The Shadow of the Sun
By: Ryszard Kapuscinski
Africa - mysterious, exotic, unique - so far, an unrealized travel dream of mine. Friends who have been there rave mostly about the extraordinary experience of seeing animals, up close, in the wild, where they live. After reading “The Shadow of the Sun,” I see another Africa: the continent - its history and its struggles, and the people who have endured its heat, famine, disease, persecution and disfunction. Ryszard Kapuscinski was a journalist on assignment for Poland’s state newspaper when he began his African travels in 1957. He lived there for several years and returned frequently over the next 40. During that time, he witnessed the beginning of the end of colonial rule and its aftermath. In his words, “I traveled extensively, avoiding official routes, palaces, important personages, and high-level politics. Instead, I opted to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads through the desert, be the guest of peasants of the tropical savannah. Their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humor. This is not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them and time spent together.”
But I think Kapuscinski understates what we readers are treated to in this remarkable book. With each place he visits, each person he meets and spends time with, history comes to life. We learn about Ghana, Rwanda, Sudan, Zanzibar, Nigeria, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, Senegal, Liberia and more. We learn about the various tribes and clans and the effect of slavery on the way people think. We also learn how African culture and customs around hunger, thirst, time and thievery are dictated by its climate, geography, past and present. In one example related to time, Kapuscinski describes getting on a bus in Acra and the revelation that Africans and Europeans have an entirely different perception of time. He explains that for Europeans, “time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. The European feels himself to be time’s slave, dependent on it, subject to it. To exist and function, he must observe its ironclad, inviolate laws, its inflexible principles and rules. He must heed deadlines, days, and hours.” For Africans, writes Kapuscinski, time “is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone.” Therefore, asking what time the bus will leave makes no sense to the African. The bus will leave when it is full; the meeting will begin when enough people show up; and the battle will begin when two armies start fighting.
The book is filled with insights like this. It is a treasure to share and one that can live on your bookshelf to read and reread. JB
Asymmetry. A novel
Author: Lisa Halliday
Simon and Schuster, 2018
Asymmetry has been on several lists of Best Book in 2018. The most striking thing about the novel is the structure. Initially it appears to be three disconnected stories, each dealing with asymmetrical power structures, but somehow I felt that explanation was not enough. The first is the story of an affair between a very old famous writer (rumored to be modeled on Phillip Roth), and a young woman who wants to be a writer (something like the author). Throughout this story there are well-concealed clues as to the connection with the second story. Islamophobia is central to the second story of an Iraqi man dealing with the bureaucracy at Heathrow as he tries to pass through that airport on his way Istanbul. The final section again gives us clues as to how the three stories fit together to form a novel.
The Alice in Wonderland motif that opens the novel and carries it along is part of an attention to the relationship between texts. Where the original Alice saw no point in books without pictures, this Alice sees no point in books without quotation marks. It isn’t entirely clear to me on two readings what each of the sections taken from other books/novels tells us about this one, but that would be a fun project to work out.
And of course it is fun to solve the puzzle, and the writing carried me along pretty well. There are some wonderful images, as in the one where a train track ends suddenly, because it really isn’t going anywhere. That stands for the relationship between the young woman and the famous old writer.
From here, you could see all the way across the water to the North Fork, where the train from the city came to its slow, inexorable halt—its tracks ending abruptly, surrounded on three sides by grass, as though the men whose job it was to lay them down a century and a half earlier had looked up one day and saw they could go no farther…
At least one critic condemned the book for being overly concerned with form, as, he said, so many books of the twenty-first century appear to be. I agree that it is nice to read novels like Salvage the Bones, (Jesmyn Ward) where the form is not out in front of the story, though the language is gorgeous. Still, there is great pleasure in solving the mysteries in novels like this one and NW, Zadie Smith’s enjoyable/challenging novel. I’ll take some of each. - SQ
Author: Tara Westover
Review by: Judy Bobrow
Every once in a while, a true story surfaces about how someone overcomes the desperate obstacles brought about by child abuse and neglect to become a person of integrity and substance. The evidence of their survival flies in the face of everything we know about the impact of early life experience on who we become. One question is, “what is it that allows a person to rise above a terrible childhood? Is it something innate – some chemistry – like cream rising to the top? The second question is, “how do they do it?” In Tara Westover’s “Educated,” the “what is it?” remains a mystery. But the “how do they do it?” is laid out step-by-step through 323 pages of a gripping, often disturbing memoir.
