Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Just back from beautiful Brussels. I need a moment to collect thoughts before I start blogging about it, but will post something soon (with as little as possible about the dreaded c word!).

I've been catching up with what I've missed on all your blogs. Inspired by Danielle over at A Work in Progress, Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles, and Ex Libris here's the latest meme, "guess what I'm reading" :

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 4 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don't you dare dig for that "cool" or "intellectual" book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.

It was plain that her indignation was very genuine, and that her mind was as perfectly focused upon the facts as any one could wish-more so, by a long way, than Aunt Celia's mind, which seemed to be timidly circling, with a morbid pleasure, in these unpleasant shades. She and her mother would take the situation in hand, visit Cyril, and see the whole thing through.

"We must realize Cyril's point of view first," she said, speaking directly to her mother, as if to a contemporary, but before the words were out of her mouth, there was more confusion outside, and Cousin Caroline, Mrs. Hilbery's maiden cousin entered the room. Although she was by birth an Alardyce, and Aunt Celia a Hilbery, the complexities of the family relationship were such that each was at once first and second cousin to each other, and thus aunt and cousin to the culprit Cyril, so that his misbehaviour was almost as much Cousin Caroline's affair as Aunt Celia's.
I hadn't realized - until I had to type them in - how long this author's sentences are! So, any guesses as to what I'm reading (and enjoying, to my great surprise!)? My list of "Currently Reading" is to the right of the page, if you need any hints...


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Just as blogger starts working again, am off somewhere chocolatey...more anon.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Well, unfortunately, blogger keeps telling me:

Your HTML cannot be accepted: Tag is not closed:

Once I can get it to stop doing so, I will post what I've written. In the meantime, unfortunately, I have Tamil class to go to....

All the presidents of the world have died and gone to Hell. As they sit roasting in the flames, they ask the Devil if they can call home. 'OK,' says the Devil, 'but it'll cost you.' First Bush calls his family in Washington, and they chat away. 'That will be $200,' says the Devil. Then Chirac calls Paris. 'That will be 100 euros,' says the Devil. Finally, it's Isaias' turn [Afewerki, President of Eritrea]. 'That will be 5 nakfa,' says the Devil. 'How come he gets to pay so little?' wail the others. 'Oh,' says the Devil. 'It's only a local call.' Eritrean joke doing the rounds in 2004.
Extract from Michela Wrong, I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU: How the world betrayed a small african nation. Please note the paperback is titled I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU: How the world used and abused a small african nation.

Read this book. I guarantee that you will be captivated. If you read largely fiction, this will still roll comfortably past like a thriller. If you read no other non-fiction this year, read this.

Eritrea's story is a fascinating one, and Michela Wrong writes in a strong, unfussy manner. She peppers little-known facts - outside the country at any rate - ("The colony baptized 'Eritrea' after Erythraeum Mare - Latin for Red Sea...") through the wider story which creates a layered effect: you could skim for these, or savour the full dark tale.

Wrong covers the Italian colonization of Eritrea (left a legacy of some of the most spectacular art deco architecture preserved today); the Keren Battlefield (who knew that one of the decisive battles of the Second World War was fought here, as the British marched on the Italians down through Sudan and on into Eritrea?
Popular legend has it that a British captain leading his weary men on the march from Keren into Asmara was met on the road by an old Eritrean woman, wrapped in the ghostly white shroud of the highlands. She was ululating in traditional greeting, celebrating her country's liberation from Italian Fascist rule and the start of a new era of hoped-for prosperity. Perhaps that high-pitched shrilling irritated the captain, extenuated by a campaign he thought he might not survive. In any case, he is said to have stopped her in mid-flow with one throwaway line designed to crush any illusions about why he and his men were fighting in Eritrea. 'I didn't do it for you, nigger, ' he said, before striding on to Asmara. (p. 99)
The British administration did not deal any more kindly with the country than the Italians, although the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline the suffragette, and her contribution to the region makes for some positive relief. This is chronicled against the backdrop of the great stories of neighbouring Ethiopia: the legend of the Queen of Sheba, Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie.

