fourteen.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (1966)

‘You remind me of a dear friend with whom I was on very close terms in London – Dr Mustafa Sa’eed. He used to be my teacher. In 1928 he was President of the Society for the Struggle for African Freedom of which I was a committee member. What a man he was! He’s one of the greatest Africans I’ve known. He had wide contacts. Heavens, that man – women fell for him like flies. He used to say “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis”, and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.'”

When the narrator comes home to the village by a bend in the Nile, he notices a stranger amongst the crowd. The stranger is intriguing, and soon the narrator is obsessed about him. His name is Mustafa Sa’eed and he had suddenly settled down in the village and married a local girl. Right before his sudden death, Mustafa tells the narrator about his life.


He grew up around Khartoum and happened to be one of the smartest in his class, so he was sent to Cairo to continue his education. From there, he went to London, where he became very successful and popular, especially with the ladies. So popular that a couple of them committed suicide after he was finished with them. And then he killed the one he married, spent some time in jail and went back to Sudan.

It’s a mix between north and south, old and new, and when you read it, you realise that there are no differences between us and them, regardless of who you or they are. It’s a story about love and madness. I liked the prose and the book gave me a lot of things to think about. It’s definitely a good quick read that will leave you pondering.

I chose this for an African book in Bjørg’s off the shelf challenge and it’s been on my shelf since 2010, so it was about time to read it. 

twelve.

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura (2002)
 Taro Azuma is a billionaire who grew up as a poor boy with his aunt’s family where he was treated poorly. Taro is the gossip of the Japanese community in New York as he as always been stand-offish and mysterious. Minae meets him first when she is a young girl and he is the private chauffeur to one of the big men in her father’s company. Later, when Taro is rich and Minae is a writer, she is sought out by a Japanese, Yusuke, who wants to tell her Taro’s story.

Yusuke got to know the story when he by accident or pure luck crashed into a gate of a cottage in Karuizawa, where an old maid lives. She lets him sleep in the shed and from there he swears he sees the ghost of a young girl. The maid, Fumiko, has served the same family since the war, and has known Taro from he was a kid living in the neighbouring house and until now, when she is his employee. She decides to tell him about her life, and the story of Taro and Yoko, probably because she wants it off her chest.

The prologue to this story is so long that it’s a story in itself. And then when the real story begins and takes you back over time, it’s like reading a completely different book. At first I struggled with the real story because I was so caught up in the prologue, but as the story progressed it mesmerised me. I have been spending months reading this, just a couple of pages in bed at night, because I didn’t want it to end.

The author says that this is a Japanese twist of Wuthering Heights. It’s been 10 years since I read Wuthering Heights and I don’t remember much except moors and Heathcliff (but this might also been influenced by Kate Bush). I’m going to reread Wuthering Heights as soon as possible, and then I might (but probably not) write a note on the two books.

This is also a tough competitor to the prettiest book in my collection. Just look at the cover(s). And it was the thing which caught my eye and made me buy it (yes, I always judge the book by its cover). The paper is glossy and the book is full of black and white pictures of the places in the story. And dividing it in two makes it a lot easier to carry it around because it’s nearly 900 pages long.

Did I mention that this book is great?

seven.

Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (2013)
The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
Empress Dowager Cixi, born in 1835, ruled China until her death in 1908. She was the one who modernised China, and fought wars against Japan and the great European powers. But as Cixi was just the Empress Dowager she had to rule behind the curtain and make sure that the Emperor was under her thumb.
Because she was just a concubine, and not married to the Emperor, she was not entitled to any power. But the Empress had not given birth to any sons, something which Cixi managed to do. When the Emperor died, her son, Tongzhi, was made the Emperor and Cixi, along with the Empress, were upgraded to Empress Dowagers. As Tongzhi was only 5, the Empress Dowgers were in charge. They also staged a coup which resulted in the removal of the Emperor’s advisors and the insertion of Cixi’s trusted men.

Her son became the ruler when he was married. Cixi stayed away from politics, but she didn’t agree with her son’s decisions. Tongzhi died in 1875, and because he had no sons, a boy was chosen and adopted by the Dowager Empresses to become the new Emperor. When Ci’an died in 1881, Cixi became the sole ruler until the boy, Guangxu, was old enough to rule himself.

In this period, Cixi had a lot of enemies. The most famous one was Wild Fox Kang who tried to murder Cixi several times. He didn’t succeed and Cixi found out about it. She believed that the Emperor himself was in on it, and successfully put him in house arrest so she again became the ruler, and this time she was in power until her death. This period was marked by the Boxer rebellion and the following war with the European powers. And after the war, China needed to reform in order to survive.

