Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Short Fiction - March 2015

This month, due in large part to the deadlines for Hugo nominations and final Nebula voting, I read 50 stories, and am up to 126 so far for the year. Here are my favorites from my March reading; by "favorites," I mean the stories to which I would give 4 1/2 or 5 out of 5 stars. I briefly listed several of these in my March 9 post about Hugo nominations, but here I go into more detail on those and a few other stories. I also enjoyed many of the other 44 stories I read (scroll down for list).

Favorite Short Stories read in March 2015

(alphabetical by author)

"The Magician and Laplace's Demon" by Tom Crosshill

Published in Clarkesworld in December 2014, this novelette explores artificial intelligence, magic, and the nature of proof and belief. This story is currently on the final Nebula ballot, and I won't be surprised if it shows up on the Hugo ballot as well. Artificial intelligence is a popular theme in science fiction, but this one has a new take -- it's not often an AI has to cross figurative swords with a magician, after all. I thought that the sense of suspense the author builds made this story seem shorter than it was, and that's a compliment. (Read here)

"Stealing Arturo" by William Ledbetter

Hard science fiction is my first love, although I have to admit that not all the books I adored as a teen hold up for me well now. That's why I'm so glad that these days, it's a little easier to find hard SF that has well-developed characters. In this novelette, a widower named Clarke Kooper anticipates finally being able to escape an asteroid mining facility that keeps a tight rein on what are essentially its indentured servants, but he hadn't counted on becoming emotionally involved with a bright nine-year-old named Nora, so his plans have to change. Intelligent, problem-solving SF with characters I truly cared about? More, please. (Published by Baen; read story here.)

"Even the Mountains are Not Forever" by Laurie Tom

I don't know why, but I have always craved stories about years of quiet, dedicated study in monastic settings, and stories of sacrifice for the sake of knowledge. In this story, a woman called "the Kunchen" sleeps in a cryo-chamber and is woken every ten years to check on and advise her people, but the time is drawing near when she needs to choose a successor. The setting was just alien enough to fit the story, and the resolution was unexpected. A lovely, quiet story. I note this one was published in 2015, so not eligible for awards until next year. (Published in Strange Horizons; read here.)

"Jackalope Wives" by Ursula Vernon

I am nothing if not biased in my story likes and dislikes, but this time I was very, very surprised. I can recognize when I come across one that is well-written, but in general I simply do not like stories about shapechangers, especially when they are female foxes/geese/bears who are trapped in human form, usually out of love, and still longing to revert to their wild natures.

But I loved this one. There was such a naturalness to the prose, as if the story was just spoken by someone who'd told it many times before. And it had the perfect ending for this tale. This one was published in Apex Magazine and can be read or listened to in podcast form here.

"Toad Wives" by Ursula Vernon

It's astonishing to me that someone was able to take this simple fairy tale concept -- one daughter is "cursed" so that frogs and toads fall out of her mouth when she speaks, while the other is "gifted" with gold and jewels when she speaks -- and infuse it with so much meaning in so few words. But maybe it shouldn't be surprising, considering it's the same author who made me love a shapechanger tale. It's my understanding that this piece of flash fiction originally appeared on the author's blog here, and that it's also the title story in the author's collection under the name T. Kingfisher. It's a fabulous story.

And if there is one thing that my personal read-a-story-a-day goal has taught me, it is that flash fiction is not to be underestimated.

"Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion" by Caroline M. Yoachim

This is another author who has elevated flash fiction beyond the norm. It's my understanding that this piece was originally an attempt to write a series of related but separate flash pieces, but they had a mind of their own and wanted to come together as one story. You can see the division, but it's a whole piece, and thus has a lovely underlying structure. In this story, different (but related) characters experience the five stages of grief in response to an alien invasion that leaves many dead. [Minor spoiler ahead] One of the loveliest parts is that the aliens appear to be grieving as well. This story can be found in Clarkesworld here.

Other stories read in March 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Final Corrections, Pittsburgh Times-Dispatch" by M. Bennardo
- "Pioneer Possessions" by Lee Budar-Danoff
- "They are Legion. They are Pigeon." by Lynda Clark
- "The Conquest of Gliese 518-5B" by Gary Cuba
- "The Breath of War" by Aliette de Bodard
- "Practical Hats" by Cheryce Clayton
- "The Egg" by S.B. Divya
- "Hokkaido Green" by Aidan Doyle
- "The van der Rohe Forgery" by Raymund Eich
- "The Story of His Life" by David W. Goldman
- "Makeisha in Time" by Rachael K. Jones
- "Gallery" by KJ Kabza
- "America, Etc." by Michael Kardos
- "Machine Washable" by Keffy R.M. Kehrli
- "A Death" by Stephen King
- "The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye" by Matthew Kressel
- "In the Forests of the Night" by Jay Lake (audio)
- "Night of the Living Poet" by Michael Landau
- "The Clockwork Soldier" by Ken Liu
- "The Tides" by Ken Liu
- "The Husband Stitch" by Carmen Maria Machado
- "The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family" by Usman T. Malik
- "City of Salt" by Arkady Martine
- "Welcome to Argentia" by Sandra McDonald
- "Time Debt" by D. Thomas Minton
- "Communion" by Mary Anne Mohanraj
- "The Hair Club for Fairytale Princesses" by Heather Morris
- "This is the Story That Devours Itself" by Michelle Muenzler
- "Drones Don't Kill People" by Annalee Newitz
- "Amplexus" by Jonathan Penner
- "Until They Come" by Trina Marie Phillips
- "Bit Player" by Cat Rambo
- "Ice" by Patrice E. Sarath
- "The Saving Breath" by Michael Seese
- "How Earth Narrowly Escaped an Invasion from Space" by Alex Shvartsman
- "Bronze-Art, the Ferret Master, and the Auspicious Events at Swift Creek Farm" by Adrian Simmons
- "The Play's the Thing" by Fred Stanton
- "We Call Her Mama" by Natalia Theodoridou
- "The Fattest Dog in the World" by Cathy S. Ulrich
- "Everything's Unlikely" by James Van Pelt
- "The Mirror in the Bathroom" by Melon Wedick
- "The Fisher Queen" by Alyssa Wong
- "Goat Milk Cheese, Three Trillion Miles From Earth" by Caroline M. Yoachim
- "Sugar Showpiece Universe" by Caroline M. Yoachim

