Sunday, January 29, 2017

Syria: In Praise of Hatred, by Khaled Khalifa

This novel is set in the 1980s at the time of an uprising in Syria against Bashar al Assad's father, Hafez. The nameless teenage narrator lives in Aleppo with her three aunts Maryam, Marwa and Safaa. As hostilities escalate, she becomes increasingly involved with the Muslim brotherhood, an organisation of hard-line Sunni fundamentalists (referred to in the novel as "our sect") violently opposed to the ruling Alawite minority, and their brutal methods of imprisonment, torture and executions.

Many passages of the novel describe the narrator's state of mind, rather than events - her thoughts, perceptions, and visions. This makes for more challenging reading than a more action led plot. In the first part she often transits seamlessly between describing actual scenes and describing what are obviously mystic visions, so that I found it hard to follow the context of some of these visions. I also found it difficult to understand just why, initially, she felt that hatred was necessary, and that the only way to prevail against the "other sect" was to kill all their sons. Later, as violence becomes entrenched in the everyday life of Aleppo, there appears to be no going back for either side, and the path that she is on leads inevitably to disaster.

There is a wide range of viewpoints expressed, however, in the other characters in the story, some of whom believe still in the tolerance that Syria was historically renowned for, while others pursue pleasure more than religion. Besides the three aunts, there are parents, uncles, younger brothers, and others brought into the family by marriage. The narrator herself appears conflicted between the demands of religion and the demands of her body - despite her efforts to renounce her body, the novel is full of many passages of erotic sensuality.

The narrator, in the end, finds it hard to sustain the hatred that has fuelled her actions, after some years in prison:

"How hard it is to spend all your time believing what others want you to believe; they choose a name for you which you then have to love and defend, just as they choose the God you will worship, killing whoever opposes their version of His beauty, the people you call 'infidels'. Then a hail of bullets is released, which makes death into fact."

Khaled Khalifa was born in 1964 near Aleppo, Syria. The novel was first published secretly in Damascus, but was discovered by the regime after forty days, and was banned. It was published in Lebanon in 2008, and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It was translated by Leri Price and published by Transworld Publishers, a division of Random House, in 2012.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Singapore: Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan


I read most of this on a wet Sunday, absorbed in the goings on of a group of super rich Straits Chinese (Chinese inhabitants of Singapore and Malaysia). This is not high literature. It verges on the women's magazine romance type of story. Rachel is a university professor in New York, with a Singaporean boyfriend Nicholas, also a university professor. He invites her to Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding and meet his family. What she doesn't know is how wealthy they are, and that they have very firm ideas on who Nicholas, the only male grandchild to bear the family surname, might marry.

I have no way of gauging the accuracy of the depiction of the lifestyle of the super rich in Singapore, but it seemed to ring true, and there was an entertaining range of characters. The author neatly sidesteps the fact that some picky readers might check out the possibility of his grandmother's mansion with huge park like grounds on google maps, by having it mysteriously not appear on google maps or on a car's GPS system. There is a good deal of eating in this book - apparently Singaporeans are passionate about food. (I could have done with reading it before a Singapore stopover some years back, to find out before we went where all the best street hawker food was to be found). There is also something of an obsession with designer fashion, and plenty of flash yachts and private jets. A good many footnotes, particularly in the first part of the book, explain Malay and Hokkien names for dishes, slang and abbreviations,and offer witty asides. I did find it better to skip some of the footnotes though, for smoother reading.

About three quarters of the way through, I began to feel rather glutted, as if I had eaten too much of one of the multi course banquets described in the book. And yet, somehow I find myself wanting to read the next in the series, to find out what happens next to Rachel, Nick, Nick's cousin Astrid and the rest of the cast - variously nice and awful.

Kevin Kwan was born and brought up in Singapore (apparently he attended the elite boys school where Nick met his best friend Colin Khoo), and now lives in Manhattan. That's all the background I can find on him on the internet - if some of this story is based on real lives, there would be reason for him to be discreet.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

India: Sleeping on Jupiter, by Anuradha Roy


In the prologue of this beautifully written novel, a young girl's father is shot by armed men, her brother disappears and her mother abandons her, all in the space of a couple of days. There appears to be a war on, although exactly where and when is never made quite clear.

