book review

READ THE WORLD – Chad: Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid

Translated by Karen Haire Hoenig.

This very short book, it’s less than 80 pages, contains fourteen short stories.

I found the experience of reading Told by Starlight in Chad really interesting. The writing style is simple and because the stories are the kind that tell the history of a place or a people or are like a fable, even though they weren’t stories I knew, the beats were often familiar. They’re the sort of stories that could’ve been told for generations verbally before being written down as many of them contain some sort of moral or lesson.

There are stories to do with religion, creation, and vengeful gods. There are stories that seem to be based on real historical events – I had to do some googling as there were names of cities and regions of Chad mentioned, how they were created or who ruled them, and they weren’t names I was familiar with. I learnt about the Wadai Empire thanks to this book. An area to the east of Lake Chad that covered present-day Chad and the Central African Republic that was ruled by a sultan in the seventeenth century.

A lot of the stories have an almost fairy-tale quality to them. There are wicked stepmothers, talking animals, giants, kings and princesses. Some stories are sad but most end happily or with those who have suffered getting some sort of justice.

Told by Starlight in Chad is a collection of stories that are like folktales and I found them very easy to read. I also found it interesting to see how while the stories weren’t ones I knew, the kinds of messages they had were ones I learnt from different stories growing up. So while the narrative was different, the morals are universal.

READ THE WORLD – Andorra: The Mysterious Balloon Man by Albert Salvadó

At the end of the eighteenth century, changes abound all over Europe. France is in conflict with its neighbours (and is losing a monarch too), England and Spain struggle for supremacy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and on the other side of the ocean and new power is starting to emerge – the United States of America. After realising that traditional spies will no longer work in this changing world, civil servant Alfred Gordon propose that the British secret service should employ Thomas Headking – an Englishman living in Spain who is on the run for killing a nobleman’s son in a duel. From using his business acumen Thomas gains information and secrets, while getting embroiled in romantic drama, that the British could find very useful.

I don’t tend to read reviews of books I know I’m going to read (especially for my Read the World Project) but as I discovered The Mysterious Balloon Man via Goodreads when looking for an author from Andorra, I happened to glance at people’s star ratings and they weren’t particularly high. Because of that I went into this book with some trepidation but then was pleasantly surprised to fine I weirdly enjoyed it.

It is an odd book and is very heavy on the history and politics of the time – there’s a handy table at the beginning showing all the real historical figures in The Mysterious Balloon Man and who they were which was helpful. Because The Mysterious Balloon Man is one of those books where it’s set during real historical events and features a lot of people who really existed, Charles IV the King of Spain and William Pitt the British Prime Minister to name a few, but the main character we follow are all fictious; Alfred Gordon, Sir Arthur Blum (head of intelligence services at the Foreign Office), Thomas Headking and the everyday Spanish people he interacts with whether that’s his business partner (who doesn’t know his partner is a spy) or Maria the deaf-mute woman he helps and becomes his source inside the Spanish Prime Minister’s residence.

The Mysterious Balloon Man is the first book in a trilogy and the titular Balloon Man plays a very minor role in this book and doesn’t even show up until the latter half of the story. Really, The Mysterious Balloon Man is about Thomas Headking becoming a reluctant spy/businessman and all the goings on in the British secret service as they try and keep track of what’s going on in Spain and France and have some infighting too. It’s a slow-moving book with a lot of political goings on so if that’s not your thing then it wouldn’t be for you.

What I was surprised to find in The Mysterious Balloon Man was this incredibly wry sense of humour running through it – especially from Alfred Gordon. There’s a lot of him butting heads with his superior and other civil servants and there’s people who you wonder how on Earth they got to positions of such power when they are so incredibly incompetent (very true to life really). This sort of tongue in cheek humour made the stuffier moments easier to take in.

While all in all it’s hard to see whether or not Thomas and the British secret service really achieved what they set out to do, as they were doing it, I was mostly entertained. I’m not sure when I will continue with this trilogy but there was enough in this first book to not give up on this series. I think mainly I’m intrigued to know more about Ali Bey as the trilogy is called The Shadow of Ali Bey and they only made a brief appearance in this book. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Marshall Islands: Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner

A collection of poetry covering themes like history, personal experience, and the Marshallese people and their culture.

I’ve read about a dozen poetry collections for my Read the World Project and I still think it’s an often interesting way to get a snapshot of a poets culture and interests. I think that Iep Jāltok is one of my favourite, and the best, collections I’ve read in a while.

