The Underground Railroad – more truth in alternate history

Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genre: Alternate history / Allegory
Pages: 366
Rating: 5 stars

“If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor–if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.” 

Yes! 5 damn stars! As a history buff, I appreciate it when an author puts time and effort in research, and the amount of research Whitehead put on this piece is clear with every turn of the page. It wasn’t an extremely emotional read which is what you’d expect from slavery literature. Whitehead took the other route by being detached and honest, one could even say ‘clinical’ in his approach. The Underground Railroad isn’t your standard sad slave story, but a rebellious one and I found this change in narrative refreshing. That’s not to say it wasn’t harrowing, oh boy it was! Whitehead brought the depth of the degradation and depravity of what people of color had endured to the forefront more than any other book I’ve read.

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“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.” 

In this story we are following the life of a slave called Cora who is working on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She is not only a slave in this plantation but also an outcast from all the other slaves – making her exiled in a double-sense. This brought up a point that I hadn’t considered at all. I always assumed that slaves in a plantation were unified. I’m that naive. Whitehead highlights that slavery can drive enslaved people to treat one another in selfish and viscous ways.

Cora is approached by a new slave named Caesar who tells her about an underground railroad and suggests that they run away together. He wants her to come along with her because he thinks she might be a good luck charm of sorts as her mother was the only slave to run away from the Randall plantation and settle up north, possible Canada – or so we’re led to believe. This was written like an Odyssey of sorts. Each state was a chapter and as Cora progressed from South to North, we saw the unique challenges she faced. Each state represented a different type of institutional racism that African Americans had to (or until today, have to) face.

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”

A lot of reviewers have said that the characters were under-developed and they couldn’t connect with the protagonist. I did! What Cora went through made her very jaded, cut-and-dry person and for me personally, the fact that Whitehead didn’t make it easy to connect with her made quite a lot of sense. I was discussing with Shell and she summed it up rather nicely when she said “would I not be that way too?”

The undergound railroad, the real one that is, was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States in the early 19th century and used by African slaves to escape to the free states and Canada with the help of abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause. In this story, the underground railroad is not a figurative trail that slaves took to escape north, but an actual physical underground railroad. From my knowledge, this was the only historically ‘inaccurate’ part. Everything else that Whitehead touched on was historically accurate. I’ve seen some comments discrediting the book as an inaccurate work of historical fiction but I beg to differ. The genre of this book is alternate history and Whitehead said on the get-go that this is an allegory.  When you stop holding this book to a standard that it wasn’t trying to meet (historical fiction) and instead focus on the ways in which the message was being told, it will leave you with a lot to appreciate.

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Homegoing (June 2016) and The Underground Railroad (August 2016) were the big releases of the year that focused on slavery. I was extremely critical of Homegoing (you can read my review here) and after reading The Underground Railroad, my opinions on Yaa Gyasi’s novel were cemented. First of all, the level (or lack of) character development in Homegoing left me wanting. There were so many inconclusive ends to the characters that the potency of the story was lost to me. With Underground Railroad however, in as much as the protagonist was detached (with good reason), we knew her full story, and the stories of the secondary characters as well. The chapter on Mabel (Cora’s mom) for instance, gave me a lot of closure as a reader. The glaring bit for me however is that Gyasi hardly portrayed any sympathetic whites during the slavery era feeding to the incorrect notion that all whites were evil. Colson showed us a more accurate picture by highlighting the fact that there were a few whites who actually risked their lives for the black cause. For literature that focuses on a topic as vast and painful as slavery which has multi-generational effects, you can’t make such huge omissions.

Man Booker prospects for Whitehead? Well, I haven’t yet read the other Man Booker nominees but based on the quality of this book alone, I have a feeling Whitehead will make it to the shortlist. Will he win the prize? I don’t think so. Having black authors win it for three consecutive years doesn’t look very diversified for the awarding body (Marlon James 2015 and Paul Beatty 2016). Also, race and slavery were the main themes last year (Paul Beatty 2016). I’m sure the folks at Man Booker will want to shake things up this time which is a shame because ‘The Underground Railroad’ deserves all the accolades it can get.

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Homegoing – an okay read to an important topic 

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Genre: Historical fiction
Pages: 300
Rating: 3.5 stars

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?”

Starts in the 1700s in the Gold Coast (present day Ghana), the story follows one woman who has two daughters, Effia and Esi, from two different men. One of the daughters is married off to a slave trader and the other is sold into the slave trade. The main structure of the book is the alternating chapters about the lineage of these two women over six generations. Effia’s descendants remain in Africa, warring and intermarrying with members of different tribes. Esi’s are sold into slavery in America, and witness the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, the Harlem Renaissance, and the heroin epidemic. We get to know with each chapter one descendant from a single generation of either Effia or Esi, so the book flips back and forth between Ghana and the U.S. The story ends with the reunification of the two family lines

I think I speak for many when I say that the topic of this book affects how some people review it. It certainly does for me. If the topic is something about a massive moment in history, a despicable/vile era, I’m more likely to be affected by it because it’s something real. The importance of the topic discussed in Homegoing made a lot of people overlook its flaws.

With what I’m about to say next it may sound like I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. And I would recommend it simply because of how Gyasi successfully highlights the ripple effects of slavery from generation to generation up until our current time. The Ghana part of the book shows 300 years of strong kingdoms, inter-tribal wars, wars with the British, colonialism, freedom and pretty much the coming of age of a very strong African nation. And on the American side you see the history of African American slavery from being brought over by ships across the Atlantic Ocean to the civil war, freedom and the current social situation. That is commendable and ambitious. I guess I had a few issues with Homegoing which prevent me from completely loving it.

“You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

# Gyasi attempted to write a generational saga spanning 300 years in 300 pages. As a result the character building was very poor. Just as I found a character fascinating, which I did with several, the author moved on to the next chapter and a new generation. I’m the type of reader who gets totally immersed in a book. But I found myself losing interest in the characters. What was the point of getting attached to them when there wasn’t a conclusive end to their individual stories? I looked for characters to love, and other than ‘Ness’, I didn’t find any.

Do you remember Kainene from Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’? Adichie left that one character hanging and it was so tastefully done that until now I’m still haunted by her disappearance. But when Gyasi left an inconclusive end to almost all the characters the potency of the story was lost to me. I ended up remembering the moments in history rather than the people.

# Its not everyday a book is criticized for being too short! I firmly believe that Homegoing would have fared better if it was a chunky 500-700 pager. There is a reason multi-generational historical novels are so long; a reader wants to know everything about the characters and events. To write about such a vast history, and to give this heavy topic the justice that it deserves there needed to be more depth.

# I felt that the portrayal of an African American boy (Sonny)who had two children before he was out of his teens was particularly shallow and stereotyped. The plot device of a necklace that two sisters wear so they will not be lost to each other fails to make much of a difference.

# Towards the end the last two generations felt very… silly. It’s like Gyasi wanted the last two moments in history to work out and hence the characters felt empty and the final moment too orchestrated. The book went from being a historical fiction to a YA in the last chapter.

Gyasi writes well and this was a first novel. With her ambition and with time, she is sure to bring us even better stories. I look forward to reading them.

I’m interested to know your thoughts, whether you agree with me, whether the drawbacks I listed weren’t a big deal to you. Comment below, let’s discuss..

**Pictures taken at Fort Jesus, Mombasa, which was used as a transit port for slaves along the East African coast

Get your reading hats on!

If you’ve been following me for a while on Instagram, you’ll know by now that my biggest pet peeve is being asked why I read so much. I get asked that A LOT, and mostly from local accounts. I’ve come to realize that although some pose that question in a condescending manner, majority actually come from a good place. They genuinely want to know how it’s possible to read a vast number of books in a year. So I figured I’ll share my two cents on how to cultivate a reading culture for novice readers.

Please note that these are not sure fire ways of building a reading culture. In fact some are downright unconventional, but it’s what works for me – and it might just work for you too.

Here we go!

