Minaret – Leila Aboulela (2005)

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When I was scanning a few book blogs the other day, I came across Minaret (Leila Aboulela) and picked it up from the library a few days later. I was intrigued by the topic, it was fairly short (matches my current summer levels of concentration), and it fit in well with my current focus on reading more POC authors. So, I picked it up last weekend, and then finished it on Sunday evening. (Quick read indeed.)

Aboulela is a Sudanese author, and this fictional narrative traces the spiritual (and literal) journey of Najwa, a Sudanese woman whose family is caught up in a big corruption government scandal, leading to them living in forced exile in London.

It’s an interesting story, but for some reason, I wasn’t too taken with it. Was it the writing? (It’s written in a very simplistic manner, but I’m not sure why that was the case. The protagonist was not a simple person, and her life was not straight-forward. Perhaps the simple style is used as a foil to reflect the complexity of her life? Not sure.)

Anyway, few contractions, few complex sentence structures, and pretty bare-bones descriptions… Not usually a big fan of that style, but I kept reading… (The reviews were so awesome, I thought that I was missing something, and perhaps this would all clear up by the end of the book…)

As the reader follows Najwa’s journey, both geographical and otherwise, we learn that she is a middle-aged woman whose rather coddled lifestyle is changed overnight when she is forced to move to England in exile, and live a life of servanthood for the other Sudanese ex-pats who are more wealthy.

This come-down is hard to take at first (naturally), but as the book progresses, Najwa learns how to live this new life. It’s helped by her attraction to the Islamic faith, although she was secular whilst she was in Sudan.

As the book progresses, readers follow her as she becomes a more religious and more devout Muslim woman. Interestingly, she ends up by the close of the story as being much more religiously conservative than she was at the start of the book. I think other reviewers have loved this title as it shows a woman becoming more focused on becoming a strict Muslim, and perhaps this is more typically depicted as a male journey? Not sure, but a lot of great reviews were blurbed on the cover. However, I was not quite as taken for a number of reasons, really.

First, there were some obvious proofreading errors which someone should have caught before it went to print (e.g. repeated or missing words etc.). With so much electronic editing help that is available now, there are few excuses to let this go to print without revisions. It became annoying after a while and was a distraction from the plot. (The author also goes on and on and on about how much the protagonist loves Boney M’s music. OK. We get it. Sigh.)

Second, the protagonist has some strange relationships with people. At first, I put this down to her forced relocation and the new culture and general life disruption, but then, as the story progresses, she ends up falling in love (sort of) with a nineteen year old son of her boss’ family, a young man who is decades younger than she is and who is a lot more radicalized than she is. Of course, problems arise…

I don’t know. It all got a bit confusing with regard to who is who and how they fit into the structure, so that, at times, I just gave an impatient sigh and then checked with a heavy heart how many more pages until the end…

Add to that the fact that the novel plays with time, and you’ve got one lost reader.

So – it wasn’t that great a read for me in the end (in case you haven’t picked that up yet!). I think that some of the reviewers were tripping over themselves to like this book for politically correct reasons, because I ended up with quite a different opinion at the end.

So, just an OK read for me in the end. Meh.

Summer Reading List: The African-American Experience

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Credit: Keith Haring (1983).

I published a couple of posts the other day about summer reading, one of mostly fiction and then another on mostly non-fiction travel. In reviewing both of the lists, I saw that I was remiss in not recommending many reads from around the world from the POC experience, and so this post is to rectify that.

(Please note that just because these titles are under the POC category does not in any way negate their value. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be reminded of the many titles that are far outside the typical Western selection of literature and than what’s on the best seller tables at Barnes & Nobles, and so that is what this post is. Just a signpost of some other excellent reads which may be more off the beaten track a bit… Feel free to add any titles. I’m always open for recommendations!)

For the queens of African-American writing (and superb artists in their own right), I would suggest starting with super stars such as Alice Walker (The Color Purple [1982]), Maya Angelou (who actually I haven’t really read yet, but is on TBR…) and the wonderful Toni Morrison (Beloved [1987], Jazz [1993] or perhaps Sula [1973]).

And for poetry, I happen to love contemporary poet, Nikki Giovanni, while Gwendolyn Brooks is also lovely… What about Langston Hughes? And if you think about it, there’s definitely an argument for looking at rap and other song lyrics as poetry (even though some of the content can be a bit rough around the edges)…

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Part of a Langston Hughes poem integrated as part of huge public art project at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Well played, my friends.

