A YEAR IN READING – NOT SO LITTLE A LIFE

A YEAR IN READING – NOT SO LITTLE A LIFE

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“You see, Jude, in life, sometimes nice things happen to good people. You don’t need to worry—they don’t happen as often as they should. But when they do, it’s up to the good people to just say ‘thank you,’ and move on, and maybe consider that the person who’s doing the nice thing gets a bang out of it as well, and really isn’t in the mood to hear all the reasons that the person for whom he’s done the nice thing doesn’t think he deserves it or isn’t worthy of it.” ― Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

In A Little Life, I sauntered through 720 pages of life – not so short a life, I know.  Every page dense with wisdom; words like dew, words like sun, words that lighten your feet, words that leaden them. A Little Life surged, it ebbed, but it never disappointed. Like life, I wanted it to end this minute, I wanted it to go on forever.  In between this rashness I pondered life anew, friendship for one, suffering for another, and then redemption, and then pain and then death (Aha!). This is one book that had me flailing through a flurry of emotions so intense, it was like hypnosis. People who loved  A Little Life, loved it passionately and those who hate it, do with every fibre of their being and with heavy investment of their emotions.  Congratulations Yanagihara, look what you did!

Let me quickly say that this book was the one book I wanted so badly to review. I scribbled feverishly through it like a maniac but now I can’t find the words.  I’m so disappointed right now mostly because I know that there is nothing I can say here that will do justice to this book. That’s a shame   because this is a book that deserves to be read. I’ve waited for my muse to show up, read other reviews, read section of the books again, yet I feel inadequate for this task. Heck, I should have written a review immediately after the book!

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A Little Life is a treasure.

But hear me guys, A Little Life is the real deal. My social media walls are flecked with beautiful tidings from and on the book ever since I read it in early May. If I could, I would buy a thousand copies and have it distributed as Christmas gifts to you all. Nobody should be allowed to die without reading it. Nobody!

So, how did I come about it?

My knowledge of A Little Life came on a wave of rave reviews. Prior to reading it, I was inundated by positive recommendations from my book club, my mailing lists, round-table talks etc. Every four out of five persons who’d read it thought it was awesome.  And that was a problem. When a book is awash with too many accolades, it often falls short of my expectation, even if the commentators are the nerdiest book buffs around. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.  Because of this, I made no effort to research the writer or on the story itself. I wanted to be rid of all the noise and maintain a certain aloofness from the frenzy. In short, what I sort was a personal taxonomy for a book that has been labelled, cached and exhibited in different literary fora.

But what do I have to lose, really?

So in the beginning of May, I tumbled into the book cautiously.

By the time I was into the 50th page, every sense of apprehension had totally dissolved into absolute immersion.

A Little Life is not that book, and I’m not afraid to add my voice to that rooftop gang of high-praisers going hoarse from exhaustion that this is the book.  I’ll risk my voice on this one. It’s that good.

This is a book I will be reading over and over again in years to come.  With over 700 pages there is nothing dismissively out of place in this book for me. Every turn of a page was well worth it. If you are given to tears, order your Kleenex and get enough fluid in your system. I assure you you will need it. If you have a steely heart, expect to be hammered, it will leave a dent on you.

A Little Life is a story of four guys who met in college and forged a bond of lasting friendship. These men went on to become successful in their different fields. The story revolves around the lives of Malcolm, Jude, JB and Willem in a swinging arcway, carefully unveiling the backgrounds and quirks of these distinctive characters as much as they are willing to share. One after the other, they came into their own: Malcolm the highly-sought  after blue-blooded architect designing plans for high rise buildings and personal homes of the affluent all around the world, JB the tempestuous biracial photographer whose greatest creation would be inspired by his friends, Willem  the dashing waiter-actor who would successfully cut his nose among the Hollywood big leaguers and Jude the troubled  lawyer and Mathematician. On the pages of Hanya Yanagihara’s book, nothing is forced. These fictitious characters have to give their consents. With the cerebral and reclusive Jude, the experienced reader might be able to catch on early that the juiciest stuff lay with him and that he might be the hardest nut to crack; and the reader would be right.  Often impelled by his more vivacious friends, Jude’s evolution as the epicenter of the story came not from any authorial summon but in the patient dig into the past and the careful exposure of vulnerabilities. Jude’s reticence would be aptly caught through the scope of JB’s exhibitionist lens and later on by Willem’s nurturing and unrelenting love.

