Posted by: koolwine | November 23, 2014

Senegal: The Abandoned Baobab

The Abandoned Baobab by Ken BugulKen Bugul recounts her traumatic childhood in Senegal and her wild 20s in Belgium.

Country Focus: Senegal

The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman
By Ken Bugul, the pseudonym of Mariétou M’Baye
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager
Introduction by Nikki Giovanni
Originally published in French as Le baobab fou by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1984.
My edition: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991
159 pgs
.

Genre: Memoir
Time period:
 unclear, likely 1950s-1970s

About the author: Bugul has written seven novels, but they have yet to be translated into English. Her French-language publisher suggested that she use a pseudonym for the original publication of The Abandoned Baobab rather than risk reprisal from her Muslim countrymen over her nontraditional lifestyle.

World Lit Up Rating:
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The Abandoned Baobab is a testament to how the absence of a loving family can cripple a life. Ken Bugul entered the world in a small village founded at the base of a great baobab tree in a rural part of Senegal known as Ndoucoumane. The seminal moment of her life came at age five, when her mother left her, for what reason is unclear. They reunited a year later, but by then her mother  had “replaced” her with a relative’s child. She fared no better with her her father. Blind and aged, he concentrated his energy on prayer instead of his daughter. Bugul felt so marginalized by her parents that she referred to them as “the mother” and “the father,” never “my mother” or “my father.” Even her siblings—all older by a least a decade—rejected her attempts to bond with them.

Emotional insecurity did not stop her from excelling at her studies in French school, and she earned a scholarship to a university in Brussels, Belgium. Although Bugul doesn’t divulge the year, I’d wager that she arrived in Europe in the 1970s. Whatever the date, Africa and its people had captured Belgian imagination. Everyone in the city wanted to be seen with any African woman, much less one as smart, charismatic, and beautiful as Bugal. Well aware that she was being used as a social and a sexual accessory, her craving for human connection made her unable to refuse attention from even the worst sorts of people.

Bugul’s tales of the sexual and cultural exploitation she faced in Brussels, and her opinions on neocolonialism and feminism make her autobiography a standout. What I didn’t care for was the fractured chronology: she starts with the genesis of her village, cuts to her earliest childhood in Senegal, jumps to decades ahead in Belgium, then returns to her youth in Senegal, and finally picks up where she left off earlier with her life in Belgium. Another gripe: her childhood memories felt rushed and vague, particularly since she names no names and gives no dates. Maybe for good reason: without love, there’s nothing to remember but emptiness.

Ken Bugul

Ken Bugul

Quote:
Alienated, I bored my way into a world in which I didn’t feel things as deeply as I wanted to; I wanted to share them, but the necessary reference was missing. I was an orphan amidst friends who, when we were chatting, would tell parts of their family life. I’d boast about a brother, a sister, without being able to justify the ties. I wasn’t able to get excited like my friends about these bonds that would energize a person one way or another, no matter how things turned out. But I carried Ndoucoumane in my heart, the village down there.

I would throw myself in almost any relationship with tremendous enthusiasm. More often than not I was disappointed. I wanted to talk about my baobab trees, but the others, carried away by their alienation, would make fun of me and laughingly called me a kaw-kaw: kaw-kaws were the villagers who lived far away, lost in the savannah.

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Keep Reading!

Senegalese writers need to be translated!

Posted by: koolwine | November 16, 2014

Venezuela: The Sickness

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera TyszkaA doctor learns that his father has only a few weeks left to live, while his nurse tries to keep a hypochondriac from stalking him.

Country Focus: Venezuela

The Sickness
By Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Introduction by Chris Adrian
Originally published in Spanish as La Enfermadad by Editorial Anagrama, 2006.
My edition: TinHouse Books, 2012
188 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 Contemporary

About the author: Barrera Tyszka teaches at the Central University of Venezuela and writes a column for the daily newspaper El Nacional. He co-authored a biography of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, which has been translated into English (see “Keep Reading!” below).

World Lit Up Rating:
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In The Sickness, two interweaving parallel plots explore the psychological effects of illness on caregivers. In the first, Dr. Andrés Miranda finds out that his father has terminal lung cancer. He’s not sure how break this terrible news to his father, and he’s even less sure about what to say or do after. In the second, Dr. Miranda’s secretary Karina takes pity on persistent ex-patient Ernesto Duran, a hypochondriac who’s convinced he’s dying of a mysterious disease. Despite Dr. Miranda’s order to cut off all contact with Duran, Karina surreptitiously answers Duran’s emails in the hopes of dialing down his mania.

