The cost of reading… and not reading

sundaysalonI love buying books. Though I have hundreds of them in the house queuing up to be read I just cannot resist the temptation to acquire yet more. Until today I never really thought about the cost of my magpie-like tendency. Then I saw a statistic which stopped me in my tracks.

Book Riot reader survey

This came from a survey of more than 2,000 followers of the Book Riot site. In the same survey 19 respondents reported spending more than $2,000 in one year on books.

I realised that I had no idea how much my own reading habits cost me. I didn’t think I was in the $2,000 category but I honestly didn’t know. So I did a quick calculation. Last year I bought 30 books (rather more than I was supposed to given that I had started the year with a declaration of imposing a book buying ban). Eleven of these came from a charity shop/second hand store so were roughly half the price of a pristine edition. I estimated  that I spent somewhere in the region of $260-300 on books in total in 2014. I started to feel calmer. It wasn’t a huge amount to spend on an interest I reasoned (just think how much I’d be spending if I was into surfing or horse riding).

The feeling didn’t last very long.

What about all those books that I’d bought and never read. How much had that cost me over the last few years? $3,000? $4,000? However much it was, I realised that if I didn’t read these books I’d be wasting a whole lot of money. Another good reason to seriously tackle to TBR pile don’t you think?

Man Booker International finalists announced

The judges for the 2015 International Man Booker prize have made some interesting choices of finalists. This prize differs from the Man Booker prize itself because it recognises the author’s whole body of work rather than a single novel. To be considered the author has to have work published originally in English or widely available in translation in the English language.

What delighted me about the choice for this year was the breadth of nationalities represented. We have authors from ten countries – some of them nations which are not widely considered as great sources of literature and where the freedom of self expression via writing, is often under severe constraint. Only one of them (Amitav Ghosh) is a name that would be broadly familiar.

The ten authors on the list are:

Of these I’ve read just three.

Alain Mabanckou’s book Broken Glass was the very first book I read when I kicked off my world literature project. The style was unusual (no punctuation) and it was packed with literary references many of which I didn’t pick up on but I loved it. I’ve since been told it’s not even his best book. Do read this if you get a chance. My review of Broken Glass is here 

The only novel by Amitav Ghosh I’ve read is The Glass Palace which is a generational saga set in Malaysia and India. I did enjoy it though it could have been shorter without losing any of the impact.  My review of The Glass Palace is here 

And finally, a writer whose novel took my breath away when I read it last month, Satantango by László Krasznahorkai is a grimly fascinating tale of a communist hell. Read my review here 

The other delightful aspect about this list is that the remaining six names are authors who are completely new to me. I feel an hour with the credit card at my finger tips is approaching…

Two views of Nigeria: Adichie’s Americanah and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

More than 50 years separate the publication of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah from the book considered the prototype for the modern African novel in English, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Understandably the passage of time means the image they present of the Nigerian experience is vastly different.

things fall apartAchebe’s Nigeria is a tribal land held together by a shared set of beliefs and customs, a clearly defined hierarchy and the rhythm of the seasons.  It has its own religion and government, its own system of money and judicial mechanism. ThIs is the stability fractured by external forces in the form of British colonial settlers and Christian missionaries who seek to impose their own way of life on the Igbos community.  Achebe tells the story through the experience of Okonkwo, a leader of this community.   He is a ‘strong man’ or warrior, renowned for his prowess as a wrestler with a well established coterie of wives and children and several yam fields. All this begins to fall apart when he accidentally shoots dead the son of the village’s oldest residents and one of the most important of its elders. Okonkwo is exiled for seven years to appease the gods he has offended.

During his absence white settlers move into his community, intent on introducing their religion. As the number of converts increases their foothold strengthens and a new regime is introduced that does not tolerate the ancestral spirits and deities that have sustained the villagers all their lives.

Desperate to regain what they believe is rightfully theirs,  they destroy the symbol of the alien invaders, their Christian church. But retribution by the new authorities is swift and many of the leaders are imprisoned where they are humiliated and insulted. Okonkwo, incensed by what he finds on his return from exile, exhorts his fellow clan members to wage war against the white man. Too late he realises that he does not have their support. The warrior is brought down in the unequal battle between the individual and society.

