Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Reading Africa

A month today, I am moving to Nairobi, Kenya.

Books teach us about other places. Right now I'm in Westeros with Jaime Lannister. Last week I was in Florence with George Eliot in Romola. In November I walked the streets of a lost Glasgow in Alasdair Gray's Lanark. Moscow with Tolstoy; Paris with Hugo; London with Dickens. Books take me there. Since the summer I have been visiting Africa by page -- Tanzania, Nigeria and Kenya -- while my real trip gathers shape and form in my mind. I have organised these books in order of publication, to take you from colonial days to the Africa of the present.

Lake Elementaita South of the lake, Kenya  --  new Natural World Heritage Site:
[source] // Lake Elementaita, Kenya

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway (1935)

“An attempt to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month's action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination." A slice of autobiography, Green Hills of Africa charts a month of big game hunting in Tanzania.

Green Hills of Africa is an idyll, a magnificent landscape where life and death walk hand in hand. Hemingway's intention of writing “an absolutely true book" gave him free rein to explore the life he loved the best.
Now, looking out of the tunnel of trees over the ravine at the sky with the white clouds moving across in the wind, I loved the country so that I was happy as you are after you have been with a woman you really love, when, empty, you feel it welling up again and there it is and you can never have it all and yet what there is, now, you can have, and you want more and more, to have, and be, and live in, to possess now again for always, for that long, sudden-ended always; making time stand still, sometimes so very still that afterwards you want to hear it move, and it is slow in starting. ... So if you have loved some woman and some country you are very fortunate and, if you die afterwards, it makes no difference. Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have time to be in it and to move slowly. I have loved country all my life; the country was always better than the people. I could only care about people a very few at a time. 
One Hemingway book I have says on the back, “the most important writer since Shakespeare". This is a bold claim and not one I necessarily support, but perhaps there is something in it, because how is it, really, that one person can do that with words? How does it happen? Amidst his love of the land his love of language shines through; he discusses reading and writing what it means to be a writer.
Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.
So Green Hills is not only a book about big game hunting; it is a book about life. Every kind of life that was important to him. I am not, of course, pro-hunting, but reading Green Hills gave me a strange, thrilling sense of Hemingway himself, his presence very close to me. He was a writer living in East Africa and adoring it, and in a month that is what I shall be, and this seems very special to me, as if I can tread in his footprints.


Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (1937)

1914-1931: Karen Blixen farmed coffee in Kenya. Her love of the country quivers on every page, and this is a wonderful tribute to how a land can adopt a person. Out of Africa is a meandering book and it took me a while to read -- it is not plot-driven, rather a collection of anecdotes -- but it did make me excited about seeing this country for myself.
On an evening just before sunset, the scenery drew close round you, the hills came near and were vigorous, meaningful, in their clear, deep blue and green colouring. A couple of hours later you went out and saw that the stars had gone, and you felt the night air soft and deep and pregnant with benefaction.
Blixen's anthropological discussion was also very interesting.
[Native Kenyans] dislike speed, as we dislike noise; it is to them, at the best, hard to bear. They are also on friendly terms with time, and the plan of beguiling or killing it does not come into their heads. In fact the more time you can give them, the happier they are, and if you commission a Kikuyu to hold your horse while you make a visit, you can see by his face that he hopes you will be a long, long time about it. He does not try to pass the time then, but sits down and lives.
Many people have told me that living in Kenya will give me a different idea of time, and I can't wait!


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
A village in Nigeria suffers as the changes of the twentieth century rip across the land. I was not a massive fan of Things Fall Apart. It was both tribute to and condemnation of lost Nigeria. The main character, Okonkwo, is poisoned by his desire for success, his desire to prove himself:
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 than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and 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. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.
The patriarchal culture of Things Fall Apart forces men to exert their dominance through war, through ancestor-worship, through the taking of many wives and the fathering of many sons and the marrying off of their daughters at the highest price. Achebe paints bleakly this world of misogyny, murder and child sacrifice, and yet the alternative is seen to be no better: the coming of the white man, to convert the villagers to Christianity. The book's title comes from The Second Coming by William Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
In this poem, the Second Coming is an event of horror, a “beast slumping towards Jerusalem", and likewise the coming of Christians is one of division and destruction. The character of Rev Smith shows very clearly mission gone wrong, and as such I found the book pretty depressing. I enjoyed the way it was written, and the Nigerian fables woven into the narrative, but ultimately it was a very bleak picture of a world of hatred.


