The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD: Lithuania – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė

Translated by Delija Valiukenas.

In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried.

Again, my Read the World Project is opening my eyes to parts of world history I never knew about. I didn’t know that the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to either Gulags (prison camps) or to sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union to provide free labour. Other people from different countries were also deported by the Soviet Union including Poles, Estonians and Latvians. Dalia’s account is tough to read but an important insight into a part of history that perhaps isn’t as well-known as it should be.

Shadows on the Tundra is about Dalia’s experience being deported with her mother and brother, the people they meet, and the terrible conditions they face in a work camp. The account spans a couple of years as Dalia and her fellow deportees are taken from their homes in trains, with no idea where they are going or why, to struggling to survive in the long icy winters in Siberia. The fact that people had the hope that they were being taken to America for a better life, especially when they were put onto boats, made what they were actually forced to experience even worse.

Dalia’s account doesn’t pull any punches. Her matter of fact way of describing the hardships they faced, the excruciating and thankless work they had to do in inhumane conditions and the way they were mistreated by those in charge, it all paints a vivid picture of human suffering.

There are moments though, how ever small and fleeting, in Shadows on the Tundra that show that Dalia and the friends and allies she made, had moments of fun or respite. They don’t last long though. With the malnourishment, the sickness, the frostbite, and the storms that bury everyone in the small barracks that they built themselves, everything looks incredibly bleak.

Shadows on the Tundra is often hard to read, in fact it’s truly devastating at times. It’s hard to imagine how anyone survived living in such terrible conditions on the edge of the Artic circle, having to steal wood in order to stay warm when the punishments for being caught was so severe. Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible account of how a young girl is forced to grow older than her years in order to survive. It will send a chill down your spine more than once.

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READ THE WORLD – Haiti: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Trigger warnings for sexual abuse, child abuse, eating disorders (bulimia), suicide, self-harm, breast cancer and rape.

Sophie is raised by her aunt in an impoverished village in Haiti but when she is twelve years old her mother sends for her and she moves from all she knows to New York City to be with a mother she barely remembers. As Sophie grows up, she clashes with her mother over the “testing” and she tries to find her own way.

“Testing” is a Haitian tradition where a mother would test to see if their daughter is still a virgin by inserting their finger into their daughter’s vagina to check that the hymen is intact. Sophie is mentally and physically scarred by the ordeal as she would have to go through the testing every night once she was in her late teens. It naturally puts a strain on her relationship with her mother, but her mother feels it’s her duty to make sure her daughter stays pure and virtuous, plus it’s something her mother and her aunt was subjected to as well. When Sophie returns to Haiti with her own five-month year old daughter, she learns that the testing happened to her grandmother and her grandmother has no regrets over testing her children even though she knew the pain and humiliation well. The testing is a tradition and is framed as a mother’s job to do to make sure her daughter stays a virgin until she’s married.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is quite a sad book really. It tackles a lot of tough topics (please do heed the trigger warnings) though it doesn’t give all of them the time they deserve to develop. It seems almost impossible how much pain and suffering the women in one family can go through. All the women in Sophie’s family have been hurt in different ways but they are all incredibly resilient because of it. That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt each other though; Sophie and her mother clash a lot and Sophie’s grandmother can be cruel to her daughters.

I found Sophie’s forgiveness of her mother to be too quick for what Sophie had been through. I liked how Sophie struggled with what her mother had done to her, but at the same time understood that her mother tested her out of her version of love and because it’s what happened to her. Still, it didn’t seem like their reconciliation took long at all when Sophie was well in her right to continue to keep her distance from her mother, no matter the pressure her grandmother put on her to forgive her. The ending of Breath, Eyes, Memory felt rushed as another problem or tragedy was added to Sophie and her mother’s lives, taking up the time that could’ve been spent on giving their reconciliation more time to feel natural.

The audio book of Breath, Eyes, Memory is narrated well but the language used in the book is quite simple. It adds some distance from the drama and serious topics do not feel as hard-hitting as they could. Breath, Eyes, Memory is a tough read about family, shared trauma, gender and sexual identity. It’s a lot to cram into a relatively short book and somethings do get lost along the way. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Oman: Celestial Bodies by Johka Alharthi

Translated by Marilyn Booth.

Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, Celesital Bodies follows the lives of three sisters. Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present.

The chapters in Celestial Bodies alternate between the first-person point of view of Abdallah and with the third person point of view of different characters. Pretty much every other character has a part of the story told from their point of view, though some are the focus more often than others. This part of the story is, for the most part, told linearly starting with Mayya’s marriage, her having her first child and then as her younger sisters get older, their experiences in marriage and romance. With the chapters from Abdallah’s point of view, they are almost always far in the future from what you read about the sisters, he reflects on his marriage and family, and his relationship with his cruel father.

