Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

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Blurb: Things Fall Apart tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society.

The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, and which elevates the book to a tragic plane, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries. These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized, and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. (Goodreads.com) 

★★★★☆

I BACK!!!! this post signals the start of summer, extreme boredom, and buckets of time to do all my reading (essential and non!)

I just finished Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and this will only be a short review cos I am very tired and hot and bothered by this frankly GROSS weather we are having in London. Anyway, this book is basically the most pivotal African novel there is, and having read stuff recently by Chigozie Obioma and preceding my venture into Americanah by Chimamande Ngozie Adichie, I thought this book would be good context.

The book revolves around the warrior Okonkwo, and his struggles with the clan and his own violent and extreme machismo, leading him into trouble with his peers. But whilst the story is a journey of personal development for the protagonist, in the background is a cultural signpost of white missionaries and the spread of Christiantiy throughout Africa. Often seen as a saving grace brought to the countries of Africa by the Western, more sophisticated world, the book portrays the Christians not in a bad light, but in a way the reader comes to his/her own conclusion about it. Through the character of his protagonist, Achebe uses the singular case of Okonkwo to force his reader to think about the negative ideas surrounding white missionaries and the idea of the ‘white saviour’ came into my head as a modern parallel. Just as the white man invaded the African countries with his religion, this happens all too often in our modern society, with the rise of voluntourism also comes the increase of the view of Africans as underdeveloped third-worlders who can only live a successful and ‘developed’ life after they have been visited by the Westerners.

This book left me feeling indignant and angry, but also moved and educated – obviously all the things you want from a book !! Read this book if you are interested in Nigerian culture, tribal warfare, and the effects of the Western world on African countries.

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The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

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★★

The Little Friend is a novel written in 2002, a decade after Donna Tartt’s arguably more successful novel, The Secret History, and in my opinion, is so much better. The beginning of the book is set up as a kind of murder mystery, with 12 and a half year old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes setting out to avenge her brother’s death, who was hanged mysteriously aged nine a decade before. This makes it seem much darker than it actually is, and turns out not to be a discovery of who killed Robin Cleve, but Harriet’s discoveries of her small town of Alexandria, and the situations she finds herself in.

I wouldn’t call it plotless, as I have seen so many reviews claim, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and there are some seriously high paced moments in which this book is unputdownable. I’ve seen so many reviews calling this book boring! Please don’t call this book boring! I was so pleasantly surprised! It seems Donna Tartt has this wonderful skill for writing so much about basically nothing – and many writers do this, but she is among the few that actually still manage to produce an enjoyable book at the end of it. This is a book to be READ thoroughly, even if there is little resolution to the questions she poses at the beginning – just ENJOY IT, because she’s so so good.

When I read The Secret History,  I was almost repulsed by it and took an immediate dislike to it’s characters and plot (you can read my review here), and although it is definitely more high paced and dramatic than this second novel, there’s something about The Little Friend which really appealed to me. It has snakes, death, drama, white trash meth-heads, and Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, the best part of the whole book. She’s a stoic self-empowered 12 year old whose role models include Houdini and Robert Louis Stevenson. She trains herself to stay underwater for long periods of time, aims to read more books than anyone else each summer, and basically doesn’t take any crap from anyone. She’s a joy to read about from start to finish.

It seems like Donna Tartt hit her stride and came into her own way of writing with this book, as if she had to write The Secret History as a sort of practice run. Languidly describing the characters and their settings, with less attention paid to the central plot suits her much more than the over dramatic and grating style of The Secret History. 

 

Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell

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Blurb: This unusual fictional account – in good part autobiographical – narrates without self-pity and often with humor the adventures of a penniless British writer among the down-and-out of two great cities. The Parisian episode is fascinating for its expose of the kitchens of posh French restaurants, where the narrator works at the bottom of the culinary echelon as dishwasher, or plongeur. In London, while waiting for a job, he experiences the world of tramps, street people, and free lodging houses. In the tales of both cities we learn some sobering Orwellian truths about poverty and society.

★★

Favourite quote: I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels,nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny,nor subscribe to the Salvation Army,nor pawn my clothes,nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant.That is a beginning.

This book is often called the most underrated of Orwell’s works – and it so is! It’s a (somewhat emphasised) nonfiction account of his brief stint in poverty during the 1930s, first in Paris, and then in London (hence the title). With gutwrenching candour, he describes how he lives on pennies per week, often going without food for days, battling with 15 hour work days and bug infested beds. It’s very short, and reads more like an essay than a novel – and it needs not be any longer than it is, as you get the idea pretty quickly. I can’t believe that every detail is true to Orwell’s life – but even if 20% is true, then I feel pretty sorry for the guy. I felt hungry just reading this book, but his flowing prose and pretty accurate views on working in the catering industry helped me through.

I wouldn’t say that this book is ‘triggering’ for those that live in poverty, nor would I say that it’s an unbearable read due to its brutal honesty about living with nothing. This book was written a good 90 years ago, and I’d like to think the social welfare programs of both the UK and France provide a less vomit inducing backdrop to poverty. Orwell colours this book with so many different personalities and characters that its a thoroughly enjoyable read – although I would say it’s helpful to have a nice bubble bath to go sit in after you read it.

 

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

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Blurb: ‘EVERY DAY THE SAME. Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.’ Goodreads.com

★★

Read this book if your friend lends it to you, or if you’re going on a very long flight, or have just read Anna Karenina and need some light relief. Don’t believe that this is the most ‘anticipated read of the year’ or the ‘bestselling worldwide blockbuster novel’, because it’s just a plain old thriller. It’s a good, but overhyped summer read.