Westover is one of seven children growing up in the mountains of Idaho. Her parents are survivalist who believe that the medical and educational establishments are not to be trusted. Only three of her siblings have birth certificates. Accidents and illnesses are treated at home by Westover’s mother, who is a midwife and herbalist. She also is responsible for the children’s formal education, which includes only rudimentary reading, writing and arithmetic. Historical events are never addressed so do not exist in the lives of the children.
“I had been educated in the rhythms of the mountains,” says Westover in the prologue to her book, “rhythms in which change was never fundamental, only cyclical. The same sun appeared each morning, swept over the valley and dropped behind the peak. The snows that fell in winter always melted in the spring. Our lives were a cycle - the cycle of the day, the cycle of the seasons - circles of perpetual change that, when complete, meant nothing had changed at all. I believed my family was a part of this immortal pattern, that we were in some sense, eternal. But eternity belonged only to the mountain.”
In equally beautiful prose, Westover takes us through her childhood: her desperate struggle to survive, to learn about the world outside of the mountain, to think for herself, and ultimately to balance love of family and comfort in the life she creates for herself. Sometimes painfully and sometimes exhilarating, Westover shows us how it is possible to become “Educated” despite all odds. JB
These three novellas explore the legacy, or residue, of British colonialism in India. In the first novella,” The Museum of Final Journeys,” a junior functionary takes on the role of the departed English Foreign Service, takes on the attributes of the oppressor without questioning that role. His father has been a civil servant, rising through the ranks to a position of prestige, and he aspires to rise through the ranks as his father did. An ancient family servant to a once great and wealthy Indian prince convinces the functionary to visit the abandoned, decaying mansion. He walks through room after room of long decayed art treasures, collected by the son of the once owners of the property, and then finally is taken to see an elephant on the verge of starvation. The old servant asks him to save the elephant, but he concludes that he cannot do anything to help the elephant, and gets on with his life. Like his father, he rises to position and relative wealth, but he is troubled by recurring dreams about the elephant. He never allows himself to know that the continuing colonial power of which he is a part is starving the elephant, which is to say, not only India, but his Indian self. The dreams are eruptions of his repressed Indian self.
Other critics have said that windows open briefly, but Desai’s characters fail to seize the day. I think Desai is after more than that. This is a critique of colonialism, but what makes her writing so effective is that she is able to locate such a huge historical and political moment within a quite simple story of a man denying what he sees.
The second story, “Translator Translated,” takes up the problem of writing the colonized experience in the language of the colonizer. The point of view character, Prema, an English teacher, whose life is less than meaningful, begins to find meaning as a translator of short stories she has grown up with and loved, written in an indigenous language, and apparently quite familiar to all the people who speak that language. Her translation is a success and she is happy for the first time in her life. The author proves to be a recluse who doesn’t really want to make much time for her, does not connect with Prema’s fantasy of a warm friendship between writer and translator, where they might even become almost coequal in the production. She prevails upon the author to write a novel. But when she gets the novel she is disappointed. She finds none of the vividness and charm of the short stories. As a teacher of Jane Austin and George Elliot, Prema knows what a novel should be. So she revises as she translates, to bring the novel up to her standards. The novel is less than successful, but worse, a relative of the author comes to claim that it is badly translated, and at a reading, a voice in the crowd scolds Prema for translating the story into the language of the colonizer. The author chooses not to continue writing—she is busy developing schools in the poor districts from which her short stories were drawn. And Prema is forced back into the dreary life she had hoped to escape—riding the coattails of Austin and Eliot.
Desai is here writing in English, writing a novella –not a novel but close enough—about why Indians shouldn’t write novels in English. In Desai’s biography there is no clear indication that she ever spoke a truly remote, indigenous language, but she did speak several of the more common languages: Urdu, etc. I don’t quite see Desai herself as betraying her native language. She grew up speaking German, but I do notice that the story is told primarily in the third person past tense, except for two sections in first person, one past tense and one present tense. This breaks the traditional form of novels, at least, of the novels that Prema spends her life teaching—the nineteenth century British novel. Given the machinations of today’s young novel writers the challenge is hardly breathtaking, but it calls attention to the act of writing about the life of the colonized in a form that belongs to the colonizer. Desai tries to escape the novel. As does Prema, in her dismal life.
