Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

“What is it with you Americans and race?” my friend Fatima asked me one day over lunch. We were in her country, France, both students at a university tucked in the shadow of an Alpine peak. “Everyone always wanted to know where I was from. I’d tell them France and they’d say, no, where are you from? It made no sense. I was born in France. I’m French.” Fatima, with her brown sugar skin and currant-black eyes, then turned to her boyfriend Karim, and Arabic poured from her in a river of throaty consonants and chewy vowels.

 

A few years later, at graduate school in the Midwest, my friend James–a PhD student from Uganda–told me he didn’t realize he was black until he came to the United States. We were talking about the curious strain in his African Studies graduate program between the African students and the Black American students. The term “African-American” baffled him. He got it, he understood its history, but it still made little sense to him. They were Americans– not Black Americans, not African-Americans, but Americans, full-stop.

 

Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don’t know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate, we, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like “beautiful” when we refer to Black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think Blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest, attempts to understand the impossible: what it’s like to be be something other than white in this very-race conscious society.

 

The thing about Adichie’s novel is that it’s written from a rarified world perspective. There is something very bourgeois about ruminating on race and class from ivory towers, as most of Americanah‘s characters do. Ifemelu’s early years in the United States, when she lives a hand-to-mouth existence as a college student, and her Nigerian boyfriend Obinze’s harrowing months in the United Kingdom, from which he is deported as an illegal, give glimpses of how the immigrant experience unfolds in the shadow of racial discrimination. But mostly, this novel is a glossy-magazine conversation between the author and her readers about the experiences of an upper-middle class African woman in America. And I loved it. I loved her voice, her warm and personal style, the way she straddles feminism and social awareness with navel-gazing vanity. I’m not sure if I’m talking about the character Ifemelu or the author Chimamanda Adichie, but the end result is the same. This novel charms at least as much as it educates.

 

A Washington Post reviewer referred to Americanah as social satire. Satire? Really? I didn’t get that. I got a very lucid, grounded, contemporary look at race, class, and the immigrant experience in three nations–Nigeria, the United States, and the United Kingdom–built loosely around a love story. Adichie dances a very skilled and entrancing pas de deux between classic storytelling and social edification.

 

Satire does foam up in the metafiction blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black” written by the protagonist, Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. as a college student. Ifemelu, whose looks and experiences are based on the author’s, fills her anonymous blog with stories about the American race and class dilemmas she observes as an outsider. The blog eventually wins her a fellowship at Princeton and her immigrant experience veers into another social track entirely: the liberal elite. Because of her skin color, Ifemelu is pegged as Black and it’s assumed she will somehow understand the “Black” experience in America. But Ifemelu, like my Ugandan friend James, didn’t know from racial distinction until she came to the United States. She guards her Nigerian accent and does not straighten her hair to make it clear that she is neither Black nor American. She is Nigerian.

 

After fifteen years in the United States, Ifemelu makes the decision to return to Nigeria, opening herself up to an experience unlike any she’d anticipated: the challenge of rebuilding her identity in a country that has moved on without her. It was a gift for this reader to have an insider’s perspective on such a vast, complicated, and fast-changing nation, both before and after Ifemelu and Obinze’s separate leave-takings and returns. Adichie takes the narrative many steps beyond most immigrant stories: what happens when you return home, to stay.

 

I had thought to withhold a star for some of the too-pat romantic relationships Ifemelu wends through and Adichie’s sprawling, sometimes self-indulgent style, but I can’t. I thought about this book when it wasn’t in my hands, I couldn’t wait to get back to it, and now, days after completing it, I’m eager to seek out more of Adichie- her writing, her speeches, her essays. I have so much to learn.

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Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So soaked in the mire of his paranoia and removed from the world, Jeremiah Pearl believes ash falling from the sky after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens is fallout from a nuclear war. He emerges from the forest with his young son, Ben, and holds a timber poacher at gunpoint, demanding, How many are left? I asked you how many are left goddamnit!

Smith Henderson’s smashing, crashing, tour de force debut novel, Fourth of July Creek churns with this sort of Action-Misunderstanding-Reaction and a human life often dangles at the end of any given chain of events. There is so very much at stake here; the novel wrings you limp and has you rereading the quiet ending for what you think you’ve missed.