More fairly contemporary writing comes from the pen of author Paule Marshall with the 1985 Virago title and collection of short stories, Merle and Other Stories , and I recommend exploring her backlist – Marshall has a wide variety and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read from her. These are out in the trusty Virago Press if you see some around.

(Side note: Virago Press is famous for printing neglected works of female authors of the twentieth century, and the books are easily recognizable for their dark green spines — the contents of each book vary widely. Worth seeking out in if you see one in a charity shop or similar.)

For a great contemporary solid read, try  the recently published Homecoming by Yaa Gyazi (2016) or, if you’d rather have a go at some strong short stories, try Z. Z. Packer’s wonderful Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003). Don’t forget the excellent Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) or any of the other works by this author.

The historical experience of African-Americans in the U.S. has been long and pretty awful for the most part, so there are some very tough but fascinating reads about this. Go back in time to the terrible years of slavery, and learn from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 narrative of his life, 12 Years a Slave. If you’d like more NF background into the issue, there are loads of titles out there. I started with this one for a good backgrounder, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Horschild and found it to be a really accessible and useful introduction.

Nella Larson’s 1929 fiction, Passing, looks at life for two female friends in the early twentieth century when people felt that they had to hide their origins in order to live a happy life. (Good read, btw, and will leave you with lots of thinking about it.)

Another excellent read from the early twentieth century, this one with the power of a hurricane, is Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God (1937). (Hold on to your hat for that one as it’s one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. Highly recommended. Stick with it though… There’s dialect, but you get the hang of it after a while.)

The history of having African-American help is covered very nicely from the perspective in the novel Like One of the Family (Alice Childress [1954]) which explores the divide (obvious and otherwise) between the white families and the domestic black servants that they hire. (This is also a good read as it’s in one-sided conversations….)

Plays of that era are also excellent and powerful: Try A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959) and her follow-up play. (Really good if you can see if in person on a stage. Or check out the 1961 movie of the same name…) For a more contemporary look at life in American, check out Stick Fly (2006) by playwright Lydia Diamond about family dynamics in modern America…

Coming forward in time, there are some really good titles from African authors, among whom would be the Senegalese classic So Long a Letter (Mariama Bâ [1980]) about a first wife who reacts when her husband takes a second wife, or perhaps Blackass (A. Igoni Barrett [2015]) about a twenty-first century young Nigerian man who is born black, but wakes up one day with all-white skin (except for his bottom). How does this impact his life? You’ll have to see….

Mentioned in the other post the other day, I really recommend the Aya graphic novel series by Marguerite Abouret and Clement Oubrerie set on the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, or if you’d like to read a poignant and really funny novel about a young girl growing up in 1970’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), see if you can find Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1989). Great read.

If you travel north a bit from the African continent, you may run across Zadie Smith who has a great collection of work from which to choose… White Teeth is the one that brought her to the fore and the one that I remember the most, but the others are certainly as good.

For a non-fiction focus on the U.S., one of the best historical reads about African-American pioneer history I’ve read (in terms of opening up a whole new world of black history in the US) was Going Home to Nicodemus by Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994) which covers Exodusters and the African-American migration to pioneering Kansas. (Fascinating.) Related to this would be Black Women of the Old West (William Loren Katz, 1995) about the rarely talked-about world of African-American female pioneers who traveled west when the frontier was open. This led me down rabbit holes for many happy hours…

If you’d like to trace more recent history and the absolutely amazing stories of courage with reference to the U.S. Civil Rights fight, you can do no better than reading Sen. John Lewis’ graphic novel series called March. (Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III right now.)

To fully understand and appreciate our great former President Obama, try his fascinating autobiography, Dreams from my Father. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on right now, it’s a good read about a very smart and level-headed man.

Moving forward in time, there are some excellent African American authors who are very eloquent and vocal about the state of their world.

A really good and passionate start to this would be reading journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work, including Between the World and Me, his essay to his teenaged son on life in the U.S. for an African-American young man, or, if you’d rather read a plea for feminism (through the African-American lens), pick up And We Should All be Feminists by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie (2012). Both strong and provocative pieces of non-fiction writing…

(Coates also has written an impassioned plea for reparations in this article from the Atlantic mag. Totally worth reading if only to make you possibly rethink and reimagine a new future.)

