Books

Talking about books (when I have time to read for fun)

READ THE WORLD – Côte d’Ivoire: Allah is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma

Birahima is ten years old when he becomes a child-soldier. After his mother’s death he travels to Liberia to find his aunt but on the way there he gets caught up in rebel fighting and must become a child-solider in order to survive.

I found the way Allah is Not Obliged was written was unlike anything I’d really read before. It’s from Birahima’s point of view and it really feels like a child is telling the story. There’s lots of long sentences, as if he’s gotten excited, there’s a lot of repetition of sentences in the space of a couple of paragraphs, and he often stops to explain something mid-sentence or goes off on a tangent. There’s also the brutal honesty that comes from a child. He talks about how he and other child-soldiers are high, they don’t have a lot of food, the way they are in danger; it’s all just a fact of life for him and he tells his story with more wisdom and humour than any ten-year-old should have.

Allah is Not Obliged is set in the 1990s and it blurs the line between fact and fiction. I didn’t google every single name of the war lords and rebels Birahima mentions, but I definitely noticed that the first half of the book there seemed to be more fictional war lords, whereas in the later half of the book, it got quite detailed about what happened in various coups, and the war lords and politicians involved. In the second half of the book, those people Birahima named, were real people. This gave me an insight into West African history that I knew next to nothing about.

Birahima’s story takes place in a number of countries on the West African coast. He gets caught up in different conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone as he travels back and forth, trying to find his aunt while also trying to stick with the men who appear more powerful and therefore are more likely to keep him safe.

Allah is Not Obliged doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of war and because how Birahima’s voice is so knowledgeable and factual about the whole thing, it’s easy to forget he is a child. One thing’s for sure, this book definitely shows how the children who become child-soldiers are forced to grow up very quickly, but at the same time, don’t fully understand everything that is happening around them.

While Allah is Not Obliged is a reasonably short book at just over 200 pages, I found it to be a slow and often dull read, especially towards the end of the book when it got quite dense with the more fact-heavy stuff. it was never a book that I felt compelled to pick up again as the Birahima’s meandering story never really pulled me in. It has an interesting writing style, with Birahima’s voice shining through almost constantly, and it has a weird blend of the brutalities of war and the dark humour these young people have to embrace in order to stay somewhat sane.

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READ THE WORLD – Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The story of three men in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. Old academic Elias Cole lies in a hospital bed reminiscing about his life in Freetown in 1969 and his love for Saffia Kamara, the wife of his charismatic colleague. Elsewhere in the hospital is Kai, a gifted young surgeon, is tormented by nightmares from the civil war while British psychologist Adrian Lockheart is working at the hospital, trying to help those who have been affected by the civil war, and trying to find meaning in his work. The three of them meet in different ways and are more connected than they realise.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and this is definitely one of those books I would’ve DNF’d if I was physically reading it. I really didn’t like The Memory of Love for a lot of different reasons.

Firstly, there are the three main characters. Chapters are told from each of their perspectives and Holdbrook-Smith does a good job at distinguishing between these characters with his voice. The three men have a lot of similarities, they’re all smart, stubborn and reserved but the only one I didn’t have a huge problem with was Kai. Kai is kind, thoughtful and a great uncle, his relationship with his eight-year-old nephew is the best. The big difference between Kai and Elias and Adrian, is his attitude towards women. He’s more respectful than the other two, though can still be infatuated. Elias becomes obsessive and almost stalkerish when it comes to Saffia, the way he describes her was unsettling, especially those moments when he could tell he made her feel uncertain or uncomfortable but didn’t care. Adrian has a wife and young daughter in the UK, but that doesn’t stop him cheating on his wife with musician Mamakay. He gets very jealous over Mamakay before they’re even together, and he is often ignorant and patronising of her life. Adrian likes to think he has a connection to Sierra Leone as his mother was almost born there, but really, he’s the white saviour type character and he doesn’t even realise it. Adrian and Elisa both made me angry at different times in the book, and their love stories weren’t that loving or romantic to me.

The story itself was quite dull and very slow. It takes a long time for the connections between these three men to become clear and they all seem to drift through their lives. The Memory of Love is a story about love but it’s not a particularly romantic or even emotional story. I was never engaged with any of the characters or their pasts. There are many examples of how war as affected the country and its people, but it is always like a footnote in the three men’s lives. The people and the country have suffered a great deal of trauma, but I never really felt the full affects of that.

