Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

 

(Rant/sidetrack: I’ve been meaning to read Things Fall Apart for a while and I actually tried to read it for an assignment in high school. My Unnamed Teacher basically told me I’d read it before and called my a liar when I said I hadn’t. Unnamed Teacher, you are a dick. You played favorites, ridiculed kids, and generally got too involved with students’ lives. I’m pretty sure you advised my girlfriend that she was hanging out with the wrong crowd- referring to me and a couple of friends. And you called me a liar, without basis. You may be smart and successful, but being a good teacher should be more than making sure your students read the right books; you should probably not be using your position of power to play students against each other. Just my opinion, guy.)

The title and epigraph of Things Fall Apart come from the W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” the epigraph reading:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

I’ve never read the full poem, nor any others by this poet whose name I consistently mispronounce (it apparently rhymes with ‘gates,’ not ‘beets’), and I generally don’t read too much into epigraphs anyway. I also tend confuse epigraphs with epitaphs. But in this case, the epigraph primes you for the whole novel. When I consider the themes of Things Fall Apart, they’re all there, in those four lines.

The story begins by describing Okonkwo, whose ambition and sense of self-worth come from his distaste for his father’s laziness and poverty. Things Fall ApartAs such, Okonkwo strives to become one of the most powerful men in his village of Umuofia. That chip on his shoulder allows him to become a champion wrestler, a successful farmer, and a leader in his community. His demeanor, however, sets him a bit apart from his village; he’s impulsive and quick to anger, and he resists change and scorns compromise. In the end, the attributes that Okonkwo sees as his virtues are revealed as his weaknesses.

It’s hard for me to say whether Okonkwo brings on his own downfall, or whether he’s brought down by forces he can’t control, primarily in the form of British colonization. Perhaps it’s both equally, and I could certainly see Okonkwo’s story playing out the same way regardless of the outside influence. If this was an English essay, I’d probably have to take a stand on the matter, but it’s not. It’s not for me to decide whether one’s personality defects qualify as tragic flaws.

I also wonder what political message, if any, Achebe means to send with the book. Half of the story takes place before Okonkwo’s people encounter the British missionaries, when ‘white men’ referred to lepers and not Europeans. This was probably the more interesting part of the book for me, watching Okonkwo navigate a society that he understands pretty well, though maybe not as well as he thinks. He plays by the rules, for the most part, and experiences successes, but every once in a while he runs afoul of societal norms, and must pay the price.

When the Europeans do arrive, Okonkwo reacts in his Okonkwo-like fashion, but many others take a more conciliatory and inclusive stance. To Okonkwo and those like him, the loss of the clan’s cohesion is the real tragedy, even though the missionaries don’t attempt to coerce the clan into adopting Christianity. Okonkwo sees that his ideals are becoming less relevant all the time, and doesn’t understand how other people don’t see it. He’s lived his whole life by his own code, and it’s served him pretty well so far, so how else is he supposed to deal with these new problems?

So there’s really two ways to frame the story. You could see it as Okonkwo’s story, set during a particularly difficult period of history, or you could see the story of the invasion, colonization, and proselytization of Africa, as seen through the eyes of one man. I think I prefer the former; it seems more interesting, and more universal. Okonkwo is a man who thinks he understands the world better than the world understands itself. Whether you call it confidence, or arrogance, or something else, we can all relate to that feeling. Nobody wants to go to bed understanding their place in the world, only to wake up completely lost.

As for the latter (the novel about the clash between British and Ibo cultures), I think that could be interesting as well, but I don’t really know much of the actual history. In fact, I’d never heard of the Ibo culture before reading Things Fall Apart. Achebe does a good job, I think, of presenting an African perspective on this confrontation, through the eyes of Okonkwo; then again, he also sets Okonkwo apart from the rest of his tribe, which makes it harder for me to see him as representative of Africa or of the Ibo. So I prefer to see colonialism as a backdrop, providing context for our protagonist’s attitudes and actions, and making his story all the more tragic.

Things Fall Apart is a great book. A real think-piece. As I sat here writing this, I realized that Okonkwo is one of the most interesting literary characters I’ve seen in a while. So read it.

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The Chosen

by Chaim Potok

 

Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders don’t get off to that great a start. Each plays for his own yeshiva’s baseball team, and a game between them in the summer of 1944 gets out of hand pretty quickly, moving to death threats and physical intimidation. For Reuven, the match ends when Danny smacks a ball directly into his face, shattering his glasses in the process. Danny shows no remorse, and Reuven seems unlikely to forgive.

I didn’t quite comprehend the level of enmity the two boys initially feel towards one another. They’re a couple of Rabbis’ sons from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, both of whom attend yeshivas and seem destined to become Rabbis themselves. But I guess the more similarities people have, the more important the differences become. The gap between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic communities Williamsburg appears insurmountable; the two groups flat-out hate each other.

Though set in the middle of the city, there are really only four characters: Reuven, Danny, and their fathers. Reuven’s father is a Talmudic scholar and budding Zionist leader who clearly values a close relationship with his son. The ChosenDanny’s father- known as Reb Saunders- is a tyrant. He never speaks with his son except to quiz him on obscure Talmudic commentary, in order to make sure that Danny is ready to become the leader, or tzaddik, of their Hasidic community. But both fathers, despite having significant religious disagreements, come to approve of their sons’ friendship.

If you’re like me and you don’t know what a tzaddik or a yeshiva is, or why Hasidic Judaism is disdained by Reuven’s father, Potok does a great job of explaining it to you without a bunch of boring exposition. Anything in Yiddish or Hebrew is generally defined immediately, and the passage that describes the origins of Hasidism turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the entire book. I’d imagine it’s pretty hard to have to constantly explain these things to people who don’t know (like myself) without sacrificing the narrative, but Potok does that. It’s really amazing how well he does that.

He also takes us through a trying time period without getting bogged down in history. The characters bear witness to the end of World War II, the revelation of the Holocaust, and the violent birth of Israel. These historical events never even threaten to take over the narrative, which stays focused on the relationships between the four main characters. The events matter in the story, sure, but they only matter in that the characters all have different reactions to the way the world is changing.

As I said, the four main characters are all males, a pair of fathers and sons. I decided to buy The Chosen, however, on advice from my mother, who claimed it was one of her favorite books. When checking out, the lady at the bookstore also expressed her love for the book, and Potok’s writing in general. I think it’s interesting to note that though the father-son relationship is the crux of the story, the themes of family and friendship are universal, and anyone of any age or religion or gender should be able to appreciate this novel.

I was pretty much hooked from the first scene, and I carried The Chosen around with me everywhere for the couple days I was reading it. Really glad I bought it, I’d definitely recommend it. Also, considering the coincidence of the subject matter and the time of year, happy late Father’s Day.

Fatherhood

by Bill Cosby

 

First off, if you don’t like Bill Cosby, something might be wrong with you. As a comedian he can be funny and insightful while still being family friendly, which is definitely more than you can say for some of his contemporaries. If some of his stuff seems dated, it’s because everyone has pretty much latched onto his style, and still nobody’s really come close to doing it as well. The guy can rock a sweater, and he’s allegedly one of the Black Crusaders. Legendary.

That being said, Cosby is funny in large part because of his stand-up style, and he’s particularly known for his voices; he can perform as an exasperated father, an infuriating child, a meathead football coach, or anybody you could want. This doesn’t always translate well onto the written page. In the case of Fatherhood, it is especially disappointing because I’ve heard so many of the stories on the countless Cosby CD’s that we have, and reading the same stories in print doesn’t really measure up. For example: Bill’s wife makes him get up at the crack of dawn to cook breakfast, and he concludes that chocolate cake is the perfect breakfast, as it contains milk, eggs, and wheat, infinitely pleasing the children until Mom comes down and puts a stop to the party. The stand-up is hilarious as Bill goes from early morning crankiness, to relief at having found a loophole in the system, and back to shame and wonder that he ever thought he would get away with it.

For your viewing pleasure:

Now, in the book, this six minute ode to the heroic father is reduced to 2 pages. There’s nothing wrong with shortening a story, but so much of Cosby’s humor is lost that it seems like a completely different person is telling the story. There are several examples of this throughout the book; anecdotes, that I know are funny because I’ve heard them on the CD or seen them on Youtube, that just don’t have the same punch when written down. It at times seems strangely de-Cosbified, which is a damn shame for a book written by the man himself.

The other thing about this book is that it takes somewhat seriously its mission to be a guide for fathers. Obviously, a lot of Cosby’s stand-up material comes from his experience as a father and husband, and as such is something of an instructional guide: Bill gets in trouble for giving his kids chocolate cake for breakfast, so I will try not to do that. It just seemed to me like the book was half comedy, half advice. I’m not sure why, but the editors apparently felt obligated to add an introduction and afterword by some doctor talking about the changing nature of fatherhood. This guy, Dr. Poussaint, basically talks about how the father’s role is expanding into areas traditionally considered the mother’s domain, and vice versa. There’s nothing wrong with adding a little factual information here and there, but it reminded me a bit of semi-educatiotional kids’ TV shows, like Magic School Bus, in which a few facts would be shoehorned oh-so-subtly into the action. Any adult who would seek genuine advice on being a father from a Cosby book might not be ready to be a father.

On the other hand, Cosby himself doesn’t overdo it on the ‘real’ advice to fathers. Most of his advice is either: A) don’t have kids, or B) try not to kill your kids. Cosby is at his best when he turns the plain truth into an interesting story, and he does that over and over again in this book. Fatherhood is pretty well-structured and won’t take up too much of your time, so while it may not be the best, it’s certainly not shamefully bad. I myself am not a father, thankfully (hopefully..?), so perhaps I’m not the guy who should be reviewing this book for you.

If you come across Fatherhood you might want to check it out, but I wouldn’t necessarily go searching for it. Instead, go on the internet and watch his comedy routines.