Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wool

Wool (Wool, #1)Wool by Hugh Howey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This looks like a fantastic beginning to a dystopian Science Fiction ditty that could turn into a saga. I look forward to reading the omnibus edition. The writing is emotive, the plot intriguing, and the characters sympathetic. So far. I have high hopes for unraveling the rest of Hugh Howey's Wool.

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The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

The Coming of Conan the CimmerianThe Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've now discovered that the best way to read Robert E. Howard's Conan stories is in big, undiluted doses. Do yourself a favor and avoid any of the stories completed or edited by L. Sprague de Camp. Trust me, you'll be glad you did. And don't dip your toes into Conan's world, plunge into it headfirst and stay a while. Taken as individual snacks, each Conan story has its sweet spots and its bitter bits. But taken as a meal, several Conan stories can provide a rich feast.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian provides enough Conan to satisfy, but not so much to over-stuff yourself on the macho barbarian. The stories in this volume are presented in the order written, not in the false chronological order that de Camp was so fond of using in his collections of Howard's work (interpolated with his own writing, one must note). In this order, one can see Howard's writing evolve as the book marches on. Howard repeats himself, both in characterization and plot, a few times. But this is actually a virtue in this case, as it "thickens" the character of Conan. If the reader is limited to only a few Conan stories, he or she misses the deepening of Conan - not growth, necessarily, as he is, at his base, the same throughout. But Conan is a deeper character than you might imagine if you have limited your view of him to only a few stories.

There are a number of excellent stories in this volume, though none are without fault. "The Tower of the Elephant," for example, is a great mystical story, unfortunately marred by the unlikely (and highly unbelievable) encounter with the master thief, Taurus of Nemedia.

"Queen of the Black Coast" is as close as you'll get to romance in a Conan tale, a romance that is helped along by Belit (the Queen spoken of in the title) and her incredible hormonal drive. This story really shows Howard at his worst, as evidenced by a huge info-dump mid-story from the lips of Conan himself. I like Conan better when he's talking less, to be honest.

But "Queen" also shows Howard at the height of his prose-prowess:

Rising above the black denseness of the trees and above the waving fronds, the moon silvered the river, and their wake became a rippling scintillation of phosphorescent bubbles that widened like a shining road of bursting jewels.

It's a little purple, admittedly. But any author should be happy with such a vividly descriptive sentence. In the end, "Queen of the Black Coast" is representative of all that makes a Conan story a Conan story: mystery, sorcery, lust, and vengeance. If you can look past the racism and sexism on display, or at least suppress the urge to stop reading out of sheer disgust at the dated attitudes, there is some good, even elegant, story telling in there.

"Black Colossus" might contain the best description of why the barbarian's attitude is so . . . well, barbaric:

Conan listened unperturbed. War was his trade. Life was a continual battle, or series of battles; since his birth Death had been a constant companion. It stalked horrifically at his side; stood at his shoulder beside the gaming-tables; its bony fingers rattled the wine-cups. It loomed above him, a hooded and monstrous shadow, when he lay down to sleep. He minded its presence no more than a king minds the presence of his cup-bearer. Some day its bony grasp would close; that was all. It was enough that he lived through the present.

"Rogues in the House" was one of my favorite stories in this volume, but not because of Conan, who really only played a peripheral role in the story until its climax. This story was full of mystery and treachery, with a demonic man-beast as (the most obvious) villain and a bevy of technological tricks disguised as sorcery that lent a refreshing quirkiness to the plot. What more could you ask for in a Sword and Sorcery tale?

"The Devil in Iron" seemed to collate many of the tropes found in earlier stories and is the appropriate culmination of the volume. It's as close to a "dungeon crawl" as Conan ever gets, so if you must get your roleplaying geek "on", this is the story for you.

A rather lengthy "Miscellanea" section wraps up the book, but is kind of an anticlimax, if read straight through. I would, from time to time, toggle back to this section when I felt reader's fatigue setting in. I found that the pieces there on the Hyborian age and on the genesis of Howard's career were welcome temporary diversions that left me recharged to tackle more of the stories. The two rough maps also helped to contextualize the stories within geographical bounds.

I've missed mentioning many of the stories in this volume. This is intentional. You may or may not like the same stories I did, but I believe there's enough in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian to warrant a good, long stretch of your reading time. It might be a while before I dive into Conan like this again (there are other volumes in the same series), not because I didn't enjoy the journey. On the contrary, I liked it so much that I need to be sure to have a good block of time to chew up at my leisure, to really savor the hearty meal that Howard has cooked up!

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Love me some Halloween

This year, I'm going for more subtle Halloween-wear. Something more subdued, more of an homage to spookiness than a "costume" per se. I've started with my fingers (thanks to Daughter, who busted out her painting-with-a-toothpick skeelz and accreted these little celebration-helpers on me):


Out of Africa

Out of AfricaOut of Africa by Karen Blixen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

For better or worse, this opening sentence rekindled my love affair with literature. Granted, I never lost my love of reading, but from my late teens to my early-twenties, the relationship was rather shallow, mostly maintained through movies about books, comic books/graphic novels (still a great love for me), and role-playing game books and modules, all interspersed with one-night-stands with real books that I loved for a night, then left on the bedside. I still engage in some these dalliances, but Out of Africa, from its first sentence, grabbed me by the lapels and ripped my shirt apart. I was smitten. It was the new beginning to a lifelong love of the written word.

The book isn't without its issues, not the least of which are deeply embedded assumptions about "The Native". Thankfully, Blixen challenges and refutes some of her own assumptions about Africa and Africans while acknowledging her inevitable cultural distance from those around her. Of course, she has brushes with condescension, as any European colonial of the time would have had. But any analysis of the book that doesn't acknowledge that Blixen and her attitude are a product of the time is unashamedly disingenuous.

Blixen is careful to observe that she is also being observed. She is in Africa, but not of Africa:

If I know a song of Africa,-I thought,-of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?

Throughout the book, Blixen seems to want to be a part of this place in which she finds herself. But even her separation from the spiritual ideal of full integration serves its own utilitarian purposes. For instance, when the locals ask her to judge between them in their disputes, it is precisely this distance that allows them to trust her impartiality:

It is likely that the Kikuyu of the farm saw my greatness as a judge in the fact that I knew nothing whatever of the laws according to which I judged.

But the heart of Out of Africa is not about intellectual stances or empty academic discussions about signifiers and signified. It is about the people, African and European, that Karen Blixen interacts with. On this level, I connected with the author and wanted to know more about those she interacted with. I don't think it's an accident, then, that four years after reading this book, I undertook graduate studies in African History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To say this book had an effect on my life would be a gross understatement. That first sentence shattered a number of possible futures and, eventually, opened up windows on vistas I might never have otherwise imagined.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

FROM CAÏNA TO JEDECCA

Just a short missive to let you know that my novel, FROM CAÏNA TO JEDECCA is live at Amazon.com. Here's the blurb:

Matthew Oyd, a precocious and talented Pre-Raphaelite artist and dandy, rescues the beautiful model Tristine from the drawing room of his old art school, shattering the walls of Victorian class structure in the name of love. The ensuing romance strains Oyd's relationship with his best friend, Gussie, and further tugs at the bonds between Gussie and his wife, Elizabeth. The delicacy of each of these relationships is tested by vanity, social expectations, jealousy, desire, betrayal, and the drive for perfection.

 Set in the highly competitive and quickly-changing world of late-Victorian Oxford, the characters of "From Caïna to Jedecca" weave their way through the maze of an era where a missed step can, and often does, lead to loss and even tragedy. From high society to the steaming gutter, surrounded by the ugliness of the Irish revolution to the beauty of Pre-Raphaelite art, Matthew, Gussie, Tristine, and Elizabeth look to find a way to fulfill each of their desires and dreams. But can they negotiate the difficult social obstacles that stand in their way without endangering their friendships and their marriages? Can their individual choices be reconciled with their collective happiness? What is the true price of art for art's sake?

