debut


The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller

I’ve read this novel few weeks ago and ever since am thinking to write review. I’m somewhere in between and not sure what to think about it. So first I’d like to stress that the book is definitively worth reading and I liked it. Truth, I tend not to be too strict, too judgmental when reviewing debut novel (yes, there is “but”).

First impression: it’s clearly there is a massive research about the topic behind the story (which is not surprise considering professional background of the author); I liked a lot she took “Iliad” and Homer as a main resource, therefore there is no famous legend about “Achilles’ heel” (which is unseen in the “Iliad”). Truth, she changed characters, chronology, etc a little bit but that’s fine considering it’s a piece of fiction and in that case artistic freedom is untouchable constant.

When I read “Iliad” in high school I didn’t like Achilles that much. He was like a savage, truth just like the world he lived in. Patroclus as well, though he was kind but nevertheless quite a valiant warrior. However, in the novel they couldn’t be more far away from their image in “Iliad”. They were soft, nature and music loving characters, artistic souls. That especially is the case with Patroclus who is presented as weak (physically and mantaly), clumsy, even as a coward (except that famous last move he made but then it was more love that lead him than his rational he) … it was weird and I’m not sure if I liked that. And the language didn’t help either. It’s strange to mark as a flaw beautiful writing style. It is lovely but in kind of over-blossoming way, it’s lyrically overwritten. Even though the narrator is a man (yes, homosexual but still) those words, sentences he’s saying are so feminine. You simply know those words have been put in his mouth by a woman’s hand. This is (or should be) historical novel with one love story as a main theme and as such there are moment when you can’t escape from the feeling that descriptions are kind of soft-pornish. But don’t get me wrong, there are no sex scenes whatsoever.

Even though I never thought profoundly about that, it’s pretty much obvious that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. I like she put an accent on their relationship as it was [in one interview she expressed her hope the novel will at least slightly change that homophobic perception about homosexual relationships] but then she made a crucial error: She described their society exactly as if they live in our own. They were facing disapproval of both men and gods because of the feeling they had. And while you can give yourself artistic freedom to change the legend, with this issue you’re entering into the sphere of historical (more/less) facts where you don’t have that freedom anymore.
Not only ancient Greeks but pretty much all pre-Christian civilizations: Romans, gosh just remember (or check if you’re unfamiliar with) Khajuraho Temples in India! I visited India (and temples) in March and you just can’t not be stunned with what you’re looking at as well as with nonchalant way they were depicting all varieties of sexual activity (and I mean ALL!). And temples were built 1000 years ago!

Anyway, point is: homosexuality was something quite common and definitively not prohibited or shameful (like in the novel). It was even called: “the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens.” (Wikipedia). Truth that mostly (probably exclusively) refers to men. Women were quite socially excluded which is one of the reason why it was acceptable relationship between two men.

Therefore it was kind of strange to see how society is judgmental toward Achilles and Patroclus just as nowadays society would be. And here (along with few more issues, some of which I mentioned here) novel falls horribly.
But even so I think it’s worth reading and, as my friend who gave me the book said (don’t be surprised if realize that you’ll) “think of Achilles differently now”.

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The Tiger’s Wife
Téa Obreht

I’ve read this book in its original language, English even though it has been published in (in Tea’s own words) “the most important of all translations”, Serbian. Because I love reading work in its original language whenever I can. And it was strange experience because I did recognize my own folklore but in the same time was thinking how there’s no way that anyone unfamiliar of that folklore would recognize it and more importantly, understand it.

