AFRICA39: NEW WRITING FROM AFRICA SOUTH OF THE SAHARA

20613772Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara
Edited By Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
Bloomsbury USA – 28th October 2014
ISBN 1620407795  – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads


CONTENTS:
“The Shivering”, by Chimamanda Ngoszi Adichie
“The Banana Eater”, by Monica Arac de Nyeko
Excerpt from The Tiger of the Mangroves, by Rotimi Babatunde
“Two Fragments of Love”, by Eileen Almedia Barbosa
“Why Radio DJs are Superstars in Lagos”, by A. Igoni Barrett
Excerpt from Our Time of Sorrow, by Jackee Budesta Batanda
“‘Alu’”, by Recaredo Silebo Boturu
“Mama’s Future”, by Nana Edua Brew-Hammond
“The Occupant”, by Shadreck Chikoti
“The Professor”, by Edwige-Renee Dro
Excerpt from New Mom, by Tope Folarin
“No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing”, by Clifton Gachagua
“Talking Money”, by Stanley Gazemba
“Day and Night”, by Mehul Gohil
Excerpt from The Score, by Hawa Jande Golakai
“The Pink Oysters”, by Shafinaaz Hassim
“Echoes of Mirth”, by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
“The Old Man and the Pub”, by Stanley Onjezani Kenani
“Sometime Before Maulidi”, by Ndinda Kioko
Excerpt from All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
“Number 9”, by Nadifa Mohamed
Excerpt from Rusty Bell, by Nthikeng Mohlele
“Cinema Demons”, by Linda Musita
Excerpt from Ebamba, Kinshasa-Makambo, by Richard Ali Mutu
“By the Tracks”, by Sifiso Mzobe
“My New Home”, by Glaydah Namukasa
“I’m Going to Make Changes to the Kitchen”, by Ondjaki
“Rag Doll”, by Okwiri Oduor
“The Is How I Remember It”, by Ukamaka Olisakwe
Excerpt from The Wayfarers, by Chibundu Onuzo
Excerpt from Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi
“The Sack”, by Namwali Serpell
Excerpt from Harlot, by Lola Shoyenin
“Amoz Azucarado”, by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Africa39 is a project celebrating “thirty-nine of the most promising writers under the age of forty with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora.” Born from the Hay Festival and the designation of Port Harcourt, Nigeria as the UNESCO World Book Capital of 2014, the anthology collects fiction from the invited authors in the forms of short stories and novel excerpts. Having read some stellar African fiction (mostly from Francophone countries) and having travelled to Botswana, I was really intrigued and interested in this collection, particularly to discover some potential new authors or works.
Because I largely looked at this as a diverse introduction to talented writers from Sub-Saharan Africa, I didn’t need each story or excerpt to stand on its own and delight, just merely impress enough of some skill in the author, and more so themes tackled that seemed interesting to me. The voices and points of view are varied, as are the settings and tones. Some are focused on a specific historical or political situation whereas some or more personal, focusing on shared human emotions that would be familiar to most any reader.
While the short stories universally worked well in the anthology, I found the novel excerpts to be more problematic. I personally dislike novel excerpts as a concept/practice. There is a reason why these words are in the context of a story that is novel length. They cannot be divorced from the larger context and remain the same. A few in this collection do stand on their own, but whether they are really expressions of the novel in microcosm is uncertain. But most seem dreadfully incomplete, or (in the case of one where I have already read the whole novel) fail to show the genius and beauty of the full work. I already read and reviewed All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu. I adored the novel. But rereading the excerpt in this I didn’t feel much at all, it is too small a piece to have meaning.
I wish that the editor for this had only solicited or accepted actual short stories. The problem I know is that not ever talented fiction writer can do the short form. Some authors are great at novels, but not shorter works (or vice versa). But the excerpt doesn’t exactly do them justice either. Worse, some of the excerpts are from novels in the process of being written. So these may never be fully completed or see the light of day as currently envisioned.
Thus, this anthology really does serve best as a writing sampling, ideal for readers who are interested in Sub Saharan African literature and want to see simple samples from the current prospects and stars. While many of the stories in the collection do more, and would be on par with any other literary collection, they don’t necessarily make up the majority.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Bloomsbury via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko (Translated by Liv Bliss)

Never got around to posting my last review for Skiffy & Fanty, on Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Genome, as translated by Liv Bliss. Well-known for his series of fantasy/horror novels that start with Night Watch, his entry into science fiction parody is world’s apart.

