Sunday, December 31, 2006

Reading Resolutions

As I’m not progressing on my literary travels quite as fast as I hoped (too many diversions), I’m going to have to be stricter with myself and reduce the number of miscellaneous books I consume along the way. I’ve reached a compromise with myself, and have decided to allow myself some slack – for every four books I manage to get through for my world literature challenge, I can read something that won’t count. 80% of what I read will therefore hopefully be getting me closer to my eventual aim of reading one hundred books from one hundred countries while at the same time allowing me the occasional irresistible bliss of a tempting volume of something – for example, The Fragrance of Guava which is by Márquez but can’t count as I’ve already read something by him. (It was looking at me in Borders, I couldn’t help it.)

Genre is something else I’d like to experiment more with; not so much crime as opposed to fantasy or travel, but rather forms of writing – short stories, poetry, essays and so on, in addition to novels. I admit I tend to look for novels before anything else, but I’m determined to make an effort to read more widely.

I’m also going to try and blog more consistently, and to that end, I think I’m going to try blogging every other day for a while. I would like to blog every day, but I have so much on, I don’t always feel I can craft a worthwhile post either because I don’t have the time/energy or simply because I haven’t been reading. So, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and perhaps the odd day in between if I feel like it.

To kick off 2007, I’m reading my way around some Latin American countries. Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve picked up recently or am planning to read:

The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz (Mexico)
This I Believe, Carlos Fuentes (Mexico)
Memoirs & Selected Poems, Pablo Neruda (Chile)
The Fragrance of Guava, Márquez (Colombia)
Death In The Andes, Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Jorge Amado (Brazil)
The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso (Chile)
Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar (Argentina)

Eight books but only six countries…you can see why I’m in trouble! At least there’s a good mix of genres in there – essays, recorded conversations, memoirs, poetry, novels. I think most people have made some reading resolutions for 2007, so I wish you all luck in sticking to those. Happy reading in 2007, and happy new year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

That’s All, Folks! (The Review Post)

I’m just over five months into my challenge, and according to my calculations, I should have read something like forty books from various countries by now. I’ve probably steamed through forty books easily since the end of July, but as only twenty of them actually counted toward my challenge I’d better not dwell on my progress in that respect!

But for anyone who is interested, here is my official list of books counted towards the challenge so far:

In Lucia’s Eyes, by Arthur Japin (Holland)
Les Liaisons Culinaires, by Andreas Staïkos (Greece)
Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, by Ismail Kadare (Albania)
No Saints or Angels, by Ivan Klíma. (Czech Republic)
Embers, by Sándor Márai (Hungary)
The Czar's Madman, by Jaan Kross (Estonia)
The Three Cornered Hat, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (Spain)
The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness (Iceland)
Les Enfants Terribles, by Jean Cocteau (France)
Journey In Blue, by Stig Dalager (Denmark)
Reunion, by Fred Uhlman (Germany)
Home And Exile, by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
As The Crow Flies, by Véronique Tadjo (Côte d'Ivoire)
So Long A Letter, by Mariama Ba (Senegal) AND Scarlet Song, by Mariama Ba (Senegal)
Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna ( Sierra Leone)
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana)
This Blinding Absence of Light, by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Morocco)
Woman At Point Zero, by Nadal El Saadawi (Egypt)
Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez (Colombia)
Waiting, by Ha Jin (China) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (China)

It is difficult to pick out favourites, because now that I look back, I enjoyed almost all of the above titles. So Long A Letter was an absolute revelation and is my most appreciated book of all time so far; but as for the rest of the list, the titles listed encompass such a variety of styles and themes that I am reluctant to begin analysing the merits of each. What I can say with absolute certainty is that purposely exploring literature from across the globe has been exceptionally gratifying. Almost everything I’ve read has been quality writing, but the array of cultural/social settings and opinions expressed has been diverse enough to constantly capture my attention and encourage me to take a fresh look at some of my own attitudes, or, on a different note, revisit things like Andersen’s fairy tales which are quite surprisingly different from an adult perspective.

For the final few hours of 2006, I’m going to take advantage of the Christmas break to indulge in some of the books I received as presents which are unrelated to my world literature challenge, but I promise I’ll be back on the global diet in 2007! Expect a post with reading and blogging resolutions in the near future…

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Last post before xmas

I'm taking an xmas break - one where I don't write at all for a few days instead of writing sporadically! - so I'll take this opportunity to wish everyone a merry christmas and a happy new year. Have fun, I hope you get what you want!

I'll do an end of year type post before the new year; I have to say, I'm not sure my around the world reading has been progressing much recently, certainly not as fast as I'd hoped. I've got stuck on the Sandman series, reading the whole of book two yesterday (I am now completely hooked and can't wait for number three to wing its way to me), and reading more from China, this time in the form of a novel. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress has been a book I've glanced at many times in the past but never wanted to read, so I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting I found it. It was a testament to the power of great writing and how great writers can change lives, give hope, encourage people to believe in themselves. I thought the quality of the writing fluctuated a little, and the very good passages stood out from the rest as being exceptionally noteworthy as opposed to merely very readable; I have one more Chinese novel to read, then I'll move on, but my recent forays into Chinese writers, or writers of Chinese origin, has made me very nostalgic. I have a feeling one of my new year's resolutions will be to start reading in Chinese again; I didn't realise how much I'd miss it!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Book Festivals

For years I've been meaning to go to the Guardian book festival at Hay-On-Wye. I still haven't been, and I discovered it about six years ago. It is simply the biggest and the best book festival here in the UK, a mecca for anyone interested even remotely in books and writing. The thing is, for the last six years I've had exams every summer and it has been impossible to justify taking time out from revision to attend lectures entirely irrelevant to my subject and miles away from my university. Highly frustrating; next year however, I have no exams. I sense a trip to Hay-on-Wye!

This is what the official site says: Hay-on-Wye is where the fun first started. Hay is a tiny market town in the Brecon Beacons National Park, It has 1500 people and 41 bookshops. The Festival is a spectacular holiday party for friends to gather and indulge their tastes for the finest books, food, drink, comedy, music, art, argument and literature.

How could anyone not? It sounds like paradise; all the books you could ever want and more besides, a massive variety of free lectures and talks (some you do have to pay for), and the company of fellow book lovers. They've expanded too, into Spain and Latin America. There's a festival in a few weeks in Colombia which features a range of Latin American and international writers and sounds wonderful. The authors listed have also given me some inspiration for more Latin American authors to look up, and I can't wait for the audio files to be made available online. What did we do before the internet?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Mr Sandman, bring me a dream...

...but not a nightmare, please.

I hate admitting I was wrong. I was very skeptical about Neil Gaiman's first Sandman graphic novel, and scoffed at the thought that I might be hooked by the end of it, but you know what? I think I almost am.

Originality is the key attraction for me, I think (although it might just be because I am new to the genre). Gaiman takes stereotyped characters and recreates them, makes them more human, allows them to be exposed to situations and attitudes that do not fit conventional images of them and offers different perspectives on practically everything. I was quite intrigued by the fact that Death personified is also Life, and her (she's a woman! no, better - a Goth girl!) activities revolve around not only taking but also bestowing life upon individuals. Apparently there is more to come in the following nine or so books in the series, and I am quite keen to keep reading and find out more following the catastrophes that befell Earth when the Sandman was captured and nightmares stole the world.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thud! (a little rant)

I've finally managed to read my latest Pratchett acquisition, Thud!. I have to confess, I'm a little disappointed - it just isn't as good as some of the vintage Discworld books I know and love. The Hogfather was my first ever Pratchett read, given to me one Christmas by an uncle who is himself an avid Pratchett reader (quite appropriately as the story is about Christmas (in a warped kind of way), and I still love it, along with almost all books featuring Rincewind the inept Wizzard who can't even spell 'wizard'. I think people have the Marmite approach to Pratchett - love him or hate him, sometimes without trying him - and I definitely love his stuff. Why has he gone downhill? It happens to a lot of authors - happened to Stephen King, who seemed to lose all ability to write in an engaging manner after his first twenty or so books, maybe less, and then Jilly Cooper whose latest offering made me want to hit her over the head with it, or something equally terrible. Honey, if it has taken you literally years to write a piece of chick lit and it turns out to be 900 pages long, GIVE UP! Is my frustration coming out here?! I tell you something; if the last Harry Potter book is rubbish, I think I'll actually cry.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Burst of Short Stories

I think most people have at some stage or another observed how things seem to come in groups. I'm not much of a short story reader, but recently, I've read quite a few. Yiyun Li's Ten Thousand Years of Good Prayers has received a lot of attention recently in the press, winning the Guardian award for best first work of fiction and being praised by many other reviewers. I snapped it up when I saw it a couple of weeks ago as it'd been on my wishlist for ages, and at the same time, I discovered I had a volume of short stories by another Chinese native already on my shelves; Waiting by Ha Jin.

