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review 2018-07-22 17:34
The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila
The Ultimate Tragedy - Jethro Soutar,Abdulai Sila

In 2017, this book apparently became the first novel (though more of a novella really, clocking in around 180 pages) from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It doesn’t do too well in the storytelling department, and despite being first published in 1995 it is a simplistic criticism of Portuguese colonialism (Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1973-1974), so I can see why there wasn’t a rush to translate. But of course there’s something to be said for reading voices from a particular place even if their literary merits are weak.

There will be SPOILERS below, though no more than are found in the book description (which gives away most of the story).

The book begins with a teenage girl, Ndani, traveling from her village to the capital city, Bissau, with hopes of becoming a domestic servant in a Portuguese home. After a few chapters, it skips abruptly to a village chief, smarting over an insult from a colonial official and thinking at great, repetitive length about the paramount importance of thinking. The stories come together when the chief marries Ndani (who has somehow learned to be a great lady by being a housegirl, yet is somehow the only such woman available even though the earlier chapters show that there are plenty of housegirls, and Ndani is not the brightest bulb on the tree). Then she falls in love with a local teacher, a young man trained by priests but questioning the righteousness of colonial rule. Tragedy, naturally, ensues.

The story is kind of a mess, unfortunately. It skips long periods of time without giving any sense of what Ndani’s life was like in the interim, leaving unanswered questions in its wake. Ndani’s abrupt shift from housegirl to fancy lady is not particularly convincing, nor did I find her cheerful willingness to jump right into sex believable from a woman whose only sexual experiences were rape. There’s a prophecy about Ndani that causes people to shun her, until they don’t, with no reason I could see for the change of heart other than that this plot device was no longer needed. Being in the chief’s head is tedious due to the long-winded repetition, and the teacher’s realization that the reality of colonial rule is inconsistent with Christian principles is painfully obvious; decades after colonial rule ended, I doubt this was a new idea to the book’s readers.

The translation is fairly smooth, but a number of words and concepts are left untranslated, and these are not always immediately obvious from context; most of these words appear to be from a local African language and were probably untranslated in the Portuguese original too, but a glossary would help foreign readers understand the references to local culture better.

Ultimately, this is a fairly quick and easy read, but the simplistic political commentary dominates over the story; I missed more of Ndani’s life than I saw, never got to know who she was as a person, and had no particular reason to care about her or anyone else in the story (her mistress was perhaps the most interesting character to me - a Portuguese woman who, after a near-death experience, devotes herself to "improving the natives" - but this character doesn't have the space to fully develop). I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you are specifically looking to read a book from Guinea-Bissau. If you are, this is a readable option.

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review 2018-07-08 18:00
Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis
Echoes from the Dead Zone: Across the Cyprus Divide - Yiannis Papadakis

This is an excellent book, anthropology mixed with memoir, by an author from divided Cyprus. Coming to this book knowing virtually nothing about Cyprus, I learned a lot about the country. But this is such an insightful look into conflict generally and the ways groups of people become entrenched in and justify their own positions that I think anyone interested in the psychological side of political conflict would appreciate it.

Cyprus has long been inhabited by both ethnic Greek and ethnic Turkish populations, and belonged to both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. In the 20th century, it became a British possession, and groups that had historically lived well together grew more distant, both leaning on their historical motherlands for support. After independence, many Greek Cypriots wanted to become part of Greece, and unrest led to atrocities against Turkish Cypriots in the 1960s, with many of them relegated to ghettos. In 1974, a Greek-sponsored coup led to Turkey invading the country and carving out the northern part for Turkish Cypriots – leading to atrocities against Greek Cypriots who lived there and were killed or forced from their homes. Today, almost 50 years later, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus continues to exist in fact but to be recognized only by Turkey and seen as occupied territory by everyone else. Negotiations to reunite the country have always broken down, and from this book it’s easy to see why.

