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Why I Appreciate the Ending of AMERICANAH

I’ve been reading (and teaching) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s critically acclaimed novel Americanah for the first time this spring. Many of my students were disappointed with the ending, but not me. Here’s why. (SPOILERS, obvs.)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie by Beowulf Sheehan

Americanah has been a satire with serious bits since the beginning. That makes it a comedy. Comedy genre rule #1 is that it ends happily (often with a wedding). To turn tragic at the end with a character death to separate our star-crossed lovers would be a mishandling of the book’s genre at large.

While the middle part of the novel was definitely about race, and was perhaps the most interesting to us because it was ABOUT us (Americans), the novel as a whole was about Ifemelu’s (and Obinze’s to a lesser extent) identity, including race when she comes to America, but also family, love, public personas versus inner life, gender, class, and morality. Overall, it is a coming-of-age book, except the transition from child to adult is complicated by changes in geography and society. At the end, Ifemelu finds her way back to herself. She leaves the job she doesn’t believe in, starts the blog that allows her to write about the important issues of Lagos, pays her own way in life, makes peace with the previous loves whom she left in lurch, and ends up being on her own for seven months, probably assuming Obinze had decided to stay with Kosi, and more or less moving on. That Obinze returns to her doesn’t negate her own independence.

Obinze and Ifemelu are fated to be together. They are built to be a couple who are together despite society’s expectations. Remember how Obinze was fated by the “gods” to be with Ginika back when Ifemelu met him? It seems that fate, or gods in the form of society, are continually trying to keep them apart. Their ability to come back together does break up Obinze’s marriage, but it was a “transactional” marriage, and one that I think we all see as a “lesser” marriage. This is a “white person” belief according to Obinze’s friend, which ties their non-conformity to their time and interest in the West, but I don’t think it originated there. They were bucking society’s expectations for love from the very beginning.

But despite their fated relationship, Adichie keeps it real. If there is dissatisfaction with the ending, it is that love can’t conquer all without consequences. Adichie makes us look at the consequences of what’s life’s thrown at them and what they’ve chosen along the way in response. There are lasting effects, and finding each other again after all this time is no easy feat. Deciding to be together, openly, honestly, means ending other ties and recommitting, figuring out how to pursue love but also maintain duty. I believe that if Obinze says he’ll see Buchi every day, he will. But honesty is a big theme in this novel, and when Obinze says that one day Buchi will realize he’s been pretending to be a fully invested father who loves her mother, she’ll become resentful of the lie.

So much literature ends with death and destruction of dreams and ideals. Gatsby. Heart of Darkness. Things Fall Apart. Hamlet. Cuckoo’s Nest. Slaughterhouse. White Noise. It almost seems like literature can’t be literature without the tragedy. Little value is given to the comedy or the book that retains hope. But comedy isn’t easy (try it and see). And maintaining hope in a world like ours, in the face of racism, poverty, body trafficking, and corruption (all topics Adichie deals with earnestly), is likewise hard. Ending on tragedy, in my opinion, is the easier way out. Finding a way to say, “Yes, you can survive this struggle, and it will define who you are, but it won’t crush you. Love for people and love for life will get you through,” that’s the bigger challenge. And the more important one.


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Black Canary Vol. 1’s Punk-Rock Heroics

CanaryCoverBlack Canary Vol. 1: Kicking and Screaming
Written by Brendan Fletcher
Art by Annie Wu, Pia Guerra, Sandy Garrell
Color by Lee Loughridge
Letters by Steve Wands

Since I was first introduced to this new iteration of Black Ca
nary through Batgirl Vol. 1: The Batgirl of Burnside, I can’t help but make comparisons. In that first introduction to Dinah, I didn’t think much of her. She came off as haughty in her irritation with Babs, and without prior sympathies built up, Dinah never won me over, instead remaining an annoyance through her appearance in that volume.

Her solo volume does much to reverse that, giving Dinah the chance to build sympathy while maintaining her tough, feminist, loner leanings. While Babs has friendships aplenty to keep her connected to the world and a lightness of being in her crime-fighting, Dinah stays aloof and carries the world’s weight on her shoulders. She’s a mystery, even to her band mates in Black Canary. And she’s trouble in a way that Babs never is. She’s quickly becoming a persona-non-gratis with her band, frequently leaving venues in states of disarray and destruction after her enemies take the opportunity to call her out. Her band mates, non of whom are superheroes, are becoming disillusioned with Dinah. She may be a kick-ass vocalist, but the fights are cutting hard into their tour profits.

Adding further complication is Bo M, the former lead singer of Black Canary who Dinah replaced. She’s a diva, clearly foiling Dinah’s more practical nature. Bo is out for vengeance against Dinah and acting the pawn for some big players indeed. Then there’s the mysterious, mute drummer Ditto who looks 12 but has some truly incredible musical abilities. Like with Batgirl, Brendan Fletcher makes most of Dinah’s central antagonists female, creating storylines that center heavily on the relationships between women, both positive and negative. Of special interest to this volume is an exploration of surrogate motherhood and how that changes a person’s perspective.

 

For the rest of my review, click through to PopOptiq

CanaryDichromatic


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Transcending in the Poetry of e.e. cummings

i carryHow excited I was when I saw that the most recent Nerdwriter video was going to examine one of my favorite poets and one that I teach in class each year: e.e. cummings. Cummings is a tricky but beloved poet because he is inventively flexible with language. Sometimes his poems seem nonsensical until looked at from the right angle. He plays with spacing, capitalization, and punctuation to force his reader into a new perspective to take in his words. He uses wordplay and pun, layering meanings to amplify ambiguities.

Evan Puschak looks specifically at cummings’ love poem “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in” which is one of his most accessible and universal poems. Puschak examines the universal concrete images of the poem, the two spaces of inside and outside the parantheses, as well as the transcendental philosophy cummings presented throughout his poetry.

I will excitedly show this video to my students. Puschak has once again taken a complex piece of art and clearly shown how it creates its meaning. If you have any love for or interest in poetry, check this one out.


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Audio Book Review – 1924: The Year That Made Hitler

1924: The Year That Made Hitler
by Peter Ross Range narrated by Paul Hodgson

1924 The Year that Made Hitler cover

The dark story of Adolf Hitler’s life in 1924 – the year that made a monster

Before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, there was 1924. This was the year of Hitler’s final transformation into the self-proclaimed savior and infallible leader who would interpret and distort Germany’s historical traditions to support his vision for the Third Reich.

Everything that would come – the rallies and riots, the single-minded deployment of a catastrophically evil idea – all of it crystallized in one defining year. Nineteen twenty-four was the year that Hitler spent locked away from society, in prison and surrounded by coconspirators of the failed Beer Hall Putsch. It was a year of deep reading and intensive writing, a year of courtroom speeches and a treason trial, a year of slowly walking gravel paths and spouting ideology while working feverishly on the book that became his manifesto: Mein Kampf.

Until now, no one has fully examined this single and pivotal period of Hitler’s life. In 1924, Peter Ross Range richly depicts the stories and scenes of a year vital to understanding the man and the brutality he wrought in a war that changed the world forever.

Real talk. I’m not sure I want this guy on our blog. I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with him at all. But understanding post-war Europe isn’t really feasible with a big hole in the middle. So here I am. Here we are.

Smack in the middle of the decade that saw American fortunes rise, Germany existed perpetually on the cusp of revolution. Left and right wing paramilitary extremists plotted and prepared for coup attempts. Late in 1923, the Nazi party made their move.

1924 offers a condensed biography of the party’s leader and his rise to prominence in the early years of the decade. Compared to the relatively long works I’ve been listening to, this nine hour audiobook felt almost like a snapshot. Names and dates seemed to jostle for space with motivations and contexts. Overlapping timelines tended to be more confusing than illuminating.

Nevertheless, the speed and density of the narrative managed to sweep me along. Range knows his subject and has chosen to focus on a period that’s routinely been glossed over. So even for World War II enthusiasts, this will cover some new ground.

While the book seems to rush toward the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s subsequent imprisonment, treason trial, and sentencing are explored in some detail. Whereas most treason trials, particularly those ending in conviction, would mark the end of a political career, this one had the opposite effect. Providing a platform for a relatively unknown figure, it catapulted him and his ideology to international notoriety.

A light sentence in posh accommodations actually provided the opportunity to write that ideology down. Apparently Mein Kampf was facilitated primarily by this enforced period of downtime for the political agitator. Its release coincided with his and eventually made him rich.

Digging into the early twentieth century has been full of surprises, for sure. And just as full of disappointing parallels with the present. In a vacuum, this would be one of the strangest stories of the period. In context it’s the record of a tragic mistake and the making of a monster.

Paul Hodgson is an able reader with a subtle range of voices and accents. The audio is well mixed and clear.

Recommended for Jack Gladney, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Prince.


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Children’s Book Review: Aaron and Alexander

Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History written and illustrated by Don Brown

Aaron and Alexander cover

I’m going to do something different. I usually include the promotional text before I get into my review, but I noticed a significant difference between what appears online versus what appears on the dust jacket. I think it’s important to share both. First, here’s the online text used by botrh the publisher and retailers.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both fierce patriots during the Revolutionary War, but the politics of the young United States of America put them in constant conflict. Their extraordinary story of bitter fighting and resentment culminates in their famous duel. For young patriots who may not yet know the shocking and tragic story, Aaron and Alexander captures the spirit of these two great men who so valiantly served their country and ultimately allowed their pride and ego to cause their demise.

Sensational, right? Fierce, manly, timeless. I would never buy this book for my children. At least at their current ages. Now here’s the dust jacket.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both orphaned at a young age, and they both became successful lawyers. The both fought in the Revolutionary War. But the politics of the young United States of America put these Founding Fathers in constant conflict. Theirs is a story of passion, patriotism, and pride, which culminates in the most famous duel in American history. Despite their similarities, it seemed the world was not big enough for both Aaron and Alexander, yet the outcome of their rivalry forever links their names.

Okay, honestly, dueling isn’t an appropriate subject for our preschooler or our infant. I still wouldn’t buy this book. Not yet anyway. But it does seem more thoughtful, more teachable.

The latter is what you see browsing in the store, and to me it encourages opening the book and taking a look. The former targets the history nerd, or teacher, with something exciting to share.

Anyway, if you’ve got some basic recall of high school civics, you probably know that Aaron Burr shot, or maybe even assassinated, the guy on the twenty dollar bill. If you spent any time online or watched late night television in 2015, chances are you know a little more than that. Have you heard about the Broadway musical Hamilton? There’s a cast recording. I highly recommend it. Our preschooler asked if we could listen to it while we fell asleep the other night.

And that’s why I’m reviewing this book. I checked it out from the library in a pile of books and audiobooks related to the principals. I used to look for the best book or whatever. Now I just read everything.

Luckily I took a look inside before sharing it with our child. And luckier still the art on the cover was a turn off. I can’t tell whether the style wasn’t attractive or whether it was overly evocative. Both are true, of course, in the eyes of a preschooler. Don Brown’s muted watercolors and soft lines are worlds away from the cartoonish primaries of the Little Golden Books we’ve been reading. But just look up there. Those two people are clearly going to to try to kill each other. They are both bad guys.

That itself is a sharp contrast to what’s in the book. Inside, they’re often so similar it hurts. And this is true even if you’re reading one of the eight books cited in the bibliography. Allow me a digression. Nonfiction picture books have bibliographies. Some have footnotes. Our children don’t get it yet, and we skip over them. But some day soon I’ll get to answer questions about them. Anyway, the range of reference material is good.

So good, in fact, that what I expected to be essentially Hamilton propaganda is quite fair and balanced. I have no idea how to turn this story into a children’s book. I can barely discuss it with people who have some background. But Brown has made an admirable attempt.

In a few years, the nuance on display will provoke some interesting conversations, Right now if there’s going to be fighting there needs to be a bad guy. An obvious one like Darth Vader, or better yet Darth Maul. Not this.

Aaron and Alexander dueling

I can’t explain dueling or why “Despicable” caused one or what that was actually code for at the turn of the nineteenth century and then why that, at that time, was something negative. Just, “is that blood?” and the subsequent questions are enough to shelve this one for awhile.

But, if you’re adventurous, or interested, or Clint Eastwood, maybe you’ll give it a shot. Too soon?

Recommended for fans of Hamilton, Daffy Duck, and folks who let their kids watch R-rated movies.


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Book Review: City of Blades

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades cover

A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions.

Now, the city’s god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.

So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh— foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister—has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten.

At least, it makes the perfect cover story.

The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world–or destroy it.

The trouble is that this old soldier isn’t sure she’s still got what it takes to be the hero.

One of my favorite books of 2014 was City of Stairs, the first installment of The Divine Cities series. At the time, I wasn’t aware there would be a second. I wasn’t even sure I needed one.

The setting is rich enough for a dozen books, to be sure. But the story was complete and satisfying. I’d definitely recommend reading it before this one. However, I’m pleased to report that City of Blades is fully comprehensible on its own.

Three generations ago, the Continent’s centuries old stranglehold on world affairs was broken by upstart colony Saypur. Colony became colonizer when the Saypuri devised a method of deicide. In a blink the landscape literally changed as the miracles sustained by the slain divinities simply ceased to exist.

Turyin Mulaghesh languishes in her beachfront retirement, plagued by a past that won’t let her sleep regardless of how hard she drinks. The protagonist of the first book, now Prime Minister of Saypur, exploits a loophole in the law and perhaps another in the former General and Polis Governor’s heart. She agrees to one last job.

