Friday, 30 December 2011


It has been strangely touching collecting the list of what I read this year.

MY KENYA DAYS, for example, took me right back to the bottom of my parent's closet in Harare where I found it in January; the seventeen books of June reminded me of how little I slept that month; LOST IN TRANSLATION took me right back to my cousin's bookcase in Nairobi.

I read exactly 100 hundred books in 2011.

The best:
-ABSENT by John Eppel, a hilariously sad satire of contemporary Zimbabwe, and that rarest thing, a coherent account of white African identity
-FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen, a fabulously Victorian novel of contemporary America
-THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz, a brilliant and funny account of a multinational dork's life
-GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell, an oldie but still a goodie
-MY ANTONIA by Willa Cather, on the romance of the Midwest
-PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth, on masturbation as a major philosophical event.

Some books I thought I loved, have somehow receded for me (such as THE IMPERFECTIONISTS by Tom Rachman) but the above have stayed with me as special, secret gifts that have enriched my life.

Let's draw a discreet veil over THE FINKLER QUESTION and I DREAMED OF AFRICA.

Here's my 2011:

1) MY KENYA DAYS by Wilfred Thesiger
2) ABSENT by John Eppel
3) THE BOY NEXT DOOR by Irene Sabatini
4) FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen
5) THE FINKLER QUESTION by Howard Jacobson
6) THE SELFISH GENE by Richard Dawkins
8) FEAR OF FLYING by Erica Jong
9) THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach
10) GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell
12) THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver
14) CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? By Anthony Trollope
15) BLACK BOOK by Ian Rankin
16) BLEEDING HEARTS by Ian Rankin
17) IT'S OUR TURN TO EAT by Michela Wrong
18) THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen
19) KNOTS AND CROSSES by Ian Rankin
21) THE FIFTH WITNESS by Michael Connelly
22) JULIET, NAKED by Nick Hornby
24) THE MOON AND SIXPENCE by W. Somerset Maugham
25) THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Ondaatje
26) TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyer
27) RABBIT, RUN by John Updike
28) VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray
29) LOST IN TRANSLATION by Nicole Mones
30) EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck
31) GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves
32) THE LAST RESORT by Douglas Rogers
33) I DREAMED OF AFRICA by Kuki Gallmann
36) THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
37) NOT ANOTHER DAY by Julius Chingono
39) HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton
40) NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro
41) PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth
42) THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe
43) BLACK DAHLIA by James Ellroy
44) I AM AMERICA (AND SO CAN YOU!) by Stephen Colbert
45) REUNION by Alan Lightman
46) ARE YOU THERE VODKA? IT'S ME, CHELSEA by Chelsea Handler
47) BABBITT by Sinclair Lewis
49) NAKED by David Sedaris
50) ALL THE PRETTY HORSES by Cormac McCarthy
51) OUT OF AFRICA by Karen Blixen
52) PHINEAS FINN by Anthony Trollope
53) FEVER PITCH by Nick Hornby
54) FLY FISHING FOR SHARKS by Andrew Alexander
55) IN THE MIDST OF LIFE by Jennifer Worth
56) PERSONAL MBA by Josh Kaufman
57) MY ANTONIA by Willa Cather
59) THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED by F. Scott Fitzgerald
63) KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST by Adam Hochschild
66) BABYVILLE by Jane Green
67) LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry
68) IF THIS IS A MAN by Primo Levi
69) I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE by Adaobi Tricia Nwuabani
70) THE SANTALAND DIARIES by David Sedaris
74) LIT by Mary Karr
75) PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley
77) NERVOUS CONDITIONS by Tsitsi Dangarembga
78) TRUCKERS by Terry Pratchett
79) WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE by Marina Lewycka
80) WHITE MISCHIEF by James Fox
81) AGNES GRAY by Anne Bronte
83) SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM by Uwem Akpan
84) BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
85) SKIPPY DIES by Paul Murray
86) THE RIVER AND THE SOURCE by Margaret A. Ogola
87) THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides
88) BARREL FEVER by David Sedaris
92) THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway
93) THE EUSTACE DIAMONDS by Anthony Trollope
95) STRATEGY SAFARI (Mintzburg et al)
96) DEAD SOULS by Nikolai Gogol
98) PALACE OF DESIRE by Nagoub Mahfouz
100) KOKORO by Natsume Soseki

Onwards and upwards.

Monday, 26 December 2011


I have a new job, and I read these books in preparation. They are text books from my cousin's MBA at the University of Cape Town.

The ECONOMICS book was essentially a first year university text book, and I found it very interesting. Our old friend the global recession meant that the sections on economic fixes was particularly illuminating. Here basically are the two options to get a market going: increase demand, or increase supply.

Keynesians think the best idea is to increase demand; that is, to give people more money, so that they will buy more stuff. This you will recognise as the New Deal approach – spend money building roads, and so on, so there are more jobs, and thus more consumers have more money to spend. Classical economists take the view that it is a better idea to increase supply; that is, to free up businesses to succeed, thus creating more products and more jobs.

I was struck by how very theoretical both approaches were, and, for a field so full of numbers, how little quantatative evidence there seemed to be for either side.

Friday, 23 December 2011

DEAD SOULS by Nikolai Gogol

Creepily, the Russian nobility of the nineteenth century did not refer to themselves as owning serfs, but rater as owning souls. Eg: I own three hundred souls.

Let's just file that under: no wonder there was a revolution in Russia.

This book tells the story of one Chichikov, who goes round Russia trying to buy dead souls. This represents a saving for their owners, who have to pay tax on them as if they are alive until the next census allows them to die. It enables Chichikov to increase his social standing, as no one needs to know that the hundreds of serfs he owns are only technically alive. In short, it is a scam.

Chichikov is apparently an embodiment of poshlost 'an untranslatable Russian word which is 'best rendered as "self-satisfied inferiority", moral and spiritual, with overtones of middle-class pretentiousness, fake significance and philistinism.' I mean, honestly, what a great word. Sometimes I love Russia.

I feel Russians also might love Kenya. We learn early on that Chichikov began his career in corruption in local government:
When strict inquiry had begun to be made into the whole subject of bribes, such inquiry failed to alarm him – nay, he actually turned it to account and thereby manifested the Russian resourcefulness which never fails to attain its zenith where extortion is concerned.
His career as a corrupt customs official is hilariously described:
. . . he would try every button of the suspected person, and yet preserve, throughout, a deadly politeness and an icy sang-froid which surpass belief. And while the searched were raging, and foaming at the mouth, and feeling that they would give worlds to alter his smiling exterior with a good, resounding slap, he would move not a muscle of his face, nor abate by a jot the urbanity of his demeanour, as he murmured, “Do you mind so far incommoding yourself as to stand up?” . . . he was a devil at the job, so perfect was his instinct for looking into cart-wheels, carriage-poles, horses' ears, and places whither an author ought not to penetrate even in thought – places whither only a Customs official is permitted to go.
His motives:
What can one do when one is surrounded on every side with roguery, and everywhere there are insanely expensive restaurants, masked balls, and dances to the music of gypsy bands? To abstain when everyone else is indulging in these things, and fashion commands, is difficult indeed!
Now that sounds like everybody's life in London.

