New Zealand: Chappy, by Patricia Grace

So, I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve been dipping in and out of the Read Around the World Book Club these last few months. I’m beginning to realise that there is a difference between stretching my reading boundaries/widening my knowledge of the world and forcing myself to read a book because I feel I ‘should’. Not that you have to read all the books in the book club – it is just a pressure I put on myself (no surprise there then). However, when I read the blurb for Chappy, I knew that this was a story I wanted to explore further:

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“Uprooted from his privileged European life and sent to New Zealand to sort himself out, twenty-one-year-old Daniel pieces together the history of his Māori family. As his relatives revisit their past, Daniel learns of a remarkable love story between his Māori grandmother Oriwia and his Japanese grandfather Chappy. The more Daniel hears about his deceased grandfather, the more intriguing – and elusive – Chappy becomes.”

This is most definitely a character piece; the pace is very slow, fluid and gentle. I loved Grace’s style very much, but I also know some of the group found it frustrating and found it difficult to engage with.

Why this book spoke to me:

Daniel pieces himself together though discovering his family history, he finds his roots and purpose. He becomes a storyteller.  I think this is such a wonderful concept and one I very much identify with. I love how important traditions and ancestors are in this story:

“These are the moments when all time becomes present and you understand that you are merely a bead on an unbroken necklace which is without beginning or end.”

I love how connected to the land the characters are, especially Daniel’s uncle Akai:

“But not to worry, there’s singing in the mountains, laughter in the trees, dancing in the light of evening fires. There’s whispering in hearts and minds and shadows. That’s enough for me.”

The characters are just wonderful. Warmhearted, passionate, plain speaking, resilient Oriwia. Gentle, sweet, damaged and displaced Chappy. Quirky, nature loving, rooted, spirited Akai.

The importance Grace gives to storytelling, be Daniel’s own, his family’s or that of the Māori people.

The theme of community, which runs fiercely throughout. Everyone has value, everyone has a contribution to make. People take care of each other. People are genuinely interested in each other.

The exploration of what it means to be an immigrant is most poignant and is just as relevant today as it was in the time the book was set. The fear of the unknown, and consequently racism, causes such horrendous consequence – why are human beings not able to learn from past mistakes?

The portrayal of how the Māori people were treated in New Zealand in the 40s and 50s was incredibly thought provoking. I knew so little: the taking away of land, the everyday discrimination, the poverty, the segregation.

To finish, something I loved the most was how Daniel’s great grandfather defines belonging:

“Who he’s mountain? Who he’s river? Who he’s ancestors? Who he’s name? Who he is?”

 

Bangladesh: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

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A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam was our Read Around the World’s Book Club choice for January. This book transported us to Bangladesh at the beginning of the 1970s, when Bangladesh (formerly known as East Pakistan) was on the cusp of independence.

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Like so often, this read was an opportunity for me to expand my knowledge of the world; am ashamed of how little I knew about Bangladesh’s history. Some critics say that the content lacks accuracy and that the viewpoint is very much biased, focusing purely on the Bangladesh perspective. For me, A Golden Age is a good piece of historical fiction, where the author has a personal perspective she wishes to share with her readers. Anam takes her own family’s story, especially that of her grandmother, as inspiration. Though not growing up in Bangladesh herself, she grew up with family stories of this incredible period in time and it is these stories she wants to keep alive.  She at no point claims to have written a book of pure historical content. For me, A Golden Age provided a beautifully told foundation for further learning. At its heart, this is primarily a family saga, with all the love, conflict, joy and heartbreak that this entails. Each character is an individual, each life inevitably intertwined with the political and social change of the time in question.

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I really enjoyed this book on a human level. I thought the main character Rehana, was wonderful. The sheer resilience of this woman was so well written and her personal journey from introverted widow to a woman, who wants to change her world (and that of her children) for the better, was not only inspiring but also very genuine. I also loved the contrasting characters of her children; Sohail, a student desperate to join the resistance and fight for freedom, who wears his heart on his sleeve and acts from the passion of his beliefs, and Maya, who keeps her emotions deeply buried, whose critical eye and sarcastic nature holds everyone at arm’s length. I thought that the mysterious Major, who comes into Rehana’s life, was most intriguing and really enjoyed how the slow burning chemistry between the two of them developed. What I am trying to say is, this book tells of what it is to be human in such extraordinary times.

