Around the world in 192 books - Depressaholic's Challenge Part 2
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I was asked about my criteria for choosing books recently. It is a mixture of gut feeling, author nationality, setting and subject, with the first two being the most important. There is a long discussion of this in the thread Deciding where a book is from'.
There are now 193 nations on the list. Sudan split into Sudan and South Sudan, adding another sovereign state to the list. My previous Sudanese read were both from the north, so South Sudan remains blank for the moment.
I have, however, started to list other nations (ones without UN membership or international recognition) as I read them. They are not included in my 193 challenge per se, but I have added them to the end of the list. I am up to 153 countries plus 5 'other' places at the moment.
My list includes what I think is my favourite for each country or, where I had a few to choose from, something that I thought people may not be as familiar with as some of the others. I go back and update my list when I read a book from a country already on there, that is, in my opinion, significantly better than the prebiously listed book. Everything on the list is a novel (in the broad sense - including novellas and memoirs written as novels) except where I have indicated otherwise.
I have also added star ratings. In general, I don't like giving star ratings, but I wouldn't want anyone to think that the list was exclusively recommendations. There are some real stinkers in there!
***** = superb, books will stay with me for a long time
**** = highly recommended
*** = enjoyable reads, but not especially memorable
** = flawed but interesting
* = really wish I hadn't bothered
Total 'other' places: 7
Angola: The Book of Chameleons by Jose Agualusa ****
Botswana: A Question of Power by Bessie Head ****
Lesotho: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo ****
Malawi: The Last of the Sweet Bananas by Jack Mapanje (poetry) ****
Mozambique: Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto ****
Namibia: The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas **
South Africa: Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton *****
Swaziland: A Time of Bliss by Martha Mphahlele *
Zambia: Bitterness by Malama Katulwende **
Zimbabwe: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga ***
Djibouti:The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahaman Waberi (short stories)***
Eritrea: Riding the Whirlwind by Bereket Habte Selassie ***
Ethiopia: The Thirteenth Sun by Daniachew Worku ***
Kenya: The Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiongâ��o *****
Somalia: From a Crooked Rib by Nurredin Farah ***
Tanzania: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah ****
Uganda: Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa **
Mauritius: Getting Rid of It by Lindsey Collen **
Seychelles: Reflections and Echoes from Seychelles by James Mancham (poetry)**
Algeria: Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus (short stories) *****
Chad: Told By Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid (short stories) **
Egypt: Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi***
Libya: Anubis: a desert novel by Ibrahim al-Koni **
Morocco: A Life Full of Holes by Driss ben Hamed Charadhi *****
Niger: In-sign-E by Oumarou Watta (poetry) *
Sudan: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih ****
Tunisia: The Pillar of Salt by Albert Memmi ****
Cameroon: Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono ****
Congo (Brazzaville): The Laughing Cry by Henri Lopes ***
Congo (Kinshasa): Full Circle by Frederick Yamusangie **
Gabon: Mema by Daniel Mengara ***
Nigeria: A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe ****
Rwanda: Scalpels of Memory by Raymond Ntalindwa (poetry) ***
Benin: Snares Without End by Olympe Bhely-Quenum ***
Burkina Faso: Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo ****
Cote dâ��Ivoire: As the Crow Flies by Veronique Tadjo *****
Gambia: Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster **
Guinea: The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye***
Ghana: Our Sister Killjoy by Ama Ata Aidoo ***
Liberia: Guanya Pau by Joseph Walters **
Mali: Bound to Violence by Yambo Ouologuem *
Senegal: The Belly of the Atlantic by Fatou Diome ***
Sierra Leone: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (non-fiction) ***
Canada: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel ***
Mexico: Tinisima by Elena Poniatowska ****
USA: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller *****
Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell ***
Cost Rica: Years Like Brief Days by Fabian Dobles ***
El Salvador: Cuzcatlan, Where the Southern Sea Beats by Manlio Argueta ****
Guatemala: The Mulatta and Mister Fly by Miguel Angel Asturias **
Honduras: The Big Banana by Roberto Quesada ***
Nicaragua: The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli (non-fiction) ***
Antigua and Barbuda: Mr Potter by Jamaica Kincaid **
Bahamas: Godâ��s Angry Babies by Ian Gregory Strachan ****
Barbados: In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming *****
Cuba: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier *****
Dominica: The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey ****
Grenada: Angel by Merle Collins ****
Haiti: Aunt Resia and the Spirits (short stories) ***
Jamaica: The Hills Were Joyful Together by Roger Mais ****
St Lucia: Omeros by Derek Walcott (poetry) ****
St Vincent and the Grenadines: Spirits in the Dark by H. Nigel Thomas ****
Trinidad and Tobago: A House for Mister Biswas by V.S. Naipaul ****
Argentina: Winter Quarters by Osvaldo Soriano ****
Bolivia: Juan de la Rosa by Nataniel Aguirre ***
Brazil: The Riddle of Qaf by Alberto Mussa ***
Chile: 2666 by Roberto Bolano *****
Colombia: In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez ****
Ecuador: Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza ****
Guyana: Tide Runnings by Oonya Kempadoo *
Paraguay: I the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos***
Peru: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa ****
Suriname: The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia MacLeod ***
Uruguay: Five Black Ships by Napoleon Baccino Ponce de Leon ****
Venezuela: Dona Ines Versus Oblivion by Ana Teresa Torres ****
Afghanistan: Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi ***
Bahrain: QuixotiQ by Ali al Saeed **
Cyprus: Young Man Seeks Position: Good References by Loukis Akritas ****
Iran: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi *****
Iraq: Saddam City by Mahmoud Saeed ****
Israel: Two Tales by Shmuel Yosef Agnon (short stories) ***
Jordan: Inside the Night by Ibrahim Nasrallah ***
Kuwait: The Al-Hamlet Summit by Sulayman Al-Bassam (drama) ****
Lebanon: Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hanan al-Shayk ***
Qatar: Qatari Voices (non-fiction anthology) *
Saudi Arabia: Adama by Turki al-Hamad ***
Syria: Sarmada by Fadi Azzam ***
Turkey: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk ****
United Arab Emirates: The Sand Fish by Maha Gargash ***
Yemen: They Die Strangers by Mohammad Abdul-Wali (short stories) ***
Armenia: Khent by Raffi ***
Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said ***
South Central Asia:
Bangladesh: Killing the Water by Mahmud Rahman (short stories) ****
Bhutan: The Circle of karma by Kunzang Choden ****
India: All About H. Hatterr by G.V.Desani ****
Nepal: The Guru of Love by Samrat Upadhyay **
Pakistan: Trespassing by Uzma Aslam Khan ***
Sri Lanka: Reef by Romesh Gunesekera **
China: Red Azalea by Anchee Min ***
Kazakhstan: Abai by Mukhtar Auezov ***
Kyrgyzstan: The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov ***
Mongolia: The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag **
Uzbekistan: The Railway by Hamid Ismailov ****
Japan: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami ****
South Korea: The Reverse Side of Life by Lee Seung-U ****
North Korea: The Book of Masks by Hwang Sun-won (short stories) ***
South East Asia:
East Timor: The Crossing by Luis Cardoso ****
Indonesia: Footsteps by Pramoedya Ananta Toer ****
Laos: Mother's Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong (short stories) ***
Malaysia: Srengenge by Shahnon Ahmad **
Myanmar: Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi ****
Philippines: Waywaya by F. Sionil Jose (short stories) ***
Singapore: The Bondmaid by Catherine Lim ***
Thailand: Mad Dogs & Co by Chart Korbjitti *
Vietnam: The Family Wound by Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh *
Andorra: All Andorra by Richard Fiter I Vilajoana (non-fiction) *
Austria: Extinction by Thomas Bernhard *****
Belgium: Hygeine and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb ****
France: Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre ****
Germany: The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse *****
Ireland: Ulysses by James Joyce *****
Italy: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco *****
Malta: Tony the Sailor's Song by Anton Buttigieg (non-fiction) *
Netherlands: In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom ****
Portugal: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago ****
Spain: Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas ****
Switzerland: Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe ****
UK: The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg *****
Denmark: Under the Sun by Hanne Marie Svendsen ****
Estonia: Things in the Night by Mati Unt ***
Finland: A Foolâ��s Paradise by Anita Konkka ****
Iceland: The Atom Station by Halldor Laxness ***
Lithuania: City of Ash by Eugenijus Alisanka (poetry) ***
Norway: Sophieâ��s World by Jostein Gaarder ***
Sweden: Martin Birckâ��s Youth by Hjalmar Soderberg *****
Belarus: The Punitive Squads by Ales Adamovich *****
Czech Republic: Europeana by Patrick Ourednik (non-fiction) *****
Hungary: Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai ****
Poland: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski (short stories)****
Romania: The Royal Hunt by D.R. Popescu **
Russia: The Burn by Vassily Aksyonov *****
Slovakia: The Year of the Frog by Martin Simecka ****
Ukraine: Perverzion by Yuri Andrukhovych ****
South Eastern Europe:
Albania: Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismael Kadare ****
Bosnia and Herzegovina: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic *****
Bulgaria: Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov ****
Croatia: The Banquet at Blitva by Miroslav Krleza ***
Greece: The Odyssey by Homer ***
Montenegro: The Red Cockerel by Miodrag Bulatovic ***
Macedonia: Conversation with Spinoza: a cobweb novel by Goce Smilevski ****
Serbia: Hourglass by Danilo Kis ****
Slovenia: Joyceâ��s Pupil by Drago Jancar (short stories) **
Australia: Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White *****
New Zealand: Potiki by Patricia Grace *****
Papua New Guinea: Maiba by Russel Soaba *
Samoa: Pouliuli by Albert Wendt **
Solomon Islands: Praying Parents by Jully Sipolo (poetry) **
Tonga: Tales from the Tikongs by Epeli Hauâ��Ofa (short stories) **
Abkhazia: The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules by Fazil Iskander (short stories) ***
Azores: Stormy Isles by Vitorino Nemesio **
Palestine: Qissat:Short Stories by Palestinian Women (short stories) ***
Martinique: Solibo Magnificent by Patrick Chamoiseau ****
Guadeloupe: Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Conde ****
French Polynesia: Frangipani by Celestine Hitiura Vaite **
Taiwan: The Man With the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi **
I the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos
A fictionalised account of the dictator, tyrant and founder of Paraguay: Jose Francia. The book purports to be the dictators dictation to his secretary, liberally interspersed with private notes and outside references. Bastos tries to paint a picture of the mind of the dictator, an increasingly paranoid isolationist fighting to maintain independence from the dual threats of Buenos Aries and Brazil.
I the Supreme is incredibly dense, throwing fact after fact at the reader. After 60 pages I was completely lost, necessitating an emergency read of wikipedia and gaining a grounding in Paraguay's history. After this, it became an easier read, but not much. The entire book is presented as musings of the dictator, a series of internal monologues about Paraguay, power and the loneliness of command. It is, in places, incredibly well written, mixing the punning of Cabrera Infante with genuinely haunting magical realism. Both of these devices are used sparingly, and Bastos is skillful in their application. However, at 450 pages of small print, the relentless pace and unvarying structure did wear me down. Although themes do develop, there is no overall narrative to the dictator's thoughts and it became a slog in places. I read this very slowly, largely because there were many times that I couldn't face picking it up again, which is unusual for me. It was an odd experience: writing I occassionally liked a lot packaged in a book that never really got started.
Cuzcatlan, Where the Southern Sea Beats by Manlio Argueta
A fantastic piece of writing covering four generations of a peasant family and their lives during fifty years of military dictatorship and violent oppression. El Salvador was (for me) one of the forgotten conflicts of the 20th Century, and one which I knew little about. Argueta, gives the victims a human face, and reminds the world of the horrors of a seemingly unending civil war.
The narrative jumps around in time, with brief chapters examining the lives of single characters. The jumpiness is a touch overdone in places, with chapters punctuated by flashbacks that disrupt the overall rythm. However, this is a minor gripe. The family history is beautifully and tragically told, and Argueta builds up a picture of the repetitivenss of poverty through generations who are just trying their best to get by. He gives the oppressed natives a voice (Cuzcatlan is the aboriginal name for El Salvador) and a life beyond the forgotten victims or cannon fodder for the military government. It is touching and informative, and a recommended bit of writing.
Rotten Pomerack by Merle Collins
I don't read a lot of poetry, and don't really have much of a critical guage beyond knowing if something has really hit home or not (which is a good starting point, I think). Collins' short book failed to find a target with me. Her language was a little too mundane and her message, concerning her feelings about being labelled an outsider in another country (the UK), was unremittingly depressing and without sparks of positivity or light. This is a melancholy collection of poems, and maybe I just wasn't in the right mood, but it ended up being a pedestrian read for me.
The Country Under my Skin by Gioconda Belli
This is Belli's autobiography, charting her life from spoilt bourgoise child to Sandinista revolutionary, to international stateswoman. It focuses on her twin roles: as a mother and lover, and as an armed revolutionary, and exposes the conflicts that these roles brought into being. The Sandanista struggle in Nicaragua is a microcosm of 20th century politics, a battle between left and right, a pawn in cold war diplomacy, and Belli is well placed to describe this fascinating conflict from the inside.
Belli is an award winning poet, and her ease with language (she was also involved in the translation into English) made this an engaging read. However, I felt that there was a limit to how far into her head Belli was allowing the reader, and this was frequently frustrating. For instance, her transition from an upper middle class rich kid to left wing revolutionary is too quick, too easy, and never really explained satisfactorally. there was a brevity to each chapter that didn't really allow me to get a deep understanding of what Belli felt and thought at the time. Consequently, as a source of the events of the Sandanista uprising in Nicaragua, Belli's book was interesting, but as an autobiography I thought it left something to be desired.
Young Man Seeks Position: Good references by Loukis Akritas
I am technically still touring the caribbean, but am having a book flow problem so have skipped to Europe for a while.
This book is published by Diaspora Books, a small publishing house dedicated to telling the stories of Greeks and Greek Cypriots who have left their home countries. It is bizarrely put together, with a long intro about the Greek diaspora in general, interspersed with badly reproduced photos, and finishes with an almost entirely irrelevant afterword. The text is badly printed at a slant and abounds with typos. Its lucky then that the text is absolutely outstanding.
It is a fictionalised biography of Akritas as he left Cyprus as a young man to seek work in Athens. Written and set in the 1930s, during the great depression, the hero, intially confident of work, receives disappointment after disappointment, and is cheated and misled by his equally desperate and starving friends. Each chapter is a vignette, only a few pages long, chronicalling the erosion of the hero's hopes and their replacement with a desperate reality. The details of a down and out life is vivid, such as Akritis' explanations of how best to fool your stomach that it has been fed. This is writing from someone who has been there, and is painful and beautiful in its stark simplicity. Women, money and food all become mountainous issues pushing the young exiles closer to despair. Very powerful, but it is not all depressing, as the hero's faith in the human spirit occassionally pays off, and each victory feels sublime. This is not a purposefully downbeat book, just a retelling of real life at a certain time in a certain place. If you see this on the shelf you will probably ignore it (judging books by their covers, which I'm sure we all do a bit), but it is well worth a look if you get the chance.
Under the Sun by Hanne Marie Svendsen
Finally made it to Denmark. Quite how I managed to 'visit' 110 other countries before making it here is beyond me. I have had this book on my shelf for two years as well, and the time never seemed quite right to read it. Anyway, it was well worth the wait.
Under the Sun is a startling post-modern work. It follows the life of Margarethe Theide, who is born, grows up and lives in a small fishing village on the Danish coast. It follows her life, and those of the characters who inhabit the town. Her childhood is shaped by her mother ('the carrot fairy'), three elderly eccentric brothers who live together in a cottage and speak their own language, and her friend Lily Lund. As she grows up and ages her relationships with these, and others, bring into question her definitions of truth and reality. Meanwhile, the murky goings-on at a newly built naval base and Egon, the town's grey eminence, provide an uncomfortable undercurrent to Margarethe's life.
Under the Sun mixes dream narratives, fairy tale language and bouts of madness to create an unreal, hallucinatory feeling. All of these are presented as being as real as 'reality' (or perhaps as unreal as 'reality'). Other strong themes include the maleability of time, with events that are separated by years being discussed simultaneously, and the failure of our language to accomodate this dream-like reality. It is an ambitious, post-modern novel that, most of the time, succeeds in challenging the reader to inhabit this new world. It never loses its emotional power, despite addressing some weighty intellectual issues. This is probably my read of the year to date.
btw it is the second book I have read published by Norvik Press, who appear to publish translations of Scandinavian writers who are not well know in English. Both have been outstanding.
Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain
This is the subject of my reading for the March in Haiti thread, so there will be more detailed opinions on this, and many other Haitian books, there. I will post a little review here as usual though.
Masters of the Dew is a socialist realist novel written in 1944 by the prominent Haitian communist Jacques Roumain. It follows the story of Manuel, who is returning to his Haitian village after years in Cuba, to find it poor, starving and feuding. He tries to unite the village to build a canal so that it can farm prosperously and harmoniously once more, but finds old hatreds, religious beliefs and scheming landlords blocking his way.
I enjoyed Masters of the Dew, but it was unrelenting in its political preaching and this did detract from the book. Every character becomes a cipher to illustrate a point about marxist politics and Haitian society, to the point that aspects of characterisation and narrative sometimes become squeezed in its political framework. This is, of course, an issue with any book trying to take on much bigger issues than are simply suggested by the story, and there are many examples that get the balance more badly wrong than Masters of the Dew. It is a quick, easy and interesting read, and worth a look if you get the chance.
Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov
With thanks to LizT, my not-so-secret secret Santa.
In my review of my Danish read I described it as a 'startling post-modern work' and 'possibly my book of the year to date'. I may as well cut and paste it here, because both apply to Natural Novel.
Natural Novel is piece of meta-fiction, which chronicles the attempt of an editor (called Georgi Gospodinov) to make sense of a manuscript (written by a homeless man called Georgi Gospodinov). The manuscript is an attempt to write a 'natural novel', which is built up from a mosaic of stories about flies, plants, excrement and loneliness (among other things). The fly provides the inspiration for the structure, as the mosaic of the narrative parallels the mosaic built up by an insect's compound eye. All the while the narrator is trying to make sense of his wife's infidelity and the end of his marriage. The whole book becomes an elliptical story of Gospodinov's descent into loneliness. The tone is melancholy, the structure brilliantly realised and the writing beyond clever. Fans of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller will love this, as will anyone interested in a bit of mind-bending post-modern fiction.
I'm off back to Africa for a bit. Not the 6 month stay of last year, but a couple of West African reads (if my library can find them) and then a whole bunch of Arab writers from North Africa and Arabia.
Sorry about that. I assumed the secret Santa would remain secret, so didn't look for a name on the parcel (this is despite the fact that my recipient e-mailed to thank me a few days after Christmas). Otherwise I would have said thanks sooner! As for the Gospodinov, some people can't stand weirdly constructed post-modern novels, others enjoy the challenge. If you ever fall into the latter category, I would heartily recommend it.
Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster
'Reading the Ceiling' is the sory of Dele, a young girl who, on her 18th birthday, decides to lose her virginity. She has 4 men to choose from, and her choice has repercussions for the rest of her life. The book has 3 separate narratives, each of which starts on the night of her 18th birthday, involves her choosing a different partner, and then follows the rest of her life. These three possible lives are all very different, and written to illustrate the importance of how Dele views her sexuality based on her initial sexual partner.
Initially I was very taken with this book. The descriptions of Dele trying to take control of her sexuality and her views of sex and virginity - which are those of a child trying to be an adult - are very believable. However, the book lives and dies by the three parallel narratives, and they completely failed to work for me. The three life stories didn't seem to follow inevitably from Dele's initial choice, and it seemed to me that Forster could have written any story she wanted about Dele's subsequent lives. That meant that the book wasn't about the consequences of trying to take control of your sexuality when young, but simply a bunch of stories about the love life of a woman. In addition, the Deles of the three stories are so different to each other that I struggled to see them as the same woman.
btw one of Dele's lives is as a second wife to a muslim man. A possible read for the 'Muslim Woman' month in April?
I certainly wouldn't advise anyone not to read Reading the Ceiling. The writing was engaging and the stories interesting. My only reservation was that this was a concept driven book and the concept didn't really work (for me), but this is not an awful book by any means. I read it fairly quickly, and it was certainly something different.
The Pillar of Salt by Albert Memmi
Actually if Avaland is a pusher, then she is doing it wrong, because she gave me this one for free, and has yet to aggressively sell me more books at extortionate prices. Thanks again, Avaland, it was very kind of you.
I flat out loved this book. It is the thinly fictionalized autobiography of Memmi, in the guise of Alexandre Benillouche, a Jewish inhabitant of the poorer quarters of Tunis. It covers his rather confused development from child to young adult. As a child he must comes to terms with awareness of what it means to be Jewish (or indeed 'different'). Subsequently he must cope with other factors in his life that isolate him from his community: his intellectualism, his rejection of religion, his shyness with girls. The whole book is filled with Alexandre's struggles with identity and isolation. His instincts pull him both towards and away from the herd, and he never manages to fit in. Even in a labour camp, caught on the fringes of the holocaust in World War II, he is unable to assert his jewish identiy because he has spent so much time shedding it. It is a wonderful memoir of struggling to find identity while growing up, and finishes on a note that is both rebellious and melancholy in equal measure. The writing is dense, and Memmi doesn't give his life much of a narrative flow, so some may struggle with this book. However, I found his writing and observation of minutiae captivating, and found recognition and empathy for his plight. A fantastic, if sobering, read.
btw Avaland and LizT, I'm not just saying nice things because the books were presents (I'm far too rude under cover of internet anonymity for that), but you both really hit the jackpot.
I wouldn't say I loved it myself, but it was very good. I got horribly impatient with his somewhat narcissistic plight (I kept thinking of his mother working her hands to the bone back at home; and how little sympathy he seemed to have for her and the rest of his family). However, I do understand that as he becomes more educated he becomes more alienated from his roots. This is some of that in Djebar's and Mokeddem's writing also; both exile themselves abroad to begin to work out their identity crises. It allows them also to have a voice, where in Algeria they would not.
I have had similar thoughts about my own family. Nothing so dramatic as Alexandre, perhaps, but the idea of how much (or little) identity to get from my upbringing was definitely a familiar theme. That is at least part of the reason I enjoyed it so much, I think.
One other thought - the ending, which I won't give away - reminded me exactly of Yossarian's decision at the end of Catch-22. I can almost hear Henry saying 'Jump' to Alexandre in the last line. Anything that reminds me of Catch-22 is always going to endear a book to me.
1) He is no longer alive
2) It was published well over a decade before my birth.
Anubis: a desert novel by Ibrahim al-Koni
I don't know whether to describe this book as post-modern or pre-ancient. It is a modern retelling of an ancient Tuareg myth (the Tuareg are the aboriginal inhabitants of the deserts of southern Libya, and a group to which al-Koni belongs) about Anubi, a mythological figure from Tuareg folklore who identifies (more or less) with the Egyptian God Anubis. It is set entirely in Libya's southern desert and follows the nameless main character on his search for his father and, through this, his identity. During the book he is reincarnated a number of times, and assume animal forms as he scours the desert for hints of his identity. Eventually he becomes the spiritual leader of an oasis town, only to watch humanity destroy itself by its own pettiness in the desert wastes. The story parallels the myth of Anubi/Anubis, which I wasn't familiar with before reading.
This book simply oozes with the feel of the desert, which is as much a character as the main protagonist. The seas of sand and rock walls provide limits to man's ambitions, and humble his simplest attempts to be important. The descriptions of the desert are vivid, and come to be inseperable from the narrative. This part was exceptionally well done. However, if the pick-up/put-down test is a good one, then this book failed it miserably. I put it down often an struggled to pick it up. I think there were two reasons. Firstly, the author and/or translator have used such florid prose that I became bored by whole paragraphs. The slow pace and richness with which the desert was described was also applied to every other aspect of the book, and it didn't always make for interesting reading. The second reason is the the book is an allegory told through magical realism, and I have found in the past that if books have a lot of magical realism (i.e. weird events and unexplained allegorical sequences) and I didn't know the story or themes being illustrated, then the events just become a sequence of mysterious 'weird stuff happening'. This happened too often for my liking in this book, and unfortunately detracted from what threatened, in places, to be a marvellous read.
Saddam City by Mahmoud Saeed
Saddam City is a slim but powerful work. Set in 1979, it follows the bewildering journey of Mustafa Ali Noman through Iraq's Saddam-era jail system. Noman (the name is intentionally informative) is arrested but not told why before being transported from city to city and jail to jail. In each jail he meets a variety of prisoners, guards and torturers, and through their stories, attempts to draw a picture of the brutality of life in Iraq under Saddam.
I liked Saddam City a lot. The author spent time in jails on six occassions, and has clearly drawn on his experience. He captures the absurdity of the prisoner's stories very well, documenting 'crimes' such as having a relative abroad or commenting on the leader in public. The narration is straightforward, without embellishment, lending it a similar tone to One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, which made it both mundane and powerful. Despite the subject matter (torture, execution, etc.) it is the sheer absurdity of the men's situation that shines through, giving the book an almost surreal edge, in spite of the down to earth telling of the story. All in all, this was disturbing yet readable look at the security apparatus of Saddam's Iraq seen from the inside.
Wolves of the crescent Moon by Youssuf al-Mohaimeed
Adama: a novel by Turki al-Hamad
Unusually I had two books to read from my latest new country (Saudi Arabia), so I read them back-to-back. I have reviewed both below. Thanks to avaland for Wolves of the Crescent Moon.
Wolves of the Crescent Moon
This was a 'nearly' book for me. Nearly very good, nearly very clever, nearly very well written. Nearly, but not quite. The book is an examination of modern Saudi life and what its author believes has gone wrong with the country. The story begins in Riyadh bus station, as a man, homeless and poor, is trying to by a bus ticket out of the capital. He doesn't know where he wants to go, but knows that he is so tired of life in the capital that he must get out. As he wanders the bus station, considering his options, a stranger hands him a folder detailing the life of a young orphan boy. The story in the folder leads to the unfolding of three narratives: those of a bedouin theif, a eunuch slave and the orphan boy. Each story illustrates failings in Saudi society.
The blurb compares Youssuf al-Mohaimeed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I can promise you that the comparison is absolute rubbish. al-Mohaimeed's book does poke at attempting some magical realism (who is the stranger that just hands him the document?) it is half-hearted, and although the writing is fairly jaunty in places, it falls well short of any comic pretensions. The structure is interesting, with the three narratives beginning to weave round each other until they start to touch, but this was done a bit heavy-handedly, and all comes out in a big self-conscious rush at the end. I found the writing to be generally engaging, and read the book quickly. I did enjoy the read, but there was a nagging dissatisfaction at the end that the thing it had been attemptig to do (i.e. critiquing modern Saudi life) was never really done coherently. Consequently, the book became a collection of three engaging but unspectacular stories.
Adama is set int he late 1960s, a time of upheaval in the Arab world. The 'Setback' - the loss of the 1967 war to Israel - had occurred, Nasser - the father of Arab nationalism - was being forced into compromise, and the Middle East was undergoing transition as many countries (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt) were replacing their monarchies with leftist Arab nationalist governments. Saudi Arabia was cracking down on dissidents, fearful of the same thing happening to it. Against this background, Hisham, a young Saudi boy, is just entering into political awareness. His transition to young adulthood is accompanied by growing political awareness and Marxist leanings. His politics do not go unnoticed, and he becomes involved with a dissident movement for left-wing democracy. He must therefore balance the usual pains of growing up (exams, girls) with a second, secret existence of clandestine meetings and political disillusionment.
I enjoyed Adama, and learnt a lot about the 1960s politics of the middle east from it. There is a fair bit of discussion of Nasser and Baathist movements which, with the help of the interent, made a lot of things make sense that I hadn't previously understood about that region's recent history. However, the book's strength is also its weakness. Is it a didactic political book with a coming of age story thrown in, or is it a coming of age story with a political aspect? Poltical meetings and discussion are dispersed with half-hearted love stories and sticky adolescent fumblings, and the whole lot sits together very uneasily. I think the tone is too intellectual to be a realistic coming of age story of a teenage boy, and so the narrative part (i.e. what most people look to in a novel) becomes messy and, bizzarely, irrelevant. In addition the writing and/or translation is clunky in the extreme, with dialogue in particular being far too didactic to be realistic. Adama is the first of a trilogy, and there was just about enough there to tempt me back for more, but not in a hurry. Interesting, thought provoking, but ultimately, not a great piece of writing.
As you can see, both good but not great in my opinion. Both are worth a read though, if anyone is interested in 'visiting' Saudi Arabia. I have added Adama to my list, because it was probably my favourite out of the two.
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Beah's memoir of his time as a boy soldier fighting in Sierra Leone is as harrowing and sobering as you may expect. The transition from a happy child to a willing, bloodthirsty and drug addicted fighter is shocking, not least because it happened prior to Beah's thirteenth birthday.
Although Beah isn't, in my opinion, a particularly skillful writer, the book is full of deft touches that remind the reader of his ordinariness, both before and after his ordeal, and the descriptions of his boyish behaviour are well done enough to bring home the point that 'boy soldiers' were just ordinary, unremarkable young men forced into committing terrible acts. If that was the aim of this book, then it succeeds admirably.
My reading globally challenge includes fiction and non-fiction, although is heavily biased towards the former. In general, I am not reading academic non-fiction as part of it, but I have quite a few memoirs written in novel form.
I think memoirs do tend to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction anyway. If Beah had dramatised events or even written a single scene from a composite of real events, I wouldn't be surprised. My Tunisia read (post 28) is based on real events that happened to the author, but the author changed his name. Does this automatically make it fiction? My own answer is that it doesn't really matter, so long as I get to read another book.
Full Circle by Frederick Yamusangie
'Full Circle' is a novel about culture shock and the search for identity. Dada is a young boy, the son of an ambassador, brought up in the bustling and relatively cosmopolitan Kinshasa. To educate Dada about his own country, his father sends him to live in Bulungu, a large town far inland, where the inhabitants are more insular and live more traditional Congolese lives (and have more traditional beliefs). As Dada begins to be involved in own life, he realises his status as an outsider, and begins to understand the differences between Kinshasa and Bulungu. His attempts to fit in precipitate disaster in the town, and reinforce his feelings of isolation from its inhabitants.
There are several reasons not to like this book. It is an 80 page novella, but throws in as much incident as War and Peace (well, almost), leading to horrible pacing and rushed storytelling. Yamusangie isn't an accomplished writer, and his failings lead to difficult passages that fail to flow. However, there was something fairly likeable about the book as a whole, and the story, despite having far too much going on, was, at heart, a well constructed parable about cultural identity. I would be surprised if this was the best thing I could find by a Congolese writer, and would hesitate to recommend it, but it probably wasn't the worst place to start either.
I just discovered your thread. I love this idea. Are you looking for recommendations of other (better???) books from a country you have already visited? I do have some, but am not sure if that is something you are interested in.
Always happy to hear recommendations. The aim of this challenge is not just to tick off countries, but to discover new books and writers, regardless of where they are from. I can't promise to get round to reading anything in a hurry, but let me know if you have read anything you think I might like. There are also region specific threads within this group. If you make recommendations on those then I am likely to see them, and so will other people who perhaps don't read my thread.
Getting Rid of It by Lindsey Collen
Getting Rid of It follows the stories of Sadna, Jumila and Goldilox during a single day. The three friends are trying to dispose of Jumila's stillborn foetus, which she has in a plastic bag. They are afraid to go to the authorities, fearing that they will be accused of illegaly aborting the pregnancy, and instead look for an appropriate way to get rid of the foetus. The three are 'invisibles': poor, menially employed and, worse than both of these in the patriachal Mauritian society, women. Their travels with the foetus provides a backdrop for a harsh examination of the role of poor women in Mauritius, documenting a system that condones abuse and fails to provide any official support.
I liked the subject matter enough to get into this book, but it was in spite of Collen's writing, rather than because of it. She writes prose as if she would rather be writing poetry, with short, staccato sentences full of nice words and aliteration but devoid of meaning. In places it is almost like a sort of stream of conciousness word association game. All very pretty, but not conducive to reading. Its effect on me was equivalent to an optical illusion, where jarring lines and funny perspective creates a picture that you just can't seem to focus on. I found myself trying desperately to follow the narrative through the jungle of words. I usually enjoy ornate prose, but this was ornate for its own sake, and really got in the way of the book.
I am going to take a break from the 'new' nations to tackle other bits of my TBR pile. I may slip in another arab country, as I am waiting for a book I have ordered. I will read another couple during the 'Yugoslav' group read. After that, I have a big pile of Southern and South-East Asian books, and I will be heading there in a month or two.
I have had my eye on the Agualusa for a while. It looked intriguing, but I hadn't heard any opinions on it until now. I may indulge myself next time I pass through Africa.
Thanks. I was looking forward to updating my map this time because I had a few very big countries to add in (Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and DR Congo). It is starting to look mostly red with a few white gaps in now. There are only three big white clumps left (central Africa, central Asia and SE Asia). I will be taking on SE Asia this year.
I think the biggest difference between now and 2 years ago is Africa. Before I started this I had maybe read 15 books by 10 writers. Now it is more like 60 books from 35 countries and 45 writers (will check later and edit in the exact number). The main effect of my 'world tour' has been to normalise reading stuff from different countries. When I started, I felt that reading from (e.g.) Angola was somehow weird, exotic and exciting. Last week, I read my second book from Malawi, and hardly batted an eyelid, seeing it entirely as a piece of literature, rather than specifically Malawian or African literature. Its taken a bit of work to get here, but my mindset has completely changed, for the better, I think. I still enjoy discovering new literature (and, if I'm honest, the list ticking and colouring the map in), so I'm not planning to stop anytime soon.
It is, however, starting to get difficult. I have not, by any means, run out of books, but they are beginning to be more expensive and/or difficult to find. I said a year or so ago that I thought 150 countries was possible. I would now update that to 160ish, but this will be the last year that I will manage to 'visit' 25+ in a single year, I think. After that the detective work will really have to begin.
Would you mind describing a bit your childhood reads? In regard to what you said (in avaland's thread, I think) about finally losing the sense of "exoticness" of "foreign" literature, it struck me that I can't remember when I wasn't reading "globally". Some of this was helped by the fact that we lived abroad, so that my reading was "international" from the start, but even when I consider my parental languages alone, there were so many translated works for children in both of them.
I'd be curious to know how this compares. (If this is not a good thread for that, please redirect me.)
