Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Can you ever really leave home?

These stories were about Nigerians (mostly woman) either trying to figure out American culture or figure out African men or endure the violent ineptness of Nigerian governance.  The newfound wealth of Nigerian society is often in the background.  Adichie is a great story teller, full of humor, although not far beneath the surface is an underlying anger about the injustice, corruption and violence.  Men hold the power in Africa, and many of the stories conclude by the female main character either fleeing or rejecting the male value system. Though fleeing does not always make for a satisfying ending and a few of the stories were weakened by the neat ending, the slick twist. The only outright angry story is reserved for one about the English guy running a conference of talented African writers – in the workshop he forces his simplistic romantic stereotype of the African native over the writers’ personal pain, their personal story.

The best of these have to do with family. I really liked The Headstrong Historian, which worked on two levels. The first was a story of a mother and grandmother’s love and the second was a pocket history of Nigerian colonization and the vitality of native culture. Cell One, was an indictment of Nigerian corruption, a glimpse into the bad things upper class youth are doing, but at its core it had a universal theme of a family mourning a son gone wrong. There’s nothing they can do to help.

I also liked A Private Experience about an educated Christian girl taking shelter in a riot with an uneducated Muslim woman. Also, I liked Ghosts, about an old man recalling the Biafran conflict. A matter of fact presentation of horrible events. These stories were gripping, completely enjoyable.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

An old man experiences love for the final time

This man, who in his younger years frequented the brothels (twice winning Customer of the Year), decides, for his ninetieth birthday, to give himself the gift of a night with a teenage virgin. But things don’t turn out as expected. First of all, the girl doesn't wake up so he sits by the side of the bed and watches her. He worships her, he worships her youth. In his newfound fever of love, he remembers his life, the women he has loved, his mother. He adopts a cat. The man rescues the girl from her button factory, he buys her a bicycle, he rips up her room in a fury of jealousy. And at the end of the book, it seems, quite unironically, that the two of them live happily ever after.

This legitimately was a short story instead of a novel, but if you’re a Nobel Prize winner they’re going to package what you write as a novel. Nonetheless, it was beautifully written with powerful memorable metaphors and evocative of the sweetness of life. I think this might be about old age. Lovely writing, although the narrator (and perhaps the author?) assumes a 14 year old girl is perfectly content to sell her virginity to an old guy for a few bucks in order to feed her brothers and sisters. The sad part is that this man has lived ninety years and yet never lived at all. Never truly opened himself up to love. He hides out behind his education, his money.  And yet, in the end, he has hope.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

This Is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks

Women confront devastations, small and large

Most of these stories are set in the US heartland, but some are set in Northeast Europe, land of ice and snow and winter darkness. What I liked was that, for the most part, the stories are truly original. They don’t feel like anything you’ve read before. The better ones were weirder. The more conventional stories at times fell flat, with an overreliance on medical tragedy. Lots of imagination and ambition here. The writing and characterization are excellent, and the created worlds felt very alive.

I loved Embodied –about a Wells Fargo auditor in Des Moines who knows something big, something big she can’t tell. A tale with a scary twist. Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui had a great title, but the plot was a little sentimental. It Looks Like This uses black and white pictures, like Sebald, to tell a quirky story about a girl and her sick mother and the Amish. Going to Estonia felt very real, about two sad sacks Finns who take a ferry ride, but bleak. Zero Conditional was about an uncredentialled teacher who terrorizes the kids. (Reminded me of Aimee Bender’s novel about an uncredentialled teacher who terrorizes the kids.) This is Not Your City is about a Russian mail order bride trying to figure out an alien culture as well as her teenage daughter. You think it’s about one intractable problem then it turns out to be about another.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

Europe’s tragedy

Austerlitz does not have a conventional plot. Yet, all the same, the novel leads you to a place of horror. The nameless narrator tells us of Jacques Austerlitz, an odd scholar who, in bits and pieces, unveils an amazing story; the story of his life. Austerlitz has lived this life in a haze of forgetting, of avoidance. A scholar of the architecture of old Europe, he likes visiting train stations and libraries. Improbably Welsh, Austerlitz comes from a depressive family. One day, on a visit to a deserted train station, he has an unsettling memory. He travels to Prague where he discovers his already half remembered secret. He is not Welsh, but Jewish. His mother had put him on a Kindertransport to the Britain. He survived the Holocaust; they did not.

There is a definite air of spookiness in this book, supported by old weird photographs, imagistic detours, mysterious encounters in old train stations, and long discursive sentences. The effect was soporific, but strangely compelling, and even though I was mildly bored, I couldn’t put down the book. Right in the middle, the meandering story takes a sharp turn towards horror, as the reader realizes that instead of contemplating the architecture of a library we are instead contemplating the architecture of a concentration camp. And after that the novel gets gripping. And the reader realizes we weren’t meandering at all.

I felt as though I was circling around something, getting closer and closer, then at last must face it. European civilization and Nazi brutality. The entire story felt like an unsettling dream.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

An adorable girl becomes a spy

Serena Frome (sounds like plume) is a typical upper class English girl, with something of a head for mathematics. Her mother urges her to apply to Cambridge, where she turns out to be a mathematical mediocrity but also meets the intriguing older married professor Tony Canning. They quickly begin an affair, and she realizes he is also grooming her for a job at MI5.  Abruptly and hurtfully, Tony breaks up with her, but Serena does get the spy job. She quickly understands, however, that as a woman, she is nothing more than a glorified secretary. Soon she is once again embroiled in mediocrity. But then she assigned a project – the funding of promising writers in the hopes of their writing a pro Western pro capitalist book. Her project is young Tom Haley.  Instantly they feel a connection and become a couple, having great hot sex. Meanwhile, she spies on him the entire time. (An amusing part of the book is excerpts from his short stories). Tom’s new novel, however, is a dystopian view of capitalism. Not at all good for the cause. The secret gets out and Serena is fired and disgraced and Tom is just disgraced.

Sweet Tooth was highly readable, which wasn’t what I was expected. (It certainly didn’t suffer from any of my preconceptions about the English novel). I had never read Ian McEwan before and was expecting a bit of difficulty, but instead this novel was very approachable. Dare I say “middlebrow”? McEwan has great story telling abilities, as well as a satirical bite. Technically, the story telling was proficient, but there was a cost with the ambitious plotting. In some situations, the novel felt mechanistic. Slick and a little soulless. This is a historical novel and a big part was historical details. The miners’ strike and IRA bombs, the crumbling of Serena’s upper class notions. I enjoyed that part.

Can women be spies? Serena is one of the more bumbling spies of all time. And underneath I felt an authorial conviction that well of course women can’t be spies. They’re too stupid.  Deep down, Serena was merely an automaton serving up the plot. At the end came the twist, which infuriated me. Can’t a woman, I thought, even an imaginary one, be a woman? Ultimately, this book is a spoof about writing, I guess. Well written, but dopey, cheesey and infuriating.