Monday, October 2, 2017
This book examines a peasant woman turned prostitute in Egypt after the post-colonial British occupation, how she is oppressed by a patriarchal class system that is an outgrowth of Western Imperialism, and how all women are duplicitous in accepting forms of subservience or oppression by being silent regarding social status or position that is abused by male violence or dominance. The historical context is not directly applied to the actual text but gleaned from the author’s interviews and imprisonment as an outspoken opponent of Anwar Sadat’s government during the 70s, known for jailing hundreds of intellectuals and critics. Arab literature often has the image of a prostitute that represents a nation that has “prostituted” itself to a Western nation in efforts to be modern and the author uses this notion on an individual level. Often, this type of Arab literature shows corruption against colonial aggression; however, this book shows aggression not in the objectification of women but in the sexual relationships between men and the woman, Firdaus, who cannot escape her class position in a rigid society that offers no freedom.
The novel starts with a female psychiatrist doctor, or the narrator, wanting to speak to Firdaus, a woman in jail, who is going to be hanged for murdering her pimp. At first, Firdaus refuses to see the doctor. Fridaus’s silence is all that gives her control over those in authority that have abused and oppressed her. The doctor is a part of a privileged class that accepts a system where men exploit women. The author’s choice of choosing a privileged female narrator removes the idea that the character is a victim, but that the reader is duplicitous in his or her silence as well. This seems like a good way to reach readers who are from industrialized countries and might just write Firdaus off as a victim. It might motivate the reader, regardless of country or socio-economic status, to speak out against the violence and oppression of females with a collective voice.
Women everywhere should recognize Firdaus as a person of no authority or freedom who is stuck in a flawed social, economic, and political society that is patriarchal, but who is symbolic in her refusal to be dominated by men in spirit and mind. The book shows a woman exploited by men but because the men refuse to see the truth of a flawed system and gender relationship, they must silence the woman by killing her in the end. She is at point zero because even though she has no control physically, authoritatively, and suffers class oppression, she can control her mind and the truth of her situation by refusing to give into the system whether that means begging for her life to be spared, being silent, or speaking out. She chooses to speak the truth. Her end is tragic, but it is her choice and freedom lies in no longer physically existing. This is a short book with layers of meaning the reader can peel through.
Sunday, October 1, 2017
What a brilliant book. The moral ambiguity that seeps through all aspects of this novel adds richness and depth that allows for multiple interpretations. Nothing is at it appears. Nick’s unreliable narration tries to be “honest”; yet, creates a myth through selective narration that tells the story of Jim Gatz, a poor farmer who reinvents himself into the wealthy, James Gatz, to win back his wealthy girlfriend, Daisy. Nick’s boast that “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” should make the reader suspicious of his narration as he or she meets Nick at the opening dinner party, learns from Daisy and Tom’s conversation that he is fleeing the Midwest because of pressure by family members to become engaged to a girl back home. Nick never tells the reader this directly, just as he selectively tells the reader Gatsby’s background creating the illusion of someone “great.” Lies. Illusions. Dreams. Impossibilities. Restlessness. Innovation. Self-invention. You name it. You can find contradictions galore. Even the author’s constant oxymoron’s of “elegant…roughnecks” to “ferocious delicacy” add to the paradoxes in the novel.
Irony abounds as Gatsby doesn’t quite get his masquerade as a re-made wealthy man right. He has amassed money through illegal means of bootlegging and shady bonds deals. His mansion has a fake façade and he is the perpetual outsider, never getting the jokes leveled at him or fitting in with the elite crowd he so craves. There is a painful scene where Tom shows up on a horse and Gatsby thinks he’s accepted with this wealthy aristocratic group who are actually laughing at Gatsby behind his back. Gatsby’s parties have a mix of social classes that reveal his reinvention of himself that isn’t enough for Daisy who decides to stay with her immoral husband Tom, because it is safer to be with “her own kind.” The author captures this historical shift in society and tension where privileged white characters such as Daisy, Jordan, Nick and Tom and their family connections to old money are threatened by the lower-class Gatsby’s of the world who are self-made and can receive a promotion in the army based on meritocracy.