Reading the two volumes side by side has made for some interesting comparisons. Although both deal with recent society in China, the generational difference is very marked; Ha Jin tends to write about issues confronting individuals of the generation above the one with which Yiyun Li concerns herself, and each author picks up on appropriate prevalent issues depending on which stage of development Chinese society is in. In Ha Jin's work, China struggles to prove her prowess to the West and modernise society. Families destroyed by an earthquake in one city are patched back together again with survivors from three different family units to form a new dysfunctional nuclear family. An American fast food restaurant successfully competes with local street vendors for business, but when the workers go on strike in an effort for fair pay they are fired and replaced with new workers. Two peasants are executed for making a joke about a workunit leader that was misconstrued as a slight against the dead Chairman Mao.

In Yiyun Li's stories, young men and women compete to escape the confines of China for the freedom and riches of America, then struggle to retain their Chinese identity and empathy with China. Caught between tradition and modernity, a young man educated in America struggles to tell his mother that the reason he keeps rejecting the potential matches she arranges for him is because he is homosexual; a woman moves to America after falling pregnant in order to seek a better life and finds hope that China cannot give her; a husband and wife battle to keep their family together in the face of rejection from society when one of their children is born mentally ill.

What struck me most was how much Chinese society has changed in such a short space of time. I know China has been trying to modernise, and having spent time there, I know there are massive divides between country and city, old and young, and new and old; but I've never been exposed to such expressions of these struggles. Both books are of course banned on mainland China (although probably not in Taiwan) and I am surprised that censorship doesn't feature more heavily in either set of stories. Not only in literature, but generally in freedom of speech in the media or even in what Chinese people are allowed to view from overseas media. In hotels, foreign news reports on China are often cut from broadcasts. Foreign papers arrive three weeks late and will sometimes have articles perceived as reflecting negatively on China's progress or development torn out. Everyone (in the West) knows that a massive quantity of websites are blocked in China - my blog is banned in China! (Not mine specifically; blogger appears to be banned.) But the Chinese are, by and large, unaware of the extent to which their government blindfolds them. Anyway, I've managed to go off course on my speculations about censorship; my point is really that China is going through a massive rapid social upheaval, and reading these two books together has provided an interesting record in literature on social problems.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Graphic Novel and Me

Graphic novels are an unexplored realm as far as I'm concerned. I barely knew they were even out there until I picked up a copy of Lonely Planet's Guide to Cult Fiction one day in a library and discovered a whole section on graphic novels, including a debate I didn't know existed - is the graphic novel 'literature'? (Seems rather a ridiculous debate to me, since nobody can pin down or agree exactly what 'literature' is, but there we go.) The closest I'd come to reading a graphic novel is either an illustrated Pratchett novel or an abridged graphic novel version of The Hobbit, which I've had for aeons and only recently read.

I have, however heard of Neil Gaiman's legendary Sandman series of graphic novels, so when an acquaintance offered to lend me the first in the series to get me started, I decided to take her up on it. With promises that I'd be hooked by the end of the novel ringing in my ears, I settled down to read Volume One: Preludes and Nocturnes. I have yet to be hooked.

It's not that I don't like the storyline or the illustrations; I have some minor issues with the font used and the apparently arbitrary way some of the words are in bold which makes me emphasise them in my head when there is no need - see? And I have to concede, the more I read, the better the storyline becomes (more intricate, more questioins being raised). But, the main sticking point for me is that I find it a disturbing mix of film and written novel. A lot of the scenes are drawn as they might be shot in a film, and there is a little voice in my head asking why. Perhaps it's simply because I'm not accustomed to the visuals being provided when I read or that I'm not used to that kind of illustration techniue. I'm not saying I dislike the novel because of it, but I'm finding it hard to adjust.

Having said that, I am enjoying the concepts and characters in the novel - in attempting to summon and capture Death, a mage manages instead to capture the Sandman, and, fearing punishment, will not release him. Strange things begin to happen to people and the dreamworld crumbles without the Sandman there to control the nightmares, and worse is to come when the Sandman finds his release and begins a quest to recover what was taken from him. I'm still only halfway through, so addiction could develop yet. And if I do become addicted to the genre, there's always Japanese manga to explore!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Book shopping in charity shops

Sarah Burnett of The Guardian produced a wonderful blog entry yesterday on buying books from charity shops. I found myself smiling and nodding in agreement as I read through it, and indeed, yesterday I have been to my own local Oxfam and bought two treasures - both of which I have devoured already!

The first one I found was a brand new copy of Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores in immaculate condition, and for only 40% of the original price. How could I not? And then, an unexpected delight in the poetry section; I pulled out an old-fashioned little hardback book entitled Great Horses and Gallant Horsemen which, when I flicked through it, turned out to be a trove of horsey poetry complete with beautiful illustrations to accompany most of the poems. I had no idea such an anthology existed, and the copy I picked up was printed in 1988 and looks it, but is in beautiful condition. It is hard to explain, unless you have a passion for horses, but these poems together epitomise everything horse lovers feel about horses and feats of horsemanship - one of the poems made me cry, but another immediately after made me laugh; the poem The Knight's Leap is a great story told in seven short stanzas, and The Arab's Farewell To His Favourite Steed reminded me of the horses I have sold in the past and how I felt about it. I sat in a coffee shop yesterday and read the entire anthology right through, then went back and re-read some of them. Unfortunately, I know this book would be a perfect gift for a friend who runs a racing yard, as most of the poems deal with racing and hunting; only I don't think I can bring myself to part with it!

After I'd done with the poetry, I started on Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and finished it up this morning. It is quite different to the two books by Marquez that I've read before; shorter, more obviously humourous, less complex. I won't go into the details of the story - it is quite short for a novel - but here's an extract I found rather funny and wanted to share.

The only unusual relationship was the one I maintained for years with the faithful Damiana. I remember I was reading in the hamoock in the hallway, when I happened to see her bending over in the laundry room wearing a skirt so short it bared her succulent curves. Overcome by irresistible excitement, I pulled her skirt up in back, pulled her underwear down to her knees, and charged her from behind. Oh Senor, she said with a mournful lament, that wasn't made for coming in but for going out.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Winter Classics Reading Challenge

It is high time I joined in a reading challenge, and this one is the perfect choice! Five classics in January and February and, most crucially, they can be international classics! I am very excited about this one already. Here's my list (version one!):

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz (Mexico). On my shelf as I bought it a few weeks ago, but I doubt I'll get round to it before Christmas, so it can be part of my challenge.

Cheri by Colette (France). Because I got it while in Paris and want to read it!

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong by Hyegyong Hong Ssi (Korea). Written by a crown princess of Korea in the 18th century, this memoir recounts the death of her father (placed inside a rice bin to starve because his son refused to kill himself) and the events in the court thereafter.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Russia). Massive poetic epic. It's been on my shelf for years, and I've only ever watched the film (grossly different in some respects from the book, I've heard, and since I'm something of a purist it should make for interesting reading).

The Obscene Bird of the Night by Jose Donoso (Chile). The title of this is taken from a letter to Henry and William James from their father, and is apparently a very valuable contribution to the Magical Realism genre. The title actually refers to the dark side of the imagination.

