Movies: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

movie_agathaThe Superhero and I went to the movies last weekend to see the latest release of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (with Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe et al.), and although I knew mostly what to expect just from reading quite a few of her novels, the film still took me by surprise at the ending. (Either I have read the novel and was paying ABSOLUTELY no attention whatsoever to its conclusion, or I just dreamed of doing that.)

Regardless, the film was really good, especially as it was set in a cold and snowy remote location which I was ready for as it’s still quite hot in Texas.

To the plot. A small group of fairly wealthy passengers are traveling from Istanbul to London, each passenger having a different reason for why they bought their tickets. M. Poirot is unexpectedly called back to the office in the Smoke, but the train is sold out and only has a cabin free in second class for the world-famous detective. It looks like it will be a smooth return, except that during this trip, one of the other passengers is murdered – but by whom?

As usually happens in a tapestry film (where you have multiple characters with various story lines who gradually intermesh as the narrative progresses), the characters are all disparate and yet with one thing in common. And does yet this one thing add up to clearly show who killed the man on the train?

Lots of period clothing from the 1940s (? Not sure) and some typical Christie players (rich old grumpy lady, questionable servant, etc.), it’s murder-with-a-cup-of-tea set-up, but these don’t detract from the movie in any way, and it’s rather nice to have comfortable set characters so that your focus is kept on the murder-mystery more than anything. And it’s a good one to solve, because despite handing out clues left, right and center, I still didn’t figure out the murderer until they told me at the very end, but it was so well done, it was fine.

So, if you’re looking for a good escapist movie of murder done well and all wrapped up by the end with a lovely ribbon, you’ll enjoy this. If you’re more of a gore and horror type person, you may leave unsatisfied, but any Christie fan will be happy.

Here’s an interesting article at Bustle delving into the true crime story that was thought to inspire Murder on the Orient Express, and here’s what Rotten Tomatoes says about the film.

(Oh, and I found out this little nugget: when the book was originally published, it was titled “Murder on the Orient Express” in 1934 in the UK, but was re-titled to “Murder in the Calais Coach” for the U.S. market. I don’t know about you, but the Calais coach reference just conjures up an old dirty smelly bus coach from the 1980’s with full ashtrays and a broken toilet, but maybe that’s just me going to an away game for a hockey match during school.

Perhaps it had a different reference for the ‘Mercans back then. 🙂 )

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Book (DK Eyewitness Series) – (1993)

As I’ve mentioned before (see here about cowboys and also a read about sports (but no blog post for that one)), I’ve become a big fan of the DK Eyewitness books over the past couple of years.

Although categorized as a kid and YA book, I’ve found that each book in this series is a super way to be introduced to a topic in a manageable manner. This is supported by the fact that each book has a fantastic graphic design approach to the subject, and actually, by the time I’ve finished reading one of these titles, I feel as though I have been wandering around a really well curated exhibition at a museum. I have always learned something new by the end, and it’s just been an overall interesting experience. So – yes. High praise for the book series.

This particular title jumped out at me when I was strolling past some library shelves, and I loved reading it just as I have loved reading the other titles. Called, very simply, “Book”, this edition covers the history of books, of writing, of language, and of any other topic that you can link with the history of the printed word, and it does so in a concise and graphically pleasing way that it was a pleasure to read and learn along the way.

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Because there were so many nuggets of knowledge in this title (just like the other titles), I ended up taking a few notes and so thought that this bullet format would do the job for this review.

