Book Review: The Book of Tehran

On their website Comma Press write about why they publish short story anthologies.

“an anthology of short stories has certain advantages over a novel: it is better equipped, for example, to give readers access and insights into new cultures, because it is able to embrace difference and diversity within any one culture”

In the introduction to this latest collection from Comma’s ‘Read the City’ series, Orkideh Behrouzan asks the reader to set aside the

“over-simplified accounts of Tehran […] in Western media: from click-bait cliches about veiled women to images of a youth in revolt”

What these ten stories offer is a window into ordinary life in the Iranian capital. Most are written from the points of view of young people – male and female. Their outlooks on life are, obviously, coloured by their upbringing. While some feelings expressed are universal, and the cultural restrictions are generally accepted, it was hard to read these tales as requested – without judgement. The men and women appear to regard each other as almost different species. The girls aspire to marriage despite the fact many of the older, married couples speak of their partners with disdain. Women are routinely locked in rooms overnight. A young female character is told

“a girl’s virginity is her most prized asset”

In one of the notes sections that accompany some of the stories it is explained that the term ‘girlfriend’ is regarded as an insult.

“Since the use of this word was and still is a taboo in Muslim cultures, it has derogatory overtones. Used by men of lower classes”

The book was therefore read with a chasm between the morality policed outlooks of the characters depicted and this liberal, feminist reader. Gaining a better understanding of why such differences in attitude are accepted in different countries is one reason why the series is so worthwhile.

“Great fiction doesn’t disguise: in revealing contradictory emotions and contrasting worlds, it urges us to imagine and to challenge what we assume to know about a people.”

The collection opens with Wake It Up in which a young man is looking forward to the heartbreak he expects to feel when his partner emigrates, and how he hopes this will ignite his writing. Finding that he simply sleeps better after she leaves, he moves apartments and comes to the attention of a small boy. There is much humour in the tale alongside a touch of pathos.

The Other Side of the Wall tells of a young girl from a wealthy family who is required to take piano lessons despite showing no musical aptitude. Each week she must wait for her lessons in the apartment of distant relatives. She observes the neighbours, so different from the affluent adults her parents socialise with. She is especially drawn to one lady of ill repute. Despite dreading her lessons, the girl wishes to please her family.

“what they do and where they stand is predictable and fixed, and we, the younger generation, will inherit this ‘fixed place’. That is a comfort to us”

Sharing her short life to date with the successful and respected, she is then shocked when hypocrisy is revealed.

Mohsen Half-Tenor offers a picture of addiction and greed based around ancient antiquities. As in several of the stories, certain characters regard women with contempt. It is not stated but I wondered if this was based on class or behaviour. There appears to be little social mixing between the sexes, except within families or what are regarded as the lower orders.

My favourite story in the collection was In the Light being Cast from the Kitchen. A man wakes in the night and observes a smartly dressed stranger sitting on the sofa in an adjacent room. He is afraid of what will happen if he confronts the unexpected and uninvited man, yet also fears for his sleeping wife’s safety believing it is his duty to protect her. He starts to feel guilty at his reactions and to dissociate.

Sunshine focuses on a man’s obsession with a woman’s looks. She is having fun, experimenting with hair colour and other changes. He grows annoyed that she will not settle to his ideal. Wrapped around their encounters are dealings the man has with guards who warn him about possessing a photograph showing a woman’s body.

Domestic Monsters is a tale of families and their resentments which are passed across generations. Written in the form of a letter from a niece to her aunt it describes how the young women’s eyes have been opened to the older woman’s manipulations over many years. This was one of the stories that made me question why marriage was seen as desirable. Could the life of a single woman in Iran be even worse?

There are tales of potential poisonings, of wanting to impress a neighbour, of an intended punishment that goes awry when a man refuses to be controlled by a woman.

The collection finishes with The Last Night – a tale of four young college students who are together in their dorm for the last time. These women are educated yet long for marriage, worrying it will not happen for them. They talk of being brides rather than dreaming of future careers. One of the women plans to emigrate suggesting this is the only way to attain any sort of personal freedom.

These portrayals of life in Tehran were well written and interesting but so far removed from my own experiences as to throw up many further questions. Few of the characters, male or female, talk of how they earn a living – several of the men seem to sleep a great deal, even in the day. Morality plays a significant role in life choices, as do family expectations. I pondered, is their culture a choice or an imposition? What role does the acquisition of wealth play in acquiring status as happens in the west?

The stories offer a taster and I would be keen to learn more about how those living in Tehran, particularly the women, view the lifestyle they are required to adhere to. As the introduction states

“To solely read Tehran’s stories through the lens of politics and censorship, therefore, would be to overlook the tenacity of the life that pulsates through them.”

