Wednesday, March 29, 2017

New Zealand: The Quiet Spectacular, by Laurence Fearnley

New Zealand books are easy for me to obtain, and there's plenty of choice. I had gradually become aware of Laurence Fearnley as a writer I had yet to dip into, which seemed rather a lack, given that she has been writing novels, some of them award winning, for around twenty years. So I put my name on the hold list for her latest, "The Quiet Spectacular" at the library, and eventually it came round to my turn (the hold list being surprisingly long).

The book is set in the south of New Zealand, in an unnamed area clearly based on Dunedin, and on a rural dormitory town and wetlands slightly to the south of the city. Christchurch, where I live, also gets a mention as the childhood home of one of the main characters, and residence of her parents. I find when the setting is familiar, the reading experience is changed by the inevitable mental fact checking that goes on. I didn't find anything to quibble with (and the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 inevitably got a small mention).

The book centres around three women. Loretta is a school librarian with two grown children, a soon to be teenaged son, a husband and an ex. She appears to be suffering some sort of mild mid-life crisis, and has embarked on a project to catalogue adventurous women in a book (imaginary or real) called "The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women". Chance is a teenage girl whose goat farming father and brothers are interested only in go karts, while her mother is literary but cold and mentally cruel to her. Riva is an older women, who has given up a successful business making women's outdoor clothing in the United States, and returned to New Zealand where she is restoring and protecting a wetland reserve. Riva is mourning the death of her sister Irene, but has promised Irene that on the fourth anniversary of her death, she will do something spectacular to celebrate, and will then stop mourning her and get on with life.

These three women separately discover the wetlands, and a hut that Riva and Irene had built there, and eventually meet up. I found the variety of female characters interesting. Men are peripheral here. But though Riva says of men that she can "take them or leave them", it is not an anti-male book (the author, by the way, is a woman despite her male-sounding name). Chance's father, for instance, seems to be a good hearted person, in the glimpses we see of him, while her mother Trudy is not at all sympathetically drawn.

The book was interesting enough that I felt I would like to explore Fearnley's earlier work - in particular, "The Hut Builder" which won the fiction section of the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Japan: The Goddess Chronicle, by Natsuo Kirino

Some countries have too many fine authors to choose just one book. So, even though I had already read a book from Japan for this project, I decided that The Goddess Chronicle looked interesting enough that I would read another. Even if it means the project will take longer overall (I suspect I will choose extra books from a number of other countries, too).

The Goddess Chronicle is based on the Japanese legend of the gods Izanami and Izanagi. In the first part of the book, two sisters are born into the family of the Oracle on a small island which I suspect from the description is located somewhere in the area of Okinawa. They are inseparable, until, on her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is chosen to be the next Oracle, in succession to her grandmother, and enters a rigorous training. When the grandmother dies some years later, and Kamikuu takes over her role, her younger sister Namima discovers that she is to be the priestess of darkness, and live in isolation at the island's cemetery.

Namima who has fallen in love with a young man, Mahito, rebels against this role. Together the two lovers escape the island. But things don't work out as Namima had hoped. Namima finds herself in the underworld serving the goddess Izanami, but she wishes to return to the island for revenge.

I'm not sure how much of the book is drawn from the original legend, but I suspect that portions of the latter part of the book come from the original myth, and that the story of Namima and Kamikuu is the author's own invention. Natsuo Kirino has written a number of earlier books, chiefly crime fiction. This novel, too, is rather dark, in a much more mythic way. I found it quite spellbinding, and read it quickly, as it was hard to put down. However the parts near the end that appeared to be traditional were a little harder to follow at times than the parts that seemed original. The modern mind, perhaps, is a little less foreign than the centuries old legends.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Haiti: The World is Moving Around Me, by Dany Laferrière

Reading has slowed down a bit lately as we have been very busy at my workplace. In addition, I've been catching up on some of the books from my "to be read" list other than those for my world reading project - but hope to get back to some world reading soon.

By internet searching, I had a small but interesting looking list of novelists from Haiti, all women: Yanick Lahens, Edwidge Danticat (although she left the country at a young age), Marie-Vieux Chauvet, Évelyne Trouillot. When it came to our local library, however, apart from some children's books by Edwidge Danticat, all I could find was Laferrière's "I Am a Japanese Writer" as an e-book, and in paper format, his memoir of the Haiti earthquake.

Although Laferrière left Haiti as a young man and settled in Canada - as a journalist he was at grave risk from the then brutal dictatorship. However, at the time of the earthquake of January 12, 2010, he was in Port au Prince for a literary festival. This memoir is his account of the days that followed, before he was evacuated out to Canada by the Canadian embassy, and again when he returned to visit his family for the funeral of his aunt.

Although some 200,000 people died in the devastating earthquake, he does not dwell on that so much as describe the way in which life continued. And the background of Haitian culture that he describes is one of pride in a nation that was the first in the world, in 1804, where black slaves managed to shake off the rule of white men and form their own self determining nation. The narrative of the earthquake is fragmentary, in short, descriptive passages, and evocative. "We say January 12 here the way people say September 11 in other places" he writes. In Christchurch where I live, we refer to September 22 - our own earthquake of September 22, 2011. And though far fewer lives were lost here than in Port au Prince, and the devastation was not nearly as great, nevertheless, many passages had a resonance for me.

Laferrière pins down the reason why novels from some countries are so hard to find for this project:
"What art form will be the first to come forward after the earthquake? Poetry, so impulsive, or painting, eager for new landscapes? Where will the first images of the earthquake be seen? On the city walls or the bodies of tap-taps?... The novel demands a minimum of comfort that Port-au-Prince can't offer; it's an art form that flourishes in industrialized nations."

