Tuesday, February 25, 2014

americanah - chimamanda ngozi adichie

I've been meaning to write about this a while, but have been wondering how I can do it justice. The first thing I read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was this short story online- 'Jumping Monkey Hill' (which I found on A Striped Armchair), and I think it was a good introduction. There are a lot of the same themes that crop up in her novels (at least the two I've read) and especially in Americanah- she takes on race and colonialism and identity, as well as the idea of authenticity. The real greatness in her writing, I think, is that it tackles these themes in a thought-provoking, confronting and not at all tired way. I read Purple Hibiscus last year and enjoyed it, would highly recommend it, but for me Americanah is a stand-out book.

Americanah is the story of two Nigerian high-school sweethearts- Ifemelu and Obinze- who are separated when Ifemelu moves to America for college and Obinze is unable to get a visa to follow her. Instead, he ends up spending some time in the UK before returning to Nigeria. In America, Ifemelu starts a successful blog on race in America from the perspective of an outsider. But her time in America starts to make her question her identity as well. 

When I was looking at reading books from Africa from my reading around the world challenge, most of the books I could find were written by expats for a Western audience, and this is no exception. What interests me is that Adichie is so aware of this, and it's a big part of what she is writing about here, in a way that challenges you to think about your position as a reader as well as the role of the writer. It's a very global story, moving between countries and showing a range of perspectives. It's also very self-reflexive- it's easy to draw parallels between the character of Ifemelu and Chimamanda Adichie herself, as American-educated Nigerians. Though Ifemelu often feels like the main point-of-view character the presence of Obinze creates an alternative- they are both quite reflective as well, so that no character or opinion seems to go unquestioned. With this questioning and the global nature of the story it feels so contemporary, and there's a lot here to cause reflection on the state of the world, or to relate to.

I also really loved the characters themselves, and I was hoping things would turn out well for them and their relationship despite all the hurdles this book throws at them, which made for a satisfying read. I really wish I still had the book with me to quote from, because it is all around fantastic and I feel I have been raving rather than providing a balanced review. What can I say? Trust me and read Americanah.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

book haul

I'm more of a library borrower than a book buyer generally, so you don't see many of these posts, but on the weekend I finally got around to using a (very old) book voucher at Gleebooks, and I thought I'd share the results!


Bad quality photo- but beautiful books
The Man Within - Graham Greene
Honestly the only reason I picked this was 1) it cost the right amount to use up the last few dollars of my book voucher, 2) I really loved my Graham Greene reading last year and 3) I was in a bit of a hurry by this point. I actually know nothing about this book, so that could be interesting. The back cover suggests its a courtroom drama about smuggling? Intriguing...

Broken Homes - Ben Aaronovitch
The latest in the Peter Grant series- urban fantasy/crime books set in London. The main character is a policeman and apprentice wizard. I've mentioned these before, here and briefly here (I thought I'd written something longer somewhere, but my search doesn't seem to be working properly, so I can never be sure). Basically, I think these are fun but occasionally flawed by things like drastic shifts in tone, strange editing and a hero who is sometimes just too oblivious. Still, for the most part pretty good (and I'm still buying them as they come out, so they must be doing something right).

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton
Last year's Booker prize winner, and my next book group read. I thought buying it was a better bet than trying to get my hands on it at the library. I must admit to being a bit daunted by the size of it, but encouraged since Ronni recommended it very highly (though sadly she hasn't written about it, I don't think). As far as I know it involves murder, possibly conspiracies, a New Zealand family in the 19th century, maybe a family saga? Or maybe just historical? Not sure- will find out (hopefully I will make it to the end).

The Late Scholar - Jill Paton Walsh
I read the first paragraphs of Alex's review over at Thinking in Fragments and was so excited to see that this was a continuation of Dorothy L. Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels and apparently pretty well done that I knew I wanted to get my hands on it. Just now I've had a closer look and noticed that it is the 4th in Walsh's Peter Wimsey books, but although it might have been a good idea to start at the beginning (so to speak?) I am pretty excited to read this.

I'm sad that I still haven't managed to get my hands on Sarah Rees Brennan's Untold, but hopefully soon! In the meantime I have plenty to keep me busy...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2013 favourites

Now I'm back from my beach holiday, back at work, and 2014 is officially underway, it's finally time to write about some of my favourite books and authors from last year. And I'll try to keep it brief!


