Sunday, December 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Grenada: Hurricane Fever, by Tobias S Buckell

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Iceland: Butterflies in November, by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2017

Republic of Congo: Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 02, 2017

South Africa: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ghana: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I resisted this book as my choice for Ghana for quite a while. Even though the author, Yaa Gyasi, was born in Ghana, she was raised in Alabama. Furthermore, the publicity material describes the book as "an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and through their lives the very story of America itself". I didn't want to read an American story, I wanted to read an African story. But I did want to read this book after seeing a lot of positive reviews, and when I did, I found that it is in fact an African story as much as it is an American story - I guess that it is not described that way for marketing reasons - the publishers thought that calling it "the story of America" would sell more books.

Effia and Esi are two sisters - half sisters, in fact - in Ghana in the late eighteenth century. One of them marries a white man, a slave trader in Cape Coast. The other is sold into slavery. The novel follows seven generations of their descendants and all the twists and turns of their lives. It is a stunning novel. There is nothing stereotypical about any of the characters. In America, after escaping via the underground railroad, Esi's grandson Kojo marries a free woman, Anna. And yet heartbreakingly, she is captured by those hunting runaway slaves in the north, and her son H is born into slavery again. After slavery ends, he is convicted for, as far as I could tell, looking at a white woman, and sent as a convict to labour in coal mines. Eventually his descendants return to the north, to New York, but their struggles do not end there.

Effia's son becomes an heir to his uncle, a "Big Man"in his tribe. But her grandson James Richard wants nothing more than to marry the girl he has set his heart on, and manages to disappear in a tribal war to contrive this. So his descendants, too, know struggles and poverty. Furthermore, they are haunted by dreams of the "fire woman" who is deeply connected with their family history.

Eventually the two branches of the family come together, without realising their connection. The ending could have seemed contrived, but didn't. It is a thoroughly satisfying story, and one that revealed as much to me about the colonial history of Ghana as about the history of African Americans.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Finland: The Winter War, by Philip Teir

After I brought this home from the library, I wondered at my choice when I saw Philip Teir described as a "Finland Swede" on the dust jacket. But it turns out that he was indeed born in Finland and grew up there - there is a considerable Swedish speaking community in parts of western Finland, something that I had not previously realised (but which makes perfect sense, given the proximity of the two countries).

The first sentence is attention grabbing: "The first mistake that Max and Katriina made that winter - and they would make many mistakes before their divorce - was to deep-freeze their grandchildren's hamster." The book then jumps back in time a few months, and chronicles the lives of Max and Katriina, their daughters Helen and Eva, and other family members. Eva is an art student trying to find her way at art school in London. Eva is married to Christian and has two children. Max's mother is elderly and frail. Max is a sociology professor writing a book which has been a long time coming to fruition. He meets one of his former students, Laura, in a chance encounter and invites her to his sixtieth birthday part where his publisher suggest she help Max with his book. This leads to his having an affair with her.

Actually I'm not sure that it should be called an affair. It doesn't seem to mean all that much to Laura, more just casual sex than a real relationship. By the time I finished the book I didn't really have a lot of sympathy for Max, who seemed to be the author of his own downfall. It's a genre of book that I don't read much - stories of modern life with not much of the weird or unusual about it (despite the opening sentence) but it was well written enough that I found it more absorbing than I expected. The epigraph is a quote by August Stridberg: "And yet those trivial matters were not without significance in life, because life consists of trivial matters", which seemed a very apposite choice, after reading the book.

The Winter War was translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally and published by Serpent's Tail, an imprint of Profile Books Ltd (London) in 2015.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Papua New Guinea: Tabu, by Moses Maladina

A search of our library's online catalogue revealed several novels set in Papua New Guinea - but as one was written by a New Zealander, and one by an Australian, that left me with Moses Maladina's Tabu. Moses Maladina is (or was in 2003) a senior government minister in Papua New Guinea, with a background in agriculture, law and business. He served as Papua New Guinea's High Commissioner to New Zealand from 1998 - 2002.

Like my choice for Benin, the book deals with the exploitation of the resources of third world countries, and with an inter-racial love affair. However, I found this one a lot easier to read. It is set both in 1933 and in 1997, and alternates between the two to tell the story of Elizabeth Castleton, the young wife of an Australian newly arrived in Port Moresby to work in the Australian administration there, and of her lover, the Papuan Sitiveni (Stephen). At that time such relationships were forbidden, and the White Women's Protection Act rendered any native who had relationships with a white woman liable to harsh punishment. Elizabeth falls pregnant, and leaves for Australia and thence England where she makes a career for herself and brings up her daughter alone.

In 1997 after Elizabeth's death, her grandson Edward travels to Port Moresby both to find out the truth about his grandfather, and to investigate a business deal - which turns out to be a rather shady deal involving mercenaries and the recapture of a gold mine on the island of Bougainville from rebel forces. This story is apparently based on real events.

In "As She Was Discovering Tigony", my choice for Benin, the Frenchwoman Dorcas rushed so precipitately into an affair with an African man that it made no sense to me (the actual relationship later on appeared to be sound, but I couldn't see how it started, especially since she was an older, professional woman). In this book on the other hand, the story arc in which the lonely young woman with little to do falls for the native policeman who has been tasked with showing her around the island proceeds on a much more understandable basis. Although sometimes I felt like shaking Elizabeth for her incredible naivety and selfishness in exposing Sitiveni to the huge risk of discovery.

In 1997 although the country is independent, and the harsher laws no longer exist, many of the locals are still impoverished, and the country appears to still be run for the benefit of wealthier nations and their exploitation of its rich resources of gold, oil and fish. I did feel that the book was written more to raise these issues than to tell a good story - but it was well done and the storyline was quite strong despite the issues being clearly expressed.

Tabu was published by Steele Roberts Limited (Wellington, New Zealand) in 2003.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Azerbaijan: Solar Plexus, by Rustam Ibragimbekov

I waited quite a while for this book. While I found Kurban Said's Ali and Nino in our library catalogue, I felt that it had been published too long ago to represent modern Azerbaijan. It was published in 1937 at a time when Azerbaijan was part of Soviet Russia.

Some searching on the internet eventually turned up a reference to Rustam Ibragimbekov's novel, which turned out to be somewhat expensive, however I was able to get our library to buy it and eventually it arrived.

This book is subtitled "A Baku Saga in Four Parts". It tells the story of a group of friends who grow up in houses built around the same courtyard in a street in Baku, following them through some turbulent times in Azerbaijani history, culminating in the early days of independence in the 1990s. Each of the four sections focuses on a different member of the group. Throughout, we see them balancing self interest with their friendships, as they take various actions including betrayals to get ahead and just to survive. Baku is an ancient city and the book speaks of its culture, but also of how it is changing and becoming rough and lawless. There are glimpses of the economy which is built on oil.

