Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of a Nigerian family in the 1960s before and during the Biafra crisis. The book opens several years before the war, and follows the lives and loves of a small group of well educated university people, then cuts to and from the Biafran conflict as the story unfolds.

The opening chapter was very striking and particularly effective. It introduces the main characters, living on a university campus and discussing politics and philosophy over bottles of alcohol. It concludes in an amusing triangular relationship in which the house servant is worried about being usurped by the new mistress of his boss. This relationship acts as a kind of ironic summary of the whole colonial enterprise: she is seen as the coloniser in his domain, whilst he is worried that he will be discarded and replaced.

Adichie is a clever writer and the scenes before the Biafran war are amusing. The characters are varied and reveal a range of quirks and flaws. They mimic European habits and prize the ability to speak English well. They are well educated but I guess many of them overestimate their own abilities: we are shown this in an understated and amusing way.

There is snobbery and tribalism, but this is shown through individual characters and not in broader more general terms. So a protagonist’s mother criticises both his mistress, and his failure to marry a serious woman and produce children. She is dismissive of his servant’s rural and uneducated background, and criticises his cooking. In order to procure grandchildren for herself she introduces a young girl from the village to her son’s household, and partakes in various rituals. to encourage their love. The poor girl becomes pregnant, but of course that solves no problems at all. I enjoyed this part of the book the most, it’s full of human observations and humour.

Later there is infidelity and betrayal within the group, and in particular within one family, so that when the war begins the family conflict further separates the characters, and we await both denouements – that of the civil war, and of the war within the family.

Half of a Yellow Sun was on the shelf for a long time before I finally plucked up the courage to read it. I was alive in the 60s, and remember the cruel jokes about Biafrans, and the horrific nature of the war, so the book didn’t seem an enticing prospect. But I was quite young then and knew few of the facts so it was interesting to discover more about how the war started. It seems that jealousy about the financial success and the power of the Igbo tribe provoked violent attacks from the moslem community in the north of the country, which led to Biafra seceding from Nigeria and declaring independence under its own flag – a half of a yellow sun.

Biafra was badly lead, and its people lied to repeatedly: well that’s not unusual is it? Defeat was inevitable but slow and painful. It occupies most of the second half of the book, and makes the novel quite hard going.

Adichie is a great writer, and I really recommend her work. It’s amazing to think that someone with such serious aspirations and achievements as a writer and feminist has been used by Boots to advertise makeup.

Boots Number 7

One up for literature there I say. But if you are interested in Adichie’s writing, don’t start with Half of a Yellow Sun, try:

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

 

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Addlands – Tom Bullough

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Addlands is a novel set in the Welsh hills, somewhere in the Brecon Beacons, providing for me a familiar catalogue of place names – Llanbedr, Builth Wells, Hereford, Lanedw. These towns are surrounded by beautiful but bleak hills, which provide joyful hill walking if that’s what you like to do. They are the setting for several books I have read. Bruce Chatwin’s On Black Hill is set in this area, as is Owen Sheers’ Resistance and indeed his poetry anthology Skirrid Hill – see also The Farrier.

I always take some sort of vague interest in the place names when I read these books, as I have walked the hills so often. It’s a geography that seems to stamp its qualities on its inhabitants. They live hard lives and it turns them into hard people in one way or another.

Addlands tells the story of a family of hill farmers in a series of episodes, each set in a different year. The first takes place in 1941, the year that the main protagonist was born, and the last in 2011.  Some are set in years that mark memorable events in British life. So 1947 was the year of incredible snows and the long freeze, as was 1963. 1976 was the long hot summer of drought, and 2001 the year foot and mouth disease devastated farms. In these episodes Bullough weaves the narrative around the key historical events, giving the account a kind of documentary feel.

Other episodes are used to narrate the bare bones of the lives of the characters. There is Oliver, the main protagonist, and a cuckoo really. His mother married a local farmer when she was already pregnant in order to avoid the shame of having an illegitimate child. His mother, father and grandmother share the farm that he grows up on. Nearby lives an estranged uncle and in the background a contested will, disputed acres. At first I thought I was going to read some sort of tale of family feuding, but though this is a part, it’s not really the nub of the story.

Oliver is almost literally a cuckoo – too large for the nest he is growing up in. A dark and silent type, reminiscent of Heathcliff, it seems he can communicate physically, but not verbally. At times he erupts into violence. Oliver becomes a bit of a local legend as a fighter, and the writer shows us this in a series of vivid scenes set in local pubs and dance halls.  He never marries, despite some sexual liaisons, and stays on the farm. His love life is glossed over, but one relationship in particular becomes the pivot of his life. Naomi, the daughter of a London professor who has bought a local cottage, bears Oliver a child, extending the family saga into another generation.

