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#6degrees from the Congo to Uganda via a few bars

It’s time to play the Six Degrees of Separation game again. The starting book this month is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I know it was highly regarded when it was published but I didn’t care for it that much. However I read it so long ago I can’t remember exactly why it didn’t hit the spot, just that it didn’t. Maybe if I read it again I might have a different reaction (that often happens) but I have far too many unread titles to go down that path.

Kingsolver’s novel features a family who go to The Congo as missionaries intent on converting the local population. This was at a time before there were two countries both using the word Congo in their name. Today we have the the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the southeast and its smaller namesake, the Republic of the Congo. It’s to the latter that we go for my first link…

broken glass

Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass is set in a seedy bar in a run down part of the country’s capital. One of its regular customers, a disgraced teacher is asked by the proprietor of the Credit Gone West bar to capture the stories of his clients. They turn out to be a misfortunate bunch all thinking they have been hard done by and wanting to set the record straight.

 

old-devilsThey’re not unlike some of the characters in Kingsley Amis’ Booker Prize winning novel The Old Devils. This lot are university pals living in a rural part of Wales and, having been regular drinkers in the past, like to spend their time in the pub. Their hostelry of choice is called The Bible and its here that they meet, often not long after breakfast, to while away the hours with gossip, updates on their various medical ailments and generally complaining about almost everything.

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonThey might have more justification for their complaints if they  were inmates of the place which is the setting for my next book in the chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. The Marshalsea is a fetid, stinking prison for debtors – once in, unless you have private means to pay for ‘luxuries’, you end up in the worst section, the “Common Side” where death is inevitable.

English authors

Fortunate then the man who can find a way out of this as does Charles Dickens’ Mr Dorrit. In Little Dorrit, her father William gets his escape ticket when it’s discovered he is the lost heir to a large fortune. Dickens uses this novel to satirise the  bureaucracy of government (brought to life in the form of his fictional “Circumlocution Office”). He also takes a pop at the class system and its notions of respectability.

NW

A desire for respectability also makes its appearance through two childhood friends in Zadie Smith’s novel NW.  To leave behind her black working class upbringing, one girl changes her name, becomes a successful barrister and moves to a plush home in a desirable part of London. Her friend has less success, though she has a degree in philosophy she is still living in a council flat not far from her family home. But their past refuses to remain hidden.

Allournames

Identity is the theme of my sixth and final book, one that I bought on my first trip to the Hay Festival and so caught up in the moment that I came away with an armload of books by authors completely unknown to me. Fortunately, one of the them, All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu proved to be a thought-provoking book.  An African boy arrives in a mid Western USA town on a student visa. Little is known about him, only his name, his date of birth and the fact he was born somewhere in Africa. But he’s a fake, a boy who escaped from a civil war in Uganda by swapping identities with a friend who becomes a paramilitary leader.

And so we end as we began in Africa. Along the way we’ve visited a few bars, a prison and a suburb of London. As always I have included only books I have read.

Where would your chain take you? You can join in by visiting  Books Are My Favourite and Best 

 

 

 

10 under rated books

10gemsThis week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.

Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.

Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.

From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.

By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.

And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.

If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.

Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.

I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character.  Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.

The Spinning Heart  by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.

And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker  in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make  a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.

 

That’s my list – now it’s your turn  

What books have you read that you’d consider to be under-rated or hidden gems?

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

imageIn All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu examines two familiar pillars of love and conflict but surrounds them with an exploration of a third, equally powerful, theme of identity.

Set some time in the 1970s, All Our Names is told via two narrators. One is Helen, a young, white social worker with the Lutheran Relief Services in Laurel, a fictitious American mid-western town and the other is Isaac, an Ethiopian boy who arrives in the town on a student visa.

Volunteering to help Isaac acclimatise to his new life, Helen falls in love with the enigmatic young man though she knows little about him. His file notes are scant, his folder contains only “a single loose leaf of paper. . . . There was no month or date of birth, only a year. His place of birth was listed only as Africa, with no country or city. The only solid fact was his name, Isaac Mabira, but even that was no longer substantial: Any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would have changed.” Isaac is thus an enigma to Helen — a man “made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in.” The truth about his identity and his past are slow to emerge. Isaac is not even his real name it transpires, but an identity borrowed from a friend at university in Kampala so he could escape from a country where the “ecstatic promises of a socialist, Pan-African dream” have faded into civil war and unrest. He’d made his way from Ethopia to Uganda via Kenya, along the way shedding the 13 ancestral names his father had given him. Through the course of the novel we learn that he replaced these with new names, sometimes being referred to as Langston and other times as the Professor and finally Isaac.