I think someone commented elsewhere that there are some nations (the UK definitely being one) from which it is often true that readers never read anything from other countries. That is probably true of most of my friends who are casual but not avid readers. The school syllabuses (syllabi?) are caricatured as being exclusively filled with DWEM (dead white european male) writers. I think even that is too broad for the UK. From what I remember we read Shakespeare, Orwell, Henry Fielding, Dickens. No translated literature and none even, from what I remember, by US writers. This may have changed in the meantime.
I am not the best person to ask about children's literature. I tended to read non-fiction from a very young age (colour picture encyclopedias, etc.) and have read very little children's lit (I've never read Roald Dahl, for instance). My non-school literature reading tended towards sci-fi and fantasy, all of which was by UK or US based-writers. I was in my early twenties before I branched out. Even then I tried reading that strange beast known as 'foreign' literature only really out of pretensiousness. It was considered high-brow and arty to have done so. I read, and luckily fell in love with, Dostoevsky. From there I read Russian stuff and then gradually started feeling my way round the 'European classics'. It is, to be honest, only in the last couple of years that I have read contemporary (i.e. 'non-classic') non-English language literature.
I think (as you may have guessed) that we (the Brits) are very insular in our reading habits. Actually, I think we may be even more insular in our reading than we are in most other aspects of our lifestyles. I was, for instance, much better travelled personally than I was 'literarily' until the last 3 or 4 years. The cultural snobbery about our language ('more malleable than any other') and our literature ('richer than any other') is stifling, and the hero worship we heap on Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and Hardy (to name a few) is absurd. A lot of British people will tell you quite openly that we have an outstanding literary tradition and therefore no need for 'foreign' literature. More often than not, though, they will believe that while British literature has thousands of classics, 'French' or 'German' literature can be boiled down to a handful of example. As for Africa, forget about it.
I am, of course, stereotyping, but its a stereotype I see quite a lot. I realise that my own personal epiphanies on my journey into world literature may not be especially startling, but I was starting from a bad place.
btw I would be interested in your opinion on the Gospodinov when you get around to it. My short description on this thread doesn't even begin to do it justice.
I think I'll make a thread for children's literature and post more detail there, in hopes that others will join.
Gospodinov--it will be a bit before I get to him, but not too long. I'll certainly let you know what I thought.
'The Red Cockerel' by Miodrag Bulatovic
This book is the subject of one of my reads for May's 'Former Yugoslavia' group read. I will post a short review below, and reserve longer thoughts for that thread.
Bulatovic's book is set in a peasant village in rural Montenegro during a wedding. The wedding is observed by two tramps and two drunk gravediggers from a nearby field. The wedding guests are drunk and violent, and when an old man passes with his red cockerel in his arms it is the cue for the violence to explode. The old man and a local woman are set upon, the former being beaten and the latter raped. All the while the two characters accept the blame for their own abuse, accepting the brutish nature of their lives and the inevitability of pain in the physical world.
I was initially uneasy about the grotesque portrayal of the peasants, feeling that Bulatovic appeared to hold them in contempt. His darkly comic style did not lend itself to sensitive treatment of subjects such as rape and necrophilia, and left a nasty taste in the mouth. However, the book is not simply there for shock value. In a somewhat bizarre metaphor, the hearts (or possibly souls) of the characters are all portrayed as red cockerels, striving to fly to heaven. Access to the character's inner monologues also made them a little more sympathetic, making the book palatable, just about. I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it all (as you can probably tell). Entertainingly written, weirdly constructed and more than a little disturbing (not always in a good way).
Conversation with Spinoza by Goce Smilevski
My 'visit' to Macedonia has taken me to 17th Century Holland. Thats just the way it works on my thread. I find its best not to worry about it too much. Once again my thoughts are recorded in more detail on the group read thread for the former Yugoslav countries, but I have posted a review below.
Smilevski's small book follows the life of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was one of the most important thinkers in history, tremendously influencing moral, religious, metaphysical and personal philosophy, and courting controversy during his lifetime. In the book, Smilevski attempts to show the consequences of Spinoza's thoughts on his life as an ordinary flesh and blood human being. The fictionalized story shows Spinoza trying to think away his appetites and lusts as he tries to eschew the transient, sensual things in his search for infinity. It is an examination of how philosophy and intellectualism can lead to loneliness and solitude.
Although the book deals with complex ideas, they are well explained, and Smilevski ultimately is writing about a man's loneliness, which is very accessible. I knew some of Spinoza's ideas before I started, and I think that this did help me get more out of the book, but a determined layperson could probably enjoy this book too. It is not so much Spinoza's ideas that matter, but the way that dogmatic application of ideas can interfere with happiness. I thought that this book was wonderfully different and brilliantly realised. Its abit of a workout for your brain, but one that has rewards in the end.
The Guru of Love by Samrat Upadhyay
I've been away for a while, mostly reading Solzhenitsyn, who, for those that haven't heard, died yesterday. I had other things planned (pile of Thomas Mann and Gunter Grass being foremost), but I got the itch to start my south-east asia pile. It is, unfortunately, smaller than it should be, due to ordered books failing to turn up, but I still have a few to get through.
My Nepalese read was by an author who has settled in the US, but spent his childhood (until the age of 21) in Nepal, and the book is set in Kathmandu. The Guru of Love is the story of a middle-aged teacher (Ramchandra) who falls in love (or lust) with a student. His wife initially leaves him, but decides instead to live with her husband and his lover. The book attempts to look at Ramchandra's disintegrating certainties about life, and his battles with conservatism and propriety in the face of doing what he knows is right. It is set in a Kathmandu at the boiling point of political unrest.
If it sounds like my descriptions of the plot are a little half-heared, it may be because I couldn't work up the enthusiasm for a book that was pretty awful from start to finish. The characters are terribly fleshed out, unsympathetic or unbelievable, and the menage a trois so comfortable as to be trivial. The family picture is completed by a smug brother-in-law and parents-in-law bordering on evil, all of which felt hackneyed. The attempts to include Nepalese politics and social unrest felt ham-fisted, and it seemed to me that Upadhyay was trying to give depth to a boring (to me, anyway) sexual situation by throwing in a few whiffs of local colour and hoping to pass the whole thing off as being somehow interesting because of its exoticism. In fairness, it was a quick read (2 sittings) and gave occasional glimpses of something deeper, such as in Ramchandra's relationship with his maturing daughter, but ultimately, not a recommendation from me.
The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden
The Circle of karma follows the life of Tsomo, a poor, illiterate Bhutanese woman. Born in a small village, she quickly learns that her life will be hard, not least because she is a woman. The men in her life constantly take advantage or neglect her, such as her father's refusal to teach her to read, or her husband's abandonment of her for her sister. Tsomo finds the strength to leave her village and embark on an itinerant life of hard labour, poverty, failed relationships and rootlessness, all the while clinging on to her religion as a source of solace.
I found The Circle of Karma to be an excellent read. It is an explicitly Buddhist novel, but one that concentrates on the everyday struggle to apply religion to Tsomo's life. The writing is rich with Buddhist religious imagery, but the story stays firmly grounded in Tsomo's mundane reality. There was also interesting ideas that I hadn't seen addressed before, such as how belief in reincarnation can be used to reinforce sexism. Although not particularly long, the book had an epic quality, in the sense that I had spent the entire of Tsomo's life with her, and really felt the processes of time passing and her ageing, and was genuinely emotionally invested in Tsomo's fate. It was, in short, an excellent novel about one woman's hard life, set against a vivid cultural background, and a book that I think many people in this group would enjoy.
By the way, I noticed that you have read Under the Sun by Hanne Marie Svendsen. I recently read this book and loved it too, but then Scandinavian countries have never seemed "foreign" to me, probably because certain sections of the United States were so heavily populated by immigrants from Scandinavia particularly from Sweden and Norway. Having grown up listening to Scandinavian composers, Scandinavian folk music and pop music, and admiring the art and architecture, I feel as if I've come home. I feel the same way when I visit Sweden in real time. If I could live anywhere I wished, I would chose Sweden, the south of Sweden in particular. My wedding was held in Sweden in the church of which my husband's great grandfather was the pastor.
I loved Under the Sun. It is one of my reads of the year so far. I have read very little literature from Scandanavia. I have a mental list of a few places I would like to get to know the literature from, and Scandanavia is high on it. I haven't even touched Knut Hamsen yet. I have also spent quite a lot of time there (though a decade ago now). I worked in Uppsala for several months. Perhaps we passed each other on the street in Stockholm one day!
Lajja by Taslima Nasrin
Nasrin is a contraversial figure, being accused by some of Islamophobia, while being held up by others as a heroine in the battle against communalism.She lives in exile in India and many of her books (though not Lajja) are banned in Bangladesh.
Lajja (subtitled as 'Shame') is the story of ten days in the lives of a Hindu family caught up in the communal violence that swept the Indian sub-continent following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, a Muslim mosque, by Hindu fundamentalists in India. In the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh there were reprisal attacks against Hindus, which forced many to flee to India. The family of Sudhamoy and his son Suranjan are secular atheists, refusing to see themselves as being 'Hindu', and refusing to leave their home country. In the days following the destruction of the Bari Masjid, their lives become precarious, as roaming gangs of Muslims attack Hindu homes and businesses, and attack Hindu women. The events force the family to re-evaluate their identities, and question whether they should indeed take sides in the communal debate.
Unfortunately, despite the undoubtedly fascinating subject, this was a really tough book to like. The prose was wooden and the characters a little thin. The writing is overly didactic, which lead to horribly unrealistic dialogue. Characters frequently produced long lists of communal atrocities, listing names, dates and places. Nobody talks like that. In addition, Nasrin occassionally abandoned her prose form altogether, and actually listed atrocities using bullet points. Fine in a text book, a pain in a novel. The narrative, such as it was, largely involved Suranjan wandering around the riot torn streets having political discussions with the people he met. It was all very laboured and made the suspension of disbelief very difficult.It was a shame, because the subject matter and its effects deserve a good examination in literature, but, for me at least, this wasn't it.
The Bondmaid by Catherine Liim
Lim was born in Malaysia but spent her adult life in Singapore, and is considered part of the literary canon of that nation. The Bondmaid tells the story of Han, a child sold into slavery as a bondmaid in a wealthy house. Her stubborn nature bring her to the attentions of Wu, the young master, that cements a life long bond between the two that social conventions and intramural politics struggle to break.
Although the plot may sound a little hackneyed, the writing is initially beautiful, retelling Han's life with touching fondness but without slipping into mawkishness. The childs pain and confusion at being sold by her mother feels very real, and her antipathy to her new owners walks the fine line between childish, heartbreaking and comedic. The developing bond between Han and Wu is also deftly described, not least because Wu hardly features as a character at all, other than as a distant and lofty figure. This adds power to the hopelessness of the relationship between bondmaid and master trying to be friends. Lim pushes the narrative forward in short, staccato chapters filled with incident, interspersed with longer, more wistful, chapters that give a wonderful depth to the writing. Unfortunately, I felt that the book lost its style towards the end, with Lim replacing her subtle, touching narrative with something much more melodramatic, which was a little disappointing, but ultimately this was a well written and interesting book.
Mad Dogs & Co by Chart Korbjitti
This was one of the worst translations I have ever read. Sometimes it is hard to judge the quality of a translation with no knowledge of the book in the original language. Other times, like this, the translation is so far from being in passable English that it doesn't really matter what the original was trying to achieve. The prose is stilted, awkward and, in many, many places, just plain wrong. The poor quality of the dialogue meant that the main characters (all young men living on and around Thailand's beaches) were indistinguishable without their names or reported actions being connected to all of their utterances. In a book that purports to tell the backstories of these 'drop-outs' from Thai society, the need to engage with them as people was paramount, but they just seemed more and more unreal every time they opened their fictional mouths. For what its worth, I'm not sure I would have got much out of this book anyway. The stories of the young men lost in a haze of weed and booze pretends to be an examination of difficult lives, but loses itself in the arch-coolness of the lifestyle. The picture of Korbjitti on the back cover shows him toasting his reader with a whisky, clearly showing that he is actually pretty impressed with his young drunks. Consequently, there is no dark underbelly to his characters, try as he might to give them one through a variety of admittedly troubled backstories, and no ambiguity to his novel where even the most ardent hedonist should be able to see some. Who knows, in real English this may be a masterpiece, but I will be surprised if anyone is rushing to produce another translation anytime soon.
I have 3 new countries scattered around the globe, which I hope to get to before Christmas (actually 3 and a half - you'll see what I mean), and then I have no clue what is next. Its kind of exciting. I have an idea of tackling central Asia next year, but am not sure how easy some of the things I would like to read will be to get hold of.
I have just noticed that 128 is exactly two thirds of 192, so at least my Thai read wasn't completely unrewarding.
Unfortunately it has been a while since I was blown away by a book (Circle of karma has come closest). This year I wanted to get to know a few authors much better. My global reading does mean I skip around a lot, and I wanted to mix it with some more involved reading of individual writers. I had piles of Hesse, Solzhenitsyn, Grass and Mann (the mostly German nature of the list is entirely coincidental). I read the Hesse early in the year and loved it. Over Spring and Summer I tackled Solzhenitsyn, and ultimately came to the realisation that I wasn't a fan of his writing or his perspective. It was rewarding to read one author this heavily (11 books, I think), but I just picked the wrong one, for me, at least. After that I started my SE Asian reads, which were only really broken up by reading several of the Icelandic sagas. I enjoyed these a lot, and would like to read more, but none of them really touched me in the way a good book can. The Grass and Mann will have to wait a while, but I am really looking forward to them (especially the Grass, who is already among my favourites). I have been accumulating a lot of what could broadly be described as 20th century European classics (Grass, Mann, Yasher Kemal, Danilo Kis, Joseph Skvorecky, Hjalmar Soderberg, among others), and am looking forward to reading these in the coming months, but 2008 has been a distinctly average reading year to date. I've still found some great stuff though, so am not complaining too much.
QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed
This was another book written in less than perfect English. Al Saeed is Bahraini, but writes in English because he feels that Bahraini literature does not get exposed to the rest of the world enough (he is right, in the sense that I could find very little else to read for my challenge). However, rather than ruin the book, the slightly strange language actually succeeds in adding to the surrealistic feel of the novel. Set in the picture perfect (presumably American) town of Okay, it follows a few days in the lives of two rootless men. Patrick Roymint and Guy Kelton are lost souls in Okay's clockwork-like day-to-day running. The town is sort of Midwich-like, kept neat and tidy, and bland, by its citizens' acquiescent apathy. Patrick and Guy are troubled by disturbing glimpses into Okay's seedy underbelly, and find they are losing touch with its veneer. They find themselves sliding headlong into the darkness the townspeople are usually unable to see, and come face-to-face with its grey eminences, and their own private demons.
The English is, in places, just plain wrong, but in a funny way many of the odd turns of phrase actually enhance the book's odd vision of suburban life. It is a little like watching a Terry Gilliam movie, where everything is just turned 5 degrees away from normal. Even the character names (Aaron Minister, Randy Challenger) add to the weirdness. It is possible that some of this subtelty is intended by Al Saeed, but he does get enough wrong to indicate that not everything is intended. The story itself is suffused with Sufism, particularly regarding the roles of destiny and fate in shaping people's lives. Initially, there is a strange beauty to Patrick and Guy's interactions, which occur with an improbability that you (the reader) just have to accept. Once you have put your brain in the right place, the surrealism just seems to work.
However, the book fails on a much more mundane level. Once the plot starts unfolding it just can't stop. Where the story had initially been subtle and mystical, by the end unlikely revelation follows pointless action. There are a couple of bloodbaths and a revelation that I couldn't have cared less about. I wish Al Saeed had the bravery to follow his more subtle course because, although there was undoubtedly much to dislike, he was building something interesting for a while. Unfortunately it goes down as another book I can't bring myself to recommend.
Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza
This was much more like it. Icaza's book is powerful and heartwrenching . It tells the story of a village ('Huasipungo') of native Andean Indians who are put to work on a road building project by the despotic local landowner. The Indians are little more than slave labour, persuaded to work by incentives of alcohol, threats of punishment and cynical manipulation by the church. The abuses of the Indians and their devastating effects on the Huasipungo are beautifully told, and the inevitable conclusion is painful to read. The book is rich with the imagery and language of the Andes, and treads the fine line between personal stories and larger political issues deftly. Definitely a thumbs up from me.
As always, your reviews are most interesting.
The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey
This was another book I enjoyed a lot. It is the story of three sisters brought up in colonial grandeur on Dominica between the wars. Their father has returned from World War I a broken man, suffering severe shell shock and needing drugs to get through the day. The sisters leave the island to pursue their own lives, but return on the eve of World War II. Each brings with them more than a little of the worlds their new lives inherit (America, England and the jet-set), including their politics and religious views, which don't always sit comfortably on the sleepy Caribbean isle. The return of the three women brings new challenges to the family, and to the island, as well as reopening some old wounds.
I am not normally quite so positive about books with these themes, but Allfrey is a very good writer. She effortlessly imbues her story with the melancholy of passing time, and the feel of decaying colonialism suffuses the whole book. Although the story is largely one of family history, there are deeper political themes such as the end of empire, the spread of socialism and the changing role of women in society. Allfrey weaves all these strands together to form one seamless whole. The only gripe I had was a small sense of anti-climax concerning the resolution of one of the main story arcs, and a bit of a rushed feeling towards the end as a whole, but Allfrey's book is not really about narrative so much as putting you in the time and place she was writing for. It is a real shame that this was her only novel (though she does have a short story collection), because I would be happy to read more.