The backwoods of western Montana give a dramatic backdrop to the novel, which takes place 1979-1981. Such an interesting period for this reader, who came of age during the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shortage, the boiling up of the Cold War, and the transition from Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater presidency to the sham of Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The world so often seemed on the brink of calamity and Jeremiah Pearl, urged on by his prescient wife Sarah, scoops up his family from Midwest complacency and flees to rural Montana in response. There he begins an anarchic lifestyle–adopting the gold standard, rejecting all forms of government regulation, and risking the health and well-being of his wife and five children. He becomes an oddity, a legend, and eventually attracts the attention of the FBI and the ATF.

But Pearl’s story is only one thread in this dark, writhing tapestry of a novel. The most constant narrator is Pete Snow, a social worker, alcoholic, and disaffected father on the brink of several disasters of his own making. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex wife after a raging, alcohol-infused blow up, “I take kids away from people like us.” There are no heroes here, except the Cloninger family, who accepts the stray children Pete Snow brings to their door.

Pete, who works only when he can pull himself out of a bottle or a bed, is finally kicked out of his mental lethargy by two different mysteries: who and where is Jeremiah Pearl and, after it is too late, how can he save his daughter?

The mythology of Jeremiah Pearl enthralls Pete and he eventually forms a tentative, misplaced friendship with the paranoid radical and Ben, his sweet, almost-saintly, son. In a parallel subplot, Pete embarks on an Odyssey-like quest to find his teenage runaway daughter, Rachel.

This early ’80s world of underfunded social service agencies, abused and neglected children, and addict parents could be 2014, but Henderson recreates an urban squalor in Seattle that has been largely vanquished by massive gentrification. Or simply moved upstream to its nexus on Aurora Avenue. But the rural decay, the political paranoia, and the counter-culture community feel ripped from the headlines. The horror of adolescent institutionalization continues apace and some of the most dreadful scenes in Fourth of July Creek center on what happens to children when they are abused by loved ones and then punished by the system.

Although there are moments of grace and tenderness, this is a hard-bitten, grueling read. It is also damn near impossible to put down. Despite its heft the novel moves at a jittery pace, with tension building like the volcanic dome over Mount Saint Helens. You turn the pages in white-knuckled suspense, anticipating a fiery dénouement.

But here’s where I struggled. Why I cannot sing full-throated praises. Every woman in Fourth of July Creek is presented as a victim, a hag, a whore—most are all three. Only Sarah Pearl wields power over the men around her and that’s because she’s batshit. As a woman, this bleak and gut-wrenching depiction wore me down. As a reader and writer I found it terribly discouraging. And then there’s Pete, born with tremendous advantage and potential, who mostly fucked it away for reasons I could never quite understand or begin to empathize with.

Henderson uses a second-person Q&A to tell Rachel Snow’s story as she “wyoms” through the West and Midwest, as a way to break the tension and jolt the reader from the flow of Pete’s hedonistic and hard-scrabble life. It’s masterfully done, but very nearly overdone. The story within the story didn’t quite work for me. It does offer a female perspective in a novel that is so very white male, but again, the young woman is a victim, tossed about like a pinball. It’s a whole story of how young women become enslaved on our very streets, and it deserves a book of its own. One I’m certain Smith Henderson is more than capable of writing.

An outstanding achievement. One of the year’s best.

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History of the Rain by Niall Williams

History of the Rain: A NovelHistory of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel of beauty and grace, showing again that Niall Williams is more than a writer, he is a composer who elicits music from the magical combination of letters we know as words.

Young Ruth Swain has returned home from university to convalesce in her attic bedroom, where the rain of Co. Clare pours ceaselessly on the two windows above her head, and three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes of classic prose and poetry surround her in teetering stacks. Her father is gone and Ruth seeks him, his history, and his truth, in the vast library he left behind. Her clear, funny, and poignant voice guides us through misty decades of Swain and MacCarroll family lore to illuminate how her father, Virgil, and her mother, Mary, came to farm the worst fourteen acres of land in Ireland.

