11 February 2018

55  Wales – Richard Llewellyn – How Green was my Valley (Score8.3}

How is it that I have reached the age of 71 without coming across this book? I knew of the film, of course when I was young, but had no idea that it was taken from a book rather than from the imagination of a script writer as so many of today’s mediocre films are. And I have been a voracious reader from childhood, youth and adulthood!

But I am glad that I have never read it before since I have really enjoyed it now. It is the story of Huw Morgan from his childhood and youth in a remote village in the south of Wales, soon to be despoiled by the introduction of coal mining and slag heaps which cover the hills, and devour many of the houses.

This is also a powerful story of the subjugation of ordinary people by rich people to make the rich richer while keeping the financial benefit to the poor as low as they can get away with.

One of the first things which awakens you to the fact that these people are different is the Welsh turns of phrase which are clearly transcribed into English as, for example, “There is cold it is”. This is similar to Scottish and Irish Gaelic.

Huw grew up speaking Welsh (see page 16), but I for one didn’t realise until much later that all of the people in the story were, in fact, speaking Welsh and the story could just as well be considered as a translation.

The Great Depression seems to be encroaching, with ironworks closing and wages being cut in the pits.

Huw loved bread and dripping for breakfast and other meals. So did I, though it seems to have dropped out of sight now.

In Chapter 16 we come upon something we have come upon before in our literary travels – colonial masters disparaging the local language and forbidding it to be used in school on pain of punishment. This happened in Scotland and Ireland too, as well as in the USA and Canada. For all I know it may happen anywhere where a minority of the population speaks a different language or even dialect from the majority who control things.

There is a section in which the men of the village hunt down a man who raped and killed a child. He still had all the evidence of the murder on him so the minister (Evangelical) gave permission for the girl’s male family to take the culprit up the mountain and deal with him. Next morning there was a large area of burnt grass on the side of the mountain.

On page 214 there is a beautiful description of the wind in the trees and Huw’s love of his valley. There is a poetic beauty in this book with its descriptions of the valleys, the making of food, the singing of dozens, then hundreds, of people together.

On page 320 we have the sheer cruelty of what the teacher did to a little child using a wooden board round her neck battering on her shins and cutting them while she walked, with its message “I must not speak Welsh in school” in English. It cut me to the quick because I know that such things actually happened. The teacher thoroughly deserved the hammering which Huw gave him.

It also tells of how people lived in their houses with small gardens, and doors always open to neighbours. The downside of the communities was that if they chose not to go to the church services they were shunned and boycotted. If they got on a bit they were continually talked about as getting above themselves. If a girl married out of the village, especially into a family of shopkeepers, doctors, solicitors or such like they were talked about in both directions – she’s only a miner’s slut or, she’s getting above herself.

The new minister, very popular when he first came to lead the church, replacing a “hell and damnation” preacher, was eventually driven from the church by ill-minded people. He had had the temerity to visit a young woman and her child. The husband was in the army in South Africa, fighting in the colonial wars against the Boers. The wife was full of sorrow and the minister was full of compassion. His visits were inevitably in the evening after his work for the church and the other parishioners was done, but evil tongues started wagging and he was discharged from the church.

A number of the parishioners left and followed him when he set up an independent chapel.

A final good point was the text on page 424 “The wind was busy with his comb in the grass

This is one of the small number of books which I have scored at 10.0

54  Netherlands – Deborah Moggach – Tulip Fever (Score 6.4)

 Sophia opens the story. Her old husband, Cornelis, intends to have their portrait painted by a young artist, Jan van Loos. We learn that they own a number of paintings, including “Susannah and the Elders”. Herrengracht in Amsterdam is where they live in one of the narrow, but high, buildings which front one of the canals, lading straight to the water.

 Maria is their serving girl. On page 22 she goes to bed, leaving her shoes upside down (to keep away the witches). When I was still at school, about 50 years ago, I stayed with a German family on a school exchange. When they had boiled eggs for breakfast they always knocked their spoons through the bottom “so that the witches could not use them as boats”. For a joke I copied them. I still do it all these years later, without even thinking.

 Tulip-mania runs through the story, affecting the lives of several of the characters. The writing is beautiful and the stories fit together piece by piece, told in short interweaving sections for the lives of the different members of the cast, Sophia the wife, Cornelis the husband, Maria the maid, William the lover of Maria, and Jan van Loos, the portrait painter.