I currently have no new nations on the list of 192 waiting. I do have books from a couple of non-internationally recognized states, which I will add on the list as extras when I get to them. I've got a lot of stuff from nations I haven't read a lot from (Iran, Angola, Mexico, Albania) which I hope to get to in the coming weeks.
>79 cocoafiend: Africa may have been the biggest eye-opener of my tour. I wish I had written down what I expected to find when I started. I have some vague memory of aiming for 100 countries in total, and that finding writers from most African countries would be difficult. Now I believe that I will comfortably be able to make 160 nations, and that only 3 or 4 African nations will be impossible.
In general, though, it is starting to get tough. I no longer find stuff in bookshops, and need to order things via the internet. Added to that is the fact that many of my current targets are geting a bit pricey, and it feels a bit like I'm coming to the end of my journey. Next year I will be happy to add 10 new destinations to my list (I have 3 in the house at the moment, so that is a good start). Actually, maybe 11 would be a good traget, as that would leave 50 countries remaining. I'm keeping a firm eye on all the others doing their world travels in the hope that someone else can unearth a few gems for me.
Actually, now that you have asked, wandering_star, I may start to list the countries I have absolutely failed to find anything from, to see if anyone in the group can help me out. I'll have a think about that.
btw Changed my map back to visited countries in red (rather than the ones I have left to visit). Serbia doesn't work at the moment, so has remained white. This shouldn't matter, but really, really annoys me for some reason.
I have found a few names of interest. Unfortunately I don't have access to my lists at the moment, due to the house being covered in tarpaulin and dust. A couple of names I remember are Russel Soaba and Vincent Eri, but there were others. I will post back in a couple of days, when I can get to my stuff.
I should add that I haven't read either of these. Both are really expensive in the UK, but there are some cheapish Soabas in Australia.
Nora Vagi Brash, Vincent Eri, John Kasaipwalova, Russell Soaba, Steven Edward Winduo
I can't honestly say I know much about them yet, as I haven't looked hard at Papua New Guinea so far. I know that Eri claimed to be the earliest native Papuan to write a novel (called 'The Crocodile'). I could also add the name of Epeli Hau'Ofa. He is actually my Tongan read, but was born in PNG to Tongan parents, and had a sort of pan-Pacific upbringing before settling in Tonga, but he did spend a considerable part of his childhood in PNG, I think. He writes slightly scatological and absurd comic stories. I can't say I loved his stuff, but it did occasionally have some satirical bite.
eta I found two anthologies of Argentinean women authors (in English). That should serve my purposes:-)
This book centers around two women, Dolores and Irene, activists during the Dirty War in South America (1976-1983). Their conversations and interior monologues disclose the terror and untold suffering they – and thousands of others – endured during that time. One also gets a sense of the extensive participation in demonstrations throughout the country, and the subsequent arrests, senseless beatings, torture, and death that followed.
Traba was a prolific writer and I found a useful entry on her in a book entitled Latin-American Women Writers by Myriam Yvonne Jehenson. You can read the entry online here from p41-44.
>90 avaland: That would be great. I hadn't come across Aira and he sounds like somebody I would really enjoy. I would be happy to have a group read for Argentina next year. I am going to have my own personal themed read there next year but, as always, will only scratch the surface, so getting everyone involved would be really good.
>91 akeela: Thanks for that. I will check out the Traba. I'm not going to start my Argentina read for a month or two, and it is likely to be ongoing for the whole of next year, so I have plenty of time to find stuff.
The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules by Fazil Iskander
OK, so it had to happen. My challenge was aimed at taking in the 192 member states of the UN, but I have suffered the beginning of severe mission creep. There are many places that do not fall neatly into the categorisation of UN member states, places that are not internationally recognised as independent, but that differ significantly in terms of geography, ethnicity, etc.. I always knew I would one day want to read their authors as well, so I have started a sub-category of my current challenge. My target are still the 192 UN member states, but I have added 'other' places to the end of my big list to include these places, and started numbering them from 1 again. My first (and only, for a while, anyway) is Abkhazia.
Abkhazia is a breakaway republic within Georgia. A former state of the USSR, it fought, supported by Russia, for independence following Georgia's declaration of independence from Russia/USSR. The tensions in the region are still high, as evidenced by the war in South Ossetia, which involved Abkhazia, last Summer.
Iskander's book is a memoir, arranged as a series of short stories, covering the author's youth in Soviet Abkhazia. Officially sanctioned by, and published in, Moscow, it is not overtly political in nature, but instead is a relatively gentile collection chronicling the author's Abkhaz upbringing. The stories are fairly short (10-20 pages, mostly), and range from relatively mundane observations of Iskander's friends and family, to descriptions of the wider society around him. Iskander sets great store in describing himself as a humourist, and all of his writing has an absurd touch that treads a line between silly and poignant.
Initially, I wondered why I was reading this. Iskander has no stated ideal in his work, and his fame within Abkhazia (apparently considerable) perhaps justifies an interest in his life. In addition, his stories, though humourous in intent, are not actually told (or translated) humourously enough to make them genuinely funny. After 3 or 4 pieces I was starting to feel bored. However, the charm of the pieces and the subtlety with which he made quite hard-hitting points in such a gentile way eventually got through to me, and by the end I was completely caught up. There was still something a bit too light and ephemeral about the tone for me to really fall in love with it, but it will definitely go down as a very pleasant, if slightly forgettable, read.
Snares Without End by Olympe Bhely-Quenum
This was a slightly oddly constructed book, split into halves that were almost unrecognisable from each other. In the first part the narrator recounts a meeting with Ahouna, a once proud man who has been broken by the events of his life. Ahouna tells the narrator his story, which involves struggling to make a living against the hardships of nature (locusts, floods, disease, etc.). Ahouna and his family overcome these obstacles, only to be undone by a faithless woman, who succeeds where nature failed, and destroys his life. It culminates in Ahouna committing a shocking act. This part is therefore told as a first person narrative using Ahouna's voice. The second part involved the narrator observing the aftermath of Ahouna's act, talking largely in the third person about what he is witnessing. In this part, the snares that have entangled Ahouna close in to stifle him, and we are witness to the ramifications of his crime.
Initially, I thought Bhely-Quenum (BQ) was a poor writer, because the narrative pace was jerky and clumsy. However, once Ahouna had finished telling his story the writing improved dramatically, leading me to assume that BQ was deliberately using an awkward style to reflect the fact that Ahouna's backstory was orally told in the book. As a narrative device it was a little disorientating, and I wondered if it was a deliberate mirroring of Joseph Conrad using the same thing in Heart of Darkness, which Snares Without End could conceivably have been a response to. The second half was much, much better, and a scene in which Ahouna is captured, and a thief and a priest abused, was full of fantastically grotesque imagery. It more than saved a book I was starting to feel negative about, and BQ started to really interest me as a writer.
I'm not sure I can rush to recommend Snares Without End, if only because similar themes have perhaps been addressed more expertly elsewhere (Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye spring immediately to mind), but I enjoyed this book. One to pick up if you come across it, rather than rushing to add to you wishlists, but worth a look all the same.
Riding the Whirlwind by Bereket Habte Selassie
Bereket's book is set in the early seventies, during the fall of the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. The events set in motion during this period eventually lead to Eritrean independence. Bereket was an Eritrean nationalist, politician and academic, who played a significant role in Eritrea's break from Ethiopia.
The story follows Desta, a senior politician in Haile Selassie's government, who is also plotting with left wing republican rebels to overthrow Selassie's despotic regime. The narrative intertwines Desta's personal, political and secret lives, building up a picture of the last days of the Ethiopian empire and the forces that conspired to overthrow it.
I was impressed with Bereket's book. It is difficult to tell histories in narrative form while balancing the need to keep characters fleshed out and believable. Bereket definitely succeeds. The writing is a little dry, and occassionally becomes overly didactic, such as during an argument between students about left wing politics, but the author stays aware of the need to portray the foibles and quirks of his characters, and the effects they can have on the decisions they make. The only character that didn't work for me was Desta himself. He was portrayed as being largely flawless, except a few sexual misdemeanours which result from his overwhelming sexual magnetism. He was, in short, a bit much. In general though, I would recommend this book. The prose won't win any awards for its fluidity, but I have read many books that aim to tell larger histories through personal stories, and many struggle to find a balance between the two. Bereket's didn't and, as such, was an enjoyable and informative read.
I'm curious about your 10-19 books read from New Zealand. Are they in your list?
There is a link at the bottom of the map. You need to register to make a map, but it is free. There are also maps for the USA, Brazil and, um, some other places that I have forgotten. There are a few others out there on the web. When I have some time I am going to try them and see which is prettier, and more visible. I may also mess around with my scale, to get something more meaningful.
For reasons that are mostly far too boring to go into, my personal list differs slightly from my library on librarything. One reason, is that when I read an anthology, I split it into individual works in my personal list, but it appears as one book on LT. It is something of an arbitrary decision to distinguish between (e.g.) a short story collection counted as one book, and a collection of novellas counted as two or three. In the case of New Zealand, I have read 4 books by Patricia Grace, 1 by Alan Duff, and 5 by Katherine Mansfield. On LT, however, the Mansfields appears as one, because I read them in a single anthology, called the Complete Works (or something similar). The numbers on my map are taken from my personal list, not my LT tag frequencies. Anyway, I tag all my books by author nationality, so if you go to my tags and click on New Zealand, you have everything that I have read.
Well, you did ask.
Incidentally, and for the nth time, I would like to recommend Patricia Grace to anyone and everyone in this group. She is not well known outside NZ, but is, in my opinion, an incredible writer.
I know Patricia Grace is meant to be great, but I never quite get round to reading her. Or anything else local. Now I'm going to find the book of hers I have here somewhere... yep, here it is: Waiariki. At 89 pages, there isn't much excuse for me not reading it as soon as I finish my oh-so-slow biography of Cicero.
On a mercenary note, I went hunting for more Patricia Grace on a local secondhand bookshop website last night, and was amazed to see that my ordinary old 1987 Penguin edition was selling for $30 (about US$15)!
As for short stories, I used to avoid them too, but was converted by a combination of James Joyce and Albert Camus, and now think that short stories are often the pinnacle of a great writer's work. I think without the leeway of a large word count, writers have to think very hard about structure, and consequently produce more tight and focused pieces than usual.
btw I forgot to put Ngaio Marsh on my NZ list. Not a memorable contribution.
>102 hume: No intention of stopping yet (though definitely slowing down). I have 60ish more UN members, then a whole raft of 'other' places to visit. I have about 10 more currently on my TBR. Glad you are enjoying the ride. There are plenty of others doing similar things, so be sure to check out the other threads.
May I ask which country your parents were from?
From Thailand, I really recommend Jasmine Nights by S.P. Somtow. It is told from a child's perspective. The main character lived abroad with his parents and returns to Bangkok to live with his Aunts. quite funny. it is fiction, though based on Somtow's real life experiences.
From Burma, I strongly recommend From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe. It is his story about the student's revolution and his escape out of the country.
Premeditated Murder by Slobodan Selenic has been replaced by Danilo Kis' Hourglass. Both books are pretty good, but Hourglass was haunting, bleak, abstract and beautiful in a way that I have rarely seen before.
After my mini-marathon through Argentinian literature I have replaced Borges Labyrinths by Winter Quarters by Osvaldo Soriano. Again, both books are good, but Soriano's had black humour and emotional punch aplenty, and was probably my pick of last month's reading.
I have also changed the scale on my 'density map' in message 2. It now represents different groups of countries much better, in terms of how much I have read from each, and how they cluster.
City of Ash by Eugenijus Alisanka (poetry)
Published by the ever interesting, and usually excellent, 'Writings from an Unbound Europe' series, this is a slim volume of poems from one of Lithuania's best known contemporary poets. Alisanka's poems are mostly short, but the content makes the book feel weighty and dense. Alisanka's world is one of claustrophobic skies and grey buildings, of lives lived within suffocatingly delineated limits with only fleeting glimpses of eternal time and wide open space. They examine the limitations given to us as humans, and contrast the poet's abilities to imagine space and time with the concrete and asphalt that define our urban existences.
Although I enjoyed the collection, and thought it was clearly successful in communicating its ideas, there was perhaps not enough variety, both in themes and structures, to keep me engrossed throughout. The poems were tightly constructed, but a little mundane, and the unremittingly depressing tones were a bit much for me. An interesting collection, but not an especially memorable one for me.
Qissat: short stories by Palestinian women
Palestine does not currently have full UN membership, despite a general agreement that an independent Palestinian state will be the ultimate solution to the current problems in that part of the world. The Palestinian authority currently has special observer status at the UN, which is why they are not part of my 192 challenge per se, but why I have included them in my 'other' places challenge.
I am also confessing to bending my rules a little bit. In the past I have been fairly strict in assigning nationality by residency, rather than ethnicity. The authors of this anthology include many women who identify themselves as ethnically Palestinian, but who belong to the diaspora, and who wouldn't normally 'qualify' under my rules. However, many of the authors are or were based inside the current borders of Palestine (the occupied territories), so thats good enough for me.
I think that the true test of a short story collection rarely lies in its overall quality (especially in anthologies of various authors), but rather in the moments, or stories, that take your breath away. This book simply didn't have any. There were definitely some interesting writers in here, but none that I will be rushing off to read more of. The subject matter varies between suicide bombers and armed fighters, to more domestic stories in which the intifada serves as a backdrop, or is barely mentioned at all. It was these latter that I liked the most, providing more subtle insights into what the authors see as contemporary Palestinian life, but this was, ultimately, a fairly average and instantly forgettable collection of stories.
Unusually for me, I actually have 3 reads for my latest new country (Slovakia), two bought in a bookshop on a visit to Prague, and one sent by our resident Slovak, Poultropus, who was distinctly unimpressed with my choices (and rightly so). I have posted all 3 reviews below.
Signs and Symbols by Robert Gal
'Signs and Symbols' is a difficult work to read and review. It begins as a series of aphorisms, which are then followed by fragments of Gal's personal philosophy. Written at a time when Gal confesses to be at his lowest, they are the words of a philosopher looking up from a deep, dark hole. His pieces describe the view of life, God, ambition and pain from this nadir, while simultaneously lighting his way out. The aphorisms and fragments come together as a sort of dark poetry.
Gal's work is obscure and difficult to access. Occasionally his words are powerful, and easily related to his personal suffering. Too often, though, they are simply barely connected statements, or definitive pronunciations born from associations that I just couldn't relate to or understand. Whereas many authors try to draw you into their world by translating it to the familiar, Gal simply offers his quasi-poetry for inspection without explanation. Because of this, I ultimately failed to 'get' large chunks of Gal's work. Whether it was his failure to communicate or my failure to understand is not the point. There were too many occasions on which Gal and I couldn't find a common language, which frustrated me as a reader. An interesting experiment, but not an entirely successful one, in my opinion.
That Alluring Land by Timrava
Written between 1896 and 1918, this is a collection of short (and not so short) stories which aim to illustrate Slovak family life at the time. Timrava's focus, and her strength, is concentrated on the female characters. The stories have a strong feminist message, outlining the difficulties of life for young Slovak women. They are not eulogies to women, however, with her characters beset by jealousies and petty rivalries over household chores or potential suitors. There are running themes of marriage, fidelity and jealousy, and the biggest problems of her character are frequently portrayed as being caused by other women.
The honesty and brutality with which Timrava addresses her subjects was admirable, and occasionally refreshing. Stories with nineteenth century sensibilities and narratives about who will marry who frequently annoy me, but there was an edge to Timrava's women that maintained my interest. However, while the attempts to illustrate Slovak life were admirable, the stories were horribly put together. Messy and pointless narratives meandered around the prose before eventually dying hopelessly at the end. I don't mind short stories lacking narrative, but these were hamstrung by the author's need to shove one in and hastily resolve it, creating an apparently unintentional anticlimax at the end of each one. There were sparks of life in this collection, but it isn't one I will be revisiting.
The Year of the Frog by Martin Simecka
With much thanks to Polutopus.
This was much more like it. Not just my favourite of my Slovak reads, but my one of my favourite books of recent memory. The story concerns Milan, a young man banned from college in Bratislava by the communist authorities because of his father's politics. Milan engages in a series of dead end menial jobs in hospitals and shops, witnessing firsthand the depressing fragility of humanity and scarcity of moments of beauty in 1980s Slovakia. He finds his own beauty in his girlfriend Tania and his love of running, both of which provide the book with a radiance, but also with its true moments of fear, when it looks possible that he may lose one or the other. Breathtakingly simple, bleakly depressing and beautifully moving on occasions, Milan's thoughts and actions are largely unremarkable, but his search for beauty on the claustrophobic streets of his home town is sad and wonderful in equal measure. One of my favourite reads of this year, without a doubt.
Unsurprisingly, I have added the Simecka to my Reading Globally list as my Slovak choice. An interesting set of books though, if not always brilliant, but the Simecka was fantastic.
I also have three reads for Belarus (though two were in a single volume).
Pack of Wolves by Vasil Bykov*
I ordered this online not realising that it was a YA novel (Bykov wrote adult stuff too). I am not a fan of kid's fiction, even when they address fairly adult themes (perhaps especially when they address adult themes), but this was okay. It is the story of four partisans (3 wounded men, one pregnant woman) fighting the Germans and the polizei (Soviet citizens fighting for the Nazis) in the swamps and forests of the Eastern front in World War II. They are told to abandon camp, and make their way back to base for the medical attention they need. Encountering resistance along the way, the book's hero (Levchuk) takes charge, determined to bring his party safely home, against an overwhelming enemy.
