Sunday, March 11, 2018

Cape Verde: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araujo, by Germano Almeida

I knew little about the Cape Verde Islands before reading this book, apart from the fact that I have a CD of songs by the "barefoot diva" Cesaria Evora, who comes from there. It turns out that the islands are somewhat different to the rest of Africa. They were uninhabited until discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century. It was ideally situated for the Atlantic slave trade, and its modern population has a mixture of Portuguese, Moorish, Arab and African heritage.

This was an easily readable book. The title character has been single all his life,a comfortably off business man and appeared to be a model of rectitude. But when he dies, he leaves a will of some three hundred pages, which reveals his life story, including the existence of an illegitimate daughter. This is rather unwelcome news to his nephew, who had expected to inherit his uncle's estate.

As the book proceeds, the daughter, Maria da Graca, and nephew Carlos, gradually learn more of their uncle's life, along with the reader. It is a rich picture of a life. The blurb suggests that the book moves along a blurry line between farce and tragedy. But one thing made me uncomfortable about this book - the description of the conception of Maria da Graca. Despite her mother saying "it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't wanted it", the description suggests that she had little choice in the matter, in fact it was uncomfortably close to a rape scene between an employer and a powerless employee. The book was originally written in 1991, and perhaps it didn't seem a problem then, but today this scene is disturbing.

The book was translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser and published by New Directions in 2004

Friday, March 02, 2018

Brazil: The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, by Martha Batalha

Crow Blue, the first book I read from a Brazilian author, had large parts set out of the country. And when Martha Batalha's newly translated book appeared in our library, it looked intriguing, so I thought I would give it a go.

Euridice Gusmao and her elder sister Guida are two very different people, growing up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, the daughters of Portuguese immigrant merchants. Guida reads womens magazines and styles her sister's hair. Euridice is a talented musician and dreams of fame and fortune. One day Guida disappears. Euridice gives up her ambitions to marry and live the conventional life of a wife and mother. But Euridice is bored. The book tells the story of the various projects Euridice adpots to inject some interest into her humdrum life. And what happens when Guida turns up again with her young son? (But without her husband).

I found the book entertaining and amusing. The reader cannot but feel sympathetic towards the spirited Euridice, and wish that she had lived in more enlightened times, when she might have better fulfilled her potential. For although all her schemes occupy her for a time, ultimately she does not have the means to carry any through to its completion. Perhaps her final project, writing a book, will have a better outcome? We are left to wonder...

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao was translated from the Portuguese by Eric M B Becker and published by Oneworld Publications in 2017.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

United Kingdom: Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

The United Kingdom is a tricky one (in fact, I've considered splitting it up and reading a book each for England, Scotland and Wales). It's not, of course, that there is a lack of choice but that there is too much choice. I wanted something that could only come from the UK - not a generic "modern big city" sort of book. The Booker Prize long-listed Elmet seemed to fit the bill.

It is set in rural Yorkshire, in the vale of Elmet, the site of the last independent Celtic kingdom in England. Here Daniel and his sister Cathy live with their father apart from modern life, in a house that Daniel's father has built by hand. They live by hunting and fishing. But even though they wish it, they cannot keep themselves apart from the outside world. Though Daniel's father is tender with his children, violence lurks inside him. And men in the outside world are threatened by their presence, and want to control their lives. A terrible denouement is coming.

It's a powerful and unsettling book but also very lyrical. Cathy takes after their father and prefers the outdoors. Daniel likes the indoors and their idiosyncratic schooling with Vivien, a neighbour. He is watchful and observant. Even so, I found him puzzling as a narrator, and couldn't quite decide if the "voice" of the book, with its impressive and precise vocabulary, was true to what he might have learnt in his year or so of being schooled this way. The other thing that I found a little unrealistic was that everyone wanted to solve their issues without the intervention of the police. But some of the events that took place would surely attract very prompt police intervention in the modern world, and this didn't happen. Or perhaps it did, just not within the time frame of the story. At any rate, as the story unfolded, I was totally gripped by the narrative, and by the beauty of the language and description.

Fiona Mozley grew up in York and is studying for a degree in medieval history. Elmet is her debut novel and is published by John Murray (Hachette UK), 2017.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Bahrain: Yummah, by Sarah A Al Shafei

I'm slowing down on the world reading because I have a lot of other books on my "to be read" list that don't fit this project. However, I thought I should try and fill in some of the gaps among the B's and C's - Bahrain being first on the list.

It came down to a choice of two books, after I searched extensively and couldn't find any others. Either QixotiQ, by Ali Al Saeed, or Yummah. And after reading Ann Morgan's review of QixotiQ, I thought Yummah would be the better bet.

Mind you, it is not without flaws. The story tells of the life of Khadeeja, a Bahraini woman growing up in a traditional society, raising her children and becoming the matriarch of a large family of grandchildren and greatgrandchildren as times change and modern influences affect their lives. "Yummah" it appears is an Arabic term for "grandmother". It's the sort of story that you might write for your family to tell of your family history. As a description of Bahraini life it was interesting enough, but there was not a lot of drama in the way events unfolded. And I found Khadeeja to be an infuriatingly perfect woman - patient and forgiving. When her husband, going through financial difficulties, leaves her to travel to Dubai where he remarries a rich woman, she never stops loving him. And when he is old and ill, she takes him back and nurses him. There were flaws too, in the maths. In places, time intervals between children are clearly stated - two years after her first daughter, she is pregnant again. She has a third daughter, and then a son, and a couple more after that - she is nursing a baby when her five year old son is bitten by a scorpion and dies. So her eldest must now be about ten years old at least - but several more children follow, and her eldest is still around eleven or twelve years old and approaching marriageable age.