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Consider your preferences
If you’re starting out on your reading journey I’d advise selecting your reads based on your preferences. You have a thing for crime thriller movies? Pick up a Stephen King book. Into old pre/post war movies? Get historical fiction literature. Once you begin to appreciate the depth that books have over comparable mediums, (books are ALWAYS better than movies) you will be motivated to take on different genres.

Reading targets 
Now this is a double-edged sword. It seems pretty intuitive that as with everything in life, you have to set mini targets that will help you reach your final goal. But when it comes to reading, I beg to differ. I find that when I set reading targets, an activity that’s meant to be enjoyable begins to feel like a chore. I end up rushing through a book just so I can complete my targets for the month and log that on Goodreads. What for?! Or worse, it completely deters my psyche for books.

But… I guess if you are starting out your reading journey setting targets can build that discipline. It doesn’t have to be extremely ambitious. Set it at a book a month and work towards a book every fortnight.

Read anywhere, anytime!
Every article written about building a reading culture will tell you to set an allotted time for your books. But if you’re anything like me, then you find routine mundane and a deterrent. I’ve found that you don’t have to read at a pre-assigned time and place. That already feels like a chore (see above point). The trick is to always have a book or two with you wherever you go. I read over my morning coffee or late at night or on my Uber ride or when queuing at the bank. Point is, you can’t whine about the lack of reading time when you’ve forwarded a meme to several whatsapp group chats whilst waiting for your dentist appointment.

Pick up a paperback 
I firmly believe that reading electronically should be left to seasoned readers. Unless we are talking about a kindle then that’s a different story. You will not get much reading done on your mobile device with social media beckoning you to check your feed “one last time”. Go to your local bookstore and get yourself a paperback. Trust me on this!

Research context
Other than looking up the meaning of unfamiliar words, take time out to do some research of the literary, historical and social context of the book you’re reading. It doesn’t have to be extensive. A quick Wikipedia perusal does the trick for me. I also have a habit of doing a short background check on a writer before embarking on his/her books. Most times authors don’t write in a vacuum. Knowing about the historical and cultural elements that were prevalent when he/she was writing the book, or even the author’s personal issues/agendas sheds a lot of light on the text.

Readalongs 
This is an absolute favorite. It’s a variation of book club meetings, but done virtually. What happens is you and your friends (can be as many as 10 or as intimate as 2) read a book together and bounce off ideas/thoughts… in the DMs 😉 . Other than the obvious rationale that buddy-reading gives you morale to complete a book, discussing the various angles of a plot that you might have missed (because no two people read the same book) makes for a much more enjoyable reading experience.

P:S I am trying to add a widget on the blog which will show which books I’m currently reading and those which I plan to read next for those of you who would like to join me on readalongs.

Reading multiple books at a time
I used to wonder how people would read 2-3 books at a go then I figured it out. Different genres, people! I used to (still do) have a hard time reading non-fiction. Classics and contemporary fiction are my go-to genres. What I’d do is pair up a non-fiction with contemporary literature. Read a couple of chapters from the non-fiction and reward myself by binging on contemporary fiction. Works like a charm.

Take your time.
I always say that reading for leisure should be an enjoyable pastime and I for one take my sweet time with a book. I let the author completely reel me in the world that he/she has created, research, discuss via readalongs, and sometime if it’s an ‘emotionally heavy’ book I even take a break to reflect on what I read. The key is to enjoy the time you spend immersed in the pages of a book. It’s not a numbers game. Quality over quantity.

Happy reading!

