BOOK OF THE MONTH: MARCH

Another month has rolled around and I’ve looked at more books this month than I have in any previous months.

 

Book of the Month: The Color Purple– by Alice Walker

imageI originally thought I was going to make it To Break The Demon Gate, but as soon as I read the Color Purple I realized it couldn’t be anything else. A heart wrenching story of oppression, love, the importance of education and friendship seeing you through adversity. I said everything I needed to say about this book in my review here, and it’s a book that I would recommend to everyone and that’s why I’ve put it my Top 20 Books Everyone Should Read.

 

Short Story of the Month: Mummy– by Banana Yoshimoto

imageThis was definitely the most difficult category to choose because I’ve read so many superb 5 star short stories this month. However, the stand out had to be Mummy by Banana Yoshimoto which was found in a compilation of short stories by Japanese authors called The Book Of Tokyo. Banana Yoshimoto is currently one of the most acclaimed authors of Japanese fiction, and from reading this short story it’s easy to see why.

Mummy is a very strange and utterly intriguing short story about a young women who enters a warehouse alone with a guy she barely knows, but instead of finding herself a murder victim, she enters a three day sexual adventure that’s  strange, dangerous, fucked up and exhilerating. Banana perfectly captures what it’s like to be a young woman embarking on an early sexual adventure- the hunger for the forbidden, the new, dangerous and the thrill of adventure.

Runners up: The Forest of Memory, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, Moonlight on Shoji Bridge

World Building of the Month:The Teracotta Bride– by Zen Cho

This was another category that was difficult to choose. Right up until the end I was torn imagebetween the supernatural politics of the Mercy Thompson series and the science fiction reimagining of the Himba people in Binti; I thought I had finally decided on Binti, but then I read the Terracotta Bride. The Teracotta Bride gives us an in depth look at the Chinese/ Malaysian afterlife,a world with ten levels of hell where wealth is gained by corrupt methods and from paper burnt by the deceased’s ancestors. As well as giving us a fully realized interpretation of that world, it also points out its flaws (that even though the rest of the world’s evolved, the afterlife still possesses a medieval view of the role of women); it also asks some interesting new questions about this world like ‘are those paper servants created to serve their master sentient?’ or ‘what happens to the Teracotta Soldiers after their master’s reincarnated?’ On top of that, it even brings in a little speculative fiction element with the same principle used to created the Terracotta Soldiers is used to create a robot servant? What happens to a robot in the afterlife? Does it have a soul?

Every about this story was so unique and fascinating that there could only be one choice for Best World Building.

Runners up: Moon Called, Binti

Male Character of the Month: Lord Yamada and Kenji

to break the demon gateTo Break The Demon Gate is one of my all time favourite fantasy series. It takes place is Japan during the Heian era and is full . Lord Yamada is a great protagonist- a disgraced minor Lord who’s suffering from the loss of a loved one and is taken to the edge of grief. I think we all know what it

However, a story with only Lord Yamada wouldn’t be the same, as part of what makes the novels so great is his banter and odd couple friendship with Kenji, the ‘reprobate monk’. Kenji is the yin to Yamada’s yan, a carefree, light hearted lecherous monk who’s always getting lost along the tenfold way in the bottom of a cask of sake or some other worldly pleasure. Even though he’s always on the recieving end of the more humourless Yamada’s scoulding, the two have a strong friendship that sees them through their numerous adventures against the various schemes of the supernatural.

Female Character of the Month: Jade Yeo

imageIt was either Jade, Sofia or Cyan from Hedon this month and since I’m trying to avoid giving The Color Purple everything, it just had to Jade. I mean, come on, what’s not to love about her? She read’s like an unholy hybrid of The Importance of Being Earnest’s Cecily and Jane Austen’s Emma, completely rebels against all of societies norms and calls her unborn child ‘the worm’. She is one of the greatest females in literature and I really enjoyed the relationship between her and her best female friend.

Runners up: Sofia, Nettie, Cyan

 

POC Character of the Month: Sofia- the Color Purple

imageI really, really try not to nominate the same book for every category, but I couldn’t read The Color Purple and say it’s not the best thing I’ve read all month and that it doesn’t include the best POC portrayal in literature; because it is one of the most revolutionary portrayals of African American women ever written, so much so that it garnered praise from Oprah Winfrey (who ended up playing Sofia) and Lenny Henry.

