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Cestovatela reads around the world

Reading Globally

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Sep 3, 2007, 10:09am Top


The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
When Noboru is 13 years old, his mother suddenly decides to remarry. Her new husband, once a sailor whom Noboru idolized, proves disappointing after he gives up his seafaring career to remain at home with his new family. Soon Noboru draws up a list of "charges" against his stepfather and hatches an elaborate plot for revenge.

Writing style is one of Yukio Mishima's strong points. Not a word of his prose is unnecessary and he knows *exactly* how much language is needed to create a vivid portrait in his reader's mind. He also balances point of view well, shifting fluidly between characters to develop a 3-dimensional story. Noboru himself is a well-done character, brimming over with anger and adult ideas and yet so clearly still a child.

The trouble with this book is the plot. The leader of Noboru's circle of friends is a budding young sociopath prone to over-the-top monologues. The revenge scheme they dream up leads to one of the most disturbing endings I've ever read, but it seemed illogical and out of place. I can't see what value it had beyond sensationalism. Overall, I thought this was like an exceptionally well-polished Stephen King story rather than a true work of literature.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
I liked so many things about this book that it's hard to figure out what to say first. As you might have guessed from the title, The Makioka Sisters is the story of the 4 sisters of a once-aristocratic family whose fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. The novel is really a slice of every day family life, but the search for a husband for Yukiko, the troublesomely unmarried third sister, provides enough structure to keep the plot moving. Something about this novel feels very authentic. The sisters come complete with quirks, daily routines and inside jokes. In another author's hands, this procession of daily moments might have been dull but Tanizaki made me feel wrapped in the warmth of a real family. At times, the sisters' tranquil lives are interrupted by illness and natural disasters, but they're written in a low-key way that reminds us that near-tragedies are also a reality of every day life. Most of the book is told from the perspective of Sachiko, the thoughtful but sometimes timid second sister who provides a home for the two younger, unmarried siblings. Through her thoughts, we learn about the characters of the other 3 sisters and gain an understanding of Japanese family dynamics. The many passages of formal Japanese marriage negotiations are fascinating. Sometimes I wished there had been more passages from the other sisters' points of view because although their actions are described in detail, the reasons for them remain opaque. Still, I think I appreciate Tanizaki's strategy here -- in families, it's rare to fully understand what anyone else is thinking. I recommend this book to: people who want to learn more about Japanese culture, people who liked Jane Austen or Little Women and people who can accept a somewhat slow-paced novel.

The Stones Cry Out by Hikaru Okuizumi
It's rare to look back on a book and find it perfect, but that's how I feel when I think about The Stones Cry Out. Manase is barely more than a boy when he ships off to the Philippines to fight in World War II. By this time, Japan is losing the battle and Manase, ill and separated from his unit, falls under the thrall of a mad colonel. His experiences waiting for rescue in a cave of dying men will haunt him for the rest of his life. At first, it seems that Manase has been successful in returning to civilian life - his business is thriving, his wife is content and he has two young sons. But not long after the birth of his first son, Manase picks up a single pebble from the river. Soon rock collecting is an obsession and Manase neglects his family in favor of becoming in amateur geologist.

This is a short novel with a strong impact. Each sentence is as polished as the stones Manase adds to his collection. Ultimately, it is a novel about different kinds of cruelty and failures -- the obvious, dramatic kind that are forced on you in a war and the quiet, subtle kind when, without realizing it, you choose not to be there for the people who depend on you the most. I was both happy and sorry to finish this novel - sorry because I didn't want it to end, happy because it no word was wasted and it was exactly the right length to tell its story.

Sep 3, 2007, 10:19am Top


Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch by Dai Sijie
Sijie's first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is about finding hidden beauty in the midst of oppression. Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch, set in commercial boom of modern-day Chengdu, is about the moral depravity lurking on the other side of freedom. When Muo's college sweetheart is imprisoned for political reasons, he returns from Paris to secure her freedom. When the judge demands a night with an adolescent virgin, Muo is initially optimistic that he can find one...but the China of 2006 is not the China Muo left behind, as he discoveres when woman after woman tells him of selling her love for a job or a ticket away from her village. Sijie is a master of show-don't-tell storytelling and the book never loses its comic tone even as desperation leaves Muo as corrupt as the judge he seeks to bribe. This hidden depravity is what I think Sijie wants us to see about China -- that beneath the veneer of economic freedom, the old order of things remains untouched; without the freedom to fight back, every day people become complicit in its evil.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
Exiled to a remote village and forced to carry heavy loads over dangerous mountain paths, the two protagonists of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress have two sources of solace: a beautiful village girl and a suitcase full of forbidden literature. Although the suffering of the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese peasantry are the backdrop for the novel, this is really a story about books, the way the affect people and how the effect of ideas can neither be predicted or contained. To say more would give too much away, but this is a brilliant book.

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
In Empress Orchid, Anchee Min sets out to restore the reputation Empress Tsu Hsi, the last and longest-reigning female ruler of China. The book's outstanding feature is its attention to detail. Min spent months in Beijing researching the furnishings, rituals and personalities of the Forbidden City and her vivid descriptions are what makes the book so absorbing. Equally important is Min's careful depiction of the political situation of the time. Faced with gradually more outrageous encroachments by foreign powers, the 5,000-year-old Imperial system teetered on the edge of collapse and Min's evokes this time period very realistically. Tsu Hsi herself is a compelling character and Min avoids portraying her as a saint. The Empress is a fair and even-handed ruler not because of her heart of gold but because her keen intellect allows her to recognize the good of the people is in her own best interest. And if the Empress-to-be rises above the brutal intrigues of her fellow concubines, she does so out of fear rather than innate goodness. Min strikes the right balance between moving and schmaltzy, so I had few reasons to complain till the final scene of the book. If the Emperess had been a slightly more ambiguous character, this might have been a great novel rather than a really good one; still, I don't hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for some high-brow escapism.

Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min
First, a bit of historical background. Madame Mao Jiang Ching rose from struggling starlet to first lady of China when she married Mao Tse-Dung during the second World War. Although she languished in obscurity for much of her husband's reign, she is popularly viewed as the chief architect of the Cultural Revolution, a political purge that resulted in the torture, execution, exile and public humiliation of many of China's intellectuals and government leaders.

Becoming Madame Mao is Anchee Min's attempt to explain how Jiang Ching became a woman capable of leading a society into multi-year reign of terror. The book starts off strong, describing Jiang Ching's childhood of perpetual isolation, struggle for fame and ultimate transformation into a Communist guerilla. Each chapter feels vivid and real thanks to Min's knack for bringing a setting to life. 1930s Shanghai and Mao's mountain guerilla camp are real parts of the story, not just backdrops for the action. Young Jiang Ching is also a well-done character. Cunning, manipulative and ambitious, she's clearly on the brink of selling her soul to the devil but Min's writing is strong enough that readers are still able to understand and sympathize with her longing for recognition. It's after the war that book falters. Jiang Ching's lust for power fades into the background and most chapters focus on her longing to be loved by her husband. In the end, the book seems to want us to believe that Madame Mao orders the torture, execution and public humiliation of hundreds of people just because she wants her husband to love her again. The persecution of her enemies seems glossed over with a sentence ("she felt comfortable calling the Security Chief in the early hours of the morning to add names to the execution list") and the book doesn't seem to acknowledge that putting your conscience aside to save your marriage is as reprehensible as killing out of a lust for power. These weaknesses come as a shock after the strengths of the first half of the book and seriously undermined my enjoyment of it. As badly as I wanted to like it, I can only give it two stars.

Sep 3, 2007, 10:22am Top


Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan
This is definitely one of the most unique novels I've read this year. Marie Rose is an Arab Christian with facial features that could pass for European, all of which wins her acceptance in a number of Lebanon's tightly knit ethnic and religious communities. When Civil War breaks out in 1975, her humanitarian activities in Palestinian refugee camps inflames fellow Christians, leading to her capture by the army. The book is told from a variety of points of view, but the characters speaking are rarely identified overtly. Both the dialogue and exposition are dense with metaphor, allusion and existential debate. The writer adds further layers of complexity by never allowing us to see outside each narrator's narrow point of view, so it's hard to figure out what, if anything, is actually a fact. All of these things demonstrate how dehumanizing and primitive warfare and tribal affiliation truly is.

This is an engaging and thought-provoking book, but don't read it until you're in the mood for something intellectual. At 100 pages, you could swallow it in one sitting but if you want to understand, you'll need to read slowly and possibly more than once. Recommended for readers with a strong interest in the Middle East and readers who can appreciate a book that's more about ideas than characters.

Sep 3, 2007, 10:23am Top


The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Waiyaki, the main character of The River Between, is born just as white missionaries bring change to rural Kenya. The son of a famous seer, he is prophesied to be his people's savior but privately he is torn between his respect for the tribe and his love for the white man's education. With simple prose, Ngugi captures the sweetness of every day village life but we never lose the feeling of great forces building in the background. At times I worried the book was headed toward a didactic message of peaceful compromise, but the powerful, haunting ending is anything but simple. Although the book is short and not stylistically challenging, it took me a long time to read. Waiyaki is depicted as a Christ figure and the many Christian allusions gave me a lot to consider about both the book itself and African literature as a whole. The African perspective on controversial topics like female circumcision was equally thought-provoking. I recommend this book highly for its unique flavor and resonant characters but you should probably save it till you're in the mood for a book that requires thinking.

Sep 3, 2007, 10:27am Top


Dakhmeh by Naveed Noori
Though born in Canada, the protagonist of Dakhmeh never feels at home in his parents' adopted country. When restrictions on travel ease after the Iran-Iraq war, he decides to return to his ancestral home only to discover that he is far more an alien there than in Canada.
The writing is lyrical and the plot is a thought-provoking meditation on the meaning of home, culture and belonging as well as an allegory for contemporary Iran. A very interesting book that I enjoyed reading.

Sep 3, 2007, 12:00pm Top

Sitt Marie Rose looks especially fascinating. I'm looking forward to watching this thread.

Sep 3, 2007, 12:27pm Top

This is a great thread - I have read almost no literature coming out of Japan or China, so thanks for suggesting some quality reads!

I'm glad you enjoyed Sitt Marie Rose - it is a really fascinating book that definitely merits being more widely read. Sadly, it is actually based on a true event.

Sep 3, 2007, 3:12pm Top

cestovatela, great thread. I like the reviews, also. I went through an Asian period of reading (I have read all of your China picks, and The Makioka Sisters), which was followed by a Indian period, which now seems to be an African period...

An excellent little novel - The Sky Burial by Xinran is about a chinese woman who goes to Tibet to find her husband who is MIA from the Chinese army (he was a doctor). In the process, she lives with locals in the mountains of Northern Tibet... While the character is Chinese, the window into the local mountain culture is fascinating.

Sep 3, 2007, 5:52pm Top

cestovatela, you write phenomenal reviews. Concise but packed with useful information! And they are really informed by your experience living and travelling in Asia. Thanks for sharing with us!

Sep 3, 2007, 9:54pm Top

I'm glad you guys have been enjoying the reviews. I felt a little pretentious starting this thread, but hopefully everyone will continue to enjoy it.

avaland, I read Sky Burial on my last flight home and was really moved by it. Her other book, The Good Women of China, has a couple problems but is over all a touching survey of the lives of Chinese women. I just didn't include them here because they are both non-fiction. I'll keep posting reviews for the countries I've already read.

Sep 3, 2007, 10:04pm Top


I have tried to focus my round-the-world reading on fiction rather than memoirs, but my number 1 priority is feeling that I've learned something from the books I've read. I've included my reviews of Alexandra Fuller's two memoirs because the perspective of a poor but white African family is so intriguing to me.

Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller
Colonialism wasn't all glamorous British ex-pats trying to re-create high society in hill stations and pseudo-pubs across the world. It was also a new hope for thousands of European families oppressed and impoverished in their homeland. These were among the people who settled Rhodesia and South Africa and who, much like my American ancestors, came to feel that their labor entitled them to the land -- no matter who had been living there first. It's no wonder that these were also the first people to wage war against the indigenous Africans who launched independence movements in the 1960s. Fuller's own father became a soldier in Rhodesia's army of independence and soon 13-year-old Fuller was on the run across 3 different African countries, an experience she chronicles in detail in her memoir Don't Let's Go the Dogs Tonight.

"Those of us who grow in war are like clay pots fired in an oven that is overhot. Confusingly shaped like the rest of humanity, we nonetheless contain fatal cracks that we spend the rest of our lives itching to fill," she explains. Meeting K., a physically and emotionally scarred former soldier, at first appears to Fuller as way to fill those cracks. This book is the account of their journey across the former battle fields of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, visiting shattered soldiers and listening to the atrocities they committed and how each of them got Born Again or drowned their sorrows in a bottle. This is a deeply unsettling, extraordinarily powerful book guaranteed to take you places you've never been before.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
Alexandra Fuller is white and she is African. Her family has been in Africa for 3 generations, each one struggling harder to survive than the last. Though undeniably in a better position than the black Africans who simultanously serve and resent them, the family suffers through the same hardships: draught, hunger, lost babies, lack of medicine, lack of water, cerebral malaria and the perpetual need to fight for survival. It's hard for me to find something to specifically object to - Fuller chronicles her parents' casual racism with unflinching honesty and she really excels at describing family moments in an authentic way. But there's a 'but' coming: the book didn't resonate with me. I read things but I did not feel them. I never really cared about what happened to Fuller or her family. If you want to read something about life in Africa, you're better off with Scribbling the Cat, Fuller's later work about her travels through Africa with a deeply damaged former soldier. That book captures the struggle, the anger, the confusion, the strength and the love for life that comes from growing up in war-torn Africa.

Sep 3, 2007, 10:13pm Top


True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Ned Kelly is Australia's anti-hero, a poor Irish farm boy who, at least according to legend, robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. True History is written as Ned Kelly's autobiography, penned on whatever scraps of paper could be found in a farm house or cave, riddled with grammatical errors and run-on sentences, intended for the daughter Kelly would never get to meet. What makes this book so strong is its unexpectedly poignancy. Young Kelly's life is full of disappointments -- dying siblings, draughts, harsh treatment from the mother he loves, and a justice system seemingly bent on persecuting the poor Irish minority. Carey imbues his writing with the pathos of a boy forced to become a man before his time. "I were but 14 1/2 yr. old no razor had yet touched my upper lip but as I cantered after the outlaw Harry Power ... I were already traveling full-tilt toward the man I would become," Kelly narrates. Equally powerful is the way Carey evokes the harsh life of newly-colonized Australia. This isn't just the story of Ned Kelly; it's the story of everyone who suffered poverty and hardship in what they hoped would be a land of opportunity. Still, Carey doesn't forget that Ned Kelly is an outlaw, quick-tempered and with blood on his hands. With a small twist at the end, he works around Kelly's limited first person vision to suggest a more complex portrait of the man and the legacy he left. If the final chapters lagged a bit, it's only because I was more interested in the story of becoming an outlaw than the story of being an outlaw. Still, I recommend this book to anyone looking to learn a bit about Australia or just to read the narrative of a compelling character.

