Five Books for a Fourteen-Hour Plane Flight

Somewhat foolishly, I booked a direct flight to India on a plane with no seatback televisions and, as far as I know, no chargers for my phone/Kindle app. So I’ve been making a list of paper books to read on the way.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I was about two hundred pages into this when I fell off the wagon of the group readalong on tumblr. I’m excited to get back to the adventures of Edmond Dantes, and even more excited to find out more about everyone’s favorite badass quadriplegic revolutionary grandpa, Noirtier (yes, he’s a minor character, but so far the most fun).

2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
To my shame, I’ve never read this book, despite majoring in Russian in college. Fortunately, I have a lovely English translation, which I’ve read a few chapters of. So far I’m more interested in the story of Pontius Pilate than in the satire of Stalinist-era society, but hopefully that thread will pick up later on. My fanfic loving friends may find this book interesting, with its “modern AU” of Goethe’s Faust and its audacious take on the New Testament.

3. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I know nothing about this book other than that it’s about an aristocrat in (once again) the Stalinist period, who’s confined to a hotel under house arrest. Also, both my parents read and recommended it. We’ll see how it turns out!

4. The Peach-Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren
I was perhaps lured into buying this under false pretenses, as the NYRB Classics blurb talks more about corrupt courtiers embezzling money for a theater performance than about the central love story, which is foregrounded in other summaries of the play. This is a Chinese classic about the fall of the Ming dynasty–a reformer and a loyal courtesan fall in love as their world falls apart around them. They eventually become Taoist monks instead of staying together.

5. The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag
I had to buy this because a) it was on sale for two bucks and b) it has an epilogue in the voice of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, Neopolitan journalist and revolutionary martyr. Mostly it seems to be about Lord Nelson (who put down the revolution Fonseca Pimentel was involved in), Emma Hamilton, and Hamilton’s husband, but it ends with a refreshing “They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.” I’ve read nothing by Sontag before, so this should be interesting.

Ester and Artemisia – Rivka Aarons-Hughes

The premise of Ester and Artemisia is wonderful–Adina, a brilliant black art professor, must decide whether or not to authenticate a painting forged by her forger crush/nemesis, Ester–, but the prose leaves something to be desired and the commentary on racism is superficial.

That said, the chemistry between the main characters and the unique scenario they found themselves in kept me reading this short and steamy romance (about 20,000 words or a little more than 50 pages). The sex is not generic, but serves to further individualize the characters. And though I’m no art expert myself, the symbolic centering of Artemisia Gentileschi, the Baroque artist who endured torture in order to see her rapist convicted and went on to paint compelling and emotional works, was very satisfying.

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That said, Aarons-Hughes’s fictional Gentileschi forgery is, as described, more interesting than the Black Lives Matter allegory which Ester also paints. Although discussion of racism could have been a more organic part of the story, since Adina is black and Ester, who is Hispanic, sees no way to break into the mostly-white professional art world as an original artist, it ends up heavy-handed and very broad.

Aside from this off note and the numerous cliches in the text (butterflies in Adina’s stomach, for example), this is a quick and engrossing read, full of detail about art, food, and sex. If you’re looking for novella-length romance, it’s worth checking out. And the cover is absolutely lovely!

Note: My Walking on Knives shares a publisher with this work.

Cover Reveal for Walking on Knives

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The little mermaid has no idea that as she makes her way on land, she’s being watched over by the sister of the very witch with whom she made her bargain. She has no idea that the witch’s sister is falling in love with her.

When the prince decides to marry another woman, the little mermaid’s secret helper offers her a chance to live. But the price may be too high…

Read excerpts here and here! Preorder here! Out from Less Than Three Press on July 26th!

Phantom Pains – Mishell Baker

51nbqqngrjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Borderline, Mishell Baker’s debut, was one of the more delightful surprises of 2016–a character-driven urban fantasy that dealt with managing mental illness while also stopping evil fairy plots. Phantom Pains expands on some of the plotlines hinted at in book one–class conflict in the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and Millie and Caryl’s budding romantic chemistry. When mysterious wraiths start possessing people, and Caryl is framed for murder, Millie must clear her name before Caryl is executed by her employers, the strict Arcadia Project that regulates contact between the worlds.

Baker introduces new memorable characters, like the melancholy and loyal Unseelie king, Winterglass, and a snarky manticore. She also upends plot expectations by having the resolution be a tense negotiated solution rather than a climactic battle. And the interpersonal relationships are complex as ever.

But its frenetic pacing works against Phantom Pains. While it’s an absorbing read, I would have liked more time for the emotional aspects to sink in. With paradigm shifts every few chapters undermining what the characters and readers thought they knew, we spend too much time catching up with the latest twist and not enough time processing with the characters.

Despite this problem, Phantom Pains is a lot of fun (with a bonus Dostoevsky Easter egg towards the end), and I can’t wait to see how the plot and characters develop in the next book, Imposter Syndrome.

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution – edited by Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk (bdralyuk here on WordPress) has put together an amazing anthology of contemporaneous writing from the 1917 Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath. It opens with the suspicious Marina Tsvetaeva’s post-February poem “You stepped from a stately cathedral”–the “you” is Freedom itself, and Tsvetaeva’s not sure she’s all she’s cracked up to be–and ends with Mikhail Bulgakov’s angry, despairing, yet overly optimistic Civil War-era essay “Future Prospects” (he predicts the British will aid the Whites and the Whites will win, but that it will take a long time to restore the standard of living and catch up with the recovering Western Europe). In between are poems and short stories and essays from all over the political spectrum. The quality of the poetry is generally higher than that of the prose (Bulgakov’s article is kind of a mess, and I wonder if it would have been included if not for his later work), but the prose introduces us a variety of lesser-known-in-the-West writers and gives voice to the defeated–as Dralyuk points out, the literature of the Red side really came into its own in the 20’s, outside the scope of this anthology (thus, no Babel, a writer Dralyuk has translated extensively elsewhere).

41khcvusayl-_sx324_bo1204203200_In the poetry section, the undoubted standout is Peter France and Jon Stallworthy’s translation “Spring Rain,” a beautiful poem from the hard-to-translate Boris Pasternak. It’s a lyric about the rain and the crowd going to the theater, but it’s also about the feelings evoked by the February Revolution, feelings of amazement, pride, and beauty. Stallworthy and France really unfolded the genius of Pasternak’s poetry for me, and even if I have a few quibbles here and there, I am in awe of their ability to make the translation a great poem in English in its own right. Their version of the poem ends:

“Not the night, not the rain, not the chorus
shouting “Hurrah, Kerensky!” but now
the blinding emergence into the forum
from catacombs thought to have no way out.

Not roses, not mouths, not the roar
of crowds, but here, in the forum, is felt
the surf of Europe’s wavering night
proud of itself on our asphalt.”

Alexander Blok is represented here by “The Twelve” and “The Scythians”, the latter in a rhyming translation by Alex Miller. Though it depends on the opposition of East and West which normally drives me crazy, and though its language is dated in places–the term “slit-eyed” recurs–it’s a powerful piece, a plea for peace and a threat all in one, calling on war-torn Europe to “hear the summons of the barbarian lyre” which is simultaneously “the ritual feast and fire/of peace and brotherhood!”

“You have forgotten there’s a love on Earth
that burns like fire, and like all fire, destroys…

…We love raw flesh, its colour and its stench.
We love to taste it in our hungry maws.
Are we to blame, then, if your ribs should crunch,
fragile between our massive, gentle paws?”

