Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2007, Harper Perennial 433 pages. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007.

This book is based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 – 70 and I’m old enough to remember hearing about it at the time. Then I had little idea what it was all about – now I understand a bit more. Nigeria became a Republic in October 1960 and Half of a Yellow Sun begins in the early 1960s in Nsukka in the south eastern area where Ugwu becomes Odenigbo’s houseboy. The story centres on these two characters and Olanna, Odenigbo’s partner, her twin sister Kainene and her partner Richard. Odenigbo is a professor at the University and his house is the meeting place for academics who debate the political situation as it leads up to violence and the secession of Biafra as an independent state. The title of the book comes from the symbol on the Biafran flag, which was half of a yellow sun.

The novel moves forwards and backwards in time between the late and early1960s as the civil war proceeds. Focussing on the struggle between the north and the south, the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people, it brings home the horrors brought about by war, the ethnic, religious and racial divisions and the suffering that results. Ugwu at the start of the book is an ignorant young teenager from a poor village eager to learn but still steeped in the superstitions of his family – the old ways. By the end of the novel he has become a valued member of the family and is writing a history of his country. Richard, the white man in love with Kainene but not fully accepted into her world, is eager to be considered Biafran, but is still on the outside. He is in Nigeria studying African art – the Igbo-Ukwu roped pot – and is recruited into writing articles about the war for the outside world, but the story of the war is Ugwu’s to tell and not Richard’s. Olanna’s family is wealthy and even though they are Igbo, they cannot understand her relationship with Odenigbo who is committed to the Igbo cause and would prefer her to marry Madu, a major in the Biafran army. Once the war starts they are all drawn into the conflict, the situation spirals out of their control and they each react in differing ways.

The book explores the conflicts between nationalities, different cultures, different backgrounds and upbringing, between what is traditional and tribal and what is new. Although the violence and deprivations of the war are horrifying and form the dominant element in the story this is not just a war novel. It is also a novel about love and relationships, between parents and children as well as between men and women; about how people learn to adapt and cope with life.

I found the characters to be real, so much so that I could imagine I was there in the thick of things. I sympathised with Richard in his efforts to be accepted and suffered with Olanna when she was confronted with the horror of war and grieved over the plight of the refugees. It reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which I read about 10 years or so ago and Adichie writes of his novels in an article at the end of her book:

Achebe’s war fiction then, humane and pragmatic as it is, becomes a paean to the possibilities that Biafra held. The stories have an emotional power that accumulates in an unobtrusive way and stuns the reader at the end; there are sentences in them that will always move me to tears.

She writes of her own work:

If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it.

How well she has succeeded. Half of a Yellow Sun is an emotional book without being sentimental, factual without being boring, and I was completely absorbed in it to the end.

Cover-Up – Booking Through Thursday

This week’™s Booking Through Thursday question comes from Julie, who asks:
While acknowledging that we can’™t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?

I’™d like to think that I don’™t judge a book by its cover, but I’™d be kidding myself. Once I’™ve read a book its cover no longer has any influence over whether I enjoyed reading it or not. Once I’™ve opened it I tend not to notice the cover. If I know what I’™m looking for eg a specific title, or a book by a particular author then the cover doesn’™t affect me at all. But it’™s a different story when it comes to books I haven’™t heard about before and then do find that I am repelled by some covers, indifferent to others and attracted by some. I don’™t like those covers where you only see part of the body of, usually a woman, as though she has no head, or feet. I don’™t like covers like those on modern publications of Jane Austen’™s novels or ones with photos from the film or TV adaptations of a book, or chick lit covers.

I’™d like to say that I judge a book by its content alone but I don’™t like books that are printed in either a very small or a very large font. I don’™t like it when there are large sections printed in italics, or a smaller font ‘“ the copy of Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner that I read was like that and I had to flip through the pages to see how much minute font I had to endure. I like the feel of a book in my hands, so smooth, clean paper is a bonus, but I’ll still enjoy a book that’s printed on cheap paper that’s been suffering from too much sun and is falling to pieces.

I don’™t mind hardback or paperback, although I get a bit irritated by both if they’™re hard to hold open when I’™m reading, or if they’™re so tightly bound that you can’™t see the words in the centre without practically forcing the book open. I’m not keen on those paperbacks that have covers that bend open once I’™ve started to read the book. I don’™t know the difference between a trade paperback and a mass-market paperback at all, so I can’™t comment on that.

