Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

On the Lighter Side

Joe’s headaches pained him for years and years, and no matter what he tried they would not ease. Finally he went to a doctor who told him, "Joe, the good news is I can cure your headaches. The bad news is that it will require castration. You have a very rare condition which causes your testicles to press on your spine, and the pressure creates one heck of a headache. The only way to relieve the pressure is to remove the testicles."

Joe was shocked and depressed. He wondered if he had anything to live for. But he headaches were so brutal he had no choice but to go under the knife. When he left the hospital he was without a headache for the first time in 20 years, but he felt like he was missing an important part of himself. As he walked down the street, he realized that he felt like a different person. He decided that he should make a new beginning and live a new life.

He saw a men's clothing store and thought, "That's what I need–a new wardrobe to go with the new me.." He entered the shop and told the salesman, "I'd like a new suit."

The elderly tailor eyed him briefly and said, "Let's see... size 44 long."

Joe laughed, "That's right, how did you know?"

"Been in the business 60 years!" he said.

Joe tried on the suit. It fit perfectly. As Joe admired himself in the mirror, the salesman asked, "How about a new shirt to go with it?"

Joe thought for a moment and then said, "Sure."

The salesman eyed Joe and said, "Let's see, 34 sleeve and 16-1/2 neck." Joe was surprised, "That's right, how did you know?"

"Been in the business 60 years!" Joe tried on the shirt, and it fit perfectly .

As Joe adjusted the collar in the mirror, the salesman asked, "How about new shoes?"

Joe was on a roll and said, "Sure."

The salesman eyed Joe's feet and said, "Let's see...9-1/2 E." Joe was astonished, "That's right, how did you know?"

"Been in the business 60 years!" Joe tried on the shoes and they fit perfectly.

Joe walked comfortably around the shop and the salesman asked, "How about some new underwear?"

Joe thought for a second and said, "Sure."

The salesman stepped back, eyed Joe's waist and said, "Let's see...size 36."

Joe laughed "Ah ha! I got you! I've worn size 34 since I was 18 years old."

The salesman shook his head, "You can't wear a size 34. A 34 underwear would press your testicles up against the base of your spine and give you one heck of a headache."


Sister Mary Katherine entered the Monastery of Silence. The priest said, "Sister, this is a silent monastery. You are welcome here as long as you like, but you may not speak until I direct you to do so."

Sister Mary Katherine lived in the monastery for 5 years before the priest said to her, "Sister Mary Katherine, you have been here for 5 years. You can speak two words."

Sister Mary Katherine said, "Hard bed."

"I'm sorry to hear that," the priest said, "We will get you a better bed."

After another 5 years, Sister Mary Katherine was called by the priest. "You may say another two words, Sister Mary Katherine."

"Cold food," said Sister Mary Katherine, and the priest assured her that the food would be better in the future.

On her 15th anniversary at the monastery, the priest again called Sister Mary Katherine into his office. "You may say two words today."

"I quit," said Sister Mary Katherine.

"It's probably best," said the priest, "You've done nothing but complain ever since you got here."


The Lone Ranger and Tonto went camping in the desert. After they got their tent all set up, both men fell sound asleep. Some hours later, Tonto wakes the Lone Ranger and says, "Kemo Sabe, look towards the sky, what do you see?"

The Lone Ranger replies, "I see millions of stars."

"What does that tell you?" asked Tonto.

The Lone Ranger ponders for a minute then says, "Astronomically speaking, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, it's evident the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What's it tell you, Tonto?"

Tonto is silent for a moment, then says, "Kemo Sabe, you are dumber than buffalo dung. Somebody stole our tent.”

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Summer vacation plans

Today is the first day of summer vacation, 73 hopefully-uninterrupted days that I can do some of the reading and writing that I had no time to do during the school year. My main writing project is final-editing the Tibet book while also writing a cover letter and outline to submit to publishers. Part of this is dependent on Fei Fei having the time to finish the last few chapters of her final draft, but I am confident she will take care of her part.

