Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

behold the dreamersJende Jonga is a dreamer. He has dreams for his own life, but more importantly, that of his family. And in Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, he gets a glimpse of where dreams can lead you and realizes that perhaps reality is better.

Jende is from Cameroon (Limbe) and he arrives in New York City to make his way in the land of dreamers. After working hard for two years, his wife, Neni, and son, Liomi, join him. When the book opens they are all in the city and Jende is interviewing to work as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. He gets the job and is exposed to a different world as he drives members of the family around the city. Clark’s wife, Cindy, emerges as a complex and tragic character. Having been raised by a single mom in a dirt-poor household, she knows what she has and she wants to keep it. One son, in college, is almost stereotypic in his rejection of his father’s lifestyle, which, of course, supports him as he rejects it.

 Working for the family, Jende sees the “one percent” in action. While they live the lavish lifestyle, their personal lives are falling apart. Clark is struggling to act professionally honest in the midst of the financial crisis meltdown of 2008 (and his company goes bankrupt), but at the same time, his personal dishonesty creates more of a barrier between him and his wife and sons. Although Mbue presents Jende as a confidant of Clark, he is really no more than a foil for Clark’s musings. Mbue attempts to create a stronger bond between the two, but it is primarily a utilitarian relationship for both of them.

Mirroring this is Neni and Cindy’s relationship, and they connect in their roles as mothers. But in a climactic scene between the two, Neni acts completely out of character. Mbue may want to show us the desperate act of a mother, but she instead shows the willingness of Neni to allow another person to be destroyed in order to advance her and her family’s dreams. Although she talks about the family, it is clear that Neni wants to stay in the U.S. for her own desires even more than that of her family. In many ways, she resembles the Clark family in how she uses other people to meet her personal goals. I don’t think Mbue was aiming for this, but it seems to be a logical connection.

The struggle of being able to stay in the U.S. is an undercurrent in the entire novel. Jende continues to work for and is always worried about citizenship, and reaches a point where he realizes all his work may fall short. While Jende starts to actively think that returning to Cameroon will be better for his family, Neni is using every method at her disposal to keep the family in New York. Jende has seen what the dream fulfilled looks like and realizes that dreams and reality are different. He is not a fatalist, but a realist who sees that his dreams of success may not lie in the direction he was heading. It is the age-old story that material success does not equate with happiness, and Jende’s dream is for happiness.

 

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Imbolo Mbue

Mbue succeeds in showing the challenging life of the immigrant without losing hope. But she misses the opportunity to take us more into that existence as most of the action takes place in areas of wealth. We get glimpses of the Jonga’s family life outside of the Clark world, but not enough to get a fuller picture of their day to day struggles. Mbue can capture the reader as her writing style is inviting and the narrative flows. She draws us in and she just needs to focus on where she is taking us. In the end, this is a book worth reading and a writer worth watching. It is not a perfect novel, but it does give a glimpse into an existence most of us do not know.

Imbolo Mbue’s Website

Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary by Josh Bishop

bw-book-coverSheep stolen in the night, people disappearing, rumors of beasts and one boy determined to find out what is going on. This is the underlying plot beneath Josh Bishop’s delightful first novel, Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary. Although aimed at a young-adult readership, the book will delight old-adult readers as well.

 
Pilcrow is an adventurous teenager at a time when villagers get to town in a horse-drawn cart. But it is a society edging into modernity and Pilcrow, like the rest of the villagers, is unknowingly on the cusp of change. Pilcrow, and other children can still wander the fields without fear, yet something lurks in the shadows that introduces fear into the world. And, as it turns out, it is a fear the modern world wants to forget at the expense of living. In addition to the unnamed fear, a stranger arrives in town. Actually, he is called the Stranger for most of the book. Put together, we have the creation of life’s greatest fear — fear of the unknown.

