Review: Americanah

This review contains spoilers.

AmericanahAmericanah is best known for being a Race Book about Race, which sort of makes it quite hard for me as a white Westerner, shielded as I am by middle-class privilege, to write about without being a) patronising or b) dismissive. It follows two young Nigerians as they attempt to navigate their late-capitalist landscape: Ifemelu, who goes to university in America and starts a wildly successful race blog; and her sweetheart Obinze, who goes to England to work and has considerably less luck. It’s a sprawling novel, such that to write about it at blog-post length is inevitably to diminish it; but it seems to me significantly a novel about disenfranchisement, about placelessness, about the vague dissatisfaction of finding that your life is not quite what you hoped it would be, that the dreams capitalism peddled to you are forever just out of reach. The unique tragedy of those who can see over the fence but not climb over it.

In America, Ifemelu is Nigerian (or, more likely, “African”); when she returns to Nigeria, she’s American; not quite belonging to either place.

And although Obinze returns quite successfully to Nigeria after his deportation from England (where people he grew up with patronise him, guilt-trip him or generally fleece him), he remains vaguely unhappy with his life as a wealthy property developer in a more-or-less loveless marriage; locked out of the promise of American wealth by prejudice and circumstance.

One of the ways I’ve been thinking about Americanah is in terms of analysis as opposed to synthesis. Most of the novel is narrated through the eyes of Ifemelu, who is a blogger through-and-through: which is to say, an observer and an analyst. It’s through her eyes that the book makes many of its observations about race, especially race in America: the subtle microaggressions, the unspoken racial hierarchy, the social and moral compromises that POCs often have to make. She sees in nuance; but one of the things that really strikes me about the book is that it doesn’t judge. It doesn’t judge people, anyway; it sees reality, but it doesn’t create one. And perhaps we can relate that back to the book’s theme of disenfranchisement: the outsider’s power is the ability to see and understand, but not to participate.

And that makes me wonder about the novel’s finale. Because Americanah is a love story, one that is often heartbreaking, and one that has a happy ending: Ifemelu and Obinze finally, satisfyingly, end up together, again, after misunderstandings and misery and loss. It’s an ending that finally transforms analysis into synthesis; the book stops analysing and starts creating, creating a happy-ever-after future; more interestingly, though, it’s an ending that sets up a tension between the personal and the political. Because on a personal level, it resolves the theme of disenfranchisement: what is a successful relationship but the creation of a place in which all parties can belong? The shared history of Ifemelu and Obinze generates a shared space in which they can start creating, together. But the ending doesn’t generate a social solution; it collapses that wide, nuanced focus to a narrow, personal one. Not judging also means not (re)solving.

I’m not sure that I mean this as a criticism; I enjoyed Americanah very much, and I think it would be a lesser novel without its ending. As I said above, I don’t, in any case, feel like I’m in a position to criticise; but I do feel I owe the text a response. So this is it. It is, in all probability, woefully inadequate.

Top Ten Bookish Memories

  1. Nine Worlds counts as bookish, right? Yes. Nine Worlds. See here for many, many reasons why it was awesome.
  2. The British Library/Forbidden Planet with the Circumlocutor. I think that was our first proper trip together (as in, before that we just sort of mooched around Oxford), and then the Treasures Gallery at the British Library had a Shakespeare first folio and a Hobbit manuscript and many other wondrous things and it was also my first trip to Forbidden Planet. And then we missed our train home so the Circumlocutor had to cook me dinner. (I’m still not sure entirely how those things were connected.)
  3. Going to see The Lord of the Rings musical. It was utterly, properly magical; I know it attracted a lot of critical flak for various reasons, but there was nothing I would have changed. Even now, “The Road Goes On” can move me to tears.
  4. Tolkien Society bonfire nights. Every year in November on the banks of the Isis there is a bonfire and mulled wine and singing and sausages wrapped in tinfoil and woodsmoke in all your clothes and I think it may be as close to living in the Shire as it is possible to get in this world.
  5. Working in the Bodleian Library. If you ever get a chance to do this, grab it with both hands. I used to love the Upper Reading Room, which has the comfiest chairs, but the Radcliffe Camera is amazing too. (Maybe skip the Gladstone Link, though.)
  6. The time my tutor told me my dissertation work was “magnificent”. Do I really need to explain this?
  7. When Hiking Friend got my birthday card signed by actual Terry Pratchett. Actual Terry Pratchett actually signed my actual birthday card!!!! I may have squealed. Plus, it has a cat on it.
  8. When the Resident Grammarian brought Special Topics in Calamity Physics home for me. Because Special Topics is so thoroughly my book, the book that captures what it feels like to be me – it just seems now like one of those serendipitous moments of understanding.
  9. When Nnedi Okorafor tweeted a link to my blog fairly recently, actually. I noticed that I had a huge number of blog hits and traced it back to Twitter and a real author person had actually looked at my blog!
  10. Hay-on-Wye. SO. MANY. BOOKS. Also, I bought my lovely and utterly impractical steampunk opera coat, which I have yet to wear.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This review contains spoilers.

