Reading List: A Journey Through The Portuguese Speaking World

If you’re interested in world literature and Portuguese culture specifically, this reading list is for you.  As every reader knows, reading is to travel far and wide where we cannot physically go.  I hope this list guides you on a wonderful journey into the lusophone world.

While selecting titles for this list, I had the English reader in mind so you’ll only find the English translation titles listed.  The Portuguese speaking world includes countries around the world but I’ve decided to organise them not by country but by publication date.  There are a few works from prior centuries but I’ve tried to focus on 20th century literature.

Luís de Camões > The Lusiads < 1572

“First published in 1572, The Lusiads is one of the greatest epic poems of the Renaissance, immortalizing Portugal’s voyages of discovery with an unrivalled freshness of observation.  At the centre of The Lusiads is Vasco da Gama’s pioneer voyage via southern Africa to India in 1497-98. The first European artist to cross the equator, Camoes’s narrative reflects the novelty and fascination of that original encounter with Africa, India and the Far East. The poem’s twin symbols are the Cross and the Astrolabe, and its celebration of a turning point in mankind’s knowledge of the world unites the old map of the heavens with the newly discovered terrain on earth. Yet it speaks powerfully, too, of the precariousness of power, and of the rise and decline of nationhood, threatened not only from without by enemies, but from within by loss of integrity and vision.”  (GoodReads)

Camilo Castelo Branco > Love of Perdition < 1862

Perhaps the height of Portuguese romanticism, Amor de Perdição (Love of Perdition) is a Portuguese Romeo and Juliet. Simão Botelho and Teresa are hopelessly in love, but their families are rivals in Viseu. When Teresa’s father, Tadeu, discovers their love, he shuts her in a convent. But, while trying to see his beloved, Simão kills Baltasar, and eventually condemned to death. The sentence is commuted to 10 years of service in India, but before the sentence is executed, both Teresa and Simão die of broken hearts.” (GoodReads)

Machado de Assis > The Alienist < 1881

“A classic work of literature by “the greatest author ever produced in Latin America.” (Susan Sontag)
Brilliant physician Simão Bacamarte sacrifices a prestigious career to return home and dedicate himself to the budding field of psychology. Bacamarte opens the first asylum in Brazil hoping to crown himself and his hometown with “imperishable laurels.” But the doctor begins to see signs of insanity in more and more of his neighbors. . . .
With dark humor and sparse prose, The Alienist lets the reader ponder who is really crazy.”  (GoodReads)

Eça de Queirós > The Maias < 1888

“Our hero Carlos Maia, heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Portugal, is rich, handsome, generous and intelligent: he means to do something for his country, something useful, something that will make his beloved grandfather proud. However, Carlos is also a bit of a dilettante. He drifts along, becoming a doctor and pottering about in his laboratory, but spends more and more time riding his splendid horses or visiting the theater, having affairs or reading novels. His best friend and chief partner in crime, Ega, is likewise engaged in a long summertime of witticisms and pleasure. Carlos however is set on a dead reckoning course with fate—with the love of his life and with a terrible, terrible secret…
Newly translated by the acclaimed translator Margaret Jull Costa (translator of José Saramago’s Blindness), New Directions is proud to bring Eça de Queirós’ brilliant prose to life for American readers for the first time.”  (GoodReads)

Lima Barreto > The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma < 1911

“‘The seed of madness exists in all of us and with no warning may attack, overpower, crush and bury us… ‘
Policarpo Quaresma – fastidious civil servant, dedicated patriot, self-styled visionary – is a defender of all things Brazilian, full of schemes to improve his beloved homeland. Yet somehow each of his ventures, whether it is petitioning for Brazil’s national language to be changed, buying a farm to prove the richness and fertility of the land, or offering support to government forces as they suppress a military revolt – results in ridicule and disaster. Quixotic and hapless, Quaresma’s dreams will eventually be his undoing.
Penguin Classics: Funny, despairing, moving and absurd, Lima Barreto’s masterpiece shows a man and a country caught in the violent clash between illusion and reality, hope and decline, sanity and madness.”  (GoodReads)

Mário de Andrade > Macunaíma < 1928

“Announcing a major literary event: here is the first translation into English of a landmark precursor of Latin American magical realism, which has informed the work of contemporary writers from Garcia Marquez to Salman Rushdie. Macunaima, first published in Portuguese in 1928, and one of the masterworks of Brazilian literature, is a comic folkloric rhapsody (call it a novel if you really want) about the adventures of a popular hero whose fate is intended to define the national character of Brazil.  “Inventive, blessedly unsentimental,” as Kirkus Reviews has it, and incorporating and interpreting the rich exotic myths and legends of Brazil, Macunaima traces the hero’s quest for a magic charm, a gift from the gods, that he lost by transgressing the mores of his culture. Born in the heart of the darkness of the jungle, Macunaima is a complex of contradictory traits (he is, of course, “a hero without a character”), and can at will magically change his age, his race, his geographic location, to suit his purposes and overcome obstacles. Dramatizing aspects of Brazil in transition (multiracial, Indian versus European, rural versus urban life), Macunaima undergoes sometimes hilarious, sometimes grotesque transformations until his final annihilation and apotheosis as the Great Bear constellation in the heavens.” (GoodReads)

