Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell


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)
Summary/Review:

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.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Golden Child by Claire Adam


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.
Summary/Review:

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.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Poland

Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Title: Flights
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2018
Summary/Review:

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.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

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: **