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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Phyllis Trible

Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Reading of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible consists a series of lectures Professor Trible delivered at Yale in which she deconstructs passages from the Bible that focus on four women in ancient Israel: Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed woman, and the daughter of Jephthah. Professor Trible refers to these passages as “texts of terror” since they reflect a cruel misogyny that goes unchallenged by the narrator(s) and/or by Yahweh as portrayed by the narrator(s).

Professor Trible quotes liberally from the Hebrew text, translates specific words, and documents her extensive research in detailed notes at the end of each chapter. She performs a close textual analysis of the text using a feminist lens. In each case, she addresses the following issues: How is the sentence structured? What can we glean from its syntax? What happens in the story and why does it happen? Who has voice and who is denied voice? Who is named and who remains unnamed? What is the narrator(s) stance in telling the story? According to the narrator(s), what is Yahweh’s stance on the events and outcome? When does the narrator(s) give Yahweh a voice? When does Yahweh remain silent and why? Professor Trible addresses the significance of each of these points by interpreting the text to expose its attitude toward gender. Her conclusions are illuminating.

According to Professor Trible, the Egyptian maid, Hagar, represents the outcast, the ostracized, the exploited, and the powerless under the mercy of the ruling class. She is the black female exploited by Sarah when it suits her purpose and sent into exile with her son, Ishmael, when her presence is perceived as a threat to the hegemony of Sarah’s son, Isaac. Tamar is raped by her brother, Amnon, and is cautioned to remain silent about her violation even though her life has been ruined. The Unnamed Woman in Judges 19:1-30 suffers betrayal, rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment. She crawls to the doorway after a night of terror, at which time her master, the Levite, nonchalantly places her on his ass and heads home. It is unclear whether she is dead or alive at this point. And, finally, there is the story of the unnamed daughter of Jephthah who is sacrificed because of her father’s promise to Yahweh.

By highlighting the plight of these four women, Professor Trible relocates them from the margin to the center. She gives them a voice and, in doing so, memorializes them. She acknowledges their trauma and honors their sacrifice. She gives them a vehicle to describe the unmitigated terror and cruelty they experienced in the hands of powerful men while she simultaneously exposes the misogyny infecting these passages of the Bible. And, as she poignantly reminds us, violence against women is not a thing of the long ago past but continues to plague us well into the present.

This book makes a significant contribution to feminist critiques of religious texts. It is highly recommended, especially for anyone interested in the representation of women in religious texts.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a highly unusual novel. The narrative unfolds by alternating the first-person point of view of each of the many personalities inhabiting the single body of the central character, Ada.

The novel opens with the voice of “We” who self-identifies as an ogbanje (a spirit in Igbo folklore) and as a child of Ala, the python. “We” inhabits Ada’s body while Ada she is still in her mother’s womb and continues to reside there after her birth, interacting with Ada and directing her movements. “We” temporarily recedes into the background with Ada’s arrival in America to study.

After Ada is raped by Soren, Asughara emerges. Asughara, a second spirit, thrives on violence, partying, promiscuity, alcohol, and drugs. Asughara directs Ada’s movements and speech, all the while fighting for control of Ada with another of Ada’s resident spirits, Yshwa (Ada’s Christ). And then we meet a fourth spirit, St. Vincent, who loves women and appears only in Ada’s dreams—her “dreambody.”  

If all this sounds convoluted, that is because it is.

The novel eschews a logical sequence. Much of the narrative is cryptic and incoherent in nature. Smatterings of the same event are alluded to intermittently through the differing perspective of whichever spirit has the dominant voice at the time. The structure moves in a circular motion, looping back on itself, moving forward, and adding a little more detail with each subsequent retelling. The fragmented nature of the structure reflects the shattered pieces of Ada’s life: the bits and pieces have to be reassembled in order to generate meaning and wholeness.

As the novel unfolds, we learn Ada experienced sexual assault as a child and was severely beaten. She begins cutting herself at the age of twelve to appease her raging internal spirts and she continues to do so for twelve years. As an adult, she is suicidal, anorexic, and struggles with her gender identity. She finds little comfort in therapy and converses regularly with each of her internal spirits, all of whom claim they are there to protect her and have her best interests at heart.

Akwaeke Emezi has written a highly original, complex, and unsettling novel that lends itself to levels of interpretation. The ogbanje inform Igbo folklore and play a prominent role as spirits capable of inhabiting a body and controlling its behavior. But here they can also be seen as buffers created in the mind of a young child to shield herself from the abuse she suffered. She projects these buffers to the outside world in order to protect her inner core. They assume a life of their own in her mind. Plagued with guilt and self-blame for the abuse she experienced, she punishes herself by feeding her internal spirits with cuts in her skin. She absolves herself for destructive and callous behavior toward her many lovers by claiming Asughara controls her. All the while, she wages a constant battle within herself and between her many selves for control.

The complexity of the novel’s narrative structure and intense subject matter may not appeal to some readers. But it is to be commended for its originality, lyrical prose, and ability to depict an intimate portrait of splintered identities within a traumatized individual.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Richard Wagamese

The narrator of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse is Saul Indian Horse of the Ojibway Nation in Canada. The novel opens with Saul as a recovering alcoholic and resident at The New Dawn Center, a treatment center for alcohol addiction. Saul is invited to recount his story. And so begins the harrowing tale of Saul’s childhood, adulthood, and gradual decline into alcoholism.

Having lost his all family, a terrified eight-year-old Saul is captured and taken to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, a place he describes as “hell on earth” where all manner of sexual and physical abuse occurs. The nuns and priests routinely beat the children; expose them to inhumane treatment; humiliate them; try to instill in them shame at their skin color, culture, and belief systems; and mete out severe punishment if they hear the children speaking in their native tongues. In short, they unite in a concerted effort to eradicate the Indian out of the Indian through the use of corporal punishment, starvation, torture, and fear. And this is all done in the name of Christianity.

In addition to these horrors, the children are routinely subjected to night time sexual assaults by nuns and priests who either get into bed with a child or remove the child to another room to perpetrate atrocities. Life is so horrendous for these young children that many of them die and/or commit suicide. They are buried in unmarked graves, their deaths shrouded in silence as if they never existed.

The young Saul is eventually befriended by Father Leboutilier at the school. Leboutilier ignites Saul’s interest in ice hockey. Saul practices furiously and passionately, developing speed and dexterity that attract the attention of scouts. Saul leaves the school to play hockey with a native team and then is invited to play in a higher league with all white team mates. Subject to racist taunts by teams and audiences alike, Saul experiences racism in all its virulent forms. He tries to navigate a place for himself within the game, but when his attempts are rebuffed with racial slurs and physical attacks, he retaliates with violence and is ejected from the game. He then drifts from one odd job to the next, gradually declining into alcoholism until he enters The New Dawn Center.

It is while he recounts his story that Saul is finally able to articulate his experience of child sexual assault at St. Jerome’s School. This revelation comes as a shock to the reader since Saul gives no prior indication of being a victim of child sexual assault. He comes to realize that his love and dedication for hockey was really a coping mechanism, a desperate means to escape the horror, guilt, and shame of his sexual abuse. The novel concludes with a hopeful note as Saul is finally able to confront his past and tell his story as a survivor.

Richard Wagamese has written a compelling novel that penetrates into the heart of the cultural alienation, displacement, and implacable racism experienced by the indigenous people of Canada. Wagamese’s prose is lucid, unadulterated, and sparse when describing horrors and cruelties; it is lyrical and profound when describing the affinity with nature, belief systems, rituals, and spirituality of the Ojibway people as recounted by Saul’s grandmother; and it is thrilling when capturing the exhilaration and freedom Saul experiences on the ice with his breathtaking skill. Saul emerges as a believable, memorable character, struggling to come to terms with his traumatic past. He is portrayed with a sympathy and compassion that is magnified by the knowledge that real First Nations children experienced similar trauma.

Richard Wagamese has written a stunning novel exposing the horrors of Canada’s church run residential schools while combining it with the story of a young man’s struggle with alienation and trauma as he slowly navigates toward community and self-acceptance.

