Challenge wrap-up 2020

As the year comes to a close, here’s a review of how I did on my challenges — which I kept to a minimum this year, not wanting to overdo it. And I’m quite happy with how I did, so that was a success!

I finished six books for Back to the Classics:

Classic with a Name in the Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Classic by a Woman Author: The World I Live In
Adapted Classic: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Classic about a Family: Brideshead Revisited
Translated Classic: Le Petit Prince
Classic with Nature in the Title: The Old Man and the Sea

And kept up with the Book Blog Discussion Challenge with a post (almost) every month:

Should I read more current books?
Do you have a reading plan?
Are there too many books?
Do you like books about fighting?
Do you dislike first-person narratives?
What is your favorite (or first favorite) classic?
Can you resist free books?
Am I addicted to reading?
Am I an e-book convert?
Should memoirs be considered fiction?
What is the best of the Emerald City Book Review?

I also kept going with my Reading All Around the World project. After reading twelve books, I slacked off in the last quarter of the year, but added Danubia to my list (I think it should count, even though it’s not about a single country, but a whole empire that has now been split up into many nations).

Other goals I had this year were to read more nonfiction — I did quite well with that, judging from my Nonfiction November round-up — and to read more books from my own shelves. This was not so successful, but I did polish off a few of those.

How have you done with your challenges this year? Did they help you to discover some great new authors? Or get to some books you’ve been meaning to read for years?

In search of something light

Looking for a book to lighten my mood, I tried and discarded a number of candidates, from contemporary and historical rom-coms to fantasies to classic mysteries. Nothing held my attention for long: too crude, too contrived, too anachronistic, too dated. Would I ever find something to brighten up my reading life?

A couple of tried and true favorites came to the rescue: Margery Sharp (the appropriately named Something Light) and Barbara Pym (Jane and Prudence). Compared to the plodding and half-literate writing I sometimes come across in popular fiction of today, these two ladies always write with real style and distinction, but not a touch of pretention. Perfect light reading that does not insult the intelligence, if you can look past the mid-century assumptions about gender roles.

I’ve taken a long break from Jane Austen retellings, but I also tried a couple of those — and found  Unmarriageable to be a worthy entry in this overcrowded genre, as well as an addition for my Reading All Around the World project. Soniah Kamal has updated the story of Pride and Prejudice to twenty-first-century Pakistan, a setting that is in some ways very far away from Austen’s and in other ways very close, with a similar pressure on women to marry, rigid social rules and codes, and tension between outer wealth and inner moral worth. The updates of the characters are fun to follow; even their names are entertaining.

Just a few things felt off to me: what was perhaps meant as sardonic wit from Alys, the Lizzie Bennett character, came across as too harsh and angry; the Mr. Collins character was too positively portrayed, being wealthy, successful, and generous instead of a sycophantic creep; and it was beyond the bounds of belief that Alys, a high school English teacher who opens the novel with a lesson on P&P, would not notice that her life has started to uncannily resemble her favorite book.

Otherwise it was a literary romp that also gave a fascinating view into life, and especially marriage customs, in Pakistan. I especially loved how at the end every single female character got her own business or profession at which to shine. That’s the kind of update I like to see!

Have you found any light reading lately to lift your spirits?

Around the World Update

How’s it going with my Reading All Around the World project? At the beginning of the year, I was really inspired and read more than my goal of one per month. Lately I’ve drifted away from these international reads, but I’d really like to get back to them.

Here’s the list so far — in reverse order of my reading, starting with a new release this month.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (Sweden) — I requested this new book by the bestselling Swedish author from Netgalley because I thought it would be perfect for my project, but it turns out there is not much local color to it other than some jokes about “Stockholmers.” Still, I enjoyed this funny and character-full novel that starts off with a bank robbery gone wrong and romps a screwball comedy sort of path through some serious subjects, like divorce, suicide, depression and mental illness, and manages to be heartwarming rather than flippant or trivial. I’ll be looking for another book by Backman that may give me more of a sense of Swedish life.

Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (Israel/Palestine) — Nye, an accomplished poet who is the daughter of a Palestinian father and American mother, drew on her own adolescent experiences for this novel about a girl whose family moves to Israel. Liyana’s adjustment to her new life and culture and her first experiences of friendship-turning-to-love with a Jewish boy are sensitively and poetically portrayed.

Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (Ireland) — A historically inspired drama that moves back and forth between the famine-ridden Ireland and a ship taking emigrants away to America. To learn about the tragic history of that era was fascinating (though horrifying), but I was less impressed by the sometimes contrived and pretentious “literary” trappings. The “document collection” premise did not work so well as in O’Connor’s Shadowplay, which I loved; it was too unbelievable, which distracted and annoyed me rather than being a playful enhancement.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Switzerland) — As I wrote already in my monthly review post, “I’ve no idea what connection British author Rose Tremain may have with Switzerland, or why she chose it as a setting for her novel, but from my foreigner’s point of view I think she did a good job at capturing some of the character of the Swiss, their strength and their vulnerability, and the conflicting realities behind the surface image that they like to present.”

