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Archive for the tag “Chinua Achebe”

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.

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Why Black Literature Matters

“The Thankful Poor”, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894

(Originally published at The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

Last month in The Atlantic, Egyptian writer and activist Alaa Al Aswany wrote an excellent essay on How Literature Inspires Empathy. He gives an example from a sentence in Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead (“He, also, had a mother”) to show how a single word makes the reader see a criminal and prisoner in a whole new light. As Al Aswany explains, “the role of literature is in this ‘also’. It means we’re going to understand, we’re going to forgive, we’re not going to judge. We should understand that people are not bad, but they can do bad things under particular circumstances.” Later, after mentioning how Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary help us sympathize with and not judge those titular unfaithful wives, he writes “Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as much better human beings.” There is a case to be made that Dostoyevsky is not an author who always aspires much empathy in his readers (especially when compared to his counterpart Tolstoy). Likewise, it is impossible to claim that reading literature always improves the reader, which is just not the case.

My main interests of study and research have always been history, philosophy, and literature. I have two degrees in history, which helps me learn about and understand the world. Philosophy helps me think about the world, sometimes too abstractly, as it is and ought to be. But literature is a way of feeling, understanding, and connecting with humanity in all its various guises on a personal and emotional level. It is a continuation of the oldest human activity of storytelling. I would argue that not only is literature at least as important as the other arts and sciences, including history and philosophy, but, at its best, it is one of the central things that symbolizes our shared humanity and, in the process of both absorbing old and creating new literature, shapes us as human creatures.

One reason for this is that, despite some self-appointed guardians of what constitutes high culture (or snobbish protectors of an exclusive and immutable “canon”), literature is and always has been primarily a form of popular entertainment appealing to people from all walks of life. We think of Shakespeare, rightly, as an almost godlike literary creator central to Western literature; in reality, a large part of his plays just barely survived in written form only through the foresight of two contemporaries who produced the Folios. If not for this, Shakespeare might today be known only to scholars as an Elizabethan playwright whose enormous popularity was due mostly to the lower and middle classes enjoying his over-abundance of wittily crude sexual jokes and double entendres.

According to my own rough formulation, all literature can probably be grouped into two categories based on the motives of both author and reader: escapism, and edification. Most genre literature falls under escapism–fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, historical fiction, romance, western, travel, etc. The somewhat smaller range of books that intend to represent broad universal truths, dig into a particular philosophical discourse, or teach some important life lesson to the readers about the world fall under the category of edification–these are usually the “classics” that are reread by every generation of reader. It is important to note that there is overlap between the two categories; that is, every type of escapist “genre” literature has its own exemplars of great literature due to the skill and depth of the writing. Tolkien is considered the greatest of the fantasy writers, and his work transcends that genre and becomes something valuable and worthy for all readers (I don’t know if the Harry Potter series can be seen the same way since I have never read it; readers can let me know in the comments section). Similarly in science fiction, Asimov is one of the writers who pushed the boundaries of his genre into something greater and more universal. Most of Jane Austen’s novels are basically simple romance (just like all Shakespeare’s comedies), but that does not mean they are not also edifying literature in some capacity. I do not intend to attempt any wider comparisons on this theme of two types of literature, but I would be interested to read about other examples that come to mind (once again, you can let me know in the comments section).

Coming broadly around from this digression to my main point, literature can do many things, and one of the most important of these, to my mind, is to inspire empathy–something which has never been overly abundant in the world but which there can never be too much of. Because of the unique merits of literature, it has a power to reach people on a raw or emotional level that is rare in other media. In the most extreme end of the spectrum, it can cause readers to be so affected as to kill themselves in droves, as with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. It can convey the feeling of shared humanity, such as Prince Andrei felt while mortally wounded on the field of Borodino in War and Peace. It can make us understand the lives of people who are totally different from us, and who we would otherwise never know anything about. This is especially true of the books by people who in the past were never represented in literature due to political and social circumstances– slavery, colonialism, poverty, and other exploitations. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is considered the first important modern novel by an African writer, which shows the African rather than the European perspective of a Joseph Conrad or a Graham Greene. A similar example is the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novels Weep Not, ChildThe River Between, and A Grain of Wheat, which describe the hardships of colonial Kenyan life and the Mau Mau rebellion in a much different way than the more idealized European vision of a Karen Blixen.