Harry-Potter-and-the-Deathly-HallowsI have now procrastinated writing this review literally to the last possible moment, which gives you some idea of just how enthusiastic I am about the whole idea.

Deathly Hallows is, of course, the last of the Harry Potter Main Series (that was almost an astrophysics joke, but I misremembered the chart on the wall of my school Physics classroom, godsdammit), and it sees Our Heroes tramping through various bits of the English countryside, occasionally going on random and often pointless side quests and sniping at each other because of the baleful influence of the One Ring Horcrux they are carrying around with them.

Then, without any visible ramping up of tension, there is an Exciting Battle! with Shocking Revelations!

Then it is The End.

This is almost frighteningly similar to the structure of Twilight, as it happens (500 pages of Edward Cullen’s face, plus random excursions that achieve precisely nothing, followed by Exciting Vampire Battle with Exciting Vampire Revelations and Egregious Self-Sacrifice!). There is probably an essay of sorts to be written here, but I do not, alas, have the intellectual energy to write it now.

I think there is scope for an extremely charitable reading of the Harry Potter series which says that the books are effectively a work of successive deconstruction: moving from the traditional plot of Philosopher’s Stone, full of the formal conceits of (childish) fairy tales, seeing the world in fairly simple shades of black and white and maybe a very little grey, through to the non-plot of Deathly Hallows, confusing and pointless and aimless as life can seem when you are eighteen and about to start adulting. Growing with its readers, the series breaks down the certainties of childhood, the institutions that are supposed to protect you (Hogwarts under Ministry control becomes a dictatorship in Order of the Phoenix; the goblins of Gringotts bank try to kill Our Heroes in Deathly Hallows), the people who you idolise (James tortures Snape, Lupin is a flake, Sirius has overweening pride).

I think some version of this progression is almost certainly what Rowling is going for. I’ve outlined some of my problems with this approach in my reviews of some of the other books; in shortish form, they are:

  1. Generic. A lot of Western fantasy works by repurposing traditional plots and tropes to talk about new concerns: it’s something that fantasy as a genre is particularly good at. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write good, immersive, interesting fantasy without using or subverting those traditional plots; I am saying that stripping away those plot structures, deliberately or otherwise, can leave a text feeling self-interested, introverted, bloated on its own backstory – irrelevant because uninterested in its literary parentage. As this text does.

  2. Character. Rowling’s strength is not in writing character. Despite her frequent protestations to the contrary, Harry is not a wonderful perfect saviour possessed of unusual capacity for love; he is a quite ordinary teenage douchebag whose pimply face I would quite like to punch. Ron is irrelevant, Ginny a Mary Sue, and Hermione, although the best of the bunch, is still fairly one-note. You need good characters if you aren’t going to have a decent plot, or what’s the point?

  3. Commitment to the motion. The series just doesn’t carry through on its deconstructive project. The much-reviled epilogue to Deathly Hallows fails to show us the long and difficult labour of destroying old structures of oppression to ensure that the likes of Voldemort can’t rise again; it skips over all that uncertainty, those shades of grey, to a conventional and consolatory ending in which everyone gets married and “all was well”. Even Tolkien, the king of the traditional plot, did it better with his Grey Havens scene. And the denouement of the book, of course, reverts to the oldest and most consolatory Christian myth of all: the story of the Resurrection, in which the sinless dies for everyone and rises again – “and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. (That’s Julian of Norwich.) Some deconstruction. Rowling never managed to convince me as to why Harry was so special; why his sacrifice meant so much more than the sacrifices of those countless unnamed people who died for their families and friends both when Voldemort was at the height of his powers and at the Battle of Hogwarts. It’s a thoroughly conventional, and thoroughly black-and-white, ending for a series that has spent much of its energies over the past four books trying to break things down into shades of grey.

This has been, then, my Harry Potter re-read.

I am not doing it again.

The English Student Cooks: Broccoli and Ricotta Tart

I’m currently cooking my way through Mary Berry’s Complete Cook Book, which the Pragmatist gave/lent to me when I moved out for my first full-time job. I wanted to document the experience as a kind of cooking diary, and so “The English Student Cooks” was born. This will be an irregular feature, as I only cook when I’m home on my days off, which is Not That Often.

