Friday Favorites: Jorge Luis Borges

This week’s Friday Favorite is the various fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which kicked off a period in my own writing where I wanted desperately to sound like him. I am especially sorry to anyone who was around for the Peak Borgesian period of my fanfiction career. (There were one or two successes–mostly when I wrote straight-up Borges fusions–but let’s be real, I was being a terrible tryhard for the most part. In fact, I just checked the depths of my google drive and there is totally an outline for a BBC Sherlock fanfic that is 75% intended as a riff on “Death and the Compass.” No, I never wrote a word of it, but you are free to imagine it, which is the most Borgesian way possible of reading it in any case.)

In addition to Borges’ various Cool And/Or Mindblowing Ideas, which he is justly famous for, I would also say that one of his great skills was cramming his writing full of faux-throwaway references and digressions and sly asides to everything under the sun: literature, history, his contemporary writers, and of course the occasional false references, few of which exist in my mental index. Yet those stories and their digressions were still strangely, compulsively readable. It reminds me of scholarly works, only of course these are imaginary histories. On brand. (It’s probably also why attempts to emulate him are best made by those who are extremely well read and educated, i.e. not myself.)

Borges’ influence on me was not so much in his ideas, although I do share some of his obsession with trying to explore infinite possibilities within our finite lives. Rather, more than any other writer, Borges made me say “you can do THAT?” And the next thing I said was, “I have to try it myself!”

For the record, though, my favorite of his stories is “The Secret Miracle.”

Many times, when an author is the first to exemplify a genre or a concept or at least to bring it to mass attention*, their work looks like flat clichés if you come to, or revisit, them after exploring more of the rest of the genre. Borgesian stories, by contrast, has never lost their particular magic for me. I think it is because of how absolutely grounded his fantasies in the time and space that he occupied, and in the immense library inside his head. Like his story, “The Book of Sand,” Borges’ work continually and infinitely yields newness to me.

* I maintain that Borges invented the concept of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” You can read it in translation, along with other stories including “The Secret Miracle” and “Death and the Compass,” in this pdf.

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Friday Favorites: “After Life” by Koreeda Hirokazu

Screen capture from the opening of “After Life”. Image from Mubi.

This week’s Friday Favorite is the reason that I write reviews in the first place: “After Life,” a film by Koreeda Hirokazu. As a note, the original Japanese title was ワンダフルライフ, “Wonderful Life.”

The premise of the film: a group of people walk into something like an abandoned schoolhouse somewhere in Japan. A counselor greets each of them to explain: you are dead. This is the afterlife. And there is no heaven or hell. There is, instead, a film crew.

This is a makeshift movie studio. You have a week to pick your favorite memory from your entire lifetime (and if you need your memory jogged, you can watch your entire life on tape, one for each year). Once you decide, we will do our very best to portray that moment on film. You will then spend the rest of eternity watching that film, forever and ever …

The dead are ordinary people running a gamut of ages and life experiences: a teenager, a call girl, a salaryman, a grandmother. Some know what they want to remember. Some change their minds after self-reflection. Some lost their memories in life. Some feel they have nothing worth remembering. (What happens if you don’t or can’t choose? That’s answered in the film, too.) And as the crew shepherds their charges through the week with more or less art therapy, old memories awaken–and collide.

This is a beautiful and quiet and devastating but above all, life-affirming movie, even though it is about the dead. It’s about love, how we touch people without knowing it, how we live our lives, how memories change as we change, and how in the end, yes, all we have are memories … but that’s not nothing. That’s everything.

This movie changed my life, and I don’t remember who told me about it.

I didn’t used to be the kind of person who seeks out reviews. So I don’t even know how I stumbled on someone’s blurb describing the premise of the movie. I can’t even guarantee that it was a recommendation. I just remember a one-line précis that made me think “huh, that could be actually interesting” and then I ordered it from Netflix, and it broke my heart wide open.

If I am ever able to write something that touches someone else, it will have been in part because someone took the time to jot down a few words about this movie that barely grossed anything at the box office.

So here I am, jotting down my own little reviews in a similar hope that I will help someone. Probably not as much as the anonymous reviewer helped me–but a bit, I hope.

