Book Selection Survey for 2019

CRPCA’s Book Club now seeks input regarding our book selections for late 2018 to early 2020. The survey is open through 8:00 pm on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 (just like your Oregon primary ballot). First please scan through the 45 choices, recording the Survey #s of up to 15 books. Then you’ll find the survey link at the bottom of this page.


Dark at the Crossing
Ackerman, Elliot: Dark at the Crossing (2017)

Survey #1

Review: © Booklist: Iraqi American Haris is determined to fight with the Free Army in Syria. But unable to cross the Turkish border and then betrayed and robbed of his money and passport, he has no choice but to consider the offer of an interim job as a translator until he can hire a fixer to help him enter Syria. But when he does subsequently cross the border, it is with an unlikely companion: Daphne, his prospective employer’s wife, who is desperate to find her missing daughter. As for Haris, he is simply desperate to fight even if it now means aligning himself with the Daesh (ISIS) forces. Readers learn what motivates him in a series of flashbacks to his erstwhile service as an interpreter for the Americans during the Iraq War. Ackerman (Green on Blue, 2015) has done a masterful job of creating a novel of ideas that invites thoughtful consideration of the folly and futility of war and the failure of idealism. The mood is somber, even bleak; the atmosphere one of aching emptiness. The text is beautifully written (crooked teeth “run like a broken fence through a thicket”; refugees’ voices travel “thick as a conspiracy”), and the rendering of the setting is superb. Dark at the Crossing makes a significant contribution to the literature of war.


Purple Hibiscus
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi: Purple Hibiscus (2012)

Survey #2

Review: © The New York Times: For Kambili, The Nigerian teenager who is the protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s strong first novel, it’s not always clear which is worse—living under a brutally paternalistic government or living with a seemingly saintly father who uses religion to torment her. Navigating her way through an adolescence that is devastated by a military coup and a fanatical father, Kambili realizes she has options only when she befriends a gregarious aunt who doesn’t regard her as a sinning heathen. Unfortunately, the more the aunt takes Kambili under her wing, the more the girl suffers at the hands of her father, who prefigures the fires of hell by scalding her feet with hot water and worse. What complicates their relationship, and makes Purple Hibiscus more than a story of tough love run amok, is the father’s generosity to others. He wins a human rights award, he spreads his wealth around and he’s the publisher of the only newspaper that stands up to the corrupt government. Beginning with the novel’s riveting opening paragraph, Adichie makes it clear that Kambili’s allegiance to her father is not based just on masochistic devotion. The author’s straightforward prose captures the tragic riddle of a man who has made an unquestionably positive contribution to the lives of strangers while abandoning the needs of those who are closest to him.


We Need New Names
Bulawayo, NoViolet: We Need New Names (2013)

Survey #3

Review: © Kirkus Review: A loosely concatenated novel in which Darling, the main character and narrator of the story, moves from her traditional life in Zimbabwe to a much less traditional one in the States. For Darling, life in Zimbabwe is both difficult and distressing. Her wonderfully named friends include Chipo, Bastard, Godknows and Sbho, and she also has a maternal figured called Mother of Bones. The most pathetic of Darling’s friends is Chipo, who’s been impregnated by her own grandfather and who undergoes a brutal abortion. The friends have little to do but go on adventures that involve stealing guavas in more affluent neighborhoods than the one they come from (disjunctively named “Paradise”), an act that carries its own punishment since the constipation they experience afterward is almost unbearable. Violence and tragedy become a casual and expected part of their lives. In one harrowing scene, their “gang” attacks a white-owned farm and both humiliates and brutalizes the owners. Also, after a long period of absence and neglect, Darling’s father returns, suffering from AIDS. Spiritual sustenance is rare and comes in the form of an evangelist with the unlikely but ripe name of Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro. Eventually, and rather abruptly, Darling moves from the heat and dirt of Zimbabwe to live with her Aunt Fostalina and Uncle Kojo in the American Midwest, a place that seems so unlike her vision of America that it feels unreal. In America, Darling must put up with teasing that verges on abuse and is eager to return to Zimbabwe, for her aunt is working two jobs to pay for a house in one of the very suburbs that Darling and her friends used to invade. Bulawayo crafts a moving and open-eyed coming-of-age story.


Little Bee
Cleave, Chris: Little Bee (2009)

Survey #4

Review: © Kirkus Review: Cleave follows up his outstanding debut (Incendiary, 2005) with a psychologically charged story of grief, globalization and an unlikely friendship. The story opens in a refugee detention center outside of London. As the Nigerian narrator—who got her nickname “Little Bee” as a child—prepares to leave the center, she thinks of her homeland and recalls a horrific memory. “In the immigration detention center, they told us we must be disciplined,” she says. “This is the discipline I learned: whenever I go into a new place, I work out how I would kill myself there. In case the men come suddenly, I make sure I am ready.” After Little Bee’s release, the first-person narration switches to Sarah, a magazine editor in London struggling to come to terms with her husband Andrew’s recent suicide, as well as the stubborn behavior of her four-year-old son, Charlie, who refuses to take off his Batman costume. While negotiating her family troubles, Sarah reflects on “the long summer when Little Bee came to live with us.” Cleave alternates the viewpoints of the two women, patiently revealing the connection between them. A few years prior, Sarah and Andrew took a vacation to the Nigerian coast, not realizing the full extent to which the oil craze had torn the country apart. One night they stumble upon Little Bee and her sister, who are fleeing a group of rapacious soldiers prowling the beach. The frightening confrontation proves life-changing for everyone involved, though in ways they couldn’t have imagined. A few years later Sarah and Little Bee come together again in the suburbs of London, and their friendship—in addition to that between Little Bee and Charlie—provides some salvation for each woman. Though less piercing and urgent than his debut, Cleave’s narrative pulses with portentous, nearly spectral energy, and the author maintains a well-modulated balance between the two narrators. A solid sophomore effort, and hopefully a sign of even better things to come.


Disgrace
Coetzee, J.M.: Disgrace* (1999)

* 1999 Man Booker Prize

Survey #5

Review: © Aux: The title of South African author J.M. Coetzee’s exceptional Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, is the first cue to the spare, devastating economy of his prose. Over the course of the book, the word takes on new inflections and meanings, carrying with it a bleak and deftly metaphorical reading of life after apartheid. Though his attentions will inevitably turn to race relations, Coetzee spends the riverting opening section demolishing the Ivory Tower occupied by David Lurie, a middle-aged college professor with a weakness for attractive female students. His latest, and last, conquest is a demure young woman from his Romantic course who yields to his strenuous efforts to seduce her, but not fully. In a line that will prove to haunt Lurie later on, Coetzee describes their consummation as “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless, undesired to the core.” When she reports his actions to the school board, he’s cold and unrepentant, refusing to even feign contrition in order to keep his job. But the tables turn once he retreats from Cape Town to his daughter Lucy’s isolated smallholding in a dangerous rural area. Though humbled enough by his peasant lifestyle, his spirits are broken one evening when three black intruders beat him near death, leaving him helpless to prevent them from raping his daughter. It’s a horrifying turn of events, but what’s most shocking to Lurie (and the reader) is her refusal to either report the men to the police or leave with him to a safer place. Coetzee is obviously playing with some incendiary racial politics here, but he’s skillful about situating the entire story within the context of parable. In his eyes, Lucy’s violation and suffering is also South Africa’s, before and after apartheid. Its effects cannot be shaken or escaped, so the only sensible recourse is to grow accustomed to it and try to be a good person. That’s about as much hope as Coetzee can bring himself to offer, but Disgrace unfolds with such hardened wisdom and assurance that its arid beauty sinks into your bones.


