Category: round the world in 257 books

I have decided to move the book reviews i am writing in my round the world project to their own blog

i am doing too many things at the moment that i want to blog about (have started at chef school and dealing with mom’s illness) and i do not want the book reviews to get lost in all the other nonsense i write


so they will all be here

i will slowly move the ones from here across but am also putting new ones up as i go along


so any readers interested in my book project, please just wander across to readingoneworld and find them all there


also – i can then follow book blogs from that blog and have a less cluttered reader



The Misremembered Man

Christine McKenna


A short while into this book I did roll my eyes and wonder if everyone in Ireland had a terrible childhood filled with Catholic-fuelled abuse.  And then I began to care about the characters and got really caught up in their simple rural Irish lives.

Jamie, one of the two main characters is a lonely and sad man with very few social skills. The cause of this becomes apparent throughout the book and the sense of hopeless he feels is very believable and real.

Lydia, the other main character, is a woman trapped in a life with her mother, beholden forever. The dusty despair which permeates her life is also very real and as the reader you can almost feel the cloying demands of her mother.

Despite the apparently doom and gloom foundation, this book is actually a wonderful celebration of the inner human light that exists and can survive, regardless of the shit life throws at you.  


Towards the end of the book I was reading as fast as I could to see what would happen. Sitting on the edge of my seat I hurtled towards the resolution. Because the book is about the grittiness of life as well as the possible joy to be found, whether the end was going to be happy or not was not clear, until it was revealed.


As a postscript the books informs that the type of orphanage described in the book continued to exist in Ireland until as late as 1996. This horrifies me.  

 A very readable book despite, or because of, being very real, gritty and harsh.

Keeping Hope Alive: How One Somali Woman Changed 90 000 lives

keeping hope alive

Hawa Abdi is one of the most amazing people in the world. She has the Mandela gene in buckets. In 1991 when things fell apart in Somali Abdi was there, a newly qualified doctor trying to make a small difference. How she chose to respond to the catastrophe in her country positively affected hundreds of thousands of Somalis.

A refugee camp sprung up around a small hospital Abdi had created outside Mogadishu and at its height there were hundreds of thousands of people living on her land, looked after, fed and protected by her, and loyal to her.  Abdi would not engage in the clan warfare in Somali, always preaching that people should be united by their Somali-ness rather than separated by their clan divisions.

Abdi got international recognition for what she was doing, and used this to increase the international help available to the people she was looking after. At great personal risk, to herself and her family, Abdi hung in there, believing in Somali and in its future.

To do this in a civil war is amazing. To do this as an African woman in a civil war with religious (Muslim) overtones is simply astounding. Abdi was captured and a lot of what she had established was destroyed at one stage simply because she was a woman and would not let the feuding warlords tell her what to do.

The sadness of Somalia is a character all of its own in this book; Somalia and all other countries ripped apart by this kind of senseless violence.  Then all the journalists and other international  participants in the situation in Somalia dash out of Somalia to report on the Rwandan situation, the hopelessness of the situation globally is almost overwhelming.

Hawa Abdi finally had to leave Somalia and despairingly, despite all the years and all the efforts, Somalia is still a mess. An entire generation of children has been born into a war-torn country. What hope do these countries have when their future leaders are ex-child soldiers and victims of awfulness?

A valuable book worth reading.

Nothing to envy: Real lives in North Korea

Nothing to envy

This book is a bit of a cheat but it is as close to a North Korean book as I am likely to find. It is written by an American, but one who interviewed and then told the stories of people born in North Korean who managed to escape to South Korean.

The readers are told the lives of the characters, interwoven with the politics of the country. As such the book is in part an example of amazing journalism, and in part a very readable story.  That North Korean exists at all in this day and age is amazing. Stuck in a pre-technology time where it is illegal for private citizens to own a car, where radios and tvs are stuck on the government issue station only, where hand holding is considered sexually inappropriate in public, North Koreans, just kilometres from Seoul, have no idea that the world out there is different from what they are experiencing.

The lives of the people in the book sound like those of pre-Industrial Revolution Westerners – and it is all happening right now.

