2017 Resolutions

January 22nd.

It’s fitting I post my resolutions now when most people have already crashed and burned with theirs. Muahahahaha. But seriously now, how are those squats coming along? And the detox diet? Well, this self professed book nerd is going after more ambitious and realistic resolutions. Bookish ones!

Last year I set a random goal of 50 books on Goodreads, and I’m pretty sure I hit my mark, except I didn’t actually log everything in. This year, its not just about the numbers but more of branching out to different genres and widening my reading scope.

1. My forefront resolution for this year is to BLOG CONSISTENTLY!  Clearly my attempts to post every week have been, well, laughable. So let’s be realistic and set it at two posts a month, shall we?

And hey, this is my second post for January, so yeah, right on target  😎

2. Read more non-fiction
I had an interesting discussion with a friend a couple of days ago and he said that I’m a “fiction purist who scoffs at reality“. Ha! Spot on. But of course I didn’t admit that. What resulted was a childish “No I’m not”/”Yes you are” argument. I always thought of myself as a cultured, deliberate and diverse reader. But truth is, I love me some contemporary/classic fiction. It’s my default genre. There’s something about fiction that allows us to experience more worlds than we could ever experience otherwise. On that note, one of my resolutions is to get out of my literary comfort zone, broaden my horizons and try to read more books in a genre I’m not versed in.

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Some of the non fiction I hope to tackle this year. Clockwise: Dead Aid, On Anarchism, The education of a British protected child

I’m ready to give the nonfiction sections of bookstores a browse. What’s the worst that could happen? If I don’t enjoy a book it sure as hell won’t be a waste of time if I learned something from it. The best scenario? I spend time enjoying a book that taught me new things. I don’t want to get over ambitious here, so I’ll cap it at 5 non fiction for this year.

3. Brush up on the classics
That was also my goal last year, and I read eleven classics. Five Hemingway’s (duh), four Achebe’s, one J. Hogg and one J. Eyre. My goal this year would be to diversify my range. Throw in a couple of Russian classics (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy), break my F. Scott Fitzgerald virginity (why has it not happened yet?!), and I absolutely must read Ulysses. I’ve put that off for far too long

I know I’m biased when I say this, but honestly guys, the classics have stood the test of time and in them we find characters/experiences/emotions/perspectives that are still relevant today. They also provide an opportunity to understand history and culture in context. Most people find them somewhat challenging in terms of language but I personally love that archaic prose. Call me an old soul or whatever. I’m a classics kinda girl, through and through.

4. Read all the shortlisted books for the Man Booker Prize 2017
If I had to pick one literary award it would be The Man Booker Prize. I find their shortlist to be the creme de la creme of literature. This resolution might prove to be a challenge however due to the limited selections in our local stores. Every bibliophile’s frustration. I remember going into a reputable local bookstore last year and asking the attendant for Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The clueless look on his face left me quite perplexed.

5. Tackle at least 3 Memoirs/Biographies
They say that biographies provide the most valuable lessons in life with the ability to change your perspective and improve you as a person. I’ve been meaning to reread “12 years a slave” so I guess that would count as a third of my target. I’d love to get hold of Steve Jobs and Oscar Wilde biographies. And Cleopatra. And Julius Caesar. Heck, and Mark Antony while we’re at it. I’ve always been fascinated by Roman history and it would be great to read better accounts of the lives of these great personalities as opposed to what I’ve pieced together from pop culture.

6. Harry Potter.
Sigh. I give in to the Harry Potter fandom on Bookstagram. Whenever I comment that I haven’t read any HP book I’m met with (almost audible) gasps and bewilderment. So hello hogwarts and sorcerers. I shall be making your acquaintance this year.

Target? Read one HP this year.

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Happy reading
Love and light
Fifi

My Top 5 Reads of 2016

Yes, I should have posted this towards the end of December. I have run out of excuses for you.

I read some pretty amazing literature last year – some new, some not quite so new. Here they are, in no particular order, my favorite picks of the year.

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James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
When the term “grossly underrated” was coined, it was meant for this book. Demons, possession, doppelgänger, religious fanaticism, murders, suicide, grave disturbers.. what more can you ask for? It’s set in 18th century Scotland and the language, oh God, that beautiful archaic prose..

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“Nothing in the world delights a truly religious people so much as consigning them to eternal damnation.”

Fun fact. Though this book is now considered a classic, at the time of its publication it was ill-received by the general public because of its unflattering depiction of predestination and Christian fundamentalism. Many were of the opinion that the work was a product of alcoholic delusional on the the part of the author. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I dare you, READ IT!

