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.

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?

Posted by: biblioglobal | February 12, 2015

India bonus book: Lunatic in my Head

I added Lunatic in my Head by Anjum Hasan to my Year of Reading (Global) Women list based on a recommendation from SouthAsiaBookBlog, because it is set in a part of India that I didn’t know much about, Meghalaya, off in the far northeast of the country.

Location of Meghalaya in (marked in red) India

Location of Meghalaya. (Map from Wikipedia)

 

Some interesting things I have learned about Meghalaya:

1. It is the rainiest place in the world.

2. It is predominantly Christian

3. The tradition in the local culture is that inheritance goes to the youngest daughter. This is because the youngest daughter is also responsible for taking care of her parents in their old age. That seems much more fair to me than many other cultures where the daughters take care of the parents but the sons get the inheritance!

4. Some villages make these amazing living tree root bridges that last for hundreds of years:

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/51/Living_root_bridges%2C_Nongriat_village%2C_Meghalaya2.jpg/220px-Living_root_bridges%2C_Nongriat_village%2C_Meghalaya2.jpg

Photo from Wikipedia

 

(#1-#3 are all relevant to the book. #4 is just neat.)

Lunatic in my Head hasn’t been published in the U.S. and the university library took a bit of time finding a copy for me. When it arrived, the first think I enjoyed about it was that it had come from a university where I studied in the past. The second thing I enjoyed was the blurb on the back of the book.

Instead of a plot summary, the back cover of the book contained a glossary. A glossary that poked a little bit of fun at those glossaries with the foreign words that readers might not understand by including words like “pregnant”. But at the same time serves as an actual glossary for the words that readers might not understand!

Lunatic in my Head tells the stories of three people living in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. There’s Sophie Das, a young girl who is struggling to deal with the upheaval in her family. (Apparently she gets a sequel all to herself. I’d like to read that because she is a pretty cool character.) Firdaus is a teacher with a really odd boyfriend who is trying to write her thesis and seems to be getting nowhere (I can sympathize with that last part!). The snippy conversations in the teacher’s lounge of Firdaus’s school were really funny and one of my favorite parts of the book. Finally there’s Anum who is studying for the civil service exams and obsessed with Pink Floyd. I found him a bit less interesting for the entirely personal reason that I’ve never cared much for Pink Floyd. (I didn’t even know that the title is a Pink Floyd reference.)

The three characters never really meet, but they live their lives in parallel, occasionally crossing paths in ways that sometimes seem like a bit of a stretch. All three are ‘outsiders’, they or their families have moved to Shillong from other parts of India. Even if they were born in the city they are still considered to be interlopers by members of the local Khasi tribes.

The conflict between the Khasis and the Dkhars (what the Khasis call the non-locals, helpfully defined on the back cover) is a major theme of the book. It seems like the book being from the perspective of three non-locals reflects the experiences of Anjum Hasan who grew up in Shillong. The result is that the perspective is a bit biased toward the outsiders. I never got a sense of understanding or sympathy for why the Khasi might resent the outsiders. (I’m assuming there’s some issues with economic inequality, but I don’t really know.)

Lunatic in my Head is a rainy book. I mean that in the physical sense- it rains a lot during the book, but also in a more descriptive sense. The whole atmosphere is rainy and everyone is waiting for the rain to stop.

This might be a hard book to find, but if you come across it, I recommend picking it up!

 

Posted by: biblioglobal | February 5, 2015

Looking back: Reading (Global) Women in 2014

About a year ago, I posted A Year of Reading (Global) Women with two lists of books. One list of books I had read and loved by women around the world, one for each month, and another list of books by women around the world that I was looking forward to reading.

At the time I wasn’t intending to make that second list into a reading schedule, but I looked at that list and found that I really did want to read all those books. In the end, I read all but one of the 12 books in 2014, starting with The Mountain and ending with Infidel in December.

Today I’m revisiting that list, with links to the books I’ve written about and some commentary on books that didn’t get their own post (mostly because I wasn’t ‘counting’ them for a country.

January: The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska (Australia/Papua New Guinea)- One of my favorite books of the year.

