book review

READ THE WORLD – Madagascar: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo

Translated by Allison M. Charette.

Fara and her father’s slave, Tsito, have been close since her father bought the boy after his forest village was destroyed. Now in Sahasoa, amongst the cattle and rice fields, everything is new for Tsito, and Fara at last has a companion. But as Tsito looks forward to the bright promise of freedom and Fara, backward to a dark, long-denied family history, a rift opens between them just as British Christian missionaries and French industrialists arrive and violence erupts across the country. Love and innocence fall away, and Tsito and Fara’s world becomes enveloped by tyranny, superstition, and fear.

Beyond the Rice Fields is the first novel published in Madagascar to be translated into English. I’ve had a lot of firsts in my Read the World Project but learning how so few works are translated into English (or any other language than the one it was written in) from various countries never ceases to surprise me.

You know the phrase “Never assume – it makes an ass out of u and me”? I definitely felt like that as I read Beyond the Rice Fields. My assumptions came over the race of Fara and Tsito. As it was a story of a slave owners’ daughter and her relationship with a slave, before reading Beyond the Rice Fields I presumed that Fara was white while Tsito was Black and it’d present a lot of extra problematic elements and power imbalances in a relationship like that. This wasn’t the case though as while naturally there was a power imbalance as Tsito was a slave, Fara and her family were also Black. There’s also the fact that they were both children when Tsito was brought into Fara’s home. Fara was seven and Tsito was nine, meaning that while Tsito certainly had jobs around the home to do they grew up together and he was treated more like family by Fara and her mother and grandmother, than just a slave. It’s a different look at the dynamic between slave and master compared to what I’d seen before, and seeing Tsito’s affection grow not just for Fara but for the other women in the family was sweet.

Beyond the Rice Fields is told from the perspectives of both Fara and Tsito and each perspective has a distinctive voice. It’s interesting how the chapters from Tsito’s point of view feature a lot more discussions on politics than Fara’s early on, though perhaps that’s to be expected as he’s a slave and has to be aware and consider the rules of society a lot of more as he tries to learn different skills in order to earn his freedom. With Fara, her chapters and perspective are a lot more focussed on emotions, she makes mistakes that Tsito never would as he’s had to be a lot more aware of the world than she has.

I think Beyond the Rice Fields spans almost twenty years as Fara and Tsito grow up together, grow a part and start to come back together. Naturally a lot of characters are mentioned throughout this time, some drop in and out of the story and as some have similar sounding names it can be hard to remember who is who especially as the novel doesn’t offer any context clues. It’s also difficult at times to judge how much time has passed and how old the characters are supposed to be. Sometimes a chapter begins with something along the lines of “that continued for ten yeas” which can be jarring as you suddenly need to age up the characters in your mind.

One of the most interesting yet also sometimes frustrating thing in Beyond the Rice Fields was the clash between religion and tradition. Beyond the Rice Fields is set in the 1800’s and as Christian missionaries attempt to convert the people; the backlash is extreme. The rituals that people have to go through to prove their innocence to any sins they’re accused of seem to be in such a way that they are doomed to fail. People are pretty much poisoned and if they can expel the poison that means they’re innocent? Those scenes are graphic and frustrating as it’s pure chance whether someone’s body can withstand the things it’s put through but the results are seen as concrete proof of someone’s innocence or guilt.

Beyond the Rice Fields is an interesting and compelling read. I enjoyed the dual perspectives as they both offered a lot of different ideas and experiences. The ever growing romance between Fara and Tsito was believable too and they were a relationship that I couldn’t help but root for even when a lot of things were working against them.

READ THE WORLD – Armenia: Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918 by Grigoris Balakian

Translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag.

On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other intellectuals and leaders of Constantinople’s Armenian community. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Turkish government’s systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey; it was a campaign that continued through World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by which time more than a million Armenians had been annihilated and expunged from their historic homeland. For Grigoris Balakian, himself condemned, it was also the beginning of a four-year ordeal during which he would bear witness to a seemingly endless caravan of blood.

