Category Archives: 2010 Global Reading Challenge

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Delacorte Press, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

I saw this on the display shelf at my library and remember reading a blog post about it.  Of course, I can’t remember who’s blog it was.  Thank you, whoever you are.

Angel Tungaraza, a women from Tanzania now living in Kigali, Rwanda, is building a business.  She and her husband are struggling to raise their five grandchildren and her cakes bring in needed income.   They also allow her the opportunity to ask questions of  and listen to her customers.  Angel is kind and open-hearted.  From her customers and her neighbors she hears stories of pain and survival.  There is HIV, there are the memories of terrible slaughter.

Through Angel’s thoughts we learn of  her history, her own losses.  With her intelligence, generosity and kindness she offers help to others and a clear-sighted vision of the world around her.

When I first started reading this lovely book it reminded me of the series by Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  Parkin uses the same light touch with Angel as McCall Smith uses with his heroine,  Precious Ramotswe.  Baking Cakes has much of the same tone, it is gentle and funny at times, but it deals with deep emotions and the struggles of  people recovering from tramua and learning to deal honestly with a frightening disease.  Parkin uses Angel, her family, friends and customers to tell the stories of the deadly spread of AIDS in Africa and the effects of the 1994 genocide on Rwanda’s people.  For such an gentle, pleasing book it offers quite a punch.

For those wishing to learn more about the genocide in Rwanda there is an very well written and intense book , We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, and a movie called Hotel Rwanda which is based on real life events.  The book is difficult reading and the film is very hard to watch.

Other reviews:

BookLust

BookNAround

Rebecca Reads

The Book Nest

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Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Fiction, New Authors 2010

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Bloombury, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

A trip taken at the request of an old commander. A slow train back to a place of struggle and yearning.  A diagnosis of cancer.  All these things  allow the narrator of this timely novel to remember his past.  Most of the story takes place in Kashmir, below the highest battlefield in the world.  India and Pakistan are in a struggle for territory. There is fighting, there are terrorist acts.  Many have died, mostly due to the severe weather conditions.

Kirpal Singh, known as Kip, is not yet twenty when he arrives at the an Indian army camp below the Siachen Glacier.  Kip is apprenticed to the camp chef, Kishen, who lectures him on cooking, politics and women.  He learns to cook  local dishes and, at Kischen’s insistence, unusual foods from around the world.  As a Sikh, Kip could hold himself apart from this struggle for land and power but he is loyal to India.  His father, a military hero who died on the glacier, is a constant presence.  It is not until General Kumar orders Kip to interrogate a prisoner that he begins to question his place and the logic of the ongoing struggle.

The officers, in proper uniforms and black boots, looked at me in relief as if I had just saved them.  The captive lay on the bed.  He was a she.   The first enemy I ever saw was a she, and already I had apologized to her moments ago on two counts.  The first thing I noticed was the unconscious movement of her head.  Rapid breathing.  Terror in the eyes. Peasant feet.  The toe ring gleamed in fluorescent light.  There was a cut on her left foot.

The colonel asked me to occupy the chair next to the enemy’s bed.  I took a deep breath, then the interrogation began.  It was my first time as an interpreter.  I asked the questions slowly, she stammered her responses.  I do not recall the many unintelligible things she brought to her lips.  But the essence has stayed with me. From page 127.

After 14 years Kip is asked to prepare the wedding feast for the commander’s daughter, Rubiya, now a poet and journalist engaged to marry a Pakistani. Upon his return Kip learns the fate of his enemy, the woman he could never forget.

A book at once harsh and lyrical, I found Chef wonderful and frustrating at the same time.   There are parts that are deep and evocative, bringing to life the political struggle taking place in this land of intense cold, between these people, Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Pakistani.  And then there are parts that feel shallow and incomplete.  Perhaps this is simply Kip’s memory, and his illness made manifest.

I enjoyed Chef, I learned about I place I hadn’t known about, and plan on reading Jaspreet Singh’s book of short stories, Seventeen Tomatoes.

Siachen Glacier

3 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, CanadianBookChallenge3, Fiction, New Authors 2010, Review

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Vintage International, New York, 1993

Borrowed from my library.

This book won the inaugural IMPAC Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  I picked it up off a display shelf at the library and, finding that Malouf is Australian, decided to read it for the Global Reading Challenge

Remembering Babylon takes place in the 1840’s, during the colonization of the Queensland area, a time when the indigenous population was decimated by disease and pushed off their traditional territories.  Gemmy Fairly, a young British cabin boy, is cast into the sea and ends up following a group of Aborigines.

