Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Memories of My Melancholy Whores (by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) - A review

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Location: Bolivia
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Publisher/Year: Alfred A. Knopf/2005 (In Spanish, Editorial Norma/2004)
Genre: Realistic fiction
Theme: An old journalist, who has just celebrated his 90th birthday, seeks sex with a young prostitute, who is selling her virginity to help her family. Instead of sex, he discovers love for the first time in his life. [Source: Wikipedia]

There isn't really much to say about this novella. Given how short it is, anything beyond the theme outlined above seems like it might reveal too much. Why did I choose it, then? Well, this is also in part a tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the greatest writers of all time, who passed away less than a fortnight ago. Alas, his most famous works I have already read, and wanted to read something I had skipped over a while back. This book fit the bill.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a legend in the world of literature. In many ways, he elevated Latin American literature and the art of 'magical realism' to entirely different levels, and brought them to the outside world. A Nobel Prize winner in 1982, he is largely remembered for his seminal works, notably One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, but has a far greater body of work beyond these epics. He was a keen student of writing/literature in addition to being one of its finest exponents, and experimented with various styles. I mentioned in a previous post how Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo served as a major influence on Marquez and others, and Marquez built on the solid foundation laid by Rulfo and others to craft a style that will endure and inspire many for years. In addition, he also produced different types of works, novellas to go with his mammoth novels. The one profiled here is the last of his novellas.

In many ways, this is not classic Marquez. Granted, there is an immediate impact from the beginning, with understated elegance that does not take away from the power. That is very much Marquez. But where some of his other works build up, this launches directly into the thick of it (understandable, for a novella). Where his prose often tends to be elaborate and artistic, this time there's an all too real bluntness to it that serves its more contemporary and real setting well. And in a rare move, this novella relies on a first person narrative from a protagonist who is not particularly likeable (though he does find a cause and a way to become a better person eventually). It is hardly the finest work from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's immense bibliography, but it is certainly a good one nonetheless. It's a tale that perfectly captures the essence of a lecherous old protagonist and the circumstances that shape his changes. The simplicity of the storytelling belies an intrinsic complexity of the sort that comes with real life, and this does well to deal with that. The setting, admittedly, is not captured much. Indeed, there were times when I was unsure whether this was La Paz, Bolivia or the smaller town of La Paz in the author's native Colombia. In the end I let Google suggest it to be Bolivia rather than re-read the book. But there is still a personal touch in terms of what matters to the protagonist.

It's a good book, for sure. Read it, whether or not you are well-versed with Marquez's work. But the focus of this post is not the book itself, as much as the man who wrote it.

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Rubicon (by Mark Long, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Capel, Rebecca Taylor, Mario Stilla) - A review


Location: Afghanistan
Creators: Mark Long, Christopher, McQuarrie, Dan Capel, Rebecca Taylor, Mario Stilla
Publisher/Year: Archaia/2013
Genre: Adventure (War)
Theme: A retelling of Seven Samurai in the form of a tale about a Navy SEAL team defending an Afghan village from Taliban insurgents

Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa's classic film about a ragtag group of warriors who come together to defend a village from a group of bandits, has been adapted in numerous countries and in many forms, most notably in the form of western The Magnificent Seven. This graphic novel attempts to take the tried and tested story and adapt it to the tale of a Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan, defending a small village from Taliban insurgents attempting to take the village's opium produce.

The story itself is pretty standard, and chances are you've all watched one version of it or another at some point. What matters is how well it's adapted. The parallels are pretty obvious, making it a fairly smooth adaptation for the Afghan setting with straight swaps. The Navy SEALs largely embody the Samurai character archetypes seen in the original, while remaining fairly accurate about how SEAL teams accurate (or so I assume, given that one of the people involved, Dan Capel, was a SEAL Team Six founder). The villagers remain similar, worried about the threat facing them while also apprehensive about the danger these new 'defenders' would attract. The bandits are replaced by the Taliban (who for some reason seem to be cosplaying as Mongols).

It's an effective swap that works well, but therein lies the main problem with this book - it tries too much to adapt the storyline to a new setting without truly giving it any originality. Even subplots that don't add anything to this particular story get adapted, leading to a general sense that it's point for point substitution without any true substance. This is a downright shame, as the elements are clearly there. It's just that they have not extended the bare minimum in an original direction to make the most of the tale. The characterisation is decent, but it never strives to go beyond bare archetypes common in such stories, where most such adaptations use minor modifications to add some specific depth.

The setting is well captured in Mario Stilla's art, as are the local people (with the aforementioned exception of the oddly dressed Taliban fighters). The writing features inputs from enough people with military experience that this comes through in a realistic manner, while McQuarrie's screenwriting experience (he won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects) helps plot the tale in a manner that suggests it would work well on the screen (indeed, a TV prequel was commissioned).

On the whole, it's a solid piece of work that is well put together and is a natural adaptation. My main complaint is that it comes off slightly bland and unoriginal, which is a bit disappointing considering it has all the elements to be a good tale and a strong team working on it.

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (by Chingiz Aitmatov) - A review

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years

Location: Kazakhstan
Author: Chingiz Aitmatov
Publisher/Year: Indiana University Press/1983 (Novy Mir/1980 in Russian)
Genre: Sci-fi
Theme: The story of a man burying a dear friend, juxtaposed with a tale of cosmonauts/astronauts experiencing first contact with extraterrestrials

Not very well known outside the former Soviet Union, this novel by Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov is a fascinating (if occasionally bizarre) work. Calling it 'science fiction' alone does not do it justice, as that relates solely to a barely linked subplot, while the primary narrative is a retelling of the protagonist's life and the events and people surrounding him.

