Tuesday, July 31, 2012

July in Review, Projections for August

July was as good as June was and I read all the books I proposed to read. Four books were completed and I'm on the fifth. Including the current read, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, I read a total of 1,291 pages with an average of 42 pages per day. The following books were read:
  1. The Book Thief by Zusak Markus. This book can scarcely be described as a Young Adult book though the protagonist is a young girl. The book was narrated by Death and was written in a very novel way that imitates no one. If you should read one fiction, perhaps it should be this one.
  2. Diplomatic Pounds and Other Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo. Forget my dilemma, but if you should read only one anthology this year, read this. In this collection of twelve (12) short stories, Ama Ata Aidoo entrenches herself as a foremost writer in Africa and beyond. Her sense of style, voice and subject was superior. This story has been reviewed for a magazine.
  3. Cut off My Tongue by Sitawa Namwalie. I saw Sitawa perform her poems flawlessly in Uganda. The themes of this collection ranges from the stupidity of tribalism and ethnicism which politicians entrenches to love and identity. A bold presentation of worrying subjects.
  4. If I'm So Successful why do I feel Like a Fake - The Imposter Phenomenon by Joan C. Harvey with Cynthia Katz. This book deals with the psychological problem which most successful people face. These individuals, though successful, feel that their success could be attributed to other things but their ability. They see themselves not deserving what they have or what they have achieved and begin to wonder if they will be exposed in their next job. The IP could be seen in both work and personal life.
  5. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. This is the second Austen book I'm reading, though I am not enjoying it as much as I did Pride and Prejudice
The classification of books read are: novel (2); short story anthology (1); poetry anthology (1); non-fiction (1). 

Projections for August
I hope to read about six books to still keep on track with the 70 books target for 2012. I expect to read the following books:
  1. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks. A James-Bond novel that has been on my shelf since October 2010. It really has to move from the not-read section to the read section.
  2. Journey by G.A. Agambila. I started this book some time ago and dropped it without any reason. I hope to pick it up again.
  3. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. This book has also been on my shelf since September 2011.
  4. A Month and a Day & Letters by Ken Saro Wiwa. This book will be read for the Ayebia Challenge.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

185. The Rational Optimist - How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

For far too often people have had only apocalyptic forecasts for the world using variables of the time such as food production and energy sources; however, technology and innovation have proved to be our saving grace, shattering any prophecy of doom before it could materialise. Besides, people have shown to be resilience and have bounced back from the Great Depression and the Phytophthora famine. In Matt Ridley's book, The Rational Optimist - How Prosperity Evolves (Harper Perennial 2010; 453), he challenges these popular views that has become the accepted trend since man arrived on this planet to date. Using statistics and science he shows that the world today has lower rates of all vices and higher rates of all virtues.

By providing figures, he argues that trade is the major driver of economic development and prosperity and not government; according to him governments almost always stifle development. He seemingly lean towards the idea of globalisation. He challenges popular views that Africa could never come out of its impoverished state and Climate Change will destroy the world. Through this he pointed at some of conclusions Jim Gockowski and I came to when we studied effects on agrochemical use on the forest in the Western Region of Ghana. According to him going organic is a sure way of keeping a large part of the masses in hunger and this method of cultivation is detrimental to the forest.

Ridley based his arguments on a 200,000 years of history when exchange and specialisation began and when man moved from being a hunter-gatherer to a farmer and livestock holder. He showed how Malthus theory, hammered upon by several individuals, failed due to the Green Revolution and how the present day of an explosion in population is unfounded because population everywhere is declining and new crops are being produced - Genetically Modified Foods. Ridley talks about the collective mind as being the brain behind all innovations and struggle. He argues that if communities do not trade and live isolated lives, they lose the little technological advancement they have achieved and descend into primitive livelihood of subsistence.
Though this book tries to dispel any idea of pessimism by showing, broadly, that humans have escaped from worse predicament in previous times and they do so anytime there is freedom to trade without stifling laws, there are definitely some parts that I disagree with. Note that I am not an expert in anything here: First he writes 'The rapid commercialisation of lives since 1800 has coincided with an extraordinary improvement in human sensibility compared with previous centuries...' Here he attributes improvements in human lives with commercialisation; however, the fact that two or more variables are moving in the same direction or even in the same sinusoidal trend is no justification of causality. The variables themselves could be acted upon by whole different variable(s). In the above what caused what?

