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review 2018-03-14 21:34
Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster
Reading the Ceiling - Dayo Forster

I agree with the other reviews that this is a fine option if you are doing a world books challenge and need a book from the Gambia – this is why I read it, and it’s certainly readable – but there isn’t much to recommend it beyond that.


Reading the Ceiling has an interesting premise: the narrator, Ayodele, is turning 18 and determined to get initiated into the mysteries of sex, so she needs to choose a partner with whom to do the deed. The three sections of the book follow alternate versions of her life as it unfolds along three different trajectories depending on whom she chooses: Reuben, an awkward classmate who likes her much more than she likes him; Yuan, a friend of Chinese descent in whom she is interested; or Frederick, the sexually experienced father of her best friend.


I was curious to see how the different stories played out, and there is a sense of place, though oddly for African fiction, Ayodele lives a middle-class life in terms of both values and material comforts, and there’s not much of a sense that she and her classmates are better off than those around them. Tracking the similarities and differences among the stories and the different ways characters relate to each other based on different lives and choices was interesting, and the author does a good job of showing different sides of those events that occur in multiple stories, avoiding repetitive content. I didn’t always believe the author’s choices, though: a character will die in a motorcycle accident in multiple stories despite having lived two different adult lives, or Ayodele will get a scholarship for London in one story but only for Dakar in another even though she submitted the applications before making her choice.


More to the point, though, the book is on the dull side. Ayodele’s feelings about events are often left unclear; instead we get bland descriptions of her surroundings, lacking in emotional content. And she’s not a particularly interesting character or one who inspired much emotion in me. While a character doesn’t need to be pleasant to be compelling, Ayodele doesn’t balance her lack of resilience or less-than-admirable choices with a strong or complex personality to keep readers engaged. In two of the stories she folds emotionally at the first blow, allowing an early failure or tragedy to shape and define her life, while in the final one she chooses to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term, though it derails her life, apparently just to spite her mother. She doesn’t seem destined to be happy regardless of her choices, though it’s hard to tell when the last two end without reaching a conclusion, leaving readers wondering what happens next.


Overall, this isn’t one I would recommend, though if you too have reason to read a book from the Gambia, then go for it. I’ve certainly read worse.

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review 2018-03-05 21:22
Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo
Legends, traditions and tales of Nauru - Timothy Detudamo

Ratings on books of folklore, especially from outsiders, shouldn’t be taken too seriously: I can rate my experience with a book, and can give my opinion on its literary merits, but am in no position to judge the contribution it makes to the preservation of cultural information, nor the importance it might have to people who actually belong to the culture in question. That said, this proved a bit of a challenging read, and the presentation could be improved. It is unclear exactly who the book is intended for; there is no introduction to put the work in context or explain how it came to be. According to the bookjacket, it was compiled and translated by Head Chief Timothy Detudamo in 1938, based on lecturers by unidentified “native teachers,” but not published until 2008.

This is a very slim volume, and as it turns out the title refers to the three sections of the book. First come 34 pages of “legends,” 11 stories which remind me of the Old Testament, both in their content – origin myths and historical legends, preoccupied with the lineage of their characters – and in their dryness despite dramatic content. Clans go to war, young men kill each other or old people or children, often without any sense that this is seen as inappropriate; shorn of emotional content and without getting inside the heads of any of the characters, it’s difficult for someone outside the culture to appreciate the meaning of any of this.

Next up are 18 pages on “traditional culture,” brief descriptions of aspects of traditional life on Nauru, from hygiene to food storage to inheritance, and with a focus on tools and fishing. This is interesting but quite short. It is all told in the past tense, but without any information on how long ago these traditions existed or on sources – did this traditional culture exist during the lifetimes of the people who put the book together, or did they rely on what older people had told them?

Finally, there are 33 pages of “tales,” of which there are 17. These feel more relaxed and have more narrative flow than the “legends”: they are more like fairy tales, starring regular people or animals. Perhaps it’s because they’re rendered in so few pages that the tales seem odd, leaving me confused about what a listener might get out of them, or perhaps it’s just the cultural divide. But for the foreign reader, it would have been helpful to have some explanation of repeated motifs, such as all the families consisting of a husband, wife and 30 daughters.

