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Merle

Merle

Mema by Daniel Mengara

Mema - Daniel Mengara

This novella was a pleasant surprise. It’s told from the perspective of a boy who grew up in a traditional village society in Gabon, and the beginning didn’t seem to bode well due to some repetition and meandering. But it soon hits its stride, and once I realized that the style of storytelling, with a certain amount of repetition, was drawing on oral tradition, it became much more palatable.

This short book is perhaps reminiscent of someone telling stories around a fire in way the narrator moves from one subject to the next. He first builds a picture of his childhood world, recalling how the community traditionally solved problems like wives leaving their husbands (this involves large meetings between both villages, since a marriage between two people is the marriage of their families). Then he talks about his mother, a woman with a strong personality who has the misfortune of losing her husband and daughters and being accused of sorcery by her husband’s village, but refuses to give up. And then he moves on to his young life in the village and for a few years with his adult cousin in town. It isn’t strictly plot-driven and there are stories within the story, like the village legend dealing with children’s duties to their parents. But I found it to be well-told and engaging.

Interestingly, some reviewers seem to have understood this as a book about the tension between tradition and modernity. I saw it much more as an ode to the narrator’s mother and to traditional village life, with a brief foray to the city, though the end implies that the narrator will later rejoin the modern world. Nevertheless, one of its strongest passages is all about that tension between the two:

“The white man's world was like that. It made you think about things, not people. It made you forget about people. It made you want things. It made you want many things. And when you started to want many things, you had no time left for thinking about people, because you spent so much time trying to get those things you wanted. So you forgot about everyone. And you no longer cared about anyone else, and no one else cared about you. You were left alone to fend for yourself because everybody else was so busy fending for themselves too.”

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Pigs In Heaven - Barbara Kingsolver

I have a theory about the genesis of this novel. By the time she wrote her first novel, the beloved The Bean Trees, it’s clear that Kingsolver was already deeply invested in social justice issues. But she missed one when her protagonist, a young woman named Taylor, traveled through Cherokee tribal lands in Oklahoma just long enough to unwittingly rescue a battered native toddler dumped on her by a frightened aunt. And when Taylor returned, with the best of intentions, it was to fraudulently adopt the child without the knowledge of the tribe.

As I envision events, a Cherokee reader talked to Kingsolver about this, pointing out that Cherokee have large extended families who would miss the child; that after a long history of genocide and other abuses at the hands of white America, including the removal of children, tribes need to hang onto their kids if they are to survive (hence the Indian Child Welfare Act, which among other things prohibits outside adoptions without the tribe’s consent); and that Taylor, who is physically and culturally white despite a Cherokee great-grandparent, is unequipped to teach Turtle about her heritage or how to deal with racism.

So Kingsolver, as we all should do when confronted with our oversights, recognized the problem and set out to fix it. And this sequel was born.

Pigs in Heaven picks up three years after the end of The Bean Trees. Turtle gets her fifteen minutes of fame when she witnesses an accident, and a newly-minted Cherokee lawyer named Annawake – who has a personal stake in ICWA – hears her story and realizes something is fishy. After a visit from Annawake, Taylor panics and takes off with Turtle, but her mother, Alice – just out of a brief and unsatisfying marriage – takes a different tack, going to stay with a relative on tribal lands in hopes of amicably resolving the problem and getting to know Turtle’s extended family.

I actually liked this book better than The Bean Trees; Kingsolver has clearly matured as an author. The plot is more focused and cohesive and flows smoothly, without ever feeling slow. It follows several major characters while keeping everything moving and the reader eager to know what will happen next. It examines the central issues from all sides and with empathy for everyone involved, all of whom make mistakes but are trying to do the best they can for Turtle. Yes, it can be predictable, but in this case I don’t see that as a flaw; this story is built not on suspense but on family relationships, and I enjoyed sinking into the characters’ journey and guessing at where it would lead them. The writing style is good and endows the book with warmth and wisdom.

Meanwhile, Kingsolver seems to have done her research, or rather the friends she credits in the acknowledgments did a thorough job of educating her. I read a legit Cherokee book right after this in part to check her facts, which checked out. But there are also subtle things, like the story that’s told to two different people and slightly differently each time, that readers familiar with Cherokee culture will likely appreciate. If anything, life on tribal lands seems a little idealized – there’s a lot of family values, community and tradition, with social problems acknowledged but kept out of sight – though much of this is related through Alice’s point-of-view, and I suspect that her experiences as a visitor to tribal lands were, reasonably enough, based on Kingsolver’s.

My two issues with the book aren’t with the writing. One is that there are several continuity errors between the first book and this one. The legal first name (April) that Taylor gave Turtle on adoption vanishes; Alice and Taylor’s Cherokee ancestor changes from a grandfather to a grandmother (significant because clan passes through the female line); Taylor’s father goes from a mystery man about whom Alice would only say that he was nobody Taylor knew to an ex-husband about whom she’s not reluctant to speak when necessary. The other is more about judging other people’s parenting than anything else. Taylor makes several questionable choices that are never called out in the narrative, from moving herself and Turtle in with a boyfriend about whom she’s not that serious, to telling the real story of her abandonment on national TV – which is not only stupid because it’s inconsistent with official records, but publicly telling the story in front of Turtle and allowing it to be made light of seems hurtful. But real people aren't perfect, so characters shouldn't be either.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, which tells a compelling story about contemporary issues, with good writing and populated by sympathetic characters. I read it quickly and was fully engaged with the story and characters, which doesn't happen as often as I'd like these days. I recommend it, whether or not you read The Bean Trees first.