I chose Sofia in particular because I fell in love with this character. Strong and independent, she had to stand up for herself her own life and she vowed never to let any man treat her like a punchbag. True to her word, when Harpo tried to beat her into submission she didn’t back down but fought him with every ounce of strength she had. Her finest moments included taking down Miss Eleanor Jane and her misguided and privileged view of her importance to her unwilling ‘mammy’ figure- something that is sadly still relevant today when films like The Help continue to get made and receive more critical acclaim than films like Selma.

LGBT Character of the Month: Celie- The Color Purple

shug and celie.jpgBefore Pam Grier’s portrayal of Kit Porter in The L word and Orange Is The New Black came on the scene, The Color Purple’s Celie and Shug Avery were two of the very few portrayals of black lesbians and bisexuals in the media.

Celie is a great character: she is a very human character who suffers a lot. She starts off as an extremely passive person who suffers silently and endures through life, even proving to be a little manipulative when she advises Harpo to beat his wife because she envies her freedom. However, she soon develops into a strong and capable person with a sense of self worth, and a big part of what takes her on that journey is her love for Shug. In spite of being constantly forced to sleep with men since she was 14, the first time she ever feels desire of her own was when she thought of Shug, who she felt a mix of adolescent infatuation and sexual desire for since she first found a picture of her. That sexual awakening burgeons into a deep friendship and later a physical relationship. Two often gay relationships are reduced to either ‘just sex’ or an asexual companionship, but The Color Purple avoids that by both 

Because of the pernicious stereotype of gay people being turned gay because of abuse and that lesbians are attracted to women because they hate men, it can be difficult to portray an LGBT character who was abused. However, although she 

What

 

The Japanese mythology of Okami (part 1)

Okami was an absolutely brilliant game. It had a very traditional Japanese feel, and took you on an adventure through a land of asian fairy tales full of blooming cherry blossoms, Dragon kings and bunny princesses. However, to us Westerners who grew up with the fairy tales told by Brothers Grimm,Hans Christian Anderson and (more to the point) Disney, some of the references were baffling in this game. Well be baffled no more, as I’m going to explain the mythology behind the game. Continue reading The Japanese mythology of Okami (part 1)

BOOK REVIEW: Guardian Of The Spirit-

You’ve never read a fantasy novel like this one! The deep well of Japanese myth merges with the Western fantasy tradition for a novel that’s as rich in place and culture as it is hard to put down.

Balsa was a wanderer and warrior for hire. Then she rescued a boy flung into a raging river — and at that moment, her destiny changed. Now Balsa must protect the boy — the Prince Chagum — on his quest to deliver the great egg of the water spirit to its source in the sea. As they travel across the land of Yogo and discover the truth about the spirit, they find themselves hunted by two deadly enemies: the egg-eating monster Rarunga . . . and the prince’s own father.

Moribito: Guardian Of The Spirit is the first in a series of nine novels (and counting) that were extremely popular in Japan and adapted into an anime. The first two books were published and translated in the West, but unfortunately the series was cancelled after that. This is a shame, because Moribito is the most engaging YA series I’ve read since The Hunger Games. Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: Guardian Of The Spirit-

THE HONEST MAN- THERE’S BEING NICE AND THERE’S WINNING DARWIN AWARDS

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING GOOD AND NICE

There’s truth to the idea that it takes more intellectual energy to be successfully deceptive than to be senselessly sincere.

It’s also true that there’s a difference between being ‘good’ and ‘nice’. Being ‘good’- standing up for what’s right in the face of adversity- is laudable. Being relentlessly ‘nice’ – tolerating bad behaviour for fear of being ‘mean’ or  ‘starting trouble’- is not; it’s intellectual and moral cowardice that should never be rewarded. Unfortunately, in fairy tales, it often is.

