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.