He also argued that people become less selfish or even more selfless and philanthropic when they become more rich, citing Bill Gates and Warren Buffet as examples. I have a problem with these. I think robbing Peter a pound to pay Paul a penny is not fair game and being kind to another for one's own selfish ends isn't selflessness. Some people become philanthropic by giving huge sums to charity because it lessens and helps their tax obligations to the state. Thus, billionaires will continue to do this irrespective of the moral standing on the issue. Again some of his arguments that large companies can't control governments is one I found very difficult to believe. It is true that large companies does not necessarily earn the economies of scale they are usually tipped to earn (Nassim Taleb also mentioned this in his book The Black Swan Event) and become frail and fragile and frightened, but they do control governments even if they don't have their way every time because governments have to balance delicately between the power of the people who puts them there and the power of those who maintain and fund them there. For instance, to whom did Obama's TARP help? Why were banks bailed with several trillions of  taxpayers' dollars only to reap all the profit into their own pockets less than a year later? Why is corporate tax almost always less than individual income tax, and why is it that governments are unable to reverse the situation? Who are those who spend billions of dollars to get bills passed and laws enacted that will help them? Why is it that when the Gun Control law in America came to an end and police officers agitated for its extension citing the benefits it has had, the president of the time George Bush, turned the ban and allowed people to wield heavy weaponry? Thus, improvements in life could not necessarily be linked to corporations; doing so would be discounting the natural and gradual organic improvement in the collective mind.

Regardless, Ridley make compelling arguments for his optimism that would put smiles on many a face. He is a strong believer in the world and its peoples ability to rise up to the occasion when they are needed most. If all he is saying are true and if his argument are true, then all the noisemakers, including Al Gore, are only blowing hot air. They need not be considered. But what the fears of the vociferous is the key driver of innovation (assuming that innovation is no longer serendipitous)? What will happen if we all sit on our haunches and fold our arms over our chests and declare that we are optimists and that life is good and that our current living poses no threat to anyone?

This book is a must read. Whether you believe it entirely, partially, or entirely disbelieve it, you will take something out of it after the read.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ayebia Clarke Reading Challenge

I've blogged about Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd in this post. In that post, I mentioned the idea of organising a reading challenge in line with Boston Bibliophile's Europa Challenge. The basic rule in this challenge is to read any book published by Ayebia Clarke. To see the books they have click here. The following are books I've read and reviewed on this blog, which are published (or have been republished) by them:
From now on any book I read published by Ayebia Clarke will count towards the challenge. If you are interested in books by African authors, let's get it on. Note that
  • There is no limit to the number of books: it could be one or two or more;
  • The book could be fiction or non-fiction;
  • It could be by an African or a non-African (usually a Caribbean).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

184. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

The Dante Club (Random House, 2003; 372) by Matthew Pearl is a literary fiction about real literary folks; consequently, it is a novel about a book or more specifically the translation of a book. The book was set in Boston, in the year 1865 - the period where most of the American literary scholars we hold in high esteem today were alive (and contemporaries).

Matthew achieves something with this novel that few writers are able to do with the same level of success. He turns a literary fiction with actual literary folks into a cliffhanger whodunit, balancing perfectly the requisite attributes of both genres. In the story, literary giants Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, J. T. Fields (the publisher of Ticknor and Fields) and George Washington Greene have formed the Dante Club to help their friend and writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to translate Dante's Divine Comedy from Italian into English. However, not everyone is in favour of Longfellow's obsession with Dante, especially the Harvard corporation, which was against it for two reasons. First, the board was against the a new language, Italian, supervening upon the classics, mainly Greek and Latin. The second objection was the mere idea of bringing Dante, who was exiled from his home country, and his ideas of punishment to America and American homes for the fear of corrupting Americans. Dr Augustus Manning as a member of the Harvard Corporation would do anything possible, including hiring a secret detective, to see to it that the translation came to no fruition. And there were many of Harvard's Brahmins who were against this project.

