Review of Black Moses (Man Booker International)

What was it about?

On the Man Booker International longlist this year is Black Moses by the Congolese-French author Alain Mabanckou. Black Moses is about a Congolese orphan growing up during the socialist revolution. His orphanage goes from being an institution run by religious to an arm of the Marxist-Leninist regime. One day, Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko (also known as Little Pepper) runs away from the orphanage with two twins. The Director of the institution is corrupt and abusive; the boys want a better life. Unfortunately, Little Pepper’s best friend Bonaventure decides to remain in the orphanage, and the mayor of Pointe-Noire François Makélé vows to destroy Little Pepper’s new friends – the gang members and prostitutes in the city. Maman Fiat 500 is one of these prostitutes. Although she is the madam of a brothel, she also cares for our abandoned orphan. Throughout the novel, Little Pepper tries to find his place in a hostile society.

What did I think of it?

This is not the first time a work by Alain Mabanckou has been considered for the Man Booker International prize. The Lights of Pointe-Noire was a 2015 finalist. Today, the shortlist will be announced. When it does, I will update you on the status of Black Moses.

I personally was not very impressed by the book. Nothing really stuck with me. It was by no means a bad book, but the characters felt one-dimensional. I definitely preferred the last third of the book in which we learn about Little Pepper’s psychological state. In general, the author did an excellent job painting the social atmosphere of revolutionary Congo, but I didn’t feel an attachment to any of the characters. Little Pepper’s baptismal name Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko means “Let us thank God, the black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors” in Lingala, so I assumed that the protagonist would play a role in liberating his people, but the protagonist never gets involved in the revolution. If his name was supposed to be ironic, I missed the irony. I never understood the significance of his name.

Despite being less than impressed by its execution, Black Moses is definitely an important novel. It explores a revolution that many of us in the West know next to nothing about. I won’t be surprised if it is selected for the shortlist. Black Moses is translated from the French by Helen Stevenson. Its original title is Petit Piment.

Favorite Quote

“I talked to him about the adverbials I’d picked up in the street, but which weren’t the ones I was looking for.”

 

UpdateBlack Moses didn’t make the shortlist.

Review of Redefining Realness

Image result for redefining realnessRedefining Realness is Janet Mock’s memoir of growing up as a poor, multiracial, trans woman in Hawaii. As you can imagine, this is a difficult book for me to review since it is an autobiography. Instead, I will simply describe my overall impression of the book.

What was it about?

Janet Mock is a trans activist who began her career writing for Marie Claire. Her memoir Redefining Realness chronicles her struggles growing up transgender and poor in a society that was only just beginning to address trans rights. Her father does not live responsibly, and her mother gets into relationships with men who go in and out of prison.

From a young age, her parents and siblings notice that Janet (born Charles) does not behave like other boys. She wants to be a secretary and prefers feminine clothing. Her step brother begins to sexually abuse her at the age of 9. When she does start transitioning at 15, her teachers and classmates are not tolerant. However, she does make friends with other trans individuals and participates in a trans support group. Eventually, she makes enough money while in college (through sex work) to pay for gender reassignment surgery in Thailand.

Thoughts

This is a very graphic memoir. Everything from sexual abuse to sex work is described in detail. But this is Janet Mock’s story. Often, the trans individuals whose voices we hear in the media are white and came from middle to upper class families. Mock wants to bring attention to the majority of trans individuals who do not come from such privileged backgrounds. Many do not have the money to undergo hormone replacement therapy or have reassignment surgery, so they have even more difficulty integrating into society.

I definitely live a very sheltered life. Mock never has a stable home growing up, and has parents who do drugs. She makes choices that most of us would condemn. But there are structures in every society that prevent people from doing the right thing. When we ignore the influence these structures have on marginalized groups we end up blaming the victim.

I am still learning about gender and sexuality. I noticed while I was reading the memoir that I often thought of the trans individuals mentioned as becoming a certain gender. But that is not how trans individuals understand their gender. Mock does not thing she changed from being a boy to a girl. She has always understood herself as a girl.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I had reading this book (apart from the graphic language and descriptions) was relating to Mock’s definition of femininity. I have never cared much about clothing, makeup, or pop culture. I dress fairly androgynously most of the time and spend my money on books. But I’m also aware that many women do feel pressured by societal standards and by advertisement to look a certain way.  I began to be aware of my privilege not only as a cis woman but as a woman who for whatever reason does not feel threatened by the media’s representation of women. I wonder sometimes whether I can appreciate certain initiative in the feminist movement because of my gender neutral presentation, but that’s a topic for another time…

I don’t think I will reread this memoir. This is a book that you read once and give away. The writing is also pretty awful. Still, it took a lot of courage for Mock to write so honestly about her life. I worry how the most recent election in America will affect LGBTQ individuals. If you, like me, are still learning about gender and/or sexuality and are OK with reading something as graphic as Redefining Realness, I recommend Mock’s memoir. We need to listen to and learn from people whose voices are deliberately silenced by society.

