Friday, December 30, 2016

Portugal: The Elephant's Journey, by José Saramago

In the previous post, I said that "enjoyable" wasn't the right word to describe "The Blind Owl". It is, however, exactly the right word to describe Saramago's delightful account of "The Elephant's Journey". In it, he weaves a whimsical fantasy around the true story of an elephant given by the king of Portugal in 1551 as a wedding gift to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, later to become Emperor Maximilian. To achieve this gift, the elephant had to be transported largely on foot (with a brief sea interlude between Rosas in Spain and Genoa in Italy) from Lisbon to Vienna, across the plains of Spain and over the Italian Alps to Austria.

The style is charming, if at times a little confusing. A minimal amount of punctuation and capitals means that occasionally it is difficult in a dialogue to tell exactly who is speaking, and where the shift from one speaker to another takes place. The narrator stands back and comments from a modern viewpoint, so that we read comments such as "Having to spend the night in villages meant finding in them a covered area large enough to shelter the horses and the elephant, the four oxen, and several dozen men, and that, as you can imagine, was not easy to find in sixteenth-century portugal, where they had not yet learned to build industrial warehouses or inns for tourists."

Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922 and came to prominence as a writer in his fifties. He has produced a large body of work including plays, poetry, short stories, non-fiction and over a dozen novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. He died in 2010. "The Elephant's Journey" is no doubt not the greatest of his novels, but is well worth reading. It was translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Vintage Books.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Iran: The Blind Owl, by Sadeq Hedayat


The Blind Owl was initially banned in the author's native Iran, and became a best seller after it first appeared in 1941. It reminded me, a little, of my choice for Afghanistan - Atiq Rahimi's "A Curse on Dostoevsky". It is hallucinatory, nightmarish, circular - one is never quite sure what is being presented as having actually occurred and what is being presented as occurring only in the opium fuelled visions of the narrator, a solitary man disillusioned with life.

His occupation is a maker of pen cases, on which he paints images of an old man beneath a cypress tree. A young girl in a long black dress offers him a blue flower of morning glory. These characters and images - the old man, the young girl, the blue morning glory - appear repetitively through the book, as living characters, as images on a pottery jar, as a corpse, as the narrator himself. Similarly, tastes and smells recur such as "bitter as the stub end of a cucumber".

To say I enjoyed the book would not do it justice (and would not be quite true) but it is certainly a powerful book which lingers in the mind.

Sadeq Hedayat lived from 1903-1951, when he committed suicide. He was the founder of modernism in Persian fiction and is considered the greatest modern Persian writer.

I read the edition translated by D P Costello and published by Alma Classics.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

United Arab Emirates: That Other Me, by Maha Gargash

"That Other Me" explores the position of women in Emirati society through the eyes of three people. Majed Al-Naseemy is a wealthy businessman from Dubai, struggling to retain control of his life. His niece Mariam, daughter of his deceased brother Hareb, is studying dentistry in Cairo, in the hopes of making a life for herself away from the influence of her hated uncle. Dalal, daughter of Majed's second secret marriage, is also living in Cairo with her divorced mother, attempting to make it as a singer into the world of Arab popular music.

As Majed attempts to exert his authority over Dalal and Mariam, things start to unravel for all three of them. Dalal refuses his commands to abandon her career. Mariam is recalled to Dubai, where a marriage is arranged for her to a considerably older man, the only son of a rich widow. At her wedding there is an explosive showdown when Dalal appears among the guests.

This is an enormously readable book and provides a fascinating insight into the lives of Arab women. I found it interesting that dates of events are specified very exactly, so that we learn that it takes place between 1995 and 1998, even though it was published in 2016. There are no obvious political events that require those dates, which makes me wonder if the author has perhaps set it at the time when she was roughly the same age as the two girls.

Maha Gargash was born in Dubai to a prominent business family, studied in the United States and London, and joined Dubai Television where she directed documentaries dealing mainly with traditional Arab societies. Her first novel, "The Sand Fish" was an international best seller.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Hungary: The Door, by Magda Szabó

This is the story of the relationship between a writer and her housekeeper, Emerence, an elderly woman about whom at first we (and the narrator) know very little. Everyone in the neighbourhood knows and respects Emerence, but Emerence has some very unusual habits and reveals little of herself to those around her. No one has ever been inside her door - she entertains visitors on her front porch. Gradually however, she comes to trust the writer and her husband, and to reveal to them events from her past life, which explain why she lives the way she does.

The first brief chapter starts "I seldom dream. When I do, I wake with a start, bathed in sweat" and ends "I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing". With that beginning, one is compelled to read on and discover the reasons for the narrator's statement. The book is a brilliant character study of the two women, and of those around them, as events unfold towards their tragic end.

Undoubtedly this will be on my top ten list this year. I can find no way to expand on the brief summary above, which does not do justice to the plot or to the complexity of the characters."The Door" is translated by Len Rix and published by Vintage Books in 2005. The original Hungarian version was published in 1987. Magda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary and died in 2007. She started as a poet, moved to writing fiction and has been awarded many prizes.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fiji: Black Ice Matter, by Gina Cole


I thought it wouldn't be too difficult too find fiction from Fiji, given that it is one of the larger Pacific nations. It turns out I was wrong. While there are a number of well-known Samoan authors, Fiji was proving far more elusive. Our library had two books - Peter Thomson's memoir Kava in the Blood, which Ann Morgan read for her year long project, and a poetry collection The Lives of Coathangers by Sudesh Mishra.

I felt there should be something else out there - then I came across publicity for the release of Gina Cole's collection of short stories, published by Huia Publishers. Gina Cole is described variously on the sites I found, as either "of Fijian, Scottish and Welsh heritage but identifying most strongly with her Fijian heritage", or more simply, Fijian. I was unable to find where she was born or how long she has lived in New Zealand, where she now lives and works as a lawyer, and has studied creative writing. However, I decided that this book was as good as I was going to find for Fiji in the meantime.

Given that the Fijian link is strong in the book, and Fiji is a tropical nation, there is also a surprising amount of ice in the stories. There are glaciers, black ice making roads treacherous, the art of ice sculpture, and a story simply called "Ice" which turns out to be the drug ice, or crystal methamphetamine. Despite this repeating motif, the stories are wonderfully varied. Some are set in Fiji, others are set in New Zealand with characters of Fijian origin, and one is set in a Chinese factory and written in the voice of a young girl making Barbie doll costumes for export to the west. Nearly all are original and surprising. I loved "Till" in which a Fijian glaciologist falls into a crevasse and discovers something unexpected. (How does a Fijian become a glaciologist? "At the end of high school, he joined the other students in his year clamouring to escape the suffocating coup culture of Fiji. They hawked their prodigious intellects around the universities with no embargoes on Fijian students" - in this case, developing his maths talents at the university of Sapporo, in Hokkaido).

