The People of Paper (Mexico)

People of Paper book coverby Salvador Plascencia

When I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, we got two porn channels. We weren’t supposed to – we hadn’t paid for them, nor did we want them. The reception was often fuzzy. The one thing we could see clearly, in contrast to the blobby bodies gyrating in a field of snow, was a bouncing black dot.

A Japanese friend told me this dot was intended to hide the actors’ public hair, which is considered disgusting in Japan. (Of course, she added, true perverts were delighted when it slipped.)

That black dot is present throughout this book, along with sideways text and other cutesy postmodern formatting. The story itself is good, if a bit more earthy (piss and shit) than I like. The author could clearly tell a good story before an MFA program got hold of him.

The “Poetry Voice”

black dotWhile reading this novel, I heard a voice in my head, and it was singing “”Mama don’t allow no MFA poets ’round here.” The song was created by former Idaho Writer-in-Residence Gino Sky, and it sums up what my husband and I call “the Poetry Voice” – a plummy sort of way of reading your work which has a dry, droning, Ivory Tower cadence both pretentious and weirdly captivating. It makes you think you should read like that – like all the life blood has been sucked out of your story, because God forbid you should shout or show an emotion!

This is a story struggling so hard for legitimacy that it detracts from itself. Maybe the (first-time) author thought if he simply told a great story, it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get past the formatting, which didn’t help tell the tale, but obstructed it.

The Good Bits

pink lunch boxA key scene early on is when the Mexican immigrant daughter goes with her father to a junk shop in L.A. and he buys her a pink lunch box. She’s noticed that all the brown bag kids at her school have to sit at the plastic picnic tables and the lunchbox kids get to sit on the grass in their nice clothes. So she confidently goes to join the lunchbox kids with her pink box, only to notice it is two to three times as big as theirs…what she has is a typewriter case. Of course all the Anglo kids make fun of her.

The magical realism of the surgeon who makes replacement organs out of paper was original, and intriguing.

A key emotional theme is the shame felt by the daughter and also by the father, whose incontinence has driven the mother away. I think all immigrants feel some type of shame, when trying to fit in to a new culture. Every tribe has a snobbish way of thinking that things “should” be done a certain way, even if that way is clearly nonsensical.

If I had read this book in graduate school, the non-text additions would probably have excited me. But just to come home from work and crack open a book and have to work so hard to understand the story (what’s under those black dots and what bits of the story am I missing?) not so much.

Two mattresses stuffed with hay and mint leaves.

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The Second Coming of Malvala Shikongo (Namibia)

Book cover of Malvalaby Peter Orner

My eye is always drawn to the very first word of a story. That’s how, in the book from Oman, I missed the character names at the top of each chapter. Same with this novel. It was a surprise to realize – wait – I’m in a different character’s head now. Over time, I also noticed I’d been moved out of present tense into the past. (It worked, because it didn’t jar me out of the story.)

The Good Bits: Brilliant descriptions

“Those mornings, it was less that the sun would rise, than that the darkness would simply pale…”

“Boys have it worst [when it comes to hitching rides to get to school]. They are chosen last, after old mammies, mothers with babies, old men.”

“The Germans were at least honest. They said they were going to steal our land and they stole our land.  They said they were going to kill us, and by God, they killed us. Now the British were less–how shall we put it?–forthright. They said our land was ours and they stole it. They said they were humanitarians and they bombed the Namas. That was in 1922. A year later, they cut off King Mandume’s head and made a parade of it.”

Namibia MapRemedial Namibian History:  As needed by this American

* In the very late 1880s, Herman Goering’s garrison of 5,000 German soldiers was overrun and ambushed by Nama/Herero freedom fighters. (Not that Goering, his father.)

* people identify as Catholics or Marxist Communists; members of one of the many ethnic groups; men who drink or men who don’t

Dry Humor:  Fitting in a desert story

Namibian schoolboys in blue shirtsTwo boys sit at a picnic table, practicing introducing themselves in Head Teacher Obadiah’s King’s English; the narrator says “Which king was never clear.”

