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How to Fall in Love With Anyone by Mandy Len Catron

How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays - Mandy Len Catron

This is an enjoyable and thoughtful book: part memoir, part essay collection. The author reflects on love through the lens of her own experiences and those of her parents and grandparents, but also discusses the subject more broadly, referencing scientific research and analyzing books, movies, and fairy tales. She writes well and candidly, digging into the complexities of relationships rather than trying to prescribe one-size-fits-all advice or hand out easy answers. It is in some ways a very personal book, particularly as the author discusses the end of her 10-year relationship, but she keeps it classy. In discussing her relationships, she writes about how she felt and behaved, rather than dishing on her exes.

Rather than writing a traditional review, I’m going to list some of the ideas in the book that interested me:

- This book began with a Modern Love article, about a relationship that started with the author and an acquaintance asking each other a series of questions that made a couple fall in love in a lab experiment. But the title is misleading: the questions may not have been designed to create romance (they’ve apparently been used in decidedly non-romantic contexts, like increasing trust between police and communities). And the author and her boyfriend didn’t immediately start dating after that night. Instead the questions allowed them to get to know and trust each other quickly, setting the stage for a relationship if they wanted to pursue it, which they ultimately did.

- Some passages from the book suggest that Catron’s ultimate conclusion is that people ought to learn to love well rather than obsessing over finding the right person. But it isn’t so simple. She writes about a friend who, on the advice of a recently-married friend of his who champions choosing to commit for commitment’s sake, casts aside doubts about his relationship and proposes. But he backs out before the wedding, and the friend who gave the advice gets divorced a couple years later. The book never argues that if you just choose any decent person and treat each other well, the result will be lifelong marriage. It doesn’t give prescriptions about the ideal relationship, but rather things the author has observed along the way.

- There’s a word for the assumption that the true goal of all relationships is lifelong marriage: amatonormativity. Looking this up online led me to an interesting article from someone for whom romance isn’t a goal at all; Catron is more traditional, but she was able to enjoy romantic encounters more when she valued them for their own sake, rather than considering everything that didn’t end in marriage a failure.

- Historically speaking, our expectations for marriage have ascended Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At one time marriage was mostly about economic stability, while we now expect our relationships to meet our needs for self-esteem and personal fulfillment. No wonder we struggle to find “the right person” while our ancestors managed to stay with the first person they were attracted to or the person their family chose.

- There’s a lot in the book about love stories, and how they affect real relationships. Storytelling is humanity’s way of organizing information and making sense of interactions with others; we need to see patterns to recognize what’s going on. Many people acknowledge the more obvious discrepancies between love stories and the real world, like the idea that once the two of you decide to get together, everything else is “happily ever after” rather than requiring effort.

- But some of the subtler refrains in love stories go unnoticed. For instance, the idea that love is a moral reward given to the most “deserving” people. For women, this often means being passive and “good,” i.e., pleasing those in authority, and not pursuing love directly. The idea that love will come on its own as a reward for quiet virtue led the author to quietly play the chameleon for years as a teenager rather than pursue what she wanted.

- All this makes me wonder about the current crop of love stories for teens, which often portray abusive or controlling relationships as romantic. Perhaps we can neutralize the messages of these stories by talking about the issue, so kids don’t use assume that’s the way love works. But no matter how much we talk about it, some readers are sure to miss the conversation and drink in those assumptions. This isn’t addressed in the book – fortunately for her, the author doesn’t seem to have had any truly awful relationships.

- People are very invested in their own love stories. A good “how we met” story can build social support for a relationship, which is healthy. But a meet-cute doesn’t predict the quality of the relationship, and some people get into bad relationships because their beginnings make great stories.

- Relationship advice is often geared to justifying the advisor’s decisions. Listening to a lot of advice can be destabilizing, if it suggests all sorts of deficiencies in you or your relationships (who cares if your significant other doesn’t bring you flowers, if this isn’t important to you). Advice is also usually geared toward keeping people together – see amatonormativity above – and at avoiding ambiguity; if a seemingly great relationship breaks down, we want an explanation as to why. But in reality, falling out of love may be as mysterious as falling in love.

In the end, though she’s in a happy relationship, it doesn’t seem like the author has it all figured out (probably nobody does), so this is definitely a personal reflection rather than an advice book. It didn’t knock my socks off, and the last chapter seemed off-base and elegiac despite containing nothing that needed an elegy. But it was enjoyable and interesting, smart and well-written. It’ll make you think a bit and won’t make you feel hopeless or inadequate, which seems like a good measure for a book about love. 

