Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is an extraordinary novel depicting a shattered, post- apocalyptic world in which all the conveniences and safety valves of modern society have disappeared.

A global pandemic has killed off over 99% of the human population. The survivors cluster together in small, isolated groups in abandoned buildings. They learn to function without electricity and running water. They adjust and make compromises in their daily existence. Survival frequently depends on kill or be killed. Some are able to adjust better than others. Some turn to music and theatre as a refuge, performing in make-shift venues as the Traveling Symphony. Some join a violent cult headed by a deranged, self-proclaimed prophet. And others walk off into the wilderness, never to be heard from or seen again.

Emily St. John Mandel plunges the reader in a terrifying world where social obligations, morality, and the rule of law have totally collapsed. She structures her novel around flashbacks and flash forwards in a series of vignettes with leaps in time in which the life that used to be constantly compares with the life that is now. She introduces her characters in seemingly disjointed threads—Arthur Leander, an actor who dies on the stage while performing King Lear; a young girl who plays Cordelia; a former journalist turned paramedic in the audience who springs to action to perform CPR on Leander; Leander’s first wife; and Leander’s closest friend.

Through the vignettes, we learn about the characters and their lives before and after the pandemic. Leander appears intermittently throughout the vignettes as the connecting glue. The characters are also linked by a joint memory or an object from the past—a snow globe, a tattered comic book, a magazine, a photograph. In this way, St. John Mandel skillfully ties the threads together, connecting one character with another, connecting the past with the present in a vibrant tapestry.

Life in this post-apocalyptic universe is harsh and dangerous. The characters cling to their memories of loved ones. They stock a “museum of civilization” with objects from the past. They share a cultural history. They talk of electricity, heating, cooling, airplanes, running water, etc. to post-apocalypse children. They buoy their spirits with music and poetry and Shakespeare. They form ties with one another to survive and thrive. When families and loved ones are lost, when former relationships have vanished, new relationships must be forged, new communities must be developed, and new meaning must be created. Choices are made, and the choices the characters make define them and determine how they will operate in this post-apocalypse world. Ultimately what remains in a universe bereft of all the trappings of civilization is the resilience of the human spirit.

Emily St. John Mandel has written a stunning novel. The back and forth leaps in time, the pacing, the diction, the consistency of tone, the strong characterization, the vivid imagery, the shard memories, and the use of telling detail all combine to make this a complex, compelling, and thrilling read.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Anita Diamant

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is loosely based on the Genesis story of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah. Daimant fleshes out Dinah’s story, telling it in her first-person point of view while deviating from the Biblical version in significant ways. Dinah provides background on her grandfather Laban; the entrance of Jacob into their lives; Jacob’s marriage to her mother; his subsequent marriages to her three aunts; and their plentiful offspring, consisting of Dinah’s brothers and cousins.

The novel starts out strongly. The focus on women and their activities of weaving, cooking, tending the garden, healing ailments, birthing, and nurturing children is evidence of a caring and supportive network of women in an exclusively woman space. The women cling to their worship of the goddess figures of Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt during the early stages of the transition to monotheism. This is a segregated, patriarchal society in which a woman’s primary function is to birth sons and to assume a subordinate role to the male. But within that framework and within their woman space of the red tent, the women bond, sharing knowledge and body wisdom that is transmitted from mother to daughter, from crone to virgin.   

As the only daughter of Jacob and Leah in a bevy of sons, Dinah is singled out for special affection by her mother and aunts/other mothers. They welcome her into the circle of women, initiate her into the inner sanctum of the red tent—the exclusive province of females, embrace her entrance into womanhood with the onset of menarche, train her on midwifery, and teach her the medicinal properties of certain plants and herbs.

All seems to be going in Dinah’s favor until things go horribly wrong. After her husband is slaughtered and Dinah goes to Egypt with her mother-in-law, the novel loses much of its strength. Dinah is forced to relinquish control of her son, befriends a midwife, and becomes known throughout Egypt as a midwife with exceptional powers. She falls happily in love with a carpenter, marries him, and is summoned by the Egyptian vizier to assist in his wife’s delivery of their child. The vizier turns out to be her brother, Joseph. The two then travel together to visit their dying father. Dinah returns to her husband to live the rest of her days in happiness.

The events after Dinah’s arrival in Egypt are rushed and, in contrast with the first part of the novel, time gallops at an unprecedented pace. The women of the red tent are well-rounded and portrayed as unique individuals. The men, however, are flat, never fully developed, and most are portrayed stereotypically as bossy patriarchs. Character development suffers, especially in Egypt where we are introduced to characters with barely a superficial nod. Dinah is portrayed as more acted upon than acting. And her convenient love affair with her carpenter husband reeks of a sentimental mushiness reminiscent of the unrealistic “happily ever after” endings of fairy tales.

Perhaps Diamant’s intention was to demonstrate that the lives of women unraveled after the loss of their woman space in the red tent and all it signified. Perhaps the goal was to show how women’s strength diminished when they were deprived of their female network of support. All well and good. However, in the process of demonstrating this, the novel loses much of what made it compelling and focused in the first place—an unfortunate conclusion to what started off with such strength.

Recommended but with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul intricately weaves together the lives of two families, the Turkish Kazanci family and the Armenian Tchakhmakhchian family. When Armanoush, the young daughter of Barsam Tchakhmakhchian and Rose from Kentucky, flies to Istanbul to visit her step-father’s family in Turkey to learn about her heritage, little does she know her visit will open up old wounds that have festered for generations.

The “bastard” of the title is Asya Kazanci, the illegitimate daughter of Zeliha, the youngest of the Kazanci women. Zeliha refuses to reveal the identity of her child’s father. So Asya is raised in a house full of women—her mother, two grandmothers, and three aunts, all of whom gloss over the fact that no one knows her father’s identity. Since she feels cut off from her roots, the nineteen-year-old Asya becomes a nihilist, denying the past has any bearing on her life. When Armanoush (“Amy”) shows up at the Kazanci residence in Istanbul, the step cousins become friends, discovering they have much in common. The novel’s end reveals they have more in common than any could have imagined.

Shafak has written an entertaining tale of families whose fates are intertwined. Her characters ponder questions about the past and how much of the past should be allowed to impinge on their present day lives. Perhaps some secrets should stay buried while others should surface to facilitate healing and reconciliation. Shafak skillfully weaves snapshots of the 1915 Armenian deportations and genocide with the disparate threads of her character’s lives. A picture gradually emerges that links the past with the present, the Armenian family with the Turkish family, in unexpected ways. 

The novel’s strength lies in a number of areas. Shafak’s ability to create a sense of place is impressive. She immerses the reader in sights, sounds, smells; in the hustle and the bustle of a cosmopolitan Istanbul in all its beauty and contradictions. Food plays a prominent role both in America and Turkey. Armenian food, Turkish food, and American food are all described in vivid, sensory detail. Interestingly enough, Shafak uses the ingredients for the ashure dessert as her chapter headings, a dessert that plays a pivotal role at the end of the novel.

Shafak’s portrayal of the bevy of women characters is equally impressive. The women envelope Asya in a cocoon of love that is, at times, comforting and, at other times, stifling. Each woman emerges as an authentic individual with a unique set of eccentricities and mannerisms. But there are occasions in which Shafak stretches plausibility. For example, she puts words in the mouths of the nineteen-year-old step cousins that are, perhaps, too sophisticated for their age. Asya, in particular, comes across as inauthentic when spouting her ideology.

The seemingly disparate narrative threads are skillfully woven together to make a rich tapestry with surprising twists and turns, brimming with vivid detail, shifts in time and place, and a touch of magical realism with the sporadic presence of talking djinns. Shafak peppers her narrative with humor, irony, and, above all, with sympathy for characters who struggle with personal identity and with reconciliation for past injustices.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

George MacDonald

Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women by George MacDonald is a rambling, episodic fantasy of a young man’s journey in Fairy Land.

The novel opens with Anodos who has just turned 21 years old. As he is going through his father’s old desk, he encounters a pint-sized woman who jumps out of the desk and expands to a normal height. She announces his trip to Fairy Land. Anodos wakes up the next day to find his room has transformed into Fairy Land, a plush natural environment with woods, a stream, and a path. It looks so welcoming that Anodos embraces the chance to enter. And so it begins.

We follow Anodos as he navigates through Fairy Land. He encounters a motley crew of characters, objects, and places: knights in not-so-shining amour; elderly ladies inhabiting cottages in the woods; an ash tree that tries to snarl him with its branches; goblins; a shadow that follows him; a lady trapped in marble whom he sings to life; a maiden in an Alder tree; a magic castle; and the list goes on.

Andodos’ journey is episodic in nature, lacking any sort of coherent structure even though there is a suggestion that some of the events mirror image each other. The journey has a dream-like quality, seemingly devoid of any logical connections. Our intrepid protagonist drifts from one event to another with no evidence of rhyme or reason. No sooner does an event seem to make sense than a nonsensical shift in time and place interrupts the flow.

The entrance into Fairy Land can, perhaps, be seen as an allegory of the soul’s journey into the spiritual world or the world of the imagination infused as it is with many lyrical passages, vivid imagery, and sensuous language. Unfortunately, MacDonald mars the effect by inserting lines of abysmal poetry which ooze with sugary sentimentality. He immerses the reader in a rambling, incomprehensible fairy world with its hints of symbolism and allegory, its dream-like qualities, and its fairy tale elements thrown in for good measure.

Recommended with reservations for readers willing to suspend disbelief to gain the experience of entering a dream-like, magical, fantasy world. But be forewarned: abandon all expectations of a logical sequence of events before opening its pages.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Chigozie Obioma

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma is a gripping love story with tragic consequences.

Chinonso Solomon Olisa is a humble chicken farmer with a gentle spirit and compassionate heart. He leads a quiet, uneventful life, nurturing his chickens and goslings with tenderness and empathy. Through a chance encounter, he meets Ndali, the daughter of an affluent chief. They fall passionately in love. Their relationship is met with vehement opposition from her family. Humiliated by their rejection, Chinonso decides to seek a university degree in Cyprus to earn her family’s approval. Slowly but surely, his life begins to unravel. His decision, taken with the best of intentions, relentlessly catapults him from one tragic event to another until the novel’s inexorably catastrophic conclusion.

