Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

Title: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Release Date: 2013
Rating: 4/5

“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”

I don’t read a lot of love stories and the quotes on the book cover made me squint my eyes suspiciously. But I plunged in anyway and am I glad I did! Yes, this is a story about love. The main characters are two Nigerian teenagers; Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu is a strong-willed and smart girl from a poor family, Obinze an intelligent boy raised by a single mother and obsessed with a romanticized notion of America. But it is also, and maybe to a larger extend, a tale about race (and hair). Like most Nigerian teenagers, they dream of getting a Western visa. So when Ifemelu is given the chance to pursue an education in Philadelphia, she takes it. The America she meets is, however, nothing like the America Obinze has been raving about and it leaves her lonely and depressed. She finds herself unable to get any type of work because of her accent and in class everyone assumes she understands the plight of the African-American, simply because she’s black. Before leaving Nigeria, Ifemely wasn’t conscious of her skincolor or race, in America she’s constantly reminded of it, even though “you’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.”

The descriptions of class-structures and attitudes to race, as witnessed by woman who’s simultaneously an outsider and an insider, are skillfully crafted and nuanced. Ifemelu’s experience with the liberal elite, Asian hair-dressers who “don’t do curly”, American Blacks, other Non-American Blacks, rich white boyfriends and white employers is expertly rendered, enthralling and deeply frustrating. After a period of depression, Ifemely gets back on her feet i a big way, starts a hugely successful blog about race called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black” where she comments on the different ethnicities’ attitudes toward each other. Adichie shows us race in a real and honest way and it is never boring or condescending, though often frustrating. There are several discussions about race and scattered throughout the book are excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog. While it isn’t just black and white, the entries are often reproachful and lecturing, reminding us of white privilege and how every other race/minority/ethnicity gets shit from whites. Like the rest of the book, these bits are extremely well-written but annoying at times and there too many of them. I much prefer Ifemelu’s life and interactions to her online persona’s musings over them. Similarly, I prefer Adichie’s indirect discussion and portrayal of race relations to Ifemelu’s.

“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.”

Hair is a major theme Americanah, the author being a self-described “hair fundamentalist”. To most black women in the book, both American and Non-American, wearing their hair naturally is simply out of the question; some go for the straight and sleek “professional” look, others for braids, cornrows etc. Ifemelu must endure many comments from other black women after she decides to wear her hair big and natural, dropping all the chemicals and painful weaving. Hair-politics are apparently as complex as race itself. This was a bit of an eye-opener and fairly interesting, but hard to really comprehend, despite my frequent bad hair days.

Ifemelu ultimately opts to return to a very changed Nigeria after completing her post-grad studies in the States. Several years have passed. Back in Nigeria Obinze has become a wealthy property developer after a failed attempt at creating a life for himself in England. His American visa rejected, he travels to England on his mother’s visa and stays there illegally, struggling to get the elusive national security number, working under someone else’s name and paying a fortune to have a sham marriage arranged. Immigration is a political hot topic and for Obinze too, the West isn’t what he had hoped. At the same time he sees old Nigerian friends marrying British people and becoming rich. While the American dinner parties unfailingly ends in discussions on race, the British seem very concerned with being as politically correct as possible. The Nigerian host self-consciously serves dinner on plates bought in India with his British wife and Obinze wonders whether he has become someone “who believed that something was beautiful because it was handmade by poor people in a foreign country, or whether he had simply learned to pretend so”.

Americanah is a brilliant and gripping book written by an incredibly talented storyteller. It’s about migration, leaving home in search for something better and returning home for the same reason. The narrative is tightly structured and Adichie never loses her way, despite the many stories and characters she weaves together. She obviously has a lot of say on race and does it in an extremely engaging way. The prose is fluid, humorous and touching. I’m picking up another one of her novels very very soon! Even if race isn’t your favorite topic, the lives of these characters (and not just Ifemelu and  Obinze) are just enthralling. The book is almost unputdownable! Sure, it’s about love and race, it’s also about identity… and hair.

 

June books

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Or books I’ve gotten in the past month, but “late May to late June books” just doesn’t sound as nice.

Flannery O’Connor – Complete Stories
Because I love Southern Gothic and short-stories, but have yet to read any female author in that genre. Now is the time.
Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood
Because I except to love the short-story collection so much I will need more instantly.
Philipp Meyer – The Son
Because Meyer’s style has been compared to McCarthy, Steinbeck and Faulkner. Northeastern Gothic? Great Lakes Gothic?
Philipp Meyer – American Rust
Because I pre-collect.
Denis Johnson – Train Dreams
Because when I get really into a genre, I go nuts. Western Gothic and anything wildernessy.
Bill Bryson – A Walk in the Woods
Because I too want to hike for months on end.
Peter Ackroyd – Hawksmoor
Because it had a cool cover and looked pretty bleak.
Richard Yates – The Easter Parade
Because his Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is one of the best collections of short-stories out there. And Revolutionary Road. Come on.
Daniel Woodrell – Winter’s Bone
Because… I’ll just be repeating myself here.
Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See
Because it’s getting all this praise and may make for good summer reading.
John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meany
Because it had better ratings than The Cider House Rules.
John Irving – The Cider House Rules
Because I really want to read it.
Hilary Thayer Hamann – Anthropology of an American Girl
Because I haven’t read a lot of coming-of-age literature and this had pretty colors.
Nikolai Gogol – Petersburg Tales
Because I hope to make friends with the Russians yet. (No, not even The Master and Margarita could do that).
David Grann – Lost City of Z
Because I love South America despite the humidity and bugs of the Amazon. And archaeological mysteries are fun!
Warren Fellows – The Damage Done
Because I’ve already watched every episode of Locked Up Abroad/Banged Up Abroad.
Nathan Filer – The Shock of the Fall
Because Amazon had three paperbacks for £10 and I needed a third.
Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Because of the rave reviews and war.

I’m sure I’ll get more before June is over. And then I’ll have to start doing my summer picks.  Sure, I won’t get through all of these this summer, but you need choices. Whenever I finish a book and am ready to start the next, I love perusing my bookcases to see what tickles my fancy. I order books that I feel like reading now. I may not feel like it in a week, but maybe in a month or a year. No, I haven’t read all of my books and no, I don’t buy them just to fill the shelves or to pretend to read more than I do. I just like having a stash, even if it is a large one and one I will probably never get all the way through, unless at some point I decide to stop buying books. I really don’t see that happening. And so what if there are books on my shelves I will never read? It’s about never running out, not about being done.

Do you guys ever get those annoying questions about your book collection? And do you feel guilty about buying more books when you have plenty to choose from already?

 

 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (audiobook)

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Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Publisher: Random House UK, streamed on Storytel.dk
Read by Wil Wheaton
Release Date: 2012
Rating: 3/5

In the year 2044 the world’s resources have been all but depleted, unemployment is at an all-time high and the poverty-stricken masses live in towers of mobile homes and trailers stacked into dangerous skyscrapers. In one such trailer lives teenager Wade with his less-than-loving aunt. Like most other people, Wade spends pretty much his entire life in a global virtual reality known as the OASIS. The creator of the OASIS, the late James Halliday, had concealed an easter-egg somewhere inside one of the thousands of worlds in this virtual utopia. The finder of the treasure will inherit Halliday’s vast fortune and become the owner of the OASIS. Like thousands of other people around the world, Wade is a “gunter” – egg-hunter – and spends all of his free time chasing Halliday’s clues and working through an immense library of 70’s and 80’s tv-shows, movies, games, music and books, everything Halliday loved, in the hopes of attaining the knowledge required to reach the egg. Wade has no social life outside of the OASIS and online it is limited to a few friends and acquaintances, fellow gunters Aech, his best friend and Art3mis, his crush. Of course, he has no idea who they are in real life, just like they only know him as his avatar Parzival and not as the endearing but awkward and overweight teenage nerd he really is. But Parzival, Aech and the other gunters aren’t the only ones going for the grand prize. The evil multinational corporation Innovative Online Industries, headed by Sorrento, will stop at nothing to take control of the OASIS and turn it into a profit machine, going against everything Halliday believed in.

“It’s chick flick disguised as a sword-and-sorcery picture. The only genre film with less balls is probably… freakin’ Legend. Anyone who actually enjoys Ladyhawke is a bona fide USDA-choice pussy!”

Basically, Ready Player One is a virtual treasure hunt, good vs evil, a race against time etc. stuffed to the brim with pop-culture references.  While the premise seems interesting, the real-life setting could have done with some elaboration. The story itself is pretty straight-forward, offering very little in the way of surprises or twists. Not the most intense fictional treasure hunt I’ve ever witnessed. Not that I’ve been to any real ones either. But I did enjoy the fact that this was more of a mental and knowledge based hunt as opposed to physical. Having been a gamer for years and a fan of Monty Python and 80’s music, I found the pop culture to be fairly enjoyable too. The book contains loads of trivia on retro video games, comic books, tv-shows from the 70’s and 80’s etc. But it does get to a point where it starts to be a bit overwhelming. I do wish Cline would have spend a little more time on the setting and a little less on the Ladyhawk discussions, but I also understand that he has to elaborate at least somewhat on the bands, games and superheroes that are so central to the egg hunt. After all, the book has been categorized in the Young Adult genre, and I doubt a great many people in this age group would fully appreciate all the references if they weren’t explained to them. Unless they were as obsessed with the 70’s and 80’s as James Halliday. I can’t help but think that readers (and gamers) in their 30’s and 40’s would appreciate the Atari and Rush trivia more.

Another thing that makes me wonder about this book’s target audience is the dialog. For me, the dialog is this book’s major weak point and it’s a complaint I often have with books aimed mainly at teens+. There isn’t a single conversation in this book that didn’t make me annoyed with the teenage slang and behavior of the people involved. Even the adult bad-guy, head of a multinational corporation, seems like a teenager mimicking a movie villain. And the conversations between the books actual teenagers were even worse. I know they’re gamers, but I cannot hear the words “suxor”, “poseur” or “lamer” without cringing. It felt a bit like a parody on geek culture, but I cannot completely rule out that I’ve just gotten old. I know for sure I’ve gotten old, as I constantly felt like slapping the obnoxious love-sick teenagers as they flirt and dance (online).

Overall, it feels like Cline wrote a YA book but hoped it would reach a bigger crowd. Judging by the popularity, maybe he did. And whether or not you get all of the movie quotes or game references, Ready Player One is entertaining and original. I would recommend it to any video game geek, but probably not to anyone else.

“Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.”

Word has it that Spielberg is directing the movie version of Ready Player One. I’m very interested to see how they’ll make a live-action movie out of a book about games and movies set inside a virtual reality.

A small note on the audiobook
Wil Wheaton does a very good job reading the book. His voice is not at all monotonous and he does a pretty good teenage gamer nerd. I’m sure Wil was a very deliberate choice. Not only is he a well-known sci-fi and comic book fan, and Star Trek actor, there is also a small but enjoyable Wil Wheaton easter-egg in the book for you to go find (or you can just google it).