On Things Fall Apart

After reading Heart of Darkness, which I liked for its lyricism and denunciation of imperialism, I turned immediately to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Achebe’s strong criticism of the racist undercurrents in European accounts of Africa, such as Joseph Conrad’s work, should be well known to all. On hindsight, certainly I could see that he made many valid points about European literature, though I hesitate to accuse Conrad of blatant racism (from the way he used certain words, his framing technique, his opposition of imperialism). That aside, I wanted to witness the contrast for myself. How would Achebe do justice to his own people and country? Would Things Fall Apart be an admirable introduction for Western readers to true African Literature?

Achebe did not disappoint. There is a stark contrast between the prevailing Western description of the African people and Achebe’s enthralling prose. Immediately one is thrown into village life in pre-colonial Nigeria, with the great wrestler Okonkwo, son of the weak, lazy, gentle Unoka. It details Okonkwo’s ultimate fear of being weak like his father, his great rise and fall. His fall is closely followed by the arrival of British colonialists and missionaries. From then on, Okwonko’s life, the village, the African people, all things fall apart. The title of the novel could not be more apt.

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.

It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw.

Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.

The most important difference is how African characters are treated in this story. Since the world is viewed through the lens of African culture, Achebe sheds light on African (perhaps more accurately Nigerian) village practices, the beliefs and fears of his people, their skills and superstitions. Achebe also utilises many delightful African proverbs that spark the imagination. From early on, we, across the years, distance, cultural differences, are immediately able to identify with the characters as fellow human beings. Imagine how foreign this must have been to Western readers accustomed to reading literature such as Conrad’s tale of savages in the wild jungles, who either inspired fear or pity.

Very much like Joseph Conrad, however, Achebe doesn’t have a simplistic view of the atrocities being committed by the colonialists. Achebe shows both the strengths and the pitfalls of his people: their superstitious beliefs, the sacrifice of one member for the greater good of the village, their treatment of women. Indeed no other scene best illustrates this than Okonkwo’s son defecting to the missionaries. He is understandably encouraged into this by his many reasonable doubts about village culture, law and beliefs. The missionaries are not all demonized and presented as evil imperialists: Mr Brown, the first missionary takes in village untouchables, rescues twins abandoned in the forest, he respects the villagers and tries to live in harmony with them. And yet Okonkwo warns:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

The tragic ending leaves you with many conflicted feelings. (in fact I was reminded of Brave New World) It calls out and rejects the racism in previous Western literature, explores cultural conflicts and is a bright window into the true soul of the African people. Bookmania’s take on it:

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is fantastically flocked with the consciousness of the African cultural paradigm, a multitude of evolving characters, and words that sing the mouths of the African post-colonial community […] The novel derives its simple, yet powerful characteristics from that of the realms of African social and religious connections. Okonkwo’s story defines the prospect of his widely-branched family, and ultimately, the tragic breaking down of his illustrious clan. Overall, this three-part-novel which paves the way to the societal, religious and cultural clash is an example of an insightful breadth and a powerful hand which penned not just for the purpose of showing, but also for the intention of provoking the readers.


There is no story that is not true, […] The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.

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On Arches National Park (Part 2)

Yuriy and Julia (i.e. Mr and Mrs Globetrot) took some incredible photos of Arches National Park in Utah. I love this national park (see my earlier post) and having climbed up to view Delicate Arch myself, I can assure you it is every bit as spectacular as these photos.

I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams… (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince)

On Cloud Lamps

I just really, really want one of these for my room. The Cloud by Richard Clarkson is “an interactive lamp and speaker system, designed to mimic a thundercloud in both appearance and entertainment. Using motion sensors the cloud detects a user’s presence and creates a unique lightning and thunder show dictated by their movement. The system features a powerful speaker system from which the user can stream music via any Bluetooth compatible device. Using color-changing lights the cloud is able to adapt to the desired lighting color and brightness. The cloud also has alternative modes such as a nightlight and music reactive mode.”

