The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Israel: The Nimrod Flip-Out by Etgar Keret

Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston.

A collection of short stories about different characters, a lot of which are based in Israel.

The short stories in this collection are all very different in terms of plot and length. Some are only two pages long, while others are almost 30 pages long, meaning that for the most part, each story gets straight to the point. Having stories that are only a few pages long make them even more intense, the drama is heightened and the weirdness tends not to be explained.

So many of the characters in these stories face strange ironies and their lives are often not going that well. There’s humour, usually dark-humour, in a lot of them which balances out the stories that can be more sensitive and emotional. That’s the thing I really noticed with this collection, whoever decided what order to put the stories in really knew what they were doing. I say that because there could be a run of six or seven stories that are all surreal and funny but then the next one is more grounded. This tonal shift makes the more serious stories more affecting.

From my very limited knowledge of Israel and its society, some of the stories seemed satirical, with potential character stereotypes exaggerated for affect. There’s relationship drama, whether that’s romantic or familial, characters who are, or were, in the military, and there’s comparisons between Israel and the West and some commentary on how it’s developing as a society.

I really enjoyed The Nimrod Flip-Out. The stories are all so weird and wonderful and different which makes it a book that’s easy to deep in and out of. It’s fun to read a lot of the stories at once, but it’s also a nice collection to savour.

Advertisements

READ THE WORLD – Poland: Lala by Jacek Dehnel

Lala has lived an exciting life. Born in Poland just after World War One, Lala grew up to be a selfless and honest independent woman who survived some of the most turbulent events in Europe. As she falls prey to the first signs of dementia, she continues to tell the stories of her life to her grandson, who faithfully notes down her adventures.

Lala was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and I listened to the audiobook narrated by Lawrence Dobiesz which I would recommend.

Lala as a book is a little confusing as it’s marked as a work of fiction but the way it’s told, and the fact the grandson who is narrating this story has the same first name as the author, did make me wonder if it was a combination of fact and fiction, memoir and fantasy.

The scenes where it’s clear that Lala is losing her memory were both funny and poignant. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and when reading about Lala’s antics I had to smile as there were so many things she said or did that was just like my gran. It’s a great depiction of a woman slowly losing her mind but then there’s also those moments of suddenly clarity which were lovely but also so sad as Lala was never going to get better.

Lala is a grand sweeping story as Lala tells stories about her family as far back as her great-grandfather. This is where she would sometimes confuse something her grandfather did for something her father did, then it’s her grandson who corrects her as he’s heard so many of these stories before he could often recite them by heart.

While Lala is the focus of the story, with her life before, during and after the Second World War is a big part of it, her stories of a family means this story spans over 100 years. This led me to learning a lot about Polish history that I’d never even heard of.

I really enjoyed Lala. It’s an interesting insight into Poland’s turbulent history from he eyes of a character who lived through it all, the good and the bad. It’s funny, touching and sometimes verges on the ridiculous because of Lala’s outlandish stories about the situations she’d get into or she’d hear about. I loved the way it’s told with the grandson simultaneously seeming to tell the red the stories and to be hearing them for the first time himself.

Lala is such an interesting book and it’s honest and realistic take of a woman slowly succumbing to dementia was brilliant yet sad. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Equatorial Guinea: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

Translated by Lawrence Schimel. Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Orphaned teenager Okomo lives under the watchful eyes of her grandparents and dreams about finding her father. All she knows is that he’s a “scoundrel” and she’s forbidden to seek him out. She enlists the help of other outcasts; her gay uncle Marcelo and a gang of “indecent” girls. With them she finds comfort, falls in love and rebels against the rigid norms of Fang culture.

La Bastarda is a very short book, it’s only 88 pages so it’s very easy to read it in one sitting, and it’s the first book from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English which is pretty cool.

La Bastarda is a coming of age story about a girl who is trying to understand the various traditions her people have and what that means for her and her desire to know her father. Okomo is quite a naïve seventeen-year-old which is probably due to the sheltered life she’s led, she’s unsure about so many relationships in her life and is often clueless about the different rules her culture has.

