Books

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

READ THE WORLD – Ukraine: Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko

Translated by Halyna Hryn. Narrated by Angela Dawe.

I had go to Goodreads to get a synopsis because I really wasn’t sure how to sum up this book, so here we go:
Narrated in first-person streams of thought, the female narrator is visiting professor of Slavic studies at Harvard and her exposure to American values and behaviours conspires with her yearning to break free from Ukrainian conventions. In her despair over a recently ended affair, she turns her attention to the details of her lover’s abusive behaviour. In detailing the power her Ukrainian lover wielded over her, and in admitting the underlying reasons for her attraction to him, she begins to see the chains that have defined her as a Ukrainian woman.

Honestly not sure what to make of Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex. I listened to it on audio and I’m not sure if that helped or hindered my experience of reading it. The narrative seemed to jump back and forth in time with no real clear signposts as to where we were in the main characters life. It’s a rambling narration of her thoughts and feelings about love, relationships, and what it means to be Ukrainian. It’s hard to keep up while listening to the audio so I have no idea if it’d be easier to follow if physically reading it.

Also, while the Goodreads synopsis say it’s in first-person, sometimes the stream of thought goes into second or third person as well which can make things more confusing. Though I suppose it’s also a way to show the narrators distance from some of her life experiences, or she’s reliving them in her memory and can now have a different take on events due to her new understanding of herself or the situation.

The discussions about being Ukrainian and the culture and history and language was one of the most interesting parts of Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex to me. It was a way to learn about a country that had its struggles and a culture of fear and repression and how that affected its people, especially women. Then seeing the differences between life in America and Ukraine and how it opens the narrator’s eyes to a new way of thinking was interesting too. She experiences a clash of cultures and it makes her rethink her relationship and how it wasn’t good for her for a number of reasons.

The sex scenes and musing on sex is graphic a lot of the time. She uses harsh and sometimes vulgar language to describe the act and it can be uncomfortable to listen to, not only because of the sexual content but how she sees herself when it comes to sex. It’s in those scenes that it’s really clear that her relationship isn’t a good or healthy one and the way her partner treats her, during sex and generally, is not OK. From this relationship she has an almost warped sense of self that she’s then re-examining once she’s out of it in relation to culture and heritage.

Much like The Naked Woman, I feel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex could do from being a book read with others so you can then discuss it. There’s a lot of themes in it but the stream of conscious narrative along with the random time jumps makes it difficult to follow and appreciate what this novel was trying to say.

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Summer TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl. I don’t often take part in Top Ten Tuesday (I forget or it’s not a topic I feel I have ten books that fit etc) but I do always do the seasonal TBR posts. That’s mainly because I find it interesting and somewhat entertaining to see how many times a book ends up on a TBR – please do go through my TBR tag if you also want to see books repeatedly appear. It’s not because I don’t want to read them, all books I mention in my TBR posts are books I own and want to read, it’s just that I’m a mood reader and easily distracted by other books.

So, after that bit of context, here are ten books I’d like to read in the coming months but who knows how many of them I actually will.

Life for Each: Poems by Daisy Zamora
This poetry collection is literally 70 pages long. I could read it in the morning before work it’s that short.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki
An historical fiction about three sisters growing up in the countryside in Athens before the Second World War. It’s a coming of age story with romance, secrets and family drama. From the title alone it seems like a good book to read during the summer months.

The Restless by Gerty Dambury
Set in 1960s Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, The Restless follows a nine-year-old girl who is struggling with the sudden disappearance of her teacher and her father at the onset of a workers’ strike.

Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn
Had not heard of this book before I got it in a subscription box but it seems to be a story about a ragtag group of outcasts in Revolutionary France and it has some Frankenstein elements? Sounds good to me.

Scarlet Odyssey by C.T. Rwizi
An epic fantasy set in a landscape inspired by the history of southern and eastern Africa and its myths and magic. I got this via Amazon’s First Reads as the premise of a young man who wants to become a mystic in a society where women do magic and men are warriors caught my eye.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun
This is another super short book of less than 100 pages and is a collection of short stories – both things making it something that I should read quickly and soon.