The Armenian genocide isn’t something I’d even heard of before finding this book for my Read the World Project. While I learnt about WWI in school, it was naturally focused on Britain’s involvement and little time was spent on what other people and countries that weren’t part of the main Allied forces or Central powers were going through. In fact, I don’t think I even learnt that Turkey was allied with Germany in WWI, Austria-Hungary and Germany were the ones we learnt about.

Naturally based on the subject matter Armenian Golgotha is a very intense and bleak read. Reading about what the Armenian people went through, from intellectuals to the everyday person, was very hard at times. Photos were included throughout the book which were hard to look at.

It’s wrong to presume but somehow I thought that the Armenians would be killed as quickly as possible, but that was not the case. Women were raped, people starved to death or faced countless diseases, and when hundreds of people were murdered at once, it wasn’t quick. A quote that stuck with me was from a Turkish soldier, describing how people were massacred: “It’s wartime, and bullets are expensive. So, people grabbed whatever they could from their villages – axes, hatchets, scythes, sickles, clubs, hoes, pickaxes, shovels – and they did the killing accordingly.”

The way that Balakian recounts the horrors he witnessed treads a fine line between clinical and emotional. Armenian Golgotha is full of facts and insights into the political, historical, and cultural context of the genocide which is very interesting and is – unfortunately – a reference point to other atrocities that have happened since. While Balakian never shies away from what happened it’s clear to see how his experience affected him. How the suffering he saw and experienced shaped him, and how he was still able to trust those who had been ordered to hate him and his people. A few brave Turks, who, with some of their German allies working for the Baghdad Railway were one of the many people who helped Balakian escape, showing while it’s easy to tar a group of people with the same brush, there are those who are willing to resist terrible orders.

That was one of the many interesting things in Armenian Golgotha, Balakian was often incredulous that his fellow Armenians would trust what the Turkish government was saying or promising, and the same goes for a lot of Turkish police and military, after what they’d been through. But there was still the odd person, especially those far enough away from the governments influence that may be willing to help.

Armenian Golgotha is an important account of a tragedy that I knew nothing of. I’ve learnt a lot from this memoir and the time spent on explaining historical or political contexts to certain situations was very helpful. It’s a tough read but also a compelling one.

READ THE WORLD – Liechtenstein: The State in the Third Millennium by Hans-Adam II, The Reigning Prince of Liechtenstein

The State in the Third Millennium analyses the forces that have shaped human history in the past and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. These include religions, ideologies, military technology and economics. Prince Hans-Adam explores ways to make the traditional democratic constitutional state both more democratic and more efficient. He also discusses strategies on how to realise worldwide the modern democratic constitutional state in the third millennium. He observes that citizens should no longer be viewed as servants of the state, but rather that states be converted into benevolent service companies which serve the people as their customers.

I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read a non-fiction book that wasn’t a memoir and was instead an in-depth look at a specific topic. Over the years as I’ve become more aware of the politics of my own country, the UK, and international politics I’ve had my own ideas of what I think makes a society or country work and what doesn’t so reading about what the monarch of one of the world’s smallest country’s thinks about this was super interesting. The State in the Third Millennium was written in a really simple and accessible way. Some big ideas are talked about and it covers everything from politics, history, religion, monarchies, and economics but I was never really lost.

I did prefer the first half of the book that was more about the history side of things and how historical examples of different states can guide us on how states succeed and fail today. It gives you the context for the latter half of the book which is the Prince’s suggestions as to what would make a successful state in the current millennium. The latter half was also more of the economics side of things which while still interesting, wasn’t the sort of thing I’m naturally interested so some of those ideas weren’t as easy for me to grasp and some I wasn’t sure I agreed with.