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In this book, Yanagihara cultivates the reader’s curiosity to a fever-pitch crescendo. Mystery (and misery) tickles curiosity and Yanagihara knows this. By slowly (and you can see how difficult this is) peeling off the layers of silence and disguises, what’s left of the story is the rawest grittiest tale that I have read in a long while.

When I have read a book so utterly compelling as this, I never let it go with the characters or the book. I have never been satisfied with a protagonist receding into the sunset, the better if they don’t.  A Little Life ended with a drawn curtain with shadows of haunting memories. Ever since May, I have hung on to the author; scouring the internet for her interviews, seeking her out on social media,  reading everything she’s ever written, done about everything I could from across the Atlantic to really get to know this woman.

Because this is the thing: Hanya Yanagihara’s characters are so memorable it’s easy to forget that they are creations; that she was there in the room when Jude writhed on the bathroom floor, his wrist bloodied from the razor cuts; that she was there when Willem’s car crashed and Malcolm designed his fabulous works. It’s so much easier to forget the forest for the tress. Yanagihara is a master pupetteer.

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A fine writer!

If for one thing, I am glad for the fame this book has had because it deserves it. I mean, there are numerous fan clubs of the book on the internet. The other day I saw an alittlelifebook instagram account. There are merchandises customized for the book (I’ve only seen two books that matched this popularity; Harry Potter and The Faults In Our Stars) and I’m so delighted by this. Yanagihara may not know it yet, she’s made me a lifelong fan of hers, and sooner or later I would have her know it.

The younger me was a dilettante. I loved reading simply for the pleasure. Reading was orgasmic. It was my adrenaline shot. I could get off those pages and never feel remorseful over a hangover when I’ve been up all night reading.  It’s hard to explain what gives you the kick, but books did it for me. Every book that has thrilled me has made my resolve stronger to be a success as a writer. Even then, my flirting with reading has trailed into something more serious. Now, I look out for style and construction and plots and all that jazz when I read, which can sometimes bog down an enjoyable pastime. Reading A Little Life was a teachable moment that added no foil to the pleasure of the book. This is one book that cannot easily be forgotten.

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Memorable quotes from the book:

“What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier.”

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.
Right and wrong, however, are for—well, not unhappy people, maybe, but scarred people; scared people.”

“But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

A Little Life is a treasure. I learnt about Law, Philosophy, Music, Art, Architecture and places. Yanagihara incorporated all of these in her story in a manner that speaks brilliance. Just posting these lines from the book, I feel a surge of pride. Pride, that I found this one book I wish I could have written . If I do make you read this book eventually, and you need someone to talk to, holler at me. I’d like to have your take.

Meanwhile, have a Merry Christmas!

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A YEAR IN READING – THE PHILOSOPHY IN DISENCHANTMENT

A YEAR IN READING – THE PHILOSOPHY IN DISENCHANTMENT

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“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” – Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch’s status in my fiction scope is high up there. In a collage of impressionable characters and memorable villains, this man peers through always. In a number of ways, Atticus is the epitome of the moral man in an immoral world. He wasn’t wired to be the altruistic Dudley in the tradition of the good-triumphing-over-evil trope, he became it. If villainy was a tribe Atticus was the lost sheep, too far strayed to find his way back to a home white-washed by segregation and deeply steeped in bigotry and prejudice. In Finch’s forays, he had discovered a fundamental truth that made aligning with the prevalent tribal consensus impossible. With his foibles and struggles and insecurities, as all men are so marred, he stood to bat for the other side in the name of good conscience.

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird is a story of a closely-knit white family with the lawyer-father Atticus Finch, an iconic defense attorney standing up for a black man in a very heated rape case in Maycomb, a racism-infested deep Southern community in Alabama.

That was To Kill A Mockingbird.

I have to tell you, Go Set A Watchman is not a very likable book.

Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to the American classic To Kill A Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee.  The authorship of this sequel is still enshrouded in controversy but linearly the story is a plausible attendant to the one that came before it.

