Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There are some books that as soon as you have turned the page on the final full-stop, you know that you will never forget them. These are the books that will always occupy a corner of your mind, their characters and scenes waiting to pounce on you at a moment’s notice. “Was that character okay in the end? How did this other character feel just then?” You may ask yourself on the train home one night. This is one of those books.

519DukcvGXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The book follows the various destinies and desires of a group of interconnected people in Nigeria and later Biafra throughout the 60’s and the war which descends upon them all: Ugwu, a houseboy who leaves his village to work for the charismatic intellectual Odenigbo in the university town of Nsukka; Olanna, a privileged young woman who gives it all up in favour of living with Odenigbo and becoming a teacher; and Richard, an Englishman abroad who falls madly and irrevocably in love with both Igbo culture and Kainene – Olanna’s twin sister.

Before picking up this book I knew nothing about the Nigerian-Biafran war. Nothing. Nada. Zip. It simply isn’t a subject which is covered in most curricula. As far as I can see there are three reasons for this:

  1. The question of time. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school week to cover our own history properly, never mind anyone else’s.
  2. British schools have a real issue with teaching anything in living memory. If you’re lucky you might go up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and if you’re even luckier you might get to the collapse of the Soviet Union – but only those specific events. For instance, all I know about Ireland and the Troubles I know from my own research and from classes I took from an Irishman in France. I don’t think it often occurs to the Department of Education or exam boards that just because they remember it, it doesn’t mean we do.
  3. It doesn’t fit the narrative. European and American historians and media have built a very specific post-War narrative – which we have all been complicit in propagating, both in spreading it and in swallowing it without question. As far as most of us are concerned the post-War story is the Cold War, Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Woodstock and the Berlin Wall, – with a sprinkling of Civil Rights and Space Race chucked in for good measure. There’s no room in that narrow, clean, linear narrative for the expansive messiness of Algeria, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Biafra; because God forbid that more than one thing happened at a time.

The only thing worse than mangling history, is ignoring it. Anyway, the result of this madness is that I had no pre-knowledge, no preconceptions going in and you know what? I could have picked far worse places to start.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love me a non-linear timeline and this book has that a plenty. The time-hopping is used sparingly and  for dramatic effect, rather than as a nifty bit of post-modern illusionism – which is refreshing for a piece of “literary” fiction. (The inverted commas will be explained in an article one day…) As a result of the disjointed timeline the contrast between before and after the outbreak of war becomes painfully pronounced,  as well as giving you more space to focus on the characters and their personal conflicts, – but without going full Brecht and giving the entire plot away. This is reflective of an entire style which not only puts the story first, but is immensely readable.

Speaking of the characters, I love them. Well, most of them. Of the “main cast,” so to speak, I never really warmed to Odenigbo. Perhaps I have known too many people like him, to truly love him, – student-like idealists who think they can change the world by quoting critics and concepts. All the same, I admire him as a character for being generally progressive and well-intentioned, mainly because of Ugwu, and his faith in the Biafran dream shattering is one of the more quietly heart-breaking things in the book. Olanna and Kainene are beautifully-realised three-dimensional women (you’d be amazed how rare that is). Olanna is a sympathetic point of view character, and whilst her outlook on life is affected by her socioeconomic status that isn’t who she is. It would have been so easy to have her as a rich bitch and keep it at that. Like Odenigbo we never actually have a chapter written from Kainene’s point of view, instead the reader has to rely on the perspective of her sister and her lover to build a picture of her character – Richard’s fascination and Olanna’s regret. As a result she comes across as cynical, intoxicating and sometimes vulnerable. And I love it. She has a character type which we often see in men in fiction, but rarely women – that combination of hardened, enigmatic worldliness and likeability that makes Messrs Darcy and Rochester intriguing romantic heroes. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see more of her.

