An interesting fact about Rómulo Gallegos: he was the first democratically elected president of Venezuela, in 1948 (although only for a few months bef...moreAn interesting fact about Rómulo Gallegos: he was the first democratically elected president of Venezuela, in 1948 (although only for a few months before losing power to a coup d’état). He was a writer before he was a politician; Doña Bárbara was published in 1929. It is, of course, my book from Venezuela for the Read The World challenge.
I didn’t choose it because the author was president of Venezuela. I was more attracted by the fact that it has been made into a movie twice and a telenovela three times. And that suggests a novel with a good story to tell.
It is indeed a rollicking yarn, full of love, lust, jealousy, dancing, cattle rustling, chicanery, revenge, murder, sweeping landscapes, colourful birds, and manly men riding across the plains. The portrayal of women is slightly more problematic, in that there are only two major female characters, and one is pure, virginal, innocent, passive and ineffectual, while the other — the eponymous Doña Bàrbara — is manipulative, ruthless, corrupt, witchy, and uses sex as a weapon.
To be fair, Doña Bàrbara is a terrific character, a sort of cowboy Lady Macbeth. Or Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches rolled into one. And in best superhero fashion, she is given a backstory of childhood trauma to account for her villainy. It’s just the contrast with the young Marisela which implies a rather narrow role for what a good woman can be like.
Despite Gallegos’s later career, this didn’t strike me as a particularly political novel in the same way as, for example, a lot of the post-colonial fiction I’ve been reading. Although you can see how it could be a part of a developing Venezuelan nationalism, because it is very much a novel about a place and a culture; the plains and the plainsmen who raise cattle there. I could see it forming part of a Venezuelan identity, rather as other cowboys did in the US.
However, the Wikipedia entry for Doña Bàrbara notes that ‘it was because of the book’s criticisms of the regime of longtime dictator Juan Vicente Gómez that [Gallegos] was forced to flee the country’. So I obviously missed some nuances. I guess the portrayal of political corruption — even though mainly at the local level in the book — is the kind of thing that dictators get annoyed by. They’re a notoriously thin-skinned bunch.
Anyway, I enjoyed it. And despite the tone of my comments, not just as a slightly melodramatic yarn — although that was enjoyable — but as a literary novel. It has an evocative sense of place, atmospheric set pieces, strong characters. Good stuff. (less)
I was intrigued to read this because Matt Merritt is a poet who is also a proper birdwatcher—as opposed to someone who occasionally puts an egret or a...moreI was intrigued to read this because Matt Merritt is a poet who is also a proper birdwatcher — as opposed to someone who occasionally puts an egret or a hummingbird into a poem. And I am also at least a dabbler in both birding and poetry.
I never felt I managed to combine the two in a satisfactory way, personally; birds would inevitably crop up in my poems, in a metaphor or a bit of local colour, but I never felt able to write anything that did justice to my experience of watching them, or communicated what it was about birds that was important to me.
So I was curious to see how someone else did it. And this book does indeed include poems about birds and birdwatching. So for example, 'The Capercaillie' and 'Black-throated Diver, Lochindorb' both capture something of bird behaviour, and of the experience of watching the birds; 'Svalbard' (which you can read here) is a poem which successfully compares the overheard sound of a couple having sex to migrating Canada geese.
But, not surprisingly, there's no particular trick to making birds into poems. The bird poems work in the same way poems normally do; my own mental block remains un-explained.
My own neuroses aside, there are plenty of poems to like here, birdy and otherwise.(less)
**spoiler alert** This is my book from Brunei for the Read The World challenge. Brunei is one of the countries which is particularly difficult to find...more**spoiler alert** This is my book from Brunei for the Read The World challenge. Brunei is one of the countries which is particularly difficult to find books from; so when I found this self-published ‘science fiction thriller’ on Amazon I snapped it up.
It is the story of A’jon, a man chosen to be Brunei’s first astronaut because of his expertise in cryptography. His mission is caught up in Dramatic Events, and [SPOILER ALERT, I guess], he is put in suspended animation for 500 years, floating in space, before being revived and brought back to earth where his cryptographic expertise once more gets him involved in Dramatic Events and [even more SPOILERY] he saves the world.