When a classic like Mockingbird is 55 and has traipsed the world in shining glory, leaving us with feathery stalks of goodness to line our hard beds, showing us that we can find recourse in literature, that the concept of art mirroring life  even in the unsubstantiated is a good omen for our world; helping us teach our children through literature the values of bridging racial divides and propagating oneness, it has to be held high as a beacon of what is good and noble and just.

Before Go Set A Watchman came, To Kill A Mockingbird was the book that would secure your passage to heaven, I kid you not.  After Go Set A Watchman, heaven seemed like a phantasmagoria.  Still, To Kill A Mockingbird will remain on my top list of memorable books. I don’t see it being ousted in the forseeable future, Watchman or not!

For a lot of people, that has changed and reasonably so. In what has been considered as the grand volte face of modern literature, Go Set A Watchman is a clever dismantling of everything you think you know about Atticus Finch. In Watchman, Scout now 26 year-old Jean Louis Finch returns to her native hometown only to stumble on a dark, invidious truth about her doting father, that will shatter her world and leave her disenchanted, as it probably did all lovers of this great American story.

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Just look how Lee got everyone’s knickers in a knot. Haha!

As disappointing as the story is, there are several moments of sheer profundities that remind one of the greatness of the prequel, and of the gem of the latter. For me, it’s easier to forgive this betrayal as a philosophical fact. Maybe a tad Machiavellian but hey, such is life. I know we like to act holier-than-thou and don the Pope’s habit at the mention of that name, but every reasonable person knows that in this life there are many hues between black and white.

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The ashes of Atticus Finch lost in the wind

It’s still art mirroring life.

Personally, some of the things that have shaped my view of the world have been uncomfortable facts. To grow you have to deal with some shitty stuffs. Stories are awesome sounding boards for testing the depth of our convictions. I love this story for the singlular fact that it sets the clangor of my mind click-clacking. This hasn’t changed for Watchman. On this score alone, I count the gems rather than go cold turkey. I could have a thousand words on marble from this 278-page whooper. Here are a few.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”

“[T]he time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right”

“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”

“But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing. I think that is why I’m nearly out of my mind.”

“What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.”

After I finished this book, I needed to talk to somebody. Unfortunately there was not one person around me who had read the book at the time. I hated everybody for a while. I felt disenchanted, abandoned even  like  Jean-Louise. But thank God, everything fades eventually.

Just look at me now, all grace and philosophy.

Right now there is a sharply divided opinion over this book . Those against it are up in arms mostly because it tears down this very noble figure, sterling in character, immaculate in propriety – by removing the white cloak of purity and revealing a starkly abhorrent human being. Those for it, know that humanity is sometimes a convoluted thing. Good people do bad things sometimes. And some good people are really bad people. Read and stand on that balance. Where do you stand?

A YEAR IN READING – THE KHATCHADOURIAN TORTURE

A YEAR IN READING – THE KHATCHADOURIAN TORTURE

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“I thought at the time that I couldn’t be horrified anymore, or wounded. I suppose that’s a common conceit, that you’ve already been so damaged that damage itself, in its totality, makes you safe.” ― Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

When people ask me ‘Why do you read so much?” I’m often torn among a thousand and one responses.  Mostly I’d say ‘Because it helps me make sense out of life”

Only with a few people have I had to re-direct this statement to offer a deeper aspect of this habit. I suspect the people who’d prodded for more are themselves readers of some sort or are inclined to some solitary pursuit or the other.

I love stories where extraordinary things happen to ordinary people.  Maybe a stroke of luck that turns the tide, maybe an inadvertent action that makes a mark. As humans, we are always trying to figure out why people turn out the way they do. Sometimes these things are intractable, like a good gene gone rogue. Evil sometimes lurk in ordinary places – in the well worn paths from which others, everyday and from time immemorial have so naturally threaded unscathed.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is one hell of a sordid story, and I mean that in every sense. The book reminds me of that saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We Need to talk about Kevin  is  a gripping tale of a child gone bonkers from a mother’s POV, written by Lionel Shriver and later won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005.  They say reading is a solitary act.  With this book I was too invested to be an observer. I was a thought police incapacitated to arrest the incident before me. I suffered from that thriller’s ordeal where I had to grit my teeth, bite my nails, ball my fist, do just about anything short of tearing my hair out through most of the tale.And the culprit? a boy. A mere boy named Kevin.  Kevin almost ran me mad. His mother, Eva was no better. I wanted to give the father a sucker punch to knock him out of this self-spurned blanket of exoneration with he swaddled Kevin.

