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From terror to persecution in six links

We start this month’s Six Degrees of Separation with Stephen King’s It.  But first I have a confession. Not only have I not read this book, I have never read anything by Stephen King. I know he’s a master storyteller but I have a low tolerance level of anything horrific so never had much interest in his work.

If I were ever to overcome my fear and pick up a Stephen King novel, I doubt that it would be It, based on the fact that it’s about a town where children are terrorized by an entity that takes on the form of a clown. Apparently some of the key themes are the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood.

RoomA traumatic childhood is the key element in my first link: Emma Donague’s multiple award-winning novel Room. Inspired by the true life case of Josef Fritzl in Austria, Room tells the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who is held captive in a single room with his Ma. He has never been outside. The room is his entire world.  Despite its subject matter Donaghue has said that Room is not a horror story or a tear-jerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child.

L shaped roomFor my second link I’m heading to a different room for another story about resilience in the face of challenges.  In The L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, Jane, an unmarried, out-of-work rep actress is turned out of the family home when she becomes pregnant following an affair with an actor. She moves into a dingy room at the top of a smelly boarding house in London, inhabited by bed bugs and a mix of exotic characters. Ultimately her time in the L-shaped room is just a phase in her life before she finds happiness and independence. The people she leaves behind are not so fortunate however; they are so steeped in poverty that they have little hope of escape.

English authorsThere doesn’t seem much hope of escape either for the characters in the novel that provides me with my third link: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. In the Victorian era if you couldn’t pay your bills you could end up an inmate of the Marshalsea prison. It was nigh on impossible to pay off the debts because inmates were not allowed to work. Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls but like her siblings is sent out to work while her father grows increasingly proud of his status as the prison’s longest-serving resident.

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonFather Dorrit was fortunate that his children’s efforts meant he never ended up in the prison’s most fetid section,  known as the “Common Side”, where inmates were highly likely to die from starvation or fever. Such is the fate that faces Tom Hawkins, the rakish protagonist of the fourth link in my chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. He can save himself if he can solve the mystery of who killed another prisoner but he also has to keep out of the way of the brutal governer and his henchman.

dorian grayTom is a gambler, a drinker and a womaniser but like all rakes he has a charm that entices. The figure of the lovable rogue and the bad boy abounds in literature so I am spoiled for choice for my fifth link. I’m plumping for a book that featured a handsome, narcissistic young man who indulges in every pleasure and virtually every ‘sin’:  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Wilde of course was one of the ‘bad boy’s himself, and his book so offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, many of them said he should be prosecuted for violating public morality. He did end up going to prison, for gross indecency.

petalsWilde was not the first – and certainly not the last – writer to be imprisoned. Some like the Marquis de Sade were accused of sexual offences; others like William S. Burroughs and Paul Verlaine for violent assualt. Still more writers have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and their refusal to stay silent. Petals of Blood  by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o so incensed his country’s government because it criticised the newly-independent nation, that they imprisoned him without charges. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. He left Kenya upon his release after a year in custody.

And so we end on a sombre note. Having started with a fictional horror I somehow ended up with a real-life situation that I find truely frightening: imprisonment without trial and due process of law.

Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best  is where we start with one book and link in stages to six other books to form a chain. I’ve adopted my own rule to link only to books that I’ve read, even if that was many many decades ago.

 

 

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?

Writers on reading: Frank Kafka

frank kafkaI think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Source: Translated from a letter to the art historian Oskar Pollak January 27, 1904.

What Kafka is advocating I think is a reading experience in which the words provoke a reaction in you the reader. Texts which slip effortlessly in and out of  your consciousness have little value in his estimation, the true test of a good book is one which forces you to engage with it; to take hold of your emotions and move them in some way. That’s a tall order but if you find a book that does it, the experience can be breathtaking.

Have I read anything that wounded or stabbed me? Very few in fact but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

From my teenage days Albert Camus’ L’Estranger comes to mind as a book that affected me not just as I read it but for a long time afterwards even though I wasn’t absolutely sure I understood it fully.  My thirties were my fallow years when though I enjoyed many books, I can barely remember them. It wasn’t until my forties when I decided to start a formal course in literature again that I began reading more deeply and found some novels which were remarkable. Of them, Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir with its bleak portrayal of life in an impoverished French community,  could definitely be considered as giving me a ‘blow to the head’. And then, more recently my adventures in reading authors from far flung corners of the world led me to a discovery of a book equally painful to read – Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

 

Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

petalsbloodSome novels can make you laugh; some can make you cry.  Just occasionally they can make you angry.

There was little to laugh at in Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This is a book designed to evoke quite a different set of reactions, a book it would be difficult to read and not feel frustrated, exasperated and even outraged.

This is a novel about disillusionment; about the loss of the ideal of independence and the destruction of hope; about betrayal and hypocrisy and about the triumph of corruption over humanity. So incendiary was this novel at the time of its publication in 1977 that its author was imprisoned without charges by a Kenyan government sensitive to criticism of its manner of ruling their newly-independent nation. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience.

Petals of Blood opens with the arrest and detention of four people from the village of Ilmorog. It’s a village geographically remote from the centre of government and remote from the minds of those who form that government.  Ilmorog

One night three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery in the village are murdered in an arson attack. Four suspects are quickly arrested and detained for questioning: Munira, the headmaster of the village’s small school; Karega his assistant teacher, Abdullah,  the crippled owner of the  local store and Wanja the beautiful, spirited barmaid/shop assistant. The four are linked to each other through friendship, to the fortunes of Ilmorog and the fortunes of Kenya itself.

Ngugi uses these four characters to unfold a human drama, telling the story in flashback to twelve years before the fire when Munira had arrived in Ilmorog to set up the school.  Through the individual stories of the quartet we discover their past disappointments and frustrations with post independent Kenya motivate them to push for change. When the rains fail, the crops wither and the villagers begin to die, they hatch a plan to lead the villagers on a long walk to Nairobi, to lobby their elected officials for help.

…it was they outside there who ought to dance to the needs of the people. Now it seemed that authority, power, everything, was outside Ilmorog… out there….in the big city. They must go and confront that which had been the cause of their empty granaries, that which had sapped their energies, and caused their weakness. Long ago when their cattle and goats were taken by hostile nations, the warriors went out, followed them and would not return until they had recovered their stolen wealth. Now Ilmorog’s own heart ad been stole. They would follow to recover it. It was a new kind of war… but war all the same.

The walk confronts them with an even harsher reality. Modern Kenya is dominated by corrupt businessmen and politicians who have quickly and conveniently forgotten the high ideals of the revolt they waged to expel the British. No-one in this new order, neither church or state, cares about the plight of  the people of a remote village.  Despised and patronised but with all appeals for help rejected, they return home dejected.

faminein kenyaThe exodus is an emotive set piece which symbolises the moral decline that Ngugi sees permeate the country. But in case we didn’t quite understand his point, he uses the second half of the novel to reinforce the message. The efforts of the villagers to draw attention to their community have unfortunate consequences which render them vulnerable to commercial opportunism, political expediency and religious hypocrisy.

By the end, the four friends feel a sense of betrayal by those in power. Yet despite the personal losses they suffer, they never lose their faith that one day, Kenya will fulfil its true destiny. This time it will be a country run by the people themselves.

Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and seizing power to overturn the system of all its preying bloodthirsty gods and gnomic angels, bringing to an end  the reign of the few over the many and the era of drinking blood and feasting on human flesh. Then, only then,would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, joying and loving in creative labour.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o 2Political corruption, social injustice, the struggle for freedom are not not uncommon themes in African literature. But Petals of Blood is one of the most strongly narrated indictments of a regime that assumed power with a promise of ending the inequality of its colonial masters only to perpetuate the same oppressions and divisions. Little wonder those in power were too afraid to let this author continue unfettered in his critique.

The Verdict

A truly remarkable novel. Difficult at times to read unless you are familiar with the country’s history. But it’s passionate depiction of the corrupting influence of power blended with some wonderfully portrayed characters, make this a compelling book.

Sunday Salon: New adventure starts

sundaysalonAfter some technical frustrations this week, I’ve finally managed to get connected again in time to catch up with you all.

If you’re in the UK at the moment,  I hope you have something long and cool by your side to help you through this heatwave. It’s typical of this country – we go for months when the weather is anything but the summer sunshine and blue skies we all look forward to and then wham, we go straight into a heatwave with temperatures today around the 30C mark. No middle way here – it’s either cloud and chilly or scorching. No grumbles in my corner however.  I shall enjoy it while it lasts because we Brits all know that this kind of weather don’t stay around too long in these parts.

Enough of the weather you say!. What about the books?? This is meant to be BookerTalk after all. Quite so. And so without further ado let me catch you up on a few literary things.

Today’s headline news is that I’ve just become the moderator for The Complete Booker blog, taking over from Laura (of Laura’s Musings). After six years managing the blog she’s decided to concentrate on other things in her life. Since no-one else stepped forward and I didn’t want to see all that effort go to waste, I volunteered to take over. If you don’t know about this blog, I’m going to quite shamelessly put in a plug or two now and again. If you’re interested in any of the Man Booker prize winners or short and long listed titles, come and take a look at this site.

In other news

  • I finished reading what has been the hardest book I’ve read all year so far; Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It’s taken me around six weeks to read this because it’s not only a long book (almost five hundred pages of small text) but because it contained so much human suffering I could cope with it only in short bursts. The novel is set in post Independence Kenya and follows the lives of four people who all come to settle in a remote village where they struggle against drought and harvest failure but even more painfully against first the indifference and then the greed of their political and religious leaders. An incredibly powerful novel that’s now gone into my list of all time favourites.
  • As an antidote, I read a few lighter novels in recent weeks. Truth in Advertising (review published yesterday) was a reasonably good read and  its humorous digs at the world of advertising reminded me what a lucky escape I had when my job interview with an ad agency many years ago came to nothing. All I can remember of the interview is a bizarre conversation about instant potato with a man who wore gold tipped shoes. I also read The Cleaner of Chartres by Sally Vickers. It was the choice for the book club this month but I unfortunately forgot that I would be on way back from a business trip to Belgium so would miss the actual meeting. I say unfortunate because this wasn’t a book I enjoyed by any stretch of the imagination. I could see why she is an incredibly popular author but this one was far too light and cosy for my taste.
  • Later today I’m planning to find a shady spot in the garden where I can spend an hour finishing Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Not only will this be another step closer to completing my Booker Prize challenge but it means I can join in the Brookner reading month hosted by HeavenAli.

And that – as White House press secretary C J Craig says in one of my favourite TV series (West Wing)…. is a full lid for today. See you all same time same place next week.

Classic Reading I missed

classicsclub3The Classics Club question this week asks “What are you looking forward to reading in May?” The answer to which, for me, is “the one I never got around to reading.”

I’d planned to read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart having heard so many comments from friends and other bloggers about how wonderful it is. And I really did mean to read it. Honestly!

But May is almost over and I haven’t even opened it. Why not?

Part of the reason (or should that be excuse) is that I’m already reading a novel set in Africa — Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o which is taking me longer than expected to read. It’s an epic that chronicles the lives of four people from a small, forgotten village as they deal with the aftermath of colonialism, the devastation of drought and the indifference of their government. It’s not a book you can read quickly. It’s fascinating reading but I don’t think I can crowd my brain with a book that has some similarities at the same time.

TheSeaBut the other reason is that I’ve been distracted by the fact I’m off to the Hay Literature Festival tomorrow where I’ll be listening to a discussion with Man Booker prize winner John Banville talk about his latest novel Ancient Life and preview the film of his prize winning novel The Sea. Light dawned only this week that I hadn’t actually ever read anything by Banville even though I have a copy of The Sea on my bookshelf ( a bargain copy picked up during a library sale). So I’m trying to finish it or at least get far enough forward that I’ll understand some of his comments. It’s a mesmerising book about memory and loss told in a wonderfully lyrical style.

So the upshot is that Achebe will have to wait until later in the year.

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