14 Jul
2015

Advantageous, A Film To Make You Weep For Your Future

It’s that rare film: instantly mesmerizing, a story of slow, sustained suspense, with a plot delivery that’s more horrifying than what was promised.

It’s that rare film: a science fiction film written, directed and produced by Asian Americans. Even starring!

It’s that rare film: an American indie production that isn’t twee and doesn’t feature cute, young, awkward girls/boys thinking sex is escape but ultimately makes you all grown up.

It’s that rare film: a sci fi story without a time machine or killer robots/computers/aliens/virtual reality. The violence is internal.

Watching it, I was amazed by the storytelling. How in the world was it keeping that level of suspense without falling into tedium? And then the next day, I couldn’t think — I just felt what the movie was about: an unemployed single mother willing to risk her life to make sure her daughter will have every advantage possible in a world where men have decided that women should be unemployed. It’s remarkable how director Jennifer Phang decided to choose a sober, surreal technique to infuse the movie with despair. Women’s despair. The despair is physical, like a tree in the way a homeless woman is melting into the urban landscape. It’s music, the weeping heard above an apartment, below, and then inside, the most acute listener a young girl, this world her inheritance. Our inheritance. Our reality. Only we’ve chosen not to hear the weeping.

For an indie film, the movie has a large, impressive cast with no weak links. And yes, it’s that rare film: Ken Jeong in a serious role! Jacqueline Kim, who’s also credited as a writer, is wonderful to watch as the mother, and Jennifer Ehle gives a surprising performance as the one female doing quite well in the corporate world, the one woman men will point to and say, “See! There’s no sexism!” She’s doing quite well because she’s brilliant, ruthless, creepy, manipulative, immoral. Those qualities in either man or woman will bring success! The truth is, even men are helpless, but their weeping contained bursts of anger. Thus Advantageous is a complete world. That rare film.

31 Dec
2014

Thoughts On the Eve of a New Year

I was playing Mozart’s sonata in F major when I found myself at the third movement, which is a movement I’ve never liked and rarely play.

I rarely play an entire sonata and in a mood of F major, I decided I must finish the sonata.

It’s as I’d expected, and why I played it slowly. Suddenly I’m inside an incredible, moving melodic line and I wonder why this is a place I’ve never been.

Of course it’s technique, my improvement, but also a state of existence and a growing convergence toward Mozart (pain, unending disappointment with world and self, heart splintering away a life of countless divisions). Erratic maturation.

6 Nov
2014

Beelzebub

If the Silver Lady is my favorite creation, Beelzebub is a close second. Here’s an excerpt from Seal Skin where Beelzebub is a feature:

When I first saw Beelzebub, I wanted to laugh.

Beelzebub was like a naughty child, lying high on a golden palanquin with huge jeweled goblets of wine in both hands—oh, how he loved to drink, most happy, most entertaining when drunk and full of life. He was only four feet high. His face was rectangular, as if a clumsy craftsman had chiseled him from solid stone. His arms were short and his small feet nimble, always beating out a tune. I’ve never seen anyone like him in all these many years. He was always smiling, always chuckling, even in anger, even in malicious mischief. At first glance, he seemed to be wearing the most spectacular of crowns, a mist of sun jewels encircling his head. But it was not a crown. The jewels were dragonflies, buzzing lazily, Beelzebub’s hair a golden meadow. How dazzling their colorful wings were. Each wing like a sprig of galaxy light.

One day, while losing myself in the delights of the city, I suddenly became homesick. I longed to see my kinfolk, longed for my mother sea. My Fin. So I dressed myself in the most seductive attire and went to see Beelzebub.

“Clever Beelzebub, most powerful Beelzebub, you can find my sealskin. You can return it to me. It would be so simple for you. And I would do anything in return. Anything, my lovely Beelzebub.”

“Oh, my lovely creature. Oh, my lovely creature. Yours is a lovers’ quarrel. Lovers’ quarrels are dangerous things. Best not to get involved in lovers’ quarrels. Live and let live, eh? Now, how can I distract you? Have you been to the floating flower market? And you’ve seen all the wonders of the temple? The levitating chariot is quite fun. Tomorrow, during the first day of offerings, I’ll be riding the chariot and throwing lightning bolts from my fingertips! My first time doing that trick—I’m getting nervous just thinking about it! So many things can go wrong, and you never know with crowds. Incredibly difficult keeping the populace entertained. I know! How about this, my beautiful Ula? I will grant you any other wish. You must have other wishes? You children tend to have so many! I will shower you with such lovely things, you will forget all about your old sealskin. Oh, no, no—do not cry, my dear lady, do not cry.”

Trying to please me, Beelzebub broke out in a hilarious song. As he sang, he drank and danced and pretended to lose his balance, doing backflips around the room. He was the best of court jesters and I laughed to please him, my broken heart burrowing deep within me.

A week went by. And then Brenn came to me in a smoldering fury.

“Do you think I would not know of your plotting?” he asked. “Do you think you can use Beelzebub against me?”

“Oh, Brenn, give me my sealskin. I beg you. I will do anything you ask. I miss my home so. Cannot you see it, Brenn? I must go and see my home. I promise I will return.”

“You will not return. You will forget your promise. You will forget me. I am sick of you. I will never love you anymore. You will have your sealskin back. But only after I have my immortality. Not until then.”

Beelzebub was deeply upset. He tried to make peace between us.

“I meant no harm, no mischief,” he said. “I thought if I could just tell him how homesick you were, he would relent. Oh, you see, you see! One must never, never get involved in a lovers’ quarrel. Too dangerous. So dangerous.”

Beelzebub gave me a pretty bracelet and comforted me. Then he turned to Brenn.

“Now what can I give you, my boy? What does Brenn desire? A golden sword? Here’s a dagger crusted over with gemstones. Very pretty. Won’t cut through an apple, but very, very pretty. Humans bring me the prettiest things. I love being a god. So much fun. Does my greedy little heart so much good.”

“Please, Beelzebub, please, tell him what he wants to know,” I begged. “Please, Beelzebub. Tell him how to become immortal. Then he will give me back my sealskin!”

“Immortality! Immortality!” Beelzebub sighed. “I do not understand the craving for such things. It is like desiring to eat sweetmeats that you have never tasted. What if the sweetmeats disagree with you, eh? You cannot throw it back up with a nice burp. Here. Let me show you something much more fun!”

Beelzebub dismissed all his servants except the Sweet One.

“Now observe.”

Beelzebub raised his hand. His hand seemed to disappear. He seemed to be searching for something, as if he could see a box that we could not. Finally his hand reemerged, but holding a small glass bottle of blue liquid.

“Ambrosia,” he said. “The best that I can do for you, my boy.”

He took a swig from the bottle and then passed it around. Oh, I wish I had some now for you to try! How unlike it was to anything else on earth. The drink had no taste, not like the taste that we know, of salts and sugars. If Beelzebub’s ambrosia had a taste, it was the taste of beauty, of all the beauty in the world. I felt most awed.

“This was brewed for the last big feast,” Beelzebub said. “The wedding of Houghxydthvarioum and Sthinna. Before so many of us went into Chrysalis. We all thought Houghxydthvarioum and Sthinna were being very silly. A wedding? What was the point when Chrysalis was so near? Not that any of us ever stayed married. But they had never before been wed and wanted the novelty. Find out what it was like before it was too late. Alas, there is very little ambrosia left. And, of course, no more will be made. How fortunate that I had the good sense to steal a casket. Enough of this! What’s regret but a fool’s bread? Let us drink and enjoy ourselves! To Houghxydthvarioum and Sthinna! To my dear friends here and now!”

“How did you do that?” Brenn asked, excited with that hunger for knowledge which so obsessed him. “How did you create it out of air?”

“Create it out of air?” Beelzebub repeated, laughing. “My friend, if I had created it out of air, I would indeed be a god. Observe again.”

He held out his hand. Suddenly he was holding the most beautiful gown I had ever seen. Spun from some unknown metal, light as a spider’s cobweb, encrusted with a powdering of jewels that blinded the eye.

“For you, my lovely lady,” Beelzebub said.

“Really? Mine? To keep?” I asked, breathless.

“To keep? Oh, no, no,” he laughed. He was a miserly sort, a real hoarder. “But you may wear it if you like. For our banquets. After all, a feast should be for the eyes as well as the mouth. And I do so enjoy feasting upon your loveliness, my dear.”

“If you are not creating it, it must have been here all along. How do you make things unseen and then seen?” Brenn asked, puzzled.

“I do not make things seen and unseen, my friend. Ah! Must I spell it all out for you? I thought you were cleverer than that, my boy.” Beelzebub paused. It was clear that he was torn. The exuberant Beelzebub wanted to tell us everything but the greedy, sly Beelzebub wanted to remain quiet. “Perhaps you have guessed that I have much treasure? Too much for this world. Too much to carry with me. So I keep them hidden in secret places, safe places. Places in other worlds. I have the key, the knowledge to open and close the doors to these worlds. In this way I keep my treasures close to me. It is with me wherever I go, safe from any thief, any army, because only I have the key.”

“I do not understand. What worlds?”

“Do you think this is the only world? Creation is tumbling with worlds, sometimes stacked one upon the other like pieces of oat cakes. You poor creatures seem locked in a box, unable to see what is so clear to me.”

“Will you teach me? Show me these worlds! Let me through the doorways!”

“For what purpose? To steal my treasures? Come now. Do not be angry. This knowledge will not show you the way to immortality. And that is your one purpose, is it not? For now? Who knows what you will want once you have immortality,” he laughed.

“Are there others like you?” Brenn asked.

“Awake? Maybe one or two. The others are all in Chrysalis.”

“Chrysalis?” Brenn queried.

“We walk like humans for millions of years and then we cocoon ourselves, like caterpillars—marvelously pretty things, caterpillars, eh? Even at our most populous, we were not many. A thousand of us or so. And a good thing. We couldn’t live together. Terrible things happened. Fights, wars, petty jealousies, festering wounds, murder, treachery, lovers killing lovers, brothers killing brothers, sons killing fathers. Daughters killing everybody! We brought out the worst in each other. And when other life forms came along, the things we demanded of them! Blood sacrifices, war—just to show each other what power we had, what devotion we could inspire among dumb creatures. And for what? Alone, we are quite jolly. But never put us together. I become quite another creature, an ugly creature, among my own kinfolk.”

He would not say more.

Grim, Brenn packed a bag full of provisions and went up into the mountains. Beelzebub and I thought he was sulking.

“Good riddance!” Beelzebub proclaimed. “Now only we jolly folk remain!”

We had a wonderful time together while Brenn was away. Sweet Beelzebub made me his high priestess and we played all kinds of amusing pranks on his worshippers. During one full moon, we turned that great white stone green—oh, the hysteria we caused! When the dull winter days came, we sent brave warriors on mad goose chases looking for fantastical beasts. Sometimes messengers from anxious kings would arrive seeking advice and we’d make the oracle spout complete nonsense, just waiting to see how the kings’ wise men would translate it!

But good Beelzebub wasn’t all pranks. He had a deep affection for his people and did his best to help them. His sensible advice prevented wars, and during famines, he brought in food from other parts of the world. As a god, he blessed the people with yearly miracles.

“Humans, I find, need to believe in the divine,” he would say. “Otherwise they get so depressed and suicidal. No fun.”

I adored my days spent with Beelzebub. He could almost make me forget the sea.

After a year away, Brenn returned. He had a present for Beelzebub. A liquor he’d brewed, a liquor the color of rubies, dancing like flames.

“My offering to the god Beelzebub,” Brenn said. He bowed deeply, graciously as he presented his gift.

“My dear Brenn! What is this? What is this? It looks most promising.”

“It is ambrosia,” Brenn answered. “At least my interpretation. It took me a year to gather all the right flowers, to distill the freshly fallen snow a thousand times. I am not foolish enough to think that this ambrosia resembles in any way the ambrosia of the ancients, but I hope it will please you, Beelzebub.”

Beelzebub drank his glass greedily.

“Oh, this is most delicious, most intoxicating, my dear Brenn. Triggers a delightful effervescence in the soul. I have underestimated your gifts, my boy. Underestimated them most erroneously. My apologies, my deepest, most sincere apologies. I feel suddenly a thousand different selves, all happy, all blissfully happy in all its many stages. So many delightful ways to be happy.” He sighed and fell back on the cushions. I think he was singing. The air was vibrating like rain. He drank several more glassfuls. Brenn waited patiently.

“I shall make you my Master Distiller,” Beelzebub said, sinking very deeply into his pillows. “Master Distiller. Must be careful, or all you will end up as is the heads and tails of hate, my friend.”

He seemed to understand what was happening, what Brenn was doing.

“If you want to avoid death, think what feeds life,” he babbled. “Death, of course. Look around you. From the lowly worm to the cosmic universe, life comes from death and death from life. Everything you eat, my friend, is death. Animal, plant, you kill to eat. It’s impossible to eat anything live. The moment life is in your mouth, it flees and you eat death. Life from death, death from life, you’re stuck in the cycle. So what to do?”

“Break away from the cycle.”

“Find a way to eat life. Now my darling, my darling—” He reached for my hand. I went to sit by him. “My darling is as close to an immortal as any creature.”

“Ula is immortal?”

“Immortal?” Beelzebub chuckled. “No. Not immortal. She’s just stuck. You’ve stucked her. By taking away her sealskin. Without her sealskin she is held the way she is, mummified by your poisoned love. And you, it seems, with her.”

“You’re immortal,” Brenn said.

“Oh, no, no. Don’t look at me with those hungry eyes, my friend. Even the gods cannot escape the scissors of Fate. I am not immortal. I am part of a race that lives inside a different time than yours. For you, I seem immortal, because seen through your time I live for millions of years. Not that you are always aware of us. We live in stages. First as dust, than as you see me here. Soon, I will reach my chrysalis stage, cocooned and unnoticed for another million years before I become like the air. You will only feel me as pressure and force, an occasional dance of light, and I will not care one iota about you. To me, you will be like dust, the whole human race like a spot of ink.”

Brenn now accepted the truth. Beelzebub was not immortal. He did not know the secret of immortality. But he was as certain as ever that the secret existed.

Beelzebub was not angry at Brenn for his treachery. He was as good-humored as ever, treating us with magnificent hospitality. He did not know the secret of immortality but he knew the secrets of many, many things, plants, minerals, animals, of sky and earth. These things he slowly taught Brenn, and with his clever ways Brenn began to manipulate this knowledge to extend his life. He no longer needed me every seven years. But he still needed me and he would not be satisfied until only he himself was the gateway to life.

Seal Skin is available at Amazon, B&N, Kobo and iBookStore. Also at Scribd and Oyster!

14 Oct
2014

The Silver Lady

 

Here’s a very fairy-tale inspired excerpt from Romance of the 3 Djinn!


There’s a world inside the shell. With trees and grass and sky. The sky is this very pale pinkish white. I’ve entered at the edge of a forest. Before me lies a small path that circles to a pretty cottage garden, which in turn takes me to a large, two-storey house. The roof is a lush green—I think there’s grass growing on the top. Grass that’s been cut very short so that it’s like a carpet—and it’s dotted all over with tiny white daisies. The windows are heavy with flower boxes, the flowers in them gigantic and candy-colored. My legs begin to walk up to the front door. I can’t stop.

“Hello, my darling,” a voice calls out. There’s a woman looking through a curtained window near the door. “Let me open the door, my darling!”

She’s beautiful. Tall, maybe eight feet tall, with long, curly silver hair. She’s wearing an apron. A nice, crisp white apron with two big pockets below the waist. As she waits for me, she smoothes out her apron with the longest fingers I’ve ever seen.

“You’ve lost your way, haven’t you, darling?” she says. Her voice is so soothing, glossy paint gliding on walls. “Come in and rest. Have a nice cup of tea, and then we can figure out what to do with you.”

She has me sit at the square kitchen table. She gives me a cup of tea. All the while she keeps staring at me.

“My,” she says, sitting down next to me, “it has been a long time since a stranger has come our way.”

She inspects my arms, my hands.

“My, what beautiful bracelets you have on,” she says. “And your rings! You sparkle like a rainbow, my darling!”

“Thank you. They’re wedding gifts. From my father-in-law.” Then I think I’d better say his name, to protect me. “From the Great Djinnaye Altan. My father-in-law.”

“The Great Djinnaye Altan,” she repeats, smiling wryly.

“You have heard of him, haven’t you?” I ask nervously.

“Yes, my darling. A great Djinni indeed. It would be nice to have such a father-in-law. But then, one would have to marry. Which would be a shame.”

“So you know who the Great Djinnaye Altan is?” I repeat, afraid.

“Yes, my darling. Who hasn’t heard of the Great Djinnaye Altan?” Her voice twinkles and I think she’s teasing me.

“Then can you tell me how to get home? Back to his palace. I don’t know how I got here. I was in a room and I saw a seashell—”

“A seashell, my darling?” she says, almost purring.

“Yes. Does that sound strange to you?”

“Not strange. Not at all. Seashells are quite common. I am not particularly fond of them myself, but I will admit that some seashells are very pretty indeed.”

“What is this world, please?”

“Oh, my darling, you’re getting yourself all worked up and that will do no good. Not to you. Not to me. As I said before, we will figure out what to do with you. Now relax yourself and finish your tea. I make a very good cup of tea, if I do say so myself. I can bake some scones, if you’re hungry. Tea and scones are so lovely together. Like rain and lightning.”

“No. I had my breakfast just a moment ago. Thank you.”

“Then drink your tea, my darling. It will make you feel better. Nothing like a good cup of tea, they say, which I find to be generally true. And then we will talk. I will tell you all that you want to know. And perhaps more.”

My tea is almost gone. My head feels strange, the room becoming dark. I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m surprised to find I’m half asleep.

“Now that’s better, my darling,” I hear her say. She has such a beautiful, soothing voice.

When I wake up, I’m lying on a wooden slab. I can’t move.

“Now, listen, my darling,” the silver lady says. “The second you touched the seashell your fate was sealed. There is nothing you or I can do. So think nothing more of it. I will now tell you where you are. This is the home of the Ghoul Crona. I am his servant. I am compelled to do everything that my lord Crona commands. He is not easy to care for. He likes to collect things. Woe to any servant who must care for a lord who collects things! See, look there. His latest passion is the jeweled arms and hands of great ladies such as yourself. I do not know why. But how can we ever understand the passions of others, unless we share their passions ourselves? And I certainly do not share Crona’s passions. But as his bonded servant, I must serve his passions as if they were my dear own.”

I see that there’s a shelf which is high up near the ceiling, one that circles the whole room. The shelf is sparkling with huge jewels—diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, lapis lazuli, corals, pearls, strings and strings of them—all hung on willowy arms and hands.

“Yes, I’m afraid you are waiting for Crona. He will be delighted to see you. As I said before, we haven’t had a stranger visiting us in a great long while. The seashell used to wash up on shores, to be found by one pretty lady or another. But about a thousand years ago, the Great Djinnaye Altan locked the shell up, so we’ve been quite hungry. You must have been naughty, because he will occasionally send us naughty creatures, bad witches and Djinn and the like. Oh, my master will be pleased! He’ll be back any minute now. He likes to go fishing in the afternoons.”

Terrified, I try to move my arms and feet. I can’t. I try calling out to Deacon, to Youri, to Channa. I try to vanish into smoke. Nothing. There is nothing I can do. All my great powers gone. I can’t even speak.

“There really is nothing you can do, my darling,” the silver lady says kindly. “It’s the tea. The tea has dulled all your powers. As you can see, you will not be able to lift even a tiny finger. Poor thing. I hate to see you struggle so. If you’d like, I can give you more tea. So you will sleep and not know what will happen.”

No! I scream inside. It’s my only chance, to stay awake and try to find a way to fight.

I hear someone coming up the pathway. The door opens.

“You! Come and get the fish!”

“Yes, Master,” the silver lady says. “Master, we have a visitor.”

“A visitor!”

The voice changes. It sounds like a delighted little boy. Into the room comes a giant, a very good-looking and even sexy one, like a movie star. A lock of thick hair brushes over one eye. Impatiently, he sweeps it away.

“Look at her jewels!” he cries out. “And what lovely arms to mount.”

He sighs with pleasure.

“Will you have your tea first, Master?” the lady asks.

“No. I can’t eat. I’m too excited. I must work now. Or maybe I should wait. Prolong the pleasure. It is not often that we get a visitor nowadays. No. I’m too excited. Let’s do it now. I’ve never seen jewelry so magnificent. She shall be the centerpiece of my collection.”

“She’s all nice and clean so I haven’t had much to do. No nasty sand or anything. And doesn’t she smell nice? I’d like some of her perfume. I thought we could pickle her after you’ve removed the arms.”

“Yes. That would be nice. And then we can have her with lots of cabbage. Lots of stewed cabbage.”

“And onions! With juniper berries! That would be lovely, Master. I look forward to it. I will get you your tools, Master.”

“I think we will have to sharpen all the knives before we start. We haven’t used the tools in a very long time. I want to do a pristine job.”

“I think you are right, Master. I shall do that now.”

A few minutes later, I hear the silver lady sharpening knives in another room. The giant stays with me, measuring my arms, my hands, each finger.

“How will I mount your arms?” he asks, looking at me from different angles. “I think I will do the classic v shape. I’m so out of practice. Let me look at my notes.”

There’s a book he wants on a shelf, a large, heavy, leather-bound book.

“I wish I’d take better notes,” he says, struggling with the book. “This diagram isn’t making that much sense now. It’s been too long. I should have had a professional do it. Let’s see.”

He looks around the room until he finds a pair of arms in the shape that he wants. He studies the arms for a long time.

“I don’t know,” he says to himself.

He comes over to me and lifts up one of my arms, comparing it to the mounted arms he has in his other hand.

Move! Move! Move! I scream in my head, desperate to save myself. I have to move; I have to fight. Arms, move! Choke him! Choke him!

The giant gasps in surprise. So do I. Because it’s not my arms that are attacking Crona—it’s the mounted arms in Crona’s hand. In fury they grab him by the neck. The giant falls backward but quickly regains his balance, ripping the arms off. Immediately another set of arms grab him. And then another, and another. All the arms in the room, the vast collection lining the ceiling, spring down towards him in terrible blood lust.

“Help! Help!” the ghoul screams.

The silver lady rushes into the room.

“Oh, my,” she says. “I’ll be right back, Master.”

She comes back with a huge butcher knife. Holding it high in the air, she swings the blade, chopping the giant’s head right off.

“Oh, that was lovely,” she says, surveying her work. “What a clever girl you are, my darling. I want to eat you up. You do smell wonderfully delicious, my darling. I was looking very forward to eating you with cabbage. But—by rights you deserve my gratitude for freeing me. I must do the proper thing and let you go. It was my disobedience to the Lady Karma that got me into this wretched situation in the first place. I rue the day I bit the heads off my baby sister. The tea will wear off in an hour or so. Sleep until then, my darling.”

I feel terrible when I wake up. The worst headache ever, all my blood vessels throbbing like they want to turn my brain inside out.

“So how do I get home?” I ask the silver lady. She’s busy mopping the blood off the floor.

“I do not know, my darling,” she says, seeing me now as a nuisance.

“You don’t know.”

“Not a clue.”

“Then what should I do?”

“Go back the way you came, I imagine. Now go along. I have a lot of cleaning up to do as you can see. Doesn’t his blood smell horrible? It’s that diet of his. Too much fats. I’m going to have to flood the floor boards. Rub the wood with plenty of rosemary and juniper. It’ll take days, I fear.” She sighs, but with deep contentment. “Well, the sooner I get started, the sooner things get done! I’ve never been much of a procrastinator.”

The silver lady holds the kitchen door wide open and scoots me out. She starts humming as she gets back to work, completely forgetting about me.

As I start for the woods, I see the giant’s headless body lying on the grass. Birds are already picking it over. I don’t suppose she’ll want to pickle that. The smell is pretty rank and I run to get away.

In the woods, I start blindly calling out for help.

“Deacon!” I call out. I don’t really believe he’ll hear me. That anyone will hear me. But I’m so frightened and I don’t know what else to do. “Youri!”

Still—Channa must realize by now that I’m not in my room. Ever since the Rain Viewing Festival, when Youri reprimanded her for losing sight of me, she’s kept a pretty close eye on me. She’s not someone who likes to be reprimanded. They must be looking for me. Even if it’s just Channa. I scream out again. Channa! Nothing. Maybe time passes differently in this world. Maybe in my room, only a second has gone by. I can’t be sure of anything anymore. I could be trapped in here forever. No—not forever. I can’t be trapped here forever! I start walking faster, looking frantically for some kind of sign or marker signaling the way out of the shell. If I got into the shell, there has to be a way of getting out of the shell. Right? There has to be an exit somewhere. Right? I just don’t know what it’s going to look like. And that’s what worries me. It could look like anything. A leaf. A pebble. With no flashing neon sign to point the way.

The hopelessness of it all calms me down. I look up at the pearly white sky with its streaks of pink. The shell? I reach for it, the top of the shell, and with everything I have, try to shoot right out of the shell. It just makes my headache worse and I have to lie down. I’m going to die here, I think, and I can’t help crying, sobbing, my fingers digging into the dirt.

Trapped inside a seashell, almost pickled and eaten for dinner—could my life become any more bizarre?

 

Romance of the 3 Djinn is available at Amazon, B&N, Kobo and iBookStore.

17 Jun
2014

On Finally Finishing The Tale of Genji

From Wikimedia: A hand scroll painting dated circa 1130, illustrating a scene from the "Bamboo River" chapter of the Tale of Genji.

The Tale of Genji. Sounds so romantic. Who can resist a story about Heian aristocrats, written in prose as elegant and luxurious as the period’s court costumes? Pages and pages of aesthetic delights, the celebration of romance, poetry, flowers, Genji (the tale’s hero) so beautiful, surely even the moon is envious.

Right.

Okay, this is what the book is really about: rich men behaving badly. Really, really badly. Like gross frat bros who stalk, kidnap, rape and even groom girls. This is a shocking book. I have never read a book with so many rapes and sexual assaults. It’s just an endless series of woman hunting.

Three, four hundred pages into it, I was left puzzling. I mean this book was written by a woman. Why would a woman write so elegantly, even sympathetically, about the adventures of douches whose main hobby is preying on young girls and women? (Interestingly, there is only one mention of a woman sexual predator and she’s played for cruel laughs).

Then, somewhere around page 900, I started to realize it wasn’t about the boys but about the girls. The Tale of Genji is really The Wail of Women. It builds, slowly, tear by tear, the very first tale about Genji’s mother, a gentle woman who dies from the sheer stress of court life. Specifically, she’s driven to death by the bullying of other women. Why is she bullied? Because the emperor loves her. And because she doesn’t have powerful male relatives to back her up.

So, The Tale of Genji is the tale of just how vulnerable a woman becomes when she lives in a society where women are completely dependent on men. If a man wants her, and his position is high enough, even the wife of the emperor is not safe from his advances. And that man can be anyone, even a stepson. Her only escape is the nunnery or death. (And the nunnery isn’t that safe: the book ends on a cliffhanger involving a nun who’s just too beautiful for her own good. And let’s get this straight: the douches will tell you that it’s always the girl’s fault, for being beautiful, for not being nice, for playing hard to get, etc.)

In the book, life is such hell for women, they usually don’t survive past the age of 35. If a man doesn’t drive her to death, the vengeful ghost of a rival will. Sure you get to wear awfully pretty clothes, but who the hell wants to marry your rapist to avoid a scandal? And that’s if you’re lucky because more often than not you’ll just become a secret mistress holed up in the middle of nowhere. And you won’t get any sympathy because even your mother will tell you how lucky you are to have been taken up by such an important and beautiful man. Yup. That’s some kinda reality there. (A really disturbing part of the book describes the bewilderment of a young girl as her kidnapper and groomer begins transitioning her from playing with toys to sex. And who is this groomer? Our hero Genji. But it’s all good because he’s so beautiful. Granted, the idea of beauty is complicated. In Heian times, beauty was considered a kind of karmic prize you got for being so good in a previous life. But what about this life, I kept wondering? The way Genji acts throughout the book, he’ll be lucky if he’s reborn as a hyena. I’m not saying he’s all bad. Out of pity he collects and adopts downtrodden ex-lovers, housing them at his great estate like he’s running a petting zoo. He’ll even occasionally visit them for a nice chat.)

BTW, the edition I read was the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition translated by Royall Tyler. Great edition with footnotes as overflowing as the hair of a great Heian beauty. The footnotes are essential—you need them to keep track of who’s who. Really. Characters are often referred to by their court/job titles, which change since people get promoted or die. And then suddenly old characters are known by new titles and old titles are referring to new characters. Confusing as hell, I’m telling you. A quarter of the time, I had no idea who the writer was talking about. Especially when there’s a new paragraph and there’s only a “she” or “he” and you’re thinking, “Who she?” since there could be two or three people “she” could be.

Since I mentioned page 900, I’m sure you realize that this book is big. And heavy. I injured my thumb trying to read it in bed. Took months to heal; the book took months to read. Why isn’t this an ebook?

9 May
2014

Contentment

Bob had been sitting in the car for over twenty minutes. Parked up on the next hill, he had a good view of Dulcey’s house. He’d come to feel responsible for the house. Like a good family doctor. With care, houses could last forever. Bob’s thinking was that a house like Dulcey’s should last only as long as the love did. Another year, Bob thought, another year and then he’d repaint. Some of the upstairs window frames needed repair. He’d do it all in one go. It was a grand house and he loved the feel of it.

He started the car and drove home full of contentment.

Carol’s car was in the garage. Surprised, Bob bounced into the house and grabbed Carol by the waist, giving her a messy smooch on her cheek.

“My, you’re in a good mood,” Carol said.

“So I am, so I am.” He gave her another kiss.

“You want to go over to Dulcey’s for dinner?” Carol didn’t see Dulcey as much as she would have liked. With her new job at the museum and all her volunteer work, she had even less time now than when the kids had been little. She missed her piano lessons. She’d start again soon.

“When do they expect us?” Bob asked.

“Around eight. Why?”

“I wanted to know if we have time,” he said. “And we do.”

He threw Carol over his shoulder and took her into the bedroom. On the bed he tickled her until she was crying with laughter. And then the tickles became caresses, the fingers, lips. The love they made was very quick, very hungry. The rest of the hour they spent lying together, holding hands. They were like warm little radiators.

Rain began to fall as they drove to Dulcey’s. Hand in hand they ran towards the house. Little droplets of rain covered the button of Carol’s nose. Bob wiped them away tenderly with his thumb. Carol put her hand around Bob’s neck and kissed him passionately.

 

This is an excerpt from Anchored Leaves, available as both paperback and ebook at Amazon and Barnes & NobleBuy a copy!

4 May
2014

Stories of Love Under a Full Moon

Chris was head over heels in love. He’d never been in love before. There had been all his crushes, but those had been warm buzzes of joy.

“I wish—I wish you knew what it was like, Penny. I wish you’d fall in love so I could talk to you about it.”

Penny thought that was a lousy reason for wishing someone in love. She didn’t trust love somehow. Everything she’d heard about it made her afraid. Like Dulcey and Cal. Dulcey was still in love with Cal, and yet he’d broken her heart. At first because she’d been too much a baby, and then later, when he’d died. Heartache was love, happiness imagined later, to make sense of love. Dulcey’s eyes still lit up thinking of Cal. Love twisted things around.

Chris and Penny were sitting on the opposite ends of the porch swing, where minutes before Chris had found Penny curled up fetus-fashion reading a book. She seemed so much a world within herself that he’d almost walked away.

“She’s so beautiful,” he said, the statement a cresting of all his newfound emotions. Love hunched him over, as if it was just too much for his body to bear. He looked up to see what Penny thought; she was smiling, not for him, but about some thought he was bound by only in its periphery.

“What are you smiling about?” he asked gently.

“Oh—” This brought her back to him. “I was just thinking—someone once told me that being in love was like having butterflies in your heart and Megan said—” Penny stopped. It was the earnestness on Chris’s face. He wouldn’t understand.

“I guess it’s sort of like that,” Chris said, trying to find a way for Penny to understand. “Only it’s more like someone grabbing you from the inside. It’s wonderful.”

Penny listened, quieting her hesitations. They sat together twenty, thirty minutes before Chris got up to go.

“I just wanted you to know how I felt,” he said, smiling enough to turn the whole world pink. Penny stared after him. She was unhappy and sat by herself thinking. When she went inside, she was glad Megan was at the breakfast nook. Spook was on her lap and she was reading a cookbook, her reading glasses slipped halfway down her nose. There was an impression of parody, of an old-fashioned storybook grandmother.

“Chris gone?” she asked, looking up. Penny nodded, sitting down next to her.

“Megan, what do you do when someone’s in love and you know it’s wrong?”

“Wrong? How so?”

“Wrong—wrong for them.” Penny didn’t want to mention Chris, but she didn’t know how else to explain herself. “Chris is in love with this girl we met when we were up at Sequoia—”

“Oh—” Megan said. She closed her book. “Well—you could kidnap him and lock him away for a couple of years.”

“You just have to watch, don’t you?” Penny said.

“I’m afraid so, Penny. Besides, how do you know? You don’t know what two people are like in private, when they’re alone together. There’s no place for wrong or right in a relationship.”

“But sometimes you know, Megan,” Penny said, holding back tears. It seemed so useless to know anything.

Megan felt suddenly dizzy, the air around her spinning. She put her head back and closed her eyes. We’re all in a dance, she thought. Swirling past each other, same steps, same gestures, in and out of ancient patterns, unable to stop, unable to help, except with a quick glance of helpless compassion while the silent music makes us move.

Dulcey walked in, feeling the mood, instinctively knowing its weight.

“It is a full moon, isn’t it?” she said wryly.

They looked out the window, a brilliant stone moon filling a quarter of the sky. Megan and Penny started laughing.

“I was just on the phone with Helen,” Dulcey said. “Penny, your grandfather is doing just fine. Completely his old self, Helen says. Although I don’t know about Helen. She sounds a little odd.”

“In-lawitis. When’s Helen coming back?” Megan asked.

“She wants to stay a couple of more days,” Dulcey replied. “Look at that magnificent moon! Let’s go outside to watch. We used to have the most marvelous moon-viewing parties—dancing to a full moon, reciting poetry, eating moon cakes, making up riddles.”

The three of them sat on the porch and watched the moon crest overhead. The sky was cloudless and black, the moon capturing time. The distance between them and the moon seemed merely an imagining.

This is an excerpt from Anchored Leaves, available as both paperback and ebook at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Buy a copy!

15 Apr
2014

Fog & Dreams

Here’s a poem I wrote on a foggy night. (It’s in the style of Tale of Genji.)

How can one not have
mournful dreams
when foghorns drift in
& out throughout the night?

12 Mar
2014

Happiness


Here, an excerpt from my novella All Married Together:

It was incredible pain. Waves and waves that had Will rolling on the ground screaming. After an hour of mental handholding, Chess took him to the emergency room.

The pain was centered in the lower right quadrant of his abdomen; Will was sure it was appendicitis. He had to lie down. The waiting-room chairs had arms so he went flat on his back on the hospital floor. The pain was slowly progressing into unbearable territory; Will thought he was going to throw up. The restroom was two yards away. There was constant traffic between Will and the restroom.

Chess knelt beside him. The nurses weren’t happy that Will was on the dirty floor but they left him alone. The big clock above him ticked away as the large double doors near his head opened and closed, gurneys with injured people sliding past him.

They’d been in the emergency room for almost an hour: there was a baby that couldn’t stop screaming and the faint smell of vomit in the air. A group of Japanese came in, all wearing face masks. The emergency room was just half full. Patients seemed mostly healthy except for the baby and a young woman who was burning up with fever. Her boyfriend had her wrapped up in his arms. Mysteriously, the Japanese were herded away into another building.

Through an intercom Will’s name was called. Chess helped him walk through those large double doors and into an examining room where a male nurse had him change his clothes before helping him onto a bed. Will shivered fiercely in the hospital gown.

“Let me get you some blankets,” the nurse said. “There. Better? Good. We tend to keep things cold. I know it’s awful but it keeps the germ count down.”

Will kept gripping the metal guards surrounding the bed, half rising in pain, almost as if he were about to give birth.

“We’ll get the doctor to see you as soon as possible,” the nurse said. He was so cheerful, so patient, so reassuring, so familiar. “And then we’ll pump you up with meds and get you as comfortable as we can. Just hold on a few more minutes.”

Will nodded.

Meanwhile a hospital staff officer came with a thick packet of financial and legal paperwork to be signed. Will was in no state to read legalese, so Will opted to give Chess his power of attorney.

“You’re sure you want her to have it?” the officer asked. “Because she’ll make all the decisions from now on.”

And Will said with contentment, “I can’t think of anyone better.”

“We’re married,” Chess explained. The officer smiled, happy with the answer.

The doctor came. He asked Will five questions. He seemed to have diagnosed Will’s condition with one look, the questions basic and redundant. “Kidney stones, most likely. But we’ll get you scanned just to be sure.”

The diagnosis was a go signal for the nurse. Within five minutes, Will was pumped full of Toradol, Dilaudid and Zofran.

“Dilaudid,” Will said, giving a thumbs up to the nurse.

“Almost worth getting kidney stones for that,” the nurse joked. “Now how do you feel? On a scale of one to five, one being no pain and five being pretty lousy.”

“I’d say three. Going on two,” Will reported.

“That’s what we like to hear,” the nurse said, happy. “If the pain gets to four, call me, and we’ll get you back down to three. We want you to be comfortable but we don’t want you floating off to space, if you know what I mean.”

On the drugs, Will felt very calm. He’d thought the drugs would make him drowsy but he felt fully alert and at peace. Will wasn’t sure if he’d ever felt like this, his thoughts remarkably tranquil.

“I’m surprised I’m not still in the waiting room,” he said to Chess. “I got treated so quickly.”

“You jumped the line. There were several people ahead of you, including the screaming baby and a woman who was burning up with fever. I think it was because you were lying on the floor moaning. That really helped your cause.”

“I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m in the emergency room. I don’t think I could have planned it any better.”

“Kidney stones. I thought it was going to be something serious. I was sure they’d be wheeling you off to surgery. You had me really worried.”

“Me too. I had no idea kidney stones were this painful.”

“I think we must have the world’s most cheerful nurse,” Chess remarked.

“Is it the drugs or does that nurse seem really familiar?” Will asked. “I feel like I know him or something.”

“I keep thinking the same thing,” Chess said. “Oh! I know. He looks just like that actor—you know, the one we saw in that movie last week. That comic.”

“Yeah. He could be the guy’s twin brother,” Will agreed. “You don’t think it’s the actor doing research?”

“Maybe that’s why he was so liberal with the drugs,” Chess joked.

Will held Chess’s hand with gratitude and love.

“I’ve put you through a lot,” he said. “You must be tired. You haven’t even had a chance to eat dinner. Why don’t you sit down. It might take a while to get the scan.”

Chess agreed. There was a chair near the foot of the bed. She was still feeling jet-lagged from her trip to South America—she’d met so many people, visited so many farms and factories—her body buzzed with the trip’s vibrations and she couldn’t keep her eyes open, thoughts lost in the background noise of the hospital.

The tiny examining room was near the ambulance entrance. The corridor was busy, firemen and police, people in traumatic distress, gurneys and the sound of their wheels against the hard floor. Nurses and paramedics joked about sandwiches, their attempts at sneaking away for late dinner breaks, a quick smoke. Will’s first wave of pain had attacked him around five that evening. It was already ten.

Outside, in the corridor, a new struggle was beginning. There was an elderly man, six foot two, weighing maybe two hundred and thirty pounds. He kept arguing with the nurses: “Where’s my sweater? Someone took my wallet. Someone took my wallet! Where’s my sweater?”

“Sir, you have to stay on the gurney. We don’t want you to fall again.”

“I know what’s going on,” the man said. His voice was choking with anxiety. “You’re all in on it. Someone took my wallet.”

“Please get back on the gurney!”

He struggled to find himself. The nurses tried to soothe him; they asked him questions about where he lived: “Yes, yes, I live alone. My wife died. That was years ago. I live alone now. I used to teach. At the college. I have an apartment. I’ve lived here a long, long time. But it’s not really an apartment.”

Several times the man tried to force himself out of the gurney, but lacking strength, became entangled instead. Frustrated, the staff began threatening him, treating him as if he were a very large, very naughty child. Terrified, he refused to speak again, moaning, “Leave me alone, leave me alone.”

After this, for a long stretch, there was only quiet.

Will watched Chess. She was soundly asleep, fatigue creating shadows on her face. He remembered that first time she was asleep in his arms, on the floor of the airport, the blizzard raging away. They shared so many memories now, Chess and Will, tiny unremarkable memories that came surging through him as pure joy. His sorrow was that he hadn’t married Chess years and years before. Then regret dissolved and time was no longer relevant: in a total compression of heart and soul, his memory claimed Chess from the very beginning of his birth. Yes, he’d known Chess all his life and he was going to know and love her for a fourth year and a fifth year and a sixth year and on and on until all the years were a suspension of love and happiness.

A young orderly came in and asked, “So, you ready for a ride?”

Chess woke up. She felt as if she hadn’t slept at all, just merely floated along with the consciousness of the hospital.

“Is it all right for me to come?” she asked, gathering all their possessions.

“Sure,” the orderly said, getting ready to push the hospital bed out into the corridor.

Chess walked alongside the bed as Will and the orderly cheerfully bantered together. Will was still hooked up to his meds, still calm, still relaxed. Chess couldn’t help smiling. Which was strange. Everything felt strange, like she was hooked up to Will’s meds too. Maybe she was dreaming. But she liked it. Because for the first time, she actually felt married. To Will. That she and Will were really married. And she smiled and smiled. She and Will were all married together now.

“What are you laughing about?” Will asked.

“Nothing. I’ll tell you later,” Chess said. “Later, when we’re home.”

“Home. I can’t wait.”

Their home together.

All Married Together is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook.

6 Jan
2014

Women Writing Woes

Today I was reading Flavorwire’s interesting post on Jennifer Weiner and her difficult position in the debate about women writers. The post is also a dissection of Rebecca Mead’s Weiner profile in The New Yorker (Mead is one of my favorite writers, BTW—been a fan for years [even fact-checked a piece of hers and found her to be really nice, which you can't say about most writers]).

Both the post and article talk about genre fiction versus “literary” fiction. Genre fiction, like chick lit and what’s known as “commercial” women’s fiction have plucky, likable heroines and a happy ending. Most people like and want genre fiction. Thinking about this made me realize that most literary agents are also genre fiction readers. So many of my own novels have been turned down by agents because they didn’t think my heroines were plucky or likable. (The plucky thing seems to be very American.)

Alas. I have to agree with Claire Messaud when she says you’re in deep trouble if you’re reading to find friends. And as Michelle Dean writes in her Flavorwire post, “Many women are not safe, relaxing, and fun personalities, and it is a little strange, and constricting, and even stultifying, that we are afraid of seeing them be so messy in books.”

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