Global Challenge? Only Just…

With some dexterous juggling, I can just about claim to have completed the Global Reading Challenge (Medium Level) this year. I had to be a little creative with Mexico and place it in Latin America so that I could sort of claim it was South America. But if you forgive me my geographical inaccuracies and the fact that I still owe you two quick reviews for Africa and the 7th Continent, then I can claim VICTORY!!!

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The Medium challenge is about reading two books from (or set in) each continent, regardless of genre. I was initially quite ambitious and planned to visit countries where I’d never been (fictionally) before. But the second half of the year became a mad, disorganised scramble to get books off my Netgalley and TBR shelves, so I had to compromise in the end.

Europe:

Moldova – The Good Life Elsewhere

Poland – Madam Mephisto

Asia:

Israel – Route de Beit Zera

India – Witness the Night

Australasia/Oceania:

Australia – Barracuda

Samoa – Blood Jungle Ballet

North America:

Native American reservation: Sherman Alexie

Houston, Texas – Pleasantville

South America:

Mexico – Faces in the Crowd

Costa Rica – Red Summer

Africa:

Morocco – Fouad Laroui

lastnightLibya – The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

The author takes us into the warped mind of Ghaddafi as he sits holed up in a secret location, trying to avoid both bombing and the wrath of his own people. There is little here to give you a profound insight into the politics or history of Libya itself, but I found it a precise dissection of a dictator’s mind, how it is possible to become a megalomaniac and lose touch with reality, how power corrupts and idealism can get subverted, how tantrums can turn vicious when you are surrounded by sycophants. I thought it also raised some interesting questions about the appeal of tyrants: how they often play the nationalistic card (us versus the foreign menace, we’re going to make our country great once more etc.), which explains their rise to power and the often confused legacy they leave behind.

7th Continent:

Space – Solaris

voyageCentre of the Earth – Jules Verne

I’d forgotten what fun this classic novel is to read – yes, even when the author enumerates all of the things Axel and his uncle the professor take with them on their expedition. Appeals to the geek in all of us, but also lessons to be learnt about how quickly he gets to the intrigue, how imaginative he is, how endlessly inventive. It’s not even remotely plausible scientifically – that underground sea alone is completely wrong for all sorts of reasons. So it’s not as good as some of his other novels, but still a rollicking read (best discovered in your youth, though).

 

Two Crime Fiction Reviews in Exotic Locations

I am so far behind in my book reviews and my Global Reading Challenge that I will write 2 reviews today and link them to two different continents.

The first is for North America/ United States, the second for Australasia/Oceania.  Both have a musical theme in their title, although there are few musical references in the books themselves.  I have noticed that I don’t seem to read a lot of American crime fiction – perhaps because I overdosed on it in earlier years. I’m trying to change that and to introduce Canadian writing into my diet as well (which seems much more reassuringly European).

MeanWomanMean Woman Blues by Julie Smith

What sold this novel to me was the setting: New Orleans. I am a huge jazz fan (and love Creole cooking), so I’ve always wanted to go to that city.  However, there isn’t that much of New Orleans or jazz in this novel, which is a pity.  The action takes place partly in Texas, which is where Skip Langdon’s arch-enemy, Errol Jacomine, has fled and reinvented himself (with the help of plastic surgery and elocution classes). Skip is a middle-aged police detective with problems of her own, but she has no doubts that Jacomine is dangerous and is more than a little obsessive about tracking him down.  The narrative skips around, putting us in the minds of many from the rich cast of characters. But  it’s the battle between the two equally stubborn and ruthless main protagonists which is the main focus here, and, sadly, there are quite a lot of hurt and damaged people along the way.

I would have liked more of the New Orleans atmosphere to pervade the book, so my favourite part of it was the pursuit of the grave-robbers. These are thieves who target the monuments from the city’s cemetaries to sell them to antique dealers.  Overall, it was a quick, easy read, but not one that will linger in my mind.

Unlike the next book, Pago Pago Tango by John Enright.

pagoThis one appealed much more to the anthropologist in me, since it contains many descriptions of landscapes, beliefs, stories and cultural differences between Westerners and islanders in American Samoa.  This is a world that very few of us have access to: paradise in appearance, but with an underlying friction that could explode at any moment.

Apelu Soifua is a native cop who has spent a good part of his adult life in San Francisco, but returned to Samoa to help his father after a stroke. He is deeply in love with his homeland, taking every opportunity to go barefoot among the banana plantations and mango trees. He believes a young convict who claims he assisted in dumping the body of a white man.  They both go searching for the body in the jungle and find the half-eaten corpse up on a ledge.  Before they can recover the body, the young man is shot and falls to his death.

Apelu is therefore punished for his mistake by getting relegated to all the routine enquiries. When he gets called in to investigate a small-scale burglary in the white enclave, he is at first bemused by the fact that only the VCR and some videos are missing. However, the owner is a big shot at the local tuna factory, the major employer of the island, and he and his wife seem to be contradicting each other about the burglary. Apelu soon uncovers a trail of drug-smuggling and conspiracy with consequences more far-reaching than he could have foreseen.  He mounts an elaborate sting operation with potentially very dangerous outcomes.

The plot is good, if a trifle predictable, and the pace of the investigation is very different from the police procedurals we might be accustomed to in Europe or the States.  What I will really remember, however,  is the image of Western powers changing and damaging the culture and natural environment for the sake of corporate greed.  The author describes very eloquently the downsides of globalisation: ‘when the tuna runs out, the island will be sucked dry and tossed aside’.  Yet the author does not idealise native Samoan culture either, he describes its appetite for lies, corruption and drugs.  He sees it not as better or worse than Western culture, simply different.

‘Every culture has to have pride in itself for something’ and Apelu concludes that Samoans prefer ‘the safety of inclusion rather than any Western hope of individuation’. Yet, paradoxically, he also believes in the ‘solitude of the thumb’, that it is stronger than all of the fingers taken together.

Portion of the dock area at Fagatogo, Pago Pag...
Portion of the dock area at Fagatogo, Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa with Rainmaker Mt. (Pioa Mtn.) in the background. Photographed by Eric Guinther. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)