Times were changing in the 1920s with the economy turning toward consumerism and mass production and Scott Fitzgerald shows the contradictions and confusion in characters and national psyche. The materialism is captured in the cars, decadent parties, advertisements, and mansions that challenges established aristocratic families in powerful positions by those that have risen from lower economic statuses. The landscape is becoming mechanized and the resulting alienation can be seen in the character, Gatsby. Gatsby seems most at home behind a machine that he controls such as a hydroplane or car, rather than with others. At his own parties, he is aloof and off to the side or missing – ever the outsider. The rise of the flapper and jazz music was considered rebellious modern expressions by men and women wanting more personal and sexual freedoms mirrored in the infidelities of Daisy, Tom, Nick, Gatsby, and Myrtle.
Contradictions abound and are captured in the national psyche as well as the characters. The author questions the ambiguity of national myths that emerged from World War I and captures the war's effects on citizens through moral disillusionment, physical devastation, and loss of faith. The valley of the ashes is Manhattan or the war’s physical landscape that reflects the restlessness of people. The eyes of Eckleberg in the advertisement are those of an empty God. There is despair and “restlessness” in Nick’s narration that shows the American dream as a hopeful, optimistic, unattainable, limited, phony, or empty illusion. On the hottest day of the year, the five misfits go on an existential quest to find the meaning in life by going to the valley of ashes. There they find destruction and unfulfillment of dreams.
The romantic idealistic Gatsby contrasted with the satirical detachment of Nick’s narration is one way the story is elevated in complexity revealing a questioning of established romantic forms and themes. Gatsby doesn’t let go of his youthful dreams. Gatsby tries to reinstate the past through an illusion and his “capacity to wonder” or create an entirely new life with a career and social position through old romantic ideals found in the Victorian society, not the modern one. He lives in the past and this contrast creates a dynamic tension between a man who is hopeful in a hopeless dream.
While the war has punctured the dreams of most it hasn’t affected Gatsby in the same way. Nick captures this at the end when he imagines how Dutch explorers felt when they first saw Long Island. Nick suggests that when the forests “made way for Gatsby’s house” and “…pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams” that people lost the “capacity to wonder” and while Gatsby made Daisy his impossible object of wonder, it captures his romantic ability to see life in its limitless possibilities whether that “green light” is a person or new country with possibilities for an ecstatic or “orgastic future.”
His character is contradictory embodying a country that says’s one thing but does another; that has myths that are not based in reality. The novels’ references to Horatio Alger’s myth that people can go from rags to riches by re-inventing themselves is false. The references to the Benjamin Franklin myth that ties in with the virtues of Poor Richard’s Almanack is false as well; it that says America is the land of opportunity where a person can make it on meritocracy. This is not the case for Gatsby. Fitzgerald pokes holes and shows the ambiguities of the American dream or myth; the reality is that people are affected by socio-economic status, ethnicity, geography, or family environments and it is not as simple as it seems.
Gatsby embraces the dream, but it is a false one. His counterfeit linguistic tic of saying “old sport” sounds like a re-invented identity. His rainbow-colored shirts and over-reaching to re-make the world in a creative, rebellious effort to reinvent himself by means of the American dream is over-the-top. In the end, he wants money, clothes, and Daisy but finds no fulfillment in this monolithic, obsessive illusion. He cannot fulfill his grand yearning and Daisy falls short of his dream. He has created an object in Daisy that is unattainable. She’s a dream that cannot be achieved or a desire that has been commoditized. He describes her voice as a direct metaphor and not a simile, “Her voice is money.” Gatsby can never attain his desire but only circle it repeatedly looking at it “across a bay” and unable to cross the distance to make it happen. He is from immigrant farmers and is never good enough for Daisy, but he just can’t let go of the idea that he will be in the same class as her and even though he recognizes on some level she can’t give him what he wants he still desires it obsessively. He is a doomed romantic who can’t survive in the modern world. He has a vision for the future as being a self-made man; however, he is a con man.