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Friday, March 27, 2015

The Ramen Girl

One of the nice things about inexpensive DVD technology is that you can find all these quirky little movies that nobody has ever heard of and watch them at your leisure. And once Amazon figures out that you like quirky little movies that nobody has ever heard of, it keeps showing you new ones. When I became aware of The Ramen Girl, buying it was a no-brainer for me because I've always liked Brittany Murphy, and because it's set in Japan, for which I have a soft spot. I've only been there once myself but my husband has traveled there extensively and has brought me back stacks of their beautiful children's picture books, and I've taken some beginning Japanese lessons. I hope to go back in the not-too-distant future.

The story begins when Abby is abandoned by her commitment-phobic boyfriend after she has followed him to Tokyo. Wandering around without purpose, she is attracted by a little ramen shop near the apartment in which her boyfriend has left her (a deleted scene indicates that the rent has been paid in advance for six months, which seems a little odd). Abby decides that she wants to be able to make people happy and that ramen is the way to do it, so she pesters the shop owner to teach her, even though she speaks no Japanese and he speaks no English. Over the course of the next year, Abby scrubs the little restaurant within an inch of its life (shades of Mr. Miyagi's "wax on, wax off") and finally learns to put her heart into her cooking.

There are no two ways about it: this movie is a mess. Yet I still quite liked it, which I think is due to my liking of Brittany and Japan, and perhaps also of movies that go for a slightly different setting than, say, the New York/Chicago/Los Angeles bright young professional scene. I think this movie also must have meant something special to Brittany herself, as she's the second named producer on it. What I enjoyed was that the character does grow, and that the shop owner's wife and the shop's regular customers are clearly rooting for Abby to succeed. I also thought that Toshiyuki Nishida, who played the shop owner, was very good.

What didn't work for me is a little more complicated. The first thing is that the movie couldn't decide if it wanted to be mystical or not. When Abby is eating in the restaurant for the first time, she "sees" the large lucky cat statue on a shelf beckon to her. When she eats there the next time, she and another customer, who is also clearly exhausted and depressed, find themselves giggling like schoolchildren when they eat the ramen; it's implied that the chef can magically make people feel better. Later, when Abby "puts her tears" into her broth, her customers all break down into tears themselves. It's a bit like the movie Chocolat, when Vianne puts magic aphrodisiacs and other things into her confections. In addition, when Abby bursts into the shop wanting to work there, the pots and pans start moving as though from the force of her will. The problem is that the movie should have either embraced this supernatural aspect or left it out; it's as though the writers just couldn't make up their mind what kind of movie it was supposed to be. (Remember Exit to Eden, which didn't know if it was a comedy or an erotic film, and therefore succeeded as neither?)

(Toshiyuki Nishida as Maezumi and Brittany Murphy as Abby)

Along those same lines, there was a rather ridiculous sub-plot that absolutely didn't belong in the movie. Early on, Abby meets a couple of American ex-pats, one of whom is a gorgeous red-head named Gretchan who sports a fake Southern accent and who works as a hostess, sometimes providing "favors" for her sugar daddy's friends in return for the apartment he keeps her in. She shows up once with a black eye, implying abuse, and shows up another time drunk and unhappy. But that's it. She has little purpose in the movie, because Abby is bright enough that she doesn't need to be shown how not to live -- we have no indication that Abby's headed down a path that hopeless. There are apparently several deleted scenes involving this character, and I suspect they would have taken out all of them except that they clumsily use Gretchan as the means to get Abby's new love interest, Toshi (played by Sohee Park), to her apartment. Deleting that scene probably would have made things confusing, but they couldn't leave it in without us knowing who Gretchan was, so we get some but not all of Gretchan's story. I would rather have had Abby meet Toshi in a different way.

