Thoughts on: The flame trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

24 Aug

This is a story about a European family and how they settled in a farm in Thika, Kenya in the 1910s. It ends with the start of the First World War. It revolves around their day to day activities; starting a coffee farm from nothing, getting labour from the native population, interactions with their European neighbours etc. They get to learn the customs of the Kikuyu and the Maasai and to understand as well their legendary enmity.

I found interesting the sheer will power to settle in a place unknown, the readiness to take on adventure for livelihood and not for sport “by the horns” so to speak all in order to further the interests of their country or empire. In a similar way, the readiness with which, once war is declared, they leave everything gained to have the honour to fight for their country.

The book is very well written; the descriptions are superb, even poetical. At some point, it seems like an encyclopedia of flora and fauna. Towards the end of the book, I noted some of the birds and plants/trees mentioned. Birds: kingfisher, stonechats, babblers, mouse birds, swallow, whydah, harrier, blacksmith, finch and sunbird. Plants/trees: leleshwa, cedar tree, juniper, acacia, red oat grass, orchid, starlings, geraniums, weaver tree and delphinium. How long would have been the list if I had started from the very beginning!

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Wives and daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

23 Aug

wives and daughtersWives and daughters tells the story of Molly, the daughter of Mr. Gibson, the local doctor in a small village. Her father is a widower, and Molly has since childhood, been very close to her father.

When her father discovers a love letter destined to Molly by one of the young men he has in training, he makes a rather rash decision to marry. The woman of his choice is known to be elegant; and she accepts his proposal because she would not have to work again.

The scene changes with the arrival of Molly’s step-mother and her daughter, Cynthia. By this time, Molly is trying hard to be good and to think about the welfare of others, as she had been advised by Roger Hamley, a young man who becomes her friend.

She will need all the stamina she can muster to face her step-mother’s whims and selfish streaks as well as Cynthia’s intriguing love affairs, not to mention the village’s gossip. These are her words at some point in the story:

“I daresay it seems foolish; perhaps all our earthly trials will appear foolish to us after a while; perhaps they seem so now to angels. But we are ourselves, you know, and this is now, not some time to come, a long, long way off. And we are not angels, to be comforted by seeing the ends for which everything is sent.”

Wives and daughters is a very long book, more than 700 pages. However, the plot comes out smoothly without precipitation; it is a joyous and engaging read.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

7 May

life-of-piI saw this book last year but did not think too much about it. The Oscars changed my mind.  Maybe I could give it a try, I thought. I did not know what I was in for.

Piscine (Pi) Patel’s father has a zoo in Pondicherry, India. The family decides to move to Canada. Just days off Manila, their ship sinks. Piscine finds himself in a lifeboat and thinks that they are going to rescue him within a few hours. After a few days, his hopes wane, and he discovers that he has a Bengal tiger as a companion.

This story is a splendid thriller. It is a story about human endurance, the will to live, no matter what. Pi has to feed himself as well as Richard Parker (the tiger). He has to make sure that the tiger doesn’t make him a meal. It is amazing that he kept going, day after day, because he had decided in himself that he was going to live.

The 227 days seem eternal, yet fly away as soon as you get reading. 227 days.  Hmm. It’s a bit ironical that Pi Patel is named after a swimming pool, and he has to spend many months in company of a tiger and lots of water, not to mention the sharks and all the marine life.

Published in 2001, this fantasy adventure novel is a rare read. It is simply fascinating! I wonder if there are more “Life of Pi’s” waiting to be discovered.

What we should all choose to read

4 May
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The book is set in Brooklyn, New York in the 1940s. Historical events that provide the backdrop for the story are the end of World War II, the holocaust in Europe, and the creation of the state of Israel.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok is by far the best book I have read in a long time. Not only is it well written but deep as well. Anyone who has ever experienced the depth of true friendship will find this book a treasure. The themes are profound and universal; you don’t need to be a Jew to enjoy this story.

The story is about two Jewish fathers and their sons. A baseball game gone crazy makes the two sons meet. They become fast friends. Each discovers the other; what they stand for, their hopes for the future, their family inclinations. Despite their differences, they are very good friends. This book teaches friendship and empathy in the deepest level.

I particularly liked the two quotes that I found at the beginning of the book:

-When a trout rising to a fly gets hooked on a line and finds himself unable to swim about freely, he begins with a fight which results in struggles and splashes and sometimes an escape. Often, of course, the situation is too tough for him.

