Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Image result for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
                                         Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book Review
Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Replaces: Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee (Read but not reviewed?!?)

  There is no denying that Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the pre-eminent novelists of her generation, matching critical acclaim (A MacArthur Genius Award!) with best-seller status.   Like trailblazing African novelist Chinua Achebe, Adichie is a member of the Igbo ethnicity, one of the three major ethnicities in Nigeria, alongside the northern, mostly Muslim Hausa and the Yoruba.   The Igbo are largely grouped in the South, and they had a long tradition of small polity democracy up to and through the colonial period, where the British managed to impose a degree of control through the use of "Warrant Chiefs."

  This phenomenon was the subject of Achebe's classic, Things Fall Apart, which is frequently taught to high school and college students in the United States.  Adichie moves forward in time to write her masterpiece about the Biafran  War, AKA the Nigerian Civil War,  and it's precursors and aftermath, from the mid 1960's to 1970.  Adichie splits narrator duties between three characters.  First is Ugwu, who begins the book as the brand new house boy to Odenigbo, an Igbo mathematics professor with strong nationalist sentiment.  Second narrator is Olana, the daughter of a wealthy Igbo Chieftain with significant business interests.   Olana has just returned from England at the beginning of the book, and she settles into life with Odenigbo where they both teach at a brand new Igbo centered university.

   The final narrator is Richard, a white Englishman who is engaged to Kainene, the twin sister of Olana.  Whereas Olana is something of a idealist and would-be revolutionary, Kainene is firmly his father's daughter, entrusted to developing and maintaining his business interests.   The plot shifts into motion when intermittent ethnic violence against Igbo's living outside of the southern homeland.  This in turn spurs the Igbo to attempt to secede from the Nigerian government.

    The Baifran War or Nigerian Civil War follows, and while it doesn't quite have the horror of the more recent Rwandan genocides, there is no question that it foreshadowed many of the post-colonial horrors of the African continent.   Adichie eschews the entirely male central players of the coup- certainly a subject that is well within her authorial reach, to focus on the more marginal figures of the servant boy, the well educated wife and the white boyfriend.   Both Kaniene and Odenigbo seem like typical protagonists, but depriving them of their own voice gives Half of a Yellow Sun a unique perspective.

  It is hard shaking the feeling that the entire enterprise of the Igbo succession was poorly thought out and that the ultimate victims, specifically the 2 million Igbo who starved to death as a result of a Nigerian blockade of supplies, were as much the victims of their own leaders as they were outside forces.

   This was a very good choice in the Audiobook format, with the narrator capturing the African inflected English of the Igbo, it really gave a feel for the time, place and people of Half of a Yellow Sun and I would recommend it.

Fall on Your Knees (1996) by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Book Review
Fall on Your Knees (1996)
by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Replaces: How the Dead Live by Will Self (Reviewed February 2018)

  The most surprising literary genre I've discovered exclusively via the 1001 Books list is "Southern Ontario Gothic" or you might call it Canadian Gothic.  Coined in the 1970's, it describes a literature that is similar in theme and content to American Southern Gothic.  Both genres focus on dark familial relationships and the dark side of otherwise bucolic non-urban environments (though many of Flannery O'Connor's short stories take place in a "town" environment.)

  I thought for sure that Fall on Your Knees would be considered a canonical representative of Southern Ontario Gothic, even though it takes place in Newfoundland.   Fall on Your Knees arrived in the first revision of the 1001 Books list as an "international best-seller" member, the Audiobook I listened to had "Oprah's Book Club" selection on the small jpeg that serves as a cover within the library audio app.   It is a little puzzling that it wasn't selected for the original edition, since it was published in 1996, a decade before the first 1001 Books edition was published.

  The book it replaces, How the Dead Live is an excellent candidate for de-selection since it scores an absolute zero on the diversity index, is very lengthy and not the best work of author Will Self.   Fall on Your Knees turned into a surprisingly good listen but readers with some kind of incest trigger condition will want to avoid this book.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Snow (2004) by Orhan Pamuk

Book Review
Snow (2004)
by Orhan Pamuk

Replaces:  Youth  (2002)by J.M. Coetzee (Reviewed March 2018)

    Orhan Pamuk is one of those authors who seem destined for a Nobel Prize in Literature.  Pamuk is prolific but maintains a high level of quality.  He is a very public intellectual who faced charges in his native Turkey for espousing politically unpopular opinions (about the Armenian genocide and crimes against Turkish Kurds.  Before his Nobel win, he was translated into English but not particularly well known by global Audiences.