But back to the point, because this is a recommendation post: this is an amazing movie and I hope you will give it a chance.

If my review hasn’t convinced you, maybe that of the late, great Roger Ebert will.

(And I hope that he is there now, in that schoolhouse, watching everyone’s memories on film, forever and ever.)

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Friday Favorites: “Hokkaido Green” by Aidan Doyle

This week’s Friday Favorite (yes, I’m back!) is a short (1600-ish words) story that stabbed me through the heart when I first read it year ago: Hokkaido Green by Aidan Doyle.

Like everyone, I have my Things, my Tropes, my Narrative Kinks, my Stabs In The Heart. One of the topics nearest and dearest to my soul is asking the question: what are memories worth? What do they matter? And what is worth more: the thing itself or your memories, your feelings, your sentiments, about the thing?

There is, of course, no definitive answer to that question, and Hokkaido Green doesn’t pretend to give you one. It just lays out the story for you, like a photograph that you come back to over and over again.

The language is spare and quiet and a little sad, like Hitoshi, the worn-down salaryman at the center of the story. He’s lost his family. All he has of them are photos and memories. His father, who ran a restaurant, had been hoping to pass a certain recipe on to Hitoshi before he died.

After his brother dies at the start of the story, Hitoshi takes a trip to Hokkaido, a place that his father had spoken of. There, he gets a chance to make a trade … and has to gather and sift and weigh and measure one set of memories against another, with quietly devastating consequences.

In the end, I’m not really sure that I am able to explain exactly why this story makes me smile and cry and then stare off into the distance, thinking about what memories weigh inside my heart. But that is okay, because the story is all about the ineffable:

“Colors are like dreams,” his father replied. “If you try and reproduce them, you’ll only be disappointed.”

Fortunately, in this case, we are able to dream the same dream—read the same story—and find out for ourselves, should you wish to do so.

Hokkaido Green by Aidan Doyle.

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Friday Favorites: “Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang

Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang, published in Gignotosaurus.

Plot: Isabel Chang is a kitchen witch who runs a Pâtisserie in Montreal. One day, she is asked to help Elias, a young man with an immortality curse of Chinese origin, break his curse.

“Hungry Demigods” is a delightful story about family and food. (Against every stereotype, I don’t seek to read about these topics. Ever. A good friend linked me the story. Thanks, Tari!) But what was more, I deeply resonated with the Chinese magic elements and how they were used in this story–I don’t want to spoil them for you, because coming upon those elements so unexpectedly left me shrieking a little with joy! I feel it is the lit equivalent of amazing fusion cuisine (if you will), using and updating some of my very favorite concepts from Chinese folklore/mythology.

This story … I felt a bit like Elias biting into one of Isabel’s buns: “I’d forgotten how food could taste, after you haven’t eaten in ages. It’s like color returning to the world.”

Don’t get me wrong–I fully understand that not everything is for everyone. But when I do manage to stumble upon a story for me … there’s nothing like it.

You may notice I haven’t recced a whole lot of Chinese/East Asian diaspora stories. That’s because when I click on a story and realize that it’s about my ethnicity/culture, sometimes I will back-button. Even if the author’s name suggests they are writing from their lived experience as a part of said ethnicity/culture. Sometimes I run away ever faster—because 1) at least if someone is writing from a place of ignorance, it’s easier to shrug off if I don’t like it. 2) I feel like a traitor if I end up disliking something by a fellow Chinese/East Asian diaspora writer … and I have felt like a traitor many times. I know that’s irrational, but you try reasoning with feelings. Then one day I realized that my fear came from “the danger of a single story” (TED talk by Novelist Chimamanda Adichie). I had personally been burned by the prevalence of certain pieces of Chinese-American literature in the popular consciousness that I felt did not speak to my experience, but that due to the single-story effect, became what others thought of me*. Of course that was and is not the fault of the author or the literature, it’s the fault of the publishing environment. But it still hurt. I’m not going to apologize for protecting myself. But I do find that lately, I am able to explore more. To see what my fellow people are doing. Even to dip my own toe into telling my stories, which I had not really felt like doing in the past. That’s a story for another post. In any case, I’ve been grateful for the slow yet steady increase in Chinese/East Asian diaspora writers being published, along with stories about their cultures (not that they have to be, obviously, I’d be a hypocrite if I said so).

