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rowena

Rowena's Reviews

My true loves: Wilkie Collins, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anais Nin, George Eliot, James Joyce, James Baldwin, George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, bell hooks, Chinua Achebe, Langston Hughes, William Shakespeare... I'm falling for : Italo Calvino, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, Wole Soyinka, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Albert Camus, Margaret Atwood, Somerset Maugham, Junot Diaz, A.S. Byatt... And the lists continue to grow! I will read almost anything, as long as it's well-written. I always love to expand my reading horizons.

Currently reading

Orientalism
Edward W. Said
Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace
Finnegans Wake (Trade Paperback)
James Joyce

The Empathy Exams

The Empathy Exams: Essays - Leslie Jamison

“Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”- Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

A few months ago I wrote something in my journal about the lack of empathy I was witnessing in society. It’s something that has been on my mind for a long time, as I observe how people are treated, and how they treat others that are different. I live in a very diverse city with a large multicultural population, as well as a large homeless population. In a city like mine, I believe it’s even more critical we show each other empathy. How can we live otherwise?

 

The essays in this book in general start from an autobiographical angle but then they delve into something more. Though the diverse situations illustrated in these essays were different from what I would have expected, it was still a very refreshing read for me. Every single one of these essays provided a lot of food for thought, so much so that I’m still thinking about them days after having finished reading them.

 

In these essays, empathy involves finding oneself in a novel situation, a situation where you might very well be a voyeur, a situation that you might find uncomfortable or difficult to comprehend. But instead of taking away little or nothing, you take away a lot, a deeper understanding of the situation; an understanding of what it might be like to be a prisoner, a prison guard, a doctor, a young adult accused of murder, an artificial sweetener addict, or a self-harmer.

 

One of the most poignant essays for me was the depiction of the American inner city. I didn’t even know they had “hood tours” and to be honest I found that fact too voyeuristic for my liking, but at the same time I realized I enjoy television shows like “The Wire”, so in a way wasn’t I benefiting from the “allure” of the inner city, albeit from my safe vantage point?

“Scholar Graham Huggan defines “exoticism” as an experience that “posits the lure of difference while protecting its practitioners from close involvement.” You’re in the hood but you aren’t- it rolls by your windows, a perfect panorama of itself. We don’t do drive-bys. You just drive by.”

 

“You feel uncomfortable. Your discomfort is the point. Friction rises from an asymmetry this tour makes plain: the material of your diverting morning is the material of other people’s lives, and their deaths.”

These essays changed my way of thinking; in fact they changed my image of what a literary essay is as well. I found Jamison to be very insightful, very well-informed, and with a unique voice. Her essays were filled with interesting facts and musings. For example, cutting, or self-harming, was something I wasn’t even aware of until a few years ago. It’s obviously something I don’t understand myself but Jamison calls the whole phenomena of hurting oneself “substituting body for speech.” I found that to be a revolutionary way of looking at it. She went on to say:

“I wish we lived in a world where no one wanted to cut. But I also wish that instead of disdaining cutting or the people who do it—or else shrugging it off, just youthful angst —we might direct our attention to the unmet needs beneath its appeal. Cutting is an attempt to speak and an attempt to learn.”

I also liked her willingness to be open and transparent, even about personal and often tragic things that she herself had experienced.

 

I can’t even do this book justice. I look forward to reading more of Jamison’s work. Highly recommended.

 

I’ve added a link to her essay The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain here. Very timely read considering some of the misogyny that is going on.

Wonderful read!

Paris, Rue des Martyrs - Adria J. Cimino

Do you like being a mystery?” he asked. “Are you doing this intentionally?”

“Sometimes I’m a mystery to myself.”

 

First, I’d like to thank Adria for sending me a free copy of her novel.

I enjoyed this read a lot. It’s set in the vignette style that I really like when it comes to fiction.  It starts off as individual stories we are introduced to, and we see how they soon intertwine and become part of a larger tapestry.