While I still hope to read some of the novels mentioned above, I'm glad I chose this one first. I found it a very readable insight into the country and the people, giving more depth than reportage of events in the newspapers.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Côte d’Ivoire: The Blind Kingdom, by Véronique Tadjo

This is another country for which I had to do some searching. I am trying to find female writers, and also to find alternatives to the books already read by Ann Morgan - I'm trying not to just follow someone else's list. Ahmadou Kourouma was Ann's choice for Côte d’Ivoire, and there seemed to be little else out there, until I came across Véronique Tadjo.

This is a slim book, and it does not follow the usual structure of a novel. It is a collage of short chapters which are made up of many types of text - some declamatory, like political speeches, some rather Biblical in form, in the nature of poetry or prophesy. Although I found this structure interesting, I also found that it made it harder to recall the story line, especially when I had put the book down and picked it up again later.

The book opens with a catastrophic earthquake, which the author says in an interview at the end of the book is a metaphor for the devastation that occurred in many African countries after independence. The unnamed kingdom in the story is ruled by the blind - another metaphor. The emblem of the king and his court is the bat, an animal with very poor eyesight but excellent sonar. The bats however, which inhabit the royal palace, leave their excrement everywhere, leading to pollution and decay.

The king's daughter Akissi falls in love with Karim, one of his advisers who comes from the Other People who are sighted. Karim sends Akissi to his mother in the north of the country, where she learns from her and recovers her sight.

At times I felt the method of layered texts led to a little too much abstraction, but on the whole, I found the book interesting and well told.
The Blind Kingdom was translated from the French by Janis A Mayes and published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Cameroon: Venus of Khala-Kanti, by Angèle Kingué

When I started looking on the internet for books for this project, the go-to author for Cameroon seemed to be Mongo Beti. However, his best known books were written in the 1950s. I wanted to find out if there was anything more recent out there. Then Imbolo Mbue burst on the literary scene with the publication of Behold the Dreamers - which I definitely plan on reading. However, although she is a young Cameroonian author, she lives in the United States, and I feel from the publicity that her book should really be counted as an American book, even though it centres on the immigrant experience.

So I kept looking, and eventually stumbles on Angèle Kingué's Venus of Khala-Kanti. It relates the lives of three women in an imaginary West African village. Although big promises of development are made by government officials, it is these three women who do the most to improve the economic lot of the village, using their ground up methods. Assumta, who has returned from the capital where she may have worked as a prostitute, sets up a small restaurant serving the needs of the drivers of the trucks sent to build new roads, and a small shop for the village. She takes in Bella and Clarisse, who have also faced hardship in their previous lives, and together they develop the Good Hope Center, which fuels the restoration and growth of the village's inhabitants.

The story is uplifting but not unrealistic. Although the women's endeavours greatly improve their lives, and those of others around them, there are also hardships and setbacks. And unlike Ishmael Beah's Radiance of Tomorrow, I felt that the story did not unnecessarily demonize the forces of progress, nor glorify tradition, offering a somewhat more balanced view.

The fact that I had to hunt rather hard to locate this book bears out that it is probably not destined to become great literature - but it is a well told tale, in its own way, and an enjoyable read.

Venus of Khala-Kanti was translated from French by Christine Schwartz Hartley and published by Bucknell University Press.

I have added a page to the blog with a list of countries, along with the books I have read for this project, and links to the reviews that I have written. I have also included the books that I read early in my world reading project, before I started posting reviews here. Possibly I will review these later, in the meantime I thought the titles might be of interest to others pursuing the same challenge.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Lithuania: Breathing Into Marble, by Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite

Translations into English from Lithuania seemed rather thin on the ground, so I was delighted to read of the release in 2016 of this novel, which won the 2009 EU Prize for literature.

Isabel lives in a country cottage with her husband Liudas and frail son Gailius. When she decides to adopt a troubled young orphan, Ilya, she has no idea of the chain of dark events that will follow. I immersed myself in the beauty of this story - the prose is poetic and although the tale is tragic, it also ultimately seems redemptive, enabling Isabel to come to terms with her childhood and with the consequences of Ilya's adoption.

The translation on the whole was excellent - the English read smoothly and naturally. And yet, every so often, an odd, ungrammatical phrase cropped up which was not a typo that would have occurred if it had been originally written in English. These were infrequent enough that I can't locate one on a quick look through to quote, however, careful editing would have picked them up - they were all of a kind that could be easily corrected and did not really detract too much from the reading of the book.

Breathing Into Marble was translated from Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute and published by Noir Press.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Netherlands: Ten White Geese, by Gerbrand Bakker

A Dutch woman calling herself Emilie has rented a farm cottage near a small village in Wales. She has fled Amsterdam after admitting an affair with a student at the university where she was a professor, working on a study of Emily Dickinson. Gradually and quietly, her story is revealed, along with that of her husband and of the young man who is invited to stay the night, and doesn't leave. Initially "Emilie's" husband accepts her departure, but then he discovers something which causes him to set out in search of her.

This novel is full of moments of haunting beauty. It is both tragic and strangely uplifting. I had earlier started on "June", another of Gerbrand Bakker's novels, but somehow found it too slow and couldn't get into it. This one, however, I found quite compelling, and the pace of the telling just right.

Ten White Geese was translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, and published by Penguin Books in 2013 (originally published in Dutch in 2010 and in English by Harvill Secker in 2012).