Cousin K by Yasmina Khadra

As we all know, the Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he prefers Dos Equis. Therefore, in keeping with that spirit of singular exception, I don’t always read fiction, but when I do, I prefer stuff by international authors. Fortunately for me, the Central Branch of my county library has a prominently displayed shelf of recently published works of international fiction for me to choose from. A few days ago while rummaging through this shelf I realized I hadn’t read much international fiction of late. After a bit more rummaging, before I knew it I was walking out the door with a handful of fictional works by authors from Morocco, Algeria, Syria and Greece. Later that evening, as I looked over at my desk and saw my recent literary acquisitions sitting there waiting to be read I felt happy, inspired and eager to begin.

Yesterday morning while slamming down coffee at my neighborhood coffee shop in vain hopes of trying to revive myself after a late night out drinking beer with friends I began reading one of those books. Of the four pieces of fiction I the one a chose to read first was the novella Cousin K by Algerian Yasmina Khadra . (The author’s actual name is Mohammed Moulessehoul, who adopted the feminine pen name to avoid censorship at the hands of  Algeria’s military rulers.) Due to the work’s shortness I was able to read it in only two settings. After finishing it yesterday afternoon, I asked myself what I thought of Cousin K. While I really didn’t like it, I really didn’t dislike it either. I did however find Cousin K to be a bit, well, odd.

It’s the story, told in first person, of a young man living in Algeria with his dominating and capricious mother. Entering the story at various intervals are his older brother (an up and coming army officer whom he idolizes and his mother loves with almost incestuous fervor) a young female cousin he both hates and loves and an unnamed young woman he rescues from an attack only to later imprison in his family’s home. All of this is told from the narrator’s perspective. While the novella contains a lot of powerful lines that have the power stand alone with poetic intensity, as a whole Cousin K feels a bit chaotic. I’m not really sold on the idea that its sum is greater than its individual parts, no matter how good some of those parts might be.

Being the first person narrator comes across as both a tortured soul and one who has a great deal of contempt for the world around him, Cousin K reminded me a lot of Camus’ The Stranger (interestingly, both Camus and Khadra/Moulessehoul were born in Algeria) and Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone.

But even though Cousin K wasn’t a huge hit with me, I’m happy because it counts towards a number of reading challenges. With Algeria being in North Africa, I can apply it to both the Middle East Reading Challenge and the Global Reading Challenge. Since it was translated from the French, it also counts as part of the Books in Translation Reading Challenge. Lastly, since it came from the public library, I can also apply it to the Library Books Reading Challenge.  I love it when a book counts towards so many reading challenges.

2013 Middle East Reading Challenge

 Over the last several years Helen, one of my favorite book bloggers, has hosted the Middle East Reading Challenge. Not only has her reading challenge been a fun and intellectually stimulating activity, but in light of 2011′s Arab Spring and recent events in Libya and Syria it’s served as a fantastic opportunity for readers to gain a deeper understanding of people and forces reshaping one of the world’s most volatile and dynamic regions. When Helen announced she was stepping down from being the challenge’s host and suggested that I take her place at first I was reluctant. While I’ve been book blogging for several years, I’ve never hosted a challenge. However, to see the Middle East Reading Challenge vanish into the ether would be a huge loss. Therefore, after thinking it over I’ve decided to accept her offer and host the 2013 Middle East Reading Challenge.

I’ve you would like to get a sneak-peak, feel free to drop by the challenge’s new home. Love to have you join me for 2013’s Middle East Reading Challenge!

Fear and loathing in Zimbabwe

The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of ZimbabweI owe a huge debt of gratitude to the NPR program Fresh Air. Thanks to them, over the years I’ve discovered countless great nonfiction books like Wide as the Waters, The Murder Room and Lost Christianities, in addition to novels like Push and The Magician’s Wife. Back in the spring of 2011 while was driving across town I happened to catch host Terry Gross’ interview with journalist Peter Godwin in which he recalled his 2008 visit to the African nation of Zimbabwe. Intrigued by what I heard, about a week later put Godwin’s book on my Goodreads list of books to read and then, as I usually do in cases like this promptly forgot about it. Then one day not long ago while raiding the shelves at my public library I stumbled upon it. With my memory jarred (and wanting another book to read as part of Kinna’s African Reading Challenge) I quickly grabbed it. Boy I’m glad I did. Peter Godwin’s The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe is one heck of a powerful book.

Judging by the picture Godwin paints in The Fear, Zimbabwe for all intents and purposes if not a failed state, it’s certainly a failing one. It’s bad enough the country suffers from astronomical hyperinflation, a collapsed state infrastructure, food shortages and diseases like AIDS and cholera but to make matters worse, it’s been in the vice grip of a ruthless dictator for over 30 years. While Zimbabwe possess many of the components of a Western-style democracy like elections, a judiciary, a legislative assembly, political parties and an independent media the grim reality is President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party rule through intimidation, violence and murder.