The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman Waberi

The Land Without Shadows - Abdourahman A. Waberi

I read this short book (only 80 pages of text, plus a 20-page introduction) for my world books challenge, as a book set in Djibouti. I’m not sure I really “got” it, hence the lack of rating. Though billed as a collection of 17 short stories, most of these pieces are better described as a description, or an extended metaphor. Other reviewers have referred to them as essays, but as most of them seem to exist in fictional space (though often without plot and sometimes even without real characters), rather than advancing an organized argument, that description too seems not quite accurate.

Obviously I can only judge this work as a foreign reader and can’t predict the reactions of those who share the author’s cultural background. But I had to push myself through this one, and didn’t connect with it. The short pieces are highly stylized and often hard to understand, and only a couple, the ones with a recognizable plot, had me at all interested in the fates of the characters. However, the book did show me something of Djibouti. The pieces are set throughout the country’s history: dealing with legends, with the lives of nomads, with the colonial period, with modern war and disenchantment. Unfortunately for a reader unfamiliar with Djibouti, they are not organized chronologically. The introduction did help me understand these pieces and their context a bit better, and for other foreign readers I’d recommend reading that first; this isn’t the sort of book where spoilers are much of a concern. (Academics generally seem to assume that every single reader already knows how every single book ends and that no one gets any enjoyment from discovering the story as they go, so I typically read introductions last if I read them at all, to avoid massive spoilers. But here the introduction can serve as more of a readers’ guide.)

Camino de Hormigas by Miguel Huezo Mixco

Camino de Hormigas - Miguel Huezo Mixco

This was a somewhat confusing book, at least for me reading in my second language. We start off reading about an older man from El Salvador who lives and works in a stable in California, and has written a manuscript based on his experiences fighting in the war there, which he mails to an unknown friend. The protagonist of the novella isn’t the narrator from the frame story – or is he? The last chapter seems to blur the line between the two, while each individual chapter slips between multiple time periods and focuses on a different episode from the protagonist’s life. Although the backdrop is the war, the episodes are about the protagonist’s many sexual and romantic liaisons. I never really lost the sense that I’d rather have read the “true” story about the fictional writer’s past than about the misadventures of his promiscuous alter ego.

Nevertheless, the book was engaging enough (and short), and while the protagonist didn’t especially interest me, the women he got involved with did. I also learned a bit about El Salvador, its war and the lives of the guerrilleros. To my knowledge this hasn’t been translated to English, but I think it is likely worth translating.

Hunger by Roxane Gay

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Roxane Gay

I read this book shortly after Sherman Alexie’s You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, and the two have a lot in common. Like Alexie’s book, this one is emotionally raw and intense, and deals with very personal subjects; it is full of the author’s feelings about her life, but not quite the story of her life, conspicuously omitting some elements while baring her soul about others; whether to counteract the intensity of its subject matter or due to the author’s trauma, it is made up of a large number of short chapters; and as a result, it’s addictive reading that I finished much more quickly than I expected. Perhaps predictably, I liked this book better than Alexie’s, because it’s mostly chronological and contains no poems and is generally focused. Hunger may be best described as Roxane Gay’s reflection on her life through the lens of her size – she’s extremely overweight, though not as much as she used to be. The story of her life that emerges is bare-bones for a memoir and full of gaps and vagueness, but the account of her emotions and of living in the world in a body of her size holds back very little.

As Gay warns readers early on, this isn’t a triumphant or how-to sort of book about weight. But for readers who haven’t personally dealt with obesity, there are a couple of major takeaways. One is that most people probably haven’t reached “morbid obesity” simply by being self-indulgent or ignorant about healthy choices; for Gay, her initial overeating and her fear of losing weight are intimately bound up with a terrible childhood trauma, and this seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

The other is that being far larger than the average person complicates almost every aspect of one’s life. Some of it is constant family and social judgment and pressure to lose weight, and societal messaging that obese people are worthless. Apparently there are people out there who can’t resist taking food out of others’ shopping carts as if this is somehow going to solve anyone’s problems. Some of it is simple physical consequences, like moving more slowly than others and being in pain much of the time. And some of it is the way physical spaces aren’t set up to accommodate people of Gay’s size: she writes about having constant bruises on her legs from chair arms, about being unable to climb up on the stage unassisted at a speaking event, and about having a difficult time finding clothes to fit her (and then not feeling like she’s permitted to wear colorful or attractive clothes).

