The Rules: What is a Country?

My husband asked me if I planned to read a book from Puerto Rico. That made me wonder, what defines “a country”? To me, a country is a place with defined borders, where the language, food, and dress (and of course, literature!) is different from that of other countries. And they have a history of ethnic diversity.

But whether a place is officially recognized as “a country” turns out to be…political. And depends on who is doing the recognizing.

How Many Countries Are There?

A geography website from the UK says there could be from 194 to 260 countries, depending on your definition.

“For example, Taiwan claims to be a country, but China states that Taiwan is just another part of China. The consequence is that the USA, that doesn’t want to upset China, doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a country. Conversely, from the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union annexed the countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania but the USA continued to regard them as independent countries that were ‘occupied’ because it didn’t really get on with the USSR.”

In a general gesture of thumbing my nose at conquerors who absorb independent countries (you suck, guys) here are my definitions:

  • Kashmir…country.
  • Taiwan…country.
  • Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales…countries.
    • Yes, I know they are part of the UK, but they are so distinct linguistically that they’re very separate in my mind. In addition, they have well-defined and ancient borders. Besides, the PM’s website for the UK declares that the UK is “made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.”
  • Bavaria…not a country. Just like Texas isn’t a country.
    • Maybe someday I will read a book from each state in Germany–because they all used to be kingdoms before Bismark–but I don’t have time this year!
  • Puerto Rico and Guam…countries.
    • If I flew there for a vacation, I would feel as if I were going to another country…not a part of (protectorate) the US. Ditto Hawaii.
  • The Vatican, sorry United Nations, NOT a country.  Part of Italy.
  • Tibet and Nepal…countries.
  • Russia…
    • Oh boy, this is going to be a pain. I don’t think I have time for all the breakaway Russian republics this year either. Might be a separate project. Or not.

As you can see, I’m mostly making more work for myself. But that’s ok. It’s not work if you love it. 🙂

Native Americans and Alaska Natives

In addition, many people may not be aware that there are 566 federally recognized American Indian tribes within the geographic borders of the U.S. They are recognized by the government as sovereign nations.

It’s official. I may not finish this blog until I’m 90.

The Leopard (Norway)

by Jo Nesbo

Wine & Olives Rating: 00000 kalamatas
Skol!

Leopards: None in this book. However, there are: Avalanches; men named Odd, Ole, and Bjorn; Sami knives, and policewomen in white sweators. There is night skiing in the Alps plus an imprisoned serial killer called The Snowman. But no Ludefisk. Perhaps they fed it to the leopard and it expired on the spot. From the smell. (The real title of the book, in Norwegian, is Panserhjerte, which means The Armoured Heart, which Harry Hole wishes he has. Makes more sense.)

e. e. cummings paraphrase: Oh, to be in Norway, now that crime is here!

Summary: After the avalanche of Swedish crime novels triggered by the dynamite Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, I read a lot of Swedish mysteries, most notably those of Henning Mankell. Having also read the fantastic Smilla’s Sense of Snow by a Danish author, I was curious about the Norwegian crime genre.

Best Things: This 680+ page book feels wonderful in your hands. It’s heavy in that promising paperback way…utterly delicious. I enjoyed the constant infighting between the two Oslo crime agencies Kripos and Crime Squad. The characters were well drawn and believably flawed. Hero Harry Hole has a little problem with heroin/opium since the Snowman’s attack on his live-in girlfriend and her son. Kripos Chief Mikael Bellman has a sordid past, and is terrified of being punched in the face. Yet they soldier on somehow, taking down the bad guys.

Super Best Things: I was just sure, 3-4 times during the book, that I knew who the killer was. Wrong every time. That was awesome. This is possibly the best plotting I have ever read in my life.

Super Best Things For the Linguistically Inclined: I loved when the characters would comment about the other’s dialects…Eastern Norway/Finland…Northern Norway…with all the intellectual and character aspersions such judgement implies. I’m not saying that’s how life should be–but rather that since that’s how it is, it’s interesting.  (Side note: When I was researching Edwidge Danticat, Wikipedia told me that during one massacre in Haiti, whether you lived or died depended on the way you pronounced the word “parsley”.) Toward the end, policewoman Kaja figures out that a message claiming to be from Harry is not from Harry–because the endings used in the message are not the way he speaks.

It was interesting to me that the endings for “street” in Norwegian are similiar to, but different than, Swedish. Gata and gatan sort of thing.

References: The book referred to some Norwegians that I knew–one being polar explorer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1922) Fridtjof Nansen.

During WWII, the bravery of Nansen’s son, Odd Nansen, on behalf of the Nowegian Resistance, landed him at Sachsenhausen. While there, he befriended a little Jewish boy called Thomas. After the war, when things were still very difficult for Jewish orphans in Germany, Nansen sent him several care packages of food from Norway, which helped him survive, and invited him to visit his family. The little boy grew up to be an international judge at The Hague. I read the book Thomas Buergenthal wrote: A Lucky Child, but I can’t read Nansen’s book Tommy because it isn’t available in English or in German. Odd Nansen, by the way, founded UNICEF.

Final Linguistic Note: Yes I know I can’t spell Norwegian.

THANKS TO: My friend the baristo at The Book Parlor/Indaba Coffee in West Central Spokane for loaning me this book when he heard about my project!

Strange Forces (Argentina)

Wine and Olives Rating: 0000000000! If the wine is Maddog 20/20 and the olives are a trippy but oddly appealing tapenade.

Who is GG?: The Translation and Foreword by the flowery Gilbert Alter-Gilbert were two of the best things about this late 1800’s / early 1900’s horror-science fiction collection.

Says Gilbert: “Leopoldo Lugones was the Literary Lion of Latin American Letters.”

Also says Gilbert: “LL had the air of a particularly priggish schoolmaster [but was in fact a] culteral crusader and political paladin always at war with prevailing orthodoxy.”

LL once picked a fight with the young poet Jorge Luis Borges and challenged him to a duel. Upon learning that Borges was blind, LL said, “In that case, please be so kind as to inform that lackey Borges that he would do well not to make unsubstantiated assertions in the newspapers which he is not prepared to defend with his person.”

Overarching Thought: This is a wierd little collection.

My original interest: Written at a time of gaslights and ghosts, in which there were only 14 known scientific elements in the periodic table (Think of the Tom Lehrer song with 100 words missing), I wondered whether this early collection of sci-fi would prove to have predicted some of the science of the following century. That turned out to be less interesting than the writing style:

The afternoon light “takes on a liliaceous hue.”

The killing of a bloat-toad causes one character to remark, “Did you think you were going to have a new batrachiomachia on your hands?” If Argentine women of her social class spoke that way then, they were far more literate than we ever will be.

The owner of a certain residence retains a touch of the mystic due to his “superciliary protuberances” and it goes without saying that the narrator is never asked questions–his speaking partners are “interlocutors.”

One of the main surprises of the collection is that it starts with the story of a firestorm, told from the point of view of a disembodied spirit of Gomorrah, and after some unrelated stories you get the Spirit of the Flood, told by someone whose race used to dominate Earth but was decimated by climate change. This narrator turns out to be a giant mollusk. An evil mollusk–I *think*–it kind of devolved into a light-sucking-spider/Darwinian siren, but nonetheless.

I got almost no sense of Argentina from this book, but I did get the sense of one really bizarre writer dude.

Perhaps I will have to read something by that lackey Borges after all.

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog (Georgia)

book coverby Boris Akunin

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Vodka & Olives Rating: 0000

Synopsis: When it seems that the devil incarnate, Inspector Bubentsov from the Russian Orthodox Episocopal See arrives in the provincial town of Zavolzhsk on Apple Festival Day, good Bishop Mitrofanii must find a way to scuttle his schemes. Fortunately the brave and resourceful ginger-haired nun Pelagia is not only capable of undercover work, she enjoys it so much that it must be a sin. Circa 1850.

References To Other Works: Although there are supposed to be subtle references to 3-4 other Russian writers in this tale, I only recognized shades of Mikhail Bulgakov. Suspenseful with satisfying twists of the devil’s nose at the end. This tale isn’t nearly as gloomy as the classic Russians: Turgenev, Tolstoy, etc.

map of GeorgiaGood v.s. Evil: Boris Akunin’s real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili and he was born in Georgia. He chose “Akunin” as his surname because it means “wrongdoer” in Japanese. What the…?!!! You are saying. Well, it seems he thinks that “good is the norm, whereas evil is an anomaly, but an interesting anomaly because of its variety.”

Warning to Fellow Animal Lovers

Some white bulldogs are murdered in this book. Normally that makes me throw a novel across the room but for some reason in this case I kept reading.

Unique Devices: The River as a character (and a wonderfully-described one too), the story told by an unknown narrator familiar with “our province,” and the section in the middle containing a description of Bishop Mitrofanii’s intellectual dialogues with provincial governor Anton Antonovich von Haggenau, who “used to be a German, but has recovered.”

Boris Akunin photoMost Interesting Trivia I Learned Because of This Book: Akunin refers repeatedly to “the Old Believers” and makes several references to “two-fingered” or “three-fingered.” Thanks to Wiki, I learned that the Old Believers separated from the Russian Orthodox Church after that institution made reforms in the 1650s to bring their practices in line with Greek Orthodoxy. This included proceeding counter-clockwise, instead of clockwise, and making the sign of the cross by joining your two fingers with your thumb. Anathema! Darn all heretics anyway.

Bitter Lemons (Cyprus)

Cyprus

by Lawrence Durrell
Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Non-fiction.

I chose Lawrence Durrell for 2 reasons:

  1. I love brother Gerald Durrell’s books
  2. “Larry” is neither Greek nor Turkish Cypriot, so I thought he’d have an unbiased view.

And he does, but unexpectedly, he is also wearing blinders when it comes to Cyprus remaining a British possession. (As it was in the early 1950’s when the book was written.) At one point he says, “When one has an Empire, one can’t just start giving pieces of it away.” Larry, Larry, Larry. As an American, I beg to differ.

Cyprus mapThe people of Cyprus aren’t British. Therefore, they shouldn’t be ruled by the UK. It’s that simple. And of course, it went that way anyway. Unfortunately, the struggle for autonomy gave rise to violence and hate crimes, and Britain’s lack of foresight had a lot to do with that. You can see it start to happen in the book.

Book Group Again

Bitter Lemons is our book group pick. I couldn’t wait and went ahead and read it: The book starts on the ferry from Venice to Cyprus. Larry encounters an Italian, who tells him about the island he’s about to make his home for the next 4-5 years.

  • “It is not much of a place,” he said.
  • “So I believe.”
  • “Arid and without water. The people drink to excess.”
  • “This sounded rather better. I have always been prepared, where water was scarce, to wash in wine if necessary.”

Cyprus oceanThis is just one example of the charm I have come to expect from the Durrells. I thoroughly enjoyed Larry’s descriptions of the people and the events, although he does have a tendency to wax poetic and slip into purple prose when describing sunsets and beaches. And of course, “one” doesn’t use the term “one” in writing anymore. It sounds pompous, but then Gerry always portrayed his brother–lovingly– as a bit puffed up.

CyprusNever mind, we get to hear about the Tree of Idleness, a drunk Greek neighbor who throws his son-in-law’s motorcycle up into a tree, and the greatest rogue of a realtor on the island — a Turk. A bonus for me was getting to hear little snippets about “Mother” Durrell and once, Larry’s brother came to stay. Although he doesn’t say whether it was John or Gerry, I knew it was Gerry because he arrived with crates of animals in tow. It’s like having a cameo appearance from your favorite actors.

Larry lives with a Greek teacher with a passion for wildflowers, his friend Panos. Unfortunately, Panos is killed by a terrorist toward the end of the book for “fraternizing” with “the enemy.” That’s when Larry realizes that his presence is endangering his friends, and although they urge him to stay, he knows he has to leave for their sakes.

WildflowersIt was a bitter lemon indeed.

Rating: 5 starfish

An excellent read, although you may want to skip the bits where he goes into excruciating detail about his government job trying to convince the Greeks that they don’t want Enosis–Union–with Greece. I’m sure it seemed very important at the time. But now that Cypriot independence is 60 years old, the minutiae seems…trivial.

Nonetheless, the writing is superb and the characters are wonderfully entertaining. Not least of all the character that is Lawrence Durrell.