Hawkeye: Kate Bishop Vol 1 – 3 by Kelly Thompson, Leonardo Romero, Michael Walsh and Jordie Bellaire
I’m kind of cheating and combing three books into one choice here, but it’s a graphic novel series and as I have them all, I will be reading them one after the other. I love Hawkeye – both Clint Barton and Kate Bishop – and have been meaning to read Kate’s latest story arc for a while now.

The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag
Another book I got in a subscription box and it’s a story of four sisters trying to find one another and there’s magic I think? As you may probably tell, when it comes to subscription box books I haven’t heard of before, I like going into them knowing as little as possible. I do know The Sisters Grimm is set in Cambridge which is where I work so it’ll be cool reading a book set somewhere I know pretty well.

13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance by Melissa Cardoza
Feminist author and activist Melissa Cardoza tells thirteen stories about women from the Honduran resistance in the aftermath of the 28th June 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya.

A Phoenix First Must Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell
Guess what, this was a book I got from a subscription box! It’s a collection of short stories by Black authors that explore the Black experience through fantasy, science fiction, and magic.

What books are on your TBR for the next few months? If you’ve read any of these and think I should read them ASAP, please let me know.

READ THE WORLD – Antigua and Barbuda: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Narrated by Robin Miles.

An essay drawing on Kincaid’s experiences of growing up in Antigua and how the Antigua tourists may see is vastly different to the one Antiguan’s live in.

A Small Place is a piece of creative non-fiction. Jamaica Kincaid refers to the reader as if they were a tourist visiting the island, describing what they may see, what they think of the beautiful beaches, the food, and the people. But soon after describing how wonderful everything can look to a tourist, a little bit of paradise, she goes onto talk about the parts of Antigua that a tourist wouldn’t notice or understand. The corruption, the dilapidated schools and hospitals, the places that the Black Antiguans are not allowed. The club houses, the government buildings, certain beaches. She delves into the history of Antigua and how the British shaped the island and the long-lasting impact of colonisation.

I think having an essay that’s full of dark humour as well as hard-hitting truth’s that are full of anger, is a really effective way to describe what a country and its people are like, and how slavery, segregation, and now tourism can affect them. It makes this place, this ten-by-twelve-mile island, and its history easy to understand and it also makes you think. Especially as it goes into the effects of tourism on the country, how there are certain things tourists are blind to like political corruption and how people’s homes and communities are not at all like the fancy hotels a tourist may stay in.

A Small Place also has autobiographical elements of Jamaica Kincaid’s childhood. She recounts the experience of having an Irish schoolteacher, the casual racism she and her classmates experienced without being able to put the word “racism” towards it as European rule or influence had been so prevalent on the island.

A Small Place was written in 1988 so things may have changed a bit for Antiguans over the past thirty years but then again, it may have not with the prevalence of racism and corruption in the world. A Small Place is a great insight into how colonialism can affect such a small nation and how tourism can be just as harmful when the best land and the most money goes towards tourism-related endeavours rather than the communities. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Djibouti: Passage of Tears by Abdourahman A. Waberi

Translated by David and Nicole Ball.

Djibril, a young Djiboutian voluntarily exiled in Montreal, returns to his native land to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. Meanwhile, a shadowy, threatening figure imprisoned in an island cell seems to know Djibril’s every move.

I’m not sure what to make of this book to be perfectly honest. It’s a whole mixture of genres and I’m not sure that works a lot of the time. There are elements of a spy novel, of epistolary novel with Djibril’s notes on his findings in Djibouti, and of political thriller and crime fiction.

Djibril has returned to his home country about fifteen years after he left and made a life for himself in Canada. He’s had little to no contact with his family in all that time. Now back in Djibouti, he’s researching the political landscape for his firm as it’s an area of strategic importance for the transportation of the world’s oil supply.

There are little insights into what Djibouti and its people are like, however at the same time it feels like it could be any impoverished country. Djibril reflects on what the country was like when he was growing up and what he’s seeing now, but it’s written by and for someone who already knows the place. I’m not saying every book that’s set in a different country to my own needs to give a lot of descriptions or back story, but having gone into Passage of Tears knowing nothing about of Djibouti, it feels a shame that I have learnt nothing about the country – or at least nothing that has stuck with me.

