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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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Twice Upon A Time by Anjali Bhatia

Twice Upon A Time
Anjali Bhatia
2014 from Fingerprint! Publishing
300 pages, fantasy, environmental activism

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

Arpit, the dissolute son of a wealthy businessman, is trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol, drugs, and sex while searching for a way to get back the person he lost (we later find out that this person is his childhood playmate and erstwhile girlfriend Mannat). At a drug-fueled party with the elites of Delhi, he meets Nishimaya (Nishi), a mystic and fortuneteller, who promises that there is a way to turn back the clock. Conveniently, he has also been looking for a conservation architect for an ecotourism hotel project, which just happens to be Nishi's day job.

With Nishi's guidance, Arpit takes part in "redreaming" sessions, which allow him to go return to the past through his memories and make different choices. This allows him to learn important information about his erstwhile love affair with Mannat - and about his father's nefarious dealings with international corporations that are wrecking the environment of their home village.

"Redreaming" as a way to uncover more information about the past is an interesting concept. Who wouldn't like to go back into their memories and see what happens if they make a different choice? But the way in which this process works is unclear and confusing. Apart from gaining useful information, how does following a different route in a dream have implications in real life? The author implies that there is some kind of connection (Mannat is reminded of things at the same time that Arpit "redreams" them), but the actual workings are hazy. If Arpit's "redreams" affect Mannat, shouldn't they also affect his father, ruining the work that they are doing to counter the old man's evil schemes? Why is Nishi supposed to be completely unemotional, and what are the effects of her emotional involvement, exactly? And why does Arpit suddenly gain the ability to "redream" without Nishi's help? The way that "redreaming" works would be the most interesting part of the novel by far, if we were given any information about it.