The book then cuts back and forth between various points of view, many years later. Three elderly widows travel by train for a holiday in Jarmuli, a temple town on the Bay of Bengal. On the train they encounter a young girl, Nomita, who seems Indian, but somehow not quite Indian. On arrival in Jarmuli, other lives cross paths - the three women, Latika, Gouri and Vidya - the temple guide, Badal who is in the throes of a forbidden love for a young boy - the seaside tea vendor, Johnny Toppo - and Suraj, who has been hired to assist Nomita in her research of locations for a documentary on spiritual tourism.

Nomita is the girl who lost her parents when she was seven years old. We learn how she was taken into an orphanage in Jarmuli, run by an internationally renowned guru - how she was sexually abused, later escaped the orphanage, and was adopted by an English woman, and taken to live in Norway. Now she is trying to uncover the secrets of her past.

The story could have been harrowing, but the beauty of the prose, lifts it to another level, making it heartbreaking but at the same time tender and even hopeful in the midst of ugliness. The writing is full of sensory detail, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of India.

There is an excellent review here.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Indonesia: The Rainbow Troops, by Andrea Hirata

This book was apparently a runaway best-seller in Indonesia, selling five million copies (and fifteen million more pirated copies). It was also turned into a movie which became the highest ever grossing film in Indonesia. It is easy to see why, as many people would find the story inspirational.

The book was written as a tribute to an inspirational teacher - two teachers, in fact. Although described as a novel, the two teachers named in the dedication are the same names as the two teachers in the book. It appears that the book is quite closely based on the author's own story. It follows a group of ten children from their first day at school on the island of Belitong. Paradoxically, although it is Indonesia's richest island in terms of natural resources, the local people are very poor, the riches from the tin mined there being appropriated by a state owned company for the benefit of a few. These poverty stricken families could not access the company run school, and the nearest state school was too far away, so the school which is central to the story is a Muhammadiyah or religious school, run by teachers almost as poverty stricken as the pupils. There is no jihad taught here - the ethics class impressed on the children standards of behaviour which would be exemplary in any setting (although, as mischievous boys, they do not always live up to the standards taught).

And yet among the students is a young maths genius, and other students with extraordinary talents in different areas. I discovered a review which likened the story to "Slum Dog Millionaire" - but no one wins a million, and for some of the students, one wonders if they ended up any better off for their education. The author however, did manage to obtain a scholarship to attend university overseas, not as a writer but as an economist, and eventually wrote the book and went on to study at the University of Iowa's prestigious Creative Writing Institute.

As his first book, this is a fairly straight forward account, more populist than literary. I did feel that in some of the descriptive passages, the metaphors used felt a bit strained, as if the author was trying too hard to come up with an unusual description.

I mentioned in another post, that the Guatemalan author Rigoberta Menchu had attracted controversy by possibly inventing some of the details in her memoirs. One might think turning one's story into a novel would avoid this criticism. But in the end, either approach leaves me with the same problem - that of wondering just how much of the story is true. (And in a western society, a thinly disguised novelisation might well attract lawsuits if readily identified characters feel they have been libelled).

Nevertheless, despite these problems, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, if a little saddening regarding the fate of some of the author's classmates.

The Rainbow Troops (Laskar Pelangi)was translated from Indonesian by Angie Kilbane and published by Vintage Books Australia in 2013. (There may be other editions elsewhere).

Friday, January 20, 2017

Norway: Echoland, by Per Petterson


This slim book is told from the point of view of twelve year old Arvid, who has travelled from Norway with his family to stay with his maternal grandparents in Denmark for the summer. He is feeling awkward and confused. His slightly older friend, Mogens, is attracted to Arvid's older sister, Gry. There is tension, never fully explained, between his mother and his grandmother. This tension appears to be longstanding, relating to events before Arvid was born, when his mother returned from Norway urgently, alone and in trouble.

