I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim's Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel richly rooted in its conservative northern Nigerian context, yet it is a novel that asks universal questions -- is it possible to change someone you love, possible even to challenge the rules of who can be loved and why? On the surface, the novel is the story of Hajiya Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and her affair with a man 30 years her junior -- Reza, the so-called “Lord of San Siro.” Reza is a drug dealer who longs for a better life, but is kept back by his flaws, despite Binta’s best efforts to bring him up out of the criminal underworld. But the novel goes beyond a tragic love story and proves not just a biting critique of Nigeria’s political structures but also of its cultural, religious, and gendered norms, challenging what a woman can and can’t do within a conservative society. The novel unfolds with its focus on Binta, whom we discover has lost her domineering husband to the violent battles between Christians and Muslims in Jos. She longs for a love she has never had in all her years, for unmet desires both sexual as much as relational. With her husband, she “had always wanted it to be different;” she had always wanted “a license to be licentious.” When she makes advances toward her husband and tries to take control of the bedroom, she is punished -- “He pinned her down and without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” The moment Binta attempts to stretch the boundaries of female agency in her society is the moment she is pushed back into her supposedly proper place. In many senses, the novel is a cycle of transgressions and consequences for Binta, and as we follow her affair with the young Reza -- a thief who appears in Binta’s home and nearly assaults her, and with whom she falls in love -- we are left with a desire to see her circumstances change, and yet we feel a sense of dread knowing that the norms she fights against are too entrenched. Perhaps it is this common bond of transgression that unites the two lovers -- Binta and Reza. But it is the desire for bettering their circumstances that works against their relationship and ultimately pulls them apart. Binta wants to take Reza, the gang leader and fixer for a local politician, and turn him into the man she hoped her deceased son, Yaro, would have become had he not been gunned down by police years before: “She was inching closer to his redemption -- her redemption, to making him a better person.” Reza, at the same time, is trying his hardest to distance himself from his mother, who abandoned him in childhood and left his father to become the “whore of Arabia.” When Binta begins to remind Reza of his mother, he meets his lover’s motherly interventions -- when she pays his school admission fees, when she quells his temper -- with indifference (Freudians really would have a field day with this novel). And it is only when Binta and Reza free themselves from the attachments of who they want each other to be, that they enter the full throes of their sexual relationship. But these moments are only fleeting bits of passion before relational expectations re-enter their lives, exerting force once more over their attempted subversions. If the characterization of Binta and Reza at times stalls -- when Binta becomes an embittered observer of the scenes around her and Reza a temperamental, ineffectual leader obsessed with his own jaded outlook on life -- it is the characterization of many of the side characters that carries the novel through some of its slowest parts. Among these characters is Fa’iza, Binta’s niece who lives with her aunt after losing her entire family to the Jos religious riots. Fa’iza’s struggle to overcome this trauma, years later, is a major subplot in the novel, including a riveting moment when Fa’iza confesses that she can no longer remember the face of her deceased brother. Ironically, Fa’iza is more prepared than her aunt to face the further trauma that occurs toward the end of the novel, and her “disquieting” calm helps Binta realize there is “nothing quite like fighting against loss and, despite one’s best efforts, losing all the same.” Other strong side characters include Mallam Haruna, a suitor who perpetually invades Binta’s home life to sit near her, listening to his radio and providing a running commentary on the presidential campaign of Muhammadu Buhari as it plays out. The author wisely uses this character to weave in some of the strongest political criticism in the novel, a place where fact and fiction merge. At the same time, Haruna becomes a character the reader learns to hate because of his social maneuvering and rumormongering that ironically prove crucial to the plot of the novel. It is Mallam Haruna after all who first notices Binta and Reza’s trysts, and it is the same man who weasels his way into the presences of certain people of power who prove the catalysts for the novel’s climactic trauma. And it is also with Haruna that Binta exerts her strongest resistance to the gendered norms of her society. When Binta is repeatedly subjected to criticisms by neighbor women responding to rumors spread by the jealous Haruna, Binta shuts down her suitor’s advances with a bold declaration: “Just allow me to whore myself to whomever I please.” Sure, Ibrahim’s novel has all the tropes of a romance novel -- forbidden love, suppressed desire, sexual exploration (Danielle Steel even gets a mention in the novel) -- but what makes this novel so special is its rootedness and resistance to a place the author clearly loves and knows and yet feels frustrated by. Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel that questions the conditions of African women within an Islamic context just as Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter does while maintaining the same riveting plot points that could be found in a novel by Helon Habila, Ibrahim’s compatriot. We will be reading Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and his future work not only for what he teaches us about place, but for the ways in which the norms of that place are challenged, and the ways we create expectations for one other -- expectations that may prove helpful or tragic, or paradoxically the same.