I’d love to know you’ve improved your reading habits. Comment below, lets share ideas

 

 

 

Bookworm Stereotypes

Read & Survive

“Oh this? It’s a ‘bookworm.’
They live in books, and they love to eat important or valuable words.”
― CLAMP, xxxHolic, Vol. 7

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1. Readers are intelligent
 Readers are leaders. How many times have you heard this? Personally, I read a lot science fiction and fantasy…even nonfiction sometimes. I don’t think it makes me terribly clever. No, not really & definitely not intelligent enough to be a leader. Unless we’re planning to overthrow the Capitol. Then I’m your person.
2. Readers always wear glasses
Bookish characters portrayed in the media ALWAYS often wear glasses. Yes, I’ve heard that reading in bad light might damage your eyes and you might need glasses or it might be in your genes. Personally, I don’t wear glasses.
3. Readers are all a bit ugly and a bit overweight and a bit goofy and there must be something wrong with them
OR
female readers must all look like sexy librarians
Is there a middle ground…

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Metamorphosis; an unsettling story about alienation

Author: Franz Kafka
Genre: Classic
Pages: The particular edition that I have (pictured below) is 299 pages long but includes a number of other short stories. Metamorphosis alone is 63 pages.
My rating: 5 stars

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“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

If there is a book that grips your attention from the very first sentence 👆🏻, it is Metamorphosis. The opening sentence sets the theme for the novella – which is absurdity and wildly irrational event. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect. His surroundings appear normal and he thinks he’s in some sort of dream. He attempts to roll over but is unsuccessful due to his new body. He tries to scratch an itch but when he touches himself with one of his many legs, he is disgusted. Gregor’s mother knocks on his door which he keeps locked out of habit. When he answers her, he finds that his voice has changed. A little while later, his office manager comes into the apartment to find out why Gregor has not shown up for work. The manager starts to chide Gregor for his recent work performance. Gregor protests, and of course his voice has become totally incomprehensible at this stage. Using all his might, Gregor rocks himself to the floor and manages to unlock the door using his mouth. Horrified by Gregor’s appearance, the manager bolts out of the apartment. Gregor tries to catch up with him but his father drives him back to his room using a cane and a rolled up newspaper. Gregor got injured  when he was squeezing his way back into his room and exhausted, he fell asleep.

That was part 1 of the novella. At this point curious me was totally engrossed and googling about cockroaches. I don’t know why I was quick to assume that the “giant insect” would be a roach. Kafka did not get into specifics. So, anyways, part 2… Gregor wakes up to find that someone (his sister) has put milk and bread in his room. He’s excited because that used to be his favorite food but quickly discovers he has no taste for it. The sister, seeing his food was untouched replaces it with rotting food stuffs which tickles Gregor’s taste buds. Whenever the sister brings in the rotten food, he hides under the couch for fear that his appearance will frighten her. Gregor spends most of his time listening to the family conversations through the wall. Before his metamorphosis, Gregor used to be the sole income earner for the family, working in a job he loathes just so he can provide for the parents and sister. He even planned on sending Grete to a conservatory for violin lessons. Due to his current state, the family is in a bit of a fix financially. His father, who used to pretty much laze around the house now had to take up a job. The mother busied herself and Grete took up a job too. Over the course of the next few weeks, Gregor begins to grow more comfortable with his new body and finds out that he enjoys climbing the walls and ceilings. Noticing his new amusement, Grete decides to remove some of the furniture from his room to give him more space. With the help of her mother, they begin to move some of the furniture pieces. Gregor at first was excited at the prospect of having more space for his crawling activities, but quickly gets distressed that they are taking away items that define his individuality and in essence stripping him to be what he is, an insect. He comes out of his hiding spot and takes his position on a picture hanged on a wall, as if laying his territory. Gregor’s mother see’s him hanging on the wall and passes out from shock as it was only the second time for her to see her son in that state. In the commotion that followed, Gregor’s scurries out of the room where he encounters his father who has just returned home from work. The father throws apples at Gregor and one of them gets lodged in a sensitive spot in his back. He manages to get back in his room but is severely injured.

“Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.”

