Black Cranes – Book Review

Title – Black Cranes

Author(s) – Multiple

Editors – Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

Genre – Multi-genre anthology

“Several times, I’ve woken before sunrise, convinced that something has changed in the middle of the night. As though some god has reached down, and, with a colossal finger, nudged the earth, and now everything is sitting two degrees off-kilter. I scan above for the subtle movement of the clouds, to assure myself that the sky is not a two-dimensional poster glued onto a false backdrop.”

These words could not have rung truer than in the present scenario, with everything seeming to go wrong this year. Tales of Unquiet Women is a befitting subtitle for this collection of short stories, written by women from Southeast Asian backgrounds. I came across this book on a horror literature forum, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the writings cover a plethora of genres – including science fiction, fantasy, humor, mythology, folklore and legend, subtly merging with horror rather than an out-an-out spook fest. The team of contributors come from Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and even Asian immigrants to the US and New Zealand, as an embrace as well as rejection of traditional concepts related to femininity and what it means to be a woman – in times gone by, present day, and in years to come. The collection features fourteen stories – including contributions by the editors themselves and a wonderful foreword from Alma Katsu – all different from each other, but similar in their women characters striving to make a place for themselves in their worlds. From spirit foxes taking human form, and ghost babies created from unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, to military women fighting for their place in a male-dominated post-apocalyptic world, and individuals cloned to fabricate the perfect person. There is humor in a spirit expressing discomfort in a human body due to the constrictive lotus feet, and a woman believing her husband is an alien due to an emotional distance after years of marriage; satire in the obsession over fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, and the “perfect” attributes of grace, obedience and not speaking ones mind; the frustration of being perfect, but not perfect enough; horrors of betrayal, the warmth of a monster protecting a child, and peculiar tales featuring shelter animals, and monsters and motherhood. The genres and themes cover such a wide range, there is something here for everyone.

The writing is sheer brilliance – quite commendable in an anthology where authors of equal credibility need to be sourced. I’m sharing some of my favorite quotes from the book, without revealing the specific writer or story. Note how wonderful they are in their own way.

~In the abandon of your fury, you had cut yourself on its spiteful blade.

~You stormed from room to room, spewing your hurt and your hate, so it dribbled down the wallpaper and seeped through the cracks in the floorboards.

~Alongside a dragon, a butterfly flutters.

~You stitched a life from scraps left in the laundry.

~Some things you knew already. Some things you knew before you were born; they were revealed to you in the rhythm of your mother’s heartbeat and in the echoes of her sighs.

~Memory is an ocean wave: once it has attained enough momentum, it can’t be stopped. It must rise, swell, peak, crash, and be endured.

~A double-punch to the gut – the first blow rendering me immobile for the second, the second intensifying the first. The ripping of a half-dried scab to expose a festering wound.

~Family matter. I’ve heard that excuse many times. Abuse wrapped up in a pretty little bow so no one admits it happens.

~Her eyes were patchwork – flecks of blue and black pooled into warring factions that expressed the conflict inside the girl.

~You live in a monster’s empire. You’re only upset because you’re not the biggest monster anymore.

~She speaks in a language I don’t recognize, but somehow an understanding sinks into my skin. She speaks of buried dreams, and choked-back words, and old fury knotted into a lump as cold and dense as a black dwarf star.

~Women can be scientists, warriors, princesses, soldiers, caretakers, spirits. We can be many things. The only thing we can’t be is defeated.

A powerful anthology that serves as a reflection of Asian societies – the role of societal expectations, familial obligations, the oppressiveness, submissiveness, and the need for self identity. The element of horror so smoothly weaves itself into the warp and weft of the lyrical and haunting prose, you don’t realize what you’re getting at until you get there. I wish I could review each story individually. I can’t pick a favorite from the lot because they are all so good. The title lends its own significance to the stories within – cranes being associated with grace and fragility, versus the darkness within that finds its way out when suppressed for too long. And that gorgeous cover – a pop of color in the black and grey; a metaphor for beating the darkness and bursting forth with our true selves. This is dark, reflective fiction at its best.

Rating – 5/5

August 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in August – a mix of historical fiction, science fiction, horror, memoir, short stories, literature in translation, and non-fiction.

