Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Review: At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers by Salman Rushdie

At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is available online at Granta Magazine . I always have a hard time when reading satire and this appears to be one. I read it as a futuristic nightmare based around the auction of said slippers. The slippers presumably refer to those from The Wizard of Oz, and the story is a satire on consumerism, the free market economy gone mad where everything is for sale. Further than that I was completely lost on a first read.

The best explanation of this story I have read is by ROBERT COOVER in Nwe York Times and I quote -
"the story is a broad sociopolitical satire, a bit over the top at times, told by a communal "we" and depicting the current market-based free-for-all as a brutal futuristic hell wherein everything in the world is for sale, with the hoarding of possessions leading to universal paranoia: "These are uncompromising times," the narrator says.
Uncompromising times: Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa against Salman Rushdie on St. Valentine's Day 1989, and throughout the nearly six years since then Mr. Rushdie, a target not only of religious zealots but of professional killers hired by ecclesiastical thugs and heads of state, has remained in virtual exile from his national and literary communities -- indeed in virtual imprisonment, managing only occasional dramatic appearances on the world stage to plead his unique and desperate case.
"At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers" thus speaks directly to the author's own consequent dread of the bunker mentality, and to his fear of a world market economy that tolerates the intolerant, since it's all good for business (and it does so by way of a central metaphor close to his own heart as a writer).
THIS story was originally published along with an essay, "A Short Tale About Magic," in a small British Film Institute book as a kind of accompaniment to the film "The Wizard of Oz," which Mr. Rushdie describes as his "first literary influence" at the age of 10: "When I first saw the 'The Wizard of Oz' it made a writer of me." It was also his model during the writing of his remarkably cheerful post-fatwa novel "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" (1990): "Of all movies, the one that helped me most to find the right voice for 'Haroun' was 'The Wizard of Oz.' The film's traces are there in the text, plain to see; in Haroun's companions there are clear echoes of the friends who danced with Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road."
Late in "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers," there is a moment when the harsh impersonal satire shifts abruptly and somewhat discordantly into a first-person-singular account of a frustrated love affair between the narrator and his cousin Gale, who is lost to an imaginary and clearly uncivil lover who has escaped from a caveman movie. Gale, of course, is Dorothy's surname in "The Wizard of Oz," and as his loving cousin she liked to cry out during sex: "Home, boy! Home, baby, yes -- you've come home!" The narrator keeps a portrait of her "in the guise of a tornado."

HE sees her in a bar watching a television report about a spaceman stranded forever on Mars, showing "his slow descent into despair, his low-gravity, weight-reduced death" while he sings a medley of old songs, including several from "The Wizard of Oz." The narrator wants to buy Gale the auctioned ruby slippers (the universal reverence for them, he suggests, is due to "their affirmation of a lost state of normalcy") so she can go to Mars and bring back the spaceman, with whom he clearly identifies: "Perhaps I might even click the heels together three times, and win back her heart by murmuring, in soft reminder of our wasted love, There's no place like home." He has not only been left to waste away in enforced solitude on an inhospitable planet, he has also been threatened, in these uncivil times, with the loss of his most precious love, his hope, his "Over the Rainbow" muse. "

I read this story as part of Salman Rushdie's short story collection East, West. My Book Review

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Review: Yorick by Salman Rushdie

Yorick Yorick by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This story is available online at .
I like it when reading to stumble across a previously unknown word to add to my vocabulary, but when this happens multiple times in a story, my readerships suffers - this is what happened in this reworking based on teh story of Hamlet, and I'm not just talking about unusual words but the very rarely seen variety eg "terigversation" which the dictionary defines as (1) "an evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement, an equivocation" and (2) a desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith. Compound this with Rushdie trying to combine writing as per Shakespeare with a modernism narrator, this makes for a jolly complicated read which lost me. Yes, some bits are very clever, but for me his reworking didn't come off and more's the pity, because this is an ambitious piece of writing, one which I have no doubt the literary critics and academics will have a field day with, but one which I fear would be too confusing and thereby too challenging a read for readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare's Story and style.

