I don’t know what it is about summer reading, but now and then I go on a theme-fest; a couple years ago it was Nigerian literature, and, once hooked . . . when my friend who is now living in Lagos recommended The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, I ordered it right away, thinking from the title it would be maybe light and sweet and humorous.
From the start, that assumption was blown. This is a direct and edgy Nigeria, darker, rougher and full of family secrets, domestic details and messy relationships.
It is a very Nigerian book – this is a good thing. There are cultural things that are not explained, but it all ends up making sense in the end. There are foods I have never heard of – ekuro with shrimp sauce, asun. There is a rudeness in the way they speak to one another, (“Is this a parking lot?” “Do I look like a parking attendant?”), a crudeness in the constant need to carry small bills for bribes, even on public streets. People speak their minds, with little or no mitigation, depending on the status of the person and their own personal goals and agendas.
At the weekly meeting of wives, the senior wife, Iya Segi, doles out rations of household supplies to the other wives, including chocolate powder and hair conditioner . . . and as the senior wives complain about the new wife thrown in their midst, she says:
“You will trip over in your hate if you are not careful, woman. Your mouth discharges words like diarrhea. Let Bolanle draw on every skill she learned in her university! Let her employ every sparkle of youth! Let her use her fist-full breasts. Listen to me, this is not a world she knows. When she doesn’t find what she came looking for, she will go back to wherever she came from.”
There is a whole other world in that one paragraph – a whole other way of seeing life and expressing thoughts. The culture may be alien, but I thoroughly enjoyed being a tiny mouse in the corner at that meeting – and others – and inside the minds of the wives, of Baba Segi, of the driver – so many good stories, so many points of view, and I learned things from behind those high compound walls and closed and locked doors that I might never otherwise have learned. Alien as it was, for me, this was a very good book, new ways of looking at things, and a great recommendation from my friend in Lagos.
“You’re going to celebrate your anniversary for three days?” my friend asked incredulously.
“No, no, actually, it’s in two parts, we are celebrating the entire weekend, three days, but it’s because it is too hot to walk around New Orleans; so this is just part one, and in December we will celebrate part two with a trip to New Orleans when we can walk around and enjoy all the Christmas decorations and stay somewhere nice.”
It’s what we do.
There have been some years, particularly years with moves, or new positions, or new contracts in them, when anniversaries have sort of fallen by the wayside. We are enjoying making up for all the missed anniversaries, now that we have the great luxury of time.
We have all kinds of fun plans, a hotel stay, a dinner in a fine restaurant, star gazing out at Ft. Pickens, maybe a dolphin cruise, and a trip up in the very large beach ferris wheel, while it is still at Pensacola Beach. We plan a day in several pools with our son and his wife and our little grandson. All. or part, or some of this may really happen, depending on what the weekend weather looks like. Ft. Pickens has already evacuated all the campers with concerns over this Tropical Storm Andrea coming in, and a dolphin cruise or a trip up on the great wheel may not be such a hot idea at 40 – 50 mph winds, LOL.
AdventureMan and I knew when we married that we were in it for the long haul. We also knew it wouldn’t be easy. We come from different cultures, different life styles. We both had independent lives and responsibilities. We moved a lot. It wasn’t always easy, but then whose life is, when you know that life from the inside? We’ve had some great adventures, and some fabulous, astounding experiences. We’ve met extraordinary people and made very special life-long friends.
When I told AdventureMan our weekend might not be as exciting as planned, he laughed and said “we can bring our books.” He always knows how to make me laugh, and taking books is exactly what we did when we first got married, and would take weekend trips to a lakeside resort called Chiemsee; it would be snowing and cold and we would go into this large old lodge with it’s double doors and double shuttered windows, with it’s eiderdown comforters and huge fireplace, and we would pack books. We would sleep and read, and sometimes go eat. If that’s how this anniversary turns out, it’s a very comfortable and familiar way to celebrate.:-)
AdventureMan loves this blog. He always looks for his name. Happy Anniversary, dear husband.
Ignorant militants destroy ancient Islamic documents and writings; from yesterday’s BBC News:
A group of jihadis came knocking at the gate late on Wednesday night last week. But the Ahmed Baba centre in the Malian city of Timbuktu is not the kind of library that would accept visitors after dark.
The Islamist militants tricked the guard and said they were coming to secure the place. But once inside, they ransacked the centre’s reading room.
When historian Abdoulaye Cisse arrived early in the morning, the pile of ashes was still warm.
“They probably spent most of the night in there,” he said.
Dozens of empty handcrafted boxes still litter the floor of the hallway. Ashes haven’t been removed yet either.
A few people come in and out surveying the irreparable damage and lament the remains of a cultural trove kept in Timbuktu for centuries.
