Posted by: biblioglobal | April 11, 2014

Uganda: Tropical Fish (Book-from-every-country #51)

Tropical Fish: Tales from EntebbeI’ve decided to give myself a bit of a pass on writing about Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe. Overall, I just didn’t end up feeling strongly about the book one way or another. Maybe reading it over the course of a single day in three different airports and three  different airplanes didn’t help. So, I’m not going to write about my own thoughts on the book because they just don’t seem particularly interesting.

Instead I’m going to share a really good review of the book. Kinna at Kinna Reads loved Tropical Fish and her review made me see some of what I was missing: http://kinnareads.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/tropical-fish-by-doreen-baingana/

 

Posted by: biblioglobal | April 7, 2014

Books from 50 countries

I’m quite excited to have reached the totally arbitrary milestone of having read 50 books for my book-from-every-country project.  More accurately, I’ve written about 50 books. I’ve actually read a few more, but I’ve gotten behind in my blogging! Anyway, I’m a bit over a quarter of the way towards reading a book from all 193 UN member nations.  It’s taken about 2.5 years, so I’m more or less on track to finish in 10 years.

The List of Countries page is starting to look respectable.

Since posting a 40 books progress report, I’ve read books from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Portugal, Romania, Algeria, Malawi, North Korea, Netherlands, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea.  As always, there have been some great ones. My picks for most memorable:

The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli

NothingToEnvy

The Dinner by Herman KochThe Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska

As I’ve read, I’ve tried to spread my reading out geographically, but I haven’t kept specific track. Wondering if my attempts at evenness were successful, I decided to do an accounting by continent/region:

  • Africa- 11 of 53 read= 20%
  • Asia- 13 of 44 read=30%
  • Europe- 11 of 47 read= 23%
  • North America- 9 of 23 read= 39%
  • Oceania- 5 of 14 read= 36%
  • South America- 1 of 12= 8%

It looks pretty well balanced overall. The biggest outlier is clearly South America.  The good news is that there are so few countries in South America that I can be back on track with just two books.  Maybe its time to face that intimidating volume of Jorge Luis Borges that has been sitting on my shelf for over a year…

I’m surprised to see Africa as having relatively low completion because I feel like I’ve read more African books. I haven’t included books #51 or #52 in this list though which are from Uganda and Kenya respectively.

Here’s to the first 50 books and the next 50 books!

Toasting

Hip, Hip, Hurrah! by Danish painter P.S. Krøyer, 1888

Posted by: biblioglobal | April 6, 2014

Papua New Guinea: The Mountain (Book-from-every-country #50)

The Mountain by Drusilla ModjeskaI violated a bit of an unwritten rule for myself by counting this book for my book-from-every-country project. The Mountain is a novel about Papua New Guinea whose author, Drusilla Modjeska is not from Papua New Guinea. That’s something I’ve tried to avoid. And there are definitely novels by Papua New Guineans available. But when I read a review of The Mountain by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers, I really wanted to read this one.

And to be fair, it’s not really clear how much of the book is fiction or non-fiction. It’s a novel about a woman who goes to Papua New Guinea as the wife of an anthropologist teaching in the new university and Modjeska in fact went to Papua New Guinea as the wife of an anthropologist teaching….

And the parallels go on from there.

Modjeska, I think, also does a good job of not trying to speak for Papua New Guineans, but instead showing the perspective of outsiders who really love the country. Papua New Guinea fascinates me because it is one of the last places on earth that still has many traditional societies that live independently from the modern state. As I read about in my Botswana book also, there’s a real tension over how to take advantage of benefits like medicine and tin roofs without losing a sense of tradition and community. Is there a solution? Maybe.

Those of you who have read my blog for a while, know that I’m not a fan of magical realism, particularly when I feel like the author wants me to believe that the magic has a place in the real world. There were some times where I was worried that The Mountain would fall into that category, but  it never did. Modjeska somehow managed to convey complete respect for magical beliefs without ever agreeing that those beliefs are accurate. I’m still not quite sure how she did it.

The Mountain is one of those sweeping kinds of books that brings together discussion of colonialism, social change and conflict, the meaning of art, academic politics, environmental protection and more into a story of friends and family over two generations. I’m realizing that the way I have written about it, The Mountain might sound abstract and heavy and not very human or personal. But really, it’s all about a wonderful set of friendships that are fraught with difficulties. I love it when books and movies take friendship seriously as an important part of people’s lives.

