Books Before the Blog: The Christmas Mystery

It’s time for the ‘A-Z challenge’- a post every day in April (except Sundays) working up through the alphabet. This year I will be writing about books that I read before I started this blog, that were important to me in some way. The vast majority are ones I still have on my bookshelf today, despite a move in house and sometimes many years since I first read it.


X

X is for Xmas (forgive me on this one- it was hard to find a book for X!)
Book: the Christmas Mystery by Juden Gaarden
Country: Norway

What is it about:
Joachim buys an advent calendar, and is surprised to find pieces of paper with a story written on them behind each door, rather than candy or toys. The papers tell about Elisabet, a young girl who disappeared 50 years earlier while shopping with her mother. Elisabet had seen a toy lamb come to life and run out of the shops. As she chased it, strange things started happening. She meets angels, and shepherds and other nativity characters, and she she ended up going on a long journey, all the way to Bethlehem and all the way back in time to the birth of Jesus.

The book is set out as a kind of Advent calendar itself- there is one chapter for every day in advent, leading up to Christ’s birth.

When I first read this book:
We read this book as a family when I was a child, reading it how it was meant to be read, one chapter a day in the read up to Christmas.

Why it is important to me:
It was a lovely part of our Christmas tradition that I remember fondly.

Who should read it:
Children and the Childlike in heart, especially if Christian or open to religious content.

I would recommend you read it as intended- a chapter a day in December. I looked up the book on the internet to check the children’s names, as my parents have it at their place still, and noticed that the reviews were fairly varied- some people loved it and some didn’t- generally those who didn’t felt that it was repetitive, and implausible. I think that a lot of the criticism is probably because non-target audience people are reading it in a way that wasn’t intended. If you read it straight through, then yes the structure may be repetitive (every morning he wakes, opens the calendar, reads the story, then hides the paper from his family etc). But when it is part of a Christmas routine, this is not a problem. There are many things in religious celebrations that are repetitive- you sing particular songs, or say particular liturgies in the lead up to Christmas, you light a candle every week in lent etc. It creates a space for contemplation, for remembrance and for anticipation. In the lead up to Christmas, as a child, the daily cry of one of the characters of ‘to Bethlehem, to Bethlehem!’ which apparently annoyed people, was a reminder that Christmas was coming. As to the issue with implausibility and loose ends- I vaguely remember being slightly irritated at one or two things that didn’t quite make sense, but this is a book whose entire premise is based on magic and odd things happening. As a child that magic was fun and interesting.

The book of Chameleons

Book: The Book of Chameleons- José Eduardo Agualusa
Around the World:
how obtained: kindle version ~$5


 

Angola is a south western African nation. It was under Portuguese rule from the mid-1600s until Independence in 1975. There was then 27 years of civil war, ending only in 2002. The book of Chameleons is set shortly after this, in the house of Felix Ventura, and albino man who collects books, and sells new pasts to people who don’t like their own history. The narrator is a laughing chameleon, a friendly companion to Felix, who sometimes ends up in his dreams in a human form.

A mysterious man shows up for a new past. And then he keeps showing up, to ask more details about his family and childhood- as if he actually believed Felix that the made up story was all true. The man becomes obsessed with a man living in the sewers. A woman becomes Felix’s love interest. And somehow, the real history of these people comes out amongst the made up fantasies, and purposeful misremembering.

I really enjoyed this book- it has been one of my favourites so far. It is fairly short (~3hr read), with chapters only a couple pages at times. The narrator is pleasant, intelligent and rather straightforward in descriptions for a lizard, but with a few odd perspectives and dream sequences thrown in. The story line is gentle- there is a climax, and some dark happening in the past are discussed, but it is never depressing or angst provoking. Suitable for when you are in the mood for learning and growing, and also for when relaxing on a holiday- this book is suitable for most people in most situations.

 

The Teacher of Cheops

Book: The Teacher of Cheops-Albert Salvadó
Around the World: Andorra
how obtained: kindle version


Andorra is a tiny little principality of around 79000 people that lies on the border of France and Spain. For many years, the leaders of the country were jointly the bishop of Spain and the president of France! They still are the figurehead leaders, but there is now a parliament.

This book is the only one of Salvado’s books to be translated from Catalan to English. He has written historical fiction, crime/suspense, children’s books and essays. The teacher of Cheops is set in Egypt in the time of Pharaoh Snefru. Sedum is born a slave, but through chance, quick thinking and the self serving manipulation of a high priest is able to rise to the station of a free man and palace accountant. Its main theme is the interplay between destiny and creating your own destiny- how much does the world and others affect us, and how much can we change it.

