Out of Africa – Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen)

Book # 614


OOAOut of Africa is a memoir of the author’s 17 years living on and running a coffee plantation in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. She describes animals, plants and scenery, the “Natives” who work for her, and various events that happen while she’s there. Highlights include all-night dances the locals host, shooting lions, flying over the land with pilot friends, and trying to protect the crops from grasshoppers and droughts.

As far as the author’s language and writing style, this is a beautiful book that does an excellent job of painting a picture of a coffee plantation in Africa in the early 20th century. The author has a keen eye for detail, a knack for description, and an obviously very deep love for her subject. All this is why we still read this book 85+ years after its publication. And it’s worth a read!

However, it IS written by a white person who went to Africa in the early 20th century as a colonist. In order to keep her farm running, she employs the local “Natives” who are allowed to remain living near the farm so long as they work (without pay) for the author 180 days out of the year. This is just one element of the colonist’s mentality that pervades the book. It very much dampened my enthusiasm.

For the era, it may be that the author had a pretty liberal attitude towards the African people. She is, after all, a kind and benevolent employer; she helps those who work for her with food and medical attention, and has an attitude that ranges from wary tolerance to authentic appreciation when it comes to their culture. She also professes to like them:

“As for me, from my first weeks in Africa, I had felt a great affection for the Natives. It was a strong feeling that embraced all ages and both sexes. The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world.”

But from where I sit here in the early 21st century, her writing about the people of Kenya is cringe-worthy over and over again. I got a real sense that she subscribed to the “noble savage” mentality. Additionally, she constantly compares the “Natives” to animals, and I mean CONSTANTLY. To be fair, she also occasionally compares a white person to an animal, but with the Natives, it’s disturbingly incessant. Here’s a quotation that sort of encompasses both of these aspects of her attitude toward Africans:

“Sometimes on a Safari, or on the farm, in a moment of extreme tension, I have met the eyes of my Native companions, and have felt that we were at a great distance from one another, and that they were wondering at my apprehension of our risk. It made me reflect that perhaps they were, in life itself, within their own element, such as we can never be, like fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning. This assurance, this art of swimming, they had, I thought, because they had preserved a knowledge that was lost to us by our first parents; Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you.”

The author is at her best when she’s describing the beauty of the land or a deeply personal experience and the feelings that these things give her. For example, on the glorious activity of flying in a plane above her plantation she writes:

“It is a sad hardship and slavery to people who live in towns, that in all their movements they know of one dimension only; they walk along the line as if they were led on a string. The transition from the line to the plane into the two dimensions, when you wander across a field or through a wood, is a splendid liberation… but in the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space.”

The beauty and euphoria of passages like this one make Out of Africa worth a quick read. If you do dive in, be prepared to endure much that is written with the narrow vision of a white colonist. 


Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathanael West

Book #641
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published July 2, 2012)

Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is a short, bleak book, and while I can appreciate aspects of its art, I’m glad to be away from it and on to other things. I read Day of the Locust in high school and have some recollection of it being bleak as well, but somehow it felt less so. The introduction to the edition of Miss Lonelyhearts that I listened to compared the two and argued the atmosphere of each reflected the geography of the setting–with Miss Lonelyhearts somewhat claustrophobic and Day of the Locust more like arid desert. If so, then I think I prefer my depressing experiences to be out in the air and under the sky.

Here are my reflections on the book, and some comparisons with other works I’ve recently read.

Miss Lonelyhearts is the tale of a male advice columnist in Depression Era New York City. Though the column is intended to be fluff, and is seen as such by the editor to whom Lonelyhearts reports, for the people who write seeking advice, it is serious. The columnist finds himself overwhelmed by the many versions of tragedy that he must respond to, becomes depressed, and turns, on one hand, to drink, fights, and affairs, and on the other to a Christianity he deeply believes in, but which is mocked by those around him. Lonelyhearts himself is an ethicist’s nightmare, violating boundaries with those who write to him for advice. This novel paints a bleak picture of Depression Era New York, and does so in crisp clear language. Little empathy is generated for the protagonist, and there is no hopeful vision of a functional alternative to either the ineffective religious fervor or the empty hedonism portrayed.

