GingerbreadMan's Europe Endless Challenge

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GingerbreadMan's Europe Endless Challenge

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1GingerbreadMan
Editado: Dez 1, 2009, 3:10 pm

This will very likely be a challenge lasting at least a few years for me, and I suspect many of the smaller countries will be hard to find something for - especially since I read much more fiction than non-fiction.

I've also chosen not to backtrack, but will start from mid-august 2009. Hope there are a lot of readers, european and from other places around the world, who'll want to join this virtual interrailing of sorts!

What constitutes a "country" or indeed "Europe" isn't entirely clear. These are the parameters I've chosen to go with:
- I've included all souvereign countries wholly or partially on the European continent. This includes a number of nations where bigger part of the country is situated in Asia.
- I've divided the United Kingdom into England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
-I've chosen to include Greenland and Faroe Islands, while technically being self-gouverning parts of Denmark. This is primarily because they are in "my corner of Europe", and I would feel strange leaving them out.
-On the other hand, I've chosen to leave out many other territories or self-gouverning provinces, for instance Isle of Man, Gibraltar, Athos and the Azores. I AM NOT BEING CONSEQUENT WHEN IT COMES TO THIS.

2GingerbreadMan
Editado: Jan 7, 2015, 7:19 am



create your personalized map of europe
or check out our Barcelona travel guide

Countries visited: 33/56

3GingerbreadMan
Editado: Jan 7, 2015, 7:18 am

Albania - Den döda arméns general (The general of the dead army) by Ismaïl Kadaré, finished november 10th 2009
Andorra
Armenia
Austria - Lust by Elfriede Jelinek, finished may 30th 2010
Azerbajdzjan

Belarus - Kallt land by Jáchym Topol, finished january 18th 2011
Belgium - Ost by Willem Elsschot, finished october 31st 2014
Bosnia/Hercegovina - The fixer: a story from Sarajevo by Joe Sacco, finished february 4th 2014
Bulgaria - Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni, finished april 6th 2014
Croatia

Cyprus
Czech Republic - Avskedsvalsen (Farewell Waltz) by Milan Kundera, finished december 29th 2009
Denmark - Världens lyckligaste folk by Lena Sundström non-fiction, finished january 31st 2010
England - Memento Mori by Muriel Spark, finished september 17th 2010
Estonia - Utrensning (Purge) by Sofi Oksanen, finished august 17th 2010

Faroe Islands
Finland - Sju bröder (Seven brothers) by Aleksis Kivi, finished december 25th 2011
France - Kiffe kiffe imorgon (Kiffe kiffe tomorrow) by Faïza Guène, finished january 1st 2010
Georgia - Spegelriket by Aka Morchiladze, finished december 16th 2014
Germany - Leklust by Juli Zeh, finished August 16th, 2009

4GingerbreadMan
Editado: Ago 7, 2014, 7:02 pm

Greece - Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, finished december 26th, 2009
Greenland - Fröken Smillas känsla för snö (Smilla's sense of snow) by Peter Hoeg, finished march 15th, 2010
Hungary -Mannen utan öde (Fateless), finished march 3rd, 2010
Iceland - Salka Valka by Halldór Laxness, finished july 2nd, 2011
Ireland - Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe, finished october 27th, 2009

Italy - Gomorra by Roberto Saviano non-fiction, finished august 26th, 2010
Kazakhstan
Kosovo
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Lituania

Luxemburg
Macedonia
Malta
Moldavia
Monaco

Montenegro
The Netherlands
Northern Ireland - För Gud och Ulster (Resurrection Man) by Eoin McNamee, finished october 20th, 2011
Norway - Expedition L (L) by Erlend Loe, finished april 24th, 2010
Poland

5GingerbreadMan
Editado: Ago 7, 2014, 6:59 pm

Portugal
Romania - Begrav mig stående (Bury me standing) by Isobel Fonseca, finished june 6th, 2010
Russia - I det heliga Rysslands tjänst by Vladimir Sorokin, finished november 6th, 2009
San Marino
Scotland - Morvern Callar by Alan Warner, finished november 28th, 2009

Serbia - Tigern i Galina by Tea Obreht, finished july 7th, 2014
Slovakia - Boken om kyrkogården (Samko Tale's cemetery book), finished june 5th, 2011
Slovenia - Blattejävlar! by Goran Vojnovic, finished january 26th, 2014
Spain - Tjugo år och en dag by Jorge Semprún, finished august 5th, 2014
Sweden - Människohamn by John Ajvide Lindqvist, finished november 26th, 2009

Switzerland - Tuktans ljuva år (Sweet days of discipline) by Fleur Jaeggy, finished january 6th 2011
Turkey
Ukraine - Allt är upplyst (Everything is illuminated) by Jonathan Safran Foer, finished october 17th, 2010
The Vatican
Wales - The earth hums in B flat by Mari Strachan, finished april 7th, 2010

6GingerbreadMan
Ago 17, 2009, 4:20 pm

1. Leklust (original german title Spieltrieb) by Juli Zeh

My first book, representing Germany, finished a couple of days ago. I was surprised to see this hasn't been translated into english. As far as I know at least one of Zeh's other books is available in english. Perhaps this is on it's way?

This is a pretty disturbing read about two teenagers, representing a generation where games and good/bad results have replaces the moral compass of good/evil, blackmails a teacher simply because the opportunity arises. But even though it's packed with pretty ambitious moral philosophy (this feels like a very wise book in a sad sort of way), it's also something of a page turner. The dynamics between the three central characters keeps shifting and changing, and it insn't clear who comes out on top until the very last page.

There's a little of that german, cold, distanced way of telling a story here, but also a lot of understanding and sadness for the characters. I gave this book 4 1/2 stars. It really kept me on my toes, and will stay with me a long time.

7GingerbreadMan
Editado: Ago 30, 2009, 4:21 pm

2. Stalins kossor by Sofi Oksanen

Here's another book that unfortunately doesn't seem to be available in english. The writer is finnish, but born of an estonian mother, and the book is set about equally in both countries. Estonia is a tricky one, so there was no real question which of the countries to go with :)

The book deals with opression in three generations of estonian and finnish-estonian women: Anna's grandmother's life under the hunger years after WW2, when Stalin is forcing collective farming on the people, with beingf shot or sent to Siberia as very real possibilies in the everyday life.

Anna's mother's life in Soviet Estonia during the later years of communism, and her encounters with finnish racism after marrynig a finn and moving to his home country.

And finally Anna, who's taught to deny her estonian heriage, so as not to be labled a "russian whore", but who at the same time is affected by her mother's despair in her new homeland and the frequent trips behind the iron curtain with her. She ends up feeling like both an exile and an outcast and early developes a severe eating disorder.

This book weaves a thread of opression, with men, food and secrets as common denominators. It's a bit too long and becomes repetitive, and at least Anna's bulimic story is one you've read before, but the composition is very solid, and the book often gripped me. I gave it 3 1/2 stars.

8GingerbreadMan
Editado: Set 11, 2009, 6:39 pm

3. Skugga (Shadow) by Karin Alvtegen

For natural reasons I read a lot of Swedish books. And while I wanted to make sure to choose something that was actually available in english this time, the fact that my first ever Alvtegen (very popular up here) got to be my Swedish selection should be seen as something of a mishap.

Crime and psychologial thrillers aren't really my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this. It's a puzzle of dark secrets revolving around the family of a famous writer (indeed, he's even a Nobel laureat!), but without a detective. It's a very polyphonic book, told by many voices, and in the end just the reader is sitting with a full picture of the pretty gruesome events that are hidden in the past.

A very dark book, this (as have all my european selctions been so far! Hm?!), with very little light to compensate for it. But it's well woven, it's characters are believable (bar one or two turns of events I just can't believe in) and often likeable in their pathetic little self-deceptions. If you like Stieg Larsson this is very likely something for you. I gave it 3 1/2 stars.

9-Eva-
Set 11, 2009, 7:23 pm

#8

I've only read Skam by Alvtegen, so I had no idea she would be in the thriller category! I'll need to pick up something else of hers evidently!

Not Thanks for adding to my wishlist! :)

10RidgewayGirl
Set 13, 2009, 11:03 am

My favorite of Alvtegen's novels is Shame, which is about the death of a marriage. Not cheerful at all (is that a common theme of Swedish novels?) but very good.

11AHS-Wolfy
Set 13, 2009, 3:12 pm

Skugga sounds an ideal selection for me. I'll have to keep an eye out for the English version of the book. Thanks for the review.

12GingerbreadMan
Set 14, 2009, 6:42 am

9,10,11 Oh thanks! Glad to be of some service!

10 The brand of Swedish literature currently sweeping the world (Larsson, Ekman, Alvetegen, Ajvide Lindqvist...) isn't the cheeriest, no. Well in line with our national stereotype in the world's eyes (i.e We get drunk, have casual sex and then commit suicide when the winter comes). But there are completely other voices as well, obviously! For surreal, burlesque, rural fun, check out Popular music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi about the first pop band in a little village above the arctic circle. Or read classic bitter sweet love story The serious game by Hjalmar Söderberg. To just name two very different possibilities.

13chrine
Set 15, 2009, 2:35 am

Hola Anders. I'd noticed that trend in Swedish literature being read over here (in the States) lately. I'd wondered if it was popular there as well. Thanks for providing some insight.

14GingerbreadMan
Set 15, 2009, 1:46 pm

Oh, the dark stuff is very popular here also. Stieg Larsson's books have been bought by well over 10% of the population (!) and Alvtegen, Läckberg, Camilla Larsson, Mankell, Lapidus and other crime writers of the grimy, disillusioned crime stories are topping the lists more or less constantly. Queen of the genre as far as I'm concerned though, is the fantastic Inger Frimansson. A few titles available in english I think, and well worth checking out.

Ajvide Lindqvist is so far pretty solitaire in the branch of swedish contemporary horror, but is extremely popular as well. Not to mentioned loved to death by the critics.

I like dark books. But it felt important to point out that there's a lot of other stuff up here too, in spite of the lack of light hours in the winter :)

15chrine
Set 16, 2009, 2:31 am

I enjoy a dreary book myself from time to time, though I haven't read any Swedish crime novels... yet. Larsson is on my TBR. I was about to ask if the Wallander series was by a Swedish author when I realized he was one of the authors you mentioned. lol I enjoyed watching the BBC series based on those books.

16RidgewayGirl
Set 16, 2009, 7:49 pm

The BBC series is good--but there is always an adjustment as I get used to the "Swedes" speaking in their English accents! Brannaugh fits the role beautifully, though.

