Wednesday, November 29, 2006

So go to your quarters now and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle, and tell the servants to get on with theirs. Talking must be the men's concern, and mine in particular; for I am master in this house.
The Odyssey. Telemachus replying to his mother Penelope. Translated by E.V. Rieu.
When I selected titles for the From the Stacks Challenge, my criteria were simply titles I'd had sitting there for ages, split into some which I really, really wanted to read and those which I felt I should read because they'd just been sitting there far too long. Quite by chance, my current selection is hammering home a message hard to ignore - the ordinary lives of women.

I've been blown away by Fettouma Touati's Desperate Spring (why did it take me so long to read this?!), following the interconnected lives of an ever-expanding Algerian extended family.

I'm not sure that I'll finish Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga's The Book of Not in time for Friday's meeting with her, but I'm giving it a stab. Picking up where Nervous Conditions left off, Tambu is exploring her place in the world from the confines of the Young Ladies' College of the Sacred Heart.

Serendipitously, our reading group is reading Namibian Neshani Andreas' The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, describing constraining village life for a group of rural women.

All of these books, to a greater or lesser extent, deal with women's lives, expectations, hopes, dreams, marriages and constraints. I'll blog more on each as I finish them, but this is just to say that you might think this would all be tedious, hectoring or boring and instead it is gripping stuff and I am enjoying myself thoroughly.

As a foil to these women in African countries, I have picked up at the library The Bitch in the House: 26 women tell the truth about sex, solitude, work, motherhood and marriage, edited by Cathi Hanauer. I'd seen this reviewed in the mainstream press last year, with mixed reactions, but it is serving as an interesting complement to the fiction titles.

On the train up to London last week, a mixed group of teenagers got on and I suddenly became aware of their conversation when a boy asked "Are you a feminist?" One after the other (peer pressure no doubt) every girl in the group strenuously denied any interest in feminism. I restrained myself from commenting, but all this current reading tied in perfectly with what I quietly thought - you don't want the right to equal job opportunities, equal pay, freedom of movement, freedom to dress as you wish, then? What would you say if I said you couldn't be out on a train with your male friends? Could not go to school? Could not wear that miniskirt? What do you think feminism is? I can recommend a book or two...

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Great timing for my "From the Stacks Challenge" reading: one of my choices was Tsitsi Dangarembga's THE BOOK OF NOT, and it turns out she is having a launch/discussion in London this coming Friday! For all those interested in turning out:

Friday 1st December 2006
The Venue: Room 116
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London,
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG
Tel: +44 (0)20 7637 2388

I'd like to have bitten a good chunk out of it by then.

Friday, November 24, 2006

I'm knee deep in several fiction titles at the moment but not near enough finishing any of them to write about them. In the meantime, I gaze out at our leaf strewn rear lawn and dream of the spring. Actually I like this time of year: the cold keeps the air crisp and there is a particular clarity of the light which is hard to describe. I woke this morning to a powder blue dawn, skeletal trees across the bridle way outlined against the sky, and low lying metal grey-blue clouds on the horizon.

My dreams of the spring are not to hasten it, but are me plotting out the vegetable patch in my head, my future abundant herb garden, banks of wildflowers, the compost heap, and so on...The pleasure is all in drawing out the planning, for which long winter nights and a Persephone notebook are all important, for sketches, and border plans, and my increasingly lengthy list of herbs.

I've just finished STICKY WICKET: Gardening in tune with nature by Pam Lewis which has added greatly to my enthusiasms about our little garden. Of course, down in Dorset she has a much larger property, but there's plenty here for really any sized garden (even a balcony full of pots) because it is her enjoyment of her garden and the ideas she brims with which make for such a satisfying book.