A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Kenya, 1963: on the verge of independence from the British. Uhuru -- independence day -- drums through the consciousness of the village of Thabai consciousness. But within Thabai's community secrets lurk, and the past and the present wind together as that which is hidden emerges in Uhuru's light.

I properly loved A Grain of Wheat. It is an interlocking narrative of the personal and the political. It gave me a fascinating look at Kenya's recent history, while at the same time pulling me along in the lives of the villagers. It is masterfully written: an ensemble cast of POV characters gives its interwoven tales, past and present rippling out of one another. Kenya's legacy of verbal storytelling is kept alive both in the characters' inner monologues and the tales they tell one another, and as the pieces of the story unfold and slot together the novel is hugely satisfying.


Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Race. Racism. Growing up and falling in (and out of) love in a changing world. The way you will alter in a watcher's eyes depending on your colour.

Nigerian Ifemelu has been in America for thirteen years. Americanah opens with a description of why she likes living in Princeton ... “But she did not like that she had to go to Trenton to braid her hair." In the midst of her American life, longings for Nigeria return to her, for the land of her coming of age. In that country Obinze, her teenage love, still lives, but they are both more changed than they can realise.

Americanah was a hugely interesting and insightful book. It exposes the layers of racism within America: the teenage African boy beaten up by black American classmates for his African accent; the way the whites around him look on in amazement, because they assume all blacks are the same. Ifem, a Nigerian student in an American college, being asked to give “the black perspective" and having nothing to say, because she is not a black American. I had never even thought about these differences.

It is a rich and varied novel, drawing from a wide range of Adichie's interests and passions: racism, feminism, the blogosphere, body image, politics, hair. The sections on hair -- it is fitting that the book opens with Ifem going to get her hair braided -- were among the most interesting to me, as Adichie rails against black women using the burning chemical relaxant to make their natural hair lie flat in order to be styled like a white woman's.
Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.
Overall, I think it's fair to say I enjoyed the themes and ideas more than the plot and characters; Ifem was kind of annoying. But Americanah opened a world of thought for me. I will leave you with an utter gem of a justification for positive discrimination.
The American Black deal is kind of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal.

Have you read any of these? Which would you pick up? Where did you visit most recently via book? What is the vividest setting you have ever read? And have you ever been to Africa -- by page or in reality?

Friday, 9 December 2016

Books Upon Books

Unable to think of further haul puns. Any suggestions would be welcome.

(Alternate title: Emily Never Posts The Books She's Bought So Here's A Photo Dump From The Past Six Months You're Welcome.)

The various secondhand:

Beads, Boys and Bangles // #2 in the Threads trilogy, a series illustrating how very mistaken one can be when one judges books by their covers and titles. I still haven't read the third one, but I now own them all and when I read them all again it shall be a beautiful and glorious time. (It's a friendship and art story set in London. They hang out in the V&A. Could you actually ask for anything else?) (Also, Sophia Bennett once commented on this very blog. I may have died. Just a little.)

Career of Evil // can I have an ASGKLAJGSKL for JK Rowling, Queen of my Heart? In case you missed it, I LOVE THE CORMORAN STRIKE NOVELS WITH ALL OF MY SOUL. I LOVE CORMORAN. I LOVE ROBIN. I LOVE LONDON. I LOVE IT ALL.

Image result for fangirl screaming gif
Career of Evil was soooo good. I mean it was so. good. And the next book is coming out early 2017! WHICH IS REALLY SOON. Except I am going to be in Kenya. So I'll need to wait till I get back. GAAAHHH.
The Beggar of Volubilis // because I love The Roman Mysteries with every muscle and fibre of my heart.

The ones I bought secondhand in St Andrews:

A Moveable Feast // I adore Hemingway -- sure, I've only read two of his books, but they were exquisite -- and I never stop seeing quotations from A Moveable Feast.

