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Ekomo by María Nsue Angüe

Ekomo - María Nsue Angüe

Spanish review to come

This is an interesting short novel, set in Equatorial Guinea and as far as I know, only available in Spanish. It reminds me of a lot of African fiction centered around the lives of people living in traditional rural communities: Mema, The Dark Child, and The Purple Violet of Oshaantu are similar choices available in English.

This book is narrated by a young woman named Nnanga, who is married to the eponymous Ekomo. The book begins with an omen of imminent death in their village, and follows Nnanga's story in a generally linear fashion, though there are sizeable flashbacks to her childhood and youth as a dancer, and some detours to relate legends and marital disputes in the village. It’s a colorful story, with forbidden romance, kidnapping of brides, a nude dancing ritual, and a journey to a medicine man, and the plot consistently kept me engaged. Until the end it felt mostly upbeat; at the end I wasn’t entirely sure whether the author meant to criticize cultural practices that harm women, or the introduction of foreign ideas into Africa. (The introduction writer focuses on the latter, but then he’s a man.)

But it’s fair to say that I’m not the best reviewer for this book, because I didn’t entirely understand it. Spanish is not my first language, and because the language of the book is relatively simple, I didn’t spend much time looking up words as I went. The copyediting could use some work: there are a lot of typos, and the lack of section breaks for major topical shifts may create confusion.

Overall though, an interesting book that immerses the reader in the narrator’s life in rural Equatorial Guinea. I wish I'd understood it a bit better.

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić

The Bridge on the Drina - Ivo Andrić, Lovett F. Edwards, William Hardy McNeill

This is a sort of fictionalized history, which the author referred to as a “chronicle” rather than a novel. It spans about 350 years in the history of Višegrad, Bosnia, telling the story of the town and its Ottoman-era bridge from the 16th century to World War I. The book dips into the lives of individual characters, usually for vignettes of a chapter or less, but focuses more on the general feeling or changes in the town and the reaction of townspeople in general to key events than on particular characters. There are some astute character sketches; Andrić seems to have a good understanding of human nature. But overall it is a sweeping history told much more in narrative summary than specific scenes, and the town and bridge themselves, rather than particular families or plot threads, provide continuity between chapters.

It is a well-written (or well-translated) book, though a dense and slow read that felt much longer than its 300 pages. There’s a melancholy atmosphere throughout, with time passing and empires marching on indifferent to the fates of individuals. Readers should know that in the first 60 pages there is a horrifically graphic impalement scene that I did not need in my head and that a few years from now may be all I remember about the book. I persevered only after learning that there are no other graphic torture scenes, though death is a frequent occurrence throughout.

It’s also worth pointing out that, although to English-speakers this may seem like timeless storytelling, Andrić – a Bosnian Serb who ultimately made his home in Belgrade – is a controversial figure in Bosnia, and some see the book as advancing an anti-Bosniak political agenda. To me, as an outside reader, he seems to treat the Muslim and Serb populations of Višegrad both with humanity and fairly evenhandedly, with the important caveat that the Muslim population is referred to as “Turks” and “Turkish” throughout. Based on a bit of online research, this is inaccurate: the Bosnians were Slavs who had their own Bosnian Kingdom prior to their conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1463, after which most of the population converted to Islam. But a reader ignorant of the region’s history might take Andrić’s terminology to indicate that Bosnia’s Muslims were Turkish colonists or transplants and that the Serbs were the original population. It occurs to me now that the impalement might be another subtly political decision: no such detailed brutality is described from any rulers other than the Ottomans, and Andrić imbues this scene with the maximum body horror, at a time when graphic violence in media was likely much less common than it is now (the book was published in 1945). Surely he knew how much this would stick out in readers’ minds.

Overall, the book did teach me something of the history of the Balkans, and presents a plausible chronicle of how history was experienced by everyday people over the course of hundreds of years. While I struggled a bit to get through it, I wouldn’t discourage readers who enjoy this sort of thing.

Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior's Apprentice - Lois McMaster Bujold

This is an enjoyable science fiction caper. As a rule I don’t like sci-fi, so if it sounds like the sort of book that will push the right buttons for you, you should expect to like it better. Warrior’s Apprentice seemed like a good choice for me because its focus is on the characters rather than the technology, and it’s better-written than a lot of genre fiction. As these books tend to go, it is mostly lighthearted – with a plot driven by the protagonist’s prowess at social engineering, with which he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole – but there’s war involved so there’s also some death and gruesomeness.