~Orphaned by S.L. Bhyrappa – A Kannada-English translation of a book originally written in the 1960s, with its English version only having come out last year. Set around an old Kannada folk song about a cow and a tiger, the story narrates the significance of the cow in Indian culture through old world traditions versus modern lifestyles, morals and values, ethics and science, cross cultural and cross generational beliefs and conflicts. A thought-provoking book that has no right or wrong, but requires the reader to reflect and bring ones own meaning and interpretation to the forefront. A powerful story that hasn’t lost its relevance over time, brilliantly translated in spite of its heavy blend of Sanskrit within Kannada. 5/5

~Dancing in the Family by Sukanya Rahman – An inter-generational memoir that showcases the changing backdrop of Indian classical dance through history. The author takes us along on a journey with her grandmother, mother and herself – all eminent dancers in their chosen styles. Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Ballet, Modern Dance – the book is a historical wonder of dancers and a bond forged through dance that was thicker than blood. Truly a gem of literature in the classical arts, replete with wonderful archival photographs dating from the 1800s though the years, with each remarkable woman representing her generation. 5/5

~Girl with a Pearl earring by Tracy Chevalier – A historical fiction, speculative biography of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, and his most famous work – The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Vermeer was known to be a recluse, with barely 35 paintings to his credit, and was one of the greatest enigmas of the art world in the 1600s. His work reflected themes of domestic life, subtlety and simplicity with an emphasis on light and texture. The author attempts to recreate the story behind the anonymous muse of the titular art – and the narrator of the book herself – taking us into Vermeer’s closeted world of color. A stunning story, simple in narration but rich in color, just like its inspiration. 5/5

~Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat – A collection of short stories about Haitian people, all dealing with themes of immigration, displacement, family, community, diasporic experiences, relationships that bind as well as those that break people apart. Short stories can be impactful because brevity lends them power. They can offer serenity, be warm, upsetting, joyful, moving, illuminating, educative, hopeful – each story powerful in its own way, Danticat truly a magician with the written word as she works the reader’s emotions just like her characters. 5/5

~The Humans by Matt Haig – A mathematics professor gets abducted by aliens, who send one of their own to impersonate him and document life on Earth. Body-snatching and numbers have never been so funny and entertaining while being philosophical and moving. Haig’s originality and humor are commendable, teaching us about ourselves through an outsider’s perspective. A science fiction delight of a book that will keep you laughing all the way through, with its subtle insights and contemplation. 4/5

~Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra – An attempt to revisit the Partition of India through objects carried by refugees as they crossed the border on both sides. Described as material memory, the author aims to identify belongings, mementos, gifts – things that people hurriedly picked up or chanced upon or happened to inherit – that hold memories of life in undivided India, and what those memories and objects mean to them now. An alternative history of the Partition viewed as a tangible event, the book can be described as a cross between history and anthropology, wonderfully researched and presented. 5/5

~Things Not Made by Michael Sellars – A peculiar story about beings that hate readers and everything that comes with them – books, words, sentences, paragraphs, stories. They’re allergic to books, and booknerds serve as an anathema. So they’re out to eliminate anyone who loves the written word. An odd book that keeps you guessing all the way, as it takes your mind on a trip to another world, just like the story itself does. Quality writing, unsettling adventures, witty dialogue, well fleshed out characters, vocabulary that makes you pause, and above all, the significance of the title of the book, make this one adventure you want to as well as don’t want to miss out on. 5/5

~The Sweetmeat by K. Saraswathi – A Malayalam-English translation from the Amma Series, a feminist classic that addresses themes of love, marriage, relationships through the prisms of intoxication, dominance, inferiority, domestic abuse, the blurred lines of victim and victor, cause and effect, and the vicious circle of each leading to the other. The fact that the writer’s works were neglected in her own state and country due to her feminist stance, and gained popularity only after being published in American journals, shows the true strength of literature and the power of its honesty. 5/5

Of Books and Writers

August has been a great month for Historical Fiction. Two brilliant works connected me with two wonderful writers.

I had read Girl with a Pearl Earring over a decade ago, and pulled it out recently for a virtual meet cum discussion with the author Tracy Chevalier. Tracy outlined all her research that went into writing a speculative biography about a famous 17th century Dutch painter and his most iconic painting, as well as shared images on his works that drive her narrative and which remarkably enrich the reading experience as you visualize Vermeer’s art. The paintings have been richly described in words, as the colors and lights that created them, and it was inspiring to hear Tracy’s recollection of working on the novel – converting visual art to the written form, and imagining a life within that art.

