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Life has been happening like crazy on this side of the line. Add holidays and heat and pure, unadulterated laziness and you get a blogging slump. It would also be a reading slump if it wasn’t for YA audiobooks and daily newspapers (a holiday tradition and zen moment).
I need a bit of incentive because my spirit breaks just by looking at the two months backlog. Anyone interested in doing a buddy-read or something? Any easy read-alongs going around? Interesting projects?
Meanwhile, and while inspiration doesn’t strike, I’m doing a meme. They’re not usually my thing, but these are desperate times and maybe thinking about the books I’ve planned for the upcoming months will help.
Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR List
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Harris’ The Observations didn’t do much for me, but everyone seems to be raving about Gillespie and I so I’ve decided to give it a try.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
My most anticipated re-read is Tigana, my favorite book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve decided to tackle it in audio format this time around.
Chroniques de Jérusalem by Guy Delisle
All books by Guy Delisle are an instant best-seller here in Brussels, European capital of the graphic novel. I’ve never read anything by him but heard lots about this one, a birthday present from my co-workers.
The King of Attolia (The Queen’s Thief, #3) by Megan Whalen Turner
I’ve recently re-read the first two in the series just so that when I’d pick this one up for the first time everything was fresh. I hear it’s the best one of the series so far?
The Unicorn Hunt (The House of Niccolo, #5) by Dorothy Dunnett
I’m trying to go through The House of Niccolo series reeeeeeally slowly because you only read Dunnet for the first time once. It was a Herculean effort not to lunge for this one right after Scales of Gold and its extraordinary ending. I’ve waited long enough.
Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry
Whenever I don’t have a formed opinion on a certain topic, I Google Fry’s thoughts on it and always find myself nodding in agreement. Moab is My Washpot is an autobiography covering his first 20 years of life. The Fry Chronicles is already in the TBR waiting its turn.
The Mauritius Command(Aubrey/Maturin Book 4) by Patrick O’Brian
Another series I want to make last, although its 21 volumes-long… The previous book, HMS Surprise, is set to become one of the best of 2012.
Mayombe by Pepetela
For Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge, this will be my first by one of Angola’s most famous writers. Everyone I know who reads in Portuguese seems to have read at least one of his books.
She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff by Annalee Newitz & Charlie Anders (Eds.)
To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, on 16 October.
Un día de cólera by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
At the beginning of the year one of my goals was to read more books in their original languages. I’ve done well in Portuguese and French but haven’t picked up anything in Spanish yet. This hour by hour description of 1808′s Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid will put me back on track.
To make it even more of a challenge, I’m writing it in English even though the book is in Portuguese. As far as I know there are no editions in other languages, so any translations in this post are my humble ones.
Back in January I joined Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge with the intent of reading one book from each of the five Portuguese-speaking African countries. I’ve already covered Cape Verde and this one ticks the box of São Tomé and Príncipe. A country unknown to most people, today it had the honor of featuring in BBC’s “Forgotten Countries in the World”. They describe ST&P as “a slice of the Caribbean just off the African coast”, adding that “the two sleepy islands that make up Africa’s smallest nation are the antithesis of all things African”. Intriguing!
O País de Akendengué (Akendengué’s Country) by Conceição Lima is a short book, with a little over 100 pages, one poem per page, sometimes only 2 lines-long. It was a quick read and an enjoyable one. I like this kind of short, crisp poetry, almost haiku-style, where there’s even more emphasis on creating immediate and powerful images.
The book’s preface by Helder Macedo, Lima’s Professor at King’s College in London, was incredibly important because it offered a context to the poems and the way they work together. Macedo writes a short history of ST&P and then puts it within a wider pan-African perspective, pointing out how those two viewpoints are a part of the poems, from references to a ST&P popular saying (Laughing we tell of our sorrows), to homages to African heroes and myths:
If I understand it correctly, the title indicates an universally-shared African perspective and, in this way, defines an attitude opposite to that of a colonialist culture (…) Conceição Lima’s country is an island. But in the end, all continents are islands, or parts of islands, the world is made of island.
The Akendengué in the title refers to Peirre-Claver Akendengué, a famous musician, philosopher and poet from Gabon. Akendengué is generally considered a pan-African voice and it’s this universal “Africanness” that Lima wants to honor in her poetry.
The idea of a “universally-shared African perspective” of the world is especially clear in Lima’s poems when she makes references to historical figures such as Kwame Nkrumah (first president of Ghana and an influential 20th-century advocate of Pan-Africanism), Amílcar Cabral or Patrice Lumumba.
