Monday, April 30, 2007

Culture Clash

The two books I read over the weekend both deal with clashing cultures - basically, racism (and England is the bad guy in both cases). Nehanda by Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe) is about the white invasion of Africa, and The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (Trinidad) is the story ofWest Indian immigrants in the 1950s. I hadn't intended on reading these two together, by good chance they just happened to come off my library pile that way.

While searching for an image of the novel Nehanda, I accidentally discovered Nehanda herself was a real woman and is still revered as the most important person in Zimbabwe's history. During her lifetime (c1840-1898) she was a spirit medium of the Shona people. As one of the spiritual leaders of the Shona, she provided inspiration for their revolt against the Rhodesian colonization of Zimbabwe. The British spent some time hunting her down and when they eventually captured her they executed her as a warning to all those who refused to accept and embrace the supposedly superior English culture and religion.

Sam Selvon's novel is also a history of experience and Selvon himself was also a leader of a kind. Before he died, he was already being hailed as the 'father of black writing in Britain'. Although Selvon's situation is the inverse of Nehanda's - he chose to come and make a life in Britain - he didn't have an easy time in London. Londoners were racist and expected the West Indians to behave as though they were British while still assuming an inferior status. There was no mass persecution or executions, but it is still not exactly a comfortable read. Selvon's writing is incredibly atmospheric; he is one of those authors who can put you inside a character's head so that you absorb their feelings or personality traits while you are reading and it only occurs to you to think objectively about what just happened when you put the book down for a break and realise your feelings are something quite different to the main character's.

The themes of these two novels are themes that will never get tired and will never be resolved. Culture and society are like religion; almost everyone thinks theirs is best.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

New Notions

There's a great new challenge up at Grasping For The Wind. It's called New Notions 5 Reading Challenge, and the requirements for books (you only have to read one a month) is that they have to challenge your thinking on any given topic. That's the kind of challenge I love!

I haven't had much time to think about what I might pick, but Wikipedia does have a list of controversial books and there is a long list of banned books here, and a list of the most harmful books here.

Some of the issues I'd be interested in reading around would include:

- Climate change theory; I'm in the camp that does not believe global warming is due to carbon emissions, but I'm always interested in reading about different theories)

- White supremacy; I've been fascinated by the supposed allure of blonde hair and the status accorded those who have blonde hair for a long time and want to look at the darker side of the Aryan ideal and its supporters

- Conservative politics; I'm pretty left wing and want to know how these people think!

- Che Guevara; I loved the film The Motorcycle Diaries, but I get the feeling it isn't a very objective interpretation of Guevara's life

- Cloning; I am very against cloning in theory, but perhaps if I knew more about how it can change people's lives and how it actually works, I might change my mind

I can't wait to start finding books that will count toward this challenge, and I also can't wait to see the selections other participants make. Half the point of reading books is to increase knowledge and stretch the mind, but that sometimes gets neglected.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Speedy Reading

I'm powering through my library stack - two more books down! After a reader commented that I had to read Pedro Páramo because 'providence, not the librarian, had placed it on top of my pile', it had to be next on my list.

Juan Rulfo wrote Pedro Páramo when he was into his fifties and it was hailed as an instant masterpiece. It was his first and only novel. Garcia Márquez claimed that this novel along with Kafka's Metamorphosis (also on my reading list - thanks for the recommendation nyssaneala!) was the most influential work in his early reading, and could recite whole passages of it from memory. The novel follows a man who returns to his mother's birthplace to find his father, in accordance with his mother's dying wish. He finds a ghost town; the whole place appears abandoned, but wandering among the deseted buildings he encounters some former residents. The ghosts carry him back in time through their memories and help him gradually reveal the truth about his father and how the ghost town died. Rulfo said of the way the novel is written: "There is a structure in Pedro Páramo, but it is a structure made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no time." The translation I read was beautiful; I couldn't put the book down. It reminded me in some ways of The Obscene Bird of Night which was my read for Chile; many of the same themes, although Pedro Páramo is far shorter and more accessible.