I'll probably change some of these as I go, depending on availability and what mood I am in during the first two months of next year - I have a list of other books I want to read from various countries and I'm sure some of those are classics too. All the same, I have some quality literature lined up for post-Christmas literary indulgence. I can't wait to see what everyone else is reading!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Poetry Meme

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was...

Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Weirdly enough, the poem was in a Jilly Cooper book, and after reading it in there, I bought a book of collected poems by Frost.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and...

I don’t think I had to actually memorise any poetry in school, but I do have a few memories of poetry classes –reading ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by Wordsworth (as a country girl I was even then disgusted by the notion that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ than London city), analyzing what turned out to be a list of poetry titles because one teacher was curious about how we perceived poetry, and a class where we all had to pick a poem to share with the class, and I chose one by Emily Dickinson (predictably I cannot now find or recall the poem in question).

I also especially remember this sonnet by Keats, because it expressed some of my feelings when I was about 15 and having more thoughts about things than my head was able to contain.

3. I read/don't read poetry because....

it adds to my life. Every time I re-read a favourite poem after a long interlude, it feels like coming across a loved friend I haven’t seen for ages and stopping to catch up with them, and finding them as wonderful as I remembered.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is ...

Puedo Escribir by Pablo Neruda. I know it is cliched to like Neruda, but ever since I discovered his poetry in Borders one day, I’ve been utterly in love with the man. I used to say I’d marry the man who bought me my own library (unless I earn enough to buy my own library first, of course), but I’d settle for the man who wrote me love poems like Pablo Neruda.

5. I write/don't write poetry, but...
I don’t write poetry because I don’t believe I could ever express my thoughts and feelings as well as the poets I most admire, and possibly do not want to suffer the disappointment of trying and failing. But, I wish I could.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature...

Poetry is more personal, I think. There are some poems that seem to be universally popular, but when it comes to it, reading collections of other people’s favoured poems is never as satisfying as reading your own favourites. Maybe it is the space for interpretation each poem leaves, or the way in which the poet moulds language to their purpose, or even just the memories associated with a certain poem in the mind of the reader. Also, the delicacy of poetry. Prose is often clumsier and almost always far more explicit. I am a dreamer, and I prefer poems that make my mind wander after reading them.

7. I find poetry...

more fulfilling than prose in some instances. Hard to explain; both have their places. Prose captures life and poetry captures the things we take through life with us – feelings, memories, reflections. The things that make us us.

8. The last time I heard poetry....

I was quite into journalism at university, and for one of my feature pieces I went to hear Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, give a reading of some of his works from Public Property. I bought the book as preparation for the interview I was to conduct with him after his reading, and was unimpressed with his poems. Until I heard him read some aloud – then they came to life, and I understood why poets like to read their work aloud. I particularly liked his poem Serenade but unfortunately I couldn't find it online.

9. I think poetry is like...

Art. It depicts beauty and truth. There are a lot of pretentious fools out there, but the real good quality stuff is instantly discernible. I also think it is like any other literature; some good, some not so good; some complex, some not so much. In my opinion the best poems are those that capture something everyone shares; a common experience (which is why Frost's poem is so popular), an epiphany everyone has had at some point, feelings everyone had experienced. The best loved poems, if you will, are those that frame the beauty in something common or ordinary in an exceptional way. Who doesn't have their own golden memory that always makes them smile, like Wordsworth and his daffodils?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Woman At Point Zero

If anyone still bothers to read this, I’d like to apologise for my general lack of posting last week, mainly due to laziness/the winter blues/time spent sitting around and moping. Enough is enough! Pick yourself up traveller, give yourself a dust off, and get back on the road. Louise Bagshawe has been a literary version of Fiji – relaxing, fun, non-taxing, all in all a nice break. (It is possible I may be extending my whole world travels via literature thing too far here…)

Anyway, following my chick lit diversion, I delved into another ‘prison novel’, if I can use that term. It isn’t prison fiction in the same way that This Blinding Absence of Light was, although I hardly need state that the obvious central theme of confinement remains. Nawal el Sadaawi has been imprisoned for her controversial writings and activism for change in Egyptian society. Woman At Point Zero is a partly fictionalised tale of a woman Saadawi met when she paid a visit to Qanatir prison. Firdaus, the woman whose story Saadawi tells, was imprisoned and executed for murder. In telling Firdaus’ tale for her, Saadawi raises many questions about liberty, death, the repression of women, the morals of murder. The novel isn’t about prison walls of stone; it’s about the prison men have made for women in society and the punishments meted out to those who dare to try and break out.

I found Woman At Point Zero an interesting contrast to recent works I’ve read; both The Blinding Absence of Light and So Long A Letter were about confinement and restriction and punishment, and all three are from different parts of Africa with different cultures, albeit a shared religion in the form of Islam. All three books have been exceptional reads, and reading books which take such similar central themes yet take those themes in such different directions has encouraged me to think a lot about the world we live in. Sounds corny, I know, but there is always a new perspective to consider, always a new take on an old situation, and there is always some kind of relevance to our lives or our own society if you choose to see it. And I think I’m still young enough to be a bit naïve about the world!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Not About Books At All

You know that saying that you learn something new every day? I always think of it when I learn something new, or when I discover something very obvious. Today I learned about the Wurzels.

What on earth is a Wurzel? These are the Wurzels:

They're a singing group from the Westcountry here in the UK. The existence of the Wurzels has vaguely penetrated my consciousness several times before now; people randomly humming snatches of 'I am a Cider Drinker' or merrily shouting 'I got a brand new combine harvester and I'll give ye the key!', but mostly these grand old bastions of Westcountry culture have passed me by utterly. I'm not sure why, but I got the sudden urge to investigate these Wurzels last night, and discovered a myspace page which not only contains the aforementioned tracks, but a wonderful ditty called 'Blackbird' which I have been singing all day (please follow the link and listen, I was crying with laughter earlier today and kept going 'buggered if I won't 'ave thee' at random intervals, much to the amusement of everyone at work) plus a marvellous version of the Oasis track 'Don't Look Back In Anger', complete with authentic 'Ooh arrrrrr's in a thick Westcountry accent. Seriously, you've never heard folk music this good. I certainly never have! Makes me proud to be a country bumpkin.

Some day I'll tell you all about Tar Barrels, another long established Westcountry tradition. Maybe now, since I'm thinking about it. In other parts of Britain they celebrate bonfire night with fireworks, possibly as a reminder to the monarchy that but for a stroke of luck, it could have been them up in flames so be nice to us commoners lest we hatch a plot to blow you up again, sort of thing. Apparently we don't see it that way down here in the sticks, because the way we celebrate is by heaving huge barrels of tar onto our backs (and when I say 'we', obviously I only mean the slightly insane among us), setting them alight and hurling ourselves with gay abandon down streets jam-packed with drunken spectators while the barrel blazes merrily away and sparks set unwary members of the public on fire. Of course, you try to foist the barrel off on someone else before it burns all your hair off, and then they can run like a mad thing back the way you came. If you don't believe people can be quite so stupid, see here.

Anyone else have any interesting local traditions? There's also the Morris Men of course, who I haven't seen for years, mainly because I haven't been to any local fayres or anything. They dance around and have bells on their knees and belt each other over the head with inflated pigs bladders. Excellent entertainment. I look forward to hearing about anyone else' s strange local customs!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Return of internet

Hooray! The internet is back! Apologies (again) for another prolonged silence - the internet at home went away and I had to talk to the nice phone people to get it back, but back it is. And hopefully won't be going away again anytime soon.

I've decided I need a break from reading books which make me think (very pathetic of me; clearly my brain is disintegrating since graduation!) and have retreated to the world of Louise Bagshawe. Most of you probably won't have heard of her; she is a British chick lit author, but more of a thinking girl than a lot of the other chick lit writers, from what I can gather - she's really the only one I read. Personally, I think she's like a modern day Jilly Cooper, with the intricate plots, forays into the worlds of the super rich, and the ability to mesh the stories of a number of characters together to produce surprising twists. I'm re-reading Sparkles, her latest offering, which is centred around an exclusive jewellery house in Paris. I'm something of a magpie, and while in Paris drooled over the crown jewels in the Louvre for quite some time one evening and resolved to buy more sparkly jewellery for myself, although possibly not diamonds as big as my fist. Reading about characters in books wearing and buying sparkly things is almost as good as buying them, provided it is well written as Louise Bagshawe's work is, even if she does have a bit of a thing for canary diamonds. (Why canary? Pink is clearly the way to go.)