I read this book for  The Literary Others reading challenge hosted last month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader.

Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

FairylandbyCatherynneValente.jpgWhat was it about?

While washing dishes one day, twelve-year-old September is suddenly whisked away from her home in Omaha, Nebraska to Fairyland by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes. She befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L, saves a marid named Saturday, and goes on a mission to retrieve a sword for the Marquess, who is the dictator of Fairyland. September struggles to understand Fairyland, remember the Green Wind’s rules, and escape from the traps set by the Marquess. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is the first book of the Fairyland series, which ended this year. It is an adventure in the tradition of Alice in WonderlandThe Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. September goes on a quest to save her friends from the Marquess even though she’d rather return home to her mother.

What did I think of it?

This is a strange book. The creatures are odd and the rules of Fairyland are so unlike those of our world. I found it hard at times to follow the action and remember the prohibitions. The Green Wind gives September a list of prohibitions at the beginning of the adventure, but I must admit that I forgot them immediately after they were named. Still, the story was straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could reasonably follow it. I liked how it was hard for September to categorize the creatures she met. A-Through-L looks like a dragon, but he believes he is half-library (!). Saturday looks like a fairy, but he only grants wishes if he is forced into submission. We, like September, have to learn about Fairyland mostly from scratch. Our expectations are constantly called into question. The characters are multi-dimensional; nothing is black or white. It looks like the Fairyland series will break common fairy-tale tropes. I do worry though about the direction the story is taking. I was not fully satisfied with the twist at the end of the first book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not the first fairy-tale adventure ever written. I have read plenty. Some I’ve loved (such as The Neverending StoryThe Little Prince, and Gulliver’s Travels) and some I’ve not liked as much (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland). Late medieval religious and secular literature has also exposed me to quite a lot of allegory, so if an author employs allegory it better be good. I have very high expectations. I was not disappointed by the first book in the Fairyland series, but it didn’t wow me. It is simply too soon for me to tell whether I will love the series or not. I may need to reread the first book before continuing because (as I indicated) I forgot a lot of details.

Favorite Quote

“That’s what happens to friends, eventually. They leave you. It’s practically what they’re for.”

Review of A Poet of the Invisible World

What was it about?

Nouri Ahmad Mohammad ibn Mahsoud al-Morad is a boy in 13th century Persia studying to be a Sufi mystic. But he has four ears, is attracted to men, and writes breath-takingly beautiful poetry, so naturally he is admired and loved by some and seen as a threat and exploited by others. Nouri never finds permanence, traveling from one community to another in search of peace and acceptance. A Poet of the Invisible World by Michael Golding is a spiritual novel in the tradition of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

What did I think of it?

I usually don’t read books with romance. I can’t even read Jane Austen’s works. But A Poet of the Invisible World promised to offer something more. While Nouri is trying to understand his sexuality, he is also studying to be a Sufi mystic. The book is compared by critics to Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (my review here) which I loved, so I had high expectations when I went into the book.

Overall, I thought that it was a beautifully written work, but I expected more depth. I expected more of an engagement with the major metaphysical questions in Sufism especially since the story took place in the thirteenth century. It was a work that strained for profundity but never quite made it. There was a bit of a discussion concerning the meaning of life and the problem of evil but the dervishs’ comments were quite trite. I admit to having very high standards when it comes to spiritual fiction because I have read more works of this genre than the average reader, but even a generous critic can’t excuse a platitudinous line such as this one:

The truth is that our souls hang in the balance until our final moment. We fluctuate between grace and sin and only Allah can say what will happen when the bowl finally shatters.

This is, frankly, as profound as this book gets. Still, A Poet of the Invisible World avoids sounding New Age-y. Golding has clearly done his research (he presents Islam much better than Hesse presents Buddhism).