The Cold War brought new complications. America set up a listening post, Kagnew Station:
By the 1960s, $69.5m in investment...it held 4,200 men, not counting family dependants...nineteen operational sites...185 buildings, nearly 700 antennae...3,400 acres of land. The biggest dish, 150ft wide, weighing 6,000 tons and worth $600,000, was estimated at the time to be the largest movable object ever built. It was visible from 30 miles away. (p. 218)
Russia retaliated by furiously arming the power-hungry and ruthless Mengistu in Ethiopia. The civil war between Ethiopia and Eritrea raged for decades, largely ignored by the outside world. Wrong describes life in the trenches and the profound impact the war (and the earlier colonial power shenanigans) had on the development of the Eritrean nation state.

Part of what makes Wrong's account of the development of Eritrea so compelling is that she succeeds at making history readable and approachable; people are strongly present, and the brooding presence of the harsh landscape is well-described. Scandalous and muckraking tales weave in between the historical and political account and this makes for gripping reading.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Are we really surprised by Raphael Tenthani's Father of Madonna Orphan has Second Thoughts?! (rather catchy title though). To date I've kept quiet on this matter mostly because I was still making up my own mind, but I'm going to stick my neck over the parapet here and say that I strongly disagree with the whole unfortunate episode.

I think adopting a child because you want (and can) be a parent is a wonderful thing for both parent and child. BUT adopting a child because you want to save him/her is a very dangerous thing. The implication in my mind, perhaps unfairly, is that this is all about how good you feel about yourself and "saving" said child, than about actually wanting to be a parent. Even if this is sub-conscious on the part of the adoptive parents, it doesn't escape the fact that once the terrible teens arrive and usual stroppy behavior ensues, someone's going to throw around comments about "why am I adopted". "Saving you" and "giving you a better life" is just not going to wash well; I can only too well imagine the answering roar of "well, I didn't want to be saved and now I feel like an alien." The only sentiment which will hold up to scrutiny is "we wanted a child, we chose you and we love you very much."

Of course I say all this from the lofty heights of not having adopted children. The only international adoption case I know intimately, took literally years to come through, with mountains of paperwork and interviews and home checks and...the list goes on. I have to say it is the very rapidity of the Madonna case which makes me uneasy. So, she is wealthy and famous - that does not mean she will be a good parent to a small Malawian boy.

What is striking about this particular case, as the linked article shows, is a marked misunderstanding of cultural practice. Yohane Banda says "Our understanding was that they [Madonna and British filmmaker husband Guy Ritchie] would educate and take care of our son just as they were doing at the orphanage,":
Banda said his understanding was that "when David grows up he will return back home to his village". He said the director of child welfare services, Penston Kilembe, and the retired pastor who heads the Home of Hope orphanage -- where David spent most of his life -- never told him that "adoption" meant David would cease to be his son.
And, most crucially, '"If we were told that she wants to take the baby as her own, we could not have consented because I see no reason why I should give away my son," he said'.

Context is everything. In a society where the extended family structure is a network which supports the nation, sending one's child to an orphanage is still seen as part of the same kind of network - a supporting structure to keep the family together through a difficult period. Mr Banda knew where baby David was and expected him to return to the family as a working participant once he was older. That may sound harsh, but life is harsh for many people in sub-Saharan Africa. It does not mean that baby David was not loved by his father, however, and putting the child in an orphanage must be understood from the perspective of the extended family support structure.
"Our understanding as a family is that David is still part and parcel of our clan," said Zimba. "After the good woman nurtures and educates him, he will return back."
is clearly not what Madonna was expecting to hear, nor do I think she understood this about Malawian culture.

I also find it worrying that Mr Banda has no copies of the adoption papers. He cannot read, but others will be able to around him and he has the right to at least have facsimiles.

Interestingly, the article concludes:
Madonna, who came to Malawi on October 4 with Ritchie, spent eight days visiting six orphanages she is funding through her Raising Malawi charity. She is also establishing her own Consol Homes to help up to 4 000 orphans and underprivileged children in Mphandula village, 50km outside Lilongwe.
Assuming all this is true, that sounds like a very worthwhile project and with longterm commitment could contribute significantly to the lives of these children. Part of me wonders whether this sort of longterm charity fundraising and commitment (also requiring a great deal of time, effort and investment, in fact considerably more than just hiring a nanny) would not have been a better option for Madonna to settle with. In any case, if it is just about saving a child or "giving them a better life", there are plenty of marginalised American and British children who fall into that category.