And then, as other reviewers have commented, there is the world’s least helpful glossary. The scant information contained in the glossary is available from context, so why anyone would think to include the following I can’t fathom:

Eaeoquar – A type of fish
Eakaberere – A type of sport
Earu n eded – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n eiror – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n gatimore – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n kagaga – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n oquoe – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Eatu n anape [sic] – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Ebaba – A type of food
Ebawo – A type fish [sic]

All in all, for a reader unfamiliar with Nauru this book is likely to be more confusing than enlightening; whether folklorists or modern Nauruans might make more sense of it, I can’t say. It isn’t necessarily a bad book – it may not have been intended for readers like me at all – but I can't claim to have gotten much out of it.

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review 2018-02-24 18:35
Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge
Crick Crack, Monkey (Caribbean Writers Series) - Merle Hodge

Published in 1970, this novella from Trinidad is classic postcolonial writing, but also the enjoyable story of the life of a young girl. Cynthia, called Cyntie or Tee, and her younger brother are raised by extended family after their mother dies and their father goes abroad. She has childhood escapades and attends a couple of different schools and it’s all vividly portrayed. But she also has a well-off aunt who prizes whiteness in all its forms – physical and cultural – and who makes Tee her project. And so it turns into a story about what in book-critic speech might be called the colonization of a person’s mind: how Tee turns against her upbringing and the people who really love her, but without gaining anything of value to take their place.


There’s a lot of postcolonial literature out there that follows children as they leave behind their traditional upbringings to attend school and encounter the white world – The Dark Child, Nervous Conditions and Mema all come to mind – but this one stands out for its exploration of how internalized racism works. It’s also different for being set in Trinidad, where there isn’t quite the “traditional” lifestyle that exists in Africa; the population is mostly descended from African slaves and South Asian indentured servants, a cultural mix that’s clearly present in the book and gives it a unique color.


But this isn’t only a political book, and I was a little surprised by how well the characters came to life, after seeing them discussed mostly for their ideological roles. Tee’s Auntie Beatrice, for instance, the symbol of colonial thought, turned out to be a surprisingly vulnerable and complex character. She lacks power at home, where her daughters flout her authority and her husband refuses to engage with the family, and in trying to change Tee she seems largely motivated by a desire for the ideal family she’s never had. Other characters likewise feel real and nuanced despite the brevity of the story.


Overall, this book was a pleasant surprise and one I would recommend; social justice oriented readers will particularly appreciate it, but in the complex characters, the vivid descriptions of Tee’s childhood, the rhythms of local speech and the colors of island life, it is also simply a good book.

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review 2018-02-13 16:35
Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Purge - Lola Rogers,Sofi Oksanen

Part psychological thriller, part historical fiction, this book was not at all what I expected. You should avoid reading reviews if possible because too many give away too much, but to give a general idea, the novel begins in Estonia in 1992, where an old woman, Aliide Truu, lives alone in the countryside in an atmosphere of fear and decay. She finds a young woman, Zara, lying crumpled in her yard, and the story follows the relationship between these women and the explosive secrets they carry, tracing the history of Estonia back to the 1930s.

It’s an ugly time period: from invasions by the Nazis and Russians, to decades as a repressive Soviet satellite, to lawlessness following the fall of Communism. And I wasn’t expecting the amount of horrific sexual trauma in it. It’s an intense, visceral book that draws the reader into the characters’ world, one where they don’t ever feel safe. The plot is gripping, full of secrets to be unraveled; the characters are morally complex, with believable inner worlds; the settings are vivid and the writing strong.

Actually, my biggest complaint is not about the content, but the deckle edge pages, which publishers continue to inflict upon readers despite the fact that, if we still aren’t using e-readers, one reason is that we like to be able to easily turn pages and flip around, especially in a book like this, where readers will be inclined to re-read earlier sections in light of new information.

I’m glad I read this book. It is an intense, compelling read, and allowed me a window into a place I knew little about, though it isn't a history book and the focus remains tightly on the experiences of the protagonists. It is dark and brutal and so isn’t for everyone, but fans of psychological thrillers will find it well worth their time.