The Best 10 Books I Read in 2017

Somewhat delayed, but better late than never! Here are the best 10 books I read in 2017, with my hope that some of you will love them too.

 

1. Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon review

 

 

Without a doubt the best nonfiction I read in 2017, this is a dual biography of groundbreaking authors Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. With dramatic events, great storytelling, solid research and two complicated stories of brilliant women making their way in a hostile world, this book has it all.

 

 

2. Tender by Sofia Samatarreview

 

 

The best fiction I read in 2017, this is an unbelievably good short story collection, combining science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, fairy tales and contemporary stories. Yes, there's sci-fi and I loved it, even though I hate sci-fi! Samatar has it right: the fantastic elements exist to tell a story about the characters rather than vice versa. A beautiful collection.

 

 

3. The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooperreview

 

 

 

 

A fabulous memoir of the author's privileged childhood in Liberia, and her return to her country as an adult. By turns tragic and funny, but always engaging, thoughtful, relatable and informative.

 

 

4. Gorilla and the Bird by Zack McDermottreview

 

 

Another fantastic memoir, this one by a big-city public defender and aspiring comedian whose sudden psychotic break marks the beginning of his battle with bipolar disorder. McDermott is a master storyteller and this book is compelling, funny and hopeful.

 

 

5. Exit West by Mohsin Hamidreview

 

 

The best novella I read this year, this is a beautiful, tender story of two young people who become refugees in a frantically globalizing world. Its central concept, mysterious doors that instantly transport people from one part of the world to another, makes an excellent metaphor to think about the future of our world, but the book shines because it never loses sight of the humanity of its characters.

 

 

6. Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbireview

 

 

The best contemporary novel I read in 2017, this unapologetically Ugandan novel tells the story of a clan which believes itself to be carrying the curse of a long-dead ancestor. It's an expansive, multi-layered book, following the lives of many characters navigating a world that's both modern and traditional. It's not often you see first novels this assured, and with such a large cast of complex characters; I'm excited to see what this author does next.

 

 

7. The Hearts of Horses by Molly Glossreview

 

 

The best historical fiction I read in 2017, this literary novel uses the arrival of a young female broncobuster to tell the stories of several families in a rural Oregon county at the beginning of WWI. It's a quiet, contemplative sort of book that moves easily between the big picture and individual lives. And it isn't at all sentimental about horses; just ignore the cover.

 

 

8. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson - review

 

 

 

 

It may not be saying much these days to say that this is the best fantasy I read in 2017, but I would read more fantasy if Kij Johnson wrote more. This is a lovely novella about a professor who, having thought her adventuring days were behind her, undertakes a quest to retrieve a missing student. It's both an homage and an answer to elements of Lovecraft, but there's no need to have read him to enjoy this.

 

 

9. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdiereview

 

 

In terms of literary quality, this may be the best book I read in 2017. Part magic realism, part family saga, this novel traces Indian history through its key moments for most of the 20th century. If you love language and haven't read Rushdie yet, you should give him a try; this book took me some effort at first, but was worth the trouble.

 

 

10. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexanderreview

 

 

Of all the books I read in 2017, this one did the most to change my perspective. Mass incarceration isn't exactly the same as Jim Crow, but both systems originated from racism and oppress Americans of color while defining their relationship to the rest of society. A must-read for social-justice-oriented folk.

A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo

A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa - Alexis Okeowo

This is a short nonfiction work by a Nigerian-American journalist that goes behind the headlines in four conflict areas in Africa, telling the stories of people who range from victims to local leaders. It is a very engaging book, a quick read that introduces readers to several countries and humanizes big events, although at only 236 pages for so many stories, it is very brief and therefore unable to treat its subjects with the depth I would have liked.

Eunice is a teenage girl living in rural northern Uganda when she is kidnapped by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army while visiting her sister at boarding school. Once in the bush, she is forced to marry Bosco, a young man also kidnapped as a teenager, and both are forced to participate in acts of violence. By the time both eventually escape, they have children together, and Eunice, like many young women whose futures are circumscribed by LRA kidnapping, decides to return to Bosco. Former rebels are given amnesty to encourage defection, but the couple faces ostracism from their community and seems to be passing on their trauma to their children.

Biram is a Mauritanian activist, growing up in a socially conscious family in the last country in the world to outlaw slavery (it became illegal in 1981, but not a criminal offense until 2007), and one where the police remain uninterested in bringing wealthy slaveowners to justice. He starts an organization dedicated to eradicating slavery, rescues slaves directly and draws attention to the cause by risky acts like publicly burning the books used to justify slavery under Muslim law (though he is Muslim himself). Later he expands his focus to other racial justice issues and runs for president of Mauritania.

