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.