Review: Real World, Natsuo Kirino

Important update: Based on the two samples of this genre that I have read so far (this and The Thief, both by widely acclaimed Japanese authors), I have concluded that Japanese thriller mystery type books are not for me. I am not sure why I ever thought they were, given that I struggle with books in translation and I do not like thriller mystery type books above half.

Natsuo Kirino has been on several of the lists for A More Diverse Universe, with specific praise for her ability to write about the disaffection of teenagers in the modern world. (Red flag: I hate disaffected protagonists.) Real World is about four teenage girls who decide to help out a neighborhood boy, Worm, who has just beaten his mother to death with a baseball bat. (Greenish flag: I like reading about people who have done crimes and are waiting to see if they will be caught.) We hear from all the girls, and from Worm, in alternating chapters (green flag: I loooove multiple viewpoints), as they struggle to deal with the tedium and hypocrisy they encounter in their own lives, and as they become more and more enmeshed in Worm’s attempt to escape from the law.

These are the disaffectedest kids you ever saw, and I guess my tolerance for whiny protagonists is on the low side. Apart from Toshi, all these kids fall on the wrong side of the line. They’re angry with the adults in their lives for–as they see it–failing them: their parents for giving them unrealistic expectations of what their lives will be; their teachers for pretending to care about them; the creeps and salespeople who accost them on all sides as they move through the world.

To an extent, this is interesting to me. Past that extent, I start thinking, Oh boo flipping hoo, everybody’s got stuff to deal with. GROW UP. Which probably means I’d be one of the adults these kids would be happy to see disappear. The trick of writing about kids this age is that we (the readers) have gotten older and realized that everyone has to make compromises; and we know that the kids are going to eventually realize this too; and it can be a little tiresome to listen to them complain about it in the meantime.

Lesson learned: No more Japanese mystery thriller type books. Mysteries in translation are not likely to lead to an increase in love for mysteries or books in translation. They are only going to make me crabby probably.

(But I’m still going to read The Murder Farm before I finish with translated mysteries for good.)

This has been a read for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe blogging event! (I intended it to be a read for Women in Translation Month, which was August, but my library hold didn’t arrive in time for that to happen. Luckily, Bibliobio is not the only blogger devoted to promoting diversity in the reading world!) If you haven’t yet, stop by Aarti’s sign-up page and see what everyone else has been reading!

Review: Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

Here comes my second read for the A More Diverse Universe blogging event, hosted by the wonderful Aarti! Visit the event’s links page to find out what other folks are reading, and keep an eye on the hashtag #diversiverse.

With the caveat that I stupid-loved my first read for A More Diverse Universe, I have to say that this, my second, was a bit of a disappointment. In a way it’s my own fault: Everything I Never Told You is about a family struggling to deal with the unexpected and mysterious death of the eldest daughter, a teenager called Lydia; and I give very little benefit of the doubt to books about families struggling to deal with the loss of their pretty teenaged daughters. That is not my genre.

If that is your genre, though, I can recommend this book pretty highly. Ng nails the different ways of grieving, and the dynamics of a family in pain. The story of Lydia’s loss isn’t one huge dramatic event, but rather a series of smallish ones, all leading to a final tragedy. Sound like your jam? Go for it.

But I was hoping for a delicate and unexpected exploration of differentness, and I didn’t really get that. Lydia is the daughter of a Chinese father, who just longs for his children to fit in, and an American mother, who gave up her dreams of being a doctor when she had a family, and who doesn’t want the same fate for Lydia. There’s a lot to unpack there, but I thought Ng hit predictable beats every time. The characters’ motivations were very pat, a simple one-to-one correlation of life event to emotional impact, and it took away power from a book that depicts grieving very well. (Which I was less interested in.)

They read it too: River City Reading, S. Krishna’s Books, She Treads Softly — and let me know if I missed yours!

Review: The Bright Continent, Dayo Olopade

The universe is more diverse! If you aren’t already participating in Aarti’s wonderful September event A More Diverse Universe, you definitely should. Check out her amazing recommendations here and here and here, visit her blog to check out what other people are reading, and follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on Twitter.

My first read for this event is Dayo Olopade’s The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, a book I’ve long had my eye on because of its brilliantly colored, eye-catching jacket design. It’s also a terrific book, an antidote to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story.” Dayo Olopade has heard that single story a hundred times: the story of Africans who are passive-as-in-not-active and passive-as-in-suffering. The Bright Continent is aware of the suffering, the civil wars and the corrupt governments, but the stories it tells are of African ingenuity. Africans who are fully aware of government inefficiency and broken promises, and who work around those things. Africans who do not wait around to receive resources they don’t have yet, but who make the most of the resources they do have.

Olopade is sharply critical of top-down efforts to improve the lots of people in Africa. She argues that the models that work are those that come from Africans themselves, the people who know the country’s culture and shortcomings and have figured out how to work within them. Quite often these interactions are so informal that nobody in the West reports on them, and standard measures of economic growth and prosperity (such as GDP) miss them completely.

Many efforts by Westerners to send assistance to African countries are actually harming their economies, Olopade argues. When Tom’s sends a pair of shoes to Africa for every pair of Tom’s shoes you buy, it eliminates jobs in shoe-making that could otherwise exist in those countries. And also, people in Africa don’t necessarily want shoes the most. There are very likely other things they want much more. Or in many cases, foreign aid from developed nations comes tied to contracts with companies from the donating nations, and the money leaves the recipient nation almost as soon as it arrives.

Instead Olopade praises the solutions that take advantage of existing structures within African countries. The Tanzania company EGG-energy, for instance, wires houses for electricity and supplies rechargeable batteries to power the houses. When one battery wears out, subscribers return it and receive a new one.

The informal economy does EGG’s legwork. The company runs central charging and swapping stations but also enlists kiosk owners to stock its batteries alongside the soaps, chocolates, and mobile airtime typically for sale. When a subscriber swaps out a battery, the kiosk owner gets a cut.

 

“We’re trying to use the same distribution networks that already exist,” says [company founder Jamie] Yang, “people who go around selling produce on motorbikes, who walk eggs on bicycles or use wheelbarrows.” These extended networks enable EGG to reach ordinary people 30 or 40 kilometers outside the biggest city.

Reading this book was tremendously heartening. Because Olopade is right (and Adichie is right): The stories you hear about Africa tend to be stories of failed governments and civil wars. Those stories remain true, and we should listen for them; but they aren’t the only stories — they aren’t even the main stories — of what goes on day to day in the countries of Africa. And those day-to-day stories are worth telling.

Very much recommended!