The primary plot revolves around railman Burranyi Yedigei as he goes to bury his late friend, Kazangap, in a particular cemetery. As he treks in that direction, he recounts his life growing up in the Sary-Ozek steppes and tales from Kazakh folklore, his brief time as a soldier in World War II and the subsequent phase in which he was working at a railway station with Kazangap and other key characters.

The subplot is launched (literally and figuratively) from a site near the railway station, with a rocket taking off for a joint USA-USSR space station with two cosmonauts/astronauts not long before Yedigei gets the news of Kazangap's death. The two cosmonauts arrive at the space station to replace their predecessors and also to investigate their sudden disappearance, only to find a message from them explaining that they had been contacted by an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation, on a world with no war, no differences, and complete unity under one world government. On relaying this message of a utopian planet making contact with Earth (rather, that one space station), the USA and USSR governments temporarily toss their differences aside... to destroy the satellite and cosmonauts and any chance of letting the world know that it's possible to have a peaceful planet without artificial conflict.

It's an intriguing work, in effect two utterly different tales splitting out from one specific location. The Yedigei plot is a very real look at life in those parts over a long period of time. The characters are interesting and well-defined, with emotions and experiences coming through clearly. The Kazakh setting also plays an important part, coming into its own through Yedigei's trek and his tales of life in the steppes. The space subplot, on the other hand, occasionally wanders into surreal and bizarre territory, but also manages to be a satirical look at how we on Earth operate in terms of how the saga ends. It does not seem to add to the primary narrative in any way, but works as a completely different tale. The writing style, while having the same basis, conveys the two different stories with different undertones, which is certainly quite fascinating.

On the whole, an interesting but occasionally bizarre read, and worth a go if one wants to look at lesser known Soviet literature that has been appreciated.

The Lover (by Marguerite Duras) - A review

The Lover (L'Amant)

Location: Vietnam (Indochina)
Author: Marguerite Duras
Year: 1984
Genre: Romance
Theme: Set in Vietnam under French rule, the tale of a clandestine romance between a teenage girl from a poor French family and an older, wealthy Chinese man.

A brief and powerful semi-autobiographical work, this romance novel set in Saigon centres on a passionate affair between a young French girl from an impoverished and troubled background and an older Chinese man of far greater means. There is not much to be said about the plot itself beyond that, with this book serving as an intriguing look at both the romance and a complex family situation, with the protagonist feeling intense love, hate and pity for her harsh, widowed mother and an elder brother who inspires fear on many occasions, as well as great love for her younger brother.

This novella is fairly simple in its premise, but the incredibly personal approach (Duras herself experienced a similar childhood in Saigon) and powerful, intense style make for a strong tale. The characters are intriguing and well-defined, and the events feel natural. The setting is both important and not essential, as this is a tale that could happen anywhere but is still strongly shaped by the environment it is placed in. Duras' style is fairly stark, not altogether common in French literature, but is still an engaging read.

I will admit this book did not interest me as much as some others, but it is objectively an incredibly powerful work, one that is a must read for those looking at the nouveau roman, the modern French novel. It's a novella, yes, but it's packed full of strong characterisation and events that make for an engaging read.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Death and the Penguin (by Andrey Kurkov) - A review

Death and the Penguin

Location: Ukraine
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Publisher/Year: Vintage/2003 (Originally published in 1996)
Genre: Humour; Crime
Theme: A dark and humorous tale of a post-Soviet writer and his pet penguin as they get drawn into an increasingly dangerous world of crime

By and large, literature in the former Soviet states has struggled since the fall of the USSR, largely disappearing into a realm of relative obscurity. There have been some notable exceptions, though, and Kurkov's absurdist and dark satirical tales are in the forefront of contemporary of post-Soviet novels leading the charge. For some reason, I had often considering getting this Ukrainian novel but never actually got around to it until now. Ah, well, better late than never!

The tale is centred on Viktor, an aspiring writer, and his pet penguin Misha. While dreaming of greater success as a writer in his own right, Viktor pays the bills with a job as an obituary writer for a Kiev newspaper, unaware that it's actually a front for an underworld organisation and his obituaries serve as a hit list of enemies. While this is going on, Viktor also ends up having to take care of Sonya, daughter of his late friend Misha (dubbed Misha-non-penguin), and a nanny by the name of Nina (with whom Viktor shares a physical relationship) also gets integrated into the 'family.' All seems to be proceeding in a 'normal' manner, but without any semblance of life, until everything changes all at once. Misha ends up needing a heart transplant, following which Viktor decides Misha needs to return to Antarctica for a decent life. Meanwhile, Viktor also finds himself on the very hit list he had previously written obituaries for, and has to figure a way out. How the adventure unfolds in a series of strange incidents makes for an intriguing tale, one I leave to you without further spoilers.

This is a delightfully amusing read, a satirical and absurdist look at post-Soviet Ukraine and the very real struggles faced by many people. One suspects Kurkov would be dismayed by how reality continued to get darker and weirder (in a bad way) until it lined up with his own ideas, but there is little doubt that the basis was already in place. The settings and characters capture life in post-Soviet Ukraine, albeit extended ad absurdum, and provide a good idea of what it was like for the characters. The characters themselves, particularly Viktor and Misha, are engaging and interesting. And yes, the penguin is key and a well-defined character in his own right, not just a prop for a cutesy approach. The humorous style makes for an enjoyable read without taking away from the darkness at the heart of the tale, something Kurkov does brilliantly.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and a definite must read for those looking to get into more contemporary literature coming out of the former Soviet Union.