At age 17, Miles Vorkosigan flunks the imperial officer exam in a disability-related accident. But he soon finds a new adventure when he picks up a couple of desperate men in need of work, and a dated spaceship providing exactly the kind of work they need. The small crew tangles with a mercenary army and things escalate from there. It’s a fun and fast-moving adventure, with reasonably well-defined characters. Miles fits a lot of sci-fi and fantasy stereotypes: the boy who’s a native military genius; the physically disadvantaged, snarky guy who runs mental circles around everyone else; you’ve all seen this before. I think he’s a good example of the type though, perhaps because Bujold is writing less from her id than other authors with similar protagonists. Miles was born with his disadvantages, but he also has a lot of advantages, and the book doesn’t try to engineer sympathy for his circumstances in place of making him a sympathetic character. Some authors will have a character treated absurdly badly for no fault of his own and use that to justify anything, in place of giving the character a moral compass; Bujold doesn’t take that shortcut. Miles is also more explicitly defined as a disabled character than I’ve seen in spec fic before.

Overall, this was fun but I wasn’t over the moon about it, likely in part because this simply isn’t my genre of choice. I might read the sequel someday, though it’s hard to tell which book in this complicated series picks up where this one leaves off.

The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA - Doug Mack

A book about America’s territories: part travelogue, part history, part investigation of the territories’ political status, this is a lightweight, readable introduction to a complicated topic. Doug Mack takes readers along on his trip through the territories: beginning in the U.S. Virgin Islands, then traveling to American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, and ending with a trip to Puerto Rico. He even makes a stop in the Marshall Islands and briefly discusses the U.S.’s “freely associated states” of the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia. (These are independent Pacific Island countries that have a special relationship with the U.S., even having U.S. post offices and citizens serving in the U.S. military; as a group, they were best known to me for being the only other U.N. member states to always vote against sanctions for Israel.) Along the way, he shares his research about the territories in an accessible way that provides a good primer for readers new to the topic.

I found this book interesting, educational and easy to read. The author shows readers each territory as a unique place and digs into their histories and the history of U.S. international policies more broadly. He also examines the legal oddities governing the rights of the territories and their residents: for instance, they are eligible for some public benefits on their islands, but never become eligible for others even when living in the mainland U.S. (some of which actual foreign immigrants can receive after several years). Meanwhile mainland Americans can’t vote for president if they relocate to the territories. Mack pushes for opinions on the territories’ political status, and except in Puerto Rico often finds them hard to come by; for the most part, territory residents seem to prefer a flawed status quo to possibly losing individuality by becoming a state, or losing economically by becoming independent.

Mack could have improved the book a bit by being a little more willing to go out of his comfort zone as a traveler. He does meet a variety of people living in the territories, including, in the Northern Mariana Islands, a man who spent several years in another part of the Pacific learning traditional navigation, and a woman who immigrated from China to work in the garment factories. But his only exposure to obeah in the U.S. Virgin Islands is asking a well-off couple (he’s a local but she is a scuba instructor from the mainland U.S.) about it, to which they essentially smile and roll their eyes. Toward the end, he comments with surprising honesty that “In all my travels in the territories, I’d seen countless shacks and set foot in many middle-class houses and gaped from afar at the occasional oceanfront villa.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him to try to get invitations to some shacks as well, and the book gives little sense of how most people live in the territories.

All that said, with the exception of Puerto Rico, the territories are tiny islands about which relatively little has been written, especially in such an easy-to-read, bite-sized format, and this book did an excellent job of filling them out on my mental map. I would recommend it to any American to learn a bit more about some of the furthest-flung parts of the country. It can even be funny: did you know about the U.S. government’s machinations in the 19th century to claim uninhabitated islands for their bird poop?

Forbidden Bread by Erica Johnson Debeljak

Forbidden Bread - Erica Johnson Debeljak

This is an interesting memoir by a former New York financial analyst who moved to the newly-formed Slovenia in 1993 for love. I read it because it’s set primarily in Slovenia, and in that respect was rewarded: it provides not just a vibrant snapshot of a particular place and time, but information about culture and language and history. I learned more about the most recent war in the Balkans from this book than from any other that I’ve read. As a memoir and especially as a love story, though, I found this a bit lacking.

