Review: Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Third time’s a charm. I have tried to finish this book twice before, and I stalled out in about the same place both times. I decided to try to finish it this time because Carol Jago is leading a book club discussion of the book on Facebook for the National Council of Teachers of English members. I knew the problem with not being able to finish the book was me. Everyone I know who has read this book loved it, and I love Adichie, too, and I knew I should love this book. For some reason, I was just getting stuck right around the first part that focuses on Obinze. For what it’s worth, I do think the Obinze sections drag a bit, and I’m not sure why because his story is interesting, especially his sojourn as an undocumented immigrant in the UK.

When I was at lunch at work a couple of weeks ago, I complained about getting stuck with this book. One of the people listening to me complain asked me if I’d tried the audiobook. I listen to audio books all the time, but I had this one Kindle, so no, I hadn’t tried the audiobook, but I decided it might be just the thing to get me past being stuck. Once I got past that part, I admit I was riveted by the book. I was puttering around the house the last week or so, listening whenever I could.

One quibble I think I have with the book is the notion that Ifemelu’s blogs take off so quickly in popularity. I suppose some people get lucky in that regard, and yes, I’ve been approached for advertising on my education blog (which I don’t feel comfortable doing), but it seemed a bit unrealistic to me that her blogs both became so popular so fast. However, in the grand scheme of the book, this issue is so minor as to be nearly nonexistent. Adichie offers a thoughtful critique of race and class America, the UK, and Nigeria, as her characters explore their identities and struggle to make it as immigrants.

I understand a movie is in the offing, and that Lupita Nyong’o has been cast as Ifemelu and David Oyelowo as Obinze. The book could certainly make a good film, though I wonder how it will capture all the complexity of the novel. I could see teaching this novel at the college level, though I think it might be a bit too long for high school students, even in AP classes. However, it would offer wonderful opportunities for discussion with a class novel study. I would recommend this book to everyone, but I think white liberals especially have something to learn from this book.

Review: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing took my breath away. At times, I had to put it down for a little bit just to think about what I had read, and other times, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in about three giant gulps over a couple of days. While Gyasi’s prose isn’t flashy, the story she tells pierced me right through the heart. I think it’s changed my life. Ernest Hemingway said once, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s how I feel after reading this book. That it’s truer than if the stories it told really happened and that those stories now belong to me in some way. I can’t find it now, but I swear I’ve read a quote by some famous smart person that said something along the lines of this: every once in a while, you encounter a book, and it becomes such an important book to you and leaves such an impression, that you can mark your life before you read it and after.

The book is drawing inevitable comparisons to Roots, and for good reason. One criticism I’ve read of Gyasi’s writing in several reviews is that many of the experiences of the African-American branch of the book’s family seem sort of “shoehorned” into African-American history. In a sense, I can see it, but to me, it never felt inauthentic. I mean, it wasn’t like Forrest Gump. In a way, I saw some of these passages as connections to African-American literature, such as James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or the American legend of John Henry. Isabel Wilkerson criticized Gyasi for perpetuating a stereotype:

And there is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

I totally understand Wilkerson’s pain at encountering this stereotype. Yet, the incident as described in the book smacks of something that really happened to Gyasi. One has the feeling that as a Ghanaian immigrant, she did feel different and was treated differently. I certainly don’t mean to discount Wilkerson’s criticism. When I read the scene, I felt the same way as Wilkerson, and yet, I also sensed it was possible an uncomfortable true story was fictionalized for Gyasi’s character.

Gyasi is at her most brilliant in describing the relationships between parents and children. It’s maddening and frustrating that the reader knows the stories of the ancestors unknown especially to the African-American family, but also to the African family as well, and in their case, because of choices made by the characters. So much loss. It’s difficult to comprehend. Some studies suggest that trauma leaves an intergenerational impact. And when you have a situation in which trauma is re-inflicted, for generation after generation, recovery seems almost hopeless. But empathy—telling our stories, and especially listening to the stories of others—is one path forward.

I had a feeling about the way the story might end up, and it was gratifying and redemptive. While parts of this book are difficult and grueling—Gyasi does not flinch from the realism of the characters’ experiences, and she forces us to look, too—there is also much joy and love, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful after reading the end. This is one I think I’ll be recommending to everybody.

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne Young

I received a signed first edition of this book in my Owl Crate box subscription. The cover and premise of the book intrigued me. Sky in the Deep is unusual in that its Viking-inspired setting and warrior heroine aren’t often found in YA fantasy. The book’s trailer does a good job capturing the setting, the real star of the novel:

The egalitarian society Adrienne Young describes in the book is one of its more interesting aspects. Women and men both can be warriors, healers, spiritual leaders. Eelyn, the novel’s heroine, is a warrior, and based on descriptions of her prowess, a pretty good one. Despite a lot of wishful thinking, I believe the jury is still out on the extent to which shieldmaidens were a real thing in the Viking era, though a quick glance at Norse myth supports the idea at least in part. I liked the Riki characters Eelyn winds up living with, but one can’t help cry foul over the Stockholm syndrome. I’m not sure how healthy it is for YA books to continue with the trope of the woman who falls in love with someone who captures and in this case, abuses the protagonist—he has his blacksmith fit her with a slave’s collar. Fiske never emerges as very interesting to me anyway; though he’s written in that swoony way you see in a lot of YA fiction, it’s not overdone (to the author’s credit). I loved that the author didn’t try to make the reader fall in love with Fiske.

In any case, the book is a quick, fun read. Be warned: it’s pretty violent. Young doesn’t flinch from describing this warrior culture in full detail. Many of the names—both people and places—come from Old Norse and are still in use today. In searching out some of the names in the book, I stumbled on the author’s Pinterest board for inspiration. Of course, now I’m looking for it to link it, I can’t find it again. I halfway wonder if she’s made it private in the days since I found it. I am not sure why, but discovering that Pinterest board of inspirational images utterly charmed me.

This book is different from typical YA in many ways, and it’s easy to keep turning the pages, and though the plot unwinds in a fairly predictable fashion, the ride isn’t any less fun. I probably would have loved it had I read it as a teen, and given that is who the audience is, it’s worth giving it a try if you’re in that demographic. If you’re not, you still might enjoy it.

Though it might be more accurate to describe this book as Viking-inspired fantasy, I’m still going to count it as historical fiction also because I think it fits that genre, even if the story is not strictly based on true historical events. For the Literary Voyage Challenge, I’m settling on Norway as a setting.

 

 

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

I’ve been working on finishing this book for a long time, and I am trying to figure out why it was so hard to pick back up again on the occasions when I put it aside because I did like the book. I don’t have to sympathize with the main character in order to like a book (I love Wuthering Heights and find all the characters difficult to sympathize with). So, even though the narrator can be difficult to “like,” I don’t think that is the problem. I can appreciate a finely tuned sentence. I think ultimately, however, the plot really needs to move along, and in some places, the plot of The Sympathizer plods. Two notable exceptions are a chunk of the middle of the book when the unnamed protagonist is consulting on a Vietnam War movie, The Hamlet, that is clearly modeled after Apocalypse Now and Platoon and again towards the end after the protagonist is captured upon returning to Vietnam. I recognize Nguyen’s argument that the Vietnam War is exceptional in that the war’s defeated have controlled the narrative about that war, starting with movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon and continuing with novels like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I love that novel, but it erases the Vietnamese people entirely from its narrative. In my favorite passage in the book, the protagonist reflects on his failure to reclaim the narrative through working with the director of The Hamlet:

I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

The Sympathizer is brilliant. I think it suffers a bit from some of its own good press. For example, Ron Charles (who writes brilliant reviews for The Washington Post), described this book as “a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age.” So, I was expecting a thriller. It’s not, really. As to the rest of Charles’s description, it’s accurate, and his review will give you an excellent idea about what makes the book great. Ultimately, it dragged in some places for me, but I can appreciate what Nguyen has done with this novel.

 

Review: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, narr. Kenneth Branagh

My husband and I decided to listen to this on audio as we cook dinner—listening to books while we cook has become a habit. I hadn’t read this one yet. In fact, I haven’t read anything else by Agatha Christie except And Then There Were None. I had the advantage of not having the mystery spoiled for me, so I will not spoil it for you, either (just in case). However, I will say it was quite a satisfying murder mystery, and I was guessing up until the end.