For a shocking and contemporary critical look at how the medical establishment has treated the African-American population, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington (2007) will leave you shaking your head at the world around you.

In fact, there is so much really good POC literature out there, that it’s hard to choose. What a great problem to have!

Summer Reading Suggestions Part Two: Armchair Traveling…

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Summer months can mean traveling, and even if you’re stuck at home in the heat (or cold!), you can still cover ground that’s very different to yours from the ease of your armchair…

Any editions of America’s Best Travel Writing will work and help your internal travels on the way, really, but it helps to align the editor person of that year with your own particular tastes. (Or so I learned the other day.) I really recommend Mary Roach’s book from when she edited…. But then I’m a Mary Roach fangirl to nth degree. There are a lot of others from which to choose…

If you have a lot of luggage to take with you, have a look at Victorian traveler Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries (1854), and be thankful that you don’t have to carry all his stuff. 🙂

As I live in Texas and summers can get pretty hot (114 degrees the other day), I really enjoy reading books about adventures in cooler places as they can remove me (at least in my mind) from the high temperatures that we have here.

Going northwards to the Canadian wilds is cooler, and Mary Bosanquet’s true recollection, Saddlebags for Suitcases (1942), is a good account of how she traveled across Canada on horseback before she had to settle down and get married. (Lucky to have such rich and generous parents, but good read all the same.)

If you’d rather stay on the main land of the U.S., have a looksee at Charles Dickens’ excellent travelogue of his time in the States, American Notes for General Circulation (1842). (Old but still relevant and en-pointe a lot of the time. Really funny in some ways, and I think if you’re a fan of Bill Bryson, you’d like this one. Seriously. A lot of overlaps.)

For a very different perspective of traveling and adventuring, the poignant and exciting two-volume diaries of Cherry Aspley-Garrard’s harrowing trip with Captain Scott to the Antarctic is riveting. (And cold.)

If you’d prefer Siberian levels of cold, try Esther Hautzig’s compulsively readable The Endless Steppe about her childhood where her family gets sent to Siberia as part of the WWII action in Poland. (It’s very good. And it’s very cold. And it’s amazing what the human spirit can do to survive.)

For more cold (but not *quite* so cold) reading, how about Crowdie and Cream by Finley J. McDonald and The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee? Both accounts of living in the Hebrides up in north Scotland. Brrr.

More coolish travel accounts include Jonathon Raban’s really good 1987 book, Coasting, about his time traveling in a small boat around the edges of United Kingdom. (English summer is not known to be very sunny and warm at times…)

Raban’s a really good writer, and as a related aside: he has another book from when he was traveling around North Dakota and its environs, called Badlands (pre-blog). (Just really good solid travel non-fiction, and fun if you’re stuck in a chair in a hot place comme moi.)

If you’d like to travel to the Pacific islands of the state of Hawaii, the non-fiction writing of Tony Horowitz is fascinating: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook has Gone Before (2003) follows the journey of Captain Cook except through modern eyes and with modern transportation. Really interesting and written with a good sense of humor.

The traveling theme continues with the excellent Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater’s 1990 account of how he “followed” the arrival of the yearly monsoon in India. A fun, lively and respectful account of some of the people he met, and the adventures that came up.

For a different take on India, there’s a really good story of a young man from India who came back to his roots from his Australian adopted family via Google Earth and some plain hard work: Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home is a good read. (Writing’s not great, but story is fantastic. In retrospect, maybe just watch the movie, Lion. 🙂 )

While you’re out that way, drop into the Antipodes (to me) and have a look at Once We Were Warriors by Alan Duff (1990), an excellent and very powerful novel about Maori life in New Zealand…. (It’s not a happy read, but it’s doggone excellent.)

Traveling further afield, Monique and the Mango Rains (Kris Holloway) (2007), a memoir which tells of the friendship between Peace Corps. Volunteer Holloway and a young village midwife in Mali (West Africa). A very positive and honest take on this particular country…

For another positive take on both the progress in HIV/AIDS treatments and a look at Botswana, try Saturday is for Funerals (2010) by Unity Dow and Max Essex. If you’d prefer a graphic novel of young life in the Ivory Coast, pick up the volumes starting with Aya by Margaureite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2007) which show a more typical side of life in Africa and teenagers dealing with typical teenaged issues.

