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Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell

Beka Lamb tells the story of a few months in the life of a fourteen-year-old girl — Beka — and her slightly older friend Toycie, who both attend a convent school in Belize. It’s published as part of the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series, and so it has one of those rather off-puttingly institutional covers that makes me feel like I’m back in school. And indeed I’m sure it works well as a GCSE set text: it’s short, it’s about a teenager, it has lots of themes that would provide material for classroom discussion (race, class, politics, colonialism, teenage pregnancy) and it has lots of local colour.

Saturday, pay day for many families, was the biggest marketing, house-cleaning, and cooking day of the week. women and girls, whether they lived in a ‘good house’ or a ‘dawg-siddown’ scrubbed, dusted, polished and cooked in order that they might do as they pleased Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, satisfied that their duty, as best as could be managed with what was available, had been done.

Lunch on a Saturday was mostly crushed avocado or potted meat sandwiches, with perhaps pounded calves’ liver fried with lots of onions and creole bread for six o’clock tea. But the intense activity, and the smells of what was to come on Sunday noon, assuaged the need for bigger meals. In the houses of even the poorest, at the very least red kidney beans and bits of salty pigtails stewed on outdoor fire hearths waiting for the addition of raw rice, assiduously picked over for stones, and washed several times until the water ran clear. And in the houses of those that could better afford it, chickens, pork, or beef roasted in ovens; great pots of grey-black relleno soup thickened on stoves with a dozen hard-boild eggs per pot bobbing up and down like dumplings, and the corn mills of the town ground busily in preparation for the mounds of tortillas that would be needed the following day. Seafood and groundfood were rarely cooked on Sundays: fish, crayfish, conch, yams, cocoa, sweet potatoes, breadfruit and the like were everyday fare.

In fact I think it’s a quirk of a certain kind of post-colonial novel to almost overdo the local colour. The book is absolutely full of references to foodstuffs, flowers and trees, bits of local tradition, references to history; it’s like one long assertion of Belizeyness. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact I enjoy all that stuff (particularly the food!). It’s just an observation of a phase that, perhaps, national literatures tend to go through.

I did enjoy this book, btw, so I hope my comments don’t across as negative. I enjoyed all the descriptive stuff, found the story engaging, and learn at least slightly more about Belize than I knew before. So that’s all good.

Beka Lamb is my book from Belize for the Read The World challenge, and is also my fifth book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The picture, ‘Relleno Negro‘, is © moviesandcheese. I don’t think it was taken in Belize, but it’s clearly much the same dish.

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Full title: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I don’t need any persuading about the fact of evolution, but Dawkins is always worth reading on the subject. And Amazon had it at 50% off, so as much as I dislike hardbacks I thought I’d give it a go.

Since I’ve read so many books on evolution, not least the half dozen by Dawkins, what I’m really looking for in a book like this is interesting new examples I haven’t encountered before, and there are certainly some of those, like the wingless fly that lives in termite mounds; generally, though, a lot of it is fairly familiar: Tiktaalik, the evolution of the whale, the guppy experiment, Lenski’s E. coli, eyeless cave-dwelling animals and so on. There are good reasons why these examples are popular, of course, and if you don’t read as much about evolution as I do, they may well be unfamiliar to you. It’s certainly a different repertoire than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago. And Dawkins writes engagingly and clearly, even in the chapter about embryology, a subject I usually find a complete head-fuck. So I certainly enjoyed reading it.

The review in New Scientist complains about his occasional side-swipes at religion. The book doesn’t actually talk about religion as often as that review might suggest, but when it does touch on it, it’s about as unflattering as you would expect. It’s easy to understand why creationism is such a red rag to a biologist: his analogy is of a teacher of Latin and Roman history who is constantly confronted by people who insist that the Roman Empire never happened and that the myth of ‘Rome’ is a conspiracy. His abrasive manner when he talks about religion doesn’t bother me, although I can see there’s an argument that it is bad tactics in the battle for hearts and minds.

At least in this book he confines his comments to creationism rather than religion more generally; and I for one am not going to tell him he should be respectful towards young Earth creationism. Because 40% of the US population (and 22% of the UK) believe the world is less than 10,000 years old, when you are rude about creationists, you are being rude about an awful lot of people, and I’m sure they are largely nice, well-meaning and valuable members of society; but come on! Believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old is like believing that the Earth is flat, or that leprechauns bury pots of gold at the ends of rainbows. Or indeed that if you dilute poison over and over again until it is just water, it magically gains healing powers. These ideas are worthy of mockery.

