Friday, February 29, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun - Marg's review

In 1960's Nigeria, at the time of the vicious Nigeria-Biafra war, three characters are swept up in the rapidly unfolding political events. One is Ugwu, a young boy from a poor village, who is employed as a houseboy for a university lecturer. The other is a young middle-class woman, Olanna, who has come to live with the professor, abandoning her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the idealism and charisma of her new lover. And the third is Richard, a tall, shy Englishman who is in thrall to Olanna's twin sister, a remote and enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone.

When Olanna witnesses deeds of unimaginable horror in the outbreak of war, all of these characters are propelled into events that will putt them apart and bring them together in the most unexpected ways. As Nigerian troops advance and they run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another. This extraordinary novel is about Africa itself; about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism: about ethnic allegiances; about class and race; and about the ways in which love can complicate all of these things.

There have been several books by Nigerian authors that I have been tempted to read over the years including the debut novel by this author, called Purple Hibiscus, but I had never managed to get around to it! So, when I decided to read the long list nominees for the Orange Prize, this was the first book that I requested.

For me, a big part of the reason for my interest in Nigerian literature is that my ex is half Nigerian and was raised in Lagos from the time he was 3 months old, and lived there until he was about 28. Whilst I wouldn't necessarily say that my relationship with him necessarily exposed me to the best parts of Nigerian culture, (I mainly got to meet his friends - all young men between the ages of 20 to 30, and for the most part they were interested in partying), the fact of the matter is that my son has a Nigerian-St Dominique-Australian heritage, and so a lot of the time I feel like I should be doing more to ensure that he understands his heritage. Right from the time my son was born, I was the one trying to push the ex into sharing language, heritage...even that there were other kids like him with a similar mixed heritage. Unfortunately, the ex never really got on board with this, and these days he doesn't even phone very often to say hello let alone to talk about anything like this. All that is a very long winded way for me to say that in some ways I feel a connection to the subject of this novel....without ever actually having been to Nigeria, or really having much interest in going to visit!! Of course, he is Yoruba, so the characters of this book would quite possibly be horrified at my idea of this sense of connection!

This book is separated into four parts. The first part is set in the early 1960's, the second in the late 1960's, with the pattern repeated for the third and fourth parts. In the first part, we meet our protagonists. Firstly we meet Ugwu, the shy young village boy who has come to the university town of Nsukka to become houseboy to the idealistic university professor Odenigbo. Then we meet Olanna, the daughter of a wealthy but, ultimately, corrupt Igbo businessman, who has decided to move in with Odenigbo, and there is Richard, who is in love with Olanna's twin sister Kainene. The early parts of the novel are filled with the zealousness of the intellectuals who want to see the Igbo tribes have a land of their own, full of the promise and the excitement of such a venture. And then in part 2 (set in 1967) we see the beginning of the war.

Not only have events changed the direction of the country of Nigeria, but within the personal lives of the characters much has changed. Ugwu is still houseboy, but he has now been educated and finds himself in the end helping assuming many roles - houseboy, babysitter, friend, confidante and even teacher in some parts of the book. Richard finds himself in the somewhat strange position of being a white man who speaks fluent Igbo and becomes involved in the war propaganda machine. However many of the key relationships in the book are now fractured, and it is only as the narrative returns once again to the early 1960s that we find out what caused those divides.

As the war continues on, we see many things through the eyes of the characters - death, destruction, rape, massacres - and the author does a fine job of giving just enough information to haunt the reader without being too overbearing with the details.

The other area where she has excelled is in showing the dichotomy of the situation in Nigeria at that time - the colonials had withdrawn to let the country men rule themselves but there were such levels of greed, mistrust and corruption that trouble was inevitable. The ethnic divides were just so strong particularly after some of the minority Igbo staged a coup, and then there were retaliatory massacres. And yet, as individuals there were friendships with people from other tribes that were able to survive all the violence - perhaps damaged, but still somewhat intact.

The double standards were not only in terms of the problems facing the nation as a whole. I remember thinking it quite ironic that even within the personal standards of the characters there was the hypocrisy. For example, at the first sign of trouble, Olanna's parents flee Nigeria to live in relative luxury in London, and return only when the trouble is over,and this happens more than once and for another small example. At one point Odenigbo is driving to Ugwu's home village:

The ride to his village was mostly silent. As they drove past some farms with rows and rows of corn and cassava like a neatly plaited hairstyle, Master said, "See? This is what our government should focus on. If we learn irrigation technology, we can feed this country easily. We can overcome this colonial dependence on imports."

And yet on arrival at his village he is offered pineapple:

Chioke shook Master's hands with both of hers. "Thank you, master. Deje!" She ran back inside and emerged with a small pineapple that she pressed into Master's hand.

"No, no," Master said, pushing the pineapple back. "Local pineapples are too acidic, they burn my mouth."

As we get to the last quarter of the book, the war is in full swing. Even those who are wealthy are feeling the effects of the blockades imposed by the Nigerian army, and the world looks on as millions starve, as innocent people are killed. And as the situation worsens our characters are bought together again, but not before the war claims parts of their soul, and perhaps more, forever.

Many of the details in this book were fascinating. It is not an easy to read book, and nor would I say it was something that you enjoy in a light and accessible way. It is a book to savour and to contemplate as you read. I will definitely be reading more from this author.

Originally posted at Reading Adventures May 2007

Friday, February 22, 2008

Marg's Progress List

I was just about to post a review when I realised that I actually haven't introduced myself yet! I post at Reading Adventures, and just can't seem to resist the urge to join these long term challenges for prize winners.

Here's my progress list for the Fiction prize:

2007 Winner - Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
2002 Winner - Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

2007 Shortlist - The Observations by Jane Harris
2002 Shortlist - The Siege by Helen Dunmore
1999 Shortlist - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
1998 Shortlist - The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve

2007 Longlist - The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
2006 Longlist - The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory
2006 Longlist - Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2005 Longlist - Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
2004 Longlist - The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
2000 Longlist - Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
1997 Longlist - Red Leaves by Paullina Simons

I haven't read any of the nominees for the New Writers prize.