AmericanahIn Adichie’s Americana, the educated middle class young people can’t wait to get away from the country and its stultifying atmosphere. Their Nigeria is a land ruled by a military dictatorship. Its young and intelligent citizens are denied an outlet for their energies because the authorities are afraid they will become radicalised at university.  People like Ifemelu and her boyfriend Obinze  plan to leave the country not solely because of the unrest but because they want to escape “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” and replace it with  “choice and certainty.” and a brighter future in America.

But their plans fall apart when Obinze fails to get a visa and Ifemelu has to make the journey alone.  He ends up as an illegal immigrant working in London delivering washing machines and cleaning toilets, while she has her eyes opened to an aspect of life that had completed escaped her notice back in Nigeria: race.

We all wish race was not an issue. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

Ifemulu triumphs because she refuses to be anything other than authentic. The moment she stops hiding her Nigerian accent beneath an American one and refuses to straighten her hair she feels truly free and true to her roots. But when she finally returns home and is re-united with Obinze in the newly democratic Nigeria, it is to feel a stranger in her homeland. The country has moved on, emulating the West in its adoption of mobile phones, skimpy clothes and fast food (Ifemelu is horrified to find that frozen imported chips are seen as far superior to ones made from real potatoes grown locally).

What I enjoyed about both books is the nuanced and balanced way they present their picture of the Nigerian experience. Achebe shows for example that Ibo society was not perfect and neither were the missionaries all ignorant and superior —when they first arrive in the village  they provide succour for some who are shunned by their fellows. The critique exists of course, sometimes in sober, reflective tone as when two of the characters discuss their experience towards the end of the book:

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.

Sometimes it becomes more harsh and overt.

And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered th bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth colour of the vast, hungry swarm.

But Achebe never belabours this to the point where the novel becomes sheer polemic. Adichie similarly manages to criticise but does so through a veil so that often you don’t realise the full impact at the time. There are many targets in her site – from the middle class Americans who boast how open minded they are by purchasing native art during their holidays and showing an interest in unfamiliar cultures. People like Kimberly who introduced to Ifemelu comments:

‘What a beautiful name…Does it mean anything?. I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.’ Kimberley was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colourful reserve of colourful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich”. She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.”

Adichie is even more withering when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy of her own people, a country that has no patience for the Americanahs (those who return from overseas full of barbs about their countrymen) and yet endorse foreign values and practices, people who as one parent points out don’t think something is real unless it comes from abroad.






Spring cleaning the book collection

It’s officially Spring in some parts of the world and yesterday certainly felt like it here in Wales. The sun was out, sky was blue and the daffodils were sitting up and paying attention. Spring was traditionally the time when housewives (never the men!) ‘did’ the house from top to bottom, clearing out the cobwebs accumulated in the darker months. Doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

I thought I’d do my own version of spring cleaning by trying to bring some semblance of order to my books. They certainly need it.

organised shelf

How I wish my shelves looked

I often see pictures of other bloggers’ book shelves and can’t help admire how organised they all are compared to my ramshackle approach. Some have them sorted alphabetically (oh boy) others group them by author or genre. I did adopt a method a few years ago where I allocated the TBR books to separate shelves for classics, Booker prize winners and world literature. That worked until I went through a buying splurge and ran out of space.

The reality

The reality

Now everything is muddled together again which makes it hard to see what I actually have. I was absolutely certain I had Pat Barker’s Booker prize winning book The Ghost Road. But can I put my hands on it? No way. I know what will happen – I’ll go and buy a copy and then the very next day I’ll find the original. Just yesterday, day one of the clean up, I found duplicate copies of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (both never opened). Ditto with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Its such a waste of money.

It’s time I’ve realised not just to clean up the clutter, but to start keeping a record of what’s in the piles and on the shelves. I’m now the owner of an excel database recording all the books I have yet to read and for each one, when and how I acquired them, if I finished them or whether I gave them away unread. As a result I know I have 133 books still to read, rather more than I had expected and I have a feeling I’ll find a few strays dotted around the house in coming months.  Now all I have to do is keep the list updated and the shelves in reasonably good order.

How do you keep your books under control? Any tips and techniques to pass on??