They left a good space around him, but in  a place where the forest thickened and it was almost dark, tried to elbow him off the track, then, when they saw that he was not to be gotten rid of, gave up.  One old women, with no sign of personal interest, as if he were a little white hairless thing that could not fend for itself, gave him a mouthful of seeds.  Once again, half fearful, they watched while he swallowed it.  When they came to a halt at last and made camp, he claimed a place for himself in the second or third ring from the fire, and his neighbours, though wary, made no dispute. From page 25.

Years later Gemmy wanders into a white settlement and tries to adapt to their ways.  The settlers are staking out a claim in a strange and alien place and are terrified of the “blacks”.

Most unnerving of all was the knowledge that, just three years back, this very patch of earth you were standing on had itself been on the other side of things, part of the unknown, and might still, for all you coming and going over it, and the sweat you had poured into its acre or two of plowed earth, have the last of mystery upon it, in jungle brakes between paddocks and ferny places out of the sun.  Good reason then, for stripping it, as soon as you could manage, of every vestige of the native; for ring barking and clearing it to what would make it, at last, just a bit like home.  From pages 9/10.

We learn the history of many of these settlers, hear their inner most thoughts.  The narrative skips between different times and voices,  a multi-faceted vision of  a place and it’s people.  It seems everyone is living on the edge, between cultures, between past and future, between reality and dream. 

     And in fact a good deal of what they were after he could not have told, even if he had wanted to, for the simple reason that there were no words for it in their tongue; yet when, as sometimes happened, he fell back on the native word, the only one that could express it, their eyes went hard, as if the mere existence of a language they did not know was a provocation, a way of making them helpless.  He did not intend it that way, but he too saw that it might be true.  There was no way of existing in this land, or of making your way through it, unless you took into yourself, discovered on your breath, the sounds that took all the various parts of it and made it one.  Without that you were blind, you were deaf, as he had been, at first, in their world.  You blundered about seeing holes where in fact stong spirits were at work that had to be placated, and if you knew how to call them up, could be helpful.  Half of what ought to have been bright and full of the breath of live to you was shrouded in mist.  From page 65.

It takes concentration, following the different tracks and trails, and I was reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines,  a book I read years ago and must read again.  Malouf  is a poet and novelist and uses myth and history to tell a complex and beautifully layered tale.  I am very glad I found and read this book.

4 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Review

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor By Yoko Ogawa

Translated by Stephen Snyder

Picador, New York , 2009

Borrowed from the library.  My thanks go to Amanda for first introducing me to this book.

A gentle, quiet novel that explores love, memory and loss.

An unnamed  Housekeeper is given a new client, a Professor of Mathematics who, through an accident, has lost his ability to remember things for more than 80 minutes.  She has been hired by his strident and distant Sister-in-law and ordered to care for his home and prepare his meals.

The Professor remembers everything from before the accident but the present is a mystery.  He tries to keep track of his life by attaching notes to his clothing.   His love of mathematics is really the only thing that keeps him going.  The relationship that grows between these two lonely people is a very fragile.  It is strengthened by the feelings the Professor develops for the Housekeeper’s son,  Root. Root and the Professor share a love of baseball and, they discover, a love of math.

He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers.  For him , primes were the base upon which all natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world. From page 130.

Ogawa used numbers and mathematical formulas as conversational tools.  The math is like poetry and helps to build a delightful story from very simple ingredients.  Snyder’s translation into English seems flawless and natural.  I enjoyed this book, like an early spring morning filled with birdsong.

Other reviews:

Bibliojunkie

In Spring it is the Dawn

My Cozy Book Nook

NC Bookbunch

Save Ophelia

The Zen Leaf

Did I miss your review?

13 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Fiction, InTranslation, New Authors 2010, Review

I Do Not Come To You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

I Do Not Come To You By Chance

by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Hyperion, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

This is a book I picked up off the shelf at the library,  having no idea what it was about.  Sometimes I get lucky.

I Do Not Come To You By Chance is the story Kingsley, the eldest son, and his middle class Nigerian family.   Corruption, crime and oil money are destroying the traditions of his culture and everything he has grow up to believe in is failing. When his university degree fails to land him a job, his uncle Boniface offers him work in a growth industry.  Email scams.

My father was learned and honest.  Yet he could neither feed his family nor clothe his children.  My mother was also learned, and her life had not been particularly improved much by education.  I thought about my father’s pals most of whom were riding rickety cars…about most of my university lecturers with their boogie-woogie clothes and desperate attempts to fight off hunger by selling over priced handouts to students.  Yet Uncle Boniface –our savior in this time of crisis–had not completed his secondary school education..From page 151.

This is a  wonderful first novel by a young Nigerian writer.  Nwaubani write with compassion and biting humor and shows us a view of  Nigeria from the inside.   Ever wonder if those email scams work?  This book seems to say they do.