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Of course, the political themes are powerfully present. Anam paints a vivid, detailed picture of the increasingly intense conflict between East and West and the consequences of this. The senseless violence, the inhuman torture, the persecution of the Hindu population and the plight of displaced refugees is written in stark detail. In my opinion, she writes with a respectful distance too, by using Rehana’s very human, compassionate and civilian perspective. This prevents the horror from becoming overwhelming.

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As a side note, when reading about Bangladesh’s war for independence, I found it striking that this is often referred to as a ‘struggle’, making it sound rather inconsequent when in actual fact it was an intense, horrific war that cost many thousands of lives (and here I include West Pakistan’s human losses too).

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A Golden Age is the first in a trilogy, the next is called The Good Muslim; needless to say I’ve already ordered it! To finish, a couple of links:

A Guardian review that I really enjoyed reading

An NPR article about Anam’s background

P.S. Isn’t the cover gorgeous?

Chernobyl Prayer

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, was our Read Around the World book club read back in November, for Belarus.

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I was 6 when the Chernobyl disaster happened. I have vague memories of watching News Round and Blue Peter at that time, and during the next years, and never fully being able to understand why the children being shown were so very poorly. As an adult, I thought I knew the basics of what happened when the nuclear reactor caught fire on 26th April 1986. I was wrong. Chernobyl Prayer is a harrowing, eye opening book, filled with the recounts of those that lived through this time, those who lost so much, those who are still attempting to manage the consequences.

Today, I want to share some of my main thoughts and opinions with you, that I had whilst reading.

Chernobyl as a shift in time: It is easy with hindsight, to wonder how on earth the nuclear blast could have been treated in such an astonishingly dismissive way by both government and society at the time. But this book made me realise just what a different world it was and how sweeping statements do not do the the human beings involved justice. The author writes of pre-Chernobyl and post Chernobyl worlds:

‘In the space of one night we shifted to another place in history. We took a leap into a new reality, and that reality proved beyond not only our knowledge but also our imagination. The past suddenly became impotent, it had nothing for us to draw on.’

And at the same time, the political system was also collapsing, Alexievich writes, ‘The giant Socialist continent was sinking into the sea’. I believe that there was nothing in place that could begin to handle this vast, incomprehensible tragedy. I believe leading political minds were focused elsewhere and were determined to stay in power, to keep the system alive.download

The everyday impact of the Soviet system: I do know a fair amount about the Soviet system but have never really explored its impact in such an extreme situation. A social and political system, which portrayed itself as the all-knowing, all protective parent, meant that many of those affected didn’t question the actions of government at the time. Not everyone had a political perspective; for many, everyday life was the foundation of their existence and many wanted to believe that it would all be ok. The reality was just too much to digest. The values of duty and solidarity were ingrained too, the initial fire fighters stepped in because it was their duty to do as they were ordered, the clear up teams did what they did, not only because of political pressure but also for the good of their country. Knowledge about nuclear power and its potential danger, was not widespread. People couldn’t see the radiation at first, everything seemed the same, only time would show the devastation. It must have been so confusing and unbelievable.

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The physical horror: For me, the description of how the initial fire fighters physically fell apart, had a massive impact. The description is raw and beyond imaginable. It made me sick. The unconditional love of the wives of these men, made me sob. The factual information of life expectancy, even now, leaves me speechless.

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The deep sadness and feelings of loss, being forced to leave absolutely everything behind without closure: Initially people of the zone were told that they would only be leaving temporarily; they left their homes and belongings thinking they would return only to be told that there was no going back. Again, it is hard to imagine the loss, not only of physical items but of livelihoods, memories, identity and roots.

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The children: The children longed for, who were never born for fear of how they would form. The children born with physical complications and special educational needs. The children who became more and more ill over time, losing their childhood as the radiation took their energy, their ability to have full lives. The children, who survived only to develop severe physical illnesses and who died before they really had a chance to live.download

Some people didn’t leave or chose to return regardless: Some of the older rural generation chose to stay, to wait out any consequences, to live in their homes regardless of what happened. Some people found ways to return, seeing the zone as a better alternative to the lives they were forced to have. For some people, the love of their land, the pride in their homes and livelihoods was much stronger than the threat of radiation. For some, Chernobyl has become a freedom. This is certainly a very different perspective that I had not come across before. We humans are complex beings.

