Monday, December 31, 2012

The Year 2012 in Review

December in Review: December was the 'challenge round up' month; hence, I set forth to complete the reading of all uncompleted challenges. In all I read a total of six (6) books by the 27th December with a decision of pushing any book read in the four days left to 2013. The six books gave me a total of 1,490 pages or an average of 48.06 pages per day.The following are the books read:

Books Acquired
Almost all the books read in 2012 (excludes Pdfs)
The objective for 2012 was to make a dent into my unread books. I wanted, seriously, to not be a part of those whose unread books keep piling at a rate ten-times faster than their read. This is an idiosyncrasy of bibliophiles. Consequently, in 2012, it was my decision to purchase less number of books. In the year in review, therefore, I added 39 more books to my TBR shelf. Out of this, I purchased 23 and the remaining 16 were gifts from publishers and friends. This figure compares favourably with the 122 books I added to the shelf last year. With a total of 70 books read in the year, it implies that I reduced the unread books by 31 books. 

Challenges Completed
I completed all the challenges with December 31, 2012 as deadlines. Some were completed early, others late. For instance, the African Literature Reading Challenge was not much of a challenge since the objective function of this blog is to promote African Literature; however, I selected some books for that particular challenge. The 70 Books Reading Challenge required much effort.  The Challenges are:
  • African Literature Reading Challenge (organised by Kinna of Kinna Reads): The ALRC is not a challenge I should have participated in since it is what I do and therefore will be self-serving; however, I participated in it because I support and share the objective.
  • Chunkster Reading Challenge: In this challenge the participant had to read books 450 pages and above. The Chubby level which I chose required the reading of four of such books though I read more than twice as many books.
  • 100 Shots of Shorts (organised by Kinna of Kinna Reads): This was to help me clear some of the single stories I have on my PC. 
  • 70 Books Reading Challenge (note that the link also includes single stories)
Challenges whose deadlines are not in 2012 such as the Top 100 Books Challenge list will proceed into 2013.

Categories of Books Read
I read several books. This year I wanted to read at least one non-fiction a month and also add some translations. The following are the categories of books read: Translations: 7; Non-Fiction: 11; Novels: 32; Novellas: 4; Poetry Anthologies: 4; Short Story Anthologies: 6; Single Stories (uncollected short stories): 15; Young Adults: 2; Plays: 1. These are not mutually exclusive categorisation.

Origin of Authors
The main purpose of this blog is to promote African books. Since 2009 when I started blogging African books have represented at least 80% of the total number of books I read. However, this year things were different. This year 40% of the books I read were by African authors and the remaining 60% were by non-African authors. Buying less number of books meant that I have to rely on my TBR bookshelf which is disproportionately high on non-African books. Besides, I receive more non-African books than the other. Including single stories the percentages were 64% and 36%, in favour of non-African books.

At 38%, I read more female-authored books in 2012 than any other year since I started keeping track of my basic reading stats (compared to last year's 35%). Besides, since I began blogging in 2009, this year's haul of 72 books is the largest (compared with last year's 56, which was my highest), hence the absolute number of books has increased. Fifty-seven percent are male authors and 5% are both (as in mixed-sex anthologies). I actually don't look out to read or balance the genders and I'm not going to do that. I'm going to read the books as and when they come. If it be all women, good. However, my favourite authors still include Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer. The former is one I would want to read entirely.

Pages Read
For both books and single stories, I read a total 18,629 pages (Books: 18,480 and Single Stories: 149). The most voluminous book I read was 568 pages (Franzen's The Corrections). A total of 1,552 pages were read per month and the average pages of a book was 257. On the whole I read a total of 50.09 pages per day (or 1552.42 pages per month), which happened to be my target when I set the 70 books goal.

Year of Publication
The oldest book I read was Sun Tzu's The Art of War published around 500 BCE. Two books (Ama Ata Aidoo's Diplomatic Pounds and Other Stories and Toni Morrison's Home) were published in 2012. The following is a classification of books read:
  • Pre 1800's: 1.5%
  • 1800 - 1899: 1.5%
  • 1900 - 1999: 50.7%
  • 2000 and Beyond: 46.3%
  • There were three most read authors, each with three books. It's no wonder that two of the three most-read authors are my two favourite female writers. These are:
  • The country I read most from is America with 25. This is followed by Britain with 13; Nigeria and South Africa follows with 6 each and Ghana with 5. Note that an author counts for every book read so that Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison added 3 to South Africa's and America's figure, respectively.
  • The average book rating was 5.13 (out of 6); however, this excludes non-African books which I did not rate. This is a confirmation that 2012 was a good year for reading. The books were interesting.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

220. Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing

Search Sweet Country (Heinemann, 1986; 352) is the first novel by the Ghanaian poet, Kojo Laing. It expanded what the author had already started started with his poetry, his unique use of words, his ability to make words turn, somersault, split and do some weird, but adorable, gymnastics. As is the foibles of poets, Laing's poetry seeped unrelentingly into his prose in a lovely kind of way.

This is a book that does away with the straitjacket novelistic requirements, those narrow rules requiring a plot, an arch, and such and such. Laing is the persona in that famous Frost's poem, for he takes the road less travelled, weaving his words in unique patterns to tell our story and it is this boldness to chart his own course that sets him apart from many other African writers and which has seen a renewed interest in his works leading to the re-release of his books. Some readers - including me when I first encountered his writing in Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters - find his writings difficult to penetrate because their (our) frequent readings have programmed their (our) minds to expect a rise (when the problem is being created or the man is being pushed up the tree), a climax (when the problem has become complicated or the man is being pelted with stones) and the denouement (when the problem is being solved or when the author works to bring the man down from the tree), so that any deviation from this course becomes difficult to assimilate and interpret.

However, as much as there are several ways to kill a cat, there are many ways to tell a story and your way is one of them. Search Sweet Country is almost surreal; however, the surrealism is the result of the author's turn of phrase and the importation of his poetry stylistics into his prose. The story is set in a period of Ghana's history, in 1975, when the military junta of Ignatius Kutu Acheampong was in power and the self-reliance policies of 'operation feed yourself' and 'operation feed your industries' were the policies of the day; a period where the fervour that greeted the country's independence had waned and the people had become disillusioned and delusional in their expectations and aspirations; the period where it is the norm to be corrupt and suicidal to stand against its tide; the period where people cheat the government out of contracts and the government is impotent to exact justice because it is deeply in bed with the perpetrators; a period where people care more about the position and the power it affords than the duties and responsibilities that position demands. And if these issues still dominate today's discussions, worldwide, then Kojo's work is germane in today's time regardless of place, nation, or region. 

Laing tells of the confusion of the time, of the insecurity of the military that makes it suspicious of every person including those who are least interested in its activities like Professor Sackey, Dr Pinn, and Kofi Loww. However, Laing was not a sycophant to assume that the military's rulership was not supported by the ordinary people including those in academia like Dr Boadi, whose quest for comfort saw him wallow deeper and deeper in the mire of corruption. Unfortunately, this political thread of the story is interpreted as the only story. The desperate search for change and the other social commentaries of love, of relationships, of family traditions, of soul renewal, of acceptance, of spirituality, of feminism, are all brought under this political interpretation: for instance, the negative effects of royalty, where everybody sees himself or herself as someone of importance and therefore above the laws and rules of society or the mother-head-father-head dimensions of family are ignored.

