When my friend John moved to Philadelphia recently, I considered bringing a bag of rice to his new apartment. At the time I was in the middle of my second consecutive Nigerian novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart after Half of a Yellow Sun (which I wrote about last week), and it seemed like the kind of thing that would have happened in Okonkwo’s village, tagged to a parable about a frog and an eagle, and bearing the sentiment “may hunger never sleep beneath your roof.” My fiance, who is used to my flights of cultural longing, counseled against the idea, and reminded me that we have traditions of our own for this sort of thing. A bottle of wine might be more appropriate, she suggested (if my friend John is reading this, he’ll note that he ended up with neither the rice nor the wine).
In an early review of Things Fall Apart, released in 1958, The New York Times lamented the disappearance of “primitive” society as among its primary responses to the novel. Reading this in a profile of Achebe that appeared in the May 26 issue of The New Yorker, I couldn’t immediately tell if I was supposed to object to the lament or the lamented, whether the Times’ error was in wistfully recalling a culture that was never its own, or in characterizing that culture as “primitive.” Thinking about my own experience reading Things Fall Apart, I recognized the phantom nostalgia with which I read about the life of the Igbo people. I don’t know if culture is always opaque to those living in it, or if Igbo life really was richer in that way, but regardless, I found myself hungering for a time when there were fewer choices to be made and stronger reasons for making them.
Things Fall Apart is set on the eve of the colonial encounter between British missionaries and a group of Igbo villages called Umuofia. The book tells the story of Okonkwo, a village leader, who became famous as a young man for his wrestling prowess and ferocity in war, and later enjoys high status owing to the abundance of his yam harvests. Okonkwo is proud of what he’s achieved, but also afraid that he’ll be perceived as weak and lazy like his father, which leads him often to brutal acts of overcompensation.
When the missionaries arrive late in the book, it is with the slyness of a stranger sneaking ashore at night. They take advantage of local superstition to gain a foothold in the village, building a church in the forest of Evil Spirits, and their first converts are the villagers who suffered from the cruel side of Igbo culture, mothers forced to abandon newborn twins into the bush, and other varietals of outcast. Although he clearly has no patience for the progress narratives of colonialism, Achebe renders the first celebrations of the Sabbath, with gospel songs spilling out of a pristine church, as a kind of reprieve from the intolerance and arbitrariness which gather over time in tradition. But the end of Things Fall Apart is as inevitable and tragic as the history of colonial conquest. There are moments of hope, but the circumstances are inexorable and there are not enough good men around to hold them back.
There is a tantalizing moment in the book, though, when the first missionaries arrive and innocuously ask to build a church on the outskirts of the village. If the village leaders had known the ruse, could they have prevented the British from taking root? Even more to the point, how should the Igbo have reacted to an outsider come along, bearing a different culture, and asking to live right next door? Set aside the nefarious motives of the British, and it’s the same question of pluralism which we face a million ways over in America, in everything from gay marriage to immigration and assimilation. At most junctures, we have answered the question affirmatively, expanding the boundaries of how people live in our country. But pluralism necessarily comes at the expense of tradition and when you move too far along that curve, you end up with the quandary of an American staring at a supermarket aisle full of cereal. So many options, and no compelling reason to choose any of them.
With one round done in TMN’s Tournament of Books, things are looking good for The Millions bracket which, along with Condalmo, was the only one that had Brady Udall picking Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun over Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. How did I decide to pick it? It was a favorite of Dan Wickett’s and I trust that guy’s taste.Also, if you’ve checked out the Book Bloggers’ Office Pool page, you may have noticed that the reader that I’m playing for, who was randomly selected by TMN, shares a last name with me. He is, in fact, my dad. So this means one of two things. Either it’s quite a coincidence, or my bracket was only selected by family members who decided to support me out of pity. Regardless, if my bracket wins and my dad gets all those books that should have me covered for quite a few Fathers Days and birthdays.
