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The 20 Books of Summer Referendum

The in/out debate over UK’s membership of the European Union is nothing compared to my own debate on whether to join the Twenty Books of Summer Challenge. I’ve been in a quandary ever since Cathy at 746 books announced the challenge is about to begin.  “Out” says the rational part of my brain which knows that a) I have no hope in hell of reading 20 books in three months and b) I don’t do all that well with reading to a list. “In” screams the emotional side of my brain which argues that it sounds like a lot of fun.

Maybe it was the influence of today’s sunshine but the two sides seem to have reached a point where they agree to disagree and have signed a compromise pledge allowing me 50% participation. Step forward the “BookerTalk not the 20 books of summer list”  whereby I read just 10 books.  Which means I join in with the fun but have none of the angst if I don’t make it. And just to give further protection, right brain has allowed me to pick more than 10 books so I don’t feel the need to go off piste.

My list is a mixture, mainly of Booker Prize titles (still trying to get that challenge completed by year end), short story collections and Viragos. With the exception of the first two, they are all part of my TBR collection.

I’ve loved O’Farrell’s work ever since a friend gave me The Disappearing Act of Esme Lemmox so of course when I learned she had a new novel out (that the Guardian newspaper called “technically dazzling”, I immediately got my name on the library reservation list. Good news is it’s arrived just in time for me to make this the first one I read for the challenge.

  • The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. did not finish

This is a new title in the British Library Crime Classic series.  I have an advanced copy via NetGalley. It was first published in 1864 and is said to be the first novel in British fiction to feature a professional female detective.

  • NW by Ali Smith Read

Smith is someone I’ve long felt I should get to know better. Her last novel “How to be Both” was stunning so I’d like to read some of her back catalogue. I just happen to have NW on the bookshelves.

Thirkell’s name keeps cropping up amongst bloggers but I’ve never read her. This is probably one of the least demanding of the books on my list.

  • A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

A Virago copy I picked up in a charity shop. Should be good for the All August All Virago themed reading month.

  • Frost in May by Antonia White

Another Virago. In fact the first Virago I ever read. I was fairly young at the time. Will it hold my attention as much the second time around?

  • Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read

Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize title with this tale of a group of friends who set off for the seaside to scatter the ashes of one of their members who just died. I enjoyed the film. Mr Booker Talk tells me I’ll enjoy the books just as much

  • The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.

Another Booker winner – this time from 1986. It’s set in my home country of Wales

  • Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read

My third and final Booker winner, from 1983. This will be the third Coetzee book for me to read. The previous two have been superb. Hope this makes it a hat trick.

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanda Adichie Read

I’m guilty here of the ‘save if for a rainy day’ syndrome. I am eking out Adichie’s work because it’s so good but now I have only Half a Yellow Sun left to read. I somehow don’t want to start it because then it will be over. Stupid I know. In the meantime I shall enjoy this collection of her short stories that I picked up on my first visit to the Hay Festival Oxfam shop.

  • An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

Another short story collection, this time from a Zimbabwean author. Gappah made the 2016 Baileys Prize longlist with her novel, The Book of Memory, becoming the first author from her country to reach this stage of the award.

I regularly ask work colleagues for recommendations of authors from their home country. For Belgium, the name of Amelie Northomb was mentioned regularly and was recommended in the View From Here feature on Belgium. Fear and Trembling is actually set in Japan but is the only one of her works I have.

  • Tree of Life by Maryse Conde

Conde is a French (Guadeloupean) author who was a finalist for the Man Booker international award a few years ago. Tree of Life is a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class and tells the politics of race and immigration, and the legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean. It will be the first book I’ve read by an author from that part of the world.

So there you have it. 13 titles that should keep me quiet over the summer months. If I do make it to 10 I’ll consider it a miracle but the fun isn’t really whether I make it – it’s the getting there.

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.






Snapshot of June

A monthly round up of what I’m reading, watching etc on the first Sunday of each month. 

sundaysalonI know, I know this is late. We’re halfway through June and here I am writing a post that should have been done on the first of the month. I did start it, honestly – but things just got in the way. I’ve had one of those months where I have seen the insides of too many airport terminals and hotel rooms. And despite best intentions, I’ve found that being away from home is just not conducive to writing book reviews and blog posts (as much as I love my  iPad, it’s not really set up for lots of typing). Enough of the excuses, here’s what I was doing on the first of the month.


