A ballet of Ghosts, corruption and sandwiches – The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill book review (#AW80Books Laos)


Books imitate life, as always, and in this case my next stop on this literal journey (see #AW80books) after Myanmar / Burma is – as in life – Laos. And what a stop. I found this book, The coroner’s lunch, while visiting a rehabilitation centre in Vientiane dedicated to victims of landmines and UXOs (Laos holding the grimm record of the most bombed contry in the world, much of it still remaining and causing casualties to this day), a very informative – and rightly depressing – centre, so when I saw they sold a series of books by Cotteril, who has been teaching and living in Laos for decades and decided that all the profits from those should go to Laos and specifically this centre, I was more than happy to  combine a good deed with the acquisition of a new books (because buying more books, when for a good cause, does not count, that is the rule!).
Anyway, I mostly expected a pleasant book and an opportunity to learn more about Lao culture. It is that, of course, but so much more:

This is a crime series, in a very light-hearted tone, with as a protagonist and main detective a 70 year old disabused coroner, Dr Siri Paiboun, who has a dry wit and a limited experience at his job but what he lacks in technical equipment and knowledge he makes for in intelligence, and with the help of a charmingly orignal team composed of a young, quick witted nurse, a morgue assistant with down syndrome and a remarkable memory, a old friend with political connections and, mostly, the spirits of the dead who find their way to his morgue table.

In a collection of small annecdotes slowly building a main mystery, navigating between party politics (this takes place just a few years after the communist revolution in Laos), international relationships with Vietnam and neighbour’s quarels with a skill that has much to do with recklessness, as he doesn’t have much to loose anymore, Dr Siri and his dry wit takes you on a tour of Laos, from the sandwich stalls in Vientiane to the Ethnic minorities of the North. 

It is both playful and informative, just about the solar oposite of the dark, brooding tones of the scandinavian thrillers I was reading a few days before, but just as fun, and, from what I’ve seen of the Lao spirit, a good representation of the philosophy of its people. 

Yet another great pick for a country, and one I would definitely recommend, and not just because it might be difficult to find other books set in Laos, so there’s not much to choose from;)

Quote: (for a sample of Dr Siri’s self depreciating tone):

“- Do you suppose it all means something?

– That we’re being left clues?

 – Perhaps.

– Then, no offense, but I fear they’ve badly overestimated us.” 

Cause you’re hot and you’re cold – reading Jo Nesbo in Myanmar  ( the Phantom, Book review)

I usually try, however much I can, to discover and read books from local authors, or about the countries I’m visiting, at least when I get there (not so much before as I feel it sometimes influences the way I’ll then experience the place, as if through the lenses of the particular author I read before coming) 

That’s why I’ve been reading two books set in Myanmar recently. But there is a particular kind of joy, as well, in reading something completely foreign to the circumstances you are into. In a way it also helps you understand the country you’re traveling in, giving you a radically different canvas to compare, helping you define it as to what it is not, just as much as what it is.
Lately, having lent my ereader to my friend, who had read all of her books (and had to wait to the next city big enough to have a second hand english/french bookshop, a tragic fate I know, and very much pity) I found myself reading one of her books. A Jo Nesbo I had not yet read (by chance), the Phantom, his last one. If you are a Scandinavian crime novel afficionado and don’t know Nesbo yet, then you are a rare thing indeed, but if just by chance you exist, Jo Nesbo is a former rock star turnrd journalist and crimes friction writer from Norway, he writes suitably dark and moody thrillers (like all the Scandinavian crime novels I know and like), that are reflections on a shifting society and gripping reads at the same time. His hero, Harry hole, is trying to cope with addiction,  his past,  his complicated love life and, if that wasn’t hard enough, a few serial killers. And everything happens under the quiet, polished and polite Norwegian society, where everybody might smile on the surface but stab you for a drug deal gone wrong in less time than it takes to say skål.
All this cold, this darkness, these repressed feelings and grim Oslo suburbs were even more fun to read about in the blazing heat, the pouring rains, the chaotic and constant noise of the Burmese cities. I would recommend the Phantom anyway -for a Nesbo it’s a particularly well done one – but even more if you can manage to buy a plane ticket just to go read it in Myanmar (well, I can meet you halfway across the globe, maybe anywhere hot and humid and definitely-not-scandinavian in its mentality), because getting caught in the plot and the dark winter in Oslo just to come back suddenly to Mandalay one hot afternoon is just about the most radically exotic experience you’ll have.