 I gave the book a score of eight from ten.

02 December 2017

53  Algeria – Yasmina Khadra – The Swallows of Kabul (Score 7.66}

I don’t normally go into quite as much detail as I have in discussing this book, but I don’t want to mislead you about the events in it. It is your choice whether to read on or not.

Thee first incident in this story is the Executive Murder, by crown stoning, of a woman condemned as a prostitute. There seems to have been no trial. By any normal standards of humanity she didn’t deserve to die like that. Mohsen Ramat is our eye at the killing.

I wonder if, in a situation like that under such a regime, people are afraid not to go and not to throw stones in case they are reported and suffer the same fate along with their families.

Chapter 2 opens in a jail where Atiq Shaukat works as a guard. His wife Zunaira is a beautiful woman. We can only know that because we are in his house and she is free of the burqa while she is at home.

On page 58, after an inconclusive talk with his sick wife Musarrat Atiq storms out of the house in which she has exhausted herself preparing a meal for him. The man is an idiot, unfeeling, though he has his own serious problems outside of their home.

Mohsen also proves himself an idiot when he fights with Zunaira, and strikes her.

The most horrendous sentence in this book, spoken about Zunaira when she is sentenced to death is “After all, she’s only a woman!” She pushed Mohsen away to stop him attacking her. He tripped and broke his neck against a wall.

Zunaira ends up in prison, waiting for execution (again no trial). Musarrat, who is already near death, takes her place and is executed in her place. This is possible because of the burqas which all women are forced to wear outside the home.

Zunaira disappears. Atiq is demented trying to find her, running around Kabul pulling women’s burqas off, but never finding her. Atiq is mobbed by irate husbands and is beaten to death.

All I can say at the end of this book is that I finished it because it was the book group selection. None of us could have known in advance just how horrific it is. The back cover blurb gives no real clue. Even J M Coetzee says merely that it is hell on earth, a place of hunger, tedium and stifling fear.

I gave this book a score of three because of the selflessness of Musarrat’s sacrifice and Zunaira’s escape.

03 November 2017

52  Somalia – Nuruddin Farah – Maps (Score 2.85)

We read “From a crooked rib” by Farah, a number of years ago, when I gave it a score of 7.0.

Is Askar the protagonist in “Maps”? He was found, new-born, by Misra who bathed him and looked after him, and continued to do so throughout his childhood, up to about 16.

The story starts in the second person, told by an unknown narrator who could not possibly have known some of the things he or she discusses unless omniscient (which would be cheating). I found that unusual and disturbing, especially when, later in the novel the author changes persons frequently. The initial change to first person is when Askar is seven.

Something happened between Askar and Misra when he was in his teens, causing him to hate rather than love her. It’s not clear whether it’s something she had done, and had control of, or had no control of.

The use of “discrete” as a verb on page 67 in “You managed to discrete the dreamed anecdote” makes no sense, unless the author is trying to persuade us that that it is a verb.

I did not enjoy this book at all. For an author who won a literary prize, although one I have never heard of (awarded every two years by the University of Oklahoma), it was a major disappointment to me. Also, despite our group having read foreign literature every month for about 16 years, I had heard of very few of the other prize-winners.

I learned something about the long term problems between Somalia and Ethiopia, and how they largely result from the artificial division into two groups by the various colonial powers, England, France and Italy, who carved the area up between them.

Towards the end of the book I wondered where the occasional use of Italian comes from when there had been no sign of it up to that point. There was no hint, as far as I remember that Askar could speak Italian. Was this just a ploy for Askar and Hilaal to speak without Misra understanding? Why wasn’t she suspicious about that?

I have one further complaint about the misuse of English, which is not restricted to this book. On page 221 we see “In one a horseman is dropped to the floor, and the hose rides the wind, eastwards”. There is no indication that the book is a translation so I must assume that Farah, or his editor, has used this dreadfully lazy way of speaking which has become prevalent in England, and is creeping into Scottish English. What on Earth has happened to the very descriptive word “ground”?

I gave this book a score of two.

08 October 2017

51  Egypt – Ahdaf Soueif – The Map of Love (Score 7.40)

Amal is the youngest female of the Egyptian side of the descendants of al-Ghamrawi, the Great-great-grandmother of the lines. She is reading a text written by Anna Winterbourne, the wife of al-Ghamrawi’s grandson Sharif. Their son is Sharif.

