The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A multigenerational family saga set in twentieth-century Portugal. Raised from the Ground follows the Mau Tempo family, a family of poor landless peasants, as they try and make a life for themselves as national and international events take place around them. But nothing really impinges on their grim reality until the first communist stirrings in the country.

The way Raised from the Ground is written took me a long time to get my head around. It’s like there’s an omniscient and omnipresent narrator, telling the lives of the different members of the family as each generation grows up. This style means there’s no speech marks when people talk and there often are very long sentences with many commas in them. The long sentences aren’t so bad, it’s the paragraphs that are anywhere between a page long and four-pages long that cause problems. It is very easy to get lost in those long paragraphs.

The story itself is not memorable and the characters, of which there are a lot, are not well developed. When the story shifts focus from one character or relationship to the other, it’s hard to remember or keep track of who is related to who. While the first 80 pages or so are engaging, the dreary existence of this peasant family becomes repetitive and dull as there is little chance for them to better themselves. No doubt this is the point of Raised from the Ground, but a novel can’t just make a point, it must also be interesting and unfortunately this one wasn’t.

Raised from the Ground pans around sixty years and the verbose narrator also talks about events that happened before the books beginning multiple times. Across those years different national and international events are referenced (including two World Wars) and the little footnotes that explained a reference to an important event in Portugal was appreciated. Though the way the book is written, focusing so closely on one family’s struggles, meant that the historical context was never fully explained so the impact of these events on the family and their community was never really felt.

I’ve read multigenerational family sagas before and on the whole I rather enjoy them. However, Raised from the Ground is not one of the ones I enjoyed. The combination of the writing style and the story meant I often felt my eyes glazing over. I did like the little titbits of Portuguese history speckled throughout the novel, though there wasn’t enough of that to keep me interested. 1/5.

Advertisements

READ THE WORLD – Iraq: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Translated by Jonathan Wright

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi, a scavenger, collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His aim is for the government to recognise the parts as people and give them the proper burial they deserve. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city. Haidi soon realises he has created a monster, a monster that cannot be killed and one that needs human flesh to survive.

At the beginning of Frankenstein in Baghdad there is a rather helpful list of characters that give you a short description of what each character’s job/relationship is. There are a lot of characters in this book, and you follow the perspectives of some but not all of them, and most of the characters lives intertwine with one another at at least one point in the story.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is described as “darkly funny” but I didn’t find it amusing at all, not even in a black humour kind of way. Potentially that’s because it’s a translated novel and humour isn’t always something that can be translated and work for people outside of its place of origin. It is a creepy novel at times, though not as horrifying as the quotes on the cover make out. The descriptions of the creature and what it does to people is unsettling and disgusting. However, the actual story of the creature, Hadi and the many characters they both interact with, was slow-paced and in the end dull. There’s so many characters and their side plots often have little or nothing to do with the creature, which makes the story meandering and hard to follow if you put down the book for a day or two.

The setting is the best thing about Frankenstein in Baghdad. Having it take place in Baghdad with the presence of American troops always being felt made it a setting where anything could happen. There were explosions, suicide bombers, and hints at corruption in the security forces. Everything in Baghdad is so uncertain that there’s always a sense of uneasiness and having the creature on the prowl just adds to that. At the same time though, the people of the city are so used to the noise of gunfire and explosions being a constant threat, that they go about their day as normal. It makes the situation feel somewhat surreal. From the outside, this constant state of danger is not normal nor OK, but here it shows how it unfortunately is normal for a lot of people.

Frankenstein in Baghdad has an interesting premise, but it unfortunately isn’t an interesting or compelling story. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Narrated by Chike Johnson.

William Kamkwamba loved school but when he was just 14 years old, he could no longer attend because his family couldn’t afford the fees. William resorted to borrowing books from the small local library to continue his education. It was there that he discovered a book with a turbine on the front cover, and with the help of that book William began to build a windmill outside his home to get electricity in his home.

I learnt so much about Malawi and its history from The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. While I know there has been, and still is, drought and famine in various countries in Africa I’d never learnt about what happened in Malawi between 2001 and 2002. During those years, floods and then droughts caused an emergency in the country as everyone run out of food. The way the book is written gives you the factual information, like the causes of floods and drought and the different diseases that can plague the country, while also making the stark reality of the situations more affecting because of how they all relate to William and his family. William is the only son in his family, and he has six sisters so that’s a lot of mouths to feed and William never shies away from the dire situation they were all in when they were slowly running out of food. There are vivid descriptions of people losing an extreme amount of weight due to starvation and descriptions of people dying in the street. It’s shocking but never exploitative.