Bullough is really looking at the passage of time in the Welsh hills, and emphasises this when the professor symbolically unearths a 2000 year old stone carved with Irish runes. The family has nine generations of history here, and the people are rooted in this valley, and in this farm, though the old ways of life are coming to an end as holiday cottages and bankruptcy intrude into farming life.

Addlands is also a story about family, and about love. Oliver finds it hard to express his feelings, lives a chaotic and undisciplined life of drinking, brawling and sexual freedom, fails as a father and partner, but in the end finds true meaning in family and continuity.

Addlands is beautifully written and detailed in its description and evocation of the Welsh countryside and the lives of the farming community. At times the detail was perhaps too much, and the use of dialect off putting – the book would benefit from a small glossary. Bullough also has a habit of beginning new chapters and sections without signalling the change of character, setting or event quite as clearly as he might, making the book quite hard work. But Addlands is a book that would certainly repay a second reading, and though in fact nothing much happens, it’s a book that I found quite compelling in the way it evokes the characters and places, makes you care about them.

The Circle – Dave Eggers

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This novel tells the story of Mae Holland who takes a job at The Circle, one of California’s new silicon valley enterprises. It’s a fabulous place to work – young, trendy, vibrant and cool. There are leisure facilities to die for, restaurants, debates and speakers, it’s a happening place and Mae feels privileged to be there.

The Circle is an open enterprise and different from much of the internet in that no one can be anonymous: to gain access you need proof of identity. The business aim is to become indispensable to consumers and provide advertisers with closely targeted information.

As the story develops Mae becomes more and more absorbed into life on the Circle campus. She works incredibly hard, is seduced by its vision of a new world, becomes a model employee, and is promoted. Meanwhile at home her father is ill, but the generous support of the Circle’s health plan improves his life dramatically.

At Circle HQ there are technological developments and utopian dreams: there are meetings to consider new approaches to social cohesion and public welfare, and to present new technologies. The development of tiny cameras is significant. These can be placed anywhere, hidden easily from view, and offer beautiful glimpses of far away mountains, easy updates on surfing conditions along the coast and simple identification of which police use violence to quell rioters in Tahir Square.

Eventually politicians begin to wear the cameras as buttonholes, so that everything they do can be observed – it’s all above board, no opportunity for corruption – an honest, open world must be a better world. Mae is really happy with these ideas. She has idealistic views of the possible political outcomes, but the author introduces a range of factors that point in a contradictory direction.

Mae’s old boyfriend decides to go off grid to protect his privacy, with exciting and damaging consequences. Her parents find the cameras which monitor her father’s health and activity desperately intrusive. A colleague has a nervous breakdown when she realises that the privacy she gave up did have advantages.

Then Mae gets romantically involved with a colleague who warns her of the dangers the Circle presents. He faces her with an ultimatum – destroy the Circle or watch it destroy the world. But she is not sure. Is her colleague simply mad, or paranoid? The book ends as Mae makes her fatal decision.

So The Circle explores basic social and political issues raised by developments in the internet. These are topical issues, considering the controversy about social media’s impact on elections on both sides of the Atlantic, and that is what drew me to the book, which was published in 2013 and awarded book of the year by various reputable sources including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer and the TLS. It was in fact Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who made the recommendation in The Guardian and it’s hard to get more fashionable and on trend than that – a brilliant Nigerian novelist with a new theory of feminism recommends The Circle as book of the year. You’d be daft not to read it, though in fact Adichie is a far better writer than Eggers judging by what is in this book compared to those of hers that I have read.

I did enjoy The Circle. It’s an easy read with a rapidly moving plot and a series of quite interesting episodes. The description of life on the Circle campus is fun: tennis and volleyball, parties and booze – a life of guilt free hedonism. Mae herself is a sympathetic character with some interest in the great outdoors to sort of broaden her character. But really she is only a cipher. Other characters equally are not fully drawn or particularly interesting, and tend to be caricatures rather than really convincing.

So the old boyfriend is a backwoods hippy type, fat and hairy. How could she ever have slept with him? The two lovers on campus are equally thinly drawn. One is a mysterious character who she finds sexually attractive, but it’s not really clear why, and their love making is both preposterous and inane. The other is a misfit and a geek, making the most basic social errors, crass and embarrassing.