“It’s far less important to me to be liked these days than to be understood.”

“Children live in the same world we do. To kid ourselves that we can shelter them from it isn’t just naive it’s a vanity.”

“Teachers were both blamed for everything that went wrong with kids and turned to for their every salvation. This dual role of scapegoat and savior was downright messianic but even Jesus was probably paid better.”

“It’s always the mother’s fault, ain’t it?” she said softly, collecting her coat. “That boy turn out bad cause his mama a drunk, or she a junkie. She let him run wild, she don’t teach him right from wrong. She never home when he back from school. Nobody ever say his daddy a drunk, or his daddy not home after school. And nobody ever say they some kids just damned mean. …”

There are fictional characters that have sent chills down my spine in the past. Often they’ve somehow found a way into the way I depict real people who are dreadful and scary. There are the Hannibal Lecters on the prowl who gorge out people’s eyes and feast on them. There are the Amazing Amys – sexy, beautiful, intelligent- perfect fit for every eligible bachelor but crafty as the devil himself. These characters are as charming as they are devious. Children, on the other hands are angels; pure souls –reveling in the innocence of their hearts and the habits of their nurturings. Not so. Not since Kevin Katchoudourian came to the mix has all such pretty imaginings fizzled into something in the region of the fantastic.  There was KKK, now there is KK – a child monster.

If a book ever drew a visible reaction from me this year, this was the book -this tattle-tale of a letter that spilled it all. The book will either draw two things out of you; compassion or ire; maybe a mix of the two-  for this shattered mother who is trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her sociopath-of–a-son went gun-blazing, literally, in his school, and her husband left her. When you are finally done with it, you will be confronted with either picking up your shattered emotions from the rubble of this cataclysmic incident and putting it back together in order to maintain any modicum of normalcy or just swearing off any procreation effort at all.

Personally, I couldn’t hold it in. I had people ask me a number of times while I was reading the book, if I was alright. I answered in the affirmative with a grim smile but I noticed I was being closely watched. The truth was that I wasn’t. I can’t remember the number of times I yelled out loud, cussed out loud in rage.  I paced the floor of my room so incensed with angst.

If there was a compelling story, this is one. When a story starts with a major incident, your fingernail is safe or so you’d think. But not on this one.  As Eva (KK’s mother) tried to make sense of this senseless mishap that’s left her forlorn and alone, you’d start to feel your fingers dig into the muscle of your thigh. And when you think it couldn’t get worse, bam! The lethal shot of denouement sends you careening into full mode hysteria.

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NO, NO, NO!!! THAT DIDN’T JUST HAPPEN!

We Need to Talk about Kevin is a nail-biting story… No, I shouldn’t spit it. In broad strokes, it is a story that disabuses the generalized notion of maternal love.

One reviewer had this to say. ‘[Reading  We Need To Talk About Kevin] is almost like self torture under hypnotism, you don’t want to do it, but once you are into it, there’s no way to stop…’ He adds. ‘this book will stay with you for a long time after you walk away from it. More importantly it will get you thinking, if you are a parent…which is not a bad thing.’

I’m not a parent yet but the name Khatchadourian is stuck in my head forever.  Go figure!

And if somebody were to ask me “Why do you like this book specifically?”

I’d say because it rattled me in ways that I can’t remember many books doing.

A YEAR IN READING – THE MAN, MANDIBA!

A YEAR IN READING – THE MAN, MANDIBA!

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I do not share the nostalgia with which my parents or my elder siblings now talk about the hey days of the African liberation movements. Growing up in Nigeria in the early 90s, my first encounter with the word Aparthied came in the form of an audacious quote written on the light-blue wall of my sister’s room.

APARTHIED IS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY.