Yiannis Papadakis is a Greek Cypriot, who after studying abroad returned home in 1990 to begin studying his country. One of the things that makes the book so interesting is that it is as much about his journey, being forced to confront his own indoctrination and biases, as about the people he meets. He visits Turkey to learn Turkish (after some serious initial misgivings about his safety there, he realizes Turks are regular people too), lives with Greek Cypriots near the border and then crosses over to the Turkish side. (I was initially thrown by the way he talks about the Turkish side, making reference to “pseudo-officials” wearing uniforms decorated with “pseudo-flags,” but this turns out to be representative of his opinions at the time the research began, not by the time he wrote the book.) Eventually he winds up living in a mixed village in the “dead zone” between the two sides, where everyone is suspected of being a traitor.

Cyprus’s history and politics are complicated, as is the author’s analysis, so anything I say here will no doubt oversimplify. But there’s an incredible amount of food for thought here. About the ways both sides manipulate history – not necessarily by lying, but by beginning the tale with their own flourishing empire that’s brought down through the wrongdoing of the others; by focusing only on their own side’s pain, emphasizing their own dead and refugees while refusing to acknowledge wrongs against the others; by paying attention to only the extremists on the other side, painting their views as everyone’s view’s; by both defining their own side as the threatened minority. About the ways people refuse to understand each other, about the ways propaganda is used, about the repercussions this conflict has in people’s lives. The author sees and hears some striking things, like the refugee family in Northern Cyprus that moved into a Greek Cypriot home, and kept all the furniture and family photos out in case of the prior owners’ return.

He’s also able to draw a lot of connections between the two sides: the two right wings have far more in common than either would ever admit, both invested in insisting upon the evil of the other while bringing their own side closer to the motherland. The two left wings are also similar and seem ready to reach out to each other and bring peace, though when the opportunity comes, they too choose political opportunism. In the end there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the author doesn’t absolve anyone.

At any rate, I found it an insightful and fascinating book. While the page count is short, there’s a lot of text on each page, so it isn’t necessarily a quick read. But it’s broken up into short sections, often just a couple pages long, and the writing is accessible. It was published by a small, academically-oriented publisher, but has a lot to offer the casual reader; if it had gone through a big publishing house I could see it as a well-known work of popular nonfiction. Only in a couple of places does the author go off on short tangents that seem to be pet interests of his (the myth and symbology of Aphrodite), and his narrative provides a detailed view of Cyprus and his own journey of discovery about his country and people. I would definitely recommend this one if you can get your hands on it.

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text 2018-06-22 21:37
World Books Challenge progress: 160 countries!

I am doing a challenge to read a book primarily set in each country, and keeping track of my progress here! I have currently read books from 160 out of 201 countries, or 80% of the world.

For the countries I've read, I've linked to the books, their authors and my reviews. For the ones I haven't, an asterisk beside the country name links to a book I'm considering. Please let me know if you have any recommendations, particularly for countries from which I have not yet read a book!

The rules of my challenge are that 1) the books must be primarily set in the target country, i.e., more than half of the narrative takes place there, 2) they must be told at least in part from the point-of-view of a character from the country (I've made a few exceptions for memoirs/nonfiction by foreign authors who were immersed in the country and spend the entire book writing about its people), and 3) they must portray something of life and culture in the country, i.e. the setting needs to be more than a generic backdrop for a story that could just as easily be set somewhere else. The author does not necessarily need to be from the country, although I prefer it.

I wrote an FAQ for my challenge here but am also happy to talk about it!


