Written by Jennifer Mitchell


Click here to listen to Jennifer’s interview with Rjurik, touching on destabilising genre in the publishing industry, writing across the borders of literature and fantasy, and how reading about fantasy worlds can lead us back into our own world with new and important questions.


 

Science-fiction fantasy (SFF) isn’t a genre I am really familiar with – if I was this would be a very different review. For it to have legitimacy among experienced readers of new-weird fiction I would really need to be well-versed in the field, intimate with the seminal works and the weighty lexicons and tropes of its mistresses and masters. But I am not, alas. So this is a mainstream review of another kind, inspired by and grounded in reading and being sensually immersed in the pleasures of the text.

And what dark addictive pleasures there are in both these novels for those who like their reading to be engaging and entertaining, but also mentally stimulating. Unwrapped Sky is a writerly text[1] in that it requires active reading, and there is a lot in both these novels to get your head around, but the work does pay off for readers who willingly open their senses to the new, but also uncannily familiar worlds and characters found laid out here with sophisticated depth and some stunningly beautiful language. After the first half of Unwrapped Sky, however, what could be seen as hard work transformed, for me, into sustained enjoyment.

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Unwrapped Sky opens with a sublime sensual experience – the descent into, and passing through the coastal city of Caeli-Amur of over three hundred minotaurs – arrived for a festival in their honour. As they spread out into the city streets and we follow behind their huge shaggy heads and ridged horns, we meet the city’s inhabitants of various castes in their seedy haunts, including the key protagonist, Kata, a young philosopher-assassin who is compelled by her powerful instinct to survive to act in ways that betray her humanity. In Kata we meet a character whose moral and personal crisis mirrors the restlessly moving layers of political ideals and plots, planes of perception and existence, states of life or death, of gaining and losing power that structure this at once modern and ancient metropolis.

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Written by Mike Heald

‘I believe that humans should be plants’ – Yi Sang

the_vegetarian_-_han_kang

By coincidence, I was deeply immersed in the philosopher Michael Marder’s project of ‘dismantling our deeply rooted [pun noted] metaphysical legacy’ with regard to plant life, as David Wood (puns coming thick and fast) puts it in his back cover endorsement of Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life [1], when I heard about this novel The Vegetarian, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. Marder’s overall contention is that our metaphysics has left us with ways of regarding plants which are radically reductive, invalidly and potentially disastrously excluding them from such vital categories as ‘life’ and ‘intelligence’. A novel, therefore, in which a woman experiences the need to become a tree was always going to get my attention.

In the novel, the main character, Yeong-hye, experiences the sudden onset of a revulsion towards eating meat, brought on by dreams, and then tries to live out a compulsion to become a tree, or as Marder might put it, to attain an ontophytological state. The beginning of Yeong-hye’s first dream is as follows:

Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin. (12)

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Written by Susan Karpasitis

Psychopathy in literature is by no means a modern phenomenon. We only have to glance across a bookshelf of ‘classic’ works to be confronted by Shakespeare’s Richard III, Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin and Stevenson’s’ Hyde, and their glorified psychopathic personalities. However, what has changed in post millennial literature and contemporary psychiatry is the way we categorise and empathise with these characters. Writers in the field of the medical humanities posit that perhaps we have been misguided in our approach; that perhaps these characters and the many more besides, are actually suffering from a personality disorder known as Anti-Social Personality Disorder (APD).

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Photo courtesy of David Pacey. June 15th 2013.

The classification of personality disorders in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV), the American Psychiatric Association’s “bible” of mental disorders, would seem to support this. So should we in fact be viewing characters as sufferers rather than perpetrators? Should we be seeking to review how we think about anti-social personalities in Literature? The answer from literary trauma theorists seems to be a resounding yes. Psychopathy and sociopathy (another confusing and largely outdated term) are not necessarily the same diagnosis as APD. The APD guidelines are much broader than those for Psychopathic Personality Disorder. Therefore, whilst those that we may label psychopaths may fit into the diagnostic criteria for APD, not all of those with APD are necessarily psychopaths. In fact, Kiel and Buckholtz in their 2010 paper suggest that as few as one in five sufferers of APD would meet the criteria for psychopathy (1).

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Written by Cara Burgio

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X-ray of bound feet, China. (Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

“Foot and shoe fetishism is widely believed to be the commonest type of fetishism existing today” claims sexologist Paul Gebhard in his article ‘Fetishism and Sadomasochism’ [Sex Research: Studies from the Kinsey Institute]. Despite being the most common sexual fetish of the body podophilia is still met with revulsion and unease by most. The history of the foot fetish can be traced back to 9th century China and the practice of chánzú, more commonly known as foot-binding. Considered a form of female oppression by Western cultures, the Chinese believed this ‘mutilation’ to be a source of rectitude and held those women with bound feet in the highest esteem. The narrowing of the feet through the process of pressing the four little toes under the ball of the foot and moving the heel forward, breaking bones so that the arch formed a high curve and created a deep cleft in the sole of the foot, gave the effect of a high-heeled shoe. Their tiny feet were a sign of beauty and femininity, reflected in the small delicate (and crippling) movements with which these women would walk. The erotic ideal was termed the “Golden Lotus”, a mere size of 3 inches.

Whilst aspects of the Cinderella narrative can be traced back to Ancient Greece, the closest version of the story has been attributed to the Chinese tale of Ye Xian (c. 890AD) where a young woman loses her golden slipper during a New Years festival. The slipper is then found by the King, who is so roused by the contours of the especially tiny slipper that he falls in love (with it) and claims he will marry its wearer. The story places great emphasis on the size of the foot, the implication being that Ye Xian has been through the process of foot-binding to an extent that her foot is extraordinarily small. The small gold shoe itself is enough to create desire in the heart of the King, and he is so overcome by his instinct that he proclaims he will marry the woman to whom the shoe belongs before he has ever met her. It is transparent that the source of his passion is a libidinal fascination with feet.

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Sheng, K 2014 (Shelly Bryant trans.), Death Fugue, Sydney, Giramondo.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Sheng Keyi has written (and Shelly Bryant has translated into lively English) an excellent novel about young migrant workers in China. Northern Girls is realistic, humorous, and convincing in its portrayal of young women who leave their villages to seek a new life. Xiaohong and Sijiang are nuanced characters shaped by naivety, and cunning who face exploitation but also take risks in search of rewards. Knocked down many times, and only occasionally helped up, their aim is to “make it” in a country that, over the past twenty-five years, has been on the most spectacular “make” the world has ever seen. Anyone interested in the transformation of China from an overwhelmingly rural society to a global powerhouse, and the young workers who feed the literal and figurative furnaces of that powerhouse, should be interested in the lives of the Northern Girls.

Impressed by Northern Girls, I was greatly looking forward to Death Fugue, the latest fictional collaboration between Sheng Keyi and Shelly Bryant. This anticipation was heightened by the fact that Sheng Keyi had chosen to write, allegorically, about the Chinese Protest Movement of 1989 and its violent suppression. I lived in China during that time. What is euphemistically called “The Tiananmen Massacre” is a defining moment in my life, and something I believe deserves deeper exploration through fiction. This is exceedingly difficult for a Chinese author still living in China to do. Sheng Keyi, a native of Hunan who now resides in Beijing, is bold and admirable for tackling this important topic. Death Fugue also appeared around the time of the “Occupy Central” demonstrations in Hong Kong, the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” against China’s denial of full democratic reform for the citizens of this former British colony (people who never enjoyed full democratic freedoms under the British). Unsurprisingly, Death Fugue is officially unpublished in China and it has not been released through Sheng Keyi’s previous English-language publisher, Penguin. Instead, a small Australian publishing house, Giramondo, has taken up her novel. While it is always good to stick up for the little guy having a go, Death Fugue unfortunately cannot be recommended as highly as Northern Girls.

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Williams, R L 2013 A Companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tamesis, Woolbridge.

Reviewed By Colm McNaughton ©2015

This companion, authored by US academic Raymond Leslie Williams, is an attempt to introduce the reader who is assumed to have no prior knowledge, to the complex and mercurial Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Explaining Garcia Marquez to the uninitiated is no easy task because he and his literary works sit at the very juncture of history, memory and imagination in the Latin American reality. Thus, to contextualize Garcia Marquez you are necessarily encountering the very processes Latin Americans have at their disposal to reflect on where they come from and where they might be headed.  Of course there are numerous critics, especially those north of the Rio Grande who will disagree with this assumption; but this is the very battleground which Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano so eloquently referred to as La Memoria del Fuego/ the Memory of Fire.

In placing Garcia Marquez both as an author and as a person into the maelstrom that is the unfolding of Latin American history, what I am proposing is that his works can best be understood and appreciated as a creative response to the historical/ political/ economic contexts in which he found himself and his fellows at a certain time and place. To do otherwise is to consciously (or even perhaps unconsciously) decontextualize and depoliticize both him and his works, and as a consequence you may be contributing to ongoing forms of imperial/ state violence against the Latin American body. This I will suggest is precisely the fundamental weakness of this volume. This text essentially approaches Garcia Marquez through a narrowly compartmentalised and siloed off discipline of literature, and as a consequence what we are encountering is but a distorted caricature of the Colombian author. Omitted from this perspective is any sense of the revolutionary seer, who throughout his working life develops an arsenal of metaphors, incantations and stories to confront and attack the reach and power of imperial imagination. Garcia Marquez’s frontal assault on the pernicious master’s imagination is akin to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which not only overthrew Batista, the US backed dictator, but also left a significant dint in the their beloved Monroe doctrine. Sadly, the Garcia Marquez we encounter in these pages is but an apparition of his marvellously real self.

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Written by Katherine Firth

The first Dada manifesto was read by Hugo Ball in 1916 in Zürich at the first Dadaist soirée: Dada is a simple word, he claims: it is “Very easy to understand. Quite terribly simple.” I had always believed it was a word that meant nothing, but Ball claims: “In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”… In Romanian: “Yes, indeed”. This means that it is a childhood word, an international word, a contradictory word, a hello, yes, no, goodbye word. In the second Dadaist manifesto 1918, Tristan Tzara suggested that “One shouldn’t let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language.” Small numbers of words are good, poetry, patterns are good. Dada helps you to strip away, allows you to return to a time of greater innocence, of cleaner, simpler, purer moments.

Dada is one stream in the early twentieth-century modernist avant-gardes that attempted to remake and rethink culture in these radical ways. The modernist small book and small magazine movement (1905-30) was strongly influenced by an interest in the book as a thing. The Russian Constructivist school’s little magazines were made of patterned wall paper off-cuts, like Khudizhestvenny Trud (Artistic Labour). The Dutch magazine Die Stijl (The Style) advocated bold lettering and radical, non-horizontal typography. The German magazine Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) broke the rules of painting which said that a picture should look realistic, look truthful, in order to enable artists to speak a deeper truth about spiritual realities. The lettering, the paper, printing on wallpaper samples, breaking the rules of type, of grammar, of visual layout, they all intentionally set out to break the rules, to build a new set of possibilities for books, for language, for society. This often went hand in hand with a radically new ways to understand the human condition through the insights of psychoanalysis.

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Riccardi, T 2011, Between the Thames and the Tiber: The further adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Pegasus Crime, NY.

Reviewed by Michael Todd


The first imitation of Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson appeared only four months after the characters appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1891. By 1995 there were over 2000 pastiches or parodies (Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes Vol 1 2005 p lvii).

From now on there may be an increase in the number of those imitations as the above-mentioned Leslie Klinger in October 2014 was successful in an American Court in arguing that the Conan Doyle estate no longer possessed copyright over the names Holmes and Watson (the estate attempted to collect a fee when other writers made use of the characters).

Ted Riccardi is a professor emeritus in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, and he has written some half dozen books featuring Holmes and Watson.

The stories, as with the originals, are written and have an introduction by Watson, and Riccardi has captured Conan Doyle’s writing style. While the stories reflect the original writing, the editing does have some problems, with a number of misspelled or deleted words, and the fact that the stories are not in chronological order is slightly annoying as you bounce back and forth between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Philip Kemp

The ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is a 2013 feature film starring and directed by Ben Stiller. The film is based loosely upon the famous short story by James Thurber of the same title, which was published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939 (and which is available to read free of charge on The New Yorker’s website).  

The scenes presented in the film are largely action-based and designed to cater to a broad audience, and the subtext of the film to some degree represents the sentiments of the short story. There are, however, substantial differences between the brilliant short story and this filmic attempt at profundity by Hollywood.

Tired of his monotonous job producing photos for publication, the title character of Walter Mitty in the film, played by Ben Stiller, daydreams of spectacular and exciting adventures. Downsizing executive, Ted Hendricks, is brought into the company to oversee the last print edition of the magazine before the publication is moved online.

The protagonist in the short story is possibly somewhat autobiographical and  Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1998, pp. 85-87) have posited that Thurber may himself have suffered from Charles Bonnet Syndrome or ‘visual release hallucinations’ where people with partial or complete blindness are subject to detailed and involved hallucinations such as those described in the short story and represented in the film.

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Written by Michael Heald

The recent television adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, is, in my view, quite a triumph. The novel itself, you may recall, achieved some notoriety when the historian Inga Clendinnen challenged its historical veracity. Grenville was lucid in the face of such an astonishing lack of understanding of the nature of art and story.

