BOOK REVIEW: The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare

The Two Noble Kinsmen (Folger Shakespeare Library)The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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King Creon of Thebes is a jerk. The play opens with three Queens petitioning the Duke of Athens, Theseus, to avenge the kingly husbands that Creon had executed. Theseus ultimately agrees. We know that Creon is really a jerk [and not that the Queens are being spoilsports (or duplicitous)] because Creon’s own nephews – Palamon and Arcite, the titular two noble kinsmen – are about to high-tail it out of Thebes to get away from Creon’s reign when they learn Theseus has attacked. These two aren’t the kind to shy away from a fight, and so – instead of leaving – they fight for Thebes, despite its jackwagon of a King. The two fight with valor, but are no match for Theseus’s forces and are captured, becoming prisoners of Athens.

Palamon and Arcite are paragons of manliness, the kind of men who other men want to be and that ladies want to be with. They are handsome, virtuous, athletic, and likeable. The two share a bond that one might think unbreakable, until the beautiful Emilia enters the picture. Through the window of the jail, Palamon spots Emilia in the garden and is stricken by love at first sight. When Arcite says he, too, has the hots for Emilia (who they both only know by sight and from a distance,) Palamon is suddenly ready to kill his kinsman and brother in arms. Palamon is over-the-top in his anger, especially as it seems unlikely at that moment that either of them is likely to meet Emilia. [I suspect Arcite really likes Emilia, too, but one can’t eliminate the possibility that the elaborate antics to follow are all for the principle of the matter because Palamon is so insistent that Arcite has no right to pursue Emilia. As if Palamon had called “shotgun” and Arcite had tried to jump up front.]

However, soon Arcite is summoned to the palace, and he ends up being banished from Athens. He’s told that he doesn’t have to go home, but he can’t stay in Athens. Arcite starts to head back to Thebes, but then he finds out that Athens is having a field day (by that I mean a day of sports and competition, not in the colloquial sense of the word) he decides to disguise himself and compete in the hopes of winning Emilia’s heart (and / or getting Palamon’s goat.) (Winning Emilia is no small feat given Emilia’s high standards and – given her adoring talk of her relationship with a friend named Flavina – a likely lesbian inclination.) But we’ve established that Arcite is a man among men, and he trounces the competition, and – in doing so — does get to meet Emilia.

Meanwhile, back in the jail, Palamon is no slouch himself. By way of a combination of charisma and machismo, the jailer’s daughter has fallen as fast and stupid for him as he did for Emilia. The daughter ends up breaking Palamon out of jail. Shortly after that, the she goes coo-coo for coco puffs insane when she realizes: a.) being a commoner, Palamon could never fall for her, and b.) in all probability her father will be hanged when Theseus realizes Palamon is no longer in the prison, and her father’s blood will be on her hands.

Palamon and Arcite meet. Palamon has not cooled down, and is more ready than ever to kill his kinsman — but in a duel, because he’s a gentleman, not a heathen. Arcite provides food and medicine, and tells Palamon he’ll back in a week with two swords and two suits of armor so they can hold their deathmatch in a style befitting gentlemen. I don’t know how much it was intended, but the absurdist humor of these two men alternatingly assisting and threatening to gut one another is hilarious. One could build a Monty Python sketch on it with some tweaking and exaggeration.

Palamon is good to his word, and (after helping each other on with the other’s armor) the two commence their duel, but are interrupted by a deus ex machina hunting trip featuring Theseus, Hippolyta (his wife), Emilia, and Pirithous (a gentleman friend of Theseus’s.) Theseus is angry and is ready to have the two men hauled off for execution. The kinsmen genteelly request that they be allowed to finish out the duel so that one of them will die a little ahead of the other by the other’s hand. Theseus denies this request, but everyone loves these dudes (even Pirithous seems to have a bro-crush on them) and they all intercede.

Theseus has a change of heart. He offers Emilia the option of picking which one she’ll marry, and the other will be executed. Emilia says thanks for the offer of god-like powers, but that she’ll pass. She says she’ll marry whichever one comes out alive, but she’s not going to be judge, jury, and executioner. Then Theseus tells the two kinsmen to leave for one month, during which time they are to be civil to each other. When they come back, they’ll bring three knights with them. (BTW, bad deal for the knights who also die if their boy doesn’t win the competition, but they are all knightly stoic about it.) Then they’ll have a competition in which whichever man can force the other man to touch a pillar will win Emilia’s hand and the other one will be executed.

I’ll leave the reader to read how it plays out. I believe I read that this play was called a comedy on its playbill, but its one of the plays that there is no consensus in categorizing. Unlike “Macbeth,” which is always called a tragedy, or “Taming of the Shrew” which is uniformly labeled comedy, there is significant difference of opinion on this one.

All the while the two noble kinsmen’s stories are playing out, a subplot is afoot in which the jailer’s daughter has gone mad, and efforts are being made to snap her out of it. It turns out that her father, the jailer, was not in danger because Palamon didn’t rat her out, and probably because Theseus assumed Palamon burned through the locks with a smoldering look.

This is a straightforward and entertaining tale. Yes, it has its share of deus ex machina happenings (the fortuitous fox hunt is neither the first nor last), but that’s the nature of theater. Furthermore, I found parts of it hilarious, particularly when the kinsmen are getting armored up for their duel.

This was amongst Shakespeare’s final plays, and it’s said that he had a co-author on it. So, it’s got a little bit different feel. It’s not categorized as a problem play, but as I mentioned some call it a comedy and others a tragedy. Either way, you should definitely read it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishan

Temporary PeopleTemporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book gathers twenty-eight pieces of short fiction, poetry, and creative writing – some surreal and others realistic – all with the overarching theme of the life of a guest worker in the United Arab Emirates (UAE.)

I picked up this book as my literature selection for the UAE (I’m working on reading at least one work of literature from each nation I’ve visited. I find it informs my experience with each country in a way that greatly complements the visit.) I wasn’t sure how useful this book would be for my purposes (which is in large part to gain insight into a culture that might pass me by as a traveler.) I wasn’t concerned about the fact that this book is about non-citizens who are temporarily located in the UAE, and thus the cultures I would be seeing would largely be from abroad. [The predominant ethnic group presented in these stories is Malayali, from Kerala in India, but one reads of Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, and many others.] For many countries I’ve visited this dislocation might be an issue, but the UAE and other Gulf States (e.g. Qatar) present a unique situation in that most of the work gets done by workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and – to some degree – other places such as Africa and even Europe. Seeing how this melting pot works was definitely more interesting to me than reading about the lifestyles of rich and unknown Emirati’s who live off their petro-welfare checks. My concern, early in the book, was that there’s a lot of surrealism (including the opening story) that would offer some level of metaphorical insight but little direct insight. However, by the end I felt that I did gain a taste of life in the UAE from reading this book.

While the bio-blurb suggests there are “twenty-eight linked stories,” this isn’t really an accurate statement. There are twenty-eight “chapters,” divided into three parts, but many of these chapters wouldn’t be considered “stories” in any conventional sense of that word. [To elaborate with an example, one “story” is just a three-page list of different careers / states of being of foreigners in the UAE. Some of the works are poems and others are micro-writings.] Issue might also be taken with the term “linked” as well, there are a couple tales linked by characters or events, but mostly they are only linked by the theme of being a stranger in a strange land. This isn’t to say that there are no stories. There are, and several of them are excellent. Personally, I got the most out of the longer pieces of short fiction. These are the works that really stuck with me. The short, experimental works will surely find a readership that loves them, but for me they were mostly just a kind of palate cleaner.

The stories that most gripped me were:

-The tale of a woman who rides around fixing [and sometimes finding] construction workers who fell off a building. This one effectively presents the idea of the foreign laborer being treated as a disposable commodity.

-The man who destroys a phone belonging to a small business owner when he goes into a jealous rage. This is one of the stories that really hammers home the trauma of familial separation and long-distance relationships.

-The story of children molested by an elevator. [I warned you that some of the stories are wildly surreal and / or symbolist. The book’s blurb relates the work to Salman Rushdie, and one can definitely see shades of that author’s influence.] What struck me about this story was the idea of growing up too fast in this life as a guest worker’s dependent.