I enjoyed O País de Akendengué, but I suspect it had a lot to do with what I learned about São Tomé and Príncipe’s in particular and African history in general. To understand Lima’s references I spent some happy hours on Wikipedia, jumping from article to article.
I think my favorite poem is this one, with only two lines:
State of Siege
From the top of his tower the guardian aligns the world.
The strength of his wall isolates his fear.
Book read for the Africa Reading Challenge
For the Africa Reading Challenge I’ve decided to read one book from each of the five Portuguese-speaking African countries. The Last Will is the Cape Verde choice. I’ve read it in the original but I’m happy to report that there is an easily-found English translation, as well as a great movie adaptation.
Scribacchina from Paroles/Words was also planning to read it for a while, so we’ve decided to have a little chat about it, which I’ve included below. I’m always surprised at how much more you take out of a book by discussing it with other book lovers.
In the island of São Vicente, Senhor Napumoceno Silva Araújo led the life of a respectable self-made business man. He was famous for owning the island’s first car, but also for being a man of habits and routine. There was nothing extraordinary about his life, or so everyone though until the opening of his last will and testament…
Alex: Did you think there was an “African feeling” to the book? It somehow reminded me more strongly of South American story-telling. I often thought of the Brazilian Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the way one describes Salvador da Bahia and the other the fictional village of Macondo. There’s no magic realism in The Last Will, but a the sort of other-worldly feeling about life in São Vicente, that had the same effect. It also reminded me why I love books set in islands, there is something about the feeling of isolation that’s perfect for growing eccentric characters and habits
I found the funeral (sorry to say it) delightful to read and couldn’t help but smile at all the loops the heir had to jump to be able to fulfill Napomunceno’s last wish to be buried to the sound of Beethoven’s Funeral March. Any favorite moment?
Scribacchina: It is interesting that you cite Marquez, because from the start I kept comparingThe Last Will to his Chronicle of a Death Foretold, if just for the structure: the death (or the last will) of a man is the excuse to tell different histories about several people in a close society. But I feel the parallelism (if there is one) ends there. To me, it did feel more like another African novel I read, Mia Couto’s A River Called Time, which was my first experience with African magical realism — and while there is no magical realism in The Last Will, the society feels very much alike. But I do see what you mean, and I do agree that in a way all of them talk about closely-knit societies and how they influence the type of characters that live in them.
At the same time, I feel The Last Will is much more focused on identity than society. Little by little we are told how Napumoceno’s saw himself. How he tried to be more European than he was — the Beethoven March is part of that effort, I think. But because the book is so much focused on real and perceived identity, I was completely baffled by the last chapter, which basically contradicts everything that we have been told previously: we are told that no one knew about his affair, but then Carlos says that everyone knew Maria da Graça was Napumoceno’s daughter; we are told that he was one of the most influential men in town, but then it looks like everyone still considered him the small-village poor he was when he was young… How did you react to the ending? Did it come out of the blue, or do you think it was expectable?
One of the things that made me LOL was Napumocenos’ reaction to green: basically, he’s so passionate about the Sporting football club that when he sees his cleaning lady dressed in the team’s green, he takes her on as his lover. (Of course that is not exactly what happens. It is a rape, but nobody seems to perceive it that way. What do you make of that?)
City of Mindelo, São Vicente Island – credits
Alex: I was reading the green parts to my boyfriend who’s a hard-core Benfica fan First about the ending, I wasn’t surprised because I assumed that over time the “affair” slowly came to light, it’s just that Carlos expected the money to go only to him. We’re told even her husband knew, and Napumoceno’s regular rent must have become suspicious. About the way the village saw him, I spend long months of my childhood and early teens in a small village in Serra da Estrela and I recognize those “mood swings” as typical of a close community. It’s very hard to forget that a stranger is a stranger, especially if the person is envied.
Interesting that you saw identity over society, because I did the other way around. I think the humor and witty language is used expose the public and private morality of village life. I wouldn’t be surprised it some stabs were private Cape Verdean-jokes, that we just don’t get.
I’ve read in another site an interesting quote that might shed some light into why the novel reminded us of South America, Europe and Africa:
Discovered in 1462 and settled before Columbus’ arrival in America, the arid Cape Verde archipelago is arguably home to the oldest, most thoroughly Creolized culture in the world. Indeed, the Portuguese used the islands as an advertisement for their missao civilizadora or assimilationist colonialism. (…) Cape Verdeans, scattered around the Atlantic Rim by geography and economics for centuries, intuitively understood the idea of “transnational identity” long before it became a buzzword in cultural studies journals.