I think some people have the impression, perhaps unconsciously, that extremely overweight people don’t realize their weight is a problem (because if they did they’d have lost it already) and that if we don’t point it out and punish them for it, they won’t fix it. But of course the absurdity is clear: we live in a weight-obsessed culture, where someone like Gay has to brace herself for harassment or humiliation every day; treating people poorly won’t help anything. This book walks a fine line in its discussions of body image and health, and in my judgment it’s successful. Gay hardly trumpets her weight as an ideal, but she still sees loving her body as a valid goal, and calls out the medical establishment’s over-obsession with weight. When she comes in with strep throat, focusing on her obesity isn’t helpful – and many people (doctors and otherwise) hide simple social judgment behind purported “health” concerns over conditions she doesn’t actually have.

So, this is a great book to read for improving understanding and hopefully sensitivity toward others. It’s also well-written and a quick read. I’m a facts-driven kind of gal and would have liked it better if we’d learned more detail about the author’s life, but that clearly isn’t the focus of this particular book. Nevertheless, I recommend it.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant - Seth Dickinson

As of page 159, I'm pretty sure I'm done with this book. I was initially interested in the idea of a fantasy book about colonialism based on economic and political domination rather than military might. And the book is neither poorly written nor boring. But it is grim and cold, and while it is hardly the darkest book I've read, nor is the protagonist's life even close to the grimmest I've encountered, it is unrelieved by either an exciting plot or interesting characters. There's no humanity to these people; the book spins us through the typical overwrought "intrigue" scenes familiar to fantasy readers, but close to halfway through the book, not a single character feels like more than his or her political motivations. Even Baru, the protagonist, feels incomplete and cold. We're meant to believe that the memory of her homeland and trio of parents is a driving motivation, but we only ever see a couple of scenes of this and they are not particularly emotional ones. And since there's not much else to her, it's very difficult to empathize.

So while I could keep reading - it's not a terrible book - this one was leaving me feeling a little down after spending time with it and lacked sufficient redeeming qualities for me to want to put up with that.

The Best of Saki

The Best of Saki - Saki

I picked up this book after reading “The Open Window” online; the strong writing and clever twist made me curious to read more from Saki. These are bite-sized stories, only a few pages long, but this doesn’t prevent them from feeling complete and being quite engaging. Though their subjects are well-off Englishpeople at the turn of the twentieth century, they aren’t as tame as you might expect: common subjects include elaborate practical jokes and people (including small children) being killed by animals. A few even have an unexpected supernatural bent.

There appears to be more than one collection with the same title but slightly different tables of contents (stories cited by other reviewers here are absent from the volume I read), so I’m not sure if the book I will be describing is the same one you’re likely to read. But I have some doubts about whether the volume I read actually contains the “best” of Saki’s short stories: it includes a selection of 38 stories from five different collections, which improve markedly as the book progresses. The first three, very brief, stories are simply monologues from a clever and smug young man. After that the stories quickly develop tight plotting, which remains the case for the rest of the book. They are often quite clever, though emotionally cold; only in a few places in the collection does one character seem to genuinely care for another, and without the story making it ridiculous. A long stretch of stories feature the aloof, sardonic Clovis, a practical jokester with as much regard for others as your average sociopath. Toward the end the stories seem to be thawing a bit, as well as diversifying. Unfortunately, the author was killed in World War I, so we don’t know what he might have written next.

Overall, I enjoyed the collection: the stories are well-written, interesting and clever, although often darker than expected. And this particular grouping allows the reader to see a writer’s development if nothing else. I would read more from Saki, but I would choose his later collections.

 

 

The table of contents from the version I read:

Reginald
Reginald at the Theatre
Reginald on House-Parties
Reginald’s Drama

Reginald in Russia
The Reticence of Lady Anne
Gabriel-Ernest
Cross-Currents
The Mouse

The Chronicles of Clovis
Esme
The Match-Maker

Tobermory
The Background
The Unrest-Cure
The Jesting of Arlington Stringham
Sredni Vashtar
The Quest
The Easter Egg
The Peace of Mowsle Barton
The Talking-Out of Tarrington
The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope

Beasts and Super-Beasts
The She-Wolf
The Boar-Pig
The Brogue
The Open Window
The Schartz-Metterklume method
The Seventh Pullet
Clovis on Parental Responsibilities
A Holiday Task
The Stalled Ox
The Story-Teller
A Defensive Diamond
The Elk
The Lumber-Room

The Toys of Peace
Louise
The Guests
The Penance
Quail Seed
The Seven Cream Jugs
Hyacinth

House of Day, House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk

House Of Day, House Of Night - Olga Tokarczuk

Finally I found a book set in Poland by a Polish author that isn’t 500+ pages long. This is apparently an award-winner, but to me it often seemed bizarre; perhaps something is lost in translation. The book is divided into many short segments, moving between a nameless narrator and embedded short stories, a few of which the book revisits in multiple sections. The thread binding it all together is the setting of Nowa Ruda, a town on the Czech border that was transferred from Germany to Poland after WWII. The German residents were forced to leave, to be replaced by Poles transferred from land that went to Russia, an upheaval that still echoes in the 1990s when the narrator and her husband buy a farm there.

