Adding it up: My reading in January

Month: Jan 2014

Books completed this month: 9 (5 ebooks; 1 hard copy; 2 audio; 1 part hard copy, part ebook)
Books completed year to date: 9 (5 ebooks; 1 hard copy; 2 audio; 1 part hard copy, part ebook)

Books abandoned this month: 1 (a travel book, in which the English traveller ridiculed France and French.  It was unbearable).
Books abandoned year to date: 1

Short stories completed this month: 6
Short stories completed year to date: 6

Best reads this month: Gone With the Wind and Soul Murder

Completed this month for the various challenges:
Reading round Munster – 2 (Total year to date 4/6 – runs from Nov 2013 to Sept 2014)
Full House Challenge – 7 (Total year to date 7/25)
Back to the Classics – 2 (Total year to date 2/10-and-a-movie)
Read Scotland – 1 (Total year to date 1/1-4)
Africa Reading Challenge – 0 (Total year to date 0/5)
Deal Me In [Short stories]: 6 (Total year to date 6/52]
Non-Fiction: 2 (Total year to date 2/10)
I Love Library Books: 0 (Total year to date 0/3)
Audio Books: 2 (Total year to date 2/1-5)
Ebooks: 5 (Total year to date 5/10)

Comments: This is more than I expected to read this month, but in the first week of January I had extra reading time, and so I probably won’t be able to maintain this level.  But that’s okay!  I’m really happy with the reading, the challenges, and the blogging for now!

Short Story #6: Dancing to the Jazz Goblin and His Rhythm (Brian Chikwava)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the two of diamonds.

Story: Dancing to the Jazz Goblin and His Rhythm, by Brian Chikwava (from The Granta Book of the African Short Story)

Comments: A young man moves from Bulawayo to Harare, at his mother’s insistence.  “She had said, ‘I’m not disowning you, my child,  but it brings bad luck for a woman to keep on looking after a child who has grown a beard.’ ”  So he moves.  At first he comes under the influence of a jazz musician who sponges off him, but after a relatively short time the protagonist gets away from the Jazz Goblin and moves into a new flat on his own.  The move happens on the day on which Zimbabwean Independence is celebrated, 18 April.

And that’s it.  Am I missing something here?  Okay, so there’s the “independence” theme.  And – what?  Is the young man somehow supposed to represent the country?  At the end of this story I’m saying “So what?” and wondering if I need some kind of Interpreter’s Guide to this book.  Helon Habila’s Introduction doesn’t help any with this particular story.

#9. A Different Lifetime: stepping back in time in the former Yugoslavia (Martin Radford)

Book: A Different Lifetime: stepping back in time in the former Yugoslavia, by Martin Radford

Genre: Travel/memoir

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 164 pages

Briefly, it’s the account of four months which the author, an Englishman, spent teaching English in Vojvodina in 2006.

Comments: This is a polite and careful account of what must have been a pretty challenging and often frustrating four months in Serbia.  Yes, Serbia – I don’t know why that name is not in the title of the book.  It’s not as if Radford gives us loads of information about “the former Yugoslavia”.  In fact, political or historical insight is not what this book is about.  He does tell us about the friends he made, what his living arrangements were like, a bit about the lives of his (adult) students, and about the river-bank walks he undertook.  But there is something missing at the level of personal feelings.  For instance, twice he mentions being give a drink of the local hooch, “fire-water”, but he doesn’t tell us what it was like, whether he liked it, or what effect it had on him.  And the way in which he fails to fight for the pay which he was due, and which was not given to him, was a bit wimpy (if it was true).

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the category “Less than 200 pages”; ebook reading challenge; non-fiction reading challenge.

Short story #5: Ships in High Transit (Banyavanga Wainaina)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the five of diamonds.

Story:  Ships in High Transit, by Banyavanga Wainaina (from The Granta Book of the African Short Story)

Comments: To understand better where Wainaina is coming from in this story, it may help to read first his article in the Winter 2005 issue of Granta, “How to Write about Africa” (available here).  This is a funny/sarcastic look at the stereotyping of and generalizing about “Africa” that occurs in contemporary writing.  Okay.  I’m Irish, I get the resentment at stereotyping.

Ships in High Transit is about reality and image; the image of “Africa” that the Kenyans in the story are deliberately concocting for European and American tourists, the image of themselves that they portray to each other, the image that they have of the tourists… Where is reality?  What is true, and what is crap?   A good discussion of the story can be found here (a blog post from 2006).   See also the discussion about “the Real Africa” and Wainaina here, including the comments.  I note that not everyone is impressed by his living in the USA and buying into the system there – a little like what the Irish would call “taking the King’s shilling”.

Personally, I think if any group of countries today suffers from being radically and wrongfully stereotyped, it’s “Eastern Europe”.

#8. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

Book: Heart of Darkness , by Joseph Conrad

Genre: Classic fiction

Where I got it: Audio download from http://www.booksshouldbefree.com

Length: 4 hours 38 mins playing time

Briefly, it’s a narrative about a journey up an unnamed river in an unnamed African country, generally understood to be the Congo River when that area was claimed as the Belgian Congo.  The story considers the relationship between coloniser and “native”, the effects of greed and brutality, and how we all chase after dreams.

Comments: This was hard going.  I’m not a lover of the sea, or boats, or of fiction about boats and ships, seas and rivers.  But apart from that, the story just didn’t engage me at all. It was only about half-way through, when the Africans launch an attack on the boat, that it became anyway interesting – and that bit of liveliness didn’t last for long.  I never could fathom why Marlowe was so fascinated by Mr Kurtz, who seemed a total jerk from the outset.  The narrative was hard to follow, boring, obscure in some places, and very obvious in others.  But at least I persevered, and now it’s no longer on my TBR list!

Challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge, for the category A Nineteenth Century Classic (1899); Audiobooks challenge.

#7 The Peace Maker (Michele Chynoweth)

Book: The Peace Maker, by Michele Chynoweth

Genre: Fiction

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 308 pages

Briefly, it’s a light novel, based on the story of Abigail in the Bible, set in contemporary (or slightly future?) America, promoting Christian values and the following of God’s will.

Comments: If you know the story of Abigail (see here, or read it in the First Book of Samuel), it’s remarkable how Chynoweth has drawn so many parallels in this story.  But from the outset the happy-ever-after ending was so predictable…

(The country of Cypress is mentioned at least twice.  I guess she meant Cyprus.)

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the category “Author New to You”; Ebook reading challenge.

Short Story #4: Propaganda by Monuments (Ivan Vladislavić)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the five of clubs.

Story: Propaganda by Monuments, by Ivan Vladislavić (from The Granta Book of the African Short Story)

Comments: Ivan Vladislavić is a South African writer of Croatian extraction, who has “written extensively about Johannesburg, where he lives.”  This story deals with the impact that public monuments can have, and how such monuments can be used to “teach” history.  It deals in particular with a  monument of Stalin in Moscow (being taken down, in this story), and one of J. G. Strijdom (Prime Minister of South Africa 1954-58) in Pretoria.

For me, I’m afraid this story didn’t work.  The same point could have been made, and made more clearly, in a few short paragraphs of non-fiction.  Monuments as propaganda is quite an interesting sociological topic.  But when I got to the end of this story, I turned the page expecting more.  It was bewildering to find that there wasn’t any more.  Why waste all those early pages of good writing at the beginning of the story, just to lead up to… well, not very much?  Or am I missing the point?