Say You're One of Them: A Book Club Review

Asian Fun:

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan is a series of short stories told through various African children's eyes. It's a book that captures multiple interests of mine - Africa and children. The stories are unflinching in the face of the cruelty the children in the stories are faced with whether its a twelve-year-old hooker, child slavery or fleeing violence.

I'm torn about this book. On the one hand, it speaks exactly to my deepest and most passionate interests. Also, as a writer, I tend to be unflinching and blunt as well, and so in theory this book should have been right up my ally, but in fact, I had a difficult time getting into this book. The most glaring thing that annoyed me was the dialogue. This may be a style preference, but in my creative writing class my professor advised us to avoid being overly literal when trying to convey accents, using the Southern accent as an example. He explained, and I totally agree, that it gets distracting if you use half spelled words or incorrectly spelled words in order to convey an accent and that it was better to do so subtly. Unfortunately this book is riddled with distracting and bad dialogue. By the end of the first story I wanted to tear my hair out reading that dialogue and this kept me from getting into the story.

I've been known to be a blunt and unflinching writer about the cruelty children have to endure. I've written about abuse, rape and neglect. In writing about these harsh subjects, I've learned that the most essential component is handling these subject matters with the right balance. Its important to not lose the story in your effort to shine a light on the dark corners of the world. Sometimes when people are passionate about a certain subject matter and they write a fictional story about it, they lose the essence of the story in trying to expose certain realities. I certainly understand the impulse, sometimes you want to shove certain realities in people's faces because it is That important for people to understand, but if in doing so you forget to honor the story then you shouldn't be writing fiction but non-fiction. When writing fiction, the story always comes first before any other agenda. This is something that I feel Akpan struggled with, and while I appreciate his sincere passion for the children of his stories, I also felt the sacrifice to the story itself he made due to this passion.

While both of these factors kept me from truly getting into the stories, I could appreciate the intimate information on the conditions of children in Africa. And for this reason I find this book invaluable for me personally. However, while I find this book valuable for my own personal and academic interests, I have to rate it as a work of fiction.


Puerto Rican Pecan:

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan is a collection of short stories written about several African populations, from the point of the child. I think that Akpan summed up his novel well, so I’m going to quote him. He said, “I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet.” This is exactly how I feel about his novel. What do any of us in America really know about people living in Africa? Sure, if you get up early on the weekends, there are telethons to “help the starving children of Africa.” There are news stories about the wars, the starvation, the AIDS crisis, complete with pictures of children with distended bellies and dirty, tear-streaked faces. This is the Africa we know. And it’s G-rated in comparison to Akpan’s novel. You would rather not read it, but for the sake of the reality in which Akpan depicts.

My favorite story was the one entitled, “Luxurious Hearses.” In it, a Muslim teenager is trying to escape from his war-torn city in the north to his father’s Born-Again Christian home in the south. I loved seeing how all the different religions converged on this bus, and how old traditions collided with new ideas. **Spoiler Alert** Akpan skillfully lured us into loving Jubril, the extremist Muslim hero, by showing his human side to us. Most of us know about biracial children, but Akpan shows a different version of this in his story. Jubril is bi-religious, his mother being Muslim and his father being Christian. Akpan shows how we all hide parts of ourselves that might make people loathe us. Though he hides his Muslim self, he struggles to try to understand the Christian self he is portraying. He feels much of the same struggle that biracial children feel in the U.S.; never being fully accepted into any one race. Because he is baptized, his Muslims friends can only see him as an evil Christian, and because he is missing his right hand, the bus full of Christians cannot see anything but an evil Muslim before them. Akpan shows us the similarity in the two religions, which really focus on finding salvation in doing right by others, and yet, their hatred of each other. When he is killed at the end of the story, I felt true shock. I think I was expecting the happy ending, even though I couldn’t fathom what he would do when he got to his fatherland. So beautiful was Akpan’s writing, I could really feel Jubril’s peace in his acceptance of himself before his death.

Everyone should read this book, because though the stories may be fictional, the people in them are not. Akpan’s children are real children. This book is depressing, painful, gut-wrenching, and it is also the responsibility of people to know.


The Horse Whisperer: A Review

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans is a book of loss, pain, love and healing. It's a book that I had read as a teenager and wept at the end of the book and that left me bewildered and devastated by what seemed to be an anti-love-conquers-all message. On a whim, I had seen the DVD while looking for a movie to watch with my hubby this weekend and talked him into watching it with me since I hadn't seen the movie or read the book since I was in high school. He grudgingly relented and fell asleep near the end of this surprisingly long movie. After watching the movie I remembered how moved I'd been by the book and decided to revisit it to see if it still would affect me in the same way. In many ways it did and in other ways it fell flat.