It wasn't the many occurences of ice that struck me as repetitive - rather, the positioning of a story "Rabbit Shoot", immediately after "Pigeon Shoot". While they are somewhat different stories, I felt the book would have been strengthened by omitting one - probably the first. Even though it was the more "Fijian" of the two, I found "Rabbit Shoot" more compelling. This was a minor quibble.

However, when I came to the story "Home Detention", I found myself constantly picking holes in the author's veracity. Although the city isn't named, this is clearly set in Christchurch - the very specific time 12.51 gives it away, and the phrase "threatening to fall in every aftershock since the big one had hit five months ago". This is set in the earthquake of February 22nd 2011, which followed the earlier quake of September 4th, 2010. And as soon as I read "it should have stopped after a few minutes, but it kept on going", I couldn't stop myself from looking for errors. For a start, the quake lasted around forty seconds, not minutes. (The more recent Kaikoura quake took about two minutes, and that was a very long shake). Then, I felt that there were far too many houses that were completely falling apart - all the worst damage crammed for the convenience of the story into one or two streets. But the clincher was when Lucas reached the police station and found it had caved in. In fact, the police headquarters was still usable for some months after the quakes, although the police did eventually move out and the building was demolished. Granted, it is fiction, but it was a real event in which 189 people lost their lives, and I felt the facts were twisted a little too much in order to suit the story. It also made me wonder where else the facts might have been twisted, though when I checked some other stories they seemed to be accurate enough - in particular in the last story in the collection, where Rena comes from Rabi - an island I had never heard of, but which turns out to be a real island in Fiji, with some interesting history as the place of resettlement of the inhabitants of Banaba (also a real island).

In any case, "Home Detention" is a good story, but I felt that it would be improved by fictionalizing the quake more, and setting it, say, in a future earthquake in Wellington (where a large quake has long been thought to be overdue).

"Black Ice Matter" is Gina Cole's first book, and I am looking forward to what she may write next.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

This was a fascinating book to read shortly after Ishmael Beah's "Radiance of Tomorrow", as it gave a completely different view of the seedy underbelly of an African city, being set in a nightclub - Tram 83 - with its varied cast of miners, students, "baby chicks", gangsters, profit seeking tourists, musicians and others. "Radiance of Tomorrow" showed the old village ways as wise, and judged the evening drunkenness of the miners harshly. Tram 83 appears to make no moral judgments. It's structure, too, is quite different. There is a narrative of sorts, but language is central. Reading it is a heady experience, in which it doesn't pay to stop and puzzle over the meaning of each sentence - rather, let yourself be immersed in the rhythms, an experience rather like being in a night club full of jazz rhythms, noise, laughter, music, fights, snatches of conversations in which you are not quite sure who is talking...

Lucien is a writer home from abroad. His childhood friend Requiem has ambitions to make money in any way possible. Although it seems there is bad blood between these two. The phrase "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" comes to mind. The location of Tram 83 is "The City State" ruled by "the Dissident General" while the land outside the "City State" is the "Back Country". Mining is the source of riches in this country.

It's not a book for the faint hearted. Another character, the publisher, Malingeau, says "the main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we're happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too!" There is plenty of that, and drugs, illegal firearms, wheeling and dealing, the eating of dog kebabs and much more besides.

Underneath it all the phrases that repeat themselves like the bass to a jazz riff such as "the station with its unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined" - a passage which repeats throughout the book, occasionally in full but mostly in truncated form, like a fragment of a theme repeating, now on trumpet, now on saxophone, now on bass.

Not a book I would have ever read if I was not doing this challenge. But a fascinating experience, nevertheless.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila was born in Lubumbashi in 1981 and now lives in Graz, Austria. Tram 83 was written in French and translated by Roland Glasser. It was published in the US by Deep Vellum publishing. I read the edition published in Australia and New Zealand by Scribe Publishing.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Sweden: My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, by Fredrik Backman

Seven year old Elsa is different. She lives with her mother and stepfather George, in a block of flats in an unnamed Swedish town. Elsa's mother is very busy running the hospital, so she spends a lot of time with her grandmother who lives in the next flat. Her grandmother is slightly crazy (in a good way), getting up to all sorts of antics such as busting into a zoo, firing paintball guns and making snowmen who look like real men who have fallen from the roof. She also tells Elsa stories about the magical kingdom of Miamas. In short, she is Elsa's superhero, and every seven year old who is different needs a superhero.

When Granny becomes ill, she leaves a trail of letters for Elsa to deliver. Each time Elsa delivers a letter to one of the inhabitants of the block of flats, she hears their story, and receives another letter to deliver. Gradually we learn more about her grandmother and about all the other people in the block of flats.

This is a wonderful story full of understanding of the complexities of human nature. I did have to suspend my tendency to nitpick a bit. For instance, Elsa meets and rescues the wurse (who seems to be actually a very large dog) but it is never quite explained why the wurse seemed to have been living in a flat on its own. Or why the wurse is so remarkably accommodating and well behaved when Elsa hides him in various places such as the garage or a wardrobe.

And I did feel a bit sceptical at times about Elsa herself. She is not supposed to be a typical seven year old. She is very smart (though the school does not seem to think so, due to institutional tunnel vision that is concerned only with whether a child "fits in"). Nevertheless - and I've known some pretty smart children - at times I thought her behaviour and wisdom was stretching it a bit even for a very smart seven year old. Still - it's within the bounds of possibility that somewhere in the world is a child who is as smart as that (I'm talking emotional intelligence rather than solving complex mathematical equations, although Elsa is also a prodigious reader).

Still - a great read for the not too cynical reader. My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises was translated by Henning Koch.

Sierra Leone: Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah's first book, apparently much acclaimed (I haven't read it) was "Long Way Gone", a memoir of his experiences as a child soldier in the Sierra Leonean civil war. This is his second book, a novel set in the aftermath of that war. It tells of the life of a small town, Imperi, as the people gradually return to the houses they have fled during the war, and try to rebuild and resume their former lives. But they are hampered by the depradations of a mining company and of corrupt politicians.

I felt this book came from the tradition of story telling as a teaching method. Thus, I found parts of it a bit simplistic. The elders are always wise, their earlier ways are the best ways, the mining company is totally evil and the actions of its workers, who come into town drunk at night, are totally bad. The two teachers, Benjamin and Bockarie, who are the central characters, are good men trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. This may or may not be a true reflection of what was going on in Sierra Leone after the war, but as the basis for a novel, I found it somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps a well researched non-fiction book would be a better way of bringing home the message. Or perhaps not. Apparently there was some dispute about the truth of Beah's memoir. It's easier, in a novel, to say "these things happened - not necessarily to me"- and to amalgamate all the sorts of things that happened and present them as happening to one small group of people.

