Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Portugal
Author: Gonçalo Tavares
Translator: Anna Kushner
Publication Info: Champaign [Ill.] : Dalkey Archive Press, c2009
This novel brings together several characters in one place for one event and then jumps back to show vignettes of each character’s life, building up to what all brought them there. It is a well-written and structured work, but also very complex, and I admit that I don’t totally “get” it. Themes of troubled relationships, mental illness, and the nature of evil. If you’re interested in provocative fiction, you may like this.
Recommended books: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.
Author: Ayana Mathis
Title: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Narrators: Adam Lazarre-White, Bahni Turpin, and Adenrele Ojo
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2012
Summary/Review: This somber novel tells the stories of a woman named Hattie who migrates from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s, and her subsequent life and that of her children. The novel is a series of connected stories, each focusing on a different child from dates ranging from the 1920s to 1980s. The family perseveres against poverty, racism, mental illness and internal strife. I found it a well-written story that approaches family life and the African-American experience from different angles. The audiobook is also well-performed with different narrators reading stories from the different children’s perspectives.
Recommended books: Bailey’s Cafe by Gloria Naylor, Strivers Row by Kevin Baker, and Jazz by Toni Morrison
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for France
Author: Carole Martinez
Title: The Castle of Whispers
Translator: Howard Curtis
Publication Info: Europa Editions, 2014
In 12th-century France, a 15-year-old girl from a noble family named Esclarmonde escapes an arranged marriage by offering herself to God. The form she takes is an anchoress, imprisoned in the walls of a chapel where she is to pray for the people of her town and the many pilgrims who are soon drawn too her. Shortly before being walled-up, Esclarmonde is raped and impregnated. The birth of her son is seen as a miracle by the local religious leaders who prefer not to ask the questions that would get to the truth of the matter.
The novel takes a lot of liberty with historical accuracy and plausibility, but I find it works. It’s an interesting exploration of the manner in which a woman could gain power in 12th-century Europe, as Esclarmonde is seen advising the local bishop (and the pope by proxy) as well as sending men off to fight in the Crusades. It also is a study of motherhood as Esclaramonde raises her son in her cell for three years until he grows to big to fit between the bars and is sent off to an adoptive family. Finally, it investigates the idea of faith with the suggestion that God may not exist, but the belief and rituals still have a positive function in their society.
Recommended books: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland and Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis
Editor: Mike O’Mary
Title:Be there now : travel stories from around the world
Publication Info: Dream of Things, 2012
This book collects very brief essays that capture a moment of a travel experience. It’s interesting idea but a lot of the stories come out vapid and are not at all transcendent. It’s a quick read, though, and a handful of stories stand out such as: volunteers helping sea turtles lay their eggs in Costa Rica ( A Trembling Voice by Frank Izaguirr), a blind man visiting mountain gorillas in Rwanda (In the Footsteps of Fossey by Irene Morse), and a writer exploring the world through Google Maps (Virtual Travel by Trendle Ellwood). The book kind of feels the first part of a contest in which the authors of the top stories should be awarded with a chance to publish longer stories of their experiences.
Recommended books: There’s No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure by Doug Lansky
Narrator: Thomas Frank
Title: Pity the Billionaire
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2012
Previous books read by the same author: What’s the Matter With Kansas?
Thomas Frank explores the ways in which the crash of 2008 and ensuing great recession failed to lead to a populist revolt against capitalists nor for greater government intervention into the economy, as it has in past recessions. In fact, we got the Tea Party instead where the government was blamed for over-regulating business and banking instead. Frank examines the common explanations for the rise of the Tea Party, dismisses them, and proposes the long growing movement that paints capitalists as victims of government overreach drawing from the works of neoliberal economists and Ayn Rand. It’s all very interesting, and well-composed, although nothing I’ve not read before. My favorite part of the book turned out to be the last chapter where Thomas Frank condemns the Democratic Party for failing to have any populist ideology to counter the right, nor drawing on what made them successful in past recessions, while at the same time maintaining cozy relations with Big Business. The Democrats failure to act on the historic principles of their party makes it somewhat plausible that they can be blamed for being affiliated with the banks that bankrupted the country while at the same time too strictly regulating those banks.
Recommended books: The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History by Jill Lepore, and Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston.
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Honduras
Author: Horacio Castellanos Moya
Translator: Katherine Silver
Publication Info: New York : New Directions, 2008.
This short novel depicts the narrator as a man in exile hired to edit testimonies of indigenous people who’ve survived torture and slaughter at the hands of the military regime. His employer is the local archdiocese of the Catholic church whom he works for despite being an atheist with a particular hatred for the Catholic church. The narrator finds himself haunted by phrases that jump out at him from the testimonies. This is all beautifully-written and haunting.
Unfortunately, this novel has a serious unsympathetic narrator problem. The majority of the text is spent with him attempting to satisfy his sexual longings with a pair of women, and then griping when he’s not sated as desired. The lechery and misogyny page after page is hard to bear. Most disturbing of all, and I may be reading this wrong, the narrator begins to see his “suffering” as equivalent to that he reads about in the testimonies, as he descends into a state of paranoia. Adding to my difficulty in reading this book are long sentences in lengthy paragraphs.
So there you have it, a grim novel about a loathsome protagonist in a world of horror.
Recommended books: I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman In Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchu
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Croatia
Author: Dubravka Ugrešić
Translator: Ellen Elias-Bursác, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson
Title:Baba Yaga Laid an Egg
Publication Info: New York : Canongate, c2009.
This is a novel in three parts. The first part features a narrator’s concerns about dementia in her aging mother, and traveling to her mother’s childhood home in Bulgaria with a young folklore scholar. The second part details the comedy of errors in a journey of three elderly women to a spa resort. The final part is a satirical analysis of the Baba Yaga myth expressed in the first two parts written in the persona of the Dr. Aba Bagay (note the anagram), the young folklorist from part 1. Themes of the novel deal with aging, motherhood, and the Balkan past. It is often funny, but then punctured by moments of stunning tragedy. And one learns an awful lot about Baba Yaga, the legend of Slavic folklore who manifests as an old, evil woman living in a hut on chicken legs.
“It was all too much, too much even for a very bad novel, though Kukla. But, then again, things happened, and, besides, life had never claimed to have refined taste.” p. 210
Recommended books: Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston and Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat