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.
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 books: The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer and The Book Thief by Markus Zusakd
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Portugal
Author: Gonçalo Tavares
Translator: Anna Kushner
Publication Info: Champaign [Ill.] : Dalkey Archive Press, c2009
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 books: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for France
Author: Carole Martinez
Title: The Castle of Whispers
Translator: Howard Curtis
Publication Info: Europa Editions, 2014
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 books: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland and Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Honduras
Author: Horacio Castellanos Moya
Translator: Katherine Silver
Publication Info: New York : New Directions, 2008.
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 books: I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman In Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchu
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.
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.
“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 books: Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston and Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Uruguay
Author: Carolina de Robertis
Title: The Invisible Mountain
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009.
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 books: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.