The other thing that bothered me about the book was that the language felt somewhat stilted. I think this arose from the method of telling it - the omniscient third person narrator - and the need the author seemed to feel to teach facts - so we have passages that felt more at home in an encyclopedia. Passages such as
"they had come to mine rutile, a black or reddish-brown mineral consisting of titanium dioxide, which forms needle-like crystals in rocks in the earth. Rutile is used as a coating on welding rods; as pigment in paints, plastics, paper and foods; and in sunscreen to protect against ultraviolet rays. And wherever rutile is found, you also find zircon, ilmenite, bauxite, and in the case of Lion Mountain, diamonds. Not that the mining companies reveal they are mining all of these minerals. They obtain permits to dig up only one - rutile. So it is rutile alone that is mentioned in the reports it sends out, but the workers come to learn the truth."

I too, would have appreciated the chance to "come to learn" rather than being fed such undigested chunks of information, and I believe a skilled writer could achieve this. Nevertheless I enjoyed the book, particularly some of the passages where the elders told their stories from an earlier time, and where the author used expressions from his native Mende language such as "the sky rolled over and changed its sides" which means, as explained in the preface, "night came suddenly". And what I found most astonishing at the book, is the way in which it ends with Bockarie's family full of hope for the future, despite the fact that to our eyes they are at rock bottom with little to hope for. Not for nothing is the book titled "Radiance of Tomorrow".

Friday, November 25, 2016

Bolivia: Affections, by Rodrigo Hasbun

This slim novel centers on Hans Ertl, a German mountaineer, adventurer and film maker, and his three daughters Monika, Heidi and Trixi. Hans Ertl was forced to leave Germany after the World War II, seen as a Nazi due to his work as cameraman on Leni Reifenstahl's propaganda documentary of the 1936 Olympics, and his later work as a war photographer. In Bolivia, Hans sets out to find the legendary Inca city of Paititi, deep in the Amazon jungle. Two of his daughters accompany him on this expedition. Later, the three girls take very different paths, Monika as a guerilla revolutionary, Heidi marrying and returning to Germany to raise four children, and Trixi living a somewhat aimless life in La Paz.

Hasbun, who was born in Bolivia in 1981, states at the beginning "although inspired by historical figures, this novel is a work of fiction. As such it is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Ertl family or the other characters who appear in its pages". I found this an interesting approach, given the recent time frame of the events - it appears from a google search that Trixi at least may still be alive. It's one thing to fictionalize the lives of 17th century English kings and queens, and quite another for twentieth century characters - after all, in the former case, we know when the author describes what someone is thinking that there is in fact no way they could know that. With more recent events, and possible live informants, the boundaries seem somewhat more blurred.

Whatever the truth of the story, I found it intriguing and compelling, and well told. I was interested to see that the translator was Sophie Hughes, who is also the translator of Umami, the book from Mexico that I had just finished reading before this one. She must be very busy!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mexico: Umami, by Laia Jufresa

Moving on down the North American continent, I arrived (at least in the pages of a book) in Mexico."Umami" tells the story of the residents of a mews complex in Mexico City. Alfonso, the owner and designer of the complex, is an expert in Meso-American dietary habits, and has named the five apartments after the five principal tastes - umami (savoury), sweet, sour, salty and bitter). His wife Noelia, a cardiologist, has died. The Perez-Walker family live in one apartment and run a music school in another. Then there is Beto, wife Chela and daughter Pina, and in the fourth apartment Marina, a depressed young artist.

One summer Ana, the eldest daughter of the Perez-Walker family, begs to be allowed to stay for the summer rather than going to her grandma Emma's in Michigan with her brothers. As her summer project, she plants a milpa (traditional Mexican garden). Ana also had a younger sister Luz, but Luz drowned three summers ago in the lake at her grandmother's.

The book moves back and forth in time over a period of four years, and changes narrators from chapter to chapter. We see the points of view of Ana, Alfonso, Pina, Luz and Marina in particular. They are all interesting characters - no stereotypes here! I found myself wondering at the task of the translator in some of the use of language. For instance Marina likes to invent colours. "Briefoamite is the ephemeral white of seafoam...burgunlip is the colour of your mouth after a few glasses of red wine...cantalight is that melony orange you only see at twilight." Reading these made me wonder what they were in the original Spanish, and whether the translator (Sophie Hughes) had to invent an entirely new set of colour names in English.

Then, in the chapters told by Luz, there are some intriguing words which arise out of a five year old's misunderstanding - "camuflash" appears to be her version of "camouflage". "Ziplings" had me wondering for a bit - your "ziplings" are the people you live with who are a similar size to you - then I realised it is "siblings". It's possible these are the same in the original, as the children do speak English when at their grandmother's for the summer. Whether English or Spanish though, I found the use of language great fun. And the book overall, funny, sad, tender, lyrical and poetic.

Laia Jufresa was born in Mexico City, and spent her adolescence in Paris. She returned to Mexico City in 2001. She currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Canada: The Gallery of Lost Species, by Nina Berkhout

I'm a bit of a sucker for quirky plots and interesting titles. So when I found this on the library shelves, and saw that it was written by a Canadian author, I decided to make it my Canada pick. (I find that my knowledge of Canadian writers is suprisingly limited, apart from Margaret Atwood, and I had already read a number of her books so wanted something new).

The title is rather reminiscent of Alice Hoffman's "The Museum of Extraordinary Things", which I had enjoyed very much. However it turns out to be very different, and much less strange. The first sentence is "When I was thirteen, I saw a unicorn". We quickly learn, however, that the unicorn is a goat. Edith, the narrator, is the younger daughter of Henry,an artist and Constance, a would be model, originally from France. Her older sister Vivienne is pushed by her mother into becoming a child beauty pageant star. Vivienne has inherited her father's artistic talent but rebels against her mother and sinks into alcoholism. Edith, feeling herself to lack talent, and nurturing a doomed passion for Liam, who yearns for Vivenne, studies museum conservation and obtains a job in the National Gallery of Canada. There she meets Theo, an elderly crypto zoologist, who studies mythical creatures. He is searching for a bird seen in Gauguin's paintings. (What happens if you find it, Edith asks his young colleague Jonathon. - Then it becomes a conservation problem no one wants to deal with).

I began to feel that this was not my sort of book at all - too much contemporary life, too much alcohol, drugs and general grittiness - but when I let go the expectations the title raised in me, I found it absorbing. It could have been sad and depressing. Instead, the ending, while not exactly uplifting, seemed to offer a resolution of sorts, and at least a measure of peace.

Nina Berkhout is a poet and this is her first novel, but the poetic sensibility shows through.