Abba, aka Elder, is an auditor and patriarch of a large family in northern Nigeria when Boko Haram gains traction in the area. Frustrated by the lack of government response to the attacks, he joins a local vigilante group that captures militants and hands them over to security forces, proving far more effective than the actual military. He becomes a leader in the group and moves into politics as well. Meanwhile, Rebecca is a teenage boarding school student in nearby Chibok when she is kidnapped by Boko Haram along with 300 classmates. Fortunately, she is one of the 50-odd with the courage and presence of mind to quickly escape, and gradually overcomes her trauma while returning to school in a distant city.

Finally, Aisha is a teenage girl in Mogadishu, Somalia, who refuses to let al-Shabaab terrorists intimidate her out of playing basketball. They certainly try – she receives regular death threats by phone, is nearly kidnapped and has a gun pointed at her on a bus – and another female player is brutally murdered. But Aisha is determined to live her own life, and she and her teammates find joy in the game and treasure rare opportunities to participate in tournaments, despite the lack of government support.

These are all fascinating stories, though the subtitle doesn’t quite fit anyone other than perhaps Aisha: Biram and Elder are leaders, not ordinary people, while Rebecca is a survivor but not exactly fighting extremism, and Eunice and Bosco remain victims. Each story is told in two chapters, one in the first half of the book and the other in the second, and the second half provides much of the emotional consequences and complexity that seemed to be missing from the first half. Of course the circumstances of these people’s lives, and the strength required to keep going, is extraordinary to the Western reader. This book tells very compelling stories in a quick and accessible way; for me it is too quick (each of these stories deserves its own book), but it provides a great introduction while telling human stories behind events in the headlines.

My other reservation is the fact that the book cites no sources, and the author tells us nothing about her research other than what happens to come out in the text as she relates her experiences in meeting these folks. She generally applies critical thought to the stories people tell her – for instance, she includes the accusations of brutality against Elder’s group – but sometimes seems to accept simplistic stories, as in the 9-page life story of a Mauritanian slave that seems to be a chronicle of constant abuse. Though the author seems to do her research, it’s never clear how well the stories are corroborated.

Despite that, I think this is a great premise for a book and these stories are engaging, emotional, and well-told, with enough background information included for readers unfamiliar with these countries to understand their contexts. I recommend it.

Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ - Giulia Enders

A book about the digestive system for laypeople. It’s written in a strong voice and is both informative and accessible, explaining current research in terms understandable to the non-scientist and including helpful tips for everyday life. Enders advises readers on everything from cleanliness (wring out kitchen sponges; bacteria love them because they’re warm and damp, but drying can keep them somewhat cleaner) to diet (cold cooked rice, potato salad, asparagus, leeks, garlic and onions are all nutritious offerings for the good bacteria in our digestive system) to combating nausea (ginger has proven effects, as does the acupuncture point P6).

But I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy reading this as much as I expected based on the reviews. Maybe because this just isn’t my favorite subject, and I read it from start to finish, pushing through sections such as the one on laxatives that didn’t particularly interest me in order to reach the more interesting material, like the influence of the gut on the brain. Maybe because I’m used to books with an overarching thesis to pull it all together, where this felt more like a series of disparate topics and a lot of (often intriguing or useful) factoids than a coherent whole. Maybe because so many topics are breezed through so quickly, often in metaphorical language that can help readers picture what’s going on, but that doesn’t provide a full understanding. Still, it’s a useful book with plenty of practical application in daily life, so although it wasn’t my favorite reading experience, I am glad I read it and would recommend.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Kintu - Aaron Bady, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

This is a big, ambitious book, relating the story of an extended family that begins with a patriarch in 1750 and then jumps ahead to 2004, tracing the fortunes of his descendants in modern Uganda. It’s been much discussed as a very Ugandan book, written for local readers and enjoying massive popularity there, but it’s an excellent novel with much to offer international readers as well.

The story begins in the old kingdom of Buganda, where Kintu Kiddu, a governor, journeys to the capital to pay his respects to a new king, who just took power by murdering his brother. Kintu’s most pressing concerns, however, are closer to home, with the large number of wives he’s obliged to marry for political purposes, the grooming of his heir, and the adopted son whose father curses Kintu’s family.

By 2004, Kintu’s descendants are scattered. Suubi, abandoned as a child, has found material stability but is haunted by her dead twin; estranged from her adoptive family, she tentatively searches for her relatives at the urging of her boyfriend. Kanani is an old man who, along with his fanatical wife, has found refuge in an evangelical Anglican sect, but their zealotry has driven away their children and the family keeps a shameful secret. Isaac has overcome childhood neglect and survived war to be economically successful, but he believes he has given HIV to his wife and child and is afraid to confirm it. Miisi is foreign-educated but chooses to live in a village, where he is raising a small tribe of grandchildren after the deaths of his children.

Plot summaries about this book tend to focus on the ancient curse, but as someone who usually finds fictional curses to be boring plot drags, I was impressed with Makumbi’s handling of this element. The Kintu clan believes that they are cursed, but the story leaves room for other interpretations. The characters experience a lot of hardship, but in the modern story it never feels inevitable, as in those books where you know every hope will end in tragedy. When the clan ultimately comes together in an attempt to remove the curse,

the outcome is ambiguous; but what’s clear is that they have connected with one another, forming a support network to buoy relatives who are isolated or in crisis. Perhaps their isolation from one another was the problem all along, and the ceremonial aspects are simply a way to bring people together and give them a common goal.

