Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe + a few thoughts on his other works

Africa, my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs
Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins
Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields
The blood of your sweat
The sweat of your work
The work of your slavery
Africa, tell me Africa
Is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks
Under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
Springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.

David Diop, 'Africa'

Forgive me for the length and for thoughts encompassing the three Achebe's books that comprise the African Trilogy (and a little bit on Anthills of the Savannah), rather than writing a straight-up review of Things Fall Apart. Achebe and these four books are close to my heart. I had loved Achebe's writing, his message and motives for writing from my very first reading. So much so, that I chose this writer's work for my master's dissertation as the only student in my academic year at my university (everyone else went all Shakespeare, Victorian or Austen). What you'll read below then, are just my general thoughts as I remember them from some few years ago.

Chinua Achebe is a post-colonial Nigerian writer who almost all his life has been struggling to bring back to his own nation the sense of dignity which had been lost in the process of colonisation and gaining of independence. Achebe's ways seem to be of contradicting the long lasting idea of wild, uncivilised Africa. However, one should pay attention to the fact that Achebe does not put blame for what had happened to Nigeria on the white man only. He admits that what has been taking place in his country after the end of colonialism to the present day is the pure example of neo-colonialism.

The poem quoted at the beginning refers to complex history of African path to the twice-lost freedom. First, this freedom was taken away by ignorant Westerners, who came to Africa and claimed it as their own. And it was taken away for the second time by African leaders who, under the disguise of the saviours, gave the false liberty a 'bitter taste.'

Although Achebe has written much more literature than what I mention here, the four novels I speak of are probably most important ones. Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease create the African trilogy. Their main purpose is to display step by step the impact that the advent of the white man had on the Nigerian nation. Achebe introduces the Igbo [known as Ibo as well] people since he is the descendant of their tradition. He is on the crossroads of cultures because his parents were converted Christians but the rest of his family remained faithful to the tribal Igbo tradition. In effect he was given the possibility of learning both the religion of the colonisers and the culture of his ancestors. That is why the deep insight into two different and antagonistic worlds enabled Achebe to objectively display the past culture of the Igbos and the relationship between his nation and the Europeans. He is very critical about the white man's attitude towards Africans.

Equality is the one thing which Europeans are conspicuously

incapable of extending to others, especially Africans.

But anyone who is in any doubt about the

meaning of partnership in that context need only be

reminded that a British governor of Rhodesia

defined the partnership between black and white as

the partnership between the horse and its rider (...) For

centuries Europe has ruled out the possibility of a dialogue.

You may talk to a horse but you don't wait for a reply!


Since he does not expect the white man to clarify the true vision of past Africa, and, moreover, he is not willing to give the white man such a right, Achebe feels inclined to show to his people that they had a civilised and rich past.

Things Fall Apart is the novel which describes the life of the Igbos before the coming of the colonisers. It introduces the complex religion and political systems that operate within the tribe. The social and moral values seem very often controversial, but at the same time they show the loyalty and faithfulness of the Igbos towards the systems they had constructed themselves.

Arrow of God is the continuation of the previous novel since it reflects the situation of the Igbo people right after the meeting with Europeans and the dangers they faced when accepting the new religion. No Longer at Ease, the last novel from the trilogy, introduces to the reader the situation the young generation of Nigerians is put into right after the gaining of the independence. There is the atmosphere of hopelessness and being lost in the disarray of old values and the new ideas about modernity with its corruption and ignorance. The main characters of these three novels fail because of the lack of flexibility in their personalities. However,the novels themselves do not carry negative pictures of these characters because they failed. The meaning of those novels is rather that the three men were left for themselves, they were abandoned by their kinsmen. And a single person, even if he or she has got the right intentions, cannot possibly realize them by him/herself.

Anthills of the Savannah is the fourth novel that completes the message (although can be read quite independently). It is different from the three mentioned above in the way that it shows the change of Achebe's attitude towards the situation of Nigeria. In this novel Achebe does not accuse colonialists for the devastated condition of his country any more. He makes it clear that these are Africans themselves that are responsible for the actual state of things in Nigeria. He proposes definite solutions for saving Nigeria from the impotent leaders. He claims that writers should take a strong stand and not hesitate to criticise the hopeless governments that reside over Nigeria.

The above essay/ review/ piece of writing is the beginning of what I hope to be a series of posts on Achebe's work.