This book is mostly about Erica Johnson Debeljak’s first year in Slovenia, but it begins by tracing her relationship with her future husband, Aleš, in New York, and the final chapter, set in 2008, puts her experiences in context and reflects on how dramatically the country has changed. An outsider’s perspective gives her a sharp eye for detail, but being married to a local and living in a country that was not a destination for westerners at the time means the author isn’t a typical expat: her in-laws, who grew up in a small village and lived most of their lives under communism, are involved in her life, and she lives in a working-class area and spends time with Aleš’s rural extended family. She even gives birth at a local hospital, where the judgment of whether a childbirth is successful seems to depend mostly on the mother’s making no noise (epidurals aren’t even mentioned, though surely they must have been common in New York by 1993?).

But the book is rather lacking in emotion for the first 2/3 or so, up until the author’s decision to have a child. Perhaps she really did take moving to a newly-formed country bordered by war in stride, but this doesn’t let readers get to know her very well. The emotion snaps into focus toward the end, as pregnancy and childbirth put her in conflict with traditional Slovenian beliefs and practices (this is apparently a country where people wouldn’t open car windows in the hot summer because All Drafts Are Deadly), and as having a child brings home the fact that her decision is permanent.

There was something oddly unsatisfying about the author’s personal story, though, because her depiction of her relationship with her husband is so charmless. He’s a renowned womanizer, and their early relationship seems to revolve entirely around sex. While she’s clearly pleased with the sex and seems to find him excitingly exotic, that doesn’t explain why she would keep pursuing – ultimately across an ocean – a man who routinely pushes her away, insisting the relationship won’t work out. A few months into their marriage, she’s pleasantly surprised that he’s been a good husband, because it turns out her greatest fear in moving to Slovenia was that he’d cheat on her within a few months. I’ve seen memoirists depict relationships with exes with more charm and sweetness than this author brings to the marriage for which she gave up a career and moved across the world. In the end I wasn’t sure whether to attribute the lack of romance to secret unhappiness on the author’s part, or simply to her storytelling: perhaps she was afraid of seeming sentimental or felt the romance was self-evident. But she didn’t provide enough to make me root for them as a couple or understand what drew either of them so strongly to the other and to this relationship.

At any rate, I did enjoy book for the author’s depiction of her life in Slovenia, and even looked forward to reading it. It’s accessible and interesting and I learned from it. It is a good choice for anyone interested in Slovenia, though perhaps not ideal for those seeking a love story.

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories by Daniel Kelin

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories - Daniel A. Kelin

It’s hard to rate books of folklore; it seems odd to judge another culture’s traditional stories on my standards for literature or entertainment. But I can only rate from my own perspective, which is affected by factors out of the author’s control. One, I’ve read several books of folklore lately, and may have begun to tire of it a bit; I can say this is neither the best nor the worst such book I’ve recently encountered. Perhaps I imbibed too many somewhat similar, very short stories in too little time, and my interest has waned. Two, I had this through Interlibrary Loan on a tight schedule, which left me feeling obligated to pick it up at times I would otherwise have chosen something else.

That said, this is a perfectly readable collection of folklore that made sense to me as a foreign reader. Which makes sense, because the stories were told to a foreign (Hawai’i-based) author/dramaturge who collected them. The book is sized to fit in with textbooks, and has ultra-wide margins in which definitions and pronunciations are sometimes included. But with large font and illustrations, it is still a quick read. It includes brief biographical sketches (and sometimes photographs) of the storytellers, but to me these were too brief: the barest of bare-bones, without room to for the storytellers’ personalities or life experiences to come alive. 

Overall, there’s nothing here that would make me hesitate to recommend the book to those who enjoy folklore. But I prefer books from which I can learn more directly about what people’s lives are like.

Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu

Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve - Lenora Chu

This is a really interesting book that offers a firsthand view of the Chinese school system from a mostly-American perspective. Lenora Chu is a daughter of Chinese immigrants who was raised in the U.S., her husband a white American who volunteered in China with the Peace Corps. After moving to Shanghai for work, they enroll their son in a prestigious Chinese preschool. Concerning incidents at the school spark the author’s journey to learn more about the Chinese school system: she observes classrooms in China and the U.S., talks to experts, and gets to know Chinese high schoolers and parents.

So the book is part memoir, part nonfiction. From an American perspective it’s a fascinating comparison; so much of what I tend to view as going wrong in current American ideas of education and child-rearing seems to be heightened in China, from overscheduled kids (in China it’s usually tutoring or extracurricular classes rather than swimming, gymnastics etc.), to an unwillingness to let kids play freely and explore because they might hurt themselves (other parents judge Chu for letting her son run around the living room jumping off chairs, etc., and the school states that kids aren’t allowed to talk during lunch because they might choke), to a heavy emphasis on testing. Regarding that last one, pressure for the high school and college entrance exams in China is so intense that in one town a crackdown on cheating resulted in parents and students rioting.

