For the last few years, I’ve kept a note of books read, and here’s the 2013 list below (with previous years included as well for comparison). Twenty-three isn’t bad I suppose, though it’s been nice in the past to get over thirty. The risk as my friend H pointed out to me today is that you risk reading books to the finish, even if they’re not very good, just to be able to add them to a list.
A good mix of reads. As ever, I’m torn between wanting to be widely read across a broad range of areas and wanting to dive in deep. It would be good to read more Christian books I think. It has been fun setting up a book club with friends here, which has pushed me to read more.
This was the year I started using a Kindle after leaving Abidjan with two suitcases, one carrying little more than heavy, physical books. I’ve quickly become a fan, and my Kindle is now overloaded with a portable collection of (mostly unread) books. It’s almost always with me, and it’s cool to have the Bible, the Quran, the classics of Russian literature and the complete essays of Montaigne in my bag for almost zero cost and minimal carrying weight. I’ve got into the habit of buying books that I’d always half-remembered meaning to read, which means (I think) that it’ll be read at some point in the future.
I think ‘Ghana Must Go’, would get my vote as the stand-out personal read of the year.
- Hotel Africa, by Pascal Zachary
- Four hour working week, by Tim Ferris
- Wolf hall, by Hilary Mantel
- Burqalicious, by Becky Wicks
- Dubai Dreams, by Raymond Barrett
- Dubai – the story of the world’s fastest city, by Jim Krane
- The politics of aid, by John Holmes
- Bring up the bodies, by Hilary Mantel
- How Proust can change your life, by Alain de Botton
- Choose Yourself, by James Altucher
- The Ringtone and the Drum, by Mark Weston
- And the Mountains Echoed, by Khalid Hossein
- Africa, by Richard Dowden
- Driving over lemons, by Chris Stewart
- Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi
- Five star billionaire, by Tash Aw
- A Letter concerning religious toleration, by John Locke
- See No Evil, by Robert Baer
- White Mischief, by James Fox
- Quiet: The power of introverts, by Susan Cain
- The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Frederic Engels
- Zanzibar Chest, by Aidan Hartley
- Chasing Chaos, by Jessica Alexander
2012 (target = 35)
- Practical DV filmmaking, by Russell Evans
- Writing for pleasure and profit, by Michel Legat
- The Origins of Aids, by Jacques Pepin
- Notre Abidjan, by Henriette Diabate et al
- Une Passion Interompue, by Yehni Djidji
- East and West: Understanding the rise of China, by Y J Choi
- Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
- 1493, by Charles Mann
- Understanding the Bible, by John Stott
2011 (target = 35)
- Hudson Taylor biography
- BBC Editorial Guidelines
- Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre
- Jeffrey Archer; Stranger than fiction, by Michael Crick
- Chocolate Nations, by Orla Ryan
- The Masculine Mandate, by Richard Philips
- The Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon
- Karl Marx, by Francis Wheen
- Counterfeit gods, by Tim Keller
- The Master of Petersburg, by J. M. Coetzee
- How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer
- Double Cross, by James Patterson
- The Trouble with Africa, by Robert Calderisi
- Motty’s Diary – a year in the life, by John Motson
- The Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon
- Hacks, by Christopher S. Wren
- God save the team, by Eddy Brimson
- La Loi relative a la presse, by Legis-ci
- Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Making War in Cote d’Ivoire, by Mike McGovern
- The Ghost of Che Guevara, by Jason Webb
- A Good Man in Africa, by William Boyd
- Jaguars and Electric Eels, by Alexandar von Humboldt
- Ghosts and other plays, by Henrik Ibsen
- The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
- New African Fashion, by Helen Jennings
- The Age of the Infovore, by Tyler Cowen
- Meme au paradis on pleure quelquefois, by Maurice Bandaman
2010 (target = 35)
- Les Fracades d’Ebintou, Amadou Koné
- The Glory of Christ, Peter Lewis
- The World is what it is: authorised bio of V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French
- Pour une Refondation de la Filiere, Isidore S. Allah
- Cote d’Ivoire : Batir la paix sur la democratie et la prosperite, L. Gbagbo
- Across the Empty Quarter, Wilfred Thesiger
- Aya de Yopougon, vol 4
- Bitter Chocolate, Carol Off
- Damp Squid, Jeremy Butterfield
- The View from the Foothills, Chris Mullin
- Oxford Book of Essays
- Bleak House, Charles Dickens
- The Insider, Piers Morgan
- Tropical Gangsters, Robert Kiltgaard
- Show me the magic, Travels round Benin by taxi, Annie Caulfield
- Radical Discipleship, John Stott
- A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh
- Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton
- Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
- The Great Divergence, Pomerand
- The lady and the unicorn, Tracey Chevalier
- Elephants, Lions and Eagles, Filippo Maria Ricci
- A Thousand Splendid Suns, K. Hossein
- Notes from Canada’s Young Activists
