Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Poland: Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg

Wioletta Greg is a poet, and it shows in this delightful novella about a young girl growing up in the country in Poland in the dying days of the Communist regime. The young girl at the centre of the book is named Wiola, and one wonders if it is semi-autobiographical. At any rate, the series of small vignettes that make up the book are at times amusing and at times lyrical - but also very gritty. Superstition and religion are in conflict with each other and with politics in this community, but while in some ways it seems like a long-lost rural world, in other ways it is strikingly modern - glue-sniffing, for instance, makes an appearance. The title is taken from an episode in which Wiola breaks a thermometer and swallows the mercury after being sexually molested by the local doctor.

I found the writing very fresh and, despite the grimmer aspects of the story, overall uplifting.

"Swallowing Mercury" was translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books. It was the recipient of an English Pen Award.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

I found this book listed on a website suggesting the most iconic book set in 150 countries round the world. While not all the books listed on the website are written by authors from the countries in question (the English novelist Graham Greene has listings for both Haiti and Monaco, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is the title chosen for Cuba and, strangely, the listing for Barbados is Nigerian author Chris Abani's novel Song for Night set in West Africa), there were some useful suggestions of books I had not come across before.

William Kamkwamba is a young Malawian brought up in the village of Wimbe near the capital of Lilongwe where his father was a farmer. When famine hit the village, he had to drop out of high school as there was no money to pay his school fees. At a loose end for something to occupy his time and his mind, he resorted to a small library of donated American books in the local primary school. The science books fascinated him, and from them he was inspired to build a windmill to bring electricity to his family's small house so that they could have electric light (and not have to go to bed at seven in the evening). His windmill was built mainly from junk salvaged from various places including an abandoned tobacco estate nearby. From time to time, when a part needed to be purchased, he managed to pick up odd jobs for cash, or was helped out by his slightly less poverty-stricken friend Gilbert, the chief's son.

William not only succeeded in building his windmill, he attracted outside attention, and was invited to speak at a TED conference. Donor help enabled him to go back to school, and to realise his dream of building a bigger windmill to pump water so that his family could grow two crops a year instead of one, and of bringing wind-powered electricity to his whole village.

The book is written in the first person - theoretically by William. But he describes at various times his poor English, and no matter how much it has improved, no doubt his non-Malawian coauthor played a big part in the writing of the book. So on this basis, it perhaps does not quite qualify as written by a Malawian writer - still, I am going to count it as such.

What I found particularly inspiring about the book is that William's dream in no way involved emigrating to America, as so many African books seem to focus on. Instead, he clearly loves his home, and wanted only to make the lives of his family and village better - and the improvements that enabled this were by no means huge and expensive. Sometimes small things, coupled with intelligence, persistence and determination can make a huge difference.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was published by Harper Collins in 2009.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Grenada: Hurricane Fever, by Tobias S Buckell

I was a bit dubious about the suitability of this book for Grenada. Tobias S Buckell was born in Grenada, and spent much of his youth growing up on boats in Grenada, and then the British and US Virgin Islands. However, he now lives in the United States, and the blurbs for his book suggested that they were standard western style thriller territory. Nevertheless, they are readily available in our library, so I selected the most Caribbean sounding of his titles, and went ahead.

I actually enjoyed it very much - great holiday reading. It has actually been marketed as science fiction, taking place in the near future, when climate change has caused sea level rise and a considerable increase in the number of hurricanes and the area in which they hit. Petro chemical fuelled vehicles still exist but are the preserve of the wealthy and most cars are electric. And a wealthy megalomaniac has a plan that will change the face of the world for ever...

Former spy Roo Jones receives a message from a dead friend, and in the midst of raging hurricanes, he must come out of his retirement to puzzle out the significance of the information he has been left, and act to defeat a global conspiracy. Of course, with this type of book, it always spoils the plot to reveal too much, so I will leave it at that. I found the technology quite credible and the suspense was maintained throughout.

Hurricane Fever was published in the UK in 2014 by Del Rey, part of the Random House Group.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Iceland: Butterflies in November, by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

It's not difficult to find Icelandic crime novels - they seem to go along with the whole Scandinavian crime noir scene that is very popular right now and helps fill out the shelves of our library system. I knew though, that Iceland is a very literary nation and I wanted to see what else I could find. (Literary festivals in Iceland feature prominently in the works of David Mitchell, who I suspect may have attended a few as a speaker himself).

This book is narrated in the first person and the narrator does not appear to be named (I might have missed it somewhere, but she is only referred to as "she" on the back cover blurb so I suspect not). She has been dumped by her husband and her lover, hits a goose with her car, killing it (and subsequently cooking it), and acquires responsibility for her pregnant best friend's deaf son, after her friend is hospitalised.

