Around the World for a Good Book selection for Serbia
Author: Téa Obreht
Title: The Tiger’s Wife
Narrator: Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Téa Obreht’s debut novel mixes together folklore and magical realism with the grim realities of the war-torn Balkan region in this story set in fictionalized Balkan nation. The framing story is told by Natalia, a doctor on an errand of mercy who reminisces about her recently deceased grandfather who was also a doctor. Natalia’s story is intercut with the story her grandfather told her about his many encounters with The Deathless Man, who claimed he couldn’t die and couldn’t age. A third story is intertwined about a Muslim girl who was deaf and mute and a child bride in Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood hometown. She befriends a tiger that escapes from a zoo during World War II and becomes known as The Tiger’s Wife by the superstitious villagers.
I confess that the shifting narratives and points of view threw me off a bit, but that’s more of a reader’s error than any fault of the book. Obreht magnificently deploys magical realism in a narrative that attempts to unlock memory in a land torn apart by violence. She also tells a story of a family over time that parallels the region’s experience with death and war.
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Austria
Author: Elfriede Jelinek
Title: The Piano Teacher
Translator: Joachim Neugroschel
Publication Info: Grove Atlantic, 2009 [originally published in 1983]
Erika Kohut is a woman in her mid-thirties who teaches piano at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory. She lives with her controlling mother in a very taught and unhealthy relationship. Erika rebels in various including buying clothing she never wears, self-harm, and deliberately injuring strangers. Over the course of the novel she also explores her repressed sexuality by going to pornographic movies, peep shows, and practicing voyeurism.
Walter Klemmer, a student over a decade younger than Erika, begins to show her attention. Their desire grows and when they finally acknowledge it, Erika requests a sadomasochistic relationship. Walter, who is an arrogant prick, really justs wants to have sex with an older woman and move on. Things go horribly, horribly wrong.
I saw this book described as “erotic” but there’s absolutely nothing sexy about it. In fact, it is quite repulsive. Jelinek seems to revel in using the most unpleasant description possible for the human condition and the human body. It just gets worse and worse and I really struggled to finish this book. I’ve also seen the book described as “satire,” but it reads to me as nothing more than caustic misanthropy.
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Antigua and Barbuda
Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Title: Annie John
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1985.
Annie John is a novel about a young girl growing to become a young woman. The story includes the deterioration of her relationship with her mother, her love for another girl named Gwen, and Annie John’s depression. Colonization weighs over the story in the conflict between traditional ways and English culture. I don’t know if this novel is autobiographical, but Kincaid writes with a sense of lived experience while also being timeless.
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Zambia
Author: The Old Drift
Title: Namwali Serpell
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
This is an epic novel that attempts to depict the history of Zambia through the fictional stories of several generations of a few interrelated families. The characters are a mix of Black African people native to the region that would become Zambia as well as European colonizers and expatriates. The novel begins with explorer David Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time. This is ironic since later in the novel a character says that when telling stories to white people you need to always start with a white person “discovering” something. The novel ends in a near future time when biotechnology has become commonplace.
The stories in this novel draw on the traditions of magical realism. For example a woman’s hair grows so fast so as to constantly cover her entire body. Her daughters, on the other hand, have fast growing hair on their heads that they are able to profit from by selling for wigs. Some parts of the story seem ludicrous but are drawn from actual Zambian history, such as the plan for a Zambian space program in the 1960s to send a woman to Mars with several cats. This may or may not have been a joke in real life.
The novel is sprawling and it includes a large cast of characters and I found it hard to remember who is who. The novel is also written in a style more akin to history than a literary narrative which made it hard for me to hold my attention. I would chalk this up as a reader issue than a flaw of the book, though.
Overall, this is a weird and wonderful work of fiction. Serpell is a young contemporary author and it will be interesting to see what she produces next.
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Trinidad and Tobago
Author: Claire Adam
Title: The Golden Child
Narrator: Obi Abili
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2019.
The Golden Child is a family drama set in rural Trinidad. The Deyalsingh family, Trinidadians of Indian heritage, are Clyde and Joy, and their twin 13-year-old sons Peter and Paul. Peter is the “golden child” of the title, academically gifted, and Clyde saves all the family’s money for his future, despite his wife’s desire to move to the city or to improve the house they live in.
Despite the title, Paul is the main focus of the novel. He is believed to be “slightly retarded” due to loss of oxygen to his brain at birth. But over the novel it is revealed that he is a kind child with many hidden talents, and most likely has learning disabilities, although this is never specifically stated. The novel begins with Paul going missing, and then flashes back on the previous 13 years of the family from various points of view. When we return to the present day timeline, Paul is facing a very real threat and Clyde is faced with difficult choice.
Adam does well at developing the characters and family dynamics, as well as showing everyday Trinidadian culture. But this is also a grim and disheartening book, so don’t pick it up for light reading.
