Posted by: biblioglobal | July 22, 2014

Nepal: The Tutor of History (Book-from-every-country #57)

Personally, I think this cover is overly ominous for the tone of the book.

I love to get book recommendations from people who know a country better than I do. The Tutor of History by Manjushree Thapa was the recommendation of Elen at southasiabookblog who lives in Kathmandu and said that this book helped her understand what was going on with Nepali politics.

It’s very much a book about politics, and also a book about the lives of a number of people in Khaireni Tar, a small town. All of the main characters are connected in one way or the other with a small political party trying to get just a few seats in the national parliament. Khaireni Tar is one of their best hopes because their candidate is famous film star.

The Tutor of History was published in 2001 and set in the late 1990s. Nepal had only been holding elections since 1990, so democracy was very new. The book did a good job illustrating the challenges and opportunities. Since the book was written, the monarchy dissolved parliament and then parliament/the Maoists dissolved the monarchy and I don’t really understand what happened. Trying to figure that out and parse out all the political acronyms makes me understand why The Tutor of History might be so valuable for understanding Nepali politics.

The title actually refers to a character who is a history tutor, which amuses me. How much grander of a title The Tutor of History is than The History Tutor would be. Even though he’s the title character, the history tutor doesn’t play the role of a main character. The book is more of an ensemble piece, following the lives of some half a dozen major characters and several more minor ones. The ensemble illustrates what life is like in the small town of Khaireni Tar.

Khaireni Tar is a place big enough that you don’t know everyone, but small enough that you’ll probably see someone you know anywhere you go. The latter means that social reputation plays a huge role in people’s lives, leading to a strong influence of traditional values. Some people in town are starting to push back a bit against tradition though. There are a few more opportunities here than in smaller villages, but it is by no means the big city where people go to find their fortune. The individual characters were well enough developed that I ended up caring about most of them (although I never really warmed to the history tutor himself), but it is the life of the town as a whole that I think will be most memorable to me.

Reading this book corrected some of my misconceptions about Nepal. I had somehow always lumped Nepal together in my head with Bhutan and Tibet- mountainous places where Buddhism is dominant. It turns out that Nepal is actually a predominantly Hindu country (though many people mix Hindu and Buddhist practices) and many aspects of Tutor of History reminded me of India.

Something I really enjoyed about The Tutor of History, actually, was the feeling that I had some inside knowledge, based on my (albeit limited) knowledge of India. I recognized Indian English terms like ‘cousin sister’ that completely confused me when I first hear someone use them. “Wait, wouldn’t your cousin’s sister just be your cousin?” (Turns out it just means female cousin.) I even recognized some Nepali words as cognates of another language in the Hindi language family.  These things were all small details and its not that they would create a problem understanding the book if you didn’t recognize. Just that I felt pleased when I did recognize something that I wouldn’t have a few years ago.

Posted by: biblioglobal | July 16, 2014

Recovering a lost book memory

A year or two ago, I was reminded for some reason of a set of children’s books I had read long ago. But I couldn’t remember the titles or the author or really that much about them.

I remembered that the family in them was Swedish. And that in one of the books there was a scene where two girls went to visit their cool aunt at the farm and she taught them to make paper dolls- the ones where you fold paper accordion style and then when you cut them out all the people are holding hands.

Oh, and based on where I remember the book being located on the library shelves, the author’s name was somewhere in the middle of the alphabet.

Not a lot to go on.

I tried some Googling and didn’t get anywhere. I asked my sister, since she had read many of the same library books I had. But she didn’t know what I was talking about.

I thought at first that it would come back to me at some point when I wasn’t thinking about it. But a long time passed and I still didn’t remember. I decided that I really had forgotten and that unless I happened to come across the books somewhere they were probably lost forever.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I my first thought on waking up one morning was the phrase “The Crystal Tree”. I was momentarily puzzled, but then suddenly I realized, “That’s the name of that book!”  I rushed to my computer to look it up and sure enough, The Crystal Tree was third in a series of books by Jennie Lindquist about a girl named Nancy who goes to live with her Swedish grandparents and has fun with her cousins.

The books seem to be out of print and only available for way too much money. But they’re still there at my childhood library (the one where I always ran up the stairs), though sadly packed away in storage. I think the next time I’m back in town, I’ll have to call them up from storage and give them a re-read!

Posted by: biblioglobal | July 8, 2014

China: Empress Dowager Cixi (Book-From-Every-Country #56)

Dowager Empress Cixi

Apparently the bowls of apples were kept in the court for fragrance.