Graciliano Ramos > Barren Lives < 1938

“A peasant family, driven by the drought, walks to exhaustion through an arid land. As they shelter at a deserted ranch, the drought is broken and they linger, tending cattle for the absentee ranch owner, until the onset of another drought forces them to move on, homeless wanderers again. Yet, like the desert plants that defeat all rigors of wind and weather, the family maintains its will to survive in the harsh and solitary land. Intimately acquainted with the region of which he writes and keenly appreciative of the character of its inhabitants, into whose minds he has penetrated as few before him, Graciliano Ramos depicts them in a style whose austerity well becomes the spareness of the subject, creating a gallery of figures that rank as classic in contemporary Brazilian literature.”  (GoodReads)

Jorge Amado > Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon < 1958

“Ilhéus in 1925 is a booming town with a record cacao crop and aspirations for progress, but the traditional ways prevail. When Colonel Mendonça discovers his wife in bed with a lover, he shoots and kills them both. Political contests, too, can be settled by gunshot… No one imagines that a bedraggled migrant worker who turns up in town–least of all Gabriela herself–will be the agent of change. Nacib Saad has just lost the cook at his popular café and in desperation hires Gabriela. To his surprise she turns out to be a great beauty as well as a wonderful cook and an enchanting boon to his business. But what would people say if Nacib were to marry her?  Lusty, satirical and full of intrigue, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is a vastly entertaining panorama of small town Brazilian life.” (GoodReads)

Clarice Lispector > The Hour of the Star < 1977

“The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector’s consummate final novel, may well be her masterpiece. Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life’s unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid the realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn’t seem to know how unhappy she should be. As Macabéa heads toward her absurd death, Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator—edge of despair to edge of despair—and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader’s preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction. In her last book she takes readers close to the true mystery of life and leaves us deep in Lispector territory indeed.”  (GoodReads)

António Lobo Antunes > The Land at the End of the World < 1979

Considered to be António Lobo Antunes’s masterpiece, The Land at the End of the World–now in a new and fully restored translation by acclaimed translator Margaret Jull Costa–recounts the anguished tale of a Portuguese medic haunted by memories of war, who, like the Ancient Mariner, will tell his tale to anyone who listens. In the tradition of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, Lobo Antunes weaves words into an exhilarating tapestry, imbuing his prose with the grace and resonance of poetry. The narrator, freshly returned to Lisbon after his hellish tour of duty in Angola, confesses the traumas of his memory to a nameless lover. Their evening unfolds like a fever dream, as Lobo Antunes leaps deftly back and forth from descriptions of postdictatorship Portugal to the bizarre and brutal world of life on the front line. The result is both tragic and absurd, and belongs among the great war novels of the modern age.  (GoodReads)

Moacyr Scliar > Max and the Cats < 1981

“Max Schmidt grew up in the stockroom of his father’s fur store, cloaked among the foxes, minks, and leopards, hiding from the glaring eyes of a stuffed tiger atop the wardrobe. It is here he dreams of travelling to distant lands; and here, as a young man, he begins an affair with the store’s married clerk.  Forced to flee when his lover’s husband discovers the affair and denounces Max to the Nazi secret police, Max steals away to Hamburg, where he takes passage on a freighter destined for disaster. When the ship founders somewhere off the coast of South America, Max is trapped in a dinghy with a hungry jaguar. Max believes his days are numbered-until he washes ashore on the coast of tiny Porto Alegre, Brazil, prepared to begin anew in the tropical clime.  But when Max discovers his next-door neighbor is a Nazi hiding from persecution, he finds that for the first time in his life, he is the master of his own destiny, ready to take matters into his own hands…”  (GoodReads)

Fernando Pessoa > The Book of Disquiet < 1982

Fernando Pessoa was many writers in one. He attributed his prolific writings to a wide range of alternate selves, each of which had a distinct biography, ideology. and horoscope. When he died in 1935, Pessoa left behind a trunk filled with unfinished and unpublished writings, among which were the remarkable pages that make up his posthumous masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet, an astonishing work that, in George Steiner’s words, “gives to Lisbon the haunting spell of Joyce’s Dublin or Kafka’s Prague.”Published for the first time some fifty years after his death, this unique collection of short, aphoristic paragraphs comprises the “autobiography” of Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s alternate selves. Part intimate diary, part prose poetry, part descriptive narrative, The Book of Disquiet is one of the greatest works of the twentieth century.
Fernando Pessoa, one of the founders of modernism, was born in Lisbon in 1888. Most of Pessoa’s writing was not published during his lifetime: The Book of Disquiet was first published in Portugal in 1982.
  (GoodReads)

