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Review: Jazz by Toni Morrison

“What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it?”

The early 20th century marked the growth of jazz music in America. In the 1920’s the music spread into parts such as New Orleans, and Harlem, the ‘City’ where we find the characters in Jazz. The music began way before it was labelled jazz, from the days of slavery when people would sing to pass time, to bleed away the sadness with their voices and to keep the African voice alive.

Louis Armstrong

What sets jazz music apart is the element of improvisation, which gives artists the ability to express themselves in any way they want, and still keep a soulful and enjoyable rhythm. This element is what I first noticed about the way this story mirrors the genre itself.

Middle-aged Joe Trace meets eighteen-year-old Dorcas when he’s selling cosmetics at her aunt’s place. Thereafter begins their affair and months later when Dorcas grows tired of him, he shoots her after following her to a party. Joe’s wife Violet arrives at the funeral and slashes the dead girl’s face with a knife. Some weeks after the funeral Violet starts visiting Dorcas’s aunt and the visits become regular. Meanwhile, Joe is lost in deep grief for this dead lover.     

Jazz music has travelled with black African-Americans, their experiences, struggles, pains, and joys, through song and dance. The narrator, whose identity we don’t know, tells the story and relates the scenes in the same change of notes, short and long, as in jazz music. We encounter the love triangle in many parts of the book, repeated in a way that reveals something new or reminds us of something we know.

Toni Morrison splits open the characters and feeds us the right pieces throughout the story, creating a sort of web that takes from their pasts and connects back to the present, to the love triangle and its tragedy. We discover pieces from these characters’ fractured identities and come to understand how they are connected without them knowing they are, and why they behave the way they do.

I read Sula before Jazz and whereas with the former I loved the story and the characters more, with the latter I absolutely loved the storytelling. It felt like I was reading a long beautiful poem. I do have to mention, however, that I had tried to read it about three times and couldn’t get past the first chapter and once I finally got into it I figured it was because you have to stay with the narrator and not get lost. For me, it required my full attention, unlike other books that I’ve read with less focus and could still follow.

Jazz is an unforgettable piece of art. It’s powerful literature that achieves the goal of leaving the reader moved and having learned something deep and valuable about the human condition, as good literature often does. The characters come to you in flesh and bone, and throughout the story, you taste their realness and hear their voices. Their individual stories, which the narrator reveals by travelling back and forth through time, become so palpable and make it possible for the reader to keep diving in for more and more.

Brilliant. Exquisite. Important.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Review: The Mourning Bird by Mubanga Kalimamukwento

“‘NEVER LET AN OWL STAY, mwanake,’ my father warned. ‘Why, Tate?’ I asked him. ‘Because,’ he replied, throwing a stone at the mango tree, ‘they are a bad omen. They mourn at night so that we mourn in the morning.'”

– The Mourning Bird, Mubanga Kalimamukwento

The 1990s in Zambia were a devastating period of a crumbling economy, election riots and an attempted coup. It is in this same period that we meet eleven-year-old Chimuka and her family, and the tragedies that befall them.

Chimuka’s father dies from the concealed hands of AIDS, leaving her behind with her two younger brothers, the toddler being born sick, her mother and the belligerence of his bitter family. Their lives undergo a devastating change, reducing them to savage circumstances.

When loss strikes the family again, Chimuka and her brother Ali are all they have and end up on the streets, where drugs, hunger, rape, prostitution and theft become their reality.

There are books that bombard the reader with one tragedy after the other, and end up creating a boring and predictable text. However, in The Mourning Bird, Mubanga Kamlimamukwento handles these events with such impressive literary decorum, resulting in a beautiful yet heart-wrenching story. It reminded me a bit of Boy, Interrupted by Saah Millimono (war, poverty and child soldiers) but with triple the trauma, the anguish and tear-jerking.

