Thursday, November 19, 2009

Say You're One of Them (Uwem Akpan)

It's probably fairly safe to say my impression of this book is somewhat biased. About halfway through reading it, I glanced in the back and read the "About the Author" blurb and found out that Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest from Nigeria, studied English at Creighton University (my Alma Mater!), which led me to look through his acknowledgments in the slim chance that he would not only have known some of my English professors, but actually thanked them - lo and behold, I saw one of my absolute favorite (and most influential) professors names. Needless to say, this small connection with the author made me feel a deeper closeness with his words - we both know, and are grateful to, the same man.

In general, I'd say this book is depressing, at best. Though, I don't know what other outcome I could have expected from a book about children in Africa. The book contains five short stories, each about different children, in different circumstances, in different countries, but the unifying ties are that of poverty, war, genocide, and the basic evils of human nature. I found it hard not to be overwhelmed by a sense of desperation while reading this book, although I can admit, I didn't actually cry. While I think Akpan did an excellent job of portraying the reality of the various horrible (and unimaginable) circumstances of these children, he didn't do it in an overly sympathetic way. The book didn't seem to be designed to just pull at the reader's heartstrings, but rather to convey these terrible realities in a way that makes them much more real than a more emotional writer could have done. The straight-forward honesty of his writing forces the reader to accept that these are not stories of fiction, but the actual mind-numbing reality of children in Africa - in today's world.

I liked the structure of the book, being divided into five shorter stories, but I think Akpan easily could have expanded any one of the five into its own novel, and I would gladly have read all five. I think this segmentation of the stories actually aids his purpose of portraying the reality, though, as many of the stories seemed to just pick up and end without ceremony - no introductions or farewells, just brief glimpses into the struggles with open beginnings and endings that make the reader's mind reel with wonder, worry, agony, etc. over the circumstances of these children. Since I finished the novel a few hours ago, I've found myself returning to it at least half a dozen times to pick up where I left off, only to realize I didn't have any more.

The blurb on the back states that this book "pays tribute to the wisdom and resilience of children, even in the face of the most agonizing circumstances," and I think that best captures the essence of Akpan's work. I can tell already that these stories will haunt me for years to come, and my heart will continue to ache for the real children who have survived such dire experiences as those depicted here. I can also admit that, upon finishing this book, I went and held my own little boy for as long as he'd let me - the idea that these children are somebody's babies - that they could be so strong and capable in light of such horrific situations - that they have to be - is painful for anyone to read, but manages to be hopeful, in a way, simply because of their survival. In one way, the open-endedness could be reflective of the children's survival and ability to continue on. We, the readers, don't know what happens to them, but there is a small hope - at least the story is left with room to continue.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Book of Air and Shadows (Michael Gruber)

Let me start off by saying, briefly, my opinion of this book can be summarized in one word: fun. Now let's begin. :)

I have to admit, I was very skeptical after the first few pages, for fear that this was going to be a "Da Vinci Code" style mystery/thriller. I have very strong feelings toward that book; to be terse, I hate it. Not because the plot isn't fascinating and exciting, but because Brown treats his readers like they are logically incompetent, spending the last five pages of each chapter carefully reviewing the otherwise obvious plot twists and story revelations. But that's for another review, entirely. Back to the point - this book is nothing like "the Da Vinci Code," except in spirit (and that intended in a good way).

To give a short summary without revealing any details, the book is about the discovery of a personal letter of a man who died in the mid 17th c. This man knew (and spied on) William Shakespeare, recording through encrypted letters personal and detailed events of the Bard's life and character - which, to anyone familiar with Shakespeare would know, would be an amazing discovery - as we (in reality) only know five facts for certain about the acclaimed Greatest Writer of All Time. We then discover that, not only do these letters reveal personal insight into the Bard's life, but they also tell of a never-before-seen, hand-written Shakespeare play - and its supposed whereabouts.

Now to any literati, this would obviously rock the world of academia as we know it. For instance, Meredith and I would have to immediately go out and buy a big bottle of wine and some cheese...