The National Book Critics Circle announced the nominees for its annual best of the year awards over the weekend. Ed has stepped up to call the fiction selections in particular “safer than a dinner for four at the Olive Garden.” The relative safety of the books aside, my understanding was that this award was meant to be given to the books that the nation’s critics believe are of the highest quality, regardless of how well known or how obscure they are.While it might have been more interesting to for us to discuss five relatively unknown and incredibly challenging novels, I think that such a slate would have been intellectually dishonest when the critics are charged with picking the books they think are the best. Let us not forget 2004, when the five National Book Award nominees in fiction were basically unknowns across the board. The people behind the Award that year were roundly derided for their selections and those nominees were anything but safe. In that case, and in looking at this year’s NBCC nominees, I would suggest that we debate the books’ quality rather than whether they are too “predictable,” which strikes me as an even more slippery qualifier.For more on how the NBCC makes its picks, check out TEV’s interview with NBCC president John Freeman. Here are this year’s nominees in fiction and nonfiction along with excerpts where available (nominees in other categories can be found at the NBCC site):Fiction:Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (excerpt, an Emerging Writers best of the year)The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (excerpt)What is the What by Dave Eggers (excerpt, Garth’s review)The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford (excerpt, Noah’s review)The Road by Cormac McCarthyNonfiction:The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn (One of Cockburn’s Iraq diaries in the LRB)The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade by Anne Fessler (NYT review)The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Patrick’s review)Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama (excerpt)The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan (excerpt)
I’ve been reading Megan’s blog Bookdwarf for a long time now. I met Megan amidst all the crazy book folk at BEA this year and was surprised to find her not as short as one might have expected. While the name of her blog may be misleading, however, her taste in books can be trusted. As such, here are Megan thoughts on the best books she read this year:I love reading the lists you collect because they give me a chance to reflect on what I’ve read this year. I feel lucky – I read a lot of great books this year, some old and some new. One of my favorites was Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, which I was glad was nominated for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction. Hessler, who has lived in China for over ten years and speaks Mandarin fluently, writes about the changes occurring in China today. Not quite a travelogue nor a memoir, it’s a cultural portrait of a rapidly changing world. What makes it so great is Hessler’s ability to disappear from the narrative and paint a vivid portrait of everyone he meets and everything he sees. He shows us a big picture view with enough complexity and contradiction that we see all nuances.Another favorite this year was Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, part of the NYRB Classics series. First published to great acclaim in Hong Kong in the 40s, Chang’s short stories are being published in English for the first time. She writes about men, women, and the ways even the smallest actions or words can transform relationships. The cultural divide in Chinese society between ancient patriarchy and the tumultuous modernity forms the vivid background. The stories seem to be about how life never works out. They’re bleak and yet you can’t help but be enchanted by the characters.Other books I enjoyed this year were Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Aidichie, whose talented writing enchants this novel about the war in Biafra, and Random Family by Adrian Leblanc, who spent 10 years researching this finely written portrait of an extended family.PS I also second Mark’s love for Gregoire Bouillier’s Mystery Guest and Ed’s love for Echo Maker, not to mention Cormac McCarthy’s haunting The Road. I think I’ll try to read more older stuff in 2007. It’s part of my job to read the new stuff, but there’s so much out there already that needs reading.Thanks Megan!
The indefatigable Dan Wickett is the hardest working man in book blogging. He is a tireless advocate for “emerging” writers, small presses, and literary journals. How he found the time to compile this post for us, I’ll never know, but I’m glad he did.I divided my thoughts about authors that I read in 2006 into three categories. First up would be (what else from my end) Emerging Writers. Writers that fell into that category that I can’t wait to read more of would have to include:Dag Solstad – His Shyness & Dignity is not his first novel, but it is the first available in English, and it was the best book I read all year. Graywolf Press took the chance on bringing this Norwegian’s work to those of us without the skills to read his books in their original language, and they should be thanked.Benjamin Percy – His debut story collection, The Language of Elk, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in the middle of the year and shows readers a new vision of the current west, with most of the stories set in Oregon. Percy’s language crackles with masculinity and humor and the bizarre. Watch for him – he put a story in both BASS and Pushcart this year, has one coming in January’s Esquire and his second collection is coming from Graywolf Press in 2007.Robert Fanning – Are you kidding me? Wickett lobbed a poet into this list? Absolutely. Fanning’s The Seed Thieves is his first full length collection of poetry, thanks to Marick Press, and it is beyond just being solid. Fanning has a fantastic way about his phrasing and observations that work both on page, and if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear him read his work.Second up would be those writers who I already thought pretty highly of, that confirmed for me, once again, just how talented they were:William Gay with his novel Twilight from MacAdam/Cage. He follows up his previous two novels and short story collection with possibly his best yet. A frighteningly gothic