In part 3 we learn that in a bid to increase the dwindling family income,  Gregor’s father has rented a portion of their flat to three boarders. Grete has been asked to play the violin for them. Since the apple-throwing incident, Gregor took great care to avoid crossing paths with his family. But the allure of his sister’s music grew on him and he crept out of his room. The three men were initially interested in Grete but as she played on, they grew bored with her performance. Gregor on the other hand was transfixed by it. In a show of brotherly support, he inched closer to Grete. The boarders spot him and were alarmed. The father tried to shove the boarders back to their quarters but they used that incident to announce that they will move out immediately without paying rent because of the horrible conditions of the apartment. This greatly frustrates Grete who is now tired of taking care of Gregor. She tells her parents that they must find a way of getting rid of Gregor or else they will all be ruined. The father quickly agrees on this, wishing that Gregor would understand and leave on his own. Gregor does understand. He slowly crawls back to his room. His recent injuries have taken a toll on him, and coupled with the conversation he just heard, he dies. The family is greatly relieved when they find out about Gregor’s death. They take a celebratory walk outside and recount their finances. The father and mother realize that in spite of the recent hardships, Grete has blossomed into a lovely lady and they should now consider her marriage prospects.


“He thought back on his family with deep emotion and love. His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful reflection until the tower clock struck three in the morning. He still saw that outside the window everything was beginning to grow light. Then, without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils streamed his last weak breath.”

And there you have it – Kafka’s bizarre Metamorphosis. I devoured this in one sitting and when I was reading it I didn’t put much thought about the layers that Kafka so masterfully spinned. But let me tell you, days after I read it and I’m still drawing up relationships on what Kafka could have meant when he wrote this tale. Here are some of my half-formed notions..

  1. Absurdity.
    The opening line of the novella recounts the bizarre event of Gregor’s transformation in a quite straightforward manner. Gregor woke up as a giant insect, yet he didn’t freak out. Neither did his family or the three boarders when they first saw him. The only character who took Gregor’s change with any degree of normalcy was the office manager who ran out of the apartment upon seeing him. Shouldn’t the family have called for a doctor or tried to at least find a reason for Gregor’s change? Why were they unusually calm? He’s a bug, hello? Kafka sort of portrayed the metamorphosis as a normal event – like people change into insects all the time in the 1920s – and that sense of quick acceptance makes the story all the more absurd. 
  2. Autobiography
    Before I embark on reading an author’s work for the first time, I make a point of researching briefly on the author’s life. I like to get a background feel on a writer and try to figure out what influenced him/her to write that particular story. With Kafka it was easy. I’ll go out on a mill and say that Gregor’s character is based on Kafka himself. Apparently, Franz Kafka had a very rocky relationship with his father. We see in the story that from all the family characters, it was the father who was the least sympathetic to Gregor. In real life, Kafka felt that his father was over bearing and treated him like trash.. perhaps to the point of making him feel like a disgusting insect.
  3. Perspective
    Is Metamorphosis really about a man who wakes up to finds himself transformed into a cockroach or is Gregor a schizophrenic who believes he’s been turned into a human sized roach who terrorizes his family in his mental state? Kafka left that open for us to interpret. He requested his publisher at that time to remove any image involving an insect of the cover.

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    The first edition Metamorphosis cover –

  4. Metamorphosis
    Of course the most clear change is Gregor’s metamorphosis into an insect. But when you deeply analyze the book you see several metamorphosis. The whole family metamorphosized from being utterly dependent on Gregor’s income to getting jobs of their own. Perhaps the biggest metamorphosis after Gregor would be the sister, Grete. She went from being the one who primarily took care of him (getting his meals, removing his furniture) to suggesting that the parents should get rid of him.
  5. Alienation
    The greatest point to take away from Metamorphosis is the psychological distance it creates between Gregor and those around him. What influenced Gregor’s attitude towards himself was the reaction of his parents and sister. He became completely ashamed of himself, striving to completely hide himself from view. The change makes him both physically and emotionally separate from his family. Bringing this point closer to home, how do we treat people with disabilities? If someone close to you got into a car accident which hideously transformed him/her, would we treat them any differently? Its fitting that Kafka named his character ‘Gregor Samsa’. Samsa translates to ‘alone’ in Czech.

I’m sure there’s so much more to analyze from this bizarre but totally relevant story in our society today that I have not touched yet – mind/body disconnect, dissonance of the human spirit, etc.  This novella gets 5 stars for me. I cannot recommend it enough.