It’s a delicate balancing act to walk the line between being ‘nice’ and being ‘a doormat’ or ‘a complete moron’, and so often in fairy tales not only do the leads fail to walk this tightrope; they fall, crash and drag the beams that held up the tightrope down on everyone else in the vicinity. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DARWIN AWARDS

In Little Snow White, the titular heroine falls for the same assassination ploy not once, not twice, but THREE times in the original. Three. With her lemming- like skills of self preservation and her prince’s questionable behaviour around women in coffins, I worry about their future children. Here’s hoping that seven fairies come along and bless their kids with something more useful than ‘song’ and ‘music’ this time, otherwise the kingdom’s future leadership is in trouble.

If we had a facepalm for every time Snow White's stupidity imperllied her, this still wouldn't cover it
If we had a facepalm for every time Snow White imperilled herself, this still wouldn’t cover it

THE MAN WHO MADE THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS BLOOM OR THE RSPCA’S MOST WANTED

It’s not only women who are susceptible to the trope of ‘passive niceness’. Things only gets worse in the Japanese tale, ‘The Man who made the cherry blossoms bloom’; the old man knows his neighbour abuses his dog at every chance he gets, but he lends his dog to the neighbour anyway because he is ‘a kind man’.

His neighbour beats the dog to death. But is the old man deemed to be guilty of ‘criminal neglect?’ No, his only crime is ‘kindness’, so why should the old man learn anything from his actions? All he needs to do is keep on letting his neighbour walk over him and defile his pet’s memory over and over again until magical karma solves everything.

If Mr Orange was like the old man from the original myth, Ammy, you'd be making those Cherry-blossoms bloom with your ashes instead of your paint brush
If Mr Orange was like the old man from the original myth, Ammy would be making those Cherry-blossoms bloom with her ashes instead of her paint brush

FINALLY! A FAIRY TALE THAT AGREES WITH ME

The examples above are stories where being ‘nice’ means being relentlessly stupid or passive, which isn’t a good message for adulthood. It may work for getting kids not to bicker with each other or talk back, but it doesn’t prepare them for the real world.

However, there is a brilliant antidote to this message- and that antidote can be found in the little known Iraqi tale of ‘The Honest Man’.

DELICIOUSLY ACERBIC

This tale is subversive right from the word ‘go.’ From its opening paragraph it begins:

There was once an honest man, upon whom fortune never smiled. His wife deceived him, his sons robbed him, and when his beard was white he found himself without either money or honour.’

We have the similar set up to your Cinderellas, your Princess Hases (a fairy tale I’ll look at in another post)… your poor good person being relentlessly abused by the people around him.

He then goes and asks his friend at the local suq what needs to be done about it- and his friend advises him to go on a pilgrimage to pray at the tomb of a holy man. This introduction of a potential supernatural moral guardian, a sort of ‘fairy godmother’ or  ‘divine parent’ if you will, would usually mean that magic will make the world right without him having to do anything.

On his pilgrimage, the honest man meets various creatures who tell him their tales of woe and he promises to pray for them. His most notable encounter is with a talking lion with a massive headache. When he meets the prophet, the prophet tells him how to solve all the problems of the various people he encountered. Simple enough. But when he gets to the lion’s dilemma things get dark:

“His case is also easy,’ answered the Imam.”All that he has to do is is to eat the head of a fool, and he will instantly be cured.”

Uh oh. I can see where this is going. Things get even darker when the honest man finally asks the Imam to help him with his own problem :

“Go in peace,” said the saint [probably with an evil smile] “I have already told thee that which is necessary to end thy troubles.” [emphasis mine]

Whoa! What kind of saint is this man?

After this point, the honest man travels back home and helps everyone he met on the way. Each time, he’s rewarded with a vast amount of riches, but each time he refuses to take the reward for some senseless reason.

Finally, he encounters the lion and tells him what the prophet told him. You can guess what happened next.

chow time
“Thanks for all your help, chump.”

Needless to say, this was the end of his streak of bad luck.

MORAL

After reading this story, I was pretty surprised by the ending . After all, in any other fairy tale the honest man would be the hero. Why wasn’t he here?

The point of this tale is not to discourage people from being kind and honest; in fact, every time the honest man helps someone, karma rewards him  with worldly wealth. He’s offered a big sum of money for helping the brothers and he finds an expensive pearl after helping the fish. Clearly, his kindness is rewarded.

But the honest man’s problem isn’t compassion; his problem is that he’s too stupid to make the most of his situation. He complains that ‘fortune never smiled’ on him, but the truth is it does but his own stupidity causes all his blessings to be undone.