I think it’s Passage of Tears’ writing style that I struggled with. The chapters alternate between Djbril’s point of view where his thoughts often jump back and forth between what he’s looking into now for his company, and his childhood memories, and an unnamed person who is imprisoned and appears to be talking to the reader, or Djibril. As the story progresses you can piece together who the imprisoned person is likely to be, but he too starts to go onto different tangents and it’s hard to focus in on the present narrative and what is supposed to be happening in this meandering plot. Extracts of writing about Walter Benjamin appear in the imprisoned man’s section and Walter Benjamin is a name I recognised but didn’t know who he was so that was a bit confusing as well, especially when towards the end of the book, half of each chapter seemed to be about him, not what’s currently happening in Djibouti.

I think they’re themes in Passage of Tears, but they often seemed muddled due to the characters voices not being strong. Themes of the effects of post-colonialism, terrorism and globalisation are there but the only one that really stood out is how America has historically meddled in so many countries history’s and politics that it’s no wonder there’s reactionary action from extremist groups.

Overall for such a reasonably short book (just over 200 pages), Passage of Tears was a drag to read a lot of the time and didn’t have characters that were easy to engage with.

REVIEW: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

When the War Between the States was derailed when the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, America’s history took a different turn. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Jane McKeene is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect rich white folk. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane, but not one Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies – not all of them undead.

I find alternate history stories fascinating. They can easily not work if they change the outcome of a big historical event, but then present things are 100% better or a lot of society’s problems are solved now that change has been made. That’s not the case with Dread Nation. While the outcome of the Civil War is different as the Union states and the Confederacy have had to stop fighting in order to fight the dead, that doesn’t mean prejudices and racism has disappeared.

Jane and the other Black girls at her combat school now have a skill that can be used by society, but that doesn’t mean they are treated well by white people, especially those in positions of power. It’s the way Dread Nation combines the horror of racism with the horror of zombies that is really interesting. Jane is not just fighting against the dead, but also the systematic racism that’s prevalent in every situation she encounters.

Jane is a great character. It took me a little while to warm to her as she’s so headstrong and doesn’t know when to stop when it comes to answering back her superiors. But she’s also smart, resourceful, and can lie like a rug. She’s one for tall tales and can think outside the box which is important when she’s put in dangerous situations.

Her reluctant friendship with Katherine, another girl from the school who can pass for white (which in term brings about a lot of interesting discussions of race and how Katherine feels about what her perceived skin colour can get her), is great as they are so different. Jane is a rule-breaker, constantly looking to learn things people would rather people like her didn’t, whereas Katherine is more reserved, looking forward to the life of an Attendant and doesn’t wish to rock the boat. They are both extremely capable of taking down the undead, or shamblers as they’re known.

The shamblers are unsettling and the way they’re described makes their presence felt almost constantly. They are a threat that’s always on the peripheral of Jane’s life, and when one or two or a dozen are near, it’s a fight to survive.

Dread Nation is a fast-paced, action-packed story with an interesting premise that lives up to the potential. It’s the first book in a series and I’m looking forward to continue it as there’s still so much to learn about the shamblers, how they group together, and what the government of each state is planning to do about them. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Trinidad and Tobago: Difficult Fruit by Lauren K. Alleyne

A poetry collection that is a journey which includes coming to terms with sexual violence and loss, with celebrating love and connection, and bearing witness to the world that shaped that journey.

I don’t often read poetry, mainly because I feel I don’t “get it” and don’t get enjoyment from it. With Difficult Fruit however, I found the poems to be affecting and easy to connect with and understand.

The poems deal with growing up and loss, how someone feels when burying a friend or dealing with an assault on their body and mind. Some poems are quite upsetting or uncomfortable as it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities people go through, especially women as they grow up.

The poems in the collection are short, often no more than a page long and they are written in different styles. Some with one long stanza, while others are broken up in parts.

One of my favourite poems in the collection was “The Hoodie Stands Witness for Trayvon Martin” which personifies the hoody that Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was shot and killed in 2012, wears. It’s short and unsettling and really affecting, especially as it’s about a real event and person that’s shocking and unjust. I don’t think I’d ever read a poem before that was so obviously about a certain event or person and it made me really stop and consider the poem and what it was saying.

I often find poems easy to just read and move onto the next one without much thought because they’re short and are about different things. However, with Difficult Fruit I found myself stopping to consider the meaning of a lot of the poems as while they were short, they were impactful. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne

Trigger warnings for controlling behaviour, emotional abuse, gaslighting, sexual assault and rape.

Amelie loved Reese. And she thought he loved her. But she’s starting to realise love isn’t supposed to hurt like this. So now she’s retracing their story and untangling what happened by revisiting all the places he made her cry. Because if she works out what went wrong, perhaps she can finally learn to get over him.

Do you ever start a book, and you’re only a couple of chapters in or less than 50 pages in, but you think to yourself “Wow, this book is going to be incredible”? Because that’s how a felt about The Places I’ve Cried in Public when I’d only read the first two chapters and I’m happy to say that gut reaction was correct.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public really was incredible. It has two timelines, Amelie in the present going to the various places she’s cried over Reese, a park bench, a bus stop, her music class, and trying to process everything that has happened and her own thoughts ad emotions. Then when Amelie is at these various places, she remembers the incident that had made her cry, and slowly the rose-tinted view of her relationship with Reese is worn away as she sees the red flags she didn’t notice before, or saw but ignored them because she was so caught up in Reese.

There are so many great, thought-provoking lines and whole passages in The Places I’ve Cried in Public. Especially in how it deals with trauma and abuse, slowly working things out as Amelie does, giving words to the things she’s feeling as she starts to process them. One of my favourite quotes is: “Crying is a very obvious sign that something isn’t going right in your life. You should not ignore tears.”

And another favourite passage is: “I wonder how many times in a given second girls are told that their guts are wrong? Told our tummies are misfiring, like wayward fireworks. No, no, no, dear, it’s not like that at all. Where did you get that from? I promise you that’s not the case. You are overreacting. You are crazy. You are insecure. You are being a silly little thing. And, then, days or weeks or even years later, we look back on The Bad Thing that happened to us because we ignored all the signs, and we say to ourselves I wish I had listened to my gut.”

I think they both sum up the difficulties people, but perhaps girls especially when so often the media and society wants to mould them into a certain way, have when trying to figure out their own emotions. There are so many moments in The Places I’ve Cried in Public that are like a punch to the gut with their poignancy.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public is so compelling because as an outsider, you see a lot of the little warning signs that Amelie ignores, or sees in a positive light, even when friends, some of who she’s known her whole life, point them out to her. It’s well-written because even as you see the issues, you can also understand where Amelie is coming from, making her a sympathetic character as her whole sense of being is changed by her connection to Reese.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public is an incredibly sad story but also one that offers hope for anyone who may be in a similar situation to Amelie. There are scenes of Amelie going to a counsellor which were very well-written and important as it shows how there are people out there to help and no one should feel lesser for needing help. The Places I’ve Cried in Public really is a fantastic book and it’s one that’ll leave a lasting impression. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Uruguay: The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers

Translated by Kit Maude.

The novella follows Rebeca Linke and her attempt to live her life how she wishes and free herself from a hostile society.

The Naked Woman was first published in Uruguay in 1950 and I can see why it caused a stir then. It depicts female nudity and empowerment, and the violent reaction a whole town has towards that. The Naked Woman is one of those books that I wish I’d read at university, or as part of a book club, because it’s a story that would be great to discuss with others as there’s so many interesting themes and moments in it. There’s fantastical elements and dream like sequences, making it difficult to puzzle out what’s real and what’s in Rebeca’s mind, especially at the beginning. In part, because it’s hard to believe why a woman would wander naked in the woods and fields and be so without her inhibitions.

The Naked Woman is a short but powerful story. It shows the fragility and viciousness of the male ego and how it can corrupt the society they’re a part of. The men of the town have a violent and almost primitive reaction to Rebeca’s nudity. It’s horrifying as so many of them, both young and old, become obsessed with the idea of her and disgusted by her. It’s as if they feel Rebeca has the audacity to wander the fields naked and in doing so, she is being sinful, and when they look upon her, they are too, and they can’t cope with that.