A writer does not have to be one of the excluded minorities or oppressed in order to write about them. Alan Paton was a white liberal South African who worked for penal reform in his country and founded the South African Liberal Party (which was outlawed by the Apartheid regime). His book Cry, the Beloved Country tells the story of a poor Zulu priest who makes a Dantean journey to Johannesburg to look for his missing sister and son. It is one of the most emotionally charged books I have read, and a book that cannot fail to create a strong sense of empathy in the reader for the injustices of racism in South Africa (and, by extension, the whole world).


“Black Lives Matter” is a new civil rights movement for Black people in America after the seemingly endless cases of police murder and injustice that have recently proven the existence and depth of entrenched systemic racism in the America of the First Black President. The reactionaries and enablers of injustice that have decried this movement say that it foments violence (it does not) or disregard for White people’s lives (it does not). Despite the unique promise of its founding, America is a country whose relatively short history has had more than its share of horrific and unforgettable injustice. After decades or even centuries of hard-fought activism slowly bending the arc of history towards justice, much of the past has indeed been forgotten or misrepresented. In school textbooks, I fear that much of the true history is at least partially white-washed, if not completely elided. The two grossest examples are the 400-year genocide of the Native Americans, and the 300-year terror regime of Black slavery. Both of these things allowed the United States to grow into the wealthy and powerful country it is today, and the latter’s influence on the society and politics of 21st century America is still quite strong and cannot be forgotten, diminished, or excused. For every romantic apology for the South (such as the novel and film Gone With the Wind) or for every apologist who claims that slavery was “not so bad” for the slaves, there must be someone who refutes them immediately with the truth. If someone claims that things are fine for Black people now because of the Civil Rights Act and Affirmative Action, they need to understand that such relatively feeble legislation has barely put a dent in the centuries of heart-breaking brutality and relentless economic exploitation.

Luckily, there is a strong recent tradition in America of Black writers telling stories that could never have been told even 100 years ago. For anyone doubting that White privilege is real or that Black Lives have not mattered as much as White Lives in America, I would recommend some of these books more than any history book. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I was thinking mostly of fiction–novels, specifically–as the focus of this piece, but there are numerous examples of literary non-fiction–especially autobiographies–that are worth reading and have lessons to teach: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. More than the superficiality of film and the flatness of art and photography, the depth of characterization, psychology, tragedy, and emotion contained in such literature can do more to create awareness of the joy and tragedy of human lives and inspire deep and long-lasting empathy for other people.

In Al Aswany’s article, he comments that “I don’t think literature is the right tool to change the situation right now. If you would like to change the situation now, go out into the street. Literature, to me, is about a more important change: It changes our vision, our understanding, the way we see. And people who are changed by literature, in turn, will be more capable to change the situation.” There is often a strong connection between writers and political activism, which has been especially clear in the case of writers coming from traditionally suppressed minority backgrounds; James Baldwin was a lifelong fighter for social and racial justice, and Alice Walker famously declared that “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”

In a time when Liberal Arts and humanistic studies are coming under criticism for not being apparently linked to “real-world” skills, and budgets for education are being cut across the board, we need to ask ourselves if there are things important in society beyond profit-making. Is nation-building and money-making the most important thing in society, more than the lives of people it exploits? Are some people in society just a means for others and not an end in themselves? How can we enrich our culture and society to be not only good citizens but empathetic fellow humans? Reading literature is no panacea, but is certainly something that can do no harm. Only in such a world where we understand and feel compassion for people outside our own circle can a statement such as Black Lives Matter be both a true assertion and a reality. Where kids and teenagers are not murdered by the police for no reason other than that they were Black, where refugees and immigrants would be universally welcomed rather than treated like lower life forms. Only in a more empathetic world of shared humanity is this possible.

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