Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

After reading the back-cover blurb of this novel by Nigerian author Adichie, the reader would assume it to be primarily a love story, although the concluding sentence on the trade paperback I read might give a clue as to what this really is. It says, "...Americanah is a remarkable novel of race, love, and identity...." As this sentence hints, Americanah is primarily about race, particularly about racism in America. The love story is strictly secondary; the male half of the couple in love is not even present for more than half of the book.

The female protagonist, Ifemelu, is a college student in Nigeria when the college instructors go on strike, prompting her to head for America to complete her studies, leaving behind her sweetheart Obinze. Forced by a need for money to submit to an act she considers shameful, she (rather illogically, I thought) ceases to communicate with her left-behind lover, out of embarrassment and guilt. The center portion of the book, which is the longest part by far, details her experiences in America, including her love affairs with a rich white playboy and a black American professor. When she returns to Nigeria after almost 15 years, she again meets her former love, Obinze, and the last 60 pages of the 588-page book narrate the ending of their love story.

The whole center portion of the book features a revolving cast of wooden characters who all seem to serve the sole purpose of pointing out how bigoted Americans are. Interspersed with the narrative are portions of a blog that Ifemelu writes titled "Raceteenth or Curious Observations of a Non-American Black on the Subject of Blackness in America." That should have been the title of this book. All the plot just seems like framework to qualify the work as a novel instead of what it mainly seems to be -- a series of examples showing how America is rife with racism.

She is partially right, of course. A great many Americans do hold racist views, but her comments become somewhat offensive when she mocks even the well-intentioned white liberal characters. It becomes apparent that nobody American is exempt from her disparagement.

Adichie is a very talented writer; her novel Half of a Yellow Sun is extraordinarily good. This one attracted much critical praise and even won the National Book Critics Circle Award, but I can't help wondering if part of that adulation came from white Americans being politically correct and trying to show that they accept white guilt. That sounds cynical, and might perhaps be considered a racist comment by some, but I stand by my contention that while this may be a sharp commentary on race relations in America, it is not a successful novel.

Besides, I hate the way it ended.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Double by Jose Saramago (2002)

The novels I have read by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago have all been allegorical in nature, this one included. Here he explores the concept of the double or duplicate, which is a motif that occurs with some frequency in literature. In fact, Dostoyevsky published a novella of the same name with the same theme back in 1846. According to the accepted concept, the existence of an exact duplicate is a threat or danger to one or both persons involved, being against the basic laws of the universe -- or something like that. I don't pretend to understand completely.

In Saramago's story, a mild mannered history teacher watches a DVD of an old movie and sees that one of the bit players looks and sounds exactly like him. He becomes obsessed with finding his double, going to great lengths to meet him. When the two finally come together, they find they are, indeed, exactly the same, and both embark on a quest for dominance, with surprising results.

I did not enjoy reading this book very much. It seems to bog down in the details, with the meeting of the two men not occurring until halfway through. It is difficult and slow to read, because Saramago only occasionally uses periods, instead stringing together sentence after sentence with commas. His frequent dialogues do not contain quotation marks or paragraphing to signal change of speakers, so they must be read with care to decipher who is saying what. But I was mostly put off by the tone, which is mocking, making this almost seem like a parody of the theme. Surely that was not Saramago's intention -- or maybe it was.

Did you ever read a book and afterwards feel like you missed the point somehow? That's how I feel about this one.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Year Six of Reading

It's that time again -- my birthday (which I would just as soon forget) and the completion of another year of blogging about books. When choosing my favorites of the year, I always think about whether or not I want to keep a book to read again. Some books which I really enjoyed when I read them do not pass this test, particularly those that are primarily plot driven. Once you know the end, the thrill is gone, so to speak.

I read 99 books in this year of my life, most of them being older books because I can buy those used at a fraction of the original cost. I do receive gift cards at Christmas, and then I buy current novels, trying to pick the best of the best by reading reviews and blogs on the internet. I have included the publication dates here so that you can see which books are current and which are from way-back-when.

My favorites of the year are.....