I read this as part of Salman Rushdie's short story collection East, West My Book Review

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Review: The Prophet's Hair by Salman Rushdie

The Prophet's Hair The Prophet's Hair by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story is available online at . I read somewhere that the inspiration for this story is that the real life Prophet's Hair relic kept at Hazratbal Mosque in Srinagar, Kashmir went missing in December 1963 and was retrieved about two weeks later.

While Rushdie's overly long sentances irritate me, this story is a beautiful example of storytelling, full of comedic tragedy, worthy of incorporation in 1001 Nights. Its core story is timeless, and would make a great oral rendition to adults and children alike. It is a moralistic fairy tale in which the theft of a religious relic brings catastrophe upon the greedy.

Hashim, the moneylender, is a collector of fine things. One day he finds a vial floating in the water. It contains a silver pendant bearing a single strand of human hair. It is the Prophet's Hair, stolen only the previous day from the Hazratbal mosque. However, the relic is cursed and it transforms the moneylender, changing his behaviour to such an extent that his family are very concerned. His son Atta and daughter Huma plan to remove the relic from thier father's possession. The 'Thief of Thieves' Shiekh Sín is hired to burglar their house and steal it from their father in return for Huma and her mother's jewelry.

Needless to say things do not go as planned. The curse reigns havoc and the members of both Hashim and Sín's families are affected by the relic's curse, but not all as not as deleteriously as one might expect! Some receiving just deserts and others some quiet surprising justice.

I read this story as part of Salman Rushdie's short story collection East, West. My Book Review

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Review: Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies by Salman Rushdie

Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story is also available in the New Yorker magazine - Miss Rehana is accosted by so called advice expert Muhammad Ali as she joins the Tuesday line of women seeking British visas at the Consulate. He is beguiled by her beauty but sees her as an easy target for his scam as she is without a male chaperone. She tries to shrug him of claiming poverty and does not succumb even to his offer of a British passport he has "acquired". The twist is when she returns to him after failing the questions at the interview. He cannot understand why she is happy. All is revealed. All was not as it had seemed. I didn't see it coming :)

This story is part of Salman Rushdie's short story collection East, West. My Book Review

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act The Children Act by Ian McEwan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version beautifully read by actress Lindsey Duncan. She dulcet tones were what kept me going throught this turgid tome. I thought it poor by McEwan standards (but then his other novels set the bar so high) until ***SPOILER ALERT *** his masterful ending brings shame to well-respected High Court Judge Fiona Maye as she realises that she has completely failed her responsibility for the welfare and wellbeing of a young man whose case she handled in court because she failed to see how he had become infatuated with her and that her professional responsibility should also have continued to be applied outside of work. Working this relevation as an ironic mirror to the return of her husband to the marital home after a defunked affair with a younger woman, McEwan weaves his character study of a sad and pitiful, dysfunctional professional middle class childless marriage. Unfortunately, the middle sections of the book are as barren as their marriage. The moral, cultural, religious and legal issues in the cases the judge deals with grind and goan, the legal arguments come across as detached and never reach a passion that we have seen in novels such as Saturday. As always McEwan's research has been thorough, it just failed to translate into a gripping tale for this reader.

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The Toucan and the Slug

Toucan and slug

At the sign of The Toucan and the Slug,
The Frog and Parrot,
Tanya’s Twisted Toucan,
The Lazy Lizard, and
The Garden at Dreams
there’s the give and take of commerce,
of music and dance
lovers kisses linger in darkened corners
luminous trails linking past lives’
passing places on the road to eternity.

© Sheila Ash, 2018

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Romanesco broccoli–Brassica olerecea

Named as if memorialising a long forgotten dictator
its proud spikes protrude
like modern day Lego’s sci-fi pinnacles
their lime green parading its exotic status
lording over basic broccoli
pompously pushing the plush purple aside
no lost arms nor branches lost to this Venus de Milo of the vegetable rack
its spiralling fractals fascinate
the cowering cauliflower
glowering in admiration of Nature’s Fibonacci fantasy.

13th January 2018

© Sheila Ash, 2018

Review: Wednesday's Story by Wole Talabi

Wednesday's Story Wednesday's Story by Wole Talabi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stories within a story. A nursery rhyme reworked. This is Wole Talabi's ambitious modernist fantasy fable. Available on Lightspeed Magazine's website as text and accompanying well read audio.