Like I said, this was a YA book. It is a fairly straightforward account of one man's heroism, which borders on Boy's Own stuff. However, the 4 characters are actually fairly interesting (the woman perhaps being the exception) and their interactions drive the book along nicely. There is little in the way of complex morality, but Bykov does not shy away from tragedy and disappointment, creating a genuine sense of unease in the reader. If I had known that this wasn't written with an adult audience in mind, I wouldn't have picked it up, and wouldn't have missed it if I hadn't, but it could have been a lot worse than it was.
Khatyn/The Punitive Squads by Ales Adamovich
Its getting a little late here, and I'm a bit tired, but I wanted to get my thoughts about these books while they are fresh in my mind. I have just finished two novels by the Belarussian writer Ales Adamovich. They cover not too dissimilar ground to the Bykov book (message 139) but were a world apart in terms of quality.
Adamovich's books cover World War II Belarus, a country which suffered atrocity as much as anywhere in that conflict. Over 2 million people (a quarter of the population) lost their lives. The eastern front was at the forefront of Hitler's attempts to racially purify large areas of land, and massacres were commonplace. The blurb claims that 9200 villages were destroyed, of which over 600 had almost every inhabitant killed. The killings were done by the German military in alliance with local polizei (non-Germans drafted in to help).
The first book, 'Khatyn' follows the reminiscences of a blind former partizan, Florian, on his way to the memorial at Khatyn that represents all of the Belarussian villages destroyed. As he travels on a bus with former comrades, he remembers the battles and massacres he participated in and witnessed, and the tragic and absurd situations he found himself in, and the people he fought alongside and watched die. 'The Punitive Squads' tells the story of a polizei unit during a massacre of civilians in the village of Borki. As they commit their atrocities, it looks at the previous lives of the men involved, German and Russian, and how they have come to this point, burning civilians to death in a boarded up barn. It is underpinned with an exposition of Nazi thought, and tries to preserve the humanity of the perpetrators, without hiding their acts. As well as the murderers, there are passages of inner monologue from a woman being raked by machine gun fire lying in a pit of bodies. Which provide a graphic counterpoint to the men's actions.
I wish I had the vocabulary to do justice to these books. They are quite simply magnificent. In 'Khatyn', the partizans are heroes, but flawed ones. They enjoy their killing and occasionally revel in their hatred. The effects of such a brutal war are laid bare, and trite concepts of good and evil are nowhere to be found. Tragicomic scenarios, such as leading a cow through enemy territory to feed people hiding in a swamp, give way to brutal scenes of despair. In 'The Punitive Squads', this amoral world is even more vivid. Adamovich provides plausible explanations for his character's choices, to the point where they become sympathetic, right before they shoot a baby in its cot. It is harrowing and destructive, a world without heroes and nothing to be proud of. It is simple humanity at its most exposed. None of the people are portrayed as monsters, leading to the conclusion that monstrous acts are very much a trait of humans.
Adamovich is a great writer, and I do mean great. To write books that are non-stop 'action' (in the traditional sense - battle scenes, etc.) but to turn them into acute commentary on the human condition is incredibly hard, and I have never seen it done so well before. In addition, Adamovich's comments about Nazi thought and actions, and their relations to other points in history (My Lai, Auschwitz, Kampuchea, etc. - Soviet atrocities were conspicuous by their absence) was incredibly thought provoking, without once becoming didactic asides, was incredible. This was, for me, a flawless account of the thought that leads to mass murder for ideological reasons, a beautiful, harrowing and upsetting piece of prose the like of which I have never read before.
I have added 'The Punitive Squads' to my list, and given it 5 stars to boot (very rare for me).
I should add that Polutropus, who is Slovak, didn't like the Simecka nearly as much as I did, so be warned that there are diverging opinions out there (but, then, when aren't there?). As for the Adamovich, I am still reeling from it. It was that good. I have seen copies for sale on the net, but they are not particularly cheap. If you can find one at a reasonable price, then I suggest you snap it up quickly.
I know it must look like I am obsessed with numbers, given my propensity for counting countries and the like, but they really mean a lot less to me than many of you may think. I do enjoy keeping track of my reading, and its easy, given the manipulability of spreadsheets, to keep stats on my reading, which I like to think I do out of general interest, rather than in a very OCD way.
I am writing this because I am going to mention another number. I recently noticed that Belarus was the 50th country from which I have read more than one book, and that seemed like a mini-milestone. It doesn't, of course, mean 50 nations in which I have thoroughly explored their literatures. In many cases (18 to be precise) it means I have read exactly 2 books. My reason for mentioning this is that one of the things that has been commented on about Reading Globally Challenges, is that they are too much focused on list ticking, or that the idea of cramming literature into such arbitrary boxes is anathema to what reading should be about. What I have frequently tried to say in the past is that my challenge should only be a springboard for more global reading on my part, and that just because I have read one book by a Malawian writer (for example), doesn't mean I shouldn't read any more. I have surprised myself in exactly how 'global' my reading has become, and my challenge has opened my eyes to a vast amount of available literature, and also exposed the narrow confines that my reading used to be in. Before I started all of this I had read books by authors from barely 30 nations, now there are 50 in which I am into double figures. If the aim of my challenge was to expand my reading horizons (and to be honest, I can't really remember why I started all of this) then it has worked. Not completely, and there is lots more to be done, but its been a massive change.
I thought I would jot these thoughts down as a sort of belated defence of Reading Globally Challenges. There was a lot of discussion about what they would (and would not) be good for when people started posting on LT. At last I think I am in a position to say what mine has achieved, at least from my perspective, and now seemed like a good opportunity to do so.
I may never make it all the way round the world, and it doesn't matter if I don't - but the more I "travel", the more I want to carry on. Would I have picked out the Dubravka Ugresic novel I just read without my reading globally project? Unlikely. (Equally, I wouldn't have picked out the Dutch novel I just finished and I'd be none the poorer for it, but you can't win them all). It's like real travel - having spent a weekend in Budapest doesn't make me an expert on Hungary, a week in Malaysia can only ever give a superficial taste, but it's much more interesting than staying at home and seeing it all on TV.
Tony the Sailor's Son by Anton Buttigieg
I have forsaken my Reading Globally challenge in order to attack my TBR this summer, but I am going to try to wedge a few in when I get the chance.
Well, often my challenge introduces me to books I would never ordinarily have read. Usually, it is good thing. Occasionally, it is a bad thing. This one was the latter. I could try to write a normal length review of this book, but I am loathe to spend much more time on it than I already have. To be brief: Anton Buttigieg was Malta's President in the 1970s. This is a book about his childhood. When he was a child he was great at everything. Everyone else in Malta was a caricature, and a bit stupid. Anton Buttigieg is a poet who writes great poetry (which is odd because the stuff in this book was awful). He is great at everything.
Buttigieg opens by comparing himself to Jesus, and finishes by comparing himself to King David. I have never understood the sort of mentality that believes that all other people want to hear about is how great you are. Allied to keen insight and a literary flourish, it can still make for an interesting memoir, but Buttigieg has neither of these. This was 150 pages of drivel. You obviously weren't planning to read this book. That, as far as I can see, is the correct course of action. Continue not to plan to read this book, and your life will be better.
I read a book from Malta. Yay for me.
I hope there are better books about Malta out there.
Actually, I feel a bit guilty about reviews like this. Not because I don't believe what I wrote, but because it seems a bit churlish to read a book knowing you are probably not going to like it (or at least with no real expectation of liking it), finding you didn't like it, then criticizing it. I guess I can only say what I think, and it is one of the hazards of challenge reading. I suppose it would be much worse to never read anything that challenges expectations, and I have found some real gems this way, but it all seems a but unfair on Mr. Buttigieg.
Inside the Night by Ibrahim Nasrallah
This was much more like it. Nasrallah is from a Palestinian family, but was born and raised in one of the permanent refugee camps inside Jordan. He is now a prominent member of the Jordanian literary scene.
'Inside the Night' is a dream-like account of one man's experience as a Palestinian in exile. It interposes short sequences (sometimes only a sentence or two) from scenes in the man's life. These are, principally his witnessing of a massacre in a refugee camp, and his attempt to return to his homeland many years later. The events related in the book are by turns bloody, brutal and depressing, and 'Inside the Night' is a fairly downbeat book.
Nasrallah's dream-like prose can be a little difficult to get a handle on. At no point does he give names to characters or places, so everything and everyone remains anonymous. I can find prose like this a bit difficult, because my brain finds it harder to form concrete images of the narratives, and that did allow my mind to wander, especially early on. The upside, however, is that this really did transform the book from being a Palestinian story into what felt like the Palestinian story. It was not about a specific person's suffering and exile, but about Palestinian suffering and exile, and, as such, was very effective. The writing/translation succeeds in being very powerful without being unnecessarily shocking (though shocking it is). It is a short book, and I am not sure the prose style could sustain anything much longer without losing me. As it was, this was a highly original book, deftly executed, and one I would be happy to recommend.
As an aside, I have had a few conversations in recent weeks about female authors and my reading globally challenge. I thought I wold go back to my reading lists to see how I was doing. Out of the 138 countries I have read from there are:
101 with only male writers
21 with only female authors
16 with both
Its something I will be endeavoring to fix (slowly) in the next year or two. My immediate TBR is very male biased, so it won't change soon, but I have started buying much more female authored fiction from around the world.
*I think I have a Belle of an idea that can help with that!;-)
The Big Banana by Roberto Quesada
Like many of my challenge books, I wasn't too sure about it before I started. I'm pleased to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. The book is about Eduardo Lin, an Honduran emigree to New York. He wants to be an actor, and the most famous Honduran in the world. Instead he finds himself living in a community of Latin American ex-pats inthe 1980s Bronx, struggling to make ends meet. He is taken in by Casagrande, a Mexican homosexual and dispenser of wisdom and, together, the two men face the harsh truths of New York life.
The book is a really likeable read. Although the subject matter can be depressing, Quesada allows his characters to maintain their senses of humour throughout, and their outlook is neither over-optimistic nor unremittingly bleak. He uses his two main characters to examine the highs and lows of ex-pat life, and skillfully creates characters that are both engaging and realistic. The book was slightly let down by an overly-absurd story line about Lin's girlfriend back in Honduras, but the damage wasn't enough to affect my feelings towards the book as a whole. This was a very pleasant surprise, light enough to be enjoyable, weighty enough to be worth the effort.
Years Like Brief Days by Fabian Dobles
I felt a little less positive about this book. It was the last book of Dobles' life, and the first to be translated into English. I can't help feeling we should have had something else first.
The book's narrator is 70 years old. He takes a drive into his boyhood area, and begins to reminisce about his childhood. He thinks, in particular about his decision to leave the seminary (due to sexual abuse from a priest) and his decaying relationship with his brother. The narrator uses the opportunity to compose a letter to his long dead mother, explaining his decisions.
The problem I had was that this was clearly an end-of-life book, with all the self indulgences that implies. Dobles was using his literary skills to explain himself to his family, and his readers. While this isn't a bad thing per se, because I hadn't read anything else of his (partly because nothing else is in English yet), I didn't feel invested enough in Dobles to want to read this sort of thing. I was reminded of Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man by Joseph Heller. It is a book I love, and one that touches me very much, because it is clearly a literary farewell from one of my favourite writers. However, the non-Heller fans who have read it have all said that it is rubbish, and I see their point. Heller doesn't work to make you care, and neither does Dobles. The writing was good enough to make me want to read more, and if I did I would definitely re-visit Years Like Brief Days, but I can't bring myself to recommend it just yet.
I'm not satisfied with my books for Comoros, Qatar, Palau, Bahrain, or Guinea-Bissau, if you have better suggestions. I'm happy to cross-post my reviews or book descriptions for anything you're interested in.
Sorry for the delay in replying. I finally got round to looking at your blog. Very impressive! I am trying to confine myself by genre a little (preferably fiction/poetry, but there is plenty of non-fiction in there). I can't help with the countries you list above, I'm afraid. I have nothing lined up for Comoros, Qatar, Palau). My Bahrain read was QuixotiQ by Ali al-Saeed, which I wouldn't really recommend, and my only current target for Guines-Bissau is also Amilcar Cabral, someone who I am interested in outside of my challenge. Not very helpful I know, but it seems that you are getting down to the countries that are not currently on the English language literary map at the moment. Let me know if you find anything.
Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau
Martinique is an overseas Department of France, meaning that it is fully politically integrated as part of France. However, it is separated from the French mainland by several thousand miles, and is heavily influenced by its Creole culture and its legacy as a former colony populated largely by slaves. That’s why I have chosen to include it on my list of ‘other’ places.
Texaco aims to be a narrative history of the island of Martinique. It is narrated by Marie-Sophie Laborieux, and begins with her meeting a town planner, who has come to the shantytown of Texaco (part of the capital city of Fort-de-France) with the aim of developing it and integrating it into the city. In order to protect her home, Marie-Sophie tells the story of how Texaco came into being, focusing on the stories of her ancestors (particularly her father Esternome) on their journey from slaves to free people to homeowners. Through her telling, the story of Texaco’s foundation becomes the story of the poor black underclass that for so long made up Martinique’s powerless majority, and becomes a powerful narrative history of the cycles of oppression and enfranchisement that shaped the island’s past.
Texaco is written using beautifully lyrical flowing prose, that the translators have done a wonderful job of preserving. Disturbing, occasionally horrific, events are told with a comforting humour that reminded me of writers like V.S. Naipaul and Rushdie. Reading the translators’ notes, it is unfortunately clear how much was necessarily lost in translation. Chamoiseau’s attempts to tell the history of Martinique from the Creole perspective include a playfulness with language that is central to the book, including the importance of alternating French with Creole French, middle-class patois and English. I get the impression that the translators were forced to sacrifice a lot of linguistic subtlety; perhaps more so than is usual with translated literature. Nevertheless, the translation is still excellent. My only gripe with the book (and unfortunately it is a fairly big one) is that, as with many narrative histories, characters are lost as they serve as ciphers for the events they represent. Esternome is the main character for most of the book, but I never feel like I got to know him. The oral structure (the book is as told by Marie-Sophie) also leads to strange pacing (the 20 years between World Wars I and II is dealt with in a matter of two pages). This lead to an oddly disjointed feel to the book as a whole, and, in the absence of characters that I felt I was able to get to know, made the book feel much more didactic than it could have been.
I would still recommend this book on the strength of the beautiful language, and fans of the other authors I mentioned should definitely check it out, as should anyone interested in Caribbean history and culture. Make no mistake this is a very good book, in my opinion. It just didn’t quite get the balance right between being a narrative history of Martinique and a personal history of some of its inhabitants.
Abai by Mukhtar Auezov
The choice for Kazahstan boiled down to reading something by Abai Kunanbayev, or something about Abai Kunanbayev. I went for the latter.
'Abai' is the story of Kazakhstan's literary hero, Abai Kunanbayev. Auezov confesses that details of Abai's life are sketchy, so the work is largely fiction. This part (the first one) is set in the 1860s in the extreme east of Kazakhstan, and follows Abai's transition into manhood.
The book was published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and presents Abai as a socialist hero, almost a secular Christ-like figure leading the Kazakh people away from the twin evils of their religious leadership (all corrupt) and Tsarist officials (all nincompoops). However, the political proselytising is kept to a minimum, and Auezov's book is more of a sweeping epic, with romance, bloodshed and heroism aplenty. It frequently rises above this slightly trite description, to become a really interesting read in places. The cultural background was largely new to me, which always keeps me reading, and the story of Abai's relationship with his occasionally despotic father was blossoming into something very interesting as the book ended. I certainly enjoyed this enough to keep an eye out for the second part, but perhaps not enough to look (or spend) too hard to get it. Very enjoyable, for what it was.
The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag
This seems to be pretty much the only Mongolian read that LTers Reading Globally have found so far. Its not fantastic, but enjoyable enough for me to recommend to others waiting to add Mongolia to their lists.
'The Blue Sky' is the semi-autobiographical story of Tschinag's childhood, spent in the mountains of Western Mongolia. He is a Tuvan, a minority ethnic group, and his family were nomadic herders.
Tschinag is a very spiritual writer. He is a shaman, and the book is filled with references to his relationships to animistic influences such as the earth, the hills and, especially, the sky. The book has a wonderfully lonely feel, as if there was nothing in the young Tschinag's life apart from his immediate family, his dog, and the desolate landscape they worked in. In this environment, his spiritual connections to his world flourish, and this comes through in his writing. His relationship to the woman he called Grandma had an especially eerie, ethereal quality. Despite not always being great writing/translation, the setting and sentiments were enough to make this a fairly engrossing read. The narrative itself was meandering, almost non-existent in places, and it took a fairly melodramatic scene at the end to remind me that I was supposed to be learning something about Tschinag, not just observing his world. I think a longer book would have lost its way a bit, but, as it was, I read this in one sitting on a train journey, which was just about right.
It is the first part of a trilogy. I can't say I am waiting for part 2 to be translated with bated breath, but I will probably give it a go, if that ever happens.
It was interesting to read the two books together (Tschinag and Auezov). The lifestyles described were so similar that I started to get a small understanding of the cultures and their relationships to the land. Abai was more political than The Blue Sky, but they both described the same issues. I had actually began to wonder if there was any literature from Chinese writers from that area. When you say that Wolf Totem was a disappointemnt, is it worth a quick look? Is it short enough to not make it too painful?
I got something like this feeling from the highly praised movie The Last Emperor (if you substitute "Manchus' " for "Mongols' " It doesnt go into any depth about the Manchu cuture which produced the royals of the pre-1911 "Chinese" Empire, or make them the "good guys".
But you do get the idea that these Chinese are basically bad guys, outsiders, and a very different ethnicity from their ruling family. At the time of seeing it, over 10 years ago, I only had a vague feeling that there was something I didn't like about it; so that may have been the "wonderful Mongols" / "terrible Chinese" syndrome.
I just read All This Belongs to Me by the young Czech writer, Petra Hulova, which is set in Mongolia (for Belletrista.) Not sure if you'd classify it as a Mongolian read, Andy, but it gave some sense of the old and new Mongolian culture, lifestyle and people. And yes, there was a lot of the above-mentioned discrimination against the Chinese (and the Russians). It was a good read, IMO. (Review to come, in issue 4 :))
I'll look forward to the review. I have found that getting just a tiny primer into a different culture/region can increase my enjoyment of other book set in the same place exponentially. I think it is often a simple case of not struggling to picture settings or interpret terms (for instance, I now have a fairly clear - though possibly completely wrong - idea of what a 'yurt' looks like). I'll wait for Belletrista 4 to appear, but may well see if I can get hold of a copy.
The translator Alex Zucker left many words untranslated and it was difficult initially to get past it, but when I eventually googled "yurt" (or ger, in this case) and saw what it was, I realised why he wasn't able to provide an English equivalent for it. I was then able to settle down and just enjoy the Mongolian experience.
Its been almost 2 months since anyone posted on this thread, a definite sign of my global reading slowing down. The Caribbean group read has provided me with an opportunity to add another 'other' place:Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe, like Martinique, is politically integrated into France, but its position in the Caribbean and creole culture mean I have designated it as an 'other' place.
I read two books by Maryse Conde. Conde was born and raised in Guadeloupe, and lived and travelled extensively in Africa before returning to the Caribbean. The books I have read, Crossing the Mangrove and A Season in Rihata, reflect both of these phases of her life.
Crossing the Mangrove actually covers fairly similar ground to Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnificent, at least in terms of narrative. Set in a fictional village in central Guadeloupe, the story centres around the discovery of a body in the swamp. The dead man is Francis Sacher, an outsider whose arrival in the village caused upheaval. The residents love, loathe and lust after Sacher, and many of them have reasons to see him dead.
The book opens with the discovery of the body, and each subsequent short chapter focuses on a different character as they reminisce about their relationship with the dead man. Although this isn’t a ‘whodunnit’ in the normal, police procedural sense, Conde uses this aspect to drive the narrative along nicely, gradually revealing a little more information about Sacher’s life and death. The thrust of the book, however, is concerned with the contrast between Sacher, the epitome of a 20th Century pan-Caribbean man, and the village, with its parochial mentality. Sacher’s attitudes to life, love and politics are shaped by the social revolutions that swept the Caribbean in the mid-20th Century. To the villagers he is anathema, lacking any sense of traditional values and moral compass that shapes their existence. The internal monologues reveal how this clash led to his death.
I really enjoyed Crossing the Mangrove. There is a darkness to the otherwise quiet village life that Conde brings out brilliantly. The unusual narrative structure carries along what would otherwise have been a fairly heavy read, and the wider point is well made without being overemphasised. Definitely one of the highlights of my Caribbean reads.
The second book, A Season in Rihata, is set in an unnamed central African state. It follows the fortunes of two brothers in a faltering dictatorship. One, Zek, is a minor official in the backwater town of Rihata. The other, Madou, is an important official in the dictator’s government, as well as the dictator’s personal favourite. Zek’s wife, Marie-Helene, an ex-pat from Guadeloupe, is Madou’s former lover, causing the brothers to be estranged. Madou is forced to return to Rihata on government business, reigniting old enmities. Set against this personal battle, a rebellion against the government poses a more physical threat to the well-being of the brothers.
A Season in Rihata has a nice balance between the personal and the political. The relationship between the brothers, and the surfacing of their histories, is really well observed. Marie-Helene also provides an important counterpoint to the political plots, as her roles as wife and lover and their effects on her family are nicely told. The tone, and content, reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. I was a little less taken with this book compared to Crossing the Mangrove, possibly because there were a few too many storylines to comfortably maintain them all in a relatively short book, and a few too many characters to follow. Still a good book, in my opinion, but there was a little less to like and a little more to frustrate for me to give this a whole-hearted recommendation.
I have added Crossing the Mangrove to my reading globally list.
1)Added Guadeloupe (Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Conde).
2)Changed my Martinique read from Texaco to Solibo Magnificent. Both books are by Patrick Chamoiseau, an author I have become interested in during the last few months. Texaco was intersting, but the characters were a little cold for me. Solibo Magnificent was a much warmer, touching book.
3)Changed my Grenada read from Rotten Pomerack to Angel. Both books were by Merle Collins. The former was a book of poetry that didn't do much for me, the latter was an excellent coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of political upheavals in the 20th century Caribbean.
Away from the Caribbean, I have just finished Dark Heart of the Night by Leonora Miano, a writer from Cameroon. It was very well written and raised some interesting points. My previous book for Cameroon was Ashanti Doll by Francis Bebey, a book I couldn't stand. I have therefore updated my list for Cameroon as well.
Mother's Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong
This is my first new country since Mongolia in December. I held off from getting this for a while, because it was another example of a country from which I could only find one book. I waited and searched, and came up with nothing, so gave this a go. In the event, it was an informative, if sometimes clumsy, collection of short prose.
The book consists of about 20 very short stories (mostly 4-5 pages) all set in Outhine's home country. Before I discuss the writing, I should mention that my edition had the English prose side-by-side with the Lao, an absolutely beautiful script. Although completely impenetrable to me, this added a nice feel to the book, and, together, with an introduction discussing Outhine's place in Lao literature, helped put the text firmly into context. The stories themselves are slightly didactic pieces looking at relatively mundane events in Lao society. They are largely concerned with social interactions such as the sharing of food or actions of good (or bad) neighbourliness. I use the word didactic, because this is a collection with a social mission and an educational purpose. Although I have said elsewhere that didacticism is among my pet hates in literature, Outhine's collection just about gets away with it. He writes with a (perhaps purposeful) lack of guile, and the book reads as a straightforward appeal to ordinary Laos to behave well towards each other, and to reap the rewards as a society.
Like many of the books in the latter part of my 'travels' this isn't one to rush out for. However, it isn't one to be avoided either. It is very short, interesting and occasionally very well written. Anyone looking to add another country to their list, or pay a literary visit to south-east Asia, could do much worse than this.
Depressaholic, I'd love to know how long you have been doing your challenge for and whether you have an all-time favourite book? (Apologies if you have already answered this somewhere else!). I am quite in awe of what you have already achieved!
Most of the answer to your question can be found on this thread:
A few of the people who regularly contribute to this group describe their own approaches and aims of their personal challenges. It would be great for some of the more recent joiners (like you Literarynomad, or Justjoey as well) to add their own perspectives.
As for my favourite book, I have read a few too many now to pick one. The book I go back to most often,and possibly the one that has given me most pleasure to read, is Joseph Heller's Catch-22. In terms of my Reading Globally Challenge, I guess I have a special fondness for the books that I have never heard of and pick up on a whim, that turn out to be great. There have been a few like this (Winter Quarters by Osvaldo Soriano, In The Castle of My Skin by George Lamming), but one that has really stood out for me is The Punitive Squads by Ales Adamovich.
P.S. Just to correct LT's Winter Quarters tag...
The answer to this question is not very exciting, unfortunately. In general I scour second hand bookshops in my area (Bristol) with a fine tooth comb, trying to visit them all every month or so. Charity shops are superb for price, but they have tendency to not keep the obscure and battered books that come their way, opting for safer authors. Oxfam are frustrating for this. I live very near an Amnesty shop that tries to get all of its donated stock in to the shop, and that has proved to be a gold mine recently. I work in a new bookshop and volunteer in a charity one, so a lot of stuff comes through my hands, which helps. I also pay occasional visits to some of my favourite, but more distant haunts (al-Saqi bookshop in London, Hay-on-Wye). Hay-on-Wye is easily the most rewarding in terms of unearthing treasure, There are 31 second-hand bookshops in a village with a static population of about 1500. When I decide that its time for a book from (e.g) Bhutan, I will get on the web and use google and the like, then order form amazon or abe.com. One thing I would note, is that although we all have a lot of faith in the internet, I have found plenty of books with little or no internet presence, especially older ones, and that would have been impossible to turn up in a google search, so google searching is not an alternative to getting your hands dirty in a bookshop.
If you have time to visit Hay when in the UK, let me know. I live close enough to pop by for a coffee at short notice.
Yes, sorry, I forgot to mention the most pleasurable route to discovering new reading: having them land on my doormat. I have done some reviewing for Avaland's wonderful Belletrista.com. It is pretty much the opposite of dusty (though that may depend on the state of your computer) but is a great source for books you probably haven't heard of.
I think the upstairs room of Clarke's in Cape Town is the very definition of a dusty haunt. A bit too far for one of my 'occasional visits', but one of my favourite bookshops that I have visited.
...which is probably why I don't visit dusty haunts anymore. I have too many new books lined up, waiting for attention! (And I agree it has certainly added many favorites to my collection.)
Re Clarke's: :) That's so cool to know! Long Street used to be my absolute favorite haunt when it had numerous bookshops, like Clarke's, lining it on both sides. It's been upgraded in the last 10 years, so sadly lost many of those dark and dusty hangouts.
Thanks for the reminder - I haven't been that way for too long! May be time for a visit...
If anyone is interested I blog for Oxfam about reading, and my (brief) thoughts on this year's South African reading will appear there soon:
I also enjoyed Huasipungo. I had checked it out from the public library but just found my own copy, so seeing it mentioned again makes me want to bump it up in my long list of books I want to read (or re-read).
The blog entries are only short, and very sporadic, but it has been interesting, given the discussions in this group over the years, to try and tie my reading in with the sort of global awareness Oxfam promotes. It feels a bit forced sometimes, but I am enjoying myself doing it.
I would be very interested in your comments on I, the Supreme. I was very ambivalent about the book. I loved the style, but have to admit to getting bored (see post 4 for my review). I thought that Huasipungo was very good. It got a little lost in this thread, and no-one picked up on it, partly because I reviewed it at a time that I was posting several times a week, so it is good to have someone else singing its praises.
Also, I've been wanting to find some African authors who write in French, so I'll try and look back at some of your posts on Africa and look in to some of the authors. Any suggestions as to where to start with respect to French West Africa?
There appears to be lots of stuff published in French from West Africa that has never been translated into English. One author I would love to read is Maurice Auld Ebnou (spelling may be wrong) from Mauritania. He writes in Arabic but has a french translation. Other than that, I have been impressed with Abdourahman Waberi (Djibouti) and Leonora Miano (Cameroon), both of whom originally wrote in French (I think).
French Book News - Francophone Literature (English)
The only new country was Laos. Check out post 157 for a slightly tepid review of Mother’s Beloved. The ‘other place’ was Guadeloupe. I read a couple of Maryse Conde’s books, (see post 155) but the standout was Crossing the Mangrove.
Most of my updates for my list came from African countries. This was largely because I had only read a single book from many African countries in previous years, and some were not great. I had accumulated a big pile, one that is going to keep me entertained well into 2011, and read about half of it. I changed my South African read to Too Late, the Phalarope. Alan Paton is a great writer, and I don’t remember ever feeling quite so tense for an entire book. It was brilliant stuff. Botswana is now represented on my list by A Question of Power. I have read one other book by Bessie Head, and couldn’t see what the fuss was about, but A Question of Power got through to me. The most frustrating destination of last year was Zimbabwe. I read 5 books, but didn’t really find one I could be unswervingly positive about. In the end I added Nervous Conditions to the list, being (in my opinion) the best of a slightly disappointing bunch.
I finally got round to reading The Book of Chameleons for Angola, something that has haunted my TBR for a while. It didn’t disappoint. Another book that had been in my sights or a while was The Laughing Cry by Henri Lopes, from the Republic of Congo. I was expecting something slightly silly, but instead found a thoughtful black comedy about a country groaning under the weights of poverty and dictatorship. My final African update was The Dark Heart of the night by Cameroon’s Leonora Miano. It is a disturbing and angry little book about how African people define ‘Africa’ as a concept, and was a vast improvement on my previous read.
I also had a longish trip to the Caribbean early last year, which resulted in the addition of Angel (Grenada) and Aunt Resia and the Spirits (Haiti). They were both very good books. Angel is a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Grenada’s political upheaval. ‘Aunt Resia’ is a very good (if slightly depressing) short story collection about the woes of Haiti in the last couple of decades.
One of my reads of the year was Tinisima, a novel about the photographer Tina Modotti by Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska. It was a sad and beautiful story which still haunts me. My other changes were from countries from which I have read woefully little. Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb is now on the list as my Belgian read because it was so wonderfully grotesque. In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Noteboom is now my Dutch read. It was okay, and enjoyable enough, but is possibly on the list because it is still the only novel I have read by a Dutch writer (I had read some non-fiction before). Finally, I changed my Australia read from Peter Carey’s ‘Collected Stories’, which I really didn’t like, to his True History of the Kelly Gang. I did the latter in a book club and got a lot from it. I would like to read more Aussie lit (2 books by 1 author seems like a very poor return).
Sorry for the slightly self-indulgent post. I wrote it largely for the selfish reason of being interested in how my list evolved last year, given that I wasn’t reading from ‘new’ countries. I enjoyed taking my foot off the gas a little, and getting a chance to explore a few more places in a little more depth. I was also pleased to see that of the 14 books listed here, 7 were by women. I have had fairly male biased reading habits to date, something I tried to correct (with some success) in 2010, so its nice to see a few more women on my list. I also wrote all of this with the intention of putting my foot back on the gas (a little) this year and adding a few new places in the coming months. I am 7 nations off 150, which sounds like a reasonable ambition for the year.
Written in the 1950s, it is a deftly put together examination of the clashes between the natives of Cameroon and the Europeans that came to subjugate them. It begins with the discovering of a young man, Toundi, dying on the road. In his satchel are notebooks detailing his life as a houseboy to the French commandant, and the events leading to his own death.
Oyono's book brilliantly examines the dishonesty that characterizes the interactions of black and white. Europeans are outwardly superior and civilized, Africans are outwardly subservient and stupid. As a houseboy, Toundi witnesses the sexual misdemeanors and psychopathic rages of the Europeans that give a lie to the veneer of civilization and hypocrisy of professed Christian morals. By placing Toundi in the heart of the European household, Oyono is able to show that the difference between the two is races is really in the balance of power and the simplicity with which it can be abused.
I read Houseboy in a single sitting. Setting aside the slightly contrived (and incredulous) device of the discovered notebooks, it was a really well written short novel. Toundi's doom is written large from page one, so you know it isn't gong to end well for him, but that didn't stop me being engrossed.
Scalpels of Memory by Raymond Ntalindwa (poetry)
For my Rwandan read I wanted to avoid the glut of books that emerged from the Rwandan genocide. This is not because they are not important, but because I wanted to give myself a different perspective on that nation. There wasn't a lot out there, but I found this collection of poetry, published in 2000.
I don't read much poetry, but I would like to read more. I tried to go through this book slowly, savouring each piece, rather than my usual rushed reading. Whether it was this, or the fact that Ntalindwa's poems really hit home, I'm not sure, but I was entranced by this collection.
It is largely political in nature, informed by his strident views of negritude and African identity, and the attitude of the rest of the world to his home continent. Some of the pieces were very academic, and some had references to people and events that had me lost. The majority, however, were beautifully pitched. Even his most coldly academic poems, there was anger and sadness behind the observations, a reminder that this was just a man writing about his home. There were poems about the genocide, including a stunning piece that evoked the orgiastic outburst of violence by repeating he word 'kill' in a variety of contexts, as if to say wherever you were, whatever you did, there was only killing. A nice counterbalance was struck by the inclusion of a few poems drawn from his domestic life, including a very fond short piece about having breakfast with his kids.
The breadth and depth of this collection really got to me. I'd be lying if I say I loved every poem, but this was largely because the use of images from Rwandan culture, history and folklore was lost on me. That aside, however, there were moments in this collection that will stay in my thoughts for a while.
In-sign-E by Oumarou Watta (poetry)
I always seem to start my reviews of poetry by explaining what I do and don't know about it, and how that limits my understanding. I was determined not to do this again. After all, I enjoyed my Rwandan read (post 184), and don't feel the need to qualify my knowledge every time I review a novel.
The problem is, I plain hated this collection. Whatever the 'it' is that results in me enjoying a poetry collection 'it' just wasn't here. Watta is Nigerien, but writes in English. In the introduction he sets out his aim, which is to communicate with 'us', African nations and black people in general. It is explicitly an appeal to African nationalism and the negritude movement, and a repudiation of the reductionism of the West. That, in itself, is not usually a problem for me as a reader. I have read and enjoyed many novels and a few poetry collections with this aim. However, none of his words found a target in my head, none of his concepts formed shapes or pictures with me. Perhaps Watta would argue that my Western prejudices are too strong for his work, and perhaps he is right. Either way I just couldn't extract any meaning or significance from his words, and was left bewildered, disappointed and, worst of all, bored.
