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Yummah by Sarah Al Shafei

Yummah - Sarah A. Al Shafei

This is not bad by the standards of self-published books, but there isn’t much to recommend it unless you happen to be seeking a book set in Bahrain; it is currently the most popular book on Goodreads (admittedly, an English language-dominated site) set in that country. Titled “Yummah,” a word used in the book to mean “grandmother,” it seems to be the fictionalized life story of the author’s grandmother – a conclusion supported by the fact that toward the end, a favorite granddaughter appears who, like the author, is named Sarah, goes to college in Boston, and moves to Saudi Arabia for marriage.

The book begins sometime in the mid 20th century, and spans the time period from British colonial rule of Bahrain, to the country’s independence in 1971, the First Gulf War, and the beginning of the 20th century. It is narrated by a woman named Khadeeja and focuses on the domestic dramas of her own and her children’s lives. Khadeeja is married off at age 12, loses several people she loves and is abandoned by her otherwise apparently perfect husband as a pregnant mother of eight, but overcomes adversity and sees her children find love and success.

It’s a quick read, and the story moves briskly, covering an entire lifetime in fewer than 200 pages. It does suffer from several drawbacks, however. Khadeeja narrates the story in first person (except for a few brief sections told in third person from someone else’s perspective), and her perspective is not particularly nuanced; she romanticizes child marriage and makes sweeping statements like “in my days the twelve-year-olds were still innocent, their eyes still had their childish sparkle and their hearts were pure as angels’,” or, on the day of Bahrain’s independence, “there wasn’t a single soul on the island of Bahrain who wasn’t happy.”

She’s also a heavily romanticized character herself, with no apparent flaws, and called an angel even by her ex-husband, who is similarly romanticized despite his abandonment of his pregnant wife and eight kids. (I can sympathize with his shame at losing his job and his initial decision to flee, but to never send for them or even send money once he’s back on his feet – when they’re on the verge of eviction and the older kids are leaving school to support the family – did not seem nearly so forgivable to me as it was to every character in this book. That said, my guess is that this book is based on the author’s grandmother’s life, and if this is treated as a great love story in her family, well, at least it’s authentic I suppose.)

Beyond that, there are problems one expects from a self-published book. It appears to have been copyedited by spellcheck, given the number of misused words. For the most part, the author’s English seems fluent, but she struggles with prepositions (Khadeeja is concerned about someone’s “desire in revenge”; a character comments that “life has been cruel on you”), the occasional word is jarring to the English-speaking reader (the dialogue tag “screamed” is overused, including even for a polite greeting at one point), and there are some run-on sentences and some passages which lapse into the present tense although most of the book is in the past tense. Meanwhile, I was never sure whether the seeming expansion of the age gaps between Khadeeja’s children (all nine born within eleven or twelve years) was a continuity error, or whether society really was changing so rapidly that the middle and younger children wind up seeming a full generation younger than their older siblings.

All in all, this was a quick and painless read, especially since my expectations for a self-published book were so low. It’s not one I would recommend on its literary merits, but it’s a perfectly decent choice for those looking for a story set in Bahrain.

Small Animals by Kim Brooks

Small Animals - Kim Brooks
I only recently realized the extent to which helicopter parenting in America has become the norm, the expectation, sometimes even in the law of the land. That the definition of a “good parent” now requires keeping an eye on your child at every moment. That kids’ hanging out with friends has been formalized into “playdates,” typically arranged by parents and involving play directed by at least one parent, often with both kids' parents present. That parents hover over their children on playgrounds, issuing a constant stream of instructions and intervening in their interactions with other children. That parents consider it highly risky to allow kids to play in their own yards unsupervised, and in some cases bystanders will call the police if they see it; walking around a suburban middle-class neighborhood in daylight hours is right out. That parents’ decisions about the sort of childhood their kids will have are driven by fear, of improbable catastrophes or Child Protective Services or both. In retrospect this should have been evident. There are kids living in my neighborhood, I think; I only ever see them going from house to car and back.

It’s all driven by fear, even though this is the safest time to be a kid in American history. Parents are paranoid about kidnapping, despite the fact that stranger kidnappings are extremely rare (and usually involve teenagers). A kid would have to be alone in public for tens or hundreds of thousands of years before they’re statistically likely to be kidnapped. As for the actual risks to kids? Car accidents are a big one, killing over a thousand American kids each year, yet harried parents will pile kids into a car rather than letting them walk or bike or take public transit alone. Childhood obesity and diabetes are on the rise, with 1/3 of the country likely to be diabetic by 2050, likely in large part because kids don’t get to run around anymore and instead spend their time staring at screens, losing out on exercise as well as opportunities to explore and develop social skills. Depression and anxiety are increasing among the young too, and no wonder, when they’re taught that the world is a terrifying place and simultaneously given no power over their own lives.

What a terrible time to be a child! How can they become independent, self-reliant adults when their parents dictate their every move? How will they acquire good judgment or self-confidence without the opportunity to take risks and make meaningful decisions? How will they learn social skills when they see other kids only in highly structured, adult-organized environments, and with adults mediating their every interaction? How will they develop creativity without down time? How will they develop resilience without being allowed to fail or be hurt? How will they recognize obsession and controlling behavior from a romantic partner as early warning signs of abuse, when this is how their parents showed love? Is it surprising that the more powerless kids become, the more they bully each other? And what about simple enjoyment of childhood; isn’t kids’ enjoyment of the first 18 years of their lives important enough for parents to learn to tolerate some anxiety?

This book delves into the culture of fear around parenting today. Brooks was a helicopter parent herself, but one day she was arrested for leaving her four-year-old son in the car for a few minutes on a cool, overcast day while she ran into the store. Her ordeal led her to learn more about what is going on with parenting in America, to examine why she and so many others are so fearful, and the consequences of it. How we got here makes sense: the news media broadcasts attention-grabbing headlines to draw in viewers; exposing oneself to stories about parents' worst nightmares makes the worst seem common and likely; parents respond, irrationally but understandably, by curtailing kids’ freedoms; once this becomes common, it’s expected, and even parents not inclined to be paranoid feel it is the norm and don’t want to feel that they’re putting their kids at risk, while others know their kids are safe but are forced to toe the line anyway for fear of someone calling CPS.

There are some terrible stories in this book – like the single mother (much less privileged than the author) who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a park with friends (and of course lots of adults present) during the day while the mom was at work . . . not only was the mother arrested and interrogated, but her daughter was taken to a group home for two weeks without being able to see her mother, and ended up afraid to even leave the house. Of course this doesn’t happen to most families, but we’ve created a culture in which parents are expected to be always monitoring and focused on their kids, to the point that they have no lives of their own (a great example for the little ones I’m sure). How dare they do something as simple as running into Starbucks alone for their own convenience! They must not want to be parents, since they clearly don’t want to watch their kids!