You heard right. You can now experience a mini-storm within the comfort of your own room. You can now own your own pet thundercloud then reacts to your movements.

This piece of art reminds me of that Ray Bradbury story Powerhouse, which is an incredible short story ( 9 pages in my book!) that celebrates electricity, humanity and spirituality in a deserted powerhouse. I can’t help but think Bradbury, the man with the electric mind, would be delighted with this lamp. And then you have the Chihuahua version of the cloud: Tiny Cloud, also kindly produced by Richard Clarkson.

For the full experience: Vimeo

Coffee Cravings (Part 1/?)

“I’d rather take coffee than compliments just now.” – Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Coffee Poster

Bread & Cocoa

It’s one in the morning, I plowed through Heart of Darkness today and reading T.S. Eliot and Bukowski gives me an intense craving for strong, black bitter brew. Joseph Conrad employs beautiful rhythms and lyrical turn of phrase, almost poetic in his execution:

And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman. She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witchmen, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, halt-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscoutable purpose. A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward. There was a low jingle, a glint of yellow metal, a sway of fringed draperies, and she stopped as if her heart had failed her. She looked at us all as if her life had depended upon the unswerving steadiness of her glance.

(To be very honest, I want to hear more about this wild queen, someone write something like Wide Sargasso Sea for her!)

On Ball’s Pyramid

The Lord Howe Island Group is situated off the southeastern coast of Australia. Australia, where I have spent many Decembers during my childhood, is a place of many wonders and these islands are no exception. Particular reverence is to be paid to Ball’s Pyramid, a stark, jagged volcanic stack rising steeply from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Born of an ancient shield volcano and caldera formed 7 million years ago, discovered in 1788, it holds the allure of peaks like the K2 or Everest, a siren call to climbers and adventurers to come forth and conquer it. A team from Sydney finally did, in 1965.

Hatty Gottschalk‘s photographs take us where these adventurers have been.

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“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. – Captain Ahab, Moby Dick”

On Johnny Cash

“How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell.”

I have a special place in my heart for Johnny Cash and his American series of albums. According to NPR, these were produced the decade leading up to his death in 2003 and they are some of the darkest, most introspective and evocative songs of his career. He explores religion and sin, reflects on his life, those he let down, those he has hurt and wonders about where he is bound. American holds some of his most potent and sorrowful songs, every single word striking true. Even the covers were carefully chosen and undergo transformation in Cash’s apologetic baritone. In the twilight of his life, Cash continued to enthral us. Remember what he sang in Man in Black: 

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

True, he might seem mighty preachy at times but American is more of a documentation of Cash’s struggle with his drug/alcohol problems, the moral degradation he saw all around and how he reconciled this with his faith. He bares himself, cuts right down to the bone and the humanity in his voice is truly striking.

Aside from his originals like I Walk The Line, Folsom Prison Blues, Ring of Fire, listen to his legendary covers of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt (absolutely devastating, resignation in every note), Leonard Cohen’s Bird on A Wire, U2’s One, Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down, Sting’s I Hung My Head, Gore’s Personal Jesus, Will Oldham’s I See A Darkness countless others. Traditional folk songs like Wayfaring Stranger, God’s Gonna Cut You Down…

Here is a playlist for the best of Johnny Cash; it’s not supposed to be exhaustive.

I play his songs (especially American III: Solitary Man) in the middle of the night, to hear his gravelly voice cry out into the humid darkness:

Oh like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

On another note, his relationship with June Carter remains one of the best love stories in music history, a love that changed the man in black.

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

– Johnny Cash, when asked for his definition of paradise.

On the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world. It lies west of the Andes Mountains, on the Chilean coast. It has been described as a desolate lunar landscape on Earth, with lunar rovers being test-run on the terrain. This parched landscape also has its share of geysers and volcanoes, believe it or not. During years where the El Niño effect is especially strong, where the waters off the Peruvian coast warm, the Atacama desert blooms into what is called a “flowering desert” or desierto florido (because Spanish sounds so much more romantic).

The arresting landscape, as seen below in photos taken by Stéphane San Quirce and lepinephotos.

The geological landforms are stunning. Photos by mikkol79gaujourfrancoise,

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The blooming desert after rain, by Miss Mountain and lephinephotos.

And the beautiful Licancubar volcano, by Francoise Gaujour.

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The blue, shimmering Altipatic Lagoon:

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The Paranal observatory situated on a mountain in the desert, that study the skies for worlds vast beyond our imagination, beautifully photographed by Owen Perry or Circa 1983. These deserve a later post all of their own.

On Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski’s poems hit you like a punch to the gut and dredge up emotions buried deep, deep down with your fears. His poems are often gritty, bitter and dark. The shadows of his childhood and human failures are unflinchingly presented to the reader. The honesty and realism that runs through his poems, however, are what draw you back and back again. No other modern poet manages to peel back the facade of humanity to reveal the dirt that clings to us all, yet finds that, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.” He doesn’t want your pity, he acknowledges that everything is just a messy, dirty, chaotic affair; his final message is that life sucks, but you get to live it on your own terms and there is beauty in that.  

Bluebird

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

(Yes, Charles, we do, thanks to you) 

Cause and Effect

the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
why anybody
would ever want to
get away
from
them

To the Foxes

don’t feel sorry for me.
I am a competent,
satisfied human being.

be sorry for the others
who
fidget
complain

who
constantly
rearrange their
lives
like
furniture.

juggling mates
and
attitudes

their
confusion is
constant

and it will
touch
whoever they
deal with.

beware of them:
one of their
key words is
“love.”

and beware those who
only take
instructions from their
God

for they have
failed completely to live their own
lives.

don’t feel sorry for me
because I am alone

for even
at the most terrible
moments
humor
is my
companion.

I am a dog walking
backwards

I am a broken
banjo

I am a telephone wire
strung up in
Toledo, Ohio

I am a man
eating a meal
this night
in the month of
September.

put your sympathy
aside.
they say
water held up
Christ:
to come
through
you better be
nearly as
lucky.

How is Your Heart? 

during my worst times
on the park benches
in the jails
or living with
whores
I always had this certain
contentment-
I wouldn’t call it
happiness-
it was more of an inner
balance
that settled for
whatever was occuring
and it helped in the
factories
and when relationships
went wrong
with the
girls.
it helped
through the
wars and the
hangovers
the backalley fights
the
hospitals.
to awaken in a cheap room
in a strange city and
pull up the shade-
this was the craziest kind of
contentment

and to walk across the floor
to an old dresser with a
cracked mirror-
see myself, ugly,
grinning at it all.
what matters most is
how well you
walk through the
fire.

Say what you will about Bukowski, his women, his booze, his bitterness. But he certainly wrung the most out of life and died beholden to no one but himself. Listen to Atticus Finch describe Mrs Dubose and decide for yourself. 

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”

On Gingerbread Terrariums, Christmas Wreaths and Robert Frost

I dream of a white Christmas with mugs of hot chocolate by a warm fire. Meanwhile, these gingerbread terrariums by yeh on mynameisyeh are so delicious and pretty to look at.

If you’re inspired by the smell of cinnamon and cloves and fresh pine when you make these terrariums, why not make your own Christmas wreath with the people behind Treasures and Travels.

Not for the first time, I wish I lived in a place with winters and christmas tree farms so I could do Christmassy things like hunting down an innocent tree and asking my imaginary sweater-clad husband to get it into the house, as inspired by the following image from Kinfolk:

Or I could be paddling down half-frozen rivers and watching the snow settle across the land, like David Lindwall below.

What would (imaginary) winters be like without Robert Frost?

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.