07 October 2016

39  Iceland – Sjon – From the mouth of the whale – August 2016 (Score 5.00)

This book didn’t do much for me. It is set on Iceland, some hundreds of years ago at the time of the Reformation when many of the countries of Northern Europe were leaving the Roman Catholic religion for reformed Protestant worship. As in other countries there was an outbreak of iconoclasm.

The protagonist was in exile, prescribed, so that none may offer him succour on pain of death. He was on an isolated island, miles off the shore of Iceland. Though the Reformation had taken hold on Iceland among the upper classes, but the ordinary people still adhered to the old ways and the worship of saints, a very dangerous practice.

It seems that the people believed that neither God, Jesus, nor the majority of saints could speak their Norse tongue. Two particular saints were needed to translate the people’s prayers and pleas into the heavenly language,

Eventually the protagonist was delivered from exile in the belly of a whale, rather like Jonah.

While there is some good descriptive language in the book, there are also many long digressions consisting, mostly, of lists of seabirds, fish, crustaceans and other creatures of the wild, the sea and the air.

I couldn’t find it in myself to give this book more than six out of ten.

28 September 2016

38  Zimbabwe – J Nozipo Maraire – Zenzele – August 2016 (Score 8.00)

This book made me feel ashamed. You will find out why as you review my comments made after I read the book “Zenzele – a letter for my daughter.

Amai Zenzele, the mother of the eponymous Zenzele and the author of this long letter, has made a point of keeping her children aware of the stories of their people as well as what they are going to learn about the rest of the world.

However, the younger generation are losing knowledge of their background, and even of the terms of respect traditionally used when speaking to older people. It is clear from the text that they have absorbed the worst from the West rather than the best.

We get a good impression of what village life was, and of the differences when the young go off to live in the towns – just as happens here when they leave home.

Zenzele complains to her mother about women changing their names to those of their husband when they marry, and what is known in the West as “bride price” but in their culture has a completely different meaning and intention from that. I think we have here another example of western colonialists being lazy and not taking the step of trying to understand the culture of those whose lands they have taken.

On page 64 the author makes a powerful plea for those who go to Europe to be educated and trained in whatever subjects, to return to their own country and apply their talents to help in improving things for those, both poor and better off, who have not had the same opportunities.

I believe that this should apply also to Western countries where so many people from the “provinces” move to the capital and so deprive their home areas of the benefits of their learning and talents.

This book, written as a letter, is really a wonderful essay which opened my eyes to things I had not even thought of. My knowledge of Black Africa’s past was of the ruins of Zimbabwe, the Benin bronzes, the resistance movement led by Chaka, and the “Scramble for Africa”. It made me feel ashamed. But then, outside maybe Japan, I know equally little of any continent other than Europe.

The episode with the dress at the dress shops was so shocking.

Chapter 11 is wonderful. Six year old Zenzele went with her mother to drop off her fourteen year old cousin at his boarding school. After leaving him they went to visit the little historic chapel nearby, and were astounded at the magnificent murals which decorate it. There were golden winged angels and cherubs, all with black bodies, black saints awaiting the arrival of Christ at his Second Coming, black John the Baptist, a black Christ, and a black God sheltering and blessing everything. There reactions are astounding. Zenzele even thought that Christ looked like her father when he smiled.

Amai Zenzele could now understand the biblical statement that we are all made in God’s image. She left the local Methodist church and joined the Orthodox Ethiopian Church where all the images are “of their likeness”, and the customs are rooted in her culture.

I scored this short book at 9.0.

37  India – Tabish Khair – The Bus Stopped – July 2016 (Score 4.78)

This book basically tells the story of a bus journey between two smallish towns in India, the passengers being a fairly motley group of people. Some are on the bus from the start of the journey to the end, while others get off at and intermediate stop, or get on at another.

We read of the lives of the bus driver, the conductor, a petty thief, a village woman carrying her dead baby, a Danish company representative (who may or may not be planning to bribe a senior government officer to buy the products the Dane wants to sell for his company), and a number of others, including a eunuch. This is the first time I have come across one in any book.

We see the way of life of well-off people, peasants, tenement dwellers and others. We learn from one chapter that eunuchs were once far up the social scale as a result of the Moghul invasion and could be in charge of the harem, or have a senior political position at court. Their decline started with the Victorian “values” introduced to India under the Raj. Now they are effectively untouchables, and are militantly trying to be brought up the social scale.