At any rate, I found this to be a well-written memoir and an accessible work of nonfiction (short and engaging enough that hopefully even parents consumed by the demands of shuttling kids to half a dozen activities will be able to read it!). It’s a reflection on the state of parenting today rather than a how-to book; the author talked to experts as well as dissecting her own attitudes and decisions, but stops short of offering solutions. I do wish she’d talked to more kids, or young adults raised by helicopter parents; she only interviews one teenager, and he’s an unusual case. Mostly she talks about the consequences of today’s parenting on parents themselves. She discusses interesting studies, writes a lot about the way people are judgmental toward mothers in particular, and has insightful commentary on related subjects (like whether being a stay-at-home mom versus a working mom is really a choice for most people. Her answer: not really, but at the time she still turned necessity into a virtue when discussing her own “choice”). I hope lots of people read this book, and that it will be a wake-up call.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen, Marilyn Butler, Claire Lamont

This book was lovely, unexpected fun. After reading Mansfield Park and Persuasion in recent years, I concluded that Jane Austen’s work was not for me: their characters seemed bloodless, their heroines prim and infallible, their subject matter a tedious catalogue of the social lives of the independently wealthy. But I may have fallen into the trap of judging an author by her worst works, having read her three most popular books while too immature a reader to judge them. Northanger Abbey, now: this book is just fun, a lively tale of a teenage girl discovering the world outside her town for the first time, falling in with some of the wrong people, having a bit of an adventure, all while the book pokes fun at melodramatic Gothic novels of the period.

Discussion of this book generally seems to revolve around Catherine’s wilder fantasies about Northanger Abbey, the home of some of her new friends, so I was surprised to find that this section is the smaller part of the book – most of which takes place in Bath – and the least convincing. Up to that point, Catherine is portrayed as a sensible if inexperienced girl, raised by an endearingly sensible mother (whose reaction to Catherine’s being sent on a sudden road trip alone by post is “well, that was strange and uncivil behavior on your host’s part, but now you’ve had to rely on yourself and managed, which is good for you"). On arriving at the abbey she abruptly throws common sense to the winds, only to regain it just as rapidly after a talking-to, the gist of which is “be sensible, those terrible things couldn’t happen here in England.”

That said, I enjoyed Catherine as a protagonist; she’s a naïve but appealing teenage girl, capable of standing up for herself and going after what she wants and not intended to be a paragon. The secondary cast is also strong, with believable and incisive characterization despite the book’s relatively short length. And I found Austen’s wit genuinely humorous, particularly enjoying the passages contrasting the characters’ real-life behavior with novelistic expectations. Here, for instance, is Catherine encountering her crush in public:

“He looked as handsome and as lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already.”

This book may be 200 years old, but it sped by for me. Life is an adventure for Catherine, and that energy seems to transmit itself to the pages. Perhaps I should be giving Austen more credit.

Thine is the Kingdom by Garth Buckner

Thine is the Kingdom - Garth Buckner

This is either an unusually good self-published book, or an unusually poorly-edited traditionally-published book. Set in the Bahamas, probably around the 1990s, it follows the adventures of a young man named Gavin Blake (whose name looks enough like the author's to give me pause), who despite being born in the islands is not considered a citizen because his father was American. Though college-educated, Gavin takes a job caretaking a yacht for the well-off Jacob Thesinger, and witnesses lawlessness and corruption firsthand.

The insider look at life on the Bahamas is quite interesting, though it’s a grim vision, centering largely on rich people preoccupied with rising crime rates, and on government corruption and ineffectiveness. The vividness of Buckner’s writing, meanwhile, is impressive; he sets an immersive scene, virtually transporting readers to the Bahamas. Gavin’s role in the plot is a bit weak though – the blurb definitely oversells it with his “struggle to do the right thing,” which amounts to voicing a couple of ineffectual protests to Jacob’s bad behavior toward the end while continuing to enable it. A good editor could have whipped this plot into excellent shape, but as is it’s a bit flabby.

But the need for better editing is most glaring in the writing itself. I think the book was copyedited by spellcheck, and not the current version that highlights grammatical errors too. That’s the only way I can explain the sheer frequency of misused words, which occur on average every couple of pages throughout. “We starred out at the sea,” “people collapsed and slid, taking other’s with them,” “A long main of white hair blew about his shoulders,” “he wore white leather Weejuns without sox,” “They’re faces shone,” the list goes on and on. But the thing that most makes it look like an amateur effort are the overblown, ponderous “philosophical” passages that say nothing much. Here’s an example:

“We don’t have the energy to feed all our hungers. We choose one and try to make it perfect. One thing to polish. One thing to shine. A single path to keep to over the turmoil of years. That we have just this one choice is intimidating. Some never decide. Thesinger had chosen his path. He knew who he was and I envied that. But once you begin to feed that lonely burn, it becomes law.”

Which starts out talking as if it’s describing a universal condition, but changes gears halfway to make it specific to one character, all without describing human behavior in a way that resonated with my real life experience at all.

That said, I don’t want to come down too hard on this book. My expectations for it were rock-bottom – only four libraries in the United States even have it (thank you Interlibrary Loan!) – and on that basis I was rather pleasantly surprised. Dialogue and some action move the story along, and the vividness of the writing helps a lot. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but in the course of my world books challenge I’ve read much worse. This book has plenty of potential; with a good editor to polish it up it might have shone.

Proud Shoes by Pauli Murray

Proud Shoes (Black Women Writers Series) - Pauli Murray, Patricia Bell-Scott

This book is a hidden gem: the biography of a mixed-race family around the time of the Civil War. It was published well before its time – in 1956 there wasn’t much interest in African-American family sagas – but it is well-written and fascinating in part because this isn’t a commonly-told story. Murray was a fascinating character in her own right – a prominent civil rights and women’s rights activist, a lawyer and finally a priest, genderqueer long before people knew what that was – but here she focuses on her family history, which is fascinating in its own right. The book is chiefly about her maternal grandfather, who grew up free in the North, joined one of the first black regiments to fight in the Civil War despite the fact that he was already going blind from an injury, and went south after the war to educate freed slaves in the face of white opposition. Murray’s grandmother’s story is quite different: she grew up a slave, though she didn’t feel like one, being the daughter of a son of the house and mostly treated as such. (Murray’s mother’s family would likely be seen as white today, though by the conventions of the time they were black no matter what they looked like.) All this is mixed in with Murray’s memories of being raised by her grandparents in the early 20th century.