Become enmeshed in a world where birth determines future success, where expatriates are suspect by their very foreignness, where the lines of social stratification are clearly drawn and enforced by the tyranny of the majority, and where idealized art may or may not bring peace and reconciliation with the gritty realities of everyday life.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Generation Zero

Generation ZeroGeneration Zero by Pepe Moreno
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I originally read this in serialized form in the sadly long-defunct Epic Illustrated. I give the story itself 3 stars - what starts out as a gritty post-apocalyptic tale of exploration replete with hordes of deformed mutants and acid rain - no ACID rain - stumbles a bit at the end. As the residual technology encountered by the exploratory crew ramps up, so does the camp. I was rather disappointed by the highly-unlikely end. But the art is fantastic - truly monumental. If you are a fan of the old Heavy Metal, either the movie or the magazine (Metal Hurlant if you speak French), this is a must-read. So, (3 stars for story + 5 stars for art)/2 aspects of the graphic novel=4 stars overall.

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Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Coloring Album

Official Advanced Dungeons And Dragons: Coloring AlbumOfficial Advanced Dungeons And Dragons: Coloring Album by Gary Gygax
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the one that started it all for me. Before I ran into a copy of The Hobbit, before I discovered Saberhagen's Berserker series, before I even read my first Conan book ( but not before I "read" The Savage Sword of Conan or Mechanismo), The Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Coloring Album captured my imagination and launched me into countless wasted hours of AD&D punctuated by some good reading of actual books. I owe my teenager-hood to this book. It was my Book of Genesis for eight years, age 10-18, and beyond. This book, in effect, changed my life forever and made it richer.

In hindsight, it is pedantic, sterilized, and cliched. Dumb, really, though the line illustrations remain among some of the best in gaming history, so far as I'm concerned. To a ten-year old mind, it was dazzling. I was hypnotized and still, 36 years later, have not completely recovered. This book might have been my first love.

I still don't know what happened to my original copy, but I would kill for that thing again. I would kill many, many things for it, mostly undead and extraplanar beings, but still . . . if you are between me and a copy of this, get out of the way. You have been warned! What a man will do for love . . .

___________

Addendum: Witness the wonder as I receive a copy of this book from my oldest son in the mail. 36 years ago I first spotted this in a bookstore in Minnesota. I've never been the same since.

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Spiritual Midwifery

Spiritual MidwiferySpiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Why," you surely ask, "is a man reviewing Spiritual Midwifery?"

Frankly put, I delivered two of my children at home. Yes, there was a midwife looking over my shoulder, but I did all the dirty work with my wife. From start to finish, these pregnancies were ours.

Ina May Gaskin's book is . . . well, groovy is the word. It's not a real how-to, nuts and bolts guide to home delivery, though it does explain in great (and graphic, not for young children) detail the mechanics of it all. It also offers sage advice on nutrition, circumcision, prenatal visits, and so forth. The most intriguing aspect of the book, however, are the vignettes recounting the stories of various pregnancies on The Farm. From a multitude of viewpoints, life and the giving of life on The Farm is dissected and observed, examined and appreciated by those who lived it. Would I choose to live there? Heck, no. But I see the attraction. And just like living at the farm, this book isn't for everyone, but it's definitely worth considering. Again, not for the faint of heart, but for the open heart.

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Ender's Game

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ender's Game is one of those canonical Science Fiction books that every fan ought to read. And I am one of those people who questions and sometimes scoffs at what I ought to do. This is likely the reason I put off reading it for so many years. My children, however, prevailed upon me to read it, claiming it was "the best book eeeevaaar," as only hyperbole-prone teenagers can do. I thought I'd give it a go so that I could at least understand all the inside jokes around the dinner table.

Sorry, kids, not the best book eeeevaaar. A great book, but not the best ever.

