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)

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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!

Posted by: biblioglobal | December 1, 2016

My 100th book!

Today I finished reading The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto, a Mozambican writer. I hadn’t even realized until just before I started reading it that it was going to be my 100th book. Since I hadn’t been keeping my blog up to date, I’d lost count of how far along I was. For the record, here are the books I’ve read since last report:

  • #81 Pakistan: The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  • #82 Vietnam: Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong
  • #83 Republic of Congo: Little Boys Come from the Stars by Emmanuel Dongala
  • #84 United Kingdom: Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
  • #85 Zambia: Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo
  • #86 Bangladesh: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
  • #87 Andorra: The Road to Andorra by Shirley Deane
  • #88 Kiribati: Underwater Eden by David Obura and Gregory Stone
  • #89 Tonga: Tales of the Tikongs by Epeli Hau’ofa
  • #90 Czech Republic: Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
  • #91 Uruguay: Voices from Time by Eduardo Galeano
  • #92 Macedonia: In the Time of the Goats by Luan Starova
  • #93 Belgium: Bobbins of Belgium by Charlotte Kellogg
  • #94 Poland: The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
  • #95 Jamaica: Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • #96 Kyrgyzstan: The Day Lasts More than 100 Years by Chingiz Aitmatov
  • #97 Mali: Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway
  • #98 Kuwait: The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi
  • #99 Grenada: The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins
  • #100 Mozambique: The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto

There’s a lot of good and interesting books in that list. It’s too bad I haven’t kept up with posting about them…

In a nice coincidence, it is (more or less) the fifth anniversary of book-from-every-country project. There isn’t an exact date, but I remember that it was sometime around Thanksgiving that I decided to give it a go. With 193 countries on my list, I’m just slightly ahead of schedule for my goal of finishing in 10 years.

Thinking about it now, it’s pretty remarkable to me that I started such a long-term project. And even more surprising, that I’m still going and still on track. I really haven’t gotten tired of it.

Also surprising to me is that there haven’t been any new UN member countries in the past five years.  Looking back through the history of the UN, there have been several 5 year gaps with no new members, but no 10 year gaps. So we’ll see what happens in the next 5 years.

Posted by: biblioglobal | April 20, 2016

On my “library shelf”

I’ve made several library visits recently, so I’ve got a lovely pile of books calling for my attention.

  • Buddha Da by Anne Donovan: This was going to be my Scottish book if Scotland had voted for 1744073independence from the UK. I decided I wanted to read it anyway. I’ve only looked at the first few pages thus far, enough to see that when they say that it is written with a strong Glaswegian accent, they really mean it. I felt like I wasn’t familiar enough with the accent to be able to hear how it was supposed to sound as I read it. So I did some hunting for audio on the internet. Wow! I think I can understand more listening to a Spanish speaker than I could of some Glaswegian speakers. Fortuitously, I even found a clip of Anne Donovan reading the first few pages of Buddha Da (she was easier to understand than some of the other clips), so now I know what it should sound like.  I’m looking forward to reading more.
  • The 100 Year Old Man who Climbed Out the Window by Jonas Jonasson: I’ve decided to abandon this one. I thought it would be a light enjoyable book, but I just don’t find a story about unpleasant old men accidentally killing people to be funny. I realized there was no point in reading it if I wasn’t finding it funny, even though many other people seem to enjoy it. I seem to have a bad track record with Swedish books about grumpy old men, since the book I read for Sweden was The Fly Trap, non-fiction whose author I found to be a not-at-all-endearing curmudgeon. (I’ve now realized that the book I actually intended to look for at the library was not The 100 Year Old Man, but rather A Man Called Ove. I can see how I got confused, since A Man Called Ove is ALSO about a “grumpy but lovable” old Swedish man. Being 0/2 so far with grumpy old Swedish men, maybe I should cross A Man Called Ove off my to read list?)
  • The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem: I’m planning to venture into some science fiction for my Polish book. BiblioBoyfriend has snagged this one. The repeated laughter, the many snippets read aloud, and the exclamation “What a good find!” seem to indicate that he is enjoying it. In fact, I’ve asked him to stop reading me so many quotes for fear of having half the book read to me before I get a chance to read it myself!
  • Now and at the Hour of our Death by Susana Moreira Marques: I came across this book looking through the publication list of And Other Stories, since I’ve enjoyed a couple of their books recently. Unlike most of their books, it is non-fiction. It is about the experiences of people dying in rural Portugal and the dying out of entire small villages. It’s pretty good, but takes a more poetic approach than I was expecting/wanting.