I enjoyed most of this book- with its little diversions into philosophy, aspects of suspense,and just being a very different setting to the other books I have been reading lately. The main things I didn’t like were just a few uncomfortable scenes/passages. The main one was right near the start- Sedum’s mother was a disfigured 14 year old, who had been born free but was now a slave. Another slave escapes and seeks refuge in the closed of area of the tent she is in. He holds her still, with a hand over her mouth to stop her from giving him away. And then they have sex. It is written that she becomes aroused by him holding her and wants it to happen, but at no point is anything verbalised, she isn’t asked, he has just overpowered her, they never even look at each others faces, and as mentioned, she is only 14. Going from scared to wanting sex with this stranger within a few seconds, in a 14 year old who has never had sex or any kind of romantic touch before, doesn’t ring true to me. I feel like her internal monologue was really just a way to gloss over what was happening- ‘see its not rape- she wanted it’.

But if you get past that, the rest is pretty ok. There are a few scenes with violence/torture- but I found the short, to the point way of writing about it made it less confronting than most violent movies (it pretty much goes ‘she didn’t talk. so they cut off her lips. and then she did’).

Samko Talé’s Cemetery Book

Book: Samko Talé’s Cemetery Book- Daniela Kapitánová
Around the World: Slovakia
how obtained: kindle version ~$3


This book is set in post soviet union Slovakia. Samko is an intellectually challenged man, and the town drunkard who may or may not have future-telling ability has said he will write a cemetery book. So he wrote the book that we read now, but as he doesn’t know what to say about the cemetery, he instead talks about the people his life intersects with and things that have happened in the past.

Samko is a deeply flawed author- he is repetitive and circular. He has no imagination or  flexibility in his thought- he gets caught up in how things should be and can’t understand why people are doing things in a different way. Unfortunately his beliefs were shaped during communist rule, and by fearful, racist, restrictive, judgemental people. The topic of his meandering monologue flits back and forth between a few key people in his life- a friend from school, his sisters (one of whom he thoroughly disapproves of because she is  a  musician, promotes herself and wears odd clothes on album covers etc), a gypsy who competes with him for recycling to collect, the odd boarder upstairs…

Personally I didn’t really enjoy this book- Samko’s repetitiveness was annoying, and I just didn’t see the point of it all. I kind of felt like there was meant to be something at the end of the book that tied everything together and made us realise something, but it just ended. For me, it was like when you friend tries to tell you a story, but forgets partway though what they were trying to tell you and trails off “and then we, you know, hung out for a while… yeah …”

Maybe there is something I missed- if so, let me know what you thought.

Bringing Ararat

Book: Bringing Ararat- Armand Inezian
Around the World: Armenia
how obtained: kindle version


Armenia is located in the south Caucasus region- between Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan. Its long history includes being the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD, and spending more time than not under the rule of various empires: Byzantine, Sasanian, Ottoman, Iranian, Russian… In 1991 it obtained independence from the Soviet Union, and it is estimated that a quarter of the population has emigrated since that time.

Bringing Ararat is a collection of short stories and pieces about Armenian people in different situations, many with this theme of emigration or diaspora in the background. An old man struggles with aging, illness and an inner demon. A teenager is standing on the line between being part of general society or not and has to choose which way to go. A kid with health issues annoys a personal trainer. A gay man’s relationship falls apart as he tries to deal with the merging of his life into his partners.A young man struggles with the decision about whether to move to America- sick of the multiple upheavals moving has caused.

If only they could have brought Ararat with them, the white-head mountain of Noah; it might have anchored his people

This book is short and easy to read. It is written in the voices of the main characters, which are generally pleasant and interesting, but can be a bit abrupt and abrasive depending on the character. But this is all part of the story and not off putting at all. I would recommend this book for people who like nice short stories that offer an insight into the lives of people different than them.

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris

by Leila Marouane
Around the World: Algeria
How obtained: kindle version from Amazon.com ($3)


When we meet Mohammed, he is 40 years old, and on the precipice of making a huge change in his life. He is successful in his career, and successful at hiding his Algerian heritage to blend into French society. But he still lives with his mother, as any normal Muslim Algerian would until they are married. His mother has found plenty of options, but none he has been happy to marry. Previously devout and fundamental in his beliefs, he has drifted from his religion. He feels trapped- his attentive loving mother feels like a ravenous she wolf who sinks her claws into him and won’t let go. And so he decides to move out, and have sex with lots of French women. But things don’t quite go to plan.

