Monday, December 28, 2015

Year in Review: 2015

For my year in review post, I decided to split my selections into award categories. So here are my selections, published both before and during 2015. They are in no particular order within each category, and links go to my reviews (and the original story, if online). If there is no link, my review is probably still in the works.


Best Speculative Fiction (Long Form) 

The Devourers by Indra Das
A Planet for Rent by Yoss, translated by David Frye
Tantrics of Old by Krishnarjun Bhattacharya
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Cult of Chaos by Shweta Taneja

Best Speculative Fiction (Short Form) 

"Thirst" and "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet" by Vandana Singh from The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories
"The White Mask" by Zedeck Siew from Cyberpunk: Malaysia
"A Village of Cold Hearths" by Sheng Keyi, translated by Brendan O'Kane from Chutzpah!
“Retracing Your Steps” by Zhu Yue, translated by Nick Admussen from Chutzpah!
“No Man Is” by Ng Yi-Sheng from LONTAR volume 5
“Siren” by Amanda Lee Koe from LONTAR volume 5
“The Spurned Bride’s Tears, Centuries Old, in the Rain” by Gord Sellar from LONTAR volume 5
"Psychopomp" by Indrapramit (Indra) Das

Best Literary Fiction (Long Form) 

Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik, translated by Rawley Grau
The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden
The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt
The King's Harvest by Chetan Raj Shreshta
I am Istanbul by Buket Uzuner, translated by Kenneth J. Dakan

Best Literary Fiction (Short Form) 

“The Failure” by Aydos Amantay, translated by Canaan Morse from Chutzpah!
“Dust” by Chen Xue, translated by Howard Goldblatt from Chutzpah!
"Blue Hawaii" by Rizia Rahman, translated by Niaz Zaman and Musharrat Hossain from Caged in Paradise
"Mother Fatema Weeps" by Rizia Rahman, translated by Shirin Hasanat Islam from Caged in Paradise
"Caged in Paradise" by Rizia Rahman, translated by Niaz Zaman from Caged in Paradise
"The Balloonwala" by Anirban Bose from Mice in Men

Best Humor and Satire 

The Black Box by Alek Popov
Dangerlok by Eunice de Souza

Best International Films 

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi
Nueve Reinas by Fabian Bielinsky
Aguner Poroshmoni by Humayun Ahmed
The Lives of Others by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
English Vinglish by Gauri Shinde
Dil Chahta Hai by Farhan Akhtar
Kadambari by Suman Ghosh
Castaway on the Moon by Lee Hae-jun
The Orphanage by J. A. Bayona

My goal for next year is to read more speculative short stories online. You might see an occasional short review on here. :)

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Uttarer Sur (The Northern Symphony), directed by Shahnewaz Kakoli

Uttarer Sur (The Northern Symphony)
Bangladesh (Bengali), 2012
113 min, drama, social commentary
Directed by Shahnewaz Kakoli

Chan Miya is a traditional folk musician who plays the dotara, a stringed instrument, and performs songs from the "Bhawaiya" tradition of Northern Bangladesh. He lives in a rural village with his wife Ambia and their daughter Ayesha, who is learning to perform as well. While the amount of money he earns from playing his music in train stations and markets is quickly diminishing, he has pride in his art and is hesitant to take up the more lucrative manual labor that is available in the village. Chan Miya dotes on his daughter and finds it difficult to refuse any of her requests - even when she wants to buy pet pigeons with the little bit of money they have for food.

Ambia, an orphan with skin that is considered far too dark, comes from an abusive background. The lack of food and her societal role as the artist's wife is taking a toll on her, and she is angry with her husband and daughter when they spend their tiny income on frivolities. She wishes she could go to work herself, but it would be a shame for the family if people know that Chan Miya is unable to provide for them through his art.

While this movie has some major flaws, I have chosen to review it because it depicts the difficulties faced by traditional musicians in a rapidly changing part of rural Bangladesh.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Danny Hahn

A General Theory of Oblivion
José Eduardo Agualusa
Translated by Danny Hahn (Portuguese)
Originally 2012, I read 2015 Harvill Secker hardback
243 pages, literary fiction

Many thanks to Archipelago Books, who found a review copy that could be sent to India! Archipelago’s edition was released in December 2015. 

Ludovica, or Ludo, is a solitary person who does not like to go outside the house. When her sister marries an Angolan man, Ludo moves with them to the new country (they are originally from Portugal). But then her sister and brother-in-law go missing as Angolan independence draws near and the terrified Ludo protects herself by bricking herself into her apartment. She stays there for almost 30 years, but surprisingly her actions within her small sanctuary have wide-reaching consequences.

Apparently based on a true story, this novel started as a script for a movie that unfortunately was never made.  The novel is a wonderful piece of fiction, tightly controlled and cinematic.

Silences and Omissions

The beginning part of the book, when Ludo is bricked into the apartment, is full of breaks and silences. We don’t really know much about what she did by herself for so many years. She wrote poetry on the walls. She figured out how to catch pigeons using shiny diamonds (a fortune that her brother-in-law had hidden in the house). But a majority of her activities are missing. Absent. Perhaps this is most appropriate for a novel about someone who has essentially chosen not to exist.

I’m not sure that Ludo is actually the main character of this novel. It seems that the main character is, perhaps, the absence of one.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The King and Queen of Comezón by Denise Chávez

Denise Chávez
2014, I read paperback edition
309 pages, character study, psychological

Thank you to the University of Oklahoma Press for providing a review copy of this book, part of the Chicana & Chicano Visions of the Américas series.

It is really important to me to include works by marginalized writers from the United States on this blog. I think it sends the wrong impression to only feature novels from “foreign” countries, whether in translation or in English; this blog is about the global diversity of literature and film,  including the native diversity in the US. That is why I have chosen to include this book by a major Chicana writer.

In Comezón, a small town on the Mexico-New Mexico border, everyone has some comezón – a yearning for something that will never happen. In this series of interconnected character studies, the author examines what each individual wants – and what, exactly, is keeping them from getting it.

The main focus is on the dysfunctional Olivárez family. Arnulfo, the aging father, is slowly (and quietly) dying of lung disease and alcoholism but continues to take the stage as master of ceremonies at the local Mexican-American festivals of Cinco de Mayo and 16th September. His wife, Doña Emilia, is disabled and cannot control Arnulfo, but she has the patience of an angel even when he doesn’t deserve it. Their daughter, Juliana, though bound to a wheelchair, has a rich inner life of reading and painting and a hidden love for the local Spanish priest. Arnulfo’s daughter by an affair, Lucinda, knows that she doesn’t quite fit into the family and wants to escape as soon as possible, running away with the son of Comezón’s Chief of Police. And then there is Isá, the housekeeper, cook, and best friend of Doña Emilia who also helps take care of Juliana.