It is arguably laudable that he rejected the brothers’ inheritance, because it didn’t belong to him. However, it got ridiculous when he threw the pearl the fish spat out back into the lake. The pearl belonged to no one and throwing it back into the lake was of no use to anybody. He was offered good fortune but he tossed it away like trash because he was too stupid to seize the opportunity.

The honest man was given every opportunity to change his fortune. However, each time he proved to be the undoing of every gift fate threw at him; he was so stupid, so incapable of changing that in the end, the lion did provide him with the only way that could end his woes.

The moral is ‘being nice is good, but don’t be a moron’. And that’s a moral we can all get behind.

Source:

‘The Honest Man’, Folktales of Iraq, Edited and Translated by E.S. Stevens, Dover Publications, Inc

Other Sources:

Little Snow White, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Public Domain

Cinderella, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Public Domain

‘The Story Of Princess Hase’, Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki, Bibliobazaar

‘The Story Of The Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Flower’, Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki

BADASS PRINCESS OF THE WEEK: EMPRESS JOKWA AND THE FIVE STONES

What’s better than a strong princess? A powerful Empress who ruled one of the world’s most advanced civilizations.

Empress Jokwa And The Five Stones is a story that originated from China, but found its way to Japan. It tells the tale of a benevolent Ogress who ascended the throne of ancient China, and the battle that ensued as a result of a power struggle between her and a jealous sorcerer Kokai who tried to use his magic to seize the throne.

IS THIS STORY ANY GOOD?

Yes, yes and yes. It’s one of the most action packed fairy tales you’ll come across, filled with giants, magical battles and a fire king who shows up to deliver a major smack down.

The focus of ‘Empress Jokwa and the Five Stones’ is on the exploits of the Empress’ two strongest warriors, Hako and Eiko, who lead her army into battle against the powerful sorcerer. The main story is an exciting and tense battle between the warriors and Kokai who can only be overcome by teamwork and a little help from their allies…

WHY JOKWA IS SO STRONG

While Empress Jokwa is the titular character, she’s little more than a support character in this story, and only plays a real role in the last three pages.

However, she’s a great figure none the less. In the fairy tale world where lone female rulers are often demonized as witches (ala the magical queen from the Arabian nights tale ‘Prince Beder and the Princess Giauhara’- the most probable inspiration for the evil queen regnants who populate the Chronicles of Narnia), it’s amazing to hear of a regnant queen whose not noted for her beauty but instead described as ‘a wonderful woman, and an able ruler’ and adored by all her people. Especially considering the misogynistic culture of ancient China.

The main reason for the comfort with this example of female power is because of the fact that she’s not human. Typically, the (male) writers of fairytales were far more comfortable with women possessing vast amounts of power if she’s a powerful creature like a fairy, djinn, spirit or goddess. A special, untouchable exception who can’t upset the status quo and doesn’t follow the rules of our world.

Even so, it is unusual to see a female monarch portrayed this favorably. It’s often been the case in history that whenever a woman took the throne, there was a lot of contention from subjects and male rivals about her credibility (as in the case with the historical Queen Cordelia). What’s so subversive is that the main antagonist of this tale is a man who tried to usurp the throne from her after her brother died – something he would never have tried if Jokwa was male- and he is vilified for doing so. In fact, the sorcerer Kokai is portrayed as an opportunist, an illegitimate usurper, while Jokwa is the good and rightful heir to the throne.

Queen Jadis
Whenever a woman rules without a male in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, she’s always evil and destructive witch.

CONCLUSION

Queen Jokwa and the Five Stones is a great action / adventure fairystory which brought us cool, magical battles centuries before Shounen anime came on the scene. Jokwa may be a side character, but she is a rare positive example of female power. If we’re going to read stories where men fight for the sake of a woman, it might as well be about keeping a good female ruler on the throne rather than a damsel in distress.

Source: This story can be found in numerous compendiums, but the one I used was ‘Japanese Fairy tales’ by Yei Theodora Ozaki.