Friday, November 11, 2016

United States: News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I decided there wasn't much point in trying to select the "best" book to represent the United States on my round the world reading tour. With so many excellent books coming out of the US, it would be an impossible task, so I just picked up a copy of the most recent book that had attracted me, from our local library.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd lost his printing business in the Civil War. He is an elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them. He now makes a living travelling through North Texas with a collection of newspapers, setting up in small towns and reading extracts to the local residents for a dime apiece. In Wichita Falls, he is offered fifty dollars to take a young girl, rescued after four years with the Kiowa tribe, to her relatives in San Antonio.

Johanna has completely forgotten her former life and believes she is a Kiowa. Gradually, as they journey south through dangerous wild country, she comes to trust the "Kepdun" and they build a relationship.

This is a beautifully told story. The descriptions of the countryside and of the growing relationship are lyrical and poetic, while there is enough action to sustain the tension. I found the style interesting - the author does not use any quotation marks in conversation. This could have been confusing, but wasn't, and somehow managed to give an old fashioned, slightly outback tone to the narrative. And it seemed a fitting week to come across a list of the events of 1870 that the Captain was selecting to relate to his audience - among them the first female law graduate, the first professional baseball team, and the adoption of the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party. (Why a donkey? Maybe someone can enlighten me).

Monday, November 07, 2016

Belarus: Down Among the Fishes, by Natalka Babina

The blurb on the back of this book was a bit misleading. "Two twin sisters, natives of Dobratyche, a small Belarusian village on the Buh river close to the border with Poland, set out to examine the events that led to granny Makrynya's unexpected death. Their trek quickly turns into a murder investigation."

After reading that, I was expecting a murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie, or Midsomer Murders. In fact, there is very little direct investigation of the murder in the book, although it does get solved in the end. Instead, there is a rich tapestry of other events - politics (one of the sisters is the local electoral agent for an opposition candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections), a treasure hunt, and the general daily life of the small village. This is a modern village. So there are not only cows, pigs, and mushroom hunting in the forest, but also the internet, crooked property developers, corrupt politicians and so on, with elements of magical realism and glimpses of history thrown in.

I found the mix enormously entertaining, and also fascinating in its look at life in a little known country. What intrigued me was that the book managed to get published in Belarus, despite its hugely critical attitude towards politics in that country. Despite a fictional name being used for the president of the country, the description of the election process, of vote rigging and of trumped up criminal charges and violent attacks on opposition candidates, it does seem to target the current President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, and is widely believed to be involved in vote rigging and other undemocratic processes (known by some as "Europe's last dictator"). All this makes the book sound rather grim, but it's not - in fact, all ends joyfully and the human spirit triumphs.

the author is a journalist for Nasha Niva, one of the leading independent newspapers in Belarus.

"Down Among the Fishes" by Natalka Babina, translated from the Belarusian by Jim Dingley, published by Glagoslav Publications 2013.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Estonia: The Ropewalker, by Jaan Kross

I read a book earlier in the year which I posted under the heading Estonia - but I decided to revisit the country for two reasons. Firstly, the author of the first book, Sofi Oksanen, is actually Finnish, though the book was set in Estonia and the author has Estonian ancestry.

Secondly, I spotted Jaan Kross's newly translated book in the library, and it looked too inviting to pass by. It is the first volume of a major historical trilogy with the overall title "Between Three Plagues". Parts 2 and 3 are apparently due to appear in English in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Jaan Kross was born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1920. At the time he was writing his historical fiction, Estonia was part of the USSR and writers were severely restricted in what they could publish. Kross withdrew into writing historical fiction, in order to become less visible to the authorities. At the time in the mid 1500s when this story is set, Estonia was part of Old Livonia, a territory which was squabbled over by several major powers, jostling for control - Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, and Poland-Lithuania. The series concerns the life of Balthasar Russow, the author of the "Chronicle of the Province of Livonia" which recounts the history of Livonia from 1156- 1583. Balthasar was a remarkable man, of peasant stock but very intelligent, with the knack of being in the right place, and saying the right thing, at the right time. The first volume ends when he is still a young man in his mid twenties, returning to Livonia after a period studying theology in Germany.

The book is quite lengthy and is packed with description. Apparently Kross was often seen walking around old Tallinn, peering at the details of buildings in order to better describe them, as many were just as they had been in Russow's day. Description can be tedious and often the reader tends to skip it. That wasn't the case for me with "The Ropewalker". Without the language standing out and drawing attention to itself, the description seemed to be an integral part of the story, easy to read and blending seamlessly with the narrative. Only occasionally did I stop over a particular phrase which seemed particularly vivid
eg "a reddish brown beard so sparse that each hair had to shout to its neighbour to be heard".

I will be looking forward to the next volume in the series, as eagerly as I am awaiting the final part of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

The Ropewalker, by Jaan Kross, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher, published by MacLehose Press 2016

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ireland: The Gamal, by Ciarán Collins

The narrator of this book is Charlie, who is known in his small Irish village as "the gamal". This is short for "gamallogue", an Irish word that seems to mean simpleton or village idiot. Charlie has witnessed traumatic events and is writing 1000 words a day at the request of his "head shrink" who believes it will help him with his PTSD. Gradually, the tragedies that beset his best friends James and Sinead, are revealed.

I loved this book. Not for the plot, which is in the end, based on fairly universal themes. In fact, towards the end, I found myself thinking of Shakespeare. Not in the sense of one Shakespeare play modernised (as in West Side Story, for instance). I did think "Romeo and Juliet" but then I found myself recognising elements of several more Shakespearean tragedies - I won't say which for fear of spoilers. What is more amazing about this book is the sense of voice. The way in which Charlie is brought to life as an observer who sees and understands a good deal more than the locals give him credit for. He is largely silent but not unintelligent. The way in which the book is cast as a sort of stream of consciousness - the "thousand words a day" device - basically a "shitty first draft" as Ann Lamott would say without it actually being shitty to read. It's in a way, a similar difficulty to writing conversation. If you transcribed what people actually say, it would be tedious and boring. The skill is in making it sound conversational, without it being actually so. In the same way, the style of this book has to convince as a first draft, and yet manage to reveal the story in a way that is not too baffling and not too repetitive. Which it does, admirably. There is enough of the nonsense that Charlie types just to fill his word count to make it sound like a first draft, and enough jumping back and forward in time, but not so much that the story suffers. In fact it only serves to enhance the tension - what did actually happen to Sinead and James? Why is Charlie so distraught that he barely left his room for two years?

Ciarán Collins was born in County Cork, where he is a teacher, in 1977. This is his first novel. I will certainly be on the lookout for the next.

Afghanistan: A Curse on Dostoevsky, by Atiq Rahimi

Initially I thought Afghanistan would be easy, but it turns out that most books set in Afghanistan are written by non Afghanis. Nadia Hashimi visited Christchurch in the last readers and writers festival, but it turns out that she was born in America of Afghani parents. (I do have one of her books waiting to be read). In the end, it came down to Khaled Hosseini - now living in the US - and Atiq Rahimi - now living in France. I had already read several books by Hosseini, so Atiq Rahimi was the pick.