With these and other characters from the town, the author takes us on a journey into the trials and tribulations – and loves and passions – of a small town on the Mexican border.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Pethavan: The Begetter by Imayam, translated by Gita Subramanian

Pethavan: The Begetter
Translated by Gita Subramanian (Tamil)
xxxiv + 57 pages, drama, psychological

Thank you to Oxford University Press India for providing a review copy of this and other novellas from the Oxford Novella series. 

The young girl Bhakkiyam has fallen in love with a Dalit (untouchable) boy, breaking caste boundaries. The village will not stand for this, and has gathered in front of her father’s house to demand that he kill her this time. Her father, Pazhani, promises the mob that he will kill her the next day.

Then he considers what to do.

This is a story of a man put in a terrible position. His daughter has done something outrageous according to the ideas of the villagers. Pazhani, his wife, and the other women in the family have tried to change her mind for three years. But Bhakkiyam has held firm to her decision to marry the Dalit boy, despite being beaten nearly to death multiple times and suffering constant abuse from the members of her own family.

Pazhani does not want to kill Bhakkiyam. He has already promised to do it three times and not followed through. This is the fourth time, and the villagers will not let him escape without carrying out the deed. They will come and kill Bhakkiyam themselves, and her father as well. It has reached the point where something drastic must be done.

This terrible tale of caste anger and mobs is told in very simple language, mostly in dialogue with the bare minimum of description. This is incredibly effective, since it puts the characters’ words in the limelight – words that are sometimes contradictory. The characters are in such a terrible psychological state that they really don’t know what to do with themselves.

The translation is somewhat stilted and awkward. This is probably because of the difficulty of the text. Like many Bengali-language stories that I have read, much of the meaning of this novella is conveyed through using a local dialect, making it difficult, if not impossible, to convey effectively in English. The translator has chosen to render it into simple English, a decision that I think was the best possible under the circumstances. But the text seems a bit stilted as a result.

This was a really powerful novella about caste violence and a father’s love. Unfortunately these events are all too real, and happen too frequently in many parts of rural India. The author manages to convey the terrible impact of such an attitude, both on a family and on the village as a whole.

Pethavan: The Begetter is available in India from Amazon, in the US from Amazon and Indiebound, in the UK from Amazon and Hive, and worldwide from the Book Depository. 

Further Reading: 

"Truth and Lies," a short story by Imayam, translated by Lakshmi Holstrom (Words Without Borders)
"When hate begets hate," review of Pethavan by K. Srilata (The Hindu) 

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Monday, December 7, 2015

The Patience Stone, directed by Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone
Afghanistan (Dari), 2012
102 min, drama, war, psychological
Directed by Atiq Rahimi
Starring Golshifteh Farahani

When her warrior husband is shot in the back of the neck, leaving him unconscious, a woman must care for him as much as possible while in the middle of a war zone. While she takes care of him, she is surprised to find herself confessing everything to him, telling him everything about her cares and desires – even about her sexual explorations - for the first time.

Woman’s roles

The most striking thing about this film is the way women’s roles are depicted. This woman is a good wife – she was engaged to her husband since childhood, married his dagger while he was at war, gave him two children, and is now taking care of him while he is in a coma, despite the risk to herself. She is devoted to him as a good wife should be, begging him not to leave her alone.

At the same time, she has been abandoned by his family. When he was injured, his mother and brothers did not help at all. They left her behind to take care of her husband, knowing that their neighborhood was going to be an active war zone. She quickly runs out of money and has to take refuge with her own aunt. While she fulfills her wifely role to the letter, she is apparently seen as disposable by the rest of her husband’s family.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jamai Babu, directed by Kalipada Das

Jamai Babu
British India (silent with English, Bengali, and Hindi titles), 1931
23 min, slapstick comedy
Directed by and starring Kalipada Das

In this Charlie Chaplin-inspired silent film made in Calcutta, the country bumpkin Gobardhan arrives in the city, is confused by the traffic and noise, believes that a “no nuisance” sign is an address, and fakes illness to spend more time at his in-laws' house so he can sleep with his wife. This is the only surviving Bengali silent film, accidentally rediscovered by Mrinal Sen’s film crew while shooting on location in 1980.

Three versions

One of the most interesting things about this film is the multilingual titles. Like all silent movies, this one has title slides interspersed with the filmed sequences to provide context, narration and dialogue. But because of the multilingual milieu in which it was made, Jamai Babu has titles in three languages - English, Bengali, and Hindi – and they say slightly different things! This provides an interesting opportunity to analyze a film that was originally made in three different languages.

For example, at 4:44, the English-language titles say "What's this Amulda- are you not taking me with you?" but the Bengali titles say "What's this Amulda - you're leaving, are you not going to show me the city?" I don't know Hindi, but I expect that the Hindi version also says something slightly different. This difference is important because the next title screen contains the reply, in which Amulda says that he will show Gobardhan the city later. In the English version, this is a somewhat confusing reply, since the tour has not been mentioned before; in the Bengali version, however, it makes complete sense. Comparing the English and Bengali versions throughout the film, the Bengali version usually provides more context and humor, whereas the English one sounds overly formal and simplified.

When this film was first made, how did multilingual people negotiate these titles? Did they ignore all but one language, or read two or three and combine them to make a composite story? I have no idea, but it would be fascinating to find out.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Vango Book 2: A Prince Without a Kingdom by Timothee de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Timothee de Fombelle
Translated by Sarah Ardizzone (French)
First published 2014, I read 2015
443 pages, adventure, young adult

Many thanks to Walker Books UK for providing a review copy of this book!

This is the second volume in a 2-volume work (you can read my review of the first volume here). I’m not sure how I feel about a 2-volume story; it almost seems like the author should have published it in one volume. I suppose that would have made it over 800 pages, which may have seemed too big for a YA book (not that that stopped Harry Potter!).

At the end of the last volume, Vango had discovered the treasure that had been stolen from his parents on the night he had washed ashore as a child, and had learned the identity of the man who had killed his parents. He had not, however, found out the identity of his parents. Meanwhile, Father Zefiro had run off to protect his monastery by killing an infamous arms dealer who is a master of disguise. 

Now, in this volume, Vango is out for revenge on the man who killed his parents. He also wants to interrogate the murderer, to find out who he actually is. Leaving Ethel again, Vango has gone to America in the attempt to trace the murderer down. He runs into Zefiro and helps him stalk the arms dealer, who may have some connection with Vango's own search. But are either of these men meant to accomplish the revenge that they have set out to do?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Equilibrium by Paras Joshi

Paras Joshi
236 pages, pulp fantasy

Thank you to Fingerprint! Publishing for providing a review copy of this book.