17-Eva-
Set 16, 2009, 8:05 pm

#16

Huh? Branagh did Wallander?? I must have missed that!!

Gingerbreadman, have you seen the BBC one? How does Branagh work as Wallander compared to Krister Henriksson??

18GingerbreadMan
Set 17, 2009, 4:27 pm

Crime is really not my field, as I said in the Alvtegen review. I've not read a single Wallander book, seen but a few of the films (but I like Henriksson better than Rolf Lassgård who played the role in the first films) and nothing of the BBC series. Sorry to be so utterly useless...

It's been quite the thing in Swedish media though, Branagh doing and apparently loving Wallander. bookoholic13: They even shot the whole thing in Ystad, reading Sydsvenskan for breakfast and everything! Weird huh?

19-Eva-
Set 17, 2009, 6:04 pm

#18

I'm going to have to see that!!

I had totally forgotten about Lassgård!

20GingerbreadMan
Set 27, 2009, 4:29 pm

4. Tunnelseende (Tunnel vision) by Keith Lowe

This book is about Andy who, the very day before his wedding enters into a stupid drunk bet with one of his fellow London Underground fanatics. He's going to travel to every station in the entire system within 20 hours, and has bet his passport, honey moon reservations and the tickets to France where the wedding is, on it. He meets homeless Brian who tags along in this race against the clock, where every little delay is a potential disaster.

This is lad lit a la Hornby, but much less clever. For while the set-up is pretty fun, there's a problem with it: It's a one trick pony, but since it's about going to every underground station in London, it needs very many pages. It grows thin and repetitive pretty quickly, even though Lowe tries to cram every possible delay and problem in there (signal errors, derailings, even a naked guy chained to a pole...). A quick read with an extremely strong sense of place (as a reader you literally follow the characters' progress on the map of the London Undergruond), but less fun than you'd think. I rated it 2 stars.

21cbl_tn
Set 29, 2009, 5:09 pm

>20 GingerbreadMan: It's too bad the book didn't live up to the catchy plot theme. It initially sounds like it would be a fun real-life challenge, but my guess is that the novelty would quickly wear off in real life, too!

22GingerbreadMan
Editado: Out 28, 2009, 11:42 am

5. Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe

I remember being very taken by Butcher Boy when I read it some years back and had pretty high hopes for this one (even though it's been on my TBR mound for a few years already). But even though it shares much of the same structure (or precisely because of it, possibly) with a strongly personalised language and a journey into a personal breakdown where the reader finds it hard separating reality from dislusion, this was something of a disappointment.

Paddy grows up an orphan in a small Irish town, just south of the Northern Irish border. This is Provisional IRA country, with violence lurking everywhere. But Paddy is more concerned with hating his father (the local priest, he is the result of a rape), looking for his lost mother and painting his nails than politics. Through a series of lovers (good, bad and murderous) he ends up as a tranvestite prostitute in London, where he eventually gets taken for an IRA terrorist and sent to a mental institution before finally returning to Ireland.

There are a lot of powerful elements here, but the end result feels small and shallow to me. There's a lot of pain hiding between the lines, but I still can't shake the feeling McCabe is stretching and stretching something really fairly thin.

The book is at it's best when it shows in small, almost mundane stories what it might be like to live under the threat of local terrorism. Like the guy getting tortured to death for having a protestant girlfriend. Or the numerous visits by masked, armed men, threatening you in vocies you recognise from your local shop. The sense of place and ambience is strong and an upside to this book. But the reslut remains somwhat disappointing. I rated it 2,5 stars.

23thornton37814
Out 28, 2009, 2:15 pm

>22 GingerbreadMan: Great review. It's too bad it is "thin."

24GingerbreadMan
Nov 9, 2009, 5:51 pm

6. I det heliga Rysslands tjänst by Vladimir Sorokin.

I read this book right after George Saunder's CivilWarLand in bad decline which was really interesting, as the books share a lot of themes and imagery. Both are very much about countries blowing nationalism and cultural heritage up to elephantiasis size to try and create an artificial sense of kinship.

But where government is almost non-existant in Saunder's dystopia, Sorokin describes a very powerful, rigid and hierarchial state, that frowns on the communist past while at the same time building on it (this is Russia after all). More than anything though, the place we get to visit for a day is a bizarre, post-modern version of a reinstituted czardom, wallowing in everything russian behind a wall built against the "cyberpunk arab" Europe.

Komjaga is a highly ranked operatjnik (security forces) and the book is basically a description of an ordinary day at work for him. He torches a nobleman's house, he does drugs with his collegues, he sorts out a situation at customs (while getting a share), he visits an oracle in Siberia - and finally participates in a bizarre ritual orgy in his boss' sauna. All of it written in a clear, laid back prose that gives you a feeling of mellowing into this weird world of manipulation, corruption, patriotism (of the most stupid variety) and pure perversion. There's no big plot, no inner conflict, no real arc, just a fairly straight retelling of a pretty unusual everyday. I can't for the life of me quite figure out why, but this is even a bit of a page turner.

Sense of place is very strong, russian flavour so over-the-top strong it's dizzying. I gave this book 4 stars. I like Sorokin's style of writing (and the swedish translation is really very good) and will be sure to check out more. His Ice is on my TBR.

Oh, and as RidgewayGirl pointed out. I've managed to choose yet another title not available in English for some strange reason...Bummer.

25GingerbreadMan
Nov 10, 2009, 5:16 pm

Making some real progress with this challenge at the moment!

7. Den döda arméns general (The general of the dead army) by Ismaïl Kadaré.

This is me crossing Albania of the list. With a book available in English, even! An italian general travels to Albania to retrieve the dead bodies of Italian soldiers who were killed and buried here during WW2. Along with a priest and a small team of albanian workers, he travels the countryside hopelessly struggling with this task. Not only does he have to find the unmarked graves from twenty year old witness reports, he has to do it among a people who by no means have forgotten the war. And, not least, compete with a german team on the same mission who have no second thoughts about stealing italian bodies to make their own job easier.

A very very gray book this. Feels like it rains throughout, with massive, steep gray mountains as backdrop. Kadaré's idea of using a foreign main character to describe his own country is clever, and I feel I get a very strong sense of place here. And many of the episodes connected to the dead are both amusing and moving. But all in all, this feels like a book that could have done much more with it's good ideas. Smaller than it should be, is my lingering impression. I gave it the most average 3 stars you can imagine.

26GingerbreadMan
Editado: Nov 26, 2009, 5:41 pm

I've decided to, rather than stacking titles for the countries I read from the most, to instead update only when I read a better book to represent that country. This way my list will reflect my taste, providing (hopefully) better and better recommendations.

Now, for Sweden Skugga (4 stars) will have to move over. I give John Ajvide Lindqvist's Människohamn 4,5 stars.

This epic, scary and moving book is about Domarö, a fictive island in the Roslagen archipelago in Sweden, the people living there and their relation to a very cruel and very living sea. This Lindqvist's fourth book is much more like Handling the Undead in scope and flavour than Let the right one in, but in my opinion it's much stronger than the former. Where Handling the Undead didn't quite work once the action moved to a mythical level, Människohamn presents a sea more resembling a Lovecraftian god than anything - and pulls it off.

It's been a while since I read a page-turner like this. From the opening chapters where a child disappears from where it shouldn't even be possible, this book had me hooked. But not only is it scary, moving and thrilling, following the main character Anders in his numb refusal to accept his daughter's death and idealisation of her memory also has something pretty profound to say about parenthood. This book really got to me as a father as well as a reader. Människohamn (an ambigous title, meaning "Human harbour", but also "Human disguise") is not yet available in English, but bound to be. I highly recommend it.

27GingerbreadMan
Editado: Nov 29, 2009, 10:36 am

8. Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

I'm reading the second book about Morvern, These demented lands, for my 1010 challenge, so it was high time refreshing my memory about this silent, clever, amoral rave girl. And using this for my scottish book is a given.

Warner's slightly detatched attention to detail now, five years after my first read, strikes me as very 90ies. It's a prose where it's equally important to describe what brand of cigarette a person smokes and what colour the ligher is (every time) as to tell tall tales on a bar or go into detail on how it feels to slip in the blood of your boyfriend after finding his dead body.

For this book, told in the first person by Morvern Callar herself (a rare choice for a male writer indeed!) this style works really well. Never is she letting us know how she feels or what she thinks, keeping the writing almost behavouristic. But in the descriptions of events and actions her emoptions are seeping through, and the little things (like when she suddenly sobs; once) become strangely moving.

Beginning in a small Scottish harbour town (could be Oban or Ullapool or surely any number of places that I haven't visited) this book gives a very dignfied picture of life in a small working class community. It's not cute by a long shot, but this unpretty picture is also full of warmth and a kind of respect. You get the feeling the writer really knows this place, these people, well enough to not have to give us the full story.

Morvern Callar is a story of coming of age, saying goodbye, but eventually also about coming home. The book starts with Morvern coming home from work to find her boyfriend having committed suicide, and her decision not to report his death but rather to hide his body (a choice that becomes strangely understandable, even without an explanation). She discovers he's left her some money and goes on her life's first holiday - only to have her horizones widened and her life eventually changed. It loses some momentum towards the end, but it's well worth reading. And Morvern is a very memorable character. I gave it 3,5 stars.

ETF: Can't get the darn touchstones to work, sorry...
EFT: Some typos and getting touchsotnes in order!

28RidgewayGirl
Nov 29, 2009, 9:38 am

That does sound intriguing. I've added it to my wishlist!

29GingerbreadMan
Dez 1, 2009, 3:03 pm

@28 Yay! In my opinion Warner's best one is The sopranos though. It's about singers, not gangsters :) A small town teenage girl's choir going on a field trip to the big city. Very fast paced, funny, warm and a little dirty. (Yep, again: male writer, interesting female main characters. Kind of depressing how that's so rare, isn't it!?)

30GingerbreadMan
Editado: Dez 19, 2009, 6:07 pm

I've updated my english choice. Probably not for the last time though: with a rating of 3 stars The meaning of night by Michael Cox is a lot better than one trick pony Tunnel vision (touchstone is whack, see post 20), but I'm bound to read many better books set in England before this challenge is over.

The opening of Cox' book is a real firecracker. First we get a comment from a present day literary professor, saying the authenticity of the following account is dubious at best. Then we dive straight into the shady lanes of London, where our narrator murders a complete stranger, “for practice”, then has an oyster dinner. Thank you, you have me interested!

