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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 

 

 

 

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis: A book to divide a nation

old-devilsIt was a surprise to many when Kinglsey Amis won the Booker Prize in 1986 for The Old Devils for this was an author who, according to the wisdom of the masses, was long past his prime. I don’t know what the reaction was in Wales but I suspect the commentary there may have concentrated on his portrayal of the country than the quality of his writing. My countrymen do tend to get a bit huffy about how our nation is represented. But then we are known for our hot tempers (not for nothing is our national symbol a fire breathing dragon) and we do tend to take offence at implied slights to our national pride….

What in The Old Devils would have got the Welsh feathers ruffled? This is a tale about a bunch of old university mates who are mostly retired and, having been regular drinkers in the past, naturally gravitate to a pub called The Bible to while away the hours chewing the fat and carping about anything and everything. The drinking seems to begin well before lunch (not too long after breakfast in fact) and lasts as long as they can keep going into the night.  Not to be outdone, their wives gather in one or other’s homes to neck down a few bottles of vino.

Your average Celt wouldn’t turn a hair about heavy drinking, gossipy characters. They’re the kind of people who can be spied propping up the bar in many a grimy establishment throughout Wales. What would really get them hot under the collar however is how Amis tackles a theme about Welsh identity.

This largely centres on the character of Alun Weaver. He prefers this spelling of his first name to the more Anglicised ‘Alan’ since it’s an easy way to emphasis his Welsh credentials. He’s the only one of the old gang to leave Wales, making a career for himself in London as a writer and an expert on a poet called Brydan (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas). But now after a 30 year absence he’s announced his return to his old stamping ground in South Wales intending to set up home with his wife. Cue lots of anxiety from those wives of the Old Devils who indulged in affairs with him and are either hoping for  a re-run or mortified with embarrassment about meeting him again.

Alun is what is often labelled as a “professional Welshman”, (or as one of his friends describes him “an up-market media Welshman”) the kind of person who gets trotted out whenever the BBC or its ilk need someone to comment on Welsh culture and society.  They don’t actually live in the country but feel compelled at every opportunity to parade their Welshness and love of ‘the old country’. Amis makes him a figure of ridicule, an ageing lothario with questionable literary skills, who essentially wants Wales to remain in some kind of time warp.

That was the whole point, to stress continuity, to set one’s face against anything that could be called modernism and to show that the old subject, life in the local villages, in the peculiar South-Wales amalgam of town and country, had never gone away…

The Old Devils probably wouldn't appreciate the gentrification of a boozer like this

The Old Devils probably wouldn’t appreciate the gentrification of a boozer like this

The last thing the local soaks want is to bottle Wales in aspic; they want change but they recognise a balance needs to be struck. A balance between the kind of Anglicised ubiquity which means  “Everywhere new here is the same as new things in England, whether it’s the university or the restaurants or the supermarkets or what you buy there. … Is there anything in here to tell you you’re in Wales?”  and the Disneyfication that Alun would seem favour in his books. One of the braver Devils  confronts him head on, accusing him of ruining Wales.

Turning it into a charade, an act, a place full of leeks and laver-bread and chapels and wonderful old characters who speak their own highly idiosyncratic and often curiously erudite kind of language.

Such carping doesn’t disguise the fact that between these men there does exist a close bond that approaches love and affection. Nor does Amis’s satire come without a degree of affection and understanding for these characters. He makes us laugh but there is a poignancy for these guys whose brains don’t want to acknowledge their best days are over though their bodies tell them otherwise. There are some wonderful cameos of the gang dealing with the infirmities that come with age including the difficulties of getting dressed when an expanding girth gets in the way of something as simple as putting on a pair of socks.