João Ubaldo Ribeiro > An Invincible Memory < 1984

“A family saga spanning nearly 400 years, this absorbing epic novel lays bare the soul of the Brazilian nation. Whaling, war, macumba, slavery, murder, cannibalism and Brazil’s struggle for independence add momentum to Ribeiro’s lyrical, effusive, sonorous, serpentine prose laced with a touch of magic realism something of a cross between Melville and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (The author himself has rendered the fluent translation.) At the center is Amleto Ferreira, a 19th century paterfamilias and conniving bookkeeper who defrauds a baron of his wealth; Amleto’s ladylike, long-suffering wife Teolina; and their children, among them a priest, a romantic poet and a soldier. A bestseller in Brazil, the novel graphically portrays the terrible cruelty inflicted by whites on blacks, mulattos and Indians; the lives of these native peoples unfold in dozens of intertwined stories. The relationship between Merinha, patient, Penelope-like servant girl, and runaway slave Budiao is moving. Also memorable are 100-year-old Great Mother Dadinha and Maria da Fe, a bandit warrior who converses with birds and seeks special power from a sorcerer’s charms. Catapulting his tale into the 1970s, journalist Ribeiro ( Sergeant Getulio ) creates a stunning portrait of a people who, though outwardly mirthful, are still not free.”  (GoodReads)

Mia Couto > Sleepwalking Land < 1992

““On almost every page of this witty magical realist whodunit, we sense Couto’s delight on those places where language slips officialdom’s asphyxiating grasp.”—The New York Times Book Review on The Last Flight of the Flamingo
“The most prominent of the younger generation of writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa, Couto passionately and sensitively describes everyday life in poverty-stricken Mozambique.”—Guardian (London)
“Quite unlike anything else I have read from Africa.”—Doris Lessing
As the civil war rages in 1980s Mozambique, an old man and a young boy, refugees from the war, seek shelter in a burnt-out bus. Among the effects of a dead passenger, they come across a set of notebooks that tell of his life. As the boy reads the story to his elderly companion, this story and their own develop in tandem. Written in 1992, Mia Couto’s first novel is a powerful indictment of the suffering war brings.”  (GoodReads)

José Saramago > Blindness < 1995

From Nobel Prize–winning author José Saramago, a magnificent, mesmerizing parable of loss.
A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” that spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and assaulting women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides her charges—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and their procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. As Blindness reclaims the age-old story of a plague, it evokes the vivid and trembling horrors of the twentieth century, leaving readers with a powerful vision of the human spirit that’s bound both by weakness and exhilarating strength.
  (GoodReads)

Lídia Jorge > The Painter of Birds < 1998

The story of a daughter’s longing for her absent father and her determination to piece together the past and the future.  The setting of this extraordinary novel is an old farmhouse in Portugal-a house far enough from the Atlantic not to hear the breaking waves during a storm but near enough for the walls to be corroded by the salt in the air.  With most members of her large family having left the hardship of life in this landscape of sand and stone for jobs in faraway places, a young woman struggles to piece together her past from the widely varying stories she’s been told. Left behind by a free-spirited, feckless father, a seducer with a rare gift for drawing, she is raised by her uncle who has married her mother. The only memories of her father’s two brief visits are the echoes of his footsteps on the stairs leading to her room. The only signs of him are letters from the widest reaches of the world-letters accompanied by brilliantly colored drawings of exotic birds. The daughter longs for her father and, as she grows up, she is determined to find him and uncover the truth.
Brimming with astute and exquisite characterizations, this strikingly lyrical novel evokes the atmosphere of rural Portugal in a changing world and explores the timeless themes of family, independence, and the often painful experience of emigration.”  (GoodReads)

José Luís Peixoto > The Implacable Order Of Things < 2000

“Winner of the José Saramago Literary Award.  In an unnamed Portuguese village, against a backdrop of severe rural poverty, two generations of men and women struggle with love, violence, death, and—perhaps worst of all—the inescapability of fate.  A pair of twins conjoined at the pinky, a 120-year-old wise man, a shepherd turned cuckold by a giant, and even the Devil himself make up the unforgettably oddball cast of The Implacable Order of Things. As these lost souls come together and drift apart, José Luís Peixoto masterfully reveals the absurd, heartbreaking, and ultimately bewitching aspects of human nature in a literary performance that heralds the arrival of an astoundingly gifted and poetic writer.”  (GoodReads)