Arvid's complex feelings are depicted with tenderness and beauty, and the rest of the characters also seem to be well developed and realistic. The time period of the book is not explicitly stated, but it appears that Arvid may have been born around the late 1950s, which would date the book in the early seventies, although it was first published in Norway in 1989. Perhaps the author wrote of the time period when he himself was growing up.

Echoland is translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett, and published by Harvill Secker (part of Penguin Random House) in 2016.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Guatemala: The Girl from Chimel, by Rigoberta Menchu

Something easy to follow the last two books, which were rather challenging. With my book-buying budget somewhat depleted, I turned to our local library and found two options for Guatemala: Severina, by Rodrigo Ray Rosa, or Rigoberta Menchu's The Girl from Chimel. Unfortunately the first was in Spanish, and my Spanish is pretty minimal at this point (although I do want to learn more). And "The Girl from Chimel" is a children's book, but I thought I would read it anyway - I can always read something else later.

Rigoberta Menchu is an indigenous Maya Indian, born into an impoverished Indian peasant family in 1952. She is a noted Maya activist and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work, despite being forced into exile several times during the vicious 36 year long war. "The Girl from Chimel" is an account of her village childhood, of stories told by her family, of harmony with nature, of a lost world that has been changed forever by conflict and brutal genocide.

As it's a children's book, these atrocities are only hinted at. For instance she says "since bees are sacred, their escape could lead to an evil curse. And that's just what happened. But I'm not going to talk about that now. Maybe later."

In another chapter, she says "..when the war began and the villagers had to hide out in the mountains, something magical and unbelievable happened. The river disappeared." She attributes this to the river being scared, and suggests "since a great act of wickedness made it escape, only a great act of kindness can make it come back."

The authors very name, Rigoberta, is a result of discounting the ways of the native people. Although given the name of her grandmother, Li Mi'n (which means "Sunday"), the clerk refused to register this name because it "doesn't exist". As she was born on St Rigoberta's Day, this is the name under which her birth was registered.

The book is illustrated by Domi and translated by David Unger. It was published by House of Anansi Press. I found it quite delightful and was left wanting to know more - perhaps I will seek out her memoir, "I, Rigoberta Menchu" for more of the story behind the disappearance of the river and other events. (I have just found that her account is quite controversial - will have to do more research into this).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Croatia: Leica Format, by Daša Drndić

This was the second challenging book in a row on my round the world reading tour. It took me quite a while to get into it, due to the collage style format. The book is introduced with three definitions of the word "fugue" - musical, psychological and architectural. This is followed by a brief account of a woman who believes herself to be one person, and obtains a job under that name, but turns out to be someone else. How this story relates to what follows is not entirely clear. The narrator of the book (most of it) is a woman living in a harbour town in Northern Croatia that is in decline - Fiume in Italian, Riveka in Croatian. It was once an important departure point for European emigration to the United States. Long descriptions of the life and landscapes of the town seem to require the sort of concentrated attention that one gives to poetry.

Gradually a picture is built up of the past of the woman, her family, the town. The book encompasses the horrors of the Holocaust, and of medical research on human guinea pigs, both by the Germans during World War II and other nations including the United States. It makes use of multiple fragments of text from various sources, such as poetry, medical textbooks, and other documents. Some of these have their sources acknowledged at the back, others do not and were perhaps constructed by the author.

I did, after the first fifty to hundred pages, get immersed in the book, more so than in the previous one ("Census" by Panos Ioannides). It was intriguing to see how all the fragments linked up, and to ponder whether or not Ludwig Jacob Fritz was or was not Uncle Luigi, among other puzzles. By the end of the book, I was still quite unclear on some components, and how they fitted in, for instance was Lea Moser/Tessa Koller who appears at the end of the book the same person as the narrator or not? And if not, where does she fit in the story? The atmosphere of the declining port town seemed to be evoked quite successfully, and the lingering effects of the break up of the former Yugoslavia cast a long shadow over the lives of the narrator and other people around her.