Out of all the books I’ve read for my Read the World Project I’d never have thought a book by the Prince of Liechtenstein would be one of the ones that really made me want to visit the country it’s about – but it did! It often uses Liechtenstein as an example for the various ways a state can be run and learning about how such a small country functions in relation to the rest of Europe and the World was fascinating. Also, how their monarchy work was especially interesting as it seemed like the people have a very different relationship to their royalty to what we do in the UK do to the British Royal Family. It’s like in Liechtenstein they’re not put on a pedestal and they’re a much more modern monarchy compared to the British one and that’s worked in their favour. I think the British monarchy could learn a lot about adapting to the modern world from the Liechtenstein monarchy but I’d doubt they (and the public/press reaction to them) would change any time soon.

I feel like I’ve used the word “interesting” a lot here but it’s true, I did find The State in the Third Millennium very interesting and very readable. It proposes interesting ideas about the future of countries depending how they’re run and provides specific examples of how different systems work, or don’t, depending on the country and the structure they’re built on. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Niger: The Epic of Askia Mohammed by Thomas A. Hale and Nouhou Malio

Edited and translated by Thomas A. Hale and recounted by Nouhou Malio.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed is an oral epic about the Songhay Empire and its most famous leader. Songhay, approximately halfway between the present-day cities of Timbuktu in Mali and Niamey in Niger, became a political force beginning in 1463, under the leadership of Sonni Ali Ber. By the time of his death in 1492, the foundation had been laid for the development under Askia Mohammed of a complex system of administration, a well-equipped army and navy, and a network of large government-owned farms.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed is a very quick read thanks to how it’s written. As it’s a transcribed song or story, the language is pretty simple and to the point. It’s the story that would be told by older generations to younger ones to inform them of their history and so uses simple language and big events are often recounted like they’re listed in bullet points.

The story itself is broad as it covers decades of history. It’s not just about Askia Mohammed, though he is the main focus, but of the Songhay Empire as a whole which lasted for almost 130 years. It covers different kings, and battles, revenges and the conflicts over succession – a lot of the usual stuff in an Empire. The Epic of Askia Mohammed did remind me a bit of Chaka as that was a fictionalised account of a real king. While the format was different, they both face similar conflicts as rulers and they both have the vibe of being almost a folktale.

The copy of The Epic of Askia Mohammed I had has a lot of historical context and is full of annotations so any names, places, or words that might’ve been unusual are explained which is always helpful and allows for a deeper meaning of the story.

REVIEW: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

Narrated by Kate Reading.

Everyone knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, prospects, and her life to satisfy scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the mountains of Vystrana, where she made discoveries that would change the world.

First off, I’ve got to say how much I enjoyed the narrator for this book and while I’m sure I’d still have liked A Natural History of Dragons if I’d read a physical copy, the audiobook was brilliant and if/when I carry on with the series, I’ll definitely be doing so via the audiobooks. It brought Isabella’s story to life in a way I wasn’t expecting. The narrator had a wonderful old posh British lady kind of voice and it just worked. It was easy to imagine an elderly woman writing her memoir and throwing in the odd aside about what she’s learnt since and how her attitude towards certain things might’ve changed in the intervening years.

A Natural History of Dragons is a historical fantasy memoir of a fictional character who lives in a world that’s inhabited by dragons. I would say there is not that many dragons in a book titled A Natural History of Dragons but I didn’t mind that. Instead, it’s more character focused as a good portion of the novel is about Isabella’s childhood, how she became obsessed with natural history and dragons and how that hindered/helped her find a suitable man to marry. I liked how A Natural History of Dragons spent time building Isabella as a character and the world around her which often feels like a nineteenth century world. There’s a lot about the upper society and how Isabella doesn’t fit in with her interests and not being very lady-like but still knowing that she needs to marry in order to be a respectable daughter. I liked the struggles Isabella goes through personally just as much as her “professional” ones when she gets involved more with dragons. It’s interesting to see her straddle this line between respectability and following her passions and how love could possibly combine the too.