The reminders of present-day Ireland—references to the Crash, the internet, Marty in the Morning on RTE’s Lyric FM—jolted me out of the dreamlike meanderings in a timeless world, casting a surreal glow over this rain-sodden ode to Ireland, literature, and love. But the anachronisms make the story more bewitching; Williams shows us that even in this hyper-connected world, it is possible to escape. And the greatest escape is found in the pages of a book.

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you’ll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it’s a primer on Western literature’s greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won’t make it through this with dry eyes.

Tied up in my delight with History of the Rain is my love for Ireland, particularly the west. Williams, as he always does, captures this incomparable spirit, the particular state of longing that I feel when I am in Ireland, or just thinking about being there:

We’re a race of elsewhere people. That’s what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world’s worst bankers. …It’s in the eyes. The idea of a better home. Some of us have it worse than others. My father had it running in the rivers of him.

Let this river of words take you away. But be forewarned: you won’t want to return.

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The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a great while, a book enters my life and quick like ivy, its words and images rise and twist around my imagination and intellect. Rene Denfeld’s extraordinary début The Enchanted is one such book. I feel compelled to push it into everyone’s hands, saying, “You must read this. You simply must.” It’s been nearly two years since the last time I read something that made me ache to shout it from the rooftops–another début by an Oregon writer: Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. Yet, these two books could not be more dissimilar in style, content, and theme.

I nearly set this aside after just a few pages. I will caution you. The Enchanted deals with the ugliest, most hopeless themes a writer can conjure: abuse, incest, rape, mental illness, murder. It is set in a prison. Two of its characters are on death row.

And yet.

Rene Denfeld works a kind of magic. This is a book of luminous and captivating prose and imagery, where angels of mercy shimmer in the darkest corners. Where horses gallop free, making the dripping, crumbling walls in the lowest level of this Gothic nightmare of a prison shudder and the warden laugh, even as he prepares a prisoner for his final moments on earth.

The author seamlessly weaves multiple points of view and many richly drawn characters into a very few pages. The narrator is the only first-person perspective. He is the prison’s most notorious death row resident, but his crimes remain untold. Mute, communicating only with the reader from the maze of his mind, this inmate views death row as sanctuary, its dank confines the only place he has found peace.

Some characters have names: the prisoners York, Risk, Arden; Conroy, a brutal guard; Auntie Beth, a witness to a young boy’s wretched upbringing. Other characters, whom we come to know intimately, painfully, remain only lower case titles: the warden; the priest; the white-haired boy. The lady.

The lady. She is a death row investigator, like the author herself. Retained by York’s attorneys, she is delving into the condemned’s life, trying to uncover evidence that can be used to stay York’s execution, to transmute his sentence from death to life. They share, as she learns, a similar horrific past. Yet, she became an angel-wounded, with broken wings- and he became a demon. York spurns her attempts to find mercy. He wants to die.

Death is nearly as present a character as any living one in The Enchanted and the reader is reminded that we are all the walking dead, facing the same inevitable end as those on death row. Denfeld forces our moral hand, showing us all sides of the debate: the victims, the criminals, the decision-makers, and we are in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with each. The warden, whose wife is in the end stages of cancer, contemplates the pro and anti death penalty protestors gathering outside his prison before an execution, and

He wonders why so many easily accept death when it’s caused by old age or cancer or even suicide, yet refuse to endorse death by execution. It seems wrong to him. No on deserves death more than someone like York or Striker or especially Arden. And yet those are the deaths that others will say are unnatural, not that of his dear sweet wide, a woman who raised three kids and never did anyone a wrong pass.

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity’s darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to society’s nightmares. She pries them open, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

Astonishing, original, terrible, and exquisite. It would not surprise me to see this nominated for book awards, and ranked high on critics’ best of lists. It damn well better be.

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Flowing with the Go: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Understanding must move with the flow of the process.” ― Frank HerbertDune

For the past several weeks, a lovely meme has been spreading around the blogosphere, nurtured by a generous community of writers. It’s a forum to share what we’re working on and how we do it. If you follow the meme backwards, set aside a few hours. You’ll wander through a world of writers and emerge dazzled and inspired.

The meme goes a little something like this: accept an invitation to the blog party, show up in your party dress, thank your host, answer a few questions, and extend the invitation to three more writer-bloggers.

Since this is the season of activityeither harvest for my friends below the equator or planting for those aboveI’ll simply tag a few authors whom I’d be delighted to see in their Friday night best. Folks, if you have the time and the energy to carry on with the blog tour, let it roll when you can!

Virtual hugs to Edith O Nuallain, an Irish writer and poet blogging at In a Room of My Own, and Bianca Bowers, a South African writer and poet, living in Australia. Read her at B.G. Bowers Thank you both for inviting me to participate in the #MyWritingProcess tour, and for sharing your words and writers’ journeys with me.

The Main Event

1) What am I working on?

Rewrites of my first manuscript, Refuge of Doves. My goal is to finish the rewrites by the end of May, send it off to a developmental/story editor, and perhaps have a manuscript ready for the agent/publisher search by early fall. I received some very wise counsel in recent days about the relative value of critique groups and beta readers, with whom I’ve had decidedly mixed experiences. It’s time to turn my words over to a professional. That’s the other thing I’m working on: deciding whom to use. If you love your story editor, do let me know.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Perhaps the biggest difference is that I’m working outside of genre. Taking a page from Deborah Harkness, I choose not to pigeon-hole my fiction. It’s literary in style, but commercial in content. How’s that? There are elements of mystical realism woven through contemporary lives, but at the heart is an exploration of women’s emotional journeys. In Refuge of Doves, a young widow works through her grief; in Crows of Beara, addiction and recovery are themes. My short stories have addressed miscarriage, war, and isolation. Dark stuff, to be sure, but I write in light, not shadow.

A sense of place is one of the strongest elements of my narratives. My settings become characters in their own right.

Ebb and Flow ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Ebb and Flow ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

3) Why do I write what I do?

Ah jeez. This is a tough one. Following the advice of Stephen King, I write what I want to read. I try not to overthink inspiration, I just try to stay out of my own way. As my confidence grows, it becomes easier to release the story to my characters and allow them steer the narrative.

4) How does my writing process work?

As the writer evolves, so does her process. I wrote here Fast and Furious: First Drafts how my approach has changed from Refuge of Doves to Crows of Beara. 

Since I began writing fiction in 2011, I’ve been a serious student of the craft. Part of my process is to read about and absorb as much as I can from other writers, and to experiment with different ways of approaching the craft of writing, while still respecting (and discovering) my artist’s voice.

I write every day. What I’m working on determines how much. With first drafts, I let it pour forth, no revising or editing.

Now that I’m in rewrite mode, I have no word count goal, but I do have a time frame. Some scenes and chapters are trickier than others, so I just keep working and pushing ahead.

My Work-in-Progress and I are together five to six days a week, several hours a day. I set aside one day for other writing businessresearch for the book, researching agents, editors, publishers, working on my business plan. I work on blog posts or book reviews at any time. I don’t plan rest days, but if I need one, I take it.

I regard my writing as a small business and I’m the sole owner and employee. It’s a more-than-full-time job and if I’m to reach my ultimate goal—to earn a living through writing—I feel obligated to pour every spare moment and a not-insubstantial amount of cash outsourcing those things I cannot do on my own (e.g., editing, book design, e-pub formatting and distribution) to make it happen. And if it doesn’t happen, at least I’ll know I gave it every chance.

And now for the writer-bloggers whom I invite to pick up the meme and run with it:

“You came here because we do this better than you and part of that is letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.” 
― Don Draper

An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and Her Sunrise

At last, the light and I are beginning to meet at the right time. From the sofa, I can see the first blue glow of dawn, then the rosy line of sunrise as it creeps up the Cascades and tips into Admiralty Bay. It arrives earlier each morning, so that soon my coffee will still be hot when I scuff my sockless feet into worn-out running shoes and shuffle down to the pier for morning yoga in the breeze and warm light.

It’s early enough in the year—we’re still trying to regain the missing light Daylight Savings borrowed a few weeks ago—that I’m ready by sunrise to move from morning peace to daytime activity. The light is sweet when it finally arrives, but I’ve got stuff to do.

Yesterday though, the light had its way. It stopped my 6:30 thoughts about laundry and grocery lists, wrapped its warm, golden fingers around my wrist and drew me, laughing, down the hill to the water.

