Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Read: 31 July, 2018

There’s a “third culture” aspect to these stories that I really enjoyed. The characters in each story are outsiders, they are Indians in America or American-born Indians in India, and there’s always a sense of looking from the outside in.

That sense is amplified by the voyeuristic nature of the stories. In each case, the narrator is an audience, perceiving the subject of the story. It’s an interesting layering effect.

This is a great collection. I hated some of the stories, some of them made me so angry or so sad, but every one affected me. And even the weakest entries are beautifully written with vibrant characters who seem to leap off the page.

1. A Temporary Matter: A heartbreaking story about a couple trying to recover (separately) from a traumatic event, finally forced together to talk by a planned power outage. It’s a look at grief, and especially in the ways that our lives can impede the healing process (as we bury ourselves in work or hobbies).

2. When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine: War in Daca, as seen through the eyes of a little girl in America. This story struck a real chord with me, as the narrator’s environment is totally unequipped to deal with what she is going through. She even has that particularly third culture experience of being punished for trying to learn more about a current conflict with direct relevance to her life because she should be studying the American Revolution.

3. Interpreter of Maladies: A driver is giving a tour to Americanised Indians. This story is peak voyeur, as the narrator weaves an elaborate fantasy around the wife of the family. There were aspects of this story that were interesting, but I personally found it to be one of the weaker entries. Though perhaps it’s bias talking, as I found the narrator to be rather gross.

4. A Real Durwan: A relentless story of someone who has already lost much losing everything else. It’s a story of casual cruelty, of the way people can simply toss away human beings who are no longer useful to them. And, perhaps, a story about people who are unable to adapt as situations change, and who find themselves left behind.

5. Sexy: A little on-the-nose, redeemed by good writing. A woman is in an affair with a married man while her co-worker’s cousin is the wife in a similar situation.

6. Mrs. Sen’s: One of my favourite stories in the bunch, though the foreshadowing is somewhat anxiety-inducing. This is a fantastic meditation on the experiences of middle aged, unwilling immigrants (spouses of people who’ve immigrated for work, for example). Mrs. Sen has been taken from everything she knows, and finds that she cannot adapt to her new way of life. Her loneliness in the story is palpable.

7. This Blessed House: This one is a story about a jerkass husband who doesn’t deserve his magnificent wife. She sounds lovely – vivacious, curious, interesting – while he offers absolutely nothing.

8. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar: The voyeur aspect is taken so far in this story that the narrator is barely even a character at all (they are part of a neighbourhood “we” who observe the events of the story). This is something of a mirror story of “A Real Durwan” – while that one was of a woman who had found something of a place and then loses it due to the cruelty of those around her, “Bibi” is about a woman who is a victim of cruelty but who finds her place. The surface message that having a baby can cure epilepsy seems rather odd, though it’s hard not to root for Bibi as she builds a life for herself out of terrible circumstances.

9. The Third and Final Continent: An interesting story about love and emigration. The narrator’s marriage is arranged, so he doesn’t have a chance to get to know his wife until after they are already married. It’s interesting to see how tentatively they get to know each other, and how the conservatism of the immigrants can mirror the conservatism of the elderly.

The Djinn Falls In Love & Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

Read: 12 January, 2018

Overall, I found this to be a really solid anthology! There were a few stories that I didn’t like, and more that I think I just didn’t really get, but the proportion of great to not great is excellent.

“The Djinn Falls in Love” by Hermes

The anthology starts with a poem. Poems tend to be a little more ambiguous or open to interpretation, but I think it’s comparing the force of nature that is the djinn to the force of nature that is love. Whatever it’s about, it has quite a bit of powerful imagery packed into a rather short piece.

“The Congregation” by Kamila Shamsie

Starting off with a bang, this is one of my favourite stories in the collection. It starts as this beautiful, dreamlike queer love story between a human and a djinn. Then, unfortunately, the story keeps going and the love between the two young men is revealed to be that of two brothers. It’s disappointing that the story went so far, then shied away from what it could have been. It’s still a good story, though, with a strong fairy tale flavour.

“How We Remember You” by Kuzhali Manichavel

I feel like I don’t quite get this story. From what I could tell, it’s about a djinn living among people, but then he gets ill so the children kill him. I suppose it’s a commentary on something, or perhaps it alludes to other stories that I’m not familiar with? It’s well written, but I just don’t feel like I grasped what the author was trying to convey.

