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Merle

Merle

How Does it Feel to be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America - Moustafa Bayoumi

This is an interesting book about the lives of young Muslims of Arab descent living in Brooklyn in the first few years after 9/11. If that sounds very specific, well, it is, but despite what may initially seem to be a narrow focus, the book seems to me to do a good job of addressing various aspects of Arab Muslim life in the U.S. Each of its seven chapters is devoted to a different young person, whose story unfolds over 30-odd pages.

Most of the chapters have a specific focus. Rasha’s story is about an entire family detained and held in prison for two months shortly after 9/11, although they were never charged with any crimes. I am sorry to say that I was unaware of the post-9/11 mass arrests of Muslims in the U.S., although they were hardly unknown, even drawing the attention of Amnesty International. Sami’s story is about a Muslim soldier going to war for the U.S. in the Middle East. Yasmin’s is a story of a high school student who fights back against religious discrimination at her school. Omar’s is about employment discrimination, and Rami’s, the final story, about a young person getting religion. The author includes factual information about the various topics alongside the stories for context. Of course, giving each story relatively few pages limits their depth to some extent; in some cases the author focuses in on a particular aspect of someone's life, while other chapters follow their subjects for a longer time but with less detail.

I found these stories interesting and the author’s style accessible, and there is a lot in here I didn’t know. For instance, apparently the U.S. government drew up plans in the 1980s to put Muslims in a concentration camp. I am not sure how representative these young people and their families are of Arab-American Muslims, or if that was the author’s goal. Two of the families are Palestinian and two more have one Palestinian parent, which is not representative of the Middle Eastern population in the U.S. generally. The author is also strongly attached to writing about Brooklyn, which seems to me more unique than representative of American life, but enough of these folks have also lived in other places that that turned out to be less of a limiting factor than I initially expected. Regardless, these are important stories, many of which I hadn’t heard before. No book could represent all of Arab Muslim life in America, but this one does an excellent job of opening a window.

Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge

Crick Crack, Monkey (Caribbean Writers Series) - Merle Hodge

Published in 1970, this novella from Trinidad is classic postcolonial writing, but also the enjoyable story of the life of a young girl. Cynthia, called Cyntie or Tee, and her younger brother are raised by extended family after their mother dies and their father goes abroad. She has childhood escapades and attends a couple of different schools and it’s all vividly portrayed. But she also has a well-off aunt who prizes whiteness in all its forms – physical and cultural – and who makes Tee her project. And so it turns into a story about what in book-critic speech might be called the colonization of a person’s mind: how Tee turns against her upbringing and the people who really love her, but without gaining anything of value to take their place.

 

There’s a lot of postcolonial literature out there that follows children as they leave behind their traditional upbringings to attend school and encounter the white world – The Dark Child, Nervous Conditions and Mema all come to mind – but this one stands out for its exploration of how internalized racism works. It’s also different for being set in Trinidad, where there isn’t quite the “traditional” lifestyle that exists in Africa; the population is mostly descended from African slaves and South Asian indentured servants, a cultural mix that’s clearly present in the book and gives it a unique color.

 

But this isn’t only a political book, and I was a little surprised by how well the characters came to life, after seeing them discussed mostly for their ideological roles. Tee’s Auntie Beatrice, for instance, the symbol of colonial thought, turned out to be a surprisingly vulnerable and complex character. She lacks power at home, where her daughters flout her authority and her husband refuses to engage with the family, and in trying to change Tee she seems largely motivated by a desire for the ideal family she’s never had. Other characters likewise feel real and nuanced despite the brevity of the story.

 

Overall, this book was a pleasant surprise and one I would recommend; social justice oriented readers will particularly appreciate it, but in the complex characters, the vivid descriptions of Tee’s childhood, the rhythms of local speech and the colors of island life, it is also simply a good book.

All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones

All Aunt Hagar's Children - Edward P. Jones

I think I am done with this one, at least for now. I've read the first 5 out of 14 stories (132 pages) and am finding it a drag, though I loved The Known World years ago and later on liked Lost in the City. The going felt slow, and the stories felt cluttered and sometimes confusing. Not all readers will share my short story preferences - I like them to be streamlined and to end with a bang - but that didn't really fit with these stories, which tend to meander along with two or three subplots that often don't reach any resolution or have much to do with the main plot. They're well-written and I'd hardly say they were objectively bad, but I'm not feeling it right now.

Some commentary on the individual stories, because I always want to see more of that in reviews of collections:

"In the Blink of God's Eye" - a young couple moves from Virginia to D.C. at the beginning of the 20th century, and begins to grow apart after she adopts a baby abandoned in their yard. I liked this one, though I felt it was a little padded out with the stories of secondary characters.

"Spanish in the Morning" - a young girl starts at Catholic school and skips ahead to first grade. The ending of this one baffled me.

She falls at her desk when standing up and thinking about how she's not happy about the treatment of a couple of other students, and then we rejoin her in bed at home with a wound in her hand and her family saying she doesn't have to return to that school. I couldn't tell whether she'd had a seizure or medical episode - which would make sense practically but not thematically and wouldn't explain the wound - or whether she spoke up and the teacher stabbed her in the hand, fitting in with a story an older relative told her earlier about a teacher who had a pitchfork like the Devil. Which would make sense thematically but is bizarre.

