Category: Reviews


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“The best-selling story of a negro teacher in a tough school in London’s East End”

To Sir, With Love is such a wonderful book. E.R Braithwaite has written an autobiography so sumptuous with its many life teachings – making it really one of those tiny books that will change your life. This is one of those books I’ve read a lot about, making our acquaintance sort of like meeting the old friend that you never had.

After studying and graduating in England, Braithwaite works for two years pro bono as a Communications Engineer for the Standard Oil Company before wanting to change jobs. He receives letters for different appointments for the same position at three different firms. Despite his qualifications, he is however always turned down because of his black skin. One time, employers note that he is overqualified saying, “[White people] might resent the posh way you speak …” A dejected Braithwaite sets the scenario, “To many in Britain, a negro is a ‘darky’, ‘nigger’ or ‘black’. [When] one sees Negroes as doctors, lawyers or talented entertainers, they are somehow considered ‘different’ and not to be confused with the mass.”

Sir Falls. Then Rises.

The book’s driving force is when a sad and idling Braithwaite serendipitously meets an old man, disguised as another “garrulous old crank” at St James’s Park. He gives counsel, “A big city cannot afford to have its attention distracted from the important job of being a big city by such a tiny, unimportant item as your happiness or mine. It’s no one’s fault.” Their small yet valuable and powerful conversation turns Braithwaite’s sadness into new inspiration making him apply for a job at an education opening. He becomes the first negro teacher at Greenslade School. His class is the most unruly and has the oldest children in the school. The children have driven numerous teachers away with their bad attitude and rude remarks. But after everything Braithwaite has been though to get a job, he’s determined to stay.

Braithwaite slowly teaches the brats life lessons like how to respect themselves first before other human beings, irrespective of colour. When he gets injured once, one of his students sees his blood and gasps, “Your colour is only skin deep, Sir.” As the older students start to refer to each other respectfully Braithwaite asserts that this is something the younger ones would aim at. He writes, “Every now and then I could overhear the now familiar ‘Sir said …’ expressed with positive finality, a constant reminder of the great responsibility I had undertaken.” Their relationship slowly transforms from bad to worse; then to amicable, and finally such fondness. The class even surprises him with a vase of neatly arranged flowers “collected from the tiny backyards and window boxes of their homes … the most wonderful bouquet in the world.” Even though Sir always subscribes to such exquisite etiquette and the finer things in life, equality and nobility is at his heart. When a local newspaper wants to feature the school, they want to interview Sir as a show of the school’s tolerance to supporting British ideals of equality. Sir however, turns them down not wanting his achievements to be aligned to his skin colour.

The book’s life lessons are many; the most profound being – respect begets respect. For instance, in the ruggedness of the kids, Braithwaite finds their style and individuality. “I could understand that such clothes merely reflected vigorous personalities in a relentless search for self-expression.” One of Braithwaite’s colleagues applauds his efforts, “You’ve made good of this job, you treat them with kindness and courtesy and what’s more they’re learning a lot with you.” This book teaches us that even those who seem most undeserving of anything deserve to be given a chance and be treated with respect.

Sir Falls in Love

When Braithwaite falls in love with a white lady, Gillian, he sees how their association exposes her to “vindictive faces and hard stares”. He writes, “It seems as though there was an unwritten law in Britain which required any healthy, able-bodied negro resident there to be either celibate by inclination, or else a master of the art of sublimation … We were to be men, but without manhood.” They are faced with difficulty if they stay together and even more difficulty if they don’t.

Braithwaite writes almost as beautifully as his own love story unfolds, “Life followed no pattern, no planned course. Before tonight I had not even kissed this sweet, beloved girl, yet now, for good or ill, the die was cast. I was afraid of this sweet person prepared to link her life to mine. But others had met this problem before and had succeeded in rising above it” She tells him, “I am not very brave about what people will say and things like that but I do love you completely. I’ll try to be good for you, I think we can be happy together.”

The death and funeral of a parent of one of Braithwaite’s students’ is the book’s ultimate gift of redemption. Seales’ mother was a white lady married to a negro. But still, most of Braithwaite’s students say they can’t go to his home to pass their condolences when Seales’ mother dies, because of what “the rest” will think of them visiting a black person’s home. This disappoints Braithwaite. He feels that they should have borrowed a leaf from the new ideals he’s taught them. Their headmaster warns, “This is a community with many strong racial and religious tensions and prejudices, most of them of long-standing …” Braithwaite decides to go to the funeral solo. Depressed by thoughts of his class; meeting them there, after all, becomes the book’s turning point. He sheds a tear, thinking, “These brutal, disarming bastards, I love them …” Braithwaite always has a sense of humour even in despair—some of his frustration in the book always bursts into comic relief.

Like life – To Sir, With Love isn’t perfect. Being told from Braithwaite’s experience and impressions, we don’t encounter a lot of other black people never subjected to prejudice or up against it; neither do we get a chance to get into the minds of those strongly against racism. There is room to question the objectivity of its themes. I am disappointed that the Sir in the book’s title isn’t the old man who sparks Braithwaite’s wits in teaching and mentoring. However, he writes, “I hope that he may one day read these pages and know how deeply grateful I am for that timely and fateful meeting.”

To Sir, With Love is timeless. Over 50 years later and we can still directly link it to the core message of the Black Lives Matter Movement. “It is easy to reach a gun or a knife but then you become merely a tool and the gun or knife takes over, thereby creating new and bigger problems without solving a thing. So what happens when there is no weapon handy?”

BONUS: It’s fitting that Sir Sidney Poitier who stars in the movie adaptation of the book To Sir, With Love – happens to be the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor (for his role in Lilies of the Field). After To Sir, With Love, Poitier went on to star in two other acclaimed films dealing with issues involving race: In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

 

maxresdefaultJ. Cole isn’t your typical rapper. He’s probably the most strategic in the game in recent times. In his second album Born Sinner, he writes a song for hip hop legend Nas – Let Nas Down – yet in his latest album: 2014 Forest Hills Drive (FHD) he raps about having No Role Modelz. In FHD, J. Cole replaces the s with z in songs like Wet Dreamz, A Tale of 2 Citiez and Love Yourz – just like Tupac did in songs from one of the greatest hip hop albums All Eyez on Me.

It’s weird trying to review J. Cole’s calculations. Maybe I am being too critical but FHD feels a little more structural and thought through than his previous albums: Born Sinner and Cole World. However, of all albums FHD is the expression that finally graduates Cole into the school of real rap and independence. Most notable is the fact that this is the first all Cole-World album, featuring no guests or collaborations.

Unlike J. Cole’s mixtapes, albums before FHD had some straight up feel-good music like Can’t Get Enough, Lights Please and In the Morning. But FHD is a move back towards the mixtapes raw vibe. FHD is no mainstream bubble gum music. “The lyrics are powerful,” noted my good friend Jojo, adding, “I was never a die-hard J. Cole fan but this album is perfect. If you’re looking for turn up tunes you’ll be disappointed but if you’re looking for music about real situations then this album is a gem. He spits about angst, fake people, being black in America, happiness, dreams, success, romance and hustling.”

The bravado in Born Sinner’s Villuminati takes new shape and form in FHD’s songs like Fire Squad and G.O.M.D. Plus you don’t just call a song Get Out of My Dick. In songs like January 28th Cole namedrops rap geniuses like Rakim, Kendrick and Drake—some well-crafted egotistical rap, synonymous to Kendrick Lamar’s Control verse. Songs like Apparently and Fire Squad are such dope songs!

FHD is some type of masterpiece but still not the best of Cole. My gut tells me. I feel this is as close as he’s ever come to legend status. Hope he hasn’t disappointed Nas here :-)  In summary I love Cole’s evolution, I really can’t wait to hear what’s next.

I am very selective when it comes to rappers. I look out for the skill of rap, the delivery, punch line originality and the story, Most of my ideal rappers are those that have mastered all these qualities: Tupac, Wale, LL Cool J, Pusha T, Lil Wayne, etc. A die-hard Tupac and Eminem fan, I am biased to the idea that good rap music should have dope rhymes and punch lines and still make sense. No doubt – J. Cole is a legend in the making.

 

dangelo_wide-79c17be966d05cf20c4eb86d01d85b7bf43a3c63-s1100-c15D’Angelo no longer has abs for days like he used to but his long-awaited new record and return is just as sexy, if not sexier.

The album: Black Messiah is a sophisticated-near-futuristic reminder of some type of music rarity and timelessness that I can only relate to his past albums: Voodoo (2000) and Brown Sugar (1995) or Maxwell’s debut album Urban Hang Suite (1996).

The return of the former R&B sex symbol – to me, is like how it would feel for die-hard Jesus followers when the real Messiah returns. In a statement included in the album, D’Angelo reveals that the title Black Messiah was inspired by events in Ferguson and New York. “Black Messiah title is about all of us,” he writes, adding, “It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them.”