February: Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana (Uganda)- I didn’t enjoy this one as much as many others did. It might just have been bad timing for reading it.

March: Tutor of History by Manjushree Thapa (Nepal)- It turns out I had many misconceptions about the country of Nepal.

AprilStory of Zahra by Hanan Al-Shaykh (Lebanon)- I didn’t like this book at all, but I ended up learning from the experience of reading and writing about it.

May: Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela (Sudan)- This was another favorite.

JuneSo Long a Letter by Mariama Ba (Senegal)- A book in the form of a long letter about two friends who make different choices when their husbands decide to take second wives.

JulyEmpress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (China)- There’s some controversy about whether Jung Chang takes her admiration of Cixi too far, but there’s no doubt the Empress Dowager is a fascinating woman. (And I had never had any idea that there had been an empress ruling China in the late 1800s to early 1900s.)

August: Absent by Betool Khedairi (Iraq)- The one book on the list I didn’t get read. So close!

September: Lunatic in my Head by Anjum Hasan (India)- I stared to write some of my thoughts here and then decided I wanted to give this book its own post. Coming soon (hopefully)! [Edit: Now posted]

November: The Color Master by Aimee Bender (U.S.A.)- Aimee Bender likes to write stories with odd premises. I enjoyed this, but my favorite of hers is still An Invisible Sign of my Own.

December: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia/Netherlands)- I thought about including this as my book for Somalia, but I have other Somali books I want to read. Much as I thought it was good and interesting, I also didn’t feel like writing about it. Plus half of it is really about the Netherlands.

It’s just in the past couple of years that I have started keeping a list of all the books that I read. One thing that I find very interesting is that in both 2013 and 2014, I was making a deliberate effort to read books by women, whether reading from this list, or participating in Global Women of Color or Women in Translation Month. I felt like I was reading many more books by women than by men. When I added it up at the end of the year though, only 49% of the books I read in 2013 and 53% of the books I read in 2014 were by women. My reading is quite evenly divided between men and women, even when I am actively seeking out books by women.

Even as someone who pays attention to gender representation, I find that my perception is skewed. When I read books by an equal number of men and women, it felt like I was reading substantially more books by women than by men. I’ve noticed a similar pattern looking through other lists of award nominees or invited speakers. I’ve glanced through such lists and thought, ‘yes, women and men are roughly equally represented on this list’. But then if I actually count, the list is actually about 30% women and 70% men. I think this would be an interesting subject for psychological research!

My plan for myself this year is to not make any special effort to read books by women and see what the gender split is at the end of the year. Will it still come out nearly 50-50? Or will I find that I read more men than women if I’m not paying attention? Obviously, it’s not a very good experiment because I can’t make myself unaware of it and I might bias it myself with my book choices. I’m still curious to see how it will come out though. I will just try as much as I can to read the books I feel like reading without paying attention to gender. I will also set up my book list to hide the books that I have read so far. That way I won’t really be able to tell what the ratio is until I look at it at the end of the year.

Posted by: biblioglobal | January 29, 2015

Colombia: The Sound of Things Falling (Book-From-Every-Country #66)

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. First published in 2011.

Any time it has seemed the least bit relevant recently, I’ve been telling people about the invasive hippos of Colombia. The notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, had a zoo at his estate where children used to go on school trips. After Escobar was killed, the zoo fell into disrepair (zoos in disrepair seem to be a theme for me recently) and the hippos apparently escaped and started living in the wild. They are reproducing and spreading.

Authorities killed one hippo a few years ago that had been damaging crops, but there was so much backlash and controversy over it, that they basically gave up on doing anything about the hippos. They thought about a campaign to sterilize the hippos, but declared that it was too expensive. I was frustrated and worried because the problem was only going to get bigger and harder to solve if they let the hippos spread. While on some level the idea of invasive hippos is kind of amusing, a South America full of hippos would not be a good thing!

So when I read that The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez began with a discussion of the invasive hippos, I knew I had to choose it as my Colombian book. I deliberately managed to tune out the words in reviews that might make the book seem less appealing to me- noir, drugs, murder, mystery. If it hadn’t been for the hippos (which honestly play a relatively minor role), I probably would have chosen another book.