According to his author biography, Paras Joshi’s friends call him the “Paolini of the East.” I find this comparison rather appropriate, both because of his age (21 when this book was published) and because of the quality of his writing.

Equilibrium seems to be two different books, and the transition is rather startling. The first section is a heist story, in which a ragtag group of thieves attempts to steal treasure from the highest-security building in the country, which, by the way, is apparently a dystopian society with a huge gap between the rich and the poor. With little background, we are introduced to our hero, Arya, who, despite having the same name as the female Game of Thrones character, is male. Arya may be young, but he’s a great thief because he has a magic key that opens any lock.

After the heist goes wrong and Arya is the only one to (miraculously) escape, the Lord of the Rings fanfiction begins. Arya is rescued from a shadowy, evil being by a member of a wise, humanlike species and is taken to the “House of Ayrof.” This is where he is told by the Saatvikas, the magical elders, that the Ring of Aavaasya (that Arya stole in the first section) is magical, and needs to be taken back to where it was created in order to prevent the apocalypse. Gathering a group together, Arya and the elders set off to return the ring to where it came from.

Sigh. You see the similarities. 

The time period and level of technology of this world is very unclear. At times, the story appears to be set in a future with very advanced technology; at others, it seems to be set in a medieval period. It is ironic that Joshi did not provide consistent details when setting the scene, since a majority of this book is taken up with descriptions, either as narration or as characters telling each other something. While Joshi tries to describe the political situation, it ends up being a disjointed, dry description of events and political parties that does not make the reader care about the characters or what is happening. There is a civil war going on, but it is unclear why I should care. There are some sort of ongoing trade problems, but I don't know why that is important. Most of what Arya does (and therefore most of what the reader is privy to) is listen to or follow the other characters; his active actions are confined to stealing the Ring, which he does on accident, and, in the very last pages, performing magic.

Many of the problems with this book stem from the youth and inexperience of the author. I hope that he will learn from this critique and produce better work, with less description and more action, in the future.

This book might be worth a read if you like fantasy and you want something pulpy to read on the train. I wouldn’t recommend it for anything else.

Equilibrium is available from Amazon US/UK/IN and flipkart

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Measuring the World 
Daniel Kehlmann
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway (German)
Originally 2005, I read 2007 Quercus hardcover
259 pages, historical fiction
Found: used at Kolkata Book Fair 2015

Alexander von Humboldt is an obsessive, highly trained all-around scientist who constantly measures, observes, and records all kinds of data. He sets off for South America with the goal of discovering the inland connection between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, observing air pressures at different altitudes, and determining whether the earth is really made up of water. All of this is described in letters to his brother, a high-ranking politician in Germany, which are published in the newspapers.

Carl Friedrich Gauss has an innate capacity for numbers that allows him to make the greatest mathematical discoveries since Newton, in fields ranging from algebra to geodesy to astronomy. Unfortunately, he is also an ass to those around him, especially when he feels they think too slowly to keep up with him.

Alternating between the stories of these two men, Kehlmann tells an ironic, drily humorous story that is as much about science as it is about interpersonal relationships and learned German society in the early 19th century.

The Man of Science as Emotionless Beast 

Like many other authors and television shows (Big Bang Theory, anyone?), this novel depicts these two highly intelligent men as emotionally distant, often rude jerks. Humboldt, for example, often treats his good friend and traveling companion Aime Bonpland as a servant, refusing to take breaks from their adventure even when he is ill. In fact, Humboldt shows more affection for a stray dog that he adopts than he does for any of the people around him. Like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, this is often played for laughs - but I didn't find it amusing. I felt rather sorry for Humboldt, who seems to have several mental disorders, not to mention his seemingly repressed homosexuality.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Chutzpah! New Voices from China, edited by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner

Edited by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner
Translated from Chinese
2015, I read Advanced Review Copy
281 pages, short stories, non-fiction

Many thanks to the University of Oklahoma Press for providing a review copy of this book.

Chutzpah! was an innovative, short-lived Chinese literary journal. In the 16 issues published between 2011 and 2014, Chutzpah! brought writing by minorities and people from the margins of Chinese society - including Chinese-language writers from other countries. While the main magazine was in Chinese, every issue included an English-language supplement, "Peregrine," featuring translations of popular stories from previous issues. This collection, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, presents 16 pieces selected by the magazine's founding editor Ou Ning and English language editor Austin Woerner.
What made Chutzpah! special, both to Chinese readers and to Sinophiles abroad, was its focus on younger and lesser-known Chinese writers, its stylistic eclecticism, its broad definition of what constitutes "Chinese writing," and its independent voice - registered in the more liberal Guangdong province, and beholden to a media conglomerate rather than to a government sponsor, it was able to publish more adventurous work than other publications of its kind in China. - Preface
The works presented in English translation here reflect these characteristics of the magazine. Of the 16 works, there are 14 short stories, 1 creative nonfiction piece, and 1 essay, representing a variety of voices and styles. Because of this eclecticism, I have chosen to review each piece individually, with some overall comments at the end of this post.

When a man is trapped under a building during an earthquake, his soul travels into his past, revealing the actions and decisions that led him to become an alcoholic, depressed marketing representative.  

This story is a surprisingly hilarious take on a near-death experience, mostly because of the snarky comments of the main character as narrated by his friend. An example from the moment of the earthquake:

His last thoughts before he blacked out were: This is some booze. When it puts you down, the whole world comes rattling down with you.

According to Xu's biography, his work usually focuses on the less-fortunate classes of Chinese society. I greatly enjoyed his simple, wry humor, and would happily read more of his writing.

Read Xu Zechen's short story "Galloping Horses." 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Orphanage, directed by J. A. Bayona

Spain (Spanish), 2007
105 min, drama, thriller, horror
Directed by J. A. Bayona
Starring Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, and Roger Príncep

For Halloween, I thought I would review one of the most terrifying movies I've ever seen

Laura returns to the now-abandoned orphanage where she spent her childhood, planning to open a home for disabled children with her doctor husband, Carlos. They bring along their son, Simón who doesn't yet know that he is HIV positive and adopted. 

Soon after arriving in their new home, Simón begins acting strangely. He suddenly has new, invisible friends, who reveal the secret of his adoption and his illness to him. After a fight with his mother during their business's opening party, Simón disappears. Laura will stop at nothing to find her son, and in the process discovers the secrets hiding behind her childhood in this house.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

From Empty Harbour to White Ocean by Robin Llywelyn, translated by the author

From Empty Harbour to White Ocean
Robin Llywelyn
Translated by the author (from Welsh)
Originally published 1994, I read 1996 translation
157 pages, fantasy, myth

Many thanks to Parthian Books for providing a review copy of this novel.

Gregor arrives in a new country as a refugee, sneaking over the fence from the harbor when the soldiers aren’t looking. He has left his girlfriend Alice behind, to seek his fortune in this new land. But times here aren’t as good as he was expecting. After spending the first night on the street with a hobo and buying an expensive, badly forged identity card, he finds a small room to stay in until he finds work.

With the reluctant help of his landlord's son, Gregor finally manages to get a job at the Library working for the Du Traheus, the grumpy old man charge of the Mythology Department. It is very unclear what Gregor’s actual job is, but he soon volunteers to go to the North Country to retrieve Du Traheus’s adder stone. Thus begins his actual adventure, into the "backward" rural heartland of his new country where stories still have power.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction Issue 5

Founding Editor: Jason Erik Lundberg

Many thanks to LONTAR for providing a review copy of this issue.

LONTAR is a biannual literary journal focusing on speculative writing from Southeast Asia. This is the first time I have reviewed an issue of a literary journal, but it won't be the last. I have separated my review into genre-based sections, listing the pieces with the author's name and country. 


“The Woman in the Coffee Shop” and “The New World” by Christina Sng (Singapore)
“Moulding” by Sokunthary Svay (Cambodia/USA)
“Tooth” by Daryl WJ Lim (Singapore)
“Apocalypse” by Tania De Rozario (Singapore)
“The Interview” by Lee Jing-Jing (Singapore/Netherlands)
“A Marriage of Hybrids” and “Lambana” by Joel Donato Jacob (Philippines)

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of most of the poems in this volume. I’m not really a fan of poetry in general, and the amount of speculative poetry I have read is minuscule (mostly confined to Edgar Allen Poe, unfortunately!), so I’m not the best person to judge these pieces. That being said, my favorites were the last two poems by Joel Donato Jacob, which are written on themes taken from Filipino mythology: the Tikbalang, a creature that abducts and forcibly marries young women; and the Lambana, the Filipino equivalent of Will o’ the Wisps. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Kickstart This: Spanish Women of Wonder

Help translate an anthology of Spanish science fiction stories written by female authors!

I was browsing Kickstarter and happened upon this fantastic project. It will be open for pledging until November 6th, with about 50% funded as of this writing. 

The anthology, called Alucinadas in the original Spanish, is a result of a competition for Spanish-language science fiction short stories open to women from any country. From a pool of 205 submissions from 12 countries, the editors chose 11 stories - including one written by a publishing newcomer! 

It will be translated by Sue Burke, a writer and translator specializing in genre fiction. (Read an interview with her here.) Burke has written a small introduction to Spanish-language sci-fi writing by women on the anthology's Kickstarter page. Spanish-language women writers "get published and recognized even less than women in the English­-speaking world. Add to that a general disregard among the literary establishment for science fiction, and until the 1980s, almost no Spanish­-speaking women seemed to see much point in writing science fiction." Luckily this has changed, and this anthology will provide a way for the English-speaking world to access this literature! 

Visit the Spanish Women of Wonder Kickstarter page to see more details and give support to this wonderful project! 

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Black Box by Alek Popov, translated by Daniella and Charles Edward Gill de Mayol de Lupe

Alek Popov
Translated by Daniella and Charles Edward Gill de Mayol de Lupe (from Bulgarian)
First published in Bulgarian 2007, I read 2015 English translation
254 pages, satire, dark comedy, snark

Many thanks to PeterOwen Publishers for providing a review copy of this book.

Fifteen years after receiving their father’s ashes in a black box, the Bulgarian brothers Nedko (now known as Ned) and Angel still can't believe that he is really dead. In the meantime Ned has become a successful, high-paid consultant working with a major firm in New York City. After failing to start a publishing company in Bulgaria, Angel miraculously wins the green-card lottery and moves into Ned’s apartment overlooking Central Park. He plans to stay there until he finds a job. 

After a professional fiasco, Ned is sent back to Bulgaria to track down Kurtz, a high-ranking member of the firm who has gone missing while negotiating a deal. Meanwhile, Angel scrambles to find work, finally finding a job with a dog walking agency. They must each figure out how to negotiate the increasingly ridiculous political situation that they find themselves in: Ned with Kurtz’s bizarre factory worker’s cult and Angel with the dog walker’s union known as the Dogsters.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe
Originally published 1959, I read Anchor Books 1994
209 pages, historical fiction, cultural encounter, colonialism, family
Found: been on my TBR stack for forever

I never had to read Things Fall Apart in school. Instead, we read the incredibly racist Heart of Darkness (that book should be permanently retired from high school curricula) and the lovely Cry, The Beloved Country (note that both books were about Africa but written by white men. Sigh.). So this was the first time I read Chinua Achebe's novel which is generally considered to be a classic of African literature, whatever that means. This is the second novel by a Nigerian author that I have read, the other being this recent, pulpy book translated from Hausa.

Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a respected young man belonging to the pre-colonial Igbo community in present-day Nigeria. He is wealthy, with three wives, large stores of food, and a place as one of the mediums in the tribe’s spiritual council. Hotheaded and obsessed with protecting his dignity, he tries his hardest to be the manliest man in the tribe. But when missionaries come and colonialism starts to change the social fabric of the area, Okonkwo finds himself at a loss: how should he and the rest of his tribe respond to these incursions? Will he be left behind by the changing times?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet And Other Stories
Vandana Singh
Originally 2008, I read 2013
206 pages, speculative, short stories, satire, social commentary
Found: Kolkata Book Fair 2015

The first Zubaan book I picked up, this collection of short stories is a brilliant addition to the Indian speculative fiction genre. The stories in this collection fall everywhere in the speculative fiction spectrum, including magical realism, hard science fiction, and anthropology-based science fiction, as well as a few that don't seem to have much to do with speculative fiction at all!

The Stories

  • "Hunger"

A housewife who would rather be reading science-fiction novels is stuck preparing for a fancy dinner party (ostensibly her daughter's birthday party but actually a networking event with the higher-ups in her husband's company). Meanwhile, she worries about the next-door neighbor's ill and neglected father-in-law.

  • "Delhi"

Aseem has the strange gift of being able to see through time: as he walks around Delhi, he catches glimpses of the people and buildings from the past and from the future.  One day he is contacted by an organization purporting to tell him the meaning of his life, which apparently has something to do with a picture of an unknown girl.

  • "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet"

Ramnath Mishra's retirement is rudely interrupted when his wife suddenly announces one morning, "I know at last what I am. I am a planet."

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Till Kingdom Come by Andrej Nikolaidis, translated by Will Firth

Till Kingdom Come
Andrej Nikolaidis
Translated by Will Firth (from Montenegrin)
2015, I read ARC ebook
125 pages, black humor, satire, mystery

Many thanks to Istros Books for providing a review copy of this book. 

Strange things are happening to our narrator, a local newspaper reporter living in the seaside town of Ulcinj, Montenegro – an ancient seaport notorious for being the pirate capital of the Adriatic Sea for centuries. First, after a long drinking session with his friends (including his love interest Maria), he wakes up as a teenage boy in Sarajevo, where he as never been before, walking drunk through the city in the middle of the night; this “episode” continues until the following morning, when he suddenly realizes that he is standing on the balcony of his house in Ulcinj.

Then, when his life is already falling apart because of these “episodes” (which take him into a different place or person every time), he is summoned to the capital by a high-ranking government official, who wants him to quit his job writing conspiracy theories for the newspaper and work for him.

Then, a man appears in his house claiming to be his great-uncle – but, at the same time, stating that the narrator’s grandmother, who raised him, wasn’t actually a blood relative. After the demise of this claimed relative, the narrator begins to search for the truth of his own origins. Or would, if the “episodes” and his own innate apathy didn’t get in the way.

Read the rest of my review in Issue 7 of Shiny New Books

Till Kingdom Come is available in the US from Amazon, and in the UK from Hive and Amazon.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Crowdfund this: The SEA is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia

The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia
Edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

If you have visited my blog before, you probably know that I'm a big fan of non-Western speculative fiction. So I wanted to let my readers know about a new anthology that is forthcoming from Rosarium Publishing: The SEA is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia!

Currently crowdfunding through indiegogo (until October 23rd), this anthology is getting tons of great reviews from advance readers, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly!

According to the indiegogo page, the anthology will include the following stories:

"On The Consequence of Sound" - Timothy Dimacali
"Chasing Volcanoes" - Marilag Angway
"Ordained" - L. L. Hill
"The Last Aswang" - Alessa Hinlo
"Life Under Glass" - Nghi Vo
"Between Severed Souls" - Paolo Chikiamco
"The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso" - Kate Osias
"Working Woman" - Olivia Ho
"Spider Here" - Robert Liow
"The Chamber of Souls" - zm quỳnh
"Petrified" - Ivanna Mendels
"The Insects and Women Sing Together" - Pear Nuallak

There are a bunch of interesting rewards, too.

Help publish this great anthology by contributing to the campaign, or look for the book after its release on November 1st.

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Monday, October 5, 2015

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden

Kunzang Choden
2005, published by Zubaan
316 pages, woman's life story
Found: Kolkata Book Fair 2015

This book tells the life story of Tsomo, an illiterate woman from rural Bhutan. Tsomo’s life takes her to places she never expected – India, Nepal, Bodh Gaya – and through experiences that are unusual, to say the least. Although she was never able to learn how to read or write, she is a devout Buddhist. Illiteracy and illness cannot stop her from going on pilgrimages, or from becoming a devotee of Rinpoche, a refugee monk from Tibet. Or from finally becoming a nun toward the end of her life, focusing her energies on worship at the National Memorial chorten in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Her life is one of suffering, friendships, travels, sickness, and joy – but that is just because of her karma.

Muddling through 

For personal reasons, Tsomo runs away from her family home when she is in her early 20s. When she arrives in Thimphu, she has no money, so she takes a job on a road-building crew, breaking rocks into gravel for long hours every day. As an illiterate, uneducated rural woman with few profitable skills and nowhere to call home, this job is the best she can hope for. But she doesn’t mind it, and because she is a friendly and garrulous person she manages to make friends that help her endure the hardship. Not wanting to stay on the road crew, she saves money and keeps moving, first arriving in Kalimpong, a Himalayan city near Darjeeling in India, and later going on pilgrimages farther to the west. While she moves frequently, she never really consciously decides to move: she is invited to travel with friends, or to stay with friends, or she likes a place and decides to stay. Because she is poor and homeless, there is no reason for her not to move to another place. In this unconscious way, she becomes relatively free of material attachments even before she becomes a nun.  

Monday, September 28, 2015

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Max Lane

Translated by Max Lane (from Indonesian)
Originally 1975, I read 1996 Penguin edition
367 pages, historical novel, political, love story, psychological
Found: $1 rack at Half Price Books, Hamilton, Ohio, USA

Pramoedya Ananta Toer originally composed this remarkable novel and its three sequels while he was imprisoned by the anti-Left Suharto regime. Since he was denied writing materials, he orally recited the stories for the other prisoners, only writing them down several years later! 

My interest in this book is primarily literary and cultural. Pramoedya Ananta Toer has masterfully combined a devastating critique of colonialism with a poignant love story, set in the late 1800s before Indonesia had even been named.  

Minke is the only Native Javanese student in the H.B.S., one of the best high schools in the Dutch Indies. Despite his obvious academic abilities, he would not have gained admission to this prestigious school if it were not for his grandfather's status. It turns out that Minke is descended from Javanese royalty! But his high position in Javanese society doesn't help much in his school or when mingling with the Europeans. Due to his race, all of his western education and ideas, his ability to speak and read fluent Dutch, and his dreams of being a journalist or writer cannot gain him real admission to colonial society. He is inherently a lesser being because he is a pure-blooded Native. The Indos, or part-natives, will always be higher than him, and of course the Pure Europeans will always have the most authority of all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ghetuputro Komola (Pleasure Boy Komola) directed by Humayun Ahmed

Ghetuputro Komola (Pleasure Boy Komola)
Bangladesh (Bangla), 2012
101 min, historical drama, LGBT+, psychological, musical
Directed by Humayun Ahmed

In colonial-era Bengal, a Muslim zamindar (landowner) hires a musical group to entertain him during the monsoon, when flooding makes it difficult to travel or work. The group performs in the "Ghetu" musical tradition, which combined folk music and dancing with a special performance by young boys dressed as women. Zamindars hired "ghetu" groups for both the musical diversion they could provide and the sexual services of the "ghetu" boys.

In this case, Jafir, who goes by the "ghetu" name Komola, arrives with his father (the head of the troupe) and other musicians. Despite their class differences, he makes friends with the zamindar's daughter, who is about the same age as him. But the zamindar's wife hates Jafir for stealing her husband's affections. In this complicated domestic situation, Komola/Jafir must do her/his job, and make enough money to keep his family fed for the foreseeable future.

This is the last movie made by noted Bangladeshi author and filmmaker Humayun Ahmed, and it was the official Bangladeshi nomination for the Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Planet for Rent by Yoss, translated by David Frye

A Planet for Rent
Yoss (José Miguel Sánchez)
Translated by David Frye (Spanish)
First published 2011, I read English language ebook 2014
266 pages,  hard science fiction, satire

Many thanks to Restless Books for providing a review copy of this novel. 

I first heard about the Cuban Science Fiction series from Restless Books sometime earlier this year (probably in this New York Times article). Immediately, I knew that I had to read and review them. Here is a chance to read international science fiction, my favorite genre, that had been completely off my radar. This book is the first I have read from the series, and it did not disappoint.

The novel tells several intertwined stories, featuring characters that are loosely related through mostly random events. Yoss does not bother to flesh out the connections between the characters, instead relying on the reader to figure that out for themselves. This trust in the reader's intelligence was quite refreshing, and it also made the satirical aspects of the story more apparent. It also made the ending harder to predict; for the first time in a long time, I was actually surprised by a book! This may have been because I was reading an ebook, which always makes it a bit more difficult for me to follow the story and pick up on clues.

The basic background is that aliens have *cough* invaded the earth, and taken complete control, forcing humans to be second-class citizens solely used for the purpose of bringing (mostly sexual) pleasure to the xenoid tourists. *cough* Sorry, I must be coming down with a cold or something. As I was saying, aliens have saved humanity by restoring the environment and bringing peace to the planet, making it a very safe place for tourists to visit.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My Life as Emperor by Su Tong, translated by Howard Goldblatt

My Life as Emperor
Su Tong
Translated by Howard Goldblatt (Chinese)
Originally published 1992, I read 2006 paperback
290 pages, historical fiction
Found: Half Price Books, Hamilton, OH, USA

After his father's death, the fifth son, 14-year-old Duanbai, is unexpectedly declared to be the new Xie Emperor. Unprepared for his new duties and still a child, Duanbai's actions are controlled by his powerful mother and grandmother; when he makes decisions himself, his inexperience leads him to abuse his power, and he becomes a cold and cruel ruler who is feared by the people around him.

I saw this book on the $1 clearance rack at Half Price Books right after I had finished reading Howard Goldblatt's beautiful translation of Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan's Frog. Since I was on a bit of a Chinese kick at that time, and since I adored Goldblatt's translation style, I spent the dollar hoping that I would enjoy this book as well - not that I had actually been all that interested in the summary on the back cover. So after taking it with me to India and then to Bangladesh, I finally picked it up from the To-Be-Read stack. The good news: it's a quick read. The bad news: I hated it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Caged in Paradise and Other Stories by Rizia Rahman, edited by Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasanat Islam

Caged in Paradise and Other Stories
Edited by Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasanat Islam
Translated from Bengali
215 pages, short stories, drama, realism, satire

Thank you to UPL for providing a review copy of this book. 

Full Disclosure: I am currently doing an internship with the publisher which includes marketing products including this one. However, the views presented here are my own. 

When I brought up the idea of promoting some literature for Women in Translation Month, my boss's face lit up. "I know the perfect one!" she said, and recommended this short story collection. While paging through the collection to find quotes that we could use for marketing, I found myself being mesmerized by the stories; after skimming the first fifty pages or so, I immediately asked for a review copy. And I was not disappointed - this book, it turns out, is one of my absolute favorite story collections.

Rizia Rahman is a renowned Bangladeshi author. She has been writing short stories and novels since the late 1960s, and received the Bangla Academy Award, the top literary award in the country, in 1978. Before picking up this book, I had never heard of her. Now I'm thinking about buying one of her novels in the original Bengali before I leave the country next month.

The stories in this collection span the length of her career. They deal with personal challenges, community grief, village politics, changing social mores, women's and human rights discussions. Whereas her earlier stories are more straightforward, demonstrating realistic and relatively linear storytelling, her newer ones move toward magical realism and impressionism. All are handled with marvelous skill, providing glimpses of everyday (and not-so-everyday) life in Bangladesh.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Vango Book One: Between Sky and Earth by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Book One: Between Sky and Earth
Timothée de Fombelle
Translated by Sarah Ardizzone (from French)
Originally 2010, I read Walker Books 2014
429 pages, young adult, adventure

Many thanks to Walker Books UK for providing a review copy of this book. 

Moments from completing his ordination to become a priest, Vango Romano finds himself fleeing from the Paris police. Climbing up the side of Notre Dame, he just manages to dodge the bullets that threaten his life - and escapes into the rooftops of Paris under the shadow of the Graf Zeppelin. This is not the first incident when the innocent Vango has had to flee for his life; it only confirms Vango's fears (perhaps even paranoia) that he is being watched - and that someone wishes him dead.

Racing from shelter to shelter, all the events of Vango's strange life come back to haunt him. He stows away on a zeppelin, flees to the remote Mediterranean island where he grew up, travels incognito in France, perches on the roofs of Paris - and meets up with Ethel, a fast-driving Scottish heiress and his old flame.

Meanwhile, in Soviet Russia a man whose daughter thinks he is a gardener orders Vango's execution.

A beautifully inventive adventure novel, this story reminds me of nothing more than the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo - but set in the 1900s and meant to be read by a younger audience. This is, by the way, the highest praise I can give to an adventure novel - The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite novels for about a decade. Vango has the same ingenuity, the same imagination, as Alexander Dumas's work, with a never-ending series of fantastic events that the incredibly talented main character negotiates with aplomb.

This doesn't mean that the book is emotionally shallow. On the contrary, again much like Alexander Dumas, de Fombelle seeds his work with strong emotional backing. The characters are never two-dimensional, and even relatively minor characters have motivations and interests that make their actions realistic. This includes the depiction of children; Stalin's daughter, for example, does not know who or what her father is, but she is still afraid of what he does. She has noticed that several members of her family have disappeared, and she misses the happy times before her mother died. It is de Fombelle's adept characterization that solidifies the real, poignant emotional underpinning of what might otherwise be a fluffy adventure novel.

The only real negative about this book is that it seemed too long at times - though you have a suspicion about Vango's origins, the answer is never revealed in the 429 pages of this first book. The beginning of the novel is quick and engaging, but the ending drags a bit - just to put off revealing Vango's real name. I don't know if younger readers would be bothered by this deliberate slowness; perhaps the problem lies more with my jaded reading (and *cough* knowledge of Russian history *cough*) than with the book itself.

This is a two-part series, and I am very excited to start the second book. Although brilliantly written, Between Sky and Earth gets annoying toward the end if seen as a stand-alone novel. That being said, I highly recommend this book for all young adults, either in age or at heart. Anyone who loves a brilliantly imagined adventure tale will enjoy this book.

Vango: Between Sky and Earth can be found in the US at Amazon and Indiebound, in the UK at Amazon and Hive, in India at Amazon and flipkart, and anywhere in the world at wordery

Further Reading: 

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cyberpunk: Malaysia edited by Zen Cho

Cyberpunk: Malaysia
Edited by Zen Cho
2015, published by Fixi Novo
330 pages, science fiction, short stories, speculative

 Many thanks to Fixi Novo/ Buku Fixi for providing a review copy of this book. 

I must admit that before picking up this book I hadn't read anything marketed as "cyberpunk." I requested this book because I wanted to read some Malaysian science fiction. From this collection, I got the feeling that "cyberpunk" isn't my favorite sub-genre of SFF. That being said, I did enjoy this collection of short stories set in Malaysia of the future (or alternative present?). A majority made me think, like good speculative fiction should.

There were two (related) things that made this collection difficult for me. First was that the authors tended to assume that the reader knew certain things about Kuala Lumpur or about Malaysian society. My knowledge of Malaysian society is scanty at best, so sometimes I had trouble understanding the references. A bit more description would have been helpful to smooth this out. (Since SFF usually creates an alternative reality, this is an important part of genre storytelling that sometimes felt missing in this anthology. When reading speculative fiction, I shouldn't have to know any background except what the author gives me - which wasn't the case for several of these stories.)

Second, and related to the first, is that in several stories some of the most important lines are spoken in what I assume is Malay. At least, I guess that they're the most important lines. Having no background in the language, I was again left at a loss trying to figure out what they could possibly be saying. I think that this is partially because of Fixi Novo's publishing manifesto:
1. We believe that omputih/gwailoh-speak is a Malaysian language.
5. We will not use italics for non-American/ non-English terms. This is because those words are not foreign to a Malaysian audience.... italics are a form of apology.
While I understand these sentiments (and I applaud the publisher for saying in no uncertain terms that Malaysian words are not inferior to English ones!), it makes it difficult for a non-Malaysian reader to understand.  Perhaps footnotes or endnotes explaining what the words mean would help? Or, since this is a speculative fiction book, the authors could have used the genre's techniques for introducing words from completely new languages. In other words, I totally understand why these Malaysian terms were used, but as a non-Malaysian reader I want to understand the stories too!

That being said, on to the reviews! I'm going to do things a little differently this time and give a short review of each story after the summary, finishing with some statements about the anthology as a whole.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

XXY directed by Lucia Puenzo

Argentina (Spanish), 2007
86 min, drama, sexual exploration, intersex, LGBT
Directed by Lucia Puenzo

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence. 

Alex, a young intersex person who has been raised female, lives with her mother, Suli, and her father, Nestor, in a small village on the Uruguayan seaside. (The movie uses female pronouns for Alex, so I do too.) When Alex reaches the age of 15, Suli invites some friends from Argentina to visit. What Alex's father doesn't know is that the husband of Suli's friend is a well-known surgeon known for doing sex-change surgeries. Suli has asked them to come as a secretive consultation about Alex.

Alex is uncomfortable with her mother's plan, and has secretly stopped taking the hormone pills prescribed to make her body look more female. When the other family arrives, she confronts their teenage son, Alvaro, asking him to have sex with her. When he refuses, she later imitates it again and they end up having anal sex with Alex as the penetrative partner. Nestor catches a glimpse of this activity. Not knowing how to respond, he seeks the advice of the friendly neighborhood intersex person, who is married and runs a gas station.

Meanwhile, rumors about Alex's unusual genitals (she has both male and female reproductive organs) are starting to spread - started, it seems, by her former best friend. Before the start of the film, she had confronted him about it and broken his nose, leading her to be suspended from school. As Alex is walking along the beach, a group of bullies arrives and assaults her. They pin her down and open her shorts to reveal her genitals. She is only saved from being gang raped by the arrival of her former best friend, who had realized what was happening and arrives to help.

In the aftermath of this sexual assault, Alex must choose whether to tell her story to the police or continue to hide who she is. What will she decide?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mice In Men by Anirban Bose

Mice in Men
Anirban Bose
2010, Harper Collins India
212 pages, short stories
Found: on sale at Crossword bookstore, Kolkata

This collection of short stories written by a medical doctor and university professor combines clear, precise wording with a knack for quirky storytelling. Each tale examines the life of an ordinary person, many of them in the field of medicine, who find themselves in an unusual position.

The stories are:

"The New Job"

After finding out that he needs surgery to correct his debilitating back pain, an old man takes a job as a driver for a wealthy businessman's family. To his dismay, he discovers that the husband is cheating on his wife everyday - and as the driver it is his responsibility to ferry him to the assignations. This leaves him in a moral quandary: he needs the money from this job, but after a long marriage, he feels morally repulsed by his employer's adultery.

"The Magic of Medicine"

A young Indian doctor administers to a severely ill patient, but is troubled by his status as an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. 

"Mice in Men"

B. Lal Chowdhury is an efficient civil servant whose life is planned down to the millisecond. But when he rescues an injured mouse from his coworkers, his schedule needs to change - and he discovers that change is good. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sirena Selena by Mayra Santos-Febres, translated by Stephen A. Lytle

Sirena Selena
Mayra Santos-Febres
Translated by Stephen A. Lytle (from Spanish)
First published 2001, I read kindle version
224 pages, LGBT+, drama

Miss Martha Divine, an old veteran of the Drag Queen scene in New York and Puerto Rico, has found her ticket to glory: a 15-year-old with a voice like an angel, who takes on the artist name of Sirena Selena. Miss Martha takes her young protege to the neighboring Dominican Republic, in an attempt to sell the act to one of the fancy tourist hotels there - where they won't mind that the performer is underage.

After seeing Sirena Selena's audition, one very wealthy businessman, Hugo Graubel, is captivated by the young star - in her enchanting performance, he thinks that he has finally found the person that he can love "as I have always wanted to love a woman" (p. 175). Filled with desire, Hugo arranges to have Sirena Selena come to his house, to perform for his business associates at a dinner he will be throwing later that week. His wife, unsatisfied with her husband's continued disinterest in her, is not pleased to have a travesti in the house. Hugo doesn't care what his wife thinks; even if she decides to divorce him over it, he just wants to have Sirena Selena for his very own.

Interspersed with Miss Martha Divine's reminiscences about the gay scene in Puerto Rico and New York and a tangentially related look at the friendship between two young boys, this novel questions the stability of gender, sexuality, and dress in the hot Caribbean world of travestis.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sorrow of the Snows by Upendra Nath Ashk, translated by Jai Ratan

Sorrow of the Snows
Upendra Nath Ashk (1910-1996)
Translated by Jai Ratan (Hindi)
First published 1971, I read 2011 translation
118 pages, satire, common man's story
Found: on sale at Crossword Bookstore, Salt Lake, Kolkata

Hasandin is a poor farmer in Kashmir who rents horses to tourists for transportation purposes and also acts as a tour guide. On this day, he hopes to get some good customers: if he can make enough money, he will be able to get his son married in addition to being able to feed his family during the winter. Since the British left a few years earlier, tourism money has decreased so much that he and other guides are having trouble making ends meet. Today, he hopes to get a rich customer who will give him a good tip in addition to his normal fees, like the British used to do.