Or you could veer madly to the east on the map and steer your way to North Korea with Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick) and learn of (the rather strange) life in that country. While you’re out this way, check out anything by Peter Hessler for a look at life in China when he was living there…

Back stateside and if you’d rather travel back in time,  there’s a really interesting book that digs into the history of Frontier Counties in the U.S. (i.e. those counties which have rather low populations so they’re very rural) so you might like Duncan Dayton’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993). (I happened to love it and would readily read anything else by this author. Published by an academic press, so dense information but very readable.)

And if you’re heading to the beach, then Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea (1955) is a thoughtful short (and pretty easy) read. This is not actually a shell identification guidebook :-), but it does revolve around different shells although it’s a tad more philosophical. Provocative and supportive for women of all ages, but particularly for, shall we say, women of a distinctive age. 🙂

More to come, but this next time with a focus on readings and writings by POC authors…

Hooray for summer!

Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One)

Summer-Reading-Guide-HEROAs a public service to you (and a rather fun thing for me to do at the same time), I thought I’d gather some of the titles that I’ve read over the years and that seem to have a summer kind of feel…

Just seeing these titles brings up memories of outside fun in the sun and reading inside in the cool, so perhaps you may like some of them for your reading choices this season. (The list is in completely random order, btw…)

I’m not sure that some of these would qualify for the traditional “Beach Read” definition, but they’re enjoyable all the same. (I’d read them on the beach, but perhaps I’m weird!)

And, naturally, I’d love to hear your suggestions (even if your summer isn’t here yet).

Books with a child’s perspective (and sometimes coming-of-age narratives) would also make up quite a few of my recommendations. (Who can forget those days of summer when you’re a kid [if you’re a lucky kid])?

So, to start off, I thought I would begin the list with some more traditional summer-focused (perhaps “summer-feel”) books.

Since I’m in America, I’ll start off with Twain’s two great summer books, Tom Sawyer  (1876) and Huckleberry Finn  (1884). Sure, there are “teachable” moments in each of them, but these just remind me of childhood in some ways. (Admittedly, my childhood was nothing like them as I grew up in Bedford, England, but they’re still good to read. Our town did have a lovely river though… )

Oh, and don’t forget the adorable Anne of Green Gables who will charm your socks off.

A more English-y summer selection could be, let’s say, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) (which I adore) but which has no blog post (pre-blog). Hmm. May have to reread this little gem again over the next few hot months….  It’s as close to perfect a gentle summer read as anything you’ll find.

For a more caper-ish approach to English summer, try Just William – Richmal Compton (1922), which has some really funny scenes  in it regarding its titular character, William, and some of his adventures… (Plus there is a series of books about him… Lots of summer reading ahead!) Compton also wrote some more adult fiction which others have raved about, so you could check that back-list… Good caper novels are also some of those by John Buchan (who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps et al.)

If you’re more interested in the gently humorous adventures of a particular young bear, then you can’t go wrong with the the Paddington Bear Series as they are set in mostly sunny summers (despite being in England ). Yes, they’re children’s lit, but they are so sweet, and sometimes when it’s 114 degrees outside (as it was the other day), you just want gentle and sweet…

If you’d rather have an arachnid as the star, don’t forget about E. B. White’s delightful (and rather poignant) Charlotte’s Web  (1952).  Sidenote: E.B. White also has several books of well-mannered and pretty gentle essays that are perfect to read on a lovely summer day in a hammock, for example. Try this one for starters: Essays of E. B. White (1977). Reading it is like having a great cup of tea (or glass of iced tea) with an interesting and funny conversationalist.

Ray Bradbury has a couple of strong contenders in this category,  Dandelion Wine (1957) being my favorite. (He also has a sequel of sorts, Farewell Summer  (2006), and it’s almost as good as that first one, but then it gets all weird in the last chapter without explanation, so perhaps a more muted endorsement there.) If you’d like something more challenging, check out Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for a good spec fiction type of read. (Haven’t read his other sci fi titles, but I expect that they are pretty good.)

From English soil, I’d suggest Winifred Foley’s trilogy that starts off with A Child in the Forest (1974), an autobiographical book of Foley’s childhood  of living in a loving but poor family in the forest in Gloucestershire. Marvelous commentary on her life, with some really good and very witty pieces in there as well.

