Friday, April 28, 2017

Australia: From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson

This book looked so intriguing when I spotted it in the library that it inspired me to make a return visit through its pages to Australia. It is based on the story of the wreck of the Admella, in South Australia in 1859. The author's great great grandfather survived this wreck. In many hands, it would have been just another historical story. However, here it becomes something much more, with the addition of an alien life form hiding in the ocean near the wreck in the form of a cephalopod, but able to transform and shape shift.

This addition turns the story into something truly amazing. Inventive, lyrical, suspenseful and invoking a sense of wonder at the beauty of earth, the oceans, and the vast expanse of space, along with tender sympathy for the plight of humans and of the homeless life forms who came to earth millions of years ago and took refuge in the oceans.

One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Monday, April 24, 2017

North Korea: The Accusation, by Bandi

I knew that North Korea was going to be a difficult country. So I was delighted to read of this collection of short stories, smuggled out of North Korea, and furthermore, to discover that our library had copies on order.

The seven stories in this collection are relatively simple, and have a common theme - in each, the central characters are struggling to survive in a regime where the ordinary people have little, and live in fear of the consequences of the slightest wrong act or careless phrase, while the "Dear Leader" lives a luxurious lifestyle and must be praised at all costs. (When he moves around the country, it is a "Class One Event" and all other traffic must stop to make way for him). Generally, there is a moment of realization in each story, where the truth of their situation breaks through, overcoming years of propaganda.

Despite this simplicity, the characters in each story are different and completely individual. I was fascinated by the insight and power of these stories. I have to believe that they are a true reflection of life in North Korea - the author had nothing to gain by exaggeration or distortion, given that the stories were never going to be published in his own country. In fact, they lay hidden for years, most being dated around the early 1990s, until he was able to give them to someone to smuggle secretly out of the country. (Bandi means "firefly" and is, of course, a pseudonym).

The Accusation is translated by Deborah Smith, and published by Serpent's Tail in 2017.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Switzerland: The Chef, by Martin Suter

Maravan is a Tamil asylum seeker in Zurich and Andrea is a waitress at the same restaurant, the famed Chez Huwyler. Maravan is a brilliant chef but as an asylum seeker is only permitted to work in unsklled jobs, such as kitchen hand and finds himself scrubbing pots and preparing vegetables. It is 2008, the time of the global financial crisis and both Maravan and Andrea find themselves out of work.

Together they set up "Love Food", an enterprise specialising in erotic meals which, we are led to believe, have the couples who eat them wanting to jump into bed with each other. This is achieved by the aphrodisiac qualities of Ayurvedic recipes that Maravan has inherited from his beloved great aunt, combined with his "molecular cooking" techniques. Maravan is desperately trying to send money back to Sri Lanka to help his family, in the last days of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE rebels. From couples, they progress, somewhat against Maravan's values, to providing catering for rich businessmen and their escorts. Together they are drawn into an underworld of sex and illegal arms dealing.

I found the story readable enough, but not altogether convincing. Was Maravan's food really that powerful? And somehow, neither the struggles of the Sri Lankan Tamils not the world of the dodgy arms dealers really drew me in emotionally.

Nevertheless, according to the blurb Martin Suter has a huge readership. He was born in Zurich in 1948 and now spends his time between Spain and Guatemala. The Chef was translated from German by Jamie Bulloch and published in Great Britain by Atlantic Books in 2013.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Egypt: The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

This turned out to be a much easier read than my choice for Lebanon (previous post). In the first chapter or so, I felt it was strongly reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith's series of novels about the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street, Edinburgh. However it turned out to be much darker than that. Like the 44 Scotland Street books, The Yacoubian Building presents the various stories of the inhabitants of a single building, in this case in downtown Cairo. The year is approximately 1990, at the time of the Gulf War which followed the invasion of Kuwait. This backgrounds the tension between the various sectors of Egyptian society - the poor, the politicians, the intellectuals, the businessmen. Taha, the son of the doorkeeper of the Yacoubian Building, is a bright student who wants to join the police force, but is turned down despite outstanding performance in the entry exams because of his father's occupation. At university, he is drawn in to militant Islam. His sweetheart, Busayna, has to work to support her family after the death of her father, but finds that what her employers expect of a beautiful woman is problematic. The two gradually drift apart.

The novel exposes rampant corruption in political life, and in the police force. I found the depiction of female characters rather troubling, as most of them seemed to exist only in relation to men - someone's mother, someone's sister, someone's wife. Only the older Frenchwoman, Christine, a bar owner, and Dalwat, the rather unpleasant widowed elder sister of another character, appeared to have much agency of their own. I suspect this reflects the Eqyptian situation at the time as much as it reflects the writer's ability to create convincing depictions of the opposite sex.

The depiction of homosexuals I also found rather troubling, but again, perhaps realistic in the setting of the novel. In both cases (women and homosexuals) there seemed to be a huge focus on them as sexual objects, rather than as people with wide-ranging lives.

Despite all the dark events in the novel, it does end on a somewhat positive note. I'm not sure though, that I would agree with the blurbs on the back - the New York Times describes it as "a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart" - sympathetic, perhaps, but hardly comic in my opinion.