I found this book quite difficult from a Western perspective. The protagonist seemed neither likeable nor sympathetic. The book starts with him committing a murder. Gradually, his reasons for the murder, and his unravelling state of mind afterwards, are revealed. He identifies with Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" (which I have not read, so have to take the parallels on the authors say so). Eventually though, I came to believe that the main theme of the book was to point out the differences between Western and Afghani justice. When Rassoul tries to turn himself in, the authorities don't take him seriously. Murder is a civil matter, between the murderer and the family of the victim. Other crimes, which we would consider far more trivial, turn out to be taken much more seriously in the eyes of the authorities. For instance, the accusation that he is a communist, and that he took a prostitute to a sacred site.

One can see why the author may have had to leave Afghanistan. Passages such as: "You know, the communists spent ten years doing everything they could to turn this nation against Allah,without success. The Muslims, on the other hand, have achieved it in a single year!" could hardly endear him to the authorities.

In the end, I found the book offered an interesting perspective on a very different world view, even if the thinking was hard to follow at times. Would I read more by the same author? I'm not sure. Though this book proclaims "winner of the Prix Goncourt", so clearly there are plenty of fans out there.

The translator (from French) is Polly McLean.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Brazil: Crow Blue, by Adriana Lisboa

This book is narrated by Vanja (short for Evangelina), a young woman of around twenty two, telling of the events of her life at the age of about thirteen to fourteen. When her mother dies, she is taken in first by her foster aunt, and then she contacts her mother's ex husband Fernando, living in the United States, and travels to Colorado to live with him. Fernando was named as the father on Vanja's birth certificate, but he was not in fact her father, having already separated from her mother quite some time before she was born.

Vanja's motive in going to live with Fernando is to look for her birth father. This quest forms one thread of the story. Another is the back story of Fernando's past as a Communist guerilla in the Amazonian jungle. There are plenty of Latin American books in which violence - whether from, and inflicted upon, guerillas in the jungle, or in the crime ridden cities, features heavily. In this book it didn't feel particularly horrific because of the way it was told at a couple of removes from the action - filtered through Fernando's memories, and then through Vanja's, some years after the telling of it to her.

I read the book quickly, for the story. I would like to go back and read it again, for the language. In places it becomes quite poetic and, I felt, deserves deeper reflection. The title of the book comes from a poem, "The Fish" whose author is not named. I was thinking of Elizabeth Bishop but when I searched online, I realised it was another fish poem - Marianne Moore's. The crow blue shells of the ocean off Copacabana beach are referred to, and then later the shell blue crows of Colorado.

The descriptions of the ocean are quite lyrical - in contrast to the publicity at the time of the Rio Olympics, which suggested that the water of Copacabana beach is so heavily polluted that no one swims there, lest they get sick. Perhaps it was cleaner fifteen years or so ago, when Vanja was a child.

I chose Crow Blue because it was the most readily available of Adriana Lisboa's books. I located a couple more at online bookstores, but only in hardback, making them a little pricy. Adriana Lisboa was born in Rio de Janeiro, and has published eleven books including six novels. She currently lives in the United States. Her novel Symphony in White won the José Saramago prize. That one is set entirely in Brazil. I'm wondering if I can persuade our library to purchase a copy, as I'd like to read more of her work.

Crow Blue, by Adriana Lisboa, translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin, published by Bloomsbury Circus 2013.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Belgium: The Guard, by Peter Terrin

I wanted to keep a good gender balance on my world reading list. After all, well over fifty percent of the books by British and American writers that I most enjoy are by women. For some countries, it's hard to find any books at all, so if I can find one author, and it's a man, I'll read it. But for Belgium, I figured there must be some good women authors out there. However, all my googling revealed one: Amélie Nothomb. And as she was raised as a diplomat's daughter, most of her books seem to involve foreigners in Japan. Which wasn't quite what I was after.

In the end I settled for Peter Terrin, as his books are readily available in our library. I will just have to address the gender balance elsewhere.(Which reminds me, it might be time to do a count up and see how I am progressing on that score).

"The Guard" is set in a dystopian future, at an unspecified date, in an unnamed city. Harry and Michel are guards who live in the basement of a block of luxury apartments. It is their job to ensure the security of the apartment owners, in the face of nameless threats from outside - a plague? a nuclear war? Rioting and looting? They never leave the basement. At least one of them must be on guard at all times, so they take turns sleeping. One weekend all the residents but one leave the building and do not return. But Harry and Michel remain on post, faithfully guarding and ensuring the security of the one remaining tenant. If they do their job well, they hope to be rewarded by "the organisation" with promotion to "the elite" - the guards who are given jobs on spacious country estates, with fresh air and gardens.

This is a fascinating study of the effects of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation on the human brain. The tension mounts. At first it is clear when Michel is fantasising and when his thoughts are about reality. Towards the end of the book, his mind ever more confused, the reader is left wondering. Is that what happened, or is that in Michel's mind?

There was only one plot line which I felt struck a false note. Eventually the organisation provides a third guard. However, this is not till after most of the residents have left. The story would have made sense if the organisation had forgotten about Harry and Michel, or if some nameless misfortune had made them unable to provide for them. Since they dropped off a third guard, clearly they haven't forgotten about them. But why do it, when nearly all the residents have left, without also providing supplies? Why not relieve Harry and Michel from their posts completely, or drop off supplies? I felt that the third guard was merely a device to rack up the tension, an unnecessary one. Other than that, the writer depicts Michel's state of mind, and the events that took place, with great skill.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Burundi: Baho, by Roland Rugero

This is I think the first book in my project that I had to buy, rather than borrowing from our local library. It is the first novel from Burundi ever to be translated into English. when it arrived in my mail box, I found a very slim package. The story itself finishes on page 90, and then we have a translator's note. So I expected the reading to go quickly, especially after being drawn in by the opening:

It's November, and the heavens are naked.
Ashamed, they try to tug a few clouds over to cover up under the merciless sun, which brings their nakedness unflinchingly to light.

I wasn't as gripped, however, by the rest of the story. Really, the narrative content amounts to enough for a short story. Nyamuragi, the mute, tries to ask a girl in sign language where he can relieve himself. She mistakes his gestures for a rape attempt. A crowd forms and almost lynches him. The story moves on from there - but not much. There are countless philosophical digressions, and proverbs in Kirundi, the local language (the book was actually written in French). Even though the translation of the proverbs is given, I found it hard to follow the relevance of many of them.