The main dragon stuff comes in the latter half of the book as Isabella gets to join an expedition to Vystrana. I really liked how while dragons were known and excepted creatures in this world, the people don’t know too much about them. Isabella and her fellow naturalists are what I presume were like the people who first started any animal in our world, especially potentially deadly ones like sharks. It’s clear in the beginning they don’t know a lot and some of their theories are wildly inaccurate while others are the basis of bigger discoveries. I liked how there’s references to things later in Isabella’s life throughout the book but especially when she comments on their research process or ideas and how they might’ve changed over time. I also appreciated the trial and error of their expedition and how Isabella gets into various scrapes due to her impulsiveness.

I really enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons. It’s a book I’ve seen around over the years but the fact it’s a fictionalised memoir did put me off a bit. I’m glad to say I’m wrong and that interesting narrative choice really works, especially via the audiobook. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD: Mali – The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampâté Bâ

Translated by Aina Pavolini Taylor.

Set in the early 1900’s, The Fortunes of Wangrin follows the life of Wangrin, and interpreter for the French colonisers who hustles both the colonial French and his own people in order to make money and to get the life he wants.

Wangrin as a character is one of those loveable rogue kind of characters. He’s charming, corrupt, a grifter, and an opportunist. It’s admirable in a way how he thinks up these schemes that uses his privileged position of power, being an interpreter means he’s very close to high-ranking French officials and has access to the booking, records and other official documents that he can sneakily use as he wishes.

Part of Wangrin’s ultimate downfall – like almost any corrupt and opportunistic character – is that he’s greedy. He makes a lot of enemies, some with a lot more power than him, and when there’s moments where he should stop looking for the next big money-making scheme, or stop trying to manipulate someone one, he just ignores them and carries on. It’s like he’s so confident in his own abilities that he can’t foresee anyway what he’d lose.

I liked the fact that part of The Fortunes of Wangrin was set during the First World War. Being a Brit a lot of the media I’ve consumed featuring WWI is from a British or Western prospective but here, it’s seen from the French point of view, and from the point of view of the colonised. In history class we briefly learnt about how people of various British colonised countries were (or weren’t) involved in the conflict so seeing it from the French colonised citizens point of view was interesting. How Wangrin didn’t have to go and fight due to his job but so many other Black people were sent to the coast to fight but also for the white Frenchmen in charge, the day-to-day aspects of running this country wasn’t that affected by the war.

I liked how The Fortunes of Wangrin shows the realities of a colonised country. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story set during the colonial period and seeing how Wangrin has to deal with white bureaucrats, and balance the religion and culture he grew up in with the new set ideals by the French was interesting. He’s smart and sneaky but that can’t always save him from the double standards imposed by the colonisers on him and his fellow countrymen.

The Fortunes of Wangrin is an interesting read. It’s also often surprisingly funny as Wangrin can be witty and talk himself out of conflicts in an amusing way. The humour makes it easier to read as some of the language and writing style can be a bit dry.

READ THE WORLD – São Tomé and Príncipe: Works by Alda Espírito Santopp, Tomás Medeiros, Olinda Beja, Conceição Limapp, and Albertino Bragançapp

This is where working at a university whose library boasts it has a copy of every book ever published in English, whether digitally or physically, comes in handy. This is where I found some texts for the smaller countries, or those that aren’t seen to have such a great field of literature or even if it has, it hasn’t been translated into English. Lusophone African Short Stories and Poetry after Independence: Decolonial Destinies edited and translated by Lamonte Aidoo and Daniel F. Silva brings together the works of poets, short story writers, and journalists, and charts the emergence and evolution of the national literatures of Portugal’s former African colonies, from 1975 to the present. It includes work from a variety of writers who work in different forms and genres and are from Angola, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé e Príncipe.

Lusophone African Short Stories and Poetry after Independence contains the work of five writers from São Tomé and Príncipe: Alda Espírito Santopp, Tomás Medeiros, Olinda Beja, Conceição Limapp, and Albertino Bragançapp. Each chapter on each writer starts with an introduction which is a short biography of that writer, giving extra context to their work and the place they grew up in. As for each writer there was only one short story or at most three poems, I decided to read them all.