So, I enjoyed it; I’d rather read Dawkins on evolution than Dawkins on religion any day of the week, mainly because evolution is a much more interesting subject. I’m not sure it’s an instant classic, but it’s well worth reading.

» The photo is © Troy Li and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North is my book from Sudan for the Read The World challenge. Originally published in 1966, ‘in 2001 it was selected by a panel of Arab writers and critics as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century’.

I didn’t really know anything about it before I started reading, and expecting it to be set entirely in Sudan, I was slightly startled by the amount of London in it. It is narrated by a man who is returning to Sudan after seven years studying in Europe; when he comes back to his home village, he meets a stranger called Mustafa who also, it turns out, spent many years in London.

It is very much a culture clash novel, exploring Mustafa’s experience, firstly in London as an outsider figure who plays up his exoticism to attract women, and then a different kind of outsider after he has returned to Sudan and is living as a farmer among people who know nothing about his background.

The London sections are not too different from what you might find in a mid-C20th English novel; I was more interested in the Sudan stuff. I do appreciate there’s an irony in reading a book about a man who trades on his exoticism and then complaining, effectively, that it’s not as exotic as I was expecting; but there it is. It is quite intriguing to read a novel about English society with the ‘exotic’ character at the centre, though — I’m sure I’ve read a few novels by British writers from early-mid C20th with Mustafa-type characters turning up on the periphery. Not that I can think of specific examples offhand.

Most important Arab novel of the century? I wouldn’t know, although as I say, it reads to me like a fairly conventional novel of the period. A good novel — extremely good in parts — but it didn’t blow me away. But then I don’t think the novel is exactly a traditional part of Arab culture, so it may have been more radical in its context.

» The two pictures — Kadugli – Dilling Provincie Kordofan and West Nuba Mountains — are both © Rita Willaert and used under a CC by-nc licence. They don’t have any very precise connection to the book but they were taken in Sudan and I liked them. There are lots more where those came from.

Across Arctic America by Knud Rasmussen

Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition is Rasmussen’s account of his 1921 expedition from Greenland to Siberia by dog sled. Or to be exact, his 1921-24 expedition, because this was an epic three year trip. They went a long way — 20,000 miles — but they certainly could have done it faster if it was one of those expeditions done for their own sake. Rather, this was a scholarly expedition; for the first year there were a large group of specialists in different disciplines based in Eastern Canada. Then Rasmussen set off with just two companions, Greenland Eskimos* called Miteq and Anarulunguaq, to continue his anthrolopogical investigations across the whole continent.

puppies

I went to quite a lot of trouble to get this book, but when I received it my heart sank a bit, because it’s fucking huge, the kind of book you could club seals with. I imagined I would be trawling through dry, old-fashioned prose for weeks. Actually it’s an anti-Tardis book, smaller on the inside; it’s a reprint edition, and they’ve obviously enlarged the original print considerably and then surrounded it with lots of white space. It makes for quite a short 400 pages. And the narrative romps along at a very respectable pace; the scientific report of the Fifth Thule Expedition filled ten volumes (not all written by Rasmussen), and his popular account of the trip in Danish was two volumes, which he edited down considerably in translating it into a one-volume English version. So it’s not carrying any excess weight.

Rasmussen’s interest was in comparing the Eskimo cultures from his native Greenland and the various Eskimo groups of North America. I didn’t realise that there was such a cultural continuity across the whole region; Rasmussen’s first language was Greenlandic and he was able to talk with Eskimos all the way across Canada, until finally in one part of Alaska he found some with a dialect sufficiently different from his own that he required an interpreter.

Every wizard has a belt, which often plays a great part in his invocations of the spirits. I was fortunate enough to acquire one of these belts from a woman who was herself a witch doctor, named Kinalik. It consisted of an ordinary strap of hide on which were hung or strung the following items: a splinter from the stock of a gun worn in recognition of the fact that her initiation had taken place by means of visions of death; a piece of sinew thread, which had formerly been used to fasten tent poles with, and had on some occasion or other been used for a magic demonstration; a piece of ribbon from a packet of tobacco; a piece of an old cap formerly beginning to her brother — the brother was now dead, and was one of her helping spirits — a piece of white caribou skin, some plaited withies, a model of a canoe, a caribou’s tooth, a mitten and a scrap of sealskin. All these things possessed magnetic power, by virtue of their being given to her by persons who wished her well. Any gift conveys strength. It need not be great or costly in itself; the intrinsic value of the object is nothing, it is the thought which goes with it that gives strength.