Through no fault of his own, Chinonso suffers degradation, humiliation, imprisonment, and rape until his release from a Cyprus jail. He goes back to Nigeria. But he is now a broken man, one who is beyond repair. His attempts to reclaim his property and the love of his life are repeatedly dashed. He cannot relinquish the past or reconcile himself with his losses. With his frustration and anger building, he sets out to avenge himself, perpetrating a crime which has tragic consequences.

The narrative unfolds in the voice of Chinonso’s chi—his guardian spirit. The tone of impending disaster is foreshadowed at the outset and recurs throughout the novel. It opens with the chi pleading for forgiveness for his host’s actions before a court of the Igbo god, one referred to in many different names.

Each chapter begins with the chi’s supplication to the god, pleading his host’s case. Threaded throughout the narrative are references to the beliefs and traditions of the complex system of Igbo cosmology. The chi shares the wisdom he has acquired from inhabiting the bodies of previous hosts going back many generations. He bemoans the erosion of the traditional beliefs of the fathers and the willingness of Nigerians to abandon those beliefs by adopting the beliefs of the White man. Although he tries to intervene in the form of Chinonso’s conscience and occasionally leaves his host’s body for the ethereal world of spirits to seek help for his host’s predicament, his ability to effect change as a guardian spirit is limited. He watches helplessly as Chinonso plummets into a vortex not of his making.

On the one hand, this is a riveting story of a love gone terribly wrong. On the other hand, the novel can also be read as a metaphor for a people who, through no fault of their own, experience betrayal, injustice, humiliation, rape, beatings, silencing, loss of dignity, and loss of personal property. No matter which way they turn, circumstances conspire against them. They struggle to retain their original identity, but their suffering has been too great and transformative. They become obsessive, embittered humans with a thirst for vengeance, capable of perpetrating acts of violence on blameless victims.

Obioma has written a complex, compelling novel, epic in scope, and threaded with elements of magical realism. He has taken a traditional love story of a poor boy and rich girl; situated it in a Nigerian village; immersed the reader in Igbo culture and cosmology alongside western culture; mesmerized with his lyrical prose; skillfully built up the tension; and grabbed us by the hand and heart to lead us to the inevitable, catastrophic conclusion. The title of the book refers to the chickens’ song of mourning when one of their flock is forcibly taken. Just like the chickens wailing in sorrow, just like Chinonso’s chi, we watch helplessly on the side lines and lend our voices to the orchestra of minorities mourning their loss.

A thought-provoking, challenging read. Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Lesley Nneka Arimah

What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is a stunning collection of twelve short stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah.

Each story is a unique exploration of how people relate to one another. The pervading atmosphere throughout is one of palpable grief, loss, loneliness, and tragedy. The stories are fragmentary in nature. Arimah thrusts the reader in the middle of an event, sometimes going backward in time to explain a situation, and sometimes not. A few of the stories incorporate magical realism and folklore, and some are open-ended, leaving the reader to speculate on how the story will end.

The female protagonists are predominantly misfits, trying to find a place for themselves in the world. The stories consist of snapshots of family life in Nigeria or of Nigerian expatriates living in America. Most are tinged with sadness, the characters plagued with poverty and loneliness. A young girl is murdered by her sister’s abuser in a case of mistaken identity; a young woman makes babies out of yarn and human hair in the hope of bringing a baby to life to assuage her loneliness; a widow tolerates humiliation from her sister’s affluent family because she needs to provide a home for her daughters; a mother teaches her daughter to fall in public places to receive settlements from lawsuits or from the threat of lawsuits; a father watches his daughter’s light diminish after she joins her mother in America.

With the exception of “What is a Volcano?” the stories are about people—their relationships; their need for connection; their conflicts and struggles; how they cope with trauma and lost; the bonds they build and the bonds they sever. The stories, told with tenderness, sensitivity and compassion, poignantly touch on what it means to be human. They capture the quiet moments in people’s lives, the moments they share with one another and the moments that estrange them from each other.

Lesley Nneka Arimah’s packs a powerful punch in her debut collection of stories. She is a gifted storyteller with a keen eye for the suffering that can permeate lives.

The collection is highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Eudora Welty

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty offers little by way of a plot or character development. Instead what it does is conjure up an atmosphere of the hustle and bustle of a large extended family preparing for a daughter’s wedding in the Mississippi Delta in 1923.

Dabney Fairchild is getting married. The novel opens with the perspective of Dabney’s young cousin, nine-year-old Laura McRaven who travels by train to attend the wedding. Laura’s recently deceased mother was a member of the Fairchild clan. Laura is thrust in the midst of the chaotic whirlwind of an extended family of aunts and great aunts, uncles, and cousins. This is a house charged with an electrical current of frenzied activity in preparation for the wedding. It is a house that is seldom quiet. In every corner, boisterous conversations are taking place where people frequently talk at each other instead of to each other.

Welty’s portrayal of a large, multi-generational extended family is immersive. The cast of characters is extensive and confusing: Laura’s Aunt Ellen and Uncle Battle and their brood of eight rambunctious children with another on the way; Dabney, the bride-to-be and their second child, a self-absorbed, spoilt seventeen-year-old who lives in a romantic whirl of a fantasy of her own making; the elderly, interfering aunts, critical of outsiders since no one seems to be good enough to marry a Fairchild; the uncles, all of whom defer to the women in their lives. This elaborate structure is supported in the fields and in the house by a number of African American servants who appear intermittently to perform the bidding of one Fairchild or another.