The style of the poems differ. Some are in simple stanzas, others the words meander across the page or is just one big paragraph. There’s a few that are concrete poetry – written in the shape of a boat or a pot.

I knew nothing about the Marshall Islands before picking up Iep Jāltok and even now I still know very little. The poem “History Project” (which is also the name of one of the four sections of the collection) is about how when Jetn̄il-Kijiner was in school she researched how the United States conducted nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands. That in and of itself is something that I never knew about but how the poem goes into the images and statistics she found, the lasting effects on generations of people from the radiation, how Americans protested animals being used as guineapigs but not the people of the islands – it’s all so sad, horrible, but also not that surprising when you consider the history of the USA. It’s a really effective poem and after that one there’s mention of radiation and the sickness it caused in members of Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s family in other poems.

It’s the poems about the history of the Marshall Islands, its people and the effect climate is having on them that I really liked. There are poems about how the Marshallese are lumped together with other people from different small island countries in the Pacific Ocean. The racism Jetn̄il-Kijiner has experienced and how she feels that she and her people are forgotten by the rest of the world – especially when it comes to climate change. “Two Degrees” is about how the increase in temperature of two degrees will affect the Marshall Islands, and how the rising sea levels is already flooding the islands. Terms like rising sea levels often seem abstract and hard to comprehend, whether because you live away from the coast or it’s genuinely hard to image a beach or land no longer being above water. Having the effects of climate change laid out in a poem makes it seem so simple and real.

Iep Jāltok is a thought-provoking poetry collection with a lot of powerful poems. It shows history and issues from a point of view I had not seen before and demonstrates how unfortunately universal things  like racism and climate change affect people differently when they’re from different communities. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Burundi: Baho! by Roland Rugero

Translated by Christopher Schaefer.

When Nyamuragi, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman’s community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamuragi’s attempts at explanation.

First of all, I got to say I really like how this book is packaged. Bit weird I know but bear with me. Baho! is such a short book, only 90 pages, and the book itself is just tiny and the cover has a buttery feel and it’s just a generally nice book.

Now onto the content of said book. Baho! is told from multiple characters points of view. While most of the time the point of view changes at the start of a new chapter, sometimes it happens during a chapter after a line break and it did take me a little while to figure out who’s head I was now in especially if it was a point of view we hadn’t seen before. I think the one-eyed old lady was my favourite POV as she is one of those characters who seemed to pick up things that others missed but the sections from Nyamuragi’s POV, especially after the misunderstanding and the mob’s reaction to him, were really quite sad. It’s easy to understand his confusion while equally seeing how the young woman misconstrued what he was trying to gesture to her.

Baho! covers so many themes in such a short number of pages. There’s rape culture and mob mentality, how both can be full of contradictions, misogyny and how in a patriarchal society young women are seen as something pure and that needs protecting, generational and class gaps, and just general refusal to try and accept and understand disabled people.

While the misunderstanding with Nyamuragi is happening there are memories and stories told that sometimes feel a little out of place or at least have you wondering where the story’s going for a moment. There’s Nyamuragi’s childhood and how his mutism has affected his life but there’s also a story told by the one-eyed old lady that is more like a cautionary tale rather than anything that has a direct relation to the main story.

Overall, Baho! is an interesting short story with a lot to it that would be worth discussing with others. It’s a story that’s often vivid in its descriptions, so much so that some are unsettling, but equally there’s a few moments that are surprisingly sweet. It certainly fits a lot in.

READ THE WORLD – Dominica: Nature Island Verses by Alick Lazare

A poetry collection split into three parts; Love, Life, and Politics. This collection has a mix of poetry, some rhymes, some don’t and the rhyming schemes used aren’t consistent in the collection.

The first part of this poetry collection had poems about love. Maybe it’s because I’m not a particularly lovey-dovey person but these poems didn’t do a lot for me. I don’t think it’s Lazare’s poems specifically, just love poems generally. The poems about life and politics were more interesting to me.

Of the Life poems, “By the Lake”, “Epitath”, and “Hurricane David (August, 1979)” were what really stood out to me. They seem to encompass the theme of life very well and almost seem to be about different stages of life. “By the Lake” is quite beautiful with its descriptions of nature and belief, it’s almost like rebirth or the start of life – especially in comparison to “Epitath” which is about death and the acceptance of it. “Hurricane David (August, 1979)” paints a vivid picture of the destruction and beauty of a hurricane; before, during, and after it wreaks havoc.

