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: ****

Book Review: The Story of the Madman by Mongo Beti


Around the World for a Good Book selection for: Cameroon

Author: Mongo Beti
Title: The Story of the Madman
Publication Info: Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, c2001.
ISBN: 0813920485

Summary/Review: A familiar story of post-colonial Africa where a newly independent nation suffers tyrannical and wasteful governments, the nation is divided by civil war, and the former colonial power lurks in the shadows looking to profit.  Mongo Beti examines a fictional nation similar to Cameroon in this satirical tale.   The heart of the story of Chief Zoaételeu the patriarch of a large tribal family who speaks his mind to readily before government soldiers and is arrested and put on display in a show trial.  Other characters include his conniving favorite sons and a lawyer who often bursts out in Latin and considers himself a speaker of truth who like Cassandra can’t be believed.  Since the characters serve a satirical purpose they often seem more like caricatures and it’s hard to develop a true sympathy to them.  In fact, a lot of the time the satire seems laid on too thick to make this an illuminating or entertaining novel.

Recommended books: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: A Novel by Maaza Mengiste and Snakepit by Moses Isegawa
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste


Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Ethiopia

Author: Maaza Mengiste
Title: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2010.
ISBN: 9780393071764

Summary/Review:

This is a beautifully written yet difficult to read book about Ethiopia in the 1970s.  Difficult to read mainly due to the violence and oppression that is all to characteristic of African novels I’ve read but to a lesser extent due to the large cast of characters.  I learned many things from this novel including that although Haile Selassie was respected as a world leader (and revered by Rastafarians) he was thought cruel in Ethiopia.  I learned that there was a major famine in 1972-74 and a revolution that overthrew the emperor and in his place reigned the Derg who imprisoned and executed tens of thousands of people.  This novel tells the story of these troubled times through one family all facing difficult choices amid the horrors of war and oppression.   It took me a long time to finish this book, but I’m glad I did.  Thomas Jefferson wrote “Travel makes a person wiser, if less happy.”  I think reading around the world has the same effect.

Recommended books: Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, The Trial of Robert Mugabe by Chielo Zona Eze, and Snakepit by Moses Isegawa.
Rating: ***1/2