Jeder stirbt für sich allein – Every man dies alone / Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada, book review

sadgBeing in Berlin, I could hardly escape Hans Fallada’s Every man dies alone / Alone in Berlin (in international bookshops, or its original counterpart in the German ones) even in the “classier” tourist shops that have some pretence of attracting the “trying to grasp a bit of Berlin history while I’m here” tourists it was omnipresent.

Funnily enough, it is considered a rather old classic (both the book and the movie) in Germany and Switzerland (it was translated in French in the 60’s, making us strange translating pioneers a mere…20 years after the book was first published in Eastern Germany), but since it has recently been translated into English, it is now considered as “rediscovered” (and even advertised as such in German Bookshops, which I find exceedingly strange). Anyhow, I wanted to read or rather listen to some German while cycling through the city, so I found the German audiobook for it. (Which I would only suggest doing if your grasp of German is quite good, as there are a lot of Berlin dialect in it, which is rather mumbled than spoken, as true Berlinerisch is). Continue reading

The faces of pain and confrontation (On Han Kang’s Human Acts amongst other things)

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Arriving in Amsterdam recently after a couple of weeks of cycling away from all internet connection allowed for yet another moment of receiving in one shot all the misery that had been going on in the world while I was away from it, racial protests and shootings in America to name just one of those, and feeling a sadness that, due probably to the contrast of not having the constant misery-filled-outpoor the daily news provides for a while, feels like a discouragement. You wonder, what is the point? couldn’t I just go back to cycling unaware of all this?
Coupled with this return to the world I began reading “Human Acts” by Han Kang (after raiding (with the very stern promise of not buying anything) one of the many excellent English/American bookshops in Amsterdam, even open on Sunday, in which I ended up buying for books, I am a disgrace), because I wanted to read “The vegetarian” but I found her other novel first. This is a series of interconnected chapters about the people who lived and died during a student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980 which was violently repressed by the government Army, in a swarm of atrocities resulting in approximately 600 deaths. Han Kang gives a voice to the students, school boys, survivors, prisoners and also to the dead, creating a heart-shattering account on violence and repression, and what is left after. I had to stop, repeatedly, to do something else or talk to somebody, because the weight of this book is too heavy. But is it necessary, I didn’t even know the a city call Gwangju existed in South Korea, hadn’t heard of a democratic uprising. So many tragedies go unnoticed.
To add to the general grimness, I also went to the “World press exhibition” which is featured every year in Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk. It is a selection of prize winning reporting photographies – not only political or societal niews but also in sport and nature (which are the ones you need to take a break from the rest of the exhibition), and documentaries about the passed year. Again, those are magnificent, incredibly expressive photographs, about the migrants crisis, about gang killings in South America, about rape in the US Army, and so many other tragedies you get out of the exhibition with an almost physical pain in the chest. And, as with Han Kang, as with every time art manages to punch awareness of misery into you, you want to say “no more”. But you can’t. And you shouldn’t.We talked about it with my mother after the exhibition, having both said “I need a tea or something” to be able to transit back into daily life: she sometimes says she cannot read any more books about the Nazi atrocities in the Second World War, can’t watch films that are too depressing. And I understand the feeling, I too sometimes wish I could cycle away in the countryside, unaware.
But I also feel a sense of shared responsibility, as a human, knowing I’m are part of the insanely privileged fraction in the history and present of Humanity that won’t have to endure such violence and pain, and knowing I can’t know how it is to live or die through this, that I least I take the small effort of acknowledging it, and letting it depressing me, even just for a few hours, and trying my hardest not to forget. I, as a  human, should know not only because I absent-mindedly watch the news but almost viscerally, with the help of those striking pictures or beautifully terrifying words, what humans are capable of, and what humans must suffer. Even before trying to do something about it, which is also necessary when and if possible, that is the first and most basic step: not to assume you know any better or have understood, but to confront yourself with it.
So read Han Kang’s Human Acts, it is a masterpiece. Go and sea the World Press exhibitions (they are in a lot of cities)

A German Odyssey: Tschick, by Wolfgang Herrndorf, book review (English title:Why we took the car) (#AW80Books Germany)

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I went to Germany (mainly) for the purpose of improving my German as I’ll have to start working in a German speaking town in a few months, and what better way to improve your language skills than reading in said language?
In any case, it was a great excuse to discover some of the German contemporary literature, and one of the books that took Germany “by Sturm” (on a storm) lately was Tschick, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. Herrndorf is a German writer who died in 2013, committing suicide while suffering from a malignant cerebral cancer. He published Tschick in 2010, which was universally acclaimed in Germany but, as many other things and books especially, never really crossed boundaries. At least in Switzerland – the French speaking part – I had never heard of it.

