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review 2019-08-23 05:44
In Sorcery's Shadow by Paul Stoller
In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger - Paul Stoller,Cheryl Olkes

An anthropologist’s memoir of apprenticing himself to various sorcerers in Niger in the 1970s and 80s, this book has great material to work with, but is written in a rather dry, academic style. I had the sense the author spends all his reading time immersed in academic works and perhaps hadn’t actually read a popular memoir, though he clearly did his best to make it accessible by including lots of dialogue and breaking it down into short chapters. There are some storytelling infelicities, like when a major character finally steps over the line near the end, and only then does the author suddenly list all of the major warning signs that had apparently been there all along.


Perhaps my larger issue with the book, though, is that while the author talks a big game in the introduction about this bold move he’s making by putting himself in the narrative at all when he’s supposed to be a scientist, the book is at a rather awkward place halfway between being about him and about the Songhay sorcerers. His life outside of his five trips to the country is a complete blank, such that it’s startling when on the last trip he brings his wife and it turns out people had been asking after her all along; we never knew he was married. But the book doesn’t delve quite as deeply into the lives of the people he meets as I’d like either – what ever happened to the first family of the sorcerer who was imprisoned for 20 years starting when he was 60? And while the author loses his skepticism about Songhay sorcery, he is still supposed to be engaging in academic inquiry and not just some New Agey experience, so I would’ve appreciated it if, for instance, instead of just giving anecdotes of a few people whose problems the sorcerers supposedly solved, he’d put this in context – what percentage of clients saw their problems quickly resolved?


All that said, it’s an interesting book to read – the author seems to have been as immersed in Songhay society as an outsider could be, and he meets some interesting people and definitely provides a window into the country and its landscape and culture. He doesn’t seem to think about his supposedly supernatural experiences very critically, but it was interesting to read about the world of Songhay sorcerers all the same.

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review 2019-08-18 20:12
Después de las Bombas by Arturo Arias
Después De Las Bombas - Arturo Arias

I can’t say this is an objectively bad book, but I can say I really disliked reading it. It’s an absurdist version of Guatemalan history from the 1950s through 1970s, told through the eyes of a boy named Maximo as he grows toward adulthood. This passage toward the end, as Maximo begins to explore his own writing, seems to encapsulate its philosophy (translation is mine):

“I’ll exaggerate. I’ll lie. Chingolo says that to be understood one must lie. It’s another way of getting inside someone. Begin lying fast and furiously and they’ll start to hear me. Lies are sacred, Amarena.”

The mid-19th century was a turbulent, bloody time in Guatemala, and this book is full of brutal, gruesome scenes and imagery, but in a way that seems over-the-top, disconnected from real historical events: there’s a guillotine set up in the capital’s hippodrome to execute losing jockeys; a wealthy couple kills two servants for their attraction to one another and displays their body parts; leaders of a prostitutes’ strike are executed in the manner of Aztec sacrifices, their hearts cut out with obsidian knives before throngs of people in a stadium while the American ambassador, who demanded vengeance for the death of some official, looks on approvingly. Knowing little about Guatemalan history, some of these incidents were easier for me to understand in terms of the author’s message than others. Overall though, it shouldn’t be taken literally, which for those of us unfamiliar with the place and time covered, is disorienting.

Curiously, I did a bit of online research to try to map some of these fictional events onto actual ones, and my key takeaway was that English-language sources tend to portray this period of Guatemala’s history as one of racial terror, i.e., massacres of the Mayan population. This book, on the other hand, portrays it as a period of political terror: a succession of dictatorships masquerading as democracies, the streets ruled by thuggish forces who rape and murder at will, school forever cancelled due to one political disruption or another (in what I assume is another exaggeration, Maximo “graduates” high school without ever attending a day of class; each year, school is cancelled and the students promoted anyway). I am not quite sure how to view the discrepancies between these two versions: Americans glossing over their own country’s role in overturning democratic governments unfriendly to American interests? The author glossing over genocide carried out by, I think, his own racial group? Or perhaps it’s just that this book is mostly set before the genocide really picked up, in 70s and 80s, but that ethnic cleansing naturally tends to overshadow what came before it? As with much of this book, I was left with more questions than answers.

But overall, it’s a difficult book to read, both in the way it’s put together – lack of quotation marks and speaker attributions, sudden jumps in time between paragraphs with no section breaks, etc. – and in its horrific subject matter: not a chapter passes without something gruesome and terrible, whether it’s decomposing bodies littering the streets or the lengthy and graphic rape scene midway through the book that results in permanent disfigurement for one of the victims. I can’t speak to the merits of this book for those more familiar with the time period discussed, but I’m really just glad to be done with it.

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review 2019-08-04 23:11
Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks
Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe - Inara Verzemnieks

This is a lovely multigenerational memoir. The author is the daughter and granddaughter of Latvian refugees who fled their home country at the end of WWII, and she returns to Latvia after her the death of the grandmother who raised her to learn more about the country and her family’s stories. Much of the book traces the lives of her grandmother – raised on a farm she would forever idealize, before going to school, moving to the city, and ultimately fleeing across war-torn Europe with her two young children, not knowing whether her conscripted husband was dead or alive – and her grandmother’s younger sister, who was trapped on the farm by the war, then deported to Siberia with her family, to finally return and pick up the pieces all over again. Separated for fifty years, the sisters both seemed to envy the other: Ausma envies the glamorous older sister who got away, while Livija, who finally lands in Tacoma, lives in the past, clinging to the Latvian community in exile and raising her granddaughter in its traditions.

It’s a lovely, thoughtful, atmospheric and emotionally rich memoir, and quite comprehensive for its length, with diversions into Latvian history recent and remote and even geological, but always centered on the family and the countryside they both love intensely and often want or need to escape. The artsiness of the writing style was a bit of a stumbling block for me in the beginning – this is definitely an MFA memoir – but by the end I felt the literary style helps distinguish the book. And I appreciated the author’s reckoning with complex topics, such as how those men, including her own grandfather, who were conscripted into the Latvian Legion – meaning they were fighting for the Nazis, but against the Soviets – should be judged. I felt throughout that the author was searching for truth and comfortable with nuance. And of course, I was especially thrilled to find a high-quality book about Latvia, a country rarely featured in literature. I recommend it.

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review 2019-08-04 22:02
Colonised People by Grace Mera Molisa
Colonised People: poems - Grace Mera Molisa

I feel a little guilty for making this my world books challenge book for Vanuatu; it’s only 30 pages long (really 21 if you’re only including the actual text, not the front material, introduction and author bio). That said for challenge purposes I’m defining “book” as anything independently bound as a book, which this is. I don’t feel guilty for giving it a low rating, because I can only honestly evaluate books from my own experience, not what I imagine the perspective of readers from some other demographic and whom I’ve never met might possibly be.

This is a political collection of poems and a couple of charts about the status of women in Vanuatu in 1987, seven years after the island nation’s independence. It’s an important topic, and I think there’s a certain rhythm to Molisa’s very straightforward and easy-to-read poems, but it largely consists of discussions about abstract concepts like “freedom” and “democracy.” (The title comes from the author’s argument that Ni-Vanuatu women remained colonized because society accepted men’s authority over them.) There’s also some discussion of domestic violence in Vanuatu, which unfortunately sounds a lot like domestic violence everywhere else, and some charts showing men’s vs. women’s workforce participation. It’s interesting, but I guess I would have liked more depth. Or perhaps political poetry is a form of rhetoric that can really only appeal to people already familiar with the problems addressed. Either way, not a book I think many readers would want to go out of their way to find, though a very quick read if you do.

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review 2019-07-07 21:30
An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie
An African in Greenland - A. Alvarez,James Kirkup,Tété-Michel Kpomassie

This is the travelogue of a young man from Togo who determined at age 16 that he would go to Greenland, then spent the next 8 years working his way there. A quarter of the way through the book, he arrives, and spends the next 15 months traveling gradually further and further north, living with the Inuit, learning their methods of hunting and fishing, and adopting their way of life. His time in Greenland apparently took place in 1965-66, and the culture he found certainly bore the stamp of Danish colonial rulers (well-insulated turf dwellings almost entirely replaced with inferior wooden houses; people living in southern cities had largely given up hunting and depended on government handouts), but in many other ways it still seems quite unique. Families sleeping all together in a single bed with their children and visitors; hunting in kayaks and with dog sleds; packs of huskies that sometimes serve as food themselves when provisions are tight, but which also sometimes attack and eat humans; constant visiting from one home to another, with people wandering right into each other’s houses; butchering animals indoors and eating the meat raw, the children all winding up with blood in their hair; a complete lack of sexual jealousy or concern for fidelity, including in some places ritual “swinging”; it’s a colorful picture Kpomassie paints here. I couldn’t help wondering if his depictions of both Togo and Greenland were deliberately “exotic” to appeal to a European readership with little knowledge of other lands, though a quick online search turned up no evidence of this book having been debunked so far.

That said, it’s definitely an interesting account, allowing readers to armchair-travel to a far-flung place with a unique character. For all Kpomassie seems to love Greenland, it’s a warts-and-all depiction that probably won’t inspire many to follow his footsteps in person; this book isn’t for the squeamish, whether it’s describing the butchering and eating of raw meat, or canine and human bodily functions and sexual behavior. But it is well-written, closely-observed and engaging.

My biggest criticism is that the author’s inner life is oddly lacking, which contributes to the comparison to a fairy tale: there’s little sense of how Kpomassie thinks or feels about much of anything, especially after arriving in Greenland. He writes about his journey as if it were easy: working his way through West Africa and Europe, everywhere he goes he finds a job that allows him to support himself and save money, learns the language easily, finds people willing to take him in where he needs them, and generally gives the impression of being untouched by circumstance, of nothing truly bad ever happening. Perhaps I’m just too used to reading books about dire circumstances myself. But I couldn’t help wondering about the deeper story of his journey and what he did with his life afterwards.

I also have to comment on the bizarrely worthless introduction. The mysterious “A. Alvarez” is an awfully careless reader: stating multiple times, for instance, that Kpomassie spends an entire winter with his final host family, while he tells us quite specifically that he stayed there from July 3 until around September 22, when he took the last boat out before the pack ice set in. Alvarez also seems to seriously misread the python cult episode in Togo, claiming that the head priestess demanded Kpomassie as a devotee in exchange for healing, while actually, his father paid for the healing separately, and the request that he also become a priest was based on his personal qualities and considered an honor by his family. Why the publisher would even include this careless waste of ink in the book is beyond me.

Overall, an interesting and unusual book, and one I generally enjoyed while reading it, though I wasn’t always drawn to pick it up. Certainly worth a read for the armchair traveler.

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