Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand-Gioconda Belli

Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand-Gioconda Belli

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 206
gender: F
nationality: Nicaragua
year: 2009
Novel in translation

"Prepare to enter a fascinating, primitive universe that goes back to the very beginning, to the story upon which Western civilization is based. Poetry and mystery go hand in hand in this transcendent novel about mankind, as never before imagined. Join Adam and Eve as they discover the world for themselves, feel their confusion and panic when they face punishment, and observe in awe as they experience the power to give life and, eventually, the ability to take it away to survive."

Ok, so I was not the ideal reader for this particular book. I didn't really read the blurb well enough before I began reading. I'm not the biggest fan of books that reimagine stories that are so well known. I mean, Belli's transformation of the Biblical story into a personal narrative was extremely well done. The language is beautiful, dichotomies are demoralized (focusing on duality), and even a clever Darwinism tied in but it's still the story you know. The Bible is a sore subject with me so it was really not the right story for me. I enjoyed it a lot more in the beginning but once Cain and Abel show up...yeah.

I can't really write a good review because I finished it and went, well that was well done but eh. I liked things about it (the feminism of actually naming the female twins) and the clever thought exercises of imagining doing things for the first time with nothing explained but despite the short length of the book, it got worn. Nevertheless I recommend this book for those who do enjoy retellings of familiar stories. This creation of complex characters who are not stereotypes in pitch perfect language (sometimes languid and other times rhythmic). I think I'd like to try Belli again because it was beautiful and so well done but this book was not for me.

Read for GWC.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Kick the Tin-Doris Kartinyeri

Kick the Tin-Doris Kartinyeri

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 139
gender: F
nationality: Australian, Aboriginal
year: 2000
Non Fiction, Memoir

"When Doris Kartinyeri was a month old, her mother died. The family gathered to mourn their loss and welcome the new baby home. But Doris never returned to her family – she was stolen from the hospital and placed in Colebrook Home, where she stayed for the next fourteen years. The legacy of being a member of the Stolen Generations continued for Doris as she was placed in white homes as a virtual slave, struggled through relationships and suffered with bi-polar depression."

The story itself is not unfamiliar to anyone who has read on or experienced institutionalized childhoods and Christian homes. It's all about who is in the administration and Doris was fortunate that the sisters who were first in charge were apparently warm and caring. But when the administration changes to a strict Christian one that promotes shame and staff turn over, the sadly typical threads of exploitation and abuse appear. By not promoting education and instead placing people into menial positions, institutions pa e the way for potential life long exploitation-economically,sexually,and spiritually or all of the above. To make it all worse for the Aboriginals in Australia, all of this was unnecessary. These children were not from abusive homes, Doris would've been part of an extended familial community a network, I may add, that apparently contributes to better life long contentment.

Doris drops in sly injustices that you need to pick up on like the bank accounts the kids deposited money into that they never saw again. Instead, she is focused upon the shame, the bewildering changes of situation, and sexual abuse. Lacking a sense of security she understandably suffered a sense of inferiority which she contrasts with her "brave strong little woman" sister who openly breastfed (in the 50s no less).

There is anger in Doris's recounting. This a book that is important not because of its language and prose (simplistic) or its theoretical bases but rather for its sincerity. This is Doris's reflection upon her life just as she'd tell it, I imagine, on a porch on a point whose name I can neither spell or pronounce to a group of children during that period after supper, before sleep.

As Doris reaches adulthood, this becomes a memoir about mental illness. Despite the warm descriptions of the Aboriginal community and the support of her children, Doris's mental illness and the up and downs that accompany it undermined her sense of stability as an adult. It was really sad. This community that could easily nurture children was fragmented to cause rifts, alcohol abuse, and of course the mental illness of adults who 'returned'. This fragmentation and unsuitability is the reason the authorities claimed they took children in the first place. It really becomes obvious that the white Christian authorities were doing no less than propagating societal instability as well as individual instability.