The author studied in Boston and Miami and received a BA there. I presume that the book has not been translated, but written in English. It would have benefitted from editing but mostly the mistakes do not get too much in the way of the reader. I often noticed a lack of punctuation so that where I would have expected a full stop between sentences, there was none, and the two sentences were written as one. In spoken English, this would have been less obvious. The most charming quirk that I noticed on several occasions was the use of the phrase "to go behind" which floored me briefly, until I realised the author meant "to go after" eg someone "went behind" money instead of "going after" money.

But the lack of editing is an inevitable consequence of the fact that many of the books I am reading for this project are produced on low budgets, in a world where the big publishers concentrate on a few titles likely to achieve mass market success. My copy, which I had to pursue rather diligently in various corners of the internet, was I think a "print on demand" title (it does seem to be available on Amazon, but I don't purchase from there as the shipping rates to New Zealand make their prices ridiculously expensive).

At any rate, despite its flaws, I found the book an enjoyable enough read. And as the author is apparently only twenty four years old, or was at the time of its publication, perhaps there will be more to come from her, and she will improve as she goes on.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Poland: Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg

Wioletta Greg is a poet, and it shows in this delightful novella about a young girl growing up in the country in Poland in the dying days of the Communist regime. The young girl at the centre of the book is named Wiola, and one wonders if it is semi-autobiographical. At any rate, the series of small vignettes that make up the book are at times amusing and at times lyrical - but also very gritty. Superstition and religion are in conflict with each other and with politics in this community, but while in some ways it seems like a long-lost rural world, in other ways it is strikingly modern - glue-sniffing, for instance, makes an appearance. The title is taken from an episode in which Wiola breaks a thermometer and swallows the mercury after being sexually molested by the local doctor.

I found the writing very fresh and, despite the grimmer aspects of the story, overall uplifting.

"Swallowing Mercury" was translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books. It was the recipient of an English Pen Award.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

I found this book listed on a website suggesting the most iconic book set in 150 countries round the world. While not all the books listed on the website are written by authors from the countries in question (the English novelist Graham Greene has listings for both Haiti and Monaco, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is the title chosen for Cuba and, strangely, the listing for Barbados is Nigerian author Chris Abani's novel Song for Night set in West Africa), there were some useful suggestions of books I had not come across before.

William Kamkwamba is a young Malawian brought up in the village of Wimbe near the capital of Lilongwe where his father was a farmer. When famine hit the village, he had to drop out of high school as there was no money to pay his school fees. At a loose end for something to occupy his time and his mind, he resorted to a small library of donated American books in the local primary school. The science books fascinated him, and from them he was inspired to build a windmill to bring electricity to his family's small house so that they could have electric light (and not have to go to bed at seven in the evening). His windmill was built mainly from junk salvaged from various places including an abandoned tobacco estate nearby. From time to time, when a part needed to be purchased, he managed to pick up odd jobs for cash, or was helped out by his slightly less poverty-stricken friend Gilbert, the chief's son.

William not only succeeded in building his windmill, he attracted outside attention, and was invited to speak at a TED conference. Donor help enabled him to go back to school, and to realise his dream of building a bigger windmill to pump water so that his family could grow two crops a year instead of one, and of bringing wind-powered electricity to his whole village.

The book is written in the first person - theoretically by William. But he describes at various times his poor English, and no matter how much it has improved, no doubt his non-Malawian coauthor played a big part in the writing of the book. So on this basis, it perhaps does not quite qualify as written by a Malawian writer - still, I am going to count it as such.

What I found particularly inspiring about the book is that William's dream in no way involved emigrating to America, as so many African books seem to focus on. Instead, he clearly loves his home, and wanted only to make the lives of his family and village better - and the improvements that enabled this were by no means huge and expensive. Sometimes small things, coupled with intelligence, persistence and determination can make a huge difference.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was published by Harper Collins in 2009.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Grenada: Hurricane Fever, by Tobias S Buckell

I was a bit dubious about the suitability of this book for Grenada. Tobias S Buckell was born in Grenada, and spent much of his youth growing up on boats in Grenada, and then the British and US Virgin Islands. However, he now lives in the United States, and the blurbs for his book suggested that they were standard western style thriller territory. Nevertheless, they are readily available in our library, so I selected the most Caribbean sounding of his titles, and went ahead.

I actually enjoyed it very much - great holiday reading. It has actually been marketed as science fiction, taking place in the near future, when climate change has caused sea level rise and a considerable increase in the number of hurricanes and the area in which they hit. Petro chemical fuelled vehicles still exist but are the preserve of the wealthy and most cars are electric. And a wealthy megalomaniac has a plan that will change the face of the world for ever...

Former spy Roo Jones receives a message from a dead friend, and in the midst of raging hurricanes, he must come out of his retirement to puzzle out the significance of the information he has been left, and act to defeat a global conspiracy. Of course, with this type of book, it always spoils the plot to reveal too much, so I will leave it at that. I found the technology quite credible and the suspense was maintained throughout.

Hurricane Fever was published in the UK in 2014 by Del Rey, part of the Random House Group.