In Pursuit of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey (various countries of West Africa, especially Nigeria and Senegal) — An interesting glimpse behind the scenes of a reporter’s life — the author was the West African bureau chief for the New York Times and was involved in covering the Boko Haram atrocities, among other fascinating but often overlooked stories. I was less taken with the portions about Searcey’s personal life, which I think could either have been given more consideration and thoughfulness, or left out altogether.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sunya Massey (India) — I was not that impressed by this popular historical mystery about a woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay. There were many interesting things to learn about this era, but the characters fell flat for me.

Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming (Bhutan) — A memoir by a woman who fell in love with the tiny mountain country and ended up spending her life there. Interesting as an outsider’s perspective, though it would be good to read more from a native-born writer.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland) — Beautifully written, harrowing, and full of a sad awareness of the fragility of life, this left me with a real sense of what it would be like to live in 19th century Iceland — and extremely glad that I don’t have to.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Korea/Japan) — Usually I try to choose books that primarily represent one country, but this one is about the intersection between countries and cultures, linked by war, cultural dominance, and emigration. I didn’t know about Korean immigrants as an underclass in Japan, and this multigenerational saga brought that history to life.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou (Ghana) — As part of her full and amazing life, Angelou spent some time living in Africa, looking for her roots and a sense of home there. This proved elusive, but her experiences are, as always, told in a marvelously colorful and humanly embracing way.

The House of the Spirits (translated by Magda Bogin) and My Invented Country (could not find the translator) by Isabel Allende (Chile) — Allende’s first novel is the one that put her on the literary map, a semi-autobiographical tale of a Chilean family in turbulent historical times, written in a dreamy, fanicful style known as “magical realism”. I actually enjoyed her memoir more, as it revisits some of the same settings and people as the novel but with a personal (and non-fantastical) perspective.

It’s been quite a trip! Have you read any of these? What other books from  countries I’ve not yet visited would you recommend?

Reading All Around the World update

After a couple of years of very little activity, I finally got back into the Reading All Around the World project and I’m so glad I did. It reminds me of how powerful reading is as a way to learn and expand our horizons while staying in one place. Here’s what I’ve read since the last time I checked in.

(Two stars** after the author name indicates the author is a native of the country described. One star* indicates the author’s ethnic background is from that country. Other books have a strong and well-researched setting; usually the author has lived in the country for an extended period.)

  • Venezuela – Octavio’s Journey and Black Sugar by Miguel Bonnefoy** – February 2018
  • Egypt – The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson – August 2018
  • Spain – Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes** – July 2019
  • Australia – My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin** – October 2019
  • Saudi Arabia – Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif** – December 2019
  • South Africa – Born a Crime by Trevor Noah** – December 2019
  • Ghana – All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou* – January 2020
  • Chile – The House of the Spirits and My Invented Country by Isabel Allende** – January 2020
  • Korea/Japan – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee* – January 2020
  • Bhutan – Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming – February 2020
  • Iceland – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent – February 2020
  • India – The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sunja Massey* – February 2020
  • Nigeria, Senegal, and West Africa – In Search of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey – March 2020


My favorites? I found Daring to Drive and Born a Crime both absolutely stunning in their portrayal of life in a repressive, unjust society, while also celebrating the human spirit that comes to light in these dark surroundings.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes was interesting for its perspective: a Black American woman living in Africa, looking for a sense of coming home that proved elusive.

I enjoyed the novel The House of the Spirits but I think I liked Allende’s memoir My Invented Country even more — an exile’s love letter to her homeland.

Burial Rites was another stunner, one of those historical novels that makes you feel “this must be how it was.” I really felt transported back to 19th century Iceland (and I’m so glad I’m not stuck there permanently).

I’m excited to keep going with this journey. What books have you found to transport you to other parts of the world?


Around the World project so far

This project is an open-ended one, with the intention to read books from or about at least fifty different countries of the world. Here’s what I read this year so far:

  • War Diaries by Astrid Lindgren (Sweden) – January 2017
  • I Was a Stranger by John Hackett (Netherlands) – January 2017
  • Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (China) – March 2017
  • The Praise Singer by Mary Renault (Greece) – June 2017
  • The Gilded Chalet by Padraig Rooney (Switzerland) – July 2017
  • The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer (Cambodia) – July 2017
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) – July 2017
  • An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Lebanon) – August 2017
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (Mexico) – September 2017
  • One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi (Afghanistan) – September 2017
  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Sahil (Sudan) – November 2017


I reviewed Bronze and Sunflower already, and I’m a little unsure whether to count The Praise Singer (a historical novel about ancient Greece) but here are mini-reviews of the other books on my list. It’s been a truly wonderful tour!