Writers in their own words: Stephen King

The View from Here – Books from Colombia

Laura SesanaWelcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we were enjoying the crisp snowy conditions of Finland. Now we’re heading to a country more associated with sun than snow. We travel to Colombia to hear from Laura Sesana



Let’s meet Laura 

I am originally from Bogotá, Colombia.  My mother is Colombian; my father is Italian.  I grew up in Bogotá and moved to the U.S. for college.  I spent a year in Rome after college and returned to Colombia in my 20s to write the text for a book about our national parks, Colombia: Parques Naturales, winner of the 2007 Latino Book Award.  I returned to the U.S. to get my law degree and never left!

I run two different blogs, and  Lasesana is more of a personal blog, where I write about books I’m reading, food I’m cooking and my DIY projects.  Arbiter News is a collaboration with a few other writers and journalists where we focus on fact-based reporting.  Because we are a smaller publication, we are less constrained by professional relationships and hopefully also free of much of the bias and spin prevalent in mainstream media.  We report the facts and let our readers decide.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Colombia? 


Colombia is a country of avid readers with a robust publishing industry and literary culture.  Brick-and-mortar bookstores and book cafés are still very popular.  Colombia has an adult literacy rate of almost 94 percent and books of all kinds are very popular. Colombians read about everything, and thanks to the fact that most books are translated to Spanish very quickly, Colombians read books from all over the world. For example, Paulo Cohelo’s Adultery and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars were both among the top 10 best-selling books in Colombia in 2014.

As far as books by Colombians, the country’s drug war—especially the bloody era of the early 1990s that culminated with the death of Pablo Escobar on a rooftop in Medellín in 1993—is a prevalent topic, not just in literature, but in film and television.  A memoir by Pablo Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo, published in December 2014, became an instant best seller.  Another book dealing with the same topic, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s El ruido de las cosas al caer (The Sound of Things Falling), has been at the top of Colombian best-seller lists since its publication in 2011.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of literature by Colombian authors?

La rebelión de las ratas (The Rats’ Rebellion), by Fernando Soto Aparicio, about an uprising of the lower social classes in a fictional town in Boyacá.

La vorágine (The abyss), by Jose Eustacio Rivera, a Colombian Heart Of Darkness set in the Amazon.

Relato de un naufrago (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor), the first book I read by Gabriel García Márquez.

María, by Jorge Isaacs, a romantic novel considered one of the country’s literary masterpieces.

Poetry by Rafael Pombo, we all grew up with his children’s poems and they have become part of our national and Latin-American culture.

Q. This article named what they considered the The 5 Best Colombian Novelists. Do you agree with their choice?Did they miss anyone out that you think deserves our attention? 

I think it is a good list, but I would have included Fernando Soto Aparicio and Jose Eustacio Rivera.

Q.  Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country?

Early Colombian literature, like the literary traditions of many former colonies, first imitated—then reacted to Spanish literature.  Many of the early themes included the Spanish conquest, chronicles and religion.  When Colombia gained its independence from Spain, literature reflected society’s preoccupation with government and politics.

In the 19th century, Colombian writers focused on depictions of nature and peasant life (costumbrismo), as well as criticism of government and the ruling classes.

The 20th century saw several literary movements in Colombia, including modernism, los nuevos, piedra y cielo, nadaísmo, and the boom generation.

Violence and a criticism of our society are two main themes that pop up time and again in Colombian literature.  For the past two to three decades, Colombian writers have been preoccupied with the violence and horror of the Pablo Escobar years.  I think that many of us who lived through that strange and crazy time in our country’s history feel like we need to talk about it, write about it, read about it, and relive it. It is cathartic for writers as well as for readers, making us realize how far we have come as a nation and as a society since the mid 1990s.  There is still a lot that needs to be addressed, but nobody can deny that Colombia is a completely different place today.

Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Colombia and that from your other parts of South America? Are the writers different for example from those in Brazil?

As I mentioned earlier, the uniquely bloody history of Colombia, our on-going civil war, the narco war, have all had an effect on the country’s literature that make it different from literature in other South American countries.  The “narco,” has become a familiar character in Colombia’s literature, and we keep returning to examine those very difficult years through every angle possible.

