Monday, 30 January 2017

Post 48: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I am not a fan of January.  In fact, I am not a fan of winter at all.  Despite the cosy evenings that make reading a more permissable activity, winter just seems to go on for too long.  My trowel hand is itching for a warmer day to dig around in the soil and speed springtime on its way.

And so it was with delight and relief that hubby and I managed a sneaky midweek stay in Brighton last week.  We arrived in dense fog, where our romantic sea view looked out on nothing but murk. Allegedly, we were a stone's throw from the beach.

Lou Fellingham live at The Old Market
We were stoic. We were British.  We wrapped up in a comedy of layers and headed out for an evening of Cafe Nero soup and coffee before going to The Old Market to the live recording of Lou Fellingham's latest album This Changes Everything.  A live album, and we were there, right at the front singing along.  The applause on that CD, when it is released, is ours!

It was a brilliant evening. The music was great and the musicians were friendly, making us feel very much a part of what was going on.  We had never been to a live recording before so weren't sure if we'd be encouraged to sing along, or whether we'd just have to be a polite audience, keeping mousy quiet so as not to interfere in the technical stuff.

It was great fun.  They ran through the whole album in one go, interspersing the worship songs with chat, bible readings and prayer.  There were only three repeats needed for the final take and we were on our way.  It was a brilliant evening, and I amassed many wife-points for making the tickets appear in  Hubby's Christmas stocking.

I can see the sea!
And hallellujah and praise the Lord, the fog had lifted and we were pretty sure that we could see the sea.  The problem now was that it was late and dark.  But we're British, and having missed the sea on arrival, we were just going to make sure that it was there, as promised in the sunny photos of the Granville Hotel.
So we giggled our way down the pebbly beach (or stony, depending on your opinion...I am firmly in the pebbly camp, hubby is not!), sliding through the undulations until we reached the shore.  There is something magical about the white of the foam in the night.  Incandescent is an overused word, but that is what it was. The light was eerie and shimmering as the waves rolled laconically towards the shore.
And in the morning, miraculously, the sun shone.  It was a glorious day, so lovely that we felt it necessary to take out two blue stripy deckchairs and eat fish and chips on the pier!  Such a contrast to the day before.

So for a day at least, winter wasn't bad at all, (probably because it felt like spring!) and we really enjoyed being way from it all for 24 hours.

So refreshed and perhaps a little less grumpy than of late I headed home with just a few chapters left of Half of a Yellow Sun.  I've said before that literature, especially fiction, has capacity both to inform and challenge readers.  Fiction has a mass audience and it has a power to change the way that we think.  This is one such book.  Told through the privileged eyes of Lagos-born Olanna, her  house boy, Ugwu and her sister's partner, British-born Richard, the book allows the civil war of Nigeria to unfold.  Based on true events that overwhelmed the country from 1967-70, this novel tells a story that I had not heard before.

It is not unusual for news of African and Asian nations to fall down the schedule or disappear completely, even now.  How many of us give much thought to the horrors in Burundi, the hunger in South Sudan and the starving in the Yemen?  All of this is current, and yet to look at our TV screens, our inboxes and our social media streams, it would appear that the only news is Donald Trump.  And so the most vulnerable and dispossessed are forgotten, they don't even impinge on our conscience.

That is how I felt when reading this.  I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing of this conflict, and am uncertain whether I had ever even heard of Biafra, the breakaway state that longed to be independent from Nigeria. I was born as the conflict ended, but it has never entered my history books.  In fact, the first time I was made conscious of Nigeria other than as just another African placename, was through Adichie's other novel, Purple Hibiscus.  That one has children as its main characters and I read it when my son was given it as his GCSE text.  It served as a powerful introduction to the potentially corrupting influences of foreign missionaries, and made me eager to read this novel.

Olanna spends significant time teaching the children of Biafra in makeshift classrooms and refugee camps, teaching them English and patriotism inbetween bombing raids. "She taught them about the Biafran was the blood of the siblings massacred in the north, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of the yellow sun stood for the glorious future."