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review 2018-02-11 20:19
Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac
Eugénie Grandet - Christopher Prendergast,Honoré de Balzac,Sylvia Raphael

Classics, we are told, are books that “stand the test of time” – that, even after the society that birthed them has passed away, continue to enthrall readers with their complex and relatable characters, their insight into universals of human nature, their artful command of language. I read Eugenie Grandet in translation, so I won’t attempt to pass judgment on its use of language (Raphael’s 1990 translation is acceptable though not impressive in its own right). But the characters, the conceptions of human nature: these represent the tropes and prejudices of Balzac’s own society, nothing universal or transcendent.

This is a short book with a fairly simple story, though it is detailed and atmospheric enough so as not to require large amounts of plot. Felix Grandet is a miser, who makes large amounts of money through sometimes scurrilous means but refuses to use any of it for the comfort of his wife and daughter, Eugenie. When her city cousin Charles comes to visit for the first time, Eugenie falls immediately in love, but the corrupting influence of money threatens everything meaningful in her life.

Unfortunately, the main characters are not particularly complex or interesting. Felix Grandet is “the miser,” and Balzac takes every opportunity to hold forth on the characteristics of all misers. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met a miser or even heard of a real-life one secondhand, if we define a miser as someone who hoards money for its own sake rather than saving for anything in particular and who refuses to spend even small amounts for their own or their family’s comfort. So this old-fashioned trope and Balzac’s “insights” into the character of misers fell flat for me. Eugenie is defined by another musty trope; she’s the angel in the house, that selfless, innocent, long-suffering 19th century woman. “In her honest simplicity she followed the promptings of her angelic nature,” Balzac tells us at one point. Like her father and the other characters, Eugenie is written as a character in a parable; they exist to fulfill specific roles in the story, and there’s no sense of depth beyond that.

Meanwhile, Balzac’s indictment of misers is strange to my 21st century eyes. We are clearly supposed to feel bad for Eugenie because she’s required to eat simple foods and use footwarmers rather than having a fire in the spring and fall, even when this lifestyle is credited for her robust good health. Wow, how awful? But Eugenie and her mother (who does legitimately suffer from Felix’s behavior) are portrayed as the only people of moral character in the book, which makes it appear that Balzac is speaking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. On the one hand, Felix is morally repugnant for refusing to “live up to his income” (that 19th century virtue) and provide his family the luxuries they can afford, but on the other hand, his refusal to do so is a recipe for producing the ideal woman, an angelic figure absent from the households of the Grandets’ moneyed acquaintances. Admittedly, this is complicated somewhat as [Eugenie grows older and picks up some of her father’s traits, but that only happens after she remains single and at home long past the prescribed age, suggesting that marrying as a young woman should might have allowed her to continue unspoiled. And she continues to live for religion and devote her money to charity, even while she is unhappy. (hide spoiler)]

Either way, Balzac brings a boatload of gender-based generalizations to the table, which he is eager to share with the reader. For instance:

“All women, even the most stupid, can use wiles to attain their ends.” (60)

“Is it not the noble destiny of women to be more touched by the trappings of poverty than by the splendours of wealth?” (63)

“Pity is one of the qualities in which women are sublimely superior; it is the only one that they are willing to reveal, the only one they will forgive men for allowing them a greater share of.” (90)

“Women have in common with angels the special care of suffering beings.” (93)

“A woman’s mistakes nearly always stem for her belief in good news or from her confidence in truth.” (109)

“In every situation, women have more cause for grief than men and suffer more.” (134)

To my amusement, the writer of the scholarly introduction (which, as usual, you shouldn’t read before the book unless you want to be spoiled) shares many of these complaints. “Much of the contrast [between Eugenie and her father] is best skated over – Eugenie is written in the imagery of the ‘angelic’ and the painfully embarrassing analogies with Raphael’s madonnas and so on,” he writes. And, “There is much tiresome rhetoric about it being in the nature of women to show ‘angelic patience’ in the face of misfortune.” And, “This is the dimension of Balzac’s manner which tends to turn his novels into machines for spewing out generalizations, maxims, quasi-proverbial utterances on virtually every conceivable subject . . . many of them are false or just inadequate to the complexity of experience.” Indeed.

The introduction writer then attempts to defend Balzac by pointing out his use of chiasmus and antithesis, and perhaps if you are the sort of literary reader more interested in techniques and symbolism than characterization, insight or wisdom, you might find much to enjoy in this book. As for me, I found little to appreciate and much cause to question its status as a classic, though I did learn a bit about Balzac’s society from it.

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