Around the World in 12 Books Challenge Wrap-up

With less than two weeks to spare, I have completed the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge at Giraffe Days!

2013 around the world in 12 books

The goal was to read a book for each of the 12 selected countries, one per month, and here’s what I read:

  1. January (France) — Anna Gavalda, Hunting and Gathering
  2. February (Sudan) — Tayeb Salih, The Wedding of Zein
  3. March (Wales) — Peter Ho Davies, The Welsh Girl
  4. April (South Pacific Islands) — Jill Shalvis, The Trouble with Paradise
  5. May (Belgium) — Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising
  6. June (South Korea) — Samuel Park, This Burns My Heart
  7. July (Israel) — Etgar Keret, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door
  8. August (Palestine) — Matt Beynon Rees, The Collaborator of Bethlehem
  9. September (Brazil) — Luis Fernando Verissimo, The Club of Angels
  10. October (China) — Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
  11. November (Egypt) — Mary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day
  12. December (Argentina) — Adolfo Bioy Casares, Asleep in the Sun

This was a really interesting challenge for me, since I normally stick to British and American authors. I enjoyed reading outside my geographical comfort zone and will make an effort to read more globally in the future.

My favorite books from the challenge were Hunting and Gathering, a charming love story with depth; The Wedding of Zein, which seemed both specific to Sudan and yet also universal; and The Club of Angels, which was bizarre and sinister and philosophical — but funny! On the other hand, I didn’t particularly enjoy The Welsh Girl, and I HATED Niccolò Rising!

Anyway, I won’t be participating in this challenge next year — I think I’ve already overcommitted myself! — but if you’re interested in broadening your literary horizons, the sign-up post for 2014 is here (and there are some format changes, so take note!).

Review: Asleep in the Sun

Asleep in the SunAdolfo Bioy Casares, Asleep in the Sun (trans. Suzanne Jill Levine)

Lucio Bordenave is a fairly ordinary, contented man who lives with his wife, Diana, and an old servant called Ceferina. His life is not without problems, however, and most of them center around Diana, who is very high-strung and always seems to be unhappy about something. Lucio protests that he loves his wife and is generally happy in his marriage…but when a doctor from the nearby sanatorium suggests that Diana might benefit from a short treatment there, Lucio finds himself agreeing. Diana accordingly goes to the mental hospital, and when she returns, she is joyful, loving, and contented. At first, Lucio is pleased with Diana’s “cure,” but eventually he begins to feel that something is not quite right. But when he attempts to get more information from the mental hospital, he is propelled into a nightmarish state of confusion that culminates in his learning the shocking truth.

This is my first book by Bioy Casares, and I’ve read almost no South American literature, so I honestly had no idea what to expect. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this weird little novel. I really liked the narrative structure: Lucio is the narrator for most of the book, and the first page reveals that he is writing to an old acquaintance for help — so you know right away that something has gone terribly wrong. The framework also inevitably raises questions about Lucio’s reliability; is he lying, or has he possibly gone mad from worrying about a perceived difference in his wife that doesn’t really exist? An interesting ambiguity is maintained for most of the novel, but in the end — fortunately, from my point of view — the truth is revealed. I’m not opposed to ambiguous endings in certain circumstances, but I’ll admit that in general, I prefer to have some level of closure. I also want to note that most editions of this book have HUGE spoilers in the cover blurb; the NYRB edition is an especially egregious offender. For this reason, I’d encourage people to avoid plot synopses as much as possible and go into the book “blind”; I promise you’ll enjoy it more that way!

Review: Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the DayMary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day

This novel, set in the early 20th century, is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a schoolteacher who has spent her entire life caring for her domineering mother. But when the influenza pandemic of 1918 carries off most of her family, including Mumma, Agnes finds herself unexpectedly inheriting a substantial sum of money. Though she is grieved by the multiple deaths in her family, she is also finally free from Mumma’s influence. Impulsively, she decides to see the world and books a trip to Egypt. There she meets several prominent British officers and diplomats, who are in Cairo to come to an agreement on Middle Eastern policy. Agnes is drawn into their social circle and mingles with the likes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edward Lawrence, now famously known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” She also meets a German called Karl Weilbacher, who is handsome, kind, and attentive, but may not be all that he seems. Ultimately, the people Agnes meets and events she witnesses in Egypt will have a profound effect on the rest of her life.

