Mini-Reviews at the End of 2011

This is going to sound a bit high schoolish but here goes:  Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness has of  post of mini-reviews up on her blog  in which she credits Lu of Regular Rumination with the “idea to do a Great Review Catch Up”.  Of course, I’m in.  I always have a list of 3 – 5 books that I’ve read and I want to review but somehow fail to do.

I will write separate, longer reviews for two of the books below but for the rest, these short reviews are all the love they’ll get from this lazy blogger.

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The Memory of Love (2010) by Aminatta Forna – I find it difficult writing about some of the books that I love.  Possibly the book brings up lots of issues.  Often, I find myself tossing up stuff and carrying whole conversations in my head.  End result, no review but lots I want to think and write about.    I’m still thinking about Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow, which I read back in 2010.  No review yet on that! Anyway, The Memory of Love is one of the best books that I read this year.  Setting part of the story on a university campus resonated with me as I grew up on such a campus in Ghana.  I think this is also the first time that I’ve encountered an Elias Cole type in African lit.  He is the typical, let’s say, non-aligned faculty member on campus, the one folks can’t trust, the one who  colludes with “reactionary”governments and spies on his “progressive” colleagues.  Lots of student agitation on campus.  It was a bit like my childhood!  The war in Sierra Leone. I think it is that Sierra Leone, like Ghana,  is in West Africa.  That I see my people in Forna’s people.  That I cannot believe that it all happened in my backyard. It is these issues that causes me to clamp up about this book.  But Forna’s insistence in finding a way, any way, to talk about these things is important.  I really like that the issue of psychology and therapy are discussed.  We really need that here in Ghana/West Africa.  There is a quote in the book in which someone asks whether people have been taught to deal with Africa itself, let alone war (or something like that).  So little psychological and emotional therapy goes on here.  A shame because frankly we need it.  The book resolves very little but does ask a lot of questions. I see that she is trying and succeeding in asking the right questions of us. It’s unbearable at times but it is necessary I find.  Still, she is very gentle with her characters.  There are four intertwined story lines. An amazing book.  I will reread it in 2012 and try to write a longer, coherent review. 

The Yellow Sofa (1925)  by Jose Maria Eça de Queirós –  Eça de Queirós  is considered the greatest Portuguese writer ever.  He is also one of the best 19th Century writers.  So if you’ve read Dickens, Zola, Flaubert and have not read this guy, then get you to a library, bookshop or whatever.  There is a wide gap in your reading!  Says she who has not read a Dickens novel.  The Yellow Sofa is just sheer fun.  Alves, a  successful businessman,  begins his day just like any other.  Except, it is fourth wedding anniversary and  his younger business partner is not in the office, again.  Alves loves his wife, cares for his partner; his life is rather good.  Till he decides to go home early and surprise his wife with a anniversary meal, and discovers his wife and partner on the yellow sofa.  He wants a duel but allows his friends to talk him out of it.  It seems everyone is either cheating or being cheated upon.  Lots of talk of “conquests”.  He kicks out his wife but things are neatly resolved in the end.  The second half of the book went by very fast, in time and in tone, and was not as funny and as fascinating as the first part.  That’s the only negative.  The book was published 25 years after the author’s death and has seen quite a number of editing by the author’s son.  Another negative.  But I do recommend this novella.  I’ve added Eça de Queirós to my must read list of authors.  Wuthering Expectations wrote quite extensively on his books as part of The Portuguese  Literature Challenge.  

The Matisse Stories (1996) by A.S. Byatt –  I like Byatt’s stuff, I really do.  This book collects three stories; each includes a description of a Matisse painting.  Byatt is a marvel with words and the stories read like paintings.  In the second story, ‘Art Work’, she describes colors in ways that go beyond color.  In the first story, ‘Medusa’s Ankles’, a middle-aged professor counsels her hairdresser where she is confronted with her age in the mirrors of the salon.  I don’t think I’ve read a piece that captures the emotions of aging and the anxiety that comes with feeling well past the use-by-date.  My favorite though is the third story, ‘Chinese Lobster’, in which a distinguished professor is accused of sexual harassment by a student.  A Dean of Students, over lunch, discusses the case with the professor.  The story take many twists and turns and at times it made for uncomfortable reading.  But a revelation in the end sets it all straight.  The thing with Byatt is underneath all those words, and I mean a lot of words, there is such humanity. 

The Beggars’ Strike (1979) by Aminata Sow Fall –  I’ve always had fond memories of this Senegalese book so I’m glad that it stood up to a reread.  Mour Daiye, the Director of the Department of Public Health and Hygiene, is ordered by his superiors to clear the streets (of an unnamed African city) of beggars.  They’ve become a menace and they occupy every corner and every doorway.  Mour’s efficient assistant, Keba Dabo, masterfully rids the city of beggars.  In retaliation the beggars strike, refusing to take alms from the rich.  The practice has been that the wealthy give alms to the beggars, who in turn pray for good things (health, positions, money, fertility) for the wealthy.  So with the beggars gone, how can ambitious people like Mour realize their dreams?  A satire of conflicting values. The Beggars’ Strike is a classic of African literature.  The translation by Dorothy Blair was a tad problematic and puzzling in a few chapters. 