I started out with two first-hand accounts of World War II. I Was a Stranger, British Brigadier General Hackett’s memoir (one of the lovely Slightly Foxed series) is a moving and harrowing account of his escape from German hands through the bravery of Dutch resistance workers and their families. Meanwhile, in War Diaries (elsewhere titled A World Gone Mad) we have the journal author Astrid Lindgren kept as a young wife and mother in neutral Sweden. She provides a record of the up-and-down thoughts and feelings of someone on the edge of the action, enjoying the benefits of not being in a country torn by war, while deploring its evils. For anyone interested in the time period, these two books will bring unique insights into the authors’ experiences. (I was a bit disappointed, though, that Lindgren’s diaries contained little reference to the genesis of Pippi Longstocking, which occurred during this period — but she considered other things more important at the time perhaps.)

Another neutral country is covered in The Gilded Chalet. Looking at books that were written about or in Switzerland (including Frankenstein, Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, A Farewell to Arms, and Tender Is the Night, along with a good many spy novels and noir fiction), longtime resident Padraig Rooney gives us a dark-edged view of a land that is more complex than its popular image would suggest. Rooney makes no secret of his prejudices and blind spots (the Chalet school books and Rudolf Steiner are rudely dismissed, while Heidi is barely mentioned) and blithely admits to not bothering to finish books or visit museums when he doesn’t feel like it. His use of outdated pop culture references made me roll my eyes at times as well, and I wouldn’t take his opinions for gospel. Still, I enjoyed this quick slalom through a certain subsection of Swiss literature and history, particularly the seamier side.

Moving on to more unfamiliar territory for me, The Last Gods of Indochine draws on the real and imagined history of Cambodia, focusing on the mysterious temple complex of Angkor Wat and alternating between two streams of time. Ferrer imagines the granddaughter of a real-life Victorian explorer who goes on her own journey of discovery in 1921, becoming strangely intertwined with a boy from centuries earlier who is caught up in religious and political turmoil. There were some especially strong passages about mystical experiences that convincingly got into the mindset of an earlier age, but an unnecessary and non-historically-based love interest, and an abrupt “hooray for science!” ending somewhat marred for me what otherwise was a very interesting trip into the past.

Back to the present with Americanah, a book that was mentioned several times when I asked for contemporary fiction recommendations. This is another journey, away from and back to the heroine’s country of Nigeria and her childhood love, along the way sharing with us her brutal, enlightening, comical, destructive, empowering experiences. An annoyingly didactic tinge crept in at times, but Adichie’s beautiful writing and powerful sense of place pulled me along.

The title character of An Unnecessary Woman, meanwhile, journeys mainly within the walls of her Beirut apartment, obsessed with creating Arabic translations of world literature that no-one will ever read, and circling through memories — of childhood and war; of her detested former husband; of his sister, her best friend; and gradually of long-hidden secrets that break open into a new chapter of her life. This rambling, chapter-less book is more an extended personal essay than a novel, and takes patience to follow, but may reward a patient reader with its insights into this neglected woman’s world.

After these dense and somewhat heavy books Esperanza Rising, a well-received children’s book about migrant workers, was a much quicker and lighter read that also tackled some difficult issues. The title character (based on the author’s grandmother) is a young girl displaced from Mexico to California during the Depression, and having to adjust to the loss of wealth and family. This is a thoughtful, beautifully observed book for young readers that will help them understand some of the difficulties faced by immigrants.

One Half from the East took me into the world of another young girl, this time in Afghanistan, whose family is also rocked by tragedy. When Obayda’s father loses his legs in a bomb explosion, she is transformed into a bacha posh — a temporary boy — to bring luck and hopefully a new male baby to the family. The exploration of gender roles was fascinating and timely, as Obayda at first hates her disguise but then embraces the freedom it brings her and dreads losing it. No easy answers are to be found, but these are questions we must explore with girls (and boys) from a young age if we are to move into a more equitable future.

Finally, Season of Migration to the North was a true classic in translation, a rare book available to us from Sudan — the author worked closely with the translator to produce a work that is as beautifully written in English as in Arabic, the language in which it was originally published in 1966. An unnamed narrator, returned from study in the West, meets another former expatriate who confides in him a mysterious and brutal past life, then disappears. Coming to terms with this strange encounter forces the narrator to wrestle with the challenges and contradictions of post-colonial life, and we as readers are enriched and shaken by his journey.

I’ve absolutely loved this journey so far, and will look forward to visiting more countries next year. Have you traveled around the world in books? What places have drawn you most?