Treasure trove of African history
At least 2,000 manuscripts were stored in this centre that was opened in 2009, funded by the South African government.
The project was meant to catalogue and preserve the city’s historical documents, many of which continue to be held by families or smaller libraries.
Another 28,000 were due to be transferred to the Ahmed Baba premises but were instead sent to the capital after al-Qaeda militants arrived in the city last year.
Each box is tagged with a reference number and if the search is properly done, these tags should reveal the full extent of the damage.
It could also reveal how many were simply stolen.
“These fighters know too well how much these papers are valued, it’s a huge wealth that will be impossible to replace,” Mr Cisse told the BBC.
The Institute’s manuscripts date back to the 13th century (file image)
“When I surveyed the reading room, I found about 30 left so I brought them home to secure them,” he said.
The offending texts ranged from history to geography and astronomy, medicine and Islamic law; writings dating back in some cases as far as the 13th Century.
In the reading room, shelves were emptied and the desk equipped with a magnifying glass vandalised.
Named after a saint of the ancient city who wrote many manuscripts himself, the Ahmed Baba centre stands out for its modernity but was designed to echo the famous Timbuktu style of dry-mud walls.
The Islamist militants prepared to flee last week knowing that an assault by the French-led forces on their positions here was imminent.
But in their haste, they took the time to commit one last act of vengeance.
They had sparked worldwide condemnation last year when they destroyed sacred tombs and shrines designated as Unesco World Heritage sites on the pretext that they violated principles of Islamic law.
Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th Centuries
700,000 manuscripts had survived in public libraries and private collections
Books on religion, law, literature and science
Elhadj Djitteye, who used to guide visitors in town, reckons that the fighters linked to al-Qaeda carried out the attack on the library in response to the French military intervention ordered earlier in January by President Francois Hollande.
Noting that the jihadis hadn’t touched the manuscripts in 10 months of occupation, Mr Djitteye sadly comments that they “hit Timbuktu straight at its heart”.
The militants’ destructive parting gesture left many residents feeling that another part of their celebrated city’s history had just been erased.
The people of Timbuktu have been anxious to return to some kind of normal life since the French and Malian troops entered they city and were hailed as “liberators”.
Reminders of the extremists, like the black banners proclaiming sharia at the city gates, are being removed.
But in just under a year, the Islamist militants have inflicted lasting damage on Mali’s most renowned cultural centre. The scars left by Timbuktu’s occupation are likely to take much longer to heal.
• Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th Centuries
700,000 manuscripts survive in public libraries and private collections, books on religion, law, literature and science
• Added to Unesco world heritage list in 1988 for its three mosques and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums
• They played a major role in spreading Islam in West Africa; the oldest dates from 1329
• Islamists destroyed mausoleums after seizing the city
The Age of Miracles is a very odd name for this book, which starts off in a beautiful little coastal town in California, a very normal, modern town, and then everything changes. Suddenly, the earth’s rotation is slowing, incrementally, but resulting in longer and longer days and longer and longer nights. The difference is small at first, but grows.
Julia is in sixth grade, a painful time anyway in most lives where your body suddenly changes and all your relationships with all your friends change, and boys become a major factor. Imagine. All this AND the earth’s rotation is slowing.
No one knows what to expect. No one knows why or how the rotational slowing is happening, and no one has a clue how to fix it. Do you stay on a 24 hour clock, as the days grow to 30 hours? Forty hours? Can you even function in a forty hour day, or sleep a 40 hour night? How do you stay on a 24 hour clock and force yourself to sleep when the sun is shining brightly overhead? How do you have a school day entirely in the middle of the darkest part of the night? How does food continue to grow? What impact does this have on birds? Migrations? How does kicking a soccer ball feel when earth’s gravitational field starts to lessen?
The author does a brilliant job in a what-if situation, and manages to make it quite real. Don’t read this book if you are the suggestible type – it’s just one more thing you’ll start worrying about when you don’t need to. If you can read speculative fiction without letting it influence you, then by all means read this book, it is a good read.
Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite authors because she tackles large topics fearlessly, humorously and with great compassion. I first read her many years ago in a novel called Children Of God; you can read it stand-alone as I did, but I should have read The Sparrow, which preceded it. That one is about the Jesuits who take the Gospel into outer space, and has some laugh-out-loud moments in the midst of utter hopelessness. Yes. She’s that kind of author, my kind of woman.
Here is the ending Question and Answer from an interview at the back of Doc, an interview with John Connelly:
Q: Authors are often asked what advice they’d give young writers. I would like to ask you a similar question: What do you think the worst advice a young writer could get is?
Mary Doria Russell: Major in English. Join a writer’s group. Blog.
My advice is to major in and do something REAL. Have an actual 3-D life of your own. And please, shut up about it until you’ve got something genuinely wise or useful or thoughtful to share. Then again, I’m a cranky old lady! What the hell do I know?