The short stories are fairly good, though melancholy. They are set in the area of Nowa Ruda throughout its history, from the life of a medieval saint to a late-medieval genderqueer monk who wrote about her, from a man who turns into a werewolf after eating human flesh during the war to the narrator’s neighbor who goes searching for a man who professed love to her in a dream. Magic realism characterizes many but not all of these stories, which are generally interesting in their own right.

Unfortunately, the stories comprise only around half of the book. The rest of it occurs in the narrator’s head, which is taken up by lengthy descriptions of dreams (her own and other people’s, culled from the Internet), flights of fancy, housekeeping minutiae, and mushroom recipes. It is hard for me to fathom the narrator’s purpose, as the author tells no particular story about her: she faces no challenges and experiences no change. Only at the end does she make a startling, though unexplored, discovery about her elderly German neighbor, whose daily habits are also tediously described throughout the book. In the meanwhile she occupies herself with detailed fantasies about being a mushroom or containing a house.

This book has a definite ambiance, and I do like the way it unfolds the history of a place. If it had been a collection of short stories alone, I’d probably have given 3.5 stars. The stories suffer no lack of plot and are often evocative. But as is I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you are the sort of reader who actually enjoys dream sequences.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir - Sherman Alexie

This is an unusual book and not what I expected, so my rating may not predict yours (as readers so far have loved it wildly, it probably doesn’t). I hadn’t read anything by Alexie before and chose this over Part-Time Indian because I enjoy memoirs but not YA. But this is far from a typical memoir, which tells the story of the author’s life – usually focusing on a particular aspect or theme – in chronological chapters. The first chapter, which has 19 pages and focuses – despite various digressions – on a crucial event from the author’s childhood, fits into that pattern and had me enthralled. But this is in no way representative of the book as a whole. It consists of 156 chapters, ranging from short to extremely short (though the page count may appear long for a memoir, I’d guess the word count is in line with that of your typical 250- to 300-page book). Half of the chapters are poems. The prose chapters are sometimes only a paragraph long, more commonly 2-4 pages.

These brief essays and poems don’t exactly tell the story of Alexie’s life. He wrote the book while grieving for his mother, and much of it revolves around her, but much of it (especially the poetry) is about grief itself. Another big topic is a brain surgery he had a few months after his mother’s death. So much of the book comes across as the author reflecting on his life as it is now rather than telling the story of where he’s been. To the extent it’s about where he’s been, information about his childhood is scattered throughout the book, while everything after that is even more partial and fragmented. Or maybe it’s just that the information about his adult life didn’t answer the questions I had: he mentions only in passing that he struggled with alcoholism as a young adult, causing him to change colleges, but writes an entire chapter about how the laundry room in his current home was extremely cold until he finally bought some curtains for the basement.

Meanwhile, I have little appreciation for poetry, particularly free verse, which much of Alexie’s poetry is. If there’s something to be said for free verse, it’s that it is a recognized format in which to briefly encapsulate a moment, a thought or a feeling. But this is a large book; I didn’t want brief. And I didn’t want fragments. This book is made up of fragments, which is a deliberate and valid artistic choice: Alexie writes about how much of his history – personal, familial, and cultural – has been lost, and leaving holes is his way of representing that. For me though, the effect was to leave me disconnected from the work, which lessened the impact of the artistic choices.

All that said, this is in no way a bad book. It is well-written and engaging. It is raw and personal and feels emotionally honest. I zoomed through it in a few sittings, not only because bite-sized chapters are addictive but because it is so personal and emotionally intense. It certainly provides some cultural education for the non-native reader: the author grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation, where much of his family still lives, and writes about his Native American identity. Although it left me somewhat dissatisfied, I am glad I read this book and wouldn’t discourage others from reading it, particularly those who enjoy poetry.

(As an aside, a brief mention in this book alerted me to the danger of indoor radon, so who knows, Sherman Alexie may have saved my life.)

World Books Challenge - 140 Countries Progress Post

This is the latest update to my world books challenge, where I keep track of the books I've read so far. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these, but the gist is that I’m doing a challenge to read a book primarily set in every country in the world, preferably written by a local author. You can find an FAQ for my challenge here.

At this point, I’ve read books set in 140 out of 201 countries (70% of the world). Countries from which I've read books are bolded, with links to the books and my reviews; countries from which I haven't are in plain text, but if I have a book in mind, I've linked to that with an asterisk. Questions, comments, book recommendations - let me know in the comments, especially if you have a recommendation for a country for which I haven't yet found a book!