  His win, in 2006, was a surprise victory over Syrian modernist poet Adunis.   Snow, translated into English in 2004, happens to be the last novel he published before the Nobel Prize win, and even though the Prize is not awarded for a specific work, writers like Pamuk tend to seen an immediate elevation of their most recent book onto best seller lists in many nations.   It's hard to imagine a generic American reader of literary fiction delving into Snow absent the Nobel Prize win.  It's a nearly 600 page book about a Turkish poet who has spent over a decade in exile in Germany, returning to the Turkish border city of Kars amidst an epidemic of young women killing themselves.

  The young women, called "the suicide girls," have all been banned from attending public schools for wearing head scarves.  Ka, the exiled poet and part time narrator, quickly gets entangled in local politics as he seeks to woo an old flame, recently divorced from her husband.  This all takes place in the city of Kars, scarred by a century of tit for tat ethnic reprisals, and in the case of the Armenians, wholesale ethnic cleansing bordering on genocide. 

  The political/military landscape in Kars is divided uneasily between the secular military (in power), jihadist guerrillas and Kurds, some jihadist and others Marxist.   The plot shifts into high gear when a theatrical impresario takes the opportunity of a timely snow storm cutting off the outside world to pull his own coup.   As the coup takes shape, scores are settled with the local radical Muslims and rebellious Kurds, and Ka navigates between the parties.

  Pamuk also moves back in time to discuss Ka's history and time in Germany, and forward in time, after Ka has been assassinated after his return to exile, after the events of Snow take place.  Snow replaces Youth, J.M. Coetzee's memoir of growing up in South Africa.  It's the second Coetzee title to get bumped off the 1001 Books list in the past week.  Like Elizabeth Costello, Youth is a minor work and came late in his career, and the replacement  title represents the sole Turkish representative on the 1001 Books list. 

Vernon God Little(2003) by DBC Pierre

Book Review
Vernon God Little(2003)
by DBC Pierre

Replaces Shroud by John Banville (Reviewed March 2018)

   I could take or leave either of these books.  Vernon God Little, written by Australian writer DBC Pierre, is what I found to be a risible "satire" about a near illiterate teen, living on the Texas border, who is accused of aiding and abetting his friend in a high school shooting massacre.  Amazingly, Vernon God Little actually won the Booker Prize in 2003, and it seems to me the strongest argument in favor of doing what they actually ended up doing: Opening up the competition to American authors.  After all, if you can give the award to an Australian who writes a book about Texas, you can give the award to a Texas who writes about Texas.

  Almost more amazingly, Vernon God Little was Pierre's first published novel, and I think you can see the trajectory of his career in his Wikipedia page: A prize winning first novel from 2003, a follow-up in 2006 that merits it's own Wiki page, and then three novels that don't have a single Wikipedia entry between them.  If a novelist who has won the Booker Prize can't even rate a stub Wikipedia entry for his fourth book, it tells you that no one is reading him. 


A Ladder to the Sky(2018)by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky(2018)
by John Boyne
Published November 13th, 2018

   Irish novelist John Boyne is another of those writers who exists somewhere between the firmament of international prize winning novelists and the more earth bound variety.  He is prolific, with 16 titles published since his first novel was printed in 2000.  One of his YA novels, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, made it to "international best seller" status, with a decently received but financially unsuccessful movie version.

   I was drawn to A Ladder to the Sky by a brief description that mentioned the theme of literary ambition, "A young would be novelist takes advantage of those around him to get what he wants."  The marketing material and some of the critical plaudits have identified it as a book with an LGBT theme, but such a theme, like the protagonist himself, is deeply ambivalent.

  That protagonist is Maurice Swift, from the north of England, who, at the beginning of A Ladder to the Sky, is young, good-looking, and working as a waiter at a fancy restaurant in Berlin.  There, he meets Erich Ackermann- also the first of several narrators in the book- an aging, semi-closeted novelist from Berlin.  Ackermann has made it to the canon via one very well received international best-seller type book and several lesser well known but very well written other novels.  Comfortable as a Professor at Oxford University, he sees Swift as a potential literary protege.  Less clear, at least for this first chapter, is how Swift views Ackermann.

  After an interlude featuring Gore Vidal and his palace on the Amalfi coast, Swift's English-Caribbean wife, Edith, takes over as narrator, before being replaced by Swift himself for the end.  A Ladder to the Sky is very susceptible to spoilers, and I would also recommend the Audiobook, which featured Richard E. Grant voicing Swift himself in the denouement.  

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