It must be a very interesting society and I look forward to visiting it at some point (maybe in my honey-moon). (Did you know there’s going to be an Observatory of the Portuguese Language there?) I felt Almeida captured that peculiarity of the country well and subtly.
What do you think about Napumoceno the man as a metaphor for Cape Verde: isolated, with an apparently controlled and repetitive life, but full of secrets and adventures. He’s a serious business-man, with a good dose of the comical about him (he became rich by selling umbrellas in a country where it doesn’t rain!). He’s the poor foreigner, who cannot be part of the exclusive club, no matter how rich and philanthropist he becomes (Cape Verde vs. Portugal after independence?).
Scribacchina: I love your interpretation of Napumoceno as a metaphor for the country, it fits perfectly! At the same time, I know too little about Cape Verde to judge (I had to go and check out history and geography on the Internet), but I think that parallel to that metaphor there may be another, less subtle one: Napumoceno as a symbol (or even as a satire) of part of the local society, struggling to identify themselves less and less as African and more as Westernized. Or am I just mis-constructing Cape Verdean identity here? I would love to know how the locals reacted to the novel — I’m sure there are inside jokes as you mentioned, but also because they have the first-hand knowledge of the place that we lack.
Moving back from society (thanks for the links!) to plot, what do you think about Adélia, the lifelong love/lover that no one seems to know about? I wonder if it was some kind of wishful thinking on Napumoceno’s part, a fantasy that he created to redeem his bleak life and give it some color?
The late and very missed Cape Verdian singer Cesária Évora, singing one of her most famous songs, a love-song to São Nicolau Island, where Senhor Napumoceno was born (she makes an appearance in the movie).
Alex: That is also a great point! And I guess it can be applied to every country that was under some sort of restriction and then became infatuated by the wonders of the west and all its status symbols (Napumoceno’s car, the office gadgets). Regarding Adélia, I’m still convinced she’s the toothless old woman. We only see her described by Napumoceno and who’s to say he didn’t embellished her here and there? If the old woman is really Adélia, I can’t but to admire her pride and stubbornness.
Regarding the whole individual vs. societal focus we discussed above, I was thinking: there is a strong sense of place, but surprisingly little about history or politics in the book (unless we count our guessed metaphors). In the end, it’s really a story about a man trying not to be the poor child who arrive in São Vicente penniless. He wanted to exit this social limbo, so he divided his live between the boring bachelor business man that everyone esteemed (but maybe didn’t really respect?), and the man to whom the color green was so irresistible that he basically raped his cleaning lady when she wore a green skirt.
I really liked Germano Almeida’s style of writing: the ironic and witty way he gradually built this extraordinary character and I’m looking forward to reading more by him.
Scribacchina: You really think that woman is Adélia?! She doesn’t fit Napumoceno’s description at all, nor the character I had imagined! I’d rather set for the interpretation that Adélia was some kind of fantasy. But then again, nothing in the will completely mirrored his life, so…
In the end, I think I was less impressed by this book than you were, but the best thing about it (apart from the witticism you mentioned) is that it can be read on so many level. It is just the story of a man who tries to overcome his poor origins. It isjust the story of a man who basically missed each and every chance at happiness he had. And at the same time it is the social satire, and the reflection on identity, and probably many more things that we don’t see yet.
Happy experiences lay ahead, fellow audacious readers! Yesterday Kinna announced the kick-off of the much-anticipated Africa Reading Challenge.
The simple rule is that all participants must read at least five books. My plan is to focus on Portuguese-speaking countries, and since there’s five of them, I’ll read a book from each. I’ve read loads of Brazilian authors, but Lusophone Africa is still a shameless desert in my literary landscape.
I’ve compiled a draft list to share with you, but I’m aware it’ll all depend very much on the books’ availability. Kinna already warned participants that classic African literature in particular can be hard to find. Let me know if you have any other recommendations.