Which actually leads to one of the positive features of the Chinese system: Chinese families tend to treat academics the way American families treat sports, to the point of huge crowds of people gathering outside exam sites to see their kids off and shout well-wishes. While Americans face a social penalty for being “nerds” and tend to view academic success as a matter of inborn talent (so if you don’t have it, why bother to try), the Chinese have valued brains – and judged people by their test scores – for centuries, and believe that success is largely a matter of effort. They aren’t afraid to demand work from kids or to ask them to memorize. This is especially noticeable in math: while American schools tend to wrap up simple math in verbally complicated “word problems” in an attempt to make the work “relevant” to kids who won’t have a professional job for a decade or more anyway, Chinese schools forge ahead and have young kids doing more advanced problems. This is helped by the fact that Chinese teachers specialize in their subject matter from the first grade, while American elementary school teachers are generalists (who by and large don’t like math and weren’t good at it themselves). Of course it’s also helped by Chinese schools’ making no attempt to integrate kids with special needs into regular classrooms, which American schools must do.

It’s evident from Chu’s writing that all of these issues are complicated: each school system has its advantages and disadvantages, but many of the advantages come with their own negatives or are bound up with the culture and therefore hard to replicate, while the disadvantages can also have silver linings. And of course no huge country has a uniform school system: just as the U.S. has both great and failing schools, China too has huge disparities, with many rural schools being shafted.

There's a lot in the book that I haven't even discussed here: politics in the classroom, the social position of teachers, the encouragement of creativity or lack thereof, and how all this affects students in the long run. But the book isn’t a treatise. Chu keeps it lively and interesting with accounts of her own family’s experiences, and with a clear, journalistic writing style. I imagine some readers might criticize her parenting decisions – at times it felt as if she were trying to claim a high-minded rationale for a choice of school that ultimately came down to cost, while she and her husband seemed willing to accept (if unhappily) a certain amount of what many Americans would consider abusive treatment of preschool kids (such as forcefeeding, or threatening to call the police on them when they misbehave) in the interests of having a disciplined and well-behaved child. But for the American reader it’s a fascinating window into a very different school system, and into Chinese culture as a whole. It is balanced and thoughtful, and the author comes across as open-minded, curious and willing to adapt rather than pushing an agenda. I do wish it had endnotes rather than a chapter-by-chapter bibliography, for readers to follow up and learn more. But I learned a lot from this book, enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it.

Zealot by Reza Aslan

Zealot. The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth - Reza Aslan

This is an accessible work of history, looking at what the historical evidence tells us about Jesus of Nazareth and his times. Not knowing much about the context of those times, I found it enlightening, though it sometimes seems that the author overstates the certainty with which much of anything about the ancient world can be known. In the end much of the book is educated guessing – worth reading because it is very educated, but not much can be proven.

Part 1 covers the context of first-century Palestine, a far-flung Roman province bursting with discontent about tribute requirements, leading to high taxes, leading to exploitation of the poor. Many men claimed the mantle of messiah, or the chosen one who would liberate their land from the Romans and restore God’s kingdom. Eventually the Jews revolted in 66 C.E. and kicked out the Romans, only for the Romans to return and wipe out Jerusalem four years later. In this milieu, and given the way the Romans executed Jesus (crucifixion was the standard punishment for sedition and treason, as a warning to others), the author builds a case for interpreting him as a political revolutionary. For instance, an act such as overturning the moneylenders’ tables at the Temple would have been a protest against the priests’ collaboration with Rome and enrichment of themselves at the expense of the common people.

Part 2 is more focused on the information in the gospels: what is credible from a historical perspective, and how Jesus’s words would have been understood at the time. Finally, Part 3 is about the early church in the aftermath of his death, particularly the schism between James (Jesus’s brother, who led the Jerusalem assembly) and Paul, who comes across as a bit of an egomaniac who reinvented Jesus’s message entirely, transforming it from a Jewish sect into an entirely new religion. Jesus claimed that he had come to fulfill Jewish law, while Paul decreed that he had replaced it; when Jesus was originally referred to as “Son of God,” the author argues that this designation meant simply the “chosen one” (David was also a “Son of God”) while Paul interpreted it literally. During his lifetime Paul did not have great success, but his version of Christianity was better suited to take off in a post-Jerusalem world, where the Jews had become pariah and the Temple no longer existed.

