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


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

Book Review: The Law of Love by Laura Esquivel

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Mexico

Author: Laura Esquivel
Title: The Law of Love
Publication Info: New York : Crown Publishers, c1996.
ISBN: 0517706814

By the same author: Like Water for Chocolate


This may be the first Around the World For a Good Book selection that is science fiction.  Esquivel’s novel is set in a future where reincarnations and karma are very real and central to society, and interplanetary travel and body-swapping are quite possible.  Then there are guardian angels and demons guiding the primary characters’ actions.  All of it comes off very strange and poorly written (or is it the translator’s fault?).  The book just never worked as fiction, it was more of a collection of fantastical ideas.  The first multimedia novel also comes with a CD with prompts to listen to at the appropriate part of the narrative as well as portions of the book in graphic novel to represent the characters’ visions.  It’s gimmicky and doesn’t really add much to the story.  Overall this was mildly entertaining, but not really all that great, especially compared with Like Water for Chocolate.

Rating: ** 1/2

Book Review: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Republic of Kiribati

Author: J. Maarten Troost
Title: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
Publication Info: Broadway (2004)
ISBN: 0767915305

Not the ideal book for Around the World for a Good Book since it’s written by an outsider, is non-fiction, and carries a Western bias.  Nevertheless it will suffice for now as I’m not likely to run across any I-Kiribati fiction anytime soon.

This travel narrative is based on the author’s two years spent on this poor island nation in the South Pacific.  It is stunningly similar to another book I read earlier this year, My ‘Dam Life:

  • The author is directionless and unable/unwilling to settle down in a career
  • His girlfriend gets a position on the island of Tarawa in Kiribati and he goes along
  • Much is made of the culture shock and unpleasantness of living abroad
  • He eventually warms up to the culture and accepts it on his own terms
  • His writing style tries too hard to be funny, although sometimes the circumstances merit a laugh

Overall, this is not a great book, but it is enjoyable and educational.  Troost definitely packs in a lot of history and facts about Kiribati and its people.

Recommended books: Outposts by Simon Winchester and Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer

Author: Guus Kuijer
Title: The Book of Everything
Publication Info: Arthur A. Levine Books (2006)
ISBN: 0439749182


This short book is a brutally honest work of young adult literature set in Amsterdam a few years after the liberation and end of World War II.  Thomas only wishes to be happy but has to deal with his fundamentalist and abusive father.  The book is colored by magical realism and a touch of surrealism as Thomas is aided by witches, calls down the plagues of Egypt, and converses with a lonely Jesus.  A powerful and touching book that touches on a lot of issues: childhood, family, religion, community, and kindness.

Recommended books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and Wise Blood: A Novel by Flannery O’Connor
Rating: ***

Book Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Sweden

Author: Henning Mankell
Title: Faceless Killers
Publication Info:  New York : New Press, c1997.
ISBN: 156584341X


An elderly couple are brutally murdered in their farmhouse near a provincial Swedish town.  It’s detective Kurt Wallender’s job to solve this crime, but shocking as the murders are, they are secondary (maybe tertiary) to this novel.  The woman’s dying word “foreigner” stirs up the local community against refugees who are pouring into nearby camps.  Violence against the refugees and ultimately another murder make Sweden’s refugee policy (circa 1990) central to this novel as well as providing more crimes for Wallender to solve.

This novel is also a psychological portrait of Wallender.  He’s aging, conservative, his wife has left him, he eats poorly, he drinks too much and he’s somewhat lecherous.  The only thing he’s good at is being a detective and even there he fails to heed the advice of one of his colleagues in the police department.  In short he’s every cliche of a police detective, and yet he comes across as a full-fleshed, complex, and sympathetic character.  He’s reminiscent of a less-whimsical Inspector Morse.

I’m not sure if it’s Mankell or his translator but the writing is very spare and artless.  It is evocative of the cold, open landscape of rural Sweden.  This book is interesting in that through my American eyes I’ve always seen Sweden is very progressive so the controversy and racism regarding refugees was something I was completely unaware of.

I learned of this book from The Hieroglyphic Streets which contains links to other reviews.

Recommended books: Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Dogside Story by Patricia Grace

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: New Zealand

Author: Patricia Grace
Title: Dogside Story
Publication Info: University of Hawaii Press (2002), Paperback, 304 pages
ISBN: 0824825845


Set just before the turn of the millennium in 2000, Dogside Story takes place in a rural Maori community historically born of a family feud.  The novel deals with family, using communication to resolve community problems, and the erosion of traditions as the younger people adopt the ways of the white people or move away to the cities.  Storytelling is important to the community and many wonderful stories are woven into the narrative. I struggled with this book due to dialogue which is rich in accents and lingo as well as the large cast of characters who I found difficult to sort out.  That of course is reader error and should not reflect poorly on this lyrical, insightful, and humorous novel.  Here’s a link to a much better review.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: India

Author: Arundhati Roy
Title: The God of Small Things
Publication Info: Harper Perennial, 1998
ISBN: 0060977493


This challenging novel tells the story of a multi-generational family in southernmost India whose lives are changed in one day by a tragic incident. While the main story is set in 1969, Roy moves back and forth throughout the time focusing mainly on the young twins Estha and Rahel and the adults they become as a result of the novel.  Roy touches on post-colonialism, conflicts between Christianity and native beliefs, communism versus the status quo,  and the caste system.  While the story is heartbreaking and sometimes brutal, Roy has a way with words and composes some very beautiful sentences.