And if I had, I would have missed out.

The narrator, Antonio Yammara, is a law professor (though his classes seem to be about literature as much as they are about law) in Bogata. The story revolves around his brief, but momentous, acquaintance with a man he meets in a billiards hall and Antonio’s subsequent efforts to figure out his history.

These days, when I see Colombia in the news, it’s frequently about the amazing turnaround the country has made. Crime and violence have dropped dramatically and the economy is improving. The bad years still have an effect on the people who lived through them though. The Sound of Things Falling evokes life in cold and overcast Bogata in the 1990s after the worst violence there had subsided, but everyone is recovering from the years of fear and disrupted life. The book also describes the more innocent and, in retrospect, naive early years of the drug trade before it exploded into violence. The worst years of violence fall in between the narratives, but they color everything that came before and after.

Antonio isn’t always the most likable guy, but I could certainly relate to his fascination with the way chance events shape the course of our lives and to his desire to figure out what led to them. The one thing that bugged me a little bit was that the book didn’t always stick to that framework of finding things out and piecing together what one can from the available information. Instead at some point it switches to another character’s perspective and written with a level of information about what that character was thinking that I don’t think Antonio would ever have had.

I loved the writing though and the translator, Anne McLean, obviously did an excellent job. I was worried for the first chapter or so whether the book would give its female characters short shrift, but that turned out not to be the case at all, with several well developed female characters. There were several descriptions of scenes that really struck me, particularly one about beekeeping for some reason. I’d recommend the book to anyone who doesn’t have a fear of flying! (I’m quite confident about flying myself, but I’m still glad that I didn’t read this one on an airplane, as I had the two previous books for Ghana and Ukraine.)

I’m excited to have finally tackled a South American novel. And even more excited to have found one that I really enjoyed. Those of you who have read this blog for a while know that I’ve been avoiding South America, constantly promising to read more South American books and not doing so.

I don’t know whether enjoying this book makes me feel any more confident about South American literature in general though because really what I’ve been avoiding is magical realism. Apparently Vasquez sees himself as rebelling against the tradition of magical realism. The Sound of Things Falling certainly takes place in entirely plain ordinary reality. I suppose eventually I will need to revisit Colombia’s most famous author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and see if I like him any more now than when I read Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s hard to encourage myself to read books I don’t think I’ll like though, when there are so many books out there I do think I’ll like!

As for the real Colombian hippos, happily I have learned that a sterilization program has at last been started. It is being paid for by money seized from drug traffickers.

Posted by: biblioglobal | January 22, 2015

Ukraine: Death and the Penguin (Book-from-every-country #65)

Death and the Penguin

Translated from the Russian by George Bird

The title is what drew me to Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I’d have to give it a tie for best title with A Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (Italy). This is also the second book I’ve read with death in the title, the other being Death with Interruptions (Portugal).

The title is also a very good summary of what the book is about. It’s about death and it’s about a penguin. Specifically a penguin named Misha who was given away when the Kiev zoo could no longer afford to keep its penguins and his caretaker Viktor who writes unusual obituaries. (For some reason the book calls them “obelisks” which I’ve never heard before as a term for an obituary. But it makes a certain amount of sense.)

The cover describes the book as a black comedy and I’d say that is pretty apt. I laughed quite a bit during the first part of the book, but less later on, though I think it was supposed to continue to be funny even as the darker aspects ramped up. BiblioBoyfriend read it after I did, and I notice that he did sometimes laugh aloud, even in later parts of the book.

I should also point out that BiblioBoyfriend has taken a dislike to penguins ever since watching March of the Penguins, but even he came away from the book with a strong affection for Misha. It’s strange actually, how endearing Misha manages to be, since he really never actually does much of anything. Like his caretaker Viktor, he mostly just goes along with the program, however strange that program might be.

Ukraine comes off as cold and gray, particularly since much of the book takes place during the winter. Plus there’s the economic struggles of the Post-Soviet era and both Viktor and Misha-the-penguin are pretty much depressed. So it might have been fortuitous that I read Death and the Penguin while visiting somewhere warm and sunny and not while I was at home in the cold and gray myself! Even the vacation homes, dachas, seemed quite depressing.

