Book Review 4: “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” by Alexandra Fuller

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Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

by Alexandra Fuller

Genre Biography/Memoir
Have in the Library? Yes

When I’m traveling, it can be hard to find books in English, which results in me reading things that are pretty random and outside my normal taste. This is what lead me to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, found in a used book shelf in the back of a textile cooperative in Guatemala. Browsing through an endless sea of paperback romance, sci fi and thrillers,  I was excited to find a title I recognized so I paid my 60Q and started to read.

This book chronicles the life of Alexandra Fuller, called Bobo by her family, growing up in the countries of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Zambia and Malawi during the 70s and 80s. Bobo’s parents think nothing of land mines, inhospitable conditions, terrorists or civil war being the childhood backdrop for their children: Bobo, her older sister Vanessa, and three others who tragically do not make it to adulthood. (Not a spoiler I promise! You find out in the first chapters.) Weaving back and forth in time, Fuller recounts snapshots of her family’s experiences in these countries, both serious and lighthearted: from throwing a drunken Christmas celebration to the severe beating taken by a maid. Fuller fills in these episodes with brief explanations of African history, but her focus is personal. Looming especially large in her tale is her mother, alcoholic, haunted, slightly insane:

Her eyes are half-mast. That’s what my sister and I call it when Mum is drunk and her eyelids droop…Like the flag at the post office whenever someone important dies, which in Zambia, with one thing and another, is every other week…”Have a drink with me, Bobo,” she offers. She tries to pat the chair next to hers, misses, and feebly slaps the air, her arm like a broken wing.

 

One of the hardest aspects of this book to stomach is the racism. One of the first chapters opens with a recounting of a family gathering when Bobo is an adult, returning to visit her parents in 1999 in Zambia. Her mother is telling some houseguests, “Look, we fought to keep one country white ruled, just one country.” The theme of white supremacy is entrenched throughout the book with scathing portraits of Africans the family interacted with, like the cook Thompson, whom Bobo mocks when he tells her not to disturb an African gravesite.  It is part of the structure of the narrative: the decline of the family with the successive deaths of Bobo’s siblings and her mother’s insanity is tied to the changing fortunes of the war and the ultimate breakdown of “white rule” in these African countries. Bobo’s mother exclaims after one death: “that’s what happens when you have a baby in a free African country.”

Yet as an adult, Fuller is  aware of the effect of racism had on her life. As revealed in her epilogue, she has purposefully used these episodes to represent without glossing the reality of how white people lived in Africa. She also provides a list of books by black Africans so the reader can broaden their understanding.

Fuller writes: “I am African by accident, not by birth…I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Arica, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me.” When two populations have such disparate experiences, she goes on to wonder if there can really be such a person as an African. In telling this tale of her life in Africa, Fuller seems to find an answer, if an uneasy one, to this question, as her parents for all their (mis)adventures on the continent have not been able to.

The subject of racism in children, and racism in the history of Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, are beyond the scope of both this review and book, but I found Fuller’s take on this topic provoking. In the end I found myself admiring the way in which she decided to portray her life, to look it in the eye for all that it was. Honesty is the first step toward accountability after all.

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Book Review 3: “Gilgamesh” translated by David Ferry

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Gilgamesh translated by David Ferry

Genre: Poetry/Mythology

Have in the Library? No

As a lover of mythology, I have had “Gilgamesh” on my to-read list for years. A Mesopotamian heroic poem from 1250 BCE, this is literally the oldest story ever told, at least in written form! There are many translations of “Gilgamesh,” but the one I happened upon was David Ferry’s from 1992. I started it only to realize that it was billed as “not a translation, but a transformation,” that is, not a literal and scholarly text per se, but rather Ferry’s own poetic vision of the epic.

And I loved it. Ferry’s lines are are simple, allowing the bare bones of the story to shine through with little embellishment: the King Gilgamesh (believed to be an actual historical figure), has been terrorizing his people, so the Gods create another man named Enkidu to match him “stormy heart with stormy heart.” The two become close, and in this interpretation at least, romantic companions who go on many adventures together. The poem ends however in Gilgamesh’s solitary journey to the underworld to learn the secret of immortality. The poem is especially spare and  haunting during this sequence:

Weeping and fearful, struggling to keep breathing.

he made his way and finally struggled out free

into the morning air and the morning sunlight.

He emerged from the mountain into a wonderful garden.

Gilgamesh looked at the garden and wondered at it.

The fruit and foliage of the trees were all

the colors of the jewels of the world,

carnelian and lapis lazuli

jasper, rubes agate, and hematite,

emerald, and all others gems the earth

has yielded for the delight and pleasure of kings.

And beyond the garden Gilgamesh saw the sea.

 

The holes in the narrative are intriguing. Parts of his journey are barely sketched and full of names not explained. What is meant, for example, by this description of the boatman of underworld: “He guards the Stone Things and he searches out/ there in the island forest, the Urnu-Snakes”? We never find out, we only hear that Gilgamesh later defeats these things and stows them in his boat, yet this is later held against him by the Gods. With a story so old, it is tantalizing to wonder what information has been lost, and I loved having the sense of a larger world in which the story is taking place: a whole universe of names, things and places that in ancient Mesopotamia must have been well known.