“…If given a more serious tone, a science fiction set-up like this plot could be used to explore such concepts as individuality, free-will, class relations, racism, and colonialism within the murder mystery context. In its parody (or perhaps pastiche – it is never quite clear if Lukyanenko mocks or celebrates space operas of bygone years), The Genome doesn’t put much energy into these kinds of explorations. Instead, its focus is on making the characters and their behaviors fit into science fiction (or mystery) novel stereotypes, thereby coming off a lot like a space opera mashup in the style of the 1976 film Murder By Death written by Neil Simon that did similar things with the mystery genre and its iconic characters….”

Read my entire review at Skiffy & Fanty!

The Blood of Angels, by Johanna Sinisalo

My latest review for Skiffy & Fanty is up, on Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels.

“Most readers could fly through Lola Rogers’ translation of The Blood of Angelsby Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo in a handful of hours. Yet, as the relatively brief enjoyment of a spoonful of honey belies the phenomenal labor of countless bees, so too does consumption of this novel’s simple, flowing prose hide the rich, complex depth of its construction and significance. Sinisalo’s novel captures an apocalyptic, large-scale focus on humanity that is typical of speculative fiction, yet keeps a keenly literary focus on the psychological trials of an individual and family…”

Read my entire review at Skiffy & Fanty!

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker
Translated by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0143126687
656 pages, paperback
Published 27th May 2014
Source: Goodreads

The truth about The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is that its hype remains inexplicable to me. This is novel that has gotten a lot of press and fanfare, with huge sales throughout Europe. However, any potential readers out there that are looking into it, I think it’s important for you to consider what the novel really is compared to what the hype and awards may imply. Dicker’s debut novel is an entertaining, easy read. It is a clever mystery, and genre fans could easily enjoy it as I largely did. I’m not convinced it is anything more though.
Marcus Goldman, a successful, young, first-time novelist turns to his friend and former mentor Harry Quebert when Marcus finds himself trapped in the midst of sophomore writer’s block, an impatient publisher, and a public that is starting to forget his celebrity.
Quebert, who went through similar difficulties continuing to write following the literary accolades of his debut novel, reassures Goldman with advice and vague recollections of Quebert’s inspiration to write. Goldman discovers this past inspiration involves a love affair his mentor had with a young girl decades ago, a girl who mysteriously went missing.
Trying to turn his own life around, Goldman is forced instead to question his entire relationship with Quebert when the body of the young girl, Nola, is found buried beside Quebert’s house with a draft copy of Quebert’s famous novel and Quebert is subsequently arrested for murder.
Goldman leaves New York to return to the town of his old college where Quebert teaches, abandoning his responsibilities and again fleeing his writer’s block out of loyalty to his friend. Goldman’s investigations into Nola’s disappearance and Quebert’s secret relationship with the girl opens a web of small town intrigue and secrets and give Goldman’s publisher’s a desperate idea of what his next book can be: a report on his investigation into the truth of the Harry Quebert affair and Nola’s death.
As a mystery novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is strong and entertaining. If a bit long, the read is at least straight-forward, engaging, and rapid. The story is kept complex and unpredictable through the inclusion of a small-town’s-worth of characters, all of whom it turns out are keeping some kind of secrets pertinent to the mystery and are keeping important details from Goldman during his investigations.
Dicker nicely makes his protagonist Goldman a brutally honest narrator, whose point of view is conveyed with a fair amount of self-depreciation. The directness of Goldman contrasts nicely with the ambiguous information parceled out by Quebert and the unreliability of all others Goldman interacts with. The murdered Nola is also a deeply compelling character, and despite the danger and taboo of their relationship, both Quebert and Nola are sympathetic and relatable.
Despite these excellent attributes, Dicker’s novel also comes across as disappointing. It’s feel can be best described as slick and hip, written by a young author who the reader can easily (though not necessarily accurately) associate with the novel’s POV protagonist, Goldman. The success of the novel throughout Europe and the awards it has attracted offer parallels to where Goldman sits at the novel’s start, and the reader can’t help but compare Quebert’s advice to Goldman regarding writing and grabbing ahold of readers to the methods employed by Dicker here. Clearly the parallel is something that Dicker intends.
The great mystery that remains for me – and seemingly others – is just WHY this novel has attracted such rave accolades other than it is was a hip item of the moment in Europe. It’s a decent mystery novel with a good voice. Is it particularly ‘literary’ or merit the ‘literary’ awards it has gotten? I often question whether any work was really the ‘best’ choice for awards, but with this the question rears particularly strong.
I make it a point to never read English translations of French books, being perfectly capable of reading them in French. Somehow I either missed that this was a translation when requesting, or made a rare exception because the synopsis sounded so intriguing. (And it is often more difficult, certainly more expensive, to find copies of anything in the original French here in the US).
After starting this I decided to get the original version, because I thought the language was far too simple, direct, and ‘non-literary’ based on how the book was being marketed for this to be a decent translation. Upon finishing it, composing my thoughts, and seeing other reactions, I see that this isn’t a fault of translation, it is how the language in French is as well.
Again, this would be fine if this were sold as a better-than-average mystery alone. But as anything more, I unfortunately just don’t see it. Ultimately the parallels between Quebert’s advice to Goldman that extend through this long novel finish with the point that books should close while leaving the reader wish the story would not end yet. Honestly, after reading the final chapters of the book as all the many secrets held by all the characters were revealed (indeed it seems like every person in town had some hand direct or indirect in Nola’s condition, murder, or its coverup), I was just wanting it to wrap up and end already.
Depending on your expectations when entering this novel,  you could easily either love it or be really disappointed. Regardless, the hype over this is frankly the real mystery of the Harry Quebert affair. However, the one and two-star pans of the novel don’t really do it justice either. If you just like a good entertaining mystery, this is worth a read, and I really do recommend it.
Three Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Penguin Books through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik
Translated by Tamara M. Soban
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1628970421
208 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 14th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

True to its title, Law of Desire is a collection of short stories revolving around the condition of desire. The inclusion of the word ‘law’ implies the controlling influence that desire has over the characters and situations in the stories. Desire is something beyond control, immutable and compulsory. The type of desire explored in each story varies from the physical to the abstract and the stories themselves vary from short, surreal vignettes to more nuanced and longer explorations of character.

The longer stories tend to have distinct plots rather than simply prose that conveys a state of being, and I found I appreciated these the most. Among these, “Electric Guitar” is perhaps the most powerful, a ‘gut-wrenching’ subtle story of abuse that extends beyond a simple meditation on the collection’s theme.

However, “What We Talk About” is the leading, and most effective story in the collection. Here, a man meets a fascinating, but mysterious woman and the two have a rapid connection. The desire between the two (particularly from the point of view of the male protagonist) is palpable, but extends beyond mere sexual desire or even a desire for friendship. The two dance those steps of relationship that balance sharing and keeping secrets, where the man becomes compelled to discover the exact nature of the woman’s job which involves clients paying to talk to her on the phone.

These interactions reveal the corollary to the desire featured in all these stories, and that is ‘dissatisfaction’, a state of being that almost by definition must be present in order for engendering desire. The characters in Blatnik’s stories all exhibit some degree of intense dissatisfaction, sometimes internal, or sometime coming from external factors. Either way, this dissatisfaction ultimately arises from that theme that generally characterizes modern ‘literature’: a failure to communicate.

Thus, Blatnik’s stories all focus on some part of a circular chain that defines humanity. Failures to communicate (honestly to oneself or between individuals) leads to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction leads to desires. If unmet, desires continue to compound dissatisfaction. Yet, even if attained, these desires at best only lead to greater desire. Additionally, even if attained, one desire often doesn’t coincide with the desires of others (or conflicting desires within oneself). This failure of desires to exist in harmony (to communicate properly in other words) leads us right back to the start of the circle. The desire can never be fulfilled.

Exploration of this vicious circle seems Blatnik’s desire as writer, and he successfully achieves that goal as far as possible – though as art primarily, not always in the most ‘entertaining’ of fashions. In interviews with Blatnik he discusses the freedom that writers within formerly Communist portions of Europe now have to focus on this modern literature of every-day conflict within and between individuals rather than producing works that have some specific political or cultural role (subversive or not). Interestingly though, this shift in Slovenian (and related) literature follows the same pattern of theme that Blatnik explores in this collection. The dissatisfaction of what was possible or relevant to artistically produce under a relatively oppressive regime has led to a desire to write simpler, modern literature of people failing to communicate. Given the enormous popularity of this collection in its native language, the desire to consume this kind of work is also abundant.

Within the confines of its culture and origins, Law of Desire likely resonates in the continued uncertainty of the future. Several of the stories even seem to take the characters out of time and place (out of plot) to represent something extremely relevant to the condition of its audience. For the general reader of the English translation, this poignancy may be lost, but the universality of that central dissatisfaction-desire loop make this a worthwhile literary read for those that appreciate more artistic writing. Even if not all stories connect, a few brilliant ones in this collection make it worth checking out.

