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review 2019-02-14 19:39
Carmela by Amalia Decker Marquez
Carmela (Spanish Edition) - Amalia Decker Marquez

I wasn’t sure about this book, which is long, little-known, and apparently only available in the original Spanish. But it presents an interesting story, if a meandering one; it’s semi-autobiographical, and more fictionalized biography than tightly-plotted novel. Carmela Macker is born into a well-off socialist family in Cochabamba in the the mid 20th century, becomes a guerrillera as a teenager, experiences love and tragedy, has several lovers and two daughters, becomes a journalist, runs for political office, and goes into and out of exile in a variety of Latin American countries as Bolivia goes through periods of dictatorship and democracy. The book’s timeline starts out scattered – going right from Carmela’s birth to the abrupt departure of her partner of many years in middle age – but around 50 pages in, it settles into a chronological structure that persists for the rest of the book.

It’s an interesting story, consisting primarily of short chapters, and with a lot of ground to cover the plot doesn’t ever linger for long in one place. It’s primarily told from Carmela’s third-person perspective, though on a couple of occasions it tells the stories of other guerrilleras whose connection to Carmela is tenuous, but whose capture by the military government exposes them to horrors that Carmela herself never experiences. There’s not a lot of physical action – situations that would have been milked for additional drama in a purely imaginative drama resolve themselves more quietly here – but there’s always a lot going on in Carmela’s life and the political realm in which she operates. I learned a fair bit about Bolivian history, though the author is perhaps not an entirely objective source; while Carmela ultimately leaves partisan politics, there were a few passages that made me wonder, such as the view of food rationing as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good during her time in exile in Cuba.

Even so, I was glad to read this book; Bolivia is a fascinating country about which not much has been written, and although this presents only one economically privileged perspective, it was still great to get an insider’s view of the country. I didn’t always like Carmela or agree with her choices – in particular, her embarking on an affair with a married playboy when she has a partner and young daughter at home, all presented as if she were powerless to stop herself from giving in and falling in love – but I found it to be a lively, readable story, full of political and personal reversals and characters who, one way or another, are always able to adapt. It’s too bad this hasn’t been translated to English, but for those who are able to find and read it I think it is worth the effort.

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review 2019-01-15 20:30
Daba's Travels from Ouadda to Bangui by Makombo Bamboté
Daba's Travels from Ouadda to Bangui - Makombo Bamboté,George Ford

Like apparently most of the people who read this book, I read it for my world books challenge and wasn’t particularly impressed. It seems to be aimed at middle-grade readers (ages 9-12), and recounts the childhood experiences of a boy named Daba as he leaves his village in the Central African Republic to attend school in a larger town and spends his vacations traveling around the country with friends and relatives.

As you would expect, this is a quick and easy read that even includes some illustrations. It’s a pretty gentle story, including adventures such as attending a boarding school and tagging along for a crocodile hunt. However, it is disjointed, prematurely ending events that could have been exciting if fully-developed – like the crocodile hunt, which gets less page time than a neighbor telling the boys a story – and including more episodes than fit comfortably within its brief page count. It does little to immerse the reader in Daba’s feelings or experiences; in the second half of the book, he seems to fade into his group of friends, who are indistinguishable in personality and experiences (except for the French pen pal who somehow is able to fly to a Central African Republic town alone and spend the summer wandering from village to isolated village with the local boys).

Daba grows older – the book appears to cover a couple of years – but he doesn’t really have struggles to overcome or seem to change or learn more about life. At times, knowing the story to be based in some way on the author’s childhood, Daba’s portrayal even comes across as self-aggrandizing: a star pupil, always cool and confident, beats adults at games, liked by everyone except for one classmate who’s condemned by other children and adults alike. Meanwhile, for adult readers, the language is perhaps too simple, and some of the events are eyebrow-raising or could use more explanation (the pen pal trip, Daba’s being awarded a scholarship to study abroad without any apparent effort from him or consent from his parents, etc.).

At any rate, this isn’t too bad if you’re doing a world books challenge – Daba travels around his country, giving the reader a sense of the landscape and the culture in the places he visits, and quick reads are always valued for big challenges – but those searching for diverse books to give to the children in their lives would be better served looking elsewhere.

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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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