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway
- Industry and Empire, Eric Hobsbawm
- Alassane Ouattara – Une Vie singulaire, Cisse Bacongo
- The Customs of the Kingdom of India, Marco Polo
- Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
- Travels in Mauritania
- The Cobra’s Heart, Ryzard Kapuscinskis
- Promiscuities, Naomi Wolf
2009 (target = 30-50)
- The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
- Sold as a Slave, Olaudah Equiano
- Breaking news, Martin Fletcher
- The Meaning of Things, A. C. Grayling
- Intimate Issues
- Money, Martin Amis
- Communism, Richard Pipes
- Foreign to Familiar, S. Lanier
- The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, A. M. Smith
- La Vie de Pahé, Pahé
- La Vie de Pahé II, Pahé
- The Other, Kapuscinski
- On Being a Photographer, Bill Ayers and David
- Devoir des Mesonges, Fauston Toha
- Atonement, Ian McEwan
- Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s stone, J. K. Rowling
- Scaling the Secular City, J. P. Moreland
- Negreries, Venance Konan
- Making History, Stephen Fry
- La Richesse Appauvrie, Zokou Gogoua
- The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis
- Fighting Fat, Fighting Fit, Janette Marshall
- Petit Futé Cote d’Ivoire, Elodie V
- Modern Manners, P. J. O’Rouke
- Dreams of my Father, Barack Obama
- To the Holy Shrines, Sir Richard Burton
- Ma part des verities, Charles Blé Goudé
- D’un stad a l’autre, Chalres Blé Goudé
- Dreams from my father, Barack Obama
- La Jalousie qui detruit, Harold Kalleymeyn
2008 (target was a book every fortnight = 26)
- Brazzaville Charms, Cassie Knight
- Travels with Herodotus, Ryzard Kapuscinski
- Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
- Aya de Yopougon, vol. 1
- Aya de Yopougon, vol. 2
- A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke
- Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky
- The Africans, David Young
- The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
- Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee
- Confessions of a Philosopher, Bryan Magee
- The Sand Café, Neil MacFarquhar
- Generation X, Douglas Copeland
- As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
- Hustling is not a crime, John Chernoff
- Hard Times, Charles Dickens
- Aya de Yopougon, vol. 3
- Becoming a stringer
- The CEO of the sofa, P. J. O’Rouke
- Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
- According to Queeny, B. Bettybridge
- Robert et Catapila, Venance Konan
- Bridge-building, Alistair McGrath
- Travels in eastern Russia, Checkov
- Provided you don’t Kiss me, Duncan Hamilton
- Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
Back in England I come across certain items at the family home or things I see in the neighbourhood where I grew up which bring back a flood of memories. But sometimes I realise that my memory is hazy about everything before 2006, which is when I joined Facebook (then restricted to university email addresses) and started taking digital photos more seriously. There are so many chapters of my life before then, so many good friends…but because it wasn’t captured digitally or shared on social networks it feels like it was almost a different life or was back in the mists of time. Moving to Congo at the end of 2006 marks such a severe break in my life that I feel I need to fight again to reconnect former parts of my life with the present.
On the seven hour flight from Dubai to London, I caught a couple of decent films – the Steve Jobs movie and Elysium. But otherwise, among the hundred-odd other films on offer there wasn’t anything else of particular interest. There’s certainly been a dry spell at the cinemas that has worked its way on to the airline film offerings. But it did strike me that having watched four very good films at the Dubai film festival, each very different, that there was a contrast to the more commercial offerings on the plane. That’s why I think film festivals are so precious – the Cine Libre festival organised by the Goethe Institut in Abidjan was one of my favourite cultural events of the year. The people in charge of curating the programme really do a good job of selecting good films – I’m sorry I didn’t attend a single film screening at the Dubai film festival last year.
The last week in Dubai was a busy one: book club meeting, office Christmas party, football, magazine fair, and the Dubai International film festival (I caught four films). With marathon training, the day job, and picking up my wife at the airport, I ended up getting a lot less sleep than I needed and almost no time to stop. I felt a bit sorry for the visitor I had from Abidjan who I hardly saw at all.
The week reminded me a bit of the nine months when I studied for my masters. It was a time when I tried to say yes to everything – rowing, extra classes, visiting lecturers etc, as well as the usual regular studies, and church activities (church services and leading a study group). I think underlying it was a particular approach: « Would this event be worthwhile and stimulating? » – and if the answer is yes, to go. Will listening to John Gray or Tariq Ramadan be interesting? Yes. OK, go!