Here’s the plan – all links go to sites in English:
- Lueji (O Nascimento de um Império) by Pepetela
- Quantas Madrugadas tem a Noite or Os da Minha Rua by Ondjaki
- Flores e espinhos by Óscar Ribas
- João Vêncio: os seus amores by José Luandino Vieira
- As Mulheres do Meu Pai (My Father’s Wives) by José Eduardo Agualusa
- O Testamento do Senhor Napumoceno da Silva Araújo (The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo) by Germano Almeida
- A Casa dos Mastros: Contos Caboverdianos by Orlanda Amarílis
- Chiquinho by Baltasar Lopes
- Vidas Vividas by Ivone Ramos
- As Orações de Mansat by Abdulai Silá (play inspired by Macbeth)
- Mistida by Abdulai Silá
- Corte Geral by Carlos Lopes
- Tiara by Filomena Embaló
- Os Olhos da Cobra Verde by Lília Momplé (short-stories)
- Terra Sonâmbula (Sleepwalking Land) or O último vôo do flamingo by Mia Couto
- Nos motamos o cao tinhoso (We Killed Mangy-Dog and Other Mozambican Stories) by Bernardo Honwana
- Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia by Paulina Chiziane
São Tomé and Príncipe
- Versos by Caetano da Costa Alegre (poetry)
If there’s any justice in the world, someday these books will have the recognition they deserve. To be fair, some are already hugely popular in certain parts of the world, so maybe this post should be called “Books I’m surprised the Whole World isn’t talking about”.
Would love to know if you’ve ever hear of/read any of them.
1. A Short History of a Small Place by T. R. Pearson (USA)
At the yearly Book Fair here in Brussels I always buy a couple of mavericks. A Short History of a Small Place was my 2007 blind date but it quickly became one of the best of the year. I may have been easy to please because of my soft spot for Southern Literature, but this novel seemed to have all the elements needed to win me over: a small town, eccentric characters, smart jokes and the bittersweet feeling of coming-of-age. Still, I’ve never met (online or in person) anyone who’s ever heard of A Short History of a Small Place.
The story is set in the mid-60s, in the fictional town of Nelly, NC. Our young narrator, Louis Benfield, recounts the tragic last days of old Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, a former town belle and eccentric wealthy sister of the late mayor. After years of total seclusion, Miss Pettigrew returns flamboyantly to public view to sing her swan song.
Although events are told by Louis, in a way we see them from the perspective of the entire town. They are those stories told over and over at the kitchen table, in the supermarket line, in the beauty salon and after Sunday service. So often that they become the stuff of legend.
2. Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento) by José Saramago (Portugal)
I think I’m not exaggerating when I say that Baltasar and Blimunda is the most popular book by Saramago in his home country, so when he jumped borders it surprised me how rarely it’s mentioned. I’ve discussed this phenomenon with some friends and the only reason we can come up with is that, unlike Blindness, The Double or All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda is very… Portuguese. Its political and religious message, although not unique, can better be appreciated if you know something of Portuguese history and psyche.
It’s the 18th century, and the Inquisition strengthens its grip on Portugal as gold and diamonds pour in from Brasil and other colonies. The book starts when King John V dutifully visits his Queen to try for an heir. He promises God that if he succeeds he’ll build a magnificent Monastery, and that’s the start of what will become the Mafra National Palace. Baltasar and Blimunda is the story of the construction of the Palace and Saramago takes us on an intimate journey through the Nobility and Clergy who funded it, the engineers who design it, and the lower classes who actual build it.
It’s an historical novel with the social and religious criticism Saramago is famous for, but he still managed to create what’s still one of my favorite love stories of all time.
3. Captains of the Sands (Capitães da Areia) by Jorge Amado (Brazil)
A classic of Brazilian literature which doesn’t seem very popular outside the Portuguese-speaking world and Latin America. I remember it for its emotional punch and my first encounter with a world that is not all black and white. I probably read it a bit too early in life and I clearly remember how it heart-broken I was.
“Captains of the Sands” is a gang of abandoned children living in the streets of Bahia in the 30s. They’re between seven to fifteen years old and survive by stealing and coning. Think Lord of the Flies meets City of God meets Peter Pan. It’s a book that surprised me by the amount of topics it approaches: poverty, social injustice, parenthood, sexuality, gender equality, African culture in Brazil. Read it and fall in love with Pedro Bala, the leader, Professor, the book-lover and artist, and Dora, the Wendy-like figure of the gang. There’s also a movie adaptation. Here’s the trailer.
4. Cities of the Fantastic (Les Cités Obscures) by François Schuiten (art) and Benoît Peeters (story) (Belgium)
These are a series of books started in the 80s that have reached cult status, at least in the Franco-Belgian graphic novels world. Schuiten in particular is so well liked here in Belgium that he got to design his own Steampunk metro station.
The Cities of the Fantastic are an imaginary world where humans live in independent (sometimes isolated) city-states, each with a distinct civilization and architectural style.
