Sunday, February 28, 2016

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

Once again I have to thank the Internet for letting me know about a very excellent book which I otherwise would have missed. In the olden days, I read more randomly and with only minimal direction, but these days I can surf around reading book reviews and book blogs and news articles about books and thus do a much better job of choosing worthwhile reading. I discovered this novel when I read that the BBC had conducted a poll of major culture critics in the US and England to come up with a list of the best novels of the 21st Century (as of 2015). Half of a Yellow Sun was #10, and I had never even heard of it before!

This is a book that is doubly good, being both a fascinating story of the lives of five people and an informative account of the Nigerian civil war in 1968-1970 when a part of the nation tried to break away to form Biafra. The plot unfolds from the viewpoints of three of the characters: Olanna, the beautiful and educated daughter of a wealthy family who takes as a lover a university professor who is filled with revolutionary zeal; Ugwu, the young boy from a poor village who serves as houseboy for the couple; and Richard, the shy young Englishman who is fascinated by Olanna's enigmatic twin sister. The twists and turns of their lives would be captivating in any setting, but their placement in the context of civil unrest before the war and privation during the war provides an added dimension.

Any book which includes significant historical events surely aims to encourage readers to want to know more, and this one certainly succeeds in that aspect. Again thanks to the Internet, I was able to read about the war for Biafra, and I was made ashamed that a war in which the main weapon was the starvation of the civilian population happened during my adulthood with little awareness on my part. I vaguely remember seeing photos of starving Biafran children; that's the sum of my previous knowledge. How pitiful is that? How easy it is to ignore human suffering when it takes place somewhere else.

I highly recommend this novel. It is well done; it tells an interesting story about characters who seem like real people; it creates awareness of a place and time in history.

P.S. For those who might be interested, here are the top ten best books of the 21st Century (according to the BBC):
1. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
2. The Known World
3. Wolf Hall
4. Giliad
5. The Corrections
6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
7. A Visit From the Goon Squad
8. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
9. Atonement
10.Half of a Yellow Sun

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)

What are the odds that within a couple of week's time I would read two novels so similar without being aware of the contents of either one beforehand? Both this book and the 2015 book Eileen (reviewed earlier this month) have first-person narrators who are obviously mentally unbalanced although they view themselves as sane. Both narrators commit violent acts which they recount in a very matter-of-fact manner. Both books are bizarre and creepy. Eileen, however, is a much better book than this one, being more subtle and well written. The Wasp Factory is more than a bit obvious and overly reliant on shock value and a gimmicky ending.

The narrator, sixteen-year--old Frank Cauldhame, says of himself, "Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelds, more or less on a whim. That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through." As can be imagined, Frank at sixteen is still far from the ordinary teenage boy. His ritualistic behavior (often involving animal sacrifices) accelerates when he learns his older brother has escaped from the mental hospital where he has been detained for setting fire to dogs. How's that for a set-up!

This novel created something of an uproar when it was published in 1984, with The New York Times calling it "brilliant" and The London Times calling it "rubbish!" Today's reading audience, jaded by books like American Psycho and mayhem in movies and on television, will likely not find it as shocking. Still, for those who enjoy quirky books with black comedy and a bit of the old ultra-violence, this is a quick and interesting read.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)

I am frankly surprised at the acclaim attached to this novel: it won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and was recently named by a BBC poll of writers and critics as one of the 20 best novels so far of the 21st Century. It seems to me, however, to be more than a bit schizophrenic, a sophisticated novel of manners thrown together with a much more earthy coming-of-age story filled with drug usage and gay sex. The two styles and stories just do not seem to fit together very well.

The novel takes place during the 1980s reign of Margaret Thatcher, among the rich and powerful of England. The protagonist, Nick Guest, is an outsider looking in, a middle-class house guest of his upper-class friend from Oxford. While being obviously filled with envy about the fame and the beautiful possessions of his wealthy friends, Nick is also able to observe their hypocrisy and pretensions from close at hand. The resulting situations allow Hollinghurst to release his inner Henry James in witty accounts of various conversations and social encounters. The prose used in describing these experiences is elegant and satirical.

On the other hand, the account of Nick's private life of sex and drugs is narrated in s very graphic manner, in language which seems more pornographic than literary. Nick's personal story seems to be from another book entirely, differing both in style and intent. It is possible (maybe even probable) that the juxtaposition of the two disparate styles is designed to emphasize the gulf between the public pretensions and the private realities during a time of excesses. But still....

Hollinghurst does an outstanding job of following in the footsteps of Henry James, so much so that I have the same opinion about his work as I do about The Master's -- the characters are so emotionally passive and remote that I find it impossible to become involved in their lives, however exquisitely they are portrayed.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

The adjectives which first come to mind to describe Eileen would be "unsettling," "disturbing," and "creepy." Surprisingly enough, additional adjectives which come to mind would include "masterful," "inventive," and "hypnotic." It's not easy to produce a mesmerizing novel featuring a twisted and unsympathetic protagonist, but Patricia Highsmith did it in her Ripley novels, and Moshfegh has done it here.

The first-person narrator, Eileen of course, is a secretive alcoholic, a stalker, and a petty thief, who silently nurtures disgust and hatred for most of humanity, particularly for her alcohol-demented father. She dreams of escaping her dysfunctional life but never does, not until her twenty-fourth year, when she meets the beautiful Rebecca, whose promise of friendship leads her into even darker territory. Eileen tells the story from the vantage point of old age when she has seemingly become more well adjusted and ordinary. But one wonders.

The suspense is thick throughout, as the reader is made to feel the violence lurking just under the surface, knowing it will eventually erupt. The use of details in describing Eileen's actions and thoughts convincingly take the reader into a damaged mind. An aspiring writer would do well to examine how Moshfegh has accomplished what she has with such seemingly unpromising subject matter.

This novel is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, winner to be announced in March.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015)

Toward the end of the book, the narrator says, "Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction." That pretty much describes the way this "novel" reads, except that instead of dry essays we have what is essentially a series of satiric stand-up comedy routines which cover the same points as an essay might but in political incorrect and bitingly funny yarns. Think Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. Beatty's wit touches on a myriad of aspects of our crazy American culture, but focuses most on race and racism, from both the white and the black (and the brown and the yellow) viewpoints.

The absurdist plot, which is almost incidental, feature the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, and the outrageous actions of the narrator to reinstate slavery and school segregation in his home town, actions that land him in front of the Supreme Court. The story makes little sense, but that's beside the point.

This review is totally inadequate to convey how brilliantly hilarious the book is, while it makes some serious points at the same time. I would even compare it favorably to Catch 22, which is high praise indeed. It is a National Book Critic's Circle finalist (winner to be named in March), an ALA Notable Book for 2015, and a strong contender for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.

P.S. This contains more uses of the N-word than Huckleberry Finn, so if that offends you mightily, don't read it.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

The dust jacket of this much-praised novel features a close-up black-and-white photo of the face of a man in great mental and/or physical agony. That image pretty much reflects the life of the novel's central character, Jude St. Francis, from his boyhood of torture and sexual abuse to his adulthood of physical and mental pain which is the result. The image might also reflect the face of the reader (that would be me) who suffers through each new revelation and feels like throwing the book away and keeps compulsively reading anyway, for 700+ torturous pages.

A Little Life starts out as a seemingly familiar story of four young men who become friends during their first year at a prestigious college: Malcolm, a mixed-race rich kid; J.B., the son of Haitian parents; Willem, the Scandinavian-heritage farm boy; and Jude, an enigmatic boy of mysterious origins and ethnicity. It gradually becomes apparent, however, that the focus of the narrative is Jude and his lifelong suffering.

Yanagihara doles out the details of Jude's torments in bits and pieces through most of the novel, with hints beforehand to let us know that some new atrocity is coming. Reading this book is kind of like watching a Dr. Phil show about sexual abuse, with its teases before commercials, like "Find out what Susie's step-father did next, after the break." I kept on reading, but I felt guilty about wanting to know the details, kind of like a voyeur or someone who gawks at a car wreck.

I was also bothered that much of the plot is unbelievable, or highly unlikely at best, although the novel is written in a realistic style, without the tone of an allegory. Up until Jude is 15 years old, almost every person he meets abuses him in some way. Then, when he is 16 and enrolls (on full scholarship) in college, he encounters only people intent on being his friend and protector (with one exception). He is even adopted when he is 30 by a former professor and his wife. He has a doctor who is instantly available to him day or night who more or less enables him to self harm. He and all his many friends all become highly successful and rich and sometimes even famous, with not a loser among them. I could go on and on with details that render this more melodramatic fantasy than a portrait of real life.

And yet...and yet...I could not stop reading. Not that this is a book that is fun to read --sometimes it is torment-- but that it is a book that is impossible not to read. It is a tribute to friendship and love, and an examination of the limits of suffering. It will make you cry. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a National Book Award finalist, and is considered a contender for this year's Pulitzer. As for myself, I feel so conflicted about it that I don't know whether to recommend it to anyone else or not.