(show spoiler)


"Resurrecting Methuselah" - an American soldier in Korea is diagnosed with breast cancer, and his wife decides to leave him. In this one it was the motivations that confused me. We spend a lot of time with the wife, including a long sequence in Hawaii on the way to Korea in which she buys some candy she remembers from her childhood to find it completely different.

Then for some reason that was unclear to me, she immediately gives up on visiting her husband and flies home instead. My guess is that, having spent her adolescence as an invalid, she wasn't willing to have sickness in her house or around her daughter. But what does the candy have to do with it?

(show spoiler)


"Old Boys, Old Girls" - a young man is imprisoned for the second of two murders he's committed, does his time, and once on the outside, has to figure out how his family and an old lover fit into his life. I liked this one, which is interesting and doesn't have room for random subplots.

"All Aunt Hagar's Children" - a Korean war vet wants to head out to Alaska to pan for gold, but the older women of his family ask him to look into the murder of one of their sons instead, and he does. This was interesting but the end unconvincing.

He sees the murdered man's wife strike a powerful pose and concludes that she was the murderer, although there are plenty of other suspects.

(show spoiler)

And this one too grew weeds: it spends a lot of time on a stranger who died in front of the narrator getting off a streetcar, which does nothing in the story other than to haunt him, and I didn't believe for a minute that he somehow memorized her last words when they were full sentences in a language he didn't speak. Strings of unfamiliar words are unmemorable gibberish to me, and I'm good at foreign languages.

At any rate, I'm certainly not denying that there's merit here, but this wasn't the right time for this book, so it's heading back to the library.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Purge - Lola Rogers, Sofi Oksanen

Part psychological thriller, part historical fiction, this book was not at all what I expected. You should avoid reading reviews if possible because too many give away too much, but to give a general idea, the novel begins in Estonia in 1992, where an old woman, Aliide Truu, lives alone in the countryside in an atmosphere of fear and decay. She finds a young woman, Zara, lying crumpled in her yard, and the story follows the relationship between these women and the explosive secrets they carry, tracing the history of Estonia back to the 1930s.

It’s an ugly time period: from invasions by the Nazis and Russians, to decades as a repressive Soviet satellite, to lawlessness following the fall of Communism. And I wasn’t expecting the amount of horrific sexual trauma in it. It’s an intense, visceral book that draws the reader into the characters’ world, one where they don’t ever feel safe. The plot is gripping, full of secrets to be unraveled; the characters are morally complex, with believable inner worlds; the settings are vivid and the writing strong.

Actually, my biggest complaint is not about the content, but the deckle edge pages, which publishers continue to inflict upon readers despite the fact that, if we still aren’t using e-readers, one reason is that we like to be able to easily turn pages and flip around, especially in a book like this, where readers will be inclined to re-read earlier sections in light of new information.

I’m glad I read this book. It is an intense, compelling read, and allowed me a window into a place I knew little about, though it isn't a history book and the focus remains tightly on the experiences of the protagonists. It is dark and brutal and so isn’t for everyone, but fans of psychological thrillers will find it well worth their time.

Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac

Eugénie Grandet - Christopher Prendergast, Honoré de Balzac, Sylvia Raphael

Classics, we are told, are books that “stand the test of time” – that, even after the society that birthed them has passed away, continue to enthrall readers with their complex and relatable characters, their insight into universals of human nature, their artful command of language. I read Eugenie Grandet in translation, so I won’t attempt to pass judgment on its use of language (Raphael’s 1990 translation is acceptable though not impressive in its own right). But the characters, the conceptions of human nature: these represent the tropes and prejudices of Balzac’s own society, nothing universal or transcendent.

This is a short book with a fairly simple story, though it is detailed and atmospheric enough so as not to require large amounts of plot. Felix Grandet is a miser, who makes large amounts of money through sometimes scurrilous means but refuses to use any of it for the comfort of his wife and daughter, Eugenie. When her city cousin Charles comes to visit for the first time, Eugenie falls immediately in love, but the corrupting influence of money threatens everything meaningful in her life.

Unfortunately, the main characters are not particularly complex or interesting. Felix Grandet is “the miser,” and Balzac takes every opportunity to hold forth on the characteristics of all misers. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met a miser or even heard of a real-life one secondhand, if we define a miser as someone who hoards money for its own sake rather than saving for anything in particular and who refuses to spend even small amounts for their own or their family’s comfort. So this old-fashioned trope and Balzac’s “insights” into the character of misers fell flat for me. Eugenie is defined by another musty trope; she’s the angel in the house, that selfless, innocent, long-suffering 19th century woman. “In her honest simplicity she followed the promptings of her angelic nature,” Balzac tells us at one point. Like her father and the other characters, Eugenie is written as a character in a parable; they exist to fulfill specific roles in the story, and there’s no sense of depth beyond that.

Meanwhile, Balzac’s indictment of misers is strange to my 21st century eyes. We are clearly supposed to feel bad for Eugenie because she’s required to eat simple foods and use footwarmers rather than having a fire in the spring and fall, even when this lifestyle is credited for her robust good health. Wow, how awful? But Eugenie and her mother (who does legitimately suffer from Felix’s behavior) are portrayed as the only people of moral character in the book, which makes it appear that Balzac is speaking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. On the one hand, Felix is morally repugnant for refusing to “live up to his income” (that 19th century virtue) and provide his family the luxuries they can afford, but on the other hand, his refusal to do so is a recipe for producing the ideal woman, an angelic figure absent from the households of the Grandets’ moneyed acquaintances. Admittedly, this is complicated somewhat as [Eugenie grows older and picks up some of her father’s traits, but that only happens after she remains single and at home long past the prescribed age, suggesting that marrying as a young woman should might have allowed her to continue unspoiled. And she continues to live for religion and devote her money to charity, even while she is unhappy. (hide spoiler)]

Either way, Balzac brings a boatload of gender-based generalizations to the table, which he is eager to share with the reader. For instance:

“All women, even the most stupid, can use wiles to attain their ends.” (60)

“Is it not the noble destiny of women to be more touched by the trappings of poverty than by the splendours of wealth?” (63)

“Pity is one of the qualities in which women are sublimely superior; it is the only one that they are willing to reveal, the only one they will forgive men for allowing them a greater share of.” (90)

“Women have in common with angels the special care of suffering beings.” (93)

“A woman’s mistakes nearly always stem for her belief in good news or from her confidence in truth.” (109)

“In every situation, women have more cause for grief than men and suffer more.” (134)

To my amusement, the writer of the scholarly introduction (which, as usual, you shouldn’t read before the book unless you want to be spoiled) shares many of these complaints. “Much of the contrast [between Eugenie and her father] is best skated over – Eugenie is written in the imagery of the ‘angelic’ and the painfully embarrassing analogies with Raphael’s madonnas and so on,” he writes. And, “There is much tiresome rhetoric about it being in the nature of women to show ‘angelic patience’ in the face of misfortune.” And, “This is the dimension of Balzac’s manner which tends to turn his novels into machines for spewing out generalizations, maxims, quasi-proverbial utterances on virtually every conceivable subject . . . many of them are false or just inadequate to the complexity of experience.” Indeed.

The introduction writer then attempts to defend Balzac by pointing out his use of chiasmus and antithesis, and perhaps if you are the sort of literary reader more interested in techniques and symbolism than characterization, insight or wisdom, you might find much to enjoy in this book. As for me, I found little to appreciate and much cause to question its status as a classic, though I did learn a bit about Balzac’s society from it.

World Books Challenge - 150 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 150 out of 201 countries, or 75% 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
18 out of 24 countries = 75%

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 ★★
Bahamas *
St. Kitts & Nevis *
St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago *


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
40 out of 54 countries = 74%

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
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
Gambia *
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 ★★★★
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 *
Equatorial Guinea *

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
33 out of 49 countries = 67%

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 ★★★
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 ★★★★
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 ★★★★
Ukraine: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles - review ★★★★
Belarus *
Bosnia & Herzegovina *
Latvia *
Lithuania
Macedonia
Moldova *
Slovakia *
Slovenia *

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
12 out of 16 countries = 75%

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
Cyprus *
Jordan
Oman


Asia
26 out of 31 countries = 84%

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
Nepal: Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay - review
Sri Lanka: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera - review ★★★½
Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin - review ★★
Maldives *

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: The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw - 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
11 out of 15 countries = 73%

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 ★★★
Micronesia: My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng - review (unrated)
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
Marshall Islands *
Nauru *
Palau *
Vanuatu *

My Crazy Century by Ivan Klima

My Crazy Century - Ivan Klíma

There are two kinds of memoirs. The first is literary memoirs, which you read because the story they tell is interesting or because they’re renowned as good books. You usually don’t know anything about the author beforehand, and don’t need to. The other kind is celebrity memoirs, which you read because you are already interested in the author. Because these books have a built-in audience rather than having to contend for readership with all other books on a literary footing, and because their appeal has more to do with learning facts about a celebrity than getting a great story, their quality often suffers.

This book reads like a celebrity memoir, with the added disadvantage that I’d never heard of Ivan Klima before picking it up. Klima is a Czech writer who has had some interesting life experiences: he and his family were in an internment camp during World War II due to their Jewish heritage, and he went on to become first a Communist party member and later a banned writer under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, a country he refused to abandon despite petty harassment from the government. But the concentration camp portion only takes up 15 pages of this 534-page book, which turned out to be a dryly-written tome. Klima spends a lot of pages talking about his career: name-dropping writers he edited or was friends with, providing long plot summaries of stories and plays he wrote, and describing trips he took abroad and conferences he attended and who said what in their speeches. This is the part that felt most like a celebrity memoir, because it would be interesting mostly to dedicated fans of Klima who have a Who’s Who of 20th century Czech writers in their heads. If you don't, there's nothing in Klima's descriptions of them to distinguish his friends from one another.

Klima’s other major topic is the political climate at the time, but in a narrow sense: he was intensely interested in those regulations affecting writers and art, as well as the speeches and articles exchanged between the regime and its critics. He quotes portions of proclamations, opinion pieces, and speeches at length, including his own. But it would be hard to put together a picture of the times from this book, and given that he originally wrote it for a Czech audience, I’m not sure that was his intent. When the Velvet Revolution overthrowing Communism happens within the last few pages, he doesn’t name it and it was unclear to me exactly what was happening and why. Try Street Without a Name for a far more vivid picture of life under Communism in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, while some of the details of life at the time are interesting, the book contains little in the way of feelings, insight into those around him, and reflections on the author’s personal life beyond the bare facts. He mentions cheating on his wife, without any reflection on what other than the other woman’s attractiveness caused him to do so, and informs the reader that he and his wife then confessed affairs to each other, at which point, “We put aside our infidelities, at least from our conversations” – and that’s all he has to say about the subject. Later there’s another affair, equally opaque to the reader, after which he again confesses and concludes with “But I do not intend to compose a chronicle of my love life and my infidelities. My wish is not to draw my loved ones into my tale; it’s enough that I drew them into real life.” It’s a bare memoir that doesn’t draw in the writer’s loved ones, like it or not. But beyond that, if he doesn’t want to write about the subject, why bring it up at all? So I’m back to the celebrity memoir explanation: he appears to feel a need to include the facts of situations in his life, even without corresponding examination of feelings or relationships. But, not being an Ivan Klima fan, I don’t care about the bare facts. I was looking for a story, and didn’t find it.