There’s a particular form of artwork, called barkcloth, that is important throughout the book. It’s not something I was familiar with before, so while reading I developed my own vague mental image of what this incredible, almost magical creation looked like. My mental construct made it into something so amazing, that real images couldn’t really live up to it (just as the portrayal of Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings movie could never be as scary as the Nazgul in my imagination which were the personification of fear itself.) Real barkcloth is still actually pretty amazing though. You can see images and learn more about barkcloth making by Papua New Guinean women here: http://www.omieartists.com/about-us/.

I found The Mountain a most enjoyable book and an excellent choice for the fiftieth book in my book-from-every-country project.  I’m quite excited to have reached fifty books, a quarter of the way through! I feel like I’ve made it far enough to show that I’m actually serious about doing this and I’m not just dabbling with the idea. I’m planning to do my usual overview post that I do every 10 books and then maybe a second post looking more broadly at the 50 books I’ve read so far.

Posted by: biblioglobal | March 12, 2014

Hipsters of 1945

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark“Beer was served in jam-jars, which was an affectation of the highest order, since jam-jars were at that time in shorter supply than glasses and mugs.”

-The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Posted by: biblioglobal | March 4, 2014

Nauru: Paradise for Sale (Book-from-every-country #49)

Paradise For SaleI actually had Paradise for Sale (written by Carl McDaniel and John Gowdy) in mind for the country of Nauru from the time I started thinking about my book from every country project.

Where is Nauru you ask? You’ve never hear of it?

Nauru isn’t quite the smallest country in the world, but it’s close.  It’s a small coral island in the Pacific with a population just under 10,000.  According to Paradise for Sale, that’s about 10 times its historical, more sustainable population. Nauru had the fortune or misfortune to be extremely rich in phosphate deposits, valuable for fertilizer.  First as a colony and then as an independent state, the interior of the island was mined, leaving the landscape shown on the book cover.

The idea seems to have been that if the money from phosphate mining was invested, it could provide ongoing earnings to support the country once the phosphate ran out. However, it seems that many of the investments went bad (including financing a musical in London!) and now Nauru is struggling to find ways to maintain its economy.

This is one of Nauru's investments, Nauru Tower in Honolulu. By chance, I was visiting Honolulu and walked past it just after reading Paradise for Sale.

One of Nauru’s investments, Nauru Tower in Honolulu. By chance, I was visiting Honolulu and walked past it just after reading Paradise for Sale.

Now the phosphate has more or less run out and the Nauruans are left with a nearly dead island with the habitable land around the edge of the island susceptible to climate change.

The story of Nauru is a powerful one, but I was disappointed by Paradise for Sale. Partially that’s because of my expectations. I expected it to be a book about Nauru. Instead it’s more of a book about environmentalism and sustainability that uses Nauru as a symbol of how badly everything can go wrong. While I 100% agree with the message, I really wanted a book that would tell me more about Nauru, rather about environmental problems more generally.

I want to know how Nauruans feel about their country and about their lives,  something absent from the book. What is their opinion about the phosphate mining? How has it affected their lives? And what do they think about their country being famous for its environmental destruction? Could someone write that book please?

Nauru reminds me a bit of Moldova, a country famous for its unhappiness. (Though actually it has moved up substantially in the happiness rankings in more recent surveys.) It must feel strange for your country to be famous for such a reason.

More on Nauru: I first heard of Nauru on an episode of This American Life. It’s available online and if you’re intrigued by the story of Nauru, I’d definitely recommend giving it a listen: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/253/the-middle-of-nowhere.

On the way back from my holiday travels this winter, I ended up with a six hour layover in the Amsterdam airport. Which turned out to be just enough time for a visit to the city (and get a  stamp from a new country in my passport!), thanks to the convenient train from the airport into the city. In fact, it was almost too convenient- only 45 minutes from stepping out of the plane to entering downtown Amsterdam meant that it wasn’t even close to light out yet. I had failed to account for how much further north Europe is than we Americans expect it to be.

Amsterdam Centraal

The Amsterdam Centraal train station all dressed up for Christmas

When it did eventually become light out,while it was clear that Amsterdam was a great place to walk around and explore,  it was also cold and rainy. So before too long I returned to the airport. Which was quite okay, because the Amsterdam airport has its own library!