All this sounds a bit harsh. I did actually enjoy the book, and learnt quite a bit about the country from the story and the end note. Roland Rugero was born in Burundi in 1986 and works there as a journalist. He has held a residency at the Iowa International Writing Program. So clearly he has encountered western writing styles, and I am not sure how much the style of this book owes to the culture and story telling style of Burundi, and how much it is just his own personal style. But I would have preferred more complexity to the story at the heart of the book, and fewer digressions on the nature of language, time, proverbs and this that and the other.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Nigeria: Taduno's Song, by Odafe Atogun

Nigeria is one of the easier African countries to find books from. I had already read two by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - "Half of a Yellow Sun" and "Americanah", and last year's acclaimed "The Fisherman" by Chigozie Obioma. So that left me looking for something else, and I was delighted to see a new Nigerian author in our library.

What's more, Odafe Atogun was not only born in the town of Lokoja, in Nigeria, but still lives there, in the capital of Abuja. That was a bonus since so many other Nigerian authors seem to have left the country to settle in America or the UK.

Taduno's song is rather different in style from the others mentioned above. Taduno is a musician, living in exile in an unnamed country, in a lonely town seemingly empty of people. One day a letter arrives, and he realizes it is time to return home. But when he does so, he finds that all his friends and neighbours have forgotten him, even though he left only three months before, and remembers them all clearly. Taduno has lost his voice after a beating by the soldiers of his country's brutal dictator. To rescue his girlfriend Lela, who is in prison, he must find his voice and sing again.

Mostly the book is fairly non specific about names and places. However it does, once in a while, specify that the country is Nigeria, and that the city that Taduno has returned to is Lagos. It also mentions the annulment of the June 12th elections, which enabled me to search on google and find that the elections concerned were held on June 12th 1993, and that Nigeria's most brutal and corrupt dictator, General Sani Abacha, came to power after the elections were annulled.

The book is less complex than "Half of a Yellow Sun" or "The Fishermen". It has the style of a fable, and thus it is fairly black and white, and there is not a great deal of character development. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read, with a simple but powerful message, and added more detail to my knowledge of this large African country.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Israel: The People of Forever are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu

I picked this book by my favourite method of wandering round the library shelves, looking for interesting titles with authors' names that sound foreign. Then if the blurb matches in interest, I borrow it. This one described the author as born in Jerusalem in 1987 (so, still in her mid twenties when the book was published in 2012)and living in Israel. She is the youngest ever recipient of the US National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 Award.

The author served in the Israeli Defence Force for two years. As the book makes clear, that is not unusual - in fact all young Israeli men and women are drafted for two years at the age of eighteen. The book follows three young women - Yael, Lea and Avishag - during their two years in the army, and to some extent, afterwards. Given the author's background, it might be thought that the book is thinly covered autobiography, however, since the three girls serve in different branches of the army, and have different personalities and different experiences, I suspect that there is a lot more imaginative skill that went into the story. I found all three fascinating, complex characters.

At the beginning they are all in school in a small village where the Lebanese border, where nearly everyone works "in a factory that makes parts that go in machines that help make machines that can make planes". The village, and the factory, have been built in the north near the border about thirty years previously. "There is one empty brown hill after another in that region, the government said, and if we are a country, we can't all live in just one part of it". So the girls grow up with missiles coming over the border, and with very little in the way of entertainment. Which may be why they grow up with such vivid imaginations.

The last two chapters felt a bit odd, as if the author did not quite know how to finish off the story. The second to last chapter sees the girls drafted back into the army, briefly, during a war with Lebanon. The final chapters goes back to when Yael was eighteen and waiting to enter the army, listening to her mother's story of her service in the air force as an air traffic controller, at the time when a hijacked plane was rescued from Entebbe in Uganda. It seemed to leave everything hanging in mid air, as far as the girls' lives went - but then, that is life which is never quite neatly wrapped up.

All in all, I found it an enthralling book, and I will be very interesting to see what the author comes up with as a follow up.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Korea: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

"Before my wife turned vegetarian, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way" is the opening sentence of this award winning book. It was published in Korea in 2007 but not translated into English until 2015. Early one morning the husband referred to later in the book only as "Mr Cheong" wakes to find his wife in the kitchen throwing out all the meat in the house. Her only explanation is "I had a dream".
But this is extreme vegetarianism, which appears to be a form of anorexia. The book is narrated by three different characters in three different sections (although we never hear directly from Yeong-hye herself.
Bodies, and our relationship to them, appear to be central themes of the book. Yeong-hye appears to wish to obliterate her body by not eating. Eventually she wishes only for water, and it appears that she wants to merge with the forest where the mental hospital to which she is eventually committed is situated. The second section is narrated by her brother-in-law, an artist. He creates a video piece in which he covers Yeong-hye's body and his own with gigantic colourful flowers and makes an erotic video of the two of them - but he too, seems to want to obliterate the actual bodies beneath the layers of flowers. The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye's elder sister, In-hye, a successful businesswoman who takes on the responsibility of Yeong-hye after Mr Cheong divorces her. In-hye is seemingly the normal of the two - or is she? Does she too, harbour dark secrets?

I read the first two sections in one sitting and then went to bed only to find that I couldn't sleep. Not because of nightmarish visions but because my mind was just ticking over so much with the complex layers of the story. It is both compelling and disturbing, a worthy winner of the Man Booker International Prize.

Incidentally it is In-hye's mention of her sisters "Mongolian mark" that first triggers her husband's fascination with his sister-in-law's body, and vision to paint huge fantasy flowers over her. I would like many Westerners have had no clue what this was had it not been for the fact that years ago a friend adopted a half-Greek baby. R had a "Mongolian blue spot" which is apparently common to Asian and Mediterrean races. It is a bruise-like birth mark, which has been responsible in Western societies for some cases of unjust accusations of child abuse against immigrant families. It usually fades after a few years, but Yeong-hye still has hers as an adult.

I have been a bit remiss in not acknowledging the translators of the books I have been reading. The Vegetarian is translated by Deborah Smith and published by Hogarth.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bulgaria: Stork Mountain, by Miroslav Penkov

When I read an interview with the author of this book online, I knew I wanted to read it. And I wasn't wrong - I absolutely loved the book.

The narrator is a young boy, born in Bulgaria, who left with his family, apparently when he was about ten years old, and returns to sell his share of the family land. He has landed in financial trouble and needs the money to pay his debts. But also, he sets out to find his grandfather who stayed in Bulgaria. Intertwining with the stories of the boy and his grandfather are the myth like stories they make up to tell each other, and the story of the young Muslim girl Elif, who the boy falls in love with. Then there are the storks who journey every year from Africa to the mountains in the south of Bulgaria, and the fire dancers who perform their rituals every year in two small villages. So there are many layers to the story, and they are all beautifully woven together.