(show spoiler)

But having more than one possible reading is a sign of good literature.

And this is a really good book. It’s engaging and moves quickly, with short chapters and lot of dialogue, and a few secrets for readers to guess. The characters are believable and complex, even those who only appear for short periods of time, and this is quite a feat given that there are a lot of them. The writing is good and there is a strong sense of place, though this is a book much more focused on people than descriptions; the culture comes out in the way people speak and what they think and worry about. When people talk about this book being “too African” for British readers (Makumbi evidently couldn’t get a publisher there), I suspect it’s not really about the book’s lack of white characters or focus on colonialism and its aftermath. All that has been done before, though this book remains notable for the lack of European presence in such an expansive historical epic; there’s a lot more to Uganda’s history than its decades of British rule, and we see that in context here.

No, I think the British publishers just took issue with the book’s being aimed at Ugandan readers: the language, the names, the culture aren’t simplified, but form the foundations of the book’s complex world. I doubt international readers will actually have trouble understanding it. No matter where you’re from, it’s an engaging story with a lot of humanity that anyone will recognize, and books tend to be better when they don’t make patronizing assumptions about their audiences.

Aside from being a good story, this book has a lot to say. In the introduction (which I recommend actually reading – it’s spoiler-free and provides interesting background and context), Makumbi describes the book as “masculinist,” for its look at how patriarchy hurts men. The book doesn’t explicitly discuss gender roles, but it’s there, from Kintu’s struggles to sexually gratify the many young wives politics require him to marry when he only wants one, to Isaac’s issues with female sexuality, which lead him to marry a woman who can recognize his issues and use them to manipulate him. When asked if this isn’t feminism, Makumbi replied that her next book is the feminist one – which has me excited for that book. But I can see where she’s coming from: this book is more focused on the men, though the women are complex and varied.

Finally, it’s a fascinating look at the combination of tradition and modernity. There are a lot of traditional Ganda beliefs in the novel, but it doesn’t idealize the past or portray it as monolithic. (One of the funniest scenes involves a traditional all-night advice session for Kintu’s son on the eve of his marriage; the men give him a lot of contradictory advice about sex and marriage.) In the present, the clan varies in their adherence to tradition, from Kanani, who wants to do away with it, to his sister Bweeza, whose persistence and enthusiasm for the old ways make her the “Great Aunt” of the clan. Modernity creeps into traditional ceremonies, where the hired medium is foreign-educated, while old ways and traditional motifs reassert themselves in modern contexts.

Overall then, this is an excellent novel, combining storytelling prowess with big ideas and food for thought. I hope its unfamiliarity won’t scare readers off; one of the great advantages of reading is the ability to experience other lives and cultures, and this is a perfect book for the armchair traveler. And it has an engaging plot, complex characters and universal themes to interest those with no connection to Uganda. I hope it is widely read and that we get more books like this.

Gorilla and the Bird by Zack McDermott

Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love - Zack McDermott

This is a fantastic memoir by a public defender with bipolar disorder, who occasionally experiences intense psychotic episodes. Zack McDermott is an excellent storyteller and onetime aspiring comedian, so this book will pull you right in, keep you rapt and sometimes make you laugh, despite its sometimes heavy subject matter.

The beginning of the book throws readers right into McDermott’s first psychotic episode: having met with a producer about his comedy routine only a few days before, he walks out of his apartment convinced that he is in the middle of an audition. He wanders New York City for hours, acting wacky for the cameras, until the police pick him up and take him to the hospital. Over the next couple of years, he’s hospitalized several times, struggling but eventually learning how to keep his disease under control. He is supported throughout by his mom “the Bird,” a rock star teacher of underprivileged teens who is there for her kid no matter what. The book also traces McDermott’s childhood – growing up poor in Kansas City with a single mom putting herself through school – and includes a fair bit about his work as a public defender. (I enjoyed those bits a lot; they are as no-holds-barred as the rest of the book.)

McDermott would probably make an excellent novelist, because he turns his life into a compelling story, with humor and sharp dialogue alongside a gripping plot. I read it very quickly, and it’s one of those books that’s hard to review in part because when I return to look at something in the book, I start reading it again. It seems to me that, despite some dark subject matter, the author chose to put an optimistic spin on his life in the book; an essay published the same week includes some of the same material but also discusses trauma that’s absent from the memoir. It seems like the book’s happy ending is true as far as it goes, but also isn’t the whole story. Probably no memoir is.

At any rate, it’s an excellent book. And without ever appearing to have an agenda (the author seems more upset about the way poor people of color are treated in the criminal justice system than anything that happens to him), the book challenges the stigma around mental illness, as well as the notion that a serious mental illness will inevitably ruin someone’s life or end in tragedy. I definitely recommend this one.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories - Alice Munro

The title story in this volume is fantastic. The slow unfolding and peeling back the layers of the story, the host of well-realized and believable characters bumping up against one another, the historical Canadian setting, and the surprise ending: I loved it all, and am not at all surprised that a movie was based on this 50-page story. It’s better than many a novel.

