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Archive for the tag “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”

What I Read in 2015

Reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.     J.L. Borges

Near the end of 2014 I made a spur of the moment decision to publish a list and commentary on all the books I had read the past year (which you can read here). This had a couple of unplanned benefits: it led me to posting more essays on my blog again after a two-year hiatus; and it helped me to better plan and maximize my reading time. For example, after making the 2014 list I noticed that there was only one female author, and that this was shamefully not out of the ordinary for me. I decided my first goal for 2015 would be to read many more books by women. I think you will see from the following list that I succeeded. This also led me to other unexpected avenues, such as many books by African authors, and also African-American authors. One of the many benefits of reading is that it can help you learn about, and empathize with, people from different backgrounds than yourself. For other benefits and a much longer reading list, take a look at this great article I came across by a librarian who read 164 books in 2015. I started 61 books this year, and finished all but six of them. That is nearly double the 33 or so books from the previous year, and still almost shocking how I even got this far considering my busy teaching schedule and my two-year-old twins that take up most of my time.

I have already reviewed some of the books on this list at length, and I would like to comment much more extensively on most of them, but that will have to be done individually in future posts. I tried to keep any comments here as short as possible for brevity’s sake. Unfinished books are marked with *, and sometimes reasons are given. My reading list for 2016 is already quite long and each book I encounter usually leads to several other books by the same or similar authors, all in the pursuit of what Nabokov termed the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I hope if you are reading this far you, too, will find some recommendations, and I would welcome any comments or other suggestions you have in the comments section. Without further ado, the list:

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Post-Apartheid South Africa, economical and unpredictable plot, typically precise writing from the 2003 Nobel Laureate

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

Important metaphorical novel about the relationship between Whites, Blacks, and land in Apartheid-era South Africa from the 1991 Nobel Laureate.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Out of AfricaSeven Gothic Tales* by Karen Blixen

Started my growing interest in reading more African-themed books this year.

The Sea, The SeaUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch

Very entertaining, philosophical, and memorable books in both cases by a prolific author and philosopher. The Sea, The Sea is one of my favorite books from this year; the setting itself was so evocative that it was almost a central character.

High Lonesome* by Joyce Carol Oates

Chosen nearly at random as my first entry into her endless works, read a good portion, technically well-written, but laid aside due to lack of interest in the characters and settings.

On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Very important perspective on political philosophy that I will write about more at a later date.

The Handmaid’s TaleThe PenelopiadThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

All three great, though the second is little more than a trifle. The Handmaid’s Tale is another of my favorites from this year and, as Harold Bloom comments in the preface, every bit as good and important a dystopian vision as 1984 and Brave New World.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Very long and ambitious, but perhaps too much so by the 2007 Nobel Laureate. Difficult to finish. I most enjoyed the sections set in pre- and post-war Rhodesia, but not so much the section about Communist Party struggles in 50’s Britain.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Excellent all-around novel for its time and place, as it should be considering the near universal praise it always receives these days (Salman Rushdie being the sole exception). Great psychological depth to characters, and even the language was very stimulating for formal Victorian prose.

TypeeWhite-JacketMoby-DickThe Piazza Tales by Herman Melville

Looking back now it was a crime that I had never read Melville, and the recommendations by two separate people whose taste in literature I trust set me to remedying my omission. I quickly become a firmly convinced believer in Melville as the greatest American writer. Moby-Dick was the best book I read this year.

Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Herman Melville by Harold Bloom (editor)

He holds that Moby-Dick is the darkest of America’s three national epics (the other of which are Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass). He also notes how fully four out of the six short novellas of The Piazza Tales are veritable masterpieces.

The White CastleMy Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Already written a review of these books here.

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

The second part of the Alexandria Quartet, filling in the gaps from where the first novel Justine, which I read last year, left off. I suspect I will read the third volume in the coming year and possibly the fourth.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Julian by Gore Vidal

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

I already reviewed the three above novels of Ancient Rome here.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

After Memoirs of Hadrian, I chose this one randomly hoping that another French female writer named Marguerite would also be as good. I was disappointed, and if this one were not so short I would not have finished it.

Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I already reviewed these novels here.

Things Fall ApartNo Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

This and the following seven authors all connect with the running African theme I followed this year.

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka

Excellent play, especially appreciated the litany of Yoruba proverbs.

Weep Not, ChildWizard of the Crow* by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The second of these, a funny and important satire on African dictators, is unfinished only due to its length, but I’ll come back to it next year.

The Sultan’s Dilemma by Tawfiq al-Hakim

Wonderful play, a sort of comedy of errors set in Mamluk-era Egypt.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Incredibly dream-like story of a desperately impoverished family in the slums of Nigeria, won the 1991 Booker Prize.

Song of SolomonBeloved by Toni Morrison

This and the following three authors were all mentioned in my essay “Why Black Literature Matters

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Still incredible that the person who wrote this excellent and thoughtful memoirs became president; even a bit disappointing that he hasn’t been a better president considering this book.

Go Tell it on the MountainGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Roman Near East by Fergus Millar

A History of the Later Roman Empire: AD 284-641* by Stephen Mitchell

After finishing the three novels of Rome above, I wanted to catch up on a couple of pieces of academic historiography I had overlooked during my Master’s study in Ancient History.

Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281 by Reuven Amitai-Preiss

Research inspired by The Sultan’s Dilemma above.

Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone by Stephen Schmid (editor)

Light-weight philosophical essays discussing various ethical issues surrounding my favorite hobby–rock climbing.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Very good and very funny social satire on 19th century Russian society; the first part is a masterpiece and much better than the second, which tends to repeat itself and lose narrative focus.

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

Three well-wrought and captivating novellas about tough everyman characters seeking revenge and getting the most out of their lives.

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti

Debut novel to be published in January 2016 by my colleague at www.wrath-bearingtree.com; deeply-felt story about how two men’s lives changed after fighting in Iraq.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Another Iraq veteran discusses the consequences of climate change on the human species and how we can possibly preserve some of our culture; my review of it will appear soon either here or on another website.

Daisy Miller; The Turn of the ScrewThe Aspern PapersThe Ambassadors*The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

All audiobooks during my commute; the first three are slow but rewarding novellas with precise subtlety of characterization and plot; The Ambassadors I could not finish due to lack of readily available plot; The Portrait of a Lady kept me interested just by its rich psychological character studies.

Pragmatism by William James

Not a particularly readable or convincing case from Henry’s older brother; I think Dewey and then Rorty is probably the better way to go with the “American” philosophy of Pragmatism.

Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Great novel, a slightly better version of all of the Henry James above, but after all these (along with Middlemarch and Dead Souls), I will probably take a break in 2016 from 19th century or turn of the century dramas of the social and class divide, scheming matchmaking, and invisible servants.

Gilead* by Marilynne Robinson

Became interested after reading Obama’s interview with the author (and because of the shared name with the country in The Handmaid’s Tale); alas, it was too slow and uninteresting for me, which I’m sure is my fault more than the author’s.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Great example of how to use literature to mock dictators (the monstrous Trujillo, in this case) and learn about people from different backgrounds.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More like a connected series of short stories than a novel; the first couple chapters were the best, but I began to lose interest by the second half due to generally unlikeable characters and more superficiality than I like in my books.

Two Novels by Chimamanda Adichie: Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun

Everyone knows that “race” is not a valid biological category, but merely a social construct based on particular historical and geographical facts, right? And we all know that America is a “post-racial” society with no lingering evidence of racism or prejudices ever since Obama was elected in 2008. So there must be very little to say or write about this historical artifact known as “race”. Despite these caveats, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has found a way to write an excellent 588-page novel about race and “blackness” (and other things!) in America called Americanah.

