Tagged: Novel

16. Reading: Lo que no aprendí

Many novels are announced as treating memory and family, or memory and gender, or memory and politics, or memory and whatever else. Memory seems to be a particularly well vending attribute. Unfortunately, so many of the books announced that way don’t actually talk about memory, but in memories, and confusing these two, one could easily guess everything was memory. One of the blurbs to Margarita García Robayo’s Lo que no aprendí (Malpaso, 2014) therefore allerted me. It said, Margarita would unite memories as if they were flowers. Aesthetically, the comparison of her writing with flowers does most definitely hold. But what Lo que no aprendí has to say about memory is more complicated than that.

Contrary to the common-sensical idea, the difficulty of remembering (read: re-member-ing) in the novel might actually be the invention. To handle those flowers creatively, as if uniting them in a beautiful bouquet for the funeral of a controversial figure, effacing any trace of a more complicated, more nuanced, personality, is the real work for Catalina, the protagonist of the novel. The author presents us with this bouquet of Catalina’s mostly happy childhood memories in Cartagena. In a second part, however, she explains the uses, not of the flowers, but of the bouquet, to us readers, and we come to realize that beautiful flowers can be conventions covering up for the things that cannot, and in the case of funerals conventionally should not, be said. The flowers, it turns out, are memories of a different life, of a different Catalina who has little to do with the woman that today lives in Buenos Aires.

How did I come across the book?

I saw a good friend of mine mention it in a Facebook post from a bookstore in Bogotá, asking for the best book its customers had read in 2016. It is most definitely in the top three of my 2017, thus far.

When and where did I read it?

I found the time and place particularly matching in this experience: A warm summer week in Constance can at least temperature-whise keep up with Cartagena, where the first part of the novel is set. I finished the second part on a lazy sunday morning in bed, which also combined well with a loft in Buenos Aires. But it made me wonder: is Buenos Aires Latin America’s sunday morning in bed?

… si no te gustan mis recuerdos, empieza a juntar los tuyos; y si tampoco te gustán ésos, cámbialos, y así: es lo que hacemos todos. (p. 182)

14. Reading: Chapinero

Without knowing, I already had a book (edited) by Andrés Ospina, of which I am very fond because it has a CD with it. On that very CD is a song called Río Bogotá by a band named Sociedad Anónima. This song has always fascinated me for a line that goes: “Nunca se te ocurra ir con tu novia al Río Bogotá”, which translates to “It should never occur to you to go to the Río Bogotá with your girlfriend”. In the rest of the song, the singer explains that people throw trash into the river and that it’s a health risk to go swiming there. I who I only know the smelly and murky version of the river, was fascinated by the very idea of people actually bathing there. What is more, I never really considered the climate quite warm enough to go swiming outside. But as a Colombian saying goes, gustos son gustos. You can listen to this precious late 1980s rock jewel on youtube.

However, Chapinero (Laguna Libros, 2015) is a novel in which the river Bogotá is never mentioned. But those familiar with the city’s geography might have guessed, rightly, that it’s about the Chapinero district. The history of the quarter, which when Bogota was founded was a distinct settlement, is told in the voices of five different characters through various generations. The first is a Spanish shoemaker arriving around 1655, followed by a struggling father of the late 19th century. Then follows a young adult witness of the quarter’s transformation of the 1930s. The era of rock and hippiedom, in turn, is recounted by the only female character. They are all related to the main protagonist of the novel, who lives in todays Chapinero, through an antique shoehorn.

How did I come across the book?

I was hanging around in bookstores somewhat frequently during my last field trip. And I literally saw it in any one of the ones I visited. Plus, it was on the “Colombian authors to check out” list I had made when I got a gift certificate for a bookstore, together with Carolina Sanín, and Margarita García Robayo.

When and where did I read it?

It took me a while. As can be guessed from my bookmark – a plane ticket from Msocow to Riga – I have started it during my vacations to Moscow. I needed almost a month to finish it, because the number of characters was a little overwhelming in the beginning, and the middle part had it’s lenghts. Only as I started to realize all the characters could be related through family ties and the antique, did I become curious how their stories would unfold. I might read it again, reading not in the order of the book, but each character’s story by itself to better grasp the connections.

Para eso están los vivos. Para preguntales, y no esperar a que se vayan ausentando, hasta eternizarnos la duda. (p. 212)

5. Reading: Vor dem Fest

When Heimweh strikes, I like to read books about the region I was born in. Also, I like reading books about this region when I’m as far away as possible, because then I get the feeling it is actually a nice place to live in. Now that I am in Bogota for almost two months, I have had plenty of time to finish this jewel from Saša Stanišić: Vor dem Fest (btb, 2015). I am not entirely sure there was story to tell here, but want to mention that the writing is very beautiful. I am most of the time more interested in how things are told, than what is told, and I am thrilled with this one because the author manages to combine very different styles and perspectives into a portrait of a village in north eastern Germany, its people, its history, and even its animals. Especially the first three quarters are also unexplainably suspenseful, and the last page might appear abruptely. I really liked the character developments, and found many familiar types and stories. Further than that, I think it’s a very solid portrait of the ties and connections of a small town in this region, with many unspoken and unforgotten conflicts.

How did I come across the book?

It was among a pile I bought with a gift voucher, and the only one in German. The author seems quite acclaimed. I have made good experiences with trusting books that won prices, and so I thought I give it a try. But I don’t remember the exact recommendation.

When and where did I read it?

As I said, I like to read books on my home region as far away as possible. The fitting title “Before the Feast” was reason enough to start it before Christmas, even though the feast from the book takes place in summer.

Anthropolandia, year one: A Review

A year has gone by since I posted the first entrance on Anthropolandia, so it is a good time to think about the experience of blogging. While I have been blogging before (the obligatory adolescent year-abroad-Blog, and as part of a blogging network by aspiring journalists and/or writing professionals), trying to write an academic blog meant a steep learning curve. First, academic blogging is so much slower. The amount of detail, the correct sources, the depth I aspire to – all contribute to a different understanding of “time-consuming”. While earlier, this meant the general amount I spent on blogging, today, this is the time that goes into just one good post. Second, and related to this, I think the transition between one and the other is not exactly smooth. Luckily, as an anthropologist, I belong to a species that has experimented with writing styles for quite some time and has developed an enormous tolerance in terms of what language is still considered scientific. In terms of my initial aim to lose fear of the white page, I think I have gotten closer to this, or at least I see Anthropolandia as the experimental space it was meant to be. But when thinking about experiments, I think I am only just starting. I think the new series Vignettes from the Field has an enormous potential for this, and I will try my best to contribute to the series from time to  time.


Overall, I am happy with how things are going. There are almost zero days when no-one comes by to see what’s going on here, and I have vistors from almost allover the world! I would really like to have more discussions in the comment sections, especially on the pieces I explicitly ask for my readers opinion, but maybe many of you just aren’t the commenting type of people. The most frequented times change almost weekly, sometimes it’s Monday morning, sometimes Wednesday afternoon, so I assume this has a lot to do with when I publish. The most frequented categories for the first year are Genderella’s Stories, which I appreciate and will try to continue updated. But there seems to be a new trend in the Vignettes, as well, but as the series is young, it doesn’t yet make it to any important place in the yearly stats. In general, you people seem to prefer personal post to the short book reviews, which is understandable. I am sorry to all of you young visitors hoping for a comprehensive storyline-review for some of the novels I have been reading (I’m guessing homework, here?!), but I will not change my reviewing policies. I do the book reviews to remember the impressions a book left on me, for the content I have other systems to turn to.

The Reading List in Retrospect

I made it through 22 books, which is less than I had hoped for, so the first aim for 2017 is to make it to at least 24, that is, two per month. The difficulty clearly is to make it through the whole book, if it doesn’t start promising, or turns out not be useful, etc. Of those 22, five were purely scientific, which is clearly less than I had hoped for. To my defense, there is an unpublished blogpost on all the books I have started but never finished, which is about five times as long. My experience is that monographs are considerably more easy to finish than edited volumes, which is why one of the strategies for this year will be to read more ethnographic monographs. In terms of genre (apart from ethnographies), my taste for novels is obvious. Maybe this year there will be more graphic novels, poetry, or – if I feel adventurous – short stories. For sure, there will be more ethnographies, which I will  try to read as novels. We will see how that works. In terms of diversity, I think I have made an effort. I am somewhat unwilling to assign sexes and gendered identities to the authors I have read this year, since I don’t know how they identify, but I would go as far as to say that I could make more efforts in terms of queerness. Considering race, I could try harder for Latin America (especially considering my specialization in this area), and basically everything east of Germany until getting to the US. At least novel-wise, Latin America as a focus region is already planned for this year.

I clearly have a tendency for contemporary literature, and I don’t really plan to change that. I have a few classics waiting in my bookshelf, but also a serious “Classics” aversion, so I doubt I get very far with this one considering all the other plans I have. Language-wise, it is noticeable that I find reading in English so much more enjoying than anything else… From 22 books, only 5 are in my mothertongue, German, and only one in Spanish – which is a graphic novel, even. For 2017, I plan to continue the English trend, but try to read more Spanish, as well. As I said, there are already several works on the list, and I really hope they will nice to read, because I admit that until now, I haven’t found many Spanish-writing authors that convinced me. Notable exceptions: Roberto Bolaño, Alvaro Cepeda Samudio, and maybe Hector Abad Faciolince and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. No, not Borges, not García Márquez, not Vargas Llosa. And where are the women, by the way?

New Year, new Series, new Reading List

For 2017, I want to focus on science. Reading novels does count as science in two ways: First, reading good books is a way of developing a good writing style, and that is one of the professional aims for this year. Second, if I can focus on novels from and about the region/people I do research on, they might help me to “get into the mood”. But the plan is to read more monographs, on the region, on the people, on the topic,  on things completely unrelated, but monographs, to understand the mechanisms of the format, to gain insights into the topics at an in-depth level, and to be inspired.

Another important aspect will be writing. The new series on Vignettes will play a prominent role here, and maybe others will follow, because I might just as well practice at home. I am hoping to expand the Genderella series, even if I am afraight of finding new things to tell, because really every new chapter is yet another instance of a situation that could have been so much nicer, was the world a different place. To sum up, Anthropolandia is not going to change a lot, but I will try to paymore attention to what I had initially planned for this space: To be about (scientific) reading and writing.

14. Reading: Babyji

Abha Dawesar’s Babyji (2005, Anchor Books) accompanied me on my vacation. It took a while to get me hooked, and not only because I was usually pretty tired after the daily 20 kilometer hike. I guess it’s another example of high expectations, or at least divergent ones. The book was announced as “racy”, “steamy”, and “sexy”, among other, less carnal attributes. However, really everytime things got interesting, the acclaimed “unabashed detail” was missing. I really do expect more detail than a simple and then we made love, when the book is announced this way. The fact that people make love, or even this being a mayor activity in the novel, does not make it steamy per se. But that’s already my harshest critique about it. Otherwise, the coming-of-age of Anamika and her adventures with and phantasies about other women is a nice read. It get’s more and more articulate, in a way imitating in style the more and more complex thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.

Set in Delhi, the story also refers to many other aspects of Indian society, such as religions and their importance, gender roles and expectations Anamika is growing into, caste and how it influences behaviour toward each other, and development discourse. Especially the complicated relationship toward a lower caste classmate is an example of this, and combines several of these. Anamika patronizingly tries to make him a better person while at the same time facing the challenge of not spending time with him alone (or other males, for that matter), and knowing (and understanding) little about the individual circumstances that made him the person he is. Altogether, the book is sometimes annoyingly pubertal and know-it-all, sometimes shying away from the interesting details, and only several pages in it becomes more capturing, before it falls again shortly before the end. But it is refreshing in telling a story about a queer teenager in an unexpected environment ( – and I am fully aware of the inherent eurocentrism here).

How did I come across the book?

I think it was referenced in either Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things, or Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts. Or maybe one of the earlier pieces of The Affect Theory Reader by Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth (because I am still not through with that one).

When and where did I read it?

As I said, it accompanied me on my vacation in Portugal and Spain, specifically those afternoons I spend resting from the hikes on the Caminho Portugués.

