A couple months ago, I saw a book on the recommendation shelf at Barnes & Noble with a plot synopsis that really interested me. However, fool that...moreA couple months ago, I saw a book on the recommendation shelf at Barnes & Noble with a plot synopsis that really interested me. However, fool that I am, I walked out of the store without writing it down and completely forgot the name of the title or author. The only thing I could remember was that the cover had a picture of a wooden rowboat floating just offshore.
I spent some time last month searching through the new releases in my library's online catalog, hoping to find the book by a picture of the cover. It was only then that I realized just how many books there are in existence which have a picture of a rowboat at sea as the cover image, each with completely different plot contents. (And, no, in case you are wondering, the book was not Old Man and the Sea, although I should read that one too)
I did finally find the book I was looking for and put it into my library queue, but I think I can completely relate, based on that experience, to that of the Reader in this book.
I think TV Tropes did the best description of this book I've read so far:
Italo Calvino's novel If on a winter's night a traveler is about you. You are trying to read Italo Calvino's book If on a winter's night a traveler when something quite annoying happens: there was an error and only the first exciting chapter is there. So you go back to the bookstore and try to exchange your copy of If on a winter's night a traveler for another one, but the person at the bookstore tells you that the chapter you just read - which you wish to continue reading, after all - was not actually a part of If on a winter's night a traveler at all, but rather a different book entirely.
And so you go off in search of that book and, naturally, you find hilarity, an international book-fraud conspiracy, and true love.
This easily has to be the most fun that I have ever had reading a post-modernist author. I read the sample on Amazon and knew instantly that I had to buy the copy I read, and I was not disappointed for the most part.
Calvino uses a lot of wit and humor to explore all aspects of the reading experience, including how books are published, poking fun at the academia who critique books, and even satirizing governments and organizations that ban books. His bad guys are the people who write bootleg editions of books.
I think this is also the only time I've ever seen an author write a book mostly in second person outside of Choose Your Own Adventure novels where it really worked.
The only chapter of the book which I did not enjoy as much was the Japanese chapter, although I tried to justify to myself that the reason the author seemed unfamiliar with how Japanese characters would behave was because the chapter was one of the books written by the fake author. I also thought the plot had way too many contrived coincidences towards the end, but the book as a whole is hardly going for realism, so in the end, I don't think it should affect my giving this a perfect score, or putting it on my favorites shelf.(less)
Wow, I think this one is going on my favorites shelf, because I'm really impressed with how it weaves teaching most aspects of lifestyles of the autho...moreWow, I think this one is going on my favorites shelf, because I'm really impressed with how it weaves teaching most aspects of lifestyles of the author's region, the Igbo people in southern Nigeria, into a natural narrative with well-developed characters. We learn about births, funerals, weddings, the native justice system, and religious beliefs, all the while getting to know Okonqwo and his family of three wives and children.
Only once the reader has become familiar with the native culture and has developed a genuine concern for the individual lives we have been following, the third act of the book then deals with the British settlers who come bringing Christianity and the inevitable misunderstandings and clashes by people on both sides looking at the other through the filter of their own cultural expectations and finding the other to be lacking.
I think the most interesting aspect of the book is that it doesn't really go straight for the "first-world people are bad" trope that some multicultural stories lean on. I was fully willing to accept that premise, but this book surprised me. There are genuine misunderstandings, cultural flaws, and intolerance on both sides of the fence. And the story ends on a note which leaves you to draw your own conclusions rather than any definite message, which I think is rather effective, because I really thought about what I had just read for some time after the story was over.
Okonqwo is not really a perfect storybook hero at all. He has a chip on his shoulder towards his father which makes him into a hard, unbending man, who is sometimes quite frightening to be around. Yet the reader is shown the motivations inside his head and can see how they contrast with the opinions spread by the gossip of others around him. The narrator does not sympathize with him, but it does present him as a complex individual despite his flaws. His children and wives have their own motivations and personalities which are also individually explored, including his son Nwoye, whose own personality is ultimately shaped by his desire not to inherit his father's unyielding nature, much like Okonqwo's own issues with his father.
The language used is a very simple, much like a children's storybook, but I think that the style works well for this story. There are a lot of untranslated words throughout the text, which I normally dislike because that practice tends to make other cultures and their languages seem more exotic than they really are. However, I feel that this book uses that tactic well, given how many unfamiliar and therefore untranslatable ceremonies, deities, and practices there really are. I also enjoyed his use of local folk tales throughout the text to illustrate a proverb about the situation at hand.
The author explained that the reason he chose to write in English was that the missionaries who created the written Igbo language pretty much mashed up a number of local dialects into one flat language that sounds stilted to anyone who can actually speak it. He actually demonstrates why this doesn't work when he mentions the missionaries trying to say "myself" and it coming out as "my buttocks" to a group of people with a different local dialect.
Oh, and there are yams. Lots of yams. So many I was sick of hearing about them by the end.
I finished this book right before bed, and I wondered if I wouldn't have dreams about opening cabinets and having yams fall out on me like tribbles from the grain bins on Star Trek Fortunately, that didn't happen.
If I were to express one personal disappointment with this book, it would be how the first two acts of the book are told from a point of view which assumes the religious beliefs of the Igbo are an accurate picture of reality. It's not until the Christians show up in the third act that we are provided any contrasting viewpoint, although equally tinted by religion. However, reading this book as an atheist, I found myself wishing for an explanation of the real causes behind some of the things that happened.
For example, I find myself asking what the real political reason was behind the execution of a character who is killed by the other villagers early on in the book, beyond the reason given that the oracle said he would bring a disaster if he wasn't. This is never explained, although a similar situation later suggests there must be some realistic foresight behind it. Also, Okonqwo's wife Ekwefi has had nine children who died, and the tenth is repeatedly sick, but we are only told that the reason is the child is an ogbanje, whose spirit has been returning to the womb attempting to be reborn, only to die again. In reality, that seems to suggest some kind of genetically inherited problems with the babies, but I didn't expect for the book to explain that one for me.
However, I thought this was a great book and definitely deserving of all the praise it has received over the decades.(less)
I feel like I should not have enjoyed this book as much as I did, but I could not put it down. It was so much fun to read. The plot plays out in a man...moreI feel like I should not have enjoyed this book as much as I did, but I could not put it down. It was so much fun to read. The plot plays out in a manner similar to the movie Total Recall, where the reader is left wondering the entire time how much of what they are being told about reality is true and what is dishonesty or speculation on the part of the main characters.
The universe this book takes place in is pretty tripped out, with dead that can talk to the living through a frozen state called half-life, clothes that Vivian Westwood might have second thoughts about, coin-operated everything, telepaths, anti-telepaths, and a girl who can change the past who may or may not be a dangerous spy. And that's before the story starts getting really weird. There were several points that I was afraid Dick might just be making up the flow of the story as he went along. Then he would have the characters pause and speculate about all that had gone on so far in a way that matched my speculations about the possible cause of events, and my faith that he was still guiding the story to a definite resolution was restored. The resolution was still pretty crazy, but it was satisfying. He did not waste any character or situation he introduced, and I am left feeling impressed that he pulled the whole thing off.
There is a small complaint about Dick's prose having a bit of a case of bad adverbs. For instance, what writer starts a sentence with the word "Somnambulously," or uses the phrase "bleakly glum"? However, the clunky parts of the narration are only occasionally distracting. I'm quite eager to read more of his fiction after this book.(less)
I wish I had gotten around to reading Charles Dickens before my English teacher did, because I have spent most of my life erroneously believing that I...moreI wish I had gotten around to reading Charles Dickens before my English teacher did, because I have spent most of my life erroneously believing that I loathed the author, only to force myself recently into reading through his work in chronological order and discovering that I LOVE Charles Dickens.
Seriously, this book is terrible on a technical level, having a plot which wanders all over the place, characters doing a lot of mundane things like eating, going hunting, telling stories which have nothing to do with the plot, etc., but the characters and the writing style are so fun that you forget that the whole thing is just one big shaggy dog ramble. I wouldn't normally be tempted to give 5 stars to something like that, but Dickens made it work for me somehow.
When I was young, I think to a certain extent I believed that Dickens was a horror writer. The ghosts from Christmas Carol terrified me when I was a small child, and later in English class, we read the scene from Great Expectations where Pip meets Miss Havisham, and the description of Miss Havisham left me with the impression that she was much like the Cryptkeeper from Tales From the Crypt in a wedding gown. Everything I was exposed to about Dickens when I was young left me with the impression that he was a wordy, depressing bore, or just too scary for me.
It probably does not help that English teachers everywhere seem to be enamored of his later "serious books" (read: heavy, depressing tragedies). They are also guilty of burdening what work we do study with obtuse discussions of symbolism, Jungian psychology, and all the other usual methods that teachers use to foster an "appreciation" (read: strong hatred) of classic literature.
But here's the thing: you need to make reading FUN if you want to win over new converts to the Church of Dickens or Shakespeare or anyone else, guys. His early novels may be silly fun, and sometimes read as though they were written by a Victorian J.K. Rowling, but that is actually a STRONG point in Dickens' favor! The early Harry Potter books were much the same way - silly, fluffy - but reading those first prepares the reader to accept the darker, more serious tone of the latter books, because we are already in love with the author and therefore care about what happens to the author's characters.
I believe this is the crucial point as to why Dickens was so loved and sold wildly with his original Victorian audience, but later generations perceive him as depressing school drudgework, an author you HAVE to read, but really don't want to. He was introduced to the Victorians by books like Pickwick Papers and Sketches by Boz, not by Bleak House. (ugh, the name alone sounds like a chore to read)
If you've ever stalled out with Dickens by starting with his later books, I encourage you to give him a try in chronological order of publication. I'm personally looking forward to the later books now, because I have become a Dickensian convert by the persuasive power of this book.(less)
I think I enjoyed this one even more than Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. I mean, at first I was worried it was going to be more of the same all the...moreI think I enjoyed this one even more than Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. I mean, at first I was worried it was going to be more of the same all the way through, when Nicholas was introduced to the schoolmaster and his poor little waif charges that resembled the children in Oliver Twist. Then in Chapter 6, he started up with the unrelated short stories again, like in Pickwick Papers, but fortunately, that was the only appearance of such filler.
When Nicholas Nickleby Sr. dies after making some bad investments, Mrs. Nickleby and her two children, Nicholas and Kate, move to London to seek out the assistance of their uncle Ralph Nickleby, who is a money-loving investment banker. Ralph instead sets both the children up with some rather unpleasant jobs. Nicholas, he sends to be an assistant teacher at a boarding school for neglected and disabled little boys, under the terrible headmaster Squeers. Kate, he sends to a milliner shop, which often underpaid the workers and made them prone to eventually entering into prostitution. Neither job goes very well.
The first two-thirds of the book involves the two siblings trying out various occupations on their own. Nicholas runs away from the boarding school with one of the boys, tries his hand at tutoring French, then falls in with a theater troupe. Kate is fired after the milliner loses her business to a rival employee, then works as a day companion to a rather nasty social-climbing upper middle-class woman.
There were a lot of great comic characters introduced in this section. I particularly loved the actors in Nicholas' theater job. They reminded me of the self-promoting, narcissist types I remember from when I had a part-time theater job in college. I noticed that the Child Phenomenon never had a line of dialog in that entire section, and she was all the more hilarious because of it.
I also found Ralph Nickleby rather interesting at first. He seemed to be developing a more rounded, nuanced character than Dickens' normal flat personalities by showing a genuine concern for Kate. He does not quite manage Scrooge's level of redemption, however; by the last third of the book, he is meaner than ever.
I honestly hated Lord Verisopht and Sir Mulberry Hawk at first. I mean, Dickens is good at writing unlikeable characters that are still enjoyable, but every time these two showed up, I wanted to stop reading for a few days. They were the sort of guys you wished the plot would drop an anvil on so that the story could move on. These two men attempt to sexually entrap Kate, then follow her around harassing her at her job for a month or two afterwards. However, Dickens ultimately played his cards right, because when Nicholas came and finally broke out the whoop-arse on those two, it had to be the BEST scene in the entire book (seriously, he really played out the tension in that scene for a nice payoff).
This climactic scene comes only two-thirds of the way through the book, and Nicholas soon after finds himself a dream job with a couple dream bosses, the Cheeryble Brothers (seriously, there is no way these two could ever exist in reality), so the third act of the book feels more like a sequel to the first part.
The main plot of this section involves a crush of Nicholas, Miss Madeline Bray, her cruel, sick father and his debts, and an elderly friend of Ralph named Gride who wishes to collect his debt by marrying her. This section felt much more like the stereotypical contrived serial story. I mean, the ending involves a unknown fortune in hidden paperwork, revealing the true birth of characters, and so on, which Dickens himself already used as the resolution to Oliver Twist, so it was a bit disappointing to see it again. I swear that the writing in this section felt very drawn-out and wordy also, although it might have just been that I was eager to get the book over with at that point.
There was also Mrs. Nickleby's neighbor, the crazy old guy who kept coming on to her with his weird sense of humor. Like Chapter 6, he seemed to serve no purpose to the overall narrative, and I feel like Dickens put him in for a few extra laughs, even though he wasn't that funny to me.
There were still enough moments of really awesome in this novel for me to enjoy it, however. I may even reread it someday (although preferably in an abridged version), but for now, I'm glad to be done with all 760 pages of it, and on to The Old Curiosity Shop.(less)