Barrera Tyszka’s fast pacing imbues The Sickness—particularly the latter plot—with the feel of a low-key suspense novel. It’s his keen and unsentimental handling of the first (and more resonant) storyline that elevates the book to a higher plane. Although his characters confront hard realities, their compassion for each other leaves the reader with a positive feeling. Perhaps this wry statement by Dr. Miranda will explain: “Don’t be so solemn about it, it’s not so bad. That’s why we live, in order to get ill.”

Alberto Barrera Tyszka

Alberto Barrera Tyszka

Quote:
“What went wrong?” he seemed to be asking himself. He had sidestepped time rather successfully. Everything had been going relatively well until, one afternoon, that inexplicable fainting fit had stopped him in his tracks. It was that brief wavering of his equilibrium that had brought him to this place and abruptly transformed him into this weak, wounded, small—yes, smaller—person. The words “Sickness is the mother of modesty” came unbidden to Andrés’s mind. They appear in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. It’s required reading in the first term of medical school. The quote bothered him though. It struck him as not so much sad as stupid; behind it lay the desire to make of sickness a virtue. He looked at his father again. Isn’t sickness a humiliation rather than a virtue?

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Keep Reading!

Venezuelan writers need to be translated!

Posted by: koolwine | November 6, 2014

Latvia: High Tide

High Tide by Inga AbeleThis lofty novel tells the story of a love triangle from end to beginning. 

Country Focus: Latvia (Latvija in Latvian)

High Tide
By Inga Ābele
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Originally published in Latvia as Paisums by Dienas Grāmata, 2008.
My edition: Open Letter, 2013
310 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 2000s-1970s

Notes: High Tide won Inga Ābele the 2008 Latvian Literature Award for prose. Her plays, poems and short stories can be found in notable anthologies like Best European Fiction 2010.

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High Tide
, indeed. I was in over my head from the start, nearly drowning in the existentialist rambling that fills the first twenty pages. Then I was saved, kinda. The story got going. In reverse. Thirty years worth.

See, God strikes the following bargain with a woman named Ieva: “If you agree to live your life in reverse, you’ll have the power to give life back to your lover, who died young. Just don’t get your hopes up—your meeting at that crossroads will last about twenty minutes, no more. Then he’ll continue on toward old age, but you, back to childhood.”

Ieva’s acceptance of the deal means that the beginning of the end of High Tide starts with Andrejs, a 39-year-old ex-con who served time for killing Aksels, his wife’s (the aforementioned Ieva’s) lover. As the story recedes into the past, the reason for Andrejs’ murder of Aksels turns out to be far less banal than expected. By then, I needed a surprise. This pensive, unhappy trio’s obsession with each other was not contagious. Their angst gave the author too much of an excuse to hold forth on religion, happiness, destiny, existence, and  love. Yes, Ābele took on all the Big Ideas, and she even did it…backwards.

Inga Abele

Inga Abele

Quote:
“See, it’s as if I’m always somewhere outside myself. Watching myself from the sidelines. Take love, for example. Watch how love takes over your body. It kisses, hugs, makes others happy, makes them sad. Your body changes shape, you’ll have a kid, then more kids, or maybe none at all. You’ll have a home somewhere, warm nights under a melting sky. Arguments, fear, gentleness. But none of it happens to you—it happens to a body you call yourself. The body you’re watching from the sidelines.”

________________________________________________________

Keep Reading!

Latvian writers need to be translated!

Posted by: koolwine | October 31, 2014

Return Trip: Mexico

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.

Down the Rabbit Hole • Fiesta en la madriguera

by Juan Pablo Villalobos • Translated by Rosalind Harvey
Originally published in 2010 by Anagrama
My edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012 • 75 pgs

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Summary: A Liberian pygmy hippopotamus (or two) sits atop Tochtli’s wish list. Will this precocious drug lord’s son get his heart’s desire?
Genre: Fiction
Time Period: Contemporary
Setting: Mexico; Liberia

Notes: Down the Rabbit Hole is Villalobos’ first novel, and he’d prefer that you not call it “narcoliterature.” His second novel, Quesadillas, focuses on a family living in poverty in 1980s Mexico.

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Posted by: koolwine | October 28, 2014

Portugal: The Implacable Order of Things

The Implacable Order of Things by Jose Luis PeixotoA motley crew of characters fall prey to doomed marriages in a sun-scorched land. 