Although, as much as I love Kainene my heart belongs to Ugwu and Richard – my two favourite POV characters. Whilst Adichie makes it clear that Ugwu isn’t really on the same level of education as the other main characters, she also makes it clear that he is still an intellectual and emotional being in his own right, capable of surprising even the reader. (He will, wait until the end). You’ll just have to read the book to discover what a likeable and amazing character Ugwu is, but rest assured – he is both. Richard is, I fully recognise, a far more problematic proposition. He is the only truly sympathetic white character in the book, and whilst his love of Biafra and Kainene are sincere, it’s difficult to say how much of his view is tinged with romanticism as an outsider. The other characters view him as a combination of mildly ridiculous and sweet as a direct result, the quintessential Englishman abroad; whereas he sees himself as just being emotionally and intellectually invested in his adopted country. The truth is somewhere in between.

This is where I should write a paragraph about the depiction of the war. About how masterfully Adichie depicts war from the points of view of those who suffered the most, what conclusions she comes to about foreign backing of Nigeria and the apathetic world media; the debate over who has the right to tell this particular story. This is where I should write about the woman and the calabash. But I am not. I am going to hand it over to you, the reader. Buy it, borrow it from a friend or library – just read it, I implore you. You won’t regret it.

Advertisements

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller By Italo Calvino, translated by William Weavers

This will be the most meta book that you have ever read, I can guarantee that right now….

51XtSrJYagL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

You are the hero of this story. You have picked up a book that you’ve been meaning to read for a while, you get comfy and read the first chapter. Except this isn’t the book that you wanted to read. It’s a completely different book. What begins as a simple quest to find a good book will become a journey which will span countries, genres, philosophies and the very idea of fiction itself.

I do believe that this is the first book which I’ve reviewed that I have to thank my degree for introducing me to. It’s a very odd and out of left field choice – even for a module on European post-modern fiction – but I’m glad that the choice was made. Let’s start with the structure: The chapters alternate, one being a present tense ongoing plot starring “you” in quest of a good book, the other being the first chapter of a book that “you”‘ve found on your quest; each representing a different genre and style, –  thrillers, period pieces, westerns and so on. And every. Single. Time you’re just getting into the new story it breaks away to the next chapter about “you,” as “you” discover that there is no chapter two, or circumstances in the main narrative render reading it further an impossibility. This is a stroke of genius on the part of Calvino, as you are put into exactly the same state of enjoyable frustration as “you.” I would still love to get my hands on the rest of the western novel, even though I am fully aware that it doesn’t exist.

The characters in the story of “you” start as reasonable and realistic, and become increasingly anarchic as the narrative does. They operate on a kind of internal logic that Douglas Adams would have to co-operate with Franz Kafka to achieve, and yet makes a weird kind of sense in its own way. Even “you” are not immune, as “you” get pulled into the story and end up a very different “you” from the one who simply wished to sit down and read a book. It’s through these characters and the crazy journey that you go on that traditional notions of character function and ideas of what literature is for get questioned. Look out for the sister of the woman “you” fancy, she teaches literature at university level in spite of never reading any of the books, instead choosing to run them through a machine which tells her the most frequently occurring words – which she then bases her analysis on. Want to know the scary and hilarious thing there, children? I’ve read essays by genuine academics based on this approach.

If you like Welcome to Night Vale and your stories fast and tight, with a healthy does of surrealist irreverence then I highly recommend If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, as it is a very compelling, and very funny, novel which is tour de force of both writing a translation. The ending, for instance, is one of the most satisfying I’ve read in a long time. However, literary navel-gazing isn’t for everyone and I can understand why some of my class avoided writing about this thing like it was dirty laundry in the corner, but it would still make a very good gift for a literary-minded friend you dearly wish to frustrate.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses…

So, my last post on here was nearly two years ago. I can only apologise for that, but in my defence it’s been one helluva a two years including, but not limited to: My year abroad, my final year at university, my dissertation, falling in love, two plays on stage and two behind the scenes, graduating, moving house and job hunting.

