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.