America today is sort of like this with moral disillusionment in politics, public xenophobia, prejudices toward immigrants or marginalized groups, or institutionalized racism. But let’s face it - historically, issues such as this have existed in cultures over the centuries. There is something beautiful and optimistic about the unattainable American dream or ideal that is strained by reality and the realism of the ancient or modern world. While Fitzgerald captures a specific time brilliantly in his novel when mass production, industrialization, and rapid scientific advances were upsetting the status quo, it can be applied to other historical eras and is haunting in its contradictions of hope and hopelessness for an idealistic future that doesn’t exist. A brilliant book.
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Ifemelu goes to college in America and struggles with depression, employment, and making her way in an immigrant's harsh world. She gets a break nannying a wealthy couple's two children and starts a blog critiquing liberal white Americans that use charity to make themselves feel better, racism, and more. Ifemelu becomes friends with Kimberly, the wealthy white mother, who has false assumptions about immigrants and Africans; however, Ifemelu recognizes Kimberly as a decent, caring woman who is unhappy and unable to stand up to others. They become friends in spite of differences.
During her time nannying, Ifemelu dates Kimberly's cousin, a wealthy man named, Curt, who actually cares for her but he represents a privileged class that makes Ifemelu restless with him. While he genuinely cares for her, his use of privilege and entitlement creates gaps in their relationship. For instance, he gets her a green card manipulating the process to speed it up because he is wealthy while Ifemelu's other friend works three jobs trying to get his visa. Curt also turns the story of Ifemelu's experience with a carpet cleaner, who is disgusted and angry when he mistakenly thinks Ifemelu owns Kimberly's mansion to acting relieved and nice when he discovers that she's just than nanny, into a funny anecdote with his friends versus a dehumanizing experience. Even while dating Curt she thinks of Obinze and idolizes their romance. Ifemelu's blog becomes successful and she dates another man, Blaine, but again does not connect with him. She decides to leave America and go back to Nigeria. While there she tries to write fluffy pieces for a magazine that caters to rich Nigerian women but cannot do it. Each move she makes gives her more peace with who she is and what she wants in life. She decides to fight the corruption in Nigeria and becomes active in a cause. She couldn't do this in America because of the lack of cultural history but she can in her own country. She rekindles her relationship with Obinze.
The notion of being an outsider in a new culture, Ifemelu's internal restlessness, and characters searching for self-identities kept my interest more than the unequal romantic relationships - although I did find the tension and misunderstandings in cross-cultural relationships fascinating. The story addresses false assumptions that people have in different cultures not realizing that they are embracing stereotypes or racist attitudes. Africa is not a poor country that needs to be rescued by white people, black women don't need to wear their hair straight like white women, and women don't have to marry just for wealth, to name a few. The author provides a different narrative that looks at the history of America that lacks the post slavery anger and outrage. She also shows through characters such as Ifemelu's mother and a co-worker the dangers of being blinded to truths through religious fundamentalism. Adichie does not become preachy or single out any country and while Ifemelu could become too judgmental or point the finger, she retains empathy for others making her statements thoughtful. All places have issues and all have good aspects too. By having the protagonist be a successful blogger, the author is able to create snippets of biting, light, heavy, and humorous commentaries that add depth to the plot.
One of Ifemelu's blog posts examines cultural aspects of race that are not existent in Nigeria: The post's title is, "To My Fellow Non-American Blacks, in America, You are Black, Baby: Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. So what if you weren't black in your country? You're in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the society of former negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad, when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up." Ifemelu doesn't consider race until she is forced to by complicated racial politics ingrained in American society.
When Ifemelu is dating Blaine, an African-American professor from Princeton, the cultural misunderstandings on race become even more pronounced. Blaine is outraged when the University of Princeton's police accuse a black man of drug dealing through racial profiling and organizes a protest. Ifemelu skips the protest; she can't relate to the history of oppression that makes Blaine so angry. This along with other incidents such as Blaine's sister Shan and his friends show the gap in her and Blaine's relationship revealing why they could not connect on a deeper level and move beyond dating.