“Hurrem and the Djinn” by Claire North

This is one of those stories that’s frustrating because I wanted so much more – more exploration of the characters, more exploration of the world, more. Hurrem – a sultana believed to be using her control of djinn to manipulate the sultan – isn’t physically present in much of the story, yet she is present on every page. She is loved, and the ending reveals her to have remarkable strength and intrigue-savvy. I would happily read a whole book about her and the narrator, and the courtly forces trying to bring her down.

“Glass Lights” by J.Y. Yang

This story reminded me of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” – what if the djinn walked among us, leading ordinary lives, putting in their time at the office, having unrequited crushes? This one emphasised more the wish-granting aspect of the djinn, which turned it into an interesting commentary on pleaser personalities (people who spend their energies pleasing others at the expense of themselves). I mostly liked the story, though I do wish that it had gone a bit further with the concept. I also feel that the whole character backstory about the djinn grandmother was unnecessary, and the story would have been stronger with that trimmed off.

“Authenticity” by Monica Byrne

This was another one that I don’t feel like I really grasped. The idea of authenticity tourism is interesting and worth exploring, but I’m not sure how the story actually connects with that theme (other than the main character’s frequent repetition of the word). As for the plot itself, I don’t think I understood what the author was trying to say – especially in light of the “reveal” at the end. I feel like the film-making theme, and the direct experience versus in-person voyeurism versus on-screen voyeurism dichotomy are probably important, but the execution didn’t capture me enough to want to follow that thread.

“Majnun” by Helene Wecker

This was an interesting one that worked well as a short story. I usually either don’t like short stories, or they read like test runs for longer pieces, but this one was perfectly self-contained. A djinn converts to Islam and is faced with a former lover who is possessing a young man the djinn is trying to exorcise. What a great set up! The story has a solid narrative, an interesting conflict, and a satisfying ending.

“Black Powder” by Maria Dahvana Headley

This is a very dreamlike story that bounces back and forth in time, imagining that a djinn lived inside of a gun rather than a lamp. The dreaminess and the looseness of the narrative made it a little hard to follow, but I loved the imagery. The circle of skeletons with the broken tea cups, the bodies in a reactor meltdown turning into red and opalescent rock… just haunting.

“A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” by Amal El-Mohtar

This is another of those poetical-type stories that’s rather tricky to nail down. The literal story is about a second person “you” who transforms into several different birds, each time hunted by the “wizard-nation.” The impression I got was of the immigrant experience – each bird representing the types of immigrants and immigrant communities, and the wizard-nation being the consuming force of their new home. I have no idea if I’m on the right track, but I recognised a lot of those immigrant dynamics in the way the birds were described and the ways in which they were attacked by the wizard-nation. And if that’s the case, then the ending is rather uplifting.

“The Sand in the Glass is Right” by James Smythe

Interestingly, this is the first “be careful what you wish for” story in the bunch! And while the idea sounds painfully cliched, the execution is actually fairly descent. It’s told by the side characters, so the consequences of the wish are explored at a bit of a distance. It’s not my favourite story in the collection by far, but it’s a solid entry.

“Reap” by Sami Shah

This one is very powerful. The action of the story takes place in a small Pakistani village, and is told from the perspective of a narrator sitting in a military base in New Mexico. He’s observing the village from a drone, interpreting the heat signatures of its inhabitants, getting drawn into their lives in a removed, voyeuristic way. The whole set up is so interesting, and the story itself – though somewhat ambiguous due to events that happen outside of the drone’s visual range – is very compelling. The ending was a little weak, but I forgive it on the strength of the rest. And this is another one that works really well with the short story format!

“Queen of Sheba” by Catherine Faris King

This is an interesting origin story – showing us a young girl coming into her powers, then realising that she comes from a magical family. The problem is the format. This would have worked so much better drawn out, so we could explore more of the main character’s reaction to her newfound knowledge and powers. This could easily have been a whole novel, or maybe even a series.

“The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice” by E.J. Swift

I liked the worldbuilding in this one. I mean, putting the djinn in space? That is just awesome! The mystery plot worked really well for me, too, though the twist at the end needed something a little more. There’s a difference between an ambiguous ending and a story that wasn’t ended in the right place. This story was full of great ideas, but is another one that would have worked better in novel format.