Sadly it’s not very good; it’s the kind of book that makes people suspicious of self-publishing. This is a sample of the clunky prose and dialogue:
A’jon grabbed his fork and drove it into the middle of the plate. He twirled the fork several times until he grabbed the right amount, and then lifted it without a strand hanging and put it in his mouth. He was careful to not drop any of the sauce and get his new clothes dirty. His tongue reacted instantly to the food. “Mmm, that’s delicious!” he said while chewing the first bite.
“Makes me proud to be an Asian. Pasta originated from China before it was brought to Italy. It’s amazing how the combination of water and wheat can form such remarkable dough. You can mold it into almost any shape you like — fusilli, tagliatelle, ziti, rice vermicelli.”
With each bite, A’jon wrapped as much of the cheesy sauce round his tongue as he could before the flavor disappeared.
I’m resisting the urge to really pull this book apart; because it’s a soft target, and also because its flaws are essentially innocuous. It’s not particularly annoying or offensive, it’s just badly written. (less)
Dante International is my book from Namibia for the Read The World challenge.
For Malaysia, I picked a detective novel because I thought it would make...moreDante International is my book from Namibia for the Read The World challenge.
For Malaysia, I picked a detective novel because I thought it would make a good change to read newly released genre fiction rather than the decades-old literary stuff that I mainly end up reading. This is what I said about that book:
21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.
Apparently I do not learn from my mistakes.
Dante International is not actually a detective novel — the central character is not a sleuth — but it is a crime thriller; women are being murdered in Windhoek and suspicion falls on their boss, an attractive, sexually incontinent self-made businessman called Dante Dumeno.
It was readable enough, I guess, but not really my kind of thing. And I had some problems with the portrayal of Dante, who is a manipulative bullying sexual predator… but apparently we’re supposed to find that attractive in a bad-boy sort of way? (less)
An interesting survey of what's known about the sensory capacity of birds. One little nugget that reflects more on the scientists than the birds: bird...moreAn interesting survey of what's known about the sensory capacity of birds. One little nugget that reflects more on the scientists than the birds: birds were assumed to lack the senses of taste and smell. Because… I don’t know. A complete failure of imagination on the part of the people making the assumptions, presumably.(less)
I read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born—although she didn’t a...moreI read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born — although she didn’t actually live there for very long.
Her father, Pierre Gerbillat, was a French businessman with a transport company in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He saw Andrée’s mother, Josephine Wouassimba, dancing in a local village and decided he wanted to marry her. Although she was already promised to somebody else, he offered such a large dowry that her parents were persuaded.
He was forty; she was thirteen. And although they were married according to local custom, they were not actually married under French law — not only that, he was already engaged to a Belgian woman, who he married very soon. And after briefly juggling two wives, he left Josephine and sent Andrée to an orphanage for mixed-race children run by nuns in Brazzaville. She was at the orphanage from the age of three until she was seventeen, when she managed to escape, literally by climbing over the wall.
Then she worked as a dressmaker, and had a sequence of relationships with white men, before getting involved in the campaign for independence, first in Guinea and then the Belgian Congo, where she was Chief of Protocol for the newly independent Republic of the Congo for the very brief period before Mobutu overthrew the government and she had to flee the country, and move to France.
So she’s an interesting subject. Although the stuff which is most obviously notable about her — the politics — was not actually the most engaging part of the book, for me. The most powerful section is about severity of the orphanage, and the sheer cruelty of the nuns; and throughout the book the racial dynamics are particularly thought-provoking.
She was a mixed-race child at a time when they were so rare that they were shipped of to special orphanages and coerced to marry each other, to reduce their disruptive impact on society. And it made her even more of an outsider that she was cut off from normal African society for her entire childhood.
Then as an adult, she was a beautiful mixed-race woman who, despite having suffered at the hands of white institutions and individuals, was apparently only drawn to relationships with white men; one of whom she lived with, and had a child with, even though he was so racist that he would not allow her mother into their house.
And I don’t think she makes any comment herself about whether her partial whiteness made it easier or harder for her to be a woman taking a prominent role in the politics of independence, but it must have been relevant one way or another.