Lewis's focus is on gardening with plants that complement the natural environment and animals. This just so happens to tally with what we are hoping to eventually achieve in our garden and so it is fascinating to read what has worked (and not!) for her. I like her approach:
A wildlife wilderness needs thickets to give cover and, design-wise, to add to the sense that all is not quite revealed, accessible or entirely controlled. I try to enter the mind of a hedgehog, slow-worm, bird or a mouse and think what, for them, would represent a safe, protected environment. For instance, tuckering down or nesting in - or beneath - a tangle of unclipped evergreen privet, a thorny pyracantha or a hawthorn hedge bottom would seem like a snug, safe and private little kingdom (p.152).
What a wonderful concept of both garden and wildlife lurking, in a positive sense, and providing the space to allow that. STICKY WICKET is made up of several interlinked gardens (rather as Sissinghurst flows, I imagine, perhaps incorrectly, but a lot less formally). Lewis covers the creation and construction of each with discussions about how they reached planting decisions, how wildlife has reacted, and her thoughts as the gardens filled out. Accompanying all this are lovely photographs. I highly recommend STICKY WICKET as a gift for any gardener of your acquaintance. It has the added benefit that if they like the book, the gardens for which the book is named are also open to the public - I'm plotting an excursion for next year already!

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

My cold is gradually gravitating downwards and I now sound like a bullfrog. Unfortunately, this means I am not going anywhere for a few days, so no reading group and no Tamil class (it would be a four hour round trip to London for both and I am wimping out and staying home). In theory this should mean more reading time...hmmm, why isn't that happening?

Thanks to the musical Dave for drawing my attention to Reporters Without Borders' latest report on country by country internet baddies. This is actually very interesting reading, because of course the blogworld can be constrained by governments which don't take well to criticism. The Mail & Guardian reports that an Egyptian blogger has been both expelled from university and now arrested because of his writing. Read more here.

South Africa, the USA and Norway are involved in a project preserving Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts. The Sahara is rapidly engulfing the city, which has led to an attempt to locate as many manuscripts buried in the area as possible:
Researchers in Timbuktu are fighting to preserve tens of thousands of ancient texts which they say prove Africa had a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance.

Private and public libraries in the fabled Saharan town in Mali have already collected 150 000 brittle manuscripts, some of them from the 13th century, and local historians believe many more lie buried under the sand.

The texts were stashed under mud homes and in desert caves by proud Malian families whose successive generations feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and then French colonialists...Timbuktu's leading families have only recently started to give up what they see as ancestral heirlooms. They are being persuaded by local officials that the manuscripts should be part of the community's shared culture...

But as the fame of the manuscripts spreads, conservationists fear those that have survived centuries of termites and extreme heat will be sold to tourists at extortionate prices or illegally trafficked out of the country... - Reuters
I had no idea that the universities of Timbuktu "were attended by 25 000 scholars in the 16th century." Fascinating stuff. For more on "Operation Timbuktu" read Nick Tattersall's article in full, and if you want further background he's written another on the founding fathers in Bamako.

Since Kiran Desai's THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS won the Man Booker, copies of the book have landed in many a To Be Read pile. Lotus Reads just posted an interesting review (without plot spoilers). Possibly not paying attention, I hadn't realized there might be anything controversial about the book, but have just discovered this little storm in a teacup! Not having read the book, I can't comment, but those of you who have - does it warrant book burning and apologies?!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Just in case you've run out of ideas for books to read, here comes the mother of all prize lists, the 2007 Impac/Dublin Literary Award longlist (incidentally, also a tidy sum if won, at 100 000 euros). The Africans on it are:
Leila Aboulela MINARET (Sudan)
Andre Brink PRAYING MANTIS (South Africa)
J.M. Coetzee SLOW MAN (South Africa)
Diana Evans 26A (UK/Nigeria)
Nadine Gordimer GET A LIFE (South Africa)
Abdulrazak Gurnah DESERTION (Zanzibar)
Uzodinma Iweala BEASTS OF NO NATION (USA/Nigeria)
Dan Jacobson ALL FOR LOVE (South Africa)
Zakes Mda THE WHALECALLER (South Africa)
Jude Njoku THE QUICK SANDS (Nigeria)
Helen Oyeyemi THE ICARUS GIRL (UK/Nigeria)
Johan Steyn FATHER MICHAEL'S LOTTERY (South Africa)
Ndikaru wa Teresia CRY OF THE OPPRESSED (Kenya)
Rachel Zadok GEM SQUASH TOKOLOSHE (South Africa).

