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Four Ways to Forgiveness

forgivenessI love the title of Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula Le Guin.

It’s a short story collection and normally I would steer clear of short stories as I don’t find them as satisfying as novels. This book came to me as part of the collection from an emigrating friend and, while I didn’t connect with the Earthsea series, I’d really enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness. A combination of title and author drew me to the book.

The four stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness are set in the same world/universe as The Left Hand of Darkness on the planets Werel and Yeowe. Werel’s societies are based on enslavement on one ethnic group by another. One nation, Voe Deo, colonised a nearby planet using a largely slave population to exploit the planet’s resources.

The first story, Betrayals, is set on Yeowe after the War of Liberation, in which the slave population overthrew the bosses. Yoss is a retired school teacher who reluctantly cares for her mad neighbour, Abberkam, who was a war lord and now lives alone in a sparsely populated area of Yeowe. Yoss has reasons to hate Abberkam and reasons to distrust men in general, but an attachment forms between them. Then Yoss’s house burns down: Abberkam rescues her cat and offers her a room in his house.

I liked this story the most. It is gentle and wistful, yet approaches some heavy themes. It talks about forms of oppression and how freedom requires more work than simply overthrowing the masters. Age has mellowed two characters who might have been enemies in their younger days, and the relationship is facilitated by Abberkam’s confessions, apologies, and adoption of more respectful behaviour. It is both sweet and real. Forgiveness is reached through time.

Forgiveness Day moves to Werel and the story of an Envoy of the Ekumen in one of the smaller, more traditional, countries. Solly is a female of an egalitarian society and she struggles to adapt to a patriarchal system. Although her struggle isn’t as great as Gatay’s struggle to accept a female Envoy. She strikes up a friendship with a member of a troupe of entertainers – they are transvestites and it is considered shocking to openly associate with them – who also happens to be involved in a movement to liberate Werel’s slaves. The story touches on Solly’s attempts to treat the slaves she’s given as equals and their resistance to her behaviour. There is a terrorist attack and Solly and her bodyguard are taken hostage. During their captivity they come to know each other better and understand the roots of the things they had been offended by. Forgiveness is reached through understanding.

The third story, A Man of the People, is also a story of an outsider to the Werel/Yeowe system. Havzhiva is Hainish and grows up expecting his life to follow a defined pattern. He grows to realise he wants more and leaves his community. It’s a difficult choice as few people leave their community and, if you do, you can never really go back. You might be able to return physically but the psychological connection has changed. Havzhiva spends his youth studying and exploring relationships. Eventually he becomes ambassador to Yeowe and it is there he finds a home. The society is struggling with change. The men believe themselves free but the women find themselves oppressed by the former male slaves. Everyone carries the physical scars of slavery and war. Slaves were allowed no family life or education and those institutions are in their infancy. The cities are changing (progressing) faster than the rural areas. There is conflict between different visions of a free Yeowe. Havzhiva forms a friendship with a nurse that lasts lifetime and at the end he tells her he has learned acceptance. Forgiveness is reached through acceptance.

A Woman’s Liberation, the final story, is the story of Rakam, a female slave. As a child she grows up in a compound and sees her mother rarely. Her mother goes to the house and is not a field slave. As she grows, she knows her skin is darker than the other slaves and comes to realise this is because one of the bosses is her father. Her mother secures her a place in the house as slave to the plantation owner’s wife, Lady Tazeu. She is raped repeatedly by Tazeu, who is isolated and lonely and has limited freedom of her own. Rakam is given to the boss’s son, who refuses to use her because she can’t consent, and tells her that he is working to free all his father’s slaves. When the estate is destroyed and the slaves take their freedom they are simply captured again and taken to another estate. Conditions have become harsher. Rakam says she has papers but they are taken from her. The path to freedom is dangerous and is not one act of liberation but must be defended everyday. Rakam is freed again and makes her way to the city where she educates herself. This story reflects how people internalise the philosophies of oppression as children and must work hard to change what they believe about themselves. Rakam realises that there are layers of freedom struggle. This story is most directly analogous to the institution of slavery on our own world and the complexities of liberation experienced by the enslaved. Rakam becomes a teacher and a writer, a powerful voice and a respected academic. Forgiveness is reached through achievement.

The stories of Four Ways to Forgiveness are all linked and together build up a picture of changing societies and the struggles of the people seeking emancipation. The writing is elegant, the characterisation is deft. These are deeply political stories yet character always comes first. I found them enriching and moving. Not only did I enjoy them as stories, but I learned something about the human experience. Wonderful.

Station Eleven

stationelevenA virulent flu virus spreads like wildfire through the world. Almost everyone dies. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is the story of what happens afterwards.

Kirsten was a child when the virus struck North America, performing on stage in King Lear alongside Arthur Leander, an aging movie star. A few days later, nearly everyone is dead. The next ten years are so traumatic that Kirsten represses most of the memories. As an adult she is part of a caravan of performers, the Travelling Symphony, moving between the small settlements that remain after the collapse of civilization.

