Category Archives: book review

Diary Reads

I have to admit I’ve often thought if I was to become a bona fide author I’d consider a diary format novel. It has the simplicity of being able to start and stop and rant at random for long or short clips as it suits you. Because that’s what real diaries probably do.

The one possible exception being Anne Frank’s diary. I’ve always found that a tedious and difficult read, not to mention depressing. Almost every entry lasts forever as she had nothing else to do except write. Poignant yes. But I’ve never managed to share the enthusiasm so many others have for the book but saying that out loud is a no-no. Like admitting you are a blatant racist who kicks puppies for a hobby.

I took the latest Bridget Jones’ Diary out the library. I detested the first book and never read the second as consequence. Funny enough, I don’t mind the movies as much. My issue with the books are they really are written like someone who can’t be bothered to put words down for eternity but feels compelled to write something down. In truth, they also read a lot like emails from a certain member of my family who assumes you already know the context of whatever the story is. And who leaves out random words that would help the flow of language because somehow this works out as ‘abbreviation’ and ‘time saving’. Bridget Jones’ Diary is written in exactly the same same style. The style of one who knows better but can’t be asked to spell check or pause long enough between brain and keyboard to ensure that all the words in their heads have actually made it onto the page.

Most of all though I detest how ridiculously sanctimoniously fortunate Bridget is. Oh, yes, of course, especially in the third book she has undergone great personal tragedy. But then many others have too. Most people do not, however, manage to live in the very centre of London (even if it is run down and noisy) by themselves in a one bed flat. They don’t manage to not only stay employed despite blatant incompetence, personal issues and hangovers but get promoted, moving steadily onto a dream job. Despite gross indecision and rash behaviour have the option of landing a few men at the same time and being given enough second and third chances to pick the right one. They don’t naturally land up being able to somehow stay on the borders of Hampstead Heath where property is at a premium playing at being scatty, bohemian and despite everything, ‘lovable’.

I remember rewatching the movie when I was single and convinced I’d be alone forever. I still have those days. The movie was screamingly more funny than I remembered because I WAS now old enough to be that singleton, which hadn’t worried me so much when I first watched it. And tragically more sad when it ended and I realised in frustration Bridge had, despite everything, landed a man, The Man. And I was still, like she was at the start, sitting on my sofa in my PJ’s, in a dead end job, single, with no clear indication how to move on.

 

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Filed under book review, film, Relationships, social

Justifications of Colonialism

I did an obscure English module on African literature. One of the books was Heart of Darkness, which was not really ‘African’ but boring as hell and written from a white patriarchal viewpoint. This was followed by Things Fall Apart which I preferred but also detested as the other extreme.

It reinforced how I generally have issues with books written about the ‘dark continent’, especially if the literature moves southwards to places and people I may recognise.

I’m just finishing Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. I sent an interview she did to a friend of mine who hilariously pointed out how the American interviewer kept referring to her time in ‘Africa’ and she kept going ‘no, just Malawi, Zim and Zaire’. Because, of course, to many abroad, Africa is just one very large country, treating it like the old Soviet Union or China, no discrimination placed on the different tribes and cultures within the large landmass.

The book pulled at my heartstrings because she, like me, will always associate herself with Africa, no matter how long she is away. Ironically so does her father although he only moved there after meeting her mother there on a gap year. This is what the continent does to you.

Near the end of the book is the description of the Zimbabwe I heard about in my childhood, the one where people condescendingly said the country would fall apart as land was repossessed, displacing farmers and their staff, many who had been on the land for decades and knew nowhere else.

It was like Gone with the Wind all over again. The stories of how farm clinics, schools, stores were all shut as the whites had to pull out and fend for themselves leaving behind those in need they had always protected. The argument being freedom has been granted, all men are equal now. The reality that the unequal system also offered protection to those least educated, least able to support themselves. Just as you took care of your property, you took care of the assets on it.

Of course in the long run this is unfair. But so is a blanket land repossession that just displaces everyone there before and offers no protection to the weak.

I’m not sure what the solution is. How does a government manage a slow transition turning farms into cooperatives where people aren’t scared off the places they have lived for years ? How do you educate and be educated in how to manage a large farm rather than a series of sharecropping plots, where people all benefit from the prosperity of good land management and a more equal society?