However, the Dante Club was not perturbed by these hinderances; they continued to meet every Wednesday evening to discuss the best line, the best word and how they all fit together. But even as they progressed relentlessly towards their set target, translating the Inferno, there was also another who was translating their work into reality, bestowing upon people he thinks deserves them those punishments described by Dante; so that after the translation of the neutrals, a judge was killed; after the simoniacs, a reverend was killed; and after the schimatics, a man who wanted a position on the Harvard board was killed. When members of the Dante Club, realised what was happening - that these killings were the exact descriptions in the Inferno - they knew they had to work together to stop it. Again, because Longfellow's translation of Dante must be completed and sent to an organisation in Italy working to celebrate the author's 600th birthday, he and his clique must, as a matter of necessity, work to solve these Dante murders before it becomes public knowledge, which will likely smother any interest the translation might ignite at its nascent stage. The problem now is, armed with only their knowledge of Dante's poem and its meaning, this gathering of senile literati, each with his own ambition and family problem, must work with Nicholas Rey, an outcast mulatto police officer. And there is an Italian, Pietro Bachi, a former lecturer at Harvard, whom they must deal with.

First one must know that several of the events in the novel are facts and even where the author took literary freedom to fictionalise, he did so based on facts present at the time. For instance, there was an actual Dante Club made up of the members mentioned and more. The amount of research that went into the writing of this book is mind-boggling. Take Dan Brown's canvass and Arturo Perez-Reverte Gutierrez paints and add great amount of ingenuity and you will get The Dante Club. The story explored the 1860s version Boston and Cambridge. It shows how educational institute could be backward and inimical to the very idea they tend to propagate. For there were book burning by Brahmins of the institute. And here one will note that we have not come that far, for though there are few book burning, there are rampant book banning. The serendipity which governs the life of authors and books could also be clearly seen in this novel. What would have happened had Longfellow not immersed himself, therapeutically, into the translating of Dante? Will Dante be this famous? Will the Divine Comedy still be read today? 

This book is recommended.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Introducing Ayebia-Clarke Publishers

For those of us bibliophiles in Ghana in particular and those in Sub-Saharan Africa, whatever this handed-down geographic description means, in general but excluding South Africa, the quest of getting quality books of authors within the sub-region could be as daunting as climbing Mount Everest. In fact, such books are hardly available. Sometime past, this gap was filled by the African Writers Series of the Heinemann Publishers. Through this company, books such as Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Armah's The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born got a huge following. And most of today's African writers we hold in high esteem were discovered or published by Heinemann.

However, today, Heinemann are no longer publishing new African writers. What they seem to be doing is reprinting or republishing old stories. For instance, they have recently reprinted Armah's The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born. In their absence, a gap was created and a dire need for its closure arose. South Africa, per their economic realities did not suffer much for there exist in that country several publishing firms; however, their distribution networks hardly get to those of us in West Africa, especially Ghana. Again, Nigeria, known for its great writers like the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, the Man Booker International  winner Chinua Achebe, the playwright Ola Rotimi, poet John Pepper Clark, had also seen a nascent proliferation of publishing firms. Cassava Republic and Fafarina, to name a few. The effect of this is the high concentration of Nigerian and South African writers on any longlist of awards for African writers. A case in point is the recent Wole Soyinka Prize; the Caine Prize and others could also be cited.

In comes Ayebia-Clarke Publishers. This publishing house is gradually taking the proverbial bull by its curlicue horns. According to the publishing house they 'are bespoke publishers specialising in quality African and Caribbean writing.' This focus has awarded Ayebia-Clarke a niche within which to place their business. In fact, several books have already been released by them, some of those have been reviewed here on ImageNations. And with a focus on unearthing new and diverse creative talent, we are sure to read interesting stories from them.

As a blog geared towards the promotion of African Literature it is imperative that such noble ventures are supported in any way possible for in Ghana most publishing houses are text-book-inclined. In view of this, in days or weeks to come, I will be launching the Ayebia-Clarke Reading Challenge in line with Boston Bibliophile's Europa Challenge as an addition to this year's several challenges. There will be no demands or limitations. All that is required is to read a book published by Ayebia-Clarke.

Read more about Ayebia-Clarke here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Library Additions

This year I've been slow on the book-purchasing front. Very slow. However, I've been lucky to have been gifted with some books. The first three books have all been read and were purchased in Tanzania. My reminder of that country. The following are books I've come to possess but which I haven't shared with you:
  • The Black Swan - the Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book is about how important some events are and how to protect yourself against them, especially Black Swan events that occur in Extremistan. I hope this will mark the beginning of my slight shift towards non-fiction. 
  • The Rational Optimist - How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley. This book challenges the usual perception of a deteriorating world, of a world heading toward destruction. It gives hope back by figures and examples. It shows how prediction of doom have failed to materialise - beginning far before Malthus prophecy - and yet people will not stop predicting.
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This is a bittersweet book about the life of a young girl during Nazi invasion and the World War II. The story is narrated by Death.
The following set of books were purchased in Uganda and have not yet been read. Both are poetry anthologies:
  • Cut off My Tongue by Sitawa Namwalie. I watched Sitawa and another poet perform almost the entire poems in this book at the Ugandan Museum. That performance could possibly be the most memorable literary night I've ever had.
  • Unjumping by Beverly Nambo Nsengiyunva. Purchased it at the same programme.

