10 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2017, Mirrors, Blooms, Wonder, War, Not Nothing

I’m not really into making reading lists, but I do make lots of reading piles of books I think I might read next, which often then get changed, as I’ll read a great review of a book I have on the shelf and be convinced I have to read it sooner, now it’s come to my attention.

So here are five books on my pile at the moment and five waiting on my kindle to start the year with, though don’t be surprised if you find me reading and reviewing something entirely different!

Five From The Shelf

2017-reads

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka) – Last year I read her second novel What Lies Between Us and it made my top 5 fiction reads and this one is her debut which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Dublin Impac Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. It’s about two families on either side of the conflict during the long civil war, told though the eyes of the eldest daughter of each family.

cereusCereus Blooms at Night, Shani Mootoo (Trinidad) – Part of my fascination with reading stories by women from the Caribbean culture, this one came to my attention last year and is said to be a fascinating narrative propelled by vivdly drawn characters, set on a fictional island, a mystery about a reclusive old woman accused of murder.

sense-of-wonderA Sense of Wonder, The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, & the Ordinary, edited by Brian Doyle– a beautiful Christmas gift from a dear friend containing an anthology of powerful stories, essays and reflections from some of the world’s best writers including Pico Iyer, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Helen Garner, Cynthia Ozick

foundlings-warThe Founding’s War, Michel Déon (France) #RIP – the French writer who lived in Ireland, with over 50 novels, plays and essays published, just passed away Dec 28 at the age of 97 years. Having read his novel The Foundling Boy, translated into English by Gallic Books, I’m going to read the sequel A Foundling’s War as a tribute to his lifetime of considerable achievement.

do-not-sayDo Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Canada/China) – no need to say much about this one, shortlisted for the Man Booker 2016 and I would say it was The People’s Choice, the book most people loved most from the list and one I picked to read when the longlist came out. Secrets from the revolution, a pianist and a composer, intimate and political.

5 on the Kindle

three-daughters-of-eveThree Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak (Turkey) – I’ve been a fan of Rumi scholar Elif Shafak since she wrote The Forty Rules of Love and have since read The Bastard of IstanbulHonour and her essay The Happiness of Blond People – A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity so I’m looking forward to her latest which she says tackles the confusion of Turkey, faith and God from Turkey to Oxford and back.

exit-westExit West, Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan) – literary novel of new love in a time of war which causes them to immigrate when the world is in crisis – by a renowned author, with a couple of rave reviews, time to get on the band wagon, a timely novel.

the-good-peopleThe Good People, Hannah Kent (Australia/Ireland) – well I missed Burial Rites, her debut historical novel set in Iceland, about a woman who was executed, so I’m going for her second novel, this one set in Country Kerry, Ireland in 1825 in a time of traditions and superstitions surrounding those born a little different, and women who are vilified for having anything to do with them. I hope it’s as good as her debut!

breaking-connectionsBreaking Connections, Albert Wendt (Samoa) – Reading around the world brings me down under to leading Pacific writer Albert Wendt’s new novel by the excellent Huia Publishers. A group whose members refer to themselves as the Tribe, mainly Polynesian grow up together, rise from poverty and become successful professionals, bound by love and fierce loyalty. When one of them is killed, they face an ensuing crisis.

train-to-pakistanTrain to PakistanKhushwant Singh (Pakistan/India) – a classic set in the partition, that was recommended me to me last year after reading Where The River Parts by Radhika Swarup.

 

 

Plenty to choose from there, I hope you are looking forward to some exciting reads to start the new year as well.

Let me know what you’re looking forward to!

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The Good Muslim (Bangladesh #2) by Tahmima Anam

In A Golden Age, the first novel in Tahmima Anam’s Bangladesh trilogy, the focus is on Rehana, the mother of Maya and Sohail and most of the book takes place from March to December 1971, during the Bangladesh War of Independence. It shows how families, neighbours, ordinary citizens coped with war, how they got involved and the effect it had on them all.

Now, in The Good Muslim it is some years after the war and Maya has just returned to Dhaka, to the family home and over the course of the novel we discover her reasons for leaving, her disenchantment with how the war has affected her brother, who is not the same person as he was before. Looking for inner peace and more of an understanding of life, he becomes religious and inaccessible to her, any attempt to influence him, futile. She resists his path and throws herself into a more active, immersive role.

It is the same family, but Rehana is more of a background figure, the home has been taken over by women wearing the burka, there are sermons on the roof and Sohail’s son Zaid runs around the place looking and acting more like the son of a servant boy (there is one scene where Maya takes him shopping for sandals and though his neglect is obvious, she is insulted when the shoeseller assumes he is the child of a house servant).