 

Pauli Murray mural

Pauli Murray mural in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina

 

Overall, I really enjoyed this biography/history/memoir and found it to be absorbing reading, though somewhat slow going. It is a good story and provides a little-known perspective on a well-known time in American history; unlike many books, which approach the time period through fiction, this one is based on family stories and documents and on historical research, and is more complex and authentic for it. I am definitely interested in reading more about Murray and her family.

Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America - Helen Thorpe

Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot, though a number of issues bothered me. The author, a journalist, follows the lives of three young Mexican-born women living in Colorado for several years, beginning just before they finish high school. Two of the girls are undocumented, having been brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents at a young age; despite their intelligence and motivation, their immigration status creates myriad barriers to living a normal life. The third has a similar history, but comes from a family that was able to obtain legal status, and the differences in opportunity sometimes put a barrier between her and her friends.

This book is not a representative look at the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (I would love to read a book like that, but it doesn’t appear that one exists.) These girls are exceptional, able to overcome the barriers that poverty and family circumstances put in their way, perhaps because they have such a strong support system in each other. The author does an excellent job, though, of bringing them to life on the page, getting to know them and their lives and telling an engaging story. I really enjoyed reading the book, found the author’s style readable and compelling, and became invested in the protagonists. The pages flew by.

That said, it has its issues. First, there's the degree to which it is influenced and held back by the career of the author’s husband, then mayor of Denver and currently governor of Colorado. Immigration was a hot topic in Colorado at the time of writing (the book was published in 2009), and Thorpe even writes about her articles being used against her husband by his political opponents. In the same paragraph, she insists that she opposes illegal immigration, largely from seeing how their lack of status limits the girls’ opportunities. Thorpe visits Yadira’s family in their hometown in Mexico and knows very well that however curtailed her opportunities in the U.S., she would have had even less of a chance there, so I don't believe her; either she's not thinking her opinions through or what she actually opposes are the circumstances that make illegal immigration necessary. In another cringeworthy passage, she observes that some critics called then-U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo “a modern-day Nazi, but . . . I did not think he could be so easily dismissed. His critics failed to acknowledge the congressman’s considerable charm,” as illustrated by an anecdote in which he makes a joke. I can’t tell whether she’s honestly stupid enough to believe that charm is inconsistent with hate, or is just struggling vainly to look “balanced.”

Either way, her discomfort with being the mayor’s wife crops up a lot, for a book that isn’t about her – in another unfortunate passage, she compares her life to the girls’ because both are defined by other people’s decisions – and she closes the acknowledgments with the opinion that “In truth, writers and politicians should never marry, so at odds are the two endeavors.” Based on this book I think she is right, and awful as it sounds, the fact that she and her husband divorced before she published another book makes me more likely to read her other work.

Perhaps because of her husband, or perhaps because she was a journalist still feeling out the transition to author, Thorpe chooses to spend much of the book reporting on the immigration debate, rather than contributing to it. Where other authors would supplement the human drama with their own research by interviewing other immigrants, providing relevant statistics, or tracing the history of immigration policy, and ultimately would make an argument or policy proposal of their own, Thorpe just describes the political situation, for instance, by going to the statehouse for a floor debate on an immigration-related bill and quoting what various state representatives have to say on the topic, or by attending yet another Tancredo event. This is not very enlightening – anyone likely to read this book already knows the contours of the immigration debate – and seems to equate immigration opponents’ opinions to the girls’ lives.

Finally, for an author who is clearly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, Thorpe sure likes to call people “illegals,” with a frequency that made it nails-on-a-chalkboard for me. Marisela and Yadira are collectively “the illegal girls,” a discussion of a court case will say that “the judge ruled in favor of the illegal schoolchildren,” and so on. I wonder what the girls – Marisela in particular is an activist – made of that.

It speaks to the quality of Thorpe's writing, though, that despite all these issues, I’m still interested in reading her other books. She sounds a bit obnoxious as a person, but she can sure tell a story, and does a great job of finding and getting to know people with different perspectives (including the woman whose identity was stolen by one of the girls’ relatives). While I would have made different recommendations had I been Thorpe’s editor, I still recommend this book.

Zoli by Colum McCann

Zoli - Colum McCann

Meh. I read this book because it is primarily set in Slovakia, and it was a drag. Its title character is a Romani singer, turned into a poet by Communist authorities after WWII, and based on a real-life poet named Papusza. (Zoli is about 20 years younger though, conveniently allowing her to be a sexy lover for the Englishman who narrates one of the middle sections of the book.) The book follows Zoli’s life in a disjointed and meandering way – switching points-of-view between sections and switching between first and third person – and has no particular plot. Two-thirds of the way through, a major chapter in Zoli’s life closes, and I wasn’t sure why the book wasn’t just finished rather than needing to drag on for another 100+ pages.

Of course, a character’s life can be a plot, but it helps if you care about the character, and I didn’t give a whit for anyone in this book. The characters have no personality, just life circumstances; they seemed more like ideas of people than actual humans. Even when we’re in their heads, they take seemingly arbitrary actions that feel disconnected from any thoughts or feelings that they have. McCann’s writing being rather stylized, those thoughts and feelings are often expressed in the form of long flights of figurative language that do more to draw attention to the writer than humanize the characters. Meanwhile he describes in great detail the characters’ mundane actions, which drag down the pace without revealing insights into the characters. Even by the end, Zoli was still a cipher to me; I was never clear on what she wanted out of life, what was behind her often strange or inconsistent decisions, or why I should care what happened to her. “Has suffered tragedy” does not substitute for a personality and an inner life.

Speaking of tragedy, this is not exactly a fun book to read; the setting for the majority of the novel is drab and gray and hopeless, punctuated by occasional brutality. Later on it becomes less dark, but more tedious, as its opaque protagonist wanders about with no discernible objective. You’ll learn a bit about the persecution of the Romani/Gypsies, but you can get that more directly from other books. I’m glad to have this one behind me and would not recommend it.

The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang

The Black Tides of Heaven - JY Yang

This fantasy novella is entertaining enough for its brief length, and shows some originality, but it fails to explore its most interesting ideas, and the character development and worldbuilding – while serviceable – are not particularly deep.

 

In a quasi-Asian world, a Protector rules over not-China with an iron fist. The first half of the book follows the Protector’s youngest children, twins Akeha and Mokoya, through their childhood, discovery of their magical powers and coming-of-age, while in the second half they appear as adults (the book covers 35 years) building their own lives and becoming involved in a rebellion against their mother’s rule.

 

As far as the plot goes, I found the second half more interesting than the first, and the book is a very quick read. With small pages and generous font and spacing, it goes by even quicker than the page count would have you believe, and the author does keep things moving – we get little more than a snapshot of the action at each phase of the twins’ lives. The thing that makes this book notable is its treatment of gender: this is a world where people don’t have one until they choose it, be that at age 3 or age 17. Which is a bombshell of an idea that is incredibly underexplored, treated as background and only barely mentioned in the lives of anyone other than the twins.

