The Forlorn Adventure by Amir Falique

This is my book from Brunei for the Read The World challenge. Brunei is one of the countries which is particularly difficult to find books from; so when I found this self-published ‘science fiction thriller’ on Amazon I snapped it up.

It is the story of A’jon, a man chosen to be Brunei’s first astronaut because of his expertise in cryptography. His mission is caught up in Dramatic Events, and [SPOILER ALERT, I guess], he is put in suspended animation for 500 years, floating in space, before being revived and brought back to earth where his cryptographic expertise once more gets him involved in Dramatic Events and [even more SPOILERY] he saves the world.

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Sadly it’s not very good; it’s the kind of book that makes people suspicious of self-publishing. This is a sample of the clunky prose and dialogue:

A’jon grabbed his fork and drove it into the middle of the plate. He twirled the fork several times until he grabbed the right amount, and then lifted it without a strand hanging and put it in his mouth. He was careful to not drop any of the sauce and get his new clothes dirty. His tongue reacted instantly to the food. “Mmm, that’s delicious!” he said while chewing the first bite.

“Makes me proud to be an Asian. Pasta originated from China before it was brought to Italy. It’s amazing how the combination of water and wheat can form such remarkable dough. You can mold it into almost any shape you like — fusilli, tagliatelle, ziti, rice vermicelli.”

With each bite, A’jon wrapped as much of the cheesy sauce round his tongue as he could before the flavor disappeared.

I’m resisting the urge to really pull this book apart; because it’s a soft target, and also because its flaws are essentially innocuous. It’s not particularly annoying or offensive, it’s just badly written.

» The picture is of the teapot roundabout in Kuala Belait, Brunei. It is © Rachel Walker and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Dante International by Sharon Kasanda

Dante International is my book from Namibia for the Read The World challenge.

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A few months ago, I picked a detective novel for Malaysia because I thought it would make a good change to read newly released genre fiction rather than decades-old literary stuff. This is what I said about that book:

21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Apparently I do not learn from my mistakes.

Dante International is not actually a detective novel — the central character is not a sleuth — but it is a crime novel/thriller; women are being murdered in Windhoek and suspicion falls on their boss, an attractive, sexually incontinent self-made businessman called Dante Dumeno.

It was readable enough, I guess, but not really my kind of thing. And I had some problems with the portrayal of Dante, who is a manipulative bullying sexual predator… but apparently we’re supposed to find that attractive in a bad-boy sort of way?

» The photo is Onymacris marginipennis (Breme, 1840), © Udo Schmidt and used under a CC by-sa licence. It’s a beetle from Namibia.

My Country, Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria by Andrée Blouin

I read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born — although she didn’t actually live there for very long.

Her father, Pierre Gerbillat, was a French businessman with a transport company in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He saw Andrée’s mother, Josephine Wouassimba, dancing in a local village and decided he wanted to marry her. Although she was already promised to somebody else, he offered such a large dowry that her parents were persuaded.

He was forty; she was thirteen. And although they were married according to local custom, they were not actually married under French law — not only that, he was already engaged to a Belgian woman, who he married very soon. And after briefly juggling two wives, he left Josephine and sent Andrée to an orphanage for mixed-race children run by nuns in Brazzaville. She was at the orphanage from the age of three until she was seventeen, when she managed to escape, literally by climbing over the wall.

Then she worked as a dressmaker, and had a sequence of relationships with white men, before getting involved in the campaign for independence, first in Guinea and then the Belgian Congo, where she was Chief of Protocol for the newly independent Republic of the Congo for the very brief period before Mobutu overthrew the government and she had to flee the country, and move to France.

So she’s an interesting subject. Although the stuff which is most obviously notable about her — the politics — was not actually the most engaging part of the book, for me. The most powerful section is about severity of the orphanage, and the sheer cruelty of the nuns; and throughout the book the racial dynamics are particularly thought-provoking.

She was a mixed-race child at a time when they were so rare that they were shipped of to special orphanages and coerced to marry each other, to reduce their disruptive impact on society. And it made her even more of an outsider that she was cut off from normal African society for her entire childhood.

Then as an adult, she was a beautiful mixed-race woman who, despite having suffered at the hands of white institutions and individuals, was apparently only drawn to relationships with white men; one of whom she lived with, and had a child with, even though he was so racist that he would not allow her mother into their house.

And I don’t think she makes any comment herself about whether her partial whiteness made it easier or harder for her to be a woman taking a prominent role in the politics of independence, but it must have been relevant one way or another.

So there’s plenty of interesting material here. And it’s well written, for which the credit may go to Jean McKellar, who is credited as a ‘collaborator’; I don’t know exactly what that means in this case. It’s also out of print, though, and unless it sounds like it’s particularly relevant to your interests, I don’t think it’s so amazing that you need to seek it out.