The characters in Kojo Laing's novel are on a search for something either tangible or intangible, material or spiritual. Dr Boadi was in search of comfort, Kofi Loww was in search of something he doesn't know of but which further education could not satisfy. Sally Soon, the European witch is looking for acceptance by Ghanaians, Amina is in search of her spiritual half in Adwoa Adde, Osofo wants to add traditional dimensions of healing (using herbs) to his church. There is Beni Baidoo who is in search for home, as in a village of origin and therefore is attempting to create one. Using the character of the witch Adwoa Adde, noting that witch here is not used negatively, flying over Accra Laing provides snatches of the people's conditions and the problems they face.

Laing created a fine balance among things even in the midst of the chaos, which (the chaos) emanates from the lives of the people and seeped into the environment (roads, houses, airports, markets). For instance, Kofi Loww's education balances Beni Baidoo's madness; yet Baidoo's insanity does not prevent him from knowing what he wants in life, to create a village, unlike Kofi Loww who cuts a frustrated and impotent figure unsure about what he needs from life. Thus, these two are both alike and unalike. In some way, Beni Baidoo seems to be an idea and Kofi Loww's doppelganger. There was the prosperous three-female generation household of Nana Esi - the matriarch, Ewurafua - the second generation, and Araba Fynn - the grandchild, who were as independent as an Odum tree, doing things their own way. This women-only household symbolised a move away from the usual father-figure family and this phenomenon is not strange in a country where inheritance is mostly - especially among the Akans - matrilineal. Not even the tall figure of the soul-searching Okay Kojo Pol could jump over or penetrate the barricade the grandmother has erected around the family. This carefully counterbalances the impoverished three-male household of Erzuah, Kofi Loww and Ahomka.

The surrealism and seeming magical descriptions by Laing is like the writings of Ben Okri (especially in his The Famished Road) in the magic it evokes; however, Laing's is more subtle. He makes his words work in mysterious ways so that usually it isn't the character who is doing something strange (as in Okri) but it is Laing and the reader who see what the character is doing differently: suddenly a groundnut seller picking groundnuts from the ground will be carrying words to a friend; at the same time a bicycle repairer would be 'pumping somebody's patience into the shape of a tyre'. Or as in 'Erzuah's laughter dropped on the chair with him as he sat down opposite Maame.' Furthermore, he picks a word that defines or applies to a situation in the immediate past sentence and applies it anew in a different context in just the next sentence. For instance when Erzuah and his son, Kofi Loww, bought and ate tatale, Kojo writes in the next sentence 'they ate different thoughts', similarly the 'shaking of head' morphed into the 'shaking of a taxi'. This parallel use of a word provided a sudden change in focus, which could be drastic for the reader and yet fulfilling because of its unexpectedness.

In Laing's world of words no item or thing is a passive observer or player even when it is the recipient of the action. Everything plays an active role in the story, like 'the boys' quarters staring enviously at the masters' building' or 'the moon being eaten behind the clouds', and therefore contribute meaningfully to the beauty of the story, even if their part is hardly appreciated. In Kojo Laing's works could be found one who has appropriated the English language for himself. He mixes Ghanaian jargons, ditties, words and street lingua into the English language smoothly creating a flow that is unique and entirely his. Nigerian writers have done this successfully and Kojo is doing it for Ghanaian writers. His works are audacious in the many facets of life, and of literature, it tackles.

If you want a different novel, one that shirks novelistic rules and creates and expands on all its peripherals something unique, one that challenges the reader to breakdown his sense of orientation with words, if such books are your love, read Kojo Laing. For in the hands of Kojo, the reader can never second guess him, the surprises are numerous, this being the ingredient of a great novel.
About the author: Kojo Laing is now acknowledged as one of the great literary innovators of the past 25 years. Flamboyantly inventive, learned, ironic, whimsical, political in the widest sense, his work challenges received notions of literary technique as well as the tame demarcation 'African literature'. Born in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1946, Laing was educated in both Ghana and Scotland, completing a Master of Arts degree at Glasgow University in 1968. After a decade as a government administrator, in 1980 Laing was made Secretary to the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. Following a long spell as Chief Executive of St Anthony's, a leading private school, in 2005 Laing devoted himself to writing full time.

Laing's first novel, Search Sweet Country, appeared in 1986 to great acclaim. Woman of the Aeroplanes was published in 1988, with Godhorse, his first collection of poems, following in 1989. His third novel, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars, was published in 1992, and 2006 saw the publication of Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters. B. Kojo Laing currently resides in Accra. (Source)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

219. Traces of a Life: A Collection of Elegies and Praise Poems by Abena P.A. Busia

Traces of a Life: A Collection of Elegies and Praise Poems (Ayebia, 2008; 124) by Abena P.A. Busia is an anthology of poems, diary entries (sort of) and memorial lectures. The general theme is that of loss - of loved ones, of country, of innocence, of self, of privacy, of culture; but also found interspersed amongst the loss are poems celebrating anniversaries: marriages and birthdays. And even these ones have the pathos of loss built into them; for what could be as sad as celebrating a marriage anniversary in exile.

As the title suggests, this collection provides snatches of scenes in the life of the author. And because of her special position as the daughter of an astute politician, whose freedom suffered and personhood abraded on the abrasive and unsmooth playing field of politics, the poems also provide glimpses into some of the not too pleasant part of Ghana's politics: the coups, the arrests, the executions, the route to exiles, living in exile, the exilic life, the zombie-ic posturing of military juntas and more. And it is events such as these that shape a person's belief and tune his or her mind toward a particular frequency from which he or she never returns.

Abena Busia, because this is a personal collection narrated from her own point-of-view, captures the emotional outcomes that seeped from such infractions and interactions perfectly. She showed the other side of politics; that politicians are not robots devoid of feelings; that they are not taken out of trees, belonging to no human-feeling family and having none of their own so that whatever happens to them or is done unto them is done in an emotional vacuum. None, apart from the victim, is victimised. She showed that an infraction, a negative interaction, a poor judgement, affect the family of the politician as much as it would have affected any ordinary citizen; sometimes even more since they very much live their entire lives under society's microscopic scrutiny. Thus, the perpetrators and followers should and need to consider all these. Perhaps, here, it would be wise to say that she might be re-minding us of that age-old adage which no particular book or personage can claim as entirely its own: do unto others as you will have them do unto you. 

Abena shows how slippery and variegated the political landscape has been in the country and how power has been (mis)used to suppress the development of the country rather than providing the right catalyst for development; how people close to the victim, people on the periphery of the victim's coterie, and any remotely related to the victim have suffered immeasurable and irremediable losses - personal, material, physical, emotional, spiritual. And more importantly, how these people's emotional development might have been affected negatively or even been encouraged onto a maleficent path. It has often been said that in an African country of two intellectuals one is in exile and the other is the president; this simple description seemed a apt summary of Traces of a Life.

However, certain contradictions lay in the book. And it is expected for human beings are themselves contradictions, because wrong and right is all a matter of perspectives. Whereas the poems vehemently castigated the AFRC and PNDC coups and showed how negatively coups affect the development of a country, the author refused to use the same measure of her moral rod to judge Afrifa and the NLC's coup that overthrew Nkrumah's government. Regardless of the justification that the author might have had, this is a moral argument which cannot stand any scrutiny. In fact, Afrifa was praised and labelled 'Okatakyie', which loosely translates as 'war hero', in several of Abena Busia's poems. It is as if she is practicing the 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' ideology; for it was Nkrumah who got her father, K. A. Busia - the then opposition leader, exiled leading to the production of this anthology. Besides, Busia - the father - became the Prime Minister when Afrifa was the Head of State.

Thus, wrong and right become angular whose definitions are subject to our peculiar linear perspectives. The moral (or weak philosophical) question that arises is: does a wrong becomes right if it rectifies a previous wrong? They say two wrongs do not make a right, but what if, in creating its own wrong it corrects a past wrong? So it is not strange that Afrifa, whose coup against the first president set the precedence of many coups to come including those castigated by the author, was not denounced by the author as if some coups are justified.

Irrespective of these contradictions, which I will disregard if one should read this book not as a political history of Ghana - not in the slightest - but as a personal journey during Ghana's political past (with a capital 'P' on the 'Personal') the book is worth the read. The lines are infused with local metaphors, in the places they exist. They move smoothly, the lines, and are not as abstract as some poems from the continent are wont to be. The reader can relate to them even if he or she isn't a Ghanaian, for we all have experienced some form of loss in our lives before. With these I recommend the reading of Abena P.A. Busia's Traces of a Life: A Collection of Elegies and Praise Poems. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

218. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway*

Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (Scribner, 1929; 332) has been on several 'must-read' lists. Usually I'm not drawn to recently-published much-talked about books; however, when it comes to classics, it's different. This is one of those books that are easy, and yet difficult, to talk about. Easy in the sense that the story is not complicated and it is beautiful; difficult because Hemingway's prose defies description.

The story is set in the midst of the World War I, on the Italian front. Lieutenant Henry, is an American ambulance driver working with the Italian forces. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, through a friend, and what blossomed from that meeting was innocent love. Though, Henry had gone into the relationship with a non-staying mentality, meeting the vernal and venerable Catherine exuding innocence and genuine affection, his ulterior motive extinguished in a flash. Slowly, he found himself fall deeper and deeper in love; a love so pure that only Hemingway's prose could capture its innocence, its pureness and its freshness. The prose is calm, melancholic, detailed, terse and touching.

Hemingway produces, in the tiniest detail, the events on the battlefield and also on its peripherals: the struggle through the mud, the bog, the near death incidences, the swim across the river ... running away from authorities and the journey across the river into safety. Water plays an important role in the whole story; it signifies adversity and freedom, or the route to freedom.

As the War wore on and defeat to the Italians, first manifesting itself in a sudden retreat, seemed imminent, Henry realised that he must decide which way his life must take: remain working as an ambulance driver or desert the army, which comes with its own troubles (of arrest), and become the portal for creation. Without a dither, Henry went for Catherine and the two crossed, in a boat, over to Switzerland, leaving behind friends (in Italy) and family (in America and Britain, respectively). The similarity between Henry's role as an ambulance driver and as a husband is striking. In both, there's a possible life to be saved or to be created and nurtured; but the success of either cannot easily be assessed.

The beauty of this book is the way Hemingway handled the Catherine-Henry love in the midst of the raging war. The ying-yang, love-war, calm-rage, rain-explosion, dichotomy was palpable; even the British Catherine complemented the American Henry. The language is sparse and the taciturn dialogue has been constructed in such a way as if the characters are in dreamy states, as if they really don't want to talk or that they don't have much to say to each other; as if they understand themselves telepathically, especially Henry and Catherine. However, there are times the reader felt that Catherine wanted evidence of Henry's love, was scared of desertion owing to incidences in her past. This experience-influenced behaviour made her seem childish in her conversations; thus, unintentionally making Henry the determinant of how their relationship turn out.

The parallels between Henry-and-Catherine's love and the raging war were clear; they both ended in pain and loss, for in war even the victor loses. It's an interesting read but if you read it with a twenty-first century mind, you would be disappointed, especially if you're a feminist aficionado. Usually, people criticise a book using current trends and claim they didn't love it. It's not like mathematics where ancient questions could still be solved with modern techniques. This is a snapshot of a society at a point in time and should be read as such. Regardless, it's recommended.
*This is the 70th book for the year and it officially marks the end of this year's reading goal

Sunday, December 23, 2012

217. Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by Dorothy Sterling

I picked this book because I've read the name 'Harriet Tubman' in books and in poems where it represented the image of a bold and strong woman. However, for some reason, I've never taken the pain to explore further. Hence, when I saw a copy of Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman (Scholastic, 1954; 191) by Dorothy Sterling I never, for a microsecond, dithered in my decision to purchase it. This was the reason why I never discovered that the writing had been tailored toward younger readers; in Ghana possibly Junior High students.

However, regardless of the unchallenging prose, a lot lies within the covers of the book. It tells the almost mythical story of Harriet Tubman with her slave-parents on a farm and how badly she was treated. One of such mistreatment crushed her skull and caused her to lapse into frequent sleeps. But even as a child, Harriet yearned for freedom and to do things her way. This story brings out the power of the will. Even when her brothers staggered and returned when the path to freedom in the North wasn't clear, Harriet never waned in her decision to become free. She achieved this and more. Using songs as codes she helped smuggled her octogenarian parents and her siblings out from slavery and several other people. Freeing people became her life's work, which was later made dangerous because even the north (of America) became unsafe for runaway slaves. She became popularly known as Moses with mythical descriptions and attributions.

Harriet's life is a lesson to all, especially those who today are eager to forget how far we've come. In the right perspective, it gives some form of background to several stories like To Kill a Mockingbird and most of Toni Morrison's novels: Beloved and Song of Solomon included. The author did well to capture the African life of songs and storytelling. Even where she might have taken some liberty to reconstruct, she did it in a way that didn't take anything away from this great woman. Harriet's story cements the major role several African American women, those who were not far removed from the first slaves, played in empowering the African American people.

A further search on Harriet's revealed that she was told she was an Ashanti, making her a slave from the Gold Coast and there was a character, in book, with a Ghanaian-sounding name - Cudjoe. (Similarly, Sojourner Truth was born to a Gold Coast (Ghanaian) father and a Guinean mother who had both been sold into slavery.) This book is revealing; it shows how wicked a person could be if only he or she could gather justifications. The justification for slavery and the wickedness most whites showed to blacks is that the white colour is superior to the black colour; something which still occurs in both subtle and open ways today. Consequently, blacks became part of the master's property; part of their livestock and furniture and could be sold and bought at auctions. They decide either to make you marry or not and if a slave is not healthy he or she is prevented from perpetuating his or her kind.

After Harriet's accident she experienced a decline in her physical strength, which prior to that was enormous, and consequently, her work rate drastically reduced. This made her a candidate for trade but these qualities, relapsing into frequent sleep, put people off. She married John, a man who was helplessly enslaved and who loved it too. But she never allowed John to tie her down. In fact, it was after the marriage that Harriet escaped into freedom; John remained in slavery.

This small book, capable of being read in a day, is an introductory text to such an important figure in Black American history. It is recommended for all who truly wants to know how torture and history of African (Black) Americans.

Friday, December 21, 2012

216. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage, 1927; 297) by Willa Cather is about a Bishop Jean Latour and his friend Vicar Joseph Vaillant as they set out from Sandusky France to proselytise the Latinos and Indians of New Mexico and its environs when it was annexed by the Union. The story is about what they went through and how they survived in a place they knew next to nothing about. The characters of both friends complement each other: whereas the bishop was the intellectual, the vicar was the bold one. 

The Bishop and the Vicar would come into several obstacles; some of which include priests whose service to God is titular and ritualistic. For there is nothing about them that is priestly, with beahviours incomparable in its nefariousness to the natives they are working to convert. They were swindlers, covetous, philanderers, hoarders, and bacchanal. These would offer the greatest resistance to their work but with the intelligence and bravery they would sail through, converting the people one at a time with the lives they live and with tact. They would build their cathedrals and would be recognised in their adopted environment.

Willa's book shares some semblance with Andre Brink's Praying Mantis. The isolation, the desolation and the attachment priests have to their works that makes Brink's book seem as if it is a pastiche of Willa's. However, the isolation and desolation is thicker, deeper and more noxious in Brink's. Willa's priests were at least cared-for by the people. They were remembered in Rome and even paid homage to the Pope. Something Cupido Cockroach never had, not even from his own people in South Africa.

This is an interesting book, simply written, about the lives of people at such a time. The portrayal of the loneliness of the place, the desert and rocks, but also the serenity and the peoples' closeness to nature - that idyllic lifestyle - is beautiful. Regardless, nothing significant happened in this book apart from the lives the two priests saved from destruction, not spiritual but physical. They lived fully, they gave up everything, but beyond that nothing extraordinary happened. On the other hand, if you love such graphic depiction of landscapes, of mountains and rocks, of nature, you will enjoy this book.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

215. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is an author I've heard of but have not read. Her books are on several Top 100 lists. When I chanced upon her book Mrs. Dalloway (Harcourt, 1925;197) I wasn't going to pass it by.

Mrs. Dalloway is a lifetime of events told over the period of a day through the point of view of Mrs. Dalloway as she goes about planning to hold a party for friends. The story was written in a very conversational manner, with repeated words and phrases for emphasis. The narrative takes place both within the minds of the characters and also outside of it so that we know what the other is think in addition to what is taking place externally. The third person limited narrative style combined with the omniscient voice was handled exquisitely so that transitions were very difficult to point out. Virginia Woolf zooms in on a character, describes him or her, talks about the person and then zooms out to include others and then before the reader is aware her lens is on another person. This is one way she handled her transitions. Sometimes the turning point also takes place in the conscious mind, where a character's thoughts could lead to the development of an entirely new character.

Virginia Woolf captures the thinking-mind as it goes through the day, the very things we think about, which usually isn't a smooth flow of thoughts like molten magma. She captures this on paper like no other, for how many of us always has complete control of the things that pass through our minds? As Mrs. Dalloway goes through the day she sees things that she has opinions of but which she doesn't voice out; but as the mind works on this, it leads to other events which leads to others in that circuitous path. 
Love and religion! thought Clarissa, going back into the drawing-room, tingling all over. How detestable, how detestable they are! For now that the body of Miss Kilman was not before her, it overwhelmed her - the idea.
Though there were repeated words or phrases for emphasis, there was also the economical use of words. It was as if Virginia Woolf wanted to teach the art of writing with this very book. Several amazing things exist in  it. As Clarissa Dalloway was preparing for her party, her past relationship with Peter Walsh was also playing on her mind; Peter who had failed in every aspect of love, Peter whom she rejected for Richard; and then suddenly Peter comes from India and into her drawing-room.

Then playing on the other end was the life of Septimus and his wife Lucrezia. Septimus is haunted by the death of his friend Evans during the European War and he could hear Evans talking to him. Septimus is almost like Clarissa's doppelganger. Each haunted by a series of thoughts but each choosing a different end. The power of Mrs. Dalloway is not in the plot but in the prose. Her use of punctuation is also unique.

In all it was an interesting read, though I almost missed this beauty due to lack of concentration for the long-sentences this book is fraught with. The conversational tone of the narrative is real and there is little dialogue. Another thing this book does is, it provides an insight into the lives of women of different social status and age groupings. Woolf understands the worries of Lucrezia, an Italian in London, the changes that took place in Sally Seton, the weird life of Kilman, and the arrogance of Lady Bradshaw and others.

If you enjoy beautiful prose, you'll enjoy Mrs. Dalloway.

Monday, December 17, 2012

214. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

I was inspired to read Persephone Books - which "reprints forgotten twentieth century novels,..., by (mostly) women writers" - by Marie of Boston Bibliophile. It was last year or so when she embarked on reading Persephone Books and I got interested but couldn't get the books. So when I came across this one, I snatched it quickly.

Once a while you come across a book that leaves you asking for more, a book that is both funny and intellectually rewarding. There isn't many of such books; most intellectually rewarding books are simultaneously drab, insipid, and energy-sapping. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Books, 1938 (republished in 2000); 234) by Winifred Watson belongs to the former group of books. And it is also universal and timeless, like the works of the great Italian sculptors and painters.

Miss Pettigrew is a governess on a job hunt, but she is a terrible governess and she knows it. When she is given the address of a young lady, supposedly in need of a governess, Miss Pettigrew's view of life as she has been brought up to know would collapse and her genteelness and peculiar mannerisms would exuviate; she would go through a rapid mental ecdysis. And find love; something she's never had in all her over three decades of existence. All these, and more, in a day's encounter.The story is funny, interesting, illuminating and sarcastic (in some ways).

When Miss Pettigrew turned up at the door of Miss LaFosse for her appointment, little did she know that she would become her - LaFosse's - magical wand, her thaumaturgist, her problem-solver. Relying on her crude ways, her experience gathered from various places of work, her eagerness to break the mould, and more importantly an unknown untapped potential, she would solve one problem after another - from saving Miss LaFosse from an embarrassing 'caught-in-the-act' moment through to setting up one of the LaFosse's men involved for marriage to saving LaFosse's friend's - Miss Dubarry's - relationship. In all these, LaFosse was oblivious of the important role she played, rather she was memerised by the behaviour of that coterie of socialites and glitterati. She never thought that the things she saw on screens could be transposed into reality. Starting her day almost homeless, should she fail to get this job, and ending it with parties and clubs, Miss Pettigrew saw that there is another side to life, as she had known it to be.

Winifred explored and exposed the lives the rich and the supposedly-rich lived. However, she neither condescended nor condemned them for though Miss Pettigrew's life was one of genteelness, she was pitifully poor whereas those who lived in frivolity, lies, pretensions, and baseless rumours were well-cared for. The story could have been written, not in 1938, but in 2012. The nose-surgery, the facial make-ups, the women endured just to live up to expectations is similar to what pertains today, where breast and butt implant has become the order of the day. Miss Pettigrew, who had never told a lie, considered changing her face with powders and pencils a deception but she quickly realised that it is by deception and through deception that these people lived so handsomely. The art of keeping appearances and living pretentiously were not only about the dusting and lining of faces and eyes and the surgical alterations of noses but also about creating a new and more acceptable background and name, factors germane to success as Miss Delysia LaFosse - formerly Sarah Grubs - testified. Thus, Winifred was almost ticking the requirements a woman needed to be successful: a name that sounds foreign, a good family, beauty, and a bit of sophistication. If all these fail, one could always seduce an affluent old man, marry him off, facilitate his death and inherit him afterwards, as Miss Dubarry did. Or marry one higher up the social ladder or even a boss.

When Miss Pettigrew, who had been brought up in a peculiar way, made a huge impression on Joe, a wealthy man keeping younger girls for appearances only, she couldn't keep to the newer ways she's discovered. She would confess of being homeless, of wearing a makeup, of not owning the clothes she was wearing, and of being a fake. Afraid of being discovered, she blurted it all out. But Joe, himself a phoney of sorts, would accept her as she is. He would also open up to her, his life and how it has been lived.

Through humour and satire, Winifred Watson achieved something momentous with this simple, fast-read story. She explored the social status of women, as objects, and the devices the women resorted to to ensure progress, at least financially. She provides a window to the gender-status of life in that period and now. The in the story sarcasm lies in a comparative analyses of the characters LaFosse and Pettigrew and the social norms of the time. This was a time when marriage was in-vogue; when being unmarried or single - at a marriageable age - was tantamount to curse or was a symptom of an amoral (or bacchanal) lifestyle. Yet, as genteel as she was, as upright as she was brought up to be, having never priorily lied, she never got a husband, until the day she gave up all these and immersed herself, fully, into that 'abhorrent' lifestyle.

The story was written from the point of view of Guinvere Pettigrew and was sectioned into the hours major incidences occurred. As these take place, Miss Pettigrew's confidence grows in tandem. Though there were times that Pettigrew's near mendicancy morphed her into idiocy; but this does not take away from the story. It rather provided it with its humour. Finally, there is a movie to this book though the movie isn't loyal to the book. After watching the trailer, I prefer the book. This is a quick-read and readers would enjoy it; female readers the most.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

213. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient (Vintage International, 1992; 302) by Michael Ondaatje is a story about four people set in the period of the second World War in North Africa and Italy: an enigmatic figure referred to simply as The English Patient, because he claims to be English but who was later revealed to be Count Ladislaus de Almásy, an Indian - Kirpal Singh (or Kip, the sapper) an expert in locating and defusing bombs, a young nurse, Hana, whose father died in the war and a Canadian thief, Hana's father's friend, Caravaggio.

Almásy or the English Patient arrived at hospital burnt and without identification except a copy of annotated book of histories by Herodotus. Revealing nothing to anyone, Hana became interested in his situation, perhaps seeking redemption for his father's death. When the hospital was moved away from the monastery-turned-hospital to a more appropriate place in another town where there would be facilities and equipment to cater for the sick, Hana chose to stay with the English Patient because she deemed him too frail to be moved. The two were later joined by Kip and Caravaggio. As the English Patient began to speak and to share his story, his vast knowledge surprised them. And Caravaggio suspected that there is more to the English Patient than he is revealing. He connived with Hana to give him more morphine so that he could question him for his story. Caravaggio suspected that he is not English as he claims to be but Almásy who was being monitored by the English and Allied Forces for helping a German spy cross the desert into Egypt.

The stories of the others feed into Almásy's story. His knowledge of the desert is impeccable and came about as he denounced country and borders and became a man of the desert. Telling his story in flashbacks, he told of his adulterous relationship with his friend's wife, Katherine Clifton. And how the husband, Geoffrey Clifton, finding about the relationship between the two, set on a murder-suicide mission that killed the both husband and wife but which burnt him. 

Almásy's story is told in a dreamlike manner, in vistas, in flashbacks. Ondaatje's Booker-Winning novel is a book that should be enjoyed. His poetic writing-style puts the reader in a sort of relaxed state whilst unfurling the immediate devastation that have gone on. Every body has lost something to the war. The Indian lost a brother who opted for prison rather than help the English fight a war his country had no interest in. Caravaggio whose thieving skill was utitilsed in the war lost his thumbs and part of himself to the war. Hana lost his father and her innocence. But the English Patient lost the most: his freedom being the ultimate. This book subtly examines the thoughts and lives of people tortured by life. There is also a love story, a tensed one that almost wasn't, brewing at the background. This is a story that must be read for its beautiful writing and moving scenes.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

212. Home by Toni Morrison

There are some writers whose works conjure magic. Their control over words is ethereal; their use, quintessential, drawn from a deeper understanding and a personal relationship they have with them. These individuals become either linguists or storytellers; poets belong to such class of people. And Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison is an author whose oeuvre is worth a study. To describe the relationship between aficionados of Morrison's craft and Morrison, it would be important to paraphrase Sherman Alexie: what you write we'll read. 

In Home (Knopf, 2012; 147) Morrison continued her exploration of the lives of Black Americans during the time of segregation. Frank Money and his sister, his only sibling, Ycidra witnessed a burial, of a possible homicide. Now Frank Money has just returned from the Korean War with the horrors on his mind and the demons at his back. He is tormented by nightmares that sometimes cause him to behave insanely. In fact, it even led him to an incarceration. But Frank is on a mission. A mission to save her medically abused sister before she dies. And he must also fight his demons and overcome his nightmares.

Morrison employed two different narrative styles. First, written in italics, Frank is narrating the story of his life to an invisible biographer, perhaps the author, whom he addresses once a while. He is telling him what has happened and why are certain things as they are. But we quickly realises that Frank is not believable or dependable and this is because he admitted it himself. For in fighting his demons, he must first take responsibilities of things he had done. The second narrative style is the third-person limited point-of-view narrative that somewhat expatiates Frank's narrative.

Compared with her earlier books - Song of Solomon, Beloved, Sula, The Bluest Eyes; those I've read - this one seemed anaemic; however, it has its own strengths. It is a straight-to-the-point story and all those who complained about the expansive and opened-to-interpretation prose of the earlier books, especially the first two, will enjoy this. This is not saying that the prose in this book was compromised or watered-down but it includes not the paranormal, which has been a major feature of Morrison's stories.

All the same Home is great. It brings out a certain loneliness of life. It also shows the importance of family, of love, of communalism - features of many a Morrison book. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

211. July's People by Nadine Gordimer

It is apartheid South Africa. This time Blacks are up in arms, heavy arms, fighting the Whites. And the Russians and Cubans are here to help them. White South Africans are running for their dear lives. With nowhere to go, the Smales' family took the advice of their houseboy, a man they named July, following him to his family. July's People (Penguin, 1981; 160) is about the changes in the roles and the dynamics of Black-White relationships.

The Smales' are liberals whose relationship with South Africa Blacks in general and with their houseboy in particular is cordial and non-discriminatory. However, they were forced to analyse this view when it dawns on them that, though liberals as they are they could not speak any of the native's language whereas the apartheidists or their followers could and therefore found it difficult communicating with July's people. They never also did actually ask July of his real name. They just named him as such. How liberal is one if he refuses to allow the other to bear his own name? Is there a human without a name?

It was at July's home that the Smales saw how privileged their lives were and how much they took for granted. There on the farm, whereas the natives lived freely on and off the land, unaware of any other way life could be lived, the Smales were working around on the necessary adjustments required to be made in the absence of such things as tissues, proper clothes, their privacy and more. The scatological effects of their adjustments are at par with the behaviours of the incarcerated blind folks in Jose Saramago's Blindness. The Smales' remembrance of their past lives and their realisation of the lives their kinds have carved for the natives in their country led them to repudiate, further, the actions of their kind.

On the farm, with his people, July - who had always obeyed, never retorted - now has to be the man his family wants them to be and also the servant of the Smales. The balance between this two extreme spilled over sometimes; for even though the Smales were fully prepared to take things into their own hands, working  or looking for their own food, washing their own clothes, service has become a habit for July or Mwawate. Yet, through his replies to some questions, and seldom outbursts, Mrs Smales was able to perceive July's opinions of them; that some thing exist beyond the Yes-Sirs.

Though almost every Black man was seen to participate in the fight, from the blacks in the Force to civilians, there were dissensions. Nadine never assumed that all natives were on the same page and in agreement to the course. Those who were most against the uprising were the native Chiefs who were of the view that those behind the insurrection would take their kingdoms away from them, and this is what the apartheidist government had told them. These egoistic thoughts have been the bane of African unity. Now Bam and Maureen, liberals as they were, must decide on whose side they were: the Chief's, who supports the Whites, or the freedom fighters. Now as the Chief was trying to recruit the service of Bam Smales in case the uprising gets to his land, July who refused to join his people in the insurrection against Whites - choosing rather to lead his employers into safety - must now avoid joining the Chief to fight the blacks. In this war, of good and of evil, there is no 'no-choice'. These dilemmas of the Smales and of July give flesh to Archbishop Desmond Tutu oft quoted statement that 'if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. In an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality'.

This novel offered a possible trajectory the future for South Africans could take if things are not rectified; that is, if the apartheid is not destroyed; however, even though Blacks couldn't mount a sustained campaign on Whites, with arms, and therefore wrestle power as such, as it is in this story, their sustained demonstrations and fearlessness of death saw them win. 

This story is like a Zimbardoesque experiment. It studies human behaviour - adjustments and responses to stimuli - in different environments. It was as if Nadine was studying how a privileged White - who takes his privileges for granted - will behave when put into such a situation. Were the Smales supporters of the government, every bit of schadenfreude would have transformed into psychological insecurity of suicidal tendencies. 

The language was sparse, the dialogue - without quotation marks, without the 'he said' 'she said' to identify the speaker - was open to the reader's own interpretation; a lot was left unsaid. There were pauses between questions and responses. This, together with Nadine's minimalist touch, helped create the required tension between the couples, Bam and Maureen, which moves the story.

Once again, Nadine's prose was gratifying though it wasn't as dense as either The Conservationist or Burger's Daughter. With her keen sense of observation and deeper understanding of the human condition and the workings of the mind, writing from within the character's mind, Nadine has shown why she is an authority when it comes to South Africa's apartheid literature. Like most of her books, July's People had been a victim of censorship in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. In Apartheid South Africa, it was was banned for being too liberal; in post-Apartheid South Africa it was removed, in 2001, from school curricula for being 'deeply racist, superior and patronising.' It is highly recommended.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

210. Diaries of a Dead African by Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.

Chuma Nwokolo's Diaries of a Dead African (Villager House, 2003; 193) is a story of two generations - a father and his two sons - spanning over just a month and recorded in one three-authored diary. The story is about their lack and their nothingness and their uselessness in the midst of plenty. It is also about human, and in general societal, behaviour towards the less privileged in society.

Meme is the patriarch. A patriarch who has nothing. Except a cheating wife and two sons, of whom he might not even be their sire and who hate him for his poverty. He also has two tubers of yams, what was left after his wife took all his yams in a certain mathematical equation of ten yams to every son born to him (including the three who passed away), and Meme must survive on these for the remaining weeks before the yam festival is celebrated and the ban on yam-harvesting is officially lifted. Now Meme faces several obstacles: the wickedness of the people working in connivance with the fate. As the tubers finished serving their purpose of putting hunger at bay, even though he ate sparingly, Meme began to set traps in the bushes. But people made it their duty to steal the animals his contraption trapped. When nothing will work, when he won't get anything from the sale of his meagre properties and he won't get any food item on credit, he set out to take vengeance for himself.

Meme could be described as a fatalist. One could say that there were other options aside what he chose. Besides, he could have remained deaf to the villagers' names and songs composed for him and lived his life. But when fate deals you a hand, it leaves you with no option and Meme knew this. At harvest time, when all that people harvested that year was rotten yam, Meme knew that his end has finally come. There's nothing he could do. But then he wouldn't go down alone. He must take with him some of the people who had a hand in his situation; people who had cheated him at different points in time and who contributed to his condition.

Meme is a symbolic representation of frustration without cure, of dead-ends. He was like bitumen boiling in a vent-less barrel. His life was a cul de sac; when he got to the end he knew there was no way out. He knew it, the end. And he accepted it, its finality. Was he justified to go down that route? Was there no other option? These are questions for the moralist to pore over, not for the man who was living that life and was fed-up with the jokers life kept dealing him.

The most interesting thing about this story is not its credibility. It is the nature of the prose and the humour packed within its pages. It is also about the human condition. Besides, those who haven't seen poverty before might have a different opinion but for those who have and have lived it, this book tells their story. For nothing seems to work for the poor. When Calamatus, a name coincidentally given, came home to bury his father, all that he inherited was his father's diary, gun, and an incendiary end. In this diary was his father's intimate confessions. Calamatus came to understand his father; even loved him. For he set out to give his father a befitting burial, one deserved of a man of importance. Calamatus is rich; he is 419-rich. He would later face a series of tragedies and would go down the same route as his father.

Calama was not like his father, Meme. He was rich, regardless of the source. He earned respect and worship because of that. He did great things: purchased cars and began putting up a big house on his father's compound. Thus, it is mind-boggling to see him end the way his father did. These characters - Calama and Meme - represent two sides of the same coin. Whereas Meme was shamed by his financial impotency and the emptiness of his life's quiver, Calama was shamed by what people said, would say, thought, would think when they got to know he was physiologically impotent. Consequently, they both decided on the same end, the son's decision likely to have been influenced by the father's. Broadly, their behaviour shows how different people put different emphasis on things that affect them. Calama also provides another level of poverty. It's not just financial.

Abel is Calamatus' elder brother. He is nothing like Calamatus. He is calm, but he has his past, and even a present. He is an ex-convict working to be a writer (though he's published nothing of note). However, whereas Calama was bold and forthright, Abel was a living lie. In the present he was getting embroiled in deadly local politics. He is also the beneficiary of Calamatus' ill-acquired wealth. And, of course, its concomitant problems. Now, hunted down by politicians in Calamatus' clique he must escape his home or be killed and must also outwit the scammers (419ers) if he is not to sign his death warrant. Abel will be on the run, but will come back home to Calama's and Meme's diary and the former's stalled development. And to a man with vengeance in his heart.

Abel's life was one of repudiation. He repudiated Calama's wealth and Meme's poverty. He was carting a path but that path led nowhere, for fate is not a thing to be outwitted easily. It is like a maze puzzle, wherever you cut you end up in the same puzzle. In the end he must come home to call the tune or pay the piper. However, though he was also fatalistic, when death stared at him in the face, the effect of Calama's business, he took fate by its horn and chose life and another adventure.

Throughout the story, it was Stella, Meme's wife and Abel's and Calama's (unlikely) mother, who ended on the right side of everything. Her repudiation of Meme for her long-time boyfriend - a rich vulcaniser - worked well for her, regardless of how the moralists or purists interpret her actions. Life is basically about survival and choices. Again, all through the story, one thing was clear: the love of money transcends all else. From the 'mugu' (or investor) in the US who wants to benefit from several millions of dollars by just providing a bank accounts, to the village chief who will sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. This being the crux of the story: our loss in our attempt to gain.

About the author: Chuma Nwokolo is a writer, advocate and publisher of African Writing. His books include Diaries of a Dead African, Memories of Stone (Poetry Collection) and Ghosts of Sani Abacha (a collection of short stories). He also has two titles in the Pacesetters series. His short story, Quarterback and Co, was anthologised in the maiden edition of African Roar anthology

Read about the author here.

Friday, December 07, 2012

209. Fury by Salman Rushdie

I read Fury (Random House, 2001; 259) as an introduction to Salman Rushdie. It was to prepare me for the author's two major works I have on my shelf: Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children. However, I don't know if the book did what I wanted it to do. Having heard a lot about Midnight's Children - winning the 1981 Booker and the Best of the Booker twice (for the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the award), the idea is to enter it fully prepared with the author's prose-style so that I will enjoy it completely because I also know people have read it and not liked it. Fury was therefore meant to be the introductory text to Rushdie, for me.

The story is about a fifty-five year Professor Malik Solanka, a Cambridge philosopher, who leaves his wife and a learning-to-talk son in London for a completely new life in New York. An anomie of sorts; though not religious.  The story follows all the things that happened to him, finding love and losing it and finding love again and then losing it again. The friends he makes, dangerous people compared with his personality and where he was coming from and even the motive of his emigration out of London and the desertion of his family. The man himself carries his demons with him; demons that have been with him since childhood and which wouldn't leave him wholly unless he confronted them head-on. In New York, he would first meet a girl who would reinforce those demons and another who would bring him out. 

However, the outward interpretation or manifestation of this miasmic goo of fury that hangs upon the Professor's head like a halo brings him financial rewards. And ironically, these dolls - his creation - would go on to represent everything about contemporary pop culture that he detests; the things that make the capitalist tick. And in New York, the doll-making continued, taking over the internet gaming industry. With a mix of web and pop lingua, Rushdie sought to portray his understanding of contemporary New York and its subcultures using landmarks, popular names and political incidents to stake the reference period.

In the story, fury is almost a character hanging over the lives of the people. It is also the rage of a man in his mid-life when he finds out that there is nothing he can change. That he is impotent about his situation or lacks the capacity to change things. The part where Malik followed the beautiful Neela to Lilliput-Blefuscu reads like science-fiction. It detracted from the story and if it was done to put some 'pace' and 'action' into the novel, then it failed. Here suicidal Malik had followed the head-turner of a beauty to Lilliput-Blefuscu on her mission to help her people in their revolt against the government. The old professor was on a retrieval mission.

In the end, the tormented professor would come back, after the failed mission, to his son but will not get his wife, who had, early on, consistently begged for his return unaware of the knife incident that caused her husband to desert them. 

A good satire, of the grey type, and humorous as well but perhaps not the introduction I was expecting. Nevertheless, I will go ahead and read those two books.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

208. The Place We Call Home and other Poems by Kofi Anyidoho

The most difficult to review literary genre is anthologies and within this subgenre, poetry anthologies are at the top. The difficulty increases exponentially when the author is a revolutionary, an avant-garde with a recherche oeuvre. And Kofi Anyidoho, one of Ghana's foremost poets - those aficionados and promoters of oral poetry, that quintessential African literary style - is a member of the intersection set. 

Kofi Anyidoho's The Place We Call Home and Other Poems (Ayebia-Clarke, 2011; 94 - Foreword by Femi Osofisan, Afterword by Veronique Tadjo) is a collection of thirty-four (34) poems in three movements. The poems in each movement is threaded together by one theme written from multiple dimensions. Movement One is titled Homage; poems in this movement, including the titular poem, The Place We Call Home, deal with remembrance. But remembrance of a different kind. It is the remembrance of an old man, in the twilight of his life - just before he steps into the other side; of his youthful days, his lost friends, his loneliness; of change, of things that are no more. Remembrance of things past. The theme poem, which concludes the Movement One, with its "...these Shores", "...these Lands" points to a definite place, one's place of origin. It is also about coming home to a primeval place, a place of freshness, of fulfilment, for replenishment. There is a feeling of uncontrollable romanticism about this piece. Deservedly so.

However, Kofi's remembrance is not just of the lost decades of one's youth, the change that cannot be changed. It also includes the remembrance of those who have crossed over. The path-makers, those with eyes, those who did the extra-ordinary things. Kofi pays homage (remember the title of this Movement) to Africa's ancestors for our present and our future. In these poems, he is the unqualified humble linguist who ask for help from those, our ancestors, who have it in abundance in order to address them. Ancestral Roll-Call is an example. In this poem, Kofi is the linkage between the ancestors and the living, addressing the former what the latter have whispered into his ears. The ancestors here also include less known names like Pedro Alonzo Nino, Estavanico and others.

Movement Two, titled CountDown to GroundZero, takes on the wider world. Here he tackles the insanity of war and killing and man's unexplainable passion for it. Kofi does not pretend to have the solutions. He is as amazed as we all are and through the writing of facts he exposes the viscera of our morbid affinity for death and harm. Poems in this Movement go as far back as the first America-Iraqi war, monikered 'Operation Desert Storm' to the second America's invasion of Iraq after 9/11. In the first poem, appropriately titled Desert Storm, Kofi describes how the war played on the screens and how seemingly blood-thirsty octogenarians Generals, in shiny medals, passionately discuss war strategies in which younger souls were to perish. He refuses to see casualties as statistics. He attaches faces to them, like 'A widowed mother's only son' bleeding to 'Death in DesertStorms'. Kofi has no pity for these octogenarian Generals; he calls them 'InfantMen'; men whose obsession with war is akin to a teen's fascination and obsession with a new toy. He questions the irony and sarcasm, and possibly insult, embedded in the word 'Heroes' veterans are tagged with when they walk about with 'cracked souls', chased by the horrors of war. This incongruity of hero-worship is addressed in 'Hero'. Again, in The CapitolGang, he questioned why many young folks must die because of one person's hatred for another person. He begins the poem with 'For the Price of One Unpleasant Soul/ ... /they HighJacked a nation's Boast/ ArmBushed a people's Dream/ and scattered a Civilization's/ Priceless HeirLooms across the DesertStorm.

In 'nine-eleven', Kofi begins on a hopeful note; that regardless of the death they have wreaked upon a people 'There will be time again    for Loving'/ 'There will be time again    for Laughter' even if now 'Only the Hurt/ remains/ Only the Pain/ survives'. Kofi further expanded the borders of this Movement. He includes the victim, or one of the most prominent victims, Baghdad, in a poem of same title. Here he traces the fall and rise of Baghdad through history; how the city has come under assault by different marauding forces, Hulagu, Shah Ismail and his Safavid Persian Gang, Suleiman, among the few.

QuietTime is the title of Movement Three. This Movement addresses death and the final journey of life and the general loss or impotence in life. And hope. It's about those individuals who have left home for exile as much as those who have left to join the ancestors. It's also about retirement; and if one link this to Movement One, with its remembrances, then one gets an anthology that replicates the cyclical nature of life. This is the power of Anyidoho's works.

As an avant-garde, Kofi uses metaphors from home, making his work placeable and yet universal. By 'home' I mean that piece of the earth he identifies with and to which he returns and which defines his idiosyncrasies. This uniqueness and universality emanate from a heavy influence by the folkloric tales of home, which also feed into the rhythm and cadence of his works. For instance, in Agor, he tells of how age precedes royalty and hence, regardless of status, the latter must respect the former. This respect for anyone older than one is uniquely universal.

Other uniqueness of Anyidoho's works is how he set his words down. He uses compound words whose individual components are identified by the capital letter they begin with, not the usual hyphens. For example CrossRoads, DawnDreams etc. This style makes the reader see beyond the ordinary meaning of the words.  At other times, some of the words or phrases have wider than usual spacing.

Finally, his poems exudes hope. Even when he's denouncing or describing gloom, that miasmatic doom, hope is not far beyond. He finds it, and beauty, in unlikely places.

Attached to this anthology are two CDs carrying the author's recorded reading of his works. This is where the anthology comes alive. For in listening to the author read his poems, one is given the opportunity to appreciate the cadence and the rhythm of Kofi's works. Through technology, Anyidoho has resurrected the age-old tradition of oral literature, carried in songs and incantations, in Africa. For instance, some of the poems begin with a song sang in the author's language, which the reader - even if written down for him (which isn't the case) - might not be able to read or even deliver it expertly as the author. However, the reader will appreciate the songs even if he is clueless of their meanings.

Anyidoho's works are treasure items. This anthology is highly recommended.

Monday, December 03, 2012

207. The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore

The main purpose of reading this short stories anthology The Best American Short Stories 2004 (Houghton Mifflin, 2004; 462) edited by Lorrie Moore was to complete the 100 Shots of Shorts. The anthology, of twenty short stories, had both interesting and less interesting stories, some of them almost novella-length. 

Intransigently American, there are several of the stories whose appreciation is linked to the appreciation of the American culture and other sub-cultures. It reminded me of what Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, said in 2008, that "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature...That ignorance is restraining." I'm not a student of literature and so cannot say for certainty that these words are true but reading the stories, this statement crossed my mind.

Nevertheless stories like What You Pawn I Will RedeemTooth and Claw, Breasts, Gallatin Canyon, What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick, and Runaway stood out for me. Not that they were the best in the collection but they were the ones I could still remember strands and threads of. Reading Sherman Alexie's What You Pawn I Will Redeem and Nell Freudenberger's The Tutor just after reading Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss helped a lot. Alexie's story looked at the American Indian and not the India in America, like Biju. Yet, the similarities in their lives, the inherent attachment to tradition and to family was pronounced. And so too is their 'care-free' livelihood. Similarly, the relationship between Zubin and Julia, in Freudenberger's The Tutor, also reminded me of the relationship between Sai and Gyan in Desai's story.

Runaway by Alice Munro is about a woman who wants to both leave her husband and also stay with him. She gets help from a woman who has just been widowed, and who has 'more-than-friendship' love for her. But she could not complete the journey. Her dependency on her husband was clear; but what was also clear was a woman who act on whims and who isn't stable.

Overall, the collection has some memorable stories like the man who won a giant cat in a pub (in Tooth and Claw by T. Coraghessan Boyle); the man who lived on a generational ranch fighting both modernity (which came through oil-drilling, real estate development, fraud) and marriage to keep his inheritance from falling prey to the predatory investors (in What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick by Annie Proulx) and the hired killer who kept seeing vistas of beautiful women in his dreamy state (in Breasts).

Apart from the difficult with some of the stories, the anthology itself was worth the reading time.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

November in Review, Projections for December

In order to complete all those challenges with December 31, 2012 as a deadline, I needed to increase my reading rate. I did this in two ways. First, I read less chunky books and also increased the morning reading hours by waking up early. These two factors have cranked up my figures. I completed the 100 Shots of Shorts Challenge when I finished reading The Best American Short Story 2004, which I reported as read/being read in last month's activity review. Again, I'm just four (4) books, and a month, away from completing the 70 Books Reading Challenge. I set this challenge to push myself to read more books than I did last year, fifty-six (56). 

In all, the month was good. I read a total of eight (8) books which make up a total of 2,109 pages, an average of 70.3 pages per day. Four of the books were by females, three by males and one is a mix (an anthology). I read one non-fiction, one short story anthology, and two African books. Though I couldn't project all the books I wanted to read in November, the two that were were read. The following are the books I read in November and a brief notes on them:
  1. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This is a memoir about the author on her life in Iran during the revolution. It provides snapshots of what took place in the Iran after the Shahs were overthrown by the Ayatollahs. It is a memoir that relies heavily on books and hence 'a memoir in books'. Lolita is but one of the books.
  2. The Best American Short Stories 2004, edited by Lorrie Moore. I started reading this in October and reported it for that month; however, the quantity of the short stories in this anthology that I read in November forced me to shift it to November. There are several interesting stories in this collection. Stories like What Furniture will Jesus Choose, Tooth and Claw, If you Pawn I will Redeem, will interest the reader.
  3. Fury by Salman Rushdie. This was to be an introductory text to Salman Rushdie as I prepare to read his two famous books: Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children. It is about a middle-aged man in cultural anomie as he tries to identify (or define) himself in a rapidly changing world whose values keep shifting. He deserts love, finds love, loses it, finds it and loses it again. The vistas provided could aptly be described as a social commentary of contemporary America. It is similar, in some weird way - not the prose - to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.
  4. Diaries of a Dead African by Chuma Nwokolo, Jnr. This is a story of two generations involving three men - a man and his two sons - spanning a period of just over a month. The diary, a single item, that passed from one man to the other records their intimate aspirations, failures and impotencies. Chuma found humour in their tragedies.
  5. July's People by Nadine Gordimer. The story is set in South Africa's apartheid regime. In this story, the blacks were fighting the whites with heavy weaponry, with the help of the Cubans and Russians, and the white South Africans were scattering like disturbed ants, seeking refuge everywhere they could. The Smales sought protection from July's - their houseboy's - family. July is a family man and this book is about the dynamics of the relationship between master and boy in the boy's home. Like Gordimer's two other books, the dialogue is sparse though the prose is not as dense as the other two: The Conservationist and Burger's Daughter.
  6. Home by Toni Morrison. On someone commented on some form of similarity between July's People and Home. This is one of the reasons I read this book just after Gordimer's. Besides, Morrison is one of the authors I intend to read completely. This is her fifth book I've read following Song of Solomon, Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Sula. In Home, Frank Money has returned home from the Korean War with the horrors of the war hanging over his conscience, sometimes making him act like one who's crazy. He must overcome these troubles and his demons and must also search and rescue his only sibling Ycidra from medical abuse. An interesting, straight-to-the-point, book.
  7. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. This book won the 1992 Booker Prize. Written in poetic language, Ondaatje follows the story of a burnt and enigmatic man who claims to be English. As the English patient and the others exchange their stories about their role in the second World War, the lives they've lived prior to their meeting unfolds. And there is a love story in this one. A beautifully written story.
  8. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. This is a quick read even at 234 pages. Winifred's prose is enticing and makes for a fast read. Miss Pettigrew knows no other life apart from her genteel upbringing. When she was given the address of a young woman, Miss LaFosse, supposedly in need of a governess, Miss Pettigrew's whole perception of the life she knew and how it should be lived would collapse in a day's encounter. Funny, interesting, illuminating and sarcastic. I love this book.
These are the books I read in November and I enjoyed all of them thoroughly. Like I did last month, it will be difficult to project the entire reading list for December because I would have to be circumspect in my selection to complete the challenge. In addition to the one I'm currently reading Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, I might read:
  1. Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by Dorothy Sterling
  2. Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Funny enough I've always thought Cather to be a man, perhaps the 'Willa' and 'Cather' deceived me. The main reason I might read this book is that the synopsis is similar to Andre Brink's Praying Mantis.
I hope that I will complete all the challenges which must end on December 31, 2012. What did you read? Did you enjoy them? Are you meeting the reading goals and completing your challenges set earlier this year? What are the problems you're facing in completing them, if you are lagging behind? Let's talk.
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