From the Mouth of the Whale (by Sjón) - A review

From the Mouth of the Whale

Location: Iceland (mostly)
Author: Sjón
Publisher/Year: Telegram/2011 (first published in 2008)
Genre: Historical fiction
Theme: A novel about the wonders and cruelties of a changing world, as experienced by an exilee living alone on an island.

A modern classic, Sjón's work is reminiscent of great works from centuries gone by, a complex narrative set in an Iceland (and partly in Denmark) in the midst of great change. An engrossing tale, it is carried along by beautiful (if at times over-elaborate) language and a central character himself pushed along through intense upheaval in society.

The plot, as summarised at Goodreads
The year is 1635. Iceland is a world darkened by superstition, poverty, and cruelty.
Men of science marvel over a unicorn's horn, poor folk worship the Virgin in secret, and both books and men are burnt.
Jonas Palmason, a poet and self-taught healer, has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct, having fallen foul of the local magistrate. Banished to a barren island, Jonas recalls his gift for curing "female maladies," his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjafjoll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children.
The characterisation of Jonas comes through quite strongly. A complex character, one feels his own conflicts in terms of how he should react to the changing world he lives in, as well as the harsh treatment meted out to him by his own peers and the tragedies that he had to endure. A great deal of this comes from the intense and detailed writing style, which captures every bit of emotion and every stray thought in Jonas' head, and which makes for an immersive and wonderful read.

The setting is depicted wonderfully, in ways crafting an island home for Jonas in a Robinson Crusoe-esque style (but arguably with more depth at times). There's a simultaneous feeling that this could be any place yet that it is also a very specific place, something that appeals to me on a very personal level (my favourite novel, Invisible Cities, uses this characteristic very effectively). This is decidedly an Icelandic novel, and it's easy to see why Sjón is a legend in his own land.

Overall, this book is a definite recommendation, though I do add the caveat that the intense and elaborate writing style may not be for everyone. The author is also a poet, and the inherent poetry in his prose stylings makes for a great deal of beauty but also much complexity.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Metropole (by Ferenc Karinthy) - A review


Location: Hungary (sort of)
Author: Ferenc Karinthy
Publisher/Year: Telegram Books/2008 (Original in Hungarian in 1970)
Genre: Science Fiction (Dystopia)
Theme: One day, all of a sudden, a man finds himself unable to understand a word of what people are saying around him. In a society on the cusp of upheaval, he struggles with day to day existence in a strange city without any semblance of comprehension

I love dystopian futures. Okay, I mean that I love stories about dystopian futures. This is a book that has been compared to 1984 and The Trial, and in ways combines aspects of that, with a sense of mystery confusion not unlike that faced by the protagonist in The Trial and the strange, alien, dystopian world of 1984. Basically, I really like it. It may not be as good as those works, but in many ways comes close and it's a shame that this book has largely remained unknown because it was written during a time when Hungary was under the cosh of the Soviet Union and took nearly 40 years to get an English translation.

The tale revolves around Budai, a Hungarian linguist due to attend a conference, who ends up in a strange and unknown city where none of the many, MANY languages he knows seems to be of any use. Whether this is because he's truly in a place with a different language or he experiences a Kafkaesque situation with his world suddenly being altered, one could argue that's open to interpretation. He somehow gets himself to a hotel, but struggles to cope with daily tasks, with only the hotel's lift/elevator operator (whose name he can't be sure about, but whom he mostly calls 'Epepe' or something similar) willing to help him as he sets about trying to make sense of the language and his new world. As his much vaunted knowledge proves to be useless, Budai finds himself relegated to blue collar jobs and becomes part of a proletariat at odds with the government. The revolution comes, the revolution gets crushed easily, but Budai manages to escape, and himself with a possible option that may lead to escape and a chance to return 'home,' wherever that may be.

In all honesty, there is nothing to tell where this is set, but based on my reading it seemed more like a problem with Budai's world changing, so I'm willing to stick with the starting country as the base. And the book and protagonist are Hungarian, anyway! The book itself was written in a Hungary still very much dominated by the Soviet influence, and the tale with its political implications is meant to reflect the Hungarian setting of Karinthy's time. The characters of Budai and Epepe are strongly written, which is made all the more impressive given that the PoV character of Budai is the only one whose language the reader can understand. There is a sensation coming through that language and communication go beyond mere words, as do the all too real settings of the world around oneself.

It's a strong story, one that explores the roots of language, of love beyond language, of class struggles. It's strangely haunting, and the language (while translated in my case) conveys this strongly. I wish I could read it in the original, because I suspect some added starkness would contribute to the haunting, dystopian feel even more.

For those of you who are into dystopian stories, this is a must read, more so given the Soviet-dominated setting it was written in that contributed to a very personal feel to the book.

Arrugas/Wrinkles (by Paco Roca) - A review

Arrugas (Wrinkles)

Location: Spain
Creator: Paco Roca
Format: Graphic Novel
Publisher/Year: Delcourt (French); Astiberri (Spanish)/2007
Genre: Realistic fiction
Theme: A look at the lives of patients with Alzheimer's in an old age home, both current as well as the lives built on their memories of yesteryear

This book is a charming look at the lives of Alzheimer's patients, centred on a venerable old protagonist sent to an old age home for patients by his son, no longer able to bear the strain of dealing with a father whose mental faculties are no longer serving him as well as they should after the onset of Alzheimer's. The emphasis here is on 'charming,' as this could so easily have been a dark and wistful examination of the suffering of Alzheimer's patients. Instead, Paco Roca, in part inspired by a friend's ailing father, chose to look at the lives of a group of patients at the home who compensate for their condition by living life with an almost childlike zest.