I found this to be an interesting and thought-provoking book. While not a fast read, it provides an engaging narrative and is readable and accessible to the non-academic reader. The author’s arguments in general seem extensive researched, well-documented and persuasive. When discounting sources or filling in gaps in the record, he generally explains his analysis rather than simply stating his conclusions as if they were fact.

However, it isn’t a perfect book. The organization can be a bit scattershot, jumping around in time and between general historical background and Jesus, especially in the early sections. There are no footnotes, and some assertions are supported by extensive endnotes while others are not. While not representative of the book as a whole, there are some eyebrow-raising arguments to authority, stating that “the overwhelming consensus” (204) among scholars tells us something, or that another author has “definitively proven” (240) something else. It is helpful to know which ideas are subjects of controversy and which aren’t, and I don’t expect the author to perform independent research on every single topic surrounding life in the ancient world, but it is an odd phrasing for a book premised on the method of drawing conclusions from primary sources even if they differ from established dogma.

More broadly speaking, the book’s analysis left me with big questions unanswered. If the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death by people who didn’t know him, and who did not live in a society where fact-checking and documentation were a thing (though the Romans kept extensive records on issues of interest such as tax collection), and were written as testaments of faith with the intention of converting non-Jews to their religion rather than as historical documents, then why remove some politically-charged bits but not others? The author argues that the Gospel writers must have changed the agency in Jesus’s execution from the Roman governor to the Jews for palatability to their intended audience, given that Pilate cared little to nothing what his subject population thought about anything, but why then leave in the overturning of the moneylenders’ tables, the sermon on the mount (which the author argues would have been about the new social order in God’s kingdom on earth rather than a spiritual promise), and other statements targeting the Temple and the Roman government? 

And if the writers needed to transport Jesus’s birth to Bethlehem to argue that he fulfilled the prophecies, why would they have explained this through a census story that their readers would have known to be false, because the census not only didn’t happen at that time but did not work that way (the Roman census was about tallying up property in order to tax it, and putting the economy on hold for months for everyone to travel to their home village without said property would have been absurd)? It’s fair to say that I am hopelessly modern and nonreligious and can’t claim to understand the mindset of a first- or second-century convert, but immersion in a story to me depends on finding it at least plausible. It also seems likely that a new religion isn’t trying to recruit skeptics who will question its facts but rather true believers who will accept the religious leaders’ word. But there still seems to me to be a difference between facts that can be disproven, and unverifiable assertions that must be taken on faith, and why hand your opponents the former if you can avoid it?

So I wish the author would have delved more into the historicity of the Gospels as a whole rather than focusing on specific passages one at a time; for me at least it would have been helpful in evaluating the overall argument. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and educational book of reasonably short length, and I’m glad I read it.

Folk Tales of the Maldives by Xavier Romero-Frias

Folk Tales of the Maldives - Xavier Romero-Frias

This is an enjoyable book of folklore from the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Though the author’s writing in the introduction is a bit stiff, the 80 tales included are characterized by strong storytelling, and paint a vivid picture of the traditional culture of the Maldives. The stories are perhaps best described as legends, featuring kings, ghosts and spirits, good and evil sorcerers, and monsters from the sea, alongside regular people who interact with all of the above, and of course a few animal stories. A few tales are based on recent historical incidents, while most seem to be set sometime in the distant past. Despite the large number of stories, ranging in length from 1-2 pages to 12 or 14, they felt fresh and engaging throughout. In fact, two different stories about a man who falsely sets himself up as an expert have opposite endings.

I would have appreciated more information about the Maldives and the storytellers, who are identified by name and place of residence but not otherwise discussed, though the author might reasonably have seen that as beyond the scope of this book. I was surprised to learn that the book is actually banned in the Maldives, which currently has a strict Muslim government; Islam has been in the islands for centuries and appears in many of the stories, but the stories treat it casually, as part of the backdrop. More information about life in the islands today, to put all this in context, would have been helpful. That said, I think this is an excellent choice for those who enjoy folklore, and I enjoyed reading it.

The Accusation by Bandi

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith, Bandi

This is a collection of short stories criticizing the North Korean government. Purportedly, it was written by an anonymous North Korean official still living in the country, and smuggled out as a handwritten manuscript. Upon reading the first couple of stories, though, I began to wonder if that backstory is a publicity stunt. I’ve read a lot of contemporary English-language fiction, and a lot of fiction from countries around the world, and what struck me about this collection is that it is written in a style characteristic of modern English-speaking authors. This makes it easy reading for those audiences: it’s written with the immediacy and emotional intimacy with the characters that one typically sees in English-language fiction; it has that pleasing balance of dialogue and narrative, that easy-to-read plot-driven flow, that immersion in the characters’ thoughts and feelings that characterizes most popular fiction today. Authors from cultural traditions very different from the mainstream western ones rarely write this way unless they have immigrated to an English-speaking country, even though almost all of them would have ready access to popular fiction, unlike someone living in North Korea.

