Tag Archives: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

January Reading Round-Up

I hope you’ve all survived January! It’s gone pretty quickly for me, and I’ve now been back at work longer than I was on holiday for. Those days of lie-ins and lounging about reading all morning are but a distant memory. *sigh*

But, I have managed to read quite a few books despite that (the January social calendar is usually pretty slow!), as well as catch up on a couple of films and TV series I’ve been wanting to watch for a while.

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Books read in January:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | Review
The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
Stoner by John Williams | Review
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell | Review
The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern | Review coming soon
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth (proof read for work)

Films watched:

The Thirteenth Tale | Based on Diane Setterfield’s book (read my review here)
American Hustle
(On this note, I also featured on my blog a list of my top 10 book adaptations which was good fun collating)

I’ve been watching the first three seasons of Downton Abbey which is wonderful (it’s become a bit of an obsession) – I can’t quite believe it took me so long to get into it! I’ve also been watching season 2 of the quirky and clever Swedish/Danish crime series The Bridge, I think the characters have developed even more and I’m really enjoying it. What else? Sherlock! I loved the first and third episodes in the new series (wasn’t so keen on the second one) but it’s all over already – how long do we have to wait until the next series, hmm…?

In February, I’m mainly looking forward to the gradually lighter mornings, taking part for the second time in the Literary Blog Hop Giveaway (running from the 4th-8th of February), watching the film adaptation of The Book Thief, wine tasting at Divino Enoteca and tree top climbing at Go Ape.

I’m not sure quite what I’ll be reading yet, but some of my potential reads are:

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (definitely will be an at-home read as it’s far too weighty to cart around in my handbag!)
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Souief (I picked this up at a Book Swap event in my work during Book Week Scotland)
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (I won this as part of the Literary Blog Hop giveaway back in 2012 and thought there was no better time to read it than in the run-up to the next one!)

What about everyone else? Got any exciting plans coming up in February?

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Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Set in the 1960s in Nigeria, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie follows the fates of a small cast of characters before and during the Biafran war, a civil war between different Nigerian peoples, the Hausa tribe in the north of the country, and the Igbo tribe in the south. The title takes its name from the flag of Biafra, the secessionist state which was fleetingly in existence from 1967 – 1970. In the early ’60s, Ugwu is hired as a houseboy to Odenigbo, a professor working at Nsukka University. Odenigbo hosts gatherings with other academics, dinner parties where they have heated debates about their country, revolution, secession and the after-effects of colonialism (Nigeria had recently gained independence from the United Kingdom). Olanna, his partner and fellow academic, moves in and things begin to change – Olanna and Odenigbo have a child, the political climate becomes volatile and they are ultimately forced to flee Nsukka. Olanna’s twin sister Kainene is heavily involved in keeping their family business running and tires of negotiating favours and bribes, and of courting the attention of people who bore her. She meets a British ex-pat, Richard, whose life becomes intertwined with hers and those of the Igbo people, becoming absorbed by their culture and language.

The narrative shifts back and forth between the early and late ’60s, split into four sections – I enjoyed this change, it was nice to slip back into the happier times before the conflict, before you knew what was to come. The characters each struggle to deal with everything that happens to them and those around them – their loyalties and love are tested, in a time when terrible things are happening, what they consider to be ‘unforgiveable’ is redefined. Adichie’s writing is so engrossing that you get drawn into the story, and the human impact of historical events, through the stories of her characters.

There are three main narrators in the novel. Ugwu is warm and funny and one of my favourite characters. He starts off trying to make sense of the academic world and reconcile that with the village life he has come from, then grows from a young teenager into a young man, learning about love, lust and loss. Olanna spent a lot of time travelling about within in the country and to London, and never seems settled, even before her life is uprooted by civil war. I found Richard a bit wet, he is in awe of Kainene and it seems a bit embarrassing in his Britishness, researching and photographing local customs, and trying rather unsuccessfully to write a book about Nigeria. I loved some of the minor characters, particularly Kainene who is very different from her twin, much more blunt and braver in many ways, and is always active in finding solutions for the problems she encounters. She seems very glamorous and self-assured, but the reader is left wondering if that can save her. The ending of the book felt a little quick to come, I would have liked to have found out more about how the characters recovered, and how it affected their life later on. I guess I’ll just have to come up with my own ideas and what this could be.

I have been thinking about this book a lot since I finished reading it, thinking about all of the things I have learnt from it. I realised just how much food and drink are central to the story – in the parts set in the early ’60s, Ugwu is constantly thinking about what he will cook, comparing his cooking to Olanna’s, and Harrison’s (Richard’s houseboy), as well as being very suspicious of Odenigbo’s mother’s cooking. With food comes power. It plays a massive role in cultural identity, identifying you with certain regions, countries and your own family and friends. In a country that is being ripped apart, food is something everyone is trying to hold on to, something to remind of who you are and where you’re from. In the late ’60s, Olanna spends hours queuing for food supplies to feed her family as famine spreads; it’s also a cultural indicator and a weapon of snobbery – Harrison thinks British food is far superior to Nigerian cooking, and Olanna is horrified at the thought of Baby eating lizard despite the fact that rations dwindle day by day. Odenigbo in particular, struggles with alcohol – at the beginning it is something to enjoy in the company of friends, but in grief it turns into a release, a way of numbing himself to the pain. In an unpredictable environment, where boys are captured and turned into child soldiers, women are raped, people are massacred and refugees are cut off from food and aid, it is all the characters can do to just survive.

This book is rich with detail, complicated characters and powerful stories. I loved it, and was unsettled by it, by the stories it relates of the cruelty done to the Biafran people by the Nigerians and vice versa during the conflict, as well as by the Biafran people to themselves. I love how educational this book has been, I was constantly looking things up online, reading more about the conflict, the culture, the food, music and fashion. Don’t you just love it when books open up new worlds to you? Parts of it aren’t easy to read due to their subject matter but I would highly recommend this book, not just for its history but for the way it opens up a different world. I have added both of Adichie’s novels to my wish list – her début novel Purple Hibiscus and her recent novel Americanah, published in 2013.

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Rounding Up 2013

Happy New Year! Hope you all have a brilliant 2014 and discover many new and wonderful books to help you on your way. I wanted to round up the reviews of books read in December and write a few of my thoughts on what I read last year, as well as looking forward to what this year will bring. I thought the best way to start the new year fresh was to a few mini reviews of the final books of 2013.

Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White

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I have been planning to read this book for a long, long time, after studying Victorian Gothic literature at uni and reading The Moonstone and absolutely loving it. I’d heard The Woman in White was even better, in fact, a seminal piece of Gothic fiction. It’s told in the form of a detective story, with a series of testimonies surrounding the mysterious Anne Catherick (the Woman in White who gives the book its title), the doomed marriage of Laura Fairlie to Sir Percival Glyde and the shady dealings of Sir Percival and Count Fosco. I was a little disappointed, but perhaps more because it didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. I enjoyed the descriptions of the characters, Count Fosco was particularly unforgettable, and the story was great but I found it started to drag in the middle and I found parts of it a little predictable. That said, it’s hard to look back on fiction from so long ago as ‘new’ as such as the themes and storylines have been read or viewed so much in modern times on the page or on screen that it sometimes feels like cliché. I really wanted to love this book but I wasn’t as enchanted with it as others are.

Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl

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I have been meaning to read this book for such a long time (I think probably since I learnt about it in primary school!). The diary of Anne Frank, a young Jew in hiding in Amsterdam with her family during the Holocaust, shows the horrors of that time from the eyes of a teenager, alongside all of the worries and angst teenagers go through. It begins before they go into hiding and gives an idea of the growing concerns of Jews and the increasing level of persecution they faced. Anne is trying to make sense of it all herself and writes in her diary most days talking about life in hiding, family fights, food shortages, the kindness of those who helped them and the fear of being discovered. It’s funny that, even though Anne Frank was alive in a completely different time, I recognise so much of her writing style from my own diaries at a similar age – the melodrama, the feelings of being misunderstood, and those intense feelings for a certain boy. It is so sad what happened to Anne and her family, and to think that if another month had gone by before they were discovered, they may have just survived.