Broccoli and Ricotta Tart

Method: I cut up some broccoli into little florets and diced up the stalks (which I have never bothered to do before – life is too short) and boiled the whole lot for one minute, and drained it, etc. Then I mixed 250g of ricotta, 125g of non-fat cottage cheese (because I failed to buy enough ricotta earlier on in the day and non-fat cottage cheese was all Tesco Express could sell me at 6:30pm on a Sunday), 125g of grated Cheddar, 60g (or thereabouts) grated Parmesan, two eggs, two cloves of garlic and some thyme together in a bowl. Finally I grated down about six slices of wholemeal bread to make breadcrumbs and stirred them into about 75g melted butter. I lined my special quiche tin with three-quarters of the breadcrumbs to make a kind of crust, dolloped some of the cheese mixture in, remembered I was supposed to stir the broccoli stalks into the cheese mixture, did so, and dolloped the rest of it – Now With Added Broccoli Stalk! – into the tin. On top of that went the rest of the breadcrumbs and then the broccoli florets, “arranged” in my signature abstract style, otherwise known as the “Just Cram Them All On” school of culinary arranging. The tin went in the oven for 40 minutes.

Substitutions/alterations: I think the tin I used was smaller than the one Mary specified, but in truth I have no idea because the Circumlocutor seems to have reclaimed his measuring tape.

Verdict: Like many of Mary’s Eggs and Cheese dishes, this was very, very rich; also I had trouble getting it out of the tin as I didn’t really trust the crust to stand up on its own. It ended up being scooped oh-so-elegantly out with a serving spoon. I did really enjoy the thyme, though, which gives the egg-and-cheese decadence a slightly more grown-up edge. This should be served in very small portions; I’m not sure I’d make it again though.


Review: The Dark Side of the Sun

“The ultimate barrier is one’s viewpoint.”

Terry Pratchett

the-dark-side-of-the-sun-1The Dark Side of the Sun is very early Pratchett indeed: pre-Colour of Magic and pre-pretty much everything, in fact, save The Carpet People. It takes a slightly skew-whiff look at several SF classics; the one I’m most familiar with is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, so I’m going to focus on that.

Pratchett’s novel, then, is set in a far-future universe in which the ability to predict the future has been honed through the scientific discipline of p-math. Our Protagonist is Dom Sabalos IV, newly Chairman of his home planet of Widdershins, which is run by a Board. Using p-math, Dom’s father predicted that Dom would be assassinated on the day of his investiture; inevitably, Dom survives against all the odds (as we know from Discworld, the million-to-one chance comes true nine times out of ten) and swiftly becomes the subject of another prediction (a Prophecy, one might say): that he will discover the identity of the Jokers.

The Jokers are, or were, a mysterious race of beings who left tantalising clues of their preternatural engineering ability scattered around the universe (two stars linked to each other like chain-rings; a really really tall tower on a deserted ice planet). Nobody knows who they were or where they’ve gone; all that remains is a cryptic riddle-poem saying that the Jokers have gone to their new home “at the dark side of the sun”. (Geddit?)

This being Pratchett, the result is a chaotic and rather absurd romp, as Dom careers through the universe meeting characters including but not limited to a sentient planet who operates as a bank, a race of non-gendered, octopoidal, sentient extremophiles and a species of space-faring dog that propels itself by, um, farting. Also, people keep trying to murder him.

Zany as this all is, it doesn’t feel very Pratchett, and I think perhaps this comes down to how it deploys its chaotic elements.

Let’s draw out that comparison with Asimov.

In both this novel and the Foundation series, scientific near-certainties are disrupted by events literally so random that they are impossible to predict (this is the role the genetic mutant called the Mule plays in Foundation and Empire). In Asimov’s series, this sustained disruption opens out the universe the human characters inhabit: people from Foundation discover the planet of Gaia, an entire ecosystem existing as one super-being; the Solarians, genetically engineered humans who hate the sight of each other; and, finally, a robot who turns the entire trajectory of the series inside out. Uncertainty reigns – not because science is wrong but because it is limited by our human perspective; because there are things human science is unable to encompass and predict.

On the other hand, The Dark Side of the Sun posits that the universe is solvable, in the way that a riddle or a joke is solvable. In fact, it puts its finger up at Science (p-math) in favour of Art (the Jokers’ poem). The thing is, the Jokers’ riddle turns on a very human play on words; so, while there is a long expository section at the end explaining the importance exactly of finding ways to expand your viewpoint, the structural effect of the book is to shrink the possibilities of the universe, to make it small and human and humane. All the novel’s chaos only goes to reinforce the narrative – human – logic of the story. Which is very Pratchettian, but not quite right for an SF novel of this type; and, actually, in Pratchett’s later novels we’ll see the absurdity of his plots used not to shrink a universe but to grow it, to show us how utterly ridiculous human perspectives can be.

