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: ****