A wonderful book that had me relating facts to friends and googling for additional information.

Well worth reading


And for interest, check out this 2009 satellite photo of North Korea

North Korea

Born in Tibet

Chögyam Trungpa

I was sorely disappointed in this book – it shifted my perception of Buddhism in a way I wish it hadn’t.


The journey the man did to escape from the Chines invasion of Tibet could have been interesting. It’s a bloody long way to India via all those mountains, and that a group of people managed it is amazing. But the drone of the story-telling made me not really care after a while. I kept hoping they would run out of leather to boil or eat their actual last bit of food and expire. I lost count of how many times they ran out of food only to have more in the next chapter.


But worse than the boring telling of what could and should have been a fabulous tale of survival were the aspects of Buddhism I saw and did not like.


The author is the reincarnation of someone or the other, as it seems is almost everyone in Tibetan Buddhism. As such he is treated close to royalty from when he is a little boy.

Snag 1 – isn’t Buddhism essentially supposed to be non-hierarchical?

He is surrounded by people there only to look after him. Hmmm – that doesn’t sit happily with me.


During the escape the monks have to ditch their monkly attire and wear normal clothing so as to be less conspicuous. The author talks about how very distressed the monks are at having to do this – they feel lost and discombobulated (my word, not his) out of their robes.

Snag 2 – what happened to the non-attachment lesson of Buddhism?


Then during the escape a horse falls off a ravine and the author’s comment is that none of the goods the horse was carrying could be retrieved.

Sang 3 – a being died and the Buddhist was worried about his belongings – really? Hmmm – nope, doesn’t work for me.


The author was not likeable much – the only time his personality ever showed was when he was laying down the law with all the people following him. And he kept buggering off to do a retreat while those following him were starving and freezing.


Maybe my escaped catholic roots expect a little more from a religious or spiritual leader.


I have since spoken to a Buddhist friend of mine and apparently this kind of things is a little typical of Tibetan Buddhism – and Tibet Buddhism is a very specific strand of the believe system.

Phew – cos I like the idea that I aspire to be a Buddhist – I’d have hated to lose all that cos of one monk.

The Yacoubian Building

By Alaa Al Aswany

Apparently when this book was published there was a huge outcry by Egyptians claiming that it depicts a life so far removed from actual Egyptian life as to be slanderous. There were also rave reviews exclaiming how wonderful it was to finally see life in Egypt, Cairo in particular, how it actually is rather than how it pretends to be.

I cannot imagine that the stories told in this very readable and entertaining book are very far removed from actual lives. I fear the reaction that it was lies, lies, all lies, may have come primarily from the more conservative sections of the religious societies portrayed who still like to pretend long sleeves and social disapproval actually remove all sexual behaviour in individuals.

We all know that’s a load of crap, don’t we?

Anyway – this book centres on a building called the Yacoubian Building (funny that) in Cairo. It takes place around the time of the invasion of Kuwait but considering the slight change in the Iraqi, Iranian, Palestinian type situation since, it could be happening right now really.

The 10 stories of the various characters are woven around each other without a great deal of connection. All the characters are connected to the building, but do not always even know of each other. The book follows each story for a while before moving onto the next story. This makes reading the book very easy as it almost seems like a tv series or soapie with short, manageable bits of information about each situation. You could read this book over a period of time, reading small chunks every evening, or read it like it did – in two sittings.

The stories include all of the major life issues  – sex, love, romance, money, greed, religion and faith. The characters are all very believable and as the reader I got involved in each one’s life. As a new story would recommence I would be glad to ‘see’ the characters again and find out what had happened.

In no ways can this book be assumed to be a reflection of all of Egyptian life. No intelligent reader, surely, ever believes any work, even non-fiction, to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Surely!

This book in no way claims to be a true and complete representation of life in Egypt, or in Cairo. It is a work of fiction after all. But let’s also be honest about the fact that poverty and religious zeal leads people to do odd things, things that the religious and political leaders may rather no one discussed.

As a work of fiction written by an Egyptian and set in Egypt, The Yacoubian Building is an interesting look at a slice of life that I believed to be completely possible.

Translated books also have their own challenges. Some lines sounded really daft but I have no idea what they may have sounded like in the original and so I was forgiving of the author.

Worth a read I’d say

I found this book in at airport Exclusive Books – my favourite place to buy books. I bought it because I liked the idea of reading some African chick-lit. I am not a fan of chick-lit but was interested to see how traditional African chick-lit might differ from Western chick-lit.

The starting point of the story was pretty uniquely African – it is the story of the four wives of a Zimbabwean man, Jonasi, told by each of the women. I know Africans are not the only polygamist people, but I’m mostly sure it is the only place where it is legal.

Set in Zimbabwe this is a story of wealth and indulgence I would not have associated with that country. And that in itself made it interesting. We have all forgotten that Zimbabwe was once a rich, flourishing country. By the end of the story both Zimbabwe and Jonasi have become destroyed by bad decisions, over indulgence and HIV.

I am not sure if this book really is just a silly bit of chick-lit or if a parallel could be drawn between the life of Jonasi and that of Zimbabwe itself. The uncertainty is largely because the book is not very well written. It is very chatty in style and that works for the surface story, but it does mean that if there is any deeper stuff going on, it is hard to see.

The book was also an opportunity to look at the viability of this kind of sexually open relationship in a time of HIV and Aids, but does not manage to engage in any serious comment, again because of the poor writing.

Nyathi has some terrible writing tics which should have been edited out. No one wants to read a paragraph with ‘literally’ or ‘I tell you’ three or four times. It is lazy writing and lazy editing. The same sense of chatting to your friends over a coffee could have been achieved using better writing.

I have seen reviews in which Nyathi’s writing style has been described as sassy and sexy. I must disagree. Sexy and sassy do not mean badly constructed and repetitive. The book is also unnecessarily, and sometimes erroneously, wordy. This is true of many new African writers I have found and I do understand why it happens, but editors should be pruning things a little. The editor of this book did Nyathi a disservice.

That being said it is still very readable and not particularly challenging, an easy dip into the lives of these five people that is immediately forgettable.

I will read another Zimbabwean book because I don’t think it fair that this book be a whole country’s contribution to this collection.

Note: I forgot that i had read a Nigerian book – twit i am

so now i have read two

It took me a while to find my next round-the-world book. I started two other books and 150 pages in decided that it was just a waste of more time to finish them.
And then I found this book


Uwem Akpan is a Nigerian Jesuit priest, and an author shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writing, and longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. And this book was a New York Times bestseller.
Not a combination that happens often I wouldn’t think.

This book is actually a series of five stories, unrelated except for their theme: Children of Africa. The title comes from some advice a father gives his daughter in Rwanda. If anyone comes, say you are one of them. when the daughter asks who, the father says anyone. Merge, blend, do and say what is required to stay alive. Not the advice one expects a child to have to get really.

Of the five, I found four to be incredible stories. One I didn’t much like but maybe because I don’t know the context well enough.

In the other four, quite simple tales are told of children living in the harsh reality of Kenya, Benin, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. Simple but harrowing and distressing and saddening. These children are facing things adults should never face and the images of the little bodies running and begging and weeping will stay with me for ages. From the uncle trying to sell his nice and nephew into slavery, to the Rwandan girl seeing the horror of the genocide up close, each story tells of an experience much too common in Africa.

Other comments written about this book that I have read talk about how uplifting it is, about how it shows the resilience of children. I didn’t see that really. I felt so sad that we as a continent and we as a species create situations in which children are sold as slaves, watch their parents murder and be murdered, and face persecution for things they had no say in whatsoever.

What Akpan does amazingly well, especially for a man who, I assume as a Catholic priest, has no children, is capture the voice of each of the children in his stories. Children do have a non-melodramatic way of talking about the most horrendous things, and when used as a story-telling technique, this works to keep the stories from being mawkish.