P.S: read my full review here

Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast
Anyone who knows me well enough knows that my love for Papa runs deep and strong. In fact, the literary highlight of 2016 would be my introduction to Hemingway. It all started in January when I read “The Old Man and The Sea” whilst lazing around the beaches of Zanzibar. I’ve read four of his books since then and trust me, I’ve used all my restraint to not include them all as my Top 5! So I settled on choosing my favorite from the lot and ‘A moveable feast’ was an easy pick. The memoir of a young and broke Hemingway trying to make it as a writer in Paris is both uplifting and heart wrenching. Just the mere fact that the great Ernest Hemingway had doubts about his writings portrays just how vulnerable and scared one can be at the start of a new venture. Makes me want to hug the man and assure him that he will be loved and revered by generations to come.

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“You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

I guess what makes ‘A moveable feast’ stand out in comparison to his other works is the portrayal of the man himself. When people say “Hemingway” they conjure images of an older, bloated, boozer bragging about his macho accomplishments but when I think of the Hemingway in Paris, the first impression that comes to mind is a younger, intellectually virile, aware and alert man.  At only 182 pages, Hemingway portrayed a world of beauty and innocence – which a few years later was irretrievably lost to him through his fame, alcoholism and his unquenched desire for adrenaline.

Elif Shafak – The Architect’s Apprentice
Beautifully written poetic prose has always been my Achilles heel. Add historical facts, Rumi quotes and a dash of creative fiction to the mix? Take me now! This is a historical fiction novel that takes place in the 1500s Turkey during the height of the Ottoman Empire. The story follows this young Indian boy named Jahan. He arrives Istanbul with this white elephant named Chota who is meant to be a gift from an Indian leader to the Turkish sultan and Jahan ends up being the elephant’s caretaker. The novel basically follows his life over the course of many decades – you see him sort of just growing up and maturing from a reckless child to an apprentice of renowned architect, Mimar Sinan. In that sense it’s kind of like a coming-of-age storyline.

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“It seemed to Jahan that, in truth, this world, too, was a spectacle. One way or another, everyone was parading. They performed their tricks, each of them, some staying longer, others shorter, but in the end they all left through the back door, similarly unfulfilled, similarly in need of applause.”

The Architect’s Apprentice is a wonderful historical novel, competently written, beautifully lyrical in tone, well paced and full of a compelling narrative.

Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life
Under ’emotional’ in the dictionary, there’s a little picture of me. Trust me when I tell you this, I have enough tears to last me several lifetimes and they can appear on cue just like that *snaps fingers*. And its for that reason alone that I tend to shy away from emotional/romantic typa books. Not my genre. When I found out “A little life” was among the finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, I decided to pick it up last year without reading a single review, not expecting that I would be thrown into a kaleidoscope of emotions. And thrown I was. Its probably one of the most depressing books, yet it’s written in the most raw and honest prose I’ve ever had the pleasure (or misfortune) of reading. A chapter into the book and I had an inner monologue that went something like this: “Fifi, stop reading it. This is the kind of book  you should avoid. Put it in a box. Put the box in another box. Bury it in your closet.” Suffice to say, I bawled my eyes out thanks to Ms Yanagihara.

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“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

The level of character development will leave you in awe. The story follows four college friends – an artist, an actor, a lawyer and an architect through their walks of life. I’ll admit, it hurt me to read this at times-because yes, it is very graphic material (i.e. self-harm, physical, sexual and psychological abuse, drug use) that makes the reading cringeworthy in parts yet very relatable. Her prose is raw and jarring, and revealing of the many emotions that humans experience. It’s never explicitly beautiful, not flowery or overwrought with adjectives or descriptors. But it has its own beauty that comes from its ability to convey these feelings, making you feel every pain or happiness that the characters feel.

I actually finished reading this late December and I will write a detailed review, ahem, soon.

James Marlon – A Brief History of Seven Killings
I’m yet to post a full review about this action thriller of a book on the blog or on bookstagram for that matter. Reason being, I whizzed through this 600 plus page book in less than a week, and there was so much to take out that (2 months later) I’m still collecting my thoughts. This is hardcore and brilliant, folks. Repeat after me: HARDCORE. AND. BRILLIANT. The novel is centered around an attempt on Bob Marley’s life and somehow, the author effortlessly spins you round a web of gangs and posses, reggae and ganja, rapes and drugs, murders and international politics.

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“As small as America’s dick is, those limeys will stretch across the Atlantic to suck it.”

I plan on re-reading this book later this year, and this time – s l o w l y. I’d like to stop and google aspects of Jamaican and Caribbean politics in the 1970’s, (I normally research a lot when reading. Google is your friend. But the book was so suspense filled that I couldn’t tear myself away from it), listen to the reggae songs Marlon listed, and also completely stop and read some of the books that he referenced to in order to gain a better understanding and a greater appreciation for what can only be described as an amazing piece of literary work by Marlon James. Take a bow, son.

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It’s not lost on me that out of the 5 books I’ve only reviewed 2 on the blog. My inconsistency leaves me wanting. There were also ridiculously long spells of inactivity on my Bookstagram. What can I say other than life got in the way? 2016 has been one of the most difficult years for me, with a lot of personal obstacles that I had to overcome. That’s no excuse, granted, and I’ll (try to) up my game this year.

May 2017 be filled with impulsive bookish purchases, surprising plot twists and beautifully written prose!

Happy reading people!

Book Review: The Architect’s Apprentice

Before getting on with the review, I’d just like to say that I’m thrilled to see the hashtag #KenyanBibliophile being used by fellow Kenyans showcasing their reads on Instagram. We have some avid readers out there! Also getting Direct Messages and Emails from people in all corners of the globe asking me for book recommendations. ME! I am so humbled by the vote of confidence you all have shown me. Anyways, let’s get to the review before this starts to sound like a Grammy’s acceptance speech 😂
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Author: Elif Shafak
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 456
My rating: 4.5 stars 

Damn right, 4.5 stars! This book is poetry in motion. And anyone who knows me well, can attest that beautifully written poetic prose is my Achilles heal. Poetry is a retreat for me, and when I read this book I felt transported to another world. Rumi quotes woven around the storyline so intricately, historical facts delicately mixed with creative fiction, how could I NOT give it a 4.5 rating? Elif Shafak is considered to be one of Turkey’s best authors. This is only my first novel of hers and already I can see why. She effortlessly invites you to experience life as a poem. 

“When you do things from your soul you feel a river moving in you, a joy” – Rumi 

This is a historical fiction novel that takes place in the 1500s Turkey during the height of the Ottoman Empire. The story follows this young Indian boy named Jahan. He arrives Istanbul with this white elephant named Chota who is meant to be a gift from an Indian leader to the Turkish sultan and Jahan ends up being the elephant’s caretaker. The novel basically follows his life over the course of many decades – you see him sort of just growing up and maturing from a reckless child to an apprentice of renowned architect, Mimar Sinan. In that sense it’s kind of like a coming-of-age storyline.

To apprentices everywhere – no one told us that love was the hardest craft to master

During the course of his life Jahan befriends both the lowly (Romani gypsies) and the high (falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter). As the story progresses, his relationships with those around him grow, weaken and change. The highlight of all the characters would be his surrogate father and master, Mimar Sinan, who see’s in Jahan a passion for architecture that no one else seemed to notice. As his mentor he guides him along life’s path in a journey that is fraught with distrust, conspiracy and death. 

The author wove historical facts in a fictional story which I found fascinating – such as Sultan Suleiman killing his sons, and the fact that the architect Mimar Sinan actually existed and was responsible for the design of most of the mosques and palaces in 16th century Turkey. He served as the Chief Royal Architect to sultans Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, and Murad III. In his prime he was even compared to Italian architect Michelangelo. He also contributed in renovating the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 

The beauty of this book is that Shafak touched on every aspect of life – from mastery and work ethic to love and betrayal. Trust me, you will find something in this book that will speak to your soul. Here are some of the quotes in the book that can serve to inspire. 

On work ethic: 

“Working is prayer for the likes of us,” his master often said. “It’s the way we commune with God.”

“Then how does He respond to us?” Jahan had once asked, way back when he was younger.

“By giving us more work, of course.”

On heartbreak: 

“Sometimes, for the soul to thrive, the heart needs to be broken, son.”

 On betrayal:  

“The creature who arrived at your door, having bitten the hand that fed him all along, would not hesitate to sink his teeth into your flesh once he was inside.”

On mastery: 

‘In order to gain mastery, you need to dismantle as much as you put together,’ said Sinan.

‘Then there’d be no buildings left in the world,’ Jahan ventured. ‘Everything would be razed to the ground.’

‘We are not destroying the buildings, son. We are destroying our desire to possess them. Only God is the owner. Of the stone and of the skill.’

On life: 

“It seemed to Jahan that, in truth, this world, too, was a spectacle. One way or another, everyone was parading. They performed their tricks, each of them, some staying longer, others shorter, but in the end they all left through the back door, similarly unfulfilled, similarly in need of applause.”

And finally my favorite quote: 

“…Jahan understood that his master’s secret resided not in his toughness, for he was not tough, nor in his indestructibility, for he was not indestructible, but in his ability to adapt to change and calamity and to rebuild himself, again and again, out of ruins….Sinan was made of flowing water. When anything blocked his course, he would flow under, around, above it, however he could; he found his way through the cracks, and kept flowing forward.,” 

Thank you Elif Shafak for opening doors to not only the beauty of Istanbul to those of us who have not yet been there physically but also to the innermost workings of human greatness of every kind.

Book Review: Arrow of God

Guess who’s back, 
Back again, 
Fifi’s back, 
Tell a friend.. 

Alright, I’ll stop! Well, I’m back after yet another hiatus. But worry not – I’ve read over a dozen books on my little break and hopefully I’ll be updating the blog with weekly reviews. Ahem, hopefully! 

What kind of power was it if everybody knew that it would never be used? Better to say that it was not there, that it was no more than the power in the anus of the proud dog who tried to put out a furnace with his puny fart…. He turned the yam with a stick.


Title: Arrow of God 
Author: Chinua Achebe
Pages: 232
My Rating: 3.5 stars

So, let’s get straight into it. Is ‘Arrow of God’ or ‘No Longer At Ease’ the follow up book to Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ trilogy? First off, thinking that it’s a trilogy will only mislead you. As I was. The three books follow similar themes and settings but are in no way related. I read this after Things Fall Apart because chronological wise, it appears to be the logical second. 

The phrase “Arrow of God” is an Igbo proverb whereby a person, or sometimes an event, is said to represent the will of God. 

The novel centers on Ezeulu, the chief priest of god Ulu who is worshiped by the villages of Umuaro in Colonial Nigeria. Ezeulu begins to find that his authority is increasingly under threat by the white government, rivals in the tribe, and even from his own family. He feels that due to his position, he must be untouchable- surely he is the arrow in the bow of God? Armed with this belief, he is prepared to lead his people, even if it means destruction and annihilation. As the head of the tribe, Ezeulu is walking a fine line between being friends with the white man and between upholding the cultures of his village. 

I don’t want to write the complete plot mainly because there are a wealth of characters that I’d have to delve into – Ezeulu’s wives, sons and daughters, rivals and friends; religious rituals and social stresses of an Igbo village. Delving into all that would make for a lengthy review. But what I can say is that it’s a highly enjoyable book, one that Chinua Achebe has reread the most (as it says in the introduction)
Achebe effortlessly inserts us into this world of deities, sacred pythons and sacred yams naturally and without any explanation, so much so that it is the British characters who seem strange and out of place. 

Book Review: Saladin

Title: Saladin – the Life, the Legend and the Islamic Empire
Author: John Man
Pages: 358
My rating: 3.5 stars

First off, apologies for the hiatus on blog and Instagram. Sometimes life gives you a blow that makes you lose your balance. And your sanity! But you’ve got to get up and try to see the day through as difficult and as impossible as it is. I’m sure Salahadin had many such days. Yes, I quite subtly compared myself to one of the greatest conquerers that ever lived. Ha!

Let’s ease into this brilliantly written bio with a peeve. Dear John Man, you’ve outdone yourself with the detail in this book, but why for the love of God can’t you get the name right? It’s Salahadin, not Saladin. What the hell is that? Salad in? Sounds like a starter in a basic restaurant. Maybe I’m picky coz of my Arab roots but it really annoys me when people can pronounce Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name perfectly while folks at CNN continue to say ‘eye-raq’.

Ok, there goes my little rant. Moving on now. This book is quite short and provides a brief history of how Salahadin rose to become one of the greatest leaders of all time, highlighting his journey in uniting the Islamic world (Shiites and Sunnis, Egypt and Syria) in the battle against the Crusaders to recapture Jerusalem. Some of the historical facts from that period are understandably sketchy, and John Man made a commendable attempt to lay out what plausibly happened based on the facts available. He raised my eyebrows though when he couldn’t get a very basic fact about the Quran right. I’ll let that one slide. There’s lots to learn from and admire about Salahadin as a leader – he knew when to be tough to his own people and when to show compassion to his enemies. A rare and delicate mix that most of our current leaders are lacking.

Perhaps, most disheartening to me in this story was after the monumental effort launched by Salahadin to retrieve Jerusalem from the Crusaders and all the sacrifices that were made in service of his cause, there persisted so much animosity and distrust between Muslim leaders that when the time came to defend Jerusalem and keep it in Muslim hands, no reinforcements from “allies” arrived to aid him and Salahadin and his army were left to fend for themselves.

”Where now are his ideals – of Arab and Islamic unity, of freedom from outside interference, of a peaceful life under Islam? Never realized by him, and today more tattered than ever, torn by the elements Saladin despised: sectarianism, civil war, exploitation, foreign intervention”

Reading this book at this time of desperation for a new Salahadin is heartbreaking. I liked that the book included some reflections about the current Syrian civil war, it added a great meaning for what Saladin represents for Muslims – more so now than ever. I quote the last sentence in the book: “There is no sign of a new Saladin, nor any vision of what might do, let alone how. Saladin’s dream is for the past, or very distant future”

Salahadin is far more than a historical hero. He was a builder and a literary patron, he is a man for all times, and a symbol of hope for an Arab world once again divided. Centuries after his death, in cities from Damascus to Cairo and beyond, to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, Salahadin continues to be an immensely potent symbol of religious and military resistance to the West. He is central to Arab memories, sensibilities and the ideal of a unified Islamic state. A fascinating biography of a fascinating man.

P.S: I watched the movie Kingdom of Heaven shortly after reading the book and I’d recommend the movie too, if you find reading historical biographies to be a bit of a drag.

P.S.S: I got a bit of a gadget issue so my activities on the blog will be sparingly at best. That also explains the lack of  picture accompanying this review. Bear with me. Hope to be back soon though. 🙂

Book Review: The Cockroach Dance

Author: Meja Mwangi
Genre: Fiction, African literature
Pages: 383
My ratings: 4 stars

Best Kenyan read yet!

First of all, let’s take a moment to appreciate the absurdity of the title. “The Cockroach Dance”. It does not get more intriguing than that, albeit in a gross way!

Dusman counted he cockroaches on the ceiling. There may have been just a couple of hundred black roaches, but through his squinting eyes they formed a blurred image of thousands of teaming black bodies. They played and danced about like well fed kid-goats, forming in his vision a mass of frothing, bubbling black liquid.

The story is set in Nairobi in the late 1970s and follows the life of Dusman Gonzaga in his fight against corruption and injustice. To some extent his story reflects the lives of many Kenyans after independence. It’s tragic and comical at the same time – the kind of life that your typical Nairobi hustler would lead.

Dusman lives in a squalor of room in Dacca House along Grogan Road, with his roommate, Toto. The characters are labeled by the kind of lives they lead. There’s Sukuma Wiki, a vegetable vendor; Magendo, a thief and smuggler; Chupa na debe, who collects and recycles garbage; Tumbo Kubwa, the building owner and Mganga, the witch doctor. Dusmans refers to the ones he doesn’t know as “the faceless ones”.

The life of Dusman and Toto as two broke bachelors in the city is laid bare in the book. They talk about “getting organized” but do nothing at all about actually “getting organized”. They dream big but live in deplorable housing infested with roaches. They drink like there’s no tomorrow and get prostitutes during payday when there’s money.

“… he had long ago discovered that, in itself, money is a little more than paper or metal, on whose face a certain value is placed, and most times forced. It has no life of its own , no character no no loyalty or any particular person or thing. It belongs to whoever has it in its pocket, and the more one has, the more of its negativity, and its amorphous nature one acquires. A case in point – Tumbo Kubwa, an honorable councilor and successful businessman. Wealth had torn him from his God and wherever good he may have sincerely believed in and dropped him smack in the center of the necropolis. It had turned him into an unashamed dealer in social diseases and human cadavers. There were many others like him, who gauged human worth by how much it would bring into their business coffers…”

Dusman wants to quit his work as a parking meter attendant with the hope of being transferred to reading water meters instead or a desk job. He appears disillusioned – seeing parking meters pop up in weird places and is struggling with insomnia. When he asks his boss for a transfer, the boss tells him that he’s the best parking meter reader that City Council has ever had and thus can’t issue a transfer for him. However he gives him a week’s rest and sent to Dr. Bates, a psychoanalyst.