I feel the whistle of barbs returning my way, so go ahead and let me know what you think, I'll not duck below the parapet too quickly!

Monday, October 23, 2006

The excitement! Well, mine anyway...this weekend our guestroom bookshelf was built in and I have been playing musical books in preparation for relocating titles up there. I've decided on rehoming adult and children's fiction and art books to this new location (as many as I can fit at any rate), as I imagine that's what might be most appealing to guests.

I'm having to restrain myself from actually putting books on the shelves yet as I still need to paint them (darn! so near, and yet so far). The carpenter also happens to be a friend and put his foot down at the painting - to be fair to him, he was giving up his Saturday to do the work, but of course I am champing at the bit. We have been here nearly three years with no proper bookshelves and even I am becoming somewhat tired of my delightful booky towers. Apart from anything else it's finding things and then extracting a book from a pile if near the bottom without causing a major collapse. Definitely not good for the books.

I am ordering paint from ECOS today, and will take the opportunity to pick out a protective stain for our new garden fence, and it is about time we redo the front door. It is currently a tired green and the giri is favouring a pillar-box red, which might be quite cheerful. ECOS does organic and environmentally friendly solvent-free paints. We used them on the rest of the house and a year later they are holding up very well indeed. Our painter was extremely dubious, not abiding these new-fangled paint creations (or something like that, he said), but was actually pleasantly surprised at the results. He popped by the other day and said it had held up just as well as the "ordinary" variety. Most interesting to us at the time was the lack of smell - you know the eau de paint that usually permeates a house for a couple of days? Noticeably absent.

Back to playing musical books between the study and guestroom (a definite up side to this is that I get a little exercise going up and down the stairs, with some weight-training thrown in hefting boxes)! What would your favourite sort of books to wake up to in a guestroom be?


Friday, October 20, 2006

At the library I stumbled across Faiza Guene's JUST LIKE TOMORROW (In the USA published as KIFFE KIFFE TOMORROW). According to the publisher blurb it was "France's surprise publishing hit of 2004" selling over 100 000 copies; out for the first time in 2006 in an English translation. Doria is a teen with Moroccan roots, living on the Paradise estate in Seine-Saint-Denis, Paris. Her father has traded her illiterate, hardworking mother in for a younger model and gone back to the bled - the home country - as he wants a son. On benefits, and feeling largely out of place and teen angst-ridden, Doria struggles with her anger and sorrow over the break-up of her parents' marriage, and grapples with her isolation as a foreigner.

Elle magazine apparently described this as a "teenage Bridget Jones" (more cover publicity blurb, can you tell?!). I disagree. The teenage voice is strong and consistent. It is funny, but has none of the adult innuendo of Bridget Jones, and although Doria is somewhat confused about what she wants out of life (a typical teenager in other words), there is no artifice about her. The French author is herself only twenty, with a family originally from Algeria. She writes the world of North African immigrant experience in the Paris banlieues (outer districts), very specifically from a teenage point of view, and the book has overtones of the charmingly sensitive FIFTEEN by Beverley Cleary, sadly out of print these days.

What is remarkable, is the description of marginalized living. Widespread riots in France earlier in the year indicate just what effect living in these depressed and deprived communities has. Guene faithfully captures this experience, yet shows also humanity and humour in the characters portrayed. Her window onto estate life in western cities is faithfully captured. This immigrant experience is a much neglected subject in contemporary english language writing.

Keep an eye out for other work by Guene as there may be a more mature writer emerging. I certainly look forward to seeing what she writes next, as the passage below gives a potential taste of things to come:
When I was little and mum used to take me to the sandpit, none of the other kids wanted to play with me. I called it 'the French kids' sandpit' because it was bang in the middle of an estate with houses instead of tower blocks and they're mostly white French families. One time,they were all making a circle and wouldn't hold my hand because it was the day after Eid, the festival of the Sheep, and Mum had put some henna on the palm of my right hand. They were asking for a slapping, those morons: thought I was dirty.
Talk about no clue when it comes to diversity and melting pots. Then again, I guess it's not really their fault. There's a big divide between the Paradise estate where I live and the houses on the Rousseau estate. We're talking massive wire fencing that stinks of rust it's so old, plus a stone wall that runs the whole length. It's worse than the Maginot Line or the Berlin Wall. On our side, there's a load of tags, spray paintings and posters for concerts and different North African evenings, plus graffiti giving it up for Saddam Hussein or Che Guevara, patriotic signs, 'Viva Tunisia', 'Stand Up Senegal', even rap lyrics with a philosophical slant. But what I like best on the wall is an old drawing that's been there since back in the day, long before the rise of rap or the start of the war in Iraq. It's an angel in handcuffs with a red cross over its mouth.
The Guardian's Jason Burke has written here on Guene and the phenomenal success of her book.