I have to say, this story is certainly not for the lily-livered. At some point I wanted to stop reading it, afraid of the rawness of the reality it mirrors. Kamlimamukwento perceptively penetrates hard issues such as infidelity, HIV/AIDS and the secrecy that accompanies it, suicide, family betrayal and neglect, rape and prostitution.

It is undeniably impressive how, instead of creating a theme that is lightly sprinkled onto a story, she merges the story and these issues into one raw flesh, which terrifies and at the same time never fails to astonish you.

I loved everything about the book, from the plot, the characters, to the language and evident talent in writing rich prose. The one small spot that I would criticise would be the ending of the story. Throughout the book, the pace has been steady while the end comes in with a quick resolution, which could have been stretched out a little more than it was done.

The Mourning Bird is definitely for the brave but I wouldn’t advise anyone against reading it. It will open your eye to the weight that a country’s failings, blemishes and turmoil has on people. It is sad but powerful and unforgettable.

Mubanga Kalimamukwento is a Zambian award-winning novelist, a mother of two and a criminal lawyer. She’s a fellow of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program and the Young African Leaders Initiative. The Mourning Bird won the 2019 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. She also won the Kalemba Short Story Prize, and was shortlisted for the SyncityNG Anthology and the Bristol Short Story Prize in the same year.

Review: Harriet Rubin Gives Us A Machiavelli For Women With ‘The Princessa’

PRINCESSA: She who takes first place.

There are books that have occupied a large space in the literary scene, in business, and in life, that have been written by men and mostly speak to men. I recently read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli and although I could dissect the book, understand what it’s about and the message it communicates, I didn’t feel that it was written with women as its audience. There are so many books like that and it shows how we still have to create space for ourselves if we want to teach and learn from each other.

In my search for books that are as powerful and as influential, I found this gem. Women have been excluded as an audience for literary texts that give advice on power, wealth, war and conflict, as though women are not meant to participate in them or in the conversation. The Princessa brings to attention how women have not had a language for the fight, be it personal, social or work-related and Harriet Rubin gives us a manual on how to face these battles. After reading this book I understood why she says women cannot rely on The Prince because it doesn’t speak to women.

What is so interesting about the book is that it brings to light how fighting men’s war and fighting by their rules don’t get women anywhere. She points out that playing by the rules of the game when the rules were not designed to enhance her strengths, will not bring us to victory.  

The Princessa is divided into three easy-to-read (I read it in one night) sections: the book of Strategy, of Tactics and of Subtle Weapons. Rubin shows us how women often fear conflict and also fear triumph because of the guilt of winning. She then gives advice on how to deal with these fears, how to fight strategically and how to win wars on our own terms.

Rubin also makes a good point when she talks about combining both the terror and the wonder of being female. She advises that women should learn to combine opposites and not use one while ashamed of the other. I absolutely agree with this because of how women are usually made to feel small or weak for things that are naturally built in us. In The Princessa we learn how to use these frowned upon qualities to our advantage when dealing with our enemies.

“Enlarge the space in which you can be strong.”

– Harriet Rubin, The Princessa

Unlike The Prince where ruthlessness and deception are mostly encouraged, The Princessa doesn’t cripple the enemy, she doesn’t fear the enemy’s strength but rather uses it, and she needs proximity to her enemy because an enemy today could be her ally tomorrow.

The last part talks about knowing your weapons and how the right weapons can turn the war in your favour. I found this so important because sometimes we don’t understand where to begin when faced with battles and conflict, and how to overcome those challenges. It could be with a lover, a friend, a boss or a business partner. With the right weapons and knowing how to use them, thriving follows.

There are a number of princessas that she mentions in the book such as Ayn Rand, Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday and Anna Akhmatova.

As a woman, I can tell you that after reading The Prince I was glad to find The Princessa. I could understand the language better. Unlike having to dissect The Prince and take from its male audience directed advice and re-piecing it together to create meaning for a woman, it spoke straight to me and I believe it’s a good manual for other women. It’s definitely for women and certainly offers good tactics and strategies that can be applied to the daily battles that we face.

Finding The Way To Power With Niccolò Machiavelli in ‘The Prince’

REVIEW

MACHIAVELLIAN: “Cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics.” – (Lexico.com/Oxford Dictionary)

The Prince is a pragmatic manual for those who wish to attain power, maintain or expand it. It is set against the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance and was written by Niccolò Machiavelli, who with the aim to make an impression dedicated it to Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Machiavelli begins by describing the different types of states and how they are acquired. He also states the challenges they each represent and how to overcome them. There’s a reason it has been associated with the words in the above definition and why it’s considered by some to be unethical and immoral. It is also debatable whether it can be used for good or bad intentions; to attain power in order to unify and create peace or to feed tyrannical appetites.

The book mostly separates politics from ethics and Machiavelli’s opinion of mankind is not the most positive, as he describes them as ‘fickle’, that people are generally self-interested (which is true to some extent), and how their goodwill can be manipulated. Deception is quite the star in this book. According to Machiavelli, power can be gained by deception instead of force. When it comes to being loved by the people, his advice is that being feared is much more sustainable. The middle part of the book is on preparation for warfare and the last part is about the qualities of a prince or qualities he should pretend to have. He also mentions certain figures to make examples, such as Cesare Borgia who was clearly a big inspiration to him.

This book has been influential in politics and can be seen in the way affairs are run in many states. Politicians are known to overpromise and under deliver, to carry out the deception of making false promises and later make excuses. It is also a book that speaks to the self-interested and power-hungry. However, if used with a careful interpretation, it could be used to gain power to lead with good intentions for the wellbeing of the state and its people.  

It’s a short and clear, simply constructed and without superfluous wording, as he himself says, “…not adorned with long phrases or high sounding words.” For many years, it has had and still has a notable place in the political sphere. Despite its association with cunningness, scheming and ruthlessness its advice can be used to create good strategies in business, leadership and politics. I believe how you use it or what you seek from it can influence how you enjoy it, or not.

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

A Review of Tara Westover’s ‘Educated’

“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.”
― Tara Westover, Educated

Just after I reviewed Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I read it again and just went back to the traumas and shocking details of her life. Then I found this book, Educated, and I just had to take a break and just…what in the f**ked up world are we living in? Anyway, let’s get to it.

Tara Westover, the youngest of seven children, grew up in a family of Mormon fundamentalists in rural Idaho. Her parents were survivalists who believed Y2K was definitely going to be the end of the world. The eldest kids were taken out of school to protect them from the Illuminati. The last four kids were “homeschooled”, which was more of learning from the Bible, the Book of Mormon and similar books, without any academic instruction.

Tara’s father built sheds and scraped metal in his junkyard. The children also worked in the junkyard and there are so many stories of freak accidents (gashed legs, severe burns and falls) that were not taken to the hospital. Their parents did not believe in any government institutions, and not just medical and educational but the last four kids didn’t even get birth certificates.

Her mom was an unlicensed midwife and from making herbal remedies, she also added muscle testing and energy work. Her husband called her practice “God’s pharmacy”, which was how everyone was treated when they were sick, injured and even after the family had been in two terrible car accidents.

Tara intelligently describes her upbringing and the dimensions of her family’s beliefs and attitudes towards so many issues that an outsider’s eye would find deeply concerning. For example, the physical and mental abuse that one of her elder brothers puts her through, and the family “not seeing it” and eventually that being one of the reasons that her family turns against her. We see the extent of how her father’s word was her reality for all of her childhood and how when she stepped into the world outside her home, there’s so much imbalance and struggle.

Educated is aptly titled, because we get to see how Westover finds herself, discovers the world outside the one created by her family for her and how she rescues herself through education. She only entered a classroom for the first time at the age of seventeen, taught herself and self-studied for the ACT to get into Brigham Young University, which she did. She went off to a fellowship at Cambridge University and eventually studied at Harvard. She and two other siblings got their PhDs, which I guess can also be credited to the toughness and belief in self-sustenance that their father raised them with, as messed up as it may have been.

“The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.”
― Tara Westover, Educated

Some of the events in this book are so unsettling but at the same time the way she overcomes them and manages to thrive beyond the struggle is incredibly inspiring. This memoir will motivate you, in a way. You learn how much power you possess, whatever your background and system of beliefs instilled in you.

I’d suggest that you grab a copy today and dive into this chaotic yet educating journey with Tara. You’ll love it.  

One Indian Girl by Chetan Bhagat

“Why do we need our men to praise and validate us in order for us to feel accomplished?” 

Radhika Mehta is getting ready to get married this week. It’s going to be a big event; a destination wedding in Goa with a large number of family members from both her side and Brijesh’s.

She works at Goldman Sachs and makes tons of money, young and making moves in her career. To her mother’s dismay she’s too opinionated, too feminist and is not the child that behaves accordingly. The daughter who is always compared to her sister.

Things start spinning out of control when first an ex-boyfriend who dumped her and made her relocate to Hong Kong, calls her and is on the way to Goa. As if that’s not enough, the man she met in Hong Kong and fell in love with but also ended up heartbroken over also makes it to Goa with his own intentions. All three men are here and she has a hard decision to make.

It’s a not a bad story at all but there are times when it can be taxing. The main character’s strong feminist ideas and arguments sometimes contradict her actions. There is also something exhausting about a character who constantly seeks pity from the reader where it isn’t due. At times it becomes difficult to understand where she’s coming from and you want to shout, “Oh get over it already!”

It is, however, a relief when after all the power she has given to all these men in the past, and the power she has given to tradition as pressured by family, she finally takes her power back and that’s refreshing.

One Indian Girl is not completely a waste of time but if you’re not ready to sit down listening to someone whine about things she could easily avoid, then you might put it down early. If you’re into typical Hollywood drama then this is your book.

The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan

“Lagos is a beast with bared fangs and a voracious appetite for human flesh.”

Lagos is known for its restlessness, its hustle and rapidly growing population. It’s the economic engine of Nigeria but also humming with people trying to reach into its pockets for survival.

I’ve read quite a number of modern Nigerian literature and most of them, even the most positive and beautiful stories, have a piece that would fit with the next to create a picture of Lagos truly as a carnivorous city. This story dives into this city to show us how sharp its teeth can be.

Abel Dike is a small-town teacher whose brother Soni is a criminal turned grandee. Soni has it all – the mansions, the beautiful wife and child, the millions, the flashy cars. One day his Jag is found in a ditch with music blaring, and Soni nowhere to be seen. There is no blood, no damage, and nothing to suggest gunshots. Abel arrives in Lagos to join the search for his brother and so begins a journey that will swallow him full into the belly of Lagos.

Through the rollercoaster trip of suspects and stories, Abel still doesn’t find his brother. But while he’s searching, signing cheques for things that need to be maintained and taken care of, he’s overwhelmed by the quick change that has taken place in his life. He went from his shabby lifestyle to wearing his brother’s luxurious shoes just overnight.

This story shows the contrast between brothers, one the hero and the other a coward. The distance that can occur when close people go in separate ways. We see the character take over his brother’s life, in almost every sense and along the pages we don’t know if he really wants to find his brother or not.

The Carnivorous City has drama, seduction, betrayal, and loyalty. We witness the madness and brutality of Lagos. In Abel’s pursuit we discover how in this flesh-eating city, in the life of money and greed, trust is a “shapeshifter.” Trust is likened to quicksand and we see for ourselves as Abel meets all kinds of people that worked with and for his brother.

Kan articulates his story well, bringing the city to life and drawing a clear picture for the reader to really get in there and get a good experience. The climax can be difficult to find and when found does not really punch you in the gut. However, the plot is good enough to have you leafing through for hours. 

I’d recommend this to readers who enjoy modern African literature that is honest with its representation but does not seek sympathy for it. It’s not a poor country, poor city and its people, but rather authentic and entertainingly frank.