I won Spiniflex Press's giveaway for GWC reviewers and I chose this book from their choices primarily because Aboriginal authors are severely underrepresented at my local library. I had seen the length of Map of Love, and decided that it would be an alternate book for my list and I'd read Kick the Tin instead. Only, I had to read Atlas of Love because it was reserved. At about this time, I heard about April being Australian Literature Month and so Kick the Tin got put right back on the to-read next list so that I could get it in for the challenge.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Snake Ropes-Jess Richards

Snake Ropes-Jess Richards

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 342
gender: F (queer)
nationality:UK
year: 2012
Novel

Set on an isolated island off the Scottish coast, in a community run by women who are in awe of a mysterious structure called the Thrashing House, the novel is narrated by two teenage girls in very different circumstances. Mary is doing her best to protect her younger brother, Barney, as the island’s sons are mysteriously disappearing. Morgan is scheming to escape the prison her parents have made of their home. The two girls unite, each on a desperate mission in which secrets will be revealed and lives changed forever

Pretty bizarre. You're never quite sure what is real or what is meant to be real or whether this whole thing is a fantasy or fairy tale. Not even the realistic parts were very believable so I'm inclined to want the whole book to have been complete fairy tale. But there was an annoying thread of this must have been set within the tapestry of reality running through. I didn't really enjoy it, I couldn't follow what was going on so I couldn't lose myself into it. It would have been better had it all been fantasy but instead the setting ruined it all for me. A pity, because the setting was quite nice without the strange fantastical moments.

I almost most enjoyed the parts of the book set in Morgan's life. Trapped in her house with a mentally unstable mother, this was a world I could both believe and follow the events in. But this was partially the problem with the book-jutxaposing the highly dysfunctional but quite realistic story with the unreal island story just jarred. I guess there was just too much in this story (Selkies, Rapunzel, a whipping house, etc) and it never really came together satisfactorily. The narrative meandered too much-we learned far too little about the characters and yet they did so much. It was a bit stagnant.

The book does end on a nice ideal that I think made the whole strong matriarchy clearly what we were supposed to be rooting for the whole time. Mary has faced her problems and now needs to heal from her ordeal and Morgan has a vision of them living together. Their feminine bond supporting each other and furthering the healing ends the book on a hopeful note.h

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives-Lola Shoneyin

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives-Lola Shoneyin

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 245
gender: F
nationality: Nigeria
year: 2010
Novel

"Blind acceptance splinters a polygamous marriage in Shoneyin's gripping debut set in modern-day Nigeria. Bolanle Alao, the newest and youngest of Baba Segi's wives, threatens to upset the balance of power--she is educated and beautiful, though naïve about the relationship dynamics among the other three wives in the house. Raped at 15, Bolanle considers herself disgraced and unwanted until Baba Segi, an overweight, malodorous businessman welcomes her into his family, no questions asked, until it seems she cannot conceive. Like the other wives, she feels she has been saved by Baba Segi, who accepts all of them politely, but beyond brief mentions of his sexual encounters and visits to the toilet, Baba Segi is a peripheral character. When greedy Iya Segi and Iya Femi plot to run young, sweet Bolanle out of the family, the result is disaster. It is Bolanle's unexpected submissiveness that leads her and her husband to uncover a secret that forces him to assert his control over the family. Shoneyin masterfully disentangles four distinct stories, only to subtly expose what is common among them."

 I probably wouldn't have written this up were for that I read it for the GWC challenge partially because it read like the easiest entertaining book. This is not heavy reading. It's set at a rollicking pace that carries you along with the vaguely soap opera-like plot.

But don't let that deter you because this story is awesome and handled with great affection. There're shifting viewpoints without prose changes but you're never confused as the back stories unfold in the present actions. Though their voices don't really change, their concerns and motivations so clearly delineate which character is speaking.

I ended up liking all of them much to my surprise, even Iya Femi who is the hysterical, bitter, self-centred archetype I usually despise. This is also a fairly easy way to learn a bit about Nigerian polygamist culture-an enjoyable glimpse into the difficulties of strong personalities all cohabiting.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dead Aid-Dambisa Moyo

Dead Aid-Dambisa Moyo

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 155
gender: F
nationality: Zaire
year: 2009
Non-fiction, economics

Dead Aid unflinchingly confronts one of the greatest myths of our time: that billions of dollars in aid sent from wealthy countries to developing African nations has helped to reduce poverty and increase growth. In fact, poverty levels continue to escalate and growth rates have steadily declined—and millions continue to suffer. Debunking the current model of international aid promoted by both Hollywood celebrities and policy makers, Dambisa Moyo offers a bold new road map for financing development of the world’s poorest countries

As soon as I had heard of this book, I knew I had to read it. An economic treatise for Africa written by a woman from Zaire, say it ain't so.

After the preliminary definition of aid, the first half is a scorching, almost angry point by point of how aid does everything it wishes it didn't do: encourages corruption, doesn't get anything done,  rewards horrible regimes, kills off incentives to growth, etc. Then comes the Dead Aid proposal. By using a fictional country, Dongo, that's pretty much bottom of the barrel, Moyo breaks up potential sources into three. To be honest, I could've done with a different organization scheme. While in the section on micro-finance, Moyo sneaks in widespread financial sector overhaul and dormant savings which while relevant gets me wondering what is needed first. Overhaul of banking to harness remittance savings or micro-finance from foreigners to stimulate a need for stable savings. But I appreciate that this is a generalized thesis-not an actual economic plan.

