Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In the rarified air of Nigerian and American academia, Ifemelu and Obinze discuss race, politics, race, literature, and race with colleagues and family. Education and career destinations are America and England for Ifemelu and Obinze, but after a 15-year hiatus, they both end up back in Nigeria, where they first met and fell in love. How their identities changed through their expat experiences comprises Americanah’s story. Will these experiences lead them back to each other, or have they changed too much? That is the intrigue.

Adichie’s intelligent, insightful writing is a pleasure to read. Americanah is way more than a love story. It’s a study of personal and national identity. For example, Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju (pronounced oo-joo) immigrates first to the United States; when Ifemelu arrives, she notices Aunty Uju answers her phone, “Yes, this is Uju” pronouncing it you-joo because that’s how Americans pronounce her name. And when Ifemelu has trouble finding a job, a Nigerian girlfriend who has preceded her to the U.S. recommends she straighten her hair to not look so African. They make other accommodations in order to fit in, but sometimes they get tired of doing this and revert to their natural selves.

On the way to the romantic denouement, I enjoyed learning about American, Nigerian, and British customs and sensibilities through Adichie’s keen observations. Although not always blatant, fears about people different from us are never far from the surface in this novel. In Americanah, inevitable racism ~ blacks against whites and whites against blacks ~ slithers in and out of the story’s scenes like the snake it is. This is an edgy novel for me, because while I believe racial prejudice exists, I do not believe racism is inevitable and insurmountable, which seems to be the subtle theme of this novel. In that, I hope I have misjudged Americanah. That said, I recommend reading this novel, not just to enjoy an interesting story, well-told, but also to become more aware of how people of other cultures view us.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Book Review: The God of Animals

Illusions and disillusions. Ah, what might have been … In Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals, dreams characters have for the future collide with disappointments of present realities. Twelve-year-old Alice Winston relates events at the horse farm her father struggles to make profitable. Alice’s father teaches her the business and depends on her as his right hand. While Alice is truly his faithful little hero, he continually lauds her older sister Nona as the family’s shining star. Nona had been a champion rider, but as the novel begins, she has deserted the family to run off with a rodeo rider. Alice’s loyalty, smarts, strengths, and hard work are taken for granted in Nona’s shadow. Her mother, though living in the house, has mentally checked out (clinical depression?), and Alice seeks appreciation and love from other sources—her father’s clients, a teacher, and fellow junior high students.

Alice’s angst is palpable. Her guileless search for life’s answers and guidance is endearing. Her longing for love—and an adult to even tend to her basic needs—is heartbreaking. Her parents’ benign neglect—they are simply otherwise occupied—is painful to read. Alice’s self-protectiveness, perceptiveness, and pursuit of worldly wisdom are honest—or in some cases, dishonest, as she learns about lies. Aryn Kyle has written a novel that engages readers’ emotions, even if the emotions mostly slide toward sadness.

I often felt sad reading this book. But I wanted to read on. The God of Animals is a well-told story, and I enjoyed Kyle’s writing. Plus, I was rooting for Alice and wanted to hang in with her till the end. Also, horse training and equestrian competitions are unfamiliar to me, and I was fascinated to learn intimate, colorful details of the business that Kyle incorporates. Sometimes horse training strategies paralleled what Alice and her father and all we humans have to learn about breaking and bending under life’s dashed hopes. Occasionally as I read this novel, I thought a twelve-year-old narrator could not possibly articulate observations as wisely, and sometimes poetically, as Alice did. I decided just to roll with that inconsistency because I liked the writing enough not to quibble with that detail.