Instead of hiding from this fear, Pilcrow seeks to understand the unknown. Some of the knowledge comes in an unusual book, the “Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary” of the novel’s title. However, Pilcrow also learns from others, including his elders. His relationship with his parents, especially his father, is strong and although he pushes the boundaries (he is a teenager!) he clearly respects their input. He is also surrounded by other adults from whom he learns to live, more by their example than by lectures. The Shepard lives a simple life by choice, Father Chestnut is a priest of wisdom, wit, and width (sorry, couldn’t resist), and Grantham Ken, father of his friend, Alinea, is patient and encouraging.

These relationships are essential as Pilcrow finds out that people will lie and put others at risk just for money and acceptance. While he learns this when visiting the university in a neighboring town, there is also a person, Tayben Rod, like this in the midst of their own village. While he is the wealthiest man in town, he is more accommodated than liked. And in him, Pilcrow learns how not to live.

As Pilcrow goes into the midst of the fear, quite literally when he enters The Bloodwood, he finds that Alinea has preceded him. In other words, we do not need to enter the unknown alone. The tender relationship between this boy and girl is one of trust in the midst of chaos or distrust. Bishop treats their relationship with a respect too few people give to young love and it is a wonderful sub-plot in the novel.

The main plot centers around the fear which is encompassed in one character (I don’t want to give too much away!) who brings death and destruction. Yes, it is a young-adult novel which is willing to show you the cost of ignorance in somewhat graphic scenes. And Pilcrow, with the help of Alinea and others, faces this fear in a climatic finish. They succeed because they trust one another, learn from the past, and seek the wisdom of others.

Bishop has written the classic “page-turner” novel. It was a one day read for me as I kept wanting to see what is next. A sign of a good novel is the reluctance to set it aside. Benjamin Weatherby’s Practical Bestiary will stay in your hands right to the end.

You cannot find this on Amazon or your local bookstore, yet, so visit the website and order a copy today! You even get to create your own illustrations and can submit them to the website for everyone to see.

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

lark-and-termiteOur connections with others are sometimes obvious, but often we are influenced by people we are not aware of or with whom we see little connection. It is as if absence can be a stronger connector than presence, and in the hands of Jayne Anne Phillips, we find those connectors, not just in people but events.

“Lark and Termite” follows two storylines that connect in ways the participants will never see. The story takes place in the 1950s and focuses on Lark, a young woman on the verge of adulthood, and her younger stepbrother, Termite, who is unable to speak or walk. Their mother is the absent Lola, but they are raised by a loving aunt, Nonie, who works at a “greasy spoon” owned by the man she loves but will not commit to. The other story is of Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, a soldier in Korea who does not live to see the birth of his child.

The absence of these parents is as palatable as the presence of those who love and support Lark and Termite. Lark’s birth father is unknown to her and we are not sure what Termite understands. Phillips tells the story through the voices of the different characters, and through Termite, we see a world of wonder and joy. However, his voice is the weakest in the novel not because of the character, but because Phillips lets his voice slip out of character too often. But that is a rare slip in this otherwise strong novel. In fact, Phillips excels in giving an authentic voice to these West Virginian people struggling to make it day to day. They are poor, but they do not focus on their poverty as much as each other. Nonie takes these children in with no complaint and Lark takes care of Termite since he is more comfortable with her than at school. The neighbors are a father and sons abandoned by their wife and mother; they are a hardscrabble lot but they make sure that Lark, Termite, and Nonie are also taken care of. There are no saintly figures in this novel, but there are real people who make mistakes, care for others, and focus on the next day. For Lark and Termite, the community is very present and generally supportive.

But that does not mean Lark never wonders about her absent mother and her unknown father. And for the scenes in Korea, as Leavitt fights for his life, it is with the absence of his wife and the presence of a young girl trying to care for him. We are changed by those with us as well as those far away. Phillips bounces between Leavitt’s story in Korea and Lark’s in West Virginia, and neither one knows the impact they have had on each other even though they never met. Their connection is Lola, and she is absent from both of them at crucial times.

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Jayne Anne Phillips

While Phillips spends a long time (a bit too much) setting up the climax, events at the end unreel at a dizzying pace and in unexpected ways. This is not simply a “slice of life” look at these different people, but a story that is driven to a point where the people must decide their future. Those decisions became both easier and harder because they become more informed of what has been missing. Awareness of an absence becomes a powerful presence.