North America and the Caribbean
17 out of 24 countries = 71%

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
Nicaragua: The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli - review (unrated)
Panama: Come Together, Fall Apart by Cristina Henriquez - review ★★★½
El Salvador *
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
37 out of 54 countries = 69%

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 ★★★★
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 *
Gabon

East Africa
Burundi: Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder - review ★★★
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: Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana - review ★★★
Djibouti *

Southern Africa
Botswana: Maru by Bessie Head - review ★★★
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
Lesotho *
Madagascar
Seychelles
Swaziland

 

 

Europe
29 out of 49 countries = 59%

Western Europe
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: La Bête humaine by Émile Zola - review (unrated)
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 ★★★★
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
Austria *
Liechtenstein
Luxembourg
Malta
Monaco
Portugal *
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 ★★
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
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 *
Czech Republic *
Estonia *
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
25 out of 31 countries = 81%

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 ★★★★
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 ★★
Bhutan *
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
10 out of 15 countries = 67%

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
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 *
Papua New Guinea *
Vanuatu *

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl - Hope Jahren

This is an enjoyable memoir of a life in science. Jahren is an award-winning geobiologist and geochemist, and she seems to have intended the memoir as an “all the messy bits” counterpoint to scientific writing. She writes a lot about life in the lab and about road trips, and about the difficulty of raising funding and making ends meet and breaking in as a young scientist (especially a young female scientist), and about her long-term platonic relationship with her eccentric lab technician and best friend, Bill. She also writes a lot about trees and plants, talking about how they function in a dynamic and colorful manner, worlds away from the dry facts that dominate most biology classes. She writes a little about her personal life – a bit about her mental health issues, largely in the context of her awful pregnancy, and a little about her family – and although she discusses various experiments, says almost nothing about her accomplishments. Mostly you can tell Jahren is successful because she dared to write such a personal account of her life in science at all.

At any rate, it’s a good book and I enjoyed reading it. The writing is clear and the stories engaging. Although I’m classifying it as part memoir, part nonfiction, readers shouldn’t be put off by the scientific information, which is either presented as part of personal stories or set apart in short chapters detailing the lives of plants in lively and easily understood ways. And the heart of the book – about two wacky people who are willing to work hard and sacrifice and persevere to follow their dreams – will appeal to a wide audience. This book didn’t blow me away, but I understand why it did others, and would recommend it.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix (Who Fears Death) - Nnedi Okorafor

This short, futuristic novel is essentially a power/revenge fantasy focused on the exploitation of people of African descent, especially in medical research. (Calling it a power fantasy isn’t necessarily a criticism; much of sci-fi and fantasy consists of power fantasies for white male nerds, so it seems only fair for others to get a cut of the action.) Despite a compelling start and socially relevant themes, however, this one flopped for me.

Phoenix lives in a future America in which powerful corporations perform medical experimentation on people, mostly black, who live locked up in mysterious Towers. She knows nothing else and is content until something awful happens to her best friend and love interest, at which point she starts to rebel and discovers the powers with which she was endowed. This is a prequel to a post-apocalyptic fantasy tale and has a frame story, so it’s no secret that somewhere along the way the world as we know it is destroyed, and most readers will guess how; nevertheless, this is your warning that this review will contain SPOILERS.

Okorafor sets the stage well, with an oppressive dystopian setting and a young protagonist struggling to make sense of it and survive. The first third of the book makes for compelling reading, with a fast-paced story full of danger set in a believable world. But as in the companion book, Who Fears Death, the protagonist becomes too powerful, leaching the story of dramatic tension. Once Phoenix learns that she can fly for days on end, die and regenerate as many times as necessary, and move through time and space in an instant and apparently without limit, the story no longer presents obstacles that really challenge her. She attacks one of the Towers alone and without planning and succeeds, so the long stretch toward the end spent preparing to attack another with a group seems unnecessary and anticlimactic (though from a narrative perspective, it allows some down time and for Phoenix to bond more with other characters).

The end also proved unsatisfying. Phoenix suddenly decides the world is irredeemable and that the goddess Ani – who, mind you, does not appear in the book – wants her to destroy it. This decision made little sense to me: after all, her lover is alive and needs rescuing, and while she did just discover that several powerful and corrupt men have used the Towers’ research to extend their lives indefinitely, there’s nothing stopping her from hunting them down individually. The connection to the writing of the Great Book and the world of Who Fears Death also seems strained, though I enjoyed the chapters of the frame story as an independent short story.