“We Never Make Mistakes”: Two Short Novels by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn –  Apparently, the phrase ‘We never make mistakes’ was quite familiar to dissidents in the Soviet Union.  It is rumored that the secret police frequently made the statement in reply to queries about arrests and detentions. In the first novella, ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station’, a naïve Red Army lieutenant suspects a straggler is a spy and sends him to a miserable end.  In ‘Matryona’s House’, an elderly poor peasant is treated to an unbefitting death by her relatives as they divide up her house.  Both of these stories are quite pessimistic but masterfully written.  I know of, but have not read, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. I was expecting big bold dissension with equally bold characters.  What I got were far less provocative characters.  Zotov and Martyona are everyday people, struggling and trying make their own way in the Soviet system.  What happens to them, each dehumanizing incident, is profound.  I got dissension nonetheless.  Translated by Paul Blackstock. 

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf –  Oh, the wonder of Jim Saddler, the main protagonist.  The genius of Malouf. Also one of the best books that I read this year.  Please try and read this novella ASAP.  Australia, male friendship, the birds, the coast, World War One, Jim Sadler. Utterly fantastic!  I will write a longer post, after a reread, in January 2012.  It will be part of the Australian Literature Month hosted by Reading Matters.

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Viola!  Reviews of six books just like that.  I still have two books, A Distant View of A Minaret and Opening Spaces, to write about before the end of the year.  If the ‘itis’ returns, then I will just write another set of mini-reviews.

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20 comments

  1. Forna’s novel was one of only two that I didn’t get finished for the Orange Prize longlist reading this past spring (only due to a postal strike at the worst possible time) and, since then, it’s been set aside in favour of something else 100 times or more. Your thoughts definitely make me wish I’d not let it sit so long though; I must get to it this reading year! Thanks for the encouragement.

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    • I would recommend that you pick it up again. It does require some time and space to get through so pick it up when you do have time for it.

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  2. When I see The Memory of Love on the library shelf I remember how wonderful you said the book is. I am daunted by the size but I know I shouldn’t be. I want to hear another African voice in my reading soon. Thanks for the post! 🙂

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  3. I think I promised myself to read The Memory of Love this month at the beginning of each month since.. April? I never got around to it. It’s length and subject matter just seemed a bit too heavy every time. I do hope I will get to it in 2012, especially now that I know you loved it.

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  4. Hi Kinna,
    Compliments of the season to you. I’m going to reread Forna’s Memory of Love too. I abandoned it halfway as I felt a disconnect after the initial rush of love for her storytelling. I think it was because I fell out of love with the main character… his misdeeds had a lot to do with it. I do agree with you, so many important questions to ponder over.

    Mini-reviews are a great idea. As a lazy book blogger, I’m definitely pinching it! Hope you don’t mind:)

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    • Happy Holiday and a wonder New Year to you. Please do reread it. She crafted a good story and does not attempt for the book to define the war in literature. This is important, I think. Also, I appreciated her inclusion of psychological trauma and healing, issues that are not addressed in African lit. Go ahead and pinch the idea of mini-reviews. I think it must be part of any book blogger’s arsenal, at least for us inconsistent types!

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  5. Phew, I am so glad you liked Fly away Peter Kinna. It’s one of my all-time favourites and one I want to re-read some time. The Forna sounds great, and the Solzenhitsyn is intriguing too. I’ve only ever read his One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, which I liked a lot at the time.

    Great Post!

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    • I loved Fly Away Peter. I read the entire first chapter and numerous paragraphs to my mother. It is magnificent! The Forna is very good, lots of heavy issues.. Some people have complained of a slow beginning but I appreciated the time and effort she took to set the scene for what unfolded in the narrative. Thank you and all the best.

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  6. Interesting mini-reviews. Both of your favourite books shared are on this list. Wuthering Expectations is one great reader. I was inspired by his Portuguese reading month and got introduced to Macheda. I guess I have to add this too to it. And more importantly I also need to read Forna.

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    • You do need to read Forna. You can borrow my book :). Portuguese literature is very interesting and quite diverse. Lots of different styles and writers.

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  7. Well, that’s nicely done, so many reviews in one go. Maybe I should try it, although I prefer a different post for each review on my blog. But it shows that long reviews aren’t always necessary.

    I don’t know any of the books but I do want to read The Memory of Love. I haven’t heard of the Portuguese writer but I am a bit of a Dickens fan so I guess (sigh!) I will need to have a look at him too. 🙂

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    • I also prefer a seperate post for each review but then I had this backlog of reviews to write before the new year. I’m terrible at writing reviews immediately after I finish a book. I may do more of these from now on. Do try Quieros when you get the chance.

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