Authors

Graham Greene
I read Greene's The End of the Affair in 2012, and I liked it but wasn't sure whether I loved it or not.  But I read Our Man in Havana this year pretty much fell in love with it (thanks for the recommendation litlove!). This inspired me to read more Greene, so I read The Quiet American next. Despite this being a more serious book, they both have certain similarities- not least that they both touch on espionage, politics, love and Catholicism. Really enjoyed both of them, will look out for more in future!

Robin McKinley
Having heard recommendations for Robin McKinley (particularly Sunshine and Beauty) for years, but only got around to reading them last year, after another recommendation for Sunshine. And it was worth it! I really enjoyed it, though I don't know that I can explain why- except that the characters are great, it's vampires are suitably menacing and its romance somewhat unconventional. I went on to read Rose Daughter and then Beauty (both retellings of Beauty and the Beast) which I enjoyed, though I liked Rose Daughter best. I think Beauty suffered a bit from being read too soon after Rose Daughter, since they are quite similar, but I also really liked the sisters in and their relationship in Rose Daughter.


Fantasy

Unspoken - Sarah Rees Brennan
I wrote about this earlier- but I just wanted to reiterate how much I enjoyed it! It's one of those books that just taps into certain tropes that I love- mainly angsty Gothic heroes. But it's also written with a lightness and sense of humour, and the heroine and her friends are great (strange how hard it is to find books, especially fantasy books, with a good set of friends! Sometimes you get sick of lone wolves). I'm just sad I still haven't managed to read the sequel...

Among Others - Jo Walton

Again, I wrote about this when I read it, but writing out this list reminded me of it again. It plays with the fantasy genre in an interesting way, and it's sure to induce some nostalgia in anyone who grew up reading fantasy or sci-fi (especially sci-fi, as it's a massive roll-call of sci-fi classics). Occasionally the main character grated on me a little, but that might just be a function of the diary format (and maybe I was jealous of the number of sci-fi classics she had read) but her story was really interesting and I really liked this book all up.


Literary fiction

In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje
I've read other books by Ondaatje before, but I wasn't prepared to love this as much as I did. The language was just gorgeous, I liked the way the book moved forward in fragments and the picture it created of life in early 20th Century Canada.

Beloved - Toni Morrison
Another book I've heard of, and heard recommended, forever, but I have always been scared to read it. I picked it up from a library shelf one day because I was looking for something to read, and I'm glad I did. Yes, there are definitely some traumatic events in this book, but it is well worth it. Some great characters and great writing, the way that people speak, the way that the text skirts around memories for so long before addressing them head-on... And another reminder of the trauma and inhumanity of slavery.

Clear Light of Day - Anita Desai
An understated story about family and Partition in India. Maybe not so much of a rave review as the others, but I just thought this was a really good book.


Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner
I had to read this after reading Book Snob's rave review, and it was indeed a lovely book. The story of two couples and their friendships from the 1930s onwards, it just has a sort of honesty and gentleness. It also feels like quite an American book to me, but a part of America that  I often forget exists.


The Sisters Brothers - Patrick DeWitt
Just a rollicking good read- a Western with a little bit of sadness and a large sense of humour.


Non-fiction

I actually read some good non-fiction this year, too much to list almost! The Beast and the Blonde was fascinating and thought-provoking, Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic biographer was a fun read that introduced me to some Romantic figures and non-fiction writing methods I didn't know, Victorian Honeymoons was just a great topic which delved into speculation in a satisfyingly human way, and Carnet de Voyage was a very personal and beautifully drawn graphic non-fiction work about travel and writing. But maybe top for me was Blue Nights by Joan Didion- a memoir which could be rambling and self-serving perhaps but always took me along with it and was just lovely writing.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

book list 2013

The annual list of new books read in 2013! My New Year's Eve celebrations are sooner than anticipated, so this post is a bit curtailed- but here they are! I read 88 books in 2013, a personal best, which I am putting down to a long commute, and maybe the number of graphic novels. There are some good books in here (and some not-so-good) which hopefully I will get to post about another day!