Reading works from multiple writers helped show that even though they were all born in the same country and are connected by a shared heritage, their individual life experiences are what helped shaped them and their work. Some aspects of their identity are universal but others are not. There are differences in things like politics and identity due to where they lived if they moved away from São Tomé and Príncipe for a time, whether as a child or an adult, and even then, there are differences between growing up in Portugal and being an adult working in London.

One of my favourite poems I read by these writers was “Vision” by Olinda Beja. It’s about identity and how things were different for her growing up in Europe compared to Africa. The first line is “They wanted to make me European” and from there talks about the things she went through in order to “fit in” like having her hair straightened and she was even encouraged to fall in love with a white man so that “it would be guaranteed to the descendants of my generation the complete amnesia of blackness”. It’s a tough poem to read but an impactful one.

A lot of the works are about heritage, identity, and their home. Though there’s no doubt extra layers to her poems I didn’t pick up on (no matter how much poetry I’ve read during my Read the World Project, I’m still not that great with it) I really enjoyed how Alda Espírito Santopp described nature. “Beyond the Beach” and “Naked Island” both paint a vivid picture of life in São Tomé and Príncipe, from the people to the ocean and the trees. They’re beautiful poems.

READ THE WORLD – Vanuatu: “Colonised People” by Grace Mera Molisa

Trigger warning for domestic abuse and violence against women.

This is where working at a university whose library boasts it has a copy of every book ever published in English, whether digitally or physically, comes in handy. This is where I found some texts for the smaller countries, especially those in the Pacific. A book called Remembrance of Pacific Pasts: An Invitation to Remake History edited by Robert Borofsky came in very handy. The book’s thirty-four contributions, written by a range of authors spanning a variety of styles and disciplines, are organised into four sections. The first presents frames of reference for analysing the problems, poetics, and politics involved in addressing the region’s pasts today. The second considers early Islander-Western contact focusing on how each side sought to physically and symbolically control the other. The third deals with the colonial dynamics of the region: the “tensions of empire” that permeated imperial rule in the Pacific. The fourth explores the region’s postcolonial politics through a discussion of the varied ways independence and dependence overlap today.

In the fourth section titled “Postcolonial” Politics, there’s a poem from Grace Mera Molisa called “Colonised People” which will be the focus of this post.

The “Colonised People” in question are the women of Vanuatu. Grace Mera Molisa writes how while Vanautu “supports movements for the liberation of colonised people” in other countries, it does nothing to protect its own women from the violence they receive from husbands, boyfriends, fathers, any men in their lives.

It feels unusual to see a portion of a free nation referred to as colonised but Grace Mera Molisa does make a good argument of how that is the case. In the poem she writes “Colonialism is violence. Colonialism violates the spirit the mind the body.” and all those things happen when women are abused, it’s seen as the norm and as part of society, and there’s no form of justice.

This poem was originally published in 1987 and it’d be interesting to see if/how things have changed for women in Vanuatu since then. Misogyny and violence against women is epidemic across the world and in all cultures and while change does happen, it often happens slowly.

READ THE WORLD – Luxembourg: Dr. Mabuse by Norbert Jacques

Translated by Lillian A. Clare.

Set in 1920s Germany, Dr. Mabuse is a greedy anarchist who assumes many guises and controls a legion of henchmen (both willingly and unwillingly) through money, power, and telepathic hypnosis. State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk gets put on Dr. Mabuse’s trail after strange things happen at gambling halls and so begins a game of cat and mouse.

Dr. Mabuse is a great villain. He’s truly evil and is a power-hungry master-manipulator. He can hypnotise people to do what he wills, whether it’s cheating at a game of cards or even taking their own life. The way the hypnotism is described by one of he’s victims is very unsettling and uncomfortable, especially when he’s forcing his will upon a woman. It is for all intents and purposes rape of the mind and body. He’s also great at disguises and putting on different personas so at times von Wenk and Dr. Mabuse are in the same room and may even be talking to one another but von Wenk has no idea that it’s the man he’s after until later.