  • When the Roman alphabet was first used, it originally wrote from right to left. It was only after a few years of usage that it was changed to the left to right format as we use nowadays in the various Western languages.
  • Each letter in most of the examples of Roman writing has been hand carved in stone, and each letter is designed to fit inside an invisible square or circle to help keep its uniformity and so each character stays the same size.
  • Romans used mathematical compasses (like you used in HS perhaps) to keep the circles all the same size, and sometimes, if you look closely at some Roman writing, you can spot the small hole in the center of the letter from when the stone carver use the point of the compass as a guide.
  • The majority of Roman writing is in capitals as they were easier to carve with the tools available. Each letter was drawn onto the stone surface with chalk, then gone over with paint and then the carver just followed these thick and thin lines to make the writing permanent.
  • In Arabic writing, the language was originally written without any consonants (leaving the reader to add the consonants him/herself when he/she read the writing). It was only later that vowels were added to the written language, and these were written as extra marks above or below each letter (e.g. small dots or dashes), You can see this in Hebrew and other similar languages. (I’d always been curious what these dots/dashes meant. Now I know…)
  • Early writing was written on papyrus (which was a watery reed like plant), or was written on parchment. Parchment is apparently made like this: the animal’s skin is first washed in clean water, then soaked in a solution of lime for up to ten days. Each side is then scraped to remove the hair and flesh remaining, and once that’s done, the skin gets soaked once again. It’s then stretched onto a wooden frame, and then each side is further scraped with a curved blade to remove any debris left over. One more scraping after the skin has dried removed any debris, and then you’re good to go. Thus, parchment was hard to produce, expensive to buy, and so only the wealthy would use it for their affairs. (Huh. Didn’t know that, although it makes perfect sense.)
  • With reference to fonts and similar: italics is called that because the forward slanting writing was designed to be similar to the writing that clerks in Italy would use for their documents. (Makes sense.)
  • Times Roman was given its name as it was developed for the London Times newspaper in 1932. (I imagine that Times New Roman was a more modern refinement of that.)
  • The type Gill Sans was designed by stone carver Eric Gill, and so it goes on. Fascinating (to me at least).

In the old days, as paper was very hard to get and expensive to have and to use, a lot of people didn’t have a lot of practice in writing and so it was hard for the writer in question to judge how much room to leave on the paper/papyrus/parchment for the writing that you had to do.

Thus, mistakes were made, and I adore this signature of Elizabeth I (below), as she has all these flourishes and curls around her sig but then accidentally runs out of space on the paper and has to add her “H” to the last bit above the line. (I love how it shows that even queens make mistakes. 🙂 )

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A Kim Jong Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, his Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power – Paul Fischer (2015) (353 pp.)

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With North Korea* in the news in the U.S. for a variety of reasons (but all revolving around how our Orange Goblin is handling world affairs), I thought it would be a good time to read some NF about this hermit country and its quite strange history. Thus, I happened across this title at the library and dug right in.

First things first: this is not an academic textbook in any way. This threw me off at first, especially as it’s billed non-fiction, but despite this, as I read further and deeper into the book, I was able to throw off my academic lens (not without challenges), and engage with this text along the same lines as I would approach having a cup of coffee with the author at some point. It’s entirely his perspective, and with a significant lack of sources to back things up, should be viewed that way. It’s not a bad thing at all, but it did mean that I had to slightly lower my expectations of the read. It’s still good though, but like I mentioned, more of a conversation with the author than an academic treatise of any nature. (However, to be fair, the error is entirely mine, but it worked out well in the end. The author is pretty funny in places.)

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Credit: Reuters.

North Korea (and its opposite world, South Korea) were the same harmonious country at one point, but after invasions and the U.S. Korean War, the country was geopolitically divided more or less in half, and that’s when the comparisons veer way off the rails. South Korea was (and remains a country) based on a capitalistic/Western approach. North Korea, through the lineage of the Kim family, has sealed itself and its citizens off from the rest of the world in almost every way possible. The “why” is a bit complicated and can be reviewed through other sources, but the end result of this and how it impacts the citizenry is fascinating. It’s almost so bad that you think “huh. Is this real?” It’s like a really bad film in places, and this metaphor brings us nicely to the main theme of this book.

So, as is the wont of dictators all over the world, what’s good for the geese is not so good for the gander, and so, despite cutting its citizens off from the rest of the outside world, its dictator (current Kim Jong Un) still has access to all the goodies of the Western world.

This book follows the events that happened when a young dictator (actually the current Jong Un’s father named Kim Jong Il) comes into power through succession.

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Note about the names: In Korean (both North and South), the first name you read is typically that person’s last name/surname. So, for Kim Jong Il, Kim is the family last name and Jong Il is the equivalent of the person’s first name(s). Kim Jong Il is the father of Kim Jong Un, and so on. It was current dictator Kim Jong Un’s grandfather who founded the country after it had been invaded by Japan. (Yes. It is a big confusing.)

(According to the author, until the early twentieth century, Koreans traditionally did not use family (or surnames/last names). When Japan colonized the peninsular, it required Koreans to use a family last name, and so a vast majority of the Koreans saw a way to reinvent themselves and their families by choosing a last name associated with the country’s landed gentry. Thus, there are only about 270 last names shared among the 75M Koreans (e.g. Kim, Pak, Lee, Park, Shin).

