Book Reviews, Diversity

Review: My City Sister by Akpa Arinzechukwu

Recently, I stumbled upon Writivism and the associated article for the 2017 Kofi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction Long List. This is an annual prize for nonfiction works. Initially specific to emerging African writers living in Ghana, it has widened to include writers born, raised, or living elsewhere in Africa. The shortlisted writers are then invited to a literary fest where the winner is chosen. My hope was to find pieces written by these shortlisted authors. Unfortunately, the only one I could find for my Kindle is a piece written by Akpa Arinzechukwu.

This short story piece is titled My City Sister and while I doubt it was the piece submitted for the prize, it was interesting to read anyway. The piece has too much of a fiction feel to it. The twelve pages of story centers on a young man entering the city where his sister lives for the first time. He’s a rural man, likely pretty young, and it is about how the city impacts him in ways he can’t imagine.

The worst thing about it is the attitude the main character has as he enters the city. It immediately made him unlikeable. The best thing about it is that it was written well enough that I was very engaged and wanted to find out what happened to this pompous character.  

It’s very much a story of how the city changes the main character, so we don’t see much character development except for his. He and his sister are prominent, but she is seen only through his eyes and is limited in interactions. Any change we see in her is really a change in how he perceives her. The thing is though – the city changes him against his will because of his experiences there. He’s still pompous, but far less judgmental than in the beginning.

Unfortunately, it feels a bit contrived for the storyline. Young man, very immature, goes to the city and is miraculously changed for the “better.” Maybe it’s because I’m not an avid short story fan but I am always wanting more. I’ve seen short story authors who are amazing at world-building. Many of the ones I’ve read are more about character development. This one is interesting to me in the sense that it’s set somewhere I’m very unfamiliar with, but uses a story that is incredibly common. The author definitely could have fleshed out certain areas better.

Yet, I’m glad I read it. It was easy to read, it was easy to understand his motivations and his transformation, and it stylistically written well. I’d be interested in seeing what else he has written.

Diversity

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit is a book which centers on The Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. In the society, set presumably in the not too distant future, women and men of a certain age are expected to have families; if not, they are taken to, colloquially, The Unit. It is essentially a compound where these adults without families are given living quarters, food, comfort and more. In exchange, they are expected to go through human experiments in search of cures for diseases and surgeries to donate their organs – all to benefit people on the outside, people with families.

The story opens with Dorrit, the female main character, who grapples with her new life inside the unit as a fifty-year-old woman. Each of the other people in the unit are also grappling with it in their own ways. Understandably, there are horrors of knowing that this is the place people go to have their biological material harvested or experimented on because they are seen as without family ties and without professional worth in the mainstream world.

Each of the characters, but especially Dorrit, seem accessible and real. Ninni Holmqvist, the author, is thoughtful to flesh out each character’s back story in such a manner that we see the diversity of people in the unit – that in this world, lots of different kinds of people are affected by this referendum. The concept of being childless, single, and in a job that isn’t deemed appropriate for contributing to society at large understandably will have an impact on people in different ways. It speaks of a society that values self-sufficiency until it doesn’t; placing more of an emphasis on taking care of others in a collective manner. The pain those in the unit feel is very real, as is the friendships they forge. As far as the friendship they build inside, which is rather understandable through shared pain and shared experiences, the one main issue I had was wishing for more background on some of the staff who worked in the unit.

The pace of the storyline worked – it isn’t about action, action, and more action the way a number of dystopian novels are these days. Perhaps this is because it centers around people 50 and older with no war to fight. It has more to do with the inner turmoil of the patients there. And even though those in charge strive to make the patients comfortable with free food, lodging, shopping, and gyms, it’s really only material comfort compared to what they go through. It’s a really interesting concept for a plot to make people materially wealthy surrounded by doctors and in a place where they know they are being collected for their biological use for science and others. That it is forced upon them makes it an interesting way to look at our psyches individually and collectively as well as pointing out flawed governmental decisions. Though Dorrit explains what happened in the government to institute such a thing, I would love to know more. The lack of further details, however, lends itself to filling out the details in our own heads regarding the political climate that could have led to this.

For the most part, I found the writing able to make me feel joy with the characters or sadness on their behalf. The only bad thing really was that it seemed to take a while to get to the climax. Everyone seems so resigned to their place there and even in anguish, it was difficult to know when the climax would take place. Holmqvist handled it really well – it seemed natural, even if slow, to give us time to build sympathy for the characters. I personally would have liked the climax to have come a little sooner, but it works for the story.

I’m an avid fan of dystopian novels, so I was happy to discover this through Words Without Borders. The ones, in my mind, that are the best are the ones that seem so plausible they are frightening. This is exactly that type of dystopian. It’s just enough like our world that it wouldn’t seem odd if it happened – only frighteningly devastating. I don’t agree with all the choices the characters made, but I am certain they are made for an impact.

 

Diversity, Diversity

Knots: A Woman’s Return to Somalia

As a teacher who works with refugees and immigrants, primarily from Burma and Somalia, I try to read up on historical and current events of my students’ respective countries. One of the challenges is finding novels written by Somali authors either about Somalis in Somalia or in their new lands.  I researched a few books to see what I could get at the library and was pleasantly surprised with a few listings. The first one I’ve read is Nuruddin Farah’s Knots. He appears to be a prolific author with Somalia-centric stories especially regarding the diaspora. This one centers on Cambara, a Somali-born woman and aspiring actress/writer who grew up first in Somalia and later, Canada, who then returns to Mogadishu to find herself.

The worst thing about this book is that the writing style takes a while to become used to. Much of the first chapter packs so much detail and information into each sentence that it was difficult to have any sustained reading. It very nearly forced me to stop reading the book entirely and return this one and his other one to the library ASAP. However, my desire to see if it could improve won out and I continued reading. Thankfully, not every sentence and certainly not every chapter is so information-dense.

The main and supporting characters start out as nearly entirely unlikeable, the whole lot of them. They are flawed people in bad situations, which definitely make their flaws more glaring. The more I read it, the more I wanted to understand how each character became the person with those particular flaws.

Farah does give glimpses here and there of character development through Cambara’s voice and memories and her suppositions of why things have happened – but little perspective from anyone else. The novel is written in first-person present-tense, so everything is shown as it is happening or Cambara remembering something because of what is currently happening. Ultimately, I found the characters to be overwhelmingly petty, selfish, and cruel. The background information gave insight but didn’t help the characters become likeable.

There is constant tension, especially between Cambara and her cousin, Zaak. They clearly despise each other but there are some awkward moments where it definitely seems like their mutual animosity is much muddier as the story goes on. The way they treat each other embroils other characters into their stories – and neither one is able to take responsibility for worsening any situation they are in.

This story has a lot of promise in it: a woman from the Somali diaspora seeks to heal personal wounds by returning to her homeland to daringly recover family property from warlords. The few glimpses into what her wounds are, her motivations, and the desire to recover from them are good, but too far and few between. Everything is lost in the long-winded, dense sentences and the character flaws that get in the way of plot development. At least the dialogue tends to be brief and illuminating – it’s unfortunate that even the dialogue is broken up by impossible sentences. Cambara’s lengthy internal reactions during dialogue will lose plenty of readers.

In all honesty, it was difficult to think of something I liked best about the novel. Perhaps the only redeeming quality of the story is that Cambara forges much-needed relationships with other women in her time of need. These relationships are the reason for whatever happiness befalls Cambara, if the reader can successfully slog through every other part of the book. This is a reading I’d recommend to people only if they seek a challenging, lofty novel. It is definitely not a light book to read in an afternoon.

Book Reviews, Diversity

Solitaire by Kelley Eskeridge

I was first introduced to Kelley Eskeridge’s writing about ten years ago through a collection of essays about writing. She and her partner had co-written one regarding what it’s like to be in a relationship with another writer and the process they go through in bettering one another’s writing. So, in my research to find another book to review, I was very excited to find Solitaire by her. The premise is that in the near future, there is a nation-state, Ko, that is entirely corporate. In this society, where cutting edge technology rules along with profit, there are a handful of people known as Hopes. Ren, also known as Jackal, is such a Hope: one of the few born in the first second of the new year. There is a huge emphasis placed on being a Hope – they are given special training within the company that rules, groomed from a young age to help foster international relations. She’s meant to take on an important and powerful role representing Ko.

Unfortunately, secrets surrounding being a Hope lead to some complications, and thus the impetus of the climax. This secret, as important as it is and as damaging as it is to Jackal and others, the secret keepers aren’t given a lot of development. They are brief side characters, with few glimpses into their motives (if at all), and their relationship to others and especially to each other. And yet, this is very definitely a story of a single person growing.

It’s Jackal’s story of her relationship with herself and how she fits within society – or not. She struggles in ways she shouldn’t have as a result of the fallout from the secret, her growing and redefining herself on her terms instead of on the terms of Ko, and her relationship with Snow. She was never allowed to be alone until she was required to and the change it effects is incredible. And it makes an interesting point about the difference between public personas versus private ones, how the weight of expectation in entirely public forums juxtaposes against an uncertain private and very closed off personal life. Certain aspects of this development could have been fleshed out better, but the aftermath is quite intriguing.

Honestly, this character development tied up with secrecy versus openness is really the driving force of the plot. How do characters respond to secrets, whether keeping them or discovering them? How do they respond to them when it comes on an incredibly personal level versus a corporate and government level? These reactions at once highlight the character development and the plot development of what was and what could be. On the downside, Jackal is probably the most secretive of them all: a product of her status that infuriates those around her, and at times, the reader.

What I like about Eskeridge’s style is that she writes in such a manner that anyone could read it. It’s engaging and page-turning. She weaves in perspectives from other points of view that Jackal isn’t privy to until much later, if at all, and does it with the right amount of frequency and detail to add crucial bits to the story without being obtrusive. Now if only she could turn that towards fleshing out more of her upbringing, the story might be better served.

The best part about this for me, other than an intriguing look into government-controlled studies and psychological interludes is the fact that Jackal and Snow are in a same-sex relationship. It’s representation without it being the focal point of the entire plot. It’s discussed as naturally as it should be and not propped up like some strange vexing thing. And it’s a relationship that has its problems as any relationship would, but rooted in love and sincerely so.

Overall, this is a book I would recommend for those who enjoy a bit of dystopia and a bit of psychological thriller set partially in virtual reality. Of course, this is also for those who want more LGBTQIA+ representation, as well!