The writing style of Dr. Mabuse is that typical late nineteenth century style. The language, the mystery, and the action reminded me both of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles at times. If you like stories about those characters – though they’re both far more heroic than Dr. Mabuse – then you might like this one too.

Dr. Mabuse is a fun, pulpy, mystery. It’s full of twists and turns and though some of them are unbelievable – how this man manages to evade capture at some points incredible – but it just goes to show how Dr. Mabuse is the kind of criminal mastermind that’s always a few steps ahead. Though it goes to great lengths to show how smart Dr. Mabuse is, it doesn’t do so at the detriment of von Wenk. He’s a pretty smart and capable man himself, and has enough pull with the law to get police officers (and a lot of them) where he needs them quickly. It is fun seeing von Wenk put things together and try and solve the case. There’s a lot of surprises and when some of Dr. Mabuse’s accomplices would rather die than say anything about him, von Wenk faces a lot of dead ends.

Dr. Mabuse is a pretty enjoyable read and being set in 1920s Germany it’s interesting to see the effects of the First World War on the German citizens and society. They were often only passing mentions but it helped make me understand the place that Dr. Mabuse was operating in. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bosnia and Herzegovina: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić

Translated by Anthea Bell.

For young Aleksandar – the best magician in the non-aligned states and painter of unfinished things – life is endowed with a mythic quality in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, a rich playground for his imagination. When his grandfather dies, Aleks channels his storytelling talent to help with his grief. However, when the shadow of war spreads to Visegrad, the world as he knows it stops. Suddenly it is not important how heavy a spider’s life weighs, or why Marko’s horse is related to Superman. Suddenly it is important to have the right name and to pretend that the little Muslim girl Asija is his sister. Then Aleksandar’s parents decide to flee to Germany and he must leave his new friend behind.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone Is one of those books where quotation marks aren’t used when characters are speaking. Personally, I find this stylistic choice really hard to read and I’m not saying I skim read, but having speech marks make the endless paragraphs easier to read and breaks up the text a bit for me. About midway through there’s some chapters where there isn’t any speech and instead it’s just Aleksandar’s thoughts and how he feels about the situation he’s in and I enjoyed them a lot more as they were easier to read. Then it was back to having conversations where I felt I missed bits because I wasn’t always certain when the dialogue started/ended or who was talking. It did make me smile though as clearly the author knew he was doing as at one point Aleksandar’s teacher gives the class a writing task and the teacher takes a moment to tell him that he has to use quotation marks and mustn’t forget them like he has done in previous work.

Aleksandar is a child at the beginning of the book and so has a child’s understanding of what’s happening when war breaks out, and even before that when his grandfather dies. As his grandfather told him he was magic, Aleksandar believes that he can bring him back from the dead, if only he could find his wand. Even before soldiers arrived in his hometown things are changing as teachers in his school need to now be referred to by “Mr” rather than “Comrade” and Aleksandar is the kind of boy to question things when adults tell him he shouldn’t.

When Aleksandar returns to Bosnia over ten years since he and his family fled to Germany, he’s in his twenties and he finds the place a lot different to how he remembers it. He still has some extended family and friends there and it’s interesting to see how there’s sometimes animosity against him from those who didn’t manage to leave and had to live through the war. He and his parents had it difficult too, having to learn a new language and having little support in a whole new place but it’s clear the trauma and difficulties were different for those who stayed behind.

Though it’s not gone into much I thought it was interesting that it showed that difference as other books I’ve read during my Read the World Project haven’t really shown both sides. Most just follow those who managed to leave or those who lived through the conflict in their hometown, without much consideration of what other people would’ve gone through as their own situation was already so difficult.

As I found How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone so difficult to read, I ended up not really liking the story much. Though the latter half where Aleksandar’s older and always thinking about the girl he had to leave behind and going through the address book to find her was interesting and sweet, it wasn’t enough to get me truly invested in his story.