I found The Fear to be a great book. It’s well-written and flows quickly. The individual stories of courage in the face of violence are nothing less than inspiring. Since Godwin was born in this country (back when it was white-ruled Rhodesia) and spent his youth in Zimbabwe, this book also has that great insider’s/outsider’s perspective that I love. Along the way he encounters countless people, each of them interesting in their own individual way. Godwin tells his tale leavened with anger, disgust, fear, terror and believe it or not, even sarcasm and humor.

As 2012 draws to a close I’m starting to compile my “best of” list of this year’s best books. Right now as I type this post there’s a strong likelihood Godwin’s The Fear will be on that list.

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

One Saturday afternoon during one of my weekend library visits I happened to stumble across a copy of Sarah Erdman’s memoir Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. After picking it up and upon closer inspection I decided to check it out for two reasons. Number one, since her 2003 memoir recalls the time she spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African country of Ivory Coast I could apply it towards Kinna’s African Reading Challenge. Number two, it was obvious that this particular copy, while not battered and bruised, still looked considerably worn. To me, that’s a good thing because it meant the book had been borrowed and read repeatedly. That means it’s probably been in fairly high demand. And of course, chances are since it’s been in fairly high demand it’s probably a very good book. So, taking all those factors into consideration naturally I checked it out from the library.

Crazy thing is it took me forever to read Nine Hills to Nambonkaha. But even  with me putting it down and picking it up over and over, thankfully I found myself liking the book quite a bit. On top of it, much to my surprise I found myself liking Sarah Erdman the young Peace Corps volunteer even more. Quite frankly, I have a lot of admiration for Erdman. A young American woman probably fresh out of college, she began her Peace Corps stint as the village’s designated midwife. From there she went from teaching English and then basic nutrition and childhood health. Eventually she would  help create and coordinate an AIDS prevention program as well as oversee the construction of a rural health clinic-achieving all of this with modest resources while battling indigenous corruption, cultural obstacles and unyielding bureaucracies. Much to her credit throughout all of these challenges Erdman faced no matter how frustrated she became, almost without exception she was respectful of everyone and everything.

On top of it, it’s a well-written memoir too. I found her prose thoughtful and descriptive without being long-winded. Interestingly, in telling her story Erdman relays hardly any personal information. Little if any time is spent discussing her life before she joined the Peace Corps, her motivations for joining or her personal and family relationships. The focus of her memoir is solely on her life and work in the village.

Erdman’s memoir and with it her recollection of life in a West African village with its laissez-faire, non-puritanical interpretation of Islam reminded me a great deal of Camara Laye’s The Dark Child: An Autobiography of an African Boy. In many ways it also reminded me of Ishmael Beah’s 2007 memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Besides causing me to reminisce a bit, it’s also inspired me to finally start reading Chinua Achebe’s classic Nigerian novel Nigeria Things Fall Apart. Who knows, it might inspire me to read other books about Africa. I certainly hope it does.

The Sultan’s Shadow by Christiane Bird

Even though many Americans might have trouble finding Zanzibar on a world map, most would agree that wherever it’s located, Zanzibar must be an exotic and far away place. Being the geography nerd that I am (after all, they don’t call me Maphead for nothing) I’ve known for years that the Zanzibar is an island in the Indian Ocean located just off the coast of Tanzania. However, it wasn’t until last year when I read Robert Kaplan’s excellent book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power that I learned of the Island’s rich and fascinating history. Just off the coast of Africa but still relatively close to the Middle East, for over 200 years the island was ruled by an Omani Sultan. With such commercial and strategic importance, for centuries individuals from across the Indian Ocean and beyond made Zanzibar their home. Eventually this would lead to the island’s culture becoming a multifaceted mixture sharing elements of Arab, African, Indian and Swahili.

Perhaps those are the kind of things that crossed my mind when I stumbled upon Christiane Bird’s 2010 book The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West during one of my weekend library visits. Even though my current stack of unread library books has grown to towering proportions, I couldn’t resist adding Bird’s book to the pile. In addition, since it deals with Africa it counts as part of Kinna’s African Reading Challenge. So, with all that in mind I grabbed it.

I think in a lot of ways The Sultan’s Shadow could be seen as two distinct books. One book tells the story of the ruling Sultan’s rebellious daughter Salme, her love the affair with and subsequent marriage to a young German merchant and her life in Europe as an expatriate. The other book is a general history of Zanzibar and East Africa, with special attention paid to the Europeans’ attempts to explore and later dominate the region. While a few times I found myself a bit bored with the storytelling at other times I found myself having a pretty good time and being pleasantly sucked into things. I’m happy that Bird, as part of her mission to tell the history of this part of Africa decided to include the contributions of such British historical figures as Richard Francis Burton and John Speke (their quest to discover the source of the Nile was the subject of the 1990 British film Mountains of the Moon) as well as that of Henry Stanley and David Livingstone.

