Friday, December 02, 2016

Sweden: My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, by Fredrik Backman

Seven year old Elsa is different. She lives with her mother and stepfather George, in a block of flats in an unnamed Swedish town. Elsa's mother is very busy running the hospital, so she spends a lot of time with her grandmother who lives in the next flat. Her grandmother is slightly crazy (in a good way), getting up to all sorts of antics such as busting into a zoo, firing paintball guns and making snowmen who look like real men who have fallen from the roof. She also tells Elsa stories about the magical kingdom of Miamas. In short, she is Elsa's superhero, and every seven year old who is different needs a superhero.

When Granny becomes ill, she leaves a trail of letters for Elsa to deliver. Each time Elsa delivers a letter to one of the inhabitants of the block of flats, she hears their story, and receives another letter to deliver. Gradually we learn more about her grandmother and about all the other people in the block of flats.

This is a wonderful story full of understanding of the complexities of human nature. I did have to suspend my tendency to nitpick a bit. For instance, Elsa meets and rescues the wurse (who seems to be actually a very large dog) but it is never quite explained why the wurse seemed to have been living in a flat on its own. Or why the wurse is so remarkably accommodating and well behaved when Elsa hides him in various places such as the garage or a wardrobe.

And I did feel a bit sceptical at times about Elsa herself. She is not supposed to be a typical seven year old. She is very smart (though the school does not seem to think so, due to institutional tunnel vision that is concerned only with whether a child "fits in"). Nevertheless - and I've known some pretty smart children - at times I thought her behaviour and wisdom was stretching it a bit even for a very smart seven year old. Still - it's within the bounds of possibility that somewhere in the world is a child who is as smart as that (I'm talking emotional intelligence rather than solving complex mathematical equations, although Elsa is also a prodigious reader).

Still - a great read for the not too cynical reader. My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises was translated by Henning Koch.

Sierra Leone: Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah's first book, apparently much acclaimed (I haven't read it) was "Long Way Gone", a memoir of his experiences as a child soldier in the Sierra Leonean civil war. This is his second book, a novel set in the aftermath of that war. It tells of the life of a small town, Imperi, as the people gradually return to the houses they have fled during the war, and try to rebuild and resume their former lives. But they are hampered by the depradations of a mining company and of corrupt politicians.

I felt this book came from the tradition of story telling as a teaching method. Thus, I found parts of it a bit simplistic. The elders are always wise, their earlier ways are the best ways, the mining company is totally evil and the actions of its workers, who come into town drunk at night, are totally bad. The two teachers, Benjamin and Bockarie, who are the central characters, are good men trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. This may or may not be a true reflection of what was going on in Sierra Leone after the war, but as the basis for a novel, I found it somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps a well researched non-fiction book would be a better way of bringing home the message. Or perhaps not. Apparently there was some dispute about the truth of Beah's memoir. It's easier, in a novel, to say "these things happened - not necessarily to me"- and to amalgamate all the sorts of things that happened and present them as happening to one small group of people.

The other thing that bothered me about the book was that the language felt somewhat stilted. I think this arose from the method of telling it - the omniscient third person narrator - and the need the author seemed to feel to teach facts - so we have passages that felt more at home in an encyclopedia. Passages such as
"they had come to mine rutile, a black or reddish-brown mineral consisting of titanium dioxide, which forms needle-like crystals in rocks in the earth. Rutile is used as a coating on welding rods; as pigment in paints, plastics, paper and foods; and in sunscreen to protect against ultraviolet rays. And wherever rutile is found, you also find zircon, ilmenite, bauxite, and in the case of Lion Mountain, diamonds. Not that the mining companies reveal they are mining all of these minerals. They obtain permits to dig up only one - rutile. So it is rutile alone that is mentioned in the reports it sends out, but the workers come to learn the truth."

I too, would have appreciated the chance to "come to learn" rather than being fed such undigested chunks of information, and I believe a skilled writer could achieve this. Nevertheless I enjoyed the book, particularly some of the passages where the elders told their stories from an earlier time, and where the author used expressions from his native Mende language such as "the sky rolled over and changed its sides" which means, as explained in the preface, "night came suddenly". And what I found most astonishing at the book, is the way in which it ends with Bockarie's family full of hope for the future, despite the fact that to our eyes they are at rock bottom with little to hope for. Not for nothing is the book titled "Radiance of Tomorrow".

Friday, November 25, 2016

Bolivia: Affections, by Rodrigo Hasbun

This slim novel centers on Hans Ertl, a German mountaineer, adventurer and film maker, and his three daughters Monika, Heidi and Trixi. Hans Ertl was forced to leave Germany after the World War II, seen as a Nazi due to his work as cameraman on Leni Reifenstahl's propaganda documentary of the 1936 Olympics, and his later work as a war photographer. In Bolivia, Hans sets out to find the legendary Inca city of Paititi, deep in the Amazon jungle. Two of his daughters accompany him on this expedition. Later, the three girls take very different paths, Monika as a guerilla revolutionary, Heidi marrying and returning to Germany to raise four children, and Trixi living a somewhat aimless life in La Paz.