Amal is waiting to greet Isabel Parkman, an American journalist. Amal finds that Isabel is the Great-great-granddaughter of al-Ghamrawi, on the international European side of the family.

When I started to read this book I didn’t know much about the history of Egypt, apart from the Pharaohs and Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. Of more modern history, my reading when I was a child was the “Boy’s Own” type of heroic stories, but this book confirms my adult belief that the British Empire was an evil thing, brought about by the greed of men at a high level in the Government and aristocracy.

“The Map of Love” revolves round life in Egypt from the 1830s to the 1960s, that is, from the English invasions and occupation of Egypt to after the Suez crisis, and is written from the points of view of Amal in Egypt and Anna in England and Egypt.

The author seems to be well acquainted with the writings of Victorian authors since she manages the style of their English beautifully.

I don’t want to go into detail of the lives and history of the two women and other members of the cast, all of whom are vital to the story. We do get some information from the point of view of Egyptians about the Suez Canal, the English administration in Egypt, Palestine and the exploitation of people. A typical example of this is the destruction of the Egyptian weaving industry to obtain the cotton grown in Egypt to build up the industry in Lancashire.

The incident on page 501 was so unexpected, but at the same time almost inevitable.

While I was reading the book, by page 70 I was considering giving a score of 7.0. By the time I reached page 516 (the end) I gave it a score of 9.5.

50  Malaya – Tan Twan Eng – The Garden of Evening Mists (Score 9.3)

This is my second score of 10/10 in a row. I absolutely loved this book.

The protagonists of the story is a newly retired woman, Judge Teoh Yun Ling. Her handyman is A Cheong whose wife, A Foon, is dead. They are in the Central Highlands of Malaya. During the Second World War Yun Ling and her sister were imprisoned in a Japanese camp, her sister dying there.

The story moves between the war years and the present in a way which slowly reveals the history of Yun Ling and her old, now missing presumed dead, former neighbour and friend Mr Aritomo. He was once the gardener for the Emperor of Japan. The back-story is about 30 years in the past.

In the present time Judge Teoh is expecting a visit from Professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji. When he arrives he explains that he wishes to write a book on the ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) made by Nakamura Aritomo (Japanese style), and to use some of the prints to illustrate it.

This book deserves careful and attentive reading for the high quality of the language and the writing.

The original inhabitants of Malaya, the Orang Asti play a fairly major part in the story. I searched for information about them and found that they arrived in the area several thousand years ago.

I loved the description of Aritomo’s Kyudo (Japanese archery, infantry style) practice and the way he taught Judge Teoh. I practiced that for several years in Edinburgh in a class taught by a very experienced proponent of the style.

I am not going to say any more about the story as that could seriously spoil your enjoyment of it if you decide to read it. I really hope you do.

09 August 2017

49 India – Anuradha Roy – An Atlas of Impossible Longing (Score 7.80)

I loved this book. It opens with us looking at a very ornate house which has, over the years, gradually been encroached on by the Ganges as a result of changing monsoon patterns.

There is a mention, as so often in the books we have read, of “tribal people”. Unusually, they play a bigger part in this story than normal. Amulya is the employer of the tribal people, Kananbala (known as Kanan) is his wife. She is clearly unhappy about being left at home every time Amulya goes to a function such as the festival and feast with which the story opens.

Amulya’s factory produces effective medicines and perfumes from the local flowers and plants. Their closest neighbour is Digby Barnum, an administrator who works at the coal mine, one of the mainstays of the local economy. Digby has no real contact with Amulya, driving to work every day. Kanan is unhappy, being more used to the clatter and jollity of life in Calcutta, in a different place, surrounded by relatives, friends and theatres.

However, when relatives do come to visit for a fortnight they just make sarcastic comments about how Amulya and Kananbala have chaked, getting fat, and losing hair. Amulya and Kanan have a manservant, Gauranga. Their son, Nirmal, marries Shanti.

Kanan begins to suffer from an illness which leads her to use obscene language to family, friends and servants.

Kanan witnesses the murder of Mr Barnum when he comes home unexpectedly from a trip and his wife returns to the house with her lover. She wasn’t expecting him. When Kanan is interviewed by police later, she tells them that she had seen Mrs Barnum return early (no mention of the lover) and that Mrs Barnum went straight upstairs to play her piano.

Kana told them that, later, a group of his tribal workers had arrived and swarmed angrily round Mr Barnam, shouting. When they dispersed Mr Barnum was prone on the ground.