Along those same lines (but with a very different British childhood experience), check out this title, From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties by Philip Oakes (1980) which is another very witty childhood recollection, this time of growing up in an English boarding school.

(Other boarding school stories which are not very demanding reading but would still be fun include Mallory Towers series from Enid Blyton…)

Oh, almost forgot this one: The Railway Children – Edith Nesbitt (1906). (Lots of jolly hockey sticks, how dashingold thing, perhaps a midnight feast or two, and lashings of ginger beer…)

For a great summer read, you certainly can’t go wrong with Laurie Lee’s classic, Cider with Rosie (1959) (pre-blog) followed up with its sequel of sorts, As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning (1969).

For an American perspective of growing up, perhaps you’d like the play, Brighton Beach Memoirs  (Neil Simon (1984), which details the childhood of a funny young man as he navigates those teenaged years on the East Coast during the 40’s…  🙂

(That reminds me: if your community has any local plays, serious or otherwise, they can be really fun to attend and it’s great to see (probably) local volunteers acting their hearts out. Just go with a generous spirit… 🙂 )

Moving into a slightly older age group with the characters’ lives, I’d suggest Seventeen – Booth Tarkington (1914) which covers a gently humorous approach to the tragedies and fragile joys of having your first love. (This is a U.S. book, but the feelings are universal.)

For a complete change of pace but still linking with the topic of coming-of-age/young people, I rather think that Lucy Knisley’s graphic novels have a summer-y feel to them: Displacement and French Milk seem warm-weather to me… Or what about An Age of License: A Travelogue or even her first book Relish?

This leads me to funny (or what I think are funny) books. Have a try at some of these if you’d like to have a good laugh (assuming you have a similar sense of humor as I do):

  • A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson (1998) or any of his earlier works. (He gets crabby and grumpy in the more recent books, but the old ones are still rather fun.)
  • P.G. Wodehouse books are mostly light-hearted summer fun
  • Three Men in a Boat– Jerome K. Jerome (1889) (pre-blog but worth searching out)

The Jerome book is in a diary format with short entries, and if you’re in the mood for some good and pretty funny epistolary (journal/letter format) reading, I can suggest the absolutely gorgeous read, Letters from New York – Helene Hanff (1992).

More diary joy resides in The Country Diaries: A Year in the British Countryside (Alan Taylor (ed.) (2009)) which, just as it says on the tin, covers a whole calendar year of real diary entries about rural living in England from people through history up to the present. An excellent read, and great for picking and putting down, should the summer temperatures affect your concentration…

(You could also try The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diaries edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. More of the same except broader in scope —  a much longer read from a wider selection of sources…)

And Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007) had me nodding with agreement as he talks about how the Queen of England discovers the joy of reading… 🙂

Some other authors with lots of titles that don’t particularly need to be read in order (because – summer!) and that are just plain good and perfect for hot days:

And then don’t rule out the older titles for they also can be great. For example, the long novella/short novel, Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton 1911) is a great read packed with lots of things to think about during and post-reading.

Christopher Morley is a US author, but if you’ve not heard of him, never fear. He’s available on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere, and for just a plain good read of a book about the joys of books and reading, look no further than Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop . *Perfect* for bookie people, these may very well bring tears to your eyes as they are so gorgeous…

English author, T. H. White, is more known for writing about King Arthur and his men, but he does have a gorgeous and poignant back list title called Farewell Victoria (1933) which is a novel following the life of an older character who is struggling to keep up with the process of time at the turn of the twentieth century. (He wasn’t the only one, naturally, as there were/are whole generations with the same struggle.)

I’ll make a break here, but watch out for the non-fiction-heavy book list of suggested summer reading coming soon.

In the meantime, what are your recommendations for some hot weather reading?

ETA: I’ve just noticed that this list of recommendations has very few POC authors or topics in this. I’ll get that addressed soon as there’s a ton of good reads in that category as well…

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

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Wanting to read something that I couldn’t put down this Memorial Day weekend, I pulled “Americanah” off the library shelf, Scary Big Book though it is, and settled down on our new comfortable couch. Four and a half hours later, I emerged at the end of the book having been immersed in the world of two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they traverse the uneven terrain of love and adulthood.

I was aware that Ngozi Adichie was an excellent writer (see review of We Should All Be Feminists here), but it’s been a while since I’ve managed to select a book that I couldn’t put down, and it’s been even longer since I’ve have had a few hours to devote solidly to an awesome read. Both of those opportunities came when I took the day off from work for the three-day weekend, and I have to say that although I’m only half-way through the year right now, there is no doubt that this title will make the Top Ten List at the end of the year.