13. Reading: Purple Hibiscus

My expectations were high. I would already consider myself a fan of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie since I first saw her TED talk about the danger of a single story. A few months later, she published Americanah, which I devoured. Then I started to have a look at her other works as well, and have only recently gotten my hands on Purple Hibiscus (Fourth Estate, 2004). And even though I would say I am not disappointed, I have to admit that it’s the weakest of her works so far. (Admitting also that I did not read her short stories because I don’t like short stories as a genre.) Now when I say weak I don’t mean not convincing, or that the plot had serious flaws or anything. My judgement here is entirely based on the book’s affective qualities, which are still pretty high, but not quite Americanah-level.

Without telling to much about the story, let’s just say it’s a coming-of-age novel/Bildungsroman situated in a dictatorship-ridden Nigeria, where fifteen year-old Kambili struggles to find her way and voice between the worlds dominated by her religiously fanatic father Eugene and her open-minded and pragmatic aunt Ifeoma. As Daria Tunca has analyzed in her article An Ambiguous”Freedom Song”, the narrative voice might quite well be intentionally flat or emotionless. Personally, I wouldn’t even go as far, because from the hints we get at how Kambili, her mother and her brother are beaten by her father, her narrative voice might as well reflect trauma.

How did I come across the book?

I have read backwards through the oevre of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, starting with Americanah, followed by Half of a Yellow Sun, and when I found out Purple Hibiscus wasn’t a collection of short stories, I finally read that one two. However, the other way around might have been more impressing. All three are immensely enjoyable, but I would say I liked Americanah best, so far.

When and where did I read it?

During my two weeks home office at my parents place, the book acompanied me on local train rides, several nights before sleep, and the train ride back to Constance, where I basically didn’t put it down for some 150 pages. As I said, it’s not a bad read at all.

12. Reading: the things i am thinking while smiling politely

Sharon Dodua Otoo is my latest discovery in contemporary literature. She recently won the Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize for a short story about an egg at a German breakfast table. The book I read is her first novel: the things i am thinking while smiling politely (edition assemblage, 2012). In it, Otoo describes the end of a marriage with two children from the perspective of the abandonned wife. The story can be read in at least two different ways: from front to back, or from back to front, as every chapter ends with three dots, and also starts with them. The chapters a numerated from ten to one, and interspersed with what the author quite accurately calls “shrapnels”: parts of hurtful sentences one can imagine in the unspoken fights ensuing during the break-up.

But that’s only half of the story, as it is also a novel about race and prejudice contextualized right at the heart of Berlin Kreuzberg. Otoo wouldn’t be Otoo if she didn’t insert one or another side kick about white-german difficulties with The (black) Other. We learn about harassment at school, well meaning but ignorant white women trying to be friends, and the politics of (re-)naming in divorce. A friend of mine recently did an interview with Otoo for Frankfurter Rundschau (in german), in which Otoo explains that authors (people in general?!) could and should be much more creative in their use of language when it comes to dismantling prejudice. Her text about the egg (Herr Gröttrup setzte sich hin) is an example of this, and a logical consequence of her activist work in the Black German Community. After the things… I am curious about Herr Gröttrup…, because this creativeness in the use of words does not yet come through that clearly. Still, the things… is an impressive and touching account of a hurt and angry woman that never risks the sentimental.

How did I come across the book?

I admit I heard about Sharon Dodua Otoo for the first time when she won the Bachmann prize. Then I saw the interview with her in Frankfurter Rundschau, so I decided to have a look at her texts. A few snipets from Herr Gröttrup… hooked me, but since I am no fan of short stories, I asked at the local bookstore for a novel, and they offered me this.

When and where did I read it?

On a train ride from Konstanz to Berlin. It’s little less then a hundred pages, so it’s easily doable on that ride. A noisy waggon did not frustrate my endeavour, as it is a very enjoyable read, and a convincing story.

“I was dancing to “It’s Raining Men” and feeling on-top-of-the-world. My beer bottle microphone in one hand, my eyes closed and my voice bouncing off the walls. Singing like no one can hear! (Except I did have the feeling that some poor Kazakhstani peasant on the far side of the Mugodzhar Hills had just been wrested from peaceful slumber as I crescendoed on “God bless mother nature!” Never mind.)” p.44