MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS (1935)

download (1)Christopher Isherwood, the author of this novel, is decidedly white and male. This is the thought I had before beginning to read Mr. Norris Changes Trains, a novel I’ve wanted to read for some time now and couldn’t put off any longer. I worried for a second about breaking my 2017 oath when I remembered, he’s gay! Of course! And so, I excitedly include Christopher Isherwood in this blog. He’s not an author I’d read specifically for the purposes of this blog – he’s dead for one thing, his work published from the 1930s-70s, and, again, a white man. However, he was an early openly gay author, an innovator of gay literature, and later (after moving to the states) became one of the first openly gay members of Hollywood society, and a lifelong advocate for gay rights, specifically, gay pride.  The real reason I picked up Mr. Norris Changes Trains, however, is because I fell in love with his prose about two years ago reading his much later autobiographical novel, Christopher and his Kind, and I’ve been dying to get to another book of his ever since.

From the first page, I was reminded of why I love Isherwood’s writing so much. He has an unsettling knack for describing experiences that, not only are you completely unable to describe, but have been unable to fully identify or consciously realize you’re experiencing. Isherwood has a remarkable ability of seeing through people and human interactions and committing them to paper, both eloquently and exceptionally clearly. An example:

“The tiny flame of the lighter flickered between us, as perishable as the atmosphere which our exaggerated politeness had created” (4).

Mr. Norris Changes Trains feels a little like a character study. The character of Arthur Norris begins as a mystery, and as the novel progresses, the reader comes to understand his nuances, mannerisms, and general disposition as the narrator does. The narrator is a loose representation of Isherwood himself, but in Isherwood’s earlier novels (like this one), Isherwood is mostly an observer and, while an active participant in the events of the story, does not analyze himself as a character the way he does in his later (and better) autobiographical books about his years in Berlin.

The setting of Berlin in the early 1930s begins as a minor character itself, and increasingly comes to the center of the story as political tensions become more intense and the Nazi party gains more and more power. The setting is definitely the background, however, and not what the book is about. The book is about characters and the characters happen to be living in and greatly influenced by Berlin. The result is a really interesting look into how Berliners viewed the Nazi party (most hated it) and the politics of the time in general.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Norris Changes Trains, I don’t think I would have been able to without having read Christopher and his Kind first, and that is the novel I would recommend if you have any interest in reading Christopher Isherwood. With that said, you can expect remarkable prose and fascinating subjects out of any Isherwood novel you choose.

Links: Isherwood Foundation .org Goodreads | Amazon

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LANDFALLS (2015)

downloadLandfalls, by Naomi J. Williams, is one of those strange novels that creep up on you without you realizing. I’ve experienced this before, but with Landfalls, it was particularly striking. I was more than three quarters of the way through before it suddenly hit me that I was reading something remarkable. It’s not that the first half of the book isn’t remarkable, it’s more that Landfalls’ effectiveness is extremely subtle and takes some time to recognize.

Each chapter of Landfalls is told from the point of view of a different character and each chapter could probably pass as a self-sufficient short story. This unique structure worked well for Landfalls because it highlights character development, which to me was the heart of the novel. Williams’ exploration of different characters’ world views, beliefs, and motivations (particularly those of the two captains), and how they evolve and are changed by the course of the voyage, is spectacular. What makes Landfalls so successful is Williams’ ability to portray characters living at the end of the 18th century authentically while still making room for modern thought. Writing historically accurate characters that are both sympathetic and relatable in a time period when racism was the norm and slavery widely accepted, is a real challenge. Often historical fiction can suffer from feeling either too influenced by modern thought or too stuck in the past. Williams gets the balance just right, and this allows for fascinating (and believable!) character development.