This was my first Hercule Poirot book, and I haven’t really watched any movies or television featuring the character, either. He definitely owes something of a debt to Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and I liked him. Kenneth Branagh is an excellent narrator. He does accents really well, which is something I noted when listening to his reading of Heart of Darkness. He even does a really good American accent. His reading of Mrs. Hubbard was fantastic.

I know the reason he read this book is that it’s a movie tie-in for the film he directed and starred in last year. I might want to watch it. It has a stellar cast, though reviews on IMDb are not awesome.

If you haven’t read this book, treat yourself to this audio version. You won’t be disappointed. Kenneth Branagh is a great reader.

This book counts towards the British Books Challenge, as Agatha Christie is a British writer, though the book is set in modern-day Croatia (Yugoslavia at the time). Because of its setting, I’m also counting it for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. I’m counting it as my selection for a classic crime story for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Review: The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

I can’t remember when I bought this book for my Kindle. I think maybe it was one of those deals, and the book had caught my eye in any case because of its cover. However, it looks like it’s been shelved on Goodreads since June 2014, which is around the time it was released, I believe.

I read most of this book (nearly 2/3 of it) today in one pretty big gulp. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, things seem to be happening left and right. The book feels well-researched, with strong historical details that ring true. The book even has a glossary detailing further information about economics and Dutch terms from the seventeenth century. The characters are also vivid and interesting. One thing that struck me as I finished this book is one constant in human history is man’s inhumanity to man as well as the perseverance of strong women in the face of the world’s cruelty. On the other hand, some details don’t ring true—women characters in historical fiction are often more a reflection of our own times than theirs, and I can see why. I don’t really want to read about a meek woman who keeps her mouth shut and does as she is told, either. Perhaps the least plausible aspect of the book is Nella’s devotion to Johannes. He hasn’t been all that great of a husband, truth be told. And while certain aspects of his behavior would be viewed differently today than in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the way that he consistently ignores Nella and her feelings didn’t engender a whole lot of sympathy from this reader.

Many times when I am reading a book, I am curious what others on Goodreads have to say about it, and in the case of this book, one reviewer noted she thought the conceit of the miniaturist was unnecessary. This might merit a spoiler alert, but really, we never do learn much about the strange miniaturist who knows so much about Nella’s home and the dangers coming or what motivates the miniaturist, so in that sense, I can understand why some might consider the character unnecessary. I am undecided, myself. Mainly, I was curious as to what inspired the book, because it reads like something definitely inspired it, and I found this snippet from an interview Jessie Burton gave in advance of the BBC’s miniseries based on The Miniaturist:

I was in Amsterdam on holiday. We went to the Rijksmuseum and that’s where I first saw the real dolls’ house, which is actually called a cabinet, which became the symbol of the novel and my point of focus for writing it. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it was and how imposing it was, as well as intricate and intimate. Then when I found out that the woman who owned it, Petronella Oortman, spent as much money on it as a real house, I became interested in the psychology of the cabinet house and what it symbolised, both in regards to the city of Amsterdam and this woman is her domestic, claustrophobic existence. It took her 19 years in total to complete it and she hired the services of over 800 craftsmen and women in the city of Amsterdam and beyond. In my mind’s eye all I could see was one woman, Nella, turning up at this imposing merchant house in Amsterdam.

Using the real Petronella Oortman as inspiration, Burton invented Petronella Oortman Brandt. I didn’t realize it had been made into a miniseries before searching for information about the book’s inspiration. I don’t believe the miniseries has been released in the USA.

In all, I enjoyed the book quite a bit for what it was—an interesting peek into the life of a merchant’s wife in seventeenth-century Amsterdam rendered with some very nice passages of good writing.

  

This book counts for the Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge due to its setting of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Netherlands. March’s motif for the latter challenge is “Travel the World.”

 

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving debut. Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s and later came to America. She says in her author’s note that this novel is her own story with some details compressed or changed. It’s quite a lyrical and moving account of the horrific story of the Cambodian Killing Fields from the viewpoint of a child.