However, it would be simplistic to say that Colombians are obsessed only with the gruesomeness of that era.  This characterization would ignore the fact that life was still going on amid the violence and horror.  People were getting married, having children, graduating from high school, falling in love for the first time.

Many of us came of age in that era, and despite it being a terrible time in our country, it was paradoxically also a very happy time.  Most of us have wonderful, happy memories of those years alongside the horrible ones, and I think that the juxtaposition of these opposing feelings about a time and a place in our past makes for some pretty powerful literature.

Q.Do you have a favourite author?

At the risk of sounding cliché, my favorite Colombian authors are Gabriel García Márquez and the poet Rafael Pombo.

My favorite authors overall have to be John Irving and Stephen King.

You can connect with Laura via her blog or Twitter, Pinterest accounts:

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.

An adventurous week

pound coinThis was the week when I discovered that it is not a good idea to start a trip to India having left my purse containing credit cards and cash back in the departure area of Heathrow airport. Forty minutes before touch down in Mumbai I made the discovery that my sole funds consisted of a £1 coin and a 10 pence piece. Even allowing for India’s lower cost of living, that wasn’t going to get me very far.

I could do nothing for five and half hours until my husband could give me contact details for the card providers so I could cancel the cards. And hope above hope that no-one had tried to use them and access our accounts. Fortunately we were able to wire money to a Western Union outlet so I was solvent by the next day but it was a frightening experience. Our funds are intact though the purse has not been located. A narrow escape.

Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey helped distract me from my woes, partially at least. I’ve meant to read him for such a long time and it seemed the perfect moment to begin since this book – his first novel – is set in Mumbai. I do enjoy reading books set in places I’m visiting since it makes the descriptions of the setting and people more meaningful. You read a passage in the book, lift your eyes from the page and there in front of you is the very scene or close to it.

Here’s Mistry’s description of the sprawling development of one Mumbai district.

Dr Paymaster’s dispensary  was located in a neighbourhood that had changed in recent years from a place of dusty, unobtrusive poverty to a bustling, overcrowded, and still dusty, nub of commerce. Crumbling leaky warehouses and rickety-staired, wobbly balconied tenements had been refurbished and upgraded, from squalid and uninhabitable to squalid and temporarily inhabitable. The sewer system remained unchanged, broken and overflowing. Water supply continued to be a problem. So did rats, garbage and street lighting. …Soon there appeared enterprising individuals who serviced motorcars, retreated tyres, , restored refrigerators and allowed the waste products of their enterprise to run where they would. The barefooted now had to skip and hop over grease slicks, oil puddles, razor-sharp fins of broken cooling coils and long, twisting snakes of vulcanised rubber disgorged by tyre re-treaders.

The only bits he’s forgotten about are the piles of bricks and rubble left by the district government as a way of pretending they are about to start work on upgrading the work. And the cows that amble along the central reservation oblivious to oncoming traffic but forcing cars, mopeds and tuk tuks to halt.

I’m back home now, shaken by the experience of being driven weaving in and out of traffic for three hours so I could see the Taj Mahal; sobered by the experience of being away from home without money and looking forward to a slightly less adventurous week.



Bookshop demise – a global problem

A huge amount of our country’s classic bookstores have been closed forever. There are cities without a bookstore. …we risk having a youth that does not read at all.

Which country do you think the speaker is describing in this comment?

The UK perhaps? Figures released by the Booksellers Association in February showed that last year the number of outlets fall below 1,000. More than 60 bookshops closed in 2014 leaving just 987 across the country compared to 1,535 in 2005, prompting a warning by the Association that the situation had reached crisis point for independent retailers.

Or perhaps it was the USA? The American Booksellers Association (ABA) announced at BEA (Book Expo America) last year that the number of independent bookstores had halved in the last twenty years. However publishers had noticed a bit of a resurgence after years of decline that 2,000 independent bookstores now exist nationally, the highest number since 2005. Twenty years ago, there were twice as many independent bookstores, but after several years of decline the trade group is pointing to a resurgence.

Maybe the country in question is Australia?. This is the country where government minister Nick Sherry predicted in 2011 that bookstores would be extinct by 2016. One hopes that he was rather more successful as a small business minister prediction than he was as a predictor of the future given that the Australian Booksellers Association say claims of death for the bookshop have been greatly exaggerated and many independent and chain stores continue to thrive.

I will give you three clues to the identity of the country.

1. We’re talking about a geography that ranks at number nine in the world In terms of population ( estimated to be 142million)

2. This country has produced five Nobel laureates in literature.

3. 2015 has been designated as this country’s Year of Literature

Still not found an answer?. Let me take the pressure off for you by revealing that this is a comment relating to the state of the book industry in Russia.

The idea behind Russia’s Year of Literature is to to stimulate reading in the country. Yet local commentators say their book industry is facing its toughest test in decades with some cities not able to sustain even a single book store.  Moscow has between 400 and 500 outlets which is 11 times less than London which has a significantly lower population.

The high cost of books is one factor, another is the rental price of retail space according to the article in  Publishing Perspectives,.  The current rouble crisis isn’t going to help as local citizens deal with rising prices for the basics like food.   Interestingly the writers don’t make any reference to the role of e-reading or the competition from on line outlets which are challenging shops in other parts of the world. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea after all to give all users of the Moscow underground free access to e-versions of Russian classics?

Leading authors say the industry will have to change and stores become more of a cultural hub rather than reliant on simply selling books. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Bookshops in UK and USA started experimenting by selling stationery and gifts then branched into on site coffee shops. Maybe the Russians can come up with something more exciting.   Caviar and Chekhov anyone?

Goodbye Ben Okri’s The Famished Road

Have you ever thrown a book away in frustration, or been tempted to do so?

Some years ago I found a novel in the litter basket in the bathroom.   It turned out this was a deliberate action by my husband to symbolise his anger with the book. I knew from his deep sighs over many nights that he hadn’t been enjoying it but I hadn’t realised it was so bad that he didn’t feel it was enough to put it into our pile for donation.  Only the grand gesture would suffice for him.   I’ve never felt compelled myself to actually throw a book away but I came oh so close with Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.image

I started reading this as part of my Booker Prize project. It wasn’t one I was particularly looking forward to starting but I’d had it for about three years and wanted to clear some space on the shelf.  Since winning the prize in 1991, the novel has gained a reputation as a landmark work for creating a specific African version of magical realism. Some commentators have put it on a par with Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children in terms of its importance.  Okri exploits the African belief in the coexistence of spiritual and material worlds through his main character Azaro. He is an abiku or spirit child from the ghetto of an unnamed African  city (most likely in Nigeria given Okri’s origins).  Though he lives in the mortal world, his sibling spirits from the spiritual other world constantly harass him and send emissaries to try and get him to return to their world.

My tolerance for magical realism isn’t high at the best of times but I did manage to get to the end of two other Booker winners that use this technique, Midnights Children and The Bone People. At least they were well written. The same cannot be said about Mr Okri.

The first sentence was a warning of what I could expect through more than 500 pages.

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

I suppose this was meant to be lyrical, mysterious even. To me it read like a bad pastiche of the beautiful opening of Genesis. Nonsensical too. How could a river become a road unless it was diverted and then engineers constructed a road following the original path. But then why would a river be hungry and for what? A Big Mac maybe?

What followed wasn’t much better. When Okri wasn’t throwing things at us that I suppose he thought would be magical, mysterious and hence wonderful, he gave us pedestrian narrative of the “I did this. Then I did that” style. After 80 pages and with the knowledge of hundreds left to read, I abandoned the book. The Booker judges clearly were mesmerised by this, but this is one reader who was left decidedly unenchanted.

Snapshot March 2015

Slightly later than it should be but this is my snapshot of what I was up to on the 1st of March.


I finally got to open Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It’s been on my shelf for about four years and I kept promising myself I would get to read it one day. Thanks to my involvement in the TBR Challenge run by Roof Beam Reader, I shall at last get around to it.

In case you don’t know about this book it follows the life of Okonkwo, a leader and wrestling champion in a fictional Nigerian village. It’s a slim book which so far has been about his family and the customs of his village.


My daily encounter with Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop is coming to an end.  It’s not going to be one of my favourite Dickens but still highly enjoyable.


Having been told that the series The Wire was riveting, we bought a box set. Unfortunately it didn’t come with simultaneous translation so a lot of the dialogue is proving ultra challenging. I’ve seen two episodes and am completely confused. Does it get any clearer??