Both pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds are revealed through the stories of those whose lives intersected with Arthur’s. His first wife, Miranda, who dies in Malaysia when the virus strikes; Jeevan, a paparazzo turned paramedic who photographed Arthur; his son, Tyler, and second wife, Elizabeth; his best friend, Clark; and Kirsten, to whom he gave the comics that she carefully preserves when she’s lost everything else.

I loved this. The prose is lyrical and engaging. It’s fairly literary in style but is so well-executed that I didn’t mind. The characters are interesting and there is enough suspense in their stories to keep you turning the pages. I liked the way the stories switch between the past and the present and the connections between the characters are slowly built up. Mandel realistically presents a scenario for how the whole world might collapse in a matter of weeks if enough people die in a short space in time. It was quite chilling to think about. Definitely read this.

Money

A little while agomoney I decided I didn’t want to write any more reviews of books I didn’t enjoy. There are two reasons for this. First, I don’t like doing it, the posts are hard to write, I don’t want to be negative, and I believe that if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all. Secondly, the purpose of this blog isn’t to provide a buyer’s guide to books; I started it as part of learning to write myself and to capture what I learn from reading.

I was a bit conflicted about whether I should review Money by Martin Amis because, in the end, I didn’t like it, but, I read it for reasons that have to do with learning to write. In May I went on an Arvon Foundation course. Throughout the course the tutors referred to books and writers that they felt we could learn from, and they stressed the importance of reading for writers. I came away with quite a list. Several of Martin Amis’ books were mentioned and, given I’m not a fan of literary fiction, this one had a subject that I thought I’d find interesting. So, here we go.

Money is an exercise in voice. John Self, the first person narrator, is a wild, chaotic character who consumes too much of everything at breakneck speed in order to avoid confronting the soullessness of his life. The voice is full of slang and is witty and entertaining. I enjoyed it a lot. The worldbuilding experience is similar to that you get with science fiction and fantasy where you’re not quite sure what all the words mean but the cumulative effect creates a fantastical world. Amis very cleverly conveys that there is much more going on than John Self realises. The characters are well-drawn and believable, even the most outrageous depictions of the celebrities. But the pace and wit of the start of the book aren’t maintained. I suspect that is done deliberately, but as the voice became more sober I became less engaged.

There is a character in the story called Martin Amis, a writer, and I found those sections jarring. It’s not just the name. The dialogue of that character and his relationship with John Self don’t feel as true as the rest of the book. It’s self-conscious and pompous. I found it bounced me out of the storyworld.

The plot is that John Self is an ad director who has been offered backing for a film. There is apparently a lot of money flying about, big stars, lots of investment, and the producer, Fielding Goodney, encourages John to live the high life. There’s some blackouts – John Self is a convincing alcoholic – some events he doesn’t remember, some clues that all is not right but John is not capable of recognising them. It’s a scam. I won’t reveal the twist, such as it is, but you’ll see it coming in plenty of time. The Martin Amis character is used as a mouthpiece for explaining the plot at the end. Normally, I don’t like that, but I was left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ so I was reading on in case there was more to it than I’d realised. There wasn’t.

The ending of the book was disappointing. On the course one of the tutors said that story is about change in the protagonist’s feeling. That does happen, but the change is small and the book is long, and it’s not very satisfying. I felt cheated. There was a lot I liked about Money and I enjoyed at least the first half of the book. The characterization and voice were excellent, I loved the language, it was witty, and I liked the pace. It is skillfully done. On the other hand, the ending was a let down, I felt nothing had really happened (although there’s more plot than that suggests), and it became less engaging in the second half. The irritation of the Amis character contributed to this. And this book will end up in the pile of ‘reasons I don’t like literary fiction’.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

handmaid's taleHow have I waited so long to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? It’s a classic, and has been televised, and is the kind of thing that sometimes you don’t read because you think you know all you need to about it. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and I really should have read it long ago.

Sometime in the 20th century a Christian extremist sect sets up a totalitarian theocracy in the US. The handmaids are a caste of women able to have children which is now a rare ability, due to widespread sterility. It’s not clear if that because of environmental toxins or out-of-control STDs. Offred doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t, so neither does the reader. The ruling elite use propaganda to create the beliefs they want the populace to have, and much of what the narrator, Offred, relates is what she’s been encouraged to believe. The parallels between that and the distortion of reality created in today’s media are striking.

Offred describes her life, her illegal relationships with the Commander and his driver, Nick, and her eventual escape via an underground railroad. It is compelling. The claustrophobic nightmare of Offred’s life is vivid. What struck me the most was the boredom. Offred has nothing to do. People are not permitted to read or to write and a handmaid’s only role is to breed. Offred is allowed a daily trip to obtain rationed food but she has no other role, so she spends a lot of time on her own in her room doing nothing. There are exercises and prayers but Offred is not a true believer.

I was gripped by the story. I’d expected, as it was published in 1985, to find it dated. Scarily, the opposite was true. It seems like a future that is only a couple of steps away. One or two wrong turns and we could easily end up there. Atwood’s realisation of the impact of living in a totalitarian society is chilling. It’s an important book and is still relevant. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t wait any longer.

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Buy my book Fragments at Amazon or Smashwords.

