arrow of godArrow of God is a subtle, weighty tale that portrays the dramatic shifts that occurred in West African society due to British colonization of the region in the 1800s and early 1900s. (The novel is set in the early 1900s.) Achebe reveals to readers a traditional culture that’s adjusting to the reality of the European presence in its homeland.

The novel follows the Igbo man Ezeulu, High Priest of the deity Ulu, who is the most important official of Umuaro, an association of six villages that have banded together for mutual protection. As Ezeulu struggles with strife between Umuaro and a neighboring Igbo power, Okperi, the British Administration in the region plans to appoint him Warrant Chief, part of a colonial strategy of indirect rule. But we see very little of the British officers for the first three-quarters of the novel, even though the narrator often refers to various incidents and histories of the white man and his actions. Instead, we are immersed in the life of the village.

The villages are ruled by a group of elders who make decisions together, but as priest of the highest deity, Ezeulu is responsible for certain critical decisions, such as when the villages’ yam crops can be harvested. The fundamentally different methods of rule employed by European and Igbo society is an important theme of the novel. It reveals the misunderstandings and other pressures that invade a society when two societies of uneven power collide. A good part of the novel is a commentary on how customs and cultures shift to accommodate new powers. It’s almost as though we see in the villages of Umuaro the last traditional Igbo villages: their society is becoming something new. This is even clear to some characters, who advocate for change of a tradition that they feel is no longer relevant to their time.

But the struggle for power is not limited to the interactions between the Africans and the white men. Most conflict in the novel is within the society of Umuaro itself. The elders and priests compete for loyalties and power; their interactions are an incessant tug of war. In families, wives and children compete for status and favor. But within these struggles are revealed strict codes of behavior and a strong belief system.

Achebe uses many Igbo terms in his story, many of which are used to name religious rituals, objects, or ideas. While the terms do not make the reading easier, they do make it more interesting and precise. After all, most of the Igbo terms used in the novel likely did not have precise English equivalents because many of the objects and concepts of traditional Igbo life did not exist for the English.

This is the second of Achebe’s novels that I’ve read. The other was Things Fall Apart. Both novels are classics; both are a sort of history of colonization from a Nigerian’s point of view.

If you’d like to read more about how Achebe became a writer and why he writes, there is an interview with him in the Paris Review.

By now you’ve all probably seen the NBA 2014 winners list. On the National Book Foundation’s website there are interviews with winners and some clips from the awards ceremony. I thought I’d round up additional interviews and reviews from other venues.

Redeployment by Phil Klay, the winner in the fiction category, was reviewed by NPR in March 2014. Morning Edition also aired an interview with Klay in March.  And Terry Gross interviewed Klay for Fresh Air after he won the award. You can listen to the Fresh Air interview here. Here are additional interviews with Klay:

Evan Osnos‘s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China was the winner in the nonfiction category. Back in April, C-SPAN aired an hour-long interview with Osnos. The Washington Post also printed an early review. PBS Newshour aired this post-NBA interview with Osnos.

Louise Glück won the prize for poetry for her work Faithful and Virtuous Night. The Poetry Foundation recently interviewed her regarding this work, but I couldn’t find any post-award interviews other than the one on NBF’s website.

Jacqueline Woodson won the prize for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. A pre-award review from the New York Times can be found here. In September, Code Switch aired a profile of Woodson recorded for their program. Woodson’s book is a memoir in free verse. This week, Parade interviewed Woodson to discuss her win.

Finally, Ursula Le Guin received the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She gave a great acceptance speech, which you can watch on her website. She has also linked to a transcript of it.

A month ago I volunteered at the Texas Book Festival. As an author escort, I met several authors and listened to their talks. My favorite event was with Eimear McBride, author of the prize-winning novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and Elizabeth McCracken, whose recent collection Thunderstruck & Other Stories is highly regarded.

I bought the last available copy of A Girl at the festival, but I haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet. I’m feeling a little intimidated by it because reviewers (all of whom seem to love the novel) mention Joycean influence (please let it not be as hard to read as Ulysses, which defeated me) and also compare the writing to Faulkner’s. I think it’s an easy comparison based on the fact that McBride employed a difficult stream-of-consciousness style. But more about that book once I’ve read it.

McBride had a hard time getting the book published. She tried for years before giving up. When it did happen, it was via a local bookseller who was starting his own press. He asked to read her manuscript after a casual conversation with McBride’s husband, who mentioned that his wife had a fantastic manuscript that no publisher was willing to take on. I was so impressed by her story and by the initiative of the bookseller that I began wondering about local indie publishers in general. So I researched and found several indie publishers in Austin that I didn’t know before.

A Strange Object caught my interest as they focus on “surprising, heartbreaking fiction.” Sounds promising. Their most recent title, Our Secret Life in the Movies, was released in October and has received rave reviews. I’m ordering it and can’t wait to read it.

Foxing Quarterly publishes a literary and arts journal that also seems worth checking out. I love that they include a variety of genres and modes of expression. Writers take note: they are accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

Timber Mouse Publishing focuses on spoken word poetry: “Our goal is to promote and give voice to the latest and finest artists of spoken word poetry by building a community to print books, cut records, promote . . . ” They help host and promote some great literary events around town. They also are accepting manuscripts.

Are there indie publishers in your town? Please share in the comments. I’d love to check out their offerings.

 

 

Artprize! I’ve been hearing about this art festival for several years, and I made a last-minute trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan in mid-October to catch the end of it. It was a great time! There were impressive works on display, including paintings, sculptures, music, installations, and even some interactive exhibits. There was one piece that had live bees in it! The artist had mounted paintings in a huge glass box. On the paintings, he painted sugar water, which the bees consumed and used to build hives and honeycombs in the installation. That’s something you don’t see every day.

