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Search tags: around-the-world-in-80-books
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text 2017-10-31 15:11
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.)

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review 2017-10-30 21:17
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.

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review 2017-10-12 19:58
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.

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review 2017-08-18 20:57
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.

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review 2017-08-16 19:33
The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper
The House at Sugar Beach - Helene Cooper

I loved reading this book. It’s a memoir of the author’s privileged childhood in Liberia, the early days of civil war there and her family’s flight, and her journey of building a life in another country and ultimately coming to terms with her homeland.

Helene Cooper is an award-winning journalist, and you can see that clearly in her writing, which is compelling, informative, and relatable. She builds scenes from her childhood in an almost novelistic way, and explores the dynamics of her complicated family with depth and honesty. While she was born to a Liberian dynasty (descended from the first free blacks who arrived from the U.S. to build a colony), there’s an ever-present reminder of her privilege in her best friend, a poor native Liberian girl her parents adopt to be her playmate. The divergence between the lives of these two as they grow older tells you a lot about Liberia (and the world). Cooper is also able to tell a personal, gripping story about the war, in which her family does not escape violence. And she includes a few helpful chapters detailing her family history and the early history of Liberia. While the portion of the book dealing with her life outside Liberia is much shorter, it’s still an interesting look at the family members’ relative assimilation and race relations in the U.S.

But it isn’t all heavy stuff. There’s quite a bit of humor and fun in the book, especially as the author remembers her childhood and teenage years. She also seems enthusiastic about explaining Liberian culture and Liberian English to those unfamiliar with it, adding a lot of flavor to the story.

In fact, perhaps neither of my two reservations about the book is fairly attributed to the author. One is that it has more than its share of copyediting mistakes. The other is that, despite the history included, I never understood how the relatively peaceful country in which Cooper grew up spawned one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, with all the atrocities she describes. I’m sure that to the teenaged Helene Cooper this made just as little sense; but as a veteran foreign correspondent who rode along for the invasion of Iraq, she probably has some insight into what makes wars different from one another. I would have appreciated the level of research about the war that she clearly put into the colony’s early years, though as a memoir the book succeeds regardless.

Overall, this is a very well-told story featuring distinct, complicated personalities, from a self-aware and thoughtful writer with fascinating life experiences. It’s also a great way to learn about a corner of the world that most people know little about. I would definitely recommend this one.

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