BOOK REVIEW: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen [Ill. by Marjolein Bastin]

Pride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein BastinPride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein Bastin by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This edition out: March 2, 2021

 

This is a new addition of an early 19th century classic. The value-added of the edition under review comes from illustrations by Marjolein Bastin, making for an aesthetically pleasing hardcopy edition for gifts or for collectors. The attractive color illustrations are of wildflowers, birds, and butterflies, and are widespread throughout – including the first and last page of each chapter. The artwork is beautifully drawn and vibrantly colored.

It’s a testament to the effectiveness of this book’s story and character development that it has withstood the test of time, becoming a widely-adapted classic. If it were being submitted for publishing today, I suspect it would face intense challenges with respect to its flouting of many popular conventions on writing. It has a pretty high telling-to-showing ratio. Description is sparse, so much so that some might find “floating head syndrome” kicks in [i.e. long tracks of dialogue detached from the setting and any action, such that they are imagined as two floating heads in a white void speaking back and forth.] That said, it may be that Austen was ahead of her time in this regard. A number of prominent later writers concluded that there was a general tendency to over-describe in novels. [Readers are going to build their own mental models of setting and character appearance, such that long tracts of description are wasted effort and ultimately hinder readability.]

The story revolves around a family of five sisters, the Bennet’s. Their father is a gentleman, but of modest means and his estate is “entailed.” [I don’t know what “entailed” means legally, but relative to the story, it means that his wife and daughters can’t inherit his estate – rather, the property must go to Mr. Bennet’s nearest male relative, who turns out to be a pompous, self-righteous, and generally irritating clergyman, Mr. Collins.] The significance of that fact is that it exacerbates concern about what will happen to the family when Mr. Bennet dies — particularly if the daughters don’t marry well and Collins decides to be a jerk and put them out on the “street.” This makes Mrs. Bennet anxious about the future and a little cuckoo about getting her daughters married.

Within the Bennet family, the story revolves mostly around the second oldest daughter, Elizabeth. When Mr. Collins asks her hand in marriage, she summarily rejects him. This, of course, is much to the chagrin of her mother, as marriage to Collins would single-handedly secure the family’s future [one can’t very well evict one’s mother-in-law, or at least one would have to be an even bigger jerk than Collins to do so.] Elizabeth soon meets a man she does find very promising, Mr. Wickham, a personable military man. But Elizabeth is nothing if not cautious, which turns out to be a good thing for her. The relationship with Wickham doesn’t go anywhere, and she ultimately discovers that all is not what it seems with the man. She immediately notices hostility between Wickham and a wealthy young bachelor gentleman named Mr. Darcy. Wickham tells Elizabeth his side of the story, which makes Darcy look like a jerk who ruined Wickham’s life. Elizabeth readily believes this Wickham because Mr. Darcy is so proud, and the fact that Darcy is also quiet and reserved makes him seem all the more aloof. [Those of us who are not highly expressive can readily recognize the point that people will write their own stories to fill in the blanks when faced with a lack of intense feedback.] So, here we have explanation of the title. Mr. Darcy is proud, but Elizabeth develops a prejudice against him not only because of his pride but also because he is not as instantaneously likable as Wickham or – for that matter — Darcy’s best friend, Mr. Bingley. This lack of bonhomie makes it easier to believe the bad than the good about Darcy, despite mounting evidence that he’s kind of a quietly great guy.

Elizabeth rejects a second marriage proposal, this one from Darcy, on the twin grounds that she believes Darcy ruined Wickham and also that she came to the conclusion that Darcy poisoned Bingley’s relationship with Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane. [Elizabeth and Jane are close not only in age but in their relationship to each other.] Reeling with rejection, Darcy hands Elizabeth a letter the next day. In it, Darcy admits that he was party to convincing Bingley to drop Jane, but only because he thought the reserved Jane wasn’t into Bingley. That is, it wasn’t that he had anything against Jane, but he didn’t want his friend to be the “reacher” in a “reacher-settler” relationship. But the big bomb regards Wickham, as Darcy’s side of the story paints the affable red-coat as flighty and irresponsible. Gradually, Elizabeth comes to see that Darcy’s is the more complete and accurate depiction of events, and she can even see how he would think as he did about Jane. After several readings, Elizabeth is mortified at her own behavior in light of this new information, but the English countryside is a small pond for the upper crust, and she will continue to run into the man she spurned wrongly.

