The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

Book #86

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published 2008)

This is my first foray into my Booklitzer Challenge.
If this novel is anything to go by, it truly will be a challenge to start and finish each one in it’s turn.

Set in the Belgian Congo, which later became Zaire, which later became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The story follows the Price family from Georgia, USA into the Congo in 1959. They are missionaries. Ill-equipped, self-centred and self-absorbed. They are also odd, dysfunctional and frequently difficult to like. We follow their misadventures through the eyes of Orleanna, the mother and each of her four daughters; Rachel, the eldest and most self-absorbed, Leah and Adah, the twins – one whole, the other ‘slanted’, and Ruth May the baby.

We spend over half of the book watching them struggling with the reality of jungle and village life, as well as their own dysfunctional family life. Then the latter half of the book brings us in jumps through time into the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

The family’s story is the focus of the first part of the novel, with the latter half dealing predominantly with issues of the Belgian Congo’s transition to “independence”, international interference with that process and ultimately what each of the Price family live with as a result of being a white person in Africa during a time of change.

Kingsolver has given each character a unique and interesting voice. Rachel is often the only source of light relief in the entire book. She allows a small smirk during what is mostly a dark story with such classic malapropisms as:

The way I see Africa, you don’t have to like it but you sure have to admit it’s out there. You have your way of thinking and it has its, and never the train ye shall meet!

All I need is to go back home with some dread disease. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed is bad enough, but to be Thyroid Mary on top of it? Oh brother.

“Mr Axelroot,” I said, “I will commiserate your presence on this porch with me but only as a public service to keep the peace in this village.”

And my all-time favourite, speaking about the village children who try to pull her white blonde hair :

But at least I don’t have to be surrounded with little brats jumping up and pulling on my hair all the livelong day. Normally they clamber around me until I feel like Gulliver among the Lepidopterans.

I found the twins the most sympathetic, although it takes a while to warm up to them.

The novel is part history lesson, part psychology of the family. Both stories are dark and filled with actions to hide and run away from.

I struggled with reading this. It has taken over three weeks to make my way through 543 pages. Perhaps I am out of practice reading ‘serious’ literature. Maybe there has been far too much chick lit and murder mysteries on my bedside table.

I found the language of this novel difficult. Some passages were vague, flowery and completely fuzzy in meaning. I would come out the other end of the paragraph wondering what the heck it was all about. Then in contrast there would be wonderful turns of phrase and evocative images drawn in clever, concise word pictures.
I also felt that the book was too long. I think the first half could have been truncated without damaging the picture the author painted. It was only because I had committed to the Booklitzer Challenge that I struggled through to the point (somewhere around page 350) where I actually then wanted to read the remainder of the book. If I had picked this up off the library shelf, it would have gone back after about 50 or so pages.

Having just complained about it, I will give it a huge thumbs up for opening my eyes to the world of central Africa and more importantly the process that many of those nations have gone through to gain independence. Or rather, not quite gained independence. A country in name, but still a slave in economic terms.
Maybe a few more people in a few high places would do well to study the history of political change – and the aftermath of economic and ideological interference.

Suffice it to say, I am now much more interested in the history of this part of the world and will be making an effort to better understand how the current situations of many African countries came to be.

If you are feeling brave or are joining me in the Booklitzer Challenge, borrow this from your library. Otherwise I’d skip it.


The Siege of Krishnapur – J.G. Farrell

Book #343

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published 2008)

This is the 1973 Booker Prize winner by J.G.Farrell.

The setting is the 1857 Indian Mutiny.  The story is told from the perspective of a number of British residents in Krishnapur.  The central characters are Mr Hopkins, the Collector; Fleury, a recent arrival to India and his widowed sister, Miriam; the Dunstaple family – father, the local physician – son, a young military man and daughter Louise, the season’s beauty; Mr Willoughby, the Magistrate; and the Padre.

I felt that the story started off very slowly and I was dreading another reading trial like The Poisonwood Bible.  Fortunately as I went further through the book and when the siege finally began it all started to flow for me.  In the end I was fascinated by the characters and the way the author grew them and altered their views through the trials and deprivations of living through a siege situation.

And for the first time in an absolute age, I actually felt like I picked up on some of the themes.  Admittedly they came to me one morning in the half-dozing state that occurs when you are on the cusp of waking up.

The political & philosophical themes were primarily voiced in the observations of each main character given page time by Farrell, although behaviour was also used, especially by the minor players.

One aspect that this novel shared with The Poisonwood Bible is the theme of people under stress and what that brings out of their character.  Are character and world view interlinked and changeable?  The Poisonwood Bible seemed to suggest a strengthening of existing character traits and views, while The Siege of Krishnapur seems to suggest a person could go either way with an extreme strengthening of convictions or a complete weakening of convictions, even to the point of altering them diametrically.

Briefly the themes I identified were:

  • Materialism and Advancement through Invention of things versus the importance of Advancement of the human spirit.

This was primarily played out by Mr Hopkins and Fleury.  Hopkins has fitted out the Residence at Krishnapur with items he believes represent advancement, especially items from The Great Exhibition.  He is reverential about the Exhibition, almost to the point of worship.
Fleury, on the other hand, views the advancement of the spirit to be the most important thing that humans can aspire to.  Certainly materialism and objects are not worthy of the reverence he sees Mr Hopkins display.

  • The Established View versus Scientific Observation and Rationalism

This pits the two Doctors against each other.  Dunstaple is ‘old school’ and is frequently found to be criticising the methods of his colleague, McNab, as experimental and cold.  Dunstaple views the ‘establishment’ as the source of information and direction, while McNab views his own observations (as well as alternatives to the prevailing treatments) as valid guides to patient treatment.  This comes to a head over the treatment of a cholera outbreak.  While the Dunstaple cholera episode should be sad, it is actually completely, gut-bustingly and ironically funny.

  • Scientific observation

The Magistrate also showcases the duality of science that prevailed during this time.  On the one hand he views scientific rationalism very highly, as seen in his support of McNab’s use of statistics to back up his arguments on the treatment of cholera.  On the other hand is his interest and wholehearted believe in the “science” of frenology.

  • Sin

Farrell also touches on themes like “sin” as well.  This is displayed through the Padre’s progressively vigorous pursuit of sin, and the expunging of it from the congregation.  The women also feature here, with a “fallen” woman, Lucy, brought into the enclave.  She is socially shunned with the exception of Miriam and Louise who feel it their duty to be kind to her until she begins to make herself cosy with their brothers.

Through the latter half of the book, and the siege, the writing gets progressively more double-edged.  You can’t help laughing at the characters.  I am sure that Farrell intended to almost caricature certain aspects of British India, Victorian science and the intensity with which people hang on to, or shed their beliefs.

I thought that the “voice” of the book was reasonably authentic.  Apparently a lot of material was taken from diaries of events and there is even a note by Farrell that indicates some sections were almost completely lifted from his research.  Presumably this is why it felt ‘of it’s time’.

I can highly recommend this novel.  After the first, slower part of the book, it picks itself up and becomes at once entertaining, sad and thought-provoking.

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

Book #156

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published 2008)

Finally I have managed to make my way through a book that, by Booker panel adjudication, is a worthy read.
Many, many years ago I went to the movies and saw Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-winning adaptation.  I believe it won 9 golden statues in total.  Sadly, all these years later, I can barely remember much about it.  Apparently it wasn’t earth-shattering in my world.   Now, having read the book I feel the urge to go back and see the film.  I have strong suspicions that Ralph Fiennes (eye-candy value aside) and Kristin Scott-Thomas may have been mis-cast.  Still, I’ll withhold judgement until such time as I rent the movie.

So, the book.

I am a little bit out of practice in reading interesting novels, so please cut me some slack on my minimalist review and probable obtuse comments regarding the underlying themes of the novel.

This is a tale of woe before and during WWII.  Four people come together at the Villa San Girolamo in Italy as the war in Europe comes to a close.  The English Patient, who appears to have lost his memory and is badly burned in an aeroplane crash in the deserts of North Africa; Hana, a young Canadian nurse who has lost a baby and her father during the war; Caravaggio, a thief and spy who has his thumbs cut off by the Germans and knows Hana from their previous life in Canada; and Kip, a young Sikh who is working his way through Italy defusing bombs, booby traps and other nasty devices while blocking out the harsh reality of the personal and professional loss being a sapper brings.