I hadn’t heard of dachas before, but apparently they are a big part of Russian culture and by extension, many of the former Soviet states as well. As best as I can tell they are a hybrid of summer homes, gated suburban communities, and garden allotments. The houses are built close together in a community each with a little bit of land and often without much in the way of amenities. It seems they were popular as a way for people to be able to grow their own food during the Soviet era and even today a substantial proportion of Russian families (I don’t know about Ukrainian) grow food on their dachas.

If you’re looking for more good literature about obituary writers, check out Sherman Alexie’s short story “Salt” in War Dances, an excellent collection of short stories and poems. For good literature about penguins, there’s always the children’s classic Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Oh, and apparently there’s even a sequel to Death and the Penguin, entitled Penguin Lost.

Posted by: biblioglobal | January 15, 2015

Ghana: Changes: A Love Story (Book-from-every-country #64)

1191425Happy somewhat belated New Year. I haven’t found time to post yet, but I’ve been enjoying my reading so far this year. Completely unrelated to my book-from-every-country project, I read Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. It’s a classic novel that, as a scientist, I particularly enjoyed since it tells the story of a microbiologist and his research. Obviously it has a lot of appeal to non-scientists too, since it was awarded the Pulizter Prize (which Sinclair Lewis declined).

The first book I read in 2015 was one for the book-from-every-country project and one I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time- Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo. I read a lot of it on a long plane trip on January 1st. It worked well as plane reading (at least according to my tastes for plane reading)- easy to follow even with the inevitable interruptions and at the same time not the least bit fluffy.

I found the similarities between Changes and So Long a Letter, the book from Senegal I recently read, remarkable. Both feature a friendship between two educated women who are struggling to balance work and family. I like Changes better, I think because their friendship was written in the form of a lively dialogue rather than a long letter from one to the other. (Although I generally really enjoy epistolary books.) The friendship between Esi and Opokuya really came alive (in fact, I found myself wondering whether their friendship was really the “love story”” referred to in the title). I love stories with good friendships, so I was completely sold.

As with So Long a Letter, the role of the tradition of polygamous marriage was an important component of Changes. The take here was a bit different though. Polygamy itself was presented as not necessarily a bad thing. In fact maybe it could be the solution for a woman busy with her career who wanted a husband who demanded less of her time? Instead the book seems to argue that polygamy was okay in the past, but that it should be discarded because it doesn’t work in today’s world.

One interesting little detail that the book mentioned was that teacher’s colleges in Ghana were deliberately place in locations where they would draw equally from several ethnic groups within the country. I thought that was a very smart strategy for trying to promote interaction and acceptance between groups. Of course, the next sentence points out that the students still interacted largely within their own groups, but even so I like to think that the students would still have benefited from taking classes together.

The book also had fun with Ghanaian’s use of the English language. Apparently there is a tendency to create unique words, which I think is just how language should be.

 

Posted by: biblioglobal | December 23, 2014

South Korea: Please Look After Mom (Book-from-every-country #63)

Please Look After Mom

First published in 2008. Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim.

I remember in one of my high school English classes, one of my classmates wanting to write her short story in second person (i.e. “You went to the store. You bought an avacado.”). My teacher tried to warn her away, saying that it was very difficult to write well in the second person, but she was determined to stick with it. I don’t know how my classmate’s story turned out, but I thought of her while reading Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin.

Please Look After Mom is the story of a family whose mother has gone missing, told from the perspective of several members of the family.  In the first section, ‘you’ are the eldest daughter, searching for your mother and feeling guilty for not keeping in better touch with her. In that section, I became comfortable with the second person perspective and thought it worked pretty well, drawing me as the reader into the story. What I found strange was that after a section about the oldest son (narrated in third person), the third section is again in third person, but this time ‘you’ are the husband/father of the family. Having already identified myself as the oldest daughter, I found it hard to switch gears and think of myself as the husband. Though it is also possible that as a female, I just found it easier to think of myself as the daughter than as the father.

