Posted by: biblioglobal | June 10, 2020

Books from 140 countries

It’s been a while! I read books #131 to 140 relatively quickly, between October 2018 and January 2019. But I never put up a post about them. For the most part, I followed my plan of proceeding in alphabetical order by country name, to avoid selectively reading the “easier” remaining countries. Here’s the list:


How to be a True-True Bahamian Patricia Glinton-Meicholas Bahamas
Looking for Dilmun Geoffrey Bibby Bahrain
Celestial Bodies Jokha Alharthi Oman
Sugar in the Blood Andrea Stuart Barbados
Beka Lamb Zee Edgell Belize
Daytripper Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba Brazil
The Bounty Derek Walcott St. Lucia
Natural Novel Georgi Gospodinov Bulgaria
Show Me the Magic Annie Caulfield Benin
Written in Black K.H. Lim Brunei

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Al-harthi was probably the most memorable of these. I’d had it on my list for a bit, Celestial Bodies: Booker International Prize highlights rich ...but I hadn’t been able to get a copy. I tried ordering it once from my local bookstore specializing in international literature (such an amazing thing to have!) but they hadn’t been able to get a copy. On a second try, it had been published in the U.S. and they were able to get it. I really enjoyed the book and thought it deserved more attention. So I was quite pleasantly surprised when it won the Man Booker International Prize and I started seeing reviews of it everywhere.

Immediately before reading Celestial Bodies, I had read Looking for Dilmun, which was a non-fiction account of conducting archeology trying to figure out the history of ancient civilizations in Bahrain and nearby. It was quite interesting to follow the puzzle-solving of the archeological process, but very much written from a colonialist perspective. At one point, the author couldn’t get to a field site in Oman because of conflicts with local tribes. This was portrayed as somewhat inexplicable conflict, in which the British were acting as the responsible peacekeepers. So it was notable to me when there was a mention in Celestial Bodies about how the British had disrupted the stable balance of power in Oman by playing one group against another. The value of getting another perspective!

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 9, 2018

Books from 130 countries

Thanks to the delay in getting my 120 books post out, this one is following quickly. It was a great bunch of books that left me feeling re-motivated for reading more.

As more of the remaining countries are “difficult” ones, I’m reading some books that I wouldn’t otherwise have picked out. In particular, Words of the Lagoon was a description of traditional fishing practices in Palau. Fishing is not a favorite topic of mine. (As an example, John McPhee is one of my favorite authors. He can write about shipping logistics and it’s fascinating. But even he is boring when he writes about fish.) So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Words of the Lagoon. It was a great lens for gaining an appreciation of the amount of cultural knowledge people traditionally had about natural history and also for the creativity involved in surviving on remote islands with very limited resources. The number of fishing methods is incredible- net, spear, poison, hook, corralling. I wasn’t really sure whether to believe the one about fishing with spiderwebs dangled from a kite. But there’s a BBC video of it on YouTube, so I guess it must be true!



Another favorite from this group was Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. I was surprised to look at the title page and see that the book had been translated from Croatian by three different translators. When I read the book though, it made perfect sense because the book is divided into three separate sections that interact in interesting ways. After reading the book, I got to see Ugresic speak at a local bookstore, which was wonderful. It was also neat to see how many other people were excited to come see her. I didn’t get in the book purchasing line right away and I ended up getting the very last book of hers that they had in stock.

Here’s the list from this set:

121 The Dark Child Camara Laye Guinea
122 Out Stealing Horses Per Petterson Norway
123 In Sorcery’s Shadow Paul Stoller Niger
124 Words of the Lagoon R.E. Johannes Palau
125 Night Birds and Other Stories Khet Mar Myanmar
126 Baba Yaga Laid an Egg Dubravka Ugresic Croatia
127 Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter Mario Vargas Llosa Peru
128 Sundays in August Patrick Modiano France
129 The Sly Company of People who Care Rahul Bhattacharya Guyana
130 The Blue Sky Galsan Tschinag Mongolia