As for reading, I have selected 8 of the 95 unread books in my collection (which seems like a lot of unread books, but compared to thousands of books that I have read it is really a statistically-small number) to read. Hopefully I will post reviews of most of them during the next two months. The books are:

Iron Council, by China Miéville
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, by Susanna Clarke
Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart
A Sundial in a Grave: 1610, by Mary Gentle
Ports of Call and Lurulu (in one volume), by Jack Vance
Pompeii, by Robert Harris
The Eight, by Katherine Neville
The Year of Our War, by Steph Swainston

Of course, I also plan to buy Jonathan Strahan's Best Short Novels: 2005 and Gardner Dozois' latest Best Science Fiction of the Year, so hopefully I can squeeze them in somewhere as well, plus finish the June issue of Visions of Paradise. Ah, I love summers!

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Moor’s Last Sigh

Think quickly now: what is the very first thing you think of when you see the name Salman Rushdie? Undoubtedly the most common impression is the fact that he was sentenced to death by the Ayatollah of Iran. Perhaps of you thought of The Satanic Verses, the book he was condemned for. A smaller minority might have thought that he is a writer more famous for the fatwa declared against him than for any particular writing talent he has ever displayed.

Any of those impressions is a damned shame, the last one even more so, because Salman Rushdie is one of the greatest contemporary writers. His 1980 novel Midnight’s Children was awarded the Booker-of-Bookers as the single best novel to have won the award given annually to the best novel published in Great Britain. So dispel any doubts that Salman Rushdie is a fortunate amateur achieving literary fame purely for his death sentence rather than for his writing talent. However, the novel I wish to discuss here is a more recent classic, The Moor’s Last Sigh, which was itself published to near unanimous acclaim, and deservedly so.

It did not take me long into the book to realize two facts: Rushdie is an amazing writer whose words simply flow off the page like verbal honey and whose characters are totally delightful, chockful of quirks and eccentricities while still retaining strong measures of humanity; and Salman Rushdie is a pure science fiction writer.

I was not totally shocked by that latter discovery. Midnight’s Children is described as concerning both telepathy and a strange prescience-like sixth sense. The Moor’s Last Sigh features a tiled floor whose faces mysteriously change with the lives of the inhabitants of the room, and its main character, the moor, is living his physical life at precisely twice the speed of normal humans. At the age of four he precisely resembles an eight-year old, although both his emotional and mental development are still those of a four-year old. Imagine what that will do to your social development? As an eight year old he is shaving and having an affair with his tutor. At the time he is narrating the novel, he is thirty-five years old yet totally white-haired and stooped and expecting death from old age to assault him from around any corner.

What about the plot of The Moor’s Last Sigh? Well, there really is very little. It is more precisely a family saga, the tale of the moor’s rather eccentric family and their ever-changing cast of hangers-on. His mother is the sole heir of the Da Gama spice fortune, a very old Indian company supposedly founded by Vasco Da Gama himself. By the time Aurora Da Gama enters the novel though, the empire is tottering on the brink of dissolution (mirroring the British Empire in the early part of the novel’s setting in 1930s India). Not that she is much concerned with finances. Rather she is both an acclaimed artist and a renowned eccentric whose life is more concerned with the likes of fellow artists Vasco Miranda, who lives with her and her family for many years, and Mainduck, a political cartoonist and politician. Both of them react to Aurora’s personal and emotional excesses by growing from friends and lovers to eventually become bitter enemies.

At the age of 15, Aurora, who is a Christian, falls hopelessly in love with 36 year old Abraham Zogoiby, a Jewish employee of the spice company. Amidst much family and peer pressure, they marry, but it is certainly not a happily-ever-after marriage! Aurora continues her eccentric behavior, her affairs, and her high public profile, while Abraham settles into a very low-key, almost subservient life, so low-key that few people realize he is actually the mastermind behind the rebuilding of the spice company into one of the truly major industries in India, and perhaps the world, as well as one of the most powerful figures dominating India’s underworld. Oh, yes, in order to rebuild the spice company he needs to borrow a sum of money from his mother, who still resents him marrying a Christian, so she demands his first-born son as repayment, intending to bring him up as a good jew.