However, (silver lining time), I’ve learnt and read an awful lot in that time; in brief, I’m a better writer with more to write about. But I’m still a dorky Maximo Park loving tea addict.

Ciao,

Isabella

On Studying English Literature… In France

Not only English Literature, but Grammar too. And I can tell you straight off, our lovely language is an absolute bitch to learn from an outsider’s perspective.

IMG0053A

 

Contrary to what my lovely friend Issy has found in Lyon (http://issywritesthings.wordpress.com/), study of English Literature is far less technical here in Paris than back in Britain. Would you find a British first year, never mind second or third, that didn’t know about iambic pentameter and pathetic fallacy? Whilst Issy is very correct in stating that the subjective response is almost entirely drained, you are welcome to offer an interpretation, (but if you offer multiple interpretations during a presentation and tell them to make up their own minds, they will look at you as though you are some kind of devil messiah). These days I do find myself having flashbacks to GCSE English a lot and I don’t think that’s a coincidence:  The constant round of presentations, the parroting of facts learnt in class with no original spin that’s met by no reprimand and the sense that critical theory is some far-off, irrelevant concept and the only theorists you need are your teachers and fellow students (in third year). Admittedly the above flashbacks are mainly my second year class

BUT the reading list is a lot shorter and even with doing second and third year literature modules simultaneously, it is far more manageable than doing the exact same thing in Leicester (which is literally one book a week plus additional critical reading). And the lack of focus on critical theory is actually quite refreshing in its way as it puts the emphasis back on the text and what you thought of it, rather than what Said/Freud/Gilbert and Gubar would have made of it. Whilst the lack of technical vocabulary used IS strange it’s good on the level of having a 20 minute presentation to do and being able to waste time on explaining meter. And even though there is a tendency for people to repeat ideas back a you, that is not to say there is no original thought; you just need to realise that the French still work on a system of rote-learning for the most part, that is, memorisation and repetition. And when you give them nothing to repeat, boy they produce the goods.

Next time… My ongoing grammar nightmare.

Fifty Shades of Shakespeare – Shakespeare the Player (Geddit?)

Shakespeare walks into a pub and the barman says to him: “Get out mate, you’re bard.” *Cue groans* As fairly common as that joke is, it does provide me with a handy link into a lesser known and (apparently) true story told about Shakespeare by one of his friends which certainly has the feel of a pub anecdote:  Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s leading man, was just on the verge of charming his way into a woman’s bed during a run of Richard III and things had progressed to the point that she had arranged for him to visit her after the show one night under the name of Richard III. (Oo-er). Shakespeare overheard this and, essentially, got in there before him. * When word was brought to the lady’s bedroom that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare sent the reply: “William the Conqueror was before Richard III.”

Shakespeare

Now it’s either testament to Burbage’s capacity to forgive, or Shakespeare’s to be a charming bugger that the two remained lifelong friends. Now it’s important that you remember that this is the man we’re dealing with, – a rakish, witty, and occasionally downright dodgy, charmer. The man who wrote Twelfth Night, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Othello and all those bleeding sonnets, only one or two of which ever gets a quote in edgeways. As a writer, he covered the entire spectrum of love and sexuality from arty poser-ish-ness, unwitting lesbian attraction, and doomed teenage romance to bawdiness, extreme sexual jealousy and a downright attempt to blackmail someone into bed. So get the stale, mummified image out of your head, take a hammer to the faded icon on the wall with enormous scared eyes, quivering lips and the frilly neck-gear – the asexual figure which was promoted for so long by academics. Shakespeare, that is the writings of, is downright sexy. “Sexy,” as well as all the kinky implications, I also use in an excruciatingly literal sense – as in it’s full of the stuff. It’s obsessed. And even the historical plays have their moments. When it’s not the plays themselves, contemporary interpretations will often add it in  to highlight aspects of gender, power and (quelle surprise) sexuality.

When you really read or watch Shakespeare, you’d be surprised out how charged most of it is. I was when I re-visited it simply at the variation on a theme. Over the course of the next God knows how long, I am going to look at every Shakespeare play and most of the poems and look at them in terms of sexuality, sexual politics, lust, language, rhetoric and whatever else pops into my head at the time. Now some ground rules:

  1. I will not be looking at every single goddamned sonnet. Entire rainforests have been written about them and I very sincerely doubt if there’s much more for me to add. And there are loads of them, I don’t know if you’ve noticed?
  2. Oxfordians, Baconians and Queen Elizabeth I-ians, no I will not be addressing all that. For my purposes, Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Maybe another day. But not now.
  3. This will not be an uninterrupted stream of posts. Otherwise I will get very, very, very bored. I will still be reviewing other books and maybe some more adaptations.

Okay that’s all for now, folks – Fifty Shades of Shakespeare will reurn in… Romeo and Juliet, or “Suicide isn’t Romantic, Kids.”

*Shakespeare never gave himself major roles in his own plays, if any, and by the sounds of this story he used the free time while his friends were performing wisely…

Updates

Yeah… I haven’t done anything with either Book Vampire or Manga Addicts Anonymous for a couple of months – but in all fairness I have been working, visiting relatives and putting my life in such a state that I can just up and leave the country for a year. Oh didn’t I mention that? I’m living in Paris for the year as an Erasmus student. Poor me, eh? But now that I’m settled, I solemnly swear to do SOME updates at the very least.

50 Shades of Shakespeare

I’m considering doing an ongoing series on Shakespeare and the attitude we have towards his work and I wonder, out of curiosity, how many of you actually find Shakespeare sexy? Not the man himself, obviously(that would be a bit on the necrophile side) but the words he wrote. For some, he is literary viagra, others – the ultimate turn-off. Where do you stand on this? Please vote and feel free to leave a comment if none of these stances accurately reflect your feelings.

The Great Gatsby (Baz Lurhmann 2013)

It really didn’t need to be in 3-D…

2013-04-The-Great-Gatsby-Poster-7

Yeah, I know it says “Book Vampire” up there but I have said that I might review some adaptations in the past (approximately two posts ago, I do believe); frankly, since I drew on the publicity and the pressure behind/on this film within my review of the book (https://bookvampire.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/the-great-gatsby-f-scott-fitzgerald/), I do feel somewhat honour-bound to look at the film itself. And it’s my blog, so I’ll do what I like. So, with that pouting aside and a blanket spoiler alert being put out there, let’s begin shall we?

The plot itself sticks very closely with that of the book, with the plucky young innocent Nick still coming to New York to try and make his fortune on the stock market and still finding his mysterious neighbour Gatsby obsessed with the something across the bay – only to find that it’s Nick’s very own spoilt, beautiful (and married) cousin Daisy. And to say that they have unfinished business is an understatement. Luhrmann adds a framing device into the film, with Nick (played by Tobey Maguire) as a recovering alcoholic in a clinic years after the event and still struggling to come to terms with it all. Usually the point of adding a framing device to a piece of Drama is to intrigue the audience whilst giving them the necessary information they need to navigate the plot to come. Funnily enough, for me, the opening fails somewhat in this respect. This particular section of the script screams “exposition!” Whilst, of course, not everyone will be au fait with 1920’s America (the person I saw it with wasn’t) Nick doesn’t have a psychologically valid reason to be spewing contextual material to a Doctor who lived through the same things just a few years earlier; I think it was meant to underline the jaded aspect of Nick, but it just came across like the plan for a GCSE History essay question with Gatsby thrown in at the end for good measure. Oh and Nick paraphrases that Gordon Gekko quote. Which is really distracting; it’s like Mr Rochester turning to Jane Eyre and saying: “You took the words right out of my mouth, it must have been while you were kissing me.”*

