Posted by: biblioglobal | January 11, 2016

Books from eighty countries and more

Apparently I got tired of writing review-ish posts of the books I was reading. WordPress tells me that I only posted 14 times in all of 2015. But I’ve reached the 80 book milestone in my book-from-every-country project and I don’t want to completely lose track of what I’ve been reading, so it is time for an update.

Digging through old computer files the other day, I found a forgotten Excel file calculating the number of books I should have read by each month to stay on track to finish the project in 10 years. I was thinking that I’m a bit behind schedule, but it turns out I’m ahead! Back in 2012 I calculated that by January 2016 I should have read books from 78 countries. In fact, I’m currently at 83.

Where I’ve been:

Two books that that I did post about: Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohammed (Somalia) and Homeless Rats by Ahmed Fagih (Libya). The rest:

#73 Trinidad and Tobago: The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace- A novel of Carnival and how life in one poor neighborhood revolves around the holiday. It even has the rhythm of Carnival in its language. The feeling of hopelessness that dominates made it a challenging read for me, but I’m glad I read it.

#74 Argentina: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges- I expected to love or hate Borges, so I was surprised to find myself somewhere in the middle. I loved The Lottery of Babylon and The Library of Babel. While I found the premise of many of the stories interesting, I found some of them tiresome to actually read.  Borges famously said, “‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”, so I find it funny that in the The Library of Babel he seems to describe a kind of library hell.

#75 Cambodia: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddy Rattner- This tells the story of a young girl during the takeover of the country by the Khmer Rouge. It’s semi-autobiographical, the author also went through the horrors experienced by her heroine, so I feel bad saying this, but I thought the writing was a bit lacking.

#76 South Africa: The Alphabet of Birds by S. J. Naude- It felt strange to be reading a South African book that wasn’t about race. Or at least mostly not about race. But I suppose it shouldn’t be necessary for every South African book to be about race. I enjoyed the way many of the short stories in this book told essentially the same story, just with different characters, and others inter-linked in other ways. And the writing was excellent.

#77 Russia: The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov- The first sentence reads: “Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.” Isn’t that just how you’d think a Russian novel ought to start?

#78 Belarus: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievitch- This year’s Nobel Prize winner who I’m kicking myself for not reading before she got the Nobel Prize. The book an oral history of the experiences of Belorussians and Ukrainians during and after the Chernobyl disaster. I learned a lot from reading it, not just about Chernobyl itself, but also about how life worked in the U.S.S.R. Voices from Chernobyl is very similar in structure to the book I read for Rwanda, The Antelope Strategy. Both excellent, important books about tough topics.

#79 Sweden: The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg- I’ve read and loved several quirky nature/science memoirs about unusual organisms (Gathering Moss and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating). The Fly Trap, about hoverflies, therefore sounded quite appealing. Where I went wrong, apparently, is in expecting something categorized as under “Nature” to have some actual natural history in it. Instead The Fly Trap is not about flies at all, but about a writer (I wouldn’t call him an entomologist) and his obsessions.

#80 Albania: Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones- Albania has an old tradition whereby a woman can take on the social role of a man by taking an oath to live always as a man and which includes a promise to never have sex. Sworn Virgin is the fictional tale of Hana/Mark who has decided to reclaim her life as a woman. It’s not such an easy thing to do though. An intriguing topic and I thought it was well handled.

The most memorable:

Out of this set, I’d say that Voices from Chernobyl and and Homeless Rats were the most memorable. Homeless Rats was memorable for being quite different from anything I’ve read so far, with its perspective switching between humans and animals. Voices from Chernobyl– my newfound love for oral history strikes again.

Where I’m headed:

Well, I’ve now actually already ready books from Pakistan, Vietnam, and Republic of Congo.I’m currently reading a book that I’m going to count for Zambia.

I checked up on my progress by region and to my surprise, Asia is the continent I’ve covered the most of, with 50% of countries read. I’m also doing well with Africa and North America. Despite some progress, I’m still behind on South America. Oceania is not far ahead of South America. So I’ll try to plan some reading there. The challenge is that I moved to a new city last fall and my library access is no longer as amazing as it used to be. It’s still very good and I shouldn’t complain. It just means that I’m going to need to put in inter-library loan orders for books from those tiny island nations of Oceania!

