Hunters in the Dark (Cambodia)

Hunters coverAdvanced Reader’s Copy courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

by Lawrence Osborne

Aimless and Feckless are not just cows in Cold Comfort Farm…they are also an accurate description of this novel’s hero. Innocent abroad Robert Grieve is drifting through Thailand, on holiday from a teacher job he hates, when he decides to drift through Cambodia. Everything around him changes–but he doesn’t.

He has a fairly simplistic view of the country one wealthy doctor describes as a “genocide museum” for tourists. His fatal mistake, after winning some money at a Cambodian casino, is to trust a fellow English-speaker instead of his Cambodian taxi driver. The local boy knows more about the American than Robert does, of course, with predictable results.

Not Graham Greene (Thank Goodness)

CambodiaThe Sunday Times compared this author to Graham Greene. I’m so glad they were wrong, because I never got on with Greene’s novels. And I’ve tried plenty, since Graham Green and Nadine Gortimer were practically the only authors in the tiny English-language section of the University of Janus Pannonius in Pecs, Hungary when I was an exchange student there. I guess they had a couple tired Wodehouse novels as well.

Things DO happen in the novel, albeit very slowly. Cambodia seems to be on non-capitalist time even if people are anxious to forget the atrocities of the past and to improve their living standards. As a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, Robert misses the subtle air of menace pervading the country. An echo of the past, perhaps? A legacy for the future?

The Innocent Abroad

Cambodian skulls
Cheung Ek Genocidal Center – 8,000 skulls

The Cambodian policeman we meet is utterly corrupt–in fact, he tortured people for the Khmer Rouge. He is utterly ruthless in pursuit of his daughter’s future, at the expense of anyone else. The same people who perpetrated the atrocities of Cambodia’s recent past are the same people who cling to power now, under different names.

But here is what Robert sees:

Cambodia 2“…a giant wall of coral through which thousands of mutually ignorant fish swarmed night and day going about their secrets and evasions. There as no surveillance here, very little police presence and almost no puritanical curiosity or disapproval. The Khmers, thankfully, didn’t seem to be driven by a tormenting and malicious need to know everything about their curious visitors, the barangs whom they found faintly ridiculous but undeniably lucrative. The core occidental principles of nosiness and constant outrage were not their thing…”

Phnom PenhIt’s a kind of “noble savage” mentality, when in fact, the Khmer are watching the barang all the time and know every little detail. The taxi driver, for example, knows what Robert does not: That the American is a drug dealer. But Robert ignores his warning.

Rating: 3 Cartons of Lychee Juice

I did enjoy this book in a 3-star kind of way: there were enough Cambodian bits for me to feel I was getting some of the culture (Robert’s and Simon’s girlfriends are Khmer). I also enjoyed the twisty menace of it, paired with the slow pace, an oddly 3rd World pairing which I experienced in person on my solo bicycle trip around Thailand. Do not get attached to the characters in this novel, as Osborne seems to have taken a few writing lessons from George RR Martin!

LycheeNote: Interesting that in two French-speaking countries, the word for foreigner is slightly different.

  • Cambodia: barang
  • Thailand: farang, meaning Frenchman. Applied universally to Westerners.
  • Also in Hungary, kufoldi, and in Japan, gaijin.

The Kindness of Enemies (Dagestan)

book cover

Advanced Reader’s Copy courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

Time: 1850s. Pre-American Civil War.

Place: The indigenous highlanders in the mountains of Dagestan are all fighting against the encroachment of the Tsar’s Russian empire. Along with Chechens and Tartars. The Georgians have recently ceded their kingdom to Russian control.

A Sampling of the Main Characters:


  • map of DagestanAnna, whose grandfather was the last King of Georgia, gets caught up in the conflict between the Russians and the Dagestanis–in particular the lead resistance fighter, Imam Shamil.
  • Jamileldin, Shamil’s son, who is given as a hostage to negotiations in Moscow as an 8-year old and raised as a Russian. Caught uncomfortably between worlds.

Modern Times

  • Natasha Hussein Wilson, a half-Russian, half-Sudanese university lecturer in the UK and her friends
  • Malek and her son Osama (Oz), Muslim Chechens who claim to be descended from Imam Shamil

Beg, Borrow or Steal

Get ahold of this book if you have to beg, borrow, or steal it. Author Leila Aboulela won the first Caine Prize for African Writing and I can see why. SUCH a GREAT READ!!!

Here, read for yourself:

This is Natasha speaking about her Eastern European friend Grusha and her Sudanese son Yasha:

Derbent, a World Heritage Site in Dagestan
Derbent, a World Heritage Site in Dagestan. Founded approx. 8th century BCE. Occupied by Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Timurids, Shirvans and Iranians. Became Russian in 1813 .

“When I told them that I missed them, I  meant it; aware now of that parallel life I coudl have led if my parents’ marriage hadn’t ended. I valued the sense of belonging they gave me, the certainty that I was not an isolated member of a species but simply one who had wandered far from the flock and still managed to survive, for better or for worse, in a different habitat.

” Chatting with them, we would skip from Russian to English to Arabic and I relaxed without the need to prove, explain or distinguish myself. Not squeeze to fit in, nor watch out of the corner of my eye the threats that my very existence could provoke in the wrong place in the wrong time among the wrong crowd.”

Themes: The Good Stuff

Imam Shamil
Imam Shamil

This book thoughtfully, and in a reasoned way, explores the themes of identity, language, borders, family, belonging, home, cultural conflict and assimilation…so many of the ideas that fascinate and obsess me.

Like the hostage Jamalaldin, my own great-grandfather forgot his birth language of Danish after being assimilated in the U.S. at the tender age of 8. Then he could no longer speak to his own grandparents, had they been able to communicate across half a world.

Since we as readers bring our own stories to the stories we read, I was also struck by the appearance of tuberculosis in the book, having just read Germs, Genes, and Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We Are Today, which explains history and especially religion as a product of viruses and bacteria!

The writer Leila Aboulea
The writer Leila Aboulea

It is refreshing to read a novel in which the Muslims aren’t portrayed as fanatics–Imam Shamil was about peace and forgiveness of enemies in the end, and treating hostages as guests. He might have even defeated the Russians if the Crimean War hadn’t gotten all of the attention of Britain, France, and the Ottomans.

Note: This novel was published in the UK in 2015–not sure when US publication will be.


The Underground (Uzbekistan)

The Underground book cover

by Hamid Ismailov

Skip pages 18-25. Once we got over the dream about the cat, I loved this novel! It’s not told in the linear fashion we in the West have come to expect. It’s a collection of memories of a dead 12-year-old, down in the depths of the Moscow metro he loved when alive. Each memory is presented in connection with a metro station. Each chapter is a station–all designed like opera houses, so that even the working poor can enjoy the beauty once reserved for the rich.

The main character’s name is Mbobo Kirill, but his nickname is Pushkin. His father was probably an “Abysinnian” (Ethiopian) athlete from the Olympic Village during the Summer 1980 Olympic Games. His mother is a Russian from the Siberian region…her Colonel father can trace his lineage back 30 generations.

The Problems of Being Pushkin

a Moscow subway station that looks more like an opera house
Komsomolskaya Station (page 6)

“Gleb forced me to think about Russian literature…I often wondered why Russian literature had picked Pushkin as it’s guiding light, its sun. I will say it again: it is because he was normal, like a non-Russian. You can’t be Russian and not have a few screws loose…”

Little Pushkin has a lot of problems. Other than the blatant racial prejudice he encounters every day from strangers, his problems are mostly relative. And some of his relatives aren’t even related to him. His mother is a flirtatious and beautiful young woman so Pushkin ends up with two stepfathers…one is a writer and one is a policemen. Both are alcoholics and abusive in various ways, yet they do seem to care for Pushkin, at least a little.

Moscow train station
Not sure which metro station this is…but it’s gorgeous

Pushkin’s Mommy’s father, Colonel Rzhedvy, is all excited to meet his grandson, until the blanket is pulled back and he sees the color of the baby’s skin. SLUT, he bellows down the length and breadth of the subway station, and little Puskin is forever without a grandfather. When the scary grandmother comes from Siberia to claim the kid, after his mother dies, the whole city of Moscow seems to conspire against her and she goes home empty-handed.

Moscow subway station unidentified
And the same for this one…

The city is Pushkin’s mother and his mother is the city: his Mommy’s name is Moscow. Since the main character is 12 years old, we just get glimpses of Kruschev huts and peristroika vodka. Uncle Gleb, one of the stepfathers, occasionally bellows “coup de etat!” and slams his fist down on the table in a rage. World-shaking events are happening all around Pushkin, but in typical child fashion, he is mostly concerned about himself and his immediate family circle.

The Little Problem of Nationalities

Novokuznetskaya Station (page 264)
Novokuznetskaya Station (page 264)

It boggles my mind that all of these people are just seen by us Americans as “Russians”. Here is the breakup of the Soviet Union through little Pushkin’s eyes:

“But now, everyone was trying to become Russian–the Ukrainian Sasha Butovets, the Jew Deniska Abramov, the Tartar Nata Buslayeva, the gypsy Romik Gimranov, yes, and me too, with my exotic blend of African and Siberian blood.

Kuznetsky Most from the outside (p. 58)
Kuznetsky Most from the outside (p. 58)

“But they were already sitting in front of the Hotel Russia, having pitched their little tent town: the Uzbeks from Uzgen, knifed by the Kyrgyz from the neighboring mountains, just as earlier the Turk-Meskhetians had sat there, scorched out of Fergana by those same Uzbeks, just as Armenians from Sumgait had sat there, as had Azerbaijanis from Shusha, Abkhazians and Georgians, Latvians and Lithuanians.

“But then suddenly everyone stopped being Russian, and even Jews, friends of my Mommy, began phoning to inform us of their imminent departures for Israel…”


Mendeleveskaya Station (page 216)
Mendeleveskaya Station (page 216)

Q and A: What is the “stick of Finnish cervelat” the characters eat along with their Kostromskoe cheese? It is a type of sausage originally made from brains–but now more likely to be a combination of beef, bacon, and pork stuffed in to a zebu intestine. It seems to be the national sausage of Switzerland, too.


Banned in Uzbekistan? But Why…

A fantastically interesting book from a writer who identifies as Uzbek. Born in an ancient city of Kyrgyzstan, he was forced to flee his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of the government and he moved to London. His writing is still banned in Uzbekistan.


Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise (Cuba)

jane austen book covertwain and stanley book coverBronte book cover









by Oscar Hijuelos

Courtesy of an advanced reader’s copy (ARC) from Auntie’s Bookstore.

havana harbor
Havana harbor

This summer, I started reading the wonderful Jane Austen detective series by Stephanie Barron. I really felt I got to know Jane as a person and I like her a lot! Then I found an ARC featuring the Brontes as characters.

Now, the last work of the late Oscar Hijuelos takes on Mark Twain and explorer Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”). Not since Gone With the Wind have I read a gorgeously written book in which I loathed the main character! Stanley is a little man in more ways than one.

Henry Stanley
Henry Stanley

I could forgive him his dyspeptic character, his service as a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War and his bitterness*, but NOT his work for King Leopold, opening the way for generations of really horrific human rights abuses in the Congo. Worst of all, he does it from the Victorian perspective of “oh, we’re helping those poor savages by bringing them civilization.” Appalling!

Of course, you can’t un-know what you know. And this is a problem for modern readers.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Mark Twain didn’t escape his dollop of loathing from me. Though personally treating the slaves well, he seems indifferent to the wrongess of the system. He even remarks that if he were to enlist (during the Civil War) he’d probably be on the side of the South, since he’s from Missouri. (What happened to the “Show Me” state? Show me why I should?) Also, he’s a smoker. Ugh.

Why This Book for Cuba?

  1. sugar plantation
    Sugar plantation in Cuba

    Oscar Hijuelos is a famous Cuban-American (Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love).

  2. He worked on this MS for 10 years, and was still revising it when he died.
  3. Stanley and Twain sail to Havana to look for Stanley’s adoptive father, who has disappeared. They find him on a sugar plantation called Esperanza. Stanley, who started life in a Welsh workhouse as a prostitute’s son, has changed his name from John Rowlands and expects his benefactor, Henry Hope Stanley, to leave him well off when he dies. Unfortunately the elder Stanley procrastinates on making his will, ultimately forcing Stanley the younger to make his own way in the world as an explorer.