 

And the characters: what a diverse bunch! As  unlikeable as a couple  of them were it was fascinating to encounter such a varied group. They were people going through real things all against the backdrop of the romantic Paris. It made me think about how everyone has a story, everyone has issues that they are dealing with that we never get to know. Getting to know more about the characters as the story progressed, trying to figure out how they are all connected was definitely fun; the unhappy mother of teens, the cheated-on girlfriend, the has-been actor, the child searching for secrets about his birth mother, to name a few. Very intriguing  stories but believable at the same time.

It’s also a very “human” novel, i.e. one that tells human stories. And that’s what resonated with me while reading this book, the idea of stories, fears,  trying to mask that fear by different methods, including affairs and such, having unmet dreams and desires.

 

As it’s France there’s a lot of what one would expect; romance, cafes, secrets, love affairs and art:

 

“Mira took this in with excited, inquisitive eyes, but she didn’t ask Septime to show her how to become an artist. Even back then, she realized that would have been silly. She quickly understood that she needed to find the way within herself. And she realized she wanted to paint, but not those obscure images that Septime created with such flair. Mira wanted to tell a story. She wanted to reproduce everyday experiences. She yearned to paint life.”

 

And stories yet again:

 

“But he was different from the others in the room. He had more of a story to tell. Mira could see it in his gaze when it rose now and again, as if seeking sanctuary through the slanted skylights overhead. He was too fragile. Like the butterflies she never tried to catch.”

A simple yet elegant read. Highly recommended!

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing

“I see I am falling into the self-punishing, cynical tone again. Yet how comforting this tone is, like a sort of poultice on a wound.”
— Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

This big book is well worth the effort. Having started my foray into Lessing’s work through her non-fiction, I was curious how her intellect would feature in her fiction writing. This definitely wasn’t a light read; the subject matter was pretty serious- life, feminism, politics, Africa and so on. The story revolves around Anna Wulf, single mother and best-selling author of one popular book, who is suffering from writer’s block and is seeing a psychiatrist. The book follows Anna through her marriage, divorce, early years in Rhodesia, her countless love affairs, and her quest to find the right balance as a woman while being a mother, while recording various life events in a series of colour-coded notebooks.

Generally I liked the candidness of this book though I felt some aspects were too graphically described. I kept thinking all the way through the book about how impactful it must have been when it was first published over 60 years ago especially as it dwelt on the subject matters of feminism and female sexuality.

Because I  live in a relatively emancipated age, the feminist parts didn’t interest me as much as the political and historical content. The section on European life in colonial Southern Rhodesia was intriguing. Also, seeing how how communism was treated was interesting especially as  I don’t think communism has such a great stigma these days. Politics were definitely a large part of this book.

Did I like Anna? I found her slightly  infuriating for the most part but at the same time as a woman I can definitely sympathize with  her, issues that affect many women. Trying to find balance mostly.
The book was written in a fragmented style, which I quite liked because it kind of ties in with Anna and her fragmented persona:

“We’re driven by something to be as many different things or people as possible.”

I put off writing this review for so long because there was so much content  and points for discussion in the book. This is the perfect book to discuss with others; too bad it’s too long for my bookclub.

Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave - Solomon Northup

“Now had I approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thenceforward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty for many a weary year.”

I’m embarrassed to say  I had no idea that this was a true story. I find it odd that I’d never heard of this particular slave narrative, given how powerful and informative it is.  I decided to read it after all the media frenzy surrounding the movie (which I haven’t watched and probably won’t).

This narrative was written by Solomon Northrup, a freeman kidnapped from the North, and  taken to a work on a plantation in Louisiana, where he lived for 12 years until he was rescued.  The whole account was very detailed; we are given names, dates and so on. There are also graphic depictions of violence and plenty of sadness and grief.

The more  stories about slavery that I read, the more I realize what a diversity in stories and experiences exist. There are always common themes though: the brutality of the slavedrivers who don’t get their comeuppance, for one,  and the injustice of the whole system too. The fact that the slaves were treated as less than animals is something that makes these kinds of stories difficult to read.

I was expecting to be more affected by the  pain and violence that I knew slaves experienced at the hands of their masters. However, I found myself more affected by the psychological pain that they had to endure. Coincidentally, I just read a poem by African-Canadian poet Dwayne Morgan entitled “The Academy Awards” which goes:

“And you don’t know the psychological

And spiritual trauma,

Of constantly having to justify your existence,

Your location and your presence.”

I  felt quite ignorant about American history while reading this narrative; I was unaware that there was a time when some blacks were free while others were enslaved.

As difficult as it is for me to read anything related to slavery I believe it is important for stories like this one to be heard. I’m in awe at how much resilience African-American slaves showed.

Breath, Eyes, Memory

Breath, Eyes, Memory - Edwidge Danticat

“The tale is not a tale unless I tell. Let the words bring wings to our feet.”- Edwidge Danticat, “Breath, Eyes, Memory.”

My first read for Black History Month, “Breath, Eyes, Memory”  is Edwidge Danticat’s first novel and I loved it.  This writer introduced me to Haitian literature over a decade ago and I feel strong feelings of kinship with her.

This was a beautiful and moving story about a young Haitian girl named Sophia, whose mother leaves her with an aunt in Haiti as a baby and moves to New York to escape bad memories and  get a better life for herself.  When Sophia is finally reunited with her mother at the age of 12, she is a  girl wise beyond her years, trying to navigate herself in an unfamiliar environment, using a strange language, with a mother she doesn’t really know:

“Night had just fallen. Lights glowed everywhere. A long string of cars sped along the highway, each like a single diamond on a very long bracelet.”

I was struck by that description.  How would the busy streets of NYC look to a young girl freshly arrived from the Third World?

I’ve heard far too many stories of families separated by immigration. We hear about families reuniting but  rarely  do we hear about the difficulties they face trying to re-adapt to each other and make up for lost time. Danticat brings these issues to the forefront.

Despite depicting some of Haiti’s violent history, it was a hopeful book, one infused with Haitian thought and mentality, mostly  through stories, songs and the grandmother’s wisdom, the grandmother, who like mine, has been preparing for her own funeral for years. The part about the grandmother definitely touched me; it hit very close to home.

The descriptions of Haiti were evocative; it felt like Danticat was drawing from her own memories there:

“The mid-morning sky looked like an old quilt, with long bands of red and indigo stretching their way past drifting clouds. Like everything else, eventually even the rainbows disappeared.”

I know this book will speak a lot to a lot of immigrants, especially those who question where home is. Being stuck between two worlds as well as experiencing the generation gap is a double whammy for many immigrant kids. Old practices continue to take place in their new home; however, with a new westernized mentality it can all be hard to take. The unbelievable stress a young immigrant faces having to live up to high expectations, after all their family sacrificed so much for them to have a better life is something that is a real issue:

“If you make something of yourself in life, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads.”

Reading this made me dwell on how much the world is changing. My first language is different from my mother’s and my grandparents’, I can’t even communicate with some of my relatives because we don’t have a language in common. My relatives are spread out all across the globe. Changes beget changes and questions about identity and the value of tradition abound.

Annie John

Annie John - Jamaica Kincaid

Annie John is the coming-of-age story of a 10 year old Antiguan girl. It’s a quick read; the thoughts of a very curious young girl obsessed with death and slowly taking in all the nuances that surround her, who becomes a highly intelligent adolescent who is uninterested in most things.

Annie is very much attached to her mother but finds, with the onset of puberty, that things will never be the same again, and she becomes resentful. Annie goes from idolizing her mother to almost hating her.

This book was set in colonial Antigua and it’s obvious that Kincaid didn’t much care for the British colonizers. This sentiment is shown the strongest in the classroom, where the teachers teach the Caribbean children from a British curriculum. As I was reading this, I remembered a verse in an African-Canadian poem that I had read recently:

“I read a thousand voices
None of them speak to me
                                   Not one of them speak of me.” -Wayne Salmon, Curriculum

I found Annie to be an unlikeable character. She went from being a precocious, endearing child to one who thought she was superior to everyone. I guess that might be the result of her becoming jaded with age as she witnesses the double standards about her, and is confused by the contradictions of her Christian faith and the traditional obeah practices her mother follows from time to time.I may have been a little too hard on Annie.