Luis Fernando Verissimo > Borges and the Eternal Orangutans < 2000

“Jorge Luis Borges is the hero of this literary whodunit by one of Brazil’s most celebrated writers.Vogelstein is a loner who has always lived among books. Suddenly, fate grabs hold of his insignificant life and carries him off to Buenos Aires, to a conference on Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the modern detective story. There Vogelstein meets his idol, Jorge Luis Borges, and for reasons that a mere passion for literature cannot explain, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation that involves arcane demons, the mysteries of the Kaballah, the possible destruction of the world, and the Elizabethan magus John Dee’s theory of the “Eternal Orangutan,” which, given all the time in the world, would end up writing all the known books in the cosmos. Verissimo’s small masterpiece is at once a literary tour de force and a brilliant mystery novel.”  (GoodReads)

Miguel Sousa Tavares > Equator < 2003

“It is 1905 and Luis Bernardo Valenca, a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor and owner of a small shipping company, is revelling in Lisbon’s luxurious high society. But his life is turned upside down when King Dom Carlos invites him to become governor of Portugal’s smallest colony, the island of São Tomé e Principe. Luis Bernardo is ill-prepared for the challenges of plantation life – used to a softer urban existence, he is shocked by the conditions under which the workers labour.  But with the English closing in on São Tomé’s cocoa plantations, the island’s main means of survival, Luis Bernardo must endeavour to protect the island and its community.”  (Goodreads)

Paulo Coelho > Eleven Minutes < 2003

“Eleven Minutes is the story of Maria, a young girl from a Brazilian village, whose first innocent brushes with love leave her heartbroken. At a tender age, she becomes convinced that she will never find true love, instead believing that “love is a terrible thing that will make you suffer. . . .” A chance meeting in Rio takes her to Geneva, where she dreams of finding fame and fortune.  Maria’s despairing view of love is put to the test when she meets a handsome young painter. In this odyssey of self-discovery, Maria has to choose between pursuing a path of darkness—sexual pleasure for its own sake—or risking everything to find her own “inner light” and the possibility of sacred sex, sex in the context of love.”  (GoodReads)

Gonçalo M. Tavares > Jerusalem < 2005

“One morning late in May, between three and six A.M., a group of lonely men and women wait to be brought together, like the elements in an equation. Ernst Spengler is about to throw himself out his window. Mylia, terminally ill and in enormous pain, goes out to visit a church. Hinnerk Obst, who’s always been told by the neighborhood children that he looks like a murderer, walks the streets with a loaded gun. As these characters are manipulated and brought together, a world of violence, fear, pain, and uncertainty is portrayed, where human nature itself, and the mechanisms determining our actions, our fictions, and the elements of our imagination, are laid bare.  Jerusalem is a terrifying and grimly humorous summation of the possibilities and limits of the human condition at the beginning of the 21st century.
Hailed by José Saramago as the best writer of his generation and a likely future winner of the Nobel Prize, Dalkey Archive is proud to introduce Gonçalo M. Tavares and his breakthrough novel.”  (GoodReads)

José Eduardo Agualusa > A General Theory of Oblivion < 2012

“The brilliant new novel from the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
On the eve of Angolan independence an agoraphobic woman named Ludo bricks herself into her apartment for 30 years, living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, burning her furniture and books to stay alive and writing her story on the apartment’s walls.  Almost as if we’re eavesdropping, the history of Angola unfolds through the stories of those she sees from her window. As the country goes through various political upheavals from colony to socialist republic to civil war to peace and capitalism, the world outside seeps into Ludo’s life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of someone peeing on a balcony, or a man fleeing his pursuers.  A General Theory of Oblivion is a perfectly crafted, wild patchwork of a novel, playing on a love of storytelling and fable.”  (GoodReads)

 

 

 

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Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger is a short novel published in 1942 by famous French author Albert Camus.  Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 and became a philosopher, author, and journalist.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

The Stranger was Camus’ first novel and Claire the-stranger-by-albert-camusMessud writes in A New ‘L’Étranger’ that it is “one of the most widely read French novels of the twentieth century…”

This is my first Camus novel which I chose because many speak so highly of it.  I enjoyed the story and I found the character Meursault to be interestingly different.

This book was originally written in French and I happened to read Stuart Gilbert’s translation.  There were parts of the story where the English didn’t feel right to me and I became conscious that it was a translation which I don’t think should happen.  This version left me feeling that I might have been better off reading Matthew Ward or Sandra Smith’s translation.  It doesn’t always happen this way but with this particular novel the translation version you read will definitely affect how you perceive this story and ultimately that is the key to The Stranger.

When you read what others have written about this book you will undoubtedly come across descriptions like wikipedia’s: “Its theme and outlook are often cited as examples of Camus’s philosophy of the absurd and existentialism, though Camus personally rejected the latter label”.  I am not going to pretend to know anything about any of that.