“I should be honored, kind sir, if you would favor me with your name.”

“I was christened Siegfried, but please, I insist, call me Siggy. Dare I inquire of yours, friend of my youth?”

“Ah, kindred spirit! I’m known as Petrus.”

They smoked pencils like pipes. They tipped imaginary hats. From their faces they both seemed to be in great pain. English was often associated with constipation.

A Story of Men and Boys

Driving through NamibiaI was interested in this book – I didn’t love it. Since the hero is a male teacher in a boy’s school, we get lots of talk of sex, body parts, piss and pigeons mating. One hundred fifty pages in, I still don’t know why Larry Kaplanski chose to teach English at a remote boy’s school in Goas, Namibia. I’m interested in the African characters:

* the lusty math teacher, Pohamba
* the weird, morals-spouting principal who keeps a small green rug known as “Ireland” in * his office and doesn’t practice the loud Catholicism he preaches
* Mavala Shikongo, who fought in “the war” and returned with a baby that “Kaplansk” often refers to as a “monster”
* Theofilus, the school’s mechanic, who sits by the generator until 11 p.m. when there is light, not reading but listening for noises that indicate something going wrong

Giraffe in Namibia(Read the Malawi book for how electricity changes the lives of poor villagers who can then read and study at night)

But I’m not rooting for these characters. Maybe they’re not sympathetic enough. Women are objects to most of the males. And the mysterious subject of their desires, Mavala,  doesn’t get a P.O.V.

There is also a disturbing amount of animal cruelty in small vignettes, taken for granted by American and Africans alike. Harsh reality or not, that always puts me off.

Pre-Technology Pacing

This book is SLOW. It’s like you’re sitting with the principal and his wife, watching snow on their black-and-white TV. (They do this to pretend to the others that they know all about the shows talked about in the paper.)

Karabib, NamibiaIt feels desulatory, like the characters don’t have anything to lose – or gain. It wasn’t as tedious as Waiting for Godot, but the waiting rooms aren’t pleasant to linger in. For example, the trash-filled graveyard where Larry and Malvala picnic on the graves of Boer settlers. Or the small concrete room covered with porn that Larry inherits from the previous teacher. There are puff adders.

 At the End of All Things

I found lots to interest me in this book. It’s just a shame that I couldn’t care beyond a detached, intellectual interest.

Rating: Three Mopani worms (crispy caterpillars). I leave it to you to decide if the dish half-full or half-empty is better!

Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs (Oman)

Earth Weeps book cover

by Abdulaziz Al Farsi

This is literature, set in a backwater Omani village. Despite the purple prose, or maybe even because of it, the story is still enjoyable. Unusually, the book is told from 6 points of view. In a move I’ve never seen before, the author has summarized the chapters by P.O.V from:

* Khalid Bhakit, a rebellious young man who gets his university ideas from “books with white pages”, as opposed to village Imam Rashid, whose old-school teachings come out of “books with yellowed pages”.

Traditional village in Oman seen from afar

The Sultanate of Oman calls traditional village life “simple and harsh”.

 * Ayda, in love with Khalid Bhakit (who is unaware that she exists). The first girl in the village to go to university, she knows the village thinks classes are still segregated by gender.

 * One of the 5 village troublemakers, given the nickname “Anthrax” by Khalid Bhakit. His real name is Suhayl al-Jamra Al-Khabitha.

* Mihyan ibn Khalaf – Khadim’s adoptive white father. Lost his wife and son in the flood that delivered the 3-year-old black boy to the village, clinging to a copper tub. They were never able to discover where Khadim came from.

* The Saturnine Poet – a poet from “Saturn”. I wasn’t sure, but suspect a joke on the part of Khalid. He enjoys the villagers’ ignorance as they pretend to know this town.

City by the sea in Oman

Oman lies between Saudi Arabia and the sea

Conflicts abound in the story. 1) The traditional way of life in the village is disappearing as individual TVs take the place of meeting houses. 2) The university has given Khalid the idea that the traditional way of worship, as practiced in the village, is actually not in the Koran and he agitates for reform. 3) There are constant power struggles for village leadership.

Mystical Realism in the Desert

Khalid and Ayda are the only poetic narrators, but even the prosaic ones speak of the village as a place sure to be damned to the fires of Hell. As in the Libyan book, I was surprised to hear Muslims referring to Moses and Noah, and speaking of the narrow bridge to Paradise that not all will succeed in crossing. The mystery of why the village is so doomed kept me reading. Why do the villagers love it and hate it – often at the same time?

Grave at Al Ayn, a World Heritage Site in Oman

Grave at Al Ayn, a World Heritage Site in Oman

(Being from a small town myself, I do understand some issues.)

 The Good Bits

I was particularly fond of the comic devices employed in this novel. One of the troublemakers, Sa’id Dhab’a, is a know-it-all. When the village gets a visitor from Bangladesh, Sa’id is the one to educate them:

“‘Bangladesh is a country located near France. Its people make their living on the  oil and fish trade. Its climate is snowy all year round, so European ice-skating competitions are held there. The capital of Bangladesh is Dhaka, and Muslims make up one-sixth of its population.’

As Sa’id Dhab’a spoke, the others nodded their heads. Some of them believed what they were hearing, while others thought it preposterous. Khalid Bakhit’s eyes bugged out, from which I gathered that he didn’t believe what Said had said…”

Omani village huts showing shade, palm trees, and pottery

Mihyan ibn Khalaf loves to build “mud huts” for the village…not sure if this is an example.

Speaking of snow, I was very surprised to read that Oman was familiar with it. Khalid talks about “frostbitten evenings” and the “snow in people’s souls.” Odd.

Rating

Five mud houses! One of the better books I’ve read for this blog. Elevated to a higher level than many.

Plant Teacher (Bolivia)

Plant Teacher book coverby Caroline Alethia

Ever had the feeling that you’ve done something horribly wrong? Irrevocably wrong? Made a mistake you can never recover from?

Spoiled trust fund baby Martin Banzer is writing tortured (and tortuous) poetry in a Mr. Café in La Paz. After graduating from Brown, this distant American relation of Bolivia’s dictator is trying to figure out what to do with his life.

Maybe going into the jungle with some dude and letting a medicine man blow smoke up his nose is the answer. Hundreds of hallucinations and panic attacks later, that seems to have been a bad decision.

Martin’s wealthy, bossy sister flies to Bolivia with the intent of finding out what, exactly, he put up his nose. Meanwhile there’s a pretty girl working for justice on a continent of oligarchies.

Bolivia Excerpt:

“Cheryl could hardly fathom the contrast between these huge, gated mansions and the humble abodes of cement, crammed full with sweaty bodies, which she had seen in other neighborhoods in the city. Many city houses, Gus had told her, didn’t have flush toilets. Some didn’t have running water. The gap between wealth and poverty was worse than in Washington, D.C.”

Consequences

I really dug this book. The cover and the formatting make it look self-published; like those copies I used to get on a pay-for-review website. However, it’s well-written. You can tell the author has lived in Bolivia herself. I like how the characters start out with assumptions, and then those ideas are turned upside down.

For example, Martin’s native guide is not some dude. Despite the American attitude toward “drugs”, indigenous people have been practicing homeopathy for thousands of years. So the Bolivian (I forget his name) turns out to be a highly-educated expert on natural healing. Which makes Martin and his bossy sister wonder if maybe something else is causing the hallucinations – like schizophrenia.

Bolivia CityAnd Martin’s hallucinations are fun. Waiters’ heads bloom like flowers. Cheesecakes sprout wings. Pillars open up their bulbous lips and say things like “If it hadn’t been for the saltenyas…” (Meat pastries). And of course, pretty girls grow enormous noses. Mmm, and there are jaguars.

The only part of the book I did not like – although interesting – was the prologue. Where the LSD syringe travels to Bolivia. I have a “thing” about clean water. Ugh.

Extremely Slight Carpings
I wished that more had been done about the connection between Martin’s family and the dictator, and I remember thinking that Cheryl’s Austrian roots didn’t quite ring true. I speak German, so I noticed that the wrong word was used for Christmas.

Five Saltenyas

Nonetheless, this was a great read. I found out after I was done that it’s won prizes!

Dots on the Map (Faroe Islands)

Dots on the Map book coverby Colin Leckey

Together in one volume – An Englishman traipses through Europe’s 7 least populated nations. More about the countries of:

* Liechtenstein
* San Marino
* Vatican City, and
* Monaco

later on in the blog – plus the self-governing territory of Gibralter. All are mere Dots on the Map. More like Iotas on the Map, really. (I didn’t include Andorra because I’ve already blogged about it.)

The Faroese

I want to be from the Faroe Islands. (Except for trying to date someone you aren’t related to, it sounds grand.) I want to be related to everyone else on the plane from Heathrow. I want to be able to tell the lone Englishman aboard, “Sorry Sir, we only have newspapers in Faroese.” The author says the language sounds a lot like Danish. Hey, my ancestors were Danish.

Faroe Island SheepI want to be a farmer winching her sheep up to the cliffs to graze in the summer.

Absailing sheep, for real!

In a land of few blaring car stereos, conscientious drivers, and streets that run almost straight up and down. Where the very ancient parliament is called the ting. Or as Leaky says, the Thing.

Would the place be so fascinating if I lived there? No. Comforting, perhaps – maybe even a little boring. But there’s always the Internet.

Unfortunately the national dish is boiled puffin.

Fimm fimm Stars

Puffins

How could you even think about eating these cute little birds?

Yes, that’s “five” in Faroese. You need both “fimms”. The Danish word, if you’re interested, is “fem” – Faroese having separated itself from Old Norse about 600 years ago.

Leaky writes with self-deprecating humor and the keen eye for the ridiculous that makes the travelogues of Redmond O’Hanlon so enjoyable.

I look forward to comparing the other “tiniest” countries. And theorizing on why they remain independent when bigger ones were swallowed long ago.

 

In the Country of Men (Libya)

In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional gray patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy arrived only at night…

Suleiman, a.k.a. “Slooma” is a boy who doesn’t understand himself. What makes him turn on his best friend, and cruelly stone a beggar when Suleiman is afraid? (And then naively think that they will forgive him.) Why does he feel both love and hatred for his mother, who suffers a mysterious “illness” when they’re alone? And what aren’t the grownups telling him about his father’s secret in Martyr’s Square?

Suleiman doesn’t understand these things, but we do. We understand that the fear of living in a dictatorship makes the stress leak out brutally. We understand that his mother is an alcoholic. We understand that life under Colonel Khadaffi’s regime is terrifying. Far more frightening for normal people than we normal people in the U.S. ever suspected growing up in the 1980s.

Martyrs Square in Tripoli

Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli

Like the Albanian book, Chronicles in Stone, this story is served better by the voice of a child than by an adult narrator. Because this method of storytelling forces you to read between the lines to figure out what’s going on. Censorship and repression is alive and well in Libya in 1979. Terror and defiance in equal measure. It’s horrifying, and heartbreaking.

A Good Read

I enjoyed this book. It felt Libyan. It’s my first book set in the Muslim world through young male eyes and really different to, say, Infidel. Of course, that was non-fiction.

Anti-Khadaffi protests in Libya

Anti-Khadaffi protests in Libya

The baking heat of Libya is described beautifully; the sesame sticks wrapped in white waxed paper twists; the glorious mulberries, “fruits of angels”. The ever-present sea. The monuments left by ancient Romans – the Italian running the café with its huge portrait of The Dear Leader – I mean The Colonel. It’s a big, glorious, gloppy fictional mess.

I was struck by the similarity of young Suleiman’s religious experience to my own – he’s been frightened of hellfire by a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and talks of Adam and Eve and the angels constantly. But when he sees men eyeing his mother disrespectfully he wonders if she should wear a looser-fitting robe.

