The Sun Will Soon Shine (The Gambia)

book coverby Sally Sadie Singhateh

I think this novel must be intended for younger readers, since the graphic bits like FGM (female genital mutilation) and molestation are glossed over. Nonetheless, it was a good read.

Growing up in the Gambia isn’t easy for girls. The heroine of this novel finds out later that her father was a progressive man. Had he lived to protect her, she probably wouldn’t have suffered an early arranged marriage, FGM, and virtual slavery to a distasteful older man who doesn’t love her. (His teeth are stained with betel juice…) Unfortunately, Nyima’s father died when she was young. Her mother knows that these things are not what her husband wanted for their daughter, yet is powerless to prevent them from happening.

map of the GambiaThank God for Cousins

Nyima’s cousin, however is not powerless. She’s a strong figure in a world sadly lacking in female role models. The cousin rescues Nyima and enrolls her back in school, in a city. Unfortunately even the cousin can’t protect the girl from all the men looking to use her.

To clarify, I’m not criticizing when I say the topic of FGM is glossed over–it’s mentioned in broad vague outlines, and the humiliation and the pain are given, but the details aren’t gone into. It’s not gory. I mean, it is suitable for younger audiences. That’s all. Some distinctions are made. Nyima has a friend, Ameena, whose tribe is even more harsh with the FGM practice–poor Ameena is “completely sealed”. Ugh.

Stone circles in the Gambia

These stone circles which run from Senegal through Gambia, are the largest in the world –UNESCO

Realistic but hopeful.

Was it Good for Me?

Nyima has a love for learning and enjoys living in Paris. She makes friends, and they don’t discriminate against her because she’s different. Although permanently scarred, (physically and mentally) she is able to make a life for herself.

And she is determined that the next generation of women will not have to endure what she has.

So I enjoyed this book a lot.

Rating: Four dishes of akara! Perhaps wrapped in a banana leaf.

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:

1850s

  • 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.

Wild Thorns (Palestine)

Wild Thorns book cover

by Sahar Khalifeh

Although I was lost in historical time until the narrator mentions Kissenger and the U.N., Wild Thorns is well-written, and the author does a good job of giving the reader multiple Palestinian points of view:

  1. Adil, who supports nine mouths plus his father’s ravenous kidney machine–a beast that’s never satisfied…
  2. Basil, the radicalized teen, who believes the old proverb “prison is for men”,
  3. Adil’s buffoonish father who spends his days in the ancestral home, holding forth to French journalists about Palestine’s vanished glories,
  4. Nuwar, Adil’s timid sister, too afraid to name the man she wants to marry, and
  5. Adil’s cousin Usama. Usama is what the news shows us in the West as the typical Palestinian: young, stubborn, and a terrorist. He’s returned to his homeland from a few years of working in the Gulf States so he can blow up the busses taking workers into Israel. Yep, Palestinian workers, because his mentality is that “if you’re not actively resisting the occupation, you deserve what you get.”

What Do the Characters Want?

Medlar fruit

Medlar fruit, purchased by an Israeli family in the market. The Arab woman watching is bitter because her children can’t afford the fruit.

A common question among the MFA crowd. This novel does a good job of portraying the divide between the wants of:

1) the fanatical characters, who want to reverse the “insult” of the occupation following the disaster of ’48 and the catastrophe of ’68, and

2) the normal people who just want to get on with things and live the best lives they can.

The Palestinian characters see themselves as victims, with no sympathy or acknowledgement whatsoever for the Israeli victims of the Holocaust. They don’t seem to  know or care that their occupation is a direct consequence of their Arab neighbors having attacked Israel, unprovoked, in 1948 and again in ’68 (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon). The Palestinians weren’t the ones who attacked, but they are suffering the consequences.

Palestine map 1923The characters do, however, acknowledge that all the talk of pan-Arab unity has been crap; that the rich in the surrounding Arab countries and in their own countries have let them down badly. That there are more divides in Palestine than Israeli occupiers/Palestinian occupied. There is some urban/rural class upheaval as workers leave their farms for Israeli factories–because they get paid more and have to bow and scrape less.

It’s a bit shocking to read Usama’s descriptions of a Palestine he remembers as green and lush, with exotic fruit trees, since what I see on TV is hot and dusty–squat concrete warrens overflowing with garbage. More shocking than the violence described in the novel is the lack of humanity on both sides: a Palestinian worker accidentally cuts his fingers off at his workplace, but the ambulance won’t pick him up because he didn’t purchase the right kind of insurance.

Israel map 2015

Isreal map 2015

Author Sahar is a woman. (It’s not always easy to tell with names from another culture.) But I felt the women in this novel were fairly cardboard characters. We don’t get a lot of their motivations or inner life. (Although one of the women does change her thinking slightly after a shocking act of violence in the market.)

I really liked the copious footnotes for Western readers, telling you what famous names, folklore, and novels you may not recognize the references. Without them I’d only have gotten half of the sweetmeat out of this book.

Dome of the RockI enjoyed the book and it was interesting. However, I am still annoyed with the Palestinian response to their condition: why is non-violence not an option? The Palestinian kids on TV, the vocal minority, they think that if they can just find the right kind of violence, it will work. I am 45 years old and I can tell you, it never works. The good Palestinians need to speak up and assert their will. They need to shut down Hammas and anything like it in order to ever get what they want. What they deserve.

UPDATE October 18, 2015: This just happened in Nablus…the city in this book and the city the writer is from.

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…”

Wow.

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.