Many of us will remember the English nursery rhyme Solomon Grundy, and if you have any contact with people from Nigeria you will also know that many people name their children for the day they were born. This is the core of Talabi's story told by Wednesday - she and her siblings tell the alternative story of Solomon Grundy - SPOILER ALERT one which has Grundy born of a English boatswain's rape of an African woman, Bamigbàlà , brought up by her employer Viscount Sydney Philips whose head servants fear Solomon will take over the business after the Viscount's death and plot with assassins to murder him.

So far a straightforward reworking of the rhyme with an African history twist. But this retelling of the Grundy story by the siblings is further disturbed by Wednesday's use of a "timestone" to enter into the story itself - this magical /fantastical intervention transforms this reworking into something else. Wednesday, overcome with the pain and suffering as told in the Grundy story at the part where his beloved wife Atinuke lies dying at the assassin's hands, uses the timestone to freeze reality and enter the story-world. There he meets Okeméji, the forest, and Ikoro-man, a cruel tree-man to whom he tries to appeal for help to end the Solomon's struggle with the assassins and change the outcome. Of course stories cannot be changed – neither by Wednesday within the story world or by Solomon within Wednesday's reality. Finally Wednesday tells us the ending of the Solomon Grundy story - which of we know from the nursery rhyme - "Died on Saturday, Buried on Sunday".

But even that is not the full extent of Talabi's tale. Interspersed within are fables - the unpunished rape of the young Emeh by a holy man leading to the insanity of her revengeful father; the story of the cruel Ikoro-man who cured barren women in the village of Oluronbi, wife of a poor woodcarver, who not having other forms of wealth and goods of value offered up her first born. She of course renege on this promise, her husband carving a replica daughter to try to trick the Ikoro-man - read the story to find out if he was successful or not! ; and the "no good deed goes unpunished" story of the hunter and the dragon and the tortoise. Each of these are good fables in and of themselves.
The complexity of this structure is further enhanced by Talabi having Wednesday as she tells this whole tale, her story talk about the structure of stories, with a beginning a middle and an end, or two beginnings, or many middles, all culminating in the one end - or is it the end?

I loved the final paragraphs SPOILER ALERT
"If I have already told you how the story ends, then which part of the story is this now?
I'm not sure.
I think this is the part of the story between the last written word and the bottom of the page on which it is written; the space between the breath with which the narrator exhales the final word of the story and his next in which there is no story; the distance between the height at which belief has been suspended and the solid, hard, floor or reality; the empty, fluid places where, for what is even less than a moment, the characters, the audience, the narrator, and the author of the story can all become equally real to one another, become intimately aware of one another, and maybe, just maybe, even become one another, depending on the shape of the story".

For me this almost sums up exactly what I want to be experiencing when I have finished a story - that is has become real through the telling, that I experience something on different levels within and from it and its telling.

ashramblings verdict 4* Well done Wole Talabi! This is the first story of yours I have read and I was truly impressed. I look forward to reading more.

Postscript note:
I came across Wole Talabi's name upon seeing his list of African Speculative Fiction on Brittle Paper's website - a great find. His Blog also lists this story

There's an interview with author Wole Talabi also available on Lightspeed Magazine's website

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Friday, 12 January 2018

Review: The Martians Claim Canada by Margaret Atwood

The Martians Claim Canada The Martians Claim Canada by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brilliantly weird, irreverent, this is a must read story about jingoistic nationalism!. I'm not sure I've read everything into this that a Canadian reader would read, but this was such a great pick me up putting a smile on my face this morning. The short story can be found in Granta Magazine and I'd urge everyone to read this.

I've no doubt it takes its inspiration from the quip "what would a Martian think of ....?" Atwood writes up a meeting between 3 Martians in search for "a musical" and the only sentient being they encounter when they land in Canada, a mushroom Amanita Muscaria . Atwood even supplied a sketch of the Martian ship flying above the mushrooms, which look remarkably similar to each other.

