Saturday, 25 September 2010

Ancestor Stones - Aminatta Forna

I enjoyed this book, though I expected more from the character who introduces the novel in a prologue, then disappears until the epilogue.

I already used a section of it in the first class of the course - a passage where Mary leaves home to travel to England, and describes her first impressions. I think the group enjoyed it, and I think it was a good introduction to how England looks through African eyes.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The No.1 Ladies´ Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith

What a lovely book! Of all the novels and texts I´ve read so far, this is the one I have enjoyed most. The author himself describes it as a crime novel without any crimes, but even so, it's extremely absorbing, and a good deal less predictable than most of the crime-based crime novels I´ve read.

I think the sections I will end up using are the two proposals of Mr. J. L. B. Matakone proposes to Mma Ramotswe (and possibly her dreadful marriage to Note Mokoti as a contrast/background). I think there might be some sort of comparison that could be drawn between these and excerpts from "Maru" (which would tie in nicely as it is also set in Botswana, handles the same themes of love and relationships, but was written by a Motswana).

I am only sorry the library here doesn't have the rest of the series so I can keep reading them for pleasure.

The Last King of Scotland - Giles Foden

This one has good course potential because a film was made of the book, but I think I already have that ground covered with "Disgrace", which is probably a better choice, since the film is a bit older and was far less commercial and there is far less chance that students will have seen it already. Still, it´s a possibility.

REALLY interesting book. Details from the narrator´s childhood in Scotland made me smile, and I thought that the way he tells both versions of his two stories (his life in Uganda and his life in exile in the Hebrides) was cleverly constructed AND pretty realistic. It is not hard to believe that a lonely, guilty man in a croft on an island would sit down and write about the wild experiences he had had in the past.

I think, for course purposes, there are two main points of interest.

The first is the narrator´s descriptions of how he ended up in Uganda in the first place, and what he thought of it. Possibly useful for the first session? His reminiscences and comparisons between Scotland and Africa after his return might be useful too.

The second is the way Idi Amin´s speech is represented in the book. He speaks English to the narrator, and slight oddities of expression are included. I think this might be useful for helping students to stop thinking in terms of mistakes (which students fixate on). They are just, probably, not what a speaker of "Standard" English would say:

"No, doctor, you must not be frightened. To be afraid is a coward, and I do not think my own doctor can be a coward. Not possible. All of you, listen to me!....I want to talk about afraidness and cowardice in Uganda." (p.141)

Yes, I think there is useful stuff here, and it was a great read.

Season of Migration to the North - Tayeb Salih

Ok, ok, this is cheating a bit, because it wasn´t originally written in English (and will probably be discarded in terms of the course for that reason), but I was desperate for other Sudanese authors (apart from Leila Aboulela).

The more I read, the more I feel that all of these books deserve a second reading (at least), but that some of them positively demand it. This is one of those. I liked the very beginning, then there was a section in the middle that I found very dull and plodding, and then things got a bit more interesting towards the end. Is that just me, or is it really like that? I feel like only a second reading will tell.

Anyway, I think the book is mainly about two men who both grew up in the Sudan, then went to England as young men, then returned. I disliked bits of it for the same reason I disliked "Heart of Darkness" - nobody gets to tell such long, involved stories in such closely-remembered, artfully recounted detail. The descriptions of village life are interesting, but most of the characters didn't really feel fleshed out enough to me, especially the ones who are hugely important to the story (the narrator himself, Saeed and Hosna.) The narrator gives very little away about himself, the novel is mostly about his obsession(?) with the other man.

So, I think it´s a no for the course, but I think I should read it again for its own sake. Later.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Famished Road - Ben Okri

The book is interesting in that it is divided between what happens in the real world and what happens in the spirit world. Although I found this interesting as an idea, I found myself skipping over parts of the spirit world sections which ran on too long, because, although they contain bizarre, intriguing images, I didn't feel like they made that much difference to the plot of the real world sections. It is in my nature (or my culture?) to think of the real world passages as the "real", important part of the book, though that probably isn't what Okri intended.

So, while I was reading, I focused on the real-world parts and, if I use this for the course, I will probably do the same there. Azaro´s Mum is an interesting character, I wished more had been written about her than about his Dad, who didn't appeal to me that much. Madame Koto starts out as an engaging character, but gradually loses her charm (she is supposed to, as her involvement in politics deepens and her moral decline takes hold) and then fades into the background as the book goes on. The sections about politics (the bad milk, the van of bad politics, the party of the rich and the party of the poor) seem like they could be productive.

There is also a section in which Azaro, an abiku himself, describes his friend Ade, who is also an abiku. There are strong similarities between this section and a passage in Ak√©, in which Wole Soyinka writes about his neighbours´ abiku daughter. Okri takes it further than Soyinka - he writes from Azaro's perspective within the spirit world, and describes the inner feelings and conflict a spirit child experiences. He also uses the image of the country in the book (which, as far as I remember, is never named explicitly, though some of the tribal groups within it are - can I assume it is - or at least represents - Nigeria?) as an abiku-country, which I find significant. I know I said that my instinct led me away from the spirit world bits but, now that I think about it, there might be something useful here.

