30 September 2010

A gang of four from Blaft

They sit in front of me, blocking the bottom of my screen. The mountain of them is imperturbable and amoral as a donkey upon scenting aniseed.

Why 4?
If you have to pay for postage, it's both fun and most economical to order direct from Blaft—and most economical of all to bundle say, 4 books in one order. That was my excuse reasoning. Little do these books care that the reason they sit between me and the screen is that I feel I must speak about them, which is why I haven't yet. The original (2008) Blaft Anthology of Pulp Fiction was my introduction to Blaft, and sowed the seeds of my downfall. Though I really don't review, I raved on about the book and Blaft in general here.

I can't keep what I think of this gang to myself, yet I feel trapped. Damn you, Blaft. Can't you just settle down to being what you are in name, a "small publisher", or at least be mediocre? It's almost impossible for me to be truthful yet avoid sounding like a publicist. So some bitchiness ahead.

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction - Volume II
selected & translated by Pritham Chakravarthy
edited by Rakesh Khanna

Spawned by genuine popular demand (including my scream for more) and only a few months old, this 520-page volume is 154 pages longer than the Vol 1—and Vol 2 also includes a comic. If you like your fiction dark and somewhat longer than short stories, and your comic uncomical and kickful, you'll probably enjoy Vol. 2 even more than 1.

"The Palace of Kottaipuram", the opening novel by Indra Soundar Rajan, is alone worth the price of the book. As with V1, the topics covered in the stories and the treatment of them defy the label "pulp" if that means lower quality. One doesn't expect modern throw-away fiction to concern itself with linking the present with the historical past, except in the most vampiric way. In this pulp, the link attaches land ownership, invaders and colonisers, belief structures and the people who put them into place, AND droit de seigneur—and that's just in one story.

Drugs, love, marriage and mistresses, spirits that take hold of a person; the list of topics in this book is extensive, and unlike many anthologies today, there are many personalities of storytelling here. The improbably prolific Rakesh Kumar, whose stories featured prominently in V1, has a rollicking mystery in V2, with a title that must remain a mystery here, as it is impossible to portray in html. M.K. Narayanan's horrorfest, "The Bungalow by the River", must have a history of its own—a cover with a "shadowy form leering" at a body glittering with parts of a smashed chandelier. "Hold on a Minute, I'm in the Middle of a Murder" by Indumathi is a tale of possession that withstands the most modern attention span, though it is a melodrama. "The Hidden Hoard in the Cryptic Chamber" by Medhavi is so unliterary in suspense that it could be powdered and sold at writers' workshops and through coded ads in the New Yorker.

"Highway 17", the graphic-novel comic by Pushpa Thangadorai, art by Jeyaraj, is supposed to be a sexy thriller, but caused me nightmares. The composition of the panels is at first sight, surprisingly staid. The dynamic duo (who look rather like Sonny and Cher, if Cher were a karate champion) are very leggy, prominently showing the hem vs. cuff details of their bell-bottoms, and the pointed mid-length collar of Kavitha, the karate champion's lined jacket (no buttons). This art must've duo'd as a Butterick pattern spread! Horrors! The pulp look of the comic's original paper has been reproduced in this printing, so there is an additional level of funkiness throughout, especially in two panels that must have been redrawn because of damage to the original. In both of them, the hero seems to have misplaced his moustache.

Although I do miss the fun of Pattukkottai Prabakar's detective team who appeared in V1 (more of Susheela's T-shirts!) this volume includes another assortment of even more lurid covers than V1, and again, a number of camp and tongue-in-the-cheek etceteras—advertisements and columns, including the droll Kangaroo Q & A.

Q When should your heart be kept open, and when should it be shut?
A It should be kept open while you are undergoing a bypass, and shut the moment the operation is done.

If you or your someone special hasn't already got the first volume, I would recommend snapping that up that first because it is more varied, and has a brilliant introduction to the world of Tamil pulp. Volumes I and II complement each other and would make a great gift as a set. I'm delighted they are just "pulp". Their covers (by Shyam) are too delightful to be served up boxed. The series must continue.

Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings

by Kuzhali Manickavel
cover design & illustration by Malavika.PC
142 pages

This author has caused me much angst. After I spent a weekend reading this book, then reading it again, I summoned an old favourite of mine, Saki (his driver's licence would have read "H. Hugh Munro"). He came, of course. Death can't keep an author from a fan. I handed him the book and spent hours trying not to watch. Finally, "I see what you mean," he said, (though I'd said nothing). And with that, he uncrossed his legs and left without bothering to stand. He left behind only a whiff of tobacco-tainted sulphur.

He's borrowed Insects like someone borrows a bar of chocolate.

So I'm on my own about Kuzhali Manickavel. KM says she "not very much fond of insects", which makes sense. To those of us who are besotted with the little ones, humans fall far short. The somewhat fey title and the brevity of the book and the stories in it could put many prospective readers off. That would be a shame. Much of this collection of mostly flash fiction has been published in various literary journals, and insect metaphors flit amongst the stories, glooping them together with that rather self-conscious literary flu that also infects the visual arts world. But the strength of the stories overrides all that.

"The Goddess of Dislocation" is almost as good as any great story. I would call it breathlessly perfect if KM hadn't stooped to gratuitous magic realism in the second-to-last sentence. In fiction, anyone can pull a wonder from a hat. So many have that we're overdue for a wonder eradication campaign. But I think that Manickavel knows this, and furthermore, sees the strangeness in the mundane when she has the confidence to run with her own instincts. By putting that sentence to sleep, "Goddess..." becomes a classic.
We decided to go with sister goddesses because Kayalvizhi thought a bad goddess was almost like a haunted house. We Skyped Asha, to let her know what we were doing.
Some readers will be happily reminded of Ukridge in the story (which feels like a first of many) though these women are no Ukridge. Desperation and ennui battle heat, sickness, "cold rice and ketchup", the kind of "going bad" encapsulated by the phrase "plucking pubic hairs", explained so well in the footnote that the story was enhanced and didn't feel interrupted. There's a louche sense of humour with a deadpan delivery, as with other pieces here such as"Spare Monsters" and "You Have Us All Late and Follow". The play on kidney sellers would have made Dorothy Parker say something short and nasty, in jealousy. In every story, humour and horror are as tumbled together as the dirty clothes on the floors of many of these rooms where a generation is living "independently", their world taken up with thinking of themselves and their friends and work.
I would much rather be in trouble than in a train or a bus,travelling with large-elbowed women who kept asking if I was married.
In these stories, family is less important than the landlady. Friends keep in touch partly because of how they handle a friend with a habit, who uses anyone he can. Many of the protagonists (mostly young women) are, they like to say, unliked. They might be. Like Saki's Conradin, their emotions and capabilities are seething just under the surface.

It's also refreshing to find so much smell in stories, and sour at that. KM paints scenes and characters well, too, and although she will use an apt simile, she never falls into the habit of many authors today: stringing similes beginning with "like" together as if this makes a necklace.
James the Office Genius is a man with no earlobes and long, pale fingers like church candles. he wears an army vest with four pockets because he doesn't use the pockets in his pants.
KM has an ability to tell a powerful story in a few words, a rare talent. I might as well reveal that in private correspondence recently, I wrote: "Another author who I think could develop to be tremendously good and an international sensation, is Kuzhali Manickavel, who at the moment has too much taint from the over-workshopped crowd, imo. But once she gains confidence, I'm sure she'll shed her Kelly Link." When she is going with her flow, she already has. (I'm not saying that as a put-down of Kelly Link. Authors who are admired get unconsciously imitated, even by themselves.)