Unfortunately the bulk of this book doesn’t quite live up to the beginning. The plot is dense and engaging, but the reversed chronology gives it’s main points away already at the start. And overall the writing is too meticulous for me. I get jumpy and impatient. Plain and simple: I guess I would have wanted more gaslit London back alleys, knives and opium dens, and fewer letters from France and descriptions of library architecture.

But please don’t take my word for it! This is really not my genre. If you’re a lover of an old-fashioned story written in a style that feels authentic but never archaic, this might be just what you’re looking for.

31RidgewayGirl
Dez 19, 2009, 5:50 pm

32GingerbreadMan
Dez 19, 2009, 5:54 pm

It's Flea, my wife, who is the historical buff in this family. I rarely venture into the field. We have something by Iain Pears, but not that one. Why? A better take on the same story?

33GingerbreadMan
Dez 19, 2009, 6:12 pm

@32 Oh wait, we DO have it. It's just called something completely different in Swedish. Flea liked it a lot, as I recall. A recommended read?

34RidgewayGirl
Dez 19, 2009, 8:39 pm

I liked it. It had the same set of circumstances narrated by four different people who saw things completely differently. So what would a rough translation from the Swedish be? Does Flea have an LT account?

35GingerbreadMan
Dez 20, 2009, 7:45 am

31 Sometimes my english fails me. I interpreted "engrossing" as "off-putting" rather than "captivating". Hence the rather strange question at the end of post 32...

@34 It's called "The fourth truth" in Swedish. I don't even understand what the english title means :)
Flea is a vivid supporter of LT, but never seems to get around to it herself. She has an account, containing one (1) book.

36GingerbreadMan
Dez 26, 2009, 4:33 pm

9. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (Greece)

I got this book as a christmas gift from a friend of mine (this is her favourite Murakami, an author I've just begun to discover), and not finding any room for it in my 1010, I decided to read it for christmas.

The fact that most of it is set in Greece, on an unnamed but vividly described island off the coast of Rhodos, making it a title for this challenge, was a happy coincidence.

I gave this book a full set, 5 stars. I'm pretty sure it's not REALLY Murakami's best novel. But you know how it is, sometimes a book comes along at just the right time and just..."speaks to you" sounds so corny, but something like that. Sputnik Sweetheart pushed all the right buttons for me, right now.

It is in a way a classic love triangle. K, our narrator, loves kooky, messy would-be author Sumire. She, however, just thinks he's the best friend ever (hello, my teenage years) and besides, she's pretty certain she can't fall in love anyway. Until she does, with Miu, a 17 years older businesswoman. Who in turn thinks Sumire is great, but can't love her. Sumire starts working for Miu and the two women go on a business trip to Europe, which transforms into a holiday in Greece. From which Sumire disappears from the face of the earth, without a single trace.

Murakami again pulls off a seamless travel from realism into something very different. You hardly notice how things are beginning to tilt, and before you know it you accept this dreamlike state as normal.

But what stays with me here is manly the relationships between these people, the distinct feeling they all share that something is lacking in human interacting and the fear that it might be impossible to know someone for real. This sweet and sad book, at this time in my life, filled me with melancholy and wonder. It will linger for a long time.

37GingerbreadMan
Editado: Dez 29, 2009, 8:56 am

10. Avskedsvalsen (Farewell waltz) by Milan Kundera (Czech Republic)

Like so many other young men with turtlenecks and glasses, I had a brief Kundera period in my early twenties. Ever since, a few titles have been waiting around unread on the shelves. Suddenly, almost to my surspise, it felt time to pick up this one. The beauty of LT challenges, no doubt!

Spanning five days in a Czechoslovakian fertility resort (but in what is now Czech Republic, somewhere close to Prague) this is a light(ish), breezy, humorous novel of romance, deception, life decisions and good byes.

It's a clever and fast-paced weave Kundera gives us here, full of twists and even with a bit of "ticking bomb" suspension in the form of a tablet of poison being mixed in with medical pills. It would undoubtedly make a good film or play.

What brings the rating down by at least one star for me is the book's stale sexism. Even though there are as many female characters as male ones in this polyphonic novel, the tilted balance is striking. The men think and talk about existence, religion, friendship and the nature of women. The women think about the men they are hot for. In the book's concluding "solution", it becomes rather unpleasant and cynical in (as far as I can tell) a rather unintended way. I gave the book 2,5 stars, and suspect it's not my final choice for this country in this challenge.

38GingerbreadMan
Jan 1, 2010, 11:04 am

11. Kiffe kiffe imorgon (Kiffe kiffe tomorrow) by Faîza Guèna (France)

Written almost, but not quite, in diary form, Kiffe Kiffe tomorrow follows fifteen year old Daria for a year in the slummy Paris suburb "Paradise". She's born of Moroccan parents, but her dad has left the family and remarried in the home land. Daria's mum can't read or write and works as a hotel cleaner.

This book is very similar to many other european tales from the suburbs, frontlines of the failure of intergration. There's a fair bit of poverty (including heartbreaking little episodes like getting laughed at at school because your second hand t-shirt turns out to be a pyjama top), a bit of well-meaning but stupid authorities, a bit of islam, a bit of drugs, some oppression of women, a bit of reluctant love (with the most obnoxious boy ever, of course), a fair bit of anger and frustration and a hefty dose of humour and self irony. It's cute, well-written, young and fast. But I think it could have done with a little more structure. And above all, a little more teeth so to speak. If you haven't read this story many times before though, it's a good YA novel. I gave it a 3, and - again - suspect there will come other french novels before this challenge is done.

39GingerbreadMan
Fev 1, 2010, 5:22 pm

12. Världens lyckligaste folk by Lena Sundström (Denmark)

In the early 90ies, Sweden had a far-right-wing-populist-blame-everything-on-the-immigrants party in parliament. Thankfully, they proved to be extremely incompetent, and not only lost their seats in parliament by the next election, but also in a way "closed the market" for buffoons like that for many years in Swedish national politics.

For this autumn's election, however, the barely reformed racists in Sverigedemokraterna, after many years of success on a local level stand a very real chance of getting in. Which makes Lena Sundströms book a pretty worrying read. A very sturdy type of alarm clock, if you will. My danish book does NOT paint a pretty picture.

Sundström, columnist at one of the big Swedish tabloids, returns to Denmark, our southern neighbour country, where she studied in her youth. She does so in order to try and figure out what the heck has happened there in the last ten years. How did cozy, happy (happiest in the world, according to UN statistics), never-take-yourself-too-seriously Denmark turn into a nation with an extremely nasty anti-islamic public rhetoric and one of the toughest immigration policies of the world?

What this book describes is how a small populist party, Dansk Folkeparti manages to tilt the public debate completely, making immigration and (lack of) integration top of everybody's political agenda and bringing all the other parties with them. Soon everybody seems to be outbidding each other in whipping up anti-immigration tension, with talks of "mass rape", "danishness being under threat" and "they hate us and breed like rats". And soon the happiest nation of all is passing laws that:
make it virtually impossible for a dane to marry a non-european and stay in the country;
an immigrant, in order to become a citizen, need to pass tests that most danes couldn't manage;
state that Denmark won't accept war refugees (from the UN quota) unless they are literate and un-traumatised;

Sometimes I think Lena Sundström is making things a bit too easy, simplifying complex issues. She also perhaps overvalues the interest of her own re-aquaintance with Denmark a bit. But this is one important book, for Swedes not least. I'll be following this year's election campaign closely, with a slightly new set of glasses. 4 stars.

40sjmccreary
Fev 3, 2010, 2:40 pm

An excellent review - and a troubling situation. As you may know, immigration is a perennial hot topic in the US - with the questions of how to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico, and what rights do illegals already in-country have, topping the list. For us, the issue of limiting immigration is a delicate one, and potentially hypocritical, since nearly all of us are immigrants. But in the case of Denmark and Sweden, that isn't necessarily the case. You actually have a distinct national identity that might be altered by accepting crowds of outsiders. Unfortunately, no easy answers.

41GingerbreadMan
Fev 3, 2010, 5:02 pm

Thank you for the input! I agree that the issue is complex. It needs to be stated though, that the complexity includes the concept of "national identity" as well. What is considered Swedish or Danish is also the result of a constant influence from the outside world: The Swedish language, for instance, has been heavily influenced by german, french, romani...and for the last hundred years by english. One of our core national dishes hails from Turkey. The Swedish wealth rests partially on guest workers from Vallonia (my ancestors!) reforming the iron industry in the 16-1700:s...And so on. We're fairly new as truly multicultural societies, but it's important to adress that the image often presented by our home-grown protectionist nationalists of a self-evolved culture now under threat is a false one.

42sjmccreary
Fev 3, 2010, 5:56 pm

Interesting points. One can make arguments on both sides of the issue. But just the fact that you talk about your own language, however corrupted it's become, and a "national" dish sounds foreign to me. Coming from a society that doesn't have such identifying characteristics as a language, a "traditional dress", distinctive music or dance or food, those things sound very nice and worth preserving. We may have some of that on a regional basis, but they are largely carryovers from the orginal immigrant settlers to that area. (Such as the hordes of Scandinavians whose decendents still live in Minnesota and other northern states!) Time moves on, and things do change, even if we don't always like those changes. In 150 years, your new immigrants will likewise have made their mark on your society and become part of your "traditions".

43GingerbreadMan
Fev 4, 2010, 2:32 am

In 150 years, your new immigrants will likewise have made their mark on your society and become part of your "traditions. My point exactly! I'm not opposed to all things scandinavian, absolutely not, but I see the benefit of also blending new impulses into what constitutes a nation.

It's interesting how you state that there are no cultural identifying characteristics in America. To an outsider, American culture seems to one of the truly dominating ones in the world: film, TV, food, literature, music AND attitudes. But that's all a question of how old something has to be to be considered "traditional", of course!

44sjmccreary
Fev 4, 2010, 8:20 pm

Ah! There's the key - when does something become a tradition? I used to laugh at my youngest son - he would often ask to do something that he had enjoyed before (when he was about preschool age, say 3-6 years old) and when I asked why he wanted to do that, he'd answer "it's a tradition". So, I began declaring that, as far as he was concerned, a tradition was anything we'd done once in a row!

You're right, of course. The US has been around long enough now to produce its own brand of literature and music and art - not to mention TV and movies. And we've got plenty of attitude to go around! But it doesn't seem very cohesive - is there some defining characteristic that brands it "American" rather than "European"? I guess it's like anything else, when you're too close to something, you don't see it as others do.

45RidgewayGirl
Fev 5, 2010, 12:12 pm

It took a move to Germany to see that there is a distinctive American culture and cuisine. There's a version that is exported in quantity, like McDonald's and action movies, and a subtler culture of what you'd make for dinner for your family and friends, chatting with strangers when you're stuck in a line, overt and sometimes pushy religious symbolism--things we just take for ordinary.

