100 Pages: One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

July 27, 2011 § 9 Comments

The series 100 Pages was started to highlight those books I’ve put aside after 100 pages – not due to any fault of the author or the quality of the writing, but because ultimately they were not to my taste.  100 Pages is a way to recommend deserving books that I know BookSexy Review readers will be interested in, even when I am not.

One Day I Will Write About This Place is a memoir by author Binyavanga Wainaina.  Writing in the first person present tense, Wainaina takes the reader through his Kenyan childhood in the 80’s, college in South Africa in the 90’s, and his eventual immigration to the United States in the first decade of the 21st Century.  More than the typical coming of age story – the book reminded me of Eudora Welty’s autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings.  Binyavanga Wainaina is telling a very specific story which focuses on his development as a writer.  He tells it in full-throttle, turn-the-spigot-on-and-let-it-rip stream of consciousness style.

“Stream” may even be too tame a word.  Wainaina has unleashed a river of memories, impressions and emotions.  The disorganization of his thought process – which he wrestles and maneuvers into the context of his life and the semblance of a plot – feels unusually authentic.  His words and ideas are not being arranged with an eye for poetry or artful composition.  The writing between these covers reads like raw, unedited data.  And I mean that in the best possible sense.  There’s a cognizance here that I feel is missing from many memoirs.

And Binyavanga Wainaina stays true to his GRANTA article.  The Kenyans he describes do not live in grass huts.  They are, in fact, Kenyans in the sense that a New Yorker is from New York.  There is a multi-cultural aspect to his childhood.  As he says in the article, “Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people…” and you feel that when reading One Day I Will Write About This Place.  His mother was born in Uganda and owns a beauty salon. She “speaks Kinyarwanda (Bufumbria), Luganda, English, and Kiswalhili.”  His father is Kenyan, a Gikuyu and is the Managing Director of the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya.  He too speaks multiple languages – Gikuyu, Kiswahili and English.  They are committed to seeing their country prosper.  Young Binyavanga is aware of the politics happening around him, but larger events take place on the periphery of his child’s world.

The most scenic description I came across in the 109 pages I’d read was of a corrugated roofed village that young Wainaina visits with his father to find a mechanical part.  It is located in the poorest section of the city, not the section where his family lives.  Wainaina is careful to differentiate.

…It is lunchtime, and women are gathered around huge pots cut out of old oil drums; beans and maize are boiling, men queuing for a two-shilling lunch.  Screaming, shouting, ladles clashing hard on enamel plates.  Now it is the smell of boiling suds of beans.

The grass has been beaten down to nothing by feet over many years in this large patch of ground of banging.  Somewhere, not far from here, an open-air church service is taking place: loudspeakers and shouts and screams.

You would not believe that not five hundred meters from here are roads and shops, and skyscrapers and cool restaurants that are playing the music of noiseless elevators, and serving the food of quiet electric mixers and plastic fridge containers.  Burgers and coke.  Pizza.

My problem finishing One Day I Will Write About This Place have more to do with my personal likes and dislikes than a weakness in the author’s story.  First person present is my least favorite narrative tense.  The author is not just asking me to immerse myself in his book, but to accept that I am present as the events occur.  It’s always felt gimmicky and I’ve difficulty moving past it.  Also, I generally don’t like memoirs.

But I can recognize when a book is well written and important.  Binyavanga Wainaina has given the reader something that he recognizes as all too rare:  an honest representation of modern Africa.  A place much more familiar (and less romantic) than that we in the West imagine it to be.

Publisher:  Graywolf Press, Minneapolis (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 55597 591 3

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Revolution: The Year [Deb Olin Unferth] Fell In Love & Went To Join the War

March 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

It seems the North American teenager is a truly resilient creature.  Even when taken out of their natural environment and dropped into an exotic locale they maintain their normal behavior patterns – angry moping.  The quick summary of Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War goes like this –  Girl meets Boy.  Girl falls for Boy.  Girl and Boy go looking for a Revolution.  Girl and Boy hang out, bored.

Or, as Unferth much more eloquently puts it…

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area – there were several – but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen.  That’s the whole story.

Lucky for us, it’s not.  Much more than another coming of age story, Revolution is a Dummy’s Guide to Central American politics in the 80’s.  The world is upside down, and while Unferth travels to El Salvador with the best intentions of helping out the revolution (o.k., not exactly), in truth she’s really nothing more than a tourist.   One among many.  People come from all over the world to support revolutions (who knew?).  It’s common enough that the Nicaraguan locals had a name for them.  Internationalistas:  Westerners who come and go in waves, following revolutions like the Grateful Dead, with no real personal stake in their outcomes. Around them uprisings become inappropriately festive.

A group of jugglers had come from Canada.  They’d gone to the northern mountains of Nicaragua, to the war zone.  “We walk from town to town,” one told me, “juggling.”

Imagine.  We were walking across their war, juggling.  We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats.  I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd.  The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor.  We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet.  We weren’t a revolution.  We were an armed circus.