To add to the confusion, Welty delivers snatches of simultaneous conversations; a dialogue that is at cross-purposes or spoken in a code to which few are privy; interruptions; announcements; and sentences that begin in the middle of a thought and simply trail off into the distance. Children tumble in and out of a conversation just as they tumble in and out of a room. Threaded throughout this crescendo of noise is Welty’s very detailed description of the sights, sounds, and smells of the Delta. Welty is not shy of piling on minute details with labyrinthine sentences that vividly evoke place.

If you prefer novels with a strong plot and fully developed characters, this may not be for you. But if you want to experience a snapshot of a wealthy plantation family in the Mississippi Delta of the 1920s; a family depicted in all its raw energy, shallowness, smugness, privilege; a family living in an exclusive bubble while oblivious to the concerns of outsiders, you may enjoy this.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Stacy Schiff

Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life chronicles the life of a remarkable woman who has captured the imagination for two thousand years. Schiff sheds light on a figure hovering in the shadows of recorded history.

In her extensively researched biography, Schiff untangles fact from fiction, the Cleopatra gleaned from historical records versus the Cecil B. Mille/Claudette Colbert/Elizabeth Taylor portrayals. What emerges is a portrait of a highly educated woman, a brilliant strategist, intelligent, articulate, and with an uncanny ability to intuit exactly what a situation demanded and to mold herself effortlessly to manipulate it to her advantage. Above all, Cleopatra skillfully ruled an empire, expanding her territory and amassing resources and wealth that provoked the envy of Rome.

To remember Cleopatra exclusively for her romantic relations with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony is to do her a great disservice. She was far more than the sum of her sexual exploits. She pivoted her relations with these illustrious Romans for mutual benefit. Cleopatra needed their support to protect her empire; they needed her extensive resources to fight their battles.

Schiff convincingly attributes Cleopatra’s success to her brains rather than to her beauty or sexual prowess. Her accomplishment in governing a vast empire populated with competing demands was impressive. For a while she was able to seize any and every opportunity to promote herself and her empire. But she was also a woman—independent, charming, strong, powerful, capable, politically savvy, and a free-thinking one at that. Couple her success with Rome’s rampant misogyny and one can begin to understand why she was misrepresented, demonized, and accused of exploiting her sexuality to achieve success. As Schiff argues, “It is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.” In short, Cleopatra was a victim of male fear of female power. 

Schiff’s wealth of information made for challenging reading at times. It required an effort to keep track of the different characters and the roles they played, who did what to whom, and which of the numerous Ptolemies intermarried and/or were murdered by their sibling/spouse. A listing of the primary characters and a family tree showing connections would have been helpful. On the plus side, Schiff’s meticulous research is buttressed with detailed notes and an extensive bibliography and index. Her writing is engaging. The last few chapters in the book when Octavian is closing in on Mark Antony and Cleopatra have all the makings of a thrilling novel.

There is much we cannot know about Cleopatra. But by piecing together what is known with her informed suppositions, Stacy Schiff has gone a long way to unearth the background and exploits of this exceptional woman, arguably the most famous woman in history.

Highly recommended for those interested in biographies and history.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Diane Setterfield

Combine elements of the gothic novel with magical realism; add a healthy dose of references to and parallels with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; sprinkle a dash of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and you arrive at The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

In true Gothic style, this is a novel about a quest to unearth truths that have been buried for many decades.

Margaret Lea, the protagonist, works in her father’s bookstore and derives more comfort cushioning herself between the pages of a novel than by living in the real world and interacting with real people. She feels an absence or void in her life. One day she discovers a secret about her birth that helps to explain this void—a secret her parents had withheld from her. She was born with a conjoined twin who died upon their separation. Margaret feels an intense loss each time she touches the scar on her side that linked her with her twin.

Margaret is invited by Vida Winter, a highly successful author, to write her biography. Promising to reveal the truth about her life, Vida describes a childhood awash with Gothic elements. There is the large English mansion with its dark corners, its musty nooks and crannies; a family hiding behind its secrets; a shadowy figure intermittently appearing and disappearing; inseparable twins; a no-nonsense governess; absent parents; illegitimate births; a catastrophic fire; and a strong whiff that something is terribly amiss. Margaret embarks on a quest to piece together the truth. As she is drawn deeper and deeper into Winter’s story, she finds herself increasingly embroiled in her own story of the missing twin.

The novel is replete with unexpected twists and turns as Margaret investigates the truth and probes deeper and deeper into Vida Winter’s story until all is revealed. Or, nearly all. The ending feels rushed and a tad unsatisfactory. The identity of the surviving twin is left ambiguous and the missing long-awaited thirteenth tale is allotted barely a skeletal outline.

Diane Setterfield has written a riveting page-turner, choke full of suspense. Her prose is elegant and compelling. Her celebration of words and the homage she pays to novels, especially Gothic novels, threads its way through almost every page in the voice of her protagonist. Despite the somewhat derivative nature of the novel and a hasty resolution, its hypnotic language and suspenseful plot will hold you captive until the very last page.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Elizabeth McCracken

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken is the story of Peggy Cort’s obsession—some might call it love—with James Sweatt, a young boy whose pituitary gland is out of sync, causing him to grow unnaturally until he is over 8 feet tall.

