Archive for April, 2015

A Hazard Of New Fortunes / William Dean Howell

I confess that before I picked up this novel, the name William Dean Howell was unfamiliar to me. Yet during his lifetime he was well known and a much respected American author. He made his mark as the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly in the 1870s, and he went on to write numerous novels and essays during his lifetime. Even so, he was fast becoming a forgotten figure by the time of his death in 1920. He was a proponent of the new realism movement and A Hazard of New Fortunes is an excellent example of that particular style of writing. The book was published to some acclaim in 1890. Its primary character is Basil March, a businessman who at the prompting of Fulkerson, a charismatic entrepreneur, moves from Boston to New York City with his wife and family to start a new periodical entitled Every Other Week. The magazine is financed by Mr. Dryfoos, a poor farmer who becomes rich because of the natural gas found on his property. His only condition is that they hire Conrad Dryfoos, a son who would rather become an Episcopalian priest. The novel’s plot, centering on these and other individuals involved in the creation of Every Other Week, is slow to unfold. In the beginning, Howell focuses on the hopes and dreams of his characters, carefully constructing their lives without seeming to propel the story forward. This was at first a bit off-putting for me. Wading through the author’s vividly depicted background descriptions took effort on my part. But his careful detailing of their inner lives eventually led to a strong interest in them as people I cared about. In a meticulous fashion, Howell subtly begins to weave a number of disparate themes into the story. It touches upon the social issues at the time, everything from labor disputes to the morality of capitalism, throwing in poverty and immigration as well. New York City itself also plays an important role. But the overarching focus is on human interrelatedness. While Howell portrays the moral decline of Dryfoos, the new millionaire, he is careful not to turn him into a one-dimensional caricature. Not content to just present the manners of society, Howell delves deeper to show the moral ambiguity inherent in all of us. In this novel he proves to be a master craftsman, and while the book often seems to bog down in nondramatic descriptions, these serve the novel well when crisis does arise. While today this style of writing is no longer fashionable, for the discerning reader, this novel is sure to prove an unexpected delight.

Bird Sanctuary

Sunny Spring days seem to be
a bird sanctuary

Unwilling to tarry, song urges
the dusk to dawn

On every boulevard and lawn
bright plumage blooms

Vying for dominance, males
jostle and groom

Tender hearts cartwheel and
engage in a chase

The chaste feather nests for
their future place

Silence cannot compete with
the beating of wings

And so, enchanted, we arise
to join in the fling

Enticement

I visit it often in dreams.
That cabin. Beneath a majestic pine,
moon crowned,
its chimney exhaling the breath
of smoldering logs.
A welcoming breeze an enticement.

Out of the trees,
a man appears. Someone familiar.
Without a key or knock,
the door opens to swallow him.
No lit lamp
answers the questioning moon.

As if absorbed, whoever
goes in, remains. One day I know
I’ll be tempted to follow.
Curiosity smolders like those logs.
I keep vigil until
clouds hush the moon’s spotlight.

Half Of A Yellow Sun / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In this novel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie focuses on the Igbo tribe’s attempt to establish the independent republic of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. This led to the Nigerian Civil War, which took place from 1967 to 1970 when the Igbo were defeated, with over a million people killed in the fighting or due to starvation. The book covers a time period from the early 1960s to the end of the war. Adichie tells the story as seen through the eyes of five characters: the twin daughters of an influential Igbo businessman, a revolutionary professor in love with one of the daughters, a British citizen married to the other, and a houseboy in the professor’s household. For me, the most true-to-life character was Ugwu, the houseboy. For anyone hoping to gain a true picture of the politics behind the Igbo’s secession and the larger overall picture of the civil war, they will have to look elsewhere. Here, the author concentrates on the personal lives of the book’s main protagonists, showing how the war’s brutality directly affected them. As a writer, Adichie is not one for poetic turns of phrase. The plot is a narrative driven and told solely from a Biafran perspective. For a good many readers, the interesting characters and plot will suffice. While it kept my interest, I found myself wanting a less biased presentation of the civil war and bit more poetry stirred into its prose. Granted, it is an ambitious topic to tackle, and Adichie does capture the horror and the heartbreak of the conflict. Still, I could not help wanting to know more about the bigger picture. As a result of reading the novel, I intend to find a non-fiction book which will provide me with perspectives on both sides of this war which should never have taken place. Nonetheless, for a Western audience with no knowledge of this tragedy, the book is a well-intentioned introduction to a conflict that still rages today between mixed Christian and Muslim communities around the globe.

Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight : An African Childhood / Alexandra Fuller

Published in 2001, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To The Dog’s Tonight recounts her childhood in Africa. I am suspicious of memoirs such as this, as I question the worthiness of sharing one’s childhood memories with the rest of the world. In the case of Fuller’s book, it is fully justified. From 1972 to 1990, her family lived on several farms in southern and central Africa. Her parents, British ex-patriots, moved from England to Rhodesia and were involved in White resistance to the creation of the Republic of Zimbabwe. After the Rhodesian government dissolved, the family moved to the wilds of Malawi (a country north of Rhodesia). When the situation deteriorated there, her parents relocated to Mozambique (Zambia). While each country provides a colorful backdrop to this memoir, what makes it special are the dynamics of her family life. Fuller’s mother is an especially interesting figure, a manic-depressive who gave birth to four children, only two surviving past childhood. What elevated this memoir to the “must read” category is Fuller’s vivid recreation of life in Africa during a time of major transition. There is plenty of humor to be found in this book, and poetry, too. What appealed to me the most was the book’s lack of political correctness. It is a bit shocking to read about a family where White supremacy was considered an accepted belief, and heavy alcohol and cigarette consumption fueled everyday life. Overall, this unique memoir is a fascinating account of a family on the losing side of Africa’s anti-colonial war. But what I appreciated most was Fuller’s marvelous writing and incredibly descriptive observations from a child’s perspective.

Unconditional

In the early days
of our marriage, shocked
at the hurt that
love sometimes evoked,
we would lie
rigid and wide awake on
opposite sides,
with the middle ground
there between us
left unexplored territory.

Taught not to
go to sleep still angry,
we’d finally try
to negotiate a settlement,
each convinced
the other was at fault,
making matters
worse with words that
only added fuel
to resentment’s embers.

Rare now the night
when we go to bed irate,
for we’ve learned
it’s best to surrender and
allow the balm of
fatigue to erase mistrust,
knowing by dawn,
legs will cross the divide
to reconcile in
love’s unconditional touch.