The second section was the most difficult for me. This section focuses on Marat, who has stayed in his courtyard apartment when all the other inhabitants have left. Because of nearby quarrying, it is doomed to be pulled down. There are passages in italics which at first I thought were dreams, then perhaps flashbacks, and eventually I wondered if they were a mix of both.

It wasn't until the third and the fourth sections that I gradually began to understand how all the events described related to each other, and all the loose plot ends began to be tied together. By the end of the book, I felt I had enjoyed it, and been somewhat enlightened about contemporary Azerbaijan, even though I had been slightly tempted in the second section to give up (but didn't, owing to the lack of alternatives).

Rustam Ibragimbekov was born in Baku in 1939. He is an internationally award-winning screenwriter, dramatist and producer. In 1994 his film Burnt by the Sun was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. (The narrator of the fourth section, Seidzade, is a writer of novels and screen plays, and I wondered if he was a somewhat autobiographical figure).

Solar Plexus was translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield and published in 2014 by Glagoslav Publications.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Bhutan: The Circle of Karma, by Kunzang Choden

I'm always wary when there seems to be only one book available from any country. The quality can vary. And this one sounded not quite my cup of tea - talk of "karma" and other spiritual concepts somewhat taken over by the Western new-agers tended to put me off.

My misgivings however were, to my pleasure, proved wrong. The book is the first novel written in English by a Bhutanese writer. And yet it read well, the English being of a higher standard than that in many of the translations I have read, where the translator should know their native language. The narration is simple and straightforward, telling the story of the life of a Bhutanese woman, Tsomo. When her mother dies in childbirth, her life changes. The book follows through all the twists and turns in her life, as she marries, loses her first husband to her sister, and later marries again. But all along she has desired to study religion and eventually she becomes a nun. This is a society where religion is the only type of learning. Her father has tutored young boys in his home, but as a girl, this was denied to Tsomo.

We see both the benefits and drawbacks of the simple life - the superstition and the useless rituals. For instance, the only treatment for a difficult childbirth is too feed the spirits and ask them to go away.

The book is a fascinating insight into the culture of this tucked away Himalayan kingdom, and also shows the changes than gradual modernisation brings to Tsomo's life - the building of roads, the coming of Western medicine.

While it would be good to have more books available from this nation, if I had had to choose from several, I would have been happy to have chosen this one.

Friday, September 22, 2017

France: Submission, by Michel Houellebecq

Since we have an election going on here in New Zealand, this seemed a very appropriate book to read right now. It's set in 2002. The protagonist is a middle-aged lecturer at the Sorbonne, an expert on nineteenth century author J-K Huysmans. (I had never hear of Huysmans, and had to google to check that he is actually a real figure.) François is bored and lacks any sense of meaning in life. In the meanwhile, an election is taking place in France. In the first round of voting, Marine Le Pen's far right are ahead in the vote with the new Islamic Brotherhood just edging the socialists out of second place. So for the second round, the socialists throw in their lot with the Islamic party, which sweeps into power and introduces far reaching reforms.

All children are to have the opportunity of an Islamic education. Education is privatised. Henceforth the Islamic schools and universities are by far better funded than the Christian and Jewish institutions, as money pours in from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Francois's university becomes an Islamic one, and he is offered promotion, on condition that he converts to Islam.

The book is described as a satire, but it's not what I have thought of as satire in the past i.e it's not laugh-aloud funny. But it is thought-provoking, especially regarding the essential meaningless of life in modern Europe. Will François be happier once he has converted to Islam (and acquired a beautiful young submissive wife, with the promise of more to come?) I strongly suspect not.

submission is translated from the French by Lorin Stein and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (New York, 2015)

Now, I'm off to return the book to the library - and to vote - although not for an Islamic party (an option which is not on offer, even if I wanted it!)

Friday, September 08, 2017

Uganda: Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

This book slowed me down a little, as it's over four hundred pages long. It is in six sections, the first section telling of Kintu Kidda, who in 1750 sets out for the capital of the Buganda Kingdom to pledge allegiance to the new leader. His actions along the way result in a curse being placed upon him and on his clan. The next five sections tell the stories of various modern day descendants, and show how the curse plays out in their lives, and how they seek to overcome it.

Unlike many African novels published in the West, there is very little evidence of the West in this book. The characters do not emigrate to the West, or dream of emigrating. Neither are we treated to much exposition of either the benefits or evils of colonialism. Apparently the author, who now lives in Manchester, was rejected by publishing house after publishing house in England. They all supposedly thought the book "too difficult" for Western readers. This puzzled me a little, as the book to me did not seem difficult at all. Perhaps they really wanted to say "not Eurocentric enough" but felt they couldn't say that so said "too difficult" instead. At any rate, it was first published in Kenya in 2014 and was much acclaimed. This edition was published by Transit Books in the United States in 2017.

I found the book very readable and fascinating in its insights into the lives of the people of Uganda. However, somehow I did not feel emotionally involved with the characters and ended up feeling as if I was viewing them from something of a difference rather than being totally drawn in. Nevertheless, I was happy with my choice of book for this country, which does not seem to have the volume of literature that has come from, say, Nigeria where the choices are almost endless.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Brunei: Written in Black, by K H Lim

It seemed as if the choices for Brunei were limited to one of two books: Four Kings, by Christopher Sun, or The Forlorn Adventure, a sci fi novel by Amir Falique. Four Kings is a murder mystery set in France - besides the fact that I have not seen a good review of it, neither novel seemed likely to enlighten me much about life in Brunei.

Then I stumbled on a reference to K H Lim's Written in Black, which seemed much more like what I was looking for. The narrator of this novel is ten year old Jonathan Lee, who is attending the funeral of his "Ah Kong" (grandfather). Jonathan's mother had left for Australia six months previously. His elder brother Michael has been kicked out of the house and has joined a rock band. Jonathan is missing his mother and when he finds out from his cousin Kevin, that she has been in touch with Michael by telephone, he escapes the funeral (a traditional Chinese funeral lasting several days) in an empty coffin in the back of a truck. His quest to find his brother and thus contact his mother leads him to encounter poklans (teenage delinquents), derelict houses full of bats and weird shopkeepers.

It's a fairly unsophisticated story and the idea that a ten year old is narrating is not quite convincing - the voice of the narrator is a little too self aware - more like an adult narrating a ten year old's experiences. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable story. I was surprised to find that Jonathan's family all had western names, and there was plenty of mention of Western culture - a mother in Australia, New Zealand gardening programmes on the television. This would not have suprised me had it been, for instance, Singapore, but I knew little of Brunei other than that it is an oil-rich country ruled by a Sultan, so I was expecting something a little different. Still, other aspects of the story were definitely not western.