Because Landfalls is essentially a series of related short stories, you will likely have a favorite standout chapter, as I did. My personal favorite chapter was “Dispatches,” in which the Russian-speaking crew member of the voyage is dropped off on the eastern coast of Siberia and entrusted with a box of documents detailing the findings of the voyage so far should the crew not successfully return to France (which, of course, they did not). In “Dispatches,” Williams develops a fascinating and loyal relationship between men relying on each other for survival. This chapter highlights one of the my favorite themes in the novel, which is exploring how relationships functioned in a time before immediate long-distance communication was possible. Today it seems so strange – the inability to speak to someone who isn’t directly in front of you – but for almost all of history that is simply the way it was. At the end of “Dispatches,” two friends who had travelled across Siberia and survived against the odds part ways knowing they’ll never meet again. Landfalls is full of these powerful moments that explore humanity and human relationships.

Landfalls has a way of sneaking up on you, and reminding you of the things that become so easy to forget in the 21st century: the power of nature and its indifference toward the people living in it, how big the world is, and how small our little piece of it, how brief human life is, but how powerful an impact one individual can have on those around them. I’ll end this review with a short and simple but thought-provoking quote that I feel exemplifies Landfalls: 

“The Vanikorans [a small Polynesian island people] understood their island to be one of many that made up the world.” (256)

Links: Naomi J Williams .com | Goodreads | Amazon

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (2006)

Half of adownload Yellow Sun is so breathtaking that I feel uncomfortable reviewing it. I’d never even heard of Biafra before picking up this novel, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m in the minority for people my age. And yet, Biafra was, briefly in the late ’60s, a nation and a place that saw human suffering to an extent and on a scale comparable to the holocaust. Imagine never having heard of the holocaust. Well I’d never heard of Biafra. If that isn’t concrete proof of the extent to which eurocentrism influences what we know about the world, I don’t know what is.

There is no “best part” to this novel because every element of the story is as incredible as every other. The characters, the plot, the writing style, the pacing, and the structure all work together perfectly to form this masterpiece. One of the great achievements of Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to depict extreme suffering without alienating the reader. Think about the times when you’ve watched a documentary or read a book or even seen a starving children in Africa ad where what’s happening seems so detached from your own life that its impossible to conceive of the suffering as happening to real human beings. Half of a Yellow Sun avoids this entirely. First, it’s enjoyable to read! It doesn’t feel masochistic in the way it sometimes does to read about human suffering. It’s relatable and understandable. It’s engaging and page-turning. All of the characters are living full and complex lives. There’s a huge depth of characters and places and plots unfolding. And so, when you realize that these same characters, characters who have careers they worked hard for, who have families, who attend university, who write poetry, who have music collections, who have access to modern day luxuries, are living as refugees, faced with starvation, and consumed with war, the shock you feel is real and intimate as opposed to a detached sadness for a suffering so far removed from your own life that its reality is inconceivable.

And one of the most striking elements of Half of a Yellow Sun is how subtly the characters suffering increases. It seems to happen both slowly and then all-at-once. You’ll think you’re seeing suffering and then realize the true suffering hasn’t even begun and then realize that over and over and over again. You’ll look back at a scene 100-pages previous and be shocked with how much the characters situations have changed and with how much suffering you’ve become accustomed to as the reader. And then you’ll look back 100-pages later with the same shock all over again. For awhile you’ll convince yourself that there’s a certain type of joy that can be found in a people suffering together, and then you’ll come to realize that some human suffering reaches an extent so extreme that there’s room for nothing else.

Half of a Yellow Sun had a real impact on me and reminded me how and why literature can be so powerful. It’s a book I’ll never forget and one I’m sure I’ll be reminded of and return to frequently. I would tell anyone and everyone that it’s an absolute must-read. If you haven’t had a chance to read this novel yet, no matter how long your reading list is, put Half of a Yellow Sun at the very top.

Links: Chimamanda .com | Goodreads | Amazon

BOOK OF CLOUDS (2009)

downloadMy experience reading Book of Clouds suffered slightly from skewed expectations. I kept waiting for something to happen, for the story to really kick in to gear. Each time something out of the ordinary occurred, I’d think, this is it! Now the story really begins! And then it wouldn’t, at least not in the way I expected. In retrospect, I’m probably not the first person who’s read Book of Clouds and felt this way, and this is, in part, what Book of Clouds accomplishes.