Although the book gives a detailed account of the life of Cixi, I never felt that I got to know her. I found her boring, and I also felt that Jung Chang spent a lot of time defending her. It also gives a detailed account of China at that time, and I definitely learnt a lot about Chinese history.  I became more fascinated by Wild Fox Kang, and I’m glad that Jung Chang wrote so much about him as well. The collection of pictures in the end was also very fascinating.

I’m going to read Wild Swans later this year, and Mao is also going to be read sooner or later, probably as a part of Ingalill’s superb biographies reading circle which this book was a part of.

four.

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb (1999)
 “Ancient Japanese protocol stipulated that the Emperor be addressed with “fear and trembling”. I’ve always loved the expression, which so perfectly describes the way actors in Samurai films speak to their leader, their voices tremulous with almost superhuman reverence. 
So I put on the mask of terror and started to tremble.”

Amélie is excited about spending a year in a Japanese firm. She was born and lived in Japan until she was 5, but her parents were Belgian. The big Japanese corporation turns out to be a culture shock for Amélie, with its hierarchy and secret codes of conduct.

The book makes an attempt at being funny, but it didn’t make me laugh. I also found it to be shallow and too many things and words were repeated for a novel of just 130 pages. How about finding some synonyms for beautiful and blunder? But this may be the translator’s fault. I also wished the author would take a look at Japan outside the workplace as well, as I think that would maybe make it more interesting. I found the section about how Japanese women should behave to be the most interesting in the book. How this book got to be on the list of 1001 books you should read before you die is beyond me.

But I have high hopes for the film, as I think there is so much potential which can be played out on the big screen.

three.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
 “Hi!
My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad Chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.

You wonder about me.
I Wonder about you.
Who are you and what are you doing?” 

Ruth finds a box containing a diary in English, a notebook in French and some letters in Japanese washed ashore on an island in British Columbia. The diary is written by a young Japanese girl, Nao, who is getting bullied and wants to talk about her 104 year old Zen Buddhist nun great-grandmother. The book alters between Nao’s diary and Ruth reading it. As Nao’s story progresses, Ruth gets more worried about her and tries to find her on the Internet.

Once I started this, I couldn’t put it down. I was fascinated, both by Nao’s diary and by Ruth’s island life. But the end was such a let down. I mean, so much potential, and then you end it with a conversation about quantum physics? And the other thing which annoyed me was that she chose to put herself and her husband in it. Especially when Ruth turned out to be my least favourite character. Oliver was more likeable. And although I read this great interview, I worry that I will always link the author Ruth to the Ruth in the book, and I fear that this will make it harder to read her other books.

But, yes to everything else! I loved the mesmerising and sad tale of Nao, her awesome great-grandmother and the island community. I also like how the nature on the island is a character, and that there are so much to learn from this book; both of Japanese culture and how the environment works.

fifty-seven.

the History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2005)
 “Once upon a time, there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered, and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword, a pebble could be a diamond, a tree, a castle. Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a house across the field, from a girl who no longer exists. They made up a thousand games. She was queen and he was king. In the autumn light her hair shone like a crown. They collected the world in small handfuls, and when the sky grew dark, and they parted with leaves in their hair.

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” 

Alma Singer is named after the woman in a book called the History of Love, which her mother is translating from Spanish to English. Alma is trying to figure out who the Alma in the book is. The other main narrator is Leo Gursky, an old man who went to America to look for his love after they got separated in a small Polish town during World War II. When he finds her, she is married to another man, but Leo is the father of the oldest son. Devastated, he spends the rest of his life alone.

There are plenty of other characters and their stories, and they are all fascinating. But the way all the stories eventually become one is the best thing about the book. And Alma Singer. I definitely loved it, and as always with books I love, I have a hard time coming up with smart things to say about them. Read it and find out for yourself why it’s great.

This was this year’s final book in Line’s 1001 books reading challenge.

fifty-six.

Helter Skelter by Bugliosi & Gentry (1974)
the True Story of the Manson Murders
 Helter Skelter is a song by the Beatles. Charles Manson believed that the Beatles spoke to him through the White Album and that they ordered the Family to start a race war.

On the night to 9th August 1969, four members of the Family broke into the house rented by Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, and killed 5 people. One of them was Sharon who was over 8 months pregnant. The killers wrote pig on the front door using blood. A day later, seven members of the family set out again to kill. This time the victims were the La Bianca family, and both victims were tied up and brutally murdered. The killers wrote the words healter skelter, rise, death to pigs with blood when leaving the house.

The investigation is a mess, and it took a long time before the police connected the two cases. The trial which followed, was the longest and most expensive, and resulted in the death penalty for Charles Manson and three of the girls.