Then there are the essays. The book ends with 118 pages comprising 18 pieces on various geopolitical topics. These read like the opinion papers of an undergraduate political science student, speaking in broad generalities and without fresh insight. For instance, he writes an entire essay on the fact that youth are more susceptible to extremism because they are less invested in the existing system and more naïve, idealistic and excitable than older adults. (Genius!) He leans heavily on broad generalities about extremism, attempting to apply his experience with Nazism and Communism to modern-day terrorism at every opportunity. This creates the impression that he believes he needs to offer insight into terrorism to keep his book “relevant” for modern readers. But he’s never encountered terrorism and has no insights that any other commentator couldn’t offer.

Overall, I found this work dry, impersonal, unnecessarily long, and a slog to read, despite its promising subject matter. Somehow, although it’s roughly twice the length of the average American memoir, it is abridged from the two-volume Czech version; I can only assume that Klima’s fans are dedicated, at least in his home country, and be thankful that the English-language publisher chose to abridge it.

Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders

Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England - Judith Flanders

This is an engaging and informative survey of daily and home life for the middle classes in Victorian England. It is organized by rooms of the house, but the author uses each room as a segue to discuss various aspects of Victorian life: the nursery leads us to childrearing and the education of girls; the scullery, to the lives and expectations of servants; the morning room, to the etiquette of paying calls. The author pulls from diaries, letters, memoirs, official records and even novels to paint a detailed portrait of life at the time: from the physical details of lighting and plumbing and the many, many household items, to family and social life and expectations.

It is a fascinating portrait, and left me glad not to live in Victorian England, for all kinds of reasons. Industrialization made London so dirty that merely walking outside could leave soot in your clothes and hair, while arsenic was included in dyes used in clothing and wallpaper. Constant housework was required of anyone without several servants: not only because of the dirt, not only because of the many household implements and fabrics that all required special and often time-consuming care, not only because a growing understanding of germ theory linked cleanliness strongly to morality and social worth, but because society piled even more expectations onto that in order to keep women busy. Doorsteps were supposed to be whitened every morning, for instance, though this did nothing for cleanliness. Meanwhile women wore close to 40 pounds of often voluminous clothing (today’s clothing weighs 2 pounds or less); between that and the housework and expectations of always serving others, some appear to have become invalids less because they were really sick and more to get a rest and have time to themselves. (With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Florence Nightengale, among the most productive women of the period, was an invalid.) The power structure, in which husbands ruled their wives and wives ruled their servants through the husband’s borrowed authority, was considered divinely ordained, and wives were expected to keep from their husbands all details of running the household, even so far as the news that their baby was sick.

But there’s a lot more than gloom to provide food for thought. The Victorians ate an enormous variety of meats, many of which have disappeared from modern menus. Waste was virtually unknown; household items were repurposed or sold to, for instance, visiting rag-and-bones men, until all that remained to be simply carted away was ashes from the fires. Mail was extraordinarily quick: when a husband in a Victorian novel sends his wife a note from the office telling her when to expect him for dinner, it’s actually going through the post. And while many aspects of Victorian life seemed to revolve around showing off one’s means in carefully prescribed ways – “living up to one’s income” was considered a moral virtue, rather than, say, being generous with it – some aspects were much less extravagant than today. Weddings were simple affairs, and more importance seems to have been attached to sending pieces of wedding cake to connections and paying them calls in one’s wedding attire than to the ceremony itself. Meanwhile, for all the talk about the drabness of mourning clothes, I wonder if this socially prescribed ritual of grief wasn’t healthier than today’s discomfort with the subject of death.

There is a lot in this book, and as the author admits, it’s an overview. It barely touches on the upper or lower classes, it primarily focuses on London, and the focus on home life means it discusses women’s lives much more than men’s. Some topics, like Victorian medicine, are breezed through very quickly, while others, such as sex, aren’t touched at all (though marriage and childbearing are). The organization into rooms is sometimes stretching it: the drawing room and parlor are apparently synonyms, but get separate chapters to discuss different aspects of social life. For that reason, it may make a frustrating reference book. But as an engaging historical work and a window into another time, I found it to be excellent.

El Tiempo entre Costuras/The Time In Between by María Dueñas

El tiempo entre costuras - María Dueñas

This is a fun, lively work of historical fiction, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It follows the adventures of Sira Quiroga, who in the 1930s is a young, immature Spanish seamstress from a working-class background. She makes some poor life decisions which leave her alone in Morocco, indebted and unable to leave the country, and through a combination of dangerous adventures and hard work, manages to grow up and open a high-class dressmaking business. Which comes in handy for the Allies in World War II, when she is recruited as a spy.