The plot is not much more than the theme I outlined, with the protagonist and his new friends at the home making it through day to day life while facing challenges, and occasionally embarking on an adventure of sorts, be it in the real world or in the memories and imagination in their heads. The setting of this story is not truly Spain, to be honest, but in two 'places.' One, the all too real old age home. The other, inside the minds of these patients, who have little left in their heads but old memories. As they live the final years of their lives, real and imaginary, to the fullest, there is a quaint sense of adventure for the readers that does not really take away from a look at the problems faced by the protagonists.

This is a book that would make many of us sad, but in many ways is a celebration of the lives of our parents and grandparents (and elders in general), some of whom do face problems thanks to Alzheimer's. Roca skillfully weaves a narrative and style where the reader engages with characters and feels their joys (as well as their sorrows), and on the whole the work is delightful.

There is not much I can truly say about this book, as it is something worth feeling rather than describing. Read it if you can (it's available in Spanish, and in French as Rides), but if not there's also an animated movie based on it. I haven't watched it, but it seems to be quite faithful to the book based on what little I have seen.

On a different note, this is my 20th book review for this challenge, which puts me at a quarter of the final target. Thanks to my rather hectic January and March I am running a couple of weeks behind, but I am catching up quickly! I'm fairly pleased to note that I have managed 20 books in 20 different countries without any repeats, but I'm fairly certain it's just going to get harder to maintain that level of variety as I go along. Still, fingers crossed for the rest of the challenge!

Cuore (by Edmondo de Amicis) - A Review

Cuore (Heart)

Location: Italy
Author: Edmondo de Amicis
Publisher/Year: Henry Holt and Company/1886 (original in Italian in 1886)
Genre: Children's literature/Politics (?)
Theme: A look at different morals in the form of stories about various children, as read by a nine year old from an upper class background

This is a fairly controversial and historic book, ostensibly a children's book aimed at teaching morals but in effect turning into a reflection of the writer's own political leanings and further down the line got co-opted by the Fascist regime as a means of propaganda about how an ideal citizen should behave. I almost didn't pick this book, but I eventually decided that it's still a fascinating look at Italy during the post-unification years, and perhaps even more so in terms of how it came to be used by the Fascists.

The concept itself is fairly basic, as captured by Wikipedia:
The novel is written in a diary form as told by Enrico Bottini, a 9-year old primary school student in Turin with an upper class background who is surrounded by classmates of working class origin. The entire chronological setting corresponds to the third-grade season. 
Enrico's parents and older sibling interact with him as written in his diary. As well as his teacher who assigns him with homework that deals with several different stories of children throughout the Italian states who should be seen as role models – these stories are then given in the book as Enrico comes upon reading them. Every story revolves around a different moral value, the most prominent of which are helping those in need, having great love and respect for family and friends, and patriotism.

 It's fairly straightforward as a premise on its own. The writing, from what I can make out across the English and Italian versions (my Italian is slightly rusty, alas), is not exactly minimalist in style, but is aimed quite clearly at children, written in the style of many parables. That said, unlike your average moralistic parable, there is clear political subtext at play, with an underlying theme that a good citizen is an unflinching patriot, one who will do anything for their nation without question. This possibly had its roots in de Amicis' leftist views, and was of particular significance after Garibaldi and Vittorio Emanuele II unified the country, with de Amicis of a strong opinion that the unified country needed absolute loyalty to progress. I'm not sure how pleased he would have been to learn that his work would be adopted by Fascists many years later and made mandatory in schools as a way to reinforce the idea that everything must be done in service of the nation (and by 'nation,' I mean Mussolini's Fascist regime).

In its own way, the book paints a picture of Italy as it was right after unification, and the sentiment of many at the time who supported the new nation. It is, however, a distinctly biased book in many ways, and many have since attempted to reinterpret the characters in the book. Each character is distinctly defined to represent a particular moral lesson, and while this obviously makes them fairly simplistic and one-dimensional it also makes them fairly clear to understand. The themes covered in the book, while controversial, may well resonate with many readers, and remain relevant in many ways.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend this as a book for the sake of reading as an adult. But it's a good work to read to understand the sentiment of the times, and for an understanding of its place in Italy's history, both in literature and in politics.

Three Sisters (by Bi Feiyu) - A Review

Three Sisters

Location: China
Author: Bi Feiyu
Publisher/Year: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/2010 (in Chinese, 2003)
Genre: Historical fiction
Theme: An exploration of the lives of three sisters and the manner in which they attempt and learn to take control of their lives at the tumultuous time of the Cultural Revolution.

The winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, Three Sisters is an intriguing and engaging look at the lives of three sisters (among seven) at a time when China was going through considerable change. It's a good look at a part of China and Chinese history that many think they know but where the actual picture has largely remained unknown, and a well crafted work (judging by some non-critic reviews it's very much a case of 'Your Mileage May Vary,' but I'll get to that later).

The blurb on the book conveys the essential structure of the book quite well:
In a small village in China, the Wang family has produced seven sisters in its quest to have a boy; three of the sisters emerge as the lead characters in this remarkable novel. From the small-town treachery of the village to the slogans of the Cultural Revolution to the harried pace of city life, Bi Feiyu follows the women as they strive to change the course of their destinies and battle against an “infinite ocean of people” in a China that does not truly belong to them. Yumi will use her dignity, Yuxiu her powers of seduction, and Yuyang her ambition—all in an effort to take control of their world, their bodies, and their lives.

The three part structure makes for a good look at the changing face of the China of that time through different perspetives, and provides an interesting setting. The three protagonists (and to some extent other characters) are well defined and come through quite strongly, with the author having developed a reputation for writing the 'female psyche' particularly well. Each character is strong in her own way, but their markedly different approaches take them down different paths. While reading this one starts to engage with the characters, and look at the world through their eyes, effectively developing a strong picture of the country in that particular period.