I have a (not-so) secret love/admiration/sense of camaraderie, etc, with any author who uses an abundance of untranslated German in their works, and Gruber is no exception. I honestly have no idea if the general public can also share in our Muttersprache connection (I don't know how many obscure German words and phrases most people know off the top of their heads - although Gruber does do a fair job of translating all the vital-to-the-enhancement-of-the-plot German), as I hardly speak a word of French, but usually have no problem understanding this equivalent use of untranslated French words in other works (based on what I assume to be general public knowledge of obscure French phrases and words), but I do get a bit of a thrill out of reading any German used to make the story that much richer. Had Gruber not won me over with his suspense, the German would have done it.

I also delighted in reading (and questioning - and discovering the consistent correctness of) the 17th c. writings. I spent a good deal of time looking up the etymology of many of the words Gruber used (because I'm a huge nerd), and I adored his accurate inconsistent spellings of the same words - especially Shakespeare's name. I've always had a liking for Middle English (or in this case, Early Modern English, as it were), and really the development of the English language as a whole, probably mostly in part to it's Germanic roots (as English is actually a Germanic language, not Romance, as many people falsely assume because of our influx of Latin-based words - thanks a lot, Frenchies).

This book basically follows three developing (and interspersed) plot lines, which all ultimately converge into one. I loved seeing the stories come together, and I especially appreciated the consecutive tension that built from each chapter, even through the centuries that elapsed between one of the narratives and the other two. Gruber had an amazing way of maintaining and advancing the suspense felt at the end of one chapter into the next, regardless of which story line came next.

Although I was thrilled and on the edge of my seat till the very last pages, I have to admit, I was mildly disappointed in the ending, though I'm not sure it was for the same reason as one might assume. I'm not going to elaborate, in case anyone actually reads this, as I don't want to spoil anything. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the intellectual stab Gruber took at his reader (in stark contrast to Brown) toward the end when he implied (via a first person thought of one of the main characters) that any outside reader of these events would have solved the mystery long before one looking from the inside. I had my suspicions, but I can admit, Gruber had me questioning and requestioning myself until the very end.

Again, this really was a very fun read. Historically, it is probably not very accurate or likely, but the fantasy of something like this happening is truly a fascinating one. Definitely not a timeless, classical read, but a very entertaining and exhilarating one, nonetheless.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Road To Wellville (T.C. Boyle)

This was my second T.C. Boyle book (the first I read, "The Tortilla Curtain" was one of the books I taught my 12th grade English Leistungkurse (honors course, basically) while I was teaching in Germany a few years ago. Because it was one I taught, I've probably read it through at least 8 times, not to mention several study guides on it, so reading this one was a completely different experience for me - reading strictly for enjoyment!). The first, and most obvious, similarity was Boyle's rather verbose writing style - which isn't to say I don't thoroughly enjoy it; his ability to play with the words is both inspiring and pleasurable, not to mention a good exercise in vocabulary.

The second greatest similarity I noticed was the pace of the book. The slow, gradual build-up to the ultimate climax in the last 50 pages or so - an almost frantic, all-over-the-place, hectic climax for each character, but each intertwined with the others - the revelations of the overlapping stories becoming ultimately apparent. Maybe it was because I was expecting the pace to be similar to "The Tortilla Curtain," but I found myself often urging the story's progression and frequently wondering what the true conflict would be. Although this made for a slight sense of anticipation, I also found it somewhat frustrating to be 90% finished with the book before being introduced to the main conflict.

The book is set in the early 1900's, amid the newest health-craze - the boom of breakfast cereal. The estranged brother of the famous Kellogg (as in, Corn Flakes) is the mastermind of "the Sanitarium," a mecca of healthy, "biologic," and "physiologic" living, in which the wealthy (and dreadfully ill) patients are subjected to no less than 5 enemas a day, a strict vegetarian dietary plan (with extremes such a "the milk diet," during which the patient drinks 4 oz of milk every 15 min during the day, and once an hour, on the hour, during the night - for weeks on end), and various other calisthenics, exercise regimes, and nearly torturous medical procedures (such as the sinusoidal treatment - during which the patient places his arms and legs inside big tubs of gently electrified water - which ends, in one tertiary character's case, as disastrously as the reader could expect). I think the truly fascinating part of this education in early turn-of-the-last-centuries medical knowledge is learning how accurate Boyle's descriptions actually are. In my investigative experiences, I also learned quite a bit about obscure and otherwise obsolete diseases of the time, as well.

