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


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

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


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.

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


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


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…


Posted by: koolwine | December 14, 2014

Ukraine: Death and the Penguin

Death and the Penguin by Andrey KurkovA wannabe novelist is duped into assisting a murderous gang of criminals.

Country Focus: Ukraine (Ukrayina in Ukrainian)

Death and the Penguin
By Andrey Kurkov
Translated by George Bird
Originally published in Russian as Smert’ postoronnego by Alterpress, 1996.
My edition: Harvill Press, 2001
227 pgs

Genre: Fiction/Mystery
Time period:
 1990s, post-independence from the Soviet Union

About the author: Kurkov’s latest work is Ukraine Diaries, a series of his personal journal entries covering November 2013 -April 2014. The entries juxtapose accounts of his daily life in Kiev with the concurrent Euromaidan Uprising. Some of the damage Kiev incurred can be seen in the current header photo, a before and after shot of Kiev’s Independence Square. The left side was taken on April 22, 2009; the right side on February 20, 2014. Credit AFP/Getty Images.

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

Yes, one of the stars of this droll mystery is an actual, tuxedo-feathered, awkwardly waddling, fish-loving king penguin. Named Misha, he’s the sole charge of Viktor Alekseyvich Zolotaryov. Viktor acquired his avian companion when the local zoo announced that it could no longer feed its animals and was giving them away to citizens. This scenario is not as unlikely as I had initially imagined. Although I found no information on zoo giveaways back in the early nineties, I was dismayed to see that Ukraine’s bankrupt government cut funding to all of its zoos as of March 2014. The zoos haven’t yet resorted to passing out penguins, but the situation looks quite grim.

But back to Viktor and Misha. Viktor, an aspiring writer, gets a job at a newspaper writing obituaries (called “obelisks” by the editor) for the city’s living politicians, criminals and celebrities—Viktor chooses who—to be filed away until the VIPs kick the bucket. He pens dozens of obelisks, but his subjects remain resolutely alive and he remains unpublished.

Then one day Viktor by is approached a man who has heard about Viktor’s skill set from the editor. This man, who is also named Misha, (he’s called “Misha-non-penguin” so there’s no confusion between man and bird) hires Viktor to compose obelisks for specific people…and that’s when Viktor’s work starts appearing in print. After Viktor’s initial excitement at being published fades, he begins to question the ethics of his work and his employer. How long will it be before the next obelisk that runs in the paper commemorates him?

Death and the Penguin radiates a gloomy charm. Lonely, apathetic Viktor and displaced, silent Misha act as excellent mirrors of each other. The unusual plot cuts along steadily, ushering new people into Viktor’s life: a potential friend, a surrogate daughter, a romantic interest, and a penguinologist. It’s quickly apparent that he’s about as emotionally equipped to connect with them as Misha is. In one of his quirky insights, he admits that he’s “interdependent” rather than loving. That’s a pretty hard truth to realize, even for a fictional character. I suspect that Death and the Penguin is one of the oddest mysteries I’ll ever read. Perhaps because life in Ukraine—in both this novel and in the current news—seems anything but normal.


Andrey Kurkov

Andrey Kurkov


He sank into his armchair.

Here, on the broad arm beside him, was where, just over a year ago, petite blonde Olya, of attractive little snub nose and perpetually reproachful expression, was wont to perch. Sometimes she would rest her head on his shoulder and fall asleep, plunging into dreams in which he, very likely, had no place. Only in reality was he allowed to be present. Though even there, he rarely felt needed. Silent and thoughtful—that was her. What, since her pushing off without a word, had altered? Standing beside him now was Misha the penguin. He was silent, but was he thoughtful too? What did being thoughtful amount to? Just a word describing the way one looked, perhaps?


Keep Reading!

Ukrainian writers need to be translated!

Posted by: koolwine | December 7, 2014

Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia


A teenage boy and his sister-in-law hold little regard for their workmate, a wounded soldier, until he surprises them with his fortitude and spirit.

