Book Review: The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway


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.
Summary/Review:

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.

Recommended books:

  • In Transit by Brigid Brophy
  • Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen


This books is my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Greenland

Author: Niviaq Korneliussen
Title: Crimson
Translator: Anna Halager
Publication Info: London : Virago, 2018.
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Doomi Golo : The Hidden Notebooks by Boubacar Boris Diop


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.
Summary/Review:

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 booksThe Story of the Madman by Mongo Beti and A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Angola

Author: Jose Eduardo Agualusa
TitleA General Theory of Oblivion
Translator:  Daniel Hahn
Publication Info: London : Harvill Secker, [2015]
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Switzerland

Author: Peter Stamm
Title: To the Back of Beyond
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Publication Info: New York : Other Press, [2017]
Summary/Review:

A family returns from a vacation to their home in Switzerland, and after putting their kids to bed, the father and husband Thomas simply walks away from the house leaving his wife Astrid and two children behind.  The short novel alternates with scenes of Thomas hiking across the mountains and Astrid trying to continue her life and waiting for his return.  This is not the first book I’ve read about a man leaving his family behind which is apparently some male fantasy I don’t share.  It’s unclear if this book is intended as an indictment of toxic masculinity or a celebration. This is a well-written book, but not one I can really review because it depresses and infuriates me so much.

Recommended booksThe Cold Song by Linn Ullmann and The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Last Wolf  & Herman : The Game Garden, The Death of a Craft by László Krasznahorkai


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Hungary
AuthorLászló Krasznahorkai
Title: The Last Wolf  & Herman : The Game Warden, The Death of a Craft
Translators: George Szirtes, John Batki
Publication Info: New York : New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2016.
Summary/Review:

This translated work by postmodern Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai contains two novellas or short stories. The Last Wolf is the story of a man telling a story in a bar about hunting the last wolf in Spain.  It’s written entirely in one loooooong sentence.  Herman is a story in two parts about a game warden tasked with trapping predators in the woods near a city who ends up going feral himself, trapping animals of all types, including domesticated animals.  “The Game Warden” portion is told from his perspective while “The Death of Craft” focuses on a group of young men and women traveling to the town and hearing the stories of Herman’s madness going on around them.  Both books focus on hunting and the animal nature within humanity. This is a challenging book to read, especially as an Around the World for a Good Book selection, because of it’s sparse narrative and experimental prose.

Recommended booksJerusalem by Goncalo M. Tavares and Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Rating: **1/2

Book Review:  In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Djibouti.

Author: Abdourahman A. Waberi
TitleIn the United States of Africa
Translator: David Ball, Nicole Ball
Publication Info: Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Summary/Review:

This novel is set in an alternate universe where Africa, unified as a single nation, is prosperous and has colonized the rest of the world. White people try to escape poverty and war as refugees to Africa.  One could put together a concordance as long as the book to all the references of things in this topsy turvy world that are allusions to our world.  After a few pages of this it moves beyond satire and feels more like the author trying to demonstrate his cleverness.

Unfortunately, the plot and characterization is pretty thin.  The main character is Malaïka (aka Maya), a child born in France but adopted by an African doctor.  The story follows her life and her journey as an adult to return to France and meet her birth mother.  To add to the overall experimental style of the novel, it is written by an unnamed narrator addressing Maya.

This novel is short but a complicated read.  I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff that just went over my head.

Rating: **

Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana

Author: Taiye Selasi
TitleGhana Must Go
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

I was surprised that my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana turns out to have a good portion of the narrative set close to home in the Boston, Massachusetts area.  Selasi’s novel is a story of immigration, family, the long term ramifications of choices made, and an attempt to peer beyond the stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

The novel is set around the family of Kweku Sai, long isolated from one another, coming together in Ghana for his funeral.  Kweku immigrated to America where he became a celebrated surgeon, but after being unjustly fired, the great shame causes him to leave his family and return to Ghana.  His wife Fola was a law student who gave up her career to support Kweku, and faces difficult choices when forced to raise 4 children on her own.  The eldest son Olu follows his father into medicine, but his father’s abandonment leaves him fearful of commitment.  The sister-brother twins Taiwo and Kehinde bear the scars of being sent to live with Fola’s brother in Nigeria after Kweku’s departure and the sexual abuse they suffered there. The youngest child Sadie didn’t know her father at all and until shortly before the main narrative begins had been very close with her mother.  All of their stories are told in extended flashbacks intertwined with the present day story.

This is a heartbreaking and harrowing novel and should come with a big trigger warning.  It unfortunately tends toward the melodramatic although there is honesty in the family dynamics portrayed.  Thankfully, this is also a story of redemption and healing, although it is still hard to not feel unsettled after reading.

Recommended booksThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri  and Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Finland
AuthorArto Paasilinna
TitleYear of the Hare
Narrator: Simon Vance
Translator: Herbert Lomas
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010), originally published in 1975, translated to English in 1995
Summary/Review:

This delightful novel tells the story of Kaarlo Vatanen, a journalist from Helsinki traveling in the northern countryside of Finlan, whose car hits and injures a young hare. Vatanen finds the hare, nurses it back to health, and adopts it. This prompts him to leave his job, his wife, and sell his boat to fund his life as he and the hare travel farther north in the Finnish wilderness where they have various madcap adventures.  It’s clear that it’s full of satire of Finnish people and culture albeit I don’t know enough about Finland to get the references.  More broadly it has the very 1970s themes of self-discovery, counterculture vs. the emerging globalization of business, and the absurdities of the Cold War.  There is another story from the 1970s, possibly a British one, that this reminds me of but I can’t recall what it is.

Recommended books:
Rating:

Book Review: The Anniversary Present by Larry Thomas


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Fiji

Author: Larry Thomas
TitleThe Anniversary Present
Publication Info: Suva, Fiji: Pacific Writing Forum, [2002]
Summary/Review:
I read one play in this collection by the contemporary Fijian dramatist Larry Thomas (of whom it is difficult to find much information online).  The story is about an older married couple, the wife proud of the new set of furniture she’s received from her irascible husband.  Other characters include their adult daughter and ne’er-do-well son-in-law, an estranged son, and a nosy neighborhood.  The story feels very familiar, and I couldn’t help imagining the story playing out on the set of All in the Family.  Nevertheless, it is a Fijian story where the characters speak in the creole of the more disadvantaged members of the society and the conflicts among Fijians and Indians underlie the story.  I feel that without more background information I am missing out on a lot of the greater meaning of the drama, but still found it an interesting read.

Rating: ***