7 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, New Authors 2010, PoC, Review

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2008

Borrowed from the library.

How is it that I have never read Kate Grenville before?  I have to thank my friend, Maria, for introducing me to this fine Australian author.

The Lieutenant is a historical novel that explores the issues of conquest, settlement and displacement with a poet’s sense of  grace and imagery.  It is also a book about language, learning, and meeting “the other”.

Daniel Rooke always felt himself an outsider.  At school his best friends were books and he loved learning about systems and how things fit together.  After serving in the army he finds himself at loose ends.  When given the opportunity to travel with the First Fleet to Australia he is eager to go.  He will be searching the skies for the return of a comet and reporting back to the Royal Astronomer.

Of course he would go to New South Wales.  In some faraway place within him where eagerness still smouldered, he even looked forward to it.  He bought notebooks and ledgers and experienced the first pulse of pleasure he had felt for a long time, running a hand over blank leaves that he will fill with the data of this unknown land: the weather, the stars, perhaps the quadrupeds and even the habitations of ants. From page 39.

Once at the place the Navy has chosen as a settlement Rooke quickly finds a area away from the sailors and convicts and builds a small shack as his observatory.   With the help of a native girl he begins to learn the local language, and begins to question what is happening around him.

Rook knew Gardiner as well as he knew any man, but had never dreamed he might speak with this depth of bitterness.  Or how some answering sharpness was responding.  He had not known how much he had come to dislike the governor, that secretive sour man.

“Brought in, that is what he calls it.  The natives were brought in.  Never mind that they were kidnapped.  Violently.  Against their will.  They were crying, Rooke.  I tried to show them we meant no harm, but they were wailing as if their hearts would break!  Who will say how it really was?  Tell the truth about it?” From page 112.

Rooke goes on to learn much about the language of the native people, the Cadigal. In the end he must choose between his allegiance to his superiors or his own beliefs.

The novel is based on the true story of a man named William Dawes who traveled to New South Wales with the British First Fleet and left notebooks filled with phonetic translations from the Cadigal language. Grenville tells this story quietly but with a strength and beauty that stayed with me after I had finished this book.  I look forward to reading her other novels.

Other reviews:

Literary License

Medieval Bookworm

8 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Review

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

New York Review Books, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

I’m sure many are familiar with the Moomins, that wonderful Finnish family of  hippo-like Trolls.  Tove Jansson, their creator, also wrote short stories and novels for adults.

The True Deceiver is a complex portrait of relationship, truth and deception.  It takes place during winter in a small Finnish village.

It had been snowing along the coast for a month.  As far back as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been this much snow, this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour.  From page 5.

Katri lives with her brother Mats, and is considered odd, something of an outcast,  by the villagers.  Anna, a children’s book illustrator, is admired and respected by all.  These two form a connection and Katri and Mats eventually move into Anna’s house.  The small town backbiting and gossip begins.  What does Katri want?  What can Anna be thinking?  Is Katri taking over her life?

Anna lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling.  There was a little wreath of plaster roses around the light fixture on the ceiling, repeated in a long ribbon around the bedroom.  She listened.  Heavy objects were being dragged around upstairs and then dropped with a thud.  Steps came and went and the silences that strained her hearing to the utmost.  Now, again, something being dragged and dropped, everything up there changing places;  all the past which had rested above Anna Aemelin’s bedroom as distant and undisturbed as the innocent dome of heaven, was in a state of violent transformation.  From page 76.

Jansson weaves a mysterious, dark tale written in beautiful stark language.  Thomas Teal has done a masterful job of translating and the book conveys the icy cold of winter and the icy cold of distrust and deception.  I have read some of Jansson’s stories and this novel surprised me, it has great tension and depth.  This NYRB edition has a wonderful introduction by Ali Smith.

Other reviews:

Serendipity

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4 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Fiction, GLBT 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2009

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

Borrowed from my local library.

This book will be on my top 10 list for 2010.  It may even be my favorite book of the year.  Wait, you ask, it is only the middle of January, how can you say that?  I say that because Mantel has created a world so full and rich that I didn’t want to leave it.  She has given me a place as vivid as the streets of my own city, as lively as my favorite café.  She has introduced me to characters that I want to talk to, that I wish to comfort and, sometimes, to scream at.

Of course, that is impossible, we are centuries and worlds apart.  After all, this is fiction.  Immersed in the history of early 16th century Britain, Mantel tells the story of one man, Thomas Cromwell.   With roots in the lower class, Cromwell, the son of a brewer and blacksmith, rises  to become a confidant to Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII.  Eventually Cromwell becomes the King’s chief minister  and the enemy of  Thomas More, staunch supporter of the Pope.  Henry, afraid of dying without a legitimate heir, wishes to annul his first marriage and marry another.  There are multiple threads of politics, sex and double-dealing and, of course, the King’s battle with the Catholic Church.  But this book is so much more than another fictionalized account of that time in history.