I look forward to sharing reviews with you all.

tanabata's progress list

I've had it as a half-formed idea to read the Orange Prize winners and the shortlisted books for a little while now so thanks to Wendy for creating this project and getting me to finally commit to reading more of them. In the list, the ones I've already read are highlighted in orange. Many of the ones I've already read were before I started blogging in January 2006 but a link to my review is included where available. Italicized titles are ones that I already own, so it'll most likely be those that I start with. List will be updated as I go along.

The Orange Prize for Fiction
The Road Home, by Rose Tremain

Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston
The Outcast, by Sadie Jones
When We Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson
Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill
Lottery, by Patricia Wood

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Arlington Park, by Rachel Cusk
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo
The Observations, by Jane Harris
Digging to America, by Anne Tyler

The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney (read June 2008)

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss (read Nov. 2006- review)
Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel
The Accidental, by Ali Smith
Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, by Carrie Tiffany
The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver (read Mar. 2006- review)

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam
The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman
Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka (read June 2005)

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson
The Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates (read Nov. 2005)
The River, by Tricia Wastvedt (read Sep. 2007- review)

Small Island, by Andrea Levy (read Nov. 2004)

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (read Sep. 2004)
The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard
Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ice Road, by Gillian Slovo
The Colour, by Rose Tremain

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall
Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller (read May 2004)
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri (read Sep. 2004)
A Visit from Voltaire, by Dinah Lee Kung
Gilgamesh, by Joan London (read June 2004)
Love, by Toni Morrison (read July 2004)
The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (read Aug. 2004)
The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler (read Oct. 2004)

Property, by Valerie Martin

Buddha Da, by Anne Donovan
Heligoland, by Shena Mackay
Unless, by Carol Shields
The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith
The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

Special, by Bella Bathhurst
Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros
What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt (read June 2003)
When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka
Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (read Sep. 2002)

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett(read Mar. 2004)

No Bones, by Anna Burns
The Siege, by Helen Dunmore (read Sep. 2002)
The White Family, by Maggie Gee
A Child's Book of True Crime, by Chloe Hooper
Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (read Nov. 2002)

Five Quarters of an Orange, by Joanne Harris (read June 2002)
The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk (read May 2002)
The Hero's Walk, by Anita Rau Badami (read before 2002*)

The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (read before 2002)
Fred & Edie, by Jill Dawson(read July 2004)
Hotel World, by Ali Smith (read May 2003)
Homestead, by Rosina Lippi
Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley

The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan (read before 2002)

When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant

If I Told You Once, by Judy Budnitz
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
The Dancers Dancing, by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith (read May 2007- review)

Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier (read Oct. 2003)
Everything You Need, by A.L. Kennedy
What the Body Remembers, by Shauna Singh Baldwin

A Crime in the Neighborhood, by Suzanne Berne

The Short History of a Prince, by Jane Hamilton
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (read July 2005)
Paradise, by Toni Morrison
The Leper's Companions, by Julia Blackburn
Visible Worlds, by Marilyn Bowering

Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge (read Aug. 2004)
Comfort Woman, by Nora Okja Keller (read Apr. 2007- review)

Larry's Party, by Carol Shield

Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis
The Ventriloquist's Tale, by Pauline Melville
The Magician's Assistant, by Ann Patchett
Love Like Hate Adore, by Deirdre Purcell
The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve (read before 2002)

Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood (read before 2002)
One by One in the Darkness, by Deirdre Madden
Accordion Crimes, by E. Annie Proulx
Hen's Teeth, by Manda Scott
I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, by Siri Hustvedt (read May 2004)
Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (read Aug. 2002)

A Spell of Winter, by Helen Dunmore

The Book of Colour, by Julia Blackburn
Spinsters, by Pagan Kennedy
The Hundred Secret Senses, by Amy Tan (read before 2002)
Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler
Eveless Eden, by Marianne Wiggins

The Orange Prize for New Writers
Inglorious, by Joanna Kayenna – WINNER
The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff
The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, by Lauren Liebenberg

The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly - WINNER
Poppy Shakespeare, by Clare Allan
Bitter Sweets, by Roopa Farooki

Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman - WINNER
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li
The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

26a, by Diana Evans - WINNER
Lucky Girls, by Nell Freudenberger
How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff (read May 2008- review)

*I started keeping track of my reads in 2002.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Night Watch - Wendy's Review

'I go to the cinema,' said Kay; 'there's nothing funny about that. Sometimes I sit through the films twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way - people's pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.' -From The Night Watch, page 110-

In The Night Watch, Sarah Waters has created tension and mystery by peering backwards into the past - beginning in 1947 and regressing back in time so that the end of the novel is actually the beginning of the story. This structure is at once unsettling and fascinating.

The novel spins around four Londoners and their significant others and explores the impact of war on relationships. The reader is introduced to each character - Kay, Helen, Viv and Viv's brother, Duncan - immediately following WWII in the year 1947. Each character carries secrets and is struggling with events in their history which are undisclosed to the reader. As the novel progresses, Waters carefully unwraps the past, drawing the threads of the characters' lives together to create a stunning expose about sexuality and the tenuous nature of love amid the historical significance of war.

One of the aspects of the novel which touched me was the exploration of the repercussions of war on youth.

How long did they have to go on, letting the war spoil everything? They had been patient, all this time. They'd lived in darkness. They'd lived without salt, without scent. They'd fed themselves little scraps of pleasure, like parings of cheese. Now she became aware of the minutes as they passed: she felt them, suddenly, for what they were, as fragments of her life, her youth, that were rushing away like so many drops of water, never to return. -From The Night Watch, page 357-

Waters' prose - nuanced and full of empathy for her characters - is a bit like reading a narrative poem. Her descriptions set the reader into the novel, revealing the beauty of the human spirit amid the horror of night-time air raids and causalities. The story is a beautifully rendered, character driven look at World War II from 1941 to 1947.

The Night Watch was shortlisted for the Booker and Orange Prizes - and it is easy to see why. This was my first Sarah Waters novel, but it will not be my last.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Christine's 2008 Goals and Progress

Thank you, Wendy, for setting up this challenge--the Orange Prize is a great list to mine for reads. Coming into 2008, I have read 14 books from the Fiction winners and shortlist (possibly 15--I read an Amy Tan book once, and it may have been The Hundred Secret Senses, but I couldn't swear to it), and 1 from the New Writers winners and shortlist. In 2008, I plan on reading reading another 6.

