Wednesday, August 31, 2016

New Books Acquired

Books are life. Good books are heavenly. A stack of books? - indescribable. The following are the books I have purchased since I last talked about new books I have acquired:

  1. The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician by Tendai Huchu. I came to know Tendai when he published The Hairdresser of Harare. I interviewed him then. And I have an interview with him on this new book, which I am yet to post here. I was therefore surprised to find that the book organization, of which I am a member, Writers Project of Ghana, has copies of his book for sale, courtesy Farafina. The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician was published in 2015. My interest in reading Tendai's second book is to really understand the path his writing will take.
  2. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. John Banville describes the book as "unlike anything I have read in recent years, an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement." It has been considered as a great American novel. The great Harold Bloom described it as one of the best 20th Century American novel. That's enough for a purchase.
  3. The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. So there is no reason to buy this apart from the zeal to read more by this author later.
  4. The Struggle Continues by Kwame Nkrumah. Who would not want to read anything by Ghana's first president? He is one of the few presidents of his time who understood how the system worked. This was Osagyefo's last book and was published posthumously.
  5. Emigrant by G. A. Agambila. The author's reading of the book was funny. This is not a book I would have originally selected though I have read the author's other book Journey, which I did not particularly enjoy. However, I am giving this a gamble before I decide on the author completely.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

301. Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Every Day is for the Thief (2007; Cassava Republic) by Teju Cole is an interesting story that is difficult to categorise, if you are one in love with such mundane activities. In some aspects it is a novella - Teju says: "Every Day is for the Thief, written after I revisited Lagos after a long absence, is a novel"; however, in an attempt 'to capture a contemporary moment in the life of the city'...'much of the impetus comes from real-life events'. In this aspect, Every Day is for the Thief  is not just your everyday novel. It is more than that. The writing style, the plot (actually there was none), and the unnamed narrator writing about his travel makes it read like a travelogue, creative non-fiction style. However, at what point is a work of fiction, fiction? Or what proportion of fiction is required for a work to be described as such? Realist writers, whatever that term might mean, writes of the everyday happenings that the reader, if the book is set in his environment, is well-travelled, or well-read, could easily relate with. It is in this latter description that one should read and judge Teju Cole's novel.

The story begins with an unnamed narrator who, after years of living abroad, decides to revisit home, Lagos. The premise in itself inverts the diaspora stories that has become commonplace, wherein the reader is bombarded with stories of (mal)adjustment and the daily struggles and travails of the emigre as he works tirelessly to insert himself seamlessly into an alien culture. Such stories focus on rejections by the autochthons and by the new country, the romanticisation of writer's native country, and the attractions of home. Sometimes such novels question the definition of home itself.

However, Teju's inversion of the immigrant story, though might be an outlier in the narrative space, is not untrue. It is also our reality; for far too often our 'been-tos' returning with a bouquet of adopted cultural trappings find that the home they left behind, that which they had yearned for even when they fled from it, had not remained unchanged, unscathed. Draped in borrowed culture they see things differently and yearn to have their new homes in their native homes. Sometimes these changes they see are real, mostly for the worst. At other times they are a reflection of their own transformation, which forces them into a comparative binary assessment of both homes, giving ones and zeros here and there. At other times, the change has been for the better but their exaggeration of what home might have been, during their periods of delusion, blinds them to this.

In Every Day for the Thief the observed changes, or more precisely the observed reality, was one of corruption, whose manifestation began the country's entry point, the High Commission. Several underhand dealings taking place under bold corruption-fighting posters, in the process of acquiring a passport, put the narrator into such despair that had the attraction of travelling home not been greater (those pull factors), it could have been quelled and squashed instantly. And here Cole clashed the heads of two cultures in one head. The young man having lived in a country where petty corruption is not common is unable to reconcile the request to offer 'silent' bribes in order for his passport to be issued on the Commission's own advertised time. Should he kowtow to the status quo and get what he wants or should he speak up and face the consequences? When such diametric forces collide, one definitely must give else there will be a breakdown in the conceived mind. Tolkien writes in The Fellowship of the Ring that when heads are at a loss bodies must serve...The strongest of us must seek the way. And so the strongest need wins. The question then becomes, which of these two needs is the strongest? For though the narrator may be against corruption, there is also the remorse of participating in that which is abhorred. However, the price to be payed for having the right thing done unto you, which in itself is guaranteed to be ephemeral - only for you - in a society where the majority has made the norm the exception and the exception the norm, can be so steep that it is almost unnecessary for one to bear such a cross. And yet the young man needed not to have gone through any of these mental struggles for just when he decided to insist on getting a receipt for an unapproved payment, an elderly man - himself experienced in such treatment - informed him of the consequences and the uselessness of following through his plans:
Hey, hey young guy, why trouble yourself? They'll take your money anyway, and they'll punish you by delaying your passport. Is that what you want? Aren't you more interested in getting your passport than trying to prove a point? [12]
And it is this situation, the struggle between satisfying one's needs and sticking to one's moral standards in a system where the two are incompatible, that feeds corruption, for the simple way out is to get what one needs irrespective of the cost. How can one fight a faceless system? You can bring down an individual in a corruption case but an individual cannot bring down a corrupt system. 