near fairy tale about a young brother and sister combination and their efforts to expose a rather sordid mortician.Daniel Woodrell and Winter’s Bone, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Half of a Yellow Sun. Anybody reading this far into Max’s post has probably visited my site. Enough said as I’m pretty sure searching my blog for 2006 will show these two names and titles coming up way more than anything else.Tom Franklin with Smonk. The fever Franklin had that induced this story to come oozing out must have been 104 plus.Steve Yarbrough and Ron Rash with The End of California and The World Made Straight, respectively. These two gentlemen deserve accolades for not writing with any flash, or verbal pyrotechnics, but instead delivering captivating novels, time and time again by simply telling a great story, and doing so with, while excellent writing, not the need to make you notice it.Michael Ruhlman has once again delivered a fantastic book about cooking with his The Reach of a Chef. If you have ANY interest in the art of cooking, his books are all a must. And even if you don’t, you have more than half a chance at becoming enthralled anyway.Charles D’Ambrosio and Lee K. Abbott just may be the two best short story writers around and readers were fortunate enough to enjoy a new collection by D’Ambrosio (The Dead Fish Museum) and a Collected collection of Abbott (All Things, All at Once). There isn’t a mis-step in either, and above and beyond that, there are probably close to a dozen stories between the two works that are prize winning, year end anthology worthy.Lastly would be those writers that I found myself embarrassed to realize I’d never read their work prior to 2006, and in many cases had not even heard of them:Colson Whitehead – I had the opportunity to see him read in Ann Arbor earlier in the year and bought a copy of The Intuitionist, which I promptly read and loved. His other three books are high up in my TBR pile.Magnus Mills – I don’t know why I bought his The Restraint of Beasts – I thought I remembered his name from Jeff Bryant’s Underrated Writers Project from last year, but his name is not there. Whatever the case – I loved it and the follow up novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express as well. The rest of his novels and a short story collection reside in my TBR pile at this time.Rupert Thomson – Thanks to Megan for nominating his latest, Divided Kingdom, as an LBC nominee. Another one who I immediately began looking for his backlog of many novels to pad my TBR pile.Richard Powers – Oh well, at least I waited for a decent book to hop aboard – The Echo Maker – NBA winner. Thanks to Ed Champion for inviting me to the roundtable discussion of this wonderful title. There’s approximately 2100 pages of unread Powers’ novels on a shelf here now.Peter Markus – Even more ridiculous when you find out he resides less than 30 minutes from my house. Went to see the aforementioned Robert Fanning read earlier this year and Markus read some unpublished work from what should be his fourth book of short fictions that deal with brothers, mud, fish, and the moon. He was kind enough to give me a copy of his first, Good, Brother, which was reprinted by Calimari Press earlier this year. I read it that night and had ordered both The Moon is a Lighthouse (from a store in Japan – the only one I could find online) and The Singing Fish (also published, last year, by Calimari Press). The man is a unique writer, an amazing writer, and one I highly recommend you try to find. Plenty of his work is available online.Thanks Dan!
Back in January, I took a look at some of the “most anticipated” books of the year. Well, those books are old news now, but there are some great-looking books on the way. September and October in particular are looking pretty stacked. Please share any relevant links or books I may have missed.July:Gallatin Canyon by Thomas McGuane (New Yorker interview)Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle (Boyle’s blog)The Driftless Area by Tom Drury (Drury’s story “Path Lights“)The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (a new translation, thanks Bud)America’s Report Card by John McNally (Thanks Dan)The Judas Field by Howard Bahr (Thanks J.D.)August:Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (list of stories)Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (Thanks Dan)Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain (thanks Stephan)September:Moral Disorder by Margaret AtwoodThe Dissident by Nell Freudenberger (Her first novel; following up her collection, Lucky Girls)All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones (very excited about this one – the title story appeared in the New Yorker.)A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (a first look at the book)The Road by Cormac Mccarthy (a first look)After This by Alice McDermott (PW Review [scroll down])Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (thanks Dan)Smonk by Tom Franklin (thanks Dan)Dead in Desemboque by Eddy Arellano (Thanks Laurie)October:One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (sequel to Case Histories)What is the What by Dave Eggers (based on a true story, excerpted in The Believer – Part 1, 2, 3)Lay of the Land by Richard Ford (The third Frank Bascombe novel – I wrote about it last year.)Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier (A big enough deal that the announcement of a publication date came as an Entertainment Weekly exclusive.)Restless by William Boyd (A World War II novel)The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi JulavitsGolem Song by Marc Estrin (thanks Dan)The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke (Thanks Laurie)November:The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro (The title story was in the New Yorker)Soon the Rest Will Fall by Peter Plate (Thanks Laurie)The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross (Thanks Laurie)December:Untitled Thomas Pynchon novel (as confirmed by Ed.)January 2007:Zoli by Colum McCannFlora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce (Thanks Laurie)February 2007:Knots by Nuruddin Farah (based on “Farah’s own recent efforts to reclaim his family’s property in Mogadishu, and his experiences trying to negotiate peace among the city’s warlords.”)May 2007:The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Posts about the book: 1, 2, 3, 4)Addenda: Books suggested in the comments are being added above.