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?

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.

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