K H Lim was born and raised in Brunei. He graduated from medical school in the UK in 2008 and currently lives in Singapore. Written in Black was published by Monsoon Books in 2014.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

Teoh Yun Ling is a judge in Kuala Lumpur, taking early retirement to return to Yugiri, the Garden of Evening Mists. She had worked there, in the Cameron Highlands of what was then Malaya, as an apprentice to the Japanese gardener Nakamura Aritomo, at the time of the communist insurgency of the 1950s. She had asked the gardener to design a garden in memory of her sister. Instead he suggested that she work with him and learn to do it herself.

As the novel progresses, we travel back and forth in time between the present, the 1950s and the years of the Second World War, when Yun Ling and her sister Yun Hock were imprisoned by the Japanese somewhere in the Malayan jungle. It is a complex, many layered story in which the characters are not exactly what they seem on first sight. Why was the Japanese gardener, formerly gardener to the Emperor, in Malaya in the first place? What had happened to Yun Ling in the war?

This is an engrossing story and one that told me quite a lot that I didn't know about the modern history of Malaya - for instance, I didn't know that it had survived and defeated a communist insurgency in the 1950s. The book is infused with the love of art - not only Japanese gardens, but woodblock prints, the art of the tattoo, and music.

Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia. His debut novel "The Gift of Rain" was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. "The Garden of Evening Mists" was published by Myrmidon Books in 2012.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Macedonia: A Spare Life, by Lidija Dimkovska

I am gradually, through literature, becoming familiar with all the small nations that make up the former Yugoslavia. Macedonia is one of them - a country I would have previously thought of as more Greek than Slavic, given my main reference at that time was Alexander the Great ("Alexander of Macedon"). A Spare Life was originally published in 2012 and was awarded the 2013 European Prize for Literature. It is narrated by Zlata, one of a pair of conjoined twins. She and her sister Srebra are conjoined at their heads. Despite that, and despite being brought up in poverty, they live a remarkably normal, if somewhat constrained life. The story starts when they are twelve, and follows them through school, high school, university and adulthood. The twins have very different personalities and preferences. In high school, Zlata's choices prevail and they study languages and literature. Srebra believes this to be selfish and at university she insists they study law, which is more useful to society.

The author uses the lives of the twins as a metaphor for the conjoined nature of Yugoslavia. They have always dreamed of being separate. When a crisis strikes, the twins fly to London, after managing to secure financial assistance from a government organisation, determined to pursue a risky operation to separate them.

The book is quite a lengthy one. Just occasionally, I felt that the detail made it drag a little, but overall, it is the richness of the detail that is the making of the book. It encompasses the recent history of Yugoslavia, the transition from Communism to democracy, the nature of families, of sisterhood, of religion and cultures. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Lidija Dimkovska is also a poet and her collection pH Neutral History (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. A Spare Life is translated from Macedonian by Christina E Kramer and published by Two Lines Press.

Benin: As She Was Discovering Tigony, by Olympe Bhêly-Quenum

I was rather disappointed by this book. In my searches for an author from Benin, Bhêly-Quenum's name was the one that consistently came up. I was able to read an early short story of his, "A Child in the Bush of Ghosts" in an anthology of supernatural stories, "The Weird" in our local library. It seemed promising, but as I wanted more than a short story, I ordered his novel, recently released in English translation.

It turned out to be very different to the short story. From the first chapters, it was weighed down in turgid writing, full of jargon and not seeming to make much sense. Since it is concerned with the rise of neo-colonialism, and capitalist exploitation of a newly independent Africa, it would make sense for certain of the characters - the politicians and exploiters - to use some degree of "political speak". But it seemed as if the whole novel was drenched in such language, even in the mouths of characters for whom it made little sense. This made the novel very difficult to read, although in the final few chapters, where the tension between the characters is increasing and plot lines come to a head, it seemed to improve somewhat.

The novel concerns Dorcas Keurleonan-Moricet, a white geophysicist from France, posted on assignment in Africa. Her husband also works there in international development. However their marriage is disintegrating, and Dorcas meets and falls in love with a young African man. At the same time, she has discovered mineral deposits of great value. The novel raises issues of the exploitation of Africa's gold, oil and other resources by Western nations, and of the corruption of African politics.

There are questions of value raised in the novel, but I wish it had been heavily edited and made a good deal easier to read. I felt as if the didactic purpose of the book had somewhat taken over from the literary value of the story.

Olympe Bhêly-Quenum was born in 1928 in Dahomey (now Benin). His mother was a priestess of Beninois vodun. At the age of twenty he travelled to France and was educated there, where his first novel was published in 1960, and translated into English as "Snares Without End" in 1966. He has since worked in diplomacy and journalism with a strong interest in African affairs.

This novel supposedly "caps the career of one of Africa's major authors" (foreword). I suspect that I would have preferred one of his earlier works where the language may perhaps have been more straightforward, more like his short story.

As She Was Discovering Tigony was translated by Tomi Adeaga and published by Michigan State University Press in 1917.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Bahamas: If I Had the Wings, by Helen Klonaris

I couldn't find either of the books that Ann Morgan suggested for the Bahamas - both appeared to be out of print. So I was relieved to hear of a new book coming out, Helen Klonaris's debut collection of short stories.

Helen is a Greek-Bahamian writer (apparently there is a small Greek community there) who lives between the Bay Area, California and Nassau, Bahamas. The stories are mostly coming-of-age stories with LGBT protagonists. It's not a genre that I would normally read. Fortunately I found there was more to them than that. There is a sinister edge to most of these stories, supernatural even although not in a traditional ghost story manner. There is also a strong ecological theme, highlighting the tension between developers building condos for the wealthy, and the local people who are sensitive to the habitats of fish and wildlife and to the traditional uses of plants.

For the most part, I enjoyed the stories and was struck by the author's descriptive powers and vivid imagination. I found the sustained use of "you" in several of the stories irritating after a while. These were stories narrated by "I" and addressed to "you" - not the reader, but the one who is the object of the narrator's love. I'm not sure why it irritated me - could it be because it made the stories feel voyeuristic. Just when I started to get a little tired of stories of love against obstacles - the vigorous homophobia of small religious communities - the final story, "The Dreamers" drew me in and blew me away. It's definitely the most powerful in the collection and left me with a lot to ponder on.

If I Had the Wings is published by Peepal Tree Press, a British publisher of Caribbean and Black British fiction.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Argentina: The Days of the Deer, by Liliana Bodoc

I read this book in the first few months of my world reading project, before I started blogging about it. So last time I was at the library, I picked up a copy to refresh my memory.