I liked the relationship that forms between Okomo and Dina. It’s interesting as Okomo’s uncle Marcelo is known as a man-woman because he sleeps with men and refuses to “do his duty” and get his infertile brothers’ wife pregnant to make sure the family has a son; however their community doesn’t have a word for lesbian so it’s as if Okomo, Dina and the rest of the girls don’t exist.

I enjoyed La Bastarda. It’s a quick, easy read about a culture that’s complete different to my own. It’s an episodic story and while Okomo is quite a young seventeen-year-old, I did want her to find her own place, whether that was in her society or not, with people who care about her.

READ THE WORLD – Belgium: Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke

Translated by Liz Waters.

Alphonse is a friendly and observant former musician, who has left Brussels with his girlfriend Cat to live closer to her parents in the rural district of Westhoek. It’s a place that has open fields and more World War I graves than almost anywhere else in Europe. Alphonse starts a new life as a painter and decorator, and he becomes entwined in so many peoples lives. But when he, Cat and one of his clients help a group of Afghans and Syrians at a makeshift refugee camp, he learns that not all of the locals appreciate what they’re doing.

Somewhat surprisingly the first chapter in Thirty Days is chapter 30, and each chapter number decreases. While it’s a slow book to get going, this adds to the fact that the story appears to be building to something – and it certainly does build to something unexpected. Plus, like the title suggests, it each chapter is a day, something I didn’t register to begin with.

I really liked Alphonse, but I could see why his partner Cat would get frustrated with him. He’s a painter and decorator so he goes to various people’s homes to do a job but there’s something about him that causes his clients to offload a lot of their thoughts or secrets on him. He becomes involved in so many people’s lives and Cat doesn’t always like that as it takes his time and thoughts away from her and their life together. He’s a guy that’s almost too nice for his own good but his niceness is never off-putting or eyeroll-inducing.

Alphonse is victim to a lot of racism ranging from micro aggressions, being asked where he’s really from after first saying Brussels, to full on hostility, such as when a client’s neighbour accuses him of trying to break into their house. As Thirty Days is from Alphonse’s point of view, it never stops and describes how he or Cat look like, so you get to know him without any preconceptions meaning when he does experience racism it’s more of a shock and an interesting way of presenting what he faces.

Surprisingly, Alphonse doesn’t encounter the refugee camp until the last third of the book. Instead, the clients he has and his relationships with them, and his girlfriend and their friends and family, is the main focus of a lot of this story.

Thirty Days is beautifully written and it’s a moving story. The themes of being a good person, helping others but still making sure you don’t give up all of yourself are all handled well. As is both the underlying and overt racism Alphonse experiences, in every day life, and when he tries to help refugees who are just looking for somewhere to call home. It deals with so many opposites, good and evil, beauty and ugliness but it never feels preachy. Thirty Days is a compelling story and I devoured the last few chapters as I just had to know where things were going for Alphonse. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Albania: Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku

Translated by Ani Gjika.

A collection of poetry from Luljeta Lleshanaku examining the space between objects and people, how things balance together and the different human emotions.

I’m not someone who knows a lot about poetry, but I found a lot of Lleshanaku’s poems beautiful yet bleak. There’s a loneliness to a lot of them, when someone is the subject matter of a poem they often can’t connect with others and there’s a distance between the subject and what they’re doing. Many of the poems aren’t tied to one specific place or time, instead the “story” flows from different perspectives, almost always focusing on the mundane.

Most of the poems here were about a page long, but there were a few that almost played out like short stories – Homo Antarcticus and Water and Carbon are two examples of this. They are both sad, haunting poems about people who are at a distance from others, through they choice or not. I enjoyed the poems that were more like short stories rather than the page-long ones as they naturally had more depth to them.

The poems in this collection are quiet peculiar and haunting. Whether it’s because they have been translated into English or because they’re from an Albanian poet, they don’t quiet fit with what my preconceived notions of poetry are. It makes reading these poems an interesting experience and I could see myself going back and rereading some of them to see if they have a different affect on me.