The events that set up the grand romantic gesture that will turn things around and set up the climax revolve around Elizabeth’s [immediately] younger sister, the ugly bonnet-buying Lydia. Visiting some family friends at Brighton, Lydia falls in with Mr. Wickham and, being less cautious and discerning than Elizabeth [not to mention overeager to be married,] she sidles off with him. This is not so relatable today, but the entire family become obsessed with finding out what happened with Lydia, and fears that she’s brought disgrace on the entire family and may even keep the other daughters from finding suitable suitors. [Mr. Collins, for one, believes they should treat her as if she were dead.] This sets up Mr. Darcy to come in and secretly save the day [get Wickham to marry Lydia, a marriage which satisfies everybody – except Collins who still believes Lydia should be written off because she may or may not have had premarital sex but she certainly created the appearance that she probably did — for which she will spend an eternity in a lake of hellfire for ever and ever without end.]

There is a lot of obsession with the incomes of the various characters, and a lot of “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality. In one sense, it seems that Austen is critiquing such attitudes – along with a lot of other peculiar attitudes of the day. Certainly, we see the sympathetic protagonist, Elizabeth, is clear in behaving in a way that suggests she is most interested in a happy future. On the other hand, critics have pointed out that the book ends with those with more wealth set to have happier futures. Elizabeth and then Jane are likely to be happy as clams with their rich husbands, but Lydia far less so with the perpetually broke Mr. Wickham. There’s also lot of rigid formality that might be being picked at by the novel as well – or, at least, it appears so problematic to a present-day reader. There is so much reserved refusal to say anything that might violate social norms, even if a person is bursting to do so and everyone would be better off if they did. One might get the feeling Elizabeth is scared as a mouse given her unwillingness to speak openly, but then when Lady de Bourgh (who intimidates almost everyone in the book) tries to get Elizabeth to agree to turn down Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth refuses her in a very articulate and well-deployed counter-attack – despite being under the impression that there is no engagement to be concerned about in the first place (this after she rejected his proposal.)

I enjoyed reading this story. I expected it would be archaic and generally unrelatable to today’s world. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly engaging story. While I am not one to by a book for ancillary illustrations, if you are into such things, this book has some soothing and beautifully-rendered imagery. It’s definitely worth reading this classic novel.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alien Stories by E.C. Osondu

Alien StoriesAlien Stories by E.C. Osondu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

 

This collection of short stories by Nigerian author, E.C. Osondu, examines the alien life. While many of the pieces use extraterrestrial aliens as a plot device, it’s easy to see that terrestrial alienation is the topic under consideration. Most of the pieces are of the soft science fiction variety, focusing on the psychological and relational elements more than the scientific detail. That said, a few of the pieces read as purely realist fiction. Some of the pieces focus on what it’s like to be an alien (of some variety,) but many of the stories focus upon how others perceive the “alien.” I should point out that the tone of the collection tends to be lighthearted, and so while it might seem that a collection based on the theme of alienation would be a bit melancholy, that is not so much the case.

This volume is part of the American Reader Series (#36) put out by BOA Editions. The collection includes eighteen stories. The first story, “Alien Enactors,” imagines individuals trying to convey information about their native culture in a recreational setting (called “the Ranch”) that is very market driven. The enactors are obsessed with ratings and with pleasing customers and the story is a commentary on what it is like for an émigré to enter the globalized world.