So anyway, Moyo makes a good point in the FDI (foreign direct investment)/China Is Our Friend that Africans care more about food on the table, education for the future more than the hypothetical political regimes change if China does end up just taking over. However, I was left with the question of how China is enforcing their policy of "here's money, build infrastructure" that aid failed to do with its attempts to give money conditionally. (Am I getting the urge to read an entire book about Chinese economic policies? Yes, I am.) I was also left wondering whether Moyo was being a bit optimistic.

Anyhow, Moyo's third alternative to aid is bond issuance, aka the chapter I understood the least. The numbers were too big, the data too much, and the jargon with issuance kept throwing me off. But for the most part, the rest of the book is written both so that economists can see the point very clearly, and laypeople like me can also see the points even if the specifics fly over the head. This is a difficult balance to strike and definitely variable among the reading public but for me, I think Moyo succeeded most of the way. I wish the transition from aid to market reliance was treated more in depth as I found myself wondering about political destabilization.

So, if you've ever found yourself cold to the entreaties of public celebrity-endorsed aid campaigns, give this one a read and log onto Kiva.

Read for GWC.

P.S. Anyone know of a modern economic treatise written by an Asian woman that is somewhat accessible to laypeople?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lovers in the Age of Indifference-Xiaolu Guo

Lovers in the Age of Indifference -Xiaolu Guo

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 211
gender: F
nationality: China
year: 2010
short stories, in translation

The lovers in the age of indifference are tough romantics from every corner of the planet: a marriage splinters during a game of mah jong; a depressed fiancée is lifted by a mid-air encounter with a Hollywood legend; a mountain keeper watches over a lonely temple but is perturbed when, finally, a visitor dares to arrive.

Reading this made me realize that up to now everything I've read set in China (aside from politics) has been in historical settings. This book is squarely set in the modern world. Full of displacement, alienation and not much love except for yearning for it. The characters are from all over China and the stories are short but concise. They draw you into a situation but never long enough for there to be why. Why was she cheating? How could she just stop texting? Who were those letters from? And it all mangificantly, serves to show how indifference and love coexist.

I also appreciated the photos that bookend the text: the first of a village/town, the second of a city.

I enjoyed this but I can imagine those who are looking for more meat to their stories would find these frustrating as they are more fables than stories. They are loaded with symbolism and chock full of ideas.

I probably wouldn't have written this review had I not read this for GWC as I often felt like it was opaque for me.h

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Push-Sapphire

Push-Sapphire

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 162
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 1996
Novel

An electrifying first novel that shocks by its language, its circumstances, and its brutal honesty, Push recounts a young black street-girl's horrendous and redemptive journey through a Harlem inferno. For Precious Jones, 16 and pregnant with her father's child, miraculous hope appears and the world begins to open up for her when a courageous, determined teacher bullies, cajoles, and inspires her to learn to read, to define her own feelings and set them down in a diary.

Yeah, I'm late to this party. I never saw the movie and never read the book. You see, I heard all the comparisions to The Color Purple. I didn't enjoy reading Walker and didn't relish another foray into the world of an illiterate narrator whose life, quite frankly, just sucks. I berate myself though with a 'but seriously, what kind of attitude is that?' So I put it on my reading list for the GWC challenge to make sure I stopped giving myself excuses for avoiding a 160pg book.

That trepidation? Well deserved. From the start to the finish Precious has a horrible life and Sapphire gives you details-somewhat triggering details. I mean, almost shock value details. But the details are usually well incorporated into the plot so I don't feel like they were always gratuitous. There are a lot of attitudes to make you cringe like when Precious is like "I know I've got something of value inside!" and I'm all like yeah, Precious! and then she's like "and the inside me is light-skinned!" and I just flinch.

In some ways I had difficulty buying the late 80s-early 90s Harlem Sapphire paints. It seems painted with stereotypes...and you know, devoid of anything pleasurable to us outsiders. Obviously, I know nothing about it personally but there was something somewhat anachronistic about it all. There was something too extreme about it-like Sapphire took all the stereotypes of white people's fears about the inner city and put them in a black girl's mouth. But maybe that's just wishful thinking-maybe I just want it to not be that bad anywhere.