Leica Format was translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Maclehose Press in 2015. It was first published in Croatia in 2003.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cyprus: Census, by Panos Ioannides

This proved to be a difficult book, fragmentary in style, with a good deal of metaphysical discussion between the characters overlaid on the narrative. Conversations did not have the speaker identified, so that sometimes I had to stop and work out just who was saying what. Nevertheless there is a powerful story underlying the text.

Joseph Akritas is a burned out war correspondent. His wife Maria is ill with cancer. Together they retreat to a small village in the mountains of Cyprus. On the way, that meet Michael, from the island of Patmos (the island where the Revelation of St John was written. Maria becomes pregnant to Michael. In the village a mysterious couple, Piotr and Hanna Archangielsk, are working on the restoration of medieval wall paintings in a local chapel, and Maria takes up the task of assisting them by writing down descriptions of what they find.

Eventually Maria gives birth, not to a child but to a mysterious life force. While she dies in the process, spiritual healing is released for those who are able to accept it.

While it is a challenging book to read, and I found much of the philosophy hard to follow, overall I felt it was worth the effort involved and may go back to re-read this one later.

"Census" received the Cyprus National Prize for Literature in 1973. Panos Ioannides was born in Famagusta, Cyprus in 1935 and lives in Nicosia. "Census" was translated by Despina Pirketti and published by Armida Publications Ltd.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Cuba: Pig's Foot, by Carlos Acosta

This was a delightful find in our local library, a glorious, exuberant romp through more than a century of Cuban history, through the eyes of the narrator who finds himself alone in the world and makes a journey to the forgotten settlement of Pata de Puerco (pig's foot) to trace his roots, and the origins of the mysterious pigs foot amulet that has been passed down to him. But all is not quite as it seems. "My name is Oscar Mandinga" says the narrator. "Don't forget it". But is he really who he claims to be?

Whether or not he is Oscar Mandinga, and whether or not the town of Pata de Puerco exists, or whether it is an invention of his troubled brain, the lives of its inhabitants are always fascinating, and the way in which the author weaves in the strands of Cuban history contributes skilfully to the story (there are distortions, fully acknowledged in the author's notes, for instance works of a real life architect are attributed to one of the fictional characters in the story).

Carlos Acosta, interestingly, is a Cuban ballet dancer. Besides his one novel he has written a memoir, No Way Home. (This sounds intriguing - how a delinquent kid from Havana, dreaming of becoming a soccer player, became one of the world's best ballet dancers). Pig's Foot is published by Bloomsbury and translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne.

Monday, January 09, 2017

East Timor: Resistance, by Naldo Rei

It didn't seem as if I could find any fiction that originated from the relatively new nation of East Timor*. I did, however, manage to locate several memoirs in our local library: The Crossing, by Luis Cardoso, Kirsty Sword Gusmao's book A Woman of Independence, and lastly Naldo Rei's Resistance.

Kirsty Sword, who married the East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao (she met him when he was in prison in Indonesia), is an Australian. And Luis Cardoso's book was already reviewed on line - plus, it seems that he spent quite a lot of time in Portugal - so I chose Naldo Rei. East Timor - the Eastern half of an island to the north of Australia - was a Portuguese territory for 450 years. When the Portuguese left in 1975, the Indonesians invaded the island, under the guise of "developing" it. Naldo Rei's family fled to the jungle, where he lived for the first three years of his life. When he was nine, his father was shot by the Indonesian army along with other village leaders. While still at school, he became active in the resistance movement, acting as a trusted courier. He was captured and tortured by the Indonesians on a number of occasions but managed to survive through to the country's independence in 2002.

The author became a journalist and his journalism training shows in the book which is often journalistic in style rather than literary - a fairly straight forward account. This does not mean it is not emotionally gripping. It becomes quite harrowing towards the end when he recounts the torture methods used by the Indonesians, and the destruction that occurred after the East Timorese voted for independence, before the Indonesians left the country. Earlier on, some parts were a little more hard to follow, and I found myself flipping to the back of the book quite often, where there is an appendix of acronyms and terms used by the Indonesian military and the local resistance movement. I also had a little trouble keeping track of who was who, among Naldo's many relations, and colleagues in the resistance movement.