Obviously, I’m not the only one to have noticed this book. It’s been awarded honors from across the world for writing excellence, including the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, selected for the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the NYT Book Review, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK), and given the 2013 Heartland Award for Fiction by the Chicago Tribune. Even if the book hadn’t won all these awards, I would be writing the same gushing review so please don’t think that I’ve been swayed by all these accolades. They are completely and wholeheartedly deserved by Ngozi Adichie.

To the book itself: the plot follows the lives of two young Nigerian people, Ifemelu and Obinze, as their paths interweave and separate over the years and across geopolitical lines. Both grew up together in the same time and at the same secondary school, but Nigeria (at that time) was under military rule which meant that a lot of its citizens wanted to leave for elsewhere and other opportunities. Ifemelu departs for the U.S. to attend university, leaving Nigeria with the plan that Obinze will join her once his visa is approved.

However, the visa process takes much longer, and as Ifemelu moves through her college, she becomes a successful blogger on the intersection of race and life (from her perspective as a “Non-American Black”) whilst Obinze struggles to make a life in England as an undocumented immigrant. So there is the dichotomy of gender, there is the dichotomy of race, there is the comparison of life choices and the role of luck, and then there is the question of what constitutes success in each person’s life. The novel has a lot going on, but it’s all occurring underneath the surface because the writing of the story is so strong that the characters’ lives remain the focus for the reader. It’s a slow-burn novel which sucks you in as the pages turn, and once finished, the book stays in your mind for days after. (It’s that good.)

If you’d like to spend the next few days in the company of two smart and very normal young people who are trying to work out which paths to follow in life, this read will give that to you. It’s been so long since I’ve jumped in with both feet to a great fictional read and been transformed into the lives of these characters that I have to admit that this was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Without resorting to hyperbole, I think that this was one of the best novels I’ve read in years, and I kick myself that I haven’t picked it up before now. Do yourself a favor, and choose this title soon. I bet you’ll thank me later.

Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett (2015)

book385Wow. This novel is quite a ride as we see a modern-day Lagos, Nigeria, through the eyes of a young black man who’s struggling to make his way in the world around him. He’s a pretty average person, but what makes the story strong is that on the day in question, he wakes up a white man (except for his bottom, as the title admits). From then on, the narrative offers lots of questions about identity, possibility, and the world around him.

As Furo, the protagonist, lives his first day as a white man with red hair and green eyes, he learns about white privilege and learns to take full advantage of that as he determines to lose his former life. To his family (parents and sister), he has simply disappeared and as they search grimly for him, worried for his safety, Furo is working out how he needs to live successfully in a world that he has only seen from the outside. People are confused about him as he speaks pidgin and knows the black culture, but to them, he is an oyibo (a white person). The question is: How can he be both white and Nigerian?

It’s a simmering plot exploring how fluid identity can be on many levels, and who owns that identity – is it the world around that determines your identity based on your looks or can you overcome that to become someone other? As the story progresses, the narrative arc continues to boil until in the last third of the book, it explodes bringing you the reader along for the ride.

It’s an experimental book that plays with unreliable narrators, fluid POVs, and time, so it’s not a story to daydream through really. I’ve read that it’s based on The Metamorphosis by Kafka as satire, but haven’t read that so not familiar with it. Reviews relating the parallels are a bit grumpy about it though.

There are a lot of things at play throughout the book — truth/deception, real vs. not real – and quite a bit of it is written in Nigerian pidgin slang which is pretty fun to read (once you get the hang of it). (Speaking of which, a glossary would have been pretty useful.) It’s also written in British English with British spellings (aluminium vs. aluminum, settee vs. couch etc.) so you’ll need to keep your wits about you but if you pay attention, you’ll be paid in dividends by the read.

So, not an easy read but certainly a fun and interesting one if you’re up for the challenge.

Nigerian words that I learned:

  • Okada (motorbike taxi)
  • Batakari (type of shirt)
  • Oyibo (white person)
  • Buka (roadside food stall)
  • Fufu (not sure but might be food)
  • Eba (type of food)

Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

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“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

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(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.