Epitaph of a Small Winner* by Machado de Assis

I’ve already read a book from Brazil for the Read The World challenge, but I really enjoyed this so I thought I’d add it to the blog-pile.

I can’t remember why I picked this up, but I *really* enjoyed it. It’s a C19th novel which is ‘surprisingly modern’ — in scare quotes because that seems to be the default description and I don’t disagree, but I’m slightly uneasy about using ‘modern’ as a term of praise or even description.

It’s ‘modern’ because it’s written from the perspective of a dead man who makes lots of authorial asides, in a generally light tone, broken up into very short chapters (mostly less than a page), with self-referential stuff and intertextual commentary. In other words, it plays with form more than most C19th novels. But rather than comparing it to the modernists and post-modernists, it seems just as natural to refer back; not just to the inevitable Tristram Shandy, but things like Tom Jones and Byron’s Don Juan, which both have ‘authorial’ asides and interjections.

Anyway, that kind of quibbling aside: the application of the style to a very solidly C19th plot, about the lives and loves of the upper-middle classes, worked brilliantly for me. It was apparently just what I needed.

*A note on the title: in Portuguese it’s actually called Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, and some English translations give it the same title: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. I can’t really see why they felt the need to change it for this translation†, and it’s also bloody annoying when you’re shopping for a copy until you realise that it’s all the same novel, but there you go.

†A 1950s one by William S Grossman, incidentally.

21 Immortals by Rozlan Mohd Noor and Ripples by Shih-Li Kow

These are a couple of books from Malaysia which I read for the Read The World challenge, both picked because I thought they would make a change compared to some of what I read for the challenge. For a start, they’re both contemporary works, rather than the 20, 30, 40 year old books I often end up reading. And 21 Immortals: Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders is a crime novel, while Ripples and other stories is, obviously, a books of short stories.

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21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Ripples is more my usual thing: more ‘literary’, anyway. The stories are interlinked, each picking up some detail or character from the story before, and they are surprisingly varied in style: some are low key stories about the details of everyday life, others have more overtly dramatic subjects or are fantastical tales. Not all of them are equally successful, but there was plenty here to keep me reading, at least. At least with short stories, if you don’t like one much, there’s always another one along in a minute. And if this review seems a bit vague and non-commital: well, the truth is that it has been a few days since I finished Ripples; and although I quite liked it while I was reading it, it didn’t leave a profound impression.

So, slightly underwhelming choices for Malaysia, but hey-ho, on to the next thing.

» ‘Summer Storm over Kuala Lumpur’ is © Trey Ratcliff and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

This is a grim but fascinating book. Obviously I knew that black people in the southern states of the US had a pretty rough time of it in the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, what with disenfranchisement and segregation and lynching. But I didn’t appreciate that slavery re-emerged and continued right up to the 1940s.

How it worked was this: a black man would be arrested and charged with some minor offence like vagrancy or carrying a concealed weapon, and ordered to pay a fine plus costs, which would be more than they could afford. Their debt would then be paid off by a company or an individual, and the black man would be sent to work off the money he ‘owed’.

And even that legal process was a complete sham, so the effect was that any black man could, at any time, be picked up off the streets and sold into forced labour on plantations or in coal mines or whatever, where they would be shackled, kept in appalling conditions, thrashed regularly, and if they tried to escape they would be hunted down with dogs. And if they had nominally worked off the debt they owed, their ‘masters’ could always claim they had incurred costs and extend their time at will — not that anyone seems to have been checking the paperwork anyway.

I suppose what I found so shocking is that this isn’t just analogous to slavery: it’s the full slavery experience. There’s even an argument that these men were treated even worse than antebellum slaves, because at least those slaves were valuable assets that their owners could sell or use as collateral for loans. The debt slaves were effectively rented rather than owned, and it was no particular financial loss to their renters if they died. And die they did, particularly in the mines, by their dozens.

There were many thousands of African Americans living in these kinds of explicit forced labour; and that is on top of the much larger number living as sharecroppers and similar exploitative arrangements.

It makes for interesting, depressing reading. And it provokes all kinds of thoughts about power and race and America and so on, but one broad conclusion I would pick out is this: major societal change is hard and slow. Perhaps the situation could have changed faster, with more political will from the North and the federal government, but there was no enthusiasm for another huge internal conflict on the subject of race, and the one serious attempt to crack down on forced labour petered out as the scale of the problem became clear.

But even with all the political will in the world, it would surely have taken decades to normalise the situation of black people in the south as full citizens. Which is something we should bear in mind when we blithely talk about intervening in other countries with enormously entrenched social problems.

Another thought that occurs to me: it’s kind of interesting that Washington DC has a holocaust museum rather than a slavery museum. There’s nothing wrong with a holocaust museum — they could have both! — but it does seem like it might be easier to confront the horrors of a a great sin and a great tragedy when they happen in another country rather than your own.

And that in turn provokes a line of thought about my own country’s history, and to what extent the British have come to terms with the murkier implications of having been an empire. But that will have to wait for another day, I think.

Mirabella and the Pearl of Chulothe by Laila Al Bellucci

This is my book from Oman for the Read The World challenge. It’s a YA fantasy novel set in an English boarding school, so it’s a slightly odd choice for my purposes; but there weren’t many good alternatives, and it was cheap on kindle, so I thought I might as well read it.

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It’s not very good. For a start it’s unoriginal; that isn’t a disaster in itself, but the book’s other weaknesses are its prose style, plotting, characterisation, world-building, atmosphere, and dialogue. It’s even very badly edited.

God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène

This is a novel from 1960 about the railway workers’ strike on the Niger-Dakar railway 13 years earlier.

When I said in my Read The World challenge status update that I’d read 16½ books this year, this was the half book; it has taken me rather a long time to finish. Mainly I think that’s because it is written in rather a high style. Elaborate descriptions, speechifying and a general tone of Serious Business.

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I’m always wary of commenting on prose style for books read in translation, but it reads like a conscious attempt to present the strike as an epic struggle — which indeed it is, featuring a large cast of characters in a many month confrontation with the company and the colonial power, involving a riot, speeches, a trial, a protest march, police brutality, starvation, trickery, and murder, all in a serious cause which is at its root the assertion of the human dignity of the African workers. So the style is not inappropriate; but it’s not particularly to my taste.

Still, it’s an interesting and impressive novel, even if I wasn’t always grabbed by it. Perhaps i’ve just read too much post-colonial fiction recently.

There are certainly lots of good things about it; it’s often vivid and atmospheric, for a start. I liked the prominence of female characters who are not just defined by their relationships to men, but take an active role in the strike. I think it probably deserves a more enthusiastic response than I’m giving it; but hey-ho.

Sembène was also a film director, and while trying to sort out what his name was (the edition I read had ‘Sembène Ousmane’ but everywhere else seems to use Ousmane Sembène’) I found there was a book of interviews with him about film, which might have made a more interesting choice for Senegal for the Read The World challenge. Or not, of course.

» The photo is of people playing football in front of the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar; it’s © Jeff Attaway and used under a CC attribution licence.

Read The World challenge: status report, 2013

As of August 1st, I’ve been reading my way round the world for five years and I’m at 135 countries accounted for — or 99 books read since I started (99½, actually). You can check the map here.

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Which means I’ve read 16 (and a half!) this year. Which is down from the rate I managed at first — 53 in the first two years — but about in line with what I’ve done since. So at least I haven’t slowed down even more. Or stopped altogether.

None of those 16 were absolutely stand-out classics, but there are several I can recommend if they sound like the kind of thing that would interest you:

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is well-written, interesting and informative. It’s becoming ever less topical as the situation in Syria moves on; but as long as we have dictatorships, the subject of life as a dissident in a (wobbling, unstable) police state is still going to have relevance.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner is a book that tells a remarkable story, of a man who survived the Khmer Rouge and ended up winning an Oscar for his performance in a film about it.

Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi is yet another book about dictatorship, this time a dark, strange, poetic novel which I thought was very worth reading.

And not recommendations exactly, but a few books which stand out in my memory because of their subject matter rather than their literary qualities: 88 Days (Somali piracy), The Chronicles of Dathra (Kuwaiti chick-lit, sort of), and African Philosophy (African philosophy).

» Cupid Shooting Arrows at the World Globe is attributed to Otto van Veen and apparently 1608ish. From the Met.

African Philosophy: Myth & Reality by Paulin J. Hountondji

This is my book from Benin for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it because I fancied a change from post-colonial fiction, and then regretted it almost immediately; I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about philosophy as a discipline.

Actually, though, I found it interesting and it really did make a nice change. It was first published, as Sur la “philosophie africaine”, in 1976, and is largely framed as a response to earlier works in the field. So it provides an interesting window into a discussion I knew nothing about.

Obviously it’s a narrow window, entirely shaped by Hountondji’s framing, and I don’t have the knowledge to judge how fair and accurate his presentation is. But it still offers an insight into something that would otherwise have passed me by.

The tradition he is arguing with is a kind of ethnological idea of philosophy, where for example, Bantu cultural ideas about death and morality and what have you were investigated, arranged into a system, and then presented as ‘Bantu philosophy’. Hountondji argues that this is not only a misapplication of the word ‘philosophy’ but a damaging one. Rather, ‘African philosophy’ should refer to philosophical works written by Africans; the same thing, in fact, as philosophy from anywhere else.

I was very much predisposed to agree with this argument: so much so that I felt the need to step back every so often and play devil’s advocate. Not because I had any long-standing opinions about African philosophy, of which I was completely ignorant, but because I have a long-standing peeve about the vague, hand-wavy way people use the word ‘philosophy’. It’s rather like ‘poetry’ in that respect.

Still, you can understand the impulse that led people to things like ‘Bantu philosophy’. Given the context of colonialism, there is/was a value in any assertion that Africans are capable of interesting thought that is distinct from that brought by colonialists and worthy of study in its own right.

Whereas if you insist on the narrow definition of philosophy, then there is almost no African philosophical tradition; certainly very little ‘authentically African’ philosophy that precedes or is separate from the stuff brought over by Europeans. That’s just an artefact of an oral society. It’s perfectly possible to do philosophy without writing it down — it was good enough for Socrates — but it doesn’t survive; we only know about Socrates because of Plato.

But things like ‘Bantu philosophy’ are a bad solution to that problem. Firstly, because it perpetuates the idea that Africa is so exotic/primitive/whatever that all our approach to it must be through an ethnographic lens, just as African sculptures end up in a different museum to the Picassos and Modiglianis that they inspired.

One result of that is that it strips away any sense of individual creativity: those African sculptures get labelled with a tribe and a place, and not the name of the individual sculptor. Similarly, ‘folktales’ get stripped down to a simple one-page version based on what the researcher thinks is the kernel, and both the name and the creativity of the individual storyteller get lost. Which of course is pretty much the opposite of how we treat poets, artists and philosophers in our own culture, where if anything we are overly obsessed with the idea of individual genius.

And lastly, the very process of taking a lot of different sources — traditional stories, received opinion, religious ideas — and systematising them into a coherent philosophy is itself pretty dubious. Hountondji argues, I think correctly, that the systematiser is imposing his own ideas far more than he is revealing something which is there already.

All this stuff is no doubt old news to people in the field, but I found it interesting to read about.

In the second half of the book, Hountondji looks at some case studies. I have to admit, I skipped over most of the stuff about Anton-Wilhelm Amo: he’s an interesting figure, an African from what is now Ghana who somehow ended up teaching philosophy in German universities in the 1730s, but his surviving dissertations are minor contributions to the debate between the vitalists and the mechanists; I have no idea what that means, and frankly I don’t care enough about C18th philosophy to try to make sense of it.

But I did read Hountondji’s analyses of Kwame Nkrumah’s thought, which was rather more interesting, not least for some second-hand insight into another set of arguments about which I was ignorant: about class, colonialism, capitalism, Africanism and so on.

» The videos are because, well, I don’t have many immediate associations with Benin, and  pictures of bronze plaques from the British Museum felt a bit inappropriate given the subject, so the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou seemed like as good a choice as any. Although do check those plaques out, if you’ve never seen them.

The Blue Sky: A Novel by Galsan Tschinag

A book from the perspective of the youngest child of a family of nomadic Tuvan sheep herders in Mongolia. Apparently it’s the first book of an autobiographical trilogy,* along with The Gray Earth and The White Mountain.

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It’s set in the communist Mongolia of the 40s, although the politics is something remote in this book: both because the family is literally remote from the centres of power, and because it is seen through the eyes of a child, for whom it is much less important than the day to day life with the sheep. Still, the influence hangs over them: the father has been assigned quotas he has to meet, in wool and wolf hides and other things, that interfere with the proper management of the herd; the older siblings are taken away to be educated in town; and even the idea of becoming a prosperous farmer is dangerous because it risks being labelled a kulak.

Apparently the conflict between communism and the traditional way of life features more directly in the next volume, when the boy goes to school. Which actually sounds like a more interesting subject to me, so perhaps I’ll pick up a copy at some point.

Most of the book is from the very narrow perspective of a small child: his world is barely wider than his extended family and their cluster of yurts. So the book is about family dynamics: the tension between his father and uncles, the boy’s relationship with his parents, his grandmother and his dog; and about the details of daily life: the food, the sheep, the landscape, the weather.

All of which is interesting in a cultural/ethnographical sort of way; more importantly, it’s well written and evocative.

The Blue Sky was translated from the original German by Katharina Rout. It is my book from Mongolia for the Read The World challenge.

* That’s the author’s own description. But the book is also described as a ‘novel’. So I don’t know what the balance of autobiography and fiction is.

» The photo, ‘typical summer day’, is © Kit Seeborg and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait by Danderma

Part of the point of the Read the World challenge was to read things that would never have found normally. The Chronicles of Dathra certainly fits that description; it is self-published Kuwaiti chick-lit. According to the blurb:

Dathra is the story of a kind hearted pretty girl from Kuwait whose qualities are hidden beneath her excessive layers of fat and shabby fashion sense. Dathra, like everyone else, is trying to live her life to the fullest and find love. Only her insatiable appetite and irresistible cravings are getting in her way and subjecting her to the scrutiny of a society where looks are everything.

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It feels like it’s aiming to be Bridget Jones’s Diary; but Bridget Jones is a basically healthy woman who wants to be a bit thinner but doesn’t have the commitment to diet properly, whereas Dathra is dangerously overweight and has an unhealthy psychological relationship with food. She lies to leave work early because she has a food craving; she eats enormous amounts when she’s upset; she has aggressive public tantrums when she can’t get the food she wants; she breaks up an engagement because of a disagreement over food; she puts herself into hospital by overeating.

So there’s some tonal weirdness going on, as the book comes across as darker and stranger than I think it means to. The book seems to have the same lack of self-awareness that it makes fun of in Dathra; neither of them are quite coming across in the way they intend. Or perhaps I’ve misjudged the author’s intentions completely.

It made an interesting change, anyway. Presumably there is an enormous variety of fiction being published all around the world all the time: thrillers, romances, sci-fi, chick-lit, and for that matter all kinds of literary fiction. But the tiny sliver of it that ever makes it into English translation — and few countries even have one book translated per decade — tends to all be much the same: serious, important, highbrow, and almost always political. Which is frustrating. This at least is a book written in the last few years about everyday life for wealthy but otherwise ordinary Kuwaitis.

» The photo, ‘McDonald’s Drive Thru – Surra, Kuwait’, is © Samira/Mink and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi

This is my book from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the Read The World challenge (which was still the Belgian Congo when Sony Lab’ou Tansi was born and was Zaire when he died).

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It is yet another book about dictatorship — a sequence of dictatorships in this case, each as violent and capricious as the one before. From the very first scene, in which a man refuses to die even as his body is hacked into ever smaller pieces in front of his family, it is unremittingly brutal and full of impossible things. It is, um, mythic? symbolic? surreal? I suppose you could call it magical realism, except I don’t think it fits in the realist tradition at all.

As I say, it is about a sequence of dictators, and one of the striking aspects of the book is the sense of violence just spawning more violence. So in the first few chapters it is focussed on a handful of protagonists and it seems like it is about violence, politics and revenge on that personal level. But then they die and the focus moves on to the next generation, but it still seems like a family story; then it moves on again, and again, and everything that seemed specific and personal — all the particular details and motivations — increasingly just seem to be part of the pattern.

It’s dark, poetic and certainly worth reading.

» The photo, of ‘President Mobutu at a parade of the “Corps des Volontaires de la République,” Kinshasa, Zaire, 1967’ was taken by Eliot Elisofon and is from the Smithsonian. I’ve cropped it to fit in the post; I think it’s worth checking out the full version, though.

The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó

Albert Salvadó is an Andorran novelist; The Teacher of Cheops is the only one of his books to be translated into English, and it is, unsurprisingly, my book from Andorra for the Read The World challenge.

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It is, as the title suggests, a historical novel set in ancient Egypt. It tells the story of a slave, Sedum, who gains his freedom and rises through the 4th Dynasty equivalent of the Civil Service; along the way he is tutor to the young Pharaoh-to-be, Cheops.

It was OK. I can’t get very excited about it, but apart from a rather self-indulgent plot twist at the end, it was fairly inoffensive.

» The photo is from the British Museum: ‘view of a road lined by trees, with a river next to it (the Nile), leading to the pyramids, Khafre, Khufu [i.e. Cheops] and Menkaura, which are visible in the background; Giza, Egypt, 1920s’.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner

Survival in the Killing Fields is my book from Cambodia for the Read The World challenge. Haing Ngor was a doctor in pre-revolutionary Phnom Penh. That alone was enough to make him a target for the Khmer Rouge, but he managed to survive their regime through lies, determination, judgement and blind luck. Later he made it to America, was cast in the film The Killing Fields, and won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

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Which is a remarkable story, and superficially one of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity; except that really, even an Academy Award is no kind of compensation for forced labour, torture, exile, and the death of most of your family. And in the Epilogue written for this edition, 15 years after the original publication, we learn that Ngor had a pretty rough time of it in the US — which I guess you have to say is not surprising, given all he’d been through, that he was living as a refugee with limited English, and that frankly he seems to have been a somewhat difficult man even before the psychological scarring of the Khmer Rouge years. The final tragic twist is that he was shot dead outside his home in Los Angeles in what was probably but not definitely a normal, non-political robbery.

So it’s a dark book. It would be difficult to read except that the matter-of-fact way that it’s told keeps it from being as harrowing as it might be.

In some ways I would have liked to read a non-Khmer Rouge book for Cambodia, because it seems a pity to always see these countries through the lens of their most spectacular historical traumas. But I’m glad I read this, even so. In some ways all these political atrocities start to blur together, all endless variations on a theme — torture, paranoia, propaganda, casual violence — but somehow they all have their own distinctive local flavour. The Khmer Rouge see to have been characterised by a particularly nasty combination of anti-intellectualism, viciousness and incompetence.

» The photo is a shot from the film.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod

This is the novelised true story of Elisabeth Samson, a freeborn black woman in C18th Suriname, when it was a Dutch colony built on slave labour. She became one of the richest landowners in the colony and fought a legal battle for the right to marry a white man, successfully arguing that Dutch law superseded the colonial law against it.

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The introduction explains that it is the result of twelve years of historical research, and I think that’s a strength and a weakness: the best thing about the book is the amount of interesting historical detail, but it does feel a bit like a novel written by a historian. It is solid but unremarkable as literature.

And perhaps because the personal stuff — the dialogue and the characters’ inner lives — is relatively weak compared to the background information which has obviously been so carefully grounded in research, I found myself always second-guessing her portrayal of Elisabeth’s opinions and motivations. Especially since there is a tendency for racial/social issues to be explored in a rather unsubtle way by being put in the mouths of the characters; they sometimes slip into talking in long paragraphs, as though they were newspaper editorials.

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There are of course plenty of issues to explore. So for example, Elisabeth is presented somewhat as a heroic figure, standing up against the racial attitudes of the time, but she also kept slaves herself. And her battle for the right to marry a white man, and establish herself finally as a fully respectable member of colonial society, hardly makes her a fighter for the rights of black people more generally. Cynthia Mc Leod generally presents her as right-thinking but constrained by her time; she was after all in a vulnerable position. But a less sympathetic interpretation might also be possible.

But history is messy that way; and she would still be a remarkable figure whatever she was like as a person.

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I found it engaging and enjoyable, although I was engaged more by the history than the fiction, so I wonder whether it might have been even better as straight biography. Maybe not.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod (trans. Brian Doyle) is my book from Suriname for the Read The World challenge.

» All three images are from the British Museum. The toucan and the caiman are from an album entitled Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects &c, ca. 1701-1705; the toucan is by Maria Sibylla Merian, the caiman is attributed to her daughter Dorothea Graff. The engraving ‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave‘ was engraved by William Blake in 1793 for the first volume of J.G. Stedman’s Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the revolted slaves of Surinam, after an illustration by Stedman.

The Diesel by Thani Al-Suwaidi

I actually finished this about a week ago, but I’ve been busy doing other things: hacking, snorting, waking up in the night with my lungs apparently trying to invert themselves.

But this morning I feel much more human, so: this is my book from the United Arab Emirates for the Read The World challenge. It’s a short novella written from the point of view of a transgender singer, and I was excited to find it, because the few books I’d found from the UAE looked frankly pretty terrible; and gender issues in a rapidly-changing Islamic monarchy… that’s got to be an interesting subject, right?

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It didn’t quite live up to my hopes in that respect. I think that what has been happening in the Gulf states recently is really interesting: most spectacularly represented by the building of the Burj Khalifa, the World Cup being awarded to Qatar, the money being pumped into Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. But the Arabic version of this book (al-Dizil) was published in 1994, and given the speed the Gulf states have been changing, that’s a long 19 years.

And the style is so literary that I’m not sure I would have been completely confident that it was about someone who was transgender if it didn’t say as much in the introduction — though I expect it would be more obvious if you were familiar with the cultural context. The references are clear enough, but there is so much other stuff which is apparently magical or symbolic or poetic — non-literal, anyway — that I wouldn’t have known to take it them at face value.

Which is fine — I (often) like prose which tends to the poetic — but it doesn’t leave me feeling any better informed about social/sexual/gender/political issues in the Gulf. Still, my expectations aside, it should be judged on its own terms as a poetic narrative. And it is interesting, often effective, sometimes striking, sometimes annoyingly opaque.

During the Read The World challenge I have rarely felt that books were too foreign for me (though perhaps that just means I’m missing a lot). But in this case, with the combination of an allusive style and a sensitive subject matter, I feel more strongly than usual that I’m probably missing something.

» Burj Khalifa , Dubai is © Ahmad Al Zarouni and used under a CC by-nc licence. The photo doesn’t have much to do with the book, really, but hey-ho.

The Republic of San Marino by Charles de Bruc

… or to give him his full Ruritanian title, ‘Comte Charles de Bruc, Chargé d’Affaires de la République de St Marin à Paris, Grand Croix de l’Ordre Équestre de Saint Marin, Officier de l’Ordre des SS. Maurice et Lazare, etc.’ Although I guess even that’s not his full title, because it ends with ‘etc’. This book was translated in 1880 from the French*, which is presumably why his title isn’t given in the more obvious choices of either English or Italian.