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 12, 2015

Somalia: Black Mamba Boy (Book-from-every-country #72)

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa MohamedI wasn’t planning on counting Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed as my Somalia book. After all, most of the book is set in other countries- Yemen, Eritrea, Egypt, the UK, and more. I just happened to come across a copy in a used book store after reading and admiring an excerpt by Mohamed in Granta magazine. As I read, I decided to count it after all.

I’d already read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and not counted it for the same reason of mostly being set outside of Somalia. So for one thing, my project of reading a book from every country is enough of a challenge, I don’t need to make it harder on myself than necessary! The other thing is that it actually says something about Somalia that many Somali books involve travel outside of the country. There’s been huge amounts of emigration thanks to the civil wars there. Plus the Somalis are traditionally nomadic and seafaring people.

Black Mamba Boy takes place in the WWII era, well before the strife that most of us in the U.S. associate with Somalia. It tells the story of Jama, Black Mamba Boy, as he struggles to find a place to thrive and to find his absent father. First he’s living on the streets of Aden in Yemen, then with his grandmother in Somalia. Then he sets out to find his father and has a series of unlikely adventures in Eritrea and Egypt. And Sudan. And Ethiopia. And Egypt some more. And Israel/Palestine. And England.

I felt like the book was just one crazy, unlikely event after another, without ever really getting to understand the main character. It made a bit more sense when I learned after finishing the book that it is a fictionalized version of the life of the author’s father. I could easily picture the exaggerated tales of a father remembering his eventful youth coming together to turn into this book. Maybe if I had known that to start with, I would have appreciated the book more. Since I liked Mohamed’s writing in Granta, I’m also guessing I would like her second novel, which isn’t trying to to be semi-biographical, better.

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 4, 2015

Bailey’s ‘Best of the Best’ Prize

I’m thrilled to see that Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the Bailey’s ‘Best of the Best’ prize. The idea was to pick one book out of the ten winners during the second decade of the Bailey’s/Orange Prize. How tough of a job must that be?!

Half of a Yellow Sun was book number 12 in my book-from-every-country project and reading it was an intense experience. Book number 12 is a long time ago now! Going back and reading what I wrote about it reminded me of how much it occupied my brain while I was reading it. While falling asleep or walking to work, my thoughts kept returning to those characters, wondering where they were headed.

Since then I’ve read all of Adichie’s other books. They’re all good, but none of them had the same impact on me that Half of a Yellow Sun did. In retrospect, I think it is the depth of the characters that really shines. There are so many characters that inspired my affection as a reader, but at the same time they were all complicated and flawed in important ways. Probably reading the book early on in my journey also made it have more of an impact on me.

Anyway, congratulations Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie!

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 2, 2015

Libya: Homeless Rats (Book-from-every-country #71)


Homeless Rats

Translated from the Arabic by ???. For some reason the book doesn’t give a translation credit.

I’m not sure why, but I was expecting Homeless Rats by Ahmed Fagih to be a children’s book. Maybe because in my experience, books that include the perspective of animals are most often children’s books. This one isn’t though.

Judging by the paucity of reviews on Goodreads, it seems like Homeless Rats hasn’t gotten much attention in English, which is a shame because I think it merits a lot more.

Homeless Rats tells the story of a group of Bedouins who have arrived in a new area in search of food. Their harvest has failed for several years and they have almost run out of food by the time they reach their destination. However, they find themselves in conflict with the resident jerboa population in their search for food. (Jerboas are rodents, but they aren’t rats. The title is a bit misleading.)

What I really enjoyed about Homeless Rats was the way it told the story from the perspective of both the humans and the animals without taking either side. Both groups are just doing what they have to in order to survive. It’s a great tale of environmental conflict.

I think it’s also intended to represent human conflict, but I could never quite place who the humans and the jerboas were intended to represent in that context. Colonizers and colonized? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem quite right. Nomads and settled populations? Again, I’m not quite sure.

According to the ArabLit (In English) blog, a focus on animals is a common feature in Libyan literature. The post I linked to above actually lists three Arabic novels about rats. But Homeless Rats wasn’t included because it is about jerboas, not rats!