The language in the book is frequently rather robust. It may well be used by the characters represented, but it still seems unnecessary for this story. I found this book to be entertaining in a gentle way, and I scored it at 6.0.

36   Guadeloupe – Maryse Condé – Windward Heights – June 2016 (Score 5.55)

There was a coincidence immediately after I finished this book. I was reading “Half a Life” by V S Naipaul, published in 2001. On page 105 of that book Richard, the publisher of a book by the protagonist, Willie Chandran (an Indian immigrant to the UK) says “One day you might give us a new reading of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliffe was a half Indian child who was found near the docks of Liverpool”.

“Windward Heights” is such a book, published in French in 1995 and English in 1998.

Windward Heights is a re-imagining, in Cuba and Guadeloupe, of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights. At the time of the story a civil war was raging throughout Cuba.

The story opens with Melchier leading a procession, carrying the flag of Chango, his god. We are taken immediately to a much hotter, livelier and colourful world than our own, sometimes dreich and rainy one.

None of this was being enjoyed by the Captain General of Cuba, posted from Spain, Jose de Cépéro. He hated the locals, the freed slaves. De Cépéro had consulted Melchior on several occasions, knowing that Melchior had a reputation as a sorcerer, or “babalawo”. Later, Melchior went to visit Razyé whom he had agreed to initiate into the rites of Chango, before Razyé returned to Guadeloupe. Melchior was murdered on the night of the festival, outside the church of Santo Cristo, leaving Razyé bereft.

Razyé gave a clue to the origin of the whole story, and his character, when he described himself as having been “found on the barren heath and cliffs” as a young child, and named after them.

The story follows the general lines of the original, but with the required changes of character, locale, events etc to give it its new milieu. I enjoyed it, with a score of 7.5, and have put my copy of the original, not read for forty years, near the top of my pile for a re-read.

02 July 2016

35   United States – William Faulkner – Light in August – May 2016 (Score 3.5)

According to “The Oxford Companion to Literature in English” the term “Light in August” is a country expression for pregnancy.

Lena, a young pregnant woman, was walking from Doane’s Mill in Alabama looking for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. She had reached Mississippi by the time the story opened, walking and hitching lifts on wagons.

Armstid and Winterbottom saw her as she passed and, later, Armstid and his wagon caught up with her and gave her a lift. He took her to Jefferson where she had been told she would find Lucas, working in a mill. She then, strangely, plays little part in the story until near the end.

The story moves backward and forward in time, dramatically, and rather confusingly. Chapter 6 tells the story of Joe Christmas when he was a boy of five in a children’s home. The style of writing in this section is quite different from the earlier pages – “In the rife pinkwoman’s meddling obscurity he squatted pinkfoamed”, and “thwartface curled” cigarettes.

On page 219, at the end of the top paragraph the last two lines reminded me of an experience I had in 1975. The company I worked for was hosting a four yearly international conference. I had become friendly with a delegate from Ghana, and we spent a good bit of time together on the bus trips.

One day at a meeting associated with the conference I went to speak to some South African delegates. One of them looked at me as if I had crawled from under a stone, said something similar to, but even more vicious than the text in the book, and all four turned their backs on me. That was when I experienced real racism for the only time in my life.

Going back to Mississippi, there was a hunt for a suspected murderer, using bloodhounds, unsuccessfully. It was a comedy, not at all like the similar events which we have seen in prison break and similar films set in the southern states of the USA.

The fugitive played a major role in the book, being caught after only a week, forty miles from Jefferson. The confusing thing is that the description of his flight reads as if his flight had been many years long.

All in all, I found this a difficult read almost, in places, a stream of consciousness like Ulysses. I know that the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed the read. I can only score it at four out of ten.

34  South   Korea – J M Lee – The Investigation – April 2016 (Score 8.33)

This story is told by a young man who was a prison guard in Fukuoka Prison in Japan, on the west coast near Nagasaki, during the Second World War. At the time he is telling the story he is imprisoned in the same establishment as being a low-level war criminal. His name is Watanabe Yuichi.

At the beginning of the period he is recording he was tasked by his commander to investigate the murder of another of the guards, Sugiyama Dozan, and who, and why, did it. In the guard’s pocket Yuichi found a small sheet of paper with a poem. He described the words of the poem as being “nestled together to create small villages”. This is a strange metaphor.