It looks as though there’™s a lot that I don’™t like when I think about it, but if I’™m enjoying the content then its format doesn’™t really bother me – I just love reading. I like the cover to indicate something about the content of the book and even when it doesn’™t I do like scenes like this one on The Magician’s Assistant. I must write about this book soon, I finished reading it weeks ago. Part of it is set in Nebraska, but not in a house like the one shown on this cover.

As for illustrations if I’™m reading non-fiction then any illustrations – photos, sketches, maps amd plans are a must and I love seeing them ‘“ usually I look at them before reading any of the book. A novel is different, as I like to form my own pictures of the characters from the descriptions. But I do like to have maps and plans of the locations. Recently I’ve read some books set in places I don’t know and I have to stop reading to look up the area such as Nigeria when I was reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ll be writing about this book soon – it’s an amazing and absorbing book.

C J Sansom’™s Matthew Shardlake series of books are excellent in this respect ‘“ and in all others as well. I find it easier to visualise where the action takes place from studying the maps at the beginning of the books. His latest book is out now and I had a late Christmas present yesterday when Revelation was delivered to my door. Thanks D.

Here is the map
and here is a photo this beautiful, big, hardback copy that is shouting READ ME NOW!

Oh No, Not Another Challenge!

I really cannot resist this challenge – mainly because I like the title and the picture in the banner. The promise of a good story will always tempt me to open a book and start reading.

This is Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. It began on Friday, March 21st and runs to Friday, June 20th: Midsummer Night’™s Eve. Joining this challenge means you are participating but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. I’m aiming to complete “Quest the First
which is to read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time II criteria of fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology’¦or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.
These books are on my to-be-read list already and fit into these categories:
  1. Dante’™s Descent into Hell, translated by Dorothy L Sayers
  2. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  3. The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
  4. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  5. Star Wars by George Lucas
  6. Helen of Troy by Margaret George

I was intrigued to read in this Wiki link that Dante’s The Divine Comedy is categorised as Bangsian fantasy. I had never heard of this but according to Wikipedia it is named after John Kendrick Bangs, whose novels deal with the afterlives of various famous people. Whilst I do intend to read The Divine Comedy I doubt that I’ll finish it all before 20 June, so the short version by Dorothy L Sayers seems a good choice for this challenge.

The other books are a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and mythology and I’ve owned them all for a while. Like other unread books I was keen to read them when I bought them. It is time to open them soon. I have actually read the Gormenghast books before, when I was at college, when I borrowed them from the library, but I haven’t read the copies that I own, which are wrapped in sellaphane!

Robert Frost

The Celebrate the Author Challenge is designed to “celebrate” author birthdays. My author for March is Robert Frost who was born on 26 March 1874 in San Francisco. He moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and apart from three years when he lived in England, he spent the rest of his life in New England.

I have a small collection of Frost’™s poems. It’™s illustrated by American, English and French painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is a short introduction, which states, ‘œThe simple language, the vernacular style and the near-whimsy of some of the earlier poems tend to mask the fact that Frost’™s poetry is deeper and tougher than it seems.’

Before I read any of this collection I knew just a few of his poems, such as The Road Not Taken, which ends:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ‘“
I took the one less travelled by,
And that made all the difference.

To me this poem is about the choices we have to make in life. You look as far ahead as you can, trying to see what lies ahead if you make a certain choice, but you can’™t know how things will turn out. There’™s no way of changing back to the other choice once you’™ve decided ‘“ the choice you make changes things forever.

I also like Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

This is seemingly such a simple poem with its easy rhyming scheme. The repetition of the rhyme in the final verse is hypnotic:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There is a mystery as well – who is the traveller? His horse knows there is something different, if not odd about the wood. It’™s a silent and somewhat spooky place on the ‘œdarkest night of the year’. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation of the traveller, where is he going and what has he promised?

Frost’™s poems are not all about rural idylls; Out, Out is a powerful poem that tells of the brutal realities of life. The title refers to the brevity of life from Macbeth: ‘œOut, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” So there’™s a hint right from the start that this is a tragic story. The scene is set ‘“ a noisy buzz saw against the backdrop of mountains in Vermont snarling and rattling, impersonal making dust as the wood is sawn. A young boy is cutting the wood, looking forward to his supper when he cuts his hand. It was as if the saw was alive as it

‘œLeaped out of his hand, or seemed to leap –
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!’