I didn’t actually look up jerboas until after I had finished the book. I wonder if my loyalties might have shifted slightly if I had known that they were this cute:


Image from Wikipedia. “Four-toes-jerboa” by Syt55.


Posted by: biblioglobal | August 29, 2015

Books from seventy countries

Usually I am counting down to the milestones, but this one came while I was taking a break from blogging and I didn’t even realize that By Night the Mountain Burns was my 70th book until I wrote up my review of it. I read it in June, and given that I read my 60th book last August, that means it took me 9 months to read books from 10 more countries. That’s a significant slow down from my previous pace, but I suppose the important thing is that I’m still working on it.

Where I’ve been:

In this set of ten books I’ve traveled to: Estonia, Senegal, South Korea, Ghana, Ukraine, Colombia, Togo, Ecuador, Spain, and Equatorial Guinea. (Click on the country to see my thoughts.)

After many laments about how I need to read more South American books, I finally have caught up with two South American books in this set. I really enjoyed both of them, which was great after so much avoidance of reading South American books on my part.

Most memorable:

Usually I end up picking several books as the most memorable. Although there were many good books in this set, this time there is one book that clearly stands out to me as the most memorable. That book is The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, representing Colombia.

Where I’m headed:

Since I’m behind on my reviews, I can tell you that the next countries I will be visiting are Libya, Somalia, and Trinidad and Tobago.

I notice that my recent reading has been more fiction-heavy than before. I have some non-fiction books that I’m excited to read for this project, so I think I will try to make some of them more of a priority.

20883759I’ve been excited to read By Night the Mountain Burns ever since the author (at least I think it was the author) left a comment on my blog that it would be coming out in English. After the release date, I checked the catalog at my library and it said that a copy of the book was on order. So I waited. And waited some more. And this spring it still wasn’t available.

So, when I was in London and visiting the amazing Daunt Books (The shelves are organized by geography! So full of books I want to read!) and was limiting myself to buying just one book, this is the one I bought.

Like Stone in a Landslide, it is the narrative voice that is really memorable about By Night the Mountain Burns.  The narrator is telling the story of his childhood on Annobon, a remote island that is part of Equatorial Guinea. I was fascinated by the practical details in his description of life there, particularly how the complete absence of artificial light affects so many aspects of life.

Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is a political  activist who has criticized the government of Equatorial Guinea (which is by all accounts terrible), and is now living in exile in Spain. The Guardian has an article by Jethro Soutar, the translator of By Night the Mountain Burns, telling how the author went underground, under the treat of arrest for planning a protest, during the process of translation. So I was expecting the book to be overtly political, but in fact any political commentary is much more subtle.

For example, one theme of the book is the dwindling of supplies from the outside world because the ships that used to come no longer do. But there is never any understanding why. From the Guardian article, I understand that a regime change in the country led to the island being ostracized and isolated. This and other mysteries might be clearer to readers in Equatorial Guinea and perhaps the vagueness was in part out of political necessity.

The idea is that the narrator is telling his story orally, which led to a couple of literary devices that annoyed me as a reader. There is a good deal of repetition in the book, reflecting the oral storytelling style and also serving to emphasize what events made the most impression on the narrator. The repetition was fine, but it bugged me that the narrator would repeatedly say things like, “Maybe I’ve told you this before” or “Have I told you this already?” The other thing that bothered me  is perhaps a bit of a spoiler or maybe an anti-spoiler, but I would have liked to have known in advance, so I’ll go ahead and comment on it. There was that there was a particular piece of information which the narrator kept saying that he would tell later, before eventually saying, nope, never mind, I decided not to tell you. I can sort of understand the purpose of these things, but I found them annoying, nonetheless.

If you get past those quirks though (and maybe it’s just me, maybe they wouldn’t bother you at all), it’s a story well worth reading.

This review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also has an interesting perspective on the book.

By Night the Mountain Burns, which was translated from Spanish, is also part of my project for Kinna Reads’ Africa Reading Challenge in which I am planning to read African books which were originally written in at least five different languages this year.


Posted by: biblioglobal | July 24, 2015

Spain: Stone in a Landslide (Book-from-every-country #69)

Stones in a Landslide by Maria Barbal.