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The danger that this reactor still holds and will continue to hold for thousands of years: Why do we create such power when the consequences have such a real, potential deadly impact. And it frightens me that in this age, where leading powers threaten nuclear attacks, the horror of Chernobyl could so easily happen on a world wide scale. And I am astonished that we as human beings cannot see the horrendous consequences of such action. Even now, the Chernobyl plant is only contained, due to a new covering only recently placed over the top of it, to prevent further leakage. There isn’t a solution. It is there and that frightens me beyond belief. The radiation in the environment will still be present for thousands of years. What are we doing to our planet? On a positive note, isn’t Nature a resilient goddess, re-wilding and healing land that we humans have destroyed.

Chernobyl Prayer should be put on the secondary school curriculum. In fact, it should be compulsory reading full stop. It is a history that we can touch. We need to learn.

The Ice Princess

I wasn’t quite sure whether I should post the following review, as my response is very negative and I don’t like putting that out there in the world. Then again, I set out with the goal to document all the books read in The Read Around the World Book Club, which I am a part of on goodreads. So, I shall go ahead and remember this is my personal opinion only, to why the book didn’t work for me.  I know there are many people out there who really enjoy Camila Lackberg’s books, I am just not one of them.

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When I found out that October was to be Scandinavian crime month, I was quite excited as I’ve never read any of this genre despite being utterly in love with Scandinavia. I tend not to like contemporary crime as a rule and I get the impression that Scandinavian crime is often very dark and hard hitting. But this year is very much about broadening my reading horizons and the Swedish setting was a winner before I even opened the book.  A writer returning to her home town after her parents’ death, a childhood friend, who has seemingly taken her own life, a small Swedish town with a dark secret and a rather lovely local detective as the love interest. On paper, this looked really good. However…

I shall try my best to keep my thoughts concise and stick to my top five reasons why I only gave this a 1 star on Goodreads (I would have dnf-ed this book, however I did want to know how the story ended).

1. My biggest issue is that this book felt like it was trying to be something it isn’t. It is marketed as a hard hitting, shocking literary crime novel but it just doesn’t meet this description. It felt lack lustre, leaning towards the cosy (think Midsommer Murders) with language sporadically thrown in to shock (which just felt awkward). The quality wasn’t there for me either.red-snowflake-clipart-SnowFlakes_29.1.2_red

2. The female characters are largely dislikeable and often portrayed in a stereotypical way. I was really disappointed as there was such potential for complex, strong female characters in this storyline.red-snowflake-clipart-SnowFlakes_29.1.2_red

3. The portrayal of alcoholism and mental health are two dimensional and extremely stereotypical in nature. Quite honestly, this kind of writing makes me feel angry as it reinforces primitive, negative viewpoints-something our society does not need more of!

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4. Apart from the description of snow and standard Swedish baked goods, I didn’t get a sense of being in Sweden as I read. Sigh. I kept hoping.

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5. So much telling. So little showing.

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I feel that I can’t just leave the Scandinavian crime genre with this feeling of disappointment and sheer negativity, so I have ordered another book from our book club choices (which, indecently, I voted for). Fingers crossed that Last Rituals restores my faith in this genre!

 

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi was the September choice in my Read Around the World Book Club and also my very first graphic novel. I have always had a preconceived notion of what a graphic novel is and have never considered this medium as being ‘my thing’. However, over the last months, having watched several of my favourite booktubers talking about their favourite graphic novels, I felt myself becoming quite intrigued. So, when I came across Persepolis, I knew straight away that this would not only be perfect for our book club (focusing on contemporary women writers around the world) but also perfect as a step in to graphic novels.Pen-writing-clipart-free-clipart-imagesPersepolis Part 1 is Satrapi’s story of growing up in Iran and leaving at the age of 14 to escape the restrictions of life as a woman in a strict, Muslim society as well as to escape the horrific war conditions. We follow her trying to find her way as a refugee in Austria; searching desperately for a sense of belonging. Part 2 is the story of her return to Iran and in the end, her final goodbye to her country. The artwork and the words are her own – a striking combination.Pen-writing-clipart-free-clipart-imagesAs I’ve said many times before, the books I read for this book club really open my eyes to the world I live in. Though I had a general awareness of Iran, what I didn’t have, was the background knowledge for any deeper level of understanding. This book taught me so much about Iran’s social and political history. In fact, the sheer amount of information that was conveyed in relatively few words, was incredible. Satrapi’s simple, stark and sometimes shocking, artwork, made me think in a way a text book could never do. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful art can be.

