The Book Of Memory

Sterling Books in Brussels (website, facebook) is one of my favourite places to acquire new books. They have a great selection and friendly, helpful staff, and are perfectly located in the centre of the city. The only thing that could make them any better is if they were to give me free books.

And then one day they did. They posted a photo on their Facebook page of a pile of new novels, with the caption:

“Do you like reviewing books? Do you have a blog dedicated to it?
Then we have just the thing for you!
Here at Sterling we get more review copies than we have time to read and it’s sad to leave them here unread, screaming for attention. (It’s really distracting.)
These review copies are free to a good home, under a few simple conditions:
– Mention (and link to) our Facebook page in your review
– Let us know when the review is up, so we can hear your thoughts and link to your review

I took a look at the pile of books and after a little research made my choice, and went in to collect my freebie (plus one for my wife). I chose The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah, a new writer from Zimbabwe, only a year older than myself. Her first book, a collection of short stories called “An Elegy For Easterly” won her much acclaim and several prizes including the Guardian First Book Award.

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The Book Of Memory tells the story of an Zimbabwean woman called Memory whose parents sold her to a white man when she was nine. She relates her tale in flashback as she sits in prison, having been convicted of the same white man’s murder. I won’t spoil any more of the story (personally I’m not interested in book reviews which discuss the plot in too much detail) other than to say that we do finally get some answers to the main mysteries: why did Memory’s parents give her away, and how did the white man, Lloyd, really die?

But this is not a murder mystery or a thriller. It’s a story about identity and belonging, and how various characters, for various reasons, are marginalised by society. Memory is an albino, meaning that rather than play out in the blistering heat of the sun all day she prefers to stay indoors and read books or retreat into her own imagination. She becomes educated and has little time for the witchcraft and superstition so fervently believed in by many of her compatriots. She’s witty and thoughtful, generally a fun and stimulating character with whom you’re happy to spend time. Her story splits almost equally between childhood memories and present day descriptions of life in the women’s prison where she’s being held. Both are described equally vividly, with telling details such as sounds and smells.

But finally this is a surprisingly mature story about acceptance, both of yourself and of your circumstances, and about the sometimes futile search for “meaning” in life. It’s a very impressive novel and I expect to hear a lot more about Petina Gappah in the future.

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Life in the future

Recently I read a collection of articles by Arthur C. Clarke called The View From Serendip. Here’s the review I posted on goodreads:

I finally picked this off the shelf because some of it is about Sri Lanka. Unfortunately for me, not very much of it. It’s a random collection of articles, most of which have Clarke speculating on where technology, and specifically space exploration, will go during the last few decades of the 20th century. But his prose style is quite irritating: by turns dry and smug, with the occasional stilted attempt at humour.
Having said that, some of the predictions are remarkable. While he misses the mark on some things (he couldn’t have imagined the stalling of the space programme) he also basically predicts – in the early 1970s – the Internet, email, RSS feeds, social media and smartphones. For that alone it’s a valuable piece of history. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more about his life in and around the Indian Ocean (apart from a couple of snorkelling trips).

Yesterday I was driving the 10yo to an appointment and she put on the car radio. Some 60s-style jazz full of Hammond organ noodling came on and we listened to it for a bit. We had a conversation about how old-fashioned it was; how music has changed; whether old people (i.e. me) can like modern music too. Then she asked me what I had thought the future was going to be like when I was a child. I was stumped for a moment so I told her that I’d read and watched a lot of science fiction and that I was probably expecting things like a colony on the moon within my lifetime.

She said that she imagines flying cars will happen in the not too distant future. Then I explained about all the unexpected ways in which life has changed since I was young, and what things were like before mobile phones and the Internet.

Her final comment before we arrived at our destination was that she thought technology made people lazy, whether it be because they feel they can duck out of appointments at the last minute by sending a text, or because they don’t feel they need to learn facts or arithmetic because devices can provide the answer with a quick click or swipe.

Reading aloud

The other day our babysitter told me that when she came to look after our children that evening she would bring some homework with her. Now this is not a teenager but a woman in her 50s so it wasn’t immediately obvious what she meant. It turns out that she’s learning to read the Quran.

Reading the Quran isn’t a surprise either, as she’s a Moroccan muslim, and she’s been able to speak and read Arabic for a while. But I didn’t realise that there was a special technique involved in reading the Quran. According to wikipedia:

“The proper recitation of the Quran is the subject of a separate discipline named Tajwid which determines in detail how the Quran should be recited, how each individual syllable is to be pronounced, the need to pay attention to the places where there should be a pause, to elisions, where the pronunciation should be long or short, where letters should be sounded together and where they should be kept separate, etc. There are two types of recitation: murattal is at a slower pace, used for study and practice. Mujawwad refers to a slow recitation that deploys heightened technical artistry and melodic modulation, as in public performances by trained experts.”

In order to help her with this she’s following a course, and in order to be able to study on her own at home she has a special pen and connected headphones to aid with pronunciation. The pages of the book contain some kind of special invisible code which is then “read” by the electronic pen as it passes over them, triggering a recorded voice reciting that verse.

This is quite clever and got me thinking about whether there were any other possible applications for such a technology. Combining “normal” books with audio books in one edition, so that blind people who don’t read braille can hear it instead? Or encoding music or sound effects which support the text for people who still want to read a paper version instead of listen to an audio book? But that would depend on the pace at which you read, I suppose. Personally I want silence when I read. I guess this is just a specific tool for a very specific purpose.