In truth, A Poet of the Invisible World is less a work about the spiritual awakening of a boy and more an LGBT identity novel with an Islamic backdrop. The writing is beautiful and Nouri is a sympathetic character, but Golding is heavy-handed with the moral, and the moral is extremely predictable. Apart from Nouri’s romantic affairs not much else is memorable. I didn’t dislike A Poet of the Invisible World. The story grabbed my attention, and the sex scenes weren’t gratuitous or poorly written, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. It wasn’t Siddhartha.

Review of Gilead

Gileadcover.jpgWhat was it about?

Rev. John Ames is an elderly congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa writing to his 7-year-old son about his ancestry and his relationship with Jack Boughton, the troubled son of a close friend. Rev. Ames’ father and grandfather were also ministers and were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement in the region. Throughout the epistolary novel, Rev. Ames’ influences include the reformed theologian Karl Barth and the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. He sees God’s hand everywhere but never thinks he’s somehow set apart from the rest of humanity. He recognizes his flaws and his doubts, disagrees with his father’s pro-war beliefs, and wishes he could have had a better relationship with Jack. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson shows how Rev. Ames’ story and life experiences shaped his faith and the sermons he preached on Sunday.

What did I think of it?

I am not the first person to compare Robinson’s prose to Willa Cather’s. The narrative of Gilead is as lyrical and character-driven as Death Comes for the Archbishop. Like Cather’s works, Gilead is not a conventional novel with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it is a series of anecdotes about the lives of one or two individuals. Because I prefer character-driven, philosophical works to fast-paced thrillers I really enjoyed Gilead. Rev. Ames has a very holistic view of life; he clearly recognizes how everything is interconnected. Robinson is a self-professed Calvinist, so there are themes from the reformed tradition strewn throughout the work. I was surprised by how ecumenical Rev. Ames was; he attends a Quaker service and appreciates the Methodist presence in Gilead. It is amazing how many sermons Rev. Ames has written throughout his long career as a minister. He has boxes filled with sermons in the attic, but never has the courage to reread his old sermons. After a lifetime of pondering existence and salvation, Rev. Ames is still overwhelmed by the most basic mysteries of life. Gilead certainly deserved the Pulitzer it won in 2005.

Favorite Quotes

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in a twinkling of an eye.”

“It has been my experience that guilt can burst through the smallest breach and cover the landscape, and abide in it in pools and darknesses, just as native as water.”

“I pity [Jack]. I regret absolutely that I cannot speak with him in a way becoming a pastor, knowing as I do what an uneasy spirit he is. That is disgraceful.”

“At that point I began to suspect, as I have from time to time, that grace has a grand laughter in it.”

Review of The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a contemporary crime fiction novel written by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Therefore, it is counts toward my Modern Detour challenge.

What was it about?

In less than a day, Robin Ellacott got engaged and started her new job as temporary secretary for Cormoran Strike. The son of the musician Jonny Rokeby, an injured war veteran, and now private detective, Cormoran Strike has a complicated past. To make matters worse, his longtime girlfriend Charlotte just dumped him. Because debtors are calling and because of his breakup, he cannot afford an apartment or a secretary. Temporary Solutions has sent him a secretary for a few months, but Strike now lives in his office. By all standards, Strike is living a pathetic existence.

Strike’s detective skills are put to the test when a lawyer named John Bristow walks into his office one day asking for justice for the murder of his adopted sister and the famous supermodel Lula Landry. Lula’s death happened three months earlier and had been ruled a suicide, but John is convinced that Lula did not throw herself out of that flat window. She was pushed out. He shows Strike a CCTV footage of the crime scene. Bristow thinks the murderer is a man who is seen running away from the crime scene. He wants Strike to find this runner. Bristow believes that the police ignored the possibility of Lula’s death being a murder because she was a troubled woman. Cormoran Strike, with the help of Robin, find and interview all the people who knew Lula in her last days. As the investigation proceeds, Strike becomes increasingly convinced that Lula never committed suicide but was killed by someone who thought to gain something from her death.

What did I think of it? 

It is so hard to review a crime fiction novel, so I apologize in advance if my reactions to the books sound vague. Suffice it to say that I didn’t really enjoy most of The Cuckoo’s Calling. The last 1/4 of the book was interesting, but the other 3/4 was not. While the conclusion is not very original, Rowling/Galbraith does a good job tying up the loose ends of the case. However, I never cared about any of the characters except maybe Robin, Cormoran Strike’s secretary. The plot was plodding and the writing, clumsy. I had such difficulty reading this book because I kept tripping over the author’s poorly constructed sentences. At times, I also found the profanity unbearable.

The author clearly wanted the reader to sympathize with her characters, but because I knew what she wanted me to feel, I couldn’t sympathize with any of them. The narrator came across as preachy. There was too much emphasis placed on the private eye’s unfortunate upbringing and on the plight of the rich and famous. In short, I didn’t like how Rowling threaded a social commentary into her crime fiction novel. At times, I felt that The Cuckoo’s Calling was written as a continuation of The Casual Vacancy. The themes in both works are very similar: People are sometimes the product of their environment, and the media is largely responsible for the many problems plaguing our society.

Rowling loves writing long books, but 450 pages is absurdly long for a book of this genre. The case is neatly resolved at the end, but the reader must wade through hundreds of pages before getting there. It’s not worth the effort. I don’t plan on reading any other books in this series.

(BTW, I have no clue why the girl on the cover is white. Lula Landry is supposed to be black).

Review of The Waste Land: An Entertainment

the-waste-land-an-entertainment-simon-acland-139x200What was it about?

St. Lazarus College is running short on money. A Best-Selling Author is invited by the Master to bolster the image and financial status of the university. However, the author has run out of ideas for books. How the author became so famous in the first place is quite a conundrum. The Master’s colleagues are in agreement that the author is a terrible writer. His plot may be interesting, and his story may be fast paced, but he is not very good at writing complex characters. But recently, The Chaplain found a manuscript that he believes predates Chrétien de Troye’s Perceval, the original Grail story. The scholars in the Senior Common Room decide that the Best-Selling Author should write a historical fiction novel based on this manuscript. The Professor of English chooses the name for the novel; “we must have a good literary title at least. What about The Waste Land?”

The Waste Land: An Entertainment is mostly a story about a monk named Hugh de Verdon who leaves the security of monastic life at Cluny to become a crusader during the First Crusade. Although his father and brothers were killed in war, Hugh has always dreamed of being a knight. At the Council of Clermont, Hugh hears Pope Urban II speak of the atrocities the Turks have committed in the Holy Land. In a moment’s decision, Hugh de Verdon leaves his abbot and joins the ranks of Godfrey of Bouillon. In search of fame and fortune, Hugh “takes up the cross” and follows Godfrey to the deepest recesses of hell. Because of his great swordsmanship, Hugh soon becomes Godfrey’s favorite knight and friend.  But Hugh is in love, and he will do anything to get his Blanche back. His journey brings him face to face with violence, betrayal, and the truth about his religion.

The Best-Selling Author receives help from the scholars to write Hugh’s adventures, but not all is well with the professors. It seems as if there is an enemy in their midst. With this threat, how will the author finish his book about the adventures of Hugh de Verdon and the true origins of the Grail?

What did I think of it?

The Waste Land: An Entertainment (2010) is a recently-published book by Simon Acland. I don’t remember anymore how I came across this book, but but I remember that I decided to read it because I knew that the story took place during the First Crusade, and after reading Sacred Violence by Jill Claster, I really wanted to explore further the world of the 11th century. I was very impressed by Acland’s writing style. The story was well-written and fast paced. I also liked how the book did not take itself too seriously. The professors of St. Lazarus College attack and attempt to fix the Best-Selling Author’s book. Their feedback lightened an otherwise emotionally heavy read.

I must warn you that this book is not for the faint of heart. There are many scenes of incredible violence (torture, decapitation, etc). If you cannot stomach graphic violence, this book is not for you. Honestly, if it was not for the chapters about the Best-Selling Author and the professors at St. Lazarus College, I would not have enjoyed the book. There is no way I would ever be able to watch a film adaptation of this work. Still, I am glad that Acland did not sugar-coat the crusades.

I have never read Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes, but evidently, the author makes many references to the story. I may have enjoyed the Grail bits more if I had. For personal religious reasons, I didn’t really like the last quarter of the book. The Waste Land: An Entertainment, like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code,  explored the Grail legend. An apocryphal Gospel appeared in the story; at that point, I didn’t care much for the book. Because of this, I don’t think I will read the sequel.

But don’t let my personal views discourage you from reading this novel. I much preferred it to The Da Vinci Code; The Waste Land: An Entertainment was historically accurate, and the characters had great complexity. If you enjoy reading books about the Grail legend, Simon Acland’s book may be the one for you.

Favorite Quote

[Abbot Hugh to Pope Urban II]: “The sixth commandment is unequivocal – it says ‘thou shalt not kill’ – it does not say ‘thou shalt not kill save in a just cause’. With the greatest respect, I must question the righteousness of achieving even worthy goals in this world with promises of salvation in the next.”