Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, translated by Aliyu Kamal

Source: Goodreads
Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu
Translated by Aliyu Kamal (from Hausa)
Originally 1990, I read first English edition 2012
126 pages, social criticism, family drama, soap opera, pulp

Many thanks to Blaft Publications for providing me with a review copy of this book! 

In this book, I tell a story about a type of man found commonly in Nigeria who regards a married woman with children as a sort of slave to be bought or sold at the marketplace. These men think they may treat such a woman as poorly as they like, since they believe her to be completely worthless. They may be rich and comfortable themselves, yet refuse to feed and clothe their own families - while simultaneously denying anyone else the right to do so. - Author's preface
This short novel is the first example of the Hausa-language popular press to be translated into English. As such, it has the potential to introduce the reader to a world that they otherwise would never have realized existed.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is a Nigerian writer and filmmaker. In this book, as she states in the preface, she attempts to draw attention to a specific social phenomenon: men who neglect their wives and children in favor of spending money on themselves. I do not know how common this is in Nigeria, but the author's decision to focus on it indicates that it is (or was) probably more common than I expected.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Source: Goodreads
Daniel Kehlmann
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway (from German)
2014, I read ebook version
208 pages, family drama, tragicomedy, adult siblings

When Arthur Friedland chooses to take his three teenage sons - the twins Eric and Ivan, and Martin (from a different mother) - to a hypnotism show as a bonding experience, no one could have guessed that he would be so influenced by the hypnotist's words that he would end up leaving his family that night and disappearing without a trace.

Years later, the three men have a complicated relationship with their now-internationally-acclaimed author father, who sometimes appears, checks on them, and then disappears just as suddenly.

Martin is a priest who struggles with overeating and doesn't believe in God. Eric is a successful businessman who actually has lost all of his clients' money and is cheating on his wife. Ivan is an art critic who has a secret: he creates the paintings that are supposedly the work of a very in-demand artist who died several years ago.

The brothers, each struggling with his own existential crisis, rarely see each other - and yet, on at least one day, their paths overlap.

To me, the most impressive part of this book was how the author managed to convey Eric's frayed mental state. He is so confused and anxious that he is constantly distracted; when he meets Martin after a long time, he isn't even able to hold a coherent conversation with him. Even though Eric's relationship with his twin Ivan is very strong, he chooses not to rely on it: in fact, Eric avoids contacting his twin brother because he knows Ivan understands him too well. If anyone finds out about how his life is going, it will all finally fall apart.

Ivan's story is also rather compelling: he is actually the artist who has created these famous paintings, but there would be no market for them if the world knew that he made them. While he is technically lying, it is sadly in his best interest to do so.

I quite enjoyed this book and how each of the brothers' stories fit together like pieces of a puzzle. It was clever. But I did not think the overall novel was particularly memorable, and I was very surprised to see it on the official International Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist. I would recommend it for when you want to read something clever but not especially brilliant.

See the rest of the IFFP shadow panel's reviews here.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

International Movies to Avoid: April 2015 edition

This is a round-up post for all the bad movies that Tintin and I have seen in the past few months.

Source: Wikipedia

Badshahi Angti 

India (Bengali) 2014
Detective thriller
Directed by Sandip Ray

The latest in the series translating Satyajit Ray's popular "Feluda" stories to the big screen is disappointing all around. Feluda is Satyajit Ray's Sherlock Holmes-type detective, solving mysterious crimes throughout India and the world. In this one, the young Feluda finds himself in Lucknow with his cousin and uncle. Rather than having their planned relaxing vacation, they stumble across a mystery in the form of the priceless "Ring of Aurangzeb" and a neighbor whose large menagerie contains various kinds of poisonous snakes, spiders, and other dangerous beasts. Who has taken the ring, and who is this eccentric neighbor?

While the story itself sounds fascinating, this movie version's excruciatingly slow pace and weak dialogue did not lend the necessary urgency to Satyajit Ray's famous detective. Much of the movie is taken up with the type of scenic shots that are usually not seen outside of tourism commercials. This distracted from the plot too much to make me actually interested in the film. Recommended only if you're a Feluda fan.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tiger Milk by Stefanie de Velasco, translated by Tim Mohr

Source: Goodreads
Tiger Milk
Stefanie de Velasco
Translated by Tim Mohr (from German)
2014, I read ebook edition
245 pages, friendship, immigrant story, poor families, loyalty, drugs sex and alcohol

Nini and Jameelah, two high school students in Berlin, are the best of friends. They spend their time hanging out, sneakily drinking Tiger Milk (a concoction of brandy, milk, and passion fruit juice that they invented) in public, doing drugs, and making pocket money by prostitution. When they witness a murder in their housing complex, will they risk their own safety and tell the police what they saw? Even if that might mean Jameelah will be deported, one of their friends will be put in prison, and their friendship may very well end?

This is not the kind of book that I normally read, but for the sake of IFFP, I finished it. Some parts made me feel physically sick, especially the way the girls respond to the murder: Jameelah takes the victim's jewelry, dropping it into their container of Tiger Milk, which she then drinks from. (I forgot to mention that they also like shoplifting, which involves wandering through stores with open containers and dropping jewelry into the drink. They don't even keep most of the things they steal.) If Tiger Milk doesn't sound bad enough already, why don't you add some fresh blood to it as well?

I appreciate that this author is attempting to show the edgy side of teenage life among poor people in Berlin. The writing shows the point of view of the characters, and encourages the reader to have some sympathy for the people in the story. If you like that sort of thing, you might like this book.

The author also demonstrates some of the struggles that immigrant families face in present-day Germany. Jameelah and her mom are immigrants from Iraq, and have been in Germany long enough that Jameelah doesn't even know Arabic. And yet they find themselves facing possible deportation back to Iraq if the government finds that they have done something wrong. Obviously this is unfair on Jameelah, who has only ever known what it's like to live in Germany.

Overall, this was my second-least favorite book from the IFFP longlist. It was only surpassed by The Last Lover, which was so bizarre I couldn't even understand what the book was trying to say. I'm glad that Tiger Milk did not make either the shadow panel or the official shortlist. (Read the shadow panel's reviews of all the longlist books here.)

If you're interested in edgy Young Adult books about sex, drugs, alcohol, and murder, you might like this book. If not, avoid it.

You can buy Tiger Milk from Amazon or wherever books are sold. 

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The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie

Source: Goodreads
The Young Desire It
Kenneth Mackenzie
Originally 1937, I read Text Classics 2013
345 pages, coming of age, school story, love and nature

Found: Text Publishing’s website, on sale for only 10 Australian dollars with free worldwide shipping! (They always have free shipping, so check it out!) 

Charles is a sensitive 15 year old boy who has spent his entire life on a farm in the Australian outback. Besides his mother and a few hired hands, he has never spent much time with people; he is most comfortable spending the sunlit hours roaming through hills, forests, and fields. When his mother announces that it is time for him to go to boarding school to finish his education, he is not happy. He does not want to be confined with other people away from the natural environment that he loves so much.

His fears are confirmed when, on the first day in the boarding school, he is sexually assaulted by a group of older students. Isolated because of his “feminine appearance,” he seeks to hide his emotions by concentrating on his studies and finds a mentor in one of the teachers. The teacher, however, may have other intentions towards him.

Charles matures over the course of the school year, learning new things about himself and about human nature. He falls in love with a girl from another school, navigates the difficult social organization of the school, and does well in his studies. And when he discovers that his mentor is attracted to him, he handles it in a way that is the best for everyone.

This is (I think) the first piece of Australian literature I have ever read. It is a beautiful, lyrical exploration of humanity and growing up, and rightfully deserves the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal that it won when it was published in 1937. Thank you to Text Publications for republishing this gorgeous book.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shadow panel shortlist

The shortlists for the IFFP have finally been announced! And boy, does our list differ from the official one.

The Shadow Panel shortlist: 

Bloodlines by Marcello Fois, translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella
See my review here

Saturday, April 4, 2015

By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar

Source: Goodreads
By Night the Mountain Burns
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
Translated by Jethro Soutar (from Spanish)
2014, I read ebook version
288 pages, oral history, ethnography, tragedy

Told in the style of an oral history, a man from a small island near Africa recounts stories of his childhood, especially a series of terrible events that happened during a few years. These include a major fire, famine, shortages due to lack of trade, an epidemic, and the murder of a woman accused of being a witch. He focuses on the impact all of these events had upon life on the island and, in so doing, provides a detailed ethnographic description of the island's population.

An important character is the narrator's silent grandfather, who never leaves the second floor of their house and who barely speaks to anyone. This mysterious grandfather spends all of his time sitting on the balcony and staring at the island's mountain, which is even stranger since the sea (which is very important in this society) is nearby and in the opposite direction.

I did not know that Equatorial Guinea is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. I'm happy that & Other Stories Press decided to publish this novel to give international exposure to one of Equatorial Guinea's major writers.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Bloodlines by Marcello Fois, translated by Silvester Mazzarella

Source: Goodreads
Marcello Fois
Translated by Silvester Mazzarella (from Italian)
2014, Maclehose Press
288 pages, family history, historical novel

After his wife dies, a blacksmith from a small village in Sardinia adopts an orphaned boy, Michele Angelo Chironi, and trains him to become a master blacksmith. When the boy has grown up, he falls in love with another orphan, Mercede Lai. They marry and begin to live in prosperity, with a bustling business, large forge, and their own vineyard.

The world gets in the way of their happiness, and the couple is plagued with misfortune when it comes to having children. Not only are there several miscarriages, but two of their sons are brutally murdered when they are only 10 years old. Of the three younger children, one enlists in the army during the first World War, one trains with his father to be a blacksmith, and the girl gets married to a person of rank.

Through the tale of this family in a remote region of Sardinia, the author demonstrates the far-reaching effects of modernity, development, and war.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik

Source: Goodreads
The Pregnant King
Devdutt Pattanaik
2008, Penguin India
349 pages, myth, social critique, speculative
Found: Starmark, Mani Square Mall, Kolkata

The Mahabharata is full of gender-bending stories, including that of King Yuvanashva, who accidentally drinks a magic potion and gives birth to a son.

Yuvanashva's mother is a powerful woman who would have made a wonderful king, if she had been born a male. As it is, the young widow takes control of the kingdom as her son is growing up, leading to an era of peace and prosperity.

Shikhandi, born a princess, was raised as a son and taught the secrets of warcraft. She finally exchanges her sex for that of a male.

Two boys pretend to be husband and wife to trick the queens into giving them a gift. After they are arrested, the one disguised as a woman is given the opportunity to become a woman for real. The two "boys" then declare their love for each other and their desire to marry.

Arjuna, the best warrior of the Pandava brothers, conceals himself as an eunuch during their year of exile. He spends his time teaching princesses how to dance.

Through these and other stories taken from the epic, Pattanaik explores the tangled meanings of gender, sex, and love in ancient (and modern) India. The novel is an interesting and quick read, but you should probably have some background knowledge of the Mahabharata before you begin.

In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González, translated by Frank Wynne

Source: Goodreads
In the Beginning Was the Sea
Tomás González
Translated by Frank Wynne (from Spanish)
2014, I read Kindle edition
224 pages, relationship, escape to the land

Tired of the rushed, partying atmosphere of the city, a bourgeois couple moves to a run-down estate on the beach in rural Colombia. Here they can finally relax and get back in touch with nature, running a productive and self-sufficient farm. But is this retreat everything that they thought it would be?

As their idea of what the countryside would be like flounders, J. and Elena find themselves stuck in an untenable living situation. Nerves fray, fights break out, alcohol becomes the only way to escape. The local inhabitants do not live up to the expectations of the city people. It's a slow descent into chaos: never mind their relationship, will J. and Elena be able to escape with their lives intact?

Darkly humorous and based on a true story, this novel demonstrates the problems with assuming that a return to nature will solve all of your problems.