I found the poems in the Politics section interesting though I feel like there was references to people and events that I’m unaware of so some probably didn’t have the same impact as if I did know those bits of Dominican history. “A Chronicle of Events Untold” was a great poem to end the collection on. It’s a narrative, rhyming poem that tells the history of Dominica; the different people who tried to colonise it, Columbus, slavery, independence, the rise and fall of democracy. It’s an interesting and affecting way to get a very broad overview of Dominica’s history and what the people have gone through.

READ THE WORLD – Belarus: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. Narrated by Yelena Shmulenson and Julia Emelin.

Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women to get their first-hand accounts of their experiences in the Second World War. What made them want to fight and what they did – whether that was on the front lines, on the home front or in occupied territories.

Being born and raised in the UK, when it came to learning about the First and Second World War, what British soldiers went through and how the wars affected the British people was the main focus. I did learn about the Allies and how Russia played a big part in the success of both conflicts but never really knew anything about the people on the front lines there.

While most of what I learnt about British Women during WWII was that they worked on the farms or in factories, or maybe became nurses or radio operators in Europe but there was definitely more of a focus on what British women did on British soil.

The women from the Soviet Union, whether they were Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, or whoever were on the front lines. There’s accounts from women in the typical roles like nurses, surgeons and radio operators but then there’s women who were snipers, pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, soldiers. They all had different ranks from privates to lieutenants and many of them were awarded medals and honours for their service. And the majority of these women joined up when they were teenagers, some as young as fourteen but most were between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one during the war. It’s hard to comprehend what these women saw and experienced and how it shaped their lives.

The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard book to get through as it really is often harrowing. These women tell their stories so matter-of-factly even when it concerns dead bodies and men trapped inside a burning tanks. I think listening to it on audio helped as it was easier to take a breather and pull myself out of that dark headspace.

While naturally these women’s accounts were the main focus, I did like how Alexievich inserted a little backstory every now and then as to how she found these women to interview or what the experience was like listening to them talk. I especially found it interesting how she noted that the way these women talked about their experience differed when there was a man in the room. If their husband was there, it was like they didn’t feel as free to talk about things – even if he also fought and had seen and done similar things. I think it’s because these stories are often about how the woman felt in these situations, and some of the things talked about were mundane like how there was no lady’s underwear or boots in the army to begin with and the problems that came with that.

Another thing that’s talked about is love, whether these women found love before, during or after the war and how the war affected them and their relationships. The fact that after the war some men refused to date or marry a young woman who had been at the front, who had fought for her country, because it was seen as unseemly or unladylike was infuriating. Especially as often during the war it seemed like male soldiers treated their female counterparts with respect.

I learnt a lot from The Unwomanly Face of War. I was almost constantly in awe of these women, how they were just teenagers or young women at the time and the things they fought through, is so impressive. I liked how the accounts sometimes contradicted each other, in the sense that it’s clear that while all these women experienced the war, they didn’t experience it or feel about the enemy the same way. Some pitied the fascist soldiers they had to treat while others despised them. It showed how complicated human emotions are and how sometimes in wartime not everything is easy to compartmentalise.

While The Unwomanly Face of War is a tough read, I think it’s an important one. I learnt so much and the fact that it’s an unflinching look at what so many women went through and of the war as a whole makes it more impactful. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Laos: Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong

Translated by Bounheng Inversin, Roger Rumpf, Jaqui Chagon, Thipason Phimviengkham, and William Galloway.

A collection of short stories about the ordinary people of Laos.

These stories were super short, often no more than five pages long, but they often managed to say a lot. I was frequently surprised by how often the last paragraph or even the last sentence of a story suddenly reframed everything that had come before it, twisting the narrative slightly so you see things from a different point of view. The stories are quite simply written but that just adds to their impact and makes them incredibly readable. This is a collection I read in one sitting and I think that’s because of the length and the writing style.

The stories are often about very mundane things and people, their hopes and dreams, their mistakes and good fortunes. It made how the viewpoint on the characters or the story twist so much more interesting. I really liked how this collection was bookended by stories about mothers. It made the title of the collection work and it gave the collection a sense of completeness that I haven’t always gotten from short story collections.

Some of the stories were sad, talking about the fallout of from war and how the threat of environmental degradation affects people, both individually and collectively, in different ways. It’s an interesting collection and I really appreciated the introduction from Peter Koret as it gave a brief overview of Laos history and how different factors has affected its literature over the decades. To be honest, I don’t often read introductions in books (I’m usually too keen to get to the actual story) so I’m not sure what made me start reading this one, but I’m pleased I did as a lot of it added context to the short stories and made me grasp cultural references I would have otherwise missed. Note to self: read introductions more often.

