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Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

February 20, 2013 6 comments

An African woman's face in silhouette against a reddish background.Summary:
The Nigerian-Biafran War (or the Nigerian Civil War, as it is also known) is seen through the intertwining lives of four different people.  The daughter of a wealthy Igbo couple, Kainene, with a fierce business sense.  Her fraternal twin sister, who is also the beautiful one, Olanna, an academic in love with a revolutionary-minded man named Odenigbo.  Kainene’s boyfriend then fiancee, the white English writer Richard.  And Ugwu.  Olanna’s houseboy who came to them from a rural village.  Their lives are irreparably impacted, and in some cases destroyed, by the war for a cause they all believe in, but that the world largely ignores.

Review:
I originally intended this Nigerian book to be my final read for the Africa Reading Challenge 2012, but even though I started it in November, the audiobook took over three months to get through, so it ultimately missed counting for the challenge.  I thought it was much longer than my usual audiobook fare, but a quick check of the listen length shows that it is 18 hours and 56 minutes long, which is only about 7 hours longer than my norm.  So why did it take me so long to finish?  Well, I just didn’t enjoy it that much.

I believe I was expecting something else from Adichie, since I had previously read her book Purple Hibiscus (review), which is far more character driven than this novel.  In this novel I would say the main character is actually the war, and that is something that simply does not work for my reading style.  Perhaps also playing into this general feeling I got was the ensemble cast.  Instead of getting to know just Olanna, for instance, and seeing her life before, during, and after the Nigerian-Biafran War, truly feeling as if I was her and living it through her, the reader is constantly jostled around among four different people.  It left me unable to truly connect to any one of them, which left me feeling like they were just there as a device to let Adichie talk about the War.  And it was truly an awful, horrible war precipitated by a genocide of the Igbo people, and it absolutely deserves to be talked about.  It’s just for me this type of ensemble piece with the War as really the main character isn’t the best method for me to learn about a War or an atrocity.  I prefer to get to know someone and see it through their eyes.  Given what I had read of Adichie’s work before, I was expecting that level of connection, just with multiple characters, but that is just not what happens in this book.  Perhaps it was too large, too sweeping, too much for one book.  I’m not sure.  But I was left without an emotional connection beyond the horror at the war atrocities, and that simply is not what I am looking for when reading a fictional piece set during a war.

As far as the plot goes, it was interesting but it was a bit confusing.  Part of my confusion could have been because I listened to it, but from my understanding when I was listening, first there was an affair, then we jumped back to before the affair, then we jumped forward, then we jumped back to a different affair that came before the first affair.  It was profoundly confusing.  Particularly with a child referred to only as Baby (with no explanation about this for quite some time) who also randomly shows up and disappears.  There was already so much going on with four different main characters and the war that this non-linear plot felt unnecessarily extraneous and confusing.  However, it is possible that this plot is more clear when reading the print version, as opposed to the audio version.

The language of the writing itself is pretty, and I found periodic astute insights that I’ve come to expect and enjoy from Adichie.  For instance,

Why do I love him? I don’t think love has a reason. I think love comes first, and the reasons come later.

Passages like these are what helped me enjoy the book to the extent that I did.

There is one plot point in the book that truly distressed me, so I feel I must discuss it.  It is a spoiler though, so consider yourself spoiler warned for this paragraph.  Throughout the book, the narration style is third person limited, which means that it is told in third person, but the reader knows what is going on in the main character’s head and is generally limited to that character’s perspective.  The point of view is switched around among the four main characters, one of whom is Ugwu, the houseboy.  We thus get to know him as the houseboy, he gradually grows up, and then later he is conscripted into the Biafran army.  At this point, he participates in a gang rape on a waitress in a bar.  I read a lot of gritty things.  I routinely read books offering up the point of view of sociopaths or serial killers.  I’m not averse to seeing the world through a bad person’s eyes, or through the eyes of a person who does bad things.  But it has to be handled in the appropriate manner.  I felt that there was entirely too much empathy toward Ugwu in the case of the gang rape.  Adichie sets it up so that he walks in on his fellow soldiers gang raping this woman, and he says he doesn’t want to participate, they question his manhood, he admits in his head that he is turned on by the view of her pinned to the ground crying with her legs held apart having just been raped by a different soldier, and he participates.  I think what disturbed me the most about this passage was how the narration makes it seem so ordinary.  Like it’s something any man would do in that situation.  Like it’s only natural he’d be turned on and get a hard-on from seeing a woman forcibly pinned to the ground so she can be gang raped by a bunch of men including himself.  I think it’s awful to treat men like that.  To act like they clearly are incapable of standing up for what’s right or that they’ll get a hard-on any time they see an orifice they can physically bang.  Men are human beings and are entirely capable of thinking with more than their penis.  Now, obviously there are men who rape, but there has got to be more going on there then I have a hard on and there’s a woman who I can stick it into.  To treat rape that simply is a disservice to men and women’s humanity alike.  Part of the reason why this reads this way is that we don’t know Ugwu well but we know him well enough to think that he’s an at least moderately decent young man.  We don’t see a gradual downfall.  No one holds a gun to his head or even implicitly threatens him with death if he doesn’t participate.  It makes it seem like war makes men, even moderately good men, rape, as opposed to war simply providing more opportunities for rapists to rape.  That is a perspective that I do not endorse, that I do not enjoy having sprung upon me in my literature, and that I found triggering as well.  I was shocked to see it in a book by Adichie.  Shocked and disappointed. It left me wishing I could scrub my brain of the book.  Wishing for those hours of my life that I spent listening to it back.

Now, let me take a moment to speak about the narrator, Robin Miles.  Miles is an astounding narrator.  Her audiobook narration is truly voice acting.  She is capable of a broad spectrum of accents, including Nigerian, British, and American, and slips in and out of them seamlessly.  She easily creates a different voice for many different characters.  I absolutely adored listening to her, in spite of not enjoying the book itself.  Her performance of this book is easily a 5 star one.

Overall, though, the high quality narration simply could not make up for a story that failed to hit the mark with me on so many levels.  It covers an important time period in Nigeria, and the highly important human rights issue of the genocide of the Igbo, but the style in which it does simply misses the mark for me.  If this was all, I would still recommend the book to others who are more fond of a more impersonal, sweeping narration style.  However, I also found the treatment of rape in the book to be simultaneously offensive and triggering.  For this reason, I cannot recommend this book, although I do recommend the audiobook narrator, Robin Miles.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Chicken Thief by Fiona Leonard

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Image of African man standing near a chicken.Summary:
Alois used to work for the Ministry, but he felt stifled and quit. Now he steals chickens.  One night the white owner of one of the large, walled-in houses he steals from stops him. He wants him to get a letter for him. A letter from Gabriel, a revolutionary leader who has been long-thought to be dead.  Alois accepts for the money, but soon finds his whole world changing around him.

Review:
This book was a gift from a one-time friend who also enjoys African lit.  She enjoyed it and thought I would, but remember that problem I mentioned in my last review where I don’t seem to like books other people recommend to me?  Yeah. Still a problem.  I do enjoy African lit, and I thought when I saw the cover and heard the title that this book would be more of a social justicey kind of plot.  But it’s actually quite a bit of a political thriller, and I personally don’t like those.  Putting that element aside, though, I am still able to review the quality of the book.

The plot takes the less common method of looking at political upheavals and developments through the eyes of an average person dragged into the situation.  There are a few chapters that show us the president’s perspective, but primarily things are seen through Alois’s eyes.  I think this is what made it readable to me, because honestly who cares about politicians?  It’s the everyman that is interesting.  The plot is also interesting in that it looks at both a past revolution and a present-day coup.  That makes it more unique in the world of political thrillers.

The writing can only be described as flowery.  For example:

In truth he saw her everywhere, but you couldn’t say to a woman, not one who was meant to be just your friend, “Here, I have brought you this tree because its branches moved as you do” or “see here this bucket, when the water falls from it I hear your voice. (page 104)

Pretty much the entire book has that kind of meandering, highly descriptive cadence.  I know that works for lots of readers.  It’s just not personally something I enjoy, and I did find it odd in a political thriller.

One thing that bothered me is that it’s never entirely clear what country in Africa this is.  I think it might be a fictional country in the southern region of Africa.  The author herself lived in Ghana for a time so perhaps the idea was inspired by Ghanaian culture, but not based on anything factual in Ghana.  In a book like this, a political thriller, I prefer real countries. Or at least a clearly defined country.  That might bother other readers less though.

Overall then, there are some aspects of this political thriller that make it unique in the genre.  It examines both a past revolution and a current coup through the eyes of a non-political youth who was not alive for the previous revolution.  The writing is surprisingly flowery for the genre, so fans should be aware of that difference going in.  Recommended to fans of political thrillers looking for something different.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Counts For:
Specific country? Uncertain. Southern region of Africa. Australian author who has lived in Ghana.

Book Review: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow

Kenyan woman standing in a field.Summary:
Smallholder farmers make up the majority of Kenya’s food production and yet they face multiple challenges from inefficient planting techniques to bad seed markets that lead to an annual wanjala–hunger season.  One Acre Fund, an ngo, saw the gap and came in with a vision.  Sell farmers high quality seeds and fertilizers on credit, delivered to their villages, on the condition they attend local farming classes.  Roger Thurow follows four families as they try out becoming One Acre farmers.

Review:
Every once in a while there’s a book that you know will impact your entire life.  I know this is one of those books.

Thurow strikes the perfect balance between narrating the farmers’ lives and knowledgeably discussing the global politics and environmental problems that also impact the hunger.  The information he hands out would be riveting in any case, but how he narrates it kicks it up to another level.