The book is in seven sections which the author has described as corresponding to the seven stages of transformation. It's not a short book but each individual chapter is short, and the reading seemed to go quickly - perhaps because there is plenty of white space on the page, perhaps because I was so engrossed.

I really want to read more of this author's work. My only question - does this qualify as a Bulgarian book? The author was born in Bulgaria and left at about the age of nineteen for college in the United States. He is now a creative writing professor at the University of North Texas. Since he is still quite young - early thirties - I expected the perspective to be Balkan. However the book was written in English, not Bulgarian, though it has been translated and published in Bulgaria. To me, it read as Bulgaria seen through American tinted spectacles. So I think I would still like to find a book by an author still living in Bulgaria, and see if it has a different flavour, a less westernized viewpoint. It sounds like a fascinating country with a long and turbulent history, at the cross roads of Europe and Asia.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Algeria: Harraga, by Boualem Sansal

I'm trying to fill in more of the A's and B's in my list of countries. Algeria seemed as if it would not be too difficult, and so I tried to find a female author among a number of Algerian authors whose books were in our local library, but I failed. This looked like a good alternative...

Lamia is a single woman, a doctor, who lives alone in a crumbling old colonial house in Algiers. Her parents are both dead, as is her older brother Yacine, who has been killed in a car crash. Her younger brother Sofiane has become a harraga, a path burner, someone who risks his life attempting to flee the country for a better life elsewhere.

One day an impetuous, wild young woman, Cherifa, turns up on Lamia's doorstep. Lamia takes her in, because she says that Sofiane has sent her. Cherifa is pregnant, and soon turns Lamia'slife upside down with her unpredictable ways.

Lamia and Cherifa are two very different women, but they forge a friendship and alliance in a patriarchal world where to be a single woman is an affront, and a pregnant woman can be killed to protect her family's honour. I had hoped to read a book about Islamic woman written by a woman, but Sansal's perspective rings true and seems convincing. He is considered in the west to be one of Algeria's most important novelists, however since 2006 his books have been banned in his own country. Another, An Unfinished Business, has also been translated into English and I look forward to reading that, too, at a later date.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Germany: The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck

I am trying, in my quest to read a book each from every country in the world, to find books set in that particular country, written by someone who was born and brought up there, and preferably still lives there - and then also, to skew the balance towards women writers, because it would be easy to read books written only by men. This quest is easier for some countries than others. For some, there is only one writer easily found in English (Mia Couto for Mozambique, Jose Eduardo Agualusa for Angola). For some, all the books that look promising turn out to be written by writers who were either born in America or who emigrated at a very young age, and who are writing from the experience of their parents and grandparents. Armenia for instance is a particularly difficult example - there are plenty of books written by "Armenian Americans" but to find books written by contemporary Armenians that are accessible in English seems almost impossible.

Germany, however, was not too difficult. The bonus for Jenny Erpenbeck is that she was born in East Germany which brings a different perspective to her work from that of writers who grew up in the more prosperous and democratic west. The book takes its title from a phrase that recurs in the book: "a day on which a life ends is not the end of days". It is a what if" story which gives four different versions of a woman's life. In the first she dies at eight months old. In each subsequent version, events take a different turn, so that she lives longer and her story is added to. This is unlike the usual trope of "sliding doors" stories in that each story adds to what went before, but doesn't change it - she is dead or she is not, so it is more linear than a story in which she might, say, marry this man, or go off with someone else, so that two stories continue in parallel.

It is a quiet story. The unnamed woman at the centre of the story does in the end become esteemed and famous. And there is hardship and struggle in the Soviet Union during World War II. But it is all told without a great deal of drama, and yet it is quite lovely in the way it is told. I did find the abstraction of the woman's thought patterns while she was waiting for the secret police in Russia, and writing an account of herself in her defence, somewhat tedious. Other than that, I enjoyed it very much.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Taiwan: The Man With the Compound Eyes, by Wu Ming-Yi

Alice is a Chinese professor who is grieving the disappearance of her Danish husband and young son when on a rock climbing expedition. Atile'i is a youth from the mysterious island of Wayo Wayo. On Wayo Wayo, all second sons must put to sea on reaching a certain age, as a sacrifice to the sea god. Instead of the usual fate of second sons, which is to perish at sea, their spirits turning into sperm whales, Atile'i washes up on a huge floating island made of garbage - the Trash Vortex. After a tsunami, a part of this trash vortex is thrown up on the coast of Taiwan, bringing Atile'i with it.

The story of the meeting of Alice and Atile'i is at the heart of this book, which also encompasses indigenous Taiwanese culture in the form of two other characters, Hafay, a Pangcah, and Dahu, a Bunun. Then there are Sarah and Detlef, a marine biologist and an engineer, and the mysterious Man With the Compound Eyes of the title, who does or does not exist somewhere in the mountains of Taiwan.

The story of Alice and Atile'i is the most imaginative, convincing and novelistic part of the book. Some of the other elements felt a bit spurious particularly the introduction of Sarah and Detlef. I am not against novels that deal with contemporary issues, but I felt Sarah and Detlef were there just to push the environmental message home, and I don't really like to be preached at in fiction. (Was it necessary to add "a novel" after the title of the book on the front cover?)

Also, I wondered if it was a translation problem that made the language of the book seem a little stiff, in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was all in perfectly good English, and yet something seemed a little off and unnatural.

The worst passage of the whole book describes Sarah:

"She was always able to pierce the criminal subterfuges of state agencies or capitalists hiding behind the letter of environmental protection regulations or pseudoknowledge, no matter what the issue: the exploitation of polar oil or methane ice or excessive whaling in the name of research..." and so on.

Nevertheless, in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book very much, and appreciated the imagination of the main story line which is like nothing I have read before. The elements that dealt with indigenous culture were fascinating as I had always thought of Taiwan as populated by Chinese. (Although I did know that they had settled there on fleeing communist China, the fate of the original inhabitants was something I had entirely put to the back of my mind).

Wu Ming-Yi was born in Taiwan in 1971 and still lives there. He is a writer, artist, professor and environmental activist.

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'.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Pakistan: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, by Fatima Bhutto

This debut novel relates the events that unfold over the course of one morning in Mir Ali,a Pakistani town in a province near the Afghan border. It is the festival of Eid. Three brothers go their separate ways to pray, as it is not safe in these turbulent times for them all to gather in one mosque.

Aman Erum is a business man recently returned from study in America to be with his dying father. Sikander is a doctor in the vastly under-resourced local hospital. Hayat, the youngest, is an idealist student. Sikander's wife Mina is grieving the death of their son. And then there is the young girl Samarra, formerly expected to marry Anam Erum, but now estranged from him for reasons that gradually become revealed.

This book is well crafted and full of suspense as events unfold towards their conclusion - which is no less powerful for the understated conclusion, which leaves us wondering exactly what happens.

