Gulp by Mary Roach

13615414Nonfiction — print. W.W. Norton, 2013. 348 pgs. Library copy. 

Subtitled “Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”, Roach’s book guides readers on the journey of their food — from the saliva generated at the smell of food to the stomach and then onto the colon and the way out. The path isn’t without a few side trips to answer questions like can one survive being swallowed alive, can the gas you pass be set on fire, and can you really eat yourself to death?

Bizarre-sounding? Maybe, but I enjoy learning random pieces of information that I can then share as “fun facts of the day”. And Roach makes the alimentary canal a far more fascinating place than I ever thought possible. Some of the more interesting facts I gleamed from reading this book (or, at least ones I can publicly share without attracting the spambots):

  • Like us, dogs are attracted to food based on smell, but what smells good to us is not actually what attracts them to food. (Nearly rotten meat is a pet favorite!) Same situation with cats, although they ultimately decide what to eat based on taste. An entire facility — complete with taste-testing dogs and cats — is decided to cracking the code.
  • Food preferences are largely set by the age of ten and are decided by the people around you. Namely, by the “gatekeeper” who (is presumed) to do all the shopping and cooking — mom.
  • In 1901, a man named Horace Fletcher tried to get the general public to adopt an intense regime of chewing — 722 bites for a shallot — because he believed chewing each mouthful of food until it liquefies could help the eater absorb double the nutrients. And, if people received more nutrients per meal, they wouldn’t need to spend as much on food.
  • Your brain calibrates its understanding of “full” based on how much food you regularly eat. If you feel full more quickly after eating less, it is because your tolerance for food has diminished overtime. This “tolerance” affects the feedback loops stimulated for hormone and enzyme production.

Roach’s conversational tone makes it easy to understand some of the more difficult chemistry and biology concepts discussed in this book. (It only took me so long to read the book because the topic made it a distinctly bad choice for my lunch break.) Yet some of levity is a bit unnecessary. I don’t need to know how sexy or dull the scientists she’s conversing with, and there were certain chapters — the one about William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin, especially — when I wished there was more of a serious, technical bent to her writing.

That said, I enjoyed learning more about the part of the body that’s often derided and ignored, and I’d gladly pick up another one of Roach’s books. Probably as an audiobook since that seems like a better fit for her writing style.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

28449257Fiction – print. Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 291 pgs. Library copy.

Seven years after the Irish potato famine of 1845 and 1852, a Nightingale-trained English nurse by the name of Lib Wright is employed by an Irish town council to investigate the claim that an eleven-year-old resident by the name Anna O’Donnell has existed some four months without consuming any food. As deeply pious Catholics, Anna, her parents, and her cousin-turned-maid believe the young girl’s faith in God is sustaining her life, and the council is eager to prove whether or not they have a fraudster or the next saint living among them.

As a science-oriented woman with, to the O’Donnells’ and the community’s disgust, no religious inclination, Lib is determined to employ a through and structured watch to catch the young girl out in her deception. This watch is shared, however, with a nun by the name of Sister Michael, who Lib assumes will be easily swayed by claims of divine intervention like the rest of this small Irish community.

At its heart, Donoghue’s novel is a detective novel. The central focus is on Lib’s efforts the satisfy the council’s query (and her own) into whether or not this is all a rouse. If Anna is secretly eating, is she doing so on her own or are people assisting her? Who planted the idea in her head? Was it her mother or her cousin or the local priest? These questions certainly had me racing to the end.

Yet, it is the presentation of life in the Irish countryside in the 1800s and the way such a life can feel claustrophobic and oppressive to an outside that pulled me into the story. Like Lib, I am a (very) lapsed Protestant who favors science over religion and, like Lib, I spent much of the book mystified by the Catholic rituals performed daily and horrified that people could attribute the starvation of a young girl to religious piety. My reaction was Lib’s reaction; my horror was Lib’s horror.