It is hard not to see parallels to The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing [reviewed here]. Both portray protagonists who are affected by the bleak letters to advice columns, both present unrewarding sexual relationships as the norm, and neither offer much hope to counteract the critiques of the societies they portray. On the other hand, stylistically they are vastly different. Nathanael West‘s prose is spare, and he does little to deepen his characters or create emotional connection to them. Doris Lessing, by contrast, builds a rich, sometimes even lush, world, lingering over details and creating both beauty and depth, despite the similarly pessimistic overall viewpoint. Lessing encourages the reader to engage deeply with her themes, whereas there is something almost aggressive, and therefore off-putting, in West’s approach to the reader. It is not simply the spare masculinity in the style of West that has this effect, since Ernest Hemingway‘s prose has those qualities, and yet, at least for me, Hemingway uses the style to create profound connection and meaning.

Many appear to find this book brilliant and darkly funny, but I came away cold. If you want dark and funny, I’d go with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. He provides an angry, funny critique of a society, but builds firm connections to characters, and provides a sense of hope that makes for a much more enjoyable experience.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow

Book # 516


The Adventures of Augie MarchThe Adventures of Augie March records a dozen or so years of Augie’s life, a life filled with all sorts of events and details. There is Augie’s jobs, crimes, relationships with various women, and even a period spent adrift on the open ocean and another period spent training an eagle to hunt lizards in Mexico. As Augie says, people tend to find him ideal for figuring into their schemes and he has a tendency to say yes. This makes him an absolutely perfect subject for a novel.

These adventures are really entertaining at the plot level alone, but beyond that the novel has a lot to say about human fate, how life and death intertwine, and the ways that life should be lived. Above all else, the book is about Augie’s quest for who he is, and along the way he learns a lot about how humanity works:

“And this is what mere humanity always does. It’s made up of these inventors or artists, millions and millions of them, each in his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role and sustain him in his make-believe. The great chiefs and leaders recruit the greatest number, and that’s what their power is. There’s one image that gets out in front to lead the rest and can impose its claim to being genuine with more force than others, or one voice enlarged to thunder is heard above the others. Then a huge invention, which is the invention maybe of the world itself, and of nature, becomes the actual world… That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real.” 

Augie grows up in extreme poverty during the Great Depression and sees firsthand the power those with money have over those without in Chicago, leading to this view that those who have power are the ones who actually create the world.

As Augie goes through various experiences, he is constantly longing for something. He wants a life that feels satisfying but he is never quite sure what it is he wants or how to achieve it. He continues to search, and try things, and remain uncommitted. This is frustrating for him, as he feels he’s spent his whole life preparing for life, gathering knowledge and understanding, without ever getting beyond “the walls of his own being.”

Augie’s friend says just what he needs to hear: “You must take a chance on what you are. And you can’t sit still. I know this double poser, that if you make a move you may lose but if you sit still you will decay.” 

As Augie gets older, he realizes the truth of this, that he’s been living all along and that there is no easy answer to the question of fate – his identity and where he ends up are tied together and it won’t be possible to establish one and use it to determine the other. In fact, Augie comes to the conclusion that fate and identity are one and the same. The tough life experiences fate throws at him mold his identity and in turn his identity influences how he responds to experiences; the two are bound together in a lifelong cycle.

Tied up in this quest for his identity and for the answers about what his life should look like are a lot of thoughts about death – its inevitability, the notion that the powerful don’t exactly die like the rest of us because their memories live on, and also what it takes away from life:

“Death is going to take the boundaries away from us, that we should no more be persons. That’s what death is about. When that is what life also wants to be about, how can you feel except rebellious?” 

This quotation is particularly illuminating because in this thought Augie reflects on how he responds to life’s difficulties and struggles. He never has a woe-is-me attitude in the novel, but he certainly has a rebellious one. This is a clue that his impoverished start and confused young adulthood have impacted him more than he is willing to state, giving the reader permission to read between the lines of his philosophical statements. It is also an echo of what Einhorn, a surrogate father to Augie in many ways, said many years previously – that Augie has opposition in him.