This book doesn't shy away from atrocities, indeed some are even committed by the central characters, but it doesn't indulge in them either.  There is a matter-of-fact tone that reports deaths, bullets, lice and disease, but underpinning it all is a hearty compassion.  This compassion is felt between friends and strangers. In many cases, all they have in common is hope for an independent nation that they cannot allow themselves to believe might fail.

The story is cleverly woven, beginning before the conflict and setting up the difficult relationship between Olanna and her twin sister Kainene.  The imposing character of Odenigbo is introduced as Olanna's lover.  Both families disapprove of the match and this tension is a backdrop for the national crisis that ensues.  Ogwu is Odenigbo's houseboy.  His differing social class enables us to see another side of life in Nigeria and the cultural tensions that existed between the educated and those still steeped in village tradition and spirit worship.  The western-centric Lagos life introduces Richard, a Briton whose love for Africa has inspired him to study the language and culture and make Lagos and later Nsukka, his home. His white skin and privilege do not make him immune from the suffering endured by the baby nation of Biafra, and he serves to give yet another perspective on the conflict.

As much as the civil war is the untold story that Adichie implores us "never to forget," it remains the backdrop to a compelling human story. The interwoven lives of the protagonists make you turn page after page. Amidst the bombs, there is fear, there is jealousy and recrimination.  There are people attempting to live their lives as best they can.

The structure of the novel works well.  We arrive in the early sixties when Ugwu begins his services to the esteemed lecturer of Nsukka University.  The gruff kindness he receives from Odenigbo warms us to both characters.  Odenigbo's house is one where fellow academics meet freely to debate politics and share differing opinions.  The food and drink are plentiful and it provides a stark contrast to later deprivations when sharing political opinion is dangerous. Once characters are established, part two moves to the late sixties and tensions in the house seem to be high, but we are uncertain why. Against personal conflict the civil war emerges as the force of change, but many questions remain unanswered.  Dipping back to the sanctity of the early decade, Adichie builds more context around the protagonists which leads to the closing section where civil war reaches its peak and is then ended.
The final pages show the initial aftermath of the ceasefire and the reader is left with a full account of each of the characters.

Realism makes this a profoundly sad read, as we are faced with what human beings can do to one another.  Maybe it was also a timely read as we look about us at an increasingly unstable political future.  One sighs and wonders whether we will ever learn the lessons of a complex, bloody and violent history that embraces us all.

This is a modern classic.  Read and be compelled by finely drawn, convincing character. Read and be challenged by our own ignorance and silent complicity.  The power of fiction.

I leave you with the Biafran symbol of hope.  A sun shining over the beach at Brighton, giving winter warmth as if to say, all will be well.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Post 47: A Good Start...

It all began with Hubby downloading Northanger Abbey onto his Kindle and announcing that "this book takes 3 hours 38 minutes to read."  Is that all?  Then why on earth can't I manage reading a book a week?  Surely everyone wastes at least three hours a week?!  So, not brave enough to up my never-reached target of 40 books in a year to 52, I am making a sterling attempt. It's January 15th and I've finished three books and am into my fourth. A good start at any rate!
One of my favourite Christmas presents this year was given to me by a good friend who knows me well.  The things in life that I need to keep me happy are books and a bottomless supply of tea. I fantasise about being famous enough to go on Desert Island Discs (well doesn't everybody?)  and I have already decided that my luxury would have to be a lifetime supply of teabags. So this mug really hit the spot.  It also got me thinking.  There are 30 classic titles pictured on the mug and I had only read half of them! Shocking, I know. So, as well as a mission to read at least 40 books in 2017, I now have an added ambition, to complete my mug list.  This is not without its of the books is War and Peace and I'm wondering whether watching the BBC series counts?????And try as I might, I don't think a whale interests me much, so Moby Dick might be a challenge...and Kafka?  Not sure I'm clever enough for him!  But I have made a start and am now up to 16/30. 