Then there are the three wise men – founders of this enterprise. We meet each one but there is not really much to learn about them. One explores the deep sea trenches bringing back weird and rare specimens. As the novel reaches a climax these are used in a long scene to present a trite and uninspiring symbol. The “wise man” feeds each of his new specimens to the most dangerous – a ravenous shark that reminds me of my son’s labrador – it’ll eat anything! Well there you are then – that’s the Circle – but will Mae have the sense to realise? Read the book to find out!

The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

TempestKate Tempest is a performance poet whose work I’ve caught occasionally on TV  – just glimpses, not extensively – but what I have seen has really impressed me. She seems a powerful and original voice, full of rhythm and dynamism with a distinct political stance. So when I saw this book on a two for one offer I picked it up, and read it quickly.

The Bricks that Built the Houses is a very contemporary novel set in south London in the 21st century. It’s full of young characters living in what might be considered a moral vacuum, their lives liberated from so much of the baggage carried by previous generations. I say modern, but this is pretty much a post modern world where one person’s moral stance is as valid as the next. It’s a world with no absolutes, a world of complete freedom. In fact that’s the only constraint – the need to accept those freedoms, to accept that people are different, mostly troubled and struggling, but with the liberty to mess things up on their own terms, and without conscience.

Of course that adds up to a pretty exciting mixture of drugs and sex and rock and roll. Chuck in a couple of gangsters, some real East End thugs, and you’ve got a pacy and exciting thriller that frequently spills into comedy and where the occasional violence and sex is merely an intrusion into a family saga of the most soapy kind.

Tempest’s plot is really quite brilliant. I wanted to draw the family trees, just to make sure I’d got the details right. This is really a book about Becky and Harry; it’s about their lesbian relationship, and their lives in what some reviewers would call the underbelly of South London. Becky is a masseuse, touring the hotels as instructed by her agency. Harry is a misfit, a girl in a tiny man’s body who visits expensive hotels and parties providing the rich and stupid with cocaine. The book opens with two sections in which they drift towards each other on the tides of London night life. But Tempest slows the story right down and introduces us to the families of these two characters. In fact the novel is nearly over before they consummate their love.

Becky’s father, a former author and political activist of Indian extraction, is in prison. He has split from his wife. Becky lives with her uncle Ron, and works in his cafe by day. Harry left home as a teenager unable to feel accepted by her family or school friends. Harry’s brother Pete is an unemployed graduate. He falls in love with Becky, who is bisexual, and intrigued by the fact that Pete is reading her father’s book when he comes into the cafe. But Pete can’t hack the fact of Becky’s profession and that becomes a stumbling block. Meanwhile Harry’s supplier is in jail, so a new meet is set up. This is a disaster, and leaves Harry vulnerable to gangland retribution. This is the point at which the book starts, actually, so no giveaways there: the rest is a flashback.

Tempest describes two family meals which are devastating in their comic portrayal of the middle classes. Harry and Pete are invited around for a meal by their mother. She wants them to meet her new partner, a guy she met at the opticians where she works. He’s very boring. At a later meal Becky is added to the dramatis personae, bringing a touch of hot sex to the bourgeois mumblings and misunderstandings of the first meal, as she helps Harry with the washing up.

Later there is a comical encounter with a half baked gangster in a dingy cellar enlivened by a tropical fish tank. The name Shogavich becomes suddenly significant with respect to two more gangsters with addled brains, and more money and cocaine than sense. There’s a smooth Peruvian drug dealer, an escape to Europe and a denouement that is sufficiently satisfying but not completely closed.

Tempest is a great writer and the book is fast paced and exciting. She pushes the boundaries of language in her descriptions, and whilst not all are totally convincing it’s just really good to read someone who’s willing to make the effort, who’s not just treading the path that others have trodden before.

So, you should read this book. I recommend it.

 

 

A Gentle Thunder – Max Lucado

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A Gentle Thunder is book of meditations consisting of short, encouraging passages that can be read in one or two sittings, or studied in a more leisurely and prayerful fashion. It consists of 30 short chapters, so pretty much one a day for a month.

Each chapter of A Gentle Thunder offers a supportive short story or homily which develops life enhancing insights into God’s unfailing love. Each chapter is accompanied by a short Bible verse which is then amplified by reference to the author’s personal experiences, or through the development of a short fictional narrative in the form of a parable, allegory or sustained metaphor.

Max Lucado is a good writer and preacher who can communicate through dramatic examples and images, as you can see from the title and subtitle, which is Hearing God through the Storm. Whilst a cynic could argue that these images are cliches, that would be very unfair on Lucado who goes out of his way to find modern analogies and approaches to ideas which are expressed in the Bible through such dramatic and powerful natural imagery.