Country Focus: Portugal

The Implacable Order of Things
By José Luís Peixoto
Translated by Richard Zenith
Originally published in Portugal as Nenhum Olhar by Temas e Dabates, 2000.
My edition: Anchor Books, 2009
216 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 Timeless

Notes: José Luís Peixoto, one of Portugal’s most highly acclaimed authors, has published ten novels in his native country. The only ones translated into English are The Piano Cemetery and the short story collection Antidote, written to complement an album by heavy metal band Moonspell.

World Lit Up Rating:
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“I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things,” said musician Tom Waits. Readers who like beautiful sentences telling them terrible things could do worse than enter the strange world of Peixoto’s The Implacable Order of Things. The story spans two generations and follows four ill-fated couples: a shepherd married to a woman rumored to have relations with a giant; a set of conjoined twins wedded a to cook who produces culinary marvels; a coward married off to a woman in love with his cousin; and a master carpenter missing a leg, an arm, an ear and an eye who takes a blind prostitute for a wife.

You’re probably not wondering anymore why Tom Waits came to mind.

The ever-changing mix of multiple first person and third person narration challenged me at first. I had to read slowly, but eventually figured out who was who. The characters parade through, taking turns revealing the love that they feel, and then, one by one, they reel from the pain that befalls them. The coward’s wife and her would-be-lover, who both lament the night that could have been, narrate the most heartbreaking portions of the novel.

Peixoto’s use of repetition, both of philosophical musings—”Perhaps suffering is tossed by handfuls over the multitudes, with most of it falling on some people and little or none of it on others”—and of portions of sentences (see quote below), was initially a turnoff. As I warmed to the style, I got the feeling that I was reading incantations to summon his imaginary world. Considering that the devil plays a integral role, I’m glad it all stayed on the page. Move over, magical realism…diabolical realism is here.

Jose Luis Peixoto

Jose Luis Peixoto

Quote:
Don’t go. And I didn’t go. Even though I’d waited all day, all my life, for that moment, unique among all moments, even though I’d imagined in detail the world just beyond the boundary of that moment, I didn’t go. Don’t go. Even thought a stork rose up in flight, gliding like an embrace we’ve never known but imagine to be possible, even though I looked at her with my whole being, even though I said wait for me, tonight I’ll come and fetch you, even though the twilight had seen us where only sincere souls go, I came into this room, lay down on this bed, let that unique moment pass by indistinctly and let my life become a painful place of squandered moments, moments squandered before their time, during the weariness of their time, after the bad memory of their time, in the tedium of having and expecting nothing. Don’t go. And I didn’t go.

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Keep Reading!

Posted by: koolwine | October 12, 2014

Return Trip: France

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.

Hector and the Search for Happiness • Le Voyage d’Hector ou la recherché du bonheur

by Françios Lelord • Translated by Lorenza Garcia
Originally published in 2002 by Éditions Odile Jacob, France
My edition: Penguin Books, 2010 • 165 pgs

Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord
Summary: To improve his patients’ well-being and overcome his own dissatisfaction with life, a psychiatrist travels around the world to research happiness.
Genre: Fiction
Time Period: Contemporary
Setting: France, China, Africa, America

Notes: Lelord, a French psychiatrist, created Hector’s character during a time when had doubts about his own career and relationships. Hector’s search struck a chord with readers, and the novel became an international bestseller. Lelord has followed Hector’s first psychological adventure with Hector and the Secrets of Love, Hector and the Passage of Time, and Hector and the Wonders of Friendship.

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Posted by: koolwine | October 1, 2014

Return Trip: Australia

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.

Past the Shallows 

by Favel Parrett
Originally published in 2011 by Hachette Australia
My edition: Washington Square Press, 2014 • 259 pgs

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett
Summary: Haunted by the car wreck that killed their mother, terrified by their abusive father, and abandoned by their older brother, Harry and Miles face their father’s rage aboard a wave-tossed fishing boat.
Genre: Fiction
Time Period: 1983
Setting: Tasmania

Notes: Parrett won the 2012 Newcomer of the Year Award from the Australian Book Industry. Past the Shallows was her first book, followed by this year’s When the Night Comes.

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Posted by: koolwine | August 16, 2014

Czech Republic: Gargling with Tar

Gargling with Tar by Jachym TopolAn orphan boy pinballs from one absurd situation to another during the Czecho-Soviet war. 