With all his fancy degrees from Oxford and Cambridge,the doctor can’t fathom Dusman at all. And in as much as Dusman loathes the doctor, he kept his appointments in the hope of getting the transfer. When he tells Dr. Bates how much he hates everything and everyone, the doctor says;

“Don’t just sit there moping, go out and do something about it.”

And that’s when the real action begins!

Psyched up by the doctor’s words, Dusman sets out to get signatures for his rent petition against the owner of Dacca House. There is a raid for suspected criminals and most of the tenants end up at the police station. Most of them, despite looking harmless, are guilty of crime, and this shocks Dusman, who happens to be the innocent one of them all! He’s in jail when he finds out his roommate Toto, actually goes by the name of Abdi has been involved in some sort of international bank fraud.

“I am dreaming, a nightmare! I will wake up in Dacca House and everything will be alright. I will go back to my parking meters next week and everything will be alright. I love meters, lovely, dumb, innocent meters. And.. Christ, two hundred thousand!”

Dusman is then cleared of charges and as he lies awake, still saturated with insomnia, he still plans the fight for lower rent rates.

This is my first Meja Mwangi book and I must say the guy has a talent for storytelling in a simple prose. A super read.

Book Review: Look Who’s Back

Author: Timur Vermes
Genre: Fiction, Humor
Pages: 365
Ratings: 5 star

I’m back from my India/Emirates trip and I’m way behind on my reviews. Dad hasn’t been well so it’s a bit stressful at the moment. Hence my being up at this odd hour (2am here). I am such a worrier! Might as well tell you about this Timur Vermes book which I completed about a week ago.

In a nutshell: This. Book. Is. Hilariously. Wicked.

Germans today keep their waste more thoroughly separated than their races.

 

First of all 5 stars for that cover detail, from the combover to the Hitler moustache! “Look who’s back” is a fictional book about Adolf Hitler, the protagonist, mysteriously waking up in 2011 with no memory of his death and becoming a star. And not just any star, a viral YouTube star. After he wakes up he’s dazed and confused, he doesn’t really know what’s going on. People around him think he’s one of the best impersonators that has ever existed. Little do they know. Naturally they think he’s a comedian who doesn’t break character and they put him on tv – only to make him a viral sensation.

He looked confused. “With your girlfriend, I mean. Who was to blame?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Ultimately Churchill, I expect.”

Many people were put off with this book with the misconception that you’re laughing along with Hitler at the awful things he did. In no way are you laughing at the terrible things that Adilf Hitler did. The book is a complete work of satire and you’re laughing AT Adolf Hitler. You’re laughing at him more so at his reaction to the ways of the world. His reactions to obsessions with things like celebrity culture and technology and just the way the world in general works now because it’s a whole different place than it was in 1945. Yes it’s anti-Semitic, but look at the character! You can’t expect Hitler to wake up and not be Hitler.

What irritates me most of all about these morning people is their horribly good temper, as if they have been up for three hours and already conquered France.

The way Timur Vermes has written it is just brilliant. It’s comical side in part stems from Hitler observing 21st century German (and international) culture through the lens of someone who has missed the build up to the modern day for the last 60 years or so.

To begin with I thought we were driving around in circles until I realised that Herr (Mr.) Starbuck owned dozens of coffee houses.

Timur Vermes was born in Nuremberg  which obviously has very strong connections to Hitler and that’s what makes it so funny. The subject of Adolf Hitler in Germany is almost taboo and this is a darkly imaginative fantasy tale with perhaps a touch of social commentary. Sometimes thought provoking, always hilarious. Highly recommend it

Oh wait, let me show you the back cover blurb. I laughed for a solid 20 minutes at the führious pun!

Book Review: Things Fall Apart

Author: Chinua Achebe
Genre: African Literature, Classics
Pages: 197
My rating: 4 stars

“Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.”

 

I was on halfway with ‘The Secret History’ when I decided to stop and read this instead. Not that I’m not enjoying ‘The Secret History’. Far from it. Its probably the best book I’ve read this year – and I know that’s pushing it considering I haven’t even finished it yet and it’s only April – but dammit, Donna Tartt can spurn a good story! It’s a heavy book with lots of reference about Greek philosophy, and I’m also a very reflective reader. Add to the fact that I’m sick in bed yet again (damn sore throat/ fever/ asthma cocktail), I opted for a lighter read and therefore picked Chinua Achebe’s debut novel. In essence I’ve jumped from Greek mythology to African spirits and witch doctors. Gotta love how fiction can make a reader transcend different worlds by just flipping through pages. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is!