And there are a couple other stories here that I liked. “Comfort” is about the death of a husband, a severe biology teacher who fought the incursion of religion into the curriculum. I enjoyed this mostly for the husband’s story, and was less interested in the wife’s grieving and found the end to peter out. The last story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” follows a philandering but loving husband whose wife develops dementia and embarks on a nursing home romance. This one is poignant and its situations interesting, though I didn’t ever feel I knew enough about the wife and their relationship to completely engage.

The remaining six stories seemed to me to be variations on a theme, and it’s a theme Munro fully developed in The Beggar Maid, which I previously read and enjoyed. The protagonist is a woman who is searching for herself, who has an unsatisfying marriage; some of the stories focus more on the marriage, others on her life before or after. Sometimes she leaves, although this was an uncommon choice at the time these stories are set, while other times she contents herself with a fling. Her family background includes a dead mother and remarried father, living in some small town she has left behind. Her story involves learning about herself or about life and how to live in it.

These aren’t bad stories, but they didn’t particularly speak to me. In some cases I felt like perhaps I was a generation too young to appreciate the societal influences on these women and how those influences shaped them. The way the women fail to assert themselves in their relationships and make their needs known, the way their marriages often seemed to be strange and independent creatures rather than partnerships negotiated by the people involved, even in a world not too far removed from the modern one, left something of a blank for me. And because these are quiet, character-driven tales, it’s hard to appreciate them if they don’t speak to you.

All that said, of course these are very well-written stories, as one would expect from a Nobel Prize winner. I didn’t enjoy them all as much as I’d hoped; I wish Munro had included more along the lines of the first story. But it’s good literature, and I’m happy to have read it.

--

A question for those who have read more Munro than I: is this collection specifically thematically focused, perhaps to fit its title, or does all her work focus on these same preoccupations? What Munro collection should I read next if my goal is finding one that doesn’t feel repetitive after The Beggar Maid and this book?

The Gebusi by Bruce Knauft

The Gebusi: Lives Transformed in a Rainforest World - Bruce M. Knauft

I am not the intended audience for this book; I read it looking for something set in Papau New Guinea from which I would learn a bit about the country and its people, while the book seems intended for assignment in undergraduate anthropology classes as a supplementary textbook. It did fulfill my goal of learning about the lives of the Gebusi, a small tribe living in the rainforest of Papau New Guinea’s huge Western Province. On the other hand, it’s a shame that academic texts aren’t written or edited with the goal of satisfying the reader; the author’s goal seems to be more about teaching students about anthropology and the realities of ethnographic work than answering the reader’s curiosity. In other words, the gulf between this and popular ethnographies like $2.00 a Day or City of Thorns is huge.

Knauft is an anthropologist who initially lived with the Gebusi for two years, from 1980 to 1982, accompanied by his wife Eileen (whether she is also an anthropologist is unclear; though he discusses his feelings about developments among the Gebusi and relationships with individuals among them, this is definitely not a memoir). Despite sporadic contact with Australian officers, during the time that they colonized the country, the Gebusi at the time retained a very traditional culture, including a tradition of spirit mediumship, all-night dances and séances, and elaborate initiation rituals for young men. They were easily able to provide for their material needs with crops that require little effort in cultivation, and enjoyed leisure time and “good company,” along with a cultural flourishing that resulted from the Australians' subduing a nearby tribe with a habit of raiding their longhouses and massacring their people. But it wasn't an ideal life: while they had enough to eat, nutrition was poor, illness rife and few people made it to the age of 40; the society was patriarchal and women excluded from many aspects of it; and execution for sorcery was rampant. The Gebusi believed that all deaths were caused by humans, so deaths by sickness or accident led to sorcery inquests and often more death. Nevertheless, they weren’t the stereotype of a cannibalistic rainforest people (though there is cannibalism in their past): due process was important, including a waiting period after the death and finding a neutral spirit medium to preside over the inquest.

After his initial stay, Knauft returned to the Gebusi in 1998, at which point their culture was transformed: many had moved to a nearby town with an airstrip and government services. They converted to various forms of Christianity, sent their children to school, and gave up sorcery inquests and executions entirely. Men’s leisure time now revolved around local soccer leagues, while women sold produce (usually with little success) in the local market. The several tribes inhabiting the town mocked their own traditional cultures in Independence Day celebrations, and Gebusi practices such as dancing and initiation rites seemed to be dying out as young people attempted to embrace the modern world.

But then in 2008, everything had changed again: loss of funding meant government services had largely vanished, and the Gebusi were reviving their traditional culture, including building longhouses and conducting initiation rites; as they retained their land and ability to sustain themselves, they didn’t seem to miss the government or markets much. But spirit mediumship had died out, so that despite lingering suspicions of sorcery they were no longer able to conduct inquests, and many of the Gebusi continued to attend Christian services.

It is fascinating material, and the author seems to have made personal friends with many of the Gebusi and to respect them and their culture. He is aware of his own fallibility and works to distinguish unique incidents from those typical of the culture. And he spends enough time with Gebusi to get to know them and to be able to tell stories in context about incidents that occur in the community.