Kinalik was still quite a young woman, very intelligent, kind-hearted, clean and good-looking, and spoke frankly, without reserve. Igjugarjuk was her brother-in-law, and had himself been her instructor in magic. Her own initiation had been severe; she was hung up to some tent poles planted in the snow and left there for five days. It was midwinter, with intense cold and frequent blizzards, but she did not feel the cold, for the spirit protected her. When the five days were at an end, she was taken down and carried into the house, and Igjugarjuk was invited to shoot her, in order that she might attain to intimacy with the supernatural by visions of death. The gun was to be loaded with real powder, but a stone was to be used instead of the leaden bullet, in order that she might still retain connection with earth. Igjugarjuk, in the presence of the assembled villagers, fired the shot, and Kinalik fell to the ground unconscious. On the following morning, just as Igjugarjuk was abou to bring her to life again, she awakened from the swoon unaided. Igjugarjuk asserted that he had shot her through the heart, and that the stone had afterwards been removed and was in the possession of her old mother.

The emphasis of the book is very much on the anthropology; there’s relatively little of the Boys’ Own adventure stuff about what it’s like to travel by dog sled across the Arctic — it’s there, but it’s not the point. He spends far more time talking about his interactions with the locals, relaying songs, folk stories and religious beliefs, talking about hunting techniques, building methods and clothing. All of which I found fascinating. He is keenly observant and clearly has a sympathy with the Eskimo. On the other hand, it’s amazing how much more careful we have become about the language we use in the past hundred years; Rasmussen is about as well-informed, sympathetic and enthusiastic an observer as any people could want, and yet by modern standards there are times when his phrasing comes across as mildly patronising and paternalistic.  I don’t say that as a criticism of him, and I don’t imagine that a modern observer would necessarily be any less patronising in their real attitudes; I just think a modern writer would be very self-conscious about that risk and would bend over backwards to avoid any hint of it.

blizzard

If all this anthropological stuff sounds a bit dry, well, I guess if it’s really not the kind of thing that interests you it might be. But Rasmussen writes well and has a sense of humour, as with this exchange, after he has been told a fable about the Fox and the Wolf:

This seemed an odd sort of ending, and I said as much. “What is it supposed to mean exactly?” I asked.

“H’m, well,” answered Netsit, “we don’t really trouble ourselves so much about the meaning of  story, as long as it is amusing. It is only the white men who must always have reasons and meanings in everything. And that is why our elders always say we should treat white men as children who always want their own way. If they don’t get it, they make no end of a fuss.”

I left it at that.

Across Arctic America is my book from Greenland for the Read The World challenge. I found it absolutely fascinating; it offers a glimpse of a people living in quite extraordinarily harsh conditions at a time when many of them were largely untouched by the modern world.

*Yes, I know, ‘Eskimo’ is no longer the preferred term, but it is the term used by Rasmussen. I considered using Inuit instead, but I for all I know there is some further nuance and I would still end up getting it wrong… so I thought I’d stick to being consistent with the book. No offence is intended.

» The images, ‘Eskimo Puppies‘ and ‘Approaching Blizzard‘, are from a set of cigarette cards called ‘Sights of the Arctic’ which I found in the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Apologies for the lack of posts

If I’d been better blogger recently you might have got my thoughts about things like the weirdness of the US healthcare debate (you’d think that the aim of universal healthcare was laughably naive starry-eyed utopianism, rather than something that every other wealthy country has already achieved), Manchester United’s prospects for the season (I’m worried they’ll be short of goals if Rooney gets crocked), the Ashes (I’m thrilled we won, but it was a funny old topsy-turvy series), and the appearance of a variant, yellow-winged form of the Jersey Tiger moth in the garden.

So you haven’t missed much, really.

I don’t actually have anything in particular to say now, I just had a twinge of guilt about the lack of blogging. I’m currently drinking a cup of coffee and preparing to upgrade the OS on my computer — something I realised I was excited about not so much because of the software itself but because it’s named after the most beautiful and coolest of the big cats.

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