Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 - The year in books

It's that magical time of the year again: Time to look at my Goodreads list and see what all I consumed over the course of 2014. The challenge I set for myself was 52 books (one per week) - not counting school readings and an industrial amount of comics, I still made it by this week. Here are some of the highlights:

Something old, something new
Cress, the next installment of the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, came out this year, and it was everything we wanted it to be. Lovable characters, both old and new, exciting action with the fate of the world in the balance, and delicious Easter eggs for folktale-savvy people. In addition, the free short story The Little Android was also posted by the author online, and this is the first and only incarnation of The Little Mermaid I actually liked.
My favorite discovery for the year was Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories series. I am currently on book seven. I am a sucker for quality historical fiction, and this series has everything going for it: A little known yet crucial part of English history, Vikings, Saxons, epic battle scenes ("SHIELD WALL!"), a likable and complex protagonist, and - going against the worn stereotypes of the "dark ages" - strong, independent, and likable female characters. It combines the epicness of history with characters you really care about, and none of the corny mushy romance that flooded the internet this year thanks to the Outlander craze. Also, it will soon be a BBC show!
Another good reading experience was some of the books by the Strugatsky brothers I discovered for myself this year. Monday Begins on Saturday is pretty much the Russian take on what would have happened if Terry Pratchett wrote Harry Potter. Delightfully sarcastic, and surprisingly applicable to modern-day bureaucracy (and, khm, academia), the book and its sequel, Tale of the Troika, was a very entertaining read for someone like me who likes folklore, magic, and sarcasm.
My end-of-the-year Christmas reading also brought a discovery: Lesley M. M. Blume's Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins and Other Nasties was a treat. I don't usually like people writing fakelore, but this book captivated me for many reasons: One, the author obviously knows her fairy folklore really well, and applies it ingeniously to the setting of modern day New York City. The stories are enjoyable and whimsical, but they don't shy away from the dark corners, and the one with the mermaid especially delivered some emotional punch. It is exquisitely written, and proves that fairies do live on in the modern world.

Folktales and Legends
As a storyteller, it is part of my job to read a lot of these. Instead of an all-inclusive list, I'll just mention some of the highlights.
One of the topics I got into this year was the folktales of minority cultures in China (see my previous post for an example). There are not many collections specifically on the topic in English, but I managed to find some good ones; The Seven Sisters was my favorite, with a lot of exciting and surprising stories.
Another area that I dug into was Bavarian folktales, on the occasion of the "500 new fairy tales discovered" Schönwerth collection has been finally partially published in English. The Original Bavarian Folktales volume is a treat (and bilingual), and there is an upcoming book from the same selection titled The Turnip Princess that I can't wait to read.
The series of the year for me was the World Mythologies Series. The first volume, one I found by accident in a used book store was Fabled Cities, Princes & Jinn, the Arabian installment, and it was love at first sight. Lots of original materials, stunning illustrations, captivating stories. I put the rest of the series on my wish list, and I already received the Central American and the African volume. Yay!
Another reading and research craze of mine this year was Caucasian Nart sagas. Some of them have been published in English, while others I found in Hungarian translation at home over the summer. I now have a serious soft spot for Ossetian Nart sagas.

In Spanish
In order to prepare myself and my vocabulary for the Tenerife storytelling festival, I spent most of my year alternating between English/Hungarian and Spanish readings. I did not only improve my language skills, but I also discovered a great many new books, and got to dive into Spanish historical fiction, a genre they are clearly very fond of. Some of the best were Antonio Soler's Boabdil and Eduardo Mendoza's Pomponio Flato - the latter a very entertaining murder mystery involving a Roman philosopher and a snotty little brat called Jesus.
I also read a ton of Spanish language folktale collections, and all of them were enchanting. I dug into Basque folklore (Leyendas de Euskal Herria), myths of Costa Rica (Las semillas de nuestro rey), the legends of the Canary Islands (Cuentos antiguos de Gran Canaria), and Spanish historical legends (Leyendas españolas de todos los tiempos). I plan on reading more of all of those. I especially recommend the Gran Canaria collection (by my friend Ana Cristina Herreros and María Jesús Alvarado), because it was such a fascinating collection project.

I read a lot of them. Without going into much detail, here are some of the series I really enjoyed this year:
Fables - always and forever. Breaks my heart that it's ending, but it is going out with grace and good storytelling.
Fairest - see above
Hawkeye (or, rather, Hawkguy) - for artwork and for storytelling
Ms. Marvel - for cultural commentary, teenage antics, and adorable artwork (WINGED SLOTH!)
All-New X-Factor - for character design, colors, artwork, and classic X-men team banter
X-Force - solid story, dark places, and a team that involves both Domino and Doc Nemesis, what's not to love?

What I could have done without
Divergent and Maze Runner were both meh, and they both made better movies than books (although I gave up after the first volume in both). The new Bridget Jones was better than the previous two (it did good to Bridget to care for people other than herself sometimes), but still nowhere near as good as Adrian Mole was. R.I.P. Sue Townsend.

All in all, a year rich in discoveries and great reading adventures. I wish all of you the same for 2015!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Journey to the Sun - A story and a call

Today is the Winter Solstice, and wile it is apparently not the longest night on Earth, it is definitely going to be very long. To celebrate the turning of darkness and light, I decided to post one of my ever favorite folktales here. I have always been fascinated with stories that talk about bringing light to the world, and ending eternal darkness. This time of the year (especially in Ohio, heh) I definitely feel something of the mood that gave birth to these tales a long time ago. 
I have another reason for posting it too: I have been looking for sources or information on this tale for years, and I came up with nothing. I found it in a folktale collection in a library a long time ago and I copied it, but I don't even know what the book was called. So, this is also an open call: If anyone can help be trace this tale, or anything related to it, I would be eternally grateful. It fascinates me, and I would like to learn more.
Happy Solstice, everyone!

Journey to the Sun
(A story from the Zhuang people in China)

A long, long time ago, the Zhuang people lived in eternal darkness. They knew that the sun existed, and it made things warm and bright, and it helped things grow; but they could not see it, and they could not share the warmth. Their land was overrun by beasts - tigers, panthers, wolves - and in the dark, they could not fight them. They decided to send someone to the sun to ask for its help.
People gathered to decide who should go on the journey.
A sixty-year-old man spoke up: "I will go. I am too old to work on the land, but I can still walk just fine. No one will miss my help here. I'll go."
A middle-aged man stepped forward: "I will go! I am strong and sturdy. I can walk 160 li [app. 80km in modern measurements] in a day. I will reach the sun in no time at all."
More people came forward, men and women, all clamoring to go. Even a ten-year-old boy spoke up: "You are forgetting how far the sun must be from us. I don't think it can be reached in forty, or even fifty years. It will take at least ninety years to get there. I am young, I have time. I will go."
People all looked at each other, and they nodded.
"The boy is clever! What he says makes sense. Let him go! He might succeed."
Just then, a twenty-year-old pregnant woman named Malei stepped forward. She waved her hands above her head for silence.
"Be quiet, all of you!"
Everyone fell silent and stared at her.
"The boy is right. The sun is far away. We might not be able to reach it, even in ninety years. You should let me go. I am young and strong, and I am not afraid of beasts, not daunted by mountains. In addition, I am with child. If I can't reach the sun before I die, my child will surely carry on."
Everyone agreed that this was a good idea. The people cheered, and Malei prepared for the journey. She promised that when she reached the sun, she would light a great fire, to signal her success.
Malei set out towards the east. After eight months, she gave birth to a baby. She traveled on for a long, very long time; she walked the road for seventy years with her child. When she was finally too old and frail to go any further, she stopped at a peasant's home, and the child went on without her.
During the seventy years mother and child scaled tens of thousands of mountains, crossed tens of thousands of rivers, fought tens of thousands of wild beasts. They suffered and endured all kinds of hardships. They grew strong.
On the road they often met people that were anxious to help them when they found out that they were going to the sun. They gave them food, clothes and shelter, they ferried them across rivers, helped them over mountains.
The people left behind in Malei's home looked eagerly every day towards the east, waiting for the light of the fire. Years passed, one after another. There was no light, there was no warmth. People started to believe that Malei had died on the road. They started to believe her child was lost, and there was no hope left.
And then, after ninety-nine years of waiting, on the morning of the last day of the year, a red light appeared on the eastern horizon. And right after that first spark the sun rose, flooding the land with light and warmth. The creatures of the night fled from the brightness.
Ever since that day, to honor the memory of Malei and her son, the Zhuang wake with the rising sun, and work until it sets in the west.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cuentos Los Silos - Stories for Everyone

Los Silos is an incredibly diverse festival, with the participation of pretty much the entire town, as well as people from all over the island, and (in my case) all over the world. I was impressed by how well it all fit together, and how seamlessly it incorporated events for all ages and all tastes. 2014 was the 19th year of the festival, and the practice definitely bore fruit.
Instead of a chronological account of the events, I decided I would like to mention some of my favorite parts of the weekend, to give you all a glimpse of what it felt like to be in the middle of such a colorful, busy, inspiring whirlwind of stories. So, if you ever decide to visit Los Silos early in December, here are some of the things you can encounter:
(All pictures come from the Cuentos Los Silos Facebook site. Go and like it.)