Yes. Really. Dragged from a deserved respite off a remote beach, even. One of the signal joys of City of Stairs was the utter devotion to generic tropes while spinning them delicately in the light to make them appear fresh again. Bennett has recreated that rare please once again.

City of Blades felt like a longer book until I realized I wasn’t reading the same thing with different characters again. Mulaghesh is haunted by the things she’s done and unsure where the meaning of it all lies. And the story itself parallels her search for answers. Set to discover the whereabouts of a missing agent and the truth behind a mysterious mineral, she seems mired in fragments of past wars and present conflicts with no clear way forward.

Mulaghesh must confront both her demons and those of both her people and their former oppressors. She’ll investigate an afterlife that should no longer exist and a future few can comprehend. Ultimately she’ll have to embrace it all in order to save the world.

But it’s the journey, cliched as this sounds, that makes it matter. City of Blades is as much a thoughtful meditation on the contract between soldier and society as it is an epic fantasy. What is the price of making war for the warrior? What are the responsibilities of the individual and the state in the aftermath?

Robert Jackson Bennet has crafted another surprisingly intense and introspective book combining fantasy, noir, military history, and theology. this one will stay with me for awhile. I’m delighted there will be a third.

Recommended for fans of A History of Violence, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Library at Mount Char.


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Audiobook Review: Lawrence in Arabia

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Scott Anderson read by Malcolm Hillgartner

Lawrence in Arabia Cover

A thrilling and revelatory narrative of one of the most epic and consequential periods in twentieth century history—the Arab Revolt and the secret game to control the Middle East

The Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I was, in the words of T. E. Lawrence, “a sideshow of a sideshow.” As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by a small handful of adventurers and low-level officers far removed from the corridors of power. Curt Prüfer was an academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo whose clandestine role was to foment jihad against British rule. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Palestine even as he built an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring. William Yale was a fallen scion of the American aristocracy who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order to gain valuable oil concessions. At the center of it all was Lawrence. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist digging ruins in Syria; by 1917 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army, as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions.

Based on four years of intensive primary document research, Lawrence in Arabia definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed. Sweeping in its action, keen in its portraiture, acid in its condemnation of the destruction wrought by European colonial plots, this is a book that brilliantly captures the way in which the folly of the past creates the anguish of the present.

Histories of The Great War tend to focus on Europe, on the western front, even mostly on France. This makes plenty of sense if you’re reading primarily in English and especially if you’re reading from the American libraries. The eastern front seems poorly understood and even alien in some cases, despite being at the center of the drama. And the Russian Revolution and their subsequent withdrawal from the war is often portrayed as a burden on Britain, France, And the United States.

But there was a theater in World War I that wasn’t really covered in all the hours of Blueprint for Armageddon or anything else I’ve read recently. The Ottoman Empire, The Middle East, and North Africa. When Lawrence in Arabia came up in a search, I leapt at it.

Scott Anderson’s focused research and delicate understanding just shines. Written almost as an interlocking narrative of the lives of Prüfer, Aaronsohn, Yale, and of course Lawrence, this book delivers breath and depth in an oft neglected space. The competing interests of colonial powers have never been so illuminated, the people responsible for them so incisively deconstructed.

This corner of World War I, examined in such detail, provides perspective on many of the missteps made on both sides as they ramify out to the fringes to be repeated or rejected. Seen as relatively insignificant at the time, this is where many of our modern conflicts began. If the Middle East confuses you, you could scarcely read a better book to gain a foundational understanding of how we got to where we are now.

It’s well worth a recommendation on it’s own. But it’s better in context. Getting to know the primary figures in this history prepares you for the creation of Israel, the propaganda of World War II Germany, the United States’ commercial project, and Britain’s social transformation. The twentieth century would not have been what it is had these events not happened the way they did.

Finally, since it’s mostly focused on T.E. Lawrence, this is where you want to start with him. The oughties and the teens have produced incredible scholarship on some of history’s most controversial figures. Lawrence apparently left little of his own work behind and managed to contradict himself and undermine his credibility even so. Anderson compares everything that’s come before along with contemporary primary sources to create a portait of a fascinating human being.

It’s apolitical and sympathetic everywhere it can be, giving context for people of their time thrust into difficult situations. No one comes out unscathed and yet neither are any irrevocably damned. That may come later, of course, but such only proves the even hand applied.

Lawrence in Arabia is edifying. I’m truly better off for having read it. Listened to it, rather. Malcolm Hillgartner reads clearly and consistently, displaying interest and keeping the listener engaged in a complex story with an otherwise overwhelming onslaught of information.

Recommended for fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia, and Aaron Burr.