“Memory Store” was one of my favorites of the collection, because it sets up a fascinating thought experiment. The premise is that there is a store where one can go and sell one’s memories, and once one has sold a memory, it is lost to one forever. [Like selling blood or other bodily fluids, it mainly attracts those in relatively desperate states.] As a sci-fi plot mechanism, it makes for an interesting idea, but when one thinks of it as being about the trade-off of loss of past as one integrates into a new cultural environment, it becomes a powerful analogy.

“How to Raise an Alien Baby” is presented as a discussion of rules aliens would need to follow to adopt a baby from Earth. The story provokes one to think about how strange it can be for a child to enter a completely new cultural environment.

In “Visitors,” an alien couple have moved into a small village, and the lead characters are a couple who are having said alien couple over. The arrival of this alien couple invites incessant questioning about why they would pick such a place. For those who’ve lived only one place, it seems to be a common thought to wonder why anyone in their right mind would choose to live there – of all places. We also see a divergence of views toward aliens. The wife is more open-minded while the husband remains suspicious.

“Feast,” which is set on Alien Feast Day, features a child’s eye contemplation of aliens, and the endless questions such a view inspires. As with the husband in “Visitors,” the children try to grasp what aliens are really like, why the are so different, and – in the process – they stumble, misestimating the differences between the aliens and themselves.

In the story, “Mark,” a grandmother imparts wisdom via a story about the “Red Planet.” The journey described in this extraterrestrial tale is an analogy intended to prepare others a different kind of travel.

“Spaceship” is another of my favorites from the collection. In the story, aliens leave a broken-down spaceship at a village, just as someone might leave a car along the highway until it can be fixed. What is brilliant about the story is its description of how the locals begin to impart meaning upon the ship’s presence. All things, good and bad, that happen in the village are linked to the whims of the broken-down spacecraft. It serves as a commentary on superstition and religiosity.

In “Sacrifice,” each year an alien spacecraft visits, requiring one village youth to be surrendered to the aliens. There’s a sort of “Hunger Games” selection processes that isn’t discussed in detail, but which arrives at a presumably random “tribute” each year. However, when an only child is selected, the mother gets up in arms about it.

“Light” is about personal transformation and how it may seem to be a magical and spontaneous occurrence to others. In the story, a light from the sky lands up on the lead character, and, with it, she experiences a profound personality change.

In “Traveler” a local and an alien (“foreigner”) converse in transit.

“Debriefing” is one of the stories that isn’t of the science fiction genre. It imagines the advice that an African would receive upon arriving in the United States. It’s sort of a “do’s and don’ts” of living in America for the alien resident. It’s amusing in some places and disconcerting in others.

“Focus Group” presents a series of comments from individuals as if they were taking part in a focus group where they were asked “What are aliens like?”

The story “Child’s Play” revolves around two children who like to play a game that allows them to disappear into an alternative dimension.

Life changes for a bickering couple when the man finds a mysterious boon in the backyard in “Who Is in the Garden?”

“On the Lost Tribes of the Black World” is a story that is presented as if it were a scholarly description of the “Konga” tribe, a people forged around the singular act of drumming.

In “Love Affair” a lesbian émigré to America from Africa, Finda, tries to navigate the minefield of human relations. On the one hand, she learns from her grandmother that being gay isn’t something Finda would be likely to be able to pull off in their homeland, but still Finda isn’t finding her sexual orientation to be any picnic in America – despite the fact that she can be open about it. This is one of the most engaging stories in the collection.

With “The Home Companion” the collection shifts back into sci-fi territory, imagining a technology that can serve to combat loneliness by providing one with an intelligence with which to converse.

“Our Earthly Possessions” discusses just what a traveler has as he or she moves to a new land. The subject of memory, addressed in the second story, is revisited in this story from a different angle.