I think this book will resonate with a lot of people, it definitely took me back to my childhood at some points.

Krik? Krak!

Krik? Krak! - Edwidge Danticat

“These were our bedtime stories. Tales that haunted our parents and made them laugh at the same time. We never understood them until we were fully grown and they became our sole inheritance.”- Edwidge Danticat, “Krik? Krak!”

This selection of short stories was absolutely amazing. Heartbreaking, but brilliant. We see Haiti through different eyes, each pair experiencing a lot of pain and loss. Even with the knowledge that I have of Haiti’s horrific history, what Danticat wrote (using vignettes told from the point of view of various characters) still managed to shock me. In that way, I feel Danticat illuminates Haiti’s painful history the way Toni Morrison highlights slavery in “Beloved.”

The stories were separate yet created a larger picture spread over decades. There’s a lot of heartbreak in these tales. The one that touched me the most was “Children of the Sea”, which featured a story about Haitian refugees trying to make it to Miami in boats. It’s obvious that this is a difficult and risky feat but have we considered the psychological issues and the everyday constraints that the migrants have to deal with? I hadn’t, Danticat obviously had. That’s one of the many things l like about fiction; being given the opportunity to think about something that would probably have never crossed my mind otherwise.That scene really created a lot more empathy in me:

“Sometimes, I forget where I am. If I keep daydreaming like I have been doing, I will walk off the boat to go for a stroll.”

The whole book was very much alive for me due to Danticat’s superior writing. Her narrative just flows and manages to incorporate so much; history, relationships, superstition, culture, and so on with such honesty and clarity.

This is a complex book that made me think of how it is that one  can love their homeland so much, yet at the same time realize there is so much ugliness present, embarrassing stuff at that.Judging from Danticat’s writing, that doesn’t mean one loves their country any less.

Definitely a rewarding read. Hopefully more books like this are read so people can have more empathy for migrants.

Tribaliks

Tribaliks: Contemporary Congolese Stories - Henri Lopes

“You know, a good time is like a piece of sugar cane. Once you have sucked out all the juice and chewed out the sugar, it’s not worth keeping in your mouth. You only get the taste of the tough, coarse fibre and uselessly tire your jaws.” – Henri Lopes, Tribaliks

This book was a real surprise to me. I’d never heard of the author but I picked up the book because I recognized the Heinemann African Writers Series logo on it. And I’m so glad that I did. The Congo is one of the African countries with such intriguing history and I’d never read any literature from there. This is a small book, comprising of nine very engaging short stories set in 1970s Congo, just after Independence.

I liked the political and feminist focus of these stories. I had no idea that Marxism is a large part of Congolese politics, as it was in nearby Mozambique.I found it interesting that the author chose to portray black elites, those educated Congolese who had either been educated in Africa or in Europe. The same elites generally ended up being corrupt and were never truly free from European influence that they tried to rid themselves of during colonialism (it has always astounded me that in Africa businessmen wear full European business suits, even in 40C weather, for example).

Lopes looks at the many issues affecting other African countries; asides from corruption, he also looked at hypocrisy, education, and tribalism. I was happy to see that he included women’s rights in quite a few of his stories:

“Emancipation…had a meaning for women like her mother who walked six miles a day back and forth to the plantation to work the land; women who carried on their backs baskets weighing up to 100 pounds, and whose foreheads were permanently marked by the carrying straps. Many men, after a quarter of a mile, would have collapsed under such a load.”

Highly recommended.

Notes of a Native Son

Notes of a Native Son - James Baldwin

“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

James Baldwin was a fascinating and eloquent man, one who I would have loved to have had a conversation with. His insights into racial issues are truly phenomenal.

