Postcard from my bookshelf #3

This month sees the first blind selection from the nearly 200 applications I have received so far for this project. I used an online random-number generator to make the pick and counted down the comments until I arrived at the corresponding entry.

This was from Introverted Blahs and Hurrahs, who told me the following:

Couple years ago a friend told me about your blog and since then I have kept thinking, what a nice challenge! I love the idea because I love to read about other cultures, to learn, to grow, be open minded. I for sure wants to start with reading of the world but not in one year. I fear that is not possible for me, I read about 80 books per year. And I fear that I will not be able to read books from all countries that might not be translated in Dutch or English.
And I also like to pass on the books. I cleared out over 100 books and gave it to free library. So I have space for new books 😉

First of all, I have to say that I think Introverted Blahs and Hurrahs is being rather hard on herself here. Reading 80 books in a year is pretty good going by most people’s standards. Many of the readers engaged in international quests I’ve heard from are taking a number of years to work their way through their intended lists, so I don’t think Introverted Blahs and Hurrahs (or IBH, as I’ll call her from now on) has anything to feel bad about on that score. In fact, I know an author who wrote a book about reading 52 books in a year, so she’s well ahead of him!

From her blog of the same name, I learned that IBH lives in the Netherlands and – to my delight – that she has recently posted about her intention to travel the world through books. It was a joy to see another curious bibliophile setting out to explore the rich world of books and to witness her beginning to grapple with some of the questions that I had to wrestle with during my adventure, such as how you categorise books by authors with dual nationalities or by people born in one place but living in another.

Knowing that this reader was keen to access literature from all over the planet gave me lots of ideas about what I might choose for her. But before I get to that, there’s another title I would like to recommend.

This isn’t the book I’ll be sending, but it’s one I think IBH would enjoy if she hasn’t already read it: Quiet by Susan Cain, who has also given the TED talk embedded below. As a fellow introvert, I found the book hugely informative and helpful, and would recommend it to anyone who ever feels overwhelmed by the noise and pressure to be heard that so often characterise life in much of the English-speaking world.

 

Quiet is not a translated book, however. Instead, as my Postcard to IBH, I wanted to choose something that would help her tick off one of the nations less well-represented in the anglophone publishing world.

There were a number of worthy candidates. I could, for example, have chosen the recently published Baho! by Roland Rugero, the first novel from Burundi to be translated into English, or Abdulaziz Al Farsi’s strange and intriguing Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs from Oman.

After much deliberation, however, I decided to go with a title I haven’t mentioned on this blog since I read it for my original quest in 2012: the funny and irreverent Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida from Cape Verde. Pleasingly, this has also been translated into Dutch, so I could have sent IBH a copy in her native language, but as this intrepid explorer is clearly more than capable of tackling the book in English, I decided to stick with the version I read.

I hope you enjoy it, IBH. Happy literary travels!

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on April 15.

Postcard from my bookshelf #2

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The second translated book I am sending to a stranger this year goes to someone from a group of people who kept me going during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. The project was a wonderful voyage of discovery. However, reading and blogging about a book every 1.87 days for 12 months when you’re working five days a week can be tiring and sometimes lonely.

As such, I came to depend on the support of an initially small but growing band of people who helped to cheer me on. These were the folk who followed the project from the early days and let me know through comments, likes, tweets and personal messages that they appreciated what I was trying to do. Many was the morning when I stumbled bleary-eyed to my computer and found welcome words of encouragement from someone I didn’t know waiting to spur me on.

Several of these long-term followers left comments on the Postcards from my bookshelf project post. All of them deserved a book. However, in the end, I decided to choose simonlitton (or Simon, as I’ll call him from now on) because his was one of the names I remembered cropping up several times in the early months of my year of reading the world, in the days when each comment did a huge amount to boost my determination and confidence.

Simon’s Postcard entry didn’t give me much to go on when it came to selecting a book he might like:

I loved AYORTW and would definitely be interested in reading something you sent. My tastes are pretty broad but I’m especially interested in anything which opens a window on another culture. I read fairly regularly in French and Italian too, which gives me more options.

Luckily, however, his name linked to his blog. And there I found a connection to his Goodreads page – a goldmine of information about his reading habits.

As he claims, Simon has extremely broad taste in books. I was delighted to see a good number of African works listed among the nearly 400 titles he has reviewed on the site, along with a range of classics, and a glut of contemporary bestsellers and lesser-knowns, including a healthy spread of translations, as well as the French and Italian works he mentioned. There was also an impressive array of non-fiction books, along with a strong showing of sci-fi and fantasy titles.

What struck me most of all, however, was Simon’s approach to star ratings. A number of internationally acclaimed texts met with relatively short shrift at his hands. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace both scored a middling three stars, as did Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Here, clearly, was not only an adventurous reader, but a bold and independent one too – a person who liked to make up his own mind rather than being led by hype.

I thought long and hard about what to choose for Simon. In the process, I found myself returning repeatedly to what he had said in his comment about books that open windows on other cultures.

Many of the titles I have read during and since my 2012 project could be said to open up insights in this way. Often, they are among the best-written and most compelling books to cross my desk.

This is no coincidence. In my experience, enabling readers to understand societies different from their own requires great storytelling: we need that narrative pull to sweep us over the inevitable bumps and obstacles that arise when we venture into ways of looking at the world that diverge from our own.

Consequently, I had a bewildering wealth of beautifully written works in mind. I might have chosen Burmese writer Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow with its engrossing depiction of the life of a transgender temple dancer. I could have plumped for Jamil Ahmed’s exquisite The Wandering Falcon, my choice for Pakistan. Or Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns – only the second novel from Equatorial Guinea ever to be translated and published in English (the first, by the way, Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of your Black Memory, is also well worth a read).

In the end, however, one book kept nagging at me. Less a window on a culture, it is more like a door blasted open to reveal a post-culture – a portrait of a society destroyed by a catastrophic event that many of us might like to imagine is remote but which affects us all (and which will be evident in the world hundreds of thousands of years after pretty much everything else we know now is gone). A sort of real-life sci-fi, if such a thing were possible.

The book I’m talking about is Chernobyl Prayer by the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I read it and posted about it last year and it has stayed with me ever since. Harrowing, human, insightful and mind-scrambling, it is one of the most powerful texts I’ve ever encountered.

But of course, Simon, you’ll have to make up your own mind. Thank you.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on March 15.