I enjoyed the picaresque feel of this modern novel, and Augie March is a worthy and fascinating hero. I definitely recommend this read, as it is chock full of two very different things that aren’t often together – adventure and philosophical musings.

The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Book # 203


The Satanic VersesI attempted this novel once, back in college, and gave up on it – like many other people, I know! So this time before I began reading it I took the time to do a little research, and I’m so glad I did. I also think it didn’t hurt at all that it’s more than a decade later – I’m a much wiser and more attentive reader than I once was.

One bit of research I did ahead of time was to gain a simple understanding of what “the satanic verses” are in Islam. One whole plot line of the novel is basically a wildly creative, dreamy reflection of the origins of Islam and the proselytizing of the prophet Muhammad. So a very basic understanding of this helped me understand Rushdie’s version in the novel. For a super quick overview of the satanic verses, check out page 30 of this PDF: http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/angloph…

There are also two quotations from Salman Rushdie I came across in my research that helped clarify the novel’s structure and goals for me before I started and helped me pay attention to what I was delving into. First, on the structure. In an interview (found here: http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps….), Rushdie talks about his influences. He talks about James Joyce, and their joint interest in stuffing their respective novels chock full of references. But he also says this:

“Well, take Fielding; the thing that’s very impressive about Tom Jones is the plot, that you have this enormous edifice which seems to be so freewheeling, rambling — and actually everything is there for a purpose. It’s the most extraordinary piece of organization which at the same time seems quite relaxed and not straitjacketed
by its plot. I think that’s why the book is so wonderful.”

I think that’s part of why this book is so wonderful too. The world of the novel is highly imaginative/creative, and anything goes in the way of magical realism. That said, it’s a bit zanier than any magical realism I’ve read before, perhaps even too zany. Lots of it is thought-provoking, other parts are just fun/funny, and a few parts just seem silly and not much else. But the undertaking of creating several worlds (the real world – in India and London, and various dream worlds) that are occupied by overlapping characters, and ensuring these worlds and characters build on and reflect back on each other is a fantastic, immense achievement.

As the novel moves between them, dropping information and picking it back up later, equating various characters with their counterparts in other worlds (by name or action or common characteristics), the sheer puzzle it must have been to put this all together is incredible to me. But Rushdie managed it. Over and over as I read I’d see those brilliant little connections running all over the novel. It can feel a little intense and overwhelming for the reader, but I found the experience fun. How can I describe the experience? Most books you read, you’re walking down a path from point A to point B, beginning to end. As you follow the path, occasionally it loops back on itself, revisiting and building upon a key theme or idea here and there. In this book, you’re walking down three or four paths at once, each of them looping back, around and through each of the others almost constantly.

I also love Rushdie’s loose, informal, yet highly complex writing style. He runs words together, invents words, takes them apart, and makes ample use of slang, repetition, conversational/stream of consciousness tone, to express exactly what he wants to say. He also makes grammar his slave (rather than being a slave to it). He breaks a million rules, but this actually just adds to the clarity of his writing rather than subtracting from it.

The second quotation from Rushdie that shed a lot of light for me going in is as follows, from “In Good Faith,” an essay Rushdie wrote about The Satanic Verses:

“If The Satanic Verses is anything, it is a migrant’s-eye view of the world. It is written from the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis (slow or rapid, painful or pleasurable) that is the migrant condition, and from which, I believe, can be derived a metaphor for all humanity. Standing at the centre of the novel is a group of characters most of whom are British Muslims, or not particularly religious persons of Muslim background, struggling with just the sort of great problems that have arisen to surround the book, problems of hybridization and ghettoization, of reconciling the old and the new. Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves.”