The Other Side of Paradise
Cooke, Julia: The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba (2014)

Survey #6

Review: © Booklist: As the title suggests, this is a rather dreary portrait of post-Fidel Cuba. Cooke is a journalist and teacher at the New School in New York. Her observations are the result of living in Cuba and interacting with a variety of ordinary Cuban citizens over a five-year period. Her account is absorbing, touching, but certainly depressing. As described here, Cuba is a postrevolutionary culture in which the fires of revolution have burned out. So largely gone is the optimism, the spirit of community and self-sacrifice, and the belief in the creation of “the new socialist man.” What remains, unfortunately, is the political repression, stifling bureaucracy, and material deprivation. Cooke’s narrative includes wonderful vignettes covering the daily lives of Cubans in which their hopes, dreams, and frustrations are revealed. Lucia, a well-educated and relatively privileged young woman, sees little future for herself in Cuba and hopes to emigrate. So does Sandra, a street-smart prostitute who refutes government claims to have ended “exploitation.” But there are snippets of optimism, as citizens bravely and brazenly complain about their government.


Breath Eyes Memory
Danticat, Edwidge: Breath, Eyes, Memory (1998)

Survey #7

Review: © Publishers Weekly: A distinctive new voice with a sensitive insight into Haitian culture distinguishes this graceful debut novel about a young girl’s coming of age under difficult circumstances. “I come from a place where breath, eyes and memory are one, a place where you carry your past like the hair on your head,” says narrator Sophie Caco, ruminating on the chains of duty and love that bind the courageous women in her family. The burden of being a woman in Haiti, where purity and chastity are a matter of family honor, and where “nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms,” is Danticat’s theme. Born after her mother Martine was raped, Sophie is raised by her Tante Atie in a small town in Haiti. At 12 she joins Martine in New York, while Atie returns to her native village to care for indomitable Grandmother Ife. Neither Sophie nor Martine can escape the weight of the past, resulting in a pattern of insomnia, bulimia, sexual trauma and mental anguish that afflicts both of them and leads inexorably to tragedy. Though her tale is permeated with a haunting sadness, Danticat also imbues it with color and magic, beautifully evoking the pace and character of Creole life, the feel of both village and farm communities, where the omnipresent Tontons Macoute mean daily terror, where voudon rituals and superstitions still dominate even as illiterate inhabitants utilize such 20th-century conveniences as cassettes to correspond with emigres in America. In simple, lyrical prose enriched by an elegiac tone and piquant observations, she makes Sophie’s confusion and guilt, her difficult assimilation into American culture and her eventual emotional liberation palpably clear.


Timbuktu
de Villiers, Marq, and Sheila Hirtle: Timbuktu: The Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold (2007)

Survey #8

Review: © Booklist: Timbuktu is a city in central Mali near the Niger River. Founded in the eleventh century by the Tuareg, it became a major trading center primarily for gold and silver by the fourteenth century. It was invaded by a Moroccan army in 1590 and later was seized by Tuareg nomads. In their copiously researched book, the authors write of the city’s origins, its relation to the Niger River, its first and second golden ages, the coming of the Moroccans, and its long decline. De Villiers and Hirtle are co-authors of Sahara: The Extraordinary History of the World’s Largest Desert (2002) and Sable Island (2004), and this book, with maps and 12 black-and-white photographs, is a work of large scope, absorbing in its detail.


What is the What
Eggers, Dave: What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006)

Survey #9

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s. In this fictionalized memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalization. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other “Lost Boys,” beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfillment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers’s limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity-of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval.


Hiding in Plain Sight
Farah, Nuruddin: Hiding in Plain Sight (2014)

Survey #10

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Somali writer Farah’s (Crossbones) 12th novel takes on religious extremism and sexual politics in Africa in this bold but ponderous novel about a woman reassembling her family in the wake of a tragic event. After her older half-brother, Aar, a high-ranking UN official, is killed in a terrorist attack on the organization’s headquarters in Mogadiscio, Somalia, the 35-year-old, half-Italian, half-Somali Bella is forced to put her photography career on hold and travel to Nairobi, where Aar’s teenage children, Salif and Dahaba, live. There, she adjusts to her new role of surrogate mother and shares her grief with family friends and Aar’s former lover, a Swedish UN official named Gunilla, while waging a custody battle with Aar’s estranged wife, Valerie, who arrives with the woman for whom she left her family 10 years earlier, Padmini. While the tension between Valerie and Bella is compelling, and Valerie and Padmini’s experiences as lesbians living in Africa illuminating, the novel otherwise suffers from a lack of forward movement. Whole sections are spent on quotidian scenes that do nothing to develop the story or characters. Many of the more interesting threads and subplots remain underdeveloped, such as the attack that kills Aar and one about a friend of Valerie and Padmini’s whose gay bar in Nairobi is raided, leaving the reader wishing Farah had more tightly focused his narrative.


The Memory of Love
Forna, Aminatta: The Memory of Love (2010)

Survey #11

Review: © The New Yorker: This ambitious novel, set in Sierra Leone, examines the lives of three men as they face the lingering consequences of civil war. Surrounded by both victims and perpetrators of violence, each man fashions his own refuge: a retired academic carefully rearranges the past through narration; a British psychologist finds sustenance in romance; and a talented surgeon tries to escape his nightmares by migrating. Spanning two generations and multiple decades, these interwoven narratives culminate in a series of coincidences, some contrived, that center on a woman loved and lost. The real pleasure of Forna’s storytelling is in her scrutiny of her characters’ inner lives and her ability to connect their choices to the moral dilemmas of a traumatizes society without reducing them to spokespeople.


What is the What
Gimlette, John: At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig: Travels through Paraguay (2003)

Survey #12

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Over the past 500 years, Paraguay has been invaded by successive waves of conquistadors, missionaries, Mennonites, Australian socialists, fugitive Nazis and, perhaps most improbably, Islamic extremists. “An island surrounded by land,” bordered by vast deserts and impenetrable jungles, Paraguay is a country uniquely suited for those seeking to drop out of sight or, like Gimlette, find themselves. The author was 18 when he first traveled to Paraguay more than two decades ago; return visits only deepened his appreciation for the nation and its tragicomic past. Gimlette seems to have gone everywhere and talked to everyone. He boats down piranha-infested rivers, hobnobs with Anglo-Paraguayan socialites and hunts down the former hiding place of notorious Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. Gimlette, a travel writer and lawyer in London, proves a chatty, amiable guide to local institutions like the national railway (which has no running trains) and native wildlife, like the fierce, raccoon-like coatimundis (who, Gimlette writes, “make up for their absence of pity with fistfuls of dagger-like claws”). Yet he doesn’t shirk from the nastier aspects of Paraguay’s bloody history. Gimlette describes in horrific detail, for example, the rape and conquest of the Guarani Indians as well as the brutally repressive regime of Don Alfredo Stroessner (whose U.S.-backed dictatorship lasted longer than any other in the Western Hemisphere). Gimlette could have used some judicious editing-the narrative drags in parts, and its scattered chronology can be confusing-but he never fails to impress with his ingenuity, sincerity and sense of humor.