I yearned to ring church bells and ship horns, to rouse everyone from bed and shout, “Look outside, look at the light!” But only the bakery truck driver and I were puffing white breaths in the pink-tinged air. Until I got to the water, where the scullers and sailors were bathed in the sun’s fleeting exuberance. I stretched and folded into my asanas as their vessels bounced over the cold March swells.

For writers of prose, reading poetry is like being drawn outside by the siren song of light. The brief world of a poem envelopes us in potent imagery, with words strung together in ways that break the rules binding us to plot and structure. We are enchanted by rhythm and evocative symbols and for the moments it lasts, the poem—like the dawn—sets us free.

I can share only a photo of yesterday’s light, untouched, unfiltered. Were I poet, perhaps I could do it some literary justice.

But when I fall in love with new-to-me poetry, as I did this week, with young Irish poet Leanne O’Sullivan’s collection Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, I want to ring the church bells and sound the ship horns. Read This Read This Read This, the bells and horns would say. It’s like being inside a sunrise.

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O’Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perched on hill overlooking Ballycrovane Harbor, in the wild, remote Beara Peninsula of West Cork, sits a humped, ragged block of stone. One edge resembles the profile of a woman, her furrowed brow arched over a proud nose, staring out to sea. She is An Cailleach Bheara, the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland. Her story is Ireland’s story, her survival the enduring drama of a tortured land of legendary beauty.

Into the stormy legends wends the sublime poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, like a cool silk ribbon whispering over fevered flesh. This slim volume of sensuous language takes the supernatural myths behind the Hag’s many lives and distills them to human form, presenting a woman in love, not with gods from the sea, but with a humble fisherman. Her images are full of longing of the body and mind, emotional resonance woven with sensual pleasures. We experience the Old Woman as a young girl, vulnerable, vital, yearning, but already wise and sad.

I did not want a glance or a sound,
only the sight of you
–the mouthing space
the absence of language;
only to watch you
turn through the shimmering coils of light,
the river siding around me,
describing to me
the dark that would be cast over the body,
violent, liquid, salt and calm —
the darkness that would be cast
between the moment when I could destroy
and the moment when I would devour

A Beara native, O’Sullivan’s blood brims with the brine of the North Atlantic and its feral winds howl in her mind. Her words pulse with the southwest’s moody weather that ripples from cruel and cold to docile in the time it takes to read one of her enchanting verses:

Morning, the touching of the moon
on the oval-line of light, the sun low,
its fire like liquid over the ocean
where the wading gulls hunt.
I toed the foam and smooth sand
as a rattle of salt
rushed against my skin, the pebbles,
the water’s joyful touchings.

Best read aloud, with a glass of Jameson 18-year-old close at hand. Or at sunrise, with a porpoise slipping in and out of the waves, inviting you to come in and play…

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March Sunrise, Port Townsend  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
March Sunrise, Port Townsend ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of LoveThe Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel opens quietly, as if the writer were a doctor, cautiously revealing a wound, warning the reader to look, but don’t touch; as if she were a psychiatrist, probing delicately at the mind, but who avoids coming too close to the main issues, for fear of doing her patient greater harm.

The wounds in Aminatta Forna’s devastating and beautiful novel The Memory of Love (why am I certain the author had another title in mind, but was convinced by her publisher to go with the banal to encourage mainstream readers? Sadly, this is the second novel entitled The Memory of Love I’ve read in the past four months and both deserve better titles. No offense to Elton John.) aren’t inflicted on just one person; they are the wounds of a nation brutalized by war.

The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone was relegated to Page Five international sections in this country, overshadowed—if one paid attention to the many tangled messes abroad—by the War in the Gulf, then the Balkans, Rwanda and even Sierra Leone’s southern neighbor, Liberia. This beautiful West African nation was first a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, then became an important symbol of resistance. Its capital, Freetown, was so named by repatriated slaves at the end of the 18th century. Its modern history is at least as complex: a land rich in natural resources, with an infrastructure and population that attained stability and productivity, reduced to horrific footnotes of “blood diamonds,” boy soldiers, hacked-off limbs and a generation of children born of rape.