The novel follows a young woman, probably in her mid twenties, living alone in Berlin, an expat from Mexico where the rest of her family still resides. The setting of Berlin is what drew me to this book. I’ve been fascinated with post-war Germany and specifically Berlin for a few years now, and so a novel about a foreign girl living alone in Berlin was appealing to me for obvious reasons.

Beginning early on in the book there are scenes that don’t seem quite real, for example when the protagonist reflects on a memory of seeing an old woman on a train who resembled Hitler so precisely that she decided it was indeed Hitler himself on the train with her. Every time one of these not-quite-real scenes occurred, I’d expect the story to transform into something else: something with magic, or a mystery, but it never did. Instead, it was almost disappointingly realistic. A chance encounter doesn’t become a great love. Her employer, an old historian, never really opens up to her; never spills his secrets, if he has any. There’s no one hiding in the attic apartment upstairs. People and places are left behind without a fuss or dramatic parting of ways. And to me, this is what Book of Clouds was about. It wasn’t particularly hopeful, but didn’t leave me feeling hopeless either; there was an absence of expectation- positive or negative. It was, even with the magically-charged moments or dream-like scenes experienced by the protagonist, strikingly real.

Links: Interview with Chloe Aridjis | Goodreads | Amazon

STORK MOUNTAIN (2016)

downloadStork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov, a Bulgarian who moved to America at 18,  is a strange novel, and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. While I have a lot of criticism for it (albeit vague criticism as you’ll read shortly), I enjoyed it, and I certainly don’t regret reading it. It’s a book that I likely never would have picked up if I wasn’t specifically looking for books by Bulgarian authors, and finding books by chance encounter is one of my favorite means of discovery.

Stork Mountain is difficult to follow. Stories pick up and then lose track of themselves in other stories. There’s multiple romantic narratives, familial narratives, historic/cultural narratives, and spiritual narratives taking place in different centuries and on different timelines, but that are all woven together. It’s a book best read with as little interruption as possible (I mistakenly began it before leaving for Bulgaria and did not pick it up again until I returned and consequently struggled to keep track of the multitude of stories). It feels almost too big for itself, like it’s trying to do too much, cover too much in one novel. It’s broken up into seven parts, and I couldn’t begin to differentiate one part from another.

The best moments in Stork Mountain are the ones dealing with the long, difficult, inter-woven histories of the Turks, the Greeks, and the Bulgarians. The Muslims and the Christians. The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of communism. There’s a fascinating, tragic, deep-seeded history in this part of the world that is all but unknown to many people in the West. And while I criticize Penkov for trying to force too much into one book, its hard to blame him when the history of this region is so vast and so varied. Whether or not you choose to read Stork Mountain, I’d encourage everyone to expose themselves to more stories from Eastern Europe because there is a history there that is just as valid, just as vast, just as complex, and more ancient than anything the western world has to offer.

Links: Miroslav Penkov .com | Goodreads | Amazon

SOLO (2009)

unnamedThis post will be the first in a series of posts reviewing books that take place, at least partially, in Bulgaria. I’ll be spending a few weeks in April visiting some friends in Bulgaria and thought reading a few books that take place in the country or are written by Bulgarian authors would be a great way to learn a few things about a place I know next to nothing about. The one I’ve started with, Solo by Rana Dasgupta, was not only an amazing introduction to the history and culture of Bulgaria, but was an outstanding book in general.

Solo operates under a premise similar to An Unnecessary Woman; the protagonist, an old man, alone and with nothing to show for his long life, looks back on the different phases of his life. But that is where the similarities end. Solo is broken up into 2 parts, which can almost be seen as two separate books, but are tied together in a way that make both parts more meaningful and complete than if either stood alone. Part 1 is the story of the protagonist’s life, from child to old man. He’s born near the beginning of the 20th century, and through his perspective, the reader sees how Bulgaria changes and evolves with new technologies, through world wars, and the rise and fall of communism. One of my favorite quotes from Solo regarding the history of Bulgaria is the following:

“When Bulgaria became independent, we didn’t even know. It took weeks for the news to reach us that they had made a country for the Bulgarians and our village was not in it. We packed everything up, took all the pigs, crossed into Bulgaria and made a new village.”

Small moments like this that remind you how strange and arbitrary borders are, especially in Eastern Europe.

Part 1 of Solo was exactly the type of story I was looking for to give me some insight into Bulgarian history and culture. When Part 2 began, it took me a few chapters to get my bearings because it begins an entirely different story with brand new characters, but once I got into it, I was completely absorbed. I read it in one sitting. It was fast-paced and exciting and took the story into the 21st century and beyond Bulgaria’s borders. Without Part 2, Part 1 would have felt a little heavy and dark and pessimistic, and without Part 1, Part 2 would have felt a little meandering and directionless, but together, they balanced out perfectly. On top of this, the writing was excellent on every level. I was super impressed by this novel and will be making a point to read other works of Dasgupta’s. I can’t recommend Solo enough, especially if you have any interest in a part of the world you more than likely know very little about.

Links: Rana Dasgupta .comGoodreads | Amazon

WHO FEARS DEATH (2010)

downloadI’ve skimmed through a variety of reviews of Who Fears Death after finishing it myself, specifically negative reviews, because there are a few things I didn’t like about the book that others pointed out as well. The ending was abrupt, anti-climactic, and unfulfilling, and this was mostly because the narrative relied on a self-fulfilling prophecy plot which allowed Okorafor to conclude the story with “spirit world magic stuff” instead of with a logical or thought-provoking conclusion. I also would’ve liked a little more world-building surrounding the magic system in the book, how it works, what it’s limitations are, and what it comes from. Somewhere out there is a lecture given by Brandon Sanderson in which he says something along the lines of how a magic system’s limitations, i.e. what it can’t do, are more interesting than what it can do, and that’s always stuck with me. But despite its flaws, I still thoroughly enjoyed Who Fears Death and want to talk about what I loved.

Okorafor has a very blunt writing style that I like. She doesn’t beat around or even build up to anything; she writes authoritatively and suddenly. Time in the story passes quickly as a result of the way she writes. The story will skip forward without any real indication of how much time has passed except for occasional mentions of how old the main characters have become. Her writing highlights only the most important moments and conversations, the defining ones. I don’t mind this, and much prefer it to the opposite (spending too much time on tedious day-to-day things), but it did have the effect of making me feel slightly less attached to the characters. What I loved about Nnedi Okorafor’s writing style is her ability to say so much in a single sentence. Every sentence is somehow loaded with information or context or back story. One chapter opened with this line: “It’s a day I’ve pulled up many times in the last year to remind me life is also good.” I loved the sentence so much I wrote it down because it’s so simple but so effective.

And while the plot of Who Fears Death was flawed, the content throughout the book is incredible. You can imagine how much gender equality comes up as an issue in a book that features a sorceress destined to save the world with a male partner destined to help her in a misogynistic society. Some of my favorite moments in the book are when Onyesonwu and her lover/partner Mwita have to navigate their switched gender roles. Mwita being jealous and Onyesonwu being arrogant or lacking patience and empathy. Another thing I loved about the book is the setting. It’s easy to assume at first, because of the use of magic and sorcery, that the novel is set in Africa in the past, maybe pre-civilization, but it is actually set in post-apocalyptic Africa. Computers are a thing of the past and technology as we know it is only used or even encountered occasionally. I love the idea that magic doesn’t have to be primitive. Magic follows technology in this universe instead of preceding it. Of course race is a huge issue in the novel as well and one of the most interesting points I think Okorafor makes when discussing race in the novel is that so often, people who are marginalized or discriminated against for being different in whatever way, are called upon to do the most for the society that judges or marginalizes them. And related to that is the higher standard marginalized people are often held to and how much pressure that puts on a person in society, at home, and between friends. Overall, I really enjoyed Who Fears Death. I thought it was meaningful, thought-provoking, and relatable, and I’d recommend it despite its flaws.

Links: Nnedi .com | Goodreads | Amazon