Category Archives: American Literature

God Help the Child, Toni Morrison

download (1)Confession: Until I read this book, I had never read a Toni Morrison book before.  I’m not quite sure why. Sure, I know all about Beloved and I feel as though I know Morrison – I certainly felt as thought I had a intimate taste of her writing as I read this book – and I wasn’t disappointed. This is exactly what I thought Morrison would feel like… if that makes sense.

When I think Morrison, I think Maya Angelou but somehow without the gravely tone of her voice and the echo of her depths. I realise that this is a very sensory response to a piece of writing but I don’t see that there is any other way to response to such a work. I agree with Kara Walker who says, in the NY Times review: “Toni Morrison has always written for the ear, with a loving attention to the textures and sounds of words.”

I don’t think I can do a review of this book justice. Not sure it’s worth trying since The Guardian has done such a superb job! What I will say is that the premise of this book quite distubed me. I expected the colour issue and I expected a feminist angle and I wasn’t disappointed on either count. What I found confronting was the story itself – the way that the protagonist, Bride, physically regresses in response to the burden of a lie she told as a child. In her own mind, her body reverts back to her childhood self. It was this that disturbed me, perhaps because it was most unexpected.

I wasn’t bowled over by this book. I loved the majesty of Morrison’s prose – there’s no doubt that she has a symphony hidden in her pen, or her keyboard or quill. She is clearly a master of language and storytelling. I was captivated by the story and by Bride’s boyfriend, Booker – I found him fascinating. I think where I was left somewhat empty was in Bride herself. There was something in her voice that didn’t entirely resonate with me, something I can’t quite put my finger on… Perhaps it is just in comparison to the grandeur of the prose that I have been left with such a high expectations of perfection from this author.

As The Atlantic so succintly puts it: “Rather than craft big novels, Morrison has distilled her fictions with atomic elements.”

This novel was certainly worth the read and Morrison is truly one of the greats. Equally fascinating, are the various opinions of the different reviews which all provide such insight into this intriguing little book.

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Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult

Leaving_TimeI am a big Picoult fan. Always have been. I love the way that she weaves her tales, the depth and diversity of her characters and the intensity of her themes. I love the fact that her books are all so radically different yet so clearly ring with her unique voice.

I’m not quite sure how to even talk about this book. In some ways it was quite confronting – these lonely, fraught characters, all searching for something illusive. A mother, a daughter, a grandmother and elephants who despite their regal stoicism behave with more emotion and conviction than some of the people around them.

My heart went out to Jenna, the daughter, desperate to find her mother. I ached for her loneliness, and for the fragility and angst of the two unlikely characters she chooses to help her in her quest; Serenity Jones, a psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, an alcoholic Private Detective. And I felt for Alice, Jenna’s mother, whose life slowly unravels driving her to escape. The essence of all Picoult’s books is always people and their relationships and this book is no different:

“If you are a mother, you must have someone to take care of.

If that someone is taken from you, whether it is a newborn or an individual old enough to have offspring of its own, can you still call yourself a mother?

Staring at Kagiso, I realized that she hadn’t just lost her calf. She had lost herself. And although I had studied elephant grief for a living, although I had seen numerous deaths in the wild before and had recorded them dispassionately, the way an observer should – now, I broke down and started to cry.

Nature is a cruel bitch. …”

Underlying these human relationships is a web of complex emotions:

“‘I think grief is like a really ugly couch. It never goes away. You can decorate around it; you can slap a doily on top of it; you can push it to the corner of the room – but eventually, you learn to live with it.’

Somehow, I thought, elephants had taken it a step further. They didn’t grimace every time they entered the room and saw that couch. They said, Remember how many good memories we had here? And they sat, for just a little while, before moving elsewhere.”

I feel as though I can’t say much more without really destroying this book for those who choose to read it. So read it. You won’t be disappointed.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder

Bridge

I first read this book at University during my undergraduate degree. It was a recommendation by a lecturer of mine, Dr Ian Bickerton. Bick recommended this book as well as Waterland and Calvino‘s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. I think I must have been about to embark on thesis writing adventures and these books were Bick’s way of educating me about the power of a narrative. At the time I absolutely relished each of these texts. My copies are littered with various notes to myself and little pointers about intriguing linguistic turns and twists. That said, it’s been 15 years since I read Wilder’s book and when unpacking my library I put it aside for revisiting.