Meanwhile, the characterization is fairly simplistic; reviewers who have interpreted this as intentional due to Phoenix’s chronological age may well be correct, but I have my doubts, as the book portrays Phoenix as an adult woman in her intellectual capacity and ability to form relationships. Likewise, the writing style is simple and sometimes staccato, which suits the dystopian setting fine. The world has texture and is a conceivable outgrowth of our world, an important but often-overlooked element of a good dystopia. On the other hand, some details seem under-researched: the bizarre chapter in which, despite the secrecy in which these projects are shrouded, the only records of ongoing medical experiments turn out to be catalogued and housed in hard copy in the Library of Congress (which apparently will switch to Dewey Decimal in the future?) available for browsing by anyone with ID, has been thoroughly dissected in other reviews.

Overall, while this book has some interesting ideas, their execution proved to be a letdown. Not having thought much of Who Fears Death either, I’m ready to conclude that Okorafor’s work is not for me.

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are - Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

This is an engaging and informative book about the huge amount of data available online and what it tells us about society. I read it alongside Dataclysm and found Everybody Lies to be by far the better of the two, presenting a wealth of information in a cohesive fashion and making fewer unfounded assumptions. The author was a data scientist at Google, and draws in large part on the searches people make on the site, along with information from sites including Facebook and Pornhub.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the data, from the rate of racist searches in the rust belt predicting the rise of Donald Trump, to common body anxieties and whether they actually matter to the opposite sex, to an estimate of how many men are gay and whether that varies by geography (it appears not), to rates of self-induced abortions. This is a great book to read if you love unusual factoids, whether on sexual proclivities or how sports fans are made.

The author also writes in a compelling way about the uses of Big Data itself, and while he waxes evangelical about it (evidently preferring to spend all his time immersed in statistically significant data, he finds novels and biographies too “small and unrepresentative" and therefore uninteresting), there are certainly a lot of possibilities there. In health, for instance, compiling early searches about symptoms with later searches for how to handle a diagnosis can help doctors detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage, while epidemics can be tracked through symptom searches. The author is also interested in how applying data can revolutionize a field, discussing at length the data that predicted the success of the racehorse American Pharaoh. (By "at length" I mean 9 pages; this is a book that moves through a broad range of topics quickly.)

Overall, the writing is engaging and the book hangs together well, being informative while mostly resisting the urge to speculate. But the author does make a couple of assumptions worth pointing out. One is that people’s Google searches are made in earnest and for personal reasons. Certainly, you might search for “depression symptoms” out of concern that you or someone you know is depressed. But you also might want to be prepared in advance to identify warning signs, or might have encountered something in the media that sparked your interest, or you might be a student writing a paper on the topic. On the other hand, if you’re intimately familiar with depression already, you’re unlikely to google the symptoms. None of this means the author’s finding a 40% difference in rates of depression symptom searches between Chicago and Hawaii isn’t relevant, but data that’s both over- and under-inclusive serves better as a starting point for research than a definitive conclusion. It's certainly not proof that better geography is twice as effective as antidepressants, as the author suggests.

The other assumption is that everybody lies: the book insists on it, based largely on the fact that typically rosy social media posts fail to reflect all those unhappy or hateful searches. Selectively sharing information doesn’t necessarily seem to me to be lying, but the author appears invested in proving the book’s title. For instance, he discusses a particular type of tax fraud: in areas where few tax professionals or people eligible for the scheme live, 2% of people who could benefit from this lie tell it, while in areas with high concentrations of both, the rate of cheating is around 30%. The author concludes that “the key isn’t determining who is honest and who is dishonest. It is determining who knows how to cheat and who doesn’t.” This bleak view of the world fails to account for the 70% who don’t cheat even in areas with high levels of knowledge; finding that significant numbers of people cheat if they know how is a far cry from finding that everyone does.

So, like the author of Dataclysm, Stephens-Davidowitz is probably a better statistician than sociologist. But if you’re interested in Big Data, or in getting a peek at the thoughts and anxieties people ask Google about because they’re not comfortable sharing with others, this is the book I recommend. You’ll certainly get a lot of interesting tidbits from it, along with perhaps new inhibitions about typing things into Google!

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian

Post Captain (Aubrey/Maturin Book 2) - Patrick O'Brian

This is a lot of fun, literary historical fiction with a dose of action. I read the first book a few years back and enjoyed it, though I struggled with the morass of seafaring terms. Either this book reduces them or I’d just gotten used to not understanding every word. This book broadens the world of the series, giving the heroes some time onshore to get into trouble and romantic entanglements (these sections are surprisingly reminiscent of Jane Austen, who was writing around the time these novels are set, which lends credibility to the text). There is perhaps less action here than in the first book, but the stakes are higher and more of the secondary characters are fleshed out. Aubrey and Maturin are both still complex, believable, flawed characters with a complicated friendship. The writing is good, there are moments of humor, and the setting is brought so thoroughly to life that a reader might be fooled into believing O’Brian was writing about his own time period. I think I must have liked this book better than the first, because I’m ready to read the third book sooner rather than later.