The story tells us the indigenous author could not write a novel. The stories she had to tell didn’t survive the passage into novels. They were pretty close to the anecdotes we tell each other every day about our lives, written in the language that community would tell its stories in. The indigenous author is not dependent on literature for a life: she is engaged in the process of living, of helping other people. But Prema is left, living an empty life on the margins of eighteenth and nineteenth century English novels.
The last story is less elegantly efficient than the first two, less elegantly shaped. In “The Artist of Disappearance,” an upper caste Indian couple in love with the values of the British, spend their lives aping the ways of the rulers. They travel in Europe, socialize with British neighbors. They have adopted an Indian son in whose welfare they are not at all interested. The boy barely survives, and that only with the help of the servants. He relates to things in nature, not to people. The parent’s social life is interrupted by a racist incident, when an English man beats up the husband for dancing with his wife. The boy is sent away to school, where he is miserable. Eventually he goes home to share his life with blind old woman supposed to be his tutor, his parents having departed somewhere for good. Somehow the old woman sets the house on fire and it burns up completely except for one room that still has walls and a roof, though black and smoked. A villager brings food and a cot for the now grown man, who seems to spend his life sitting on what is left of the veranda. And so he hardly survives as far as anyone knows. But he has a secret project: he finds a pool hidden in the jungle and turns it into a work of art. He drags trees and stones and arranges them all to make a beautiful space.
The western world shows up, in the form of documentary film makers from Delhi who wish to film the destruction of the jungle. A fine irony. They are not especially lucky in finding what they came for. Much is made in the story of film crews coming to film the beautiful scenery in this area. At one point, one of them discovers the artist’s pond. They succeed in filming the pond, but the villagers hide the artist, so they are never able to connect with him. Looking at the film, they find that the footage seems flat and boring. One says that they needed the artist for this to come alive. They pack up their cameras and leave, but the artist never goes back to his pond.
That is, the western world comes to see the scenery, not the people. They almost figure out that they are missing the soul of the people, that there is a soul immanent in the art of the pond, but, like the civil servant in the first story, they have no idea what to do about that.
This novella has an unusual shape. It seems to be two different short stories barely connected. My guess is that Desai is again working out the problem of how to tell the story of the colonized in the language of the colonizer.
The epigraph quotes Jorge Luis Borges, “One thing alone does not exist—oblivion.” The Artist of Disappearance seems to be about the internalized project of completely colonizing the indigenous culture. The project fails. - SQ
Author: Kristin Hannah
Review: Judy Bobrow
Genre: Women's Fiction
In The Great Alone Kristin Hannah skillfully gives readers two beautifully developed stories for the price of one. First there is the painfully tragic story of the Albright family, and second, the story of the Alaska of the 60’s. Both stories examine survival and love – within a dysfunctional family and a community, and in the stark, unyielding wilderness of a new, untamed state.
Ernt Albright, struggling with personal demons resulting from the horrors of Viet Nam, envisions a new beginning in the 49th state. He convinces his wife, Cora, and teenage daughter, Leni, that living off the grid in Kaneq, Alaska, will be a wonderful adventure that will heal him and their family. Their romantic dreams soon give way to the realization that they are totally unprepared for the isolation, the bitter cold, the hunger, the darkness, and the endless struggle to survive. While Cora and Leni find friends and support within their new community, Ernt slips further into alcoholism, paranoia and violence.
There is violence as well in the wilderness of Alaska, but also a natural beauty so deftly descripted by Hannah. It captures Leni and will not let go despite the unhappiness and violence of her young life there.
The complex characters that populate The Great Alone are drawn realistically and with compassion by Kristin Hannah. Despite all its tragedy, I found this book to be an uplifting tale, that I highly recommend. JB
By: Aila Stephens
Review by: D.A. Henneman - Stars: 4
I absolutely loved Brie’s voice in this story, it grabbed me from the start. She comes across as being older and wiser, but we find out quickly that even strong and independent people can be victims of circumstance. After a fire at the restaurant where she works, resulting in the death of a co-worker, Brie is swept into a situation where her life changes fast. At the same time she is being offered a new job, she meets a handsome stranger who has everything a girl could want, expect a permanent address nearby.