The poem reflects the callousness of the family towards life, but also the practicalities of getting on with life as the boy dies:

‘œNo one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little – less ‘“ nothing!- and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the dead, turned to their affairs.

The boy’™s hysteria and sorrow comes over through the rhythm and structure of the poem, with lines varying between 10 and 11 syllables creating an uneasy tension. It seems the tragedy could have been avoided, as the boy’™s work could have ended half an hour earlier, adding to the pathos and highlighting the fragility of life.

I still haven’™t read all the poems in this little book. I find that I have to read just one or two at a time, and then come back to them. The beauty of poetry is the way that so much meaning is condensed into such few words.

Daniel Isn’™t Talking by Marti Leimbach

We discussed Daniel Isn’™t Talking last Wednesday evening at the book group. One of the others summed up my feelings when she said, ‘œI was rather under whelmed by it’. I had very mixed feelings whilst reading. I was intrigued to know more about autism, and the book certainly made me a lot more knowledgeable, but I thought that some of the characters were two-dimensional and unconvincing.

Daniel is autistic, but at first Stephen his British father refuses to accept that there is anything wrong with him, whilst his American mother, Melanie, struggles to find out what is wrong with him and the best way of looking after him and helping him to talk, play and become as ‘œnormal’ as possible.

I found it quite a disturbing read not just because of the difficulties and cruelties that autism carries with it, but also because of the way such illnesses are dealt with in our society. There is seemingly a stigma, autism is something that is not generally understood, and the causes are unknown, although there are various ideas circulating (eg the MMR vaccination). The book deals with loyalties, families and ways of coping with illness, health and ways of healing and there are many angry assaults on the education system and its ways of dealing with children who are different in one way or another. Daniel has an older sister, Emily, who is a happy, healthy, cheerful child with ‘œa mop of blonde curls billowing around her face, smiling eyes, aquamarine.’ Stephen insists she goes to a pre-school, whilst Melanie wants to keep her at home. Emily is not interested in school and wants to play, looking at children in the playground as though they are in prison. Stephen has his way and Emily goes to the pre-school and finds that what she likes best is going home.

It’™s a book full of angst. One poignant scene that remains with me after reading the book is the scene in the supermarket where Daniel is having a tantrum, screaming, trying to hurl himself out of the trolley, grabbing biscuits when Melanie meets a woman who understands, is sympathetic and helpful. The other customers are watching, imagining, so Melanie thinks, that she is merely indulging a spoilt child. Next time I’™m out shopping surrounded by screaming children I’™ll remember this scene!

Melanie is paranoid in her antagonism towards special schools. The people who visited Melanie trying to enlist him at a school are described as ‘œa horrible pair who came by with their clipboards and their raincoats, looking more like spies than anybody who should be near children. They regarded Daniel as one might a wild animal, admiring him from a safe distance as we did the tiger who paced his enclosure.’ Well, this is a novel, but my experience is far from that (my daughter-in-law is a special needs teacher).

This book is a quick, easy read, although the subject is far from easy, and is good at portraying a mother desperately trying to help her autistic child. However, some of the other characters (Stephen, his parents, Veena, the cleaner and Larry, Melanie’™s brother) come over as wooden stereotypes and I found the sub-plot of, the alternative play therapist, Andy as Melanie’™s lover unconvincing. The blurb on the back cover says it’™s ‘œPowerful and moving, and also surprisingly funny. A love story in every sense.’ Yes, it is powerful and moving, and also sad, but I didn’™t find any humour and the love story that came over to me is that of a mother for her child.

Sunday Reading

It’™s wild wet and windy outside, so I’™ve decided today is a day for reading, not gardening. I’™ve started to read Victor Hugo’™s Les Miserables and so far it’™s looking good, although I’™ve not got very far into it. I really like Monseigneur Bienvenue and this quote seems apt after my gardening post yesterday:

‘œ ‘¦ he dug his garden or read or wrote, and for him both kinds of work bore the same name; both he called gardening. ‘The spirit is a garden,’™ he said.’

Danielle at A Work in Progress is reading this too, aiming to finish it in about two months. This means reading about 200 pages a week. I’™ll have to see if I can manage that.

