NEW BOOK REVIEW: Lisa Mason’s ODDITIES (Part 1)

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Figure 1 – Oddities Cover – “Blue Beauty” by Tom Robinson

For my 300th column for Amazing Stories®, I’ve chosen to review a new book by San Francisco’s Lisa Mason. It’s a collection of 22 previously published stories from such varied publishers as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Omni, and several anthologies. (Full disclosure: I was given a freebie by Ms. Mason; I’m not sure whether she knew I was planning to review it.) The book is long; my review’s too long to be done in one go (you know, the old “TLDR”—Too Long, Didn’t Read.) So I’ll be splitting it into at least two parts, possibly three.

Ms. Mason and I share a love for the city of San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, Tom Robinson (who designed the cover of her new book, see Figure 1). Of the places I’ve lived as an adult (aside from Vancouver, where I now live), San Francisco is my favourite. My father was born there in 1915, but I was born slightly north of there in Vallejo, in Solano county. When I was first in the Navy, I took my basic training on Treasure Island in the Bay, then when I went on active duty, I was stationed on a World War II destroyer (the U.S.S. Twining, DD-540) which was itself stationed at Treasure Island.

T.I., as we used to call it, was also the site of the Golden Gate Exposition in 1939 (seen in the movie Charlie Chan at Treasure Island), and a number of set pieces from that fair were still on the island when I took my basic training, including an incredible fountain with a mosaic tile floor and Art Deco statues around the rim. Alas, when my wife and I visited T.I. a few years ago (almost exactly 40 years later), we discovered that the island was no longer a Naval base, and the fountain had been removed, with the statues moved to the front of the island’s administration building.

Figure 2 – Statue on TI

I spent 3 years living in San Francisco while in the Navy—okay, for a while my first wife and I lived in Daly City (south of The City) in Naval Housing—both on the Twining and elsewhere. That “elsewhere” included a long stint in the district called “Haight-Ashbury.” Another time I will tell you some of my adventures during the “Summer of Love” in the centre of America’s hippie culture. (You can read some similar adventures in Lisa Mason’s book titled, not terribly coincidentally, Summer of Love, A Time Travel.) So Lisa is a San Franciscan and proud of it.

Figure 3 – Lisa Mason

She’s the author of several books, many set in this city, and a large number of short stories, twenty-two of which appear in this new volume. The ebook version is available in print now in the U.S.; and on Kindle on November 17. Lisa is a very versatile writer, and this is a great collection. You may have read the occasional story by her in one of the above places, but I doubt you’ve read them all. The book’s divided into three sections, titled “Part I Yesterday” and (guess what?) “Part II Tomorrow”; and “Part III Fantasy.”

Part I comprises only four stories, but they’re goodies. The first, “Every Mystery Unexplained,” takes place in San Francisco in 1895. Danny Flint is the son of a traveling stage magician; he and his father and “Uncle Brady,” a freed slave, move from engagement to engagement in a huge covered wagon drawn by a team of four horses. Danny’s father has an illusion where he fences with “Death,” who is actually Danny behind a mirror, which is very popular with audiences, and Mr. Flint tells the audience he can communicate with the dead. (The mirror illusion is called “Pepper’s Ghost,” and can be seen in an episode of The Mentalist, as well as being used instead of CGI in the movie Home Alone.) Danny is disillusioned (sorry) with the life of a traveling magician’s assistant, and feels he is responsible for the death of his mother earlier. After a performance of the duel with Death, a mysterious, beautiful woman calling herself Zena Troubetzskoy asks Mr. Flint to communicate with her husband. Stage illusionists know that mentalism—that version practiced in the 19th century, at least—is a scam, and he refuses, but he’s broke and she has gold. Lisa weaves these disparate threads into a very engaging tapestry that will have you guessing till the last minute.

”Daughter of the Tao” is about Sing Lin, a mooie jai—a household slave girl bought from another family. Sing Lin works for the Cook in Tangrenbu, a 10-block area in what would eventually be called Chinatown in San Francisco. It’s either the 19th century or early 20th, some time before the famous 1906 earthquake. One day, when sent to buy shrimp for the Master’s dinner, Sing Lin meets Kwai Yin, a mooie jai who’s two years older than she. At this time, the Chinese are forbidden to bring their families to California, so Sing Lin and Kwai Yin must disguise themselves as boys to do their shopping (the Powers That Be at that time were afraid of what eventually happened anyway, that a lot of Asians would fill the state, along with other People of Colour including Indigenous, Hispanic, Black, and so on. What fools we mortals be, as Shakespeare said!).
When she’s with Kwai Yin, Sing Lin somehow sees magical creatures (there are four main ones: dragon, unicorn, phoenix and turtle); she learns that Kwai Yin is a Daughter of the Tao. Alas, there is only one end for a mooie jai that grows up, and that is to become a daughter of joy. (The joy is for the men who pay a procurer for a short time with the Daughters; there is no joy for them.) A bittersweet tale of a time gone by.

”Ghiordes Knot” begins in 220 BCE, in the time of Darius the King of Persia. We learn of the artistry of a man named Latif, who feels he is blessed by Ahura-Mazda, and has visions that he incorporates into the rugs he weaves (a non-manly art, but his own). In a short hop, we are in the current year (2020, remember? It’s gonna be one of those we want to forget about). Gabriella was an artist, nearly 30, whose gay life in San Francisco’s art colony was cut short when she succumbed to the blandishments of Geoff, a financial wizard of some kind. After they were married, he whisked her across the bay (to somewhere in the North) where she can only see the city itself dimly through the windows of their model home. Weaving the strands of this story, from 220 BCE to today, Lisa makes twin pictures: one of a woman held captive by an abusive husband; the other an artist who fails to please an abusive king.

I’m not sure how to characterize “The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria.” On the surface, it’s about a Surrealist painter named Nora, who fled Europe in 1941 with a playwright named “B.B.” for Mexico. Arriving in Mexico City, the two became friends with people like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera—the whole surrealist crowd in Mexico at that time—and a woman named Valencia. Now, my mother was a painter and a sculptor; she had studied with (not as a pupil of his) one of Australia’s premier artists, Russell Drysdale, so you can believe I know a little about art. This story makes it clear that Lisa Mason is also conversant with art; her descriptions of not only artworks and their process, but also the making of egg tempera and its uses show that art is something Lisa knows about and cares about.
According to the story’s afterword, it’s meant to parallel, or perhaps just echo, the story of two of her favorite Surrealist artists, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo—the Nora and Valencia of this story. They were both independent women bucking the male-dominated—in spite of Kahlo—world of Surrealist art at that time. The story itself, perhaps echoing the year Carrington spent in an asylum, dips into surrealism off and on. Hysteria itself, despite the mentions of Freud and Jung, plays little part in the story. Oh, and this story has nothing to do with San Francisco. (Just thought I’d mention it.)

Comments? You like? You hate? Please comment—here, or on Facebook, or even by email. (stevefah at hotmail dot com) All your comments are welcome! (Please be polite, okay?) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!

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