The Horse Whisperer is about the many different relationships that intertwine in people's lives. It starts with a horrific accident that causes the death of a girl and her horse, and leaves her friend and her horse maimed. The girl, Grace, loses a leg, and her horse, Pilgrim, loses all confidence in himself and the world around him. Grace's mother, Annie, is blunt and fierce. She is an ask-questions-later type of woman who acts when she feels helpless, and so when she sees that she's losing her daughter to a deep depression, she focuses her attention on a problem that seems easier to fix, Pilgrim. Her research leads her to a man named Tom Booker, a horse whisperer famous for being able to calm crazy horses. In a decision that permanently changes all lives involved, she leaves her husband behind, whose relationship with her was already strained after the many painful miscarriages they'd suffered together when trying for a second child, and drives Grace and Pilgrim from New York to Montana to have Tom do his magic on Pilgrim.

What remained as powerful as my memory of the book were the strength of the characters and your attachment to them, as well as the complexity of their relationships to each other. I enjoyed the characters and felt intimate with them, as if they were my friends, and other than one antagonizing character whose only purpose seems to be to set the climatical ending into motion, I liked all the characters in the book. The romance that begins between Tom and Annie was sweetly done, though sometimes corny and overdone, but it was enjoyable to read.

However, I was surprised at how subpar the writing was. I know I was only in high school when I read it, but I don't remember even noticing the writing, good or bad. This reading, however, sometimes I was distracted by the writing. Evans seemed to try too hard sometimes to be profound and it came off confusing or just plain corny sometimes:
And Annie leaned back her head and closed her eyes and thought, there is nothing but this. No other time nor place nor being than now and here and him and us. And no earthly point in calculating consequence or permanence or right or wrong, for all, all else, was as nothing to the act. It had to be and would be and was. (pp 386-387, mass paperback)
I mean, seriously? What is that paragraph? It was just too much. Also, while I'm not totally opposed to being blunt about sex, sometimes Evans was so graphic that I felt like I was reading a cheesy romance novel, which I do think this book is more than that.

My last quip about that book is that I thought the ending (the same one that had devastated my poor, over-romantic, over-emotional heart as a teenager) was just horrible - both in the movie and in the book. Neither worked at all with the characters! In the movie, Annie leaves Tom behind even though he made her feel "home" for the first time and she couldn't live without him. Bullshit, if their love was that profound then there is no way she could exist, even across the country, and not be with him. She would have gone back to him.

In the book it was much worse (spoiler alert for anyone who wants to read the book), after Grace finds out about her mother and Tom's affair, she rides off in a craze, only to have to be saved by Tom (of course!) where Tom lets himself be killed because he knows Annie could never leave her husband because she couldn't tell Grace what she was doing after all she'd been through. So since he can't live without Annie, he just lets himself be killed by a wild horse, in front of Grace who they're all trying to emotionally protect supposedly, even though now Grace already knows about the affair so half the battle of telling her and of Annie leaving her husband is already conveniently taken care of. What I don't buy is that its not in Tom's character at all to let himself be killed, more so, he purposefully puts himself in the line of the horse's hooves trying to be killed. It wasn't like the horse was killing him and he just gave up, no, he basically was committing suicide, which doesn't go with Tom's go with the flow, let things happen as they should philosophy. And how was that sacrifice helpful to anybody? Instead of dealing with her parents divorcing, but still having them both and since she already had loved Tom once, giving her the chance to love him again as a father figure, Grace now has to deal with the guilt that her reckless actions caused Tom's death, which will forever leave her mother's heart maimed and all the people that his death hurt. Hmm, yeah, that seems sooo much better for Grace's emotional well-being. Bullshit. At first I thought it was just the romantic in me that thought it made more sense for Tom to get injured enough that Grace feels guilt for her actions and is able to step back and look at the situation more objectively and is more accepting, and that Annie and Tom end up together because that's what was meant to be. Not that there wouldn't be pain to contend with, but it'd be manageable and it'd pass. But the more I thought about it, the book was leading up to that conclusion and with the characters as they are, its the natural progression of what would happen. What seemed to happen was that Nicholas Evan's leaned towards the over-dramatic (which seems to be his nature) and had to go for the big death to play with his readers' emotions. And his explanation of this ending?
Well, although Tom Booker is, in every respect, a real character, there is an important mythological aspect to him and to the story. He is, if you like, an immortal, the redemptive angel, the man in the white hat. There is a rule about such characters: when their work is done, they have to move on. They cannot hang around and 'mix it' with the mortals. For Annie and Grace to be free to get on with their lives, for the healing process to be properly complete, the healer-angel figure has to move on. Of course, he will live on forever in their hearts -- and in the new child that is born at the end of the story.
First of all, I can see how he was set up to be a bit mystical before Annie met him, but it definitely didn't come off that way in the book. You get to be in his head too much to see how human he is and see his past mistakes and his feelings, so whatever Evans was trying to do just didn't work out and therefore the ending didn't work at all, which is a shame. Overall I found the book enjoyable, though far less so then when I was younger and now I can see the many holes in the story. The characters do stay with you and how could you not love calm and confident Tom Booker. In an embarrassing way, I also find Robert Redford sexy, even if he's old as fuck. Its that same calm confidence that you love about Tom... guess Redford cast himself pretty well for the role of Tom Booker.

