Sunday Salon: the Count-Down Post
As soon as December hits, I start feeling a calendar counting down in my head. The year’s end is in sight, the number of books I’ll read is increasingly finite, and it always freaks me out just a little bit. :) But I’ve read some marvelous books since my last Sunday Salon (in November). So let’s get to it!
First I finished listening to Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell on CD for the Classics Circuit. I’ll be writing about that one on the 17th, which is when Mrs. Gaskell will be visiting my blog! :) Then I turned to a Lost in Translation Challenge selection, The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski was a Polish foreign correspondent from the 50s onwards, and I’ve been hearing his praises for years, so I thought it’d be a great translated nonfiction choice. I thought this was his book about the Angolan civil war, but I was wrong (that one is Another Day of Life). Instead, this is a collection of essays/journal entries from his decades as a Sub-Saharan Africa correspondent, and he discusses a bunch of countries from Mali to Zanzibar and everything in between. He doesn’t really swing south of Tanzania and Sudan, but if you count Zanizibar as a country, he discusses fourteen of them. Anyway, the introduction had me hopeful: Kapuscinski mentions how Westerners tend to think generally about ‘Africa,’ which is silly considering the amount of countries and tribes/cultures it contains. But things went downhill from there. Kapuscinski generalises quite a bit about various ‘African’ characteristics, and most of the essays consist of his thoughts and impressions while travelling, versus stories of interactions with specific individuals. I found many of his thoughts to contain more than a pinch of racism, and I often considered abandoning this one. Why didn’t I? Well, even though Kapuscinski is awful at discussing people and cultures, he evokes landscapes wonderfully. And I kept expecting it to get better, since I’ve heard so many great things about him in the past. In the end, though, I wouldn’t recommend this one…it’s too full of racial generalisations and lacking in anything individual or specific for me to find it enlightening. I’m not sure if I’ll read any more Kapuscinski…when I was doing my honors project on the reconstruction of Bosnia, people kept mentioning The Soccer Wars to me. But if Kapuscinski generalises as much about the Balkans as he did about sub-Saharan Africa, I doubt I would enjoy it.
I finished up Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight after that. I reread it for the Really Old Classics Challenge and adored it! I gushed about it last week if you’re interested. I chose The Tiger Ladies by Sudha Koul, which was originally on my Women Unbound challenge list, to be my final memoir selection for the World Citizen Challenge instead. I loved this book! My favourite Salman Rushdie novel is Shalimar the Clown, which has large sections set in Kashmir both before its troubles began and afterwards. So I already had a cursory knowledge of the region, but reading Koul’s memories of growing up in Srinigar was simply magical. She’s really brought Kashmir, its landscapes, its traditions, its flavours, etc. to life. I learned so much, and the book made me even more sad about all the violence that engulfed Kashmir. I hope one day there’s peace, not only for its people, but so that I can visit! ;) Koul focuses on people: her grandmother and grandfather, her mother, and her own life as a schoolgirl and college student, which I think helped me connect immediately with the book. The last few chapters, when Koul moves to America and discusses raising her two daughters and the immigration dilemma, are a bit weaker, but they’re a small bit of the book, and the conclusion itself comes back strong. So I highly recommend this one to anyone who loves to ‘armchair travel’ or just enjoys books focused on women and their experience in different cultures! It would also be really neat to read both this one and Shalimar the Clown as a pair. :)
Originally, I was going to visit Canada with my final Orbis Terrarum read. But since I’ve been doing the Canadian Book Challenge, I decided to go for a different country in our hemisphere: Cuba, via Ruins by Achy Obejas. This slim novel is set in 1994 Cuba, when its Communism was crumbling due to the end of the USSR. It centers around Usnavy, a Cuban patriot who believed in the revolution and even believes in the current system; he refuses to cheat, even to help his wife and teenage daughter. But as the narrative goes on, following Usnavy’s day-to-day life, all of the principles upon which he’s built his life are challenged. Obejas set a marvelous tone: I immediately believed Usnavy and his voice, as a middle-aged man who has to face one crisis after another. She also has a wonderful sense of place: 1994 Havana seemed to spring up immediately around me. The plot itself is secondary to Usnavy’s development, which worked for me, but everyone once in awhile, Obejas would end a chapter abruptly with an ambiguous scene, and I would suddenly have no idea what was going on. My confusion only ever lasted a page or two, but it was a bit annoying. That being said, this is a wonderful, strong, fascinating book, and Obejas is a writer that I definitely want to read more of in the future. I’d highly recommend this to readers who don’t mind their books a bit ‘twisty’ and who enjoy character-centered novels. It’s almost a novella, at a mere 200 pages, but Obejas achieves much more in that space than other authors would in double that.
On my flight last Saturday, I read Emma, Vol. One by Kaoru Mori. This is my second experience with manga (the first was The Dreaming, Vol. One by Queenie Chan), but the first book I’ve read from right to left. It took me forever to figure out what order I was supposed to read the panels in, which was a bit frustrating. But the setting, Victorian England, was fun and the drawing style was nice. That being said, I have the same complaint I found in The Dreaming: superficial characters. While the book was a pleasant way to spend half an hour, I don’t find myself at all compelled to read further to find out what happens next. I have a few other manga books out from the library right now, and I’ll give them a good chance, but I have a feeling that this genre simply isn’t for me.