Seriously guys, read it. I’m sure online copies can be easily downloaded. Its a classic that’s well worth an hour or two of your time.

 

 

 

Review – The Fishermen

Title: The Fishermen
Author: Chigozie Obioma
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 414
My rating: 3.5 stars

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“Listen, days decay, like food, like fish,
like dead bodies. This night will decay, too and you will forget. Listen, we will forget.”

A very frustrating story of a Nigerian family told in the voice of a 10 year old, Ben. The father takes a position with Central Bank of Nigeria that takes him away from his family of four boys on the cusp of adolescence. The boys start getting into trouble, the mother cannot manage on her own, things go from bad to worse. The boys bumped into a mad man who prophesied that the eldest, Ikenna, will be killed by fishermen. Now at that time, the brothers used to fish at a local river. Ikenna falls for the ramblings of the man mad and completely believes that his brothers are out to kill him. What happens next is a self-fulfilling prophecy/Greek tragedy. Ikenna is killed by his brother, Boja, who then commits suicide by jumping into a well. Obembe coerced the youngest brother, Ben, into a plan to avenge Ikenna and Boja by killing the mad man. They were successful but Ben was caught and charged with manslaughter. Obembe escaped to Benin.

“The prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying his mind with the ferocity of madness . . . until all that he knew, all that was him, all that had become him was left in disarray. To my brother, Ikenna, the fear of death as prophesied by Abulu had become palpable, a caged world within which he was irretrievably trapped, and beyond which nothing else existed.”

There, that the gist of it all.

Before I begin yet another long rant on why I didn’t like this book much, lets start with the positives. First, it is SO refreshing to read African literature that is not overly centered on politics and war. Obioma mentioned the military regime subtly, but he did not center the entire story on it. Another thing which I absolutely loved was the use of animism in describing the changes the characters went through. It was original and uniquely African. Obioma definitely has talent. His writing has a mythic quality and he does a great job documenting the family dynamics, especially the relationship between the brothers

I do not understand how this book got all those accolades. Man Booker Prize nominee? That’s implying that the world-building and prose is at the same level as Marlon James (Brief History of Seven Killings) or Hanya Yanagihara (A Little Life). Come on. We all know its not. Interesting premise, yes, but painfully predictable. Before you say I’m hating on African Literature (because I’ve been getting quite a lot of those lately) please do not get me wrong. For a debut novel, its fantastic. And to think Obioma was only 28 when he published it makes one wonder how much better his craft will be when he reaches his peak. But if we pile up accolades on an author who isn’t at that level yet, aren’t we doing him a disservice?

Do you know Africa? Or are you still stereotyping it?

Title: How to Write About Africa
Author: Binyavanga Wainana
Genre: Non-fiction, Satire
Pages: 44, pocket size
Publisher: Kwani Trust
My rating: 4 stars

“Some tips: sunsets and starvation are good.”

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Throughout the book adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader and a sad I-expected-so-much tone

This was a fun read. A ridiculously fun read. Under “irony” in the dictionary, there’s a little picture of Wanaina. It’s a very short, tongue-in-cheek reflection about Africa and the people who write about Africa. A few posts down my feed I went on a long rant about African literature focusing on the same generalizing themes.. (wildlife, AIDS, coups), well this little book talked about the same thing but with lots of dry wit and panache. I loved it!

Wainaina tackles stereotypes about Africa with effortless humor – Africa is one large country; African cuisine consists of monkey brain; a “country” of breathtaking red sunsets but plagued with HIV/AIDS, war and famine; a land of naked breasts and rotting bodies. Wainana writes that Africa is worth romanticizing but not deeply thinking about. Through the humor you can also feel Wainaina’s anger and sadness as he highlights how Africa’s most important people are celebrity activists, aid workers and conservationists

It’s a very short read, can be done in half an hour. Compromises of three stories. Well, the term ‘stories’ would be inaccurate because it’s non fiction. So, yeah, three short essays but packs a punch. It forces the read to ask him/herself.. Do you know Africa, or are you still stereotyping it?

“Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbow or renaissance. Because you care.”


Snippets of Wainana’s book read by actor Djimon Hounsou

You can read the entire piece electronically here

The Sellout Giveaway

Two blog posts in the space of a day! Before you congratulate me on my stellar level of commitment and dedication, this is NOT a lit review but shameless self-promotion of a Giveaway I’m co-hosting on my Instagram Account with Ides of March

The book we are giving away is none other than last year’s Man-Booker Prize winner ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty. Disclaimer: I have not read the book yet so I can’t go out on a limb and push for it. BUT its got some stellar reviews and a won a bunch of prestigious awards. And hey, we all love a satire novel, am I right?!

So anyways, the Giveaway has been running for a week and it ends on the 5th of March so get on my Instagram here and look for the post I’ve highlighted on the screenshot below. Terms and Conditions apply.

Good luck!

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Rambling Instagram post on African Literature 

Here’s an unread pile of African literature that I hope to cover this year.



‎‏

  • The Fishermen – Nigeria ‏
  • Diaries of a Dead African – Nigeria ‏
  • Tram 83 – Congo
  • ‎‏The girl who was raped – South Africa
  • ‎‏Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges – Kenya
  • ‎‏Tracking the Scent of my Mother – Kenya ‏
  • How to Write About Africa – Kenya
  • ‎‏Teaching my Mother How To Give Birth – British nationality but Kenyan born. So, Kenya 😂

‎‏I must confess, I don’t like African lit much. Man, doesn’t that feel nice to get off my chest! Thing is, I find a lot of African novels are biased towards colonialism, how the west sucked us dry, poverty, AIDS, bla bla.. lots of underdeveloped political undertones. And yes, these are events that happened and continue to occur. They are a part of our identity and we should discuss them. Write about them. Read them. Not denying that. But can we just get a good storyline, you know? A horror story, dystopian, sci-fi anything really.

‎‏Brings to mind a quote by Chinua Achebe when he said: “There was [one] thing that we tried to do and failed – and that was to define ‘African literature’ satisfactorily. Was it literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could African literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme?”

‎‏Makes one wonder.. Is the fault with us? Do we unfairly give African authors the heavy cross of representing their countries? Shouldn’t we grant them the artistic freedom as other authors are, to explore different genres and new themes? In my opinion, African literature should solely be defined as ‘created by an African’, regardless of where they are or what they write about. In fact, the more diverse, the better. What African authors need to understand is that we don’t want “African-ness” in the books. We just want good books written by Africans.

‎‏Moving on, who else thinks that West African authors carry the torch for the rest of the continent? You know they do! Put aside the heavyweights Chimamanda Adichie and the late Chinua Achebe, I still feel that West African stories are much more entertaining and free flowing than their East African counterparts. Or maybe I’ve read a bit too much of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and have been scarred for life! What is it that West African countries are doing differently? I think they’ve embraced creativity and thinking outside the box. Look at Nollywood, which we love to hate. But you gotta admit, it’s creative, cultural and modern at the same time.

‎‏On a lighter note, can someone PLEASE tell me that it’s okay to be Kenyan and not like Thiong’o. Please? I can’t be using the name “Kenyan Bibliophile” and not appreciate the founding father of Kenyan Literature. Huge moral crisis! I think that’s why half of this stack is by Kenyan authors. Overcompensating much.

‎‏P.S: Got those books from Magunga Books. Yes, they have an agenda to take every penny of my savings. Check them out. I believe they deliver internationally

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That was originally a post on my bookstagram (@KenyanBibliophile) and it resulted into a very interactive discussion. With the encouragement of a few followers, I decided to plaster it here. Below are some of the comments.