Santa Evita

santa evitaThis is an odd book. It was buried on book mountain and I can’t remember what prompted me to buy it. Perhaps it was one of those sent to me by a book club that I never bothered to send back. Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez (trans. Helen Lane) is a story about what happened to the body of Eva Peron after she died.

It’s based on some fact, the papers of various people involved, some parts are fiction, and some parts are the ruminations of the author on the process of writing the book. Which parts are which are isn’t always clear, fact and fiction are smoothly blended. Apparently the germination of the story was over many years and it was a difficult book to write.

After Eva Peron died of cancer her body was embalmed. The Argentine Secret Service had been spying on her for years and after the Peron government fell, they took charge of the body. Three copies were made. The government didn’t want Eva’s burial place to become a shrine and the cult of Evita to have a focal point for the opposition. Care of the body was entrusted to a colonel in the Secret Service. Mysterious events seem to happen around Evita and she has a strange impact on those to whom her care is entrusted.

Santa Evita is a strange book. The story itself is a weird one, encompassing the need of people to have heroes, and how fame and grief interact. However, it’s not really about Evita. Most of it focuses on the Colonel who spied on her while she was alive and took care of her embalmed body when she was dead. It’s an exploration of secrecy and madness. It’s a beautifully written (and translated) book, mystical and surreal, and proving reality makes much less sense than fiction. I found the parts about Martínez’ writing process fascinating. It made me really think about the structure of the novel and how that might be more flexible than commercial fiction often allows. This is a strange and wonderful book.

Sula

sulaI’m steadily working my way through Toni Morrison’s books. I’ve every intention of reading them all.

Sula is about a part of a small town in the US in the interwar period. It’s not so much a story as a series of interconnected character illustrations that Morrison uses to illuminate some really big social issues.

Shadrack is a young man injured in the First World War. He comes back to Bottom shell-shocked and traumatised and there’s no care or support for him. Helen Wright is a straight-laced conservative woman who is contrasted with earthy, sexually free Hannah. Their daughters, Nel and Sula, become friends. They have an intense and deep friendship in the way that girls do. There is a shocking incident involving a small boy in the village that is witnessed by Shadrack. Nel and Sula grow up together. Nel marries a local boy; a man angry at the unjust situation that gives white immigrants jobs and leaves local black men out of work. Sula leaves for the big city on Nel’s wedding day.

Nel has three children and what is a relatively successful marriage for the time and place. Plenty of men leave the women on their own to raise the children. There’s no work, so there’s no pride. They turn to drink and sit outside the pool hall all day. But Nel’s husband stays. Ten years later, Sula returns. She disrupts the whole of Bottom, including Nel’s marriage. Sula lives for herself, she doesn’t sacrifice herself the way a woman is supposed to. She acts like a man and is punished for it.

Sula is beautifully written and the time period and place is brought vividly to life. Morrison touches on some very serious subjects in a very light way. In a few words, the essence of a person is captured. It’s a literary novel so there’s not much story or plot. It’s about bringing to life a particular time and place that could easily be forgotten. It’s also about how hard it is for a woman to self-actualise.

The final paragraph is the perfect end to the book and is heartbreaking. I really enjoyed the book.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been on my shelf for a while. I was leant it by a friend and have been feeling bad about having kept it for so long. Lately, I’ve seen Adichie’s name mentioned in a lot of the media I read and it inspired me to pick it up. I can’t say why Yellow Sunit has sat there unread for so long, except that I thought it might be heavy-going.

I was wrong. It is a beautiful read. Half of a Yellow Sun depicts the Nigerian civil war in the years just after independence from the British Empire and the short-lived existence of Biafra through the point of view of three very different characters. Ogwu is a village boy who gets a job as a house-boy to a university professor with radical views. He grows up in awe of learning and listening to the political debate his master and friends engage in. When the war comes he’s torn between looking after the family and becoming a soldier. He’s forcibly conscripted and his experience is horrific. Olanna is the daughter of a wealthy business man and was educated in London. She loves Ogwu’s professor despite her family’s disapproval. When times are easy she seems to struggle to navigate her relationships but when times are hard she’s the one that holds it all together. Richard is a white man that comes to Africa to escape his family. Before Nigeria becomes independent he thinks he has a good position. He loves Igbo art and culture, almost to the point of fetishizing it, and finds it’s purest expression in Kainene, who is Olanna’s twin. He rejects British expatriate culture and embraces Nigerian culture. After independence he finds that no one trusts him, but he stays in Biafra and doesn’t leave even after Kainene dies.

This is a big book in many ways. There is so much in it. As well as the three point of view characters there is a host of secondary characters that pop out of the page. Characterisation is good. Everyone in it is real. It’s a literary novel so it is heavy on narrative. Generally I like more action-driven books, but when the literary genre is done well it is amazing. This is done very well. The narrative builds the setting and the characters and brings the world to life rather than weighing the story down with exposition. I knew very little about this time and period of history – African decolonisation after WWII was my favourite class at university but we covered a lot in low detail – and I really enjoyed being educated about it. It was moving. I laughed and I cried. Mostly I cried.

There are some books that are so good I feel like giving up writing because I could never produce anything anywhere near as good. This is one of those books.