The way the story jumps back and forth can be a bit confusing as sometimes Abdallah talks about how he perceives events or people before we’ve met them in the other half of the story. It does flesh those events/people out a bit more which is needed as the book spans a good few decades in the way characters reminisce about past events or talk about their children who are now adults when in the previous chapter, they were still young children.

There’s a lot of characters in Celestial Bodies as the story ends up spanning multiple generations. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which is helpful but unfortunately, I read the book on my kindle which made it a bit more difficult to flick back and check who was who and how they related to everyone else.

Celestial Bodies gives an insight into Oman and how the country and its people are changing. There are characters who once were slaves and now that the government has ruled that slavery is illegal, they are free. But while some want to leave the place they grew up and were a slave, wanting to truly be free, others feel that their life is good and that the man who owned them treated them well so why should they leave.

For a book where you only seem to spend a short time with each character as they are at a certain point in their lives before moving forward (or back) months or years, you do get a strong sense of who they are. The three sisters and their marriages are at the centre of this story and out of the three it is Mayya and her husband and children that gets the most attention, so you feel you understand her more than the other two.

Celestial Bodies is a beautiful book about love and family and the changes they go through over time. It also shows how people grow and change, as does the country and culture they are a part of, but those changes sometimes don’t happen at the same time and can cause conflict. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Eritrea: African Titanics by Abu Bakr Khaal

African Titanics follows the adventures of Eritrean migrant Abdar as he journeys north speeding through the Sahara and crawling under barbed wire fences to make it to the coast where he must await news of a calm sea.

One thing I’m enjoying about my Read the World Project is how it’s opening my eyes to different cultures and periods of history that I had little to no knowledge of before. There is a migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, and has been happening for almost a decade, and so when I read the blurb of African Titanics I thought it would be set now-ish but that wasn’t the case. African Titanics is set in the late 1990s or the year 2000 and perhaps I was naïve, but I didn’t realise that people from different African countries were trying to make the journey to Europe for a better life then as well as now.

Having the story from the point of a migrant, hearing about all the things they go through to get to the coast, avoiding the police, escaping bandits, learning which smugglers you can trust to not just take your money and leave you stranded, makes something that’s often a footnote in the news feel more real and personal. These are people who are pushed to take dangerous risks and Abdar and his friends know how deadly the sea can be, but they still want to take that chance – even when they know of people who have died at sea.

African Titanics doesn’t just cover the dangerous journey, but the people Abdar meets along the way. He meets so many different people from different countries and their camaraderie transcends language barriers. The migrants form strong bounds as they have to rely on one another, and the men they have given money to to get them across the water. This adds humanity to an otherwise bleak story.

The writing in African Titanics is beautiful. It keeps Abdar’s story, and the story of other migrants he meets along the way, very matter of fact but that doesn’t stop you feeling for him and the other characters. There’s also vivid description of the different landscapes Abdar travels through and the sea is described both a new frontier and a deadly obstacle.

African Titanics is a short yet compelling story. Throughout the hardships Abdar faces there’s moments of levity and joy as he and his fellow migrants laugh and tell stories together. The combinations of the real and almost dreamlike sequences as Abdar thinks of what the future could hold makes it a thought-provoking story. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD: Burkina Faso – Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman by Malidoma Patrice Somé

Audiobook narrated by the author.

Malidoma Patrice Somé was born in a Dagara Village but when he was four years old he was kidnapped and taken to a Jesuit school where he remained for the next fifteen years. There he was indoctrinated into European ways of thought and worship and learnt to read and write. When he made his escape and returned to his village, he had to go through a hard initiation to be able to belong with his community and learn their ways and beliefs.

I found Of Water and the Spirit to be an interesting and thought-provoking take on the interaction and conflict between spirituality and academia. Somé is a man who has multiple degrees, undergraduate and postgraduate, so is a very knowledgeable man in that respect, but he also has a great spiritual belief. To me, as someone who is an atheist, it is impressive yet feels contradictory that an educated person can believe so whole-heartedly in the powers of a talisman or a medicine bag.

Somé has important things to say about culture, unity and learning from the mistakes of your ancestors. His discussion of ancestors is interesting as it seems like the Dagara people are very in tune with their past and their ancestors so they can learn and evolve, whereas in the West we often easily forget about the past and ignore any past wrongdoings. According to Somé this is why the West isn’t tolerant of those who are from different cultures and faiths, and it’s not until people look to their past and own up to past atrocities that they can move forward.

Of Water and the Spirit has some stunning imagery as Somé describes what he saw and felt as he went through the initiation. It’s magical and beautiful yet unsettling as boys get burnt or die during the initiation, but Somé also sees some beautiful things.