“The Secret Chord” by Geraldine Brooks

24611425Historical fiction is not my usual area of reading, but this book was given to me by a friend whose reading tastes I trust! The struggle I have is that while I think fiction can be the best way to reach the truth, historical fiction places on history ideas and events that may or may not contribute to a greater truth. For example, the writer Tim O’Brien is a Vietnam vet who uses fiction to tell the truth. He uses story truth over happening truth (the usual facts we think of as truth) to get us to understand what it was like to be a soldier in that war. Facts and statistics will not tell you what the experience is like, so he tells stories to create those experiences for the reader. So, you could say he is writing historical fiction. However, it is a history he lived, so he knows the larger truth he is seeking to portray.

In traditional historical fiction, we take historical fact (or historical stories) and write them for today’s world. If they are showing a greater truth about a person or event, we’ll never know since neither the writer nor we have experienced it. So, it is best to focus on the “fiction” of the novel and not confuse it with telling us more about anything that actually happened.

Which brings me to “The Secret Chord.” Brooks is a Pulitzer prize-winning author, and

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Geraldine Brooks

while this book is not Pulitzer material, it does weave a great tale. She centers around the character of David from the Old Testament. If there was ever a character ripe for storytelling, it is David. We have family, religion, war, adventure, royalty, sex (lots of sex), fratricide, incest, rape, betrayal, murder, massacres, and even a giant (or, at least a big guy). And that is all in the Bible! Brooks takes off some of the innuendo and fills in the gaps, creating a rather difficult read if you take your Bible seriously (as I do). Of course, her details beyond the Bible are completely fictional, but she is trying to give us a glimpse of this complicated man. And, where she succeeds is that we see David as a flawed man who loves God. That, in a nutshell, is David. And, God loves him despite all his faults. We see all this through Natan, the prophet of David’s time and one of David’s closest friends. Natan is both attracted and repelled by David, as is the reader.

 

A plot summary is unnecessary as she follows the well-known story from the Bible (and, since she is a Jewish writer, for Brooks this is “the Book”). Does she succeed? If the goal is to take off the varnish and show us the context for David the man, then, yes. Whether she is accurate or not is another story, but then I refer back to the idea of “happening truth” and allow for fiction to point us to a greater truth.

 

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

the-gift-of-asher-levWhile I’ve read My Name is Asher Lev several times (since I teach it in a course), I’ve held off The Gift of Asher Lev as there are not many sequels I find reaching the level of a strong, original work. This continuation of Asher Lev’s story by Chaim Potok is not as strong as the original novel, but Potok has still created an ongoing story that offers new insights into the central character.

The book picks up 20 years after Asher Lev, at the end of My Name is Asher Lev, is sent away from the Ladover community in New York by the Rebbe. He is not banished from the community but is told he needs to pursue his controversial art in Paris. [Note: For a fuller explanation of the first novel, please refer to my original blog entry.]

We find Asher to be an incredibly successful artist just coming off a poorly-reviewed exhibit in Paris. He takes the criticism, that he is not doing anything new, to heart. As a result, he is not able to paint. We are introduced to his wife, Devorah, who survived in Paris as a child for two years during WWII by hiding in an apartment with her aunt, uncle, and cousin. Her parents were killed in the Holocaust, and the challenge of the survivors and the full horror of the Holocaust are a part of this book. Asher returns with his wife, son, and daughter to New York for the funeral of his beloved Uncle Yitzchok. We learn that Yitzchok became an art collector, a very successful art collector, and he leaves the collection in the care of Asher, much to the dismay of his cousins. This is a subplot in the novel.

The focus is on Asher’s return to the community where he is treated with distrust and at times outright hatred. But, as usual, the Rebbe supports him and manages to make him stay beyond the two weeks originally planned. Asher’s stoic father is now the main aide to the Rebbe and a greatly revered man in the community. But the Rebbe is old and may not have long to live, which raises the question of who will take his place.