Edited: Sep 3, 2007, 10:26pm Top

Czech Republic / former Czechoslovakia

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
A readable, original work with a lot to say about sex, kitsch, relationships and living under Communism. Mentally, I divide the story into two parts. The first is the story of a deeply in love and deeply troubled couple. The man is simply unable to remain faithful and his girlfriend struggles to find a way to cope. The second part is the story of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia after a local attempt to liberalize the Czech government. What I like about this book is that it communicates about so many different things on so many different levels -- not only the small matters of sex, love and kitsch but also the big picture of social change, violence, oppression and repression. This is a complex work that I'd probably need to re-read several times to fully understand, but even a superficial reading leaves a deep impression. Highly recommended.

Although the next book is a non-fiction piece, it left such a deep impression on me that I really want to include it here:

Disturbing the Peace by Vaclav Havel
Vaclav Havel was the philosopher/playwright who became the leader of the Czech anti-Communist movement. This book-length interview was published in 1988, long before there was any realistic hope of democracy in Czechoslovakia. Even so, his faith in a better world is unshakeable and the cool thing is, he was absolutely right to hang onto it. It's a real-life story of good overcoming evil. I admit I skimmed some of the earlier parts about his life as a playwright, but the rest is gold. I dare you to read this book and not be impressed.

Edited: Sep 4, 2007, 8:57am Top


The Tain translated by Thomas Kinsella
The unexpected treasure of my senior year required reading list. This is ancient Ireland's fantasy universe, where even heroes are bloodthirsty and Fairy Land is a strange and sinister place. Most of the action focuses on the Ulstermen, the inhabitants of present-day Northern Ireland and the storeis still play an important part of culture there. Reading this is especially fun if you've been to Ireland as the stories explain how many of the country's more unusual geographic features came to be and got their names. Recommended to anyone who loved their Homer or wants to know more about Ireland.

Sep 4, 2007, 12:45am Top


Two Novels: Jealousy and Into the Labyrinth (touchstone won't load) by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Another unexpected treasure from my college required reading. The surreal plot is reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial, but this book is set apart by a main character who is a real and sympathetic person. I loved this book, but be warned that it demands a lot of intellectual effort on the reader's part.

Sep 4, 2007, 12:46am Top


Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg
I found an equal number of things to love and hate about this book. Smilla herself is a fascinating character. Born in Greenland but raised in Denmark after her mother's death, Smilla is a perpetual outsider who, like many Greenlanders transplanted against their will, feels lonely and alienated by individualistic, materialistic modern societies. She copes by combining both worlds as best she can, taking on designer clothes and Euclidean geometry while never surrendering her knowledge of nature or comfort with solitude. The book's greatest strength is that it's not afraid to make Smilla a partially unsympathetic character. As much as we admire her intellect and originality, we can see that bitterness has made her an unfairly harsh judge of character who has no trouble committing occasional acts of cruelty.

The trouble is that this book isn't just a character study - it's also a mystery. Smilla's one human connection with the world is Isaiah, the neglected 6-year-old son of her alcoholic neighbor. When Isaiah, who is deeply afraid of heights, is mysteriously killed in a fall from a rooftop, Smilla takes on the case. The mystery unfolds with agonizing slowness, often through tracts of exposition that Hoeg tries -- and fails -- to disguise as dialogue. Soon Smilla's intriguing inner monologue is eclipsed by her investigations, which ultimately lead to an over-the-top conspiracy of medical researchers, drug lords and multi-national corporations.

Bottom line: Smilla is close to the top of my list of favorite fictional characters and Hoeg imparts a lot of interesting tidbits of Greenlandic culture. Read if you're really interested in those things and perhaps willing to skim the last 100 pages.

Sep 4, 2007, 7:18am Top

cestovatela, while Sky Burial is inspired by an interview Xue Xinran did, I believe the book is considered fiction.

Sep 4, 2007, 7:38am Top

Thanks for starting this thread, cestovatela, but just one question - what's the book for Ireland? It doesn't seem to be mentioned in the post, and it sounds intriguing!

Sep 4, 2007, 7:41am Top

It's great to see someone else who loved Robbe-Grillet; I think we're in the minority. I returned to this a while ago, and it was just as good as I remembered.

Sep 4, 2007, 7:43am Top

Re Milan Kundera - for him the big issue is kitsch, his novels are all arguments against kitsch. For him, kitsch excludes from view, or denies the existence of, anything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, i.e., violence, death, etc. Hence the link with totalitarianism - totalitarian art celebrates the state while denying the existence of labour camps and secret police, for example. It removes individualism, doubt, the qualities that make us human.
As he says “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”

I spent some of my childhood in Zambia, absolutely beautiful country but sadly in ruins now. From a Zambian viewpoint there is the writer Binwell Sinyangwe who has had two novels published in the Heinemann African Writers Series.

Sep 4, 2007, 8:38am Top

#15 Just a small point: the Ulstermen of the Irish sagas represent only half of the present inhabitants of Northern Ireland, the other half having settled from various parts of England and Scotland from the 12th to the 19th century... (I hope I've expressed that neutrally enough...)

Are you referring to the Táin Bó Cúailnge, by any chance?

By the way, I'm very impressed by the thread - thank you! :-)

Sep 4, 2007, 9:01am Top

avaland, I found Sky Burial in the non-fiction section of my bookstore, so that's why I thought it was non-fiction. My copy says "biography" on the back of it, but perhaps it's classified differently in Asia?

LizT, sorry I forgot to include the title of the Irish book -- it is The Tain translated by Thomas Kinsella. And yes citizenkelly, it is the Tain Bo Cuailnge. Sorry for any political gaffes in my comments about the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.

jargoneer, thank you for the insightful comments on Kundera.

Sep 5, 2007, 9:25pm Top

South Africa
The selections here are both pre- and post-apartheid. The two books do a great job showing the perspective of different communities in South Africa, so it's a great way to experience South African history. The only caveat is that both are written by white men. I'd be curious to read a novel by a black South African writer.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
This is an outstanding work of literature, and a very accessible one. It is the story of two fathers, one black and one white, brought together by the tragic fate of their sons in pre-apartheid South Africa. Author Alan Paton does an amazing job balancing commentary on the whole of South African society with the stories of individual characters. Through dramatic first-person narratives spoken by whole racial or socioeconomic communities, we understand the forces shaping South African society. By looking through the eyes of the main characters, we see how those forces shape the lives of individual people. Much of the novel's drama comes from how each character responds to social expectations.

Even though this novel is replete with symbolism and social commentary, it remains easy to read. In fact, the homespun prose is so accessible that it's easy to let the underlying layers of meaning fly by. The characters are real people with faults and feelings, so it's easy to feel emotionally connected to the novel. Both of the main characters will bring tears to your eyes.

Highly recommended for all.

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut
Laurence is young, optimistic and full of plans for the future when he arrives at a desolate hospital in the South African bush. Frank is his polar opposite -- jaded and cynical, his apathy and bitterness deepened by 6 years working in a place where nothing ever happens. The two are equally fascinated and repelled by each other and the necessity of sharing a room soon draws them into an unlikely friendship. Though seemingly empty, both the hospital and the town where they live are filled with the ghosts of apartheid. The twin forces of race and class exert far more pull on the men than either is prepared to recognize. Galgut's novel is a haunting slice of post-apartheid South Africa and the story of a complicated friendship, but it didn't pull me in the way I expected it to. It's as if Frank's grayness was so strong as to permeate even my brain. I closed this book believing I'd have a lot of think about after I finished it; instead, it's been alarmingly easy to put aside.

Sep 5, 2007, 9:27pm Top

If you're looking for a majority voice from South Africa, a great poet is Dennis Brutus.

