Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness" by Alexandra Fuller

I feel like sometimes my reading choices take on unintentional themes, and it wasn't until I was nearly finished with Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness that I realized its commonalities with The Secret River, which I read a few weeks ago. Perhaps the reason I didn't notice the similarities sooner is because the tone of each is so different, even though both concern white colonial families at the end (Cocktail Hour) or the beginning (Secret River) of colonization.

Whereas Secret River uses a dramatic storyline to address the rising hostilities between white settlers and aborigines in Australia, Cocktail Hour is a memoir and history of author Alexandra Fuller's parents' lives in Africa, first in Kenya and later in Zimbabwe. The story is primarily focused on Fuller's mother, Nicola, and though the book contains many tragedies, including the death of three of Fuller's siblings, the tone overall is much lighter than Secret River. Here the focus is less on the colonial-native hostilities and more on Nicola as a character.

Much of the appeal of Cocktail Hour is in the voyeuristic appeal of seeing a life so very different from our own. Growing up on a farm in Africa sounds exotic and exciting, though Fuller realistically portrays the benefits and drawbacks of such a lifestyle. This storyline is enhanced by its central protagonist Nicola, a brash and unapologetic woman in love with Africa, even if it's not hers to take.

And here, of course, lies the problem at the core of the story, even if the theme isn't always explicit. Nicola and her husband Tim certainly do love Africa--the land and its (white) people. But while that love is real and genuine, it's also not sufficient cause to take a country from its native people. By the end, the Fullers get permission from a local chief and local government officials to run a farm, which also employs native people. This seems an appropriate compromise which works for both, but it's not the result of a sudden "we should be fair to black Africans!" epiphany. It's a result of necessity, which doesn't make it bad, but it does expose a realistic truth of post-colonial Africa.

However, much of this commentary and the heaviness that comes with the death of Fuller's siblings comes towards the end of the book. The rest of the piece is much lighter and often funny. Because Cocktail Hour covers a range of several decades, at times the book feels pieced together and jumpy. That didn't stop me from enjoying it or Fuller's writing, though.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"Shout Her Lovely Name" by Natalie Serber

I've recently begun teaching at an all-boys school after being at a coed school for five years. When I tell people about the change, they often suggest that I must be happy to be free of the "drama" that girls cause. Truthfully, I'm not sure what to make of that. On the one hand, I know there's certainly "drama" in female relationships and experiences (I used to have my students write narrative essays, and I always got a few about giant, overblown showdowns between friends or parents.), but at the same time, I didn't feel that bled too much into the classroom. The vast majority of teenage girls I worked with were pleasant, engaged, and friendly--with me and the other students.

This introduction serves as a segue into my attitude toward Shout Her Lovely Name, a collection of short stories primarily about the relationships between mothers and teenage daughters. In every story, these relationships are tense and fraught. The daughters hate their mothers and refuse to engage in any manner; the mothers feel helpless and lost. Though, again, I know these types of difficult relationships are commonplace, I guess they just felt too utterly pessimistic for my experiences. Not only did I see plenty of female students with positive mother-daughter relationships as a teacher, but I myself had a happy and loving relationship with my mother as a teenager. It wasn't perfect, of course, but all in all we got along. Even my sister, who went through significantly more "drama" than me and thus had several fraught parent-child moments, still didn't hate my mom and scream terrible names at her.

There's nothing wrong with depicting these challenging relationships, but I almost feel that Serber is presenting them as an inevitability of women rather than the experiences of some. This theme so bothered me that I couldn't enjoy the book as much as I'd like to. After all, the pieces and characters are interesting, and I like that multiple stories follow Ruby and Nora (a mother-daughter pair, though the mother's the terror in these) over the years.

The book is quick, and I'd give Serber another go if she wrote about a different topic.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"The Secret River" by Kate Grenville

Oh, my, it's been nearly two weeks since my last review. I blame it partially on my inability to find something good to read because my new library system has ENORMOUS lengthy hold times for EVERY book I want to read. Almost makes me want to move back to Philadelphia, where apparently no one read since I got every book I requested within a week or two. Sigh. I actually got halfway through two other books (The Watch, which was utterly terrible, and LeGuin's Earthsea, which I just couldn't get in to) before finally finding something I could read with The Secret River.

The Secret River takes place during the colonization of New South Wales, Australia by British prisoners. Though this particular colonization story wasn't one I was familiar with, it's not too surprising that the basic trajectory of Western colonization is the same everywhere. Commandeer native land. Push out or kill natives. Make the new land into your homeland as near as possible.

Grenville's novel follows the Thornhill family. William and Sal are a poor but happy London couple until illness pushes them to desperation. When William is caught stealing wood, he avoids a hanging by agreeing to settle in Australia. Poor and landless in England, William is eager to have a place of his own in the new country, even if Sal only wants to return home. He finds what he thinks to be the perfect spot to claim as his "one hundred acres," regardless of the fact that black natives are inhabiting the area.

What makes the novel interesting is the way in which it's so easy to see decent, caring people turn cruel and selfish. William and Sal love each other and their family, but their own desires--particularly William's insistence on taking the land he wants--trump the rights of anyone else. There's not only racism to play, for as soon as William is freed as a prisoner, he looks down upon those who remain so.

Though the story wasn't particularly novel, and I would have preferred more immediacy in some of the plot lines (the book covers a rather large stretch of time, so sometimes it felt as though events were being summarized), it was still an engaging look at yet another shameful piece of history.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"The Killing Moon" by N.K. Jemisin

I don't know how Jemisin writes so quickly, but it seems like every time I look into what she's working on, she's already written two new books. So, it came to some surprise to me that she'd written The Killing Moon (and its sequel) so soon after the end of her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. But, hey, Jemisin's speed is good news to me, as it means never waiting for the next book!

In some ways I think the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy is a hard act to follow. I enjoyed the series' worldbuilding and particularly the conceit of gods being used as human slaves. Throughout the three books, Jemisin was able to explore very different characters while still keeping the focus on individual relationships. With The Killing Moon, Jemisin has to start over with her worldbuilding, which this time was a little less interesting to me. In this series, the city of Gujaareh lives in obedience to Hananja's law. The principle servants of Hananja are Gatherers, who control dreams as a way of bringing peace--and death. Ehiru, an esteemed and experienced Gatherer, and Nijiri, his devoted apprentice, are the two main characters, with the foreign Kisua ambassador Sunandi making a third.

Though the worldbuilding and religion got a bit murky for me, the character relationships, particularly between Ehiru and Nijiri, are just as strong. On the other hand, Sunandi felt a bit like the odd one out, and I'm not sure her role in the novel is as important. Regardless, the book came to an appropriate, exciting, and heartbreaking denouement.

I was trying to decide why I've been such a fan of Jemisin's fantasy, and in the "extra" self-interview included at the end of the novel, I think I discovered why. Jemisin is one of few fantasy writers who includes no inspiration from medieval Europe. No castles, knights, or jousting. She said this book was loosely inspired by Egyptian history, and it's clear that drawing from a different originating point makes her books feel different and new. Her fantasy feels fresh in a way that A Game of Thrones, for example, doesn't, regardless of its characters or plot..

I'm sure I'll read The Shadowed Sun (the sequel to The Killing Moon) soon enough--just in time to discover the newest four books Jemisin's written.