Friday, August 19, 2016

Spain: This Too Shall Pass, by Milena Busquets

The back dust jacket of this slim book carries extracts from eight reviews which claim it to be "luminous and profound", "full of subtle wisdom", "touching and deeply funny" among other words of praise. Hmmm. I found it profoundly annoying. Blanca's mother had just died. She leaves Barcelona and travels to the resort town of Cadaques along with two friends, two ex-husbands and two sons. There is also a married lover tucked away.

Any "subtle wisdom" is tucked away beneath layers of talk about sex, drugs, and detailed adjective-laden descriptions of what everyone is wearing. Blanca seems to live a comfortable life but has no visible means of support: "my psychiatrist wants me to get a job". At one point, one of her friends accuses her of being a spoilt rich girl with a trust fund, and just when I was thinking "that explains it", she denies having a trust fund, but there is no alternative explanation of the source of funds that she lives on.

As for the drugs, the talk of drug use - smoking a joint, for instance, or at another point, being offered a "line" at a party - is treated as quite casual and normal, with little hint that drugs might actually do harm. And there is plenty of the "f" word.

Yes, there is some widsom about the grief process - overwhelmed, as I said, by the other elements. Some beautiful description. Humour? Nothing that I recognised as such, perhaps it is humour that does not translate well internationally.

The book was not so bad that I had trouble finishing it. But neither was it good enough for me to have any desire to seek out more by the same author.

Japan: The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The professor of the title of this book is the survivor of a car accident which left him with a short term memory loss. His clothes are covered with pinned on notes, one of which reads "My memory only lasts for eighty minutes". The housekeeper is a single mother of a ten year old son, and she and her son gradually develop a relationship with the professor, and a love for the mathematics that is still his passion. And the professor seems to develop a relationship with them, too, even though each morning he has forgotten them and has to refer to the notes and sketch pictures pinned to his clothing that identify her as his housekeeper.

In the first section I began to wonder if I had made a good choice, as there is an extended description of how the professor asks the young boy to come up with a better way of calculating the sum of numbers from one to ten (or one to a hundred, or any other number) without adding them up. This is the sort of maths that is regularly taught to extension programmes of intermediate school age children, and I wondered if the rest of the book would be similarly tedious, but in fact it was a beautiful and tender read.

Baseball comes into it too - the son, nicknamed Root, has a passion for baseball, as does the professor, although he has never seen a game. In his case, the passion comes from numbers and statistics.

I was surprised by one thing - the meals that the housekeeper cooks seemed very Western. It describes her cooking, for instance, a roast dinner. No mention anywhere of noodles, rice, tempura or any other Japanese dish. Since the author is Japanese, I have to assume this is authentic, even though if a Western author had described Japanese meals in the same way I would have thought they had it badly wrong.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cambodia: In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner

The standard disclaimer at the front of this book is rather at odds with the afterword. One states that the book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual people, events or locales, is entirely coincidental. In the other, we read "Raami's story, is in essence, my own". Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Her protagonist, Raami, is seven years old, and the events are told through her eyes, as her comfortable and privileged life in Phnomh Penh, in a family descended from Cambodian royalty, is forever lost. Forced into the countryside by the revolutionary soldiers, constantly moved from place to place, made to labour in the fields and on vast earthworks without the aid of machinery, she loses most of her family and descends into starvation.

However, this is not as depressing as it might be, as the story is told with poetic beauty. The old Cambodian folk legends and the poetry that her father has read to her comfort Raami, and she sees beauty in the world around her.

I did feel that the narrator's view seemed somewhat too sophisticated and abstract for a seven year old. I may be misjudging here, as this may just be the different world view of one brought up in a Buddhist tradition. None of this mattered in the end, however, as events unfolded towards their gripping end. The last couple of years are told in the shortest part of the book, as the days descend into a blurring monotony of sameness, an endless repetition of work, sleep, and very little to eat.

The author escaped with her mother and arrived in the United States at the age of eleven. I would have loved to read a book written by someone still living and writing in Cambodia - however, the vigorous extermination of "intellectuals" - anyone who could read or write - by the Khmer Rouge goes a long way to explain why those books might still be rather hard to find.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Bangladesh: The Bones of Grace, Tahmima Anam

When I borrowed this from the library, I discovered it was the third in a trilogy. I wondered at reading out of order, but it didn't seem to matter to much as the story stands on its own, with a bit of filling in of earlier events in later chapters.

Zubaida Haque is on the eve of leaving the United States for a paleontology dig in Pakistan when she meets and falls in love with Elijah Strong at a concert. After the political situation in Pakistan causes the dig to go disastrously wrong, she returns to her home in Dhaka, Bangladesh where she marries her childhood friend, Rashid.

There are a number of threads to her story - her two relationships with Elijah and Rashid, her search for her origins (she is adopted) and events that take place in the ship breaking yards of Chittagong. Zubaida is there to translate for a Western woman, who is making a documentary about the lives and conditions of the workers. The passenger liner, the "Grace" is being dismantled for salvage. The Bones of Grace of the title refer to both the ship, and to the bones of the walking whale ambulocetus which were the subject of the dig (and which we return to at the end of the book).