That bit aside, once we get into the story proper it works extremely well and is very tightly-structured. Certain bits were expanded upon and brought up earlier so that they were made less abrupt for the non-Fitzgerald fan in the audience – particular as regards to Gatsby and the extent his interior fantasy logic is explored, making him a far more tragic character than previous adaptations have.  As far as I’m concerned, Leonardo di Caprio is the best Gatsby I’ve seen – including Robert Redford – as he manages to balance out the stylised performance that the character puts on, with the inner dreaming naivety and insecurity; we’re drawn in by the first, we stay for the second. Redford gave you the impression that Gatsby was a bit of an idiot who had a crush on the wrong girl and should probably just move on; with di Caprio you are struck by the fact that he isn’t in love with Daisy so much as what she represents (cultural capital and a fairy tale ending) and that he would never be even capable of letting her (and that) go – which makes his blind optimism in the face of her eventual rejection and his own death that much more tragic.

On the subject of performances, I feel honourable mentions need to go to Joel Edgerton for his portrayal of Tom Buchanan – Daisy’s racist, philandering husband. It would have been so easy to play him as a boorish two-dimensional villain, but he is instead presented in a rather more nuanced light as someone who can be alternately superior, cunning, antipathetic and (in one scene) actually sympathetic. Edgerton embodies a disappearing old world sense of entitlement that’s at its most vicious when on the defensive to devastating effect; he completely dominates the hotel scene as he senses the weaker links between Gatsby and Daisy and picks at them. Mercilessly. Considering that Edgerton had the hardest job in creating a character almost from scratch, as all previous screen-Toms have very much been of the “what a bastard!” school of thought, as is the one on page – to a degree, I think he probably deserves the most credit.

The visuals were stunning; but did they really need to be in 3-D? I saw this in 2-D and I’m glad I did. With some of the Speedy Gonzales-esque extreme zooms, and things flying through the air it would have been migraine-inducing. Even the Art Deco concertina effect which bookends the film, which I admit was perfect for 3-D, still looked amazing in 2-D. But, hey. That’s what 2-D screenings are for, right?

Okay, it’s now time to address the soundtrack controversy. I think it works. Mostly. On the positive side, the Lana del Rey and Florence and the Machine Tracks are amazing and fit perfectly – particularly within the context of their uses in the film. Heck, Florence’s track is an extended homage to my favourite moment in the book  which other people rarely notice. (I am going to ignore the fact that the actress lip-syncing in the film couldn’t possibly sing it reclined at that angle). I don’t normally like Lana del Rey as an artist; I liked “Video Games”, and then I realised  she was an emotionless performer. Funnily enough, both “Video Games” and “Young and Beautiful” work for precisely that reason. When shooting the closing shots of Queen Christina, the director ordered Greta Garbo to keep her face as blank as possible; he wanted the audience to see their own emotions reflected in her. And that is why “Young and Beautiful” works so well as a recurring haunting musical motif, such poignant lyrics with such a blank performance draw the audience into the unwinding tragedy onscreen as they interpret it as they choose. On the downside, the rap side doesn’t work as well for me. It’s generally more distracting and made even more so by the sampling of tracks from the era like “Let’s Misbehave”, because you wonder why the hell they didn’t just go with that.

Overall, it’s an ambitious film which works really well over all as a disciplined, faithful adaptation of a notoriously hard to adapt book. The visuals and performances are stunning, with only the odd scripting or logic-clunk – when it fails it isn’t for lack of trying. I think it’s the best version yet, and certainly the only one to produce both magnificently frenetic party scenes with treating the characters as engaging, motivated entities and not as just shadow-puppets. It depends on whether you see ambition as a virtue or a flaw, but I’ll take over some anaemic effort any day.

*You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth is a track by the God of Rocking Out, Meat Loaf – in case you’ve been living in a musical wasteland. This is the chorus and for the record it would make complete sense if he did. If it weren’t for the fact that Mr R is a very… Speech-happy lover.