Once she had given everything for her children. Now she was in retreat from them, passively accepting whatever it was they chose to do: turning to God, running away, refusing to send their children to school. There was nothing of the struggle in her any more.

17th century Mughal fort, Dhaka, Bangladesh

They are living in the newly independent Bangladesh, under a Dictatorship, the shadow of war hasn’t left them. There are men living among them who the population wants tried for war crimes. Then there are the young women shamed by having been made one of the spoils of war, viciously raped, many of them pregnant and unwanted, put on flights to Pakistan, banished, out of sight, out of mind.

Bangabandhu had promised to take care of the women; he had even given them a name – Birangona, heroines – and asked their husbands and fathers to welcome them home, as they would their sons. But the children, he had said he didn’t want the children of war.

Maya has become a doctor, putting her own personal life on hold, she has seen too much and doesn’t feel capable of fulfilling any other role. She helps many of these women and wonders if she would ever be capable of love.

She had told herself many times that marriage could not be for her. Or children. She saw them coming into the world every day, selfish and lonely and powerful; she watched as they devoured those around them, and then witnessed the slow sapping of their strength as the world showed itself to be far poorer than it had once promised to be.

bangladesh map

It’s a sad picture of post-war trauma and the difficulties people have in returning to family life and love after all that they have experienced.

Though an equally easy and immersive read, it’s not quite as engaging as A Golden Age, which was the novel of action, deep in the daily situation of revolution and war.

This is the novel of aftermath, a much more sombre undertaking and a reminder that even in victory, the consequences of war on families are ever-present in their lifetime.

 

Links:

Book One: A Golden Age

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Buddha in the AtticBuddha in the Attic is a unique novella told in the first person plural “we”,  narrating the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago.

In eight chapters, that read like a rhythmical chant, it traces the brides’ lives, beginning at the point of departure after leaving their predictable village lives, to the much-anticipated, though often frightening, boat journey and their arrival in San Francisco.

Some of us were so dizzy we could not even walk, and lay in our berths in a dull stupor, unable to remember our own names, not to mention those of our new husbands. Remind me one more time, I am Mrs. Who?

It recounts their first nights as new wives, the hard manual labour in new fields, cleaning house for white women, their struggles to master the language and understand the culture, to experiences in childbirth, as mothers, raising children who will lose their heritage and history, though continue to be marked by it, with the terrifying arrival of war and it damning label of them as the enemy.

At night we sat in our kitchens with our husbands as they pored over the day’s papers, scrutinizing every line, every word, for clues to our fate. We discussed the latest rumours. I hear they’re putting us into work camps to grow food for the troops.

Julie Otsuka has created a unique and original way to narrate the collective story of these Japanese mail order brides and their many experiences around common themes, we imagine the narrator as one of them, though we do not know which of the experiences are hers, as she balances them equally, one beside the other, in repetitive, elegiac prose.

This collective storytelling in effect brings our perception of them together, creating a sense of community, despite the suffering. It s as if, through sharing their experiences in these paragraphs, they become stronger, better able to cope, the author bringing them together. The “we” narrative unites them, we read and feel for them as a group, as if they are together. Otsuka brings them together in a lyrical expression of tasks, sufferings, looks, sighs, memories.

Apart from the initial boat ride over the seas from Japan to the US, there is little joy, they discover they are the lowest of low in the pecking order, equivalent to slaves, seen as quiet and submissive, hard workers.  Some take it in their stride, others will fall by the wayside.

They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands/ Our stamina. Our discipline. Our docile dispositions. Our unusual ability to tolerate the heat, which on summer days in the melon fields of Brawley could reach 120 degrees. They said that our short stature made us ideally suited for work that required stooping low to the ground. Wherever they put us they were pleased. We had all the virtues of the Chinese – we were hardworking, we were patient, we were unfailingly polite – but none of their vices – we didn’t gamble or smoke opium, we didn’t brawl, we never spat. We were faster than the Filipinos and less arrogant than the Hindus. We were more disciplined than the Koreans. We were soberer than the Mexicans. We were cheaper to feed than the Okies ad Arkies, both the light and the dark. A Japanese can live on a teaspoonful of rice a day. We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives.

041812_1115_HotelontheC2.gifAnd as if it couldn’t get any worse, war happens, and they discover they are the enemy, they are regarded suspiciously and in time sent away.

This part is narrated by “them”, the communities within which they have existed alongside, though never really been a part of, certainly not appreciated – at least not until the Orkies and Arkies move in, who are not quiet and hard-working like the Japanese.