Problems:

1) Mama (“Um Suleiman, the Mother of Suleiman) wasn’t thrilled to marry Baba at 14. She repeatedly tells her son this in various inappropriate ways. 2) She drinks to cope, which is not only shameful, but illegal. 3) Mama is upset with the family friend, an Egyptian named Moosa, for encouraging Baba to write pamphlets against the regime. Moosa could be deported, but Baba can be “put behind the sun”. He can be executed on state TV.

Five Mulberries

That’s the rating on the Hollymeter: Great writing, interesting and sympathetic characters – a terrible time in Libyan history that Americans know little about. At least I didn’t.

A Shadow of Gulls (Ireland)

Shadow of Gullsby Patricia Finney

Apologia: First I was out the entire month of October with a cold/sinus infection, then I did my 50,000 word novel in November for Nanowrimo, and now I’m on day 4 of a brand-new job! It feels like I’ve been away from the blog forever. Sorry about that.

I guess I’ve been spoiled by modern fantasy writers like Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, because I was expecting a lot of magic from this 1970s classic set in Ireland. I got a lot of dark history instead.

The hero of this story is called Lugh mac Romain (pronounced Luke) and he’s a harper; a man driven by the demons in his past. Not an entirely good character – but then nobody in this book is. Something I didn’t like. His aunt, Queen Mab, is a wee bit mad at him, because his Roman father used to be her lover, and deserted her because he didn’t want to be “Mrs. Mab.” (So the mean old queen wasn’t especially thrilled when he slept with her younger, priestess sister.)

When Lugh accidentally kills Mab’s current husband, the Corn King, before he can be sacrificed, he fears Mab’s curse and flees for his life. But the people he takes refuge with have their own problems and blood feuds, and he ends up on the run again.

The Fighting Irish

Dierdre

Illustration of Dierdre from Wiki. She doesn’t look half as drippy as she is in the legend.

Like the Monty Python sketch goes: I’m looking for a copy of 1,00 Ways to Start a Fight, by an Irish gentleman whose name I don’t recall…

I was intrigued by the little dark-haired people Lugh takes refuge with who seem to be indigenous – before the Irish – and wanted to know MUCH more about them. I also liked how the superstitions of the people made the night countryside come alive with fear.

The book sticks closely to the hoary old legends of the Irish, as misogynistic and depressing as they are. But it doesn’t leap between the lines; it doesn’t go so far as to propose that magic is actually real.

That the Fey might be more than human. It doesn’t connect the lines of history in an alternative, empowering way. I know I’m a reader of my time – I know it isn’t realistic to expect books this old to deploy the lightness of heart of the Parasol Protectorate (steampunk) or gender-bending feminism of Elizabeth Peters’ mysteries. (The former is set in Victorian times; the latter around the turn of the century.)

Still, I wanted it. (Just like two winters ago when I wanted Anna Karenina to stop whining and get a spine. I kept fantasizing that she ran off to England to earn her own living as a governess. Realistic for the time period? Probably not. Great fiction for today? Absolutely.)

Female Characters

And your choices are:

  • stupid sluts (the slaves)
  • evil queens (Mab) or
  • helpless victims (Dierdre and Lugh’s mother)

Yep, I know that nothing good happens to or for the women in the original legends – part of the reason I never liked them. But this is a female author. I guess I expected better.

I was also bothered by the fact that it was never explained where the blonde slaves in the Irish households had come from – or why the main character, Lugh mac Romain, thinks they’re all dumb as bricks. Could be his personal problem, but that isn’t addressed.

To be fair, this is a good writer. I was really into the book for the first 100 pages or so. But it just got to be too much. Too much blood. Too much evil. Too much uncivilized behavior and not so much as a magic wand.

All in all, I think this is a book that you either love or you don’t. I didn’t. My apologies to all the people on Amazon and Goodreads who loved it. You’re nuts. (Just kidding.)