Kitchen Curse

Review of Eka Kurniawan’s Kitchen Curse, translated by Annie Tucker, Benedict Anderson, Maggie Tiojakin, and Tiffany Tsao (Verso Fiction, 2019)

Review

A sentient rock tricked into a familial murder, a toilet wall re-imaged as a stage for revolution, and a lowly maid’s spicy Indonesian dish reworked for terror are just some of the mischievous and engrossing tales recounted in Eka Kurniawan’s Kitchen Curse. Translated from the original Indonesian by Annie Tucker, Ben Anderson and others, the collection includes sixteen stories with themes that run from the dark to the mordantly funny.

Some are overtly political and caustic to past and current regimes in Indonesia. Others are mythical and magical. All of them are bold and—as the first collection of short stories by Kurniawan to be translated into English—serve as a memorable introduction to contemporary Indonesian surrealism and Kurniawan’s savage wit.

Of the stories that have a magical twist, “Caronang” is the most haunting. A Javanese farmer finds a dog that walks upright and said to be of ancient origin, having gone extinct on the island long ago. This “Lupus erectus” proves to be more intelligent than a normal canine. The caronang creature befriends the toddler of the family, learns how to fill in coloring books, and even bathes itself, “shampooing its whole body, though with a clumsiness that tickled us.” Soon the caronang is…[click here to continue to read full text]

*Review of Eka Kurniawan’s Kitchen Curse originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Indonesian street art via the talented Samantha Lou Howard and her IndonesiaDesignStudio.blog. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Interpreter of Winds

Review of Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds (Ethos Books, 2019)

Review

A pious canine argues with a camel, a windy night lasts for years, and a Javanese keris blade is wielded to murder a village witch in Fairoz Ahmad’s enchanting short story collection Interpreter of Winds. A quick and charming read, this book includes four magical tales across Islamic communities in the Indonesian and Malay world. Some take place in a stylized colonial past and some in the contemporary world, where current struggles crash against the fantastical.

The main story with the same title of the collection follows the quest of a talking dog, whose master is unconscious of the adventure his canine pet is about to have. The dog wants to be inducted into the Islamic faith as a true Muslim like his master and sets out on journey after meeting a cantankerousness camel named Ghati on the roads. The dog soon endears himself to Ghati as they go in search of the winds of all four points. Upon meeting one of the fabled winds, the wind requests an “appropriate gift” to assist the faithful canine in his search. Another tale is then woven within the first as the dog responds, “The only gift I could offer to you is the gift of stories.”

This becomes… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Review of Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of for this re-post is via wallup.net. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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We, The Survivors

Review of Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)

Review

Various degrees of financial precariousness and a vibrant—yet maddeningly hot and humid—Malaysia are the theme and setting of Tash Aw’s newest novel We, The Survivors. Through the main character Ah Hock, an ethnically Hokkien Chinese Malaysian, a tantalizing story of broken family life that crisscrosses both the megacity of Kuala Lumpur and the tropical provinces and crashes violently into the country’s often callous use of “dark-skinned and foreign” migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal.

The novel is rich in despair. The author unforgivingly explores the peculiar benefits and vulnerabilities of being Chinese in the Malay-dominated Southeast Asian nation. Ah Hock is raised by a single mother and is shuttled back and forth from the provinces to the capital as they struggle to earn a living. Ah Hock’s mother sometimes works as a maid, sometimes in a restaurant, and later, when they purchase a small plot of land near the sea, as a vegetable farmer. But without luck or any social safety net, their poverty proves intractable when their land is flooded by the rising tides and the mothers becomes terminally ill. A young Ah Hock reflects:

… even at that age I knew, like everyone else, that it was hopeless. We were the wrong race, the wrong religion—who was going to give any help? Not the government, that’s for sure. We knew that for no-money Chinese people like us, there was no point in even trying.

Through an honest desire to better himself, Ah Hock’s situation… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Tash Aw’s (歐大旭) We, The Survivors originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of that yummy-looking Malaysian mooncake for this re-post is via the talented مانفی. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Vessel: Lisa A. Nichols on Family and Galaxies Far Far Away

Review of Lisa A. Nichols’ Vessel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2019)

Rich Characters

The character development is what really drew me in more than anything else for this delightful novel by Lisa A. Nichols. The book Vessel is a testament of how enjoyable a story can be when the author takes the time to flesh out the main characters.

This novel is about the sacrifices and excitement of intergalactic travel in a future not too distant from our own. The story follows the protagonist Acting Commander Catherine Wells of the Sagittarius starship and her misadventures as her mission through a fictionalized time-space wormhole—an Einstein-Rosen bridge dubbed “ERB Prime” and not far from Mar’s orbit—goes awry. The wormhole leads to one of the hypothesized habitable planets that orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star found in the constellation Aquarius. There, Catherine and her crew make first contact with what turns out to be a hostile species.

The Return Home

The main plot driver is not so much the mission but rather the challenges Catherine has when returning home to Earth. She has amnesia about much of her mission and only knows that she is the sole survivor of her crew. In between her struggles with the family she left behind for nine years and the mistrust of many of her colleagues at NASA, Catherine slowly begins to piece together what went wrong on the mission to TRAPPIST-1.

She hadn’t expected that so much about coming home would hurt this much. The pain of understanding the scope of her memory loss… The pain of returning without her crew. And the pain of just being.