I would have picked up on this theme anyway (at least I think so!) but it was helpful to be able to watch for it as I read. Coupled with this theme, was a sense of the need for transformation that migrants feel, from deep within themselves (like the character Chamcha) or from the world around them (like Gibreel). I was really engaged by the ways that all of the various characters struggle with their identities as they straddle the line between their backgrounds and their new homes. Each character takes a different path on this, with a different amount of success or failure that is attributable as much to the character’s identity as to the amount of transforming they do. In other words, the novel makes clear that there’s no right answer, that there is no one path:

“‘The world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga. Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all alive at the same time; in one spot, blissful happiness, while down the road, the inferno. You can’t ask for a wilder place.'”

This novel is also very much tied up in religion and politics, from a very contemporary and international perspective. Having been written in 1988, I was surprised by how modern and relevant Rushdie’s ideas still are today about how we view each other’s cultures and faiths. In the novel, Rushdie writes: “…because what you believe depends on what you’ve seen, — not only what is visible, but what you are prepared to look in the face.” To me this expresses a key truth about how we misunderstand each other, fostering fear, contempt and violence. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that the novel’s first section includes a hijacking of an airplane by terrorists; this scene may be even more relevant post-9/11 than it was in 1988.

Of the terrorists, Rushdie writes this: “What did they want? Nothing new. An independent homeland, religious freedom, release of political detainees, justice, ransom money, a safe-conduct to a country of their choice. Many of the passengers came to sympathize with them, even though they were under constant threat of execution. If you live in the twentieth century you do not find it hard to see yourself in those, more desperate than yourself, who seek to shape it to their will.”

The third sentence in that quotation has given me quite a bit of food for thought. Terrorism is a transformation strategy, it’s brought on by misunderstanding and fear, but it’s also an attempt to have a little power and control over your own life. We all do this in small ways – mostly non-violently, and hopefully in morally good and compassionate ways, but we’re all shaping our worlds the best we know how.

I hope the links I’ve included here are helpful to anyone who has struggled with this novel – it’s not an easy read, but it’s well worth the undertaking. That said, even though I really appreciate what Rushdie has accomplished here (and even enjoyed it), Midnight’s Children is still my favorite novel by Rushdie.

What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt

Book # 18

Reviewer: Kara

WILThis novel is narrated by Leo Hertzberg, an art historian in New York City, who tells of what he’s loved (and lost) in his life. The story begins when he buys a painting by Bill Wechsler that he loves so much that he helps to launch Bill’s career. Both men have sons of the same age, one of whom dies tragically in childhood. The bulk of the novel is about the other son, Mark, who is passed from home to home and adult to adult, and how this affects him psychologically.

I was thoroughly astounded by Hustvedt’s undertaking here. In What I Loved she has created at least half a dozen depthful, realistic characters that I came to care about. The story Leo tells us of what he has loved and lost in his life kept me up at night a time or two and left me aching for him.

The most interesting theme is duplicity. Early on, the Wechsler and Hertzberg families are each other’s double. As struggles and tragedies impact the families, they change in different ways and look less and less like mirror images. The novel takes advantage of this opportunity to show two different outcomes of the events, two different ways that the characters are impacted, two different reactions.

Hustvedt also adds amazing and wonderful detail to her prose. She has clearly done thorough research on many topics: hysteria at the turn of the 20th century, psychological disturbance and psychopathy, eating disorders, and art. In particular, I loved the detailed descriptions of Bill’s works of art, which are very creative and interesting. They give fascinating insight into the fictional story, but they are also imaginative, beautiful, and sound very much like something that could actually be seen in a modern art gallery or museum. I wished several times, but most especially when Bill was working on the series of 101 doors, that I could go see his work in real life. The details are so precise and visual that it seemed to me this art must exist!

During the more action-packed sequences of the novel, such as when Leo chases Mark across the Midwest, the prose gets a little news-y; by this I mean that it reads like a feature article in a magazine more than a novel. However, this strikes me as a much better way to keep these sorts of scenes exciting than the usual way authors do it: by dropping any semblance of character continuity or growth.

Overall, this isn’t a happy book but it is an impressive one that has left me a lot to think about. Hustvedt has successfully mined love and loss to write a beautiful novel. There is also plenty to learn here about several other themes, including art, mental disorders and hysteria, and the effects of violence and drugs on a teenager and his family.