This year Artprize had about 1,200 artworks on display in venues across downtown Grand Rapids, from the city’s art museum to tiny coffee shops. It seemed like nearly every business downtown had registered as a venue and arranged an exhibit. It really is amazing, and it draws some great artists, because the top cash prizes are $200,000 each (one public vote, one juried). And there are several other cash prizes as well. I could go on and on about it, but instead, I’ll share a few photos (regrettably poor ones–sorry!)

Tesserae by Michael Kellner

Tesserae by Michael Kellner

Gun Country by Michael Murphy

Gun Country by Michael Murphy

Intersections by Anila Quayyum Agha

Intersections by Anila Quayyum Agha

Self-Portrait as Bunnies (The Bather) by Alex Podesta

Self-Portrait as Bunnies (The Bather) by Alex Podesta

This piece is a carved wood sculpture. No stains or paints were used; the woods used were naturally those colors!

This piece is a carved wood sculpture. No stains or paints were used; the woods used were naturally those colors!

Japanese papercut by Solo + Kojima

Japanese papercut by Solo + Kojima

For those lucky people upgrading to iOS8, Apply is offering a Great Free Books promotion. I hear the offer is being extended in multiple countries and languages, although I haven’t independently confirmed that. Obviously, different titles will be offered in different places as copyright law allows. Here’s a link to the U.S. offer. (The link will open iTunes.) In other countries, you should be able to simply open iTunes, go to the Books menu, and find information there. Happy reading!

The National Book Foundation has announced the longlist for the nonfiction award. There are 10 nominees. The titles cover some heavy topics this year (war, the meaning of human existence, dementia, for example). But they sound interesting, and I’m sure to add a few of them to my “to read” list. You can read more here. Now that the nominees have been named, I’m sure we’ll see a flurry of interviews with them. I look forward to those!

I’ll a little behind with this, but the fiction longlist for the National Book Awards is available! I’m excited to see Emily St. John Mandel’s latest book listed. (Also, Emily St. John Mandel will be at the Texas Book Festival this October!)

BookPeople's Blog

NBA-fiction-longlist

The National Book Award Foundation announced their Fiction Longlist last night. It’s an exciting list! We were happy to see many staff favorites recognized.

thunderstruck

Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken
We have signed First Editions Available!

Elizabeth McCracken is one of our own! An Austinite, she holds the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas and the Associate Director for UT’s New Writers Project. We hosted a big ol’ event to help her launch Thunderstruck. This is the second time she’s been up for a National Book Award; her previous novel, The Giant’s House, was also a finalist for the award.

Julie thoroughly enjoyed this collection: “McCracken explores the unexpected avenues of loss in this absorbing new collection. What I love about McCracken is knowing that the characters I meet on her pages will never be typical. I come again and again to the little girl dressed as Patrick…

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I had so much fun reading Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements, that I picked up her second, Astonish Me, the following month. I confess that I expected something very like Seating Arrangements–a perfect mix of humor and bad behavior. And this second novel is like Shipstead’s first in that her writing is technically just as good. The story itself, however, is less fresh.

The novel spans two decades, beginning  in the 70s in New York City, where we join a young ballet dancer and her friends as they navigate life in an elite dance company. Our heroine, Joan, falls in love with the world-famous Aslan, a Russian dancer who has just escaped his home country to join the ballet in New York. But it’s not a relationship that will stick, and Joan knows she will never be a soloist. So she moves on.

The story is told non-linearly, switching between Joan’s life dancing in New York and her life after she leaves the company. She marries, she moves away from New York, she has a child, she teaches ballet. Her son takes her classes and when, as a teenager, he moves to New York to dance, Joan’s old and new worlds collide. The results are intense, even melodramatic.

The problem with the novel is that the characters are a little empty, a little too stereotypical. They weren’t as engaging, as simultaneously likeable and flawed, as the characters in Seating Arrangements. And… I have to say that I didn’t care for the ending, which I found unsatisfying and even a touch distasteful. Overall, it was an enjoyable read, and I’ll probably read Shipstead’s next book, but this one doesn’t make it to my list of favorites.

 

 

 

“Read, read, read. Read everything.” –William Faulkner

Last summer I spent a lot of time reading. I read for many hours each week. I read Beloved (Morrison), August Light (Faulkner), Jane Eyre (Bronte), To the Lighthouse (Woolf), and a number of others. My favorite was The Ice Palace, a short novel by an author I’d never encountered before–the inimitable Tarjei Vesaas of Norway.

What prompted this literary journey, you ask? I discovered a course–a free course–on Coursera.org. I thought, “That sounds interesting. I’ll give it a try.” The course was called The Fiction of Relationship. It was taught by Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University. And it was amazing. The professor is amazing. The content is wonderful. I credit this course with reawakening my love of reading, which in turn inspired me to start writing this blog.

I’m telling you about this because I just learned that Coursera is offering the class again! It’s happening right now. Officially, it began a week ago, but you may still be able to enroll at coursera.org. (And, no, no one asked me to promote this. I just think it’s a genuinely great class.)

 

A couple of weeks ago I learned from this Slate article that The New Yorker paywall is down for a couple of months, and all articles from 2007 to the present are available for FREE reading! I’ve read several of the pieces on Slate’s list and the reporting and writing is so good. I knew this; I’ve read the magazine before, but I guess I had forgotten. I started with “Taken” and “The Apostate”–both pieces of great reporting, if somewhat troubling. Actually, “Taken” is more than somewhat troubling. It was a total bummer. But I’m still glad I read it.

The articles on this list are all fairly long. Like most people, I’ve become accustomed to much shorter reads, so these articles felt like a real commitment. But they were worth following through. I’ve so enjoyed these longer articles that I subscribed to Longreads, and now I get a weekly email with looks to some of the best online longreads of each week.