The strangeness goes on, and it’s hard to buy that people do go along with it, but when you consider that the cost of NOT believing it is execution or lifetime sentences of very hard manual labor without ever seeing or hearing from your family again, I can see why few may doubt what they are told, and even fewer can question anything and survive. (if someone in your family does run afoul of the government, not only is that person punished, but so also are the parents of that person, and the children of that person…)

So – to the actual events that are covered in this particular read. The father of the current dictator was really into Western movies, and is thought to have had one of the largest private movie collections in the world. Dismayed at the low level of quality that North Korean film producers had been putting out, Kim Jong Il decided to kidnap one of then South Korea’s most famed producers along with his wife who was a famous movie star and who would appear in his movies. She was also a movie star in her right, so it was a little as though North Korea kidnapped Brangelina….

The rest of the book covers who these folks were, what happened when they were kidnapped, and whether they ever escape the DPRK. (Do they? You’ll have to read it to find out.)

It’s a fascinating read, and gets more bizarre as you read deeper into the book. However, at the same time, as I learned more and more about this closed society, I realized that however strange these events were, they were not as weird as the dictator’s own world, and when the penalty for not believing is death, then I couldn’t really blame people to toe the line.

And then, if you think about it, North Koreans had never ever heard a different story apart from the ones about their Great Leader, so why would they question anything? Nothing would support thinking otherwise.

Plus – in the people’s defense, there are really no other avenues for learning about the events of the world apart from via state-sponsored propaganda. Plus – the people are so poor and overworked that they just don’t have the equipment to learn any other way. For example, to buy a television can take a year or more of salary – and that’s if you can find one to buy. Most people have access to a newspaper (usually in a local business), but if it contained a picture of Kim Jong Il and as it was forbidden to fold or crease his image, the newspaper was usually framed on the wall of a local business for people to look at (but not touch).

This was a very intriguing read for me.

 

* North Korea actually calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK) internally, but this name is not really recognized by countries outside of the country. (I think.)

So – here’s some news…

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So, there is some momentous news for me in my world: I have a new job. Yessiree. I’ve left my previous job for some different adventures but still at the same university. I have been invited to join the faculty in the department of Media and Communications at the university, and I am completely excited about this. I’m going to start in the fall (i.e. next month), and until then I’m on vacation which means … Guess what?

Loads and loads of free time to do stuff! This is such a great gift for me, as I usually tend to feel as though I don’t really have enough time to do All the Things, and now I have the next three weeks off. And how am I going to fill the time, you ask? Well….

I am reading the textbook(s) to become familiar with the material that class will be covering, and I’m researching some of the Best Practices for teaching in the classroom. I’ll be covering sophomore writing classes for media (along with a technical writing class for the English department), and I am so psyched to be back into the classroom after such a long time. I’m also going to be (posh title alert) Editor-in-Chief for the college’s publications, and I am very looking forward to this whole new adventure.

In the meantime, I have a few days in which to mess about doing non-work stuff such as working out, reading, writing, and doing general catching up on life. My reading mojo has returned as well, and so that’s been a lot of fun for me. I have missed the joy of reading over the past few months, and have a small pile of books that I’ve pulled from the TBR shelves from which to choose.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying Our Longest Days, a collection of WWII Mass Observation diaries edited by Sandra Koa Wing (2007), along with a fiction read of Ceremony by Leslie  Marmon Silko, a First Peoples author, and both are good so far.

I’m also preparing to travel to CA to see some family out there, and, as always, am enjoying the excitement of choosing which titles to take with me to read (on Kindle and otherwise). Book nerds unite!

So – life is good right now. I hope that you can say the same of your life. 🙂

(Life is good except for the orange clown and Charlottesville. That’s not good at all. What is wrong with some of these humans? I’m sending gentle thoughts to the many out there. Be kind. Be calm. Be courageous.)

 

 

General Catch-Up…

catch_upSo it’s been a busy few weeks, both at work and at home. Reading has taken a bit of a backseat role, and this is reflected in my book totals, but all is well. Stats are only something that I keep a vague eye on, and so it’s not something to stress about.

I did have a DNF the other day (Color by Victoria Finlay) – a non-fiction that looked as though it would be right up my alley: micro-fiction type covering the history of different colors; instead, for some reason, I could only get through 150 pages of this. I’m not sure exactly what it was that impacted my read of this title, but it did so there you go. 🙂 Off the TBR pile so that’s good news. It’s been there a while.

