2017年2月21日 星期二

"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

"Once, she asked Dike what he had done in school before summer, and he said, 'Circles.'  They would sit on the floor in a circle and share their favorite things.

"She was appalled.  'Can you do division?'

"He looked at her strangely.  'I'm only in first grade, Coz.'

"'When I was your age I could do simple division.'

"The conviction lodged in her head, that American children learned nothing in elementary school, and it hardened when he told her that his teacher sometimes gave out homework coupons; if you got a homework coupon, then you could skip one day of homework.  Circles, homework coupons, what foolishness would she next hear?"

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie divides her time between the US and her native Nigeria.  Americanah is her third and most recent novel.

Ifemelu and Obinze, students in Lagos, seek to realize personal goals by moving out of Nigeria.  Ifemelu moves to the United States, where after months of privation she finds success as a blogger.  Obinze moves to the U.K. and is eventually deported, but later begins a lucrative career in real estate after he moves back to his home country.  Ifemelu and Obinze's paths cross many times in the book, and Ifemelu's return to Nigeria and reentry into Obinze's life are described in the last few chapters.

I think this book has a lot to say about both culture and race, and also how the two inform our lives.  I say this as someone who's still very tired of the endless (American) dialogue on race and "atonement for past sins," and also as someone who was a bit skeptical of this novel from the beginning.  Americanah deftly balances race against class, rich against poor, and the Third World against the First.  The characters are believable, their choices make perfect sense, and the dilemmas in which they find themselves are both interesting and realistic.

My only complaint is the "blogger" portions.  I suppose that at the time it seemed like a very modern thing to do, but in retrospect Ifemelu's obsession with her blog seems a little silly.  The excerpts from this blog also take the reader right out of the story, and the content of these excerpts would have been better demonstrated through her interactions with other characters, rather than described long after the fact.

Despite this minor flaw, Americanah is a good book, and worth reading.  It also brought to mind many of my own experiences, living as a Western person in a non-Western country.

2017年2月11日 星期六

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan (2013)

"He thought of how the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life.  And how people accept this either by ignoring it and calling it current affairs or politics or wars, or by making a space that has nothing to do with civilisation and calling that space their private life.  And the more in that private live they break with civilisation, the more that private life becomes a secret life, the freer they feel.  But it is not so.  You are never free of the world; to share life is to share guilt."

Richard Flanagan is an Australian writer and director.  He has written six novels and five works of non-fiction.  He co-wrote Baz Luhrmann's 2008 movie Australia, and received the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

His 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North details the life and times of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian surgeon deeply scarred by his experiences in a Burmese prison camp under the Japanese.  The novel is roughly chronological, jumping from his earliest years in Tasmania, to his hellish years in Burma, to his rise to fame and fortune in post-WWII Australia.

And I must say that the the scenes in the concentration camp are among the best fiction I've read about the Second World War.  They are harrowing, and a few Google searches only proved that yes, things like this actually happened.

The only problem is that the book doesn't quite hang together as a whole, and some of the sections set outside Burma detract from the masterful sections set within it.  Structurally, I admire what Richard Flanagan was trying to do, but the "love triangle" elements set in Australia don't seem to belong alongside the brutal accounts of life inside a Japanese prison camp.  

Yes, setting the entire book inside the prison camp might have made it too similar to other novels, but most of the framing narrative set outside of the camp calls too much of the prisoners' suffering under the Japanese into question.  The chapters set in postwar Japan are excellent, but the remainder of the book feels like an inferior, unfinished novel, fused into what should have been a more straightforward book on the Australian experience during WWII.

This said, I think that where this book truly shines is in its depiction of East vs. West.  The Japanese characters in this novel are all given their due, and at times the ways in which their philosophy clashes with Western ideas of warfare makes for fascinating reading.

I wouldn't say that The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a flawless book, but it's definitely one of the best books I've read in a while.  Not as honed as The Orenda which preceded it, but a solid effort nevertheless.  I'll be looking out for more of Richard Flanagan's books in the future.