Although I didn't find as much humor in this book as many of the reviewers conveyed they had, I did enjoy it overall. Again, there weren't clear pro- and antagonists, but rather, I often found myself wondering which characters I was supposed to be siding with. Both of the main characters were quite sympathetic, almost to a fault. Because of the this and the long-in-coming climax, I had several moments of just wishing the worst for each of these two men in the hopes that it would just end their struggles (and my growing impatience).

With it's somewhat accurate historical fiction setting, this book was an interesting insight into a past world I would have otherwise remained completely oblivious to, but was pleased to share in through Boyle's unique and inviting style.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Paradise (Toni Morrison)

This book sat on my shelf for several years before I actually read it. I'd started it a few times, read the first chapter, had no idea what was going on, lost interest and put it away again. But when I actually sat down to read it (and dedicated myself to the task at hand), I discovered that I'd been missing out on one of the best works of literature I've ever encountered. Yes, it is a somewhat daunting book to read, a challenge of sorts, but more than worth the effort. I do feel like I had a slight advantage, though, as my original copy (the one that sat on my shelves) was misprinted and missing about 60 pages in the middle. Fortunately, I discovered this before I got to that point, so I was able to order a new copy online. Of course, since I couldn't force myself to stop reading until I ran out of consecutive pages, I still had to wait a few days for my new copy to show up. In that time, I went back and re-read the first 193 pages once and the first chapter several times - it made a lot more sense with each subsequent reading, and it provided me with a deeper understanding of the plot and a more intimate knowledge of the characters by the time I finally got to read the ending. But that sentiment sums up my entire feeling toward this book - I got to read this book. It was a privilege granted by Morrison - she wrote it and allows us to indulge in it, and we should be grateful she entrusted us with the opportunity. To say I adored this book would be a drastic understatement.

As I assume most readers do, I wondered which of the women at the convent was the white one. Re-reading over their stories, I realized it could be any of them. Of course, that is the way Morrison intended it to be. Then, because I really am a nerd, I looked up several critical articles about the book, and I found an interview with Morrison herself, in which she briefly touches on the her intentions with race in the book, and, once I put aside my pride and got over the feeling of being the only unenlightened person in the classroom who has the nerve and ignorance to say, "which one is the white woman?" I feel like I gained an entirely new understanding of the context in which Morrison wrote this amazing novel. I'll share a few quotes from the interview (with Time magazine from Jan. 21, 1998):

"There are racial differences among us. Exaggerated and exploited for political and economic purposes. And we have a great deal of baggage, personal feelings about other races because the society has been constructed along racial division.But in fact, when we meet another person one on one, and we know or recognize their race, we pull from that large suitcase of stereotypical information, of learned responses, of habitual reaction, which is the easiest and the laziest way to evaluate other people. The difficult thing and the important thing is to know people as individuals. So knowing that an individual is Asian or white or black is knowing next to nothing. It's knowing some cultural information which one can assume, but one must be wrong. But one must know much more than simply a racial marker. Knowing another person's race is like knowing their height or some other almost irrelevant piece of biological information.

"It was important to me to demonstrate that in "Paradise," by withholding racial markers from a group of black women, among whom was one white woman, so that the reader knew everything, or almost everything, about the characters, their interior lives, their past, their faults, their strengths, except that one small piece of information which was their race. And to either care about that, like the characters, dislike them, or dismiss the characters based on the important information which was what they were really like. And if I could enforce that response in literature, it was a way of saying that race is the least important piece of information we have about another person. Forcing people to react racially to another person is to miss the whole point of humanity."

Morrison succeeds in writing a book that is beyond race. Truly, the experiences and backgrounds of each of the woman are ambivalent to race. Their universal experiences which bond them together do so not just in spite of their race, but oblivious to it, which happens in stark contrast to the town of Ruby, just 17 miles to the south.