The book is not exactly plot heavy, as it essentially involves Chichikov going around buying these souls from different people, and each new person is basically an opportunity for Gogol to lay into what he thinks is wrong about modern Russia. Here we are in the middle of a conversation about a person overwhelmed with ennui:
"The truth is that you don't eat enough. Try the plan of making a good dinner. Weariness of everything is a modern invention. Once upon a time no one ever heard of it."
Wise words, Kurt Cobain et al.

DEAD SOULS is a strange and funny book about a Russia that seems strangely current.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


This book begins: "After Puckoon I swore I would never write another novel. This is it . . ."

It is a comic recounting of Spike Milligan's time training as a soldier in the Second World War. It is frequently very funny:
We had 'Saluting Traps.' A crowd of us round a corner smoking would get the tip 'Officer Coming.' We would set off at ten-second intervals and watch as the officer saluted his way to paralysis of the arm.
There is much of this kind of military fun, including, interestingly, an early and informal Puppetry of the Penis. Penises aside, this is perhaps the saddest comedic book I have ever read. The book is suffused with a sense of loss.
A week's duty in the hut all centred around the gramaphone lent by Nick Carter, and jazz records I would bring back from leave. Happiness was a mug of tea, a cigarette, and a record of Bunny Berrigan playing 'Let's do it.' Sharing it with a friend like Harry rounded off the occasion. What's happened to us all since then? The world's gone sour. Happiness is a yesterday thing.
Spike Milligan suffered profound shell shock during the war, and went on to have multiple mental breakdowns. Often in the book he tells us that he has returned to such-and-such a minor location, in a way that does not strike this reader as terribly healthy. He is quite explicit about all this, early on:
There were the deaths of some of my friends, and therefore, no matter how funny I tried to make this book, that will always be at the back of my mind: but, were they alive today, they would have been the first to join in the laughter, and that laughter was, I'm sure, the key to victory.
My friend and yours Wikipedia tells me that at the end of his life he corresponded frequently with Robert Graves, whose GOODBYE TO ALL THAT I read earlier this year. That book, a grim memoir of shell shock in the First World War, is a perfect partner to this one, set in the Second.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


I was excited about this book, because I love Dave Eggers. I love his first book, the more-or-less memoir, A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, and his account of a real life in Sudan, WHAT IS THE WHAT. And oh, how I love his website, MCSWEENEYS. If you have never heard of that last, and if you have a dull desk job, you must most assuredly click on it. It has saved me from many a temping hellhole.

YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY is Eggers first novel, and god it shows. A good novel is in here somewhere, and is just screaming to be let out. The book tells the story of a pair of friends who decide to travel around the world, in just a week, personally disbursing a large sum of money to the poor. The reasons for this are mysterious, and I am afraid will remain so, as I gave up long, long, before the end.

There were some funny bits, as here, where they are struggling to get a connection from Senegal to Greenland.
I'd always assumed, vaguely, that the rest of the world was even better connected than the US, that passage between all countries outside of America was constant and easy – that all other nations were huddled together, trading information and commiserating, like smokers outside a building.

However, overall, this faux naif evocation of international travel was annoying, as were the attempts to 'help' the poor. The mystery about their reasons was at first engaging and then just irritating. In addition, it was all madly overwritten. Try this description of an ordinary glass of water:
The sunlight over the clerk's shoulder was white and planed, and when he poured us glasses of water it was clearer than any water I'd ever seen. It was the unadulterated soul of the world.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


This book is less interesting than it sounds. There are a lot of dates, and a lot of sweeping overstatements. However, there were some interesting elements. I learnt, for example, that Provence in France is called that because Julius Caeser referred to as 'the Province,' and that the name 'plumber' is based on the Latin for lead, because that's what early Roman plumbing pipes were lined with. Caligula's name means 'bootikins' apparently, as he was a child mascot for Roman armies, and you use to wear mini legionnaires' shoes. Everyone knows that Caligula was bonkers, and this snapshot of his childhood maybe helps us understood why (battlefield + child = adult issues)

I also learnt that one major impetus for the conversion of Rome to Christianity was the conversion of the wives of important men to Christianity. I think it's quite interesting that women were the first converts in ancient Rome, because I recently read THE RIVER AND THE SOURCE, which talked about the speed with which women converted in contemporary Kenya. (Indeed, the author's great grandmother first heard of Christianity as 'a god who cares for widows.') Little religions are popping up all the time, and I think it's quite interesting to think about what it is that gives a religion major staying power - what about the story is so compelling that it changes peoples' lives. So I'm wondering: does Christianity speak to the oppressed first, and thus its power? Same with Marxism?

Speaking of oppression, Hughes is clearly not female. He discusses a statue showing a woman being raped by a Roman god, which famously shows the tear drop on the poor lady's cheek. This he calls 'very sexy.' I feel oppressed right now.

Monday, 5 December 2011

KOKORO by Natsume Soseki

KOKORO is apparently universally agreed to be "the great Japanese modern novel," and has been read by generations of Japanese schoolkids. Never having read much from Japan, I decided to join these children. I don't know how they find it, but I think it's a very weird little book.

It tells the story of an unnamed young man who begins a friendship with an unnamed older man. The older man suffers under some kind of disillusionment, or regret, which is constantly hinted at but never expressed. The young man's father is dying, so he leaves his friend to go back to his rural home. Once there, he receives a letter of confession from his friend, which is also a suicide note, explaining how his life has gone wrong. I won't spoil it for you, but suffice to say this big reveal is odd, confusing, and did not explain to me at all what his problem was.

This may be at the heart of it; it is one of the old man's elliptical descriptions of his trouble:
We who are born into this age of freedom and independence and the self must undergo this loneliness. It is the price we pay for these times of ours
. He is referring to the end of the nineteenth century, an apparently turbulent time in Japan, referred to as the Meiji period. Japan had been entirely insular for many centuries (a period I just read about in THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET and then, in the course of a very short period, the country was opened up to the West. Thus came a rush of new ideas - for example about being an 'individual.' This may seem an obviously 'true' idea to us, but to the Japanese was apparently deeply disturbing. I find this fascinating. Perhaps this is why the novel speaks so to Japanese audiences, but was slightly mystifying to me?

I should say that this is often a very funny novel. Here is the young man, back home in the rural areas:
My parents discussed together the idea of inviting guests over for a special celebratory meal in my honour. I had had a gloomy premonition that this might happen ever since I arrived.
Clearly, students in Japan, as elsewhere, have similar issues with their parents.

I know we are just supposed to pretend that we don't notice, but I have to say it's also endlessly sexist. Soseki keeps banging on about 'womens' ways,' and eventually just gives it to us straight:
When it comes down to it, I told myself, she's acting this way because she's a woman, and women are stupid.