This is a personal taste thing but as someone that can’t watch medical dramas on TV because of the blood and the surgeries, I found listening to some of the description in The Memory of Love really hard going. When Kai is in an operating theatre everything is described in vivid detail; what he and the other medical staff are doing, the blood, the bones, the pus, and it honestly made me feel a bit queasy at times. Another thing that’s described in minute detail is Adrian’s diagnosis of various patients and the ins and outs of various mental health issues. This attention to detail made it feel more like a medical journal than a historical fiction book and made the story almost grind to a halt when it was being all educational.

In The Memory of Love two out of three of the main characters are unlikable, and at times infuriating, the story wasn’t engaging and nothing about it was memorable. I was just going through the motions listening to this on audio, just like the characters were and their lives and romances weren’t captivating at all. 1/5.

READ THE WORLD – Libya: Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

Translated by Adriana Hunter.

Set in Tripoli in 1960, Hadachinou is a young, lonely boy who is surrounded by the women in his life. In the sweltering heat he sneaks through the sun-drenched streets, listening in on the whispered stories of the women in his life. He becomes an invisible witness to their repressed desires and solely becomes aware of his own.

Under the Tripoli Sky is a very short book at 104 pages and it’s a very meandering kind of story. It’s made up of little snap shots of Hadachinou’s life and the interactions with the different women in his life. There’s his mother and her friends, his aunts and cousins, and a young girl that helps out around his house. He has a lot of freedom and because he’s a child, he often goes unnoticed by his mother when she has her female friends in the house. As he’s unseen he can watch and listen from the side lines, and through his voyeurism he begins to be aware of women’s desires and his own. Though that doesn’t mean he understands them.

The writing in Under the Tripoli Sky is poetic and immersive. The heat, the sand and the sea are easy to imagine as Hadachinou explores his city. There’s almost a dreamlike quality to Under the Tripoli Sky as Hadachinou has so much freedom and a seemingly idyllic childhood. But it’s a dream that we, as the reader, know must come to an end as it’s set before Gaddafi came to power and so the society in Tripoli in this story is quite different to what one might think of Tripoli and Libya today.

Under the Tripoli Sky is a coming of age tale about an inquisitive child. Hadachinou may be privy to more than the adults in his life are aware but that doesn’t mean he understands it all. There’s some interesting insights into Libyan society in the early 1960s, the troubles and traumas that face women but also how things do seem to be evolving, but overall it’s a book that’s composed of vignettes that don’t leave a lasting impression.

Books of 2019

Here are all the books I read this year. I’m taking it a bit easier this year and haven’t signed up for any challenges. Instead I’m going to be focussing on my Read the World Project and trying to get my physical TBR down a fair bit. You can find out more about what I’m reading on my Twitter and Goodreads.

Without further ado, here’s what I read in 2019! Any titles with asterisks are rereads and if it has a link, that goes to my review.

January:
Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph – Yusra Mardini
The Exact Opposite of Okay – Laura Steven
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
Under the Tripoli Sky – Kamal Ben Hameda
Every Man Is A Race – Mia Couto

February:
– Made You Up – Francesca Zappia
The Memory of Love – Aminatta Forna
Allah is not Obliged – Ahmadou Kourouma
Safe as Houses – Simone van der Vlugt
– Let’s Talk About Love – Claire Kann
Crimson – Niviaq Korneliussen

March:
Burning Cities – Kai Aareleid
Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena
– A Fortune Foretold – Agneta Pleijel
– Leah on the Offbeat – Becky Albertalli
– Secret Son – Laila Lalami
– Letters from Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi

Currently reading:
– ???

Books read: 17/52
Books reviewed: 11/26

READ THE WORLD – Mozambique: Every Man Is A Race by Mia Couto

A collection of 18 short stories that look at a range of issues including civil war, colonialism and corruption against the backdrop of post-independence Mozambique.

These short stories range from three pages long to no more than fifteen pages. Each of them features very different characters, though some of the issues they face are quite similar. A lot of the stories are about or feature outsiders, whether it’s a man who has a lot of birds in “The bird-dreaming baobab” or a Russian woman who has come with her husband to run a mine in “The Russian princess”. There are different types of outsiders, the Russian woman is a white woman so has a level of authority but has no equals or friends, in other stories, the outsiders are black people who are seen as different by the rest of the villages.

Some of the stories are very real, showing peoples lives in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how they were blending the traditional with the new. A lot of the stories are bold though and have magical realism elements. A few of the stories seem like fables while others are just weird. It’s this combination of contrasting stories that makes Every Man Is A Race such a quick and fascinating read.

One of my favourite stories was “The rise of Joāo Bate-Certo” which is about a young man who wanted to live in a city but came home to his village and built a ladder to the clouds and appeared to find a whole new place up there. So many of the stories leave you with more questions than answers or give you a lot to think about.

Every Man Is A Race is a short story collection where there weren’t any short stories that I really disliked. They a vibrant and magical but also often sad and thoughtful. 4/5.

TOP 5 WEDNESDAY: Top of Your TBR

Top 5 Wednesday is a great feature hosted by ThoughtsonTomes. To find out more about Top 5 Wednesday and the upcoming topics, check out its Goodreads page. It’s a new year and a new chance to tackle that TBR and this week’s Top 5 Wednesday is all about what books are at the top of our TBR pile and are the ones we want to read ASAP. I have an extensive physical TBR with almost 40 unread books with me in my flat, and then around 60 more unread books taking up residence in my mum’s flat. Oops! Here’s five books I do really want to read soon though!

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadwi
I got this for my birthday last year and I somehow have yet to pick it up. While I’ve not read the original Frankenstein, I know the story and am interested in seeing how this retelling works in US-occupied Baghdad.

Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian
This is a book I hadn’t heard of before but got it one of those Buy One Get One Half Price deals in Waterstones. I’ve not read anything by Jenny Han (Though I’ve watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and really enjoyed it) but I read The List by Siobhan Vivian a couple of years a go and liked it a lot, so I’m interested to see what I make of this collaboration.

Made You Up by Francesca Zappia
This was a Christmas present via the #TBTBSanta exchange and is probably one of the most recent additions on my TBR. I read and loved Eliza and Her Monsters, so I hope I like Made You Up just as much.

Allah is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma
I’ve owned Allah is Not Obliged for almost a year now after I bought it on last year’s London Bookshop Crawl, so I really should get to it soon. It’s a pretty short book, just over 200 pages, but it sounds like a hard-hitting one as it’s about a child soldier.

Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid
Another birthday present from last year, I think the reason I’ve been putting off Burning Cities is because of its size. It’s just over 300 pages but the edition I have makes it look much longer. It is a multigenerational story which I do enjoy but I do have to be in the right mindset for it.

What books are at the top of your TBR pile?

READ THE WORLD – Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein.

In a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, lives intelligent and opinionated Lila, a bookish Elena. They are best friends who met aged ten but as they grow older and become teenagers, their paths divide slightly. Elena continues to study while Lila has to work to help her family.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a four-book series called the Neapolitan Novels. This adult literary fiction series spans the lives of Lila and Elena. My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena receiving a call from Lila’s son saying she’s missing and from there the story jumps back to 1950s Naples and Elena and Lila’s childhood. Elena is the narrator of this story and as it’s from her perspective it’s easy to see that there’s perhaps some bias to how she paints certain characters. Elena idolises Lila, she does what Lila does and Lila’s thirst for knowledge pushes Elena to study harder.

Elena can see very few faults with Lila, both in terms of her personality and her appearance. When it comes to how Elena describes herself, she’s much more critical. She doesn’t like how she looks, and she thinks cruel things about how her mother looks too.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber and I have to say, I think if I’d read the physical copy, I would have gotten bored quickly so the fact it was on audio and I could listen to it as I walked to work or did the cleaning made me continue with it. The narration was good but it’s the story itself that didn’t really grab. The writing is often lovely and paints a vivid picture of post-World War Two Italy and how Elena and the other children don’t understand the political or financial issues they’ve been born into.

In many ways, not a lot happens in My Brilliant Friend. Because it follows Elena and Lila from childhood until their mid-teens, a lot of it is about their school life, the grades they get, what books their read, and as they get a bit older it becomes about boys and dating and going through puberty. For a large proportion of the book I was waiting for something big to happen, but that big thing never came. Yes, there were family arguments and friends had fights, but there was never anything that gripped me.

My Brilliant Friend is very much a character-driven story and I presume by the fourth book the story, and the characters ages, will have caught up to where Elena is informed Lila is missing at the beginning of this book and continue from there. However, there wasn’t enough about My Brilliant Friend that I liked in order to continue with this series. It is very well-written and I found both Elena and Lila equal parts frustrating and sympathetic many times, but their story was never something I truly became invested in. 3/5.