Oh, there are token examples spread about but these are the exceptions not the rule. In many cases these farmlands were better sustained under their previous owners who’d had decades to learn how to manage large properties.

I worry that my country, my beloved country, could undergo a similar renaissance. And it’s not that I don’t want every man, woman, child, to have equal right to water, housing, education, a place to call home. I just don’t know how you do that fairly.

And how you explain to those receiving that it also means this gift comes with the caveat that ownership also means sacrifice. That when something truly is yours you have to be willing to suffer through the bad times too, there is no government, no baas, no guarantees to social assistance.

Because this is Africa. And these are not first world issues but tangled third world ones with generations of hate, history, oppression only slowly dissipating away.

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Filed under balance, book review, equality, Housing, learning

Divergent – Veronica Roth

I’m not going to lie. This is not a book I would have purchased naturally but it came as a ‘free’ Kindle option. (Also not a pro for me as I don’t really like e-books. I can’t flip through the pages at random and start and finish as I wish, and don’t tell me you can put electronic bookmarks in, it’s not the same thing at all.)

It was the best of the bunch offered on some random ‘deal’ as other options clearly included what was a ‘female fluff romance’ option, a historic novella of sorts, a ‘dark thriller’ and a ‘comedic’ option. Basically they took a broad sprinkling of mass readership and decided to promote about six authors.

It turns out Divergent has actually been made into a blockbuster movie. Something that I missed. And it turns out the third instalment of the movie is due out this year so I obviously live under a rock somewhere. (I am not going to see the movie, the girl is described as petite and blonde and interesting looking, the lead actress may be amazing but she is none of these so I’m annoyed already.)

It turned out to be a fairly fast paced read. Dystopian settings are very much the setting for both novels and movies at present and this fits both categories. Given the author is under 30, it’s actually amazing the pace she seems to be writing these books. Clearly there is a lot going on in her head.

The storyline isn’t exactly unique – the world blew up and now different factions rule the city, with 16 year olds obliged to pick the faction that best suits their personality type. The lead character is ‘divergent’ in that she could fit into three of the five categories and people always land in one in their aptitude tests. (They clearly never met me, there is no way ONE would have worked with my indecision) She threw in some interesting twists in developing this and for the most part writes well. The issue is really that some questions aren’t really answered in the first book and after being really naughty and wiki’ing the sequels I’m not sure they are really answered at all. Like who is in charge of the rest of the United States. Whether there is a great overarching authority. What genetic damage actually means.

I also find it a bit one dimensional to assume that one would grow up to be a tattooed freak just because one was born into the Dauntless crew and had to be fearless. Or automatically be an academic if part of Erudite. She does explain that the aptitude tests would allow you to determine a change of faction in your teens but it seemed nurture definitely won over nature as most people stay with their factions and if this is the case the gene thing didn’t make sense.

Maybe I just need to read the sequels. But I don’t have the energy to go through another e-book on my phone or search actively for second hand copies of the next two books either.

(I believe there is a’free’ ebook that explains many of my questions but it seems to be only available in the States. Like that’s not discrimination.)

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His Dark Materials

One of my colleagues has just loaned/given me Northern Lights, the first in the Philip Pullman series. It was made into the movie the Golden Compass with Nicole Kidman. I think there were aspirations it would be like the Harry Potter Franchise  – fantasy novel turned huge breadwinner movie series.

It’s probably just as well I’ve been given the first book as I haven’t properly watched the movie – the large golden monkey freaked me out, like a massive yellow baboon and I find those things scary. (Actually, I have a low concentration span for fantasy movies although I quite enjoy the books, I find movies tend not to live up to what is occurring in my head.)

I’ve already read the second book and am more than halfway through the third. In which they keep referring to adventures from the first book which is both annoying and confusing as I haven’t read it. This would probably be more annoying and confusing if I was someone who liked chronology. Fortunately I’ve learned to treat books in the same manner as television series. That sometimes you miss an episode or five within a story arc but you have to be completely thick to not grasp the overall picture. So I just read backwards while reading forwards at the same time. (I also tend to skip around within a standalone book if I get bored and read the bits I missed later when I’m more awake.)