 

It’s a fascinating idea: what would gender mean in a world where everyone got to choose their own? Would gender be considered meaningless, merely a matter of plumbing? Would gender roles carry less weight because anyone could choose either, or more, because if you chose your gender you forfeited the right to complain? Perhaps there would be even less tolerance for crossing boundaries, because if you wanted to be a construction worker you should have chosen male? Would society be more equal, because people wouldn’t choose a gender they viewed as oppressed? Would governments try to incentivize people to choose one or the other based on their current needs? Would families pressure their kids to choose a gender that suited their needs better? Would horny teens choose the gender they figured would get them more sex, regardless of other factors?

 

And how would you choose, if you could freely choose either and hadn’t been handled a default? There’s so much to consider: what role you want to hold in society and your family; how you want your actions, strengths and flaws to be viewed; how you want your worth to be judged; which physical risks you are more willing to accept; what expectations for showing emotion fit your personality; what expectations for personal grooming suit you best; whether you want to be pregnant and give birth; what type of body you want; what role you want to play in sex; and so much more.

 

And guess what, none of this is actually considered in this book. The book doesn’t delve into how people choose their genders at all, beyond the idea of choosing what “feels right.” Akeha looks into a mirror, tries out one gender’s pronouns, feels they don’t fit, tries out the other’s, likes them better, and chooses that. This kid is 17, old enough to choose a college and potentially a career path in our world, yet puts about as much thought into this decision as the average person picking a restaurant for dinner.

 

Nor are gender roles in this society explored at all, though there are indications that they exist: Akeha – raised in a monastery – reflects on not really having known any men because monks aren’t “real men” in the eyes of society, and has a stereotype of women that involves simpering and makeup. Gender roles don’t seem to be particularly strict, or at least don’t follow our stereotypical defaults – most of the military officers we see are female, which is a bit confusing because if you could choose your gender and wanted to join the military, wouldn’t you go for the extra upper body strength? (Though the military seems to be more about magic than physical strength in this world, so perhaps not.) Or considered another way, how likely are the types of people who choose female to then decide to join the military in large numbers? Presumably testosterone is still a thing in this world.

 

The mechanics of all this aren’t explored either. The book indicates that due to magic, puberty doesn’t happen until people choose: but what plumbing do they have beforehand? What happens if someone never chooses? What if they later change their mind? If people have a “correct” gender – as is implied by having characters just choose what “feels right” – then one can choose wrong, for instance by choosing the same gender as one’s older siblings to fit in, or succumbing to family pressure, or choosing to please a love interest (homosexuality and people having love interests before choosing their gender both occur in this book).

 

On the positive side, the book did make me reflect on how large a role gender plays in how I view a character (and by extension, presumably real people too). Reading about Akeha and Mokoya in the first half of the book, before they choose, I felt distanced from the characters, largely I think because this key aspect of their identities was missing. Unfortunately, the language is also unavoidably clunky at times: “Akeha was used to being patient and staying very still, but irritated prickles flushed up their spine and raced across the skin of their neck. They pressed their teeth together.”

 

At any rate, this is a really quick read and a reasonably satisfying one on a plot level, so go for it if you want. But I would have appreciated it more if it had truly engaged with the ideas it introduces.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories - Stephen Emerson, Lucia Berlin, Lydia Davis

I struggled with how to rate this book. On the one hand, this collection of 43 short stories is brilliant. The writing is clear, vivid, engaging and insightful. The author clearly has a deep understanding of people and how they work, and has been around the block a few times. The settings – mostly the American Southwest, the Bay Area and Mexico – come to life so that you can practically see, sometimes even taste them. And there are some really excellent, tightly-written stories here. They are often melancholy – dealing with alcoholism, difficult family relationships, social injustice – but written with a freshness and empathy that, for me, kept them from ever feeling too dark. A few standouts (not an exhaustive list):

“A Manual for Cleaning Women”: A woman describes her various jobs cleaning houses for the wealthy and her daily routine, while the tragic end to her last relationship is slowly revealed.

“Tiger Bites”: A young woman who has just separated from her husband goes to Mexico for a back-alley abortion, and upon realizing she can’t go through with it, is tasked with the care of a young girl.

“Good and Bad”: A teenage expat in Chile is drawn into the orbit of a socialist teacher.

“Friends”: A single working woman struggles to make time to spend with an older couple who seem alone, only to discover that they think they’re doing her a favor.

“Mijito”: A teenage girl follows her lover from Mexico to the Bay Area, only to be abandoned with a child in the worst possible conditions – a realistic portrayal of the life of an uneducated, impoverished immigrant.

“502”: An alcoholic leaves her car on the street, where it crashes into the car of her alcoholic friends (fortunately, neither car was occupied at the time).

So I don’t disagree that Lucia Berlin is a hidden gem of an author. But what drove me batty about this collection is that virtually every story seems to be taken from her life, and features a protagonist whose life is consistent with Berlin’s own distinctive biography: the early years in the mining towns; growing up with her alcoholic mother and grandparents in El Paso during WWII; being kicked out of multiple schools; the teenage years living a privileged life in Chile; college in New Mexico; an early marriage that produced two sons and soon ended; two more marriages (one spent primarily in New York and abandoned for the third husband in Mexico) that also ended, leaving her a single mother of four sons; moving to the Bay Area and taking jobs as a high school teacher, hospital switchboard operator and ward clerk, cleaning woman and physician’s assistant; the alcoholism; the scoliosis; the difficult, alcoholic mother with pretensions of class; moving in with her disowned younger sister in Mexico City to care for her while the sister was dying of cancer; the writing; eventually moving to Boulder. Sometimes names are changed, sometimes not; the sister is always named Sally, the oldest sons always Ben and Keith, the mother’s family always Moynihans and the flamboyant cousin always Bella Lynn; the younger sons’ names sometimes vary, as does the protagonist’s own (sometimes she is Lucia, sometimes not; Carlotta is a recurring alternative).

And that didn’t really work for me – having all the stories be about the author, or at least, about characters who had lived the author’s life (the two largely superfluous introductory essays argue that the stories aren’t entirely autobiographical because she changed some details and otherwise exercised creative license). What I enjoy in short story collections is the boundless possibility, reading about different people in different situations reading different lives. When all of the stories are about the same character, those possibilities are hemmed in, and the stories begin to feel repetitive. Some don’t really have a plot at all, but are simply musings on the author’s life and relationships: in “Mama” for instance, the narrator and her sister Sally discuss their memories of their mother and complicated feelings about her, rehashing what we’ve already seen in other stories. Stories often include superfluous details, as if the author knew too much about her own life to include only the information relevant to a 10-page story.

