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

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.


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.

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

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.


Keep Reading!

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

Posted by: koolwine | June 22, 2014

Djibouti: In the United States of Africa

In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. WaberiThe first world and the third world have swapped fortunes. An African doctor adopts a poor white girl from France. All grown up, she decides to return to Paris’s frigid wastelands  to find her mother.     

Country Focus: Djibouti

In the United States of Africa
By Abdourahman A. Waberi
Translated by David and Nicole Ball
Foreword by Percival Everett 
Originally published in French as Aux États-Unis d’Afrique by Éditions Jean-Claude Lattès, 2006.
My edition: University of Nebraska Press, 2009
123 pgs

Genre: Fiction
Time period:

Notes: Waberi, a Djiboutian writer who lives in France, has published several novels. Passage of Tears, Transit, and The Land Without Shadows have been translated into English.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
I would need to reread In the United States of Africa multiple times in order to begin to wring out everything that Waberi has packed into these 123 pages. He drops dozens of names of real-life successful Africans like Chris Seydou (a Malian fashion designer) and Gerard Sekoto (a South African artist and musician), and unfamiliar African cities like Asmara and Luanda. Who are these people? Where are these places? Waberi’s book was curiously effective at making this American reader feel like one of the disenfranchised North Americans of his novel. A tough but intriguing read from a talented writer.

Abdourahman Waberi

Abdourahman Waberi

If narratives can bloom again, if languages, words and stories can circulate again, if people can learn to identify with characters from beyond their borders, it will assuredly be a first step toward peace. A movement of identification, projection, and compassion – that’s the solution. And it is the exact opposite of the worried—and worrying—identity so widely cultivated. Instead of the “we” so proudly trumpeted, the “we” flexing its muscles, puffing up its pectorals, it is another “we,” diffracted, interactive, translated, a waiting, listening “we”—in short a dialoguing “we” will be born. And then this: you are absolutely sure, Maya, that the private, quiet dialogue of reading will really be the touchstone, the prelude of millions of dialogues spoken aloud in broad daylight. This is how peace will come to the world.


Keep Reading!

Djiboutian writers need to be translated! In the meantime, make do with one from a best-selling American writer who set his novel in this East African country.

Posted by: koolwine | June 14, 2014

Laos: The Latehomecomer

The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang

From “the Secret War” in the hills of Laos to the refugee camps of Thailand to the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, a Hmong woman recounts the story of her family’s emigration. 

Country Focus: Laos (Pathet Lao in Lao)

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir
By Kao Kalia Yang
Published by Coffee House Press, 2008.
277 pgs.

Genre: Memoir
Time period:

Notes: The Hmong are an ethnic minority of China who left their homeland to escape persecution during the 1800s. Hundreds of thousands made a new home in Laos. The Hmong fought a “Secret War” against communist forces in Laos that paralleled the Vietnam War. After the American military pulled out and their enemies prevailed, the Hmong people fled for their lives. Kao Kalia Yang’s is but one thousands of families who found refuge in the U.S. Yang never set foot in Laos (she was born in a Thai refugee camp), but her family, particularly her revered Grandmother, instilled in her a powerful emotional connection with her ancestral homeland.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
The Latehomecomer
is also a bit of late bloomer. Nearly half the memoir describes events that happened before Yang was six years old, and her account of them feels second-hand. As the years advance, Yang’s memory of them improves and her book begins to shine. I found it impossible not to marvel at the hard-working Yangs and their extraordinary family ties.


Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang

I come from a family that believes profoundly in the strength of numbers. The adults talked about how they had survived the war in Laos only because there were so many of them; there were seven brothers who could help each other. They said that during the saddest times in a life, when the meaning of staying alive is all confused, the only way to survive is to hold on to each other. The only way to get through life is to have a big team on your side. The strongest thing that can hold people together is blood. They were all my grandma’s children and they believed the same thing she did: the more of them there were, the stronger their hold on life — the more sons, the stronger their hold to the earth.


Keep Reading!

Laotian writers need to be translated. Titles written by westerners about Laos are included below.

Posted by: koolwine | May 30, 2014

South Sudan: There Is a Country

There Is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan

Eight of South Sudan’s authors contributed to this collection, likely the first compilation of that country’s literature published in America.

Country Focus: South Sudan

There Is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan
Edited by Nyuol Lueth Tong; Stories by Edward Eremugo Luka, Victor Lugala, Nyuol Lueth Tong, Taban Lo Liyong, David L. Lukudu, John Oryem, Samuel Garang Akau, and Arif Gamal
Published by McSweeney’s, 2013.
96 pgs.

Genre: Fiction/Short Stories
Time period:

Notes: The son of a Dinka chief, Nyuol Lueth Tong fled war-torn Sudan with his mother and siblings when he was five years old. He earned a scholarship to Duke University, and has started a nonprofit called SELFSudan that partners with villages to build schools in South Sudan.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
Kudos to Tong and McSweeney’s for corralling these literary efforts from the world’s newest nation. I was thrilled to read these voices and enjoyed Tong’s Introduction. 