David Sedaris has a funny essay on how Christmas traditions differ from country to country called Six to Eight Black Men in his book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, which begins with a run down of what roosters say.

46GingerbreadMan
Mar 2, 2010, 12:15 pm

13. Mannen utan öde Fateless by Imre Kertész (Hungary)

This is one of those books it just never seemed the right time to read. I’m sure we all have them – books of undeniable importance that we know we’ll want to read someday. Need even. Just not…today. And besides, what if it don’t like it? Worse, what if it doesn’t affect me? So despite being a slender volume and coming with strong recommendations from people I trust, despite reading other books dealing with the holocaust in the meantime, Fateless stared at me from my shelves for close to seven years before I finally picked it up.

This slim novel, drawing from the author’s own experiences, is telling the well known story of the concentration camps in the simplest way possible. The boy Györgi, already used to the limitations to his everyday life that comes with being a jew in Budapest in 1944, is asked to get off the bus on his way to work one day. After being rounded up in a house, in a mellow and almost friendly fashion, he and his friends are put on a train “to go to work in Germany”. Only when arriving at his destination he comes to realise that the stories of the death camps he’s always dismissed were true. The book then deals with Györgi’s prison life in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz, right up til the liberation and his return home.

Kertész tells us this heart-wrenching story in style that’s laconic and completely understated, free of sentiment. Györgi treats the daily horrors of the camps as if they were inevitable, even natural, which gives the writing a form of held back force that is impossible to guard oneself against. The image the reader gets is that of complete disillusion and detachment as survival strategy. And when our narrator after returning home one single time describes what he’s feeling -“hate”- that simple word stands out as something extremely powerful.

This book is full of images and little descriptions that seem profound statements of life under such extreme circumstances. Such as the illogical will to prove yourself as a good worker to your tormentors. Or the utter boredom of life in the camps. Or the disappointment when you realise you still want to cling on to life despite being seriously ill. Or being worried at the ruckus of liberation if this means they’ll forget to serve evening soup. Or the strange sting of homesickness that hits you when thinking back on the camps.

This is a quick and easy read. And very difficult. And utterly thought-provoking. I can’t recommend it enough. 5 stars!

A lot of this book is set in Germany and Poland, but it begins and ends in Budapest, Hungary.

47sjmccreary
Mar 2, 2010, 3:35 pm

#45 Talking to strangers in line isn't universal?

48sjmccreary
Mar 2, 2010, 3:36 pm

#46 I already posted on your 1010 challenge thread, but this is STILL a great review!

49GingerbreadMan
Mar 2, 2010, 3:46 pm

@47-48 Thanks for the double praise! :-)

Talking to strangers in line - could well be frowned upon by some here in the chilly north. Talking to strangers on the bus is a no-no for sure. People will assume you're a drunk.

50sjmccreary
Mar 2, 2010, 5:46 pm

#49 That's good to know, I guess. What about Canadians? We're planning a trip to Nova Scotia this summer - what should we expect?

51GingerbreadMan
Mar 3, 2010, 2:13 am

Hah! :-)

I've never been to Canada, so I can just talk for us Scandies, I'm afraid (and even here we have our cultural differences - Finns tend to think Swedes are a frivolous, extrovert, shallow bunch).

That being said, Canadians have sometimes struck me as a little more low key (north European?) in their ways than people from the US. Is that general sentiment in North America too?

My main guess when it comes to what you should expect in Nova Scotia in the summer is long evenings and gnats, however.

52RidgewayGirl
Mar 3, 2010, 10:22 am

Having grown up in Canada and now living in the US, I would say that, very generally speaking, Canadians tend to be more reserved and quieter than Americans. They are friendly and kind and very proud of being Canadian in a low-key way. Like anywhere, if you're polite and avoid "fifty-first state" type jokes, you'll be fine. Maritimers have a reputation for being a bit more reserved/taciturn than Canadians farther west.

You're going to a beautiful part of the world! Enjoy the beer, eh?

53sjmccreary
Mar 3, 2010, 5:35 pm

Long evenings sound lovely, and I'll be sure to take insect repellant for the gnats. I've never been to Canada, either, but it seems just wrong that we will need passports to cross the border. (Actually, I think it may be the US that requires passports to come back home - is that still the truth?) I'm looking forward to the trip. Being lifelong residents of the agricultural mid-west any coastal area is both strange and fascinating for us, but the photos we've seen from that region are simply breathtaking. We'll definitely enjoy the fresh seafood we don't get here.

54GingerbreadMan
Mar 15, 2010, 5:33 pm

14. Föken Smillas känsla för snö (Smilla's sense of snow) by Peter Hoeg (Greenland)

Like everybody else with cultural aspirations in Scandinavia I was reading Peter Hoeg in the mid-nineties. Post-modernism gone accessible was the thing, and the way I recall it I spent a lot of those years reading Auster or Coe or Hoeg in bad light in smoke-filled cafés. And, pretty typical of me at the time, I read every book of Hoeg's, except the one everybody else read...

As I'm likely the last person in the northern hemisphere to read this, I'll keep the plot summary to a bare minimum. Smilla, of half inuit origin, is a stubborn, angry, hot-headed woman in her mid-thirties, intelligent but ever unable to deal with authority long enough to keep a job. When the neighbour boy Esajas falls of the roof of their Copenhagen project house, the investigation clearly states it was an accident. Smilla doesn't think so. She knows Esajas was terrified of heights, and she also knows snow. The footprints at the edge of the roof shows her something isn't right. She thinks Esajas was murdered, and sets out to discover who did it. What starts out as a murder mystery is then unveiled to be something rather bigger, and in order to punish the guilty, Smilla needs to return to Greenland, working undercover on a very secret expedition.

For me, what will stay from this novel are the descriptions of inuit life, culture and mentality. I can't know how it looks to a native, but for me this was a fascinating glimpse into a culture nurtured under extreme circumstances - and all but destroyed in the meeting with the west. The sense of place is great, and the settings in the second half of the book are truly spectacular. And Smilla is a cool heroine, and I feel I get to understand her way of thinking.

I'm a little less treated by the thriller structure. I'm the first to admit this is not my genre, but there's too much of rummaging through old offices, reading old newspapers, and meeting with people hinted at seventy pages ago for my taste. It also seems to me that this book uses an unusual amount of odd coincidences, chance meetings and people deciding to go to lenghts to help Smilla for no apparent reason, which flaws it's machinery a fair bit.

That being said, I loved the big pretentions of this book - in the end it proves to be something else and more than your standard crime thriller. Be warned however, if you need your books to neatly add up at the end, this is not for you. The rating is a close call for me with this one, but I'm keeping it cheap and staying at 3,5 stars. Another day it might had been 4, mind you!

55GingerbreadMan
Abr 7, 2010, 5:38 pm

15. The earth hums in B flat by Mari Strachan (Wales)

LIfe is not entirely easy for twelve year old Gwenni Morgan. She has inherited not only the flaming red family hair, but also the family nose. Her best friend seems to have forgotten that they hate boys, and is now too grown up to want to be seen with her. Her Mam is always cross with her for no apparent reason. And she has forgotten how to fly, except in her sleep. When her schoolteacher's nasty husband goes missing, and is then found floating in the town reservoir, Gwenni decides to solve the mystery. But in her efforts to do like the real detectives do, she stumbles onto secrets of her own family. The kind of secrets that tear families apart.

Set in a vividly painted little town in Wales in the 50ies, this is one of the most bittersweet stories I've read in a long time. The small town ambience, with it's social control, gossip and community is relatable and alive. The sense of place is very strong, from descriptions of nature and weather and all the way down to the character's names: Mrs Jones the Butcher, The Voice of God, Nanw Lipstick.

But Gwenni's life is not cute, and Strachan never resorts to mushiness or sentimentality. Rather the opposite, Gwenni considers many things normal that strikes the reader as horrible, creating an understated style that is really effective. Much in the same way, as a reader you sometimes draw other conclusions from her gathered clues than Gwenni herself does. It's skilfully balanced - I find myself knowing just a little more than Gwenni a lot of the time, but the book never ever looks down upon her or her thoughts. And the little uncertainity that remains regarding the truth about her flying, creates a fine streak of magic in there too.

Don't expect a murder mystery (even though there is one in here too.). This is a deeply moving coming of age story, where things said or unsaid have real consequences, difficult to reverse. It's sad, but often funny too. One of the best read of this year so far. Thank you cbl_tn! 4 ½ stars!

56cbl_tn
Abr 7, 2010, 6:09 pm

>55 GingerbreadMan: Great review! You've captured the story well. This was one of my favorite reads of last year, and it's still very memorable to me. It isn't the sort of book one forgets easily.

57GingerbreadMan
Abr 25, 2010, 9:33 am

16. Expedition L (L) by Erlend Loe (Norway)

On the very first page of this book is the following:

You say that the Big Story is dead?
You want small stories?
You’re bloody well going to get it.


Which, in it’s own way, pretty much sums it up. Norwegian writer Erlend, shameful that he’s not done anything to build up his country, suddenly gets a flash while skating across a frozen lake. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl (I guess it helps knowing a little bit about scientist Heyerdahl and the Norwegian mentality towards this national icon to read this book. Most well known is his daring travel on the balsa raft Kon-Tiki from Chile to Polynesia, in order to prove that Oceania could have been colonized from South America) he gets a bold theory in his head: Perhaps the first human settlers in Polynesia didn’t come on rafts, but rather on skates? The fact that the Pacific Ocean has apparently never been frozen doesn’t deter Erlend – after all, just one or two really cold winters would be enough. He sets out to gather an expedition to look for traces of those skate-wearing settlers.

The first half of this book is absolutely hilarious. Loe’s gathering of his seven man strong group, trying to find the equivalents of Heyerdahl’s sturdy resistance men from WW2 among his slacker friends, his desperate hunt for funding, and the rickety reasoning around his big theory has me laughing out loud on almost every page. The parallels to Oreille Rouge that I read earlier this spring are obvious – but where that book poked a hole in the European Vagabond myth, this one deconstructs the classic tale of exploration and adventure. Loe’s style, where irony is hidden behind understated naivety and he never oversells his points, is just so much fun; from his decision to just include men in the expedition (Men are stronger and faster. Women apparently handle pain better. So wouldn’t including women risk sending the wrong signal: that this is going to be an extraordinarily painful expedition?) to his interviews with the members to get an idea how they might handle pressure and isolation.

The sense of place is not overwhelming, but there is something extremely norwegian abour both Erlend and his friends, and the good-humoured adventurer image they try to live up to, that I don't hesitate in counting it for this challenge.

Once they get to the atoll in the Cook Islands (and apparently theyactually went, there are lots of photos included!) however, and it’s too hot to do much research, the book drops it’s momentum a bit. There are great parts here too, such as the experimenting with different forms of government, but it never quite lives up to the first half. In the end though, Loe manages to wrap it up nicely, even giving a feeling that he’s saying something semi-valid about his generation (sic!).

If you don’t find this book funny, there’s not much else to show for it. No plot or style or characters to redeem it. Me, I laughed a lot and smiled even more. 4 stars!

58GingerbreadMan
Editado: Jun 2, 2010, 2:39 am

17. Lust by Elfriede Jelinek (Austria)

It should be said from the beginning: Elfriede Jelinek is not for everyone. If you like your books plot driven and populated with likeable characters, she is not for you. Trust me. Not even a little bit. Me, I’ve sometimes ranted against her plays that I find pretty overrated. But as a novelist I have found her misogynist cynicism and her chilly smirk towards humankind and society to be…well, kind of refreshing. More than once I’ve defended her work against friends who’ve thought her to be merely a shallow provocateur.

But this is just ridiculous.

The position that love is a myth, that men’s desire is only to dominate and that sex is basically invented to degrade women is only the kind of extrapolation I kind of expect from Jelinek. But to use it as she does here, kicking her poor main character Gerti around for 217 pages in a paper thin storyline mixed with endless (and I mean endless. There are literally hundreds of metaphors for the male and female genitals in this book) descriptions of oral and anal rape is just stupid. It’s page after page of overstated, empty gestures, trying desperately to be disturbing but instead boring me to tears. Only Jelinek’s odd but effective style and some somewhat fun snarls at winter sports save this from rock bottom. Worst read of the year for me, and I’ve lost my trust in this writer.

59Mr.Durick
Maio 31, 2010, 8:01 pm

I went to BN.COM to have a look at Jelinek and found four of her books at bargain prices, so I ordered them. The content of your review makes me think I am not likely to read Lust, but for $3.58 or thereabouts I didn't feel I ought to pass it up.

Robert

60GingerbreadMan
Jun 1, 2010, 3:14 am

Heh, I'm a little surprised the above review generated purchases! Best of luck with Jelinek. I recommend her The piano teacher. It does everything this novels tries, and fails, to. Wonderful, wonderful times is very powerful too.

61RidgewayGirl
Jun 1, 2010, 2:00 pm

I did see the movie based on The Piano Teacher and it was both thought-provoking and very hard to watch. I will try Jelinek, but will wait until the right moment.

62GingerbreadMan
Jun 6, 2010, 9:42 am

In my personal experience, she's one of those writers it never quite seems to be the right time for ;-)

63GingerbreadMan
Jun 6, 2010, 9:45 am

18. Begrav mig stående (Bury me standing) by Isabel Fonseca (Romania)

Ask yourself honestly: What do you know about gypsies? In my case, the answer was “Not a whole lot, really”. In a time when many parts of eastern Europe are adapting racist laws against this people, when actual pogroms and lynching are happening continuously without the perpetrators getting punished for it, it seemed high time to read this book, collecting dust on my shelf for over ten years now.

Fonseca, an American jewess, lived with gypsies in various countries for four years while writing this book, and it gives good basic insight to a culture and a people who remain kind of hidden in our midst. The largest portion of the book is set in Romania, however, and I've decided to count it as my Romanian book. The sense of place, culture and people is strong with Fonseca, having a journalistic approach in her writing.

The gypsies have no promised land, no myths of a glorious past. They are unique as a people in that their nation is not a place (or even the dream of a place), but formed around moving, travelling on the fringes – even now when the vast majority are resident. Most gypsies live in poverty and oppression, but they are also fiercely resisting assimilation, having strict rules for how to interact with gadjo – non Gypsies.

I knew about the prejudice, hate and fear towards gypsies (indeed, I’ve often noted how even liberal and conscious people around me have occasionally made remarks about gypsies that they would never ever direct at jews or arabs or gay or any other minority), but a lot of what this book describes was still news to me. I was shocked to read about how the hundreds of thousands of gypsies killed in the Holocaust were disregarded for a long time. Only 1982 was the systematic killing of gypsies recognized as genocide, and they weren’t represented in the US Holocaust Memorial Council until 1986!

At the same time, it was difficult to read that some of the most common prejudices against gypsises – that they are stealing, and heaping junk around their homes – do have some truth to them. Both are part of traditional gypsy strategies to keep a distance towards gadjo.

Fonseca’s account is very personal and subjective, which is both good and bad. There are many memorable and moving characters here, among the many families she meets. But sometimes Fonseca’s view becomes slightly exotic and down the nose in a way that makes me wish for a more distant approach. Still, this is a book that makes me feel a little wiser.3½ stars.

64cmbohn
Jun 12, 2010, 12:08 pm

One of my college roommates was half-Gypsy. Both of her parents were half-Gypsy too, and she had some relatives who stayed in the tradition, but most of her family had more or less adopted gadjo ways. We didn't talk a lot about it, but I know she was sometimes frustrated by the family's tendency to avoid talking about anything they considered private or shameful. It's like they would pretend it hadn't happened.

65GingerbreadMan
Jun 14, 2010, 1:03 pm

"Don't talk too much about your heritage with non gypsies" seems to have been a policy. And forgetting the past has also been a strategy. Apparently (this is all according to Fonseca) even the Holocaust has been very little talked about within the gypsy communities, and even the romani word for it - porraistos - is not widely known amongst gypsies.

66GingerbreadMan
Editado: Ago 18, 2010, 4:25 am

I already have a Sofi Oksanen title as my Estonian book, but not only is her latest one available in English, it's also much better than Stalins kossor (which wasn't bad!). It makes sense to swap:

Utrensning (Purge) by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)

Rural western Estonia 1992, right after the fall of the Soviet Union. The old woman Aliide is waiting for the legal rights to her family’s lands and forests to be returned to her (hopefully before the Finnish companies that are moving in fast cut it anyway - without paying) and worry about the local youths who shout outside her house at night. For Aliide is labelled a communist collaborator and Russian-lover – and in this new state there is noone to protect her. One morning she finds the young woman Zara huddling on her front porch. She’s been drawn into trafficking and is now on the run from her slavers. And it’s soon evident that her coming to this particular farm house is no coincidence. The girl is connected to Aliide’s dark and hidden past – her hopeless and blinding love for her brother-in-law, a member of the hunted nationalist resistance, and the chain of betrayals, sacrifices and moral corruption that this love set in motion.

Oksanen’s book jumps between the stories of the two women, back and forth in time, creating a puzzle that comes together only slowly and gradually. It’s a read demanding some concentration, but exciting and rewarding, with a great balance between character, situation and plot. The Estonian landscape is so vividly described I can almost taste and smell it, as can I the drab, grey paranoia of the Stalinist times.

In quite a few of the reviews here on LT the point is made that the two major story lines are unbalanced. And I agree to some degree. Zara’s story, while heart-wrenching, very graphic and often disturbing doesn’t match Aliide’s in complexity or originality. But to me, since the stories are mirroring each other thematically, the draw emotional impact from each other. Both the women’s stories deal with oppression in different systems, captivity, the helplessness in not having legal documents, trying to play by the rules in a game you can’t win, the corruption of ideals, the shame in being abused – to mention but a few overlaps. Oksanen used the same technique in Stalins kossor, in letting the starvation of the people during the early communist era contrast with young western women’s anorexia of today, but here the weave is so much more intricate.

The ending of the book is somewhat stressed and blunt, but that almost becomes a quality in itself, especially in contrast to the concluding string of documents and letters. Purge is not a book completely without flaws, but it’s original, moving and it has something to say. One of the most memorable reads of 2010 for me. 4,5 stars!

EFT typos

67cbl_tn
Ago 17, 2010, 10:25 pm

Great review! I'll keep Purge in mind for my Estonia book. It sounds like it's darker than the types of books I usually read. However, I've been venturing out of my usual, comfortable genres in my various challenges and have experienced some really good books that I might not have considered otherwise.

68Trifolia
Ago 18, 2010, 12:54 am

Great review, I totally agree with you, when you put it that way. And you write it so much better than I did :-)

69pbadeer
Ago 20, 2010, 11:29 pm

thanks for the great review of Purge. Added it to my wishlist. I was hoping to find an Estonia book which took place in Tallinn (that's the only part of Estonia I've ever visited) but this sounded too good to pass up.

70GingerbreadMan
Ago 21, 2010, 4:11 pm

67, 69 Thank you! I seiously doubt you'll find a better book for Estonia than this one. Go get it!

@68 Thank you so much! Looking forward to your thoughts on Topol! and Belarus!

71GingerbreadMan
Ago 26, 2010, 5:33 pm

Gomorra by Roberto Saviano (Italy)

I was slightly surprised there weren’t more uploads of this one on LT. Here in Sweden, the hype was massive when this book came out. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Saviano got support and shelter from the Swedish PEN club after getting a price on his head, which brought up the whole Swedish Academy passivity in the Rushdie fatwa affair again. Or perhaps it was just that Saviano came across as real brave badass type of guy during his stay in Sweden. Nevertheless this book sold out printing after printing and more often than not it’s slot on the store shelves was empty. Two years ago, this was the book everybody gave their dad (who never reads) for Christmas.

I’m underwhelmed. There should be so much to like here. The story of the world’s possibly mightiest crime organisation, the Napolitano Camorra (which easily outguns the Sicilian Mafia, including it’s American cousin), peppered with corruption, violence, vendettas, family feuds, upstanding priests, nicknames and world-wide tentacles, all told by journalist, a local lad who rides around on his vespa fuming over the criminal grip on his home region. But Saviano’s eagerness to keep it on a ground level (or gut level, he would probably prefer) makes the book confusing and tiresome to try to follow.

There’s no exposition here, no real analysis and no presentation of structure, making the almost 400 pages feel mostly like a long chain of isolated events stacked on top of each other. Not to mention an endless string of names who are casually introduced as if we all knew them already. It’s one of those reads where you find your mind constantly wandering off. Slippery, is the word. Mostly, it feels like a book where the already initiated are to gasp over what Saviano dares to mention, in his sparse hard-boiled style. Which is commendable and brave of course. But it doesn’t make for a very engaging read, save a handful of memorable episodes. A strange waste of rich material. 2 stars.