No Time Like the Present

Gordimer, Nadine*: No Time Like the Present (2012)

* 1991 Nobel Literature Prize

Survey #13

Review: © The New Yorker: The lives of a mixed-race couple, Steve and Jabu, trace the frustrations of post-apartheid South Africa in this political novel. As former heroes are tarnished and corruption scandals become routine, the couple move from city to suburb, and careers and children edge them into “the normal life, the one that never was.” Gordimer burrows into the common mind of their marriage, as if to examine how a relationship that weathered the dangers of revolution will stand up to the challenges of freedom. The novel, packed with intense political conversations, sometimes feels didactic, and leaves the reader longing for more of the main characters. Jabu never finds out about a casual fling Steve has at a conference; instead, she comes across a stack of newspaper cuttings about emigration to Australia. In the principled world of Gordimer’s former revolutionaries, a new life elsewhere is both a promise and the biggest infidelity.


Exit West

Hamid, Mohsin: Exit West (2017)

Survey #14

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Hamid’s (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia) trim yet poignant fourth novel addresses similar themes as his previous work and presents a unique perspective on the global refugee crisis. In an unidentified country, young Saeed and burqa-wearing Nadia flee their home after Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet and their city turns increasingly dangerous due to worsening violent clashes between the government and guerillas. The couple joins other migrants traveling to safer havens via carefully guarded doors. Through one door, they wind up in a crowded camp on the Greek Island of Mykonos. Through another, they secure a private room in an abandoned London mansion populated mostly by displaced Nigerians. A third door takes them to California’s Marin County. In each location, their relationship is by turns strengthened and tested by their struggle to find food, adequate shelter, and a sense of belonging among emigrant communities. Hamid’s storytelling is stripped down, and the book’s sweeping allegory is timely and resonant. Of particular importance is the contrast between the migrants’ tenuous daily reality and that of the privileged second- or third-generation native population who’d prefer their new alien neighbors to simply disappear.


The Bad-Ass Librarians Of Timbuktu
Hammer, Joshua: The Bad-Ass Librarians Of Timbuktu: And Their Race To Save The World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (2016)

Survey #15

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Journalist Hammer (Yokohama Burning) reports on librarian Abdel Kader Haidara and his associates’ harrowing ordeal as they rescued 370,000 historical manuscripts from destruction by al-Qaeda-occupied Timbuktu. Hammer sketches Haidara’s career amassing manuscripts from Timbuktu’s neighboring towns and building his own library, which opened in 2000. Meanwhile, three al-Qaeda operatives, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Abdel-hamid Abou Zeid, and Iyad Ag Ghali, escalate from kidnapping and drug trafficking to orchestrating a coup with Tuareg rebels against the Malian army and seizing Timbuktu. The militants aim to “turn the clocks back fourteen hundred years” by destroying revered religious shrines and imposing Sharia law, which includes flogging unveiled women and severing the hands of thieves. Fearing for the safety of the manuscripts, Haidara and associates buy up “every trunk in Timbuktu” and pack them off 606 miles south to Bamako, employing a team of teenage couriers. Hammer does a service to Haidara and the Islamic faith by providing the illuminating history of these manuscripts, managing to weave the complicated threads of this recent segment of history into a thrilling story.


Oracle Bones
Hessler, Peter*: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (2006)

* RPCV China 1996-1998

Survey #16

Review: © Kirkus Review: China is a country both ancient and brand-new—and, to judge by this revealing portrait, likely to be increasingly at odds with the U.S. Social scientists, writes writes New Yorker correspondent and longtime China resident Hessler (River Town, 2001), describe the 1990s as China’s true Industrial Revolution, a time when more than 100 million Chinese moved from the countryside to booming industrial cities along the southern coast, “the largest peaceful migration in human history.” The experience has been both dislocating and empowering, as China increasingly emerges as a major power economically and a geopolitical force—often squarely against the U.S. So it is that Hessler opens with the nationwide demonstrations and riots when an American bomber destroyed China’s embassy in Belgrade; not hesitating to identify himself as an American journalist, he is swept along by a huge Beijing crowd that chants, in turn, “Don’t eat Kentucky,” “Don’t eat McDonald’s” and “Down with American imperialism,” just as in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, though now, one Chinese man remarks, “bin Laden is even more famous than Mao Zedong.” Against this modern swirl, Hessler looks at a distant past whose details are now emerging: the origins of ideographic writing fire-hardened “oracle bones,” long-standing rivalries among various ethnic and economic groups in China’s backwater, such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the country folk of Inner Mongolia. Hessler’s fascination with things past does not always add up, but the temporal back-and-forth turns up some interesting phenomena; for instance, many young people, now adrift in a nation with an ideology grounded in money-making and materialism, are turning to the classics to get their bearings—and sometimes never finding them, as when one young man tells his sister “that if she read Mencius, she would become more beautiful, because the truth would shine through in her face.” A remarkable travelogue documenting aspects of a country still little understood.


Someone Knows My Name
Hill, Lawrence: Someone Knows My Name (2007)

Survey #17

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Stunning, wrenching and inspiring, the fourth novel by Canadian novelist Hill (Any Known Blood) spans the life of Aminata Diallo, born in Bayo, West Africa, in 1745. The novel opens in 1802, as Aminata is wooed in London to the cause of British abolitionists, and begins reflecting on her life. Kidnapped at the age of 11 by British slavers, Aminata survives the Middle Passage and is reunited in South Carolina with Chekura, a boy from a village near hers. Her story gets entwined with his, and with those of her owners: nasty indigo producer Robinson Appleby and, later, Jewish duty inspector Solomon Lindo. During her long life of struggle, she does what she can to free herself and others from slavery, including learning to read and teaching others to, and befriending anyone who can help her, black or white. Hill handles the pacing and tension masterfully, particularly during the beginnings of the American revolution, when the British promise to free Blacks who fight for the British: Aminata’s related, eventful travels to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone follow. In depicting a woman who survives history’s most trying conditions through force of intelligence and personality, Hill’s book is a harrowing, breathtaking tour de force.


The Fall of the Stone City
Kadare, Ismail*: The Fall of the Stone City (2008/2012)

* 2005 Man Booker International Prize

Survey #18

Review: © Kirkus Review: An ironic, sober critique of the way totalitarianism rewrites history, from an Albanian author who’s long been the subject of Nobel whispers. The novel opens in 1943, as the Nazis are poised to move into Albania, retaking the country from Italy and invading the city of Gjirokastër. The locals are understandably restless, and an advance party is fired upon. Hostages are taken, and bloodshed seems inevitable. But in an effort to calm tensions, a leading doctor, Gurameto, meets with the Nazi commanding officer, Col. Fritz von Schwabe, who also happens to be an old college classmate. The loose plot of Kadare’s novel (The Accident, 2010, etc.) turns on the question of what exactly happened at that meeting. Various theories circulate among the citizenry: the invasion was all about locating and handing over a prominent Jew, Gurameto was angling for a governorship, the Albanians were being punished for their own incursions into Greece, and so on. Through these stories, Kadare explores the way people project their own nationalistic anxieties and prejudices onto every situation; the lyrics of a local bard turn the events into a kind of folklore. Kadare’s omniscient view emphasizes political processes at the expense of characterization, but if we don’t get to know the doctor, the colonel or the residents very well, Kadare is still a potent storyteller, and as the story jumps to 1944 and then to 1953, he reveals the grim consequences of dictatorships on identity. The tail end of the novel focuses on Stalinist interrogators’ efforts to bully and torture the truth about the meeting out of Gurameto, and his refusals don’t symbolize heroism so much as resignation—a realization that the facts will never be clear in the face of anti-democratic thuggery. A harsh but artful study of power, truth and personal integrity.


