Mbarek Ould Beyrouk – The Desert and the Drum

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I get the impression that Mauritania has always been one of those countries which is a bit difficult to get to when you’re reading the world, but I got lucky, as last year Dedalus published The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, translated by Rachael McGill, as part of the Dedalus Africa series. This has previously included another first in Guinea-Bissau and they will also be publishing a novel from Cape Verde later this year.

I didn’t know what to expect, as it’s not a part of the world I’m particularly familiar with. The story centres around Rayhana, a young woman living in a traditional Bedouin community, whose life is changed forever when a group of strangers come to mine raw materials close to the camp. She travels to the city, a completely different world for her, knowing that she cannot stay still for too long as her tribe are desperate to find her and bring her back. She meets a range of colourful characters there including her family’s former servant Mbarka and Mbarka’s ‘degenerate’ friend Hama, who aid her in her search for that which her family has taken from her. But unfamiliar to the city as she is, it’s hard for her to work out who is a true friend and who hopes to take advantage of a naive young woman new to the city.

It’s a very interesting story which on the one hand introduced me to a new country and new cultures within it, but at the same time reminded me that we are all human beings searching for belonging and for ourselves. It’s not perfect – the ending is a bit abrupt and the footnotes are a little distracting, but I’d still highly recommend it. I hope that Dedalus continue this policy of bringing into English these lesser-heard stories to allow us to broaden our horizons that little bit more.

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The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin

Set between two diametrically opposed worlds: Anarrea and Urras, the story of the Dispossessed is, even to the most inattentive readers like me, a critique of a consumerist society, very much still poignant today as it was in 1974, the year of its publication.

Anarres is an anarchist world, the results of a settlement between the revolutionary anti-consumerists led by Odo. It is the Moon of Urras, almost devoid of life but a planet for those that want to be free. In Anarresti society one does not own (not even their parents, who are referred to as “the parent”), one chooses what one feels one ought to do and one does not owe. Life is communal in every aspect, from shared dormitories for the single people, communal meals in refectories and shared warehouses where one can get what they need.

On the other hand Urras is a hyperbole of our present day society. Everyone who owns has power and the others merely serve the upper classes and live in misery:

There’s holes in the floor [of our hospitals], big holes, the beams show through, see? (…) rats come up the holes, right in the beds

The story follows Shevek, a physicist and Anarresti revolutionary, even for his anarchist brothers and sisters, who flies to Urras to try and finish his Principle of Simultaneity, a theory on the branch of temporal phyiscs that has the potential to revolutionise interstellar travel and is described as the Unified Theory of Temporal Physics (physicists do love their unified theories). Interspersed with flashbacks of his life in Anarres which expand on Shevek’s background, he finds himself trapped by a power struggle he cannot comprehend.

There is a genuine crtiticism to the pacing of the book, which often feels drawn out and blocky. The chapters are immense, which I personally struggled with since they make it feel like you’re hardly progressing. However, if you stick with it and pass the first third of the book, once you get really into the nitty gritty of the story it is definitely worth it.

Some might feel there is not enough action, since there is only one “action” scene, however I don’t think it really needs it – it is not the subject of the story being told and is mostly irrelevant to the grand ideas at the heart of the story: ideas of identity within a group, of making your own way, of civilisations demonising each other for their own spiritual well-being.

My #1 book for 2018 achieved that spot in part for how it made me think about society, about which direction I hope the world will take, and about myself and my attitude towards my choices and my dreams. The Dispossessed also brings some quite powerful soul searching elements and therefore earned five stars on my Goodreads account (although 4.5 would have been a more accurate rating).

I leave you with one of the quotes that most stuck with me:

The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

[Photo note: I can hardly believe this is the first appearance of Kishi in Two In A Teacup! The best-travelled, best-read stuffed bunny in existence. – E]

Elie’s updated reading map 2019

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Readers of my old personal blog will know I’m in the habit of updating my reading map once a year or so to illustrate my #readingtheworld journey. I’m now up to 130 countries, which is starting to feel like I’m within touching distance of my goal of 197!

I have books ready to go for Jordan, Armenia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, New Zealand and a few others, so some holes will be plugged this year. I’m also excited that new books are coming this year which represent first translations from Cape Verde (published by Dedalus Africa) and the Comoros Islands (published by Jacaranda). My new year wish is that more will follow from Mali, Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic, which seem like they’re going to be problematic.

M’s top 10 books for 2018

This was a year in which I tried to broaden my reading horizons a bit, and I think it shows on my (first ever) top 10 list! I have been trying to read more geographically diverse books but also more women writers and more translated books, which have helped broaden my literary horizons in a similar way to travel.

#10. Northern Lights (His Dark Materials #1) – Philp Pullman

A children’s story and a classic one at that, but the powerful female lead (and powerful male support) felt new and fresh. It was a quick read, nothing too inspirational but definitely worth the time if you haven’t yet.

#9. Invisible Planets, Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation – Various (translated by Ken Liu)

This was my attempt at discovering SFF outisde the normal sphere of US/UK writers who tend to be the mostly well known. The short-story format ensured I didn’t spend too much time bogged down on something I wasn’t enjoying and I could sample different writers. If you enjoy sci-fi then please pick this up, as it will make you think about the genre differently. I can’t quite place my finger on it but there is an indescribable quality that is different and new and invigorating in Eastern SF that deserves a bigger audience.

#8. Tribes – Nina Raine

Nina Raine is a playwright who writes powerful and relevant stories, and Tribes is definitely one of the family. It follows a deaf teenager, trying to make his own way in the world and in his family. It is gripping and difficult, but you can’t help but immerse yourself in this family and come out better for it. (for more on Nina Raine, see my piece on her play Stories)

#7. The Sunset Limited – Cormac McCarthy

This is another ‘oldie but goldie’. Cormac McCarthy tells us the story of two men, Black and White. One is an ex-convict janitor in the new york subway, the other a college professor who attempted suicide. The entire play rolls out in one room, spans a couple of hours and addresses such lighthearted themes such as God, suicide, right, wrong, crime and more. There is also a film version, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones.

#6. The Accusation – Bandi (translated by Deborah Smith)

Features in Elie’s top 10 as well. This is a collection of seven stories written by an annonymous author who still lives in North Korea. They are gut-wrenching tales of indoctrination, of abuse, of suffering, and of the only reality that some people, contemporary to us, live.

#5. The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Cixin Liu has an adapted version of one of the chapters of this book in Invisible Planets (above). His talent is such that having read both of them relatively close it still felt fresh. It is a story of a scientist looking for answers, a country doing anything to get ahead, the desperation of forever lost dreams and an alien invasion that unerringly spells doom for mankind. Amid aliens and futuristic tech, this is still is a story about humans: grounded and relatable.

#4. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin has created a magic system that feels very similar to Brandon Sanderson’s and there is no higher compliment I can pay her. It is a system that does not solve everything, and one that has very real costs and risks to use. It is also a tale about oppression, the fear of those who are different and the relentless dedication of women scorned. Bringing dead civilisations and the omnipresent fear of Father Earth into a complex society only makes it better. The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and both its sequels did so as well, making Jemisin the first black woman to win the award but also the first author of any genre to win it three consecutive years.

#3. Saga Vol.1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I am very late to the Saga party, but I am glad I finally started it. It is a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque tale of two lovers from opposite sides of a war – except these two horny teens have more brains than the aforementioned two and decide to stick with it. This is the story of how they did so. It’s set in a world with android robots with TV heads, winged soldiers and sorcerer goats. If all that is not enough it also has a sassy ghost nanny.

#2. The Paper Menagerie and Other Short Stories – Ken Liu

Ken Liu first came to my attention as the editor of Invisible Planets (see above, again!). This collection however is of stories he himself has penned. They are all fantastical or science-fiction-y, and show the incredible versatility of this author. But at their core, they are all stories about people (or in one specific case a deity), trying to do their best in a changing world.