What I can tell you is that the main character, Meursault, comes across as a bit strange.  Throughout the story you get the distinct impression that he does not conform.  He does not follow the norms set out by society about how we should be.  He didn’t seem to me as a bad guy but he didn’t seem to have a moral compass and passed absolutely no judgement on what the rest of society might well deem worthy of judgement.  What I found incredibly interesting about this is the way Camus wrote him.  While he does not subscribe to society’s moral code he did not come across as a bad person but rather a different person.  How society, and you the reader, would deal with a person like this seems to me to be the crux of this story.  And indeed, according to David Carroll in his book Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice, Camus himself wrote in January 1955:

“I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

The title of the book points to this also.  Unfortunately, in English the title doesn’t carry across all the meanings as it does in the French L’Étranger.  I don’t speak French but as a foreigner in a Portuguese speaking country I learned early on that ‘estrangeiro’ (and the French ‘Étranger’) means a foreigner, a stranger, and an outsider.  The context determines which meaning is implied.  The story reminded me of this throughout because Meursault is all three; a foreigner in Algeria, an outsider to society, and a bit of a stranger to those around him.

My sentiments are echoed in Sandra Smith’s introduction to her new translation of The Stranger the title of which she has altered to The Outsider:

“In French, étranger can be translated as “outsider,” “stranger” or “foreigner.” Our protagonist, Meursault, is all three, and the concept of an outsider encapsulates all these possible meanings: Meursault is a stranger to himself, an outsider to society and a foreigner because he is a Frenchman in Algeria.”

This quote was taken from Claire Messud’s article A New ‘L’Étranger’ which is well worth reading after you read the book.  Another article that I enjoyed is Lost in Translation by Ryan Bloom which shows how important a good translation is to fully appreciating these seemingly ‘simple’ novels of the past.

I enjoyed reading this short book but choose your translation wisely.

lilolia review rating 4 stars great

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Review: The Dhammapada translated by Eknath Easwaran

The Dhammapada is a collection of the sayings of the Buddha in verse form.  It is one of the most widely read of the Buddhist scriptures and the most essential.  There are many translations but I chose Easwaran’s because of a recommendation – the source of which I can’t for the life of me remember.

“As irrigators guide water to their fields,
as archers aim arrows, as carpenters carve
wood, the wise shape their lives.”
145

The Dhammapada is an easy and enjoyable read.  It is full of simple wisdom some of which may seem likeThe Dhammapada Eknath Easwaran common sense but is lovely to be reminded of from the Buddha’s unique perspective.  He has a very simple and down to earth way of delivering essential truths which is the essence of his teachings.

“…the Dhammapada seems more like a field guide. This is is lore picked up by someone who knows every step of the way through these strange lands. He can’t take us there, he explains, but he can show us the way: tell us what to look for, warn about missteps, advise us about detours, tell us what to avoid. Most important, he urges us that it is our destiny as human beings to make this journey ourselves. Everything else is secondary.”
Eknath Easwaran, The Foreword

The Dhammapada is described as a handbook to the teachings of the Buddha but it is Easwaran’s informative introduction on Buddhism and the text that give an extra insight to the seemingly simple words of the Buddha.  I enjoyed reading his introduction and it serves as a great starting point not only for this text but for Buddhism on a whole.

If, like me, you’ve never read any Buddhist texts (or much about Buddhist teachings) this short book of verse is a great place to start, particularly Easwaran’s translation.  The opening verse of the Dhammapada is a profound reminder that our lives are shaped by our minds and we become what we think:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought:
we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those
whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts
give joy whenever they speak or act. Joy follows
them like a shadow that never leaves them.”
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It happened that earlier this year I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, then some weeks later Easwaran’s Dhammapada, followed by The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle which in retrospect could not have been better planned.  I didn’t read them back to back but each prepared me for the next and I think I was able to take a great deal more from each one’s message for having read them in this order.  Obviously you don’t need to read them like this but if you’re interested I enjoyed this reading order.

I enjoyed and recommend reading The Dhammapada.  A wide variety of translations exist but I found Eknath Easwaran’s Introduction a highlight of reading this book.  He has also done translations of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita which I hope to get to at some point also.

lilolia review rating 4 stars great

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Mai Jia’s Favourite Modern Chinese Novels

I am very interested in the novel Decoded by Mai Jia and while reading about Jia on GoodReads I found this lovely list of his favourite modern Chinese novels which I thought I would share with you.  First though, here is a bit about what I hope to be a wonderful book:

Decoded by Mai Jia

Decoded

Decoded tells the story of Rong Jinzhwen, one of the great code-breakers in the world. A semi-autistic mathematical genius, Jinzhen is recruited to the cryptography department of China’s secret services, Unit 701, where he is assigned the task of breaking the elusive ‘Code Purple’. Jinzhen rises through the ranks to eventually become China’s greatest and most celebrated code-breaker; until he makes a mistake. Then begins his descent through the unfathomable darkness of the world of cryptology into madness.

Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

Red Sorghum

Jia: “Thanks to Mo Yan, thanks to this particular novel, contemporary Chinese literature has gone in a completely fresh direction with a renewed sense of purpose.

GoodReads Blurb: Spanning three generations, Red Sorghum, a novel of family and myth, is told through a series of flashbacks that depict events of staggering horror set against a landscape of gemlike beauty, as the Chinese battle both Japanese invaders and each other in the turbulent war years of the 1930s. (read more on GoodReads)

Red Poppies by Alai

Red Poppies

Jia: “…one of the best novels to have been published in China in recent years, where the suspense is brought to a devastating resolution. Only a novel could do justice to such an epic theme: the rise and fall of the last of the traditional Tibetan chieftains.

GoodReads Blurb: Red Poppies is the story of the Maichi family, its powerful chieftain, his Han Chinese wife, his first son and presumptive heir, and his second, “idiot,” son, the novel’s narrator and unlikely hero. The time is the 1930s, the setting a stone fortress overlooking all the family rules, the arid plains of eastern Tibet, and a thinly scattered populous of peasant farmers, merchants, and ineffectual, often comical local lamas. A feud breaks out with a neighboring chieftain; an emissary from the Chinese Nationalists comes to the Maichis’ aid with the tools of modern warfare. In exchange, fields of bright red poppies, valuable in the Nationalist-sponsored heroin trade, are to be planted instead of grain in a deal that makes the family even richer and earns them the enmity of nearly everyone. (read more on GoodReads)

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai by Wang Anyi

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai

Jia: “…this novel serves to shine a narrow beam of light upon another kind of truth about life in China.”

GoodReads Blurb: Set in post-World War II Shanghai, “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the “longtong,” the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods.  Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of “old Shanghai”–a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication–only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth. (read more on GoodReads)

The King of Trees by Ah Cheng

The King of Trees: Three Novellas: The King of Trees, The King of Chess, The King of Children

Jia: It is impossible to classify his ‘Three Kings,’ for these novels represent Ah Cheng’s unique creative vision. He is that rare creature among contemporary novelists in China: an intellectual with a profound understanding of the culture and way of life of Chinese people today.”

GoodReads Blurb: When the three novellas in The King of Trees were published separately in China in the 1980s, “Ah Cheng fever” spread across the country. Never before had a fiction writer dealt with the Cultural Revolution in such Daoist-Confucian terms, discarding Mao-speak, and mixing both traditional and vernacular elements with an aesthetic that emphasized not the hardships and miseries of those years, but the joys of close, meaningful friendships. In The King of Chess, a student’s obsession with finding worthy chess opponents symbolizes his pursuit of the dao; in The King of Children—made into an award-winning film by Chen Kaige, the director of Farewell My Concubine—an educated youth is sent to teach at an impoverished village school where one boy’s devotion to learning is so great he is ready to spend 500 days copying his teacher’s dictionary; and in the title novella a peasant’s innate connection to a giant primeval tree takes a tragic turn when a group of educated youth arrive to clear the mountain forest. As moving and enduring as the best of Jack London or Knut Hamsun, The King of Trees is as relevant today as it will be tomorrow.  (read more on GoodReads)

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

Dream of Ding Village

Jia: “If viewed from a strictly literary viewpoint, there are many things to criticize about Dream of Ding Village, but there are two things about this book that are worthy of admiration. First, it shows that a novelist can act as a social conscience, and secondly, that novelists should keep their eyes open to the realities of the world around them.”

GoodReads Blurb: Officially censored upon its Chinese publication, and the subject of a bitter lawsuit between author and publisher, Dream of Ding Village is Chinese novelist Yan Lianke’s most important novel to date. Set in a poor village in Henan province, it is a deeply moving and beautifully written account of a blood-selling ring in contemporary China. Based on a real-life blood-selling scandal in eastern China, Dream of Ding Village is the result of three years of undercover work by Yan Lianke, who worked as an assistant to a well-known Beijing anthropologist in an effort to study a small village decimated by HIV/AIDS as a result of unregulated blood selling. Whole villages were wiped out with no responsibility taken or reparations paid. Dream of Ding Village focuses on one family, destroyed when one son rises to the top of the Party pile as he exploits the situation, while another son is infected and dies. The result is a passionate and steely critique of the rate at which China is developing and what happens to those who get in the way. (read more on GoodReads)

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Review: Marta Oulie by Sigrid Undset

Marta Oulie is a novel I chose on Netgalley and was provided to me courtesy of the publisher.  This is an English version of the 1907 Norwegian novel by Nobel Prize winning author Sigrid Undset.

