Monday, April 28, 2014

Girls At War and Other Stories

Girls At War and Other Stories – Chinua Achebe

This collection of 12 short stories from the span of Achebe’s writing career shows the diversity of experience in developing Nigeria. His stories address everything from the differential impact of free primary school education, to how men gain respect and reputation in the village, to how women behave during war. Each story offers a glimpse into the daily routines of village life, how dreams become expectations, and how reality lurks constantly out of sight with the possibility of either bringing to fruition or dashing those cherished hopes. One misstep and the village chieftaincy will be forever out of reach. One oversight and a girl can leave a neglectful home life and never look back. This collection of stories conveys the challenges, struggles, and miracles of life in rural Africa.

Achebe writes simple stories, choosing to focus on daily lives and tasks of people living in a developing nation. However, simple stories do not necessarily mean simple interpretations. Achebe’s stories emphasize the irony and discrepancies (and intersections) of personal choice, village politics, and national attitudes. He offers up routines and habits which, upon closer inspection, reveal discrimination, corruption, and the heartbreaking impact of living unknowingly in false hope. Achebe’s attention to detail creates a world full of relatable characters, lively settings, and familiar struggles. Although he certainly draws attention to nuances in village life in Africa, Achebe’s stories also highlight the struggles, victories, and defeats that everyone can relate to.

I loved this collection of stories. Each story is quick to read, no more than a few pages, and creates an entirely unique world with characters, settings, and problems that are both familiar and foreign. His stories also reminded me strongly of village life in Peace Corps, so my perspective on this collection is probably biased by nostalgia. Although his stories focus on complexities and difficulties of village life in Africa, the stories are relevant in any setting. Each story tells the truth of the characters in the story, which is the most important aspect of each piece. Take each story at face value, digest it fully, and consider how it relates to your own life. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 25, 2014

I Am Subject

I Am Subject – Diane DeBella

Women have a lot to offer and to learn by sharing their stories. Not the stories of how women are expected to be – those stories are repeated time and time again until they become a mindless repetition that numbs both the author and the subject. The stories women most need to share are the stories of their lives and struggling to cope with an unexpected reality. The experiences of women past are oddly reminiscent of the stories women continue to share amongst themselves today. Problems in the family contribute to problems in relationships, which all contribute to destructive coping mechanisms that may suffocate any possibility of recovery. One opportunity for breaking the cycle, though, is sharing stories to learn from the lives of other women. Part biography, part anthology, and mostly memoir, “I Am Subject” tells the story of the author that also happens to reflect bits and pieces (or entire segments) of the stories most other women share.

In “I Am Subject,” Diane DeBella integrates her story of being a woman with the stories and lives of women writers and also some of the students she has taught in her college writing courses. DeBella simultaneously explores and teaches how to make meaning out of adversity by learning from the experiences of others. She shares her own struggles and reflects on the similarities and differences between her life and the lives of other women writers and her students. Incorporating multiple perspectives emphasizes both the diversity and sameness of women’s experience, which builds solidarity while also respecting individuality. The range of experiences DeBella explores also allows women to connect to her story in multiple ways. DeBella honestly and painfully demonstrates the multi-faceted lives of women by integrating all these different pieces and perspectives. The overall effect creates a story of admission rather than confession, which is humbling in its vulnerability and liberating in its truth.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this book was the emphasis on personal narrative. Social work tends to pathologize human experience, but DeBella focuses on the story behind the problem, which needs unbelievable strength and courage to share so publicly. This book was hard to read at times for the way it related to my personal life, but because of that, it also had somewhat of a cleansing effect. When society would rather focus on the ideal image, taking the time to analyze difficulties, underlying motivations, and weaknesses offers acceptance and relief. Really, though, the best part about this book was the focus on personal story. It was a nice reminder that people can exist with difficulties without needing to label, diagnose, and prescribe because the fullness of human experience can never fit neatly into a box. Great book, I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

At the age of 16, Hazel Grace Lancaster has terminal cancer. Her parents pulled her out of school three years ago when things were looking bad, but she made a miraculous comeback with the help of a drug that rarely ever produced positive results. Now she attends class a few days as week at the community college and also goes to Support Group in the Literal Heart of Jesus. One day, her Support Group friend Isaac, who is now blind due to cancer, brings his friend Augustus Waters. Hazel Grace and Augustus quickly become the kind of friends that blur the boundaries of friendship. They have shared interests in metaphors, novels, and trips to Amsterdam to visit a reclusive author who wrote a life-altering novel and then turned into a jerk. Hazel resists Augustus all the while, trying not to put him in a situation to be hurt when her cancer wins the ultimate battle, but love fights to be noticed just as much as cancer does. Suddenly and without hesitation, both love and cancer enter Hazel’s life in a way she has never experienced before, and she accepts both as inevitable in her life story.

“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green is a painfully honest novel of young love, young death, and the heartbreaking and inescapable consequences of poor timing. Green poignantly and humorously portrays the difficulties of terminal illness without emphasizing the associated hardships, problems, or pain. By turning insurmountable obstacles into daily routines, Green’s characters demonstrate how to accept reality without being defeated by it. Green alternates between writing with a youthful perspective and one full of wisdom gained through a lifetime of experience condensed into a few short years, emphasizing the tragic irony of the story. Moreover, Green gives life to his characters without being kitschy or relying too heavily on pop culture references so that the youthful perspective feels more nostalgic and wistful than contrived. Perhaps the most important aspect of the story is that Green challenges us to face our own mortality. Facing the incongruence of early death amid a life full of love forces us to reconsider our own priorities in life and how to incorporate them on a daily basis so that each moment counts for its presence and not just its passing.

This book is some combination of beautiful, sarcastic, cynical, inspirational, and eye-opening. As a young adult novel written from a young adult perspective, it makes for a very quick, but substantial, read. Green does not toss around characters, references, or situations designed to grab attention. Everything about his story is thoughtful and intentional. I felt challenged by how the characters wholeheartedly engaged with life and incredibly uncomfortable at being directly confronted with death and mortality, but these are important considerations that should be part of daily life for everyone and not just people with terminal illnesses. There were also quite a few tears shed on my part, so consider that your warning. Well worth the read.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Housekeeping – Marilynn Robinson

After the death of their mother, Ruth and Lucille are left with their grandmother in the small town of Fingerbone. FIngerbone is small, insignificant town where everybody knows everybody else and nobody really has any secrets. Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother is rooted to Fingerbone by loss: the death of her husband, and all three of her daughters moving out. Following the death of their grandmother, Ruth and Lucille are raised by two dotty great aunts for an interval before their aunt Sylvie, their mother’s sister, returns to Fingerbone to take care of the girls. Sylvie returns to the small town surrounded by whispers about a mysteriously absent husband and a past full of transitions. Initially, Ruth and Lucille are almost overbearing in their welcoming of Sylvie because they want her to stay. Gradually, their patterns of life gain some semblance of expectation, but Sylvie’s expectations differ drastically from Lucille’s. Ruth watches as their haphazard family falls apart from the inside out, irreversibly altering her notion of what it means to have a home, be a family, and live according to the expectations of others.

“Housekeeping” by Marilynn Robinson tells the story of living outside social norms while existing physically in the midst of social structures, expectations, and interactions. Told from the reticent perspective of Ruth, Robinson constructs a story and cast of characters that challenge the notion of home more by suggestion rather than direct action. The mere fact that Sylvie exists threatens to undermine the pattern of life in Fingerbone, demonstrating how fragile the notion of “home” really is. Through her writing style and characters, Robinson makes observations that are so subtle and accurate that they might go unnoticed by those who are caught up in typical notions of family. Every line seems carefully crafted to express the perspective of people and things that exist on the periphery. Robinson also challenges the dichotomy of home and wilderness, blurring the boundaries of separation so that it no longer seems desirable that they exist in opposition. The woods, the lake, and the train are all essential elements of life in Fingerbone, but Ruth and Sylvie give new meaning to these long-standing structures. Robinson emphasizes how accidental actions and subtle observations can have more power in their lack of intention than any purposeful reaction to deconstructing social norms.

Something about this book just feels right. The characters, though relatable, are not exceptionally remarkable. Same for the setting. The novel in its entirety has an air of understated but incredibly compelling veracity. It was also interesting to read from a social work perspective because I can see how, from the outside, other people would have to step in to reinforce expected behavior, so I appreciated hearing Ruth’s story from her perspective. Give this book a try. It might seem a bit unusual, but if it doesn’t spark some long-buried need for movement/wandering/change/insert preferred word here, then I’m not sure you are human.