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The fact that a Sammarinese diplomat should write a self-serving history of the country isn’t really a surprise;  it’s perhaps more surprising that an American writer should feel the need to translate it. I mean, it’s interesting that an independent republican city-state should survive, independent, all the way through the middle ages, the Renaissance and the unification of Italy into the modern age; but this book is not a particularly riveting account of how it happened. It doesn’t help that it tends to flatter itself; here’s an especially unsubtle example:

Their perseverance in good works, their energy in adversity, their manly love of liberty, the scrupulous loyalty with which they had kept their engagements, their immovable fidelity to their obligations, their tenacity, and their valor inspired the respect and esteem even of their enemies.

The whole book makes it sound like they managed to preserve their independence through the sheer force of their courage and virtue; presumably it was actually because they were inaccessible, strategically unimportant and just lucky.

Reading the Wikipedia article, it sounds like potentially the most interesting period of their history occurred after this book was published. The country had a fascist government from 1923, and was a single-party state from 1926, but still chose to remain neutral during WWII; then from 1945-57 they had the first elected communist government in Europe, which in turn fell in a constitutional crisis/revolution. There must be some good stories to be told about that lot.

However, I can’t be too grumpy about this book, because it was never going to be easy to find a book from San Marino for the Read The World challenge, and this was available, short, and downloaded for free from these guys. Cheap at the price.

* Saint-Marin : Ses Institutions, Son Histoire. Comte Charles de Bruc blah blah blah, Paris, 1876. The translation is by William Warren Tucker.

» San Marino is © Trent Strohm and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Books of the year 2012

Now I list (most of) the books I read on Goodreads, it’s pretty easy to glance back over the books I read in 2012. And I can report the sad fact that I didn’t give a single book a five star rating last year. As the person who gives those scores, I know exactly what a crude measure of quality they are; but still, it suggests that there wasn’t anything which absolutely blew me away, and looking over the list, that seems about right.

Plenty of good stuff, though. At the less literary end, there were two books about public health issues which I found particularly thought-provoking: David Nutt’s Drugs without the Hot Air, which assesses drugs policy in the light of the evidence, and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma, about institutional sources of distortion in drug research.

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It is a good compilation of interviews with Londoners by Craig Taylor. The other London book I particularly enjoyed this year was Birds in London by W.H. Hudson, from 1898; but that might be sitting at rather a niche intersection of interests to recommend for general readers.

Sporting memoirs are a particularly frustrating genre. You always hope that they will offer some genuine insight into the backstage world, and they turn out to be anodyne pap. Andre Agassi’s Open is unusually honest and unusually good.

The Read The World challenge meant yet more first-person accounts of political upheaval. A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is immediate, raw, and a bit rough around the edges; From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe is more literary and polished.

More far-flung politics in The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah; Ghana this time, and dense, spiky fiction rather than memoir.

One of the absolute stand-out novels that I read in the past few years was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Gilead couldn’t quite live up to it; but it’s still a very fine novel.

Other novels worth at least a mention: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore; The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst; Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. None of them are perfect but they’re all worth reading.

And I don’t seem to have read much poetry this year, but I particularly enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s Balloon Pop Outlaw Black.

Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío

Beyond the Islands is set in the Galapagos. It’s a novel in the form of a set of eight stories, each about a different character. Each picks up from where the previous one left off, and there is continuity and overlap, but they are somewhat separate stories; eight narrative arcs rather than one overarching one.

The translation, by Amalia Gladhart, is new, but the novel was originally published in 1980. And so, not surprisingly, there is a bit of the old magical realism going on. That term probably now gets used too widely to be helpful — if it ever was — but this is a late C20th South American novel in which magical things occur, so it’s probably fair to use it here.

And although I get annoyed by some of the novels that seem to show magical-realist influence — novels that insert fabulous or improbable events as a rather lazy way of trying to seem more interesting — in this case it works pretty well. Perhaps because it is central to the whole structure and tone of the book: it’s not just being used as a decorative flourish.

Anyway, I don’t have anything very interesting to say (it’s too close to Christmas for thinkfulness), but I did enjoy it, on the whole. Beyond the Islands is my book from Ecuador for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture of the flightless cormorant is by me.

The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishra

Hemanta Mishra is a Nepali conservationist who, among other things, was part of the campaign to set up Nepals’ first national park, primarily to protect what is usually referred to as the Indian Rhinoceros, but which he refers to, for understandable nationalistic reasons, as the Asian one-horned rhinoceros.

This book is a memoir and is primarily a book about people rather than rhinos; that is, about the practicalities and politics of conservation, rather than the behaviour and habits of Rhinoceros unicornis.

So he has to deal with farmers whose crops are being damaged by rhinos; deter poachers; encourage tourism; work with bureaucrats and foreign NGOs; to learn from the practical experience of rangers and trackers; to capture rhinos for captive breeding programmes overseas; and after a brief battle with his conscience, he organises a ritualistic rhino hunt for the new king to kill a rhino for traditional symbolic purposes.

For most of the book he is telling a conservation success story; the population of rhinos in Nepal increases from about 100 to 650, including some relocated from Chitwan to a new national park elsewhere in Nepal that established a breeding population. Depressingly though, it ends with the country being thrown into chaos by the Nepalese Civil War, and poachers taking advantage of the power vacuum to kill about 270 rhinos in a few years. The book was published in 2008; as far as I can tell from a bit of quick googling, the situation has been stabilised and the rhinos are once again better protected, but it is a reminder of how fragile these populations can be.

I commented that 88 Days was a book with interesting material, but written by someone who wasn’t primarily a writer; The Soul of the Rhino is both more interesting and better written than 88 Days, but it has something of the same quality. Mishra certainly has enough interesting stories from decades of conservation work to fill a book, and he does a solid enough job of telling them, but it doesn’t transcend the subject matter; it’s not one of those books I would recommend to people just for the quality of the writing. However, if you’re interested in conservation, or rhinos, or Nepal, you will probably find it worth reading.

The Soul of the Rhino is my book from Nepal for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo of tourists on safari in Chitwan National Park is © Nomad Tales and used under a CC by-sa licence.

88 Days – A true story of Somali Pirates in the Indian Ocean by Francis Roucou

This is a first person account of being kidnapped and held for ransom by Somali pirates. Roucou was the captain of the Indian Ocean Explorer, a boat from the Seychelles which was chartered by tourists for diving and fishing — although only the crew was on board when the boat was captured.

It’s what you might expect: quite an interesting story told by someone who isn’t primarily a writer. He does a perfectly good job of telling what happened, but it’s not full of amazingly evocative description or profound psychological insight.

Still, it is an interesting story, and it does give an idea of the incredibly difficult situation he was in, being the man who had to interact face-to-face with the pirates while only having a very limited sense of what negotiations were happening in the background, and very rarely being given a chance to call the Seychelles, but only with the pirates listening in to his calls.

88 Days is my book from the Seychelles for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, Royal Marines on Counter Piracy Operations Near Somalia, is © the Ministry of Defence and used under a CC by-nc licence. It’s not directly relevant to this book — no swooping in by Royal Marines was involved in the story — but at least it’s a CC licensed image related to Somali piracy.

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s previous book, Bad Science, was effectively an adaptation of his Guardian columns of the same name, and although it wasn’t a straightforward compilation, it had something of the same character: a bit of a grab-bag of subjects, held together by the broad theme of bad science and bad science journalism, with a emphasis on trying to entertain as well as inform.

This is a more focussed book. And a drier one, which you may or may not think is a good thing, depending on your tolerance for the occasionally clunky attempts at wackiness and humour that characterise a lot of popular science writing.

Personally I thought Bad Pharma did a good job of taking a potentially tough subject and presenting it in a clear, engaging way. It’s not, btw, a tough subject because it is full of difficult science or complicated statistics, but because it’s a book about institutional and bureaucratic failings within the healthcare industry. Institutional structures, bureaucracy, regulation, professional standards: this is not the sexiest subject matter. But Goldacre did a good job of convincing me that it was important enough that I should keep reading, and making it readable enough that I was able to do so.

The book follows all aspects of the life of a drug — the way it is developed, tested, licensed, marketed, prescribed — and talks through all the ways that biases get into the system and distort medical practice. There is plenty of evidence that these distortions make healthcare worse and more expensive; the only question is how badly. But the same processes that distort the science make it impossible to accurately judge the damage.

The pharmaceutical companies are the major villains of the piece, unsurprisingly; they are the ones doing badly designed trials, hiding the results of trials with flattering outcomes, paying academics to put their names to ghostwritten articles, and spending twice as much on marketing as they do on R&D. But as Goldacre points out, they are only able to get away with it because of repeated failures by everyone else involved: regulators, governments, journals, professional bodies, patient groups, and so on. All of whom have been at the very least complacent, and often suffer from deep conflicts of interest, since the drug companies seem to be the only people in the whole system who actually have a lot of money to throw around. So they spend a lot of money advertising in the medical journals, they donate money to patient groups, they sponsor conferences and training for doctors.

It’s a worrying book, which deserves to be widely read.

» Doctor Themed Cupcakes is © Clever Cupcakes and used under a CC attribution licence.

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