(This shared reaction ended up leading to one more the interesting discussions my book club has engaged in. With the exception of myself, all in attendance were raised Catholic and a number attended Catholic school so they were more familiar with the seemingly bizarre behavior of Anna and her family. Of course, that’s not to say that any of them supported the idea that God was sustaining Anna’s life. More of a “well, of course, Anna would say a particular prayer thirty times a day to help her brother out of purgatory”.)

Donoghue’s writing is stunning, and the relationship between Lib and Anna evolves beautifully over the two weeks the two are together. (If that seems too short to develop a genuine fondness for a person, the two do spend up to sixteen hours a day in each other’s presence.) I awarded Donoghue’s novel five starts on GoodReads immediately upon finishing the novel and, for once, I don’t feel any inclination to downgrade that rating after expressing my thoughts here.

The Wonder was shortlisted for both the 2016 Giller Prize and the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

28683066Fiction — Kindle edition. Knopf, 2016. 320 pgs. Library copy.

Gyasi’s novel opens with the story of Effia, a young girl living a small village along the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) with a father who adores her and a mother whose good graces Effia is excluded from. On the cusp of womanhood, Effia is desperate to marry the future chief of her village, Abeeku, and is told she will as soon as she has her period. Her mother, Baaba, convinces Effia to tell only her when her period finally begins yet, when the moment happens, Baaba refuses to inform Effia’s father, Cobbee, so the marriage to Abeeku can occur.

Baaba’s silence is twisted into a myth about Effia — the large fire that accompanied her birth is a sign of a witchcraft that has left her unable to bleed — and Cobbee must send his beloved daughter away to preserve the safety of his village from her curse. Effia is married to the British commander of the Castle, James, and learns about the existence of unknown sister.

“We believe the one who has the power. He is one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

This unknown sister, Esi, is then introduced in the following chapter, and Gyasi’s novel proceeds to jump back and forth from the descendant of one sister to the next as their lives split further apart. One descendant is raised to be the bookkeeper for the family’s business trading in slaves from present-day Ghana; one descendant is sold into slavery in America. One descendant becomes a college professor; one descendant ends up addicted to drugs.

“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”

Because each chapter introduces a different character, the novel takes on the form of a collection of short stories. There are some connecting themes and characters who move from one story to the next, but the focus is largely on the pinnacle moment in each character’s life. The moment where their husband leaves them or their mother dies or they become addicted to drugs or kill their child.

In another author’s hand, this structure would feel superficial; the reader only being able to see the surface of each character’s life. Yet Gyasi managed to pull me into every single story, to make me feel for each character, to leave me frustrated when she forced me to move along to another character because I just wanted to spend one more second with this character.

I would gladly read a full-length novel on any one of these characters, particularly those still living in Ghana whose experiences have not featured in other novels I’ve read. (The structure and themes of the American stories of Gyasi’s novel reminded me quite strongly of Alex Haley’s Roots.) Given how stunning this novel is, particularly for a debut, I look forward to reading whatever Gyasi decides to write next.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

18824493Fiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions , 2012. 331 pgs. Purchased.

Back in December, several members of my book club met over brunch to swap books and suggest titles for the coming year. When I threw this title into the hat, I mentioned I felt as though I was the only one who hadn’t read Ferrante’s  four-part Neapolitan Novels series. A number of members chimed in saying they hadn’t yet read this title — let alone the entire series — despite seeing the book front and center at nearly every bookstore and the book landed a spot on our list of selections for the year.

This coming of age story actually begins two years before the novel’s publication data with sixty-something Elena Greco receiving a call from the son of her childhood best friend announcing that Lila — short for Raffaella — has disappeared. More than disappeared, she’s systematically removed all evidence of her existence, including family photographs. Elena is unconcerned about her friend’s disappearance; she’s expected Lila to pull a stunt like this. Yet the phone call drudges up old memories, and the focus of the novel shifts to Elena and Lila’s friendship as the two grow up in a vibrant yet poor neighborhood of Naples in the 1950s.

Their friendship is predicated on competition and rivalry. Elena, a bright student in her own right, is shocked at Lila’s ability to learn the most difficult subjects without diligently paying attention the way Elena does, and she pushes herself both to keep up with classmate and to get to know Lila better. Both girls capture the attention and concern of a teacher, who pushes each girl’s parents to allow their daughter to continue her education.

“Did she want to drag us out of ourselves, tear off the old skin and put on a new one, suitable for what she was inventing?”

Yet the combination of poverty and a prevailing culture where women are expected to become wives and mothers splits the girls up: Elena’s parents allow her to continue her education while Lila’s insist she remain at home assisting with the family’s shoe-making business. But Lila refuses to be left behind borrowing four books at a time from a local lending library with her parents’ and brother’s cards and teaching herself both Latin and Greek. This fact startles Elena and pushes her to study even harder in order to prove that she does, in fact, belong at the high school Lila was forbidden to attend. She cannot allow Lila to “win” their (unspoken) competition.

The prevailing neighborhood culture, however, eventually catches up with the two friends, and their attention turns to boys. Lila, a late bloomer, dedicates much of her time trying to create the perfect shoe in hopes of salvaging her and her brother’s future, and much of her attention to boys is actually fixated on how a desire to escape poverty begins to condemn her brother to a life of poverty and crime in the Camorra. Elena struggles with how her education and her appearance — neither of which Lila is “plagued” with — casts her as both desirable — boys pay her money to see her boobs — and undesirable to the boys of their community.

While the two friends do not directly compete for the same boy, rivalry begins to build over the pace of their physical development and and how each young woman — the novel ends around their sixteenth birthdays — must respond to a how the machismo culture of Naples leads males in their community — Camorra or not Camorra — to believe they whatever they want of girls like her and Lila.

Much of the praise I have seen for Ferrante’s series is focused on the authentic depiction of how female friendships shift and change over the years, and I would second much of this praise. I particularly appreciate how competition bonds the girls together over the ten or so years covered in the first novel, and how this competition is allowed to shift and change as the girls age.

Yes, competition over male attention comes into play at the end of the novel, but it is not the driving force for the entirety of their friendship (to date) nor is the sole source of competition in their teenage years. Elena is just as upset that Lila is learning Greek faster than her as she is that Lila has a boyfriend while Elena does not.

And yet I found the novel did not entirely live up to the hype for me. The story — or, rather my attention — petered out during the second half of the novel, and I grew frustrated though the final quarter when it became clear Ferrante did not have a conclusion in mind for the tale. The prologue set in 2010 is a, obviously, a clue that the story isn’t over, but the necessary blend of conclusion for the novel to standalone and cliffhanger for the series to continue from the point of its conclusion with the two girls facing womanhood at sixteen is missing. As such, my desire to continue on with the series lessened as I reached the final chapters of this installment.

Kenya by R. Mugo Gatheru

3618265Nonfiction — print. McFarland, 2005. 236 pgs. Library copy.

Long time readers of this blog will know that the continent of Africa is poorly represented in my reading selections. In fact, a quick perusal of the category shows that the majority of the books I’ve read set in one of the 54 African countries have largely focused on the genocide in Rwanda or the economic development of the continent as a whole.

Since I’ll be traveling to Kenya later this month, I’ve tried to make it priority to read more about the country before I leave. I brought home the three nonfiction books on Kenya available at my public library as well as three fictional accounts by white and non-white authors. At the top of that stack was Gatheru’s slim volume on the history of the country from colonization to independence (1888-1970).

“We [Britons] have responsible government, and the right of free criticism, and there is a check on the Government’s activities. In the case of Kenya, the African people are government by an alien race. The black people have no voice whatever in government; there is segregation of land and many of us feel that our native policy in that country has been reprehensible. The racial and economic structure of the two countries is vastly different. There is no analogy between England and Kenya.” (pg. 120)

The book concludes with the results of the Mau Mau Rebellion (also known as the Mau Mau Uprising or the Kenya Emergency) between members of one African tribe (the Kikuyu), white settlers, and segments of the British Army in Kenya from 1952 to 1956. Roughly 12,000 people were killed in the conflict while another 1,900 native Kenyans and 30+ white European civilians were killed. (Official numbers are still disputed.) Although the rebellion ended in British victory, the conflict officially concluded with the First Lancaster House Conference in January 1960, the establishment of a government reflective of the native Kenyan majority, and the decline of British colonial rule in the country.

I bring up the conclusion of the book not to spoiling the ending, but because the central thesis of Gatheru’s writings is that British colonial policies — the allocation of land, the suppressed wages of the majority black population, the denial of representation or education, the divisions by race and tribal identification — culminated in the Mau Mau uprising. If, like me, you have never heard of the Mau Mau Rebellion, then the book can begin to feel like a running list of grievances rather than the cause-and-effect explanation that Gatheru was hoping to achieve.

“The truth is that the Mau Mau rebellion was the revolutionary expression of a national feeling, becoming a national movement, led by members of the largest tribe and influenced in its organization by the ways of that tribe. It is the emphasis on tribalism that misled the government to underestimate the movement at the time and, against the proven facts, still misleads some of the theorists.” (pg. 139)

The cause of the Mau Mau Rebellion and the effect the uprising had on decolonization of Kenya continues to be debated. (Its Wikipedia article is currently flagged for a question of neutrality.) Yet Gatheru’s running list of grievances is quite convincing.

For example, a 1938 ordinance on labor rights in Kenya made it legal to place children aged 12 to 16 under a contracts of employment lasting five years. (The age limit was originally set at 10 until an unnamed outside pressure raised the limit to 12.) The ordinance outlawed informing an individual of the conclusion of their contract, which white employers used to bar parents from seeing their children. (The idea being a parent would know the age of their child and, thus, the date of contract termination and encourage their child to “desert”.) Such lengthy contracts also placed a native Kenyan child “at the mercy of a single and unchangeable employer during the period that a white boy of similar age would be receiving the most significant part of his education” (pg. 114).

Worse still was the allocation of land in Kenya to benefit white settlers, many of whom arrived in the country with the promise of land as reward for their service in the British army. Much like the Indian reservation system in the United States, native Kenyan tribes were forcibly removed from lands deemed best for agricultural or coveted by white settlers and resettled on a series of reserves within the country. The Kenya Land Commission of 1932 found that 48,189 square miles of the country (or, 22% of the land mass) was allocated to a native Kenyan population of 1,518,578 people. The total area allocated to the nearly 600,000 strong Kikuyu tribe was 2,350 square miles leading to a density of 253 persons per square mile. No less than 16,700 square miles were reserved for the exclusive use of a white population numbering 20,000 (nearly a one to one ratio).

These were the two concrete examples I flagged while reading, but Gatheru also discusses across multi-chapters how the refusal of the British colonial government to set up an education system for non-white Kenyans led to a heavy reliance upon schools run by Christian missionaries. These schools were concentrated in specific locations, and their ungoverned lesson plans left many of their students unable to pass rigorous exams to advance to the next grade. (The exams were also rigged to fail 80 percent of test takers.) Native Kenyans were thus trapped into low-skill jobs and considered to be too uneducated to participate in civic life thus propagating the “need” for a colonial government.

I would have liked for Gatheru to expand more on this subject, to touch upon its (possible) impact on the establishment of an independent nation, but Kenya post-Mau Mau is largely skimmed over. Gatheru quickly moves through the establishment of a Kenyan majority government under the man photographed on the front cover Jomo Kenyatta and the change of the government from a bicameral legislature to a unicameral system.

The pedantic and academic style of writing, though, means it took me much longer to read Gatheru’s book than I anticipated given the page length so this is the only book on Kenya (besides the guidebook) I will have finished reading before my trip. This, of course, dates the extent of my knowledge about Kenya to 1970, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering the subtitle of the book.