He also uses lots of local dialect and speech patterns. I have read other reviewers talking about how this detracts as it makes it hard to understand every word.
I think this is the point. You do not need to understand every single part of the whole to know what it all means, be the whole a sentence or the lives of these children. Don’t read the stories thinking you will come out with a complete picture of anything. What each story is, is a snippet from the lives of millions and millions of children of Africa.
If you want to know more, go and find out.

Very glad to have read this – and although it counts as my Nigerian book, it really is an everywhere-in-Africa book. I think all Africans should read it. And all people not African too. The essence of the stories is certainly not restricted to Africa.

Things fall apart

Chinua Achebe

I am amazed that I have not read this book before actually
how did I get through high school in Africa without having been told to read it, or stumbling upon it?

of course I have known of this book since forever, but only now have I read it too
it is one of those books that has been reviewed and commented on by far greater minds, readers and reviewers than I – so I shall simply say that I really enjoyed it and would like to know what sense it makes to non-Africans. How differently do they who have never lived here read and understand this book I wonder.

It really is the story of one man, one clan, one country, one continent. It is our story, all of us. And sadly it continues to be the story of humankind. Everyone thinks their way is best and that others would benefit if they just listened to our way of doing things. We never learn to just live and let live, do we?

Glad I made this my book from Nigeria; Achebe will go on my list of authors to be read again.

If you haven’t read it – do so. It’s not a taxing read (it reads almost like a folktale) but it is profound.


Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

Immaculee Ilibagiza

When looking for a Rwandan book I deliberately avoided Hotel Rwanda. This was in part because I have already read it and I seldom reread books, and in part because I wanted a different story. Much as I do not want to read books which are about the troubles in a country only, with Rwanda I think it is unavoidable.  The atrocities are also so recent that maybe we should still be talking about them and keeping them very fresh in our memories.


Clearly ‘never again’ means very little to us as a species, but we can keep hoping!


I avoided this book for a long while; I have had it on my shelf for over a year. I don’t believe in the god the book is about and I find it hard not to get angry when people thank any god for saving them when all I can think about is why their god put them in danger in the first place.  But I put that aside and decided to read Immaculee’s story of survival. And what a story it was.


We all know what happened in Rwanda and this book is not about the bigger picture at all. It is about one woman and her experiences only. And for me that made it much more real and frightening. Immaculee Ilibagizawas a very ordinary young woman at university, visiting her parental home in her village when all hell broke loose in Rwanda. Unable to believe what was actually happening, her family did not flee to Zaire as they considered, but stayed in Rwanda. The result is that Ilibagiza is, other than her oldest brother who was studying outside of Rwanda at the time, the only member of her family left alive, left to tell the story.

Ilibagiza spent three months hiding in a bathroom with seven other women, a bathroom maybe big enough for two people to pass each other with a squeeze. They sat on top of each other and sat and stood in complete silence to avoid detection. For three months!

Periodically the Hutu killers would search the house they were hiding in. A wardrobe over the bathroom door was their only camouflage. They listened to the Hutu killers talking about their desire to kill all of the cockroaches; they heard the radio broadcasts of the president instructing Hutus to kill the snakes, even the baby snakes; they listened as it seemed that no one else in the world knew or cared what was going on. But they survived. They hung on.


Ilibagiza believes they were hidden from their wannabe killer by the love of god, her god that she prayer to all day every day. And I do believe that in her experience this is true. How they remained undetected can truly be considered amazing, miraculous even.


While I may not have the same beliefs as Ilibagiza, I found her story compelling and fascinating. That she emerged from the bathroom with her entire family dead, and did not go on a Hutu murdering rampage speaks volumes of her connection with her god. I know I would have found it almost impossible not to want revenge.

But surprisingly Rwandans seem not to have responded like that. Maybe when a million people die in 100 days the weight of death is so great that further deaths should be avoided at all costs.

Interestingly, the Hutu’s who were sent to jail for the murders are now starting to be released and return to their villages, the villages in which they went on their murderous rampages, killing friends and families. As Ilibagiza says, we can only hope that everyone has forgiveness in their hearts.

Left to Tell is an extraordinary tale of an ordinary person in extreme circumstances. It is a story of survival against all the odds, and a story of faith and belief. It is worth reading.