Posted by: koolwine | May 7, 2015

Taiwan: A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers

A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers by Hsiao Li-Hung

A country girl falls in love with a city boy.

Country Focus: Taiwan

A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers
By Hsaio Li-Hung
Translated by Michelle Wu
Foreward by Pang-Yuan Chi
Originally published in Chinese in 1981.
My edition: Columbia University Press, 2000
304 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction

About the author: Hsiao Li-hung is one of Taiwan’s most widely read female authors. She may also be the most elusive; I found only the barest write-up about her and no images.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers tells the story of a young woman named Zhenguan and her budding romantic relationship with Daxin, a distant relative from Taipei. Zhenguan lives in sleepy, seaside town with her large extended family: brother, parents, grandparents, five sets of aunts and uncles, and thirteen cousins (all of the cousins’ names start with the letter “Y”. It was impossible for me to keep them straight). Daxin is the nephew of Zhenguan’s fourth aunt. He and Zhenguan meet when he comes to spend part of the summer with his aunt. An incident during this visit sparks a connection between them. Daxin sends Zhenguan friendly, mildly flirtatious letters; she responds shyly at first and then opens up. Propriety constrains their relationship, but their growing fondness for each other can be read between the lines.

The couple’s old-timey courtship is not the only element that belies the novel’s 1970s setting. Zhenguan’s family follows the rhythms of the seasons and celebrates all of the traditional festivals with homemade decorations and home-cooked food. With few exceptions, the characters work hard, study hard, honor their ancestors, and maintain decorum at all times. Filial love—the love for one’s parents and the desire to care for them in their old age—is a recurring theme. A sprinkling of folktales, colloquial sayings, and song lyrics add to the feel of a bygone Taiwan.

Although the characters could be described as hokey and Zhenguan’s and Daxin’s relationship takes a strange turn, A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers succeeds in providing insight into Taiwan’s culture. Hsiao Li-hung’s book became an immediate bestseller in Taiwan and has been reprinted over sixty times since its publication in 1981. The fact that this story connects so strongly with its country’s citizens makes it the perfect book to represent Taiwan for this project.

Quote:

Zhenguan thought: ten, twenty years from now, she would be running a household, and like her grandmother and mother, she planned to observe the rituals and customs that accompanied all the seasons and the days of the year. She would pay respect to their ancestors and honor the past. Chinese proverbs say that though one’s ancestors are far away, one must honor them sincerely. Everyone must read the classics, no matter what…

Someday she would wake up in the middle of the night to pay homage to the sky and the earth and the gods. And she would be nervous about lighting the firecrackers. How she hoped that there would be someone like Daxin to help her send her wishes to the Jade Emperor on his heavenly throne!

Posted by: koolwine | April 28, 2015

Honduras: Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo

Don't Be Afraid, Gringo A peasant woman fights for her fellow campesinos‘ rights to farm uncultivated land, an entitlement too often denied by wealthy landowners.

Country Focus: Honduras

Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart: The Story of Elvia Alvarado
Translated and edited by Medea Benjamin
Forward by Elvia Alvarado
Introduction by Medea Benjamin
Originally published by The Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1987
My edition: Perennial Library, 1989
169 pgs
.

Genre: Memoir

About the author: I could find no current information whatsoever on Elvia Alvarado, and the state of Honduran activism is disheartening. Just last week, NGO Global Witness reported that Honduras ranks as “deadliest country in the world to be a land and environmental defender.” One hundred and eleven Honduran activists—mostly campesinos—have been murdered since 2002.*

World Lit Up Rating:
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Elvia Alvarado is a woman of true grit. Born into a campesino (peasant) family, she endures the worst that poverty had to offer: she lives in a hut with a dirt floor and no running water, has limited access to education, faces endless toil, eats a diet limited to tortillas and beans (and that’s on a good day), and has virtually no access to transportation or health care.

Despite and because of her hardships, Alvarado is one of many campesinos involved in land recovery. The land recovery movement is based on the Agrarian Reform Law of 1975. This law gives campesinos the right to farm any land that a landowner is not using for a specific, functional purpose. However, landowners rarely abide by this law. Campesinos have been tortured and killed for attempting to recover land.

Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo is taken from 30 hours of recorded interviews with Elvia Alvarado. The book, organized into chapters, reads as though Alvarado is talking to the reader directly. Her bravery is remarkable, and her belief that the campesinos can lift themselves from poverty if only given some land is compelling. She explains the obstacles that she and her fellow campesinos face with an intelligence that belies her second grade education.

It’s been almost three decades since Alvarado shared her story with the world, and I would have hoped that she’d have succeeded in seeing her people raise themselves up. Unfortunately, recent news stories report that the campesinos are still fighting for their happy ending.

Elvia Alvarado

Elvia Alvarado

Quote:

We’re fighting so that we, too, can share our nation’s wealth. We’re fighting so that we, too, can live well. We all want to have good houses-with cement floors instead of dirt, with running water to take a shower and clean water to drink. We all want electricity so we don’t have to ruin our eyes with those gas lights we use. We all want real bathrooms with toilets that flush and sinks that have running water. Of course we want those things. Aren’t we humans beings? Don’t we have the same rights that rich people do?

Why should there be rich people that have more than they need and poor who don’t have anything? God didn’t plan it that way. He planned for us to be equals. That’s why we have to build a society where everyone has the right to lead a decent life.

*David Hill. (April 22, 2015) Honduras is world’s number one for killing environmental activists. The Guardian. Retrieved from  http://www.theguardian.com/environment/andes-to-the-amazon/2015/apr/22/honduras-worlds-number-one-killing-environmental-activists

Posted by: koolwine | April 6, 2015

Macedonia: Freud’s Sister

macedonia_freudssister

A fictionalized telling of the life of Adolfina Freud, one of  four sisters whom Sigmund Freud left behind to die in a Nazi concentration camp.

Country Focus: Macedonia (Makedonija in Macedonian

Freud’s Sister
By Goce Smilevski
Translated by Christina E. Kramer
Originally published in Macedonian by Dijalong as Sestrata na Zigmund Frojd, 2011.
My edition: Penguin, 2012
266 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction

About the author: A native Macedonian, Smilevski teaches at Ss. Cyril Methodius University’s Institute for Literature in the capital city of Skopje. Freud’s Sister won him the European Prize for Literature.

Note: Aside from its authorship, Freud’s Sister has nothing whatsoever to do with Macedonia. Contemporary, translated fiction set in Macedonia and written by a Macedonian has eluded me. I’ll re-post if I come across any.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

In an opening note, Smilevski writes that historians know very little about Adolfina Freud—the youngest sister of Sigmund Freud—other than her doom. For Adolfina’s sake, I hope he got the rest of her story very, very wrong.

The novel opens 1938. Hitler has just occupied Austria, home to Sigmund Freud and his four sisters. Jews in Vienna face increasing anti-Semitism and violence. Freud’s international colleagues fear for the Jewish psychoanalyst’s life, and they convince him to depart for London. Freud arranges exit visas for himself, his wife, their children, his wife’s sister, two housekeepers, his doctor and his doctor’s family and his dog, but not his sisters, including his favorite, Adolfina. Left to the mercy of the Nazis, the women die in a concentration camp in 1942.

After these ghastly opening chapters, I thought the worst was over. I was wrong. Adolfina, the novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, began her suffering decades before the gas chamber ended it. She grows up with her mother’s cruel mantra ringing her in ears: “It would have been better if I had not given birth to you.” She falls in love with a man who succumbs to severe depression. One of her friends dies of an illness. Another ends up in a “madhouse.” Crushed by her own personal tragedy, Adolfina becomes her roomie. (As long as the patient paid for room and board, they could stay in the madhouse regardless of their mental state.) Together they bear witness to the madness of the people within its walls, and engage the head of the hospital in discussions about the definition of madness  and whether or not it can be cured.

Readers with some background in Sigmund Freud’s work may find deeper meaning in Freud’s Sister than readers unfamiliar with his beliefs (like me). The questions that I think the book poses include: Who decides who is mad? How can one stop madness? What sort of madness enveloped Freud when he willfully refused to save his sisters from the Nazis? These questions are particularly thorny considering the novel’s backdrop. Under Hitler, madness ruled.

Goce Smilevski

Goce Smilevski

Quote:

I sat in my room and thought of my conversation with my brother. I thought of the humane sentiment he had expressed as we stood between the older Madonna with the crucified Jesus and the Madonna with the child Jesus: that the greatest aim the human race must strive for is to allow each person to live his life with the least possible suffering, and for each person to contribute to the realization of that ideal. On that February day in 1933, Sigmund truly believed this, but a different sequence of events was already in motion. Germany had a new leader, and our sisters had returned to Vienna. When the new German leader occupied Austria as well, my brother left for London with those whose lives he had chosen to spare; we, his sisters, were deported to first one camp, then to another. In those moments of suffering that my sisters and I lived through, his words that each person should strive for there to be the least possible suffering in this world sounded to me like ridicule.

Posted by: koolwine | March 24, 2015

Moldova: The Good Life Elsewhere

The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov

Moldovan villagers hatch outrageous plans to escape to Italy.

Country Focus: Moldova

The Good Life Elsewhere
By Vladimir Lorchenkov
Translated by Ross Ufberg
Originally published in Russian as Vse tam budem, 2008.
My edition: New Vessel Press, 2014
197 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction

About the author: Lorchenkov, a journalist by trade, has published twelve novels, including a sequel to The Good Life Elsewhere called Tabor Leaves. He lives in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, but plans to emigrate to Canada because “I do not want to see [my children] growing up in a country where tuberculosis is as familiar a disease as the sniffles, and where a pack of stray dogs can tear a person apart on the main street.”*

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

Jobs and cash are hard to come to by in Moldova, so the impoverished inhabitants of one small town dream of easier lives in Italy. The Italian authorities routinely deny all Moldovan visa requests, so any would-be émigrés must sneak in. The Good Life Elsewhere details Serafim Botezatu’s and his fellow villagers’ absurd attempts to make it to their promised land: paying 4,000 euros apiece to a “tourism agency” to bus them under cover of darkness to Rome; taking up the sport of curling (even though they don’t have an ice rink) in hopes of being invited to compete in Italy; building a plane out of tractor parts to fly over the Italian border; drumming up participants for the “First Holy Crusade of Eastern Orthodox Religions” to march into Italy; and constructing a submarine out of tractor and bicycle parts to pedal underwater until reaching Italy’s Mediterranean coast.

Yes, The Good Life Elsewhere would make one heck of a Monty Python movie. Black humor abounds. Lorchenkov ends almost all of the book’s short and amusing chapters with a dark or silly twist, which makes the novel a quick and entertaining read. The outrageous ending doesn’t disappoint.

Before the story ends, Lorchenkov does slip in a brief moment of ernestness when one of the villagers challenges the Italy-or-bust crowd to channel all of their creative energies toward improving Moldova rather than leaving it. “Italy—the real Italy—is in ourselves!” he cries. He’s promptly tortured and killed.

The desire to stay in one’s homeland and work for its betterment it too often clash with the need for safety and work. Until those basic needs are supplied by their governments, people around the world—including Lorchenkov himself—will seek the good life elsewhere.

Vladimir Lorchenkov

Vladimir Lorchenkov

Quote:

“We’re gonna make it to Italy. Everything’ll change,” said Serafim. “There’ll be no more Moldovan mud in our lives, no more terrible poverty hanging over our heads like a scab on a bald tramp’s noggin. No more of this interminable, hellish work, which makes you want to howl louder than a dog on the doorstep of a penny-pinching priest. […] “Serafim went on: “And Italians aren’t as sneaky, rude, mean and lazy as we Moldovans are. They aren’t such knuckledragging knuckleheads. They even dress differently.  Their clothes are just like their country. Happy and festive! The people are beautiful. They all sing Italy’s praises, because that’s what to sing about. Not like Moldova, which asks you for love, but is less of a motherland then a step-motherland!”

*Michelle Johnson. (March 18, 2014) A conversation with Vladimir Lorchenkov. World Literature Today. 
Retrieved from http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/conversation-vladimir-lorchenkov#.VRIzR_nF-Yw
Posted by: koolwine | March 1, 2015

Vatican City: The Church of Mercy

The Church of Mercy by Pope FrancisRead highlights from speeches given by Pope Francis in his first year as leader of the Catholic Church.

Country Focus: Vatican City

The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church
By Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio)
Foreword by Vincent Cardinal Nichols
Preface by Guiliano Vigini
First published in English by Danton, Longman and Todd, Ltd, 2014.
My edition: Loyola Press, 2014
150 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction

About the author: Pope Francis’s given name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Upon becoming Pope, he selected Saint Francis of Assisi as his namesake. A native of Argentina, he is the first Pope to come out of the Americas. Two years into his papacy, Pope Francis is best known for his compassion for the poor.  

World Lit Up Rating:
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Pulled from 39 of the newly elected Pope’s homilies and addresses, these selections present an encapsulated look at Pope Francis’s “vision” for the Catholic Church. Like the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis radiates an appeal that stretches beyond his religious followers. One need not be Catholic to be inspired by his plea for unity among all peoples and his insistence that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity. Pope Francis repeatedly condemns the “throwaway culture” of globalization, which values profit over people. Amen to that.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Quote:

Dear friends, it is certainly necessary to give bread to the hungry—this is an act of justice. But there is also a deeper hunger, the hunger for a happiness that only God can satisfy, the hunger for dignity. There is neither real promotion of the common good nor real human development when there is ignorance of the fundamental pillars that govern a nation, its nonmaterial goods: life, which is a gift from God, a value always to be protected and promoted; the family, the foundation of coexistence and a remedy against social fragmentation; integral education, which cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for purposes of generating profit; health, which must seek the integral well-being of the person, including the spiritual dimension, essential for human balance and healthy coexistence; security, in the conviction that violence can be overcome only by the changing of human hearts.

Posted by: koolwine | February 8, 2015

Return Trip: Japan (via Austria)

Sometimes one book per country isn’t enough. Now that I’m on the lookout for international authors, their books jump out at me and I can’t refuse them even if I’ve already covered their territory. I’ve sneaked these books in between my “official” reading. I thought I’d share them with you.

I Called Him Necktie • Ich nannte ihn Krawatte

by Milena Michiko Flašar • Translated by Sheila Dickie
Originally published in German in 2012 by Verlag Klaus Wagenbach
My edition: New Vessel Press, 2014 • 128 pgs
Genre: Fiction

I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flasar
Summary: Two lost souls—a young man who ventures out of his bedroom for the first time in two years, and a middle-aged man who fakes going to work because he can’t bear to tell his wife he’s been fired—gather enough courage from their budding friendship to re-enter their lives.

About the author: Flašar’s mother is Japanese and her father is Austrian. She lives and writes in Vienna.

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A touching story, elegantly told.

 

Posted by: koolwine | January 31, 2015

Equatorial Guinea: By Night the Mountain Burns

By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila LaurelA string of catastrophes strikes an impoverished village on a remote island.

Country Focus: Equatorial Guinea (Guinea ecuatorial/Ginee equatoriale in Spanish; it is the only African country in which Spanish is the official language)

By Night the Mountain Burns
By Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
Translated by Jethro Soutar
Originally published in Spain by Calambur Editorial as Arde el monte de noche, 2008.
My edition: & Other Stories, 2014
275 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction

 

About the author: Ávila Laurel, a professional nurse, is also Equatorial Guinea’s most famous author. His outspoken criticism of President Obiang’s 30+ year dictatorship led to the author’s exile in 2011. Ávila Laurel currently resides in Barcelona, Spain. He based By Night the Mountain Burns on memories of his childhood home, Annobón Island. 

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

The gist of By Night the Mountain Burns is this: When his strange and silent grandfather uncharacteristically leaves the house—the old man rarely even leaves his room—to attend a funeral, the grandson sneaks into the forbidden bedroom and discovers a shocking secret. Looking back on that day, the boy wonders if his grandfather’s startling departure was a sign of the bad luck to come: a devastating fire; a brutal murder; and a cholera epidemic.

This unnamed boy, the book’s first person narrator, spills out his story while barely taking a breath. In 275 pages there are no chapter breaks; even paragraph breaks average only once per page. Much of what he says is repetitive, which means that the story doesn’t proceed linearly so much as it doubles back on itself. Perhaps he keeps rehashing all of these events in order to get a handle on what happened; in essence he’s chewing the cud of his memories. Ávila Laurel has chosen an unusual style, one that merits more than just one reading.

That is, of course, if you can bear re-reading the unending misery that befalls these unfortunate islanders. Ávila Laurel is no romantic, and his protagonist lives and breathes the ugly realities of poverty, the remoteness of his home, the fallacy of superstition, and the uselessness of the colonial Catholic priest. I believe that By Night the Mountain Burns is ultimately an acknowledgement of people who carry on with their lives under circumstances that defy belief, as well an indictment of those who take advantage of their vulnerability, or who might imagine their lives as idyllic.