So what exactly makes Black Messiah such a gem and so damn sexy? It’s not really because of any utterance of sex in the songs’ lyrics but a slewed mesh of musical elements and strong messages. Black Messiah isn’t about one genre but such multi-dimensional songs and sounds, delivered with a punch that leaves you feeling a little dizzy and sometimes drugged. By the time 1000 Deaths gets to the end, the electric guitars make the song sound exactly how a cultic ritual would if music was involved. Ain’t That Easy is such a sweet entry into the album. D’Angelo has said severally that Prince is his biggest music inspiration. This song is rock–it is Prince.

Certain elements in the album enhance the general narcoticism of D’Angelo’s music. Betray My Heart is at the peak of it all and its theme – at the height of the art of loving someone. We normally strive not to break others’ hearts but when who you love is your definition of love, and you make that synonymous to your heart – surely you can’t hurt your heart.

With a twist and swing to it, this is probably the sweetest and deepest song (after Really Love) in Black Messiah. This song is proof that only D’Angelo’s instrumentation speaks almost as loud as his lyrics. As his ad-libs to “baby – stay right here…” rise in falsetto, the guitars and drums scream sexually with an ascending pace to the lyrics. Please tell me this isn’t sex.

If you’re looking for a really great and well-written song, Really Love it is. What is love? This song and books like Love in the Time of Cholera have taught me that love is different for everyone. Love is what you want it to be, and you can find it in the simplest of places or the extremes of suffering. “When you call my name, when you love me gently, when you’re walking near me, Doo doo wah, I’m in really love with you …” –sings D’Angelo in the first verse. Now I’d love to be in really love, such deep love that will make me talk in tongues like ” Doo doo wah …”

If you’re looking for some dope neo soul Till its Done (Tutu), Back to the Future (Part I), Prayer and Suggah Daddy are must-listens! The Charade is some type of odd sound that only music weirdos like me will really enjoy.

While Black Messiah sometimes sounds like one piece of music, every song ends up having it’s own uniqueness, edge and vibe. You’re guaranteed that loads of elements in the album will leave you bopping your head in surprise that all these elements fit in one place.

While D’Angelo was away, ladies worshipped sex gods like Miguel, Trey Songz and Usher. Other legendary figures in neo soul like Maxwell released albums – read a review of Blacksummers Night. But ladies never really forgot about D’Angelo’s olden sexy demeanour in his famed racy music video: Untitled (How Does it Feel).

To make a return just as sexy without that bod is proof that D’Angelo’s music is more than the visual aspect. It’s a psychological thing that the image of nude younger D and his music has since planted in our minds since we saw that video.

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After two decades of missing a very important figure in neo soul music, call it bravado or cocky but D’Angelo and the Vanguard couldn’t have named this return anything better than the Black Messiah. Its title and release (December 2014) has been associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement. Inside the album D’angelo writes, “Not every song in this album is politically charged (though many are) … Black Messiah isn’t about one man. It’s a feeling, that collectively, we are all that leader …”

After struggling with drug addiction, surviving a fatal road accident and taking a sabbatical from music—this return, so solid and soulful, has proven to the world, at a time when speculations run wild about the slow death of R&B and evolving genres, that D’Angelo is a Messiah of sorts. Maybe most accurately – the Messiah of R&B, neo soul, funk, jazz and still– sex.

10841567_10152855080632559_21613601_nThe last few days of 2014 have seen my appetite turn from okay to wild. I don’t care that I am so busy trying to finish up work pending in 2014, I want food when I want it. I blame this to the French cuisine I recently sampled in Paris. The French don’t care for calories or time it takes to make a meal or wait to be served but that it’s made at par with food for kings and queens.

On returning to Kenya, I start to wonder how I am going to satisfy my food cravings. There is crazy traffic getting in and out-of-town, especially during this holiday season, so making my way to my favourite restaurants or food joints is a NO. NO. Well, not any more since I discovered hellofood.

hellofood don’t deliver food to the route where I reside but that’s okay because when I am at home I can cook up whatever I want. In a city with such slow service, a foodie like me would rather whip it up myself or stand by the counter to cajole the chef. So I am trying out hellofood on my last day at my office job this year. I desperately need something to eat and I am under a lot of pressure. I want to see if the food will arrive on time and just as I had specified.