It is the 1950s and Peggy, a very lonely twenty-six-year old librarian with no social life, focuses her attention on maintaining a clean, orderly, and organized library. Every aspect of her life has to be tidy and in its proper place. Her social interactions are limited to assisting patrons of the library. Peggy’s very regulated, orderly life comes to a screeching halt when the overly tall eleven-year-old James Sweatt enters the library with a request for books. Peggy’s world is turned upside down. She becomes obsessed with James, hanging on every word and every movement of this tall, awkward boy.

As the years progress and James gets taller and taller, Peggy’s obsession escalates. She befriends James’ family to get closer to James, eventually becoming his primary caretaker after his mother’s death. She realizes she has fallen in love with James and harbors romantic notions of their lives together.

When James dies at the age of 18, Peggy’s obsession assumes morbid overtones. She has a one-night stand with James’ father to get closer to James and then lies to herself and all in sundry that her ensuing pregnancy is a result of her intimate relations with James.

The story is told in Peggy’s first-person point of view, which is an unfortunate choice for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Peggy engages in interminably long internal monologues in which she constantly berates herself, convinced she is unworthy of being loved. And secondly, her penchant for organizing and cataloguing is taken to an extreme when it comes to her obsession with James. She focuses on every minute detail of his person and analyzes every interaction she has with him, ad nauseam. It becomes tedious and exasperating to read this page after page after page.

Elizabeth McCracken shows great potential as a writer. She knows how to dance with words, conjure up descriptive detail, and write sentences that sparkle. Unfortunately, her choice to tell the story from Peggy’s point of view forces her to focus exclusively on the narrator’s internal machinations and all-consuming passion for James—a focus that quickly becomes old and slows the narrative to a snail’s pace.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Penelope Lively

Awarded the 1987 Booker Prize, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively opens with a septuagenarian Claudia Hampton dying in a hospital room. As she snaps and snarls at the nurses tasked with taking care of her, Claudia reflects on her life. An author of history books, she announces her grandiose plan to write a history of the world. What she really means is a history of the world as seen through the eyes of Claudia Hampton.

 The narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks that begin with Claudia’s childhood, revealing her competitive spirit with her brother, Gordon. The flashbacks include her role as a historian; her stint as a journalist in Egypt during World War II; her love affair with a British army officer; her later love affair with Jasper, the father of her child; and her sponsorship of Laszlo, a young Hungarian student. The flashbacks alternate with present day reality as Claudia lies in the hospital bed while visited by a parade of characters who have played a role her life—her sister-in-law, her daughter, Jasper, and Laszlo. Each visit triggers another memory from the past.

 The sporadic shifts in time are further complicated by shifts in points of view. Most of the narrative unfolds in Claudia’s first-person point of view. But there is an occasional shift in which the same incident is described from a third person point of view. These overlapping perspectives shed an entirely new light on the event, adding multiple layers of meaning to a seemingly straightforward event.

 Claudia can be both intimidating and attractive. On the whole, she is not very likeable. She fails as a mother to show love and support for her daughter—a failure she acknowledges to her daughter and apologizes for as she lies on her death bed. Her narcissism, arrogance, self-absorption, vanity, fierce competitiveness, and incorrigibility are on full display throughout her life. But there is a softer and even admirable side to her that slowly emerges as the novel unfolds. She is capable of experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime love. Her sensibility is profoundly impacted by the horrors of war. She is always outspoken, independent, fearless, capable of great compassion, and fiercely committed to acting on her beliefs.

 Woven within Claudia’s reminisces and reflections are gritty explorations of war, love, death, incest; historical events and historical figures; archaeological sites in Egypt; the ties that bind and the ties that break; the things that are said or left unsaid; chance encounters that have a lasting impact; the pivotal role language plays in shaping our view of the past; and the many selves we leave behind as we make the inexorable march to maturity. Claudia superimposes one thought with another, one time- frame with another in a complex montage that allows us to see each character and event at different times and in different ages. This technique allows for the gradual piecing together of the fragmentary portrayals so that a more complete picture emerges of each event and character, including Claudia as she reveals more about herself with the novel’s progression.

 The moon tiger of the title is a reference to a mosquito coil that gradually burns down to become ash. Similarly, as Claudia Hampton recalls and reflects, she gradually pares down her many layers until she, too, becomes ash.

It is a testament to Penelope Lively’s skill as a writer that she is able to weave complex themes in a complex structure with fully developed characters wrapped in engaging, energetic prose. Her depiction of Claudia Hampton as a multifaceted, larger-than-life character who can be disliked and admired simultaneously deserves special praise.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mark Twain

The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain is a light, short, and quick read illustrating Twain’s humor and his keen eye for observing human foibles. The diary entries are in two parts, beginning with Adam’s entries.

Adam is portrayed as a cranky curmudgeon who wants to be left alone. He is curious about this new creature who enters his garden, follows him around, names everything, and irritates him with her talk, talk, talk. His entries get even funnier when he tries to determine the species of the new creature that monopolizes Eve’s attention. He observes the creature’s growth, and through a process of elimination, decides it must be some sort of kangaroo or bear before eventually realizing it’s a boy named Cain.

