my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

August 11th, 2011

#64 – The Quarry

ASIDE: I know I’m skipping #63 – I read Chester Brown’s Paying For It a couple of weeks ago but feel that it is a book best discussed in person. Also, I’m waiting for my RRHB to finish it too so we can discuss it before I actually pull all of my thoughts together. So, The Quarry. Of course, I always finish really big books really late at night. Even though I’m this-close to sleep, I always need to start another book. Generally, I pick something short. Damon Galgut’s The Quarry fit the bill — the entire book clocks in at 202 pages. Perfect for those moments in between epic reading undertakings.

But to dismiss Galgut’s work as simple or frothy just because of its size would be a mistake. He’s not an easy writer. He’s a succinct, sharp, unpunctuated writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the book doesn’t carry weight. Like I’ve mentioned in other reviews of his work, Galgut reminds me of Coetzee. They similar sparse prose and they use violence as a backdrop to open a much larger, richer conversation about the state of society.

As the novel opens, the main character who is never directly named (with the exception of the name he takes later on, which is not his own) hides from oncoming traffic in the vast outer territories of South Africa. And by “traffic,” I mean one car. When the next car rumbles to a stop, he’s forced out of hiding in a way, and offered a ride by a minister going far north to a small church to work. They share awkward conversation and drink the communal wine. And then, the man kills the minister. It’s quick, frighteningly violent, and utterly unnecessary — but it’s the crime that sets off the major action in the book (and I’m not spoiling it by writing it here, either, as it’s on the dust jacket). (more…)

April 28th, 2011

#38 – Anthills of the Savannah

Because we had been reading a lot of Can Lit in our book club, and a lot of short stories to boot, I put forth Chinua Achebe‘s Anthills of the Savannah as our April selection. Over the years, my post-colonial reading has declined dramatically, and it was one of the goals of having an Around the World in 52 Books challenge — to end up reading more non-Canadian fiction. Alas, it was probably a good thing that I decided to actually make dinner for The Vicious Circle Book Club, if only so they’d forgive me for choosing such a dense, complex novel.

It took me six tries just to get passed the first few chapters, and we decided as a club that once you got to page 40, the book became readable, and you were somewhat home free. With respect to construction, it’s the most post-modern novel I’ve read in a long time: perspective switches from first, to third, from character to character, and the narrative often circles around events, moving back and forth in time, just assuming the reader will keep up. Here’s where we bring out that old po-co staple — that a lot of African fiction follows more oral than narrative traditions, but I’m not sure I’d make the sweeping generalization that Achebe was setting out to prove that — maybe it more like he was trying to reflect the impossibility of telling a story, a straight forward, this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, kind of story, when your world is in utter chaos.

Set in the fictional West African nation, Kangon, three old school friends, Sam, Chris and Ikem, Western-educated men living among the upper echelons of society, must redefine their relationships now that Sam has become His Excellency — the country’s dictator. As Chris, one of the main characters says, “I have thought of all of this as a game that began innocently enough and then went suddenly strange and poisonous.” As the rest of the novel unravels, the story is strong: Sam wants to stay in power, and even though there’s an uprising “in the north” against him (which is a product of deep misunderstanding and miscommunication), lifelong friends Chris and Ikem, now the Minister for Information and the editor of the national newspaper respectively, bear the brunt of Sam’s fall from grace and are fired, forced into hiding and fighting for their lives.

Because characters are “witnesses,” the novel changes form on the drop of a hat — you can be in the first person with Chris in a meeting, then be reading some whimsical treatise by Ikem, listening to Beatrice, Chris’s girlfriend, speak pidgin English with Elewa, Ikem’s girlfriend, and then be in the middle of some strange scene involving non-doctors and other visiting dignitaries from all of their time in London. Structurally, narratively, the novel makes little sense, but the story is so powerful and the writing so excellent that instead of writing the book off as “bad” per se, I spent a long time trying to unravel why Achebe chose to tell it this way.