After finally reading and loving Doc, I was eager to try another book by Mary Doria Russell. This one was very readable, and the insights into the Cairo Conference of 1921 were fascinating. It’s a historical event that still has obvious ramifications for our world today, covering issues such as a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the territorial boundaries of new nations like Iraq, and the amount of influence Western countries should continue to have in the Middle East. I enjoyed Russell’s depictions of real historical figures in this book, particularly Churchill, wo made me laugh even at his most exasperating. I didn’t like this novel nearly as much as Doc, however, mostly because I found it too preachy. Agnes is an extremely opinionated character, and due to a strange framing device in the novel, she narrates from a quasi-omniscient perspective. Because of this, she judges the events of her time from a 21st-century point of view, which I find very irritating in historical novels. And since Western involvement in the Middle East is still a very complex and controversial issue, I didn’t appreciate Agnes’ more simplistic perspective. But even though this aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way, I think it’s still worth a read for people interested in the time period or in the creation of the modern Middle East.

Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressDai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (trans. Ina Rilke)

This slight novel tells the story of two young Chinese men who are sent to a remote mountain village to be “re-educated” during the cultural revolution of the 1970s. Both youths are talented individuals; the unnamed narrator plays the violin, and his best friend Luo is a master storyteller. Despite these gifts, however, they soon feel oppressed by the overwhelming boredom of their new lives, where they are forced to perform manual labor from dawn to dusk. But two unexpected events soon occur, changing the course of their lives forever: they discover a hidden cache of Western classics translated into Chinese, and they meet a beautiful young seamstress who steals both their hearts.

This is a very short book, and it honestly felt more like a tableau than a novel to me. The setting is described vividly with meticulous prose, but nothing much happens. I think I was expecting the book to be more overtly political, since the author was himself “re-educated” during this time period and ended up leaving China for France. But while the cultural revolution certainly isn’t praised, the boys’ lives aren’t portrayed in a particularly negative light either. Also, their exposure to Western culture isn’t always a good thing; in fact, their relationship with the seamstress is irrevocably altered by her exposure to European literature. So I was very interested by the ambiguities in the novel, but the plot and characters didn’t particularly grip me. I’d like to read another novel (or nonfiction work) about this time period, which seems like it would be rich in dramatic material.

Review: The Club of Angels

The Club of AngelsLuis Fernando Verissimo, The Club of Angels (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)

The narrator of this short book, Daniel, is a member of a very exclusive society of gourmands: He and nine other men regularly meet at each other’s houses to feast on the most delicious, exotic, flavorful meals they can create. The club hasn’t met recently due to some bad blood between the members, but then Daniel meets the mysterious chef Lucídio, who agrees to cook for them. The club members all converge on Daniel’s apartment and are delighted to find that Lucídio’s cooking is the best they’ve ever tasted. But then one of the guests mysteriously dies the next day — and the meal Lucídio had prepared was that guest’s favorite dish. The club continues to hold more dinners, and another member dies after each one. Yet for some reason, Daniel and his friends can’t resist experiencing these exquisitely perfect meals, even with the knowledge that each bite could be their last.

From the moment I read the epigraph of this creepy little novel, I was hooked: “All desire is a desire for death. — A possible Japanese maxim.” Verissimo wasn’t being lazy in his attribution; the saying is actually referenced in the novel, and it highlights Daniel’s unreliability as a narrator. From the start, he warns us that he might be making up the whole story, and then he goes on to give a brief philosophy of the detective novel. So you’ll know within the first two pages whether you’ll like this book or not; I thought it was weird and thought-provoking and very good! My library shelves it in the mystery section, which doesn’t make sense to me, since “whodunit” is clear from the outset (well, kind of). But watching the motives slowly unfold was interesting and surprisingly suspenseful. I should also point out that this book is set in Brazil, and the main characters are essentially a microcosm of Brazilian society, from the political protester to the ex-priest to the criminal. Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot and would definitely recommend it, as well as Verissimo’s other novel, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.

Review: The Collaborator of Bethlehem

The Collaborator of BethlehemMatt Beynon Rees, The Collaborator of Bethlehem

Omar Yussef, a teacher at the Dehaisha refugee camp in Bethlehem, is a fussy, polite, middle-aged man with a combover. He’s the last person anyone would ever expect to make trouble, especially in the politically charged atmosphere of Bethlehem, where one wrong step (literally or figuratively) could place him and his family in lethal danger. But when a prominent Palestinian freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on whom you ask) is shot just outside his own home, Omar can’t help getting involved — especially when his friend George Saba, a Christian and therefore a convenient scapegoat, is arrested for the killing. Omar knows that George is innocent and even finds evidence proving that he could not have committed the crime. But Omar’s friend the police chief is unwilling to investigate the matter further, since clearing George’s name would anger the militant Palestinians who champion the dead man as a martyr. So Omar resolves to investigate on his own; but the more he digs into the events surrounding the murder, the more he risks his own life.

I don’t know if I can say I liked this book…it’s very dark and very serious, and “liking” doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to it. But I’m extremely glad I read this novel, because it introduced me to a setting and a conflict that I honestly know very little about. The book does a wonderful job of depicting everyday life in Bethlehem, where the threat of violence is omnipresent and where the voices of extremism are much louder than the voices of moderation and peace. I really appreciated that the book does not paint either Israelis or Palestinians as the “bad guys,” but rather focuses on the struggles of individual people to do the right thing (or not) in a terrible situation. This novel is technically a murder mystery, but I found the detective work to be the least interesting part of the story. The urgency of the plot comes not from the hunt for the killer, but from Omar’s race against time to save his friend George. Overall, I found this book a fascinating read and will probably seek out more mysteries featuring Omar Yussef.

Review: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door

Suddenly, a Knock on the DoorEtgar Keret, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (trans. Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander)

This collection of short stories is a strange mixture of realism and fantasy, comedy and tragedy. Keret is an Israeli author, and several of his stories reflect the current struggles of that country; one of them begins with a conversation in a restaurant and ends with a suicide bombing. But there is no grand political pronouncement in these stories, and ultimately they’re not about politics. Rather, they depict universal human experiences like sex, friendship, death, love, loneliness, chance, and fate. My favorite story in the collection (“What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?”) starts with politics but ends somewhere else entirely, as a documentarian interviews both Jewish and Arab residents of Israel and meets a man with a magic goldfish. Most of these stories are dark, and many are surreal, but all of them offer a fascinating perspective on the human condition.

I don’t often read short stories, and I’d certainly never read anything by Keret before, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this collection. Keret’s style is very understated and direct, which works well in his fantastical stories especially; it’s as though he’s telling a joke with a completely deadpan expression. I also think the stories as a whole are very well-crafted, with endings that are resonant and satisfying but don’t necessarily tie everything up too neatly. I definitely teared up on more than one occasion! As usual, a few of the stories didn’t quite work for me — the titular story in particular was a bit too clever for its own good — but overall I was very impressed with this collection and plan to read more by Etgar Keret.

Review: This Burns My Heart

This Burns My HeartSamuel Park, This Burns My Heart

This novel, set in 1960s South Korea, tells the story of Soo-ja, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner who has never had to work for a living. She longs to become one of South Korea’s first female diplomats, but her family wants her to uphold tradition by making an advantageous marriage. When Soo-ja meets the handsome Min Lee, she’s convinced she’ll have the best of both worlds: She will be married to an attractive young man, and she’ll be able to move to Seoul and pursue her dreams. But when she marries Min, she learns that she is expected to stay in the house and be a servant for her new in-laws. As Soo-ja comes to terms with her new life, she remembers the young medical student who once urged her to marry him instead of Min, and she wonders how different her life could have been if she’d made a different choice.