I was surprised to find reviews on the library website which thought the book only average, and that the story was "too complex". I felt the several threads worked in well and the storyline was always clear. Besides, I am a sucker for a bit of scientific geekery such as the walking whale. I found it a beautiful, passionate book and will definitely seek out the earlier two later.

Tahmima Anam was born in Bangladesh but left at the age of two as her parents were working overseas. She returned briefly in her teens. She was named a "Granta Best Young British Novelist". However, she was brought up immersed in Bengali culture, and visits Bangladesh frequently, where the rest of her family still live. So, this is Bangladesh not quite through Western eyes, but through the eyes of someone with a thorough knowledge of both cultures.

Italy: The House in Via Manno, by Milena Agus

Wandering around the library shelves looking for authors with foreign sounding names may not be the best way of selecting books to read from around the world. This is a slim book, which attracted me because there are a lot of countries. What's more, the cover proclaims it to be an "international bestseller". It is more popular romantic fiction than literary fiction, however. I found it a pleasant light read, and it does have a bit of a twist at the end.

The narrator explores the life of her Nonna, a Sicilian woman who married in the war, not for love but for convenience. Her husband is a good man, a widower, and they make a life together, with "kindness and good deeds". Nonna meets "the Veteran" when she travels to a spa for treatment for kidney stones. His mysterious figure lurks in the background of the story. What really happened between the two of them? At just over a hundred pages, it doesn't take the reader too long to find out - or does it? The ending is not quite clear (but better for that).

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Colombia: The Blue Line, by Ingrid Betancourt

Ingrid Betancourt is a Colombian politician and activist who was held hostage in the jungle for six years by anti-government rebels. Although she has previously written a memoir of this time, and other non-fiction, The Blue Line is her first novel.

It is not in fact, set in Colombia, but in Argentina, in the years before, during and after its "Dirty War" of 1976 to 1983, with follow up chapters set in the United States. The ruling military junta at the time embarked on a terror campaign in which anyone believed to have socialist tendencies was arrested, tortured and made to disappear. The book is an odd mixture of what seems like factual reportage in tone, sprinkled with doses of magical realism. The heroine, Julia, has spells when she sees future events, and is able to use her knowledge to prepare herself and those close to her for what is to come, and change the outcome.

I wondered if, by setting her novel in Argentina rather than Colombia, and by writing in a rather matter of fact tone, the author was distancing herself from the emotional trauma of writing about horrendous events.

I did find myself feeling more drawn in to the story towards the later part of the book, however earlier on the tone made it seem more like reading a history book - but less believable, as far as the more magical elements were concerned.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Australia: The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane

I was back on familiar territory with this book, at least geographically, the setting being a beachside town somewhere in the region of Sydney. Ruth is an elderly widow living on her own. One of her sons is in New Zealand and the other in Hong Kong. One morning Ruth wakes believing a tiger has been prowling through her living room in the night. Later that day a woman called Frida arrives, announcing she has been sent by the government to care for Ruth.

This is a novel that is a convincing and suspenseful portrait of the unraveling of an aging mind. But its portrait of Ruth does not relegate her to senility, giving a fully rounded view of her life and loves. There is plenty of suspense in the book, with new twists just when the reader is convinced of the path the book is taking.

This book was long listed for the Guardian First Book Award and shortlisted for a number of other awards. Fiona McFarlane has also published a book of short stories. I look forward to seeing what she will come up with next.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Estonia: Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Aliide Truu, an elderly Estonian woman, lives alone on the outskirts of a forest in Western Estonia. One day a dishevelled Russian girl appears in her yard, on the run. Where and who she is running from, and her connection to Aliide, are gradually revealed. Short chapters give shifting viewpoints and build tension as the plot shifts from an independent Estonia in the 1930s, though German and then Soviet occupation, to a free Estonia of the early 1990s. Secret Russian intelligence documents at the end of the book give another viewpoint, casting doubt on some of what has gone before.

Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish writer born to a Finnish father and an Estonian mother. The book makes clear the reasons for the displacement of so many Estonians, forcibly removed to Siberia, others voluntarily to Russia fleeing the Germans, to Germany fleeing the Russians, to Finland and Sweden and further west fleeing both. Besides the devastation caused by war, sexual violence against woman is a strong theme.

The one thing I found annoying about the copy I read was that it is one of those editions designed for book clubs, with a set of "questions for discussion" at the end. I have never belonged to a book club though I might consider it given sufficient spare time - but would run a mile from any book club that felt obliged to follow the sort of inane and prescriptive questions that these books seem to feel are helpful.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Albania: The Fall of the Stone City, by Ismail Kadare

Although Ismail Kadare is an internationally renowned author, I had never read any of his work before and didn't know quite what to expect. At first, this book seemed like just another World War II story, and a rather quiet one at that, lacking in much action. Nazi troops enter the city. Someone fires shots on the advancing tanks and the citizens expect reprisals. Dr Gurameto, who trained in Germany, greets the colonel in charge in the town square and invites him to dinner - they were once old classmates. The next day, the Colonel and his army disappear from the city.

Gradually, however, the story becomes more intriguing. How is the dinner connected with the folk tale of the man who invited a corpse to dinner? I found myself drawn in, and definitely interested in reading more of the author's considerable body of work.

Ismail Kadare was born in 1936 and in 2005 was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for 'a body of work written by an author who has had a truly global impact'.