I was tempted to give this book 4 stars for sentimental reasons, but I just can't do it, so 3 stars it gets.



Olive Kitteridge: A Book Club Review

The first of our Book Club Reviews:

Asian Fun:

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a novel that cuts directly to the heart of what it is to be human. You quickly realize as you're reading that this novel will be taught in schools for generations, in other words, it will be a classic and a staple of our literary education. Why? Not just because of the beautiful, concise and flawless prose. Or because of the unique structure of the novel - the book consists of a series of short stories that all in some way involve the title character, Olive Kitteridge. Its the human element and the heart in the stories that make it a classic. Its the honesty of what love and life are really like while still finding beauty in every character, no matter how flawed. Strout has a deeply empathetic and sensitive eye that translates into characters that are hard to forget.

Olive Kitteridge is a retired school teacher. She is blunt and direct while having a big heart. She struggles with her temper and pride, but is willing to reach out to those in need without a thought. Olive is a character that pops off the pages and perhaps that while she is a suitable driving force for this novel. In a series of short stories with sometimes no connection at all other than Olive's presence (sometimes consisting of only two sentences mentioning Olive) you learn the entire range of the human experience in Crosby, Maine. You learn about love, lost and pain. And through it all you see Olive grow and evolve as a character, sometimes through her point of view and other times through other character's eyes. What this novel structure does is give you a more multi-layered view of Olive as a character, and hell, you like her as much as you cringe at her sometimes. She makes plenty of mistakes and sometimes doesn't see herself very clearly at all, but other times she surprises you.

I don't know how to explain this novel other than to say that its a journey through the human experience, its sad, its funny, its touching and its heartbreaking. Can I say anything else to convince you to read it? Because I command everyone to go out and read it right now! Hey, it didn't win the Pulitzer for no reason!


Puerto Rican Pecan:

I found the book, Olive Kitteridge, to be a great read, but not necessarily an enjoyable one. The author, Elizabeth Strout, is an amazing author. The book’s format as a collection of short stories was a brilliant way to do a character study on one person. Instead of a story that reads from the beginning to end, you get to see what everyone else in the community thinks of Olive. I have to admit, this was confusing to me at first. I went into this book thinking that it was a regular novel, with one main story line and one set of characters. I kept thinking that some of these characters would reappear, and while some do, most do not. I liked this, as the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, is a little abrasive and can be overbearing to everything else about the novel. It offered me a break from her point of view and gave me a breather to see another perspective of her. I really enjoyed meeting other people in the community of Crosby, and getting to see a snapshot of their lives, while getting to see Olive in passing. However, it was realistic in a way that made it maybe just a little too real for me. People fought without resolution, people died of cancer, bad things happened to good people and characters didn’t end up better for it. Some of the stories made me feel like I was looking in on a private moment, like I shouldn’t have been privy to it, and yet, now that I’m there I have to watch the train wreck. And then there are so many stories of these older married couples and their disconnection with each other as they age. They live in the same house, do the same things together out of routine, but there’s no passion or spontaneity. The novel has such realistic portrayal of emotion that it feels like this must be what marriage becomes for couples, which as a newlywed, made it hard to read. However, the novel is so well written that you can’t help but want to read more, even when your instincts are telling you to look away.

I thought one of the most interesting parts of this book was the theme of love misunderstood. The one that stood out by far was the relationship between Olive and her son, Christopher. In Olive’s eyes, she’s been doing her best to love her son. She and her husband build him a house, they support him in his podiatry business, and are happy for him when he marries this woman after only knowing her for 6 weeks. However, in his eyes, you see a mother who was overbearing and yelled all the time. He felt smothered and pressured to be somebody that he wasn’t. How could she not know that she was smothering him? How is it that two people can have such a different view of the last 30 years? Was Christopher right that she denied any fault in herself, and that her “extreme capriciousness of moods” made him who he was? Or was Olive right that his childhood was fine, and that the therapist was putting words into his mouth to blame someone else for the way his life turned out? You’ll have to read and decide for yourself!


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