ETA: Now added links to books that I've blogged about.
The High Window - Raymond Chandler
The Lady in the Lake - Raymond Chandler
Little Sister - Raymond Chandler
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Year of the Griffin - Diana Wynne Jones
Art in Nature - Tove Jansson
French Milk - Lucy Knisley
The Minority Council - Kate Griffin
Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Carnet de Voyage - Craig Thompson
Embroideries - Marjane Satrapi
NW - Zadie Smith
In the Last Analysis - Amanda Cross
The James Joyce Murder - Amanda Cross
Poetic Justice - Amanda Cross
Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill
The Theban Mysteries - Amanda Cross
Life after Life - Kate Atkinson
The Question of Max - Amanda Cross
Death in the Faculty - Amanda Cross
The Silver Bough - Lisa Tuttle
The Jade Peony - Wayson Choy
Sunshine - Robin McKinley
The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman
Stray Souls - Kate Griffin
Cold Steel - Kate Elliot
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - Kate Summerscale
The Christ Files - John Dickson
Damaged in Transit - Mary Manning
Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene
The Game - Diana Wynne Jones
Rose Daughter - Robin McKinley
The Long Goodbye - Raymond Chandler
Beauty - Robin McKinley
Serpent's Tooth - Robert Swindells
The Quiet American - Graham Greene
The House in Paris - Elizabeth Bowen
The Greatcoat - Helen Dunmore
Women of Letters - ed. Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire
The Glass Castle - Jeanette Walls
The Palace of Curiosities - Rosie Garland
The Norseman's Song - Joel Deane
A Gathering Light - Jennifer Donnelly
In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje
Beloved - Toni Morrison
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
Nervous Conditions - Tsitsi Dangarembga
Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner
The Lovely Ladies - Nicholas Freeling
Black Maria - Diana Wynne Jones
A Long Silence - Nicholas Freeling
Clear Light of Day - Anita Desai
Eight Days of Luke - Diana Wynne Jones
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon
Train to Pakistan - Khushwant Singh
Blue Nights - Joan Didion
Sugar and Other Stories - A.S. Byatt
The Opposite House - Helen Oyeyemi
The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Confessions of a Shopaholic - Sophie Kinsella
Snuff - Terry Pratchett
A Mind to Murder - P.D. James
Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic biographer - Richard Holmes
How to Fall in Love - Cecilia Ahern
The Killing Moon - N.K. Jemisin
The Shadowed Sun - N.K. Jemisin
Inherent Vice - Thomas Pynchon

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

I'm ready for Christmas over here

Merry Christmas all! By the time you read this I will likely be on holidays (finally!) and enjoying some time off. It's been an exhausting year and I'm looking forward to a break. But although the blog has been quiet, it has been a year full of plenty of reading, so I'll be back sometime soon to write up my reading list of 2013.

In the meantime, I hope you're all having some wonderful holidays and have many books waiting underneath the Christmas tree!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole (1764)

Slowly slowly working on my reading challenge this year- reading more books written before the 20th century. It looks like we're slowly going further back in time, from the 19th Century (The Moonstone) to the 18th, with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, and sticking with genre fiction so far, from the detective story to the Gothic. As The Moonstone is known as one of the earliest examples of detective fiction, so The Castle of Otranto is an early Gothic novel. And how! A brief summary: the prince of Otranto (Manfred) is obsessed with carrying on the male line, and when his son dies unexpectedly just before his wedding to Isabella, best friend of Manfred's daughter Matilda, this obsession grows, as he tries to avoid the family curse. He is clearly concealing a family secret, and is horrified at the giant coat of armour which appears to haunt the library.

I thought what would stand out about this book is its part in the history of the Gothic, but what really stood out for me is its status as an early example of the novel, full stop. Well, that's what I was planning to say, and then realised it may have more to do with the fact that this is trying to masquerade as a much earlier novel (Walpole explains in his introduction how he 'found' a '16th century' 'Italian' manuscript, and then 'translated' it (one of the oldest tropes in fiction?). So I will settle for saying that, by accident or design, this definitely feels quite unpolished. It reads very theatrically somehow- there is lots of dialogue, the characters occasionally make asides that you can imagine them speaking to the audience and it seems less interested in the internal workings of people's minds than in how they play out in front of us. In fact, it reads mostly to me like a Jacobean revenge tragedy (or what I imagine one to be like). 