I found this to be a fantastic collection of stories. If you have any interest in what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, these stories will offer you insight into that condition. If you are experienced in that regard, the stories will resonate with you. It’s a smart collection of stories and will plant seeds of thought and help them germinate. If you read short fiction, I’d highly recommend this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth

The Prague OrgyThe Prague Orgy by Philip Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is sold independently, but is also included with “Zuckerman Bound,” a collected trilogy of books written by Philip Roth that includes: “The Ghost Writer,” “Zuckerman Unbound,” and “The Anatomy Lesson.” These books center on a fictional character, Nathan Zuckerman, who is a novelist bearing some resemblance to Roth, himself. The trilogy is from the early / mid 1980’s and “The Prague Orgy” functions as an epilogue to the series, although there’s no problem reading it as a standalone story.

In this short and simple tale, Zuckerman meets with an exiled Czech novelist, Sisovsky, in New York. While they are conversing, Sisovsky mentions that his father wrote a series of stories in Yiddish. Zuckerman becomes intrigued by these stories, especially as Sisovsky suggests they are better than anything Sisovsky, himself, has written. When Zuckerman asks about the whereabouts of the stories and why Sisovsky hasn’t had them published, the latter tells him that they are with his ex-wife in Prague. Sisovsky suggests that Zuckerman could probably talk this ex-wife, Olga, into giving up the manuscripts.

Zuckerman goes to Prague to speak with Olga. As Sisovsky suggested, Olga is a bit of a nymphomaniac, and immediately proceeds to try to get busy with Zuckerman. She is also interested in a more official relationship so that she can cross the Iron Curtain. The bulk of the story revolves around Zuckerman trying to fend off advances and get his hands on the manuscripts so that he can bring them back to be published before they – like so many stories of Central European Jews – are lost forever.

Being set in Cold War Central Europe, communist paranoia and spying play a major role, and – apropos of its Prague setting – this takes a form reminiscent of that seen in the works of Kafka (there is a sense of looming danger, but one isn’t quite sure how seriously one should take it.) In its most direct interpretation, the title reflects the idea that one has a bohemian artistic crowd who have nothing to do but engage in sexual hedonism in Prague because they can’t express themselves openly under a Communist regime – i.e. sexual promiscuity is the only outlet to be shocking that’s allowed.

This is was an amusing and compelling read, and I’d recommend it for fiction readers — particularly if one has an interest in Cold War fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

SnowSnow by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Written by the Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, Snow is one of the most effectively atmospheric novels I’ve ever read and is as riveting a story as I’ve read in quite some time. The protagonist is Ka, an erudite – if young – poet and writer who is given a journalistic assignment in Kars, a small city in the far eastern portion of Turkey — near the border with Armenia. The assignment is to write about an epidemic of cases of high school girls committing suicide over headscarf policies, and it is amid this climate of hostility between Atatürk-style secular pro-Western reformists and the militantly anti-secular Islamists that this story plays out — and from which it draws its tension. [To further complicate matters, there are also Kurdish separatists who don’t agree with either of the others’ causes, but would like to have autonomy in their own nation. However, these are more a garnish to the story than a primary flavor.]

Ka’s arrival in Kars is followed by an extended period of snowfall which cuts the city off, setting the stage for the conflicting parties to commence feuding. An Islamist murders a bureaucrat, and an actor-cum-reformist political powerhouse stages a controversial play that results in troops firing into the audience at agitated Islamist high school boys. Throughout this period trapped in Kars, Ka is repeatedly sucked into the middle of the conflict. The reformists see him as a potentially powerful ally as he has the communicative reach of a famous poet. Being a scholarly (and modern) young man who’s been living in Germany, in the heart of the West, Ka is seen as a natural comrade. The Islamists quietly despise Ka, but also see him as one who can give them voice. When I say “quietly despise” I mean they clearly have disdain for him because he an atheist [or so they all assume] and they, furthermore, assume that he believes he is better than them. However, on a personal level they find Ka to be personable, likable, and respectful. As it happens, Ka is prone to a kind of mystical experience while in Kars. Poems flood his mind with unprecedented ease. He is amid the bliss of falling in love. It’s not clear whether his waffling on the question of the existence of god is the result of the inhabitants of Kars wearing off on him, if it’s the atmosphere of pristine snowy beauty, if it’s the joy of being madly in love, or some combination of the above. [A side question touched upon throughout the book is what spurs creativity? Is it misery? Is it happiness? Is it some combination of the two, rightly timed? Is it neither?]