For example at one point Lucado compares himself and the apostle Peter to the cartoon Roadrunner to show Peter’s impetuosity, and in another example he contrasts an American cowboy with a Hebrew shepherd in order to draw out the intimate caring love of the Father for his flock. He uses the metaphor of dancing to explain the intimacy of the Holy Spirit, and to suggest how He can bring our walk as Christians to life. He describes a middle aged father failing to ascend a climbing wall in order to show how God is always there, ready to rescue us should we fall.

Lucado questions whether a cat can be taught to be a gentleman in a short tale in which two sons compete with their father to make a philosophical point. The cat, whilst able to serve at table and handle a full tray of food, only does so until the mice arrive at which point chaos breaks loose: the message of course is about original sin.

Sometimes Lucado focuses more clearly on the Bible passage itself, using his imagination to help the reader step more closely to the passage and to the biblical event and its theological significance. He looks at the crucifixion and considers God’s viewpoint about the different participants, and describes the feeding of the five thousand and the wedding at Canaan focusing on the reaction of the participants and the story of their faith. At Canaan the servants take the jugs of water to the wedding host in a spirit of faith, and Lucado insists that we should do that too with our daily concerns and issues: listen to God, and act in faith. With the feeding of the five thousand he focuses on the disciples’ lack of faith; they advised the crowds to go home, as they saw no solution. But Jesus broke the bread and blessed it: his grace did not depend on their faith. He cannot be false to himself.

That last example was typical of the way Max Lucado communicates a real sense of God’s love for us and explains through all kinds of examples the lengths that he is prepared to go to for our salvation. It’s hard always to keep God’s love in mind, or to give sufficient time to prayer and reading and we all have doubts and fears. Max Lucado has a stunning  and inspiring vision of God’s love and I can certainly recommend this book for individuals to read or study, or for groups to read together: for the latter there are questions attached to each section, though I did not read these!!

The Landmark Herodotus – Robert B Straussler

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World Map according to Herodotus
The Landmark Herodotus is a complete edition of the famous histories which tell the story of the conflict between Persia and Greece in the fifth and sixth centuries BC.

At the heart of these histories is a story that has fascinated me since I was a child, when I read and re-read a fictional account of the battle of Thermopylae in which a small force of Greek soldiers, led by the Spartan Leonidas, held up the advance of the Persian army long enough for the Greeks to ready the defence of Athens and the Peloponnese. It’s a story that has been told and retold again, including in a fairly recent film, 300, Rise of an Empire.

My recollection of this fictional account is a bit faint after all these years, but the histories show that the novel was clearly exaggerated with respect to some details of the battle of Thermopylae in which these men’s lives were sacrificed. In my memory the novelist also changed the date of the battle of Marathon to make the whole story more dramatic, ending the novel as the runner arrives at Athens after Marathon, with the news of victory. In Herodotus’ account the battle of Marathon takes place a few years earlier than Thermopylae, not after it.

Herodotus’ The Histories presents a relentlessly detailed account of the classical and pre-classical history of the eastern Mediterranean including some of the myths and legends of Greece, Persia and Egypt, and is divided into 9 books, each looking at a different period of time or geographical location.

The first book examines the way the conflict between Persia and Greece began. There are echoes of the story of Troy in the abductions of women that take place, and the story of the wealthy Croesus seems to be a place where myth meets reality. He is a man of ambition and decides to extend his empire to the east, which brings him into contact with the growing Persian empire under Cyrus. Cyrus responds by moving into Croesus’ Lydia (now partly Turkey) and conquering not only Croesus, but the Ionian Greeks settled along the coast.

Book 2 is a history of Egypt. It is extensively detailed and some of Herodotus’ comments on the culture, history and geography of Egypt are especially interesting. For example Herodotus hypothesises about the source of the Nile, the size and shape of the world and the whole continent of Africa.  He raises the question of whether it is possible to sail round Africa, and whether anybody had, recounting a story of men who found the sun rising on the wrong side of their boat as they journeyed on. Herodotus is sceptical about this, but it rings true to a modern reader.

Books 3 and 4 describe the growth of the Persian empire, including the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses, and excursions to the north into Scythia by Darius. Here myth and legend again become inextricably linked as factual knowledge about these northern areas was quite scarce. In books 5 and 6 Herodotus describes Darius’ excursion into Europe. This is in the end a failure. The Persians are expelled, and Darius dies before he can organise another expedition, leaving Xerxes to take over the reigns in books 7 to 9, which detail the events of his campaign.