The simple prose of the book at the beginning is simply flat and somewhat boring. I read the first few pages and had to convince myself to push further. My reading tastes lean toward meaty: give me a few complex sentences, send me to the dictionary occasionally - I like the challenge. I felt that, despite the subject matter, the prose was altogether too thin. But I pushed on.

What I discovered as I went forward was that slowly, subtly, the prose progresses with the main character, Ender. The book seems to mature with the character, which made it more enjoyable as I went along. The step-by-step revelation of Ender's inner thoughts and motives started to pull me in. The plot itself was transparent - I could guess the ending with about a quarter of the book left. And I guessed correctly.

It's what happened after the obvious ending that blew me away. I won't give it away, but the last chapter of the book is an amazing piece of writing, tying together the seemingly disjointed pieces of the puzzle in a denouement that launched several sequels. You have to slog through the sparse parts and sometimes fake-like-you-care at the beginning of the book but when that last chapter hits - look out! It's an emotional bombshell. I'm not ashamed to admit that I almost cried at the end. It's that good.

And the writing ended up being that good, too. I found myself wishing that the whole book had been written in the style of the last chapter, but I understand, too, that the style itself builds up to a very satisfying conclusion.

There, I've fulfilled my obligation. And I see why some people like the book so much and why some people despise the book so much. If I would have quit the book halfway through or begun skimming, I would not have caught the brilliance at the end. And while I won't be reading all the remaining books in this universe, I think I will pick up Speaker for the Dead, because if it takes off the same way that Ender's Game (*ahem*) ended, it should be a fantastic read.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Die Zauberflöte

Die ZauberflöteDie Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This edition of Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the first full "book" I read in German, so I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for this opera. Though I'm sure that there is some sinister Masonic propaganda at work, probably with the end result that we will all work as stone-cutter slaves in the new glorious reign of the 14th Grand Master Dragon of the East Wind of the Masonic Order of Golden Dawn (or whatever), I couldn't help but enjoy the over-riding strangeness of the plot and characters. Papageno is my favorite character of the bunch, flitting somewhere between playful and insane. My favorite aspect of this opera, though, is the bawdiness that is displayed from time to time, belying the false impression that the German-speaking countries of the 18th-Century were stoic and all-too-serious. Mozart, at least, shows a rather bizarre sense of humor in the his portrayal of Papageno.

Rather than getting caught up in the interpretation of Masonic symbols that permeate the work, I like to view it (and listen to it) as if it were simply a fantastical text. In that light, one can consider it one of the earliest surreal fantasies, presaging the bulk of the surrealist movement by over a century. I think of the work of the Symbolist painters of the last half of the 19th-Century as having derived their ouvre from Die Zauberflöte, though I can't decisively prove such a connection existed. Viewing the work as a surreal fantasy allows an unhindered enjoyment of the work, especially if one is simply reading the words divorced from the music (a necessary evil when one is reading the book in a classroom with other students).

And for you movie buffs, read this book, then watch Howl's Moving Castle and tell me if you don't begin to suspect that Mozart and Miyazaki weren't both trying to get at something much more meaningful than either one presented on the surface of their respective works. And if it means that we all have to be stone-cutting slaves to the Masonic Order, I say "Welcome to our new overlords"!

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Die Leiden des jungen Werther

Die Leiden des jungen WertherDie Leiden des jungen Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

OK, so the story is trite. I get it. Werther is the original emo. Check. Books that end in suicide are no longer PC. Alright.

Put that all aside and read the work in German. I can't even say if the book is good or not in English, as I've never read it in English. In its Muttersprache it is beautiful and poetic. Beutler, in his afterword to the 1987 Reclam edition, claims that Die Leiden des jungen Werther is the first modern novel. I'm not enough of an expert on literary history to know if his claim is true, but it is, along with Tristram Shandy, seminal to the novel form.

Werther was also famous, or infamous, for influencing popular culture among young men at the time it was published. Young men changed their dress to reflect that of the main character and, sadly, the unfortunate end of Werther was emulated by several copycat suicides. When is the last time a book had that powerful of an effect on a society? The Hunger Games? Hardly. Harry Potter? Not so much. Rowling has nothing on Goethe.