I’ve decided that it’s time to make a switch in my reading plan. Thus far, I’ve read somewhat haphazardly depending on what books came my way. I’ve made some effort to include some smaller countries and to spread my reading across different continents. But inevitably, the list of remaining countries has disproportionately more countries with fewer available books. I had decided not to rush forward on reading books for some of these countries under the premise that new books might become available over time. And in some cases they have! But, in order to avoid a clump of the most hard-to-find-a-book-for countries at the end of the project, I’ve decided to switch my efforts towards reading the remaining countries in alphabetical order. I’ll still read books out of order when something catches my attention, but for the books I’m seeking out, I’m going to go in order. It turns out I had covered all the ‘A’ countries, so I’ve finished a book from the Bahamas and am now reading my book for Bahrain. Next up is Barbados. Actually there are several books that I’m interested in reading from Barbados, and I’m having a hard time deciding: Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart which is a history of Barbados focused on the author’s family history of both her black and her white ancestors. Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit by Austin Clark is a memoir focused on traditional Barbados food. The Star Side of Bird Hill is a coming-of-age novel about two sisters who move from Brooklyn to Barbados. So many good choices!

Posted by: biblioglobal | October 21, 2018

Books from 120 countries

I have to admit, I’m writing this update rather last minute, since I’m currently about to start my 130th book. So I thought I had better hurry up and not be two summary posts behind!

Here are books 111-120:

111 Sweden A Man Called Ove Frederik Bachmann
112 Bolivia Affections Rodigo Hasbrun
113 Ethiopia Beneath the Lion’s Gaze Maaza Mengiste
114 Singapore The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye Sonny Liew
115 Guatemala Silence on the Mountain Daniel Wilkinson
116 Bosnia and Herzegovina How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone Sasa Stanistic
117 Uzbekistan The Railway Hamid Ismailov
118 Namibia The Purple Violet of Oshaantu Neshani Andreas
119 Samoa Leaves of the Banyan Tree Albert Wendt
120 Comoros A Fish Caught in Time Samantha Weinberg


I made a map of my progress to see what is left:

A lot of the countries I have left are too small to see on this map! It was interesting to see that there are some geographical gaps in the map- central Africa and northern South America. I’ll be working to fill in some of those regions.


Posted by: biblioglobal | March 29, 2018

Uzbekistan: The Railway (Book-from-every-country #117)

For most of the book, I thought of The Railway by Hamid Ismailov as one of those books that is clearly written for a local audience and isn’t trying to cater to outsiders’ understanding. In other words, I found it confusing and blamed my confusion on my own ignorance. That’s definitely part of it. Clearly the publisher recognized the English speaking readers were likely to need some assistance, since the book comes with just about every possible aid to readers- a map, a family tree, a preface, an eight page long list of characters, and copious footnotes. The only thing missing was a glossary, and to be honest a glossary would have been helpful!

1006277However, there’s also an interview with the author at the back of the book in which he states that part of the book is made up of fragments from an earlier, unpublished novel that he wrote with the intention that it could be understood only by himself! So maybe this book is just plain confusing, regardless of where you come from.

Each chapter tells a tale or two about the inhabitants of Gilas, a small town outside of ‘The City’. Many characters show up repeatedly, though the chapters are more or less independent stories. The first chapter features men lounging about gossiping and most of the stories read like gossip-magnified tall tales. The tales are frequently crass and occasionally truly horrific, but nothing seems to be taken particularly seriously. The stories also show the complicated interplay between the traditional, primarily Muslim, culture in Uzbekistan and life in the Soviet Union.

One interesting thing I learned is that Uzbekistan has a large Korean population. Why? Because Stalin had the ethnic Koreans living in eastern Siberia forcibly transported to Central Asia where many continue to live to this day.

I enjoyed the fact that The Railway referenced The Day Lasts a Hundred Years, the book that I read for Kyrgyzstan (the author was Kyrgyz, though the book actually takes place in Kazakhstan). I never wrote up a blog post for The Day Lasts a Hundred Years, which is a shame because it was an excellent and interesting book. Like The Railway, it highlights the role of Soviet and local culture with the railroad playing a central role. Unlike The Railway, camels and astronauts also play important roles. My confusion with The Railway notwithstanding, I’m finding it really interesting to learn about Central Asia. It’s an area that I knew very little about before my book-from-every-country project.

Posted by: biblioglobal | February 17, 2018

Books from 110 Countries

Although the blog’s been quiet, I have been reading. Here are numbers 101 to 110:

101 Mauritius The Last Brother Nathacha Appanah
102 Cameroon Houseboy Ferdinand Oyono
103 The Gambia Reading the Ceiling Dayo Forster
104 Iraq The Marsh Arabs Wilfred Thesiger
105 Cape Verde The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araujo Germano Almeida
106 Denmark The Year of Living Danishly Helen Russell
107 Latvia With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows Sandra Kalniete
108 Tanzania Desertion Abdulrazak Gurnah
109 Austria The Tobacconist Robert Seethaler
110 Marshall Islands Surviving Paradise Peter Rudiak-Gould

Amazingly, I didn’t have my book-from-every-country reading organized into a spreadsheet before now. Now that I’ve got a spreadsheet, I can graph my progress:

ReadingI’m kind of impressed at the steadiness of my progress over time!

I need to read 20.5 books per year for this project for the next four years to finish the project in 10 years. That’s a little higher than my average pace so far, but not by much. I can do this!

Posted by: biblioglobal | March 18, 2017

Iraq: The Marsh Arabs (Book-from-every-country #104)

432391The Marsh Arab is a travelogue written in the 1950s by Wilfred Thesiger, a white British man who graduated from Eton and Oxford. It has many of the flaws you might expect from such a book. I wanted to read it anyway because I was intrigued to learn more about the lives about the Marsh Arabs (Thesiger mostly refers to them as the Madan, but that is apparently no longer the preferred term.)

I was surprised to learn that Iraq had extensive marshland in the first place, though I guess I shouldn’t have been, given the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the history of Iraq and of the world. Much of life in the marshes revolved around the wetland grasses, particularly the common reed, Phragmites australis*, which can grow to 20 feet tall:


Phragmites australis

The people living in the marshes used the grasses to build up small islands high enough out of the water to build on. (Though sometimes if too many people came to visit, the floor would sink below water level.) They used the grasses to build their houses and to feed their buffalo.

Source: Wikipedia, by Hassan Janali, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Digital Visual Library

Thesinger frequently stayed in a visitor’s house, a mudhif. But I suspect they weren’t always quite as large and pristine as this one.

To travel anywhere, often even to get to the neighbor’s house, they used canoes. Sometimes the boats were also made of reeds, but mostly they were made of wood brought from elsewhere, because wood made better boats. The Marsh Arabs had a way of life that was specifically adapted to their environment. At the same time they shaped their environment, for example by maintaining open water paths through the marshes to allow their boats to travel through.

Something that is striking to me is that the more I learn about the world, the more I realize how many cultures have an understanding that gender is more complicated than a simple male-female binary. It’s only mentioned for a page or two in this book, but among the Marsh Arabs it was apparently accepted for some who were born as women to take a male role in society and be referred to by male pronouns. Similarly, in at least one case, someone born as a male was accepted as a woman within the village. This reminded me of the Albanian book I read, Sworn Virgin, which focused on an Albanian tradition in which a woman could take on a male role in society. I’m also aware of the idea of a “third gender” in Zapotec culture in Mexico and of Hijras in India. These other norms of gender don’t necessarily match the modern idea of transgender, but in Western European/American culture it is easy to think of transgender as some newfangled idea that is just made up. When you look around the world though, you can see that many cultures have understood that gender is more complicated for a very long time.

I’m writing about the Marsh Arabs in the past tense because in 1992, Saddam Hussein, worried that the marshes were harboring rebellion, had them all drained and life in the marshes came to an end. Since 2003 however, the marshes have been recovering and are now back to about 50% of their original area and some people are moving back. There’s a neat article in The Guardian about it from just a couple of months ago. Sadly, the marshes probably won’t ever reach their original extent. Dams upstream, increased water consumption, as well as declining rainfall mean that water flow through the Tigris and Euphrates is much lower than it used to be.

*I was particularly interested in how Phragmites was such a fundamental part of life in the Iraqi marshes because I once spent a summer doing research on Phragmites. But I was studying the negative effects of Phragmites! The history of Phragmites australis in the United States is interesting. If you go to a wetland in the U.S. and see grasses growing well over your head, they are probably Phragmites. Although it is a native species, it suddenly started taking over in many wet areas just a few decades ago. Before that it had mostly just grown on the borders between wet and dry areas. At first scientists weren’t sure what had happened. Had the native Phragmites evolved and become a much better competitor? It turns out that the Phragmites taking over the wetland is actually the Eurasian subspecies of Phragmites. So it isn’t an non-native species, but it is an non-native subspecies!

Posted by: biblioglobal | March 12, 2017

The Gambia: Reading the Ceiling (Book-from-every-country #103)

Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster is like a cross between the graphic novel Aya and the movie Sliding Doors. Like Aya, it focuses on Image result for reading the ceilingmiddle class West African teenage girls who frequently make decisions that annoy me. Like Sliding Doors, Reading the Ceiling is structured around alternative histories, examining how things might have been, had one thing gone differently. Or you could see it as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with only one decision point! It’s a book that seems to generate mixed opinions, and I can see why, though I ended up liking it much more than I expected.

