Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Turkey: Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak

So far, I have found several of my choices from the Middle East rather difficult - those from Iran, Syria and Lebanon. All were books which appeared to be written for readers in their country of origin. My choice for Turkey felt much more as if it had been written for Western readers, and it has a partly Western setting.

Peri is on her way to join her husband at a dinner party in Istanbul when, while she is stuck in traffic, her handbag is stolen from the back of her car. She unwisely gives chase to the thief, and a photograph falls out of her handbag, reviving her memories of her time as a student at Oxford University, events she had tried to forget. The novel shifts back and forth between the present day, her time at Oxford, and her childhood in Istanbul. The Turkey depicted is one of conflicts - one where the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had tried to set up a modern secular society, but where now, extremists of various types are increasingly influential - Islamists, Marxists and so on. Peri's own family reflects these conflicts - her secular father, her religious mother and elder brother, her left wing but somewhat naive younger brother, who has spent time in prison for illegal gun possession. Peri herself is confused and uncertain in her beliefs, and this led to devastating events while she was at Oxford.

The author comments in the acknowledgments section "My Motherland, Turkey, is a river country, neither solid nor settled. During the course of writing this novel, that river changed so many times, flowing with a dizzying speed." I felt towards the end somewhat as if she was using this novel to deliver a sociological treatise on modern Turkey and on religious conflict, and that the plot sometimes suffered a little in favour of the message. There were times when events did not seem to flow naturally, for instance, Peri takes a rather drastic step towards the end of the book but the author's characterisation of her up to that point did not fully seem to lead to that step. There seemed to be a rush towards the end to fill in the back story of a central figure, Professor Azur - far more telling than showing at this point.And I would have liked to know more about her husband Adnan, a shadow figure who had supposedly "picked up the pieces" and was her "confidant, her best friend" but there is nothing in the book to back that up.

Still, there is much to enjoy here, and even if I felt lectured to at times, I found the depiction of Istanbul and of Turkish politics interesting.

Elif Shafak has been described as Turkey's most popular female novelist. She was born in Strasbourg, France and has lived in many countries around the world, including Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English and is an award winning novelist and political scientist. She currently lives in London.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Before the Feast, by Saša Stanišić

When Ann Morgan read a book from every country in the world in 2012, her choice for Bosnia and Herzegovina was Saša Stanišić's "How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone". So when I saw his second novel, "Before the Feast" on the shelf at the library, it seemed like a good choice, especially as the blurb on the back was quite appealing.

I quickly realised though, that the book is not set in Bosnia, and does not include Bosnian characters, apart from one short passage:
Golow had a Bosnian and a Serb working for him, and he had no idea exactly what the difference was. then he found out that they didn't really know either. They both hated the war. They argued only once about the question of guilt, because there's always a one-off argument about questions of guilt, but they settled the question peacefully and then decided to watch only the German news from then on,because on that channel everyone was to blame except the Germans - they coudn;t afford to be guilty of anything for the next thousand years, and the two Yugos could both live with that.

The author was born in Bosnia in 1978 but left during the war, at the age of 14, and currently lives in Germany.

The novel takes place in the East German village of Fürstenfelde. The author thanks the villagers of Fürstenberg, Fürstenfelde, Fürstenwalde, Fürstenwerder and Prenzlau for their information and hospitality, but the only one of these I could locate on a map was Prenzlau - nevertheless it does appear as if these may be real geographical locations. The inhabitants, however, are surely fictional. The action takes place on one night, on the day before the Anna feast. Though to say it takes place on that night is a simplification, given the wide ranging digressions which cover much of the history of the village. The characters are wonderfully idiosyncratic and include the local bell-ringer and his apprentice, two thieves, a dead ferryman, a retired lieutenant-colonel, the local artist, and a young girl called Anna, namesake of the Anna for whom the feast is named.

Then there are various animal characters - mice, chickens, and a vixen roaming the woods in the night.

The style is distinctive, or perhaps I should say "styles" as it changes from section to section. Parts are narrated by an unknown villager who uses the pronoun "we". Other passages sound as if they are quoted from historical documents, some parts use a straight forward third person narrative, in the present tense, other parts sound almost poetic, and there is even a passage of hand written script with numerous erasures and corrections.

I found it a highly entertaining book, from a promising young writer. Just not very Bosnian. (Although somehow, in style and outlook, it did not seem very German either).

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Zimbabwe: The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

Even though I'm reading more by current availability than by alphabetical order, I had intended to start filling in some of the gaps in the A's, B's and C's. But I had heard a lot about Petina Gappah, and then one of her books was available on the day I went to the library, so I picked it up. It certainly lived up to the hype.

Memory is an albino woman who has been convicted of the murder of a white man, and is locked up in Harare's Chikurubi Prison on death row. In preparation for her appeal, her lawyer has asked her to write down her story as she remember's it. What emerges is a fascinating account which takes Memory from her African family in one of the poorer parts of town, to live with a well-off white man from the age of nine years old. Thus she is able to get a good education and travel overseas to study, before returning to reconcile with her foster father Lloyd. So how did she come to be convicted of his murder? And is her memory of her past accurate?

The fact that the book encompasses a range of Zimbabweans both African and European in origin, of various economic classes, and covers several decades in which the political situation of the country was fast deteriorating, makes it a fascinating picture of the country - and very moving.