Cuban womanHijuelos, at the peak of his writing power, mingles fact and fiction as skillfully as any Master Chef. The great characters are flawed and yet still lovable–even Stanley has his moments. I actually really liked his mother-in-law, who of course didn’t care much for him. Hijelos guides you skillfully from history and literary moments with gusto.

*What I didn’t know about Stanley’s famous discovery of missing missionary David Livingstone: the jealous Royal Geographic Society accused him of making it up! Since he was still in Africa, and the speed of communication was glacial, it took years plus written affirmations from Livingstone’s two children to clear his name.

I enjoyed this book very much. Well done, Mr. Hijuelos. Well done, sir.

A Last World on the Brontes as Characters

Look for the delicious Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley, due to be published in January 2016…and consider this: are there wicked things not human, which envy human bliss?


Queen of Water (Equador)

book coverby Maria Virginia Farinango with Laura Resau

By the end of the first 3 chapters, I realized that I had read this story before. Oh, not the 1980s tale of a poor indigena in Equador, given away at age 7 to a family of mestizos to be their maid/slave…

  • Not the story of a Quichua-speaking descendant of the mighty Incas
  • Not the story of a girl with a vivisima that lights her up inside; a girl always looking for the largest potato in the soup
  • Not the story of a girl who rebelliously watches a TV she’s been told not to touch and who falls in love with an American called MacGyver

VirgniaNo, THAT is Maria Virginia Farinango’s story: a life unique in its details. Unfortunately, in reading my way around the world the abuse visited upon indigenous people seems to follow a familiar pattern. I remember:

  • Malidoma Patrice Some of Burkina Faso, raised in a French Jesuit boarding school and beaten for speaking his own language.
  • And all the American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Australian tribes-people who suffered boarding schools, religious indoctrination, and the deliberate decimation of their languages…
  • Incan EmpirePygmies in the Congo, forced to labor all day for slave-masters (from another tribe) for a worthless scrap of goat skin.
  • Poor girls from Puerto Rica to Syria, given away or sold by their families to become domestic servants. Sometimes beaten, sometimes sexually abused, and at the very least unloved and deprived of their childhoods. Returning as strangers to their families–a way of life they’ve been taught to despise, people they no longer no, a language they no longer speak.

Queen of Corn, Queen of Water, Queen of Sky

Otavalo townThis is a really honest novel based on the author’s life. I liked how she portrayed the ambiguity felt by the fictional Virginia–there were no true villains in the story, only confused and ignorant people who sometimes acted selfishly. Quite naturally, the fictional Virginia likes the Doctorita and Nino Carlitos when they’re nice to her, and doesn’t when they’re not. The worse they treat her, the more she wants to escape–but she’s also afraid and very young.

Corn queen celebrationAnd although she misses her parents, her feelings about them are mixed also. Once she thinks, at least the Doctorita doesn’t hit as hard as my Papito. When she finally visits the village after an absence of 8 years, she’s horrified by the filth, the fleas, and the complete lack of running water or books.

The narrator Virginia is strong, smart, and in the end she find the resources she needs inside herself to become both indigena and mestiza, both a dishwasher and a queen. Beautifully written, told from the heart, and finally, triumphant.


Fragments of Memory (Syria)

by Hanna Mina

special-ordered from Auntie’s Bookstore

book coverI bought this book because I wanted to understand, at least a little, the current Syrian refugee crisis (a modern-day Saferberlik.) I thought this autobiographical novel of a boy growing up in rural Syria in the 1930s would be a start.

NOTE: When I finished this book, I closed it, sighed, opened it again, and started reading from the beginning, just as my mother said she did with Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone.

Fragments of Memory was captivating–I never wanted the story to end, even though the poor characters were certainly suffering. I read to understand, but I also read because the writing, the powerful voice, the storytelling was exceptional.

The Childhood That Really Wasn’t

The boy’s family raises silkworms in a mud hut in a field under some mulberry trees. They have to battle grinding poverty and starvation due to:

1) too many children (mercifully, the five siblings born after the boy don’t make it)
2) the fecklessness of the alcoholic father
3) the deaths of many of the relatives who could have helped them and
4) the feudal village system, where they are at the mercy of a cruel and capricious mukhtar, or village headman. The landowners and the nobles are, of course, worse.