Despite the description of Ka as being a young man throughout the book, in the first half of the book I pictured him as a middle-aged / older man. He seems so wise and well-reasoned, and people seem to seek him out for his opinion (granted, this has a lot to do with his fame.) However, when he finally receives some indication of reciprocation from the girl that he’s obsessed with, he immediately turns into a fifteen-year-old lovelorn boy. From that point onward, Ka succumbs to petty jealousy and becomes smotheringly needy. This will be Ka’s downfall — though not immediately. At first, this change seems to be almost flattering to the girl, turning her feelings from those of an acquaintance to those of a tentative lover. I must say, the most discordant part of this book is Ka’s transformation, but it does set up an intriguing chain of possibilities — and Ka wouldn’t be the first person to be transformed into a crazy person by way of a love affair.

The book’s approach to storytelling is quite interesting as well. It’s written as though the author, himself, is telling Ka’s story — not as a dispassionate witness but a secondary participant. Throughout most of the book this is not noticeable, and the telling comes across as run-of-the-mill third person narration, but in the latter third of the book it becomes quite prominent because of what I think of as literary fourth wall breaking, using shifts to first person narration to let the reader know that the author is actively in the story. [In plays and movies, the 4th wall break is when an actor turns to the audience and talks to them, in effect acknowledging that he or she knows they are in a movie.] The reason for these perspective shifts is that in the last part of the book, the author is trying to piece together what happened during Ka’s last hours in Kars.

If one is the type of reader who likes all outstanding plot questions tied up with a nice bow, one may find the ending a little bit trying. The author employs what I call “strategic ambiguity,” leaving certain facts unknown so that the reader is forced to draw his or her own conclusion [or to live with the lack of a conclusion.] I enjoy this approach as it gives me a little more to chew over as a reader, and, also, because it more reasonably captures the state of the real world, in which perfect certainty is a rarity. However, I do realize this tactic irritates some readers.

I was spellbound by this story. It was engrossing both on the level of the protagonist as an individual, but also offered great insight into the societal level conflict in the region. If you’re looking for a great novel, and not put off by religious-secular conflict being at the heart of a story, I’d highly recommend Snow.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie (originally published in 1989,) but I just got to it and must say that it’s one of the most skillfully crafted novels I’ve read in some time. One indication of this is that it is both highly readable and often nonlinear in storytelling. Stories that jump about in time have to keep the reader in a rapt state of attention and need to be written with multiple cues as to where one is in the timeline. Otherwise, if one misses a time transition, one is lost — and then the reading becomes a tedious slog. Irving maintains one’s attention through masterful revelation. The reader is always asking questions that are teased out until (at the optimal time) a revelation is made, but by that time one has a new slate of questions – all of which are resolved by book’s end.

The story revolves around the relationship between the titular character, Owen Meany, and the narrator – who is also Meany’s best friend, John Wheelwright. Owen Meany is a fascinating character mentally, physically, and spiritually. Mentally, he is at the top of his class and is often the smartest person in the room even when the room contains adults. Conversely, physically he is the tiniest kid in class and never grows out of that position, and he has a strange and grating voice that also isn’t cured by puberty. Spiritually, he is not only a person of iron-clad faith, he also believes he is God’s instrument. [Faith and doubt is a major theme of this novel.] The close relationship between Wheelwright and Meany is fire-forged by the trauma of Meany hitting a foul ball that careens into the temporal lobe of John’s mother, killing her instantaneously (and, perhaps more crucially, the relationship survives the the revelation that Owen believes he is God’s instrument.) It should be pointed out that Owen is also devastated by the foul ball killing. John’s mother, Tabitha Wheelwright, is as much a mother figure to him as to John, both because Owen’s mother is ambiguously not right in the head and because Tabitha says she will pay for anything necessary (beyond the scholarship he is sure to get) to allow Owen to go to the Gravesend Academy. (John comes from money but Owen is from a struggling blue-collar family, and so Owen couldn’t go to the prestigious school otherwise – even though he is academically much more suitable for such an educational environment.)