Manickavel's blog Thirdworldghettovampire has a voice that is magnificently her own. In it, she shows that a writer's blog can be something not only worth reading, but addictively so, without the habit destroying brain cells. I would compare it in quality to Jeffrey Ford's blog that I miss very much. It also had marvelous off-the-wall essays, and many stories that are unforgettable (a student's frozen expression, no-shit tales of family relationships as they are, observations about art, politics, doorknobs and hot dogs). It was a wealth of non-self-promotion, and now it's as gone as yesterday's clouds, though not forgotten. Like Ford, Manickavel is so quotable, and I'm glad (in a cautious way) that she is developing a voice that is so original (when she isn't self-consciously trying to be crazy, strange, and worse: experimental-literary) that she will probably become a Monster in our time, over-influencing many other writers in the making. If the characters in her stories could meet others, they would feel a bond with some introduced to readers by another favourite of mine, a writer of great sensitivity and perception, Claude Lalumière.

I hate people who give others advice, unless they're people I trust, or me. So I'll just add my advice now. KM, I hope to see at least some of these characters again, and that you stick with them for a longer attention span and greater depth than flash fiction allows. I'm not pushing you to Write A Novel, but you might consider a structure like Cannery Row. And thinking of Peggy Noonan and Bachi Karkaria, this message is to the Times of India: Kuzhali Manickavel would make a great columnist in your pages, as she would to any periodical of distinction anywhere in the world. If you gave her the freedom she deserves, just pinning her to X number of words X times a week, she could be, say, the Myles na Gopaleen of our time, though she might feel sick at the thought. I, as an international, would certainly look forward to reading her every word, as would many in our world of internationals.

Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings is a find, a flawed gem (and collector's item to be) by an author who has immense potential as a satirist of cutting compassion and wit. The captioned insect illustrations add to the fun of this attractive book with droll illustrations front and back. I highly recommend buying a couple of copies, at least. My last stashed copy is missing, borrowed by Dorothy Parker.

Kumari Loves a Monster
concept by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan
art by Shyam

It's a tossup which is more delightful—Shyam's zaftig beauties, or the monsters they love.

I know one thing. Any man I'd love would know this makes a beaut present – one we can laugh together over, even as he knows his limitations and accepts them. No one can be perfect.

But perhaps he wouldn't be looking at the monsters. The women here are so "we could only wish". They are so wondrously curvy, with something no one in Hollywood would be caught dead with. Real hips! And they have real cheeks, not just gaps under cheekbones. And waists that go in and look touchable, not just tight.

It is the monsters, however, who are the stars of this compilation of hilarious colour pictures on board, faced by one-liners and poems that sometimes rhyme in English, and do what they do in Tamil, in all its gorgeously curvy script that looks like the original noodle alphabet.

And I did promise you a Bitchy comment, so: The Kumari Loves A Monster Come On Repeatty Repeatty Contest has just ended, run by Blaft, in cahoots with that uniquity Kuzhali Manickavel. They should run another, not for glory, but for a romantic dinner with a monster of the winner's choice.

Summation: THE gift book for anyone with a sense of real romance – in shocking pink with, of course, a peekaboo cover.

Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? — Folktales from Tamil Nadu
by Ki. Rajanarayanan
translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy

Where has the space gone? This book will get its own review here very soon. There is too much to say about it now.

In the detail? Only in the myth.

Hmph! Like those supposedly complacent frogs, another myth should be exposed, for it only gives false hope.

No matter how close I look, I can't even find a little fiend.

People not looking for devils might want to know what the crumpety thing is. It's the spore side of the bracket fungus Phaeotrametes decipiens, a species said to be found (this specimen complied) on casuarinas (otherwise known as she-oak ). She-oaks are named that way to test us. They are the trees that people from other continents think on sight, are pines, having what foreigners call needles, and also cones that are not cones. Casuarinas hold their laughter as well as their scent.

27 September 2010

Holocaust teaching beyond the "The"


As now as the next breath but one,
as everywhere as air:
Remember Us, Remember Us.
The Holocaust and milking it is hot hot hot.
The Mother of all Victims rules aloof
her jewelry of numbers blue
not earned by other victims too insignificantly nothing
to tattoo.