*Serena by Ron Rash In the mountains of North Carolina, a power couple with a distinct resemblance to Shakespeare's Macbeth and his ambitious wife become ruthless timber barons, letting nobody stand in the way. The book also has a powerful environmental message. This Southern writer always delivers. (Published in 2008. Reviewed by me in July, 2015.)

*The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy This is actually a trilogy of novels: The Man of Property, To Let, and In Chancery. They tell the story of an unhappy marriage in an upper middle class English family in the early 20th Century, which results in a feud extending through generations. This sounds like a soap opera, bur it so much more. Galsworthy is a wonder of a writer who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932. (Published in 1906-1921. Reviewed by me in August and September, 2015.)

*Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey Carey tells the page-turner story of two unconventional people who come together through their mutual addiction to gambling. The book also provides a fascinating look at the people and places of 19th Century Australia. This won the Booker Prize, England's premier literary award. (Published in 2008. Reviewed by me in October, 2015.)

*The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart I don't believe this book is very well known, but it is one of the best I read this year. It tells the story of a family feud, set in South Central Texas in the early part of the 20th Century. The writing is wonderful, particularly in portraying a sense of place. This one blew me away. (Published in 2010. Reviewed by me in October, 2015.)

*Atticus by Ron Hansen A modern day prodigal son tale, with a bit of a mystery thrown in. A somewhat unusual story in this day and age because it's about basically decent ordinary people making mistakes but trying to do what's right. (Published in 1996. Reviewed by me in October, 2015.)

*My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrente This story of two young girls in Naples, Italy, in the 1950s realistically portrays the complex mixture of affection and jealousy present in female friendships. This is the first in the acclaimed 4-part Neapolitan series which follows the two to old age. I have not yet read the others. Women will understand this better than men will. (Published in 2012. Reviewed by me in January, 2016.)

*Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf As women will best understand My Brilliant Friend, so older folks will best understand this book. It is a beautiful love story about two small town septuagenarians who decide to sleep together for closeness and companionship, believing they have passed the point of caring what other people may think. This is my favorite of the 2015 novels I read. (Published in 2015. Reviewed by me in January, 2016.)

*Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie A fascinating story on two levels -- family and romantic conflicts that could occur any time, any place, combined with a look at the privations resulting from a country involved in warfare. The setting is Nigeria during the time of civil war when a part of the country wanted to split to form Biafra. Extremely well done. (Published in 2006. Reviewed by me in February, 2016.)

*Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh An unsettling yet fascinating look into a disturbed mind. This one is mainly plot driven, but it is so well done that I will read it again just to examine and enjoy the craftsmanship. It won the Pen/Faulkner Award this year. (Published in 2015. Reviewed by me in February, 2016.)

*Rites of Passage by William Golding I can't believe that I had never read this before. The author's name should be familiar to everyone, because his Lord of the Flies is almost universally assigned reading in schools. Here Golding tells the story of a 19th Century sea voyage that is more subtle than Lord of the Flies but in many ways even more chilling. This won England's Booker Prize in 1980 and Golding received the Nobel Prize for Literature three years later. (Published in 1980. Reviewed by me in March, 2016)

*The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra This is the most well done of the 2015 books I read, though not my favorite (see above). The interconnected short stories take place in Siberia, St. Petersburg, and Chechnya and chronicle the characters' responses to hardship and deprivation. Very cleverly written. (Published in 2015. Reviewed by me in March, 2016.)

*A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra A novel by the same author as above, centered on characters affected by the two wars between Russia and Cechnya. It is optimistic in tone, despite the horrors depicted, because of its portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of chaos. A really great book. (Published in 2013. Reviewed in April, 2016.)

I didn't read any books this year which I absolutely hated, but several that I would not recommend. A few that I really enjoyed turned out to be immediately forgettable. For example, The Sellout by Paul Beatty won the National Book Critics Circle Award and I really thought it would win the Pulitzer, but now I realize I would never want to read it again. It was clever and extremely humorous, but who wants a repeat of a comedy routine?

That's all, folks.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (2015)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a very aptly named collection of short stories, because just like a literal bazaar it contains some items which are worth little, many which are just OK, and a few which are real finds. Since Stephen King is known primarily as a writer in the horror genre, one would expect the stories with supernatural happenings to be the jewels. Surprisingly, that is not the case.

The first story in the collection, "Mile 81," reads almost as a parody of a King story rather than the real thing. It features a killer car and a young boy who saves the day. Haven't I read something like that before? "The Dune," about a sand dune upon which mysteriously appears the name of a person about to die, has an ending which can be seen coming a mile away. Those two are the most obviously junque (a term used to make junk seem more attractive). Most of the stories are of the middling variety -- entertaining, but nothing to get excited about. Among the few jewels, my favorites were "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation," a story about a middle--aged man and his father who has Alzheimer's, and "Drunken Fireworks," which reminds me of what takes place here in Bastrop County every 4th of July. Neither one was in the least supernatural.

As I see it, Stephen King's primary talent is not his ability to create thrills and chills, but instead his ability to craft interesting and believable characters, and the short story format does not allow for that kind of development. Some of his past novellas have been very good, because in that bit of extra text he can exercise his talent, but I don't consider the short story to be his best format, by far.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (1941)

James M. Cain is known primarily for his crime novels, particularly for Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Although no murder occurs in Mildred Pierce, the only crimes being a bit of blackmail and a huge dose of psychological abuse, the cast of characters does include a near-sociopath.

The mother, Mildred Pierce, throw her philandering husband out of the house during the Depression and has to find some way to support herself and her two daughters. She is a good homemaker and a great cook, but without work experience the only job she can find is that of a waitress in a hash house. She tries to keep her new occupation a secret, primarily because her pre-teen daughter Veda has a seriously inflated idea of herself as being someone special who is above her middle class neighbors and Mildred does not want to wound her pride. When Veda finds out, Mildred is crushed and vows to become something more so that Veda can be proud of her.

Fast forward: Mildred finds success, becoming the owner of three restaurants. Is Veda pacified? Of course not.

Mildred and Veda would be right at home on a Dr. Phil show today -- the selfish, self-entitled daughter who feels superior to everyone and the much abused but enabling mother who helped create the monster. To his credit, Cain never explicates the situation outright but just lets the story unfold and the reader understand the implications for himself. His writing is terse and to the point and perfect for the story content. His portrayal of family dynamics is way ahead of his time. Dr. Phil would be proud.

Just a note about the film treatments of the novel: the fairly recent HBO mini series (available on Amazon Prime) follows the book very closely but comes across pretty flat and emotionless. The 1945 movie, starring Joan Crawford as Mildred and Ann Blyth as Veda, tacks on an entirely new ending, but the performances are outstanding and the whole tone is appropriately melodramatic. The slapping scene alone would make the movie worth watching.

This is a quick one-day read that is entirely satisfying.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (2013)

I'm trying to think of an adjective to describe this novel. In my review in March of Anthony Marra's second book, The Tsar of Love and Techno, I used the adjective "incredible." A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is Marra's first book, and it is even better than his second. What is beyond incredible? This book is so good that words fail me.

The setting is war-torn Cechnya; the timeline is 1994-2004, during which the country fought two wars with post-Soviet Russia; the characters are ordinary apolitical people who struggle, often unsuccessfully, to survive under the worst of circumstances. Despite the abundance of horrific happenings, the tone is optimistic, because Marra illustrates that even deeply flawed human beings can rise to heroism when spurred on by love and family connections. Above all is the concept that life struggles to overcome all obstacles; the title of the book comes from a medical textbook which describes life as "a constellation of vital phenomena--organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." The key word for the characters here is "adaptation." They do what they have to do.

The action skips backwards and forwards in time but centers around 5 days, beginning when Akhmed, Chechnya's worst doctor, rescues the child Havaa when her father is "disappeared" by Russian soldiers. He takes her for hiding and sanctuary to Sonja, Chechnya's best doctor, the only one left to staff the hospital in the nearby town.

I am impressed by Marra's empathy for his characters, so that even the villain, the informer, is granted some measure of sympathy. As in the real world, few people are entirely praiseworthy or entirely bad. I am also impressed by his depictions of political torture, if you can use that term for something that is very disturbing to read. He clearly indicates that the process of torture dehumanizes not only the sufferer but also the torturer.

It is impossible to read a book like this about how armed conflict affects the civilian population of a region, when they are as likely to be killed by either side, without current events coming to mind, especially the situation in Syria. How callous must a country be to deny the innocent victims an escape. Tim O'Brien in his novel The Things They Carried said that "story truth is truer sometimes than happening truth." My definition of a great novel is one that tells a good story in an engaging style, while at the same time teaching a universal truth, applicable to any time, any place. This is a great novel. I guess that's the adjective I was searching for.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson (2010)

One of the Gentile characters in this novel says to another of the Gentile characters about Jews, "...what do we know? I think you've got to be one to get it." That pretty well describes my experience with this novel about the modern day Jewish experience. I'm not a Jew and I just don't get it.

Two of the book's three central characters are Jews, and the third wants to be one. They are long-time friends despite the fact that the two Jews (Finkler and Libor) have differing attitudes about many Jewish questions, particularly about Israel/Palestine, and that the non-Jew (Treslove) is secretly overwhelmed by envy of the other two. Since Sam Finkler was the first Jewish friend Julian Treslove had ever had, in his mind he names all Jews as Finklers. Thus, the Finkler Question is actually the Jewish Question.

There's a lot of angst going on here, but in a serio-comic vein. Think Woody Allen.

I have recently read with pleasure novels about Nigeria/Biafra and Russia/Chechnya, finding them completely relatable even though I have no background in either culture. The actions and reactions of the characters were universal for people under stress and extreme hardship. I can find no commonality with the characters in this book. They do not seem to behave or think in a way that is comprehensible to me. The lone Jewish person that I know well does not seem to share the mindset depicted here.

The Finkler Question was awarded England's Booker Prize in 2010. It is well written, and evidently other people got it.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson (2005)

The Cold Dish is the first installment in the Longmire mystery series, introducing a middle-aged county sheriff in the wilds of Wyoming as the unlikely hero. It's a book with a lot going for it, but I do have a few complaints.

On the plus side:
*It is compulsively readable, zipping along nicely with plenty of suspense.
*The solution to the mystery only became apparent to me when the hero realized who the culprit was. Johnson did a fine job with his red herrings and caught me by surprise.
*The book has an overwhelming sense of place, with the weather and the terrain becoming as important as the characters.
*The inclusion of some Indian (Native American?) mysticism was unexpected but seemed appropriate.
*The hints and loose ends left at the book's completion would certainly lead a preferential mystery reader to want to read the next in the series.

On the minus side:
*The hero seems overly formulaic. I realize that the personality of a series mystery detective must engage the reader's interest, but do all series readers look for heroes who (a) speak in a clever and sardonic and ultra-hip fashion and (b) arouse the passions of the females they encounter? Somehow, these attributes do not seem natural for an overweight county sheriff of middle age in the backwoods of nowhere.

I understand that Longmire is a much watched series on cable TV. I have never watched it, but I would be willing to bet that the actor playing the hero is not overweight and middle aged. I could be wrong. I will check it out.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (2000)

When I reviewed Ishiguro's The Buried Giant back in January of this year, I remarked that each one of his novels follows the conventions of a different genre. This one is ostensibly a detective story, but as it turns out it is more of a story about a detective.

As in all Ishiguro's novels, this is a first-person narration with the narrator turning out to be unreliable, in this case wildly unreliable. The narrator, Christopher Banks, recounts his memories of a golden childhood as an English boy living in Shanghai, until his parents are kidnapped one after another when he is nine. Sent back to live in England with an aunt, he attends boarding school and graduates from university before becoming a celebrated detective. (At least that's the way he remembers it. The reader becomes gradually aware that some of his memories do not seem to correspond with reality.)

When Banks returns to Shanghai, just as the conflict between China and Japan is beginning, to solve the mystery of his parents' disappearances, the narration takes a surreal turn, no longer even approximating reality.

For the first time in my reading of Kazuo Ishiguro (all but one of his seven novels), I found his habitual writing style off-putting. It is declarative, straight forward, even slightly stilted. That way of expression seemed to fit his other first person narrators, particularly in The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, but it just doesn't seem to fit with the education level and personality of this one. I suddenly became aware that perhaps Ishiguro has only one writing voice, and that his other novels have cleverly matched the narrator to the style rather than the style being determined by the narrator. Whatever. This is not a book I would recommend to others.