Something I really appreciated about Mother’s Beloved was the decision to have the stories in the original Lao side by side with the English translation. I’ve seen it before in translated poetry collections like The End of the Dark Era and Looking for Trouble, but I’d not seen this in a short story collection before. Lao is a completely different looking language and alphabet to what I know so I have no hope of reading it but I liked how in the introduction the decision to include both the original text and the translation was because it could mean the stories could be shared with multiple generations of people, no matter if they only knew English or Lao.

READ THE WORLD – Kazakhstan: The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov

Translated by Jan Butler and edited by Anthony Gardner.

The story of Mukhamet Shayakhmetov from childhood to his early twenties as he grows up under Stalin’s rule and how the collectivisation of agriculture forever changed his peoples’ nomadic lifestyle and caused a famine that killed over a million Kazakhs.

The Silent Steppe is the kind of historical memoir that’s written in a way that’s pretty easy to read and easy to get engrossed in. It’s not necessarily a literary masterpiece but it manages to capture so many emotions so well and it’s a really interesting insight into a time and a culture I knew nothing about. The Silent Steppe is split into three parts: “Class Enemy” which focuses on what the nomadic life was like, how it was forced to change, and how Shayakhmetov’s father was branded a “kulak” (a well-off peasant and therefore an enemy of the people) and imprisoned, “Famine” which covers the 1932-34 famine, the build up to the disaster and how eventually things started getting a bit better, and “War” when Shayakhmetov was a young man and joined the Red Army to fight in World War Two.

Shayakhmetov was born in 1922 and for his first seven years or so his life was normal, helping his father to look after the animals, travelling hundreds of miles with the rest of the family and the village as the seasons turned. Obviously a life not without hardships but positively idyllic compared to what followed.

What The Silent Steppe does well is not shy away from the horrors of what Shayakhmetov experienced. From the age of eight he was having to travel for dozens or even hundreds miles on his own in search of news of his father, or to learn about other family member. He had to do so much at such a young age as his mother either had to stay at home to look after his siblings or to find work so they could eat. The famine and its effects on him, his family and the people is described in vivid detail and it’s often unsettling. Shayakhmetov combines the personal with the factual almost seamlessly as he gives facts and figures on how the collective farms worked (or more often didn’t) and the cruelty and short-sightedness of government officials who repossessed people’s livestock, belongings and even their homes. It’s hard not to get angry when you read how livestock was taken from people and when the newly set up farms couldn’t deal with them, they slaughtered them and then the meat was just left to rot – not given to or even sold to the people. How Shayakhmetov and his mother managed to survive so much, like the fact they were homeless for so long and unable to settle anywhere due to being the family of a kulak, is a testament to their resilience but also a lot of luck and kindness from others. There’s so many other people mentioned, family and acquaintances, who didn’t survive the famine and a lot of the time who managed to survive and who didn’t was down to where people happened to be living and who or what they knew. Just pure chance.

One think that sticks out in Shayakhmetov’s story is how hospitable the nomadic Kazakh are. Their whole culture was forced to change under Stalin’s rule but so many people would still help him and his family when they could, and his family would always help others. They whole country and millions of people were forced to change and for the most part they kept their core values. Or at least, it took the combination of famine, war, and economic struggles for people to start to change.

The Silent Steppe is a really interesting book that covers a place and time I knew little about and shows how far-reaching Stalin and his policies were. How a whole nomadic culture was forced to change and never returned to what it was in such a relative short space of time is amazing – and not in a good way. The Silent Steppe is sad, informative but also a little hopeful as it really demonstrates the power of community – something the Stalin-regime tried to enforce in a structured way when it was already there.

READ THE WORLD – Turkmenistan: The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar

Translated by W.M. Coulson.

After industrialists convince a village of fishermen and their families on the coast of the Caspian Sea, they start to make plans to move to the city. All but one, Araz refuses to leave and give up his ancestral home and his trade of being a fisherman. As tensions rise between Araz and the elderly fishermen, the ghost of Aypi, a woman betrayed and murdered by her husband and her village, begins to exact revenge on the villagers.

The Tale of Aypi is such a strange little story. It’s one that starts out relatively simple but then becomes a story that’s laced with mystery and magic as it becomes difficult to tell what is and isn’t real.

