Posts Tagged ‘Around the World for a Good Book’

Book Review: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion by Johan Harstad

Author:  Johan Harstad
Title: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion
Publication Info:  New York : Seven Stories Press, c2011.
ISBN:  9781609801359
Summary/Review: This book from Norway, recently translated into English by Deborah Dawkin, is the latest book I’ve received free from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program and a book for my Around the World for a Good Book project.  The narrator/protagonist is a young man named Mattias who seems to be content with not standing out or being noticed for anything.  Hence his fascination with Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.

After a long-time girlfriend leaves him, Mattias goes to the Faroes Islands with his friend’s band and suffers a mental breakdown.  He’s picked up by a psychiatrist who runs a sort of halfway house for people with mental and emotional problems trying to ease back into society.   Mattias moves in and over the next couple of years details his new life on the Faroes.  Plot is secondary as the narrative is mainly an internal dialogue of a man coming to terms with his loneliness and depression.

Mattias is not always a sympathetic character but I relate to him a lot.  I like what Harstad is trying to do exploring the interior anguish of Mattias, but I have to admit that the book is overlong.  Still I recommend reading it, I find it reminiscent of the work of Haruki Murakami.

Favorite Passages:

One should beware of Fridays.
They promise so much.
Like movie trailers.
Only rarely do they live up to expectations.
Most Fridays are lousy sequels.
Back to the Future Part III.” – p. 43

“The brain is a strange contraption.  A library with a messy librarian.  And in the floors below, in the cellar, there are vaults, filled to the ceiling with books and journals, dissertations and papers that are scarcely ever asked for.”  – p. 181

Recommended Books: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, and The Museum Guard by Howard Norman.

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Title: The Shadow of the Wind
Publication Info: Penguin Highbridge (Aud) (2005)
ISBN:  9780786558186
Summary/Review: This is an epic, sprawling book set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War, under the fearful reign of Franco.  A boy named Daniel is taken by his father to a mysterious bookshop called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and selects one volume which he is sworn to protect.  Daniel falls in love with the book and wishes to learn more about its author Julián Carax of whom little is known.  Worse, a sinister person is finding and burning all of Carax’s books.  From this comes something of a thriller and a mystery as well as a paean to books and reading which tells the parallel stories of Daniel and Carax and the evil forces they have to contend.  The book has its failings in that the dialogue (or at least the translation) is full of cliches and it goes on longer than it need be, but overall I enjoyed it.  It’s a nice tribute to books and authors and the joy of reading.  I’m provisionally making this my Around the World For a Good Book selection for Catalonia, mainly because I like to read my AWFGB books in print, but I think it is a good choice otherwise.

Recommended books: The Little Book by Selden Edwards
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Silver Stallion by Ahn Junghyo

Around the World for a Good Book selection for: South Korea

Author: Ahn Junghyo
Title: Silver Stallion
Publication Info: New York, NY : Soho Press, c1990.
ISBN: 0939149303 :

Summary/Review: This unsettling book is set during a time that most American readers like myself will be familiar with, the Korean War (and that mostly from watching many episodes of M*A*S*H).  A remote village, relatively unaffected by previous wars – including the Japanese occupation – finds itself adjacent to the encampment of the “World Army” of United Nations troops sent to fight the war.  As the novel begins a pair of predatory soldiers scour the village and rape a young widow named Ollye.  Following the lead of the village elder, none of her neighbors offer their aid or sympathy but instead ostracize her.  Ollye is forced to make ends meet by joining the “Yankee Wives,” local women working as prostitutes for the UN troops.  Much of the novel is seen through the eyes of Ollye’s son Mansik who is shamed by his mother and shunned by the other boys in the village.  Yet Mansik also finds himself willing to debase himself to once again be able to accepted by the other boys.  Parts of this novel strike a false note, especially the climax where Ollye confronts the villagers with a speech played up for dramatic effect, but mostly I was overwhelmed by the stark reality of the cruelty of humanity.  This is a dark novel about the affect of war on community and human nature.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Around the World for a Good Book selection for: Chile

Author: Isabel Allende
Title: The House of the Spirits
Publication Info: Bantam (1986)
ISBN: 0553273914


This is an epic tale following several generations of one dysfunctional family: the wealthy Trueba family of Chile.  There story is set against the trials and tribulations of 20th-century Chile leading up to the Pinochet dictatorship (although Pinochet and other real-life characters are never mentioned by name) creating a historical novel with a touch of magical realism.  Esteban Trueba is the patriarch of the family, a hot-headed character who rapes and abuses the tenants of his estate and when he’s unable to control his family, channels his angry energy into right-wing politics.  His wife Clara is a clairvoyant and more-focused on spiritualism and the afterlife than the world around her, yet holds her family together all the same.  Their daughter Blanca causes scandal by her affair with the son of her father’s foreman Pedro Tercero García.  Their daughter is Alba who will go on to get involved with the socialist revolutionaries.

The book’s strength is its characters and Allende manages to make each of them sympathetic, even the loathsome Esteban Trueba.  It’s also subtle in how it builds up to the revolutions of the 1970s.  For much of the book, the characters seem aloof from the political nature of Chile so it’s quite shocking how they are thrust into major roles in the later chapters.