Storytelling concerts
We all had to bring several 50 minute shows to the festival. As for me, I had 3, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. It took me almost a year to piece them together, translate them, and practice telling them in Spanish, but the end result was absolutely worth the work.
Some shows took place late in the morning (11am) and were advertised for a family audience. For that, I presented my Strange Princesses program, filled with Hungarian folktales about brave, clever, and exceptional girls. The show took place in the theater room of the local Health Center (yep), and it was filled with families. After the show, little girls lined up to thank me for the stories and give me a kiss on the cheek. A few times I stumbled over words in the stories; I was delighted to find out that the audience was more than willing to help me find the right one, and smile in approval as the story continued on.
My two adult shows took place in the local high school on the two nights of the weekend. The first one was a new program of legends about Attila the Hun; the second a series of Hungarian folktales that had connections to Spain (and even, in a symbolic way, to the Canary Islands). The house was completely full both times (about 100 people), and to my great surprise I found out later that there was even a Hungarian lady in the audience!
Sadly, I didn't get to go to the big shows of anyone else over the weekend. I would have loved to see all of them, but we either told at the same time, or other things came up on the schedule. Pretty much all of our shows played to a full house, though, and we were overwhelmed by the love and support of the audiences.

Stories from the Balcony
I was so happy I got to do this one! In the evenings, under the light of the full moon and the lampions, storytellers told one story each from various balconies around the main square. People gathered below, sitting on stairs, benches, fences and chairs, and gazed up at the pretty wooden balconies where the storytellers were. It was tons of fun to walk up the creaking wooden stairs of the town hall (more than 200 years old) and walk out onto the balcony to impart some folklore upon the masses below. Made you feel like the Pope.
I got to hear two rounds of Balconies, and I was glad I did. A lot of the local tellers did them too. In my round I shared time with Luís and Fabio (who actually did the balcony thing twice; also, he is really good at picking the right story for the right audience); walking around in the evenings I got to hear Mar González and Laura Escuela as well. Since the weather was so warm, it was great fun to sit around on the square, waiting for storytellers to appear in a strange Romeo and Juliet fashion.

Stories on Couches
This one was truly unique and fun. At 5 in the afternoon people gathered in front of the town hall, holding their tickets to a show by one of the five storytellers listed on the program. When we all gathered, volunteers led us in different directions along winding alleys and around corners until we arrived to... someone's home. In the spacious living room, hidden from the noise of the main square and the spotlight of the stages, the chosen storyteller sat in an armchair, waiting of us, accompanied by drinks and cookies. I went to Luís' session; there were ten of us there, including the couple who owned the apartment, and that was really all the living room could fit. What resulted was a very nice, quiet, relaxed hour of stories, where the storyteller talked to us instead of at us, and we all got to sit back and enjoy a quiet hour of storytelling the way it most naturally works. Luís was graceful and funny and eloquent, and even played us a lullaby on his accordion in the end.
I am suddenly a big fan of small-scale storytelling festival events.

Stories in Patios
These kind of worked the same way the Couches did, except this time we took our seats in the small hidden patios of old apartment buildings. The audience consisted of about twenty adults and children. This time I got into Fabio's session, who did not only switch quickly between Inuit myths and colorful children's books, but even told a Fionn Mac Cool story, with which he totally won the festival, at least in my eyes.
(I noticed that Spanish tellers like to tell with picture books, which pretty much defeats everything I have learned about the art of oral storytelling. They do an amazing job bringing the stories to life with their own words, and the books they use I gorgeous. I spent a lot of money on picture books in the festival's bookstore. A lot.)

Lightning round!
The end of the festival was marked by a final show in front of about 300 people in the inner court of the old convent building. On this stage all of us featured tellers told one more 5 minute story each, to say a fitting farewell to our beloved audiences. I told second, and after I did I took my place in the back of the stage on a brightly painted bench, to watch the others. In the case of some of them it was the first time I heard them tell, and instantly regretted not getting around to go to more of their concerts. The Tapetes duo was lovely, and so was Arturo, who told his own funny story about saints running a race to decide who gets to stay in the canon (a very Spanish story for a very Spanish audience). As a former Catholic school student, I was very close to peeing myself from laughter on the stage. The lineup came to a closing with a tale told by the festival's main organizer, Ernesto Rodríguez Abad, who brought all of our tales into perspective. The full moon and the stars peered in from the night sky above. At the end of the show a marching band appeared out of nowhere, and we all filed out of the building and onto the square where everything erupted into a spontaneous dance party that lasted long into the night.

Poems and Umbrellas
 In addition to all the shows, circles, book signings and children's workshops, there were also many volunteers walking around the square, adding more color to the weekend. Some of them carried long cardboard tubes, and if you asked them, they put it to your ear and then whispered a poem into it for you, in a vibrating, mysterious voice. Others carried umbrellas decorated with colorful cards, and if you stopped them, they stood under the umbrella with you, reading you a story from one of the cards (and then pointed you to the bookstore where you could find the corresponding book). It was all good fun, and literally brought poetry, art, and storytelling to all the people on the streets.