#1. Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer is an historian who writes a book in the fashion of a memoir for events set in the year 2454. The most fascinating thing about this series is the suggestions it makes for how the world has changed in these 400-odd years. In Palmer’s world nations barely exist anymore and instead people, when coming of age, choose which Hive to associate to, based on shared values. Gender is no longer important and it is in fact rude to address someone by gendered pronouns. Families are also a matter of affiliation, you choosing which individuals have the “bash” you want to join. These among others have really made me think about our own world and how I relate to all these concepts. On top of all this Palmer has written a compelling story, following Mycroft, who walks the halls of the powerful as their servant and is privy to much… This is the single book that has most informed and challenged my outlook on the world and for that I couldn’t be anywhere except number 1.

Of my top 10 books, three are authored by women and one (Saga) illustrated by women. This is a much more even male-female ratio than I have ever read and I hope to continue to change this, evening it out and possibly even surpassing and letting the women lead for a year or two! I am excited for all that is ahead in a year in which I’m challenging myself more than ever, trying to read a book a week. (You can keep track of my success in my Goodreads page)

Elie’s 10 best books read in 2018

2018 was a marathon reading year for me. I finished the year having read 118 books, smashing my previous record of 86 in 2013. 71 of these were in translation. I also added just shy of 30 countries to my reading map – more about that in a later post.

This means that choosing my top 10 books of the year has been a significantly harder task than in previous years! However, I’ve managed it, and trends are similar to previous years – a majority of women in the top 10 and a particularly strong showing this year from women of colour, and I think this year everything in the list was published in 2017 or 2018 as I continue moving away from classics and things I feel like I ought to have read and towards new releases. Most of the world’s continents are also represented as I continue my read the world challenge.

Before I kick off, a few honourable mentions to those who didn’t quite make it – Girl At War by Sara Nović; When We Speak Of Nothing by Olumide Popoola; Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney; Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga (translated by Jordan Stump); and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All excellent books that are very much worth your time, but just didn’t quite make the top 10!

10. Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire (Pakistan/UK)

There’s a tendency sometimes to forget books you read earlier in the year when making these kinds of list, and this is the first book I actually finished reading last year. However it’s stuck with me because it was such a powerful story. A re-telling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is centred around a British Muslim family torn apart by love and politics, leading up to an explosive ending – completely unputdownable.

9. Margarita García Robayo – Fish Soup (translated by Charlotte Coombe, Colombia)

Charco Press are one of my favourite publishers at the moment, bringing into English a range of Latin American literature with eye-catching cover design. This for me is the cream of their crop from last year, a collection which includes 2 novellas and some short stories. The prose is raw and compelling, exploring a range of themes including sex education, the desire to escape from one’s family, and taboos. I’m looking forward to reading more from this writer in English.

8. Lesley Nneka Arimah – What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky (South Africa)

Another reading trend for me in recent years is that I’ve been increasingly reading and enjoying a lot more short stories. This was one of the best collections I’ve read this year. The stories are great from the get go, then after the first couple, an element of speculative fiction starts to creep in making them even more exciting. This is a debut collection and I’ll be really excited to see what she does next.

7. Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (India)

Not for the faint-hearted, this is a raw and emotional account of a young woman who falls in love with a university professor and becomes trapped in an abusive marriage with a man who seeks to break her. Reading this had me feeling like I was being repeatedly punched in the stomach.

6. Bandi – The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (translated by Deborah Smith, North Korea)

Bandi is a pseudonym for the writer of these 7 short pieces which were smuggled out of North Korea to give us perhaps the first realistic portrayal of what real life looks like in contemporary North Korea written by someone who still lives there. What’s perhaps most shocking is the level of oppression and indoctrination which is just accepted as ordinary by the characters. An important read which sheds some light on a brutal regime.