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I’ve also got books for Brazil and Macedonia and The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan book I’ve been wanting to read for a while.

Posted by: biblioglobal | April 9, 2016

Uruguay: Voices from Time

I’m going to try out a change of style for this blog and see if I decide to stick with it. Rather than writing up my responses to each book, I’m going to take the approach of just writing generally about my reading at any given point in time. I enjoy reading other blogs that take that approach, so I’m just going to give it a try.

I’m also a little pessimistic, because mostly when I see people write posts about reviving their blogs, the blogs die again soon after! So we’ll see!

Voices of Time: A Life in Stories

Translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried. Published in 2001.

For the book-from-every-country project, right now I’m reading Voices from Time by Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan author. It’s an unusual sort of book, in that it consists of more than 300 extremely short (less than a page) passages. As best as I can tell, it lies somewhere in the netherworld between fiction and fact. Sometimes I recognize the name of a real person (I think there are a lot more real names that I don’t recognize that someone from South America would recognize), and the story about them has some semblance to reality, but doesn’t seem to be totally accurate. Other stories have a much more fictional feel.

I haven’t decided how I feel about the structure of the book. It has definitely grown on me as I read and I like the writing, but the fragmentary nature sometimes is unfulfilling. A nice side-effect though is that the vignettes are easy to share. One reminded me of a family joke, so I quickly typed it up and e-mailed it to my family, who loved it. Periodically I read one or two aloud to BiblioBoyfriend.

I’ve also started reading Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, which was sent to me as part of my Daunt Books subscription. It’s set in Nigeria, during the Biafran War. I’m excited about it, because I’ve seen lots of people praising it. But I’m approaching it with some trepidation, given the subject matter and also because of the amazing, intense experience of reading Half of a Yellow Sun, which has the same setting.

Unfortunately, my copy falls into the African-Book-Covers-With-Acacia-Trees stereotype:

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I recently read Catch-22, a classic that I’ve long found intimidating. But it’s one of BiblioBoyfriend’s favorites, so I pushed myself to give it a try. Wow it was good! (Though the treatment of women was hard to tolerate, even though it was probably realistic.) Also, I now understand all those references to Catch-22 that BiblioBoyfriend makes. A sample passage that really struck me:

‘They’re trying to kill me’ Yossarian told him calmly.

‘No one’s trying to kill you’ Clevinger cried.

‘Then why are they shooting at me?’ Yossarian asked.

‘They’re shooting at everyone,’ Clevinger answered. ‘They’re trying to kill everyone.’

‘And what difference does that make?’

Waiting on my shelf are the two sequels to Miss Buncle’s Book. They are on loan from my sister. I feel guilty about that because I gave them to her as a Christmas present! But they are Persephone books which aren’t so easy to get in the U.S., so I accepted the loan despite my guilt. I understand that they aren’t as good as the first one, but they should still be some fun reading.

Posted by: biblioglobal | January 11, 2016

Books from eighty countries and more

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

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

Where I’ve been:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most memorable:

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

Where I’m headed:

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

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

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 4, 2015

Bailey’s ‘Best of the Best’ Prize

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

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

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

Anyway, congratulations Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie!

Posted by: biblioglobal | November 2, 2015

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

 

Homeless Rats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four-toes-jerboa.jpg

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

 

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