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

By Christian Rudder Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) - Christian Rudder

On its face this book sounds good: data guru uses the information people share online, particularly on the dating website OkCupid, to reveal demographic trends. There is some interesting information here, along with fun graphs and charts. But while Rudder may be a good statistician, he’s a poor sociologist, and the book is riddled with eyebrow-raising assumptions and conclusions. It also hangs together poorly, jumping from one disconnected subject to another, with chapters that share a fairly simple finding padded by repetitive discussions of the author’s methods and rhapsodizing about the scope of his data. For a better book on what Big Data says about us, I recommend the more recent Everybody Lies.

Unfortunately, Rudder begins the book with random, skewed guessing. In describing OkCupid, he confidently asserts that “[t]onight, some thirty thousand couples will have their first date because of OkCupid. Roughly three thousand of them will end up together long-term. Two hundred of those will get married[.]” This caught my attention immediately: 10% of online first dates leading to long-term relationships is a fantastic success rate, but less than 7% of long-term relationships ending in marriage seems awfully low for the 20’s-and-up crowd. Curious what definition of “long-term” Rudder was using, I flipped to the notes at the back, only to find that he made it all up based on the fact that the site has 4 million active users and 300 couples per day reporting that they are leaving OkCupid because they found someone on the site. Plus his intuition that fewer than 1 in 10 long-term couples get married: “How many serious relationships did you have before you found the person you settled down with? I imagine the average number is roughly 10.” My own experience of the world is very different (I don’t think I know anyone who’s had 10+ long-term, serious relationships). And since the average American woman marries at 27 and man at 29, and according to the CDC, the average adult woman reports 4 lifetime sexual partners while the average man reports 6-7, Rudder’s impression seems the more likely to be skewed.

The author’s conclusions are equally questionable. He observes that men seem to find 20-year-old women the most attractive (at least on a site evidently without teenagers) throughout their lives, while women’s view of male attractiveness changes to accommodate their own age, and concludes that middle-aged men don’t contact young women for fear of rejection and social judgment. This overlooks the fact that there’s much more to a relationship than physical attractiveness; how many 50-year-old men want to live in a world of exam stress and frat parties, with a partner who has comparatively little life experience?

Another chapter seems to confuse correlation and causation. In “You’ve Gotta be the Glue,” Rudder explains that couples who each have multiple clusters of Facebook connections from different areas of their lives, and are the only person connected to each other’s various tribes, last longer than couples who are connected to all the same people, who all know each other. This makes sense: if you belong to several social groups (co-workers, college friends, book club, etc.) and your partner has gotten to know all of them, your relationship is well-established and likely serious. But if you belong to a tight-knit community and start dating someone within your group, your Facebook connections provide no indication of how serious you are. Rudder, however, interprets the data as proving causation, concluding that the “specialness” of the couple in being the “glue” between different social groups somehow boosts the relationship. He fails to explain how “connecting” his gaming buddies to his wife’s extended family strengthens their marriage – presumably if these social groups cared to mingle much, they’d befriend each other on Facebook and then what happens to the couple’s “specialness”?

When the book moves away from dating-related data, it becomes a series of disconnected one-off chapters. There’s a discourse about group rage on the Internet that involves little data analysis and seems to be included because the author is interested in group rage on the Internet. There’s a chapter about the language used in Twitter posts, concluding that Twitter definitely isn’t killing sophisticated thought because “a,” “and,” and “the” are among the top 10 words used in English both on Twitter and off of it. There’s an equation meant to demonstrate that multiplying a word’s frequency rank in a text by its number of uses will result in a constant, but the chart meant to illustrate this point with Ulysses displays a “constant” ranging from 20,000 to 29,055.

All that said, there is some interesting material here, particularly the data on race. The chapter on racist Google searches is less relevant now that the author of that study has written his own book (the aforementioned Everybody Lies); and Dataclysm, published in 2014, has a rosier view of this than the 2017, Trump-era version. But the study showing massive racial differences in how people rate one another’s attractiveness is still quite relevant: key findings include the fact that people tend to view members of their own race as more attractive than others, but black Americans take a major hit in the ratings from everybody (including other black people, though to a lesser degree). My first reaction on reading this was that it’s hard to judge people for preferring cultural commonalities in their most intimate relationships. But the data isn’t so simple: it’s based on how people rate a photo, not whom they choose to contact, and attractiveness doesn’t only affect one’s dating prospects, but employment too (there’s a chart on that). And in-group biases in American society are hardly limited to dating; while our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, churches, and friend groups are still largely separate, I’m inclined to believe that Rudder’s data does show hidden bias.

