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Archive for November 2014

Reading ‘City of Devi’ in Mogadishu

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The book: City of Devi, Manil Suri

The place: Mogadishu

I’ve found it hard to settle to a book the last few weeks; I read Stephen King’s latest, Revival, which I liked but didn’t love; I read Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, which is beautifully written but which felt oddly arid to me – and now I am reading this, which I am thoroughly enjoying but I find it quite easy to put it down and forget to pick it up again. Perhaps I have lost the ability to read? Or perhaps I can only become fully immersed in genre books these days? Say it ain’t so! I have 416 unread books on my Kindle, and many, many more unread books in my actual home in Glasgow, where I should be next week, and one of them is going to have to pique my interest and get my juices flowing.

(I am being rather unfair to City of Devi, which really is rather brilliant: apocalyptic speculative fiction set in Mumbai, featuring gods and elephants and pyrotechnics and a love triangle, and it is also, often, very funny. Shameful confession: I actually bought this because it won the Bad Sex In Literature award last year, though I haven’t actually reached the climactic scene (hur hur) yet. I do tend to think that award is quite mean-spirited – it is hard to write sex, and I feel like readers’ responses are likely to vary more in that area than in relation to almost anything else. Anything actively rapey or misogynist, by all means lampoon or lambast it. But otherwise, I’m down with bad sex in literature.)

(And also, City of Devi is an interesting case of literature-not-genre, no? It is basically science fiction, set in an alternate present (or near-future, I’m not quite sure), but it didn’t actually occur to me that it could fit the definition of genre fiction until I was writing the paragraph above. Why is this? Is it purely a factor of marketing, or is there something else to it? I have the rather confused idea that genre-vs-not-genre is linked to reader motivation, but on reflection that is a rather odd way of categorising writing.)



Last night in Mogadishu for a while. In celebration / commemoration, I wanted to post my favourite poster up around the city, but like an idiot I lost my photo of it so here’s my second-favourite: nabad & nolol! Nabad = peace, and I’m pretty sure nolol doesn’t mean no lols … yeah OK, Google Translate tells me that “nolol” means “life”. Really wish I could get out of the car for a closer look but it’s out of the question. Really wish also I could make contact with Somali artists currently working in Mogadishu – one of my favourite things here (as I’ve mentioned before) is the pictures you see on the outside of shops to advertise their wares, and I would love to get some pictures commissioned by shop artists to have in my kitchen at home.

Written by Jess

November 26, 2014 at 6:50 pm

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I have always had a troubled relationship with Armistice Day, or Anzac Day, when I was a teenager growing up in Australia. I’m a pacifist by ideology, if not by nature, and as a self-important adolescent I would mutter about the glorification of war and patriotic groupthink and all sorts of similarly obnoxious nonsense.

I hope I am less obnoxious these days, but I am still not sure how to reconcile the ‘never again’ sentiment that characterises so much of the original intent of Armistice Day with the Support Our Troops propaganda that seems to be churned out these days, by various governments complicit in various wars in various places. I’ve been uncomfortable with hegemonic poppy-wearing in the UK for as long as I can remember (and I greatly respect any public figure who manages to resist it); in many ways the transformation of Armistice Day from something quite pacifist in nature to what it is now has been a PR triumph.

My maternal great-grandfather was killed in World War I, having signed up after receiving a white feather in the post; my paternal grandfather, a career soldier, served in both World War I and World War II. I respect their decisions and their actions – though it saddens me to think that my great-grandfather’s decision was forced. But I am deeply suspicious of the freedom-related rhetoric that’s surrounded the wars that my countries have embroiled themselves in since. I have enormous sympathy with the men and women serving on behalf of the UK and Australia around the world today, but I don’t for a moment believe that they are protecting my freedom. I don’t believe any war that either country has been involved in since World War II has done anything but pander to (and further fuel) the fears of xenophobes, and protect extremely narrow economic and class-based interests.

I get the war impulse. After IS executed James Foley, I had a brief but intense conviction that military action was the appropriate response. I no longer think this; my considered belief in the wrongness of military action won out over my initial reaction, in which my perspective was occluded by the red mist of rage.

I have spent a lot of my recent life in countries emerging from war, returning to war, and in a long-term unstable situation of no war, no peace. There is no glory in it.

Written by Jess

November 11, 2014 at 7:17 pm

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Reading ‘The Woman Who Stole My Life’ in Mogadishu

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The book: The Woman Who Stole My Life, Marian Keyes

The place: Mogadishu

In the immortal words of the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music: “read … every … genre!” And I am trying. In my early twenties I went through a phase of reading … not a lot of chicklit, in the great scheme of things, but significantly more than I do now, because I was A Young Woman In A Big City and … it spoke to me? Well no, not really, it didn’t, but there was a familiarity about it that I quite liked. But then the older I got, the more irked I became about the way the majority of chicklit reinforces pernicious and often damaging ideas about femininity and a great deal of it is formulaic and just not very good. But even now, many years later, I remain devoted to Marian Keyes, and indeed preordered this so that it would be beamed by magic to my Kindle the day it was released.

Oh, Marian Keyes. She is very close to the top of my (mercifully only mental) list of authors I would like to have a drink with (or, in her case, possibly not a drink as I believe she’s in recovery – but perhaps a cup of tea and an enormous cake?). Partly because she is hilarious, but more because she seems to have great feeling and fondness for people. I like that in a writer (and also in a person). Plus she’s not afraid to tackle very dark and difficult issues – see This Charming Man, much of which is properly chilling and certainly transcends most people’s ideas of what chicklit is. Her books are among the very few I tend to reread, to the extent that they act in an almost sedative way, I’m so familiar with them.

Written by Jess

November 8, 2014 at 7:30 pm

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Reading ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ in Armenia and Sharjah

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The books: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor

The places: Armenia and Sharjah 

This post is actually a lie: I am no longer reading these books in either Armenia or Sharjah, but am instead in Nairobi dipping in and out of a number of things and failing to settle to any proper reading. I expect that it’s at least partly down to book- and travel-hangover: I find myself longing for the Former Soviet Union or the Arabian Peninsula, and for a book or a series as gloriously immersive as I found these.

I wanted to blog while I was actually in Armenia, but Armenia distracted me by being wholeheartedly awesome the entire time. There were mountains and monasteries and ruined mosques; there was wine for sale by the side of the road in Coca Cola bottles, and home-made apricot vodka, and cognac, and a thousand toasts with people we met along the way; there was borshch eaten in a near-deserted restaurant lined with caryatids in a hotel shaped like a boat, and beans and bread in what my travelling companion described as a “warzone lad pad”, and tiny birds roasted whole whose heads we crunched before realising what they were. We picked up hitch-hikers and passed convoys of tanks and got a flat tyre in the pitch dark at the top of a mountain pass and very nearly fixed it entirely ourselves, before a kind man stopped to finish the job and was rewarded with the plastic bottle of wine that we had bought by the roadside hours before. I was only there for a week but it felt like at last twice as long.

The reason that I don’t have a travel blog per se is because I’m dreadful at recapping trips like this in a way that is coherent and interesting to someone who wasn’t there. It takes a while for stories to percolate through into structured narratives; it takes distance, too, which is hard for me to get when it comes to travel. Me and travel, I’m like an overenthusiastic Labrador puppy, flinging myself all over it and eagerly licking its extremities and making shameful whimpering noises of delight and excitement. This sort of head-busting, heart-bursting joy does not make for good travel blogging; it makes for the sort of jumbled grab-bag of a blog post that you see before you.

Laini Taylor says it well herself, in the acknowledgements to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the first in the trilogy, where she thanks the world for being so big and interesting and exciting (I paraphrase). Damn straight. Laini Taylor has made a high entry onto the list of Authors I Would Like To Have A Beer With.




















Written by Jess

November 3, 2014 at 7:50 pm

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