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Search tags: 100-books-challenge
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review 2018-11-12 19:52
The Return of the Water Spirit by Pepetela
The Return of the Water Spirit - Pepetela

This is a brief novella that takes aim at the hypocrisy and arrogance of Angola’s ruling classes. The political situation is symbolized by a couple: Carmina, a communist youth leader who later embraces exploitative capitalism when political winds shift; and her husband João, a well-meaning but ineffective man who retreats into computer games as the capital city of Luanda crumbles around him – quite literally, as buildings mysteriously collapse, leaving their occupants unharmed.

Knowing nothing about the country going in, I found this a fairly engaging read, and the story is well-translated, but it would likely work better for readers familiar with recent Angolan history. Magical realist and absurdist elements – like the dispossessed protesting by going nude in public – obscure the actual history, leaving the foreign reader wondering what really happened. And while it is difficult to separate the personal from the political in such a short and pointed story, there is this recurring notion that all is right in the home when the husband takes the reins and publicly chastises his wife; I wasn’t sure how much Pepetela finds Carmina’s ruling the roost objectionable simply because she’s a woman, and how much because this specific woman is morally bankrupt.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting book from which I did learn a bit about Angola, and at 100 pages it’s a very quick read.

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review 2018-11-05 19:52
Tales from a Greek Island by Alexandros Papadiamantis
Tales from a Greek Island - Alexandros Papadiamantis,Elizabeth Constantinides,Alexandros Papadiamantes

This collection of 12 short stories was written by an author apparently renowned in his native country of Greece, though not translated into English until long after the fact; Papadiamantis lived from 1851-1911, while this collection was published in 1994. The translation is fluid, but a side effect of the long delay in translation is that its contemporary literary English makes it difficult to feel that one is reading a 19th century work.

 

The stories, set on Papadiamantis’s home island of Skiathos, chronicle the lives of humble people living there. Recurring themes and situations include marriage, the death of children, the injustice of the dowry system,* young men yearning for beautiful women, and middle-aged women whose lives are full of suffering. The portrayal of late-19th century Greek island life is interesting; it appears to be a society divided between the sea and everyday agricultural work, taking place in fields set far from the towns where people live.

 

I have to admit this collection didn’t do much for me. It wasn’t Papadiamantis’s much-discussed conservatism, which despite a couple of cringeworthy gender-essentialist passages doesn’t really seem to define the text. Perhaps it’s because, as the translator discusses in her introduction, several of these plots are taken from ancient Greek writings or mythology; perhaps the author was too devoted to recycling plots rather than allowing them to develop organically. Or perhaps these characters just didn’t strike a chord in me for any of the nebulous reasons that fiction can fall flat for some readers. But although I can’t point to a specific flaw in the crafting of the plots or characters, I was largely indifferent to these stories and eager to move on from this collection.

 

 

* In a couple of stories, families are forced to give up practically all they own to secure the marriage of a daughter, the parents moving out of their home to include it in the dowry, or a family giving up half of its land and mortgaging the other half. These situations were apparently based on reality; the author himself, through choosing the less-lucrative career of a writer, saw 3 of his 4 sisters unable to ever marry. But I’m baffled at how such a system can survive: if most women can’t afford to marry, then most men will also die single; from an economic standpoint you’d expect the dowry demands to decrease dramatically rather than allow a system in which most people never marry. The missing link would seem to be large numbers of men dying disproportionately young, which we don’t see here, unless we’re meant to conclude that they’re all setting sail for the Americas and most never return? The author of course had no need to explain their own society to contemporary readers, but the translator might have done so.

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review 2018-09-17 05:39
Yummah by Sarah Al Shafei
Yummah - Sarah A. Al Shafei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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review 2018-09-06 03:23
Thine is the Kingdom by Garth Buckner
Thine is the Kingdom - Garth Buckner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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review 2018-08-22 22:14
Zoli by Colum McCann
Zoli - Colum McCann

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

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

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

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