One fascinating aspect of character development is that Irving keeps the reader in Owen Meany’s corner. This is no small feat as the boy can be a bit of a pill, being a self-important know-it-all with a Biblical level of faith and (in some cases) dogmatism, as well as – oddly enough – a palpable disrespect for his own parents. One way this is done is by making Meany relatively reasonable, moral, and consistent – i.e. even when he is irksome it is usually in opposition to even more irksome forces. The other way that the author achieves this is by showing us that all the likeable characters in the book stay in Owen’s corner, as well. The most telling example of this is when John admits that he secretly hasn’t forgiven the batter two before Owen in the lineup for a play that allowed his friend to get to bat [while Owen, himself, is exonerated.] When John’s grandmother, who initially finds Owen to be painfully annoying, becomes Owen’s benefactor and primary maternal figure we know that there is something about this guy.

As kids who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, Owen and John enter adulthood at the height of the Vietnam conflict, and the story climax revolves around there diverging paths. Neither is a fan of the war, but Owen believes he has been called by God to participate for a very specific purpose. Therefore, he ends up in the bizarre situation of struggling to get sent to war while the Army finds him unfit for combat because of his diminutive stature (and his friends and family think he’s lost his mind.) The climax and conclusion tie up all the loose-ends generated by the book, including a few that one may have dismissed as purposeless “quirky behavior.”

Interspersed throughout the book are flash forwards to the “present day” (mid / late 1980’s.) These were the least appealing part of the book to read, though they did serve a purpose. For the most part, these sections consisted of John Wheelwright ranting about American politics or discussing his troubled relationship with the church he attends or the school at which he teaches. Ultimately, I saw these as a way to show John’s loathing for the American government and America because he believes they stole the genius of Owen Meany from him and from the world. As I was reading them, I wondered if they weren’t Irving’s way of getting across a loathing for the Reagan Administration and the Iran-Contra Affair. However, these parts also created an evocative lonely feel because one notices all the characters with strong individual identities are absent. This is not to say that the character of John Wheelwright / narrator is ill-developed, but he is a bit milquetoast compared to Owen or even characters like Hester or Grandmother. John’s obsession with national and institutional entities rather than individuals makes one feel the loss at points throughout that John has felt since Owen’s demise.

If you read fiction, this is a must-read. It is storytelling at its best. Despite excellent foreshadowing that lets the reader know the the book is on a tragic course, how this plays out is full of unexpected turns. The book is emotionally charged and intellectually engaging. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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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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BOOK REVIEW: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

LessLess by Andrew Sean Greer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The book’s eponymous protagonist, Arthur Less, goes on an eight-country world tour in order to avoid the wedding of his ex-boyfriend and the emotional turmoil inherent in that event. Faced with a looming invitation, Less isn’t up for the torture of attending, but neither can he decline without a good reason without seeming petty, sullen, or both. And, even if he does decline, he doesn’t want to be around the acquaintances who will pity him, attempt to comfort him, or both. With that in mind, he gathers together a collection of invitations for writing assignments, a writers’ conference, and an adjunct teaching assignment, and cobbles together an itinerary that will keep him out of the country until well after the wedding.

Less is a novelist of some renown, which is to say one of his books was highly regarded — though his others were far less so — and he long-lived in the shadow of one of America’s great men of letters with whom he had a long-term relationship. The comedic tone of the book is set by the hapless nature we see in the character. He finds himself a secondary figure in the high-brow world of American literature, but is never completely at ease and confident in that space. Of course, when he sets out traveling in Mexico, Europe, Morocco, India, and Japan, he finds himself even less at ease than usual.