Ah ha! I see now why I didn't quite follow this novel . . .it's because of being so dumb. All clear now!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

PALACE OF DESIRE by Nagoub Mahfouz

How charming is this author bio?
Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. A student of philosophy and an avid reader, he has been influenced by many Western writers, including Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and, above all, Proust. He has more than thirty novels to his credit, ranging from his earliest historical romances to his most recent experimental novels. In 1988, Mr Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lives in the Cairo suburb of Agouza with his wife and two daughters.
His most famous work is probably THE CAIRO TRILOGY, three books tracing a single Egyptian family across the twentieth century. I have reviewed the second here, for Africa Book Club.

This is a wonderful series of novels. In fact, I think I'm going to go out on a limb here and declare the TRILOGY the best work of fiction ever produced on the African continent. Sorry, Chinua, Wole, et al.

Thursday, 1 December 2011


I finished THE MARRIAGE PLOT in the middle of Tsavo National Park, the biggest natural preserve in Kenya. I was staying at a beautiful lodge, the view of which was 360, as you see.

You will note a distinct absence of book stores in that photograph. I almost panicked. Some people would say: relax! Enjoy the view! Etc! These people have reserves of inner peace quite unknown to me. Thank god for the internet. I looked at the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011, and on seeing THE ART OF FIELDING described as Franzen-like, like a cat to catnip, downloaded that shit. The Kindle is, frankly, sweet.

Franzen-like is a bit strong, but THE ART OF FIELDING is certainly a big, contemporary American novel, and I enjoyed it. It tells the story of a young man called Henry who has an immense natural talent as a baseball player. He is given a scholarship to a university, Westish, and the novel follows the various characters he meets there: his gay roommate, his university's president, the university president's flaky daughter, etc etc. the stories are engaging and nicely observed.

Some of it I found very funny, possibly because it recreates an American college experience I remember vividly. Here is one Henry Schwartz on his back hair:
“I hearken back to a simpler time. A time when a hairy back meant something. . . . Warmth, survival. Evolutionary advantage. Back then, a man's wife and children could burrow into his back hair and wait out the winter. Nymphs would braid it and praise it in song. God's wrath waxed hot against the hairless tribes. Now all thats forgotten. But ill tell you one thing: when the next age comes, the Schwartzes will besitting pretty. Real pretty.
Occasionally, Westish is however like no college I've ever heard of. For example, everyone is totally not homophobic, and fine with the roomate who is an athlete being gay (?) and the chef of the college kitchen is really talented (?). Also, sadly, the novel did rather drown in baseball towards the end. Let me give you a taste of a typically incomprehensible paragraph:
Starblind walked, Sooty Kim bunted him to second, Henry roped a single past the pitcher's ear. Schwartz crushed a moon shot into left-centre field.
Excellent, excellent, good to know. I skipped the entire climactic National Championship chapter, as it was all in this mysterious vein. Also mysterious, to me at least, was the male bonding and male catharsis that went with all this sporting effort:
He dented the metal, bloodied his knuckles. ”Anyone who thinks otherwise, anyone who'd rather go paly for McKinnon . . .Can clear the hell out. I'm winning a regional title, and then I'm winning a national championship. And guess what? You motherfuckers are along for the ride!"
The above is all written, as far as I can tell, in total seriousness, and all the characters take it that way. People need to work on being less stupid.

Fear not, readers. I did not of course spend all my time reading at Tsavo. I drank lots of wine and looked a the view, and went on lots of drives. I saw a hyena out hunting baby impala, and, one night, a tiny baby scrub hare. Jambo, little man, jambo, said our sweet, very Christian guide, quietly. I really only read THE ART OF FIELDING in bed.


"Habit weakens everything, so what best reminds us of a person is precisely what we had forgotten. That is why the better part of our memories exist outside us, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room."


Friday, 25 November 2011


This has been a school set book in Kenya for many years, and oh lord, you can tell from the copy I read. It is seriously mangled, and covered with youthful writing which indicates 'metaphors' and 'similies.' It was sort of charming. Part way through, a photograph of a girlfriend even fell out.

I've reviewed it here for Africa Book Club.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides

This book was four hundred pages long, and I only wish it was four hundred pages longer. This is because it is fabulous.

It is a classic boy-meets-girl-who-then-meets-this-other-boy story. It is however also very much concerned with what it means to write such a 'classic' story.

Our girl is Madeleine, who is attending a good university in the US, where she is studying Victorian literature under a certain Professor Saunders.
In Professor Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance.  In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about.  The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage.  Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.  And divorce had undone it completely.  What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? 
Eugenides attempts to answer this question by charting our contemporary Emma's path through love and marriage. She has always been considered pretty and popular, and thus it is a shock to her when her first college boyfriend, Dabney, is better looking than she is:
Underneath this pleasure . . . was a fierce need to enfold Dabney and siphon off his strength and beauty. It was all very primitive and evolutionary and felt fantastic. The problem was that she hadn't been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex.
She meets a boy named Mitchell, who falls madly in love with her. One night she comes and sits on his bed, hoping he will make a move, and when he is too frightened too, is rather hurt, and decides to keep him at arm's length. Some time later, after one very flirtatious night, she picks a fight with him.
She'd been on the verge of calling Mitchell to apologize when she'd received a letter from him, a highly detailed, cogently argued, psychologically astute, quietly hostile four-page letter, in which he called her a 'cocktease' and claimed that her behaviour that night had been 'the erotic equivalent of bread and circus, with just the circus'
They stop speaking (poor Mitchell! We return to the night she sat on his bed multiple times, with multiple other endings) and Madeline falls in love with the mysterious Leonard. He has serious manic depression, but SPOILER ALERT! she marries him on one of his upswings, immediately after graduation, and then has to live with him through his downswings. He eventually leaves her. Mitchell returns on the scene and – you'll just have to read the book to find out what happens then.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT is a wonderful, old-school, Victorian novel, which just happens to have been written by someone alive today. I found it very accurate both about awkward modern condom conversations and traditional old heartbreak.

What blows my mind in particular is how well Madeline is drawn - how female she feels - given that Eugenides is a man. It is wildly successful imagining of another gender. The book is also very funny. Here he is, for example, on Madeline's mother, Phyllida:
Phyllida's hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face.
On bad dish soap in Paris:
European dish soap was either eco-friendly or tariff-protected
One more, which is painfully true:
Heartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken.
Oh alright, since you are begging, one last little bit, that is not funny, but is I think just lovely, accomplished writing. This is when Madeline's high school girlfriends are visiting her:
Then the Lawrenceville girls left and Madeleine became intelligent again, as lonely, misfortunate, and inward as a governess. She rejoined Mitchell on the porch, where the sun-warmed paperbacks and iced coffee awaited her.
That's so good that for some reason it actually makes me feel kind of bad.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


Here is a man I keep meaning to read. Bertrand Russell. Frankly, the mustache is a stumbling block.

Let us be inspired by an extract from his book THE CONQUEST OF HAPPINESS, which I have not read:

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired, and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire - such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other — as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself — no doubt justly — a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.

Because I attempt to run a strictly honest blog, I will confess I came across the above, in a Q&A with Billie Piper. I know, the shame. Let's have a picture of her too.

Friday, 11 November 2011


This memoir has been getting a lot of positive press coverage, and I've reviewed it here for Africa Book Club.