Edited: Sep 9, 2007, 10:13pm Top

Sri Lanka

Reef by Romesh Gunesekera
Reef focuses on three main characters: the wealthy and intellectual socialite Mr. Salgado, his thoroughly modern girlfriend Nili and Triton, Mr. Salgado's teenage manservant who is also the book's narrator. The book was described as a coming of age tale set in Sri Lanka on the eve of civil war, which sounded perfect for my literary tastes. Unfortunately, the poor characterization and plot development made this book a difficult read. The milquetoast narrator barely changes except to get older and the other characters are equally bland. I think the novel wants to comment on the forces that create a civil war, but that's hard to do when the narrator is an uneducated, housebound servant with little knowledge of the outside world. The whispers of war that penetrate the walls of the mansion are too faint to make an impression on the reader. The book's final two chapters finally achieve some resonance, but 10 pages of strong writing is not enough to redeem a 200-page book. Beyond Gunesekera's flair for descriptive writing, this book has little to recommend it.

I've requested Funny Boy, another Sri Lankan novel, from Bookmooch since I didn't like this one very much. I've seen Funny Boy recommended a couple times on LibraryThing, so hopefully it will be a better read.

Sep 10, 2007, 3:52am Top

I also read Reef earlier this year and felt the same. It was one of those books that I didn't hate reading by any stretch of the imagination, but when I finished it I knew I would toss it aside and never, ever think about it again (apart from now, obviously).

Sep 22, 2007, 4:41pm Top


The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
This is the story of the unlikely friendship between Bhima, a poor, lower-caste servant, and Sera, her wealthy and well-educated mistress. Writer Thrity Umrigar creates rich, satisfying scenes between the two main characters that demonstrate how their friendship is complicated by socioeconomic differences and Sera's limited self-awareness. Overall, however, I found the book weak. Umrigar hasn't figured out what "show, don't tell" means so there are lots of cliches like "she would have walked through fire for her daughter" but few scenes that actually demonstrate how the characters feel.

The book is also poorly plotted. It zigzags between past and present with little motivation. While other books build suspense about the main characters' past, this one reveals their secrets right off the bat, so there isn't much motivation to keep reading. The present-day plot line is so thin it's practically non-existant and I'd guessed the surprise ending in the first 50 pages. The book does go by surprisingly fast, but the awkward writing style and hackneyed metaphors don't make it very much fun to read.

Bottom line: some of this book's ideas about class and friendship will stick with me, but over all it's pretty lackluster.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
A book that started out well but didn't really do it for me in the end. The plot centers around a small, mostly aging group of friends in Kashmir as civil unrest breaks out. Most of the characters are people from India's upper classes -- British educated, fixated on English products and with enough money to retire comfortably in mansions in the hills. Few of them have ever thought about the poverty and bigotry that exist around them until minority Indian-Nepalis begin to agitate for rights. What I enjoyed the most about this book was that it introduced me to so much about India that I didn't know existed -- both the natural terrain and the dozens of ethnic groups that populate the country. The subplot, the story of a village boy struggling as an illegal immigrant in New York, made me think hard about what it's like to grow up in a country that everyone is itching to escape. Those are the reasons for my 4-star rating. Here's what kept it from getting 5 stars: it seems that the point of the books is fairly obvious. Kiran Desai wants to show us that most of us are complacent, that we don't think about the people struggling around us until the evidence is right in front of our faces. She wants us to know that there is no easy answer to centuries-old injustices and that in the process of setting things right, new injustices will occur. I felt like a lot of the last 100 pages drove this point in over and over again. It's also a relentlessly depressing book. I left it feeling that immigration and introduction to foreign cultures destroys people and families and that the rifts it creates are impossible to heal. It is a thought-provoking and perhaps valid message, but I cannot personally connect to books that are so hopeless.

Sep 22, 2007, 4:44pm Top

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Sep 23, 2007, 12:53pm Top

Wow - great reviews and loads of food (or books in this case) for thought. I am interested to see which book you choose to read/review from New Zealand and Canada. (no pressure intended!!!)

Sep 27, 2007, 9:07pm Top


Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
I made it about halfway through before giving up. The story of a determined, resourceful girl from a disadvantaged family continuing her education could have been a poignant one, but the writing style did it in. The narrator describes every one of her thoughts and feelings in exacting detail, so the story plods along at a snail's pace. A couple of the peripheral characters interested me, but we learn about them through exposition and description rather than dynamic scenes that demonstrate their personalities. It's rare for me to give up on a book, but I just couldn't get into this one.

Sep 27, 2007, 10:38pm Top

just finished Turlupin by Leo Perutz which was a comedy of errors about Cardinal Richelieu trying to start a revolution against the monarchy and nobility , but it was foiled by an orphaned barber masquerading as a noble. He kills the leader of the revolt because he is afraid of being unmasked before he can reunite with his (supposed) lost noble mother. When she finally finds him, she cant see him because she is blind and he has just died. So he doesn't know she touched his face kindly. The book never says whether she was his mother or not. Perutz is a fantastic writer, imo.

Oct 3, 2007, 9:48am Top

What a treasure this thread is! I'll be checking in often to read your reviews. You are covering ground that is almost entirely unknown to me, and you're giving me the kind of information I need to make choices. Thanks!

Nov 15, 2007, 11:36pm Top

Wow! It's been a long time since I've updated this. I've had my hands pretty full with teaching literature, so I haven't had much time to read it. Anyway, here's my latest review:


The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Magic realism and family sagas aren't really my thing, so I wasn't very optimistic when I started this book. To say that I was pleasantly surprised doesn't even begin to describe my feelings. The novel focuses on 4 generations of the del Valle-Trueba family, an upperclass family whose women are gifted with psychic powers. Moving through the family's story simulatenously carries us through a century of Chilean politics from oppression by the upper classes to the turmoil of a democratically-elected Communist president to the brutality of life under a military dictator.

What made the novel special to me is the way it weaves family, politics and questions of life and death together into a believable whole. In spite of the novel's wide scope, Isabel Allende never forgets that characters are the heart of the story. Each member of the large cast is a unique, believable person. And although the family lives through an extraordinary time, their basic humanity shines through. Family conflict takes on capitalist-vs.-communist flavor, but the underlying generation gap rings true even for readers living in modern-day America.

Allende's prose is as impressive as her characterization. Every word is well-chosen and meaningful and every sentence is alive with Latin rhythym. Sometimes I even underlined phrases so I could come back to savor them later.

With such a fascinating cast of characters to explore, it would be easy to overlook the "literary" elements of the novel, but these too are well-executed. Through careful, clever motifs and symbolism, Allende warns readers what's coming for Chile's exploitative upper class -- and lets us know they're not going to heed the warning until it's too late. Deciphering these hidden clues is a big part of what made me love the book so much, so your admiration probably won't be as strong if you're not interested in doing a close reading. Even so, the book's fast pace and rhythmic prose are well-suited to casual Sunday afternoon reading -- just steel yourself for the brutal ending.

Nov 16, 2007, 5:54am Top

I remember loving The House of the Spirits on the first read--and your great review has me longing for a re-read. Thank you!

Nov 17, 2007, 12:07am Top


The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

Judging from the jacket copy, The White Castle is a thrilling tale of a young Venetian scholar kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Ottoman Empire. This description is misleading. Rather than a tale of high adventure and self-discovery, the book is an extremely cerebral meditation on the meaning of cruelty, sin and identity. The story takes off when the nameless narrator is given to a Turkish scholar desperate to learn Western science. By strange coincidence, the master and slave look almost identical to one another. The two rapidly develop a relationship where they alternately worship and torture each other. Both torture themselves by trying to win the favor of a childish, manipulative sultan.