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell.

The first part of Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal reminded me a bit of all the pioneer girl books* I enjoyed growing up- descriptions of the hard work, farming, family, rural life.  It startled me a bit then,  when larger events started to intrude on that world. Even then however, it was really the voice of the narrator that was most striking about the book.

(Okay, and now I feel kind of stupid, because I just realized the  blurb in the front of the book starts with the statement, “I fell in love with Conxa’s narrative voice”. Well, I guess I agree!)

I had other books I intended to read for Spain, but decided to switch my plans after reading Claire’s review at Word by Word. Plus this was a Peirene Press book, and I loved the only other book of theirs I have read (The Mussel Feast) so much that I was excited to try another one.  I might be tempted to sign up for their subscription in the future…

Another aspect of the book that was interesting to me was that it was originally written not in Spanish, but in Catalan. I thought it would be nice to read something written in a minority language.  Despite that, when I was reading, knowing that the book was set in Spain, I must somehow have been assuming that it was written in Spanish, because when Conxa started describing how she didn’t learn much in school because school was taught in Spanish I was confused. It took me a few moments to remember that the narrator spoke Catalan and not Spanish.

Interestingly, the book I read after this one, By Night the Mountain Burns from Equatorial Guinea, was translated from Spanish. Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony, is the only Spanish speaking country in Africa. The narrator in that book didn’t grow up speaking Spanish either and he too complained that he didn’t learn much in school because it was taught in Spanish.

I’m going to leave it there because I’m way behind on writing about the books I’ve read (Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Somalia and Trinidad and Tobago are all awaiting my attention). I’m hoping by writing fairly short bits about each I can get caught up!

Also, it’s not quite August yet, but you could consider this an early entry for Women in Translation month. (Does it count towards this year’s theme of classics? Well, it was published in 1985, but the back of the book calls it a “Catalan modern classic”, so… maybe?)

*A bit of a tangent: It occurred to me while reading Stones in a Landslide that pioneer girl books are probably a very American genre. And that maybe pioneer girl books occupy a similar place as the girl’s boarding school book does in England, a genre that we are very lacking in her in the U.S.

Posted by: biblioglobal | July 2, 2015

Ecuador: From Cuenca to Queens (Book-from-every-country #68)

1748434One of the things I remember from my trip to Ecuador several years ago is how nearly every Ecuadorian I met there asked where in the United States I was from. At the time I was living in upstate New York, and when I replied that I lived in New York, they always told me that they had a relative- a brother, a cousin, or an uncle- who was living or had lived in New York. I found it remarkable that so many people had relatives in New York, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough to have a real conversation about it with anyone.

So when I read a recommendation of the book From Cuenca to Queens by Ann Miles, from Eva at A Striped Armchair, I knew I had to read it as my book for Ecuador. Especially because I visited Cuenca while I was in Ecuador and many of the people who told me about their relatives in New York lived in Cuenca.

From Cuenca to Queens is essentially the story of an anthropologist working in Ecuador and an Ecuadorian family whose oldest son moved to New York City to try to earn money and help out the family. I think it is intended to be an academic book, but it reads very much as a story, so long as you don’t let yourself get too bogged down in the occasional discussion of anthropological theories. Mostly Ann Miles tells the history of her interactions with the Quitasaca family and then presents the text of her interviews with each of the family members in turn. The interviews are also structured chronologically, so as I read, I learned about how the family fared over time. I was constantly rooting for them. The story ends in 2002 and I find myself wondering about the Quitasacas and hoping that they are doing well.

Walking an Incan trail

Walking part of an Incan trail near Cuenca

I find that there is a lot of synergy between traveling to Ecuador and reading this book. When I talked to people in Ecuador, I didn’t have much of a sense what it likely meant to them to have a relative in New York- that their relative had most likely traveled illegally, that the relative may have been an important source of money, that the migration may have changed family dynamics in important ways. At the same time, I think I connected to the book much more strongly because of having been there, because of having ridden the bus route between Guayaquil and Cuenca that Lucho Quitasaca sometimes drove, because of having met, however briefly, people with similar experiences.

