Book Review: Things Fall Apart

I finished reading this book almost a month ago and am only now writing it up. Why? First, life is crazy. We’re only a few weeks away from our cross country move – I’ve been in a flurry of sorting and decluttering so we don’t pack things that we don’t actually need. Second, this book is one of the most thought provoking I’ve read in a long time. I haven’t resolved all my thoughts about it; I continue to ponder. Let me fill you in a little.

Let me start with a summary. Things Fall Apart is a novel by Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author. The novel is focused on a traditional man living in a traditional village… until things fall apart. Okonkwo is a wealthy man with 3 wives, a bunch of kids, a sturdy compound, and a very successful farm. He has fought for all this on his own strength because his father was lazy and, in his eyes, worthless. Okonkwo makes most of his decisions with the motivation of proving he is not like his father. An accident ends Part 1 and sends Okonkwo and his family fleeing from his village to his mother’s ancestral home to live out a seven year banishment. During this time, English colonists and missionaries move into the region, bringing it under their control. They bring churches as well as government structure. This structure is firmly held by massacres and unfair courts. In Part 3, Okonkwo has completed his banishment and returns to his home in Umuofia with great expectations of picking up where he left off – powerful marriages for his daughters, social status for himself. Yet things have changed too much under the colonial government and he is faced with a crisis: adapt or die.

According to Sparknotes (Yes, I’m well aware this is not the most excellent source, but I returned the book to the library and can’t spell on my own, and ended up clicking around a bit): “Tired of reading white men’s accounts of how primitive, socially backward, and, most important, language-less native Africans were, Achebe sought to convey a fuller understanding of one African culture and, in so doing, give voice to an underrepresented and exploited colonial subject.” Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in respond to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, seeking to give voice to the indigenous people he identified with. The Igdo people are portrayed as complex, full people, with the divisions and complications found in every society. This shouldn’t be noteworthy. Unfortunately in much of Western literature, indigenous people are not full characters but only tools used by the author for minor purposes – or worse, foils showing how good the main characters are.

Okonkwo is not a likeable character. Although Achebe writes beautifully – often poetically – the things he is writing about make me uncomfortable. Okonkwo beats his wives. He speaks horribly about others in the community and his family. He kills his foster son because it was expected by the tribe and he values his position most. Even his closest friend warns him not to kill the boy Ikemefuna but he does it anyway lest anyone call him a coward. Every action reeks of pride. Although he is the protagonist of the book, I have yet to decide if Achebe is holding him up as one to be respected or just one who *is*.

One element of the book I continue to wrestle with is the handling of Christian missionaries. These men sweep into the communities without respect for the established community structure. They enforce their beliefs without love – in one town, with a massacre. Achebe presents the missionaries as negative overall; though, I can’t gauge his opinion on the kindness they show the social outcasts. As a missionary, this book challenges me to be very careful. Our organization does church planting within tribal cultures, but from what I’ve observed and the people I know, we all seek to be as respectful as possible. When we have been rejected by communities and even martyred in the past, the response isn’t retaliation. We desire to see indigenous people first and foremost as real people living real lives within a real culture. The last thing we want is to forcefully take over, crushing people. And yet, we must be very careful.

I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts after reading this. But I do have a lot of thoughts! There is a lot I still don’t understand even a little, such as the witch doctor’s midnight hike with Okonkwo’s daughter Enzinma on her back. Many parts of the novel don’t seem to tie together. In that way, it’s more of a journalistic style – this is what happened, compared with a more story based novel. Maybe I just need to read it again for the pieces to fit.

This is my 4th book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016. I’m linking this up to category of Classics by a Non-White Author – follow the link to see other reviews within this category. And after this, I’ve decided to do a little lighter reading while we move. I’ll get back on my challenge reading this summer. Most of my book list is heavy lifting!

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Book Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Trapped in a train stuck in a snowy bank in the middle of Yugoslavia, an unlikely cast of characters discovers an unlikely murder in their midst. It will be hours or days before the police are able to arrive. But never fear – celebrated detective Hercule Poirot just happens to be on board! With a small pile of clues and a large dose of logic, he riddles out the solution to the crime.

And that’s all the summary I’m going to share – as a mystery novel it would be far too easy to tip off a clue if I gave you more. Know that I did read the whole thing and it had me laughing and guessing the entire way through.

For me, this novel falls into the pure entertainment category. Some of Christie’s characters are brilliantly funny. Mrs. Hubbard is completely ridiculous and over the top in every way. M. Bouc’s main purpose is to stand by Poirot dramatically saying, “No! Surely not! How ever will we figure it out!” Christie’s not-so-subtle jabs at Prohibition throughout the novel are amusing as well and a reminder of the context of the novel: it was written in 1934 when the whole world was in need of some entertainment. There are economic depressions worldwide, the Nazi party is on the rise in Germany, Austria and France experience political crises, and various natural disasters rock the globe including the Dust Bowl in America. I appreciate the camaraderie of the cast of characters – it is very much, “We will all get through this together.”

Compared to a lot of classic novels, Christie’s mystery is definitely a light read. It’s funny but there aren’t many big moral lessons. The characters don’t grow and change. There is a problem, the solution is riddled out, then everyone goes on with their life with justice being served (depending on your definition of justice, and who you consider it being served to). My only real take away is “Everybody lies.”

Would I read another Agatha Christie mystery? Probably. I enjoyed it. But I won’t be grabbing another right away. This is my second read for the Back to the Classics challenge (series intro here), completing category 8. Classic Detective Novel. The category link up is HERE, in case you are looking for other detective book reviews for your own reading!

Book Review: Treasure Island

I’ve completed my first book for the Back to the Classics reading challenge! I started the year off with an epic adventure of pirates, murder, treasure, and escapades on the high seas; in short, none other than Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island fills category 6. Adventure Classic.

I’ll be honest, I’m not much of an adventure reader. My tastes are more in line with historical fiction (especially westward expansion) and girl’s coming of age stories – best matched together in my favorites Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn, along with the Kirsten series and a huge portion of Ann Rinaldi’s work. If it hadn’t been for this challenge, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Stevenson until it came up in the Ambleside curriculum. I’m glad I did though! I was on the edge of my seat, reading well into the night to see what Jim Hawkins would come up with next.

I can sum up Treasure Island in one word: Greed. Greed drives the decision making of nearly every character nearly the entire way through the book. When greed isn’t the primary motive, it is greed’s close cousin selfishness.

For those not familiar, Treasure Island is the story of Jim Hawkins. At the beginning of the novel, his family keeps an inn along the coast in England. A rough old pirate boards with them, terrorizing them with his anger and drunkenness. After Jim’s father passes away, pirates descend on the inn. The resident pirate dies of rum and fright. Although Jim and his mother at first run away, they return to sort through the pirate’s chest and claim the money that is due them for his stay – “how I blamed my mother for her honesty and her greed,” Jim states. When they hear the pirates returning they sprint from the house taking with them an oilskin packet they don’t have time to open.

Once in safety, this packet is opened to reveal a map to Treasure Island where the infamous Captain Flint buried his vast riches. The squire of the area and Jim’s friend Dr. Livesey decide to buy a ship and follow the map to claim the treasure. Jim will attend them as cabin boy. The squire heads to the seaside to begin preparations. After Jim and Dr. Livesey join him, it becomes clear the squire has been a bit too free with his conversation – although they have hired some good sea hands (especially the honorable Captain Smollett), they have also found themselves with some unsavory characters. Even before they have left port, the thought of mutiny is on everyone’s mind.

From here on there may be spoilers! Don’t read on if you don’t want to know!

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