This is obviously a deeply complex work, but I never quite figured out what the novel wanted to tell me. Although I sometimes felt absorbed by the psychological drama, finishing this book required a lot of effort and I doubt I would have succeeded if I hadn't been contemplating teaching it to my world literature class. In my opinion, all writers have a responsibility to make their works engaging and this is where Pamuk fails. There is no dialogue, no descriptions of the no-doubt-fabulous Turkish scenery, not even a sentence that inspired me with its beauty. The ideas are good, but it doesn't have the full package. Three stars.

Nov 17, 2007, 1:29am Top

26 & 27: I also read Reef earlier this year and felt the same. It was one of those books that I didn't hate reading by any stretch of the imagination, but when I finished it I knew I would toss it aside and never, ever think about it again (apart from now, obviously).


I actually liked Reef quite a lot, but it's not a book I would walk around recommending to people. I can't articulate what it is I liked . . . perhaps it was the atmosphere the author created. I've read a few books like this that I tag "a quiet book". Which means, nothing nasty happens, not much happens in general, but there's something soothing about the writing that I like. I thought the writer did a great job of capturing the feel of Sri Lanka.

Other recommendations for Sri Lanka that I preferred over this one are:
Mosquito, by Roma Tearne, and
Anil's Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje

(Ondaatje is one of those writers, like Salman Rushdie, who is difficult to pin to one country. Is he Sri Lankan/Indian? Or is he Canadian/British?)

Dec 13, 2007, 1:02pm Top


Broken Verses
by Kamila Shamsie

Aasmani Inqilab's childhood would be unusual for an American girl; for a Pakistani one, it is almost unheard-of. Her mother is Pakistan's most famous women's rights activist and a feminist icon who "lives in sin" with her lover, Pakistan's most beloved poet. Because the poet is so frequently imprisoned or exiled, Aasmani's mother is often too distracted to care for her and leaves her with her biological stepfather and his new wife. All this chaos ends suddenly when Aasmani is 14. The poet is found brutally murdered, her mother plunges into a depression and disappears mysteriously two years later. You might think I'm spoiling the novel with this much information, but this is all set-up for the heart of the novel, which takes place 14 years later. Aasmani is 31, living on her own for the first time, outwardly "just fine" while inwardly consumed with grief, rage and denial. When a letter appears written in her mother's secret code, she must choose whether to investigate it.

This book contains a mystery, but no matter what the jacket copy would have you believe, it's not really a mystery novel. Most of the suspense is psychological: if Aasmani chooses to believe her mother is alive, what will be the cost to her sanity? Should she forgive her mother for abandoning her so many times and the poet for asking her to do so? How do we love someone who is both brilliant and flawed? How can we see the dead as the real people they were and not the mental picture of them we created in their absence?

I absolutely loved this book. It is emotionally resonant, character-driven and asks worthwhile questions about living. I particularly admired writer Kamila Shamsie's show-don't-tell writing and ability to create larger-than-life characters who still felt very real. Although I gave this book a 5 star rating, it may not appeal to every reader. There is very little action because most of the book consists of Aasmani's conversations with her biological father, half-sister, new boyfriend and assortment of old family friends. Each of the dialogues explores the novel's central questions from a variety of perspectives. I left the book feeling wholly satisfied and intrigued by the questions it proposed, but other readers might find the conversations tedious and Aasmani frustrating. Read if you love cerebral, character-driven books that focus on ideas rather than action.

In addition to this rather long review, I want to add that this is exactly the kind of book I hope to read for my reading globally challenge. Even though Kamila Shamsie writes in English, I felt like her audience was mostly Pakistani. At any rate, she is writing to tell the story of her characters, not to explain her culture to "western" countries. Culture creeps in of course, especially as some of the female characters wrestle with the more conservative elements of their society, but it's not trying to villify their culture or claim that American women have it so much better. I don't think I'm explaining myself particularly well, but maybe some others here know what I'm talking about...I remember avaland making a comment about a A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers not coming with cultural baggage that suggested Western countries are just a bit better. That's what I'm getting at here.

Jan 9, 2008, 4:06pm Top

Saudi Arabia

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea
I purchased Girls of Riyadh expecting chick lit, and in a way I was right. Like a lot of Western books for women, this Saudi Arabian novel tells the story of a group of young women looking for love and navigating their sometimes tumultuous female friendships. But while Bridget Jones characters proliferate across every supermarket stand in America, this novel is a one-of-a-kind in its native Saudi Arabia, where frank depiction of the lives of women is so provocative that the book is banned. Each of the characters has freedoms that Western women might not expect, like watching forbidden video tapes, dating, and in one case, even having premarital sex. But for these girls, every step against tradition is an act of bravery and getting caught might mean giving up the chance for marriage, family and a happy life.

Although the book deals with some heavy subject matter, the breezy, anonymous narrator makes it fun to read. I appreciated that the book gives Islam the complex treatment it deserves. The girls' varying attitudes ensure a balanced perspective: half-American Michelle rejects her Saudi side entirely, while moderate Lamees and Sadeem try to balance the demands of their culture with their own emotional needs. Gamrah, the meekest and most conservative of the characters, accepts unhappiness as the lot of women while hoping for a good marriage. Even though many of the characters feel embittered by the men who mistreat them, the book recognizes that they too are victims of rigid families who require them to sacrifice true love for tradition.

This isn't a perfect book. The original Arabic edition combines the classical, literary form of the language with teenage slang that reveals the characters' interests and economic backgrounds. In English, however, this results in a jarring mixture of styles. The simple, declatory prose doesn't leave a lot to the imagination. But, even though I'm a picky reader, I found that my interest girls' lives and culture outweighed any complaints about the style. I doubt this book will blow anyone away, but most readers will probably find it interesting.

Jan 9, 2008, 5:01pm Top

cestovatela, does the book mention honor killing at all? Just curious.

Jan 10, 2008, 12:40pm Top

finally got around to reading Nervous Conditions and came back here to read your review. I'm so surprised that you were disappointed in it and couldn't get through it. I thought it quite good. But, then again, I may have been rebounding a bit from the Memmi (when the author is a philosopher the whole self-examination process seems to get elevated and churned quite literally into a neurotic condition, or so it seems).

Jan 10, 2008, 11:26pm Top

About The Girls of Riyadh -- no honor killing. It's not quite that heavy.

As for Nervous Conditions, my biggest issue was with the writing style. I found the prose very flat and declaratory, so it didn't really engage my interest. I have a *huge* pet peeve about books that fail to follow the show-don't-tell adage about writing. I also felt a little disinterested in the plot. I know that it was probably revolutionary in the country where it was written, but it sort of felt like a story I had read before. However, it's also worth mentioning that I read it at a time when I had so little free time that I was exceptionally picky about the books I read. It's possible that if I read it now I'd think I was being totally unfair.

Jan 11, 2008, 7:51am Top

Thanks for your response.

Jan 11, 2008, 2:02pm Top

Hi Cestovatela,
Just wondering what you mean by 'show-don't-tell'? This may just be a transatlantic language barrier (or my ignorance).

Jan 11, 2008, 2:36pm Top

Depressaholic, I think it may be an English teacher phrase. Anyway, I mean that I prefer books that let me infer things about the characters by describing their actions rather than books that tell me directly about the characters through exposition. A really basic example would be that you can say "Sarah really loved him" (telling) or you could have a scene that really demonstrated her feelings (showing). Notes on a Scandal is the best recent book I can think of that really embodies "show don't tell" writing. The narrator reveals very few facts about her life, but her word choice and the way she describes other people shows exactly what kind of person she is.

Does that make sense?

Edited: Jan 11, 2008, 8:37pm Top

Yes, thanks.

I have never been a fan of Dickens partly because of his lengthy descriptive passages. I don't really draw pictures of characters in my head, so descriptive passages don't really do much for me. I think he puts them in so you can infer personality from external details such as dress, which is telling (physically) and showing (personality). I haven't really thought about this before, but I guess, like you, I like a minimum of telling and a maximum of showing.