So there’s plenty of interesting material here. And it’s well written, for which the credit may go to Jean McKellar, who is credited as a ‘collaborator’; I don’t know exactly what that means in this case. It’s also out of print, though, and unless it sounds like it’s particularly relevant to your interests, I don’t think it’s so amazing that you need to seek it out.(less)
A novel about Barrington Walker, an elderly West Indian man in London who is gay but has been married and in the closet for 50 years, his wife and dau...moreA novel about Barrington Walker, an elderly West Indian man in London who is gay but has been married and in the closet for 50 years, his wife and daughters, and his ‘best friend’ who has actually been his lover since they grew up together in Antigua. The tone is generally light and funny, especially to start with, and Barry is a charming rogue… but the book also has darker aspects, as it deals with the pain and confusion caused by decades of lies and crossed purposes. I enjoyed it.(less)
This has a cynical, brittle, world-weary tone that seems very typical of the 20s and 30s. The obvious explanation would be that it was the psychologic...moreThis has a cynical, brittle, world-weary tone that seems very typical of the 20s and 30s. The obvious explanation would be that it was the psychological impact of the Great War… which seems plausible. It’s a fairly dark view of human nature: lustful, jealous, manipulative, untrustworthy, superficial, pleasure-seeking; but it makes for an entertaining read. All the sex and drugs must have been rather shocking at the time, and the Catholic Church apparently put the book on its banned list, but it’s not actually very explicit.
I’m glad I didn’t read the afterword until afterwards, because it turns out that ‘Pitigrilli’ was a pretty unpleasant human being, which doesn’t make the book any better or worse but might have lessened my enjoyment of it.(less)
Like so many high concept books / films, this works quite well at the start when you're just learning about the situation, but as the mountain of sill...moreLike so many high concept books / films, this works quite well at the start when you're just learning about the situation, but as the mountain of silliness builds up it gets, well, too silly. For my taste anyway.
Also the portrayal of women and gender stuff was a bit off putting.(less)
Part of my endless quest for really satisfying light reading as an alternative to rereading Terry Pratchett/Georgette Heyer/Patrick o'Brien yet again....morePart of my endless quest for really satisfying light reading as an alternative to rereading Terry Pratchett/Georgette Heyer/Patrick o'Brien yet again. It was quite fun it but I won't be rushing to read the rest in the series.(less)
Started off as distinctly more interesting than most of these things, but as it built to a climax I thought it turned into more typical genre writing...moreStarted off as distinctly more interesting than most of these things, but as it built to a climax I thought it turned into more typical genre writing and I lost interest a bit.(less)
I can’t remember why I picked this up, but I *really* enjoyed it. It’s a C19th novel which is ‘surprisingly modern’—in scare quotes because that seems...moreI can’t remember why I picked this up, but I *really* enjoyed it. It’s a C19th novel which is ‘surprisingly modern’ — in scare quotes because that seems to be the default description and I don’t disagree, but I’m slightly uneasy about using ‘modern’ as a term of praise or even description.
It’s ‘modern’ because it’s written from the perspective of a dead man who makes lots of authorial asides, in a generally light tone, broken up into very short chapters (mostly less than a page), with self-referential stuff and intertextual commentary. In other words, it plays with form more than most C19th novels. But rather than comparing it to the modernists and post-modernists, it seems just as natural to refer back; not just to the inevitable Tristram Shandy, but things like Tom Jones and Byron’s Don Juan, which both have ‘authorial’ asides and interjections.
Anyway, that kind of quibbling aside: the application of the style to a very solidly C19th plot, about the lives and loves of the upper-middle classes, worked brilliantly for me. It was apparently just what I needed.(less)
The nameless narrator of this novel competes with another nameless man to pursue a vulnerable, scared, nameless woman through an increasingly apocalyp...moreThe nameless narrator of this novel competes with another nameless man to pursue a vulnerable, scared, nameless woman through an increasingly apocalyptic landscape as the world is steadily engulfed in ice. Although as the narrative is all mixed up with the narrator's dreams and visions, it is left unclear how much of it is 'true'.