Reluctantly, June 1 saw me reading Wind in the Willows for the June book club meeting. This was a book I enjoyed when I was knee high to a grasshopper and I loved the National Theatre stage version I saw in the late 1990s. But my tastes have changed and I just couldn’t get enthused by this book at all. Maybe it was just the passage of time, maybe it was the fact that the story was just too familiar or the fact I don’t like books featuring talking animals. Whatever the reason, I found I got to page 50 and simply had no appetite for reading any further. I was also reading Americanah by Chimimanda Adichie, an absolutely exquisite novel.


The MOOC course I started (though never finished) on Roman architecture whetted my appetite for more insights about the Empire. One of my birthday gifts was a collection of DVDs featuring Professor Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University.  I’ve started on the three part  series Meet the Romans with Mary Beard in which she looks at how ordinary people lived in Rome. Her presentation style is informal (not for her the serious look to camera approach beloved of academic presenters in years go by) as she cycles along the Appian Way or sweeps some of the mosaics in Osteria. It’s a style that takes a little getting used to but well worth doing so because, boy does she know her stuff and how to put it across in a way that you can understand even without the benefit of years of classical education. I wish I had her with me some years ago when we walked around the Forum in Rome, impressed by its scale but clueless as to the significance of what we were actually seeing. Prof Beard can look at an inscription on a tomb or a monument and make the people it commemorates come alive. I’m now looking forward to the next DVD which is about Pompeii.

Prof Beard has a very good blog at .Even if you are not interested in history it’s worth looking at since she talks often about reading and the study of literature.

On the iPod to accompany me in the gym or in the car is a novel by an author I’d not encountered until a few months ago and even then it was purely via audiobooks. Peter James is a British film producer and author of crime fiction including the detective Roy Grace series set in his home town of Brighton. I’ve listened to two so far, and am now part way through a third – Dead Tomorrow. I like the way he uses multiple narrative strands which run in parallel initially but converge over time. The plots also seem a cut above a lot of crime fiction because they raise some social issues – so for example, Dead Tomorrow deals with the sensitive issue of the shortage of organs through donor programs which forces some severely sick people to take drastic, and illegal action. The one thing I don’t like is the romance interest between the detective and his fiancé which always seems to feature some less than credible dialogue. Stick to the crime please Mr James!


Sunday Salon: Next stop Nigeria

sundaysalonThis year’s Hay Literary Festival kicks off in Wales next weekend. Last year was my first experience of this event which started with a few people around a kitchen table and is now one of the biggest events of its kind in the UK.  I’ll be heading for the festival site nestling in the Welsh hills on the final Sunday of the event.  Anyone else planning to be there??


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There are just so many tempting speakers on offer again this year, it was hard to decide between them but there was one stand out speaker on the program for me – Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I heard a talk with her on BBC Radio 4 last year, not long after her third novel Americanah was published to great acclaim which made me wonder why it’s taken me so long to get to read her work.  Her appearance at Hay is just the impetus I need to rectify that situation.

I’ve also persuaded my book group to make Americanah our choice for July. Quite a few members were very keen having enjoyed her Orange-prize winning second novel Half a Yellow Sun  but a number of others were not that enthusiastic when they saw how many pages they’d have to read. There seems a reluctance to read anything longer than about 350 pages – I don’t know whether that’s just this group’s preference or whether it happens with other groups also where people think they won’t have enough time to read a long book by the next meeting.

The other event I’ll be attending is a discussion with the theatre and film director Richard Eyre who, amongst his many credits, is the man responsible for the magnificent Hollow Crown series of filmed versions of Shakespeare’s history plays. He’s going to be talking about the significance of the plays from Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy, Richard IIHenry IV, Part I and 2 and and Henry V within the overall body of the Bard’s work and their role in our understanding of Britain’s identity.

I’m hoping I can squeeze in a third event if possible as well as a little mooch around the tea shops and second hand shops in Hay itself.  I may even get tempted enough to buy a few new books ……..






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