Monday, November 26, 2012

Reading for the Holidays

As I ease out of my Turkey coma into a grading marathon and the holiday season, it’s time for indulging in reflections and making plans.  And just as amongst my fondest remembrances of years past involve good books, one critical facet of my holiday agenda is always deciding what to read during the precious vacation days.  While I managed a lot of reading in this past year, I felt that there was some slippage where quality was concerned, partly because of the reading material available on the road, that place where I spent the last five months of 2011 and the first eight of 2012.  Nonetheless, there were definite highlights.

I kicked off the new year by hurdling through the Hunger Games trilogy, which made a couple of flights, a bus ride, and an unhealthily-long layover at Heathrow fly past.  This was a fast-paced series, directed at teens if you’re of the school which believes that books have discrete age-based audiences, but engaging and enjoyable. 

From that point on, I was largely reliant on my kindle, and when I chose to find an actual book, I was at the mercy of Nakumat, the all-purpose grocer of East Africa.  They quickly had me addicted on Jo Nesbo’s crime series which features the grumpy, pickled, yet likeable Harry Hole.  I read this series neither straight through nor in order, but Hole is a well-rounded characters—whose psychological travails do not distract from those of a more practical and criminal nature.  It should be noted that if you’re the skittish type, these are less than ideal for dark nights.

It was on just such a night—beneath a mosquito net by head-lamp during a power outage in Uganda—that I read The Troubled Man, the final instalment of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series.  I’ve been rationing the books which comprise this wonderful Swedish detective series over four years or so, and Wallander, in spite of his foibles, is someone who grows on you.  His police station, his town, his mannerisms, and his colleagues comprise a memorable and very human world, and the brooding, introspective nature of both the crimes which unfold in southern Sweden, and the manner of their solution, will make this a series that I will miss.

My book-shopping was fortunately not entirely restricted to Nakumat, and in the wonderful Prestige Bookshop in downtown Nairobi, I picked up a copy of Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble With Nigeria.  Best known for his novel Things Fall Apart, the Nigerian author here launches a stinging assault on his country’s corrupt elite.  The treatise was written during the 1980s, but stands, on some level, as an indictment of corruption and civic rot in all times and places.  I just finished Achebe’s memoir, There Was a Country, which centres on the author’s experience of the Biafra War.  I found the memoir disappointing when compared to Achebe at his best, partly because it conforms to the characteristics of a genre which is somewhat stodgy and formulaic from the outset, and partly because it just seemed to lack the magic I associate with his novels, and the spark of outrage that accompanied The Trouble With Nigeria. 

Kampala is a less urban-feeling city than Nairobi, but it has a very good answer to Prestige in Aristoc books, right on Jinja Road.  By far the best purchase there was Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy.   Sometimes described as the first African novel, this story captures the conflict associated with migration to the cities in mid twentieth-century South Africa.  Readers glimpse at the beginnings of an apartheid state, witness a lost moment in the class struggle, and observe the emergence of new communities in a city which simultaneously threatens to swallow all its children and provides a certain kind of safety in its anonymity.  Perhaps the best book of the year for me.

The kindle is great for reading short stories, collections, and classics, and there were naturally some gems amongst these.  Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason is a book I wish I’d read ten years ago.  The trans-Atlantic free-thinker, lately appropriated by Tea Party-ers who appear not to realise what they’ve sunk their teeth into, launches an acerbic assault on “revealed religion” and the great danger that Christianity poses for individuals who aspire to govern their lives according to rules of logic, morality, and compassion.  While not a non-believer, Paine’s sceptical tract makes timely reading for humanists—secular and religious—in a world which often seems governed by various versions of religious and social fundamentalism.

Two pieces by that American savant, Mark Twain, made for wonderful reading on the road.  The Innocents Abroad describes a journey undertaken by Twain and fellow New World-ers to the Old.  His marvel always laced with a healthy dose of humour, his anecdotes self-deprecating, and his observations endlessly witty, Twain’s account is inspiring travel reading.  As laugh-out-loud funny (“I had quickly learned to tell a horse from a cow, and was full of anxiety to learn more”) is Roughing It, the story of his journey across the West into a world that is geographically familiar to those of us who live there, but culturally somewhat removed.  Twain’s missives travel across time even more than space, and these classic reads are accounts of another century even more than they are journeys into strange lands.

Back in California, I picked up Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, an oddly beguiling fantasy, with a premise which works much better than I would have imagined.  I’ve been told that this novel is not necessarily representative of his fictional work, but the story of a new place populated by old ideas and superstitions (deities from “old” worlds remain at large in the contemporary United States, working to stage a comeback) was good enough that I intend to read more of Gaiman’s writing. 

I enjoy both mysteries and historical fiction, and so Eliot Pattison’s Bone Rattler, a mystery set on an American colonial frontier, which explores not only a series of interconnected deaths, but muses on cultural sympathies between the Scots and Native Americans who were all victims of English colonialism, was a wonderful read.  Dark and dense, the going in this novel is occasionally as slow as the passage through the North American backwoods which it describes.  The writing is wonderful, and the plot emerges gradually from a mist, enveloping the reader, and making this one hope that the other books in the series are as good.


A few of the books I hope to read in the coming year: Charles Portis—True Grit.  Oscar Casares—Amigoland: A Novel.  Ian McEwan—Sweet Tooth.  Tahar Ben Jelloun—This Blinding Absence of Light.  Biyi Bandele—The King’s Rifle: A Novel.  Sol Plaatje—Mhudi.  John Lanchester—Capital.


And if you’re looking for holiday reading, here are some of my all-time favourites stories.

Edward Abbey—The Monkey Wrench Gang

Nadine Gordimer—A Guest of Honour

Alan Paton—Too Late the Phalarope

John Steinbeck—East of Eden

T. H. White—The Once and Future King

Victor Villaseñor—Rain of Gold

Richard Adams—Watership Down

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o—Wizard of the Crow

Cormac McCarthy—The Border Trilogy

J. R. R. Tolkien—The Lord of the Rings


Recommendations would be much appreciated!


  1. The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal is worth picking up if you haven't yet; it's well written and gives you a different perspective on some parts of European history. I really enjoyed Immortality by Milan Kundera, of which he said maybe it should have been called The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Finally, and most importantly, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. It's fat, but turned out to be quit unlike anything I was expecting, and every part was enthralling in its own way.