OK we know Tea is from Serbia (or if you wish ex Yugoslavia) and that is what I believe was the starting point for many foreign (!) reviewers to place its plot here in Balkan region. I being from the region could find connections with it even though she (Obrecht) clearly put an effort not to make it obvious: the only two places mentioned in the book that actually exists in reality are Vienna and Istanbul. All other names are fictional and majority of them sounds quite impossible. The pretty much the same goes with the names of characters (and I’m not sure why she decided to do that). There are only few names that are names in reality. Moreover some of the names (for example Gavran which means “raven” or Dure or Darisa) are words you cannot associate with the person. Maybe those sounds interesting, exotic, or … for English speaking world (which is of course legitimate reason). So I asked myself how would you (if at all) know the plot is in ex-Yugoslavia? Yes there are hints like “we” are celebrating Christmas in January (ok so it is settled in the region where Orthodox Christians live); Muslims don’t have it, Catholics don’t have it but “they” do (meaning tree religions live in the same region); after the war Nobel Prize writer became theirs and we named our airport after that crazy scientist (writer is Ivo Andric but we consider him as ours and scientist is Nikola Tesla, airport is in Belgrade); numerous words she used in their native form (vila, mora, hajduk, gusle, ajvar, … and about that it’s strange the English edition didn’t offer translations or explanation), some names, some last names… etc. So based on those things I would be able to conclude that the plot is settled in my region indeed BUT would I made the same conclusion without knowing these things? If I’m not from here? Well I doubt. But nevertheless it was interesting how everyone (I’m quite sure) without knowing those things, understanding the non-English words or recognizing the customs have placed the book here.

Saying all this I’m not sure can I give one objective review because there are so many things that I’m familiar with and this especially when she was describing air raids in an unnamed city. Of course it was all too obvious she’s speaking about NATO bombing of Serbia 1999 and yes those few pages where she describes those first days, weeks of bombing in real life were exactly how she described: disbelief at first and then people fled into shelters and they came out of the shelters deciding to be in the open, on the bridges, cafes, restaurants refusing to give up of those few scrapes of normal life they had. What a flashback that was! The story about the zoo during the bombing however was fiction.

The story is interesting enough. Really good actually if you consider it’s a debut novel so thumbs up. I did like drops of surrealism combined with a Slavic folklore but what I really loved is a painting of a mentality in a small isolated village and how they are facing fear of the unknown.
In the end it was fast and interesting read.

My Brother and His Brother
Hakan Lindquist

I’ve read this novel in one sitting (which doesn’t happen quite often). It was a lovely melancholic story written in simple but quite effective language. One of those quiet, unpretentious books you stumble upon every now and then and after you’re done you realize that you just found a true gem. Absolutely recommending to everyone in love with fine literature.

This was debut novel that received critical acclaim when it first appeared in Sweden in 1993. It won “Prix Litteraire Bordelaise de Lunetterie” when in was published in French in 2002.

Light Fell
Evan Fallenberg

This was incredibly interesting read and one exquisite debut novel. Evan Fallenberg has indeed created (as the blurb say as well) “a uniquely drawn protagonist”. The book tells the story about Joseph, an educated Israeli man, professor of literature Harvard graduated, a husband and father of five … who fells in love with a rabbi.

Now, this novel indeed won several literary awards reserved for GLBT literature such are 2009 Stonewall Prize for Fiction or 2008 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction ( besides those it was also 2008 National Jewish Book Award Finalist) and somehow it is expected that the story fill follow love and struggle of those two men in highly traditional, Orthodox Jewish society (especially since one of them is nothing less but rabbi!) and that would probably be an interesting story. However Fallenberg decided to jump of the stereotypes and leave them to others. His novel has erased that frontier that divides literature (in this case GLBT from … I don’t know, “hetero” I guess). With one quite unexpected twist, story that might have been more less predictable becomes one incredibly unique reading experience. I’m really against those separations in literature (and art generally) and I believe those GLBT awards are disserving this great novel because many wouldn’t even consider reading book that won some gay lit award. But this is certainly NOT gay novel (here I must admit I’m not quite sure what gay novel suppose to mean by default. Hopefully the only criteria is not to have main character homosexual)

This was enormously thought provoking story. You’re feel empathy and understanding towards one character and then the consequences of those actions would strike you and in the very next moment you’ll start asking yourself “What are you talking? This can’t be right!” until you realize “there is no right and wrong! That’s human nature, such an unpredictable burden or jewel we all have”. And that’s what novel is all about: Human nature!

It’s not easy to comprehend that one would decide to leave his life and all those people that was part of it (including their own children) because they realize they aren’t what they thought the were. That’s not right, right? Well wrong! But when I say that “wrong” I’m not saying it’s right.  I’m just refuse to judge. Of course there is a little bugger named responsibility but then what about responsibility to ourselves? There is another bugger named consciousness but then how can you be scrupulous with others if you’re betraying yourself? And of course there is, usually enormous price that you have to pay whatever decision you make.

Joseph left his wife and five sons but not to live happily ever after with rabbi he loved (who was as well a husband and a father). Truth that love was a trigger but that wasn’t a reason. He firmly didn’t want to come back in his past life even when he had a chance in spite the price he and the ones he loves had to pay and horrifying consequences he had made them to face and live with. So it really is hard to understand his decision. But in the end, you’re not even asked to understand or approve or even be sympathetic. There are no easy resolutions here. [by the way what I wrote is not a spoiler whatsoever!]

I said this is very thought provoking story. It was interesting to think  how religion (or for that matter anything else) can influence ones sexuality. I guess everyone knows in the puberty whether they are attracted by opposite or same sex (or both). Is it possible that one can convince her/himself they are what they’re not and even spend big part of their life thinking wrongly without being aware they’re faking? And if it is, what a hell of life that must be! There is one character in the book that asks the very same question:

“What if you’d ignored it, just buried it? What if you’d prayed and repented your evil thoughts and made pacts with God to ease the burden? Couldn’t you just have controlled your feelings? Couldn’t you have lived from day to day, promising yourself that today, just like yesterday, you’d be good?”

How enormously desperately one can be if one puts all her/his hopes into the power of will, faith, whatever … hopes to be something s/he is not.

Yup, human nature is really tricky little thing that is very hard to comprehend and even harder to restrain yourself from judging it.
Do read this book, it’s really a good one.

The Islamist – Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left
Ed Husain

I’ve recently read this book and I really liked it.
It is sort of protest against politic Islam, based on personal experience. This is for the first time that we have opportunity to read about Islamic fundamentalism and life within radical Islamic organizations from an ex-member.

Namely Mr. Husain, British Muslim has become Muslim fundamentalist in sixteen an then years after he saw how wrong is that path. What has awaken his criticism (and opened his eyes) was personal experience with devastating Islamic ideas planted in the minds of Muslim teenagers in Britain that encourage them to be confronted with others in the name of religion.

Time Mr. Husain has spent in Saudi Arabia firmed his beliefs that rigid, old form of Islam: wahhabism joined with political Islam: islamism is causing only suffering all around the globe: Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Madrid, London, New York, Istanbul, etc he realized how that ideology is filled with anger, ideology that he once belonged to is not only a threat to primeval Islam and Muslims but to entire civilized world.
After he finished this road Mr. Husain thought it is his humane duty to speak against something that is presented in Britain as a “true Islam”, because the Koran orders to all Muslims to speak the truth, even if the truth is against them.

First part of the book is little slow I must admit and that maybe because I wasn’t familiar with things related with British society. Everything was new for me but there are so many information that are more/less familiar to someone who lives in Britain I guess. However, for me it from time to time it was little hard to follow.

What surprised me the most was part about Saudi Arabia. Namely, I didn’t have a clue that to love a Prophet is actually forbidden and is considered as idolatry. I was in shock what treatment believers are receiving on Prophet’s grave.

Mr. Husain has done amazing job in introducing us to creation of Wahhabi stream in Islam and I didn’t know that precisely Wahhabism is official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia! That was really surprising. Thinking about peninsula and how huge amounts of money are coming from there to help all Islamic actions all around the world (including erecting mosques in Bosnia but also financing war and sending mujahideen and Al Qaeda forces in the same Bosnia) I would never thought that Saudi Arabia is such a racist society towards Muslims (!). It’s extremely segregated and indeed the title of the chapter about it Saudi Arabia: Where is Islam?” is perfectly chosen.

