The Month in Books - April 2009

At the start of 2009, I set a goal to read 30,000 pages by year's end. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid last year's bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in April:

  1. Going After Cacciato - Tim O'Brien (review)
  2. Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (review)

Pages Read: 686
Year-to-Date: 12,826

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

garciamarquez_love.jpgOne of my snooty ways of judging the literary merits of a bookstore is to check whether they stock the novels of Gabriel García Márquez under M for Márquez, or where they actually belong, under G for García Márquez. If I recall correctly, Barnes & Noble gets it wrong while Borders gets it right. Incidentally, Borders also gets credit from me for following the practice of not segregating biographies within their own category, instead interspersing them in the appropriate genre (e.g. Lincoln in U.S. history, Einstein in science).

But I digress. García Márquez is one of the few modern foreign writers who has been able to transcend the bias against works in literature and establish himself firmly in the American literary canon. In addition to his Nobel Prize, García Márquez also earned a spot in the most recent edition of Clifton Fadiman's New Lifetime Reading Plan, and had two works chosen in a recent list of the 100 Most Meaningful Books (a feat matched by Faulkner, Flaubert, Homer, Mann, and Woolf, and bested only by Dostoevsky, Kafka, Shakespeare and Tolstoy; pretty good company).

Love in the Time of Cholera is the third of García Márquez's novels that I have read. I started with his most popular work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was a big hit amongst my high school friends who read it in Spanish class, but slipped by me until I read it in the spring of my first year of law school. I certainly enjoyed it and recognized the merit of the story of Macombo and the Buendia family, but must say that it did not meet my quite lofty expectations. Even more disappointing was his slim 1994 novel about 12-year-old Sierva Maria and the priest who falls in love with her, Of Love and Other Demons. How García Márquez managed to make such a mess of a book with less than 150 pages is beyond me.

Still, Love in the Time of Cholera is so widely lauded that it seemed a mistake not to read it simply because I was put off by one of the author's lesser works. And I am glad I did. While it does not match the majestic sweep of One Hundred Years of Solitude's multi-generational narrative, it displays the author's characteristic knack for imaginative storytelling. The book opens with the visit of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a respected doctor in a South American port city on the Caribbean, to the home of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, a friend of Dr. Urbino's who has just committed suicide. After observing the body and reading the shocking information revealed in Saint-Amour's farewell letter, Dr. Urbino leaves to attend a party and contemplate the events of the day. The chapter focuses so deeply on Dr. Urbino and his thoughts that it comes as quite an abrupt surprise to see his absurd demise come that very same day:

Dr. Urbino caught the parrot around the neck with a triumphant sigh: ca y est. But he released him immediately because the ladder slipped from under his feet and for an instant he was suspended in air and then he realized that he had died without Communion, without time to repent of anything or to say goodbye to anyone, at seven minutes after four on Pentecost Sunday.

Fermina Daza was in the kitchen tasting the soup for supper when she heard Digna Pardo's horrified shriek and the shouting of the servants and then of the entire neighborhood. She dropped the tasting spoon and tried her best to run despite the invincible weight of her age, screaming like a mad woman without knowing yet what had happened under the mango leaves, and her heart jumped inside her ribs when she saw her man lying on his back in the mud, dead to this life but still resisting death's final blow for one last minute so that she would have time to come to him. He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:

"Only God knows how much I loved you."

It was a memorable death, and not without reason.

After Dr. Urbino's death, the story takes an unusual turn, after focusing so closely on Dr. Urbino and his deceased chess partner. For as contented as Fermina Daza may have been in her marriage, her relationship with Dr. Urbino was neither the first nor the last great love story of her life. Waiting behind as the other guests leave the funeral party at Fermina Daza's home is "a useful and serious old man" by the name of Florentino Ariza:

[B]efore she could thank him for the visit, he placed his hat over his heart, tremulous and dignified, and the abscess that had sustained his life finally burst.

"Fermina," he said, "I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeate to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love."

Fermina Daz would have thought she was facing a madman if she had not reason to believe that at that moment Florentino Ariza was inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Her first impulse was to curse him for profaning the house when the body of her husband was still warm in the grave. But the dignity of her fury held her back. "Get out of here," she said. "And don't show your face again for the years of life that are left to you." She opened the street door, which she had begun to close, and concluded:

"And I hope there are very few of them."