As google told me, it has apparently been translated in English under the title “Why we took the car” – nothing to do with the original title, which is short for Tschichatschow, one of the protagonists’ last name. So I’m not even raving about something you might never be able to read. Which is nice indeed.

So Tschick: Maik, a 14 year old student in  contemporary Berlin (very contemporary, get ready for a “mentioning-Beyonce” level of contemporary) is going through his usual underdog school routine, obsessed with a girl who doesn’t invite him to his birthday, stuck at home between an absent father and a relapsing alcoholic mother, and at first sees nothing worth of interest in “Tchick” who arrives in his class in the middle of the school year, an “asi” – asocial – rebellious and altogether strange figure, with tidings to the mafia – as rumours fly between his classmates.
But both of them still go on a unexpected journey, having stolen an old car, driving apparently without an objective – or the very loosely defined objective of reaching Walachia – which is more a symbolic destination than a real place in their minds – and they cross the countryside around Berlin, meeting a young hitch-hiking rebellious girl, a family apparently part of some strange religious community, and altogether forgetting about school and life to live as tramps for a while, avoiding the police.

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On the reality of the novel (but also on unicorns)- NW, by Zadie smith, book review

13537891This sounds a lot more pompous than it really is, as I’m sure I don’t possess the brainpower (ever, but most especially now, as I haven’t had a coffee yet) to really reflect on reality and fiction, and the place of the former in the latter. But you could say it is the role of the fool to endeavour things he cannot achieve, so let’s.
A bit of context might be welcomed, she realized after rambling for so long. So, NW:
This is a book split into different narrative styles following for characters living in North West London: first we have Leah, a young woman who has a philosophy degree but works in an office, is married to a French Caribbean man who wants children, which she doesn’t but doesn’t know how to say it, and gives money to a woman in some distress who turns out to be a fraud. Her husband and (now estranged) best friend, Nathalie, laugh at her naivety. That first part is written in a stream of consciousness style, with no clear cut between speech and narrative, no clear continuity between sentences. It reflects Leah’s difficulty in creating a continuous narrative making sense to her, and her experience of time as a subjective, discontinuous process.
In the other parts we then follow Felix, an ex-addict, as he goes through his day in the same part of London. The style is more fluid, more traditional, which makes Felix’s narrative rather easier to empathize with (all the better to be hit by what happens to him, but that shan’t be disclosed here).

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Polyphonic secrets and unanimous war consequences – Le poids des secrets (pentalogy), by Aki Shimazaki

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First tome of the pentalogy

I hesitated to write about this series of books I’ve just read, not because I wasn’t sure what I thought about it, but because they haven’t been translated to English yet. Then I thought, they deserve whatever meagre attention I’m able to bring to them, so here it goes:

This is a series of 5 small books (100 pages), that my physical therapist lent me, when we were discussing books in the middle of some knee exercises (what, do I manage to bring books in just any conversation? I at least try!).

Each of the five books has a different narrator, all from the same extended family. It starts with Yukiko, telling her and her parent’s life, and the dramatic events that occur, both in the familial history and outside of it, as Japanese history unfolds, with the 2nd World War, and the atomic bomb in Nagazaki. All the other books follow the same general themes: the family history, spanning over 4 generations, and its  devastating secrets, and the History of Japan, of the Korean immigrants, of the bombs and the 1923  earthquake.

9142909It is a very skilled picture of Japanese culture over the years covered – and a great lesson in Japanese history, also, as I knew very little of the tensions between Koreans and Japanese, the earthquake, but it is also a masterful portrayal of this family, through all those different voices. Even more impressive when you learn the books have been written directly in French by Shimazaki, who learnt it when she was 40 years old, living in Canada (geniuses like those would be very annoying, if they didn’t produce such interesting books!)

Mad women. Mad women? The days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, Book Review (#AW80Books

Everybody (mostly in the english-speaking bibliophile world) has been talking about Elena Ferrante, lately. I was curious, as, strangely, though she has been translated in French for quite a few years already, there wasn’t that much of a buzz surrounding her Neapolitan Novels (or not one that I noticed). Which is paradoxical because I usually hear about more Italian writers in the French (translated) book world than in the English (that is not limited to Italian fiction, and probably due to the fact that the English literary scene is bigger than the French-speaking one, and therefore the drive for translated fiction is less important. Or, it might be a cultural thing. I was half suspicious, I had kind of decided in my head that I already had my panel of favourite Italian writers (Calvino,Erri De Luca, Goliarda Sapienza, Margaret Mazzantini, and a few others), and, like I often do in the most annoying way, judged in advance that maybe that buzz wasn’t really worth it.