-A boy whose bicycle is stolen undergoes a series of traumas. This one has a lot to do with being ground down and then lashing out to save face. The boy whose bicycle was stolen didn’t speak Arabic and thus stood out to the police as someone they could treat as they wished, and this spurs him to want to pay the unkindness forward.

-The man who takes a job selling laundry detergent, literally dressed as a clown. This story is about the humiliation suffered by one who has to take whatever job he can get, and – once in the job – he’s seen as someone who can be tread upon by others, having lost all dignity.

-The Malayali man who returns home to India rumors that he’d been to jail for something that his neighbors find unconscionable. Another on-going sub-theme of the book is life in a highly moralistic society, and the troubles that that creates for the common man – particularly when there are extremely few available women of a status that one can approach.

This is by no means a complete list. There are other good stories as well. These are just the one’s that I found particularly resonated with me. The idea that the guest worker is not only temporarily a person but partially one as well runs through the book.

I’d highly recommend this book if you enjoy short fiction, and / or you are interested in life in the UAE.

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BOOK REVIEW: American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder and Stephen King

American Vampire, Vol. 1American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel includes two distinct, but interconnected, stories presented in an interspersed fashion (i.e. each chapter presents a piece of each story.) The first story, written by Scott Snyder, is set in flapper era Hollywood, and revolves around a hardworking aspiring actress, Pearl, who is lured into a den of vampires by a big-name actor who she has a celebrity crush on.

The second story, by Stephen King, is set in the wild west and tells the story of a violent bandit named Skinner Sweet. Sweet is also turned vampire when he is “killed” by a vampire whose business activities are disrupted by Skinner’s rogue ways. The connective tissue between the two stories is the character of Sweet, who is a background character in Snyder’s story – playing a sort of mentor / guide who Pearl is only reluctantly and skeptically willing to accept.

Like Blade, character from Marvel Comics and the movies of the same name, Pearl and Sweet have enhanced capabilities in comparison to the old “European” vampires. These enhancements are similar to Blade’s, as well. The American Vampires don’t instantaneously fry in sunlight, and they are stronger and faster than their old-world counterparts. I suspect that in both cases, these enhancements are meant to make things interesting, given that – in both cases — these characters are at a disadvantage in every other way (i.e. they are outnumbered, they have many fewer resources, and they are far less experienced.) Unlike Blade, the “American Vampires” morph into nastier and more monster-like versions of themselves when they go on the attack.

The stories are straightforward, though skillfully crafted. In the first, Pearl is turned and then goes out for some payback, her best friend getting caught up in the action as well. In the second, Sweet plays out his vendetta against a lawman who was his nemesis. We get additional insight from a man who wrote up Skinner’s story as a work of fiction, but then came out as having really been writing the truth – much to the amusement of a skeptical audience. Flashbacks throughout this author’s talk layout the Skinner Sweet story. One does get the sense that immortality has had a tempering effect on Sweet, who doesn’t seem so prone to be mean for meanness sake. Although, this might be deceptive as we don’t see much action by him in the Snyder story.

I found the artwork to be well-done. While I don’t have expertise on the subject, I could follow the panels with no problem, and that’s about all I need out of them.

I was engrossed by this book. It can’t be claimed to being original, but it is an adept execution. If you are interested in vampire stories, this is an interesting take on them.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan

Pride of BaghdadPride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I generally dislike books for adults which anthropomorphize wildlife. Except for “Watership Down” and “Animal Farm” I can’t — off the top of my head — think of another book oriented towards adults that I liked that did so. However, Vaughan’s book tells a stirring story that could pretty much only be told by anthropomorphizing its wildlife characters – because those characters are the only characters through most of the story and the intensity of the story revolves around their internal experience.

It’s the story of a pride of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the Gulf War. The four lions were – for a time – roaming the streets of war-torn Baghdad looking for food. The story blends fiction with way-points of fact established from the accounts of soldiers.

Vaughan does inject some of the harsh reality of the natural world into the book, and so it doesn’t fall completely into the pit of anthropomorphization, and — by doing so — he creates a more visceral experience in the story.

It’s a short but gripping story. Vaughan succeeds in facilitation of the reader’s consideration of what it must be like to be an uncomprehending creature placed in humanity’s most incomprehensible condition – warfare.