This may be an(other) example of my failings as a reader of poetry, or simply a failure to find common ground on an intellectual level. Either way, In-sign-E was not for me unfortunately.
Told By Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid (short stories)
Seid's book is a collection of short stories and folk tales that tell traditional Chadian stories. There are a mixture of ancient myths and more recent historical tales, ranging in subject from the foundation of Chad's royal dynasties, is establishment as an Arab offshoot, and its history of war and succession.
Although there isn't too much to recommend this book literarily, I actually really enjoyed it. The pieces are short, but each was fairly revealing about how Chad sees itself (or at least how the tellers of these stories see Chad). They, like many folk tales, are self-aggrandizing works of nationalism, told to justify the country's superior heritage and culture. They contained a fascinating mix of myth and half-truth and the book as a whole was clearly written as a paean to the country. Problems are conspicuous by their absence, as is criticism, but in an odd way that adds to the charm.
Country 147: Burkina Faso - The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo
Very well written novel about the fall of a chaotic dictatorship in West Africa. It is full of absurd politics and black humour, but the violence and death are not glossed over. I have read many similarly themed books, but this is among the better ones.
Country 148: Seychelles - Reflections and Echoes from the Seychelles by James Mancham (poetry)
Bad doggerel about the poet's home land. Not worth rushing out to get.
Country 149: Kuwait - The Al-Hamlet Summit by Sulayman al-Bassam (play)
Excellent interpretation of Hamlet set in the contemporary Middle East. There is, according to the foreword, a long tradition of adapting Shakespeare to suit contemporary themes in the Arab world. This had all of the duplicity, hubris and tragedy of Shakespeare's original, combined with a flair for the dramatic that brings out the best from the setting. This is worth a look for the brilliant use of universal themes in unique settings, but also because its a good read.
Country 150: Yemen - They Die Strangers by Mohammod Abdul-Wali (short stories)
This is a novella ('They Die Strangers') and a series of short prose pieces. I really disliked the novella, but loved some of the shorter prose. They mostly focus on the fate of Yemenis living in exile in Ethiopia (as Abdul-Wali did when he wrote them in the 1960s and 1970s). They are written with a fondness for home but a knowledge of the necessity of exile and the fine balance between these two feelings.
Country 151: United Arab Emirates - The Sand Fish by Maha Gargash
A really well written novel about a girl living in a remote mountain community in Dubai. Her family decides that to escape poverty she is to be married to a rich merchant. The majority of the book focuses on her suppression of sexual desires and the politics of being a wife in a polygamous household. I have read maybe a dozen books with these themes, but Gargash did enough to really make me care, and uses her characters, rather than pointless melodrama, to drive her narrative. Very good.
I have also updated my list so that my Syrian read is now 'Saramada' by Fadi Azzam. It is the story of the fictional village of Sarmada. a remote Druze community, and some of the characters (especially women) who live there. Harrowing, but well written.
The answer to Joyce's question is 'mostly no'. Its just google searches, plus keeping an eye on catalogues from interesting publishers. I work in a bookshop and actually have reps scouring around for certain things, which is nice. Sometimes it is just plain good luck. It gets harder all the time, but I currently own books from 4 'new' countries and 2 'other' places. I am tackling my Asian TBR at the moment, having spent large chunks of 2011 in Africa (in the literary sense). I will try to engage more with the Reading Globally group this year.
I like the sound of your books from Burkina Fasso and the UAE - I'll make a note of those.
Always a pleasure to hear about your reading exploits, Andy!
The Gargash was interesting. As I was reading it I couldn't help but think that I had read these themes many times before. That being the case, I still didn't get bored. Its not a great book, but it was definitely one of the better ones covering these ideas, and one of the better ones form the latter days of my challenge.
I am going to try to do more general updating on this thread, to keep it alive, if nothing else. I am in the midst of a biggish Asian read (India right now) and will try to report back every once in a while.
-->193 akeela: Cheers Akeela. I miss being here to be honest, so will try to make more time.
I also read the short story collection Killing the Water by Mahmud Rahman. Its an excellent collection, covering his impressions of the Bangladesh he grew up in and his experience as an exile and outsider in 1970s USA. There were some great short stories in there, and I have updated my list to include it as my Bangladeshi read.
It won't be everyone's cup of tea, because the language is a bit unusual, but for those that get into it, it is brilliant.
I have had so many recommendations for A Suitable Boy, but for some reason can't bring myself to get excited enough about it to take it on. Would you (or anyone else) like to expand on why I should read it? There is a part of me that would like to be convinced.
Not sure I cared for the ending of The Space Between Us; I thought it seemed artificially cheery. But I did like the rest of the book quite a lot.
The Invention of Morel - Adolo Bioy Casares
My second Casares, and probably his best known. It is a perfectly put together short novel which invites the reader into a strange metaphysical situation in the best tradition of the writer's great friend Borges.
Billiards at Half Past Nine - Heinrich Boll
I have a love/hate relationship with Boll. He is a great writer, but his Christian perspective can make his ideas difficult for me to access. However, I loved this book. It, like many of his others, is about post-WWII Germany and the difficulties of a rebuilding nation to come to terms with its past. It follow a single day in the lives of a family and uses flashbacks to describe their interactions and engagement with Nazism. The language is explicitly that of Good versus Evil, which usually, for me, obscures the complexities of political and social commentary, but the book is so touchingly written and brilliantly executed that I loved every page.
Embers - Sandor Marai
A good short novel in which two old friends, both nearing the end of their lives, are reunited to discuss an incident which drove them apart decades earlier. Wonderfully claustrophobic in places, it is made all the more atmospheric by the setting of a remote castle in the hills, and the fact the one of the protagonists is almost entirely silent throughout.
The Bass Saxophone/Emoke- Joseph Skvorecky
I have been a Skvorecky fan for a while now and was very sad to read of his passing earlier this year. This book is two novellas which combine familiar themes for his readers: Nazism, Communism, Jazz and Sex. Both were very touching, but I especially enjoyed Emoke.
If anyone out there has any opinions on 1Q84 I would really like to hear them . I hated it, but don't know if it is typical Murakami or represents a departure. I'd appreciate it if someone could let me know how it compares to other books of his.
ETA: Thanks rebecca! I just posted it for depressaholic.
Smile as They Bow by Nu Nu Yi
Smile as They bow was short-listed for the Man Asia Literary prize in 2007. The MAL is a newish discovery on my part and, based on the first couple of books I have read that have been nominated, well worth checking out, both in terms of books from countries that are a little off the usual literary map, but also as a source of good literature.
Smile as They Bow is a short novel based around the Taungbyon festival in central Myanmar. The festival is a primarily gay celebration in which transvestites called natkadaw channel spirits called nats to respond to prayers and requests from the public. The story follows a prominent ageing natkadaw called 'Daisy Bond' as he attempts to maintain his eminence among the natkadaw in the face of competition for business and competition for his younger lover. Daisy is a fascinating character, publicly waspish and fiery, privately vulnerable, he abuses his friends and the general public but desperately needs their approval and attention. Over the course of a couple of days of the festival, Daisy is forced to work harder than ever before to cling to his relationships and his position of power at Taungbyon.
I really enjoyed Smile as They Bow. For such a small book, Nu Nu Yi manages to develop Daisy's character wonderfully well. The festival is also enchanting, with all the kitsch and flamboyance of a pride carnival, but with a strong spiritual aspect thrown in. The narrative itself (i.e. Daisy's attempts to cling to his power and his lover) is almost incidental to the descriptions of the setting and characters, but that is in no way detrimental to the book as a whole. Setting, subject matter and author nationality all made this a unique read for me, and it is not one I will forget in a hurry.
It is definitely recommended for anyone looking for a Myanmar book for their reading challenges, but also a general thumbs up as a fascinating short novel.
First things first...
The Book of Masks by Hwang Sun-won
Hwang was born near Pyongyang prior to the partition of Korea. He went to Japan for his higher education in his early 20s, then returned to the South following partition. He is generally recognised as a South Korean writer, but his North Korean childhood, and the fact some of his stories are set there, are good enough for me.
The Book of Masks is an odd short story collection. It is a humanistic collection, showing the interconnectedness of humanity. The pieces rarely have a straightforward narrative, but rather an hard to grasp, ethereal quality. They are concerned with the everyday folk of Korea, although they are not simple pen portraits. Instead they take an aspect, a mask that humanity wears, and weaves it into a universal commentary on human nature. Like most collections, it has its up and downs, but does include some fantastic examples of short narrative fiction.
The Voyages of Sindbad A small excerpt from the 1001 Nights in the Penguin Epics series, the stories were fun (if repetitive), and it was great to finally see where allt that Saturday morning stop-motion animation TV was born.
From the Meadows of Gold Again, a short piece in the Penguin 'Great Journeys' series, this was a travelogue, written in the mid-10th century, by Mas'udi, a scholar from what is now modern Iraq (coincidentally from Baghdad and Basra - where much of Sindbad is set). It was interesting to see how a scholar wrote about other cultures 1000 years ago, but even this short excerpt dragged a little.
Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. A slightly surreal look at 20th Century Philippines. A writer (Miguel Syjuco), returns from exile in New York following the trail of his recently deceased mentor, Crispin Salvador. Although the narrative is ostensibly about the search for Crispin's last, lost, novel, it is a re-examination of The Philippines' 2oth century history, told largely through Miguel's reconnection with old friends and associates. I found it a little difficult in places, perhaps because the central narrative disappears in places, and perhaps because the subtleties of Filipino society and history were a bit lost on me, but this was ultimately a very interesting Borges-esque attempt to examine the writer's home country.
Awaiting Trespass by Linda Ty-Casper. Also Filipino, and also a re-examination of the recent Filipino history. Written in the early 1980s, it follows the funeral of Don Severino Gil, local potentate and playboy. Similarly to Illustrado, it focuses on the returning family, particularly the younger members, and how their interactions frame the comtemporary politics of Manila.
House of Mathilde by Hassan Daoud. and now all the way over to the Lebanon. Mathilde's house is an apartment block in Beirut. The events take place in the latter half of the twentieth century, and looks at the changing make-up of the inhabitants (especially their religions and ethnicities)as Lebanon changes from rich Mediterranean playground to Civil War battleground.
The Kite Runner. I may be the last person in existence to have read this book. For those that don't know it is the story of a young man, living in Kabul, who sees his best friend suffer a terrible act and does nothing to stop it. The friend is from a different (inferior in the eyes of most Afghans) ethnic group, and is also the boys servant. The book follows the effect of the act on their wilting friendship, and also on the boys attemps to make amends as an adult. It was well written enough, but, to be honest, a book that i found to be much less than the sum of its parts.
I read two books by Zhang Jie: the short story collection As Long as Nothing happens, Nothing Will and the novel Leaden Wings. Zhang has a slightly unusual narrative style, in wich she introduces a lot (an I mean a lot) of characters and then juggles their barely overlapping stories for the remainder of the book. Both novel and the long short stories tried to do this, i suppose as an attempt to draw a portrait of a society as a whole. It did nothing for me, to be honest. Annoyingly, her very short stories, where she didn't have the time to do this, were really good, indicating to me that i could have enjoyed her a lot more if her narratives were a little less populous. Her pieces are critiques of communist bureaucracy and the confused ideologies following the fall of the Gang of Four in the 1970s.
Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu. Written in 1809, this is fascinating look at life int he late 17th/early 18th century in China. The records include ones to do with work and travel, but the real gem is the first, that looks at sex. It is an honest and open account of his deep love for his wife, but also his sexual misdemeanors with other women, and is fascinatingly candid about his attitudes and actions.
The Last Empress by Anchee Min. My second Anchee Min, and probably my last. She is not a terrible writer, but her books have, for me, lacked a bit of spark. This one is an attempt to rehabilitate the name of the last empress, Cixi, who history has painted as a murderous, power hungry harridan. Min's Cixi does do some of the terrible acts that the historical Cixi is recorded as having done, but Min explains her actions as being those of a loving mother and dutiful empress. It is perhaps an odd idea to turn a potentially fascinating character into a much more mundane one, but Min does it well enough. The book is wedded to historical detail and provided an interesting primer (of sorts) into the fall of the last Chinese empire.
On New Democracy by Mao Tse-tung. Obviously not fiction, this is Mao's short work, written in 1940, about how the changes in the first half of the twentieth Century reflect (or fail to reflect) the goals of the socialist revolution. It was a an interesting read, if written a little repetitively, and explains a lot about Mao's attitude to the fall of the empire and the challenges of fighting with the republican Kuomintang against Japanese aggression.
Two books published by Panda press, the English language press based in Communist China. Catkin Willow Flats by Liu Shaotang. A lovely little collection of short stories that showed the ordinary people's struggles against the Kuomintang and croneyism, and the need to build a united China after the civil wars and occupations are over. Although politically on-message, the pieces are long and well written enough to stand alone as very good literature. Beneath the Red Banner by She Lao is a good short novel about a small village ripped apart by political infighting and the abuse of power by the local landowners. The story is based around the domestic tribulations in the village, but allows wider events such as the ethnic divisions between Hans and Manchus, the raging Civil War between communists and Kuomintang and the remnants of imperial power to affect the lives of the characters.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess..because I thought it was about time.
The Bass Saxophone by Joseph Skvorecky...because it is often cited as being the best work by one of my favourite authors, and I hadn't read it yet. It was good, but give me one of his longer novels any day.
Baize-Covered Table with Decanter by Vladimir Makanin...because I can't resist a modern art cover. Its about the absurdity of the 1980s Soviet system of bureaucratic, almost police-style interrogations for domestic or social issues.
Mary by Vladimir Nabokov...because he is a really, really good writer. Mary was his first novel. Not his best, but enough signs of what was to come to make it worthwhile.
On Chesil Beach b Ian McEwan...because I went to Chesil Beach. A fantastic 'writerly' work in which McEwan extracts a narrative about two complete lives based on one night spent together.
Question of Madness by Zhores and Roy Medvedev...because it seemed to follow from Makanin's book. It is non-fiction about the abuse of the Soviet psychiatric system for silencing political opponents.
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin...because a reading group I occasionally attend was discussing it. A very claustrophobic classic.
Sunset oasis by Bahaa Taher...because I thought I would return to my African pile. I may have changed my idea about that.
The Confidant by Helene Gremillon..because I was sent a free copy. It was actually okay, if a little melodramatic. The publicity was focussed on hello magazinr readers, which may tell you something.
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson...because I requested a copy from the publisher to review, a decision I now regret. Jauntily written in an inconsequential style, with a political message I found almost offensive.
The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg...because I received it as part of my subscription to Peirene press and all of their stuff has been somewhere between good and superb. 'The Brothers' was no exception.
I have also got a couple of reviews lined up for Belletrista (I think), which include:
The Murder of Hallund by Pia Jull (Denmark)
Daughter of Silence by Manuela Fingueret (Argentina)
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
I intend not to concentrate on a particular part of the world for a little while, but to eat away at my TBR as the mood takes me. We'llsee how long that lasts...
I was interested to read about the writer who was born in North Korea, since I've read two nonfiction books about the North. I may look for it.
By the way, I haven't read The Kite Runner either, and your review doesn't make me want to change my mind.
I was also interested by your comment about your Chinese reads ("nothing that was outstanding") interesting because a few years ago I read several contemporary Chinese novels and although they had their good points, they also had various flaws that made them disappointing reads. However, I'm looking forward to the Reading Globally 4th quarter theme read on China, as I hope to find some works I'll enjoy more. The two last books you mentioned sounded the most interesting.
I've been reading a lot of Russian, and especially Soviet, fiction and non fiction, so Baize-Covered Table with Decanter sounds intriguing. And I have to get to the Skvorecky which has been on my TBR for years, The Engineer of Human Souls, one of these days!
The Chinese stuff has all been a bit disappointing so far. I don't think it is anything to do with the country of origin, just a mixture of bad luck and possibly a publication system that didn't allow some writers to come through. I don't really know about the latter. As I was reading I did think that there were no Chinese writers who are particularly trumpeted over here. Xinran is well known, but its probably fair to say that it is her content rather than her style that has grown her reputation. Gao Xingjian was awarded the Nobel prize, but his books don't seem to have entered the canon of World classics in English speaking nations (whatever that means). I read one short story collection of his that I didn't particularly like. Hopefully the China themed read will unearth some gems.
Andy yes, the Engineer of Human Souls is probably my favourite Skvorecky to date, although The Cowards is also excellent imo.
I don't, on the whole, read explicitly to fill in my 'big list' (post 2) any more, but I still intend to pop in for updates. I made 2 updates recently.
The first is to replace Don Quixote with Dublinesque as my Spanish read. I liked Cervantes' book a lot, but Vila-Matas is more my style: an absurd post-modern and allusive story about a man turning a personal crisis into a grandiose fin-de-siecle gesture. It follows Samuel Riba, an ex-alcoholic former publisher who believes that the day of the written word (what he calls the 'Gutenberg Era') is at an end. He decides to commemorate the event by gathering his friends in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin on Bloomsday and giving a funeral oration for the written word. It is beautifully written (and translated) and is unashamed in cramming in literally hundreds of literary references. It is literature about literature, not in an overly clever meta-fictional sense, but simply as a book imbued with a genuine love of the written word. It lacks a traditional narrative and is probably inaccessible to anyone who hasn't read Ulysses (the most persistently reference book), but is otherwise a work I would strongly recommend.