I really enjoyed in this book (enjoyed in sense I’ve learned a lot) but the main readers would (and should) be (young) Muslims in the Western world. This book is showing how enormously wrong picture about “true Islam” and the life in the cradle of Islam they have. Almost everything is wrong and artificially created completely ignoring the Holly Book. But the worst thing is that young Muslims in the west are accepting this radicalism thinking it’s how Prophet and the Koran is telling them they should believe, think and act.
And moreover Mr. Hosain has explained entire genesis of radicalism with the names that stands behind it and the books that can be purchased in regular bookshop in London. Now comes the old question (I wrote about this in my post about “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali) Why intolerance should be tolerated? In the name of religious freedom? That’s a nonsense, very expensive one! Not only because of innocent victims of radicalism but also because it produces even bigger segregation between cultures, between religions and we are all victims, on both sides of the gorge while in reality we are in our own cultures and religion much more closer then we know.

I’ll finish with two quotes which are unknown to, I’m sure many Muslims and non Muslims and that are reflects how same we are:

“Beware of extremism in religion, for it was extremism in religion that destroyed those who went before you” – The Prophet Mohammed (570-632)
“Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as though he has killed entire humanity” – The Koran

In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar

In the Country of MenIn the Country of Men is basically story about life in Libya after the colonel Muammar El Qaddafi’s revolution. The year is 1979 and the narrator is nine years old Suleiman so we see revolution and its consequences through the eyes of nine years old boy. Boy who was much protected from the truth by his parents. It was interesting how some obvious facts (obvious for us, adults) are presented in some naïve language of a kid. We have impression that we are sailing through the sea surrounded with peaks of icebergs. The difference is that we (adults) are aware what’s beneath the surface unlike the child who is telling us the story.

Then there is one nice picture about customs in the Muslim country and again position of woman in it. Suleiman’s mother has been forced into the marriage when her brother saw her in the café with mixed company. Immediately “husband hunt” begins and the Scheherazade-like story. Therefore she was very unhappy with her marriage but in the same time in the husband’s absence she’s even more miserable and becomes “ill”. Her “illness” is another peak of an iceberg and I must say I liked how Matar has described bond between mother and son making her “illness” something sacredly secret.

Suleiman’s family is relatively rich. His father is businessman often on the trip abroad but also man who is part of democratic wing in new Libya. Wing you don’t want to be part in post Revolutionary, Qaddafi’s Libya; full of secret police, man in dark suits and sunglasses, land where national TV is broadcasting public execution of “traitors of the revolution”; where phone lines are tapped, etc. And inevitably consequence for being wrong winged came. But even then it’s a peak of an iceberg.

Matar has done great job in conveying kid’s confusion toward all the events around him. Politics is absolutely incomprehensible to him; he doesn’t have a clue what his father supports or what he actually is doing in spite the fact that some glimpses have been presented accidentally to him. He is confronted with the mechanism of the regime when secret service is following their car or watching his house or taking away his friend’s father but somehow he manages to not recognize that as something bad. He’s explaining that in the most impossible ways. On the other hand his parents aren’t teaching their son anything, they are worsening situation even more and make him confused ‘till the breaking point when he start to scream (finally!):” You always lie. I am not a child and you always lie.” In the meanwhile I was so irritated with the kid and had to (too) often remind myself that he’s only a child.

But what disappointed me the most are last few chapters when we are actually see that the story tells 24 Suleiman and not nine years old boy. I’ve found myself confused why on earth he made this unnecessary contrast with the rest of the novel who has convinced us that the narrator is a boy? The whole novel was through the eyes of a kid, who is not kid anymore and therefore it completely spoils the earlier approach. Now when I know Suleiman is an adult I’d expect story from a point of view of an adult person.

The story itself is nothing new. It’s more/less the same story from a country under oppressive regime. There are only few specifically Libyan spices in this dish.
Indeed this is sad and sometimes poignant story but is that should be enough?

This is part of my Winter Reading Challenge 2008

A Long Way Gone – memoirs of a boy soldier
Ishmael Beah

A Long Way GoneNew York City, 1998
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
– “Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
– “Because there is a war.”
– “Did you witness some of the fighting?”
– “Everyone in the country did.”
– “You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
– “Yes, all the time.”
– “
Cool.
I smile a little.
– “You should tell us about it sometime.”
– “Yes, sometime.”