Review of ‘A Farewell To Arms’

Author: Ernest Hemingway
Title: A Farewell To Arms
Genre: Classics, Fiction
Pages: 293
My rating: 3.5 stars

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“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

You all know by now how much love I have for the classics genre. And we can further focus my adoration on one particular author, Ernest Hemingway. His writing capabilities aside, there is just something enigmatic about the man which I find fascinating. I’ve read a number of his books with my favorite being ‘A Moveable Feast’. That was until ‘A Farewell to Arms’ made its way into my little eager hands. And we now have a new E.H favorite. Then why the measly three-and-a-half-star rating, you ask. Because the book was brilliantly written with that descriptive prose that solely belongs to Papa. The dialogue was an absolute charm to read. But the ending was abrupt, sort of like he got tired of writing. And there is nothing I hate more than sudden endings.

When Hemingway was 18 he was eager to fight in the Great War. Poor vision kept him out of the army so he joined the ambulance corps instead. He was transferred to Italy where he was the first American wounded in that country. Ten years later, ‘A Farewell to Arms’ was born which, like ‘A Moveable Feast’, is a semi autobiographical novel about his experiences during World War One.

The below Bradley Cooper scene from “The Silver Linings Playbook” accurately describes the gist of the book

I do hope you clicked play above because I don’t think I can improve on Bradley Cooper’s synopsis! In the end the leading lady, Catherine, dies during childbirth after she gave birth to a stillborn baby. And the story ended. Just like that. As in, that was it! What did the protagonist, Frederic Henry, do next? Did he go back to the front line? Did he go back to America? I wish Hemingway gave us a little bit more there. I think authors owe their readership a responsibility to at least give them some sort of closure. I mean, some of us get emotionally invested in the characters, and to end the story as abruptly as he did, was, well.. rude.

Or in true Hemingway fashion, maybe he was trying to show us that war alters the course of everything and leaves one empty. Either way, I still didn’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of the novel; drawing attention to the boredom that can be experienced even during times of war and how the horrors of death can make a staunch soldier give up arms altogether.

Another thing, can we talk about the character of Catherine Barkley for a second? I love reading a book which has a strong female presence. I mean, who doesn’t, right? And Catherine was anything but. I found her character shallow and robotic – coming in and out of Henry’s surrounding – mostly his bed. It appears that the sole purpose of her character was to show that Henry, a man that never loved, could love.

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“Oh, darling, you will be good to me, won’t you? Because we’re going to have a strange life.”

I mentioned earlier that I fell in love with the dialogue in this novel. Here is a excerpt of a conversation which I found to be charming and witty.

–If you ever live to be as old as I am, you will find many things strange.
–You never seem old.
–It is the body that is old. Sometimes I am afraid I will break off a finger as one breaks a stick of chalk. And the spirit is no older and not much wiser.
–You are wise.
–No, that is the great fallacy. The wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.
–Perhaps that is wisdom.
–It is a very unattractive wisdom. What do you value the most?
–Someone I love.
–With me it is the same. That is not wisdom. Do you value life?
–Yes.
–So do I. Because it is all I have. And to give birthday parties. You are probably wiser than I am. You do not give birthday parties.
–What do you think of the war really?
–I think it is stupid.
–Who will win it?
–Italy.
–Why?
–They are a younger nation.
–Do younger nations always win wars?
–They are apt to for a time.
–Then what happens?
–They become older nations.
–You said you were not wise.
–Dear boy, that is not wisdom. That is cynicism.

These are the kind of conversations you wish you were privy to. Seated silently by the fireplace listening to Hemingway converse with a ninety year old Count. This was pure bliss to read. Compare this with the dialogue between Frederic and Catherine. Its cringe worthy at best.

Fun Fact: Hemingway wrote 49 different endings for this novel! Why in the world he settled on this one is still a mystery to me. I just found out that there is a Scribner edition of Farewell to Arms that includes ALL the alternate endings PLUS one suggested to him by F.Scott Fitzgerald! Like that’s not enough, the edition also includes rough drafts and the original artwork cover! Its a gold-mine, especially if you’re a self-confessed Hemingway fan. I’m pretty sure there will be an ending in there that will fit my liking and all will be forgiven.

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What I wouldn’t give for this edition!

Aspiring authors, take note. If you fail, try and try again. About 49 times!

Love and light,
Fifi