Monday, December 19, 2011

reading around the world round up

Another end of year post as promised! Albeit a little late. I am officially declaring my reading round the world challenge done! Although I did end up cheating a bit... Reviews of earlier books here. Here's what I read (with brief reviews of books I haven't mentioned earlier):

AfricaSong for Night by Chris Abani (Nigeria). I thought this was cheating, so added The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif (Egypt) (also kind of cheating, since it is set in Egypt but written in English).

I'm counting The Map of Love because I felt like I ended up learning a lot about Egypt by the end. The book is split between the turn of the century and the present day (when the book was written in the late 90's), following two parallel love stories which bridge the East/West divide and are linked by family history. It also deals with Egyptian politics and identity, and the relationship between Egypt and the West. The first love story was a bit idealised, but I still found it compelling and moving. Their story is told through diary entries, uncovered by their ancestors Isabel and Amal, who then piece them together to retell it. Amal's brother and Isabel make up the current day love story. I found their love story less compelling for a number of reasons, mainly because I didn't really feel it was given much room, and since the narrative centres on Amal rather than Isabel it felt a bit like a sideshow. But the main point of the book is not the love story, but the politics and the history of Egypt.

Reading about Egypt struggling for independence against a military (British) force, and the competing forces within it striving to define its identity, felt incredibly timely in the year of Tahrir Square. Reading about America's involvement in the Middle East and its reactions towards terrorism felt very relevant on the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. While I tend to find books that are focussed on politics hard to get through, the grand sweep of this story and the context it gave to current affairs really made this a great read for me. And while I say this with some trepidation, given that it is a work of fiction, but I felt like I learnt a lot and gained a better understanding of world events afterwards (though is an area I don't know much about, so I was starting from a low base)! At the end, most of all I was left wondering: have things moved forward since this book was written? Or does it demonstrate that we are stuck repeating the same historical cycle? I think we will have to wait and see...

AsiaThe Pillow Book by Sei Shongagon (Japan). 

Some others: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
After Dark by Haruki Murakami (Japan)

AustralasiaTruth by Peter Temple (Australia). 
Some others: Memory by Margaret Mahy (New Zealand) 

EuropeA Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot (France).

Some others: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (UK)
Claudine in Paris by Colette

North AmericaFreedom by Jonathan Franzen (US). 

Some others: Easter Parade by Richard Yates (US)
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (US)

South AmericaThe Captain's Verses by Pablo Neruda (Chile). Feeling like this was cheating, I also read Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru).

Who Killed Palomino Molero? follows two police officers investigating the murder of a young Peruvian man nearby an army base. With the wealthy white army officers falling under suspicion, all sorts of racial and class tensions come into play. This book sets up its premise and then starts to undercut your expectations, so that your doubt increases more and more towards the end. There are clearly a number of forces in play, powerful men that are trying to protect themselves, as well as prejudices. But these take a number of forms, and this book plays with your ideas by the end.

It's hard to say much more, because I don't want to talk about the ending and I don't know that I can offer any great insights. But if you've read this, please mention it in the comments! Would love to hear what you thought.

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