We experience relationships through Brie’s lens, and I found myself really connecting to her sense of humor as she navigates through job offers and life choices. The chapters when she is left to deal with a horrifying reality, were written in a jarring and disjointed way. It allowed me to feel her confusion and avoidance and was just as it would be for someone going through something traumatic. I appreciated that as a reader.
This book kept me guessing to the very end, and the author has done a great job at building a story with characters that I feel I could very well meet. Wonderful job on a debut novel, I am anxious to read the continuation of this story!
Author: Amor Towles
Review by: Judy Bobrow
Genre: Literary Fiction
A Remarkable Gentleman Indeed!
The saga of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, begins in 1922 as the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was being created from the vast territory of the former northern Eurasian empire, stretching from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean. Amidst all the chaos of this event, Count Alexander Ilvich Rostov returns to his former home in Russia after a self-exile following a duel that ended badly, to attend the funeral of his beloved sister. As a member of the aristocracy, he is seen by those newly in power as a danger to the Communist Party, and the new republic.
The count is placed under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow and during his decades-long stay in a closet-sized room on the isolated 6th floor of the hotel, carves out a new life for himself, putting to good use all the varied skills acquired as an aristocrat. And through the telling of his complex life and the lives of the people he comes in contact with at the Metropol, Amor Towles took me on an adventure in reading that had me both laughing and weeping and at the end, totally satisfied.
This book engages on two levels:
First, we get to know a man, Count Rostov, who is placed in what would be for most, an impossibly difficult situation. His former way of life no longer exists. He is isolated from his entire support group of friends and family. There is nothing of his old life that remains. But he is undaunted. We see him not adapting to these new circumstances, not making the most of them, not complaining, not sad, not disillusioned. What we see instead is a man so completely comfortable with himself, that he continues to live as he always has, even in his limited circumstances. He becomes both teacher and student, endearing himself and making himself useful to the hotel workers as well as guests of the hotel – those in the upper class who have survived the revolution to take on positions of responsibility and power.
Second, we get to experience parallel worlds – the life inside the walls of the Metropol Hotel, within the count’s small quarters, and in the larger world surrounding the hotel, and within the newly formed republic. We are guided through these worlds with the skill, emotional depth and sheer artistry of Amor Towels. JB
Author: Michael Wallace
Review by: Linda Grischy
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel! The journey takes you deep into the world of 1676 New England. James Bailey, an agent and spy of the King of England, is sent to Boston to investigate the details surrounding the death of Sir Benjamin Cotton, another of the King's agents. James and his trusted friend Peter Church, a Native American and Quaker who is traveling with him, quickly find themselves in a hostile land surrounded by danger. Prudence Cotton, wife of the deceased Sir Benjamin Cotton, is anxious for the King's agents to help her find her young daughter, who she believes is living with the Nipmuk or Abenaki people. The characters are rich and lively, the setting wild and fascinating. An adventure into the untamed New England territory ensues, as the truth of what happened to the village of Winton and Crow Hollow unravels. - LG
I’ve been hearing that publishers don’t like prefaces to novels. They say those are just a note to the author, not the reader. But I’ve lately read a couple of novels that were published with a preface. So I asked myself, why? The Kitchen House opens with a preface in which we see a woman hanging from a tree. The novel then tells us how that came about. That preface does a little work in giving the reader a sort of mystery: who, why, etc? Rules of Civility (Amor Towles, Penguin, 2012) is a far better novel that opens with a preface. I’m looking at it carefully to see why.
It opens with a date: October 4, 1966. So it does that little task, and we meet the narrator, an upper middle class Manhattan editor and her husband. Then we’re told that the scene is the opening of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, the opening of a show called,Many Are Called, “portraits” the narrator says, taken by Walker Evans, taken surreptitiously on the subway in New York City, during the depression years. Evans had a camera up his sleeve, and took pictures of the people sitting directly opposite him on the subway, without their ever knowing they were being photographed. (If you have time, stop here and think about the epigraph, a quotation from Matthew 22:8 to 14, where Christ does some parable ending with “many are called, but few are chosen.” So far I haven’t figured that out, so I asked my local library to get the Evans book, Many Are Called. Still haven’t figured it out. The epilogue of the novel is titled “few are chosen.”)