It seems that I have been reading more difficult books lately, so, thinking it would be good to have a break from all the problems of the world, I decided to pick up a fairly straightforward title by Anna Quindlen, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, and am finding this an enjoyable read. It actually reads as smoothly as a hot knife through butter, and this is just what I’ve been craving. Sort of a palate cleanser, if you will.

Movies – seen some corkers lately. Highly recommend that you go see “The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, a rom-com but this time it’s an intelligent and witty view of a relationship with some really big medicalThe-Big-Sick challenges. I laughed out loud so many times during this movie, and I can neither confirm nor deny that there may have been a tear at some point. Seriously, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

(ETA: This is an unfortunate name for the film in England though. If you’re “sick” in UK English [at least when I was growing up there and in our family], the word “sick” is the name for actual physical vomit itself. If you’re not feeling very well in UK English, you might say “I’m feeling poorly” or similar, not “I’m sick”. What this title is actually saying is “The Big Puddle of Vomit” in UK-ese. Haha.)

The other night, Superhero and I watched Arrival with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner (you’ll know his face), and Forest Whitaker. It’s a light sci-fi film about how humans react when twelve pods of aliens arrive on earth. I really liked it because it was all about linguistics and language – how to communicate with a different species when there is no common vocabulary? – and Adams was great. Even if you’re not sure about watching sci-fi, this is much more than that, so I bet you’ll like it.

happy_valleyIn between reading and movies, we finished up the TV police series, Shetland (another really good series set in Scotland – subtitles might be needed), and now have started Happy Valley, a police series set up in Yorkshire. Quite dark in places, but still very good. It’s good to see some England as I’ve been wanting a fix of scenery.

Life is chugging along nicely. We’re gearing up to go to LA for a weekend trip to visit some family, and then a trip to Colorado in September with some friends. (Half of the group are doing a grueling trail run, while the other half (including me) will be strolling through the shops and having a cup of coffee at the finish line to meet the runners…

Speaking of LA, do you have any recommendations of things to see? We’re planning on seeing a taping of Bill Maher’s show, and, fingers crossed, a tour of the Stahl House, but that’s a bit iffy right now. Any other ideas?

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Stahl House in Los Angeles.

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 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!

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.

Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s time for a general swabbing the decks sort of post today, so thought I would just round up what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been reading. I was at the library the other weekend, and happened to stumble upon a part of the non-fiction section that I haven’t seen before – the Dewey 900s.

book391I tend to focus deeply on a subject, but am trying now to spread the book love a little more widely which has meant me wandering the NF shelves and seeing fabulous titles that I didn’t even know existed. I’m not sure why I haven’t wandered in this direction before, but there you go.

The 900s are the Geography and History part of the library, and seems to have a great selection of titles that are right up (down?) my alley. Having to use great restraint, I picked up two titles the other day, both of which were interesting in their different ways and both of which were fairly satisfying to read. Let me give you a mini-review of the first book, in the interest of time and other limited resources.

HebridesmapWanting to read something very different from current life, I picked up John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird, which is a collection of columns covering life in the Hebrides. I have not been up that way yet, so this was pretty interesting to read as McPhee uproots his family (wife and four young daughters) to go and live in a crofter’s cottage on Orunsay for a few months.

Oransay is a tiny island in the Hebrides and seems to have resisted modernization for the most part (at least during the time that McPhee was writing). McPhee writes for the New Yorker magazine, and so as this was a collection of his columns, each chapter is not really connected to previous or following chapters. (And that’s ok.)

In my busiest and most crowded days, I tend to think how nice it would be to go and stay in the Hebrides far away from iphone service and civilization in general so I was curious how this American family would fare in such an environment. It’s not all roses though as the people who live on the small island tend to view “incomers” with reserve when compared with the “islanders” (i.e. the people who live there FT and have been there for generations).

This had the potential to be such a great read, but it wasn’t and I’m not sure quite why. McPhee is a good writer, the subject was interesting, but it seemed really superficial and unfocused overall. It’s as though the writer couldn’t make up his mind as to whether to be a travel narrative, a history of the islands and its people, or life on the island and thus ended up being none of those things. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t jive with this read, but it wasn’t riveting for me. However, it might for someone else so have at it.

I also came upon another read about a Polish family were exiled to Siberia during WWII with only the clothes on their backs. It’s an amazing non-fiction read and deserves its own blog post so expect that this week.

Onward ever onward.