Eve’s dairy entries are not as funny as Adam’s. She is outgoing, curious, intelligent, observant, and adventurous. She befriends animals to alleviate her loneliness and expresses wonder at all she sees in the skies and in nature. Eventually, she and Adam become an item. She declares her love for him in gushing terms and admits she loves him “merely because he is masculine.” She then subsumes her identity to please Adam and claims she would love him even if he were to beat her. Such comments are sure to rankle, as will the gender stereotyping and the normative heterosexuality. But the sarcastic humor and light-hearted tone suggest the work should not be taken too seriously and is just Mark Twain having a bit of fun.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward peoples her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing with vivid, unforgettable characters who drive the narrative. Chief among them is Leonie, a drug-addicted, dysfunctional, and abusive African-American mother. Jojo, her thirteen-year-old son, fathered by Leonie’s white boyfriend, is forced into early adulthood. He focuses on protecting his toddler sister, Kayla, from their abusive mother. Michael, the absent white father, has just been released from the state penitentiary. Jojo has two sets of grandparents—his black grandparents, Pop who showers Jojo with unconditional love, and Mam who is dying of cancer; and his white grandparents, the racist Big Joseph who refuses to acknowledge the existence of his bi-racial grandchildren, and his wife who struggles to accept them.

The story alternates between the first-person point of view of Jojo and Leonie. Added to the mix is the occasional point of view of Richie, a deceased African-American child who served time in the state penitentiary with Jojo’s grandfather and was killed while trying to escape. To add to an already complicated picture, we have the intermittent presence of another ghost: Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her murdered brother, Given. Jojo is haunted by the ghost of Richie who insists on learning why Pop abandoned him at the state penitentiary.

Most of the narrative unfolds during an intense road trip in which Leonie and her friend go to pick up Michael from the state penitentiary. Leonie insists on taking her children along. The tension builds up as the young Kayla becomes sick and experiences several bouts of vomiting in the car. Jojo continues his role of parent. He soothes her, cleans up her vomit, and shelters her from the frustrations and abuse of their drug-addled mother. The car ride is described in vivid detail. The palpable tension is infused with the stench of vomit mingling with the sweltering heat as Leonie drives and Jojo observes.  

The novel explores the theme of borderlines. The intermittent presence of ghosts Richie and Given dissolve the border between the living and the dead. The main characters are located on the borders of society and make difficult choices to survive. Jojo, as a child of mixed-heritage, struggles to come to terms with his identity, with his abusive mother and absent father. Leonie struggles to be a good mother but fails miserably. Rather than rectify her inability to parent, she is consumed with self-loathing, resorting to drugs and abusive behaviors toward her children, especially Jojo. Michael’s attempt to gain his parents acceptance for his children is rebuffed. This catapults him back into drug abuse. Pop is haunted by the memory of his role in Richie’s death.

This is not an easy, light-hearted novel. Set in a Mississippi that is plagued with institutional racism, bigotry, and violence, Ward cuts a deep and penetrating swathe into the lives of characters struggling to survive systemic oppression. The haunting subject matter; the expressive and, at times, lyrical diction; the immersive setting; the vividly portrayed, memorable characters; and the unflinchingly honest vision contribute to make this a very powerful and compelling novel.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Carson McCullers

A bigoted, corpulent judge with an inflated self-image; his grandson with a confused sexual identity, aimlessly drifting through life; an angry young man of mixed racial heritage with a deep-seated proclivity for telling lies; and a pharmacist dying of leukemia. Place them in a Georgia town just prior to court-ordered school integration. Stir in the noxious fumes of a small racist southern town in the 1950s and you have the setting for Carson McCullers’ Clock Without Hands.

On the face of it, the novel has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, it falls short. The characters are reduced to mouthpieces promoting a specific agenda or point of view. They are unrealistic and speak in artificial-sounding platitudes. The events are disjointed, episodic. Although McCullers exposes the injustices perpetrated on blacks, her treatment of the violence and discrimination they experience borders on clinical. It comes across as uneventful, the main characters seemingly unaffected by it and shaking it off with a shrug of the shoulders.

Presumably, the title of the novel is a reference to the fact that time stops for no one. Progress will be made in spite of efforts to prevent it and/or to turn back the clock. Laws prohibiting discrimination will be implemented. Blacks will rise up and demand their rights. The racist judge and all his like-minded cronies are fighting a battle they will lose. These are admirable themes but they get buried in the execution: the characters are flat, unrealistic, dull, and not fully fleshed-out; the prose rambles; the events string together in a disjointed mish-mash; and the novel lacks clear focus.

Definitely not McCullers best work.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

John Steinbeck

Set in California’s Salinas Valley, East of Eden is an epic tale of two families whose fates intertwine in a rich and intricate tapestry. The narrative unfolds with sensitivity and passion and with a keen eye on human foibles.

Steinbeck’s description of the Salinas Valley immerses us in its sights, sounds, and smells. His memorable characters, portrayed with vivid realism, leap off the page. They are depicted with sympathy and compassion. Some struggle all their lives on a torturous path to find acceptance and love. From the child who hungers for parental recognition; to a heartless villain who will stop at nothing, including murder, to get what she wants; to the parents who shower their brood of children with unconditional love and warmth, Steinbeck has created a cast of characters who leave an indelible stamp on our psyche long after we have turned the final pages of his novel.