Overall, while there are interesting nuggets in here, I wouldn’t recommend the book. A few interesting data points are padded into book-length by ill-conceived interpretations and rambling. By the end I was simply tired of it – the writing didn’t engage me when unaccompanied by charts, the book lacks cohesion and the author had lost far too much credibility. Try Everybody Lies instead.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe - Kij Johnson

I really enjoyed this novella. It is in dialogue with a short story by Lovecraft, which I have not read, but you don’t need to read that to enjoy this. And fortunately for me, this is fantasy, not horror. It is set in a portal world clearly conceived as the stuff of nightmares, with monsters, shifting natural laws and an angry sky; if this were made into a movie the horror would be inescapable. But through the eyes of a protagonist who hails from that world, these are simply facts of life, evoking no fear or disgust.

Vellitt Boe is a professor at the Ulthar Women’s College. She had an adventurous youth before going to college and settling down, so when a student runs off to the “waking world” (ours), putting the college in danger, Vellitt sets out on a quest to retrieve her. It’s an engaging story, written in Johnson’s smooth-flowing style that makes the book feel as much like literary fiction as fantasy. The world is highly imaginative, brought to life with a texture that must be Johnson’s own. And Vellitt is an interesting and endearing character, with a quiet toughness and the good sense one would hope for from a middle-aged adventurer.

This could easily have been expanded to a full-length novel, and I’m unsure why it wasn’t: Johnson takes some shortcuts through the waking-world portion, and the end is really the beginning of something else, providing little resolution. But it succeeds in telling a good story, while responding to the sexism and racism that was apparently rampant in Lovecraft. Sometimes Johnson is quite pointed in this, in other places subtle: Vellitt is apparently a woman of color, but the only indication I saw was the description of her hair. And when she arrives in the waking world, she remarks on the large numbers of women there, a clever dig at male-created fantasy worlds populated overwhelmingly by men.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed and would recommend this, along with Johnson’s other works, particularly Fudoki. I haven’t seen a bad book from this author yet, and look forward to more!

The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod

The cost of sugar - Cynthia Mc Leod

This is a lively, melodramatic work of historical fiction set in mid-18th century Suriname. At that time, the small nation on the northern coast of South America was a Dutch colony consisting of sugar and coffee plantations carved out of the jungle, many of them run by Jewish owners who arrived in Suriname via Portugal and Brazil, and all of them worked by slaves. Unlike in North America, however, proximity to the jungle meant that slaves often escaped to form their own communities, which were in constant conflict with the colonial government.

The story spans 14 years and has a large cast for under 300 pages, but its protagonists are stepsisters Elza and Sarith, both daughters of Jewish plantation owners. The two are best friends as girls, but soon find themselves opposed, primarily because Elza is a sweet young woman who treats the slaves well while Sarith is short-sighted and willing to ruin the lives of everyone around her in order to get her way. Yes, it’s that kind of book. The book focuses on Elza early on, then shifts its attention later in the story to Sarith, Sarith’s slave Mini-mini, and a young mercenary named Jan.

Which is to say that there’s no single plotline, and characters come and go rather oddly (I expected Alex to become more important than he did, and Amimba, as the first character we meet, to have something more than a walk-on role). But as a story about a place and a society, rather than any single protagonist, it flows well. The plot moves quickly and stays interesting, the translation is fluid, and the characters – if not particularly complex – are sympathetic, except when not intended to be. It presents a detailed picture of a historical era that doesn’t feel overly influenced by modern views, though it can be a little ham-fisted. The author has clearly done her share of research on Surinamese history and is able to bring her cultural knowledge to the pages.

Interestingly, most of the novel was originally written in Dutch, but slaves at the time were forbidden from learning Dutch, so conversed among themselves and with whites in Sranan, a creole language related to English as well as other European and African languages. The author originally wrote conversations involving slaves in Sranan, which is evidently still sufficiently widely-spoken in Suriname for the original audience to understand. In the English version, the Sranan dialogue is translated, but you can see the original in the footnotes. Helpful footnotes also explain those words or concepts that will be unfamiliar for the English-speaking reader (there’s a glossary at the end too, but I didn’t need it).

Overall, this is an entertaining work that will likely appeal to those who enjoy popular historical fiction. It’s not great literature but doesn’t try to be. And props to the author for writing a book for a country she was told “doesn’t have a reading tradition” – this book is now apparently beloved in Suriname after all.