It is a soulful lament, a long sad narrative of a life of toil and disappointment that is endured, a disappearance that is unwarranted, a tribute to those who dreamed of a better life, who travelled across an ocean believing they would find it only to be betrayed bitterly.

041812_1115_HotelontheC1.jpgIt reminded me, not in style, but in subject of Jamie Ford’s The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story of childhood friends in Seattle, second generation immigrants caught up in the brutal reality of being perceived as untrustworthy, having the skin of an enemy.

Their plows weighed more than we did, and were difficult to use, and their horses were twice the size of our horses back home in Japan. We could not harness them without climbing up on orange crates, or standing on stools, and the first time we shouted out to them to move they just stood there snorting and pawing at the ground. Were they deaf? Were they dumb? Or were they just being stubborn? “These are American horse,” our husbands explained. “They don’t understand Japanese.” And so we learned our first words of horse English. “Giddyap” was what you said to make the horse go forward, and “Back” was what you said to make it back up. “Easy” was what you said to make it slow down, and “Whoa” was what you said to make it stop. And after fifty years in America these would be the only words of English some of us could still remember by heart.

Julie Otsuka speaks here (in English) about the inspiration behind Buddha in the Attic, which won the French Prix Femina Etranger 2012 translated as Certaines n’avaient jamais vu la mer for the French edition.

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our NamesFinding a book like this on the English language shelves of our local French library, is one of life’s small pleasures in a world that offers few escapes these days from tragic reality.

A book like this, by an author named Dinaw Mengestu, winner of the Guardian First Book Prize for his debut novel Children of the Revolution, chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker in 2010, born in Ethiopia and raised in the suburbs of Chicago – well I cast all other reading plans aside and jumped right in, relishing the feel of the hardback, admiring the simplicity of such a striking cover and anticipating a joyous, literary ride.

The title All Our Names, reminded me immediately of Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s  We Need New Names, hers a reference to the move to America, while Mengestu delves further back and makes us realise just how deep and far-reaching the naming ritual is.

“On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost twenty-five, but by any measure, much younger. …I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, though I had come to the capital with other ambitions.”

Library Entrance

The Library Where This Book Lives

Ill-prepared for the world that awaited him, he assumed the few Victorian novels he had read would prepare him for studying literature, having been inspired by reading of a conference of a group of African writers and scholars in a newspaper that had belatedly arrived in his village.

“No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn’t have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer.”

Right from the opening pages, when he meets the young man who tells him his name ‘for now is Isaac’, we are made aware of the significance and dispensability of names.

“Isaac” was the name his parents had given him and, until it was necessary for us to flee the capital, the only name he wanted. His parents had died, in the last round of fighting that came just before independence. “Isaac” was their legacy to him, and when his revolutionary dreams came to an end, and he had to choose between leaving and staying, that name became his last and most precious gift to me.

UgandaThe story is narrated in alternate chapters, one entitled Isaac, the other Helen. Isaac takes place during a short period in the life of the male protagonist after he has left the family village somewhere in Ethiopia, planning never to return, arriving in Kampala, a city in Uganda where he hopes to study at the university.

It is there he meets the young man named Isaac, recognising in him a similar ambition and humble origins, though in his presence he is also aware of an undercurrent of fear and trepidation, not yet realising, but intuiting the dangerous depths Isaac is capable of descending  into in order to achieve that ambition.

The Helen chapters take place in a small midwest town in the US, Helen is the social worker assigned to him when he arrives from Africa; she installs him in accommodation and helps him to adjust to the new life as a foreign exchange student.

The relationship becomes complicated when boundaries are breached, as the two offer each other something of an escape from their very different pasts.

It is a simple story possessing its own undercurrent that pulls the twin narratives along, the emotional pull in Helen’s story, her struggle to navigate the space between her feelings for him and society’s expectations and in the Isaac chapters, a mounting tension as student protests and harmless revolutionary activities turn sinister and violence becomes the shortest and most effective negotiating tool to obtaining power.

Set in the 1970’s during the Ugandan post-colonial revolt, this novel was hard to put down and offered a unique insight into one example of the kind of experience that might have occurred to any refugee fleeing a violent uprising. Equally, it aptly depicts the discomfort of even the most liberal, unjudging character, raised in a quiet, conservative town, whose wavers between ignoring and following her instinct to abandon all she knows in order to follow her heart.

“I wonder whether, if before meeting Isaac I had tried to challenge the easy, small-time bigotry that was so common to our daily lives that i noticed it only in it extremes. I might have felt a little less shame that evening. It’s possible that I might have been able to release some of it slowly over the years, like one of those pressure valves that let out enough steam on a constant basis to keep the pipes from bursting. It’s also equally possible that such relief is impossible, that, regardless of what we do, we are tied to all the prejudices in our country and the crimes that come with them.”

The Burgess BoysIt reminded me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys (read and reviewed in 2013), which I was a little disappointed by, this is the kind of book I was expecting, but understandably, she wrote it from the perspective of the Burgess boys, whereas Dinaw Mengestu gives us both perspectives and the story is all the more powerful for it.

Mengestu writes in an engaging and flawless style, his storytelling and insights are enough to convince me I will definitely be reading more of his work soon.

 

Purge by Sofi Oksanen tr. Lola Rogers

PurgePurge by Sofi Oksanen is set in a rural village in the region of Läänemaa, west Estonia. The book is translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers.

It is a novel of two histories, one in the late 1930’s and 1940’s when Aliide and her sister Ingel were adolescents, spanning the changes in their lives after Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union and renamed Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) and the other in the early 1990’s when a Russian-Estonian girl Zara, turns up unannounced seeking refuge.

At the time of the political occupation in 1944, those who failed to do their ‘political duty’ of voting Estonia into the USSR were condemned to death and mass deportations occurred (half perished, the rest unable to return until the 1960’s).

The novel of five parts opens with a letter written by Hans Pekk, son of Eerik, an Estonian peasant entitled Free Estonia! Each of the five parts begins with one of his letters, which date from June 1949 until September 1951 and then the chapters alternate between 1992 (post-independence), when the dishevelled young woman Zara arrives at Aliide’s home and the past, revealing Aliide’s youth and the years she lived through the Soviet occupation, from 1944 until 1951.

Zara’s story flips back occasionally to 1991 in Vladivostok, Russian Federation and to Berlin the same year, before her arrival at Aliide’s home. Zara is escaping brutal captors, men involved in sex slavery, human trafficking, for whom violence is an acceptable form of discipline and retribution and sex a currency of payment.

Aliide too has her secrets, having harboured a yearning for one man for many years, an obsessive, unrequited love that lead her to make decisions and live a life of repression and lies, to trust no one and operate continuously behind a mask to protect herself and the one she loved.

As the novel progresses and switches between era’s, the stories of the two women are revealed, we move closer to learning what happened to Aliide’s sister Ingel and the letter writer, Hans Pekk.

It is a compelling read whose slow revelations fasten the pace of reading, countered by the need to pay attention to the dates, as Oksanen flips back and forth in time.
Against a volatile and dangerous political backdrop, the idealism, obsessive love and risk taking characteristic of youth is played out and repeated across the generations, leaving one to wonder if anything ever really changes with time. In particular, the burden, degradation and abuse of women during war and conflict and the strategies pursued by them for survival.

‘Aliide went toward the road and tried to find the man that the voice had come from, and she found him. He was marching like a leader toward the dairy, and three or four men were following him, and Aliide saw how the tails of his coat thrust out like they were going to take off into the wind and how the others turned toward him when they spoke, but he didn’t turn to them when he answered, , he just looked straight ahead, his brow raised, looking toward the future. And then Aliide knew he was the man to rescue her, to safeguard her life.’

estonia_mapWanting to visualise where the region of Läänemaa in Estonia was, I found it was connected to a somewhat ironic slogan, “Your safe nesting place,” a reference to the areas wetlands and meadows, providing a protective habitat to its wildlife.

It is a thought-provoking metaphor in relation to the novel, where civilians required a safe place to be protected from a different kind of predator. Is that nature? To require protection from the human predator? Is there safe refuge for those persecuted by the more brutal aspects of human power seeking? If we found ourselves living in such circumstances, how would we react?

Sofi Oksanen speaking about the title:

“When I was a child,” says Oksanen, “no one talked about deportations. People ‘went to Siberia’. Certain things were so dangerous to mention that people used a lot of expressions to circumvent the actual issues.”

“When I started the play and was thinking about the title, I was thinking about the traumatic reaction people can have after they’ve experienced violence or been raped,” she says. “People always try to clean themselves. So that was the first meaning – cleansing.”

Purge was a bestseller in Finland, winning numerous literary prizes and has been translated into 38 languages. The Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen, was born in Finland and spent her summers in Estonia, visiting her grandmother on a kolkhoz, a Soviet collective farm, giving her an insight into a life not many outside it had access to. The story appeared as a play before the author wrote the novel.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius tr. Jamie Bulloch

Portrait of the MotherThis 117 page long single sentence in a novella, is the third and final book in the Peirene Press series entitled Female Voices: Inner Realities.

If you missed the first two, you can read my reviews here:

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (translated from French by Adriana Hunter)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell)

In my previous review I mention the enticing page at the beginning of all Peirene books where publisher Mieke Ziervogel shares what drew her to choosing this book for translation into English.

Here is a glimpse at what she says about this book:

Portrait 2

The book is set in Rome in 1943 when Italy and Germany remain allies during the second world war. The narrative takes place during an afternoon stroll as our young woman on the brink of becoming a mother is walking towards a Lutheran church where she will attend a classical concert.

Eight months pregnant, she is the young wife of a German solider and had been waiting for him to join her in Rome; after briefly reuniting, one day later he is redeployed to Tunisia. Alone again so soon, she walks to the Bach concert thinking about how her life has changed now as a married woman and how distant she feels from everything around her. She recalls recent memories of the short time spent with her husband wondering whether he will return to her safely or not.

Rome 1943Being outside her own country, without her husband and not yet active in her role as mother, it is as if she becomes more acutely aware of who she is, there is little to distract her and she often prefers to keep to herself.

Even the friendship that naturally developed with her room-mate Ilse, she keeps in check, worrying about the implications of being associated with those whose views are more vociferous than her own, she who wishes for a quiet life.

she worried about Ilse, who rarely had a good word to say about authority that was

invested by God, about Hitler and Mussolini, only a few days ago she had said Hitler always demanded that people show no weakness, but human beings were not made like that, and Mussolini always demanded that people had to hate the enemy, but the Italians that she knew were not fond of hatred, why should they hate the English and the Americans,

fortunately Ilse had broken off at this point, perhaps out of consideration for her, because she,

the younger woman, who was always silent when national and political questions were discussed, had just for a second wondered why it was necessary to hate the British and Americans, and in the same instant this forbidden thought made her feel guilty, confused and horrified,

She is not despondent for she has a deep faith and whenever her thoughts turn towards herself she recalls that war is God’s most difficult trial, lamenting:

“God, who is love, delivers this all to us, that it may benefit us in the end,

for it was un-Christian to shed tears for one’s own misfortune and to forget the far greater misfortunes of others, the joys of life were limitless”

Her thoughts enable the reader to understand her reluctance to do anything that might jeopardise what slim chance she may have at a normal life, she dislikes that by virtue of being foreign she already stands out, the opposite of what might give her peace of mind.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a spellbinding portrayal of one woman’s internal conversation, her method of coping with the strangeness of her environment, talking herself into maintaining a calm state of mind, rationalising why they have found themselves in this situation. Though it is a trial for her, it is not enough to prevent her dreaming of the life she wishes they were living, something that seems increasingly like a fantasy, as the probability of her husband’s return grows slimmer as each day passes.

Poignant in its simplicity, expressing that universal feminine desire for love in a safe, nurturing environment.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Flanagan

A novel of the cruelty of war, the tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.

I started reading this in July/August 2014, during the summer and to begin with I was fine with reading it, but by halfway I found myself not wanting to pick it up, the scenes described, horrific, grueling, they went on for too long, they were so vivid, my insides contracted each time I picked it up.

I read reviews, entered into discussions and debate about the necessity of being so exposed to such scenes as a way of understanding what men went through in war and I am not one to avoid that, but I couldn’t balance that intellectual point of view with the sickness I felt on reading this.

I was reading it on the kindle and at 50% I decided to stop and I picked up Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth which I reviewed here, the true story of her wartime experience, some distance from the war but dealing with the effect of it, both in the hospitals where she volunteered and the letters from her fiance, brother and friends who were all fighting and who would all lose their lives.

Vera’s story brought meaning and understanding, empathy and insight, but it didn’t make me feel sick. Her life afterwards was affected by her experience in a positive way, it is a grand testament to a woman’s work and need to more than understand, but to make a contribution to try to change the world and our violent, destructive tendencies.

Richard Flanagan’s book then won the Booker Prize, so I tried again. I sped through the next 100 pages and had to pause again as that sick feeling refused to go away. So I stopped.

Today for the third and last time I picked the book up once again, but by now I could almost feel the pages of horror coming, whether it was Dorrigo trying to sew up his friends leg or watching the beating of a friend. And now I say enough. This book has many, many fans and has brought the author immense and deserved success, however, it doesn’t need my contribution and I don’t need to continue to torture myself by trying to read it, in the hope of some kind of enlightenment.

I read 65% and I am sure I missed out the redeeming parts of the book.

All QuietI leave it there and will turn to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front instead to conclude a year of anniversary reads for WWI.

Note: This was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.