There are moments of pure grief in this novel. Acts of senseless violence, struggles that seem utterly relevant now, especially in light of what’s happening in the Middle East and in Northern Africa. There’s also an element of futility to the story, and the strength, the power in the continuation of life comes from the female characters. This was not something that went unnoticed by our book club — we all really loved the character of Beatrice, and I even went so far as to suggest that I probably would have found the novel easier if the entire book was written from her point of view. But easy isn’t the point, life itself isn’t easy, and living in a nation that’s having violent growing pains isn’t a story that can be told in traditional ways. In a sense, Achebe’s novel proves that our “canon,” the Western tradition, isn’t necessarily up to scratch when it comes to the complex and difficult “isms” surrounding the characters in this novel. I could think about it for weeks and not unpack it completely. And, if I were still in school, I think I’d be very happy to write a long, complex paper about it.

Kerry does an awesome job of recounting our discussion from the other night.

What’s Up Next: I’m devouring The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It’s delicious and delightful and utterly engaging. I’m almost through and I only started last night! And then I’ve got a long list of library books AND a beautiful friend who knows me so well sent me Roddy Doyle’s latest book of short stories — I couldn’t resist, I’ve already read the first 5 pages and can’t wait to read the rest. I adore him. So, I’ve abandoned Off the Shelf for now, but only because I needed a break. I was reading far, far too many mediocre books (with the exception of Julian Barnes, natch) and needed a breather. But I will go back. I am determined to read every single damn book that’s perched there, just to say that I did. Stubborn, yes. I know.

February 2nd, 2011

#12 – Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is an assured and impressive debut from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: what a difference between it and the other first novel that I just finished reading, The Very Thought of You. There are none of the first novel jitters in Adichie’s work: the plot and pacing are excellent; the story crescendos at exactly the right moment, her prose is bright, lively and interesting; and, layers upon layers of fascinating observations exist between the essence of “family” and the breakdown of the “state” as Nigeria becomes subjected to a military coup.

Kambili and her brother Jaja, along with their mother, Beatrice, live in constant fear of their father, Eugene, a complex, difficult and deeply religious man. His Catholic faith sustains him, but it also represses his family, creates a power vacuum, and ultimately results in some of the most gut-wrenching violence (not related to a crime novel) I’ve read in a long, long time. Eugene rules his household with an iron fist, one clasped entirely to a rosary, and when his wife or children stray — whether it’s to talk to or see their “heathen” grandfather or to not become first in their class — the consequences are dire. The children, aged 15 and 17, live in constant fear of their father’s fists, his belt, his whip, and there’s no telling exactly what will set him off. Set against his rigid rules and regulations, Kambili and her brother find a few weeks of freedom when they go to visit their aunt, Eugene’s sister, Ifeoma. The time they spend with her changes them forever.

The backdrop of the family drama is set against a military coup happening in Nigeria. It’s fascinating that Eugene, so brave (he runs a newspaper as well as owns a number of factories that make food) in his intentions to resist the powers of the regime. He refuses to bribe the police officers, sends his newspaper editor into hiding, and remains incredible generous to the people who work for him. Yet, when it comes to his family, he simply can not see that subjecting them to the extreme Catholic values that he believes, in his heart, will save his and their souls, through the violence and an extreme restriction of their basic human rights echoes the very nature of dictatorship. I think this dichotomy, for me, strikes a cord that resonates throughout the entire novel.

Kambili can’t speak without stuttering, doesn’t smile, lives in constant fear of her father’s punishment, but she also loves him, as a daughter would. Her father’s violence whether it’s towards her, her brother or her mother, is simply another facet of everyday life. In a sense, I think this is why her voice feels so much younger than 15 — she’s suspended in a strange, awkward childhood, and only begins to blossom when she stays with her aunt and sees how normal teenage girls act. Kambili’s a lovely character — bright, intense, open, honest — and when you feel her father’s blows upon her back, you want to cry out for her to run away, to fight back, and when she finally does, it’s a revelation.

There’s so much to love about this novel, the setting, the way Adichie uses traditional language, the explanations of food, of their daily lives, and the rich landscape soiled, in a way, by the corruption that’s all around. Violence, at home or by the state, is an everyday part of life, yet Kambili can still see the beauty in a simple, special purple hibiscus. It’s an impressive thing to not have your spirit broken — something I admire intensely about this book, and something that I strive for in my own everyday life. And even when things are truly, truly horrible, there’s still a goodness in Kambili that can’t be broken, scarred maybe, but even those find a way to heal eventually.

READING CHALLENGES: Around the World (Nigeria) and Off the Shelf.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m on “A” from my 1001 Books shelf, so I started reading Emma this morning. I love that I have spread out the Austen to read in my lifetime. I would be sad if I had already read them all. I’m exited I still have three to go.

January 23rd, 2011

#6 – Blue Shoes and Happiness

My Zombie Survival Guide daily calendar tells me that a motorcycle is the best way to flee an infested area, which could be problematic for me as I have never driven a motorcycle in my life. Oh well. That has absolutely nothing to do with Alexander McCall Smith’s Blue Shoes and Happiness, which is the seventh book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series with Mma Ramotswe and her cast of likable characters. The calendar makes me laugh, that’s all.

It’s a breezy, delightful series, and I’m actually reading In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (#8) at the moment and expect to be finished it today, they’re such quick books to get through. I had three of the series on my shelves, one I had already read, and so I decided just to power through the other two. I love how Mma Ramotswe isn’t a traditional detective, while she may be traditionally built, and how the cases do not involve bloody murder of the Mo Hayder kind (although I do adore Ms. Hayder) but are instead more like moral lessons. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved but they are generally addressed through common sense and communication, traditional Botswana (I think?) values, and the essence of good for the sake of being good, no ulterior motives:

Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things that could be done while tea was being drunk. And even if that did not solve problems, at least it could put them off for a little while, which we sometimes needed to do, we really did.

My thoughts exactly. A good cup of tea, a warm muffin, and a comfy chair and most problems can at least be mulled over, if not completely solved. In Mma Ramotswe’s case, she drinks her beloved bush tea, in my case, it’s decaf earl grey with the milk poured in first (and I couldn’t give a toss what Christopher Hitchens would say about that — it was the way my British grandmother taught me to drink tea and it tastes the best when the hot water scalds the milk, it just does). The point being that it is in the drinking of the tea that humanity comes together, not the making of the tea, although I would agree with Hitchens that finding a decent cup of tea in America isn’t easy.

Annnywaaay, I’m off topic, entirely with this post, rambling on about zombies and Christopher Hitchens. There’s not a lot to say about these novels, just that I adore them, adore the characters and can’t wait for the TV show to come back on, because it’s delightful too. What’s also nice is that McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe, which puts him on the map in terms of my Around the World in 52 Books, and the African settings of these books always make me want to travel to that continent, just to experience life in a different way. So I’ve knocked off a couple of challenges with two short novels, and haven’t quite decided what my shelves will bring forth next in terms of what I’m in the mood to read.

October 4th, 2010

#47 – In a Strange Room

Damon Galgut has come to occupy a piece of my reading heart only formally held by Coetzee. Like Coetzee, Galgut writes with such skill and serenity that I find myself a better person for having finished one of his books. Until I discovered Galgut, I’d never read another writer who can write so simply (in terms of structure and punctuation) and yet who can still create such a compelling, moving Coetzee-like narrative. I don’t want to just compare the two or lump them together but it’s impossible not to notice the influence as you read In a Strange Room.

As of late, though, I haven’t been as enchanted with Coetzee’s novels, and, in fact, one of my pet peeves in books is when authors create and/or write themselves as characters (it’s the main reason why I can’t get through Beatrice and Virgil and why I’ve never read THE Paul Auster that everyone else has read). Coetzee’s been doing a lot of this lately and as such I haven’t been as enthralled to read his novels as I once was. Yet, when I got halfway through the first of the three stories contained in Galgut’s latest, Booker-shortlisted, collection, and discovered that the narrator is in fact a travelling writer named “Damon,” I kind of inwardly groaned, but I was so taken already with the story, with the setting, that I didn’t put the book down. And I am very glad that I got over my bias because Galgut’s three stories are incredible.

There’s something about landscape in this short collection that defies description — the idea of travelling, of how it leads you to become someone so much more than you are at home — and pervades the narrative throughout this book. In each tale, more lost at home than he ever is on the road, the narrator often boxes up his life for months on end and takes to the road. The settings are exotic to a Canadian girl like me — Goa, Zimbabwe, Lethoso, even Switzerland, places where the only chance I’ll probably ever get to see them is through watching The Amazing Race. But it’s the deeply personal aspect to travelling that I found so affecting throughout. It’s not a travelogue. The stories aren’t about the setting; they are simply informed by it, the dingy hotels, the hostels, the camping trips, the odd characters, the difficulties of travelling with a friend, the difficulties of travelling to unstable places, it never feels forced or fake. It never feels Hollywood. It never feels like he’s using setting to “prove” something. The places he visits are often accidental (in the middle story, “The Lover,” the narrator leaves for a two week “jaunt” to Zimbabwe and ends up in Tanzania weeks upon weeks later) and it’s this idea of happenstance, the essential inability to know what’s going to happen once you’ve put yourself decidedly out of your routine, that creates the bulk of the plot contained within the three linked stories.

Galgut switches up what I’d call perspective; in some sentences he’s using “he” to describe the main character, in other places it’s “I” — both refer to the traveller “Damon,” and as a reader, I sort of inferred that the character of “traveller” is very different from the “I” that recollects what happened upon return; two different sides of the same experience, in a way. The dual nature of the narrator, who he is at home (wondering, wandering, a little lost) and who is he on the road, willing to take risks, confident (in a way), was perpetually fascinating for me throughout all three stories. If I had to name a favourite, it would have to be “the Guardian,” for it’s sheer narrative force. I don’t want to ruin any part of the story for someone who might want to read it so I’ll just say that it’s far less about travelling than it is about friendship — the narrator takes a troubled friend to Goa and horrible things happen, and the sadness that Galgut projects even through his simple storytelling left me a little breathless by the end. Time and distance have such an affect upon tragedy — it’s an interesting perspective.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I truly hope that Emma Donoghue wins the Booker for Room. But there’s definite worth in reading the other shortlisted books too, so far, for me, I’ve enjoyed the two I’ve read immensely. Oh, and Galgut is South African, which means I can add a book to my incredibly lame, utterly failing Around the World in 52 Books list for this year. I might be at 5 or maybe 6 countries if I’m lucky. Fail!

January 14th, 2010

#3 – Her Fearful Symmetry

Let me start off with a confession, as so many of my book reviews do (which leads me to ask one simple question: does anyone actually care about what I confess?), I hated The Time Traveler’s Wife. I found Niffenegger’s book to be slightly absurd, overwritten, and ridiculously implausible. In a way, I guess you could say I wasn’t a fan of supernatural romance.

With that in mind, I have no idea why I wanted to read Her Fearful Symmetry in the first place. I mean, the book got terrible reviews, and even the somewhat kind piece by Emma Donoghue in the Globe hits upon the novel’s central flaw: that too much symmetry makes a bit of a mess of a book. Yet, I was utterly intrigued. And, last night I stayed up way, way passed my bedtime to finish it. In fact, I turned off the light, closed my eyes, tossed and turned for a bit, thought about the book, got up, turned the light BACK ON, and then read the last 150 pages. What kind of a book does that?

The story opens as Elspeth Noblin dies from cancer. Her ravaged body is held by her lover of many years, Robert, and it’s sad. A tad cliched, terribly overwritten, but sad nonetheless (all of the things that annoyed me about the first book). But I was so engrossed by the sheer force of Niffenegger’s story that I almost missed my bus. And buses in Toronto are loud. And I was standing rightnext to the stop.

Elspeth leaves the bulk of her estate to her nieces, the daughters of her twin sister Edie, with whom she hasn’t spoken in over 20 years. It’s not a straightforward kind of will, for what kind of novel would include such boring, plot-sucking details as that, and Elspeth demands: a) that the twins, Julia and Valentina (ugh, that name, ugh) must live in her flat for one year and b) their parents, Edie and Jack, are never to set foot in the apartment.

The girls, who are mirror twins, are looking for an adventure. Julia, aggressive, demanding, controlling, pretty much makes decisions on behalf of Valentina. And Valentina, desperate to get away and have her own life, simply can’t figure out how to break the bond. These problems are somewhat cyclical, something akin to what their mother and Elspeth must have gone through when they were young.

Once in London, and this won’t spoil the story too much, they’re literally and metaphorically haunted by Elspeth. She’s a force in the novel: both as a character who left behind gaping holes after her death (for her lover Robert, for her family) and as a paranormal spirit who simply can’t move beyond the confines of the very apartment she willed to the girls. Lots of creepy stuff happens. Lots of silly stuff happens too.

The setting of the novel aptly reflects the atmosphere Niffenegger tries to create — the apartment building, which contains Robert, Elspeth and Martin’s homes collectively (Martin is an older gentleman whose wife, Marijke, has just left him because he refuses treatment for his highly advanced case of OCD) sits right beside Highgate Cemetary. And Robert, an historian who’s finishing his PhD thesis, works as a graveyard tour guide. Their lives swirl and intersect around one another, relationships develop, both romantic and friendly, and it’s this part of the book that I enjoyed the most — the “up and move to London” portions.

However beyond the fascinatingly banal everyday life sections, Her Fearful Symmetry moves into the absurd. The sections where the implausible happens were the hardest for me to get through. What I honestly loved about this book were the parts with OCD Martin. As a girl who knows and understands what those compulsions are like, I found his character, his struggles, incredibly moving and effective. I was less convinced by the last third of the novel, and wholly disappointed in the book’s main twist. Yet, as I said above, I stayed up way, way beyond my usual bedtime just so I could find out what happened. It’s a rare writer who can capture your attention like that and not let it go.

Was this book worthy of Niffenegger’s massive advance? Probably not. It’s terribly overwritten and full of needless details. Is it worthy of being on the bestseller lists? I’d hesitate, and then say yes, if only so the publisher can recoup their advance, but also temper my negativity by giving the book an overall thumbs up for being a truly enjoyable commercial read.

May 14th, 2009

#31 – Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

When I first started to work at Random House, I spent a lot of time getting to know the lists. It’s not something that happens organically until you’ve worked at a publishing house for a while, and so I spent a lot of time combing through blogs getting to know the books. One of the first authors that I discovered was Alexander McCall Smith, and I started to read the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, quite simply because Sarah W had said so many nice things about the series that my curiosity was piqued. But the books are so short and easy to read, which meant that I devoured about six of them before feeling like I’d eaten too much candy: a little upset in the stomach but still somewhat high on the sugar.

Then, the TV show came along and I was worried, at first, that they wouldn’t be able to capture the spirit and essence of the books. They did. Completely. Which meant that this weekend as the show came to a close, I was left without my weekly dose of Mma Romotswe. Well, that just won’t do, so I picked up McCall Smith’s latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. And it’s just as sweet as the six or so other books I’ve read. The central mystery revolves around Mma Ramotswe discovering the reasons why a local football (read: soccer) club keeps losing matches, fixing up Mma Makutst’s love life (oh Phuti!), and figuring out what strange noises the little white van is making and why. The themes that are present in each of the other novels are present: a strong moral sense, defining people by how they are treated and treat one another instead of their social and/or monetary status, simple solutions to complex problems. What’s also present is Mma Ramotswe’s particular talent of coming to conclusions that are both full of common sense and sassy smartness that you wish you had a No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to figure out your life.

If I have one (slight) criticism, it’s that all of the books are essentially the same: local mystery, personal problem (either Mmas) that needs sorting, and larger life lesson. Yet, this is the very sameness I craved this week while feeling terribly unwell. Familiar characters, familiar situations. The experience of reading these books is akin to watching every episode of ER or Law & Order. And I know a lot of the repitition is for the people picking up the series halfway through…so really, it’s not a true critique of the novels themselves.

The book was delightful, I mean, of course it was — it was just what I needed this week and my only complaint was that I read it too fast. Yesterday as I was waiting for the very late TTC, I finished this book, read the P.S. section of Bonjour Tristesse, and bemoaned the fact that all of my electronic reading gadgets had run out of juice. There’s nothing worse than being a reader caught with no words to feast her eyes upon.

READING CHALLENGES: AMS was born in Zimbabwe. And he’s actually the first African novelist I’ve read in ages for my Around the World in 52 Books challenge.

NOT WORTHY OF A FULL POST NOTE: I also read #32 this week — Pillow Talk by UK chicklit author Freya North. The story was sweet, and I’m not going to lie, there were places where I actually teared up, even if I did get a little embarrassed by a couple throbbing members along the way.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.

December 31st, 2008

#75 – In The Heart Of The Country

There are a few authors I turn to, in a sense, innately. Writers that I know so intently that I might mistake them for old family friends. People I’ve known all my life. Uncles that sit to my right at the holiday table and make intellectual conversation. J.M. Coetzee remains one such author, as does Peter Carey and Jack Kerouac (albeit the latter two are never related to me in my mind, for, ahem, complex and quite strange reasons of an overactive, um, “romantic,” imagination).

Annnywaaay, as I feel I’ll be alive for many, many years (wishful thinking and anti-disease positivity), I tend to stagger books by my favourite authors so I’ll don’t run out, so that I’ve always got something to read during weeks like this one, rare time that’s not jam-packed with everyday life, days I like to spend with people who put words together in the best possible ways.

I finished In the Heart of the Country a couple of days ago. It’s an older novel, first published in 1977, about a lonely spinster named Magda who lives in the heart of the South African veld on a farm with her aging father and a black sheep-herding servant named Hendrik. When Hendrik brings home a beautiful young woman to be his bride, the divisions of race and class rear up and bring to a head the psychological and even psychotic nature of poor Magda. The novel is written from her point of view. The short, diary-style entries waver back and forth between truth and fiction. Magda makes up as much of her life as exists in reality, driven to this madness by desire, by the lack of intensely human experience, and a strange, stilted relationship with a father from whom she desires inappropriate emotions.

When her father takes up with Hendrik’s wife, Magda’s life goes off the rails. A desperate and violent act pushes her further into insanity but it’s never clear what actually happened and what Magda makes up. The fanciful way of creating a life on paper that she could never lead in life. As with all of Coetzee’s novels, the writing is sparse, the violence unexpected and bloody, and the conflict coloured by the unique and systematic effects of colonialism. Of all the Coetzee books I’ve read in the last little while, I have to admit that this is the one that I enjoyed the most. In tone and texture, it’s a lot like Waiting for the Barbarians and a lot less like Elizabeth Costello, thankfully, as I still remember how frustrated I was when reading that book.

There were so many narrative aspects to the novel that intrigued me — how Coetzee has a talent for ensuring that the landscape matches and even mimics the vast, lonely nature of Magda’s own mind. But at the same time, nature mocks her — coupling all around makes the cold, dry experience of her her lack of sexuality utterly apparent. And when race and class fall apart, when the world turns itself on its head, she clings to her gender, to her reedy sexuality as a way of at least trying to stay a conscious member of the world, even if her society soon becomes a population of just one. For such a short book (my copy runs 149 pages), In the Heart of the Country demands attention and reflection. I’m glad I waited a couple of days to blog about it so I could set my thoughts somewhat straight. Magda’s the ultimate unreliable narrator and I have to say sometimes that I really enjoy novels with such protagonists.

READING CHALLENGES: This was one of the 1001 Books titles that was lost on my bookshelves and I didn’t even realize it was there. So it’s on my master list for 2009, and I guess this puts me a little ahead of my reading for next year. I can already cross off two of the titles from that massive list of 66 (review of Enduring Love coming up next!).

STRANGE ASIDES:
After finishing up the abysmal The Almost Moon a few days ago about a slightly crazy woman who commits matricide, it’s funny that one of the next books I should pick up is about a seemingly nutty woman who commits unspeakable acts of violence against her father.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: More book lists and more closets to be cleaned out before I’ll really make this decision.

February 8th, 2008

#12 – What Is The What


For the first time in my Around the World in 52 Books two-year reading odyssey, I am going to break the rules. You heard me. I’m going to bust them wide open and actually let the setting of the novel define my country choice, and not the author’s birth. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the voice in Dave Egger’s What is the What seems so completely that of Valentino Achak Deng that to name this my book from the US might do it a disservice.

When I saw Eggers back in November, I was very taken by the social commentary found within his slide show presentation. The idea that China’s need for oil propels the terrible situation in Sudan still makes me think twice every time I see a Made In China stamp on just about everything we buy and/or own. But now that I’ve read the book, I’m thinking more about the accomplishments of its writer and main character, and not just about the social-political underpinnings of the book and its incredibly important message. It’s as if it all has a human face now.

Subtitled “The Autobiography of Valentine Achak Deng,” What is the What is such a skilled, intense and utterly compelling book that it held my interest through every one of its 535 pages. The structure of the novel develops around an epistolary format reminiscent to an early scene in the book where Achak, still living then with his parents quite happily in Marial Bal, sits with a group of men and listens to them debate ‘What is the What.’ Achak speaks to a number of different people directly within the novel as he tells his story, the nurse/clerk at the hospital, the boy set to watch him as he gets robbed in his own home, members of the health club where he works, and as a narrative tool, it’s ridiculously effective. It’s almost as if, as a larger theme, the entire story sets out with the need to find and define ‘the What,’ an elusive, angry at times, but always tragic quest for Valentino to discover not only his own purpose, but a larger sense of the universe.

It’s an unbearably sat, yet utterly uplifting story, as the rebels fight against the Arab government, war breaks out and a country falls apart, and then Achak begins a long, arduous walk to Ethiopia surrounded by hundreds of other Lost Boys. Finally settling at a refugee camp in Kenya called Kakuma, Achak lives with a foster family, receives an education, and finds a decent job before being relocated to Atlanta to start a new life in the United States. The novel opens with a harrowing scene of Valentino being beaten and robbed in his own home, and still, the utter strength of his character remains steadfast. When any number of truly horrible events conspire against him, Achak carries on.

In places, Valentino describes a feeling that tears through him, not that he is cursed per se, but that bad luck has a way of following him around, shadow-like, in every facet of his life. I am not going to lie, and I know it might seem almost shameful for me to have felt akin to him in this way, but for many, many years I fought with the idea that I too must have been cursed in another life to have endured what I have. Nothing, nothing at all compared to Achak’s own struggles, I know, I have always had a roof over my head and have never had to walk further then a few blocks to a bus stop, but the feeling that life seems to consistently be a current working against you, well that’s something I can absolutely empathize with in more ways than one.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: Am declaring What is the What as my book from Sudan and not the United States as I had originally intended, which is good because I think I’d like to read Tom Perrotta’s Little Children instead. And because I did not buy my copy of the book, and with all the author proceeds going to Valentino’s charity, I went online and made a donation in lieu of the cost of the novel.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I want to thank Baby Got Books for linking to the place to buy the t-shirt that had just arrived the day I finished the novel, where it ended up on my desk amongst a whole bunch of mail clutter from when we were away. I also want to give Tim an extra shout-out for saying that I “had” to read Eggers’s novel, because he was so very, very right, I did.

CURRENTLY READING: The Talented Mr. Ripley and last Saturday’s Globe and Mail crossword puzzle.

November 2nd, 2007

#71 – So Long A Letter

As I make my way through my Around the World in 52 Books challenge, I’m find that not only are the authors unfamiliar to me, but the history of their countries and their experiences are eye opening as well. Having never been to Senegal, which is a country in Western Africa where the majority of its people are Muslim, the charged words of Mariama Bâ’s So Long A Letter truly brought me into a world I have never experienced.

Told in epistolary format, middle-aged schoolteacher Ramatoulaye writes writes to her oldest friend, Aissatou, after the death of her husband. She struggles through her feelings about the event, which are made more complex by the fact that her husband took a second wife just five years before his death. Heralded for her feminist point of view, the narrative examines the wide differences between men and women in her society. Not just regarding the idea of polygamy, but also in terms of education, jobs and money.

Ramatoulaye is a strong heroine, a mother to twelve children, she’s educated and works as a schoolteacher. The range of emotions she feels, at first when she discovers her husband has married again (no one told her), then when she comes to accept his death, and finally when she moves on with her new, independent life, are the blood of this book. At times the story feels secondary to her more philosophical musing about the curves that life throws, and she’s very keen to urge young women to make their own way in life. In a way, the book is almost a parable to younger Senegalese women who should take Ramatoulaye’s lessons and live accordingly. Which isn’t to say it’s not a successful, albeit short, book. On the whole, it reminded me a little of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I enjoyed reading it.

It had been many years since I’d picked up a copy of a title from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, and I’m glad that my challenge has brought me back. I’m reminded of how I used to seek these books out in the years after I finished my undergrad degree, before life took over and bestseller lists flaunted their accessible yumminess. Regardless, I feel richer for having read Mariama Bâ’s book.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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