I found this book very readable at the time, but the more I think about it, the fewer good things I can find to say about it. I just didn’t really feel like I got to know any of the characters…something about the tone of the novel kept me at a distance. The book was (as far as I know) originally written in English, but it feels like a translation, if that makes sense. The language was too simplistic, maybe? I also thought that the character portrayals were too black-and-white — Soo-ja’s in-laws are basically portrayed as monsters, while it seems like Soo-ja is supposed to be always right. Personally, I didn’t find her very sympathetic, so maybe that’s why the book didn’t work for me. I don’t mean to sound harsh; I don’t think this is a bad book, by any means. It just wasn’t the right book for me, and I don’t plan to seek out more by this author.

Review: Niccolò Rising

Niccolo RisingDorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising

In 15th-century Bruges, commerce is intimately linked to power: the more astute and skillful the merchant, the greater his position in society. So while nobility and ancient bloodlines are still important, ordinary men and women have unprecedented opportunities to raise their social standing. This novel follows the fortunes of Claes, a dyer’s apprentice whose easygoing demeanor disguises an extremely shrewd mind. Among his friends and employers, Claes is regarded as little more than the village idiot, which makes it all the easier for him to obtain useful knowledge simply by keeping his ears open and his mouth shut. When he learns about a risky business opportunity that could result in a huge payoff, Claes doesn’t hesitate to act on the information. But his quest for riches causes him to offend some powerful people, including a Scottish nobleman who has both financial and personal reasons to hate Claes.

Dorothy Dunnett is one of those authors I really want to like. I’ve heard great things about her books, and I love well-written historical fiction, so I thought she would be right up my alley. But when I tried the first book in her Lymond Chronicles a few years ago, I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I was hoping that this book from a different series would work better for me, but unfortunately it didn’t. My first problem was the number of characters; there are too many people to keep track of, and there’s a lot of hopping between different points of view. Secondly, I couldn’t figure out what was happening for a large portion of the novel. Dunnett likes to allude mysteriously to things instead of describing them directly, which I found incredibly frustrating. I didn’t understand even the main plot until the book was almost over! I think Dunnett’s intention was to build suspense and then have a big reveal at the end, but in my opinion, the resolution didn’t make up for the hundreds of pages of confusion I had to endure first. I did enjoy the setting of late medieval/early Renaissance Bruges, but I wouldn’t recommend this slog of a book to anyone!

Review: The Trouble with Paradise

The Trouble with ParadiseJill Shalvis, The Trouble with Paradise

Dorie Anderson desperately needs a vacation. She’s single, overworked, underpaid, and stuck in a dead-end job at Shop-Mart when she’d rather be designing her own clothing line. So when she suddenly wins a spot on a luxury cruise to the South Pacific, she jumps at the chance to have an adventure. And adventure seems to be headed her way in the form of adorable baseball star Andy Hutchinson. He’s sweet and kind, and he has a sexy Texas drawl…so why can’t Dorie stop thinking about the brooding ship’s doctor, Christian Montague? As Dorie struggles with her feelings for these two men, she also faces much bigger problems, including a storm, a shipwreck, and even a potential murder.

I’ll admit, I picked up this book solely because I needed something set in the South Pacific for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. I’ve also heard really good things about Jill Shalvis, who is apparently a very popular author in the contemporary romance genre. Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly impressed by this book. It’s a fun, beachy read with a fair amount of bodice ripping (or the modern equivalent), but that’s about it. I enjoyed the direct writing style: Shalvis doesn’t waste a lot of time setting the scene or developing backstory, preferring to dive into the action instead. But the dialogue did make me cringe on occasion, and there wasn’t much character development in either Dorie or her hero. The “mystery” subplot also felt completely unnecessary and uninteresting. I might give Shalvis another chance, but I’ll look for one of her more recent and more popular novels.