 

This is how begins this vivid, heartbreaking testimony of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone.

Ishmeal Beah was born 1980 in the village in Sierra Leone and lived life common for boy of his age, was in loved in rap music, have his own “bend” who imitated famous rap performers, he recited monologues of Macbeth and Julius Caesar at the gatherings of elder people in the village (did I say common for boy of his age? I guess I should add “more/less common”), and knowing that there is a war “somewhere”. The only war he was familiar about was from the movies like “Rambo”.

Sadly he will find out very soon what the war is. On one common day war came into his life; when he was 11 Sierra Leone swept into chaotic civil war between Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the official (and corrupted) Action People Congress (APC). Of course there is no good war but while reading this testimony I was so confused with the extreme confusion (sounds stupid). Namely, as if there were numerous fractions that have fought against each other. Everyone who is not in your group is potential enemy (and the best/safest way to find out is to shoot before question is asked). Beah with his friends was running away from the RUF through the country and in every singe village people were so frightened by them and have leaved the village. They were trapped more than once and they had to explain that they are running away from the war so they can’t be soldiers!

Now the question is Why on earth the whole village is so afraid of one group of 7 boys? And indeed, question sounds quite reasonable but then, the main characteristic of the Sierra Leone civil war (as well as the civil war in neighboring Liberia) were precisely groups of boys (child) – soldiers. I was finding myself numerous times speechless toward the brutality they were capable to commit! I was often observing smiling face of Ishmael on the back cover in disbelief that he (and his friends) have took part in those events described in the book. It was really hard to believe.

In the same time it is very positive that we have a chance to read chronicle of the brutal life of child soldier because this is something that is happening in this moment as well and I’m not sure how much we are aware of that. There are more than 300.000 child soldiers around the world (according to UN) and huge majority is from the conflict region in sub-Saharan Africa (where Sierra Leone is) so this book is actually the voice of those 300.000+ children and is trying to break the wall of deafness of the western world.

You could ask yourself how come such an enormous brutality in the mind of one child (I was wondering the same) and this book is describing so perfectly process of brain washing. Of course children are quite easy material for manipulation.

Ishmael tried to avoid all this. As I said he was running away from the war with his friends, he was separated from his brother and later from the friends, he was living alone in the forest, sleeping on the tree but eventually government corps have found him and offered “sanctuary” in one village under their protection.

But as I said, mind of a kid is easy to be washed, especially mind that longing for its happy days from the past which will never be back and in the same time the main culpable have been presented to it. In order to help there is always sufficient amount of drugs, memory of their killed families, films with “Rambo” and his powerful fist of revenge. And of course on the other side are (imagine this!) vengeance seeking groups of children soldier! And that is the never ending circle.

Life in Rehabilitation Centre and the process itself was everything but not easy. He was drug addict, brain washed, full of hatred toward “civilians”, tormented by nightmares and of course sadness. But workers in the centre were constantly repeated mantra: “This isn’t your fault” and that was the hardest thing to adopt. Children in the camp were completely lost, they were taken from the forest, from the war and settled into the place were there is no need to be constantly careful, where there is no killings, shooting, and there is no drugs! We can see how slow but constant progress of the method is but sadly we’re seeing how little is necessary to destroy the whole process when the war reappears.

Ishmael lives in New York and is a member of Human Rights Watch and some other international organizations and considering this is the well known fact (as well as the topic of this book) I wrote liberally this review and therefore you might think there are some spoilers. I think whatever I wrote here will not spoil your impression (meaning, will not decrease shock while you reading quite graphic descriptions from Ishmael’s childhood).

And don’t object his writing style, it would be ridiculous (sometime I was forgetting what I’m holding and was analyzing construction but then I asked myself “What are you doing???”)

You can visit his site here: A Long Way Gone and check my Beats of No Nation review, novel written by Uzodinma Iweala with very similar topic.
This is the page of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

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