Quote from “Port Sudan Journal” by Victor Lugala:

Nyuol Lueth Tong

Nyuol Lueth Tong, Editor

I was twenty-five years old. Out of college. Out of work. I was broke, living rough, and trying to explore the world. That black rucksack contained my few belongings: a pair of blue jeans, a brown T-shirt, flip flops, three worn-out pairs of boxer shorts, a toothbrush, a comb, five novels, a pencil, and my diary. The diary had been a birthday present from my Ugandan friend, given to me before I’d left home. It was as if he knew that one day I would be far away, wandering without a destination in mind.

Behind me I had buried my past. In front of me was an abstract painting that I was to decipher while I was still stupid enough and strong enough to do it. I was in Port Sudan looking for my uncle.


Keep Reading!

At just shy of three years old, South Sudan is short on authors and literary works. Tong recommends the following titles by and about survivors of Sudan’s civil war:

Posted by: koolwine | May 18, 2014

Bhutan: What Makes You Not a Buddhist

What Makes You No A Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang KhyentseA Tibetan lama reminds aspiring Buddhists that there’s more to their spiritual practice than meditation and nonviolence.

Country Focus: Bhutan (Druk Yul in Dzongkha)

What Makes You Not a Buddhist
By Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
Published by Shambala, 2007.
134 pgs.

Genre: Nonfiction/Religion
Time period:
 The present

Notes: Born in Bhutan, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is an internationally renowned Buddhist teacher. Khyentse has also written a primer on meditation called Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
Since roughly three quarters of Bhutan’s citizens are Buddhist, I thought it only fitting that I read a book about that subject written by a popular Bhutanese spiritual leader. I found What Makes You Not a Buddhist to be an enlightening and relatively easy-to-understand explanation of Buddhism’s “four seals” (not to be confused with the Four Noble Truths): 1) All compounded things are impermanent; 2) All emotions are pain; 3) All things have no inherent existence; and 4) Nirvana is beyond concepts. I’m eager to re-read this one to gain a better understanding of these teachings.


Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

But how does one detect buddhanature in the midst of so much ignorance, darkness and confusion? The first sign of hope for sailors lost at sea is to catch sight of a beam of light flashing through the stormy darkness. Navigating toward it, they come to the source of the light, the lighthouse. Love and compassion are like the light emanating from buddhanature. Initially buddhanature is a mere concept beyond our view, but if we generate love and compassion, we can eventually move toward it. It may be difficult to see the buddhanature in those who are lost in the darkness of greed, hate and ignorance. Their buddhanature is so distant, we might think that it is nonexistent. But even within the darkest and most violent people, there are flashes of love and compassion, however brief and faint. If these rare glimpses are attended to, and if energy is invested to move in the direction of the light, their buddhanature can be uncovered.


Keep Reading!
Bhutanese writers need to be translated! There are a couple of native authors below, but the rest were written by westerners.

Posted by: koolwine | May 8, 2014

United Arab Emirates: The Sand Fish

The Sand Fish by Maha Gargash

Noora’s brother marries her off to a to a wealthy, older man who requires a third wife to conceive a child for him. Feisty Noora only has eyes for her husband’s handsome servant, and the boldness to act on her feelings. 

Country Focus: United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The Sand Fish
By Maha Gargash
Published by Harper, 2009.
361 pgs.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:

Notes: Born in Dubai, Gargash has directed numerous television documentaries about Emerati society. The Sand Fish is her first novel.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
Gargash’s strength lies in creating light drama between her characters. She has produced a respectable, if not remarkable, family drama/forbidden romance. She falls short in smoothly incorporating the societal, historical, and natural facets of the UAE. The pearl diving, the desert, and even the sand fish feel shortchanged.  


Maha Gargash

Maha Gargash

“When the heart takes you away, you do stupid things,” Jassem said. He seemed to be talking to himself as he paced the six steps to one wall and back again. “You talk, say things you don’t want to say.” He stopped in the the middle of the room and pointed his finger at Noora. “From now on, when I look at you, I want you to close your eyes. You have got witches brew in them.”

“I…” She was about to tell him it wasn’t true, when he yanked off his spectacles. He had never done that before (even when he was performing his duty). She watched him squint and draw closer to her. His shadow loomed high above him. She must have been a blur to him, but to Noora his face was as transparent as the steam of simmering water. The warmth of their nights had evaporated just like that.

“I rescued you from poverty. Never forget that,” he said. “I have given you so much that you should be kissing my feet, not making me speak worthless talk.”

“I don’t. I—”

“That witch said there would be a child. But there is nothing. Lateefa was right. What have you given me? What is your worth in the end?”


Keep Reading!

Emerati writers like Sara al-Jarwan and Noura al-Noman need to be translated. Titles edited and written by westerners about the UAE are included below.

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