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Penguin Moderns: ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’ by Chinua Achebe *****

The twenty-eighth book on the Penguin Modern list is ‘the father of modern African literature’ Chinua Achebe’s Africa’s Tarnished Name.  Of Achebe’s work, the only book of his which I had read before picking this up is Things Fall Apart, which I very much enjoyed.  I was really looking forward, therefore, to reading some of his non-fiction, and this collection of ‘electrifying essays on the history, complexity and appropriation of a continent’ felt like the perfect way in which to begin his oeuvre.9780241338834

Africa’s Tarnished Name is comprised of four essays: ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, which is adapted from a speech given in Lagos in 2008; ‘Travelling White’, which was first published in The Guardian in 1989; the titular essay, published in Another Africa in 1998; and ‘Africa is People’, which has been adapted from a speech delivered in Paris in 1998.  All of these essays can be found in the 2011 collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child.

Achebe was born into the ‘Igbo nation’, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, and the largest in Nigeria.  In ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, Achebe discusses nationality, and the granting of independence to Nigeria in 1960.  He goes on to point out the governmental issues which came with this independence, and the subsequent coups and massacres of citizens, which led to a bloody Biafran civil war.  He discusses, quite openly, his difficult relationship with Nigeria.  He writes that his feeling toward the country ‘was one of profound disappointment’, before going on to say: ‘I found it difficult to forgive Nigeria and my countrymen and -women for the political nonchalance and cruelty that unleashed upon us these terrible events, which set us back a whole generation and robbed us of the chance, clearly within our grasp, to become a medium-rank developed nation in the twentieth century.’

Achebe’s essays feel immediately warm and amusing, particularly with regard to their tongue-in-cheek humour.  The first essay begins: ‘Nigerian nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste – like cheese.  Or, better still, like ballroom dancing.  Not dancing per se, for that came naturally; but this titillating version of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow performed in close body contact with a female against a strange, elusive beat.  I found, however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness I could do it pretty well.’

He discusses, amongst other things, the portrayal of Africa in fiction, and Western perceptions of the continent.  Achebe makes some very interesting points throughout.  ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’, for instance, begins: ‘It is a great irony of history and geography that Africa, whose landmass is closer than any other to the mainland of Europe, should come to occupy in the European psychological disposition the furthest point of otherness, should indeed become Europe’s very antithesis.’  The second essay, ‘Travelling White’, details Achebe’s travels in other African countries during 1960, and the racism which he encountered along the way.

In each of these essays, Achebe has packed so much into such a compact space, without sparing his reader explanations.  He writes with brevity, and with confidence, and speaks with both authority and intelligence.  These essays are filled with wisdom and measured arguments, and are often quite profound.  There is so much which can be learnt from this important collection, and it is clear to see why the author is so revered.  Achebe is a gifted essayist, and I certainly do not want to leave it too long before I read more of his work.

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The Book Trail: From Heartburn to Varieties of Exile

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a fabulous novel about pregnancy and its pitfalls.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.
2253431. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Is it possible to write a sidesplitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage? If the writer is Nora Ephron, the answer is a resounding yes. For in this inspired confection of adultery, revenge, group therapy, and pot roast, the creator of Sleepless in Seattle reminds us that comedy depends on anguish as surely as a proper gravy depends on flour and butter.  Seven months into her pregnancy, Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband, Mark, is in love with another woman. The fact that the other woman has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs” is no consolation. Food sometimes is, though, since Rachel writes cookbooks for a living. And in between trying to win Mark back and loudly wishing him dead, Ephron’s irrepressible heroine offers some of her favorite recipes. Heartburn is a sinfully delicious novel, as soul-satisfying as mashed potatoes and as airy as a perfect soufflé.
2. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as “Sister” escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as “un-officials” in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist.
3. Distant View of a Miaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat 19433013
“More convincingly than any other woman writing in Arabic today, Alifa Rifaat lifts the vil on what it means to be a women living within a traditional Muslim society.” So states the translator’s foreword to this collection of the Egyptian author’s best short stories. Rifaat (1930-1996) did not go to university, spoke only Arabic, and seldom traveled abroad. This virtual immunity from Western influence lends a special authenticity to her direct yet sincere accounts of death, sexual fulfillment, the lives of women in purdah, and the frustrations of everyday life in a male-dominated Islamic environment.  Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, the collection admits the reader into a hidden private world, regulated by the call of the mosque, but often full of profound anguish and personal isolation. Badriyya’s despariting anger at her deceitful husband, for example, or the hauntingly melancholy of “At the Time of the Jasmine,” are treated with a sensitivity to the discipline and order of Islam.
4. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
Nnu Ego is a woman who gives all her energy, money and everything she has to raising her children – leaving her little time to make friends.

802135. Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
Chris, Ikem and Beatrice are like-minded friends working under the military regime of His Excellency, the Sandhurst-educated President of Kangan. In the pressurized atmosphere of oppression and intimidation they are simply trying to live and love – and remain friends. But in a world where each day brings a new betrayal, hope is hard to cling on to. Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Achebe’s candid vision of contemporary African politics, is a powerful fusion of angry voices. It continues the journey that Achebe began with his earlier novels, tracing the history of modern Africa through colonialism and beyond, and is a work ultimately filled with hope.

6. The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye
At the beginning of this masterpiece of African literature, Clarence, a white man, has been shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. Flush with self-importance, he demands to see the king, but the king has just left for the south of his realm. Traveling through an increasingly phantasmagoric landscape in the company of a beggar and two roguish boys, Clarence is gradually stripped of his pretensions, until he is sold to the royal harem as a slave. But in the end Clarence’s bewildering journey is the occasion of a revelation, as he discovers the image, both shameful and beautiful, of his own humanity in the alien splendor of the king.

7. Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon 139054
A young Frenchman, Joseph Timar, travels to Gabon carrying a letter of introduction from an influential uncle. He wants work experience; he wants to see the world. But in the oppressive heat and glare of the equator, Timar doesn’t know what to do with himself, and no one seems inclined to help except Adèle, the hotel owner’s wife, who takes him to bed one day and rebuffs him the next, leaving him sick with desire. But then, in the course of a single night, Adèle’s husband dies and a black servant is shot, and Timar is sure that Adèle is involved. He’ll cover for the crime if she’ll do what he wants. The fix is in. But Timar can’t even begin to imagine how deep.

8. Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant
Mavis Gallant is the modern master of what Henry James called the international story, the fine-grained evocation of the quandaries of people who must make their way in the world without any place to call their own. The irreducible complexity of the very idea of home is especially at issue in the stories Gallant has written about Montreal, where she was born, although she has lived in Paris for more than half a century.  Varieties of Exile, Russell Banks’s extensive new selection from Gallant’s work, demonstrates anew the remarkable reach of this writer’s singular art. Among its contents are three previously uncollected stories, as well as the celebrated semi-autobiographical sequence about Linnet Muir—stories that are wise, funny, and full of insight into the perils and promise of growing up and breaking loose.

Have you read any of these books?

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