Surely not the reaction Florentino Ariza had been hoping for. We soon learn that Florentino and Fermina were teenage sweethearts, and that Florentino has been waiting more than five decades for Juvenal Urbino's death to renew the pursuit. Those five decades fill much of the remainder of the book, as García Márquez details the origins of Florentino and his family, Fermina and hers, and how their clandestine epistolary relationship was abruptly halted by Fermina just as it seemed about to be realized. Florentino's professed love for Fermina never fades, despite her subsequent marriage to Dr. Urbino, her bearing of children, and the passage of decade after decade.

One of the great questions raised by the novel is whether Florentino's interminable affection for Fermina is an admirable example of love's durability or a cautionary tale about idealized obsession. García Márquez finishes the book with great panache, a talent sadly scarce amongst otherwise skilled novelists, so I am especially reluctant to discuss the final chapters which detail events after the night of Dr. Urbino's funeral party, but I think the conclusion leaves plenty of room to ponder the wisdom of Florentino's fixation.

I will note that I was rather bothered by the behavior Florentino engages in with América Vicuña, a 14-year old girl. Florentino, by then a quite aged man, is chosen by her parents as her guardian when she is sent to his town for schooling. He commences a sexual relationship with her but ends it upon the death of Dr. Urbino. The girl's subsequent emotional spiral and suicide come as little surprise, but seem to have relatively little effect on the old man. I'd like to give García Márquez the benefit of the doubt and assume this subplot is intended to demonstrate the moral depravity of Florentino, but the repetition of this theme in the author's later novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores leaves me with some doubt.

April Classical CD Purchases

On Monday I discussed my (once again) renewed interest in classical music, and the six CDs I purchased shortly before departing Kuwait. I have been enjoying these discs immensely over the past several weeks, finally putting the built-in CD holder in my car's armrest to good use. Sitting in a few minutes of Atlanta traffic is made substantially more serene when accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach's Cello Suites.

In keeping with my desire for a gradual reimmersion into the classical music realm, my plan is was to place one order for new CDs every couple weeks or so, with a budget of $25. This is sufficient for roughly 2-3 titles, with the occasional splurge for a boxed set. I placed the first such order ten days ago:

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There is a sizable contingent that thinks Glenn Gould owns the Goldberg Variations. After all, his 1955 recording, which Gould himself came to dislike, launched his much lauded career. Whatever his merits as a pianist, Gould drives me to distraction as a recording musician. The man audibly hummed while he played, sound engineers were unable to find a way to isolate this from their microphones, and so the humming is prominently displayed on all of Gould's albums. In any event, Murray Perahia's interpretation, which introduced me to the work, is a gorgeously-recorded revelation that easily rivals Gould, humming or not.

My affection for Grumiaux's recording of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas quickly led me to his performance of the composer's concertos. The Belgian virtuoso was Philips' go-to violinist for many years, and we continue to reap the rewards of that recording relationship. I have also admired Nathan Milstein's reading of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas, so when I saw his version of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concertos available for under $4, it seemed a worthwhile bet.

You may have noticed the strikethrough above regarding what the plan "is." Borders threw a wrench in the "gradual" aspect of my reimmersion last week with a 40%-off sale on selected CDs. I had actually stopped by just to return a book, but then wandered over to the classical music area to browse for a moment. Lo and behold, many of the discs had a little orange sticker which signified a 40% discount. What with Amazon's prices fluctuating on a daily basis, and some discs (especially mid-price) having no online discount at all, it seemed worthwhile to at least take a look. That look turned into three trips to two different Borders, and quite a bevy of titles for my nascent collection:

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Not so gradual a beginning as I had planned, but it is hard to feel bad considering I snagged these fifteen albums for about $100. The bad news is that this sale may be a harbinger of Borders' demise; at least I can say I did my part to boost the company's cash flow.

Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

obrien_going.jpgTim O'Brien's masterpiece novel, The Things They Carried (reviewed here), is a riveting look at the psychological experience of the Vietnam War, and living with the memories of the conflict. Written in 1990, more than a decade and a half after American troops left Vietnam, it is a classic of war fiction and one of the best books I read last year.

During a brief visit to Augusta, Georgia, on the way to a vacation in Charleston, I was browsing through a local bookstore and noticed a nice hardcover copy of one of O'Brien's earlier works, Going After Cacciato. O'Brien's second novel was published in 1978, in closer proximity to the end of the war, and was awarded the National Book Award the following year. I bought Going After Cacciato in large part based on my admiration for The Things They Carried, but unfortunately the older book does not compare favorably.