I am embarrassed to say that I have never heard of Njoku, Steyn or Wa Teresia so will have to track these down immediately - the three of them also happen to be writers not yet published in the west, so there's a definite correlation there. An additional complication is that Wa Teresia appears to be self-published in Kenya, so this one may be a challenge to track down! Interestingly, only 5 of the 14 currently live on the continent, and I suppose there's always the question of whether writers like Evans, Iweala and Oyeyemi would actually even call themselves African given that they have been raised outside the continent.

There is a review of the latest book, MY MOTHER'S LOVERS, by South African Christopher Hope, one of the Impac/Dublin judges in 1996.

Nadine Gordimer was recently robbed and threatened in her home in South Africa. Her response to the attack was very different to Andre Brink's charge in the press which I wrote about last month, but no less valid. Read further about what she had to say here.

Shawn Slovo (sister to the author Gillian Slovo) has written the screenplay to a movie causing stirs in the film industry, CATCH A FIRE, shown recently at the London Film Festival. This article gives some of the background to Patrick Chamusso on whom the movie is based, including some of the very interesting story of the Slovo family. If this movie is anything like Shawn Slovo's 1988 film A WORLD APART then we are in for a real treat. If you have not yet seen A WORLD APART, then I highly recommend it to you. It is a truly representative film about South African white activist experience (CRY FREEDOM is nowhere near as good - too much Hollywood treatment). Although their names are changed (to Roth) in the film, it is about the Slovo family, whose story is deeply entwined with the history of the country. A WORLD APART was banned in South Africa when it came out and we would meet hush-hush to watch copies which themselves had been copied so many times that the quality of the film was distorted with stripy lines and fuzzy snow, smuggled from house to house. I can't recommend it highly enough. An exceptional film and an outstanding cast which deservedly won just about every award thrown at it at the time. A fitting tribute to the extraordinary humanity of Joe Slovo and Ruth First.

Going back to the Impac/Dublin longlist - I think I will give the African titles a whirl from February once the From The Stacks reading challenge is over! It helps that I've already read some of these, but I certainly haven't posted on any (except - in passing - Oyeyemi). Perhaps some of you will join me in the new year with a little selection from the longlist to your own criteria (all138 titles might be pushing it a bit!) as the shortlist will be announced March/April 2007.

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I have had a really nasty cold. The I-need-sympathy part of myself wants to claim it was pneumonia, but no, it was/is just a cold. One of those versions where your head is all bunged up and you can't sleep properly at night because you can't breathe, and then spend the daylight hours moping around feeling watery and get the picture.

The Albion Bookshop has started its closing down sale - 50% off everything in the shop. I am sad they are closing - where will I go for my book buying habit? I need a place with both knowledgeable staff and character. As I pointed out on dovegreyreader's blog a little while ago, that leaves Canterbury with two Waterstone's and a WH Smith, and me wanting to scream! There's one specialist Christian bookshop (it IS Canterbury after all, seat of the Anglican archbishop), and several secondhand and charity bookshops which are great, but every town needs a really good independent. I am a rudderless boat...

Ok, enough of the melodrama! None of this has turned me off taking advantage of the Albion sale. My first foray into the burgeoning shelves has produced a lovely bagfull, most of which are heading straight out the door as Christmas presents for all the nieces and nephews:

An Angel Just Like Me - Mary Hoffman
Better known for her Amazing Grace series, Hoffman has created here a lovely story of a young black boy puzzled by all the Christmas tree angels being white and female. He goes in search of an angel in which he can see himself, starting with a visit to Santa (turns out it is family friend and art student, Carl) and a wish...

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
For the young teenage girl in your life. A funny and touching account of an orphan girl whose education is paid for by a mysterious benefactor. It was only on re-reading it myself last year that I realized just how much of a feminist and social conscience young Judy develops. When I read it as a teenager, however, I only noticed the romance and related to the boarding school experience. Recommended for the teenager/tween in your life who has already read and loved Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, Little Women, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series.

The Diddakoi - Rumer Godden
Kizzy is a diddakoi - gypsy - and so different from the rest of the children in her village. She lives in a wagon in an orchard with her grandmother and smells of woodsmoke from the evening fire. A wonderful story about pride in being different, and learning to accept difference in others.

Goodnight Mister Tom - Michelle Magorian
One of my favourite children's books of all time - I give this to every child I know. Be careful about the right age: at least aged ten I would recommend, as the themes are serious and quite traumatic. Every child we have given it to has come back to us saying they loved it and wanting to talk about it. Willie Beech is evacuated to a country village during the Second World War and billetted with a crotchety but kind Mister Tom. This turns out to be his saving grace after years of deprivation and abuse in the city. Very sensitively handled and a compelling story of genuine friendship and love.

The Silver Sword - Ian Serraillier
Children make their way across Second World War Europe, trying to find their parents. The bravery and self-sufficiency of these children is what appeals to young readers.

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity - Amartya Sen
Sen is a genius, and one of my favourite make-you-think intellects. We were in India when he won the Nobel Prize for Economics and it was great to see the festivities as a result. I remember being stuck in traffic and looking up at a giant billboard proclaiming "SEN-SIBLE ECONOMICS" which I thought was very clever (really wished I'd had my camera with me at the time). The cover blurb here from Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, is accurate at summarizing his approach:
The world's poor and dispossessed could have no more articulate and insightful a champion among economists than Amartya Sen. By showing that the quality of our lives should be measured not by our wealth, but by our freedom, his writings have revolutionized the theory and practice of development.
If you haven't read him and are interested, I'd suggest you start with the excellent Development as Freedom, which is written in an accessible fashion for the general reader, rather than as an economics text.

Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life - Eric Hobsbawm
I've been wanting to read this since it came out and my excuse for buying it is that the Kent library system does not own a copy so my arm has been twisted! Who can resist (those of you that like history books) the cover blurb:
Hitler came to power when Eric Hobsbawm was on his way home from school in Berlin, and the Soviet Union fell while he was giving a seminar in New York. He translated for Che Guevara in Havana, had Christmas dinner with a Soviet spy master in Budapest and an evening at home with Mahalia Jackson in Chicago. He saw the body of Stalin, started the modern history of banditry and is (presumably) the only Marxist asked to collaborate with the inventor of Mars bar.
This all sounds a little sauced up of course. I read some of his history texts in coursework (Nations and Nationalism since 1780 and The Invention of Traditon) and rather admired them, so I'd like to read this too.

I did hope to resist the urge to buy more books this year, and I have clearly failed, but my excuse is that it is a one-off opportunity with the sale, and that most of them are not for me...

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

I keep getting thrown off my blogging of late by my midweek excursions up to London for Tamil class. Often this expands to encompass other things and before I know it, I'm meeting friends for meals and coffees, visiting art galleries, having shiatsu massage and all manner of lovely distractions. Bear with me if I seem more erratic than usual - the semester finishes in early December and then I get a month off before the next module begins (by which point I'll have forgotten everything I've learnt so far...)

Studying a new language makes me think far more about language and customs than I normally would. Take greetings: in my highly unscientific and subjective poll of the people of Canterbury I notice that the very young, and the more mature members of society, greet on passing you in the street; it is rare to share even a smile with those belonging to the sixty or so years in between. I grew up in a culture where not greeting is a cardinal sin (including greeting of strangers), so I always look at the people I pass just in case they crack and are prepared to greet me - it is rare.