I am typically less critical of books I read in Spanish, since the language requires much more concentration from me than English; this book I enjoyed almost entirely for its fun and sometimes exciting plot, rather than for any exceptional character development or insight into human psychology. But it is a lively and enjoyable plot, and I was quickly immersed in Sira’s struggles. The book provides a satisfying balance between lighter and darker elements: unlike in a lot of historical fiction, which focuses on the wealthy and privileged, the obstacles Sira faces are major and the stakes often high, but at the same time she builds a support network that keeps her story from ever becoming too dark. Similarly, most of the book takes place against a backdrop of war, but Sira waits out the Spanish Civil War in Morocco and spends WWII in Spain, so never encounters war firsthand. It’s a balance, in other words, that allows the story to be gripping without being brutal, and fun without being frivolous.

It’s also a good choice for readers who like to learn about a historical place and time through fiction: even while Sira has her own personal struggles, the book is engaged with its historical milieu, and real historical figures play major secondary roles. It does tend to assume (at least in the Spanish edition) some knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, prompting me to do a little of my own research. And I certainly learned from it; I had little knowledge about the bond between Franco and Nazi Germany, for instance, nor how close Spain was to entering the war on the Axis side. The author’s background is as a professor, and she does an excellent job of combining rigorous research with great storytelling.

Overall, this isn’t a life-changing book for me and it’s one I’ll remember more for its enjoyable plot than other literary accomplishments, though in terms of writing style and especially doing the research it is a cut above the general run of historical fiction. I enjoyed and would recommend it.

Mema by Daniel Mengara

Mema - Daniel Mengara

This novella was a pleasant surprise. It’s told from the perspective of a boy who grew up in a traditional village society in Gabon, and the beginning didn’t seem to bode well due to some repetition and meandering. But it soon hits its stride, and once I realized that the style of storytelling, with a certain amount of repetition, was drawing on oral tradition, it became much more palatable.

This short book is perhaps reminiscent of someone telling stories around a fire in way the narrator moves from one subject to the next. He first builds a picture of his childhood world, recalling how the community traditionally solved problems like wives leaving their husbands (this involves large meetings between both villages, since a marriage between two people is the marriage of their families). Then he talks about his mother, a woman with a strong personality who has the misfortune of losing her husband and daughters and being accused of sorcery by her husband’s village, but refuses to give up. And then he moves on to his young life in the village and for a few years with his adult cousin in town. It isn’t strictly plot-driven and there are stories within the story, like the village legend dealing with children’s duties to their parents. But I found it to be well-told and engaging.

Interestingly, some reviewers seem to have understood this as a book about the tension between tradition and modernity. I saw it much more as an ode to the narrator’s mother and to traditional village life, with a brief foray to the city, though the end implies that the narrator will later rejoin the modern world. Nevertheless, one of its strongest passages is all about that tension between the two:

“The white man's world was like that. It made you think about things, not people. It made you forget about people. It made you want things. It made you want many things. And when you started to want many things, you had no time left for thinking about people, because you spent so much time trying to get those things you wanted. So you forgot about everyone. And you no longer cared about anyone else, and no one else cared about you. You were left alone to fend for yourself because everybody else was so busy fending for themselves too.”

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Pigs In Heaven - Barbara Kingsolver

I have a theory about the genesis of this novel. By the time she wrote her first novel, the beloved The Bean Trees, it’s clear that Kingsolver was already deeply invested in social justice issues. But she missed one when her protagonist, a young woman named Taylor, traveled through Cherokee tribal lands in Oklahoma just long enough to unwittingly rescue a battered native toddler dumped on her by a frightened aunt. And when Taylor returned, with the best of intentions, it was to fraudulently adopt the child without the knowledge of the tribe.

As I envision events, a Cherokee reader talked to Kingsolver about this, pointing out that Cherokee have large extended families who would miss the child; that after a long history of genocide and other abuses at the hands of white America, including the removal of children, tribes need to hang onto their kids if they are to survive (hence the Indian Child Welfare Act, which among other things prohibits outside adoptions without the tribe’s consent); and that Taylor, who is physically and culturally white despite a Cherokee great-grandparent, is unequipped to teach Turtle about her heritage or how to deal with racism.

So Kingsolver, as we all should do when confronted with our oversights, recognized the problem and set out to fix it. And this sequel was born.

Pigs in Heaven picks up three years after the end of The Bean Trees. Turtle gets her fifteen minutes of fame when she witnesses an accident, and a newly-minted Cherokee lawyer named Annawake – who has a personal stake in ICWA – hears her story and realizes something is fishy. After a visit from Annawake, Taylor panics and takes off with Turtle, but her mother, Alice – just out of a brief and unsatisfying marriage – takes a different tack, going to stay with a relative on tribal lands in hopes of amicably resolving the problem and getting to know Turtle’s extended family.

I actually liked this book better than The Bean Trees; Kingsolver has clearly matured as an author. The plot is more focused and cohesive and flows smoothly, without ever feeling slow. It follows several major characters while keeping everything moving and the reader eager to know what will happen next. It examines the central issues from all sides and with empathy for everyone involved, all of whom make mistakes but are trying to do the best they can for Turtle. Yes, it can be predictable, but in this case I don’t see that as a flaw; this story is built not on suspense but on family relationships, and I enjoyed sinking into the characters’ journey and guessing at where it would lead them. The writing style is good and endows the book with warmth and wisdom.

Meanwhile, Kingsolver seems to have done her research, or rather the friends she credits in the acknowledgments did a thorough job of educating her. I read a legit Cherokee book right after this in part to check her facts, which checked out. But there are also subtle things, like the story that’s told to two different people and slightly differently each time, that readers familiar with Cherokee culture will likely appreciate. If anything, life on tribal lands seems a little idealized – there’s a lot of family values, community and tradition, with social problems acknowledged but kept out of sight – though much of this is related through Alice’s point-of-view, and I suspect that her experiences as a visitor to tribal lands were, reasonably enough, based on Kingsolver’s.

My two issues with the book aren’t with the writing. One is that there are several continuity errors between the first book and this one. The legal first name (April) that Taylor gave Turtle on adoption vanishes; Alice and Taylor’s Cherokee ancestor changes from a grandfather to a grandmother (significant because clan passes through the female line); Taylor’s father goes from a mystery man about whom Alice would only say that he was nobody Taylor knew to an ex-husband about whom she’s not reluctant to speak when necessary. The other is more about judging other people’s parenting than anything else. Taylor makes several questionable choices that are never called out in the narrative, from moving herself and Turtle in with a boyfriend about whom she’s not that serious, to telling the real story of her abandonment on national TV – which is not only stupid because it’s inconsistent with official records, but publicly telling the story in front of Turtle and allowing it to be made light of seems hurtful. But real people aren't perfect, so characters shouldn't be either.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, which tells a compelling story about contemporary issues, with good writing and populated by sympathetic characters. I read it quickly and was fully engaged with the story and characters, which doesn't happen as often as I'd like these days. I recommend it, whether or not you read The Bean Trees first.

The Best 10 Books I Read in 2017

Somewhat delayed, but better late than never! Here are the best 10 books I read in 2017, with my hope that some of you will love them too.

 

1. Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon review

 

 

Without a doubt the best nonfiction I read in 2017, this is a dual biography of groundbreaking authors Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. With dramatic events, great storytelling, solid research and two complicated stories of brilliant women making their way in a hostile world, this book has it all.

 

 

2. Tender by Sofia Samatarreview

 

 

The best fiction I read in 2017, this is an unbelievably good short story collection, combining science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, fairy tales and contemporary stories. Yes, there's sci-fi and I loved it, even though I hate sci-fi! Samatar has it right: the fantastic elements exist to tell a story about the characters rather than vice versa. A beautiful collection.

 

 

3. The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooperreview

 

 

 

 

A fabulous memoir of the author's privileged childhood in Liberia, and her return to her country as an adult. By turns tragic and funny, but always engaging, thoughtful, relatable and informative.

 

 

4. Gorilla and the Bird by Zack McDermottreview

 

 

Another fantastic memoir, this one by a big-city public defender and aspiring comedian whose sudden psychotic break marks the beginning of his battle with bipolar disorder. McDermott is a master storyteller and this book is compelling, funny and hopeful.

 

 

5. Exit West by Mohsin Hamidreview

 

 

The best novella I read this year, this is a beautiful, tender story of two young people who become refugees in a frantically globalizing world. Its central concept, mysterious doors that instantly transport people from one part of the world to another, makes an excellent metaphor to think about the future of our world, but the book shines because it never loses sight of the humanity of its characters.

 

 

6. Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbireview

 

 

The best contemporary novel I read in 2017, this unapologetically Ugandan novel tells the story of a clan which believes itself to be carrying the curse of a long-dead ancestor. It's an expansive, multi-layered book, following the lives of many characters navigating a world that's both modern and traditional. It's not often you see first novels this assured, and with such a large cast of complex characters; I'm excited to see what this author does next.

 

 

7. The Hearts of Horses by Molly Glossreview

 

 

The best historical fiction I read in 2017, this literary novel uses the arrival of a young female broncobuster to tell the stories of several families in a rural Oregon county at the beginning of WWI. It's a quiet, contemplative sort of book that moves easily between the big picture and individual lives. And it isn't at all sentimental about horses; just ignore the cover.

 

 

8. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson - review

 

 

 

 

It may not be saying much these days to say that this is the best fantasy I read in 2017, but I would read more fantasy if Kij Johnson wrote more. This is a lovely novella about a professor who, having thought her adventuring days were behind her, undertakes a quest to retrieve a missing student. It's both an homage and an answer to elements of Lovecraft, but there's no need to have read him to enjoy this.

 

 

9. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdiereview

 

 

In terms of literary quality, this may be the best book I read in 2017. Part magic realism, part family saga, this novel traces Indian history through its key moments for most of the 20th century. If you love language and haven't read Rushdie yet, you should give him a try; this book took me some effort at first, but was worth the trouble.

 

 

10. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexanderreview

 

 

Of all the books I read in 2017, this one did the most to change my perspective. Mass incarceration isn't exactly the same as Jim Crow, but both systems originated from racism and oppress Americans of color while defining their relationship to the rest of society. A must-read for social-justice-oriented folk.

A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo

A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa - Alexis Okeowo

This is a short nonfiction work by a Nigerian-American journalist that goes behind the headlines in four conflict areas in Africa, telling the stories of people who range from victims to local leaders. It is a very engaging book, a quick read that introduces readers to several countries and humanizes big events, although at only 236 pages for so many stories, it is very brief and therefore unable to treat its subjects with the depth I would have liked.

Eunice is a teenage girl living in rural northern Uganda when she is kidnapped by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army while visiting her sister at boarding school. Once in the bush, she is forced to marry Bosco, a young man also kidnapped as a teenager, and both are forced to participate in acts of violence. By the time both eventually escape, they have children together, and Eunice, like many young women whose futures are circumscribed by LRA kidnapping, decides to return to Bosco. Former rebels are given amnesty to encourage defection, but the couple faces ostracism from their community and seems to be passing on their trauma to their children.