At one time this had come after instead of before putting his underpants on, but he had noted that that way round he kept tearing them with his toenails. … The socks went on in the bathroom with the aid of a particular low table, height being critical. Heel on table, sock completely on as far as heel, toes on table, sock round heel and up. …. Pants on in the bedroom, heel and toe like the socks but at floor level, spot of talc around the scrotum, then trousers two mornings out of every three or so. On the third or so morning he would find chocolate, cream, jam or some combination from his bedtime snack smeared over the pair in use and he would have to return to the bathroom specifically to its mirror for guidance in fixing the braces on the front of the fresh trousers, an area which needless to say had been well out of his direct view these many years.

It’s passages like this that show clearly how insult and ridicule can be transformed into high comic art. and how Amis,  is a master of that art. Even if there is a segment of the population that takes umbrage at his depiction of Wales, they surely have to acknowledge that with The Old Devils, there is clearly old life in that old devil Amis.

Without doubt one of the most enjoyable of the Booker prize winners I’ve read. And no, you don’t even need to be born in Wales to appreciate its humour.

Footnotes

Author: The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

Published: 1986  by Hutchinson. Now available as a Vintage Classic imprint

Length: 384 pages

My copy: A rather battered orange coloured Penguin version that in fact belongs to my husband and has stayed with us through more than one house move because he loves it so much.

Why I read this: This links to my Booker prize project so I was always going to read it but was given a nudge by the 20booksofsummer challenge.

#20booksofsummer wrap up

20booksof summerYes I know it’s no longer summer but better late than never I suppose. So here is the outcome of the first reading challenge I have ever completed (drum roll and applause please….)

I knew I would never get through 20 books so took advantage of the flexible choices offered by Cathy at 746books.com and went for 10 books. When I made the list I was trying to be clever by doubling up on titles that could also count for three other projects: Women in Translation month, AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) and my own Booker prize project.

I’m a bit behind on the reviews but am slowly catching up. So here’s what I accomplished – there were some hits, some also rans and some down right failures..

  1. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here 
  2. NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
  3. High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here 
  4. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
  5. Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here  I double counted this for my Booker project
  6. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
  7. Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read but review not yet written because I haven’t made up my mind what I think of it.  I double counted this for my Booker project
  8. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here 
  9. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here  Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
  10. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde: Read it but it was a bit of a slog. Review posted here Also counted towards Women in Translation month

I had a few back up titles on my list originally so I could change my mind if needed. The back ups were:

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. A dud – did not finish review posted here 

Frost in May by Antonia White never got around to reading this but it was a re-read anyway

An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah Started to read it but ran out of time 

Overall  I enjoyed the experience. Because I chose the entry level I never felt overwhelmed by what I still had to read. So I’ll be back again next year assuming Cathy decides to continue the venture that is.

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.

Falling off the Wagon

Asundaysalont the start of this year I joined the Triple Dare Challenge @ James Reads Books. (actually I renamed this as a project since I know I don’t do well with challenges). I wanted to clear a little space in my bookshelves that I can then fill up with new purchases. James has made it super easy. We just read from our existing library until end of April. We can buy any amount of new books (and believe me I am sure to be top of the class at following that rule). We just can’t read them until May.

I’ve done well so far having read eight books from the real bookshelves and the e-reader since January.  The shelves are still stuffed due to some rather over-enthusiastic purchases of Pereine Press editions last month. But at least I have space to move things around now and see what’s lurking in the darker recesses.

But I confess I fell off the wagon last week. I was packing for my flight back to UK from Michigan later that day. It was going to be a long overnight flight so my choice of reading matter had to be spot on. I had The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (part of my Booker Prize list) with me and I’d already started it. But at the last minute it got ditched in favour of The Fatal Grace by Louise Penny which I’d bought only the previous night. My sole reason for this eleventh hour change of plan was that Penny’s novel is set in winter time in a Canadian village; I was close to the border with Canada and the view outside my hotel room was equally wintry.  I think you’ll agree that’s rather a tenuous connection.

But my lapse has been fleeting. I’m home now and back on the wagon. Amis going to have to wait a little while because I have an invitation to a party with Mrs Dalloway. And then it will time to dig around the shelves for an Irish author as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month.  I’m thinking of taking Molly Keane with me to that party.

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