The plot is solid, and I read it in 1 day which does lend some credit to its readability and enjoyment factor. It revolves around Rachel Watson, a woman who passes the same house, in her old neighbourhood, every day on the train, and gets far too involved in things she shouldn’t. She’s a depressing protagonist, as are the people around her, and I’m not sure that’s not just because they’ve been badly written – there seemed to be absolutely no variation in the ‘type’ of person Hawkins writes about. I found myself literally predicting what was going to happen next in this book and basically worked out the end. If you like books that include characters you will loathe, read this novel!!! (it’s similar to Gone Girl in this way)

The fact that I thought that the writing was bad (to be honest), doesn’t really matter because it does have a gripping storyline so you can kind of put Hawkins’ overused cliches into the back of your mind. I enjoyed it, but this is the kind of book I feel guilty about reading afterwards as I feel like I’ve lost a few brain cells (sorry)

 

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

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‘In their world frivolous liaisons are commonplace, but Anna and Vronsky’s consuming passion makes them a target for scorn and leads to Anna’s increasing isolation. The heartbreaking trajectory of their relationship contrasts sharply with the colourful swirl of friends and family members who surround them, especially the newlyweds Kitty and Levin, who forge a touching bond as they struggle to make a life together. Anna Karenina is a masterpiece not only because of the unforgettable woman at its core and the stark drama of her fate, but also because it explores and illuminates the deepest questions about how to live a fulfilled life.’

★★★

This book is a thorough and complete study of all things people and the peaks and troughs of life and love. Despite being written in the late 19th C, it’s way before it’s time, and contrary to what everyone thinks when they hear ‘Russian literature’ or ‘Tolstoy’ which is usually along the lines of ‘oh god’ this book is impressively easy to read.

In a nutshell, it’s the story of a Anna, who’s passions for another man lead to her inevitable downfall. You know from the start the only possible ending for her, making it a pretty painful read. Can Anna fully estrange herself from her husband and son and start again with the attractive Count Vronsky? Probably not. Will she ever be accepted into Russian society without being branded a ‘fallen woman’? Of course not, that wouldn’t be exciting at all.

This is the mother of the modern novel and just to call it ‘Anna Karenina’ is the tip of the iceberg, as Tolstoy follows the entire network of relationships that surround her, and coupled with the detailed storyline of Levin, a clear reflection of Tolstoy himself, makes for an intricately woven book with about ten different main characters.Levin represents the future of Russia, the birthings of a communist environment, whilst Anna and her relations showcase the expensive living of the Moscow and St Petersburg circles. However, if there is one lesson in this book, it’s that money and success never equal happiness; anyone can get their heart broken and their life torn apart by the most primal of emotions – desire.

You can tell Tolstoy not only places importance on the love and attractive downfall of Anna’s life, as the book is interspersed with long analysis of peasant – or ‘muzhik’ – life and farming, providing a social and economic commentary which would have been far more relevant at the time of publication. Nevertheless, it provides a contrast to the turmoil of the Karenins, and certainly from a historical point of view lends an insight into the beginnings of a communist Russia. Although I have a soft spot for Levin and his country-dwelling, peasant-loving ways, these long passages are not integral to the plot – don’t be put off! These lulls in the plot are contrasted with unbelievable highs which make up for some of the intense pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood


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BLURB: ‘For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, running a kingdom while her husband is off fighting the Trojan war is not a simple business. As if it isn’t bad enough that he has been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must also bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep more than one hundred lustful, greedy, bloodthirsty suitors at bay…Perhaps not surprising then that is all ends in murder.’ 

READ IF YOU LIKE: Classic tales, one-sitting reads, feminist empowerment, the Odyssey

PAGE COUNT: Approx 198

STAR RATING: ★★★★☆

This book is completely perfect for both Atwood lovers and Homer lovers. It’s not one of her most well-known books, however you can see her classic writing style running through the whole book, with her twisting similes and slick one liners (‘Now I am dead I know everything’ is the opening line) making it just as good as some of her most well known stuff.

This book takes heavy influence from Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ written around 8th century BC. Atwood gives her tale from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife who he leaves behind when he goes on his twenty year journey. In Homer’s Odyssey, his journey takes up the bulk of the book, leaving Penelope and her story in Ithaca. Thus, this book provides a completely alternative perspective on his wife who in Homer’s rendition is somewhat of a doormat, waiting patiently and loyally for her husband to return from war. In Atwood’s version, Penelope is clever, sometimes whiney, scheming, and often has her doubts about keeping loyalty to her husband. It puts an empowering twist on the passive female character, giving her a witty and satirical voice, however retains classical themes, characters, and often writing style.  For example, Penelope’s chapters are interspersed with poems, coming from the voices of the twelve hanged maidens, who act as a sort of Chorus to Penelope’s story.

By no means should you have read the Odyssey before reading this book. However, it is amazing to use as a feminist reading of the classic tale, and is an example of one of the many many texts the Odyssey has inspired. I was very much aided by the fact I had read the Odyssey before, as of course there are strong references throughout, as well as to other sources of Greek mythology. Although Atwood’s character of Penelope is of course not part of Homer’s original story, I finished it feeling like I had gained knowledge of both sides of the story, and was somewhat turned against the lovely Odysseus Homer describes in his original work.

This book is one of those small gems you may not have heard of, but combined with the original story of the Odyssey and many other Greek God tales, it provides an empowering and poignant commentary on the lack of autonomy Homer gave the original Penelope. Doubled with this, Atwood’s quick writing style makes it funny, colloquial and a very satisfying to read.