My first book of the year was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  It's a novella, so a nice short one to choose from the mug list to begin with. I read it, and then read some essays on it to make sure that I had understood it!  It is a quietly compelling book, heavily descriptive and with minimal interaction between characters.  It needs to be read quickly I think, otherwise you could lose the thread or forget the plot lines in the midst of the description.  The premise is the retelling of a tale by a mariner, Marlow, who had sailed up the Congo piloting a steamer. His mission was to bring home a white trader by the name of Kurtz whose behaviour had been worrying the Company.  Kurtz has a reputation that precedes him and everyone Marlow meets has an awed opinion of him. A specific company is never mentioned, but it is clear that white Imperialists are exploiting the area for ivory.  

And that is the basis of the plot.  Marlow recounts his tale in detail, describing what it was like to sail the treacherous river and encounter the native people. He tells of the differences and difficulties in working in such a tribal and hostile environment.  He narrates the story seemingly without judgement; hence I was left wondering whether I had read a subjective account, a piece that condemned Imperialism or condoned it, or, as has been suggested by some recent critics, famously the author Chinua Achebe, a wholly racist depiction of the times.  It is true that it is the voice of the white man that gets heard, but then it is written from the experience of a white man.  It is also true that he draws attention to the native Congolese by their colour and depicts them as something other than human. There is a distinct whiff of arrogant superiority when he writes, "The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us, who could tell?" And yet there is a naive honesty in its tone.  He describes"going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the word, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were Kings." And he creates an overwhelming impression of oppressive heat that lay heavy on the soul, "The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.  There was no joy or brilliance in the sunshine." For me,some of that oppression was found to have its source in Kurtz, a man who had enthralled the native population and earned their respect.  How he had done it however, was through cruelty and savagery that certainly Marlow failed to comprehend. Indeed the Heart of Darkness itself is not the river or the people who inhabit its environs, but rather Kurtz himself who Conrad describes as the "ivory face [with] an impenetrable darkness."
The discussions over this classic novella will continue, but I was left with the impression that Conrad felt ashamed by the white man's interference in the Congo, and scarred by his experiences there.

I have gone into more detail than I intended there, so I will be more succinct about the next two texts enjoyed this year so far. Appalled by my distaste for The Nutshell, I wanted to give Ian McEwan another chance!  And, as he has done so many times before, he wrote something that I was captivated by. This one was Amsterdam. One thing I loved  about it was that no action took place in the titular city until the denouement of the novel.  I kept saying to hubby, "Well, I'm this far in and no-one has been to Amsterdam yet!" The significance of the place was subtly foreshadowed, but I missed it. This made the ending more exciting as I hadn't recognised the significance of previous clues. (No spoilers here!) 

The basic plot is that of two lifelong friends, united by experiences shared and a woman that they had both loved at certain times of their lives. Vernon Halliday is the editor of a broadsheet newspaper and Clive Linley is a composer.  Both are more concerned with their own lives than anyone else's, and yet their flaws are those that most people will empathise with at some level.  Both men make moral decisions in this novel that impact their friendship and have consequences for others.

This is a modern novel for a modern age.  It is contemporary and the moral questions raised are current. There is a sense when you complete the novel that you need to examine your own motives for actions, your own responses to events and to other people.  It reminded me that we are a body of people co-existing in the same space.  We have responsibilities that come with that. Community is a much brandished word, and I think, little understood or lived out. The world could be a better place if we considered our morals, our actions and our decisions in a broader light, recognising that for every action there is reaction and consequence.

My final read for this blog entry is another Kazuo Ishiguro.  I confess myself a fan.  I love his gentle
narrative tone. The Remains of the Day has the simplest of formats.  A butler of the old-school, Mr Stevens, is taking a road trip to the West coast to see a former employee of  Darlington Hall, the housekeeper with whom he had shared many years of service.  The book is set in 1956 and Stevens is aware that everything around him is changing.  His employer is now an American who has bought the house from the English nobility who had lived there for many years, the staff is skeletal and the demand for the services of a butler is dwindling to nothing.

In short, this is a novel where Stevens is allowed to reminisce, to define his role as butler and legitimise his working life. His narrative voice is gently defiant as he explains what makes a butler great and what counts as dignified behaviour in service.  There is, as you might expect with Ishiguro, another significant strand to the tale. Stevens' deferment to Lord Darlington in all matters led to a willing blindness to his politics.  Recognising that important statesmen were meeting in the house, Stevens tells the story of utter servitude, staying in post to meet the needs of the party even while his father lay dying upstairs. His loyalty meant that he refused to see his master's involvement in pre-war Germany. Even when others tried to tell him of Lord Darlington's closeness to Hitler's agenda, Stevens deferred to him as the nobler, and therefore wiser man.