This in itself was a crime – an act of defiance against a house-rule sternly upheld by my father.  You didn’t need to chalk a string of words on his beautiful wall to draw his ire. Something as light as leaning against the wall or dragging your body innocently along it peeved my dad so bad, you get punished.

My father liked to articulate your wrongs to you when you are being punished.

This is why you are being punished.

When you do not eat the onions that your mother took her time to splice into your fried egg, you deprive your body of the flavonoids and antioxidants and the vital chemicals that your body needs to grow strong and healthy, and you throw it in your mom’s face that she’s wasted her time trying to make your food special. Do you understand?

When you do not say ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’ when you greet an elder, it means you don’t see them any different from your friends who are of the same age as you, and that is not a way to show respect. It rubs badly on you as a good boy and on me as your father who is supposed to train you to be a good boy. Do you understand?

Yet days turned to months and then years and I’d yet to see my sister answer for her crime. In that period of teenage self assertion typically noted for rebellion and constant parental warring, not once did the topic of the defaced wall come up.

It took me many years to figure it out. For one, my dad must have been secretly proud that at least my sister was learning something positive from school that a clean wall suddenly mattered no more.

Indeed APARTHIED IS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY, maybe censorship for taking a stand for this is too.

Those words remained with me initially for a privately convenient purpose. I had really believed that it would become my hall pass with my parents for any misdemeanor that would have otherwise got me in trouble with them (though I never really got to use it). Later the real meaning moulted out of the puerile and has remained a mantra of social justice with me ever since.

But much more was the figure, whose larger- than- life image bounded my father and my sister together in an unusual, if tacit alliance for once, Nelson Mandela!

When you have a gazillion books waiting to be read, the luxury of choice can quickly turn into a struggle. Sometimes it’s numbing.  I don’t like to research books beforehand. I like to walk into a book not knowing what to expect or with as little information as possible but there are not enough tabula rosas on the biography front. Especially a Mandela biography.

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Oh, tell me about it!!!

Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom had been on my TBR list for a very long time. Every time somebody mentioned Nelson Mandela’s name in a discourse or a picture of him flashed across the screen, I would feel a stab of guilt. I would often console myself that this wasn’t a book to be rushed. I wanted to remember everything when I get around to reading it. I wanted so much to imbibe the spirit which with Mandela fought, to experience in fellowship the suffering of a people, to be inspired by this great stalwart of liberty and freedom.

Many a time, I had passed over this book, leaving it like a wine in a cask waiting to mature. Except of course, I was the one who needed to step up. Because I’ve admired Mandela for so long, I felt I couldn’t read his memoir merely to check it off my list.

So, before the madness of 2016 settled in (though Olamide’s back- to- back statement had set the social media agog. Isn’t that the very playground for madness?)  I ensconced myself in the sedate dawn of the New Year, away from the maddening goons of social media, picked up the book and read the incredible story of this illustrious African son in apartheid South Africa.

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And the winner is… MANDELA!!!

Mandela was a leader of thought in civil rights and that for me is enough in a world so subversive to ideologues. To be incarcerated for 27 years in prison where the conditions were no better than that of a hovel is a lesson in endurance that I cannot even begin to imagine. I can’t begin to talk about how I feel reading this book but here is a snippet that aptly captures the man Mandiba.

“I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

Surprising that as a prisoner held in the gallows of his own conviction in spite of several entreaties within and without to make him give up the fight for what he believes in, he still spared a thought for his oppressors.

I find this very inspiring knowing how he had to sacrifice his health, his dignity when he could have done nothing. Indeed it was a long, torturous walk to freedom for the South African people and the ANC leaders who were at the forefront against the white Germans. Mandela’s patriotic fervor did not waver; he was dogged and resilient to the very end. Sadly, there are not many of him around anymore.

Not reading this book early enough was a mistake, albeit an honest one.  This is not a one-time kind of book. Now, I can’t remember much about it except the profound sense of pride I felt as an African (and I sense that  on its own is enough). I imagine I’ll be reading it ever so often (so help me God) and will have my kids emblazon the words/legacy of Mandela on their walls, their workroom spaces, their lockers, the walls of their heart, anywhere they may choose to.

A YEAR IN READING – THE DISCONTINUITY OF LIVING

A YEAR IN READING – THE DISCONTINUITY OF LIVING

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“You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and that you will too.” – James Agee, A Death in the Family.

For A Death in the Family, the title pretty much explains what happened in this book.  If you are into suspense, intrigue, thriller – all those adrenaline-pumping kind of stuff, this is not the book for you. However, if you are into all of these stuffs but sometimes ponder the meaning of life; its vicissitudes, immortality, fate, faith etc, then expect to be sobered. This book explores these themes, only as an off-shoot of death and death alone. You might find answers or you might be bamboozled into more questions. Either way, you won’t be left untouched.

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Loss and grief isn’t only an aspect of the book. It is the core of the book. A good man dies and the entire family grieves, each in their own way.

Why does anyone read a book that talks about death and pain and grief?

Perhaps, because like happiness and summer vacations and books and party jollof, death is an unavoidable fact of life. Remember your “MR NIGER D” – that mnemonic for Science students that helped us remember the “characteristics of living things”. The “D” there is Death. Only the living dies. Ostriches too die, and when they do, they become part of the sand where they have their heads buried half of the time. A double shame!

So there. Reading a book like this, is one way I embrace my immortality.

A Death in the Family is an autobiography cast in the somber tone of grief, and the platitude of faith (or lack of it, platitude that is). The book is potent in the way it is searing. It is very poetic too.There are no spikes here, just gently flowing tears at the language Agee summons in bringing the characters to life.  What the book offer is more in the realm of the stream-of -consciousness narrative than in actual hierarchical story plot . The dialogues are more of a literary prop than a narrative thrust. Think Hemingway but with a bit more verve.

The beauty of this book is the language; the virtuoso’s fingering that pulls at your heartstrings. This is a book poets would like. The sentences are simple. Plot is practically non-existent. From the get-go, you get a sense of foreboding (an attribute of the language) and you’re mentally prepared for whatever comes. What you probably didn’t imagine is that this death will have you angling for an outburst because the sorrow will be steady, spreading evenly throughout the course of the pages. And when the story is done, you will carry this slowly diffusing pain for days before recovering.

The five-star quality of this work is well-deserved. I was at a loss for word after I finished this book. I couldn’t really say this is what it’s about beyond the pain.

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I couldn’t even muster a whoa!

What kept me flipping the pages and will keep anyone flipping is the entrancing power of Agee’s talent. Agee’s writing cut to the bone – the initial denial, the drifts of thoughts, the silent cry, the muffled emotions, and the crashing wave from a far distance that breaks in your stomach. So evocative you are jolted afresh to the reality that death happens in the middle of life .You could leave home in the morning with a nod at your family, and never come back.  It’s that simple, that ordinary.

This story feels personal to me the way tragedies do. Moreso, it’s deep understanding of loss and grief. Often we forget that it’s not the person who dies that suffers, it’s the ones left behind.

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It is funny that I should think about the flat lining of the ECG when I think about this book, for it is what it is – a discontinuous motion of some sort.  The discontinuity is only felt by the living, making death, an important function of living. A beep comes and goes, comes and goes, comes and goes. Through our sorrows and pain and grief, life trudges on.

“Well, now, some people learn a little quicker than others. It’s nice to learn fast but it’s nice to take your time too.”

“And no matter what, there’s not one thing in this world *or* the next that we can do or hope or guess at or wish or pray that can change it or help it one iota. Because whatever is, is. That’s all. And all there is now is to be ready for it, strong enough for it, whatever it may be. That’s all. That’s all that matters. It’s all that matters because it’s all that’s possible. ”

“And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.”

Also, there is an interesting aspect to this book, which is the story behind the story. The author James Agee died of heart attack at 45 before completing the novel. The editor David McDowell was the one who picked the rough manuscript and hewed it to the gem we read today. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1958.

I have long held a fascination for death and dying so there is no way this would not make the list. The writing made it utterly compelling. When you are finished with this one, you’ll hug somebody tight if you have a heart.

