Sample Sunday: Words From The East
My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that are set in the East.
As a reminder, Sample Sunday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.
The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad
Of these three books, this is the one that has been on the shelves the longest.
I bought The Bookseller of Kabul in a charity shop thinking it was a true life account of a bookseller’s battle with political and religious opposition to books. My interest in the book waned when I discovered it is a fictionalised portrait. So I put it aside.
But looking at it again, and with the benefit of a little web research, I see that it’s written by a Norwegian journalist who stayed with an Afghan family in Kabul for several months after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Seierstad changed the family’s name to protect them from reprisals but otherwise made no attempt to paint the bookseller in a positive light.
According to The Guardian reviewer, Seierstad’s decision to tell it like it was, makes the book fascinating. Her portrayal of the way women are treated and the tyrannical manner in which the bookseller rules his family is “compulsive, repulsive and frightening.”
I’m thinking it could be worth reading but much will depend on the writing style.
The Verdict: Reprieve
The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri
I love novels set in India but haven’t read much beyond the big names like Anita Desai , Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry. The Age of Shiva, the second novel by the mathematics professor Manil Suri, offered an opportunity to redress that situation.
The synopsis seemed promising. It’s set in India in 1955 when the country is five years into its status as an independent nation free from British rule. The central character is a 17 year old girl who falls in love, gets married and moves to Bombay. But it’s not the fairy-tale or passionate life she had imagined.
The novel imagines her life over the course of 25 years, flashing back to her childhood in what became Pakistan, and reflecting tumultuous events in the history of the new state of India.
I’ve read a few reviews which indicate the historical context is treated with a heavy hand – somewhat of an info dump. I’ve also dipped into a few pages and decided this isn’t one that will light my fire.
The Verdict: Set Free
Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt
According to the publisher’s blurb, Red Sorghum is “a legend in China … a book in which fable and history collide to produce fiction that is entirely new and unforgettable.”
There’s always a degree of hyperbole in those back cover blurbs. I’ll have to ask my former colleagues in China whether this book really is legendary. Maybe it is purely because the author is first ever Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Chinese government were quick to congratulate him though fellow authors have criticised him for failing to support writers who have been punished but the government.
As for fiction with new and unforgettable, the Swedish Academy (who manage the Nobel Prizes) head Peter Englund did say of his work: “He has such a damn unique way of writing. If you read half a page of Mo Yan you immediately recognize it as him”.
Red Sorghum is Mo Yan’s first novel. It spans three generations, telling a story of a family through a series of flashbacks as the Chinese battle both Japanese invaders and each other in the turbulent 1930s.
That historical period is what’s drawing me to this book. But I’m also conscious that the style will be challenging. One reviewer called it “exquisite and irritating”. because it’s very fragmented “close-packed with chronological displacements and curtailed actions. Rather like Salman Rusdie’s Midnight’s Children I suspect; a book I admired but found hard to enjoy.
The Verdict: Reprieve
So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves. It’s not going to make any dent in the overall tally however because I’ve been on a buying spree in recent weeks. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??
4 thoughts on “Sample Sunday: Words From The East”
I think you made the right call saving The Bookseller of Kabul, it sounds great! I’d not come across it before, but your summary has me hooked. Have you read Reading Lolita In Tehran? That’s the kind of “vibe” I’m getting…
I did read the Lolita in Tehran book – not one I rated unfortunately. It couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be a narrative about the women who attended her classes or a literary evaluation of books like Lolita.
If you’re interested in that particular period of Chinese history, Karen, have you read Madeleine Thief’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing? Definitely one of the better reads of last year. And I’m assuming that on the India front you’ve read Paul Scott.
Yes, I would say you have made the right choices. I read The Bookseller a while back, and found it interesting. Afghanistan has gone a bit off the media radar lately, except when one of ours gets killed or does the wrong thing, but books like this remind us that there are real people in that war zone, and that they are as confused about their beliefs and cultural traditions as we are.
I have red Sorghum on my TBR too!