If that felt like a pretty short plot summary, it's because (a) I didn't like this book very much, and (b) not very much happened in it. Not kidding. Even when things did happen, it was sort of somehow not very interesting. Sorry, Isak, it's the truth.
I read the one page description of the author's life after I finished the book, and immediately thought, 'her life was WAY more interesting than this book!' Which I feel like means she did something wrong there. Missed opportunity. Ah well!
Here are my thoughts, some pleasant, some less so:
My book was full of notes, which got progressively angrier and more annoyed as I read further in the book. Mostly, there's a lot of "UGH" and "UNACCEPTABLE" and "THAT'S RELATIVE", but here's my favorite, a little running list I made in the back:
THINGS I DON'T LIKE ABOUT HER
- Hunter - she hunts and goes on safari, and kills a bunch of lions, and I just was Not here for it.
- Conqueror - I chose this book because so few 'classics' by women make it out there, but she is a conqueror through and through, and I couldn't forgive her for it.
- Fake single woman - her husband is MYSTERIOUSLY mentioned on page 274 and then never again. According to her bio, they split up (btws he was her second cousin and he gave her SYPHILIS - #somehusband), and then she started a love affair. But to be clear, there was no love obviously expressed in this book. I didn't know they were a romantic item until after I read that bit in the bio.
- Needed an editor - Certainly, there are so many other people I could yell at for this (JOYCE, TOLSTOY, need I go on?) and I'm glad that at least a woman was allowed the same rambling that white men were, but how about we just None of us ramble, and we 'be brief, say what's core', as we say in BT.
- Does she have a name? - Apparently, when you google the protagonist of Out of Africa, the internet proudly proclaims that it is the Baroness Tania von Blixen, which would, I suppose, make sense as her married name, since her husband was Baron Blixen, but we would only know as much because on EXACTLY ONE PAGE we see the name "Tania". OK, young boy narrator-Proust-wannabe.
-Super un'woke' - I know it's not really fair to compare attitudes across periods of time, but even for someone who was sort of 'woke' for her time, she was SO SO SO un'woke', and it was just excruciating to read after reading A Lesson Before Dying.
- Doesn't bother to learn much Swahili or Masai - She doesn't spend much time learning the languages of the area, which I found to be very condescending, imperialistic, and entitled.
- Cares more about African animals than African people - She expresses concern at times for the people around her who are native to Kenya, but she seems to respect and admire the animals she hunts more than she respects the people of Kenya, which I found deeply disturbing.
Let's make some SWEEPING generalizations - All frogs love CHEESE!
She falls into the classic 'making generalizations about whole groups of people' habit quite a lot. Here are just a few examples:
- The Somali women themselves had dignified, gentle ways, and were hospitable and gay, with a laughter like silver bells.
- All Africans are the same in these rites. oh sure, ALL Somalis. ALL Africans.
There were a few moments when I felt a kinship with Tania, or whatever her name was. These lines about reading books abroad reminded me of Lexie reading books in the Peace Corps houses, and how pleasant it was when a good one came around:
- In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he ay have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun.
While I will not make sweeping generalizations about ALL Africans, I will say that there were a few moments that put me in mind of my brother-in-law, Lune, from Sénégal, and moments, particularly in the kitchen, we've shared. He often just peeled vegetables with a knife, and seemed to think peelers were somehow wasting the best parts of the vegetable. He also once asked us when he was trying to cut open a coconut if we had a machete, and when we said no, he just threw the coconut on the bricks really hard and was like, "no problem! No need!"
There's a similar story about her teaching a boy to cook that I loved:
- He scorned all complicated tools, as if impatient of too much independence in them, and when I gave him a machine for beating eggs he set it aside to rust, and beat whites of egg with a weeding knife that I had had to weed the lawn with, and his whites of eggs towered up like light clouds."
I almost resentfully felt a kinship with the main character when she was getting ready to leave Africa, and she described some moments of terror and near madness, mostly because they reminded me of how I've felt at certain points in my life, and especially in France at the end of my time there:
- fell upon me like a darkness, and in a way I was frightened of it, as of a sort of derangement. On this Thursday in Nairobi, the nightmare unexpectedly stole upon me, and grew so strong that I wondered if I were beginning to go mad." It's possible she was depressed, or suffered from mental illness, as her father commit suicide (according to her bio) but in any case, I rarely see people describing the way I experience life, even in fleeting moments, so it was nice to feel like I wasn't alone for once.
In case you haven't heard of the term, here's a quick definition:
intersectionality - the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
Reading this book was a great reminder that while I chose many authors on my second list because they were underrepresented or repressed or oppressed in some facet of their being, they may also be the oppressor in another piece of their identity, as was the case here. Just good food for thought.
While in general, I did not like to trust her descriptions of Kenyans or their traditions because I felt like she was trying to tell the story of their lives FOR them, instead of write a book about them, I did enjoy hearing about the Masai:
- A Masai warrior is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic; -daring, and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal. Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.
While this book was not what I would call a laugh riot, there were a few moments that I found very amusing, like this one, on her letters being censored during the war:
- He can never have found anything the least suspicious in them, but he came, I believe, within a monotonous life, to take an interest in the people on whom they turned, and to read my letters as you read a serial in a magazine. I used to add in my own letters a few threats against our Censor, to be carried out after the end of the war, for him to read.
This was my favorite exchange. She recounts trying to learn some Swahili (FINALLY) from a Swede (god forbid she learn from a Native speaker) but apparently the word 'nine' has a 'dubious ring to it' in Swedish, so this happened:
'They have not got nine in Swaheli."
'You mean,' I said, 'that they can only count as far as eight?'
'Oh, no', he said quickly. 'They have got ten, eleven, twelve, and so on. But they have not got nine.'
'Does that work?' I asked, wondering. 'What do they do when they come to nineteen?'
'They have not got nineteen either', he said, blushing, but very firm, 'nor ninety, nor nine hundred' - for these words in Swaheli are constructed out of the number nine, -'But apart from that they have got all our numbers.'
'The idea of this system for a long time gave me much to think of, and for some reason a great pleasure. Here, I thought, was a people who have got originality of mind, and courage to break with the pedantry of the numeral series." lollllllz.
Yes, they have fireflies in Africa, folks, in case you weren't sure.
I loved the universality of this moment, because it reminded me of driving on Mine Road in the summertime at night, and my parents turning off the headlights for a moment so we could swim in the sea of fireflies.
- Here in the highlands, when the long rains are over, and in the first week of June nights begin to be cold, we get the fireflies in the woods. On an evening you will see two or three of them, adventurous lonely stars floating in the clear air, rising and lowering, as if upon waves, or as if curtseying. For some reason they keep within a certain height, four or five feet, above the ground. It is impossible then not to imagine that a whole crowd of children of six or seven years, are running through the dark forest carrying candles, little sticks dipped in a magic fire, joyously jumping up and down, and gambolling as they run, and swinging their small pale torches merrily.
Eland - a spiral-horned African antelope that lives in open woodland and grassland. It is the largest of the antelopes.
marmiton - a chef's assistant, or a kitchen-boy. Actually a French word, I think.
|Everyone's favorite troglodyte|
troglodyte - (especially in prehistoric times) a person who lived in a cave; a hermit; a person who is regarded as being deliberately ignorant or old-fashioned.
risibility - the tendency to laugh often and easily
Lines I liked
- They had real courage: the unadulterated liking of danger, -the true answer of creation to the announcement of their lot, -the echo from the earth when heaven had spoken.
- The air in the forest was cool like water, and filled with the scent of plants, and in the beginning of the long rains when the creepers flowered, you rode through sphere after sphere of fragrance.
- But the real performers, the indefatigable young dancers, brought the glory and luxury of the festivity with them, they were immune to foreign influence, and concentrated upon the sweetness and fire within themselves. One thing only did they demand from the outside world: a space of level ground to dance on."
"In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."
Anyone? A little Sylvia, from The Bell Jar...
"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am."
Love to you all, and happy reading!