Life sometimes seems to divide down the middle into non-stimulating regular activities, and stimulating activities that really turn your head and get you thinking about your own life. There are of course necessary chores that we all must do, and often responsibilities. But like essays at university, I find they always get done somehow. Often by exploiting the law of ‘everything takes as much time as you have available’, you can prioritize the stimulating things, and let the rest squeeze into whatever time remains.
There aren’t too many dynamic spots in Dubai’s cultural landscape. It has a reputation as a rather materialistic place for people who like to show off – celebrity is praised here rather than cerebral power. One interesting feature though is the city’s Magazine shop, which recently opened in (or rather shifted location to) Media city. On the surface, it’s just another trendy coffee bar, albeit based around magazines. But they try to organise special evenings, and create a buzz, and so they have inevitably become something of a focal point for the trendy and bohemian. The shop works closely with a few cultural venues in the same vein – The Archive, The Pavilion and another one in Al Quoz whose name escapes me.
This weekend they had an outdoor fair around The Archive, which is located in Safa park. The park is one of the city’s principal green spaces – although the extension of the Creek from Business bay back to the sea is going to destroy about a third of the park. Characteristically for Dubai I haven’t heard anyone object to the plans.
The party was a pleasant event with stalls arranged in a circle selling homemade cakes, magazines, vinyl records and other bric-a-brac. It felt retro, which I think was the aim. A jazz band entertained the crowd playing all the usual cheesy favourites. Jazz seems to be the ideal soundscape for the trendy, cool and young. Taiye Selasi’s landmark blog post that did much to launch the concept of the ‘Afropolitan’ pointed to young trendy Africans happy combining Western and African urban influences and going to bars playing jazz (recently criticized here). In a different region, jazz also seems to be the right sound track for those wanting to make statements about how cool and non-conformist they are.
Still, as my friend H says, perhaps I should have just turned off my critical voice, sat down in the sun and enjoyed myself with an organic gourmet burger.
Rather randomly, a Congolese (Brazzaville) student sent me a message on Facebook, saying he’d remembered me from my time at Villa Washington and wanted to reconnect. The Villa was the US embassy’s cultural centre in Brazzaville and each week (Thursday?) they held an evening in which someone was invited to give a short presentation – often a visiting American. Not so special you might think, but it attracted hundreds of young Congolese every week – and once inside the door almost everyone spoke English to each other. I was invited to watch, then came to speak, and I ended up presenting a few times and attending almost every week. Sometimes I would just give a short behind-the-scenes talk on whatever reports I had done that week. I could often record a radio vox pop (in English) as well.
Looking back it was perhaps a bit odd, but there was a certain vibe about those evenings that was infectious. I found it great to just hang out with the young folks who knew that the world didn’t give much thought to their country, and that they had the misfortune to be born in a country that didn’t offer them many opportunities. Outside the centre students used the street lights to do their homework in the absence of a stable domestic electricity supply.
Maybe it massaged my ego as well – I was treated like a star on those evenings (probably just for being a white foreigner from the radio), although in my own mind I was just another young person like them.
For those attending, there was a palpable sense that America offered an alternative to their francophone elites who’d sown up the country for themselves. In a sense, English was the language of hope, and the US must have seemed (from a distance) as the land of opportunity. I like to think that there was a distinctly non-francophone lack of hierarchy as well. The ambassador was in frequent attendance, as was a good friend of mine from the embassy, the Charge d’Affaires. These students were not people Congolese society considered important.
Those were happy times with a real sense of community – those young Congolese, the folks at the SIM mission where I stayed for most of my time, and the handful of local expats (largely ambassadors and diplomatic number twos) who met every Tuesday evening to discuss short stories.
Out of the blue a couple of weeks back I was contacted by the father of my ex-girlfriend (there is only one person in this category). It got me thinking about someone that I haven’t thought about for a long time. She was really someone very special.
We met on a weekend away with friends just before I moved to Africa, and during my year in Congo we wrote to each other regularly. She had a beautiful soul, fascinated by the deep mysteries of life and faith. She’d send me handwritten letters with poems she’d appreciated, we’d talk about life, and she encouraged me to stay in Congo in those inevitable first few weeks when I had my doubts. I felt I’d met a kindred soul, sharing the magic of quotes, poems, music and books.
At distance, she became my closest friend for 11 months. Then, when we met during a holiday we convinced each other to try going out for a trial month. A month later, at distance, we concluded things couldn’t work, and the relationship (romance and friendship) ended there, rather sharply, though to my knowledge, without bitterness. In some respects it’s a sad tale – such friends and soul-mates are rare. But I wanted also to celebrate something very beautiful in its time.