Wainaina won the Caine Prize, and I found his account of how he set about doing so hilarious, especially in light of the discussions we've been having about the Prize here.
I spent the past few weeks polishing a short story for the Caine Prize for African Writing. It is about a young girl (Girl Child, Gender!) who is questioning the world, and her mother's values (Empowerment). I mine every sexy African theme I can think of. The Caine Prize, based in England, is worth fifteen thousand dollars, and you get an agent and fame and lots of commissioned work.
We then follow his desperate attempt to meet the definition of 'published' by getting it online the day before the deadline.

Though there are certainly important criticisms that can be made of the Caine, I think it's important that we think about the last sentence of the quote. The Caine more or less made Wainaina's career, as it has a number of other authors, and that makes up, in my mind, for a multitude of sins.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


The first book of Mario Vargas Llosa's I ever read was FEAST OF THE GOAT, a phenomenally wonderful novel about the last days of the dictatorship of Trujillo. The final chapters are so grisly that I actually had to skip pages – like closing your eyes in a movie – something I've virtually never had to do with a book. I read it in one sitting, on a twelve hour bus ride to Acapulco, which probably contributed to the intensity of the experience. (What also made for an intense experience was that at hour nine or so, a bunch of armed men in army fatigues got on the bus, and started screaming at us all in Spanish. I don't speak Spanish, so was reduced to desperately trying to recall if the country people were always getting abducted in was Columbia or Mexico. Anyway, I was not abducted, though some men did get off who never got on again.)

Anyway, this book, read on a plane ride in Ethiopia, is nothing like that one.

It is, bizarrely, a piece of detective fiction, set in 1950s Peru. Palomino Molero is 'a skinny kid who sang boleros' who is found brutally murdered. A pair of detectives set off on his trail, tracing the crime right to the highest echelons of the military. The ending is satisfyingly twisted. It is then very much a genre novel, but a very clever one. It manages to trace a strange path through questions of class, race and gender in Peru, and create a very rich picture of a fishing village in that country fifty years ago.

A short and satisfying book.


JUDGING A BOOK BY ITS COVER is an occasional series where I bring to your attention dreadful looking books I see in Nairobi's better bookshops. How do you like this one's title?

Drums on the Night Air: A Woman's Flight from Africa's Heart of Darkness

You have to assume it is either:
-some sort of strange Victorian travelogue
-an ironically comic version of same. (ie. please god,let it be a joke)

However friends, apparently not. Apparently this is an entirely un-ironic title for a book about 'real' experiences in contemporary Africa. Try not to puke now, before you read the back, so you save going to the bathroom twice. Here it is:

Veronica Cecil was twenty-five years old when her husband was offered a job at a large multi-national company in the Congo. Filled with enthusiasm for their new life, the couple and their eleven-month-old son set off for an African adventure. Very soon, however, Veronica began to realise that life in the Congo was not what she had imagined. Food shortages were an everyday occurrence; she felt like an outsider at the club in LĂ©opoldville, which only the Belgians and other expats frequented; and flickers of violence were starting to erupt everywhere. Six months later Veronica and her family were sent to Elizabetha, a remote palm oil plantation on the banks of the Congo River. But even here paradise didn't last. Civil war broke out, and the rebels captured the neighbouring town of Stanleyville and took all the whites hostage. Despite the fact that Veronica was on the verge of giving birth, the situation was so dangerous that she and her toddler had to be evacuated. Leaving her husband and all their possessions behind, she and her son began on a two-day journey through the jungle. But on the plane back to Leopoldville, the first labour pains began...

Oh didums! Food shortages! Shame! What, no nutella? And you weren't as popular at the club as you thought you'd be? No wonder you had to flee!

Also, as a sidepoint, why did she think Congo would be paradise? I mean, I'm not saying DRC doesn't have many good qualities, but paradise? Does this woman not have Wikipedia?

Now, please, if you have actually read this book, don't be coming crying to me in the comments. I don't want to get bogged down in actual content.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway

This book makes you want to run away to be a writer in Paris. It is full to the brim with the romance of Paris by night, and later with the romance of rural Spain. It is also full to the brim with alcohol.

The central character, an American journalist named Jake, has a serious genital injury, received during the Second World War. A British woman named Brett is madly in love with him, but is in fact engaged to someone else, though it is never quite clear what role the injury plays in this complicated situation. Brett meanwhile is also most cruelly leading on a young American named Robert, who, Hemingway never ceases to remind us, is Jewish. These central characters booze their way across Paris, until the festival at Pamploma begins, at which point they move to Spain to continue boozing. It's all terribly tortured up to this point; but after the arrival in Spain the book becomes an account of what Hemingway did on his holidays. This is primarily watch bull fights, talk to the locals, and of course, booze. The genital injury abruptly disappears as a thematic point.

So, from the stand point of plot, certainly on odd book, veering weirdly between sexual drama and travelogue. However one can't help but be impressed by Hemingway's lovely clean, spare prose. I particularly liked:
The taxi rounded the statue of the inventor of the semaphore engaged in doing same . . .
It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.
Occasionally however even this can be too much of a good thing. Here he is at the end of a paragraph in which he is collecting worms for fishing:
Digging at the edge of the damp ground I filled two empty tobacco-tins with worms and sifted dirt onto them. The goats watched me dig.
Ah, the goats watched me dig. For some reason I find this strangely amusing. I keep thinking about it, and it keeps making me laugh.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

THE EUSTACE DIAMONDS by Anthony Trollope

It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies – which were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two, - that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her.
This is the beginning of THE EUSTACE DIAMONDS, which I find to be quite charming,and absolutely vintage Trollope. It is all total lies of course – we do dwell on Lizzie's story at great length, not just because Trollope can't do anything except at great length, but also because really he loves a bad girl, as do we all.

Lizzie is a fabulous bad girl. She marries Lord Eustace even though (or perhaps because) she knows he is very frail and soon to die. As the widowed Lady Eustace she claims to have been given as a gift by her husband, a diamond necklace worth ten thousand pounds. His family say this is a family heirloom, and thus not hers to keep, and so begins protracted legal wrangling in the midst of which the necklace is stolen. Cue drama! I won't give the rest away, as it's a fun and unpredictable plot.

Lizzie is helped throughout by her cousin, Frank Greystock. Frank is in love with a governess called Lucy Morris, and is engaged to her, but slowly comes under Lizzie's spell, and stops seeing or writing to his fiance. Eventually he comes back to his sense and Doormat, sorry, I mean Lucy, accepts him back without a murmur.

This is the third book of the Palliser series (the previous ones are here and here) and as always with Trollope this book has an exciting plot, fun characters, a gently comic narrative voice, and the fun of meeting characters from the other novels. I loved this description of Conservatives, who feel always that Britain is on the verge of ruin:
And yet to them old England is of all countries in the world the best to lie in, and is not the less comfortable because of the changes that have been made. These people are ready to grumble at every boon conferred on them, and yet to enjoy every boon. They know, too, their privileges, and, after a fashion, understand their position. It is picturesque, and it pleases them. To have been always in the right and yet always on the losing side; always being ruined, always under persecution from a wild spirit of republican-demagogism, - and yet never to lose anything, not even position or public esteem, is pleasant enough. A huge, living, daily increasing grievance that does one no palpable harm, is the happiest possession a man can have.
It's the TeaPartiers to a T.


"It is as good a way as any of solving the problem of existence to get near enough to the things and people that have appeared to us beautiful and mysterious from a distance, to be able to satisfy ourselves that they have neither mystery nor beauty. It is one of the systems of mental hygiene among which we are at liberty to choose our own, a system which is perhaps not to be recommended too strongly, but gives us a certain tranquility with which to spend what remains of life, and also – since it enables us to regret nothing, by assuring us that we have attained to the best, and that the best was nothing out of the ordinary – with which to resign ourselves to death."


Friday, 28 October 2011


I don't know if there's something wrong with the books at the moment, or something wrong with me, but I seem to be abandoning literature left and right.

I feel somehow I ought to finish books I begin, but then I'm overwhelmed by how very short a time we get to live, and I throw them gleefully aside.

SONG OF SOLOMON by Toni Morrison
This woman has won the Pultizer, and I was all ready to love her work. I found this one however to be in essence a fakey pastiche of Zora Neale Hurston. Here's the paragraph that broke this camel's back:
I worked right alongside my father. Right alongside him. From the time I was four or five we worked together. Just the two of us. Our mother was dead. Died when Pilate was born. Pilate was just a baby. She stayed over at another farm in the daytime.


Reinforcing my prejudice against books with colons in the title, I found this to be a dull book on a promising subject. The promising subject was the fact that in the eighteenth century there was a bubble, not so much in tulips, as in tulip futures, with single bulbs changing hands for vast fortunes, This struck me as an interesting paradigm for thinking about our various contemporary bubbles, but no such luck. The only interesting thing I learnt from this book was that in the nineteenth century the Ottoman Emperors used to let a condemned run a race of half a mile with their executioner. If you won, you lived; if not, you died.


I read the first eighty pages of this over someone's shoulder. It's a pretty interesting book about a very successful life. He doesn't pull any punches, either, about how successful:
All the Indians agreed that I was a special baby, and that I had been born with a golden spoon in my mouth and that everything during my lifetime would be exactly as I wished it. Looking back at my life, I see that they were quite right.
Check out the bookcover though. I can't believe that turned out exactly as he wished it.


A murder mystery set in a monastery. Dull and self-consciously postmodern.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

William Carlos Williams

Monday, 24 October 2011

WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE by Marina Lewycka

WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE tells the story of a middle aged woman whose husband has just left her. She meets an elderly neighbour who is living in a decaying house, which estate agents are attempting to get their hands on in anticipation of a juicy sale. This elderly neighbour is charming and fun and apparently a Holocaust survivor. The odd job man she finds for the house is a Palestinian.

At this point, though I know it is mean, I can only say: blah blah blah. Insights into other cultures, religion in the modern world, ad?@sldiafaseijrtwe. I'm sorry, I just feel asleep on my keyboard.

Here are a couple of searing insights our central character has for us about the Middle East Peace Process:
Zion was their big dream. It was a good dream too. But they found you can't build dreams with guns. Just nightmares.
Profound. Try also:
Maybe forgiveness isnt'such a big deal, after all. Maybe it's just a matter of habit. All this mental activity was making me thirsty. I put the kettle on and nipped down to the bakery for a Danish pastry.
That faux naif narrative voice alone is enough to make my eyeballs bleed.

I read Lewycka's A BRIEF HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRANIAN some time ago, and found it to be a charming and funny book with a heart of gold. I'm even fond of the author, who sounds charming in interviews, and was rejected 36 times before TRACTORS was published. I really can't imagine what's gone so totally wrong in the writing that turned out this dreary and simplistic novel. Sorry Marina!

Sunday, 23 October 2011


I've reviewed WHITE MISCHIEF for Africa Book Club here.

It tells the story of one of Africa's most notorious unsolved murders, and revolves around the tiny white community in Kenya in the 1930s and 40s, known as the Happy Valley.

I'd heard a lot about the gin-guzzling, wife-swopping, bed-hopping ways of this wealthy and leisured group, and assumed it was mostly myth. From WHITE MISCHIEF I learnt it was not myth. In fact, it was a all good deal grosser than I heard (vaginal juices on corpses: I'll say no more). Basically, these people needed to get out and find JOBS.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

AGNES GRAY by Anne Bronte

Based on AGNES GRAY I am forced to conclude that poor Anne was the untalented Bronte.

I had high hopes initially, as AGNES begins very much in the vein of the quality Bronte novel: lone governess, new location, lots of likely looking young men. Excellent.

Anne herself worked as a governess, and god, it shows. This book might well be titled GOVERNESS TELLS ALL. Or HOW I HATED BEING A GOVERNESS. Or maybe, THESE VICTORIAN KIDS ARE ALL BRATS.

The first third of the book is spent with one family of badly behaved children, and constitutes Agnes (ie Anne) explaining how poor parenting creates a horrible home environment. She then leaves this house, and it is never referred to again, and has no bearing on the rest of the novel at all. In her next home, the children are also badly behaved, but somewhat less so. She makes the whole situation worse by seeming to have a point of policy whereby she never, for any reason, expresses her actual feelings to anyone. Thus, she spends all her time seething, and no time at all attempting to honestly resolve her difficulties. It's a textbook case of building your own prison, by means of your own wilful silence, and makes it hard to care what happens to Agnes.

She is introduced to the local rector, and after speaking to him three times (two of these about the weather) she falls madly in love with him. Eventually, but by then you are so bored you just don't care, they get together.

Here's him asking her to go to the shore with him, so he can propose. Hold on to your hats, ladies, this guy knows how to work it:
“I see by those light clouds in the west, there will be a brilliant sunset, and we shall be in time to witness its effect upon the sea, at the most moderate rate of progression.”
Nuff said.


Okay, let's have another Larkin. Very different from last week's, but lovely I think.

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would no guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin

Saturday, 15 October 2011


I picked this book up pretty much at random from my parents' bookcase one night when I had run out of reading matter and needed something to take to bed.

I only managed about the first thirty pages, but they were irritating. Gray makes some coherent arguments about what he imagines the differences between men and women to be, which some people might find useful to think about. For example, he encourages women not to feel rejected if a man feels like sitting quietly with the paper.

Gray says that men feel it is important to be successful providers, and thus may feel upset if they receive 'unsolicited advice' from women. He also says that when women wish to share their feelings, they do not want men to 'offer solutions.' I see. So when I say what I think someone should do, that is unsolicited advice, but when a boy tells me what to do, that is offering a solution.

Thank god it was already bedtime.

Friday, 14 October 2011


I would have thought that the major challenge of walking the Appalachian Trail would be fighting off inbred rednecks who want to kill you with chainsaws. This is however apparently only a minor aspect of the experience. Bill Bryson sets out to walk the Trail from where it begins in Georgia, to where it ends in Maine, a distance of about 2000 miles.

About a third of the way into the book, after we have suffered and staggered up endless mountains and round countless dales with him, he comes to a small convenience store with a map of the Trail, extending about four feet. He finds he has only walked the first two inches. He decides he will not be walking the whole Trail. This is apparently not unusual. According to Bryson:
2000 people start the Trail every year, and only about 10% get to the end; half don't make it past central Virginia, less than a third of the way; a quarter get no further than North Carolina, the next state. As many as twenty percent drop out in the first week.
The driver who makes a living picking people up at the airport and dropping them at the start of the Trail tells Bryson that it is not unusual for him to hear from people asking to be picked up after three days, which is the amount of time it takes to walk to the first payphone.

The Appalachian Trail we learn is long, and steep, and often very boring. It is also very beautiful, and for that portion of the Trail that Bryson manages, he writes about this very movingly.

The Trail was created in the 1930s with voluntary labour, in only seven years, making it the largest voluntary undertaking on the planet. Much of the book is taken up with discussing how much of the American wilderness has disappeared since the Trail was founded. Apparently, early on, there were many pecan trees, but as it was normal to cut down especially tall trees (that could be as much as two hundred years old) just to make nut harvesting that bit easier, there are now few of these left. There are also many fewer birds than there used to be: in one year, Pennsylvania paid out $90,000 in bounties for the killing of 130,000 owls and hawks, to save farmers just $1,875 in livestock losses.

This book is not as comic as Bryson's other work, but is still an interesting read, packed with fun facts like those above. Let me just close with two more, too interesting not to be squeezed in. If you can find a way to casually fit these into ordinary conversation, you get extra points.
-in the forty years before the First World War, 50,000 people died in American mines
-every twenty minutes on the Trail you walk more than the average American walks in a week.

Actually, I shouldn't have said it's not comic. There are some funny true stories. It's not nice to laugh at one-handed children, but maybe its understandable if they lost their hand because their IDIOT MOTHER put honey on it, so that she could film the cute bear licking the hand with her camcorder.

Friday, 7 October 2011


SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM is a collection of short stories which relate the struggles of young people from various parts of Africa. As recorded previously in the this blog, I generally not so fond of short stories, but I found this collection really engaging.

The first story, An Ex-Mas Feast, tells the story of a streetkid whose twelve year old sister is prostituting herself so he can go to school. This sounds like a terribly sad story, and indeed in many ways it is; but the writing is somehow also often both lyrical and comic. Here's an example, of the streetkid looking for his sister, when he finds she has bought him a new uniform:
I felt like running out to search for her in the streets. I wanted to hug her and laugh until the moon dissolved. I wanted to buy her Coke and chapati, for sometimes she forgot to eat.
The author clearly has much experience of the lives of the very poor, for he recreates the difficult lives of those in Nairobi's slums with great detail. We learn, for example, that the family member most in need of warmth has one of their limbs put through a hole in the family's single blanket, to ensure that they stay in the middle.

The next story, Fattening for Gabon, is in my opinion the best in the collection, being both full of suspense, and really complex in its characters. It follows the story of two small children taken in by their uncle. The children receive great food and new clothes, and it becomes increasingly clear that their uncle is preparing them to be shipped off with human traffickers, and battling with second thoughts as he does so.

Further stories take place in religious conflict in Nigeria, and during the genocide Rwanda. As I got closer to the end of the book, I had my fingers crossed for at least one story about middle class children in Cairo, or Dakar, or Joburg; but no such luck I'm afraid. This I found to be rather sad: apparently the millions of children in Africa not victims of starvation or violence don't have any stories to tell. Or perhaps in the minds of publishers if you're not starving you can't really be African?

In any case, these were well written stories, if on a rather narrow theme, and Nigerian Uwem Akpan is a talented author. I was rather surprised to learn that he is also a Catholic priest, and was quite touched to find out that many of his first stories were typed up on the seminary's community computers, and then immediately lost to computer viruses. Oh Africa!

(This focus on poverty as a subject in African fiction I noted some time ago, here, in the context of the Caine Prize – much more on this subject can be found here with Nana at ImageNations, who has collected much useful debate on the subject)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver

Despite being so extremely young as I am, I don't tend to read much Young Adult fiction. I don't generally get the point of it. However, for some reason I decided to give Lauren Oliver's BEFORE I FALL a whirl, and I'm glad I did.

The book opens with a very detailed account of one day - February 12 - in the life of a popular high school girl, Sam. Sam goes to school, and then to a party, and each place and all its events are minutely described. This focus on one day confused me at first, in fact till the next morning, when Sam wakes up to find that it is still February 12, and she has to live the day over again in every particular.

Oh dear, I thought. How on earth is this author going to make Groundhog Day work? Shall I give up on this book now?

Thing is, it's not really Groundhog Day. At the end of the first February 12, Sam is in a car crash, and it becomes increasingly clear that she is in fact dead. The makes the book more interesting, but also more complicated, as there is apparently therefore nothing for her to work towards. She can't be saved. Or can she?

We begin to realise that she is being given the day again and again so that she can learn to appreciate that day. She learns to love that ordinary day, and thus in some way, to love her ordinary life. She learns to appreciate skipping breakfast, and her sister running out with her gloves, and driving with her best friend.

BEFORE I FALL is based around that lesson that's so incredibly hard to learn, about learning to love what you've got.

I didn't want to, but I found this book curiously touching.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

SKIPPY DIES by Paul Murray

SKIPPY DIES is an enjoyable and complex novel, which can't decide if it's a tragedy or a comedy.

It's 616 dense pages, dealing in great detail with a group of fourteen year old boys at a Catholic boarding school, in which tone, theme, and character perspective are all constantly changing.
Any Harry Potter type fantasies tend to get squashed pretty quickly: life in the Tower, an ancient building composed mostly of draughts, is a deeply unmagical experience, spent at the mercy of lunatic teachers, bullies, athlete's foot epidemics, etc. There are some small consolations. At a point in life in which the lovely nuturing homes built for them by their parents have become unendurable Guantanomos, and any time spent away from their peers is experienced at best as a mind-numbing commercial break for things no one wants to buy on some old person's TV channel and at worst as a torture not incomparable to being actually genuinely nailed to a cross, the boarders do enjoy a certain prestige among the boys.
Clearly, much of the book is very funny. As the title suggests however, all is not entirely well. Skippy is the student Daniel Juster, who falls madly in love with a girl from a neighbouring school. He is an unhappy and mildly dorky boy, who can't seem to get up the courage to quit the swim team, which he seems to hate, though the reason for this is not clear. He eventually overdoses on painkillers.

Don't be mislead into thinking that this is the story of the novel. There are about six major stories: one for Daniel, one for his history teacher, one for this room mate, one for the girl he's in love with, etc etc. Some of these stories are comic, some sad, all are interesting. There's a compelling examination of the extent to which the old are ranged against the young, and vice versa, and Robert Graves' GOODBYE TO ALL THAT (reviewed by me here), about the First World War, is referenced often:
We no longer saw the war as one between trade-rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.
This idea, of the young as constantly betrayed by the old, is very interesting. All is going very well, in short, for the first two thirds of the novel, until sadly the author begins to build in climaxes for each story, and oh god, but they are cheesy.

