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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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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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