Highly recommended in spite of—or because of—its difficult subject matter.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker begins with the Greek sacking of the kingdom of Lyrnessus just before the fall of Troy. It ends with the death of Achilles. The story is in three parts. Part I is told in the voice of Briseis, a young queen of Lyrnessus, after she is taken captive by the Greeks and awarded to Achilles as his sex slave. Part 2 sees Briseis in the camp of an angry Agamemnon after he has been forced to return Chryseis to her father. It includes the death of Patroclus, Achilles bloodthirsty rampage against the Trojans, and his killing of Hector. Part 3 chronicles Achilles’ subsequent mutilation of Hector’s body, the return of his corpse to Priam, the death of Achilles, and Briseis’ departure for Greece as the wife of Alcimus.

Briseis narrates the events in Part 1 in what is the strongest and most compelling section of the novel. After witnessing the brutal slaughter of her husband and brothers by Achilles, she is carted off with the rest of the captive women to be parceled off to the Greek victors as sex slaves. She lives in the Greek camp with other slave women and is at the beck and call of Achilles’ whims—sexual or otherwise. It is while she is at the Greek camp that she befriends Patroclus.

Barker’s powerful description of the Greek camp is immersive. Through the eyes, ears, and nose of Briseis, we experience its confined and oppressive quarters, its filth and stench, its rats and dogs, its Greek warriors in all their drunken and bawdy behavior, and its slave women living in constant and unmitigated fear. Briseis acknowledges her situation is better than some since she is Achilles’ concubine and, therefore, off limits from Greek pawing hands. But she conveys her strong sense of trepidation that the slightest wrong move or wrong word on her part may cause Achilles to discard her, at which time she becomes available fodder for Greek warriors.

In addition to the endless violence and bloodshed that threads its way throughout the novel, what emerges in this section is the bonding that takes place among these resilient slave women, deprived of all personal agency, some of whom are already pregnant by their captors. They advise each other, support each other, and do their best to navigate a safe space for themselves amid the horror and carnage.

With Parts 2 and 3, Barker abandons the exclusive first-person narration of Briseis and, instead, alternates it with third person limited omniscient with its focus primarily on Achilles. This shift in point of view is unfortunate, causing the novel to lose much of its strength. The focus transfers primarily to the male players, their thoughts and interactions. Although Briseis observes and comments on the events, she is increasingly shuttled off to its margins. What emerges in Parts 2 and 3 is a straightforward retelling of the Greek epic interspersed with Briseis’ point of view.

Another problematic issue with the novel is the tendency to inject modern slang and curse words in an attempt to convey realistic conversation. In what is otherwise eloquent prose and evocative description, the use of modern derogatory epithets for women and their body parts sounds jarringly incongruous. There are, perhaps, more effective ways of conveying realistic conversations without having them sound so out of place.

In spite of these shortcomings, the novel has much in its favor. The characters are complex, robust, and realistically portrayed—Achilles with his mummy issues, internal conflicts, brutality toward some, and tenderness toward others; Agamemnon with his cowardice as he hides behind a blustering ego; Patroclus with his love for Achilles and kindness toward Briseis; and Briseis with her compassion and strength as a survivor and who, much to her credit, does not fall passionately in love with Achilles.

The character portrayals; the realistic immersion in the Greek camp; the movingly depicted scene between Priam and Achilles; and the strength of Part 1 for offering a powerful voice to the women captives, their de-humanizing conditions, and the impact of war on their shattered lives make this a compelling read.

Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Maria Dahvana Headley

Very loosely based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley takes place in and around Herot Hall, a gated community in suburbia, replete with manicured lawns; regimented flower beds; and all manner of up-to-date security systems designed to keep outsiders off its pristine grounds. Herot Hall is an oasis where residents preside over a stream of never-ending dinner parties and children’s play-dates.

Our attention is drawn to Willa Herot, mother of Dylan, and wife of Roger, the heir of Herot Hall. Willa leads a surreal existence, a life riddled with popping pills and alcoholism. She is surrounded by a bevy of older women with surgically enhanced body parts, immaculately coiffed hair, and scrupulously polished fingernails. They swoop in on Willa at regular intervals to ensure her home, family, and dinner parties are up to snuff.

And then there is Dana Mills, a veteran of a desert war suffering from PTSD. Caught by her captors and somehow surviving a televised execution, she wakes up several months later to find herself pregnant. She returns to her home town and lives in hiding with her son, Gren. They live in tunnels and an abandoned train station buried deep within a mountain overlooking Herot Hall.

Convinced Gren looks like a monster, Dana showers him with unconditional love and a fierce determination to protect him from outsiders who will target him because of his difference. Her warnings to stay away from the monsters in Herot Hall go unheeded when Gren’s curiosity gets the better of him. He ventures down the mountain and befriends Dylan Herot. Their friendship becomes the catalyst that leads to an inexorable collision course.

Headley sets up a series of contrasts between Willa and Dana. Willa lives under a microscope in her brightly lit home with its large windows. She can rely on the support of power-wielding women to help her pick up the pieces every time her life falls apart. In contrast, Dana lives in darkness in the belly of a mountain with Gren as her only support and companion. Willa’s dinner parties with their sumptuous meals and tinkling glasses are described in vivid detail while Dana survives on whatever she can scrounge from the land and animals she can trap.

In spite of their differences, the two women have in common a struggle to survive. They are isolated and trapped in different ways. In the gated community with its locks and bolts and social expectations, Willa strives to make meaning in a life she finds insignificant and a lifestyle peppered with lies and deceptions. Meanwhile, festering away in the entrails of a mountain, Dana struggles with flashbacks and hallucinations that color her perceptions of reality.

This is an ambitious novel. In some ways, it is perhaps a little too ambitious. The point of view constantly shifts with a plethora of different voices, including Dana’s first person, the Greek chorus-like women of Herot commenting on events, the spirits inhabiting the mountain, third person limited omniscient, and others. The shifts are disconcerting. Add to the mix hallucinations and imaginary conversations with imaginary people, and it becomes a challenge to know who is saying what to whom, what is real and what is imagined. The last section of the novel, with its rapid pace toward a final crescendo, is confusing and baffling.

In spite of these short comings, the novel is a compelling exploration of current concerns clothed in an ancient myth. It explores significant themes of race and class divisions; othering; “us” versus “them;” privilege; the lingering effects of war trauma; life-thwarting societal expectations; maternal love; the price we pay to survive; and the manner in which female power is exercised in a male-centered culture. It poses the following underlying questions: where are the monsters? Are they inside us or outside us? And who are the real monsters? Is it those who live in their pristine surroundings determined to sustain their way of life, no matter the cost? Or is it those “others” rejected by society and forced to inhabit its margins?

The novel doesn’t provide answers but it does ask the right questions.

Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Paula Gunn Allen, ed.

Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, edited with an introduction by Paula Gunn Allen, is a must read for those wishing to gain an understanding of the culture and context within which Native American women write.

This slim volume is divided into three sections: The Warriors, The Casualties, The Resistance. Gunn Allen introduces each section by situating it within its cultural context. Each section includes traditional writings that have been transmitted orally for many decades, as well as contemporary examples by well-known authors, such as Louise Erdrich, Anna Lee Walters, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Linda Hogan.

Gunn Allen’s excellent introduction to the collection provides a brief historical overview of the oppression and broken promises experienced by Native Americans. She also situates the traditional tales, some of which are biographical, and she draws connections between these tales and their contemporary counterparts. Her introductions are enlightening in that she approaches each section by clarifying terms and context, revealing nuances and subtleties in Native American writing that may not be readily apparent to all readers.

Some of the traditional tales may pose a challenge for readers steeped in the Western tradition of story-telling because they do not necessarily adhere to a linear, cause and effect pattern. They weave in and out, frequently circling back on themselves, revealing biographical details about Native lives and perspectives. The contemporary writings pick up many of the same themes of traditional tales while situating them in modern society. The themes remain the same: the struggle to maintain tradition, culture, kinship, and values against the onslaught of a dominant culture that tries to subvert all things Native. 

A compelling collection of traditional tales and contemporary short stories, some of which are heart-wrenching.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review