It is effectively the strong characterisation and setting that carry this novel along, with the writing style being somewhat more polarising. It is a fairly direct style without much flair. One could argue that this enhances a narrative that effectively aims to capture everyday life, but I've also seen plenty who said this made the book unreadable at some stage. Admittedly, I also have no idea if anything was lost in translation. At the end of the day, though, this is a compelling work that deserves the plaudits it has gained, and is a great look at China as it was (and in many parts continues to be).

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Prophet Murders (by Mehmet Murat Somer)

The Prophet Murders

Location: Turkey
Author: Mehmet Murat Somer
Publisher/Year: Serpent's Tail/2008 (In Turkish: İletişim Yayınları/2003)
Genre: Crime; LGBT
Theme: As transvestites around Istanbul continue to fall in a series of bizarre murders, a trans detective/nightclub owner sets out to get to the root of the problem

The first (well, first translated to English) of Mehmet Murat Somer's popular Hop-Çiki-Yaya mystery series, The Prophet Murders is a delightful and engaging read, mixing good crime writing with a whole lot of fun. Hop-Çiki-Yaya, Wikipedia informs me, was a cheerleading chant in Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s that came to be used for gay folks. In writing a series with prominent trans characters and in a way that was more favourable to trans folks than a lot of other works, Somer decided to bring the term back as part of a celebration of LGBT culture and characters.

The plot essentially revolves around an unnamed transvestite nightclub owner and amateur sleuth, who sets out to investigate the murders of two employees and finds herself getting sucked into a larger plot involving transvestite murders fitting themes related to various prophets. It's a race against time as she sets out to get to the root of the murders and prevent more death, while dealing with issues faced by many transvestites.

The concept of the book is fairly simple, but the fun lies in the execution and the characters. Somer imbues the story with a great deal of humour, lightening the mood in just the right way without ever taking away from the tragedies and prejudices faced by characters. The protagonist is well developed, Somer's answer to less than flattering depictions of transvestites in popular culture in the form of a smart, capable amateur detective who is unapologetically herself while also being all too aware of the potential ridiculousness of some aspects of the LGBT community she immerses herself in. She is an amazing character to read, and her development through this book in terms of identity, abilities and relationships with other characters is remarkable. Other characters don't get as much development, but this is understandable in a crime series revolving around a solitary sleuth, and the interactions with various characters remain interesting and delighful.

This is hardly the greatest murder mystery. But it is a fun read all the way through, and touches upon important issues faced by LGBT persons in the background without trivialising them. I for one look forward to reading other books in the series, and I'd strongly recommend this, at the very least for a fun read with an amazing trans detective protagonist (not something one gets to say very often!).

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Criminal from Lost Honour (by Friedrich Schiller) - A Review

The Criminal from Lost Honour

Location: Germany
Author: Friedrich Schiller
Publisher/Year: ?/1786
Genre: Crime
Theme: An inquiry into the nature of circumstances and psychology on crime, as evidenced by the case of a convicted poacher, rejected by society and subsequently embraced by a group of criminals

I'm quite a fan of crime writing, so it came as a surprise to me when I realised that I had never read this piece by Friedrich Schiller, an early work that makes for an interesting look at the evolution of the genre. It is classified as a novella because it was published as such, but I have also seen it classified as a 'short story,' and not without reason. It really is fairly short. But German novellas are an art form, often condensing massive stories into tiny packages, and this is no different. Just as German novellas are an art form of sorts, so is German crime fiction, and as an early example of both of these (and as something I had neglected to read in the past) this work by Schiller seemed like a must read.

This is the tale of Christian Wolf, a thrice-convicted poacher (well, convicted over the course of the story...), a man much neglected by society because of his lack of beauty and of poverty. Convicted for poaching on the word of Robert, a rival for fair Johanna's affections, he lost what little he had and went to prison. When he returned, it was to a town that shunned him more than ever, and he found himself poaching again. Eventually, on one such day he found Robert hunting in the jungle as well, and a dark instinct took Wolf over as he shot Wolf and let the cold joy of revenge take over. Wolf was convicted again. When he got out, he found himself in the midst of a band of criminals, including similar folks who had broken laws out of circumstance more than anything, who gave him the acceptance and respect he had always seeked from others. As much as his instincts told him this was wrong, it was exactly what he had searched for all his life. The tale ends when he ends up in front of a magistrate after yet another misadventure, and for once finds someone not entirely willing to judge him without fairness and honour. How this last exchange proceeds, I will not share with you.

It is a brief tale, but a strong one. Even in this day and age, the implications that social circumstance and psychology could be considered crucial factors for the mindset of criminals and their crimes be treated as such are topics of great debate. In the 18th century, when Schiller set about exploring such notions, it was not something that truly concerned the law. Schiller's writings did not just impact how crime fiction evolved, but also in many ways led to the idea of exploring criminal psychology, well before such an idea was even conceivable.

The writing style is dense and stark. It is not particularly easy to read. Indeed, it is rarely my style, which is more suited to the more poetic stylings of French prose than German starkness. I don't want to indulge in German stereotyping here, and have also read much classic German literature of a more 'elaborate' style. But this particular 'blank' style is also a dominant one in German literature over the past 250 years, increasingly so of late, and much reminds me of a more recent and intriguing look at the manner of criminals, Ferdinand von Schirach's Crime. Where von Schirach's legal background leads to stories narrated in the style of legal briefs, Schiller's 'crime reports' are more of an inquiring nature. But both (and many other German crime writings) are characterised by a very matter of fact style, conveying the most horrific of crimes in the quotidian manner of writing about one's neighbour going about one's daily routines. This strange combination of abject horror and blank writing is pretty effective, to be honest, providing a good picture of the events and the mentality of the criminals in question. In Schiller's work, it becomes clear that this is a look into how the circumstances of his life on the fringes affected his descent into the life of a criminal, and the strange acceptance he found among other such people raises the question about whether they were criminals alone or had been victims at first.