Biram is a Mauritanian activist, growing up in a socially conscious family in the last country in the world to outlaw slavery (it became illegal in 1981, but not a criminal offense until 2007), and one where the police remain uninterested in bringing wealthy slaveowners to justice. He starts an organization dedicated to eradicating slavery, rescues slaves directly and draws attention to the cause by risky acts like publicly burning the books used to justify slavery under Muslim law (though he is Muslim himself). Later he expands his focus to other racial justice issues and runs for president of Mauritania.

Abba, aka Elder, is an auditor and patriarch of a large family in northern Nigeria when Boko Haram gains traction in the area. Frustrated by the lack of government response to the attacks, he joins a local vigilante group that captures militants and hands them over to security forces, proving far more effective than the actual military. He becomes a leader in the group and moves into politics as well. Meanwhile, Rebecca is a teenage boarding school student in nearby Chibok when she is kidnapped by Boko Haram along with 300 classmates. Fortunately, she is one of the 50-odd with the courage and presence of mind to quickly escape, and gradually overcomes her trauma while returning to school in a distant city.

Finally, Aisha is a teenage girl in Mogadishu, Somalia, who refuses to let al-Shabaab terrorists intimidate her out of playing basketball. They certainly try – she receives regular death threats by phone, is nearly kidnapped and has a gun pointed at her on a bus – and another female player is brutally murdered. But Aisha is determined to live her own life, and she and her teammates find joy in the game and treasure rare opportunities to participate in tournaments, despite the lack of government support.

These are all fascinating stories, though the subtitle doesn’t quite fit anyone other than perhaps Aisha: Biram and Elder are leaders, not ordinary people, while Rebecca is a survivor but not exactly fighting extremism, and Eunice and Bosco remain victims. Each story is told in two chapters, one in the first half of the book and the other in the second, and the second half provides much of the emotional consequences and complexity that seemed to be missing from the first half. Of course the circumstances of these people’s lives, and the strength required to keep going, is extraordinary to the Western reader. This book tells very compelling stories in a quick and accessible way; for me it is too quick (each of these stories deserves its own book), but it provides a great introduction while telling human stories behind events in the headlines.

My other reservation is the fact that the book cites no sources, and the author tells us nothing about her research other than what happens to come out in the text as she relates her experiences in meeting these folks. She generally applies critical thought to the stories people tell her – for instance, she includes the accusations of brutality against Elder’s group – but sometimes seems to accept simplistic stories, as in the 9-page life story of a Mauritanian slave that seems to be a chronicle of constant abuse. Though the author seems to do her research, it’s never clear how well the stories are corroborated.

Despite that, I think this is a great premise for a book and these stories are engaging, emotional, and well-told, with enough background information included for readers unfamiliar with these countries to understand their contexts. I recommend it.

Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ - Giulia Enders

A book about the digestive system for laypeople. It’s written in a strong voice and is both informative and accessible, explaining current research in terms understandable to the non-scientist and including helpful tips for everyday life. Enders advises readers on everything from cleanliness (wring out kitchen sponges; bacteria love them because they’re warm and damp, but drying can keep them somewhat cleaner) to diet (cold cooked rice, potato salad, asparagus, leeks, garlic and onions are all nutritious offerings for the good bacteria in our digestive system) to combating nausea (ginger has proven effects, as does the acupuncture point P6).

But I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy reading this as much as I expected based on the reviews. Maybe because this just isn’t my favorite subject, and I read it from start to finish, pushing through sections such as the one on laxatives that didn’t particularly interest me in order to reach the more interesting material, like the influence of the gut on the brain. Maybe because I’m used to books with an overarching thesis to pull it all together, where this felt more like a series of disparate topics and a lot of (often intriguing or useful) factoids than a coherent whole. Maybe because so many topics are breezed through so quickly, often in metaphorical language that can help readers picture what’s going on, but that doesn’t provide a full understanding. Still, it’s a useful book with plenty of practical application in daily life, so although it wasn’t my favorite reading experience, I am glad I read it and would recommend.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Kintu - Aaron Bady, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

This is a big, ambitious book, relating the story of an extended family that begins with a patriarch in 1750 and then jumps ahead to 2004, tracing the fortunes of his descendants in modern Uganda. It’s been much discussed as a very Ugandan book, written for local readers and enjoying massive popularity there, but it’s an excellent novel with much to offer international readers as well.

The story begins in the old kingdom of Buganda, where Kintu Kiddu, a governor, journeys to the capital to pay his respects to a new king, who just took power by murdering his brother. Kintu’s most pressing concerns, however, are closer to home, with the large number of wives he’s obliged to marry for political purposes, the grooming of his heir, and the adopted son whose father curses Kintu’s family.

By 2004, Kintu’s descendants are scattered. Suubi, abandoned as a child, has found material stability but is haunted by her dead twin; estranged from her adoptive family, she tentatively searches for her relatives at the urging of her boyfriend. Kanani is an old man who, along with his fanatical wife, has found refuge in an evangelical Anglican sect, but their zealotry has driven away their children and the family keeps a shameful secret. Isaac has overcome childhood neglect and survived war to be economically successful, but he believes he has given HIV to his wife and child and is afraid to confirm it. Miisi is foreign-educated but chooses to live in a village, where he is raising a small tribe of grandchildren after the deaths of his children.