The book provides a lot of context about Malawi, its history, superstitions and the difficulties its people faces. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind follows William’s life as he grows up and gains fame at 19 years old for making a windmill that produces electricity for his family’s home. There is more of a focus on William growing up and the last third with him gaining fame and recognition for what he achieved unfortunately seemed a bit rushed. I did like how it was clear from a very young age that William was interested in finding out how things worked. He would take a part radios and ask people how cars engines would make cars move and was generally curious about everything.

William is an impressive young man. He never gives up and believes in what he was doing when it comes to collecting scraps to make a windmill. People in his village, and even some members of his family, think he’s crazy rummaging around in the scrapyard and saying he’s going to give his home electricity. The doubts people have about him never dents his determination or conviction, and its very satisfying when he’s able to prove people wrong.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is informative and inspiring. William Kamkwamba is a smart man who perseveres even when other people think he’s mad or is using dark magic. Hearing about how he made a windmill to provide electricity for his family, and how he also went on to build other solar or wind-powered devices to improve the lives of his family and the other people in his village was heartening. He’s an inventor and this autobiography captures his inquiring mind and his desire to make life better for his family and his village wonderfully. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guatemala: Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes

Translated by Ellen Jones

Six interconnected short stories that provide glimpses into the life of Don Henrik, a good man who is constantly struck by misfortune as he confronts the harsh realities of farming life.

The majority of the short stories are told in the first person and you are given very few clues to figure out who this character is and what their connection to the other stories and characters are. Characters, or at least their names, pop up in multiple stories and the stories aren’t exactly in linear order. They jump around in Don Henrik’s life. Sometimes he is the focus of the story while other times he’s only mentioned or appears for one page and that’s it.

There are no speech marks used throughout the stories and this took a little time to get used to. There’s often large paragraphs where someone talks multiple times, as they are moving or taking a swig of beer, so I needed to pay attention so I could follow what was speech and what was action.

The stories paint a lovely picture of the Guatemalan countryside, with the fields, forests and rocky outcrops, but it never glosses over the difficulties of rural life. There’s the problems with crops failing to grow, water not flowing where it should but then there’s also the threat of violence from merciless entrepreneurs and hitmen, who will do anything to get what they perceive is owed to them.

At 97 pages, Trout, Belly Up is a short story collection that I read in one sitting. I think it works better that way as you see how each story or snapshot is a part of someone’s life and how the characters relate to one another. I believe this is the first short story collection I’ve read where the stories are interconnected and I liked that form of short stories more. Even though the stories are between 10 – 30 pages long each, because they’re connected, they paint a richer picture of the setting and the characters you follow.

READ THE WORLD – Spain: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Pulp fiction writer David Martín is holed up in an abandoned mansion in the heart of Barcelona, desperately writing story after story while becoming increasingly frustrate and disillusioned. When he is approached by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, makes him an enticing offer David leaps at the chance. But as he begins to research and write this novel, and after a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, David realises there’s a connection between his book and the shadows that surround his dilapidated home, and maybe his publisher might be hiding secrets of his own.

The Angel’s Game is set in the same universe as The Shadow of the Wind, but I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read that book or if you haven’t read it for a while. I read and reviewed The Shadow of the Wind four years ago so naturally I can’t really remember much about the book, but the only connections I noticed was the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dilapidated tower home the main character in this novel came to live in. (After writing this review I googled the series and realised that The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind though apparently each book in the series is supposed to be able to stand on its own from the others, so it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in.)

Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, The Angel’s Game really makes use of both the time period and the city its set in to add to the mystery and eeriness of the story. Not being able to get hold of a character, or instances of mistaken identity are rife, and both increase the tension at key moments. The city of Barcelona truly becomes a character in its own right in The Angel’s Game. The narrow alleyways, abandoned houses, tiny shops and the often-bleak weather, makes the city a wonderful setting for a gripping mystery. The descriptions of the city are vivid making the few times characters venture elsewhere, even more stark and different to what we already know.

David is an interesting man. He’s often unlikable as he pushes away those who care about him when he’s obsessed with writing and is unsure how to love or be loved in return. He’s always had affection for the daughter of a friend’s driver, Cristina, but circumstance and society keeps them a part. His reluctant friendship with Isabella, an inspiring writer who is many years younger than him is surprisingly sweet and while their relationship isn’t without its troubles and miscommunications, their honesty with one another is truly needed by both of them.