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali is set during the Iranian revolution and covers themes ranging from immigration, culture, cuisine to poetry, reconciliation and so much more. I was fortunate to interview Marjan and moderate a book discussion with her for my book club that met across three different time zones. An insightful session for readers to experience a book from the perspective of it being written – the detailed research and ground work in documenting an era, along with the writer’s first hand experience of life as an immigrant, joining a fictional story to seamlessly weave the carpet of a narrative.

Historical fiction is a carefully blended genre of imagination and well backed research coming together with quality writing. Both these books are masterfully created, with their writers being powerhouses of their craft. While the pandemic has separated and isolated the world, it has also brought us closer in many ways. It is truly an incredible experience sitting across admired writers and indulging in a warm conversation, discussing much loved  books with them – albeit virtually.

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Things Not Made – Book Review

Title – Things Not Made

Author – Michael Sellars

Genre – Horror

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A peculiar story about beings that hate readers and everything that comes with them – books, words, sentences, paragraphs, stories. They’re allergic to books, and booknerds serve as an anathema. So they’re out to eliminate anyone who loves the written word.

Holly is a bookworm who loves reading more than anything else. She always has a book on her or stashes one some place nearby, is perpetually ready to recommend titles to fellow readers, and is happy to convert non-readers into readers. “Books just pull me in, wrap themselves around me”, she declares. One evening in a bar with her former college mate turned friend and colleague Melanie, Holly finds her drink spiked while Melanie is off to catch up with some friends. A man in a green hood stares at her intently while she realizes her predicament, and finds herself in a parallel world – a facsimile of the place she is in, but with nothing and no one except her and the hooded man. A new kind of drug, an alien abduction, or is she just losing her mind? Melanie sets off to find and rescue her friend in this strange world, replete with horrifying creatures alongside riddles on books and reading. The two friends are separated not only from each other but from reality itself, trying to discern the identity of the hooded man, fathom the happenings around them, and navigate a path to safety.

“Things Not Made” is truly a reader’s delight, with the plethora of books, quotes and excerpts finding their way into the narrative. With its inherent horror and smatterings of humor, Michael Sellars proves to be a worthy competitor to his protagonist Holly – the love for reading, search for appropriate vocabulary in thought and conversation, prioritizing books and writers whatever might be the situation. As a reader, I could see myself in Holly and Melanie – identifying books from their quotes, reminiscing about classics read long ago, comparing page numbers between tomes, literally going off track where books are concerned in spite of the horrific situation at hand. “Books aren’t just delivery systems for words and stories, they’re sacred objects.” The atmosphere is surreal, with terrifying descriptions of the anti-book beings enveloped in a world where reading is looked down upon, and could even bring you harm. Incunabula, deliquesce, miasma, putrescence, collective nouns can be kryptonite or saviors here, depending on who’s asking. The friendship between the two lead characters has a story of its own, adding to their camaraderie in the narrative and its outcome, while being authentic and moving to the reader.

An odd book that keeps you guessing all the way, as it takes your mind on a trip to another world, just like the story itself does. The chapters are narrated alternately from Holly’s and Melanie’s points of view so we experience each ones take on this strange new world and what to make of it. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ethan Frome, and Alan Moore, nestled snugly beside The Haunting of Hill House, Frankenstein, and Turn of the Screw, with exploding snakes, spiky rodents, and crawling hands just within reach. Incorporating classic writers and works of literature in an out-and-out horror book was a very striking endeavor, and Sellars manages it masterfully. Quality writing, unsettling adventures, witty dialogue, well fleshed out  characters, vocabulary that makes you pause, and above all, the significance of the title of the book, make this one adventure you want to as well as don’t want to miss out on.

My rating – 5/5

July 2020 in Books

A delayed summary of the books I read in July 2020. The titles last month covered a range of genres from historical fiction, memoir, horror, true crime, fantasy fiction, political thrillers and translated literature. I was lucky to have picked some stunning works and I’d recommend them all to anyone who likes these genres.

~The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun – A Korean-English translation of a psychological thriller described as a cross between Stephen King’s “Misery” and Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”. The protagonist finds himself paralyzed following a car accident that kills his wife. His mother-in-law is the only living family member, who takes it upon herself to be his caretaker, nurse, guardian, physiotherapist, by removing all experts from the scene, only to neglect him thereafter. An atmospheric novel depicting the horrors of isolation, loneliness, depression, helplessness, claustrophobia, the terrors of not knowing versus the brutality of knowing and being unable to do anything. The horror is subtle rather than in-your-face, unraveling as the novel does.  And a gorgeous cover, too, with its own significance in the story. 4/5

~Only in Spain by Nellie Bennett – A memoir of dance, food, travel, journeys and experiences. The author works as a saleswoman at a store in Sydney. A chance encounter with a Flamenco class at a local dance studio kicks off an obsession of sorts with the dance form, taking her to the place of its origin, Seville in Spain. This leads to a newfound love for the country, its culture and people, because the Flamenco is not just a dance but a way of life. An endearing narrative of the writer’s tryst with the dance form. A book sure to trigger fernweh and make you want to travel, dance, eat, learn new languages, and meet people. 4/5

~Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba – A Spanish-English translation based on the true story of an orphan who was killed by other children at an orphanage in Brazil, who ended up playing with her body parts for a week before the murder came to light. As horrifying as the event is, the prose is beautiful, hypnotic, lyrical. This book is not just about the story, but a lesson in writing itself. Disconcerting and heartbreaking but morbidly beautiful, a masterpiece of a work by translator Lisa Dillman who requires her own applause for this one. 5/5

~Ring by Koji Suzuki – A Japanese-English translation of the horror classic known by its many movie adaptations in both Japanese and English. A mysterious videotape that kills the viewer within one week of watching it. If the movies scared you, the book ups the ante by several notches, with a detailed narrative on the origins of the tape and how it works, along with the significance of the title. Eerie, disturbing, and chilling to the bone even without the iconic scene from the movies, a must-read in horror fiction. 5/5

~The Invisible by Seb Doubinsky – A political crime drama set around a mysterious hallucinogenic drug, with people getting killed on the way for knowing too much. Politics, crime, poetry, fantasy, an alternate universe of noir. A place where the culprit is not a person, but a system. A strange book that I came across on Meerkat Press, a publishing house that comes out with some very different, but very good books. 4/5

~The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski – A Polish-English translation of the Witcher’s origin story.  Written as a series of short stories, the reader is taken along Geralt of Rivia’s many adventures, interspersed with the present timeline as a prelude to later books in the series. Are monsters identified by their looks or behavior? A world of djinns, elves, wizards, sorceresses, spells and elixirs – brilliantly translated into English, retaining the wit and humor of the original. Fantasy fiction at its best with a wonderful character of the White Wolf, his choices and actions. 5/5

~The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali – Historical fiction delving into the political upheavals of Iran, a world of coups, poetry, letters, books, food, culture, immigration and more. A story about a tiny neighborhood stationery shop, and a story about everything else. A mix of epistolary and framing, past and present and parallel stories, Marjan Kamali is a powerful voice in Iranian literature, with a subtle yet effective narrative. 5/5

~Blanky by Kealan Patrick Burke – Set around the death of an infant caused by suffocating on her blanket, Kealan Patrick Burke brilliantly handles a dark theme in describing the horrors of losing a child and the associated sadness, loss, grief. A haunted blanket can be scary, but the ghosts outside are no match for the ones within. A book that deserves a read just for the writer’s take on the subject. 5/5

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International Tiger Day – Book Recommendation

A book recommendation on the occasion of International Tiger Day, which focuses on tiger conservation and protection of their natural habitats.

“Living with Tigers” by Valmik Thapar is about the author’s journey with the elusive big cats from his first trip to Ranthambore at age twenty-three, to his continued association with them over the next forty years. While being a memoir of the writer – a renowned Indian naturalist – the book can also be considered as mini biographies of some of the tigers who had a profound effect on him, each one named and with a dedicated chapter. One of those books where both the writer and the subject keep you hooked, every page on these magnificent animals is worth reading, offering a breathtaking foray into one of the largest wildlife reserves in India known for its Bengal tigers. For wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, those with an interest in nature and jungle lore, Valmik Thapar’s documentaries and books come highly recommended.

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Contemporary Verse

Recipes in a Dead Language 

~ Amy LeBlanc

cupboard number one:

Folded flour bags

glazed like snow –

breaking twist ties

on cans with labels

turned inward.

You see the light

between their dents

and vertical lines,

ingredient lists in Latin.

The door shuts in an ode

to the truffle and the saltine,

with only a paper

corner to show.

 

sink plug:

In swimming pools,

shorts above the water

shirts above the head,

the blockage is mediated

by pumps and pipes.

Here there are only church mice –

small hands breaking

through the grates

to loosen the tendons,

spread the atrophy to

circle a little bit wider.

 

broken fridge bulb:

Seeping liquid light

and the scent of decay,

an apple is split in two

with the edge of a fingernail

potatoes grow eyes,

carrots sprout legs,

cucumbers produce winter fur

in an ambient phone light,

then seized by hands

for winter sustenance.

 

(Originally published in CV2, 41.3 Winter Issue of Canadian Poetry)

 

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Image courtesy a remodelled 1940s bungalow by owner-designer Leslie Dawson Mouzis, Portland OR

 

Magical Weekend

Everyone could use a little magic now and then. Admittedly, these are not very magical times, but we need to make the most of what we have, where we are. Some magic poured in today in the form of sun rays, with the sun deciding to peek in after days of rains, bringing some much required light and brightness in its wake. My rescue cat Jax dropped by for story time. We are soaking up the adventures of Geralt (of Rivia) and Roach (his horse) with the first book of the Witcher series, ironically titled “The Last Wish” – an English translation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Polish original. I finished watching the series last week and am having a go at the books now. The kindle has been a life saver with the absence of paperbacks due to the lockdown. A day filled with djinns, elves, wizards, sorceresses, spells and elixirs – a magical weekend indeed.

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Move to Write, Write to Move

The pandemic has led to the creation of spaces in new ways to adapt. With outdoor movement limited to the essentials and emergencies, we find ourselves confined indoors like never before. Technology has been a tremendous aid in forging connections far and wide. Along side work and studies that have moved online, I find myself attending workshops, seminars, conferences in far off places and varying time zones, meeting new people, visiting places virtually, being exposed to new subjects, and learning much more than I was earlier.

One of my many lockdown forays was a well spent evening with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library today. A leading public library in America, situated in North Carolina and serving readers across twenty locations, the library works with a mission of strengthening communities and improving lives. Founded in 1903, the library serves as a provider of lifelong education, bringing together readers and learners and fostering personal growth through accessible resources. The library’s core values of openness, learning, respect, inclusion, and leadership were at the forefront this evening with Pamela Turner, the senior library assistant, leading us through an engaging session titled, “Move to Write, Write to Move”. A creativity workshop moderated by copywriter Surabhi Kaushik and therapeutic movement facilitator Jyotsna Srikant that emphasized movement enhancing creativity and writing igniting expression.

One of the courses I had undertaken at the start of the lockdown in March was called, “Healing with the Arts” from the University of Florida. It involved dance, writing, music, painting, photography – using the visual and physical arts as a means of healing mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically through a series of art projects. “Move to Write, Write to Move” follows a similar format of combining different art forms to express oneself – bringing ones core emotions to the foreground and the power of arts on oneself rather than creating something for others. The workshop took us through word and movement to express and create.

We began with freestyle motions, signs and gestures to warm up the body and mind, moving nowhere and to nothing in particular, but moving for the sake of moving. Introductions were followed by a writing prompt of making sense of and internalizing Rumi’s quote, “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” My interpretation of these sentences was about being more than we believe ourselves to be. The spaces we fill, the lives we touch, the void our absence leaves – there is so much more to us than we let on to others, and even to ourselves. Proceeding with movement to instrumental music which was a prompt in itself, we wrote about the movement experience. The sensory awareness of this activity reminded me of flowing and floating. Without giving much thought to a specific choreography, where I was going or what I was doing, I let my body sway with the music, flowing like water, light like the clouds drifting across the sky. I remembered the smell of fresh air and the soothing sound of waves, from pre-lockdown times when we could move whenever and wherever we pleased. The pandemic has brought us to the moment. With the body confined and the mind all over the place, it has been an experience keeping the mind still and finding ways to exercise the body.

As a dancer, writer and enthusiast of art as a whole, I loved every part of this workshop. I dance, paint, draw, write, or dabble in craft as a means of personal expression, and the experience of combining multiple art forms is much cherished as they flow into each other, ignite creativity and enhance artistry. A wonderful start to the weekend by trying out something different and making new friends from around the globe.

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