Considering Of Water and the Spirit was published in the mid-90s it’s disappointing that many of Somé’s observations on tolerance, understanding and belonging are still just as relevant twenty years later. Somé is a man of two worlds and he never fully feels like he fits in either of them, the “educated” West and his spiritual village, but what he does feel is a sense of purpose and a belief that it was his destiny to gain so much knowledge and use that to spread his beliefs and try to make people more understanding.

Of Water and the Spirit can feel a bit preachy at times, but it’s difficult to dislike the memoir because it is what he went through and believes he experienced. We are all different and believe in different things and it was interesting to learn about the culture and beliefs of the Dagara people.

READ THE WORLD – Slovenia: Mere Chances by Veronika Simoniti

Translated by Nada Grošelj.

A collection of singular and strange stories about characters struggling to maintain their identities as they cross physical and linguistic borders.

The themes of the stories in Mere Chances where very interesting as they cover belonging, identity, and the difficulties in making yourself heard in a new place. However, the actual plots of a lot of the stories aren’t as compelling as their themes. It’s like a lot of them are trying to be bigger and more important than they are, with surprises that don’t feel earned and characters that aren’t developed enough. Obviously, short stories don’t have the same space to give characters a full backstory but a good short story can give you a good characterisation to be interested in, even in just a few pages.

There are a few stories that are truly great and powerful. “Portugal” is about a young woman with a terminal illness who decides to make the trip she’s always wanted to before having to deal with the reality of her health. The escapism is great as she makes her way to her destination, talking to locals and letting her thoughts wander.

A couple of the stories are about the war in the Balkans and trying to find where the bodies in the mass graves belong to return them to their families. Those stories are like a shock to the system after the stories that are bland and unaffecting.

Mere Chances is a short story collection that has a lot of good ideas and themes but unfortunately the majority of the stories don’t have good enough characters and plot to make them more than interesting in theory.

Mid-Year Reading Update

We’re (over) halfway through the year and as I did a mid-year check in for what films I’ve been watching, I thought I’d do one for what books I’ve been reading too. Plus, I haven’t managed to read one book so far in July (though I’ve nearly finished rereading The Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman on audio, but I started that last month) so these stats are definitely for the first six months of the year.

I kept my reading goals for 2019 pretty simple. I didn’t sign up for any reading challenges though I set my Goodreads goal to 52 books and I wanted to review at least 26 of them. I’m right on track with that as so far, I’ve read 41 books and have reviewed 25 of them (review 26 is half written and will be posted next week). I read 12 books in June which definitely helped these stats. I spent 10 days at my dad’s and pretty much all I did there was read.

I wanted to get my physical TBR down from 100 books to 50 and that’s going well so far too. While I have acquired books, through subscription boxes, the London Bookshop Crawl, and just taking advantage of when I see a book has become somewhat cheap as it sits on my Amazon Wishlist, I have been reading a lot of what I already owned. My current TBR stands at 88 books and while I’m not sure I’ll actually manage to hit my target of 50 by the time 2019 is finished, it looks like (for once) I’m reading more than I’m bringing in.

I’m always interested in who I’m reading books by and try and have an even split of books by men and women (though I naturally tend to read more books by women than men). So far this year I’ve read 25 books by women and 16 books by men. I can see this sort of split continue for the rest of the year as I do own slightly more books by women than men. But then again, I’m a mood reader with eclectic taste so who knows what I’ll read next!

I also started tracking if the authors I’m reading are white or people of colour and I wanted at least 25% of the books I read to be by non-white authors. So far, I’ve read 27 books by white authors and 14 books by authors of colour – which is 34% of what I’ve read! If I keep on like this, I should achieve my goal. I do think my Read the World Project helps me with this as it has really broadened my reading tastes and I’ve discovered so many new authors and stories.

Speaking of the Read the World Project, out of the 41 books I’ve read this year, 23 of them have been by international authors. That leaves me with 133 countries (by my count) left to read in the next 2 years and 2 months-ish if I want to meet my thirtieth birthday deadline I imposed on myself. At the start of the year I said I’d need to read about 50 books for the Read the World project to be in with a chance of finishing the project before my 30th birthday, and I’ve read just a bit less than half of that in the first half of the year so I may be able to achieve that goal. North America is where most of the authors I’ve read so far this year are from (which makes sense as if I’m not reading something for the Read the World project it tends to be YA by American authors) but then there’s Europe, which is not just the UK as I’ve only read 3 books from authors from there, and Africa and Asia. I have more books from both of those continents to read before the year is out so it’ll be interesting to see how this chart looks at the end of 2019.

Did you have any reading goals for this year? If you did, how are you doing with them? I’m a big fan of charts and stats so thought it’d be cool to see how my reading was now, so I could have something to compare it to at the end of the year.