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Taking a whirlwind tour through foreign texts

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July kicks off with an Independence Day celebration, so it is easy to associate the whole month with all things American. Why not break the mold this summer? Choose one of these works of foreign fiction to finish off your July with an international flair.

"The Shadow of a Blue Cat"

by Naoyuki Ii

Dalkey Archive, $17.95

Much of the Japanese fiction published in the United States tends towards the offbeat and disturbing. "The Shadow of a Blue Cat" is a different breed entirely. A summons to the bedside of a dying former co-worker, Ogita prompts 51-year-old entrepreneur Yuki Yajima to take stock of his life. Yuki's family circumstances are unusual. He and his wife have a 17-year-old daughter, Ryo, but their younger daughter is only two months old. As Yuki considers how he became a father again at such an age, the entire span of his life unfolds.

His meditations range from his concern at Ryo's newfound rebellious streak to Ogita's betrayal years ago, which led Yuki to start the business he now runs. Yuki is also haunted by memories of his late uncle. This uncle, who, with his bizarre reading habits and tales of a twisted love affair, seems so different from staid, conscientious Yuki, was in fact instrumental in making him the man he has become.

"The Shadow of a Blue Cat," Ii's first book to be translated into English, provides a refreshing glimpse of ordinary life in contemporary Japan.

"The Guinea Pigs"

by Luvik Vaculik

Open Letter, $13.95

This surreal Czech satire, just reissued as an Open Letter Modern Classic, tells a deceptively simple story. Vasek, its narrator, is a banker by day and works on an instructional book for children by night. The novel strikes a charmingly inept tone at first. But soon the narrative begins to reflect the bizarre turns in Vasek's life.

It is standard practice for bank employees to try to sneak cash home from work in addition to their salaries. It is also standard practice for the guards to confiscate this money. But somehow that extra cash is not returning to the banking system. Meanwhile, Vasek decides to bring home a guinea pig. The new pet is lonely, so he acquires a companion for her. Soon Vasek's family has several guinea pigs, on whom he begins performing psychological experiments. His growing obsessions with these labors and with mysterious developments at work lead to a shocking comeuppance.

Though "The Guinea Pigs" was first published in 1973, it should still appeal to readers dealing with contemporary absurdities.

"The Lotus Singers"

edited by Trevor Carolan

Cheng & Tsui, $22.99

Editor Trevor Carolan delivers a whirlwind tour with this collection of "short stories from contemporary South Asia." Stories from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh expectedly abound, but "The Lotus Singers" also features authors from Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The 18 contributions vary greatly in subject matter and tone. Manjula Padmanabhan's satirical "A Government of India Undertaking," concerns a dissatisfied woman who decides to be reincarnated while still alive, only to find herself caught in a bureaucratic maze. "The Street," by Pradeep Jeganathan, is a gritty tale of a woman who escapes from an abusive marriage only to be caught up in something even worse. In Jharna Rahman's "Arshinagar," a case of mistaken identity takes a devastating toll on a young woman's marriage.

Though many of the stories are so brief as to be vignettes rather than fully developed narratives, "The Lotus Singers" offers intriguing glimpses of facets of South Asian life that often fail to reach the American literary market.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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