The following sets of books are gifts I received from friends and publishers:
  • Home by Toni Morrison. This will go to helping accomplish the quasi-challenge of reading the entire books of Toni Morrison, one of my favourite writers.
  • The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. "The book it is necessary to read next. After a few pages I immersed myself gladly and gratefully. There is nothing superfluous here, everything this book contains is essential. It is wonderfully pure, and beautifully translated... I was impressed" - Saul Bellow
  • A Month and a Day and Letters by Ken Saro-Wiwa (Foreword by Wole Soyinka). Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the military government of Sani Abacha in Nigeria and though it became clearer that it was politically motivated as he spoke loudly for his Ogoni people against the environmental degradation by the petroleum industry.
  • Traces of Life - A Collection of Elegies and Praise Poems by Abena P.A. Busia. Promises to be interesting, even at a glance.
  • The Place We Call Home and other Poems by Kofi Anyidoho (and two CD narration of the poems by the author). Fantastic!
  • Diplomatic Pounds and Other Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo, my second copy. This is a twelve-story anthology that subtly explores and questions some of those things we hold onto in the name of tradition.
  • Fathers and Daughters - An Anthology of Exploration, edited by Ato Quayson. The authors in this anthology will blow you away.
I will be reviewing all these books on this blog. Let me know if you have read any of these.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

183. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable* (Random House, 2007; 444) is a revolutionary book that spares no word to describe how nonsense the tools of probability are in forecasting the most important events in the world today like the Financial Crisis, the advent of computers and many such events which all exist in extremistan. Nassim Taleb divides the environs within which events occur into two: mediocristan and extremistan. Mediocristan is where the usual rise and fall occurs. Events that occur in the world of extremistan are somewhat predictable and so their impact has less consequences. For instance, the population of a country in the year n+1 could be pretty well predicted; however, that a plane will fall from the skies and decimate a whole village is wholly unpredictable and these events have large consequences. A simple example given by Taleb is the 2008 Financial Crisis, something he wrote about even before it occurred. None of the highly-paid, Harvard-trained, navy-blue-suited Risk Analysts, vested in the mathematics of derivatives, could predict it leading to the collapse of large banks.

What Taleb is saying is that these tools we depend upon are helpless when it comes to the big things that matter. The invention of computer that changed the world was never predicted by anyone until it was invented. In fact, it's impact was never until today. Extremistan events are the five percent we leave out when we draw our 95% Confidence Interval using the Gaussian distribution. This Gaussian Distribution or the Normal Curve as it is widely known has assumed that events follow a pattern and that once an event falls outside that pattern it becomes an outlier. Yet these outliers, which according to Taleb exists solely in Extremistan, are those that shape the world. A backward glance through history is prove of this. However, because humans love to ascribe reasons and explain after the fact, we are likely to read reasons of their occurrence. The Black Death was never predicted but neatly explained.

Taleb defines a Black Swan event as 'an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.' The author-philosopher explained the three attributes of a Black Swan: 'First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.' (page xxii). The author continued 'A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives. Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing.' However, accessibility to information could make a difference in Black Swan events. Thus an event could be a Black Swan to one person and an entirely White Swan (predictable) to another. Take an instance (this was used in the book) of a farmer who feeds a turkey for 999 days and kill the turkey on the 1000th day. Anyone who observes the first 999 days cannot possibly predict that the life of the turkey will end on the 1000th day. In fact, to the turkey death is a Black Swan but not to the farmer.

According to Taleb there is this kind of epistemic arrogance with men. When man comes into contact with a piece of knowledge, he behaves as if he knows everything and so could predict everything. In fact, Malthus predicted that population growth will be higher than food production leading to catastrophe. To Malthus, the invention of fertiliser and the coming of the green revolution was a Black Swan event. Most human inventions has arrived serendipitously including the two main ones in twenty-first century: mobile phones (communication) and computers. Almost every forecast about what the future will be like has been wrong because past events, which is what forecasters depend and what statisticians love most, do not account for the sudden discovery of an innovation that will totally change the course of events. History is replete with those who have been fooled by randomness. 

Taleb's thoughts are revolutionary and will make you think of markets and trade and forecasts in a different way. It makes nonsense of the economics establishment that is so fond of their Econometrics and forecasting tools of Probability. How then could one prepare himself against Black Swan events? Knowing there is a probable Black Swan in an area is good enough to protect yourself. This is a man who benefitted greatly from his postulates during 2008 Financial Crisis. And he knows what he is talking about. Above all he doesn't make the book too academic. There are directions for those not articulate in the mechanics to skip certain chapters. The chapters flow from reader-friendly basic English to more academese and other subject jargons. His views are gradually been accepted by the guardians of the academic establishment who are the hardest hit by them. People who criticised him had come to accept his theories and those who still throw arrows at him do so from arrogance and pride that academic miseducation breeds. In fact he is now mostly in demand by NASA and co.

In effect, I am telling you - whether you love economics or not, whether you are a student of that amorphous subject called statistics or not - to read this. It is that important. And it will change your thinking. Highly recommended. In the end
The Black Swan is about consequential epistemic limitations, both psychological (hubris and biases) and philosophical (mathematical) limits to knowledge, both individual and collective. I say "consequential" because the focus is on impactful rare events, as our knowledge, both empirical and theoretical, breaks down with those - the more remote the events, the less we can forecast them, yet they are the most impactful. So The Black Swan is about human error in some domains, swelled by a long tradition of scientism and a plethora of information that fuels confidence without increasing knowledge.' (Page 330) .... [F]rom this definition, we can see that it [The Black Swan] is not about some objectively defined phenomenon like rain or a car crash - it is simply something that was not expected by a particular observer. (Page 339)
Nassim Taleb is the author of Fooled by Randomness (2001) and The Bed of Procrustes (2010)
*This is the Second Edition which had a new section: On Robustness and Fragility.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Longlist for the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa Announced

The Lumina Foundation, in partnership with Globacom, has announced the longlist of the 2012 Edition of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. The Prize, worth US$ 20,000, was established in 2005 by The Lumina Foundation, as a Biennial Award to the best literary work produced by an African. It assess works by African authors selected within the two years preceding the award year. The prize was last won by Kopano Matlwa and Wale Okedira for their novels Coconut and Tenants of the HouseThe Longlisted books are:
  1. The Beauty I Have Seen by Tanure Ojaide
  2. Bitter Chocolate by Toyin Adewale Gabriel
  3. The Other Country by Hyginus Ekuwuazi
  4. The Book of the Dead by Kgebetli Moele
  5. The Unseen Leopard by Bridget Pitt
  6. On Black Sister's Street by Chika Unigwe
  7. The African American by Dike-Ogu Chukwumerije
  8. Roses and Bullets by Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo
  9. Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe
  10. The Colour of Power by Marie Heese
  11. Pride of the Spider Clan by Odili Ujubuonu
  12. The Lazarus Effect by HJ Golakai
  13. Fallout by Sue Rabie
  14. The Thin Line by Arja Salafranca
  15. Only a Canvas by Olushola Olugbesan
The Shortlist would be out in August and the winner will be announced on September 8, 2012. What is clear is that the award will be won by either a Nigerian or a South African or any combination of the two as the longlist is made up of only these two West and South African countries. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

182. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye (Plume, 1970; 216) by Toni Morrison is one great of a read, just like all of the other Morrison's novels I've read. Like the others, this story deals with the socioeconomic and political dynamics of blacks, post-Emancipation. It also deals with identity, acceptance and placement through the lives of a given family, usually with an eccentric and idiosyncratic strong female character. 

The Bluest Eye which is Morrison's first novel deals with the identity and acceptance issues. It deals with a young girl who has been praying to God to make her eyes blue and when she thought she has got it, she wondered if she had the bluest eye in the world. However, the story is more than just an eleven-year old girl's quest for 'the bluest eye of all'; it also deals with the social dynamics: the role of men in the black family, the behaviour of the larger community and their effects on families. How Pecola - the young girl in question - was raped and impregnated by her father - Cholly, how society's reaction to this misdeed led her to lose her sanity in a way, how her friends rejected her and how people described her as ugly. Her ugliness wasn't only physical. It was deemed to be more than that, for she had no one to play with. 

