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Archive for April 2014

Reading ‘The Prince’s Boy’ in Nairobi

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The book: The Prince’s Boy, Paul Bailey

The place: Kiko Romeo, Yaya Centre, Nairobi

Subsided on a bench in Kiko Romeo, having been left there as collateral while my friend took a dress she had not yet bought to the tailors upstairs to establish whether they could do with it what she wanted. (They couldn’t. She bought a different dress.)

Today has been spent in a welter of panic-shopping and sushi eating, both of which are enjoyable in their own way. Painfully early start tomorrow to allow me to fit in a complete work day in a different country. Hopefully the coffee place will be open at the airport.


Written by Jess

April 29, 2014 at 12:51 pm

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Reading ‘Arctic Summer’ in Zanzibar

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The book: Arctic Summer, by Damon Galgut

The place: Livingstone’s, Stone Town, Zanzibar

Also pictured: mojito; mango and avocado salad

Not pictured: actual bliss

This book was a delight. It made me want to read much more Galgut, and also some EM Forster, as I am ashamed to say that the only Forster I have ever read was A Room with a View, which was one of our English texts when I was fourteen or fifteen. I really am quite shamefully ill-read.

This book is party set in Alexandria, which made me wish I’d read it when I was living in Egypt. I’m pretty awful at that sort o thing – or indeed reading anything on a set schedule. I was quite proud of the fact that I managed to get through about a fifth of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet while actually in Alexandria last year, but I then put it down and have yet to pick it up again, over a year later. I should probably put that net on my list of Books To Slowly Make My Way Through, once I’m done with The Gulag Archipelago.

This photo was actually taken two days ago, and shorty afterwards I hopped in a taxi to the airport and then onto a pane back to Nairobi, where I am now, for another 36 hours or so. It’s been a lovely few days meeting up with friends and eating good food and trying to get to grips with Nairobi, which away sees oddly somnolent to me, possibly because it seems to be composed of little but a series of ring roads. Twin flies in the ointment are the fact that my laptop – an unwise and much-regretted panic-buy in Dubai in 2012, after my trusty and robust Toshiba was stolen in South Sudan – has competed its gradual decline into compete senescence and is thus practically unusable, AND I et my glasses in a Zanzibar taxi, so here I am, squinting astigmatically at a laptop screen as I painstakingly type using an on-screen keyboard, because half of my keyboard no longer works. Happily I should be picking up a replacement pair of glasses tomorrow, thanks to an accommodating and pragmatic Kenyan optometrist who is making me a good-enough pair with the lenses they had in stock, rather than sticking to my actual prescription, which would take two to three weeks. Thank you, accommodating and pragmatic Kenyan optometrist!

Here is a non-exhaustive list of ways in which I have lost or destroyed gasses in the past:

  • The pair that fell out of my pocket while I was cycling in Glasgow and were promptly run over by a bus;
  • The pair that I left in someone’s house in Goulimime, Morocco, which were then returned to me in Laayoune at great effort and expense, only to be permanently lost mere weeks later in Ziguinchor market;
  • The pair that were left in a restaurant in Yei, South Sudan, held hostage by a waiter for several days and then finally returned to me, only to be run over by a motorbike in Juba days later;
  • The other pair that were left in a restaurant in Yei, South Sudan, six years later.

The ones that I have just lost lasted about eight months, which is pretty good going by my standards. I may have the new ones surgically attached to my actual skull.


Written by Jess

April 28, 2014 at 12:56 pm

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Reading ‘My Age of Anxiety’ in Zanzibar

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The book: My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel

The place: Pakacha Bungalows, Bwejuu, Zanzibar

Rather incongruous to be reading a book about anxiety in what is surely one of the most relaxing places on earth.

There should be more books like this. It reminded me a lot of Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, which takes more or less the same approach to depression – history and analysis interwoven with personal experience – that Stossel takes to anxiety. I feel like this book – and Solomon’s – should be required reading or anyone inclined to take a dismissive or minimising view of things like anxiety and depression. I include myself in that – I have an unfortunate tendency, sometimes (not always) to forget that clinical aniety and depression are not the same as being a bit fretful or a bit down, and are certainly not the sort of things that people should be expected to just grit their teeth and get over.