5. Svetlana Alexievich – Second-Hand Time (translated by Bela Shayevich, Belarus)

Speaking of brutal regimes… Second-Hand Time is a collection of oral histories of the collapse of the USSR, charting the disappearance of the old regime and the emergence of the new. Using a broad range of voices, she creates a rich picture of a changing world. What’s particularly impressive is that this monolith of a work was Bela Shayevich’s first full-length translation, and that she won the inaugural TA First Translation Award for her efforts.

4. Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing (USA)

I’m not going to spoil the ending of this book for anyone but suffice to say the thing I most remember is being caught by surprise at a plot twist with maybe 30 pages to go, sitting up in bed, gasping and bursting into tears, much to the confusion of M. who was on the phone to his mum at the time. This is a family story, but maybe not the first thing you’d expect from a story of that description. Powerful and gripping.

3. Hamid Ismailov – The Devil’s Dance (translated by Donald Ryfeld, Uzbekistan)

This is the first of Ismailov’s Uzbek novels to be translated into English and it’s an incredibly ambitious work, weaving together the story of the the writer Abdulla Qodiriy and his imprisonment at the hands of the Soviet secret police, and the novel he was writing at the time of his imprisonment – so really it’s two stories for the price of one. It’s an extraordinary depiction of two cultures which could not be more different, and yet it really works. I can’t wait to read his next novel, The Language of Bees, which is due to be published by Tilted Axis Press this year.

2. Preti Taneja – We That Are Young (India)

This is another re-telling of a classic story, this time of King Lear, transplanting the story to modern India and to a billionaire family dynasty, which begins to fragment as the founder of the Devraj Corporation ages and his health deteriorates. A struggle for power and wealth starts amongst his heirs, and people already familiar with King Lear will know that it’s only downhill from here. It’s a stunning novel which takes the original story to new heights, and the level of ambition is incredible from a debut novelist.

1. Olga Tokarczuk – Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Poland)

I said at the time of reading this that I’d be stunned if I read anything better this year, and lo and behold, here it is sitting firmly in the number one spot. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Tokarczuk previously but something about this one really hit the spot. This bit, for example:

You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.

[…]

…I think it tallies with one of my Theories – my belief that the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brain are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.

The whole novel is like this. It’s fundamentally a whodunnit, which will please readers who prefer a bit of plot, and yet it’s still peppered with these wonderful philosophical insights which for me characterise Tokarczuk’s writing and say more about the nature of humanity in the 2000s than anything else I’ve ever read.

 

So, it’s been a pretty awesome year! Reading goals for the year ahead include reaching 150 countries read, to continue to read more diversely in general and maybe, just maybe, to get that TBR down just a little.

Improbable Destinies, How Predictable is Evolution? – Jonathan Losos

Jonathan Losos is a Harvard professor, who in this book takes on the challenge of explaining to us the progresses made in evolutionary biology to try and figure out the predictability of evolution, and whether things would be the same if we could magically rewind and replay the tape of life as Stephen jay Gould proposed in a thought experiment.

It is important to note right from the start that this is not a book trying to convince you that evolution exists. This books treats evolution as the established scientific fact that it is and tries to understand if there is any form of inevitability in what happened to get to us, here and today, as we are now.

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Divided into three parts, the book begins by first describing what has been observed on the matter of the convergence or divergence of evolution (convergence is when two dissimilar species due to similar environmental pressures grow more alike. Conversely divergence is when closely related species grow different either to occupy different niches or due to different selective pressure). Losos exemplifies with some of his work with anole lizards (which adorn the cover of my Penguin edition) as well as various others. Initially he shows us that different species in similar but different environments evolve in a predictable, repeatable fashion (and at a pace that is surprisingly fast). And then, just when you’re starting to be convinced that the entire book is just an ode to evolutionary convergence he starts to tell you the tales of the many instances where that hasn’t occurred. The book contains extensive examples of both cases, overwhelming the reader with the amount of studies and information available, much like a fresh-faced scientist might one day feel.