Reading a book about legendary heroes of the Old West is not something I looked forward to, so the book languished on my “to read” pile until one day I picked it up just because it is written by Mary Doria Russell, and because she has knocked my socks off with every book I’ve read by her.
It starts off slow, summing up the early genteel years of John Henry Holliday in Georgia, just prior to, during and after the War Between the States. At 22 he is diagnosed with acute tuberculosis, and is advised that a drier climate out West might provide him with a more comfortable life, as short as it was likely to be. He had trained as a dentist, so he had a skill. Times were hard, and while he was a very very good dentist, it was a good thing he also had skills with card playing, to supplement his income when people didn’t have the money to go to the dentist.
Don’t skip over the early years, because what happens in the early years resonates into his years living in the West. The majority of the book takes place in Dodge, a border town where laws are made over a card game and by the men who will profit from them. Lives are hard, and short. While it is surely the wild west, the focus is on the relationships Doc builds – Wyatt and Morgan Earp (all the Earp brothers), Bat Masterson, the gals . . . here is where Russell’s artistry shines; the cardboard figures begin to become real people. We start to like one or two, admire another, despise one more.
Here’s what I love about Mary Doria Russell – without being at all preachy, she makes you stop and think about some of the values you hold most dear. Once you get west, 80% of the women featured in the book are prostitutes. Most of the characters drink heavily, and routinely use drugs which are today restricted to prescriptions. There is corruption, and murder, and arson, and abortion, and contraception, and adultery, and there is no one character who is purely good or purely evil, they are all complicated, just as we are. She can lead you to dislike a character, who at just the right moment knows just the right thing to say, and suddenly, you see that character differently, because another facet of his or her character has been revealed.
In the questions at the back of the book, we are asked if we were to meet Doc Holliday, would we like him? I had to ask the question the other way around – if I were to meet Doc Holliday, how would he perceive me? I found myself thinking outside the box, found myself thinking that if I knew my life were going to be very very short, would I want to hang around with normal people, dull, predictable people? Maybe people who look better on the outside than they are, or think more highly of themselves than they ought? Doc Holliday hung around with lawmen and gamblers and prostitutes and bartenders; his patients were law-abiding church-going citizens. Who gave greater color and meaning to his life? Who were more likely to be down-to-earth and practical and unpretentious?
There is an absolutely delightful segment about a Jesuit priest from an old Hungarian aristocratic family who finds himself riding out to visit all the small Catholic Indian parishes on a donkey, replacing a highly popular priest who is very sick; he is teased and mocked and treated with disrespect. One night, cold and wet, covered with dirt and filth in the desert, he has an epiphany that changes his life. Mary Doria Russell books have these luminous moments, worth reading the entire book for, and which will bring a smile of memory to your face long after you have finished reading the book.
Did I tell you I collect cookbooks? One of the guidelines I use is that the cookbook have the name of a person attached to each recipe; if your name is on a recipe going into a book, you know you are going to be very careful that this recipe is really, really good.
I don’t remember buying this cookbook, but it is a gem. On the other hand, there have been some surprises . . . there is a recipe for making boudin, that ubiquitous Cajun sausage, and it starts off with “1 large hoghead.” The directions state that you boil the hog’s head until tender, let it cool, remove meat from bones, then grind hoghead meat with heart, kidney, onions, parsley, etc. in a meat grinder.
Thank goodness boudin is not a favorite of mine. Andouille, a spicier sausage, IS a favorite of mine and if I see a recipe for andouille, I am NOT going to look at it.
I love making jambalaya – and here is a genuine Louisiana recipe:
1/2 cup vegetable oil or drippings
2 medium onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 medium green pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup chopped green onion tops
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Red Pepper to taste
Pepper to taste
Browning agent or 2 teaspoons Kitchen Bouquet
2 lbs peeled raw shrimp
4 cups long grain rice
Heat oil over low heat in a heavy 6 quart Dutch oven until warmed. Add vegetables; saute until lightly browned. Add enough water to cover vegetables; add seasoning and browning agent. Bring to a boil; add shrimp. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Stir in rice; cook 10 minutes. Cover and cook until rice is tender, stirring occasionally. Yield 10 – 12 servings.
I do jambalaya all the time (DISCLAIMER: I am neither a Louisiana native nor of Cajun descent, so what I do cannot be taken as authentic, even if it is tasty ) and I use more spices, chopped tomatoes and I don’t add the shrimp until the rice is cooked; I add it at the end and give it five minutes for the heat of the rice and cooked ingredients to cook the shrimp. We also use andouille sausage (or a turkey sausage if we are entertaining Moslem friends) and some cut artichoke hearts, maybe a small jar of pimentos, maybe some leftover peas. Sort of like a jambalaya/paella