Aside from race, the central issue is that of a "paradise," which Morrison refers to as and idea "which is built on exclusion. Chosen people always being those people chosen by God to exclude other people. And fostering an idea of isolation, of safety and bounty is a very appealing idea. But in the Christian sense of the willingness to reach out to others who may be different is the argument of the book. The whole idea of disallowing people is the whole idea of the book." This calls into question the idea of Ruby as being a paradise (as it is both founded as a result of and as an intention for exclusion), the town in which no one dies, at least until the exclusionary tactics ooze outside the town limits to the convent. Do the women achieve their postmortem paradise? Was the convent their exclusive paradise? I probably need to read a few more critical essays about this beautiful novel and re-read it all again. At least I know I'll enjoy every word.

The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)

I adored the first 650 pages of this book, and whole-heartedly agreed with those critics who said this book was "impossible to put down" (the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, etc). The writing style captured me from the first chapter, specifically, Wolfe's particular use of a version of stream-of-consciousness with the character's thoughts frequently interrupting their own dialogue - just the way one's mind actually does. These ubiquitous interruptions not only allow the reader to really get into the mind and mood of the characters (into their cavity, if you will, like the media gets into Sherman McCoy), but, for me, they personalized the story in a way that I could intimately identify with each character (the awareness of grammatical choices! the accents! the internal quips!), which created an entirely new literary experience for me - it became impossible to side more with one character than another. These are real characters, in spite of how drastically different their lives are, both from everyone else in the book, as well as from my own, and yet, I feel like I knew them all personally.

The plot seemed to sneak up on me, but in the most entertaining way. I didn't feel lost or confused, as one usual does when the central conflict is long in revealing itself. I was also intrigued by how relatively timeless the story managed to be. Although it was written almost 23 years ago, and deals heavily with a "modern" lifestyle in fast-paced Wall Street, New York, the only issue I came across was the abundant lack of cell phones - much of the conflict seems like it could have been entirely avoided in today's world, just through the invent of hand-held wireless phones. Granted, I know next to nothing about Wall Street and bond sales, but when the reader excuses this as a "cell phone free world," the plot could just as easily be set in present time.

I thoroughly enjoyed diving into this world depicted by Wolfe. I felt fabulously rich in the Park Avenue, multi-million dollar apartments and extravagant parties, and in the next chapter, I sympathized genuinely with those who have only ever known life in the projects in the Bronx. In between, I understood what it was like to live in a shoebox of an apartment on modest wages. I was with each of these characters as their world came alive through Wolfe's words.

And then, just like that, everything came apart in the last 30 pages with the abrupt, almost non sequitur ending. The cheap use of a literal deus ex machina solved the main conflict but left many plot angles unanswered. Fortunately, the epilogue wrapped everything up in a mock-article supposedly written a year after the main events occurred, obscurely referencing the central characters and conflicts, as well as finding a way to touch upon the secondary and tertiary plots. Yes, all the characters were "involved" with each other in some way, but the inclusion of every open-ended plot line in this succinct article was an awkward stretch, at best. This poor literary technique almost suggests that Wolfe either had an impending deadline for the novel or just gave up. Regardless,the last pages left me feeling betrayed by the absence of an ending in the same voice as the rest of the book.

Overall, I did really enjoy this book, and would recommend it, but the ending most definitely ruined it for me. I am looking forward to reading more of Wolfe's fiction works, in the hopes that I can indulge in another world created by this writing style, but I will be on guard for the ending and another cheap literary escape.


I decided I wanted to start a blog to record the books I read and my opinion of them, entirely for my own benefit. My only qualifications to judge/critique any work of literature are my BA in English Lit, and the fact that I love to read and consequently read quite a bit. I tried keeping a list of the books I read and short comments about them in a notebook, but I frequently forgot to update it until I'd read several books, so I've forgotten a lot of my feelings toward previous books before I had a chance to write them down. I'm hoping I'll be more diligent if I blog about what I read, instead. Evidently, you can take the English major out of college, but you can't take the nerd out of the English major.