First Encounter

A few aliens do make an appearance and I think they’re pretty cool! As Catherine’s memory comes back to her toward the end of the book, we learn that many of the geological formations on one of the semi-habitable planets were actually sentient all along.

They prove to be less than happy with mankind and its penchant for colonizing the unknown. These hive-mind creatures infect many of the crew, including Catherine. Her escape from their power once on Earth makes for a fun read.

Highly Recommended

I love having a bit of sci-fi in the mix and Vessel by Lisa A. Nichols proved to be a fun, quick read that I highly recommend!

*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Visit the author Lisa A. Nichols’ website. Image-photo credit for the top of this post is from the talented eReSaW at DeviantArt. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence.

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The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth

Review of Veeraporn Nitiprapha’s The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, translated by Kong Rithdee (River Books, 2019)

Review

Some authors capture a time and place effortlessly. They draw upon aspects of popular culture and spin them into a literary tale that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the milieu from which they sprang. Veeraporn Nitiprapha is such a writer. But as her work has only appeared in Thai, she has been beyond the reach of most of the world.

One cliché that the author has taken aim at recently for the Thai reading public is the Thai soap opera. For context, one of the most viewed television series in Thailand these days is Club Friday—a series in its tenth season, which follows characters as they swim their way through counter-currents of romance, infidelity, and Buddhist karma. Into this media landscape, Veeraporn has published her artful and lyrical novel The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth. This is the first book-length translation of Veeraporn’s fiction in English. The novel is a poetic and surrealistic reimagining of the Thai romance, where the main characters are lost between unrequited desires and fantastical dreams that are realer than their everyday lives.

The story follows two vivacious sisters, Chalika and Chareeya, as they… [click here to continue to read full text]

BlindEarthwormCoverOct2018 copy

*Review of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via the talented Nick Knight. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô

Review of Lōa Hô’s Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô, translated by Darryl Sterk (Honford Star, 2018)

Review

The newest English translation of Lōa Hô’s fiction in Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô is a fascinating reminder that Taiwan’s literary history began well before the Nationalist Chinese retreat to the island in 1949.

To say this is not to downplay the importance of pre-WWII literature in Taiwan—far from it as the thoughtful and picturesque short stories of Lōa Hô (Lai Ho) evidence. Rather, when fiction from Taiwan is translated into English, these stories often reflect the contemporary social world where individuals both thrive and struggle in a nation that is not quite recognized as a state on the international stage. What little Taiwanese fiction is translated into English tends to be from the post-war period.

Lōa Hô’s life spans the period between the start of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1945). This middle period of Japanese occupation of Taiwan during the 1920s−1930s is the setting for all of Lōa Hô’s stories. Lōa Hô’s willingness to compose more in Taiwanese vernacular as he matured as a writer ended up preserving a unique perspective for later generations.

Lōa Hô’s short stories explore the day-to-day machinations of foreign power on a very small scale. These stories capture the… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Scales of Injustice: The Complete Fiction of Lōa Hô, translated by Darryl Sterk, originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via Wikipedia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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Tsunami

Review of Anatoly Kurchatkin’s Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait (Glagoslav Publications, 2017)

Review

Moscow’s Red Square and Bangkok’s Imperial Queen’s Park wouldn’t seem to have much in common but for the main characters in Anatoly Kurchatkin’s enjoyable and fascinating novel Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait from the original Russian, there is much that unites these disparate locales.

Early in the story, the Russian protagonist Radislav and his female companion at that moment, a child of the Soviet-era aristocracy, are walking past one of Bangkok’s royal parks when they chance upon a group of people practicing a “ballet of a kind he had never seen before.” Radislav admits to his friend Nellie, “I don’t feel I’m in a faraway foreign country. I feel this is where I belong.” The response is quick:

“Of course you do,” Nellie replied briskly. “We are an imperial people. Citizens of the former Soviet Union. For us Asian faces are part of our family. The whole world is our home. I’m speaking from experience. It doesn’t matter where you travel, everywhere feels like home.”

Kurchatkin’s entertaining use of dialogue both keeps the story moving along and imbues an additional psychological depth to the musings of the Russian and Thai characters. The reader might be reminded of other great Russian writers who centered philosophical insights not in the actions or events of the plot, but in the mouths of the characters themselves. The more vocal the characters are, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from their chatty interactions. Sometimes these discussions are on heavier topics, while other dialogue is more lighthearted.

For example, in one scene, Radislav and Nellie are being chaperoned by their Thai friend Tony, when Tony learns of a lovers’ spat between the two Russians:

“Ah, I expect Rad just doesn’t like the fact that I’m European,” Nellie responded.
Tony, taking his hands off the wheel, and turning to face her periodically, protested.
“No, Nellie, you are not European. I would say you are a Thai woman. You only look European, but inside you are Thai.”
“Well, in that case Rad doesn’t like the fact that I’m a Thai,” she persisted.
Tony’s unfailing smile showed signs of reproach.
“Rad, what you have done to Nellie?” he asked. “I think you have made her sad.”
Rad was left with no option but to respond.
“Nellie is a Russian woman, Tony, and a Russian woman is probably a mixture of European and Thai. It is a dangerous mixture.” He had wanted to say “explosive” but did not know the word in English.

The above quotations also highlight one of the leitmotifs of this story. The protagonist Radislav hints at… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Tsuami by Anatoly Kurchatkin originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Thai memorial stamps of 2014 Tsunami for this re-post goes to Mark Jochim and his A Stamp A Day blog. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.

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