[source] // how is it possible to write such a long sentence with no commas and repeat the word together twice and yet it is still ... perfect? (Hemingway's disregard of commas validates all my choices. I love it. Love him. So much.)
[source] // then there's this picture. One of my favourite pictures ever, I have no clue who these people are but I just really love it. I have it on my wall. And he's reading A Moveable Feast. Don't I always say it? Everything is connected.
The Captain's Verses // fun story, that time I went to Chile I visited two of Pablo Neruda's (beautiful, incredible) houses, one in Santiago and one in Valparaiso. I read one of his poems while there, because the original copy that he wrote (with a translation beside it, thankfully) was sitting on the desk in the Valpo house. Since then I've read a couple more poems and they're lovely, so I can't wait to dive into this book! 
La luna hace girar su rodaje de sueño.
Me miran con tus ojos las estrellas más grandes.
Y como yo te amo, los pinos en el viento,
quieren cantar tu nombre con sus hojas de alambre.
The moon turns its clockwork dream.

The biggest stars look at me with your eyes.

And as I love you, the pines in the wind
want to sing your name with their leaves of wire.
~ from Aquí Te Amo (Here I Love You)

Horace's Complete Odes and Epodes // I freaking love Horace. Last year for Latin I wrote a dissertation comparing themes of time and transience in his poems and the poems of Shakespeare and Marvell. Horace is the originator of the phrase carpe diem. He is a master of irony, or, to put it more bluntly, sass. I'm reading this book at the moment and loving it.
Don't ask what will happen tomorrow.
Whatever day Fortune gives you, enter it
as profit, and don't look down on love
and dancing while you're still a lad, 
while the gloomy grey keeps away from the green.
~from Ode 1.9

Birthday Letters // and if you don't know that Ted Hughes is my favourite poet, you're a) new here (hi! Welcome!) or b) do not listen. Birthday Letters is the last and most famous of Hughes' books. For this reason I'm kind of putting it off? I sort of like to read authors' works in order, sometimes, rather than reading the best regarded one first, because sometimes if you start with “the best" you can find you've peaked at the beginning? Not that that could happen with Hughes, obviously, because I've already read lots of his books. So I don't know. I don't understand myself either. ~shrugs~

The ones I bought secondhand in Glasgow:

Across the River and Into the Trees // because, again, Hemingway. This one is set in Venice! Where my heart lives! (No, I've never been, but that's just a detail.) And don't you love the title? Rivers! Trees! My two favourite things! I love books with “trees" in the title. Bit of subtle self-promotion there.

Much Ado About Nothing // I love this play a lot. And the shipping is real. Best hate-to-love romance.

Physik and Flyte // because you know what is great? Hilarious British children's high fantasy with a main character literally called Septimus. I spend 80% of my reading life looking forward to when I can next reread a kids' fantasy series (this Christmas it's going to be Skulduggery, SOMEBODY HOLD ME), and I can't wait for this one.

Cutest, tiniest edition of Much Ado ever! And I love that Hemingway cover. Venice!
The ones I was randomly given:

Jane Eyre // my mum gave me this rather battered copy of Jane Eyre. (I think she found it in the house somewhere. Who even knows. Our home is a book labyrinth, you could get lost for years.) It has a beautiful illustration on the cover.

Image result for jane eyre cover
How lovely is she? I can't wait to reread Jane Eyre. I enjoyed it the first time, aged thirteen, but I think I was a little young.
From the Mouth of God // my minister gave me this as a sorta “good-luck-on-your-gap-year-congrats-you're-an-adult-now" type thing. How nice?? And I'm told it's a great book. Looking forward.

All the Light We Cannot See // this is a short vid of my face when my mum casually gave this to me:

From the off, the title of All the Light attracted me, and despite being an avowed historical fiction avoider, I do bend the rules for WW2. And the cover is really pretty. 

Also it is a Pulitzer Prize winner.

I don't normally base my opinions on prizes, but you know what won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014? The Goldfinch. And in 2007? The Road. After making this connection between these two of my favourite books, I made it my business to devour all the Pulitzer winners. 

