Category Archives: literature

“My Mercedes Is Not For Sale”

A quick summary: a memoir wherein the author, Jeroen Van Bergeijk, drives a Mercedes into West Africa to have a bit of an adventure as well as to turn a profit selling it to an African car dealer, or deserving cabbie, or whoever ends up actually producing the cash in the end.

It may be that in translation, pulled off by one John Antonides, the tight, clever character of the writing was utterly lost. But whatever the reason, a chant of the writer’s commandment to SHOW DON’T TELL grew in volume in my head as I progressed through the book.

Also, I think there is some kind of guideline about not treating your reader like a blockhead. If every time I read an analogy, and three sentences later the only thing I can think is, “DUDE! I get it…” then something needed to be edited, methinks. Let me soften this by saying, I was never actually insulted by the overexplaining; it is not pompous, just annoying.

That said, where else are you going to be able to read about an automobile trek across the Sahara? I’m sure there are other places, but there are enough things in the plus column to warrant joining Van Bergeijk’s trek:

1. It’s a pretty quick read, assuming you don’t have little kids interrupting you for food every couple of minutes.

2. The narrator is successfully presented as somebody you’d actually want to hang out with (even if he is a bit circuitously long winded).

3. He pulls in a lot of references to other relevant texts and some historical facts to illustrate the events and his observations, so you feel like you’re exploring the continent from several angles.

4. It takes a fairly balanced look at Africa – I’ve been studying the continent’s history and art for a few years, so I’m attuned to some of the common pitfalls as far as assumptions and prejudices go. The narrator manages to present his feelings (which tend toward compassion) but makes sure to include enough alternate testimony that you feel you’re getting a sufficiently broad crosscut of various points of view.

In conclusion: it’s worth a go, if the African continent holds any fascination for you.

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Book Review: “The Last Straw”

Hold your applause ’til after the show please, but I, who require a minimum of three months to get through so much as a magazine article, read an entire book this morning!

Okay, it is a kid’s book.  But it does have 217 pages in it!

Fine, most of those pages consist of cartoony drawings.  Nevertheless, it is indisputably a book, and I without a doubt did begin and finish it along with my morning cup of java.  (I have witnesses.)

Making its appearance on the book scene on January 13th, 2009, The Last Straw is the third volume in Jeff Kinney’s series Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  My son discovered the first one when he was about 10, I think, and after he read it everyone in the house passed it around and had a good laugh.  

I get a kick out of the realism; it is fashioned to be an actual kid’s diary, with a font resembling handwritten words on lined paper and cartoon illustrations, drawn at the level of a child’s ability (although still in general better than I could do!), on every page.

The main character is endearing and hilarious in all his vulnerability, crazy assumptions, slapstick mistakes and naive undertakings.  He faces the challenges of childhood with the kind of sloth, paranoia and heartrending hopefulness that we can all relate to.

I highly recommend any of this series of books for you to give as a gift to any funny-bone endowed youngster with an upcoming birthday, or perhaps a late Christmas gift!  Or just because you happened to be at the store buying a world map for your youngest daughter and you noticed that the new book had just come out a couple of days ago.  

But make sure you let the child on the receiving end of your purchase know that you are first in line to read it after them, because that line will get pretty long pretty fast.  

Read it for no other reason than that it WILL make you laugh out loud, and you WILL be able to brag that you finished an entire book in under an hour.  (As long as no one asks the title, you will be hailed as the new superstar of the literate set.)

You may now commence thunderous applause.

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“What is the What”

Since I have almost zero time free to read, when I do read something it had better be good!

The book I just finished fit the bill.  What is the What by Dave Eggers is part autobiography and part fiction, recounting the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who survived the civil war that destroyed so much of his homeland.

I find the mixture of truth and fiction intriguing, but as Mr. Deng explains in the preface, “It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce What is the What a novel.”  But he goes on to assure readers, “The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.”

It is also interesting that Mr. Eggers helped him write it, and is the only author listed on the cover.  One might ask, whose story is it, really?

Having studied in college the genre of testimonio, a category of writing that includes texts which tell the true story of individuals who have survived oppression and hardship, I am sure that theorists would go nuts over the truth/fiction blend going on in this book.

For me, I find it worth reading for the history as well as for the perspective of a person who has lived in both the US and Africa and can inform us of the contrast.

It is a story that never stops for a moment.  It will take you out of wherever you are and move you through a world that few of us, thankfully, will experience otherwise.  

It was worth reading just for the moment when my husband was watching a rerun of a goofy sitcom while I had my nose in the book, and I could hear the characters on the TV joking about their party-gone-sour while in the book young Achak is riding in the back of a military truck with a load of dead bodies… I had to stop reading.  Just to let it all digest, that we are all on this planet together but our realities are separated by light years.  Just to feel that moment when our realities existed, paradoxically, in the same space, when they came together in my conscious mind.

If you get a chance, join Mr. Deng’s reality for a moment.  How can we resist someone who wants so badly for us to hear his story?  As he says in the book, talking to us, the readers, about his storytelling, “…I speak to you because I cannot help it.  It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there.  I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us.  How blessed are we to have each other?  I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words.”

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