Liliana Bodoc is probably not a name that will come high up in the results when searching online for Argentinean writers. This is a work of fantasy, the first volume in a trilogy and the only one to be translated into English, so far as I can tell. Misaianes, the son of Death, is crossing the sea with a mighty force to attack the Remote Realms. In the House of Stars, astronomers read the omens and debate whether the fleet that they see coming is benign or evil. Messages are sent out to the seven tribes to call representatives to a Great Council. It is a long and arduous journey particularly for the representatives of the Husihuilkes, who live in the forests in the far south of the continent, in an area called the Ends of the Earth.

There are no maps in this book, but I could not help picturing the territories as having the shape of South America, and there is a distinctly South American flavour to the story. Though seven tribes are called to the council, the book focuses on Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes, and on Cucub the Zitzahay messenger sent to summon their representatives. Cucub falls in love with Dulkancellin's daughter Kuy-Kuyen, while her brother Thungur grows to be a warrior.

I'm not a huge fantasy fan but I enjoy a mix of writing so the occasional fantasy book adds variety, and the South American flavour of this one certainly increased my interest. It's a pity that the next two books in the series don't appear to have been translated as I'm curious to know what follows.

Liliana Bodoc was born in Santa Fe, Argentina and studied at the National University of Cuyo. The Days of the Deer was translated by Nick Caistor and Lucia Caistor Arendar.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Armenia: Goodbye Bird, by Aram Pachyan

It took me quite a while to find a suitable book from Armenia. At first it seemed as if there were quite a few books around by Armenian authors, most set in the early years of the twentieth century at the time of the Armenian genocide. In the end, they all proved to be written by second and third generation Armenian Americans, based on the stories of their grandparents. Furthermore, it appears that the boundaries of Armenia have changed over time, and that the area where these books were set falls substantially within the borders of present day Turkey.

Eventually, I found that a modern Armenian writer, Gurgen Khanjyan, had a book translated into English, Yenok's eye. But it was somewhat expensive, and while I hesitated, it seemed to go out of print and become wildly more expensive. (Currently showing as $999 at Amazon - plus shipping to New Zealand).

So when I heard of a new release, "Goodbye Bird" by Aram Pachyan, I thought I had better buy it quickly, before it suffered the same fate. The book is described on the dust jacket as a best seller in Armenia. Either the Armenians have very sophisticated tastes, or their tastes at least are wildly different from those of readers in the west. I can't imagine a book of this type becoming a best seller here. I found it surreal, imagistic and confusin. The language swings wildly at times from first person to second person to third person and back again all in the course of a few sentences. It is often not at all clear whether the change of person is actually a switch in who is being referred to, or whether it is the same person being referred to from a different viewpoint.

The novel concerns a young man of twenty eight who has newly left his service in the army. He does not appear to have a job. He reflects on his experiences, his former girlfriend, and friends from his childhood and the army. The "Bird" of the title is apparently a cat, which he is carrying around in the early part of the book. There are many references to both Western and local literature and music. Fortunately the book was relatively short. I think I would have struggled to get through it had it been longer. And yet, once I did finish the book, I realised that even though I thought I had been totally confused while reading it, I had indeed built up a picture of the young man and his life. Perhaps it is like an impressionistic painting, where one needs to stand back to get the picture, instead of examining it too closely and seeing only random brush strokes.

Aram Pachyan was born in 1983 in Vanadzor, Armenia. He studied at the law department of Yerevan State University. Currently he works as a journalist and columnist for the Hraparak newspaper. Goodbye Bird was translated by Nairi Hakhverdi and published by Glagoslav Publications in 2017.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

After the Rain

My blog started off as a general blog, but it got taken over for a while by my Tuesday Poem posts, and then by book reviews (more summaries than reviews) in my round the world reading project. I intend to keep up with the round the world reading, so if that is why you are here keep checking back. But I'd like to get back to more general posts.

We seem to have had our fair share of disasters in Christchurch. Earthquakes, bush fires, floods... What's next, I wonder? A plague of locusts?

These photos are the aftermath of heavy rain and flooding last week, we live on the hill that is seen in some of the photos so our house was not flooded, but the land at the bottom of the hill is very flat so for a while, all our road access was cut off. The photos don't really show the full extent of the flooding as even with a panoramic camera, it would have been impossible to get the full scene with various spurs of the hill in the way.

This last photo is one I lifted from the online version of our local newspaper, it is the river just around the corner from where we used to live

The last couple of days have been fine but apparently more rain is on the way, I'm not sure how much the ground can hold. Unfortunately with changes in land levels since the earthquakes, many parts of the city are more flood prone than before.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Singapore: The River's Song, by Suchen Christine Lim

Earlier I read Kevin Kwan's book, "Crazy Rich Asians" as the Singapore contribution for my round the world reading project. Then I spotted Suchen Christine Lim's book at our library, and it looked interesting enough for me to want to read it also. It had quite a different feel to it - Kevin Kwan's rather like a very rich dessert (a bit overwhelming towards the end) and this one more like a fresh, flavoursome and healthy Asian stir fry.

Before Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew's modernisation of Singapore, a large population of street hawkers, fishermen, boat builders etc lived along the crowded and winding banks of the Singapore River. They are there no longer. They were evicted and moved to high rise blocks of modern flats, while tower blocks of offices and hotels were built along the river, which was cleaned up and straightened, with many of the winding creeks that fed it concreted over.

This novel tells the story of Ping, the daughter of a pipa songstress, and Weng, the son of a carpenter and musician. Ping's mother's fortunes improve when she marries a wealthy businessman. Weng takes the part of the local people and acts as their voice in protests against the clearance of the riverside settlements. He is imprisoned for his part in the protests, while in the meantime Ping has left for America where she studies music.

After thirty years, Ping returns to Singapore, meets Weng again and reveals the secret that has kept them apart for thirty years.

The narrative is skilful, and kept me absorbed throughout. I felt I had learned a lot about the development of Singapore, but never in a way that prioritised teaching over story-telling.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Botswana: The Collector of Treasures, by Bessie Head

This is an older book than many I have read so far, initially published in 1977. Bessie Head was born in South Africa in 1937, the daughter of a rich white woman and an African servant, at a time when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. She did not move to Botswana until early adulthood, but is widely regarded as a Botswanan author. At the time she moved there in 1953, it was still the Bechuanaland protectorate.

The stories in The Collector of Treasures depict the county in its early days of independence, and show the tensions that arose out of the conflict between traditional values, the legacy of colonialism, the teachings of Christianity and the move towards modernity. They are simple tales of village life, written from a perspective that seems that of a person who is somewhat of an outsider. There is a deep sympathy displayed for the status of women, who are not treated well by men in these stories. In many cases, the men might promise marriage to a girl, get her pregnant, and then abandon her - or marry her, but take other wives and girlfriends on the side. Sometimes the women in these stories take to violence to protect themselves, and this is treated in a very matter-of-fact way and appears to be taken as natural.

While the tales are simple, the writing is skilful and there are some beautiful descriptive passages, for example

For those who were awake, it took the earth hours to adjust to daylight. The cool and damp of the night slowly arose in shimmering waves like water and even the forms of the people who bestirred themselves at this unearthly hour were distorted in the haze; they appeared to be dancers in slow motion, with fluid, watery forms.

The Collector of Treasures was published by Heinemann in their African Writers Series.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Meixco: Two Short Novels by Yuri Herrera

This volume published by Text Publishing in Australia combined two novellas - "The Transmigration of Bodies" and "Signs Preceding the End of the World". Both are set in the dark and seedy underworld of contemporary Mexico, in the borderlands in the north. It's not the sort of setting that normally appeals to me, but despite the gritty setting, there is also a poetical lyricism about these two stories that make them fascinating.(Apparently the third in the trilogy, Kingdom Cons, has recently been published.)

In "The Transmigration of Bodies", the city is gripped in a plague. The protagonist, known as The Redeemer, has been called on by two feuding crime families to act as a go between. In "Signs Preceding the End of the World" a young girl, Makina, enlists the help of various underworld characters to get her across the border to the north in search of her brother. She is to take a message from her mother, and ask him to come back. The ending of the story is somewhat enigmatic, and apparently a parable of death.

Despite the gritty undertone of the story, again, there is a lyrical poeticism, and touches of humour. One of the villagers who had returned from the north brought back cellphones and told Makina she would soon be out of a job. He gives one to his mother and tries to call her. The phone is silent. Maybe you should have brought back a few cell towers too, says Makina, who is clearly smarter and better educated than most of the villagers.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the translator's note at the end. (The translator is Lisa Dillman). Yuri Herrera coins new language in his novels, and the problem was how to translate this into English to give the flavour of the original, and how to translate the Spanish slang so that the Mexican crime bosses did not sound like New York mafia bosses (but did sound like they had their own vernacular). I think the translator has done a spectacularly successful job, and I was fascinated with her thought processes around achieving this.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Turkey: Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak

So far, I have found several of my choices from the Middle East rather difficult - those from Iran, Syria and Lebanon. All were books which appeared to be written for readers in their country of origin. My choice for Turkey felt much more as if it had been written for Western readers, and it has a partly Western setting.

Peri is on her way to join her husband at a dinner party in Istanbul when, while she is stuck in traffic, her handbag is stolen from the back of her car. She unwisely gives chase to the thief, and a photograph falls out of her handbag, reviving her memories of her time as a student at Oxford University, events she had tried to forget. The novel shifts back and forth between the present day, her time at Oxford, and her childhood in Istanbul. The Turkey depicted is one of conflicts - one where the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had tried to set up a modern secular society, but where now, extremists of various types are increasingly influential - Islamists, Marxists and so on. Peri's own family reflects these conflicts - her secular father, her religious mother and elder brother, her left wing but somewhat naive younger brother, who has spent time in prison for illegal gun possession. Peri herself is confused and uncertain in her beliefs, and this led to devastating events while she was at Oxford.

The author comments in the acknowledgments section "My Motherland, Turkey, is a river country, neither solid nor settled. During the course of writing this novel, that river changed so many times, flowing with a dizzying speed." I felt towards the end somewhat as if she was using this novel to deliver a sociological treatise on modern Turkey and on religious conflict, and that the plot sometimes suffered a little in favour of the message. There were times when events did not seem to flow naturally, for instance, Peri takes a rather drastic step towards the end of the book but the author's characterisation of her up to that point did not fully seem to lead to that step. There seemed to be a rush towards the end to fill in the back story of a central figure, Professor Azur - far more telling than showing at this point.And I would have liked to know more about her husband Adnan, a shadow figure who had supposedly "picked up the pieces" and was her "confidant, her best friend" but there is nothing in the book to back that up.

Still, there is much to enjoy here, and even if I felt lectured to at times, I found the depiction of Istanbul and of Turkish politics interesting.

Elif Shafak has been described as Turkey's most popular female novelist. She was born in Strasbourg, France and has lived in many countries around the world, including Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English and is an award winning novelist and political scientist. She currently lives in London.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Before the Feast, by Saša Stanišić

When Ann Morgan read a book from every country in the world in 2012, her choice for Bosnia and Herzegovina was Saša Stanišić's "How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone". So when I saw his second novel, "Before the Feast" on the shelf at the library, it seemed like a good choice, especially as the blurb on the back was quite appealing.

I quickly realised though, that the book is not set in Bosnia, and does not include Bosnian characters, apart from one short passage:
Golow had a Bosnian and a Serb working for him, and he had no idea exactly what the difference was. then he found out that they didn't really know either. They both hated the war. They argued only once about the question of guilt, because there's always a one-off argument about questions of guilt, but they settled the question peacefully and then decided to watch only the German news from then on,because on that channel everyone was to blame except the Germans - they coudn;t afford to be guilty of anything for the next thousand years, and the two Yugos could both live with that.

The author was born in Bosnia in 1978 but left during the war, at the age of 14, and currently lives in Germany.

The novel takes place in the East German village of Fürstenfelde. The author thanks the villagers of Fürstenberg, Fürstenfelde, Fürstenwalde, Fürstenwerder and Prenzlau for their information and hospitality, but the only one of these I could locate on a map was Prenzlau - nevertheless it does appear as if these may be real geographical locations. The inhabitants, however, are surely fictional. The action takes place on one night, on the day before the Anna feast. Though to say it takes place on that night is a simplification, given the wide ranging digressions which cover much of the history of the village. The characters are wonderfully idiosyncratic and include the local bell-ringer and his apprentice, two thieves, a dead ferryman, a retired lieutenant-colonel, the local artist, and a young girl called Anna, namesake of the Anna for whom the feast is named.

Then there are various animal characters - mice, chickens, and a vixen roaming the woods in the night.

The style is distinctive, or perhaps I should say "styles" as it changes from section to section. Parts are narrated by an unknown villager who uses the pronoun "we". Other passages sound as if they are quoted from historical documents, some parts use a straight forward third person narrative, in the present tense, other parts sound almost poetic, and there is even a passage of hand written script with numerous erasures and corrections.

I found it a highly entertaining book, from a promising young writer. Just not very Bosnian. (Although somehow, in style and outlook, it did not seem very German either).

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Zimbabwe: The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

Even though I'm reading more by current availability than by alphabetical order, I had intended to start filling in some of the gaps in the A's, B's and C's. But I had heard a lot about Petina Gappah, and then one of her books was available on the day I went to the library, so I picked it up. It certainly lived up to the hype.