So I started visiting All the Light in Waterstones quite some time ago. (That's what I do -- I find books I want but I don't buy them straight off, because it's a big commitment, buying a book firsthand when you really know nothing about it except look the cover is pretty -- and I visit them for a while. Eventually, sometimes, I take the plunge. At the moment, if you're interested, I'm visiting Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter; By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart; and a lovely illustrated edition of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.) I almost bought it on numerous occasions. And then my mum's friend came to stay, and gave her the book, and my mum finished it, and gave it to me!

A Clash of Kings // a friend (shout-out to you, Cat) was clearing out books and gave me this. Once upon a time I thought I'd never reread A Song of Ice and Fire -- because they're frigging massive and who has time? -- but increasingly I don't know. Basically I just want to read A Feast for Crows again because Jaime. He doesn't have any POV chapters in A Dance With Dragons Part 1 because of the way GRRM splits the books geographically rather than chronologically. So today I was reading A Dance with Dragons Part 2 and, on p112, he got his first POV chapter for more than a book -- and eighteen months of my reading life -- and I legit nearly started crying. Moreover, who knows when The Winds of Winter will come out? NEVER, PROBABLY, SO WE SHOULD READ WHAT WE'VE GOT. (Though this is the gross TV show edition. But we can't have everything in this life.)

The ones my brother (a babe) gave me for my birthday:

Crow // because Ted. My one and only.

The Flame Trees of Thika // set in Kenya. Will be fun to read in Kenya.

A Grain of Wheat // also set in Kenya, in the 1950s as they gained their independence from the British. This was a wonderful book. Review on its way.

No Country for Old Men // because The Road by Cormac McCarthy is one of my favourites of 2016.

Things Fall Apart // I was disappointed in this one, considering its extreme renown. Review forthcoming.

Out of Africa // a beautiful tribute to Kenya. Review shortly.

Darling // I have very nearly finished this poetry collection by Jackie Kay, the Scots Makar (which is like the Poet Laureate, but in Scotland), and I love it.
Across the world were mirrors to see
faces that looked like me,
people caught between two places,
people crossing over the seas.
~from Yell Sound

Jackie Kay was born to a Nigerian father and Scottish Highlander mother and adopted by a white couple from Glasgow. As someone extremely interested in national identity -- as someone planning a book about national identity -- Darling is fascinating. I'm sure I'll share more from Kay as I talk more about LesMisBook.

The one I bought firsthand:

Lanark // that's right, the only book of this post that I actually got from a firsthand bookshop. I was going to say, “with my own money!" ... but it wasn't. During the summer my school sent me a book token with a note saying, “lol u won this prize nd we forgot 2 give it 2 u here's £10." So I still don't know what the prize was for ... but I got Lanark all the same!

Her abs are #goals. Gray did all the illustrations himself: absolutely stunning!

What books have you bought recently? Do you, like me, avoid firsthand book-buying like the plague? Have you read any of these? Come, let us get excited together.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Life in November // All the Updates // A Vlog?


Happy Advent!

The year is in its old age. Snow has fallen. Life spirals on towards Christmas in a vacuum of busyness and glitter.

A picture of my garden. We have had the most beautiful frosty November. What an incredible world God has made for us!

For me, November saw Kenya preparations: designing team T-shirts (they're gonna be great, I'm just saying), getting about a million vaccinations (and I'm not done yet) and having a second weekend with the team. There are eight of us, all girls, and it's a really lovely group.

While I'm in Kenya, there is going to be a fortnightly(ish) team prayer letter. I will not be blogging during my trip (which makes me wanna cry, but there it is) because of very limited Internet. But if you would like to pray for me -- which I'd love! -- please leave a comment with your email address, or email me at emmilobb@gmail.com. I would really value it!