I will not give away the answer, but Asher plays a surprising role in the Rebbe’s plan for a successor (and no, it is not him — that would be too much). His wife, Devorah, is a fascinating character. She connects with Asher’s mother and father, settles into the community, dotes on her children, writes children’s book and has an insight into her husband that no one else can grasp. But, she is haunted by the two years of hiding, the loss of her parents in the concentration camps, and her concern for Asher and his struggles.

The book itself is much more introspective than the first one, which is not surprising since the main character is now in his 40s and at a crossroads in life. We see the ongoing struggle for Asher to reconcile his faith with his art, although he lacks the confidence we see in the first book. Asher always knew he was headed in the right direction, even though he could not understand it. Here, he seems paralyzed by his past work and not sure how to move forward. He focuses on drawing to bring back his gift.

Potok loses focus at times and runs parallel plots without connecting them. The conflict over the art collection and Asher’s own struggles touch one another but never intersect. Plus, when Asher realizes the Rebbe’s succession plans, he spends too long thinking through what we already know he will do. It is in these wanderings and the lack of direction by Asher that the sequel fails to match the first novel. Still, if you like the first book, the sequel does add to the storyline and is worth reading. Potok can tell a good story.

 

 

 

 

Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Describing the Past”

Layout 1There are books in life that we read slowly for the pure pleasure of feeling the words in our mouths. Meaning becomes secondary as we are lost in the pleasure, a feeling that brings many us back to reading again and again. Not many authors have this gift. There are great writers with incredible books who cannot write like this. And there are writers, the French novelist and Nobel prize winner J. M. G. Le Clezio comes to mind, who in the midst of a story create passages and chapters so enticing that their context does not matter.

Ghassan Zaqtan is such a writer. There are many adjectives for Zaqtan we could put in front of “writer,” such as Palestinian, lyrical, narrative, political, personal, activist, Middle Eastern, and more. But, first, he is a writer. He breaks down the boundaries between poetry and fiction, creating prose that reads like poetry and poetry which tells a story. But the words themselves are a joy. A writer seeks to bring us into their world through words. They create portals into which we step without knowing where we are going, hoping to return different, and better, than when we left. Zaqtan is a writer who can take us deeper into our own lives but taking us along with him. And while his writing is transcendent enough to escape context, it is firmly rooted in experience and place.

While writers do not like always being linked to a place, Zaqtan’s background and current life are a central part of his writing. Although well known and highly respected in the world of Arabic literature, he is not as well known in the English-speaking world since only two of his works have been translated.  The first was a collection of poetry, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, and just recently, the novella, Describing the Past. In Arabic we can find 10 volumes of poetry, more fiction, and plays and essays as well.
Zaqtan was born near Bethlehem and now lives in Ramallah. He has lived in Jordan, Syria,

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Ghassan Zaqtan

Lebanon, and Tunisia, and is active in the struggle for  Palestinian freedom. He has edited the Palestine Liberation Organization’s literary magazine and is a leader in promoting literature in the West Bank. His political involvement has made international travel difficult and a trip to Canada occurred only after prominent writers spoke out for him after his visa to visit was initially denied.

He has lived much of his life as an exile and memory of this life is essential to understanding his work. His novel, “Describing the Past,” (written in 1994 and just published in English in 2016) emerges from his time as a child in the Karameh refugee camp near the River Jordon. The beautiful translation is by Samuel Wilder,  and there is an excellent introduction by Fady Joudah.

The story is told in the voices of three narrators: the author, his best friend, and a girl they love. But the story is not told in a traditional narrative sense, but instead, draws us in and slowly comes over us. Memories do not work like people often think they do. Our lives are not remembered as history but as moments and experiences. Zaqtan writes in this way so that we are brought into the experience of being young and awakening to the power and attraction of another. We are brought back into the sense of wonder and awe that we experience but do not remember.

“It was not easy at all. I had to return. There were so many things left to be done that could no longer delayed, places where one had to sit, surfaces and peaks of mountains to stare into with strength, narrow and wide roads to walk over, hands to be clasped, many words to be said. There were greetings to be exchanged and a hand with five kind fingers to be laid on your knee so you believe the speech in the air….