On a random note, I discovered I own something by Ha Jin already (I bought Waiting the other day) but have never read it. It is a collection of short stories called The Bridegroom, which I will have to investigate soon. I'm going to postpone some of my African works I think and move on within the next week. I have Octavio Paz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez waiting, not to mention the three books I bought the other day from my newly discovered independent book shop. And the books I bought in Paris. Sometimes I could just cry at how much time I don't have to read all the books I have.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I'm feeling pooky because I haven't had enough time to sit down and really spend a good chunk of time reading recently. I need to get into a book properly! Therefore I declare this evening an honorary book-reading evening, to be devoted only to reading for pleasure. I am off to run myself a nice warm bath in which I can recline and read to my heart's content. Heaven!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Borders Vs Brendon Books

My biggest weakness (and I never admit this to prospective employers) is that I cannot be told. I always have to find things out my own way, even if it means doing it wrong and having to begin again from scratch. I realised this some years ago, but knowledge of the fact apparently does not change my inherent stubborness when it comes to advice from others, because I have only just discovered the joy of the independent bookshop. (Sometimes I just want to kick myself and howl 'Why didn't you LISTEN!') Hence my belated discovery of the joys the independent bookshop has to offer.

My bookshop of choice always used to be Waterstones (the largest UK bookshop chain). In the city where I went to college, there were two branches, each with slightly different stock. One was better for poetry, one was better for novels and plays, and I used to visit both of them on a regular basis and buy significant numbers of books each week. I loved Waterstone's - it always had what I wanted and I was always able to find something I wanted to read every time I visited. When I went off to university, I was in bookshop heaven. The city where I studied had zillions of the things, ranging from academic specialists to chains to independents dealing with travel, spiritualism, art. Not to mention the libraries! Sadly, now I'm all done with university and have moved back home for a few months, all I have is a measly Waterstone's which stocks almost nothing I want to read. I went in to search for world literature inspiration and found a mere two books that I was slightly interested in. I left in a huff, missing Borders madly (they always have stuff I want to read).

Then I got a tip off - did I know about an independent bookshop tucked away down a little alley? Well yes, but I'd never bothered visiting it. Fed up as I was and thinking it could do no harm, I trundled off to visit Brendon Books and discovered a veritable treasure trove! They have books I've never seen anywhere else, and the shop is packed with stuff I want to read. And if they don't have it, they operate this wonderful overnight order service! It's like a miracle - there is light! Naturally I was transported with joy and spent an hour wandering around with a huge grin on my face browsing the shelves, and left with three new books (oops). Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Red Dust by Ma Jian and A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li. A bit of a Chinese kick because I've been missing all things Chinese recently (yes, I know Dai Sijie is technically French, but I don't care). The upshot is that I am a total convert and you couldn't pay me to set foot in the other bookshop now. If only I'd listened before...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

This Blinding Absence of Light

Book Number 17: This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Country: Morocco

On July 10 1971, 1,000 Moroccan soldiers were herded into trucks and taken to the palace of Skhirat, where King Hassan II was celebrating his 42nd birthday. Upon arrival, their commanding officers instructed them to find and kill him. Almost 100 guests lost their lives in the ensuing bloodbath, but the king survived. Those deemed responsible were dispatched to Kenitra, a prison known for its harsh conditions. However, most of those imprisoned were unwitting and unwilling participants in the coup and many had not fired a shot. On a sultry August night two years later, 58 of them were again herded into trucks and taken to the remote desert hellhole of Tazmamart; here they were thrown into underground cells 10ft long and 5ft wide, with ceilings so low they were unable to stand, and with just enough food and water to keep them lingering on the edge of death for years. Each tomb had an air vent and a tiny hole in the floor that served as the lavatory. They were crawling with cockroaches and scorpions the men could hear but not see. There was no medical attention, no exercise, and no light. The only time they were allowed out was to bury one of their friends. Thirteen years would pass before the outside world found out that Tazmamart existed. It would take another five years of international campaigning to shut it down. There were only 28 survivors. By 1991, most had lost up to a foot in height. Survivors were warned not to talk to the western press, but in Tahar Ben Jelloun the authorities have an enemy more formidable than 1,000 foreign journalists. This Blinding Absence of Light is based on the testimony of a former inmate of Tazmamart.

I only discovered the above passage after finishing the novel. It lent a new depth to what I had read; for some reason, I believed the entire account to be fictional, and was unaware that Tazmamart had actually existed. There isn't really anything I can say about this book that hasn't been said or that won't sound like a cliche. All I can say is that this is what it means to be a survivor. These are the things you never think you will have to endure and would not think anyone could endure. It is the stuff nightmares are made of. Melodramatic, I know, but it comes from me and does not exist in the book. There is acceptance and adaptation; no dwelling on how and why and when it will be over. Emotion must be banished in order to endure.

I wouldn't call this 'a joy to read' as one Guardian reviewer did, but it certainly made me step back and evaluate some of the things I take for granted in my life. As James McCosh said, "The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Early Reading Meme

I came across this meme on Danielle's blog and was instantly entranced. These questions were designed to bring back happy memories!

1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?

My mother always tells me that I was reading by the age of two. Apparently I sort of taught myself – she devoted some time every day to reading to me (which I loved) and I got to know a lot of my books so well I could recite them by heart, and she says I used to sit on the stairs with a book, reciting the words of the story aloud and following what I was reading with my finger until I could read new material independently.

2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?

My earliest memory is about books. Books, and the birth of my sister. I was two and a half years old when my sister was born, and I remember going to the hospital to see my mother with my newborn baby sister. To prevent any jealousy, my mother had thoughtfully found something for my baby sister to give to me as a present – an entire series of Blackberry Farm books! There must have been over twenty of these little books, all containing different stories of the farmyard animals, and all different colours. I especially remember the maroon book with the illustration of the bounding black and white sheepdog on the front. I was delighted with my gift, and I think that sealed my adoration for my baby sister more effectively than anything else could have done.

3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?

Difficult. I have always received lots of books as gifts and I’m pretty sure I used to get book tokens from a young age too, so I could select for myself what I wanted to read. The purchase I remember clearly was one I made when I first started my paper round. I earned ten pounds a week, and it was the first money I’d earned for myself. I went to Waterstones and bought a copy of Robert Frost poems. I think it sticks in my mind because it was the first ‘proper book’ (ie, not junk) that I bought for myself. Before that, I suspect it was mostly horsey fiction that combined my two passions – reading and horses!

4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?

Definitely! I re-read The Saddle Club series over and over and can still recite the adventure of Stevie, Lisa and Carole and their arch-enemy Veronica to this day. I also read The Silver Brumby Series by Elyne Mitchell over and over, entranced by the creamy coloured Australian brumbies and their magical sounding names – Thowra, Bel Bel, Kunama, Mirri, Yarraman. Basically, anything with horses in was a hit when I was younger.

5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?

Well – Jilly Cooper probably! I used to poach my mum’s bonkbusters from quite an early age and secretly read the sexy bits with glee. I was far more educated about sex than any of my friends when I was younger! Besides Jily Cooper, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding was the first classic I read, which I recall because I made a conscious choice to start reading classics. We didn’t have many in the house, but I knew that I wanted to take my reading to a new level. I think I was about 14.

6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?