This is a collection of short essays about Baldwin’s experience with race. In the first three essays Baldwin critiques various books and movies on black culture that he believes do the race a disservice. In the 1950s when black representation was relatively low in both literature and film, I would assume that most black people would have been glad just to see themselves in print and on film;however, Baldwin talks about how misrepresentation is just as damaging as non-representation. I admire him a lot for that.

The other essays go into the black experience in the States and in Europe. One thing he said about his experiences in a small village in Switzerland was truly profound:

I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know

My favourite essay in this book was probably the titular one, Notes of a Native Son. It was heartbreaking and touching. I’ve read “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and I detested Baldwin’s father. However, after reading this essay, my perception has changed a little. I still found the father unlikeable but now I’m appreciating how difficult it must have been for a black man, an authoritative one trying to raise his family in a society in which all his hard work accounts for next to nothing, a society in which he is the king of the castle at home and is considered a “boy” in the white world. I could tell that Baldwin was trying to understand and forgive his father, and let go of his anger; it was truly touching:

… I did not want to see him because I hated him. But this was not true. It was only that I had hated him and I wanted to hold on to this hatred… one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.

Very powerful essays.

Matigari

Matigari: A Novel - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

“Where can a person girded with a belt of peace find truth and justice in this world?”- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Matigari

The story takes place in a newly-independent Kenya. Like in other recently independent countries, their former masters still have a very strong presence and much control. Matigari ma Nijiruungi, whose name means “the patriots who survived the bullets” in Swahili,  is a messiah-like figure who has returned from fighting for independence and finds that his country has become corrupt and depraved. Matigari travels with a young Kenyan boy and a Kenyan prostitute while trying to find truth and justice, and take back what he believes is rightfully his. Due to several near escapes, Matigari’s image becomes more and more mythologized as the story goes on:

“Who is Matigari? they asked one another. How on earth are we going to recognise him? What does he look like? What nationality is he? Is Matigari a man or woman anyway? Is he young or old? Is he fat or thin? Is he real or just a figment of people’s imagination? Who or what really is Matigari ma Nijiruungi? Is he a person, or is it a spirit?”

I’m fascinated by post-colonial Africa and all the political intrigue that happened afterwards. It’s quite disappointing that so much corruption happened, dictators were born and so on even though the people had so much hope for the future. Despite wanting the colonialists out of their countries, many decided that the colonialists’ ways were far superior to their own culture. wa Thiong’o calls them “sell-outs.”

The sociologist in me couldn’t help but be intrigued by the discussion about the differences between the collectivist (African) and the individualist (Western) cultures:

“White people are advanced because they respect that word (“individual”), and therefore honour the freedom of the individual…But you black people? You walk about fettered to your clans, nationalities, people, masses. If the individual decides to move ahead, he is pulled back by the others.”

In an undergrad sociology class I learned that the British colonizers introduced a hut and poll tax to Kenya. Most Kenyans didn’t use money back then, so how were they ever meant to pay their taxes? By working for their masters almost as slaves. The British now had lots of cheap labour with which to produce cash crops. Despite all the hard work the Kenyans put in, they had nothing to show for it and still lived in poverty. As wa Thiong’o laments:

“The house is mine because I built it. The land is mine too because I tilled it with these hands. The industries are mine because my labour built and worked them. I shall never stop struggling for all the products of my sweat.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, or perhaps because of it, the tone of this book was quite satirical. Throughout the book it’s hard to miss the Christianity allegory. It is done quite cleverly, reminded me a bit of The Master and the Margarita.

Alice Munro- Dear Life

Dear Life - Alice Munro

I’m always careful not to fall victim to popular opinion when reading any book, especially one by such an acclaimed and beloved writer as Alice Munro. I tried to forget the fact that Munro had only recently won the Nobel prize for fiction. This is only my second Munro so maybe I’m not the best judge of her work but I did find this collection very enjoyable.

