Monday, March 28, 2016

Congratulate the Devil by Howell Davies

Howell Davies (1896-1985)
Originally published 1939, I read 2008 
264 pages, science fiction

Thank you to Parthian Books for providing a review copy of this book, one of their Library of Wales series. 

When a wealthy layabout named Starling discovers that a class friend of his has something to do with a strange incident involving his uncle’s dog in the daytime in a park, he goes to investigate. Roper is a chemist who analyzes samples of drugs seized by the police. This newest shipment is strange – it has amazing mind-expanding properties. Starling is pulled into experimenting with Roper, and as his friend’s negative side becomes more and more pronounced, he wonders if he should do something… especially when Roper becomes interested in a girl he just met…

This novel is considered to be a classic of Welsh fiction, and has been republished as part of the Library of Wales series. 

Happiness and Misery

Starling and Roper are joined in these experiments by a Welsh street singer named Bert. Unlike the lazy Starling and the manipulative and cruel Roper, Bert is a good person. He is happy with his simple life and just wants to make people happy as much as he can. When Bert starts taking the drug, his natural instincts are enhanced. Instead of manipulative or evil, Bert becomes even more kind. More than that, he makes others happy and generous. 

Because of the properties of the drug, he exerts this influence over the surrounding population. To the dismay of the rest of the country, he makes an entire Welsh village happy. Why does this cause dismay? People begin to give their possessions away. The wife of the local squire bathes and feeds children from the slum. Inter-church arguments are immediately resolved. The pub is open all the time and people start living openly with their mistresses. 

This frightens the government and, in general, everyone outside of Bert's sphere of influence. The government does not want the established social order to be overturned. In fear of the spreading of this generosity, rich people start to hide their belongings. It's complete chaos, and requires military action. This is a brilliant satire: the milk of human kindness is so threatening to the established social and governmental order that it must be overturned.   

Overall, I didn’t really like this novel. Parts were an interesting critique of power and politics, and about the nature of society, but overall it’s just really dark and dreary. If you like Victorian-era science fiction like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde you would probably like this book. 

Also read my review of From Empty Harbour to White Ocean by Robin Llywelyn

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Legend of the Future by Agustín de Rojas, translated by Nick Caistor

A Legend of the Future
Agustín de Rojas
Translated by Nick Caistor (Spanish)
Original published 1985, I read ebook of 2014 translation
227 pages, hard science fiction

Many thanks to Restless Books for providing a review copy of this novel, part of their Cuban Science Fiction series. 

A tight-knit crew of six cosmonauts has embarked on the cutting-edge ship Sviagator. Their mission: explore Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, and return the experimental ship safely to Earth. When disaster strikes, only three crewmembers survive: Isanusi, the captain, who is physically incapacitated; Thondup, an engineer and psycho-sociologist, who is emotionally fragile after the death of his partner Alix; and Gema, a physiologist whose conditioning has been activated so now she has all the skills of a computer. All three of them are dying, some more quickly than others. Now they need to figure out how to return the ship to Earth, without autopilot and without any of them being able to survive the three months required to make the trip.

Philosophy, politics, psycho-sociology

This book involves a lot of sitting around talking. Granted, due to their assorted physical disabilities there’s not much else the crew can do at this point, but it struck me as incredibly wordy. This sometimes passed into being really boring. There are a few themes that keep appearing, and which provide the majority of the plot:

First, the novel explicitly touches on the philosophical question of man vs. machine. Even though Thondup activated Gema’s conditioning, he doesn’t approve of it; he believes she has been made into a computer. Isanusi does not agree. Gema spends much of her time trying to combine her new personality with pieces of the old one, but the question still remains about whether she is actually a human being anymore. If you read a lot of science fiction (particularly older works), this is nothing that you haven't seen before.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Chronicler of the Undead by Mainak Dhar

Chronicler of the Undead
Mainak Dhar
172 pages, speculative, zombie

Thanks to Westland Ltd. for providing a review copy of this book. 

When the zombie apocalypse happens, an Indian army veteran with one leg and broken dreams of becoming a writer finds himself stuck in a bungalow in the mountains above Gangtok, Sikkim. Luckily, this is a relatively safe location – but who knows how long it will last, or if anyone else has survived. Or what exactly happened.

He starts to keep a journal to distract him from his current circumstances, and continues to write in it as he meets with other survivors and eventually finds himself becoming the leader of the group. Can he help the others survive?

Zombie story with a twist

This is a fairly standard zombie story, with survivors attempting to live in the chaos after the end of the world. But there are a couple differences that make this one stand out, at least a little bit, from other novels in this genre.

First, there is the location: Gangtok, Sikkim. I’ve been there; it’s a gorgeous city among steep hills, very near the Chinese-Indian border. If you know anything about the history of relations between China and India, you know what that means: a history of war, disputed borders, and major political problems. In many ways, the unique location of this book (geographic, political, and cultural) provides a good deal of the plot.

Second, our protagonist is not only an ex-soldier; he is an ex-soldier with only one leg who has to hold his own in intense fighting. He does it, but he has constant trouble with his prosthetic leg. Probably my favorite part of this book was the way he reacted to this disability: it causes problems, but in the end he is no less capable than he would be with two legs.