The mystery of the tower house, its previous owner and what happened to them kicks in about the third of the way through the book. Andreas Corelli seems to be connected to it all though it takes a long time for David to figure things out. David becomes obsessive, both about his writing and the secrets his home holds, looking for reasons behind the deaths and strangeness that appears to be following him. The Angel’s Game is told in the first person from David’s point of view, meaning that as the story progresses and things get weirder, you begin to doubt what you’ve been told so far as David’s grip on reality seems to slip.

I shan’t say I picked up all the threads of the mystery before they were explained to me, nor that I totally understood the ending, but that didn’t make me like this story any less. The Angel’s Game was a very readable book and the whole gothic take on Barcelona fully pulled me into the story. Would it have been nice if the story wasn’t quite so convoluted and weird? Yes, but it’s still a book that I ended up enjoying more than I remembered enjoying its predecessor. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Morocco: Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Nineteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki grew up in a one-room home with his mother down the stinking alleys of Casablanca. He’s always dreamed of escape and then one day, when the father he presumed was dead turns out to be very much alive and very wealthy, Youssef is whisked away from the slums to the luxurious life of Casablanca’s elite. But as he leaves the poverty of his childhood behind, he finds some harsh truths and difficulties he must face.

Secret Son is a traditional coming of age story as Youssef grows a lot as a person as he explores who he is and where he’s come from. Once he finds out about his father, Youssef is quick to leave all he’s known to live what he feels is a better life. He leaves his mother and his friends and moves to a new apartment where every one of his whims are catered for as his father promises him many new things. While Youssef can be criticised for dumping those who had card about him for so long, chapters or passages from other characters points of view show how the people surrounding him, including his mother and his friends, have lied to him many times.

Whereas his mother wants Youssef to get a good education and go to university to better himself, he lacks the drive or ambition to do that. especially once he learns who his father is. Once Youssef and his father get to know one another, Youssef doesn’t see the point of studying as his father can just get him a good job on his word alone. Once again proving the phrase, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Youssef is very naïve really. He’s dreamed of a better life for so long that when he gets that opportunity, he never questions what it might cost him.

Secret Son has a good mix of personal and political drama and it takes the time to examine how the two can overlap. Youssef is Muslim and as he grows up in the slums, he becomes aware of a political party that make a lot of promises to the people who live there. At first, they seem to be a force for good but as time goes on corruption is clear on both sides of the political spectrum. When Yousef’s friends begin to work for the party, Youssef gets tangled up in plans bigger than himself.

Another major aspect of Secret Son is the class divide. Youssef might go from the slums to a penthouse, but he never really fits in with the rich life, and when he visits his mother and friends, he no longer fits there either. The sad thing is that Youssef doesn’t seem to notice how after experiencing his father’s wealth, he no longer fits in either class. The novel definitely doesn’t shy away from the realities of Casablanca and how peoples lives are so different to one another even when they live just a few streets apart.

Secret Son is a very engaging and easy to read book. The writing is simple yet never juvenile and Youssef makes a frustrating, complicated and interesting main character. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Jamaica: Augustown by Kei Miller

11 April 1982 in Augustown, Jamaica. Ma Taffy may be blind, but she sees everything. So, when her great-nephew Kaia comes home from school in tears, what she senses sends a deep fear running through her. While they wait for his mama to come home from work, Ma Taffy recalls the story of the flying preacherman and a great thing that did not happen.

Augustown is a story within a story. There’s what’s happening in the present with Ma Taffy and Kaia, her story of the flying preacherman, and an almost omnipresent narrator that’s looking down on the events that are unfolding and can see the past and future. There are also other characters who live in Augstown that come in and out of the story at different times, and it’s as the story progresses that you can see all these connections between them.

Augustown is a story all about the divide in Jamaican society and how people may try and fail to bridge that divide and perhaps better themselves. There’s rich vs poor, white vs black, Babylon vs Rasta. All these differences and divisions come to a head when Kaia comes home crying after his teacher cuts off his dreadlocks. It’s a shocking thing for the young boy and the community as a whole, and soon the people start to get involved.

The writing style is almost poetic at times as it paints a vivid picture of life in Jamaica in the twentieth century. The stark differences between what the poor Augstown looks like and the rich areas of Jamaica that are in the hills and look down upon Augustown look like are clear. Also, the attitudes between the people who live in the two different areas is realised through the few times when people from each of these worlds interact. There’s talk of code-switching, how someone changes their dialect or use of slang depending on who they’re talking to, and of what opportunities are available to different people.

Augustown is a quick read with engaging themes but unfortunately while I did feel sympathy towards many of the characters, I was never fully drawn into their story. How Augustown shows the divisions of class in Jamaica is eye-opening and it shows how one person’s actions can have ramifications they couldn’t have expected.