As usual, a review says more about the reader than the story! Which you should read. “Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang!

* Chinese stories from China, translated into English, do not meet my mental barriers in this regard. The original intended audience is different, so it doesn’t trip my wires.

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Friday Favorites: “Saga” by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The first Friday Favorite of 2018 is Saga (Book One), by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. A shoutout to E for gifting me volume one for Christmas. I mainlined it in one day and it made me squee and laugh and cry. The worldbuilding is incredibly vast, the characters are all so real even if they only appear for a panel, and I’m just in such awe of the authors’ imagination.

And of course, it’s all about parenthood.

I had always thought that becoming a parent wouldn’t change my tastes in reading or writing. For instance, an unflattering confession: I loathed kidfic before I gave birth. Well, I was wrong … I loathe it even more now. Before it was merely insipid. Now it’s insipid and inaccurate. And don’t get me started on pregnancy fic. (And both these experiences are life-endingly fraught enough that I can’t just let it go when things are inaccurate, the way I can let LOLTASTAIC SCIENCE go.)

But Saga is the real deal done so right that I was thrown back to week three, living on three cans of coca-cola and three hours of sleep a day while quietly wishing for death. Those days were frankly dark but I’m remembering this in the best way, I swear. And let me just say that I, too, would have accepted a disemboweled ghost as a night nurse during week four AKA The First Fucking Growth Spurt.

And that’s how it is for the mom, too, when she is running through a very large and exciting universe with her family by her side!

Before having a kid, I would probably have rolled my eyes a little.

Now … now, reading this, I want to try to make the world a better place for my child. My world has no wings or horns or intergalactic travel, but we fight the same battles. I can do this. Hey, I’m no longer breastfeeding, what excuses have I got?

P.S. I just bought Book Two!

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Friday Favorites: “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Today’s Friday Favorite is one that probably everyone has read: The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal. I’m way late to reading this, I know. But maybe someone else is too …

The threads of love and fragility and hope and exploration are all masterfully interwoven in this story. I disbelieve most love stories in SFF, and I’m guilty of it too–it’s easy to skimp on that when I just want to get to the time travel or whatever. Not so here. The love is deep and rich and real and kicked me in the feels with astronaut boots.

On top of that, I made my own connection with this story is as a former academic married to an academic. There was a time before I realized how much traveling is involved in the jobs that we both chose, and what sacrifices you have to make when you chase your career and/or tenure across the country and sometimes the world. And even after you have it, your career still depends on your willingness to give talks and attend conferences and on and on and on. It takes a toll, especially if you have any special circumstances. I should know—one of our joint decisions resulted in some rough months of solo parenting a tiny child. It’s not the same, but I know. I know what it’s like to make those choices. (We got a happy ending though! Those months passed and we are now happily together, both working jobs that we love.)

This story brought it home to me, thread for thread, exactly how it feels to want the best for someone while knowing exactly what you are bringing upon yourself. Anticipating what lies ahead and still saying yes, dear, we need to do what is best for you.

Anyway. Read The Lady Astronaut of Mars! And if you don’t want to cry, may I suggest read it in space like an astronaut. Because there is no crying in space.

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Friday Favorites: “A GUIDE FOR YOUNG LADIES ENTERING THE SERVICE OF THE FAIRIES” by Rosamund Hodge

Today’s Friday Favorite is A GUIDE FOR YOUNG LADIES ENTERING THE SERVICE OF THE FAIRIES, by Rosamund Hodge.

This is the lie they will use to break you: no one else has ever loved this way before.

I love stories about ordinary people. Chosen One narratives do nothing for me. The funny thing is that sometimes in real life I do still struggle with flashes of ambition. Of wanting to be–important. I have been told for all my life, by people as well as stories, that if you are not Important then you are nothing at all, that your life is a waste, you’re a waste.

That’s why I really, really, really love this piece. It emphasizes both that you are ordinary, and that you are still worthy simply because you are yourself, that you can still take on the universe (or fairyland) and win. You do not have to be better than the rest. You only have to exist, and persist.