An appendix to the book includes the proposal and notes, which clarifies some of what was actually known to have happened as opposed to what is either speculated or fiction.

I found this book intriguing and would highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: World War Hulk by Greg Pak

World War HulkWorld War Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection [World War Hulk (2007) #1-5] picks up where “The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk” left off. “Planet Hulk” sees Hulk arriving on the harsh planet of Sakaar where he engages in a series of adventures that take him from enslaved gladiator to king. I reviewed that work recently, and enjoyed it more than this one, though both are from the same author and each tells an intriguing story. The “Planet Hulk” story was just more intricate and thought-provoking — we see a change in the Hulk and the events that bring those changes about.

In “World War Hulk,” the Hulk returns to Earth, seeking revenge upon the “Illuminati” group who jettisoned him into space (i.e. Tony Stark / Ironman, Doctor Strange, Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic, and Black Bolt.) Said revenge isn’t so much for shooting him into space, but because the craft that they sent him to space in blew up leveling Sakaar’s capital city and killing (among many others) his brand new Queen. So, the story is just the Hulk trying to put a beating on the four superheroes who shot him into space as they try to not get beaten (and to keep a [mostly] evacuated New York City from being leveled.] The Illuminati quartet face a number of problems, however. First, while they might have had the combined ability to defeat the Hulk before (at least teamed with the many other heroes at their disposal — and many are present from street-level vigilantes to big leaguers like the Fantastic Four,) the Hulk is madder than ever, and thus stronger than ever (but also wiser / more experienced.) Second, the Hulk now has his own monster-level “Warbound” entourage (i.e. Korg, Miek, Hiroim, Brood, and Elloe Kaifi.) Finally, the one hero who, without a question, has the power to stop Hulk and his Warbound, i.e. The Sentry, is severely agoraphobic and schizophrenic. So, it’s a great challenge to get him out the door and once you do, he’s at risk of schizoid behavior. On top of all that, he contains enough power to destroy the world – accidentally or because of distorted perceptions.

I did like the touch about The Sentry being a basket case. I’m not a big fan of hugely overpowered heroes, but if they have enough weaknesses they can redeem what would otherwise be terminally boring storylines. This is certainly the case with the Hulk who is at his most powerful when he is out of control and who is also, generally, at his least intelligent at those times. The Sentry takes it a step beyond because he’s barely functional. One may be doubtful about someone so powerful being scared to go outside, but it is the nature of mental illness that one doesn’t always see oneself as one is seen and there need not be a sound logic to one’s perceptions of the world.

I’d recommend reading “Planet Hulk” first and – if you enjoy it, which I suspect you might – you’ll probably find following it up with “World War Hulk” worthwhile.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak

The Incredible Hulk: Planet HulkThe Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I was pleasantly surprised by the story arc and character development in this volume – which is to say it had both and they were well crafted. I often have a problem with comic books — in particular (and on-going series of any kind, in general,) and that’s that they often fail to be satisfying as self-contained stories. So much effort is put into keeping one reading that the climax and resolution – such as they are – feel like minor speed-bumps on the way to somewhere else. That wasn’t the case here. While the ending leaves open a route of continued story (as one would expect,) one sees the Hulk undergo a transformation across the events of this story. He’s shot away from the Earth, lands on the wrong planet, is forced to fight as a gladiator, escapes, fights his way across a world teeming with harsh adversaries, all the while building the respect of those around him until he is elevated to kingship.

Tough guy characters are notorious for remaining unchanged across a story arc. Hulk, being the ultimate tough guy, seems particularly unlikely to grow or develop. However, the Hulk who begins this story jettisoned into deep space by his superhero colleagues to avoid him causing chaos on Earth, feels different from the Hulk who assumes leadership of the planet Saakar at the volume’s end. Amid monsters, the Hulk is in his element and can be a better version of himself. On Earth he is a bull in a china shop, on Sakaar not everyone he meets is so delicate. Overpowered heroes are often hard to make interesting. However, a couple countervailing features make it easier to make Hulk more interesting than say, Superman. First of all, Hulk is overpowered in one dimension, i.e. power, and might be considered underpowered in other dimensions (i.e. intellect, pettiness, control, etc.) Second, there is an interesting game theoretic condition in which the Hulk just gets stronger the angrier he gets, and so he always presents an object lesson — that is, one can’t just fight fire with fire and get the better of him. Thirdly, and most importantly, no matter who the Hulk is fighting, his story is essentially man versus self. The outward opposition is secondary. Because of his past mindless destructiveness, he is uniquely able to understand the need to let bygones be bygones. This is nicely shown, and eventually challenged.

Movie buffs may wonder what this book has in common with the “Thor: Ragnarok” movie that features common elements. The answer is: not a lot. The Sakaar of the movie seems to be just a huge trash heap and a gladiatorial arena. The Sakaar of the comics is more fleshed out with agrarian areas and various indigenous peoples / species. There are a couple of common characters, including Korg and Miek, but they are only superficially the same character. (Korg is much more serious and Miek is a much more substantially developed character in the comic book.) Also, there is no Thor. The only other familiar hero from other comics that we see on Sakaar is the Silver Surfer – and only early in the story.

Besides the main story, provided by “The Incredible Hulk, #92 – 105” there is a “Planet Hulk Gladiator Guide” for the hardcore nerds the provides all sorts of detail regarding the geography planet Sakaar, biographical sketches of key characters, and the culture of various species on the planet. There is also another issue “Amazing Fantasy #15” that shows Amadeus Cho (on Earth) investigating what happened with his friend, Bruce Banner.

I enjoyed “Planet Hulk” considerably, and I look forward to reading the “World War Hulk” collection that was also written by Pak. The art was generally clear and conveyed action effectively, and I found the story quite intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: And the Earth Will Sit on the Moon by Nikolai Gogol

And the Earth Will Sit on the MoonAnd the Earth Will Sit on the Moon by Nikolai Gogol
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection contains five short stories by the esteemed 19th century Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. (According to marketing materials, the finalized edition may have a sixth story located in the book’s second half.) For a small collection, it’s a diverse set of stories including surrealism, speculative fiction, and grim and gritty realism. That said, there is a theme that runs throughout, and it’s the social humiliation and envy of being in the middling territory of a hierarchical / aristocratic society.

The first three stories, which are among Gogol’s best known, are set in Saint Petersburg, and feature low-level bureaucrats. In other words, the bottom tier of the upper crust – not peasants, but poor relative to what they were expected to maintain and lacking status compared to almost everyone around them. Whatever else is going on throughout these stories, these characters are striving to save face — and the odds of doing so are against them.

“The Nose” is a story in which a barber finds a human nose in a loaf of bread he’s eating for breakfast. [Lest this seem gross beyond measure, the story is completely surreal / dream-like and there is no gore.] The barber recognizes the nose as one belonging to a civil servant who is one of his regular customers. The barber panics and pitches the nose in the river, trying to get rid of the evidence. The story picks up with the civil servant who lost the nose, and his attempts to discern its whereabouts.

“Diary of a Madman” is – as the name suggests – a chronicle of a man who descends into madness. Gogol does an artful job with pacing. He begins by establishing a lead character that one might find quirky, but not particularly insane. Then we see the character as he registers a conversation between two dogs in the street. As the story continues, at first the only anomaly is the man’s belief that dogs communicate in words (spoken and written) and that he can uniquely understand them. Then, when the man begins to believe he is the King of Spain, his madness becomes complete and all-encompassing. It’s interesting to see how Gogol communicates this madness, down to the change of sensible diary headings (i.e. the date) to bizarre substitutes.

“The Overcoat” is a story about a poor civil servant whose coat is falling to shreds, so – though he can’t afford it – he invests in a new one. While the story is mostly realistic, it does take turns into speculative territory near the end. However, the themes of envy, obsession, and the glee of apparent upward mobility (even if it’s for something as superficial as a new coat) provide the story’s tension.

The book takes a little turn at this point. The first three stories were set in Saint Petersburg, but the latter stories are set out in rural villages.

“Old World Landowners” is about a cute old couple who owns the lands encompassing a village and surrounding territory. It is Gogol’s take on a myth from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” but instilled with a grimmer, more Russian, sentiment. The couple are not only adorable, but are essentially the glue that binds the community.