This was enjoyable, light, "bath-time" reading for me. For adults, Ike Oguine's A SQUATTER'S TALE gives a far more nuanced account of African immigrant experience. I don't think JUST LIKE TOMORROW is adult fiction, but recommend it for older children and teenagers.

In my usual roundup of Mail & Guardian stories of the week, this one about where UK supermarkets get their cut flowers, and the water "stolen" to grow them, is horrifying in its implication. I do urge you to read it.

The awarding of a National Order to Andre Brink by President Thabo Mbeki resulted in a renewed focus on Brink, so his recent comments in interviews have reached a wider audience and hit a nerve. M&G reports that he wrote in Le Monde: 'he had in the past 12 years told those who had doubts over South Africa that the negatives of the transition period were of a temporary nature. "I can no longer say that today."'

Following this theme, in "Something is rotten in the Rainbow Nation" Chris Otton conveys concerns of some high profile South African writers about violence in the country - Andre Brink, Rian Malan, J.M. Coetzee, Christopher Hope and Nadine Gordimer. Their concerns are certainly not unique to white South Africans, however, and to some extent takes away from the seriousness of the matter at hand by implying it is a race issue.

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Danny Rhodes has a lot to answer for! The problem with going to book launches when you've sworn off buying books (temporarily of course) is that you land up buying more books (go on, twist my arm, why don't you?!).

For the non-Brits amongst you, an ASBO is an Anti-Social Behaviour Order, defined by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 as "a civil order made against a person who has been shown to have engaged in conduct which caused or was likely to cause alarm, harassment or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as him or herself and where an ASBO is necessary to protect relevant persons from further anti-social acts by the Defendant." See Wikipedia for more details. Quite popular with those in authority in the UK of late, with endless debates ongoing as to their efficacy.

Danny's book ASBOVILLE deals with this thorny issue. I will review it once I've actually read it, although you can have a look at what dovegreyreader thought in the meantime. The launch went very well - a good turnout, and Danny created an excellent discussion of current issues for young people, resulting in some articulate and thoughtprovoking responses from teenagers and teachers in the audience.

And well, because it was held at Wottakkers, there was a "3-for2" promotion wasn't there. Danny's book was of course part of the promotion, so I was "forced" to examine the other possibilities. To my surprise I found ones I actually wanted! So I left with Paul Auster's THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES (one of my favourite authors, don't know why this is not on my shelf yet) and Kate Grenville's THE SECRET RIVER (so many favourable reviews of this in the blogosphere of late; also there's the Giri's Australian connection. I shall read it aloud to him).

Bang goes any hope of restraining myself...


Thursday, October 19, 2006

I am definitely reading too many books at one time. I realised today that this is the reason why I don't seem to be blogging about books particularly at the moment - because I keep adding to the ongoing pile rather than completing any of them. I'll make a concerted effort over the weekend to maintain some focus!

In the meantime, travelling up to London for my weekly Tamil class is great. Not only do I get to study, but I see friends and can explore other interesting things going on in the city. Last week I stayed on overnight as well as travelling up again on the weekend as a group of friends were in town for a show by one of them (that sounds so grammatically awkward!) at the Albion Gallery. It has now closed - next time I'll try and mention it ahead of time so that those interested in seeing him in action can do so. Some of Mingwei's work is still currently exhibiting at Tate Liverpool though, so do head over there if you're in the area. You can add your own (or a family member's) homemade textiles to the exhibit, and comment on associated memories. There seem to be lots of you bloggy types who make wonderfully interesting textiley creations as well as blogs, so go on!