(My one experience with what would count as Proper Anxiety was thanks to inadvertently taking a massive dose of the antimalarial Lariam to treat malaria in 2010. What I remember most clearly about the experience is the extent to which my anxiety manifested as physical; the first night that it became clear that something was amiss, I awoke from a semi-waking dream involving large sentient paper skulls (admittedly that part was purely psychological), and spent the rest of the night staring wide-eyed into the darkness, utterly convinced that I was having a stroke. It wasn’t until a doctor friend put two and two together the next day that I realised what I had been experiencing as an entirely physical phenomenon was effectively my brain dumping increasing quantities of chemicals into my bloodstream in a futile attempt to trigger my fight or flight response. The anxiety persisted for another few weeks, but became markedly different in form – a subsonic, doom-laden rumble that made the most innocuous activity feel as if it were fraught with danger (I was stuck on a sofa for hours because I was subconsciously convinced that if I unbent my legs to get up, or even to change positions, I would be unleashing all sorts of unnamed demons upon myself), rather than that initial intense and bodily panic sensation. I’m enormously grateful that I don’t have to experience either sensation on a regular basis, and that my habitual fretting doesn’t have any sort of physical manifestation.)

That said: I do still find the cultural variance of rates of anxiety and depression confusing and somewhat troubling. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie touches on this in Americanah, which is bloody brilliant and which I also read recently.) Are there any decent books about that, I wonder? I have a faint recollection of discussing this as part of the medical anthropology course I did as part of my degree long ago, but I can’t remember any of the sources that were cited.

Meanwhile, here’s some more Zanzibar.

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Written by Jess

April 25, 2014 at 7:50 pm

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Reading ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ in Zanzibar

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The book: The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The place: Evergreen bar, Bwejuu, Zanzibar

A very wet day here in Zanzibar, which is actually a minor blessing, as it means time off from battling my customary conflicting impulses: I want to see EVERYTHING vs I want to sit down quietly and read. Much of the day has been spent doing the latter (interspersed with an early morning dive – two green turtles! – a couple of lengthy walks and a sunset run), and it has been delightful. Places like Zanzibar do rain well, too: a fresh, clean smell; dramatic skyscapes contrasting with flat pale sand and flat pale water; sculptural clouds dropping visible tails of rain; lightning flashing out to sea.

I am ashamed to admit that the copy of The Gulag Archipelago that I’m reading is an ebook o dubious legality, acquired from one of the internet’s dens of iniquity. I can just about justify this to myself because a) no ebook of The Gulag Archipelago is legally available, so really, what’s a girl to do; and b) I have a legally acquired hardcopy of the book at home in the UK, which – in my head at least, if not in the eyes of the law – means that I’ve effectively bought the right to read it in any format I please. (I am grudgingly aware that this is not actually the case.) Said hardcopy was bought in an English language bookshop in Baku when I was there in 2012 – in my memory the bookshop was called Chirac, but in hindsight that seems terribly unlikely. Having lived in Baku in 2000, when the city was possibly at its nadir – poised between post-Soviet crumbling and the first excesses of oil wealth – I was delighted to find things like foreign language bookshops, not to mention decent cafés and restaurants, gleaming shopping streets and fully renovated oil boom mansions, though it did mean that I found the city completely unnavigable, despite my bold claims to the friend with whom I was travelling: “I used to live here! I’ll be able to find our way!” NOT SO. Particularly shocking was the site of my old apartment, located in a building widely known (in 2000, at least) as ‘five storey building’, as it had been the first in Baku; when I had lived there it had been ramshackle and chaotic, windows rattling in their frames in the sharp cold winds off the Caspian and the incessant honking of mashrutnoe taxis in the square below, the hallway lined in that peculiar padded wallpaper that gives the impression of a psychiatric facility and which I have only ever seen in the former USSR. Now the building is sandblasted and pristine, the old man who used to sell me sour cherry juice and pepper vodka on the street outside is long gone, and the shops on the ground floor are no longer dodgy electronics stores (one of the chaps from which helpfully came up to my flat when I was living there and spliced my phone connection for me, so that I could plug in the internet – plug in the internet! It’s like a phrase from the 1950s), but fancy fragrance emporia. Newsflash: things change fast in transitional / developing countries! I’d been away for 12 years, after all; I can’t imagine the changes I’d see in Juba if I left for that amount of time.



Baku, 2012, with both me and my former apartment looking significantly different from the way we looked in 2000.

(The other book I bought in Chirac – really, can that be its name? – was The Orientalist, Tom Reiss’s rather brilliant biography of Kurban Said, author of Ali and Nino. Recommended.)

In any case. I started The Gulag Archipelago back in 2012, got around 100 pages in, left my glasses in a restaurant in Yei and could no longer see the tiny print – and then never got round to picking it up again. So this is my second attempt. It’s epic in scope and in length, fascinating but incredibly dense, and I shall probably mete out a chapter at a time, interspersed with lighter and easier fare.




Written by Jess

April 22, 2014 at 1:31 pm

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