Wednesday 31 January 2018

Change by Sheila Ash

The swish and sway of waves upon the shore
The emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis cocoon
The transformation from tadpole to frog
Change is the movement of moment to moment.
A metamorphosis. The metronome of life.
30th January 2018
© Sheila Ash, 2018

Sunday 28 January 2018

Qit’a – inspired by Abbas Ibn al-Ahnaf by Sheila Ash

The shape of beauty

The pink flamingo stands statuesque on one leg
The ballet dancer pirouettes
The red abaya glides effortlessly between the Abuja traffic.

© Sheila Ash, 2018

Review: Diary of a Madman and Other Stories by Lu Xun

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recenty completed an online course on edX HarvardX: HUM12.2x Modern Masterpieces of World Literature ( which introduced me to Lu Xun. I didn't recall having heard of him before and thinking this to be a gaping hole in my knowledge of world literature I have been setting about recitifying it.

First a bit about the author - Lu Xun (1881- 1936) grew up in a family whose wealth was declinging rapidly . He was educated at government schools, went to study in Japan both lack of funds ended this. In his lifetime he saw the long-standing Qing Dynasty Empire committed to ancient traditions give way in 1911 to a revolutionary but flawed republic, which led him, as one of many intellectuals dissatisfied with the direction of the new government, to take part in the New Culture movement. He never joined the Chinese Communist Party. In 1918 Lu wrote the first short story published in his name, Diary of a Madman, for the magazine New Youth. The story was praised for its anti-traditionalism, its synthesis of Chinese and foreign conventions and ideas, and its skillful narration, and Lu became recognized as one of the leading writers of the New Culture Movement. Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe describes him as "The greatest writer Asia produced in the twentieth century". The 3 yearly Chinese Lu Xun Literary Prize is named after him. His stories satirized outmoded and fossilised traditions and conventions while revealing reservations about China’s new directions. His narrative experimentation and use of vernacular language helped to modernize Chinese writing. His work was inspired by his familiarity with foreign languages and literature - the story was inspired by the work of the same name by Gogol whose "Dead Souls" he translated.

The story, “The Diary of a Madman” is available online at . It is highly ambiguous, with an unreliable narrator and unreliable preface. Is it an allegorical attack on ancient Confucian values or the ravings of a delusional voice? Whether you read it straightforwardly as the diary of the man suffering from a persecution complex, or as a more politically charged narrative, it certainly holds yours attention as the narrator's madness spirals onward. 13 short sections constitute the diary read by the narrator of the preface. The diary purports to be that of the now recovered, once sick brother of the narrator's friend. They chronicle the spiralling suspicion he feels for those around him from the neighbour's dog to one of his tenants to a woman in the street to his own brother, analysing it as being due to the fact that they are all man-eaters, even to the point of rationalising his own little sister's death to having been eaten by their brother.
ashrambings verdict 4* Very pleased I "discovered" this author

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Review: Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets by George Whitman and A Y al-Udhari.

Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets by George B.H. Wightman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The informative introduction to this book sets the context for its coverage of 3 Abbasid poets - Abbas Ibn al-Ahnaf (b. 750), Abdullah Ibn al-Mu'tazz (861-908) and Abu al-Ala al-Ma'arri (973 - 1057) by stating that
"One of the effects of the Prophet Muhammad's teaching was to convert people separated by allegiances to their tribes and chosen idols into an organised force united by the monotheistic Muslim faith.....between 656 and 750 the Umayyad family....established a centralised government and extended the Arab Empire as far as the Pyrenees in the west and the border of India and China in the East. The Ummayyad's imposition of hereditary rule gave their government, and the Empire itself, an appearance of stability. But in fact the court was no more peaceful than the Tudor court. After enlisting the support of various dissidents, notably in the provinces, the Abbasid family, who were relations of the Prophet, seized power in 750. The Abbasid Period from 750 - 1258 became the Golden Age of Arab Literature."

Thus the main periods of Arab poetry are
(1) Pre-Islamic - Jahiliya (450-622)
Its best known form is the qasida or ode, a polythematic poem and an example of a poet of that era and style is Imru al-Qais, the "father of Arabic poetry".

(2)Post-Islamic and Umayyad (622-750)
Conquest, trade and the growth of towns influences poets and their poetry. As the idea of individual citizenship grew and tribal status declined the Ummayad poets broke with the qasida and wrote about topics of personal interest. Love poetry, wine poetry, and polemic verse developed as did the naqa'id or flytings a form of satire in which the poet attacks his rivals.
In this period there were two schools of love poetry, both influenced by music and a wish to set their poems to music
(a) Meccan school of lyric which is engaged and erotic, the poetry is typified by the ghazal, written in a simple and conversational manner. The best known poet here is Umar Ibn Abi Rabi'a
(b) Udhri or Bedouin school "practised a more self-pitying, platonic lyric with the poet as the martyr to an unobtainable mistress who idealizes all his hopes". This is poetry characterised by a natural simplicity of the language of country rather than town. Poets of this style includeJamil Buthaina.
But the best known poets of the Umayyad period are the writers of satirical invectives in the form of naqa'ids which were flung back and forth at each otheral-Aktal, al-Farazdaq and Jarir.

(3) Abbasid (750-1258)
The Abbasids built Baghdad which became a wealthy, cosmopolitan city but at the expense of other nations which felt subjugated. Poets not in court wrote poetry of poverty and struggle. These poets typically used natural speech eg Abu Nuwas “openly mocked the qasida, gloried in hunting, wine and boys”
badi poetic technical devices such as metaphor, alliteration, personification, hyperbole, assonance, dissonance, puns and wits.

Over time Abbasid poetry grew more complex “concepts are as important as images; ideas as dynamic as events” Eg Abu Tammam , Al-Mutanabbi is considered one of the greatest Arabic language poets. His poetry “expresses the Zeitgeist – the anguish of the homeless individual personifying the loss of empire” during this time of its decline, and Abu a-Ala al-Ma’arri.
al-Ma'arri‘s work has “philosophical overtones and moral energy” and is considered the “high water mark both of this period of intellectual dynamism and of the Golden Age as a whole.

According to the writers, Abbassid poetry after Ma’arri “was arrested by the dead weight of tradition and stultified by attempts at new forms which lacked the necessary accompanying vision and body”, matching the weakening of central government, a breakdown in trade links, invasion and the ultimate destruction of the Empire by the Mongols in 1258.

A word about translations – the translators and compilers of this book state they have “agreed to sacrifice form, rhyme, metre and sound…. in trying to communicate the spirit, tone, diction and content of the Arab originals into the English of today.”

Now to the 3 poets themselves:

wrote qit’a, or fragments, short descriptive poems, exclusively concerned with love. These short verses tend to concentrate on a single subject or theme.

Ahnaf’s poetry is said to be an “expression of a mature, humorous sensibility and reflects a wide variety of moods”. He wrote many of his poems to be set to music. “His diction is plain, simple and lively. Yet this simplicity is deceptive. His imagery is so natural that we are likely to overlook its originality. When he writes

“When she walks with her girl servants
Her beauty is a moon between swaying lanterns”

the picture he presents is clear, penetrating and immediate. It is also unusual.

In other poems he organises his metaphors and thought into a highly complex whole, but …we are only conscious of an intrinsic aptness. He constructs these poems like a mobile sculpture; the imagery of one line, or bait, is not logically connected with the imagery of another, but placed together the sequence of unexpected relationships establishes an organic sum which in turn creates an overall mood”. Eg

Love has trees in my heart, and they
Are watered by pent-up rivers.

The black-eyed girl who’s so demure
And speaks coyly like a high flute
Nudged sleep from my head. My liver
Turned to fire and I cried with pain.

I loved those tears which swamped my eyes
Two pupils drowned beneath a liquid sky”

Within a poem he often moves suddenly from one subject of address to another, from direct to indirect speech, without warning. This ploy encapsulates in the poem the rapid activity of an intelligent mind under pressure from a variety of emotions. The underlying humour distances the experience and places it in perspective.

My other favourites

"My dear, is your heart true or false?
It is false. You promised
To love me but the evidence
I was shown proves you broke your word.
Don't ask my heart to love you more
From its ground a spring burst like blood."

"On the road to her house, I was ambushed
By outlaw Night, then struck by suave Darkness.

A lone star in the quarry of the sky
Became a blind man ditched without a guide.

Who destroyed my sleep by closing her eyes
And won't see the agony her rest causes?

You’ve made my irises uncurtained windows;
Why must they stare? Let my sleep bless your sleep."


"When I visit you and the moon
Isn't around to show me the way,
Comets of longing set my heart
So much ablaze, the earth is lit
By the holocaust under my ribs."

(2) Abdullah Ibn al-Mu'tazz
A member of the Abbasid dynasty, he avoided court politics. When this book was compiled little of his poetry was available in translation. He frequently concentrates on an intense visual experience in a surprising metaphor or simile His work have an economy of expression which make us see physical objects from a different angle.

"Narcissus stares without once
Resting its eyes; its back is bent
By still raindrops, its face is pale
Watching how the sky chastens the earth."

(3) Abu a-Ala al-Ma’arri
al-Ma’arri’s poetry reflects the mind of a man who continues to think about the serious questions of life without coming to a final conclusion. Truth and morality are twin obsessions in his moral poetry. He uses wit, satire and epigram to lash out at man’s pretentions and follies. He was notable as being scornful of religion.

Perhaps my favourite has to be the heart wrenching

"The soul driven from the body
Mourns the memory it leaves behind.

A dove hit in flight sadly turns
Its neck and sees its nest destroyed"

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Saturday 27 January 2018

Review: The Last Bus Stop by Molara Wood

The Last Bus Stop The Last Bus Stop by Molara Wood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maryam, Ronke and Sade are three young Nigerian women from different tracks in Lagos are trying to make their lives in London - the great leveler. They take joy in each other's company. Ronke is tall and beautiful and is looking for a career in modelling like her heroine Naomi Campbell, but is finding it difficult as rejection after rejection comes because she doesn't have the "look we want" . Ronke also stands out as she listens to classical music, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, as well as R'n'B, Rap, Afrobeat and Juju. Finding her "look", skin colour, precludes her from much modelling work, she has headed off to New York - the next stop for the jet setting diaspora.
Meanwhile Maryam is struggling, unable to pay her tutition fees because her mother's business back home in Lagos has taken a down turn and then hit by robbers. Maryam feels she can't go back, she'd be seen as a failure. Sade doesn't have the figure for modelling but although raised in Nigeria she was born in the UK and so has that valued "rite of abode" stamp on her Nigerian passport. Unfortunately she cannot help Maryam financially with her fees or visa problems. Thinking she too could be a model, even though she is too short, Maryam tries to follow Ronke, but with a forged passport she gets caught and lands up in a migration detention centre and is to be deported.
This reflection by Sade of their time together takes place between Sade receiveing Maryam's call and her calling Ronke in NY.

ashramblings verdict 2 * Not much else to the story - for me it lacks substance - but we do understand how the differences between them impact them and how they are aware that only in London would the three of them ever have met, their Lagos circles would never have overlapped. But that London has and is wrenching them apart. The joys of each other's company fated to be but a memory recalled on every hearing of the Moonlight Sonata.

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Review: The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin

The Queen of Spades The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story of obession and risk is available via Project Gutenburg.

In 1830 St Petersburg, Prince Tomsky tells his gambling friends the story of the still secret card strategy of his 87 year old grandmother, the Countess Anna Fedotovna, which had been used in her youth to recoup her massive gambling losses. The down side of this is that the "trick" can be used only once. Sitting with them is Hermann, son of a German immigrant, who never plays not wishing "to sacrifice the necessaries of life for uncertain superfluities." However he throws caution to the wind when he hears about this guaranteed "sure thing" and becomes obessed with breaking the odds at the card table and winning big. What lengths wil he go to in order to feed his obession?

***SPOILER ALERT***The Countess in her aged forgetfullness has a ward whom she treats more like a servant companion, Lizaveta Ivanovna and Hermann devices a way to wangle himself into the Countess' house via a supposed show of affectionate letter writing to Lizaveta. Unfortunately once in front of the Countess, she promptly dies.

Following the funeral her ghost appears to Hermann and names to cards he should play - three, seven, Ace - on condition he marry Lizaveta, never gamble again, and play on one card a night on three consecutive nights. Using his inheritance, he does this. On the first two nights he bets high and wins big. On the third, he again places his bet on the turn of one card, but when he turns his card to match the card dealt he finds it is not the expected Ace but is instead the Queen of Spades. Hermann is in shock, and hallucinating that the Queen looks like the Countess Hermann thinks she "smiles ironically and winks here eye at him". This sends him mad and he is eventually confined to the asylum where he is heard obessively repeating "Three, seven Ace. Three, seven, Queen"

This is a story about life's unpredictability. Hermann is intially content to watch others living, having fun. He does not participate fuly in life until he thinks he has a way to crack the odds, to eliminate the risk, which of course one never can.

ashramblings verdict *4 A classic short story by one of the genre's masters

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Kiva–help others help themselves

Working capital is always difficult to acquire for individuals and small startup businesses especially those without access to traditional banking systems. Microfinance loans provide one answer. Crowdsourcing these means small loans of $25 are given by the many.  I’ve been doing this now for about 18 months in place of Christmas cards and presents, birthday cards and presents. Today I have another loan made via Kiva repaid and reinvested to help another coincidently both to ladies who wanted to buy sewing machines for their seamstress business – the first in Tajikistan, the new one in Zimbabwe.

Why don’t you give it a try – help someone help themselves

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Review: Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

Going After Cacciato Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When is a war story more than a war story? This is a writing tour de force by Vietnam vet and author Tim O'Brien which makes for a challenging and satisfying read if one goes with its flow and immerses oneself in it.

In moments of relative quiet and calm while on nightime guard duty by the seashore, the story's main character, a young American grunt foot soldier, Paul Berlin, attempts to make sense of the chaos and trauma he experiences during his tour of duty in Vietnam. His flights of fantasy manifest as the story of a group of soldiers following a deserter all the way to Paris.

O'Brien's writing explores imagination, how we tell stories in order to make sense of confusion, chaos, and its aftermath, both to ourselves and ultimately to those back home whom we love who thankfully never experienced the horror, or had to deal with the trauma.

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Monday 22 January 2018

Not, start a fire–a scene from a restaurant by Sheila Ash

Libra, libretto, liberty, Story Cube
cuba libre, labour day,
Impatient as Billy Joel is played
I drink my coffee ponderously
Looking towards the doorway
Deciding whether or not
on balance to wait or to stay.

© Sheila Ash, 2018

Referenced song lyrics

Sunday 21 January 2018

Renascence by Sheila Ash

The doleful old soul sat slumped in his chair
Until transformed by the skirling of the pipes and drums
Reeling and rising
Erasing the rheumy fog of the old man’s eyes
His stick began to tap the familiar beat of a long ago strathspey
The naissance of his lifelong love.

© Sheila Ash, 21 January 2018

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Review: 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

Review: 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

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 by Sheila Ash

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 by Sheila Ash

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 by Sheila Ash

“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