Having reread it now, I am struggling to appreciate what originally captivated me in this text. There are elements of it which are clearly brilliant. Wilder is a master when it comes to crafting stories and placing elements side by side for reflection and juxtaposition which readers only appreciate in hindsight. Part of what Bick was referring to can be seen in Wilder’s self-reflexivity: “And I, who claim to know so much more, isn’t it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring?” It is comments such as this which cause readers to question who is actually narrating this text, whether it is the author’s own interjection or whether this is the voice of the protagonist. The constant blurring of the boundaries between character and author are what make this text so interesting.

However, I think that I was disappointed with this re-read. Somehow, the book didn’t hold the glory that I seem to remember and although I did really enjoy it, I had this imagining of it as a mammoth text of mountain-moving quality. Perhaps this is part of the risk of rereading great books?

Suffice to say, if you haven’t read Wilder’s book, please do and enjoy it for the great book that it is … if you have already read it, perhaps it is best to let it lie?

 

Hiroshima, John Hersey

ImageThis was a mind blowing and confronting book to read. It was originally written to be published in the New Yorker Magazine in 1946, in the aftermath of Hiroshima. The book describes the events of the explosion of the Atomic Bomb on August 6th, 1946, through the lives and experiences of 6 individuals. The rawness of the explosion itself is muted by the linear factualness that Hersey uses to convey the enormity of the tragedy. This is then interwoven with the suffering of each individual and the incomprehensibility of what unfolds. All of this is magnificently conveyed through the ordinariness of Hersey’s characters, their every-day quality: “Mr Tanimoto is a small man, quick to talk, laugh and cry.”

The empathy that Hersey invokes is intense:

“As Mrs Nakamura stood watching her neighbour, everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She did not notice what happened to the man next door; the reflect of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, from the centre of  the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house.”

Before readers can discover the fate of Mrs Nakamura’s three children, we are thrust into the world of the next character, Dr Fujii who “saw the flash. To him – faced away from the centre and looking at his paper – it seemed a brilliant yellow. Startled, he began to rise to his feet. In that moment (he was 1,550 yards from the centre), the hospital leaned behind his rising and, with a terrible ripping noise, toppled into the river.” Each character’s experiences are described with same magnitude and emotion and readers are connected, in turn, to the lives of them all.

What makes this book so worth reading is not the account of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, nor the horrific medical impact that the radiation had on so many people, nor is it the pollution or the devastation and destruction that was wrought on Hiroshima and later on Nagasaki. Rather, what struck me so intensely, was that even in the midst of all this disaster there is space for humanity, for relationships, for love and for human interaction. It was this that made this book so a worthwhile read. There is no denying the tragedy of these events, but the dignity of the characters that we meet on the journey through this catastrophe is inspirational.

Henry James, An English New Year

Gosh James is a wonderful writer. I often forget how much of this stellar craft has  been lost in recent years. Here James illustrates his brilliance in what seems to be a short extract from something larger, a brief observation of sorts, a muse, which ends with an abrupt and somewhat dissatisfying insight.

I love the way that James captures London:

“But there are fogs and fogs, and the folds of the black mantle have been during the present winter intolerably thick. The thickness that draws down and absorbs the smoke of the housetops, causes it to hang about the streets in impenetrable density, forces it into one’s eyes and down one’s throat, so that one is half blinded and quite sickened – this form of the particular plague has been much more frequent than usual.”

Having spent much time in this great city I know this fog which he describes… I swam through that fog and it is one of the things that makes London skies seem so low.

This little piece is worth reading just to revel in James’ artfulness.

The Pearl, John Steinbeck

How is it possible that I have only just read this book?

The Power of Half, Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen

I think I can safely say that this is a life changing kind of book. The kind that really sticks in your brain and makes you think and then think again and then reconsider every aspect of your little life and try to realign your actions and reactions with the new sense of reality that you suddenly have.

This book is not a literary masterpiece. It cannot compare with Dickens or Woolf or Twain or Steinbeck. What it is, is an inspirational revelation, a glimpse into the true power of one, the intense possibility that one individual can indeed change the world.

I loved the structure of this book. Kevin, the father, is the main author. The book is narrated from his perspective and is filled with his insights into the world and indeed into his family and their journey. He is an ex-journalist and the story is beautifully told and littered with quotes from the inspirational masters. Kevin’s role in this story is really as a back-seat driver, or an observer. The adventures are in fact triggered and driven by Kevin’s daughter, Hannah, and she is the co-author of this book. In fact, many of the chapters feature Hannah’s experiences or insights as a separate section, clearly aimed at the younger readers or for parents to gain some insights into what their children might be thinking or what might trigger their interest. The fact that the book is narrated from these two different perspectives add to the depth of the reading experience and makes it a wonderful, rounded insight into this family’s experiences throughout this journey.