The opening line sets the tone wonderfully "The Martian descent to Earth in their spaceship. They intend to go to New York - they want to see something call 'a musical' - but they get the directions mixed up, as many before them have done, and end up on Canada instead, as many before them have also done."

After finding the mushroom, they talk about countries, borders, flags and war, about how human beings build societies yet subjugate those in their way. The mushrooms explains it thus "You draw a line, you put up walls and gates and such, you say some people can't come in and other people can't go out, you say everything in side this country is a certain kind of thing and that's how it is done inside the line you've drawn, you make laws, you have customs and a language, or two languages, or fifty-four languages. You have a flag, which is a piece of cloth with some sort of pattern on it, and it waves around in the wind. Unlike mushrooms: we don't wave anything. Maybe you have national outfits. You have a special song that you're supposed to sing...Some countries have dances, others not" . The mushroom's explanation of humanities constructions of countries just sound beautifully absurd, and of course more so when read against historical absurdities like the Berlin Wall, current ones like the US- Mexico wall, as well as the many identity struggles manifested as linguistic oppression, the marginalisation of native peoples etc.

The mushroom's explanation continues "Sometimes the countries have wars. That's when they cross each other's lines and gates and so forth and try to kill the people in the other country so they can get all their stuff..." The inquisitive Martian naturally asks what stuff is, and the mushroom's answer? "Toasters.... frying pans. Microwaves. All those anti-mushrooms devices. Other stuff too, like land, gold, dead animals and trees."

The Martians ask all the questions for example"what about the people who were already there? The ones without flags?" and the mushroom's responses continue to amuse and hit home on target most effectively"things didn't go well for them" - a bit of an understatement! "What is wheat?" say the Martians. It's anti-mushroom, says the mushroom. Wheat pushed the mushrooms off a lot of land"

Back to the reason for the Martians being here. What is Canada: The Musical? There isn't one, says the mushroom, because for the musicals you need to have a story. YOu need to decide how the story should come this Canada place, they've been arguing about the story for a lot of years" - yes spot on again as Atwood tackles the ownership of history in terms of musical theatre - yes I did say this was an absurd rendering of political points.

SPOILER ALERT - the mushrooms finally persuade the Martians not to seek out New York because I think it's getting hostile to Martians down there" but instead to stay on in Canada and help decide the story of Canada: The Musical.

ashramblings Verdict 4* I loved this absurd ditty from one of the great authors. And thanks to Granta for the special Canada issue

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Thursday, 11 January 2018

Review: The Seventh Man by Haruki Murakami

The Seventh Man The Seventh Man by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this as per the translation available in Granta Magazine. It s also available as pdf on GoodReads

The setting is some sort of therapy session perhaps one where "survivors" tell their stories. The seventh man of the title tells his story within this minimal framing. He recounts a childood experience, the loss of his best friend K, and his own survival, during a typhoon and tsunami when he was 10 years old. Plagued for the rest of his life by nightmares which impacted all his life, driving him away from his childhood home, stopping him from marrying, and by the fear that he had not done enough to save his friend, the old man tells how after going through a bundle of his friends artwork from their childhood he finally returned to the beach where his friend was lost and put paid to the fear which he had lived his life, attained a kind of salvation, a recovery. His final statement to the therapy group is

'They tell us that the only thing to fear is fear itself; but I don't beieve that, he said. Then, a moment later, he added: 'Oh, the fear is there, all right. It comes to us in many different forms, at different times, and overwhelms us. But the most frightenng thing we can do at such times is to turn our backs on it, to close our eyes. For then we take the most precious thing inside us and surrender it to something else. In my case, that soemthing was the wave' "

The story has some beautiful desciptions the typhoon weather and its tsunami - "the rain began to beat against the house with a weird dry sound, like handfuls of sand", "the storm's great 'eye' seemed to be up there, fixing its cold stare on all of us below", "the waves that had approached me were as unthreatening as waves can be - a gentle washing of the sandy beach. But something ominous about them - something like the touch of a reptile's skin - had sent a chill down my spine.....the waves were alive" "deep rumbling sound", the "weird gurgling" and "in the tip of the wave....floated K's body.....looking straight at me, smiling. HIs cold frozen eyes were locked on mine... his right arm was stretch out in my direction, as if he were trying to grab me...."

I think this is perhaps one of the more accessible of Murakami's stories; a good starter for readers unfamiliar with his work. It is also to be found in his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

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Monday, 8 January 2018

Review: The Suitcase by Elaine Chiew

The Suitcase The Suitcase by Elaine Chiew
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adore this short story to be found at
In a museum with his daughter a man recognises the suitcase of an old college friend used as one of the exhibits. Connecting first with the artist, he traces his friends daughter and then his friend. He longs to reconnect their friendship.

I loved the line "He only lived in America for six months, you said?" How to explain that it isn't the duration a friend occupies in your memory but the space. So very true.

SPOLIER ALERT = sadly not, the man a refugee student when they had roomed togather in the 70s has now returned to his home but is not the same person, he does not have the memories his American friend does, he has lost his English, he no longer remembers their passion for baseball nor does he remember the friend.

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Review: Aquarium by Elaine Chiew

Aquarium Aquarium by Elaine Chiew
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is available at

I have a liking for open or ambiguous endings which is what we have here. The narrator, an airstewardess, is visiting her brother and his new girlfriend in Norway. Clearly more used to warmer climes the story is full of contrasts between hot and cold, rural and city lives, between the siblings old life and her brothers new one, their unspoken communication irritating the Norwegian girlfriend, the changes in her brother's life irritating the narrator. How will this crowd of three work out? There is a hint, nothing more, at an abusive father. There's biting comment from the girlfriend saying "You should come visit more often" then asking "why stewardesses don't turn right around and work the return flight"

SPOILER ALERT - The story focuses on the previously dog lover of a brother's new found fad for their aquarium of tropical fish. I love the line "What do you know, love is many things, but it's also a bloated tropical fish" leaving the reader to ponder what or who caused the bloated clownfish!(which can become agressive in captivity)

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Review: Of Soulful Cheese and Melted Needs by Elaine Chiew

Of Soulful Cheese and Melted Needs Of Soulful Cheese and Melted Needs by Elaine Chiew
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This short story got me with the title which encapsulates the whole tale beautifully. The story is available online at

Two youths of Indian extraction man the In-N-Out Burger bar off Interstate 101- Kukri, the chatty philosophiser "can an egg have a ghost?" and his sidekick the shyer, virginal Raj. They think they slow day is made when two girls come in and pay intimate attention to them. What's that old saying - 'if something is too god to be true, it usually isn't', yes that's what is happening here unbeknown to the two smitten boys.

SPOILER ALERT - the girls are using seduction techniques to rob the joint. Although they only get the few dollars in the till, one takes much more from Raj. Left spent and confused, Raj "felt robbed. Sad. Angry. Lost. But it wasn't his money". The boys share a "joint" of Kukri's mother's spice mix in consolation as Kukri plans a better approach to getting girls "Nirvana isn't reached by sitting on your finely-shaped buttocks under a tree...What we need is a car....then we go cruising" - so Indian I can hear the intonation :)

But it is the final paragraph that really makes this a poignant tale of virginity stolen "Raj wants to cry. But all he can do is watch the puff-rings Kukri blows out; they fill the air with a pang of dum aloo homesickness and the clandestine whiff of Punjabi girls" Beautiful.

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Sunday, 7 January 2018

One hundred years to solitude

“One Hundred Years of Solitude”
Life changing when read at 20
Now lies abandoned in the charity shop
Evacuated along with all her other books
Her ‘things’ gathered from travels worldwide.
The colours of Holi, the pride of the Durbar Parade
The too-hard-haggled-over Mayan embroidery
Are but memories in the distant sands
Like Xpu Há and Tulum
Lost to the trundling cyclones that ripped through her mind.
Each new carers browses her memory book only once
No one to tell them where the pictures of deserted island beaches were taken (Mexico)
Where were those bustling marketplaces (India)
The endless sands seas (Sahara) and moonlight waters (Marquesas)
Their location and significance as uncomprehended as the Easter Island Moai
Her Heritage is now preserved in a few pages
recording her one hundred year journey to solitude.

© Sheila Ash, 7th January 2018