Lee Mingwei is an artist of ephemeral and interactive exchanges. He does not (mostly) create pieces which hang on walls. This is not the kind of art I feel a strong connection to, in the main. However, knowing Mingwei has challenged me to look more closely at what it is I consider art, and why. What kinds of art I like, and why. He says it best (in an interview here):
"I'm very comfortable with people not knowing if my projects are art or not," he said. "When people ask me, is it art? I ask them, what is an apple? Usually they give a descriptive answer - it's a fruit, it's red, etc. Then I ask, when do you really know it's an apple? And most people say, when I eat it. That's when you know it's art, when you experience it with your senses, with your memory, when you own the work. That would be a better way to decide it's art - or maybe you don't have to decide at all."
This helps me begin approaching some of the "modern art" out there, and grappling with it.

As well as Mingwei's GERNIKA IN SAND, I had a marvellous time sliding down Carsten Holler's giant slides in the turbine hall of the Tate Modern on the Southbank. Woo hoo! SO MUCH FUN! I confess I shrieked (not too loudly) as I hit the first abrupt turn - it starts you off slowly awkward and then almost immediately shunts you around a spiral with significant force. Quite by chance Debi Alper was there on the same day (see her post here) - and we wondered if we'd stood next to one another without knowing? Small world... Our party of sliders had a good age range with a top end of 65, so you have no excuse for not trying, as long as you can get to the museum. So, well, is this art?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Happy Chocolate Week! Who would have thought that there were World Chocolate Awards and an Academy of Chocolate, but there you go. Clearly other people take chocolate just as seriously as I do so I should need no excuse to appreciate more of it!

The ever marvellous National Trust is spearheading a "history matters" campaign and today is the day! A massive online blog project - "One Day in History." The idea is to upload your blog for the day onto their site as a recorded moment of the nation's history. Describe your day and reflect on the importance of history in it. Not a new idea, but a nifty one.The Sunday Times carried an article on this which noted interestingly:
According to Technorati, a blog search engine, there are at least 57m blogs around the world which are regularly updated — and the “blogosphere” is doubling in size every six months. A third of blogs are written in English, a third in Japanese, 15% in Chinese and the remainder in other languages.
I must draw your attention to BookMooch. Started in August, it currently has 100 thousand members and has redistributed 20 thousand books across the world via mooches. I am now a fully fledged member of BookMooch, having mooched one book myself, and sent one out yesterday to a fellow moocher. I first heard about this site on Of Books and Bicycles, and it has started to spread across many of the American book-related blogs. I suspect the trickle is about to become a flood, with other countries joining in.

If you browse books by country it is rather fascinating. Americans list 53756 books, and the UK a surprisingly low 5883 (although this is perhaps because the site is not so well-known here yet). Armenia, Ecuador, Slovenia, and Vietnam have 1 book listed each. India lists 162, while Pakistan only has 8. African moochers live in Egypt, Gambia, and Niger. This seems quite extraordinary as South Africa has the largest book buying public on the continent, and countries like Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya have large publishing industries, yet none of these countries are represented yet - it will be fascinating to see how this site develops.

Now that I have tried it out myself and found it working well, I can highly recommend it. The idea is that you post titles you no longer want, receiving points for doing so. You can then use these points to "purchase" or rather mooch other people's unwanted books. No money changes hands. If you despatch a book you receive points towards further mooches, thus covering in effect the cost of postage. The great thing about this for book lovers of course is that not only do you recycle books no longer needed, but new books arrive that you've always wanted!

Critics may argue that this takes away from author and publisher earnings but I really don't think so. The secondhand book market has always flourished alongside mainstream bookshops, and this is no different. In the same week as I mooched a book and sent one off to a fellow moocher, I purchased two books at full price from my local independent bookshop, one a gift and one for me. Nothing changes - readers are readers, and those lucky enough to have the disposable income to buy new books will always buy more (unable to resist the lure!)

Friday, October 13, 2006

A posting over at Patternings has me reflecting on becoming sidetracked while looking at books - this is an all too familiar pastime for me. I especially liked part of a quotation she gives from Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces (an excellent book, if you haven't yet read it):
I would be distracted by marginalia, slips of paper tucked between pages, scraps of bills used as markers...
I had the wonderful experience recently of finding in our local Oxfam bookshop the entire African Writers' Series from Heinemann, now largely out of print. A couple of years ago Heinemann was bought out by Reed and the AWS was discontinued, causing a rippling grumble in the world of African bookselling. Those titles they have stock of in the warehouse are still in print, but most of the others have been declared out of print, although there was some talk last year of print on demand bringing them back into stock. A case in point is Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers, declared out of print by Heinemann, yet we sold 200 copies of it in less than six months in our small shop. But I suppose that's the point, publishers want to sell thousands not hundreds for a book to make business-sense.

Anyway, back to the point - the collection I bought from Oxfam were clearly from one collector (mostly remarkably well preserved first editions from the 60s and 70s). This person had obviously followed news about the respective African writers, and the books had tucked into them newspaper clippings - a report on a fresh-faced Chinua Achebe visiting "Rhodesia"; press releases; statements calling for a writer's freedom - eg. an announcement on Jack Mapanje's imprisonment; and what I loved most, photographs! The collector had clearly met some of the writers and photographed them at their desks or in study - charming photos of a young Francis Bebey, among others. Marvellous stuff.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I loved growing pumpkins when I was small - such satisfying vegetables. Two little leaves would break their way through the soil surface and soon they would be slightly furry, with tendrils stretching for purchase. Inevitably they'd run away, outside the boundaries of the plot. Once (I was six, the same year my brother jumped from the garage roof with a make-shift parachute made from OK Bazaars and Checkers shopping bags) a pumpkin plant I had sown grew up a nearby tree and a grey-white pumpkin grew there, balanced in the branches. I was so proud of that pumpkin.

We have a new garden here in England, and a new vegetable patch. We planted two pumpkin plants this summer and lo and behold they covered the entire patch, climbing along the apricot tree trusses once they'd run out of space on the ground, and weighing down the tomatoes - I didn't have the heart to stop them. The leaves, huge like large lilypads, hid budding treasures and this weekend we harvested and brought in two great orange globes - 10kgs and 7kgs a piece! We'll be eating pumpkin 'til the cows come home, but who cares?! I feel the satisfaction of a six year old.

My brother recently commented that Laura Ingalls Wilder's FARMER BOY was all about food and that you need to eat before you read it, otherwise it will make you hungry. I hadn't remembered that, but recalled instead the dramatic bull-whipping episode in the schoolhouse, giant chunks of ice from the river cut for refrigeration purposes and, of course, Almanzo Wilder entering his milk-fed pumpkin in a contest at the county fair! Feeling self-satisfied about my own pumpkins I went back to check, and so help me there are page after page of Almanzo eating (especially pie, and a lot of it pumpkin pie). Here is a typical description:
Father sat at the head of the table, Mother at the foot. Then they must all bow their heads while Father asked God to bless the food. After that, there was a little pause before Father unfolded his napkin and tucked it in the neckband of his frock.
He began to fill the plates. First he filled Mr Corse's plate. Then Mother's. Then Royal's and Eliza Jane's and Alice's. Then, at last, he filled Almanzo's plate.
'Thank you,' Almanzo said. Those were the only words he was allowed to speak at table. Children must be seen and not heard. Father and Mother and Mr Corse could talk, but Royal and Eliza Jane and Alice and Almanzo must not say a word. Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a small heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
I shall have to take down the recipe books. Pumpkin inspired suggestions anyone?

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Waking to a weight on my foot took me back momentarily to childhood when my cat would snuggle into bed. This morning the sensation was accompanied by my husband's very sleepy but nevertheless horrified "is that a cat?!" It was one of the "marauding kitties" again, who seem to appear all too frequently on this blog! Not quite sure how the cat got in, but the only spot was a small gap in the window which he must have slunk through. I lay there for a bit (it was 5am) without moving, but remembering that his humans last week complained of fleas he'd brought in, suddenly galvanized me. Amazingly, he was still purring as I threw him out.

Thanks to kimbofo at Reading Matters for drawing my attention to the latest official "best books" list: the Observer's poll for "best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005." Their full list is available here, but suffice to say the top ten are:

1.Disgrace (1999) JM Coetzee

2.Money (1984) Martin Amis

Joint 3rd. Earthly Powers (1980) Anthony Burgess
Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan
The Blue Flower (1995) Penelope Fitzgerald
The Unconsoled (1995) Kazuo Ishiguro
Midnight's Children (1981) Salman Rushdie

Joint 8th. The Remains of the Day (1989) Kazuo Ishiguro
Amongst Women (1990) John McGahern
That They May Face the Rising Sun (2001) John McGahern

Of course, the trouble with lists is that we both love and hate them. There's always someone who has been left off, or should never have been added in the first place. With this list I am very happy with some of the selections. Kimbofo asks is Coetzee that good? (there are three other titles of his which were also nominated) and I say a wholehearted yes! Coetzee is a thoughtful, evocative writer, who leads us into uncomfortable territory. He wrote about race issues at a time in South Africa when very few did, and in the post-apartheid dispensation he has quietly (or disquietingly) moved on with new subjects where other South African writers are finding it harder to write about a post-apartheid experience with any clarity. At the same time, his books are universal in scope. I really enjoyed DISGRACE. We read it in our book group and found that it is so very well written, painful in some conclusions about the new South Africa, and the central character is odious, yet still one wants to know what happens to him; his daughter is a woman we all wanted to shake until her teeth rattled. I argue this is an aspect of good writing - that despite disliking a character in the extreme, the writer manages to make the reader care about him/her.

I am surprised by how many writers had multiple titles nominated, yet others are missing entirely. Other than Coetzee, the only other African nomination is Buchi Emecheta's GWENDOLEN, (called THE FAMILY in the US edition) which I find a very odd choice. Of course like all readers out there I can rattle off ten other titles, I think should have appeared, and I do think the African contingent have been sorely underrepresented, but I'm fairly prosaic about these things. . .

How on earth did J.K. Rowling appear on this list, do tell?!

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Friday, October 06, 2006

It is one of those blustery, wet english days. The line of trees beyond our back hedge and across the bridle path roars in the wind. That, and the foxes screaming the night before, make it seem an adventure to be living here. I am so glad to be inside in the warmth, looking out at the wildness.

It was off to London again for me on Wednesday - the first session of my new Tamil for Beginners class at SOAS, the University of London. My aim is to speak a sentence or two to the giri's grandmother when we next meet, as at the moment we can't say a word to each other. Our current mode of communication is beaming enthusiastically! Tamil has an entirely different alphabet and script (extremely beautiful), with 247 new letters to learn. Let's just say that I'm glad of the inclement weather forcing me to stay in and practice wobbly, curling attempts at writing.

Arriving at Charing Cross station with two hours to spare before class, I dashed around with a shopping list for a dinner we're hosting this weekend. First stop was the delicious Neal's Yard Dairy. This is an extraordinary place for all but vegans. Great, curving wheels of cheese stack up as far as the building will allow, and the staff will let you taste just about anything. Not sure what you want, but know what you're thinking about? They are only too happy to discuss menus and make suggestions. I was on a mission for Irish cheeses, and it is the only place I know where Gabriel, Coolea and the like are readily available. Gabriel, what a name - makes me think of the archangel and Handel's halleluja chorus! And by the way, it is really good hard cheese.

My next culinary stop was at the droolsome Rococo Chocolates. This place is seriously dangerous to your health. I recommend broken chocolate and artisan bars - their chilli pepper chocolate is incredible: dark, bitter sweet and mild but with a lethal kickback.

Rushing to campus, I swept briefly into Stern's, definitely the best in town for global, and especially African, music. They have a funky caf attached these days. Although I was ostensibly gift buying Amadou & Mariam's DIMANCHE A BAMAKO, I couldn't resist buying something for me too. The Stern's site lets you listen to samples of every track before you buy. On DIMANCHE A BAMAKO I recommend you start with track 3, Coulibaly - guaranteed to get toes tapping. Amadou & Mariam are both blind - they met and began singing together at a school for the blind in Mali decades ago. For myself I bought Ali Farka Toure's SAVANE, a far more reflective blues-based album, produced after his death earlier this year. I have previously blogged about him, so won't repeat myself here. Try track 4, Savane to see what all the fuss is about with regard to his skill at the guitar.

I'll have to get out my raingear - it is still howling and miserable out there, but I have a dinner party to cook for and the local farmers' market calls. . .


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

In 1999 I spent a summer working as a resident advisor for the summer school of my alma mater in Boston. A young South African (aged about 16 at the time) was sent to me so that I, as resident South African, could check on her progress and how she was settling in to a strange environment. I asked her how things were going. "Fine," she responded, "but people keep asking me about apartheid and I don't know what to say because I never studied history."

I don't think I've ever recovered from the shock. It must be how people who survived the Second World War feel when faced by young people today. The difference in meaning and understanding in the words "Lest We Forget" to respective generations.

Don't get me wrong. On the one hand I am thrilled that in such a short space of time society can begin to feel "ordinary". On the other hand, it is vital to remember how close we are to darker and more difficult times. Petrona has some interesting reflections on the British suffragette movement, which has similarly close associations of times changing for women in Britain. It is not so very long ago.

In my last post I mentioned banned persons. One of the most difficult challenges for those banned and under house arrest was the ruling that one could not attend social gatherings, a gathering defined as "more than one other person." The following poem captures the futility, stupidity and loneliness of Apartheid law. I should add that this kind of experience was widespread. For purposes of clarity, a "koppie" is a small hill; the "Special Branch" were Apartheid-era secret police.

THE WEDDING - Hugh Lewin, South Africa, born 1939

Solly Nathee
stood alone
on the koppie overlooking his home.

Solly Nathee
alone on the koppie
stood watching his home
where his daughter was getting married.

The guests
at the home below
were feasting the bride and the groom.

Near Solly Nathee
on the koppie
sat the Special Branch
to see that Solly Nathee
banned from social gatherings
behaved himself
at his daughter's wedding.

The guests
at the home below
feasted the bride and groom
then walked
one by one
up the koppie
to shake the hand of Solly Nathee.

Solly Nathee
at his daughter's wedding
stood on the koppie overlooking his home

from EXPLORINGS: a collection of poems for the young people of Southern Africa compiled by Robin Malan.


Monday, October 02, 2006

It has bucketed down with rain for the past couple of days so I've been forced to stay inside and do some tidying (no bad thing). We've had a quote for a built-in bookshelf upstairs in our guestroom, so that gave me the excuse to go through my entire collection downstairs and weed out children's and adult fiction (happy sigh), which have all been relocated to their new abode. I hadn't realized just how many favourite children's books from my childhood I'd managed to amass: the fabulous Elizabeth Enright books, Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, Fattipuffs and Thinnifers, Bottersnikes and Gumbles, anything illustrated by Victor Ambrus, etc. So much pleasure in just dipping into them.

Staying inside also meant more focus on clearing my impossibly rapidly filling email inbox. I am subscribed to too many things is the problem. The African news feed supplied on the right of my blog is from the South African Mail & Guardian. In the bad old days (I'm thinking 1980s, although there were plenty earlier than that too), the M&G was then called the Weekly Mail and was notorious for thinking up clever ways to irritate the Nationalist government. When the Government banned people they were then not allowed to be quoted in the press because of their status as banned persons, or persons under house arrest. Since we also frequently lived in a government declared "state of emergency," the press was also restricted in what and how it reported the news. I have distinct recollections of the dear old Weekly Mail printing page after page blacked out, pointing out to their readership there was much to report, only they couldn't report on it. An alternative reportage style was to report meeting with [name blacked out] who said [answer blacked out], and including a photo, blacked out. Outrageously delightful - and also got them repeatedly banned from publishing, I might add.

They got us through a really difficult period in South Africa's history, trying to retain integrity. These days, the M&G still irritates people, and I still retain a soft spot for it. Getting paper copies in the UK quickly is difficult, but they have a great website and send out news digests by email. Triaging my emails today brought up some choice tidbits from the past week or so:

Apparently a movie about the trade in blood/conflict diamonds is due out at Christmas and diamond jewelry giant De Beers is so anxious to protect itself from possible negative publicity that it plans to spend $15 million on an ad campaign this autumn. The movie apparently stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a South African (I'll be interested to hear the accent!). More details here.

Donald Rumsfeld is keen to establish a US military command for Africa.
Rumsfeld said he and Marine Corps General Peter Pace, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have pressed the military for six months for a proposal on setting up a command focused solely on Africa. Pace said Rumsfeld is due to receive a formal recommendation within a couple weeks.

"Pete and I are for it," Rumsfeld said during a question-and-answer session with Pentagon employees.
Save us. Read more here

I loved the Chavez Boosts Chomsky Sales headline, which has been quite widely covered. If you haven't seen this story, read more here.

And a charming tale of a previously unpublished Robert Frost poem found after 88 years of mouldering. Lovely serendipity! Read more here.
It is still raining. . .