Likewise, if you feel you have read too many interesting books and already know too much about African society and post-colonial history, do not bother reading her earlier novel Half of a Yellow Sun. In this review, I will give my thoughts on both of these books.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah, published in 2013, is the third novel of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a writer from the university town of Nsukka, Nigeria. It follows the lives of two characters who start a strong relationship in high school in Nigeria, drift apart for many years, and meet again in Lagos as very different people. Ifemelu, the female protagonist, moves to America to attend a university in Philadelphia. She stays for 15 years doing various jobs around the Northeast and having a couple serious relationships with American men. Obinze, the male protagonist, goes to England and overstays his visa for many years until being deported back to Nigeria, where he becomes a wealthy businessman.

Ifemelu’s story is the main part of the narrative, and her observations about race and lifestyle in America from an outsider’s perspective are the most interesting part of the novel. Desperate for money for living expenses in America, she has an encounter with a sleazy sports coach that leads her to break off all contact with Obinze out of guilt and confusion for almost the rest of the novel. After a period of unemployment, she finds a job as a babysitter for a wealthy liberal family, who sees her as exotic. She starts a relationship with a relative of her employer, a white guy named Curt, who takes her to high society parties and trips around the globe. After leaving Curt for reasons unclear to both her and the readers, she gets a job at a new fashion magazine, and by chance starts a blog about race in America called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black”. The blog, written anonymously, takes off and she is eventually able to support herself solely from writing (is there anyone who writes a blog who hasn’t dreamed about earning enough money from it to pay the bills and so quitting their day job?).

She meets Blaine, a Black American professor at Yale whom she had sat next to on a train one time years earlier (she speculated that the seat next to his was the only one available on a busy train because he was Black), at a bloggers’ conference and she starts a serious relationship with him. He is a model of healthy living, virtuous behavior, and compassionate activism, and, like Curt, a good boyfriend to her. When she decides to break things off with Blaine as well, we begin to understand that she feels a pull to return to her homeland which probably involves the real love of her life, Obinze. The novel has a non-linear narrative that jumps backwards in time and between characters. It opens with Ifemelu in a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey (where she lives in Princeton there is no African salon) preparing for her move back to Nigeria and undergoing a six-hour treatment for new hair braids done by a Senegalese immigrant.

americanahObinze’s plan was to follow Ifemelu to America and enter university as well, but he was denied a visa after September 11th for unclear (but obvious) reasons. The ironic thing is that he was a huge fan of American films and literature his whole life and always planned to move there one day. When he was rejected, he accepted a research position under his mother, a professor, and got a visa for the U.K. He stayed there doing odd jobs and going through even worse financial difficulties than Ifemelu in America. Eventually, he made a deal to marry a woman with dual Angolan-British citizenship in order to gain a permanent visa and work permit. He saved money for months but was caught by the immigration police on the day of the wedding ceremony and deported back to Nigeria. He was introduced to a wealthy businessman who made him into a confidante and set him up with his own property dealings, after which he became a typical Nigerian “big man”. He got married and had a child. This is the point in which the paths of the two characters cross again towards the end of the novel.

Many times a chapter ends with an excerpt from Ifemelu’s “Raceteenth” blog, usually related to an event that just happened in the story. Here is one interesting example from around the middle of the novel:

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: A Few Explanations of What Things Really Mean

  1. Of all their tribalisms, Americans are most uncomfortable with race. If you are having a conversation with an American, and you want to discuss something racial that you find interesting, and the American says, “Oh, it’s simplistic to say it’s race, racism is so complex,” it means they just want you to shut up already. Because of course racism is complex. Many abolitionists wanted to free the slaves but didn’t want black people living nearby. Lots of folks today don’t mind a black nanny or black limo driver. But they sure as hell mind a black boss. What is simplistic is saying, “It’s so complex.” But shut up anyway, especially if you need a job/favor from the American in question.
  2. Diversity means different things to different folks. If a white person is saying a neighborhood is diverse, they mean nine percent black people. (The minute it gets to ten percent black people, the white folks move out.). If a black person says diverse neighborhood, they are thinking forty percent black.
  3. Sometimes they say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white folks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”

More than a love story, this is an excellent novel with a wide range of interesting characters and real-life situations. The book is filled throughout with detailed observations and comments on race, immigration, education, women, and business. These observations are challenging, funny, empathetic, and wise, and show a huge talent and range of experience across three countries and cultures by the author.