A YEAR IN READING – HOW TO FALL IN LOVE WITH A MAN A CENTURY AND HALF LATE

A YEAR IN READING – HOW TO FALL IN LOVE WITH A MAN A CENTURY AND HALF LATE

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“Why, if the old Greeks had had this man, what trilogies of plays—what epics—would have been made out of him! How the rhapsodes would have recited him! How quickly that quaint tall form would have enter’d into the region where men vitalize gods, and gods divinify men! But Lincoln, his times, his death—great as any, any age—belong altogether to our own.”—Walt Whitman, “Death of Abraham Lincoln, 1879”

How do you fall so mushily in love with a man, a century and half late?

Here’s how.

You read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s political sojourn.

A friend had just watched Daniel Day Lewis spectacular performance in Lincoln where the ace movie director Steven Spielberg had once again dazzled with his genius, and would not let me be. He had seen the movie again and again, over the last year and wouldn’t stop harassing me to go see the movie (I always harass him to give his brain to books too).

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The eternal battle between the book and the box. Let the book have it!

We would be having a random discussion, and from nowhere this Lincolnyte would slip into this unfamiliar brogue that was too often an epic failure at a Lincoln impression.  If I didn’t catch it, he was quick to point out what it was to me. I figured if my friend (a movie buff, albeit a snub) was this impressed and was willing to so make a fool of himself, maybe I ought to see the damn movie.

The thing is, I had read a review of the book from which the film was adapted and I had managed to get a copy which was quite hefty.  The movie was only 3hrs long, as my friend had told me, but it’ll take me days to finish the book.  As a bookie, movies are an inadequate substitute for books and I wasn’t going to allow Spielberg sketch on the blank canvass of my mind with his version of the story.  So before I saw the movie, I decided to read the book on which the film was partially adapted; Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

For such a hefty book, reading Goodwin was an absolute delight. She was this uber-efficient Secretary taking the minute of Lincoln’s life, leaving nothing undone. She made Lincoln look good. What could have been a trite, boring detail of a man’s life became a highly engaging literary experience. To be sure, I wasn’t exactly new to Lincoln or anything. In fact as a doe-eyed ten year old, I once memorized the Gettysburg address to impress an uncle – an American-returnee once, but what Goodwin offered was the definitive book on a man who arguably has had the most books written about him. She was a tour guide leading her readers by the hand, covering every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life from his uneventful birth to his ill-fated assassination. She made sure everyone that had contact with Lincoln had their time too. It was this three dimensional aspect of the book that made it feel ‘like a frigate, that takes you lands away’.

While Lincoln stood like a giant oak in the book, others were not left out. We caught more than a glimpse of his wife Mary Todd, his friend Joshua Speed his cabinet members and former rivals; New York Senator William H. Seward (Secretary of State), Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates (Attorney General), former Democrats; Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy), Montgomery Blair (Postmaster General) Edwin Stanton (Secretary of War). This was an unusual cabinet; ambitious men with different interests and the craftiest ploys. Every meeting was suffused with drama; enemies with deep-seated contempt glared openly at each other, political scores were tallied with the hardest punch rolling off bitter tongues. Everyone seemed to be competing for Lincoln’s ears ostensibly to edge out the other in this cat- and-mouse game. It was a torrid affair.

With another man at the helm, the ballast of egos would have sunk the ship of the nation. As Goodwin rightly pointed out, “[Lincoln’s] success in dealing with the strong egos of the men in his cabinet suggests that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality—kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy—can also be impressive political resources.”

Reconciling these different interests is a clear testament to Lincoln’s inimitable leadership quality.

But why did he choose these very disparate individuals in the first place, you may ask?

The answer lay in Lincoln’s believe in the ultimate good of man. He was an impossibly magnanimous man, with a charitable trust of benefits- to friends and foe alike.  For instance, his patience and forbearance with the smug General; George B. McClellan still has my blood boiling with rage.

It’s hard to tell how much of Lincoln’s inadequacies failed to strike Goodwin’s good, if hawkish eye. I believe the decency of the man Lincoln doth render apart the Shakespearean mores of an enduring evil and a transient good. Unlike that other great figure of historical reckoning from across the Atlantic who straddled his burgeoning empire in power and glory centuries before:  Julius Caesar, Lincoln needed no trumpeteering Mark Antony to sing his dirge, or to stir the people to reverence. Books after books have bequeathed upon this man the noblest honour that any man has had in the history of mankind. Everybody loves Honest Abe.

If Mark Antony tried to refute by proxy the unofficial charge of “ambition” made by Julius Caesar’s traducers against Caesar, Goodwin exalted Lincoln’s ambition as a desperate longing for recognition bordering on solicitousness. Perhaps this has a lot to do with Lincoln’s disadvantaged childhood.

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. I have no other as great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying  this ambition , is yet to be developed-  23-year old Abraham Lincoln

And what’s more? There is an uncanny parallel to these two men: Caesar and Lincoln.

The two great men met their ends in the same way. They died within two months of their 56th birthday, before they could accomplish their life’s work

Often when the life of a man as big as Lincoln is to be documented and an adequate amount of time has passed, we often forget that they are human at all. The unsavoury aspect of their humanity, common to all, are allowed to settle and are then ran off like an effluent unfit to be remotely associated with such an image. While Goodwin may have pandered to the sterling image of Abraham Lincoln, she dug beneath the charisma for the clumsy, the oratorical for the incoherent, the heroic for the insecure, straddling the world of the coffee-drinking shrink with a hawkishness that prods deep.

Here we saw a young Lincoln so insecure, so despondent to the point of being suicidal?  He was ordinary until he did extraordinary feats. There were no markings of a great man. His was not a fate written in the stars. His career as a lawyer and then a politician skittered in fits and starts before he came to national limelight. His nomination as the Republican Party candidate in 1860 was a fallout of a fierce horn-locking battle between two titans; Seward and Chase who did themselves in by totally snubbing and disregarding a relatively unknown Lincoln. Abe became the underdog who went home with the price by sheer providence. What strategy he had would have failed ignonimously if the other contenders had paid him the slightest of attention. The New York Herald regarded him as a “fourth rate lecturer who cannot speak good grammar” – one who slid to the Republican nomination slot as a dump down of ‘small intellect, growing smaller”.

Ha. Abraham Lincoln fa?!

Today, Lincoln has been so haloed; he makes the United States look like a midget.

The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln . His example is universal and will last thousands of years… he was bigger than his country – bigger than all the Presidents together…and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives –  Leo Tolstoy, The World, New York, 1909.

Lincoln’s story through the eyes of Goodwin is a cache of leadership (and human) qualities that adumbrates the good in man – his magnanimous spirit, his first-rate mind, his infectious cheeriness, his radiant bonhomie.

It wasn’t enough for him to be the President of the United States. He had to go beyond the sinecure to challenge the status quo in a rather delicate move that required precision in the timing and a sure foot in the act of persuasion. He bore a hole through a document thought to be faultless and he got the 13th amendment for it against all odds. How he managed that?  Well, that’s one very fine class act of political machination! Here what he had to say: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”

“A real democracy would be a meritocracy where those born in the lower ranks could rise as far as their natural talents and discipline might take them.”

“To Lincoln’s mind, the fundamental test of a democracy was its capacity to “elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all.”

He was funny, he was melancholic and he was smart. He loved to read, he loved the arts- and he died for it too.

Beneath the swashbuckling speeches was a careful thinker – a poet, an inventor, a Shakespearean aficionado. I still have images of him pacing the floor of the White House late at night in deep contemplation, brows furrowed like lines on a chartered map. His dark moods are as famous as his public meetings. He loved to peer into people’s minds, to bounce around ideas; nimbly weighing, adroitly accessing and patiently waiting for the current to serve him.

In the just concluded election, Hillary Clinton tried to channel Lincoln’s power of equivocality in one of the pre-election debates and got walloped by Trump’s biting retort.  It was like a moment of Jesus I know, and Paul I know, how do you fit in here Madame?…

Ha, Trump!

That left a bitter taste in my mouth (I as a Clinton supporter) but not as much as what was to come after.

I could go on and on about Doris Kearns’ Lincoln, and I have a full note of scribbled material to show for it, but I’ll leave it here. Lincoln the movie is good; it’s only a hair’s breadth of Team of Rivals.

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SHOW HER THE DOOR. DRAIN THE SWAMP!!!

Go read the book. Every page is worth it.