The Yacoubian Building was published in Arabic in 2002, translated by Humphrey Davies and published in English by Harper Perennial in 2007.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lebanon: As Though She Were Sleeping, by Elias Khoury

I'm having a hard time with books from the Middle East. I really enjoyed my selection from the United Arab Emirates - That Other Me, by Maha Gargarsh. Other than that though, I've found Middle Eastern literature very hard to get into. So it was with my selection for Lebanon, which, according to the cover, won the inaugural Arabic Novel Prize. The language is beautiful and poetic. But the story is very non-linear. Ostensibly, the action takes place over three separate nights (some months apart) - in fact, the three sections are titled "The First Night", "The Second Night" and "The Third Night". However, it is a lot more wide ranging than that, and tracks back and forth in time, in a way that is not easy to follow. I found it difficult when putting the book down and coming back to it, to remember where the story had got to.

Meelya is a young Lebanese Christian woman who has married Mansour, a Palestinian. She leaves Lebanon to live with him in Nazareth, but escapes reality in dreams. Her dream world is convincingly evoked, as she slips in and out of it. But just as in real life dreams, the book can be rambling and illogical at times. Still, the beauty of the language made me persist. Eventually, at the end of the story, there was a moment of revelation as the author linked the story of Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son Isaac with the death of Christ(and with Meelya herself) that formed a very satisfying conclusion (a little Bible knowledge will help the reader here).

As Though She Were Sleeping was translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies and published in Great Britain by MacLehose Press in 2011.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Romania: Black Sea Twilight, by Domnica Radulescu


Nora is a talented artist growing up in Mangalia on the Black Sea Coast of Romania. Gigi, her boyfriend is from a Turkish family in the same town. Nora dreams of going to art school and Gigi of becoming a ship's captain like his father, while Nora's twin brother Valentin has been sent to live with his aunt Raluca in Bucharest, so that he can study piano. But Communist Romania under the brutal and oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu is not an easy place to grow up. The slightest joke or innocent teenaged escapade might bring someone to the attention of the secret police.

This was an absorbing story, following the fortunes of Nora, Gigi, Valentin, and of Anoushka, the young French woman with a mysterious past whom Gigi and Nora rescue from the sea in a storm, and Didona, Valentin's first love, a gypsy from the State Circus.

However, I felt the author was using the story to cram in as much as she could of the recent history of Romania. So, while the first part of the story, until Nora reaches Paris, unfolded naturally, there were some odd passages later in the story: Nora receives a letter from her mother in which her mother tells the story of her own early life. On a train trip to see France, Anoushka suddenly launches into the story of her own early life in Hungary and Romania. And Nora hangs out in Paris with a group of young artists, actors and directors, who argue vigourously about the merits of Parisian culture and the fact that many of the most prominent artists there are Romanian immigrants.

A bibliography at the end of the book seems to bear out that the author wanted to impart factual information about Romania as much as to tell a story.

Despite these sometimes awkward intrusions, which could have been trimmed down without hindering the flow of the narrative, I enjoyed reading this book.

Domnica Radulescu was born in Romania and won a national prize for a volume of short stories when she was twenty, but fled during Nicoae Ceaucsecu's dictatorship and settled in the United States as a political refugee in 1983. She is a professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

New Zealand: The Quiet Spectacular, by Laurence Fearnley


New Zealand books are easy for me to obtain, and there's plenty of choice. I had gradually become aware of Laurence Fearnley as a writer I had yet to dip into, which seemed rather a lack, given that she has been writing novels, some of them award winning, for around twenty years. So I put my name on the hold list for her latest, "The Quiet Spectacular" at the library, and eventually it came round to my turn (the hold list being surprisingly long).

The book is set in the south of New Zealand, in an unnamed area clearly based on Dunedin, and on a rural dormitory town and wetlands slightly to the south of the city. Christchurch, where I live, also gets a mention as the childhood home of one of the main characters, and residence of her parents. I find when the setting is familiar, the reading experience is changed by the inevitable mental fact checking that goes on. I didn't find anything to quibble with (and the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 inevitably got a small mention).

The book centres around three women. Loretta is a school librarian with two grown children, a soon to be teenaged son, a husband and an ex. She appears to be suffering some sort of mild mid-life crisis, and has embarked on a project to catalogue adventurous women in a book (imaginary or real) called "The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women". Chance is a teenage girl whose goat farming father and brothers are interested only in go karts, while her mother is literary but cold and mentally cruel to her. Riva is an older women, who has given up a successful business making women's outdoor clothing in the United States, and returned to New Zealand where she is restoring and protecting a wetland reserve. Riva is mourning the death of her sister Irene, but has promised Irene that on the fourth anniversary of her death, she will do something spectacular to celebrate, and will then stop mourning her and get on with life.

These three women separately discover the wetlands, and a hut that Riva and Irene had built there, and eventually meet up. I found the variety of female characters interesting. Men are peripheral here. But though Riva says of men that she can "take them or leave them", it is not an anti-male book (the author, by the way, is a woman despite her male-sounding name). Chance's father, for instance, seems to be a good hearted person, in the glimpses we see of him, while her mother Trudy is not at all sympathetically drawn.

The book was interesting enough that I felt I would like to explore Fearnley's earlier work - in particular, "The Hut Builder" which won the fiction section of the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards.