Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunI know I say this a lot, but I am so thankful for my book club for introducing me to fascinating historical novels that I would never otherwise read. I am getting a bit better, though — I knew well before picking this book up that I was going to have to miss my book club meeting, but I had already checked it out of the library and I figured I might as well read it anyway, since it was there…

And I was mostly not disappointed, though I liked different parts of this novel than I was expecting to when I started it.

Half of a Yellow Sun covers the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, during which a small but significant part of the country broke off and became the country of Biafra. As usual, this is something I never learned in history class, so I was glad to have this book around to educate me on the many forces at play in Nigeria at the time, from fading British rule to Nigerian nationalism to religious and cultural clashes to anti-education sentiment and so on.

The main characters are Ugwu, a young servant boy who leaves a small town to work for a university professor; Olanna, the lover and then wife of said professor, whose family is quite important but who won’t leave her new home and family for safety when the fighting starts; and Richard, a British transplant in love with Olanna’s twin sister who adopts Biafra as his home but who has to straddle the political and cultural lines very carefully.

At first I was really intrigued by the characters, but as the book went on I almost felt like their actions and emotions were getting in the way of the real story of Biafra and the vagaries of war. These are serious vagaries, too, ranging from characters having to beg for food or to move house due to the whims of officials to random attacks on towns and buildings to a woman carrying around a severed head. It is so heartbreaking to read about the bad things that happen in war when there’s so much war going on right now, and so those boring character things like infidelity and depression fall completely off my radar.

I didn’t get 100 percent behind the war parts either, though, as much of Adichie’s plot relies on some very predictable turns and some moderately unbelievable ones as well. But most of it was solid and the history lesson was well appreciated, so overall I think this book is a win. It maybe could have been 100 pages shorter, but Adichie writes lovely enough sentences that even those pages are worth a read.

Recommendation: For history nerds and avoiders alike with lots of hours to spare.

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: Audiobook Edition

After going through a heavy podcast phase, I did some culling of my playlist and realized that I could probably squeeze in an audiobook in the dead times between my remaining podcasts. Huzzah, more books! But of course, with my podcast-trained ear I am now terrible at listening properly to audiobooks so I can’t really give them full, proper reviews. So here, have some short, improper ones!

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba
The Boy Who Harnessed the WindI knew I needed nonfiction for my first book back in the commute-listening saddle, and it turns out that the library I work for has approximately no nonfiction audiobooks on OverDrive. On the plus side, that made it easy to pick this one, which I had meant to read years ago and which also fits my diversity requirement. I had a bit of trouble with this one as I hadn’t quite worked out the podcast/audiobook balance and ended up listening to it over almost two months.

It was a great listen anyway. What I knew about the book was that it was about a, well, boy who built windmills in Africa. But the windmill-building is actually a very small part of the book. Most of the book detailed William’s life as a kid growing up poor in Malawi, dealing with limited food and money, a year of famine in the country, and his inability to go to school because it required cash and so did buying food.

But William made the best of it, as you do, and spent his time not in school getting science books from the library and scavenging for supplies to build a windmill which not only gave his family electricity to work with, but got him noticed by people on the internet who were able to get him school, funding, and his own TED talk. It’s a great book if you need some inspiration to keep moving, or, alternately, if you need to feel like a failure at life because you are so much older than this kid. Either way!

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
Yes PleaseUm, yes. Please. This book is delightful and wonderful and kind of amazing. I’ve heard rumblings from people who didn’t like this book because they were expecting this or that, and I think that I loved it because I had basically no expectations. I’ve seen Amy Poehler in things, but I’ve never been an SNL person and I never made it past the first episode of Parks and Recreation, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

But, again, it’s amazing. Poehler talks about various pieces of her life, from childhood to the Upright Citizens Brigade to SNL to Parks and Rec to motherhood to divorce, and she does it all with sarcasm and dry humor. And, for the audiobook, she invites other people to come read things for her, including Seth Meyers reading a chapter he wrote for the book but also including Patrick Stewart reading haiku about plastic surgery. As Patrick Stewart does, apparently.

There was plenty that wasn’t really for me, like the chapter extolling the virtues of Poehler’s Parks and Rec co-stars, but regardless it was all fun to listen to and sometimes surprisingly emotional. I highly recommend this book, especially the audio version, for anyone who needs a good, solid, sarcastic laugh.

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

Little BeeThis is one of those books where I have no idea what to say about it right after reading it, so I decide to wait until inspiration strikes, and then it doesn’t and then I’m like, I should really write about that book before all I can remember about it is its title.

And it’s hard to have anything really substantial to say about a book that all but has FIRST RULE OF LITTLE BEE: DON’T TALK ABOUT LITTLE BEE emblazoned on the cover, especially when I found myself disappointed by the book partially because I did know a Thing in advance that took a lot longer to get to than I had assumed, and so I spent lots of time being like, when is that darn Thing going to happen?

Maybe if we just talk in generalities? Let’s see if we can do that. The book fits a bit with the last book I read for this particular club, A Walk Across the Sun, in that it deals with white privilege and foreign girls who have been through terrible ordeals. But I think Little Bee does it better, focusing on the After part of the terrible things happening and digging more into the relationships between the characters and less into what happened to them.

The book’s narrative style, which bugged the heck out of me at first, really helps to do that by taking chronological order, shuffling it, throwing it up in the air, and then picking up only half of what fell. We go back and forth between two main characters in the narration, but sometimes we’re in the present and sometimes we’re in the recent past and sometimes we’re in the way past and sometimes we’re in all of them. It’s really confusing, but it also lets Cleave point out Things and then either go ahead and resolve them or dangle them in front of us tantalizingly/frustratingly, so I totally dig it now that I’m not trying to read it.

One thing I’m not sure about, though, is the fact that I kind of hated every character in the book except for Batman. It wasn’t the fantastic hate of A Confederacy of Dunces, but more just a dull throbbing exasperation with the whole situation and everyone in it, and so on the one hand I hope that’s what Cleave was going for but on the other I feel like it shouldn’t have been, because exasperating.

Is that general enough? I hope so. This book is old enough that you’ve probably already read it if you were interested in doing so, and if you weren’t I probably wouldn’t recommend it outside of a book club or something similar — it’s certainly not terrible but there are lots of other books I’d rather have read first.

If you have read it, let me know what you think, because there is a lot of stuff going on in that book! Comment away!

Rating: 6/10

Free Agent, by Jeremy Duns (13 July — 16 July)

I think I just might not be cut out for spy novels. I tried several of them years ago and didn’t even finish; this one I did finish but I’m still not sure what to make of it. I think my biggest problem is that everything is just so convenient. Every time our hero is in deep trouble that he can’t talk his way out of, there’s a random person come to convince his captor to release him!

But the premise is good, and if you like spy novels you should check this one out. Our “hero” is Paul Dark (yes, really), a British Secret Service agent who, twenty years ago, may possibly have become a double agent for Russia. No big deal, except now there’s a Russian defector offering up a double agent turned twenty years ago in exchange for asylum or whatever. Oops! Paul is understandably panicked, because who wants to be caught as a double agent after twenty years, and he trucks off to Africa, where the Russian is, to do something about this situation. Of course, his fellow Secret Service types also know about this Russian, and know that Paul has gone off to find him, and so Paul has to also deflect their suspicion all the while. Throw in an attractive woman and a plot to kill the British PM, and you’ve got the idea.

Rating: 5/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2009)

Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat?, by Maryse Condé (13 May — 18 May)

Note to Mary: If the next book recommended by you that I read has even one person dying in it, I’m going to consider this a trend.

To everyone else: Remember how I read this book and I was all, “suddenly everyone and his sister wants to kill someone else”? Well, even if they had, there still wouldn’t be as many deaths as happen in this book! But, luckily, these deaths aren’t quite so graphic as Zola’s.

Basically what happens in this book is that there’s a missionary called Celanire who shows up at a village in Africa conveniently soon (practically immediately after) the death of the man she was meant to work for, so she gets his job of running a home for “half-castes” — basically biracial children whose parent(s) don’t want that transgression running around underfoot. Celanire does awesome things with the home and also starts empowering women and also starts making moves on pretty much every sentient being in the town. There’s more to Celanire than meets the eye, which we find out in bits and pieces as we follow her from the Ivory Coast to Guadeloupe to Peru on her quest to set right some old wrongs.

It’s not really a page-turner, as they say, but Condé kept me interested in the book’s big questions: Who is this Celanire? Who slashed her throat, and why? What kind of person would allow that to happen? Just how exactly does karma feel when it comes back to bite you? How much weird shit can Celanire get away with?

Rating: 8/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Guadeloupe)