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Poland
Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2018
Flights is a collection of 116 vignettes, some of them exceedingly brief, while others are short stories. They all focus on a theme of travel and are narrated by a nameless woman who practices an old Orthodox Christian belief of constant movement to avoid evil. There’s a lot of variety in the vignettes ranging from contemporary stories to historical fiction. In addition to the theme of travel, with a focus on travel psychology, there is also a reoccurrence of the theme of anatomy and dissection. This is a weird and wonderful book, although I did struggle mightily to keep up with the fragmentary narrative.
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Scotland
Author: Janice Galloway
Title: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
Publication Info: Normal, IL : Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.
The narrator of this novel is Joy, a 27-year-old women who works as a drama teacher and is struggling with depression, anorexia, and alcoholism. The accidental death of the married man who was her lover prompts a breakdown which leads to her spending time in a mental institution (where she doesn’t get much help). The fractured narrative uncovers both the events of her traumatic events and the societal expectations of women that have lead to her current state. This is a challenging book to read, both due to the raw emotions of an honest appraisal of depression, and the stream of conscious style of writing. One feature Galloway uses is adding snippets of text to the margins as if Joy is annotating the novel. It took me waaaaay too long to finish reading this book, but I’m glad I did because it is a powerful story of mental health issues that are too often hidden.
- In Transit by Brigid Brophy
- Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
This books is my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Greenland
Author: Niviaq Korneliussen
Translator: Anna Halager
Publication Info: London : Virago, 2018.
I can’t say I know enough about Greenland to have any misconceptions about Greenland, nevertheless I was surprised that this novel was set in an urban area. The city of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital and largest city with 18,000 people, is described by one of the characters:
“Nuuk is big when there’s somebody you actually want to bump into. People you don’t want to see pop up all the time, but people you want to see are nowhere to be found.” – p. 170
The novel is in five chapters, each from the perspective of a different young adult in Nuuk, focusing on that individual’s experience as a queer person. They deal with issues such as the first-time feeling of same sex attraction, the shame and anger of a relationship with a Greenland politician going public, cheating, and recognizing transgender identity. The stories overlap as the characters know one another as siblings, housemates, and romantic partners. Each of the character’s writes in a different style, which includes letters, journals, stream of conciousness, and even snippets of text messages. The names of the characters also tie into gender identity in the original Greenlandic, which this translation is good about making clear.
The author translated the book into Danish which is the source of this English translation. The book was originally titled Homo Sapienne and is also being published under the title Last Night in Nuuk. This book is a good glimpse into contemporary life in Greenland and is a great LGBTQ read for Pride Month, as well as being an excellent work of contemporary literature.
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Senegal
Author: Boubacar Boris Diop
Title: Doomi Golo : The Hidden Notebooks
Translator: Vera Wülfing-Leckie, Moustapha Diop
Publication Info: East Lansing : Michigan State University Press, 2016.
Doomi Golo is written as a series of notebooks from the eccentric Nguirane Faye to his missing grandson Badou, who presumably will never see them. Nguirane Faye weaves together tales of his everyday life with myths and fables and a history – albeit fictionalized – of Senegal. The novel is unique in being a rare work of fiction originally written in Wolof, the language of Senegal’s largest ethnic group, rather than the official language French. Boubacar Boris Diop also translated the novel into French from which this English translation was made. It would be interesting to learn what differences in nuance exists in the prose of the three versions. This is a good Around the World for a Good Book choice since it provides a good entry point into Senegalese life in culture. That being said it was also a challenging book and deserves a deep read.
Recommended books: The Story of the Madman by Mongo Beti and A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Angola
Author: Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Title: A General Theory of Oblivion
Translator: Daniel Hahn
Publication Info: London : Harvill Secker, 
This book tells the story of Ludo, a Portuguese woman living in the Angolan capital of Luanda. When a revolution achieves independence for Angola in 1975, Ludo does not join the crowd of colonizers returning to Portugal, but instead bricks herself into a penthouse apartment, surviving on self-grown vegetables and trapped pigeons. There she remains for 30 years, as Angola suffers Civil War and its original Leftist government falls to one more welcoming of capitalism.
The novel is written more as a series of vignettes, short chapters of sparse text reflecting the isolation of Ludo and other characters, physically and metaphorically. There are other storylines in the novel outside Ludo’s apartment, which may be things that Ludo is aware from hearing out her window, or memories of earlier days, or just other people’s stories. It’s never really clear. And Ludo isn’t completely alone for 30 years as she has encounters with two other people over that time, one that goes poorly, and one much better, but I won’t spoil that here.
A General Theory of Oblivion is an interesting and challenging novel. For Around the World for a Good Book purposes it also a good introduction to Angola’s history since independence.