Guess why Skippy hates the swim team: yes, yes, got it in one, he is being abused. Guess what happens when Skippy's girflriend gives someone a blowjob to prove she loves him: he records it on his phone. You get the idea. It's all what elderly newspaper critics would describe as 'gritty.'

Unfortunately the thematic resolutions are as cheesy as the plot resolutions. Here's something:
Maybe instead of strings it's stories that things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories.
If I had a penny for every novel that concluded that our lives are just stories I would puke.

Or try this
So this guy's saying, instead of searching for ways out of our lives, what we should be searching for are ways in . .
Oh dear.

Sunday, 2 October 2011


Here's a little something for us to ponder this month . . .

"We are incapable, while we are in love, of acting as fit predecessors of the persons whom we shall presently have become and who will be in love no longer."

Wise words. Poor Proust was painfully closeted all his life (see photo), so reading his work does tend to make one feel better about one's romantic life in comparison, no matter how rubbish it might be.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE is a quirky and fun little novel from Nigeria, which I have reviewed here for Africa Book Club.

It has been most educational, teaching me why I will never order 404 in a Nigerian restaurant.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


In an attempt to raise the tone of this blog, I have decided that every Wednesday we will try and improve our minds with poetry. Let's start nice and easy, with a famous poem by acclaimed twentieth century British poet, Phillip Larkin.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011


This book begins with a young man named Julian, who is being forced by his mother to accompany her on the bus to her weight loss class. Public transport has only recently been racially integrated, and for some reason she feels it is therefore now unsafe. Her son finds her attitude almost unbearably annoying. Here they are on the subject of slavery:
“There are no more slaves,” he said irritably.
“They were better off when they were,” she said. He groaned to see that she was off on that topic. She rolled onto it every few days like a train on an open track. He knew every stop, every junction, every swamp along the way, and knew the exact point at which her conclusion would roll majestically into the station: “It's ridiculous. It's simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”
“Let's skip it,” Julian said.
“The ones I feel sorry for,” she said, “are the ones that are half white. They're tragic.”
I found this a strangely hilarious window into a certain period in the American South, and was excited to see where O'Connor was going with Julian and his mother. Alas, I was never to find out. EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE is unfortunately a collection of short stories. Here's a terrible confession for a literary blog: I can't stand short stories. I find them annoying. You get all involved,and then like twenty pages later it's over. It's like getting dumped over and over again. So I stopped after three stories. Bad blogger! Bad!

Let me raise the tone by telling you where the title of the collection, and of the first story comes from. It refers to a work by the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
"Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge"
I assume this refers to poor Julian, and find that this makes the story even more darkly comic.

Monday, 26 September 2011


I make it a policy not to read books with a colon in the middle of the title. The colon is a sure sign of a certain kind of heavily edited, heavily marketed non-fiction that makes me want to hurl. I particularly can't bear the idea of the earnest publishing meeting where they tinkered with the title to get it 'right.'

That said, for some reason I decided to read BRIGHT SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA. A terrible title, but a rather good book.

The author is diagnosed with breast cancer, and immediately begins to feel that she is drowning in a sea of pink sugar. She is confounded by the relentless positivity that surrounds cancer, leaving no room for the obvious emotions: anger and grief. The idea that a positive mindset is a central part of conquering cancer is endless repeated, and Ehreneich, who in her youth acquired a Phd in cell biology, looks into this claim, and finds the science behind it very weak. The mere fact that it's all nonsense does not deter the cancer industry one bit however, and so Ehrenreich begins an examination into the whole idea of positive thinking.

She studies its roots in nineteenth century religion, right up to its current status as a quasi-religious movement led by preachers called 'motivational speakers.' The fact that the universe is incomprehensible and probably meaningless is no obstacle to these 'motivational speakers,' whose message is that you can have anything you want if you just want it badly enough. This sounds like a hopeful message, but its dark underside is of course that if you don't have what you want (if you lose your job, for example) it is entirely your own fault.

This idea obviously works very well for corporations. Unhappy employees do not need better working conditions, raises, or health insurance: they just need a better attitude! Thus a large percentage of the 'positivity industry' is funded by businesses, who buy the books and CDs for their unfortunate employees.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book was the link Ehrenreich posits between 'positive thinking' and that pretty negative event, the global recession. I was surprised to learn that apparently, in the last decade or so, the majority of important CEOs made use of coaches, almost all of whom push the message of positive thinking: that is, imagining the best outcome, excluding negative people, manifesting success through the power of your thinking, and so forth. She includes many anecdotes of 'negative people,' that we might also call 'realists'- fired Cassandras - who tried to tell CEOs that their mortgages where dodgy, their credit default swaps dangerous, their real estate bubble about to burst. They did not fit into the triumphant visions of men making $60million a year, and so were ignored, with disastrous results.

BRIGHT SIDED is an interesting book about how psychology can effect the real world, though not perhaps exactly in the way positive thinkers imagine.

Depressing Trivia! Rhonda Byrne, who wrote the positive thinking Bible THE SECRET, apparently said that the tsunami of 2006 could only happen to people 'who are on the same frequency as the event.' I'd like to put her on the same frequency as a fat slap.

Friday, 23 September 2011


If you spent your twenties scuffling in the arts, there are many parts of this book which will make you laugh. Keith Gessen has been to this particular mountaintop, and you can tell. Here's a character at a grocery store:
Others had coupons and carefully they held them, like counterfeiting experts, up to the items they hoped to save on, to make sure they were the ones. Mark never did. He had emptied himself of any attachment to specific foods. The only items he saw were the items already on sale. In this way, he kept his calm, he tried new foods, and he saved.
Or try this:
They kept a budget. At the beginning of the week they gave themselves seventy dollars for food and transport. Impossible? Basically impossible, yes, but not if you never go for 'drinks' at a bar, never walk into a restaurant, and never buy an item of clothing not at the Salvation Army on Spring Street and Lafayette.
Oh arts people! Come to my arms. I salute you.

There are three characters in this novel: Mark, Sam, and Keith, all of whom are sad young literary men. We follow them from college through their various attempts at literature: one is a frustrated graduate student, one a failed author, and one a political commentator. Not to worry to separate out these differences; though the book alternates between each of their stories, they are all basically the same person. I gave up worrying which was which, consigning this to the failed post-modern device category, and just enjoyed what there was to enjoy – and there's a great deal of fun to be had: this is a very entertaining book.

It's a really heartfelt account of the struggles of your twenties, and I found it both honest and amusing. It traces the kind of compromises almost everyone needs to make over the course of the years after university. One begins with bright-eyed and entirely misinformed naievete, and from that there is only one direction to go, and Gessen examines this painful entry into adulthood very well.