The narrator's ordeal at the point of entry was only a prelude to a much larger problem at home; one will say it was a sneak-peek into what lies beyond the door. Back in Nigeria, the narrator had to relive all the past events and more. The economy was in shambles and everybody is pilfering the pocket of the next person to survive. At every transaction point, money is either being forcibly extorted or wheedled away from him. There was the fuel attendant who casually sold him less litres of fuel than he paid for, the police officers who were extorting money from motorists not far from an anti-corruption campaign banner, traders pirating music CDs, civil servants sleeping on their jobs and being rude to people they are supposed to be serving, among others. And the advent of internet technology, spread by low-priced PCs, had added another layer to the melange. Internet scammers, who refer to themselves as Yahoo Boys, have taken over internet cafes, sharing their spoils with the police who have been enabled by the law to arrest such individuals for prosecution but who in fact arrest them, strip them of their money, and release them into the pool to be harvested another time.

However, Every Day for the Thief is not a compendium of doom. Teju, unlike Packer, did not just walk through the airport into Nigeria to enumerate its ills in a literary adventure and an extravagant display of intellectual arrogance. He acknowledges the duality, that ray of light that provides a sliver of hope. 

In this story, Lagos and by extension Nigeria, is a character that plays a critical role in the events. It is a character that has not remained unaffected by the world around it. Thus, though corruption is an everyday occurrence and nothing seems to work (the provision of electrical power to spark industrial development is in itself nonexistent) there are spots of hope. The hope is mostly expressed in the enterprising spirit of the people or what the economists will refer to as private enterprises. For instance, existing side by side within the same space and time are the dilapidated art museum run by the government and a new and contemporary conservatoire, which caters for the needs of the rich and nouveau riche due to its price tag. Similarly, there was the proliferation of locally-owned eateries that have stifled the competition out of the ever popular American brands. There were also local, seemingly poor ladies reading seemingly expensive literary fiction a la Michael Ondaatje in dilapidated public transport. Side by side the music pirates were those in legitimate business selling music and high-end fiction to those individuals who can afford and who have the taste. Even the Yahoo Boys, the 419 scammers, offer hope, for they show that with a bit more focused training the people can utilise technology to lift themselves out of the destructive phalanges of poverty. Finally, the title of the book itself gives hope for is it not said in Nigeria (and Ghana too) that 'Every day is for the thief, one day is for the master (or owner)'? This offers the hope that perhaps there will be a redemptive generation who would save the country from its current and seemingly insurmountable predicament.

Like the Leopard, Teju's Lagos has almost permanent markings. Spots that uniquely identifies it. Just as the yellow jerrycans, for packing oil, have come to represent water and water shortages in Ghana, in Nigeria queues of jerrycans have come to represent fuel, the shortages of fuel, and the inconstant or erratic power supply. It thus represents an incomprehensible irony: the inability of the largest oil producer in Africa and the sixth largest in the world to meet its energy needs. The size and noise-level of generators and power plants have become status symbols. Another marking is the natural outcome of all these multiplicitous problems: crime. On the street, the struggle to survive is palpable and whilst crimes are rampant criminals are not spared the tire-and-petrol treatment. Are these spots the manifestations of a failed society?