However, for all the author’s talk about how this is intended to be less formal and more personal than typical academic writing, and for all that the writing is clearer and more engaging than in most textbooks, the content is still basically that of a textbook. Sometimes its information is incomplete, as if the author has made his point and is ready to move on, regardless of whether readers have more questions. For instance, for all that Knauft mentions sorcery executions frequently, I still don’t know how most of these deaths occurred. Both in the book and on his website (which for some reason includes entire stories in pictures that aren’t in the book but deserved to be), he describes instances in which the accused is killed in the forest by a relative of the deceased, which the community accepts because of the “spiritual evidence” against the accused. How common is this, as opposed to public or formal executions? Is everyone given the opportunity to exonerate themselves via trial by cooking, or only some people? In one case described, the sorcerer purportedly comes from another village and the searchers lose the trail; is this unusual, or common?

In other cases, it can be vague in a way typical of academic writing, obscuring specifics behind general language. For instance, a boy and later young man with whom the author is close leaves his community due to “a dispute” and travels to the nearest city, where he works for two years. This is after he and his younger brother are orphaned when he’s about 12. Who raised the boys after that, and what was the dispute? These are human interest questions, but their answers also speak to Gebusi culture. And despite telling us about their terrible life expectancy in the early 80s, the author has nothing to say about how having and then losing a local medical clinic affected the Gebusi. Their lifespans are still much shorter than Americans’, but were there improvements?

And bizarrely, he mentions only on his aforementioned website, in a caption to a longhouse diagram, that rigidly separate sleeping areas for men and women mean that sexual relations happened in the rainforest rather than in bed. Doesn't this deserve to be in the book, rather than only the "alternative sexual practices" (i.e. adolescent boys giving blowjobs because swallowing semen was supposed to help them become men)? But in the book he does mention a couple caught having an illicit affair in a house, so maybe the rainforest sex only applies to those few families who actually live in the longhouse? Knauft isn't too shy to include a scene of a young man propositioning him, so why isn't this in the book?

Overall, I learned from this book, but I think it would be a little off-base for most non-academic readers (the “Broader Connections” bullet point summaries of key ideas in anthropology at the end of each chapter, with much bolded text, are definitely eyeroll-worthy). While it’s not as short as the page count would have it – there’s a lot of text on each page – it was worth my time.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

This is a fantastic novella. It’s a parable of globalization, but its brilliance is in rendering real, three-dimensional characters even from a brief scene or description.

Exit West is set in the modern world, beginning in an unnamed Middle Eastern country on the brink of civil war, where two young people meet in a classroom and are propelled by circumstances into a premature intimacy. The difference between this book and the real world is that when Nadia and Saeed – and millions of others around the world – decide to flee or to immigrate, they do so by way of doors that randomly appear and allow teleportation from one part of the globe to another.

Some have criticized this decision for erasing the harrowing travel that is a hallmark of many real-world refugee experiences, which it does. But I don’t think telling the story of refugees is Hamid’s primary goal, though it is part of the book. The doorways allow him to speed up globalization, take the world’s growing interconnectedness to its breaking point in a brief span of time, and ask big questions about what how world will look in the decades to come, with ever quicker travel combined with massive disparities in wealth and security. How much sense do borders really make in today’s world and the world of the future? Can we afford to limit our focus to our own countries? What happens as people continue to flee from poor and war-torn parts of the world to Europe and the U.S. – how will richer countries respond and be changed?

There’s a lot packed into this short book, measuring over 200 pages only due to generous margins and spacing, as well as two blank pages between each chapter. But what holds it together is the vitality, complexity and humanity of the characters, our protagonists and the people they encounter as well as the characters we briefly meet in vignettes from all over the world. The book can sometimes be hard to read, especially for long stretches, because the characters’ circumstances are often tough, and when they are as real as people you know, it’s impossible not to care. Then too, the writing is excellent: not flowery, but assured, every word in the right place.

Overall, a fantastic book, with great characters, an involving story and a lot of food for thought. And while the subject matter can be difficult, it never becomes hopeless. I highly recommend it.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood - Trevor Noah

I enjoyed this memoir, which is exactly what it says on the tin, a collection of stories about the author’s childhood and youth in South Africa. It’s a quick read, flows well and is often funny. The writing is clear and has a distinctive voice. It’s aimed at American readers and so tends to explain South Africa in terms of the U.S., which can be helpful if you are in fact an American reader; Noah takes the time to explain things and I learned from it. Despite the grim backdrop – at the time Noah was born, it was illegal for black and white people to have children together, and when out in public his mother would sometimes find a woman of a more similar skin tone to pretend to be his mother – it’s an enjoyable book, told with energy and personality. Ending on the 40-page chapter about the abusive stepfather who wound up shooting his mom (no spoilers, this is mentioned in the first chapter) was a downer though.