This is a nostalgic tale, but it is sad.  Stevens failed to recognise his own opportunity for personal happiness in his desire to serve his Master.  He failed to be at his father's deathbed and he failed to hear the warnings uttered to him by others.  His story is proud as he justifies his work. We see a butler determined to be the best he could be, and we respond to that.  And we empathise with him rather than judge him.  He wrestles with his conscience as he admits to occasions where he pretends that he has never known Lord Darlington.  Through these slips, the wider political background is revealed.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that after his trip, he seeks to return to the same life.  He knows no different and so promises himself that he will be the best he can be in his servitude under his new Master.  New skills may be needed, but he will try his best to attain them.

A gentle story with an unlikely, likeable protagonist.

Thank you for bearing with me through this long post!  If I'm to read this voraciously, I'll need to blog more often...My current read is a longer novel, so I may give you a little bit of breathing space. I am compelled by it so far, so watch this space for a review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.

Thank you for reading.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Post 46: Review of the Reading Year...And the Winner is....

Looking back to my reading resolutions, I made a valiant attempt to speed-read my way to 40 books by the end of 2016,but alas, I was 4 titles short.  Still an average 3 books a month isn't to be sniffed at, and it is far better than the meagre 23 novels managed in 2015. So the golden (arbitrary) number of 40 is still there to be claimed in 2017, and I have begun in earnest, completing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as my first book of the year.

Another activity which dominated 2016 was walking.  After child 1's advice to ditch the gym and get fit doing what I enjoy most, I did just that.  April was the start date and I am now much fitter and two stones lighter than I was in January last year.  The real test is to see whether I can keep up the walking and maintain the weight.  So my non-reading resolutions are to do just that.  Two days into the new year, I can honestly say that I have got out and walked every day so far!  But back to work tomorrow...yes I'll walk there, but I confess that it does only take me 10 minutes.....

And so to the final reads of 2016. I stumbled on Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katrina Bivald by accident.  I found myself in town and about to wait for child 2 to have his eyes tested when I realised that I had failed to bring a book with me.  This state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, so I nipped into WHSmith and bought the first novel that took my fancy.  I liked the quirky title and the premise of the story looked entertaining.  The irony of this whole book-less farce takes full shape when you realise that I had mistakenly booked the optician appointment for the previous month, thus rendering all panic purchases moot.  However, now committed, I began the book as soon as we got home!

The plot centres on Sara Lindqvist.  She is 28, has never travelled and has spent most of her life reading, preferring books over people. (Any similarity to anyone you may know is entirely unintentional!)  When her job (in a bookshop!) is made redundant, she takes up her long-term pen pal's offer to come to the state of Iowa to visit Amy and discover the streets and the townsfolk that Amy has written about for so long. This is a bold move that is out of character, and it is a distinctly nervous Sara who appears in Hope, the neighbouring town to BrokenWheel, at the beginning of chapter one.  When her lift fails to materialise, she accepts help from a local man to get her to her destination. Here, she is alarmed to discover that her elderly pen-pal has died but has left instructions that Sara should stay in her house and continue with her planned visit.

This rather bizarre opening sequence holds promise, but it is difficult to suspend disbelief for the whole novel.  Sara is broadly welcomed by the locals as a friend of Amy, but her stay is scheduled to last only 6 weeks.  In that short space of time, we are supposed to believe that she forms bonds with these people that are deeper than any she has made in the previous 28 years and that they are as fond of her as she has become dependent on them.  She finds many books in Amy's house and sets about opening a bookshop with these as her first stock.  This is all accomplished within the time frame.

The novel is built on a great idea, but becomes less than I wanted it to be.  It is not quite chick-lit, but it teeters there.  The romantic aspect is predictable and a tad dull and the plot arc isn't convincing. I think it might be one that ends up in my charity shop box rather than my bookshelf.  I am unlikely to re-read it.