In just 128 pages, Teju cuts through the Nigerian society revealing what is also the reality of many an African society. We meet desperate men who will turn every chance meeting into an opportunity to seek a way out of their current predicament and if possible escape to a higher economic pedestal, dejected men who have given up trying to change character of an obstinate and intransigent city (country), and men who have accepted the reality and the uselessness of going against the current and have joined the masses in raiding and raping their country of its essentials and non-essentials. Thus, Teju shows us a society where economic power is THE power and those who wield become lords over the minions. The narrator, having lived abroad, which in itself is the dream of almost everybody seeking a way out, is considered to have suddenly become soft and incapable of living within the harsh conditions and demands of Lagos life; thus, his hosts are prepared to go to all lengths to assuage the discomfort and make his stay almost as easy as they perceived it to be in the US. Whilst this might easily be seen as an act of benevolence from the host to the guest, it is also a recognition-seeking strategy which could lead to the bestowal of greater respect upon the host by the larger community, for the mere presence of a 'been-to' in one's family accords the family another rank up on the infinite economic ladder.

In dissecting and exposing the entrails of a society, it is Teju's narrative style that does the magic. The narrative style employed in this novella makes the images and scenes look as if they are in slow-motion. And in this slow-motion Teju presents details à la manière de Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, which is his only novel I have read. This narrative style holds the reader's hands through the crooks and crannies of the words being screwed together into images and scenes and the story. Thus, the reader is able to appreciate the point of view of the writer, if there is one. Though Mr Cole does not assume anything, he also does not spoon-feed the reader. This story have no major plot and so we are not following any major character apart from the narrator who is telling us the things he is seeing. There are times the reader wishes to know more about certain characters, like the lady who was reading Ontaadje in the danfo. In a way similar to Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway, Teju does not hang onto threads for too long. In presenting the sights (of paintings and dresses) and sounds (of bus conductors seeking passengers) of the city, the narrator tells us what his eyes are seeing, not what he thinks the people are thinking and as long as the eyes move from one event to another, the reading also bounces from one scene to the other. This style may worry people who want a storyline that rises and reaches a climax followed by the denouement. Yet, it will be a mistake to say that there is no storyline. The storyline is Lagos. For it is its story that the narrator is presenting and one cannot present the story of a city by focusing on a single spot; this will be similar to describing an elephant using its tail or legs or trunk. 

To end on a rather funny note, does Teju has a thing with sky blue caps? They seem to appear everywhere in this novella that they could not go unnoticed. This is a short and intelligent book. It is well-written.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

299-300: The Diamond As Big as the Ritz (by F. Scott Fitzgerald) & Daisy Miller by Henry James

300. Daisy Miller by Henry James: My first impression after reading this novel was one of disappointment.  It seemed too simple. I waited for something to happen but it never did until the main character died. However, like Fitzgerald, the story shows the progress society has made. The story is about social restrictions placed on young ladies. In the novel, it was frowned upon for a young unmarried woman to be seen in the company of a young man she is not engaged with for such a length of time without the presence of an elder woman. The problem was that some of these restrictions differ and when Daisy arrived in Europe where such restrictions were tough, she was confused and ignorant of what she was to do. Thus, reading the novel one is likely to think that Daisy is a tough woman brazenly defying society, yet it turned out that she was totally ignorant of the laws and that she was only flouting them in innocence. Though not a good representation of Henry James, it still provides a telescope into the cultural and social restrictions of the time.

299. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald books are social historical markers. They describe vividly - albeit with much theatrical exaggeration - America's consumerism and the culture of possession that engulfed America in the early twentieth century. They are social markers against which progress could be measured. Two specific stories that represent this are The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Bernice Bobs her Hair. In the latter, a man appropriates a resource all for himself and in the bid to protect this wealth built an army to fight off all intruders. The story has a religious twist to it as the heir to the wealth sought the face of book even when he did not believe in God to protect him. He even sought to bribe God to protect him from the explorers. Thus, in a way the story shows wealth became deified.

Bernice Bobs her Hair is more of a social marker and the restrictions society put in place to protect its values and norms, especially as they relate to the female species. Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend how these norms came to be and what they are supposed to protect. It is also easy to take current freedoms for granted without a baseline for comparison. So strong and strict and weird were society's restrictions that bobbing of the hair was considered inappropriate for a woman of society and she who did so was looked down upon.

Monday, August 08, 2016

A Five-Year Reading Challenge that Ended Almost Two Years Ago

In October of 2009, about seven months into my book blogging life, I came up with a plan to guide me read some fantastic books. I had just transitioned from reading 'everything' (or preferably pulp fiction) to literary fiction with focus on African literature. Realising how much I was missing, I set myself the target of reading 100 amazing books in five years. These books were to be exclusive of all other books I will read in the year. Thus, I can read other books but at the end of the five years I should have read these 100 books. I developed the list with vigour, with information from several sources (recommendations from friends and best books lists). This is the kind of challenge I cherish though I don't always complete challenges. However one challenging factor when it comes to challenges is book accessibility and it is because of this that I set the five-year target thinking that within that period the hurdle would have flattened out. 

So I made a list of books (here and there). Slowly, I grazed through the list and slowly time went by. However, by October 2014, when the challenge ended my reading slumped and my blogging life with it. It was so bad that it carried into 2015 and then 2016 making it impossible to talk about the end of the challenge and my level of achievement. Within this five years (or seven years as of 2016), I had changed jobs five times and each job had taken something away from my blogging life as every job I had taken had been quite different requiring new learning and new adjustments. 

Books Unread: Consequently, I have not been able to read 50 percent of the listed. In all, I read only 46 percent and of the 54 books not read I only have two on my unread bookshelf: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The following are the listed books I could not read:
  1. Anowa by Ama Atta Aidoo 
  2. A Dry White Season by Andre Brink 
  3. The Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee 
  4. The Blood Knot by Athol Fugard 
  5. Bones by Chenjerai Hove 
  6. Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night by Sindiwe Magona 
  7. House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera 
  8. Labyrinths by Christopher Okigbo 
  9. Song of Lawino by Okot P'Bitek 
  10. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadwai 
  11. Third World Express by Mongane Serote 
  12. Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera 
  13. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee 
  14. Osiris Rising by Ayi Kwei Armah 
  15. Tsoti by Athol Fugard 
  16. Toads for Supper by Chukwuemeka Ike 
  17. Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka 
  18. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  19. Summertime by J. M. Coetzee 
  20. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner 
  21. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner 
  22. Light in August by William Faulkner 
  23. Kim by Rudyard Kipling 
  24. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing 
  25. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
  26. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
  27. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann 
  28. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann 
  29. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood 
  30. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood 
  31. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon 
  32. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon 
  33. Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon 
  34. Vineland by Thomas Pynchon 
  35. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace 
  36. Poker by Wittgenstein 
  37. Mistress by Wittgenstein 
  38. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus by Wittgenstein 
  39. Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein 
  40. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 
  41. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 
  42. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes 
  43. Moby-Dick by Hermes Melville 
  44. Ulysses by James Joyce 
  45. Carpenter's Gothic by William Gaddis 
  46. A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis 
  47. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maughan 
  48. Money by Martin Amis 
  49. London Fields by Martin Amis 
  50. The Information by Martin Amis 
  51. We Won't Budge by Manthia Diawara 
  52. Songs of Enchantment by Ben Okri 
  53. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 
Books Read: Though good books are difficult to come by, through benevolent friends and fate, I was able to read some really interesting titles listed below:
  1. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe 
  2. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe 
  3. The Beautyful Ones are not yet born by Ayi Kwei Armah 
  4. Nervous Condition by Tsitsi Dangaremba 
  5. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta 
  6. Burgher's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer 
  7. A Question of Power by Bessie Head 
  8. The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (I: Palace Walk; II: Palace of Desire; III: Sugar Street) 
  9. Indaba, My Children by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa 
  10. Chaka by Thomas Mofolo 
  11. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiongo'o 
  12. The Famished Road by Ben Okri 
  13. Season of Migration to the North by Salih El Tayyib 
  14. Death and the King's Horsemen by Wole Soyinka 
  15. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola 
  16. The Healers by Ayi Kwei Armah 
  17. They Say you are One of Us by Uwem Akpan 
  18. Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams 
  19. The Trial by Franz Kafka 
  20. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  21. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  22. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer 
  23. Life of Pi by Yann Martel 
  24. Possession by A. S. Byatt 
  25. Lord of the Flies by William Golding 
  26. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner 
  27. Beloved by Toni Morrison 
  28. A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul 
  29. A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul 
  30. 1984 by George Orwell 
  31. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee 
  32. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte 
  33. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 
  34. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
  35. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood 
  36. White Teeth by Zadie Smith 
  37. The Great Gatsby by Scott F. Fitzgerald 
  38. Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre 
  39. Theatre by Somerset Maughan 
  40. Atonement by Ian McEwan 
  41. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan 
  42. God Dies by the Nile by Nawal El Sadaawi 
  43. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie 
  44. Satanic Verses by Salman 
  45. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy 
  46. Infinite Riches by Ben Okiri
Even though the challenge is officially over, I will still look for some of the titles on the list to read; however, time has changed my taste and there are some books on this list I may not actively look for. I am happy that I undertook this challenge and sad that I could not make a deep dent into the list.
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