Friday, October 31, 2008

I've been reading TELLING TALES edited by Nadine Gordimer, a collection of short stories by 21 writers from around the globe who gave their pieces without fees so that "profits from the sale of the book could go to HIV/AIDS preventative education and ... medical treatment." It is quite a line-up of literary luminaries, but I've just focused on the African writers.

Down the Quiet Street by Es'kia Mphahlele describes an amusing tale of a police officer who discovers criminal activities (or not) taking place under his nose in the form of funeral processions. He, and we, are left guessing. Charming. Mphahlele's famous DOWN SECOND AVENUE describes people I knew as a teen, so I have a soft spot for him, and am very sorry to hear that he died on Monday.

The far darker Death of a Son by Njabulo S. Ndebele follows a couple dealing with grief and its effect on their relationship when their young child is shot by patrolling soldiers. Now, I should have felt a connection to this story. Military vehicles patrolled our township in exactly the same manner, and in fact I remember a baby killed by a stray bullet while his mother did nothing more sinister than sit on her verandah. And yet, I felt the heart was lacking from this story - it was hard to make a connection with the characters. For me, flawed by slightly stilted writing.

Chinua Achebe's Sugar Baby was wonderful! I have only read his novels, rather than his short stories, but on the basis of this offering will search out the book from which it is extracted: GIRLS AT WAR AND OTHER STORIES. It surprises with subtle humour in the rather unlikely subject of food scarcity during the Biafran War - what do you do in these circumstances if you have a sweet tooth and feel deprived?!
Cletus and I made the journey on the following Saturday and found Father Doherty in a reasonably good mood for a man who had just spent six nights running at the airport unloading relief planes in pitch darkness under fairly constant air bombardment...

I spoke up first. I had a problem with hay fever and would like some antihistamine tablets if he had any in stock. "Certainly," he said, "most certainly. I have the very thing for you. Father Joseph has the same complaint, so I always keep some." He disappeared again and I could hear him saying: "Hay fever, hay fever, hay fever" like a man looking for a title in a well-stocked bookshelf, and then: "There we are!" Soon he emerged with a small bottle. "Everything here is in German," he said, studying the label with a squint. "Do you read German?"
"Nor do I. Try taking one thrice daily and see how you feel."
"Thank you, Father."
"Next!" he said jovially... (pp.139-140)
As to the obsession with sugar (or the lack of it) you'll have to find a copy for yourselves!

Gordimer's own offering, The Ultimate Safari, threw me for a loop and therefore warrants its own post. More later.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

It is hard to feel sympathy for Isa ad-Dabbagh, as it is always hard to feel sympathy over an extended period for anyone who feels relentlessly sorry for themselves. Naguib Mahfouz's AUTUMN QUAIL begins with Egypt's 1952 Revolution. Isa is dismissed from government on corruption charges and arrives home to his mother's questions:
Fortunately she did not know anything. Walking slowly around the house, he thought about how expensive it was. He couldn't possibly keep it now. Two years' salary, even added to what was left in the bank of the umdas' gifts, wouldn't last longer than two years. All those objects decorating the entrance, the reception room, and the library were "gifts" too. Certainly the crooks outnumbered the people who had been dismissed for crookedness. He was guilty, though, and so were his friends: what had happened to the good old days? Gifts were forbidden, after all, a mark of corruption. But this sudden loss of everything, just when he was on the threshold of a senior position, which would have led to the minister's chair! How could you live in a world where people forgot or pretended to forget, where there were so many others who gloated over the whole thing with unfeeling malice, where hard-won honors were being stripped away and vices trundled out and exposed, unfurled like so many flags? (p.60)
And so he goes one: whinge, whinge whinge through page after page. Don't get me started on corrupt and bullying (or worse) officials, South African history is littered with them. I have no time for the oft repeated excuses of "I didn't know" or "It wasn't me." Isa describes it as "...the harsh circumstances which often forced us to do things we didn't like doing" and pointing out that everyone around him did the same.

As his life spirals out of control, mirrored by political events in the country (the nationalization of the Suez Canal; the invasion of Egypt), Isa slouches from gambling table, to drinking den, using up his savings and in the process treating women abominably and generally irritating friends and family who are baffled by his behaviour. He is unable to make decisions about his future because he is so mired in the past and his perceived unjust dismissal (even though he is the first to admit the corruption charges are justified) both from work, but also by his fiancee's family. Just as we begin to lose patience, Mahfouz delivers an understated masterstroke to the plot. It would spoil the book for anyone who might read it (nor, to be honest, am I sure I could adequately describe it) so I won't discuss it here. Let's just say that instead of feeling I'd like to deposit the book at the first charity shop I came to, I now want to read it again. Immediately.

Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and died in 2006. Hisham Matar recalls attending a soiree with Mahfouz here.