The Vegetarian
Kang, Han: The Vegetarian* (2007/2015)

* 2016 Man Booker International Prize

Survey #19

Review: © Kirkus Review: In her first novel to be published in English, South Korean writer Han divides a story about strange obsessions and metamorphosis into three parts, each with a distinct voice. Yeong-hye and her husband drift through calm, unexceptional lives devoid of passion or anything that might disrupt their domestic routine until the day that Yeong-hye takes every piece of meat from the refrigerator, throws it away, and announces that she’s become a vegetarian. Her decision is sudden and rigid, inexplicable to her family and a society where unconventional choices elicit distaste and concern that borders on fear. Yeong-hye tries to explain that she had a dream, a horrifying nightmare of bloody, intimate violence, and that’s why she won’t eat meat, but her husband and family remain perplexed and disturbed. As Yeong-hye sinks further into both nightmares and the conviction that she must transform herself into a different kind of being, her condition alters the lives of three members of her family—her husband, brother-in-law, and sister—forcing them to confront unsettling desires and the alarming possibility that even with the closest familiarity, people remain strangers. Each of these relatives claims a section of the novel, and each section is strikingly written, equally absorbing whether lush or emotionally bleak. The book insists on a reader’s attention, with an almost hypnotically serene atmosphere interrupted by surreal images and frighteningly recognizable moments of ordinary despair. Han writes convincingly of the disruptive power of longing and the choice to either embrace or deny it, using details that are nearly fantastical in their strangeness to cut to the heart of the very human experience of discovering that one is no longer content with life as it is. An unusual and mesmerizing novel, gracefully written and deeply disturbing.


The Big Truck That Went By
Katz, Jonathan M.: The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (2013)

Survey #20

Review: © Kirkus Review: A top-notch account of Haiti’s recent history, including the January 2010 earthquake, from the only American reporter stationed in the country at the time. Katz broke the story of how the deadly cholera outbreak, which spread in the months after the earthquake, was brought to the region by infected Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers and spread by inadequate sanitation. In his debut, the author chronicles his many investigations during his years living in and writing about Haiti. Unlike coverage by other writers on the island’s recent history, Katz’s recounting of the earthquake disaster, and the international mobilization that followed, is part of an ongoing story. This account complements those of others who have written of their direct experiences with the aftermath of the earthquake, but Katz’s position on the ground when the disaster struck makes this book unique—“it allowed me to understand both sides of the divide, between those who seek to improve how aid is given, and those who have been trying to improve their own lives for so long.” His contacts and local knowledge gave him special insight into the way the relief operation developed. Katz shows in detail how well-meaning actor Sean Penn (who lacked expertise) fed media hype about flooding dangers and diphtheria scares, which got in the way of efforts by qualified experts such as epidemiologist Paul Farmer. The author reports how promised aid funds didn’t arrive and NGO relief funds were misspent, while Haitians, presumed to be corrupt, were shut out of involvement in relief efforts. He also examines the involvement of the Duvalier clan. An eye-opening, trailblazing exposé.


Kosher Chinese
Levy, Michael*: Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China’s Other Billion (2011)

* RPCV China 2005-2007

Survey #21

Review: © Kirkus Reviews: In this lively memoir of serving in the Peace Corps in Guiyang, China, Levy explores a society in flux—while mining the entertaining if familiar terrain of cross-cultural misunderstandings. He struggles to explain English terminology to students who unknowingly translate their names into expletives, is coerced into eating the specialty at Dog Meat King, and finds that the community distrusts him not merely because he is American, but because he is Jewish. But Levy turns his perceived otherness to his advantage, earning the nickname “Friendship Jew” and being tapped to lead a student organization, the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, a rare extracurricular activity in a culture Levy finds devoid of such opportunities. “There were no glee clubs, school newspapers, yearbooks… expressions of creativity were mere distractions, as was critical thinking.” Pop culture references abound: Sex and the City, Star Wars, The Matrix are all name checked as if to suggest that Levy is grasping for familiarity in a foreign land, but their ubiquity becomes tiresome. Humor works best when Levy uses them to point to matters of deeper significance, such as the Westernization of China. As one of the local teachers encapsulates it, “Wal-Mart is the future, and Chairman Mao is the past.”


Tell Me How It Ends
Luiselli, Valeria, and John Lee Anderson: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017)

Survey #22

Review: © Kirkus Review: A heartfelt plea to change the dialogue on Latin American children fleeing violence in their homelands to seek refuge in America. A Mexican-born novelist, Luiselli (The Story of My Teeth, 2015, etc.) began the inquiry that informs her book-length essay as a Mexican-born writer, living in America, awaiting her green card. Her sense of mission intensified when she began working as a translator for those seeking pro bono legal assistance in their attempts to avoid deportation. She found that their stories could not match neatly with the 40 questions on the immigration questionnaire. Some of the children lacked fluency in Spanish as well as English, and some of their memories were vague or evasive. Yet the dangers they had encountered were real, as was the threat of returning to their countries of origin. Luiselli effectively humanizes the plights of those who have been demonized or who have been reduced to faceless numbers, the ones caught in the web of gang violence fueled by drug wars and the American arms trade. She writes with matter-of-fact horror in response to question No. 7, “did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?, that “eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.” Yet the victims are often criminalized in the American debates over immigration: “In the media and much of the official political discourse, the word ‘illegal’ prevails over ‘undocumented’ and the term ‘immigrant’ over ‘refugee.’” The author also explains how the immigrant crisis predated the triumph of Trump and how policies of the Obama and Bush administrations were heartless in treating such refugees as some other country’s problem. Though Luiselli may not convince those adamantly opposed to loosening regulations, she hopes that those who have been willfully blind to the injustices will recognize how they “haunt and shame us…being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. A powerful call to action and to empathy.


I Was Told to Come Alone
Mekhennet, Souad: I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad (2017)

Survey #23

Review: © Booklist: Washington Post correspondent Mekhennet (The Eternal Nazi) offers a spellbinding fusion of history, memoir, and reportage in this enthralling account of her personal experience as a journalist and a Muslim on assignment in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The author’s unique perspective is informed by both her professional life as a reporter working for major publications and by her personal background—she was raised in Germany by a Turkish mother and Moroccan father and is fluent in Arabic. This combination of personal background and vocation provides her as if with insider access in her work to uncover and untangle the roots of Islamic radicalism. Journalistic coups abound here—for example when she recounts the uncovering of Jihadi John’s identity—and moments of historical importance to which Mekhennet was a witness are described in thrilling detail. Historic religious, internal political, and global conflicts are lucidly delineated. While Mekhennet’s modus vivendi as a reporter opened doors for her to rulers and important religious and political figures, here her focus is sharply on individual people, including on the family members of purported terrorists, who themselves experience profound loss. The value of this work lies in Mekhennet’s commitment to “not taking any side, but speaking to all sides and challenging them.”