There are various mishaps along the way that make this book comedic in nature, but it also has a nostalgic melancholy about it. Not only did Less’s relationship break up followed rapidly by his ex-boyfriend becoming engaged, but one thing will happen during his travels that he can’t escape – he will turn 50. This milestone causes him to reflect upon what he might have done differently, but also causes him concern that he hasn’t enough life left to make a good go of living – either as a writer or as someone who would like to be in a relationship again.

I won’t get into the ending in detail, but will say that I was pleased to see that it didn’t just peter out into Less’s return home, but rather leaves the reader with some food for thought via the turn of events one learns about.

Needless to say, I’d recommend this book for fiction readers – particularly literary fiction readers, though it is light, readable, and short for literary fiction. This book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young couple falls in love in an undesignated Middle Eastern country, but when violence flares out of control they are forced to flee. The novel follows this couple as they cross through various “doorways,” moving from one country to the next, trying to find someplace where they can settle into a peaceful life.

What makes this love story so intriguing is its exploration of the varied ways in which individuals cope with the challenges of refugee life. The male lead, Saeed, is close to his parents, who are professionals, at the beginning of the story. He’s been raised in a middle-class devout but moderate Muslim household. Saeed seeks out his own people and takes solace not only in Islam, but in the culture of his countrymen more generally. His girlfriend, Nadia, is on the outs with her family because she moved out on her own and she was too modern and progressive for the tastes of her traditional family. She’s a non-believer, and the religion and culture with which she was raised are objects she is more than willing to put in her rearview mirror. (To make it interesting, Nadia wears the burka, not because she is devout, but because it’s somewhat successful at keeping the guys from pawing her. This makes her appear devout, when she is anything but.) Nadia tries to assimilate into whatever community she finds herself. What begins as a comfortable “opposites attract” set of differences becomes an ever-widening chasm as the two are exposed to the stresses of refugee life.

This book is written in a sparse style. It does a lot of telling versus showing. However, that seems to work because some of what it does show the reader is so visceral that some straight-forward exposition of the character’s feelings forms a palate cleanser. The story is specifically vague about how the characters move from place to place. This is clearly on purpose to capture the nature of refugee travel, which is so different from the looking out windows and snapping photos that ordinary travelers do. It also allows the author to portray the refugee routes as portals that open and close on different locales as authorities on either end shut them down. They aren’t the firmly established transportation corridors ordinary travelers move through, but rather ephemeral windows of opportunity.

There are little vignettes about individuals apparently unrelated to the story in each chapter. Through them, I think the author just wishes to convey the global nature of this phenomenon. I didn’t find these bits added much, but the also didn’t take up much space or time, and so didn’t detract from the story.

I enjoyed this story. It reads clearly and quickly, and has a nice tight theme and story arc. I’d recommend it for fiction reads, particularly those interested in a story about being a refugee in the modern world.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

The Man Who Spoke SnakishThe Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I read this book as part of my continuing effort to read at least one book from every country to which I’ve traveled. Kivirähk’s book came highly recommended for Estonia on a list by diplomats who were asked to provide a book that offers insight into the country where they served. At first blush, this book seems like an odd selection for such a purpose because it’s a fantasy novel (rather than the character-centric literary fiction that typically offers deep insight about the culture from which the book’s characters reside.) However, I came away from this book feeling that I had learned something about the Estonian national character, if while immersed in a question which has much broader applicability.

The book revolves around the tension between the forest people and the those who’ve moved to the villages. The main character is among the last of the people who live in the forest. Among the traditional skills he learns is how to speak a language called “Snakish,” which is not only the language of snakes, but which also serves as a kind of lingua franca (common language) among many of the species of the forest. A central question of the book is whether this man will be the last to speak Snakish – representing mankind’s expulsion from the natural realm. He is a boy at the beginning of the book, and as he’s learning Snakish, the only other speakers are advanced in age. In essence, the book explores whether the old ways will survive, and – in particular – the ways of humans living in nature instead of thinking themselves above it.