Readers are invited to immerse themselves

“in the deep and complicated currents of these stories.”

I struggled to empathise with many of the characters’ attitudes and wondered how they would view my supposedly liberal perspectives.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.

Book Review: Quartier Perdu

Quartier Perdu, by Sean O’Brien, is a collection of eighteen short stories. Many play on the suppressed fears of academics and writers – their desire for acclaim and to build a creative legacy. From within the rich, dark undercurrents much humour percolates. The author touches lightly on jealousies and ego yet gets to the heart of a quiet desperation. Those who regard themselves as successful bask in the company of:

“others wearing a thin blanket of carefully nursed resentment at their unsuccess”

The themes are vivid, often surreal. There is violence in association.

The collection opens with a story about an unbalanced relationship. Set in London during the Second World War, two young women employed by the BBC are vying for the attention of a colleague. In an attempt to gain the upper hand Vicky declares she has had enough and is going home, expecting Ray to accompany her. She ends up leaving alone. Unsure of her bearings she gets caught up in an air raid. Escaping underground she meets a ferryman. Their journey is cathartic.

The Sea-God is set in a remote, Greek bay at the end of the holiday season. A creative writing tutor has completed his contractual obligations and is enjoying a few days holiday. He is aware that, after close to twenty years, his star is on the wane.

“he and the public had begun to grow bored with his work, but readers of thrillers were a loyal bunch and would not wholly desert him for a while yet. After all, they had worked their way into their fifties with his books reliably to hand every summer. Why change now?”

Finding a journal in a drawer by his bedside he starts to translate the German text. His dreams become more vivid; his hosts pay him more attention. When a storm blows in he finds himself trapped in what many would regard as an idyll. He struggles to understand if what is happening to him can be real.

Several of the stories rely on drug taking to blur the edges between fear and reality. These drugs may be recreational, sinister, or administered by medical practitioners. There are those claiming to want to help. The protagonists struggle to retain control of their own minds and to convince others of their right to agency despite observed behaviour.

The legacy of dead writers is shown to be deeply personal and affecting. Quartier Perdu sees a young academic drawn into the dark world of the writer she has chosen to study for her PhD. Revenant explores the impact on a writer who believes he was the subject of another’s famous work.

Libraries feature in several of the stories. In The Good Stuff an academic is tasked with going through the meticulously maintained back catalogue of a recently deceased, prolific and popular author – one he does not regard as of much literary merit – to judge what should be bid for by his university. He discovers a sinister deal, one that could have ongoing consequences which would be hard to explain.

Ex Libris is a delicious dig at critics. A wealthy author takes exception to published views on his work and seeks vengeance.

Keeping Count is another tale of revenge. A self satisfied, aging poet agrees to be Master of Ceremonies at the interment of a supposed friend’s ashes.

“Of course, there was really nobody else to fill the role. He had gravitas, and he could still speak in sentences.”

As he muses on his plan to bed the widow he comes to realise that she has her own agenda.

A Green Shade is a wonderful satire on the modernisation of institutions of tertiary education. A new Head of Department, Todd, is using concerns over Health and Safety to cancel the long-standing tradition of an annual play. A retiring professor – whose Chair in Renaissance Studies will not be replaced – plans a swansong with the help of other discarded staff members who understand the true value of education.

“Todd’s Mission Vision, or whatever he was calling it, was of a merger with Media and Communications. ‘Let’s make English useful again!’ was his motto.”

An ancient play is resurrected and performed literally.

The final story, The Aspen Grove, introduces a writer in retirement who has settled in a quiet English backwater where he is trying to write a novel no one is pushing him for.

“People knew he wrote. He was said to have been working on a book for some years. Faced with his impermeable politeness on the topic, people had given up telling him that if they too had time on their hands like him they would also write books.”

Observing the habits of the locals living around him he misunderstands what actions are acceptable and suffers the consequences.

The writing in this collection is witty and at times piercing but always compelling. By blurring the edges of what may be defined as an individual’s reality, many ideas and their impact are touched upon. Carefully crafted to tell a story with penetrating understatement, this was an entertaining if occasionally sardonic read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press. 

Book Review: The Book of Riga

The Book of Riga is a collection of ten short stories written by Latvian authors and set in the country’s capital city. It opens with a history of the region written by a former president. As I am unfamiliar with the background and local culture, such information was of interest, although at times I still struggled to place each of the stories within the time-frame intended.

The authors write with a distinctive, Baltic voice yet their themes are universal. They explore the frustration protagonists feel at family, particularly the older generation with their undeviating demands and expectations.

In The Girl Who Cut My Hair a group of young people indulge in what they consider meaningful discussions whilst polishing their personal vanities and youthful if frivolous preoccupations.