I think I’™m going to give up on reading Edith Wharton’™s The House of Mirth, even though I’™ve read nearly half the book. It’™s wordy and I’™m getting bored with Lily Bart and her liking for luxury and her mixed up life, trying to find a husband who can afford to keep her in the custom she longs for. It’™s not often I abandon a book and I may give it another go, but not today. I’™m not in the mood for it; I think that’™s my problem with it rather than the writing.

I’™ve got some good books to look forward to; at least I hope they are. I had a trip to the library on Friday and picked up The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx (a Pulitzer Prize winner), Consequences by Penelope Lively (I’™ve yet to read a book by her that I haven’™t liked) and Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir by Hilary Mantel, which I read about on Table Talk’™s blog. I’™ve dipped into this and it looks intriguing. I like the openness and candour in her writing:

‘œSo now I come to write a memoir I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear? I tell myself, just say how you came to sell a house with a ghost in it. But this story can only be told once and I need to get it right. Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety? Margaret Atwood says, ‘œThe written word is so much like evidence ‘“ like something that can be used against you.’ I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you’™re weak, it’™s childish to pretend to be strong.’

I’™ll be settling down this afternoon to a session with Les Miserables.

Our Cottage Garden

This is what I would like our garden to look like.

This book, The Cottage Gardener’™s Companion, paints an idyllic picture of the typical English Cottage Garden:

‘œ’¦ where there is a feeling of freedom and exuberance, leisure and opportunity to potter, to water, to contemplate. ‘¦ Flowers, vegetables and fruit are mingled together in the epitome of the cottage garden, where bounty may be gathered at every season. The cottage gardener makes salads, apple jelly, herbal medicine, plum and damson jam from her garden; there is even something in midwinter when parsnips and turnips, brussels sprouts and leeks come into their own.’

Oh, if only that were so. This cottage garden has some of those things. There are fruit trees – a cherry tree, with bitter morello cherries that the birds love. I make pies and cherry sauce, if I can pick them before the birds eat them. There are two little espalier apple trees, which last summer produced a lot of fruit (more pies and crumble) and there is a plum tree that produced so much that it was rotting on the tree before I could pick them all.

There are some flowers ‘“ the primroses are doing really well, so well that I’ve put a photo of some of them on the blog header. There is a climbing rose that seems to be dying, maybe because of my efforts at pruning, despite reading ‘œPruning‘ in the Garden Guides series and any other books on pruning that I can find. I’™m doing something wrong, but what I don’™t know. I’™ve managed to plant and grow a lovely camellia – that had an abundance of flowers last year and a fuchsia that was quite tall and spindly, but it did have some flowers. The other plant that does well, however I mangle it with my pruning is a potentilla, covered in yellow flowers for most of last summer. And the aubretia spreads itself all over the wall in the front garden whatever I do to it ‘“ it’™s just starting to flower now.

We have a rambling honeysuckle growing up the fence, mingling in with a berberis, which has shiny red berries later in the year, privet and a rampant Russian vine, which threatens to swamp everything. There are violets and aquilegia which self-seed and appear in different places in the garden. There are other plants as well, shrubs and bushes that I occasionally prune back and trees ‘“ a flowering cherry tree, a pussy willow and a couple of conifers.

But the plant that grows really well in our garden is the bindweed ‘“ it gets everywhere. We have a good amount of ivy as well, growing up the fences and throttling whatever it can find. Just now it is beginning to pop up through the soil. I wish we could eradicate it completely!

I went out this morning to try to take control and did some pruning, whether I’™ve killed more plants remains to be seen. I noticed that the daffodils and tulips are coming on nicely, the bluebells in the front garden are coming up well, and there is a new little holly that has planted itself in one of the borders. The rosemary bush looks strong and healthy; it grows vigorously and I always have to chop it back.

We like herbs and in the past have failed to grow basil ‘“ not enough sun here I suppose, even the basil I buy in a pot and keep on the kitchen windowsill doesn’™t do very well! We had sage and mint in pots on the patio, but as they’™ve got very straggly and thin we decided to start again and yesterday went to a garden centre where we bought some pots of thyme, sage, flat leaf parsley and mint. We also bought a rhubarb plant, as I do like it. I hope these will survive.