The essence of the is story is found in Kevin’s realisation that their lives are governed by the ‘New Normal’.

“Joan and I simply called it ‘the treadmill’. We created a lifestyle; then, just to keep up, we had to stay in motion. And like the automated treadmill, it had a builtin mechanism to keep it going. We’d never dreamed of going from power windows back to hand-cranked ones or leather seats to cloth. In fact, I couldn’t remember any time we had done that in any facet of our lives – cars, houses, electronics, or musical instruments. Better, nicer, more became the New Normal.”

It is something that most of us can relate to – the underlying pressure to keep up with the Joneses, those neighbours of our own imagining. For the Salwen Family it is the struggle to get out of this trap that distinguishes them from other families. And, the essence of the success of their endeavours is that they decide not to be immobilised by the enormity and vastness of the problems facing the world and by their inability to make a huge difference to a large number of people. Rather, they are empowered by the fact that everything that they do for others helps. They follow the philosophy of Edmund Burke: ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.’ As Salwen narrates in this book:

“There are 6 Billions people in this world, and you are one person. It’s easy to think, ‘How much of a difference can I really make?’ The short answer is, a lot. I love the quote from Marian Wright Edelman, the children’s rights advocate: ‘We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.'”

The way that this family goes about making change is by empowering their children – “If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” In fact, they make their children equal partners in all the decisions that they make from selling their house and giving away half of its value to where and who they give the money to and how it is used. The key to their success is the involvement of the whole family.

The family’s philosophy is summarised by a quote from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining how he wanted to be remembered:

“‘Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. Tell them not to mention that i have three or four hundred other awards. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody … Say that I was a drum major for justice … for peace … for righteousness … I just want to leave a committed life behind.'”

The value of the journey that the Salwen family experience cannot be quantified. It is, indeed, priceless:

“To put it in a literary context, we had come of age. We had coalesced as a family, brought together by a mission that really mattere. Maybe it was a bit premature to claim victory, but sitting there at the dinner table in Accra, Ghana, I believed we had found our family legend. We knew what we wanted to stand for.”

To learn more about this incredibly inspiring family, visit their website.

A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into The Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman

Off the bat I have to state that Lisa Shannon has accomplished something very heroic in her life and she should be commended for her strength of spirit and her courage in standing up for a cause in which she believed and for trying to be the voice for so many who remain unheard.

This is a difficult book to discuss. On one hand it raises the awareness of the plight of women in the Congo and indeed of the overall horror of the situation there for those who suffer it daily. In this vein it is a good book because it sets out to inform and I think that it does so quite competently. I loved the fact that Shannon interspersed her photographs with the various threads of narrative. This made it all very real and added an artistic quality to a text that would (for many reasons) have been quite difficult to read. I was also very moved by the memorial wall which the author has included at the end of the book and in some ways, I think this is perhaps the very strength of Shannon’s vision and the power of her commitment to these women and their stories.

Where I found this book challenging was that at times I couldn’t help but feel that Shannon was talking for these women, instead of allowing them to speak for themselves. I am not sure how she could have done things in any other way, but I there were many moments where I found myself uncomfortable in her white, western, privileged shoes as she tried to coax various stories out of the many women she interviewed. The way she was steering them into a particular narrative or point of view in order to fit with what she felt people in America needed to hear left me feeling empty and greatly dis-eased by the presumptions that are inherent in this type of positioning.

In a strange way it reminds me of my response to the book I, Safiya – a brilliant autobiography written by someone who does not have a voice for writing. The substance was so awe-inspiring, yet the narrative just let me down. And I felt disgusted with my judgemental self for not loving I, Safiya because it was so clearly an inspiration that this woman managed to tell her story and who was I to say that her voice didn’t meet my expectations? Yet I did. (Shrink, cringe). I passed my White, Western, educated, English hand over I, Safiya in dismay and I find myself quivering to do the same with this book (although for slightly different reasons).

Woe are the women of Congo – I can’t begin to imagine the pain and sorrow of any peoples who have to endure the type of suffering that A Thousand Sisters describes. But, how heroic that these women go on! How incredible that they dress in bright colours and dance and rejoice, that they choose life in the midst of this hardship and horror! I can’t help but feel that Shannon failed to grasp this miracle, and that she was disappointed that the women she encountered were not more tortured so that they could better meet with her expectations or perhaps soothe her troubled soul which was reeling from her own sorrows.

I have no doubt that Shannon’s intentions in writing this book were only pure and that it is my own inadequacies and post-colonial conscience speaking tongues of judgement here. I definitely recommend reading this book if only to learn more about what has occurred in the Congo. I followed many of the links that Shannon provided and found the information there heart-wrenching. I am certainly better educated about the Congo and will look out for more books about the plgi

11/22/63, Stephen King

As a young reader I ploughed through all of Stephen King’s work. I can’t quite recall what grabbed me at the time … Most probably it was just that his work was just so readable and gripping. It has been a long time since I read any of King’s work and I have to confess that I only picked this one up because of a high school history project that I once did on JFK. I couldn’t resist seeing what King had done with this era and how he had resolved some of the controversies surrounding Kennedy’s assassination.

In hindsight, this book had some interesting elements. I was intrigued by King’s description of time travel and the implications of changing the past. At times I felt that this part of the book was too drawn out and at times meaningless. But I did find myself considering his notion of the “butterfly effect” and the waves of change that ripple from any one moment in time …

It was clear that King had done considerable research in constructing this narrative – reconstructing the events around Kennedy’s last moments and building Lee Harvey Oswald’s persona seductively in the background. I found all of this very well crafted. The insights that King provided were intriguing and certainly provided much food for thought. Who was Oswald? Was he a patsy? King’s time travel enables him to envisage multiple endings or resolutions to this situation and I found that quite liberating in some way.

As to be expected, King’s characters were wonderful and layered and there was sufficient thrill in each of them to provide action to sustain the flow of the book and to carry King’s underlying interest in the Kennedy story.

Despite all these intriguing elements, I found reading this book somewhat slow and at times tedious. While I appreciate King’s desire to properly explore his context, there were times when I felt that he had done so in a manner that was too long winded and that detracted from the flow and speed of his narrative. I don’t think I would recommend this book to anyone … If you have an interest in Kennedy then it is a must read, or, if you are a history buff and appreciate some of the deeper nuances of the passing of time and the impact of all events on the evolution of society and the world, then I expect you will find this book well worth the time.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

There is no doubt that Eugenides is a stellar writing. His prose is captivating, his characters engaging and there is a certain sense of flow to his plot. I thoroughly enjoyed Middlesex, Eugenides’ second book – although others have criticised it for being too much like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children without the fantasy and aura that Rushdie brings to the text. I can certainly see the comparison between the two authors with regard to Middlesex; but in The Marriage Plot, there is no Rushdie to be found. Rather, what I saw here was a mix of Jonathan Franzan’s Freedom and something like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In his review in the New York Times, William Deresiewicz calls The Marriage Plot “daylight realism”.

The book features three main characters, all university students, confused, young, perhaps naive or innocent. In some ways each of these characters is a stereotypical representation of a larger social group.

Meet Madeleine Hanna: upper class, White, privileged background, with a deep interest in Victorian literature, she is unsure about the shift that is occurring in literary theory, intrigued by the rise of modernism and its implications in how she reads her favourite authors.

Leonard Bankhead is Madeleine’s boyfriend. He is a peculiar character, brilliant but weighed down by emotional distress and dis-ease. Uncomfortable in his own skin he succumbs to mental illness and it is this that is the driving force of the novel’s plot.

In wonderful contrast to Bankhead’s distress is Mitchell Grammaticus who spends the entire novel yearning passionately for Madeleine, desperate to just soak up the aura of her presence, to bask in her glow, to brush against the air occupying the space around her. Mitchell is by far the most interesting of these characters. He is filled with questions and a deep need to understand how the world operates. He is fascinated by G-d and the workings of religion and devotion and much of the novel is spent following his exploration of divinity and divine ideas.

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, discovering the characters and unfurling the plot, I felt that the novel’s ending compromised by enjoyment. I was dissatisfied by what others see as a natural resolution of this type of conflict. I was irritated and disappointed by Mitchell’s revelation and frustrated that Leonard was allowed such an easy exit, to just disappear into the woods without taking responsibility for his life and those who were in it – and don’t get me started about Leonard’s mother!!

Despite what I saw as a let down at the end, I was very entertained by Eugenides’ satirical expose of theory hungry students and academia and the angst of students. Under the biting criticism, what makes this novel so sad is that it seems  terribly real.