Petina Gappah has law degrees from Cambridge (England), Graz University (Switzerland) and the University of Zimbabwe. Her law background shows through in this book which appears to be well researched, although she comments in the afterword that she did not take up an opportunity to visit Chikurubi Prison as she would have had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and would not then have been able to write about it. So the book relies on her research of second hand accounts. Nevertheless, it is very vivid, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Andorra: The Mysterious Balloon Man, by Albert Salvado

Andorra is a tiny country between France and Spain with a population of some 70,000 people. So it was no surprise to find that there seems to be only one fiction writer from the country with works available in translation. Fortunately Albert Salvado is a highly prolific writer. I tried to find a book actually set in Andorra but had no luck, so I chose his most recent book, The Mysterious Balloon Man, which turns out to be the first in a series with the overarching title, "The Shadow of Ali Bey".

It is a spy story, but also a historical novel, set around the turn of the eighteenth century, and taking place mostly in Spain. Alfred Gordon, a civil servant employed by the British secret service, realises that the nobility, the traditional spies, are not doing a good job. He recruits Tom Headking, a young middle class Englishman living in Spain, where he is on the run after killing Lord Brookshield's son in a duel. What follows could be described as a "rollicking tale" in which women feature mainly as the object of lust for the male characters. It is enjoyable enough, if you can overlook the sometimes laughable characterisation of the women.

Headking discovers a treatise on hot air balloons written by Polindo Remigio. This turns out to be the pseudonym of a Catalan, Domingo Badia, who was to become a spy with the name Ali Bey, who is apparently an actual historical figure. It appears that he will figure more prominently in subsequent books in the series. However, I don't think I was captivated enough to seek them out.

The book was translated by Marc Brian Druckett but there is no publisher named on my copy, leading me to believe that it may have been self published. The translation is of reasonable quality, but the section at the end on "other books by the author" has been very poorly translated.

Still, given the lack of choice for this country, what I ended up with could have been a whole lot worse.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Libraries are Great!

Since starting my world reading project I have discovered many wonderful features of our local library's website. I can search the catalogue by subject eg "fiction - India", make "for later" lists of books that I want to read for the project, and make subject lists of books I have read for the use of other library website users. I can place a hold on books I want to read, and have them sent to my nearest branch from the other side of the city.

My latest discovery (I had this in the back of my brain, but only just got around to trying it), is that I can request books that the library doesn't have - not for interloan, which is a little pricy, but for them to add to their collection. So a few days ago I filled in the form three times over, for books from Benin, Macedonia and Uganda, and waited to hear.

Now I find that all three books I requested have been ordered, so in due course I will get to read them. This is going to be a wonderful relief to my rather strained book buying budget. The only drawback being that it is likely to be the best reviewed books that the library will agree to purchase. For some of the smaller countries, where the only possible book is of somewhat dubious quality, I hesitate to ask the library to add the book to their collection. Which means that I will probably have to buy the books that I least want to keep.

Still, I'm really pleased to be able to fill in a few more countries this way. I plan to put in further requests from time to time, aiming to space out the arrival of the books ordered.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trinidad & Tobago: House of Ashes, by Monique Roffey


On the outskirts of the City of Silk, in the fictional Caribbean island of Sans Amen, Ashes is a follower of the Leader, who has established a spiritual commune. He has rescued street kids, fed and educated them, and trained them and other followers to fight. Now they are going to seize power, to establish a New Society.

The followers of the leader invade and take over the television station and the House of Power. But their revolution quickly goes wrong. Holed up for days in the House of Power, with their parliamentarian hostages and the army surrounding them outside, Ashes gradually changes his view of the Leader, and of the existing regime. How will it end? Will he get out alive, and will he spend his life in prison? And what of the young former street kid, Breeze, cocky but ignorant?

The use of fictional names such as the House of Power and the City of Silk give this book an edge of fantasy, but everything else about it is firmly grounded in the real world. It is based on an actual insurrection that took place in Trinidad in 1990, although with a different outcome. In that case, Islamist extremists were responsible. In the fictional version, the nature of the spiritual beliefs of the rebel group are not defined. Ashes prays, and connects himself with "the beautiful". In the House of Power, he contemplates a stained glass window depicting the crucified Christ and states that Jesus was a revolutionary. But it is clear that whatever his belief is, he is not a Christian.

There is an element of environmentalism in the book too. One of the hostage Parliamentarians is the Minister for the Environment. She is passionate about the plight of leatherback turtles, and these figure prominently in the latter part of the story.

It is a convincing and moving book, which presents the characters on both sides as complex people, sometimes misguided but doing the best they can for their beliefs. I had to google a few of the terms used, and ended up knowing a little more about the Caribbean, besides enjoying a worthwhile read.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Belize: Time and the River, by Zee Edgell

This historical novel is set in the early part of the nineteenth century in the settlement that was later to become British Honduras, and eventually Belize. Although the Spanish claimed sovereignty over the area, they had never established settlements there. Instead, there was a small British population, served by slaves imported from Jamaica and elsewhere, who acted as domestics, and as workers on the mahogany plantations which was the chief export.

The novel tells the story of Leah, a slave born in Belize town, her mother Hannah, brother Sam and friend Will, a slave who was born in Africa. Will wants Leah to be his sweetheart but she does not love him. Leah dreams of a better future and eventually becomes a freed woman although this involves some compromises on her part, and distances her from her former friends.

As the story follows Leah's life from young womanhood till her death, it reads more like a book that someone might write about the history of a forebear, rather than a fictional novel - facts of a real life do not always fit a traditional narrative arc. However, there is no indication that it is anything other than fictional. I enjoyed reading the book, despite its structural limitations. I found it an interesting portrait of the complex social conditions that prevailed in the area at the time, a country about which I previously knew little.

Zee Edgell was born in British Honduras in 1940. Her first novel, Beka Lamb, was set in 1951 and published in 1982, a year after her country became the newly independent Belize. It was the first novel by a Belizan writer to reach an international audience. She has worked in international development and travelled widely, and is currently living in the United States.