Books I Will Never Review

Okay, I admit – I’ve completely stolen the idea for this list from Doug Walker a.k.a. the Nostalgia Critic, (check him out by the way, he’s fabulous http://www.thatguywiththeglasses.com) when he posted a video of films/shows he would never review and why. Unlike the marvellous Mr Walker, I’m not sure I can come up with his usual eleven off the top of my head without doing some series expansion, so we’ll just have to see how many I can think of as we go…

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

levente_szabo_jane_eyre

(The awesome picture is from the great Re-covered Books section from http://www.thefoxisblack.com, it’s the first Jane Eyre cover I’ve really liked).

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

I really love Jane Eyre, I truly do. In fact,  far too much to look at it with anything approaching impartiality. Unfortunately, this book is so part and parcel of my development as a person – particularly as a decision-making moral agent of my own destiny. It came at precisely the right time in my life to slap me into awareness and it was the first adult novel which really spoke to me as a person. This is my comfort-read, and as far as I’m concerned it is beyond reproach; thus, I will never review it. Maybe I’ll review some of the televison/film adaptations – but I just can’t look at Jane Eyre that way.

2. Any of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone

(Yes, dear American friends it is The Philosopher’s Stone, not The Sorcerer’s Stone).

“Nitwit, oddment, blubber tweak!”

Similar reasons to Jane Eyre, really – they mean far too much for me. If Jane Eyre was the first adult novel which I could relate to, then the Harry Potter books were the first books full stop. Aside from opening up the wonder of the wizarding world to me, it also started me on the path which I’m on. Without Harry Potter, I don’t know if I would have read so widely – been so prepared to give pretty much anything a chance, I wouldn’t have decided that English was for me (speaking as someone in the middle of an English and French degree, that means a lot) and that stories are amongst the best things which you can create, (as an aspirant writer/director, that means a helluva lot more). Without Harry Potter, I’m not sure if morally and politically I’d be the person I am today. Not only is J.K. Rowling my childhood, she is an integral part of my past, present and future too, hopefully. I can’t put a value on the books which gave me all that, could you?

3. Any (sort of) of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

the horse and his boy

This isn’t so much a nostalgia thing, as down to the fact that the books are so inter-linked I’d probably have to review all seven in one post. Which would be very time-consuming and frankly a bit boring. (Did I mention that I’m a student? I have a lot of stuff to do!) I might write a general post on all of them, with some background and notes on cultural impact etc – or a review on The Horse and His Boy, the least-connected to the main story and incidentally, my favourite – but I won’t be embarking on an epic task anytime soon.

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

4. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkein

lord-of-the-rings-cover-design-2

This absolutely nothing to do with nostalgia. I really, really, really don’t like these books. I read the first one and God it was boring! Tolkein did not know when to stop with the description! “And then Bilbo was brought this, from this place, made from this, made by this species, who ate this for breakfast…” Gah! I won’t review these because then that would mean that I would have to read them!

“One ring to rule them all…”

5. Pamela by Samuel Richardson

pamela-richardson

This is partially to do with the fact that it really does depend upon which edition you read which version of the story you get; sure the basic plot-line is the same, but the nuances aren’t. For instance in earlier editions, Mr B’s sexual harassment was far more overt than the ones which Richardson later revised. There are so many editions overseen by Richardson, his daughter, some Victorians and modern editions which cherry-pick from the first two that it would be a nightmare just deciding which one was the “true” Pamela that is really representative of what it was meant to be.

“Be sure don’t let people’s telling you, you are pretty, puff you up; for you did not make yourself, and so can have no praise due to you for it. It is virtue and goodness only, that make the true beauty.”

Oh and the content and tone get plain silly and exasperating after about the mid-point in the story, which means there would get to a point in any review I do on the subject in which the whole thing would degenerate into meaningless jabbering and harrumphing.

So these are the books which I will never review. Nothing reviewing, don’t ask – I’m not doing! (Have a nice day now all y’all).