Sozaboy – Ken Saro-Wiwa (1985)

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One of the acclaimed pieces of African literature, “Sozaboy” is a rather harrowing tale that follows Mene, a young tribal man who enthusiastically signs up with the army to protect his country from the enemy, a term that evolves throughout the book. (Who is the real enemy? I wondered at the end.)

Mene (or Sozaboy – “Soldier boy” said in the book’s dialect of “Rotten English”) grows up in a decent-sized town in Nigeria and as a young man, hears the siren song of military service when he learns of an invading group of soldiers coming their way. He is very impressed by the smart uniform and formation marching of the soldiers who come through town, and so he signs up to serve. Eastern unrest in the country had led to military intervention, and he is delighted (or “prouded” as the dialect phrases it) when he puts on his new togs and gets his own gun.

However, as Sozaboy is exposed to brutal NCOs and hard training exercises, his dream of being a soldier starts to get tarnished. Later, when he is exposed to war horrors and death, he really starts to question if he has done the right thing. As one of his older friends had said in the village earlier, “war is war.”

So, Sozaboy continues to serve and describes his time, and it’s an involving reading experience (at least for me). The whole book is written in what the author describes as “Rotten English” which is a strong dialect comprised of Nigerian words, English slang words, and then some British English (which means that it uses “big grammar words” that sound very official).

This dialect takes some getting used to, but it is really an effective tool to enable the reader to experience what Sozaboy experiences. The POV is through Sozaboy’s eyes and thoughts, and as the book progresses, we learn and then understand how his opinion changes as he spends longer and longer with the army. This read rather reminded me of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque (1928) which also follows a naïve soldier recruit as he is exposed to mental and physical stress during his time at the front. (This time, the front was WWI.)

“I do not know. Praps they will set us free. Praps they will come and kill us all one time. Everything is in the hand of God. Because war is war. Anything can happen.”

As mentioned, the dialect can be hard to decipher but you learn to get the hang of it and there is, thankfully, a glossary at the back which I found to be invaluable. (You’d be ok without using the glossary, but it definitely helps you get the full picture as the narrative continues.) In researching this further, I learned that the author created this dialect as a way to reflect the feelings of dislocation that Sozaboy (and others) were feeling.

At this time in Nigeria, there were the Biafran Wars when the eastern part of the country was fighting for its independence which led to much conflict, corruption and unrest. Some Nigerian people felt that the country was falling apart and being split into two and families were cleaved by which side of the fight you were on. Sozaboy’s language is really an effective tool to show this split: it’s not Nigerian, it’s not English, it’s not British English. It’s a mix of several languages and yet it’s not the same, just as Nigeria was now a mix of tribes, separate and with conflicting beliefs and values.

Nigeria gained independence from colonial Britain in 1960, so this new situation unbalanced governmental forces leading to several military coups in 1966. By the time that the civil war was officially over, estimates of the number of dead ranged between 1 and 3 million, from warfare, disease and starvation.

Ken_Saro-WiwaThis was such a powerful read, but can’t deny that it was a book that needed some effort to complete due to the dialect mostly. What also threw me off was the occasional appearance of an African spirit who would impact Sozaboy’s actions and world. This got *slightly* confusing, but sorted it out in the end.

Author Kenule “Ken” Saro-Wiwa was a writer and activist who became very visible for organizing a non-violent campaign against the oil businesses in Nigeria and for openly criticizing the Nigerian government (which did not go over well). He was eventually tried in a military tribunal and then hung in 1995 which created an international outcry.

This was a powerful read for me and I enjoyed it (if “enjoyed” is the right word there).

(And if you’re interested in reading some other African books, LitHub has a great list of titles in an article by Aaron Baby.)

Catch-Up Time…

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And it’s time to catch you guys up a bit on the inner circle of life here at Just One More Page… (Can you stand the suspense? I thought you could.)

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So – my face pain has made its return back to chez moi. (See my earlier post about my trigeminal neuralgia journey here.)

START OF MEDICAL TALK HERE: (Just leap over this if it’s really boring. I won’t mind. I’m just trying to bring more awareness to this pretty rare medical situation, but I understand if you’d rather do something else than read about it. Just jump down a few parags and normal blogging will resume.)

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It seems that my Christmas brain surgery hasn’t really worked as my pain has returned. (It actually returned after about six weeks, so mid-February.) It’s a tad disappointing as that Microvascular Decompression (MVD) brain surgery usually has an 80% success rate.

