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review 2014-11-30 18:49
Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga
Our Lady of the Nile - Scholastique Mukasonga,Melanie Mauthner

This is a short yet somewhat dense novel set in an elite Rwandan girls' boarding school in the 1970s: set well before the genocide but written after, it focuses primarily on the laying of the groundwork for ethnic cleansing. As a novel, though, it didn't do anything for me: the structure is more a series of vignettes than a plot; there is no protagonist, and almost all of the girls seem either interchangeable or too distant to inspire any sense of connection in readers. The most vivid personality is Gloriosa, who leads the persecution of her Tutsi classmates, but she's too caricatured and two-dimensional to be interesting, let alone sympathetic. And for all that in real life the teenage years are a time of intense emotion, the girls' interactions and relationships are almost entirely driven by politicking and almost devoid of any real human connection or friendship. Sure, teens are selfish, but could an entire schoolful of them be quite this calculating? I don't know, but this book didn't delve deeply enough into anyone's psychologies to convince me. Or at any rate, something was lost in translation.


The mountaintop setting sounds beautiful, though, and the glimpses into Rwandan culture are well-done.

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review 2014-11-30 17:59
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Heidi - Johanna Spyri

A saccharine, yet strangely readable, children's book about a little Swiss girl who transforms the lives of nearly everyone she meets. I'd read this one as a kid but remembered too little to count it for my world books challenge without a re-read. The beauty of the mountain and Heidi's love for it are vividly depicted. Spyri doesn't talk down to her child readers, and I wouldn't have guessed this to be a translation without being told (though there are some ways of writing that passed in the 19th century but wouldn't today: "'That would be all very well if he were like other people,' asseverated stout Barbel warmly"). It continues to surprise me that so many favorite children's books are so old, and yet children have no trouble with them, while adult classics are more difficult and less widely read. This one is probably best enjoyed by readers of an age to readily identify with Heidi, but despite some idealization and religious messaging it was a pleasant enough read as an adult too.

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review 2014-10-01 04:21
Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono
Houseboy - Ferdinand Oyono

Another world fiction challenge book, my fourth in a month; I'm overdosed on these right now and need to take a break.

This novella is purportedly the diary of a Cameroonian "houseboy" (actually a young man, though we never learn his age), which as it is fiction, of course doesn't read like any real diary ever written. He becomes the servant of a powerful colonist, learns more about the whites than they're comfortable having him know, and it turns out badly for him. This book was originally published in 1956, when Cameroon was still a French colony, and no doubt caused a stir at the time and has historical value for that reason.

Eh, I could give some analysis of this book, the simple and abrupt writing style (at least in translation), the story that focuses on the day-to-day activities of the white employers more so than the narrator's inner life or feelings, but it boils down to another "this book has some academic value, but otherwise isn't likely to be of much interest unless you're from the area" review. I am tired of writing those reviews and you all are tired of reading them. I've read so many of these books now that even the most bizarre errors are beginning to repeat themselves - even the narrator's observing something and describing it as "imperceptible" (not "nearly imperceptible," but actually incapable of being perceived) only repeats a malapropism I'd seen before.

So, fuck it, instead I'm going to give you a list of obscure foreign (to me) books, mostly in translation and hard to find outside of a university library, that I did enjoy and find entertaining. Here you are:

Zenzele, Nozipo Maraire (Zimbabwe)

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years and Jamilia, Chingiz Aitmatov (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively)

Four Reigns, Kukrit Pramoj (Thailand)

I Do Not Come to You By Chance, Adaobi Nwaubani (Nigeria)

Ports of Call, Amin Maalouf (Lebanon)

Fiela's Child, Dalene Matthee (South Africa)

Miss Chopsticks, Xinran (China)

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review 2014-09-29 12:49
Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell
Beka Lamb - Zee Edgell

There seems to be a trend in post-colonial literature of juxtaposing a character’s coming-of-age with that of his or her country. This is one of those books: it’s set in mid-20th-century Belize, nearing its independence from the British empire, as seen through the eyes of 14-year-old Beka. Beka has just flunked her freshman year at the local convent school, and since free public education is not yet an option, it's not certain whether her father will let her try again. Meanwhile her best friend, Toycie, gets into some serious trouble.