So that was frustrating; I wished Berlin had just written a novel or a memoir. Only in a couple of stories out of the 43 is the protagonist’s life actually inconsistent with Berlin’s. Three of them begin with a narrator who is very obviously not her, and I started to get excited, only to find upon reading further that her avatar was the second narrator and/or another primary character. Granted, some of my disappointment likely stems from expectations; if the stories were arranged chronologically and the book presented as a semi-autobiographical collection, I might have enjoyed it more.

So, do I recommend this? Sure – it is excellent writing and you know now what it is, so read it if that appeals to you. There is no doubt excellence here.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] - Zoë Heller

This is indeed a literary page-turner, as described in the cover blurb. Barbara Covett, a lonely high school history teacher on the cusp of retirement and aching for meaningful human connections, fixates on a younger, wealthy art teacher, Sheba Hart. Sheba is a wife and mother with a busy social schedule who becomes sexually involved with a teenage boy at the school, leading to the eponymous scandal. The story is narrated by Barbara, in an engaging, perceptive, sometimes vicious voice; as is not uncommon for isolated people, especially intelligent ones, Barbara tends to look down on everyone.

 

As many others have said, this is an excellent novel: intense, insightful, clever, well-written. This could be a good novel for those who are leery of “literary fiction,” because it is also a very readable page-turner. Though of course it is not a novel for those only interested in reading about moral paragons; it presents its very flawed characters as they are, in all their complexity, not as we might want people to be. And the ambiguous, creepy ending does not tie up all plot threads.

 

A couple of points on interpretation:

 

First, a lot of people seem to want to read a homoerotic subtext into Barbara’s obsession with her female friends. To me this is just an example of modern culture wanting to see sex in everything, and tending to devalue platonic relationships, assuming that a high level of emotional investment must mean sexual desire is involved. There are indications throughout the book that Barbara is heterosexual (her envy of the young French woman who dances on a bar and captures all the men’s attention; her willingness to become romantically involved with a male teacher even though she finds him ridiculous). For someone as isolated as Barbara, the quest for emotional fulfillment and to be important to someone else is every bit as meaningful as the quest for sexual fulfillment is for others; sex just doesn’t seem to be high on her list of priorities, perhaps because she has more fundamental unmet needs.

 

Second, the takeaway from this book for many people seems to be “sexual abuse isn’t always clear-cut because sometimes the child can be the initiator!” To which I say, first of all, keep in mind that Barbara is an unreliable narrator; she is telling the story of Sheba’s “affair” with a teenager secondhand, based on what Sheba has told her, and then coloring Sheba’s self-serving account with her own opinions; she cares for Sheba and seems to detest Steven Connelly, who’s portrayed as a rough-hewn, vulgar lower-class boy. But Sheba’s sketchy behavior is still evident, for instance, in her threatening Steven to keep quiet about their relationship, claiming he too would get in trouble if found out even though she knows this not to be true. And more importantly, getting sexually involved with someone across that kind of power imbalance – someone so much younger over whom she is an authority figure – is wrong and lends itself to abuse even if the young person seems enthusiastic. Teenagers have crushes and fantasies about teachers – Barbara comments on this herself – but that isn’t license for adults to act on them for their own sexual gratification; teenagers aren’t emotionally ready for adult relationships, and those fantasies should remain fantasies.

 

Reading between the lines, it makes sense that Sheba doesn’t understand this boundary; she began dating her husband, a professor 20 years her senior, when she was a young college student (and there’s some indication in the book that 20 years on, he’s still angling for college students). And she seems oblivious to the power imbalance in her own marriage – the way the housework all falls on her shoulders, for instance. So it’s no wonder that her boundaries would be skewed. But her flawed perceptions shouldn’t justify this behavior in readers’ minds.

 

At any rate, this is definitely a book I recommend, as a work of literary entertainment that lived up to the hype. It didn’t change my life, but it’s absolutely worth the read.

The First Frontier by Scott Weidensaul

The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America - Scott Weidensaul

I was really interested in reading this history of interactions between Native Americans and Europeans in colonial America, though the relatively small number of ratings gave me pause; American history is a popular topic among nonfiction readers. As it turns out I should have heeded those reservations. While I did learn some things from this book, it turned out to be a long, unorganized slog. It took me a long time to read because I returned to it only reluctantly, and because of poor organization did not teach me as much as I was hoping.

This book purports to cover over 250 years of American history, from pre-contact America up through the 1760s or so. The geographic scope, too, is broad: basically everywhere in what’s now the United States where white colonists and explorers came into contact with natives, from Maine to Florida to Ohio. The interaction between the two populations is the author’s focus.

The book mixes individual narratives with larger-scale history, but unfortunately the two facets often don’t connect well, and the history is not relayed in such a way as to be easy to remember. Though roughly chronological, the book doesn’t organize information in any particular way. Chapters have soft-focus, vague titles like “Between Two Fires,” rather than demarcating particular historical periods or events. It’s unclear how the people whose individual stories are told were chosen: are they meant to be important historical actors in their own right (many of them have a role, and from the book it’s difficult to judge how important that role was), or are theirs just interesting stories that happened to survive in written form? In some cases the book discusses people as if they are important, but it’s unclear why.

Perhaps several centuries are just too much to cover in one book, especially with a large geographic area and large number of groups (both European and Native American) involved. There are a lot of details and the author doesn’t really highlight key points or people or remind us who they are when they reappear. A lot of history happens in the background; events specific to the colonists, like disputes between colonies and the Salem witch trials, are mentioned only in passing. The colonies’ internal issues are not what this book is about, of course, but the book is also told mostly from the perspective of the colonists because they’re the ones who left written records. So I was left with a sense of reading a very incomplete history, and without being given a framework with which to organize all these names and details. We get the winter-trekking adventures of some interpreter or captive in the foreground, and then a dense collection of details in the background that aren’t really supported by the personal story.

The author’s citations are also lacking. His endnotes are extensive, but are almost entirely limited to instances where he quotes someone directly. Then he’ll state his own conclusions as fact and give no background at all for how he arrived at them, or share startling information that, because it’s not provided in the form of a direct quotation, has no reference. So it’s hard to evaluate his information.

Underlying all of this, the author doesn’t seem to have a thesis, any particular view or interpretation he’s arguing for. Some would say that’s good, that a historian should simply tell us what happened without putting his own spin on it. But Weidensaul – who as far as I can tell from his bio is an amateur historian – certainly does have a viewpoint; the lack of an organizing principle, a concerted argument, simply makes it harder to pin down, and leaves me wondering why exactly the author wrote this book.

Overall, yes, I learned some things from this book. But it was too tedious and frustrating for me to be likely to recommend.