Having these doubts, I poked around on the Internet for more information about the book (the New Yorker article is worth a read). No one has proven it to be a hoax, and a vocabulary analysis apparently indicates that the writer used North Korean language, which has diverged somewhat from South Korea’s over the decades of separation. However, I found it significant that journalist Barbara Demick, author of the fantastic Nothing to Envy (a nonfiction narrative of life in North Korea, based on her research and defectors’ accounts) also doubts the official version. Her doubt seems to stem primarily from the author’s keen awareness of the regime’s internal contradictions; this is apparently an understanding that takes defectors significant time outside the country to fully comprehend.

As for the book itself, each of its seven stories is a quick and easy read, though they average around 30 pages each. However, after the first two or three stories, which were fairly enjoyable, I began to tire of their incessant drumbeat. All of the stories are about how the regime and life in North Korea crushes a character in one way or another (usually metaphorically, but in one case physically): there is no conflict that doesn’t have the Party at its base and no possibility of happiness. At the end of the final story, a character, gazing at the red-brick local Party office, reflects, “How many noble lives had been lost to its poison! The root of all human misfortunate and suffering was that red European specter that the [party official] had boasted had put down roots in this land, the seed of that red mushroom!” Perhaps I ought to take the idea that the government could be the cause of all human suffering as evidence that the author does in fact live in North Korea, but in any case, such a simplistic view of the world doesn’t make for high-quality literary work.

Whoever the author may be, the fundamental storytelling skills are certainly there, despite a singular political focus, and it will be an especially interesting book for those who haven’t read much about North Korea. But for those who want to learn more about the country, I recommend starting with the brilliant Nothing to Envy.

The Dark Side of Innocence by Terri Cheney

The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar - Terri Cheney

This is a compelling memoir by an author who is able to pull readers right inside her head, she writes with such intensity and intimacy. It is about her childhood and teenage years and is ostensibly about growing up with childhood bipolar disorder, though it is just as much about growing up in a very dysfunctional family, to the point that I wondered how much the atmosphere contributed to her mental health issues. The parents are obsessed with keeping up appearances, their relationship is fractured at the best of times, each has a favorite child with whom they sometimes side against the other parent, and the author and her brother don’t seem to have a real relationship with each other at all.

Meanwhile the author has mental health issues from a young age, which she never discusses with anyone. Part of this book I think is a skillful portrayal of how childhood works for everyone – you live in a weird private world that you probably don’t talk about, and you lack the perspective and judgment to know what’s normal. In other ways it’s very specific to her family and the place where she was growing up (suburban southern California in the 1960s and 70s): as an adult she realizes that her youth was littered with warning signs, from frequent, prolonged absences from school to poetry about suicide that she wrote from a young age, which somehow never resulted in an intervention.

I found this to be a really interesting memoir, well-written and a fast, compelling read. The author perhaps sells it short by writing that it’s aimed at parents of bipolar kids; while it may provide insights for those parents, I am not one and still enjoyed it. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to know what life looks like through someone else’s eyes – and isn’t that one of the primary reasons we read?

Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster

Reading the Ceiling - Dayo Forster

I agree with the other reviews that this is a fine option if you are doing a world books challenge and need a book from the Gambia – this is why I read it, and it’s certainly readable – but there isn’t much to recommend it beyond that.

 

Reading the Ceiling has an interesting premise: the narrator, Ayodele, is turning 18 and determined to get initiated into the mysteries of sex, so she needs to choose a partner with whom to do the deed. The three sections of the book follow alternate versions of her life as it unfolds along three different trajectories depending on whom she chooses: Reuben, an awkward classmate who likes her much more than she likes him; Yuan, a friend of Chinese descent in whom she is interested; or Frederick, the sexually experienced father of her best friend.

 

I was curious to see how the different stories played out, and there is a sense of place, though oddly for African fiction, Ayodele lives a middle-class life in terms of both values and material comforts, and there’s not much of a sense that she and her classmates are better off than those around them. Tracking the similarities and differences among the stories and the different ways characters relate to each other based on different lives and choices was interesting, and the author does a good job of showing different sides of those events that occur in multiple stories, avoiding repetitive content. I didn’t always believe the author’s choices, though: a character will die in a motorcycle accident in multiple stories despite having lived two different adult lives, or Ayodele will get a scholarship for London in one story but only for Dakar in another even though she submitted the applications before making her choice.