Yuichi was a student of liberal arts before being drafted during the war. He was clearly well educated and of a literary bent. He was a literate man who loved books and poetry. He met Iwanami Midori, a young nurse at the prison, playing a piano and practicing for an upcoming concert.

In a supreme act of irony, Maeda, Yuichi’s superior officer gave Yuichi the job of censor, formerly carried out by Sugiyama. This involved Sugiyama, and hence Yuichi, in book burning of such subversive and dangerous authors as Turgenev, Hawthorne, Dante, Shakespeare and Stendhal. In his words he had become an executioner of literature.

Yuichi found the killer (read the book to learn how) and persuaded him to confess without any use of violence, unlike Sugiyama. He was promoted to corporal and told to take no further action on the case. He was flummoxed.

We learned that the brutal guard Sugiyama had another side. He could tune a piano to perfection, loved and wrote poetry. Even in a book where brutal events took place there are occasional beautiful images (see page 137) “Caught in the barbed wire the afternoon sunshine flashed like the scales of a fish in a net”.

At page 141 the inmates saw kites flying outside the walls of the prison. These kites played an increasing role in the story especially when a prisoner made one and started to fly it, and a kite war started.

We learned that Sugiyama had worked with another prisoner, Dong-ju, to enable him to convert surplus government documents into paper to allow books to be translated into Korean and written up on the treated paper. It does seem unrealistic in the time-scale discussed in the book that this could be done to the extent claimed. Named books are “Les Miserable”, “The Poetry of Francis Jammes”, “The Works of Kierkegaard”, “Don Quixote”, “The Greek Myths”, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Romeo and Juliet”, works of Andre Gide”, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Dickens, Hugo and Goethe (The Sorrows of Young Werther).

Most of these books are many hundreds of pages long in their original language. It seems likely that it is only the gist of the stories which are transcribed into Korean because of the sheer length of most of these books.

Dong-ju was educated, so he would certainly have been able to do the translations and transcriptions, but ---. Yuichi discovered about fifty volumes which had been transcribed like this, say 2500 pages.

The method employed by the prisoners was for those who could read Dong-ju’s translations to memorise as much of a book as they could while in solitary confinement. They then told the story to those who couldn’t read, who memorised it as told to them and passed it on again. This reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”.

Despite the above difficulty with a crucial part of the plot I did enjoy the book, and I recommend it to you. I scored it at 8.0.

17 April 2016

33 Ireland – Colm Tóibín – Nora Webster – March 2016 (Score 8.08)

I have only read two of Colm Tóibín’s books, this one and “Brooklyn”. Within two pages I found them to be linked. May Lacey, who came to visit Norah Webster to commiserate with her about the death of her husband, is the mother of Eilis, the protagonist of “Brooklyn”.

Nora set about the task of ridding the family of those parts of their lives which she no longer wanted to hold onto. She went to Cush and decided to sell their old summer house, collecting just a few photos and books to take home for the family. Nora has four children, Fiona, in teacher training in Dublin, Aine at school in Bunclody, Daniel, at school near home, and Conor, the younger boy, also at school.

She took the boys to Dublin for a day. They bought books at Easons, and went to Bewleys for a meal. They crossed the Ha’penny Bridge on their way back to the station. I did all of these during our holiday in Dublin last Christmas and New Year. In fact, I bought nine books from Easons, mainly on Irish subjects.

Page 30 – I read Teilhard de Chardin in my teens (from the library). I could make nothing of him. In fact, I had forgotten about him until I read this page.

Nora’s Aunt Josie paid a visit. The boys had stayed with her for two months while Maurice was dying. They behaved strangely quietly and ignored her. Daniel woke up screaming from a nightmare that night. Nora wondered if something happened during the stay and went, later, to see Josie who was straight-faced and silent about things, except to wonder why the boys were left with her so long.

Pages 70 and 71 – I laughed out loud at the story of the fire-irons and the sheep.

Nora went to work at Gibney’s where she worked before she married. This was at the specific request of Mr Gibney. She was to work for Francie Cavanagh whom she did not like, and who detested her. Kavanagh proved herself to be a really nasty piece of work.

On page 113 there is a discussion of the TV news of a civil rights march in Derry being broken up by the police, brutally. We follow Nora and her family though happy times and sad times, getting to know them. Tóibín has a deft touch in making his characters come to life.

Nora showed how strong a woman she was when Conor was moved, together with two other pupils (the three of them being the best pupils) from the A-class to the B-class. The Christian Brother in charge of the primary school gave no reason. Nora sent letters to ll of the teachers at the school to say that she would start to picket the school on a certain day if Conor was not moved back into the A-class. Two teachers visited her and she told them that she had her placard prepared and, if any teachers crossed her picket line she would put a widow’s curse on them “and you know how powerful a widow’s curse is. Conor was returned to the A-class.

This story tells us a lot about the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time and about the continuing folk ways and beliefs in the old ways. It was certainly interesting to read about the Irish reaction to the events in Derry.

Nora learned to sing, and was introduced to Classical music> She took to it like a thirsty person who had been given water. She went back to work, reduced it to part time so that she could still have the opportunity to do the things she wanted.

She took on the complete redecoration of one of her rooms, straining herself very badly by painting the ceiling with chest pains and sore arms. She thought she was having a heart attack, but it was a false alarm, luckily. Life went on, and the book ended. And what a good ending it is.

After I had finished the book I wanted to hear Nora’s favourite, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. I bought a CD of this, on which the Archduke is bundled with two other pieces by Beethoven. I enjoyed them all, and especially the Archduke. Thank you Nora (Webster) for telling me about it.

My score for this book is 8.5.

11 April 2016

32   Nigeria – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a yellow sun – February 2016 (Score 9.25)

Ugwu’s aunty is taking him to a new home where he will learn to be the house-boy for Master. It is a distance from their small village in Eastern Nigeria since they had to talk a lorry part way and have now been walking for a considerable time. His sister Analika also lives in the village. His new Master works in the mathematics department of the university in Nsukku. They speak Igbo.

Master tells him to call him by his name, Odenigbo. He tries, but is uncomfortable and slips quickly back to Master.

Olanna and her family are from west of Nsukku, and are clearly very wealthy. She has met Odenigbo. Kainene is Olanna’s sister. They are growing distant. Olanna is going to Kano in the north.

There are several hints of racism among the people whom we meet. Olanna’s cousins would never marry a man from another tribe. Mohammad’s mother did not want him to marry Olanna since “this Igbo woman would “taint the lineage with infidel blood”, though I am not sure whether that is racism, religious hatred or both. There is an interesting statement on page 72 that Igbo were a people who “deposed gods when they had outlived their usefulness”. Odenigbo’s mother would never allow Odenigbo to marry Olanna.

There is a military coup. Igbo are assaulted on the streets because locals think that they are behind the coup. In a later coup Hausa officers in the Nigerian army kill Igbo officers. The horror builds up. Igbo refugees are arriving from the north to escape the massacres.

Richard, who takes a role in the later parts of the book breaks with his fiancée since she says dreadful things about the Igbo like “they are uncivilised, just like the Jews (!!!!!)”, and “they had it coming” even though she clearly knew about the massacres.

Independence is finally declared for Eastern Nigeria under the name of “Biafra”, their flag being as described in the name of the book. A great sense of hope and relief sweeps through the people of Biafra. I, as the reader, know very well the horrors yet to come since I was a young man in my last year at university at the time of the start of the Biafran war in 1967, and read, listened and watched the news of what was happening right up till the end in 1970 when Biafra had been pummelled into submission. The Biafran engineer who worked in my office showed us newspapers and magazines from overseas which clearly demonstrated (assuming they had no reason to lie) that the British media were biased and misleading (assuming that the foreign media were not lying).

Adichie tells of bombers and fighters from UK, Europe and elsewhere bombing hospitals and refugee camps and strafing fleeing refugees from each city as it fell to the Nigerians. Food aid was prevented to the extent that kwashiorkor was given a new name – Harold Wilson Syndrome. Public libraries are burned, and even people’s individual book collections are destroyed. The war stops, but petty violence, theft and bullying by the Nigerian soldiers continues.

I felt very emotional when I reached the end of the book and read the dedication which finished it.

This is a harrowing story, but I think it is a story which had to be told. Once again we can see that much of the problem between the various tribes was caused by the divide and rule policies of the colonial masters in their greed for oil and raw materials. I scored it at 10.0.