And speaking of Toshi.... I liked him just fine, but there was a point early in the movie when I actually thought Abby might end up with the slightly chubby, slightly older regular customer at the ramen shop, who is clearly smitten with her. I was thrilled when I thought it was headed in that direction, because that really would have been something out of the ordinary, and there was lots of opportunity for his character development. But true to romantic comedy form, the gorgeous young Toshi, who I mentally nicknamed "Cheekbones," showed up in time to take the romantic lead. His part is actually quite small, which is good because it lets Abby save herself instead of being saved, but I still think I was secretly rooting for that chubby customer.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW) Pacing, particularly in terms of character development, was another issue for me. There's one of those I'm-so-happy-now-I'm-dancing-in-my-apartment montages quite early in the film, for no apparent reason. And Abby goes from doing nothing but scrubbing to having perfect ramen technique, even though we have not once seen her sensei show her how to do anything. Instead, we see him telling her in Japanese, which she still doesn't understand, that she needs to stop cooking with her head and start cooking with her heart -- but we haven't even seen her doing it with her head yet! The movie then tries to introduce an artificial "deadline" by having the Ramen Master plan to visit in two months' time. His blessing is apparently required before a ramen chef can name a successor, and a rival chef taunts Maezumi by bragging that the Master will test that chef's son at that time. When the rival then mocks Maezumi for training a blond American girl, Maezumi boasts that the Master will also test Abby, and that if she fails, he will stop making ramen.

Suddenly, then, whether or not Abby will succeed becomes dire and pressing, in an extremely contrived way. And here's where it gets a little confusing: Abby does fail (the Master says her broth is good but she needs more experience), but I can't tell whether Maezumi stops cooking or not. I think he does, because later Abby displays a photograph showing Maezumi and his wife in Paris with their estranged son, but for all I know that could just have been a vacation. And Maezumi tells Abby that she is his successor, but she doesn't stay in Tokyo and take over his restaurant; instead, we flash to a year later, in which she has her own little ramen shop in New York -- where Cheekbones finds her again after having learned from her to follow his dreams instead of working in a job he hates.

Since I'm nitpicking, two other things kind of bugged me. First, Abby learns almost no Japansese after a year of working in a restaurant where no English is spoken. I think this was done so that Abby and Maezumi could continue to have their misunderstandings and frustration with one another, but it speaks to a lack of dedication on her part -- if she really was that serious, she would have realized that learning the language was part of the process. Second, only a year to get back to the States and find the money to open a restaurant in New York City? I guess we're meant to believe that her ramen was so good that someone was willing to back her, but after watching a lot of Top Chef, I have the idea that opening a restaurant, no matter how small, takes a hell of a lot of money. Especially in New York City.

Once again, it seems that all I've done about this movie is gripe, but really, I did like it! I just think it could have been a much better movie if it weren't so confused in terms of focus and pacing. I've watched a few of the deleted scenes but not all of them; I suspect the largest problem for this movie was in deciding what and what not to keep. I'll definitely watch this again at some point. If you like Brittany Murphy or enjoy romantic comedies in unusual settings, you might enjoy The Ramen Girl.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Natural Living Food Co-op

I know, this is getting weird, but I did say the reviews here would be eclectic....

I would never presume to try writing a cooking blog, because I'm an inexperienced and messy cook, and there are a lot of things I'm not brave enough to try cooking or even tasting. But I'm so excited about the produce co-op that my husband and I joined a few weeks ago that I have to write about it. It's called Natural Living, and it's located in League City, Texas, which is just a little south of where we live in the NASA area of Houston. I've always been interested in the idea of farm shares, but I didn't think that would quite work for us because you have to take only what's in season on that one farm, so one week you might end up with eight cabbages and no carrots, and another week you might get all celery and no tomatoes, and so on.

But Natural Living is different; it's more of a purchasing co-op for organic produce. There is a $30 yearly membership fee (pro-rated if you join mid-year), and then you have the option each week to buy a "small share" ($24), a "large share" ($36), or a fruit-only share ($16) of what they've procured that week. Everything is organic, and as much as possible is local. And best of all, you opt in for the shares each week, so you are never stuck buying a carton full of produce on a week you're going on vacation or you have out-of-town guests or something else crops up (okay, yeah, that was on purpose....). Specifically, the way it works is that the folks at Natural Living send an e-mail on Monday listing what will be in that week's shares. If you want one, you e-mail them by Wednesday, and then you pick it up on Friday between 3pm-7pm or Saturday between 10am-1pm. (They also do delivery within a certain radius for a small fee.)

And let me tell you, you get a lot of food in that share. We've been getting the small share for a few weeks and wow! Our main reason for doing this is that our local grocery stores don't have enough organic produce to suit me, and it's a 50-mile round trip to the nearest Whole Foods, on the busiest highway in Houston. But the other reason is that I really, really want to eat a wider variety of vegetables, and I knew I was less likely to do that if I was seeking them out in the grocery store and having to make decisions on the spot. This way, I have a list on Monday of what I'll get on Friday, and I can find recipes and plan a little bit. And the co-op strikes a nice balance: I'm not getting wacky, far-out ingredients that nobody has ever heard of, but I am getting things a little outside of my normal arena. And in just a couple of weeks, I have found some new veggie recipes that I am really enjoying. Here are the new-to-me things that I've made in just the short time since we joined the co-op.

- Cabbage and Onion Griddle Cakes. The recipe, which I found on the Whole Foods website here, was actually for cabbage and leek griddle cakes, but I had mild bunch onions, so that's what I used. They tasted very similar to potato pancakes, even more so because I put a little unsweetened applesauce on top. I will definitely be making these again. And they work for any meal -- I even had them for breakfast.

