Africa

West with the Night

I hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham until a few weeks ago, when her name showed up in an article in conjunction with Hemingway, who was apparently a fan. Her memoir, West with the Night, would have certainly been of topical interest to Papa Hemingway, but the prose styling is also squarely in that mode that has been defined by his work. Markham writes with a directness that is not softened by the touches of aristocracy or privilege that are present in the work. There is little obfuscation or posturing -the only aspect of her writing that might be considered an act of narrative self-preservation is her tendency toward personal understatement. Markham herself is sometimes less revealed than a contemporary reader might wish, but the strength of the other characters populating her life make up for that.

While Markham’s prose lacks ostentation and extravagance as a rule, there is a certain kind of Colonial philosophical authority that grates a bit, especially within our contemporary world of postcolonial theory. The romantic attribution of racial character is much more liberal and evolved than that of her contemporaries, but it still can cause a wince or two. Notably, this sort of thing only really occurs outside of Markham’s personal narrative accounts, and is perhaps best understood as her attempts to ape the conventions of serious men writers, resulting in both the aesthetically weakest and the most culturally and morally problematic writing in the book. Narrative episodes lack these problems almost entirely.

And when Markham is just telling the stories that comprise her life, this book kicks. This is a woman who hunted boar with grown native men as a small girl, killing a leopard to save her beloved and ambitious dog, who bred and trained racehorses, who flew a small bush plane in colonial Africa well before the second world war. The book opens with her delivering an oxygen tank to a sick miner and then sitting with another man dying of malaria, confronting her own irrational phobias regarding g the sickness of others, and after this episode, the story begins to unfold in a rough chronology. Markham is a creature set at a remove, both in her literal human isolation and in her narrative position. This does not prevent incredible scenes from being told with such a sense of involvement and urgency that the book down. West with the Night is another one of those happy intermeshings of lyrical prose chops and amazing events. While the pacing and rhythm of her stories sometimes feel incomplete, the stories themselves are enthralling.

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Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is a novel in three parts, a very common and standard thing with regard to form and execution. It is a story of adolescence and a trouble family, a story where a father’s religious zeal and hypocrisy. It’s a story about abuse and familial schism. None of these things are especially uncommon, but this story is set in postcolonial Nigeria and depicts an Igbo family defined by their father’s abusive imitations and worship of all things European. This is, needless to say, a hard break from the kind of “novel of ideas” that are so often the first things that come to mind when one hears of this narrative arc.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel isn’t worth reading on account of its novelty –Purple Hibiscus is objectively well-written and possess one of the most engaging narratives I’ve encountered since the thematically pulpy but equally prose-driven The Twelve trilogy. The further into this book you get, the more invested you become. That’s almost always the goal of good novel-length fiction, but it’s hard to pull of as completely as Adichie has here.

A bit of time has passed between my reading of this novel and my writing of this reading log, as I try to do. The neurological digestion of Adichie’s characters and narratives, her prose and her ideas, has produced nothing but further positive descriptions. The novel is a bit slow to start, but that’s all a part of the things’s intrinsic pacing, and only adds to my appreciation. This is a fantastic book, and I intend to seek out more of Adichie’s writing as soon as I can -check out her Amazon Single “We Should All Be Feminists” for a quick and easy-reading essay on her own experiences with the label.

Heart of Darkness: Another Hike up the Literary Canon

Another piece of the canon that I’m just now getting to. Still not sure how I made it through my English undergrad without reading this. I guess professors are just sick of teaching it. Oh Well. Glad I’ve rectified my mistake.

I’m struck by how similar this reading experience was to my first reading of Moby-Dick in 2014. While there are some thematic similarities, (an oral storyteller waxing eloquent about his adventures on an aquatic vessel, seeking a legendary entity that takes on a mythological significance) they both resonated especially on the level of their respective influence. It’s impossible to read Heart of Darkness in a vacuum. So much of 20th/21st century art and storytelling has used either the ideas or the expression of Conrad’s work. As I read, I found myself remembering everything from contemporary literary fiction to Loony Toons. This novel has seeped so deeply into the collective unconsciousness that the entire narrative arc, the environmental foreboding, the prose stylings, and specific turns of phrase have become archetypal.

None of this diminishes the reading -it merely alters it. There is a reason this thing is a mainstay in academia. It’s perfectly paced, (what the hell happened to good pacing, anyhow?) memorable, and powerful in its language. There’s not much else to say. It clearly deserves its acclaim.

Recommendation: Read it if you haven’t. Read it again if it’s been awhile.

Relatability, Misery Porn, and Denis Johnson’s “The Laughing Monsters”

 

Denis Johnson’s latest novel is dark. This is not uncharted territory for the man, but the bleakness here is obliterating. There is a detached and passive depression in the narration, the first-person perspective of an utterly unsympathetic intelligence operative (Roland Nair) who has come back to Africa for selfish reasons that seem rather nebulous -possibly even to the narrator himself. As events unfold in front of him, his perspective casts everything in a dull gray haze, a distant and removed malaise that evokes both a miserable sense of place and Nair’s own clear depression. The secondary characters are vivid and compelling, clearly existing in a space apart from our narrator, motives as incorporeal and obscured as his own, at least to him.

None of this is a complaint. I loved this book, as I have loved almost everything Johnson has written. As I have said, I’m less than patient with our current pop-literary obsession with relatability. If the only characters people want to read are reflections of themselves, one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of literature itself is defeated. A protagonist who is “good” in the sense of being an interesting and engaging character is often not morally good. These places where characters breaks from societal norms and conventions within their own minds create some of the most vivid and powerful experiences in fiction. When these breaks are exacerbated by some kind of internal mental division, (Hamlet’s uncertainty, Humbert Humbert’s delusions, or Nair’s passive depression) this dramatic importance is given complexity and nuance.