“We were virgins with condoms in our handbags.
Our parents had not read either Freud or Henry Miller, absolutely not.
We were always at the ready – what if life should suddenly start?”

Westside Garden revolves around a place once owned by a wealthy family, now subdivided but still housing an elderly relic of that era. The events narrated differ between the lived experience and what is recalled with the benefit of hindsight and shared reminiscences. Sexual encounters are described as a sometimes necessary irritant. The women are still expected to adhere to a standard of presentation and behaviour.

“don’t fool around with slacks and bobbed haircuts, but act like a real woman.”

In The Birds of Kipsala Island, new build homes in the city housing young families and professionals are evocatively described

“like lockers in a gym changing room”

Within the changes imposed on the historic city, a creative community seek out places were they may indulge their conceits together. Self defined artists and intellectuals eventually realise

“no one in real life is as happy, as witty, or as capable of making sound judgements, as characters in fiction.”

The Shakes is set in an office where a successful businessman observes an increase in street demonstrations and tries to see into the future using history and detailed reasoning. In trying to draw his assistant into his endeavour he risks being seen as unhinged. She too feels something out of kilter in the air but prefers to perpetuate, while she can, the comfort of accepted roles and routines.

A White Jacket With Gold Buttons offers a picture of a writer’s hubris yet sensitivity to criticism, particularly from a rival he refuses to rate.

“Writing is, in a sense, close to psychoanalysis: the power of the written word comes exactly from the fact that an author spits out his most hidden feelings, without the shiny veneer that comes from pretending.”

The collection finishes with a supernatural tale, The Night Shift, that could be a metaphor for the realities of life, and inevitability of death.

The writing throughout presents with a distinctive cadence that is somewhat mordant yet arresting in the themes explored and characters developed. The city shines through as a beguiling survivor of its history, adapting whilst retaining its hold on certain citizens and visitors. I had never before considered visiting Riga. After reading this collection, I am tempted.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.

Gig Review: M John Harrison in Bath

Michael John Harrison had his first novel published in 1971 and has since produced more than twenty novels and short story collections, acquiring numerous awards and notable listings for his work. He is credited with being at the forefront of the New Wave science fiction movement. Although known for his SF and fantasy writing he now eschews labels believing the question of genre to be an irrelevance. He secures a space within which he can do what is necessary to get the point he wishes to make across, liberated to write what he needs to at the time. If not all readers get what he is saying he can accept this.

Prior to receiving his latest collection of short stories, You Should Come With Me Now (you may read my review of the book here), I had not come across M John Harrison’s writing. Thus I was pleased to discover he was visiting Bath and went along to Waterstones last Thursday to hear him speak. The event proved popular with the many in attendance who appeared familiar with the entirety of his published work.

Mike was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and an obvious fan. Having introduced his guest we were treated to readings of five of the shorter stories from Mike’s latest book. I was pleased that he included two of my personal favourites – Psychoarcheology and Jackdaw Bingo. He commented that many of the stories are linked to travel in some way, and he was therefore amused to be speaking from within the Travel section of the bookshop.

Following these readings there was plenty of time for questions – from Steve and the audience. Just as Mike’s writing cannot always be easily be categorised, so his answers were not necessarily what may have been expected. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the evolution of his attitude to writing and his creative style.

Mike was asked if he enjoyed playing the trickster. He explained that he sees writing and reading as a game, with points scored between writer and reader. He has fun with his writing, making use of tropes, employing parody and satire. In the past his intentions have not always been understood. Although his latest collection is subtitled Stories of Ghosts, the ghosts are such things as political spectres, past mistakes, ideas and situations.

Asked why he released a short story collection Mike explained that this came from writing his blog. There he takes a paragraph and then flips it, changing direction for the fun of it. He likes the results and also that he has produced stories of different lengths which fit well in a collection. As a writer, if there are no changes of direction he would consider himself stalled, even if still writing. He also has a novel in progress – it has fish people in it who may be trying to take over Britain and no one has noticed! Asked how he got involved with Comma Press he told us he had been looking for a small press as they are all the rage. He approached them and they agreed to publish this latest book.

Does Mike like to drop his characters and therefore readers into unfamiliar landscapes? He has always written about where he is at the time. He grew up in a village on the cusp of being absorbed into a suburb – an Edgeland. He enjoys exploring the transitions between landscape – woods, derelict factories, urban nature writing. He prefers to write what he sees without specialist knowledge of, say, nature, getting across to the reader the experience of simply being there.

His book The Centauri Device was mentioned. Originally conceived as an anti-space opera it ended up revitalising the genre and influencing the works of later authors such as Iain M. Banks. It is Mike’s most in print work but he hates it – he was advised not to write it but did anyway. He much prefers Light, an award winning SF novel which references his personal interests – mountaineering and rock music.