But all politics is personal. And The Memory of Love wraps the war around multiple characters and two eras to show the progression from hope and happy times to defeat and resignation.

The central characters in this story are men: Elias Cole, a mid-grade professor of history and his charismatic alter ego Julius, married to the woman on whom Elias develops a obsessive crush; Adrian Lockheart, a British psychotherapist fleeing a loveless marriage in the UK to treat PTSD sufferers in a Freetown hospital; and Kai Mansaray, an orthopedic surgeon whose work schedule seems to be self-inflicted retribution for having survived the war when tens of thousands of his fellow citizens did not.

The story opens just before the 1969 Apollo moon landing, when Freetown bustled with progress. Elias Cole, a young professor at the time, relates his story in first person to Dr. Lockheart, who comes to Sierra Leone thirty years later, after the civil war ends in 2001, to a crumbled city beset by poverty, crime and disease.

Women are central to the narrative, though we never hear their voices directly: the enigmatic Saffia, Julius’s wife; Ileana, the chain-smoking Romanian doctor who navigates crazy, sad Freetown with wry dexterity; Kai’s former lover, Nenebeh and Adrian’s new lover, Mamakay. And there is Agnes, a Sierra Leonean psychiatric patient suffering from a rare “fugue” state where she wanders off for days, lost in a world of memories. There are prostitutes and slutty foreign aid workers, cuckolded wives and neglected daughters. Women bear the greatest injustices and losses in this novel but their experiences are interpreted by their lovers, husbands and physicians.

Aminatta Forna explores betrayal on an epic, political scope and an intimate, every-day relationship level. The Memory of Love is many individual but linked strands of characters doing whatever they can to survive, even if it means survival of the body but decimation of the soul. Friendship is one of the central themes—how easily we find and create connections and how it takes just a moment, a misunderstanding, a cruel coincidence, to tear them apart.

This complicated and intelligent novel demands careful, slow reading to keep track of the multiplicity of characters, the frequent changes of points-of-view, time and place. Aminatta Forna’s writing is evocative, deliberate and authentic. She infects the narrative with tragedy and anger, then lances the wounds with sweetness, affection and hope. There are competing feelings of pent-up illness and catharsis that are partially, but not fully, resolved by the end. Not an easy read, but an important one.

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Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

BirdsongBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone should have warned me. Someone should have known I am acutely claustrophobic and that opening the door to this book would be inviting in the specter of a panic attack. Picture me curled on the sofa or huddled beneath the covers, my breath shallow, my heart racing, my throat closing as soldiers worm their way through tunnels beneath the trenches. Feel the numbing of my extremities, the draining of blood from my face, the hot rush of acid in my belly, the rise of bile in my throat as those tunnel walls begin to cave and threaten to trap those young men in a tomb made of French dirt. Even now my hands shake with the memory of some of this novel’s most horrific scenes. For I couldn’t stop reading, I couldn’t look away, even through my tears and hyperventilation, I read on.

So, consider yourself warned. This book contains the stuff of nightmares. And it’s not just the dreadful tunnels, it is the unrelenting, unfathomable misery of the World War I battlefields. What is it about this war? All war is hideous, but there is something about this war-the number of casualties, the waves and waves of young men released onto the battlefields as cannon fodder, the squalor of the trenches, the chemicals-it was a war that obliterated a generation. Many of those who survived became empty shells, having left their hope and their souls and in some cases, their minds, to the battlefields of the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Ypres.

Birdsong owns the war, it lives and breathes in those trenches. Your skin will crawl with lice, you will feel the slip and muck of blood and brains underneath your boots; hell, you’ll feel your toes crumbling with trenchfoot inside your rotting boots. You will cry out in horror as a soldier whose name you’ve just learned, whose two or three paragraphs will have you aching for his girl and his parents back in Surrey, dissolves in a cloud of flesh and bone beside you. Yes, you have been warned. This is not an easy read.