Michel Faber – Under the Skin

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This novel. It is a little terrifying. Isserley spends her days travelling up and down the A9 (the main route connecting the Central Belt of Scotland with the Highlands) on the hunt for hitchhikers – not just any hitchhikers, but strong and healthy male specimens – to pick up in her car. What happens to them afterwards is someething quite unexpected. It’s pretty creepy and this is such a chilling book that will leave you with images in your head you could hardly have conjured up in a nightmare. I was recently driving along the A1 (another main artery from Scotland down to Newcastle in the north of England) and experienced it in a completely different way, leaning forward, imagining myself as Isserley, trying to imagine what she would be thinking. This is a work of fiction unlike anything I have ever read and I’m looking forward to seeing the film, coming out in early March this year. It’s a bit of a departure from the novel from what I’ve seen so far but the trailer is available here if you would like to see what you’re letting yourself in for beforehand!

I’ve seen a lot of posts with reading stats – I never knew I was a stats geek (I hated the subject in school) but I really enjoy them now so I have been browsing through my reading from 2013.

53 books read in 2013

21 written by women, 32 by men
19 were published in 2013, 11 were classics
27 were written by British authors (6 of these by Scottish authors), 12 by Americans, 2 by Australians, 3 by Italians, 2 by French authors and 1 by an African author
6 books were translated
48 fiction, 5 non-fiction

It seems I’m not very adventurous in my reading, with the majority written by British authors, hardly any translated books and just one book by an African author, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. It seems there is a bit a gender imbalance as well with just under 40% of the books I read last year written by women. I’ve not consciously analysed my reading before so it’s really interesting to see how it all pans out. I’m starting the year off with a book by a Nigerian female author which is a step in the right direction at least!

For a look at all of the books I read in 2013, have a look at my Books 2013 page. I’m looking forward to getting started on my 2014 page! I’m not taking part in any challenges, although I have set myself one to read one non-fiction book a month as I tend to favour fiction so that’ll bump up my non-fiction number for this year.

half-of-a-yellow-sun-1The first book I’m reading this year is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m about three-quarters of the way through and it is a very powerful novel so far, focusing on the life of a small cast of characters in the 1960s before and during the Nigeria-Biafra war. I didn’t know anything about the events at all before I started reading it but I keep finding myself looking things up online to learn more about what happened. I love it when a book feels educational, not forced, but inspires you to learn more about things you haven’t experienced before. More coming up once I’ve finished reading!

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Autumn Reading Round-Up, part 2.

Up next in my review of books I’ve read this autumn are a few books that were a bit of a mixed bag (see Autumn Reading Round-Up, part 1. for the first lot). In writing these thoughts down though I find I still enjoy engaging with the books I have read and hope to get back into full reviews once more in the near future and develop some of my responses to them a bit more. For now, these sparse words will have to do…

conversations in sicilyConversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini
I started reading this book on a flight to Rome, where I was heading to start off a mini-road trip up towards Bologna, as it felt like the perfect time to read some Italian fiction. It seems at first to be a simple story, of a man returning home to visit his mother in a small town in Sicily and having conversations with the people he meets along the way. It soon becomes clear that everything is a little mixed up, as times and places and people interchange, and events re-occur in similar but slightly varied ways. There is a big serving of Magical Realism towards the end as the protagonist Silvestro becomes increasingly drunk, and many references to Vittorini’s theory of things being ‘twice real’ – existing simultaneously in the moment they occur and in a person’s memory or perception. It is one of those wonderful subtle novels which are so powerful, hidden under the radar of censorship but still saying so much about the times they’re written in.

We-Need-New-NamesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
This book was another shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. Set in Zimbabwe, it is the story of a young girl called Darling living in a shanty called Paradise. The first part of We Need New Names follows Darling running around Paradise and its environs with a band of friends, who have their own code of games and language that feels really fresh. The first part is brilliant, the voices of the children, the way they speak and how they see life opens your eyes. In the second part of the novel, Darling moves to Detroit, Michigan (or ‘Destroyedmichygen’ to her friends), and lives with the culture shock between the life she has left behind and her new life in America. However in the second part, the magic of the prose, the life in it, seems to disappear. There’s no doubt that this novel has something to say, but it felt like it got a little bit lost.