Country Focus: Czech Republic (Cesko); formerly Czechoslovakia

Gargling with Tar
By Jáchym Topol
Translated by David Short
Originally published in Czech as Kloktat Dehet by Torst Publishers Praha, 2005.
My edition: Portobello Books, 2013
311 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968

Notes: Award-winning Czech author Jachym Topol was arrested multiple times for the creation and distribution of samizdat, Soviet-censored publications. He currently writes for the national daily newspaper Lidové noviny.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
Gargling with Tar
is full of bizarre characters and events: a mentally disabled boy called Monkeyface; a legless Major who supports himself on crutches; orphans trained to be saboteurs; a Soviet tank column tasked to set up a circus; an East German midget acrobat; altar boys who turn to banditry; and a dinosaur egg rumored to be a secret weapon. Their common denominator is a Czech boy named Ilya, prized for his cartographic skills. This novel was a tough read for me for four reasons. 1) Topol does not include any historical context, so being unfamiliar with the Soviet invasion left me at a disadvantage. 2) The British translation stymied me; it’s hard to try to comprehend a different culture via terms and phrases that aren’t found in American English. 3) I found it challenging to read a book that includes virtually no description of place or character. I didn’t know what the orphanage looked like, nor the town, nor the surrounding forest nor any of the characters unless they had physical or mental oddities. 4) There’s no depth to any of the characters, so I had a difficult time telling all of the boys from the orphanage apart. It felt like I was reading through tar.

Jachym Topol

Jachym Topol

Quote:
Leaping high above the tank Dago turned somersaults, accompanied by all kinds of sounds coming from his tiny throat — deep, drawling groans and squeaky shrieks, and now and then even little tunes — and this medley of sounds seemed to converge on us from all sides until some of the gunners began looking about them in terror. Then with his little legs Dago did a pitter-patter run-up and started leaping from tank to tank, and in this way he cartwheeled and pirouetted his way around all the tanks in the column, and the soldiers’ delight grew and grew, and then Dago executed the highlight of his turn: in the middle of a mighty leap he made himself small, getting smaller and smaller, looking no bigger than a football. Rolled up like that, he landed in Captain Yegorov’s arms, and now he mooed and whined and bleated like a baby, which was side-splittingly funny, because the baby in Captain Yegorov’s arms had a mustache and the wrinkled face of a dwarf.

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Keep Reading!

Posted by: koolwine | July 24, 2014

Free Books! (Round 11)

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. August 24, 2014 is the deadline for requesting a book from Round 11.

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

Posted by: koolwine | July 13, 2014

Belarus: Voices From Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana AlexievichTen years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a journalist recorded the thoughts and memories of the Belarusians who suffered its horrors.

Country Focus: Belarus (Byelarus’/Belarus’)

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
By Svetlana Alexievich
Translated by Keith Gessen
Preface by Keith Gessen 
Originally published in Russian as Tchernobylskaia Molitva by Editions Ostojie, 1997.
My edition: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005
240 pgs
.

Genre: Nonfiction
Time period:
 The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26, 1986; Alexievich conducted her interviews in 1996

Notes: Alexievich is an Belarusian investigative journalist. She has also written Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghan War and War’s Unwomanly Face.

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Although the Chernobyl nuclear plant is located within the country Ukraine (in 1986, part of the U.S.S.R.), 70% of the radionuclides from the accident drifted northward over the land that has since become the country of Belarus (also part of the U.S.S.R. at the time of the meltdown).  Alexievich has transcribed dozens of gut-wrenching stories from a range of Belarusians, including  evacuees, scientists, soldiers, and teachers. The opener, relayed by the wife of one of the fireman who was first on the scene, couldn’t be more terrifying. Not only did these testimonies shock me with their gruesome tales of radiation poisoning, but also with the Soviets’ unwavering belief that their government—which sent thousands of soldiers into radioactive areas without any protection other than cases of vodka—was handling the situation appropriately. I’ve never been a proponent of nuclear power. Reading Voices From Chernobyl has ensured that I never will be.

Svetlana Alexievich

Quote:
I don’t know what I should talk about—about death or about love? Or are they the same? Which one should I talk about?

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, “I love you.” But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea… We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. On the second floor. There were three other young couples, we all shared a kitchen. On the first floor they kept the trucks. The red fire trucks. That was his job. I always knew what was happening—where he was, how he was.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. “Close the window and go back to sleep. There’s a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he’s still not back.

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Keep Reading!

Belarusian writers need to be translated! Titles written about Belarus by non-natives are included below..

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