From Iowa I travelled to Swansea and South Wales, reading Rob Brydon's autobiography, Small Man In A Book. It's subtitle is much more interesting, How I very slowly became an overnight success!  Hubby had read this book previously and his chuckles as he ended each day with a bedtime read made me want to see what I was missing.  To start with, I was mildly amused by his recounting of a childhood that overlapped my own.  His education via Ivor the Engine, Blue Peter and Swap Shop echoes my did the fact that the ITV equivalents of Tiswas and Magpie were not
                                                      condoned in his household!

The difficulty with likeable chaps like Rob Brydon is that they are a bit too boy-next-door.  His
childhood was stable and unremarkable, like mine and like many others.  Very pleasant to live through but not very exciting to read about. I became much more engaged when he recounts his early career and the tenacity he demonstrated to reach into a world that remained so elusive for so long.  Fame is a funny thing.  If you had asked me prior to reading this book when had Rob Brydon reached our TV screens, I think I might have said that he had always been around.  This isn't the case.  A household name now, most of us wouldn't have heard of him before 2000 when he won best newcomer award, and by my reckoning he is 51 now. So success was well earnt and striven for.  It is this story that forms the backbone of the book and it is a story of tenacity and determination.

This isn't a romanticised biography.  Brydon keeps his private life private throughout.  The escapades of youthful romance are included and some photos of a 1970s, 1980's Rob Brydon are as embarrassing as those of any of us who happened to be young in the disco dancing, big hair era! This is quite a relief to me, as I sometimes leaf through through my parents' albums and my university photos and wonder what on earth I was doing with my follicles!  It is good to know that I wasn't alone in being a style disaster!

Behind a story like this, of a young man seeking success in a world that is very hard to break into, there must be supportive family and friends.  In Brydon's case, his wife must have been there for him every step of the way.  They married in their twenties and 3 children are mentioned, but that is as far as it goes.He protects them from the reflected light of fame and we are left recognising their significance but knowing nothing about them. I respect that.

There are many funny anecdotes, but my favourite was when Brydon decamped from the doss-house flat shared by him and his fellow performers at Edinburgh fringe. After a particularly heavy party night wherein his fellows consumed much alcohol and he drank nothing but juice, the sight of a curtain torn down amongst the comatosed revellers sent him literally packing his bags and off to spend the rest of the run in the 5-star Balmoral hotel!

And so Mr Brydon ends my run of 2016 reading.  He is great. We saw him in The Painkiller at the Garrick earlier in the year, and it is true, that he is not "just" a comic presenter of Would I Lie to You?, he is a talented actor and singer.

So 36 books read and which are to be the winners and losers of 2016?

My favourite was definitely All The Light We Cannot See. I have been evangelising about this novel ever since I finished it and feel that I must be partially responsible for its sales figures!  Beautifully written,evoking character most empathetically and telling a story that is credible, convincing and tragic; this novel does what I want all my novels to do, put its finger on the pulse of something of what it means to be human, something of what it means to co-exist with others, to love them and to suffer with them.
My other top reads were: Never Let Me Go  by Kaziro Ishiguro, Stuart, A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and The Conclave by Robert Harris.
And should I pan any? I'm not in the market to slate anyone; writing is hard and creative thinking is demanding.  I'm sure every book costs its author something to write it.  Mostly, I am just grateful that they do, as I have escaped into worlds created by others for as long as I could read. But I was disappointed by The Nutshell and Solar.  I have a complex relationship with McEwan I've decided.  I can't fail to be excited by his new books and by those moments in a  charity shop when I find a title I haven't got yet, but sometimes I'm just not on his wavelength.  Others I failed to fully enjoy were the Little Paris Bookshop, The Examined Life and The History Room.

2017 opens with The Heart of Darkness.  I've just finished it and I've just embarked on yet another McEwan, Amsterdam.  Watch this space for more reviews coming soon!

Thank you for your continued interest in my blog.  Please keep your comments coming through fb, twitter, the comments box at the end of the post or google+.

Happy New Year to you all. I wish you health, happiness and a profusion of books!