(Excuse me a second or two whilst I use some creative language to express my feelings about this: *(^&^*))*%#@@^&*. This could go on for much longer, but I fear not everyone would appreciate that, and I think you probably may empathize with that frustration.)

But so, as this MVD didn’t seem to work, there are a few other options still to try and my surgeon’s willing to try, so at the end of the month, I’m having a Radio-Frequency Rhizotomy which is where you’re put under very fast anesthesia, the surgeon sticks a needle into the soft palate of your upper mouth (close to where the recalcitrant nerve is) and then wakes you briefly to see if they are hitting the right nerve in the right place, you say yay or nay, then the doc puts you back under into the world of anesthesia again, they do some electrical stimulation (I think) that damages the nerve and then you wake up all nice, happy and pain-free (I hope). That’s the plan for the end of the month, so I’m hoping that that works. If not, we’ll find another approach. Fingers crossed.

END OF MEDICAL TALK.

Onto happier things:

Spring-Break

It’s Spring Break on campus this week, which means that the campus is mostly empty (of both students and faculty) and so life is much calmer both in the office and outside. This has been fabbo great and I’m managing to get some work done on one or two of those “One Day…” projects. It’s really cool, actually.

Outside work, all is going smoothly as well. The weather is a bit bipolar at the moment: freezing temps when we wake up, and then 70’s when we leave the office at 5p so it’s sort of “ski-jackets and shorts” type of season. 🙂  Certainly no complaining from my camp though as just a month or two more, and it will be hot temps and they stay around for months (at least until Oct most years). I am really enjoying this shoulder season of medium temps!

Reading, naturally: I’ve just finished two books, for which I was going to grace you with some mini-reviews but as I started writing about them, I discovered I had more to say. (You know how it is sometimes.) So – review of one of them is still to come.

book374The other title that I finished up the other was “Saturday for Funerals” by Unity Dow and Max Essex, and this title covers the state of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana. (I’ve been having some rather *serious* reading lately, haven’t I?)

The title “Saturdays are for Funerals” comes from a reference that in Botswana, funerals are traditionally held on Saturdays and for a while there, there were so many funerals happening (due to HIV) that it was difficult to do chores or anything else. So many people (and their extended families) were being affected that it had become part of the regular routine of the week, like work.

This book was actually a more optimistic read than I had thought it was going to be. Botswana, as a country, has had some effective governance during the time when this book was written, and both of the authors are deeply involved with HIV/AIDS, Dow as a judge (helping families w HIV/AIDS) and then Essex as an infectious disease physician at Harvard. They both have worked together on various projects, and the book had sections written by both of them throughout its chapters.

I’m happy to read work by co-authors if the different pieces flow together in a coherent way, but I’m afraid that this wasn’t the case for this book. Unity Dow is a judge in Gabarone, a large city in Botswana, and she works very closely with city residents (and families) and her writing was more of a casual nature and detailed the cases and how they were adjudicated. Max Essex, on the other hand, is a physician with Harvard and writes to a more academic audience, so his approach is clinical, scientific-based and removed, so the two authors had quite a contrast between them.

Map_BotswanaFor the most part, I didn’t mind having such vastly different approaches to this large public health problem – there’s multiple sides to the issues, after all. However, after a while, the contrast became a barrier to the reading experience, and I rather wish that a neutral editor had come in and smoothed out the parts a bit. Still, it was good information, and it was great to have a book about the proactive steps that one African country is doing to address HIV (and other public health issues), and how they have been working.

So, a bit of a mixed bag here, but if you’re interested in HIV/AIDS or other public health challenges (and some successes), this would be a good read. Botswana was greatly impacted by HIV early in the epidemic years – WHO had estimated that 85% of fifteen-year-olds in this country would die of AIDS – and it’s good to hear positive news about how this was (and is being) addressed by their health care providers and educators.

book370Another quick read was Tattoo Street Style by the blog The Tattoorialist. I had thought it was going to be more of a graphic design look at actual tattoos, and there was some of that, but it was mostly a look at people who are serious tattoo people who are into major body art. So there was lots of tattoo pictures, and then some extra about the person who was actually wearing the tattoos. Interesting – just not the book that I had thought it was going to be (and that’s ok.)

 

 

So life is good here at Just One More Page. Read on, my friends, read on.

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February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

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So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.