1c8b642It was a great experiment on a crazy Monday trying to complete my stories on KBC’s Grapevine TV Show. It took seconds to download the app on my cell phone and a minute to find all the restaurants close to my location in Nairobi CBD. I think I want to have some yummy grilled chicken, salad and chips. And it’s been ages since I had anything from Steers.

The registration is so fast, no email notifications or confirmations – nobody has time for that. The app says it’s free for my food to be delivered and that it will take about 60 minutes. It takes less than 30 minutes (well my office on Harry Thuku Road is pretty close to Steers – but still). It’s great cropped-logo21to find an app I can trust with my food.

BONUS: Check out hellofood’s service. For more on my food tales from Paris, check out From Paris with Love: French Cuisine (Part III)

DSC_1494You’ve heard a lot of people call others their doppelgänger or siblings from another mother. When it comes to our individuality, what really constitutes our solitary self as human beings? Who are we? What are we made of? Who are you? Who am I?

The self is an impalpable topic, which fascinates me. The 2014 publication, Self, is probably the most interesting yet strangling philosophical text I’ve come across. Barry Dainton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Liverpool presents to the reader several scenarios that require you to channel your sixth sense.

In the prologue, he makes you the subject of an assumption. Imagine waking up in the morning and realising that something above your head- your brain is missing. Your computer has a message left by the kidnappers that reads, “You will receive an email from us shortly – your brain will be returned to you.” Beyond mind-boggling, this context serves as a central part of Barry’s belief and argument. Barry constantly refers to theories and texts by olden philosophers and scientists on the quest to understand the self, while constantly making assumptions. In the end, a couple of things that probably constitute the self of a human being arise. Our consciousness make us more than just physical beings. But we are also more than just consciousness. Barry terms part of the self as our stream of continuous consciousness (C-System).

The self is more diverse and elusive than we think or has been deduced, because the exact point of the brain that owns the mind and how it synchronizes all other bodily/mind functions hasn’t yet been conclusively and unanimously been identified. Barry writes: suppose you lost all consciousness or you are dead in dreamless sleep – would you still be yourself or someone else? If you were to teleport, would the other person who arrives in the other destination, worlds apart, still be you or someone else with certain aspects of your self? If you had an accident and lost all consciousness and your memory, should you be considered to be a new person? VR_simulation_room_axe

Regarding how future technology might affect the self, Barry presupposes that shall technology find a way of working closely with the human brain in the coming centuries, human beings would simply use memory chips with other people’s C-systems. And if you had this chip, you could at a moment live inside the mind and consciousness of whatever personality you fancied from the past or future, even Michael Jackson or Napoleon. “These virtual reality trips to the past would certainly be used occasionally in history lessons, and future historians will no doubt make more use of the facility, as would novelists and others with a particular interest in what it was like to live at a certain period.”

A more advanced technology would have future people either have a way or extending life cells and lifespan in general or immerse minds, through memory chips attached to computer software or technology simulation, into a virtual world, where you could create your world or rebuild your existence anew—pretty similar to architectural simulation of the film: Inception. (This part of the book shikas me a good one!)

Barry is convinced that if technologies like global wireless internet connection on mobile devices, something that seemed like magic centuries ago, was invented – there are so many more innovations similar to magic that could be invented. Barry writes: It is very important to appreciate just how powerful the most powerful computers of the future might be. He refers to Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom’s simulation trilemma argument:

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a technologically advanced stage.
  2. It is unlikely that any advanced civilization will run large numbers of simulations of their own history.
  3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

But to what extent will technological simulation on humans be survivable? If you could get into a virtual world, teleport, acquire or exchange personalities and consciousness, would you return to your original self, dead or alive? Barry speculates. The self remains a subject as deep and vast as the ocean. In summary, Barry asserts that the human will is self-driven. It is possible that you could survive almost anything, in life and through afterlife – but only if it’s what your mind wants and determined to achieve.

The self can’t be defined solely though physical attributes or the pumping of a heart but by the memory’s composition, and how this is influenced by past and present social and genetic factors. The present, however, seems to trigger most our autobiographical memories, even more than video recordings and pictures. “Psychological research has shown that our memories are not passive replays of (mental) recordings, but active re-creations, which typically involve a sizeable number of fictional elements.”

DSC_1492I bought this awesome book in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum Bookshop. It isn’t for the light-minded. Expect to encounter jargon and some uninspiring diagrams. But if you can keep up with Barry’s book and your mind’s interpretations of this information; you will be a step closer to understanding the self and it’s facets like souls and how it all evolves though continuity and streams of life.