Four  Stars out of Five

I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Selected Stories, by Kjell Askildsen

Selected Stories, by Kjell Askildsen
Publisher: Columbia University Press
ISBN: 1628970286
100 pages, paperback
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

Any review I compose of this brief collection of short stories is going to be colored by the horrendous formatting issues that the advanced reading copy presented on the Kindle. Each story’s title was missing and the spacing between paragraphs was irregular, sometimes a line break was present, other times not. The combination of these issues meant that stories would end and the next would begin without any visual clue. It therefore became exceedingly hard to tell if a new story had begun or not. Sometimes a change in style or voice made it clear, but the similar tone and themes of several of these stories made this annoyingly unclear.

Despite these reading issues, the heart of the collection still was clear, dark and minimalistic much like the cinema I have seen from the Scandinavian countries. I read most of the stories here as falling within a common framework of the protagonist (mostly male) feeling lost. Each tale was filled with coffee, cigarettes, booze, and isolated walks as the character tried to regain a place in their life or relationships, find their bearings. In a way, the poor formatting accentuated this feeling for the reader, and may have influenced this personal interpretation of the stories.

Most of Askildsen’s writing is understated, contrasting with the blunt simplicity of the sentences and words. Most sentences are short. They aren’t complex. And simple facts are stated. Yet, beneath this almost droning mindless simplicity lurks a real sense of foreboding and menacing, and at times horrific events and actual death or loss or subtly hidden even within the forthright simplicity of the grammar and structure.

This is something I’d want to reread in actual hardcopy form, the electronic doesn’t really do justice to the atmosphere of the stories. I want to smell the pages as I read them each. Or at least have better formatting. Though the experience was more like three stars, it definitely grew on me as I read more of this, and it certainly has compelled a curiosity to read more by the author, so a curve to four I believe is reasonable in light of the technical snafu.

Hence the unavoidable and unfortunate caveat for this title: a reread could conceivably lead to a shift in the star ratings in either direction.

Four Stars out of Five

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe
Publisher: Soho Press
AISN: B00E2RWQJU
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Source: NetGalley

Foreign Gods, Inc. is one of those novels that can be deceptively simple. A well-educated Nigerian man, Ike (Eee-kay), struggling to make ends meet personally and professionally in the US returns to his home village in Nigeria, resigned to steal the local deity, a pathetic plan born of despair to sell the statue to a unique antiquities shop in NYC that offers statues (embodiments) of exotic gods to wealthy collectors. The novel is split between four segments: in NYC, in Nigeria, and back in NYC. Prior to the Nigerian setting that takes up the bulk is a historical ‘retelling’ of the village’s introduction to the missionary who ‘Christianizes’ them and his ‘battles’ against the Nigerian deity, a conflict that still continues in the present day village that Ike returns to.

One theme of the novel is clearly despair and the actions that it drives people to take as they cling on to hopes and beliefs. This imparts a particular darkness to the book overall, it is not by any means a ‘happy story’. Yet, Ndibe manages to keep that tone of despair to a gentle pervading undercurrent up to the novel’s conclusion. With the heaviness of the plot, Ndibe infuses Ike with a humor of absurdity, so that even in the lowest of situations or scenes there remains a bit of the comic, creating a despair that you almost laugh at in realization of the futility in fighting back. Writing in third person, but from the limited POV of Ike, Ndibe also makes the writing lighter and unencumbered, staying true to Ike’s personality: perfect, precise grammar and vocabulary, but blithe and foolishly optimistic.

Beyond the straight-forward plot, Foreign Gods, Inc. says a lot about the cultural history and relations of the West and Africa, from the modern-day exploitation by the shop, to the manipulative brand of ‘Christianity’ exploiting the villagers. Yet, it is not merely critical of the West, but also characteristics of the Nigerian, past and present, such as government corruption… more exploitation.

And I guess that is another major theme here, exploitation of those that are filled with despair. At first I found the historical segue into the Christian missionary who began the ill-conversion of the village to be oddly out-of-place in the scheme of the novel as a whole. It parallels the present-day Nigerian conflicts Ike finds himself embroiled within, but it also highlights how similar Ike ends up being to that Missionary, fueled by an almost insanely naive hope and optimism at the ultimate ‘rightness’ of their actions, certainty if they can just manage to accomplish one small goal that all of their problems will be solved, that a people’s spirits will be saved, or Ike’s existence will. In the end each of them act in such pathetic despair that they lose a certain humanity, becoming an embarrassment, a shell of what they were.

I appreciated the depth that this novel achieves while keeping a strong, simple plot and superior writing.

Five Stars out of Five