Friday, April 13, 2018

The 306 Greatest Books #147 - Things Fall Apart

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This book can be found on the NorwegianObserverand My Book Lists

Before ever reading this book, I was enamored by the title. Things Fall Apart is a truly fantastic title because it encompasses a whole lot of information with only three words. The story is also incredibly short, taking me less than a week to read with my version (the Everyman's Library hardcover) only having 180 pages. For the book itself I am terribly conflicted on how I feel. The first half of the book deals with the main character, Okonkwo, who lives within a tribal village in Africa. This story is his story, and we get to see life primarily from his point of view. My first problem though, is that he is a horribly unlikable character, however this could easily be a cultural thing. Within the story we witness Okonkwo's life from his perspective, where he routinely beats his wife and children and usually it is no big deal. There are times where he does get in trouble for it, but mostly because he does it during a sacred time, not that he actually did it. He also murders a kid early in the story, where it is implied he will see retribution in some form, but it never happens. Looking at Okonkwo's culture in general, it is presented as horribly machismo. If you're not a "man" then essentially you are weak and not worth the ground you will be buried in. I would visualize it as toxic masculinity at its worst, at least from Okonkwo's perspective. However, as you read more and more into the story the reader really gets into their society. It makes sense. And a lot of the things that happen, you as the reader, can go along with and understand. The first half sets up Okonkwo's life and culture and then something happens, which I'm still not terribly sure how it happened, but Okonkwo is exiled for seven years for manslaughter (essentially). And it is at this time that things start to "fall apart". And here is where it really starts to get interesting. I was under the impression while reading the first half, that this story would focus entirely on this African tribe but shortly into the second half of the story we are introduced to the 'white man', whom not many, if any, of the tribe have ever seen before. The white man ends up bringing his church with him and slowly lures people away from their culture, to the point that local tribesmen are doing things that are horrific to their former beliefs.

And this is where I am conflicted. On the one hand, I don't like the main character as a person. But on the other hand the church here is much worse. They basically condemn these people to death in many instances because the church obviously knows better. Not all of the church people are bad, but the good one in the story goes away and much worse people take his place. The reader can easily see that it is the church that basically dismantles this tribe's culture and society. You feel for these people and when 'everything falls apart', it's heartbreaking. The writing style of this book is actually fantastic. It is incredibly easy to read, which is remarkable since it was written in English, the author's second language. It does take a little while to get used to the names of the people, since many of them are written in similar styles, so piecing them apart to discern who is who takes some time. But I caught on fairly quickly. It's similar to Russian writing in this way. Overall, should you read this? A definite yes (I think). It's not a feel good story by any means, but it is an important one. It is a story about the death of a rich African culture, where the reader truly feels that culture, and watches it slip away from them. Where some of the people stand up to fight this change, and they are the ones who are quickly put down, leaving only this new system behind. Heartbreaking to say the least, but important to understand.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The 306 Greatest Books #146 - The Stories of Anton Chekhov

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is The Stories of Anton Chekhov, a short story collection by ... Anton Chekhov (duh). This book can be found on Zane's Top 10 Book List


This was a weird one for several reasons. I did a previous reading of some "Selected" short stories for the Norwegian Book List prior, however this Zane's Top 10 Book List only listed the book as "The Stories of Anton Chekhov". When searching on Amazon though, there is no book entitled "The Stories of Anton Chekhov", however there is one listed as "Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov". I had taken the listing on Zane’s Top 10 book list to mean all of Anton Chekhov's short story work. Well that became a chore in and of itself to find. My initial reading of Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov had a lot of his short story works but not anywhere near all of them. That is when I stumbled upon the Modern Library versions pictured above (of course needing to purchase on the hard cover editions for my personal collection). The first two are what I delved into only later to find out there was a third volume. On top of that, this doesn't even include ALL of Chekhov's work. But it does account for 75% of his work (by page count according to the editor, Shelby Foote). The funny thing is that the previous Selected Works book that I read doesn't have many stories that cross over between the two series. So that being said, I've read most of Chekhov’s short story works and I am happy to call it “mission accomplished”. 

So what did I think of his works? Well that depends on what he was writing about and when in his career he wrote them. The benefit of the Modern Library layout, is that they are presented in chronological order, so that the reader can get a feeling for his writing as he progressed through his career. His initial style was very weird. It often felt like an Edgar Allen Poe work, just without the twist ending, all the while I'm waiting for the proverbial ax to drop. It never does. The story just ... ends. Well ... ok then. His later stories are where he really starts to shine. Easily his best work is The Bet. I had a friend ask me if I had read a certain story of his, with him citing it as his best. However, I couldn’t recall which one as I was going through them. Well when I finished that story, I knew exactly which story he was referring to. Of all Chekhov’s short stories, The Bet is the one with the most story-like plot. Most of Chekhov’s stories describe everyday Russian life. Which is great and all but often it results in a profoundly dull read. The Bet goes above and beyond that. If Chekhov had continued more in that vein of writing, I think he would be viewed much differently in modern day society. 

Overall, I feel his longer stories in the third volume are probably overall his best. With the longer format, Chekhov has the room to breath and really flesh out his characters and his stories. My favorite of these was probably The Wife, but in general most of these were his better works. I think that if one was to read Chekhov they would benefit greatly by picking and choosing a select few. Most of his works feel overly long and suffer from what many Russian works do, the multiple names of characters. Characters will often have three different names that are used interchangeably and never really give a clear indication of who is who. But if a reader limits themselves to only the very best of his works, they could get some good reading out of it. And one last thing: "Chekhov's Gun". Chekhov's Gun is a famous saying by Chekhov that basically if you place a gun on the wall in one scene then make sure it is used later on. So I read and I read trying to find where this comes up. And ... it doesn't. I looked it up and actually this saying comes from a letter that Chekhov had written. It means that everything in the short story should have importance and not be something that is a throw away. And although I believe Chekhov used this methodology, he could have probably used it better in many instances. I felt a lot of his stories contained extraneous material, although he was an astoundingly good scene setter. So overall, not my favorite work on this list, but I’ve read far worse.