- Creamy Avocado Dip, from a cookbook called Skinny Dips. The recipe calls for two avocados but I had one so I cut the recipe in half. Conveniently, the food co-op had provided me not only with the avocado but also with the lime I needed for the lime juice. Since I had never cut or peeled an avocado before, I found a YouTube video that showed me how (it was way easier than I expected), then I used my little bare bones food processor to mix everything up. The only unhealthy ingredient in it is sour cream, but it only uses a little, and calls for reduced fat. In fact, if you don't mind the dip a little less smooth, you could easily leave out the sour cream altogether, but even with the sour cream, this dip comes out to only about 100 calories per serving -- which I ate on sliced up cucumber (also from the co-op). It is really good, and if you put the avocado pit into the leftover dip in a airtight container, it doesn't turn brown quickly, so you don't have to eat it all at once.

- Easy Garden Green Beans. Green beans are another vegetable that I have never cooked before, in part because I've always been turned off by green bean casserole recipes that use cans of commercial cream soup as the base. For this recipe, found on AllRecipes.com, I simply cut the ends off the green beans, steamed them for six minutes, then tossed them in a dressing I made from a little olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic, salt, and grated Parmesan (but not too much -- this is not one of those overly cheesy recipes). My husband and I were both surprised by how tasty these green beans were, and I'll be making them again.

- Fried Rice with Kale and Scallions. Can you believe this is from a cookbook by Gwyneth Paltrow? In any case, this fried rice is not so oily that it becomes unhealthy; you actually cook the rice as normal, steam the kale, then saute them together in a little olive oil with garlic and scallions. Kale is yet another ingredient I had never used and had only tasted once (kale chips -- they were not a success for me). The trick here is to cut it into tiny ribbons so it doesn't overwhelm the rice -- you can put a lot of kale into the dish without it becoming a fried salad. I will admit that 1) this dish is a little time-consuming since you have to do the rice and kale separately to start; and 2) it tastes better when you first make it, as opposed to leftover. But I do plan to make it again, just in a smaller quantity. And I plan to put a lot more ingredients in next time, such as diced bell pepper and maybe even carrots. I eat whole bell peppers at a time, and I've taken to saving the bits from the top that are still good to stick in other dishes later on.

In addition to these "fancier" dishes, I've also been doing simple things like roasting cauliflower (in my toaster oven! in Houston you don't want to heat up the kitchen too much even at this time of year) and just cutting up raw veggies like carrots and celery. I'm really happy about this because I did Weight Watchers a few years ago, and I noticed that when I switched to eating more veggies, I also slept better and got fewer migraines. And that's in addition to the weight benefits.

In a few weeks, the co-op, which is currently operated out of a house, is moving to its own building. They also offer some free-range meats and bulk dry goods, which I haven't taken advantage of yet. I'm looking forward to exploring my options with the co-op even more in the near future.
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Sunday, March 22, 2015

One Teen Story

If you're not familiar with One Teen Story, its website describes it as "a literary magazine for teens and adults who read young adult fiction. Each issue features one amazing YA short story."

And that's it: one story per issue. Each issue comes mailed as a little chapbook with a charmingly simple yet story-appropriate cover. I love this concept. I originally got a trial subscription of three issues for $5.00, but I've just now subscribed for a full year, because I was impressed with the solid quality of the trial issues I received.

The first story I read was "America, Etc." by Michael Kardos, which was the December 2014 issue. This story is narrated by a teenage boy whose father works as a military drone pilot. Unlike his friend's father, who is "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan, Jeremy's dad gets to come home to have dinner with the family every day and even coach Jeremy's basketball team -- but he still technically spend his days bombing places, and possibly people, for a living. Jeremy is a thoughtful protagonist, comparing the vintage videos games he and his dad play (such as Missile Command, depicted on the story's cover) to real life. The story is well-written, and is mainly about the ways in which family members fail to communicate with each other, something that's particularly difficult for teens who are trying to figure out the world around them.

The second story I read was Jonathan Penner's "Amplexus", which comprised the February 2015 issue. In this story, Christopher thinks back on his first love and his first sexual encounter with a girl called Pure, so nicknamed because of the "purity" medallion her parents make her wear everywhere, even to bed. What I liked best about this story were all the small details, such as Jonathan playing ping-pong with Pure's mother, practicing Spanish verb conjugation with Pure, and verbally sparring with his sex-obsessed older brother. It all felt genuine.

The third story, Michael Landau's "Night of the Living Poet" in the January 2015 issue, wasn't quite as successful for me because a lot of the details felt more like stream-of-consciousness than vivid memories, as was the case in "Amplexus". In this story, a high school senior named Andy goes on an after-school field trip to a poetry reading, along with a girl named Crystal, for whom Andy has conflicted feelings. It was difficult to like Andy, who in my mind had a sarcastic, negative outlook similar to that of Holden Caulfield. (For many people, that would be a complimment, but I can't stand Catcher in the Rye.) Crystal is perhaps the most likeable character in the story, but everyone else seems to hang out with people and then call them names behind their backs. The writing itself wasn't bad, but I didn't find as much to relate to in this story as I did in the others.