All in all, the festival was packed with things to do, things to hear, and things to learn. It was extremely busy, and at the same time a whole enchanted weekend full of colors and words. It was one of the best storytelling events I have ever been to, and I am deeply honored to have been asked to be a part of it, and bring my stories from Hungary all the way to Tenerife. I will be re-living and re-telling this experience for a very long time.

Cuentos Los Silos - Storytelling Festival on Tenerife

This one might have been my most adventurous storytelling job yet.
Definitely one of the best.

I was invited to the Festival Internacional del cuento de Los Silos (Los Silos International Storytelling Festival) almost a year ago. My first reaction was to look it up on the Internet; I have been to festival in Spain before, but this one I was not familiar with. Turns out it takes place in a town on Tenerife, Canary Islands. I thought about it for about a whole ten seconds before I agreed to go.

Los Silos is a small town in the northwestern corner of the island. It is far away from most tourist-frequented places (they tell me tourists congregate on the southern beaches of the island where there is sand and less rain). The town is surrounded by banana groves and breathtakingly beautiful volcanic mountains on one side, and the black rocks of the Atlantic shore on the other. From the airport we were taken by car along the long winding road that balances between ocean and mountains, through small cities and towns made of colorful houses, until late in the morning of the day after I left the US (thank you, time difference) we arrived to the main square of Los Silos, and the house that was going to be our home for the weekend.
Before I passed out for 17 hours, I took a small walk around: Around the main square stood the town hall, the building of the old convent that was transformed into the festival headquarters, and the restaurant that was going to be our regular place for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and wifi. I was also introduced to the organizing team of the festival, all extremely friendly, insanely busy, and very patient to repeat sentences when my sleep-deprived brain failed to switch over to Spanish fast enough (it always takes a day or so before I make the switch between two foreign languages).
By the time I rolled out of bed the next morning, the festival was already on full swing. In fact, it had been in full swing for more than a week at that point: The local storytellers of Tenerife, as well as some guest performers, had been making the rounds in the schools of the island, telling to kids. The festival itself is a several week long series of events, crowned by the last weekend full of storytelling all over the city, from early morning late into the night. This last three-day long extravaganza was the part that I (and a series of other storytellers from all around the world) got invited for.
Our personal headquarters for the weekend was the little café in the middle of the square. People sat out there at any given point during the day or the night. Although it was the middle of December, the weather was lovely. The locals frequently apologized to us for the cold, shivering in their coats - it was about 20 degrees Celsius (in the 60's Fahrenheit) the entire weekend. I, flying in from Freezingcold, OH, was thoroughly amused, and took all possible chances to sit outside and soak up the warm.
It was in the café on Friday that I was introduced to most of the guest storytellers of the festival. I already knew Ana Griott (her storytelling name; her real name is Ana Cristina Herreros), a lovely and elegant lady that in her spare time writes wonderful folktale collections in Spanish. I also knew Luís Correia Carmelo from Portugal from one of the FEST conferences, and I was happy to get to hear him again. I was introduced to Kamel Zouaoui, an Algerian-French storyteller who speaks a zillion languages and is very passionate about the art of storytelling; we were instantly best friends. I also met Arturo Abad, a young Canarian storyteller who lives in Granada and writes and tells wonderful tales of his own. Turns out he lived in Hungary for a month, and has a puli dog! Small world. I also got to know André Neves, a children's author and illustrator from Brazil, whose colorful and enchanting work was on display the whole weekend in the bookstore. Our little team was complete with a duo from Brazil named Tapetes contadores de historias together, and Warley Goulart and Rosana Reátegui respectively. We were joined by local storytellers such as the lovely Mar González Novell, Andrés Novoa, and Fabio González. There were many more storytellers around all weekend, but since we were scattered and very busy, I sadly didn't get to make friends with all of them. The ones I met and heard were all delightful.
The theme of the festival was the Ogre, which was represented by a large statue on the square (drawn by Fabio, who was an illustrator before he also started telling stories). It was supposed to symbolize the power of stories to present dark and scary things and help us learn to deal with them. The orge in question was not only delightfully ugly, but also very useful: One could climb in through its butt and emerge from its open maws onto the festival stage; alternately, they could also hold storytelling sessions by mysterious flashlight inside the ogre's belly. Of course kids could not get enough of it. The additional theme was recycling; in order to promote it, the square and all the venues were decorated with strings of lampions created by the kids and adults of the town from recycled materials and made to look like ghosts, little monsters, and other amusing shapes.
A lot happened during the three days of the festival weekend; parallel events took place from morning to evening. I'll describe some of them in the next post, with more pictures.