Country Focus: Kyrgyzstan

By Chingiz Aïtmatov
Translated by James Riordan
Originally published in Russian as Djamilia, 1957.
My edition: Telegram, 2007
96 pgs

Genre: Fiction
Time period:

About the author: Aïtmatov’s short stories, plays and novels have been translated into over 150 languages. His global reach extends beyond literature. Before his death in 2008 at the age of 79, he had served as the Krygyzstani ambassador to the European Union, NATO, UNESCO, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

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

Seit, a teenage boy, and his sister-in-law Jamilia are good friends. Jamilia, married only four days before her husband Sadyk left to fight in World War II, can’t hide her disappointment when his letters to the family barely acknowledge her. Since most of the men of their remote village are at war, Seit, Jamilia, and a stranger – a wounded soldier named Daniyar – are tasked with the day-long job of carting grain to the train station. Not knowing what to make of their silent and aloof companion, Seit and Jamilia poke fun at him. After a joke at Daniyar’s expense goes wrong, he earns their admiration. On an unforgettable ride back home, he breaks into a song that wins their hearts. He and Jamilia fall in love, but Sadyk’s return threatens their happiness.

This  story about a Muslim family in the Soviet Union has a universality and timelessness to it that makes it fit for a Broadway musical (singing characters don’t hurt either). There’s not a trace of satire or irony to be found in this touching novel, whose three main characters radiate dignity and the strength of love. Aïtmatov’s beautiful, understated Jamilia deserves more recognition.

Chingiz Aitmatov

Chingiz Aitmatov


[Jamilia] grabbed Daniyar’s hand and the poor fellow blushed from embarrassment as they hoisted a sack on crossed hands. And every time they carried a sack, grasping each other’s wrists tightly, their heads nearly touching , I saw how terribly ill at ease he was, how nervously he bit his lip, how he tried to avoid Jamilia’s face. Jamilia, though, was not the least concerned, hardly noticing her helper, exchanging jokes with the woman at the scales. Then, when the carts were loaded and we had taken up the reins, she turned to him, winking slyly and chuckling, “Hey you, what’s your name, Daniyar is it? Since you look like a man you might as well lead the way.”

Daniyar jerked the reins, silent all the while, and we were off.

You poor soul, I thought. To cap it all, your’re bashful too.


Keep Reading!

Kyrgyzstani writers need to be translated! The following two nonfiction books were written by westerners.

Posted by: koolwine | December 1, 2014

Guatemala: Severina

SeverinaA biblio-outlaw steals both the wares and the heart of a bookstore owner.

Country Focus: Guatemala

By Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Translated by Chris Andrews
Introduction by Chris Andrews
Originally published in Spanish as Severina, 2011
My edition: The Margellos World Republic of Letters, 2014
87 pgs

Genre: Fiction
Time period:

About the author: Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa was mentored by renowned American writer Paul Bowles, who translated a few of his student’s books—Dust on Her TongueThe Beggar’s Knife; The Pelcari Project—into English. Rey Rosa’s more recent works include The Good Cripple and The African Shore.

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

Severina is one of the names of a beautiful and mysterious book thief. She and her equally enigmatic male companion, Otto Blanco, travel around the world stealing overlooked literary masterpieces. They claim to “live for and by books.” Their lives as biblio-fugitives fascinates the narrator, a bookstore owner who falls for Severina and finds himself willing to give up everything to join her.

Rey Rosa’s novel has an underlying current of suspense, a dab of magical realism, and strong pacing, but its characters don’t resonate. The narrator is obsessed with Severina, Severina is obsessed with books, and there’s not that much else to them. Rey Rosa is known for his understated prose, but I didn’t expect one-dimensional characters to be a part of the deal.  Maybe the fault lies with translator Chris Andrews, who also authored Severina‘s overly long and tedious introduction. Whatever the case, this biblio-fantasy disappointed.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Let me tell you something. One of my uncles—he was crazy, it’s true, but he also had moments of genius—believed, or said he believed, that books, the objects we call books, are animated by a kind of collective spirit. Like machines and computers in science-fiction fantasies, and the plants from which drugs are extracted, and even certain metals, like gold and iron. He talked about how books struggle for domination in certain regions of the planet, a phenomenon whose trends and flows could be tracked using one of the maps with colored arrows to indicate things like the spreading of ethnic groups or languages over the course of history. Migrations, invasions, outbreaks, extinctions. There are wars between different kinds or genres of books, he said. And, as in real wars, the best don’t always win; but for us, in the end, there are no losers, although they all fade away.


Keep Reading!

Guatemalan writers need to be translated! Of the books below, only I, Rigoberta Menchú and The Polish Boxer are written by native Guatemalans.

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