I'm really hoping Achebe will be awarded Nobel Prize this year. It really is about time.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

A new portrait of the two-time Nobel winner and her two daughters.
Focusing on the first family in science, this biography of Marie Curie plumbs the recesses of her relationships with her two daughters, extraordinary in their own right, and presents the legendary scientist to us in a fresh way.
Although the common image is that of a shy introvert toiling away in her laboratory, highly praised science writer Shelley Emling shows how Marie Curie was nothing short of an iconoclast. Her affair with a younger and married man drew the enmity of a xenophobic French establishment, who denied her entry to the Academy of Sciences and tried to expel her from France. But she was determined to live life how she saw fit, and passed on her resilience to her daughters. Emling draws on personal letters released by Curie’s only granddaughter to show how Marie influenced her daughters yet let them blaze their own paths. 

Factually rich, personal and original, this is an engrossing story about the most famous woman in science that rips the cover off the myth and reveals the real person, friend, and mother behind it.
What an amazing book! Despite it being a non-fiction one and centering around scientific subjects, I blazed through the whole 256 pages in one day (I'm a very slow reader and have two toddlers to contend with, so it is an accomplishment that doesn't happen often) and I only want more. Especially more of Ms. Emling's writing. She makes physics and chemistry approachable and easy to understand. As a matter of fact, for the first time in my life I was riveted by science and scientific research and discoveries. All my life, when it comes to science, I have suffered a severe case of ADD.
Understandably, to all of a sudden read an entire book in which science is one of the major topics with unswerving attention feels like some kind of magic charm performed by the writer.

A book hasn't made me this excited to be reading it for a long time. Marie Curie (or as she has always been called in Poland, Maria Sklodowska-Curie) was an exceptional woman, exceptional scientist and an exceptional mother to Irene and Eve. There has been criticism of her long periods of time spent away from her daughters (including almost never being there for their birthdays, important graduation dates and such) but the truth is she raised two wonderful women, strong, capable and very much accomplished in their own right, who had always been loving and devoted daughters, never having said a bad word about their mother. Shelley Emling took great care to show how difficult a life Marie had after her husband's death and what she had to contend with in order to be all she had been. Indeed, one could say that Marie was the prototype of today's woman who believes we can be both successful as mothers and career women. I loved Marie's bluntness about it as well which applies to modern critics of those who choose to work and raise children:

I agree, of course, that it is not easy for a woman to bring up children and work out of the home. But (...) I don't think that he has considered the rich women who leave their children to a governess and give most of their time to social visits and fashion. (p.36)*

In other words, let's not be hypocrites.

Eve Curie
Irene Curie

For a short book, there were a lot of things I learned about both Marie's personal life and the world of science she lived in. There are interesting passages about  Einstein, Edison, Bohr et al that made me want to seriously consider doing more reading on their lives as well. And maybe I will one day.

What I most want to do and what Marie Curie and Her Daughters has inspired me to do, is to learn as much as I can about other women, friends of Marie Curie, who were just as exceptional as she but of whom I hardly know anything such as Missy Meloney and Hertha Ayrton. They were pioneers and crusaders in the female world of the first half of 20th century and we would all do well to learn from them.

As my final thoughts I'll offer this: Marie Curie and Her Daughters reminded me and kept me in awe of how proud I am to be Polish, to be American, and most importantly to be a woman.

FTC: I received an ARC of Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling from the publisher, Macmillan Palgrave for a review.

*the quote is from an unfinished copy, please verify against a published book

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

Martyrs to hypochondria and general seediness, J. and his friends George and Harris decide that a jaunt up the Thames would suit them to a T'. But when they set off, they can hardly predict the troubles that lie ahead with tow-ropes, unreliable weather-forecasts and tins of pineapple chunks not to mention the devastation left in the wake of J.'s small fox-terrier Montmorency.  

Three Men in a Boat was an instant success when it appeared in 1889, and, with its benign escapism, authorial discursions and wonderful evocation of the late-Victorian clerking classes', it hilariously captured the spirit of its age.
I forgot just how funny Three Men in a Boat was (I had read it once before but remembered nothing). It's a kind of a travelogue, with three friends rowing down the Thames but really, it contains historical commentary that's clever and hilarious (the courting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) and anecdotes from the lives of all three men (and some from the dog, Momntmorency).

Three Men in a Boat is a staple of wit, cleverness and sarcastic humor. That's more or less widely known. But Jerome K. Jerome wrote a classic that holds quite a few surprises. Besides it being a book filled with hilarity, Three Men in a Boat is a tale that contains surprising insight into the nature of man and the insight's timelessness. Many a comment applies to the society of the 21st century just as much as it did to the 19th century, when the book was written, and it will apply to societies centuries to come.