Juan Tomas Avila Laurel

Juan Tomas Avila Laurel

Quote:

The dark? We always thought something dangerous was lurking in the dark. Some of the littler children cried as soon as darkness fell. They screamed as if they had been bitten. Bitten by the darkness. They felt they were in danger and they asked, they screamed, for the light to come back. And although we were afraid of the dark, we didn’t like the excessive light of the full moon either. As I’ve already said, on moonlight nights you felt too exposed. Things could see you from far away. So with the dark, you couldn’t see the danger, but with the moonlight you exposed yourself to the danger. Everything on the island brought fear. To be in the dark is to turn your back on life, for I don’t think anyone can really understand life in all its detail if kept in the dark. It’s like eating in the dark; you never get full, for you lose track of what’s on your plate. I think that the darkness in a person’s life is the darkest thing about living in hardship.

Posted by: koolwine | January 26, 2015

Free Books! (Round 12)

For every ten books I read, I’ll hold a book giveaway. Here’s how to claim a free book:

  • Check out the list of books up for grabs.  There is only one copy of each book available (I am giving away my used copy of each book).
  • If you see one you want, comment on this page.  Your comment must include the name of the book you want, and at least a word or two about the country that the book concerns.  First person to comment gets the book.
  • I’ll mail the book out to you (at no cost you you whatsoever) if you have an address within the continental United States.  The book will ship out at book rate, which means it might take ten or more days to reach you.
  • Keep in mind that most of the time I buy my books used, which means they may be marked up, covers bent, etc.  Book condition will be variable.
  • Claims must be made no later than one month after posting date. Feburary 24, 2015 is the deadline for requesting a book from Round 11.

Here’s the current round of books up for grabs:

Posted by: koolwine | January 24, 2015

Burkina Faso: The Healing Wisdom of Africa

The Healing Wisdom of Africa by Malidoma Patrice SomeA westernized Dagara tribesman shares his people’s outlook on community, knowledge, spirituality, healing, and being.

Country Focus: Burkina Faso

The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community
By Malidoma Patrice Somé
Published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.
321 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction

About the author: Somé’s remarkable background tempts me to read his autobiography Of Water and the Spirit. Born into the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, he was kidnapped at age four and indoctrinated by Jesuit Priests. He reunited with his family fifteen years later only to find that the Jesuits’ suppression of his native language rendered him unable to communicate with them. Somé not only succeeded in re-learning his community’s language and indigenous ways but also became a medicine man and diviner. However, Somé did not stay in Burkina Faso. His first name, Malidoma, translates as “be a friend with a stranger,” and he knew his future lay to the west. After earning multiple doctoral and masters degrees, he quit his professorship at the University of Michigan to begin his life’s true purpose: sharing indigenous world views with the modern world.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Somé shares his tribe’s culture with the west. Here are some simplified examples:

On work: The Dagara believe that everyone is born with a purpose. Through guidance and mentoring, the entire village assists each person in “remembering” their purpose. Why? Because a person who is doing what they were meant to do is a satisfied and productive member of the community.

On wealth: Wealth is measured by the sense of well-being one feels from playing an important role in the community (because you have found your purpose) and by living in communion with the natural and spiritual worlds.

On spirituality: According to the Dagara, a mysterious energy underlies all things. This spiritual world, the natural world, and humanity are irrevocably bound together.

On the natural world: Nature is a place of healing and where the spirits of our ancestors dwell, therefore it must be treated with reverence.

On communication: Language—both written and verbal—inadequately expresses meaning and experience. Written language is incompatible with magical knowledge.

On conflict: Conflict is inevitable and must be dealt with in a safe, ritual space where the persons involved communicate their grievances. There is never a “winner” or “loser,” just an opportunity for the parties to form a stronger, healthier bond.

On ritual: There are five elements that form the Dagara cosmology: earth, water, fire, mineral and nature. Fire represents volatility. Water symbolizes serenity. Earth stands for compassion. Mineral equals remembering and communication. Nature is change. Each person embodies all five, but favors one more than the others. Healing rituals center around whichever element needs to be boosted or lowered.

I believe that a book that leaves the reader with a new way of looking at the world is the best kind of book. In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Somé heartily succeeds at giving the reader an introduction to a worldview outside the western mainstream.

Malidoma Patrice Some

Malidoma Patrice Some

Quote:

The Source of all, the Dagara believe, has no word. It has no word because meaning is produced instantly, like a cosmic and timeless awareness. So to the Dagara, there is an understood hierarchy of consciousness. The elements of nature, especially the trees and plants, are the most intelligent beings because they do not need words to communicate. They live closer to the meaning behind language. The next most intelligent species are the animals, because they use only a minimum of uttered communication, so their language is closer to the Source, the world of intrinsic meaning. The last in the hierarchy is the human species, who must rely on words to communicate—and words are but a remote reflection of meaning, like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Wise men and women in the indigenous world argue that humans are cursed by the language they possess, or that possesses them. Language, they insist, is an instrument of distance from meaning, an unfortunate necessity that we can’t live without but that is so hard to live with.