Cacciato is a young Soldier in an American infantry squad stationed in the jungles of Vietnam in 1968-69. On the second page of the book, word reaches the platoon leader that Cacciato has decided not to stick around for the duration of his tour:

"Cacciato," Doc repeated. "The kid's let us. Split for parts unknown."

The lieutenant did not sit up. With one hand he cupped his belly, with the other he guarded a red glow. The srufaces of his eyes were moist.

"Gone to Paris," Doc said.

The platoon leader gathers together the remainder of Cacciato's squad, including Specialist Paul Berlin, and sets out to track Cacciato down. The first chapter ends with the squad apparently cornering Cacciato on a grassy hill, preparing to storm his makeshift camp. With the second chapter, the story shifts abruptly. Now we are with Paul Berlin in an observation post located near the sea in Quang Ngai. The search for Cacciato is in the past, as Berlin is thinking about the event, about Cacciato's plan to flee to Paris with his squadmates trailing behind:

Paul Berlin, whose only goal was to live long enough to establish goals worth living for still longer, stood high in the tower by the sea, the night soft all around him, and wondered, not for the first time, about the immense powers of his own imagination. A truly awesome notion. Not a dream, an idea. An idea to develop, to tinker with and build and sustain, to draw out as an artist draws out his visions.

It was not a dream. Nothing mystical or crazy, just an idea. Just a possibility. Feet turning hard like stone, legs stiffening, six and seven and eight thousand miles through unfolding country toward Paris. A truly splendid idea.

Though it is not completely apparent at first, this idea fills the bulk of Going After Cacciato, the imagined journey of Berlin and his squad following Cacciato from Vietnam to Paris. This fantastic tale alternates with chapters set in the "present" in the observation post, as well as chapters which detail Berlin's flashback memories of the numerous deaths of comrades preceding Cacciato's flight.

There are parts of the book that work; in particular, the chapters discussing the traumatic experiences of Berlin and his unit are often searing, and resemble the best aspects of The Things They Carried. I was also impressed by the chapter titled "Atrocities On the Road to Paris," which features a surreal interrogation of the squad, arrested as they traveled through Tehran, by an agent of SAVAK, the Shah's security service:

"Just a war," Doc said. "There's nothing new to tell."

Captain Fahyi Rhallon smiled. "Not to contradict, but I must disagree... Each soldier, he has a different war. Even if it is the same war it is a different war. Do you see this?"

"Perceptual set," Doc Peret said.

The captain nodded. He was leaning forward over the table. His eyes were brilliant black. "Perceptual set! Yes, that is it. In battle, in a war, a soldier sees only a tiny fragment of what is available to be seen. The soldier is not a photographic machine. He is not a camera. He registers, so to speak, only those few items that he is predisposed to register and not a thing more. Do you understand this? So I am saying to you that after a battle each soldier will have different stories to tell, vastly different stories, and that when a war is ended it is as if there have been a million wars, or as many wars as there were soldiers."

Unfortunately, these quality passages are the exception, and are insufficient to tie the book together. One can surely sympathize with Paul's desire to invent an escapist fantasy to inject a modicum of hope into the otherwise bleak situation he finds himself in, pulling night duty in a remote observation post in Vietnam, haunted by the deaths of his comrades. But unless the reader finds himself presently in such a situation, it is hard to see what purpose is served by this framework; from very early on, it is obvious the journey to Paris is wholly imagined. There is never any question or tension about its imaginary nature. And as a result, the events of the journey make little impact. Surrealism is just not interesting as a commentary on the consciously imagined.

Classical Music: A Gradual Reimmersion

A few years ago, I experienced a surge of interest in classical music. Though I'd always had an affinity for such music, with a decided preference for works that showcased the violin, I underwent an intense, albeit brief, obsession during my last year of law school. Perhaps this is a strangely cyclical experience; during my last deployment to Kuwait, I felt the urge again.

This time, however, I am determined to take things slow. During the last iteration of classically-oriented compulsion, I purchased so many new discs in a short span that I was unable to provide each piece with its proper share of attention. The best music, of any genre, only improves upon repeated listening, and I intend to pursue a gradual approach this time around.