72Mr.Durick
Ago 26, 2010, 6:38 pm

There was a movie in the past couple of years made in Italy about the criminals of Naples. I am sorry I cannot find it on IMDB searching for 'Naples,' 'Napoli,' or 'Camorra.' Nor can I find it on the three Film Snobs threads I looked at in the Literary Snobs group. Anyway, there was little construction or analysis to it. It showed various kinds of crooks bonding, murdering, and looting. It was a very powerful movie.

I can see how a book might not be able to do that interestingly, and I am glad that you have brought that to mind.

Robert

73Mr.Durick
Ago 26, 2010, 7:02 pm

I found it, and it claims to be based on the book you are talking about. The movie was excellent.

Robert

74GingerbreadMan
Ago 29, 2010, 5:27 pm

Hi Mr. Durick and thanks for dropping by! I think that the success of the film probably helped push the book as well. It got great reviews. Then again, so did the book. In the end, I guess I was just expecting and hoping for something else.

75GingerbreadMan
Set 17, 2010, 9:48 am

Upgrading to a better English book:

Memento mori by Muriel Spark (England)

I adore Muriel Spark. I love her understated, slightly detached language. I love her intricate plots. I love her pitch-perfect balance between wit and unpleasantness. I know no other writer who quite like her can tilt things completely almost in passing, with a casual flick of the pen in mid-sentence (making you go: Wait, what? Was a major character beaten to death just now!?). I know no other writer who can keep on presenting sub-plots until the last page without making it feel frustrating. And I know no other writer who is so good at twisting realism just ever so slightly, just enough to distort it, making it feel different and strange and exciting.

In Memento Mori, a group of seniors from the upper classes in London (and their likewise elderly servants) start to receive strange anonymous phone calls. They all hear a different voice – old, young, man, woman – but the message is always the same. Delivered in a civil and almost friendly tone, it says: “Remember you must die”. Suspicions arise. Is it a prank? Is it due to old hostilities and secrets? Is it some relative trying to scare a rich aunt to death? Is it one of the group? Or is perhaps the caller not even human? The cast is beautiful, from the ageing writer going senile just as her books are coming back into print, to her husband obsessed with stockings (nobody writes everyday kinky like Muriel Spark!), to the old house-maid still plotting for a way to climb socially and economically, to the bedridden and foul-mouthed ex-paper-vendor who’s devoted her final days to getting rid of the anxious new ward matron at the Old People’s home (nobody writes everyday cruelty like Muriel Spark!) to the retired doctor running empiric studies on ageing on himself and his friends.

There’s a lot going on in just over 200 pages here. It’s definitely a book that calls for the reader paying close attention, as Spark mentions things only once and often understatedly so.
And perhaps there are just a few too many threads in this slim novel. The structure is looser than in some of Spark’s more polished works. On the other hand, her wit is at her best here, and there’s much to be discovered in the intricate relationships between the many characters. And honestly, how often do you get to read a funny, eerie, brutal, perhaps even metaphysical novel about growing old? 4 stars!

76pbadeer
Set 17, 2010, 7:54 pm

>>75 GingerbreadMan: - I've never read Muriel Spark, but I do have another of her titles (Far Cry from Kensington) on my wishlist. It sounds like I need to add this one as well.

77AHS-Wolfy
Set 17, 2010, 8:58 pm

That review certainly sparks an interest ;)

78GingerbreadMan
Out 17, 2010, 5:05 pm

20. Allt är upplyst (Everything is illuminated) by Jonathan Safran Foer (Ukraine)

Young Ukrainian Alex, working for Heritage Tours, gets the task to act as translator to young American Jonathan Safran Foer, who’s come to Ukraine to look for the woman who helped his grandfather escape the Nazis. On the trip out into the countryside is also Alex’ granddad, who is acting as driver (despite being allegedly blind) and the farting mutt Sammy Davies Junior, Junior. The trip proves difficult. Not only does Foer turn out to be Jewish. He’s also a vegetarian - who doesn’t even eat sausage. And worst of all, noone seems to know anything about the village he’s looking for.

It starts out as a rather burlesque tale but, dealing with the history of jews in Europe, it’s bound to get really sad along the way. And it does.

It’s not really about the plot. This novel is very much structured around form, style and themes rather than storytelling (even though there are a lot of tall tales in here). Since everybody but me have probably read this already, I’m not going to linger on how it’s built as a correspondence between Foer and Alex, where the former is sending chapters on the book he’s writing on his ancestors in the village of Trachimbrod and the latter is writing letters about the journey they made together – in a beginner’s English straight out of a thesaurus. While making comments about the chapters Foer is writing, and gradually improving his English so that his voice is different in the end than in the beginning.... To mention just a few of the major stylistic tricks, loops, coincidences and poetics that construct this book.

Frankly, to me the story is simple and strong enough to not really benefit from all the form. Alex’ voice is very interesting and well-crafted (if slightly exotistic), but a lot of the rest of the stylistic bling-bling I could have done without. It’s like Foer doesn’t really trust his own material, and the overloading makes the core seem sort of thin when it really isn’t.

There’s a lot I should like in this book, and I liked it, but not as much as I have a feeling I perhaps could have. Looking forward to reading Extremely loud and incredibly close sometime in the future, to see if that does for me what this just almost did. 3 ½ stars.

79GingerbreadMan
Jan 7, 2011, 6:08 pm

Too long since I visited another European country now! I've put a Europe Endless category in my 11 in 11 Challenge, so I expect to make at least some progress in the year to come.

The first title for 2011 is a bit of a disappointment, though.

21. Tuktans ljuva år (Sweet days of discipline) by Fleur Jaeggy (Switzerland)

The narrator of this slim novel is a teenage girl who’s spent most of her life on extremely exclusive boarding schools, having her future mapped out by very distant parents who she rarely meets. At Bausler Institut in the Swiss alps, she makes friends with the chilly and perfect Frederique, and discovers a new side of herself, a streak of darkness and self-destructiveness.

I thought this simple set-up sounded fascinating in an Amelie Nothomb sort of way (which is something very positive in my book), but was disappointed . It’s so understated it’s virtually static, and never seems to leave ground, despite a nice, detached writing style and a melancholy tone in it’s claustrophobic world. The closeness of life in a secluded school in a small village far from everything is well captured, as is the environment. But it’s just not enough. A few late twists, not unexpected but interesting enough, save the book somewhat, but it remains front heavy and not quite worth it. Read Nothomb’s AntiChrista instead. Or Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. 2 ½ stars.

80GingerbreadMan
Jan 18, 2011, 12:04 pm

Ticking a rather difficult country off the list:

22. Kallt land by Jáchym Topol (Belarus)

I have many good friends in Belarus, very involved in the struggle for freedom and human rights in Europe’s last dictatorship. They have all fared badly in the horrors after the presidential “election” in December: being arrested, harassed and beaten. My friends in Free Theatre Belarus are in the USA at the moment – smuggled out of Belarus on trucks. It’s at the moment very unclear if they are at all able to return home, and back in Minsk their families are getting harassed by the KGB (which is blatantly still called just that…). All this creates a chilling backdrop to the rioting going on in Minsk when our main character arrives there.

Tópol’s novel deals with a difficult subject matter: the concept of “horror tourism”, bringing in tourists to the death camps and slaughter grounds of WW2. On one hand, it’s of course important not to forget history. On the other hand, there’s something slightly unseemly with making an industry of human misery. Tópol doesn’t shy away from the many aspects of this issue, but paints a complex picture with nightmarish streaks.

Our unnamed narrator is born in Theresienstadt just outside Prague. A military town built on the bones of the dead under communist times, it crumbles under the years he spends in prison for accidently killing his father. When he returns to the only home he knows, it’s a ruin populated with outcasts and junkies. But the first misery tourists are beginning to find their way there – descendants to the victims of the Nazis looking for answers – and under the leadership of the local father figure Lebo, the inhabitants begin to build a small industry. They sell “This is where Kafka would have gone if he hadn’t died first” T-shirts, ghetto pizza and relics from the underground catacombs. They get press. Celebrities are supporting them. Funding is trickling in.

But then our main character is more or less kidnapped by a couple of agents from the Belarusian tourist authorities. They are adamant to make Belarus the centre of European horror tourism. After all, this is “The devil’s workshop”, where more people got killed than anywhere else. But there are also forces that would rather just forget about the past, since not every mass murder was committed by Nazis. Soon our main character is in the middle of a very violent conflict. And a very bizarre museum indeed.

My first Tópol was a very interesting and provocative read. I’m left with many thoughts.4 stars. (This book doesn't seem to be available in english, sadly).

81GingerbreadMan
Jun 6, 2011, 7:43 pm

23. Boken om kyrkogården (Samko Tale's cemetery book) by Daniela Kapitanova (Slovakia)

Samko Tále is a dwarf and has some sort of mild mental disability. He makes a living collecting scrap cardboard in his trolley and delivering it to the hated Krkan at the Recycling Station. But right now the trolley is in need of repairs, and Samko, who is a very hard worker, is forced to sit idle for days. This might be a good time to fulfill the prophecy given to him by the drunk Gusto Ruhe, who once accepted Samko’s drink as payment and scribbled on the ground: “Will write the book about the cemetery”. But why the cemetery? What can one write about it, besides the one page book Samko already wrote years ago? His story becomes instead a meandering, about the much better life under communist times (despite having to be in the same country as the despicable czechs), when RSDr Gunar Karol was always pleased with all the information Samko overheard for him, when he was allowed to give the pioneer vow - and when his sister Ivana wasn’t a world famous singer of whom one needed to be ashamed. He also tells of his uncle Oto and his pact with fungi, of the depressed artist Alf. Nevery… and despite trying not to, he keeps coming back to Darinka Gunarova, the object of his teenage desire, and Tonko, the great young athlete who loved her, but who couldn’t stop believing in God. And what happened to them. Perhaps this is a book about the cemetery after all.

This is my first ever experience with Slovakian literature and it’s really an original, interesting read. Samko’s peculiar language, meticulous but very limited and full of repetition, is the driving force of this slim novel, and Kapitanova does a great job of bringing it to life. It’s the same sort of quality you can find in books like The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, Everything is illuminated and Montecore, but with a flavor all of it’s own.

Samko’s unprocessed racism and homophobia , and his constant satisfied claims that he acted just like everybody else when it came to passing judgement or spreading gossip, gives us an image of the society he lives in. He’s a total conformist, but there’s also reason to his longing back to communist times. For him, and for the bitter ex-party big shot Gunar Karol, things were really better then.
It’s very clever how Kapitanova lets Samko tell another story than he thinks he’s telling, how the reader connects the dots in his stories that he himself is missing, but how she never sells him out for a laugh. Samko Tále is not a likeable fellow, but he’s human and a product of his environment. And his strange book is both crudely funny and sad. I’ll look out for more books by this writer. Recommended. 4 stars.