BONUS: You might dig my other post on ‘what’s your self without Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram?’ Cyber Space Obsession: when is time to hit delete?

I found a review of Self + other similar books. Read here: “Is there such a thing as the self? Teleportation and LSD trips could help us understand the nature of personal identity”

Intelligent Life Sept/ Oct 2014 writes:  the point of life is to bring about more consciousness.

10621785_10152576265477559_623321037_nNever, at any point of my life, have I ever read a book whose breath and pulse mirrored my own like Eat, Pray, Love—a brutally honest and raw tale about “one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia.” It was delightful for the 2006 memoir to have been my companion during a recent trip to Netherlands across Kenya and Turkey.

American author and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert is an ambitious career woman who can’t seem to get her marriage together. So she files for divorce and quickly moves on with a different lover. However, none of her relationships work out. And nothing makes things work – not prescribed drugs, countless nights of crying on her bathroom’s floor or even yoga-for-starters. Sparked by an ambitious plan and an old medicine man’s forecast that she would one day return to Indonesia (where she had visited years back while on an assignment); Elizabeth decides to embark on a 12-month trip across continents, on a journey to scrutinise her inner self – to find the self and discover soul food.

She begins her journey in Italy, the home of world’s best pizzas and pasta makers. A friend, Giulio tells her that Rome’s word is SEX. While trying to find her life’s own “word”, here she submerges herself into the pleasure of food like “airy clouds of ricotta sprinkled with pistachio, bread chunks floating in aromatic oils, tiny plates of sliced meats and olives, a salad of chilled oranges tossed in a dressing of raw onion and parsley.” It’s the first time she encounters the expression: Il bel far niente “the beauty of doing nothing” while learning Italian. While in Sicily, the most third-world section of Italy, she remembers what Goethe said: “Without seeing Sicily one cannot get a clear idea of what Italy is.” This part of the book makes me recall meeting a new friend, Lucia, in Hague. Lucia who hails from Sicily turned out to be the sweetest Italian girl I’ve ever met.

In India, Elizabeth discovers the power of meditation, yoga and silence. After having tasted part of her heart’s desires like forgiving herself and forgiving others, she heads over to Indonesia with an open mind, hoping to find more balance. Here, she ends up buying a Balinese woman a house and finding love, after all. What an intelligently authored book with impressive research on travel and different cultures. In Indonesia, she discovers that the word amok, as in “running amok,” is a Balinese word, describing a battle technique of suddenly going insanely wild against one’s enemies in suicidal and bloody hand-to-hand combat.

The book isn’t as cliché as the sound of its title, or as simple and straightforward as the 2010 film adaptation might have depicted the story. But the ending is. Elizabeth ends up falling in love with an older Brazilian man. But before then, she writes, “I not only have to become my own husband, but I need to be my own father, too.” I really loved that Elizabeth is jaunty and not afraid to share any bit of her personality. She writes like it’s her private diary. From TMI that, sometimes, ends up annoying the reader like mindless chatter would, to the juicy part where she recounts breaking her celibacy – “never have I been so unpeeled, revealed, unfurled and hurled through the event of love-making” – and the dry spell days that drive her to masturbation.

Elizabeth digging into her inner being to identify her weaknesses and how best to overcome them, is my first encounter with the book’s power. Most times, human beings don’t want to be corrected or when corrected – they find it hard accepting their faults. But it is surely something of magnificent power to sit down and analyze your life problems and triumphs; and from that – prescribe yourself a winning life-changing plan. This book has even inspired plans for my next euro-trip :-)

BONUS: She ends up marrying that Brazilian man after the book. They’ve since been together for more than five years. You can also check out my review of another wonderful book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin- Louis de Berniéres Then watch the below video of Elizabeth talking about the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love. She’s so funny.

 

81jdBXzYBTLThis will sound freaky, but the book – Eat, Pray, Love by American author Elizabeth Gilbert has changed my life profoundly. The tale about “one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia” took me on a journey this year from Kenya across Turkey and Netherlands. And at every turn of a page, I savoured my trip as I read how Gilbert savoured hers. But what really changed me was discovering Elizabeth’s search for her inner self so as to change her life and relationships, for the better. Her will to connect with God or a higher power and new people also amazed me. Most importantly, learning the essence of yoga, solitude and silence in this book has taught me to keep calm during life’s challenges. I’ve learnt that things will happen, good or bad, there will be storms and deaths and just about anything, while we still exist. So it’s essential to keep calm. It’s an art. Every life difficulty passes, such that even if we die, we should exist. I will stop there and share with you the below quotes that I really loved from the book. Cheers!