Here’s another example of the parochialism of an American education.* I’d never even heard of this amazing woman who went from being a low-ranked concubine to the de facto ruler of China for the better part of 40 years at about the same time Queen Victoria was ruling England.

Cixi had a bit of luck, in that she gave birth to the emperor’s only surviving son, but from there she took things into her own hands. She somehow managed to push aside the group of regents who the late emperor had assigned to rule and take charge herself, together with the late emperor’s wife.

Then, when her son died, Cixi adopted a new young son and declared him emperor (again with herself as regent). Her choice of adoptive son shows just how clever she was at the game of court politics. She chose the son of her chief enemy, Prince Gong. Sure, that was quite an honor for him, but it also meant that due to the rules about conflict of interest in the court, as the Emperor’s biological father Prince Gong had to resign from all of his official positions, including as leader of the Forbidden City palace guards.

Without a doubt Cixi is an impressive character. Whether she is admirable, however, seems to be a matter of much debate.  Jung Chang is out to disprove all the negative portrayals of Cixi, describing her as a reformer who introduced a modern education system, banned foot-binding, and was working towards implementing representative government. (Chang doesn’t dispute though that Cixi embezzled money from the navy to build herself a palace and had her adopted son murdered while on her deathbed.) I was confused then when Chang stated that Cixi is generally seen as being anti-reform. That was diametrically opposed to everything Chang had said about Cixi through the whole book.  I’m left not really knowing what to believe. It does seem that Cixi may have been unfairly villified, but at the same time I felt like I was only getting part of the story.

Besides Cixi herself, one thing that I found very interesting about this book is that it tells the history of China (unlike so much of the rest of the world) not being colonized. The relationship between China and the West was quite complicated, with China opening up and engaging with Western countries, sending diplomats and embracing Western technology and institutions, and at the same time, being under threat by the Western countries and Japan which kept demanding control over more and more ports and other territory.

I think the book’s shortcomings are the result of Jung Chang trying to write a book that is simultaneously a popular account of Cixi’s life and a history text arguing for a new interpretation of Cixi. One one hand, although the book is very well written and enjoyable to read, there are some times where it starts to drag on a bit, I think because it is also trying to be a serious historical text. On the other hand, presumably in order to keep the book as readable as possible, there isn’t really enough documentation in the book of sources to support the claims that are being made. Rather than comparing the evidence on either side, Chang just draws conclusions and even the references in the endnotes are pretty sparse for many of her claims.

Trying to write a book that is both popular and scholarly at the same time is a challenge. There are some scientific books, such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, that have successfully both appealed to a general audience and been cited in scientific literature. I haven’t read that much history (in fact this is the first history I’ve read for the book-from-every-country project!), so I don’t know if there are examples of this being done well in the field of history. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has any examples.

I’m certainly glad that I read this book and I would encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about the fascinating Empress Dowager Cixi to read it despite its flaws. Even though I’m left not knowing quite what to to think about Cixi, I wouldn’t have known anything about her at all, but for this book.

If the flaws do deter you from reading this book though, don’t let them deter you from reading Chang’s earlier memoir/family history, Wild Swans. It’s amazing and is the reason I wanted to read Dowager Empress Cixi in the first place.

* Seriously, here’s my middle and high school social studies curriculum: 7th grade-U.S. history, 8th grade- State history and U.S. government, 9th grade- World history (all of it), 10th grade- U.S. history again, 12th grade- U.S. government again. 


Posted by: biblioglobal | June 27, 2014

Reading the world logarithmically

I do in fact come from a whole family of nerds. After reading my post yesterday about the infeasibility of reading the world proportionately while not ignoring the small countries altogether, my clever brother pointed out that this was a problem that clearly called for logarithms!

I find base 10 logarithms the most intuitive, so I used that as my base. (This time using the U.N. population estimates for 2012, again found on Wikipedia.) I calculated the number of books for each country as log(that country’s population)-log(smallest country’s population)+1, rounded down to the nearest whole number.

