Friday, 30 December 2011

WHAT I READ IN 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
7) BILLY BROWN I’LL TELL YOUR MOTHER by Bill Brown
8) FEAR OF FLYING by Erica Jong
9) THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach
10) GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell
11) HAIRDRESSER OF HARARE by Tendai Huchu
12) THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver
13) LETTERS BETWEEN A FATHER AND SON by V.S Naipaul
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
20) THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz
21) THE FIFTH WITNESS by Michael Connelly
22) JULIET, NAKED by Nick Hornby
23) FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD by Thomas Hardy
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
34) BOSWELL’S LIFE OF JOHNSON by Boswell
35) THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET by David Mitchell
36) THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
37) NOT ANOTHER DAY by Julius Chingono
38) HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER by Richard Mason
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
48) THE EAST OF EDEN LETTERS: JOURNAL OF A NOVEL by John Steinbeck
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
58) THE GOOD COMPANIONS by JB Priestly
59) THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED by F. Scott Fitzgerald
60) ADRIAN MOLE: THE WILDERNESS YEARS by Sue Townsend
61) BURNT TOAST ON SUNDAYS by Roland K Hill
62) JOYCE GRENFELL REQUESTS THE PLEASURE by Joyce Grenfell
63) KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST by Adam Hochschild
64) THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James Cain
65) A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M Miller
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
71) BRIGHT SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA by Barbara Ehrenreich
72) ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN by Keith Gessen
73) THE IMPERFECTIONISTS by Tom Rachman
74) LIT by Mary Karr
75) PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley
76) THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE by Michael Faber
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
82) A WALK IN THE WOODS: REDISCOVERING AMERICA ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL by Bill Bryson
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
89) ONE DAY I WILL WRITE ABOUT THIS PLACE by Binyavanga Wainana
90) WHO KILLED PALOMINO MOLERO? By Mario Vargas Llosa
91) DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN CORDORY AND DENIM by David Sedaris
92) THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway
93) THE EUSTACE DIAMONDS by Anthony Trollope
94) ECONOMICS: PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE (Standish et al)
95) STRATEGY SAFARI (Mintzburg et al)
96) DEAD SOULS by Nikolai Gogol
97) ADOLF HITLER: MY PART IN HIS DOWNFALL by Spike Milligan
98) PALACE OF DESIRE by Nagoub Mahfouz
99) ROME: A CUTLURAL, VISUAL AND PERSONAL HISTORY by Robert Hughes
100) KOKORO by Natsume Soseki

Onwards and upwards.

Monday, 26 December 2011

ECONOMICS: PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE (Standish et al) and STRATEGY SAFARI (Mintzberg et al)


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

ADOLF HITLER: MY PART IN HIS DOWNFALL by Spike Milligan


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

YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY by Dave Eggers


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

ROME: A CUTLURAL, VISUAL AND PERSONAL HISTORY by Robert Hughes


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

THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach


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.

OUR MONTHLY MARCEL


"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."

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME by Marcel Proust