Review: A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil by Jane Bussmann

18264396Blurb:

After scriptwriter Jane Bussmann moves to Hollywood, she realizes her day job interviewing celebrities sucks. She goes to Africa in search of a dreamy activist and ends up uncovering Joseph Kony’s crimes.

Review:

This is an occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious book about genocide and the mass kidnappings and rape of tens of thousands of Ugandan children. If you’re still with me after that description, know that it’s also about well-intentioned but misguided Western governmental interference in African affairs, a Useless Person learning how to become Useful, and Ashton Kutcher.

Clearly it’s a bit piecemeal, a collage of assorted ideas with ragged edges sewn together. But its main conceit is Jane Bussmann, celebrity journalist, can barely stop herself from committing suicide mid-interview with Ashton Kutcher, immensely idiotic but almost universally praised actor, and thus decides to pursue real journalism. She tricks her way to Uganda by pretending to be a foreign correspondent and not the author of “Nicole Richie’s Sexy Summer Bikini Bod!” and tries to blow the whistle on Joseph Kony, the leader of a militant Ugandan rebel group that kidnaps children to serve as wives and soldiers, before discovering that the situation is much more complex than simply painting Kony as the “Most Evil Man in the World.”

Here’s the thing: Jane’s background in humor writing and celebrity journalism both makes and breaks this story. Jane is a self-deprecating reader stand-in. She’s just as unknowing as most of us on these topics, just as shocked, and just as horrified that she, as well as nobody else, is doing anything about it. Her affable ignorance excuses our own ignorance while her visceral reaction against what she learns prods us to learn more too. But I think this book was also intended to be read as a decent exposé of Kony and what the Ugandan government may or may not be doing to help prop his rebel regime up. And as far as that goes, Jane fails. She lacks the geopolitical background to tell a cohesive narrative about how Kony came to power and how he’s managed to stay in power so long. She’s able to identify a problem and say, “Hey, hey! That’s not right!” (more than most people in the world, who, willfully or will-lessly, are content to be blind) but she can’t explain how it came to be problematic and possible solutions for it to no longer be problematic.

But honestly if reading about dreadful war crimes and the inefficient meddling of Western charities and governments combatting them was always this fun, I think the general human population would be much more informed about various atrocities occurring throughout the world. And yeah yeah, I hear ya, being “informed” doesn’t necessarily lead to meaningful change, but it’s a start. We may live in what Jane calls “The Golden Age of Stupid,” but I still believe that most of us are compassionate people. Often things that are entertaining are considered unworthy of serious attention. Yet Jane has written an entertaining book about a serious subject, and it’s an approach I’d like to see more of.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

15796700Blurb:

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet

Review:

Americanah is an engrossing tale about culture, race, love, and transformation. Transformation is inevitable—the harsh world makes you bow before it, but can two Nigerian kids stiffen their spines to it?

At the beginning of Americanah Obinze and Ifemelu are kids in love. They bounce through the world, shielded by their love for each other, not daunted by the unpredictability of their lives, but invincible in front of it: nothing can destroy them when they are together. They are young and naive, and Adichie writes them perfectly, expertly capturing their voices; I believed everything she told me. But in politically unstable Nigeria, not even love can quell the forces that separate the couple, with Ifemelu off to America to study and Obinze eventually off to England to work.

The Atlantic barring them from each other, their indomitable love becomes domitable and both undergo a decade of metamorphosis. The bulk of the book focuses on what happens outside of Nigeria, the stably unstable idyll of their youth. Obinze, formerly a popular teen envied for his effortless success, must discover how to cope when the world fails him. Ifemelu discovers race. In Nigeria her black skin was just black, perhaps darker or lighter than a classmate’s, but black all the same. In America stepping into a certain neighborhood is a statement because of her skin.

Ifemelu changes hairstyles—from braids to chemically relaxed locks to an Afro. Obinze changes names—from high school idol “The Zed” to illegal immigrant “Vinny Boy” to fully fledged “Obinze,” a wealthy Lagos landowner. They change partners—Ifemelu dates a white American and an African-American, mining each relationship for material to use in her blog on race in America as told by a foreigner. They change incessantly, growing up and out of their unformed youth and into selves that may or may not be their true selves. They change until one day they return to Lagos, a city that has changed in their absence too, leaving them behind when they believed it was they who had left Lagos behind.

This epic tale—and it is truly epic if we take the Odyssey as our model: oceans are crossed, decades are breached—asks if anything can remain constant if the world just won’t stop changing. Can an aged and battered love still shine after years in the dark? Adichie answers this question, but the odyssey towards it is not simple. Americanah is about the pursuit of progress, but it is unclear if Obinze and Ifemulu’s expat progress is truly positive. The two change, change, and change so much in order to mold themselves to their new worlds that it takes years before they stop and wonder if there is the possibility of constancy. The answer doesn’t come easily for the two protagonists nor for the reader, but when it arrives, it satisfies.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

16131077Blurb:

THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE HUNTS THE KILLER WHO SHOULDN’T EXIST.

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times.

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable-until one of his victims survives.

Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth . . .

THE SHINING GIRLS is a masterful twist on the serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing heroine in pursuit of a deadly criminal.

Review:

This book is weird. The climax features a one-sided snowball fight. And it’s about a time-traveling serial killer. It’s weird. It’s also not very good.

The Shining Girls is a book of parts, and some parts work, some parts don’t. Each chapter focuses on a person and a time. Harper, the time-traveling serial killer, spends most of his chapters in the Great Depression Era, plotting escapades to the future to kill “shining girls.” The other main character is Kirby, a shining girl from the early 90s who survives Harper’s homicide attempt. She partners with Dan—a loveable Chicago Sun-Times reporter who was my favorite character—to catch her killer. If a chapter title read Kirby 24 June 1992, I would read with gusto. If a chapter title read Harper 18 January 1932, I’d groan and settle in for an unenjoyable chapter. It’s problematic when you don’t want to read any of the antagonist’s boring, tedious, and repetitive chapters since they amount to more than half the book.

I picked this book up after hearing the phrase “time traveling serial killer.” But Lauren Beukes doesn’t sufficiently develop either of these ideas. The time travel seems like a gimmick. Harper finds a House with a Room full of objects and names of shining girls he will kill decades in the future. He can walk out of this House into a different time to hunt these women. I don’t really understand the House or the rules of time traveling here. Harper often loops his own narrative, hopping from a later time to an earlier time with seemingly no consequences. Structurally, the time traveling is difficult to follow. As I said, each chapter is headed with the character’s name and the date, but when I’m reading fast and the chapters are short, I lose track of “when” I am in the text. The intricacies of Harper’s sojourns back and forth through Chicago were lost on me. And since we jump from past to future, events are spoiled long before they ever happen. Beukes could have used this foreknowledge to create great dramatic irony and tension, but the way she used it only lessened my appreciation of the narrative. I knew what was going to happen, but I wasn’t pushed to fear what was going to happen. A linear narrative would not have worked for this story, but—if this makes any sense—I would have appreciated a more linear non-linear story.

As a serial killer story, it fails as well. Why do I read murder novels? To (attempt to) understand a killer’s motivations. To admire the tenacity of a victim. Or to empathize with the devastation of a victim. To figure out whodunit. Yet all of that was absent here. For the excess of Harper chapters I suffered through, I still don’t understand him as a person. Unlike many popular serial killers, Harper is neither charming nor horrifying; he merely kills. Kirby is a likeable protagonist, but her motivation to find her killer is the most striking aspect of her character. Not much else defines her. And while this story is a mystery to Kirby, it is never a mystery to the reader who knows the killer and his secrets from the first page.

One thing that impressed me about The Shining Girls was Beukes’s research. Chicago is an important part of this novel. The time and characters may change, but Chicago remains constant. The research is impeccably detailed and thus, Chicago breathes with life. But as I’ve noticed with other historical novels, especially those set in bright American metropolises during sumptuous eras, the author can become indulgent with the depth of her research. There’s too much here. It’s too referential. Often it feels like a famous Chicago landmark is alluded to merely because the author had seen it in her research. And despite all the research, I’m surprised by the way the dates are written in the chapter headings. Perhaps it’s an editorial error, but the dates are written in the date/month/year format—e.g., 1 July 1989—even though this book is the American edition and it is set entirely in America. Even in the non-American editions, it would be more authentic to use our admittedly backward month/date/year format.

Thematically, The Shining Girls shines a little brighter. Harper’s pursuit of “shining girls” is a good metaphor for the way a patriarchal society punishes girls with promise, wanting to push them back to their “proper” place. And the idea of a House that dictates who Harper will kill years into the future well represents the idea of a true psychopath. Once Harper finds the House, he appears to have no control over himself. Once a psychopath begins to kill, perhaps he has no control over himself. Harper was meant to kill, is meant to kill, will always be meant to kill. He is a killer in every iteration of time and space.

I’ve written a lot about a book I didn’t really like. If you want Chicago and history and murders, read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson instead. 1. it happened in real life 2. it has Ferris Wheels.

2 out of 5 stars