Alternatively, an online version of the story can be found here:

http://wonderfulrife.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/japanese-fairy-tales-stones-of-five.html

BOOK REVIEW: Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, Book 2 by Sakade, Florence, Hayashi, Yoshio (2004) Hardcover

This is the second book in the ‘Japanese Children’s Favourite Stories’ series, a compendium of traditional Japanese fairy tales shortened and simplified to the bare basics (and stripped of their more violent aspects) in order to make them accessible to children. This is the second book in the series, and though it repeats a couple of stories from the first book, the stories here are just as good as, if not better , than those of book one.

What appeals to me about fairy tales is the sense of magic and mystery they create. You don’t read  Grimm’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for its interesting characters; you read them for their brilliant atmosphere- to feel like you’re walking through the castle frozen in time.

In this book, the environments are unique and fascinating; we visit underwater kingdoms (‘Urashimo Taro’), magical princesses (‘The Princess and the Herdboy’ and ‘Urashimo Taro’), what’s translated as ‘elves’ and ‘goblins’ (‘The Sandal Seller’ and ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’), and of course, benevolent dragons (‘The Dragon’s Tears’). These are very bare bones versions of the original tales, so not a lot of time is spent dwelling on atmosphere, but the strange worlds and devices that inhabit this book are engaging in and of themselves.

The sense of wonder is brilliant, and the feel and morality of the stories are different. We have the traditional trickster story of ‘How To Fool A Cat’; the stories where kindness is rewarded in various supernatural ways (‘The Dragon’s Tears’, ‘The Rolling Rice Cakes’ and ‘The Fairy Crane’); and we have  the ‘Princess and the herdboy’, which is the mythological story that inspired the Japanese Tanabata (star festival).

However, the crown jewels in this collection are definitely ‘The Singing Turtle’, ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’ and ‘Urashima Taro’. ‘Urashima Taro’ is the story of the man who visits the underworld Kingdom of the Dragon King (Japan’s answer to the world of ‘The Little Mermaid’ or Arabian Night’s ‘Gulnare of the Sea’). It has a great feel of magic and mystery, and its ending is deeply tragic without being inappropriate for kids.

There was also something quite funny about the titular sea creature in ‘The Singing Turtle’, while ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’ is a surprisingly moving tale of friendship.

Each of the stories are illustrated with a few simple watercolour images, which though aren’t stunning, are cute and lend this book a real Japanese feel and will help keep kids engaged.

This compendium of stories is a decent introduction to Japanese fairy tales for older readers, and presents a fun alternative to the usual Grimm’s fairy tales for younger readers. However, one thing that should be noted is that although the style is simple and engaging, the writing style can be a bit complex for especially young readers.  This is probably a book that is more suited to being read out to younger readers rather than being one that they read by themselves.

RATING: 3.5 magical moon bunnies making mochi on a mystical mortar/ out of 5

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BOOK REVIEW : THE CRANE LADY by Warabe Wakabayashi

crane ladyThis kindle exclusive is a simple version of a popular Japanese fairy tale aimed at young children. The original fairy tale itself is popular in Japan for good reason, as it has all the storytelling ingredients we expect from a good fairy tale; we have the protagonist rewarded for an act of kindness; the mystery and magic; the hero being warned never to do something, which you know they will do in the end, and the tension throughout the story of waiting for the inevitable to happen.

As far as this retelling goes, however, the writing quality is extremely uneven. It is sadly apparent that English is not the writer’s first language, and in spite of the simplicity of the sentence structures, it did feel like I was reading subtitles, littered with awkward phrasing throughout like:

The old man went to the town to sell the woods.”

or

“He helped Crane from the trap.”

If you want a book for your kids to read to improve their reading ability, this is not one you should give them. But this book was never about the writing quality; the writing’s just a framework to allow Wakabayashi to tell the story through the art.

Warabe Wakabayashi is a Japanese manga artist and she is clearly very talented. You can see from the front cover what the quality of the artwork is like and it’s consistently good throughout the story. The Crane lady herself is breath taking in every picture she appears in, with the vivid colours and textures on the fabrics masterfully drawn. Its unique, beautiful, and wonderful to look at.

The artwork is worth the price of admission and overlooking the awkward phrasing. The beautiful pictures of the magnificent crane lady, and all the vivid patterns and colours that bring to life her beautiful outfits, is definitely something that will appeal to young girls.

RATING:

2.5 warnings to ‘never look in there’ out of 5

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