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Published posthumously, Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels with Herodotus is very self consciously a final book. In it Kapuscinski reflects on his life as a writer, rarely delving much into the details of his travels with which his readers have become familiar, but instead dwelling more upon writing itself. But more so, his focus is on Herodotus, the historian from ancient Greece, who Kapuscinski counts as a great historian and whose books were a near constant companion of Kapuscinski's on his travels.Indeed Travels more than anything else reads like a companion text to Herodotus' book The Histories - a footnote early on refers readers to the Oxford University Press edition for those who want to follow along at home.And that may be a good idea because, for the most part, Travels is Herodotus seen through Kapuscinski's lens. He tells us that the book was given to him by an editor before his first journey abroad and he took it with him on nearly all of his assignments during his long career. In looking at Herodotus, Kapuscinski suggests to the reader the origins of journalism as well as its purpose while also marveling at the fantastical stories and bizarre cultures described by the Greek. Kapuscinski is a true fan.But this book is also a memoir of sorts, and Kapuscinski parcels out little nuggets of the Kapuscinski philosophy, a way of looking at the world that will be familiar to his readers.Describing his very first trip, to India, Kapuscinski describes devouring books about the country and about the power of the written word to transport and teach:With each new title I read, I felt as if I were taking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew. These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one. I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs. What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip - in an iconographic journey such as this one, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image, etc., something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.And of course, I'm sure there are many readers, like myself, for whom Kapuscinski's books have had "a certain advantage over the actual trip." With Kapuscinski as a guide, his books offer more of an escape and more excitement than most of us can hope for from our planned excursions to non-threatening locales.In Herodotus, Kapuscinski undoubtedly sees his foundation, without whom Kapuscinski and many other journalists, historians, and travel writers wouldn't be possible. As Kapuscinski shows us, the world of the Greek nearly 2,500 years ago isn't all that far removed from what Kapuscinski has spent his career doing. At the same time, we wouldn't consider Herodotus a journalist in the modern sense, one who is beholden to proper sourcing, fact checking, and objectivity. Herodotus gathered up tales of mysterious faraway lands, relating even the ones that sound far-fetched, crafted narratives to suit his efforts, and passed judgment when it struck him to do so. Following his death, Kapuscinski was accused of just such things by Jack Shafer at Slate. Defending Kapuscinski, I wrote "To define [Kapuscinski's] books as journalism (or memoir, or "truth") exclusively does a disservice to journalism - offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate - but to suggest that there isn't a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers." In speculating about Herodotus' way of life, Kapuscinski defends the writer's right to embellish in the service of both making a living and entertaining readers (two goals that often go hand in hand)It is possible... that the rhythm of Herodotus's life and work was as follows: he made a long journey, and upon his return traveled to various Greek cities and organized something akin to literary evenings, in the course of which he recounted the experiences, impressions, and observations he had gathered during his peregrinations. It is entirely likely that he made his living from such gatherings, and that he also financed his subsequent trips in this way, and so it was important to him to have the largest auditorium possible, to draw a crowd. It would be to his advantage, therefore, to begin with something that would rivet attention, arouse curiosity - something a tad sensational. Story plots meant to move, amaze, astonish, pop up throughout his entire opus; without such stimuli, his audience would have dispersed early, bored, leaving him with an empty purse.Perhaps it was a similar motivation that pushed Kapuscinski to not just send back terse wire service missives on the conflicts and battles he observed but also to keep a separate notebook of observations that he would craft into his books. But to suggest that Kapsucinski's motives were craven and profit-driven alone would be to ignore the profound empathy with which he treats his subjects and the care with which he observes the foreign lands he visits.In Travels, Kapuscinski describes being lured to Algiers in 1965 by a vague tip from a source. Upon his arrival he discovers that indeed a coup has occurred, but he is dismayed to find that it has been bloodless and so there are no scenes of battle and mayhem to describe to hungry readers back home. Then Kapuscinski realizes how misguided this attitude is:It was here in Algiers, several years after I had begun working as a reporter, that it slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path back then. Until that awakening, I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling, observable tableaux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions, when it is rocked by shots and explosions, engulfed in flames and smoke, choked in dust and the stench of burning, when everything collapses into rubble on which people sit despairing over the remains of their loved ones.If there is a philosophy that encapsulates Kapuscinski, that is it. Body counts and "colorful" descriptions of chaos and violence offer us no insight into our world. Only with time and effort come empathy and understanding. This holds true of all of our best journalism (cf. George Packer).But Kapuscinski does not romanticize this noble cause. He instead sees it as a symptom of his loneliness. He is not the swashbuckling hero journalist that some portray him as but a wandering lost soul imprisoned by his travels. Near the end of this odd little memoir, travelogue, and homage to Herodotus, Kapuscinski, as if knowing that this is his goodbye, lays himself bare to his readers:Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy - lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others, and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kinship and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday's most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance.For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial.Kapuscinski's admission is stark and sad, but one must think that it was his lack of joy, of hubris, of a sense of heroism that underpinned the singular tone of his work and made it such a revelation to read.See Also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski
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We can’t help being impressed by the incredible array of books and authors Borges discusses in his fictions and his essays, but we must remember that he read them because he loved them, because when he opened up those volumes he felt the “secret portals of heaven” opening up over his head.
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