This is a masterful tale, masterfully told, and highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor’s Living With the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples explores objects, rituals, and places in terms of what they reveal about faith and spirituality. Beginning with the 40,000-year- old Lion Man of Ulm, MacGregor takes us on a penetrating and insightful journey that spans centuries, crosses all corners of the globe, and interrogates the religious traditions of the past and present with compassion and respect.

MacGregor was director of the British Museum from 2002-2015. He generously illustrates his text with beautiful color photographs taken primarily from exhibits in the British Museum. He deconstructs each exhibit, situating it in context, and explaining its function in ritual and/or as an object of faith with the goal of elucidating how we worship.  

In addition to explaining the role of objects, natural phenomena, and rituals, MacGregor takes us to locations which harbor religious significance—sacred spaces pregnant with mystery which presumably function(ed) as gateways to the supernatural realm. These sites include pre-historic caves with their cryptic drawings; the underground tomb In Ireland’s Newgrange; the excavation site at Gobekli Tepe in south-east Turkey; Girsu in Iraq; Lake Guatavita in the Columbian Andes; cathedrals, synagogues, temples, and mosques in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. MacGregor also explores the role of ceremonies, prayers, festivals, and songs as communal activities that bind a people together, providing them with a cohesive identity.

MacGregor’s persona is knowledgeable, curious, non-judgmental, non-dogmatic, immensely humane, compassionate, sensitive, and respectful of the various traditions and cultures. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this text is the way MacGregor takes an object, ritual, or ceremony and unveils its similarities with the religious activities and paraphernalia of cultures that are worlds apart and seemingly very diverse. Through these explorations, he is able to draw connections from the past to the present, from one culture to the next. It is a fascinating and wholistic enterprise which demonstrates over and over again that in spite of the ethnic, regional, racial, and religious differences that cause so much violent conflict all over the world, we all emerged from the same stock, share the same anxieties, hopes, and goals. And even though we may pursue different paths to get us there, the “there” we want to get to is fundamentally the same today as it has always been.

This penetrating text exploring religious objects, sacred spaces, ceremonies, and rituals to remind us we have more in common with each other than we have differences is more essential and relevant today than it has ever been. 

Highly recommended. A pleasure to read with color photos to feast the eyes.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Anonymous

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by an anonymous late 14th Century author is a chivalric romance written in Middle English. But you don’t have to be proficient in Middle English to read it as there are several excellent translations available, including some on line.

This is a delightful Medieval poem about the adventures of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew. The events occur during two consecutive Christmas seasons and involve a jolly green giant, a beheading, a quest, a journey into the wilderness, a magic castle, a beautiful lady, a couple of delightful seduction scenes, a ruse, an unexpected twist, and probably the biggest oops blunder in English literature.

The poet gently exposes the foibles of human nature and the difficulty of living up to courtly ideals with their concomitant code of chivalry. And he does so with sympathy and humor neatly gift wrapped in eloquent diction to celebrate the season.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Chigozie Obioma

Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is an impressive, heart-breaking novel. The story is told by Benjamin of the Agwu family. Benjamin has three older brothers and a younger brother and sister. They live in the small town of Akure, Nigeria. When their father leaves for a position with a city bank, the four older boys take advantage of his absence to skip school and go fishing with their friends. They fish in the Omi-Ala River even though the river is considered cursed by villagers and is off limits since it carries animal carcasses and has soaked in the blood of dismembered human remains. When Abulu, the village madman, makes the dire prediction that the eldest boy will be murdered by one of his siblings, the bond between the brothers begins to unravel. The family suffers one tragedy after another—hallucinations, nervous breakdowns, superstitions, vengeance, suicide, and imprisonment.

Benjamin describes the Omi-Ala river as once being so pristine, the villagers worshipped it and used it for fishing and as a clean source of drinking water. But then the villagers polluted it, defiled it, and, abetted by Christian missionaries, eventually associated it with evil, rejected it, and heaped condemnation on it. The river can be seen as a metaphor for Nigeria, a once pristine land destroyed by its inhabitants and internecine warfare fueled by colonial influence.

Set against the warring factions in Nigeria in the mid-1990s, the novel is told in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards, weaving political unrest with the demise of the Agwu family. In vivid, lurid detail, Benjamin describes the squalor of the village—the filth, rats, piles of human and animal excrement in dirt roads, violence, corruption, brutality, and human carcasses that litter the streets. His parents try to hold the family together, but in the father’s absence, the mother cannot control her sons. Ikenna, the eldest, gradually distances himself from his siblings, believing Abulu’s prediction that one of his brothers will kill him. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to tragic consequences for the entire family. The novel explores the concept of the efficacy of prophecy—how much is actually prophetic (an accurate prediction of the future) and how much becomes prophetic only because we believe it and, therefore, will it to happen.