“Message in a Bottle” by K.J. Parker

Like many of the stories in the collection, this one had some fabulous worldbuilding – the science, the plagues, the monastic orders, the bureaucratic limits to magic… all fantastic! And I really enjoyed the most of the story. The problem is with the ending, which takes an ethical non-question and tries to pass it off as an actual question. If the plagues are destroying humanity anyway, there’s absolutely no downside to releasing something that *might* be more plague, and all the benefit to releasing something that could be the cure. So the main character comes off less like someone paralysed by fear and more like whine and irrational jerk.

The djinn connection is a bit tenuous. There’s the bottle with its morally ambiguous contents, and there’s the face in the mirror. There’s also a rumour mentioned early on that someone gained knowledge from a demon. But there’s nothing concrete to relate this story to the theme of the collection.

“Bring Your Own Spoon” by Saad Z. Hossain

Again, we get some fun worldbuilding – this time it’s post-apocalyptic. I liked the idea of the djinn’s chaotic nature being used to help those on the margins of society.

“Somewhere in America” by Neil Gaiman

I saw this one on-screen in the TV adaption of American Gods (which I enjoyed quite a bit, by the way). Knowing everything that would happen didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the excerpt at all, even though I did have images from the show in my mind while reading. The excerpt works pretty well as a short story, albeit with an unnecessarily ambiguous ending. We still get the conflict, the pivotal moment, and the change – a full arc in a handful of pages.

“Duende 2077” by Jamal Mahjoub

Yet another story with fantastic worldbuilding. The story itself is pretty good too, but again, we have that issue where it’s setting up something so much bigger than the short story format allows. This one isn’t post-apocalyptic, per se. More like post-western civilisation. There’s plenty of humanity left, but the dominant culture is Arab. I really want to see this explored in greater detail!

“The Righteous Guide of Arabsat” by Sophia Al-Maria

A horror story about a religious young man in an arranged married totally failing to see the humanity of the – frankly, awesome – wife he suddenly finds himself with. It’s a cautionary tale about failing to prepare young people for their future relationships. It’s also rather horrifying, so major content notes for domestic abuse and violence against women.

“The Spite House” by Kirsty Logan

Something of a meditation on the concept of spite, using a djinn as a vehicle. The spite house is a house built to spite someone, a house that isn’t functional for its inhabitant, a house that is only suitable for a djinn who is used to living in cramped spaces. It’s a pretty good story – not one of my favourites, but a solid addition.

“Emperors of Jinn” by Usman T. Malik

This is another one that made me feel like I’m missing something. A group of children play around with a book about jinn. One of the kids has a sister who has been locked away because she’s been possessed. The whole thing felt like it had a deeper message to it, but it escaped me.

“History” by Nnedi Okorafor

I really liked this one. It’s like a superhero origin story, but told from the perspective of the ratioactive spider. This is one that would have worked as a longer novel, but also ties up neatly as a short story – a rare phenomenon.

Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

Read: 22 September, 2017

This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

“Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

“Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

“Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

“Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

“Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

“The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

“Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

“Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

“Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

“Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

“The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

“Nine” by Kima Jones

I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

“The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

“A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

“Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

“A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

“Jooni” by Kemba Banton

Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

“There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

“It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

“Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

“A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Read: 17 November, 2009

The thing that struck me the most about this collection of stories is that it could have been classed as travel narratives just as easily as horror. I found it so interesting to read about exotic locations while at the same time getting a wonderfully-crafted suspense story!

Don’t Look Now

I wanted to read this story after seeing the excellent movie with Donald Sutherland, and it certainly didn’t disappoint! The pacing is delightfully slow with great suspense-building, and the story has one of the most fabulous final lines I’ve ever read.

Not After Midnight

A schoolmaster holidays in Crete, hoping to work on his painting. But while there, he notices strange things starting to happen… An interesting story about madness and paranoia as the schoolmaster becomes obsessed with fellow vacationers.

A Border-Line Case

Shelagh’s father dies, his final words some kind of plea, or perhaps an accusation. Confused and racked by guilt, she decides to find Nick, the estranged best man at her parents’ wedding, to learn more about her father’s past. This story was excellent, a crazy psychological “mindfuck” with a great twist ending.

The Way of the Cross

A group of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem meet with disaster. This is possibly the most character-focused story in the collection, but also the least interesting.

The Breakthrough

This is a story of science gone awry. The main character gets a new job with a team of scientists trying to find a new energy source. He quickly realizes that something far more sinister is going on. An interesting story with some really great lines, though not the best treatment of scientific ethics.

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