The hair salon is an important symbol and foreshadows or reveals the struggles immigrants face dealing with white privilege, fitting-in, and racism. Ifemelu doesn't mask her Nigerian accent and the women look down on her for it. She used to speak with no accent but felt it was false and made her want to fit into America's definition of being a citizen. She watched her aunt and friend try to assimilate like this and didn't like that they were not being true to themselves. She develops her own American identity and later a Nigerian one. She grows more mature along the way and by the time she meets up with Obinze she knows what she wants and who she is. She also wants her hair natural, not artificially colored or flattened. Her identity crises are symbolized in her hair choices and the setting of the hair salon frames the story in a well-crafted way. I've only touched on a few themes and messages in the book that is ripe for many different kinds of discussions. A terrific story.
Monday, July 3, 2017
Mohsin Hamid's, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia," imitated the style of a self-help book using the rarely used in fiction second person point of view. In "Exit West," Hamid again shows his willingness to take risksin a realistic story that uses metaphors and imagery that gives magical setting transitions a slightly surreal flavor. The magic places the readers' focus on the before and after flight of two immigrants fleeing a Muslim country in an unnamed war to countries that are hostile toward them upon arrival - it eliminates an exploration of the immigrants' journey. This heightened the psychological exploration of the immigrants for me, but some readers might not like the author's splat of magical realism. I listened to the audio book and Hamid's use of repetition and the excellent narrator made it memorable and easy to understand. "Exit West" is layered with many themes and timely as it reflects the current globalization, countries slant toward nationalism, and displacement of people from wars, to name a few. Some might like the romance, or the independent spirit of the female protagonist, different characters' struggles for self-identity, and a myriad of other topics.
Saeed and Nadia, live in a Muslim country being overtaken by militants. They are progressive and enjoy modern technology until their city becomes overtaken by militants. Day-to-day living is replaced by anxiety and fear causing the retreat of people from public to private spaces to the point that they are afraid to go to funerals. When Saeed's mother is killed by a stray bullet people are afraid to come to her funeral and his father insists that Saeed and Nadia leave the city. Saeed's father will not go with them for he knows he will slow them down and he wants to remain where he's lived his whole life. He recognizes that his son has no future in a city were drones, killings, and bombs oppress everyday living. However, the father feels the past and its memories offer him more than the future and so he stays. The father and son know they may never see each other again.
When Saeed and Nadia immigrate through magical doors (literarily) to a refugee camp in Greece, then London, and the U.S., they encounter hostility from mobs of people who are "natives" that use violence against the newcomers. Saeed and Nadia are oppressed in their new homelands. They try to make their way and find an identity but it is difficult as an outsider. Their experiences show Saeed drifting to people like himself and how he finds comfort in their shared experiences and religion; whereas, Nadia drifts towards diversity and tries other clans. The two experiment with finding their identities. The end of the story shifts toward a romantic narrative and the previous plot tension gets a bit lost as the two go their own ways.
While the story is about migration and marginalization for Saeed and Nadia, it also reveals that people who live in the same place can feel like foreigners in their own city as well. Their home changes around them as can be seen in Saeed's father's lifetime. His city was mostly free and safe before militants started killing civilians and disrupting government operations. Two minor characters who fall in love at the end of the novel show a blending of those who migrate and those who stay in a city their entire life. Even though the immigrant does not know the language, he communicates through hand gestures with the man who has lived there his whole life. They fall in love and are happy revealing positive futures are possible where diverse people can coexist side-by-side without fear and hatred. The suggestion is that society is better or enriched when people can choose to live where they want and call home in whatever country they live. Fear and anxiety stunts not only the potential for an individual to live a full life, but also an entire society's.
Magical doorways are a metaphor for migration, globalization, and technology. The two people pass through doorways to Greece, England, and California. The author doesn't focus on the immigrants' journey; instead he examines where the protagonists came from and what happened after they arrived in their new countries. This exploration of displacement allows the author to focus on the psychology of what the characters are going through as they migrate. Not everyone will like the technique, but I thought the surreal moments enhanced the characters emotional turmoil of adapting to new situations and represented the unnameable displacement a person feels when uprooted from his or her home country. It's a bit like wading through a thick cultural fog.
