Review of The Hero With an African Face

I read Clyde Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link) this week and found it to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Now, with that said, it’s not a book I’d recommend to a disinterested novice. It targets an audience already familiar, to an extent, with the work of Jung and Campbell. While this knowledge isn’t strictly necessary, it helps. People familiar with literary criticism in general should not have difficulties.

The Hero with an African Face shines in its respect and depth of interaction with the myths it presents. Ford does a tremendous job bringing everything together in a meaningful way. Likewise, he builds from simple to complex themes and topics.

He also does not try to cram the whole of African mythology into a single schema. He addresses the contrasting and parallel elements within individual cultures without over-simplification. Ford talks about both the myths and the culture surrounding them with great detail. This allows Westerners with different cultural assumptions than Africans to better appreciate the myths.

As is common among surveys of mythology, Ford groups the myths by topic. He spends some time with creation myths, then on to myths about the underworld, and so forth. He also, as mentioned earlier, focuses on the cultural origins of the myths. The Yoruba oreishas’ stories come separate from the stories of ancient Ghana. The exception to this is when they are deliberately compared, which is always marked.

I’m not an expert on African myth. My limited knowledge of the subject is much less than Ford’s, so I can’t critique his own knowledge. I can say with confidence that my knowledge of African mythology has grown by reading this book.

A book like this has three ways it can provide value.

The first is its information. Assuming Ford’s work is correct, The Hero with an African Face delivers. His work is recommended by experts, which I will have to satisfy myself with. While the body is just 200 pages long, each page carries new and significant information. The book cannot cover the entirety of African mythology, but it gives a foundation.

As a source of stories, the book has more ambiguity. Its length limits it, and its stories are often abridged. Despite this, it still offers glimpses at captivating, and unfamiliar, stories. Many of the stories show the deep archetypal underpinnings of storytelling. These stories are absent in the Western canon, and give a feel for the breadth of human expression. It gives a whole new context for understanding the modern African writer.

The last criteria is how pleasant the book is to read. Ford uses diagrams and images to great effect, and bolsters the text. He intersperses personal and historical experiences with stories and literary theory. The whole text rings with passion and conviction, and carries such meaning that it is hard to pull away from.

Ford is a master wordsmith. Although he contents himself to apply others’ methods to a new frontier, he elevates their work. By applying a different perspective, Ford unlocks secrets that others were blind to. In particular, his take on the heroic cycle is refreshing. Ford contrasts the fact-based Western culture with the expression-based African culture. This paints the picture of a hero who gains qualities, instead of one who passes waystones.

This is an easy book to recommend. It’s academic, but also bears intrinsic interest. It tells stories that touch on universal themes, and helps us interpret all stories. It deals with the individual and the whole of humanity in one marvelous attempt.

Review of When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (Amazon affiliate link) tells the story of a British detective in the master writer’s hallmark style.

All of Ishiguro’s work that I am familiar with–The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant (my review), and When We Were Orphans–shares similar storytelling methods and a common motif of how memory leads and misleads us through our lives.

When We Were Orphans is stylistically closer to The Remains of the Day, and if you had told me that Christopher Banks were the protagonist of The Remains of the Day I would need to seek out biological trivia to prove you wrong. This is the sort of character that Ishiguro seems to have the strongest affinity for, however. If people complained that The Buried Giant was muddled because of the constant shift between focal characters, they will be happy to know that all the mystery and confusion that comes from When We Were Orphans is a result of Christopher’s own confused memory.

Unlike the two other novels I’ve read by Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans focuses more heavily on action through its sole protagonist’s eyes, though it is written in the form of letters recounting events.

The Buried Giant certainly has some action, but it’s told only through a few characters’ eyes (three out of several, and two of these only barely).

What Banks encounters in When We Were Orphans is more personal and builds up tension better, at least in my opinion. This external tension is paired with internal tension, so while Ishiguro’s other work is primarily reliant on psychological suuspense one also gets the feeling that Banks’ life could very well be in danger at many points.

Whether this is an improvement or not, I am actually unsure. I will say that When We Were Orphans reminds me a lot of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich in terms of the protagonist’s development. Where the other novels by Ishiguro often dwell on themes of self-deception, this one goes more heavily into it, to the point that an astute reader should quickly see where Banks has deceived himself.

Set in the period immediately preceding the Second World War, it should not be particularly surprising that this theme would play a key role in the novel, as the question of what to do in light of growing totalitarianism and the crisis this spread through the free world is one that forms a central element of the conflict. Banks’ self-deception is matched by an equally good effort by almost every other character in the novel.

However, it is worth noting that Ishiguro does not let this descend into triviality.

Banks is a man of singular conviction, a master detective who also at many times has things escape him because he is not prepared to see them. He is someone who struggles with his memory and putting his perceptions into order, but like the elites of Britain in his day, who he hobnobs with, he has a certain amount of naivete. Despite claiming and earnestly believing that there is a struggle between good and evil, he parrots the notion that he is one of the good guys doing good work while holding on to deep cynicism in other ways; he doesn’t have the hero’s spirit, but he has the hero’s role.

The delusional excesses of the period are played out over and over, and much of the novel’s appeal lies in how it handles the role of an evidently exceptional individual trapped in a declining culture.

The childhood period of Christopher’s life in Shanghai, where the novel spends much of its time recounting his relationship with his mother, raises many of the questions that the book is going to continue to develop over its course.

And that is something that I would cite as a great strength of When We Were Orphans. It raises a large number of questions, like the masters would, but unlike Dostoevsky and Tolstoy he doesn’t feel compelled to provide us with a clear answer and spoil half the point of the exercise. This is in no way a criticism of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy–they were guides trying to lead society away from perdition–but Ishiguro asks questions about the nature of the hell that the great novelists of the 1800s were trying to steer us away from.

When We Were Orphans is a darker novel, thematically speaking, than Ishiguro’s other work. The Remains of the Day deals with personal tragedy, The Buried Giant deals with historical injustice and the depravity of the world, and When We Were Orphans deals with both.

As with his other novels, Ishiguro expects the reader to keep up with him, but the reward for that is a depth and authenticity to the characters and a mystery that the readers can try to solve. When We Were Orphans delivers intrigue and depth, and there’s a great story here. Just be forewarned that it takes a long time to get to where it’s going, and if your main focus is on figuring out “what happens” you’ll get to the conclusion before Ishiguro finishes asking the questions he poses.

Reflections on Aphorisms #29

Aphorism 49

No man is rich enough to buy back his past.

Oscar Wilde, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.

Interpretation

I have often found myself consumed by regrets for the past.

This is despite the fact that I try to view every experience as something that has value in context of my whole life. Even miserable, tragic moments contain some sort of lesson or prize.

However, even if making good decisions one is left with the tendency to ask the dreaded question: “What if?”

I think this question does more harm than good.

The one thing that is immutable is the past. No amount of success in the present can change the past, but it can build on it.

I think there’s also an element here of a call to act in accordance with what would not bring one regret. This takes a little bit of thought, and it definitely requires one to sort one’s priorities out. However, it’s also worth noting that sometimes it is better to abandon regret than to dwell on it.

Along the lines of an injunction to moral action, I think Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray serves to illustrate his point. It’s not that one should just run from the regret of the past, but that one should act in accordance with avoiding the regret of the future. Dorian Gray gets the chance to have all of the misery he causes taken out on a homunculus of himself, freeing him from the consequences of his own actions.

However, this Faustian pact protects his body but not his spirit. He eventually becomes so torn up by his regrets–incurring damage which he causes without thinking it will have a consequence for himself–that he destroys the painting that has given him immortality and becomes the withered man that he should be.

I think that one of the best antidotes to this sort of tragedy is to confront one’s feelings frequently. If they’re permitted to build up, they create the sort of toxic regrets that can destroy a person.

Resolution

Confront problems when they happen.

Ask myself if I end each day without regret. If I cannot, what do I change to make it possible?

Never let pride come in the way of self-knowledge.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant Review

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit, though it’s definitely less accessible than some of his other work.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Amazon affiliate link) is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit, though it’s definitely less accessible than some of his other work.

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it has fantasy trappings that support a great literary story.

The story follows a man and his wife as they travel to see their son. I could draw comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and also to classic Arthurian stories simultaneously; it’s a fusion of modern narrative trappings with the worldview and storytelling style of ancients.

Along the path, the couple meets a variety of interesting characters. Most of the characters have an almost mythological role in story, and even those who are recycled from Arthurian legend have a very different presence in The Buried Giant, where they are turned into new and complex figures.

As a study in storytelling, The Buried Giant is tremendous. It switches between perspectives, develops a deep mythos that its characters explore, and plays with and subverts expectations.

If I had one criticism to give, it would be that it is unapproachable to the average reader. I do not know if this is necessarily the case, but it certainly feels like in The Buried Giant there’s a book that wants you to meet it where it stands, instead of coming to you. However, Ishiguro has not won the Nobel Prize for literature without reason. The read may be difficult, but it is difficult because it seeks to challenge the reader. My only other experience with Ishiguro’s work is The Remains of the Day (Amazon affiliate link), which I found really enjoyable. I thought I had written about it, but apparently I have not (or at least I can’t find it, which wouldn’t necessarily be that strange).

The Buried Giant is almost a hundred-and-eighty degree turn from The Remains of the Day. Some common themes are found in both books, especially around memory, and both focus heavily on characters in a deep way, similar to what you would expect from a Tolstoy novel. One major difference is the amount of dialogue. The Remains of the Day is largely introspective and focused on going back into memories, but The Buried Giant has a little more action and deals with the present and the desire to recall the past.

This is where I have seen the most criticism for The Buried Giant. It is written in Arthurian language, or rather, the dialogue and introspectives are, si9nce there are points where the author addresses the reader directly. This is an intentional stylistic choice, and to me feels comfortably like Lewis or Tolkien doing similar things in their works; in fact, I found the opening chapter to be very reminiscent of Tolkien in its storytelling format. However, these stylistic anomalies and the complexity of the text and storyline make it a matter of taste whether someone will like The Buried Giant or not.

My reading was split across two sittings, which is a testament to how compelling the book was, but it was certainly hard to follow and I had to go back and re-read passages a few times.

This is where another connection to Faulkner can be made. The Buried Giant is very much presented as a stream-of-consciousness, and it does a great job of having characters with secrets who are motivated by those Secrets but don’t give away the plot. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is not particularly exciting in terms of action; many of the events are talked about a lot. There is some drama in looking at how people feel about the various events; Gawain, the knight who accompanies the couple, is particularly interesting for how he views his own role in the universe and how it has changed in his mind from what others would view as objectively true.

In short, if you want the story about adventurers going out and fighting dragons and triumphing over their foes, you would do better with a swords and sorcery novel. There are high stakes, and even directly violent conflicts in the book. However, this is not what Ishiguro chooses to focus on; his protagonists are old and weary, and hardly seek any excitement, though they do manage to find some.

I don’t want to spoil the book, but it has Ishiguro’s trademark style of the ambiguity of memory and asking but never answering philosophical and psychological questions. It’s deep to its core, and I’m still pondering what some of the symbols and events represent. The unremembered histories of the characters, slowly recovered over the course of the novel, are a source of excellent dramatic tension, and also ask questions relevant to modern life.

Let me make it clear: The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. If you are interested in it because you’re interested in Arthurian legend, it will be interesting only in the sense that it is a reinterpretation of the stories. The characters are used as a sort of shibboleth, a representation of archetypal forces, not in the more traditional sense. They simply are taken from familiar forms so that we can connect with them more quickly.

I actually believe that this is one of the best parts of the book. The husband of the couple on whom the book focuses, Axl, provides an entirely different viewpoint on the Arthurian legend than you’ll find in modern retellings.

It reminds me in many ways of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, which I reviewed some time back.

I can’t necessarily recommend The Buried Giant. I liked it a lot. I would definitely recommend reading it if you want a book that can be studied deeply, and which has incredible meaning when interpreted. However, there’s an uneasiness to it. I believe this was intentional on Ishiguro’s part, a deliberate intention to not make a point, but it’s still frustrating in some ways because one can only guess what it intends to mean.

Stories about forgetting often fail to satisfy because they lack significance. The act of remembering something does not usually make for a great heroic act. Ishiguro was able to overcome this in The Remains of the Day, and he is able to overcome this in The Buried Giant. However, it’s more about the mystery than any active process, and even the greatest central action ties into the desire to remember more so than changing the world than it currently stands.

Perhaps that is Ishiguro’s point.

I heartily recommend it, but only with the caveat that it requires investment. Unlike The Remains of the Day, it’s not an easy read, but I found it just as profound.

Review: Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse Book 8)

It’s not a huge secret that I’m a superfan of the Expanse and all the books (and the comics, and the TV show). Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the series, is probably the only book that I’ve ever bought a (signed) physical copy of for myself after getting it on Kindle, because I just wanted to have it on my shelf.

Continue reading “Review: Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse Book 8)”

The Mere Wife Review

I’ve been perpetually struggling to keep up on my reading even as I double down on work and writing. Last week I read The Mere Wife, a novel (affiliate link) by Maria Dahvana Headley, and I found it quite interesting.

To borrow from the blurb on Amazon:

New York Times bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley presents a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf, set in American suburbia as two mothers—a housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—fight to protect those they love in The Mere Wife.

I’d say that this is a bit of an understatement, but it’s a good summary of the book in the sense that you should get an idea of what it is so you can decide whether you’re interested in checking it out further.

If you’re not sold, however, I strongly suggest that you check it out. It’s an interesting, compelling read.

Image courtesy of Amazon and Macmillan.

The whole novel is told in this delightful style, something that falls nicely between stream-of-consciousness and more traditional styles. The result is a book that is occasionally confusing, but only so much so as the complications of reality are to its characters’ minds.

Most of the time, it manages to combine the sort of crisp and clear imagery that one rarely finds outside of epics; I found myself frequently thinking of Homer and Beowulf as I looked at the language and deep descriptions, which are tremendously indulgent but have a sense of action to them, something that you see with many works that belong to an oral tradition.

As far as craft goes, I don’t think I can recommend it enough. It’s rare to get such a great glimpse into characters’ heads,

Thematically, it’s heavy. Many of the themes discussed relate to PTSD, family drama and infidelity, and violence. It’d get a nice graphic R rating if it were made into a movie.

However, while The Mere Wife may occasionally veer into the realm of the grotesque, it does so no more than sacrosanct myths. Where it resorts to vulgarity it does so to depict life as it is, and while I wouldn’t be passing it out on a middle-school reading list, I’d definitely recommend it to a mature reader, especially one who has already become familiar with Beowulf.

Indeed, one of the things that struck me as I read The Mere Wife is how close it manages to feel to that epic. The three act structure is maintained, though it is different, and the characters are all closely drawn from the original myth, but given their own life and meaning.

Honestly, even if you haven’t read Beowulf, I can still recommend The Mere Wife. The protagonist, Dana, is based off of the character of Grendel’s mother, who is barely a footnote in the original epic but comes to life throughout the novel as a tragic figure.

The tragedy plays deeply into the American consciousness, but also in general to the world of the 21st century. The loss of mysticism, digital panopticon, paranoia in the war on terror, and racial tensions of our day all are developed into themes and touched upon, questions that are answered, unanswered, and explored.

Universally, The Mere Wife puts us into the shoes of its characters. Loathsome or ennobling, each gets a fair shake, and we are left feeling sympathy for all of them. It lives up to the legacy of sagas and epics, and I was able to get through all 320 pages of the tale in just a couple days, finding every excuse possible to read it.

I really cannot recommend the book enough. I will conclude with the first paragraph of the novel; it was all the preview I needed to be convinced that it was worth checking out:

Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m face down in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but I’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.