Central to the book is this question:

Why were people still dying of hunger at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the world was producing—and wasting—more food than ever before? (location 202)

I know we all know there is hunger in the world, but it can be easy to ignore when it doesn’t have a face like David or Dorcas, two of the children featured whose mothers flat out do not have food to give them.  During the wanjala, since it is most of the families’ first years using One Acre Fund, they do not have enough maize (their staple crop) from the year before.  Thus while watching their fields grow, they don’t have enough food to feed their families.  During the height of the wanjala the families routinely have tea for breakfast and lunch and maybe some boiled vegetables or bananas for dinner.  And they still must farm and go to school.  I can’t recall the last time I’ve been so humbled.

Don’t get me wrong.  The families profiled in this book aren’t put on a pedestal or romanticized or distanced.  They are very real.  But their strength and wisdom in the face of so many challenges has no other option but to be inspirational.  Because it is so real.

You don’t focus on the afflictions you have, on your poverty; you focus on where you are going. (location 1469)

Makes you feel bad for complaining about morning commutes, doesn’t it?

Beyond talking about the disgusting fact that there is still hunger in a world with so much plenty and demonstrating the resilience of the families, the book also discusses One Acre Fund’s poverty fighting ideas.  Basically they operate on the teach a man to fish principle.  Thurow talks about how Youn, the founder, believes that bringing in food aid to feed farmers is absurd.  We should instead be helping them to farm better.  Beyond it not being sustainable to feed everyone year after year, it robs the farmers of their dignity.  This was the point I liked best.  These people are not dumb or lazy.  They are victims of a system that is not working.  Helping them help themselves lets them retain their humanity and dignity.  I think that’s something that is often missing in charity work and ngos, but it’s vital to truly changing the game.

Overall, if you want a book that will challenge your perceptions, humble you, broaden your horizons, and help you see how to truly fight global poverty, this is the book for you.  In other words, this is recommended for everyone.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Specific country? Kenya
map of africa

Book Review: The Rabbi’s Cat 2 by Joann Sfar (Series, #2) (Graphic Novel)

People sitting around a fire with a cat and a lion.Summary:
The talking cat with the big ears who offers insightful commentary on his rabbi master and life in Algeria in the early 20th century is back.  The rabbi’s daughter is fighting with her husband (also a rabbi), and the cat is quite happy with that.  It means more snuggles from his mistress, Zlabya.  Of course, the talking cat also has a couple of adventures.  First he and a snake tag along with the famous Malka and his lion on a trek around the desert.  Then, a stowaway Russian Jew shows up in Zlabya’s house, and he understands the cat!  Soon a rag-tag bunch are off looking for the mysterious lost city of Jerusalem.  We thus get to see a lot of Africa through the cat’s eyes.

Review:
I have to say, I didn’t enjoy this sequel quiiite as much as the original.  I suspect that the fact that I was less familiar with the topics the cat is offering snarky commentary on had something to do with this.  I really don’t know much about Northern Africa or the “lost city of Jerusalem,” so I’m sure I missed some of the inside jokes.  Whereas the previous book was mostly about Jews in Algeria and the French occupation, this book seems to talk a lot more about the relative merits of the various monotheistic religions and why can’t we all just be friends.

While on their various treks, the groups run across some Muslim tribes who state that Jews are their brothers who they respect, but it is still their duty to attempt to get them to convert.  The rabbi eloquently states that he is too old to learn a new language for prayer, and he is sure god will understand.  Similarly, the Russian Jew falls in love with an African woman (I am uncertain from which country), and they ask the rabbi to marry them.  He says he can only marry two Jews, and she states she is glad to take her husband’s god as her own.  Exasperated, the rabbi states it is not that simple, she must study for years, but then relents when seeing how in love they are and says that god will understand.  The cat too has learned when to hold his tongue around extremists, although he still offers commentary to the other animals, whether over an obsessive Muslim prince or a Kabbalistic elderly rabbi.  What is incited repeatedly in this book is extremism in favor of tolerance and love, which is certainly always a good message.

The other message is never to judge someone as less intelligent than you simply because they speak a different language or their ways are different.  I really like how this is carried over into the animal kingdom where the cat even seeks to understand the snake.  At first the cat thinks the snake just willy-nilly bites people and animals, but then he realizes that this is his only tool of friendship.  And yet although we should seek to understand, the cat also doesn’t hang around too long anyone who is extremist or annoying.  The Muslim prince and the English explorer (who thinks the Algerians don’t bathe) are both quickly dumped by the traveling group.

While these are all good messages, I must say I missed the no holding back talking cat of the first book.  I suppose he’s older and wiser, but I like him precisely because I can’t imagine a talking cat ever actually holding his tongue.  Seeing him do so in this book made me kind of sad.  Also, I feel like the story of Zlabya and her husband got dumped partway through and never picked back up.  We know they’re fighting a lot, but then we just leave them and go off on an adventure across Africa.  It felt like a final chapter was missing from the book.

Overall, this is an interesting look at the intersection of many cultures, religions, and races on the continent of Africa through the unique eyes of a rabbi’s cat, a wandering lion, and a friendly snake.  If you enjoyed the first book, you shouldn’t skip this one.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Rabbi’s Cat (review)

Counts For:

Specific country? Algeria, primarily