The End of the Silkworms

silkwormsWith the same lack of foresight shown by the illiterate and impulsive father, nobody in the village realizes–not the workers nor the mukthar nor even the landowners–that the silkworm trade in Syria is about to come to an abrupt end. That’s how the boy remembers it, anyway. One year, after they’ve raised the worms all winter and choked them with smoke, and taken the raw silk and spun it just like always…no buyers come. The ones who do, finally, will only pay rock bottom prices. People’s children begin to starve. Synthetic silk from India or maybe China has ruined the silkworm trade. Bang.

Syria MapThe boy’s family wants to abandon the village and start over somewhere, but they still owe the mukthar (i.e. the company store). Suspecting that the family might flee, the mukhtar takes the 10-year-old daughter hostage, to be a servant in his house. The mother and father have few resources, but the mother does have an elderly uncle who is reputed to be a brigand–a highway robber. He threatens the mukhtar and the family gets their daughter and leaves for a seaside town. The mother hopes to send all her children to school, buy them clothes, and shoes. Instead, a series of bad decision by the father leave them  homeless and living by the side of the road near a village square in the middle of nowhere. Can it get worse? Making it worse seems to be the father’s only talent, yet due to the patriarchal culture, the mother can’t just up and leave him, or even talk back to him. She becomes very ill, and the children beg and starve.


Salma Village
Salma village in the province where Hanna Mina was born

My maternal grandmother was born in 1920, just three years before the boy in the story. She lived through the Great Depression and she was an orphan, like the mother in the book. I know she went through some tough times, but she did not starve. She didn’t have to glean wheat from fields nor beg under a fig tree. She didn’t get malaria and dysentery from being homeless near stagnant ditches. She was in some ways cheated of her childhood by having to work as a de facto servant in her relatives’ homes and being treated as an unwanted burden–like the boy’s older sisters in the story–but at least she wasn’t considered expendable or inferior because she was female.

Hailey Idaho
Hailey, Idaho, where my grandmother was born

At one point the boy says he didn’t realize as a child that he was the hungry mouth; that his sisters were sacrificed so he could eat and grow strong; that his sisters’ education was sacrificed so he could learn to read and write while they remained illiterate. You can feel the grown man’s regret and sorrow as he looks back on his sadly deprived childhood and his love for his family.


a fig tree

There are rumblings of history in the background, only partially understood by the boy as his elders aren’t educated, don’t receive news of the world, and are only really interested in their tiny pieces of familiar land. He knows his uncle was conscripted into the Turkish army and died of pneumonia while making his escape. He knows that his family, like so many poor Syrians, suffered greatly in the Saferberlik, the mass migration from the coast into the interior, in 1916. (This famine was caused by the British and French blockade of Syria’s few ports on the Mediterranean during World War I and by the Ottomans’ forced conscription of Syrian men and boys into their armies.)

Syrian refugees 2015
Syrian refugees in Cairo, 2015 (source, the UK Guardian newspaper)

The family is nominally Christian–they own a Bible and the mother entreats God all the time, but there don’t seem to be any churches in the area. She mentions going to the mosque and slapping her baby boy on the mouth with his father’s slipper as a kind of magic to keep him from sickening and dying, but doesn’t wear a veil. She is, however, subservient to her violent husband, who beats her.

The Writing–My Lord, the Writing

ruler of syria
Bashir al-Assad, ruler of Syria. His mural in Latakia.

This is one of the best novels I’ve read for this blog. I would rank it right up there with Dear Uncle Napoleon (Iran). Hanna Mina is a writer of considerable power, imagery and dry wit. It’s not easy to write about something so personally painful with such grace, such beauty, such yes even charm. Because I’m used to straightforward, point A to point B autobiography, I tried to resist his lyrical descriptions of the family’s situation as a ship at sea, or the fragmentation of his memories as looking through the eye of a fish underwater,  and his digressions into poetry or the double meaning of Arabic words, but I couldn’t. This book cast a spell on me. I loved it.