Illustration by Becca Stadtlander:
[source] // Becca Stadtlander

November has also seen work getting really busy. Remember how I used to work in the little shop selling the sparkly trainers? Now I work in a massive shop selling very expensive everything. Christmas is upon us -- not just upon us, mauling us with its ravening claws, or so it's felt -- and sometimes I spend my days stacking cards and wrapping paper and £20 faux-glass reindeer. The Christmas section is right by large electricals, so I can watch suburban couples, accountants and lawyers, pay £500 for coffee makers to take home to their clean streets with their two big cars and holidays to Tuscany. In the cheap sparkly trainer shop, the materialism accepted itself for what it was. Cheap and cheerful were the buzzwords. But this big shop takes itself so seriously (remember the trouser suits?) it can hardly admit it's a consumerist temple in a consumerist nation selling people very expensive things they don't need. As I stacked cards the other week I reflected on these things, and I thought of lines from Mary Oliver:
I want to think again of dangerous and noble things / I want to be light and frolicsome / I want to be improbable and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.
And I thought of how the suburban coffee machine buyers would look at me and see a rather wan-faced small girl in large black trousers, stacking Christmas cards in a robotic fashion, and never know that I want to be noble and improbable. And it made me think of lines from Jackie Kay's poem Watching People Sing:
Oh, I think, Oh, who will
sleep at my foot, who will sing to me like that
eyes brimming with love and change and spark.
And then I remembered that I only work part-time, and I'm very lucky to have a job at all when I think of all the beggars I walk past on my way to work, and that I am a writer and an heir of God's kingdom, and I live in the most beautiful country, which is at peace, with a democratic government, and I have parents and brothers and sisters and food and warmth.

And I felt foolish for my dark reflections at the Christmas card shelf.

I have a difficult relationship with the world and myself.


I feel this -- the lines from Dylan Thomas -- so very strongly, and yet I know that I romanticise everything and break my heart over realities that don't exact, over loves that are not fulfilled. But perhaps it is about finding the balance between on the one hand being improbable and holding fast to your dreams and not giving up, and on the other committing everything to Jesus, the one who will never disappoint.

That got a bit deeper than I meant.

how beautiful is this though?
Let's talk about Starting Sparks.

You may have noticed that no December prompt has been posted. This is because we are taking a Starting Sparks hiatus.

After over a year of running the link-up, neither Ashley nor I could exactly pretend it has taken off. We normally get one or two linkers and ourselves -- or not even ourselves, sometimes (I am working on my November story, honest). Because we're all busy. And as Ashley pointed out, maybe some of you are reluctant to publish your short fiction online because you are hoping to sell it. As I said, I won't be blogging while I'm in Kenya, and so we've decided to suspend the link-up.

If you've got any suggestions, they'd be very welcome. Is there any other kind of link-up you'd like to see? A way that would make it easier to participate in Starting Sparks? Let us know!

In Books
Not a great month in terms of numbers of books, but they were good (and Lanark was frigging massive, so I can be forgiven). Out of Africa was a beautiful portrayal of Kenya, shimmering with a love of the land that made me really excited to see it for myself. A Grain of Wheat was also about Kenya at the time of its Independence from the British: a story of village life, interweaving the personal and the political, and a really wonderful book.

Other Life News

 (Notice how I skilfully wove all my life news together? Not.) I have a new niece, Alice, who was born three weeks ago in Singapore! I cannot wait to meet her on Boxing Day. Every baby I see makes me more excited.

Any maker will tell you, it's a compulsion. #type #typography #handmade…:
[source] // I really love this

I'm currently in Oxford. Remember how this happened this time last year? And I got interviewed and I didn't get in and I ended up taking a gap year? Well, we're back. I think I have actually forgotten to tell y'all (do you like my use of y'all? I'm basically American what can I say) that I got an offer from Glasgow. Increasingly I feel that leaving Glasgow is a ridiculous idea and why would anyone do that? So basically I am a confused crocodile (don't question the metaphor). But I am not worried. God will send me where I need to go. And Shakespeare will be Shakespeare, and Fitzgerald will be Fitzgerald, and I shall read Hughes and marvel, so what could actually go wrong?


A Vlog Proposal

One last thing: I am, I think, going to make a vlog soon, because we all know vlogging is the most fun way to do tags, and you'll miss me so much when I'm in Kenya you'll want to see my face before I go. I have a couple of tags for this. (One of them is, like, a year old, don't judge.) But if you would like to add to the Q&A -- because the more the merrier, right? -- drop me an email to emmilobb@gmail.com (or just a comment would do the trick!). 

Anne Morin I Wonderwall:

maria elena alvarez:
red cats look best in stripes (by Marc Johns):
[source] // one of my favourite illustrations


How was your November? Best book you read? Are you excited for Christmas? Remember: email me with vlog questions or if you'd like the Kenya prayer letter!