06 February 2016

31 India – RK Narayan – The Painter of Signs – January 2016 (Score 6.35)

We drop immediately into the crowded world of milling people, traffic, life (for some at least) being dictated by the doubtful prognostications of astrologers who dictate the exact timing of the fixing to a wall advertising the opening of a new correspondence course legal practice.

Raman is the sensible sign writer caught up in this affair, not even paid yet for his work, apart from a small deposit to buy the materials.

The story is written in a humourous way and we watch his trials and tribulations as he tries to get payment from shifty customers who had hidden their shiftiness well until payday after the signs were erected.

Then he meets a new customer, a girl called Daisy whom he hopes will become the love of his life. She wants him to travel round remote mountain villages with her, painting family planning messages on the walls. She works for the family planning clinic and has an ambition to reduce, drastically, the birth rate in her part of India.

After a good bit of to-ing and fro-ing we find that Raman is suddenly to marry Daisy.

I quite enjoyed the story, including the unexpected twist at the end. This is one of Narayan’s “Malgudi” stories, set in the mythical town of Malgudi. I hope to read one or two more. I scored the book at 6.5.

27 January 2016

30 New Mexico – Chicano Writing – Rudolfo Anaya “Tortuga” – December 2015 (Score 7.25)

This is a story of sadness and joy, pain and recovery, crying and laughter with, perhaps, just a touch of the famous Spanish American Magic Realism.

There is, unfortunately, some poor editing with unusual word divisions at the end of lines. For example “as-leep”, the “as being as the end of a line and the “leep” at the beginning of the next. These problems seem to be caused by the unfortunate decision to use start and end line justification of the text. From a university press this is inexcusable.

The story opens with a teenage boy being taken by ambulance from one hospital to another where he is expected to receive better treatment. The boy is telling the story. They are in pouring rain in a desert. A member of the ambulance staff says that he can see Tortuga (Turtle) Mountain which sits above the hospital.

The boy has been paralysed in a dreadful accident, so Filomeno unstraps him and lifts him so that he can see the mountain, while Clepo, his assistant, looks on. Tortuga is a volcano, isolated in the desert. The hospital is on the bank of a river, in Agua Bondita, a spa town in the desert. The waters from the underground streams running from inside the mountain are believed to have healing properties.

Filomeno is a caring person; Clepo is brusque and seems uncaring. It is a private ambulance, a converted hearse owned by Filomeno. He picked up Clepo, lost in the desert, and employs him. Clepo was a patient in the hospital.

The doctor orders a body cast from the boy’s navel to the top of his head, with holes for his face, eyes and ears. He will start work on the legs. He tells the boy that his hands and arms are strong. When the boy is left alone in the room, a patient called Danny comes in and taunts and torments him. He call the boy Tortuga, so that becomes his nickname.

Throughout Tortuga’s first day in the hospital he meets many other people. I recommend that you keep a note of the names so that you can keep track of their interaction with Tortuga.

When he falls asleep he has a very vivid dream. In fact it is so vivid that it could be a vision.

On the morning after the dream Tortuga achieves some movement in his toes, at the same time suffering from a high fever. Danny pays Tortuga another visit. He seems destined to be Tortuga’s nemesis, except that his treatment of Tortuga is not just.

Eventually Tortuga is ready for Physical Therapy. At about the same time on of the patients leaves the hospital at night, through a window, after having told others he wants to go home. When he is discovered to be missing the head surgeon, Dr Steel, leads a search party in the snow and up the mountain. When the rest of the party give up, Steel keeps going and eventually finds the boy frozen to death. He carries the boy down on his back for a funeral.

There is a great celebration when Tortuga has finally improved enough to get a wheelchair, even though he is still in his body cast. Permission is given to take the older patients, including Tortuga, into the town, in snowy icy weather, for a visit to the cinema. “Frankenstein” is showing, with all its obvious connections with their lives and broken bodies being made whole. They love it.

After the film a bunch of college American football players and their girl cheer-leaders start mocking and jeering at the boys from the hospital. A fight started, one-sided because the patients could control their wheelchairs and crutches much better than the bullies could control their feet on the ice. The description was incredible. The patients thumped the bullies. Did I cheer! Unfortunately some of the patients were injured.

I’ll stop describing the action at that point since I don’t want to give away too much.

What I will say is that this is the best Latin American (despite being set in New Mexico) book which I have read during our travels. I scored it at 9/10.