1. The classical Indian sages wrote that there are three factors which indicate whether a soul has been blessed with the highest and most auspicious luck in the universe:

  • To have been born a human being, capable of conscious inquiry.
  • To have been born with – or to have developed – a yearning to understand the nature of the universe.
  • To have found a living spiritual master.
  1. A monk said, “The resting place of the mind is the heart. The only thing the mind hears all day is clanging bells and noise and argument, and all it wants is quietude. The only place the mind will ever find peace is inside the silence of the heart. That’s where you need to go.”
  2. Life, if you keep chasing it so hard, will drive you to death. Time – when pursued like a bandit – will behave like one; always remaining one county or one room ahead of you, changing its name and hair colour to elude you, slipping out of the back door of a motel just as you’re banging through the lobby with your newest search warrant …
  3. Questions of love and control all through history are the two things that undo us all, trip us up and cause war, grief and suffering.
  4. We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses—one foot is on the horse called “fate”, the other on the horse called “free will”. And the question you have to ask everyday is – which horse is which? Which one I need to stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?
  5. As smoking it to the lungs, so is resentment to the soul; even one puff of it is bad for you.
  6. About fighting your own personality and trying to change your inherent tendencies, the ancient Pythagorian philosopher said, “The wise man is always similar to himself.”
  7. Your treasure – your perfection – is within you already. But to claim it, you must leave the busy commotion of the mind and abandon the desires of the ego and enter into the silence of the heart.
  8. Liz’s guru says, “People universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it.”
  9. The yogic sages say that all the pain of a human life is caused by words, as is all the joy. We create words to define our experience and those words bring attendant emotions that jerk us around like dogs on a leash … To stop talking for a while, then, is to attempt to strip away the power of words, to stop choking ourselves with words, to liberate ourselves from our suffocating mantras.

BONUS: My review of Eat, Pray, Love, is coming soon … You might also like 12 Quotes from 100 Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

10401419_10152412678212559_3675525569351012732_nMaya Angelou wrote like a prosetry goddess. From the first page of her 1969 autobiography: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, to the last, words rhyme and dance as pages turn. The book details Maya’s early years— an incredible and moving tale of how an African-American woman defied rape, racism, segregation, black skin, ugly kinky hair and all odds, to find closure, forgiveness, and become outstanding.

The story kicks off soon after three-year-old Maya and her beloved brother, four-year-old, Bailey Jnr. are sent off like cargo, by their separated parents, to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their larger than life grandmother Annie Henderson, whom they refer to as Momma. “The town reacted to us as its inhabitants had reacted to all things new before our coming. It regarded us a while without curiosity but with caution, and after we were seen to be harmless (and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother embraces a stranger’s child. Warmly, but not too familiarly.” Momma, popularly referred to as Sister Henderson by many, is the only Negro owning a store in Stamps that stocks all sorts of essentials for all, from canned fish, beef, flour to thread and sugar.

Momma’s famed store, church and school, become the only world Maya and Bailey know while growing up. They also live with Momma’s son, their crippled uncle Willie. It’s the 1930s and racism is at its high. Being black is hard and bad enough. When a white duo, teachers from a nearby school come into their store, for the first time in her life Maya sees her uncle struggle to stand still and upright, pretending not to be crippled. She writes, “He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame.” This, she says, was the first time she felt like she understood and empathized with him the most.

Certain aspects of the book are insightful and carry with them circumstances that shape Maya’s future policies and identity. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, the name Maya comes about as a result of Bailey’s inability to refer to his sister by name. To him, she was just his. “After Bailey learned definitely that I was his sister, he refused to call me Marguerite, but rather addressed me each time as “Mya Sister,” and in later more articulate years, after the need for brevity had shortened the appellation to “My,” it was elaborated into Maya.” While aged eight, Maya is raped by her mother’s boyfriend – a situation that traumatized her to the extent of being dumb for years. “Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die … I had to stop talking … I was called impudent and my muteness sullenness when I refused to be a child …” This begins to be Maya’s relationship with scrutiny, silence and literature.