I was pleasantly surprised by Zadie Smith’s new essay collection, Changing My Mind. I’ve never read Smith before, but I definitely want to read more of her writing now! The collection is diverse, on everything from books to movies to travel to more personal stories about her family. While I enjoyed most of the essays, the ones I loved the most and wanted to quote in their entirety were about Middlemarch and Katherine Hepburn! :) Every once in awhile, there was a review of a contemporary book or author…I found these the weakest essays in the collection, and it was the only time that I began rolling my eyes and impatiently checking to see how many pages were left. Unfortunately, the book ends with an incredibly long essay on David Foster Wallace that left me really bored; I was saddened by the weak finish. That being said, those are only three or four essays in the book, and the rest of them were absolutely delightful! Since all of these essays were published in other places first, Smith’s tone changes depending on the venue, which was fun to watch. And it starts out really strong, with an essay on Their Eyes Were Watching God that will completely make you want to read the book if you haven’t already! I was originally going to read this for the Women Unbound Challenge, but have decided to count it for the My Year of Reading Dangerously one instead, for which I wanted to read more essays. And I highly recommend it to people who enjoy essays, or even people looking to read more of the genre! The collection made me laugh, it made me think, it even had me tear up once; Smith is a marvelous writer, and it really shows.
Vasilly and Maree encouraged me to join them in reading The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox, and Chris joined in. I’m not sure if we’re planning a big group review or what, so I’ll keep my thoughts brief. I had high expectations of this after hearing it featured an angel who has an affair with a mortal. But Knox’s writing style and my reading style just aren’t the best of friends. It often felt a bit clunky and heavy-handed, the characters felt stale to me, and it took 200 pages before I really engaged with the book. My engagement lasted about 50 pages, and then I got bored again. I also found several of the key plot points flimsy…Knox didn’t provide them with enough backing for me to find them believable. All of that being said, I can totally see why other people would love this book! Just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its strengths, and I’m pretty sure Vasilly, Maree, and Chris will all disagree with me. ;) So don’t write it off just because of me. (ETA: Maree reviewed it last year, and so go read why she loved it so much that here she is a year later rereading it!)
The Farming of the Bones by Edwidge Danticat was my last choice for the Caribbean Lit Challenge. I was expecting to love Danticat, and I totally did! Her characters were memorable, her writing style lyrical without being flowery, her plotting kept me flipping the pages to find out what would happen next. This is a historical novel, set in the 1930s Dominican Republic, and featuring Haitian maid Amabelle. If you know any history of Haiti/Dominican Republic, you can immediately guess what the book centers around; in 1937, Dominican military dictator Trujillo carried out a massacre of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. But while the book is often sad and/or stressful, it’s not excessively bloody and it never feels voyeuristic. Also, although the massacre forms the middle of the book, there’s enough story after the massacre to allow the reader to focus as much on Amabelle’s development as on the massacre itself. So what I’m saying is, as someone who tends to shy away from novels that sound too depressing, I’d encourage similar readers to give this a shot anyway. The book didn’t make me sob, although of course it made me sad and it made me think. But mainly, Amabelle felt so real, and I was so caught up in her story, that she formed the heart of the book. Danticat is a wonderful writer, and I can’t wait to read more of her next year! (As a sidenote, the Caribbean Lit Challenge has proven one of my favourites this year, with each book that I read being wonderful. So if you haven’t checked out Caribbean authors before-and I hadn’t-I’d highly encourage you to remedy that!)
Finally, I finished up my twelfth Canadian Book Challenge read: Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill (aka The Book of Negroes). I know this one has gotten quite a bit of good reviews in the blogosphere…some might even consider it hype…but I this book exceeded all of my high expectations. It’s wonderful! It’s epic in the best sense of the word, but even though it spans continents and decades and key historical events, it’s always focused intimately on Aminata herself. I loved this so much, I can’t possibly convey it to you. It begins in London, with Aminata explaining that as a former slave, she’s testifying to Parliament on behalf of the abolitionists, and she’s also writing the story of her life. So the book is all told in Aminata’s voice, looking back over the years. Hill performed this beautifully; Aminata is so consistent, so believable, I was immediately pulled into the story and didn’t want to stop until the final page (usually, I rotate the books I’ve reading, but this one I read cover to cover, mainly over one day). And Hill evokes each place Aminata lives so wonderfully, from a small village in modern-day Mali to a South Carolina indigo farm to other places I won’t mention so as not to give away the plot…I felt like I was really there. There are some awful things in the story, like Aminata’s passage on the slave ship, and Hill doesn’t shy away from the sheer, inexpressible horror that slaves went through. But at the same time, he doesn’t dwell excessively on them, and the story is much more about Aminata’s triumph in these conditions than anything else. I don’t know how else to tell you to go read this book. But do! Please.
And that’s all the books I have to talk about. :) My reading has slowed quite a bit, since my three-year-old niece is visiting, and I’m watching her 8-10 hours a day. But on the weekends, my parents take over, so I spent yesterday soaking up four books, two of which I hope to finish later today! The nice thing is, reading fewer books means less of a review backlog.