The beginning premise is that it is Ayodele’s 18th birthday and she has decided she is going to have sex today for the first time. Never mind that she doesn’t know who that will be. Never mind that she’s not actually excited by any of the possibilities she puts on the list. Despite all that, one way or another she goes through with her plan. After all, what she really wants is just to defy her overbearing mother. Each subsequent section of the book tells the story of Ayodele’s life, depending on which man she ends up having sex with. Have I made it sufficiently clear that I’m not a fan of this premise?

Once I got beyond the initial decision points though, I really enjoyed the rest of the stories. It helps that I’m fascinated by questions of “what would have happened if…” both in my own life and in history more broadly. I recently had reason to consider how the whole trajectory of my career is the result of an e-mail miscommunication with a professor which resulted in my not getting into a particular class in college Instead, I took a different class and the professor suggested we go to a talk by a particular visiting scientist. And so on…

I really think that Dayo Forster handled writing the alternative histories very well. Each history follows Ayodele well into middle age and recognizes that there are many twists and turns in life and there’s no straightforward “good” or “bad” life. While there were differences between Ayodele’s lives, there were also lots of parallels. That makes sense- not every single thing is going to be changed by one decision.

One outcome of being fairly far along in my global reading project is that many aspects of Gambian culture seem familiar from books that I’ve read set in nearby countries. In that sense, I learn a little less from reading a new book now than when I started this project. One the other hand, I have more perspective and can focus a little more on the book itself rather than its unfamiliar setting.

The Gambia is such an interesting country though, tucked in along the Gambia River, surrounded by Senegal. Not surprisingly, water and beaches feature frequently in Reading the Ceiling:

The Gambia was a British colony, while most of the surrounding area was colonized by the French. The Gambia has had encouraging news recently with the president of 22 years agreeing (eventually) to step down when he lost the election. There were only a couple of oblique references to politics in Reading the Ceiling, suggesting that politicians were could get away with certain things and that they had a perhaps surprising ability to buy expensive new cars.

One result of The Gambia being such a small country is that, at the time Ayodele was growing up, there was no university in the country and so anyone who went to college had to leave the country. This meant either having the resources to travel far away to England or the U.S. or else learning French to go to a college in Senegal or other nearby countries. Today The Gambia does have its own university.

Ayodele’s family and most of her friends are Christian (and it is interesting to see how Ayodele’s life experiences shape her religious beliefs), so I got the sense that the country was fairly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Actually though, in reading about The Gambia just now, I learned that it is 90% Muslim. That’s a good reminder that reading one book from a country gives one perspective on that country and I should remember that it may not be representative! I do wonder though whether the book might be reflecting differences in religious affiliations between economic classes.

Altogether, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it for people who, like me, are fascinated by alternative narratives, or for people who, unlike me, aren’t bothered when characters make stupid decisions. I’d also be interested to hear recommendations (or disrecommendations) of books with a similar structure.

UPDATED: I’ve just been doing some more reading on the internet and realized that Reading the Ceiling is based on a traditional African storytelling genre, the dilemma tale. Dilemma tales end without a conclusion and instead the storyteller asks a question of the audience. There’s actually an example of a traditional Gambian dilemma tale at the end of Reading the Ceiling, but I didn’t realize that this was an example of a common genre. I’ve now read a few more of these traditional stories and now realize that the intended question at the end of Reading the Ceiling is, “Which of these lives should Ayodele choose?”. (In retrospect, that’s probably obvious and I was just being dim.) I really like that Dayo Forster was adapting a traditional African storytelling technique into the form of a modern novel. It gives me a new appreciation for the book.

Posted by: biblioglobal | February 26, 2017

Cameroon: Houseboy (Book-from-every-country #102)

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

Translated from the French by John Reed.

