensues, as well as controversy about a potentially plagiarized or stolen manuscript, about a white women writing about Asian history, and who should be allowed to writer about such stories. Of course social media goes nuts. And the reaction of everyone in publishing to the controversies and possible revelations is the heart of this narrative. The reason the book is not a satire is that all the craziness is true to contemporary life. Twitter, etc., is toxic, and the reactions on all sides are basically abuses of power done primarily for marketing reasons. Yellowface is still a page turner, even if it is cringeworthy at times, but it really is basically an attack on social media and on the posturings of privilege and exploitation, and other trendy issues. A very different book from Babel. When I finished Yellowface I felt like I'd just emerged from a literary sewer.