For those that don’t like the math, with a few exceptions that works out to one book per digit beyond 1,000. So one book each for countries with populations between 10,000 and 100,000, two books each for countries with populations between 100,000 and 1,000,000 and on up to 6 books per country with populations over a billion. (The exceptions to this rule are driven by the fact that the smallest country, Tuvalu in this data set, has a population of just under 10,000)

This method produces a total of 629 books. That’s a lot, but (unlike the 721,000 books my original calculation method required)  it seems like a feasible number. It’s only about 3 times as many as I’m reading for the book-from-every-country project in the first place.  And it is substantially less than all those people trying to read the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. And it seems like a nice way to balance representation of different countries. (Not to mention a nice demonstration of the usefulness of logarithms!) So… maybe when I finish reading one book from every country…

Here’s the list of the number of books for each country:

Country: Population: Books:
China 1,385,566,537 6
India 1,252,139,596 6
United States 320,050,716 5
Indonesia 249,865,631 5
Brazil 200,361,925 5
Pakistan 182,142,594 5
Nigeria 173,615,345 5
Bangladesh 156,594,962 5
Russia 142,833,689 5
Japan 127,143,577 5
Mexico 122,332,399 5
Philippines 98,393,574 4
Ethiopia 94,100,756 4
Vietnam 91,679,733 4
Germany 82,726,626 4
Egypt 82,056,378 4
Iran 77,447,168 4
Turkey 74,932,641 4
Congo, Democratic Republic of the 67,513,677 4
Thailand 67,010,502 4
France 64,291,280 4
United Kingdom 63,136,265 4
Italy 60,990,277 4
Myanmar 53,259,018 4
South Africa 52,776,130 4
Korea, South 49,262,698 4
Tanzania 49,253,126 4
Colombia 48,321,405 4
Spain 46,926,963 4
Ukraine 45,238,805 4
Kenya 44,353,691 4
Argentina 41,446,246 4
Algeria 39,208,194 4
Poland 38,216,635 4
Sudan 37,964,306 4
Uganda 37,578,876 4
Canada 35,181,704 4
Iraq 33,765,232 4
Morocco 33,008,150 4
Afghanistan 30,551,674 4
Venezuela 30,405,207 4
Peru 30,375,603 4
Malaysia 29,716,965 4
Uzbekistan 28,934,102 4
Saudi Arabia 28,828,870 4
   Nepal 27,797,457 4
Ghana 25,904,598 4
Mozambique 25,833,752 4
Korea, North 24,895,480 4
Yemen 24,407,381 4
Australia 23,342,553 4
Madagascar 22,924,851 4
Cameroon 22,253,959 4
Syria 21,898,061 4
Romania 21,698,585 4
Angola 21,471,618 4
Sri Lanka 21,273,228 4
Côte d’Ivoire 20,316,086 4
Niger 17,831,270 4
Chile 17,619,708 4
Burkina Faso 16,934,839 4
Netherlands 16,759,229 4
Kazakhstan 16,440,586 4
Malawi 16,362,567 4
Ecuador 15,737,878 4
Guatemala 15,468,203 4
Mali 15,301,650 4
Cambodia 15,135,169 4
Zambia 14,538,640 4
Zimbabwe 14,149,648 4
Senegal 14,133,280 4
Chad 12,825,314 4
Rwanda 11,776,522 4
Guinea 11,745,189 4
South Sudan 11,296,173 4
Cuba 11,265,629 4
Greece 11,127,990 4
Belgium 11,104,476 4
Tunisia 10,996,515 4
Czech Republic 10,702,197 4
Bolivia 10,671,200 4
Portugal 10,608,156 4
Somalia 10,495,583 4
Dominican Republic 10,403,761 4
Benin 10,323,474 4
Haiti 10,317,461 4
Burundi 10,162,532 4
Hungary 9,954,941 4
Sweden 9,571,105 3
Serbia 9,510,506 3
Azerbaijan 9,413,420 3
Belarus 9,356,678 3
United Arab Emirates 9,346,129 3
Austria 8,495,145 3
Tajikistan 8,207,834 3
Honduras 8,097,688 3
Switzerland 8,077,833 3
Israel 7,733,144 3
Papua New Guinea 7,321,262 3
Jordan 7,273,799 3
Bulgaria 7,222,943 3
Togo 6,816,982 3
Paraguay 6,802,295 3
Laos 6,769,727 3
El Salvador 6,340,454 3
Eritrea 6,333,135 3
Libya 6,201,521 3
Sierra Leone 6,092,075 3
Nicaragua 6,080,478 3
Denmark 5,619,096 3
Kyrgyzstan 5,547,548 3
Slovakia 5,450,223 3
Finland 5,426,323 3
Singapore 5,411,737 3
Turkmenistan 5,240,072 3
Norway 5,042,671 3
Costa Rica 4,872,166 3
Lebanon 4,821,971 3
Ireland 4,627,173 3
Central African Republic 4,616,417 3
New Zealand 4,505,761 3
Congo, Republic of the 4,447,632 3
Georgia 4,340,895 3
Liberia 4,294,077 3
Croatia 4,289,714 3
Mauritania 3,889,880 3
Panama 3,864,170 3
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3,829,307 3
Oman 3,632,444 3
Moldova 3,487,204 3
Uruguay 3,407,062 3
Kuwait 3,368,572 3
Albania 3,173,271 3
Lithuania 3,016,933 3
Armenia 2,976,566 3
Mongolia 2,839,073 3
Jamaica 2,783,888 3
Namibia 2,303,315 3
Qatar 2,168,673 3
Macedonia 2,107,158 3
Lesotho 2,074,465 3
Slovenia 2,071,997 3
Latvia 2,050,317 3
Botswana 2,021,144 3
Gambia 1,849,285 3
Guinea-Bissau 1,704,255 3
Gabon 1,671,711 3
Trinidad and Tobago 1,341,151 3
Bahrain 1,332,171 3
Estonia 1,287,251 3
Swaziland 1,249,514 3
Mauritius 1,244,403 3
Cyprus 1,141,166 3
Timor-Leste 1,132,879 3
Fiji 881,065 2
Djibouti 872,932 2
Guyana 799,613 2
Equatorial Guinea 757,014 2
Bhutan 753,947 2
Comoros 734,917 2
Montenegro 621,383 2
Solomon Islands 561,231 2
Suriname 539,276 2
Luxembourg 530,380 2
Cape Verde 498,897 2
Malta 429,004 2
Brunei 417,784 2
Bahamas 377,374 2
Maldives 345,023 2
Belize 331,900 2
Iceland 329,535 2
Barbados 284,644 2
Vanuatu 252,763 2
São Tomé and Príncipe 192,993 2
Samoa 190,372 2
Saint Lucia 182,273 2
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 109,373 2
Grenada 105,897 2
Tonga 105,323 2
Micronesia, Federated States of 103,549 2
Kiribati 102,351 2
Seychelles 92,838 1
Antigua and Barbuda 89,985 1
Andorra 79,218 1
Dominica 72,003 1
Saint Kitts and Nevis 54,191 1
Marshall Islands 52,634 1
Monaco 37,831 1
Liechtenstein 36,925 1
San Marino 31,448 1
Palau 20,918 1
Nauru 10,051 1
Tuvalu 9,876 1
Posted by: biblioglobal | June 26, 2014

Reading the world proportionately

China gets an unfair deal in my book-from-every-country project. In reading a book from every country, China gets just over 0.5% representation, whereas its population represents 19% of the world’s population.

India is only slightly less under-represented with 17.4% of the world’s population. I don’t feel quite as bad about India though because I read a reasonable number of India-related books in addition to the one I read for this project.

So I was pleased to discover a few months ago a list by another blogger reading a book from every country showing what it would look like to read the world in proportion to population ( For a list of 100 books, that works out to:

19 books from China;
17 from India;
4 from the US;
3 from Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan;
2 from Nigeria, Bangladesh, Japan and Mexico, and
1 each from the Philippines, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Egypt, Germany, Iran, Turkey, DRC, Thailand, France, UK, Italy, Burma, South Africa, South Korea, Colombia, Spain, Ukraine, Tanzania, Kenya, Argentina, Algeria, Poland, Sudan, Uganda, Canada, Iraq, Morocco, Peru, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nepal, Afghanistan, Yemen, North Korea, Ghana, Mozambique, Australia and Taiwan.

The list also attempts to be proportional in terms of gender representation and ethnicities within countries. I think it’s a great alternative approach to reading the world.

Of course, it does mean that entire regions of the world- Oceania, the Caribbean, the Balkans get left out. Maybe one could combine approaches. How many books would you have to read, to read the world proportionally and still include one book for tiny Nauru?

720,965. Of which 136,983 should be about China and 1 about Nauru. If you’re including Vatican City amongst your countries, the situation is 10 times worse!

If you’re willing compromise and find a single travelogue covering Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau, that makes San Marino the smallest country and brings the total number of books needed down to only 219,689.

I think I’ll stick to my original plan of one book per country! But I may try to fit a few more Chinese books into my reading diet.

(My calculations are based on this Wikipedia page:

Update: Following up on the suggestion below to use logarithms, I’ve written a new post calculating how to read the world in 629 books.

Posted by: biblioglobal | June 18, 2014

Germany: The Mussel Feast (Book-from-every-country #55)

The Mussel Feast

Published in 1990. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Isn’t this a lovely cover?

I took a break this week from the long book about China that I’ve been reading for a quick read-The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke.

It’s the first book by Peirene Press that I’ve read and while I had heard of them, I didn’t know quite what their mission was. So I amused when I reached the end to read the description of their output, “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting”, because I had indeed just spent the last two hours reading the entire book. Despite the fact that I had started it an hour before bedtime!

Before I had read either one, I kept confusing The Mussel Feast with The Dinner by Herman Koch. Both were published in English in 2013 (though The Mussel Feast was originally published in German in 1990) and I saw lots of people reviewing them around the same time. I think my confusion is understandable since both are told from the perspective of a single meal. Also, as with The Dinner, I’d love to have a book group to discuss The Mussel Feast with.

What’s great about The Mussel Feast is how well it conveys the psychology of a troubled family and the divisions and loyalties involved. With some ominous foreshadowing, a teenage girl describes her family’s preparation for her father’s return from a business trip, from her mother going into ‘wifey mode’ to the fact that the girl and her brother don’t help clean the mussels so that it won’t be their fault if their father finds a bit of grit in one.

The father is someone who raises his own opinions and traits to the level of moral judgement. His way is the only acceptable way to be. To give a relatively trivial example, he berates his family members for their weakness in being prone to sunburns when he himself can stay out in the sun for hours. And so every year, the family must vacation at his preferred sunny beaches. I don’t think he’s a character that I was supposed to relate to, but I found that I did. I like to think I’ve gotten better about it over the years, but I do remember, for example, telling a friend that she was a less worthwhile person simply because she didn’t want to go out on the porch to watch a thunderstorm!

These family dynamics could happen anywhere, but there are also  some ways in which the novel is specific to Germany. The family had migrated from East to West Germany (as did Birgit Vanderbeke’s family) and this history has affected them. It’s also not hard to see the family as representing a country with the authoritarian father playing the role of the government.

There’s a note from the author on the back cover that she wrote the book immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which I find interesting because I would otherwise have assumed that it was written immediately after the wall fell. And I think knowing that shifts my interpretation a bit, knowing that it was written at a time when it could be seen that something was coming to an end, but the nature of the actual end was unknown.

Ultimately, I think The Mussel Feast is notable for the fact that it simultaneously works really well as an allegory and it also stands on its own as the story of a family.

It seems that I have been getting a lot out of reading author interviews lately. Here’s one with Brigit Vanderbeke (and with links to interviews with the translator and editor):

Posted by: biblioglobal | June 10, 2014

How good are Goodreads ratings?

Or more precisely, how well does the average rating of a book on Goodreads predict my own rating of that book?

I joined Goodreads not too long after starting this blog, mostly as a way of keeping a list of possible books to read for my book-from-every-country project. My initial assumption, like a lot of people, I think, was that the star rating they give to books wouldn’t really tell me anything about whether I would like a book. After all, those ratings are averages of so many people with such different tastes. (And surely many of those people have bad taste!)  Plus I’m skeptical even of my own ability to quantify my opinion of a book on a scale from 1 to 5, which is why I never include ratings in my blog.

Being a science-type person though, it occurred to me to test it out. I blinded myself to Goodreads ratings for the time that it took me to read  50 books  from my Goodreads list. These were mostly books from my book-from-every-country project or other ‘global’ type reading. I rated those books periodically, trying to follow the Goodreads scheme of ‘It was okay’, ‘I liked it’, ‘It was amazing” etc. When I got done with 50 books, I took a look at the data.

Here’s a graph of the results:


It turns out that there is actually a statistically significant correlation (two-tailed linear regression, p=0.03) between the average Goodreads rating and my own opinion! It’s not exactly a tight relationship though. The R^2 value of 0.09 means that variation in the Goodreads rating only accounts for about 9% of the variation in my rating. Still, there’s enough of an effect that in the future if I were trying to choose between two books that looked interesting to me and one had a 3.5 rating on Goodreads and the other had a 4.0 rating, I’d go with the 4.0. I wouldn’t not read a book  just because it had a 3.5 rating though.

It’s notable that all of the Goodreads ratings for books I read fell into a fairly small range, from The Tiger’s Wife rated 3.36 (Why on earth is it rated that low?!) to Persepolis and Poor Economics which tied at 4.20 (totally deserved!). I think that range is probably typical of most reasonably successful books*. If my reading was a random sampling of the books on Goodreads, including really obscure, badly written books (not that all obscure books are badly written!), I suspect that Goodreads ratings would have better predictive power. (Anyone willing to read 50 completely random books to test this? I think I’ll pass.)