I find that with Munro it’s the little details. Her stories are everyday stories of everyday people living mainly in small-town Canada, people we probably don’t expect to read about in books. Whether she is exploring the thoughts of a little child, an inexperienced university graduate, or an unsatisfied housewife, she does so expertly. I found myself engaged by the stories, stories that I found to be very believable, as well as very sad in most cases. I also enjoyed her stories set in post-war Canada, a very different Canada from the one I live in now.

Munro definitely writes with much clarity. People often comment on her well-crafted sentences and I won’t argue with that. What I love most of all is her insight into human relationships.
I enjoyed the last few stories that were supposedly autobiographical. Very nostalgic. It’s very fitting that this book is called “Dear Life.”

I felt quite sad when I turned the last page knowing this is supposedly the last book she will ever write.


“So still, so immense an enchantment.”

— Alice Munro, Dear Life

Things Fall Apart- Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

“The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement.” - Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

This is a book of many contrasts; colonialism and traditional culture, animism and Christianity, the masculine and the feminine, and the ignorant and the aware (although who is who depends on who’s speaking).

Okonkwo is one of the most intriguing characters in African fiction. He epitomizes so much I dislike; he’s abusive, misogynist, has very little patience or tolerance for the weak, and is perhaps he’s even over-ambitious. Despite all his faults, it’s impossible not to pity him a little because, after all, the life he knows, the life of his ancestors, is being taken from him quite cruelly by the British settlers.

This book really takes the reader into the Igbo culture. Achebe shows the traditional culture very well, a culture which is rife with superstition but rich in context. I loved the inclusion of the African proverbs and folk tales, and the details of the Igbo clan system. Achebe also shows how tightknit precolonial African culture was and how, despite not having the so-called civilized institutions, things went pretty smoothly because of the community spirit and also the societal rules. The importance of ancestors in society is a part of this:

“The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them.”

Achebe managed to inject some humour into such bleak subject matter, although I think this feat is quite common among African writers:

”You grew your ears for decoration, not for hearing.”

What I found difficult to come to terms with, as an African Christian myself, is the horrific way Christianity was introduced to the African continent. However, despite the lack of respect the colonialists showed to the people, it’s hard to deny that there were some aspects of African tradition that were outdated and people had the option of leaving such tradition behind, especially if it was harmful. For example, in this book the outcasts and the parents of twin babies (who had to kill their babies to prevent evil from entering the village) obviously found it easier to abandon tradition.

I think this book was the first one that made me realize the terrible impact of colonialism. I’ve always been curious about how Chinese women with bound feet must have felt after that fashion was seen as barbaric and unfashionable, and in the same vein I’ve also wondered about how those in African cultures who had lots of power and were accorded lots of respect might have felt when new values undermined everything they had worked towards.

This book reminds me a lot of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “The River Between” which focuses on similar subject matter, albeit on the other side of the continent (Kenya). I would highly recommend both of them.

Niels Lyhne

Niels Lyhne - Jens Peter Jacobsen,  Tiina Nunnally (Translator),  Eric Johannesson (Introduction)

“For the first time he had felt fear about life, for the first time he had truly understood that when life had sentenced you to suffer, this sentence was neither a pretense nor a threat- you were dragged to the rack and then you were tortured, and no fairy-tale liberation came at the last moment, no sudden awakening as if from a bad dream.”- Jens Peter Jacobsen, Niels Lyhne

 

A book I probably wouldnt have picked up had I not come across a beautiful quote from it on Goodreads. It’s the coming-of-age story of Niels Lyhne, a Danish boy striving to be a poet. My copy had a melancholy-looking painting by Edvard Munsch on the cover and indeed the book is quite bleak and dreary at times. It deals with disappointments, atheism, loss of creativity, death and love, among other things.

What I loved the most about this book was its beautiful prose. It was poetic and at times philosophical, sometimes heavy and depressing. As Niels grows up he experiences psychological growth, aided by his experiences with various women, which help formulate his realizations of life in general:

 

“But love was in their hearts and yet was not really there- just as crystals exist in a supersaturated solution and yet do not exist, until a splinter or simply a speck of the right substance sinks into the liquid and as if by magic instantly precipitates out the slumbering atoms so that they race to meet each other, wedging themselves together, rivet upon rivet, according to unfathomable laws, and become all of a sudden a crystal…crystal.”

 

This is definitely a book I would read again and again.

The Shadow of the Sun

The Shadow of the Sun - Ryszard Kapuściński, Klara Glowczewska

“The population of Africa was a gigantic, matted, crisscrossing web, spanning the entire continent and in constant motion, endlessly undulating, bunching up in one place and spreading out in another, a rich fabric, a colourful arras.” - Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun

A man I’d unfortunately never heard of wrote one of the most engaging historical reflections I've’ve ever read. Ryszard Kapuscinski reported on African events for a Polish newspaper for over 40 years. He was definitely in Africa at the right times; during the fights for independence, military coups and so on. Kapuscinski placed events like the Rwandan genocide (and the lesser-known Burundian genocide that happened alongside it) in their cultural and historical contexts.

There were many surprises along the way, the biggest shocker for me being the fact that the descendants of former slaves , the Americo-Liberians, just about re-enacted what they had been through in America when they settled in Liberia among the indigenous Africans. It’s definitely a reminder of how history is often repeated.

Why I think this stands out as a historical account is not only because of the proximity of the writer to the actual events, but also his observations. I am always surprised when a non-African writer tries to understand the culture, in a non-judgemental or critical way, as pessimistic as that may sound. Kapuscinski was definitely an observer and tried to understand things that were “foreign” to him, things such as the African concept of time , which I found very interesting and enlightening.

“The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course and rhythm.”
— Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun

The author showed the complexity of the African society, the fact that it’s not homogeneous in the least.

A very easy, entertaining read with passages of the most beautiful and poetic language. A great introduction to African history which encouraged me to learn more about the events in depth.

The Dance of Life

The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time - Edward T. Hall

“The study of time has led the human species out into the universe, down into the heart of the atom, and is the basis of much of the theory concerning the nature of the physical world.”- Edward T. Hall, The Dance of Life

A few years ago I read an interesting essay entitled "The Tyranny of the Clock" by George Woodstock (see: http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/...). Edward T. Hall expands upon this essay in many ways. This book is about the fascinating topic of time. The kinds of time in existence are presented, as well as how different cultures perceive time. It's very eye-opening.

For a book with an academic focus, this was a very easy read. An interesting one too, and one that can help in our understanding of other cultures. There's even a reference to time in literature:

“Clearly, the novelist must comes to grips with time, and how he or she handles it is a good index to mastery of his craft.”

Writers such as Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Kafka were who he mentioned.

Edward T. Hall focused much of his research on the Hopi Indians, comparing their concept of time to American and European cultures. I got a lot out of his definitions of monochronic (M-Time) and Polychronic (P-Time) time. Although I come from a P-Time culture, I had never really thought about what that actually meant until I read this book.

Anthem

Anthem - Ayn Rand

“It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil.” - Ayn Rand, Anthem

Before my Goodreads days, before I knew anything about Ayn Rand, I kept spotting her name on booklists and decided to buy a few of her books. It took me a while to learn that Rand was persona non grata.I did read Atlas Shrugged and surprisingly found it quite fascinating despite not ascribing to her philosophy of objectivism in the least, and despite finding the characters highly unlikeable.

‘Anthem’ was interesting. I liked the writing style, and I enjoyed Rand’s depiction of a dystopic world, one in which the pronoun ‘I' is not used as it is a collectivist society with no time for individuality. This is a society in which writing is considered a sin, where you are given your career choice on the whims of those in charge (the Council of Vocation), not on your ability or personal preferences; a very rigid society where at 40 years of age, you are considered old and useless.

Anthem did remind me of Orwell’s 1984 in a way. To me, the protagonist Equality 7-2521 was another Winston, someone who didn’t like the status quo, who was awakened but didn’t want to risk his life to show others that he was.
My only problem with this book is that it was too short! I would have loved to see how the story played out.