This book is described as a tragicomic work of metafiction. Metafiction, fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work, I agree with. The book is written as through Mohammed is telling his story verbally to someone, and at the start of each chapter the narrative flow is interrupted with a reference to this by a change from first to third person.

“It came over me all of a sudden, he said. I was at my desk hardly listening to my client, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the dome that was shining like a mirage beyond the bay window”

This dissonance was a bit jarring at times, probably made worse by the poor formatting on my kindle version- which often caused line breaks half way through the first word of a sentence and such like things. I wouldn’t agree with the term tragicomic personally- because there wasn’t anything I found funny. I am guessing the comic bit is meant to be him constantly not getting quite what he wants out of a relationship. But I found his obsession with sex and objectification of women to be really uncomfortable and rather horrifying. To me it was a first person monologue of the guy your mother warns you about who ‘only wants one thing’. The guy who will use you but never know you, and will only do and say nice things in order to get you into bed. The guy you need to pretend doesn’t really exist if you are ever going to be brave enough to try dating anyone. One reviewer I read felt that the over the top way he mused about his penis, written by a female author, was actually a parody of the inaccurate way men write about female sexuality. I sure hope so, because I need to go back to pretending that guys like that are a kind of boogey man or fairy tale for my own sanity.

Also touched on in this book, are issues about identity (is it ‘killing yourself’ to hide you cultural background?), religion (how can you maintain harmony with religion/religious family when you yourself have changed), suppression of women and immigration. There are no holds barred by Marouane in this one.

Black Stone Poetry

Black Stone Poetry-Grace Mera Molisa
Reading Around the World: Vanuatu
How obtained: it was very difficult to find any books from Vanuatu. I read a partial version of this on google books and an extensive article on Grace Molisa here.


Grace Molisa was not only one of Vanuatu’s most well known and loved poets, she was also a politician,  activist, environmentalist and feminist. I feel like there is not much more  can say that isn’t said better in the second link I put above, so I recommend you go check it out. Instead here is a short list of things I have learnt about Vanuatu:

  • It is composed of roughly 80 islands, 12 which are ‘main islands’. I always thought of it as one island! oops
  • there are ~110 languages- so sometimes more than one per island!
  • it was jointly colonised by the French and English- really the only time they managed to work together and share a colony.
  • the locals called this time of joint colonisation the ‘Joint Pandemonium’
  • you can walk up to the edge of Mt Yasur, and active volcano. you can also post a letter or postcard from there- the only postbox on top of a volcano in the world

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz
Reading Around the World: Dominican Republic
How obtained: second hand store ($3)


Oscar used to be a typical Dominican boy- read a lady-charmer- until one day his luck stopped. At age seven, he had two girlfriends, but soon after he broke up with one, the other broke up with him, and he never had a girlfriend again. His nerdy tendencies became a source of ridicule. And he became fat.Was it fukú- the family curse? Maybe, but most of the younger generation of Dominicans were sceptical of fukú, especially those now living in America like Oscar.

It’s never the changes we want that change everything.

What follows is  a snapshot into the lives of Oscar and his relatives- his punk sister Lola who struggles to get her own space away from their mother, his proud wilful mother whose life had many times of danger, his upperclass grandfather who couldn’t quite stay quietly unnoticed by the dictator… Above everything looms the shadow of Trujillo, the dictator whose 30 year reign was one of the bloodiest in the history of the Americas.

This book is written in the voice of one of Lola’s friends, who decides to research the family. he speaks informally- it abounds with slang and swearing, and has footnotes about the political/historical context scattered throughout, as if he is talking to us in an aside.

Initially I found the offbeat style (and educational aspects) to be enjoyable and interesting, but after a while the constant stream of bad things became wearing. Every character had struggles and traumas. He paints a pretty bleak picture of the Dominican Republic- with corruption, intense poverty, extreme sexism and power disparity between genders and violence. While these were perhaps at a peak during Trujillo’s reign, the sins of the old leader are perpetuated by the ordinary person still. It is a sad reflection of what happens to a society when it goes through such horrible times, and what people retort to.

“Lola swore she would never return to that terrible country. On one of our last nights as novios she said, Ten million Trujillos is all we are.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran- Azar Nafisi
Reading Around the World- Iran


I picked this book up a couple years ago after meeting a few Iranian refugees. In some ways it was a prelude to starting my journey of reading around the world.