In beautiful and at times eloquent language, Obioma has written a heart-wrenching novel that chronicles a series of disasters befalling the Agwu family. Seen initially through the eyes of the nine-year old Benjamin, we witness his struggle to make sense of a deteriorating situation and of his desperate need for the acceptance and love of his older siblings. The novel is rich in detail, the characters believable and well-crafted. The novel has the feel of a Greek tragedy as Obioma increases the tension by skillfully dropping clues to indicate this will not end well. We are embroiled in the welfare of this family and become transfixed as the narrative climbs to its inexorable and tragic climax.

Although the novel ends in a somewhat hopeful note, it is not essentially a “feel good” novel. It tells a compelling story, imbued with mythic and tragic overtones, told in clear and eloquent prose of a family and country in crisis.

This is a remarkable achievement for a debut novel and highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Joseph Boyden

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden skillfully blends two interlocking stories. It begins when Niska, an Oji Cree Medicine Woman in Northern Ontario, receives word that her nephew, Xavier Bird, has died in the trenches in World War I. When she learns his boyhood friend, Elijah Whiskeyjack, has survived and is on his way home, she decides to make the journey to the train station to retrieve him. But it is not Elijah who steps off the train. It is her nephew, Xavier. He has come home a broken man, both physically and mentally. He lost a leg in the war, is addicted to morphine, suffers from PTSD, and is haunted by the horror of what he witnessed in the battlefields of France and Belgium. Niska embraces her nephew and takes him to the canoe to paddle the three-day journey home.

The novel unfolds in the first-person point of view, alternating between the voices of Niska and Xavier. Aware of her nephew’s mental anguish, his physical pain, and his addiction to the white man’s medicine, Niska tells him stories of their respective childhoods, their intimate connection with nature, and the rituals and ceremonies of their people. It is through storytelling she hopes to save him by reminding him of who he is, where he came from, and the values he inherited from his culture.

Alternating with Niska’s stories are Xavier’s stories of his horrific experiences in the battlefields of WWI. At times, he seems to be speaking to Niska; at others, he mumbles to himself; while at other times, the dialogue seems to be internal and experienced as terrifying flashbacks. But at all times, the description is graphic. Xavier narrates his story through the haze of morphine. So his narrative is episodic and confused, the locations and trenches interchangeable, the action repetitive. But that is to be expected in the fog of war.

Boyden immerses the reader in the horrors of war. Bits and pieces of human limbs and rotting corpses litter the landscape. The countryside is in shreds. The mud is ubiquitous—soldiers having to crawl through it on their bellies in no-man’s-land or wade knee-deep in it in the trenches. We hear the constant barrage of guns and explosions which eventually cause Xavier to lose some of his hearing. We smell the rotting corpses, the stench of human waste and filthy uniforms on bodies that haven’t been bathed. We feel the lice crawling up and down the soldiers’ limbs and rats nibbling on human skin. We squash together, jostling for position in confined quarters. And we see the fear in men’s eyes as they are about to face death.

No one can experience the horrors of war and remain unchanged. Xavier and Elijah are no exception. At first, their bond seems unbreakable. But as their reputation as skilled snipers develops, their bond weakens and the ensuing tension becomes palpable. Elijah plummets down a path that causes Xavier to question his sanity. And, eventually, Xavier’s grip on reality also seems to disintegrate.

The alternating shifts in points of view are clear and provide a strong contrast between the killing fields of Europe and the pristine majesty of the wilds in Northern Ontario. Boyden’s characters are well-developed. Niska emerges as a strong, authentic character living in harmony with nature and intimately connected with her cultural heritage in spite of efforts to indoctrinate her into the dominant culture’s world view. Xavier and Elijah are depicted as unique individuals who develop different coping mechanisms to survive the violence and insanity of life in the trenches. Each is plagued with internal demons.

This does not make for easy or light reading, primarily because of the graphic descriptions of the killing fields in Europe during WWI. But it is a compelling narrative and recommended for anyone interested in the historical fiction of this period.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Alice Munro

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a collection of nine short stories by the 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Alice Munro. The stories are populated by people in different stages of life confronting different challenges—a teenager’s practical joke that opens a new life trajectory for a housekeeper; a cancer patient; an elderly Alzheimer patient; a woman coping with her husband’s suicide; and so on. But the common thread running throughout is Alice Munro’s unflinchingly honest eye at the complex interiority of her characters’ apparently ordinary lives.

Munro’s razor-sharp lens focuses on relationships between individuals, whether those are familial, marital, between friends or acquaintances. She explores the impact of the death or illness of a loved one, childhood separations, gendered inequities, disappointments in marriage, resentments, infidelities, family secrets, and the role of memory in our lives. And she does this with a quiet subtlety that allows telling details to bring a picture into focus. Very little happens on the surface of the stories. The drama, the tension, the conflicts, and the epiphany—if there is one—are all internal and revealed slowly with consummate skill. Her words do not shriek; they do not judge. They sneak up on you, packing a powerful punch that catches one unaware.

What emerges from these stories is Munro’s sensitive and compassionate portrayal of the internal lives of flawed individuals struggling with life’s challenges. She details the private lives of her characters by crafting seemingly innocuous public encounters for them. It is a testament to her great skill as a writer that she is able to penetrate beneath the superficialities of an apparently humdrum, ordinary life to reveal the rich, complex, and conflicted texture of the character’s interiority. Her vision is expansive; her skill impressive.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review