Home and Exile
This slim book features Achebe's narration about his own coming of age and artistry in Nigeria, and his case for African literary (r)evolution. It is parsed out into three long essays: "My Home Under Imperial Fire," "The Empire Fights Back," and "Today, the Balance of Stories." Achebe is often interesting as he describes the popular books of his childhood, and those taught in schools, that were then championed for their Nigerian authenticity. And he is especially interesting when he wrangles with the rise of African literature written by Africans, and with the likes of Elspeth Huxley and V.S. Naipaul, whose literary contributions provoke questions of "home and exile."
Still, I desperately wished for more substance, more in-depth wrangling from Achebe about literature from and about Africa. I appreciate Achebe's balance between personal storytelling and literary essaying, but his sharp insights are diluted into tangents. The writing moved more briskly than I liked, undercutting opportunities for deeper questioning and thinking, finally settling this book in the range of "overview." It definitely feels like what it is: Harvard lectures adapted into text.
UPDATE: I learn from the Literary Saloon that Achebe's address on "Literature and ethnicity" at the Garden City Literary Festival is published in NEXT. "Western literature played a central role in promoting the ideal of individual autonomy," Achebe says. Also, "Nigerian writers can choose to turn away from the reality of Nigeria's intimidating complexity or conquer its mystery by battling with it."
You can thank Graywolf Press for putting together the life work of Jane Kenyon, a significant poet who is significantly underrated, in my mind. Her biography seems to have become weighted over her actual poems: her marriage with poet Donald Hall, her move from Ann Arbor to the Vermont country, her death by cancer in 1995 at age 47. Notice that in the New York Times review of Kenyon's Collected Poems, her book is grouped with books other people wrote about her life. It is Donald Hall's (first) book about Kenyon's death that is first quoted at length and described as "extraordinary." The story of her life is worth telling, but her poems persist as vibrant, concise things that deserve your full attention.
Collected Poems brings together six poetry collections, including some of her translations of Anna Akhmatova. Most of Kenyon's poems are short first-person lyrics embedded deep in the natural world and in the life of a small country town. When I write that, I feel like it invites dismissal from the person reading this review, that it gives the impression of Kenyon's poetry being narrow or boring. It is not. Her poems shine with a lack of pretension that makes it hard to not welcome even her weaker poems. She has a dark streak that brews under the plain-speech surface. Kenyon has a sort of quietude about her poems, a cutting honesty, a sense of story, and a watchfulness toward the world. It was just a joyful experience to read this.
The Age of Innocence
This is a novel of desire. It is also a novel of courage — or the lack of it. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1920 settles into the life of fashionable New York City, which brims with intensity, social codes, and minute layers of cruelty. Newland Archer, a wealthy lawyer in his thirties, is engaged to be married to May Welland, a woman of good nature and good lucks. But when May's cousin, Ellen Olenska, arrives in Manhattan, with a past of ill repute trailing her, Newland's expectations of himself and his world begin to disintegrate.
I tore through The Age of Innocence about as fast as I did The House of Mirth (which I reviewed here), and I'm reminded about how much I adore Edith Wharton's writing for her wit, her insight, her strong storytelling voice, her social critique, and her absolutely engrossing narratives. I pull back on a five-star rating simply because I felt that Ellen Olenska's character diminished as the book went on, or at least flatlined, in a way that didn't correspond to the narrative. The provoking questions she presents to Newland and to high-society subsume any questions she might present to herself. Also: there's an awful lot of "rejoining" (as a verb) in the dialogue. As in, "'But I just saw her yesterday,' he rejoined." Not a particular problem, but … just saying.