From a Mexican ghost town, I travelled to Kenya and read my first play of the journey! Mugasha is a play derived from an oral legend of the East African region and narrates the birth of one of the most revered deities in that area. Mugasha is a miracle birth to the barren wife of the former king and once born, returns to reclaim his father's kingdom from the usurpers. He commands the weather, the lakes and the animals, all of whom help him in hs mission. He also takes the opportunity to teach a stuck up princess a good lesson about snobbishness and the duties of a ruler along the way, like all good leaders should. The only complaint I have is that none of the references to aspects of African culture were explained in the volume, especially when the original African words were used. Although this is an old story and I don't wish to grossly generalise African culture, I did feel some of my impressions garnered from earlier reading were reinforced; the importance of rituals surrounding births and deaths, the relative status and roles of men and women, the strict ethical codes governing life.

Finally, on the way home today (as it was payday!) I stopped at virtually every book shop I came across and ended up with a vintage secondhand edition of A Concise History of Romanian Literature and also To Bury Our Fathers, a Nicaraguan novel. The only book I bought new - very proud of the restraint I exercised - was a memoir by a Vietnamese man whose job during the war was dragging Vietnamese bodies from the jungle. The memoir is called The Sorrow of War - it sounds like an interesting if harrowing read.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Weekend Reading

Following my trip to the library, from whence I hauled home 11 new books, this weekend has proved to be a veritable reading retreat. I finished off one book I had already started and devoured a further two.

First up was The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble. I read this one for a number of reasons, but it isn't something I would usually have picked up. Way back in January, when I signed up for the Winter Classics Challenge, one of the books I wanted to read was The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, the diaries of an eighteenth century Korean princess. I never got around to reading it for a number of reasons, but it was suggested to me that I might enjoy Drabble's fiction novel, inspired by the same diaries. I did not. In short, I found the novel full of trite, irritating asides, and it never really went anywhere. I can see that the idea behind the novel was interesting, but Drabble's realisation of that idea left a lot to be desired.

Thirteen Cents, by South African author K. Sello Duiker was a far more engaging read. Drawn from the author's own experiences, the novel is a brief snapshot of a few months in the life of a street orphan in Cape Town. Having lost both parents, 13 year old Azure with his blue eyes and black skin is left to survive alone. He sleeps on the beach and makes his living by prostituting himself to men.

"A boy? I'm not a boy. I've seen a woman being raped by policemen at night near the station. I've seen w hite man let a [11 year old] boy get into his car. I've seen a couple drive over a street child and they still kept going. I've seen a woman give birth at the beach and throw it into the sea."

Not exactly enjoyable, but certainly gripping. Although this is a gritty read, the narrator's strong tone and refusal to be a victim holds it up. I thoroughly recommend this for an eye opening read - think City of Men (I've only seen the film, but I remember being horrified - very naively). I couldn't have got further from magical realism if I'd tried!

Finally, yesterday's read was The Fatal Eggs by Bulgakov. Who could resist a book with such a tempting title? It actually turned out to be a sci-fi dystopian vision of possible future scientific discoveries. A (somewhat) mad scientist in Russia discovers something in a strand of DNA that causes all organisms exposed to it to grow to gigantic proportions extremely quickly. Before he has had time to experiement with anything more significant than amoebas, Russia is struck by some form of poultry flu which wipes out their entire chicken population. The state initiates a project to use the new technology to grow more chickens in a short period of time, but everything goes wrong when instead of chicken eggs, they are sent the eggs of another type of animal. The consequences are disastrous. Not the type of thing I usually read, but I enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New Books/Countries!

Following yesterday's panic-inducing realisation, I took a trip to my local library to see what I could see and have returned joyously with 11 books from 11 new countries! All relatively short at around 200 pages and hopefully quick to read. I'd forgotten how much I relish browsing the shelves of the library and searching for new books - the satisfaction of coming away with a new stash is almost unbeatable. Inevitably there is also the regret of passing over several books I would have liked to pick up and bring home - I think the library must have gone on a Persephone spree, because there seemed to be an inordinate number of those elegant grey spines adorning the shelves. Also - and it is funny how these things seem to come in groups - I kept coming across books from Nigeria and Iran/Persia. I've never managed to find anything from Iran/Persia before and I discovered three books from there today (bear in mind that my local library is very small and has large collections of Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins et al). I wanted to read all three, but have come away with Layla and Majnun by Nizami, which claims to be the classic love story of Persian literature. I must confess that despite stating yesterday that I would not read Pedro Paramo which I had reserved at the library, I might have to. The woman at the checking out desk just put it on my pile, how could I say I no longer wanted it after they'd sent it down from another library? And it is so little, I'm sure it wouldn't take too long to read. Excuses, excuses!

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for new books I could read - I'm grateful for the help, and have a new list of books to look out. I can't wait! (Suggestions are always welcome, so if anyone has anything they'd like to add, please feel free.)

Anyone have a time machine going spare?

I've just checked my first post and discovered I wrote it on July 20th 2006. Horror of all horrors! I wanted to read 100 books from 100 different countries in a year...which means I now have 3 months to read around 75 books. But all is not lost - today is April 19th, so I have 62 days left to complete my challenge which means all I have to do is read 1.2 books a day and I'll make it! All I have to do now is build my time machine and I'll be well away.

Now onto the serious stuff - how, HOW, have I only read 25 books from 25 countries so far? I know I doubled up on some of the countries, and I also know that some books were so monstrously large and took so long to read that I fell behind. I suspect the real reason is all those books I don't tell you about on here, or the ones that I do write about on here but don't count towards my reading challenge. Last week for example, I was so enchanted with Little Boy Lost, I ran straight out and got another Persephone book - Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day - from the library and devoured that. I will concede it was enjoyable, not as much so as I had hoped, but if I want to meet my own challenge, I may have been better off reading something else. Over Christmas I read several Chinese books I didn't mention on here, and now I come to think of it, reading books that do not count towards my challenge has been something of a theme lately. Oops.

So - dear, dear readers - I need your help. You can find a list of the countries I have read books from here. I would love your suggestions for any short books you know from any countries I have not yet visited (if I can read them in one day so much the better). I'm going to stop reading books that will not count towards my challenge. Although...Pedro Paramo is waiting for me in the library and I really really want to read it - but I already read Carlos Fuentes who can count towards Mexico, and I also have Octavio Paz on my shelf who is Mexican. I must be strong! I will send it back unread. I will read it after July 20th!

Anyway, all suggestions welcome. Even if you don't know any books that I can read quickly from other countries, send me good luck wishes! I'm going to need them...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Magical Realism

I think I’ve discovered why I love Magical Realism so much.

Magical realism as a term describing a genre of literature was initially coined by a Venezuelan critic in the 1960s and was used to apply to a specific type of Latin American literature. The expression gained currency after Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias used the it to describe the style of his novels and it has since been widely applied among Latin American novelists – Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and many more. (It isn’t limited to Latin American authors however; the works of Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri among others have also been labelled magical realism.)

One article I found online here claims that magical realism is “a literary mode rather than a distinguishable genre” and “aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites”. In the works of Allende, this is often manifested in her juxtaposition of the supernatural alongside the earthly, or in Gárcia Márquez simply by incorporating elements of the fantastic, almost surreal, into plausible stories grounded in reality. In Latin America in the 1940s, “magical realism was a way to express the realistic American mentality and create an autonomous style of literature” and I believe this statement still holds true today. One of my favourite aspects of literature is how it can be used to effect social change or to embody a collective cultural passion or goal and I suppose I’m drawn to works of magical realism partly because the works of Latin American authors in particular are very distinctive and disparate from most other genres or movements in literature I’ve encountered and partly because I believe in magic and spirits and relish the fact that in much magical realism these aspects of life are brought to the fore and accepted as part of the natural order of things. I’d far rather magical realism than gritty realism!