In the same way, the human being struggles with his environment and with the hooks that catch him. Sometimes he masters his difficulties; sometimes they are too much for him. His struggles are all that the world sees and it naturally misunderstands them. It is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one. -Karl A. Menninger

-True happiness consists not in the multitude of friends, but in the worth and choice. -Ben Jonson

When you leave your car unattended…

30 Apr
photo

This guy has spread his merchandise on the car. We needed to tell him to get off.

I moved to Yaoundé, Cameroon, about seven months ago. Many are the things have happened that I would classify as “culture shock”. You see, I am Kenyan, and even though it takes a lot of convincing to people who are not familiar with the continent, we are different. Country to country, the food, mannerism, culture, language, name it, changes.

So one fine day, we decided to go out. After a scary battle with all the motor bikes for space on the road, we finally arrive at our destination, luckily without any mishap. We get out of the car. Hawkers are everywhere. One guy almost convinces you that the sunglasses you are wearing are old and need to be replaced. Another shouts that oranges are only 50 Fcfa. A very fat lady is cooking beans beside the car park. Her customers lazily look at the new arrivals, and resume their meal.

We enter a shop. After about ten minutes, we come out. Getting away will be something of a hassle, because a guy selling t-shirts has laid out his merchandise on our car. He looks at us and starts the usual story.

“Cinq cents francs, ma Cherie”

How do you tell such a guy to get lost?

I look away, and my friend does all the honours.

To get errands done here is very interesting, but also very time-consuming.

I hope not to let it get on my nerves in the future.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

29 Apr

We seek him here, we seek him there,scar
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

(A verse about the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel)

This is an adventure novel that reminded me of The count of Monte Cristo.

Lady Blackeney is 24 years old. A Frenchwoman, she is married to an Englishman, Sir Percy. She has only one brother, Armand.

The book is set in the French revolution, when the French sent hundreds of aristocrats to the guillotine each day. A mysterious English nobleman, the Scarlet Pimpernel, with his friends, (the league of the scarlet pimpernel) is helping the estranged French nobles cross the channel to find a safe haven in England.

Chauvelin, the French agent, is desperately looking for the Scarlet Pimpernel. He confronts Marguerite (Lady Blackeney) and shows her a letter incriminating her beloved brother Armand, proving that he is in league with the Pimpernel. Chauvelin offers to trade Armand’s life for her help against the Pimpernel. Contemptuous of her seemingly witless and unloving husband, Marguerite does not go to him for help or advice. Instead, she passes along information which enables Chauvelin to learn the Pimpernel’s true identity.

Later that night, Marguerite finally tells her husband of the terrible danger threatening her brother and pleads for his assistance. Percy promises to save him. After Percy unexpectedly leaves for France, Marguerite discovers to her horror that he is the Pimpernel. He had hidden behind the persona of a dull, slow-witted fop in order to deceive the world.

Desperate to save her husband, she decides to pursue Percy to France to warn him that Chauvelin knows his identity and his purpose. But the weather is too rough to cross over to France.  She must wait. Will she arrive in time? Will she be able to find her husband? What if Chauvelin strikes first?

I think that one can only fully appreciate the drama by reading the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

22 Apr

51HVp1aHbQL__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX240_SY320_CR,0,0,240,320_SH20_OU01_”Franklin’s is one of the greatest autobiographies in literature, and towers over other autobiographies as Franklin towered over other men.” –William Dean Howells

”The most widely read autobiography ever written by an American. It has served many Americans as it may have served Franklin – to define what it meant, what it had meant, and what it ought to mean to be an American.” –Edmund S. Morgan, emeritus professor of history, Yale University

These are two editorial reviews, and high as they may sound, it was definitely hard sailing for me to finish this book. First, 18th century American English is not one of my strong points, and neither do I have appreciation for American history, as yet. Second, it is coupled with the author’s observations about literature, philosophy, religion, civil life and what not.

The author begins by describing his life in Boston, then he moves on to Philadelphia where he works for a printer, one Samuel Keimer. He then goes to England after befriending some prominent political figures, and works for yet another printer.

After his return, he started his own printing-house, and a debating club called the Junto. He basically was a pioneer in many projects: fire brigade, police force, the University of Pennsylvania etc. By the way, he also found time to conduct scientific experiments on lightning and at some point was the postmaster general of the USA.

A truly outstanding man, to say the least.

The Autobiography itself was written in three different times: 1771 in England, 1783-83 in France, and 1788 in America. If Franklin meant to complete it, he died before he got the chance.