The flip side of the hyper-relatable equation is the descent into a wallowing in abject misery. I’m reminded of Herta Mueller’s, “Nadirs” a wonderfully written book that is just overwhelmingly and unredeemably black (in the most spiritual sense of the world). Without something else in the mix, this kind of bleakness can dissolve into simple misery porn, an unabashed writhing in the most comically unhappy nonsense a reader can imagine. “Nadirs” redeems itself through its captivating, almost prose-poem lyricism. “The Laughing Monsters” redeems itself with a slickly paced narrative every bit the equal of the best spy/military novels (Johnson is ever the literary chameleon) and an unforgettable handful of beatifully broken people, behaving badly.

Reading Log: Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine

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Well, now I’m all out of Thom Jones books. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine is the last of Jones’s three published works. He’s got a couple loose stories floating around that I intend to track down, but as far as traditionally published books go, I am now a Thom Jones completist, which makes me more than a little sad.

Sonny Liston is certainly on par with his debut, The Pugilist at Rest. Oddly, the titular story Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine is far and away the weakest and most disappointing story in the lot, falling back on heavily-treed banalities in spite of it’s sporadic brilliance. The collection improves mightily right after, return to familiar Jones characters from The Pugilist. We’re back in the world of Vietnam, boxing and frontal lobe epilepsy, sometimes with new characters, sometimes with old. The stories are sometimes hilarious but never stray far from brutality.

Jones’s three story collections are a vast trilogy of short fiction, each sharing characters and themes while still retaining a smaller, individual vision. I plan on rereading all three books and diagraming out the interconnecting stories, drawing solid lines that connect the disparate narratives sharing characters, dotted ones for those connections that; however likely, remain uncertain due to the unreliability of a narrator or the form of that particular narrative. Read these books. The “traditional” form of the short story gets short shrift, but the kind of interweaving storytelling Jones accomplishes in these three books would be impossible in any other medium.

Recommendation: Buy them all, read in the order of publication.




Cold snap :stories
by Thom Jones
Powells.com



Reading Log: Thom Jones’s Cold Snap

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Cold Snap is Jones’s second collection of stories, a follow-up to his acclaimed debut The Pugilist at Rest. Cold Snap borrows some of the characters from his earlier collection, and like The Pugilist, many of its own stories are interconnected, both in narrative and thematically. Many stories feature diabetes, expat medical aid workers in Africa, doctors, and the AIDS epidemic, among others. Boxing, Vietnam, and catastrophic mental illness are still present, but I don’t think Jones could publish a book without a little of that.

These stories are just as compelling as his first collection, visceral and full of emotion. I must confess that I read this collection a bit faster than his first, devouring most of it in less than a day -while I was fighting off bronchitis, on top of it all. I wish I’d let the reading stretch out a little longer, but I’m certain I’ll return to the stories I really enjoyed again this year. I loved half the stories, and the ones that weren’t my favorite I’d still consider quite good. Jones’s diversity is impressive, but it’s the source of my only complaint: the story “Rocketfire Red”. It’s written in a dense Australian dialect that is technically superb, but feels more like a technical exercise despite it’s otherwise engaging plot and great prose. It feels like Jones’s got lost in the craft after reading Trainspotting. Still, 9/10 is remarkable.

Cold Snap must be compared to The Pugilist, but it’s a hard comparison to make. I’m enjoying reading his work in the order of publication and would recommend it to anyone looking to read Jones’s work. Sophomore efforts are always tricky and it comes down to expectations. Was I hoping for Cold Snap to be “just as good” at the preceding collection? To improve on it? Just to not suck so I can enjoy a voice I’m already comfortable with?

Recommendation: Buy it and read it. It’s good. It’s not quite as good as The Pugilist at Rest, but that’s a damn high bar and Cold Snap is no sophomore slump.


Cold Snap: Stories
by Thom Jones
Powells.com

 



Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

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A high school class I was covering for a few days was reading this. I took a look at it after playing them a chapter of the audiobook. The voice piqued my interest and I found a copy in Bookhounds a week later. I’d heard of it in an ambiguous way, but I didn’t realize until I had started reading it that the album “Yam, the King of Crops” by The Mountain Goats was inspired/sprung from this book. It’s a short, easy read with a very straightforward voice and a driving plot. It’s an especially perfect book for younger readers and I’m thrilled it’s on so many school reading lists.

Things Fall Apart is a perfect demonstration of why the phrase “show, don’t tell” (quoted ad nauseum in writing workshops, forums and books on the craft) is mostly useless. Achebe tells the reader directly what Okonkwo is thinking, forgoing the needless obfuscation that would arise from trying to shoehorn in narrative actions, gestures, and artificial-sounding dialogue. The book avoids all of this, leveraging its directness for all the authority and dramatic importance possible. It’s a simple, tragic story with familiar archetypal themes (this is not a complaint).

The story of Okonkwo resonates. He is profoundly male, flawed and driven to extremes but far from unknowable. I couldn’t help but noticing similarities to Steinbeck’s The Pearl -both featuring powerful yet dysfunctional men and large human themes relayed through fable. They are both stories that use an instructive form with subversive intent, teaching us about the uncomfortable realities of our nature rather than a simple instructive moral lesson. Achebe tells a moving story without presenting a clear lesson to be learned, imitating reality not with the studied and constructed realism of James or Wharton but by evoking that which we know to be true about our nature.