Tuesday, June 24, 2014

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fic)

I loved this book!  Adichie is a brilliant writer.  I equally enjoyed her previous book, Half a Yellow Sun which won the Orange prize.  There is an absorbing story in her new book as well as a lesson we could all benefit from.  Adichie is never preachy or patronizing, yet she enlightens the reader through the eyes of her characters.  She teaches us a lesson about race and stereotyping and the loneliness of missing love and companionship.  The theme that runs through the book is the difference between Africans and African Americans and how people perceive them without understanding. The setting shifts with the telling of the stories of two main characters who live in Nigeria, Britain and the United States.

The tale opens in Lagos, Nigeria where we meet two high school students Ifemelu and Obinze who fall in love.  They never fall out of love, but they become separated by time, distance and the different paths their lives follow.  We learn about everyday life in middle class Nigerian families in this section of the book.

Ifemelu eventually moves to the United States to further her education.  This is the most interesting part of the book to me, as Adichie shows the reader through Ifemelu that there is a large difference in experience and temperament between American blacks and Africans.  It is not only that their English sounds different, there is a cultural gap as well.   Ifemelu finds her footing in her new country, and she has an affair with a white American who is the brother of a sincere, but clueless blond yummy mummy who has hired her as a nanny.  As Ifemelu grows in her cultural understanding of Americans, black and white, she becomes a well-known and successful blogger on cultural differences among blacks.  She receives a fellowship from Princeton and falls in love with a black professor at Yale.

While Ifemelu is having her awakening in the States, Obinze is having his own experience in Britain where he has gone to further his studies.  Adichice is equally observant of the black cultural experience in London where there is a large population of Jamaicans who are distinct from the Africans who have immigrated to England. Obinze is less outspoken than Ifemelu who never hesitates to voice her strong opinions.  Unlike Ifemelu who holds a green card in America, Obinze is an illegal in London and he eventually is found out and deported.  When he arrives back in Nigeria his life takes a turn for the better, and as the years go by that separates the former lovers,  he becomes a successful businessman and property developer.  He marries and fathers a child.

After her relationship with the professor falls apart, Ifemelu makes the decision to return to Nigeria.  Now as a adult, she is seeing her countrymen through eyes that have seen the world in a different light.  The society she enters into is one not unlike that of the American nouveau rich where there is one upmanship, jealousy and jockeying for social position.  In Lagos she finds a pecking order not so different than its American counterpart.

Adichie turns a critical eye equally on Britain, America and Nigeria. Through Ifemelu's blog, she is unsparing but honest in her commentary.  Much of the book is drawn on Adichie's own experiences.  This novel tells a fascinating story of love and loss and humanity.  I highly recommend it to all readers, and it will evoke an interesting discussion in reading groups. As an aside, I just read an article that said the book will be made into a movie staring Lupita Nyong'o who was an Academy Award winner this year.

Monday, June 23, 2014

BLUE MONDAY by Nicci French (fic)

Nicci French is the pen name of a husband and wife writing team, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Blue Monday is the first book in a mystery series which features Freida Klein, a psychotherapist. This gives the book a different slant, having a physician rather than a detective as the sleuth.  I enjoyed this book, and I will certainly look forward to reading the others in the series. It is a good summer book, full of suspense and odd characters.

The story opens in 1987 with the tale of two young sisters, on the way to a sweet shop.  Joanna Vine, the younger sister disappears when her older sister, Rosie, is distracted in the sweet shop by a friend.  Joanna is never found, leaving the detective in the case, frustrated and unable to let go of the unsolved mystery. 

The story then switches to 2009 when Freida Klein, when treating an anxiety patient named Alan Dekker, becomes suspicious of his stories of dreams and seeming fixation on children.  Alan suffers from panic attacks and compulsions he cannot seem to control.  While he is being treated by Freida, another young child, Matthew Farady goes missing in an eerily similar circumstance to that of Joanna Vine.

Working with DCI Malcolm Karlsson and her medical mentor Reuben McGill (a burned out psychiatrist) Freida puts herself in danger as she pursues answers to the mysterious disappearance of Matthew which she is convinced is connected in some way to the earlier kidnapping.