I told my colleague it’s probably best we don’t give the trilogy to her friend, who, very late in life (like I’m one to talk, reading Pullman now), has started the Harry Potter series. He’s also deeply religious and even more than the Narnia series I think he will find these books somewhat disturbing. They definitely call into question the concept of a greater universal God and an eternal afterlife in which you are still you, although the concept of your soul free in a Buddist sense is underlying.

Similar to the Alvin Maker series (for many ideas are really reinvented ones), they query whether man is really able to distinguish between good and evil -whether, in fact, we get distracted by what appears to be power and shiny white light like magpies searching earthly treasures. The concept is that blind faith in shiny  creatures who talk with silvered tongue leads to zealot crime and murder under the guise of religion and salvation.

Personally I do not think reading literature such as this should serve as an argument for or against religion. If your beliefs are in fact strong enough, they should withstand and indeed welcome your reassessment of them.

I do find the fact that books such as these do downplay the need to try live a good life towards others. The lead characters tend to feel they need to maximise how their lives will touch other people but there is the idea that it is this life that matters and you should really be enjoying it here, today, if you are not a special hero character. And I think the world could do with more people paying it all forward. But then again, aren’t we all special in our own eyes?

All in all however, I have enjoyed the last of the trilogy as it did bring about some new twists and ideas within a somewhat jaded fantasy genre where a lot of people do just reinvent what happened before. It’s gone better than book number two did which dragged a bit when I first picked it up (I did better the second time round). It’ll be interesting to see how book one goes.

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Scarlett

I’ve been reading ‘Scarlett’, the continuation to ‘Gone with the Wind’.

Mind you, I haven’t been able to read the book chronologically as large tracts of it are set in Ireland which seems highly improbable, along with Scarlett being unladylike enough in that day and age to ride astride instead of side saddle.

The fact is, the sequel is an enjoyable read but you can tell the original author was not involved in it and a lot of the charm has gone. The joy of Scarlett is she is a pure unadulterated selfish bitchy little Southerner. She is good at business when it’s meant to be a man’s world and she’s pretty but she doesn’t understand subtle gestures or herself.

The original book also glorifies unintentionally the Southern way of life, how the darkies were taken care of, like any valuable livestock and were loyal and true, how Southern men were gentlemen willing to die for and with honour.

The author of the sequel is unable to glamorise slavery and the fall from it. Some historical facts ring true, other elements of Scarlett’s life just sound too unlikely and out of character for someone with Scarlett’s upbringing. Her choices in the first book were bound by a desperation she doesn’t have in the second to succeed against famine and poverty.

Scarlett has grown up and developed as a person. Probably similar to Harper Lee’s Scout, this was inevitable and inevitably I would resent it. But it’s the bits that seem inaccurate to the times that annoy, likewise when Scarlett makes a decision that doesn’t seem to respect the times.

Good read but realistically, I don’t think she was meant to get Rhett and the premise of the whole book begins to fall apart when hinging mostly off how she tries to do this. She may have been stalking Ashley previously but a big event called the Civil War certainly derailed her train of thought in many ways.

Also Rhett had far more gumption and drive and knew her better than she knew her…

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The stuff nightmares are made of

In the last few days I have heard personal anecdotes from people of a spate of burglaries and robberies at a very personal level all across South Africa. It seems a result of load shedding and desperation.

Only last year my mother was attacked in her home, the robbers lying in wait in order to get through a security gate. The man who was specifically assigned to deal with this poor fragile woman carried her through the house while they demanded she show them items of value or they would cut/burn/beat her up.

He somewhat apologetically explained that they had no work, they had tried, they lived in a squatter camp and they needed to eat. He made sure he tied her up tight but not so tight that she couldn’t escape once they left and although they shut her in a cupboard on leaving, ensuring that that too could open from inside. On the one side one thinks one should be grateful because beyond being scared to death, she was essentially unharmed. I am grateful to this burglar no harm came to her. But I cannot excuse what he did, breaking into a house and threatening harm.

The other night I dreamed a dream. I am often people who are not me in my dreams. I was a middle aged white couple in a lower middle class neighbourhood, new, devoid of many trees and fences, almost like an Edward Scissorhands landscape without the sculpted shrubbery.

These little dark children belonging to staff in the neighbourhood played in the front garden. They wanted to come into the house. They were desperate to see in it and just play in it they said, not one in the ten or so of them above the age of eight. My middle class white self in my dream shrank at the thought of the mess they would make, that I did not know these children and I feared they would break or steal small items. I tried to tell them that it was my house, to placate them. Even as I let a slightly older group of many nationalities into my kitchen. These children, I tried to explain, were my domestic helper’s child and his friends, white and black, I knew them.

Then I felt guilt, historic guilt, me and my imaginary husband and we let the rabble in too. They rushed up the stairs in the house in joyous delight. In my dream I floated above them but I could feel their thoughts. Today they would see privilege, they would play amongst the wealthy and the great. Bottles of cleaning product sat on every stair going up to the bedrooms of this house. There was a massive walk in closet – in actual fact a bedroom for this childless couple had more space than they needed. But there were barely any clothes in the cupboards. There was no television. There was nothing special or extravagant in this house. My dream self felt this couple had all they needed, it was basic and sufficient but actually they could not really afford much more. The house echoed emptiness in terms of belongings.

The children felt disappointment, they felt cheated. Where were the riches they thought they had been promised they could see outside? They wanted to see this, they demanded it. All these white people in their white houses with red roofs must have more. They grabbed what little they could find. A ragged book, a bottle of perfume. The lady of the house in frustration tried to retrieve her belongings as each child tried to leave with something, if anything, egged on by the others. She felt shame that she had and they did not but the more she conceded a belonging, the larger the object the next child demanded.

I awoke to a feeling of sadness. That these dream children were future children born in ignorant belief that it is a birthright that wealth be shared, that it existed even when it didn’t through some delusion of what the white walls hid. That one day they would grow up angry and insistent for what they had not been allowed to take immediately on request. I felt the same sadness I’d felt when I read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Rian Malan’s My Traitors Heart for the first time. I cried a few tears for my beautiful country and prayed a silent prayer this was just a dream as sleep eluded me in the wee hours of the morning.

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When were you ever truly lost?

So one of my friends has set off on an epic almost slightly absurd journey going from England to Mongolia in a very very small car. Routes I think are limited – you almost have to go through Russia because some of the parts on the alternative route you are almost guaranteed to die as opposed to just being seriously stranded with bottles of vodka and people going ‘da da da’ at you. He’s even started a WORDPRESS blog to record this (must really check if he will let me repost it as it is probably more interesting reading than me).

The idea is to raise money for two charities but frankly, I am just fascinated that one can literally leave the rat race for about a month and just race – in a funny little car. This is not quite the same as Footloose and the camper van which was an entire different long term lifestyle change that was even more beyond me. Where do all the untidy bits of your life go when you pack up your life like that? The family jewels (no, not THAT kind), the picture albums, the many pairs of shoes, the little bits of this and that which you accumulate somehow trying to prove to yourself that you have ‘become’ something in life through the random acquisition of vaguely nice or substantial items.

The fact of the matter is I am not good with lifestyle changes. I’m not actually good with change. It’s not an old soul thing, it just an old crabby thing. I can tell because the photocopier/printer was testing me yesterday and it has proven consistently to be the downfall of all people in this office over a certain age. The fact that it now thinks I am next in line is a bit worrying.

I can also tell I am against change because I bought the new Harper Lee book. I am not happy. Not so much because of the ‘shock’ plot line but because it is written in third person instead of first. It’s a first edition but a crummy one on cheap paper that just has odd punctuation and the occasional I am sure unintentional grammatical error that will be resolved on the next issue. And more importantly, after removing a number of key characters, Scout herself has grown up so much the only thing left of her is her stubborness. So much for show me a child at the age of seven and I will show you the (wo)man. Perhaps that is realistically what happens but I couldn’t see the girl at all through the third party eyes or the things she said or did.

Growing up is bittersweet.

Probably why I have never really successfully done so.

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