Orange Prize Winners and Shortlisted Books I Have Read
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - WINNER
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo
The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly - NEW WRITERS WINNER

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith - WINNER
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver - WINNER

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett- WINNER
Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
Paradise, by Toni Morrison

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn

I haven't written any reviews of the books above, but I have been writing reviews starting this year and will post them here and crosspost them on my blog.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Juli's List for 2008

I have the following books already on my shelves and I’ll choose from these for this year. I'm not a super fast reader (compared to some of you!) so with all my other challenges my goal this year will be two books. Hopefully I'll be able to read more.

2006: The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
2005: We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver – WINNER
2002: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett- WINNER
2001: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
1999: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolve
1999: Paradise, by Toni Morrison

Long Lists

2005: Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson
2004: Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
2004: The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
2004: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
2001: The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan
1997: Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald
1997: The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
1996: Mother of Pearl, by Mary Morrissy

Books I’ve Read

It turns out I’ve read none of the winners or anything from the short lists. I’ll need to work on that.

From the Long Lists

2007: The Girls, by Lori Lansens (Personal Rating 4/5: Review Here)
2006: The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory
2004: Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller
2003: Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
2002: The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk
2000: Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Friday, February 8, 2008

Iannah's previously read from shortlist.

Here's a list of what I've read already from the shortlists.

New writers shortlist:

26a, by Diana Evans

Fiction Shortlist

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

Small Island, by Andrea Levy
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Colour, by Rose Tremain

Property, by Valerie Martin
The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
Hotel World, by Ali Smith

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

From the longlist:

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk

The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan

Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Translator - 3M's Review

The Translator
by Leila Aboulela

1999, 203 pp.

Rating: 4

Sammar, (I believe it was pronounced 'Summer'), is a young widow working as an Arabic translator at a university in Aberdeen, Scotland. She has been grieving for several years over the loss of her husband who was killed in a car accident. She has a little boy but feels she is unable to care for him and leaves him with her mother-in-law in Sudan.

Faith plays an important part in Sammar's life, so when she starts to fall for Rae, her boss, she realizes it could never be. That is, unless he converts to Islam. Their relationship starts off slowly, just by talking on the telephone. I found this to be very real and touching. Many of my best conversations with my husband have been on the phone, and this was the first time (that I could recall, anyway), that I had found it portrayed in such a way in a book. The progression of the relationship and the issues of faith and belief are explored in the rest of the novel.

I really enjoyed Aboulela's writing. It was very tender and poignant. I found it easy to feel Sammar's grief. There were a few things I did dislike about Sammar's character, though. I really cannot imagine leaving a child behind like that for such an extended period of time. A few weeks perhaps, but not a few years! The writing was beautiful. However, in the last few pages of the book there were a few too many sentence fragments for my taste. I don't mind some, but it seemed a little excessive. I would definitely read another book by this author, though.

This is the author's first novel and was first published in the UK in 1999.

Half of a Yellow Sun - 3M's Review

halfyellowsun.JPGA beautifully told story of a savage civil war, Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun definitely deserved the 2007 Orange Prize.
'They sat on wooden planks and the weak morning sun streamed into the roofless class as she unfurled Odenigbo's cloth flag and told them what the symbols meant. Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.'

I resisted reading this book because I really just don't like war stories at all. I wanted to give it a chance, though, because so many bloggers had said they appreciated it. They were right; it's a very special book. Based on the conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960's, it not only depicts the horrors of war, it also hauntingly and lovingly depicts the lives of the participants. Apparently many of the characters were based on real people in Adichie's family history, and this authenticity very much shines through.There were some content issues for me in the book, but I'm very glad I read this story. I look forward to reading Purple Hibiscus and other books of hers to come. If you decide to read the book (and I highly encourage it), afterwards you might want to go to her website where you can find a lot more information about the true story.

2006, 541 pp.
2007 Orange Prize
Rating: 4.5


The Secret Life of Bees - 3M's Review

The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd

2003, 302 pp.

Rating: 4.5

I'm so glad I hadn't read this book before so that I could read it for the Southern Reading Challenge (and the Something about Me Challenge). I loved everything about this book. The setting, the characters, the story. I didn't know anything about it before I started reading, and I think it's best that way. All I'll say is that it is about a girl named Lily and that bees play an important part of the story. If you're one of the few who haven't read it yet, you'll be in for a treat when you do.

The Amateur Marriage - 3M's Review

amateur.gifThe Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler outlines the lives and marriage of Michael and Pauline Anton from World War II to the present day. We see their joys and trials in courtship, marriage, children, and death.

It's hard to review the book without giving spoilers away, but the book basically follows a difficult marriage. Or was it, really? Was it really much different than most marriages? Aren't even "good" marriages difficult at times? These are the questions the book raises.

This was a very readable book that I finished in a day, and I would have very much liked to discuss it with a group. I've read one other book by Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe (which I also liked), and I'll be seeking out more.

2004, 306 pp.

Rating: 4

Inheritance of Loss - 3M's Review

The Inheritance of Loss
Kiran Desai

2005, 318 pp.

Winner: Booker Prize, NBCC

Rating: 3.5 3

While this book has garnered much critical acclaim, I found it very difficult to complete. It took me over two months to get through it. Once I put it down, I just wasn't compelled to pick it up again. It sort of felt like a school assignment. Luckily, the last 1/3 of the book went by much faster than the first 2/3. Before reading, I would highly recommend doing a little research if you are ignorant (like I was) of Indian culture or history. One link that shed a little light on the subject for me was here.

There are two settings for the book--America and Kalimpong. Sai lives with her grandfather, a former judge, at the foothills of the Himalayas. She falls in love with Gyan, her tutor, who is sympathetic to the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). The clash of ideals between the Indians who want change and those who wish to retain aspects of British colonialism is one of the two main conflicts in the novel.

The other conflict is that of the Indians who emigrate to the United States and the conditions of their lives once they live there. Biju, who is the son of the Judge's cook, is one of the lucky few who get a visa to go to America. But once he is there, is he really better off? The novel asks the question -- how much does each person care about their individual culture, nationality, and family. What does our "inheritance" mean to us?

While I appreciate these themes and do think the writing was brilliant at times, I wouldn't recommend this book for most readers.

The Blind Assassin - 3M's Review

The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood

2000, 521 pp.

Booker Prize

Rating: 3.5

I was disappointed in this book. I expected great things after loving The Handmaid's Tale earlier in the year. I was especially disappointed as it was over 500 pages; it could have easily lost about 100 pages of detail. I guess that's my main gripe about it. It just seemed too detailed for me. Also I correctly predicted almost all that happened. Long, too detailed, and too predictable. But still, Atwood does know how to turn a phrase, and that is why it still gets a 3.5 star rating.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Carry Me Down - Ex Libris' Review

[Note: I read and reviewed this book when it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize]

CarrymedownjpgThe other outstanding book I read this week was Booker longlist title Carry Me Down by M. J. Hyland.

Carry Me Down is a dark, disturbing psychological portrait of a boy caught in transition between childhood and manhood, between interests and obsessions, and all the subsequent emotions.

John Eagan is almost 12 years old with the body and voice of a grown man. He is an only child who lives with his parents at his grandmother's. John's father does not work (he's studying for an exam he never takes) and his mother works part-time. His grandmother, who seems to have plenty of money, spends her days at the racetrack. His father and grandmother do not get along. John is unusually close to his mother, physically as well as emotionally. John would like to be close to his father, but his father repeatedly disappoints him. More than anything, John wants to be understood.

As the story begins, John realizes he can detect when his father lies to him. He soon expands this theory to include his mother and grandmother, as well as his best friend. He convinces himself that he is a human lie detector and that this will be his ticket to be in his favorite book, The Guinness Book of World Records. He begins to tell lies and to steal as experiments in order to fine tune his theory. He starts his own book, the Gol of Seil (Log of Lies), where he records all his speculations and results of his experiments. John's home life begins to unravel at the same time his interest in lie detection turns to obsession.

M. J. Hyland takes readers on a spellbinding rollercoaster ride in this tale of disintegration and obsession. Told in first person by John, readers are brought to the brink time and again, right along with him, only to be yanked back. Her prose is crisp and clear, and nothing (the characters nor the plot) is gratuitous.

Carry Me Down was an up-all-nighter for me. It was very difficult for me to put down. I finished it last night, and I haven't been able to pick up a book today because it is still running around in my head.

This is only the second title off the Booker longlist that I've read. If the others are like this in quality, then the Booker judges certainly have their work cut out for them.

Rating: 5/5

The Falls - Ex Libris' Review

I have finished The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates for my library's reading group that is meeting on Tuesday evening. This is the first full-length novel of Oates' I've read, and I was especially curious to see if I felt the same about her writing after reading this book as I did with the two shorter novels I read. All I can say is what a remarkably gifted storyteller she is.

The Falls, of course, is Niagra Falls - that beautiful, mystical natural wonder between Canada and upstate New York on the Niagra River. I remember visiting there as a child in 1965, recalling the sound, the mist, and the colored lights at night. What a beautiful sight it was. What I had forgotten about was that the city of Niagra Falls, NY was home to the infamous "Love Canal", now synonymous with cancer and all the evils of chemical waste dumps for radioactive materials.

In The Falls, Joyce Carol Oates has done a tremendous job intertwining the myths of Niagra Falls (suicides, daredevils, visions) and the historical facts surrounding Love Canal (people vs. chemical companies/government) with a cast of memorable characters. Oates digs deep within them to investigate and expose the danger of love that suffocates instead of nurtures, the fear of "going outside the family" and ultimately the fear of being left alone. Her story of overcoming these fears and surviving the love is riveting and well-worth the time spent reading.

Rating: 5/5

The Night Watch - Ex Libris' Review

Nightwatch_3Best known for her Victorian-era historical fiction, Sarah Waters has chosen the more recent past for her latest novel. The story takes place in London and is set during and just following World War II. It is a look at ordinary citizens trying to live their lives against a backdrop of violence not of their own making.

In The Night Watch, the reader meets an unlikely cast of characters who seem to be as shell-shocked as the city they live in. The book opens with this line, "So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you've become: a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord's door." (pg. 3) Kay and Mickey, Helen and Julia, Vivian and Reggie, Duncan and Fraser, all are struggling with the resumption of lives that will never be the same.

Waters begins her story at the end, after the war, and works her way back in time to the beginning. Her depiction of the era and locations are so detailed, the reader gets the feeling of being in the same room with the characters, perhaps standing in a corner so as not to be noticed. As the story progresses (regresses?), the plot twists and turns with plenty of surprises and revelations to keep the reader thoroughly engrossed.

I feel the emphasis of this book is twofold: 1) the relationships the characters have with each other and 2) the ravaging effect of war on innocent civilians. Waters effectively depicts same-sex relationships with compassion and without a sense of sensationalism that one might anticipate. She also delivers a very strong and effective anti-war message. This book certainly resonates with the current state of military affairs.

Overall, an excellent read. Rating: 5/5

The Translator - Wendy's Review

'It's a lonely thing,' he said, 'you can't avoid it.'
'The spiritual path. Everyone is on his own in this.'
-From The Translator, page 202-

Sammar, a Sudanese widow who has left her child in the care of her aunt and moved to Scotland to become an Arabic translator, narrates this poetic novel of love and faith.

I have read some critical reviews of this book which condemn it as "only a love story." The Translator is, in fact, a love story - but it is also much more. Aboulela is a controlled, meditative writer who weaves a deeper meaning into her novel. The gapping maw between cultures and religions are exposed in this simple story with a subtleness I appreciated. The author explores grief, and moving on, and clinging to one's faith - all anchored in an exquisite atmosphere of place.

Aboulela has a finely tuned sense of what it means to love. In one scene, Sammar is cooking soup for Rae, a man who Sammar loves and who has been ill. In this uncomplicated act, Aboulela reveals something about Sammar's character which anyone who has loved another can relate to.