Things fall apart delves into the culture of the Igbo tribe pre and post colonialism. Although it’s a short book, it touches on many topics that is uniquely Achebe’s mastery. The protagonist Okonkwo was a respectable and powerful village hero. Honor and masculinity are integral to his character. Strong as he was, he was plagued by a fear of failure, anger issues, rigid nature and inability to cope with change.

See, Okonkwo’s father was a failure. He was clouded with debt and towards his last days, he developed a stomach ailment. According to Igbo beliefs, his sickness was an abomination to the “earth goddess” and was taken to the forest to die alone. He was not even given the dignity of a burial.

“With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.”

Okonkwo’s relentless perseverance to rise above his father’s shame earned him the respect of his fellow tribesman and he was not only one of the strongest, but also amongst the richest in his clan.

As fate would have it, Okonkwo inadvertently killed a young boy, and again, as per Igbo culture, the punishment for killing a fellow clansmen is banishment from the clan for 7 years. He is forced to seek refuge in his maternal tribe and they kindly host him and his family for the seven years. After the exile period, he returns to his paternal clan with just as much vigor to rebuild his name as he did the first time around. However, by that time Christian missionaries had set foot in the Igbo land and had managed to convert quite a number to the new religion – one of the converts being a Okonkwo’s first son.

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

His clan holds a meeting to discuss the alien influences when a black messenger of the White man informs the gathered crowd that the meeting is illegal. Okonkwo, burning with anger and hatred, drew his machete in a flash and used it and slew the white man’s messenger, cut off the messenger’s head from its uniformed body. But then Okonkwo, fearful of the powerful white man’s vengeance and revenge disappears and soon hangs himself with a rope

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.”

I must say that I found it quite difficult to connect with Okonkwo’s character. Achebe himself has been quoted as saying, “My sympathies were not entirely with Okonkwo… Life just has to go on and if you refuse to accept changes, then, tragic though it may be, you are swept aside” (from Under African Skies: Modern African Stories). However, I connected easily with Nyowe, Okonkwo’s son. The pressure of filling family and cultural expectations of yourself, and the urge to break away from it all and start a fresh resonates so strongly with me.

An important lesson from this book is the echoing of Charles Darwin’s conclusion that it is not the strongest of the species or the most intelligent that will survive in a changing environment, but those species that can best adapt to change.

It is the classic of the African continent, a tragic book that will lead any reader into a deeper understanding of colonialism, the colonial lie about “peoples without history”, and Africa.

Book Review: Boy, Interrupted. 

Author: Saah Millimono
Genre: African Fiction
Pages: 150
My rating: 3 stars

 

“My arrival was treated by the stench of dead bodies. Indeed, there must have been more than one corpse nearby, because the smell was so overpowering I could barely breathe. Across the unpaved road a clothesline has been strung, God to wooden poles set in rusty metal containers. Atop each pole was a human skull, empty holes where the eyes should have been and hide white teeth smiling broadly at no one in particular.”

 

This is a delicate story about child soldiers in war torn Liberia. Now I’ll be honest and say that my knowledge of child soldiers is limited to Di Caprio’s movie “Blood Diamond”. I mean, I knew children were forced to take up arms and all during wars, but to vividly read about it in this book gave me the chills. Serious chills. I enjoy books that have me googling for information.

The protagonist, Tarnue, is a young boy of 10 doted by his parents. They decide to apprentice him to his uncle to better his opportunities in education. The separation from his family and familiar surroundings was understandably difficult for the young boy, and was not made any easier by his uncle’s wife who makes him wake up at odd hours in the morning to bake bread and sell it in the evenings. He had no time to study his lessons and most of the day he goes to bed on an empty stomach.

“Once we got into the room, my uncle’s wife told me to take off my clothes. Wringing my hands and trembling, I did so. And then she began to beat me. Again and again the rattan whistled into the air and came down on my head, my back, my belly, my chest, my thighs, my feet, my legs, my hands. My screams filled the house. At one point I tried to open the door and run outside, but I was grabbed by the throat and dashed to the ground. I writhed on the floor and took the blows. I thought I would die.” 

He is given respite from that life when he befriends and later falls in love with Kou, a young girl from a wealthy side of the street. Kou’s parents buy all the bread that he’s meant to sell daily, giving him time to concentrate on his studies and well, be a child again. His grades improve, he gets closer to Kou, and they’re even making plans to study abroad with the civil war broke out.

