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."



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...