Its also the reason I hated Orlando by Virginia Woolf, because she had constant asides to the reader reminding us what we should be thinking about what was going on, rather than letting me make up my own mind.

Um...right, thats the end of me emptying my head of random thoughts onto your thread. Cheers for the answer.

(I edited to reverse show and tell, which I had clearly written the wrong way round. Sorry.)

Edited: Jan 11, 2008, 5:06pm Top

Interesting, show-don't-tell is also more of a drama sort of thing. Obviously, in drama one must show, unless they have a narrator telling. I think with Nervous Conditions we have an adult narrator telling her coming-of-age story. I don't think this particular story could have been told without understanding the thought process of the main character. She struggles with loyalities, ambition, angst internally because externally she is the obedient , grateful niece. There are some comments the adult makes like "Of course then, I did not understand the complexities...blah blah" that I could see as unnecessary and maybe annoying, but I am reminded that the author was writing for a local audience and perhaps felt something more was needed. Speaking of Virginia Woolf, I saw a quote in the NYTBR for last week that I thought I might post in this group...

Jan 11, 2008, 11:42pm Top

I agree with you avaland -- for the kind of story Nervous Conditions wants to tell, you probably do need to hear the main character's internal monologue. I guess that's where writing style comes in. I can be entertained by a book that does a lot of telling, but only if there's something engaging about the writing style. I constantly felt bored when I was reading Nervous Conditions, so I put it down.

Feb 7, 2008, 11:33pm Top


Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Yusuf is only 7 years old when he is given to a wealthy merchant to repay his family's debts. He is never beaten, overworked or even treated unkindly but the fact remains that he is a slave -- even though he (and we) will not understand this until much later in the novel.

This book is exactly what I hope for when I read international literature. It contains everything I look for in a book: lush, descriptive prose, realistic characterization and a story line that addresses ideas significant to humanity but leaves you with plenty of room to analyze and interpret on your own. At the same time, it offers me an opportunity to deepen my knowledge about another corner of the globe. Abdulrazak Gurnah's East Africa is a vibrant confluence of multiple religions and cultures. What emerges is a portrait of a society that can be both beautiful and inhumane, one where colonialism is just one more facet of already-ingrained local prejudice and cruelty. Reading this book was hard at times, but the beautiful language always salved the occasional rawness of the subject matter. I felt absorbed through the whole novel and I really admired the way the author let the story speak for itself rather than moralizing at the end. I will be checking out more of Abdulrazak Gurnah's work.

Feb 8, 2008, 9:18pm Top

So glad to hear another rave review of this book, it is the one Gurnah I haven't read yet. It sits, among dozens of other books, in the never-depleting TBR pile!

Feb 9, 2008, 10:09am Top

I also have his Paradise on the TBR pile (well, truthfully it's now a huge TBR bookshelf....) so look forward to reading it after seeing your review. His Desertion was also great. He really has a gift as an author for making you "see" exactly the scene he's describing.

Edited: Feb 23, 2008, 7:51pm Top


Baghdad Burning by Riverbend

Although I don't usually count non-fiction works toward this challenge, I decided that Baghdad Burning fit perfectly into my goals for worldwide reading. Although I didn't learn much about Iraqi literary styles or techniques, I found this anthology of blog posts hugely informative about the war, Iraqi culture and the lives of Iraqi women. Because this is a blog, some people doubt its authenticity. All I can say is that it rang true for me and frankly, I think many of the reasons for doubting it (like that an Iraqi couldn't possibly speak such good English) are a little ridiculous. Even if you ultimately decide the book is a work of fiction, the ideas and information it contains are at least worth your consideration. Here's my review:

Reviewing someone's life story is nearly impossible, especially if, as in this case, the writer is an ordinary person living through extraordinary hardship and desperate to tell the world something it needs to hear. Riverbend is the internet alias of a twenty-something Iraqi girl blogging through the war and subsequent American invasion. The first year of blog posts have been compiled to make this book. Each page is saturated with pain, anger, frustration and passion. She is not the downtrodden Muslim woman many Americans imagine exist, nor was she a victim of Saddam Hussein's regime. She is politically savvy, articulate, proud of her culture and religion and tolerant of others -- even Americans. Each post is well-reasoned and well-written, appealing to logic as much as emotion. She tells the stories that didn't make it into the American news media, contributing irreplaceable insight into the politics and economics of the war as well as its human cost. Whether you're for or against the war, you need to know how it shaped, altered, shattered and ended the lives of millions of Iraqi people. Read this book.

Mar 2, 2008, 4:00pm Top


The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Late one evening in Lahore, Changez, a bearded Pakistani man, spots a mysterious American stranger. He guides the man to a streetside cafe and gradually spins out the story of his rise to the top of the American dream and his sudden disillusionment in the wake of September 11th. The story appears to belong to Changez, the narrator, but as the novel unfolds, we discover that the identity of the stranger is equally important. Trying to unravel the many small clues is one of the pleasures of reading.

Judging from the reviews, this is not a book for everyone, but I found it both beautiful and meaningful. If good characterization is one of your literary turn-ons, chances are that you will enjoy this book too. Changez reveals himself fully as he tells his life story, but even before he begins to tell the tale, we can guess what kind of person he is just from his word choice. The book is fueled by two parallel psychological dramas: Changez's gradual shift from grateful immigrant to angry Pakistani and why he's chosen to share his story with this particular stranger. The point of view never shifts from Changez; in fact, although he sometimes reacts to things the American says or does, he never relates the dialog directly. The book consists exclusively of his spoken words -- there is no exposition, no description, no peek at his thoughts, just the exact words he speaks to the American. I found this approach intriguing and I loved the way each chapter shifted between Changez's present-day interactions with the stranger and the story of his former life in America. Wanting to know how each of the plot lines would turn out propelled me through the book quickly. In the end, it delivered just the kind of ending I like best: enough resolution to leave me satisfied, but enough loose ends to leave room for my own imagination.

Recommended: I can't guarantee that everyone will like this novel, but I do imagine most will find it thought-provoking. With just 180 quick-reading pages, setting aside time for this novel wouldn't be too large a sacrifice.

Mar 2, 2008, 4:04pm Top

Great review and I completely agree with your final comment. Congratualtions!

Mar 4, 2008, 8:40pm Top

Admittedly, I thought the Reluctant Fundamentalist a nice companion to The Yacoubian Building which also features a character who becomes a fundamentalist.

Don't you find the choice of names for the character interesting? Changez? Even if it may not have the same meaning as it alludes to in English, it can't be accidental.

Mar 4, 2008, 11:49pm Top

Hmm...I hadn't thought of that before. It seems a little crude to name a character so overtly in a novel that subtle, but it does make you wonder. I'd be interested to know what the name means in Urdu.

Mar 5, 2008, 5:05am Top

One of Rushdie's potagonists is also called Changez (I can't remember which book at the moment). I think it is possibly a relatively common Pakistani name (though one I have never heard in Britain, admittedly).

Mar 5, 2008, 7:08am Top

And to me, a francophile all I could think about was 'change' ... everytime I read his name. May be a bit of google research is called for ...

Mar 5, 2008, 8:39am Top

>58 juliette07:: juliette07, moi aussi .... !

Edited: Mar 5, 2008, 8:56am Top

#59 lindascl, I am so pleased I was not the only one - I couldn't make it out at all!!

Mar 5, 2008, 9:21pm Top

It might seem too obvious and a common name, but the author had to have noticed its revelance to the story, imo.

Names can be very interesting if we are privileged to know the meanings when revelant. I did not know until after I read Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, that Firdaus (the main character's name) is a English translation of the Arabic 'Ferdaus' which means 'paradise'. It's not a big deal in the story, but the author chose purposefully.