Holiday reading

Yesterday my book order arrived. This is the book I’ll read on holiday this Christmas. Yes, I plan in advance what I’m going to read on holiday.

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We’re going on holiday to Sri Lanka. This book is set in Sri Lanka. This is not a coincidence. I prefer to read books set in my holiday destination, for several reasons. Now admittedly on this type of holiday where we’ll be moving around a bit and exploring all kinds of natural and cultural sights I won’t have a great deal of time to sit down and read, although there’ll be a few days at the beach towards the end of the holiday when I can relax. But when I do get a chance, I want to read something which is about the place I’m in.

Firstly because this is a way of learning more about the country I’m visiting. Fiction can often reveal aspects of a culture better than a guidebook. But the other, main reason is this: travel is an escape from my everyday life. I leave home behind and go to discover somewhere new. This is also what I do when I read. So it would seem a bit weird to go on holiday to an interesting new place and then to escape from there into another new place in the world of a book. I want to stay in Sri Lanka, even when I’m reading. It’s not like I’m going to go back regularly. So it makes sense to read a Sri Lankan book while I’m in Sri Lanka. I read Ulysses while I lived in Dublin; I read Don Quixote on holiday in Andalucia; I read Cannery Row in California.

How did I find this book? Well first I had a look on Tripfiction, which is a site specifically for helping you choose books based on their geographical setting. For Sri Lanka they featured a lot of Roma Tearne books, but I wanted a second opinion so I did some googling and came across a book blog called Chasing Bawa which specialises in Sri Lankan literature. I narrowed it down to two choices: the other was Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai, but in the end I decided I wanted something more contemporary and less colonial.

I’ll post my review on goodreads when I get back to let you know how it was. And I imagine I’ll post about other aspects of the trip too. The food, if nothing else.

A visual medium

I just finished reading Helen Keller’s autobiography. I love two kinds of books: those which explore new worlds; and those which explore our own world from a viewpoint substantially different to my own. This book certainly qualifies for the latter category. Here’s the review I posted on goodreads.

This autobiography is split into two sections. The first, evidently written while she was still quite young, covers the first twenty or so years of her life. What comes through strongest is her love of life and her determination not to let her blindness and deafness hold her back. The effort and patience involved (both for her and her teacher Mrs Sullivan) in not only learning to read, write and speak, but to do so in several languages (she learnt French, German, Latin and Greek) and to attend a “normal” university alongside seeing, hearing women is amazing.
The second is a series of articles covering different aspects of her perception of the world, and this for me was more interesting, as it was the main thing I really wanted to know about her. She has a sharp and perceptive mind and is adroit at using metaphors and analogies both to describe her own situation and to try to comprehend ours (seeing and hearing, as she understands them).
Her prose can sometimes be a little purple and effusive, which may be either a product of her time or a reflection of her literary preferences. Occasionally I found it distracting, but mostly it was just a case of getting used to it. I wasn’t too keen on her poetry, though.
I’d be interested to read something else, maybe more contemporary, on the topic.

The advantage of books like this is that after reading them you see the world around you a little differently. I started thinking about the nature of books themselves, and how my experience of reading isn’t all that different than Helen Keller’s. After all, books aren’t really a visual medium, are they?

Leaving aside the obvious exception of illustrated books my point is that, for all their visual and tactile pleasures, books don’t communicate their ideas through their visual aspect. Although the experience differs in some ways, listening to someone read the text out to you will have pretty much the same result as looking at it with your own eyes. The printed text is a delivery format, a way of transmitting ideas from the writer’s mind into that of the reader.

Compare it to the other arts: you can’t remove the audio component from music, or the visual component from painting, or the sense of taste or touch from gastronomy (if we consider that to be an art, for the sake of argument). The reader of a book is deaf, blind, cannot taste or smell or feel the world the writer creates and must have it laboriously spelled out by the author as they lead us by the hand through their creation. When we read a book, we are all Helen Keller.

Happiness

“You see, happiness ain’t a thing in itself – it’s only a contrast with something that ain’t pleasant. That’s all it is. There ain’t a thing you can mention that is happiness in its own self – it’s only so by contrast with the other thing. And so, as soon as the novelty is over and the force of the contrast is dulled, it ain’t happiness any longer, and you have to get something fresh.”

Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, by Mark Twain

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

“Nostalgia is a fragile thing, and its genuine form is getting rarer by the day. Blame the internet for making everything too accessible. Now that everyone can be reminded within a matter of seconds of the names of the Trumpton firemen and the precise measurements of a lime Spangle, it’s getting harder to find anything that produces that misty-eyed feeling- a pull at the heartstrings brought on by something forgotten but once-familiar. Auction sites such as eBay should take the rap for allowing us to reclaim our entire childhood, plus the bits of everyone else’s that we always felt denied, reinventing our toy cupboards in a shape they never really had […] In the cavalcade of easy memories, we might rightly feel nostalgic about the very concept of nostalgia. Do you remember when we used to be able to enjoy ‘Do you remember…?’ conversations in the pub?

Bollocks To Alton Towers, by Robin Halstead, Jason Hazeley, Alex Morris and Joel Morris
from the chapter on the Hamilton Toy Collection