Anyhow it starts out being fairly difficult to read as there's no real style to the narrator's mispellings and grammar but it gets easier as the book goes in correlation to the education Precious was finally getting. But it does get annoying that the misspellings are so random and inconsistent. The book in the end seems to be more about the triumph and value of a proper education rather Precious's own personal rise above her obstacles and surroundings.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Unit-Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit-Ninni Holmqvist

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 268
gender: F
nationality: Sweden
year: 2006
Novel, in translation

When Dorrit Wegner turned fifty, the government transferred her to a state-of-the-art facility where she can live out her days in comfort. Her apartment is furnished to her tastes, her meals expertly served, and all at the very reasonable non-negotiable price of one cardiopulmonary system. Once an outsider without family, derided by a society bent on productivity, Dorrit finds within The Unit the company of kindred spirits and a dignity conferred by 'use' in medical tests. But when Dorrit also finds love, her peaceful submission is blown apart and she must fight to escape before her 'final donation'.

Usually I read YA dystopias so I was not expecting how almost dreamy The Unit is. There's a relaxed feel to this dystopia that made the ending not as shocking as it could have been. That's pretty indicative of the book. It reads like it is describing a different culture without judgements. I mean, this is a pretty sinister dystopia-older people who've never had children are dispensable and thus subjected to experiments until their 'final donation' aka a heart or lungs- but it never ends up being overly sinister partially because there doesn't seem like much is hidden. This is merely how society in this unnamed nation works.

I enjoyed the commentary on humankind. This society is one that defines one's value in life as passing on one's genes. If you have 'dependents' and have contributed to the future gene pool, you are allowed to live to your natural death. If you forgo having children, are gay, or making some other 'signficant' difference to the society, you ought to put the greater good above your own life. Indeed, the entire society punishes those who chose their own happiness outside of the conventional ideas set by the society. In a society of such strict utilitarianism art and music are the only personal weapons against the repression but they are also what will doom the individual to be dispensable. At the same time, the commentary stops short of being revolutionary as the tragedy is not in the strict utilitarianism of the society but rather that Dorrit was never allowed to be a mother. This strikes a discordant note to me considering that the society had abolished gender roles. In fact, that's the biggest flaw in this book-in a society that rejects gender roles and has a narrator that has rejected dependency on others, it's a discordant note that Dorrit falls into a traditional heterosexual dependent relationship without a second thought. She spares no thought to transgressing the society expectations yet fails to question her dispensability?

Holmqvist does several things here that differ from most dystopias. She creates the setting and world builds to every little detail. The Unit is constantly being defined (not redefined) and described throughout the book and I'd say that no stone is really left unturned. This is tell-not-show prose at its most detailed. I believe this is what disallowed sinister vibes.
The other thing is the surprising ending which I shall not spoil.

So this is an original dystopia, well envisioned, but the book is flawed though not quite enough for it become an up/side.

‘People who read books,’ he went on, ‘tend to be dispensable. Extremely.’

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry-Assia Djebar

The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry-Assia Djebar

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 215
gender: F
nationality: Algeria
year: 1997
short stories, in translation

"What happens when catastrophe becomes an everyday occurrence? Each of the seven stories in Assia Djebar’s The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry reaches into the void where normal and impossible realities coexist. All the stories were written in 1995 and 1996—a time when, by official accounts, some two hundred thousand Algerians were killed in Islamist assassinations and government army reprisals. Each story grew from a real conversation on the streets of Paris between the author and fellow Algerians about what was happening in their native land."

So these based-on-truth stories are tied to classical Arab literature such as Book of One Thousand Nights and Day and the Berber songs sung by the people of Mzab. This gives the stories such a sense of place that history and narrative get tied up into this musical mix.

Women are the main truth of this book-they are the glue that brings these stories together. The women are, for the most part, strong voices set against backgrounds of anxiety and repression. I adored the variety of types of women. Some of the stories are set in Algeria and have this palpable sense of anxiety. Some of the stories are from abroad and those are tinged with loss. I have to say, it was not easy to read this book. I took breaks between stories because the atmosphere created was so thick. That is not to say the atmosphere was always oppressive-Djber writes in the fine tradition of her country's literature with a directness mixed in with the metaphors. The stories linger on in your mind long after you've started a different narrative.

My favorite story was the novella Felicie's Body. Felicie was a French woman who adopted Algeria as her own. When she dies, this staunchly French Catholic woman is forced to take a Muslim name in order to be buried next to her Algerian husband. In this simple plotline, Djebar is able to explore the labels placed upon us, memory as an active agent, love, and the difficulties of being astride multiple countries and identities as well as the challenges faced by the children of 'mixed unions'. What could have been a rather heavy story is sprinkled with dry humor as it meanders to its finish.