Gessen is almost precisely my age, and was in university in the US at almost precisely the same time as me, and reproduces a kind of people, and a world, with wonderful accuracy. Here he is on his drinking in university, and the effect it had on his love life:
Could not even think what to do upon meeting a girl the next day to whom I'd said too much. And so I pretended not to see her, or walked across the dining hall, so that a few months into my freshman year the range of women whom I had not encountered in a drunken stupor narrowed and narrowed until I was reduced to just getting drunk again and hoping someone would meet me halfway. I had done well with girls in high school, considering all my studying, and I was miffed by the new dispensation. At first I basically thought: what the fuck? And then I thought: You've got to be kidding me. And then I began to sort of think, Oh no.
All the men in the book date extensively and are very interested in women, and yet the women in the book are without exception fairly faceless, being largely props for more or less humiliating and half-hearted sexual experiences. They also, rather unsettlingly, are very much status objects. At one point, one of the men – who is in his thirties – dumps a 27 year old for being too old, and hooks up with someone just out of university. I am not sure I have any response to that. There is lots of hand-wringng. Try this:
Except every women he dated took a chunk of Mark with her. And vice versa. So that if you looked, if you walked around New York and looked properly, if you walked around America and looked properly, what you saw was a group of wandering disaggregated people, torn apart and carrying with them, in their hands, like supplicants, the pieces of flesh they'd won from others in their time. And who now would take them in?
At first I wondered if this was some sort of post-modern parody. But I have concluded that it is quite sincere. These sad young literary men need to get some therapy. Or else find some sad young literary women. Of appropriate ages.

Sunday, 18 September 2011


THE IMPERFECTIONISTS is a novel about the life of a newspaper, composed of a series of interlocking short stories about the newspaper's staff. It is a good thing I did not know this in advance, or I would never have begun it.

I make it a policy to avoid such books, as they are almost always painfully pretentious exercises in showing off how wonderfully engaged with the post-modern the author is, how he transcends linear narrative with a single bound, how multi-talented he is, revealing life's dazzling complexity, etc etc.

Except Tom Rachman is actually multi-talented. He does pretty much leap over linear narrative in a single bound. I feel like he almost even reveals life's dazzling complexity. I can't get over it. This is a wonderful, accomplished novel. I can't think when last I read a book by a living author that is so technically adept.

Rachman moves back and forth across decades, managing a huge cast of characters in a complex array of situations with unselfconscious elegance. Here's a description of some of the staff, from within one character's world view:
Dave Belling, a simpleton far too cheerful to compose a decent headline; Ed Rance, who wears a white ponytail – what more need one say?; and Ruby Zaga, who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct.
We learn about each of these people, and many more, over the course of the book. We follow Dave, as he gets his revenge after being fired; Ruby, who spends all her New Years Eves in hotels, posing as a businesswoman, so people won't know she is alone; Kathleen, who is almost relieved by the freedom her partner's affair gives her; and so on – you get the idea. Each story is touching, and involving, and interrelates with the other stories in an unforced way.

It's also immensely well observed. Here's one character, Abby, being described as she is on long distance flights:
In this state, she nibbles any snack in reach, grows mesmerized by strangers' footwear, turns philosophical, ends up weepy. She gazes at the banks of seats around the departure lounge: young couples nestling, old husbands reading books about old wars, lovers sharing headphones, whispered words about duty-free and delays.
And very funny:
Arthur's cubicle used to be near the watercooler, but the bosses tired of having to chat with him each time they got thirsty. So the watercooler stayed and he was moved. Now his desk is in a distant corner, as far from the locus of power as possible but nearer the cupboard of pens, which is a consolation.

So. A very fine novel. The New York Times comments:
This first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young — Rachman turns out to be 35, though he looks even younger in his author photo — could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles.
I agree. Google image search him to feel depressed, aspriring writers. But don't read the book. You will want to give up immediately, in the face of such perfection.

Friday, 16 September 2011

LIT by Mary Karr

Mary Karr is apparently a famous memoirist. I am meeting her however only in this, her third book, so I have missed the Texas childhood with alcoholic parents, and the highly sexed adolescence, and am just tuning in for the descent into alcoholism.

It's probably an indictment of my upbringing that I didn't find this descent especially harrowing. Indeed, I barely found it alcoholism. For god's sake, she doesn't drink in the mornings! She doesn't even get the shakes! However, this probably says more about Zimbabwean society than it does about the memoir. The important point is that she feels she is an alcoholic, and commits herself to AA and sobriety most commendably.

Her descent goes in parallel with the birth of her baby and the attendant collapse of her marriage. She desperately desires as baby, and - as seems to be the way with these things - is desperately unhappy once said baby arrives.

She writes with great honesty, and often a real comic sense, about this period:
The time I'm mostly thinking of, you were barely four, which – I would argue – is less like being a miniature person than like a dog or cat who can talk.
Her child is in fact a central character in this memoir. The lady has spent a lot of time in therapy, and thus there is a great deal about her parents' failings, and how they explain everything about her life. I tried not to find this irritating. As a parent herself, she has, it seems to me, a vastly overinflated idea of how much impact she is having on her own child. At one point, she enrolls herself in therapy, because she snaps at her child – once! - in a grocery store parking lot. At other times, she seems to promote entirely bratty behaviour as charming self-expression:
As a toddler, once faced with a tea service at my in-laws', he'd stuck his fist in the sugar bowl and upended it, sugar spraying all over as Mrs Whitbread hissed that no other child in that house had ever interfered with a tea.

While I struggled with some of Karr's ideas, such as her understanding of your parents as the centre of your personality, I still very much enjoyed this book. It was bracingly, often painfully, honest. It is not often you get to hear someone's in-depth analysis of their own failings, vanities, and embarrassing hangups; and I found her struggles with them, often unsuccessful, to be oddly inspirational.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley

This is a novel about a suffocatingly boring marriage. The pitfalls of writing a novel about many repetitive years of boring routine are obvious, and I'm afraid this book falls into every one.

PRIVATE LIFE begins with a visit by an older couple to a Japanese interment camp in the US in 1942. I mean, honestly, I almost gave up on the book right then and there. There was a definite sense that the author was bravely revealing the scandal of Japanese internment during the Second World War. Which is odd, as it has been covered in literature many times before, almost always with the same air of great revelation, and even more irritatingly, of self-congratulatory moral courage. This is bizarre, as hands up who feels that it was okay to intern the Japanese? Anyone? Anyone? Didn't think so.

After the cheesetastic visit to the Japanese camp, we move back in time to see the old woman, Margaret, as a young woman in 1885. She is in danger of becoming an old maid, and is saved in the end by marriage to an eccentric astronomer. He is always rigidly polite to her, but it becomes clear over time that he is rather deluded in his scientific views, and immensely egotistical, expecting her whole life to be about serving his latest craze. I kept reading in the hopes that at some point a narrative arc would appear, in which Margaret gains courage and stands up to her husband. No such luck I am afraid. At one point, Margaret, speaking to her knitting club, saying
“There are so many things I should have dared before this.” And her tone was so bitter that the other ladies fell silent.
Of course one wishes that this was about half way through the book, at which point she becomes a go-go dancer, and the the novel really kicks off. But no. In fact, this hopeless declaration is in fact the end of this boring and depressing novel. At one point Margaret has a brief affair, and astonishingly, even this illicit event manages to be both boring and depressing.

This isn't relevant, but I just have to mention that as I write this blog post the movie TERMINATOR SALVATION is playing in the background, and I feel impelled to ask the blogosphere: what is Christian Bale doing? He appears to believe that seriously great acting is underway. I find it weirdly embarrassing to watch, as if you came across someone posing in their bathroom mirror.


I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...