Talking of the New Wave he believes this had more influence outside the genre than within. For a time it broke through the limits of SF&F but the wounds healed. He has no desire to try this again. He has gone on to write as he pleases, always he wishes to move forwards, not working on repeat.

Mike believes genre should react to the writer rather than writers trying to fit into an existing space. Results come through the work of individuals who have differing ideas. An audience member asked about the New Weird. Mike agreed that such umbrellas may be necessary for a given moment, as a shelter, but in the end Mike doesn’t wish to be labelled.

Asked if he read Philosophy Mike admitted to doing so when younger. He sees SF as weaponisation of philosophical metaphor, bruising to read. He has been influenced by dozens of movements outside of fantasy. He manipulates ideas, tips them towards reality and then destroys the image created.

There was discussion of how to world build without info dumping, finding a balance so that the reader understands but the story moves forward. Editors often encourage description but Mike prefers to strip back, to follow his instinct. Info dumps are fine if entertaining – as in Pschoarcheology which contains little dialogue.

Asked how much revising of text Mike did he answered that he is constantly throwing away what he has written and goes through many iterations before being satisfied he has expressed himself as he wishes. Asked what books he has read recently he mentioned Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson. He would like to talk to this author about how he revises.

As the evening drew to a close Mike mentioned that the Christmas issue of New Scientist will contain a new version of Elf Lands – “a five-volume fantasy trilogy in 1000 words”.

There was then the opportunity to buy books and have them signed, with a long queue forming. The eager fans spoke of their excitement at the chance to meet this author, and he appeared happy to talk as he inscribed their purchases.

   

It was good to see so many younger men making up the audience at a book event. The demographic was notably different to most that I attend. Mike may have been writing for close to fifty years but it was clear from the way he spoke that he is more interested in enjoying what is to come than in what he has already achieved.

   

You Should Come With Me Now is published by Comma Press 

Book Review: You Should Come With Me Now

“You think you see the real world. But you don’t.”

You Should Come With Me Now, by M. John Harrison, is a collection of forty-two short stories written by one of the pioneers of New Wave Fiction. It is his first published collection of short fiction for over fifteen years. The stories offer an unsettling view of a world that is at times surreal. In many ways they depict the negative, stripping back experiences and emotions to show how skewed accepted behaviour can be. The cast of characters vary in time and place but share a need to find a personal space where they can be a version of themselves each considers authentic. Some attempt to reinvent themselves and those they interact with to achieve this. The self-involvement of protagonists is dissected demonstrating how much is ignored if not fitting the narrative a person creates.

Slightly longer stories are interspersed with flash fiction. My favourite of these micro stories was Jackdaw Bingo which depicts a time when aliens arrive on earth and seek the dominant species to interact with and learn from. It is amusingly perceptive, as are many of these tales.

Another that deals with alien invasion is The Crisis in which London’s financial sector is taken over and the authorities, as ever, seek those willing to sacrifice themselves for what is claimed to be the common good.

“You can’t be the rulers if you have no country to rule.”

There are dreams, ghosts, psychodrama. There are manipulations and powerplay between individuals and those granted authority, the acceptance of such in exchange for what is regarded as a safe existence.

“The strangest thing, he says in a kind of gentle wonder, is to live in a time like this, both bland and rotten”

My view of the world is not as negative as is depicted but I can appreciate the sentiments to which the author gives rein. There is little explanation which adds to the potency of each vignette.

In Autotelia offers an alternative view of a future society where entrance to London requires strictly controlled medical checks. Told from the point of view of a doctor who has distanced herself from the disturbing nature of this work it ends with an outsiders view of the doctor. How challenging to be confronted with what others see.

Psychoarcheolgy is an amusing take on the discovery of the skeletal remains of the famous under construction sites.

“dig for the evidence, develop the interactive exhibit, crowdsource the story the public wants to hear. It’s the contemporary equivalent of the religious relics industry”

“Why have we suddenly started digging them up like this? […] All they mean to us is what we want them to mean.”

Dog People portrays the rise and fall of a sexual relationship alongside the complexities of family ties. In this interpretation hope is transient, resentments forever bubbling to the surface.

Although described as science fiction or fantasy, and many of the stories are not of our world, the leaps of imagination within each tale enable the author to parody real life politics, capitalism, and even his own domain, the literary elite. Many of the characters exude a quiet desperation, a distancing of themselves from other’s expectations.

A wide variety of subjects are covered with a few recurring themes. In a collection of this size there will be stories that resonate and others generating a less visceral response. I was amused, challenged and, at time, confused. Overall though my first foray into this award winning author’s work impressed.

Probably best dipped into rather than gorged in a sitting. A varied, intriguing read.

You Should Come With Me Now is published by Comma Press.