Throwback Thursday: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

throwbackthursday

Throwback Thursday is a meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk to share old favourite books rather than just the new shiny ones. This is a great idea to bring back to life some much-loved books. Please feel free to join in.

My choice for this week is: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong.

Taken from my review in 2009, this book is still firmly at the top of my favourite ever reads. In 2008 it won the first ever Man Asia Literary Prize and with good reason. I have hardly ever come across anyone else who has read it but I honestly recommend so highly.

Image result for wolf totem jiang rongWhat I thought:

From the very first page I was hooked. Jiang Rong creates such a vivid and compelling narrative that I found myself simultaneously gripped with the story yet trying to slow down and savour every word, so beautiful was each sentence.

Wolf Totem is semi-autobiographical and Jiang’s passion for the Mongolian grasslands shines through on every page. The description of the grasslands themselves, the wildlife, the lifestyle and survival was stunning. So few books make me believe that I am there at the actual place, but with this book I was there on horseback, hiding from wolves, fleeing for my life, braving blizzards and building campfires. I smiled, I cried, I hoped and I silently pleaded all within the space of an hour. I also fell in love with wild Mongolian wolves. To get to know them was an honour– they are clever, cunning, brave, brilliant and I loved following their story (from both sides – the good and the bad). The Little Wolf that was captured and raised by humans both enchanted me and broke my heart.

While this book is most certainly a tale of the grasslands of the last 10,000 years and what happens when modern living creeps in, it is also a book about so much more. I can’t praise this enough; I am sad that it has ended as I could have read on for another 500 pages. What a beautiful book, one I highly recommend and one I will be reading again and again.

Verdict:

It’s now quite a while since I read this and I really think I want to read it again soon; just reading this review has brought back so many memories of how wonderful it is. If you love animals, nature, different cultures, the human spirit or just damn good literature then you will love this.

 

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The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

In three words:

Quirky, clever, riddle

 

 

What I thought:

What a strange yet strangely appealing book from this Japanese author, Keigo Higashino. I have read several novels by Japanese authors over the years and they have all had similar styles in that they have been sparsely written with barely a word wasted, yet they have all packed an almighty punch (without even trying it somehow seems). The Devotion of Suspect X is a clever crime book. There is a murder but no blood and gutts, a crime but no evidence. The killing takes place in the first few pages of the book and we all know straight away who did it: what happens immediately afterwards is what keeps the reader on their toes.

The story is centred around Yasuko, a single mum who works in a lunch-box shop and whos unsavoury ex-husband tries to worm his way back into her life. Within pages, said ex-husband is dead and entering from stage left is strange nextdoor neighbour Ishigami, who is a genius mathemetician with rather a large crush on Ysasuko. On the case of the body dumped in an oil drum by the river is Tokyo  Detective Kusangi who vents his frustrations about the case to friend Yukawa who happens to be a genius physician and whom knew Ishigami at University. What follows is clash of the geniuses: not in an action-packed, race-against-time way, but more like a battle of brains over a quiet game of chess. While this was a great way to help the reader unravel what happened, I have to admit that about ¾ of the way through the book I started to become a little bored with the perpetual cat-and-mouse game between Yukawa and Ishigami: I remember sighing and uttering “get on with it” at one point. However, not long after I was rewarded with an almighty wollop at the end that I didn’t see coming. And then, just as I’d relaxed again, I was left staring at an ending that made my mouth go into this shape….. O

Verdict: Quirky, surprising and rewarding.

(Source: I bought this book myself)

 

Day 37 – A book that I still think about years after having read it

Memoirs of a smitten reader…

There are many books that don’t want to seem to let me go after I have finished those final pages; books that I can’t stop thinking about or that haunt my thoughts for days, even weeks afterwards. I love those books – the ones that get under your skin. However, how many of those book do I still remember years later? Yes, there are books that I look back fondly, even passionately upon, but it is a really special book that stays in my mind so vividly years and years later that every now and then I will be taken completely unawares when one of the characters sneeks into my head and waves hello.