In any case, I'm excited to see what this magazine has in store in the future. Even though I mainly read science fiction and fantasy, I do like mainstream fiction as well, especially young adult fiction. And there's one other neat thing about this publication. Until recently, One Teen Story published eleven stories by adult authors, and one by the winner of a teen writer contest that they run. Recently, though, they've announced that the teen-authored stories have been so well received that they're going to publish four of those a year instead of only one. I think that's a terrific idea.

Finally, I should also note that this is a sister publication of One Story, which is also a story-an-issue publication but geared towards adults. I'll have to check that out one of these days too.
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Monday, March 16, 2015

Houston Ballet - Modern Masters

This past Saturday night we saw Houston Ballet's Modern Masters, a mixed repertoire performance of three diverse pieces that showed everything this company can do. I personally think that mixed rep programs are Houston Ballet's best-kept secret; these performances are never as well attended as the full-length "story" ballets, but they often have more opportunity to demonstrate technique, creativity, and artistry, and they sometimes fill the hall with a higher level of energy than a full-length ballet can achieve. Last but not least, they allow the company to cast more dancers in featured roles, giving regular audiences a chance to see what some of the up-and-coming dancers can do too.

The first piece was George Balanchine's Ballo Della Regina, a pretty ballet set to music from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Don Carlos. Allison Miller and Oliver Halkowich were very impressive in the lead roles. The program described the piece as the story of a fisherman's search for the perfect pearl; I can't honestly say that I would have figured that out on my own, but the costumes and lighting certainly did suggest a lovely underwater scene, as shown in the photo above. If I can't think of much more to say about Ballo Della Regina, it's in part because there's nothing to criticize about it; it was simply beautiful.

The second act, Jardi Tancat, was a sensual, earthy piece set to a series of Catalonian folk songs voiced by Maria del Mar Bonet. Choreographed by Nancho Duato (his first ballet, in fact, created in 1983), it features three couples, telling the story of "the people who work the barren land, praying to God for the rain that does not come." Although it's very different in tone and mood, for me the experience was somewhat similar to watching Alvin Ailey's Revelations, which is probably the single work most responsible for getting me interested in dance back in college.

When I see pieces like this performed by a traditional ballet company, I often wonder how the dancers feel about them. Do they find it a relief to dance this way after so much formality in most of their work, or do they want to get back to the technique they've spent their lives developing? The precision still has to be there in any dancing they do, especially if it involves lifts, but from the audience's point of view, there's a naturalness to this kind of dancing that you don't see with classical technique (which I sometimes think of as the opposite of natural, in spite of how graceful it ultimately looks). I suspect most of the dancers enjoy the variety, but I don't really know. The audience certainly seemed to love it.

As gorgeous as Jardi Tancat was, for me the final ballet was the real highlight of the evening. Titled Etudes and described in the program as "a tribute to dancing," it begins with a dozen ballerinas at barres, with only their lower legs spotlighted as they move through rapid variations of the basic ballet positions. It then progresses through increasingly complex movements and costumes, with the female dancers going from "rehearsal" leotards to formal tutus, half in white and half in black -- which of course brings that most formal and technically demanding of ballets, Swan Lake, to mind. The piece ends with the stage full of dancers -- so many that some companies cannot stage this piece because they simply don't have enough dancers to do so. Karina Gonzalez danced the lead and was exquisite as always; she and the three male leads (Connor Walsh, Ian Cassidy, and Jared Matthews) looked flawless to me as they performed choreography that required unbelievable stamina. A corps of at least 36 other dancers rounded out the cast, and their timing and precision was spot-on the vast majority of the time.

In addition to the ballet on Saturday night, we had also attended a dance talk the night before, during which principal dancer Simon Ball interviewed guest Johnny Eliasen, who staged Etudes for the Houston Ballet. Mr. Eliasen then gave a demonstration in which he instructed three male student dancers in the Bournonville method, which Wikipedia describes as "a ballet technique and training system devised by the Danish ballet master August Bournonville." Although I could not hear everything that Mr. Eliasen said to the dancers and I don't feel that I truly understand what this method is, it was fun to watch how quickly the dancers seemed to understand the nuances Mr. Eliasen was describing, and incorporate them into the same steps they'd just performed a moment ago.

I also note that prior to this weekend, I was unfamiliar with this concept of "staging," which I now understand (hopefully correctly) to mean guiding and coaching the dancers to perform a specific ballet in a specific way. In looking at the program, I see that the other two pieces were also staged by people who I imagine were, like Mr. Eliasen, brought in solely for the particular ballet for which they're listed. Mr. Eliasen specializes in Etudes, apparently, so he has fulfilled this same role for several companies around the world. (He told some fun anecdotes about dancers who wanted to perform the turns in the opposite direction -- and one who actually did so during a performance, without warning. One can imagine what a shock that would be to the rest of the dancers!)

My only regret is not also getting to see Katherine Precourt and Aaron Robison in the same lead roles in Etudes, which they were scheduled to dance on Sunday. Particularly in Katherine's case, it would have been amazing to see how she danced this compared to Karina Gonzalez, as two ballerinas who are physically very different from one another.

I mentioned above that mixed rep performances sometimes result in more audience energy, and that definitely seemed the case here. In fact, the dancers looked almost taken aback at the enthusiastic response to Jardi Tancat. Not so for Etudes; they knew to expect that the audience would be impressed by that ballet's impossibly long sequences of turns and leaps. In fact, I was more moved by simply witnessing these dancers perform so well, without an involved "story," than I was during the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet last week. That's not to fault that performance, which was also gorgeous, but rather to express how powerful these mixed rep performances can be.