North America and the Caribbean
19 out of 24 countries = 79%

North America
Canada: The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro - review ★★★★
United States: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren - review ★★★★★
Mexico: Pierced by the Sun by Laura Esquivel - review ★★★

Central America
Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell - review ★★½
Costa Rica: Marcos Ramírez by Carlos Luis Fallas - review ★★★½
El Salvador: Camino de hormigas by Miguel Huezo Mixco - review ★★★
Nicaragua: The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli - review (unrated)
Panama: Come Together, Fall Apart by Cristina Henriquez - review ★★★½
Guatemala *
Honduras *

The Caribbean
Antigua & Barbuda: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid - review ★★★½
Barbados: The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson - review ★★½
Cuba: The Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano - review ★★
Dominica: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - review (unrated)
Dominican Republic: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez - review (unrated)
Grenada: The Ladies Are Upstairs by Merle Collins - review ★★★
Haiti: The Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert - review ★★★★
Jamaica: The Long Song by Andrea Levy - review ★★½
Puerto Rico: The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré - review (unrated)
St. Lucia: Nor Any Country by Garth St. Omer - review ★★
Trinidad & Tobago: Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge - review ★★★★
Bahamas *
St. Kitts & Nevis *
St. Vincent & the Grenadines


South America
10 out of 12 countries = 83%

Argentina: The Peron Novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez - review (unrated)
Brazil: The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles - review ★★★★★
Chile: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende - review ★★★★★
Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez - review (unrated)
Ecuador: Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza - review ★★½
Guyana: The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q by Sharon Maas - review ★★★
Peru: The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa - review ★★★
Suriname: The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mc Leod - review ★★★
Uruguay: The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis - review ★★★½
Venezuela: Eva Luna by Isabel Allende - review (unrated)
Bolivia *
Paraguay *


Africa
42 out of 54 countries = 78%

North Africa
Algeria: The Lovers of Algeria by Anouar Benmalek - review ★★★
Egypt: Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz - review ★★★
Libya: The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni - review (unrated)
Morocco: The Harem Within by Fatema Mernissi - review (unrated)
Tunisia: The Pillar of Salt by Albert Memmi - review ★★★★

West Africa
Cape Verde: The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida - review ★½
Gambia: Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster - review ★★½
Ghana: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah - review ★★★★
Guinea: The Dark Child by Camara Laye - review ★★★½
Ivory Coast: Aya by Marguerite Abouet - review ★★★½
Liberia: The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper - review ★★★★½
Mali: Segu by Maryse Condé - review ★★
Nigeria: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - review ★★★★★
Senegal: God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène - review ★★★★
Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna - review ★★★½
Togo: The Village of Waiting by George Packer - review ★★★½
Benin
Burkina Faso
Guinea-Bissau *
Mauritania *
Niger *

Central Africa
Cameroon: Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono - review ★★½
Democratic Republic of the Congo: The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell - review ★★★★
Equatorial Guinea: Ekomo by María Nsue Angüe - review ★★★½
Gabon: Mema by Daniel M. Mengara - review ★★★½
Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou - review ★★★
Sao Tome & Principe: Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares - review ★★
Central African Republic *
Chad *

East Africa
Burundi: Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder - review ★★★
Djibouti: The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman A. Waberi - review (unrated)
Eritrea: My Fathers' Daughter by Hannah Pool - review ★★★½
Ethiopia: Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste - review ★★★
Kenya: A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o - review (unrated)
Rwanda: Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga - review (unrated)
Somalia: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed - review ★★★
South Sudan: Emma's War by Deborah Scroggins - review ★★★★
Sudan: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih - review ★★½
Tanzania: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah review ★★
Uganda: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - review ★★★★½

Southern Africa
Botswana: Maru by Bessie Head - review ★★★
Lesotho: Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho M'Atsepo Nthunya - review ★★★½
Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba - review ★★★½
Mauritius: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah - review ★★
Mozambique: Neighbours by Lília Momplé - review ★★★½
Namibia: The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas - review ★★★½
South Africa: Fiela's Child by Dalene Matthee - review ★★★★
Zambia: Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku - review ★★★★
Zimbabwe: Zenzele by J. Nozipo Maraire - review ★★★★
Angola *
Comoros
Madagascar *
Seychelles *
Swaziland


Europe
36 out of 49 countries = 73%

Western Europe
Austria: The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig - review ★★★★
Belgium: The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst - review ★★★
Denmark: The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul - review ★★½
Finland: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson - review ★★★½
France: Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac - review ★★
Germany: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll - review ★★★★
Greenland: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley - review ★★★★½
Iceland: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent - review ★★½
Ireland: The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien - review ★★★½
Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - review ★★★★
Netherlands: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire - review ★★★½
Norway: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset - review ★★★★
Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago - review ★★★
Spain: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway - review ★★★★
Sweden: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman - review ★★★
Switzerland: Heidi by Johanna Spyri - review (unrated)
United Kingdom: South Riding by Winifred Holtby - review ★★★★½
Andorra
Liechtenstein
Luxembourg *
Malta *
Monaco
San Marino
Vatican City *

Eastern Europe
Albania: The Loser by Fatos Kongoli - review ★★★
Bosnia & Herzegovina: The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić - review ★★½
Bulgaria: Street Without a Name by Kapka Kassabova - review ★★★½
Croatia: Girl at War by Sara Nović - review ★★
Czech Republic: My Crazy Century by Ivan Klímareview ★★
Estonia: Purge by Sofi Oksanen - review ★★★★
Greece: The Sailor's Wife by Helen Benedict - review ★★★
Hungary: Csardas by Diane Pearson - review ★★★★
Moldova: The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov - review ★★★½
Montenegro: The Dawning by Milka Bajic-Poderegin - review ★★★
Poland: House of Day, House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk - review ★★½
Romania: Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier - review ★★★½
Serbia: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht - review ★★★★
Slovenia: Forbidden Bread by Erica Johnson Debeljak - review ★★★½
Ukraine: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles - review ★★★★
Belarus *
Latvia *
Lithuania
Macedonia
Slovakia *

Russia and the Caucasus
Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said - review ★★★½
Chechnya: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra - review ★★½
Georgia: Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol - review ★★½
Russia: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - review ★★★★★
Armenia


Middle East
13 out of 16 countries = 81%

Cyprus: Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis - review ★★★★½
Iran: The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani - review ★★★★
Iraq: Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi - review ★★★★
Israel: My Promised Land by Ari Shavit - review ★★
Kuwait: Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet - review ★★
Lebanon: Ports Of Call by Amin Maalouf - review ★★★★
Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria - review ★★
Palestine: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa - review ★★
Saudi Arabia: Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif - review ★★★½
Syria: Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami - review ★★★
Turkey: Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières - review ★★★★
United Arab Emirates: City of Gold by Jim Krane - review ★★½
Yemen: The Hostage by Zayd Mutee Dammaj - review ★★
Bahrain
Jordan
Oman


Asia
27 out of 31 countries = 87%

Central Asia
Afghanistan: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - review ★★★★★
Kazakhstan: The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov - review★★★★½
Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov - review ★★★★
Tajikistan: Hurramabad by Andrei Volos - review ★★★½
Uzbekistan: Uzbekistan Speaks by Aibek - review ★★½
Turkmenistan *

South Asia
Bangladesh: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam - review ★★★★
Bhutan: Tales in Colour by Kunzang Choden - review ★★★★
India: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - review ★★★★½
Maldives: Folk Tales of the Maldives by Xavier Romero-Frias - review ★★★★
Nepal: Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay - review
Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin - review ★★
Sri Lanka: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera - review ★★★½

East Asia
China: Miss Chopsticks by Xinran - review ★★★★
Japan: Out by Natsuo Kirino - review ★★★½
Mongolia: All This Belongs to Me by Petra Hůlová - review ★★
North Korea: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick - review ★★★★★
South Korea: Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller - review ★★★
Taiwan: A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers by Li-Hung Hsiao - review ★★★
Tibet: Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen - review ★★½

Southeast Asia
East Timor: The Crossing by Luís Cardoso - review
Indonesia: This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer - review ★★★
Malaysia: Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan - review ★★★★★
Myanmar: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh - review ★★★★
Philippines: The Last Time I Saw Mother by Arlene J. Chai - review ★★
Singapore: Following the Wrong God Home by Catherine Lim - review ★★★
Thailand: Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj - review ★★★★
Vietnam: The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott - review ★★★½
Brunei
Cambodia *
Laos


Australia and the Pacific
13 out of 15 countries = 87%

Australia: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough - review ★★★½
Fiji: The Sailmaker's Daughter by Stephanie Johnson - review ★★
Kiribati: A Pattern Of Islands by Arthur Grimble - review ★★★
Marshall Islands: Marshall Islands Legend and Stories by Daniel A. Kelin - review ★★★
Micronesia: My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng - review (unrated)
Nauru: Legends, traditions and tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo - review ★★
New Zealand: Potiki by Patricia Grace - review ★★★½
Papua New Guinea: The Gebusi by Bruce M. Knauft - review ★★★
Samoa: The Girl in the Moon Circle by Sia Figiel - review (unrated)
Solomon Islands: Solomon Time by Will Randall - review ★★★
Tahiti: Frangipani by Célestine Hitiura Vaite - review ★★★½
Tonga: Tales of the Tikongs by Epeli Hauʻofa - review ★★★½
Tuvalu: Where The Hell Is Tuvalu? by Philip Ells - review ★★½
Palau *
Vanuatu *

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review 2018-06-07 21:18
Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
Evening Is the Whole Day - Preeta Samarasan

Why should I feel sorry for her when she doesn’t feel sorry for me? It could be the family motto, this question, something to emblazon on their coat of arms, except that not one of them has noticed how often the others ask it.”

This is a fantastic book with a tragic story, about a well-off Indo-Malaysian family slowly tearing each other apart. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic design and bright colors of the cover; this is a dark and complicated novel that offers plenty of sympathy but little hope for its damaged characters.

The book begins in 1980, with a teenaged servant being sent home in disgrace with her drunken father. From there the book moves backward in time, tracing how events arrived at this point. Between the recently-deceased grandmother, the older daughter who has transformed from an exuberant girl into a withdrawn teenager interested only in going abroad for college, the younger daughter who talks to ghosts, the parents with their toxic marriage and the uncle who has been banished from the house, there’s a lot to unpack, and Samarasan does so slowly, layer by layer, with close attention to emotional detail.

The mysteries at the center of the story and the non-linear storytelling through which readers can piece them together are compelling. But the characterization – the complexity and psychological insight with which each character is drawn – is what really elevates this book above the rest. The book is full of flawed characters hurting each other, but the reader comes to understand where each of them is coming from and why they react the way they do. We get to know these people and their relationships with each other so well, and they are so three-dimensional and realistic, that it’s hard to believe they don’t exist in real life.

But the book goes beyond just the family’s life, delving into class divisions and racial politics in Malaysia, where ethnic Malays are privileged over the large Chinese and Indian populations. It is a history not without violence – though thankfully not overdone for shock value here, as some authors are tempted to do – and I learned a lot about Malaysia from reading this book. The author also shows a keen understanding of how money and social class influence people’s behavior.

So I have little criticism, except that I never quite believed the father’s choice of

mistress

(spoiler show)

and the book did take me around 50 pages to get into. The language is lyrical and seemed a little overly stylized until I came to trust that the author knew what she was doing. Once I finished though, I found myself flipping back to read sections of it again.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who loves reading about complicated characters and relationships and who doesn’t require well-defined heroes and villains. It was a treat to read, and I look forward to more from this author!

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review 2018-06-04 21:57
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov
The Good Life Elsewhere - Ross Ufberg,Vladimir Lorchenkov

An absurdist, darkly humorous story about impoverished villagers trying to escape Moldova to go work in Italy. This isn’t as tightly-plotted as your typical novel, but it’s a short and quick read following the misadventures of several unfortunate Moldovans in the late 2000s. Many of the situations are over-the-top, satirizing the situations of would-be migrants and the intensity of their desire to go to Italy. The humor is really dark though, much of it involving death. I imagine this book would be funnier and more meaningful to Moldovans, but as a foreigner I did feel able to appreciate it, and it is an easy read.

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