2017年2月6日 星期一

"The Orenda" by Joseph Boyden (2013)

I'm on the train to Taipei.  Or am I?  I might be among the Huron, with the Iroquois in close pursuit.

"I awake.  A few minutes, maybe, of troubled sleep.  My teeth chatter so violently I can taste I've bitten my swollen tongue.  Spitting red into the snow, I try to rise but my body's seized.  The oldest Huron, their leader, who kept us walking all night around the big lake rather than across it because of some ridiculous dream, stands above me with a thorn club.  The weight these men give their dreams will be the end of them."

We take the MRT to the Shin Yi shopping district and walk a great deal.  I eat a crispy jalapeno burger at the Gordon Biersch restaurant near the 101.  I have a second beer at the Brass Monkey before we visit the Eslite Bookstore near the MRT stop on our way back to Keelung.  No snow, just a light mist.  No Iroquois in pursuit, and the only thing that hurries us is the need to meet my older daughter at the Taipei Train Station.

"Each day as we struggle against the current, I watch the men turn leaner, more focused, more silent.  From first light until night threatens we push up this wide, black river with birch and maple and poplar thick on the banks.  So many good places for my father's brothers to ambush these canoes.  I hope they've brought a hundred men, two hundred men."

We get off the train at Nan Gang Station.  We aren't familiar with this part of Taipei, so we get lost in our search for Global Mall, which lies somewhere above us.  I order the spicy beef soup with rice from a Korean restaurant in the Food Terrace.  The only people waiting to ambush us are saleswomen, who occasionally emerge from the nearest escalator with advertisements in their hands, urging us to visit a nearby store, or to sign up for the newest credit card.

"She slits the neck open and, using an awl, pulls until its long black tongue hangs out.  She then carefully works the awl into the head from below, scraping and cutting as she goes, until the tongue and the muscles that held it in place, and then the eyes and their tendons, and finally the yellow mush that was once the animal's brain lie in a small pile beside me."

I follow the road past Ba De Train Station down the rain-soaked hill, wondering how far Keelung Port is from my brother-in-law's apartment.  Twenty minutes?  An hour?  I enter a tunnel and emerge into sunlight again, glad that it's the first day of Chinese New Year, and that the traffic is light.  As I turn a corner into downtown Keelung I see a dog standing on an aluminum roof.  Is it trapped there?  Has it somehow climbed there from somewhere else?

"'I hate feasts!' I say.  'I hate people!'  They've killed my raccoon and now they expect me to join them in eating him to fulfill the dream of an old woman who clearly hates me."

After the town of Nuan Nuan the road climbs up a steep hill.  It's a lot farther to Ping Shi than I expected, but the view improves as I enter the Nuan Dong Valley.  Twenty or so minutes later I have to get off the bike and walk.  It's just too steep.  And then I am riding through a 6 kilometer-long tunnel, until I emerge into Ping Shi District on the other side.  It's a beautiful morning, and I'm glad I made the trip.

"Carries an Axe finally comes home with just a few hares and partridge to show for his days away.  He's a good hunter, but the world seems like it's turned against us.  I can feel the worry, even a slow burning fear, when I leave our longhouse on my walks.  Everyone knows what comes, and yet none of us, as hard as we try, can prevent it."

We pack our things carefully and get ready to leave my brother-in-law's apartment.  We say our goodbyes and walk into the hall to put our shoes back on, debating whether we should leave our bags in Song Shan or Taipei Train Stations before making a final excursion into Taipei City.  

As we do so, I think about the gruesome ways in which many of the characters in Joseph Boyden's "The Orenda" meet their end.  Plagues.  Tortures.  Arrows in the neck.  Yes, it's good to be alive, and to live in the modern world.

Taipei might not be as exciting as early colonial Canada, but I'm happy that this is the case.  I'll take the Eslite bookstore over Hurons bearing thorn clubs.  I'll take dogs on roofs over animal brains.  I'll even take credit card debt over starving in the winter cold - any day of the week.  The modern world has its imperfections, but I'll gladly take the flaws in the modern over the savageries of the antique.