Revolution:  The Year I Fell in Love & Went to Join the War is told with a large font in a slim book.  The chapters are anecdotal, clustered around a common theme and organized in loose chronological order.  You are reading a series of impressions written down years after the actual events took place.  Unferth readily admits that her memory for details is shaky and her insights recent.  She second guesses herself frequently.  But while dates and times may be estimates, there is no arguing with the raw emotional honesty or the self-deprecating humor.  No one could be harder on Unferth then she is on herself, though I couldn’t help but feel that some things were being deliberately glossed over – particularly her history with her family.

This isn’t a comfortable book.  But being a teenager isn’t comfortable.  Frequently I found myself squirming self-consciously for a clueless girl I completely identified with.  I think most readers will.  All of us have been young, delusional and in love at one time or another…  usually with a much less interesting story when it’s all over.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9323 0

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The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

February 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’m embarrassed to say that I picked up my copy of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s memoir at last years Book Expo, and waited until now to read it.  It seems to have become something of a sleeper hit.  First, I heard Michael Kindness review it on the podcast Books On the Nightstand.  Then there was a write-up in the NYRB.   And then I saw it featured at the local Barnes & Noble.  Memoirs are not my usual choice in reading material.  But this isn’t the typical memoir.  What is unusual about The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is Bailey’s decision to turn the focus away from herself and the illness that kept her bedridden.  Instead she focuses on the moment-to-moment existence of a small, wild snail brought to her in a pot of violets by a friend.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is how I imagine the journals of a 19th century amateur Naturalist would read.  Bailey has no scientific training, at least none she thinks worth mentioning.   She first takes note of her snail when she finds small, square holes in the corner of a letter on her bedside table. Realizing that the snail has been eating the paper at night she experiments with feeding it flower petals. Through trial and error Bailey learns how to care for her new companion. The snail moves from a flower pot to a full terrarium, graduates from being fed decayed petals to Portobello mushroom slices – and Bailey’s observations begin in earnest (the serious research would begin years later). Eating habits, slime, reproduction, predators – there is much more to a snail’s life than you have ever cared to imagine. Even snail sex is unexpectedly intriguing.

During the summer months, if conditions become too dry, windy, or hot, or if food supplies are limited, a snail will go into a kind of dormancy called estivation. It climbs up a plant, tree, or wall to be away from the earth’s heat and beyond reach of predators or floodwaters. Finding a safe place, it attaches itself firmly with mucus, usually with the shell opening facing upward, which may alert it to weather changes. Then it seals up its entrance with a temporary door made of mucus. This storm door, called an epiphragm, protects it from shifts in temperature and humidity. A snail may estivate for weeks or months, or even several years.

… Their [an epiphragm’s] design is specific to a snail’s species and to its local climate conditions. They may be thin and simple or thick and elaborate. Strategically located breathing holes may be incorporated, or they may be permeable to air. There is quite n art to the construction of these little doors, and justly so. Despite their temporary nature, a good door in severe weather makes the difference between life and death for a snail. An epiphragm is also personal, and its statement is definitive: the snail is home but is not accepting visitors.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book is distinguished by a complete absence of background noise.  Her prose is built on silence.  She transports the reader into her recovery room, – where there is no television, computer or cellphone.  Visitors feel like an intrusion on our solitude, interrupting the rhythm of our day-to-day routine.  I felt somewhat resentful towards anything that took my attention away from what was happening inside the terrarium.

Completely engrossing, and often soothing, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a monument to restraint.  Equally intriguing as what Bailey tells us is what she chooses not to.  Her illness is left unidentified until the epilogue, when it could easily have carried the narrative. It is the reason she was bedridden, unable to tolerate bright lights or loud noises, or to sit up for even short periods of time. But that was not the story she decided to tell. Instead she focused on another life which she came to see as a kindred spirit. The result is beautiful and evocative, the rare book written with scientific precision and a touch of poetry.

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself he chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
Whole Treasure.

– William Cowper, from “The Snail”, 1731

(Wonderful quotes like this one are used as chapter headings throughout the book).

Publisher:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 56512 606 0

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La Revolución remolque libro continúa!

January 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

The book trailer REVOLUTION continues!

I’m still trying to get into this book trailer thing.  On the whole – not going so well.  But this landed in my Gmail the other day and I found myself intrigued

The book is Revolution:  The Year I Fell In Love & Went To Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth.  It’s not every day a girl finds God, a husband and her inner Sandinista.  Probably for the best.  And yet, it could make for good reading.

What do you think?  Is your interest piqued?

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BookSexy’s Most Wanted: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

June 29, 2010 § 2 Comments

Netsuke from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Guardian Books Podcast likes to torment me with books I can’t have.  The June 24th episode has a fantastic interview with Edmund de Waal, a British potter whose  memoir follows the journey of a family heirloom – a Japanese Netsuke collection – through history.   In the process, he tells the stories of the members of the family who were in possession of the collection.  All were fascinating people in their own right.

The Guardian website has a review here.

The good news is:   no need to  send your money to Amazon UK (conversion rate is currently at $1.50 to 1 British Pound), The Hare with Amber Eyes is being released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S.  The bad news?  It doesn’t come out until the Fall.

O well, I hear patience is a virtue.

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