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Book 2 of the Aya series (thoughts on the first one here) about four families in Yopougon, a neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory’s Coast’s capital. It’s set in the 70s, when the country’s was going through an economic boom and it continues to be refreshing to see a side of modern Africa that’s not filled with war and AIDS. If you know of any other comics like these let me know.

Like Book 1, it’s not an action-packed story. I’m actually approaching it as a really smart and funny twist on a soap-opera: Adjoua’s new life as a young single mother, Bintou’s fashionable new love-interest from Paris (or is he?), the mystery around the girl with the wig, dramatic cliffhanger ending. Book 3 is called “The Secrets Come Out” and like another episode of an addictive soap-opera I’m really really want to know them!

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If I had one less positive point to make is that, although Aya is the name on the cover, she was rather passive, basically just a shoulder for her friends to cry and lean on. She has the potential to be such an interesting character – a steady young women who wants to be a doctor – that I’d like to know her a bit more.

This book also included a “Ivorian Bonus”, including a recipe for Chicken Kedjenou, a guide on how to wrap a baby on your back and a great short “essay” on how a popular Ivorian proverb is put into practice everyday.

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Other thoughts: Page 247, largehearted boy, My Favourite Books (yours?)

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image (2)Read for the A More Diverse Universe Challenge
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Life has been happening like crazy on this side of the line. Add holidays and heat and pure, unadulterated laziness and you get a blogging slump. It would also be a reading slump if it wasn’t for YA audiobooks and daily newspapers (a holiday tradition and zen moment).

I need a bit of incentive because my spirit breaks just by looking at the two months backlog. Anyone interested in doing a buddy-read or something? Any easy read-alongs going around? Interesting projects?

Meanwhile, and while inspiration doesn’t strike, I’m doing a meme. They’re not usually my thing, but these are desperate times and maybe thinking about the books I’ve planned for the upcoming months will help.

Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR List

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Harris’ The Observations didn’t do much for me, but everyone seems to be raving about Gillespie and I so I’ve decided to give it a try.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

My most anticipated re-read is Tigana, my favorite book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve decided to tackle it in audio format this time around.

Chroniques de  Jérusalem by Guy Delisle

All books by Guy Delisle are an instant best-seller here in Brussels, European capital of the graphic novel. I’ve never read anything by him but heard lots about this one, a birthday present from my co-workers.

The King of Attolia (The Queen’s Thief, #3) by Megan Whalen Turner

I’ve recently re-read the first two in the series just so that when I’d pick this one up for the first time everything was fresh. I hear it’s the best one of the series so far?

The Unicorn Hunt (The House of Niccolo, #5) by Dorothy Dunnett

I’m trying to go through The House of Niccolo series reeeeeeally slowly because you only read Dunnet for the first time once. It was a Herculean effort not to lunge for this one right after Scales of Gold and its extraordinary ending. I’ve waited long enough.

Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

Whenever I don’t have a formed opinion on a certain topic, I Google Fry’s thoughts on it and always find myself nodding in agreement. Moab is My Washpot is an autobiography covering his first 20 years of life. The Fry Chronicles is already in the TBR waiting its turn.

The Mauritius Command(Aubrey/Maturin Book 4) by Patrick O’Brian

Another series I want to make last, although its 21 volumes-long… The previous book, HMS Surprise, is set to become one of the best of 2012.

Mayombe by Pepetela

For Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge, this will be my first by one of Angola’s most famous writers. Everyone I know who reads in Portuguese seems to have read at least one of his books.

She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff by Annalee Newitz & Charlie Anders (Eds.)

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, on 16 October.

Un día de cólera by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

At the beginning of the year one of my goals was to read more books in their original languages. I’ve done well in Portuguese and French but haven’t picked up anything in Spanish yet. This hour by hour description of 1808’s Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid will put me back on track.

It’s because of books like this that I’m Reader with capital R, and why that’s such a big part of what defines me. Dorothy Dunnett is a genius, so once again here I am (as always after reading one of her books), struggling to write a post in which I’ll never be able to do justice to her awe-inspiring work.


Before going into the plot let me just say that Scales of Gold has one of the best, most unexpected and emotional endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I felt those last pages physically – punch-in-stomach, hairs standing up, pupils dilated.

If Dunnett could be see me at that moment I’m sure she’d have a little victorious smirk on her face, because for over 500 pages she expertly and purposely took me along, getting me to feel exactly what she wanted me to feel, think what she wanted me to think, just so the end could turn my world upside-down. Just as she planned from page one (I’m not the only one feeling this, but unlike Stephanie I’m a masochism and loved the gut-wrenching moment). Like I said: genius.

But about the plot. There’s great freshness in reading historical fiction that’s not yet again set in Tudor England or Second World War wherever. Scales of Gold picks up right after our hero Niccolò manages to escape Cyprus. It’s 1464 and he’s about to enter yet another crazy commercial endeavor, this time to the heart of Africa, towards Timbuktu. Were you ever curious about what The Gambia, Guinea and Mali looked, smelt and sounded like in the 15th century? This book is your chance.

Accompanying Niccolò is an entourage of extraordinary characters that include a Flemish missionary who wants to evangelize Ethiopia, a confident and intelligent young woman who blames Niccolò for the death of her sister, her formidable Scottish companion and an ex-slave with a mysterious past.

This unlikely group of companions is led by a crew of experienced Portuguese sailors down the Coast of Africa and into the barely mapped “Dark Continent”. The plot is intricate, the setting is lush, and the succession of adventures kept me on the edge of my seat for hours.

The Discovery Period was an interesting time that encapsulated the best and worst about us: an ode to human spirit and bravery, but it also marked the beginning of globalized slavery and colonialism (the best of times and the worst of times?). Dunnett explores this very well by getting a group of well-developed characters with different visions of the world in (literally) the same boat, experiencing the same hardships and pleasures.

Despite its horrible consequences, the romantic Portuguese in me, fed from childhood on poetry about my country’s immortal deeds, cannot but admire the spirit of the Discoveries. The image of the lonely caravels braving the Unknown always got me a bit teary. There’s a quote in Scales of Gold that really encapsulates this. Niccolò is at Sagres Point, Europe’s Western-most point:

Standing at Sagres, or on the single Cape that lay westward, one looked down sheer sandstone cliffs twenty times the height of man with the white of dashed foam at their feet; and abroad at the flat, shoreless oceans, upon which laboured the flecks that were vessels and the infinitesimal specks that were souls, witness to man’s perseverance, his greed and his courage.

Cape Sagres

What else can I say? It’s a marvelous book, full of wonder and characters you grow to know as if you were also in their boat, surrounded by the vast Ocean, or part of their caravan, slowly making its way into deep Africa, in search of legendary riches.

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Other thoughts: I’ve been reading lately (yours?)

For the Africa Reading Challenge I’ve decided to read one book from each of the five Portuguese-speaking African countries. The Last Will is the Cape Verde choice. I’ve read it in the original but I’m happy to report that there is an easily-found English translation, as well as a great movie adaptation.

Scribacchina from Paroles/Words was also planning to read it for a while, so we’ve decided to have a little chat about it, which I’ve included below. I’m always surprised at how much more you take out of a book by discussing it with other book lovers.

In the island of São Vicente, Senhor Napumoceno Silva Araújo led the life of a respectable self-made business man. He was famous for owning the island’s first car, but also for being a man of habits and routine. There was nothing extraordinary about his life, or so everyone though until the opening of his last will and testament…

Alex: Did you think there was an “African feeling” to the book? It somehow reminded me more strongly of South American story-telling. I often thought of the Brazilian Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the way one describes Salvador da Bahia and the other the fictional village of Macondo. There’s no magic realism in The Last Will, but a the sort of other-worldly feeling about life in São Vicente, that had the same effect. It also reminded me why I love books set in islands, there is something about the feeling of isolation that’s perfect for growing eccentric characters and habits :)

I found the funeral (sorry to say it) delightful to read and couldn’t help but smile at all the loops the heir had to jump to be able to fulfill Napomunceno’s last wish to be buried to the sound of Beethoven’s Funeral March. Any favorite moment?

Scribacchina: It is interesting that you cite Marquez, because from the start I kept comparingThe Last Will to his Chronicle of a Death Foretold, if just for the structure: the death (or the last will) of a man is the excuse to tell different histories about several people in a close society. But I feel the parallelism (if there is one) ends there. To me, it did feel more like another African novel I read, Mia Couto’s A River Called Time, which was my first experience with African magical realism — and while there is no magical realism in The Last Will, the society feels very much alike. But I do see what you mean, and I do agree that in a way all of them talk about closely-knit societies and how they influence the type of characters that live in them.

At the same time, I feel The Last Will is much more focused on identity than society. Little by little we are told how Napumoceno’s saw himself. How he tried to be more European than he was — the Beethoven March is part of that effort, I think. But because the book is so much focused on real and perceived identity, I was completely baffled by the last chapter, which basically contradicts everything that we have been told previously: we are told that no one knew about his affair, but then Carlos says that everyone knew Maria da Graça was Napumoceno’s daughter; we are told that he was one of the most influential men in town, but then it looks like everyone still considered him the small-village poor he was when he was young… How did you react to the ending? Did it come out of the blue, or do you think it was expectable?

One of the things that made me LOL was Napumocenos’ reaction to green: basically, he’s so passionate about the Sporting football club that when he sees his cleaning lady dressed in the team’s green, he takes her on as his lover. (Of course that is not exactly what happens. It is a rape, but nobody seems to perceive it that way. What do you make of that?)

City of Mindelo, São Vicente Island – credits

Alex: I was reading the green parts to my boyfriend who’s a hard-core Benfica fan :) First about the ending, I wasn’t surprised because I assumed that over time the “affair” slowly came to light, it’s just that Carlos expected the money to go only to him. We’re told even her husband knew, and Napumoceno’s regular rent must have become suspicious. About the way the village saw him, I spend long months of my childhood and early teens in a small village in Serra da Estrela and I recognize those “mood swings” as typical of a close community. It’s very hard to forget that a stranger is a stranger, especially if the person is envied.

Interesting that you saw identity over society, because I did the other way around. I think the humor and witty language is used expose the public and private morality of village life. I wouldn’t be surprised it some stabs were private Cape Verdean-jokes, that we just don’t get.
I’ve read in another site an interesting quote that might shed some light into why the novel reminded us of South America, Europe and Africa:

Discovered in 1462 and settled before Columbus’ arrival in America, the arid Cape Verde archipelago is arguably home to the oldest, most thoroughly Creolized culture in the world. Indeed, the Portuguese used the islands as an advertisement for their missao civilizadora or assimilationist colonialism. (…) Cape Verdeans, scattered around the Atlantic Rim by geography and economics for centuries, intuitively understood the idea of “transnational identity” long before it became a buzzword in cultural studies journals.

It must be a very interesting society and I look forward to visiting it at some point (maybe in my honey-moon). (Did you know there’s going to be an Observatory of the Portuguese Language there?) I felt Almeida captured that peculiarity of the country well and subtly.

What do you think about Napumoceno the man as a metaphor for Cape Verde: isolated, with an apparently controlled and repetitive life, but full of secrets and adventures. He’s a serious business-man, with a good dose of the comical about him (he became rich by selling umbrellas in a country where it doesn’t rain!). He’s the poor foreigner, who cannot be part of the exclusive club, no matter how rich and philanthropist he becomes (Cape Verde vs. Portugal after independence?).

Scribacchina: I love your interpretation of Napumoceno as a metaphor for the country, it fits perfectly! At the same time, I know too little about Cape Verde to judge (I had to go and check out history and geography on the Internet), but I think that parallel to that metaphor there may be another, less subtle one: Napumoceno as a symbol (or even as a satire) of part of the local society, struggling to identify themselves less and less as African and more as Westernized. Or am I just mis-constructing Cape Verdean identity here? I would love to know how the locals reacted to the novel — I’m sure there are inside jokes as you mentioned, but also because they have the first-hand knowledge of the place that we lack.

Moving back from society (thanks for the links!) to plot, what do you think about Adélia, the lifelong love/lover that no one seems to know about? I wonder if it was some kind of wishful thinking on Napumoceno’s part, a fantasy that he created to redeem his bleak life and give it some color?

The late and very missed Cape Verdian singer Cesária Évora, singing one of her most famous songs, a love-song to São Nicolau Island, where Senhor Napumoceno was born (she makes an appearance in the movie).

Alex: That is also a great point! And I guess it can be applied to every country that was under some sort of restriction and then became infatuated by the wonders of the west and all its status symbols (Napumoceno’s car, the office gadgets). Regarding Adélia, I’m still convinced she’s the toothless old woman. We only see her described by Napumoceno and who’s to say he didn’t embellished her here and there? If the old woman is really Adélia, I can’t but to admire her pride and stubbornness.

Regarding the whole individual vs. societal focus we discussed above, I was thinking: there is a strong sense of place, but surprisingly little about history or politics in the book (unless we count our guessed metaphors). In the end, it’s really a story about a man trying not to be the poor child who arrive in São Vicente penniless. He wanted to exit this social limbo, so he divided his live between the boring bachelor business man that everyone esteemed (but maybe didn’t really respect?), and the man to whom the color green was so irresistible that he basically raped his cleaning lady when she wore a green skirt.

I really liked Germano Almeida’s style of writing: the ironic and witty way he gradually built this extraordinary character and I’m looking forward to reading more by him.

Scribacchina: You really think that woman is Adélia?! She doesn’t fit Napumoceno’s description at all, nor the character I had imagined! I’d rather set for the interpretation that Adélia was some kind of fantasy. But then again, nothing in the will completely mirrored his life, so…

In the end, I think I was less impressed by this book than you were, but the best thing about it (apart from the witticism you mentioned) is that it can be read on so many level. It is just the story of a man who tries to overcome his poor origins. It isjust the story of a man who basically missed each and every chance at happiness he had. And at the same time it is the social satire, and the reflection on identity, and probably many more things that we don’t see yet.

Happy experiences lay ahead, fellow audacious readers! Yesterday Kinna announced the kick-off of the much-anticipated Africa Reading Challenge.

The simple rule is that all participants must read at least five books. My plan is to focus on Portuguese-speaking countries, and since there’s five of them, I’ll read a book from each. I’ve read loads of Brazilian authors, but Lusophone Africa is still a shameless desert in my literary landscape.

I’ve  compiled a draft list to share with you, but I’m aware it’ll all depend very much on the books’ availability. Kinna already warned participants that classic African literature in particular can be hard to find. Let me know if you have any other recommendations.

Here’s the plan – all links go to sites in English:

Angola

First choice

  • Lueji (O Nascimento de um Império) by Pepetela

Other possibilities

Cape Verde

First choice

Other possibilities

Guinea-Bissau

First choice

  • As Orações de Mansat by Abdulai Silá (play inspired by Macbeth)

Other possibilities

  • Mistida by Abdulai Silá
  • Corte Geral by Carlos Lopes
  • Tiara by Filomena Embaló

Mozambique

First choice

Other possibilities

São Tomé and Príncipe

First choice

Other possibility

  • Versos by Caetano da Costa Alegre (poetry)

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