Unfortunately, Edgell deploys a combination of techniques that, while not always bad, combine to make this a less than engaging read. First, the entire story is told in flashback, so we know up front how all major threads are going to turn out. Second, the book is packed with Belize-related information – food, geography, flora and fauna, architecture, celebrations, politics, local history and legends, etc. – so that the setting threatens to take up more space than the plot. Third, the writing style is rather flat (and my edition needed a bit more copyediting), so that whenever the author moves from one topic to another, any momentum the story has gained is promptly lost. The book has only 171 pages, but feels longer; for more than half its length I had to push myself to read 30-40 pages a day. It does become somewhat more engaging toward the end, however.


That isn’t to say there isn’t some interesting material here, both in the girls’ coming-of-age and in the local politics. Beka’s grandmother is an active supporter of the independence party, but she tries to discourage Beka from striving for a school prize, apparently under the impression that a creole wouldn’t be allowed to win anyway. Meanwhile Beka’s father is less than thrilled with the idea of universal adult suffrage, despite being from a community disadvantaged by restricting the franchise, because he feels this diminishes his achievement as a black man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. However, Beka’s relatives’ opinions are more memorable than their personalities; the characters aren’t flat, exactly, but nor are they particularly vivid.


Overall, this isn’t a terrible book and I wouldn’t discourage people from reading it, especially those who have some personal connection to Belize, but it was a bit of a chore for me and seems better suited to academic reading than pleasure. So, 2.5 stars.

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review 2014-09-17 02:11
Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma
Allah Is Not Obliged - Ahmadou Kourouma

As a rule I avoid books about war or calamity written from the perspective of child protagonists, in part because this viewpoint leads to oversimplification of complex events and in part because such books are almost always sentimental or precious. I chose this book, told from the perspective of a preteen boy who becomes a child soldier, both for the West African setting (it is set in Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, but the largest chunk takes place in Liberia, so I'm using it as my challenge book for that country) and for the authentic, conversational, foul-mouthed and entirely unsentimental voice. This is the book’s strongest quality, one that’s even more impressive given that this is a translation (you’d never know it without being told; I’d love to be able to sample the French original and see how it compares). Here’s a taste:


“The dead child-soldier was called Kid, Captain Kid. Now and again in his beautiful song, Colonel Papa le Bon chanted ‘Captain Kid’ and the whole cortege howled after him ‘Kid, Kid’. You should have heard it. They sounded like a bunch of retards.”


“The same goes for me. I don’t have to talk, I’m not obliged to tell my dog’s-life-story, wading through dictionary after dictionary. I’m fed up talking, so I’m going to stop for today. You can all fuck off!”


The dictionaries are an odd conceit: our narrator, Birahima, uses four dictionaries to look up French and African words and explain them as he goes. Occasionally these “explanations” are in the form of sardonic jabs (“‘Humanitarian peacekeeping’ is when one country is allowed to send soldiers into another country to kill innocent victims in their own country, in their own villages, in their own huts, sitting on their own mats.”), but most of the time he’s simply defining words most readers will already know (“Every morning he went to the temple and officiated. ‘Officiate’ is a big word that means ‘to conduct a religious ceremony’, that’s what it says in my Larousse.”). 


One might wonder how Birahima comes to use these words at all if he doesn’t know them (perhaps the entire conceit is meant to highlight the way African fiction tends to explain itself to a foreign audience, by turning the tables on us), but that question pales beside the fact that well before the halfway point, Birahima virtually abandons his own story and never fully returns to it. Instead, most of the second half the book is taken up by a history lesson on the warfare in Liberia and Sierra Leone, interspersed with anecdotes about the backstories of other child soldiers and about various larger-than-life men and women who take part in the wars. Unfortunately, we don’t see Birahima interact with these other characters; the stories he tells about his friends end with their becoming child soldiers, and in a way his own does too, even though that occurs early in the book. We never do get to read about the day-to-day lives of child soldiers or how they interact with one another.


One could rationalize that a real child soldier would be reluctant to tell his story, and would talk about other things instead, and maybe that's what Kourouma was trying to accomplish, though I'm not convinced a real child soldier would give us dozens of pages of history lessons either. Regardless, I picked up this novel hoping to read a story, and got a book that started out promisingly but grew increasingly disjointed and never did tell that story. Disappointing.

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