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Satrapi doesn’t shy away from the big themes: country identity, political and religious indoctrination and manipulation; the highs of revolution counteracted by severe reactionism; political persecution, torture and murder; the repression of women ( including the role women themselves play in this); the fundamental need to stand up for what you believe in if you want change to happen; being torn between two cultures; the extent a person will go to in order to fit in; the power of fear; drug addiction…and so the list goes on. Absolutely amazing.Pen-writing-clipart-free-clipart-imagesAt so many points when reading this book, I found myself struggling to get my head around the sheer amount of violence and death that Satrapi and many others like her, experienced on a day to day basis. This is the kind of book that needs to be read in schools, for opening young peoples’ eyes to what is happening in the world – there is so much relevant, valuable discussion material.

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I am very aware that this book expresses a very honest, personal experience; I know it cannot be seen as a voice for all. I fully intend on following up with other texts focusing on countries with similar social and political and religious issues. The next book on my list is:

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Giovanni, was drawn to the stories of the ordinary people caught up in the conflict when she herself was in Syria and uses this book to tell their stories.

The Housekeeper +The Professor

This month we travelled to Japan for our Read Around the World Book Club on Goodreads. I can honestly say that The Housekeeper + The Professor by Yoko Ogawa is one of the most beautiful, warm, gentle narratives exploring human connection that I have read in quite some time.

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The Professor is a man in his sixties with a passion for maths and a memory that only lasts for eighty minutes at a time. His brain then resets back to the time of his accident in 1975 and so he has to constantly relearn in order to navigate his life. The Housekeeper is a young woman, very much starved of affection with low self-esteem and a sensitive soul, who is employed by the Professor’s sister in law, to take care of him. The Housekeeper also has a son, who the Professor names Root (due to the flat top of his head reminding him of a square root). The book charts their daily navigation of the Professor’s memory loss, but much more so the incredible bond that is forged between three lonely, lost souls. Along the way there is also a gorgeous exploration of maths – and I never thought I would write the word gorgeous to describe maths in any shape or form!

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Maths is the leitmotif, the weaving thread and it is lyrical, personal and compelling. For me, maths and the connected logical thinking often feels like my nemesis. However, maths here symbolises communication, adventure and connection with the world. One of my favourite moments is when the Housekeeper describes the relationship between Root and the Professor in terms of prime numbers:

‘He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.’

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This is very much a character piece; the plot is there to showcase these three kindred spirits and their unique relationship with each other. However, at no point did I think the book lost focus and the slower pace did not affect my engagement with the book in the slightest.Books 3

I loved the character development very much. The isolated Professor comes alive through his relationship with Root and his quality of life is enriched immensely by the care of the Housekeeper. Root in turn blossoms thank to the Professor- his confidence, resilience and love for learning are really lovely to witness. As for the Housekeeper, she learns to take pride in herself, discovers her own love for learning and by finding herself, is able to form a closer relationship with her son. Ogawa delivers all this without a sugary coating; life can be sad and miracles are hard to find, but the beauty to be found shines through.Books 3

You might have noticed by now that this book does not have named characters. I knew this from the blurb and was worried that the characters would therefore be types, and consequently be harder to engage with. As it turns out, exactly the opposite happens. Human connection transcends the need for labelling.

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We are only given glimpses of the Professor’s past, his only relative, the sister in law, remains abstract and only marginally involved in the storyline. Whilst I found this the one frustrating point, as I wanted to find out more about this quirky, utterly lovely man, I also found myself in the shoes of the Professor i.e. only seeing snapshots, trying to piece together what I found out. You see, I can’t even keep this as a negative!

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The Housekeeper and the Professor is one of those books where you glance at its spine in years to come and get that really fond feeling inside. Simply beautiful. I shall leave you with one of my favourite descriptions of The Professor, which really spoke to the little girl inside, who believes she can’t do maths:

‘The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the ‘correct miscalculation’, for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers.’