However, overall it was a very well written account, and although I was vaguely aware of the recent history of East Timor, this book really brought home the challenging path the country followed to gain its independence, and the heroism of many of the local people.

*I did locate one novel "The Redundance of Courage" set on an island that is a fictionalized version of East Timor - however, the author, Timothy Mo, is a Hong Kong born British resident. So it didn't quite qualify, though it sounds well worth reading.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

China: UFO In Her Eyes, by Xiaolu Guo

The blurb on this book looked promising when I picked it up in the library. It is described as a "brilliantly structured and darkly humorous narrative" - which is true, in a way, although I didn't feel that the book quite lived up to the dazzling promise of the dust jacket.

In Silver Hill village, Kwok Yun, an unmarried woman in her thirties, is making her way across the fields when she spots a spinning plate in the sky and hears a loud noise. She faints, and when she comes to, she finds a strange Westerner lying on the ground in the shade of one of the village's "hundred arm trees". She assists the Westerner, who is injured, but he then disappears. When she makes her report to the village chief, the attention of the authorities is attracted to this hitherto neglected village. The subsequent investigation turns the villagers' lives upside down, attracting development to the village, in a way that is not always welcomed.

I enjoyed the book, which is structured in the form of intelligence reports from official files, including interviews with the villagers. I felt, though, that it was a "once over lightly" look at events. And I was a little dissatisfied with the UFO device. I was expecting the mysterious westerner to be an airman from a crashed spy craft but in fact he turned out to have nothing to do with the UFO, which is never explained. There's nothing wrong with a bit of mystery or fantasy in a story, but since everything else in this book is quite explainable, the mystery of the UFO felt quite out of place.

There is a timeline at the back of the book showing events as taking place between 2012 and 2015 - relevant, since the book was published in 2009. So it is set as taking place slightly in the future.

Xiaolu Guo was born in a fishing village in South China. She published six books in China before moving to London in 2002. UFO In Her Eyes was published by Chatto and Windus.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Nicaragua: Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand, by Gioconda Belli

When I discovered Ann Morgan's project, in which she read a book from every country in the world in the space of a year, I had already embarked on my world reading project. I found her list both a help and a hindrance - a help in locating books for hard to find countries, and a hindrance because I kept feeling obliged to find "something else" as I didn't just want to make my way through someone else's reading list.

For Nicaragua, however, I thought I had found Gioconda Belli all on my own - and then found I had ordered the exact same book that Ann Morgan had chosen - a retelling of the Biblical Adam and Eve story, in which the author imagines them adapting to the difficulties of life outside Paradise, and mortality. It is a rich and satisfyingly imagined tale, which introduces us to Adam and Eve, their sons Cain and Abel, and daughters Lululwa and Aklia, each the twin to one of the brothers.

There is a full review on Ann's blog, which reflects my opinions fairly accurately. Like Ann, I found one or two incidents where Adam and Eve just happened to find what they needed lying around, a bit far fetched. Were we to believe that God had relented slightly on his punishment, and made it slightly easier for them at first? Also, I didn't quite understand the fate of Aklia. This may or may not reflect the apocryphal tale of Adam and Eve that the author was working from (a book that she found in her father-in-law's extensive library). I had not previously come across the two girls Lululwa and Aklia, but had come across mention of a third son, Seth (who is missing from this account). My final quibble was that I felt that Adam and Eve fell rather too neatly into traditional gender stereotypes at times, although Eve's personality was by no means passive. Despite these points, I found the book thoroughly absorbing. The descriptive passages no doubt reflect the fact that the author is an accomplished poet.

Gioconda Belli was born in 1948 in Managua, Nicaragua. Though educated by nuns and moving in society, in her twenties she joined the revolutionary Sandinistas and became a leader in the underground resistance. Her autobiography, "The Country Under My Skin", is also available in English, and is high on my "to read" list.

Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand (the title comes from a William Blake poem) is translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden and published by Harper Collins. It won the 2008 Biblioteca Breve Prize and also the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Prize in the same year.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Sri Lanka: The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam

This fairly slim novel is set in the last days of the civil war between the Sri Lankan government forces and the rebel forces known as the Tamil Tigers. It takes place in a refugee camp where fleeing civilians, pushed by the conflict further and further to the north east coast of the island, are trapped between the rebel and government forces. Having long since abandoned their meagre possessions, subject to nightly shelling, they are reduced to sleeping, eating what they can and trying to survive.

