Tag Archive: round the world

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.

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

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.

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.

book from India – 258

Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal

I was somewhat disappointed by this book and by the fact that it is my book for India.

There are so many wonderful books from India and Indian authors but this is not one of them, in my opinion.

It did win the 2003 First Words Literary Prize for South Asian Writers which made me hopeful that I had found another gem. I found the book to be painfully drawn out and I lost interest just over half way through. The end tried to make the whole book seem awfully exciting but it was too little much too late.

Haunting Bombay is a ghost story set in Bombay (funny that) with everything revolving around one family and their neighbour. It is also, I guess, about love and freedom and how people are treated by others, especially the less powerful like staff, women and those who are not quite physically perfect. Pinky is the main character except when she is possessed. Her grandmother is her benevolent rescuer from a useless father and greedy paternal grandmother when her mother dies. Pinky lives with her grandmother and uncle and his family and is never part of the family really. Which is one story I think could have been very interesting just on its own.

But Pinky then releases the ghost of her baby cousin and so starts a whole muddle of magic, religion, superstition and fear. This then becomes the story.

Her male cousin is in love with the neighbour. She behaves rather oddly and her end is never explained. Story 3.

There is sexual abuse, alcoholism, a hooker, transsexuals and crazy ayahs (nannies) all crowding into the pages, demanding attention. Rather than a symphony it turned into a cacophony.

The lushness and cloying moisture of Bombay during the monsoons was well portrayed; I thought Agarwal managed to convey that very well. What started out as verdant, succulent and lush soon became scary, sinister and unpleasantly soaked.

This book is, to my mind, very obviously a first novel. It could have been well-edited to 70% of its length without losing anything. There are too many sub-plots, none of which are gripping enough to stand alone, too many pointless details which were not part of painting the picture but seem like verbosity. I got to the point of actually not caring about the characters at all but just wanting them to go away.

I would like to read another offering by Agarwal as I am sure she will have grown into an author I relate better too.

But Haunting Bombay did win that prize, so maybe I am the problem reader rather than it being the problem read.