This is my pick this month’s Monthly Motif “Read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community” as Negative Space is the winner of the English PEN Award and Luljeta Lleshanaku received the 2009 Crystal Vilenica award for European poets.

READ THE WORLD – Colombia: Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

Translated by Charlotte Coombe

Fish Soup is a bind up of two novellas and a short stories collection. Waiting for a Hurricane follows a girl who’s desperate to leave her life and her country. Sexual Education is about a student who tries to keep to the strict doctrine of abstinence taught in her school. Worse Things is a collection of snapshots about different characters who are all in different states of turmoil.

Trigger warning for child abuse in Waiting for a Hurricane. The main character forms an unlikely friendship with an old fisherman from a young age. There’s one moment where it seems like his touching her under her underwear but it’s something she never minds and isn’t really mentioned again, and as it’s from a child’s perspective it takes a while for you to figure out what’s happening. She’s so desperate to leave her home on the Colombian coast that she loses touch with friends and family but never seems to find any real connections.

All the stories in Worse Things, and in the two novellas as well, are about people who are suffering in some way. None of them appear to be happy and nearly all of them are unreliable narrators. This makes it difficult to connect to these characters, especially in Worse Things as each snapshot is a matter of pages so you can never truly understand them. Some snapshots I’d have preferred to be longer as I found the characters and their situations interesting whereas I found others very frustrating.

In both Waiting for a Hurricane and Sexual Education, punctuation around speech isn’t used which can make reading these stories a little difficult to begin with as you get used to the style of them. The way the towns and overall settings of the stories were described was incredibly vivid and I could see the beauty of the country even though so many characters didn’t like their home or saw all the problems with it. Fish Soup is an interesting collection of work from Margarita García Robayo. It’s probably a good place to start but I unfortunately found it difficult to like and connect with the majority of the characters which lessened my enjoyment.

READ THE WORLD – Kosovo: Summer is my Favorite Season by Ilir Berisha

Summer is my Favorite Season is the true story of Ilir’s childhood growing up in Pristina in Kosovo. He lives with his parents, his older brother Shpetim and his little sister Fjolla but their lives are disrupted when Serbian forces take to the streets and they begin to hear rumours of villages burning. Their lives are changed when they, ethnic Albanians living in the Kosova region of the former Yugoslavia, are treated like second-class citizens when Slobodan Milošević and his government came into power.

I knew nothing about the Kosovo War in the late 1990s and about the events leading up to it that started in the mid-1980s. The fact that Kosovo isn’t recognised by Serbia as an independent state and that there’s still tensions today (in this years World Cup two Swiss footballers of Kosovar-Albanian heritage celebrated their goals against Serbia by locking their hands together and flapping their fingers, in a gesture to resemble the two-headed eagle on Albania’s national flag) isn’t something that had passed me by, but the conflict and tensions were something I didn’t understand.

As Summer is my Favorite Season is a memoir, it doesn’t go into extreme details of how and why the conflict started, instead it’s told through the eyes of a child and that makes it so much sadder and affecting. Things happen slowly and Ilir doesn’t even know or understand what a tank is when one park outside his family’s apartment building. It becomes part of the view from his window. He doesn’t understand why his father is always so focussed on the news or his mother can’t go to work, and it takes time for the affects of the conflict, which for a time was in the villages away from his family, to trickle into his life.

Summer is my Favorite Season is a tough read. The things Ilir and his family went through is heart-breaking, and as he says, they’re some of the lucky ones who managed to get out of the country. They have friends, neighbours and family who are killed. They experience police harassment, and when NATO acts there’s bombs dropping so close to their home the windows shatter. The emotions Ilir goes through during his childhood are vivid, he’s scared, angry, confused, and when it’s all over he has nightmares. The affects of the conflict on him and his family is plain to see and it’s horrible to think about the thousands of people who didn’t survive.