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Friday Favorites: “Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma

This week’s Friday Favorite is “Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma. This is a short and delightful piece (I would call it satire, but it does far more than just make jokes) that is incredibly dense with allusions and asides and asks genuine questions in there too. It reminds me of nothing so much as Borges.

But it has a delicious modern sensibility—and isn’t afraid to take a sly swipe or two at politicians on top of the writing & publishing scene. I am not qualified to comment on the political satire so I will comment on the writing. My favorite passages:

With regard to your question about how I perceive myself as an “Other,” let me make it clear that I am as fantastic to myself as rice. I do not waste time sitting around brooding about my mythic status and why the notion that I have lived for five hundred years ought to send me into a paroxysm of metaphysical Angst for the benefit of self-indulgent, overprivileged, cultural hegemonists who fancy themselves writers.

… I think that being an aswang is a category of social difference—imposed by an external utilitarian authority—like sexuality and income bracket. Nobody conceives of being gay just as a literary trope. Do they?

Well. Let me introduce you to a few websites. They are not respectable proletariat reading at all but you do need to learn about your enemies—right?

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Friday Favorites: “La Beauté sans Vertu” by Genevieve Valentine

This week’s favorite is La Beauté sans Vertu by Genevieve Valentine. This is everything (maybe nearly everything?) Valentine likes to write about—fashion, the fashion industry, fairy tales, feminism—rolled up into one gorgeous and dense and prickly story, like a bed of roses. Which is, not coincidentally, a motif throughout the story.

I really have to gush a little about how the story is so perfectly structured. Every sentence is as layered as it is gorgeous. The story overflows with #aesthetic but at no point does that get in the way of the story’s function. Every pretty thing in this story is an important signifier or symbol; it doesn’t just stand there looking nice. That’s harder than it sounds even in a story about the fashion industry. (You wish all your clothes could accomplish the same.)

All right, speaking of roses. La beauté sans vertu is the story of Maria, a 19-year-old model who (with the help of bones grafted from a dead 14-year-old; this is the industry standard) rises to become a star in the House of Centifolia, a couture house. Rhea, the owner of the House of Centifolia, designs a runway show around Maria and her beauty. Then things start to fall apart.

It’s a story about the currency of women’s bodies and how and when they’re valued and what we consider beautiful and why. It’s a deeply beautiful story that understands the price of beauty and who has to pay it.

Reading this story is—to borrow an image from it—somewhat akin to swallowing a rose. Someone will bleed for this. But oh, the beauty of it.

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Friday Favorites: “The Weight of Memories” by Cixin Liu

Welcome to Friday Favorites! I’ve decided to start a weekly series where I highlight a short story*—could be past or present—that I love.

I’m starting off with The Weight of Memories by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. ~2,800 words, science fiction. While sometimes I give content warnings, I’m choosing not to on this one. (Okay, I’m giving one: I personally found the science to be implausible, but that doesn’t bother me in stories so long as the narrative is internally consistent and doesn’t bill itself as hard science.)

This is a story about a violent conflict between memories and experiences—the same memories experienced very differently, with very different results. If we are the sums of our experiences, then is it possible to add up the same things and arrive at two different sums? Yes, says this story, depending on how the addition is done.

As a very visual reader I also loved how spare the story is, and how stark, with almost all the violent bursts of color coming from the memories being relived.

I was also very deeply touched by this story as a Chinese person. I don’t talk about it a lot, but that is my heritage. A lot of awful events (check Wikipedia, I don’t have it in me to discuss) went on over the last two generations, which my family, especially my parents, somehow survived. I grew up never asking about my family’s past because the answer was invariably Yet Another Awful Story. And I feel sometimes—and my parents too—that China is changing so fast that one generation doesn’t understand another, and this story touches on that connection/disconnect as well. I’m shivering as I type those words. Read the story to find out why.

You may look over the above and say “gosh, Kara, that’s a really dark recommendation.” Fair enough. A friend once summed up my authorial obsessions as “memory, death, tragic love.” What is there to say other than … may as well lean in. If you’re on my wavelength, this may resonate painfully but wonderfully for days, as it did and still does for me.

* Okay so in reality I reserve the right to recommend whatever piece of writing I feel like, but for now at least, I want to focus on short stories.

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