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A few books

June 22, 2012

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.

West with the Night
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (Scribner Classics)

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass

A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

The Shadow of the Sun

The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)

The Tree Where Man Was Born (Penguin Classics)

Cutting for Stone

The Zanzibar Chest

30 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2012 11:48 am

    May be obvious to the point of cliche, but Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is the ultimate Africa book for me. Agree with you about Hemingway – those two short stories really are perfect!

  2. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    June 22, 2012 11:57 am

    I reread Heart of Darkness before I left, and I wholeheartedly agree. Did you read “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild?

  3. Susan permalink
    June 22, 2012 12:14 pm

    Frankly, I’d vote for *anything* by Dinesen. Her writing is so gloriously limpid; if you took one word out it wouldn’t work. Amazing. She wrote some short stories – Winter’s Tales – that are extraordinary. (Do bear in mind that I’m writing as someone who has her whole canon on the shelves!)

    There is a lovely biography of Dinesen by Judith Thurman. (Makes the truth of syphilis sound pretty dreadful….) Thurman also wrote a bio of Collette which is fascinating.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 22, 2012 2:33 pm

      I had read the biography, but somehow not Dinesen’s books themselves. I still have the short stories ahead of me, which is wonderful to know….
      And yes, the syphilis sounded pretty awful. She was so stoic about it in her book, so brave.

  4. June 22, 2012 12:42 pm

    I’m adding A Primate’s Memoir to my reading list.

  5. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    June 22, 2012 2:34 pm

    I promise, I swear on everything sacred, you won’t regret it!

    • Susan permalink
      June 22, 2012 4:06 pm

      Monkeyluv, one of his neuroscience books, is good too. And (delightfully) if you read it in public in a very socially conservative place, you will get Absolutely Scandalized Disaproving Glares.

  6. June 22, 2012 4:37 pm

    I just listened to Sapolsky talking about baboons on a Radiolab podcast this morning! He sounded fascinating. I will definitely check out his writing.

  7. June 22, 2012 5:59 pm

    Okay, I feel an Africa reading project coming on. A Primate’s Memoir – well, I need to read it. It’s going on my list. And I don’t think I’ve read Out of Africa, either. Or the Snows of Kilimanjaro. Although I seem inexplicably to have opinions about these books–how?

    I really can’t recommend The House at Sugar Beach enough, especially if listened to on audiotape–Helene Cooper reads it herself, which is good, because all the best parts are in Liberian English. Also, I’m reading Sir Vidia’s Shadow, by Paul Theroux, right now, the first couple parts of which take place in Africa and are rich and awesome even though they’re really just filler and background to the real story, which is, um, what a brilliant jerk VS Naipaul is.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 22, 2012 7:03 pm

      You know what’s good? Dark Star Safari, by Theroux–he goes back to Africa long after his glory days in the Peace Corps in Uganda. Theroux himself is no slouch in the brilliant jerk department….

      • June 23, 2012 6:31 pm

        I know! I have to keep reminding myself not to trust this narrator. But he’s so likeable…

  8. cruella permalink
    June 23, 2012 6:34 am

    Doris Lessings memoirs, Under my Skin and Walking in the Shade. On her colonial upbringing, family struggles and political awakening. Marvelleous.

  9. June 23, 2012 12:13 pm

    Delurking to remark that Robert Sapolsky was one of my biology professors when I was an undergrad at Stanford. The man gives great lectures. Have you read “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers?”

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 23, 2012 5:08 pm

      Yes! I’ve read them all. Lucky you…when, if I may ask, were you at Stanford?

      • June 24, 2012 12:29 am

        Oh, let’s see… 1994 to 1998. I spent a lot of the last 2 years at the little marine bio outpost in Monterey. The very best part of Stanford, IMHO. Scuba diving daily with your professors is the best way to a bachelor’s degree. Seems like a long time ago now!

        Also, I agree with telechick regarding finishing Cutting for Stone. I really liked that one.

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          June 24, 2012 8:27 am

          I started grad school at Stanford in 1992…took me 9 years to finish (child, marriage, a move to Berkeley so my ex-husband could do his post-doc). Maybe I was your TA! Ever take a Classics distribution requirement?

          • June 24, 2012 12:19 pm

            Nope, afraid not. History, mostly, when I wasn’t in the Math/chem/bio departments. 9 years, yikes! It took me 6, and I was ready to pull my hair out by the end. I admire your tenacity. Grad school is hell.