There are three more performances of Modern Masters, on Friday March 20, Saturday March 21, and Sunday March 22. (More information here.)

EDITED TO ADD ON 3/16/15: I just came across this review on Culture Map Houston. It seems the reviewer, Theodore Bale, liked it as much as I did.

Unrelated, I also just realized that I didn't comment on the ballet orchestra.
Jardi Tancat was set to recorded music, but the other two pieces were played live. The music for Etudes was especially gorgeous, and at times I felt that a stage full of tinkling music box ballerinas had come to life.

All photos property of the Houston Ballet.
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Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Three-Body Problem

There's been a lot of buzz about The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu in the science fiction community. Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu, this novel combines physics, astronomy, and math with philosophy and some aspects of religion.

[Minor spoilers follow immediately below; major spoilers appear later in this review.]

In exploring these science, philosophy, and mathematical concepts, The Three-Body Problem utilizes a host of science fiction staples: an online game (complete with virtual reality sensory suits), SETI efforts, first contact, and the prospect of alien invasion. But even though these elements are familiar, their sum whole is unlike anything else I've read. Ultimately, this book didn't quite work for me, but much of that is due to my shortcomings rather than the novel's. And there were things about it that I loved, particularly the idea of a human "computer" within the virtual game that consisted of 30 million soldiers manipulating colored flags (representing 0 and 1) to perform complex calculations -- what a great visual! The rest of the game world was intriguing as well, and I was fascinated by an interesting, if gruesome, high-tech solution to a particular combat problem that some of the characters face.

However, there was also a lot of heavy-duty speech-making between characters that I found difficult to enjoy. In one scene, an astrophysicist named Ye Wenjie meets with three of the four female Red Guards who beat Ye's father to death in front of a crowd at a "struggle session" (a question-and-answer demonstration intended to break down the enemies of the revolution) years earlier. The women agree to meet with Ye, which I didn't find entirely believable, especially because they seem to want only to lecture her. They're described as the thickset woman, the thin woman, and the one-armed woman, and they take turns telling Ye how difficult their lives have been since their Red Guard fervor no longer has much support. In my mind, the three women function as a single amalgamated character in order to explain a certain point of view to the reader, and it feels clunky.

In a similar vein, other characters show up in the book exactly when it's convenient for the plot. For instance, on a trip to scout possible radio astronomy sites, Ye meets an American living in the remote hills of northwestern China. The man lives as a peasant, spending his days planting trees because he wants to save an endangered bird species. Ye has only this one chance encounter with the man and then does not see or hear from him for three years, but he contacts her out of the blue when his billionaire oil tycoon father dies. In other words, he inherits a vast sum of money, and seeks Ye's counsel about what to do next -- a woman with whom he had only one conversation three years earlier in which he did most of the talking himself. I got the impression that for the plot to move forward, Ye would need to find a sympathizer with access to vast resources, so the three-years-prior encounter was back-filled into the plot to introduce a character who would offer just that. I have no way of knowing if I'm right about the back-filling, but that's how it reads to me, and I prefer my fiction to appear less obviously constructed.

On the big picture scale, there was one element of the plot with which I had a huge problem. [MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW] It is about midway through the book that we learn that Ye Wenjie not only happened to be the person to discover that humans could use the sun to amplify first contact messages sent out into space, she also happens to be the one person at her facility who, eight years later, receives the response, which says "DO NOT ANSWER." The alien who sent the reply believes that if Earth transmits again, it will reveal its precise location, and the alien's own culture will invade and conquer humanity. Ye then takes it upon herself to send a reply anyway, essentially saying (paraphrased) "Come anyway and I'll help you conquer Earth, because humans aren't capable of helping themselves."

But here is what really bothered me: about 80 pages later, we finally get more information about the alien culture, and we are explicitly reminded that the first Trisolarian to respond to Ye, the one who sends the "DO NOT ANSWER" message, also just betrayed its entire species. Which means that, coincidentally, the first two intelligent creatures to make extrasolar contact, who come from planets that are four light years apart, and who have vastly different biologies and physical environments and cultures, both simply take it upon themselves to make a decision endangering the future survival of their entire species. It's not just that each of them engages in what I view as egregious and unrealistic behavior, it's that they both engage in the exact same egregious and unrealistic behavior. The difference is that Ye assumes that the more scientifically advanced Trisolarians must have better morality than humans and therefore will actually save humanity. The alien (call it "Listener 1379"), on the other hand, does what it does in part because it can't bear the thought of destroying the garden-like paradise that Earth represents in order to save its own species, which leads a precarious existence due to the configuration of its solar system.

Hmm, maybe that means that the Trisolarians, or at least Listener 1379, do have higher morality than humans! But even so, the odds against both Ye and Listener 1379 betraying their entire species seem astronomical (pun intended). And therefore the most important element of the plot became implausible to me. I have to recognize, though, that what I would consider unrealistic self-martyrdom (both Ye and her alien counterpart say they don't care what happens to them personally; they had to do it) may be viewed in an entirely different light by Chinese readers. Perhaps they assume that this type of behavior would be common in any intelligent species and is therefore eminently believable and admirable.