Anyway, I was looking her up at my public library (yes, it is mine, I’ve decided), and found not the Neapolitan Novels, but one of her first novels, The Days of Abandonment (I giorni dell’abbandono). This is a long, almost continuous monologue about Olga, a writer, a mother of two children, and an spouse, whose husband leaves her, suddenly. This abandonment, as it is felt, leads her to a slow descent of rationality loss, where she abandons the world, her family, her normal functioning, and herself.

Beautifully written, it explores this episode of loss of self, this gripping, raw testimony of a crumbling, like no other book I have read so far. You are, at every step, with Olga. You are, for once, the mad woman, you don’t get to observe from afar. In that same way, you don’t get to judge. And you feel, or at least I felt, the fall, almost from within. She seems to be left with no skin, exposed to the tiniest drift of air, with burst of violence and rare moments of self awareness, and you aren’t spared any second of it.

From the premise, you might think this is a story that has been told many times already: the woman who loses herself, in a crisis. But I don’t think it has been told that way. It is gripping, and beautiful, and scary, as true madness, felt, must be.

So I get the buzz surrounding her, and I’m joining the fan-base, at least for this book. This is a must read.

Lost momentum – Bodily Harm, by Margaret Atwood, Book review

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Sometimes I’m not in a reading mind. It’s is rare, as usually my days are rather busy, and the only few moments I have time to read are treasured. And when I do have lazy days, I normally can’t imagine any thing better than to sit somewhere with a book.

And if I have “don’t want to read” periods, they usually last a few days, then I look at my TBR or go to the public library, and I fall in love with reading again. Continue reading

Women and War, Women at War. War’s unwomanly face, by Svetlana Alexievich (#AW80Books: Belarus)

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For a few weeks now, I’ve been dipping in and out of this book. I doubt I would have been able to read it in one sitting. It is too  intense, but in any case I’ve enjoyed this feeling of having it almost constantly in the backdrop. It gave a distinct colour to the other books I read in parallel.
Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer and journalist, born in 1948 in the Ukrainian USSR. I was given a book of a decent portion of her works (edited after she received the Nobel for literature in 2015), by a friend who knows I’ve been raving about the only other book I had read by her so far,  “La fin de l’homme rouge ou le temps du désenchantement”, for which I think the English title was “Second-Hand” or something, which is a collection of testimonies by people after the end of the USSR, about their lives, about communism, about the changes in the regime, Gorbatchev, disillusions and censure.
I loved that book. It was the first time I encountered a book like that, as she has a very unique writing process, of collecting hundreds of testimonies on a recording tape, and then transcribing them into a clear narrative voice while trying to keep the originality of the voice of the person.
This book, then, published in the 1980s in Soviet Russia (which created a controversy) is the result of 7 years collecting testimonies, by women all across Russia, and the Ex-USSR, about their experiences of the war. And that is mostly the 2nd world war, and entirely women who were conscripted in the army, with a variety of occupations and grades, from the “simple soldiers”- as they describe themselves, doing laundry chores to the lieutenant leading a group of men into landmine zones.
As it is the collective voice of many women, it is in itself polyphonic and contradictory: between two testimonies, but also inside those. Some remember the glorified discourse about “war for the people, war for the land”, about how proud and eager they were to be part of the war, and couldn’t wait to be sent to the front. Other- but also sometimes the same women – remember the violence. The cold. The unending chores. And mostly, how inhuman, how impossible it is to kill another human being.
There is violence, conflicts, incredibly sad stories of heroes of war returning to their homes and not being recognized as such, because they are women. There are funny anecdotes about the lives at the front, with the daily routine going on in spite of everything.
It all builds a portrait of War, as an entity but also as the sum of so many contradictions.
And there is also the question of memory and testimonies, as she also relates her struggles in finding the truth, interviewing people 30 years or more after the conflict: she says there are often tree people in the room: herself, the person she interviews and the person that person was, during the events. And a lot of those tales change, some of the women call her back to retract something, to change their view. It all shows how fragile and polyphonic Collective memory is, and how important it is to record all of these voices. In the end, it states this last duality: War, as an entity, is bigger than Man, but it is made by Man, and Man, or Woman, is often bigger than War. These testimonies are a recording of that, of women being bigger, greater, than the war they were in.
I am trying to find a “read it if you…” ending to this, but it is too universal for that. Sure, I could say, read it if you like historical testimonies about the second world war. But it would be better to say: read it if you are human.