Numerous fascinating characters come and go into the lives of the Da Gama / Zoboiby’s with delightful regularity. Such as their one-legged doorman who was not one-legged until Aurora accidentally ran over the other leg while fleeing from a bitter demonstration. Or the mysterious Una, who becomes the moor’s lover at the same time she becomes Abraham’s paramour, and even makes a play for the moor’s politically-active sister. They all worship her, each seeing in her a delightfulness that is so irresistible and also totally different from what the others see in her. Except Aurora, however, who never warms to Una. In fact, she hires an eighty-something year old private detective to ferret out the truth of Una’s past which ultimately leads to disillusionment, a traumatic family split, eventually a dramatic murder/suicide attempt, only one of which actually succeeds (and that by pure accident)!

And the novel goes on and on, one delightful scene leapfrogging over another, all peopled by totally wonderful eccentric characters who somehow manage to become real people even while they are prancing around like figures out of Alice in Wonderland. At times I was so delighted I did not even mind that the novel was really not moving anywhere in particular, while at other times I was equally delighted at how nimbly Rushdie developed an entire family, three generations of it in fact, and that was much more delightful than let’s get from point A to point D in 435 pages could ever be.

The Moor’s Last Sigh actually has two climactic scenes although, truthfully, the book does not really build up to either one and they are probably the weakest parts of the book. They both arrive quite unexpectedly, as if Rushdie realized that at some point he had to resolve the wonderfully-complex familial relationships he had explored for several hundred pages. Both are violent, the first excessively so, seemingly Rushdie’s attempt to rid himself of all the unlikeable characters he could not eliminate any other way. The second climax is somewhat deus ex machina for no reason I can discern.

But keep in mind that plot is not the raison d’etre of The Moor’s Last Sigh, nor the reason I have remembered it long after I finished reading it. So while the twin climaxes are the least successful parts of the book, in no way do they detract from its overall success and wondrousness. I recommend this novel highly, especially for anybody who has never read anything by Salman Rushdie before. It is a wonderful introduction to a wonderful writer.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Similarly to science fiction, historical fiction is a sprawling field covering such sub-genres as realistic fiction, historical adventures, historical fantasy, alternate history, and “secret” history. And just as much contemporary science fiction sprawls across several sub-genres simultaneously, not to mention other fictional genres such as mysteries and supernatural horror, historical fiction often treads the boundary between its sub-genres. The master of genre-treading historical fiction has to be Umberto Eco, who popularized historical mysteries with The Name of the Rose, and “secret” histories with Foucault’s Pendulum. Now he offers Baudolino, which straddles so many genres I am not even sure how to classify it.

> It’s a “secret history” which offers fictitious events in the life of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa which, in true “secret” history fashion, make some of the so-called historical events merely facades for what really happened.

> It’s a historical adventure as Baudolino and his colorful companions undertake a journey into unknown Asia in search of the mysterious Prestor John, a legendary person whose existence to this day has never been definitively proven or disproven.

> It’s a historical fantasy filled with unicorns, satyrs, cyclops and numerous other beings of mythology

> It’s a historical mystery as Baudolino and his companions try to learn who was responsible for the mysterious death of Frederick Barbarossa

Any more? It’s a quest, a war novel involving the invasion of Byzantium by crusaders, and a philosophical novel which examines the foundations of modern religion, primarily Christianity.

The novel is narrated by Baudolino to a companion he meets in Byzantium soon after its invasion. In the beginning Baudolino’s story seems frivolous, but as it develops it becomes richer and more fascinating in its examination of medieval tropes and legends which have carried down into modern times.

Eco is a born storyteller who never forgets that all of his philosophy and literary treasures must be subordinated to a strong plot. Baudolino excels in three aspects of what I consider the “ideal” story: storytelling, sense of wonder, and thoughtfulness. Characterization is a bit skimpy as most of the characters demonstrate one or two personal traits to the exclusion of individual depth. This novel is definitely worthwhile reading for anybody who enjoys a good romp across mythology and history.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused

Chinese literature has changed drastically in the past thirty years. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) arts and literature of all sorts were virtually nonexistent since they were frowned upon by official powers so that attempts to produce any were apt to cause one’s public humiliation and possibly even death by the Red Guards and other unofficial arms of the government. After 1976, in the wake of Mao’s death, literature slowly regained its importance in China, and by the mid-1980s dark, angry, satirical writings had become quite prominent on the mainland.

In the wake of Tiananmen Square, dark literature faded somewhat, but never vanished. Now Howard Goldblatt, a prominent translator of Chinese fiction and editor of the critical magazine Modern Chinese Literature, has compiled a representative collection of contemporary Chinese fiction entitled Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused. Even with my limited knowledge of modern China I feel certain the title of the book is fairly accurate.