82GingerbreadMan
Jul 11, 2011, 5:28 pm

24. Salka Valka by Halldór Laxness (Iceland)

Everybody was raving about Laxness in this challenge last year, and I was lucky enough to have a book of his on my TBR mound. Not having read Laxness at all, I went into Salka Valka without really knowing what to expect – but with pretty high expectations from all the praise. And I must say Laxness was a pleasant acquaintance to make. I especially enjoyed his style – raw, real, unpolished, but with a streak of true poetry in the way he describes people and settings. It’s not pretty , but it feels true. And the sense of place is amazing.

The little girl Salka Valka and her mother Sigurlina end up in a small fishing community on the Icelandic east coast, since her their money wasn’t enough to take them all the way to Reykjavik. Here everything is ruled by the merchant Bogesen, a fairly benign despot perhaps, but still one who dictates the people’s lives. It’s a community of very slender means, where enough to eat is by no means a certainty and it’s a tough existence for Salka and her mum trying to find work and shelter here. For Sigurlina, the newly established Salvation Army becomes a haven, but outside of the church she mixes with the entirely wrong people: chiefly the charming rapist Steinthor, who also has an uncanny eye for her young daughter. Young Salka finds her strength in working and earning her own money , and from the school sessions with the strange young orphan Arnald.

The book follows Salka in her growing up, but is also a story about changing times. It tells of the rise of socialism (through Arnald, who returns as an agitator) changing the rules in this small community, challenging Bogesen’s power. It’s great how Laxness is letting the political movements among the working people mirror the twists and turns of the love between Salka and Arnald. People go back and forth here, chicken out, change opinion, switch sides or get bought. It’s a pretty intense ride on a very small scale. In the end though, there are a few too many turns of more or less the same, and by the last hundred pages I had kind of lost interest just a little bit. I'm perhaps not quite as blown away as some of you others. But I’ll surely check out more by Laxness, and heartily recommend this to lovers of the epic realism for instance Steinbeck and Harper Lee, who aren't scared off by some politics. 4 stars.

83GingerbreadMan
Out 23, 2011, 6:47 pm

25. För Gud och Ulster Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee (Northern Ireland)

Belfast in the early seventies. What a scary place! Violence is everywhere, bombings, secteristic murders and punishment of traitors (like the guy with a catholic fishing buddy) happens daily. And the city McNamee paints in a vivid grey is a place where the violence is even so normal it has pushed everything else out of people’s minds. It’s routine. In the pubs the discussions are all about ballistics and calibers. About who’s in jail and for how long. Or if there’s any truth to the statement that there’s still a higher risk of dying in traffic than from terrorism. Local knowledge is everything. A person who doesn’t know to which side each single street belongs is in grave danger. Palestine Street. Chlorine Park. Tomb Street.

And in this city walks Victor and his gang of butchers. Where everybody else kills with bombs or clinical gunshots, they torture their victims with numerous stab wounds. Victor is a cold-blooded psychopath, a serial killer among terrorists. He’s not only scaring the Catholics he hates, but the people on his own side too – the loyalist terrorists. Slowly, he is becoming a liability to the cause.

McNamee paints a bleak and scary portrait of a man and a time and place. We get to sense what might be Victor’s true subconscious motives between the lines, but mostly this is told as a straight and simple story. Perhaps just a little too straight. This is not a sophisticated book, but the ambience of it is masterfully created. It’s almost hard to believe it tells of a European reality from not that long ago. I gave it 3,5 stars.

84GingerbreadMan
Dez 26, 2011, 5:45 pm

26. Sju bröder (Seven Brothers) by Aleksis Kivi (Finland)

Seven brothers on the Finnish countryside, all in their late teens and early twenties and more than a little rough around the edges, find themselves orphaned as their father dies during an unfortunate bear hunt. Not entirely up to the responsibility, the eldest brother Juhani, implusive, sentimental and quick to anger, steps up to run the farm as family head. But the brothers aren’t ready for this kind of quiet life. After discovering six of them love the same woman (the exception being the silent Lauri, who’d prefer to take to the woods) they go to her to propose, and to their shame Vesla rejects them one and all. As if this wasn’t enough they get into a nasty fight with the boys from the next village, and the priest gets his hands on them to force them to learn to read and write. Unable to stand this chore, they break a window and escape to the woods – following the plan of Lauri.

The novel then deals with the ten years the brothers spend in the forest, making a life for themselves. In the beginning the focus is on hunting, comical episodes involving alcohol and fire and long quarrels, often ending in violence. But as time and the book progresses, it becomes more about their work building a homestead: clearing land, sowing crops, starving when the harvest fails and generally maturing. In the end, they return to their father’s farm as grown men, ready for marriage, learning and a humble life.

Really, this is a coming of age story in it's own peculiar way, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Published in 1870, it’s one of the first novels written in the Finnish language (Finland was still a part of Sweden then, and Swedish was the preferred language for people of stature), and considered a true classic in Finland. At first, it struck me as feeling very modern, with long gritty, dirty and rude dialogues between the brothers making up most of the text, and I thought it was perhaps in for more of a fun than a good read. But then there are the beautiful passages describing the Finnish countryside in an almost lyrical tone, creating a tender contrast. And not least, the very satisfactory development in the characters, where they are much better people in the end – but in no means free from their flaws. The last few pages move me deeply. It should also be stressed that, despite the title, this is a book with very modern female characters for its time. The women here are sturdy, sharp-tongued, tough and have a keen wit. Like those seven quarreling brothers, they are all a joy to meet.

This certainly falls under the pretty slim category “truly enjoyable classics” for me. I recommend anyone to give it a go. It’s bound to be dependent on a really good translation though, I think, so bear that in mind. A solid 4,5 star read for me.

85clfisha
Editado: Dez 27, 2011, 6:14 am

Hello.. I am not following you (honest) but this challenge is such a nice idea and I have finally succumbed :) probably concentrate on your 1212 thread but thought I would say Hi.

86GingerbreadMan
Dez 29, 2011, 7:42 am

Hey Claire! With your taste in books you can follow me anywhere! We're a small but hardy bunch here at the European Endless - looking forward in seeing what you come up with!

87GingerbreadMan
Editado: Abr 26, 2012, 4:18 am

Only a sixth of Cloud Atlas is set in Belgium. But Mitchell paints such a vivid picture of Brügge and the Belgian countryside in the "Letters from Zedelghem", I still feel confident to include this as a challenge entry. At least until I find something even more fitting.

27. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Belgium)

It’s slightly daunting sitting down to write a review of this brilliant book. Just trying to describe the structure and how the six stories that make up this whole are intertwined is quite a task. Still, I’m sure most of you know the basic idea already: Cloud Atlas starts out as a travel diary from a 19th century voyage to the Chatham Islands. This is then interrupted (mid-sentence!) and is presented as a book read by the main character in the next part, which are letters written by an obnoxious musical genius exiled in Belgium in the 30ies. Said letters are keepsakes of one of the main characters in the next story, set in the San Fransisco area in the 1970ies. And so on. Cloud Atlas is a maruschka doll of a book, working it’s way inwards and through time, to a central story, set in a haunting post-apocalypic Hawaii – and then out again. The six stories are very different, in style, tone and genre. And they are all really good, so good I have a hard time picking out favorites.

But there’s still more to this book. Apart from the fact that each story makes cameo appearances in the next one (often, but not always, being significant to the main character of it – in one instance it’s the last wish of a character to find out how it ends) there are also things that connects them. Someone recognizes a piece of music. Settings recur. Names recur. A birthmark shaped like a comet makes many appearances. And strong themes of freedom and slavery, human dignity and imprisonment create a red thread through time and space. I’m sure one could feel that stronger links between the stories could have been created, making the weave seem more intricate. For me, these touchstones and hints are perfect the way they are.

This is a funny book, a thrilling one, a tear-jerker and a taste of places and histories new to me (must learn more about the Moriori!). It’s a page turner like you wouldn’t believe, and one of those rare books where I kept hoping there were more pages left than it seemed. A truly wonderful read. 5 stars!

88VivienneR
Abr 26, 2012, 12:59 pm

Sounds wonderful. I didn't care for the book I'd chosen for Belgium and abandoned it. Cloud Atlas will fit the bill, if only to start with.

89GingerbreadMan
Abr 27, 2012, 7:23 am

I'd say any excuse to read this great book is a good one!

90Samantha_kathy
Abr 28, 2012, 8:41 am

I think you'd like The Sorrow of Belgium by Hugo Claus, and if there ever was a book that fit Belgium in all of its aspects, it's that one!

91Trifolia
Jul 11, 2012, 7:38 am

I second Samantha Kathy's opinion on The Sorrow of Belgium. I didn't like it much when I read it years ago, but I might want to read it again now that I'm a bit older.

92GingerbreadMan
Editado: Jan 27, 2014, 9:30 am

It's been forever since I made nay progress here, but I've dedicated a category in my 2014 Challenge to making some progress, so this year I'll finally tick off a few more countries!

28. Blattejävlar! (Slovenia)

Marko and his friends are in their late teens, living in the crappy projects of Fuzine in Ljubljana. Their parents are bosnians, serbs and croatians, all gathered in the ”most European” corner of ex-Yugo to find work and the possiblity of a german-made car. Marko, Dejan, Aco and Adi are not bosnians or serbs or croats or bosniaserbs, not really. But they’re certaintly not slovenian either. They’re Cefurji, distinctively second class citizens with little hope for the future. Marko, in his crudely humourous way, takes the reader by the hand through this neighborhood, sharing his insights on the differences between Cefur and Slovenian, the subtleties of family conversation among the Balkan clans and the impossibility of building an identity worth it’s name when there isn’t even a football team worth the name to follow.

But in between the brutally amusing anecdotes a sinister plot is unravelling as well. Getting drunk on a bus as a way to handle getting kicked off the basketball team leads to the bus driver calling the police. Which leads to the police beating them up and throwing them in the slammer overnight. Which leads to a brewing need for revenge – and one day Aco has the name of the driver. The fucker is even Cefur – supposed to be one of them!

I’ve read a thousand books like this, about youth caught in between their immigrant parents and a society that doesn’t want them. And more often than not, they are told just like this one, episodic, with some humor, some violence and a streak of real pain underneath. This is neither the best or the worst of them. The setting, and the tension between the more and less fortunate parts of former Yugoslavia is the most interesting part. 3 stars.

