Saturday, 22 November 2014

Post Number 2: Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Great to see so many of you read my first post.  Please feel free to comment on the books, the review or to recommend what I might read next :)

This next book was shared by a colleague of mine as we decide what we might offer for the curriculum next year. (Don't let this put you off!) I hadn't read any of his works before, so it was with no expectation that I approached this new read.

November 2014: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Egwugu; African ancestral mask
This makes uncomfortable reading for the white man. Categorised as a post colonial novel, it explores the impact of the white missionaries who populated much of Western Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The story is set in Umuofia, a fictional African village in Nigeria. At the opening of the novel, the village is steeped in cultural history that has been unchanged for generations.
The protagonist, Okonkwo, has gained respect and power in his clan, managing to obviate the shame of his lazy and drunken father. Worshipping the Gods of their ancestors, villagers participated in ceremonies that invoked the ancestral spirits, a collusion that recognised that "[his]wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo."
Perhaps it was this recognition that part of what they colluded in was an obvious falsehood, that the spirits they invoked were clearly the elders of the village in ceremonial garb, that made some of the inhabitants of Umuofia and the surrounding villages open to the preaching of Christianity.
Christianity came hand in hand with education, which many willingly grasped hold of.  But the heart of this book is not promise of redemption or an evaluation of tribal lives; it is a story of personal tragedy.
Okonkwo is defined by his clan. His identity is subsumed within tribal practice and tradition. Chinua Achebe draws him with clarity, but with little embellishment.  This succinct writing style manages to convey highly emotionally charged content as if it were blandly factual.  Thus the fate of Ikemefuna is decided by the clan and "The Oracle of the Hills has pronounced it." That Okonkwo reacts emotionally is clear, "He did not sleep at night," but it is also clear that he soon began "to feel his old self again" as the rhythms and traditions of the clan took over once more.
The tragedy lies in his return from exile to find that the white man has a foothold in his village. Okonkwo cannot reconcile his life to the alien demands and morality made on him by the missionaries. He struggles to maintain his identity and that of the clan, and the end is predictable and tragic.
This is the first of a series of three short novels that chart the progression of colonialism in the area. This is a first generation story, and I am left torn and confused.
Did we ever have a right to impose our lifestyle, our culture on another land?  Morally not.  But do I baulk at the practices of death and retribution endorsed by the tribal culture? I do. Did the white man bring the gospel or did they seek to overpower? Perhaps a mix of both, but the latter certainly seems to dominate.
Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian who benefited from the education that colonialism brought.  His words communicate the complexity of that time and convey the fact that the consequences were (and are) far reaching. The simple, unemotional writing style adds depth and leaves readers with many more questions than answers.
I am reminded of the writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and can recommend Purple Hibiscus as another novel set in Nigeria that explores the clash of cultures post-colonialism.

So, from no expectation, I found a worthwhile and challenging read from a book that expresses itself with no pretension. I am encouraged to read the following novels of the trilogy: No Longer At Ease and The Arrow of God.

Please feel free to comment and make suggestions.
My current reading is twofold, The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and a much more lighthearted dip into one of my comfort authors, Erica James!
Reading should be for pleasure.  A good reader is an eclectic one!

I look forward to sharing my next post with you.


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Day 1 November 16th 2014 Great Expectations


I have kept a reading journal for a number of years, much to the amusement of my teenage children and their friends.  It is seen as something twee and a little archaic!  So, I suppose my attempt at blogging my reading is, in some ways, a nod to the 21st century that my notebooks have been so stoically avoiding...

I was going to wait until the New Year to begin my blog; there is something tidy about a new start in January, something promising, something that awakens great expectations.  But my husband couldn't see the tidiness, he could only see prevarication.  His logic has won out, and so here I am.

My remit is to blog about what I have read.  I will give opinion and reaction, but I won't be a plot spoiler.  I want you to be inspired to read some of the titles for yourself, and to share some of your favourites with me.

And so to begin:

November 2014; completion of a re-read of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Prompted by one of my students to dust down my old copy of this classic, I was immediately excited to revisit it.  Pip is an endearing character, thwarted by his own naivety and his inability to recognise the desirable from the fundamental.  It is a bildungsroman novel, taking the reader through Pip's childhood and into his adult persona. He is vulnerable and eager, endearing qualities that never quite leave him, despite the arrogance and stupidity of some of his later actions.

File:Pumblechook, Pip and Mrs Joe, John McLenan.jpeg
Pumblechook, Pip and Mrs Joe by John McLenan (1860)
Made popular by television renditions, most people cannot remember past chapter one and the terrifying ordeal with Magwitch the convict on the bleak and misty marshes.  And yet the novel is so much more than this.  It explores an essential human need to excel, to be approved of and to fit in with society.  The corollary to this is Joe Gargery, Pip's loving stepfather who wears humility as if it were a well fitting jacket. And this is the hub of the story; how Pip readily moves away from the safe and loving environment of the lowly blacksmith, lured by the promises of the rich and wealthy and willingly walking into a trap of self delusion.

Characterisation provides humour and depth to the novel, from the stereotypes to the fully formed. Uncle Pumblechook is never more than a comical puff of arrogance whilst Jaggers conveys the superiority of the wise with exacting expectations of others, tinted with just enough humanity to appeal to the reader. Miss Havisham has to be one of the most famous literary creations in the English canon, and rightly so.  Her bitterness envelops her and taints everyone she is connected with.
Do read Carol Ann Duffy's poem Miss Havisham to enjoy a modern interpretation of her miserable existence.
Estella is a flat character; never much more than an effective plot device, but nonetheless, someone who exhibits the consequences of being infected by Havisham's particular brand of bitterness.
My favourite characters are two who might score well on a game of Pointless; Wemmick is amusing in his ability to compartmentalise, and his reference to his old father as Aged Parent is one that has humorous resonance in my husband's family life with fond reference to his own, now sadly departed, parents. My second choice is Hebert Pocket who is simply charming in his inability to dissemble.

I would recommend that everybody should have a go at some of the classics of English Literature, and this is no bad place to start.  It is pacy and the plot is comprehensive. The characters stay with you long after the final page is turned.
And there is redemption for Pip in the closing pages. Dickens is a master in drawing loose ends to tidy conclusions.

And so we are back to tidiness; it may not be January 1st, but I have enjoyed making my first entry in my blog, Karen Martin Reads. I hope I can write regularly and share the love of reading for pleasure. I anticipate a variety of fiction, both lofty and not-so!

And so that you can anticipate entry number two, my current read is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.