 

 

 

Portugal: Now and at the Hour of Our Death

I can with all honesty say that I would never have picked up Now and at the Hour of Our Death had it not been this month’s Read Around the World Book Club selection. I would not have considered a non-fiction book written about an author’s experience shadowing a palliative care team in the remote regions of Portugal to be my thing. My response to this book was therefore a huge surprise to me as I thought it was a really well written book full of insight into how we human beings deal with death and dying, which left me not only with sadness but also with beauty and hope.

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The book is split into three sections, all with very different writing styles. The first section caused a lot of discussion in the book club as it was very much a flow of consciousness; a collection of notes, thoughts and emotions the author had before she started writing the rest of the book. I loved this but I know others saw it as disjointed and hard to engage with. I don’t usually like such fragmented text but I thought this was a really clever way of immersing the reader in the situation the author finds herself in. I was looking through her eyes, experiencing her snippets of observations, thoughts and emotional responses. Not everything made sense to me but I think the point is that different snippets will speak to our different experiences of death.

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I thought the contrasting thoughts on death were striking, from the idea of a warm, strong hearted doctor conveying a ‘good death’ to the idea that nothing lasts and all is futile. I really liked the survival tips that Marques notes in order to help herself cope with her observations. There are just so many responses to death and dying in such a short space that I think it will take time to process it all; from fear to denial, to guilt, to class, to the role of God…

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And throughout all this I think Marques is successful in portraying the aging Portuguese landscape, where the old are fading and the young are few and far between. Where there is much physical beauty such as the Maria icons in bell jars, the cherry blossom and the deepest purple horizons.Books 3

The second section is made up of three character portraits and within each is the author’s description of the situation followed by a transcript of the person nearing the end of their life talking or a transcript of a family member telling their side of the story. The first-person narrative was very powerful, it read literally like a transcript and therefore I could hear the voices as I read.  The first portrait is of a mother and wife, Paula, who has terminal cancer. The message of mindful living and the importance of demonstrating the love you have shone through as well as the undercurrent of how much energy this takes, even for a determined woman.

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I especially loved the second portrait. I think that all too often we as a society just see the outside of older generations and don’t take into account the incredible life stories that lie behind old age. So, I loved how the author said that she wanted to give a voice to the history of Senhor João and Senhora Maria. They made me think of my own grandmother, who had so many stories to tell of the past and how much richer I feel for them. It made me think of some of the old people in the old peoples home nearby, who don’t have anyone to tell their stories to.Books 3

I really did identify on a personal level, many points continued to remind me of my grandparents; the fear of losing your senses when you have lived such an active life, the fear of losing those important memories, which define you. But also, how they sat and listened at the family gathering, observing all the loud muddled voices of the different generations and taking joy and strength from them.

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I didn’t know anything about the colonialization of Angola by the Portugues, which has a part to play in this portrait, so this gave me an opportunity to research. I keep saying this in my reviews, but I was reminded yet again how narrow my awareness is of the world. Again, the impact of colonialization then and now astounds me. Sometimes we humans get things so horribly wrong time and time again.

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The third portrait was of two sisters and their dying father. The complexity of the relationships between the three made very interesting reading. Elisa and Sara were so honest in their reflection, talking about their emotions and the complicated, fierce love they had for their father. There were indeed so many emotions packed really carefully into a short space; being an outsider, not feeling enough, the need to prove your worth, the need to hold onto control when death and grief can’t be controlled…wow!

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There is a point where family and friends are talking about the man the father was before his decline in health. Each person has something really heartfelt to say and we get the impression that this man lived a rich life and had a positive impact on many people. It really made me think about what people might say about me one day, what I hope they will see in me and remember. That old chestnut of, ‘What is my purpose here on this earth?’ crept in and took hold for some time.

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I also thought the portrayal of the aftermath beyond the father’s funeral gave an honest insight that is often not explored; how the real feelings of loss often come later in the everyday, how witnessing death can cause much trauma further down the line.

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The final section is a summoning up of the author’s thoughts at the end of her journey. I found myself fully agreeing with her. Death fundamentally changes you. Be it by giving you insight, shifting your perspective on what being alive means or by leaving your heart wide open, allowing you to consciously see and listen to the journeys of fellow human beings.Books 3

So, to wrap it all up, this book has helped me process my own grief in a very positive way. I can’t say I love it because of the subject matter itself but to me Now and at the Hour of Our Death will always be an important book.