Mo Yan is one of my favorite contemporary writers. His dark, no-holds-barred satires Red Sorghum and The Garlic Ballads detailed what he sees as the failings of both Chinese peasants (of which he was born as one) and the Chinese leaders. His short story "The Cure" is in the same vein, detailing how a local government representative–-probably self-appointed during the Cultural Revolution, although that is never made quite clear in the story-–leads a lynching of the village’s two most prominent leaders and their wives. But, as in most Mo Yan stories, the bitterness directed at the lyncher is double-edged with the bitter look at a local peasant who sees the deaths of the two village leaders as a desperate chance to possibly rescue his mother from impending blindness. The story is coldly realistic and totally chilling in the rational way it treats the series of events.

Su Tong is the author of the novella "Raise The Red Lantern", the basis of the wonderful movie. His "The Brothers Shu" is a bitter look at some traditional character weaknesses of Chinese people, and particularly how they affect family life. The Shu family is incredibly dysfunctional. The father nightly climbs up the side of his two-family house to have sex with the woman upstairs until her husband bolts her windows shut. So the woman sneaks downstairs to have sex in the younger son’s bedroom while the son is tied to his bed, gagged and blindfolded. Meanwhile the elder son abuses the girl upstairs until she falls in love with him. When she becomes pregnant, they are both so shamed they form a suicide pact, tie themselves together and jump into a river, where the boy is rescued in time but the girl dies. The younger son so hates his older brother–-somewhat deservedly considering the abuse heaped on him by the brother–-that he pours gasoline through his bedroom and sets it ablaze.

And so on, complete with beatings and torments worthy of the most dysfunctional American families. While not a particularly likeable cast of characters, the story is strong and thoughtful.

Perhaps the most moving part about "First Person", by Shi Tiesheng is in the brief author description in the back of the book. Shi is described as “crippled during the Cultural Revolution”. So many lives were needlessly destroyed during that tumultuous decade, it is easy to feel that the arrest and subsequent conviction of the notorious Gang of Four was not nearly sufficient punishment for them.

"First Person" tells the story of a man with a heart condition–Shi frequently writes about the lives of handicapped people, according to his description–who is visiting his new 21st floor apartment for the first time. While climbing the stairs very slowly, taking frequent rests, he notices a cemetery separated from the apartment building by a huge wall. On one side of the wall is sitting a woman, while on the other side stands a man. As the man climbs the stairs he fantasizes about why the couple are there, and why they are separated by the wall. Perhaps the man is having an affair, and the wife is spying on him as he rendezvous with his lover?

But then the man notices a baby lying on a gravesite, being watched from a distance by the man, and he realizes that the couple is abandoning the child. An interesting story about the fanciful delusions a person can have, but with no real depth beyond that.

Two stories involve fear of dentists in completely different ways. Wang Meng’s "A String of Choices" is a very funny story that combines a bitter look at both Eastern and Western medicine with perhaps the most extreme case of fear of dentists imaginable. Chen Ran’s "Sunshine Between the Lips" tells of a young girl whose adult male friend exposes himself to her. If that were not traumatic enough, after he is arrested for exposing himself to a complete stranger, he sets his apartment on fire and dies a brutal death. This event, combined with a near-fatal bout of meningitis, creates in the girl a deep fear of phallic objects such as needles and penises. So imagine her trauma when she develops impacted wisdom teeth at the same time as she gets married. While this description might sound a bit ludicrous, this story is very serious and very well-executed.

A strong satire on how history can be rewritten to suit the writers’ needs is Li Xiao’s "Grass on the Rooftop". When a peasant’s hut goes on fire, he is rescued by a local student. The rescue is written up for an elementary school newspaper by a local child, but the story is picked up by other papers, changing radically with each reprinting until the rescuing student becomes a great hero of the Maoist revolution because of his supposed attempt to rescue a nonexistent portrait of Mao on the wall of the hut. While this story is uniquely Chinese in many ways, it resonates in all societies in which pride and agenda is often more important than the truth.

Anybody interested in a look at contemporary Chinese society should enjoy this collection immensely.