Where the novel suffers, if it does, is the focus. Ratner explains she wanted to show us Cambodia as it was before its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but as a result, the novel takes a while to get going. The bulk of the first half is devoted to the first few days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge sends citizens of Phnom Penh into the countryside, and the last several years are compressed. For example, in an interview in the back of the book, Ratner says her journey escaping to Thailand was more fraught and would rate a book in itself. While I wasn’t looking for the worst of the story at the expense of fonder memories, it felt a bit of a cheat to magnify some events at the expense of others that might have been more compelling. As a result, the novel feels uneven; however, as a debut, it’s quite powerful with some poetic moments and beautiful storytelling as well as an emphasis on the importance of living and telling your story.

I read this book for several reading challenges:

Due to its late 1970’s setting in Cambodia, this novel counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge. It’s also my third country stop for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. As I enjoyed several cups of tea, mostly Bigelow’s Constant Comment and at least one cup of Simpson & Vail’s Jane Austen Black Tea Blend, it also qualifies for the Share-a-Tea Challenge.

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I like to listen to audiobooks while we cook dinner, and I have picked most of them. We made a deal that I would pick one more, and I was supposed to surprise him and pick whatever I wanted, and then it would be his turn. We had tried to listen to Lincoln in the Bardo, but I just couldn’t follow the story in audio. That was the last book my husband picked, I think. I thought long and hard about which book to pick. I almost picked The Handmaid’s Tale because I don’t think he’s read it, but I have read it, and I had wanted to read Alias Grace. I thought maybe my husband would like it because it is based on a true crime story, and he is something of a true crime aficionado.

Both of us liked the novel quite a lot. I think we are planning to watch the Netflix series, too. My husband remarked several times about what an excellent writer Margaret Atwood is. I am not sure if we were meant to think about Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was also based on a true crime. To my way of thinking, Alias Grace has more than a healthy dose of Naturalism as well. It explores themes of mental health, treatment of women, sexuality, and gender as well as social issues involving Irish immigrants. Grace emerges as a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it’s difficult to know who she really is, especially by the end. Atwood weaves the narrative together well through the frame device of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American interested in mental health issues, who visits Grace to learn more about her story and the infamous murders that resulted in her imprisonment as a teenage girl.

Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the Netflix adaptation of the novel, and she does a worthy job with the narration of this novel as well. This one is definitely worth a listen.

2018 Reading Challenges: Part One

challenge book photo
Photo by Upupa4me

It’s that time of year again! We’re halfway through December, and the new year is in sight. Time to sign up for reading challenges. I like to figure out where I might focus my reading each year, but in all honesty, I don’t actually complete most of the challenges I take on. Still, the challenges make me think about what I want to accomplish in the reading year ahead. Thanks to Kim and Tanya for collecting a great list of reading challenges and updating the list each week.

The first challenge that catches my eye is the Author Love Challenge. I’m in for five of James Baldwin’s books.

I think I participated in the Back to the Classics Challenge a couple of years back, and it was a great one for helping me focus my reading. Like a lot of people, I have a list of classics I keep meaning to get to. I’m just now reading 1984, for example. I’m in for six categories, but I’m not sure which ones at the moment.

I like to do some kind of challenge involving reading books from the UK because I love British literature. This year I participated in the British Books Challenge, and I plan to participate again next year. I’m not sure what I will read. This year, I completed the challenge with ten books, but I didn’t review most of them because most of them were re-reads. I think this year, I will try to read at least five, all of which are new to me.

I’m in once again for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. I have done this one many times. I don’t think I’m meeting my goal this year, but that’s fine. Historical Fiction is my favorite genre, but because I’m trying to branch out, I’ll shoot for five books—Victorian Reader.

I love theme-y types of challenges, and the Monthly Motif Challenge looks like a fun way to diversify my reading selections. I’m going to try to participate each month and read a total of 12 books toward the challenge.

I can’t resist any challenge that asks me to “travel” through books. I’m signing up for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge, and I’m shooting for Literary Hitchhiker, 25-40 countries. I’d like to think I could branch out a bit more and do more than the minimum, but looking at my usual reading patterns, I think 25 will even be a stretch for me. It will be a good excuse to diversify my reading.

That’s it for now. I’ll write a new post for any additional challenges that I might want to do. I’m purposely not doing any challenges that require me to tackle books I already own or that are already in my TBR pile. I found those challenges limiting and hard for me to complete, especially when really good books came out that I wanted to read—those books tended to go on my TBR pile, and I wound up spinning my wheels a bit.