Family Matters
Mistry_Rohinton: Family Matters (2002)

Survey #24

Review: © Kirkus Review: A Dickensian sense of the interconnections of place, character, and fate and a powerful rendering of the experience and consequences of aging and bodily decay—such are the great strengths of this absorbing third novel from the Indian-born Canadian resident (A Fine Balance, 1996, etc.). Mistry is a deservedly much-honored writer who has won Canada’s Governor General’s Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. And he achieves a real triumph with this story’s wonderful protagonist: 79-year-old retired professor Nariman Vakeel, whom we meet in the lavish Bombay apartment (in a building called “Chateau Felicity”) he shares with his intemperate stepdaughter Coomy and her passive brother Jal. In lengthy flashbacks, Nariman recalls the great mistake of his earlier years: forsaking the Catholic woman he loved, and yielding to parental pressure to marry the Parsi widow who meant nothing to him—as her children (Coomy and Jal) have long known. When Nariman breaks an ankle, his stepchildren (a virtual Goneril and Regan) send him to live with the family of his natural daughter, Roxana Chenoy, in a crowded, filthy tenement—where Nariman slides into helplessness, and Roxana patiently bears this new burden. The King Lear–derived plot is handled beautifully (especially whenever Mistry enters Nariman’s consciousness). But efforts to broaden the story’s scope seem, by comparison, forced—especially in sequences detailing the desperate grasp for upward mobility made by Roxana’s husband Yezad, whose yearnings for a better life for his family propel him toward gambling and crime (a development ironically echoed by the schoolboy “career” of manipulative exploitation pursued by the Chenoys’ elder son Jehangir). Nevertheless, a powerfully lurid picture of Bombay’s multiplicity, energy, and squalor is built up with masterly skill. And the characters of Nariman and the Gandhi-inspired Roxana (her father’s Cordelia) are not easily forgotten.


The Fox Was Ever the Hunter
Müller, Herta*: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter (1992/2016)

* 2009 Nobel Literature Prize

Survey #25

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Set in Romania at the end of the Ceausescu era, this Kafkaesque tale offers a glimpse of a society unhinged by fear and paranoia and crushed by the hopelessness of its dead-end future. Its principal characters include Clara, a worker in a wire-making factory; her lover, Pavel, a married lawyer; Paul, a musician whose concerts have been raided by the police; and Adina, a schoolteacher who discovers that someone is regularly entering her apartment and systematically—and symbolically—dismembering a fox rug in her bedroom. Suspicions suggest that someone in this circle of friends and acquaintances is giving information to the authorities—but who? Nobel Prize–winner Müller (The Hunger Angel) foregrounds her tale against a bleak landscape mired in pollution and industrial waste, where the natural world is menacing: poplar trees ringing the town are described as “knives,” and the sun as a “blazing pumpkin.” In short, staccato chapters etched with her spare but crystalline prose, she parades scores of nameless working-class people who seem devoid of any inner life and whose prospects for rising above their circumstances are summed up as “Nothing but this gutter of poverty, hopelessness, and tedium, from mother to child and on to that child’s children.” More than a portrait of individual lives under the suffocating weight of a dictatorship, Müller’s novel is a searing appraisal of a people whose souls have been strangled by despair.


A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
Newby, Eric: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958)

Survey #26

Synopsis: A classic of travel writing, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is Eric Newby’s iconic account of his journey through one of the most remote and beautiful wildernesses on earth. It was 1956, and Eric Newby was earning an improbable living in the chaotic family business of London haute couture. Pining for adventure, Newby sent his friend Hugh Carless the now-famous cable – CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE? – setting in motion a legendary journey from Mayfair to Afghanistan, and the mountains of the Hindu Kush, north-east of Kabul. Inexperienced and ill prepared (their preparations involved nothing more than some tips from a Welsh waitress), the amateurish rogues embark on a month of adventure and hardship in one of the most beautiful wildernesses on earth – a journey that adventurers with more experience and sense may never have undertaken. With good humour, sharp wit and keen observation, the charming narrative style of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush would soon crystallise Newby’s reputation as one of the greatest travel writers of all time.


The Sympathizer
Nguyen, Viet Thanh: The Sympathizer* (2015)

* 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Survey #27

Review: © Publishers Weekly: This astonishing first novel has at its core a lively, wry first-person narrator called the Captain, and his two school friends Bon and Man, as they navigate the fall of Saigon and the establishment of the Communist regime in Vietnam in 1975. The Captain is a half-Vietnamese double agent; he reports to his Communist minder Man who, unbeknownst to Bon, is a Republican assassin. The Captain and Bon make it on to one of the harrowing last flights out of Saigon as the city is overtaken by the Viet Cong. They travel with the Captain’s superior, the General, and his family, although Bon’s own wife and son are shot making their escape. The Vietnamese exiles settle uncomfortably in an America they believe has abandoned their country, as they are reduced to new roles as janitors, short-order cooks, and deliverymen. The General opens a liquor store, then a restaurant (in which his proud wife cooks the best pho outside Vietnam) as a front to raise money for a counter rebellion. In order to protect his identity as a spy, the Captain is forced to incriminate others, and as lines of loyalty and commitment blur, his values are compromised until they are worthless. Nguyen’s novel enlivens debate about history and human nature, and his narrator has a poignant, often mirthful voice.


Born a Crime
Noah, Trevor: Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood (2016)

Survey #28

Review: © Kirkus Review: The host of The Daily Show reflects on his tumultuous South African childhood. In a gritty memoir, Noah relates his harsh experiences growing up during the final years of apartheid and the chaotic and racially charged conflicts that would continue to undermine the newly won freedom that was established in its aftermath. His story unfolds through a series of loosely assembled essays that touch on his home life and school environment and later expand outward to various cities and neighborhoods and his encounters with petty crime and confrontations with domestic violence. Throughout, the author documents the evolving yet continually challenging race relations among blacks, whites, and “coloreds.” Noah was born the son of a white Swiss-German father and a devoutly Christian black Xhosa mother who purposely chose to have a child through a mixed relationship, with full understanding of the legal ramifications established under the Immorality Act of 1927, which banned illicit carnal relations between a native woman and a European male. Noah’s mother proved to be the dominant, remarkable force throughout his life, constantly striving to instill deep values of education, religion, and freedom as she struggled with her own desire for independence. “Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that my mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end,” writes the author. “There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go. I was nearly six when Mandela was released, ten before democracy finally came, yet she was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist.” On the whole, though studded with insight and provocative social criticism, Noah’s material doesn’t feel fully digested. As an accomplished adult humorist looking back to his childhood self, the attempt to inject a humorous tone into these grim proceedings frequently hits an awkward note. A somewhat disjointed narrative with flashes of brilliant storytelling and acute observations on South African culture.


Age of Ambition
Osnos, Evan: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China* (2014)

* 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction

Survey #29

Review: © Kirkus Reviews: From 2005 to 2013, the author lived with his wife in China. In his debut book, he meanders among stories he pursued concerning Chinese of all strata striving to make a living in, and make sense of, a country in the throes of staggering transformation. Osnos groups his human-interest profiles under the themes of fortune, truth and faith, and he explores how new economic opportunities have challenged traditional ways and opened up Chinese society to unheard-of liberties and “pathways to self-creation”—emotionally, intellectually and otherwise. Osnos befriended many of the new strivers—e.g., idealist soldier Lin Yifu, who defected the “wrong way,” from Taiwan to China, in 1979, determined to prosper with the new China; and Gong Hainan, a restless villager who traveled to the big city in the mid-1990s to study and ended up starting a hugely influential dating service. The “age of ambition” required new skills, like learning English (Osnos recounts hilarious adventures in Li Yang’s popular “Crazy English” class), getting one’s child into an Ivy League school and learning how to travel in the West—i.e., by bus tour, which took the author and his Chinese group to visit such sites as Karl Marx’s birthplace. In the part entitled “Truth,” Osnos gets at the nitty-gritty underneath China’s authoritative and censorious front, such as the rather miraculous vitality of Hu Shuli’s international finance magazine Caijing, the work of artist and architect Ai Weiwei and the human rights manifesto Charter ’08, written by Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Osnos finds that the Chinese are just as ingenious at finding ways to circumvent authoritative repression as they are at filling the spiritual vacuum left by the cult of Mao. Pleasant, peripatetic musings revealing a great deal about the Chinese character.



Stolen Lives
Oufkir, Malika, and Michele Fitoussi: Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail (2001)

Survey #30

Review: © Publishers Weekly: While accounts of the unjust arrest and torture of political prisoners are by now common, we expect such victims to come with a just cause. Here, Oufkir tells of the 20-year imprisonment of her upper-class Moroccan family following a 1972 coup attempt against King Hassan II by her father, a close military aide. After her father’s execution, Oufkir, her mother and five siblings were carted off to a series of desert barracks, along with their books, toys and French designer clothes in the family’s Vuitton luggage. At their first posting, they complained that they were short on butter and sweets. Over the years, subsequent placements brought isolation cells and inadequate, vermin-infested rations. Finally, starving and suicidal, the innocents realized they had been left to die. They dug a tunnel and escaped. Recapture led to another five years of various forms of imprisonment before the family was finally granted freedom. Oufkir’s experience does not fit easily into current perceptions of political prisoners victimized for their beliefs or actions. In fact, she was the adopted daughter of King Muhammad V, Hassan II’s father, sent by her parents at age five to be raised in the court with the king’s daughter as her companion and equal. Beyond horrifying images such as mice nibbling at a rich girl’s face, this erstwhile princess’s memoir will fascinate readers with its singular tale of two kindly fathers, political struggles in a strict monarchy and a family’s survival of cruel, prolonged deprivation.


Baking Cakes in Kigali
Parkin, Gaile: Baking Cakes in Kigali (2009)

Survey #31

Review: © Kirkus Review: Colorful debut novel surrounds a cake-baking protagonist with a multinational cast of supporting characters. Angel and her husband Pius tragically buried both of their grown children, son Joseph and daughter Vinas. Now the Tanzania-born couple are raising five grandchildren (two girls and three boys) in Rwanda’s capital city. Angel does her part to keep the family afloat by selling her cakes, which she decorates with bright colors and fanciful designs. Her skill has brought her a wide array of customers, including an ambassador and her neighbor Ken, a Japanese American who works for the United Nations. Ken is one of many foreigners who live in the same complex as Angel and Pius. Their lives intersect over polite cups of sweet, milky tea and conversations conducted in several languages, covering subjects that range from prostitution to HIV. The chapters, each one a little story unto itself, collectively develop the ongoing saga of Angel and her family. All the action takes place against a backdrop of social change, as African women in particular struggle to improve their lives and obtain educations. Angel functions as confidante to many; she’s a woman of immense compassion as well as a baker of extraordinary talent. This likable and interesting character, unfortunately, is not well served by cumbersome prose and glacial pacing. Parkin inserts back story by having characters repeat things they already know, a device that works once or twice but is ultimately annoying as well as contrived. In her dialogue, people constantly repeat each others’ names, something that rarely happens in real life. Born and raised in Zambia, Parkin offers a fascinating personal glimpse into a culture unfamiliar to most Americans, but better editing could have transformed her slightly stilted effort into a book to remember.


The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Roy, Arundhati: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017)

Survey #32

Review: © Kirkus Review: The first novel in 20 years from Roy (The God of Small Things, 1997, etc.) and a book worth the wait: a humane, engaged tale of love, politics, and no small amount of suffering. Who is the fairest of them all, Anjum or Tilottama? Both are beautiful, each in her own way, but time has not been kind to either. Born with both male and female genitals and likened to the disappearing corpse-cleaning vultures of India, Anjum lives among ghosts, while Tilo has been caught up in an independence movement and risks execution at the hands of a coldly technocratic army officer. Roy’s latest begins as a near fairy tale that soon turns dark, full of characters and their meetings, accidental and orchestrated alike, in the streets, rooming houses, and business offices of Delhi: school friends become partners in political crime, lovers become strangers to one another. Of one such pair, Roy writes, “He, a revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind. She, a woman trapped in a man’s body.” But, Roy tells us, identities are what we make of them; in an early scene, the mother of a child the other children taunt as “She-He, He-She Hee!” seeks guidance in a temple consecrated to a Jewish merchant who moved from Armenia to Delhi, converted to Islam, and ended life dangerously committing blasphemy by virtue of his uncertainty about the nature of God. So it is with all the people of Roy’s book, each trying to live right in this world of “fucked-up unexpectedness.” Roy’s novel shows clear kinship with Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a story that, like hers, begins and ends with death; the first and last place we see here is a cemetery. But there are other echoes, including a nicely subtle nod to Salman Rushdie, as Roy constructs a busy world in which characters cross boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and gender to find, yes, that utmost happiness of which the title speaks. An assured novel borne along by a swiftly moving storyline that addresses the most profound issues with elegant humor. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait two decades for its successor.


Mating
Rush, Norman*: Mating** (1991)

* Peace Corps Director, Botswana 1978-1983

** 1991 National Book Award for Fiction, 1992 Maria Thomas Fiction Award

Survey #33

Review: © Library Journal: As in Whites, Rush’s first collection of stories, this novel juxtaposes the relationship of two white Americans in Botswana against village life in that country. A woman anthropologist narrates her pursuit of and life with Nelson Denoon, a utopian socialist who set up an experimental matriarchal culture among poor African women in a remote area. Having met Denoon at a party, the anthropologist undertakes a dangerous trek alone through the Kalahari to Tsau, the site. After she gains the acceptance of the women, she is permitted to join Denoon, and their love story develops, interspersed with incidents in the village. Though there is plenty of action and interaction among the characters, this is largely a novel of ideas and anthropological information. The humor is at a sophisticated level, as is the vocabulary.


Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen
Shannon, Lisa: Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen: One Ordinary Family’s Extraordinary Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in Congo (2014)

Survey #34

Review: © Kirkus Review: Shannon (A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman, 2010), an international human rights activist and founder of the nonprofit Run for Congo Women, tells the harrowing story of a Congolese family torn apart by the ongoing threat of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. In her home of Portland, Oregon, the author regularly visited with her friend Francisca Thelin, a Congolese expatriate. Francisca confided tales about her safe, seemingly perfect African childhood growing up on her family’s coffee plantation, followed by the intrusion of the menacing, violent Lord’s Resistance Army. Having immigrated to the United States years before, Francisca lived well, though she was haunted by phone calls from her mother, Mama Koko, detailing the mounting dangers of life in Dungu. Over the course of a year, Mama Koko called nightly to recount the tragic news of the deaths of family members, friends and neighbors who were abducted, tortured and brutally killed by the LRA; some were even burned alive on Christmas Day. Together in 2012, Francisca and Shannon traveled to Africa to visit her family and see and hear for themselves the traumatic narratives of Mama Koko, her husband, Papa Alexander, and other relatives and locals desperate for their accounts to be heard. Shannon weaves together these nightmarish stories of survival and deep grief with the history of Mama Koko’s life before the LRA invaded. She also provides details of Papa Alexander’s wild, entertaining past and Francisca’s struggle to reconcile her happy girlhood memories with the reality of unrelenting threats and cruelty. Shannon’s book both offers a rich portrait of her subjects’ lives and serves as a call to action. The author closes with a section called “What You Can Do Before Setting This Book Down,” since “the damage and the structural issues in Congo’s broken government that have allowed the violence to persist will take decades to heal.” A highly personal and memorable story.


Please Look After Mom
Shin, Kyung-sook: Please Look After Mom* (2009/2011)

* 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize

Survey #35

Review: © Kirkus Review: A mother’s disappearance exposes family consciences, secrets and dependencies in the soft-spoken first English-language publication by a bestselling South Korean novelist. An enormous publishing success in South Korea, this simple portrait of a family shocked into acknowledging the strength and heroic self-sacrifice of the woman at its center is both universal and socially specific. Park So-nyo, the illiterate mother who disappeared at Seoul Station subway, separated from her husband by the pressing crowd, has devoted her life to her marriage and children, applying herself to multiple rural occupations while encouraging all her offspring, but in particular son Hyong-chol, to fulfill his academic potential. The narration by four different family members exposes guilt and insights all around, from unmarried daughter Chi-hon, a novelist, to Park So-nyo herself. Partly a metaphor for Korea’s social shift from rural to urban, partly an elegy to the intensity of family bonds as constructed and maintained by self-denying women, this is subdued, tender writing with only rare lapses into sentimentality.


Of Africa
Soyinka, Wole*: Of Africa (2012)

* 1986 Nobel Literature Prize

Survey #36

Review: © Booklist: In this essay collection, Nigerian writer Soyinka, the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, examines the meaning of Africa as a concept and a category, an enigma and an imperative. His goal, however, is less to define Africa than to reject those who would limit it through externally imposed categories; he seeks instead to retrieve a few grains for germination from the wasteful threshing floor of Africa’s existential totality. His essays thus query how Africa’s history continues to impose limitations on its present: probing, for example, the continued consequences of artificial national boundaries imposed by Europeans centuries ago, or the legacy of European failed efforts to will ideas about what Africa is, or what Africa could be, into reality. Soyinka does not deceive himself about the profound problems that Africa faces today. But the overall tenor of this selection is optimistic, emphasizing Africa’s capacity to inspire authentic spirituality (the continent, he reminds us, is filled with religions that point the way to the harmonization of faiths) and resilient, life-embracing humanity.


The Minaret of Djam
Stark, Freya: The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion in Afghanistan (1970)

Survey #37

Synopsis: The 12th century minaret of Djam is one of Afghanistan’s most celebrated treasures, a magnificent symbol of the powerful Ghorid Empire that once stretched from Iran to India. The second tallest brick minaret in the world, Djam lies in the heart of central Afghanistan’s wild Ghor Province. Surrounded by 2,000 metre-high mountains and by the remains of what many believe to have been the lost city of Turquoise Mountain – one of the greatest cities of the Middle Ages – Djam is, even today, one of the most inaccessible and remote places in Afghanistan. When Freya Stark travelled there, few people in the world had ever laid eyes on it or managed to reach the desolate valley in which it lies. Her journey from Kabul to Kandahar and Herat was difficult and often dangerous but her account shines with humour and is adorned with beautiful descriptions of the land she journeyed through and the people she encountered. A celebrated portrait of Afghanistan and its history, The Minaret of Djam is a poignant reminder that this was once far more than just a country ravaged by war and the political games of the world’s superpowers.


Illustrado
Syjuco, Miguel: Illustrado* (2008)

* 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize

Survey #38

Review: © Kirkus Review: An ambitious debut novel, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, introduces an author of limitless promise. This isn’t the only recent debut that finds the author using his own name and drawing from his own life for his protagonist, but it dazzles as brightly as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002). The framing is simple, though nothing is clear, and everything encompassed remains open to question. It begins with the death of Crispin Salvador, a writer once revered in his native Philipines, but whose literary legacy has become far more controversial since he exiled himself to Manhattan. After the discovery of his dead body floating in the Hudson River, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the initial report lists suicide as the cause of death, though his protég&ecaute;, the student writer Miguel Syjuco, suspects murder. For more than two decades, Salvador had been working on a manuscript that was to be his life’s crowning achievement, one that would explore and illuminate the corruption and scandal at the heart of his native country for more than a century. The young narrator returns to the Manila that both writers had left, hoping to discover both the location of the manuscript and the truth about his mentor. He tells his story in both the first and third persons, mixing fictional reality with dreams and excerpts from both Salvador’s work and his own work-in-progress biography of Salvador. The novel ultimately blurs the distinctions between life and art, and between protege and mentor, within what it calls “the ‘arbitrary scrim’ between fiction and nonfiction.” As it details generations of Filipino history through the lives of the two writers, it additionally employs techniques as contemporary as blogs and e-mail exchanges. Ultimately, the global interconnections know no boundaries: “When a butterfly flapped its wings in Chile, a child soldier killed for the first time in Chad, a sale was made on Amazon.com, and a book arrived in two days to divulge the urgencies outside our lives.” First novels rarely show such reach and depth.


Getting Stoned with Savages
Troost, J. Maarten: Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (2006)

Survey #39

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Using a format similar to that of his previous work, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Troost creates another comical and touching travel memoir. Troost and his wife, Sylvia, move from busy Washington, D.C., to Vanuatu, a nation made up of 83 islands in the South Pacific. As Sylvia works for a regional nonprofit, Troost immerses himself in the islands’ culture, an odd mix of the islanders’ thousand-year-old “kastoms” along with imperialist British and French influences. This really means that Troost gets to live in a nice house while he gets drunk on kava; dodges “a long inferno of magma and a cascade of lava bombs” at the “world’s most accessible volcano”; and checks out the “calcified” leftovers from one of Vanuatu’s not-so-ancient traditions, cannibalism. At the end of the book, the couple move to Fiji so that Sylvia will have state-of-the-art medical care when she gives birth to their first baby. While modern-day Fiji provides little fodder for Troost’s comic sensibilities, the birth of his son enables him to share some deeper thoughts and decide it is “time to stop looking for paradise.” A funny travelogue with a sentimental heart, Troost’s latest work genuinely captures the search for paradise as well as the need for home.


The Blue Sky
Tschinag, Galsan: The Blue Sky (2006)

Survey #40

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Galsan Tschinag is the German name taken by Irgit Shynykbai-oglu Dshurukuwaa, a Tuvan born in Mongolia in the early 1940s. Tschinag studied in Germany in the early ’60s and ended up leading the Tuvan people, dispersed under Communism, back to the High Altai mountain region. This autobiographical novel, the first of a trilogy, mines his Mongolian boyhood as a youngest child with an unusual devotion to his grandmother (who comes to live with his immediate family in their yurt). Galsan has aspirations to increase the family’s holdings to 1,000 animals and a yurt with a mirror and a suitcase. As Tuvan customs get disrupted by the Communist government’s attempts at societal homogenization, the boy continues to tend sheep without the company of his siblings (sent to boarding school) and turns to Arsylang, his dog, for companionship. The foundations for his natural ambitions disappear piecemeal. Tschinag offers softly outlined characters more in the oral tradition than that of the novel, and fly-on-the-wall depictions of the Tuvans, a generally nonaggressive, nomadic tribe with a knack for maxims and poetic superstitions. Descriptions of the Altai mountains, remarkable sky, and closeness to the flock are slow but rich. The book is filled with small pleasures.


Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
Vargas Llosa, Mario*: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977)

* 2010 Nobel Literature Prize

Survey #41

Review: © Kirkus Review: Of all the major South American novelists, Vargas Llosa may be the sunniest: he never tries too hard to hold back a sophisticated yet honest amusement at how oddly life usually moves around; his stories of 1950s Lima and Peru have a vernal lilt as well as an expected complexity. And this large new novel is both contrapuntal and positively jaunty. The (apparently autobiographical) narrator, Marie, is not yet 21, working as a newswriter for a mediocre Lima radio station–when his young, divorced aunt-by-marriage, Julia, arrives in town from Bolivia for a little amorous adventure on the rebound. . . only to find herself a wild oat sown by Marie, who puts a move on her right away. Julia, piqued by the novelty, goes along. And the flirtation turns into real romance, then into scandal, and–finally–into a brief but entertaining-for-as-long-as-it-lasts marriage. This bubbly romantic improbability is only one layer here, however–because interleaved with it are gothic yet hilarious radio soap-opera scripts written by yet another Bolivian export to Lima: Pedro Camacho, a humorless, 50-year-old, Argentine-hating troll who quickly becomes the hit of the town with his gory yet full-spirited tales of murder and obsession and ruin. (So intense and devoted is he that he even dresses up as his characters would while he writes, throwing himself utterly–and with priestly artistic purity–into his trashy but beautifully filled-out work.) Each serial, which Vargas Llosa presents as a throbbingly rococo story-summary, is more grotesque and ghastly than the next–until, at one point, Camacho, riding the crest, becomes so ornate and involved that he starts forgetting names and traits of his characters, confusing them; and eventually he has to resort to mass destruction (stadium riots, earthquakes in church) to kill everyone off and thus start clean. Two curves, then, meet in this book: the ascending, rather silly one of Marie and Julia’s affair, and the grand-guignol descending one of Camacho’s fall into incoherence and failure. And though the anything-but-heavyhanded Vargas Llosa doesn’t stick a pin at the meeting point, you’re aware of it nonetheless: storytelling is as subject to inexplicable natural laws–entropy, gravity, decomposition–as anything else. All done with the fondest savoring of the virtues of truly popular culture, innocence, imagination: a graceful, untaxing, sweetly subtle book.


One Day I Will Write About This Place
Wainaina, Binyavanga: One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011)

Survey #42

Review: © Kirkus Review: A colorful, at times surreal debut memoir about coming of age in the hyper-diverse culture of late-20th-century Kenya. Although he came from ethnically “mixed up” parents, Caine Prize–winning author Wainaina had an ordinary childhood. During the week, he went to school and on weekends played at his Uganda-born mother’s hair salon, “the only proper [one] in Nakuru…the fourth largest town Kenya.” His father, head of the national Pyrethrum Board, was a member of Kenya’s most populous—and politically powerful—ethnic group, the Gikuyu. When the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta (also a Gikuyu) died in 1978 and Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, took over, life began to change. To the outside world, Moi’s Kenya appeared “an island of peace” in the sea of conflict-ridden East Africa. But the reality was far different. There was fierce competition between the many Kenyan tribes, and the country’s cacophony of language and sounds was little more than background noise to be endured rather the celebrated. By 1983, Moi, who had survived a coup attempt the year before, was showing tribal favoritism. Top-ranked high schools denied Wainaina, an excellent student, entrance at the same time that Kalenjins began replacing Gikuyus throughout the education system. As national politics turned increasingly bitter, “a fever of rapture-seeking” seized Kenya. With the country’s university system in disarray, Wainaina traveled to post-apartheid South Africa to study finance. Homesick, he withdrew both socially and emotionally and immersed himself in literature. He returned to Kenya but eventually went back to South Africa, ostensibly to finish his degree. Instead, he found himself actively ordering the chaos of culture, language and politics around him “on the written page.” Language is clearly the author’s preferred mode of structuring the world, but it is also the plaything he uses with idiosyncratic grace and brilliant immediacy to capture “the scattered, shifting sensations” of memories and emotions long past.


Omeros
Walcott, Derek*: Omeros (1990)

* 1992 Nobel Literature Prize

Survey #43

Review: © Publishers Weekly: This magnificent modern epic by poet-playwright Walcott (The Arkansas Testament) follows the wanderings of a present-day Odysseus and the inconsolable sufferings of those who are displaced and traveling with trepidation toward their homes. Written in seven circling books and magically fluid tercets, the poem illuminates the classical past and its motifs through an extraordinary cast of contemporary characters from the island of Santa Lucia: humble fishermen Achilles, Philoctete and Hector; a feverishly beautiful house servant, Helen, who incites her own Trojan War; a local seer, Seven Seas; and the narrator himself, who wanders to the States, to Europe and back again although he knows, “the nearer home, the deeper our fears increase, / that no house might come to meet us on our own shore.” Singularly ambitious, and as moving as the works of its namesake, Omeros (Greek for “Homer”) remains accessible despite its complexity and divergent strains, which include the privations of Native Americans, African natives and exiled English colonials.


No. 4 Imperial Lane
Weisman, Jonathan*: No. 4 Imperial Lane (2015)

* RPCV Philippines 1988-1990

Survey #44

Review: © Publishers Weekly: Weisman, a New York Times economic policy reporter, successfully weaves a captivating story in his fiction debut. In 1988, David Heller, an affluent American college student on exchange at the University of Sussex to escape a home life consumed by grief, decides to extend his stay in order to spend more time with his British girlfriend. He takes a position in Brighton as a caregiver to keep his residency permit. Inside No. 4 Imperial Lane, David meets middle-aged Hans Bromwell, the quadriplegic he must care for; his sister, Elizabeth; and her beautiful teen daughter, Cristina. The Bromwells, children of the late Gordon Bromwell, a Tory member of parliament, live in the eccentric squalor of lapsed aristocracy; they make do through the sale of their remaining antiques. Elizabeth dreams of getting a job—it’d be her first—but her only education was from a tutor who knew nothing but Shakespeare. David finds himself drawn into the Bromwells’ world. Through letters and stories, David learns of Elizabeth’s marriage to a Portuguese military doctor and their life together in Africa in the waning, bloody days of the Portuguese empire. Weisman brings a reporter’s sensibility to the chapters in Africa, but doesn’t let it overshadow the storytelling, which has all the action and suspense of a good war story. The link between the third-person account of Elizabeth’s time in Africa and David’s first-person narrative in Brighton can feel disjointed at times, but Weisman imbues David with enough emotional heft to bridge these two stories about relationships, grief, and knowing how to return home.


I Didn't Do It For You
Wrong, Michela: I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation (2005)

Survey #45

Review: © Foreign Affairs: Wrong has written a penetrating history of Eritrea, starting with Italian colonialism, working her way through the 30-year struggle against Ethiopian occupation, and ending with independence, the pointless 1998 border war with Ethiopia, and the current dispiriting drift toward a police state. Her major theme is the raw deal the Eritrean nation has gotten from the rest of the world for much of the modern era. Italy, Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, of course, Ethiopia, have all exploited the country or ignored the welfare of its people. Few Americans know, for example, that the U.S. Army long ran a large intelligence base there, Kagnew Station, that housed over 4,000 people — at a time when Eritrea was an integral (albeit contested) part of Ethiopia and Washington had little regard for its national aspirations. Wrong has an eye for the telling anecdote, and the book’s many vignettes, rich characters, and empathetic writing make for excellent reading.


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