 

I don’t read a lot of celebrity memoirs, and, fairly or unfairly, tend to be more skeptical about them than about memoirs by otherwise unknown authors. Noah fuels my skepticism with a few inconsistencies: he tells a story about himself as a toddler chasing his father through a park calling “Daddy! Daddy!” and then later on tells us that he never called his father “Daddy” or anything else other than his first name because it was too dangerous. Meanwhile some of the other stories seem likely to be embellished versions of what really happened. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and think it is a good choice for those who enjoy memoirs or want to learn more about South Africa, as well as of course fans of Trevor Noah.

 

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

The Post-Office Girl (New York Review Books Classics) - Stefan Zweig

This is an odd novel, which makes sense, since it was left unfinished at the author’s death. It is a blistering look at economic inequality, set in Austria after WWI and examined through the stories of characters whose circumstances appear to prevent them from ever getting ahead.

Christine is a young woman who was born middle class, but has lived a life of drudgery since her teenage years, when her family lost both money and menfolk to the war. Out of the blue, a rich American aunt invites her to spend two weeks in a Swiss resort, where she flourishes. But on returning home, she is left hating her working-class life, and soon meets a disaffected war veteran who, through many long speeches, provides the intellectual basis for her discontent.

The first half of the book was a lot of fun to read; after an initial slow start, I was quickly absorbed by the story and eager to learn what would happen next. The second half is interesting and brings Zweig’s themes to the forefront, though it is much darker. The end is ambiguous, leaving the characters’ fates up in the air. It is well-written and engaging throughout. The characters feel three-dimensional and realistic, though I wondered in the second half whether Christine is representative of the way an actual Austrian woman in the 1920s would have thought, or only the way a man at the time would have envisioned one (to her, even an active decision to have sex is necessarily an act of submission, and she claims that as a woman she can’t undertake bold action herself, though she can do anything if following her man). And there are a few rough edges and loose ends: I wondered what Christine could have talked about to the moneyed international jet set, which she does constantly and with great animation; without TV or Internet, and without revealing any details of her life, they seem entirely without common ground. I also wondered why she never thought about following up on

the older man who was interested in marrying her; she may not have realized that, but he stood by her and invited her to visit his castle,

(show spoiler)

which she for some reason never considered as an option later.

But at any rate, this is a short novel and a very engaging read. It moves fairly quickly and the translation is excellent. A pleasant surprise. 

Bastards by Mary Anna King

Bastards: A Memoir - Mary Anna King

This isn’t an awful book. But I’ll say the same thing I said last time I reviewed a memoir about an adoptee connecting with her biological family: it was written too soon. By which I mean both that it seems premature, with some of the most interesting parts of the story yet to be lived, and that it leaves out much of the information I wanted to know, likely because the author and her family weren’t yet comfortable sharing so much.

Mary Anna King has a complicated family: she is the second of seven siblings – all girls except for her older brother – whose father was unwilling and mother unable to raise them. The four youngest children were given up for adoption at birth, and the three oldest shunted around among family members in varying combinations; the author and her sister were adopted by their grandfather and his wife when she was 10. As they grew up, the sisters adopted at birth began to get in touch, until finally King met them all.

This is fertile ground for a memoir. And I think King is talented enough to produce an excellent memoir if the focus is right, but not so talented that she can write about anything and keep readers interested. The first third of the book is all about her early childhood, up to the age of 7. Aside from the question of how much of this she could really remember – she admits that a “memory” from age one is probably fabricated, but then proceeds to describe in detail events and her thoughts and opinions about them from age 2.5 – the material here just isn’t interesting enough to merit such length. The family is poor, the father is in and out, the mother has several pregnancies and adopts out the babies. There is nothing strikingly fresh or insightful in the author’s account. The bookjacket attempts to spice up this portion of the story by claiming the author was “raised in a commune of single mothers,” which she wasn’t. For a couple of years the mom and two oldest kids live in an apartment complex that happens to be full of single moms and their kids. That’s all.

But by spending more than half of the book on her childhood, King leaves precious little space for the things I wanted most to read about: the younger sisters’ lives, how they balanced their biological and adoptive families, and how everyone involved related to each other as adults. We do hear a little about the childhood and adopted family of one of the sisters adopted at birth; I wanted this and more for all of them. I wanted to know how their mother felt about watching her two youngest daughters grow up from a distance, without their knowing who she was. I wanted to know how the author really felt about her biological father. He disappears from the story after she goes to live with her grandparents at age 7, then calls her college dorm room expecting her to immediately resume the role of daughter and angry at her alleged bitterness over his never calling or sending presents. She denies this, but is no more candid with the reader than in her guarded email ending her relationship with him; it feels like she is still protecting herself a decade later in case he reads the book. Then she includes a detailed description of being molested by another child at the age of 5, and never says another word about it, unless you count mentions of not liking to be touched. When did she finally tell someone? With this and her family history, what were her romantic relationships like? She mentions a college boyfriend, describes him briefly and in positive terms, and has nothing else to say on the subject.

Of course, what I wanted from the book adds up to an incredible amount of vulnerability from the author and her family, which no reader has the right to demand. But if you are going to write a memoir on a very personal subject, I think you need to go all in on that subject; if you aren’t ready to do that, perhaps the memoir should wait. And this is in addition to the fact that one of most interesting parts of the story – how the relationships between all these long-lost siblings develop and how their history affects their adult lives – has only begun when the book ends. The author meets her youngest sister in the final chapter. Theoretically she could write a sequel one day, but unless you write like Maya Angelou you generally get one shot at a memoir, and Mary Anna King is no Maya Angelou.