The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila

The Ultimate Tragedy - Jethro Soutar, Abdulai Sila

In 2017, this book apparently became the first novel (though more of a novella really, clocking in around 180 pages) from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It doesn’t do too well in the storytelling department, and despite being first published in 1995 it is a simplistic criticism of Portuguese colonialism (Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1973-1974), so I can see why there wasn’t a rush to translate. But of course there’s something to be said for reading voices from a particular place even if their literary merits are weak.

There will be SPOILERS below, though no more than are found in the book description (which gives away most of the story).

The book begins with a teenage girl, Ndani, traveling from her village to the capital city, Bissau, with hopes of becoming a domestic servant in a Portuguese home. After a few chapters, it skips abruptly to a village chief, smarting over an insult from a colonial official and thinking at great, repetitive length about the paramount importance of thinking. The stories come together when the chief marries Ndani (who has somehow learned to be a great lady by being a housegirl, yet is somehow the only such woman available even though the earlier chapters show that there are plenty of housegirls, and Ndani is not the brightest bulb on the tree). Then she falls in love with a local teacher, a young man trained by priests but questioning the righteousness of colonial rule. Tragedy, naturally, ensues.

The story is kind of a mess, unfortunately. It skips long periods of time without giving any sense of what Ndani’s life was like in the interim, leaving unanswered questions in its wake. Ndani’s abrupt shift from housegirl to fancy lady is not particularly convincing, nor did I find her cheerful willingness to jump right into sex believable from a woman whose only sexual experiences were rape. There’s a prophecy about Ndani that causes people to shun her, until they don’t, with no reason I could see for the change of heart other than that this plot device was no longer needed. Being in the chief’s head is tedious due to the long-winded repetition, and the teacher’s realization that the reality of colonial rule is inconsistent with Christian principles is painfully obvious; decades after colonial rule ended, I doubt this was a new idea to the book’s readers.

The translation is fairly smooth, but a number of words and concepts are left untranslated, and these are not always immediately obvious from context; most of these words appear to be from a local African language and were probably untranslated in the Portuguese original too, but a glossary would help foreign readers understand the references to local culture better.

Ultimately, this is a fairly quick and easy read, but the simplistic political commentary dominates over the story; I missed more of Ndani’s life than I saw, never got to know who she was as a person, and had no particular reason to care about her or anyone else in the story (her mistress was perhaps the most interesting character to me - a Portuguese woman who, after a near-death experience, devotes herself to "improving the natives" - but this character doesn't have the space to fully develop). I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you are specifically looking to read a book from Guinea-Bissau. If you are, this is a readable option.

Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis

Echoes from the Dead Zone: Across the Cyprus Divide - Yiannis Papadakis

This is an excellent book, anthropology mixed with memoir, by an author from divided Cyprus. Coming to this book knowing virtually nothing about Cyprus, I learned a lot about the country. But this is such an insightful look into conflict generally and the ways groups of people become entrenched in and justify their own positions that I think anyone interested in the psychological side of political conflict would appreciate it.

Cyprus has long been inhabited by both ethnic Greek and ethnic Turkish populations, and belonged to both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. In the 20th century, it became a British possession, and groups that had historically lived well together grew more distant, both leaning on their historical motherlands for support. After independence, many Greek Cypriots wanted to become part of Greece, and unrest led to atrocities against Turkish Cypriots in the 1960s, with many of them relegated to ghettos. In 1974, a Greek-sponsored coup led to Turkey invading the country and carving out the northern part for Turkish Cypriots – leading to atrocities against Greek Cypriots who lived there and were killed or forced from their homes. Today, almost 50 years later, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus continues to exist in fact but to be recognized only by Turkey and seen as occupied territory by everyone else. Negotiations to reunite the country have always broken down, and from this book it’s easy to see why.

Yiannis Papadakis is a Greek Cypriot, who after studying abroad returned home in 1990 to begin studying his country. One of the things that makes the book so interesting is that it is as much about his journey, being forced to confront his own indoctrination and biases, as about the people he meets. He visits Turkey to learn Turkish (after some serious initial misgivings about his safety there, he realizes Turks are regular people too), lives with Greek Cypriots near the border and then crosses over to the Turkish side. (I was initially thrown by the way he talks about the Turkish side, making reference to “pseudo-officials” wearing uniforms decorated with “pseudo-flags,” but this turns out to be representative of his opinions at the time the research began, not by the time he wrote the book.) Eventually he winds up living in a mixed village in the “dead zone” between the two sides, where everyone is suspected of being a traitor.

Cyprus’s history and politics are complicated, as is the author’s analysis, so anything I say here will no doubt oversimplify. But there’s an incredible amount of food for thought here. About the ways both sides manipulate history – not necessarily by lying, but by beginning the tale with their own flourishing empire that’s brought down through the wrongdoing of the others; by focusing only on their own side’s pain, emphasizing their own dead and refugees while refusing to acknowledge wrongs against the others; by paying attention to only the extremists on the other side, painting their views as everyone’s view’s; by both defining their own side as the threatened minority. About the ways people refuse to understand each other, about the ways propaganda is used, about the repercussions this conflict has in people’s lives. The author sees and hears some striking things, like the refugee family in Northern Cyprus that moved into a Greek Cypriot home, and kept all the furniture and family photos out in case of the prior owners’ return.

He’s also able to draw a lot of connections between the two sides: the two right wings have far more in common than either would ever admit, both invested in insisting upon the evil of the other while bringing their own side closer to the motherland. The two left wings are also similar and seem ready to reach out to each other and bring peace, though when the opportunity comes, they too choose political opportunism. In the end there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the author doesn’t absolve anyone.

At any rate, I found it an insightful and fascinating book. While the page count is short, there’s a lot of text on each page, so it isn’t necessarily a quick read. But it’s broken up into short sections, often just a couple pages long, and the writing is accessible. It was published by a small, academically-oriented publisher, but has a lot to offer the casual reader; if it had gone through a big publishing house I could see it as a well-known work of popular nonfiction. Only in a couple of places does the author go off on short tangents that seem to be pet interests of his (the myth and symbology of Aphrodite), and his narrative provides a detailed view of Cyprus and his own journey of discovery about his country and people. I would definitely recommend this one if you can get your hands on it.

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian

H.M.S. Surprise - Patrick O'Brian

I reach a point in any series longer than a trilogy where reading about the same characters and the types of situations they get into no longer does much for me. It's lost the freshness and excitement of the beginning and fallen into a rut, even if specific events are happening that haven't occurred before. I was looking forward to this book after really enjoying the second book and seeing all the reviewers calling this one their favorite, but unfortunately this was the book where I realized the series has been played out for me.

Most of this book is a long sea voyage, aimed toward what seems to be Cambodia. Captain Aubrey is tasked with delivering a government envoy, and for some reason seems to make a leisurely sail of it: they even stop in Rio on the way to sailing around Africa (given the amount of research that has clearly gone into these, I presume that was common?) and seem to be taking a lot longer to make the trip than other available forms of transportation, given that they receive rather up-to-date letters from home all along the way. Toward the end, bafflingly,

the envoy dies en route and so they give up and turn around, with no attempt to deliver his message or even let the sultan at their destination know of the situation.

(show spoiler)

Was diplomacy really handled this way? It makes the entire plot feel like a giant McGuffin.

Plot quibbles aside though, I'm just not into that into these books anymore. They still haven't given any significant development to anyone else on the ship; the only people other than Aubrey and Maturin who receive much at all are their love interests, who play a small role in this book. The principals' relationship was very complex and still developing in the first two books, but here it doesn't feel like there's much more for the author to do but retread old ground. And, finding the plot and characters less exciting than in the past, I found myself with less patience for being unable to picture much of what's going on (not sharing the author's fascination with Napoleonic Wars era ships and guns), and for the writing style that sometimes requires re-reading a paragraph several times to understand what's happening (due to unstated assumptions and norms and the author's habit of omitting key facts).

It isn't necessarily a bad book: the protagonists still have their complexities, the author's extensive research is still clear and provides a certain degree of immersion, etc. Nevertheless, I've hit my limit with this series.

World Books Challenge progress: 160 countries!

I am doing a challenge to read a book primarily set in each country, and keeping track of my progress here! I have currently read books from 160 out of 201 countries, or 80% of the world.

For the countries I've read, I've linked to the books, their authors and my reviews. For the ones I haven't, an asterisk beside the country name links to a book I'm considering. Please let me know if you have any recommendations, particularly for countries from which I have not yet read a book!

The rules of my challenge are that 1) the books must be primarily set in the target country, i.e., more than half of the narrative takes place there, 2) they must be told at least in part from the point-of-view of a character from the country (I've made a few exceptions for memoirs/nonfiction by foreign authors who were immersed in the country and spend the entire book writing about its people), and 3) they must portray something of life and culture in the country, i.e. the setting needs to be more than a generic backdrop for a story that could just as easily be set somewhere else. The author does not necessarily need to be from the country, although I prefer it.

I wrote an FAQ for my challenge here but am also happy to talk about it!


North America and the Caribbean
19 out of 24 countries = 79%

North America
Canada: The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro - review ★★★★
United States: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren - review ★★★★★
Mexico: Pierced by the Sun by Laura Esquivel - review ★★★

Central America
Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell - review ★★½
Costa Rica: Marcos Ramírez by Carlos Luis Fallas - review ★★★½
El Salvador: Camino de hormigas by Miguel Huezo Mixco - review ★★★
Nicaragua: The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli - review (unrated)
Panama: Come Together, Fall Apart by Cristina Henriquez - review ★★★½
Guatemala *
Honduras *

The Caribbean
Antigua & Barbuda: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid - review ★★★½
Barbados: The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson - review ★★½
Cuba: The Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano - review ★★
Dominica: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - review (unrated)
Dominican Republic: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez - review (unrated)
Grenada: The Ladies Are Upstairs by Merle Collins - review ★★★
Haiti: The Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert - review ★★★★
Jamaica: The Long Song by Andrea Levy - review ★★½
Puerto Rico: The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré - review (unrated)
St. Lucia: Nor Any Country by Garth St. Omer - review ★★
Trinidad & Tobago: Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge - review ★★★★
Bahamas *
St. Kitts & Nevis *
St. Vincent & the Grenadines


South America
10 out of 12 countries = 83%

Argentina: The Peron Novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez - review (unrated)
Brazil: The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles - review ★★★★★
Chile: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende - review ★★★★★
Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez - review (unrated)
Ecuador: Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza - review ★★½
Guyana: The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q by Sharon Maas - review ★★★
Peru: The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa - review ★★★
Suriname: The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mc Leod - review ★★★
Uruguay: The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis - review ★★★½
Venezuela: Eva Luna by Isabel Allende - review (unrated)
Bolivia *
Paraguay *


Africa
42 out of 54 countries = 78%

North Africa
Algeria: The Lovers of Algeria by Anouar Benmalek - review ★★★
Egypt: Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz - review ★★★
Libya: The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni - review (unrated)
Morocco: The Harem Within by Fatema Mernissi - review (unrated)
Tunisia: The Pillar of Salt by Albert Memmi - review ★★★★

West Africa
Cape Verde: The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida - review ★½
Gambia: Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster - review ★★½
Ghana: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah - review ★★★★
Guinea: The Dark Child by Camara Laye - review ★★★½
Ivory Coast: Aya by Marguerite Abouet - review ★★★½
Liberia: The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper - review ★★★★½
Mali: Segu by Maryse Condé - review ★★
Nigeria: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - review ★★★★★
Senegal: God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène - review ★★★★
Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna - review ★★★½
Togo: The Village of Waiting by George Packer - review ★★★½
Benin
Burkina Faso
Guinea-Bissau *
Mauritania *
Niger *

Central Africa
Cameroon: Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono - review ★★½
Democratic Republic of the Congo: The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell - review ★★★★
Equatorial Guinea: Ekomo by María Nsue Angüe - review ★★★½
Gabon: Mema by Daniel M. Mengara - review ★★★½
Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou - review ★★★
Sao Tome & Principe: Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares - review ★★
Central African Republic *
Chad *

East Africa
Burundi: Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder - review ★★★
Djibouti: The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman A. Waberi - review (unrated)
Eritrea: My Fathers' Daughter by Hannah Pool - review ★★★½
Ethiopia: Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste - review ★★★
Kenya: A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o - review (unrated)
Rwanda: Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga - review (unrated)
Somalia: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed - review ★★★
South Sudan: Emma's War by Deborah Scroggins - review ★★★★
Sudan: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih - review ★★½
Tanzania: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah review ★★
Uganda: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - review ★★★★½

Southern Africa
Botswana: Maru by Bessie Head - review ★★★
Lesotho: Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho M'Atsepo Nthunya - review ★★★½
Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba - review ★★★½
Mauritius: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah - review ★★
Mozambique: Neighbours by Lília Momplé - review ★★★½
Namibia: The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas - review ★★★½
South Africa: Fiela's Child by Dalene Matthee - review ★★★★
Zambia: Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku - review ★★★★
Zimbabwe: Zenzele by J. Nozipo Maraire - review ★★★★
Angola *
Comoros
Madagascar *
Seychelles *
Swaziland