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s second novel published seven years earlier in 2006, is set in 1960s Nigeria. It jumps back and forth in time, between the first years of Nigerian independence in the early 60s and the Biafran War, or Nigerian Civil War, from 1967-1970. Its chapters also rotate between following the perspectives of three primary characters who are all interconnected. The book opens with the character of Ugwu, an uneducated village boy who becomes a “house boy” for a professor named Odenigbo. The second character is Olanna, the girlfriend of Odenigbo and a highly intelligent and beautiful woman whose father is a wealthy chief or “big man”. The third character is Richard Churchill, an English writer who moves to Nigeria to write a book inspired by Igbo art, and falls in love with Kainene, the non-identical twin sister of Olanna who is cynical, urbane, and focused on running her father’s businesses.

Flag of the short-lived nation of Biafra, which inspired the title of Half of a Yellow Sun

Flag of the short-lived nation of Biafra, which inspired the title of Half of a Yellow Sun

Both parts of the novel, before and during the war, are equally strong and captivating. This book, much more than Americanah, is reminiscent of the great books by Chinua Achebe (the “African trilogy”) and Wole Soyinka (Death and the King’s Horseman, for example) in its rich description of the life and culture of the Nigerian ethnicities and the social and political effects of British colonial rule even after independence. Important themes that are well-developed include the contrast between village and city life, traditional and modern culture, the conflict between different groups such as the Muslim Hausa and the Christian Igbo peoples, and the horrific effect that war always has on civilians. In the case of the Biafran War, the new country of Biafra, declared by the Igbo leaders after a counter-coup and massacre by the Hausa people, was gradually starved into submission with the almost unanimous support or non-intervention of the rest of the world (including a rare Cold War point of agreement between the USA and the Soviet Union). Adichie makes this story totally compelling from the points of view of characters that we get to know and sympathize with. There is a 2013 movie based on the novel. It is interesting to see the visual settings and details of this post-colonial era, and some of the war scenes were well done. Overall, as we are always compelled to say after reading a very good book, “the film version is not as good as the original” (with notable exceptions that include “The Last of the Mohicans” and everything by Stanley Kubrick).

I recently saw somewhere an article that called Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a new “African Tolstoy”, or some very similar phrase. This is about the highest praise a writer could receive, in my opinion, though it is hard to believe it is totally warranted at this point. Like Tolstoy, Adichie writes a complete story from many different perspectives, taking us inside the heads and psychologies of various characters. She also paints a large and rich narrative canvas that makes us forget we are reading fiction and more like we are following the story as it happens. However, she still lacks the philosophical and psychological depth of Tolstoy, as well as the ability to describe common things in terms of the sublimity and universality of human experience. To fall short of such lofty standards is nothing to be ashamed of, rather to be compared to the likes of Tolstoy is, as I already mentioned, great in itself (just as we need not look down upon the plays of Ibsen or Shaw for falling somewhat short of the divine Shakespeare).

I have not read Adichie’s other works yet, which include her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and a short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, but they are on my future reading list. She is also an interesting speaker with several TED talks or other public speaking to her name. An especially relevant and poignant speech about Feminism was sampled in a Beyonce song. I will conclude by highly recommending these books to everyone, even or especially if you are a white American or European male like me who has had little personal experience with race and does not know nearly enough about the burgeoning country of Nigeria, which is on pace to be one of the biggest economies and most populated in the world in a couple decades. We can also say that it already has a strong literary culture to be explored.

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