In promoting her African Reading Challenge, Kinna has encouraged participants to read at least five books “which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues.” According to Kinna at least three of those books must be written by African writers. Among other suggestions, she would like participants to cover at least two regions of Africa. By my count The Sultan’s Shadow makes four books, so it looks like I have just one more to go before I’ve completed her challenge. If that’s indeed the case it sounds like I better knuckle down and get back to my reading if I’m to successfully complete her African Reading Challenge.

Mark Pendergrast takes us inside the outbreaks

I first heard of Mark Pendergrast’s 2010 book Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service thanks to the good people at Book TV. (Oddly enough, while Pendergrast’s lecture bored me to tears nevertheless I still wanted to read his book.) Then, not long after that I came across Tolmsted’s excellent review on her blog Book Sexy. Duly intrigued, I made a mental note to someday read Inside the Outbreaks should I ever stumble across it during one of my library visits.

Of course, one Saturday afternoon while prowling the shelves what did I find but Pendergrast’s book. Not only was I drawn to the book because of its subject matter (for years I’ve enjoyed reading about diseases and epidemics, ever since a former client of mine recommended Berton Roueche’s 11 Blue Men) but I also found it hard to resist its slightly exaggerated comic book-style cover art. So, even with a sizable stack of library books under my arm I added it to my pile and headed to the automated check-out machine.

I found Inside the Outbreaks to be pretty good, but nothing fancy. It chronicles the 60 year history of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, which could be described as the field branch of the CDC. The book is a series of vignettes starting with the creation of the Service and its first official mission (the investigation of a strange new disease that was sickening soldiers during the Korean War) and ending with the anthrax scares following 9/11. The storytelling isn’t stellar, but thankfully it is direct and to the point. Neither is it boring. While certainly not flashy, Inside the Outbreaks feels well researched.

While I enjoyed reading about the EIS’s adventures in combating diseases like polio, smallpox, Ebola, cholera and Legionnaires’ disease, I could not help but feel a bit nostalgic upon reading Pendergrast’s account of a few outbreaks that occurred in my own back yard. Growing up in Oregon, I remember when sewage contaminated drinking water at Crater Lake National Park, the Rajneeshees poisoned salad bars and E-coli sickened fast food diners in Southern Oregon.

Down the road I’d like to read other books like this one. Berton Roueche’s 1981 classic The Medical Detectives should be at the top of my list along with McCormick and Fisher-Hoch’s  Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC and Nagami’s Maneater: And Other True Stories of a Life in Infectious Disease.

Fiction from the Horn of Africa: Passage of Tears by Abdourahman A. Waberi

It’s rare when one gets the opportunity to read a novel that’s set in the small east African nation of Djibouti. It’s rarer still when the author of said novel is actually from that particular country. Needless to say, when I came across a copy of Abdourahman Waberi’s recent novel Passage of Tears while rummaging through the assorted offerings on the International Authors shelf at my public library I didn’t hesitate to grab it. After letting it sit on my desk ignored and unread for about a week one lazy summer afternoon I grabbed it and a few other books and headed to the park. As my ears were assaulted by the shrieks of ill-behaved children, I buried myself in Waberi’s novel. After finishing it after only a few days I was happy I took a chance on Passage of Tears. While it didn’t rock my world, Waberi’s storytelling and the novel’s unusual setting kept me intrigued and more than a little bit entertained.

Taking its title from the narrow passage on the Red Sea nestled between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, Passage of Tears tells the story of Djibril, formerly from the area but now living abroad in Canada, who has returned to his old stomping grounds as part of a covert mission orchestrated by his employer (a shadowy private-sector intelligence firm based in Denver) to gather first hand information on local Islamist groups and other potential threats to Western interests. Along the way his every move is mysteriously watched and commented upon by an unnamed adversary who sits incarcerated in the local prison as he awaits execution.

I found this novel not only well-translated, but also very clever, blending many elements including espionage, clash of cultures and coming of age. Surprisingly, for a novel set in an African country it contains a number of Jewish references. Passage of Tears includes references to the Kabbalah, the 1949-1950 airborne evacuation of Yemenite Jews and lastly the life and writings of literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. Keeping all of this lively is Waberi’s use of alternating narrators and the juxtaposing those narratives with excerpts from Benjamin’s personal writings, in essence giving voice to a third narrator.

At the beginning of this year I joined Kinna’s African Reading Challenge. Sadly, this is just my second book as part of that challenge. With several African-themed books sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, I’m hoping Waberi’s novel will inspire me to finish strong when it comes to Kinna’s challenge.