The other update was to replace Ariel Dorfman with Roberto Bolano's 2666 as my read for Chile. Once again, Dorfman was very good, but 2666 is something else. It is a huge book with a series of overlapping narratives that touch on (directly or obliquely) serial killings in a fictional Mexican town (Santa Teresa - based on the real murders of hundreds of women in Cuidad Juarez). Bolano's narratives are largely about lives that only touch, or are touched, by the murders (apart from a section that deals with them more directly) but this technique, of describing lives that swirl around a centre that is rarely faced head-on was incredibly powerful, as if the reader is invited to look at the worst of humanity, but only out of the corners of their eyes. Despite its size, I found it an easy, and relatively quick, read. It was my third book of 2013, and I would not be surprised if I didn't read anything better this year.
On the other hand, I am getting close to Chile, and Bolaño sounds attractive too.
Thanks. I wish I was more diligent about posting on LT. I have started Nazi Literature in the Americas. It is a very short book (250 pages of very big print), which is probably a good thing. It is an interesting Borges-esque attempt to create a false historical narrative (think A Universal History of Infamy, if you have read it), but may be a bit of a one joke book. I am very keen to read The Savage Detectives though, so there may be more Bolano to come before too long.
Dublinesque is self indulgent (both on the part of the writer and the reader), but very good nonetheless. if you feel like swimming back to Europe for a bit, you could do much worse. As someone who works in a bookshop, the death of the 'Gutenberg Era' is a fairly chilling reality at the moment.
I have replaced Broken April as my Albanian book with Three Elegies for Kosovo. Both are by Ismael Kadare. I had previously read two Kadare and not thought much of either of them. However, I always had the nagging doubt that the translations were clunky, and that maybe it was the translator, rather than Kadare himself, that I wasn't keen on. I decided to have one more go with Three Elegies for Kosovo, and I'm really glad I did.
It is a beautiful small book, barely 90 pages, that manages to pack in all of the absurdity of war. It focuses on the 1389 defeat of the Christian Balkan armies by the Muslim Ottoman Empire, an event that became part of Serb national identity, even to the point of being a rallying point for Serb nationalist in the recent conflicts in that part of the world. The book wonderfully describes the chaos of confused identities and shifting allegiances, as well as the depressing stupidity, surrounding nationalist conflicts. It is a very powerful little book and worth an hour of anyone's time.
Frangipani by Celestine Hitiura Vaite
I mentioned in another thread that I would not, on the whole, be reading books base on my challenge this year. However, I read The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa, which was partly based on Paul Gaugin's life in Tahiti, and my eye was caught by this book, which is written by a Tahitian writer. I visited Tahiti many years ago, so thought it was time to add another place to my Reading Globally list.
French Polynesia, of which Tahiti is the biggest island, is a French 'Overseas Country'. Citizens hold French passports, but the government has some autonomy. There is a large Polynesian population and it is about 10,000 miles from Paris, all of which meant that I have designated it one of my 'other' places.
Frangipani is a genteel look at the sometimes fractious relationship between Materena and her daughter Leilani. The book begins prior to Leilani's birth, and looks at Matarena's family life, especially her relationship between herself, her husband Pito, and her two sons. What emerges is a portrait of a proud woman who is nevertheless kept from fulfilling her potential in life by contemporary Tahiti's attitudes toward women. When she has a daughter, Leilani, Matarena is forced into confronting what these attitudes mean for her daughter's life. Leilani grows into a headstrong young woman who is prepared to defy the traditions handed to her, something that causes an awakening in Matarena.
Although Frangipani purports to deal with some big issues, it is a cosy book. There is no real narrative thrust, instead being broken into a series of 5-10 page chapters, each of which recounts an incident in Matarena's life. The book is bathed in the warm glow of family love, meaning that there was little in the way of jeapordy or drama to the lives depicted. It became like a peek into the diary of someone I had never met and, too be honest, wasn't hugely interested in. The lack of overall narrative and the inconsequential nature of each short chapter meant that the book just sort of washed over me without leaving any dents. Some of the observations of family life were very good, and the ending is uplifting without being too mawkish, but this is likely to be the only part of the 'Mahi trilogy' that I will be dipping into.
I have replaced Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars with Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe as my Swiss read. I have only read these two books by Swiss writers (and some Herman Hesse who, by my rules, is German but many see as a Swiss writer).
Despite Moravagine's status as a classic, I didn't get on with it that well. Sea of Ink is published by the superb Peirene Press. They publish three books a year, all of which are 'literary cinema' designed to be read in a single 1-2 hour sitting.
Sea of Ink is the fictional biography of a the real 17th Century Chinese painter Bada Shanren. Told in 51 single page chapters, it describes episodes in his awakening into spirituality and his growth as a painter. Punctuated with images of his paintings, it is a very beautiful short meditation on art, artists and the inner life of paintings.
So, my Swiss read used to take me high into the Swiss alps, it now takes me into 17th Century China. Go figure.
Maybe I missed something along the way, but what do you mean by "replacing" a book? it sounds to me like you've read more than one book from a country in some cases, so does only one "count"?
>228 GlebtheDancer: I only read that first one, also.
I don't seem to get over to this group as much as I used to, but I'll keep an eye out for your postings.
I have also been reading a lot of Jean Rhys' short stories. I want my list to include novels wherever possible, so have chosen not to update the entry for Dominica from Phyllis Shand Allfrey's The Orchid House, but Rhys' Sleep it Off Lady deserves an honourable mention as one of the best short story collections I have read in recent years.
Thanks for keeping up you highly informative thread, Andy!
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic (Bosnia and Herzegovina/Germany)
This is a stunning semi-autobiographical novel. The narrator, Aleksandr (and the author), grows up in Yugolsavia in the 1980s in Visegrad, site of the famous bridge over the river Drina. The early part of the book is a darkly comic recreation of Bosnia in the 1980s, full of pop culture references and peopled by a fascinating cast of characters. As the early 1990s approaches, Aleksandr starts to see stirrings of ethnic tensions, and new hatreds that had not existed before. When the war gets too close, he moves to Essen in Germany, to start a new life. The latter part of the book is a beautiful, saddening, heartbreaking tale of Aleksandr trying to find the characters he knew from his Visegrad childhood, and discovering the effects of the war on them.
I can't praise this novel highly enough. It is translated by the brilliant Anthea Bell, and all of the pathos and tragicomic humour shine through. Though many of the characters are presented as being absurd, almost comically so, their fates and Aleksandr's hunt for them had me near to tears. It is tough, but I have never read anything with similar themes that has even come close. A very memorable book for me.
Um, gotta be a typo. (Unless some pun is going on...?) Proper form is "Aleksandar".
Replaced Battlefields and Playgrounds with Satantango as my Hungarian book. The former was good but the narrator's voice irritated me. The latter is a very atmospheric, evocative short novel about a group of workers and their decisions about what to do with a windfall at the end of collective farming in Hungary. It is muddy, rainy, dreary and alcoholic, but all in a good way. I have also watched the seven hour film of the book, which is also very good. I have read, coincidentally, a few Hungarian authors this year, and an honourable mention should go to Life is a Dream, a funny, drunken romp around the taverns of Budapest in the 1930s. It was probably my favourite, but I am trying to bias my list towards novels.
My other update is The Riddle of Qaf as my Brazilian read. I haven't had much luck with Brazil so far, but I really enjoyed this. It is a Borges-esque journey through the Arabic alphabet and pre-Islamic arabic poetry. Its central theme is to discover a lost poem and the reason for its creation and loss, and it includes all the usual themes of unreliable narrators, questionable historical sources and metaphysical conundrums.
Maiba by Russell Soaba
Maiba is a young girl, born to a formerly respected village elder whose power is waning. The book is the story of intergenerational conflict, and Maiba's role, as the new, educated, modern generation, to diffuse the conflicts by introducing new wisdom into the deeply entrenched views of the villagers she lives with. Written in 1979, it describes itself as only the second Papuan novel ever published.
If the purpose of my journey is to learn a little about the world, then Maiba was certainly interesting. There were enough cultural reference points and bits of language and history to pique my curiosity about a country about which I know very little. If the point is to discover good literature then this isn't the one. There was something very unsatisfying about the pacing that made the whole narrative seems incidental, and I never really felt that Maiba herself rose above being a mouthpiece for Soaba's cross-generational conflict resolutions, rather than a real human being. Its a short one, so literary travellers could do worse than have a look, but its not one I can recommend.
Guanya Pau by Joseph Walters
This wasn't a million miles away from Maiba in terms of themes but was a much more enjoyable read for me. It was written in about 1891, and has been called the first novel ever published by an African writer. Although it isn't necessarily great literature, there was enough in this short book to keep me interested and i finished it very quickly.
Guanya Pau is a young girl living in traditional village in Liberia. She sees herself surrounded by unhappy women, women who are subjected daily to violence, sexual assault, forced marriage and drudgery. Guanya herself is promised in marriage to a man she has no love for, and who she knows to mistreat his wives. As she grows towards womanhood she questions the values of her society that allow these things to happen. As her wedding approaches she falls in love, precipitating a disastrous flight from her home.
Again, this isn't a fantastically written book, ad the theme of intergenerational conflict and questioning of values are hardly startling. However, Guanya herself is a complex character and the issue of domestic violence is not sugar-coated or presented as some sort of cultural artefact, but presented as an unnecessary and horrific reality. All of which means that Guanya Pau was a decent short read, if not one I would rush to recommend.
Praying Parents by Julli Sipolo
Sipolo was the only Solomon Islander I could find in print (she ha also published under her maiden name Makini). 'Praying Parents' does not have an ISBN and I had to add to the LT database. It is published by the Aruligo Book centre, a local Solomons publisher. So expectations weren't high. It is also poetry, a medium I tnd to struggle with.
However, this was a strangely fascinating collection. The poems are short, and deal with largely domestic and family issues such as her relationship with her parents, her abuse at the hands of her husband and the increasing distance between her and her children. Despite this miserable sounding synopsis Sipolo's poems are able to find the love that underpins her family relationships and the poems, though generally not happy, have a contentment of life lived in the presence of love.
The poetry itself is not stylistically or linguistically amazing, but rarely descends to doggerel and has a raw and honest edge that I really enjoyed. Like the previous two reviews, not a massive thumbs up from me, but not a terrible book to spend a quiet hour in the presence of.
Qatari Voices by Various
I found this sitting in the English language section of Al-Saqi books in London and, given that Qatar had proved difficult for my travels I thought I would pick it up. It is non-fiction, and is a series of short essays by young Qataris about how they see their home country and the changes that have happened in their lifetimes.
The book was put together as a writing project for students wanting to improve their English, and the writers profess to mostly wanting to be writers or academics. Maybe I was expecting too much, but, for me, none of the writers had anything interesting to say.
The whole book read like what it was, a school project that should never have found its way into print. Again, it was very short, so not too much time wasted, but wasted it was.
The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Macleod
This was the book that reminded me why I started the challenge in the first place. That's not to say that it is great. It isn't. But its pretty good and I learned a lot.
It is based on the true story of Elisabeth Sansom, a black woman born in freedom (as opposed to being a freed slave) in 18th Century Suriname. Elisabeth is rich, priveleged, intelligent, strong-willed and black, a combination that apparently got her in a lot of trouble. Freeborn blacks had all the same rights as whites (in theory) in colonial Suriname, but the reality was one of racism that Sansom spent her life rebelling against.
The book sketches a narrative into the historical facts: that Sansom was freeborn into a rich family, that her sense of social justice and refusal to stay silent led to her exile to the Netherlands, that she fought for the right to marry her white companion and faced battles to retain what was rightfully hers in the face of racist authorities. MacLeod creates a believable Elisabeth, endows her with the arrogance and will to make her crusades for justice plausible and, as a result, has written a very readable book. MacLeod is a historian first and novelist second, and this becomes obvious with slightly odd pacing as the narrative lurches from one verifiable historical event to another rather than giving itself license to sketch in the dark corners. Nevertheless I enjoyed reading this book and discovered a lot about about Dutch colonialism in Suriname. The sort of book reading Globally Challenges were designed to find.
Just under a year ago I wrote this on anoplophora's thread, which is a similar challenge but only with female writers:
I am really glad someone has taken on this challenge. I became aware a little while ago of how make biased my reading was, especially from countries that are a little off the usual literary map. I have taken on a challenge to read a book by an author from every country (158 so far). Of those 158, there are 93 from which I have only read a male author, 22 female only and 43 with at least one of each.
So my new score for female writers is:
163 countries total (inc. 5 'other' places)
92 male only
24 female only
48 with at least one of each
A bit of improvement?
Not only have I enjoyed your trip around the world, but I am impressed by your dedication to it!
PS I've seen the name GlebtheDancer around and didn't realize it was you until now!
Don't know why i changed my name. I used Depressaholic on a lot of web sites but it just didn't seem to fit any more.
Satantango is an odd book, but worth it. Its very slow despite being so short (250 pages). I watched the film because I was fascinated how someone would get a 7 hour film from a slow, short book. The opening shot is 8 minutes long and involve some cows wondering round, which helped answer my question.
The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi
Eight Stories by Chinese Women
ROC was formed during the Chinese civil war when Chinese Nationalists left the mainland after defeat by Communist forces. PR China has refused to recognise ROC's sovereignty, and it is recognised as an independent nation by 23 other states, but does not have UN member status. As such, I have put it as an 'other' place on my list.
I read two books by Taiwanese writers in the last couple of months. The first was the very surreal eco-fantasy The Man with the Compound Eyes. It is a story in which the lives of several characters are brought together by the ecological disaster of a trash vortex floating in the Pacific. Alice has lost her husband and son in a climbing accident, and is preparing for her suicide. Atile'i is from a Pacific island that has not been discovered by the rest of the world, and floats to Taiwan on a mound of plastic. He meets Alice, and they help each other understand the new worlds they have to inhabit.
This was an odd book, and certainly unique. There is a larger didactic point about the changes mankind is wreaking on the planet, and the trash vortex is central to the story, as both evidence of, and a metaphor for, how the modern world is both being changed and changing us. Alice's story is touching, and her quiet descent and redemption is really well done. However, there is something about the book as whole that didn't work for me. There are a lot of peripheral characters who didn't make sense to me, and Alice's story and the eco-parable just didn't hang together. When I put it down I just couldn't work out what it was I had just read, or what the author was trying to communicate. In style, the book reminded me a little of The Life of Pi, but the weirdness of the latter book is part of its point, whereas the weirdness of The Man with the Compound Eyes just lost me.
The second book was Eight Stories by Chinese Women. It was published in the early 1960s by Heritage publishing, a Hong Kong based publisher. It is the sort of thing I love picking up from second-hand shops but often have low expectations of. However, I really enjoyed this. It is a collection of writers who were publishing in Hong Kong and Taiwan but didn't have an international reputation. The stories are mostly about 20 pages long, and cover relatively familiar subjects such as love, loss and parenthood, but the editor has chosen eight very well written, and well translated stories. It won't be the easiest thing to find, but its definitely worth a read.
I have added The Man with the Compound Eyes to my big list, because I want to have mostly novels on there.
Wide Sargasso Sea. Also read Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow which i remember entitled Smilla's Sense for Snow. Like the other one better.
Not enough time now to pick out more from your list; back later :)
If you are at all a fan of short stories, I would recommend the Rhys. My favourite is Sleep it Off Lady, but any of them are worth reading. She is brilliant.
Stormy Isles by Vitorino Nemesio
So, back briefly for my seventh 'other' place (165th overall). The Azores are an archipelago pretty much in the middle of the North Atlantic. They were discovered uninhabited by the Portuguese in the mid-15th Century. The islands grew famous as a whaling station, but they are now more well known for tourism and hiking. They are politically integrated into Portugal, but have status a an autonomous region, qualifying them, for me at least, as an 'other' place in my challenge.
You know sometimes how you read a book that you know objectively is not great, but that somehow elicits a little fond smile when you are finished? That is Stormy Isles. It is, apparently, something of a national classic for the islands. The story looks at two feuding families through the eyes of the younger generation, particularly Margarida and Joao Garcia, the Romeo and Juliet of the novel. Their families are business rivals, and represent the old money and aristocracy of the islands. The stifling social atmosphere means that every character's life becomes public property, as each wedding and business deal causes ripples thoughout the tiny and insular community. Margarida grows from a girl into a woman and, as she does so, learns to balance her familial responsibilities with the workings of her heart.
This is less a novel and more a soap opera, with multiple melodramas being woven around the central plot: Margarida's fate. Written in the 1940s, but set in the 1920s, it gives itself too much leeway to explore and describe island culture, frequently at the expense of plot and direction. Many of the little subplots don't push the story along at all, but serve to generate a little tension that is quickly dispatched. The characters are not really fleshed out well enough to shed a tear over their fates and, like a lot of pre-sexual revolution novels, the obsession with who will marry who gets a little tedious. And yet, there is a clear fondness of the author for his characters, and a love for the islands. It felt more like a bit of silly fun than the serious epic I suspect it was supposed to be, but I read it in that spirit and actually enjoyed it. Although the shoehorning of Azorian culture was distracting in places, it also made this book a good selection for my Reading Globally challenge. I gave it 2 stars on my list above, but it is 2 stars with a little tilt towards the upper end of the range. It is not abook I would rush to recommend, but I have encountered much, much worse on my travels.