Recently in Non-African novels and stories Category

Juana la Loca!

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While in the villages visiting libraries and teaching in the Reading West Africa program, I borrowed form one of the libraries the book Un Amour Fou by Catherine Hermary-Viellle. It's a Philippa Gregory-style historical novel of Jeanne (Juanita), eventual queen of Spain (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel) who around 1495 is married off at 16 to Philip the Handsome of Flanders... basically she becomes a recluse, many think her mentally disturbed. Hermany-Vielle is more sympathetic, exploring the question of how a girl of 16 might evolve in such a psychologically damaging environment. But.... like many books whose central character is basically ridden with flaws and an impoverished understanding of the world, the book is not fun to read. Finally I gave up after 400 pages and looked her up in Wikipedia when I got back to Ouagadougou!

Philip Roth's novel Nemesis

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I picked Nemesis at the library, mostly because it is short; only about 200 pages.  Even then I found myself skimming the last 100 pages.  The story starts out fine, a young man, 4-F during WWII, runs the community playground in a mostly Jewish neighborhood of Newark.  A polio epidemic begins, and the pressure and pain grow and grow for the hero of the novel Bucky Cantor, who ends up cracking with the strain and revealed as terribly flawed. 

But Roth insists on turning the story into a meditation, Job-like, on God... So the story gets bogged down.  The dialogue and style are also overly formal, with odd phrasings.  The novel is told from a third-person and then first-person point of view, which just ends up being distracting to the reader.  If the first person was there all the time, why not insert himself earlier, or right from the beginning? 

It did spark me to do a little background reading on the polio epidemic of 1952, so that was a plus.  Overall, I'd say read the novel if you like Roth, or WWII era stuff, or Newark!  I really like The Plot Against America, so I think I will have to go and read some of Roth's earlier novels.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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The_Marriage_Plot-Eugenides.jpgThe Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides... I liked the first half tremendously.  Hard to think how anyone who went to college in those years could not be delighted at the endless references and accurate depictions of what college students were like then.  (I graduated in 1983, and my brother actually went to Brown and finished in 1982, the same class that the novel represents) .  

But the second half didn't work as well.  maybe I was spoiled because I had already read the wonderful chapter on Mitchell Grammaticus at Mother Theresa's in The New Yorker (and it is the best chapter, presumably why Eugenides had it in the magazine).  So the remaining parts were just not as good, and I found myself bored by the slow unwinding of the marriage plot. 

A slightly over-the-top book review from Specter magazine is here.  The New York Times review by William Deresiewicz suggests Eugenides is having a hard time becoming an adult.  Partly I sort of disagree... the people Eugenides is representing don't become adults until 5 years after the book ends, when they have children.  Even Madeleine's "shock" into adulthood (grappling with Leonard's mental illness) is never given much attention by her.  It is as if her parents, or someone else, would take care of it.  She still thinks "magically" about it.  It hasn't really ground her down.So they shouldn't become adults if the novel is true to its subjects.  But maybe reading about people with prolonged predultessence  is boring.  And yes I just coined that word myself.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy

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60432.jpgI enjoyed reading Caesar: Life of a Colossus; Goldsworthy presents Caesar as a brilliant general and politician, who carefully used both extreme force and terror (when fighting enemies of the Republic) and generous forgiveness (when fighting fellow Romans). 

I have read very little Roman history, so it surprised me a lot how Casear in the Roman civil war around 50-45 BC routinely would let opposing commanders go free after they surrendered.  It reminded me of several African civil wars and coups d'etat, where there was apparently a mutual understanding that rebel commanders were part of an elite and were not proper objects of battleground violence. 

That would be an interesting study actually: when in African political struggles have rebels or commanders basically been let free, and when have they been summarily executed?  Burkina Faso, for example, had two blood-free coups d'état and then Sankara and Compaoré had Col. Gabriel Somé killed in their 1983 coup, and then Compaoré had Sankara killed in 1987.  One wonders what happened?  Likewise the coups in Sudan have often been peaceful at the top with deposed leaders ending up living under new leader (Abboud, Nimeiri, Sadiq al-Mahdi, al-Turabi, etc.).

How to save a library....burn books!!

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Emilie writes:

My mom (the librarian) shared this video with me. It's great that this stunt really woke people up about the importance of libraries. It's still incredibly sad though, that the group had to resort to ridiculous claims of book burnings in order to do so.

Seeing this reminded me of Alameda, where I currently live, and the recent vote on Measure C. Measure C proposed a half-cent sales tax that would pay for city projects including funding a library, cultural and recreational facilities, improving schools and fire protection/911 emergency response. In a city full of old, rich white yuppies, it obviously and unfortunately failed. I can't help but think that some sort of version of this stunt could have helped change ignorant minds...

Terry Pratchett - A Hat Full of Sky

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ahatfullofsky1.jpgOK it was silly, but listening to this book on a long car drive to Los Angeles made a lot of sense.  it is well written and the action moves right along. The theme of "fitting in" is great for adolescents, and the idea that the villain (the "hiver") can also be a tragic figure is nicely done.  Recommended for the 10-13 set.  The story is a young witch Tiffany Aching discovering her power and not sure that she wants it, but events overtake her, and she must make terrible choices.  The senior witch  Mistress Weatherwax is really wonderfully portrayed, lying on her bed with the bees, a perfect mysterious adult.

Books like these jive well my my favorite pet hypothesis about religion, spirituality, etc.: On the gradient of spiritual, the more books like this you read, the more you shift from "believing" specific imagery of the spiritual world (someone sitting at the right hand of God, etc.) and instead "believe" in a universe that is full of mystery, with each specific particular mystery not verified by science equally implausible but still fun if it has a good story.  In other words, all specific "religion cosmographies" may as well be ones written down by Terry Pratchett.  And once you have read enough of these, you can't take the specifics of any religion seriously (the world is disenchanted).  I'd love to know whether evangelical Christians are children's fantasy readers and how they "read" the fantasy worlds.  (See here for early roots of the children's fantasy genre and Christian reaction; I guess if I were really interested in this, I'd have to ask what C.S. Lewis was up to with Narnia... presumably he held the complete opposite view: creating a fantasy world that has "traces" of the Christian cosmography would reinforce belief in a specific Christian universe.

The Algebraist by Iain Banks

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12009.jpgIf you like space opera then I guess this will work for you.  I found myself basically bored after 100  pages, and then started asking myself whether this wasn't really The Maltese Falcon... the Dwellers (large "floater" creatures living in giant gas planets, who act all naive) were Sydney Greenstreet.... and the hero Faas, Humphrey Bogart?  It really started making sense... A reviewer here suggests it was Terry Pratchett silly, in a bad way... I agree.  I had high hopes Banks would rescue me from a post-Vinge forget sci-fi cause it is just same-old same-old... he didn't.  Anyway, I skimmed the whole novel in about 8 hours, so it would be perfect for an airplane ride.

Still, would be nice if kids in African villages could while away a couple of weeks with an entertaining sci-fi novel like this... a good starter novel, though requires considerable familiarity with the genre. 

Em's Book Review: Hillenbrand's "Unbroken"

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One of my favorite things is when I come across a book that I simply can't put down. You know you've found "that book," when you're in bed at night, planning to read only four more pages because of that early morning meeting the next day, but end up reading four more chapters instead, finally looking up to see that it's 2am (those bags under your eyes and need of two extra cups of coffee the next day are totally worth it!). It's when you're willing to carry a 400+ page book around with you everywhere, in case you find five free minutes to read while running errands (my five free minutes came while waiting in line at the grocery store). It's when you become completely lost in the world of this book, and don't really want to come back. It's when you can't wait to read more to find out what happens next, yet you never want the book to end.

My most recent "can't put it down" book was Lauren Hillenbrand's "Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption." The title was uninspiring. Ugh, another war story, I thought to myself. But like the saying goes, "don't judge a book by its cover."
Hillenbrand tells the true story of Louis Zamperini. Zamperini was a highly successful runner, whose plans of running in the Olympics and breaking the 4 minute mile barrier were set aside after World War II began and Louie became a bombardier. This is where Louie's nightmare begins...and seems to never end. His plane crashes at sea while on a rescue mission, with Louie and only two other crew members surviving. They end up drifting at sea on a raft for forty seven days (during which one of the three crew members dies.)
After battling off shark attacks and slowly dying of thirst and starvation, Louie and his friend Phil are rescued, or should I say captured....by the Japanese, and become prisoners of war. At this point in the book I'm like "Really?? Give the poor guy a break!" But his story only gets worse. Louie and hundreds of other prisoners endure horrific years in the prisons. Louie, for some reason, becomes the personal punching bag of one of the most dreaded and sadistic guards, enduring daily beatings, torture and torment. Not to mention he suffers from starvation and dysentery nearly his entire time as a prisoner.
Louie is finally liberated by the Americans in 1945. However, to no surprise, he suffers an extreme case of PTSD, has constant nightmares about his time as a prisoner, and falls into alcoholism. Fortunately, Louie is able to get healthy, which he credits to his finding religion. He continues his live today, an incredibly active and fit man in his 90s. I liked the fact that Hillenbrand didn't decide to cut the story short after his rescue, instead portraying the good and the bad realities of Louie's return.
I basically just told the whole outcome of the book, but I don't care. I guarantee that you will still read it, still love it, and still not want to put it down. It is the definition of a "page turner." Hillenbrand is such a great story teller, yet obviously did years and years of research to make sure every element of the story was true. It's not just a biography; it's a historical look at the life of a brave, resilient young soldier during a time of war. Hillenbrand is also the author of "Seabiscuit," which I have never read, and was never that interested in reading before. However, after reading "Unbroken" I think I'll give it a shot. My mom read "Seabiscuit," and as she says: "It was an amazing book....and it was about a horse. I think that says it all."

unbroken.jpg

Reading some The New Yorker stories

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Over the past couple months I've been reading each story in The New Yorker, and some have been quite good.  Some merely good.  But all interesting and worth reading.  As usual, the blog Mookse and the Gripes (the links below are to there) has excellent reviews and commentary on each of the stories.  Here is a selection.

Monstro by Junot Diaz... I agree with the Mookse people... the style gets very annoying after awhile when the story doesn't actually go anywhere.  But fun to read if, like me, puedes hablar Spanglish.

Referential by Lorrie Moore... it was obvious this was riffing off something, wish I were as smart as the Mookse people and remembered Nabokov's short story.

Sweet Dreams by Peter Stamm... wow... a complex and well-crafted meditation on what reality is... puts you right in that philosophical frame of mind that you want to be in before drifting off to sleep.

The Proxy Marriage by Maile Meloy.... a happy ending romantic love story though a little creepily obsessive... I think in the real world people get over each other.

Embassytown by China Miéville

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Embassytown UK.jpgI've lately strayed far from African literature, hoping to get back to it soon.  I went on a sci-fi tour this past year, as readers of the blog know, and finally ended up with China Miéville who I have been hearing about for several years.  Embassytown is good but not particularly great. I found myself skimming a lot.  And the ending is a complete disaster... like the Narnia movies where you have to stage a giant battle... why?  So untrue to the vision.  A battle?  Really?  They can travel through the "immer" millions of light-years but they still have battles with smoke and dead bodies?  But the setup and premise was really clever.  The idea of the "language" that can only be spoken by special ambassadors is well executed.  As is the idea of language as a kind of drug, taking the meme notion to the extreme.  Any true sci-fi fans will of course have read this already, so no need to recommend.  But if you are not a sci-fi reader, but are a really intellectually curious reader, I would encourage this one...  Especially as a gift for a precocious 15 year old....
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FAVL Blog

Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, Peace Corps volunteer Emilie Crofton, Krystle Austin, Elisee Sare, and Monique Nadembega.

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