1950s 2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

Jamilia Translated from the Russian by James Riordan

Five words from the blurb: husband, newcomer, village, letters, love

I knew nothing about this book, but accepted a review copy because the author was said to be “Kyrgyzstan’s best known literary figure”  and it was described as “the greatest love story ever told”.  I’d never read a book from Kyrgyztan before, but whilst it was interesting to learn about village life in this country, Jamilia was too sparse for my taste.

The book is set during WWII at a time when all the men from the village have gone away to fight; leaving the women and the elderly to run the farms by themselves. Jamilia is a spirited young woman who has little interest in the letters she receives from her husband on the front line, but the arrival of Daniyar, a stranger who has been injured on the battlefield, changes everything and they soon find themselves falling in love.  

The writing was beautiful and there were lots of vivid scenes, but I found the emotional connection to the characters wasn’t there – it was all too passive for me.

He took no notice of my presence; he just sat there, hugging his knees and gazing into the distance with a pensive, yet unclouded look. And once again I felt he was listening intently to sounds I could not hear. Now and again he would shudder and freeze, his eyes open wide. Something was bothering him and I fancied he would get up at any moment and unburden his soul, but not to me – he didn’t even notice me – rather to something vast, unbounded, unfathomable.

At just 96 pages long this novella can be read in a single sitting and I think this brevity also increased my frustration with it. I prefer a more complex plot, especially when looking for “the greatest love story ever told”. It probably didn’t help that the best love story I’ve ever read is  The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami, an 850 page epic in which I came to understand everything there was to know about the couple in love. In comparison Jamilia barely scratched the surface and I didn’t fully understand their culture or ambitions. 

I’d also warn readers who dislike spoilers to avoid reading the blurb, or most reviews for this book. Every plot point for this short story is given away, with no surprises at the end.

Overall it is worth reading this book – simply because little other literature from Kyrgyzstan is available in translation, but I’m sure there are many better love stories out there in the world.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a truly lovely story, that was a joy read. Bart’s Bookshelf

I am not as in love with Jamilia as others have been, but I am in love with Seit’s idea of being in love. The Stardust Reader

…a book that will linger with you long after you have put it down. Winstonsdad’s Blog


1950s Classics

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

The Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics)

Five words from the blurb: virus, deadly, grass, starvation, humanity

The Death of Grass was first published in 1956,  just five years after Day of the Triffids. Both books share similar post apocalyptic themes, but for some strange reason The Death of Grass has faded into obscurity, continually overshadowed by those carnivorous triffids. I think this as a real shame as The Death of Grass is equally good; in fact I think its chillingly realistic premise makes it all the more powerful.

The Death of Grass begins with the discovery of a new virus in Asia. This virus kills all the grass that it comes in contact with, including rice and wheat. As it spreads around the world it leaves populations starving, leading to civil unrest and ultimately chaos and carnage.

The book is set in England and follows one family as they travel across the country towards the safety of their brother’s farm. The situation gradually becomes worse and the family find themselves having to fight for survival.

The amazing thing about this book is that, unlike Day of the Triffids, it hasn’t aged at all. There is nothing within the text to suggest that it was written over fifty years ago and the idea that viruses are a threat to our crops is just as relevant today.

The Government’s reaction to the disaster was particularly scary and, as with Blindness, the speed of the degeneration makes you want to move to the country and start stockpiling straight away.

The valley, which had been so green in the old days, now showed predominately black against the browner hills beyond. The stone walls wound their way up the hillsides, marking boundaries grown meaningless. Once John thought he saw sheep on the hillside, and jumped to his feet to make sure. But they were only white boulders. There could be no sheep here now. The Chung-Li virus had done its work with all-embracing thoroughness.

This is a short book that reminds you about the fragility of human society. I was inspired to read this book after a review from Another Cookie Crumbles. She compared the book to The Road, another powerful glimpse into the breakdown of society. If you enjoyed The Road or Day of the Triffids then I guarantee that you’ll love The Death of Grass.

Highly recommended.


1950s 1980s Books in Translation Nobel Prize

Two Abandoned Nobels

The Piano Teacher Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004

Five words from the blurb: Vienna, emotional, self-destruction, intensity, porn

The Piano Teacher is an unrelenting, intense tale of one woman’s self-destruction.

Erika is a piano teacher who lives with her controlling mother. She begins an affair with one of her young students, but he cannot save her from her destructive cycle of self-harm.

I initially loved the gripping, emotionally charged narrative, but I quickly found I needed space to breathe, wishing there were some breaks from the darkness. I then began to find the narrative style, with its capitalised pronouns, irritating:

SHE only has to glance at this scene, and HER face instantly becomes disapproving. SHE considers her feelings unique when she looks at a tree; she sees a wonderful universe in a pinecone.

As the book progressed it became increasingly dark and sexually explicit. I found the scenes of her self-harm uncomfortable to read and her trips to watch pornographic shows held little interest.

I skimmed over several sections and then decided to give up entirely. This book has a grippingly original narrative voice, but it was too harsh for me.

Recommended to those with a strong stomach.


The Tin Drum (Vintage Classics)Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Günter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999

Five words from the blurb: Germany, Nazis, dwarf, scathing, horrors

The Tin Drum is one of those classics that had intimidated me for far too long. Inspired by German Literature month I decided to set my fears aside and give this imposing chunkster a try. Unfortunately, in this case, the intimidation was justified and I failed to finish this complex, multi-layered masterpiece.

The Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar, a dwarf with learning difficulties who calms himself by beating his toy drum. I’d love to be able to tell you what happens, but I’m afraid I can’t:

a) because very little happens
b) I didn’t get that far into the book

The writing was impressive and I loved Oskar’s character, but the book had very little narrative drive. It skipped from one scene to the next and I struggled to see the connection between them.

I crawled at a snail’s pace through the first 100 pages, becomingly increasingly bored. After another difficult 20 pages I decided to abandon it. I’m sure that this book is a masterpiece and everything makes sense in the end, but I don’t think I’m in the right stage of life to appreciate it. I think I’ll give it another try in twenty years.

Have you tried reading either of these books?


1950s Classics

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart (Pocket Penguin Classics)

Five words from the blurb: masterpiece, strong, man, African, awareness

Things Fall Apart has been on my book shelf for a very long time. I knew it was an important book, but it intimidated me and so I avoided reading it. I imagined it to be a complex, disturbing read and so was surprised to discover its fast pace and simplicity.

The book shows how a small African village is affected by the arrival of missionaries from Europe. We see events from the perspective of Okonkwo, a man famed for his strength, but plagued by difficulties beyond his control. His flawed character was fascinating to read about as although I didn’t warm to him I felt great sympathy for his situation.

I also loved the insight into Nigerian tribal life and now feel I have a better understanding of their culture. Achebe did a fantastic job of portraying both the English and African people in a straight-forward, non-judgemental way; allowing the reader to form their own opinion of who was in the wrong.

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

The ending was especially poignant and I think this is one of those books that will grow on me over time. I can see why it has become a classic and I hope that people will continue to read this book for many years to come.


I read this book for Amy’s Nigerian Independence Day Reading Project. Head over there to see many more Nigerian book recommendations.

1950s Classics Fantasy

Titus Alone – Mervyn Peake

Titus Alone (Gormenghast trilogy)

Five words from the blurb: escapes, city, zoo, traitor, home

Titus Alone is the third book in the Gormenghast trilogy, but whilst the first two are amongst the best books I’ve ever read, Titus Alone was a big disappointment.

Titus leaves the wonderfully atmospheric surroundings of Gormenghast castle and arrives in a modern city. Both the city and the people that he meets there lack the vivid descriptions of the previous books. I struggled to connect with the characters and was bored by plot. Reaching the end was a real chore and I only finished the book because I was hosting the read-along.

There were a few paragraphs that grabbed my attention, but overall I found the writing choppy and unconvincing. The world of Gormenghast wasn’t realistic, but somehow Peake made the happenings of the first two books entirely believable. This wasn’t the case with the third book. I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the city of Titus Alone; the fantasy elements jarred and the plot seemed ridiculous.

He strode to the forest verge, his head in his hands, then raised his eyes, and pondered on the bulk and weight of his crazy car. He released the brake, and brought her to life, so that she sobbed, like a child pleading. He turned her to the precipice, and with a great heave sent her running uopn her way. As she ran, the small ape leaped from his shoulders to the driving seat, and riding her like a little horseman using the best equipment from western saddlery Australia.
Ape gone. Car gone. All gone?.

I’m sure that there are some wonderful messages beneath the surface of this book, but it didn’t work for me.


Did you enjoy Titus Alone?

Which bits did you enjoy most/least?

1950s Chunkster Fantasy

Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast (Gormenghast Trilogy (Book Two))







Gormenghast is the sequel to the wonderful Titus Groan and it doesn’t disappoint. The writing is just as vivid and the story is, if anything, even more compelling. 

The two books are slightly different in style and it took me a while to adjust to the more intimate feel of Gormenghast. As the book progresses the plot becomes increasingly gripping and for the last 40 pages I was unable to put the book down, totally engrossed in the action. 

It is hard to imagine a book with more complex characters – each one so alive they seem to breathe on the page. The setting is just as good – it is atmospheric and there are many creepy moments.

It is impossible to review this book without giving spoilers for Titus Groan, so I’ll reveal nothing about the plot, other than to say that it is filled with surprises.  

I am enjoying these books so much that I don’t want the experience to end.

All I can do is suggest that you try these outstanding books yourself.


Fifty-Nine – Eighty (p659 – p752)

I can’t believe we’ve made it to the end of Gormenghast! I’m so glad that I took the time to read it slowly and have wonderful discussions along the way. I’m feeling a bit sad at finishing Gormenghast as I suspect that the next two books will not be quite as good – the setting of Gormenghast Castle makes these books special and I can’t see how they will work without it dominating proceedings.

What did you think of the way Gormenghast ended?

I was interested to discover that I was rooting for Steerpike’s death. I loved him in the beginning, but his evil had gone too far by the end. This change in compassion for a character was quite an unusual experience and the fact that all the characters underwent similar transformations shows Peake’s skill as an author.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the central character changes from one stage of a book to the next. Not knowing which character would play a major role and which would never be seen again added to the intrigue of the narrative. I was also impressed by the way Peake chose to kill off almost all the main characters. It was brave to create such a wealth of amazingly vivid characters and then risk upsetting readers by removing them.

The only thing that I didn’t like in the books was Keda and her daughter. I had expected them to play a greater role and so was baffled by the sudden death of “the Thing”. Do you think the books would have been better without Keda and her child?

It was good to have such a hopeful ending. With all that death it could easily have become depressing, but I loved the way that Titus looked to the future and wanted to risk everything to better his life experience. I found myself warming to Titus towards the end of Gormenghast and am looking forward to seeing what happens to him next. Are you looking forward to Titus Alone?

Gormenghast Read-along Schedule