“The Carriage” is about a gentleman from a small and boring village. At times, a military unit takes up residence in this village, and – when they do – they instill life in an otherwise bleak small town. The gentleman comes to visit the General and his officers — desiring to impress them. He is most proud of a Viennese carriage that he recently acquired. He invites them to lunch the next day, but all does not go as planned and the man is faced with utter humiliation.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. Despite the nineteenth century prose, the stories are readable and engaging. While the stakes are more often saving versus losing face (as opposed to life-and-death) Gogol does a great job of building the feelings of humiliation and woe – even for readers from a very different form of society. The stories may feature uniquely aristocratic Russian circumstance, but they still work because they deal in universal human emotional experiences.

I’d highly recommend the book for readers of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman, Vol 1: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder

Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of OwlsBatman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection (Batman #1-7 of The New 52) shows Batman’s discovery of a shadowy and age-old nemesis that has managed to cling to the darkness so well that it’s known only by a creepy nursery rhyme / folksong. The Court of Owls not only predates Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne, but we learn it goes back at least to the time of his [great-]great-grandfather, Alan Wayne, a railroad magnate largely responsible for Gotham’s look.

The story opens with a grizzly murder involving a large number of well-placed throwing knives, positioned to allow the victim to survive for some time. However, it’s Bruce Wayne’s meeting with Lincoln March, an apparently magnanimous man running for mayor, that brings things to a head. During the meeting, March is stabbed by a costumed villain claiming to be carrying out the sentence of the Court as he goes on to attempt to assassinate Wayne. While the Court of Owls connection is clear, Batman concludes that it’s just another villain using the symbolism of the nursery rhyme in the same way he uses the symbolism of the bat. However, as his investigation goes forward, that theory becomes less tenable.

I greatly enjoyed this collection. While we see Nightwing, Red Robin, and the current Robin, this story is very much a solo outing for Batman. The past and present sidekicks serve only to join Alfred in reminding Batman that he’s burning the candle at both ends, and to facilitate [skillfully delivered] exposition. While we see Batman as the pragmatic master detective and as the butt-kicking caped crusader, what I really enjoyed (and what set this edition apart for me) was a trippy, surreal piece of the story. There’s a section of the book that reminds me of Grant Morrison’s “Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious Place on Serious Earth.” While it draws on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, it gets mind-bending as Batman finds himself trapped in a labyrinth and his only water source is provided by a conveniently-existing fountain in said labyrinth.

I’d say this is definitely among must-reads for fans of Batman. It sets up what will be an on-going battle, but it was an intriguing in its own right.

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BOOK REVIEW: Matilda by Roald Dahl

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[The Sarah Walsh illustrated edition comes out October 13, 2020.]

 

Matilda is a precocious child with parents who are negligent and verbally abusive. The story picks up shortly before Matilda is set to begin kindergarten, presumably so that we can learn that she is a preschool autodidact and that she has crappy parents. We also witness how she takes to “punishing” her parents whenever one or both of them behave in a particularly vile manner, using what might best be described as pranks. The empowerment of children, girls, and bookish people is the central theme of the book

Matilda begins school and is at once delighted to find a kind and caring teacher, Ms. Honey, and dismayed to find that the Principal, Mrs. Trunchbull, is a horrible woman. While Ms. Honey recognizes Matilda’s brilliance, she cannot get the girl advanced to a suitable grade because both Matilda’s parents and Trunchbull refuse to recognize the girl’s intellect. Dahl takes on both the cause of feminism and the plight of nerds. In the case of the former, we see how Matilda is disregarded by both her parents because she is a girl and they don’t see much value in her education and can’t fathom that she would be good at learning. While Matilda’s brother doesn’t exactly get top-notch parenting, at least some effort is made to advance his education. In the case of the latter, Dahl shows the derision for reading and studiousness that is all too common in society.

I won’t delve into the details of the balance of the story except to say that when Matilda discovers that Ms. Honey’s life is even more harrowing than her own, the young girl resolves to use her talents and capabilities to help improve Honey’s lot.