Memory is an albino woman who has been convicted of the murder of a white man, and is locked up in Harare's Chikurubi Prison on death row. In preparation for her appeal, her lawyer has asked her to write down her story as she remember's it. What emerges is a fascinating account which takes Memory from her African family in one of the poorer parts of town, to live with a well-off white man from the age of nine years old. Thus she is able to get a good education and travel overseas to study, before returning to reconcile with her foster father Lloyd. So how did she come to be convicted of his murder? And is her memory of her past accurate?

The fact that the book encompasses a range of Zimbabweans both African and European in origin, of various economic classes, and covers several decades in which the political situation of the country was fast deteriorating, makes it a fascinating picture of the country - and very moving.

Petina Gappah has law degrees from Cambridge (England), Graz University (Switzerland) and the University of Zimbabwe. Her law background shows through in this book which appears to be well researched, although she comments in the afterword that she did not take up an opportunity to visit Chikurubi Prison as she would have had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and would not then have been able to write about it. So the book relies on her research of second hand accounts. Nevertheless, it is very vivid, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Andorra: The Mysterious Balloon Man, by Albert Salvado

Andorra is a tiny country between France and Spain with a population of some 70,000 people. So it was no surprise to find that there seems to be only one fiction writer from the country with works available in translation. Fortunately Albert Salvado is a highly prolific writer. I tried to find a book actually set in Andorra but had no luck, so I chose his most recent book, The Mysterious Balloon Man, which turns out to be the first in a series with the overarching title, "The Shadow of Ali Bey".

It is a spy story, but also a historical novel, set around the turn of the eighteenth century, and taking place mostly in Spain. Alfred Gordon, a civil servant employed by the British secret service, realises that the nobility, the traditional spies, are not doing a good job. He recruits Tom Headking, a young middle class Englishman living in Spain, where he is on the run after killing Lord Brookshield's son in a duel. What follows could be described as a "rollicking tale" in which women feature mainly as the object of lust for the male characters. It is enjoyable enough, if you can overlook the sometimes laughable characterisation of the women.

Headking discovers a treatise on hot air balloons written by Polindo Remigio. This turns out to be the pseudonym of a Catalan, Domingo Badia, who was to become a spy with the name Ali Bey, who is apparently an actual historical figure. It appears that he will figure more prominently in subsequent books in the series. However, I don't think I was captivated enough to seek them out.

The book was translated by Marc Brian Druckett but there is no publisher named on my copy, leading me to believe that it may have been self published. The translation is of reasonable quality, but the section at the end on "other books by the author" has been very poorly translated.

Still, given the lack of choice for this country, what I ended up with could have been a whole lot worse.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Libraries are Great!

Since starting my world reading project I have discovered many wonderful features of our local library's website. I can search the catalogue by subject eg "fiction - India", make "for later" lists of books that I want to read for the project, and make subject lists of books I have read for the use of other library website users. I can place a hold on books I want to read, and have them sent to my nearest branch from the other side of the city.

My latest discovery (I had this in the back of my brain, but only just got around to trying it), is that I can request books that the library doesn't have - not for interloan, which is a little pricy, but for them to add to their collection. So a few days ago I filled in the form three times over, for books from Benin, Macedonia and Uganda, and waited to hear.

Now I find that all three books I requested have been ordered, so in due course I will get to read them. This is going to be a wonderful relief to my rather strained book buying budget. The only drawback being that it is likely to be the best reviewed books that the library will agree to purchase. For some of the smaller countries, where the only possible book is of somewhat dubious quality, I hesitate to ask the library to add the book to their collection. Which means that I will probably have to buy the books that I least want to keep.

Still, I'm really pleased to be able to fill in a few more countries this way. I plan to put in further requests from time to time, aiming to space out the arrival of the books ordered.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trinidad & Tobago: House of Ashes, by Monique Roffey

On the outskirts of the City of Silk, in the fictional Caribbean island of Sans Amen, Ashes is a follower of the Leader, who has established a spiritual commune. He has rescued street kids, fed and educated them, and trained them and other followers to fight. Now they are going to seize power, to establish a New Society.

The followers of the leader invade and take over the television station and the House of Power. But their revolution quickly goes wrong. Holed up for days in the House of Power, with their parliamentarian hostages and the army surrounding them outside, Ashes gradually changes his view of the Leader, and of the existing regime. How will it end? Will he get out alive, and will he spend his life in prison? And what of the young former street kid, Breeze, cocky but ignorant?

The use of fictional names such as the House of Power and the City of Silk give this book an edge of fantasy, but everything else about it is firmly grounded in the real world. It is based on an actual insurrection that took place in Trinidad in 1990, although with a different outcome. In that case, Islamist extremists were responsible. In the fictional version, the nature of the spiritual beliefs of the rebel group are not defined. Ashes prays, and connects himself with "the beautiful". In the House of Power, he contemplates a stained glass window depicting the crucified Christ and states that Jesus was a revolutionary. But it is clear that whatever his belief is, he is not a Christian.

There is an element of environmentalism in the book too. One of the hostage Parliamentarians is the Minister for the Environment. She is passionate about the plight of leatherback turtles, and these figure prominently in the latter part of the story.

It is a convincing and moving book, which presents the characters on both sides as complex people, sometimes misguided but doing the best they can for their beliefs. I had to google a few of the terms used, and ended up knowing a little more about the Caribbean, besides enjoying a worthwhile read.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Belize: Time and the River, by Zee Edgell

This historical novel is set in the early part of the nineteenth century in the settlement that was later to become British Honduras, and eventually Belize. Although the Spanish claimed sovereignty over the area, they had never established settlements there. Instead, there was a small British population, served by slaves imported from Jamaica and elsewhere, who acted as domestics, and as workers on the mahogany plantations which was the chief export.

The novel tells the story of Leah, a slave born in Belize town, her mother Hannah, brother Sam and friend Will, a slave who was born in Africa. Will wants Leah to be his sweetheart but she does not love him. Leah dreams of a better future and eventually becomes a freed woman although this involves some compromises on her part, and distances her from her former friends.

As the story follows Leah's life from young womanhood till her death, it reads more like a book that someone might write about the history of a forebear, rather than a fictional novel - facts of a real life do not always fit a traditional narrative arc. However, there is no indication that it is anything other than fictional. I enjoyed reading the book, despite its structural limitations. I found it an interesting portrait of the complex social conditions that prevailed in the area at the time, a country about which I previously knew little.