She made soup for him. She cut up courgettes, celery and onion. Her feelings were in the soup. The froth that rose to the surface of the water when she boiled the chicken, the softened, shapeless tomatoes. Pasta shaped into the smallest stars. Spice that she had to search for, the name unknown in English, not in any of the Arabic-English dictionaries that she had. -From The Translator, page 97-

The Translator transports the reader to another culture, offering glimpses into what it means to have faith and how difficult it is to abide by one's beliefs. It is not a complicated novel; but it left me contemplating the larger issues of life.

Recommended; rated 4.5/5.

Fall On Your Knees - Wendy's Review

You might cross this road and walk a few steps to the edge of the cliff. Down below is the jagged water. All day it chatters back and forth across the gravel beach, unless the weather's rough. Farther out it's mauve like a pair of cold lips; closer in it's copper green, gun gray, seducing seaweed to dance the seven veils despite the chill, chained to their rocks by the hair. And there on the cliff you might sit with your legs dangling even on a flinty winter day, and feel soothed by the salt wind. - From Fall On Your Knees, page 27-

Ann-Marie MacDonalds multigenerational family saga Fall On Your Knees captures the reader from the start with a finely tuned sense of place and characters who fill the page. The story begins with James Piper, a native of Cape Breton Island, and Materia, his tragic Lebanese child-bride. One by one, children are born to the Pipers - each with distinct and compelling personalities. MacDonald takes her time, gradually revealing the dark shadows beneath the surface of this family.

Some of my favorite parts of the novel consisted of the careful construction of character and the beautiful and horrible imagery.

A war changes people in a number of ways. It either shortcuts you to your very self; or it triggers such variations that you might as well have been a larva, pupating in dampness, darkness and tightly wrapped puttees. Then, providing you don't take flight from a burst shell, you emerge from your khaki cocoon so changed from what you were that you fear you've gone mad, because people at home treat you as though you were someone else. Someone, who, through a bizarre coincidence, had the same name, address and blood ties as you, but who must have died in the war. -From Fall On Your Knees, page 112-

This book is full of tragedy, and yet MacDonald tempers it with a sardonic humor and accessible prose that compels the reader to keep turning the pages. My favorite character is Frances - the imaginative second child of the Pipers who has a biting wit and a gift for words.

You might think Frances would be a slob, but she isn't, she's very neat and organized. She has accommodated Lily with a framed magazine photograph of Mary Pickford in a stupid gingham apron. It hangs next to Lily's color print of Jesus with the lambs. Jesus looks sad, of course, "because he's thinking about how much he likes lamb chops," says Frances, but Lily is not fooled by that . The rest of the walls are covered in Frances' collection. She writes away for publicity photos. There is one of Lillian Gish trapped on an ice floe. There is Houdini naked and furious in a milk can. There is an actual poster that an usher at the Empire gave her of Theda Bara in Sin, holding her unbelievably long tresses at arm's length above her head like a madwoman. Frances calls her Head of Haira. Mercedes thinks the picture is immoral. -From Fall On Your Knees, page 192-

Fall On Your Knees is a magnificent, sprawling novel of family secrets, religious obsession, and survival. It resonates with unforgettable characters.

Recommended; rated 4/5.

Alias Grace - Wendy's Review

The pattern of this quilt is called the Tree of Paradise, and whoever named that pattern said better than she knew, as the Bible does not say Trees. It says there were two different trees, the Tree of life and the Tree of Knowledge; but I believe there was only the one, and that the Fruit of Life and the Fruit of Good and Evil were the same. And if you ate of it you would die, but if you didn't eat of it you would die also; although if you did eat of it, you would be less bone-ignorant by the time you got around to your death. Such an arrangement would appear to be more the way life is. -From Alias Grace, page 459-

In the year 1843, at the tender age of sixteen, Grace Marks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her role in the slaying of her employer Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Mongomery (Kinnear's mistress and housekeeper). The case garnered excessive interest in Canada (where the crimes occurred) due to Marks' uncommon beauty, her young age and the juicy combination of sex, violence and what was considered 'the insubordination of the lower class.'

Margaret Atwood has taken this moment in history and created a novel both compelling and fascinating. Told alternately from the point of view of Grace and Dr. Simon Jordan - a doctor who is eager to uncover Grace's lost memories of the murders and determine her guilt or innocence - the story gradually reveals Grace's secrets and her complex personality.

Alias Grace is constructed with an eye to detail and contains beautiful symbolism and exquisite imagery. Atwood's use of quilt patterns both as titles for the chapters as well as clues to the mystery is brilliant. As quilts are layered and stitched together, the stitcher gradually reveals the pattern hidden in the fabric...just as Grace Marks re-constructs her life and the events surrounding that fateful day. Nothing is as it seems. For every character there is a dark side and a light side; good vs. evil; innocence vs. guilt. And even Grace tells us: '...and that is the same with all quilts, you can see them two different ways, by looking at the dark pieces, or else the light.'

Margaret Atwood once again demonstrates her ability to create memorable characters and weave a story which enthralls.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.

The Blind Assassin - Wendy's Review

Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we're still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It's all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get? At the very least we want a witness. We can't stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down. -From The Blind Assassin, page 95-

In Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize winning novel The Blind Assassin, we are treated to a novel which is a story within a story - a memorial of sorts to the life of two women...Iris Chase Griffin and her sister Laura. The novel opens with the death of Laura...and a mystery. Atwood builds her story through a series of newspaper clippings, flashbacks from Iris' perspective on her life, and a piece of fiction about a man and a woman and the story they weave.

True to Atwood's style, the characters are painstakingly created and come alive on the page. No less detailed, Atwood constructs a small town setting within the bigger context of World War II. The result is a tale Gothic in feel, full of shadowy half truths and complex relationships which come together for a satisfying finish.

To give more detail about the novel would be to reveal spoilers - and so I will simply say "Read it." Atwood is a brilliant novelist that continues to amaze me with her scope and talent.

Highly Recommended; rated 4.5/5.

The Inheritance of Loss - Wendy's Review

Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? - From The Inheritance of Loss, page 3 -

Kiran Desai has written a novel of depth and complexity, filled with multiple characters and beautiful, lyrical prose which explores such themes as colonialism, illegal immigration and political strife. I will admit to being somewhat overwhelmed at times due to my ignorance of Indian history, class systems and politics. In fact, this book forced me to do something I seldom do - research the history of the time and geography of the area. What I discovered is a country which is vast in its scope and complicated in its history. For those readers with extensive knowledge about this region, Desai's book will resonate. For those like myself who do not have that knowledge base, this novel will lose some of its power, but is worth reading anyway.