The book that comes out as most under-rated on Goodreads (as compared to my own opinion) is Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. It seems that a movie version is in the works. It will be interesting to see if that boosts the ratings. The book that according to me is most over-rated is Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra. I think that one comes down to personal taste. It’s apparently quite a good book. It just didn’t happen to appeal to me at all.

Well, what about other sites with book ratings? I decided to look at the ratings on Amazon and LibraryThing for comparison. One thing I immediately noticed was that the ratings on Amazon were noticeably higher than for the other two. (The data also look boxier because the Amazon ratings are rounded to the nearest tenth.)


Maybe the higher ratings are related to Amazon being a shopping site? Maybe you’re more likely to bother to rate books you really liked there? Once you account for the higher ratings though, Amazon ratings were about as successful at predicting my ratings as Goodreads’ were.

Here’s LibraryThing:


Interestingly, LibraryThing seems to do a somewhat better job of predicting my opinion than either of the other two.  That surprised me because in most cases the books had fewer ratings on LibraryThing than on Goodreads. I wonder whether the community on LibraryThing might have more similar tastes to mine? (Or it could just be chance. I haven’t actually done the statistical test to determine if LibraryThing was significantly better than Goodreads.)

So, to conclude, Goodreads’ isn’t bad, but LibraryThing might be better (for me anyway).

* In the course of writing this post, I came across a Goodreads list of books with ratings over 4.5. At first glance, two types of book were highly represented at the top of this list.

  1. Books in series. My guess is that if you aren’t that excited by Robert Jordan, you probably aren’t going to make it to book #14. Heck,  Robert Jordan himself didn’t make it to book 14.
  2. Calvin and Hobbes. Everyone loves Calvin and Hobbes.


Posted by: biblioglobal | June 3, 2014

Lebanon: The Story of Zahra (Book-from-every-country #54)

Translated from the Arabic by . Published in .

Translated from the Arabic by Peter Ford. Published in 1980.

Wow, this was a difficult book to read! One of those books that can make you feel depressed even when your own life is full of ducklings and ice cream cones. In the end though, I think I’ve gotten something important from reading it.

The first half of The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh reminded me a lot of the first half of Woman at Point Zero. In both, the heroine just keeps on being mistreated by one person after another- their parents, their relatives, their lovers. It’s completely relentless. Actually Woman at Point Zero was the more uplifting of the two, which is remarkable since its premise is that it is the story of a prostitute who is about to be executed for murder.

In my reading for my book-from-every-country project so far I feel like I’ve had a hard time with most of the Arabic literature that I have tried. (I’m including The Women of Algiers in their Apartment in that group, even though it was originally written in French.) I don’t know to what degree I’ve happened to choose difficult books or if there really is something particularly challenging about Arabic literature in translation. I read a useful comment this week in the blog Arabic Literature (In English) that Arabic books aren’t just being translated from another language, but also from another literary tradition. That may be part of what is challenging me.

Even when it comes to the first problem of being translated from another language, Hanan al-Shaykh seems to like to make things difficult for her readers. I actually found an interview where she was asked about translating her work and she said,

“Sometimes, even the translator would say, ‘Hanan, they [the readers] wouldn’t know.’ And I say, ‘Well, let them search.’ I wouldn’t bend only for the sake of the reader.”

One example of this that happened to particularly bug me was a several paragraph description of how Zahra as a child was avoiding figs on a trip back to her home village because a neighbor had told her, “You are going to pick figs and get red eyes”. When she repeats this to another adult they laugh in a way that implies there is some sort of double entendre to the statement, but it’s certainly not one that I’m able to understand. Googling didn’t help me out and I even went so far as to ask a Lebanese friend about it. He thought that maybe fig picking was some sort of reference to the affair that Zahra’s mother was having, but even he was confused.

Surely there could have been some way of clarifying this in the translation? If nothing else a footnote explaining what the double meaning would have been in the original Arabic? Instead, as a result of some sort of stubborn purism on the part of the author, the book is left with a whole page that really doesn’t make much sense.

The other thing that made The Story of Zahra a challenging read for me was that Zahra just seemed so hard to relate to. I felt sorry for her, but I didn’t much like her. She just seemed so passive about letting things happen to her. Such as getting into and then continuing a relationship with a married man even though she had no interest in him whatsoever. Or just generally trying to avoid her problems by hiding in the bathroom.

I tried to be understanding though. Zahra had been through a lot. The combination of her experiences and the society lived in had traumatized her into someone who tried to escape her problems, rather than face them. I thought that was actually the point of the book.

