A few books
Thinking about Africa has me thinking about some of the books I read there, as well as the books I didn’t read, and the books I wish I’d brought along.
Before I left I reread West With the Night, by Beryl Markham, with a blurb by none other than Ernest Hemingway on the back. (Well, duh. She writes like he did, she was damned good looking, and she flew planes.) My mother gave me this book the year I started grad school, with an inscription that said, “Will you go to Africa with me?” I’d forgotten about the inscription till I teased the book off a top shelf and opened it again after twenty years. Highly recommended. I finished it again on American soil, and thus left it behind–but it set the mood very nicely.
You could do a lot worse than to reread “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber”, by the way. I know all the reasons one is supposed to spurn Hemingway, and I don’t care. These two stories are just about perfect.
Your comments on my what-books-shall-I-take post sent me straight to the library, and to Out of Africa, which I realized (how is this possible?) I had never actually read. I’d read ABOUT Karen Blixen, and I’d seen the movie, which I didn’t like as much as everyone else did. (Robert Redford was so wooden, and so miscast, that it ruined the effect–how could Meryl Streep possibly have the hots for THIS milksop? Give me Klaus Kinski any day. Mmmmm, syphilis.) I started it before I left, and was instantly spellbound. But I couldn’t take the battered library hardcover with me, could I? Had my mother read it? She must have. I put it in my bag, took it out, put it in again, took it out. The binding, already taped over, cracked some more, and a couple of pages fluttered loose. That did it–I’d leave it behind. “Oh, god, how is it possible I never read that?” my mother said to me on the plane, and I smacked my head on the tray table in despair. We lasted until the Ngorongoro Crater, where she paid thirty dollars for a tiny British Penguin paperback edition (which went home with her, not me, at the end of the trip). Why is Blixen/Dinesen so good? Shadows in the Grass is brilliant, too, but not as brilliant as Out of Africa. I have dozens of favorite parts, underlined and dog-eared in the copy I bought for myself when I got home, and promptly reread. Of course you are all way ahead of me. What are your favorite parts, I wonder?
Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir is one of the funniest, best books I’ve ever read in my life. But I’d read it so many times–at least three or four–and I’d lent my copy to someone who made off with it, and my mom had read it too, so I saw no reason to bring it along on the trip. Sapolsky is a field biologist who studies the effects of stress on baboons. He did his graduate work in Kenya, and this is the story of his years in the bush. He’s brilliant, and neurotic, and he can write. I wanted this book the whole time I was there, to press into people’s hands, to insist they read certain parts, to read certain parts out loud at dinner or out in the Serengeti, while tugging on people’s sleeves and imploring them to pay attention. Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t have it.
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski hypnotized and horrified me in equal measure. Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who wheedled his way to Africa in the fifties. He was there through the end of colonial rule and through one revolution after another–a firsthand witness to the unspeakable horrors that took place in the latter half of the twentieth century in country after country throughout sub-saharan Africa. (The chapter on Liberia is the most brilliant, and the most gruesome–the high point the book builds to, in my opinion.) It’s rough going, and it turns out that Kapuscinski was a commie spy, but the writing is gorgeous and the translation is first-rate. One of the chapters was excerpted in the New Yorker years ago and I’d spent ages looking for it, describing it to various people I thought might have come across the story, in vain. (“The narrator is in the desert, and the truck he’s riding in breaks down, and he calmly informs us that he has no water and if the driver won’t share his water he, the narrator, will die today, in a few hours. And if the driver shares, he’ll die tomorrow. Do you know what I’m talking about, did you read it?” No one ever knew.) I plowed through this book, then handed it off to my mom, who read it straight through, then handed it off to Walter, who had read it before but didn’t own a copy. (Of course he had read it. Walter has read everything. Except A Primate’s Memoir, damn it all to hell. I sent it to him when we got home, but it’s not the same as forcing him to read it RIGHT THERE and discuss it, daily, with me.)
When I got home I read The Flame Trees of Thika, which my boyfriend had pointed out to me at a used book sale and suggested I buy. (The copy I have is a funky old one, complete with somebody else’s bookplate. But the book is still in print.) I had thought it was a children’s book, but I was wrong, though it does describe an African childhood. Elspeth Huxley grew up in Kenya in the years before the first world war, and her memoirs are addictively quaint. But I feel fairly certain that you have all read this book many times before.
I brought, as usual, a bunch of books with me that I either did not finish or did not even touch. The Tree Where Man Was Born, by Peter Matthiessen, is admirable, but something about Matthiessen’s writing leaves me cold. No sense of humor, maybe? A vaunting self-importance? I tried, honestly, I did. But I never got very far.
My mom had Cutting For Stone (yeah, I know, not Tanzania). I didn’t finish it, either. I liked it, and then it mysteriously vanished, and now I can’t really remember much about it, and its loss didn’t sent me racing to the library when I got home.
I also brought a book called The Zanzibar Chest, and I never finished that one, either. Should I? It’s sitting on the bookshelf in my bedroom, glaring at me reproachfully.
Now I miss Africa, and want to read more books that will remind me of the trip. Suggestions, as always, are encouraged.