After all this criticism, you might not think I would say that the book is still worth reading, but of course it is. It sure as hell made me think! It also entertained me, although unevenly. And it provided a perspective very different from those I usually encounter in fiction. As a survivor of the New Jersey public school system, I had very few history classes, and the ones that I did have were generally so poor (*) that they put me off the subject for life -- I refused to touch a history class in college with a ten-foot pole.

So I did learn from this book, and enjoyed much of it. I'm not sure I'll read the second and third books in the trilogy, due to the somewhat dense and didactic nature of the prose. But I'm glad I read the first one.
* * *
[* In eighth grade, my history teacher would have us sit silently at our desks for the entire period, Monday through Thursday, and review a single chapter over the course of the week. On Friday, she would give us a spelling test with words from that chapter. My mom complained on my behalf and I finally got switched to another class, but I've never forgotten that. At least I'm a good speller now.]
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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Wagner Files

Samuel Finzi and Pegah Ferydoni as Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima in "Wagnerwahn" ("The Wagner Files") (2013).

Last night, Paul and I attended a private screening by Houston Grand Opera of "Wagnerwahn", which has been translated as "The Wagner Files". This was an episode in the Die Kulturakte series, and was a 90-minute biographical documentary of Richard Wagner. The reason for this screening, of course, was that HGO will soon be premiering the second of the four Ring Cycle operas, and in opera, although context is not quite everything, it certainly is important.

What I loved most about this documentary was the creativity of its presentation. It mixed interview footage of Wagner historians and even one of Wagner's descendents, Katharina Wagner, with dramatized portions in which actors Samuel Finzi and Pegah Ferydoni portrayed Richard and Cosima Wagner, respectively. It further mixed that with artwork from Wagner: Die Graphic Novel, written by Andreas Voellinger Gebundene Ausgabe and illustrated by Flavia Scuderi. This art has been partially animated, so that the faces and mouths sometimes move, or fire or floods are shown as dynamic instead of static. [Author corrected -- thanks to Lukas for the info!]

To further add to the mix, the enacted scenes made no attempt at historical accuracy in terms of dress and scenic background, so that modern-sounding telephones were utilized often (no cells, thankfully) and modern-day cars zipped by -- that is, unless sleek Audis really did exist in Wagner's time. The characters were dressed dramatically, in a style that I couldn't attribute to a particular time period, and the camera angles were even more dramatic, with long angles and shots up and down through spiral staircases. Wagner and Cosima often spend minutes at a time staring at each other intensely, and there are long moments when Wagner dresses himself in the pink silk fabric for which he had something of a fetish, gazing at himself in the mirror while smelling the roses he also loved.

So what happens when you add all this up? In my mind, you get something like the Frank Miller version (remember Sin City?) of Wagner's life -- or at least the portions of his life most impacted by his second marriage with Cosima. I thought it was fascinating.

And that relationship was indeed the focus of the documentary. Wagner carried on a long affair with Cosima, during which time she, her husband, and their children lived in Wagner's house and she took over the management of his career. Cosimi, who was herself the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, even bore Wagner a child whom she passed off as her husband's for a while. Eventually, though, the affair was outed and Wagner was forced to leave Munich, where he had been quite spoiled by the patronage of King Ludwig II. He moved to Switzerland (again), Cosima joined him there after a time, and they eventually married (by this time they had two additional children together). As the documentary portrayed it, the course of their love was never smooth, in spite of or perhaps because of their passion for one another.

Before seeing this documentary, I knew very little about Wagner's life; I essentially knew that he is regarded as a genius and an anti-Semite. This documentary made abundantly clear that he was both of these things, and that he was also quite a bit more vile than I had imagined. It seems that perhaps with the partial exception of Cosima, he treated the people around him according to how useful he thought they could be to him. The worst case, in my mind, was his blatent exploitation of Ludwig, who clearly was in love with him. Although Wagner was not gay, he didn't shy away from intimacy with other men, so in that regard he was not completely dishonest, but his letters to Ludwig play up that aspect of their relationship shamelessly -- he obviously wanted to give the impression that he felt more than he did, in order to keep the moneybags close by. I don't believe the documentary stated this, and I would want to confirm it elsewhere before believing it entirely, but Wikipedia hints that Ludwig actually considering abdicating his throne to join Wagner in Switzerland, and Wagner dissuaded him. And that makes sense, because the money might well have dried up if Ludwig had given up his throne. I certainly felt sorry for Ludwig, who was completely duped as far as I'm concerned.

The documentary also dealt with the anti-Semitism head-on; in fact, one of the historians said that Cosima's detailed diaries should be required reading for Wagner apologists, because they make it perfectly clear that the couple's shared anti-Semitic views were extreme. There was a long scene in which Wagner sat in a bathtub ranting to Cosima about the Jews while she wrote down everything he said. My impression was that phrases Wagner used were paraphrased from the diaries. Wagner basically said that the Jews couldn't speak or sing properly and were essentially vermin who were stealing "our" art forms. He said that no negotiation was possible, and extermination was the only solution.

I have to say, I felt incredibly uncomfortable during this scene, but I think that was the filmmakers' intention. Wagner's descendant, Katharina Wagner, said that she has to deal with the fact that his hateful bigotry existed and was well documented. If I felt uncomfortable, imagine what it's like to have that legacy permanently recorded in your family's history. For the documentary to shy away from this aspect of his personality would have been a mistake. I noticed that very little mention was made of Wagner's children, and I cringed at the idea of them growing up in that atmosphere. Then I wondered whether Wagner himself developed those views as an adult, or if he grew up hearing such hateful rants in his own family.

