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).