Posted by: koolwine | January 6, 2015

Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion

Costa Rica A Traveler's Literary Companion

Twenty-six outstanding stories by twenty talented Costa Rican writers.

Country Focus: Costa Rica

Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion
Edited by Barbara Ras
Forward by Oscar Arias

Stories by Alfredo Aguilar, Alfonso Chase, Fabián Dobles, Louis Decoudray, Quince Duncan, Fernando Durán Ayanegui, Carlos Luis Fallas, Mario González Feo, Juaquin Gutiérrez, Max Jiménez, Carmen Lyra, Carmen Naranja, Yolanda Oreamuno, Abel Pacheco, Julietta Pinto, Uriel Quesada, Samuel Rovinski, Carlos Salazar Herrera, José León Sánchez, Rima de Vallbona

Translated by Kirk Anderson, Zoe Anglesey, Gabriel Berns, Linda Britt, Pamela Carmel, Leland H. Chambers, Carol Christensen, James Hoggard, John Incledon, Will Kirkland, Angela McEwan, Mary Gomez Parham, Barbara Paschke, Margaret Sayers Peden, Mathew Quilter, Mark Schafer

Published by Whereabouts Press, 1994
238 pgs
.

Genre: Short Stories

World Lit Up Rating:

(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

Editor Barbara Ras’s Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion is a boon for any Spanish-challenged reader curious about Costa Rican literature. Easily accessible translations from this Central American country are hard to find. In this much-needed compilation, Ras has rounded up twenty-six stories from twenty different Costa Rican authors. Since this collection was meant to help travelers feel a deeper connection with the places they were visiting, the stories are organized by seven geographical regions.

The wide variety of literary genres that Ras included—folklore, suspense, history, social commentary, nature, science fiction, magical realism—reveals multiple facets of Costa Rican culture that may have been missed if the tales had been limited to contemporary fiction. Here are six that stand out:

  • “The Girl Who Came from the Moon” by José León Sánchez. A little girl living in abject poverty believes her life will improve if she runs off with a man who promises to build her a pretty bed. Sometimes narrators are unintentionally humorous in their naivete. This child’s innocence is gut-wrenching. 
  • “In the Shadow of the Banana Tree” by Carlos Luis Fallas. In this surprisingly upbeat tale, friendship eases the hardships of working for the United Fruit Company.
  • An excerpt from Abel Pacheco’s novel Deeper Than Skin. Social commentary via prose poetry. The segment titled “Rail” seethes with bitterness.
  • “The Spirit of My Land” by Yolanda Oreamuno. A beautiful piece of nature writing that pulses with the author’s love and respect for the Costa Rican countryside.
  • “Pastor’s Ten Little Old Men” by Carmen Lyra. An unlikely friendship sparks when a little rich girl asks a laborer why he’s talking to his toes. In this case, the child’s innocence is a virtue.
  • “We Have Brought You the Sea” by Uriel Quesada. After his impoverished parents aren’t able to grant his last wish, a dying boy’s young cousins come to the rescue. As if you couldn’t guess, this one is a tearjerker.
Yolanda Oreamuno

Yolanda Oreamuno 1916-1956

Quote from “The Spirit of My Land” by Yolanda Oreamuno:

If you are passing through, the way you would pass through the countryside, you probably wouldn’t hear the voice of the cicadas; the voice would stay behind, useless and resonant. But suddenly you might notice it: you could have been there many hours inside the note, swimming in it and not hearing it, unless the note grabbed you, but in an instant your ear is alert and the note manifests itself at the peak of its delirium, its scream, its resonance; at a peak that seems to have another peak inside, and that same note, without changing, seems higher, more vibrant, tenser, like a cord strained to infinity, like a wave surging on a land of tides and tempests. And suddenly you notice it, wrapping up and smothering your senses. You are just ears open to the vibration of the countryside. You can’t touch it, or see it, or feel it, you can only hear the amazement growing, from amazement to anguish, anguish to pain, pain to drowsiness, until you are cataleptic, by now you hear nothing and you know nothing, you only listen, listen, listen…

 

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