It might be worth a few words to explain why I am, at this late stage in the digital music revolution, going back to purchasing physical CDs. The simplest answer is that the price is just not much different. Unlike popular music, where one might purchase a few songs from any particular album, it would be rather odd to download a single movement from an symphony or concerto. Many discs are now so inexpensive that there are no savings at all for buying digital. Not to mention the benefits of owning the CD itself: a medium that is not subject to compressed encoding or DRM restrictions and that often comes with attractive and informative liner notes. And I can still get all the benefits of digital downloads by ripping the purchased CD to my hard drive and Ipod.

I placed my first order just a few days before I left Kuwait, so that they would be waiting for me upon my return in March. Though I limited myself to a budget of $50 (and almost stayed within that budget), this was probably the easiest order I'll place; I simply bought my very favorite works:

bach_sonatas_grumiaux.jpgbach_cello_ma.jpgrachmaninoff_piano_ashkenazy.jpgdvorak_cello_fournier.jpgdvorak_slavonic_szell.jpgsaint-saens_introduction_perlman.jpg

The Grumiaux Bach has been the standard for me since I was introduced to it by my violin instructor (I spent a single quixotic year taking lessons in high school). Ma and Ashkenazy are top-flight performers who can be trusted with just about anything in the repertoire and these recordings of Bach and Rachmaninoff, respectively, are nicely mid-priced. The Fournier Dvořák is not as famous as Rostropovich's recording with Karajan, but is a steal at its budget price. The only disc I have reservations about is the budget-priced Slavonic Dances, which are professionally handled by Szell but seem timid next to the fiery rendition conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Sometimes it is worth a few dollars more to get the best.

I augmented these with a disc of violin showpieces featuring Itzhak Perlman, my favorite violinist, backed by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. This disc collects a series of works either written by or for violin virtuosos of the past couple centuries. I had a CD of Perlman's "greatest hits" in high school that featured these recordings, and it quickly became a preferred disc in my collection. Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is my favorite piece of music and Perlman's version was actually the inspiration for my brief attempt to learn to play the violin (I did not quite get to Saint-Saens).

All the Names by Jose Saramago

saramago_all.jpgA couple of years ago I read a bizarre, extraordinary novel by Portuguese Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago titled Blindness. That book, which depicted the consequences of a plague of blindness descending upon an entire city, has since been made into an apparently mediocre film. Much of what struck me as most unusual about that wonderful book, the fabulous imaginings, the strangely sparse punctuation, turn out to be trademarks of much of Saramago's fiction.

Unfortunately, these stylistic calling cards, particularly the long unbroken paragraphs and lack of quotation marks (dialogue is divided only by commas), seem to deter many prospective readers or confuse otherwise intrepid ones. This is shame because a novel like All the Names, while unusual in form, is reasonably accessible in substance.

The story's protagonist is Senhor José, a clerk at the unnamed city's Central Registry, a government office that tracks the birth, death, and marriage of every person on individual record cards (José's last name is a mystery; it is surely no coincidence that the author's own last name was actually his father's nickname, mistakenly recorded as a surname by, you guessed it, the registrar). As one might imagine, the collection of records is unceasingly growing; the cards are segregated between living and dead, with the files for the newly deceased removed and taken to the farthest reaches of the preposterously expanding vault:

The papers pertaining to those no longer alive are to be found in a more or less organised state in the rear of the building, the back wall of which, from time to time, has to be demolished and rebuilt some yards farther on as a consequence of the unstoppable rise in the number of the deceased.

In addition to its wondrously archaic archives, the Central Registry also features a rigidly hierarchical personnel system, which manifests itself physically in the office. The eight clerks sit in a row of desks facing the customer service counter; behind them is a row of four desks for the senior clerks, then a row of two desks for the deputy registrars, followed by the Registrar himself. Furthermore, communication is only to be made by members of adjacent levels; thus the clerks never speak to the deputies or Registrar, and any messages they receive come through the senior clerks. The allocation of work should ring familiar to anyone who has worked in a government office:

The distribution of tasks among the various employees follows a simple rule, which is that the duty of the members of each category is to do as much work as they possibly can, so that only a small part of that work need be passed to the category above. This means that the clerks are obliged to work without cease from morning to night, whereas the senior clerks do so only now and then, the deputies very rarely, and the Registrar almost never.