Things begin to get complicated so I will tell you nothing more. It is well worth carrying on with the story from that point on, right to the end. I scored the book at ten, being one of the most memorable books I have read in some time.

16 June 2017

48 Colombia – Gabriel Garcia Márquez – Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Score  6.28)

This book was a great disappointment. A few years ago the group read “Love in the Time of Cholera” by the same author. I scored that book at 7.5.This one, I’m afraid, will not achieve that score.

The story is basically that an arranged marriage comes to an end on the first night when the husband Bayardo discovers that his new wife Angela is not a virgin, and sends her back to her family home. She names another man, Santiago, as being responsible. He may or may not be guilty.

The number of characters, taken together with such unfamiliar names, made this a very confusing read, and at the end of the book a whole plethora of people, not named before, suddenly appear.

Angela’s two brothers swear to avenge the family honour by killing Santiago. He in turn goes about his normal day’s business, unaware of this pledge. The number of coincidences is quite unbelievable when most of the town’s population tries to warn Santiago but, for one reason or another.

An autopsy is ordered on Santiago. The book would have been improved by not including the gruesome details of this bloody event.

At the end of the day I could only score this book at 3.5.

47  Nebraska – Willa Cather – Oh! Pioneers (Score 8.84)

My  Kindle Version of this book has an introduction by Vivian Gornick, the American critic. It is well worth reading if you can find it, or if it’s in your version.

Hanover, Nebraska, a poor, desolate sort of place, connected to the outside world by occasional trains. When we get there, there are hints of an oncoming winter with serious falls of snow. We meet Alexandra Bergson, her brothers Emil (8), Lou (5), and a kitten, a neighbour Karl (15), Joe Tovesky, her cousin and his wife Marie.

John Bergson (46), the father, is dying.

Drought comes and people start to leave their farms and their land, going back to the towns. Karl’s family prepare to leave too, but Alexandra intends to stay and make a success of the farm. The boys enjoy listening to Alexandra reading “Swiss Family Robinson”. That was one of my favourites when I was a child, read time and time again because we couldn’t easily get to a bookshop except when on holiday, and we had no local library until I was 13.

Cather’s writing is beautiful, with phrases like “He wandered in the fields until morning put out the fireflies and the stars.

We follow Alexandra’s trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows, failures and successes as she improves and extends her holdings. I don’t want to go into any more detail as it could spoil your enjoyment of the book.

If you only have time to read one book this year, do make it this one. It is magnificent. I couldn’t possibly score it any less than ten.

46  Japan –Yukio Mishima – Spring Snow (Score 6.83)

I have had this book for many years, and never picked it up because I had the feeling that Mishima was a difficult read. I was right, and I was wrong. His writing is, in general, easy to read. However, I found myself skipping extended sections dealing with reincarnations, the detailed differences between Buddhist sects, and other Eastern beliefs.

Two Siamese princes have a minor role in the story.

The story revolves round four people. Kiyoaki Matsugae is the son of a Marquis, his friend Shigekuni Honda, his tutor Iinuma, and his on-off girlfriend Satoko. We are told that Kiyoaki and Shigekuni were eleven years old at the end of the Russo-Japanese war, won by Japan, and are 18 at the beginning of the story.

Mishima’s description of Kiyoaki is such that I wondered if he reflects Mishima’s own feelings and approach to life. There are constant reminders of Kioyaki’s effeminate appearance, even as he approaches adulthood.

Iinuma appears to be a war-mongering type of person as he keeps harping on about the violence of life in the Time of the Warring States in Japan, which was brought to an end by the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu and his descendants brought peace to Japan for hundreds of years, by closing the country to outsiders until the American assault on the country aimed at opening up Japan to American trade.

The story morphs into a tale of requited love then unrequited as the target of Kioyaki’s love Satoko enters a Buddhist monastery rather than marry the aristocrat arranged by the Imperial family.

All in all I was rather disappointed in the story. Mishima has such a reputation, but I could only give the book a score of six.

 45   Turkey – Orhan Pamuk – “The White Castle”– March 2017 (Score 3.71)

Set in mediaeval times after the Turks had taken the Near East, this is the story of an Italian who was captured, along with the crew of his ship, when they fell afoul of a large Turkish fleet. Taken into slavery with the rest of the crew he earned their hatred when he used his knowledge to get some slight privileges by curing illnesses.