Mar 6, 2008, 4:23am Top

Avaland - absolutely. If names are relevant or symbolic in some way should a writer who 'cares' about her/his readers let them into 'the secret' I wonder .... or simply presume that everyone knows ...

and thank you so much for that information regarding Woman at Point Zero. How very timely, I am off to the library to collect my reserved copy.

Mar 15, 2008, 6:08pm Top

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I'm not a fan of graphic novels and I've read more than my fair share about the Iranian revolution, so I was surprised to find myself fully absorbed by this book after reading just a few sentences at Border's. The graphic novel format really fits the child's eye perspective of the book. With short, sharp illustrated anecdotes, we see how unreal and confusing a cultural revolution is for a 10-year-old girl. Little Marjane is surprisingly adorable in her yearning for her father to be arrested and tortured so that she can be the most popular girl in school. Little by little, reality creeps in in the form of executed neighbors and dying relatives. As Marjane comes of age, we see how monstrous the revolution really is but neither she nor her family are saints -- just like Americans talking about the war in Iraq, the family switches easily from political discussion to neighborhood gossip. Eighties fads and childhood fights are as much a part of this book as suffering through the reign of the Ayatollah. This made the family easy to relate to, which is probably why the ending moved me so much. I'd recommend this book to anyone, including those who've OD'd on memoirs of Iran or don't usually like graphic novels.

Mar 16, 2008, 12:01pm Top

Great review and agree completely on the graphic novel and Iran points =) I wasn't sure but was absorbed like you!

Mar 30, 2008, 4:09pm Top


Ali and Nino: A Love Story by Kurban Said

In Azerbaijan at the eve of World War I, Ali, a young Muslim nobeman, falls hopelessly in love with Nino, a Europeanized Christian princess. The star crossed lovers unite in spite of a string of theatrical obstacles like bridal kidnappings, blood feuds and several desperate battles to defend the homeland against foreign invaders.

The story of the book's publication is almost as dramatic as its operatic plot. Published just before World War II broke out in Eastern Europe, the book nearly faded into obscurity until an American journalist discovered it in a German used bookstore. Thanks to its unusual story line, the book was translated into English even though the true identity of the author was unknown. Years of careful research finally revealed that Kurban Said was actually the pen name of an Austrian baroness and an Azeri Jew who converted to Islam but still spent years fleeing from Hitler's armies.

If this were a movie, it would be one of those big studio blockbusters with not-quite-deserved Oscar pretentions. I can tell that this book desperately wants to be important, but it also desperately wants to make money. Written to appeal to a Western European audience, it trades on exotic, romanticized stereotypes of "the East." No doubt many of the ancient customs it describes are real, but its portrayal of them is so sensationalized that I felt I had to take the whole book with a grain of salt. Both of the lead characters are puppets who move through the plot, which didn't help the book's contrived feel. The rich writing and action-packed story line propelled me to finish the book, but it was a slow read and not quite satisfying. Although the book does manage to raise some thought-provoking questions about geopolitics and cultural differences, I wouldn't really recommend it.

Mar 30, 2008, 4:35pm Top

The pre-war story of the book is interesting as well. It was published under the name of the Austrian baroness and was lauded as an example of german superiority in the arts by the Nazis. It was only relatively recently that we learnt that it was written by an Jewish convert to Islam from Baku. The baroness was his patrin and lover, but probably had little to do with writing the book.

I read it about two years ago and, though I felt a bit more positive than cestovatela perhaps, also felt that it was a self-conscious attempt to write an epic romance. Despite the Azerbaijan setting, I also thought that it was aimed squarely at a european/German readership.

Apr 8, 2008, 7:19pm Top


Oddly enough, both of my selections from Sudan are called The Translator. The first is fiction; the second is not. I read the Aboulela piece both for my local book club and the group read this month, so apologies for the long review.

The Translator by Leila Aboulela

Reading this book reminded me of eating the extra-creamy milk chocolate bar my boyfriend bought me: it's undeniably good, but so heavy it's hard to take in more than a little at a time. With only 200 pages of text, writer Leila Aboulela clearly hasn't gone overboard with descriptive writing. Yet, every page of the novel is drenched with atmosphere. Reading just five pages sometimes made me feel so full I had to put the book down. This is probably why it took me a long time to get into the story. But, once the novel caught hold of me, I was fully absorbed. As I neared the home stretch, I could see dozens of possible ways for the book to end. What the writer chose surprised me a little, but I feel she chose the best possible ending: one that tied up enough loose ends to leave you feeling satisfied, but with plenty left over for your imagination. There's a "solution" for each one of the characters, but none are without complications.

I enjoyed this book as both an example of Muslim women's writing and as a document of the immigrant experience. Unlike a lot of Muslim women in the media these days, Sammar, the main character, doesn't feel oppressed by her religion. Fulfilling the requirements of her faith demands self-discipline and difficult decisions, but she never doubts it's a positive force in her life. Because we see only through her eyes, we get an authentic perspective on both Islam and the experience of an immigrant in Scotland. She's not trying to explain her faith to a Western audience; she simply lives it and lets us see it. I savored the small culture shocks of her adopted country, like seeing women walking huge dogs that seem capable of eating babies. Little moments like these brought home her outsider status far more effectively than long monologues on isolation.

Recommended: for people who are curious about the world and don't mind a small book that takes a long time to read.

The Translator by Daoud Hari

Reviewing someone's life story is always difficult. I can't imagine reading about someone's harrowing escape from Darfur after watching his home village burnt to the ground and then returning a review of "hated it." That said, Daoud Hari's memoir of the destruction of his homeland is more riveting than the average human-spirit-triumphs-over-evil tale. Hari's simple language evokes the storytellers of ancient Africa and each chapter made me feel like I was talking to a friend. Each of the writer's appeals to our common humanity feel honest and uncontrived -- "losing a child is a great pain," he says, "as some of you may know." With passages like these, Hari doesn't presume he knows more pain than we do; instead, he holds out a hand so we can relate in spite of the vast differences in our lives. Most amazing, he tells us over and over again that this is not simply a tale of tragedy; "you cannot survive if you cannot laugh," he says, and even as the loss of his family leaves him feeling "dead inside," you can feel his joy in a cold glass of beer and a reunion with a long-lost friend. I think this is one of those books every concerned citizen of the world ought to read. For me, it made a genocide at a distant corner of the globe feel like a real and human. event I imagine it would do the same for you.

Apr 10, 2008, 4:39pm Top

I really liked Leila Aboulela's The Translator too (though unlike you, I raced through it, which was perhaps a shame!) Have you read Minaret? That was the first novel of hers I read, and I'd recommend it highly - same themes (East/West, Muslim woman bewildered by life in Britain, the role of Islam in a Western society, love despite obstacles), same style, but a completely different set of characters in a different story. I keep meaning to buy her collection of short stories, Coloured Lights.

Apr 10, 2008, 8:24pm Top

I have not yet read Minaret. I think I will some day, but I like to space out my reading on similar themes so I'm not feeling the temptation to add it to my TBR pile just yet. Coloured Lights is very appealing though.

Apr 27, 2008, 3:18pm Top

Your reviews are thorough although I don't always agree with you about the works I have read. However, I like the criteria you use for works you strongly recommend. I've put Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah and Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie on my to-read list. Regarding another topic that has come up on this list, "honor killings," the March 20th edition of the London Review of Books listed an advertisement for a University of Chicago Press text entitled In Honor of Fadime: Murder and Shame. The description reads as follows: "If murder is defined as a wrongful killing, is an honor killing wrong? What precisely makes an honor killing wrong if it is an act of collective defense and a last resort to protect a family from humiliating and socially consequential harms inflicted on it by one of its members? This brilliant book takes us far beyond the 'banality of evil' as we arrive at an eye-opening (even if troubling) comprehension of how a morally decent husband and wife come to feel they have no choice but to kill their daughter." I almost bought this book last week when I was at the University of Chicago, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do so. The topic just hits too many of my hot buttons. In general, I don't like the way the western media both stereotypes and exoticizes Muslim women, thereby implicitly patting westerners on the back for their own cultural practices. But still . . . I'm not sure I'm ready to go where Unni Wikan's book may take me.

