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Search tags: world-books-challenge
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review 2017-07-10 04:44
Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness - Tracy Kidder

This is a readable but mediocre book that gets a lot of praise because it’s about an impressive person and a tragic topic. Deogratias grew up in rural Burundi with few advantages, but made it to medical school, until he got caught up in the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi in 1993. A friend helped him flee to New York City, where despite a job delivering groceries he found himself homeless at first, until making friends who helped him get back on his feet. He then went to college and medical school in the U.S., and returned to Burundi to set up clinics for people with no access to health care.

 

This book reminds me of Ashley’s War, in that both are about people and subjects that absolutely deserve a book, but their authors sell them short. Kidder’s writing feels superficial throughout. From early on I had the impression that he was drawn to Deo but never really understood him (or perhaps Deo wasn’t willing or able to open up to the extent an author would need to write a biography that appears to be based mostly on his own disclosures), and so was able to relate the facts but only on the surface level. This becomes even more apparent in the second half of the book, when Kidder accompanies Deo on one of his trips back to Burundi. They visit numerous memorials and sites from Deo’s past, and Kidder describes how Deo reacts, but in the end we get more of Kidder’s feelings about the trip than Deo’s.

 

Though this is primarily a biography, we do get some information about the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi as well, along with a brief overview of the countries’ history. Though, again, this feels superficial, it’s an adequate starting point and is interesting for a reader with relatively little knowledge of the area. Especially interesting is Deo’s theory that the genocide was made possible in large part by structural violence – that when everyday life is full of fatal illness and injury, hunger, violence at home and at school, and little opportunity to improve one’s lot in life, people perceive the value of their own lives as low and therefore value others’ even less. Also interesting is the fact that, although westerners reading about the genocide assume Hutu and Tutsi are clearly definable ethnic groups, the reality seems to be anything but; these are apparently social groups more than anything else, and it appears Deo isn’t alone in being unable to tell the difference.

 

At any rate, this is a very readable book, not a bad choice for those who are interested in the topic. (It’s also worth pointing out, for those unsure about whether they can handle a book about genocide, that only one 35-page chapter is all about that; most of the book is about Deo’s life before and after, and about Kidder spending time with Deo and the people who helped him in New York.) But I’m underwhelmed by Kidder’s writing and likely won’t recommend this to others.

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review 2017-07-02 19:14
Marcos Ramirez by Carlos Luis Fallas
Marcos Ramírez - Carlos Luis Fallas

This is an enjoyable tale of a boy growing up in Costa Rica in the 1910s and 1920s. It is mostly episodic, without an overarching plot, and Marcos spends most of his time misbehaving and causing trouble, so the Tom Sawyer comparison feels apt. The specific details of Marcos’s life feel real rather than drawn from fictional tropes, so I suspected the book was autobiographical even before learning from the brief autobiographical essay in the front that all the facts of Marcos’s life match Fallas’s.

 

It is a colorful and entertaining book, and it’s not your stereotypical Costa Rica: the boys, including Marcos, are quite violent, and at one point he runs off with the army when war with Panama is brewing. Marcos is a lively if sometimes exasperating character, though there’s little development of anyone else – we get to know his mother and uncle a bit, but the book’s autobiographical nature means his friends are represented by an ever-changing stream of boys who put in brief appearances, and few other characters register much. Toward the end we read more about Marcos’s schooling, which is interesting but not in the same way; there’s a lot of school politics and criticism of teachers for whom memorization is the highest form of learning. But the couple of episodes in which Marcos uses cruelty to animals to revenge himself on their owners were my least favorite.

 

Overall though, this is a fun book; Fallas seems to be one of those few authors who can write about childhood from the inside rather than imposing an adult viewpoint on the narrative. It’s a shame this book apparently has never been translated to English, as I suspect it could find a healthy readership.

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review 2017-05-22 03:37
The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott
The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family - Duong Van Mai Elliott

This book would make fantastic supplemental reading for a course on Vietnamese history. The author chronicles more than a hundred years of the country’s recent past, using her family’s experiences as a focal point. It begins in the mid 19th century, when several of her male ancestors served as mandarins in a society that revered educational attainments; moves on to French colonialism and Japanese occupation during WWII; then to the Viet Minh struggle for independence, which doesn’t seem to truly divide the family despite their winding up on all sides of the conflict – the author’s father serves as a high-ranking official under the French while her oldest sister and brother-in-law join the rebels in the mountains, and her uncle, a wealthy landowner, puts his resources at the Viet Minh’s disposal. Then it traces the American intervention and the dramatic days of the communists’ takeover of South Vietnam, before ending with Vietnam’s struggles as an independent country.