Recommended books: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Atonement by Ian McEwan
Rating: ****

Book Review: Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Côte d’Ivoire

Author: Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie
Title: Aya
Publication Info: Drawn and Quarterly (2007)
ISBN: 1894937902


This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is set in Yop City, a working class neighborhood in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970’s when the nation was prosperous and chic.  Abouet deliberately sets out to tell a story about Africa that is not about poverty and warfare.  The story is centered around the daily lives and flirtations of three young women.  <SPOILER> Of course there is some heavy stuff here when one of the young women becomes pregnant and is forced into marriage with the son of a wealthy Boss, but Abouet plays if off for comedy with the grown-ups as comic caricatures. </SPOILER>.  Oubrerie vibrantly illustrates this book bringing out the beautiful colors of the clothing and the city as well as the humanity of the characters.  I learned about this book via The Hieroglyphic Streets, where you can find more reviews, and apparently there are sequels that are worth checking out too.

Recommended Books: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Little Fingers by Filip Florian

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Romania

AuthorFilip Florian
Title: Little Fingers
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2009)
ISBN: 0151015147


The hot new novel from Romania is based on the premise of excavations of a Roman fort in a small town unearth a mass grave.  It is immediately rumored and believed that the bones belong to people executed by the communist regime in the 1950’s and the situation denigrates into a morbid and sensationalist media circus.

Florian builds around this premise a series of biographies and set pieces.  Multiple voices speak that tell stories often tangentially related to the main story.  There’s Petrus the archaeologist who spends a lot of time listening to the stories, dreams, and prognostications of the elderly women of town.  There’s the priest who waits on the next apparition of the Virgin.  There’s the lone partisan, survivor of the communist era.  Then there are the Argentinians, experts in political murders, who fly in to examine the grave.

I’d admit this is not a straightforward nor easy to read novel.  Still I enjoyed the humor and the writing of Florian (as translated by Alastair Ian Blyth) which is both poetic in the dreamy sections and poetic in the many portions that describe and list ordinary objects.  Florian is an interesting voice and addition to my Around the World For A Good Book project.

Recommended books: The Joke by Milan Kundera, A Mercy by Toni Morrison.  This book falls well into the magical realism category, so if you enjoy that you’ll probably like Little Fingers.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Canada

Author:  Carol Shields
Title: The Stone Diaries
Publication Info: New York : Viking, 1994.
ISBN: 0670853097


First impression:  This author has a predilection for unsettling, detailed descriptions of human flesh in order to get the point across that a woman in overweight.

Second impression:  Shields also has a disturbing hang up about sex and sexuality.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Or unusual.

Third impression:  While this book is ostensibly about a woman name Daisy Goodwill Flett the reader rarely hears her voice.  Daisy’s family and friends are the narrators and often go on a bit about themselves more than Daisy.  Its like we can’t really approach Daisy, we only touch her tangentially.  In that way it’s reminiscent of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Fourth impression:   Who are these people in the photographs in the centerpiece?

Fifth impression: While each chapter is titled as a specific period in Daisy’s life, the narrative is nowhere near that linear.  Flashbacks cunningly fill in details we were spared earlier in the novel, as if we’re learning as we’re growing older, just like Daisy.  The chapters vary widely in writing style too – one chapter is the dying vision of her father, one chapter is entirely letters written to Daisy’s newspaper column about flowers, and one consists of divergent opinions from family and friends about Daisy’s mental breakdown. In this sense it reminded me of Ulysses.

Sixth impression:  The writing in this book is brilliant – moving without being manipulative.  I didn’t think I’d like it at first but for the second half of the book, I couldn’t put it down.

This book was selected by my W&M Boston Alumni Chapter book club and I’m also assigning it to represent Canada for Around the World for a Good Book.  After reading so many books by authors from developing nations who’ve relocated to Europe or America, here’s the rare instance of an author born in the United  States moving to Canada.  Despite that, and despite the fact that even the protagonist spends part of her life in the US, I like the internationality of the book, and at least one commentator considers The Stone Diaries to be the Great Canadian Novel.

Favorite Passage:

When we think of the past we tend to assume that people were simpler in their functions, and shaped by forces that were primary and irreducible.  We take for granted that our forebears were imbued with a deeper purity of purpose than we possess nowadays, and a more singular set of mind, believing, for example that early scientists pursued their ends with unbroken “dedication” and that artists worked in the flame of some perpetual “inspiration.”  But none of this is true.  Those who went before us were every bit as wayward and unaccountable and unsteady in their longings as people are today.  – p. 91

Recommended books: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Ulysses by James Joyce
Rating: ****