The Naked Woman presents a lot of ideas about feminism, sex, religion, and power. It doesn’t really give any answers to all these themes or solid explanations for Rebeca and other characters actions, which is as intriguing as it is frustrating. This is another reason I think it’d be a great book to discuss with others.

The writing in The Naked Woman is evocative and often fantastical. The Naked Woman reminded me a bit of the few books I’ve read by Angela Carter, so if you’ve read and liked Carter, then you should try Somers work. The Naked Woman is a really interesting story and it’s one that will stick with me for a while, even if I’d have liked more answers. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Bahamas: Woman Take Two: A play in three acts by Telcine Turner

Set in The Bahamas in the early 1970s, Woman Take Two tells the tale of a few people forging alliances for themselves – for love and/or money. There’s Harold Davies, a businessman who will do anything to save face and further his career, including using his teenage daughter Sofia in his nefarious plans. Then there’s Beverly Humes and her fiancé Lionel Joseph who find themselves entangled in Harold Davies’s schemes.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a play and I always find it an interesting experience. Woman Take Two is a very short play with just three acts and 93 pages. The story is relatively short, and the action only takes place over a couple of times, but there’s still some good character beats which would make it an interesting play to see performed. I liked how in the dialogue there were colloquialisms and they also defined what they meant. The colloquialisms added a sense of realism to the characters and made the dialogue flow easily.

Harold is not a nice person and he is cruel to both his employees and his family. He is a strong patriarch that won’t take no for an answer. It’s difficult to tell if he is good at manipulating others, or if it’s just the people he manipulates are naïve and trusting.

A lot of the problems that face characters in Woman Take Two, especially Lionel and Beverly, could’ve been solved if they had actually communicated better. Lionel especially went a roundabout way to explain himself and the situation he was in, wasting time and other people’s trust. Obviously, you need conflict in a play, but this was one that seemed contrived and had the potential to be easily solved.

Woman Take Two is an interesting play about relationships, greed, and mistrust. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Comoros: A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir

Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Teenage girl Eel lives on the Comorian island of Anjouan with her twin sister Rattler and their father All-Knowing. Eel is curious about the world beyond what her overbearing father dictates. When she meets handsome fisherman, Voracious, who offers her the possibility of a life of liberation and love she cannot foresee what it will cost her or the fateful path it will lead her down.

A Girl Called Eel is a 271-page story that’s told in just one sentence. I wasn’t sure what to make of that to begin with, but it worked well, make it an impactful read and one that was easy to follow. There is still a lot of commas in this one sentence, along with line breaks, so it isn’t just pages and pages of block text. Having the story be told by Eel in one, almost desperate, sentence adds to the feel that it is a long string of conscious thought. Especially as ever now and then she interrupts herself, saying how she’s getting ahead of herself or mentioning what’s happening to her in the present as she recounts her past.

Eel basically tells her life story up to that moment, her and her sisters’ birth, how they got such unusual names, how she met and instantly fell in love with Voracious, and how her life unravelled, though if she hadn’t have been so naïve, she could’ve seen the warning signs miles away. Because that’s the thing about Eel, because she’s so inquisitive and studious and quiet, she believes she’s smarter and more capable than she is. She looks down on her fellow students, believing them to be trying too hard just because they open their textbooks, and she thinks her sister is wasting her life, hanging out with friends all the time, but when Rattler does try to focus more on herself and her future, Eel just scoffs and feels no one can change who they are.

Eel is a fascinating character to me. She’s headstrong and determined and curious, loves Voracious with her whole heart but she’s also incredibly self-centred and unfeeling towards a lot of other people. As she tells her life story, she doesn’t shy away from the cruel thoughts she thought in the moment, or the ones she now thinks with hindsight. She thinks she’s smarter and more aware of the world than she is, which then makes her more naïve and childish. All this doesn’t make her a particularly likeable character, but it does make her interesting.

The format of A Girl Called Eel, along with a compelling, if not likeable narrator, makes an almost typical story of a girl getting taken for a fool by an older man more interesting and engaging.