  10. telechick permalink
    June 23, 2012 7:46 pm

    I highly recommend finishing Cutting For Stone. I read it this winter and despite its hitting way too close to home at the end, it was wonderful. I’ve always loved West with Night, Out of Africa, and the Flame Trees of Thika (which is one of the first Masterpiece Theatres I remember watching). I am positivie I’ve read the Zanzibar Chest and think I liked it, but I don’t remember it very clearly.

    I will definitely add A Primate’s Memoir to my reading list, as well as a couple of the others you’ve mentioned.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 24, 2012 8:30 am

      I looked for Cutting for Stone all over last night–but the house is in such utter disarray right now. I’ll have to turn it into a gleaming showplace soon enough, once the workers finish (provided they ever finish) and I’ll find it and finish. I hate leaving books unfinished, though I do it all the time. And often when I do come back and take them up again, I’m astonished at how absurdly stupid I was to have quit reading in the first place. I stopped reading Lolita in the middle the first time I read it. Also The Shipping News. Also The Corrections. I mean, really!

      • telechick permalink
        June 24, 2012 2:30 pm

        The Shipping News is one of my all-time favourites. I hope you finished it eventually!

        I have to admit that it took me about 3 yrs to finish Midnight’s Children. I kept it in the car (long before smart phones and Kindle apps) and only read it when I was stuck waiting somewhere. The Moor’s Last Sigh was so much better. I have to admit I’ve become highly addicted to my Kindle app.

        One other book rec (nothing to do with Africa) is The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It’s hilarious and very clever.

  11. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    June 24, 2012 7:03 pm

    Oh, I loved those Fforde books! Yes, finished The Shipping News last summer and could not believe I’d ever put it down. The only thing I could possibly think of was that I had been extremely young and foolish when I’d left off reading it–I finished it last summer, and started it when it was first published, whenever that was. Eons ago.

    • Hawk permalink
      June 25, 2012 11:24 am

      I cannot leave books unfinished, so I did complete Cutting for Stone. Trust me, you’re not missing anything.

      I recently read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller and that was quite good. Thank you for the suggestions – I am also moving Out of Africa up my to-read list!

  12. June 25, 2012 8:05 am

    I was just sent a link to your blog- I find myself facing separation and eventual divorce after a long struggle with infertility and baby loss. I look forward to reading your blog and some of your back posts too. love and luck to you

  13. Anne permalink
    June 25, 2012 5:38 pm

    I really Liked Let’s Don’t Go To The Dogs Tonight. I forget the author’s name. She’s British and now lives in Wyoming.

  14. Anne permalink
    June 25, 2012 5:39 pm

    OK, I obviously scrolled past Hawk’s comment, and it also looks like I got the title of the book wrong. (Waves and ducks offstage).

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 25, 2012 7:11 pm

      Consoling-windows friend and I amuse ourselves by saying, in various accents, “Tonight, you are not to be going to the dogs!” and “The dogs, they are not for going, not tonight. Maybe we will go tomorrow to those dogs,” and “Wherever we go tonight, let us make very sure it is not to the dogs!”
      The point is, no one can remember that title, don’t feel bad. (For the record, I loved that book, but found her subsequent books very disappointing….)

      • Mar permalink
        June 27, 2012 10:36 am

        Have you read her OTHER africa memoir? Sort of a sequel — just as charming as “…the dogs..tonight…”.
        Also: if you haven’t, please PLEASE read When the Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin. So good.

        • Mar permalink
          June 27, 2012 10:37 am

          Sorry – the other Fuller book is “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness”.

  15. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    June 27, 2012 2:41 pm

    I read the Godwin book! Will get the other Fuller from the library. That Scribbling the Cat or whatever it was (Scratching the Cat? Don’t go over there tonight, the cat might scratch you?) put me off, but if the new one is good I’m delighted.

  16. Was Living Down Under permalink
    July 4, 2012 10:41 am

    Away last week so late to the game… was going to recommend the Fuller book as well… I too was disappointed by her subsequent books.

    When I was in Africa I read Nelson Mandela’s biography which I found to be a compelling read.

    I’ll definitely pick up Out of Africa. Apparently you’re not the only one who hasn’t read it!

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