Wolf Hall is dense, dark and rich in a way that made me slow down my reading and savor every page.  What I really want to do here is quote many passages that leaped out at me but I will limit myself to a few.

An introduction to young Thomas Cromwell:

He is surprised.  Are there people in the world who are not cruel to their children?  For the first time the weight in his chest shifts a little; he thinks, there could be other places, better.  He talks; he tells them about Bella, and they look sorry, and they don’t say anything stupid like, you can get another dog.  He tells them about the Pegasus, and about his father’s brewhouse and how Walter gets fined for bad beer at least twice a year.  He tells them about how he gets fines for stealing wood, cutting down other peoples trees, and about the too-many sheep he runs on the commons…from page 12.

After he loses his wife to fever:

For a month he is at home: he reads.  He reads his Testament, but he knows what it says.  he reads Petrarch, whom he loves, reads how he defied the doctors: when they had given him up to fever he lived still, and when they came back in the morning, he was sitting up writing.  The poet never trusted any doctor after that; but Liz left him too fast for physician’s advice, good or bad, or for the apothecary with his cassia, his galingale, his wormwood, and his printed cards with prayers on.  From page 86

On viewing a carpet at Thomas More’s house:

It’s beautiful, he says, not wanting to spoil his pleasure.  But next time, he thinks, take me with you.  His hand skims the surface, rich and soft.  The flaw in the weave hardly matters.  A turkey carpet is not an oath.  There are some people in the world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins.  He is both these kinds of person.  He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight.  Leases, writs, statutes, all are written to be read, and each person reads them by the light of self-interest.  More says, “What do you think, gentlemen?  Walk on it, or hang it on the wall?”

“Walk on it.”

“Thomas, your luxurious tastes!”  And they laugh.  You would think they were friends.  From pages 187/188.

Cromwell observing King Henry:

You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing.  Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more.  Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade.  Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move.  If he had been called to a lower station in live, he could have been a traveling player, and leader of his troupe.  From page 357

Mantel places Cromwell in the third person and some readers find this difficult.  It did not really bother me.  I rather enjoy the rhythm of shifting from Cromwell’s thoughts to observing him from some close vantage point. The only part I found awkward was trying to keep track of the different Royal lineages, and Mantel, or her editors, have graciously placed a list of characters and the Tudor and Yorkist family trees at the front of the book.

I find it hard to say more about Wolf Hall.  I really love Mantel’s style, her intelligence, and her trust in my abilities as a reader.  I will read this book again.

Other reviews:

As usual, I Need More Bookshelves

Booklust

Boston Bibliophile

Fleur Fisher Reads

Savidge Reads

Did I miss yours?

23 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Booker, Challenges2010, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Notable Books

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle

Harper Perennial, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

Beautiful, unsettling stories about people  and their daily lives in the disappearing agrarian south.  Peelle is a fine writer and these stories will stay with the me for a long time.  They are about love and loss.  they are dark, but it is a very sweet kind of dark.

And the characters, it is as if they are standing next to you in line at the grocery store, discussing the weather along with their heartache.

From the story Sweethearts of the Rodeo:

The ponies bear witness to dozens of pacts and promises.  We make them in the grave light of late day, with every intention of keeping them.  We cross our hearts and hope to die on the subjects of horses, husbands and each other.  We dare each other to do near-impossible things.  You dare me to jump from the top of the manure pile, and I do, and land on my feet, with manure in my shoes.  I double-dare you to take the brown pony over the triple oxer, which is higher than his ears.  You ride hell bent for it but the pony stops dead, throwing you over his head, and you sail through the air and land in the rails, laughing.  We are covered in scrapes and bruises, splinters buried so deep in our palms that we don’t know they are there.  Our bodies forgive our risks, and the ponies do,too.  We have perfected the art of falling. Page 54.

And from the story This Is Not A Love Story:

When people take about the south being haunted, it’s true.  But it’s not the places that are haunted, it’s the people.  They are trapped by all the stories of the past, wandering a long hallway of locked doors, knocking and knocking, with no one ever answering.  No one ever will.  That’s the thing about the past.  Te closest you can get to it is the stories, and stories don’t even come close.  Page 121.

If you like short stories, read this book.  If you would like an introduction to contemporary short stories, read this book.  Peelle has won two Pushcart Prizes and an O’Henry Award.  She is an author to keep an eye on.

5 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, New Authors 2010, Review, Stories