It's atmospheric and creepy and distinctive; and maybe in the end a bit thin.(less)
I picked up a 1950 Penguin paperback of this at a second-hand stall because I thought a first-hand account of the Russian Revolution by a British dipl...moreI picked up a 1950 Penguin paperback of this at a second-hand stall because I thought a first-hand account of the Russian Revolution by a British diplomat would be interesting. It got off to an unpromising start, this is the first two paras:
In my stormy and chequered life Chance has played more than her fair part. The fault has been my own. Never at any time have I tried to be the complete master of my own fate. The strongest impulse of the moment has governed all my actions. When chance has raised me to dazzling heights, I have received her gifts with outstretched hands. When she has cast me down from my high pinnacle, I have accepted her buffets without complaint. I have my hours of penance and regret. I am introspective enough to take an interest in the examination of my own conscience. But this self-analysis has always been detached. It has never been morbid. It has neither aided nor impeded the fluctuations of my varied career.
It has availed me nothing in the eternal struggle which man wages on behalf of himself against himself. Disappointments have not cured me of an ineradicable romanticism. If at times I am sorry for some things I have done, remorse assails me only for the things I have left undone.
A startling example, I think, of the damage a late Victorian boarding school education could do to your prose style.
Fortunately, once he gets going, the main narrative is written in a much more direct, livelier style: I can see why the book was a bestseller in the 30s. Lockhart. The whiff of grandiosity seems to be a genuine part of his character throughout though, and in fact he frequently comes across as a bit of a dick; there's a story about an affair he has with a local girl in Malaya which particularly makes him look bad: not just because of the way he treats her, but because of the tone he uses to tell the story: an exotic yarn of youthful indiscretion in the colonies.
Still, the fact that he doesn't seem to be censoring himself too much, even at the risk of making himself look bad, does make the book a more interesting read. And the inside story of working as a diplomat in Russia in the last days of the Tsars and then through the revolution is indeed a fascinating subject (although you might do better to start with Ten Days that Shook the World).(less)
I actually read this b/c I saw the new Tom Gauld cover on a design blog and was curious enough to check out the book, which was cheap in Kindle, so......moreI actually read this b/c I saw the new Tom Gauld cover on a design blog and was curious enough to check out the book, which was cheap in Kindle, so...
Anyway, it's quite funny, I can see why it's popular enough to still be in print after 23 years, but it's not really my cup of tea.(less)
This is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although 'book' is almost overselling it; it's a pamphlet really. A total of twel...moreThis is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although 'book' is almost overselling it; it's a pamphlet really. A total of twelve poems by nine poets, and even with an introduction, acknowledgements and the poems in both English and Portuguese, it's only 44 pages.
But the choices were limited; the only real alternative was a book of the collected speeches and writings of Amílcar Cabral, the politician and guerrilla leader who campaigned for independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Which probably would have been interesting, but I took the cheaper, lazier option and bought this instead.
There are some strong thematic threads running through the poems: the forest, freedom fighters, saudade, eroticised women, slavery, nationalism. If I had been told they were all written by the same poet over a long period, that wouldn't surprise me; although there may be stylistic differences that are flattened out in translation.
Presumably that thematic similarity is at least partially an artefact of the selection process. But apparently the country's intellectual tradition grew out of politics: the book is dedicated to Vasco Cabral* 'who has been called the first Guinean intellectual' and who, as well as being a poet, was freedom fighter, political prisoner and then government minister of the independent Guinea-Bissau. And in the forty years since independence (almost exactly: the anniversary is the Tuesday after next) there has been a civil war, so the theme of political violence hasn't lost its relevance.
As always with parallel texts, it was interesting to see some of the translation decisions, even without knowing any Portuguese. For example, one poem was broken up at different points in the English from the original — i.e. the white space appeared a couple of lines later in the translation — which seems weirdly arbitrary, but it would be fascinating to hear the reasoning behind it.
Anyway, it was worth reading, I think; some of the poems worked better than others, in translation at least, with Hélder Proença the pick of the bunch.
*no relation to Amílcar, as far as I can tell. (less)