Desai artfully weaves together the stories of several characters, moving from the present day (1980s) to their past histories without a glitch. She examines life in the town of Kalimpong, a hill town nestled in the lower Himalaya of West Bengal, where cultures collide. Kalimpong has a rich history and was the site of violent riots between the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the West Bengal government between 1986 and 1988. Desai's novel drops its characters into the midst of this chaos and allows the reader to gain a better understanding of the vast cultural rifts between the people.

The novel centers around a retired Judge, his granddaughter Sai, the cook, the cook's son Biju and Gyan who is Sai's tutor. All these characters are flawed and seeking fulfillment, and all experience loss as the tale unravels. The Judge, a surly and unhappy man, has little love in his heart for anyone except his dog, Mutt. He is filled with hatred for other Indians, wishing instead he had been born English. Biju also experiences this ambivalence for his own people which seems spawned by his experience of rejection and racism as an illegal immigrant living in America.

The habit of hate had accompanied Biju and he found that he possessed an awe of white people, who arguably had done India great harm, and a lack of generosity regarding almost everyone else, who had never done a single harmful thing to India. - From The Inheritance of Loss, page 86 -

Biju's father (the cook) has sent his only son to America to seek a better life. The cook hopes for contentment and dignity which he believes will come with Biju's success.

He imagined sofa TV bank account. Eventually Biju would make enough and the cook would retire. He would receive a daughter-in-law to serve him food, crick-crack his toes, grandchildren to swat like flies. Time might have died in the house that sat on the mountain ledge, its lines grown indistinct with moss, its roof loaded with ferns, but with each letter, the cook trundled toward a future.
- From The Inheritance of Loss, page 20 -

Sai, having come to live with her grandfather after her parents die, imagines a life of love.

Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself. - From The Inheritance of Loss, page 3 -

Finally, Gyan who tutors Sai longs to be part of the political changes. A Nepali who feels torn between his attraction toward Sai and his cultural roots, Gyan is perhaps the saddest character in the book.

He wasn't a bad person. He didn't want to fight. The trouble was that he'd tried to be part of the larger questions, tried to become part of politics and history. Happiness had a smaller location, though this wasn't something to flaunt, of course; very few would stand up and announce, "Actually I'm a coward," but his timidity might be disguised, well, in a perfectly ordinary existence situated between meek contours. - From The Inheritance of Loss, page 299 -

As The Inheritance of Loss unfolded, I was struck by the depth of the prose. Desai reveals the rigid adherence to the class system in simple ways, such as when a maid tells her employer the story of falling in love with a Rai although she herself is a Sherpa.

Before one knew it one could slide into areas of the heart that should be referred to only between social equals. - From The Inheritance of Loss, page 75 -

Desai uncovers the pain of being an illegal immigrant by allowing the reader to see through Biju's eyes as he struggles to find work, sleeps in a basement with rats nibbling on his hair, and longs to return to his homeland.

The issues of colonialism and globalization are constant themes in the novel. It speaks to Desai's gift as a writer that she tackles these immense issues with ease using eloquent prose.

Tenzing was certainly the first, or else he was made to wait with the bags so Hilary could take the first step on behalf of that colonial enterprise of sticking your flag on what was not yours.
- From The Inheritance of Loss, page 171 -

This Sai had learned. This underneath, and on top a flat creed: cake was better than laddoos, fork spoon knife better than hands, sipping the blood of Christ and consuming a wafer of his body was more civilized than garlanding a phallic symbol with marigolds. English was better than Hindi.
- From The Inheritance of Loss, page 33 -

I found myself falling into the rhythm of this novel, absorbing the flavors and sights of a foreign land and striving to understand its people. There are so many facets to The Inheritance of Loss, it is hard to categorize it. I believe Desai has written a novel which fully encompasses the Indian experience. I was touched by how the characters sought out their dreams and futures by looking outside their culture, religion and country when perhaps the answers lay closer to home. Desai touches on this as well at the end of the book when Biju, who is now far less innocent, contemplates the steady stream of immigration from India to America.

This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time. - From The Inheritance of Loss, page 342 -

Kiran Desai has written an exquisite novel which is deserving of the Booker Award and its place on the New York Times Most Notable Fiction list. This is a novel to be savored for its stunning prose, complex characters and finely captured sense of place.

Recommended; rated 4.25/5.

Half of a Yellow Sun - Wendy's Review

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half Of A Yellow Sun is a wrenching novel about love, disappointment, forgiveness and the unbearable emptiness of loss. Set during the 1960's, the story details Biafra's struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria. The novel gives the reader a glimpse into the politics which created Nigeria's civil war. Adichie's simple and eloquent language reveals the vivid, stark images of Nigeria's cities, people and bush villages. Ugwu, Olanna, Odenigbo, Richard and Kainene are just some of the characters who people this novel - complex, rich and unforgettable they show us what it is like to be vulnerable and human during a time of uncertainty.

This is not a 'feel good' novel - instead it stuns the reader with the horrifying images of a brutal war and reminds us that in the end, despite cultural and religious and race differences, we are all just people struggling to anchor our lives with others.

Half Of A Yellow Sun is a literary masterpiece that has earned its place as winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and as a New York Times Most Notable Fiction book of 2007.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ex Libris - Progress

I am so pleased that this particular prize list has become an ongoing reading project! I love to follow the Orange Prize and can now do so as much as I want without any guilt! Thanks, Wendy!!

I am planning to read three books from this list in 2008:
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (winner 2007)
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (shortlist 2007)
  • Eveless Eden by Marianne Wiggins (shortlist 1996)
I will probably add to this list once the 2008 short list is announced. I may add others, too, if time permits me to read them.

Following are the Orange Prize list books I've already read:
  • Digging to America by Anne Tyler (shortlist 2007)
  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (shortlist 2006)
  • Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel (shortlist 2006)
  • The Accidental by Ali Smith (shortlist 2006)
  • The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (shortlist 2006)
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka (shortlist 2005)
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (shortlist 2004)
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (shortlist 2004)
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (winner 2002)
  • Hotel World by Ali Smith (shortlist 2001)
Sharon (Ex Libris)

Laura's Review - We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lionel Shriver
468 pages

First sentence: Dear Franklin, I'm not sure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you.

