Sunday, April 22, 2012

Celebrating Books

Last Friday the National Library of Uganda was celebrating World Book and Copyright Day (which actually falls on Monday, I believe).  In the morning, they allowed early arrivals to select a free book from a pile of assorted popular fiction.  I wound up with Clive Cussler’s Black Wind.  I was hoping to make it back for the afternoon celebration, which involved readings, a play put on by the students at the Buganda Road Primary School (I hear their recitations every morning, for they are located just across the street from the Library), and a demonstration of an E-Book.  Unfortunately, an appointment at the Uganda Wildlife Authority ran a bit long and so I missed it.

I imagine that it was quite nice.  In fact, it seems that any event or celebration dealing with the appreciation of books is a nice thing, and it was good to see an institution that is clearly cash-strapped and under-appreciated trying to get the public reading.  I read Black Wind that evening (yes, this is what nerds do with their Friday nights), and couldn’t decide whether I’d read it before or whether its familiarity stemmed from the fact that so many of Cussler’s novels are just like one another.

The largesse of the National Library aside, I’ve been doing most of my pleasure reading on my kindle (an infernally useful device, but one which also aggrieves me).  One effect of this is that I’ve been reading loads of collections, which tend to be very cheap if not free to download.  In Cambridge during the fall it was the Sherlock Holmes collection.  Since arriving in East Africa I’ve been reading Agatha Christie, P G Wodehouse, Zane Gray, Mark Twain, and H Rider Haggard.  In the interests of preserving my little remaining sanity, I do not, obviously, read these collections straight through, but rather alternate.  Nonetheless, I’m struck by how formulaic many of the stories get.

Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, is infuriatingly smug, and you can tell by what he’s doing with his luxuriant moustaches how close he is to solving the case.  His companion, Hastings, is a brilliant foil, being a rather slow and stupid Englishman who has a knack for getting on the wrong scent and being blindsided by the nice twist that inevitably accompanies the resolution of each mystery.

Wodehouse is another author fond of twists (albeit sometimes rather predictable ones).  I’ve been reading his short stories, and they’re about as corny as it gets.  Nonetheless, I have to confess a certain fondness for them, because they’re all so nice.  And they have happy endings.  In Poirot’s world, there are forever bodies falling out of closets and wealthy elderly relations succumbing to gruesome poisonings.  Not so in Wodehouse’s England, where everything inevitably comes right in the end.  There’s something comforting about the happy couples who go strolling off into the sunset, or the dumbfounded heir who suddenly finds his or her life fortunes reversed.

If you tire of efforts at clever surprise endings, Zane Gray is the man for you.  Like the weather-beaten and craggy characters who populate his pages, he eschews any sort of subterfuge, and you can rest pretty easily, before even opening the book (or switching on the Kindle), in the knowledge that the hero will come out on top at the end, shoot the bad guy (unless he’s promised the girl that he won’t, in which case his partner obliges him), and get the girl.  If a character says he’s going to do X, he will.  If he tells the girl it’ll be all right in the end, it will be.  I enjoy not just the stories, but the fact that I have no trouble putting the book down and switching off the light part-way through, safe in the knowledge that no one important is going to be killed off.

H Rider Haggard is a bit more indiscriminately sanguinary, but at least the people he kills off all die splendidly noble deaths (not my cup of tea, but seems that the Victorians were into that sort of thing, so all the more power to them I suppose...).  His characters are largely sexist and racist pigs (though quite charming in their way), so depending on your disposition, you could as easily root for the baddies as for Quatermain and Company.

The Mark Twain stories I’ve been reading are also episodic, and for good for reading over lunch, or for a few minutes before bedtime.  If I eat alone at lunch-time, I generally take out my Kindle, and I suspect I’m developing a reputation as a slightly mental mzungu as I sit and chuckle over Twain’s wonderful stories (it was more than a chuckle reading his rather abbreviated Autobiography last week), looking for all the world like a happily absorbed idiot. 

In the pipeline are a Jack London collection, the latest several novels in Laurie R King’s Sherlock Holmes-Mary Russell series which I have got unaccountably behind on, a couple of Nelson DeMille’s, Utopia, and a Voltaire anthology.  Plenty to keep me busy on rainy Sundays in Kampala. 

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