Hasbun, who was born in Bolivia in 1981, states at the beginning "although inspired by historical figures, this novel is a work of fiction. As such it is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Ertl family or the other characters who appear in its pages". I found this an interesting approach, given the recent time frame of the events - it appears from a google search that Trixi at least may still be alive. It's one thing to fictionalize the lives of 17th century English kings and queens, and quite another for twentieth century characters - after all, in the former case, we know when the author describes what someone is thinking that there is in fact no way they could know that. With more recent events, and possible live informants, the boundaries seem somewhat more blurred.

Whatever the truth of the story, I found it intriguing and compelling, and well told. I was interested to see that the translator was Sophie Hughes, who is also the translator of Umami, the book from Mexico that I had just finished reading before this one. She must be very busy!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mexico: Umami, by Laia Jufresa

Moving on down the North American continent, I arrived (at least in the pages of a book) in Mexico."Umami" tells the story of the residents of a mews complex in Mexico City. Alfonso, the owner and designer of the complex, is an expert in Meso-American dietary habits, and has named the five apartments after the five principal tastes - umami (savoury), sweet, sour, salty and bitter). His wife Noelia, a cardiologist, has died. The Perez-Walker family live in one apartment and run a music school in another. Then there is Beto, wife Chela and daughter Pina, and in the fourth apartment Marina, a depressed young artist.

One summer Ana, the eldest daughter of the Perez-Walker family, begs to be allowed to stay for the summer rather than going to her grandma Emma's in Michigan with her brothers. As her summer project, she plants a milpa (traditional Mexican garden). Ana also had a younger sister Luz, but Luz drowned three summers ago in the lake at her grandmother's.

The book moves back and forth in time over a period of four years, and changes narrators from chapter to chapter. We see the points of view of Ana, Alfonso, Pina, Luz and Marina in particular. They are all interesting characters - no stereotypes here! I found myself wondering at the task of the translator in some of the use of language. For instance Marina likes to invent colours. "Briefoamite is the ephemeral white of seafoam...burgunlip is the colour of your mouth after a few glasses of red wine...cantalight is that melony orange you only see at twilight." Reading these made me wonder what they were in the original Spanish, and whether the translator (Sophie Hughes) had to invent an entirely new set of colour names in English.

Then, in the chapters told by Luz, there are some intriguing words which arise out of a five year old's misunderstanding - "camuflash" appears to be her version of "camouflage". "Ziplings" had me wondering for a bit - your "ziplings" are the people you live with who are a similar size to you - then I realised it is "siblings". It's possible these are the same in the original, as the children do speak English when at their grandmother's for the summer. Whether English or Spanish though, I found the use of language great fun. And the book overall, funny, sad, tender, lyrical and poetic.

Laia Jufresa was born in Mexico City, and spent her adolescence in Paris. She returned to Mexico City in 2001. She currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Canada: The Gallery of Lost Species, by Nina Berkhout

I'm a bit of a sucker for quirky plots and interesting titles. So when I found this on the library shelves, and saw that it was written by a Canadian author, I decided to make it my Canada pick. (I find that my knowledge of Canadian writers is suprisingly limited, apart from Margaret Atwood, and I had already read a number of her books so wanted something new).

The title is rather reminiscent of Alice Hoffman's "The Museum of Extraordinary Things", which I had enjoyed very much. However it turns out to be very different, and much less strange. The first sentence is "When I was thirteen, I saw a unicorn". We quickly learn, however, that the unicorn is a goat. Edith, the narrator, is the younger daughter of Henry,an artist and Constance, a would be model, originally from France. Her older sister Vivienne is pushed by her mother into becoming a child beauty pageant star. Vivienne has inherited her father's artistic talent but rebels against her mother and sinks into alcoholism. Edith, feeling herself to lack talent, and nurturing a doomed passion for Liam, who yearns for Vivenne, studies museum conservation and obtains a job in the National Gallery of Canada. There she meets Theo, an elderly crypto zoologist, who studies mythical creatures. He is searching for a bird seen in Gauguin's paintings. (What happens if you find it, Edith asks his young colleague Jonathon. - Then it becomes a conservation problem no one wants to deal with).

I began to feel that this was not my sort of book at all - too much contemporary life, too much alcohol, drugs and general grittiness - but when I let go the expectations the title raised in me, I found it absorbing. It could have been sad and depressing. Instead, the ending, while not exactly uplifting, seemed to offer a resolution of sorts, and at least a measure of peace.

Nina Berkhout is a poet and this is her first novel, but the poetic sensibility shows through.