Reflections: This is the story of Kevin Khatchadourian, who kills seven high school students, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker just a few days before his 16th birthday. Through letters to her husband, Kevin's mother Eva chronicles his childhood, the horrible events leading up to the massacre, and its aftermath. Eva is searching for answers, and for peace. When did it all begin? Were there pivotal events that set this tragedy in motion? Was it before Kevin was born, when Eva first resented pregnancy's inconveniences? Or, when he wouldn't nurse? Did her postpartum depression have a lasting impact? Or, did Kevin just hate being alive, from the very moment of his birth? There is no hero in this story. All of the characters are flawed and, in fact, even unlikeable. Eva is self-centered and resents the "intrusion" of children in her life. Her husband Franklin is the eternal optimist, failing to see the destructive patterns in Kevin's behavior. And Kevin, of course, is troubled and angry.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a harrowing and devastatingly sad tale with no clear answers. Kevin's motives are unclear, and while there were many occasions where his parents could have handled a situation differently, their actions were understandable. Any parent reading this book can emphathize and see how they, too, could have made similar decisions.

Lionel Shriver won the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction for this highly-recommended work. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Jill's Progress and 2008 Goals

Thanks, Wendy, for hosting this challenge! I amintrigued to learn more about these authors, and after perusing the list, I discovered that I already had read two shortlisters with five more Orange books on my shelf - just waiting to be read.

Shortlisters Already Read

1) The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2001) - my review
2) Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler (1996) - my review

My 2008 Orange Books

1) Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007 winner)
2) The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (2007 short list)
3) Digging to America by Anne Tyler (2007 short list)
4) Property by Valerie Martin (2003 winner)
5) Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1997 short list)

I am excited to have an "excuse" to read Adichie and more Atwood!

(cross-posted from my blog)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Laura's Review - Old Filth

Old Filth
Jane Gardam
290 pages

First Sentence: The Benchers' luncheon room of the Inner Temple.

Reflections: Edward Feathers, or "Old Filth," is a Raj Orphan, the child of a British couple living in Malaya, who is sent back to England around the age of 5, ostensibly for his own good. He is first cared for by a foster mother, then sent away to school, and informally adopted by his best friend's family, spending all of his holidays with them. The experience leaves a scar: "All my life, from my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me."

The book is set in the present time, when "Old Filth" is well into his 80s and very wealthy, having had a successful law career in Hong Kong. Recently widowed and quite a curmudgeon, he is learning to manage on his own. He spends much of his time remembering the past, and gradually tells the story of his childhood. I found these parts of the story quite sad. On the effect of the "Raj orphan" experience:

"They say it suits some. They come out fizzing and yelling, 'I didn't need parents,' and waving the red, white, and blue. Snooty for life. But we're all touched, one way or the other."

"Most of them learned never to like anyone, ever, their whole lives."

"If you haven't been loved as a child, you don't know how to love a child."

Back in the present, "Old Filth" sets out on a journey to visit two cousins with whom he shared his first foster home. He has not travelled in years, and his household staff believe he is unfit to drive. But he's stubborn, so he does it anyway. There are some poignant moments as he encounters everyday modern conveniences which are foreign to him, and reunites with the cousins, each of whom have had very different life experiences from his own. Later, he visits another part of the country where he spent time during World War II, and again reconnects with memories and people. Along the way he makes peace with himself and comes to terms with his childhood experiences.

"Old Filth" is a quirky and memorable character who makes this book enjoyable.

My original review can be found here.

Laura's Review - The Inheritance of Loss

The Inheritance of Loss
Kiran Desai
324 pages

First sentence: All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.

Reflections: The Inheritance of Loss won the Booker Prize in 2006. The novel is set in India during the 1980s, and the plot centered around political conflict. I'm sure if I had more knowledge of the situation in India at that time, I would have appreciated the novel more. Kiran Desai's prose is lyrical and beautiful. It was her writing that held my interest.

I failed to identify with most of the characters. Each of the main characters is an outsider: for various reasons they are not in their home country or have spent so much time away from India that they feel out of place. For example, two elderly women who spent extensive time in England, ensure they always have on hand "familiar comforts" such as English foods and clothing. This I could relate to, having spent 4 years away from my home country. Although it was a fantastic experience, many times I felt like an outsider and knew I would never be fully part of the local community. I've been surprised to feel even more of an outsider since returning "home." Living abroad changes you in many ways. It's made me stronger and more thoughtful, and increased my curiosity about other cultures. Unfortunately there are few I can share this experience with so it remains a somewhat hidden part of who I am ...

My original review can be found here.

Laura's Review - Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
433 pages

First Sentence: Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair.

Reflections: This book takes place during the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70, when the southern part of Nigeria seceded and formed its own state, known as Biafra. We see the conflict through the eyes of the main characters, who are Biafran: Olanna and Odenigbo, well-off and well-educated academics; Ugwu, their houseboy; Kainene, Olanna's twin sister; and Richard, a British expat and Kainene's partner (and the only one who is not native to the country). We get to know them before the war, becoming familiar with their "normal" life, and watching with horror as the war's violence and atrocities come closer and closer.

"The world has to know the truth of what is happening, because they simply cannot remain silent while we die."

Why do human beings do this to one another? Why is war considered an effective method of resolving conflict? And why do powerful, economically advantaged, nations stand by and allow crimes against humanity? It is too easy to distance ourselves from the conflict and the people, as if they are not real. Adichie's writing makes it real. We can identify with the characters, their day-to-day routine and concerns. As their lives are torn apart by war, as they lose their livelihood and have to fight for housing and food, as they witness and experience violence and fear, we realize that yes, this does happen to real people.

"...the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person."

And despite this reality, those of us living in predominantly white cultures do not hear or read enough about it. War, violence, poverty, and famine rage in Africa and the Middle East today, and there are not enough calls for humanitarian relief and action that will bring an end to the conflict. In the United States, gun violence is escalating and is especially devastating in the poor areas of our cities. But the news media quickly tire of these stories, unless one of "our own" (usually white, American) is at risk.