There are passages between our world and the Cities (the Obscure Passages), sometimes crossed by people on both sides. Jules Verne, for instance, is a frequent visitor. Most Passages are found in buildings and constructions similar or identical in both words, such as Art Nouveau master-piece Maison Autrique. You can even read reports (complete with photos) of crossings in websites like the Office to the Obscure Passages or The Web of the Obscure Cities.
The series and its spin-offs offer beautiful art with a solid world-building. Pure, unadulterated escapism.
5. Citizen Dog by Mark O’Hare (USA)
It ran between 1995 and 2001 and it’s about the life of Mel and his dog Fergus. Call me a biased dog-person, but I love that in Citizen Dog cats are (for once!) not portrayed as the sharpest knives in the drawer. Maybe that’s the source of discrimination?
I always get a good laugh out of Citizen Dog books, no matter how often I read them. The lines between master and dog are usually blured and often switched, but somehow Fergus is more lovable than other rebels, like Garfield. Anyone out there also a fan?
6. The King Amaz’d (Crónica del rey pasmado) by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (Spain)
Very short, but oh-so-delightful.
After sleeping with his best courtesan, young King Philip IV becomes obsessed with an idea. A simple idea, but one which will rock the Court, the Inquisition and the Kingdom: Philip wishes to see the Queen, his wife, naked.
This is the epitome of a hidden gem, a funny, clever and insightful satire about conformity and personal freedom.
The translated title of this book is The History of the Siege of Lisbon. It’s my fourth Saramago and as always his premise just tickled my curiosity: Raimundo, a lonely proof-reader, is working on a non-fiction book called The History of the Siege of Lisbon. For a reason not even he understands, he decides to change a single word is a crucial sentence. In Raimundo’s modified version, the Crusaders who were on their way to the Holy Land do NOT help the Portuguese conquer Lisbon from the Moors in 1147.
Unlike what I was expecting considering Saramago’s usual magic realism, after that NOT is inserted, History doesn’t change and the proof-reader doesn’t find himself all of a sudden living in a Moorish Lisbon. What does change is Raimundo’s own story.
Beyond that point, the book is divided into two: on one hand Raimundo starts living and loving (there’s a great part about the difference between looking, seeing and noticing) and on the other hand we follow an alternative Siege after the Crusaders’ refusal which the proof-reader himself decides to write.
Saramago was fascinated with the role of the “insignificant” individual in major events and the concept of fiction vs. History. If you think about it, there are History books that read like (and make assumption jumps as if they were) novels and there are novels that read like History books transforming the general notion of What Really Happened (Da Vinci Code?). Especially when dealing with times so far gone, each tinny less-than-factual conjuncture can change History as we know it.
It was Raimundo’s job to find these lapses and correct them, but instead he changed the Past with one single stroke.
(view from the Castle of Sao Jorge – credits)
So what’s the difference between History and a story? According to Saramago, nothing (look at me translating Saramago, my dad would be proud):
Everything that was not life, is literature, History also, History above all, And paintings, and music, Music is resisting since its inception, it comes, and goes, wants to get rid of the word, I suppose because its jealous, but it returns to obedience, And paintings, Well, paintings are no more than literature made with paintbrushes.
You see how right he is? You might have realized this a long time ago, but it hit me like a ton of bricks: everything that is beyond the moment it was lived enters the world of storytelling. “History above all.” Such a simple idea, such a subtle novel, so much to think about and wonder.
It’s a beautiful book, but Saramago makes the reader work for his reward. If you ever read any of his books, you know how his approach to language and punctuation is… unique. He writes as he thinks (or talks), so once you let go of those pesky grammatical conventions everything becomes much more enjoyable.
I’d have loved to discuss this whole book detail by detail, probably while drinking a fresh vinho verde in one of Lisbon’s seven hills, but I’ll finish with two thoughts:
Saramago is so famous for his political ideas and attacks on religion that it’s easy to overlook his gift for writing love stories. Baltasar and Blimunda (from the book “Baltasar and Blimunda”, my favourite by him) are still one of my favorite couples in literature and the two love stories in The History of the Siege of Lisbon are so well crafted, so realistic, they made me realize that only a man who loved Pilar del Rio as much as Saramago did, could have written them. There’s even a documentary about their relationship (sorry, trailer in Portuguese).
(traditional tram climbing one the seven hills – credits)
Finally, I also saw this book as an ode to Lisbon. It made me ache for being there, especially now that Spring is in the air. Raimundo’s walks and the descriptions of everyday life so faithful (drinking an espresso at the neighbourhood café, the light reflecting in the river) that I became sure there’s no place like home. Sometimes, you just need to be away to figure it out.