The real Isaac is a boy from the slums of Kampala. The pair met at the university campus, a place both were too poor and ill-connected to join officially so they are forced to hang around on its fringes. Isaac ( the real one) is a charismatic figure, an idealist who is determined to make his mark on the world and to play a part in his country’s future. The colonial era is over but the time of the dictators is looming and like many young Africans Isaac is swept up in the excitement of its possibilities. Impetuous by nature he taunts the rich students, plasters the corridors with posters and eventually stokes a small revolt, which spirals out of control. His more cautious friend Langston trails in his wake, dreaming only of a future as a writer. When Isaac’s idealistic fervour takes him further down the revolutionary path, an attempted coup and resulting brutal actions, mean the parting of the ways for the two friends. Isaac remains in Uganda building his reputation as a paramilitary leader while Langston, a born survivor, flees, his assumed identity ensuring their names remain interchangeable while their lives cease to coexist.

His identity is further stripped from him when he encounters the reality of life in a small town not yet ready to open its minds to the idea of racial equality. One day Helen plans to take him to a diner in town that “was never officially segregated, but I couldn’t remember anyone who wasn’t white eating there, either.” Anticipating trouble, before she leaves to pick him up, she “wrote down on a piece of paper, in case I forgot it later: ‘We have every right to be here.'” But the people at the diner don’t agree. At first the waitress is sent over to ask if maybe they would like to get their food to go. And then when Isaac says, “No. We would rather eat it here,” she returns with their orders: Helen’s on the standard cream-colored plates, and Isaac’s on a “stack of thin paper plates barely large enough to hold the food.”

It’s a salutary reminder that their affair, so far kept hidden from Helen’s work colleagues and her mother, will need to remain a secret. Since neither of them can be who they truly want to be, the book depicts a world in which people’s names and identities can be another casualty of violence and oppression.

Mengustu portrays these issues in a tone that is reflective and restrained. Long on mood but short on details, many elements of this novel remain an enigma, so we are left to decide for ourselves what happens to the lovers.

End Notes
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia though emigrated to America when he was a child. Now an English professor at Georgetown University, “All Our Names,” is his third novel. I had never heard of him when I happened on a copy at the Hay Literary Festival. After skimming the first page I had a feeling this would be one book I would enjoy. And so it proved. I’ve seen a few reviews where critics have commented that they didn’t think All Our Names was actually his best work. That’s just made me even more determined to find the earlier work.

Surely I’ve read more??

sundaysalonIt seems I have been operating under an illusion for the past few months. If you’d asked me one thing about my reading habit this year, I would have said that I read more of the current year’s new titles than ever before.  I didn’t set out with a plan to read the new works but I do like to have at least a sense of what’s new in literature. But when I saw the recently-announced list of 80 finalists for the 2015 Folio Prize, I realised the reality was very different from my perception.

Of those 80 books published in 2014, I have read just two: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to Be Both by Ali Smith. I’m half way through a third title – All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu and have three more on reserve in the library but I doubt they will get to me before the year is over. I know the list represents only a fraction of what was actually published this year, this is meant to be the cream after all, so it was entirely conceivable that I had read some 2014 titles that just never made the cut. A quick look at my reading list reassured me a little – there were another six works of fiction that I’ve read. Panic over!

The experience did make me look more closely at what I’ve been reading this year. I was in for another surprise – I finished only four titles from my Classics Club list which is very slow progress. If I’m going to complete the 50 books in this project by the target date of August 2017, I’m really going to have to get a move on.  I did considerably better with my world literature project fortunately (15 of the books I  read fell into this category).

I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t started keeping a list of everything I’ve read. I never did that before I began blogging so if you’d asked me what I was reading 5 years ago let alone 10 or 15, I wouldn’t have had a clue. Lists it seems do have their purpose.

How has your reading year been – any surprises for you too?

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