But Birdsong is more than a black, white, red reel of warfare. It begins as a love story between an odd and doomed French woman, Isabelle Azaire and a very young and impassioned Englishman, Stephen Wraysford. Their adulterous affair in Isabelle’s home in Amiens six years before the war opens Birdsong. Part One, the first one hundred-odd pages-is an unsettling combination of tedium and floridity as Stephen and Isabelle tear off their clothes and Edwardian sensibilities under the noses of Isabelle’s husband and two stepchildren. The affair ends but their story carries on, surfacing many years later as the war tears into homes, flesh and families. It is Stephen whom we follow throughout the story, he who carries us onto the battlefield, into the trenches and down those dreadful tunnels.

Halfway through the story we jump to 1978, where Elizabeth Benson has taken a sudden interest in her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford and the fate of the men who died in or limped home from the trenches of World War I. Here the narrative stumbles a bit. Elizabeth, now in her late 30s, seems entirely unaware of the horrors of The Great War. This rang utterly false. “No one told me,” she says upon seeing the battlefields and monuments of the Somme. I think a British citizen of her generation would have been well aware of the magnitude of that war. But Faulks gives Elizabeth a strong voice and her own personal dilemmas that bring the existential quest for meaning and truth full circle. We don’t stay in late 70s London for long, but we dip in and out until the novel’s end as Elizabeth’s story becomes woven into her grandfather’s.

Sebastian Faulk’s writing is sumptuous and pitch perfect, capturing the essence of each era he writes: the tumescent melodrama that unfolds in Amiens in 1910, the desperation, emptiness and incongruous vividness of the war years, and the practical, surging energy and wealth of late 70s London. This is a great novel, an engrossing but devastating read. Just look up every so often and take deep, slow breaths. You’ll need them.

NPR aired the following segment on 1/23/14 about digitized British World War I diaries.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/20…

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The LuminariesThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Wild, Wild West, a frontier filled with dreamers, convicts, schemers and entrepreneurs. Some hope to make that lucky strike, others attach themselves like parasites to stars on the rise and the canniest let the eager do the dirty work while they provide the booze, drugs and women for which all men—regardless of their luck—will lay down cash money. This is the Gold Rush, the West Coast, the late 1860’s—but we’re not in California, Toto. This is the South Island of New Zealand, circa 1866, in the wet, green folds of the Southern Alps where they tumble into the Tasman Sea.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is also the frontier of storytelling—a no-holds-barred, raucous flight of imagination that I devoured with Epicurean pleasure. Jumping into its alphabet-soup cast of characters with chewy names like Emery Staines (an angelic young man, popular, rich and missing), Cowell Devlin (a man of God), George Shepard (whose flocks live in the town jail) and Anna Wetherell (a prostitute~ingenue who weathers all kinds of storms) is like tumbling in a dryer with towels and tennis shoes. You never know when you’ll get smacked upside the head with a plot twist.

This is a Gold Rush-era version of The Usual Suspects: Everyone’s got a story and no one is telling the truth. In this case, a hermitic prospector is dead, the town’s richest man is missing, a prostitute is senseless and wearing a dress lined with gold, a politician is being blackmailed, a body rises from its makeshift coffin in a doomed ship’s cargo hold and a beautiful redhead has just sashayed into town, claiming to be a widow and seeking what remains of her husband’s estate. Spinning all around this stage are twelve Luminaries: a constellation of men whose points of view we dip into throughout the novel, trying to unravel a mystery that is woven more tightly with each page.

Much has been made of Catton’s clever structure: The Luminaries is a set piece held aloft by an astrological chart that divides each part into smaller and smaller sections (Part One is 358 pages long; Part Twelve, two), according to celestial logic. But don’t be deterred by this ornamentation. I didn’t pay a whit of attention to the charts that precede each section—I couldn’t be distracted from carrying on with the story. Yet, there is something to be said for Catton’s conceit. The novel begins with a crowded, opulent jumble of characters and detail, like a sky full of dazzling stars. As its 832 pages turn, black space is allowed in, the focus narrows and individual details begin to sharpen.

The tale is told first from outside-in, then inside-out, from high to low, back-to-front, by the dead and the living, in court, in bed and in confession. Mystery is added to adventure and star-crossed love eventually conquers all.

I can’t remember when I’ve taken such delight in reading, when I felt the author’s sheer joy in writing. I’ve seen a handful of gripes that Catton’s story and style lack warmth and her characters are shallow. I dunno. I didn’t get a sense that she intended to write epic historical fiction in which the characters’ characters rise and fall and rise again and we feel morally lifted from the lessons learned. Sometimes it’s perfectly all right for the reading experience to be sheer pleasure. When it’s not only pleasurable, but intellectually stimulating, laugh-out-loud surprising and historically illuminating, you’ve got a five-star read.

Eleanor Catton has crafted a rollicking, unexpected and deeply satisfying carnival ride that ends all too soon. I doff my top hat and bow. Brava.

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a hospital in Volchansk, Chechnya, on a boarded-up gash where a window once sat, a crude mural depicts the city as it had been before war reduced it to rubble. Looking at the mural the viewer is spared, for as long as she can pretend, the reality that the open space would offer: a void of destruction and death.

In his astonishing debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra paints a mural of war so vivid in its awfulness that we tremble as we gaze, but we enter the tableau and become so caught up in the power of Marra’s narrative that we tread heedlessly on the landmines of heartbreak.

The war in Chechnya occurred not once, but twice in our recent past. Its roots are so deep and tangled in the history of the North Caucasus region—which one character tries to tell in a six-volume, 3,300-page history—that most of us are helpless to name who is fighting whom and where. Forget even trying to tackle the why. But if you can grasp that Chechnya tried to break away from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, you’ll have a glimpse of the First Chechen War. If you understand the first war obliterated the infrastructure of the country and left it vulnerable and run by corrupt warlords, then you’ll have an inkling why Russia invaded a second time. But don’t worry that you still don’t know where this place is or why it’s fought over like a scrap of meat between starving dogs. You’ll get there. Be patient. Take a few minutes to Google a map of Chechnya or Wikipedia, but trust Anthony Marra help sort it out, through the graceful and tragic voices of his characters.

Marra unveils a time so awful it’s hard to get the head around, but with a sense of whimsy and just a touch of the surreal that the reader smiles, feeling awash with affection and hope, before being plunged again into the viscera of war. Akhmed’s exchanges with Sonja are delicious. Akhmed, who is so inadequate as a physician that he does less harm by drawing portraits of the dead and missing than treating the wounded, offers his skills to Sonja, who can sew up a man’s chest with dental floss. Yet she finds use for him in the hospital she runs with an ancient nurse who speaks in the third person. Akhmed represents humanity—a flawed man, but one imbued with tremendous compassion. The child he saves, Havaa—the daughter of his best friend—is the shining star in this constellation of survivors. Sonja’s sister, Natalia, is a comet that sears past so quick and bright it takes the breath away. If you’re lucky, the comet will return again in your lifetime, as Natalia does between the two wars, but know that it will burn fast and disappear while your heart is still pounding. And Sonja is the sun—a strong and shining beacon of intelligence and ferocity—that keeps the stars in alignment. As much as a vulnerable, tired, angry and frightened human can.

It takes some time to settle into Marra’s style and the jarring construction of the narrative, but let go of logic, let go of linear structure and let the characters show you what they need to tell their story. The surface story takes place over a few days in 2004, when Havaa’s father is “disappeared” and Akhmed takes her from their village to the nearby city of Volchansk, to shelter her in the crumbling hospital. But expect shifts of time between the first and second Chechen wars—that is to say, between 1994 and 2004—with a few jumps to World War II, as the nesting dolls of history are dumped out and scattered on the table. There is a steady stream of characters, each with his or her own tattered tale to represent the ancient and modern history of Chechnya, each illustrating the madness of war.

War is absurd. The very idea that modern societies continue to resolve conflict with wanton destruction is beyond explanation. Regardless of our obsession with history, our pop culture fascination with wars distant and current, we seem destined to do the same thing over and over again, expecting but never achieving a different result. Einstein’s definition of insanity. In this arena of the absurd are ordinary people forced to live extraordinary lives.

Marra’s novel reminds us why art is vital to the human race: art keeps us human, despite our avid attempts to obliterate ourselves. Art exposes history that we tune out while it’s happening, because we’re just trying to get through our daily lives. Ah, the irony: experiencing at our leisure—with an act most of us find pleasurable (reading) —a past that we couldn’t make sense of when it was happening. The absurdity continues. But so does humanity.

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