 

More to the point, though, the book is on the dull side. Ayodele’s feelings about events are often left unclear; instead we get bland descriptions of her surroundings, lacking in emotional content. And she’s not a particularly interesting character or one who inspired much emotion in me. While a character doesn’t need to be pleasant to be compelling, Ayodele doesn’t balance her lack of resilience or less-than-admirable choices with a strong or complex personality to keep readers engaged. In two of the stories she folds emotionally at the first blow, allowing an early failure or tragedy to shape and define her life, while in the final one she chooses to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term, though it derails her life, apparently just to spite her mother. She doesn’t seem destined to be happy regardless of her choices, though it’s hard to tell when the last two end without reaching a conclusion, leaving readers wondering what happens next.

 

Overall, this isn’t one I would recommend, though if you too have reason to read a book from the Gambia, then go for it. I’ve certainly read worse.

The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir - Kao Kalia Yang

This is an interesting memoir by a Hmong-American writer, about the experiences of a community that is opaque to many Americans. The Hmong are an ethnic minority who moved from China to Laos centuries ago; the Chinese outlawing their written language is apparently the reason they lack one even today. Many Hmong assisted the Americans in the Vietnam War, in which about a third of their population died; another third was killed in the persecution after the American army’s departure. The author’s parents and extended family, like many others, fled into the jungles of Laos and later to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for several years before relocating to Minnesota.

Though a memoir, this book is more about the author’s family than about Kao Kalia Yang herself. It begins by detailing her family’s travails in Laos and Thailand before her birth in the refugee camp, and the bulk of the book focuses on the camp and the family’s immigration to America when she was seven. It goes on to describe the difficulties of their adjustment, for her (being too shy to speak English in school even once she learned it), but mostly for the family: part of the extended family winds up in another state; money is tight, and her parents are forced to take exhausting night shifts at a factory to support the family, while Yang and her older sister are responsible for caring for their younger siblings and sometimes serving as interpreters for their parents. There is little sense of the author’s life after elementary school, though; while she is a student at Carlton College by the end (and later went on to Columbia University), the later chapters focus exclusively on the last years of her grandmother’s life and the grandmother’s death and elaborate funeral. I would have liked to see more of the author’s life and how she has related to Americans and American culture – her educational choices indicate that she has her own stories to tell – but the focus of the book does make clear how extremely family-oriented both she and her community are.

It is an incredible story, and especially given that the Yangs’ experiences were evidently common among the Hmong after the Vietnam War, it’s an important one to tell for the sake of awareness. The writing is fairly good, though it doesn’t always flow in the clearest way. Here’s a sample:

“My mother and father told us not to look at the Americans. If we saw them, they would see us. For the first year and a half, we wanted to be invisible. Everywhere we went beyond the McDonough Housing Project, we were looked at, and we felt exposed. We were dealing with a widespread realization that all Hmong people must do one of two things to survive in America: grow up or grow old. In the case of the noticeably young, the decision was made for us. For those who were older, the case was also easy to figure. Those marred by the war, impaired by the years of fighting, social security and disability were options. [sic] For my mother and father, already adults who had waited on life long before it was their time, the government stepped in and told them: the welfare clock was ticking. She was twenty-five. He was twenty-eight. They knew they wanted a chance to work, but they did not know how to keep that chance safe, so on the streets, before the slanted brows of mostly white men, they held us close for security.”

The gist of the passage makes sense: the family feels insecure, they don’t want to attract attention, and the parents are under pressure to find work. But the notion that there is pressure on “all Hmong people” to “grow up or grow old,” and how this is meant to apply to the author’s parents, is unclear to me even after taking the time to re-read it carefully. And perhaps because of the author’s cultural and linguistic background, she has a distinct way of expressing ideas that may not make a lot of sense to American readers if read quickly or with less than full attention.

Overall then, I found this memoir worthwhile, mostly for the opportunity to learn more about a community that was unfamiliar to me. However, it’s not the first one I would recommend for literary reading.

Falling from Horses by Molly Gloss

Falling from Horses: A Novel - Molly Gloss

Molly Gloss is an excellent writer, but this isn’t my favorite of her books. I loved Wild Life, and The Hearts of Horses is a lovely examination of a rural community. This one is a sequel of sorts to The Hearts of Horses, featuring Martha’s son Bud, who at age 19 takes off for Hollywood to become a stunt rider. Much of the book is about the difference between the real American West and the West as portrayed in cowboy movies, and about the dirty underbelly of Hollywood at the time: the frequent injuries and deaths of men and horses in stunts, the sexual harassment, the various tricks used to make everything in movies look more exciting than it really is.