Friday, November 11, 2016

United States: News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I decided there wasn't much point in trying to select the "best" book to represent the United States on my round the world reading tour. With so many excellent books coming out of the US, it would be an impossible task, so I just picked up a copy of the most recent book that had attracted me, from our local library.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd lost his printing business in the Civil War. He is an elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them. He now makes a living travelling through North Texas with a collection of newspapers, setting up in small towns and reading extracts to the local residents for a dime apiece. In Wichita Falls, he is offered fifty dollars to take a young girl, rescued after four years with the Kiowa tribe, to her relatives in San Antonio.

Johanna has completely forgotten her former life and believes she is a Kiowa. Gradually, as they journey south through dangerous wild country, she comes to trust the "Kepdun" and they build a relationship.

This is a beautifully told story. The descriptions of the countryside and of the growing relationship are lyrical and poetic, while there is enough action to sustain the tension. I found the style interesting - the author does not use any quotation marks in conversation. This could have been confusing, but wasn't, and somehow managed to give an old fashioned, slightly outback tone to the narrative. And it seemed a fitting week to come across a list of the events of 1870 that the Captain was selecting to relate to his audience - among them the first female law graduate, the first professional baseball team, and the adoption of the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party. (Why a donkey? Maybe someone can enlighten me).

Monday, November 07, 2016

Belarus: Down Among the Fishes, by Natalka Babina

The blurb on the back of this book was a bit misleading. "Two twin sisters, natives of Dobratyche, a small Belarusian village on the Buh river close to the border with Poland, set out to examine the events that led to granny Makrynya's unexpected death. Their trek quickly turns into a murder investigation."

After reading that, I was expecting a murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie, or Midsomer Murders. In fact, there is very little direct investigation of the murder in the book, although it does get solved in the end. Instead, there is a rich tapestry of other events - politics (one of the sisters is the local electoral agent for an opposition candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections), a treasure hunt, and the general daily life of the small village. This is a modern village. So there are not only cows, pigs, and mushroom hunting in the forest, but also the internet, crooked property developers, corrupt politicians and so on, with elements of magical realism and glimpses of history thrown in.

I found the mix enormously entertaining, and also fascinating in its look at life in a little known country. What intrigued me was that the book managed to get published in Belarus, despite its hugely critical attitude towards politics in that country. Despite a fictional name being used for the president of the country, the description of the election process, of vote rigging and of trumped up criminal charges and violent attacks on opposition candidates, it does seem to target the current President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, and is widely believed to be involved in vote rigging and other undemocratic processes (known by some as "Europe's last dictator"). All this makes the book sound rather grim, but it's not - in fact, all ends joyfully and the human spirit triumphs.

the author is a journalist for Nasha Niva, one of the leading independent newspapers in Belarus.

"Down Among the Fishes" by Natalka Babina, translated from the Belarusian by Jim Dingley, published by Glagoslav Publications 2013.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Estonia: The Ropewalker, by Jaan Kross

I read a book earlier in the year which I posted under the heading Estonia - but I decided to revisit the country for two reasons. Firstly, the author of the first book, Sofi Oksanen, is actually Finnish, though the book was set in Estonia and the author has Estonian ancestry.

Secondly, I spotted Jaan Kross's newly translated book in the library, and it looked too inviting to pass by. It is the first volume of a major historical trilogy with the overall title "Between Three Plagues". Parts 2 and 3 are apparently due to appear in English in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Jaan Kross was born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1920. At the time he was writing his historical fiction, Estonia was part of the USSR and writers were severely restricted in what they could publish. Kross withdrew into writing historical fiction, in order to become less visible to the authorities. At the time in the mid 1500s when this story is set, Estonia was part of Old Livonia, a territory which was squabbled over by several major powers, jostling for control - Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, and Poland-Lithuania. The series concerns the life of Balthasar Russow, the author of the "Chronicle of the Province of Livonia" which recounts the history of Livonia from 1156- 1583. Balthasar was a remarkable man, of peasant stock but very intelligent, with the knack of being in the right place, and saying the right thing, at the right time. The first volume ends when he is still a young man in his mid twenties, returning to Livonia after a period studying theology in Germany.

The book is quite lengthy and is packed with description. Apparently Kross was often seen walking around old Tallinn, peering at the details of buildings in order to better describe them, as many were just as they had been in Russow's day. Description can be tedious and often the reader tends to skip it. That wasn't the case for me with "The Ropewalker". Without the language standing out and drawing attention to itself, the description seemed to be an integral part of the story, easy to read and blending seamlessly with the narrative. Only occasionally did I stop over a particular phrase which seemed particularly vivid
eg "a reddish brown beard so sparse that each hair had to shout to its neighbour to be heard".

I will be looking forward to the next volume in the series, as eagerly as I am awaiting the final part of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

The Ropewalker, by Jaan Kross, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher, published by MacLehose Press 2016