The book is written by Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecutor in the case, with the help of Curt Gentry. That means that this is a thorough account of the entire case, starting with the murders, and then to the trial. It also gives a detailed account of Manson’s life and the way he gathered the Family members. The afterwords, written 25 years after the trial, tells what happened to the members of the Family since then.

It is a long and really detailed book, with nearly 700 pages. As it is written by the prosecutor, I felt that a lot of it is not really necessary to get a clear picture of the murders and the trials. But then again I don’t feel that I need to ever read another book about Manson again. It is the most sold true crime book in history, read it if you’re curious about the cult and the murders.

fifty-four.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said (1937)
“And for me this was the bell that went wrong; my first impulse to go to war as soon as possible. Now I had time to think. The caravan was wandering eastwards over the soft sand, lost in dream. The train was pushing westwards along its iron rails, mindless and mechanical. Why did I not raise my hand to pull the communication cord? This was where I belonged, to the camels, to the men leading them, to the sand! What was it to me, this world behind the mountains? These Europeans with their wars, their cities, their Czars, Kaisers and Kings? Their sorrows, their happiness, their cleanliness and their dirt – we have a different way of being clean or dirty, good or bad, we have a different rhythm and different faces. Let the train rush to the West. My heart and soul belong to the East.”

Ali Kahn is a Muslim of noble heritage, yet he falls in love with a Georgian Christian princess, Nino. They have been friends ever since they met on the way to school. Their worlds are completely opposite, Ali loves the eastern traditions and loathes the Russian dominance, while Nino loves Europe. Despite their differences, they love each other, and Nino says yes to Ali’s proposal on two conditions; he must never force her to wear the veil or put her in a harem. Nino’s parents give consent to their marriage on two conditions; Nino has to graduate and it must happen after the war.

The war happens to be the first World War, and it brings a lot of change to Baku. Ali wants to fight, but he doesn’t want to help Russia, so when Turkey goes to war against Russia, a lot of the Muslims of Baku decides to rise up against the Russians. But the uprising goes wrong, and they are forced to flee to Persia, where life changes completely for Nino.

This book will give you a crash course in religion and the history and geography of the Caucasus. It is also an intense love story. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it away. It is a great story and the language is lovely. In the beginning, I felt that the contrasts were too obvious and forced, but fortunately as the story gathered speed, they became less important.

Although Ali is the narrator in the book, Nino is in my opinion the real hero. I loved the parts where she fought with the eunuchs in Tehran. She also sacrifices everything for love. I have more mixed feelings for Ali and his beliefs. And why couldn’t this book have a happy ending?

fifty-two.

the Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013)
 Walter Moody, fresh off the ship in Hokitika, the booming gold town in Southern New Zealand, wanders into a gathering of 12 men. The 12 men are talking about a curious case, which they all have some information about. The curious case involves the death of one man, a suicidal whore, forgery, shipping crates and, of course, gold. All the men present have something to add to the story. They have all witnessed one thing or another, and they take turns explaining what they have seen.

I have been struggling for three days now to come up with something clever to say about this book. It is simply a brilliant old-fashioned mystery novel with plenty of intrigues. I really love the design of the book, something which is definitely lost in the Kindle edition. But I discovered the X-ray tool on Kindle while reading this, and it has plenty of information about the places mentioned in the book. It also has a feature where you can see how much a name or place is mentioned in the book. Fun for book nerds!

The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize 2013 and I have yet to read the others on the short list to see if this is a worthy winner. But it is definitely a great book! 

forty-nine.

Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2012)
“‘Go and fuck your fucking mother, you bastard, fuck off!’ I know this isn’t an appropriate way to begin, but the story of me and my family is full of insults. If I’m really going to report everything that happened, I’m going to have to write down a whole load of mother-related insults. I swear there’s no other way to do it, because the story unfolded in the place where I was born and grew up, Lagos de Moreno, in Los Altos, Jalisco, a region that, to add insult to injury, is located in Mexico.”
Orestes is the second oldest of 7 siblings and their family is middle-class. All the children are named after Greek heroes or mythology. But Mexico in the 1980s is not politically stable which makes the family’s economy unstable. The result is that there are several variations of the daily quesadillas; inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas. 
Orestes is a poet, and loathes his older brother. One day during the curfew, the family needs to go shopping. And in the state owned grocery shop, the twins suddenly disappear. The parents are devastated, but Orestes sees this as an opportunity to get more quesadillas. Then his older brother, Aristotle, is convinced that aliens have kidnapped the twins and goes looking for them, dragging Orestes with him.
The second book by Villalobos is even better than the first. I fell in love with the family, and Orestes is a great narrator. Although the story is funny, the undertones are serious and the downgrade of the family is sad. I was about to get really upset about the end, but fortunately it turned out to be awesome. Juan Pablo Villalobos is an author I will definitely keep reading, and so should you.