I selected this book for the Africa Reading Challenge.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Any time friends or family visit, I take them around Canterbury Cathedral. It is to Anglicans what Rome is to Catholics - the mother church, and seat of its head. But apart from its religious significance it is a great architectural gem with a fascinating history - in many ways the history of England is reflected in its walls in microcosm (Along with St. Martin's Church and St. Augustine's Abbey it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). After a while I thought why not sign up to volunteer there since I practically live there anyway! I was on the waiting list for over a year before I was accepted on the assistant training course. By then I'd discovered I was pregnant but decided to do it anyway, bump and all, as I wasn't sure when I'd get the opportunity again. It was the most amazing experience - four months of lectures ranging from ecclesiastical history to the monarchs of England, monastic life to stained glass windows, through architecture down the ages and on to stone care of visitors. I loved every minute of it, despite an exam at the end! Now I'm on a two year probationary period after which I can train to be a Cathedral guide if I wish. The fabulous thing is that there are always ongoing lectures plus the Cathedral archives to explore in order to broaden your knowledge, so it is like an ever-expanding study module. I love the whole thing. Once a week I sling The Daughter on my front and stand around with a sash on, attempting to look friendly and approachable, answering any questions visitors might have (she just looks cute, or falls asleep).

Recently we've had a few interesting events happen there. First, the hosting of the Lambeth Conference. A left-over reminder is a giant Archangel Rafael whose wings are made up of paper cutouts of the hands of all the hundreds of bishops and archbishops who attended - each drew around their palms and some wrote on their profferings. It is quite charming, and was made by the children who attend Sunday School at the Cathedral. A nifty idea. Last month we had a week of apprentice stonemasons chipping away in the nave as they studied under Canterbury's master stonemasons. If you shut your eyes, you could transport yourself back to the 14th Century when the last major work on the Cathedral was carried out, and imagine the building site mourners at the Black Prince's funeral must have had to pick their way through. And just a couple of weeks ago the Cathedral nave was transformed into a theatre for the world premier of Sebastian Barry's new play, Dallas Sweetman. Barry follows a long line of distinguished playwrights commissioned to set a play in the Cathedral: John Masefield, T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers among them. I enjoyed an afternoon of watching actors in rehearsal hurl themselves with reckless abandon from the stage, robes swirling.

Yesterday I woke to find the electricity off. No explanation has yet been given, but the outage covered a large swathe across this area of Kent affecting parts of Canterbury, Blean, Herne Bay and Whitstable. No heating, no light, no radio, no television, no telephone, no internet connection. When I left for the Cathedral in the afternoon it had been off for more than ten hours, and The Daughter and I were both a little chilly, the temperature inside the house having dropped close to four degrees. The Cathedral, unaffected, thawed us out. It is an awe-inspiring place. I hope you make pilgrimage there, should you visit the city.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

A new play by the wonderful Nigerian playwright Dipo Agboluaje is on at The Unicorn Theatre in London. I'm late to listing this, so sadly you only have two days of shows left. If you're London-based, KNOCK AGAINST MY HEART (a retelling of THE TEMPEST) is well worth a look and is certainly something I would have hot-footed over to see if it weren't for the baby. Agboluaje has been steadily making a name for himself in contemporary drama, and this new piece looks most interesting, a collaboration with Brazilian company Nós de Morro.

Watch a trailer for the show here.

You can hear him interviewed by Steven Luckie here.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Breastfeeding The Daughter means I'm mostly reading books that are not too heavy (as in weight, rather than subject matter), and that require little effort in keeping track of plots despite only bite-size reading portions. I mentioned RUNNING FOR THE HILLS by Horatio Clare a few posts ago, and this is beautifully written - who knew a childhood hill-farming in Wales could have so many similarities to a childhood on a rural mission station in KwaZulu?! Lots of echoes there. I also thoroughly enjoyed THE BRIGHT SIDE OF DISASTER by Katherine Center. Although the UK cover makes this look remarkably chick-litty, it happens to be a rather hilarious account of first-time (and single) parenting. I don't usually go for this sort of thing, but it was perfect as first-time-mum-reading. If you've ever wondered what actually having a baby and living with it full-time is like (only funnier), then this is the book for you.

I also tackled CINNAMON CITY: Falling for the Magical City of Marrakech by Miranda Innes. I mean this in a positive sense, but CINNAMON CITY is perfect plane/train/holiday reading. By this I mean books that carry you along most enjoyably without requiring too much effort on the part of the reader. If you enjoy books about people setting up house amongst lemon groves in Spain or olive groves in Italy, then you'll probably love this. Other types of books which complement it are Taschen's style and photography books like AFRICAN STYLE or AFRICAN INTERIORS: beautiful coffee table books, but not related in any way to average lifestyles in Africa. The comparison is drawn simply to say that Innes's book is an enjoyable and interesting account of renovating a house in a foreign country, with all the angst and excitement that entails, but it is not a book about Marrakech or its people in any real sense. The cover description only serves to highlight this:
"Want to escape to a place where the sun always shines? Where passionate music, magic potions and the drama of Africa are cooled by the genius of Arabic culture?"
Oh retch. Where do they find these blurb writers?!


Friday, October 10, 2008

Thanks to the Africa Reading Challenge hosted over at siphoning off a few thoughts, I've finally managed to prioritize reading the fantastically named MY MERCEDES IS BIGGER THAN YOURS by Nkem Nwankwo. Onuma in fact swans around in a gold Jaguar, rather than a Mercedes, but that's just nit-picking - the Mercedes appears several times throughout the book in the hands of other drivers as a status symbol. At one point Onuma, sans Jaguar, refuses to take public transport because of the drop in status he feels this shows, and a lift he is offered in an aquaintance's Mercedes rankles hugely. Nwankwo's satirical take on changes in Nigerian civil life was published in 1975 and is long out of print. It has a couple of psychedelically orange-coloured ladies on the cover looking heavenwards towards a floating Mercedes emblem (if I can ever figure out how to scan and upload images, I'll be sure to show you this one!). Nwankwo produced two books of stories for teens and his first novel DANDA (1964) before this title. His third novel THE SCAPEGOAT (1984) was, I understand his last. All of these books are now out of print.

I must admit the opening page nearly put me off the entire experience, and is frankly well deserving of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award (look away now if you think you might be offended!):
Once upon a time a young man was savouring the pleasures of a new car. He was thinking that there were really occasions when a car seemed to drive itself as it were, seemed to respond to some remote stimulus independent of the driver. It had its moments of cursedness, of course, when it whined and snorted for no particular reason, then there were moments of heavenly smoothness when it floated on the crest of some intangible wave.
It was like when you have gone into a woman. Some of the time is taken up with clumsy flopping about; trying futilely to find the perfect position and rhythm. Then there are moments of complete synchronization of limbs which seem to come about without effort. There is then an access of energy and the two bodies seem to fuse into one through some mysterious alchemy of blood. Desire and the explosions of joy in tidal waves originating from impulses as mysterious as they are arbitrary. (p.1)
Okaaaay. A little over the top! Judicious editing would have helped this book along - unfortunately for the reader there are similar passages dotted about throughout the book although I suppose these serve to remind us that all Onuma is interested in (other than accruing wealth and status) are cars and women. The quotation above continues:
He would soon be home. Already familiar landmarks were flashing by: occasional clusters of giant trees, the scene of childhood escapades, wooden stores and brothels that stood where once, in his memory, had been wide lawns and friendly trees. Hard-boiled as the young man was, or thought he was, the prospect of the clearing in the forest he knew as home never failed to move him deeply. Involuntarily he broke into a song of praise to home.The song and the exhilaration of spirits and the effortless drive through the balmy twilight almost brought tears to his eyes. He waved to a number of naked children who were grubbing about by the wayside. He failed to notice their nakedness and squalor. He saw them only through the haze of his happiness. My people! My country! he thought. His sense of well-being seemed an augury of a happy return. (p.2)
Why not have left out the first sexed-up bit and simply opened with the second quotation? The latter quotation illustrates why the book is worth reading, capturing homecoming after years of living elsewhere perfectly.

So it is that Onuma, having made some money in the urban metropolis, returns to his home village after a fifteen year absence, to prove how well he has done to both the family and the extended community. Pride (as always) comes before a fall, however, and the story follows what happens as Onuma gets caught up in showing off rather than simply enjoying the pleasures of home. Nwankwo's descriptions of rural village life are grittily observed and make the book worth reading. Local politics rears its ugly head, as do issues related to family ties, and of course all of this is tied up with the fate of the golden jaguar...

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Daughter is turning into a charming little person, although it has been quite a slog getting to this fourth month point. I have no idea how people do this on their own. The main stress for us has been the fact that she suffers from colic and so cries, and cries, and cries... Not so much any more, I should add, which is a huge relief although now I get less reading done - I used to strap her into a sling and tread a path from the front door to the kitchen sink and back, reading while she wailed. Now she is more awake and so expects to be played with (eep)! I used to read while feeding her but Horatio Clare's RUNNING FOR THE HILLS put paid to that - she was fascinated by the cover image of a bright-eyed young Horatio and so would pop off to stare at it. Cue a general fascination with all books and since we have bookshelves all over simply teaming with them, this turns into quite a good game. Long may it last!

I have teetering piles of books I've finished that need reviewing here, among them Nadine Gordimer's THE CONSERVATIONIST, Nkem Nwankwo's MY MERCEDES IS BIGGER THAN YOURS and Beverley Naidoo's BURN MY HEART. My current "feeding read" (ie. not getting very far) is AUTUMN QUAIL by Naguib Mahfouz and I have a couple of ongoing books for reading in bite-sizes: TELLING TALES edited by Gordimer and THE POLITICS OF MEMORY:Truth, Healing & Social Justice edited by Ifi Amadiume & Abdullahi An-Na'im.

So much more to come! Apologies for the silence...