Then I read more of that interview with Hanan al-Shaykh. She said:

“I never thought, like the readers thought, that Zahra is hopeless. I mean, according to the West, she was very hopeless, she couldn’t do anything. But in her own society, she tried to really say no, like even going to Africa, spiting her father in telling him that, although she was not beautiful, beauty wasn’t everything.”

I was completely wrong.

Zahra wasn’t supposed to be a woman pummeled into submission! She was supposed to be a woman who kept resisting! My own, Western, view of what it means for a woman to be assertive got in the way of understanding Zahra’s story. I saw Zahra as passive because she didn’t face her problems head on, but instead always kept running away. But to Hanan al-Shaykh, Zahra had strength because she kept running away, because she never resigned herself to her situation.

I feel simultaneously encouraged and discourage by this realization. I’m encouraged because this is exactly the kind of thing that I want to get out of my book-from-ever-country project. I wanted to gain new perspectives and understand other ways of seeing the world. But at the same time I’m discouraged because I wouldn’t have realized any of this just from reading the book itself. It is only because I happened to come across that interview with the author that I was able to get beyond my own way of seeing things. What else have I missed because I didn’t quite ‘get it’?

So, with that in mind here are my recommendations for reading The Story of Zahra:

  1. Before you read, do some background reading on the Lebanese Civil War. I’ve totally ignored it in this post, but the civil war plays a big role in the second half of the book and you might not be surprised to learn that al-Shaykh doesn’t really give any explanation of what’s going on. I think you can understand the book just fine without knowing more, but it would enrich your reading experience to have a bit of background.
  2. Try to keep an open mind while reading. If you’re a Western reader, remember that it is not a book that was written with you as the intended audience.
  3. After you are done reading, check out this page which has the interview with Hanan al-Shaykh and also some interesting biographical information. (It’s intended as an exercise for high school students before reading this book. I think it gives a bit too much away to read beforehand though.)
  4. If you figure out what the deal is with the figs and the red eyes, do let me know!

Given my recent post about stereotyped book covers, I couldn’t bring myself to use the American cover of The Story of Zahra as the lead image for this post:


I imagine the conversation at the publisher’s: “A book about a Middle Eastern woman who doesn’t wear a veil? No mention of a headscarf whatsoever? Okay, we’ll just cover her face with her hair instead. What? She’s supposed to have acne scars all over her face? Never mind that, we’ll just show her with perfect skin.”

To give the American publisher some credit, the Italian and Indonesian covers are far worse:







Posted by: biblioglobal | May 27, 2014

Sudan Bonus Book

Season of Migration to the North cover

Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies. First published in 1966.

One of the nice things about the academic library and its use of the Library of Congress system is that books are grouped by original language. As a result, I was in the library picking up a copy of The Story of Zahra, my book for Lebanon, when I happened to see The Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih just down the shelf. (Lyrics Alley, my ‘official’ book for Sudan was written in English so it was shelved elsewhere.)

I’d recently read a page listing the 5 favorite Arabic books of a number of knowledgeable people and seen that The Season of Migration to the North occurred repeatedly on many people’s lists. Since it was short and sitting right in front of me, I decided to pick it up too.

The Season of Migration to the North is written from the perspective of a narrator who has returned to Sudan after studying in England. Upon his return to his village, he meets Mustafa, a newcomer who it turns out also studied in London and returned to Sudan. Much of the book revolves around Mustafa and his mysterious past.

I had a hard time reading it at first because of the extremely objectified way in which women were discussed by the characters, particularly because I wasn’t sure for quite a long time whether the author and the book were endorsing that perspective. I think that’s evidence of how well written the book is, but I felt a lot more comfortable with the book once it became clear that the book was criticizing this treatment of women.

There’s a lot of meat to this book on topics of colonialism, gender, race, development and so on, but I think what I will remember it most for is its portrayal of a community when a preventable tragedy occurs. There’s such a sense of dispersed responsibility and guilt, where nearly everyone tries to put the blame onto someone else or to justify themselves with tradition. And yet you can feel that this doesn’t work, that ultimately everyone is uncomfortable with the role that they played.

In between the main plot of the book, there is an interlude where the narrator travels in a truck through the desert from his village to Khartoum. The descriptions of the desert and of the spontaneous gathering of travelers that occurs are some of my favorite parts of the book. But my favorite quote of has to be this:

The driver, who had kept silent the whole day, has now raised his voice in song: a sweet, rippling voice that you can’t imagine is his. He is singing to his car just as the poets of old sang to their camels:

How shapely is your steering-wheel astride its metal stem.