Plot summaries about this book tend to focus on the ancient curse, but as someone who usually finds fictional curses to be boring plot drags, I was impressed with Makumbi’s handling of this element. The Kintu clan believes that they are cursed, but the story leaves room for other interpretations. The characters experience a lot of hardship, but in the modern story it never feels inevitable, as in those books where you know every hope will end in tragedy. When the clan ultimately comes together in an attempt to remove the curse,

the outcome is ambiguous; but what’s clear is that they have connected with one another, forming a support network to buoy relatives who are isolated or in crisis. Perhaps their isolation from one another was the problem all along, and the ceremonial aspects are simply a way to bring people together and give them a common goal.

(show spoiler)

But having more than one possible reading is a sign of good literature.

And this is a really good book. It’s engaging and moves quickly, with short chapters and lot of dialogue, and a few secrets for readers to guess. The characters are believable and complex, even those who only appear for short periods of time, and this is quite a feat given that there are a lot of them. The writing is good and there is a strong sense of place, though this is a book much more focused on people than descriptions; the culture comes out in the way people speak and what they think and worry about. When people talk about this book being “too African” for British readers (Makumbi evidently couldn’t get a publisher there), I suspect it’s not really about the book’s lack of white characters or focus on colonialism and its aftermath. All that has been done before, though this book remains notable for the lack of European presence in such an expansive historical epic; there’s a lot more to Uganda’s history than its decades of British rule, and we see that in context here.

No, I think the British publishers just took issue with the book’s being aimed at Ugandan readers: the language, the names, the culture aren’t simplified, but form the foundations of the book’s complex world. I doubt international readers will actually have trouble understanding it. No matter where you’re from, it’s an engaging story with a lot of humanity that anyone will recognize, and books tend to be better when they don’t make patronizing assumptions about their audiences.

Aside from being a good story, this book has a lot to say. In the introduction (which I recommend actually reading – it’s spoiler-free and provides interesting background and context), Makumbi describes the book as “masculinist,” for its look at how patriarchy hurts men. The book doesn’t explicitly discuss gender roles, but it’s there, from Kintu’s struggles to sexually gratify the many young wives politics require him to marry when he only wants one, to Isaac’s issues with female sexuality, which lead him to marry a woman who can recognize his issues and use them to manipulate him. When asked if this isn’t feminism, Makumbi replied that her next book is the feminist one – which has me excited for that book. But I can see where she’s coming from: this book is more focused on the men, though the women are complex and varied.

Finally, it’s a fascinating look at the combination of tradition and modernity. There are a lot of traditional Ganda beliefs in the novel, but it doesn’t idealize the past or portray it as monolithic. (One of the funniest scenes involves a traditional all-night advice session for Kintu’s son on the eve of his marriage; the men give him a lot of contradictory advice about sex and marriage.) In the present, the clan varies in their adherence to tradition, from Kanani, who wants to do away with it, to his sister Bweeza, whose persistence and enthusiasm for the old ways make her the “Great Aunt” of the clan. Modernity creeps into traditional ceremonies, where the hired medium is foreign-educated, while old ways and traditional motifs reassert themselves in modern contexts.

Overall then, this is an excellent novel, combining storytelling prowess with big ideas and food for thought. I hope its unfamiliarity won’t scare readers off; one of the great advantages of reading is the ability to experience other lives and cultures, and this is a perfect book for the armchair traveler. And it has an engaging plot, complex characters and universal themes to interest those with no connection to Uganda. I hope it is widely read and that we get more books like this.

Gorilla and the Bird by Zack McDermott

Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love - Zack McDermott

This is a fantastic memoir by a public defender with bipolar disorder, who occasionally experiences intense psychotic episodes. Zack McDermott is an excellent storyteller and onetime aspiring comedian, so this book will pull you right in, keep you rapt and sometimes make you laugh, despite its sometimes heavy subject matter.

The beginning of the book throws readers right into McDermott’s first psychotic episode: having met with a producer about his comedy routine only a few days before, he walks out of his apartment convinced that he is in the middle of an audition. He wanders New York City for hours, acting wacky for the cameras, until the police pick him up and take him to the hospital. Over the next couple of years, he’s hospitalized several times, struggling but eventually learning how to keep his disease under control. He is supported throughout by his mom “the Bird,” a rock star teacher of underprivileged teens who is there for her kid no matter what. The book also traces McDermott’s childhood – growing up poor in Kansas City with a single mom putting herself through school – and includes a fair bit about his work as a public defender. (I enjoyed those bits a lot; they are as no-holds-barred as the rest of the book.)

McDermott would probably make an excellent novelist, because he turns his life into a compelling story, with humor and sharp dialogue alongside a gripping plot. I read it very quickly, and it’s one of those books that’s hard to review in part because when I return to look at something in the book, I start reading it again. It seems to me that, despite some dark subject matter, the author chose to put an optimistic spin on his life in the book; an essay published the same week includes some of the same material but also discusses trauma that’s absent from the memoir. It seems like the book’s happy ending is true as far as it goes, but also isn’t the whole story. Probably no memoir is.

At any rate, it’s an excellent book. And without ever appearing to have an agenda (the author seems more upset about the way poor people of color are treated in the criminal justice system than anything that happens to him), the book challenges the stigma around mental illness, as well as the notion that a serious mental illness will inevitably ruin someone’s life or end in tragedy. I definitely recommend this one.