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Cover Reveal and more: FROM CAÏNA TO JEDECCA

"Cover Reveal" sounds tantalizing and/or dangerous. I feel naughty typing it. Nevertheless, that's what this is. Here is the cover for my soon-to-be-e-released novel, From Caina to Jedecca. More on the novel itself after the pic:





A little history behind this novel. Originally, this was a companion piece to Swans Over the Moon. The two tales were interwoven, one plot moving forward in Victorian England, the other in the kingdom of Procellarium on, yes, you guessed it, the moon. But Agent Kris (if memory serves correctly) pointed out that both story lines needed breathing room. So I split the one into two and expanded each half into two short novels. I'm not sure if I could interweave the two now, since they expanded at different rates, but who knows? Maybe one day . . .

Caina is the story of a love quadrangle, sort of. It's only a romance in that it's a historical tragedy wherein some people do, in fact, fall in love. This is the primary difficulty with placing the novel with any big house publishers. It doesn't fit neatly into genre categories. In fact, at least one publisher said it was "too well written". Probably alluding to the admittedly prosaic and archaic (ie Victorian) language.

The novel came as a result of a class on Victorian Art and Culture that I took while attending BYU. One of the best classes I took there. We spent a good deal of time focusing on the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a group of artists known for the meticulous detail of their paintings and for their focus on medieval and classical themes. I learned much about the art and artists of the era (as well as music, drama, literature, and history - it was a thorough survey of Victorian England). One of the things that stuck with me the most, however, was the fascinating and often tragic way in which artists, artist's families, and their models all became interwoven in a mess worthy of any soap opera.

The story follows Matthew Oyd, a brilliant artist and dandy whose talent is only exceeded by his precociousness. Oyd's best friend, Gussie Carlisle, takes Matthew to a portraiture sitting at their old art school where the model, Tristine, sits naked in the midst of the class. Matthew decides to "rescue" her, and things move along from that point in directions you'll have to follow by reading the rest of the book.

Do note that this book is decidedly different for me. It is not fantastical in nature (though some scenes are surreal, but in a more restrained manner than your used to reading from me). It most neatly fits into the "historical fiction" category, I suppose, or "drama" or somesuch. I'm going to have a heck of a time figuring out how to categorize it, but that's one of the consequences of the advent of e-publishing, isn't it? Genre boundaries are breaking down all over the place and un-categorizable work is flourishing and being read en masse by readers who don't want to be pigeon-holed and beleaguered by marketing walls.

I hope you'll like it. It should be published on Amazon within the next few weeks, time permitting.

Homeland

Homeland (Forgotten Realms: The Dark Elf Trilogy, #1; Legend of Drizzt, #1)Homeland by R.A. Salvatore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, Mr. Salvatore. Methinks thou hast bitten off more than thou canst chew.

Intentionally or not, R.A. Salvatore has created a potential monster here. Not in the Underdark denizens or in the drow society that provides the backdrop for the story. Not even in Lloth, queen of the demonweb pits and diety to the drow. I'm talking about the themes of race, gender, and, most of all, the nature versus nurture debate. If I were a smarter man with more time, I'd delve into each of these, but suffice it to say that, for all its hacking, slaying, nobility, and heroics, Homeland is a sociologists dream-come-true. I would not be surprised if this book was picked apart in some obscure Master's thesis and the stories themes vetted against the author's background and the general social, racial, and economic background of the book's target audience. Salvatore has really opened a can of worms here.

That said, let's take a quick look at the book itself, regardless of its (probably unintentional) implications.

I love the setting. At times I felt a bit of tunnel vision while reading, like the room around me was getting darker and the only thing illuminating my eyes were the words on the page. Salvatore does an outstanding job of painting a picture.

As far as plot goes - it's interesting, but not earth-shattering. The many intrigues of the book seem a little obvious, on the face of it. Once one understands the Drow modus operandi, nothing seems too surprising.

What is surprising is the characterization. And this, I think, is where Salvatore is going to or has already gotten himself into trouble with modern readers. Or maybe not. The action focuses, of course, on Drizzt, the young dark elf born at the height of a battle in which his "house" is in the process of destroying another "house". Honestly, I found Drizzt to be unconvincing. He's pretty whiny, to be frank, and the altruism within him that Salvatore makes too obvious is not terribly believable, given the circumstances of his up-bringing - essentially being brainwashed and beat into submission at a young age to learn his place in Drow society. Problem is, who are Drizzt's role models for his resistance to the cultural programming he undergoes? Color me jaded, but the survival instinct often causes humans to bend to societal pressures to one degree or another. "But Drow are different!" you say. Really? Then why is Drizzt the only Drow to fully keep his own culture at bay? You might argue that Drizzt's weaponmaster, Zaknafein, successfully maneuvers his way around Drow culture while keeping his own moral code intact, but this is easily refuted by examining Zak and Drizzt's familial relationship itself (don't want to spoil, just keep in mind that their relationship is critical to the story). Besides, Zak, in the end, proves submissive to the matriarchal power of the Drow social structure.

The character I find most believable is Vierna, one of Drizzt's sisters. Again, I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but it pays to read Vierna carefully, to see where and why she has resisted Drow society in some ways and succumbed in others. I find her the most compelling character of the book, though she is only a minor player in the grand scheme (and there is a grand scheme in this book - several, actually). I'd love to see a book or two focused solely on Vierna. There's fantasy gold there!

Now, all that said, I really did enjoy the book. The nurture vs nature theme could and should have been handled with much more subtlety, but I was able to shrug off my annoyance and move on. Homeland sets the stage for something bigger, I am hoping. I will be reading the other two books in the Dark Elf Trilogy in the future. I can see the potential in Drizzt as a character and I'm thinking that we haven't seen the last of his clan or of a certain deep gnome. I look forward to seeing how Salvatore handles Drizzt's emotions as an outcast from among his own people and am especially excited to see where Drizzt's wanderings take him. The world building here is excellent, with a well-fleshed-out culture that could provide great cognizant dissonance in the main character as he strikes out to escape and explore the Underdark and maybe even the surface(???).

So, I give it a 3.5, rounded up to a four. It has it's zits and scars, but with the right makeup this book could have been beautiful. I'm hoping it ages well in the next two volumes and leaves behind childish things as Drizzt leaves behind his childhood and his childhood home. It's time to grow up. I hope that Salvatore was a good parent.

Oh, and if you do a Master's thesis on the sociological implications of the text, as I've outlined above, my consultant fees are reasonable . . . I take pay in blue cheese, expensive dark chocolate, good ginger ale, honest reviews of my own work and, of course, books.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Matigari

MatigariMatigari by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To the common reader Ngugi's Matigari sounds like a naive, almost quaint sort of fable. But those who have studied the history of colonial Kenya, particularly the Mau Mau rebellion and it suppression by British Authorities, will recognize a bitter critique of post-colonial Kenya from the viewpoint of those who fought and suffered for the country's independence. Matigari is a sort of "everyman" representing the Mau Mau guerrillas and their displacement in an independent Kenya where the players have changed, but the structures of power have not, despite the freedom fighters' efforts and sacrifice. The book was outlawed in Kenya because it was thought to be a literary provocation to violence. This might be true. The main character, returning from war, attempts to use peaceful means to unite his family (representative of the country) but finds that, in order to survive, he must return to the violence that he had previously buried with his weapons of war. It is a beautifully-realized work that doesn't get due credit, largely because most readers are unfamiliar with the historical context from which the book was born. I would recommend reading some of the accounts of Mau Mau fighters (several have been published) before tackling Matigari, since one's appreciation of the themes and the emotional landscape of the book are dependent on some familiarity with the suffering and idealism of the Mau Mau fighters.

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