Um…I can’t think of any. I devoured anything that came my way without discrimination when I was a child and loved almost all of it. I have been back to revisit some of the books I loved when I was younger, but have stopped after a couple of books because they don’t hold the same charm for me anymore and I was sullying happy memories with my adult perceptions ruining it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Stepping off the plane from (cold but dry) Paris, I was greeted by English rain. How I love the weather here! Paris was utterly fantastic, but I didn't get much reading done, possibly due to all the time I spent wandering around as much of Paris as possible and sitting outside bars drinking hot wine and hot chocolate. I have returned with a few books anyway; books in France are so much cheaper than in the UK, at least half price, so I took advantage of that fact and decided to buy a few titles to read at my leisure back home. My titles include Le Sabotage Amoureux by Amelie Nothomb, Je Voudrais Que Quelqu'un M'attende Quelque Part by Anna Gavalda, Un Coeur Simple by Flaubert, Cherie by Collete and La Princesse de Cleves by Mme de Lafayette. I've heard good things about all these books, so I'm looking forward to getting stuck in at some stage in the near future. Now I just have to find that French dictionary...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


I am off to Paris for a week, so no blogging from me.

I am looking forward to wandering along the rive gauche on Sunday and browsing the book stalls...can't wait!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Reading Resolution

I’ve seen a few posts around talking about the stacks Winter Reading Challenge (reading a number of books from your own shelves over the next couple of months instead of buying more). If ever there was a worthy challenge, that one is it! I’ve taken inspiration from it and decided to compile my own list of books that are on my shelves already – but since I really want to finish Africa this month so I can move on to Latin American literature, I’m listing the books I want to get through by November 20th (monthly review day). I’m looking forward to seeing what Carl’s Christmas challenge is too, I’m sure I can find a way to incorporate it into a world literature theme!

Anyway, here is my list:

A Question of Power, Bessie Head

Neighbours: The Story of a Murder, Lília Momplé

This Blinding Absense of Light, Tahar Ben Jelloun

In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker

Contemporary African Short Stories, Chinua Achebe (ed.)

Five books, including a collection of essays, is a lot to get through in a couple of weeks, but I’m going on holiday in a couple of days. Always good for quality reading time!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Book Number 16: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah
Country: Ghana

In an earlier post, I observed that from my (very limited) reading, African authors seemed to write either stories about people or stories about countries. The Beautyful Ones is a story about a country struggling to find its feet amidst corruption and poverty, with the tantalising gleam of the riches of the white man’s world corrupting men’s souls by promising a better life for those willing to go far enough for it.

How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders? There were men dying from the loss of hope, and others were finding gaudy ways to enjoy power they did not have. We were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs…we knew then and we know now that the only real power a black man can have will come from black people.

Armah’s novel is filled with many impassioned speeches such as the one above, decrying Africa’s poverty, her corrupt and greedy leaders who seem to lose all sense of morality at the merest whiff of power or riches, the hopelessness of life for millions of Ghanaians who have no way to break the vicious cycle of poverty and labour.

The man (who remains nameless throughout the novel) struggles to find something good about life in Ghana, but can only hold onto his own integrity for comfort. He watches his friends grow rich through cheating their fellow countrymen out of money and by sucking up to rich white men, and is berated by his wife and family for failing to provide for them and bring in the money to buy European beers and Japanese cars. He suffers as he watches his own children go without, but cannot bring himself to abandon his own morals. When the old regime is overthrown by the military, his formerly rich friends have a price slapped on their heads overnight, and the man must choose between helping his corrupt friend and saving his life, or allowing the authorities to catch him.

It’s taken me a few weeks to finally finish this novel – I found it very difficult to get into at first because it is so bleak and lacking in hope. I persisted however, and found it to be a very well-written novel, making powerful observations about life in Ghana, the African leader and the African countryman. Armah’s writing is very atmospheric and his depictions of daily life very effective. What struck me most was the passion behind Armah’s writing, shining through the grey drudge of poverty and desperation.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Scarlet Song

Senegalese author Mariama Ba only wrote two novels in her lifetime - one was So Long A Letter which I raved about a couple of weeks ago, and the other was Scarlet Song, written as she was dying. Since Scarlet Song was sitting on my bookshelf, I couldn't resist picking it up and reading it. I was eager to see what else Ba had produced and whether I would find it spoke to me in the same manner as So Long A Letter did.

As I read the first few pages, I felt some initial disappointment. The style of the writing (possibly due to the translator) was a little more stilted and read almost like a fairy tale from the expression and cadence of the phrases, which I hadn't been expecting. I decided to push on however, and soon discovered that the story itself was so compelling that it transcended any reservations I had about the style of the writing and the subjects it seemed to be dealing with.

In short, a black Senegalese student falls in love with a white girl at his university, the daughter of the French ambassador to Senegal. A Romeo and Juliet-type story plays out; the lovers are found out by their respective families, both of whom disapprove strongly, and the girl is whisked back to France immediately. The young couple continue to correspond via letters, and eventually the man travels to France and following their secret marriage, the pair return to live in Senegal. Although they feel as though their love can conquer all, and they are filled with the idealism of youth, the challenges of living as a mixed race couple in Senegal soon become apparent. I won't say any more on the plot in case anyone wants to read it and doesn't want a spoiler, but I will say that this was an extremely interesting read for me. Mariama Ba does an excellent job of presenting the viewpoints of both parties, depicting cultural and racial clashes from both sides of the divide, and concluding her story with a very vivid final scene. She is one of the best authors I've encountered when it comes to drawing the reader completely into her world.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ancestor Stones

Book number 15: Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna
Country: Sierra Leone

I'm getting the feeling that African writers write either stories about people or stories about countries. This one is about people. Londoner Abie receives an unexpected letter from her cousin in Africa, informing her that the family coffee plantation, Rofathane, is hers if she wants it. Abie proceeds to undertake a journey to Africa, travelling not only across oceans but also wandering across time and through the souls of her four aunts, recounting their personal stories as she goes, weaving a tapestry that vividly depicts how the events in each of her aunts' lives shaped their personalities and minds and recalls Abie's own cultural heritage.

There are many themes running through this novel. The ones that struck me most were woman-to-woman relationships (mothers and daughters, co-wives, belly sisters and half-sisters) and the strong reminders throughout the stories told by each woman that a person is much more than the face they present to the world; people are shaped by their circumstances, the other people they come into contact with, the events they experience, the things they see. The women recount their stories in turn, one after the other, representing their lives in memories. Asana speaks first, then Mariama (Mary), followed by Hawa and finally Serah, before Asana begins again.

"Asana, daughter of Ya Namina, my grandfather's senior wife: a magnificent hauteur flowed like river water from the mother's veins through the daughter's. Gentle Mary, from whom foolish children ran in fright, but who braided my hair, cared for me like I was her own and talked of the sea and the stars. Hawa, whose face wore the same expression I remembered from my childhood - of disappointment already foretold. Not even a smile to greet me. Enough of her. And Serah, belly sister of my father, who spoke to me in a way no other adult ever had, as though I might one day become her equal."

Abie's initial impressions of her four aunts upon her arrival in Africa are challenged throughout the novel. Hawa's character left the deepest impression upon me after I finished reading; commonly perceived by her fellow wives as being very negative and pessimistic and generally unpleasant to be around, Hawa's accounts of her life demonstrate that looking at the same thing from various angles can lead to very different conclusions. As Hawa explains, "This is what I think about luck. Luck is like adjoining pools of water, each flowing into the other. One pool might be dry, the next pool overflowing. It's the same with luck. Some people have everything. Other people have nothing. The people who have plenty just seem to get it all, all the luck that ought by rights to belong to someone else. That's the way it was with me. Always the luck just seems to drain out of my pool and into somebody else's." Hawa had never been able to hold onto anyone she loved. Her mother died while she was a child; her husbands either died or ran off with a younger woman, leaving her to fend for herself; her son left Africa for America and was not heard from again.

I've explained the concept of the story very clumsily here and have utterly failed to do the novel and the writing any justice whatsoever, but I found this book absolutely compelling and hard to put down. Each woman has a different voice and a different impression to give of Africa and culture in Sierra Leone. Reading this book was one of those times when, as I was approaching the final few pages, I found myself wishing fervently that there was some more of it!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Third Monthly Review

I am so not keeping up with my own challenge! Although I got off to a perfect start, last month and apparently this month have both been a bit dire as far as reading goes. The list this month is as follows (bear in mind I need to read an average of 8 books a month to fit in my 100 books):

So Long A Letter, by Mariama Ba (Senegal)
Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna ( Sierra Leone)
Scarlet Song, by Mariama Ba (Senegal)

In case anyone is wondering, you haven’t missed anything; I actually haven’t posted on the latter two yet. I only finished the second Mariama Ba novel today – I couldn’t resist reading it since I loved the first one so much, and although I wasn’t sure about it at first, it turned out to be pretty good.

In summary, reading Africa is going slowly, three books in a month is utterly appalling (poetry doesn’t count) and I am resolved to read tons next month to make up for the last two! I’m off to a good start, anyway, with my new purchases sitting beside my bed willing me to pick them all up at once and devour them.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Irresistible Bliss

Bliss must be shopping for books. While on a flying visit to Oxford today, I popped into my church of books (aka Borders) and bought some new items! Very satisfying. I was paid today, so what else could I do but go out and spend a chunk of money on books?

Here's my list of purchases:

The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz - this is a collection of essays by a Nobel prize-winning Mexican author on the people, character and culture of Mexico.

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Alice Walker - from the author of The Colour Purple, this is another collection of essays, this time on womanist prose. (I'll be posting soon on feminism and womanism, but I think this book will be crucial to how I end up understanding womanism.)

Collected Stories, Gabriel Garcia Marquez - one of my favourite authors, but I haven't read many of his shorter works (or indeed many short stories in general) so I'm looking forward to delving into these.

Thud!, Terry Pratchett - Pratchett, what can I say? I've been waiting for this in paperback for months!

The only thing I'm missing is some poetry. I did want some Maya Angelou and some of Alice Walker's poems, but I felt I'd spent enough for one day. Also, I can find a lot online compared to most other African poets, so it isn't urgent. I am going to go bask in the glow of my newly acquired literary treasures now, then collapse into bed!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

My Blog Is Alive!

Another long gap between posts, but not for want of trying. For at least three days I have been unable to view my blog for some reason, and neither have some of my friends - but now it lives once more! Hooray!

My reading experiment (reading more than one book at once) is...interesting. In a way I suppose it has worked, but in another sense, it hasn't worked, or not like I expected it would. I was having a hard time with The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, so I decided to see what I made of reading multiple books and picked up Aminatta Forna's Ancestor Stones with the intention of reading both books simultaneously, alternting between the two. What actually happened was that I got so absorbed in Ancestor Stones that I abandoned The Beautyful Ones utterly until today, when I finished Forna's novel. Immediately after completeing Ancestor Stones, in an overspill of remnant enthusiasm I was inspired to pick up and read a few pages more of The Beautyful Ones, which is still hard to read (very depressing, quite bleak, full of gritty imagery and everything is very colourless). I usually like to concentrate on one novel at a time, but with The Beautyful Ones, if I hadn't broken it up with something rich in imagery which provoked lots of peaceful rumination and wasn't too depressing, I might have given up altogether. As it is, I still find it hard to progress through but am determined not to give up on it. I have more books to read from African countries before I move on again, so more time to practice simultaneously reading multiple books! I'm not sure I'll be converted though; once I get sucked into a novel, I simply can't pick anything else up until I've devoured it completely.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

All Gone Out The Window...

I am so horrified to realise that I haven't posted a blog entry for almost a week! Partly due to tiredness, partly due to the fact that I don't blog about reading done outside my world literature challenge. I have been reading The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah for a few days now, but am having difficulty getting into it properly. It is set in Ghana and is a bit gritty and depressingly realistic for my tastes - I hate being reminded of the less-than-sparkling aspects of daily life, it's why I can't abide Irvine Welsh. I'll press on with it anyway, because it it interesting so far, and I do so hate giving up on books once I've started them. Maybe I should adopt the habit of reading more than one novel at once? Something I've never done, since I'm often too absorbed in a particular book to even contemplate laying it aside in favour of another until I have totally devoured it. It would definitely be a new reading experience, however, and what better occasion to try it out than when I'm not utterly absorbed by my current read? A lot of other bloggers seem to do it, and it certainly provides blogging fodder. Let me think...tonight I'll start Aminatta Forna's Ancestor Stones which has been on my bookshelf for a couple of weeks now. Maybe I'll go nuts and start a third book tomorrow! Although I don't want to bite off more than I can chew...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Lack of Reading

Ugh. Haven't been reading much again recently. Very strange; I'm not used to not having much time to read, and I'm finding it hard work reading books so slowly when I usually power through in a couple of days. I forget what I was reading or lose my sense of the characterisation or just get confused and frustrated if things don't make sense. I'm going to have to start scheduling some quality book time each day, I think!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Poem from Senegal

I'm feeling sleepy and lazy tonight, so I'm going to grace my blog with this beautiful poem by a Senagalese poet called Annette M'Baye d'Erneville. The poem is called Requiem.


To Adrienne d'Erneville who did not return

Your final bed was not adorned with roses
Your shroud was neither white silk nor maternal cloth
No perfumed water bathed your body
And your tresses were not arranged with a comb of gold.
You spoke your fear of the giant bird!
You believed the fork tongue and evil eye!
Who could have thought, seeing you so beautiful,
That you were dressing for Lady Death?
Embrace of the night? Kiss of the early morning?
The sand of the desert has cast your curves
And burned them to a powder.

Just so you know, I did try to find an online biography or information about the poet, or links to more of her poems, but I didn't have any luck. If anyone has any leads, please comment and let me know.

Friday, October 06, 2006

So Long A Letter

Book Number 14: So Long A Letter, by Mariama Ba
Country: Senegal

So Long A Letter was recommended to me by a friend's mother. I found it in the library the other day as part of the new influx of African literature, and I swooped upon it eagerly and began reading. It is the most powerful book I have ever read.

Ramatoulaye is a Muslim school teacher in Senegal. After many years of marriage, her life is turned upside down, the story of which she relates in a long letter to her friend. She begins with a story of young love and devotion; she met her husband while they were at school and fell in love with him at first sight. After years of marriage, Ramatoulaye's love and respect for her husband is as strong as ever. One day, without warning, an Imam, a friend of her husband's and her brother-in-law pay her a visit. The three men tell her "There is nothing one can do when Allah the almighty puts two people side by side...all your husband has done today is to marry a second wife." From that moment on, Ramatoulaye and her children are on their own as her husband abandons them completely in favour of his new wife and her family. She struggles to understand her husband's action and the laws that subject a woman to such pain on a whim, and tries to work out what she should do. Following the death of her husband some time later, Ramatoulaye is approached by her brother-in-law as Muslim law states that a man may inherit his brother's wife. She angrily rejects him and the Muslim ideals that give so much weight to man's whims, stating "You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don't know what marriage means to me; it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of onself to a person one has chosen and who has chosen you." Ramatoulaye's story continues to recount her personal battles, with life, love and her family.

As I read Ramatoulaye's letter, I felt as though she was my soul sister. Everything she says and thinks about what it means to be a woman is everything I think, everything she says is true in the deepest sense of true, everything she goes through is what millions of women live every day. It doesn't matter that we live in different countries and cultures, that she believes in God and I don't, that she is black and I am white. This book speaks to me exactly; it is hard to articulate precisely what I mean, but if everything I am and everything I believe about the way human relationships, especially those between women, should be was written down, it would closely resemble this book. Mariama Ba speaks for million of women through the character of Ramatoulaye. Through everything, depsite her rejection of Muslim laws that give men power over women, Ramatoulaye always "sought refuge in God, as at every moment of crisis in my life." That is the only thing in her character that I cannot grasp, for as firmly as she believes, I reject. I hope I'm not making this book seem as if it is some ultra feminist lecture, because it isn't; it is simply a story of one woman's life lived.

I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough. You know how a popular question seems to be which one book would you take to a desert island? I would always take this one. I would be happy to read it over and over forever, because it is real and true and has real meaning. Everyone, go out and find it and read it and tell me what you think!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Reading Africa #2

There has been a display stand prominently arranged to catch the eye (and the interest) of library visitors since yesterday. The title, in huge red capitals, proclaims 'READING AFRICA'. I was scared.

Not because the thought of Reading Africa fills me with dread, and not because the display stand was in anyway terror-inducing - to the casual observer, at least. No, I was taken aback because when I first began my forays into the realm of African literature, my first blog post on the subject was entitled Reading Africa. Plus it came on the back of my complaining on my blog that my local library had a distinct dearth of African literature and my subsequent discovery of two days ago that the new books shelf was filled with African books. Was someone from my local library reading my blog without telling me? Sadly not, as I discovered.

As I read on down the display board, I learned that it is now officially Black History Month, hence the focus on Africa. Now I know the nation as a whole is paying attention to African authors, I feel like a trend setter; the Kate Moss of readers! Impeccable taste, always ahead of the pack. Naturally, darling! I'll blithely ignore the fact that not enough people read my blog or otherwise have knowledge of what I'm reading to impact on the literary tastes of the nation...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Interesting Times

A strange thing happened today. A few posts ago I was bemoaning the lack of books by African authors in my local library while at the same time praising the African Writers Series for bringing the works of African authors to a British readership. Maybe someone from my local library reads my blog or something, because today when I went into said library, what should I see on the 'new books' stand but a range of books from the African Writers Series? As Alice said, curiouser and curiouser. But welcome, all the same!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Films v Books

I am notorious among my friends for never being able to watch a film through to the end. Usually the scene plays out something like this: someone will announce that they want to watch a film, and a group of us will pile into that person's room and settle down to watch the film. The film will start and ten minutes in, I'll start thinking that I don't really like the characters, or that nothing is catching my attention. By the time we're fifteen minutes in, I'll be fidgeting and looking around the room. I'm lucky if I make it twenty minutes into the film before I jump up and leave the room in exasperation to go and do some quality reading instead.

Recently however, I've found myself watching films instead of reading. Since I'd all but given up on films altogether, I am surprised to admit that I've found something new in films that I hadn't found before. Over the last few weeks, I've watched a variety of foreign films (my local dvd rental shop has a special offer on - £5 for three dvds for one week), including Oldboy (Korea), Maria Full of Grace (Colombia), The Motorcycle Diaries (Latin America), Lilya 4-Ever (Eastern Europe) and Il Postino (Italy) among others, and enjoyed them all - some more than others, admittedly, but I have made it all the way through every single one of them. What's different? For starters, I think the fact that they haven't been Hollywood blockbusters has made a huge difference. Obviously The Motorcycle Diaries was a huge hit and the others are pretty well known to a lot of film lovers, but these films have all dealt with real issues and real people (excepting Oldboy which was simply a very good story) in a way that Hollywood mostly fails to do. As a result, they have a passion and emotional depth which I haven't encountered in films before. The characters are more real, the problems they deal with and experiences they undergo are patently very real and I think that films such as Maria Full Of Grace are a more effective way of drawing public attention and understanding to issues such as the international drug trade in Latin America than newspaper or television reports. Il Postino and The Motorcycle Diaries reminded me that a person is more than the words they leave behind (in the case of Neruda), more than their actions (Guevara), that they existed and had an effect in the world and on people's lives, that they had ideals and weren't afraid to fight for them. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that everything and everyone suddenly became 3d in the films mentioned above.

After watching the Motorcycle Diaries, I am tempted to read Guevara's actual diaries, but I have to confess, I am afraid of what I might find. The Guevara of the film seemed very idealised, never putting a foot wrong, empathising with the people of Latin America, fighting for what he believed in. I've heard that his diaries reveal other things about him however, such as his preoccupation with getting laid as frequently as possible on his travels and other slightly unfavourable incidents which don't appear in the film. This of course is where the conflict between books and cinema comes in. Like most book lovers, I am always quite distressed when I see a cinematographic depiction of a book I read and loved, only to find that the characters have been changed and painted in a entirely new light, major events have been omitted from the story altogether, and the film overall is a pale imitation of the book. (This happened to me with Iris, John Bayley's memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch. I loved the book more than I can say, but I was absolutely horrified when I saw the film, and exited the cinema very quickly.) While the memory of the film is still fresh in my mind, it might be best if I avoid Guevara's diaries and come back to them at a later date! Much as I have enjoyed the films that I've watched recently (and am planning on finding more), cinema will never replace books for me.

Friday, September 29, 2006

For Love Of Libraries (Part Two)

So, following on from two days ago - my ideal library. Obviously, it'd be in the castle I want to have. I want a huge library, filled with books in several languages (which, of course, I'd be able to read). At the front of the library would be two huge windows with seats, where I could sit and read by sunlight, and look out over my own fields and countryside, maybe see my horses grazing in the fields as a brook babbles nearby.

I think it would be rather nice to have an upstairs sort of gallery in my library. A certain library I used to frequent was in a large hall type room, and it had a walkway all around the interior wall at the height where a second floor might be, forming a sort of wall-less corridor. It would have been improved by an expanded area of flooring with chairs at one end of the walkway, spanning the width of the room so you could sit and look down on the books and anyone who might wander in from above.

A domed ceiling is a must; as is deep carpet, soft lighting among the shelves, and the sort of shelving design that allows you to feel almost as though you could get lost, wandering deep among rows and rows of books, discovering books on everything under the sun by authors you've never heard of. Of course, all my favourite books would be bound in bespoke leather covers (probably pink, knowing me) with elegant gold lettering for the title and author's name. You can actually get this done for your own books, I've discovered; it costs quite a lot, of course, but since I'm in fantasy-land right now anyway, what the hell. Pink leather bound tomes it is.

Personally, I quite like to have music on quietly in the background when I read. Depending on what I'm reading, I prefer classical or jazz, maybe opera. (In my magical library, the sound system would know what I wanted to hear at any given time!) I would recline in giant squashy armchairs with a mug of hot chocolate to hand, and sit for hours reading. Nobody would be permitted in my library - I cannot focus when other people are around, even if it is watching a film or something. Privacy and solitude are key to my enjoyment of books, I'm afraid. And that is pretty much my dream library. Lots of books, big windows, huge armchairs and hot chocolate. Bliss.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

For Love of Libraries (Part One)

I have been very lax about updating recently, which I am very ashamed about. I blame a new job, lots of job applications and lots of applications for work experience, which has been cutting into my reading time, but they don’t really constitute much of an excuse, do they? To make up for it, here is a post which I hope anyone who still reads this will find interesting (although you’ve probably all given up on me in disgust!).

People always smile when I tell them that I want to live in my own castle, or, at the very least, have a huge house complete with (and this is the most important part) my own private library. I’m not sure why they seem to find it humorous; I am entirely serious on both counts and fully intend to do everything in my power to get my castle!

Anyway, as a consequence of being determined to eventually possess my own library, I spend a reasonable amount of time daydreaming about libraries and what my own ideal one would be like, and so on. Some parts of my dream library I take from libraries I’ve seen either in films or on television, or those I’ve actually visited. Other aspects are probably impossible to attain, even with the best will and all the money in the world, but I think they’re darned good ideas as far as libraries go, so I’m incorporating them into my dream library anyway. I’m going to make this post a two-parter. Today I’ll look at some of the best fictitious libraries I’ve encountered, and tomorrow I’ll discuss some of the real libraries I’ve been to or seen, and the aspects I’d include in my own ideal library.

Personally, libraries have a sort of aura of special-ness for me. When I’m surrounded by so many books and there’s an atmosphere of quiet but intense studying, I can virtually feel myself absorbing knowledge and learning and an urge to devour every book in sight overcomes me – even the books on obscure things that I’d never normally want to read, like quantum physics and equally dreadful things. It is very vexing when libraries fail to have books that I want to read however, which is why I think Terry Pratchett’s concept of L-space is such a good one. For those of you who don’t read Pratchett’s Discworld series, I shall explain. L-space means library space. On the Discworld, words have power, and where many books are grouped together in a relatively small space, the power accumulates and strange things happen to space as we know it. In the library of Unseen University (for trainee wizards), wild thesauri roam amongst the shelves in the deepest darkest corners of libraries; some books are so powerful they have to be kept in vats of ice to prevent spontaneous combustion; and some are so rare and obscure, they necessitate entire expeditions of students to pursue them through the library, with a reasonable chance that the students will not return. The power of books and words distorts space and time, but the Librarian has learnt to manipulate this to his advantage, and can use L-space to access any library, anywhere, any time. There is no book that cannot be found through L-space, and rumour has it, even books that have not yet been written and may never be written can be found if you look hard enough.

From the universal eternal library of the Discworld to the infinite universe that is Borges’ Library of Babel. Borges once wrote “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” For anyone that has read ‘The Library of Babel’ however, surely that library is Borges’ vision of hell. A universe comprised of a library that contains more books than can be read in any one man’s lifetime; a library that mostly contains books that are filled with meaningless jumbles of letters; a library which contains every possible book but in which it is virtually impossible to find any book, let alone the book, which details the how and why of the library, or even any book which contains something other than incomprehensible strings of letters.

In a book I once read, which I cannot recall the name of now, was a prediction of what may in the future be possible – what is almost possible now. Each child is issued with a primer when born. It is a real book; the pages turn, it has a beautifully bound cover, and contains…whatever you need it to contain. It is a computer in book format. If you could access the internet, and every book ever written was online, in any language you chose, your own personal library would be contained in that single book. While I find this concept intriguing, I don’t especially like the idea of a single book as a substitute for a library. Part of the joy of libraries for me is wandering amongst the shelves, touching books, looking at the covers of books and the illustrations they contain, reading blurbs, reading bits from several books at once.. A single book wouldn’t do it for me. It may contain everything but what good is that if you can’t see it all laid out before you?

Finally, The Shadow of the Wind by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon has the most fantastic book shop in it. Although it isn’t a library, it symblises everything that is wonderful about books and bookshops and libraries. Some of you have probably read it, but here is a brief extract so you can all imagine the book shop for yourselves: The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

A blue-tinted gloom obscured the sinuous contours of a marble staircase and a gallery of frescoes peopled with angels and fabulous creatures. We followed out host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall where a spiralling basilica of shadows was pierced by shafts of light from a glass dome high above us. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive, woven with tunnels, steps, platforms and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry…For almost half an hour I wandered within the winding labyrinth, breathing in the smell of old paper and dust. I let my hand brush across the avenue of exposed spines, musing over what my choice would be. I roamed through galleries filled with hundreds, thousands of volumes. After a while it occurred to me that between the covers of each of those books lay a boundless universe waiting to be discovered.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Home and Exile

Book number 13: Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe
Country: Nigeria

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Home and Exile is based upon three lectures Achebe gave at Harvard in 1998. It's an excellent starting point from which to commence reading African fiction, providing brief explanations of why literature is important for Africa and of the battles African writers have been fighting through their works. Broadly speaking, Achebe's lectures focus on the impact imperialism has had on Africa, perceptions of Africa and African literature. It is widely claimed that Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, his most famous work, to provide an accurate perspective on African culture in response to Conrad's depiction of Africa in Heart of Darkness. Conrad's dehumanisation of Africans in Heart of Darkness was representative of the prevalent Western attitudes towards African peoples and their lack of 'civilisation', and their supposeldly inferior culture, customs, even brain capacity. Elspeth Huxley, in White Man's Country, explicitly expounded the view of her contemporary medical men - that the black man's brain ceases development at ten years of age, leaving him with a far inferior brain capacity to that of the white man. That opinion sounds ridiculous now, but 'the use of imperialist literature to justify degradation of a continent' affected not only Western popular perceptions of Africa but also those of the African people themselves. Achebe writes of Amos Tutuola and the reception of his novels in London; Dylan Thomas 'recognised Tutuola's merit instantly', but most other Western reviewers and even some educated Africans living in London at the time of the novel's publication slammed his work without even having read it, believing his African mind to be incapable of producing anything worth reading.

Achebe's battle has been to assert the value of Africa. He, and many others since, have tried to paint a true picture of African people, culture, customs. African authors (not just authors) have had to fight not only white imperialist ideas of superiority but also concepts of inferiority planted in African minds by white imperialists. Society and attitudes have developed a lot since the 1950s, but nothing can diminish the significance of what Achebe and other African authors have been accomplishing through giving Africa a voice. Their literature was an entirely new creation, not just because of what they were trying to acheive but because African writers refused to follow Western conventions in composing novels.

(Incidentally, the African Writers Series I mentioned a couple of days ago was the first ever attempt by a Western publisher to find and publish African literature of merit; perhaps Heinemann was the first to even accept that African literature could have merit.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Second Monthly Review

A slow second month. I've only managed to read four books (I finished Achebe's today and will be posting on it tomorrow, so I've included it). I'm not really sure quite what happened this month; I suppose I've just been preoccupied with other things recently and reading has taken a back seat. I'm still pretty shocked I've only read four a week! I've never read so little in my life! Here they are:

Journey In Blue by Stig Dalager (Denmark)
Reunion by Fred Uhlman (Germany)
Home And Exile by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
As The Crow Flies by Véronique Tadjo (Côte d'Ivoire)

It may have been slow but it's been a good month for quality reading. I honestly enjoyed all the books up there - Reunion had the most fantastic twist at the end, Journey In Blue was stylistically amazing, Home and Exile started me thinking about Africa and analysing visions of Africa, and As The Crow Flies was simply prose poetry. As you can see, I decided to move on from Europe after Uhlman and started reading African authors instead. I haven't really got into my African reading properly yet, perhaps because I've devoted less time to it. I'll make more time for reading from now on and I hope I'll enjoy African literature as much as I enjoyed my sampling of European literature. I got a real sense of some of the history of Europe from my reading last month, so it'll be interesting to see how my own vision and understanding of Africa develops. One book I tried to read and couldn't get into was The Book Of Disquiet by Fernando Passoa (Portugal). I think I had 'reader's block' or something, which was disappointing because I'd been looking forward to reading it for a while. On the plus side, it means that for Portugal I can read Sarramago's Blindness, which has been added to my TBR list after reading about it on another blog.

Monday, September 18, 2006

As The Crow Flies

Book Number 12: As The Crow Flies, by Véronique Tadjo
Country: Côte d'Ivoire

This is officially my first entire novel from Africa (on my world literature tour, at least). It's certainly my first ever novel from the Côte d'Ivoire. I'm definitely delighted I happened across this one by chance, because it it one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. Tadjo's novel is fragments of lives, stories of parts of people, snapshots of existence, all framed in poetic language and exquisite imagery. I ascribe the beauty of Tadjo's writing to the short sentences she uses throughout, conjuring images and understanding and emotion from what is not explicitly written as much as from what is. Take the passage below for example:

Some people die without anyone even realising it. No drums, no fanfare. You open the papers and see their faces:
Here is one with a half smile that makes him look shy. Then, there is the young woman with a radiant smile and shining eyes.
Then all of a sudden, there in the middle of the page, a familiar face, someone you love:

The Divo family
The commander of Abidjan
The permanent adviser on education
The professor in Daloa
The agricultural assistant in Bonoua
The Sassandra family
The Tabou family
announce with deep sorrow the death of their beloved brother, father, grandfather, nephew and brother-in-law. He passed away at CHU of Cocody after a brief illness.

Can anyone fail to empathise with the unknown woman here? Fail to feel her shock and disbelief at this unexpected revelation that pounced without warning from the pages of the paper?

Tadjo writes about he, she, us, we, you, me. She flits from person to person, telling their stories without prejudice, representing their emotions and actions succinctly but with passion. At first I was confused because I was expecting a linear narrative, and it took me a few pages to understand that she was not always the same person, he was not always the same man. The fragmented style makes it hard to get into the book, but themes become apparent the further on one reads. Love is the primary subject Tadjo returns to - as she says, love is a story that we never stop telling, but she touches on many other things, creating links between reader and character, promoting empathy with others, developing understanding of the human heart.