Maya’s interest in reading and poetry is mentored by a Negro, the fancy Mrs. Flowers, whom Maya credits as the person who gave her the first of lessons of living: “She said that I must be always intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors.” Growing up in Stamps, then a little unknown town in the countryside, allows Maya to later look at the world differently and appreciate every single bit of what it offered, while blind to tragedy and prejudice. She says, “The resignation of Stamps’ inhabitants encouraged me to relax. Their decision to be satisfied with life’s inequities was a lesson for me.”

One time, the only white dentist in Stamps denies Momma and Maya an appointment just because Maya is a black kid. This is despite Momma having lent him money in the past, a favour he hadn’t returned. When Bailey witnesses the uncovering of a Negro murdered and dumped while tied up like a mummy, Momma moves Maya and Bailey from Stamps to city life with Vivian Baxter for good.

MayaAngelouQUOTEEvery difficulty and disappointment Maya encounters while growing up, until teenage years, moulds her razor-sharp memory, strong character and gift of forgiveness/arbitration. Despite growing up hardships and the difficulty of healing from rape, Maya still finds strength in the power of love, and family (even though disjointedly). She goes on to build a solid relationship with her brother (whom she refers to her Kingdom Come) and mother, Vivian Baxter. “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colours of a rainbow,” she writes in escape of words to describe Vivian’s flamboyance, beauty and guts.

By the age of seventeen, Maya becomes the first black person to operate a streetcar in San Francisco. She’s also slept in dumped cars, lived with street children, and got herself a baby boy— Guy Johnson. Her mother’s mentorship, belief in her greatness, together with Maya’s long-term assertiveness and power of knowing intelligence and wanting to only associate with greatness, must have been the propellers of Maya’s great legacy-to-be.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird, because of the juvenile narration, by younger Maya and nine-year-old Scout Jean Louise, respectively. Both books heavily feature themes of racism and segregation. There’s a lot of beauty in the narrators’ innocence and impression of adult behaviour and the power they’d have had if things were to run their way. This style of literature challenges us all to tap into our inner innocence and realise that like a bird; free or caged—it’s up to us to sing whatever song we deem fit.

BONUS: May Maya rest in eternal peace. And her books, poetry, drive and powerful words and that trembling deep voice continue to inspire us all. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the most highly acclaimed of Angelou’s autobiographies. The book, one of a seven-volume series ends just as Guy is born to a young single and happy mother. Watch the below video of Maya’s son response to the question he’s been asked 1000 times.

 

 

 

 

IMG_5481Dust is a strong literary sign of a new breed of Kenyan writers to reckon. The sophistication with which Yvonne writes is not for English-starters. She’s got many great quotes like, “To name something is to bring it to life”; and melodic lines like, “Selene returned to Kenya in tears, just as the Nandi flame trees were in Crimson blossom.”

Well-articulated and intricate, Dust comes off as well thought out and thoroughly edited. It’s another feat for Kenyan writers, and Kwani Trust (publishers of the novel). Winner of Caine Prize for Africa Writing, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor released her debut novel in a mighty cool event hosted by Kwani Trust in December of 2013, just as Kenya was about to celebrate her 50th anniversary. Dust wouldn’t have come at a better time as the book’s storyline revolves around various sociopolitical issues that Kenya has faced in the past 50 years.

Moses Odidi Oganda, a middle-aged brilliant mind turned thug, is shot in cold-blood by police after a cat and mouse chase on the streets of Nairobi. The sudden death shocks many and leaves his family left with a great loss. The general election results are announced and a president declared despite harrowing evidence of rigging. Odidi’s family gather in Wuoth Ogik, in the outskirts of Northern Kenya to bury their son. It’s a journey that takes the characters and readers into another world, of discovering untold stories, secrets and a family’s heritage that includes Kenya’s history.

Straight from the Mau Mau uprising, to the promise of a new nation, Dust’s climax mainly revolves around Odidi’s only sibling Ajany. While the nation struggles with untangling herself from challenges of development and modern-day struggles like corruption and devolution, Ajany is searching for her brother’s lost life. “My stories sip from rich human repository, and also cater to my obsession with guessing reasons for human choices and their consequences—particularly the bad ones,” says Yvonne of her love for featuring history heavily in her literature.

The beauty of how Yvonne’s storyline is intertwined is phenomenal. Every character the reader encounters is a link to another. And through their lives, the reader is enthralled by the history of a coral-coloured house and all kinds of love, including the forbidden. Through the book, the reader is introduced to magical Kenya. From the terrains of Naivasha, all the way past the deserts of Turkana, Kenyan destinations have never been painted as marvellously.