The preface goes on to a little discussion of the nature of society these days, that is, 1966: too much drinking, for one thing. But it focuses on the role of the US in the world now that World War II has decimated our competition and the Russians don’t seem to be much of a threat. Then the preface narrows down to Manhattan and to the exhibit of photographs taken back in the thirties. Depression and flappers.
And the narrator begins her personal history, her own life during the depression. She imagines that the exhibit might be quite a revelation for the younger people there, but for her it brings up old ghosts, and one old ghost in particular: there are two portraits of a man one surmises was once a romantic attachment. The first they see shows him “ill shaven in a threadbare coat” underweight, but bright eyed and addressing the world. Vibrant and naive. The second one they see shows the same man well dressed, filled out, handsome, sure of himself. Perhaps a little world-weary. But. The second picture they see is actually the younger version of the man. This is not about a young man finding himself. It’s about a man losing himself. Or is it? The novel will be not about the rise, but rather about the fall, of Tinker Grey. Or not.
The narrator alludes to Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which you may remember is a poem about the moral bankruptcy of Edwardian England: “time enough to murder and create—or at least, to have warranted the dropping of a question on your plate.” In the context the question appears to be the question of what has happened in her past. And the question on her plate is the question of what happened then, not just the events, but what did they mean?
And the allusion suggests at least some moral decay as a theme for the novel. I note that near the end of the novel the narrator again alludes to Prufrock, “There will be time for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions.” The novel is bookended with Prufrock. (“And in the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” ---the poem, like this preface, is set in a high society art gallery.) And the structure of the novel is rather well described there: a hundred visions and revisions. This is not a novel with a strong plot, where the protagonist confronts an evil and vanquishes that evil in the final scene. What it does is give us the narrator’s vision of each character, and then at least one revision, in some cases several revisions, none of them really conclusive. Ultimately they are visions and revisions of society in New York City. Think The Great Gatsby, and also, Edith Wharton (House of Mirth, specifically).
And the theme of the portraits is carried out through the book, with some of Evans’ portraits introducing sections, as if the novel, too, is an exhibition of a series of portraits.
The cultural density of the novel is impressive. And the writing is masterly. Like so many other writers today, Towles manages at least one simile, usually rather epigrammatic, per page. They are extended similes that account for much of the texture of the prose, and often for the cultural density that causes me to hear so much more per line. There are whole metaphoric paragraphs where the energy is concentrated like a black hole: but these emit a lazer light.
So. What does this preface do? It sets up a world context for the novel, and a social context, takes us into the depression through the eyes of a celebrated, photographer, who actually lived outside the novel, and lets us know that the novel will be very literary, by which I mean it locates itself in the literary world, takes up the questions our best literature explores, and then finally narrows down to the business of what happened to one particular man during the thirties, as seen from the point of view of one specific woman.
This preface is rich enough to be a novel in itself. It is a guide to reading the novel, raises all the themes the novel will work out. Is it really necessary? Would the novel succeed without it? Could this not have been handled as Chapter 1? Perhaps. In any case, I am grateful for the heads up. The novel is very rich and I love spending time with it. - SQ
An amazing story that examines the delicate subject of racism with grace and empathy. Ruth’s story grabbed me from the start as she is put into an impossible situation by the hospital she works for. The choices she makes, and the story she decides to share, not only affects her life, but also the lives of the strangers she will come to know.
Along the way, we get to know Turk. His strong beliefs prompt a decision to prevent Ruth from caring for his newborn child with devastating effects. We also see things from the point of view of Kennedy, the lawyer that defends Ruth in the lawsuit filed by the white supremist couple. As the story unfolds, the belief system for all three of them are challenged in a fundamental way.
This story is about prejudice and tolerance. It is also about how our perceptions can flavor the decisions we make every day as well as the truths we share with others. This story is very much about human nature, the good and the bad, and shows that the smallest choice can make a huge impact on the lives of others.
Small Great Things was an amazing read and I also highly recommend reading the Author’s notes. They gave great insight as to the inspiration and evolution of the story. - DH
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