Parts two and three describe what studies have been (or are being) done to understand why things are the way they are and what creates the similarities or disparities, both in nature (part two) and exclusively in laboratories (part three). These sections are very well paced, Losos explaining all the terminology, explaining what the experiment is, how it’s being conducted, what was expected to be found, what was actually found, and what that means for the science of evolutionary biology at large, all with accessible explanations and relevant examples.

In the final section of part three he explains why this matters to the layman. I have a science background and love learning for learning’s sake, but many people have different ways of thinking and need more real world justification for these types of studies. This is accounted for with explanations of how evolutionary studies have allowed us to understand how microbes develop antibiotic resistance and how that information can help us devise further methods to help us (or other species) proliferate.

Improbable destinies contains detailed information about experiments that have been 40+ years in the running (like the Rothamsted Research) or theoretical creatures like the adorable dinosauroid below (illustrated by Marlin Peterson), who might have developed as a descendant of dinosaurs had their extinction not taken place. Disney’s The Good Dinosaur makes an appearance, as does It’s a Wonderful Life and Perry the secret agent Platypus from Phineas and Ferb, all things you’d expect to read about in a book about evolutionary biology!

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In essence this is a book that weighs pros and cons of both theories, gives extensive and suitable examples that anyone can understand and has very little of the author’s bias in it, allowing the reader to develop an opinion based on the evidence at hand. Its only faults are that sometimes the evidence is too overwhelming, and that the writing style can be a bit difficult to process, which means that it is a book that lends well to well-rested people with a few hours to spend learning. I have given it 4 stars on Goodreads, which translate to a solid 8.4/10.  If you have any interest in evolution I highly recommend this book as a starting point to understanding what is being done and what the next steps could conceivably be.

Carla Maliandi – The German Room

Over the last few years one of my favourite discoveries has been the plethora of indie publishers out there focusing on translated literature from various parts of the world. Peirene Press focuses on European literature, Tilted Axis Press on Asia, and Charco Press on Latin America. The latter is my most recent discovery of the three – after all, this is only their second full year of publishing.

Charco is a Spanish word translating loosely as ‘puddle’ or ‘pond’, and is also used in the way English speakers might say ‘across the pond’ when describing travelling to the US or similar. This describes very neatly what Charco Press are seeking to achieve, by digging out the best of Latin American literature, translating it into English and thus bringing it to new audiences who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access these innovative, contemporary voices. They prominently name their translators, recognising that they are a fundamental part of the process, and also their editors.

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The German Room by Carla Maliandi, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle, was the last of this year’s crop. It won’t surprise people who follow me on Twitter to know that I have an extensive TBR and don’t always get to new releases as quickly as I might like, but this one had generated a bit of a buzz and I was sufficiently excited to skip it up the list. It describes a young woman who, born in Heidelberg to Argentine parents who were fleeing political persecution, returns as an adult after decades away into a different kind of exile, without any clear idea of what she wants to do when she gets there.

The problems which lead her to leave Argentina without telling anyone – a broken relationship, potential pregnancy, no career to speak of – soon start to fade into the background as she is joined by an improbable cast of characters including a bereaved Japanese mother, a fellow Argentine studying in Heidelberg, an old family friend who remained in Heidelberg and is now a professor, and the younger man who may or may not be his lover. She is drawn into their stories, which allows her to put off her own decisions about returning home and having the baby – but equally make it impossible for her to find the anonymity she had sought thousands of miles away from home. Neither can they make her problems disappear, even if she can defer them for a while.

We’re kept guessing right up until the final pages to see whether the protagonist makes a decision on her future or that of her baby. But the journey was more than interesting enough to keep me flying through the pages – I read the whole thing in a single sitting. I was captivated, feeling like I was right there with her on the snowy streets of Heidelberg. This is just as much to do with the quality of the translation as it is the original writing – Frances Riddle deals masterfully with the complexity of translating different voices and registers, bringing them all to life in one cohesive narrative. I’d recommend this whether you’re in need of a stocking filler, or just an afternoon escape of your own.