Day 1226: Turtles All the Way Down

Cover for Turtles All the Way DownI’ve only read two books by John Green, but he seems to have the teenage sensibility down, as well as specializing in damaged heroines. In this case, the problem is mental illness.

Aza is subject to compulsive thoughts, so much so that at times she doesn’t feel in control of herself. Her obsessions center around the microbes in the human body.

Aza’s friend Daisy is a real firecracker who blogs romantic stories about Star Wars characters. She sets off the action in the novel by suggesting that she and Aza investigate the disappearance of Russell Pickett, a corporate CEO who is under investigation. The authorities are offering a reward of $100K for information leading to his discovery, and Daisy thinks they have an in because of Aza’s former friendship with Davis, his son.

Aza reluctantly goes along with Daisy’s idea to contact Davis but finds things complicated. Davis is glad their neglectful father is gone, but his little brother is suffering. To make matters worse, Aza is attracted to Davis, who knows very well the reason the two girls came calling.

Green seems to specialize in bitter-sweet, and this novel is no exception. It is very entertaining and ultimately touching. Aza’s problems are handled with understanding and delicacy. (It seems that Green also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.) This is another winner for John Green.

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Day 1225: Literary Wives! Stay With Me

Cover for Stay With MeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

We are happy to announce that Emily will be rejoining our discussions. However, Kate and TJ have resigned the club. We will miss them!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

List for 2018-2019

We have just finished the selection process for our next group of books! Literary Wives will be reading the following books in the coming months.

August 2018: First Love by Gwendolyn Riley
October 2018: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
December 2018: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
February 2019: They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
April 2019: Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones
June 2019:  A Separation by Katie Kitamura
August 2019: Ties by Domenic Starnone
October 2019: Happenstance by Carol Shields
December 2019: The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
February 2020: War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

My Review

Yejide and Akin have been married for four years, she believes happily. But one day, Yejide’s malicious stepmothers show up with Funmi and introduce her as Akin’s second wife. Because the couple is childless, Akin’s family has talked him into marrying again. He did this without Yejide’s knowledge even though they had both agreed they didn’t believe in polygamy.

Yejide now becomes obsessed with having a child. Soon, she is suffering from a false pregnancy. Funmi, even though she has her own apartment, has started moving her things into Yejide’s and Akin’s house. The situation is made worse for Yejide, because her father’s other wives mistreated her as a child and continue to do so. She understands very well the pitfalls of this custom.

Akin is obviously a weak man unable to withstand pressure from his family. It turns out things are worse than that, however, and Yejide’s marriage will soon be in crisis.

Taking place in mid-1980’s Nigeria, this novel is set against the backdrop of political and social chaos. During one period, ordinary people have robbers breaking into their houses and stealing things while they are home. Yejide is an appealing and sympathetic character, and her people’s customs are interesting although sometimes appalling. The members of both families seem aggressive and rude at times. Overall, this is a fascinating novel.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I try to avoid spoilers even for this club, but for this topic that may be difficult. This novel depicts a culture that places almost all the emphasis in marriage on having children and men’s virility. Yejide finds that Akin has never been honest with her, even since the beginning of their marriage. To avoid having a discussion with his naive wife and his family, he begins a deception that is ultimately too damaging for their marriage.

Literary Wives logoLater, Akin says that he made arrangements for his most dishonest actions because he was worried about her, but it is clearly to avoid admitting his part in their fertility problems, an admission that would have solved most of their other problems.

Although both partners continue to believe they love each other, at no point do they frankly and honestly discuss their problems with each other. This omission is largely because of the weight of cultural conventions, but that does not excuse it. Their marriage is built on lies and omissions and continues into more lies, with tragic results.

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Day 1224: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire

Cover for The Alphabet of Heart's DesireThe Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is about an incident in the early life of Thomas De Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bare bones of fact are that De Quincey, as a young man, was given an allowance to use in his travels around the country, which he stopped getting when he fell out of touch with his family. Destitute, he was rescued by Anne, a prostitute. This novel tells their stories, along with that of Tuah, a Malay slave who is taken in by Archie, who sells used clothing.

I had a lot of trouble reading this novel and kept putting it aside to read other books. I almost decided to quit reading it when I realized I was 80% done, so I finished it. My problem was that I didn’t find any of the three major characters, De Quincey, Anne, and Tuah, particularly interesting. Here is a situation where the author tries to invoke interest in his characters by making bad things happen to them, trying to raise our sympathy from these unfortunate events rather than from the characters’ own personalities.

link to NetgalleyI also found this fictionalized interpretation of a short period in De Quincey’s life to be relatively pointless. All it serves is to wrap up Anne’s fate in a pretty bow. In reality, she disappeared into the London stews.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for The Long SongHaving finally reviewed the last book on the shortlist for the 2011 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it is time to write this recurring feature, where I give my opinion about which book I feel deserved the award.

This was a year with several entries that were unusual and one that I felt was not actually a very good novel. Let’s start with that one, To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams. This novel about a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander II was presented wrapped around an unlikely and uninteresting love story. I was never sure whether I was supposed to feel sympathy for the plotters or not. I didn’t.

The winner for that year was The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Although this is an interesting novel about the last days of slavery in Jamaica, I felt it was somewhat distancing from its characters. However, this sad story is told with humor and lightness.

Heartstone by C. J. Sansome is an entry in his Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England. Although this series is outstanding for its thorough immersion in the Tudor world, this novel was impeded in its effectiveness, I thought, by the subplot involving Ellen Fettiplace.

Cover for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De ZoetC by Thomas McCarthy is an unusual story of the life of a young man, set in the early 20th century and ending during World War I. Again, this novel, which wanders about among many different pursuits of its main character, was interesting but seemed detached from its subject, as was I.

One of the most beautifully written entries for that year is Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. This is the story of the poet John Millington Synge and Molly Allgood. Characterization is more important in this novel than the historical setting, which I think is vital for a novel considered for an award for historical fiction.

That leaves one of my favorite books of all time, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. This novel is set in 18th century Nagasaki, Japan, during the first opening of Japan to the West. Jacob de Zoet becomes one of the first Europeans to be allowed to set foot off the island called Dejima where all the Europeans are restricted to live. This novel was full of the flavor and customs of 18th century Japan as well as a good story about corruption in the Dutch East India Company.

Although several of the books on this year’s list are worthy of the award, my personal choice is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Day 1223: To Kill a Tsar

Cover for To Kill a TsarI have such a struggle with reading eBooks that I often put them aside while I’m charging my iPad and pick up a paper book, only to not return to the eBook until I finish the paper one. This is what happened with To Kill a Tsar, which was the paper book I picked up. Sometimes, the reason for continuing with the paper book is that I’m engrossed in it, but this time, it was just because I was finding the eBook no better.

The main character of To Kill a Tsar, Dr. Frederick Hadfield, is a Russian of British ancestry whose uncle is high up in Russian political circles. Hadfield has recently returned from studying in Switzerland and has liberal tendencies, which in Russia makes him a radical.

At a radical social event, he meets Anna Kovalenko and agrees to help her on Sundays at a free clinic. He is drawn to her, but he realizes very soon that she is part of a political group who just attempted to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. Does he avoid her despite his belief in nonviolence? No, of course not.

For me, this is one of the many places where the novel breaks down. To keep us interested in this story about terrorists, we are presented with a wholly unconvincing love story. Then, there is the question of what the author is asking of us. Are we supposed to sympathize with these people, who don’t care how many people are killed, as long as they make their point? Certainly, Williams doesn’t spend enough time revealing the characters of the police for us to sympathize with them. In fact, there is a subplot of an informer inside the police, but when his identity was revealed, I didn’t even know who he was.

I honestly couldn’t figure out what Williams was thinking when he made his choices. There were lots of things he could have done to make this novel interesting. He could have, for example, worked more to make us sympathize with one side or the other instead of assuming, in this age of terrorism, that we would think “No rights? Of course, kill the tsar!” never mind that, as tsars go, Alexander II was one of the most liberal. If Williams simply wanted to report what happened without following a side, he could have left out the lame love affair and spent equal time with both sides. If he wanted us to sympathize more with Hadfield, then make his reactions more understandable.

This is one of the books on my Walter Scott Prize list that I didn’t enjoy that much. That has happened before, but in this case, I also didn’t think it was a very good novel. I don’t think that has happened before.

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Day 1222: West with the Night

Cover for West with the NightBest of Five!
When it was republished in the 1980’s, West with the Night was controversial because of Markham’s third ex-husband’s claim to have written most of the book and allegations by people who knew Markham that she was practically illiterate. In her biography of Markham, Mary S. Lovell effectively refutes these allegations, noting particularly that nothing like this was said the first time it was published and that part of the manuscript was submitted to a publisher before she met her third husband.

Actually, I don’t think anyone but Beryl Markham could have written West with the Night. It is beautifully written, with evocative descriptions of Africa and insights into her own thinking. It is not an autobiography. Most of the intimate details of her life are left out. We do not hear, for example, that when her father first left British East Africa for Peru, she was married to her first husband.

Instead, West with the Night is a series of recollections about Markham’s childhood and life in Africa, ending just after she flew across the Atlantic by herself. The book is deeply interesting and thought-provoking. Here and there she interjects a few stories told to her by natives. She was a remarkable woman, both Kenya’s first woman horse trainer and one of the world’s first woman pilots, the first person to fly east to west over the Atlantic (the more difficult direction).

West with the Night is sometimes compared to Out of Africa, written by her friend Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), but I find Markham’s book to be much better. It is both simply written and full of understated emotion.

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