He finds a customer: one Khanna Saheb, a shopkeeper from Delhi, who has traveled to Kashmir with his wife and son. At first, listening to this man's boasting, Hasandin believes that he has found the customer he was looking for. But then Khanna Saheb's actions start to differ from his words. While praising his own benevolence, Khanna Saheb tries to bargain the cost of his already-cheap hotel room down by one rupee. When they stop for tea, he refuses to pay for his guides' food (which is the standard practice). The disappointed Hasandin plays along,  hoping that these tourists will want to go to the more distant tourist sites the next day - which will mean more money, even if Khanna Saheb refuses a tip.

The next day, the do agree to go to the farther sites - and in fact, insist on it. Upon reaching the snow-covered pass, Hasandin tells them that the horses cannot go any farther into the mountains. Hearing this, Khanna Saheb accuses him of tricking them. With a massive headache and a growing cold, Hasandin leads them into the mountains all the way to the farthest tourist site. Then, because their bus is scheduled to leave that afternoon, they hurry down the mountain on sledges.

Partway down, Khanna Saheb says that he lost his camera stand, which Hasandin was supposed to pack. So the very ill guide trudges back up the mountain in the snow and cold, but can't find the stand anywhere. After spending a lot of money to return to the bus stand quickly, upon arriving there he is suddenly assaulted by the police and arrested. They accuse him of stealing from a tourist. Faking compassion, Khanna Saheb gives the police a pittance of his bill before leaving on the bus. Afterwards, one of the other grooms informs the police that the camera stand had been in the tourists' bag the whole time. The police choose to overlook that information, pocketing the money and throwing Hasandin in jail until his wife can raise enough money to bail him out.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Humpbacked Horse directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano

The Humpbacked Horse
Soviet Union (Russian), 1947
57 min, animation, children's, folktale, fantasy
Directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano

When Ivan's brothers assign him to watch for the creature that is destroying the crops, he discovers that the culprit is a magical white horse with a flowing mane. He climbs on her back, and in exchange for her freedom the horse gives him two beautiful black stallions and a small humpbacked pony.

This pony is magical, intelligent, and can talk. Ivan sells the magnificent stallions to the tsar. When no one else can manage the beautiful, wild horses, the tsar hires Ivan to take care of them - replacing the man who used to have that job.  But when the previous groom whispers terrible rumors into the tsar's ear, Ivan is sent on fantastic quests: to capture a fire bird, to bring back a tsar-maid, and to retrieve the tsar-maid's ring from the bottom of the ocean. He accomplishes each one with the help of his magical humpbacked horse.

When the tsar-maid refuses the tsar's offer of marriage due to his advanced age, the tsar begs her to reconsider. She tells him that if he bathes in three cauldrons, one full of boiling milk, one of boiling water, and one of cold water, consecutively, he will grow young and handsome again and she will marry him. Fearing for his own life, the tsar orders Ivan to try this task first. He once again succeeds thanks to his friend the magical horse, and ends up marrying the tsar-maid himself.

This is the first full-length animated feature to be made in the Soviet Union. Based on a famous poem originally published in 1834, all of the lines are in verse. The animation and music are gorgeous, depicting a whimsical version of Russian peasant life. The same studio released another version of the film in 1975. This review only considers the original 1947 version.

Soviet postage stamp based on the film, 1988

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Switcheroos! Topsy-Turvy Mysteries of Markiposa by Swati Chanda, illustrated by Ajanta Guhathakurta

Switcheroos! Topsy-Turvy Mysteries of Markiposa
Swati Chanda
Illustrated by Ajanta Guhathakurta
2007, Puffin Books India
135 pages, fairy tale, kids, humor
FOUND: Starmark, Mani Square Mall, Kolkata

In this collection of children's stories, we meet the furry and feathery inhabitants of Markiposa. The main character, Rinzin, is a small green dragon with orange spots who, despite being vegetarian, has no friends - because a terrifying ball of flames streams from her mouth every time she tries to say hello! After a friendly rabbit figures out a solution to this fiery little problem, Rinzin establishes herself as the go-to problem solver for the whole forest. So when the lion prince loses his roar or a crow turns rainbow colored, they always go straight to Rinzin to find a solution. And the clever dragon often knows what to do- or, more specifically, often knows who will know what to do and where to find them.

I had to buy this book after reading the back cover in a bookstore. My expectation was that it would be funny and cute. I was not at all disappointed. Not only do these stories channel some of the cleverness of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, but they also deal with issues that are important for children (and adults!) to think about.

For example, in one of the stories some young monkeys decide that they do not want to "monkey around" like they're supposed to. No, instead of throwing rotten mangos at people, they prefer to sit and ponder the Great Mysteries of the Universe. The leader of the group goes to Rinzin to complain about how these young monkeys are throwing tradition out the window. Rinzin doesn't quite see the problem with the young monkeys thinking and spending time in serious interests. But she agrees to talk to them and see what is up. In the end, they discover that there was an external reason for this personality change, and the monkeys are cured.

What can people learn from this story? First, that it is ok to do things that are different that what you are expected to do - even if your parents (or other adults) are unhappy about it. Rinzin doesn't really see the need to "fix" things; instead of forcing them to change, she lets the children express their opinions. This is the right way to deal with this kind of issue. But then she discovers that the monkeys' personality change is hasn't come from within them; it is a result of an external aspect of the environment. Because the monkeys' personality was changed through an external force, it is important to try to cure them. She searches for a solution and in the end they go back to their normal, carefree selves.

In another story, many of the meat-eaters of the forest have become converted to vegetarianism. While Rinzin is rather thrilled by this idea (she doesn't like the idea of animals eating other animals), she understands the problem that will arise: unfortunately, meat-eaters cannot get their proper nutrition from eating grass. So she tries to find the reason why they have suddenly converted, and finds that they were tricked into doing so. Because tricking others into doing something - even into doing something that we think is morally correct - is wrong, Rinzin solves the problem and the meat-eaters go back to eating meat. Although this may not be ideal from Rinzin's perspective, she would not condone forcing or tricking someone into doing something they don't want to do.

The one downside of this book is that it seems strangely incomplete, as if there should have been at least one more story. A traveler from far away, the winged unicorn Nash-4, appears in two of the stories, but his story is never told. How did he get to this forest? Why does he eat snakes? How will he get back home? To make this a truly classic work of children's literature, these questions would have needed to be answered.

All in all, though, this is an adorable children's book that has not gotten enough attention. I highly recommend it for both kids and adults, especially if you like the clever innocence found in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Switcheroos! is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart. 

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