It is easy to criticize this book, for its shifts in perspective, for its endless melodrama and guilt over how Mom should have been treated better, and for its somewhat ridiculous ending, but despite all that, I came away from the book having really enjoyed it. I thought a lot of the writing was good. And there is so much truth to the fact that mothers tend to be underappreciated (Hi Mom!) and that children tend to see their mother primarily in terms of her relationship with them rather than as an independent human being. So even though that point may be reiterated a few too many times in the book, it is compelling and authentic. I also enjoyed the slow revealing of more and more of the family’s history. (And like many reviewers have commented, reading the book did in fact make me feel like I ought to call my mother.)

I wonder how much Please Look After Mom reflects cultural differences in style. My guesses here are based on very little information- seeing a few episodes of a South Korean TV show and watching Korean music videos at my local Korean restaurant. (By the way, if you’ve never tried bi bim bop, I highly recommend that you rectify that situation as soon as possible. I like ‘dol sot’ bi bim bop, the version where is served in a hot stone bowl, the best.) Based on that very small amount of information, I feel like maybe the repetition of highly expressed emotions might be more standard in South Korean narratives, to a degree that is considered poor taste in poor taste in Western narratives. I’d be interested to hear whether people who know more than me would agree with this.

One thing that the book conveys very vividly is how quickly life in South Korea has changed over the course of two generations. The parents of the family are rural farmers, the mother doesn’t know how to read, and when the children were young, in the years after the war, their parents could barely manage to feed them. As adults, the children have all moved to Seoul and are real estate agents and pharmacists (and a best-selling author). The degree of contrast between generations might be a bit more than average, but from what I’ve read about South Korea, this amount of change between two generations is realistic. The generational changes also lead to some of the distance between Mom and her children. I don’t think the point of the book is that progress is bad though, just that sometimes it can be hard. The difficulty gets amplified when change comes so quickly.

Posted by: biblioglobal | December 8, 2014

Senegal: So Long a Letter (Book-from-every-country #62)

So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba.

So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba. Translated from the French by Modupe Bode-Thomas

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ is a short novel written in the form of one long letter. The letter is written from one woman to her friend. I’d argue that it is as much a feminist statement as it is a novel.

The plot line is basically a pretty familiar one- working women who still must take care of all the household duties while their husbands who fall for younger women. The difference being that in Senegal (as in many other Muslim cultures) rather than having an affair or getting a divorce, the husbands simply marry the younger woman and tell their first wives about it afterwards.

I found it interesting how little blame the letter-writer placed on her husband or especially her friend’s husband. She seemed quite forgiving of the younger wives as well. It was the mothers-in-law who were really to blame! They schemed up these second marriages and the men seemed almost powerless to resist them.

Particularly since the novel is apparently semi-autobiographical, I wonder whether the author was aware of this pattern of placing blame on the women rather than on the men. Is she unconsciously placing the blame on the women or is she deliberately commenting on the tendency to blame women? I can’t really tell.

Mostly I think that the author is saying that the real blame is not on individuals but on the societal structure of polygamous marriage.

I also found it interesting that the letter-writer complains about women having to do all of the childcare and housework even if they also are working full-time, but then seems to require only her daughters and not her sons to help with housework!

 

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 13, 2014

Estonia: Petty God (Book-from-every-country #61)

Petty God by Kaur KenderWhen my parents were traveling to Tallinn, Estonia last spring, I made sure to ask them to bring me back an Estonian book. (At the time I didn’t even know how prolific the Estonians are as book publishers.) My parents happily agreed and while in Tallinn went to visit a bookstore near their hotel.  The woman in the shop was intrigued by my project and very helpful in picking out a book to represent Estonia. Unfortunately her very favorite Estonian novel was not available in English, but she suggested instead Petty God by Kaur Kender. (In Estonian the title is Yuppiejumal, which I really hope means Yuppie God, because honestly that would be an even better title.)

Petty God turns out to be a retelling of the biblical creation story, set in an Estonian advertising agency after the end of communism. It’s about as odd as it it sounds.

“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God thought: ‘Just do it.’ And God said: ‘Let there be light’.”

The book was frequently very funny and I found myself laughing out loud. It moves back and forth through the perspectives of four characters. The perspective of the character playing the role of god was definitely my favorite. I also really enjoyed the commentary on the puzzling nature of advertising, especially for a country which had only recently made the switch from communism to capitalism. I couldn’t quite make sense of the book as a whole though. Whether that’s because of me, the author, the translator or just cultural differences, I don’t really know. Possibly a little bit of each.

In trying to look up some information about the book, I learned a little bit of the story of how it came to be translated into English. The translator, Edith Epler, was an Estonian college student studying in Scotland and it seems she decided to translate the book because she just loved it so much and wanted more of the world to be able to read it. She seems to have also played a role in publishing the book. I really admire her enthusiasm. I do think the translation would have benefited from some more English language editing as there are a fair number of errors and other places where things could just have been written a bit more clearly. It was probably a very difficult book to translate though, and it is impressive how much of the humor the translation was able to convey.

At several points in Petty God, both Jaffa (Yaweh) and Siffer (Lucifer/snake) run around placing hidden microphones to keep an eye on each other and on Eva and Mada. I don’t know if this is just a coincidence, but the part of their trip that my parents talked about most was a visit an old hotel that during the Communist era was the only hotel where westerners were allowed to stay.  There is now a museum in the hotel that displays how the whole place was completely bugged and everything the westerners said was monitored. The (possibly apocryphal) story is that someone sitting on the toilet discovered that he had run out of toilet paper. After he cursed aloud about the situation, a hotel employee was at his door with a new roll almost immediately.

You can still stay at the hotel today. The question is, would you want to?

My book also came with this lovely bookmark!

My book also came with this lovely bookmark!

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 7, 2014

Books from 60 countries

I actually hit the 60 book milestone back in August, but it has taken me until now to get the relevant posts out. I seem to have slowed down in my progress, since looking back, I finished the first 30 books in just over a year. Overall though, I’m happy with my progress. I’m keeping up with my rough goal of covering 20 countries a year, since I’m coming to the end of year 3(!) of the project.

Where I’ve been lately:

Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Lebanon, Germany, China, Nepal, Finland, Hungary and Timor Leste. (Click on the country to see my post.)

Once again, I’ve failed to read anything from South America. I suppose there’s no point in vowing once again that I’ll get to it in the next ten books. I’ll get there eventually.

Most memorable:

Overall this was a really good group of books. The one book that I really struggled with was The Story of Zahra by Hanan Al-Shaykh (Lebanon) but in the end I learned some valuable things from reading it, even if I really didn’t like the book.

The two books of this group that had the biggest impact on me were The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderkam (Germany) and The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary). Both of these books, plus another one that I really enjoyed, The Summer Book by Tove Janssen (Finland) were really narrowly focused books. The Summer Book and The Door both revolved around the relationship between two people to such an extent that all the other characters in the book seemed like mere shadows. In The Summer Book the relationship was between grandmother and granddaughter, spending the summer on an isolated island. In The Door, the narrator analyzes her relationship with her housekeeper and deals with her feelings of guilt and responsibility.

The Mussel Feast encompasses the relationships between four people instead of two. As a scientist I can tell you that going from two interacting parts to four adds a huge amount of complexity! But The Mussel Feast is told from the perspective of a single evening, so it still feels very narrowly defined.

I often really like big epics and books incorporating many points of view, but there was something really nice about the way each of the books in this set really dug in to one very specific thing. (And they all still were reflective in some way of their country of origin, which is something I look for in the books I pick.)

Where I’m headed:

I’ve already read my book for Estonia, Petty God by Kaur Kender. I’ve also read a book covering Ethiopia recently, but I haven’t decided whether I’m going to include that one or not. I started reading it not planning to count it as my ‘official’ Ethiopia book. But I’m thinking about including it, just because I kind of want to rant about it. That seems kind of unfair to Ethiopia though!

I’ve still got Jorge Luis Borges sitting on my shelf. Also sitting there is my book for Senegal, So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba. I’ve heard really good things about it, so I’m excited to read it. Actually, I think the only reason I haven’t read it yet is that my copy is from the academic library and once again full of someone else’s underlining and notes. There were actually several copies of this book in the library, and I tried to pick the least marked-up one, but it’s still kind of irritating. Maybe I just need to request a copy from another library!

 

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