May 26, 2008, 4:17pm Top

North Korea

The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan (non-fiction)

Kang Chol-Hwan is 9 years old when his family is suddenly whisked away to a North Korean concentration camp. As descendants of Korean immigrants to Japan, the entire family is suspect, in spite of their financial and political contributions to strengthening the Communist North Korean state. Adults and children alike will spend the next 10 years working from dawn to dusk, perpetually on the edge of starvation and brutal punishment by the camp's bored and sadistic guards. Burying the dead is considered a luxurious work detail and eating rats is the only way to stay alive.

Unlike many other books about surviving atrocities, this is not a tale of the human spirit triumphing over evil. Kang Chol-Hwan is upfront about how perpetual hunger and violence left him callous, dehumanized and suffering from a difficult-to-control penchant for fisticuffs. Even though reading about the horrors of the camp was difficult at times, this book was a page turner. Would the whole family survive their imprisonment? How would they do it? And if they did, how could they hope to rejoin life outside the camp? The book answers each of these questions in a moving, satisfying way. First-hand accounts of the mysterious North Korean "hermit state" are hard to come by and I'm glad I read this one.

This book has left me very curious about what, if any, literature has trickled out of North Korea (and into English) since the establishment of the Communist regime there.

May 27, 2008, 11:54am Top

#71 - This book has left me very curious about what, if any, literature has trickled out of North Korea (and into English) since the establishment of the Communist regime there.

Your post was timely, as I was wondering the exact same thing just last night. Thanks for sharing this--one more book for my to-read list. :-)

May 31, 2008, 6:57pm Top

71, thanks for that review. I am always looking for good suggestions from tough-to-penetrate places. North Korea certainly counts as one of those.

Oct 16, 2008, 7:49pm Top

Wow! I've neglected this thread for quite a long time! I think I had grown a bit exhausted of my round-the-world odyssey. Sometimes I felt that I was reading the book because it came from an exotic place and not because I wanted to, so I decided to take a break. It was good to begin my travels again, though sad that the book was less than stellar. Here's the review:

Tide Running by Oona Kempadoo

Cliff and Ossi have grown up in Plymouth on the island of Tobago, surrounded by urban poverty and drug abuse. One day they are invited to the "flim-style house" of Bella and Peter, a wealthy vacationing couple who offer temporary harbor from the harshness of the city streets. At first, the friendship appears an unlikely but uncomplicated connection between human beings, but when Cliff, Peter and Bella embark on a menage-a-trois relationship, difficulties arise.

I wanted to love this book. From the opening description of the sea, written in a perfect Caribbean dialect, I felt immersed into the lush blue-and-green world of Tobago. Cliff's first person narration, though challenging to read, created a unique, believable and wonderfully observant character. I loved his dialect so much that I sometimes read it out loud to myself. But about halfway through the novel, it became obvious that this book wasn't on a clear course. The point of view switches over to Bella, a two-dimensional character whose thoughts and dialect are not as rich as Cliff's. Italicized stream-of-consciousness ramblings are difficult to understand and serve no purpose in the story. The author doesn't seem to know what to do with the complex relationship she's created or the questions it raises, so the book suddenly jolts to a stop with a surprise ending that doesn't play fair with the earlier characterization of Cliff. The book left me feeling cheated at the end, and I doubt that I will read more of this author's work.

Oct 16, 2008, 9:44pm Top

Hey, welcome back!!

Oct 22, 2008, 10:10am Top

-->74 cestovatela:
I have been very guilty of reading things because of their place of origin, but that can be part of the point. I like plunging in blindly sometimes. The only time I annoy myself is when i pick a book I am fairly sure I won't like and read it anyway because it is from the 'right' place. One book I did that with was...Tide Running. If I ever made a 'worst ten' from my big list, it would make it easily. I got the impression that we were supposed to be terribly shocked by the unusual sexual arrangements, and that Kempadoo felt that they would be enough to sustain our interests.

Oct 23, 2008, 8:50am Top

>74 cestovatela: Interesting review! I read her Buxton Spice in August while traveling through Australia and found myself a little disappointed in it. It was touted as a coming-of-age novel but I found it not an apt description. It certainly could have been called a growing up in Guyana. I passed it on to amandameale and she seemed to enjoy it more than I, so perhaps airplane reading is not the best way to digest such a book!

Mar 12, 2012, 7:55pm Top

Wow! This thread has been dormant for a long time. I took a little break from my challenge to enjoy some unstructured reading, and then I forgot to come back and update! Here are a couple new additions to my list, though I'm not sure whether to classify them by the setting or the author's nationality. One is by a Russian author who immigrated to Germany and set her book in Germany; the other is by an Egyptian author whose book is set in Italy.

Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky

If good characterization is your literary turn-on, you will love this book. If you like reading about strong, flawed women, you will also love this book. Actually, if you love good books, I think you will love this book. Sasha, the teenage narrator, is blunt, snarky, independent, and hard not to love. Her mother was shot to death by her abusive husband, and Sasha, always the family caretaker, wants revenge. But this is no Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; exacting bloody vengeance on a man who's already in prison is hard, especially if you're a sixteen-year-old girl with two younger siblings to look after. There's no easy outlet for Sasha's anger or sadness, and the book is really about her slow journey to accepting her mother's death. This is an unflinchingly honest book; you'll have to read some graphic depictions of abuse, violence, and attempted rape as well as several scenes where Sasha's self-destructive behavior is unappealing. Yet, I loved Sasha even more because she's so hard-nosed and uncompromising, and even if I didn't love everything she did, I thought her reactions were realistic for a young girl who had experienced such a heavy loss. She's one of those characters whom I think about often and even kind of miss, even months after I finished reading the book.

As a work of world literature, I enjoyed this book. Sasha is a Russian immigrant who lives in a public housing project in Germany. This was a slice of German life I hadn't been exposed to before, and the book addresses some anti-immigrant prejudices as well as the socioeconomic disparities between Sasha and her much wealthier classmates. However, although the "immigrant experience" is integral to the book, the real focus is the violence in Sasha's family, which seems like it could have happened anywhere.

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Apparently, when I read this book, I found a lot to criticize about its opening chapters: the narrator seemed pretentious, the narrator's crush seemed pathetic, the plot didn't move quickly enough, etc. etc. It's strange to read that now because all I remember is that I really, really loved this book. Set at some indefinite point in the past, it tells the story of 17-year-old Elio's forbidden longing for the family's 24-year-old houseguest, Olivier. Deeply ingrained social mores prevent them from communicating their feelings for one another, and the book is mostly about the honest, dramatic, and moving ways both men defy and succumb to those conventions. Although I do remember feeling annoyed by the constant stream of literary and historical allusions, I was also moved by the eloquent descriptive prose -- so much so that I actually dog-eared several sections toward the end, though I can't share any of them with you because they're so spoilery. Suffice it to say that even though I was frustrated by some of the writing decisions early in the novel, the story and characters have stuck with me for many years. Some of the books on this list opened my eyes to new societies and cultures; others simply told very human stories that could have happened anywhere. This book falls into the latter category. Italy provides a rich and atmospheric backdrop for the action, but the real focus of the story is the boys' confusion about their sexuality and their longing for one another. I felt that that story could have taken place almost anywhere in the world, in the past or in the present.

Group: Reading Globally

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