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.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Finding African authors

I know there are African authors out there. Wikipedia lists hundreds, organised by country (very useful). I've never heard of most of them, and despite spending a good hour searching my local library area catalogue, I can't find many of them. So far I've only searched authors from countries in West Africa, so perhaps looking for authors from other regions will prove more fruitful. I won't hold my breath. Or maybe it's just that people don't tend to read a lot of contemporary African authors.

Am I being unfair, assuming that African literature, be it poetry, plays, fiction, autobiography or whatever is not widely read? It strikes me that for a continent comprised of over 50 countries, Africa's literature largely fails to make an impression on the rest of the world. There are of course a few writers who have widely gained critical acclaim and entered the public consciousness; Chinua Achebe, Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer. Heinemann publishing created the African Writers Series which is dedicated to translating (where necessary) and publishing African authors, so there must be an audience somewhere for it. But where? I've been googling African writing and authors a lot recently in a bid to find out whatever I can, and I'm not finding much at all. It's very frustrating! Where are all the author interviews and book reviews and generally informative sites? Where is Africa on the literary map?

This post is a bit pointless and rant-like, for which I apologise. My brain isn't working too well tonight, and I'm all pooky because it's so hard to find books by African authors without ordering them from Amazon (not an option due to extreme lack of money). I should probably just chill out and carry on blithely reading the books I do have and concentrate on enjoying them. Sounds like a plan!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Igbo religion

Chinua Achebe is one of the Igbo people, an ethnic group in Nigeria numbering some ten million. The book of Achebe's I'm currently reading, Home and Exile, stemmed from three lectures he gave at a conference in 1998 at Harvard. The content is primarily autobiographical and the lectures explore themes of African imagery in Western cultures, images of African people and culture, the intrusion of Christianity into Africa and how Africans should/could counter stereotypes and create a new, truthful vision of Africa and her peoples. One passage in particular caught my eye.

I heard that one of Ogidi's neighbouring towns had migrated into its present location a long time ago and made a request to Ogidi to settle there. In those days there was plenty of land to go around and Ogidi people welcomed the newcomers, who then made a second and more surprising request - to be shown how to worship the gods of Ogidi. What had they done with their own gods? Ogidi people wondered at first but finally decided that a man who asked you for your god must have a terrible story one should not pry into. So they gave the new people two of Ogidi's gods, Udo and Ogwugwu, with one proviso, that the newcomers should not call their newly acquired gods Udo but Udo's son; and not Ogwugwu but Ogwuwgu's daughter.

The significance of the Igbo reluctance to share their religious beliefs demonstrates their lack of awareness of such a concept as religious imperialism, as Achebe notes. This would clearly have made it easier for the Christian missionaries to bring in their own religion, as indeed they did, replacing traditional cultures, religions and customs not just in Nigeria but all across Africa. Although a short passage and not central to the theme of the lecture I read today, I found it an interesting snapshot of one of the many issues Achebe confronts in his works.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Reading Africa

After many days and several hours on the phone to an Indian call centre across a period of several days, and in the wake of many conversations with people whose accents I had great difficulty in understanding over the phone, I have internet again! I hope you haven’t all given up hope on me after my lengthy silence.

I’ve decided to move on from Europe and read my way through some African countries for a literary change of scenery. I’m starting with Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. Although I’ve already read Things Fall Apart and I stated I wanted to read as many new authors as possible, I think that as far as African literature is concerned Chinua Achebe is really the only place to start.

Actually, it’s possible that the place to start should really be with some research and reading about African literature and Chinua Achebe so I can better understand and appreciate his work. My reading of African literature to date really only comprises Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also Nigerian) which is feeble to say the least.

Due to the number of countries on the African continent, a single precise definition of what African literature is is impossible. My research has been confined to online resources (and there aren’t many) so what I’m going to write here may not be accurate and shouldn’t be taken as such. Broadly speaking, African literature can be split into three general categories – precolonial, colonial and postcolonial. Precolonial literature primarily consists of an oral literary tradition, as literacy did not become widespread until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1800s. Literature from the colonial period centres around the slave trade while late- and postcolonial literature focused on themes of liberation, independence and negritude (affirmation of the African cultural heritage and identity). Contemporary anthologies of works by African authors, be it short stories or poetry, are always roughly grouped by geographical area – Northern, Southern, Western, Eastern and Central Africa. As far as I can tell (my knowledge of contemporary African politics and culture is also lacking) this is because each region has distinct cultural differences – think about how different Egypt and Kenya and South Africa are, for example.

Some modern authors from the African continent stand out more than others, and Chinua Achebe is arguably the best known of all of them. Among African countries Nigeria has been especially prolific in producing literature – Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri and Achebe are all familiar names in the West. I’ll write more about Nigerian literature and Achebe in particular tomorrow; for now, I’ll leave you with a poem Achebe wrote during the Nigerian Civil War.

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget…

The air was heavy with odours of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried up bottoms waddling in laboured steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one;
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother's pride...She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms.
She took from their bundle of possesions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-coloured hair left on his skull
And then - humming in her eyes - began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Lack of internet

Apologies for severe lack of posting - I was supposed to get broadband at home this week, and the little broadband box arrived and I set it all up, had broadband for about half an hour, then nothing. After over an hour hanging around on helplines and demanding to speak to the supervisor of somebody remarkably unhelpful, another somebody in a call centre in India eventually conceded that the problem was with the company providing the broadband. I am so unimpressed. Why haven't they fixed it yet?!

Anyway, until they do, I have no internet access at home and won't be posting (but hopefully they won't take too long). I'm currently in a library, but there is a queue to use the computers, so I can't post more than this now.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Book Meme

I've been saving this book meme (created by litlove) for a day when I'm feeling uninspired. It has great questions - I've been thinking about some of them for a while, so hopefully my answers are interesting.

1. First book to leave a lasting impression?

Definitely To Kill A Mockingbird. The first time I read it was in English literature class at school when I was 14. Even though I knew the black man was going to be convicted for a crime he clearly didn't commit, I couldn't believe that it would actually happen (very naive I know, but I had a very sheltered childhood). Then, when I read it again a few years later, I was just as shocked and bewildered by the verdict. That book was the main thing that helped me understand what racism was.

2. Which author would you most like to be?

Right now? J.K. Rowling. Hellooo, she is rich. Most authors are tormented souls who struggle away in dire poverty for the sake of their art. So not the way to do it. Give me money and the relatively insignificant stress of wanting to kill off my main character because the pressure of all the people who want to make me more money through their inventive gimmicks (featuring my scarred but lovable character) is getting too much for me.

3. Name the book that has most made you want to visit a place.

I know I bashed on about James Herriot enough in the last meme, but being a country girl, reading about the Yorkshire Dales in his books has given me a long lasting urge to visit them. (I know I should have come up with somewhere more exotic since I'm reading world fiction, but there we are.)

4. Which contemporary author will still be read in 100 years?

Um. I don't know...100 years seems like a long time, but it's actually pretty short when it comes to literature. I'm going to say Ian McEwan, even though I've never read any of his work. He gets rave reviews, right?

5. Which book would you recommend to a teenager reluctant to try 'literature'?

Depends how one defines 'literature' really. I'd want to recommend something interesting - not Dickens or anything, because he's a little hard to get through first time out. Maybe The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (seeing Carl's book challenge made me remember that one.) Darkness, intrigue, twisting plot - very good. Alternatively, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, because it really does make you think. When I was a teenager it introduced me to some of the thinking other people had done about things I'd always wondered about, and inspired me to study philosophy further.

6. Name your best recent literary discovery.

Reunion, by Fred Uhlman. He's only written one other book, and I fully intend to find it and devour it. I don't usually seek out everything an author has written if I enjoy one of their books, but that one was so good I can't wait to get his other work.

7. Which author's fictional world would you most like to live in?

Excellent question! Probably C.S Leiws' Narnia. How fantastic would it be to have a whole other magical world that not only was accessible through the back of a wardrobe, but that you also reigned over? The megalomaniac in me is emerging! Seriously though, being Queen of my own world is one of my ambitions. Definitely want my own castle. Maybe I could rule my own island...I hear you can actually buy Indonesian islands. That's what I'll do with my first billion!

8. Name your favourite poet.

Pablo Neruda. Without a doubt. Something in his poetry just speaks to me (and a lot of other people, judging by his popularity).

9. What's the best non-fiction title you've read this year?

Blogging For Dummies. Well, you did ask! It's what got me started on my book blogging - I learned more than I ever imagined there was to know about blogging from the first chapter of that book, and now I'm blogged up and loving it.

10. Which author do you think is much better than his/her reputation?

Reputation varies so much depending on who you speak to. A lot of people adored that Wild Swans book by Jung Chang, except my course tutors who unanimously loathed it. As a work of fiction, I think it's pretty good but should never be cited as being anything aproaching factual. It's impossible for me to answer this question, because I divide books into those I like and those I don't, regardless of how marvellous the author's technique is, or how well they dealt with such-and-such a topic - I love Louise Bagshawe, for example, who writes the most incredible fluff, but I dislike Irvine Welsh intensely, yet look at his reputation. Some of the books I've been reading recently aren't necessarily widely read in the UK or the USA, but the minority who read them rate them highly; look at Ismail Kadare.