“I have been unfaithful to my husband.” Marta Oulie’s opening line scandalized Norwegian readers in 1907. And yet, Sigrid Undset had a gift for depicting modern women “sympathetically but with merciless truthfulness,” as the Swedish Academy Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayalnoted in awarding her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. At the time she was one of the youngest recipients and only the third woman so honored. It was Undset’s honest story of a young woman’s love life—“the immoral kind,” as she herself bluntly put it—that made her first novel an instant sensation in Norway.  Marta Oulie, written in the form of a diary, intimately documents the inner life of a young woman disappointed and constrained by the conventions of marriage as she longs for an all-consuming passion. Set in Kristiania (now Oslo) at the beginning of the twentieth century, Undset’s book is an incomparable psychological portrait of a woman whose destiny is defined by the changing mores of her day—as she descends, inevitably, into an ever-darker reckoning. Remarkably, though Undset’s other works have attracted generations of readers, Marta Oulie has never before appeared in English translation. Tiina Nunnally, whose award-winning translation of Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter captured the author’s beautifully clear style, conveys the voice of Marta Oulie with all the stark poignancy of the original Norwegian.  (read more on GoodReads)

 I was intrigued by this novel although I feared that it would come across as dated because it was written in 1907.  However, it felt timeless.  The writing was wonderful and simple.  I think that’s the main feeling that I got from this novel – that it is a timeless short story about a woman’s experience in life and love that is felt by woman even today, simply written because the message was so real that it needed no embellishments.

I enjoyed it, I read it easily and quickly.  I connected with some of the things she talked about concerning people.  They say in the blurb that the opening line is the great line of this book.  But it is one of a few great lines in my opinion.  I found the ending lines as captivating as the opening line.  I won’t share it here because it has an impact on you after having read the whole story.  But one line I’ll share here that won’t spoil anything is “Life is about people.”  It may not sound like much but in the context it made me stop and think a bit about the real truth in that.  I also enjoyed the setting and the details Undset gives about life in Norway and I was pleased that that too was not at all dated.  I have a Swedish friend who described her childhood picking berries in the forest very similarly.  It was a lovely read. I recommend this book to all those intrigued by it.

 

lilolia review rating 4 stars great

 

Ann Cleeves’ Top 10 Crime Novels in Translation

The Guardian has a really cool book section called the Top 10 and they regularly publish great lists.  Here is one that caught my eye.  Crime fiction writer Ann Cleeves chooses her top 10 crime novels in translation.  I really liked the fact that one of my favourite crime novels Thirteen Hours by South African author Deon Meyer is included in this list.

“I love translated crime fiction.  It gives me the buzz of a good story but a delicious voyeurism too: the same sensation as when I’m walking down a street at dusk and people have forgotten to close their curtains.  Snapshots of different domestic lives, the food they eat, the pictures on the walls, the way they bring up their children.  We can learn about a country’s preoccupations by reading its popular fiction.  Scandinavian crime has become so successful that books from other territories can be overlooked. Here are some examples to show that it’s worth making wider reading investigations.”

1. The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien by Georges Simenon (translated by Linda Coverdales)

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien

A new translation of a haunting tale about the lengths to which people will go to escape from guilt and book four of the Inspector Maigret series.  On a trip to Brussels, Maigret unwittingly causes a man’s suicide, but his own remorse is overshadowed by the discovery of the sordid events that drove the desperate man to shoot himself.  (read more on GoodReads)

 

2. Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas (translated by Siân Reynolds)

Have Mercy on Us All (Commissaire Adamsberg, #4)

In a small Parisian square, the ancient tradition of the town crier continues into modern times. The self-appointed crier, Joss Le Guern, reads out the daily news, snippets of gossip, and lately, ominous messages — placed in his handmade wooden message box by an anonymous source — that warn of an imminent onset of the bubonic plague.  Concerned, Le Guern brings the puzzling notes to the bumbling but brilliant Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his straight-edged, right-hand man, Adrien Danglard. When strange signs that were historically believed to ward off the black death start to appear on the doors of several buildings, Adamsberg takes notice and suspects a connection with Le Guern’s warnings. After a flea-bitten corpse with plague-like symptoms is found in one of the marked buildings, Fred Vargas’s inimitable genius chief inspector is under pressure to solve the mystery and restore calm to a panicked Paris. But is it a real case of the bubonic scourge, or just a sinister trick designed to frighten as the body count grows and the culprit continues to elude the police?  (read more on GoodReads)

 

3. Alex by Pierre Lemaitre (translated by Frank Wynne)

Alex (Verhœven, #1)

Alex Prévost—kidnapped, savagely beaten, suspended from the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse in a tiny wooden cage—is running out of time. Her abductor appears to want only to watch her die. Will hunger, thirst, or the rats get her first?  Apart from a shaky eyewitness report of the abduction, Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven has nothing to go on: no suspect, no leads, and no family or friends anxious to find a missing loved one. The diminutive and brilliant detective knows from bitter experience the urgency of finding the missing woman as quickly as possible—but first he must understand more about her.  As he uncovers the details of the young woman’s singular history, Camille is forced to acknowledge that the person he seeks is no ordinary victim. She is beautiful, yes, but also extremely tough and resourceful. Before long, saving Alex’s life will be the least of Commandant Verhoeven’s considerable challenges.  (read more on GoodReads)