No sleep or rest tonight we’ll have till Sitt Nafour is come.”

My copy of the book had a helpful introduction by Laila Lalami. As is so often the case though, I’d suggest reading it after you read the book, not before. (Why not put these things as afterwords rather than introductions? Or not give away the entirety of the plot if you want it to be an introduction?!) Reading the introduction also reminded me that I really should read/see Othello. There are references to Othello in so many places (including The Season of Migration to the North), that I have picked up bits and pieces of what it is about, but I don’t actually know the complete plot.

I’ve been trying to decide which book I would recommend to someone else doing a book-from-every-country project, this book or Lyrics Alley. In the end I can’t make up my mind. I would say that The Season of Migration to the North was a more challenging and more ‘literary’ read, but that both were very good.

For those that have read this book, what do you make of the ending? Is it hopeful or not?

Posted by: biblioglobal | May 20, 2014

Sudan: Lyrics Alley (Book-from-every-country #53)

Lyrics Alley by Leila AboulelaStrangely enough, Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela, strongly reminds me of a Louisa May Alcott book.  Both tell engaging compelling stories while having a rather strong moralizing tone. (There are also happen to be a few plot similarities to a specific Louisa May Alcott book.)

Lyrics Alley tells the story of an upper class family living in Urmduram, Sudan in the 1950s. (I hadn’t previously heard of Urmduran, but it turns out to be the largest city in Sudan, located across the Nile from the capitol, Khartoum). As the book begins, the family patriarch, Mahmoud is ill and everyone from his daughter-in-law to the family tutor to business associates must visit and express their sympathy. Visiting is such an important social custom that lists are kept of who came and people are judged based on how promptly they arrived.

Lyrics Alley was a good book for learning about Sudanese customs, from the interesting (brides learn a special dance imitating a bird to perform at their wedding)- to the more startling (the bride traditionally danced naked). It also highlighted the relationship between Sudan and Egypt. Egypt was seen as more sophisticated and desirable than Sudan. A lot of what was admired in Egypt though seemed to be the presence of more European culture, almost as if Egypt were a proxy for Europe. This plays out in the book in the interaction of Mahmoud’s two wives, one Sudanese and traditional and one Egyptian and modern. Each one has her flaws.

I’ve actually left out the main plot line of the book, but I don’t see how to discuss it without giving it away too soon. Suffice it to say that “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is also an important theme.

I learned from the author’s note at the end of the book that Lyrics Alley is actually based on Leila Aboulela’s family, particularly the story of her uncle. That was a valuable thing to learn because there was a part of the story that felt a bit too conveniently feel-good to me, but it turns out to have been true, which makes me feel much better about it!

Lyrics Alley takes a positive attitude toward religion and Islam, but draws a clear distinction between religion and custom. In a newspaper interview, Leila Aboulela has some very interesting things to say about the role of religion in her novels:

“When you write about a Muslim woman, like I did with my previous novels – Minaret, for example, which is about a woman who starts to wear the hijab – it sets all the alarm bells ringing. When the man is religious it doesn’t seem to impact the reader as much. There’s a lot about Islam in [Lyrics Alley] as well, but because it’s from a man’s point of view it doesn’t have the same impact.”

And in Western novels:

“People take for granted when they see Christianity inside novels, but when you come in from a different perspective, as a Muslim, for instance, you can see it’s been very much influenced by Christianity. The example I’ve used before is Jane Eyre: Mr Rochester can’t marry Jane because he’s already married to Bertha. This is so Christian. In a Muslim situation he can just marry both. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, this is hitting us on the head with Christianity,’ but it’s there.”

I think you can tell Leila Aboulela is someone with interesting perspectives! She writes well too, despite a tendency to explicitly state to the reader that this character is selfish or that this other character’s actions are driven by her desire for her mother’s affection. I found the ending particularly satisfying, neither too light or too dark. (I feel like the ending of a book is the part that I am most likely to be unhappy with. Perhaps that’s true of most people?)

Sudan and South Sudan often come up when I tell people about my book-from-every-country project. They ask me what I will do about new countries like South Sudan. I do plan to read books for any new country that is formed (recognized by the U.N.) during the course of my reading project. (Initially I thought that Palestine would be the most likely candidate. I never would have expected that Ukraine would start to seem like a possibility). Although Lyrics Alley was written before the split into Sudan and South Sudan, it is clearly set in the northern portion of the country so I think it is an appropriate choice.

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