This is not an easy read, as previously mentioned. Many would question the literary merits of this barebones work after moving through more florid prose and into a new brand of 'plainspeak' in the intervening years. But it is still powerful in its premise, and for those who can stomach the style the true craft is quite visible. That said, the value of this work lies more in its philosophical premise and for the manner in which Schiller's work went on to influence crime writing and literature in general.

Pedro Páramo (by Juan Rulfo) - A Review

Pedro Páramo

Location: Mexico
Author: Juan Rulfo
Publisher/Year: Fondo de Cultura Económica/1955
Genre: Drama (?)
Theme: A first and third person narrative about the life and legacy of Pedro Páramo, an important but not particularly pleasant figure from the town of Comala

A famous work in Latin American literature, this short novel has been a major influence on the writings of many modern greats such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. It has an occasionally surreal quality to it, and is considered influential in the development of magical realism.

Now, down to the synopsis. I couldn't give you a rundown of the plot in half an hour, since it's fairly complex, so I'm going back to the Wikipedia well for this. It's still complex, to the extent that I'd recommend reading the Wikipedia play-by-play as well, but this should do for a review:
The story begins with the first person account of Juan Preciado, who promises his mother at her deathbed that he will return to Comala to meet his father, Pedro Páramo. Juan suggests that he did not intend to keep this promise until he was overtaken by subjective visions of his mother. His narration is fragmented and interspersed with fragments of dialogue from the life of his father, who lived in a time when Comala was a robust, living town, instead of the ghost town it has become. Juan encounters one person after another in Comala, each of whom he perceives to be dead. Midway through the novel, Preciado dies. From this point on most of the stories happen in the time of Pedro Páramo. Most of the characters in Juan's narration (Dolores Preciado, Eduviges Dyada, Abundio Martínez, Susana San Juan, and Damiana Cisneros) are presented in the omniscient narration, but much less subjectively. The two major competing narrative voices present alternative visions of Comala, one living and one full of the spirits of the dead. The omniscient narration provides details of the life of Pedro Páramo, from his early youthful idealization of Susana San Juan, his rise to power upon his coming of age, his tyrannical abuses and womanizing, and, finally, his death. Pedro is cruel, and though he raises one of his illegitimate sons, Miguel Páramo (whose mother dies giving birth), he does not love him. He does not love his father (who dies when Pedro is a child), or either of his two wives. His only love, established from a very young age, is that of Susana San Juan, a childhood friend who leaves Comala with her father at a young age. Pedro Páramo bases all of his decisions on, and puts all of his attention into trying to get Susana San Juan to come back to Comala. When she finally returns, Pedro makes her his, but she constantly mourns her dead husband Florencio, and spends her time sleeping and dreaming about him. Pedro realizes that Susana San Juan belongs to a different world that he will never understand. When she dies the church bells toll incessantly, provoking a fiesta in Comala. Pedro buries his only true love, and angry at the indifference of the town, swears vengeance. As the most politically and economically influential person in the town, Pedro crosses his arms and refuses to continue working, and the town dies of hunger. This is why in Juan's narration, we see a dead, dry Comala, instead of the luscious place it was when Pedro Páramo was a boy.
Not the smallest synopsis, is it? I'd like you to reflect on the fact that this is a fairly short novel featuring all this in significantly greater detail. It's a bit of a marvel, really, that Rulfo was able to pack all this in while redrawing narrative structures and incorporating elements that would have a great impact on the development of literature. As recently as 1955, this oeuvre managed all this.

The characters are beautifully outlined, and the setting of Comala is brought to life gloriously, particularly in the second part of the novella. This is a product of a different time, but it could apply to any period in many ways, not unlike the work of Machado de Assis in Brazil. The dual narrative makes for a complex read, and the transition can be a bit sudden, but this is all done without taking away from the manner in which readers immerse themselves in the tale. This is engaging, absorbing stuff, and at no point does it feel like the writer has not taken the time to flesh details out.

This work is not for everyone, I'd say. But it is certainly a great piece of art, and a masterclass in crafting stories. For those interested in reading a great work displaying elements that had a major impact on Latin American literature, this is definitely worth a go.

Zahra's Paradise (by Amir & Khalil) - A Review

Zahra's Paradise

Location: Iran
Creators: Amir & Khalil
Format: Graphic Novel
Publisher/Year: First Second Books/2011
Genre: Drama (Political)
Theme: The tale of a family's attempts to find a young protester who vanished without a trace following the 2009 Presidential Elections in Iran.

In the aftermath of the 2009 Presidential Elections, young activist Mehdi disappears under mysterious circumstances, almost certainly abducted and detained by the government's secret police. This is not an uncommon tale in Iran, but one that's rarely told. But thanks to the efforts of his brave mother Zahra, his brother Hassan (a blogger) and other friends, Mehdi's tale gradually unfolds, and along the way the tenacious group hears from many others of their own tragedies. As the tale draws to a close (but not an end, by any means) they find themselves at the cemetery Behesht-e-Zahra (literally 'Zahra's Paradise,' for some sense of irony), a burial place for many opponents as well as supporters of the regime.

Like Cuba: My Revolution, this is a graphic novel set in a tumultuous period and the protagonist is a female character confronting some harsh truths about an autocratic regime. That's where the similarities end, however. Zahra, the main protagonist of this tale, is not a naïve young girl whose enthusiasm about the regime is shattered. No, she is a strong woman who does not truly know her strength until it's tested by the unthinkable, the disappearance of her son Mehdi.

This is the tale of one brave family, using modern means in the hunt for a missing son/brother. But it is by no means solely the tale of Mehdi's family. This is a narrative that highlights numerous tales of tragedy and instigates readers and subjects to keep fighting for a better nation. It is simple in its premise, but powerful and oh-so-current.

The protagonists are well etched out, and the locale is well established. This is a rare look at life in Teheran under the current regime, set against a modern backdrop with technology a dominant force. The writing is good, and the art is clean. At the end, though, this is not a work that's about the plot/narrative or the stylistic aspects - it's about the message. It's about revealing the way things really are in modern Iran, and it does that very well.

Is it a truly groundbreaking work? Not really. Is it a great novel? Again, probably not. But it is a good look at Iran as it is, something that most of us only hear speculation about. If you'd like a look at it, it's also serialised online (as I found out after reading it), so go check it out.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Farewell to the Indies (by Hans Vervoort) - A Review

Farewell to the Indies

Location: Dutch East Indies/Indonesia
Author: Hans Vervoort
Publisher/Year: Conserve/2012
Genre: Historical fiction; Adventure
Theme: When the Japanese invade the Dutch East Indies during World War II, young Hans and Sonya (as well as their parents) end up in an internment camp for non-natives. They struggle through the next few years until the Japanese are defeated, only to find a new world where the Dutch colonial masters are no longer welcome, leading to a mass exodus back to the Netherlands.

First up, I should note the obvious similarities in theme to John Sweeney's Elephant Moon, which was in fact the last book I read before this one. Both books involve colonialism in Asian countries that were invaded by the Japanese during the Second World War, and are told from the perspective of non-native characters who then have to cope with a situation where they no longer find themselves welcome, leading to a hasty exit through unusual means. Both involve children, though they are more prominent in this tale.

Where the big difference lies in how the narrative unfolds, however, is that this is clearly a more personal work. Where John Sweeney relied on research into the past, Vervoort uses his own history. Hans Vervoort was born in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1939, and grew up there. Much of the setting and the events are built from his own memories, though one must qualify that he was younger than the fictional protagonists at the time of the war. In 1953, four years after the Dutch granted Indonesia its independence, Vervoort returned to the Netherlands himself, but spent much of his subsequent life missing his actual home back east. As such, the narrative here is very intimate, with little details thrown in here and there that make this feel like a very real work. The location and the period come through, with particular emphasis on local slang that help place the tale in that specific place at that specific time. It is possibly not as well crafted a novel as Sweeney's, but in so many ways feels more real.

From the book's own blurb, which builds on the theme I outlined earlier:
Hans and Sonya are living in the lovely sunny Dutch East Indies when war breaks out. Holland has been occupied by the Germans, their parents tell them, but the Indies will certainly remain free. Of course, the Japanese army does want to conquer the Indies, but everyone knows that the Japanese have crooked eyes so they can't shoot straight. And their tanks are made of tin! What a shock when the Japanese army does conquer the Indies in 1942. Hans and Sonya end up with their mother in a camp where people are hit and each day they must fight against hunger and illness. When Japan is beaten three years later, they are freed and hear how difficult life has been for families outside the camps. And then a new adventure begins right away. The Dutch have ruled the Indies for three hundred years but now the locals don't want that anymore. They revolt, people die and danger lurks everywhere. Everyone flees and Hans and Sonya must say farewell to the Indies too. A dangerous journey begins. Will they make it?

The tale is largely told from an endearing childlike perspective, which cuts across the clear horror and despair in a very intriguing way. As the narrator grows older in the camp and after, the joy and the sadness shine through in different ways as well, but at the end of the day this feels very much like an adventure book for young teenagers despite the horrors of war in the background. The characters are fairly well written, and the language is interesting. The plot moves forward at a relatively decent pace given the strained timeline, and as previously mentioned the narrative feels quite real for the reader.

It's an enjoyable work, and a good look at what it must have been like for the author and other folks during those dark days. My only regret about this work, to be honest, is that I went and picked another colonial narrative right after Elephant Moon, and feel I could have done something a little more 'current.' That said, this is an enjoyable work that gives intriguing insights into that period. If you feel this could interest you, just go download it from the author's page (it's available for free!) and give it a read.

Cuba: My Revolution (by Inverna Lockpez & Dean Haspiel) - A Review

Cuba: My Revolution

Location: Cuba
Author: Inverna Lockpez
Art & Lettering: Dean Haspiel (pencils), Jose Villarrubia (colours), Pat Brosseau (letters)
Format: Graphic Novel
Publisher/Year: Vertigo Comics/2010
Genre: Historical fiction; Politics
Theme: A semi-autobiographical look back at the tumultuous period of the Cuban revolution, as told from the perspective of a young girl (or woman, given the story starts when she is 17)

A disclaimer to start with: while this is still a fictional work in terms of the central characters, this is very much based on the youth of the writer Inverna Lockpez, an artist who was supposedly coaxed by artist Dean Haspiel into telling her story in the form of this slightly more fictional graphic novel narrative. As such, it is clearly a very personal work, and this shines through quite clearly as one reads the novel.