93cbl_tn
Jan 28, 2014, 11:13 pm

Not bad for a difficult country! Slovenia was one of the harder ones for me.

94GingerbreadMan
Fev 4, 2014, 7:13 am

>93 cbl_tn: I've been so slow in progress with this challenge, I just note books form "difficult countries" as I see them. This was just published in Sweden, and I stumbled onto it at the library.

29. Fixaren (The fixer: a story from Sarajevo) by Joe Sacco (Bosnia)

Joe Sacco, for those of you who don’t know his work, is a journalist working with the graphic novel as a form. The result is powerful, a combination of the autenhicity of the news story with the immediability of comics. His massive work ”Safe area Gorazde” taught me more about the coflict in former Yugoslavia than anything i’ve ever read.

This is a story on a much smaller scale. It is the last shaky days of the Bosnian war when Sacco arrives in Sarajevo. Most of the international press is long since gone, and when Sacco meets the ”fixer” Neven in a hotel lobby, he is long out of work. A fixer is a local who takes care of foriegn reporters, arranges meetings and interviews, acts as guide, translator and bodyguard. Sacco and Neven strikes up a friendship, of sorts, and this book is a portrait of a complex person, a complex place and a complex time. Through Neven’s stories we learn about the early days of the siege of Sarajevo, when local gangsters were the quickest to take up arms against the invading sebs. Larger than life, blokes like Juka, Caco and Celo and their militias were crucial for the defence of the city, but very soon became a liability as soon as regular Bosnian forces were formed.

Neven is a very unreliable narrator, and the story we get here is subjective, contradictory, and sometimes likely false. Sacco’s portrait of him is vividly painted, as is his own ambivalence towards him. The concept of documentary graphic novel is very appealing, with the sense of place coming across very strongly. Again, this is a book that makes me feel wiser. 4 stars!

95GingerbreadMan
Abr 7, 2014, 9:11 am

30. Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni (Bulgaria)

It looks like a classic coming of age story. A teenager has major trouble with authority, and is more interested in drinking, doing drugs and having sex than doing what the adult world expects of him. Until, finally, big bad reality catches up with him and forces him to deal with the consequences.

But this skeleton frame is really the only thing unoriginal about this story, which quite frankly blew me away. For the setting here is the Musical Academy for Gifted Children in Sofia, Bugaria, in the years just before the fall of the iron curtain. Konstantin is not an ideologist, he’s just rebellious and has no patience for the strict regime at the Academy. He’s skipping classes to have sex in the attic with brilliant Irina, he’s cheating at tests, he’s selling school property to his hoodlum pals, he’s taunting the party’s informants, he’s constantly pulling pranks. And he gets away with it too, since he’s a genius pianist, a true wonderchild. He threads the thin line, his grades are more than wobbly - but he knows the school will never let him go, he will always defeat the mediocre by doing what he loves. Until the day his best friend Vadim, the other piano ace at the school, gets expelled, with no chance of ever seriously performing again. Suddenly, Konstantin’s beef with the teachers takes a very serious turn. Suddenly, the stakes are very high. Suddenly, music and futures and lives are destroyed. And at the same time, the tiniest pinch of something that isn’t quite realism sneaks it’s way in there.

This is probably the best coming of age story I’ve read ever. Grozni’s blend of dirty realism and lyrical descriptions of classical music is just right, and even an illiterate like me gets caught up in Konstantin’s imagery around Brahms, Bach and Chopin. You can really tell that Grozni himself has a background in classical music. The city Sofia is also beautifully caught, as are the late times of Bulgarian communism, a tired system with few earnest defenders, and the civil war in the faculty between the artistic teachers and the academic ones – the brutality of the latter only matched my the naivety of the former.

Best of all though, is how this books glissandos from bawdy entertainment to something very very serious, until I find myself silently gasping “oh no” at some of the final twists. I picked up Wunderkind at a sale, mainly to get a Bulgarian entry for my challenge. I wasn’t expecting the best book I’ve read this year. 5 stars!

96GingerbreadMan
Jul 10, 2014, 5:20 am

31. Tigern i Galina (The tiger's wife) by Téa Obreht (Serbia)

Ever since they used to go to see the tigers at the Belgrad zoo together, Natalia shares a special bond with her grandfather. He is a brilliant doctor, an unassuming man deeply affected by the two strange encounters in his life – the runaway tiger that stalked his childhood village and the deaf girl who befriended it; and his chance meetings with the strange deathless man, claiming to be Death’s nephew, and rocking his scientific world wiew.

In the years after the civil war, Natalia is working as a doctor herself, in the strange new landscape that is former Yugoslavia, where borders and attitudes, hate and suspicion is creating new obstacles. She is doing voluntary work, giving out immunization shots to children when she gets word her grandfather has died, in a remote village where he had no business. Natalia is the only one who knew he had terminal cancer, and is convinced he’s travelled to that place to try and track down the deathless man. Following in his footsteps, she encounters his past.

This is a book of tall tales and magical realism. It’s engaging and full of atmosphere, and it, generally, knows when to stop, letting a sense of mystery shimmer. But there’s also something just a little formulaic over it, and it never completely engrosses me. My favorite part is probably the chapters that deal with life as a teen during the war in a Belgrad that is never in the middle of battle – a strange fatalistic defiance. Especially the part about people dressing up like animals to protect the zoo from bombing, flaunting signs for the newscast drones and bomb planes, was fascinating. I will be curious to see where Obreht goes next. 3 ½ stars.

97GingerbreadMan
Ago 7, 2014, 6:57 pm

32. Tjugo år och en dag by Jorge Semprún (Spain)

In 1936, inspired by the sparking revolution, the farmworkers storm a mansion in Toledo, executing the youngest son of the owners. After the victory of Franco’s fascist, the family creates a ritual, forcing the local farmers to reenact the murder on its’ anniversary every year – thus reminding them of their guilt and their defeat.

This novel is set on the twentieth anniversary of the murder, which is decided to be the last time the ritual is performed. Besides the family and the reluctant farmworkers, guests arrive to witness – an American writer who heard of this bizarre tradition from Hemingway, the children of the family, too young to remember the deed itself, and an officer of the security police, there both because he admires this method of putting the reds in their place, and because he suspects young Lorenzo, son of the executed, of communist activities. Constantly moving back and forth through the same day, with both memories from further back and glimpses of the future, this book is about secrets, sexual tension, the role of memory in our lives, and the kind of wobbly peace without real forgiveness that follows a civil war.

The small library in rural Ydre, where we spend some time every summer, has a wonderful summer sale. Besides old stuff, they also tend to sell a lot of new books that just haven’t worked out for them – usually books bought for all libraries in Sweden by the government, as a form of support system for small publishers. Most of these have never even been opened, and they sell for one krona each. Really, it’s the most wonderful place to pick up books from unusual countries, and titles you never heard of. This book was one of this year’s haul – the blurb sounded so interesting.

I find myself leaning this way, then that way with this book. At first, it’s literary style, it’s constant namedropping and eagerness to show off annoyed me. It felt old-fashioned in all the wrong ways. Then the storyline about the adamant fascist police Sabuesa, especially, gripped me. In the end, I’m left with the feeling that I read a book often focusing on the wrong things, which would have benefitted from a less literary style. Bonus points for introducing me to the powerful and fascinating renaissance art of Artemisia Gentileschi! 3 stars

98GingerbreadMan
Out 31, 2014, 7:23 am

My choice for Belgium, Cloud Atlas, really only has one part set in this country. So I'm swapping it for a book with a better sense of place:

Ost by Willem Elsschot

Laarmans, a rather unassuming office clerk in the harbor of Antwerpen, is via an influential friend suddenly getting the opportunity to become general agent for a dutch cheese manufacturer. Despite hating cheese, Laarmans is swept away by the prospect of becoming an entrepenuer – and not least what such a label does to his self-image – and faking an illness, takes a sick leave from his job to start this new, prosperous venture. The future is so bright it’s blinding, despite what nay-sayers like his wife and brother think of it. However, finding the right desk takes time, finding the right type-writer and letter paper does too, and before he is even set up there are twenty tons of edamer delivered to him. How does one even sell cheese?

This is a deceptively light-handed, slender book about being in love with who you think you should be, and the inability to say no. It’s a fine example of early modernist writing, a little bit like a gentler Kafka. But the style and the awkwardness of Laarmans also reminds me a little of Magnus Mills, which is high praise. I also have to admit to blushing at times – there’s definitely a little Laarmans in me. 4 stars!

99Trifolia
Nov 4, 2014, 1:29 pm

The Cheese-book by Elsschot is an excellent choice for Belgium. It's one of the best-loved classics of Flemish literature. I really should reread it, since I read it over 30 years ago. Excellent review, btw. Thanks for reminding me!

100GingerbreadMan
Nov 6, 2014, 4:57 am

It was a very god read! It was actually released for - I think - the first time in Swedish just a few years ago by a small publisher and I had never heard of it when the cover caught my eye at a library sale this summer. If it hadn't been for this challenge I might have missed it!

101GingerbreadMan
Editado: Jan 8, 2015, 2:46 am

Spegelriket by Aka Morchiladze (Georgia)

Georgia in the early 19th century is squeezed between the Russian and the Ottoman empires. Pavnel, a young Georgian nobleman kills a russian officer in a market brawl. His influence, and the service he’s done for Russia, gets him off with being exiled from the capital, on promise that he will stay in his village. But coming home he gets word that his mentally ill brother has taken off in another futile attempt at finding their mother. Pavnel has no choice but to defy the Russian verdict, and soon he’s a fugitive in the Georgian forests, hunted by an officer with a personal agenda.

Skvami is an aged slaver, being asked for one final job – kidnapping the daughter of a prominent russian to present as a gift for the sultan in Konstaninopel. He refuses, being out of the game and kidnapping girls being a practically dead practice. And yet he finds himself scouting the house out, making the preparations almost without even willfully wanting to.

At first, this book looks episodic and meandering, hopping back and forth between several story lines. Morchiladze does a great job of describing Georgia of the early 1800eds with lots of flavor, a land of two halves divided by a mountain range, very different but mirroring each other. But the story seems almost random. Until the last thirty or so pages, when all of a sudden everything fits together in a very intricate plot. It’s very skillfully done, if perhaps just a little too late. I feel this could have been a better book, without having to lose that final gasp. But it’s a book I’m glad I read, and a worthy representative of it’s country in my challenge. 3 ½ stars.

102cbl_tn
Jan 7, 2015, 5:11 pm

>101 GingerbreadMan: Georgia was a difficult country for me to fill. Well done!