Recent reads and reviews

If we met during the Christmas holidays past, odds are I thrust a copy of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon into your hands, and then held a cleaved sword over your head till you began to read. “But I don’t like fantasy,” some burbled. “You’ll read this,” I replied, “because it’s set in a fantasy Middle-East where the locals are the heroes rather than the villains, because the writing is kick-ass and because the world-building is delicious.  Because NPR called it The Lord of the Rings meets the Arab Spring. And because I’m interviewing Saladin Ahmed.”  That interview was published in the February issue of Bookslut; here’s an excerpt.

The novel features a fat old hero, and a warrior-priest swordsman who’s all of five feet tall… You subvert so many conventions about masculinity and heroism that dominate this genre. Did you have a particular agenda while planning the novel, or did it all flow organically from the plotting process?

I’m glad someone finally noticed that Raseed is short. That was very intentional, and few have remarked upon it! Yes, I had — that most dreaded of things! — an agenda: look at other (Other?) criteria for heroism and follow the sorts of heroes we don’t usually follow. But to me, that’s not mutually exclusive to flowing organically. A writer starts out writing with a set of suppositions and questions in her head — even if she is unaware of them. But as one writes, these, one hopes, shift and squirm a bit.

[…]

Writers don’t tell stories in a vacuum, however much we might wish to pretend otherwise. So what already-told stories are your stories re-inscribing, which ones are they countering? Since long before 9/11, US culture has been saturated with stories about Arabs and Muslims as villains, as fanatics, as worthless, as better dead than alive. So yes, I aim to tell different stories in my work, and Throne is a part of that effort, however cloaked in swash-and-buckle it may be. […] in general, Throne very consciously aims to re-center the traditional western fantasy map, and to interrogate attendant cultural assumptions in the process. But, again, via monsters and magic rather than polemic.

Read the interview here, buy the book here, and visit Ahmed’s website here.

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I reviewed a couple of books for Herizons which I though I’d mention on the blog. Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels is an unflinching yet compassionate exploration of Disassociative Identity Disorder (better known as multiple personality disorder).  Nattel never sensationalizes the condition, and the plot unwinds very delicately. The protagonist Sharon is a Toronto wife and mother who has successfully concealed her condition for decades, but when a young pregnant girl in the neighborhood commits suicide, she decides to take action, even at the cost of revealing her DID. “And it all seemed so ordinary except it wasn’t” observes a character, and this line serves as a fine precis of the novel.  Nattel demands that we re-evaluate our conception of normal–whether applied to ourselves, our near ones or our society–and the results are unsettling, to say the least.

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(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki nails the miserable angsty insecurity that most teens wear like a second skin. Allison Lee opts to attend St. Joseph’s College because no one from her high school will be there–she was picked on in school, had a messy love affair with a fellow student Anne, accidentally set herself on fire twice, and now bears burn scars running from her hairline to her shoulder; re-inventing herself in college is a seductive idea. But then she meets the beautiful, crazy Shar, and their relationship soon turns abusive. Allison’s voice is remarkably wise and funny and she has a finely-calibrated bullshit detector for society’s strictures, but she’s so spectacularly misguided in her relationship choices that you want to leap into this book howling “WTF are you doing!” There’s an enviable alignment of authenticity and skill in Tamaki’s new book; this is stuff of classics.

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And now, for some exciting literary happenings, aka a nude author calendar. Twelve Canadian authors will display their beautiful…minds for a 2014 calendar, whose proceeds will go to PEN Canada (an organization that supports freedom of expression). The calendar is produced by Bare it for Books, and the line-up includes  Farzana Doctor, Miranda Hill, Terry Fallis,  and Yann Martel, who I hope will pose with a tiger covering his bits.