Senhor José is by all appearances a diligent clerk, and perhaps the lack of promotion during his decades of service can be explained by the dearth of advancement opportunities. Though at one time all Registry employees lived in homes adjoining the Registry building, all but José's have been torn down. Senhor José has a single hobby that fills his free time: he collects clippings about local celebrities. Harmless enough at first, the hobby takes a provocative turn when he realizes his collection lacks some of the most basic information he has access to: the celebrities' Registry files. Using the long-abandoned door that leads directly from his home to the Registry, José begins making copies of the celebrities' records, until one fateful day when he brings back more than intended:

The card belongs to a woman of thirty-six, born in that very city, and there are two entries, one for marriage, the other for divorce. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of such cards in the index system, so it's hard to understand why Senhor José should be looking at it so strangely, in a way which, at first sight, seems intent, but which is also vague and troubled, perhaps this is the look of someone who, without making any conscious choice, is gradually losing his grip on something and has yet to find another handhold.

José quickly becomes more curious about this utterly unknown woman than by all the famous people to whom he had been devoted. From the basic information available on the card, José embarks on a curious quest to learn more about the woman, perhaps even meet her. This endeavor quickly takes on the aura of obsession, and the clerk gradually casts aside the structure of law and regulation that had previously governed his life. The adventure that follows, with José traveling to the apartment building the woman was born in, the school she attended, a pharmacy near her last school-age home, could in other hands easily seem boorish, even predatory.

Saramago shapes it into a vivid tale of modern alienation, a current that runs throughout his bibliography. The loneliness of the protagonist is obvious, with his scarce social interaction beyond the staccato encounters at work. But note also the inferred isolation of the unknown woman, whose life is depicted through the spare, clinical biographical details offered by the administrative records that survive us all.

Fresh Mint-Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Every so often I muster up the benevolence to prepare a recipe that I know I will not personally enjoy. Lemon bars come to mind, as does any dish with sweet potatoes. My ongoing effort to bake the Betty Crocker Cookie Book from front to back led me straight to yet another such recipe.

I simply do not like the taste of mint and chocolate together, be it via Andes (which my grandmother always had around the house) or the Girl Scouts (Thin Mints are their bestseller). But I certainly was not going to led my own distaste for the combination stand in the way of my baking quest:

1 1/3 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 tbsp. finely chopped mint leaves
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups mint-chocolate chips

Ostensibly, Hershey's sells mint-chocolate chips, but I could not find them in any local grocery store. I ordered mine (along with some cinnamon chips and maple chips) from the Prepared Pantry; they shipped immediately and got to me in 4 business days.

Preheat your oven to 350F. Cream the sugar and butter together, and then stir in the mint and eggs. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, and stir until blended. I found the dough to be a bit crumbly at this point, so I added 2 tbsp. of milk; your mileage may vary. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Using a cookie scoop to ensure the cookies have a uniform size (which ensures uniform baking), place the dough on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes (11 for darker baking sheets, 13 for light ones), then cool on wire racks.

As I said, I would not enjoy even the world's greatest mint chocolate chip cookie, so I did not bother trying these. My wife generously offered herself as a test subject, and with her approval the cookies were split between our offices. For once, I did not have my own opinion to compare against others, but I can say these went even faster than usual in my office. Certainly a nice way to add a twist to an old standby.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

adichie_purple.jpgAs vast a continent as Africa may be, most Americans are woefully unfamiliar with any of its literature. And the state of the translation market being as weak as it is, what we are familiar with tends to come strictly from the English-speaking areas, particularly South Africa (Alan Paton, J.M. Coetzee) and Nigeria (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka). Amongst the most promising young writers from the latter is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has been pursuing her education and career in the U.S. since she left Nigeria in 1996 at age 19.

In addition to a number of acclaimed short stories (and an upcoming story collection), Adichie has published two well-received novels. Her 2003 debut, Purple Hibiscus was long-listed for the Booker Prize, short-listed for the Orange Prize, and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and the hardcover remains in print six years later. Her 2007 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, received its own share of award nominations and was awarded the Orange Prize. Last year, Adichie received a prestigious (and financially generous) a MacArthur fellowship (i.e. "genius grant") as she pursues a graduate degree in African Studies at Yale.

Purple Hibiscus centers on the domestic life of 15-year old Kambili, who lives in Enugu, Nigeria, with her parents and older brother, Jaja. The novel opens with a brief chapter, depicting an episode of disobedience by Jaja toward his father on Palm Sunday. What might at first appear to be a relatively routine outburst by a 17-year old young man is quickly understood to be a singular departure from the state of affairs in this particular home. The bulk of the book depicts the months leading up to this eventful day, with the final section focused on the aftermath.

Kambili and Jaja's father, Eugene, is a wealthy, successful businessman, the publisher of a oft-dissident newspaper, and a zealous Catholic. Warmly viewed outside the home and upheld as an example by the local priest, at home Eugene subjects his family to a brutally strict regime of religious purity. He refuses to allow non-Catholics inside his home, extending this ban to his own father. And while his children are well-fed, well-clothed, and well-educated, they must abide by a daily schedule crafted by their father to script every moment of their lives, with lofty standards of success not merely expected, but demanded:

I came second in my class. It was written in figures: "2/25." My form mistress, Sister Clara, had written, "Kambili is intelligent beyond her years, quiet and responsible." The principal, Mother Lucy, wrote, "A brilliant, obedient student and a daughter to be proud of." But I knew Papa would not be proud. He had often told Jaja and me that he did not spend so much money on Daughters of the Immaculate Heart and St. Nicholas to have us let other children come first. Nobody had spent money on his own schooling, especially not his Godless father, our Papa-Nnukwu, yet he had always come first. I wanted to make Papa proud, to do as well as he had done. I needed him to touch the back of my neck and tell me that I was fulfilling God's purpose. I needed him to hug me close and say that to who much is given, much is also expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside me. But I had come second. I was stained by failure.

This regime continues with only minor perturbations until Eugene's sister, Ifeoma, persuades him to allow Kambili and Jaja to spend several days with their cousins in her home in Nsukka. The experiences they have there, the connections they made with their extended family and others, fundamentally alter the children's worldviews and liberate them from the strictures of their father's sphere. Of particular importance to Kambili is the friendship she builds with Father Amadi, a young priest who incorporates more of the native culture into his Catholicism than the imported European clerics favored by Eugene. Father Amadi, soon to depart for a mission to Germany, favors Kambili with his attention, cultivating and inspiring an emotional evolution in the young woman:

I stared at the dashboard, at the blue-and-gold Legion of Mary sticker on it. Didn't he know that I did not want him to leave, ever? That I did not need to be persuaded to go to the stadium, or anywhere, with him? The afternoon played across my mind as I got out of the car in front of the flat. I had smiled, run, laughed. My chest was filled with something like bath foam. Light. The lightness was so sweet I tasted it on my tongue, the sweetness of an overripe bright yellow cashew fruit.

These changes manifest most dramatically in Jaja, whose open disobedience toward his father opens the book and is all the more shocking once we have seen the abusive oppression Eugene cultivated at home:

"Kambili, you are precious." His voice quavered now, like someone speaking at a funeral, choked with emotion. "You should strive for perfection. You should not see sin and walk right into it." He lowered the kettle into the tub, tilted it toward my feet. He poured the hot water on my feet, slowly, as if he were conducting an experiment and wanted to see what would happen. He was crying now, tears streaming down his face. I saw the moist steam before I saw the water. I watched the water leave the kettle, flowing almost in slow motion in an arc to my feet. The pain of contact was so pure, so scalding, I felt nothing for a second. And then I screamed.

"That is what you do to yourself when you walk into sin. You burn your feet," he said.

The text offers a number of insights into the Nigerian way of life, particularly during the time Kambili spends in Nsukka, outside the walls of her own home: the food they eat, the community relationships, even the difficulty in traveling relatively short distances when there is such a shortage of fuel. The disparities in lifestyle between Kambili's own home and her extended family are striking, to Kambili as much as to the reader. Adichie also peppers the dialogue with a number of Igbo words; language itself is viewed as a reflection of status, as Kambili's father discourages its use in favor of English.

Adichie's portrayal of her teenage female protagonist is pitch-perfect, with a real sense of the wonder, the naivete, and the vulnerability of the character. Kambili truly comes of age in these pages. There is also a nicely interwoven undercurrent of the country's tumultuous politics, from the controversial efforts of Eugene's newspaper to the blacklisting at the university where Aunty Ifeoma lectures.

The only major misstep comes at the book's finish. Without revealing the final arc of the plot itself, suffice it to say that I felt quickly disconnected from a story I had become rather immersed in. The conclusion depends on a connection with Jaja which is simply absent from the preceding chapters. Whether because this is Adichie's first novel, the result of some pressure to finish, or simply another example of the inherent difficulty of writing a decent ending to a novel (which I adamantly believe to be the greatest challenge confronting a writer of fiction), the gratuitous and unoriginal flourishes at the end left me somewhat unsatisfied. Not enough, however, to dissuade me from looking forward to Adichie's other novel, her upcoming story collection, and whatever else her promising career brings forth.