Book Review: THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

From the opening lines of Paula McLain’s THE PARIS WIFE, it is obvious that this author really knows how to turn a phrase. The prose is nimble and witty even when it is also full of pathos. The tone of the narrative is a conversational first-person one with a smattering of American epithets that makes it easy to hear this woman’s voice. The narrative voice is very nineteen-twenties, using the vernacular to create a palpable “lost generation” atmosphere. This adds to the authentic, almost autobiographical feel of the book. The quality of the writing is at its very best at the beginning and end of the book, with the middle being a little more plain-spoken. But when it’s good, it’s very, very good. It certainly had me from the very first line: “Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.”

It feels slightly surreal to be reading a book about a woman called Hadley and a man called Ernest – never quite being able to forget that “Ernest” is Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite authors. It takes some getting used to, kid. Hadley’s first-person voice is so authoritative and convincing that it is often difficult to remember that this is historical fiction, not autobiography. Which also begs the question, how much is fact and how much is fiction? I’ve read a lot of historical fiction but seldom asked this question so constantly throughout a book. This, from Ernest, certainly rings true: “‘I want to write one true sentence,’ he said. ‘If I can write one sentence, simple and true every day, I’ll be satisfied.'”

Hadley is a very realistic character, full of anxieties and dark moods as well as the eagerness and excitement of the newlywed. She is strong and fragile, tough and vulnerable all at once – in short, as full of contradictions as is any human being. However, while she is a very sympathetic character, something bothered me about her and it took me some time to figure out what it was: She is very “domesticated,” which I suppose was typical of the times, but she also lacks, to a large degree, her own identity apart from Ernest.

Thus, I found Ernest to be the more interesting character – volatile, but not excessively so for a great writer; enigmatic but also often practical and straightforward; tenacious and determined; sometimes abrasive and always passionate. Hadley certainly does see and understand the real Ernest: “Ernest Hemingway … seemed to do happiness all the way up and through. There wasn’t any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness. His eyes sparked all over everything …” As their relationship develops, she sees deeper and deeper into him: “… Some of us had looked into the faces of the dead and tried not to remember anything in particular. Ernest was one of these. He often said he’d died in the war, just for a moment; that his soul had left his body like a silk handkerchief, slipping out and levitating over his chest. It had returned without being called back, and I often wondered if writing for him was a way of knowing his soul was there after all, back in its place. Of saying to himself, if not to anyone else, that he had seen what he’d seen and felt those terrible things and lived anyway. That he had died but wasn’t dead any more.” Hadley is the one who sees Ernest at his best and worst and everything in between: “He loved and needed praise. He loved and needed to be loved, and even adored … Ernest did run the show and ran me over more than occasionally, and that wasn’t by chance … He was such an enigma, really – fine and strong and weak and cruel. An incomparable friend and a son of a bitch. In the end, there wasn’t one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true.”

In contrast, Hadley could often seem tentative and plaintive and overly solicitous of her husband’s approval and affection. She is quite aware that she lacks purpose, and embarks on various “projects” to try to find it – from playing the piano to having a baby: “He was inside the creative sphere and I was outside, and I didn’t know if anything would ever change that.”

A major theme of the book is the legacy of the suffragette movement in the form of the “modern woman.” Surrounded by endless examples of these comparatively liberated women in Paris and in Ernest’s orbit in general, Hadley spends much of the book trying to find this fierce and fearless quality in herself, almost ashamed to admit that more traditional values and lifestyles appeal to her more. Can an ordinary and unambitious wife hope to hold onto one of the greatest, most innovative and progressive writers of the “lost generation”? Hadley knows well how seemingly impossible this task is: “Marriage could be such deadly terrain. In Paris, you couldn’t really turn around without seeing the result of lovers’ bad decisions. An artist given to sexual excess was almost a cliche, but no one seemed to mind. As long as you were making something good or interesting or sensational, you could have as many lovers as you wanted and ruin them all. What was really unacceptable were bourgeois values, wanting something small and staid and predictable, like one true love, or a child.”

The denouement of this novel could hardly be more perfect. It is messy and complex and moving, but not melodramatic or overly sentimental or trite. It is utterly authentic, utterly real, utterly true. It is just the way life is, in all its imperfect grace and all its terrible beauty. It is the very thing to reflect and amplify the elegant verisimilitude of THE PARIS WIFE as a whole.

Read Me a Story: The best audiobooks I’ve listened to recently

I listen to a LOT of audiobooks, on average probably one every three to four days. Because I fly through them so fast, I don’t often find a chance to write detailed reviews of any but the very best. But I’ve been blessed with a run of many very enjoyable ones lately, and I want to shout their names from the rooftops!
And so, here is my list of my recent favorite audiobooks. In most cases, while all of the narrators’ performances were commendable, I think these books would be just as good in whatever format you prefer. However, a few have been so well narrated that I think this adds even more quality to the experience of the story. Where this is the case, I will mention it in the comments for that audiobook.
And now, without further ado, here are the best audiobooks I’ve listened to lately:
A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Jonathan Keeble – I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about this book, as I found it just as fascinating and literarily meritorious as Mantel’s much more famous books, WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES. The character of Danton in particular really captured my imagination.

THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead, narrated by Fiona Press – Utterly unlike anything I have ever read or listened to. The title character became probably THE literary character I most love to hate! If this sounds like something negative it’s not – all I want from a book is to be induced to FEEL some kind of strong emotion, which this book certainly did. Plus, it contains other fascinating and more sympathetic characters, and the ending is stunning. Now I know why others who have read this book bemoan the fact that Christina Stead hasn’t been accorded the place she deserves in Australian literature.

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe, narrated by Buck Schirner – What a powerful book! I was expecting a lot but found it even MORE moving than I anticipated, and was surprised by how funny and action-packed it was, too. One of those books that EVERYONE should read!

DAVID COPPERFIELD by Charles Dickens, narrated by Simon Vance – I’ve heard many people say this is their favorite Dickens, and I’ve now joined the club! Not only is the story engaging throughout, it is HILARIOUS. I literally don’t think I’ve seen so many wonderfully quirky characters contained in one book before.

THE BLADE ITSELF / BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED / LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS (the First Law trilogy) by Joe Abercrombie, narrated by Steven Pacey – This is a fantasy trilogy, but not as we know it. I can actually sum it up in one word: “gritty.” Yes, it contains a few magical beasts and places, and a few characters with certain magical abilities. But really, it is about political corruption and non-magical blood-and-guts warfare as we DO know it. What gives it its real power, though, is its rich characterization, a cut above what is usually seen in fantasy fiction. None of the point-of-view characters is magical, all are very human and very flawed, which makes them very easy to believe and take to. Be warned: this trilogy contains frequent strong violence, including torture, so is not for the weak of stomach. But it is so very authentic and viscerally powerful, I definitely recommend it for those searching for “the power of story.”

ARCADIA by Lauren Groff, narrated by Andrew Garman – A gentle, ethereal, very moving story beautifully told.

THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer, narrated by Jen Tullock – It lives up to its title! There is something special about feeling like you are a part of this unique group of friends. I can’t pinpoint exactly how, but it exceeded my expectations.

CITY OF THIEVES by David Benioff, narrated by Ron Perlman – I enjoyed this book way more than I expected to. Yes, there were some confronting scenes, but the big surprise was the book’s humor, thanks largely to the character of Kolya. The ending is very poignant. This is one of those books in which I think the audiobook narrator made a big difference, especially as the voice of Kolya.

FROG MUSIC by Emma Donoghue, narrated by Khristine Hvam – A rollicking good story, peopled by strong, engaging female characters, with some jaw-dropping twists thrown in.

THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Marie Buchanan, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Julia Whelan, Danny Cambell – Centered on the ballet school of the Paris Opera, this story of three passionate sisters drew me in from the start and never let me go. I can’t put my finger on the reason why, but it has stayed with me ever since I listened to it.

THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant, narrated by Carol Bilger – This is the story of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, as mentioned in the Old Testament. However, this is a very secular character study of a remarkable woman and her remarkable life. A very feminist book that I highly recommend to any woman or anyone interested in women’s stories, regardless of religious persuasion.

THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey, narrated by Debra Monk – I’ve had a patchy history with the “magical realism” genre, but this book completely enchanted me. A wild and whimsical story that has a special place in my heart.

GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee, narrated by Reese Witherspoon – Obviously, this new-old book by Harper Lee has been the most discussed book of the year. Did I love it as much as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? No, but then, Mockingbird is my second favorite book ever, so that was never going to happen. It’s a pity it has to be compared to the classic, because as a stand-alone book, GO SET A WATCHMAN is excellent. It begins a bit slowly, but Jean-Louise’s disenchantment upon finding that Atticus is apparently racist leads to a breathtaking climax. Reese Witherspoon’s narration is absolutely brilliant, there could not have been a better narrator for this very special book.

CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain, narrated by Katharine McEwan – Even better than THE PARIS WIFE! Truth really is stranger than fiction, and Paula McLain masterfully adds just enough fiction to make Beryl Markham’s story soar! This book earned one of my rare five-star ratings, I loved it!

SISTERS OF TREASON by Elizabeth Fremantle, narrated by Teresa Gallagher, Georgina Sutton, Rachel Bavidge – I found out after I’d finished it that this was actually the second book in a trilogy, but if you know your Tudor history reasonably well, it works fine on its own. I listen to a LOT of Tudor historical fiction, but this one stood out for me because of its unique, disparate, fascinating point-of-view characters (Lady Jane Grey’s two sisters plus a female portrait painter favored by the court), and because its language approaches the quality of literary fiction at times. Engrossing from beginning to end.

READY PLAYER ONE and ARMADA by Ernest Cline, narrated by Wil Wheaton – I’ve saved the best for last – and “the best” is no reflection on literary merit, only on good clean FUN! Both books are full of endearing characters, and they do look at some serious themes like the costs and benefits of virtual-reality escapism, the corporatization and censorship of the Internet, and the ethics of aggressive or pre-emptive warfare … But really, these books, especially READY PLAYER ONE, are special because they’re such addictive fun, and they don’t have a single dull moment between them. For those of us who MMO, have ever enjoyed playing video games, or have any memory of 1980s pop culture, READY PLAYER ONE in particular is a total TRIP! I rated it five stars for sheer enjoyment. Wil Wheaton’s narration of these books could not be more perfect, he IS the main protagonist of each, and adds a whole new layer of enjoyment to the experience. Do yourself a favor and listen to these audiobooks!

Vintage Book-Review: THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert

i was blessed to receive THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS as my first ever read-for-review book. Many thanks to TheReadingRoom.com and the author for this wonderful opportunity.