Sadly (though understandably) the books cannot be checked out, but they had a nice little collection of books from and about the Netherlands, in a variety of languages.

Amsterdam Airport Library

What a great idea! Why don’t all airports have libraries?!

I settled down for a very enjoyable hour with The Dinner by Herman Koch which BiblioBoyfriend had recently read and recommended. It’s the stoThe Dinner by Herman Kochry of two couples who meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant. The part I read in the airport was all satire of fine dining. It had a narrative style that reminded me a bit of Nick Hornby or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It’s probably a good thing I stopped when I did though, because the book then takes a more serious turn and I might have gotten distracted and missed my flight. (Or perhaps just heard myself in one of the announcements that went out regularly in the Amsterdam airport- “Biblioglobal, report to gate A32 immediately. You are delaying the flight.”)

Even during my brief visit to the Netherlands, it seemed like The Dinner was everywhere-stacks of it in bookstores, references in magazine articles, the movie version being shown on the airplane. The airport library had copies in many languages.

Airport Library Sign

I think this copy of The Dinner was in Finnish.

Since returning home, I’ve finished reading The Dinner. (And was in fact late to a meeting because of getting caught up in reading it.) I often think it would be nice to be part of a book club- to have a group of intelligent people with many perspectives to sit down and discuss a book with. My parents have a great book club and I’m completely jealous. After reading The Dinner though, I really wanted a book club to discuss it with.

I don’t want to write a blog post about it, stating my own thoughts and conclusions. Instead, I want to ask people questions and hear what they think. I want to talk to people who are parents and find out what their reading experience was like. I want to ask people what they think that disease is and find out if they too are baffled by the author’s identification of what disease he had in mind.

In short, I found it a very thought-provoking book, well-written, funny and troubling, but also with some aspects that bugged me. Do read it. I want to hear what you think!

Posted by: biblioglobal | January 30, 2014

North Korea: Nothing to Envy (Book-from-every-country #47)

NothingToEnvyWe in the Biblioglobal household have developed quite a fascination with North Korea lately. First BiblioBoyfriend read The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. (Which he greatly enjoyed and I fully intend to read.) Then we both read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (published 2009)by Barbara Demick. (From which BiblioBoyfriend learned that much of what he thought was satire or exaggeration in The Orphan Master’s Son, was actually entirely true.) Then there was a Frontline special on PBS showing video covertly taken by North Koreans and collected by a Japanese journalist. Now there are several more books about North Korea borrowed from the library and sitting on our bookshelves.

Barbara Demick was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times stationed in Seoul, with the job of covering North and South Korea. However, given the secrecy of the North Korean regime, she found it extremely difficult to report effectively on North Korea. Her most important sources of information were North Korean defectors who were now living in South Korea. Nothing to Envy is based on their stories. There’s a double meaning in the title. I had assumed it just meant that life in North Korea was nothing to envy, but it’s also a line from a song sung in North Korean schools-

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid, Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.

(The father here refers not to a biological father or a religious figure, but rather the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung)

It’s a revealing and well-written book. It really is about ordinary life- falling in love, going to school, working in a factory or in a hospital, all within probably the most regimented society in the world.

Since it’s based on the experiences of defectors, the book doesn’t extend to present day North Korea, but it does give a clear picture of how life changed from the 70′s and 80′s into the 90′s. Earlier on, there’s a sense that people were mostly happy with their lives, that they truly supported and loved their leader. But in the 1990′s after the Soviet Union split and no longer provided aid to North Korea, the economy went into decline, food ran out, and people (the ones who would later defect anyway) began to have doubts about their government. As Demick points out, one of the many unique things about North Korea is that they were once a developed nation. There was electricity throughout the country. Now most of the country is dark, with only the capitol Pyongyang still having somewhat reliable electricity. The electrical wires have almost all been stolen and sold on the black market.

Through the second half of the book, I frequently wondered how it is that the North Korean regime has been able to survive. How is it that the government hasn’t collapsed in the face of famine and deprivation? The PBS special made me wonder that even more. Now there are cell phones in North Korea and many South Korean TV shows and movies are smuggled in on DVDs. North Koreans are learning more and more about the outside world. It seems like only a matter of time, but somehow Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un have been remarkably persistent.

I definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in life in North Korea. (And also for others who just don’t know yet that they are interested in life in North Korea.) Barbara Demick also wrote a another book, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood, while she was reporting from Bosnia during the war there. It might just have to be my book for Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Would that be cheating? Two books from one author? I don’t know.)

Posted by: biblioglobal | January 26, 2014

Year of Reading (Global) Women

I came across a couple of posts the other day listing a recommended book by a female author for each month of the year. One list focused on Arabic literature at the Arabic Literature (in English) blog and another list focused on South Asian writers at southasiabookblog.

I got some great reading ideas from both of them and thought it would be fun to make my own list of recommendations. I’m not an expert the way the writers of those two posts are, but I made a list of some of my favorite books by female authors from around the world.

January: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (Japan). I fell in love with this quiet and lonely short novel when I listened to a friend read it aloud.

February: Far and Beyon’ by Unity Dow (Botswana).  Unity Dow was Botswana’s first female high court judge, but she’s also a novelist, writing in this book about a family trying to balance traditional and modern culture.

March: Wild Swans by Jung Chang (China). This well-written history tells the story of much of the 20th century in China through the experiences Chang, her mother, and her grandmother.

April: The Country under my Skin by Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua). This is a fascinating memoir by a woman who was part of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua.

MayProdigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (U.S.A.). This is my favorite book by Kingsolver, though not necessarily her most renowned. Read The Bean Trees or The Poisonwood Bible if you prefer, but definitely check her out.

June: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua and Barbuda). I initially read this book about the challenges of living on a small Caribbean tourist-destination island for a class. The class never ended up covering the book, but I was very glad I had read ahead.

July:  Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria). When I was reading this book about a family living through the Biafrian civil war in Nigeria, I was completely immersed in its world. The characters were so nuanced and human, I found myself thinking about them all of the time.

August: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Serbia). This novel is about a young woman doctor in a Balkans country recovering from the recent wars. It sometimes went a bit too magical-realism for my tastes, but

September: The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden (Bhutan). The fictional story of an illiterate Bhutani woman from a small village who makes her way into the wider world.

October: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Catherine Boo (U.S.A./India). This non-fiction book about life in a Mumbai slum reads like a novel and stings like a bee.

November: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic). I read this historical novel as a teenager and I would credit it with beginning to make me more aware of the world beyond the U.S. and Europe. I listed it in November because the U.N. International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is on November 25th, in honor of the Mirabal sisters (who fought against dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and who this book is about).

December: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (U.K.). I know, this is completely incongruous to the rest of the list. But I just couldn’t leave it out.

I also got thinking about many of the books by female authors I’m looking forward to reading and made a list of some of them too. I don’t have any plan to follow this as a schedule though. They are just books I’m excited about reading. Some of them are for the book-from-every-country project, others not.

January: The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska (Australia/Papua New Guinea)

February: Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana (Uganda)

March: Tutor of History by Manjushree Thapa (Nepal)

AprilStory of Zahra by Hanan Al-Shaykh (Lebanon)

May: Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela (Sudan)

JuneSo Long a Letter by Mariama Ba (Senegal)

JulyEmpress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (China)

August: Absent by Betool Khedairi (Iraq)

September: Lunatic in my Head by Anjum Hasan (India)

November: The Color Master by Aimee Bender (U.S.A.)

December: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia/Netherlands)

I’d love to see more people make recommendation lists. Maybe ones for Latin American or African Literature? Or for a specific genres like science writing? Or just your own personal favorites,

The Boy who Harnessed the WindBlurbs written about this book may be legally required to use some form of the word ‘inspirational’ somewhere in their text. To be fair, ‘inspirational’ does sum it up well, in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. That’s also part of why I picked the book in the first place. In the course of trying to read a book from every country, it’s easy to get focused on the darker chapters of any given country’s history. I was ready to read something more, well, inspirational.

The Boy who Harnessed the Wind is a memoir by William Kamkwama (co-written with Bryan Mealer) who while growing up in a Malawi village figured out how to build a wind-power generator to provide his family with electricity and irrigation. He had dropped out of school because his family couldn’t afford to pay the school fees, but he found old physics textbooks in the school library and used the diagrams to build a windmill and a (somewhat hazardous) electrical system for his house.