The book did bring to mind a really enlightening TED Talk I watched by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Half of a Yellow Sun which I have been meaning to read for quite some time now!) on ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ in which she discusses how she finds that African authors struggle to find their authentic cultural voice, being so influenced not only by other cultures which infiltrate theirs, but the views of Africa that prevail, those of poverty, famine, drought and AIDs. I found this interesting to recall while reading We Need New Names as the book featured so many of these things but in the end seemed weighed down by western culture and ideas.

anywheresbetterthanhereAnywhere’s Better Than Here by Zöe Venditozzi
I think this book came under my radar after it was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, in fact, I think it won the public vote (although the final accolade went to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). At its centre is the slightly aimless, 20-something Laurie who is bored with working in a call centre and living with her unemployed and unambitious boyfriend Ed whose greatest achievement in a day seems to be sticking a washing on. Laurie’s world is pretty bleak and she isn’t her own best friend, vacillating over decisions and embarking on a love affair of sorts with the emotionally-absent ex-army man Gerry. I thought the voice of the characters, and in Laurie in particular, were very clear, and felt a lot more like real life than some of the voices in fiction, but then perhaps it’s more real to me as it’s set in Scotland. Disappointingly though, I felt the story didn’t go anywhere particulary, and the plot took a bit of a turn for the weird about half way through and became pretty predictable. Saying that, I do think Venditozzi is a name to watch out for – hopefully her next book will build on the knack for character and world-building she has and serve a more hooking plot to go along with it.

yellowbirds-210The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
This is one of the first successful novels that really takes on the Iraq war and the after effects on soldiers who have fought in it, struggling to deal with everything they have witnessed. The book, despite its difficult subject, is beautiful at times, and brutal, full of vivid imagery which are just snapshots of the sights these men at war have seen. It follows the story of one soldier, Bartle, who is trying to come to terms with the death of his fellow soldier and friend Murphy, and the guilt he feels at not being able to keep the promise he made to Murphy’s mother to keep him safe. It’s a tragic story, and from the beginning you know it’s a pointless exercise as the soldiers continually attempt to gain ground and that for many of them, there is no way to cheat death. It’s a book filled with poignant moments, especially the imagery of the title, when Murphy recalls his grandfather bringing canaries out of the mines, opening the doors to set them free and the birds fluttering about in confusion and coming back to rest by the cages. This has been lauded as a classic of war writing to stand alongside the likes of All Quiet On the Western Front. I thought this book was really affecting and look forward to seeing what Powers comes up with next.

method actors guideA Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
I bought this book as I read MacNeil’s début novel The Stornoway Way several years ago now and thought it was just brilliant and I loved the way it was written. I also had the luck of seeing Kevin MacNeil perform with William Campbell this summer (they combine guitar with poetry – their song Local Man Ruins Everything was particularly good) at Jura Unbound, a series of nights of free events in the Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This reminded me of his other book so I picked it up a the Festival bookshop. The book started off really well and brought back memories of MacNeil’s unique way of writing with equal warmth and wit. The story involves actor Robert whose life starts to take some strange turns when he crashes his bike en route to rehearsals for a production of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson on a man with a split personality). The book is enjoyable and a pretty farcical, and I really enjoyed the send ups of actors, writers and directors. There is a serious side to it as well, as an exploration of bipolar disorder and the effect it has on a person’s life and those around him or her. I preferred The Stornoway Way but would recommend this to fan’s of MacNeil’s writing, and found it good fun company to while away a few hours with.

On a related note, today is Robert Louis Stevenson Day! There’s always loads going on across Edinburgh and the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust have lots of info and materials on their website to go along with RLSDay2013.

I’ve got some more audio round-ups and full reviews coming soon, it will feel nice to be back on it again. Right now, I’m about 100 pages into Wilkie Collins’ classic ghost story The Woman in White which I’ve been meaning to read for ages. It’s just starting to get creepy… What are you reading this autumn?

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