Friday, August 28, 2009

"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe

Summary: The novel follows Okonkwo, a strong and respected warrior, in his African village of Umuofia and details the cultural customs that shape his and his family’s lives. Okonkwo’s aspirations are checked when white missionaries arrive in the area.

Musings: I typically am not following any set path when I chose to read book A, then book B, then book C. When deciding on what book to read next, I’m more often guided by the length or apparent genre of the novel than any concept of the book’s place within other books I’ve read recently. However, I’m frequently surprised to find obvious connections between the books I've recently read, even if I did not consciously attempt to put those books in comparison. This happened with my most recent novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when I started to pick up on connections to The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (only after completing Achebe’s work).

As I mentioned in my review of The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm, one of my complaints of that novel was Farmer's lack of exploration of the conflict between cultural traditions and "modern" understandings. In particular, I was upset at how the issue of twins was treated in the book. In Farmer's novel, the kids visit Resthaven, an isolated community that operates outside the modern world and lives according to traditional African customs. When one of the women gives birth to twins, the community attempts to kill one of the twins, believing it to be evil. The twin is saved by the detectives, so serious issues are never really addressed. Resthaven has "authenticity" (recognized by the children and detectives) that the outer world does not, but Resthaven also murders and abuses (by our standards) children. Resthaven's practices are defended as being part of the culture, but can culture be used to defend any practice? If we assign modern judgments to Resthaven, are we simply imposing our own societal standard on theirs? Is there a human moral standard that supersedes individual societies' standards? These are serious issues that are still being considered today (for example, with female genital mutilation).

This issue was addressed, but from a different point of view, in Achebe's novel. Okonkwo's society practices traditions similar to Resthaven, including killing twins (in Achebe's novel, both twins are killed). However, unlike with Farmer's novel, I did not have as strong of a reaction to the murders. In Achebe's work, the reader approaches the world from Okonkwo's point of view, and thus the practices in his community are normalized, unlike in Farmer's book, where the reader approaches Resthaven with the outside view of the children and detectives. I was astonished by how much the perspective had affected my judgment of the act.

White missionaries enter Okonkwo's world and rescue twins left to die, just like the children/detectives did. However, the white missionaries' rescue of twins comes along with the white domination and ultimate subjugation of Okonkwo's society.

What's right?

There is no easy answer. Traditions are strong, and like with most things in the world, the novels seem to say that it is not possible to simply remove those things you dislike without destroying the whole.

Things Fall Apart is told sparingly, and Achebe allows the flat and simple recounting of events to affect the reader without additional commentary. Because of this, the book lacks some suspense or traditional build up of events, but the end result is a more compelling view of one man's life and one village's transformation.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm" by Nancy Farmer

Summary: In a futuristic Zimbabwe, the General’s children, Tendai, Rita, and Kuda, feel stifled by their father’s overprotective and demanding parenting. In search of adventure, the children leave their family home one day and find themselves kidnapped and thrown into darker and poorer parts of the country. The General enlists the help of three strange detectives, the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, to help rescue his children.

Musings: I appreciated the unique locale of this novel, which is rare to find in YA novels (at least those I’ve read). Although set in a futuristic society (for example, machines magically create food you want, a la Star Trek), the story takes place in Zimbabwe and incorporates many Zimbabwean traditions and customs in the book. Farmer is a white American, but she lived in Zimbabwe for a number of years, so there’s a sense that the book has at least some truth to that society.

I found the book, though, a bit disjointed. I couldn’t quite piece together the society Farmer had created nor did I feel especially connected to the characters. At first, I thought it was because the book was designed for a much younger audience (perhaps late elementary/early middle school years), but I’m not sure that’s the case as there was some more serious subject matter later in the novel.

Perhaps it was because the odyssey of the children felt slapped together rather than following a real journey pattern. The children travel from strange place to strange place, just a step ahead of those searching for them, but nothing seemed to actually happen.

I was most confused by the trio of detectives. In my mind, they were some of the worst detectives ever created. Although possessing strange powers, they were completely inept. I would have written them off as buffoons, but the novel had the other characters react to them in a way that seemed to portray them as admirable and competent. I was unsure what impression Farmer wanted us to have of the men.

