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.