It's interesting to think of this book being inspired by these plays, and going on to inspire the later genre of gothic fiction. It casts a new light on it, for me anyway. I just decided to do a little background reading on The Castle of Otranto, and the first article that I decided to read says "Shakespeare's influence on the early Gothic was varied and profound."* There you go, it is apparently a long established connection. To my mind, though, the idea of 'gothic' conjures up the thought of a more atmospheric novel, full of dread and psychological horror, while The Castle of Otranto has more of a moustache-twirling villain feel to it. But the elements are there- the family secret, the haunting, an old castle, secret passageways, a romance. 

So maybe I was wrong. I have learnt something new about the Gothic genre, and mostly I have learnt how much more there is to know (why is this so often the case?).

----------
*Yael Shapira, 2012, 'Shakespeare, The Castle of Otranto, and the problem of the corpse on the Eighteenth-Century stage', Eighteenth-Century Life, 36(1), 1-29


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

burial rites - hannah kent

I NEED to write about Burial Rites by Hannah Kent- it's a book I was very much looking forward to (see my last post), and yet I ended up feeling a bit ambivalent about it, so I have been itching to discuss it with someone since finishing it. It would be ideal for a book group, but unfortunately we didn't read it in book group, so blog it is!

Burial Rites has an intriguing set-up- a woman (Agnes Magnusdottir) is condemned to death for murder but, since she is living in Iceland in the 19th century and there are no jails, so until her execution she is lodged in a remote farm with with the family of a local official. During her stay she is able to talk to a priest, who is instructed to prepare her for death. To him, and to us, she relates her story. So interwoven with the story of Agnes life at the farm, living with a family who are apprehensive abot hosting a convicted murder and facing her impending death, is the story of Agnes life up to this point, leading to the answer the the all-important question- is she guilty or is hse innocent? Of course, it doesn't turn out to be that simple.

So far, so good- so why was I so ambivalent? Well, mostly the answer lies in the writing style. To me, it felt a bit like the first novel it is. I want to describe it as 'overwritten', but I don't really like that as a criticism. It sounds like 'trying too hard', and what is wrong with trying? What is wrong with using writing that is more than just functional? I feel like I don't have the words to really pick it apart properly, the best I can say is sometimes her turn of phrase would trip me up, jerk me out of the story. It didn't feel as smooth as it could be. Better, though, to just quote some of it, to let you make up your own mind:
"I ought to leave now, I think," Toti announced.
His father looked up from the boiling fish and nodded.
"I'm expected to arrive early in the evening to acquaint myself with the family at Kornsá, and be present when... Well when the criminal arrives." His father frowned. "Go then, son."
Toti hesitated. "Do you think I'm ready?"
A bit of dialogue that seems fairly functional, but committing what some would say is a cardinal sin: too many synonyms for 'said'.  OK, technically most of them are actually other actions but the effect is similar, it seems a bit stilted to me. The same page also features 'muttered', 'called out' and 'whispered'. Then there's this:
"He silently mouthed the word to himself. Murderess. Morðingi. It slipped through his mouth like milk."
The last sentence annoyed me at the time, but I don't know why" it seems fine reading it now. Maybe it is the broader context that made it incongruous, or maybe my mood at the time? It is all so subjective I suppose.

Spending so much time trying to figure out what my problems with the writing style were makes it seem like they were more problematic than they were- this is definitely not a badly written book, I just felt it could be better. And there were moments of writing that I really liked, like this one (though again- why? I think it just seems to capture an idea so well):
I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt... I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say 'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.
The character of Agnes is also a difficult one. The narrative voice is very different in Agnes' (first person) passages and the third person shifting perspective of everyone else. In a way it felt like Agnes was more dramatic in her own head than in others' perceptions, and there were times when her character felt quite disjointed because of it- more mysterious when there should be more insight. But I can't really fault the book for presenting a disjointed picture of her character, after all, as the passage I've quoted suggests, that theme of identity and story-telling is an important one in the book. Ultimately Agnes is able to tell her story twice- to the other characters in the book, and directly to us. The differences in the way Agnes sees herself and the way others see her can be unexpected- it often feels like the other characters are aware of her humanity while Agnes sees herself as a cursed, doomed figure.

There was a lot here that was thought-provoking, and in the end it was a very moving story, with most characters ending up more nuanced than I feared they might be in the beginning. The book followed up on its promise- and yet... I felt it could be more. Maybe it was simply a case of too high expectations that kept me from loving it. I did like it. I still have to figure out how I feel about it. So please, tell me if you've read it and if so, what did you think?