Yesterday, on my way out of the dentist, a very small child with the low-slung gravity look of the nappy wearing age group, came racing up bearing a mound of freshly mown lawn. "Grass!" was his greeting, even though I had never met him before. Sharing his unalloyed joy over greenery with a complete stranger had not yet accurred to this little person as odd. My path continued riverside and I had several pleasant encounters with retired folks walking their dogs, pulling shopping trolleys and the like, including a distinguished gentleman who informed me that I must be very rich indeed if I hadn't bought a lottery ticket for this week's sweeps (I confess I don't do lotto). Perhaps it is that everyone else is hurrying too much and the pace required to greet is a slower one, I don't know. Of course, I don't mean to imply that British people are unfriendly (that is definitely not my experience) but I am intrigued by this aspect of the British urban lifestyle.

What brought this on was my Tamil class. Learning greetings reminded me that "hello" in Zulu ("sawubona"), for example, doesn't mean hello at all but "I see you." Goodbye in Tamil also means rather more than a straightforward 'bye (seen as tempting fate). Instead, the one leaving says "I will go and come back" and the one staying behind responds "go, and please come back." I quite like these notions of an acknowledgement through the spoken language of a place in the community.

As to my reading challenge, since I can't decide which book to start with, I'm reading the first chapter of each to see if one leaps out as something I'm in the mood for. Otherwise it's eenie, meenie...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Michelle over at Overdue Books has issued a From the Stacks reading challenge that fits right in with my current moans and groans about my TBR (To Be Read) pile teetering, crashing, and burning! With a time frame of November 1st to January 30th, her instructions read:
If you are anything like me your stack of purchased to-be-read books is teetering over. So for this challenge we would be reading 5 books that we have already purchased, have been meaning to get to, have been sitting on the nightstand and haven't read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.
Definitely yes from me; I have so many books I keep meaning to get to and just don't, for no apparent reason. Can anyone explain the strange compulsion to acquire more books when there are enough in the house already to keep one going for years anyway?! I could run a lending library from here!

My chosen titles in no particular order are:
The Story of Lucy Gault - William Trevor
Lent to me by a friend a year ago, and I still haven't read it - it's now or never!
Desperate Spring - Fettouma Touati
Nearly as bad - another friend lent me this six months ago - I simply must.
The Making of a Marchioness - Frances Hodgson Burnett
Because I love Persephone Books; need there be another reason?!
The Book of Not - Tsitsi Dangarembga
It is glaring reproachfully at me.
Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The glare off this one is positively blistering! I so loved her first and am expecting great things.

Perhaps, come February, the Valentine's Day challenge will be to read 5 more books off my TBR pile - will I ever get through all of them?!

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Monday, November 06, 2006

There is something so luxurious about not setting an alarm clock and waking at your own leisure. We try and do this on the weekends, waking to the sunlight peeping in and birds wittering away in the trees across the bridle path at the bottom of the garden.

This past Saturday, however, it was an early start, but we didn't mind because we'd signed up for a guided walk near Sevenoaks, Kent. ATG does the most fantastic sounding walks in mainland Europe (mostly at some significant expense). If we ever do go on one of these marvellous creations, I suspect it will be the "footloose" variety where they don't actually lead you, but they provide you with maps and walk details, book your hotels and transport your luggage (a little more affordable than their pull-out-all-the-stops guided versions). All lovely sounding. In the meantime, we do their Saturday Walks which are delightful: they provide a guide, lunch en route in a village hall or similar, and high tea at the end. Most civilized! A portion of the cost of the walk goes to their Ad Terrae Gloriam Trust, renovating frescoes, statues etc. along the paths they frequently walk. A nifty idea.

Saturday dawned bright and chilly. Rugged up against the cold, your breathe puffs in the air and the tip of your nose threatens to drop off. Stamping on the spot while waiting to depart helps, as does hunching low into your scarf and jacket. Setting off is a relief, as we start to move.

The walk passed through the grounds of Lord Sackville's Knole Park (the house is closed to the public over the winter months). This is where Vita Sackville-West lived as a child and began her relationship with Virginia Woolf, inspiring ORLANDO. The gardens she created at Sissinghurst are lovely (we make an annual pilgrimage). I was a bit like a tourist on safari in South Africa - let me explain. On first arriving at Kruger National Park, excited tourists shout "Oooh, a springbok!" and "Look, another Springbok!" Repeatedly. Until they realize there are loads of them, and the tone becomes an underwhelmed "Just another Springbok." On Saturday I was thrilled to spot some deer as we entered Knole Park, and then some more...and more...and (yup, you've guessed it) "oh, more deer."

Knole Park is green, leafy and wooded as far as the eye can see. Extraordinary to think that in the great storm of 1987 70% of trees in this area were lost. We learned of the thriving insect and small animal life that have proliferated since, living off the great tree carcasses left rotting in the leaf mould. Sevenoaks lost all but one of the great trees from whence it took it's name. Our circular walk fell within an AONB, or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with spectacular views over the High Weald towards the South Downs. The sun shone brightly, but was slow to burn off the mist down in the valley and undulating hills rippled into the distance cloaked in shades of white and grey.

Our path passed the perfection of the 14th century moated and timber framed manor house of Ightham Mote. Such lovely woodland - we spent most of the morning crunching over fallen acorns and chestnut husks. After six miles or so we stopped for lunch in a little village school hall - wonderful salads, fresh homemade breads and soup to keep us going. Even a little tipple...

The afternoon's return circuit passed through rolling pastureland down in the valley of the Weald looking back up towards the Greensand Way. Our guide explained some of the geology of the region - the rock shows a sheen of green when freshly hewn, hence the name. We reached the twelve mile mark back at Knole Park after a profusion of stiles and cattle/sheep grills (this is farming country after all), in time to watch the moon rise in a pale perfect sphere above the ancient oaks, deer munching quietly.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

P.W. Botha, the former South African president, died on Tuesday night. M&G news reports here and here.

This may make me sound like an awful person, but all I thought when I heard the news was "thank God," with a smile of relief. Nothing good came from that man. He subjected millions of South Africans to lives of abject poverty and misery. I suspect we will never be able to count the true cost of the damage caused by his time in office. Just as I do not mourn the passing of numerous other dictators and autocrats around the world, so I do not mourn him. And yes, it is very, very personal. He had a deliberate, precise, direct impact on my family, with terrible results.

Sometimes things sneak up on you unawares. One minute everything is fine and you are going about your daily life, the next everything has changed, becoming a place you have no concept of. Botha had that effect on me. This poem from a book I am currently reading struck me as perfectly accurate at capturing this feeling of a sea change; you are quietly going about your own business, and the world around you changes violently beyond all recognition:

THE DOORBELL - Adrian Mitchell

I was in bed, the silvery light of dawn
blessing our quiet suburban street,
when the window darkened,
and the doorbell rang.

Pushed my face deep in the pillow,
but the doorbell kept ringing
and there was another sound,
like the crying of a siren,
so I slopped downstairs
unbolted, unlocked, unchained
and opened the front door.

There, on the doorstep, stood the War.
It filled my front garden,
filled the entire street
and blotted out the sky.
It was human and monstrous,
shapeless, enormous,
with torn and poisoned skin which bled
streams of yellow, red and black.

The War had many millions of heads
both dead and half-alive,
some moaning, some screaming,
some whispering,
in every language known on earth,
goodbye, my love.

The War had many millions of eyes
and all wept tears of molten steel.
Then the War spoke to me
in a voice of bombs and gunfire:
I am your War.
Can I come in?
from LEBANON, LEBANON edited by Anna Wilson.