Saturday, March 30, 2013

Season of Migration to the North

I will be traveling to Kenya in a few days, which will be my first trip to Africa.  In preparation, I have been reading a lot of African literature, and Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih was particularly beautiful, and I feel compelled to share it.

Someone actually recommended this book to me a while ago, though I only recently read it.  However, I am glad that I read it when I did, for I think I was able to better appreciate it.  It is set in the Sudan, and I have been trying to learn more about this part of the world since one of my friends moved to South Sudan last year.  He frequently writes about the cultural issues he encounters in his blog, which I highly recommend.  Over the summer, the New Yorker published an excellent article about the South Sudan that I still think about at times, as it gave a very helpful history of this new country.  But perhaps more significantly, it was a good time for me to read this as I have been preparing for my own trip.  My best friend grew up in Africa and loves the continent, and I've been asking her to help me avoid being the kind of Western tourist she hates.  Season of Migration to the North centers around the relationship that Africa has with the West and is incredibly insightful.

The novel is a story within a story, set in a kind of metanarrative frame.  The narrator is an unnamed man who returns to his hometown in the Sudan after spending several years of study in England.  Then the story temporarily switches to the narration of Mustafa Sa'eed, who reluctantly (and drunkenly) shares his life story with the narrator.  Like the narrator, Mustafa excelled in his village growing up and then spent a period of his life in England.  This short encounter between the narrator and Mustafa changed the course of the narrator's life.  He recognized many things about himself within Mustafa, and this realization immediately humbled him and threw him into contemplation.

This is one of those novels that is not primarily about the plot.  I could summarize the events that occurred, but that would not be an accurate portrayal of the story.  Instead, this is about the difficulty two men experienced in trying to discern their identities as an English-educated natives of Sudan.  As boys, they were taught that English was their key to success and the future.  If they were intelligent, they needed to leave Africa in order to "better themselves" and thus become more Anglicized.  Their fellow citizens would praise their efforts and celebrate their success, but was it a lie?  This is the question with which the narrator must grapple.  He writes:

"Over there is like here, neither better nor worse.  But I am from here, just as the date palm standing in the courtyard has grown in our house and not in anyone else's.  The fact that they came into our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future?"

It is important to note that Salih does not unequivocally praise Africa and curse the West.  Rather, he highlights a number of unpleasant aspects of the Sudanese culture and shows some of its tragedy, and this blends with the challenges of post-colonialism.  There is a balance between the problems in both lands, as well as the difficulty these two men faced in trying to live between two worlds.  Mustafa often seems to be almost sociopathic in his lack of emotions, but there also seems to be a sensitivity in his self-analysis.  The narrator tries to resist the problems of the people around him, but he cannot disentangle himself from them.  As a reader, I felt increasing emotional distance from the story and its characters until a few shocking moments would instantly draw me back in.  The ending is the perfect example of this building numbness that switches to a cry of emotion, and I felt this ebb and flow throughout the entire story.

In many ways, I felt that this was actually a book of poetry.  Not only are the two main characters poets, but the language itself is beautifully written.  I could pull out quote after quote that can stand on its own merits, without the surrounding text.  There are countless beautiful passages of description that don't technically add to the plot but build upon the force of the narrative.  I am already compelled to re-read these passages to make sure that they stick with me and do not fade away.

Finally, I want to remind myself of these lessons on a personally applicable level.  I want to conscientiously enter Africa with the perspective that it is its own entity rather than a comparison of what I know in the West.  I want to avoid my tourist eyes and switch to a thoughtful observer.  I want to let Africa show me its culture without me imposing my own on it.  Is this possible?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps it would be a lie for me to assume such observational ability for a short trip.  However, I feel it is my duty to do this as best as I can and to at least be consciously aware of its healthy/unhealthy entanglement with the West.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

RIP Chinua Achebe

Two days ago, an amazing writer of our generation died: Chinua Achebe.  Strangely enough, I first heard his name as I was reading an Art History textbook.  The authors were discussing African art and culture, and they listed Achebe as an immovable fixture in the 20th and 21st century culture.  It is not often that literature is mentioned in these art textbooks, and this struck me on two levels: 1. This author must be incredibly important and talented to be referenced; and 2. Why had I never heard of him before??

I quickly corrected this and picked up a copy of Things Fall Apart, which is often referred to as one of Africa's greatest novels.  I remember reading it with interest, but I found the ending to be so profound that it thundered through me.  I couldn't move for a few moments as I considered his final words and looked through my own heart.  Somehow, Achebe managed to challenge his readers and moralize them without lecturing or condemning them.  He spoke from his heart as an African, but it is important not to limit his eulogy in those terms.  From what I understand, he was torn in his sense of identity, and I believe you can feel that in his writing.  He recognized the beauty and the darkness in his life and his world, and he did not strive to reveal one more than the other.  But his talent was so evident in his writing that he put African literature on an international stage, just as Gabriel Garcia Marquez did for the Latin Americans and Tolstoy did for the Russians.  I do believe Achebe will be immortalized in Classic Literature, and righty so.  Thus, I wanted to take a moment today to honor this great author, one who lived and wrote during my lifetime, and whose works I greatly enjoy and will treasure.

The New Yorker published a wonderful article about Achebe, which you can read here.

You can also read my full review of Things Fall Apart in an earlier blog entry.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Life of Pi

I've been torn about whether or not to promote this book ever since I first read it, and the current movie version has now pushed me over the edge.  I originally thought I might add this to my "Contemporary Lit" series since it was published in 2001.  However, I've been wrestling with whether it really contains the depth I require in order to assert that a book ought to have "Classic Literature" status.  Yes, I realize that I am being too hard on myself and my guidelines.  If I like a book, I should just write about it, shouldn't I?

Well, no.  If I want to be true to my original intention for this blog, it was to advocate for great literature.  The literature I have written about is the literature which has most shaped me, moved me, challenged me, and impacted me.  I have read every page of these books, and I believe they are largely responsible for forming who I am.  Some of them were a struggle and others were a breeze; all of them were intensely satisfying.  I write about these books because I want you to read them too.  I want you to grow in your desire to invest in truly great literature and not just the flippantly entertaining pieces.

Now here I am, writing about Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  If it weren't for the last few pages, I don't think I would be doing this.  The entire novel is an enjoyable read, and I don't want to negate the value of reading simply for pleasure.  I'm not quite so pretentious that I scorn such books or never indulge in them myself.  Yet in order for me to write about it on my blog, I needed it to be more.  And the twist at the end made me realize that it really was.

I don't think I can talk about this without slipping some spoilers, so *please stop reading* if you don't want to ruin something for yourself.  I usually avoid spoilers, but this ending is so critical for understanding the depth of the story that I cannot neglect it in my discussion.  For the majority of the novel, we are taken on a journey of magical realism and fantasy, as a young boy is stranded at sea with wild animals from his family's zoo.  In particular, we read about Richard Parker, the regal Bengal tiger which Ang Lee's movie amazingly brings to life.*  We learn that Richard Parker is neither tame nor vicious, and Pi spends months trying to connect with this animal passenger who unexpectedly joined him.  Yet most of all, this story is about survival against enormous odds as Pi and Richard Parker float in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days.

In the final chapters, two Japanese colleagues visit Pi in the hospital in order to investigate the cause of the shipwreck.  They listen to Pi's story and submit a report to the Maritime Department.  After telling them all about Richard Parker and the story we just read, Pi eventually gives them a second story, which has a number of obvious parallels.  This second story is far more tragic than the first; it's heart-wrenching and gory and shocking.  It changes everything.  Suddenly, the whole story takes on new meaning and interpretation, and it's tempting to immediately re-read the book in order to fully appreciate that.

I think that my favorite thing about this novel is that it illustrates the power of story.  I have long believed that there is a power in narrative and fiction, and that it can teach us things we wouldn't truly be able to understand otherwise.  It opens doors to our hearts and minds and allows us to access feelings and messages that we need to receive.  Martel beautifully reveals this with a compelling force of imagination and deeper meaning.

So at first, I felt that this was an adventure story but not necessarily a truly great work.  But I am challenged by Pi's words at the end:

"I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality."

Perhaps that is what I wanted, and perhaps I nearly missed the greater story.  Perhaps my stubborn attachment to Classic Literature is inadvertently blocking me from some wonderfully imaginative pieces.  And you know what?  Life of Pi is a marvelous novel, fully deserving of its acclaim.

*Ang Lee's recent movie is a true masterpiece of cinematography.  Moreover, it is extremely faithful to the book and an excellent representation of the original novel.  I definitely recommend it!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Guest Blog: Jane Austen Overview

Thus far, I've only had one guest blogger on my site, but I want to bring this back and share some new perspectives.  So now I will turn it over to my good friend, Abigail Solberg...

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a wealthy man must be in want of a wife.”

Ah, the sentence that almost everyone who has ever visited a library or cracked open a book has heard once before.  I mean, honestly, I didn’t even have to look at the book to make sure I got it accurately.  As you can probably already deduce, this is not Amy writing. There will be too few intelligent words and many more (failed?) attempts at wittiness than what you've grown to know and love about Amy's blog. Sorry, hate to disappoint, but I'm not Amy. I didn't graduate after studying in the Oxford library, just a few dark-wood-tables-and-massive-aisles-with-ladders-and-books away from Anna Popplewell.

This is Abi, and this is what I believe to be one of Amy’s first guest blog posts! If you like what you read, you can try to follow me on my blog, The Abi Complex, but seeing as I haven't written in as many months as Paula Deen denied having T2 Diabetes, it might be a waste of time to sign up. But feel free to check it out!

As for how Amy and I know each other, that is a story that dates back nearly 6 years! It all started in the summer of ’07 when I got an e-mail while I was in Romania from some Indiana girl claiming to be my freshman roommate. She told me that her colors for her side of the room were blue and brown, AND (since picking the colors of your room seemed to me to be the most important part of preparing for college), I safely assumed that I would not like her.

What I learned within the first month of school was that me and my pink comforter would find her to be one of my closest friends through all four years. We would watch football together, talk about classes and guys, debate over movie choices, drink coffee AND talk about literature. I found Amy to be one of the only people who could excite me about reading a book! The passion that would fly across her face as she swore to me that I would love some book made me so excited to read it. We started a tradition, where every holiday we would give each other a new book to read that we had already read and loved.

Thanks to Amy, I have been exposed to The Bell Jar, The Four Feathers, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Moby Dick, and more.

Unfortunately for her, my selections have been on the girly side. Because I knew that she liked Uncle Tom's Cabin, I thought for some reason that the perfect first book to give her would be Mansfield Park by Jane Austen… because the movie version (which I'd seen more recently than reading the book) included a side story about the father mistreating his African slaves. Unfortunately, that is not in the book, and was probably the WORST book to give her to introduce her to Jane Austen.

Epic. Fail.

This is the one author that Amy and I have constantly disagreed on: “Jane Austin never writes about anything important. It’s just a bunch of lazy conversations that don’t amount to much of anything.” This is not a direct quote from her, but it is the reader’s digest version of our many conversations on the topic. So, because I will most likely not be able to post about this author again on her site, I will comment on Austen’s work as a whole, rather than one specific book - trying to spit out everything that I can before Amy catches on and kicks me out!

So let’s leave that lengthy introduction and get to the best part: Jane Austen.

Let’s think about this for a moment. What other author has had all of his or her works turned into movies, has had a film made about her life AND a film about a book club based on reading her works?! There is just no way that anyone can deny the impact she has had on the world.

I firmly believe that any woman who meets the following qualifications will benefit/enjoy reading one or all of Austen’s novels:

1. If you think you would like the Bronte sisters’ books better if they were just a touch happier.
2. If you enjoy talking with your girlfriends for hours about minute details of someone else's relationship status as well as your own and those you read in the magazines.
3. If you are a sucker for everyone in a novel getting exactly what they deserve (which for the heroine, always means the love of her life).

I will in no way deny Austen’s running theme in her stories. Nor will I try to argue that these are good novels based on a plot with an ending that can’t be deduced after the first chapter or copious amounts of action! What I will say is, you know that Austen’s novels are good because most women can read them and feel entirely engrossed even without these aspects.

I think there are 3 main things that reading an Austen novel offers:

1. It illuminates one’s character and shows how it really looks in the light of day.
Example 1: Persuasion - The character who pretends to be her friend, but advises her against an imprudent match.
Example 2: Pride & Prejudice - Momma Bennett, oh hell, the entire Bennett family - other than Jane and Elizabeth, of course.
Example 3: Emma - Unfortunately, Emma. Though you love her anyway, because you can see where her heart is… or you just see her as a pet that you can pity and love and secretly want to be - but not exactly respect.

2. It offers relief from an unfair world ruled not by right, wrong and karma, but by shades of gray, people you know, and frustrating circumstances.
Example 1: Mansfield Park - The brother and sister, who end up in relationships as shallow as the puddle on the floor of my bathroom when I step out from the shower.
Example 2: Persuasion - Captain Wentworth, of course.
Example 3: Pride & Prejudice - Lydia Bennet marrying a whore. Need I say more?

3. It’s a chatty kathy’s heaven - Tons of gossip rolled up into one nicely bound or Kindled copy.
Example 1: Sense & Sensibility – Mrs. Jennings
Example 2: Emma - That’s a hot bed of information
Example 3: Northanger Abbey - Probably the least accurate gossip of all of them

Now the degree to which I like Austen is somewhat inexplicable, but let me end this post with some opinions by other writers you may admire and see if they can sway your opinion! These all come from a book titled A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen. (See! You know she has to be great if there are books out there trying to explain why!)

Harold Bloom: “We read Austen because she seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are both as readers and as human beings.”

James Collins: "Her ironies swirl and drop like the cast of a fly fisherman. This rhythmic motion seems to me ideal for both accepting and rejecting the ways of the wretched world while maintaining balance."

Amy Bloom: “Jane Austen is, for me, the best writer for anyone who believes in love more than in romance, and who cares more for the private than the public. She understands that men and women have to grow up in order to deserve and achieve great love, that some suffering is necessary (that mewling about it in your memoir or on a talk show will not help at all), and that people who mistake the desirable object for the one necessary and essential love will get what they deserve.”

And probably my favorite, Benjamin Nugent, writer of American Nerd: The Story of My People: “Young nerds should read Austen because she’ll force them to hear dissonant notes in their own speech they might otherwise miss, and open their eyes to defeats and victories they otherwise wouldn’t even have noticed. Like almost all worthwhile adolescent experience, it can be depressing, but it can also feel like waking up.”

Now, I hope that I have done enough justice to this author in as short a blog post as possible, as there will most likely not be another chance. AND now, all you readers, please comment and further beg Amy to read through at least 3 more Austen novels before making up her mind!!!

Friday, March 1, 2013

I Capture the Castle

Well, I completely missed the month of February, but that was because I was out of the country for most of it.  So I want to start out March on the right foot and share a great book with you!  I'm excited to bring attention to this delightful novel by Dodie Smith, called I Capture the Castle.  I had never heard of this treasure until I was browsing my favorite bookstore, Manchester by the Book, and the owner insisted that I push it to the top of my reading list.  I am so glad I listened to him because I really enjoyed reading this book.

Published in 1948, I Capture the Castle was Smith's first novel.  She later became famous for penning the original 101 Dalmatians story, which I'm sure all of you know well.  But this particular novel is a treasure in its own right and truly an enjoyable read.  It is written as the pages of a young girl's diary, filled with longing, insecurity, excitement, and extremely poignant observation.  At times, the narration reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - two books with young but wise female protagonists. In fact, some of the observations are so astute and insightful that it doesn't seem likely to have come from such a young girl.  But that doesn't bother me because the book and the character are so enjoyable.

Cassandra Mortmain is the middle child of a poor family who lives in a dilapidated English castle.  Years before the story begins, her father had gained international acclaim for writing a novel called Jacob Wrestling, but he eventually sent his family into poverty by not writing or working after its publication.  Thus, writing and literature are very important themes in the story, offering critique and praise for both.  Her father's story is basically a mystery; we hardly get any details about the story or her father for that matter.  But everyone else seems to have read it, and they all have theories and interpretations in their analysis of it.  According to the other characters, his book was written in a modern style, kind of like James Joyce with its layers and complexities.  Yet this clashes with the actual novel, I Capture the Castle, which is written in a very traditional style.  I wonder what Smith was saying with this.  Does she wish she could write like Joyce or is she presenting hers as the preferable writing style?

Moreover, it's interesting to me that we get to hear from the author himself, who hardly seems capable of writing something apparently so ingenious. He never offers an explanation of his text; the best we get is an analysis from his son.  Cassandra herself admits that she never understands it.  It makes me wonder whether we, as readers, tend to overly praise books, giving them more meaning than the author originally intended.  I never hesitate to analyze a book, criticizing or lauding it for dozens of minute influences and details I detect.  I've done just that to the 70 or so books I've already discussed in this very blog.  What would their authors think of my assessments?  I can't help but wonder...

Writing in general is an important theme, as Cassandra writes in her diary as a discipline, hoping to become a better writer and effectively express her feelings.  She frequently indicates that she has had to force herself to write about recent events, and I think she is hoping to embody her father's most praised talent.  Her sister is a big fan of Jane Austen novels, so much so that she has almost lost sight of reality in her fantasy world.  In some ways, the plot of this novel is very similar to those in Austen's stories: two poor sisters who meet two wealthy brothers and pursue them in courtship.  Perhaps I'm biased, but I think that the commentary Cassandra offers and the occasional resistance she shows add a unique dimension to the typical storyline.  However, I admit that I groaned when I saw a few cliches play out as one could easily predict.

So why did I enjoy reading this so much?  I should pause and consider this for a moment.  I typically am not drawn into this kind of plot and these characters.  I am more emotionally invested in the dark stories, the conflicted and tormented characters or the devastating change of events.  But I really did like this, and that may just be a testament to Smith's writing skill.  I wanted to hear from her characters and see what would happen, even if they didn't magnetize me as powerfully as some novels have done.  Yes, I was intrigued by her father's novel, but I was more intrigued by Cassandra herself.  So maybe I should simply stop analyzing her and just encourage the rest of you to read this for yourself.  Enjoy.