African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe - Doris Lessing

Probably more useful as background reading than as a text I will use directly in the course, but I'm glad I read it all the same.

It's especially interesting to read about how Mugabe was perceived in the 1980s, which is completely different to the way he has been portrayed in the (British) media since I became aware of him, in the last 10 years or so.

Since finishing this book, I have also started reading around the methodology side of the course, and have come across activities that might work well with short excerpts from this book. Doris Lessing includes lots of descriptions of the landscape which, to me, weren't as interesting as the events and the people she describes, but might be useful in introducing Zimbabwe or doing some activities I read about which make use of descriptions of settings. Not sure yet.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Some Kind of Black - Diran Adebayo

I enjoyed most of this book. Some bits are very powerful, but there were also a few points where I found it hard to want to continue reading.

The main character, Dele, was born in England and is of Nigerian descent, though he has never been to Nigeria.

There's a particularly interesting chapter in which Dele, goes to a student party at Oxford. His views of the other people at the party are interesting and unforgiving, and reminiscences written into the party scene also describe intriguing events in the life of a black student at a predominantly white university in England. He mentions a sort of continuum I hadn't given much thought to before of how strong different acquaintances´ roots are. His inner thoughts regarding black stereotypes are arresting as well; sometimes he intentionally subverts them, while at other moments he deliberately plays up to them and exploits them.

The language throughout the book is creative - especially the representations of dialogue, not so much Dele´s own speech, but of his friend Concrete's, which is transcribed patios - though sometimes it got a wee bit much for me, personally. A wee bit too clever, sometimes.

Really, though, what sealed the deal on this book as a No for the course is that it's too London. As well as having a very dense lexicon, it has too much slang and too many cultural references which I think would be impenetrable. Even selecting carefully and cutting down, I think it's too much. It's tempting, though, because of the point of view it offers, so I might change my mind on this one later.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Nine African Stories - Doris Lessing

I enjoyed most of the nine stories, and the other features of the book - the discussion questions at the end are interesting, as is the sequence of photos of "the Rhodesian Scene". I haven't read Lessing's own introduction yet (I often leave Introductions til the end, they seem to make more sense that way), but I think that'll be insightful too.

On the individual stories themselves:

"No witchcraft for Sale" would be a good one to use, I think, because it is self-contained within just a few pages. I have a few other excerpts on magic, juju and ritual, so it might fit in nicely there.

I liked "A Home for the Highland Cattle", and it raises interesting issues, but it is quite long, and, if I were going to use it, I am not sure yet how I would reduce it. Its point of view is interesting; an Englishwoman recently arrived in Rhodesia for the first time. Seeing things through her eyes might be an interesting contrast with someone who has lived there their whole life and is accustomed to the way things are (Alexandra Fuller´s mother, for example).

"The Second Hut" is the first thing I've read so far that has much to say about relationships between different groups of white settlers - in this case, an English farmer and his Afrikaans employee. When I was reading it, it didn't seem long, but reviewing it, it is actually quite lengthy, so I might have to reduce that one too, if I end up using it.

"The Antheap" is a great story, but it´s long, and all of it is important, so I think making a reduced version would be tough.

In all of these stories, the events themselves, the characters and themes are what's interesting. From the New Englishes point of view, there isn't much to say about the language they are written in, it's fairly standard.

Friday, 20 August 2010

On "Heart of Darkness"

"The exact point of the story of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is that it is pointless. Kurtz's death is as meaningless as his life."
H.L. Mencken

"Heart of Darkness is an “offensive and deplorable book” [that] “set[s] Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest."
Chinua Achebe.

Still a no, then.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

Didn't like it, didn't get it, won't be using it.

Right from the beginning, this book seemed flawed to me. Some sailors are sitting around, waiting for something to happen, right? And one of them starts talking. And talking. And talking. And he tells the whole book. And no-one interrupts him, and nothing else happens.

This would not happen. Never. Ever.

Whatever else happens in books, once I realise that they are written in this way, I can't forgive them.

So no. I don't think Heart of Darkness is for me.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Ad for the course

Click for details.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Under My Skin - Doris Lessing

The library did have the first volume of Lessing's autobiography after all! I either overlooked it or someone had borrowed it the first time I checked.

I enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed the second volume. The problem with both of them, in terms of what I want them for, is that while they describe a zeitgeist very evocatively, it is hard to pinpoint particular moments within that description. Lessing occasionally describes scenes - prefixing these paragraphs with "A scene: " - and it is definitely incredibly useful to me as background, but I'm not sure yet how much of it I'll be able to use as text for the course.

I earmarked one section - an exchange between the white intellectual Kurt and his black driver, who comes across - to me at least - as the most level-headed, down-to-earth person in the whole book. It's certainly illustrative and interesting, I'm just not sure yet if/how it could be used in a class.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard - Amos Tutuola

A bizarre book. There are little bits like fables, myths explaining natural phenomenon, lots of very tall tales, and the overarching narrative of the whole novel. I liked it, bits of it made me smile, but some of the utterly wide exaggeration is hard to swallow.

I think it's somewhere in the middle of a spectrum which has standard English at one end and Ken Saro-Wiwa´s rotten English at the other. It's easy to read, although many sentences are not how they would probably have been written in standard English. It doesn´t have - or need - a glossary. The oddity of expression here is almost entirely grammatical, rather than lexical. I like the fact that

And I like that my copy includes a facsimilie of Tutuola's original handwritten draft, with his editor's comments and "corrections"! I will definitely be doing something with that wee gem.

I liked the story about the king looking for the man who killed his son, and it's great because it could well be a stand-alone story, it's independent of the rest of the text. I might use that bit too.

The best bit, though, are the descriptions. The description of the complete gentleman and the huge creature are wonderful. And, from a dissertation point of view, these were great, because while I was still reading them, I was already having ideas about what I could do with them in a class. So far, in the reading I've done, I've been struck by particular sections or chapters or bits of text, but only to the extent that it's an interesting passage linguistically or thematically, and therefore there is probably something I can do with it. This has been the first time - so far - that I've had clear ideas about what that something might be. That's exciting. And reassuring. I was getting a bit worried about that.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Walking in the Shade - Doris Lessing

I started with this volume of Lessing's autobiography just because the library doesn't have the first volume. I knew most of it would be irrelevant for my purposes, and originally planned to just hunt out the Africa bits, and leave the rest for now. I ended up reading the whole thing, and it turned out to be the most absorbing book I have read for ages. I now desperately want to read the first volume. And The Golden Notebook. And just about everything else she's written.

Some of the beginning might be interesting - the part where she describes leaving Rhodesia and arriving in London, her first impressions and her comparisons. There's another bit around the middle (1956 or so) where she writes about a trip back to Rhodesia. Maybe some of the sections about hosting and hanging out with African leaders in exile, but those are pretty factual and to-the-point.

An interesting contrast would be someone British traveling to Rhodesia around the same time. I thought of Alexandra Fuller (Don't Let's go to the dogs tonight), but, as Fuller herself says in the book, she has no memory of England, no memories of ever not being in Africa. And she lived there, so there is no new arrival's first impression, no contrast like the ones Lessing gives. Different time periods, too. So no, probably not Fuller, there must be someone else who is a closer mirror of Lessing's experience.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Disgrace - J. M. Coetzee

I read the book a while ago, and watched the film based on the book over the weekend.

It's been too long since I read the book to compare them minutely, I need to read at least sections of the book again, but I think there's potential for comparing-and-contrasting. Maybe reading and working on a passage in the text and getting to know it quite well, then comparing it with the same scene in the film.

The film is not easy to watch. There are lots of grim scenes - graphic violence against both humans and animals, implied rape and explicit sex, sad bits involving animals... of course, these are likely to be the juiciest sections in both the book and the film, though they'll need to be handled carefully.

More on this when I've re-read at least parts of the book.

Maru - Bessie Head

I finished reading Maru over the weekend. I'm not sure yet whether I'll include it or not. My instinct is, no, but I'm still a long way away from making any final decisions.

First of all, I'm not sure I actually enjoyed it. I didn't feel like I got to know any of the characters properly. I don't feel like any of them have enough depth. And although I think the book has an important message, I thought it was lost in a very vague, hazy plot, in which an awful lot is left unsaid. This, for me, didn't create a sense of mystery, it just weakened the narrative.

Also, although I read the whole novel, students taking this course won't. They will read selected excerpts of the text (initially, at least; I would be thrilled if they then went on to read the whole text). So, while I´m reading these novels, I am constantly keeping an eye out for potential passages, which are interesting linguistically and thematically. In this book, nothing really jumped out at me.

In its favour, it is fairly simply written. I would guess that it doesn't have a high head-word count. This might make it a good choice for non-native speakers of English. And it covers important themes - education, discrimination.

I feel like I need to read it again to be sure.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Note to self: Reading for Text Selection

Chapter 10 of Christine Nuttall "Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language" deals with text selection. Possibly a good starting place.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

So far

The course my dissertation will be based around got off to a shaky start. The first proposal was rejected, and with good reason; my original focus would have been outside the remit of the institution where the course will be given. Since then I´ve modified my focus slightly, and the second draft of the proposal got the go-ahead.

Dates and times for the course are now confirmed, we start at the end of September.

And the course has a name: African Voices, British Accents.

I´m working on the synopsis that will be used to promote the course, both in print and online. This afternoon I hunted out some images I like for the promotional materials, and have sent them to the Design and Marketing department to see what they think.

I also went to the library to start looking for possible texts. I´ve got Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, which I think I´d like to use, but will need to re-read first, and some autobiographies, Walking in the Shade by Doris Lessing, and Don´t Let´s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. I´m not sure about the autobiographies yet. I still have to decide about whether or not the course will include non-fiction.

I´m starting this blog in order to have a place to keep track of thoughts and decisions along the way; it might be useful to have a record of them to refer back to when I write up my dissertation.
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