Fatima Bhutto is the daughter of a Pakistani father and Afghan mother. Her father was the brother of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in 2007. It was politics that kept her father in exile for many years and the reason why she was born in Kabul and grew up in Damascus with her father and his second wife, a Lebanese ballet teacher. She now lives in Karachi.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Austria: A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler

A Whole Life is the story of Andreas Egger, a man who lives a simple life in the mountains of Europe (exactly where is not quite specified). It is a lyrical and beautiful description of his life and his relationship to the mountains. His relationships are few, and his time away from the village in World War II brief. So, not an action packed book, and it is not a long book either, but it is delightful to read.

A taste - from the quote on the back of the dust jacket - "Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, like on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. and sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed."

The Irish Times has a longer account of the book here (contains spoilers).

Robert Seethaler was born in Vienna in 1966. The internet tells me he grew up in Berlin, so perhaps I should count this as a German book. The project is proving more difficult than I anticipated... (but I am getting to read some wonderful books, which I might not otherwise have read, which is the main idea after all).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Denmark: The History of Danish Dreams, by Peter Høeg

Peter Høeg's best known novel is Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. I read this quite a few years back, and then read his next novel, The Woman and the Ape, which met with a rather lukewarm critical reception, and didn't particularly appeal to me.

However last year I came across The Elephant Keeper's Children in the public library and rather enjoyed it, so decided to try another of his novels for my Danish contribution to the around the world project.

I was somewhat misled by the blurb on the back of The History of Danish Dreams. This begins "Denmark is the centre of the world. Or, more precisely, the centre of the world is located on the estate of the Count of Mørkhøj,at a spot on the edge of the coach-house midden. Around his estate the Count has built a wall. He has stopped all the clocks so that time should simply go away and the entire household may live forever - until two hundred years later the twentieth century makes its violent entry." I thought I was in for something with a science fiction flavour to it, but the book turned out to be more of a family saga, albeit with some rather surreal elements and very eccentric characters.

I found it a bit hard to keep track of the story line perhaps because I read it in rather small chunks - twenty minutes or so at bedtime. I think it would repay more concentrated reading. And towards the end I became a bit irritated by the number of authorial insertions, pretending that the book is in fact non-fiction - a "history of Danish dreams" - rather than fiction. For instance "All things considered, we should all be grateful that this is not a novel, since Carsten is far too complex a character to figure in a novel". Nevertheless, it's an intriguing read. While certainly a promising start to the author's writing career, I would have to say I preferred The Elephant Keeper's Children (which I'm not going to review here as it is not fresh enough in my mind, since I read it last year before I decided to start this project). One thing is certain - his books are not predictable, so if I should choose to try any more - maybe later since I still have over 170 countries to go - none of them are likely to be similar to either of these two.

Reading My Way Around the World

The blog has been languishing since the wind up of the Tuesday Poem community - but now I have a new project that I thought was worthy of being shared. This is not original, I have been inspired by a number of others on the internet. The plan is to try and read a book (mostly fiction) from each of the 196 or thereabouts countries in the world. (Ann Morgan has 196 on her list, my daughter's list is 206 countries, some of which are not yet officially recognised).

I have been compiling lists of potential books to read that are available in our local library, or could be ordered on the internet. For some countries, it's a challenge. And I realise that I haven't quite managed to define for myself what is a book from a particular country. For instance, I have been reading a book by an author born in Kabul, brought up in Damascus, who now lives in Karachi - set in the border provinces of Pakistan, near the Afghan border. So is that a Pakistani book, or an Afghan book? And I am also reading a book by a "Finnish Estonian" author, set in Estonia. After a bit of research however, I found that the author is Finnish, with an Estonian mother. So it is as much an Estonian book as if my mother had written a book set in Scotland - which I would not have considered a Scottish book at all. Still, I haven't located anything else Estonian, so I think this one will probably have to do in the meantime.

Ideally of course each book would be written by an author both born and raised in the relevant country (leaving at the age of two hardly counts), and set in that country. But for many war torn countries, this is a pretty tall order. I am rapidly learning how many people have had to flee their birth countries over the years - something very relevant at the moment to the situation in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

I plan to review each book I read here - or describe it at least, I'm not sure what constitutes a "review". I'm close to twenty books already, so I have a bit of catching up to do. Look for the first one soon.

(Any suggestions for books to read, particularly from obscure countries, will be very welcome).

Friday, January 01, 2016

2015 Reading: Fiction

For most of 2015, I kept a list of books that I had read and found that the total was quite considerable. This hasn't always been the case. In some years, I've marvelled over blogs that post their "ten top books" from the previous year, given that if I posted my ten top books, it would be likely to nearly all the books that I'd read.

I'm not going to select my top ten, but I did find that there were almost twenty books on my fiction list for the year, so I am listing some of those that I particularly enjoyed or found notable for various reasons:

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

I've been a fan of David Mitchell since reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a historical novel set in Japan, specifically, on the island of Dejima. I also enjoyed the opportunity to hear him speak when he visited Christchurch. (David Mitchell, that is, not Jacob de Zoet). I love the many layered quality of his work, and the fact that each one is a surprise, and very different from the one before. The Bone Clocks is a sort of supernatural/dystopian/futuristic/realistic novel which spans a period from around the 1980s to several decades in the future. I both started and ended the year with David Mitchell as for Christmas I received a copy of his latest book Slade House. I found it a bit disappointing (even though I enjoyed it very much). I had the feeling that it was written because his publisher was pushing for another book, so that he recycled some of the ideas in The Bone Clocks and used them again, in what is much more a "one idea" book, something that I have not found with Mitchell's books up until now. It's the interweaving of ideas in his work that I find the most rewarding aspect - and the way that minor characters from previous books pop up in new roles in subsequent work is a small treat.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

An old man and his wife set off on a journey in post-Arthurian Britain. There is something important that they can't quite remember... There is a dreamlike quality to this novel, which is less a reworking of Arthurian legend (despite the setting), than a meditation on the nature of memory, and of how society deals with the aftermath of war, and heals old wounds.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
This novel imagines a substantial back story for the life of Camille Pizzaro, known as the "father of impressionism". It focuses on his mother, Rachel Monsanto Petit Pizarro, a Jew of French and Portuguese ancestry born on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, at that time a Danish territory. The lush and exotic setting, and the story of a remarkable and unsual woman, made it a rewarding read.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill
Set in a futuristic London, where music is used to communicate in place of words, and memories reside only in physical objects. "The dystopian novel" can easily become cliched, but I found this stunningly original. The slow reveal of how things got to be the way they now are is fascinating. The fact that Smaill is musically trained herself shines through the book (and sent me in search of her 2005 collection of poetry, The Violinist in Spring - poetry, too, shines through the pages of The Chimes).

More in the next post.