Alternatively, if writing a very personal memoir was off the table, the author might have gone the intellectual route, reading up on adoption-related research to share with the reader. She raises the concern that her sisters adopted at birth haven’t necessarily gotten a better deal: they too have imperfect families, they wind up in a similar place educationally to the older three siblings, and they seem to spiral downward after meeting their biological family (or in one case, before). If the author can’t give us the details of her sisters’ lives, she could have gone broad, looking at outcomes for other adopted kids to discover how common this is. But there’s no research here either.

All that said, I read this book quickly, found it readable and basically enjoyed it. The author does a perfectly fine job with those parts of her adult life she does describe, some of which are quite personal. And of course, my reaction can’t predict those of readers for whom adoption is personal. Nevertheless, this is not a great memoir and it may preclude the author from writing a better one someday.

Final two comments: the title doesn't seem quite apropos when the parents were married, and there are unfortunately no pictures.

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories - Goli Taraghi, Sara Khalili

I read the first 5 stories of this collection (through page 179). The first one was decent and unexpectedly funny, but after that they became more a chore than a pleasure. The characters and settings are misty and unformed. All the stories are in the first person, sometimes told through the point-of-view of a minor character who nevertheless relates all of the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist like an omniscient narrator even though he or she has no way of knowing this information. The translation is very fluid, but . . . maybe a little too much so; the stories feel as if they were written in English, but blandly. After pushing myself through four stories out of a sense of obligation, I decided to be done.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

This is a lovely collection of interrelated short stories. It begins in Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, and when it ventures further afield, it’s to follow characters whose stories are suggested by the previous ones. The protagonists are mostly older people – grandparents or old enough to be – and a common theme is dealing with loss: of livelihood, of a spouse (to death or divorce), of parents or siblings who move away.

It is a melancholy book, and getting a little too caught up in the stories and reading them all in two sittings got to me a little. But it is also a book full of compassion and understanding for its characters (most, though not all, of the protagonists are compassionate and understanding people themselves), of human connection and love, of wisdom about what makes people tick. It is very well-written and got me quickly invested in the characters and their situations. In some cases I wanted to know a lot more; this was especially true of Patty’s story, though Abel’s sticks in my memory as well. Though I thought highly of My Name Is Lucy Barton, the story about the title character’s reappearance underwhelmed me and was probably my least favorite. But I am tempted to re-read that book now that I’ve read this one.

In sum, this is an excellent collection, rather quiet and sad, featuring complex and believable characters. I recommend it.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - Michelle Alexander

This is an important read for social-justice-oriented folk. Michelle Alexander – a law professor and former ACLU attorney – lays out a cogent argument for mass incarceration and the drug war functioning as systems of racial control, comparable though not identical to prior systems such as Jim Crow. Although white and black Americans use drugs at similar rates, law enforcement treats it as a war only in poor communities of color, where it terrorizes people with military equipment and tactics, and seizes property as “forfeiture.” Harsh penalties, particularly for those drugs most associated with black people, mean more African-Americans are behind bars now than were imprisoned just before the Civil War. In some large cities, nearly half of African-American men are under penal control, whether in prison or on probation or parole. And once released, anyone with a criminal record is a legal target for discrimination in employment, housing, professional licensing, student loans, public benefits, etc. People with a felony record can be prevented from voting or sitting on a jury. And the effects extend beyond imprisonment and even discrimination, tarring the entire black community with the brush of criminality in many people’s minds, so that mass incarceration in many ways defines the relationship between African-American society and the rest of America.

My biggest doubt about the comparison, before reading the book, was how a system that bases punishment on individual actions could compare to blanket laws disenfranchising people based on race. Alexander doesn’t deal with the personal choice issue quite as directly as I would like, instead making the point that everyone breaks some law sometime, but black communities are the ones heavily targeted by law enforcement. Even if the only thing you do is speed a little, if you’re white you’ll probably never be stopped, but if black you’re liable to be pulled over and have the police “ask” to search your car for drugs (to most people it doesn’t sound much like asking with a uniform and a gun). If we pursued every violation of the law so aggressively in white communities, and treated white kids as potential criminals from a young age, and handed out sentences counted in decades for non-violent crimes commonly associated with white people, huge numbers of them would also wind up locked up, on probation or parole, or with criminal records. That wouldn’t happen, though, which is good evidence that something is going on here that isn’t just about keeping the community safe.

Obviously I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg here; Alexander is thorough, and her writing clear and convincing, well-sourced through extensive endnotes but still readable for non-academics. Once I got into the book, the pages went by quickly. She says at the beginning that this book is intended for people who care about racial justice but tend to view racial disparities in the criminal justice system as regrettable side effects of societal racism rather than a system of disenfranchisement. As a member of the intended audience, I found this book eye-opening, creating a real perspective shift. I wish I could distill that into a review, but Alexander has already done the work, so I will just recommend the book instead.