And I think the best of this book is in its themes, in its examination of Hollywood and its contrast between the myth of a West full of heroes, villains and derring-do and the real world in which a hardscrabble ranching family does unromantic work and loses a child in a meaningless accident. It’s a very well-written book, and there’s a resonance to Gloss’s writing that more literary-oriented readers will enjoy. But I found the plot of this one a little lacking. It has a very long, slow start – half the book passes in Bud’s bus trip to Hollywood, initial attempts to find work and first job working for a stable that rents horses for the tamer scenes – which doesn’t leave much time for the meat of the story. Bud also interested me less than Gloss’s heroines; his friend Lily, a budding screenwriter whom he meets on the bus to Hollywood, is a more interesting and colorful character, but she isn’t the narrator and so we see less of her.

Overall, then, this book has a lot going for it, but my expectations for this author are very high. I liked it, but for most readers I’d recommend Wild Life or The Hearts of Horses first.

The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi

The Bamboo Stalk - Saud Alsanousi, سعود السنعوسي

I read the first 78 pages of this book, which has proven popular in the Arab world. It's about the position of foreign workers and outsiders in Kuwait, though the early sections are set in the Philippines, and it's constructed of short chapters. Unfortunately, I found it unengaging. The narrator describes his family's lives and his childhood and there's not yet a plot to be seen on the horizon. The characters are flat; I read an interview with the author about how we're supposed to love the narrator, and this was meant to make the criticism of Kuwaiti society easier for Kuwaiti readers to bear. It looks like that has worked for its intended audience, which is excellent, but I never felt anything for the narrator, nor did I find him interesting. Clearly, this is not for me.

Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo

Legends, traditions and tales of Nauru - Timothy Detudamo

Ratings on books of folklore, especially from outsiders, shouldn’t be taken too seriously: I can rate my experience with a book, and can give my opinion on its literary merits, but am in no position to judge the contribution it makes to the preservation of cultural information, nor the importance it might have to people who actually belong to the culture in question. That said, this proved a bit of a challenging read, and the presentation could be improved. It is unclear exactly who the book is intended for; there is no introduction to put the work in context or explain how it came to be. According to the bookjacket, it was compiled and translated by Head Chief Timothy Detudamo in 1938, based on lecturers by unidentified “native teachers,” but not published until 2008.

This is a very slim volume, and as it turns out the title refers to the three sections of the book. First come 34 pages of “legends,” 11 stories which remind me of the Old Testament, both in their content – origin myths and historical legends, preoccupied with the lineage of their characters – and in their dryness despite dramatic content. Clans go to war, young men kill each other or old people or children, often without any sense that this is seen as inappropriate; shorn of emotional content and without getting inside the heads of any of the characters, it’s difficult for someone outside the culture to appreciate the meaning of any of this.

Next up are 18 pages on “traditional culture,” brief descriptions of aspects of traditional life on Nauru, from hygiene to food storage to inheritance, and with a focus on tools and fishing. This is interesting but quite short. It is all told in the past tense, but without any information on how long ago these traditions existed or on sources – did this traditional culture exist during the lifetimes of the people who put the book together, or did they rely on what older people had told them?

Finally, there are 33 pages of “tales,” of which there are 17. These feel more relaxed and have more narrative flow than the “legends”: they are more like fairy tales, starring regular people or animals. Perhaps it’s because they’re rendered in so few pages that the tales seem odd, leaving me confused about what a listener might get out of them, or perhaps it’s just the cultural divide. But for the foreign reader, it would have been helpful to have some explanation of repeated motifs, such as all the families consisting of a husband, wife and 30 daughters.

And then, as other reviewers have commented, there is the world’s least helpful glossary. The scant information contained in the glossary is available from context, so why anyone would think to include the following I can’t fathom:

Eaeoquar – A type of fish
Eakaberere – A type of sport
Earu n eded – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n eiror – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n gatimore – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n kagaga – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n oquoe – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Eatu n anape [sic] – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Ebaba – A type of food
Ebawo – A type fish [sic]

All in all, for a reader unfamiliar with Nauru this book is likely to be more confusing than enlightening; whether folklorists or modern Nauruans might make more sense of it, I can’t say. It isn’t necessarily a bad book – it may not have been intended for readers like me at all – but I can't claim to have gotten much out of it.