Dinesh, who helps in the clinic at times but mostly keeps to himself to avoid being conscripted by either side, is approached one day by a man who asks him to marry his daughter. He agrees, and the novel takes place over the space of around twenty four hours. It is intensely detail packed and poetic. The smallest gesture is beautifully described and Dinesh's thought processes closely explored. While set in an area of intense conflict, it is not so much a war story as a deep exploration of what makes us human.

Anuk Arudpragasam is from Colombo, Sri Lanka and this is his debut novel. The blurb states that he writes in English and Tamil, however no translator is cited so I presume this book was written in English. It was published by Granta Books in 2016.

Barbados: Tracing Jaja, by Anthony Kellman

It's summer holidays and unseasonably cool, so I have a backlog of completed books to review. Top of the list is my selection for Barbados. Anthony Kellman is a Barbadian poet and novelist, who has written poems in "Tuk verse" based on the rhythms of the island's indigenous music. In Tracing Jaja, he turns his attention to a little known historical episode. The British, seeking control of the palm oil trade in Nigeria, illegally captured Jubo Jubogha, the King of Opobo (King Jaja) and exiled him to the Caribbean.

In Barbados, where they moved him after an initial time in St Vincent, he formed a bond with his young maid, Becka, and she became pregnant to him. Jaja however, longed to return to his home.

Jaja's position in Barbadian society was deeply ambiguous, his status as a king being at odds with the racial prejudice of the time. The book is a well-researched, fairly straight-forward account, enriched with dialogue in the local dialect, which appears to be accurate as far as I could tell. The story is told with great warmth of characterisation.

"Tracing Jaja" was published in 2016 by Peepal Tree Press.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Reading the World: Best of 2016

I did a lot of reading in 2016, much more than usual. Which gives me ample choice for a "top ten" list. I'll interpret that fairly loosely, though. I always find ranking books difficult especially when they are quite diverse. So this will be a list of ten books I liked and would be happy to re-read, in no particular order (except for my number 1 which really stood out). Some of these I have already blogged about, some I read before I started recording my reading here.

1. The Gamal, by Ciaran Collins
This is the one that really stood out for me out of my year's reading. From Ireland

2. Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
I read this early in the year. It's a dystopian novel set in a future California, where water is scarce and a huge shifting sand dune has cut the state off from the rest of the country. Military deserter Ray and his girlfriend Luz set off into the desert in the hopes of finding their way out past the giant dune. A credible and well-imagined look at the future.

3. That Other Me, by Maha Gargash
From United Arab Emirates

4. Purge, by Sofi Oksanen
The author is from Finland, but I listed it as Estonia, as she is of Estonian heritage and the book is set there.

5. The Bones of Grace, by Tahmina Anam
Set in Bangladesh

6. The Many Selves of Katherine North, by Emma Geen
This is the debut novel from a young British writer. It is set in a future when technology allows people to be projected into the minds of animals. So far, this has been used for scientific study, but the profit motive will soon see it expanded to tourism. Katherine North (Kit) is the longest serving phenomenaut at ShenCorp. At the start of the book, she's a fox. Later we see her as a bird, a spider, an octopus, and more. But what is the cost to her identity of all this species-hopping? And do her employers have her best interests at heart?
A wholly original and immensely readable novel.

7. Stork Mountain, by Miroslav Penkov
Set in Bulgaria - a Bulgarian student in the USA returning home. I really loved this book, though thought it had an American flavour to it.

8. Down Among the Fishes, by Natalka Babina
From Belarus. A fascinating insight into a little-known country.

9. News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
Delightful historical novel from the United States.

10. The Elephant's Journey, by Jose Saramago
From Portugal.

When I started to write this post, I had over twenty books on my preliminary list, so there may be a follow up post with the "next ten" (or twelve). It could well be, that on another day, my preferences would be different.