There’s a lot of true to life problems Araz and the other fisherman are facing. The majority of them have come to terms with the fact they are being forcibly relocated, and many of them are starting to see it as a necessity in order to keep connected to their children and grandchildren, as their city-living is so different to village life. Araz is like a one man protest as even his wife is looking to the future outside the village, even though she wouldn’t tell him that. The way Araz is almost abducted by the police so corrupt officials can hold and intimidate him to try and get him to agree to move from the village is very uncomfortable but also almost funny as Araz has such a strong sense of purpose he refuses to move.

Then there’s the ghost of Aypi. The way she interacts with the village and its people is interesting. It’s like she changes shape depending on who she is trying to influence or torment, and the thin line between real and imaginary is always there. Sometimes she’s a physical presence, she can be seen by the villagers and have conversations with them, while there’s other times where she attacks them in a fit of rage and they see a sandstorm. Then there’s also the blurring between dreams and reality where thing’s happen before someone wakes up and is unsettled by the whole encounter.

Aypi’s rage is certainly justified, and she offers some interesting ideas on the roles of men and women and their relationship in society. How what both men and women want has changed so men are more interested in finding foreign wives to fit in their strict moulds as the local women are striving for something else. There are some impactful lines like: “Women’ve lost their natural personality, and men’ve become too submissive and they can’t take it anymore.”

The Tale of Aypi is odd and melancholy as so many characters in this story have sad or hard lives. While many of the villagers have decided to give in and move, it’s clear that they won’t have it easy when they’re in the city as their attitudes are so different to people from the city. The Tale of Aypi is a story of community and cultural clash. The inclusion of Aypi the vengeful spirit is sometimes hard to follow as she often goes from being an almost solid person to some sort of spirit who isn’t connect to anything. Still, The Tale of Aypi is a compelling story and at less than 200 pages it packs in a lot of thoughts and ideas into it.

READ THE WORLD – Moldova: The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov

Translated by Ross Ufberg. Narrated by Daniel Thomas May.

Trigger warnings for rape, child trafficking and suicide.

Set in the early 2000s, a group of villagers in Moldova dream of a new life in Italy. They live an impoverished life in Moldova and through any methods they can think of they try to get to Italy where they’ve been told you get paid thousands of euros for just washing dishes.

The Good Life Elsewhere is a strange and funny story. The ways these people attempt to get to Italy become more and more absurd. To begin with there’s the understandable and realistic attempt to cross by paying smugglers who promise to get them across the Italian border and con them out of €4,000 each as it’s revealed that they never left Moldova. From there the attempts get more outrageous and include building both an aeroplane and a submarine out of a tractor.

I think listening to the audiobook helped me take in and understand this story. The narrator does a good job at distinguishing the many characters voices and I think the humour of the various situations came across a lot better than if I was just reading it. Hearing someone tell a funny story is often more entertaining than reading the funny story yourself.

The Good Life Elsewhere follows multiple characters including a man who has been obsessed with Italy since he was a child and has spent years learning the language and a priest who accidentally starts a couple of crusades leading hundreds of people to Italy on foot. There’s also a number of politicians who seem the most realistic out of them all aka could be from a Moldovan version of The Thick of It.

You can almost get emotional whiplash from The Good Life Elsewhere. The antics these villagers get into to try and get to Italy are often ridiculous and amusing but, as the trigger warnings suggest, there’s also a dark underbelly to it all. People who lose everything in their quest to get to Italy take their own lives, and when a woman is repeatedly raped over the course of years, it’s almost like a footnote and there isn’t time to linger on it before the next strange event is discussed. Besides the triggering content, often just after an amusing escapade or attempt to conduct a plan to get to Italy, something suddenly happens that turns to comedic into a tragedy.

The Good Life Elsewhere is an interesting story to consider in terms of European politics and the extreme lengths people will go to, to try and get somewhere they believe will give them a better life. The “fear” of immigrants Italy and Romania seem to have, the way Moldovans have to pay bribes to the police or other officials in order to keep travelling, how people are detained for no reason and have no idea if or when they can continue. It’s all very sad. Moldova joined the EU in 2016, as The Good Life Elsewhere is set in the early 2000s there’s often discussions of the EU, Moldova potentially joining it and what that could mean for the people. Especially as Moldova was once a part of the Soviet Union so there is the stark contrast between what was once a pro-Soviet country and how they almost idealise the West – in this case Italy. It really is weird but interesting how Italy becomes the almost promised land to these people, and how a whole village becomes enamoured with it.

The Good Life Elsewhere is equal parts tragedy and comedy. It’s satirical and odd and often unbelievable, but even today thousands of people travel from their homeland, risking death in the hope of where they end up might provide a better life for them and their loved ones, so it’s not totally unbelievable. It just pushes everything to the extreme.