The magical doorway metaphor reminded me of Skype and how I can live thousands of miles away from my loved ones and yet can see them on a computer and chat, just like a magic mirror in a fairy tale. For me, his book captures the international displacement I feel traveling the world. I haven't been home in twelve years and that seems to be a major point in the book. Not to mention, with technological advancements in computers, transportation and more, migration in today's global world is much more rapid than thousands of years ago.
Doors can also symbolize open and closed nations. Nations can close their borders by fear and wanting to live in the past like Saeed's father. Opportunities are open or closed to immigrants like Saeed and Nadia when they arrive in their new countries. Windows are another metaphor that the author uses that express the future as one with possibilities or not. The window in Nadia's apartment has beautiful views only to have to be covered as the threat of bombs sending shattered glass throughout the apartment grows. She describes the changes from a light apartment to one that is dark and where she and Saeed cower away from the window. There is quite a bit going on in this quick read and I've only touched on a few. I highly recommend it.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
This audiobook was a bit of a slog. After twenty plus hours, I kept upping the audio speed so that by the end the reader sounded like he was auditioning for Alvin and the Chipmunks. Guess I lost interest in Custer's life. He's a contradiction. He was actually a good strategist during the Civil War and thought to have been lucky because he avoided death in so many battles. He was also arrogant, insecure, brash, and racist. The book is well-documented and well-written. I just thought it got long. Perhaps the book would have been better. The end describes the battle and the controversies surrounding it as well as the army investigation into the massacre. Obviously, Custer's usually solid military strategy failed at the Battle of Bighorn, but Stiles reveals the issues he had with his superiors and facts that led to the confusion during the battle. A fascinating look into history.
Friday, May 5, 2017
The vicious cycle of drugs, bad laws, slumlords, discrimination, health issues, and a host of problems bombards the listener. Only one of the eight individuals followed by the author breaks out of poverty and finds a stable job, but he had a professional job before succumbing to drugs; I thought his chance of finding stability was higher than the others. The other families and individuals seemed to have more obstacles to overcome from violent upbringings, low-wage jobs that weren't stable, physical disabilities, and mental issues. All of the families had multiple evictions and the majority tossed out of their homes were women and children.
A common stereotype is that people in poverty have only themselves to blame: they spend too much money, they are uneducated, they lack skills or intelligence to break out of the cycle, etc. Matthew Desmond hypothesizes that the problem with poverty is that it is profitable. The owner of a trailer park, that was barely habitable for tenants, makes $400,000 a year in profits. Another landlord drives her sports car and travels to Jamaica making a good profit on her tenants. Desmond shows the injustice of a system that denies people the right to live in a house and the social costs to communities. He argues that it is destructive and more costly to society in the long run than if a home and a stable community is established for those in need. He is not opinionated but lets the facts speak for themselves. This book reminds me of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo who looks at those who profit from the slums of India.
This book is better read than listened too. The abundance of details can derail the casual listener. I kept shoving the earbuds deeper into my head so I could drown out the usual background gym noise. But some things stand out. While black men are ending up in jail as revealed in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, this book shows how black women are being evicted at extremely high rates. One out of five black women is evicted, as opposed to one in twelve white women. Desmond shows time and again how the main thing holding poor people back is rent. He also shows how government funding programs meant to help the poor end up in the pockets of the landlord. At the end, he argues for more public housing vouchers as one way to address the issue. This is an important dialogue and while it made for dense (and sometimes confusing) listening, it was worth the effort.
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Students chose this for book club and the snappy dialogue and defined characters make it a well-done interracial romance novel. Set in New York City, Natasha Kingsley, is being deported to Jamaica and trying to find a way to stay in America by contacting the US immigration office. Korean-American, Daniel Bae, is on his way to a college interview for Yale when their paths cross. When the two teenagers meet, the poetic Daniel tries to convince the logical Natasha that love at first sight is possible by asking a series of scientific questions. The author adds historical context that engages the reader whether it is an explanation of why so many Koreans own salons that cater to African Americans, immigration facts, scientific paradoxes, facts, theories, and more.