Europe
36 out of 49 countries = 73%

Western Europe
Austria: The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig - review ★★★★
Belgium: The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst - review ★★★
Denmark: The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul - review ★★½
Finland: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson - review ★★★½
France: Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac - review ★★
Germany: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll - review ★★★★
Greenland: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley - review ★★★★½
Iceland: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent - review ★★½
Ireland: The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien - review ★★★½
Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - review ★★★★
Netherlands: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire - review ★★★½
Norway: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset - review ★★★★
Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago - review ★★★
Spain: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway - review ★★★★
Sweden: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman - review ★★★
Switzerland: Heidi by Johanna Spyri - review (unrated)
United Kingdom: South Riding by Winifred Holtby - review ★★★★½
Andorra
Liechtenstein
Luxembourg *
Malta *
Monaco
San Marino
Vatican City *

Eastern Europe
Albania: The Loser by Fatos Kongoli - review ★★★
Bosnia & Herzegovina: The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić - review ★★½
Bulgaria: Street Without a Name by Kapka Kassabova - review ★★★½
Croatia: Girl at War by Sara Nović - review ★★
Czech Republic: My Crazy Century by Ivan Klímareview ★★
Estonia: Purge by Sofi Oksanen - review ★★★★
Greece: The Sailor's Wife by Helen Benedict - review ★★★
Hungary: Csardas by Diane Pearson - review ★★★★
Moldova: The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov - review ★★★½
Montenegro: The Dawning by Milka Bajic-Poderegin - review ★★★
Poland: House of Day, House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk - review ★★½
Romania: Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier - review ★★★½
Serbia: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht - review ★★★★
Slovenia: Forbidden Bread by Erica Johnson Debeljak - review ★★★½
Ukraine: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles - review ★★★★
Belarus *
Latvia *
Lithuania
Macedonia
Slovakia *

Russia and the Caucasus
Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said - review ★★★½
Chechnya: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra - review ★★½
Georgia: Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol - review ★★½
Russia: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - review ★★★★★
Armenia


Middle East
13 out of 16 countries = 81%

Cyprus: Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis - review ★★★★½
Iran: The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani - review ★★★★
Iraq: Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi - review ★★★★
Israel: My Promised Land by Ari Shavit - review ★★
Kuwait: Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet - review ★★
Lebanon: Ports Of Call by Amin Maalouf - review ★★★★
Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria - review ★★
Palestine: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa - review ★★
Saudi Arabia: Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif - review ★★★½
Syria: Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami - review ★★★
Turkey: Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières - review ★★★★
United Arab Emirates: City of Gold by Jim Krane - review ★★½
Yemen: The Hostage by Zayd Mutee Dammaj - review ★★
Bahrain
Jordan
Oman


Asia
27 out of 31 countries = 87%

Central Asia
Afghanistan: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - review ★★★★★
Kazakhstan: The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov - review★★★★½
Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov - review ★★★★
Tajikistan: Hurramabad by Andrei Volos - review ★★★½
Uzbekistan: Uzbekistan Speaks by Aibek - review ★★½
Turkmenistan *

South Asia
Bangladesh: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam - review ★★★★
Bhutan: Tales in Colour by Kunzang Choden - review ★★★★
India: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - review ★★★★½
Maldives: Folk Tales of the Maldives by Xavier Romero-Frias - review ★★★★
Nepal: Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay - review
Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin - review ★★
Sri Lanka: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera - review ★★★½

East Asia
China: Miss Chopsticks by Xinran - review ★★★★
Japan: Out by Natsuo Kirino - review ★★★½
Mongolia: All This Belongs to Me by Petra Hůlová - review ★★
North Korea: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick - review ★★★★★
South Korea: Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller - review ★★★
Taiwan: A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers by Li-Hung Hsiao - review ★★★
Tibet: Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen - review ★★½

Southeast Asia
East Timor: The Crossing by Luís Cardoso - review
Indonesia: This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer - review ★★★
Malaysia: Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan - review ★★★★★
Myanmar: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh - review ★★★★
Philippines: The Last Time I Saw Mother by Arlene J. Chai - review ★★
Singapore: Following the Wrong God Home by Catherine Lim - review ★★★
Thailand: Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj - review ★★★★
Vietnam: The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott - review ★★★½
Brunei
Cambodia *
Laos


Australia and the Pacific
13 out of 15 countries = 87%

Australia: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough - review ★★★½
Fiji: The Sailmaker's Daughter by Stephanie Johnson - review ★★
Kiribati: A Pattern Of Islands by Arthur Grimble - review ★★★
Marshall Islands: Marshall Islands Legend and Stories by Daniel A. Kelin - review ★★★
Micronesia: My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng - review (unrated)
Nauru: Legends, traditions and tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo - review ★★
New Zealand: Potiki by Patricia Grace - review ★★★½
Papua New Guinea: The Gebusi by Bruce M. Knauft - review ★★★
Samoa: The Girl in the Moon Circle by Sia Figiel - review (unrated)
Solomon Islands: Solomon Time by Will Randall - review ★★★
Tahiti: Frangipani by Célestine Hitiura Vaite - review ★★★½
Tonga: Tales of the Tikongs by Epeli Hauʻofa - review ★★★½
Tuvalu: Where The Hell Is Tuvalu? by Philip Ells - review ★★½
Palau *
Vanuatu *

Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas

Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad - Firoozeh Dumas

I enjoyed this book – it’s an entertaining memoir-in-essays by an Iranian-American author about her life, family, and navigating two cultures. Her book titles may be doing her a disservice by treating humor as her primary selling point; I would call this book amusing, humorous, and enjoyable but not laugh-out-loud funny. Of course humor is individual, and the stories are good enough to enjoy even if you don't find them hilarious.

There are a lot of good stories here. I enjoyed reading about the author’s childhood in Iran and the U.S., appreciated that she shared her disappointing and isolated first year in college (there is a lot of pressure on kids for this to be the best time of their life, but isn’t for everyone), chuckled at the misunderstandings when she began dating her husband, experienced schadenfreude reading about her worst day as a stay-at-home mom but admired her getting the TV out of the house, and was entertained by the ups and downs of life with her quirky relatives. Toward the end there were a couple of chapters that didn’t do much for me: one about her experience of giving a graduation speech essentially regurgitates the speech (complete with long paragraphs on why we should care for our teeth and read books), while another – a potentially great chapter about her meeting Kathryn Koon, who was held hostage in Iran in 1979 – fell flat, because neither the author nor Koon seems to have many feelings about this and so it becomes a chronicle of their road trip around Iowa and what visiting an Amish store is like. Also, the "gross foods in France" chapter is indeed gross.

Overall though, this is fun reading, easy to pick up for a chapter at a time when you’re busy. Nothing huge happens in it, but it’s an enjoyable window into the author’s life as an immigrant, mixing serious topics with humor.