The following review was first posted on TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com and goodreads.com on 13 December 2013.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

I approached THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS with only a vague idea that it was a novel about a female botanist trying to make good in the gentleman’s club of nineteenth-century scientific exploration. Well, I wasn’t wrong, but I could have been so much more right, if only I had realized that this was a novel about a woman named Alma Whittaker. That might sound like an overly simple statement, but you should not judge it as such until you’ve met Alma Whittaker, because Alma Whittaker is anything but simple. Alma Whittaker has great depth of character, and because Alma Whittaker has great depth of character, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS also has great depth, as well as great scope, great humor, great pathos, and great beauty. Don’t make my mistake and approach this book thinking that you know what you’re going to get, because you don’t know, you can’t possibly know. Every time you think you know where the story is going, it will surprise you. Every time you think the story is becoming a little sedate, it will gallop ahead again. Every time you think you know all there is to know about the characters who move in Alma’s orbit, you will find that you never knew them at all. If you want to go on a great adventure, not of the body but of the soul, take Alma’s hand and let her lead you through the winding, witty, whimsical, wondrous pages of THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS.

The novel begins with Henry Whittaker’s “rags to riches by way of hard work, cunning, and ruthlessness” story. He claws his way to the top, becoming a rare plants and pharmaceuticals baron, one of the richest and most powerful men in Philadelphia, and the proud owner and resident of the great White Acre estate, home to and propagator of both rare plants and rare intellect. Many readers have noted that Henry’s story seems to be given too much lengthy attention in a novel that is ostensibly not about him but about his daughter, Alma. However, if this book revolves around Alma, Alma revolves, for much of the book, around Henry and around White Acre, which is almost more a character than merely a location: “White Acre was both magnificent and daunting, especially upon first sight. The place had been expressly designed to intimidate, after all, and few guests could hide their awe, their envy, or their fear.” Now ensconced in White Acre, and having acquired, somewhere along the way, a very sensible, intelligent, and industrious Dutch wife, Beatrix, Henry is now ready to raise a family in the splendor he only dared to dream of when he was a child himself.

As fate would have it, Henry and Beatrix are blessed with only one child, a little girl named Alma, born in the year 1800 (which makes it very easy for readers to know how old Alma is whenever a date is mentioned in the story). Surprisingly, Henry is unperturbed at having only a daughter as his sole heir, and he is more than happy for Beatrix to raise Alma under the strictures of a very thorough classical education, while both her parents imbue in Alma a supremely logical and scientific way of thinking, as well as a love of and aptitude for well-reasoned debating, which earns Alma her place at the table during the Whittakers’ famous dinner parties, hosting the greatest minds of the age.

Growing up at White Acre, all Alma lacks is affection, the companionship of other children, and the time and ability to simply play and waste time. This is where the author’s love for Alma becomes very apparent, as she steps in to provide Alma with the remaining components needed to nourish her humanity. An adopted sister, Prudence, appears in the middle of the night when Alma is still quite a young child. However, beautiful, passive Prudence appears ever cold and aloof: “Prudence … as ever, looked porcelain and unimpeachable.” She initially appears to be a mere cipher, a “not-Alma.” But then the author provides Alma and Prudence with the third power of their triumvirate in the form of their new neighbor, Retta Snow, who, irrepressibly ebullient, immediately adopts Alma and Prudence as her best friends in the whole wide world. Described as “overly young, not very bright, and just the tiniest bit frantic,” Retta casts a friendly spell over all the inhabitants of White Acre, one of the effects of which is to bring Alma and Prudence closer together. If Prudence is “not-Alma,” Retta is “not-Alma-or-Prudence,” and she teaches them the only thing they have left to learn: how to be silly.

And so, this is the environment that produces Alma Whittaker. But who is Alma Whittaker? As far as the world around her is concerned, Alma Whittaker is competent, sensible, intelligent, obedient, and amiable. She is also an ugly duckling who never did turn into a swan. Finding her a husband may be problematic: “Who would have her? Who would take this giant female creature, who stood above six feet tall, who was overly stuffed with learning, and who had hair in the color and shape of a rooster’s comb?” The world would certainly have to admit, though, that even at a young age, Alma Whittaker is a very promising botanist, despite the fact that: “In the scientific world of the day, there was still a strict division between ‘botany’ (the study of plants by men) and ‘polite botany’ (the study of plants by women) … [even though] ‘polite botany’ was often indistinguishable from ‘botany’ …”

This is the point from which Alma’s story really begins. Yes, she is everything the world observes her to be – but are any of us merely the sum total of what the world observes us to be? In a narrative voice that has a merrily ironic sense of humor, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS somehow manages to move along at a hectic, whirlwind pace even when many of its scenes are merely domestic. Alma’s fully rounded character is revealed as we are granted intimate insight into the sensual and romantic sides of her psyche. The true scope and intricate nuances of her botanist’s brain are revealed when, surrounded by causes like the treatment of women in asylums or the abolitionist movement, Alma takes up the study of MOSSES! This seems either hilarious or infuriating initially, until realization dawns that this may signal Alma’s entry into the most exciting issue of the time, the first steps toward a theory of evolution by natural selection. But Alma really is captivated by moss in its own right, and if we scoff at the idea to start with, we are ashamed of our scorn when Alma tells us, “I find the miniature world to be a gift of disguised greatness, and therefore an honor to study.”

Alma’s already captivating story is thoroughly shaken up and taken to new and surprising heights and depths by two events: the entry of a unique botanical artist by the name of Ambrose Pike and Alma’s eventual release from Henry Whittaker’s thrall. Ambrose turns Alma’s world upside down, so that she has to wonder, exactly what are the borders of reality, and are they fixed? It is because of Ambrose that Alma finally experiences the heady highs of ardent love and the soul-wrenching lows of love lost. This is where THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS shows its greatest depth and Gilbert her most inspired authorship, with breathtaking writing such as: “… truly there were times when the sadness of this world was scarcely to be endured, and the violence of love, Alma thought, was sometimes the most pitiless violence of all.”

When the chips are down, Alma is a Whittaker of White Acre, and she will use her power to save her own heart from that which cannot be borne. Yet it is when she finally relinquishes that power forever that she becomes free for the first time in her life. Grasping her new freedom with both hands, Alma goes on an expedition to Tahiti. But are plants really all she is looking for there, or is she looking for answers of a different kind? And if she finds them, will they bring peace to her life or destroy it?

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is, indeed, a novel about a nineteenth century woman botanist. It is also a novel about life and death, especially death, and whether the struggle for life is worth it. It is a novel about time, about the almost-infinite “moss time” and about the never-enough human time. It is a novel about altruism and self-sacrifice. It is a novel about the scientific and the mystical. Most of all, it is a novel about Alma Whittaker and what life taught her: “This life is a tentative and difficult experiment. Sometimes there will be victory after suffering – but nothing is promised.”

Book Review: HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is a very important and very readable postcolonial novel. Centering on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70, it has a lot to teach both about postcolonial Nigeria and about the art and import of storytelling.

Language is a central concern in this book, including the occasional tongue-in-cheek play on words, such as Richard being (emotionally) “stirred” by a ropework pot. I got the sense that the author was almost deliberately deceptive in the simplicity of her language, covering a much greater facility and more playful attitude to language than is at first apparent. The language used is unsophisticated, which makes the occasional moments of searing insight or incisive statements so much more striking. For example: “He [Richard] laughed. The sound spilt out of him, uncontrolled, and he looked down at the clear, blue pool and thought, blithely, that perhaps that shade of blue was also the colour of hope.”

The tone and cadence of each chapter matches that of the point-of-view character, despite being written in the third person. There is something characteristically African about Olanna’s and Ugwu’s chapters, something more straightforward but no less deeply felt, whereas Richard’s chapters have a more introverted, tentative, sometimes even wishy-washy feel to them. While the language of the narrative does change in accordance with the age and nature of the current point-of-view character, overall it is endearingly artless – simple but not simplistic, with subtle shades of color to it. Adichie often displays a keenly observational, witty turn of phrase, especially in her descriptions of people. I found this sentence both humorous and evocative: “She began to look more and more like a fruit bat, with her pinched face and cloudy complexion and print dresses that billowed around her body like wings.”

In general, this book follows the “show, don’t tell” method, so that it is unburdened with large chunks of information but is, rather, an intriguing puzzle to be deciphered bit by bit as you read. Each chapter introduces a new character who is within the orbit of the focal character of the previous chapter. In this way, the characters are enabled to comment on and give contrasting perspectives of each other, so that the reader does not have to dogmatically accept a given view of each character but can draw their own conclusions instead. Is Odenigbo a passionate revolutionary or a deluded idealist? Is Olanna sweet and smart or hopelessly naive? Is Kainene a cold fish or a woman of mysterious depths? You decide.

There is a definite feeling that the characters in this book are there as conduits through which a larger lesson about Nigerian history is delivered. The characters cover almost every possible viewpoint – there is Odenigbo the “revolutionary lecturer”; Olanna, his sweet, beautiful lover from a privileged family; Ugwu, their houseboy from a very poor family; Kainene, Olanna’s cynical businesswoman sister; and Richard, Kainene’s white English ex-pat lover, the earnest outsider. The older person’s perspective is provided by a host of minor characters. Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard are the three point-of-view characters, which offers the most diverse range of viewpoints. Thus, I very much felt that the characters of HALF OF A YELLOW SUN were vehicles for the plot rather than necessarily being themselves the focus of the story. This is one example of how Olanna’s life is inextricable from the war she is trying to survive: “It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life.” This is another: “… she felt as if she were about to turn a corner and be flattened by tragedy.”

If the characters are vehicles for lessons in Nigerian history and politics, they are first-class vehicles. They make these lessons heartfelt and very personal. I will have a hard time forgetting “the second coup,” especially thanks to Olanna’s experience with it. However, paradoxically, I also often felt a certain detachment from the characters in this book, although this was more pronounced with some than with others. Ugwu was the easiest to feel affection for, and, to an extent, Olanna; but Odenigbo remained quite inscrutable throughout for me, followed closely by Kainene. I found it to be a real shame that these so potentially complex characters were not developed much more fully. It was odd to feel a sense of detachment from the characters yet at the same time recognize how often the narrative provided exceptionally astute insights into human nature. For example, at one point when Olanna is considering Odenigbo: “Then she wished, more rationally, that she could love him without needing him. Need gave him power without his trying; need was the choicelessness she often felt around him.”

Perhaps overshadowed by the meta-narrative about Biafra and by the romantic tales woven through it is the fact that this is also very much a story about sisters – how much they share, how much they are willing to forgive, how strong their bond is: “‘There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable,’ Kainene said.”

Something I was not expecting was for this book to be funny, but the wry observations of Ugwu’s childish perspective provide plenty of levity. For example: “‘He’s one of these village houseboys,’ one of the men said dismissively, and Ugwu looked at the man’s face and murmured a curse about acute diarrhoea following him and all of his offspring for life.”

For the white, Western reader, HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is a gentle but persistent reminder that theirs is not the only valid point of view, that there is a whole other world out there full of very different but equally important cultures and perspectives. This is gently introduced by Ugwu’s careful and often awestruck exploration of his new home, which is extremely vivid, providing a sense of newfound wonder at the “mod cons” we take for granted every day. One of the more humbling realizations for the Western reader of HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is just how much African cultures have to teach about family, community, generosity, and hospitality. This book is also enough to make those of us who only speak one language ashamed of our arrogance! HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is rich with non-English phrases and allusions to the many languages of Africa. Again, Ugwu provides a most evocative example: “Master’s Igbo felt feathery in Ugwu’s ears. It was Igbo coloured by the sliding sounds of English, the Igbo of one who spoke English often.”

There is a lot of information about Nigerian history and politics in this book, but it is quite easily digestible because it is presented in such diverse ways – from informal academic debates to conversations between lovers to the outline of a book. Discussing such issues with friends and colleagues in his home, Odenigbo says: “‘… the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe … I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.'” In the most basic terms, the politics of the book center on tensions between three groups: the Igbo, the Muslims, and the “marauding Europeans.”

After all of the horror stories we in the West have heard about Biafra, it is refreshing to be reminded by HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (whose title refers to the central symbol on the Biafran flag) that the country’s secession from Nigeria began as an act of great hope. At one point, Olanna explains the significance of their new flag to a class of children: “… she unfurled Odenigbo’s cloth flag and told them what the symbols meant. Red 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 a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.”

The dramas of the characters’ personal lives are punctuated throughout by historical and political triumphs and disasters. Seeing the profound effects of these events on the characters in the book just highlights the fact that real Nigerians’ or Biafrans’ lives would have followed a similar course, with little distinction between the public and the private. The following remark is a chilling affirmation of how many lives were affected by the war: “‘The foreigners said that one million died,’ Madu said. ‘That can’t be … It can’t be just one million.'”

In this stridently postcolonial book, Adichie uses the character of Richard to assert quite vigorously that only African people have the right and the ability to tell African stories well. I was slightly affronted by this. I do agree and appreciate that African people will most often be the best at telling the stories of their people – at one point, Kainene says to Richard in this context: “‘And it’s wrong of you to think that love leaves room for nothing else. It’s possible to love something and still condescend to it'” – but I dispute the inference that this is ALWAYS the case, without exception. (I would cite Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as one such exception.) At the beginning of the feminist movement, the best women’s literature was written by women – but there were exceptions, and they were important. There were some male authors who possessed the necessary respect, understanding, and skills to tell women’s stories, and this is much more common today (an excellent recent example being Michel Faber’s THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE). Perhaps Adichie considers post-colonial literature to be more raw and relevant today than feminist literature? That is just a question that occurs to me, I don’t mean to put words into her mouth. However, I do wonder if her attitude to African literature is a little too divisive and exclusionary. Still, there is no denying the outsider’s question: “How much did one know of the true feelings of those who did not have a voice?”

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN gives a lilting but powerful voice to those who experienced the creation and collapse of Biafra, as well as to all the color, vigor, passion, gentleness, idealism, and community of Nigerians and Biafrans in the latter twentieth century. I would gladly recommend this book to anyone who wants an engaging story to teach them about a different time and a different culture.

Vintage Book-Review: FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of my all-time favorite authors – I’ve never yet met a Hemingway novel I didn’t love. And the greatest of these, for me as for many others, is FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.

I first published the following review on amazon.com, goodreads.com, and TheReadingRoom.com on 17 December 2013.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Can a whole life be lived in just four days? This is the question that haunts Robert Jordan throughout FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. Leaving behind his respectable life as an American college Spanish-language teacher, he has become an accomplished guerrilla fighter and explosives expert fighting for the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Can he really find a new “family,” fall head over heels in love, and strike a blow that will further the rebel cause and lay his own personal ghosts to rest … in just four days? Well, he’s going to give it one almighty try, because when that fourth day arrives, he is sure there will be no tomorrow.

And so, Robert Jordan, ordered to blow up a bridge to enable the anti-government forces’ latest attack, attaches himself to a ragtag band of hardened guerrilla fighters, currently hiding out in a cave in the hills near the bridge. In the cave, he finds a band of unstable, hotheaded misfits, a band of unique and beguiling individuals, a band that is sheltering a frightened “little rabbit.” But they are very few, and the task Robert Jordan has brought them is very great. Can he possibly lead them to a glorious, unlikely success, or will he lead them to their doom and his own? The story is haunted by the concept that: “Whether one has fear of it or not, one’s death is difficult to accept.” This is the scene that Hemingway sets, and being Hemingway, all he does is tell us: These are the people, this is what happened to them, this is what they did, this is what they said. And being Hemingway, that is more than enough.

Hemingway’s famously “economical” style can sometimes border on the cold, clinical, and flat, but in this book, he loosens the reins just slightly, with very effective results. The moments of fast-paced action are often very dialogue-driven; in quieter moments, there are little oases of slightly more wordy descriptions of surroundings or feelings; and sensual moments are a tumbling bundle of words and images that hardly even constitute sentences at all, but are intensely moving. Overall, the style of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is still characteristically Hemingway – matter-of-fact, pointed, with not a word out of place. The dialogue is still jarringly clipped, but that’s what makes it so stirring. There are moments of maddening, excessive repetition, but they are like hammer strokes driving the point home. Once again, Hemingway does everything that should make a story fall flat – but instead, it soars. Don’t try this at home, folks. This is something beyond the powers of mere mortals; this is something found only in the realms of genius.

Characterization and character development are particularly strong in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. In his usual way, Hemingway introduces us to all the characters of the story in situ, withholding any hint of their histories and making us earn the right to know them better by waiting and dwelling with them for some considerable time first. It seems that we are meant to get to know these characters in the present so as to deserve the privilege of knowing anything about their pasts, and so as to understand that the present is really all that matters. But by the time we have got to know them that well, all we can think about is their futures: Who will survive the dangerous mission before them?

Robert Jordan is the typical Hemingway leading man – mysterious, enigmatic, physically and emotionally strong but not invulnerable. Initially appearing to be made of stone, it is the “little rabbit,” Maria, a victim of unspeakable war crimes who has found refuge with the guerrilla band, who steadily chips away at “Roberto’s” facade to reveal the human being beneath. And this human being is all too mortal and all too susceptible to the dread of leading his new Spanish “family” to their doom. And the enigma remains: Why is this American fighting in somebody else’s war? Meanwhile, the cast of peripheral characters in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is as vibrant and varied as the contents of a paella. In the wait for zero hour, these characters are revealed one by one: Anselmo, the gentle-hearted “old man”; Fernando, the pedant; Agustin, the fervent revolutionary; Rafael, the unreliable gypsy. And then there is Pilar, a character who could never be accused of being “peripheral.” Mercurial, certainly, but never peripheral: she is surely one of Hemingway’s strongest female characters – by turns worldly, zealous, kind, cruel, loyal, bitter, and as tough as old boots. When it comes to the crunch, we are right there with these very real characters as they march with their heads held high and their hearts in their boots into the impossibly dangerous situation devised for them by the powers-that-be, the powers-that-should-damn-well-know-better.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is reminiscent of Hemingway’s other war story, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, in the attention it gives to the way in which war turns men into monsters. Pilar’s recounting of the first day of the revolution in her own village plus the underlying threat of insurrection within the guerrilla band’s own ranks provide chilling evidence of the evil that lurks in the souls of ordinary men and women. In the memorable words of Agustin, “War is a bitchery.” Robert and Anselmo, in particular, struggle throughout with the Machiavellian concept of killing for the sake of their higher cause. Is this really all there is to it, or do they take some kind of perverse pleasure in the taking of a life? And can they be honest enough, at least with themselves, to admit it?

These themes of personal guilt and responsibility lead inevitably to contemplation of who the enemy really is. At one point, Robert remarks that one side of a revolution usually garners greater attention than the other. Hemingway makes it abundantly clear, however, that FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is not going to perpetuate this injustice, and great pains are taken to emphasize that “the enemy” are people, too. From the personal effects of an enemy scout to a peek through the window at the occupants of an enemy guardpost to actual narrative space given to the enemy in a bloody skirmish, the reader is never allowed to forget that both sides of the conflict share a common humanity. When all is said and done, Robert reflects on that part of himself that is the core of all soldiers, no matter who they fight for: “In him, too, was despair from the sorrow that soldiers turn to hatred in order that they may continue to be soldiers.”

And when faced with the horrors of war, the minds of soldiers often turn to religion, another central theme of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. Robert and his newly Communist comrades are supposed to have renounced religion altogether, and there are many jokes about their now ex-Lord and Savior. Anselmo, however, is quietly wracked with uncertainty over renouncing the beliefs of a lifetime, and in a particularly moving scene, he wishes for the opportunity to undertake some form of religious penance, once the war is over, for the lives he has taken. And when the battle for the bridge is finally waged, both sides turn to prayer as their last resort.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is a magnificent rendition of the hypocrisy, farce, and senselessness of war. This, in itself, makes the book a superb, thought-provoking, soul-searching classic. But it is also arguably Hemingway’s greatest love story. Robert and Maria’s story is so much more than just a whirlwind romance, it is an exquisitely tender, desperately passionate joining of two lost but beautiful souls. As ridiculous as it may sound, Robert and Maria will make you believe that true love can blossom and burn in the space of just four days. This pair would do anything for each other. They want to live a full life together, but they won’t hesitate to die for one another, either. Will they have to?

I do not make this statement lightly: FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is the most perfectly paced novel I have ever read. In the beginning, the story chugs along sedately, giving you time to meet and greet your fellow passengers and accustom yourself to your surroundings. In the last third of the book, you start to hear the whistle blowing and feel the story picking up speed. In the last fifty or so pages, you’re holding on to this runaway train for dear life. By the end, you’ve gone past the edge of your seat and are kneeling on the floor praying for these characters, and especially these two lovers, to survive. “I wish that I were going to live a long time instead of going to die today because I have learned much about life in these four days; more, I think, than in all the other time.” This is Robert Jordan’s musing when the battle is finally joined, and it made me realize that I had also learned much about life from the four days, the lifetime, contained in the pages of this unprepossessing, riveting novel. The thing that makes me so passionate about books is that when they’re really, really good, they make my eyes sparkle and my heart beat faster. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS held me mesmerized and took my breath away. It is one of those books I will never forget. It is a masterpiece.

Book Review: THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K. by Kate Braverman

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At a basic level, THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K. is a book comprised of the morphine-addled stream-of-consciousness memories of a dying woman whose body is so broken that she should have been dead long ago. Sound grim? It’s anything but. In fact, it’s really a book comprised of color, texture, water, air, vivid emotion, and fierce individuality. It is a life lived out loud. Despite the traumatic story it has to tell, the only thing it lacks is any hint of self-pity, although it certainly contains an intense ferocity against a society that thinks the “asymmetrical,” those with broken bodies, must have broken minds and spirits, too – that they can’t possibly burn even brighter and love life even more passionately than their “able-bodied” peers. As Frida says: “There was an exchange. I gave them my human body, my standard-issue female possibilities, and in return, they let me open the door. I traded my body for canvas. I bartered human love for a palette, for having the veil removed from my eyes. There had been a trade, and I got the better of it.”

THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K. is a feat of imagination such as I have rarely seen equaled – if ever. Not just the interpretation of Frida Kahlo’s own personal life but her entire inner world, the things she sees that nobody else sees. According to Frida: “Morphine clarifies the memory, purifies and distills it, finds what was vivid, the indelible traces. With morphine a woman can find her footprints and follow herself down streets she does not remember. Startling images grow in the partial fish-silver dark, sulfur tinted, and singed like the aftermath of fireworks above a squalid river.” I kept forgetting that I wasn’t reading Frida Kahlo’s own memoir, that this was a book written by someone who was not Frida. Perhaps that is the greatest compliment any author could receive, but I just have to add this: Kate Braverman is a genius. And I have not a shadow of a doubt that Frida Kahlo herself would thoroughly approve of THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K.

In this book, Frida is the prime example of an unreliable narrator, but I couldn’t care less. I don’t want her story as it actually happened, I want her story as she sees it. And she amply justifies her own stance on the nature of remembering: “Memory is a construct, a series of sketches in constant fluctuation. It is an artifice. I did not look into the mirror but through it.” In fact, memories, storytelling, reading, and listening all have a lot in common: “These anecdotes are recited through generations. What the grandmothers offer is not truth, but rather an approximation. As the story is repeated, there are mutations, in the one who speaks, and in the one who listens. In this way, all we ever exchange are forms of fiction.”

There were certainly times when my conscious mind did not entirely understand what Frida was saying – but my unconscious always did. THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K. is not meant to exercise the ego, it’s meant to exercise the id. It’s not a book you’re supposed to understand, it’s a book you’re supposed to feel. I can’t describe to you exactly what this passage means, for example, and yet, I understand it: “How can I know this, as rain falls and bells fall and dissolve, and petals and moths and stars? I am pagan. You cannot get to my birth-place simply by booking passage and having your passport in order. There are doors where your stamps and visas are rejected absolutely. Some points of entry are deceptive. The currency and conditions for admission are in constant fluctuation, like a woman dreaming. Perhaps you must offer human flesh, or gardenias out of season. Or butterflies in jars collected by crippled children in alleys dense with the scent of jasmine and urine and the sense that a woman has been recently slapped.” Frida obviously understands the true power of words: “Words are charms or sails or stones. You offer verbal amulets to the air, to your husbands, and to circumstance.”

For Frida, all things, times of day, seasons, themes, feelings have their own very particular color schemes. At one point: “… the air was vivid, cinnamon and copper, a seduction into possibility.” At another: “The sun was beginning to set like certain satins and curry.” Color, water, subversive femaleness are at the heart of this book: “I would know dusks are disguised, a mime of shadowed iris and asters. Painters and madwomen know this. Angry women. Discarded women. Women who lose their symmetry. Women who will not conform.”

Air, textures, and different falls of light are also central to Frida’s consciousness. For example: “Chestnuts are the texture of hypnosis, a quality similar to somnambulism but more curious, like waking in your sleep and drowning.” Or in even more detail: “Fall. Damp leaves belly up in startlement. A litany of leaves like lipsticked mouths in gutters, what rustle, what taffeta, what October shudder. A canopy of branches had turned magenta, skinned bark a burgundy I could get drunk on. The parks were variations of auburn, charcoal, and russet. There was the fragrance of early lamplight, which is distinct like wild anise on northern riverbanks.”

Symbolism is appropriate for an artist like Frida, and her symbol, her personal totem, is water, vital, full of depth, wending its way between the fragments of her narrative in every way imaginable, as she watches herself turning into water: “They will say I smoked cigarettes and marijuana, cursed hoarse as a crow in all my languages and loved morphine and Demerol, tequila and pulque, women and men. I will shrug my illusion of shoulders and answer that I am a water woman, not a vessel, not something you can sail or charter. I am instead the tributary, the river, the fluid source, and the sea itself. I am all her rainy implications. And what do you, with your rusted compass, know of love?”

The contrast with her sometime-husband Diego Rivera’s categorizing, blueprints, scaffolding, and obsession with all things man-made is stark: “Diego lacks an appreciation for the vagaries of vignettes. He believes there are indisputable memories, like chemistry formulas. He is convinced that progress is a matter of patterns, geometries that become buildings. I leave him with his ignorance.” When Diego tells Frida she is out of order, Frida only wonders: “Out of order as in a courtroom, where there is punishment? Or out of chronological order? A woman can be punished for this. Men invented these sequences, how to build the Stock Exchange Luncheon Club, cathedrals and roads, airplanes, concentration camps, and machine guns. They play cards and bet on bulls and horses, but they do not believe in chance. How a piano nocturne on a silvery November afternoon just before rain falls is indelible.” It isn’t long before Frida, despite having a certain need of him, feels mainly contempt and pity for Diego: “Poor Diego. A man with the sensibility of pond scum.”

This book is very feminist in style as well as content – fragmented; introverted; passionately emotional; feeling and sensing more than doing; jumping about in time and space; all but multi-tasking. For Frida: “Marriage was simply a context. It let me make my wounds specific.” Diego is virtually Frida’s antithesis in so many ways: “Diego considers a field and sees sunflowers and the backs of women. He has a vision of women gathering calla lilies, holding them in their arms like children or swans. Women with braids, on their knees in dirt. He prefers their backs because then they are like cattle or piñon trees. He does not consider their faces, which might require thought. Diego’s women are merely symbols, leached of meaning. He might as well be reciting the Communist Manifesto or prayers with a rosary.”

But her feminist views are far from self-centered, as she constantly watches and empathizes with all sorts of women from all classes and cultures: “The women in other apartments were greenhouse women, blossoming behind glass. They had the dreams of plants. They inhabited anonymous rooms, minimally furnished, utilitarian, generic. Everything is beige, dirty cream, and brown. It is a decor for women without personal vestiges. Such women have divested themselves of cousins and aunts, the family doctor, the baker who knows your name, the priest who married your parents. Some women prefer absence. They have evolved from a set of circumstances so monumentally painful that they must be shed absolutely. Some women run from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. Some women run naked, without shoes, without visas. This is called running for your life.”

Frida’s intention and much-desired aim of achieving the peace of a water woman and a vanished woman seems at least partly desirable in order to escape the limitations of men: “When they have skinned me completely, I will be as water women freed of their unnecessary bodies. Men prescribe these structures, these female forms, for pleasure and convenience and the perpetuation of sons. They invent laws and rituals to enforce this. I have taught myself to become deaf to them, oblivious. Of course, it’s been a mutual decision. Mine has not been a typical exile but rather a negotiated settlement. I left the world as it is ordinarily known and it left me.”

As the book progresses, Frida becomes more and more obsessed with her goal of “disappearing.” This was not always easy for me to understand, but it became more intelligible in certain flashes of insight, particularly sparked by this passage: “When a woman has disappeared, everything is intelligible, human motivations and what wires carry. All impulses are equally coherent and predictable. Once you have divested yourself of ordinary structure, once you have lost or abandoned symmetry and body parts, once you have become more than subterranean, once you have successfully reconstructed yourself one atom at a time, you sense when storms are coming.”

Throughout, Frida’s body and its afflictions are almost ciphers, not only for her own emotional state but also for the collective consciousness of all womankind. Perhaps this is why she seems to embrace her own asymmetry and pain so readily and wholeheartedly, even within the terrible moments following the horrific trolley-car accident that changed her life forever:

“‘What’s the point?’ the first doctor asked. ‘Even if she lives, which she won’t, she’ll never have children.’

“The pragmatist. So I already offended their aesthetics and hierarchies, made their watches run backward, made nurses vomit. My name was barren bitch, abomination … I realized that our lives are not static, passive, but rather a dance. It is not enough that you choose it. It must also choose you.”

And that is when, how, and why she begins to paint: “The paintings were not of me. They weren’t a striptease but a dissection. Autopsies of the still breathing.”

Frida treats her pain and all the things she has lost – health, fertility, peace – not with regret or resentment but with irony and sarcasm. This is an entirely, entirely authentic reaction to such losses:

“I was already living posthumously. Then I began painting.

“I knew the border where absence is an ache, sunlight a betrayal. I recognized the raw scalloped edges, the deceptive taint in bone and leaf, shaky midnight, an interminable violation. Only a woman who has already died could dare to paint as a woman. A dead woman would use her stumps and the textures of terra cotta, the creamy mucus of afterbirth.”

THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K. certainly contains a myriad of savage and searing allusions to Frida’s many kinds of trauma. For example: “I found beads and a bracelet composed of miniature machetes, knives, and hearts. This was how I said I hate you. I dressed for dinner. I brushed my hair, braided it with pink ribbons and pink silk flowers. Pink for atrocity, for scars and burns and girl babies.” Yet in spite of all its trauma and raw emotions, reading this book always left me feeling calm. Perhaps it was cathartic.

This book is iridescent, phosphorescent, luminescent. Every single sentence glows with an artistry so beautiful it could break your heart wide open. THE INCANTATION OF FRIDA K. has become the book I will go to when the artist in my soul needs solace and refuge. And perhaps the most important message Frida had for me was this: No matter how ugly life gets, you can always wring beauty from it with your bare hands.”Perhaps I will consider landscapes. After all, there is only earth and silence and trembling in all the ruined latitudes. We are bodies with hands, words, and longing in the nights of impossible gatherings beneath jacaranda trees.”