This is an excellent book, a deserved classic, and definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Story of the Madman by Mongo Beti

Around the World for a Good Book selection for: Cameroon

Author: Mongo Beti
Title: The Story of the Madman
Publication Info: Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, c2001.
ISBN: 0813920485

Summary/Review: A familiar story of post-colonial Africa where a newly independent nation suffers tyrannical and wasteful governments, the nation is divided by civil war, and the former colonial power lurks in the shadows looking to profit.  Mongo Beti examines a fictional nation similar to Cameroon in this satirical tale.   The heart of the story of Chief Zoaételeu the patriarch of a large tribal family who speaks his mind to readily before government soldiers and is arrested and put on display in a show trial.  Other characters include his conniving favorite sons and a lawyer who often bursts out in Latin and considers himself a speaker of truth who like Cassandra can’t be believed.  Since the characters serve a satirical purpose they often seem more like caricatures and it’s hard to develop a true sympathy to them.  In fact, a lot of the time the satire seems laid on too thick to make this an illuminating or entertaining novel.

Recommended books: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: A Novel by Maaza Mengiste and Snakepit by Moses Isegawa
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Ethiopia

Author: Maaza Mengiste
Title: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2010.
ISBN: 9780393071764


This is a beautifully written yet difficult to read book about Ethiopia in the 1970s.  Difficult to read mainly due to the violence and oppression that is all to characteristic of African novels I’ve read but to a lesser extent due to the large cast of characters.  I learned many things from this novel including that although Haile Selassie was respected as a world leader (and revered by Rastafarians) he was thought cruel in Ethiopia.  I learned that there was a major famine in 1972-74 and a revolution that overthrew the emperor and in his place reigned the Derg who imprisoned and executed tens of thousands of people.  This novel tells the story of these troubled times through one family all facing difficult choices amid the horrors of war and oppression.   It took me a long time to finish this book, but I’m glad I did.  Thomas Jefferson wrote “Travel makes a person wiser, if less happy.”  I think reading around the world has the same effect.

Recommended books: Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, The Trial of Robert Mugabe by Chielo Zona Eze, and Snakepit by Moses Isegawa.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Law of Love by Laura Esquivel

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Mexico

Author: Laura Esquivel
Title: The Law of Love
Publication Info: New York : Crown Publishers, c1996.
ISBN: 0517706814

By the same author: Like Water for Chocolate


This may be the first Around the World For a Good Book selection that is science fiction.  Esquivel’s novel is set in a future where reincarnations and karma are very real and central to society, and interplanetary travel and body-swapping are quite possible.  Then there are guardian angels and demons guiding the primary characters’ actions.  All of it comes off very strange and poorly written (or is it the translator’s fault?).  The book just never worked as fiction, it was more of a collection of fantastical ideas.  The first multimedia novel also comes with a CD with prompts to listen to at the appropriate part of the narrative as well as portions of the book in graphic novel to represent the characters’ visions.  It’s gimmicky and doesn’t really add much to the story.  Overall this was mildly entertaining, but not really all that great, especially compared with Like Water for Chocolate.

Rating: ** 1/2

Book Review: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Republic of Kiribati

Author: J. Maarten Troost
Title: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
Publication Info: Broadway (2004)
ISBN: 0767915305

Not the ideal book for Around the World for a Good Book since it’s written by an outsider, is non-fiction, and carries a Western bias.  Nevertheless it will suffice for now as I’m not likely to run across any I-Kiribati fiction anytime soon.

This travel narrative is based on the author’s two years spent on this poor island nation in the South Pacific.  It is stunningly similar to another book I read earlier this year, My ‘Dam Life:

  • The author is directionless and unable/unwilling to settle down in a career
  • His girlfriend gets a position on the island of Tarawa in Kiribati and he goes along
  • Much is made of the culture shock and unpleasantness of living abroad
  • He eventually warms up to the culture and accepts it on his own terms
  • His writing style tries too hard to be funny, although sometimes the circumstances merit a laugh

Overall, this is not a great book, but it is enjoyable and educational.  Troost definitely packs in a lot of history and facts about Kiribati and its people.

Recommended books: Outposts by Simon Winchester and Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer

Author: Guus Kuijer
Title: The Book of Everything
Publication Info: Arthur A. Levine Books (2006)
ISBN: 0439749182


This short book is a brutally honest work of young adult literature set in Amsterdam a few years after the liberation and end of World War II.  Thomas only wishes to be happy but has to deal with his fundamentalist and abusive father.  The book is colored by magical realism and a touch of surrealism as Thomas is aided by witches, calls down the plagues of Egypt, and converses with a lonely Jesus.  A powerful and touching book that touches on a lot of issues: childhood, family, religion, community, and kindness.

Recommended books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and Wise Blood: A Novel by Flannery O’Connor
Rating: ***

Book Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Sweden

Author: Henning Mankell
Title: Faceless Killers
Publication Info:  New York : New Press, c1997.
ISBN: 156584341X


An elderly couple are brutally murdered in their farmhouse near a provincial Swedish town.  It’s detective Kurt Wallender’s job to solve this crime, but shocking as the murders are, they are secondary (maybe tertiary) to this novel.  The woman’s dying word “foreigner” stirs up the local community against refugees who are pouring into nearby camps.  Violence against the refugees and ultimately another murder make Sweden’s refugee policy (circa 1990) central to this novel as well as providing more crimes for Wallender to solve.

This novel is also a psychological portrait of Wallender.  He’s aging, conservative, his wife has left him, he eats poorly, he drinks too much and he’s somewhat lecherous.  The only thing he’s good at is being a detective and even there he fails to heed the advice of one of his colleagues in the police department.  In short he’s every cliche of a police detective, and yet he comes across as a full-fleshed, complex, and sympathetic character.  He’s reminiscent of a less-whimsical Inspector Morse.

I’m not sure if it’s Mankell or his translator but the writing is very spare and artless.  It is evocative of the cold, open landscape of rural Sweden.  This book is interesting in that through my American eyes I’ve always seen Sweden is very progressive so the controversy and racism regarding refugees was something I was completely unaware of.

I learned of this book from The Hieroglyphic Streets which contains links to other reviews.

Recommended books: Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels.
Rating: ***1/2


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