Come, Before Evening Falls by Manjul Bajaj

Come, Before Evening Falls takes place in the village of Kaala Saand in Punjab in 1910, and features characters belong to the Jat(t) community, an agrarian sect with a long tradition of working in the armed forces. I was agreeably surprised by this novel setting—most contemporary Indian writing in English is remorselessly urban, as is media reportage; it’s all too easy to forget that seven in every 10 Indians live in a village. Bajaj writes about the period knowledgeably and with affection, and the book gives a real feel for village life a century ago. I’ve learnt a recipe for a poultice involving charred garlic in mustard oil on a half-baked roti, and I also now know how to make a cowpat; let my knowledge never require translation into action, Lord.  Seriously: Bajaj has done some impressive research, and this reader is the richer for it.

Of course, none of this would count if the story didn’t grab me.

Jugni is eighteen, beautiful, and possessed of a calm good sense that flies in the face of her feelings for Raakha, the new school teacher. For Raakha is the bastard son of a second wife, landless and poor, while Jugni is rooted deep in her prosperous family and community. But the deadest fly in this rustic stew is gotra, the Hindu custom of assigning patrilineal clans at birth. Those with the same gotra, like Jugni and Raakha, are considered siblings, even if there isn’t a single shared ancestor over the past twenty generations. (Yes, it’s whack, especially considering the culture welcomes  other consanguineous marriages.)  But gotra laws were considered immutable, and the village would view Jugni and Raakha’s love as incest. Will this relationship die unrealized, caught in a stasis between love and honor? Not if the headstrong Raakha has his way.

Bajaj’s touch is painterly when describing the minutiae of her characters’ lives; when the canvas broadens to include, say, riffs on the British government, or the nature of human kind, she’s much less assured. But there’s some top quality writing here, and the author’s passion and sincerity shine right through, invigorating potential clichés at every turn. The burden of family honor has traditionally (and unreasonably) been placed upon womenfolk in such narratives, but Bajaj subverts that notion; Jugni realizes that honor isn’t gendered, but is simply “what we each owed our own deepest soul.” Jugni and Raakha are utterly convincing, strongly defined and beautifully fleshed in, and Jugni in particular is charming, child-like yet possessed of a surprising maturity. And oh, the secondary characters aren’t half-bad either.

Now for the (minor) bad stuff. I had two issues with this book. One, Bajaj isn’t as disciplined in describing Raakha’s romantic feelings as she is with Jugni’s, so some of the writing (in his POV) veers into romance novel territory. “He had tried his damndest to stay out of her way, to let it not come to this, but the further he had tried to retreat, the clearer her voice had grown in his head.” And on Jugni’s eyes: “If he could just sit and gaze into them uninterrupted he would be redeemed.” Ooogh.

My other nit is with this book is the mixing of Punjabi and English. (Wait, it’s not the nit you expect.) Now, the characters obviously speak in Punjabi, and, equally obviously, Bajaj is trying to impart the flavor of the language in her writing. All good; I don’t mind Punjabi words peppering the text though I don’t speak the language, and I don’t even have a problem with the Hinglish (Pinglish?)spoken by the characters. “I’ll buy you sliver toe-rings at the mela [fair], I promise, and I’ll always steal the best ambis [young mangoes] for you,” says a young cousin. But then, I came across “According to the boys, Tau [uncle] was only satthyao-ing…” The last word makes a gerund of the Hindi word Satthya, meaning to go senile, by adding the English “ing”. Now, this portmanteau word is very clearly Bajaj speaking, for none of the boys could coin such a word–they wouldn’t know how to. The intrusive authorial voice all but broke the spell of the book for me; I saw the author sitting with a Macbook at a Barista typing that line. Get me back to Kaala Saand village and the cowpats, I cried, and Bajaj did, but it was a close thing. As I said earlier, it’s just a nit, but this work is otherwise so strong that the nits might as well be clothed in neon. Please change this when the book goes into reprint, please, please.

UPDATE: A note from the author informs me that the “satthyao-ing” is gone from the second edition.  And that the book is now available on Kindle:  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007VXRT3K  Buy it, y’all!