I think there are things here to delight Pratchett completists – the novel sees the first outing of Klatch, of Hogswatchnight, of the Jokers in The Long Earth – but in no way is it a good introduction to his work. The wit and invention of the Discworld series is still in the future, and these are the first, minor gropings towards that behemoth.

Top Ten Most Frustrating Characters

“His purpose was rigid within him. He felt he could not bend to gentleness without breaking.”

Stephen Donaldson

  1. Thomas Covenant – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, Stephen Donaldson. I do love the Covenant series, for reasons, but gods the main character is frustrating, seesawing between inaction and action, deciding to do one thing and then the next moment something completely different, and his hesitation, his privileging of his own needs above others’, constantly puts lives at risk.
  2. Hugo Lamb – The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell. Hugo and Holly are my OTP, and I will never, ever forgive Hugo for swapping True Love for Eternal Life. Did he never read Harry Potter?
  3. Pamela Andrews – Pamela, Samuel Richardson. This is the first book on my list that I actually genuinely despise. Pamela Andrews is an intensely irritating, sanctimonious milksop who is defeated in her escape attempt by a brick wall and some scary-looking cows. I AM NOT KIDDING. Yes, she is a 17th-century heroine, but so was Sophia Western in Tom Jones, and she left her father’s house with a pistol in her bra.
  4. Wade Watts – Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. I hated Wade, and the book he appears in, with a passion: he is the ultimate in “…but my best friend is [insert minority here]” internet trolldom.
  5. Feanor – The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. Back to books I actually enjoy. Every time I re-read The Silmarillion the plight of Middle-earth seems more and more Feanor’s fault. (Because it actually, um, is his fault.) IF ONLY YOU WERE NOT SUCH A DOUCHEBAG FOR FIVE MINUTES, Feanor. If only.
  6. Mrs de Winter – Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier. The unnamed heroine of Rebecca is such a weed. I always wish she would just stand up to Mrs Danvers and Frith and not feel judged by them. Like, I know everyone has had those moments of social awkwardness, but they are so frustrating to read about.
  7. Harry Potter – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix onwards, J.K. Rowling. Rowling is constantly telling us how Amazing and Noble Harry is. All I see is a fairly ordinary, very moody teenager making questionable decisions. The fact that he has the fate of the wizarding world in his hands is not A Good Thing.
  8. Evelina Anville – Evelina, Fanny Burney. Evelina is gloriously clueless, and I think the frustration of this book is actually part of the fun, as we watch her get into so many easily-avoidable sticky situations.
  9. Susannah Dean – The Dark Tower, Stephen King. That bit in the last book where she goes through the door? I know it’s supposed to be redemptive and shiny and wonderful, but it always seems a bit…flaky to me.
  10. Esther Summerson – Bleak House, Charles Dickens. “Look, I am perfect and angelic and I love everyone.” *retches*

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

The English Student Cooks: Strata with Cheese & Pesto

I’m currently cooking my way through Mary Berry’s Complete Cook Book, which the Pragmatist gave/lent to me when I moved out for my first full-time job. I wanted to document the experience as a kind of cooking diary, and so “The English Student Cooks” was born. This will be an irregular feature, as I only cook when I’m home on my days off, which is Not That Often.

Strata with Cheese & Pesto

Method: I dried out four slices of wholemeal bread in the top oven for 15 minutes (the lower oven was on, so I just used the excess heat from that rather than turning the top oven on); meanwhile, I mixed together four beaten eggs, 125ml of crème fraiche and 125ml of milk in a bowl. Once the bread slices were out of the oven I spread them with ready-made pesto, put them in the bottom of a glass baking tin, poured the egg mixture over the top (I couldn’t work out how to make the crème fraiche stop being lumpy, so the texture of the egg mixture was not unadjacent to scrambled egg) and grated about half a block of Cheddar and a couple of spoonfuls of Parmesan over the top. Finally, the whole caboodle went in the oven at 200 Celsius for 35 minutes.

Substitutions/alterations: The recipe called for vastly more Cheddar than I ended up using, but I felt that I’d already put loads on so I stopped. I suspect that the tin I used was smaller than the recipe specified.

Verdict: I didn’t really like this very much. Between the Cheddar and the pesto it was extremely salty, and there wasn’t very much texture to it: the bread kind of crumbled into the custard, so it was just all one undifferentiated mass of slightly textured cooked egg. I won’t make this again.