I read the version of the book, illustrated by Sarah Walsh, that is coming out in the autumn of 2020. Dahl’s story is the same, but the art is different. Having seen the Quentin Blake illustrated books, I’m aware of the difference between the two. However, as a non-artist, I don’t have much vocabulary to give a detailed description of said difference. I can say the Blake art is more reminiscent of old comic strips and the Walsh work was more cleanly drawn and “realistic,” while maintaining a general sense of whimsy and a bright color palette. I enjoyed the artwork, though I don’t claim a particular eye for such things.

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. It’s written for children, but if you’ve gotten to adulthood without checking it out, it’s worth going back to read it. While the villainy maybe over-the-top for adult readers (i.e. there aren’t any nuanced characters,) the story has emotional resonance and is satisfyingly concluded. As to the question of the age of children it is good for, I don’t have much expertise in that either. However, as a litmus test, ask yourself if you think the kid can assimilate the image of Trunchbull swinging a girl by her ponytails – as in the hammer-throw – and tossing her over a fence.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

The Old DriftThe Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel follows three Zambian families through three generations from before there was a Zambia (when it was Northern Rhodesia) into the near future. The nine chapters each correspond to a member of one of the families for a given generation. Throughout the first two parts — i.e. “Grandmothers” and “Mothers” — we occasionally see the lives of members of the three families bump into each other, but in the third (“Children”) we see them become entwined. The families are ethnically diverse. The grandmothers include an Italian and a Brit who married a black Rhodesian. And there is a mixed-race marriage involving an Indian merchant. While the diversity of the novel’s cast makes for some interesting considerations of identity (e.g. how one views oneself versus how one is viewed by others,) it’s not so much central to the story as it is a flavoring of the story.

While we learn in a prologue that the title is a term used by the locals living near Mosi-o-Tunya (Victoria Falls) regarding the Zambezi River, it takes on another meaning as the book’s theme. The thematic meaning has more to do with impotence to fix the country’s problems. In other words, the momentum of Zambia’s “drift” simply can’t be overcome. A central idea in the book is squandered potential. Each of the three grandmothers shows a potential for greatness that is wasted not only because they are women in a patriarchal society. Sibilla is afflicted with a condition in which hair grows over her entire body at an incredibly rapid rate. Agnes is a skilled tennis player until she goes blind. Matha is smart as a whip, but she becomes caught in the orbit of men who are dim.

Each character is caught in this inexorable “drift” that is littered with detritus like poverty, AIDS, technological dependence, and weak governance. By the time it comes to the third generation, they are not only loaded with potential but (to a large extent) have access to resources but they still can’t manage to advance on solutions. In fact, they can’t seem to help but to contribute to the problems they are set against. In a crucial scene, a confluence of the work of the three (Joseph’s vaccination, Jacob’s drones, and an embedded communication device worked on by Naila) all come together in an action that is just what they are trying to create a revolution against. [Not having control or autonomy, but rather being colonized in an entirely new kind of way.] The problem is so amorphous and vast that a consensus of what it even is can’t be agreed upon.

I picked up this book as part of my project to read literature from every country I visit, and I’m glad I did. It’s hard to imagine a book that is more useful for that purpose because it covers so much ground in terms of the history of the country and the lives of a range of Zambians from prostitutes living in shacks to the wealthy elite — not to mention the various minorities.

The book is literary fiction, centered on the characters, but a story does unfold as well as a powerful thematic exploration. The book isn’t easily classified. There is even an element of science fiction in that “beads” [imagine a smart phone built into the human hand, using neuro-electrical energy for power] are an important plot device and are relevant in the resolution of the story. There is this technology being made available to Zambians, free or at low-cost, but they are guinea pigs and have no say in how it works, when it works, or how it’s used. (In a way, that is the story of us all and is not unique to Zambia, Africa, or even the developing world.) This technological dependence is presented as a kind of neo-colonialism, and – in that regard – it’s railed against, even as people are addicted to the tech in the same way people are to their phones today. While “Bead” and advanced drone technology are central to the story, one wouldn’t call this science fiction, per se, but it’s hard to ignore the salience of technology as an element of power (and how that plays into the story.)

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. While it may be particularly intriguing if you have a special interest in African or Zambian literature, one need not have a particular interest for the book to be engaging and a worthwhile read.

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