By the time Odidi is finally laid to rest, so is the weight most characters in the book carry. I really want to expound on this but if I do, I will spoil a major one. Let me just put it this way—I really enjoyed the strength of Yvonne’s characters. They were the essence of grit and strength.

Dust is highly recommended for literature buffs and those who want to discover a new writing style. And the best past of it all is, Dust starts on a high note and ends in an even higher and dramatic one. A must read!

BONUS: Dust was first released and published by Kwani Trust in December 2013. It’s available for sale via Amazon or in any leading bookstores or Kwani offices in Kenya.

Quirkology  ImageHow can you tell that someone is lying? What do you know about the psychology of love and attraction? Is February the 13th really doomed? Is the world really as small as many people refer to it? Does it matter that he is tall? What’s the true measure of a real smile or a funny joke? And what’s the secret to cooking the perfect cup of tea? The book: The curious Science of Everyday Lives, details Professor Richard Wiseman’s social experiments and some by psychology professors and psychoanalysts. They all tackle all these questions among other fascinating aspects of everyday lives.

1. How to tell someone is lying

The more information you give away, the greater the chances of some of it coming back to haunt you. As a result, liars tend to say less and provide fewer details, than truth-tellers. On the contrary, some liars tend to talk a lot and exaggerate details. Instead of only looking at information given, check out for body language signs like how comfortable do they look while talking? Are they trembling, shaking or sweating. In the end, there is no conclusive research that has specifically discovered how to tell a liar from a truth-teller.

2. Secret to perfect tea making

The water in the teapot has to remain between 180 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit. It has to stay eight minutes in the tea leaves. This and the right proportion of Ketepa, milk and water mixture will save you from angry guests and spouses. Tea really is everything to me.

3. What’s the measure of a true smile?

Lifelong success and happiness can be predicted by the simple crinkling around the sides of the eyes. It’s that simple.

4. Is the world really smaller?

“People often develop magical believes about the world because they have experienced something seemingly weird. With the concept of coincidences, events appear to coincide in a way that both seem meaningful, and defies the odds.” It turns out that most people who tend to see the world as small know lots of people, and so are, without realizing it, making their own good fortune by constructing, an especially small world. This idea funxed with my mind a good one. I honestly think, this world is really small.

5. Does height matter?

“Although height no longer offers physical advantage, our primate brains hold onto their evolutionary past, and so still associate tall people with success. The psychological relationship between height and status works in both directions. Not only do we think that tall people are more competent, but also that competent people are tall. That’s why people are often surprised to discover that some Hollywood stars are below average height. Perceived height of a person can change with their apparent status.”

6. Ghosts and other weird feelings

Infra sound or low-frequency sound is deeply strange and can be produced from ocean waves, earthquakes, tornadoes and volcanoes. Animals are said to detect these sounds, they are said to be possibly the reason why animals fled the 2004 tsunami in Asia. These sounds can sometimes be produced during concerts or at church depending on a building’s acoustic. So the next time you think you saw a ghost, it might be the building’s lighting, ventilation and acoustics coupled with your wildest imaginations clouding your mental judgement. The next time you think a singer’s voice takes you to heaven or you were touched by the angel while at church—it could have just been infra sound or low-frequency sound waves. Very Freaky!

7. Psychology of compatibility

Do not meet someone on your first date on a high bridge or in an area above normal sea level. These kind of heightened environments makes the heart generally beat faster, so that fools the brain and you will tend to feel like you are more attracted to your date. Avoid overly soothing experiences like smooth music, country and wind chimes. Your best bet will actually be a horror film, a roller coaster or a rock concert. They will generically draw you closer.

If you’re a follower of Psych Today, this book is literally a longer version, complete with several chapters and sub headings. Everyone should read this book for some amazing and quirky life lessons, including why bad musicians always win at competitions and how comes incompetent politicians always get elected. This book asserts the wise words of the psychologist Arthur Conan Doyle: “Life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind of man could invent.”

BONUS: Professor Richard Wiseman is Britain’s only professor for the public understanding of psychology. There isn’t anything true about Friday the 13th being a bad omen, despite many recorded incidences in history of bad and freaky things happening on the date. That said, avoid road trips and being anywhere an accident could happen on Friday the 13th because the fact that people are conscious of the day’s said bad omen will most probably make them nervous and thus suffer cognitive dissonance, making them cause accidents or mishaps. Sharp ey?

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