Are we not all one people? What would it take to bring unity and an end to violence?

My original review can be found here.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Great Fire - Wendy's Review

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone, announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain. -From The Great Fire, page 1-

Shirley Hazzard's award winning novel, The Great Fire, follows the parallel lives of two men at the end of World War II - Peter Exley, an Australian living in China to investigate war crimes; and Aldred Leith, a Brit who has traveled to Japan near Hiroshima to record the effects of war on the survivors. Both men struggle to come to terms with life after war ... and the novel explores their psyches through flashbacks of memory interspersed with their adjustment back to civilian life. Of the two, Peter is the least developed character - but nonetheless, the reader empathizes with his struggle over whether to pursue a life in music or return to toil in his father's law firm.

Hazzard spends more time refining the character of Aldred Leith who arrives in Japan to stay with an Australian Brigadier and his family. Brigadier Driscoll and his wife are unlikeable people who have two children - Ben and Helen. Ben, at age 20, is dying from Friedreich's Ataxia. His sister, Helen at age 17, provides the love interest for the adult Leith. The difference in their ages lends a subtle conflict to the novel. Leith's former preoccupation with his work is gradually replaced by his obsession with Helen ... and it is through this love, that he begins to understand how he will recover from the psychological effects of the war.

Hazzard's writing is beautiful and hypnotic, yet at times ambiguous. Entering the world of her novel feels a bit like plunging into a vast and complicated art museum where everything must be slowly considered and the meaning is not always clear. At times I felt tranquilized by Hazzard's descriptions, such as when Leith has a memory from childhood:

Aldred shifted his chair to look at the logs. These were among earliest memories: the heavy loads dragged in out of evening air, or out of rain, to dry in the warm kitchen. The Tarpaulin spread, and the pieces brushed off roughly, one by one. Loose bark, wood dust. The kindling struck off and set aside. The child, who was himself, squatting silent on the periphery, peering into shapes, textures, colours; the mottlings and dapplings. The scrubby bark, coruscated, or the smooth angular pieces like bones. Forms arched and grooved like a lobster, or humped like a whale. Dark joints, to which foliage adhered like bay leaves in a stew. Pinecones, and a frond of pine needles still flourishing on the hacked branch. And the creatures that inched or sped or wriggled out, knowing the game was up: slugs, pale worms, tiny white grubs, scurrying busily off as if to a destination. An undulant caterpillar, and an inexorable thing with pincers. Or the slow slide of an unhoused snail - the hodmedod, as they called him here - revisiting the lichens and pigmentations and fungoid flakes that had clung to his only home - freckled growths dusted, seemingly, with cocoa; red berries, globules of white wax. Wet earthy smell, forest smell. The implements set aside; the elder Laister stern with him: "Dawn't tooch the axe. I'm warning you." -From The Great Fire, page 222-

This is a slowly unfolding novel - quite literary in style and phrasing. It is a novel about love and recovery from war, about friendships and the complications of family. For those readers who enjoy a gently paced story and want to be enveloped and lost in words, this one is for you.

Recommended; rated 4/5.

Old Filth - Wendy's Review

Old Filth dozed off then with this picture before him, wondering at the clarity of an image thirty years old when what happened yesterday had receded into darkness. He was nearly eighty now. -From Old Filth, page 24-

Old Filth ("Failed in London Try Hong Kong") is a surly, retired Judge who begins to remember his past as he enters the final years of his life. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, taking the reader to Malaya where Filth was born, to Wales where he is fostered by the evil Ma Didds, to England where he attends school, and to Hong Kong where he finds his professional niche. Along the way, people from Filth's past surface to fill in the gaps of his memory - and a crime is uncovered.
This book was hard to rate - there were moments of brilliance from Jane Gardam. She likes to play with words and metaphor, such as when Filth meets a character by the name of Loss.

Loss's defection was the metaphor for Eddie's life. It was Eddie's fate always to be left. Always to be left and forgotten. Everyone gone, now. Out of his reach. For the first time, Eddie was utterly on his own. -From Old Filth, page 230-

Gardam also uses this same style to explore the idea of revelation - a central theme in the novel.

The suitcase was immense. He got it out of the roof like a difficult birth. Its label called it a Revelation. "Revelation was once the very best luggage," said Filth. "They were revelations' because they expanded." -From Old Filth, page 282-

And just in case the reader misses it, Gardam ties it up in a neat bow when Filth strikes up a conversation with a character he meets on a plane.

"I always feel tip-top. I say - you're not by any chance...?" "Yes. Old Filth. Long forgotten." "Well, you're still remembered out here." "Yes. Well, I dare say. I hope so. Ha. Did you ever come across a chap called Loss?" "No. I don't think so." "Or Islam?" "They're all called Islam." "He's probably dead. Certainly retired. I've got one of his suitcases. Called a Revelation." -From Old Filth, page 287-

Gardam is a natural storyteller who writes stellar dialogue, heavy with meaning. Despite this, Old Filth is not an easy novel to read. At times the story becomes dreamlike and the characters warp into odd, almost surreal figures. Gardam's style tends to be circular, which ultimately leaves the reader with a satisfying end. Not great, but good. Recommended for those readers who enjoy literary puzzles and creative use of language. Rated 3.5/5

Purple Hibiscus - Wendy's Review

Jaja's defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma's experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do. -From Purple Hibiscus, page 16-

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel - Purple Hibiscus - is a poignant, beautifully written story. It is narrated by Kambili, a 15 year old Nigerian girl who grows up with her brother, Jaja, amid domestic violence, religious fanaticism and political unrest. Kambili and Jaja's father, Eugene, is a well-respected and wealthy man who gives generously to his church and community; and as the publisher of a liberal newspaper, he speaks out against the tyranny of a new government following a coup. But, Adichie reveals a dark side to Eugene as he elevates his religious faith to something horrifying and tragic. As the story unfolds, we watch through Kambili's eyes as she matures and is transformed into a girl able to see beauty in a world full of cruelty, able to find love where she least expects it, and ultimately to realize hope amid tragedy. Lyrical, honest, exquisitely crafted and with an ending that stuns the reader … Purple Hibiscus will resonate with those who appreciate an authentic tale. Highly recommended.