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Archive for July 2014

Reading ‘Diaboliad’ in Heathrow Airport

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The book: Diaboliad, Mikhail Bulgakov

The place: Heathrow Airport, Terminal 4

In Heathrow airport for the second time in 36 hours – last time coming, this time going. The less said about this little excursion the better – an unsuccessful visa mission – but it has been very nice to have a day and a half the British summer I keep hearing about, and to have a series of lunches and dinners and coffees with various friends in various places.

Signs that one is spending too much time in Mogadishu: sitting out in my friend H’s back garden last night, rich blue dusk, a pair of sky lanterns floated over the rooftops and I immediately flinched, subconsciously assuming very slow-moving tracer bullets. It was very pretty, though, once my heartrate had returned to normal.

Written by Jess

July 31, 2014 at 7:30 pm

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Reading ‘The Causal Angel’ in Mogadishu

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The book: The Causal Angel, Hannu Rajaniemi

The place: Mogadishu

LOOK AT WHAT MAGICALLY APPEARED ON MY KINDLE TWO DAYS AGO!!! This is one of the delights of e-readers – while it’s true that nothing quite compares to receiving an actual physical book in the post, such pleasures are heavily dependent on having regular access to a physical address. But through the magic of ebooks, you can pre-order something, forget you pre-ordered it, and then one glorious day you will switch on your e-reader and THERE IN FRONT OF YOU is a book that you have been awaiting for (in this case) about a year and a half.

Had you told me two years ago that I would be so excited about a book that is usually dubbed as ‘hard science fiction’ I would have been extremely dubious. Until late 2011 I had read more or less zero science fiction in my life, aside from a tiny bit of John Wyndham when I was young, and a few examples of the sorts of books that are generally snobbishly described as speculative fiction, rather than science fiction (Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, for example). I have roundly repented of my earlier stance; my gateway books were Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, which were recommended to me by so many friend that they became impossible to ignore. I devoured the series in a couple of weeks, and resolved to Read More SciFi.

That said, I probably wouldn’t have read Rajaniemi had he not been so strongly pushed upon me by my friend John when I visited him in Brussels at the start of 2013. The Vorkosigan books are ‘space opera’ – yes, there are spaceships and battles, but the focus is very much on the characters rather than on technology or aliens; Rajaniemi is an actual mathematician who understands actual Hard Science and uses it in his books. Aiiiieeee!

And yet! I burned through The Quantum Thief in a couple of days, and was overjoyed to discover that it was the first in a trilogy and the second was about to come out. I read The Fractal Prince on holiday at the end of February 2013, on a balcony overlooking a crater lake and the Rwenzoris in the misty distance – and then in April 2013 I was on a couple of panels at the Budapest Book Fair and guess who was also present? HANNU RAJANIEMI. Thank you, serendipity. I attended his panel and was even sufficiently emboldened to ask a question (about the extent to which having a proper understanding of the actual science improves one’s enjoyment of the books) and I found out that he had just finished The Causal Angel which is the last book in the trilogy and NOW IT IS ON MY KINDLE WAITING FOR ME TO READ IT. (I have barely started – only read the prologue so far – because I want to savour it.)

Why are these books so wonderful? The characters (always what I go for more than anything else in a novel); the world-building that speaks of a rich and lively and compassionate imagination (if you can read the part of The Quantum Thief that deals with the Quiets without tearing up I am not quite sure what I think of you); the multilayered allusions to literature and culture and myth – and the writing, the writing, the writing. The fact that Rajaniemi isn’t even writing in his mother tongue makes me quite ashamed of myself. (I can, however, count to five in Finnish, so that’s something.) Read these books, friends. Read these books.


Bonus creepy stalker photo of Hannu Rajaniemi (right) at the Budapest Book Fair last year


Bonus non-creepy photo of Budapest being its gorgeous self

Written by Jess

July 19, 2014 at 2:10 pm

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Reading ‘Fairyland’ in Nairobi

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The book: Fairyland, Alysia Abbott

The place: in Nairobi traffic.

I do a great deal of my reading at the moment in taxis traversing the horrific Nairobi traffic. It was the same in Cairo, though at least when I lived there my patterns were more predictable: a 9am taxi from Zamalek to Downtown, which would usually take about 20 minutes, depending on the snarled traffic on 26 July Corridor, and a taxi back the other way, somewhere around 6pm if I didn’t have an Arabic lesson after work, or 7.30pm if I did. The return taxi was always harder, both to flag down in the first place, and then to navigate through the traffic, often taking between 45 minutes and an hour – but I never got sick of crossing the bridges, Zamalek Tower in the mist and the Saraya Restaurant lit up against the Nile – not to mention my awkward and halting Arablish conversations with a motley crew of taxi drivers (my favourite being the one who appeared to be asking me whether it was true that Peter Crouch was the son of Queen Elizabeth I).

Living in Nairobi, as I now seemingly do, is having the odd effect of making me miss Cairo enormously. I am honestly trying to like Nairobi, and it has myriad advantages: many friends here (mostly former Juba people); high quality restaurants – including multiple places to get good sushi; it is green and cool (in fact more on the cold side at the moment) and things mostly appear to work, at least in comparison to places like Juba and Mogadishu. And yet. My favourite things about Nairobi remain things around it, rather than in it; the game park, the tea plantations (where I went horse-riding last Sunday), the 90-minute flights to the coast. It just doesn’t feel like a real city to me, just a series of malls and suburbs strung awkwardly together by traffic-clogged streets – while Cairo, for all its faults, is undoubtedly a metropolis; it has a verve and a life and an energy that I have found quite lacking in Nairobi, so far. Perhaps I just don’t know it well enough yet. I hope that’s the case.

But oh, Cairo:

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Written by Jess

July 11, 2014 at 11:57 am

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Reading ‘Vicious’ in Nairobi

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The book: Vicious, by VE Schwab

The place: Nairobi outskirts

Tomorrow I am moving to a more permanent Nairobi-based living situation, but the past little while I have been staying in the spare room of a friend on the outskirts of Nairobi, and – transport challenges aside – it has been pretty blissful. The house is on a compound on the edge of Nairobi Game Reserve, and every morning the place is full of warthogs shuffling through the long grass. The past couple of days I’ve been back to running again, and every so often I will startle a warthog which will then stand stock-still and stare at me for a moment before streaking off into the undergrowth. I don’t know why they’re so scared of me – they could definitely take me – but better that way around than the other, I guess.

It’s not always an African idyll. Though. A week ago, while the friend with whom I am staying was away in South Sudan, two of the dogs on the compound were poisoned, including one belonging to my friend. It’s the sort of situation that breeds paranoia and suspicion – the compound isn’t entirely secure, but it seems pretty unlikely that anyone would come through the gates specifically to poison a couple of dogs, and so it was probably an inside job. So yesterday the landlady decided to bring in a witchdoctor to get to the bottom of who was responsible. She’s apparently done this before, a few years ago when there was a series of petty thefts, and the witchdoctor made enough of an impression on whoever was responsible that the thefts stopped.

We all had to gather in the garden yesterday morning. The witchdoctor looked fairly unassuming, in black trousers and a rather trendy shirt, with a beaded stick and various other accoutrements. My Swahili is more or less non-existent, so my understanding was very patchy, based only on occasional whispered translations, but the process was straightforward: the witchdoctor cast a number of different powders into a bowl of shallow water, and we each had to come forward and lay our hands in the water, saying “I did nothing to cause this, so this cannot harm me”.

Nothing dramatic happened – no one collapsed, or went into a fit, or was identified definitively as the culprit – but I was surprised at how nervous the proceedings made me, despite knowing that I certainly was not the dog-poisoner, and the witchdoctor probably wouldn’t be able to harm me even if I were. (Probably.) My friends says that witchdoctors are masters of human psychology, and I was very impressed by the way this guy played the crowd – if I, with no background belief in witchcraft and only a tenuous link to Kenyan culture, was unsettled by it, I can’t imagine how the Kenyans present must have felt. (It reminds me of a story of my father’s, from when he was working in South Africa in the 1950s, where he saw a young man killed by a curse, due to the strength of his belief.)

Meanwhile, my friend went to the KSPCA and adopted a new dog, who was abandoned in the street outside Westgate Mall last September when the hawkers selling puppies on the street dropped everything and ran during the terrorist attack on the Mall. He is pretty great.


This morning my friend Clare and I went to visit the elephant sanctuary in the Game Park, and cemented our status as platonic life partners by jointly adopting a baby elephant. Her name is Ashaka, and she was found stuck in a mudbank. Our adoption allows us to make an appointment to go and see her when she is being put to bed in the evening, which is surely the best thing ever?

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Written by Jess

July 5, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized