Tonight is the final performance of Best of PlayGround 22 at Potrero Stage, and there are still tickets for sale! Check it out, see my short play “Sh*t Farming for Fun and Profit”, and stay for my writer talkback after the show. I hope to see you there!
Two great pieces of news today: this upcoming weekend, Thursday May 24th- Sunday May 27th is the closing weekend of Best of PlayGround 22 and the last chance to see my 10-minute play, “Sh*t Farming for Fun and Profit”. The entire Festival of New Works will continue to run until June 17th, but this is your last chance to see these six great plays arranged and performed together in San Francisco.
I am also thrilled to announce my newest news: my 10-minute play “Maybe This Time” has been chosen as part of ShortLived VII, a short-play competition in San Francisco where eight rounds of six plays each compete to get to the finals and win the Grand Prize of $5,000. There are a lot of wonderful playwrights and troupes participating, and I hope anyone in the Bay Area will be able to visit and show their support, by attending and voting for their favorite.
“Maybe This Time” will be performed in Round 3, running from Thursday, June 28th-Saturday, June 30th. Buy your tickets here and vote for your favorite show of the night!
The opening weekend of The Best of PlayGround 22 went amazingly, and I am so thrilled to have had the chance to see my piece, “Sh*t Farming for Fun and Profit” grow over the rehearsal and preview process. There are two weekends left to get tickets, so I encourage any Bay Area folks to check it out and support your local theater-makers.
Do you need to understand something in order to like it? The internet can get into some pretty deep spirals about “plot holes” and whether a story holds together under extreme levels of scrutiny and being held to rigid rules of reality. But I think there is value in occasionally sitting back and being taken along for a ride that is not held down in that way.
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat, published in Persian in 1936, has a plot. It does. A man (probably) kills a woman who is (maybe) his wife and then (possibly) cuts up her body and buries her. There are some events that occur in some order with a potentially set group of characters, but that is not why you read The Blind Owl. You read The Blind Owl for the wandering, cyclical, repetitive and spiraling path that gets you to those points. It is almost all stylization and crafting and poetry, and if you are in the right frame of mind to accept it, it is a good trip.
I tried to read this book a couple years back, at a point in time when I was not in the most positive headspace, and I stopped halfway through. Going back and reading my edition’s introduction by author Porochista Khakpour this time (presented as an essay here), it seems that this is a common reaction, and the book has developed a sort of mystique as something capable of driving a reader mad. This reputation is at least partly derived from Hedayat’s own suicide in 1951. Combine the author’s death with the head-trip narrative and the history of censorship of the novel in Iran, and you can see where the reputation comes from and why the forbidden allure is there. But the violence and delving into madness is the part of the novel I actually found least appealing. As a woman living in 2018, I have read far more than my fair share of think pieces about the tortured male psyche. The literary craftsmanship holds far more appeal and seems a lot more experimental than any musings on madness ever could.
The Blind Owl has what I would consider the best representation of dream logic in literature. The cyclical plotting, the repetition of key images and figures in an otherwise changing story, the narrator feeling ungrounded from time and space, it all captures a very ephemeral headspace that is the book’s real strength in my mind. You see attempts everywhere, but very few authors can genuinely depict madness in their prose itself.
I do not understand all of the things that happen in The Blind Owl, and that is part of the point. I am missing a fair deal of cultural and historical context that might make some parallels and signifiers more clear, but the plot of The Blind Owl is not something that can be charted out and pinned down to look for gaps and holes. It is something to experience.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, with a caveat that you need to be fairly comfortable with violence.
Feminist dystopian…bicycle stories? It is so absurd that when I saw Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories in Extreme Futures at a street fair stall, I had to give it a shot. One of my all-time favorite games is Zombies, Run!, a fitness app about runners trying to cobble together an existence in a zombie apocalypse, so I was expecting something similar in the realm of bicycling. Some sort of post-automobile future with lean survivors pedaling through ruins, nothing between them and certain doom other than two wheels and some rusty pipes. It is a fun idea, and some of the short stories in this collection delivered. Others were just…weird. And not in a good way, like I would hope feminist dystopian bicycle stories to be.
Published in 2017, Biketopia is the fourth installment in the Bikes in Space series, all edited by Elly Blue and published by Microcosm Publishing. I have seen Microcosm pieces in a few places, but never read one, and in terms of editing and publishing, the book is a bit of a mess. Several typos scattered throughout, and one mid-page name switch that actually managed to neuter the name-based conclusion to a story. It might just be that I myself am in the middle of a large editing project and am feeling particularly sensitive, but it was enough to bother me.
The stories themselves, written by a variety of writers, are a mixed bag, as is the case with many multi-author anthologies. I would separate them into three categories:
Stories that worked well.
Stories that did not work.
Stories that worked fairly well, but crammed bicycles into an otherwise unrelated story in order to fit the anthology theme.
Category 1 stories were actually pretty strong, and I will give individual shout-outs to the following:
“Signal Lost” by Gretchen Lair. In a future where insurance companies make people use health chips that monitor their physical health second-by-second, a newly pregnant woman feels restricted by the rules thrown up around her. This one had a great premise that feels like only a step and a half removed from our reality and a upbeat, chirping tone.
“Questions with the First” by Jim Warrenfeltz. Basically The Hunger Games with bikes. Which it turns out, is pretty fun.
“Maaike’s Aquatic Center for Bicycles Raised By Fishes” by Jessie Kwak. The title makes me laugh, and I love the idea of bikes as pets that need to be rehabilitated after being thrown into canals.
These are the standouts, though others are pretty solid.
Category 2 stories are usually at the fault of a lack of worldbuilding, not enough time spent painting the picture of this bicycle-filled world. There is also a tendency towards unnecessary cruelty in a handful of the stories, gore and body horror that seems to exist for its own sake. If your story is going to end with routine cannibalistic infanticide, you better have set up a strong world and story to carry it.
Category 3 stories were more amusing than anything, but weakened the cohesion of the anthology as a whole. Though with this being the fourth installment, I could see how editor Elly Blue might have already used up the most common wells in the first three books.
So with all of that said, how do I feel about Biketopia? I can’t really say. I’m mostly glad that I read it, but I probably could have found similar and better things with not that much effort. It was a decent way to spend my reading time, with a few bright points, a few low points, and some crap. If the premise of the anthology, feminist dystopian bikes, piques your interest, you will probably find something you will like, if not a lot of it.
One of the things I have enjoyed about this list is getting to read books that I never would have pushed myself to read otherwise. And for this book, I had an extra motivating force: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, by Wayne Johnston, is my partner Andrea’s favorite book, and we decided to read it out loud in turns together over Skype. I cannot think of another set of circumstances that would have led me to read a nearly 600 page piece of historical fiction about Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood. But I am glad for the motivation I had to get through this lovely, loping book with its contemplative prose and strong imagery (even if the main character could be a bit of a…shall we say, a tool).
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, published in 1998, is a bit of an odd situation in terms of its position as historical fiction. It is narrative of Joey Smallwood’s life, told using mostly factual information, but with a fictional journalist named Sheilagh Fielding serving as a lifelong friend, occasional adversary, and love interest. Fielding is not just an occasional composite character there to smooth out the narrative, she is centered as the motivation for many of Smallwood’s decisions and life choices, to the overwhelming exclusion of his actual wife and family. I know more about Newfoundland than I did before I started this book, but not nearly enough about Joe Smallwood to sort fact from fiction there. But Fielding is a wonderful character, so I am willing to go along with the novel’s quasi-historical vibe.
More than being just a story of Smallwood, Colony is the story of Newfoundland and its identity. The title perfectly sets up the tone of wistfulness about one’s place in the world and a sense of loss as potential futures slip through your hands. Joe Smallwood is the politician who ultimately spearheaded confederation with Canada for Newfoundland, but this comes at the loss of Newfoundland’s identity as an independent nation, which was already hard-won from England. The full history of the island is traced out through interludes of “Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland”, a sarcastic and snarky compilation that the character is writing, and it serves to give context to uninformed readers while also painting a detailed picture of a stubborn, strong population clinging to their windswept rock of a country with all of their might. The lush descriptions of the Newfoundland landscape and lifestyle are truly lovely and one of the book’s best strengths.
Fielding and Smallwood are great characters with funny, sharp personalities, but are generally best when used as lenses through which to see Newfoundland. Smallwood’s stubbornness and inability to see past himself for longer than a moment can wear thin by the end of the novel, but he is a great point of view character for a story like this, someone with a big, overconfident personality who was a key player in one of the biggest pieces of Newfoundland history. Wayne Johnston clearly wants you to feel strongly about Smallwood and Newfoundland, even if he doesn’t care too much that you like them.
This is not a book that I would have picked up independently, and perhaps not one I would have finished independently either. But with a couple of great characters, some key images and prose that will stick in my mind, and a history that I would never have been introduced to otherwise, I’m glad that I put the time in to learn.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, though perhaps as a project with someone else. At over 500 pages, it’s tempting to get lost in the middle.