Zee Edgell was born in British Honduras in 1940. Her first novel, Beka Lamb, was set in 1951 and published in 1982, a year after her country became the newly independent Belize. It was the first novel by a Belizan writer to reach an international audience. She has worked in international development and travelled widely, and is currently living in the United States.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Cameroon: Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

I was delighted when I saw in the advance publicity for Imbolo Mbue's debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, that she is Cameroonian. Not so delighted when I discovered that she lives in the United States, has done so for more than a decade, and that her university education took place there. And further, that the novel is about the experience of immigrants in New York, chasing the American Dream. More of an American novel than an African novel, then. So for Cameroon, I bought, and read, Angèle Kingué's Venus of Khala-Kanti instead. But I still wanted to read the Mbue novel, and I'm glad I did.

The Jonga's - Jende and Neni, and their son Liomi - are Cameroonians trying to make it in New York. While Jende works as a chauffeur for an investment banker on Wall Street, Neni is studying at community college with a dream of going to pharmacy school. Jende does not have a green card but does have a permit to work while waiting for his asylum application to be heard. His wealthy employer, Clark and his wife Cindy are also in their own way pursuing the American dream. Cindy had a hard childhood and is insecure about her social position. The interaction between the two couples, and the events that unfold during the collapse of Lehman brothers and subsequently, form the narrative of the novel. We also meet Clark and Cindy's two children, Vince who wants to give everything up and search for peace and enlightenment, and the younger son Mighty.

Although set in New York, the novel reveals a good deal more than I expected about life in Cameroon. It is a place where everyone's dream is to leave and go somewhere else. And yet, will they find happiness there? In the end, in their own way, Jende, Clark and Vince all find a path that satisfies them. (And yet, given that the author is a woman, I find it a little strange thinking about it now that the women in this book are more harshly treated).

Be that as it may, I enjoyed the book very much, and would be interested to read more by the same author in future.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Czech Republic: Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar

My library has this labelled as science fiction, but it is much more than that. It tells the story of Jakub Prochazka, the first spaceman of Bohemia. Jakub, a scientist who studies cosmic dust, is sent into space on a mission that no other nation will undertake, to study a cloud of cosmic dust that has been left shadowing Venus by a mysterious comet. With no other companion in space than an alien arachnid, who is possibly a hallucination, Jakub must cope with the gradual failure of his marriage (via transmissions from earth), and the failure of his mission. Stranded in space, he must find a way home.

This is by no means the end of the story. The book also gives us a lot of the recent history of the Czech Republic, through the history of Jakub's own family. He must confront the dark deeds of his father, and his love for his grandparents, and somehow make a new life for himself.

I loved this book. (That's two in a row with strange aliens - a coincidence? But this one resembles Jane Rawson's in that point only, otherwise they are very different books). The suspenseful plot was enhanced by the in depth characterisation of Jakub, his wife Lenka, grandparents, and other peripheral characters including the mysterious Shoe Man.

Jaroslav Kalfar was born in the Czech Republic and emigrated to the US at the age of fifteen. It appears from his author photo that he is still quite young. Unlike many other books written by authors who emigrate to the United States, this is in no way an American book. And it appears from the acknowledgments at the back that the author still considers himself very much Czech, referring as he does to "my country" in a way that can only mean the Czech Republic. So, while I keep trying (often fruitlessly) to read books that have been published in the country and language of the author, rather than the countless American influenced books of immigrants, I felt that this one was an entirely satisfactory choice for the Czech Republic.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Australia: From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson

This book looked so intriguing when I spotted it in the library that it inspired me to make a return visit through its pages to Australia. It is based on the story of the wreck of the Admella, in South Australia in 1859. The author's great great grandfather survived this wreck. In many hands, it would have been just another historical story. However, here it becomes something much more, with the addition of an alien life form hiding in the ocean near the wreck in the form of a cephalopod, but able to transform and shape shift.

This addition turns the story into something truly amazing. Inventive, lyrical, suspenseful and invoking a sense of wonder at the beauty of earth, the oceans, and the vast expanse of space, along with tender sympathy for the plight of humans and of the homeless life forms who came to earth millions of years ago and took refuge in the oceans.

One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Monday, April 24, 2017

North Korea: The Accusation, by Bandi

I knew that North Korea was going to be a difficult country. So I was delighted to read of this collection of short stories, smuggled out of North Korea, and furthermore, to discover that our library had copies on order.

The seven stories in this collection are relatively simple, and have a common theme - in each, the central characters are struggling to survive in a regime where the ordinary people have little, and live in fear of the consequences of the slightest wrong act or careless phrase, while the "Dear Leader" lives a luxurious lifestyle and must be praised at all costs. (When he moves around the country, it is a "Class One Event" and all other traffic must stop to make way for him). Generally, there is a moment of realization in each story, where the truth of their situation breaks through, overcoming years of propaganda.

Despite this simplicity, the characters in each story are different and completely individual. I was fascinated by the insight and power of these stories. I have to believe that they are a true reflection of life in North Korea - the author had nothing to gain by exaggeration or distortion, given that the stories were never going to be published in his own country. In fact, they lay hidden for years, most being dated around the early 1990s, until he was able to give them to someone to smuggle secretly out of the country. (Bandi means "firefly" and is, of course, a pseudonym).

The Accusation is translated by Deborah Smith, and published by Serpent's Tail in 2017.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Switzerland: The Chef, by Martin Suter

Maravan is a Tamil asylum seeker in Zurich and Andrea is a waitress at the same restaurant, the famed Chez Huwyler. Maravan is a brilliant chef but as an asylum seeker is only permitted to work in unsklled jobs, such as kitchen hand and finds himself scrubbing pots and preparing vegetables. It is 2008, the time of the global financial crisis and both Maravan and Andrea find themselves out of work.

Together they set up "Love Food", an enterprise specialising in erotic meals which, we are led to believe, have the couples who eat them wanting to jump into bed with each other. This is achieved by the aphrodisiac qualities of Ayurvedic recipes that Maravan has inherited from his beloved great aunt, combined with his "molecular cooking" techniques. Maravan is desperately trying to send money back to Sri Lanka to help his family, in the last days of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE rebels. From couples, they progress, somewhat against Maravan's values, to providing catering for rich businessmen and their escorts. Together they are drawn into an underworld of sex and illegal arms dealing.

I found the story readable enough, but not altogether convincing. Was Maravan's food really that powerful? And somehow, neither the struggles of the Sri Lankan Tamils not the world of the dodgy arms dealers really drew me in emotionally.

Nevertheless, according to the blurb Martin Suter has a huge readership. He was born in Zurich in 1948 and now spends his time between Spain and Guatemala. The Chef was translated from German by Jamie Bulloch and published in Great Britain by Atlantic Books in 2013.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Egypt: The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

This turned out to be a much easier read than my choice for Lebanon (previous post). In the first chapter or so, I felt it was strongly reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith's series of novels about the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street, Edinburgh. However it turned out to be much darker than that. Like the 44 Scotland Street books, The Yacoubian Building presents the various stories of the inhabitants of a single building, in this case in downtown Cairo. The year is approximately 1990, at the time of the Gulf War which followed the invasion of Kuwait. This backgrounds the tension between the various sectors of Egyptian society - the poor, the politicians, the intellectuals, the businessmen. Taha, the son of the doorkeeper of the Yacoubian Building, is a bright student who wants to join the police force, but is turned down despite outstanding performance in the entry exams because of his father's occupation. At university, he is drawn in to militant Islam. His sweetheart, Busayna, has to work to support her family after the death of her father, but finds that what her employers expect of a beautiful woman is problematic. The two gradually drift apart.