Kou’s parents are killed, he and Kou get separated due to all the confusion. Tarnue is captured by the rebel faction and forced to take up arms. Kou on the other hand is forced to marry a warlord and gets pregnant. Tarnue is rescued by ECOMOG (economic community of west African states monitoring group) forces and is reunited with Kou. Do they live happily after? We don’t know. The book clatters to a flustered end right there.

This book tackles a lot of social issues. Education, child labor, child soldiers, child marriages, rape, power greedy politicians.. The author tried to fit all that in a short book which sort of gives you the feeling that he fleetingly touches on each topic without properly expounding on them.

The book is short at 150 pages, but Tarnue’s experiences as a child soldier covered about 20 pages only. I would have preferred more depth in that part of the story. Millimono failed to show the transition from an innocent boy to a killing machine – what were his thoughts, how did he feel, was he haunted by all that he was forced to do? At one point he writes.. “You know I never used to be like this before. It’s the war. The rebels came here and took me to that training camp and made me do bad things. I’m just like one of them now. But what can I do?” The thought process seems quite matter of fact for a boy of just 12 who was forced to do horrendous things. Milimono writes that the protagonist was haunted but reading it, I didn’t quite feel any emotion from him. I hate drawing comparisons here but do you all remember the Ugwu character in Adichie’s “Half of a yellow sun”? When he was forced to take up arms you could feel his resistance and the horrors that he went through were transported to the reader. I didn’t quite feel it here, hence 3 star for an otherwise brilliantly written debut novel.

Book Review: Only Time Will Tell

Author: Jeffrey Archer
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 450
My rating: 3.5 stars

 

Some people standby you in your darkest hour while others walk away; only a select few march towards you and become even closer friends. – Jeffrey Archer

I’ve read so much fiction in my life that only the very best writing will hold my interest. And although this family saga was painfully predictable, I must say it reeled me in and I completed it in three days.

The story revolves around two families – the Cliftons and the Barringtons. The Cliftons are a lower class family of dock workers who have a son of exceptional talents. Harry Clifton has an outstanding voice that offers him a way to better himself through a scholarship to a fine school. It’s in this school that he meets and strikes up a close friendship with Giles Barrington, a remarkably decent and grounded boy from a wealthy family.

Archer tells the same events from the perspective of different people, each person adding to the story, thereby deepening the understanding of the events and the people involved. The story hangs on the mystery of Harry’s parentage. Who really is his father? Masie, Harry’s mother, had a one night stand with Hugo Barrington a few days before her wedding to Arthur Clifton. Arthur mysteriously disappears whilst working on the docks, in a project spearheaded by Hugo Barrington. Harry is made to believe that his father died in the war. Over the years, his mother and a number of other characters, from Old Jack Tar to Miss Monday, do all that they can to give Harry a good start in life. This gives meaning to the old African proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child‘. If his friendship to Giles Barrington, who could possibly be his brother isn’t fate playing its part, then perhaps him falling in love with Emma Barrington, most likely his sister, is. To top it off, according to English inheritance laws the eldest son inherits the estates and titles, and nothing can be done to change that. Yep, you guessed it – Harry is a month older than Giles Barrington. The book ends in a cliffhanger of sorts when Harry, in the opinion that his presence has resulted in a truck load of problems for the two families, decides to take the identity of a dead sailor – only to be accused of murder.

Intriguing, yes?
No. Not really.

I find I don’t learn a lot while I’m talking. – Jeffrey Archer

It’s a good, and maybe you can even call it an intriguing tale but it’s not quite believable for me. For instance, Masie’s reasons for having sex with a stranger before her wedding day aren’t one bit believable. It’s in the early 1900s for crying out loud! Weren’t people more, whatstheword.. moral? I’d expect that sort of randy behavior in the 21st century not back then. Old Jack Tar decides he no longer had anything to live for and brings on a heart attack. But only after he puts on his Victoria Cross. Unbelievable yet again. And let me not even get started when he decides to disclose the family secret during the wedding scene rather than do it privately, when he had numerous chances. It seems like Archer’s villains are purely black and his heroes are stainlessly white. Hackney-eyed at best. There wasn’t enough character building for me

Now let’s get one thing straight. Jeffrey Archer is a skilled storyteller. He’s not the most skilled writer – there’s something distinctively lacking in his prose – but he is a great story teller. And as much as I grumble and rant, I will be back for part two.