Sunday, August 16

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The book list

Of the many hypothetical questions one can pose to learn more of another, from “If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?” to “Would you rather have a razor slid under each of your fingernails or have the nails on your two largest toes ripped clean off?”, there are very few that personally intrigue me and cause me to put real thought into the answer.

One of these is the classic “If you were stuck on a desert island for eternity, what books would you bring along?” While pondering, it's a chance to show off your literary chops by name dropping the big ones and a few unknowns, but it also leads you to really consider what the most important books in your life have been.

This time in Kenya is a little like that hypothetical made real. A reading culture simply does not exist here. There are more than a few bookstores, but far and away, these are stocked with class textbooks, dry things on the fundamentals of biology and chemistry. For those owners adventurous enough to display works one might actually want to read in their free time, the selection is limited to Joel Osteen's latest and books with titles like Why do you choose to be poor when there is so much money out there?

I guess Kenyans can't get enough of improving themselves, but that's not my cup of darjeeling. I prefer fiction and have essentially been limited in my choices to what Demetra and I brought. Good thing I expected this and didn't just pack a book or two to read on the flight over. I ultimately settled on seven books and two poetry collections, excluding a Swahili dictionary and Teach Yourself Swahili. Choosing them, however, was a bit of an ordeal. These books would have to sustain me for at least a year. I couldn't depend on length alone to get me through, but works that I would willingly and eagerly race back to, fiction that could not be exhausted no matter how many times I read it. Another rule was a focus on short story collections. If I really want to be a writer, I need to know the best of the form and its masters.

Thus, the following list. Naturally, it is too late now to take suggestions, but go ahead and make them. I may have a chance to replenish my supply this January.

They Come Back Singing by Fr. Gary Smith.

Ironically, this book was the last brought but the first read. A gift from a good man who volunteered at the House of Charity, it was too appropriate to my upcoming my year to not bring. If you would like to see my further thoughts on it, I've already written a post on this journal of Fr. Smith's experiences while serving Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda.

Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann

I read Mann's The True Confession of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, a few summers back on a suggestion from my grandfather. I was torn in my response. The language was extraordinary with a richness that is never seen in contemporary literature, but it could be a slog, especially considering Mann's penchant for spending at least a page physically describing every character with a single line of dialogue. But I came back for more, so I guess it's clear which way I was finally torn. And the man won a Novel Prize for Literature. A master for sure. Unfortunately not in the original German, but I fear, rightly, that his prose is well beyond my comprehension.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

The woman won most nearly every award and received most every honor the American literary community could bestow in her too brief lifetime. Seems as though I could learn a little something from her. Since I didn't bring a Bible either, it seemed like I could do worse in my source of daily source of spirituality.

Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges

I picked this up according to my rule of three. A friend mentioned that one of my stories reminded him of Borges, I read an essay online comparing The Dark Knight to “The Three Versions of Judas,” and the same friend wrote an essay considering Borges' approach to death. I haven't been disappointed. Not quite stories in the traditional sense, Borges writes ideas in such a way that you have to totally reconsider what literature can be.

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff

I first read “Smorgasbord” in a collection of short stories accompanied by interviews with their authors. I was blown away by the tightness of the prose and force of the ending. Then I read “Powder” and “Bullet in the Brain,” which combined aren't enough half the length of “Smorgasbord,” in another collection and was knocked back even harder. I read this collection before coming but couldn't bear to leave it behind.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

I picked this up a few months after Wallace's suicide and the accompanying accolades and read it shortly thereafter. Not quite as singular in my adulation of his work as Wolff, but there is some good stuff in here that bears further thought and time, both, fortunately, available in spades here in Nakuru. The man's style is something else entirely, but the important question is whether it is the surface for something important or just a clever mask.

Über Deutschland by Heinrich Heine

I had to take something to keep my German up. I would have preferred a collection of Schiller or Heine's poetry, but this is what Auntie's had.

Four Quartets and The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

A dedicated year probably wouldn't be enough for The Waste Land, but this will have to suffice.

Then Demetra brought along Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, David James Duncan's The Brothers K, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams. I think I'll be alright until next summer.

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