This sort of inferiority complex, began in this book, would later permeates most of Morrison's prose. The Breedloves are a quarrelsome lot including engaging in physical fights. Both Pauline - Pecola's mother - and Cholly had their complexes. Cholly for instance was abandoned by his father when he got his mother pregnant. As a young boy, he was caught having sex with a young girl by a group of white boys who forced him to continue the act whilst they laugh. There his hatred of himself and of women will begin. This worsened when he went in search of his father who would turn the boy away in so harsh a tone and disregard for his being that the young Cholly would unknowingly defecate on himself. Pauline herself had suffered as a young girl with a shrivelled foot. She is somewhat an outcast. The story was narrated by Claudia McTeer as a child and as an adult. This first person narrative, narrated from a distance, alternates with an omniscient narrative.

Though the story concentrates on Pecola and her quest, the influential role played by Soaphead Church (or Elihue Micah Whitcomb), a man from 'aristocratic' background but who had almost descended into lunacy. Soaphead has become a trickster, a fortune teller, who grants people their quest, and a pedophile. It was he who granted Pecola's wish for blue eyes which later spiralled into insanity.

On the whole, Morrison through this novel, has questioned us why don't we like what we have or who we are? Why must we go to all lengths to change our features? For had Pecola lived today, she might have sought salvation in the colourful contact lenses and cosmetic surgery that abound. She would have had a boob-job, a butt-job, a jaw-job, a nose-job and might have spent countless sums of money, if she could afford, on skin-toning creams, human-hair weave-ons or hair-straightening creams. The question of identity has raged for a long time and there is no sign that it will be ending soon. With several Africans now spotting green and blue eyes, it is clear that there is no letting down. This was one of the themes in Zadie Smith's White Teeth, where it was stated that blacks spend - on average - more money on creams and hair products than whites. All in a bid to look like whites.

For those who haven't as yet read this book, read it. It deserves your time. In fact, anything Morrison does.

Monday, July 09, 2012

181. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald*

The Great Gatsby (Scribner, 1925; 214) was read for the 'difficult to read' section of the Top 100 Books challenge. The story is pitiful but interesting. It tells of real human nature and how money attracts friends like flies to honey but troubles dispels them like a repellent. 

In this story set in New York, the enigmatic Gatsby has moved into the neighbourhood, possibly to get closer to his childhood lover, Daisy, who is now married. He is now rich and throws several parties in the hope that Daisy, to whom Nick is related through her husband Tom, would pass through. He lives in the same neighbourhood as Nick Carraway and the Buchanans (Daisy and Tom). Tom himself loves fan and cheats on his wife with the wife of an old friend of his. Finally, Gatsby - through Nick - invited Daisy to his plush mansion. Daisy is now in between thoughts; however a series of events would lead to several deaths, including Gatsby. And there, he would be left alone.

The distance between the read and the review was so long, and the time taken up by several activities that only the general story is still in my head. Thus, this review is going to be the shortest ever. What I remember however is that the narrative style created a distance between the narrator, Nick, and the main character, Gatsby. I also saw a lot of human failings and people who acted upon incomplete or inaccurate information. In the end, I found myself pitying Gatsby for the extremes of his love toward Daisy and the childish ways he carried his love. I hated, extremely, the way the Buchanans, especially Daisy, take advantage of everybody and everything. Tom was a coward who couldn't confront and compete in anything; jealous of anyone who got closer to his wife yet was the first to cheat on him.

Another thing I hazily remember was that I enjoyed the story, thoroughly.
* The Authorized Text edition

Thursday, July 05, 2012

June in Review, Projections for July

Admittedly, my reading has declined. It happens. And it has happened to me. Of the four books and five short stories scheduled for reading in June, only one book was read (though that wasn't the only book read); the five short stories were all read. Again, I was below the minimum 50 pages a day target; the total pages for June stood at 1347, giving a 44.9 pages per day. This statistics include cheating, since I have included the book I am currently reading (started in June). Another reason, apart from just to increase my June statistics, is to force me to read frequently and rapidly in July. I hope it does. The following books were read (one is being read):
  1. The Black Swan - The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is the best non-fiction book I have read all time. It disproves and renders useless several of the things we are taught at graduate school especially Econometrics and Statistics and all those forecast tools we are used to. It distinguishes between two environs: mediocristan and extremistan. According to Taleb, none of the tools we have can deal with events in extremistan and these are the Black Swan events whose impacts have deeper and far-reaching consequences and it is extremistan that determines the direction or course the world takes. An extremistan event is the financial crisis which sent many large banks into bankruptcy and out of business.
  2. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. This is a literary fiction in the strictest sense of the word. It is a book about the writing or translating of a book. Set in 1865 Boston, The Dante Club traces Longfellow and his friends as the former translates Dante's Divine Comedy into English. As the process was going on, somebody was also translating Dante into reality, bestowing upon people the punishments Dante described seeing as he descended into Hell led by Virgil. And Longfellow, Lowel, Holmes, Fields and Green are the only ones who can investigate and arrest the perpetrator and this must be done against the Harvard establishment which was against the book's translation. The volume of research that went into this book is great and it is worth the read. Imagine a filtered Dan Brown novel in a literary setting crossed with Arturo Perez-Reverte Gutierrez.
  3. The Rational Optimist - How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley. The title of this book is deceptive. It has nothing to do with 'how to become rich', which is what those who have seen me and expressed interest about it always think. It is about how the world has moved on from the ancient to now. It explains how the world is getting better and people are becoming richer. It challenges the usual pessimistic attitude people have regarding the future. There are several debatable points in the book though and every reader will have his opinion. I am still reading this book but will want to count it as read.
To be ahead of the Caine Prize Organisation's announcement of the winner of their annual short story competition I set out to read and review all the shortlisted stories.
  1. La Salle de Depart by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo
  2. Hunter Emmanuel by Constance Myburgh
  3. Urban Zoning by Billy Kahora
  4. Bombay's Republic by Rotimi Babatunde
  5. Love on Trial by S.O. Kenani
The winner of the ten thousand pound prize was announced on July 2, 2012 and, like I predicted, it went to Rotimi's Urban Zoning.

I am changing my reading objective, not radically or entirely but gradually, towards non-fiction. It could be the reason why I read two non-fiction in June. I hope to continue with this trend but not forgetting my first love. This direction my mean that my African focus might be slightly watered down; again, not entirely and not radically. It is possible that you might not even notice any change. I can only mention one or two books I definitely will read in July:
  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  2. Cut off my Tongue by Sitawa Namwalie
  3. If I'm so Successful, why do I feel like a fake - The Impostor Phenomenon by Joan C. Harvey with Cynthia Katz.
I've gone beyond the two; yes, I know. I hope to bounce back to active reading. What did you read and how has your reading been so far with half the year gone?

Mid Year Review
I joined and set several challenges this year in a bid to boost my reading rate and to challenge me to go beyond the limit. Kinna and I set a target of 100 or more Short Stories and 70 books. So far I'm 70 percent (base of 100) through the 100 short stories and 53 percent through the 70 books. 

I have also completed two challenges: the Chunkster Challenge, where I chose the Chubby Chunkster level which required the reading of 4 books above 450 pages, and the Africa Literature Reading Challenge. However, I am still far behind (39%) the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge even though this is a five-year challenge.

In all I have read 37 books and 15 single stories (that is short stories that are not part of any anthology and stand on their own) at 9862 pages which gives an average of 54.5 pages per day. Let me not bore you with these statistics.

Have a wonderful reading in the second half of the year.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Rotimi Babatunde Wins the 13th Caine Prize for African Writing

Rotimi Babatunde has won the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing with his story Bombay Republic. His story was my choice to win the award after I read all the five selected stories. Read my thoughts here. Rotimi used a simple ex-soldier to write a multi-thematic story that could be appreciated from different angles.

According to the Chair of Judges, Bernardine Evaristo, 
Bombay's Republic vividly describes the story of a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma campaign of World War Two. It is ambitious, darkly humorous and in soaring, scorching prose exposes the exploitative nature of the colonial project and psychology of independence.
There is more to this story. In addition to exploring the psychology of independence, it further shows the causes of despotism. Read more from the Caine organisation here.

This ten-thousand pound award has become a tool for unearthing new African writers. The award was criticised for been narrow in its selection of works, described in certain quarters as poverty-porn, as winners. However, in the announcement of the 2012 Shortlist, the mission was to provide stories 'beyond the more stereotypical narratives'. And this was somewhat achieved.
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