The Secret River follows the lives of Will and Sal Thornhill, from their impoverished struggles in nineteenth century London, through transportation to Australia, and their rise to the status of substantial land holders on the Hawkesbury River.

I will focus only on one short scene here, which I believe creates a dramatic image which can become a powerful moment in this country’s reflection on its colonial past. This occurs after the main character, Will, had been swept up in a punitive raid on a local indigenous camp, an episode of vicious mayhem, men, women, children and babies slaughtered, along with several of the white attackers. The aim of the raid, as far as Will was concerned, was to let the indigenous group know that they had to clear out and not try to visit his farm anymore, which was a part of their traditional country. Events had quickly spiraled out of control, however.

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Written by Susan Karpasitis

A while ago a former student proudly declared that they had found a book that they actually enjoyed reading. ‘It’s really good – you should read it, there is loads about how bad men are, and representations of strong powerful women – you love that stuff don’t you, you’re a feminist?’ Not really sure where to begin in reply to that comment, I walked off with my copy and decided to humour the student for old times sake! I fully expected that by the end I would have a strong and definitive opinion on how, and indeed whether or not, Gone Girl was something I could endorse or reject. I was instead left confused, and deeply affected by the polarities of the novel and film regarding its representation of women from a feminist perspective.

Let us begin where most discussions of female characters begin, with the Madonna/ Whore dichotomy. We all know this one. A woman is either a submissive, meek and willing sexual and emotional servant of the man/ patriarchal figure (think 50 Shades of Grey) or she is a sexually independent, passionate but ultimately treacherous ‘whore’ – (Gone Girl’s Amy). This is a tried and tested construct of female characters presented and firmed up in the good old Victorian era. The twentieth century continued to build upon the whore image, but added a little pop psychology into the mix – the sexually independent ‘whore’ becomes a man-eating psychopath – Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure – a danger to herself, to society and of course to the rational and stoic man. And that is where I assumed that Gone Girl would fall – into the category of intelligent but psychotic female lead.

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Voices from China

December 16, 2014

Eimer, D 2014, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, London, Bloomsbury.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Everything I know about ethnic politics in China I learned on the football field. As a foreign student at a university located in the Han heartland of eastern China, I was required to live in a dormitory exclusive to foreigners, way across campus from the Chinese students who could visit us only by passing through security and showing their ID cards. But my foreign classmates and I were allowed to play in the university-wide football competition, in an exclusively foreign team. Our rag-tag collection of Americans, Australians, Canadians, Danes, Japanese and Swiss managed to overcome our language barriers and football inexperience to win the competition. As university champions, we went on to represent our classmates against a rival university from the same Chinese city. A very large crowd of Chinese students from our university came to watch the game on our home ground, to support the other team. When our team won the game, the disappointed crowd immediately dispersed, except for a handful of students who came to congratulate us. These few students were Tibetans and Uighurs. The next year the Chinese authorities enforced new rules: foreign students were no longer permitted to play in the football tournament.

Book front cover

David Eimer’s new book about the borderlands of China looks carefully at the lived experience of ethnic minorities who survive under rules set by China’s Han-dominated political, economic, and military elite. Eimer first travelled to China in 1988 and lived there from 2005 to 2012, filing stories for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. Comparisons between his first exposure to China as a young man and the current state of events inform this excellent and accessible book, along with diverse experiences collected during his years of journalism, and his extensive travels across the country.

China has grown immensely as a world economic power from 1988 to today, and Han dominance of the minorities has clearly increased, not without some ethnic violence such as the Xinjiang riots of 2009 that led to approximately 200 deaths (mostly Han) and 1,700 injuries. Large-scale and strongly resented migration of Han people into minority areas like Xinjiang and Tibet has continued, to the point where Han people now outnumber Uighurs in the so-called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and Uighurs make up only 10% of the population in their own capital city of Urumqi. Urban ‘renewal’ – or in some cases urban ‘apartheid’ – has destroyed or reduced the ethnic character of ancient cities such as Kashgar on the old Silk Road, or created ethnically divided cities such as Urumqi in Xinjiang and Lhasa in Tibet.

Minority language bans have remained in schools, and publication restrictions have prevented access to works on local history, literature, and religion, enforcing Mandarin on ethnic minorities and endangering ancient languages and cultures. Religious restrictions have remained in force or have been strengthened – such as the ban on children under 18 years of age attending the mosque, or the blanket prohibition on religious practitioners working for the Chinese state, the latter being one of the key reasons why employment opportunities are so limited for some minorities.

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