I have mixed feelings about the book- there were many things that I learnt about Iranian history, the description of life in Tehran before the Iranian Revolution was a surprise to me (I don’t know much about history but am rectifying that slowly!), the language was often beautiful… I was initially loving it, but most of the bits I liked and found interesting were in the first third. So I became a little disappointed as I read through the rest that it wasn’t as captivating as the start.

 

This book is about big evil and small mindedness, and little joys and quiet good. It is about change-that happens to you, and that you cause. It is about choice.

None of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them.

It takes courage to die for a cause, but also to live for one.

 

The veil has been a big topic in the West recently. It is interesting to see that the same discussions were played out in the Middle East years before the question came here- is it a sign of oppression? Should women be allowed to wear? Should they have to wear it? Before the revolution few wore it, they were sometimes disadvantaged by wearing it, but chose to anyway. After everyone had to, and were oppressed if they didn’t. And so there were some who wore by choice, and some because they had to…

She resented the fact that her veil, which to her was a symbol of scared relationship to god, had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols.

Finally this book is about literature, and how it can both reflect real life and be an escape from real life.

In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.

Forbidden Love

Forbidden Love- by Norma Khouri
Reading Around the World: Jordan
How obtained: second hand book sale


 

It was the biggest storm 50 years, with >100km/hr winds bending the big electricity towers to the ground (you know those metal ones that look like little Eiffel towers). There was a statewide blackout, ICU patients being bagged-and-masked after a generator fail in the hospital, and flooding waters all around. After spending the last two hours at work seeing clients in the dark, without the computer records, I went home to work out how to spend an evening alone in the cold dark house. Well, not entirely alone- there is always the cats, bless their furry little faces.

I actually did quite alright- having been on a boat in 100km/hr winds before I feel completely safe in my own home. I had all the makings of a really good salad. And I had enough candles that I could read easily, although with just a slight crook in my neck from trying to hold the book at the right angle to not have shadows on the page.

I picked one of the shorter books on my pile, and managed to read it in one evening. Although it is fairly short for a novel and written in an easy to read style it is not always the easiest book to read. It follows two young women who do not readily accept the longstanding culture amongst Arabs in Jordan regarding men and women. Their world is dominated by men (who must be obeyed, respected and agreed with no matter what), strict rules about who they can talk to (almost no one) and a feeling that they can do nothing to change this (or risk being killed for disobeying).

Jordan is a place where men in sand-coloured business suits hold cell phones to one ear and, in the other, hear the whispers of harsh and ancient laws blowing in from the desert. It is a pace where a worldly young queen argues eloquently on CNN for human rights, while a father in a middle-class suburb slits his daughter’s throat for committing the most innocent breach of old Bedouin codes of honour.

It is a book about the developing love between Norma’s best friend, a Muslim, and Michael who is a Christian. Norma seems to imply she writes to educate on the injustice and abuse women in traditional Jordan families face, and honour the story of her friend.

Given the general increase in lack of tolerance, and even fear, of other religions over the past few years, I usually aim to see the good in others, and try to increase my understanding of them. I struggled a bit with this book, because it focussed on all the bad things which are predominantly associated with Muslim culture in the Middle East (honour killing, oppression of females etc), but I note that the author points out these are actually common to families of all religions in the country- she points to Bedouin ancestry/culture as the source.

To make matters more complicated, although originally claimed to be a true story, it was later found to be a fabrication- after locals noted lots of small factual errors and investigation found that Norma actually immigrated to USA as a child, and was not in Jordan at the time of the happenings of the story. She had been living as the Norma of the story- petitioning the UN, travelling the world telling her story etc and denied the evidence which started to mount up- houses in America, bought with a husband, neighbours who remember her and her children, and a family who didn’t know where she had disappeared to. Had I known this, before I read it I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it. But I actually find it fascinating. I still find I can’t really believe that someone would make up an entire life story in order to sell a book, and then keep on with their new persona. It makes me wonder about the author and if she perhaps not entirely normal. They call it ‘literary fraud’- I had never really thought about such a thing existing outside of academic papers.

The power at my house came on at 10pm, and after a few more days of rain the sun came out again. Unfortunately, there was not a similarly happy ending to either the characters in this story, for the book itself which is now called one of the greatest literary hoaxes, or for the women who do find themselves victims of honour killings and do not have a true  voice to speak for them.