It’s a lot to pack into 475 pages, and the author balances the story of her family with a broader historical perspective. The history appears well-researched, and based on her bibliography, draws heavily on Vietnamese as well as English-language sources. It also seems balanced; at times, when family members’ paths during the war diverge sharply, we get separate chapters covering the same events from different perspectives, and the author doesn’t seem to be advocating for either one over the other. Though the author’s parents threw in their lot with the French and later South Vietnam, she – like many Vietnamese – seems to respect the communists’ commitment, and while the American intervention was a short-term boon for middle-class families like hers, she ultimately seems to conclude that the communist victory was both inevitable and not as awful as propaganda had led the South Vietnamese to expect.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it is rather dry, much more focused on facts than building a dramatic narrative. Though it is in part a memoir, we learn little about the author herself; she tends to relate the facts of a situation with perhaps a bald statement of her feelings, but without developing any of the emotional detail that might allow readers to experience the story along with her. There are exceptions, though; her account of the dramatic last days before the fall of Saigon (through the eyes of several family members) is downright gripping.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, but more for educational purposes than entertainment. It is a strong answer to the rest of English-language literature about Vietnam, which tends to be from an American perspective and focused exclusively on the war.

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review 2017-05-21 20:55
Nor Any Country by Garth St. Omer
Nor Any Country - Garth St Omer

This novella is only 96 pages long, plus a laudatory 20-page essay about the work by one Jeremy Poynting. (I was puzzled by how a work no one had a word to say about on Goodreads could have the sort of academic following implied by this essay, until a Google search revealed that Poynting is its publisher.) The book follows its protagonist, Peter, as he returns to his unnamed island home (presumed by the publisher to be St. Omer’s home country of St. Lucia) for a brief visit after many years of study abroad.

Unfortunately, where Mr. Poynting saw subtle brilliance, the novella seemed to me mostly a mundane catalogue of Peter’s wandering about the island conversing with various people; his role in the conversations consists largely of creating a sense of his own superiority by saying little and smiling often. While visiting, he must decide what to do about the wife with whom he had no communication during his years abroad, but the narrative does little to show us how he arrives at his choice. Mostly Peter, while traveling about the island, simply ruminates on his European ex-girlfriends. There’s precious little narrative momentum in any of this, and little to interest the reader in the protagonist. Some of the supporting characters seem more interesting, but have limited room to breathe in such a short work.

As for the writing itself, it is adequate but sometimes lacking in clarity; numerous times I had to re-read passages to figure out what the author was trying to say. Written in the 1960s, the book seems to assume cultural understanding that a modern, non-Caribbean reader is unlikely to have: while racial politics are quite important in this setting, readers are left to deduce the race of almost all of the characters on their own (and I’m still not sure about Daphne).

All that said, this is a very short book that will leave readers somewhat more informed about the issues facing a society in a particular time and place. While the lack of clarity sometimes slows down the reading, large amounts of dialogue should keep readers from getting too bogged down.

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review 2017-04-30 17:49
The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst
The Misfortunates - Dimitri Verhulst,David Colmer

Based on the protagonist’s sharing the author’s full name, and the little information about Verhulst available in English, this short, episodic novel appears to be autobiographical. Somewhat more than half of it focuses on Dimitri’s boyhood, surrounded by the raging drunks that are his father and three uncles. In these chapters Dimitri himself almost disappears, but one gets the sense of a narrator struggling with the tension between his affection and nostalgia for these incorrigible relatives, and his ultimate rejection of their lifestyle after they fail him in ways that are largely left to the reader’s imagination. In later chapters Dimitri appears as a not-particularly-endearing adult, and the book becomes even more episodic – it’s almost more of a short story collection than a novel – as major events are referenced only in passing. It makes sense thematically but leaves a great deal untold.

The book is set in Belgium and originally written in Dutch, but the translation is skillful and flows well. Early on some of the descriptions wallow in the muck to a fairly repulsive degree (generally related to bodily fluids), but this is less a feature of the entire book than of the early chapters. And they do speak to an eye for detail. The individual characters are not especially distinguishable, but the culture of Dimitri’s family and his community come to life (the encounters between the men of the family and Dimitri’s refined, well-off aunt and cousin, and later a cultured immigrant family, throw their mostly well-intentioned boorishness into particularly sharp relief). There’s an adept balancing of entertainment value and the narrator’s darker view of the world, sprinkled with brief, pointed references to the meaninglessness of life.

There’s certainly something to this book, and some readers will connect strongly to this ode to a dysfunctional family. But the narrator’s emotional distance combined with his often poor treatment of others once reaching adulthood, the episodic nature of a story without any unifying plot, the gross-out factor, and the rather limited, child’s-eye view of the primary characters made it difficult for me to become engrossed in the story. We’ll call this one a neutral reference.

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