One such book that has that effect on my is Memoirs of a Geisha which I read in the summer of 2003. I can clearly remember entering the Japanese tea houses and walking under the cherry blossom trees so much so that whenever I looked up from my book I was surprised to find myself still sat on a sofa in a house in Yorkshire. I was so emmersed in sayuri’s life for the few days that it took me to read it that I actually felt as though I’ve lost a friend once I had finished: I felt lost without her and her world. Even now, every now and then,  I find myself thinking about not only Sayuri but also Mameha, the Chairman, Nobu and even Hatsumomo and wondering what became of them.

Memoirs of a Gesiha is a breathtakingly beautiful book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time. And when I stop remembering…..I will read it again.

 

  Which books have you been able to let go of even years later?

 

Day 35 – The longest book I have ever read

Count how many pages…

I’m not really one for long books. I wish I was – there are so many I want to read! It’s the size that puts me off even picking most of them up: what if it takes too long to read when there are so many other books out there waiting to be read? I am easily distracted by things that drop through my letter box and books that have been on my shelf for a long time can be overlooked.

I would love to read more though including Charles Dickens (David Copperfield, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend to name just a few), Gone With the Wind, The Passage, The Crimson Petal and the White, Quincunx, Shantaram, Shogun and A Suitable Boy are all on my shelves, staring sadly at me every time I pass them.

Despite saying that, I have read some long books and I almost always love them when I do (although part of me wonders if I love them so much becasue I am so rapturous of  having got through them!). The longest book I have read so far is The Count of Monte Cristo which I loved. Swashbuckling, dramatic and thrilling!

 

  Which is the longest book you have read and was it worth it?

 

Homeless Rats by Ahmed Fagih = wonderful book

In three words:

Desert, hunger, battle

 

I read this book some months ago now: I was sent it for review in advance of the publication date and only intended to flick through the first few pages and before I knew it I was ripping through the book, not wanting to put it down. I actually started it on a boiling hot day (yes, unusual for the UK which is precisely why I had set up camp in the back garden) and as I read the first sentence I almost felt I was there in the desert.

Anyone who knows my blog will know that I am a sucker for books with animals in them or narrated by animals (see yesterdays post). The fact that I often have problems reading books narrated by children never seems to transcend to books narrated by a rat or a pig or a dog. Don’t be put off though, only the odd chapter is narrated by (in this case) a jerboa rat, an ant or a spiny-taled lizzard and it’s done in such a way feels necessary for the book and also gives us another angle in which to view the humans whom tell us the rest of the tale.

Homeless Rats is about a group of Bedouins in southern Libya who set off in a large convoy to a place in the desert further north where they are assured of bountious barley that they can eat and sell in the markets. Their home village of Mizda has suffered such drought that they have no option but to move on. Once they arrive in J    they are grief-stricken by the fact that all the barley ears have been taken already. Hungry and knowing they don’t have enough food to go on another journey they weigh up their options. Just as all seems lost, a young boy finds a stash of barley underground in a Jerboa’s home and then all becomes clear – the dessert rats have harvested all the barley ears for themselves to see them through the winter. Thus begins a battle between man and animal.

This book is really clever in making me see both sides equally and feeling empathy for both animal and human. At first I felt sympathy for the animals who had had their homes destroyed by humans and their food stolen. When all the dessert animal kingdom come together to discuss their lost homes and families and what to do next, I was upset with them as they watched everything they knew fall away from them. Once we switch back to the humans, who are literally desperate at one point as they have no food to stay and no food to go on their way, I realised that it was all about survival. It was easy for me to sit in judgement about these people coming and destroying the animal kingdom but they were starving and they were doing what was necessary to survive.

Verdict – Homeless Rats had shades of Watership Down in the desert. I adored this book and highly recommend.

Look how cute I am!

 

(Source: I received my copy of this book for review from Quartet Books)

 

Day 5 – A favourite non-fiction book

Chinese Whispers…..

Every now and then I become obsessed with a particular country or culture and devour as many books about that place as I can. Some years ago it was China (I still love reading books set there) and in 2004 I was even lucky enough to go there on holiday which was amazing.

I have chosen Wild Swans by Jung Chang as my favourite non-fiction book. This is the most incredible story I have ever read : it starts in 1909 and follows 3 generations of women in the same family, starting with Chang’s grandmother who was concubine to a warlord, then her mother who was a fervent party member and then on to herself and her own time during the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. If this had been a work of fiction I would have rolled my eyes on so many occasions about Chang’s over-active imagination, but you know what they say about fact being stranger than fiction – that is certainly true here; you seriously couldn’t make this stuff up. This book is shocking, astonishing, brutal, beautiful, gripping and moving and I urge you to read it.

  What non-fiction books do you recommend?

The Attack by Yasmina Khadra = powerful

In three words:

Emotive, touching, shocking

 

Dr Amin Jaafari is an Israeli Arab. He has put himself through medical school and now works in a Tel Aviv hospital as a surgeon. He has a nice home in a nice part of the city, he and his wife Sihem attend dinner parties with their Israeli friends and are happy.

When a suicide bomber strikes in a crowded restaurant in Tel Aviv killing 19 people, including eleven children at a birthday party, the hospital is put on high alert and it’s all hands to the deck. Amin finally goes home exhausted to his wife, and assumes that her absense means that she is still with her Auntie in Nazareth. When Amin is woken only a few hours later by the police to tell him that his wife was killed in the blast and is suspected of being the suicide bomber, Amin’s life as he knows it is turned upside down….

The Attack opens with literally that – an attack. The confusion, the silence; it all seems to happen in slow motion and we are no more clued up than those in amongst the devastation: The opening chapter is incredibly powerful.

Having lived in Israel back in the early-mid nineties (I regularly mention it on my blog as it made such an impression on me and I am still pretty obsessed with all things Israeli) I am drawn to books like this. The media, righly so, reports on the happenings in Israel as they happen but what we don’t see is what goes on behind the scenes, and after the worlds cameras have left: What we don’t see is the shattering devastation that affects everyone else. The victims of the bombs, their families and friends, the survivors, but also those of the relatives of the suicide bomber whose lives will never be the same again either. The author, in my opinion, did a good job as putting both sides of the story across.  I say “good” job as I feel that it is slightly weighted in favour of the Arab view point but let’s not forget where the author is from. Yasmina Khadra is the nom de plume for former Algerian officer  Mohammed Moulessehoul and I feel (as the blurb on the back of the book states) he “rarely sits in judgement”. Despite the book starting with the killing of 19 Israelis, the book really centres around the suicide bomber, Sihem, and what drove a wealthy, priveledged wife of a well respected surgeon to carry out such a act.

Amin Jaafari, unable to believe what has happened or why, sets out on a journey to make sense of what he can’t believe is true and in doing this we are also taken on a journey of discovery with him which leads us through Bethlehem and Nazareth and the camps in Jenin as Sihems story unfolds. What Khadra has done is allowed us to see the other side of what gets reported – the anguish and disbelief felt by Amin as he slowly unravels a side of Sihem he didn’t know about:

“There must have been a moment, there must have been a sign, and I want to remember it, don’t you understand? I have to remember it. I have no other choice. Since I got that letter I’ve been constantly rooting around in my memories, trying to find the right one. Whether I’m asleep or awake, it’s all I think about. I’ve passed everything in review, from the most unforgettable moments to the least fathomable words and the vaguest gestures; nothing. And this blank spot is driving me crazy. You can’t imagine how much it tortures me, Kim. I can’t go on like this, pursuing it and suffering it at the same time.”

 

While all the time going through the mental torture that he does, Amin is also subjected to abuse from those he used to live amongst:

“Is that how people say thank you, you dirty Arab? “

“Look at the house you live in you son of a bitch. What more do you have to have before you learn to say thanks?”

 

As the story moves along, it is hard not to see things from both perspectives as I believe that Kharda has done a great job of allowing us this privelidge and I found my emotions swinging between the two sides with regularity: the high passions, the feelings of utter helplessness, the no hope for the future, the tit-for-tat of both sides.

A suicide bomb in Tel Aviv

A family in Jenin at what was their house

If you’ve ever wondered what happens after the cameras stop rolling then read this book: it’s a great insight into how this clash of civilisations continues to roll. Just don’t look for answers; you won’t find them here.

For other fantastic books set in this country you can also read my reviews of Mornings in Jenin, Day After Night and Before We Say Goodbye. I can highly recommend all three and they all give a slightly different perspective.

And finally, just to show the other side of Israel that rarely makes it to the news. The most wonderful, friendly, beautiful country and the big love of my life: