I've just finished up another month of the Around the World in 80 Books challenge. The idea is to read books set in 80 different countries, effectively exploring the world from the comfort of your armchair. Since my last update, I've read books set in four more countries – Algeria, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Slovenia. That makes a total of 29 books since I started the challenge. 51 more to go!
You can read more about the challenge here, as well as check out Update #1, Update #2, Update #3, Update #4 and Update #5.
L’ÉTRANGER (The Stranger) by Albert Camus | Algeria
This one might be a bit of a cheat as I read this book in English many, many years ago. The twist this time around is that I read it in French. Plus, I didn’t really remember the plot, so it was like reading it for the first time. My French isn’t very good – I don’t understand it all that well (especially when French Canadians speak it, their accent is quite different from what I learned in school), can’t write it to save my life and every time I try to speak French (usually after a glass or two of wine), I end up saying something like, “There’s spaghetti on top of your car.” It’s no wonder the French Canadians at the marina immediately switch to English when they see me coming. They’re getting a little tired of hearing about pasta covered vehicles.
I used to have to read in French back in graduate school. Generally, a very slow and painful process with a well thumbed dictionary at hand. For some reason, I thought it might be a good idea to brush up those reading skills, picked up a French copy of The Stranger at the marina book exchange and slowly made my way through it. (That’s one of the reasons I only read four books this time, instead of the usual five. Plus, I’ve been reading a lot of sci-fi lately. Next challenge – Around the Universe in 80 Books.)
The Stranger was published in 1942 and is set in Algeria, when it was a French overseas territory. It tells the story of a Mersault, a French Algerian, who attends his mother’s funeral and then later kills an Arab man. Mersault is indifferent and emotionally detached from the world, not shedding a tear for his mother’s death, being apathetic about killing someone and being indifferent to his girlfriend’s declarations of love.
On a popular culture note, I learned from Wikipedia that the themes of emotional indifference, detachment etc. in The Stranger informed the character of Don Draper in the TV series, Mad Men. Now, I don’t feel so badly about binge watching Mad Men knowing that it’s linked to a literary classic.
The quote I chose to share is in French. I hesitate to translate it into English as I know some of the folks who read this blog are fluent in French and, well, I’d be pretty embarrassed for them to see my appalling translation skills. The gist of the passage is Mersault’s very lackluster response when his girlfriend asks him whether he wants to marry her and if he loves her.
"Le soir, Marie est venue me chercher et m’a demandé si je voulais me marier avec elle. J’ai dit qu cela m’était égal et que nous pourrions le faire si elle le voulait. Elle a voulu savoir alors si je l’aimais. J’ai répondu comme je l’avais déjà fait une fois, que cela ne signifiait rien mais que sans doute je ne l’aimais pas. <Pourquoi m’épouser alor?> a-t-elle dit. Je lui ai expliqué que cela n’avait aucune importance et que si elle le désirait, nous pouvions nous marier."
You can find out more about The Stranger at Goodreads.
THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grimm | Bolivia
One of my dock neighbors (hi Denis!) loaned me this book. He thought I might like it given my anthropology background and the fact that I had read a book set in the Amazon previously (see Update #5). The Lost City of Z tries to answer the question about what happened to the British explorer, Peter Fawcett, who went into the Amazon on a quest to find the lost city of El Dorado (which he called Z) in 1925 and never returned.
The author, David Grimm, set out to find out more about Fawcett’s mysterious disappearance, combing through old notes, diaries and other historical documents and eventually retracing his steps in the Amazon.
While I’m not usually a big non-fiction fan, I really enjoyed this book, as the author tells the story in a very compelling way. And Denis was right, it was a fascinating account of the history of anthropology and how Europeans viewed and treated indigenous peoples in Bolivia and Brazil.
If you’re doing the Around the World in 80 Books challenge, you could tick off either Bolivia or Brazil (possibly even India as Fawcett’s early days there are described) as Fawcett made several explorations in the Amazon in both countries. As I had already ticked off Brazil previously, I’m counting this towards Bolivia. The quote below describes how Fawcett and his party reacted when they encountered some Guarayos Indians along the Heath River in Bolivia. Unlike other explorers of the time, Fawcett had a reputation for traveling with small party without armed soldiers and taking a peaceful approach when meeting new peoples.
“Fawcett ordered his men to drop their rifles, but the barrage of arrows persisted. And so Fawcett instructed one of the men, as further demonstration of their peaceful intentions, to pull out his accordion and play it. The rest of the party, commanded to stand and face their deaths without protest, sang along as Costin, first in a trembling voice, then more fervently, called out the words to ‘The Soldiers of the Queen’ : ‘In the fight for England’s glory, lads / Of its world wide glory let us sing.’"
You can find out more about The Lost City of Z on Goodreads.
THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO by Steven Galloway | Bosnia and Herzegovina
This one was a sad, but good book. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a fictional account of the Siege of Sarajevo and is inspired by Verdran Smailovic, a cellist who played played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for 22 days in a row at the site where 22 people were killed by a mortar attack while waiting to buy bread in 1992. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serbs wanted to incorporate the city of Sarajevo into the Bosnian Serb state of Republika Srpska. They encircled the city and assaulted the people of Sarajevo for 1,425 days with tanks, artillery and small arms.
The Cellist of Sarajevo depicts what life was like living in the city from the point of view of three people whose lives are upended by the war – one man who sets off to get water for his family and a neighbor, another man in search of bread and a woman who is a sniper assigned to protect the cellist as he plays.
As I sit here on my boat in peaceful Indiantown, Florida, I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to try to survive in the middle of a war zone.
“Since the war began Dragan has seen three people killed by snipers. What surprised him the most was how quickly it all happens. One moment the people are walking or running through the street, and then they drop abruptly as though they were marionettes and their puppeteer has fainted. As they fall there’s a sharp crack of gunfire, and everyone in the area seeks cover. After a few minutes, though, things seem to go back to what they now call normal. The bodies are recovered, if possible, and the wounded are taken away. No one has any way of knowing if the sniper who fired is still there or if he has moved, but everyone behaves as though he has gone until the next time he fires, and then the cycle repeats itself.”
You can find out more about The Cellist of Sarajevo at Goodreads.
VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE by Paulo Coelho | Slovenia
This was my favorite book that I read this time around. It was funny, touching and thought provoking. A young Slovenian woman, Veronkia, decides to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills. To her surprise, her suicide attempt wasn’t successful and she wakes up in a mental hospital, where she is informed that she has a heart condition and will die in a few days anyway. During her remaining days, Veronika connects with some of the other patients, has new experiences and discovers new things about herself.
In addition to enjoying Veronika’s journey of self-discovery, I found the take on what it means to be committed to a mental hospital fascinating.
“Once in a mental hospital, a person grows used to the freedom that exists in the world of insanity and becomes addicted to it. You no longer have to take on responsibilities, to struggle to earn your daily bread, to be bothered with repetitive, mundane tasks. You could spend hours looking at a picture or making absurd doodles. Everything is tolerated because, after all, the person is mentally ill. As she herself had the occasion to observe, most of the inmates showed a marked improvement once they entered the hospital. They no longer had to hide their symptoms, and the ‘family’ atmosphere helped them to accept their own neuroses and psychoses.”
And here’s a bonus quote, just because I like her attitude towards math.
“She hated everything. The library with its pile of books full of explanations of life; the school that had forced her to spend whole evenings learning algebra, even though she didn’t know a single person, apart from teachers and mathematicians, who needed algebra to be happy. Why did they make them learn so much algebra or geometry or any of that mountain of other useless things?”
You can find out more about Veronika Decides to Die at Goodreads.
If you're participating in the challenge too, I'd love to hear what you've been reading. Even if you're not doing the challenge, let us know what books you've been enjoying lately.
COUNTRIES READ TO DATE: Algeria, Australia, Azerbaijan, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, England, Ghana, Haiti, Iceland, India, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Mali, Mexico, North Korea, Norway, Russia, Samoa, Scotland, Slovenia, United States, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
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