Besides these aspects there is another factor which keeps me returning to magical realism, and I only identified it recently while reading one of the earliest works of magical realism to emerge from Latin America – The Obscene Bird of Night by Chilean author José Donoso. It is certainly the most challenging novel I’ve read in the last six months and maybe longer than that. I’m still not quite sure what is real in the story and what is not, or even who is real and who is not. I am sure that everyone in the novel is insane to varying degrees. The key story is that a son of one of the oldest aristocratic families in the country is born a hideously deformed monster. In shame, his father hides him from the world, but out of love and pity for his child, but also reflecting his aristocratic heritage and outlook, sets the monster up in a fantasy world populated by freaks gathered from around the continent. The world is entirely enclosed and self sufficient, and the aristocratic monster is bought up as king and groomed to believe he is the epitome of physical perfection. A normal human being seems unbelievably deformed and ugly to him. One day he manages to escape his fantasy world and spends some days in the outside world where his notions of reality and social order are destroyed as he is taunted and called a freak in a world that seems to him to be populated with freaks. In his misery he returns to his fake kingdom and plots to destroy his father and erase his memories of his new knowledge through a lobotomy. This whole story is narrated by Humberto, his father’s servant who inhabits the world of freaks and reports back to the monster’s father. Humberto appears to be severely delusional whether on purpose or not, and narrates several different realities at once changing names and places and events until nothing is certain.

There is much more to the novel and several more storylines, but I couldn’t relate them properly even if I wanted to. The main point I’m trying to get to is that this book was so much more extreme than anything else I have read in the magical realist mode that it prompted me to consciously and consistently analyse everything I read and led me to examine my own position as a reader. I had to make choices on how to read the book; Humberto’s stream-of-consciousness narrative pulled me into the story and made me question everything from what and who was real, what was symbolism, the nature of truth and reality, whether as reader I should judge Humberto or any of the other characters, whether the techniques the author was using were effective and how I was being provoked into thinking one thing by the narrator but after the next comma being told something different. The novel made me look at myself and my beliefs and how I see the world and threw it back at me to be questioned again. I felt like I was finally finding my feet as a reader and gaining some kind of understanding of what it means to read with awareness.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Persephone Books

Almost a month since I last posted (properly)! Time flies – I don’t think I’ve even managed to read very much over the last few weeks.

That’s a lie, really. I know I’ve been reading, just not things that are strictly to do with world literature. My favourite part of this last month’s reading has been the discovery of Persephone Books.
I know quite a few bloggers have discovered them recently, or known and loved them for a while, and I’m going to add my voice to those of the devoted. The company itself has a touch of the magical about it, and even the way in which I read my first book is special! I first heard about Persephone Books a couple of years ago when reading India Knight’s book The Shops (great fun to read, I recommend that one too). My lasting impression is, I think, how she raved about the elegance of their grey covers with their vintage prints inside the covers. Just the descriptions of the way these books would look on a bookshelf made me covet one, never mind about the contents. I forget why, but I never actually bought one. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a parcel landed on my doormat, and on opening it I discovered – much to my great delight – a Persephone book with a note from a friend saying Happy early/late Birthday, she’d seen the Persephone shop and thought of me! I was incredibly touched and impressed by her excellent taste and devoured the book in less than 24 hours. It is called Little Boy Lost and is by Marghanita Laski. I can honestly say it was the best read I’ve had in a while for pure entertainment value. During WWII, a man was separated from his wife and baby boy. His wife was subsequently murdered by the Nazis and his child lost. After the war had finished, he returned from America to search for his son in Europe but can find nothing concrete. With the help of a friend, he identifies one child in an orphanage that might be his son, but when he visits the boy he sees no physical resemblance and the child can remember nothing of his early life. In the days that follow, the man becomes acquainted with the boy and it seems increasingly likely that this boy is in fact not his son. Ultimately the man has to make a choice – should he leave and get on with his life and accept that his son was lost and probably killed, or should he take the child from the orphanage and try to give him a better life? Does it matter that the child is not his son? Where does his duty lie? Laski evokes a complex emotional moral dilemma so well I couldn’t put the book down and was practically crying in the hairdressers by the time I finished the last page. The last sentence was utterly perfect and I’ll always remember the story. I know some of you out there are looking to buy some more Persephone books, and I really can’t recommend this one enough.

Aisha, huge thanks again for sending me this one – I love it and you!

Here's the Persephone catalogue entry for Little Boy Lost.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Oops...I wasn't back on Sunday at all! Not the Sunday I originally meant, anyway. This post is actually to say that I'm away all this week, and I won't have computer access to blog. Or time, I expect. I'll have to make a renewed effort when I return to make time for blogging. Wish me luck!