The book is well written and plotted.  It is a page turner and will leave you ready to delve into the next book in the series, fittingly called Tuesday's Gone.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton (fic)

Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize this year for The Luminaries.  Because it is such a unique novel, it stands alone and cannot be categorized as a certain genre.  Earlier this year, critics suggested that Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch was Dickensian in its story telling.  I never bought that comparison.  Equal to Tartt's in length, Catton's novel is more deserving of the comparison.  It certainly reads like a Victorian novel, but one without the cloying sentimentality of many writers in that era.

The story takes place in New Zealand (Catton's country) in about 1866 in a setting that seems akin to the rough American frontier towns spawned by the gold rush.  Hokitika in New Zealand's southwest is also experiencing gold fever.  Hokitika has its saloons, cheap hotels, brothels, a bank, a jail, and a mansion or two.  At the heart of the story is a mystery that is slowly revealed as the book moves toward its climax. The book is filled with disparate characters drawn together by their thirst for striking it rich.  As time goes on, each character is exposed, and the reader begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together once he/she gets beyond the misunderstandings and lies that bind the characters together. You must look sharp to unravel the mystery though, as the truth is revealed in bits and pieces going back and forth in time.  At the novels center, is a fortune in gold sewn into four gowns whose ownership is in dispute. 

The story opens at the Crown Hotel in the smoking room where 12 men who all play an important part in the book are gathered together.  Here is where our tale unfolds. Each section of the book is introduced by an astrological calendar that I did not understand, and I did not take the time to research, though I wonder if they give clues to solving the book's puzzle.  Like all frontier towns, the population was made up of young men eager for a fresh start. Standing in for the reader is a Scotsman named Walter Moody, a barrister whose greatest moment, in his young 28 year old life, is conducting the defense at a trial at the end of the book. As the trial proceeds, the reader begins to find answers to who is telling lies, who is innocent, who is guilty. 

Also at the heart of the book is a love story, though the lovers, Emery Staines and Anna Wetherell, are separated throughout most of the novel. A lonely man who dies in a remote cottage, a politician, a scheming madam named Lydia Wells who claims to be the dead man's wife, a Maori jade trader, two Chinese men, each with his own motives for being there, all these people are cause and effect in moving the story towards its ending.

All this is much too complicated to try to explain in any coherent manner.  You must read the book and find your own meaning.  If you like meandering Victorian novels in the manner of Dickens and mysteries like that in Our Mutual Friend or Edwin Drood, you will like this book.  It is a masterpiece of style and language.  If you are not fond of long novels which you must think on to find answers, run away; you will not enjoy this book.  As for me, I liked it very much, though I found the ending somewhat abrupt and not altogether satisfying.

Monday, June 9, 2014

THE BEAN TREES by Barbara Kingsolver (fic)

Although I have read several Kingsolver books, I had never read her first book, The Bean Trees. It is interesting to see her promise as a writer in this first effort.  Kingsolver has a way of teaching her readers a lesson about nature and human feeling that never sounds preachy.  Her causes are important ones.  As in her later books, her prose is rich, realistic and as vivid as the Arizona sunshine that is the setting for this novel.  She is an expert in character dialogue, the colorful speech patterns and language of the south country.

Taylor (a name she invents for herself) Greer has had enough of her small Kentucky home town and finding herself stuck in an unrewarding job decides to pull up stakes and take a road trip across the country.  She more or less tapes her old heap of a car together and sets out.  She has a bit of Cherokee in her, and she imagines herself finding luck in Oklahoma. Instead she finds Turtle, or rather Turtle finds Taylor.  Turtle is an abused and deeply silent Cherokee child who finds her savior in Taylor.  Deciding Oklahoma is too flat and monotonous Taylor heads toward Arizona where a flat tire leads her to discover Mattie, a sort of den mother to immigrants on the road north.  Mattie owns Jesus Is Lord Used Tires in Tucson. Taylor is a truthful, honest and clear-thinking country girl.  Mattie takes her under her wing along with a house full of Guatemalan illegals.  Taylor is employed by Mattie who can't say no to anyone who needs help and direction. Once settled in, Taylor makes friends with Lou Ann, a young mother whose husband deserted her.  The two women and their children make a home as best they can, though they live on a shoestring.

Taylor and Turtle fit in well in Tucson, and though the book wallows in a bit of sentimentality that beggars belief at times, the story is interesting and engaging.  I wouldn't say this is Kingsolver's best work, but if you haven't read this one and are a fan, you will find it an uplifting summer read.