The writing style is quirky, and disjointed, but you get used to it very quickly.  As the book moves on it gets easier to follow and it stops you from getting too bored with what is a particularly simple story about relationships.  The ‘trick’ of this novel is the way in which the author chooses to tell us about those relationships.
Ondaatje chooses to release small snippets of information at a time.  We get to know the characters at a leisurely pace, and without cramming masses of details into each passage.  It is a very relaxing novel in that sense.  You have time to think about everyone’s story and what brings them to the point we join them at the Villa.  This can be quite hard going for those of us (no fingers pointed at Ms O, of course) who are used to reading books crammed with detail, forcing as much in to 300 pages as is humanly possible and treating their readers as though they have no imagination.  (Ooo, was I just scathing about most of the chick-lit and trashy reading I’ve been doing lately?)

I agree with the Amazon reviewers who gave it a 4 out of 5 rating.
Personally I would have to give it a 2.5 or 3.  I understand you may be confused by this double rating, so here’s my explanation.
Even though I didn’t find it a 4 star read, I know that it is.  This is the danger of reading candy floss books.  They can block your ability to appreciate the art of storytelling, especially if you get caught up in ‘instantaneous gratification’ mode and want things laid out in front of you at top speed, preferably without distracting things like interesting prose and unusual imagery.  Having read this novel, I now find myself feeling the need to check-in to junk fiction rehab.   Is it possible to get the DTs in a novel-reading sense?  I’m beginning to think it is.

Mr Ondaatje really has an eye for unusual phrasing and beautiful sounding words. So here are some that I thought worthy of noting down.


  • Dust coagulating
  • The paranoia and claustrophobia of hidden love.


  • autodidact
  • burnoose
  • antiphonal
  • propinquity
  • fata morgana

Also on an historical note, the descriptions of the bombs and how many there were, was quite an eye-opener.
The names for them: Hermann, Esau, Satans.
The number of them: 2,500 unexploded bombs in August of the blitz, 3,700 by September.
The insanity of the mine-laying:

The scale of the laying of mines in Italy and in North Africa cannot be imagined.  At the Kismaayo-Afmadu road junction, 260 mines were found.  There were 300 at the Omo River Bridge area.  On June 30, 1941, South African sappers laid 2,700 Mark 11 mines in Mersa Matruh in one day.  Four months later the British cleared Mersa Matruh of 7,806 mines and placed them elsewhere.

Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

Book #81

Reviewer: Don

An intriguing read, Amsterdam is better than its blurb made it out to be.

I self select books from a narrow range, and it is fair to say that Amsterdam is not something within that range, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up this novella. Happily, although it took a couple of pages for me to click to the style of the author, I very quickly got drawn in and ended up reading the book in one sitting. Ian McEwan has a clear and concise ability with words, and I found it an easy book to read and visualise from.

The story opens at the funeral of a woman and continues with the lives of three men who were her lovers at various times in her life. Although already known to each other, in the weeks that follow the funeral the lives and fortunes of these men become inextricably entwined, and they each find themselves facing a decision that defines them. The final climactic scenes are well written and draw the various strings of the story together, and like many good stories, I found at the end that I wanted more.

There weren’t many things I disliked about this story, however I was left feeling that I would have liked it in longer form with more character development, both for the main protagonists and for the catalyst in the story, Molly. I could easily see this as a full length novel.

Overall, I liked Amsterdam. It’s a good read, and something that can easily be tucked into on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

Book #63

Reviewer: Inspirational Reads

This sprawling novel is one I have checked out of the library a number of times and never gotten around to reading. I think the size of it coupled with it being widely heralded as a modern classic put me off a little. Boy, was I foolish.

So where to start in summarising this novel. Set over nearly 8 decades, the tale centres around two sisters, Iris and Laura Chase and is told mostly from Iris’s perspective. The story opens with 25 year old Laura’s suicide and unfolds through an elderly Iris’s memories reaching back to childhood, various news articles and even a novel-within-the novel. All this sounds like it should be confusing, but Atwood never allows this multi-thread narrative to overwhelm what is essentially a novel about remorse, guilt and family secrets that have far-reaching consequences.

This has a little of something that will appeal to nearly everyone – romance, mystery, tragedy even science fiction. My selecting this novel just days before joining this book challenge has also paid off with one of my favourite websites doing a free-for-all discussion of it which can be found here.

I highly recommend The Blind Assassin. I’ve given it one of the highest marks that I’ve ever given outside of the Harry Potter series :P; A-