 

4. Thirteen Hours by Deon Mayer (translated by KL Seegers)

Thirteen Hours (Benny Griessel, #2)

Some would call Detective Benny Griessel a legend. Others would call him a drunk. Either way, he has trodden on too many toes over the years ever to reach the top of the promotion ladder, and now he concentrates on staying sober and mentoring the new generation of crime fighters — mixed race, Xhosa and Zulu. But when an American backpacker disappears in Cape Town, panicked politicians know who to call: Benny has just thirteen hours to save the girl, save his career, and crack open a conspiracy, which threatens the whole country. (read more on GoodReads)

 

5. The Depths of the Forest by Eugenio Fuentes (translated by Paul Antil)

The Depths of the Forest

Gloria, a young and attractive painter, is brutally murdered in a nature reserve. Days later, a teenage hiker dies in exactly the same way. This is the story of a journey into the heart of an enigmatic and imposing landscape, but also into the heart of the secrets that live within each of the characters. Nature, magnificently described, stands out as an authentic protagonist to form a plot that exudes mystery from beginning to end.  (read more on GoodReads)

 

6. The Treasure Hunt by Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)

Treasure Hunt (Inspector Montalbano, #16)

A hail of bullets interrupts a period of dead calm. An elderly brother and sister open fire on the piazza below their apartment, punishing the people of Vigàta for their sins. Montalbano is hailed as a hero when news cameras film him scaling a building — gun in hand — to capture the ancient pair of unlikely snipers.  Shortly after, the inspector begins to receive cryptic messages in verse from someone challenging him to go on a “treasure hunt.” Intrigued, he accepts, treating the messages as amusing riddles — until they take a dangerous turn. (read more on GoodReads)

 

7. River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi (translated by Josephh Farrell)

River of Shadows

In a bleak valley in Northern Italy, the River Po is swollen to its limits. The thick fog that usually clings to the town, blurring its surroundings and plunging its inhabitants into near-blindness, has been driven out by the raging storm. So when an empty barge drifts downriver, the fact the owner is missing does not go unnoticed. That same night Commissario Soneri is called in to investigate the murder of the boatman’s brother. The brothers served together in the fascist militia fifty years earlier – could this be a revenge killing after so long? Soneri’s investigation meets with a wall of silence from those who make their living along the banks of river. As the fog descends and the valley is hidden once more, Soneri must navigate fifty-year-old loyalties and deep-rooted rivalries before he can find out the truth. (read more on GoodReads)

 

8. Voices by Arnaldur Indridason (translated by Bernard Scudder)

Voices

The Christmas rush is at its peak in a grand Reykjavík hotel when Inspector Erlendur is called in to investigate a murder. The hotel Santa has been stabbed to death, and Erlendur and his fellow detectives find no shortage of suspects between the hotel staff and the international travelers staying for the holidays. As Christmas Day approaches, Erlendur must deal with his difficult daughter, pursue a possible romantic interest, and untangle a long-buried web of malice and greed to find the murderer.  (read more on GoodReads)

 

9. Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar (translated by Domingo Villar)

Death on a Galician Shore

One misty autumn dawn, in a quiet fishing port in northwest Spain, the body of a sailor washes up in the harbor. Detective Inspector Leo Caldas is called in from police headquarters in the nearby city of Vigo to sign off on what appears to be a suicide; but details soon come to light that turn this routine matter into a complex murder investigation. Finding out the truth is not easy when the villagers are so suspicious of outsiders. As Caldas delves into the maritime life of the village, he uncovers a disturbing decade-old case of a shipwreck and two mysterious disappearances. This chilling story of violence, blackmail, and revenge has enthralled readers across Europe. (read more on GoodReads)

 

10. Badfellas by Tonino Benacqista (translated by Emily Read)
Badfellas

The Blakes are newcomers to a small town in Normandy. Fred is a historian researching the Allied landings, Maggie enjoys charity work, and their kids are looking forward to meeting other teenagers at the local lycée. Or so it seems.  In fact, Fred is really Giovanni Manzoni, an ex-goodfella turned stool pigeon who’s been relocated from New Jersey to France by the FBI’s witness protection program. He’s got a two-million-dollar bounty on his head, but he and his family can’t help attracting attention (imagine the Sopranos in Normandy). And when imprisoned mobster Don Mimino gets wind of their location, it’s Mafia mayhem à la Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper, or like The Godfather as if written by Carl Hiaasen. Because while you can take the man out of the Mafia, you can’t take the Mafia out of the man. (read more on GoodReads)

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