How they [people] pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha'pence for; with expensive entertainment that nobody enjoys. with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with - oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! - the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore (...) It is lumber, man - all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars." (p.29-30)

Another surprising thing was how beautifully Mr. Jerome could write. I was shocked a few times when after some comical adventure or two, the narrator would say some really wonderful bits. It was completely unexpected and made me appreciate the whole novel even more.

It [sailing] comes as near to flying as man has got to yet (...) The wings of the rushing wind seem to be bearing you onward, you know not where. You are no longer the slow, plodding, puny thing of clay, creeping tortuously upon the ground; you are a part of Nature! Your heart is throbbing against hers! her glorious arms are around you, raising you up against her heart! Your spirit is at one with hers; your limbs grow light (p.140)

There is one thing that I didn't appreciate so much. It's the subject of rowing, towing and sailing that described the technical side of it all. I simply didn't care for it and it made the story drag a little at places. But of course, there was always something funny or even profound (yes, profound) following that made reading the slightly boring parts worth it.

FTC: I bought a copy of Three Men in a Boat.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Toby's Room by Pat Barker


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

With Toby’s Room, a sequel to her widely praised previous novel Life Class, the incomparable Pat Barker confirms her place in the pantheon of Britain’s finest novelists. This indelible portrait of a family torn apart by war focuses on Toby Brooke, a medical student, and his younger sister Elinor. Enmeshed in a web of complicated family relationships, Elinor and Toby are close: some might say too close. But when World War I begins, Toby is posted to the front as a medical officer while Elinor stays in London to continue her fine art studies at the Slade, under the tutelage of Professor Henry Tonks. There, in a startling development based in actual fact, Elinor finds that her drafting skills are deployed to aid in the literal reconstruction of those maimed in combat.

One day in 1917, Elinor has a sudden premonition that Toby will not return from France. Three weeks later the family receives a telegram informing them that Toby is “Missing, Believed Killed” in Ypres. However, there is no body, and Elinor refuses to accept the official explanation. Then she finds a letter hidden in the lining of Toby’s uniform; Toby knew he wasn’t coming back, and he implies that fellow soldier Kit Neville will know why.

 There can never be enough books about WWI experience. Not for me, at least. I will never know enough. But with each, well-written story I learn more. And Toby's Room is exceptionally well-written with crisp simplicity that cuts to the bone. This was my first experience with Ms. Parker's (a Booker Prize winner) writing and it left me in awe of how the lack of flowery, ornate writing opens the door to clarity.This clarity is essential to make the human tragedy that continued long after the war was over, real to the contemporary reader (we all know it was real, but knowing and actually feeling are two different experiences).

Even though Toby's Room is a sequel to Life Class, it's also a stand-alone novel. I read it without having a clue it was a sequel and had no issues with being confused about characters or previous story-lines that you sometimes get dropped right in the middle of when starting with book two in a series. I was however quite shocked with the strong beginning, wondering whether I really was reading what I thought I was. I loved how Pat Barker so unassumingly led me from a straight path on to a hurl down a sharp hill in the beginning chapters  and then ended the story in the same, unexpected manner - one of the final scenes, the story of Neville's about what happened with Toby truly took my breath away and I found myself wiping tears off my cheeks in disbelief. My strong emotions however were not due to some shocking, suspend-your-disbelief-now event (it was something rather quite believable) but to the author's mastery of writing. It felt like she set a trap for me with her calming, down to earth, simple story-telling just to deliver a heartbreaking blow.

The whole book is sad, of course. I mean, how can it not be? It's about the worst coming-of-age experience possible. You enter your late adolescence full of dreams, ideas, crazy fooling around and then it all just stops, it's taken away because your guy friends, fiancees, boyfriends have to go and fight and die, or come home terribly disfigured, most likely with wounds to their bodies, souls and spirits that will never heal. And then you start to think those horrible but inevitable thoughts that maybe dying on the war front would have been better. That's what Toby's Room is and it's beautiful in the sorrow of the bright, talented people who were denied a chance. Life would never, could never, be back to what it was supposed to be. Life was now this:

It seemed, looking back, that he's grown around the loss, that it [grief] had become part of him, as trees will sometimes incorporate an obstruction, so they end up living, but deformed. (loc.1888-90, Kindle ed.)*

But then, the most surprising thing was to find out that despite the tragedy, the talent prevailed and was used in one of the most amazing ways and also, again, heartbreaking ways: to help the doctors with reconstructive surgeries performed on the surviving soldiers, painting those wounded before and after surgeries. If you're interested (and you should be), please see some of those paintings by Henry Tonks (who was also featured in Toby's Room) at Gillies Archives.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Toby's Room from the publisher, Doubleday via Edelweiss.

* The quote is from an unfinished copy. Please verify against a published book.