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: ***

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Book Review: I Think of You by Ahdaf Soueif


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Egypt.

Author: Ahdaf Soueif
TitleI Think of You 
Publication Info: New York : Anchor Books/Random House, 2007
Summary/Review:

This collection of short stories, some of which are connected around the same characters, tells stories of women coming of age in Cairo, London, and New York between the 1960s to 1980s.  As an expatriate tale it’s important to realize that these are the stories of a more privileged class than a representative Egyptian work.  Nevertheless, Soueif’s protagonists deal with struggles including discrimination, failed marriages, and miscarriage.  Souief’s writing style is spare and these feel more like vignettes  than stories.  Her lyrical approach seems to be trying to capture emotions more than stories, but doesn’t go far enough to make a connection with the reader.

Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Indonesia

Author: Eka Kurniawan
TitleBeauty is a Wound 
Translator: Annie Tucker
Publication Info: New York : New Directions, 2015.
Summary/Review:

This contemporary Indonesian novel depicts the history of the nation from World War II to the 1990s through a fictional port city as it goes through Japanese occupation, revolution against Dutch colonialism, Communist uprisings, massacres, and civil war.  While it’s a well-written and engaging novel, it’s hard to keep reading through the depictions of rape, torture, and cruelty. Balancing these grim realities is a magical realism element which includes ghosts, curses, and reincarnation.

The book centers on Dewi Ayu, the beautiful and pragmatic prostitute, and her daughters.  Three of her daughters, beautiful like their mother, end up married to local military commander, a mob boss, and a communist revolutionary.  The last daughter, named Beauty, is cursed by her mother to be ugly to protect her from the suffering of her other daughters.  And yet, all of these women, and their children, and the numerous other townspeople introduced in various tangential stories suffer and keep on suffering.  It’s almost too much to bear.
Favorite Passages:

“What does it feel like to be dead?” asked Kyai Jahro. “Actually, it’s pretty fun. That’s the main reason why, out of everyone who dies, not one person chooses to come back to life again.” “But you came back to life,” said the kyai. “I came back just so I could tell you that.”
“Have you become a communist?” asked his mother, almost in despair. “Only a communist would be so gloomy.” “I’m in love,” said Kliwon to his mother. “That’s even worse!” She sat next to Kliwon and stroked his hair that was curly and growing long. “Well, go play your guitar under her bedroom window like you always do.”

Recommended booksThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Silver Stallion by Jung-Hyo Ahn
Rating: ***

Book Review: Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Costa Rica
Author: Tatiana Lobo
Title: Assault on Paradise
Publication Info: Willimantic, CT : Curbstone press, 1998.
Summary/Review:

After completing this novel, I saw it described as a picaresque which is “a genre of prose fiction which depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.” The genre also has no plot.  I wish I knew these things going into the book because it would’ve made more sense (especially the plotlessness).  Assault on Paradise is the tale of Pedro Albaran who arrives in colonial Central America escaping the Inquisition.  First he works as a book-keeper for a monastery.  On a journey to another settlement he and some companions are separated and live on their own in the jungle.  Pedro falls in love with and has children with an indigenous woman known only as “The Mute” and their whole relationship is totally creepy.  After her death, Pedro returns to society just as the indigenous population launches and uprising.  The book details the sordid underside of colonialism – the conquistadors and the church – and all its levels of corruption.  It was a difficult read but that may be more of reader error than the book itself.

Recommended booksThe Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Thailand
Author: Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva
Title: The Happiness of Kati
Publication Info: New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006.
Summary/Review:

Kati, a nine-year-old girl lives with her grandparents and dreams of her mother who left five years earlier.  Finally, it’s revealed that her mother has ALS and is close to death.  The separation from her mother seems cruel, but it is obvious there’s a lot of love in this family.  They are reunited for Kati’s mother’s last days, a time where Kati learns a lot about her family.  Before dying, Kati’s mother tells her how she can contact her father who she has never met.  The final chapters detail Kati’s choice to seek out her father or not.  This is a touching novel, written from a perspective that realistically portrays the way a child views the world and deals with difficult issues like death.

Recommended booksThe Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer and The Book Thief by Markus Zusakd
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Norway
Author: Linn Ullmann
Title:The Cold Song
Translator: Barbara Haveland
Publication Info: New York : Other Press, c2011
Summary/Review:

This novel is a story about a family at seaside summer home and the young woman Milla who comes to work as their nanny, but goes missing and is later found murdered.  This is not a spoiler as Milla’s remains are discovered in the first pages of the book, but the manner of Milla’s demise is revealed over the extended flashback that makes up the bulk of the novel.  The rest of the cast includes Siri, the A-type restaurateur who hires Milla; Siri’s philandering husband Jon, a novelist struggling with writer’s block; their non-conforming 12-year-old daughter Alma; and Jenny, Siri’s 75-year-old mother who resents the massive birthday party that Siri forces upon her.  There’s a lot of tension in this novel as the characters navigate around one another, and while not a crime novel, the imminent crimes against Milla hang there over the whole story.

Favorite Passages:

Besides: Jon would never have used the expression “sell like hotcakes”—not only was it a cliché, it was also inaccurate. Hotcakes no longer sold like hotcakes. He had no statistics to back this up, but he was pretty sure that hotcakes fared poorly compared to smartphones or drafty houses in overpriced areas (like his own, for example) or antiaging creams.

Recommended booksMaine by J. Courtney Sullivan, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and Saturday by Ian McEwan
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Jerusalem by Gonçalo Tavares


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Portugal
Author: Gonçalo Tavares
Title:Jerusalem
Translator: Anna Kushner
Publication Info: Champaign [Ill.] : Dalkey Archive Press, c2009
ISBN: 9781564785558
Summary/Review:

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 booksThe Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Castle of Whispers by Carole Martinez


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for France
Author: Carole Martinez
TitleThe Castle of Whispers
Translator: Howard Curtis
Publication Info: Europa Editions, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-60945-182-0
Summary/Review:

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 booksCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland  and Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Honduras
Author: Horacio Castellanos Moya
Translator: Katherine Silver
Title:Senselessness
Publication Info: New York : New Directions, 2008.
ISBN: 9780811217071
Summary/Review:

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 booksI, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman In Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchu
Rating: *1/2

Book Review: Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić


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.
ISBN: 9781847670663
Summary/Review:

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.

Favorite Passages:

“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 booksMules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston and Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Invisible Mountain by Carolina de Robertis


 Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Uruguay
AuthorCarolina de Robertis
Narrator:Christine Avila
TitleThe Invisible Mountain
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009.
Summary/Review:

This excellent debut novel tells the story of three generations of women – Pajarita, Eva, and Salome – against the backdrop of Uruguayan history of the 20th century.  The structure of a multi-generational family story that tells personal stories with an epic sweep is familiar in Latin American literature, but this novel goes more for gritty rather than magical realism.  This is a fascinating novel and I enjoyed learning more about each of the women as their story develops, and sad when they are reduced to background characters when the narrative moves on to the next generation.  The final section with Salome imprisoned by the brutal Uruguayan dictatorship is particularly gripping.
Recommended booksThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.
Rating: ****

Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Colombia
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Translator: Gregory Rabassa
Narrator: John Lee
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio (2014) (originally published 1967)
ISBN: 9781482939682
Other books read by the same author: Love in the Time of Cholera
Summary/Review:

I always find it difficult to review a book that is a recognized classic.  What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before.  I enjoyed this book a lot, and I was surprised it was so funny (it was meant to be funny, I hope?), at least parts of it.  I also couldn’t keep track of all the characters but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that is not as vital as the story of the town of Macondo itself with its sleepless sickness, civil wars with civil generals (but gruesome executions), and endless rain.  There’s also the books style and use of words and imagery that set it apart from your typical novel.  This novel is also rich in symbolism encapsulating an alternate history of Colombia.

So there you have it, my very short and very dumb review of a classic work of literature.  Here’s all you need to know: read it!
Favorite Passages:

“Fernanda was scandalized that she did not understand the relationship of Catholicism with life but only its relationship with death, as if it were not a religion but a compendium of funeral conventions.”

“Literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people.”

Recommended booksThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Cousin K by Yasmina Khadra


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Algeria
Author: Yasmina Khadra
Translator: Donald Nicholson-Smith and Alyson Waters
Title: Cousin K
Publication Info: Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780803234932
Summary/Review: Yasmina Khadra is the female pen name for the male Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul, which he adopted to avoid censorship of the Algerian army.  His real identity was only revealed when he moved to France in 2001.  This thin, stark novel tells the story of a boy in an Algerian village whose father is killed is a traitor, whose elder brother is often absent with the army, and whose mother is dismissive and neglectful of him.  The titular Cousin K is a girl who comes to visit for the summer who becomes the object of the boy’s affection, but she in turn is cruel and mocks him.  The novel creates a sympathetic portrait of a wounded boy which unravels as he’s grows up with shocking results.

Recommended booksThe Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Rating: ** 1/2

 

Book Review: Life Form by Amélie Nothomb


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Belgium
AuthorAmélie Nothomb
Translator: Alison Anderson
TitleLife Form
Publication Info: Europa Editions (2013)
ISBN: 9781609450885
Summary/Review:

Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan to Belgian parents, lives in Paris, and writes about the United States’ war in Iraq.  That’s the kind of worldliness I like for an Around the World for a Good Book selection.  Nothomb creates a fictional version of herself in this novel (how true-to-life, I do not know) in which she carries on a correspondence with an American soldier in Iraq, Melvin Mapple.  The soldier is aware that Nothomb (the fictional one, at least) responds to letters from her readers and that she may be a sympathetic voice.  Over the course of the letters, Mapple reveals that he and other soldiers react to the war through eating and enormous weight gain.  Mapple sees it as a means of protest, forcing the military to pay for food and increasingly larger clothing.  As the correspondence continues, the absurdity increases so that Mapple’s obesity is treated as an artistic statement.   Nothomb creates in herself an unsympathetic sounding board for the pathetic and grotesque Mapple.  The book works well both as a satire of American foreign policy and obesity problem, but also is a gripping read with a number of interesting twists.  On a literary level it works with the ideas of language and reality.

Recommended booksThe Night Listener by Armistead Maupin, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and Every Inch of Her by Peter Sheridan
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Man of Feeling by Javier Marias


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Spain
Author: Javier Marias
Translator: Margaret Jull Costa
TitleThe Man of Feeling
Publication Info: New Directions (2003)
ISBN: 0811215318
Summary/Review:

This short meditative book is narrated from the perspective of a young opera singer who travels across Europe for performances.  On one of his journeys he shares a train cabin with an attractive woman, her husband, and a man who works as their handler (for lack of a better word).  It seems painfully obvious that the narrator will lust after the woman, that the power-hungry husband won’t like that, and the handler will play both sides against one another, because that is exactly what happens.  Marias narrator is not a sympathetic character, even as he details the reprehensible behavior of the others in this quartet, he still comes off as the worst.  The saving grace is that Marias – and his translator – makes good use of lyric writing with a few turns of the flowery word and a narrative built on a dreamlike quality.  This is not a book to read for the plot or the characters, just the well-crafted prose.  Marias describes his work accurately in the epilogue as ‘a love story in which love is neither seen nor experienced, but announced and remembered.”
Rating: **

World Cup of Reading


So, the FIFA World Cup ended over a month ago, but I still used this year’s tournament as inspiration to revive my ongoing Around the World for a Good Book project.  The basic gist is that I’m attempting to read a work of fiction (in English or English translation) from every country in the world.  So far I’ve been able to read literature from more fifty nations, but I’ve stalled out the past couple of years.

My goal for 2014 is to try to read a book for all 32 nations represented in this years World Cup.  Luckily, countries I’ve read abundantly – such as England and the United States – as well as other countries I’ve read for the project were represented in the tournament, so I will only have 12 books to read to complete the field.

Here are the books I’ve read, or plan to read, for the World Cup nations of 2014.  As always, I’m open to suggestions.

 

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:

“Friday.
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.
Rating:

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

Summary/Review:

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: ****