The narrative starts with Castro's rise to power in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when seventeen year old Sonya is swept up in the initial wave of optimism and freedom accompanying the new regime. In a rush of patriotic fervour, she even drops her dreams of becoming an artist to better serve the country as a doctor. As with the nascent independent nation of Cuba, though, her passion is soon dealt a harsh blow as the United States of America invaded in a battle now widely referred to as the 'Bay of Pigs,' where Sonya serves as a medic and finds herself face-to-face with her boyfriend Flavio, now on the other side! He comes to a sticky end, but things go from bad to worse for Sonya as she somehow ends up accused of being a CIA spy and is tortured for days before getting released. Through it all, Sonya somehow continues to believe in Castro's Cuba. She returns to her art, finds a new life, and continues to believe in the Cuban dream despite the increasing concerns of many around her. It's her new life in art school, however, that leads to Sonya learning once and for all that her dream of a free Cuba under Castro is a sham, that rampant censorship and unspeakable horrors persist, and that the revolution was not all it was made out to be. Eventually she makes a big decision of her own, and manages to flee the country.

How she escaped is not the focus of this tale. The story is of a young girl, full of newfound idealism and pride in a new regime, gradually having her trust eroded and replaced with fear and utter disappointment, to the point that escape becomes the only option. This is very much the tale of Inverna Lockpez as well, and as such comes through clearly. The setting feels all too real, with Lockpez and Haspiel providing a front row seat to many key events in 'modern' Cuban history. The characters are reasonably strong, particularly Sonya of course, but few feel like characters that are explored in great detail. Understandable, given that this is a work focused on one character in the midst of a changing geopolitical landscape. It is the setting that is truly important, and Sonya's changing life in the midst of it. In this aspect it succeeds marvellously.

The art is stellar, which is expected from an artist of Haspiel's calibre and reputation. It manages a personal feel without getting overly 'real,' conveying the situation and feelings in an effective manner. The colours are also effective, while the lettering does the job it is meant to do.

All in all, it's a well-written and well-executed graphic novel with a very personal tale to tale, and is very much a recommended read for a look at Cuba during that tumultuous period. It's a period that has often been written about, but rarely does one get as personal a look at the historic events as one does with this novel.

Elephant Moon (by John Sweeney) - A Review

Elephant Moon

Location: Burma/Myanmar
Author: John Sweeney
Publisher/Year: Silvertail/2012
Genre: Historical fiction
Theme: The daring tale of a schoolteacher and her students as they attempt to escape Japan's invasion of British-ruled Burma during World War II

This is a rather interesting work, set in pre-independence Burma, revolving around schoolteacher Grace Collins and her efforts to lead her schoolchildren out of a nation under attack from the Japanese and into the relative safety of India. This is a fascinating look into the period, but also intriguing for me as an Indian. The author, veteran BBC journalist John Sweeney, sets the period, the location and the characters up beautifully, but at times the historical aspects seem to be questionable. That said, I am more than willing to concede that my history books are probably slightly limited by Indian biases as well, so the true events probably lay somewhere in the middle.

Synopsis via Amazon (yep, I'm feeling lazy again, but my own attempt got a bit too detailed and meandered on for 3 paragraphs):

As the Second World War rages, the Japanese Imperial Army enters Burma and the British rulers prepare to flee. But the human legacy of the British Empire will be left behind in the shape of sixty-two Anglo-Burmese children, born to local women after affairs with foreign men. Half-castes, they are not acknowledged by either side and they are to be abandoned with no one to protect them. Their teacher, Grace Collins, a young Englishwoman, refuses to join the European evacuation and instead sets out to deliver the orphans to the safety of India. She faces impossible odds because between her and India lie one thousand miles of jungle, mountains, rivers and the constant, unseen threat of the Japanese. With Japanese soldiers chasing them down, the group s chances of survival shrink - until they come across a herd of fifty-three elephants who, with their awesome strength and kindness, quickly become the orphans only hope of survival.

Grace is a most striking character. Smart, resourceful, capable, and so utterly resolved that it seems unfathomable that anything can get in her way. Indeed, as the novel progresses it becomes clear that nothing can break her and no problem can truly last before her strength and determination. She is a caring guardian to the sixty-two children in her care, some of whom are also fleshed out as characters, and grows from a young woman who is already smart and capable to one who has survived the worst humanity has to offer and still takes her wards through to safety. Along the way, she meets many characters, such as the hapless Mr Peach (who grows from an awkward and occasionally unreasonable man into a respectable leader of men, and a man worth caring for), the loyal (not to the British army) Jemadar (Grace's first great love and a brave soldier), Sam Metcalf and Havildar Singh of the elephant patrol, homicidal maniac Eddie Gregory, and others. Each of these characters is interesting in their own way, and Sweeney does well to make each of them a reasonably full character. Grace, a headstrong woman of (apparently) incomparable beauty has quite the effect on each of these men in different ways, but at no point uses this to get what she wants. Most of them, however, were well and truly won over by Grace as a person, and did whatever they could to help her with her mission.

The tale is based on a true story of elephant patrols shepherding refugees from Burma to India, and Sweeney acknowledges this. This tale itself, however, is utterly fictional, and a fair bit of work clearly went into researching the settings in which they'd have operated. The locations are pretty well researched, and the customs and attire are well in keeping with the British Raj. Some aspects of the history seem slightly off to me, but as I already noted, this often happens with history as told through multiple lenses. Sweeney can't help approaching this as a British journalist, while I can look at this differently as a South Asian. Having lived in England for a while I can definitely state that there are far greater differences in the way British colonial history in India is taught between the two countries, so I can only help but note that Sweeney has put some effort into his research in this area as well. On the whole, this is a good work for getting an idea of what Burma was like in those days, but not so much for the present (which few among us can truly be clear about).

It's a well-written book, with good style, great characterisation, an interesting concept and plot, and certainly as a work of historical fiction. There are clumsy moments at times, admittedly, but on the whole this is decidedly one of the better books I have read in a while, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.