The prose section is, as I said, more mixed. Privshin’s “The Blue Banner”, mentioned in the Wuthering Expectations review of the anthology and translated by Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf, was definitely a discovery. Though I was initially frustrated with its folksiness and slice-of-life style, it soon shaped up into an interesting allegory as the hapless main character travels to revolutionary Petrograd, winds up jailed by the Bolsheviks on transparently false charges of “marauding”, hears of a plan to recruit “godly” thugs to save Russia, and later becomes a marauder in truth (albeit that his gang consists of his delusional self and one drunk guy). The author was a nature writer and he represents the city itself as a deadly place full of traps both physical and moral.

I also enjoyed the humorous stories of Teffi–I couldn’t help but do so, even when the humor was really not my sort of thing. “The Guillotine” was translated by Rose France, and satirizes the middle class, obsessed with trivialities and minor inconveniences but seemingly indifferent to their own doom. At the end, the guillotine victims, distressed by the lack of orderly queuing, think about forming a union–“Why should it only be other people who enjoy the perks of being guillotine operators?” It’s a dark commentary on human nature, but very  funny. “A Few Words About Lenin” was also translated by Rose France, and it’s a very cutting portrait of a party and a politician who are unscrupulous and also incompetent–failing to anticipate events or spot agents provocateurs, unable to deal with situations not described by Marx and Engels. She also goes after their taking advantage of their supporters’ illiteracy, describing a soldier who, hearing the slogan “Down with annexations!” believes it refers to a woman named Anne Exations. I have no doubt that something like this anecdote must have happened (unlike the joke about soldiers in 1825 thinking that the Constitution they were demanding was the wife of Constantine) but, much like that joke, it’s not actually funny when you think about it. Anyway, my personal gripe about political and actual illiteracy not being funny aside, Teffi’s wit and powers of observation are wonderful.

Yefim Zozulya’s “The Story of Ak and Humanity” is a great satire on dictators, their arbitrariness, sentimentality, illogic, and ultimate insignificance (“But the people, among whom there were some good men, some of indifferent quality and some very poor human material–they continue to live to this day as if Ak had never existed and there had never been any perplexing problem about the Right to Life.”). The name “Council of Public Welfare” in the story is clearly a mix between the Soviets, or more literally Councils, of 1917 and the Committee of Public Welfare from the French Revolution. The translation was done by Emma Goldman’s partner, the anarchist Alexander Berkman.

In “The Dragon”, Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, which I recently reviewed here, showcases his imaginative powers but doesn’t really tell a complete story–there’s something ultimately unsatisfying about his sketch of a city beset by dragons of the void, who speak in the Bolsheviks’ slangy, casually violent idiom. This piece is translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “A Wonderful Audacity”, translated by Rose France, is built around a simple idea–the country wanted a “strong” government, and in the Bolshevik dictatorship, it got it. Be careful what you wish for. Punchy one and two sentence paragraphs and simple yet vivid rhetoric make his point.

“They were weak; and you cried, “Stronger!”
And now your wish is granted. Kiss the whip that is raised above you.
It’s cruel, you say? Yes, but, on the other hand, it is powerful?
There is a lot of blood, you say?
Perhaps there is. Perhaps there is.
But then again, not so much that we shall drown in it….”

July release for Walking on Knives!

My f/f bisexual little mermaid novelette, Walking on Knives, will appear in July this year from Less Than Three Press. Preorder here!

I’m organizing a blog tour and other promotional events, so expect to see more about the story as the release date draws nearer. For today, I’ve got a brand-new excerpt (read a previous one here and add the ebook on Goodreads). Here’s the opening! (warning for dubious consent)

“You wanted this,” the sea-witch murmured. “You made the bargain, you agreed to pay the price.”

The little mermaid nodded mutely. She tried to look everywhere but at the sea-witch: at the crags carved with unconscious artistry by endless waves, at the pale moving lights cast by monsters of the deep, at the black infinity that stretched inward into the bowels of the cave. But tangled black hair and hard scales came between her and the rest of her world.

Sun-starved, chill, she submitted to the sea-witch’s touch.