The narrator himself is very relatable in his flaws, and the novel is written in a casual tone that conveys the pain and inadequacy that he feels. Even better is how he takes everything in stride, with a bit of humor when called for, making the book a fun read.

If you like zombie books, I think you would like this one – it’s not the best book ever, but it’s a decent read if you want something pulpy to pass the time.

Further Reading: 

Read my review of The King's Harvest by Chetan Raj Shreshta, also set in Sikkim

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Teresa's Man and other stories from Goa by Damodar Mauzo, translated by Xavier Cota

Damodar Mauzo
Translated by Xavier Cota (from Konkani)
200 pages, short story, drama
Found: Rupa Publications bookstore, College Street, Kolkata

This collection of ironic short stories covers a wide variety of social and familial issues. Throughout, there is a feeling of frustration: at the oppression of women, at politics, at self-serving protestors, at communalism. While I didn’t enjoy every story (especially "Teresa's Man"), I did appreciate the social messages that the author wanted to communicate. I can see why he is considered to be one of the best authors in Konkani. 

“From the Mouths of Babes”
Mithila lives in Saudi Arabia, where her husband is working for an international company. She struggles with the lack of intimacy forced upon her by the government and the religious police, especially because she has to wear a burka and is not allowed to show any affection for her husband in public. 

“In the Land of Humans”
Halsid’du is driving a line of cattle to Goa to be sold to the butcher when something happens that makes him unable to complete the journey as planned. 

Sulbha is plagued by her lack of children and by a house full of rats that eat her best saris. She and her husband go to the temple to get god’s blessing for fertility.

“The Cynic” 
Baboy is a confirmed cynic of medicine, doctors, and soap. But what happens when his little grandson becomes ill? 

“She’s Dead!” 
Two rival politicians from Goa arrive in Delhi and plan to have a night on the town, as friends. Then one of them receives a call saying that the other’s wife has died, and he must break it to him gently. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Shopping for English-language books and Thai movies with English subtitles in Thailand

As those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter may know, Tintin and I just got back from a lovely 2-week trip in Thailand. We visited Bangkok and parts of Northern Thailand, stopping in Sukhothai, one of Thailand's big World Heritage Sites, and some of the smaller cities.

One of the main things I like to do when I travel is to find books written by people from that country, especially translated works. My other major goal when shopping in a foreign country is to find movies from that country on DVD with English subtitles. In Thailand, I succeeded in one of these goals and failed in the other.

English-language books, whether used or new, are incredibly expensive in Thailand. I was a bit shocked by the sticker prices. For a used paperback (of a widely available novel, say one by Stephen King), you can easily expect to pay 200 THB (approx. $6 USD) or more, and new books can be in the 600-900 THB (approx. $17-26 USD) range. I was lucky enough to get some review copies from Silkworm Books (more about this in a moment), so my travel budget wasn't completely shot.

Surprisingly, it's really difficult to find Thai literature in English in Thailand. In most stores, the Thai literature is placed in the "Thailand and Southeast Asia" section, so you have to wade through the stacks of travel literature, scholarly texts, and coffee table books to find any works of literature. Even then, most of the books shelved here are written by expats living in Thailand (most published by Bangkok Books). Judging by the titles, these books range from detective stories to romance novels - and anyway none of them were what I was looking for. I was lucky if I could find a single good piece of Thai literature in each store.

From my research, it seems that there are three good English-language publishers working in Thailand (see my post here). Of these, Silkworm Books has published the most translations of Thai literature. I got to meet Trasvin Jittidecharak, the director of Silkworm Books, at their headquarters in Chiang Mai. Silkworm is a small academic press, and the editorial quality and selection of their books is excellent. If you are looking for a book on Thailand or Southeast Asia, I highly recommend you look at their titles, which are available at every bookstore I visited in the country.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Not Out of Hate by Ma Ma Lay, Translated by Margaret Aung-Thwin

Not Out of Hate
Ma Ma Lay (Ma Tin Hlaing) (1917-1982)
Translated by Margaret Aung-Thwin (Burmese)
Original published 1955; I read 1991 English translation, Silkworm Books 2006 edition
216 pages, psychological, social commentary, love story(?)

Many thanks to Silkworm Books for providing a review copy of this book, and for meeting with me when I visited Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

Trigger warning for discussion of intimate partner abuse.

Way Way is a 17-year-old girl who has been brought up in a traditional Burmese family. Her father runs a rice export business, and her mother left several years ago to become a Buddhist nun. Way Way dearly loves her father and, as the only child left at home when his health takes a turn for the worse, cares for both him and the business.

When a new neighbor arrives, a thoroughly Anglicized Burmese man named U Saw Han, Way Way is struck by his sophistication. She becomes ashamed of the difference between U Saw Han’s English style (of food, furniture, clothing, and so on) and her own rural Burmese style. U Saw Han, in turn, is struck by the contradiction between Way Way’s apparent innocence and childlike behavior and the responsibilities she takes on in the household and business. When they get married, Way Way realizes that his British airs, and his insistence that she also follow them, are not actually what she wants – but at that point there’s no turning back.


After their marriage, U Saw Han is thoroughly abusive toward Way Way, although he doesn’t seem to realize it.Out of love” he prevents her from eating the food she likes, wearing clothes that she wants to wear, and even visiting her ailing father. This culminates in refusing to allow her to visit her dying father after she receives an urgent telegram.