The thing I enjoyed most about this book was how clearly it reflected the mind of an engineer. (Unfortunately, the book doesn’t say much about the co-writing process, so I don’t know what the roles of the two authors were.) The book narrated step-by-step the building process that William went through and all of the creative solutions that he came up with to find or make the supplies he needed with very little money. He uses the same pragmatic narration when talking about other topics too. Early on he writes, “By the end of this story, you won’t believe how much you know about corn.”

Corn plays a prominent role because it is a staple food in Malawi and a bad harvest (plus political malfeasance) caused a famine that affected William’s family and the rest of the country. Going through that famine that inspired him to find a way to enable his family to irrigate their land. The matter-of-fact style of the book might seem ill-suited to discussion of a famine, but it really taught me a lot about what the day-to-day experience of it might be like, how the family adapted by gradually cutting back on the amount of meals they ate and by adding less preferable foods their diet. I hadn’t really appreciated the fact that as a subsistence farmer, you are able to see the shortage coming long in advance. You have food now, but you know it isn’t enough to last until the next harvest and there isn’t much you can do about it but wait and hope.

I was a bit surprised that the book didn’t have much discussion of the usefulness of the generator to his family. Did the wind-powered irrigation help avoid future food shortages? The focus is more on the attention William began to get, first within Malawi and then more widely when he was invited to give a presentation at a TED conference in Tanzania. I just found the video here:

http://www.ted.com/talks/william_kamkwamba_on_building_a_windmill.html

It’s not a polished performance of course, but it is amazing to actually see the scene described in the book. To see him at the moment he has first flown on an airplane, first seen the internet and is now telling people from around the world about his windmill. A group of Malawians had already donated funds to allow William to go back to school and after the TED conference, others helped him further. Now he’s an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.

I often enjoy reading a book without knowing anything about it beforehand. With no sense of where the plot will take me, not even the hints in the book jacket. I think it can make my reading experience more powerful. Reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was remarkably intense, in part because I let myself connect to the characters more strongly, not knowing about the impending civil war.

It doesn’t always work out so well though, which was the case for the Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar (translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager). First of all, I was expecting the book to be a novel. I don’t know why- every description I can find calls it a group of short stories. Because most of the short stories share a character or two in common, I didn’t fully realize my mistake until I got to the end of the book (or at least the short story section of the book). I kept expecting the plot to connect back to the people in the earlier sections. It never did.

I also found myself puzzling over the title. The book was certainly about women from Algiers, but there was certainly also more than one apartment. Why the singular ‘apartment’ in the title? Was a particular one of these women’s homes THE apartment? It was only when I got to the last section that I understood the title. The last section of the book is not a short story, but rather an essay written by Assia Djebar which takes as its starting point a painting by Delacroix titled “The Women of Algiers (in their apartment).”

 Women of Algiers (in their apartment)  by Delacroix

Picasso did a version too:

WomenofAlgiersPicasso

 

I’m not going to give up on reading some books without knowing what they are about, but I’d like to be able to judge which books I would be better off having some background knowledge for. The question is how to figure that out without… background knowledge!

Despite my confusion, I did manage to get some things out of the book.

I was surprised to learn about the active role, including as combatants, that Algerian women played in the 1960s war for independence from France. The Women of Algiers in their Apartment (written in 1980), emphasized the challenges that these women faced after the war, living in a traditional Muslim society. Their war experiences and their scars weren’t acknowledged or honored and they were pushed back into traditional roles. In the long run though, it seems that the women of Algeria have been quite successful professionally. In fact, there’s a 2007 New York Times article about the surprising position of women in Algeria:

Women make up 70 percent of Algeria’s lawyers and 60 percent of its judges*. Women dominate medicine. Increasingly, women contribute more to household income than men. Sixty percent of university students are women, university researchers say.

In a region where women have a decidedly low public profile, Algerian women are visible everywhere. They are starting to drive buses and taxicabs. They pump gas and wait on tables.

Impressive.

*Then,  I found a 2008 article in Der Spiegel that says that 30% of Algeria’s judges are female. I said, “Well, that means it’s somewhere between 30 and 60 percent. That’s still impressive.” My boyfriend said, “Or else it means the statistic is completely made up.”

 

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