The book has some good messages about there being positive qualities in each person, although that message is not fully explored. All ends are happily wrapped up by the end of the novel, despite some serious issues being mentioned, but not explored (for example, cultural traditions vs. modern moralities).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann

Summary: A series of stories narrated by a diverse group of people are loosely connected together by a man's choice to tightrope across the World Trade Center buildings one early morning in New York City in 1974. The stories cover the Corrigan brothers, transplants from Ireland; the mother-daughter prostitutes Tillie and Jazzlyn; and the rich Claire and her judge husband Solomon (among others).

Musings: This book has all the makings of a popular and well-received novel. The characters are fully drawn out and have depth of emotion. The book finds meaning in small events and uses daily moments to delve into the essence of each person's beliefs. For all those reasons Let the Great World Spin is an excellent novel, but for those same reasons it's also one that I occasionally grew tired of.

I have a dismissive attitude toward anyone who thinks too much (perhaps because I spend my days avoiding it and trying to convince my husband to stay away from it). Not that I don't value thinking, but musing too much only ever leads me to feeling down. The same is true of many characters in the novel, who find themselves tortured by the mundane.

It was the constant outpouring of emotion that I found difficult to take in, but I'm sure other people find that moving. Probably the same people who also were taken away by the "beauty" of the plastic bag blowing in American Beauty - really? Take this line, from one of the chapters on Claire, the wealthy woman who is insecure among others and still heavy with grief over the loss of her son in the war: "She cleans out the comb and dumps the strands in the foot-flip garbage can. They say the hair of the dead still grows. Takes on a life of its own. Down there with all the other detritus, tissues, tubes of lipstick, toothpaste tops, allergy pills, eyeliner, heart medicine, youth, nail clippings, dental floss, aspirin, grief" (McCann 74). I'll even ignore the fact that cleaning used hair from a comb merits such weighty language (see feelings on American Beauty, above). Nonetheless the "subtle" inclusion of "youth" and "grief" in the list of trash just irritated me. It was almost as if McCann felt the need to show how talented a writer he was by integrating the prosaic and the profound.

Despite my issues with some of the writing, I truly did enjoy the story. Because we see multiple viewpoints of each character (all the primary characters narrate at least one section and are also mentioned by other characters in different sections), a fuller picture of each person is formed. McCann weaves together the different lives in a way that feels real, not forced, and I felt myself smiling whenever a new connection between the characters arose.

Each chapter was written in a way that clearly portrayed the character's way of thinking and approaching the world. I felt equally for the nervous Park Avenue Claire as I did for the prostitute Tillie.

Fortunately, McCann did not feel the need to end a book filled with so much grief with further sadness. Although no real solace is found in the year the book takes place, the last chapter, occurring in 2006, does show redemption and advancement for those who survived.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle

Summary: Meg has been worried about the disappearance of her scientist father, even though her mother tries to stay optimistic for the children. When Meg's genius little brother, Charles Wallace, meets a strange woman named Mrs. Whatsit, Meg, Charles Wallace, and a classmate Calvin are suddenly jumping through space as they attempt to rescue Meg and Charles Wallace's father and save the Earth from IT.

Musings: This is, of course, a classic kid's sci-fi story. I read the entirety of the series when I was young, but I have no memory of any of the books except Many Waters. I had high expectations going in, but little idea of what I would encounter.

Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed. A Wrinkle in Time has much in common with the Chronicles of Narnia, sometimes to the point of being distracting to an adult. Kids are lectured and scolded and respond positively; they are told by adults to "think hard" and discover things; God is somehow present in the fantasy world without seeming to actually do anything to help fight the Evil in the world (at least Narnia had Aslan). I was a little put off by the random God references and the allegories to baptism and Jesus (I think that's what they were).

So much time was spent talking and encouraging the kids to "figure things out" that I missed the fantasy elements. The kids did not feel real to me, especially the way in which Calvin seamlessly integrated himself into Meg's and Charles Wallace's lives.

Perhaps after reading so much modern young adult fiction, this felt wooden. First of all, I missed real kids with sass and nerves. Secondly, Harry Potter had posthumously given away A Wrinkle in Time's ending for me (although, really, doesn't everyone know "love" is the one thing cute little weak kids have against BIG EVIL?).

So I'm bummed that I didn't enjoy it, but I may give the next in the series a chance again anyway.