The Landmark Herodotus is a clear presentation of this history. There is a series of detailed maps and footnotes so that with patience the reader can follow the progress of the armies, and discover the different parts of the world subject to Greek and Persian influence. Following Xerxes progress around the coast of the Aegean, or looking at the different parts of Asia subject to Persian rule was fascinating. I have to say that I’m a sucker for these kind of maps which have no real practical purpose or use – as one of my sons says, they are just cramming my brain with useless information!

There are several appendices to The Landmark Herodotus, and these fill in the gaps in Herodotus’ account, for example describing Spartan life and culture in detail, looking briefly at key dialect issues or considering the accuracy of Herodotus’ portrayal of Egypt. I mostly skimmed through these. There are also illustrations in black and white showing ancient implements or weapons, or presenting diagrams and illustrations of, for example, fortifications. These are all interesting.

For the more casual reader each section is accompanied in the margin by a clear and brief summary of its contents , and many students would benefit from, and even rely on this, as it allows the reader to quickly skim sections and retrieve significant information. The histories are also divided into numbered sections which allow the reader to identify footnotes with ease.

The Landmark Herodotus was a gift, and not a book I would have chosen myself, being rather academic and of quite a daunting length. It’s not without fault – some footnotes are missing and it was quite fun to notice these – what a geek I am!

Nevertheless it’s a great resource for any student of the classics, and whilst I wouldn’t recommend everyone to read The Histories word by word as I did, there are certainly many interesting comments and pieces of information. As a landmark document showing the first recorded attempts to offer both a factual history, and a scientific and sceptical account of the Greek world, Herodotus is certainly worth a look!!

In his book Persian Fire Tom Holland offers his account of the conflict between Greece and Persia which he sees as epitomising the great divide between Asia and Europe embodied in today’s clash of Christian and Muslim civilisations. This is a much more accessible version of events, but not to everyone’s taste.

 

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

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My Name is Lucy Barton is a short and quite gripping novella that was long listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

It tells the story of a midwestern girl, Lucy Barton, now living in New York. She is married and has two children, but is ill in hospital, and mostly alone: her husband has a phobia about hospitals and rarely visits. He pays for the protagonist’s mother to fly in and care for her daughter, and the book mostly concerns the short period in which the girl’s mother sits by her bedside and looks after her.

As she lies in hospital and talks with her mother, Lucy Barton reflects on her life, and especially on her childhood. The book is really a series of these memories retold in short sharp chapters of brief, yet vivid and detailed description.

From the hospital window Lucy can see the Chrysler building, an icon of New York city and a reminder of the distance between herself and her childhood home. The mother has never flown before and has no knowledge of, or interest in modern culture. Her own husband was psychologically damaged in the the second world war, and never recovered, inflicting the consequences of his own guilt and pain onto the next generation.

Lucy grew up in cultural and financial poverty, living in a cold garage and a victim of bullying at school.  She was also the victim of abuse, and we are told that she was regularly locked into the car whilst her parents worked. There are more explicit comments, but these are not developed in detail.

From the dialogue and commentary it is clear that Lucy’s mother knew nothing of these incidents, or if she did was in denial. Lucy would like to ask, but never has the courage.

But this is a book about love and about dignity. We see the powerful love Lucy has for her mother, a love that its clearly reciprocated. The book revolves around other moments of tenderness and compassion, including the doctor who calls regularly, even at weekends, and goes easy on his medical bills. There are others in the mid-western town, more fortunate than Lucy’s family, who show her compassion and sympathy, including a teacher who chides the class for laughing at her, insisting that all children must be treated equally and with kindness.

We also learn about the fates of some of Lucy’s childhood friends, their selfishness or foolishness, their broken marriages and disappointments. This is a book in which human failings are writ large but with compassion and sympathy.

We are given brief glimpses of Lucy’s life away from the mid-west: relationships that failed or never matured, her own marriage and her love for her children, her encounter with a professional writer, an inept creative writing tutor who nevertheless didn’t manage to stop Lucy becoming a professional writer herself.

In the end Lucy has grown into an independent and confident writer, a modern, metropolitan woman.

Strout is not judgemental, and there is sympathy here for even the most unsympathetic of characters – her damaged father, the old schoolfriend who abandoned her husband, or the self centred and fashion conscious lecturer in art with whom she had a brief fling as a student. The criticisms are subtly communicated, the judgements clear but understated.