From Cuenca to Queens also reinforced my growing appreciation for oral history as a way of learning about the world, which began with The Antelope’s Story and continued with A False Dawn.

The beautiful forest at the Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve.

The beautiful forest at the Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve.

Posted by: biblioglobal | June 21, 2015

Togo: An African in Greenland (Book-from-every-country #67)

432213I read An African in Greenland back in February when it seemed like an appropriately wintry book, so it is strange to be writing about it now in the summertime, though really, it is just as appropriate for summer solstice, since it also features unending summer days.

I took a break from this blog for a while while I was extra busy finishing up graduate school. I did continue with my book-from-every-country reading, though at a slower rate. I mixed in more other books from the U.S. and the U.K. So I’ve got a small backlog of books to write about now.

I wrestled for a while with whether to count An African in Greenland for Denmark or Togo. After all, when I’ve read travelogues where an American or a Brit goes somewhere else, I count it as the country they’ve traveled to, not as the US or UK. I’m counting it for Togo since books from Togo available in English are quite rare. But it is really a bit of a cheat.

Tete-Michel Kpomassie grew up in Togo where as a teenager he found a book about Greenland in a local store. He was so fascinated that he immediately decided to travel there, even though he had no money with which to do so. So he would work for a while, save up money and travel as far as his money would take him. Then he would work until he had enough money to go further. In this way (and also with some sponsors who were intrigued by his quest), he traveled from Togo to Ghana, Senegal, France, Denmark and eventually, Greenland.

One of the things I found most interesting about Kpomassie’s travels in Greenland is that he would always just show up in a new town, without any real plans, and start asking people if he could come stay in their house. And despite the Greenlanders in many cases having very little to spare, they almost always said yes. What amazes me is his expectation that he could just show up and expect to be taken in. I would certainly never have such an expectation! (I should mention, though I don’t remember the exact dates anymore, I think all of this was in the 1960s.)

All in all, a very interesting book for learning mostly about life in Greenland, with a little bit of Togolese culture and perspective thrown in. Kpomassie grew up in colonized Togo, which I thought gave him an interesting perspective on Greenland which was itself essentially a colony of Denmark.

An African in Greenland was translated from the French by James Kirkup. In addition to my book-from-every-country project, I also read it as part of Kinna Reads’ 2015 African Reading Challenge. My goal for the challenge is to read African books which were originally written in at least five different languages. (The first of these was Changes: A Love Story which was written in English.)


Posted by: biblioglobal | February 21, 2015

Treating myself to a book subscription

I’ve promised myself that when I finish graduate school my present to myself is going to be a book subscription- a surprise book in the mail every month. I’m not quite done with my degree yet, but I can’t help starting to look around and consider the options.

There are a bunch of book subscriptions that send out the same book to all of their members. Some of those seem interesting, but what is really tempting me are the handful that promise to pick out a book tailored to your specific tastes.

I first came across the idea when I read about A Year in Books from Heywood Hill bookstore. I hadn’t previously heard of Heyward Hill, but it’s apparently quite a famous and historic bookstore in London. Its subscription service seems to match that in terms of elegance and price. They, like with Daunt Books, another London bookstore with a subscription service, promise a personal interview about your tastes and interests. Daunt Books seems to specialize in international books, so that might be a good match for me!

On the other hand, it seems sort of silly to pay for the extra postage from the Britain to the U.S. if there are U.S. based subscriptions.

The first U.S. subscription I found, Just the Right Book, just doesn’t feel as personalized as the British ones. You just fill out an online form when you sign up for a subscription.

Digging a little more, I have managed to find one more American option- Paperback to the Future. It’s based out of an independent bookstore in New Hampshire and seems to be run by just one person. It promises lesser known books, often from small presses, which sounds interesting [Update July 2015: the link no longer seems to work, so I’m not sure if the bookstore is still doing this or not].

It’s so hard to know what to choose! I’m really enjoying imagining these books showing up at my door though. I know I won’t love every book, but I’m dreaming of the surprise of a book picked out just for me, by an expert bookseller. I don’t ever seem to get books for presents anymore, so it seems extra exciting.

Does the idea of a personalized book subscription sound like something you would like? Have you ever tried a book subscription service? Do you know of others besides the ones I’ve listed here?

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