Though I’d like to explore other translations to gain a better understanding of the history, I found myself ultimately not caring about the accuracy of Ferry’s work. I simply appreciated it as an impressive piece in its own right and an entirely lovely door into the world of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian mythology.  After all, translation is art far beyond conveying the meaning of foreign words. To me, Ferry’s rendering achieves exactly what it should: it engages readers in a story that is more than 4,000 years old by making it timeless and moving. That’s immortality to me!

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Book Review 2: “The Forest Unseen” by David George Haskell

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The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

Genre: Science & Nature

Have in the Library? Yes!

Review by Kathie Iannicellli 

I just finished reading a new book on the science and nature shelves at the library. THE FOREST UNSEEN/ A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. The author writes about his visit to a single square meter which he calls his ‘mandala’ over the course of a year, near his home in Tennessee. Patient observation, meditation, and reverie combine in a very readable narrative, full of fascinating scientific facts and what they teach us about how the natural world maintains its rich and diverse balance. A review from the New York Times reads: “(Haskell) thinks like a biologist, writes like a poet, and gives the natural world the kind of open-minded attention one expects from a Zen monk rather than a hypothesis-driven scientist.” More science than poetry, but written to the nonscientist who is curious about the natural world. Highly recommended!!

 

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Book Review 1: “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel


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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes!

Station Eleven  begins when actor Arthur Leander collapses on stage during a production of King Lear in Toronto. As Jeevan, a medic in the audience, rushes to his aid, no one suspects that this is the last night before “the Collapse,” and that the world is about to be wiped out by a terrifying virus called the Georgia Flu. What follows is the story of the aftermath.

I loved everything about this book: the satisfying way the characters intertwine, the fast paced plot, but most of all Mandel’s writing. It dazzles, creating the sense of a glittering world that is familiar but also wondrous. This passage, for example, read like poetry:

“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights, no more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail…No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light. No more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment.” (pg. 31)

As someone who is not normally a fan of post-apocalyptic settings, what drew me in was the way in which Mandel rooted her world firmly in real life as we know it now. Indeed much of the book is flashbacks about the time before the Collapse. I got the sense that she was actually not as interested in exploring the horrors of apocalypse as she was in using them to illuminate our present reality. Her writing is filled with nostalgia for the way we live now. In Mandel’s vision, it is art, theater and stories, but also the small things: a snowglobe, a telephone, an electric light, that contribute to, as Dr. Eleven says, “the sweetness of life on earth.”

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The First Library

Want to learn more about the first public Library? Read on for an intriguing history, written by Candis Kerns!

 

In 1732 as Benjamin Franklin set upon founding the first public library in this country, he sent in a book order to London that included dictionaries, grammars, histories, books on science, husbandry and agriculture. The purpose of the library was decidedly secular – the “eternal vigilance” that a democracy requires takes an informed citizenry. It is not surprising, then, that theology books were not part of Franklin’s book order.

What is surprising, however, is that the order did not include novels which were seen by the patriarchal culture as potentially harmful to the suggestible, volatile nature of women. Thomas Jefferson wrote of reading novels as an “ inordinate passion” which constituted “a great obstacle to good education.” Between 1700 and 1779, there was only one novel published in the United States. Yet, women continued to read novels and discuss them. Between the years 1840 and 1849, the demand for novels had grown to such an extent that 765 novels were published. In 1848, Edwin Hubbell Chapin wrote that the mass of novels “has leaped from the press like the frogs of Egypt…with the froth of superficial thinking (and) the scum of diseased sentiment.”

Novels were not a matter of escape but a matter of women discovering the wider world of thought and feeling within themselves and that their friends, their mothers and their daughters could share in this newly found world.

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Another year…

…has gone by at the Monhegan Memorial Library! And what a great one it was! On Wednesday, August 17, we held our Annual Meeting to discuss everything that happened and plans for the future. Board members Don Abbott (Treasurer), Sue Hitchcox (secretary) and Bob Smith (Finance Committee Chair) renewed their terms. And we welcomed board member Michael Brassard into his new role as our Vice President!

What else did we talk about? Click here to find out about…

…Writing Group

…a storage shed

…Richard Blanco

…how we use the Library during the winter

…how many visitors we had in July

… and much more!

 

 

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Richard Blanco at the Monhegan Memorial Library

We had an amazing time with Richard Blanco on July 9th!  He gave a powerful and moving two-part program, leaving us feeling inspired for many days to come. Thank you Richard Blanco for visiting our Library, and island! We only hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. 

 

 Richard Blanco's first event of the day was a Question and Answer Session for writers


Richard Blanco’s first event of the day was a Question and Answer Session for writers

A lively conversation ensued

A lively conversation ensued

 Richard Blanco telling the story of his journey to writing and the White House with stirring insight, and plenty of humor too!


Richard Blanco telling the story of his journey to writing and the White House with stirring insight, and plenty of humor too!

Inspecting the Library's poetry collection

Inspecting the Library’s poetry collection

Signing books and chatting with the audience after the reading!

Signing books and chatting with the audience after the reading

Stories, inspiration and good feelings flowed at the reception after the reading

Stories, inspiration and good feelings flowed at the reception after the reading

 

All photographs courtesy of Laurie Day Photography

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