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono is a short and straightforward novel about Toundi ,a Cameroonian man working in the household of French colonists, focusing on his observations of their behavior. The book was published in 1956, a few years before Cameroonian independence, but seems to be set at an earlier time when the French were getting established in Cameroon. Toundi somehow manages to mostly have a tone of amusement both when talking about unfamiliar vagaries of European behavior (the use of “little rubber bags” as contraception, not to mention the idea of contraception in the first place) and about vicious racism (the country club owner setting dogs on the locals for amusement). As a white reader, I can laugh a bit seeing European behavior from at an outsider’s perspective, but then also must feel ashamed at the terrible racist behavior.  Actually, I was struck by how similar the treatment of black Cameroonians by the white police was to the treatment of African-Americans by white police in the United States during about the same time period. (I’m specifically remembering reading Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, which is an amazing book that I highly recommend.)

The conceit behind the book is that it is Toundi’s diary, which the author ends up with after meeting the dying Toundi in Spanish Guinea (now Equatorial Guinea).  (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the beginning of the book). Except , when you learn the rest of the story, it makes no sense that Toundi would have been able to bring his diaries with him to Spanish Guinea. And the book doesn’t really read much like a diary, though it does sometimes jump abruptly between subjects like a diary might. I do think it would have been better if Oyono hadn’t tried to make it a diary, but instead just let it be a first person narrative.

Houseboy talked only about the French colonized portion of what is today Cameroon, but in reading about Cameroon’s colonial history of Wikipedia, I learned part of the country was a British colony. (Both parts had been under German control before that.) It seems to me that mostly the boundaries of previously colonized countries follow colonial boundaries, and that it is unusual for a country to include territory which was held by two different colonial powers. Apparently there is still some tension between the French and English speaking parts of the country.

Posted by: biblioglobal | January 19, 2017

The wonder of (popular) science

27213168Good popular science writing is such an amazing thing! I’m currently reading I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong which is all about the close relationship between animals and microbes. (If you were wondering, it’s from the new and shiny end of my TBR list.) As it happens, I’m familiar with a lot of the science in it from my work as a scientist. But reading it in the context of a popular science book really helps give me a new appreciation for the wonder of it. For how amazing the ways are that animals and microbes have evolved together and affect each other and communicate with each other. Don’t get me wrong, a good scientific paper can be inspiring too. But sometimes popular science can really show the bigger picture and the poetry of it all.

Did you know that your left hand and right hand host distinctly different bacterial communities? Or that the bacteria in your mouth are more similar to the bacteria in my mouth than the bacteria on your nose? If not, you have fascinating discoveries in store for you!

I’m also glad to discover that this book (at least so far) is as good as I expected because I gave it to my mother for Christmas without having read it myself!

Posted by: biblioglobal | January 11, 2017

Mauritius: The Last Brother (Book-from-every-country #101)


This cover captures the book very well.

Mauritius is an island country off the east coast of Africa where the majority of the population are of Indian origin, were brought there by the British colonists, and now speak primarily a French based creole. (It was a French colony before it became a British one.) So, it’s an interesting place. It was also the home of the Dodo, before it was driven extinct.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan) tells the story of the friendship between Raj, a Mauritian boy, and David, a Jewish boy living in an internment camp on the island. The book begins with Raj as an old man, so we know from the beginning that David died at the age of 10. Raj has never really gotten over his death. In fact, at the age of 70, he goes to visit David’s grave for the first time and there he relates the story of their friendship.

Their friendship is beautiful and sad. It is also brief enough that you might not think that they would have time to form such a lasting connection. But everything is set up in a way that their friendship makes perfect sense.

Before I started the book-from-every-country project, I never kept a list of books to read. I just read whatever happened to catch my attention at the library. Now, I do have a ‘TBR’ over on Goodreads. I don’t list everything there, but most of the books for this project end up on that list plus other random books that I come across are there. I’m pretty good about keeping the list to a reasonable length (though I did expand past my original intended limit of 100 books and had to increase it to 150…). What I recently realized though is that I tend to read the books that I’ve recently added to the list, but not the books back at the beginning. There are books there that have been languishing since 2012.

So for this year, I’m going to make an effort to either read those books back at the beginning of the list or else decide that I no longer want to read them. That means I will probably have a spate of African books since when I first set up that list on Goodreads I was hunting down ideas for books from African countries. It also means that I’ll be tackling some intimidating chunksters of books that in theory I want to read, but in practice I’ve been avoiding.

One is The Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o which clocks in at 768 pages. I’ve already read other Kenyan books, but I’ve kept this one on the list because I’ve heard such good things about it and also because he originally wrote it in Gikuyu and there just aren’t that many books out there that have been translated from African languages. The other is Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns which is only 400 pages long, but will be tough reading, since it’s a history of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Time for some challenging (but hopefully rewarding) reading!

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