These opening lines set the stage for someone hoping to remember an experience, even though a phrase such as “five kind fingers to be laid on your knee” reminds us of what we do not forget. In his introduction, Joudah describes it better. “Zaqtan transports memory as dream narrative or, more precisely, as a state of being with altered consciousness. As if in a seance, voices appear and speak from a truncated time, resected and persevered in a jar.”

The book  emerges into different modes as it continues. It is a coming-of-age story, an elegy for a dead friend, a celebration of childhood, and a glimpse into the humanity of those called refugees. In a particularly moving passage, the writer sees the young woman they love walking toward him. She has a young boy with her:

“On her other side, he was walking in death. Behind him, on the road of dust, a strand of river water poured from his hair and body. He was silent. Behind us the Hadj walked. I slowed down so that she and he followed my lead, slowed down so that the Hadj could catch up to us. He was silent too. Three men surrounded her. All four of us kept climbing.

I was going off to die. That’s what I was told. She didn’t know this, but the two men did. We three dead men surrounded her as we climbed the narrow, straight road of dust.”

The past, present, and future become one and are impossible to separate. We are made up of all of these times and our past experiences do not leave us but shape us. Still, in a world always forward looking, Zaqtan understands the importance of remembering where we come from. The refugee camp he was in was destroyed and the physical memories are lost. But for an individual and a community to understand themselves, they must describe the past.

“I am compelled to speak now. You know the necessity of it here. Things evaporate and die if they don’t find someone to remember them.”

This is what Zaqtan accomplishes. He remembers, he reminds, and he lifts up the past which can shape our future.

Zaqtan is a gift and worth spending time with. Although best known for his poetry, Describing the Past shows his writing skills go beyond any one genre. If like me, you depend on the translations, we can only hope more of his writing is translated.

Like a Straw BirdIn the meantime, in addition to this book, You should read Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and other Poems. The book won the prestigious 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize International Prize.

You can find some of his poetry at Poem Hunter.

The Poetry Foundation provides a biography and an audio podcast of Zaqtan and Joudah discussing Palestinian poetry with Ilya Kaminsky.

There is also a great review of Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and Other Poems is on poet’s Ron Slate’s blog.

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

91-a-David-GolderThis novel by Nemirovsky, published in 1929, is a stark description of greed and its outcome. It offers little hope and is even more powerful as a result. Nemirovsky shows us David Golder, a self-made businessman who has risen from a from humble beginnings by being intelligent, focused, and ruthless. Now, in his late 60s, his own poor health makes him look at his equally greedy wife and selfish 18-year-old daughter with new eyes. The book opens with Golder showing no mercy to his lifelong business partner, now bankrupt, who then goes and kills himself. Golder returns later to his own home (he often lives in other cities) and is confronted with his greedy wife and her demands for money. She lives to impress others, even changing her name so that her Jewish background is hidden. His daughter is a spoiled child who spends time traveling with young men. Golder is completely under his daughter’s spell, even though he sees her for what she is, and she ultimately brings about his demise.

Recovering from a heart attack, Golder lets his business deals fall apart and intentionally drives himself to ruin. Only his daughter can convince him to make one last deal so she can have more money, and it becomes his final deal.

There is almost nothing redeeming in any of the characters, although you can see that Golder is at least torn by what he has become. He pines for the simpler life, but is beyond finding a way to return to it. On the brink of the depression, her story shows the individual dangers of wealth and greed. Her refusal to offer any hope forces the reader to address the desolate message, still relevant today. [Note: The novel was made into a film of the same name in 1931].

This was Nemirovsky’s debut novel, and she received strong critical acclaim for it. She

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Nemirovsky

went on to write several other novels, before being sent to Auschwitz and being killed in 1942 — she was 39. It should be noted that Nemirovsky, herself of Jewish origin, has been described as a “self-hating Jew” by some critics. Of a Russian-Jewish background, she spent most of her time in France. Her husband was also Jewish (and also died in Auschwitz), but she converted to Catholicism in 1939. She creates an interesting dilemma to study, and her writing shows the study will be worth the effort.