The novel exposes rampant corruption in political life, and in the police force. I found the depiction of female characters rather troubling, as most of them seemed to exist only in relation to men - someone's mother, someone's sister, someone's wife. Only the older Frenchwoman, Christine, a bar owner, and Dalwat, the rather unpleasant widowed elder sister of another character, appeared to have much agency of their own. I suspect this reflects the Eqyptian situation at the time as much as it reflects the writer's ability to create convincing depictions of the opposite sex.

The depiction of homosexuals I also found rather troubling, but again, perhaps realistic in the setting of the novel. In both cases (women and homosexuals) there seemed to be a huge focus on them as sexual objects, rather than as people with wide-ranging lives.

Despite all the dark events in the novel, it does end on a somewhat positive note. I'm not sure though, that I would agree with the blurbs on the back - the New York Times describes it as "a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart" - sympathetic, perhaps, but hardly comic in my opinion.

The Yacoubian Building was published in Arabic in 2002, translated by Humphrey Davies and published in English by Harper Perennial in 2007.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lebanon: As Though She Were Sleeping, by Elias Khoury

I'm having a hard time with books from the Middle East. I really enjoyed my selection from the United Arab Emirates - That Other Me, by Maha Gargarsh. Other than that though, I've found Middle Eastern literature very hard to get into. So it was with my selection for Lebanon, which, according to the cover, won the inaugural Arabic Novel Prize. The language is beautiful and poetic. But the story is very non-linear. Ostensibly, the action takes place over three separate nights (some months apart) - in fact, the three sections are titled "The First Night", "The Second Night" and "The Third Night". However, it is a lot more wide ranging than that, and tracks back and forth in time, in a way that is not easy to follow. I found it difficult when putting the book down and coming back to it, to remember where the story had got to.

Meelya is a young Lebanese Christian woman who has married Mansour, a Palestinian. She leaves Lebanon to live with him in Nazareth, but escapes reality in dreams. Her dream world is convincingly evoked, as she slips in and out of it. But just as in real life dreams, the book can be rambling and illogical at times. Still, the beauty of the language made me persist. Eventually, at the end of the story, there was a moment of revelation as the author linked the story of Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son Isaac with the death of Christ(and with Meelya herself) that formed a very satisfying conclusion (a little Bible knowledge will help the reader here).

As Though She Were Sleeping was translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies and published in Great Britain by MacLehose Press in 2011.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Romania: Black Sea Twilight, by Domnica Radulescu

Nora is a talented artist growing up in Mangalia on the Black Sea Coast of Romania. Gigi, her boyfriend is from a Turkish family in the same town. Nora dreams of going to art school and Gigi of becoming a ship's captain like his father, while Nora's twin brother Valentin has been sent to live with his aunt Raluca in Bucharest, so that he can study piano. But Communist Romania under the brutal and oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu is not an easy place to grow up. The slightest joke or innocent teenaged escapade might bring someone to the attention of the secret police.

This was an absorbing story, following the fortunes of Nora, Gigi, Valentin, and of Anoushka, the young French woman with a mysterious past whom Gigi and Nora rescue from the sea in a storm, and Didona, Valentin's first love, a gypsy from the State Circus.

However, I felt the author was using the story to cram in as much as she could of the recent history of Romania. So, while the first part of the story, until Nora reaches Paris, unfolded naturally, there were some odd passages later in the story: Nora receives a letter from her mother in which her mother tells the story of her own early life. On a train trip to see France, Anoushka suddenly launches into the story of her own early life in Hungary and Romania. And Nora hangs out in Paris with a group of young artists, actors and directors, who argue vigourously about the merits of Parisian culture and the fact that many of the most prominent artists there are Romanian immigrants.

A bibliography at the end of the book seems to bear out that the author wanted to impart factual information about Romania as much as to tell a story.

Despite these sometimes awkward intrusions, which could have been trimmed down without hindering the flow of the narrative, I enjoyed reading this book.

Domnica Radulescu was born in Romania and won a national prize for a volume of short stories when she was twenty, but fled during Nicoae Ceaucsecu's dictatorship and settled in the United States as a political refugee in 1983. She is a professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

New Zealand: The Quiet Spectacular, by Laurence Fearnley

New Zealand books are easy for me to obtain, and there's plenty of choice. I had gradually become aware of Laurence Fearnley as a writer I had yet to dip into, which seemed rather a lack, given that she has been writing novels, some of them award winning, for around twenty years. So I put my name on the hold list for her latest, "The Quiet Spectacular" at the library, and eventually it came round to my turn (the hold list being surprisingly long).

The book is set in the south of New Zealand, in an unnamed area clearly based on Dunedin, and on a rural dormitory town and wetlands slightly to the south of the city. Christchurch, where I live, also gets a mention as the childhood home of one of the main characters, and residence of her parents. I find when the setting is familiar, the reading experience is changed by the inevitable mental fact checking that goes on. I didn't find anything to quibble with (and the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 inevitably got a small mention).

The book centres around three women. Loretta is a school librarian with two grown children, a soon to be teenaged son, a husband and an ex. She appears to be suffering some sort of mild mid-life crisis, and has embarked on a project to catalogue adventurous women in a book (imaginary or real) called "The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women". Chance is a teenage girl whose goat farming father and brothers are interested only in go karts, while her mother is literary but cold and mentally cruel to her. Riva is an older women, who has given up a successful business making women's outdoor clothing in the United States, and returned to New Zealand where she is restoring and protecting a wetland reserve. Riva is mourning the death of her sister Irene, but has promised Irene that on the fourth anniversary of her death, she will do something spectacular to celebrate, and will then stop mourning her and get on with life.

These three women separately discover the wetlands, and a hut that Riva and Irene had built there, and eventually meet up. I found the variety of female characters interesting. Men are peripheral here. But though Riva says of men that she can "take them or leave them", it is not an anti-male book (the author, by the way, is a woman despite her male-sounding name). Chance's father, for instance, seems to be a good hearted person, in the glimpses we see of him, while her mother Trudy is not at all sympathetically drawn.

The book was interesting enough that I felt I would like to explore Fearnley's earlier work - in particular, "The Hut Builder" which won the fiction section of the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards.