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Search tags: world-books-challenge
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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 Between the recently-deceased grandmother, the older daughter who has transformed from an exuberant girl into a withdrawn teenager interested only in going abroad for college, the younger daughter who talks to ghosts, the parents with their toxic marriage and the uncle who has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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review 2018-05-17 23:55
Ekomo by María Nsue Angüe
Ekomo - María Nsue Angüe

Spanish review to come

This is an interesting short novel, set in Equatorial Guinea and as far as I know, only available in Spanish. It reminds me of a lot of African fiction centered around the lives of people living in traditional rural communities: Mema, The Dark Child, and The Purple Violet of Oshaantu are similar choices available in English.

This book is narrated by a young woman named Nnanga, who is married to the eponymous Ekomo. The book begins with an omen of imminent death in their village, and follows Nnanga's story in a generally linear fashion, though there are sizeable flashbacks to her childhood and youth as a dancer, and some detours to relate legends and marital disputes in the village. It’s a colorful story, with forbidden romance, kidnapping of brides, a nude dancing ritual, and a journey to a medicine man, and the plot consistently kept me engaged. Until the end it felt mostly upbeat; at the end I wasn’t entirely sure whether the author meant to criticize cultural practices that harm women, or the introduction of foreign ideas into Africa. (The introduction writer focuses on the latter, but then he’s a man.)

But it’s fair to say that I’m not the best reviewer for this book, because I didn’t entirely understand it. Spanish is not my first language, and because the language of the book is relatively simple, I didn’t spend much time looking up words as I went. The copyediting could use some work: there are a lot of typos, and the lack of section breaks for major topical shifts may create confusion.

Overall though, an interesting book that immerses the reader in the narrator’s life in rural Equatorial Guinea. I wish I'd understood it a bit better.

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review 2018-04-23 21:11
The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić
The Bridge on the Drina - Ivo Andrić,Lovett F. Edwards,William Hardy McNeill

This is a sort of fictionalized history, which the author referred to as a “chronicle” rather than a novel. It spans about 350 years in the history of Višegrad, Bosnia, telling the story of the town and its Ottoman-era bridge from the 16th century to World War I. The book dips into the lives of individual characters, usually for vignettes of a chapter or less, but focuses more on the general feeling or changes in the town and the reaction of townspeople in general to key events than on particular characters. There are some astute character sketches; Andrić seems to have a good understanding of human nature. But overall it is a sweeping history told much more in narrative summary than specific scenes, and the town and bridge themselves, rather than particular families or plot threads, provide continuity between chapters.

It is a well-written (or well-translated) book, though a dense and slow read that felt much longer than its 300 pages. There’s a melancholy atmosphere throughout, with time passing and empires marching on indifferent to the fates of individuals. Readers should know that in the first 60 pages there is a horrifically graphic impalement scene that I did not need in my head and that a few years from now may be all I remember about the book. I persevered only after learning that there are no other graphic torture scenes, though death is a frequent occurrence throughout.

It’s also worth pointing out that, although to English-speakers this may seem like timeless storytelling, Andrić – a Bosnian Serb who ultimately made his home in Belgrade – is a controversial figure in Bosnia, and some see the book as advancing an anti-Bosniak political agenda. To me, as an outside reader, he seems to treat the Muslim and Serb populations of Višegrad both with humanity and fairly evenhandedly, with the important caveat that the Muslim population is referred to as “Turks” and “Turkish” throughout. Based on a bit of online research, this is inaccurate: the Bosnians were Slavs who had their own Bosnian Kingdom prior to their conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1463, after which most of the population converted to Islam. But a reader ignorant of the region’s history might take Andrić’s terminology to indicate that Bosnia’s Muslims were Turkish colonists or transplants and that the Serbs were the original population. It occurs to me now that the impalement might be another subtly political decision: no such detailed brutality is described from any rulers other than the Ottomans, and Andrić imbues this scene with the maximum body horror, at a time when graphic violence in media was likely much less common than it is now (the book was published in 1945). Surely he knew how much this would stick out in readers’ minds.

Overall, the book did teach me something of the history of the Balkans, and presents a plausible chronicle of how history was experienced by everyday people over the course of hundreds of years. While I struggled a bit to get through it, I wouldn’t discourage readers who enjoy this sort of thing.

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review 2018-04-20 16:02
Forbidden Bread by Erica Johnson Debeljak
Forbidden Bread - Erica Johnson Debeljak

This is an interesting memoir by a former New York financial analyst who moved to the newly-formed Slovenia in 1993 for love. I read it because it’s set primarily in Slovenia, and in that respect was rewarded: it provides not just a vibrant snapshot of a particular place and time, but information about culture and language and history. I learned more about the most recent war in the Balkans from this book than from any other that I’ve read. As a memoir and especially as a love story, though, I found this a bit lacking.

This book is mostly about Erica Johnson Debeljak’s first year in Slovenia, but it begins by tracing her relationship with her future husband, Aleš, in New York, and the final chapter, set in 2008, puts her experiences in context and reflects on how dramatically the country has changed. An outsider’s perspective gives her a sharp eye for detail, but being married to a local and living in a country that was not a destination for westerners at the time means the author isn’t a typical expat: her in-laws, who grew up in a small village and lived most of their lives under communism, are involved in her life, and she lives in a working-class area and spends time with Aleš’s rural extended family. She even gives birth at a local hospital, where the judgment of whether a childbirth is successful seems to depend mostly on the mother’s making no noise (epidurals aren’t even mentioned, though surely they must have been common in New York by 1993?).

But the book is rather lacking in emotion for the first 2/3 or so, up until the author’s decision to have a child. Perhaps she really did take moving to a newly-formed country bordered by war in stride, but this doesn’t let readers get to know her very well. The emotion snaps into focus toward the end, as pregnancy and childbirth put her in conflict with traditional Slovenian beliefs and practices (this is apparently a country where people wouldn’t open car windows in the hot summer because All Drafts Are Deadly), and as having a child brings home the fact that her decision is permanent.

There was something oddly unsatisfying about the author’s personal story, though, because her depiction of her relationship with her husband is so charmless. He’s a renowned womanizer, and their early relationship seems to revolve entirely around sex. While she’s clearly pleased with the sex and seems to find him excitingly exotic, that doesn’t explain why she would keep pursuing – ultimately across an ocean – a man who routinely pushes her away, insisting the relationship won’t work out. A few months into their marriage, she’s pleasantly surprised that he’s been a good husband, because it turns out her greatest fear in moving to Slovenia was that he’d cheat on her within a few months. I’ve seen memoirists depict relationships with exes with more charm and sweetness than this author brings to the marriage for which she gave up a career and moved across the world. In the end I wasn’t sure whether to attribute the lack of romance to secret unhappiness on the author’s part, or simply to her storytelling: perhaps she was afraid of seeming sentimental or felt the romance was self-evident. But she didn’t provide enough to make me root for them as a couple or understand what drew either of them so strongly to the other and to this relationship.

At any rate, I did enjoy book for the author’s depiction of her life in Slovenia, and even looked forward to reading it. It’s accessible and interesting and I learned from it. It is a good choice for anyone interested in Slovenia, though perhaps not ideal for those seeking a love story.

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