There is one bright note - she wins the lottery. Now spectacularly rich, she takes the boy, Tumi, on a road trip across the country. Despite her never having wanted children, she bonds surprisingly well with the deaf boy. Along the way, passages in italics hint at a secret in her past.

The book is described as "blackly comic". I didn't find it comic in a "laugh out loud" sort of way, more "wry smile" territory - but also tender and sensitive. A very enjoyable read which also gave some of the flavour of Iceland in November and December, when the sun barely lifts above the horizon (but one can still go swimming, in hot pools).

Butterflies in November was translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon and published by Pushkin Press in 2013.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Republic of Congo: Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou was born and grew up in Congo, and currently lives in Los Angeles. I have to confess, I am still a little confused about the two Congos. It would have been simpler if the other - the former "Belgian Congo" - had retained its name adopted in the late twentieth century of Zaire instead of becoming the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Republic of the Congo is apparently also called Congo-Brazzaville after its capital city, which is just across the river from Kinshasa, the capital city of Congo-Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Congo-Brazzaville was formerly part of French Equatorial Africa.

Its other large city is the port city of Pointe-Noire, where the author grew up and this story is set. The hero is an orphan who was given a name by the priest Papa Moupelo "Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko" which means in Lingala "Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors". The story follows his time in the orphanage where he eventually falls in with the twins Tala-Tala and Songi-Songi. The orphanage is under the control of a corrupt director. The Marxist-Leninist revolution of the 1970s has caused the demise of the priest Papa Moupelo as religion is now out of favour. Moses escapes the orphanage with the twins to live a rough life on the streets of Pointe-Noire, and finds a home among the Zairian prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter. As he grows up, they encourage him to find honest work. But his good times do not last...

I enjoyed the book, but to my Western notions of story arc, the ending seemed a little off...somehow not the type of resolution we would normally expect from a novel. Poor Moses does not come out of life very well, in the end, which seemed strange as it had appeared he was going to be a survivor. It is neither quite a tragedy nor a comedy but somehow trails off a little. Still, it was a great insight into the street life of the country, and was a winner of an English Pen award and a finalist for the International Man Booker Prize in 2015.

I also have the author's memoir, "The Lights of Pointe-Noire" and am looking forward to reading that, too.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Liberia: This Child Will be Great, by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

I couldn't find any fiction from Liberia, so instead I chose this memoir written by Africa's first female president. It was interesting to read, but more impersonal than I expected. Although there were some childhood memories, mostly it was an account of the author's political life and career, and of political events in the country. There were some interesting omissions. For instance, at one point the author spent nine months in prison. Blink and you could miss it. In one paragraph she was being imprisoned, and almost in the next sentence she was released again, with almost no indication of how she felt about her time in prison and how she coped.

She married very young and divorced her abusive husband when she was still young, with four sons. Near the end of the book, she explains why she did not marry again. She says that there were romances, and one very special friend, but no details are given.

Still, I learnt a lot about the country from the book. The author is just finishing her second six year term as president, and the book was written early in her presidency. (She was elected at the end of 2005 and the book was released in 2009, before she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011). It would be interesting to read a follow-up, with more details of how she succeeded - or not - in her goals, later in her presidency, and how she coped with the Ebola crisis. And - dare I say it - maybe some more personal insights?

"This Child Will be Great" (the title was taken from something an elderly man said to Ellen's mother) was published by Harper Collins.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

South Africa: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Zinzi has a sloth which accompanies her everywhere she goes, draped on her back. She lives with other "animalled" outcasts in a Johannesburg slum known as Zoo City. Her talent is finding lost things, which she uses to earn her living, but when a job goes wrong she is engaged, reluctantly, to find a missing girl, and is drawn into a very dark and dangerous underworld revolving around the music industry.

This is fantasy but not of the usual sort which always seems to be set in a vaguely medieval type of world. The setting is in every way modern South Africa apart from the fantasy elements in which people who criminal acts become "aposymbiots" and at the same time acquire unusual, magical talents. It's dark, complicated and totally original. I could say it's not a genre I've been into much before - but then, it is not really a "genre" novel at all, bursting out of the confines of both fantasy and noir thriller.

Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011 - an award for the best science fiction novel published in English in the previous year. Which is interesting, since "science" is thin on the ground although perhaps the vaguely stated reasons for the onset of the condition of animal companionship qualify as "science". Be that as it may, the book's quality is certainly deserving of recognition. I'll be looking out for more of this author's work.