The villagers are enamored with all things foreign. They are passionate converts to Christianity. They gaze admiringly upon knights and monks. They take up any new technology that is introduced. (Needless to say, the time of the story is ambiguously pre-Industrial revolution, when agriculture and feudalism prevailed.) While the villagers look upon the forest people as backwards, just as people today might assume the forest-dwellers to be more superstitious and simpler, what we read is a twist in which the forest people find the villagers to be superstitious and woefully out-of-touch with the ways of nature. The villagers live in fear of nature because they have separated themselves from it, and – following the newly introduced Christian beliefs – they believe they are above nature and that all other creatures are under their dominion to do as they see fit. Of course, nature doesn’t yield easily to the desires of man, and the villagers are forced into the contradiction of thinking themselves superior to nature while at the same time being terrified of the creatures who live in the forest and – for that matter – the forest itself. The simple dichotomy of good and evil that foreigners have introduced is also in contrast with the more nuanced and, arguably, more sophisticated views of the forest-dwellers.

What the reader sees in this story mirrors what we have seen in our world, which is that mankind’s culture continues to leave a progressively bigger mark on the natural world – but not without a cost. On the other side of the coin, aboriginal ways are dying out. In a way, it’s the story of human development shrunk down to the scale of a few characters.

This is an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it for all readers. The story is intense and keeps one reading, but it’s thought-provoking at the same time as it entertains.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Days by Tibor Cseres

Cold DaysCold Days by Tibor Cseres
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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During the Second World War, there was a massacre conducted by the Hungarian military in the Yugoslavian town now called Novi Sad (known as Újvidék under the Hungarians.) The operation was meant to be a cleanup of Yugoslavian partisans, but the casualties were primarily innocent civilians. The novel is called “Cold Days” (i.e. literally translated from the Hungarian “Hideg Napok”) because the killings took place during a cold snap in January of 1942. Cseres bases his novel on this real world event, but he tells the story through the lens of four fictional military men who are sharing a cell for their respective actions in Novi Sad.

The novel weaves five narrative lines into an overall arc. Four of these are the personal stories of each of the four soldiers during the massacre and the time leading up to it, and the fifth takes place later when they are all together in the cell. The four characters have no connection before being placed in the same cell—or so it seems. At most, the officers know of each other. The five lines come together in the end and the reader sees how the four lives are no longer in strict isolation, but are connected by the events of that day—in some cases more severely than others.

Captain Büky is the highest ranking of the prisoners and is a straight-laced military man except that he takes issue with the order than keeps married men from bringing their families to station at Novi Sad. Prior to the massacre and some killings that instigated it, it’d been a routine assignment. Lieutenant Tarpataki is a new assignee, and his principal trouble is that he arrives to find that he hasn’t been assigned housing or a billet. Lieutenant Pozdor gets his men taken from his control by the police chain of command and is left hiding out trying to avoid being assigned some remedial task. Corporal Szabo is both the only enlisted man in the group and the only one who is directly involved with the violence, though a Cpl. Dorner takes the lead and Szabo is a follower.

If that cast doesn’t seem like the kind of villainous blackguards one expects of a massacre crew, I think that that is part of what the author is trying to convey. Run-of-the-mill men stumble down slippery slopes into treachery during times of war. Sometimes the worst go unpunished, while others take the fall. The author also shows that sides can matter little when it comes to such events. Anyone can suffer loss when events tumble out of control as they did in January of 1942 on frigid day in Novi Sad.

This book is translated from Hungarian. It’s sparse and simple writing, and readability is high. It’s a short book of only about 120 pages.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in tales of the horrors of war. It may have interest to history as well as fiction readers.

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