Eventually he was put to work under a man called Hoja (who was his spitting image, but did not realise it} to devise a spectacular fireworks display for a high society wedding anniversary.

He was offered his freedom if he converted to Islam, but twice refused. Later the Turks carried out a mock execution and he thought he was about to be decapitated, but still did not convert. The Pasha confirmed that he was to remain as Hoja’s slave. Hoja was now working on making a magnificent clock as a present for the Pasha. He wanted to make use of European knowledge for this.

The plague struck the city with many, and ongoing, deaths. Hoja found a bubo on his body and begins to panic, worrying for many pages. Nothing came of it. Eventually, and very belatedly, Hoja became aware that the Venetian was his double.

Up till this point the story went well enough, but when Hoja began to hear (In his head) the Biblical “I am that I am”, this seemed passing strange in a Moslem character. I obviously wasn’t seeing the point, and certainly not the “cool and elegantly jaundiced look at the results of cultural fusion” mentioned in the preface to my edition.

I began to tire of it and was sorely disappointed because of Pamuk’s reputation. Perhaps it was simply a “first novel” problem for me. I scored it at 5.0.

44  Nigeria – Chibundu Onuzo – The Spider King’s Daughter– February 2017 (Score 5.80)

The  narrator is ten year old Abike Johnson whose wealthy father deliberately told his chauffeur to run over her dog, showing right at the start what kind of man he is. She was watching from her bedroom window, but her father acted as if it had been an accident. The dog was severely injured, and in great pain. Abike hid her emotion and her tears and shocked her father by asking him to tell the chauffeur over the dog’s head.

Was she sadistic, or compassionate? She thinks “Abike 1, Mr Johnson 0!”

There is much use of Nigerian patois, which takes a bit of work to follow. Abike talks to a young street hawker, selling by the side of a main road. He is doing this as a result of his family having lost their money and their home so that, although he has learned patois, he speaks Standard English. He has been to New York, and can prove it by the visa stamps in his expired passport. Abike, too, has seen New York snow – gritty and brown.

The first person narrative alternates between Abike and the hawker, letting us see events from both points of view.

I have reached the point where it would spoil the book if I were to tell you anything more about events. It is sufficient to say that the ending is completely unexpected.

I gave the book a score of six.

43 India – Gita Mehta – A River Sutra– January 2017 (Score 7.6)

This book is like an Indian “Decameron”, or perhaps “The Canterbury Tales” without much travelling. The roll of the “owner of the inn” is taken by a retired civil servant from Bombay who, after his wife died, applied for a post at a government rest house, on the Narmada River, and founded by the Moghul emperor.

The Narmada is one of the most sacred rivers in India about which many legends of gods and goddesses, spirits and other beings are told. There ar six stories told, of The Monk, The Teacher, The Executive, The Courtesan, The Musician and The Minstrel. Each is a little gem, linked by the doings and conversations of the manager, his clerk Mr Chagla, his friend Mr Tariq Mia, the mullah at the local mosque and a party of archaeologists who are carrying out a dig some forty miles away.

Towards the end of the book, before the archaeologists return, a minstrel sings the “Song of the Narmada”. The head archaeologist returns just as she finishes. The rest of the book holds a real surprise.

This book isn’t great literature, but I found it an enjoyable read, giving it a score of 8.0.

18 January 2017

42   Mexico – Laura Esquivel – Pierced by the Sun– December 2016 (Score 5.07)

Lupita, a local policewoman, witnesses the murder of her local “Delegado”. The story revolves around Lupita’s life and her attempts to persuade her corrupt senior officers that she has something to contribute to the case, and ultimately to keep it going at all. In fact, there was an attempt to frame her for murder, and another on her life. Just a typical day in the life of a policewoman in Mexico.

The book describes vividly the effects of drugs and alcohol on Lupita, caused by the effect on her of accidentally killing her child, for which she served a sentence in jail (not part of the story).

The book finished with a moment of great hope for the future of Mexico. I enjoyed it, and gave it 7.5. On the other hand we must bear in mind the range of scores among our group. Four didn't like the book while three did. Hence the average score of 5.07, compared to mine of 7.5.

You may find interesting what the book tells us about the history and religion of Mexico, and of the Aztecs whose descendants are a large part of the current population as are a number of tribes also remaining from pre-conquest days.

We learn about their creation myth as well as a number of Aztec gods including Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) and Tezcatlipoca (Smoking, or Obsidian, Mirror).