Natasha is smart and has a clear view of the world. She won’t be patronized by adults and she’s blunt with people. At the immigration office, an adult tries to tell her the future will work out. “Don’t tell me I’ll be all right. I don’t know that place [Jamaica]. I’ve been here since I was eight years old. I don’t know anyone in Jamaica. I don’t have an accent. I don’t know my family there, not the way you’re supposed to know family. It’s my senior year. What about prom and graduation and my friends?” When Daniel meets Natasha he appreciates her direct, no-nonsense quality. Natasha is so science-driven that she explains the scientific chemicals that are released in the brain when a person falls in love trying to remove all the unexplainable romantic elements.
Most of the alternating points of view are Natasha and Daniel’s, but there are side characters interspersed to round out the themes of self-identity, culture, love, science, and racism, to name a few. The poetic Daniel describes meeting Natasha and his love-at-first-sight is as follows: “It’s like knowing all the words to a song but still finding them beautiful and surprising”. While Natasha thinks of meeting him as definitely connecting with Daniel, but her practical side sees the moment and distrusts the “poetic heart”. “They’re not talking about the real heart, the one that needs healthy foods and aerobic exercise. But the poetic heart is not to be trusted.” Natasha doesn’t want to fall in love with Daniel.She will be deported in 24 hours. When Daniel saves her life and breaks her pink head phones that she's owned most of her life, it symbolizes her break with the past and all she has known. Her new cultural identity now involves interracial love and living in a new culture.
While Natasha and Daniel don’t have a problem with their different cultural backgrounds, their family members do. Both struggle with self-identity, while at the same time being self-confident and happy with themselves. They must learn to deal with parental expectations intertwined with different cultures. When Natasha's dad first meets Daniel, his face shows his displeasure. Her dad wants to be an actor but is rejected for roles because of his ethnicity making him insecure and depressed. He misses his home country to the point that he tells a policewomen he is an illegal immigrant. He says that he doesn't know why he did that but it is obvious that he subconsciously wants to return to his home country.
Similarly, Daniel is dealing with parents who expect him to speak Korean and marry an Asian girl. When Natasha first meets his brother, Charlie, and his dad they make racist comments. The brother brings up the stereotypical African American that shoplifts and the dad tells her to buy some relaxer because her hair is too big. Natasha responds that she likes her big hair and Daniel responds to his brother by giving him the finger. Both Natasha and Daniel are confident with themselves even though life is uncertain; whereas, the parents of both have to deal with disillusionment and unhappiness. The feelings of alienation for immigrants is captured in the complexity of finding not only self-identity but an American or Korean or Jamaican identity as well.
Another motif explored from Daniel’s point of view is names. Daniel’s mom ponders that America names signify the individual; whereas, Korean names point to the importance of family ancestry. Daniel’s mother “agonized” over what to name her children showing her struggles with cultural identity. She decided on both American and Korean to show them where they’d been and where they were going. Daniel’s brother Charlie, however, with all his intelligence doesn’t understand the power of his past and tries to erase all that is Korean in him. He’s on probation from Harvard college and Daniel reveals that when he is grown-up and has a good job he goes by Charles Bay not his given, Charles Jae Won Bae. He refuses to speak Korean, eat Korean food, or date a Korean. This prevents him from finding true happiness in life because he doesn’t like himself and is rejecting part of his cultural identity. The result is a shallow, alienated, and self-absorbed character who is unable to have a close relationship in marriage or with family members.
The ending is a bit convenient or forced regarding how the two meet, but it will satisfy the romantic heart. Or should I say, "poetic heart". I particularly like how this author puts words together. The cadence and rhythm of the chapters make it fast-paced and the back-and-forth dialogue between Daniel and Natasha is funny and smart. I did try the audio tape first but sort of lost track of who was speaking. I switched to the book and got more out of it in the end. But since listening is my weakest learning style, I'm biased. A fun, well-written, and enjoyable book.