Oh, and there was also some information about his music and operas! In fact, the documentary included some footage from the same production of the Ring Cycle that HGO is putting on here in Houston. I greatly enjoyed Das Rheingold when we saw it last year; it was a very modern, science fictional production, and it looks like the rest of it will be along the same lines. In the meantime, for anyone interested in Wagner, I highly recommend the documentary if you can find it.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Hugo Nominations

In light of the fact that Hugo nominations are due by midnight tomorrow (Tuesday 10, 2015 through 11:59 pm PDT), I don't want to wait until the end of March for my next post about short fiction. I've been spending a lot of time reading in the last week or two, and have tried to focus somewhat on 2014 publications so I could make intelligent decisions.

The following are the works I'm currently considering for nomination. I won't make final decisions until tomorrow -- and I won't be surprised if I have some last minute additions as I comb through my lists, other people's lists, my notes....

I'm also still working on other categories, but this is what I have for now.

Short stories (alphabetical by author):

"When It Ends, He Catches Her" by Eugie Foster
(read here)

"Alan Bean Plus Four" by Tom Hanks
(read here)

"Observations About Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa" by Carmen Maria Machado
(read here)

"Jackalope Wives" by Ursula Vernon
(read here)

"Toad Words" by Ursula Vernon
(read here)

"Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion" by Caroline M. Yoachim
(read here)

Novelette (alphabetical by author):

"The Magician and Laplace's Demon" by Tom Crosshill
(read here)

"Stealing Arturo" by William Ledbetter
(read here)

Novel (alphabetical by author):

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

(Alternatively, I may nominate the entire Magicians trilogy as a whole. I know it's eligible to be nominated that way, but I'm checking on the ramifications of it possibly being nominated both ways. I don't want it to cancel itself out.)

Dramatic Presentation - Long Form:

Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Limon

Best Related Work:

Jodorowsky's Dune, directed by Frank Pavich

So much spec fic, so little time....
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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"The Girls at the Kingfisher Club" by Genevieve Valentine

There's nothing quite as wonderful as coming across a book you weren't aware of and having it turn into an unexpected delight. That's what happened when I picked up The Girls at the Kingfisher Club at the bookstore the other day, drawn by the cover and then the jacket description. Seriously, the twelve dancing princesses set in the speakeasies of Prohibition New York? How could I pass that up?

As a writer, it seems to me that the biggest challenge in turning a short fairy tale about twelve sisters into a full-length novel is making the characters distinct enough to satisfy the reader, and author Genevieve Valentine does a wonderful job. I was a thrown once or twice early on by the author's tendency to use parenthetical asides to show what some of the girls were thinking, in order to give them motivation, but I got used to it and soon forgot that it seemed odd.

The main character is Jo, the eldest daughter. Ever since their mother died, essentially from being used as a brood mare by a husband who wanted a son, Jo has been the go-between for her father and her younger sisters. He sees his daughters as a detriment to his social and financial ambitions, and therefore keeps them shuttered away in attic rooms -- they don't go to school or walking in the park or even to church. Instead they look out the windows, read books from their home library or glance through clothing catalogs, do some mending, and occasionally hear snatches of the infectious jazz music that has come to New York.

All of this changes one night when Lou, the second eldest, threatens to run away out of frustration and desperation. Jo quickly realizes she must divert that restless energy or risk losing her sister, so she takes Lou and the next two sisters out dancing at one of the speakeasies. The freedom is intoxicating, and a new sisterly tradition is born, with the younger sisters (there are two sets of twins, by the way) gradually added to the outings. The sisters become experts at sneaking down the back stairs at midnight, shoes in hand, to catch taxis in the back alley, and Jo trains them never to give out their names or encourage their partners to pursue them off the dance floor.

And so it continues until the father announces that it's time to start marrying off the girls -- and it seems he's willing to take almost any applicant as long as the price is right. Lest this premise sound too fluffy or too "romance novel," keep in mind that (minor spoiler ahead) this was a time period in which a father could easily have his unmarried daughters committed to an asylum for "insanity," so the stakes for Jo and her sisters are very real indeed. Jo is consumed with worry over her sisters' fates and determined not to show it; as a result, they call her "General," half affectionately and half resentfully. Lou, in particular, suspects that Jo might be out to save herself, but Jo proves her wrong in a very moving way.

Technically, I suppose this might be called a young adult historical fiction, but as is the case with so many YA titles, nobody is too old to enjoy this sophisticated, atmospheric novel. Highly recommended.

* * *

[This is silly of me, but I feel a little self-conscious that it may seem all I do is gush over the books and stories I read, or the movies and live performances I see. So it may seem as though my taste is not terribly discriminating. That's not actually the case, but I just don't like reviewing things I haven't enjoyed, unless I feel I have something important to say about it. But for the record, against the fifteen books I've read so far in 2015, I've also stopped reading six others. And just last night I watched a movie, certain I was going to love it and looking forward to reviewing it, and .... no. So I guess what I mean is that when I say I love something, it means I've really enjoyed it.
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