Enough already of Never Again.
If this sounds like a fart in shul
maybe I better bubble out again
until I fill the holy space of ark and torah scrolls with gas enough
to force a flight outdoors
and down the marble steps
into the arms of ghosts of dead
Armenians Cambodians Tutsis Balkans mixed
Ebos as remembered as a swarm of gnats long dead.
Lebanese abandoned. For their friendship with the Jews they'll disappear
but please don't concern yourself.
Of Diasporas, again there's only one.
Not Palestinians as freshly wronged as your last breath
by the helluva rousing echo of the Song of Lebensraum.

Who can talk?
We, who must.
Those of us who are
the tribe itself.
My great-grandfather rabbi stirs.
Sing, he says. For why is our might different than
any other's might when used so wrongly?

For We
, he says,
are not the only ones pogrommed against,
the only Unwilling Wanderers,
the only holocaust worth a flame.
Holocausts aplenty simmer now.

Swiss banks weep now. Stolen artworks creak.
But of those who sole possession was: themselves,
not even individuals but groups of bugs exterminant
how do lawyers settle the worth of life?
They don't. Never a gain.

My great-grandfather's name was Soloveichik –
In his name I sing today
a short and many-noted Kaddish for all the Holocausts that were,
lit by tribal hate or maniacal despotism towards a people by their own.
And now, Enough Already for the dead, all equal in their tragedy of death.
With all the power of one little throat
I lift my voice for all the Holocausts to come.

NOTE: I wrote this poem in 2000. It appeared in the November/December 2002 issue of Tikkun Magazine. I would have preferred to have it published first in a venue where I wasn't preaching to the choir, but "balanced" media wouldn't touch it. The tragedy, however, is that Nightingale Kaddish is now more relevant than ever.

The Myth of 'Never Again' by Kofi Annan in The Elders, (first published in the International Herald Tribune)

Kofi Annan's Holocaust Problem by Moshe Phillips in Intellectual Conservative (first published in American Thinker)

The widely reprinted piece by Moshe Phillips has so many problems that I recommend reading about the conference / initiative that Phillips trashes: “The Global Prevention of Genocide: Learning from the Holocaust” held at the Salzburg Global Seminar, in Austria, in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The project has an advisory board whose members include:

* Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations (Honorary President)
* Yehuda Bauer, Professor of Holocaust Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
* Francis Deng, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide
* David Hamburg, President Emeritus, Carnegie Corporation of New York
* Yehudit Inbar, Director, Museums Division, Yad Vashem
* Klaus Müller, Representative for Europe, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
* Gregory Stanton, Founder and President, Genocide Watch

Why Salzburg?

"A thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail." Dov Lior

The Salzburg Global Seminar is a unique institution (formed to be "the Marshall Plan of the Mind") that brings together leaders, teachers, policy makers and developers, students, the famous and the very unknown—to face, come to grips with, and attempt to devise solutions to the world's most difficult problems. Partisan thinking and posing has no place in this non-press-corps venue where public enemies and cultural strangers spend long hours, day after day with each other and eat literally elbow to elbow. Since the early days of the Cold War, the Seminar has enabled communication between public foes, on a level that exists nowhere else. Often participants learn that there are valid points of view and life experiences that they never before considered possible. I know. The place has opened my eyes to continents'-full of my own ignorance and undermined a lot of basic truths I knew that turned out to be merely a mess of assumptions. The people I have met have enriched my life immeasurably, coming from different places physically and mentally. Deep friendships have a way of forming where one least expects. I have only respect and awe for this organisation and the space it makes where the narrow-minded have no place, twisters of fact are not respected; and where bigots, no matter how powerful, aren't worth a fingernail.

Read Keith Brooke's "likeMe" in Nature

For anyone interested in the world's fastest-evolving species: friendship.

likeMe by Keith Brooke, the fiction feature this month in Nature.

23 September 2010

22 September 2010

Adorable Ganesh, or whatsisname

If you, like me, have an unfulfilled wish to sit on Ganesh's lap, you might find these homemades as adorable as I do, especially the play-doh Ganesha. See Indira's "Homemade Ganapati Bappa" on her superb Mahanandi blog (a great blog to get lost in, with some of the best recipes, reminiscences, and saliva stimulators anywhere).

But are you as confused as I (or me)?

Ganesh (or Ganesha) has four arms. Maha-Ganapati has ten.
—But just count these.
One left, one right, adds up to two. So gain a few, lose a few. What's the harm? Besides, he's got more names than arms.
—He's blinded you with charms!
That's 'charm', not charms.
—Don't get me started on English, pleeeze!

See also, for the joy of it, Indira's "Vinayaka Chaviti Celebrations"

20 September 2010

Spring in the high heath

Bogs, granite, impenetrable bush and miniature forests, in the high heath of Mt Bushwalker, Morton National Park. And on this rare day, a sky as white as paper.

An intimate look at the Astroloma humifusum
'Ground Berry' or 'Cranberry Heath'
How many varieties are there? No one knows.

Cladia retipora 'Coral lichen' or 'Snow lichen'
While anyone looking at this would think 'coral', see Marilyn Harris' gorgeous portrait of the snowy white varieties that live in Tasmania.

Bog-standard lichen on granite
Each growth makes its own landscape.

15 September 2010

What's in a name?

— They sure run fast.
— They're called 'oystercatchers'.
— That must be why.

"The Storm is Coming" speech template

"We will be the shelter for the world, because the storm is coming. It is not just an American storm, it is a human storm. It is a global storm."—Glenn Beck

"May this day be the change point. Look around you; you are not alone. You are Americans!"—Sarah Palin
(both at Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at Washington DC on Martin Luther King Day, August 27th)

"No more politics as usual. The cause is restoring America."Christine O'Donnell today, in her victory speech as the newest Tea Party candidate to win a primary

* * *
Ask not where great speeches and rally cries come from. They never die. Great speakers, opportunists and propagandists know that, as they plumb the depths of history for the best lines, the best hooks. And so it is today.

Many of the speeches of Tea Party candidates and Glenn Beck whose audience grows the more he follows it, could be written by one of the greatest speech writers of all time. There are so many similarities that here's the template, now handy for those future leaders who don't know the original speech. Around the world, people and parties that are essentially reactionary but call themselves "conservative" find these words inspiring.

A "Restoring Honor" template
The original "The storm is coming" speech, translated into English by Randall Bytwerk.
an excerpt:
" …The people rise up, the storm is coming! The day of freedom and prosperity is coming! The time of shame and disgrace is nearly over. The people have awakened! We have risen against oppression, have joined in an army of revenge. The good old days of party bigwigs are over. A new nation is coming …"
– as Glenn Beck said at the rally, "Something beyond imagination is happening."

What's the difference between poison and a demagogue?

12 September 2010

Work from the Alisterus scapularis movement

Gwaash on board, unsigned

"Mr Moon, with the air of a man who has remembered something which he had overlooked, shoved a sock in his guest's mouth and resumed packing. He was what might be called an impressionist packer. His aim appeared to be speed rather than neatness."
— Indiscretions of Archie by P. G. Wodehouse, 1921

06 September 2010

Orchid portrait

Spring has literally blown in. Today crews are cutting up smashed limbs and whole crashed trees all over the South Coast after a storm that howled all Saturday night.

The tiny terrestrial orchids with their slender stems are unperturbed by huffs and puffs, however strong. This withered Glossodia majorcommonly known as the Wax Orchid, yet uncommonly seen — has seen its celebrated days, now that its brilliant yellow pollen package has been carried away and its petals have lost their plump extrovert expansiveness. Yet now when dew is a mockery, the harmony of hoariness is at its greatest height so this is when this orchid's attraction, like that of so many other flowers, is most fetching to me.

These aren't flowers for picking, though I did cut this one. It smelled like a Czech chocolate bonbon with a marasca cherry filling, and tasted of clove with a hit of camphor.