Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Club: West with the Night

I'm in a book club at the local library, and I love it. My grandparents are in multiple book clubs (two, I think) and read great books with fun people, so I was inspired to find my own in Madison. The book for this month was Beryl Markham's West with the Night. It was one of the best books I've ever read, although there was great controversy about it at the book club discussion. I love book club because there are so many interesting people. There can also be annoying people, intriguing people, and people with accents. There are lots of old people, and this probably contributes to how exciting it can be. The older people who come to book club can be grouped into two categories 1) those whose personalities have crystalized on the very outspoken side so you learn a lot about them throughout the course of the evening as their eccentricities leak through every word and 2) those who are quiet and nice and only say one thing the whole night. 

This was a great book, West with the Night, and I've been recommending it to almost everyone I know, so I was surprised that there was so much controversy about it. The book is a collection of stories about the author's childhood and life in British East Africa in the early 20th century. She tells exciting stories about hunting with the Masai, learning how to train and race horses, learning how to fly primitive planes and scouting elephant from the sky. She is an excellent writer and has a couple of really powerful prophetic moments. The descriptions of the land are captivating. From a writing standpoint, it was one of the best-written books I've read in a long time. To me, the most exciting part was when she described a horse race. I read it at the airport in D.C. and I could barely stay in my chair. 

The first issue raised at book club was that the book was false advertising. The title, West with the Night, was deemed too misleading by one thirty-something woman who only wanted to read about flying, not about Africa or anything interesting. Only flying. And she elaborated her point, which, when stripped down to what she was actually saying was only that she wished the book had had a different title, for about ten minutes. A lady we will call Jane who was older agreed and suggested an alternate title, "Africa Made Me," and I laughed in spite of myself, not in a mean-spirited way, I just thought it was funny, and I couldn't believe we were disputing the title and content of the book. Usually you don't spend so much time on this in lit. class. Not only were several people upset that she had written about her life growing up, but they were also a little miffed to find out that she had been married three times and failed to mention anything about it. I was sitting there thinking to myself, "she's the author, she can write about whatever she wants. It's her book, she can choose what to include and what to leave out. She obviously had reasons for making the decisions she did. It wasn't an autobiography, it was a memoir." Someone from my side said that the Africa stories were the frame/context/background/what shaped her growing up. If she had written a book just about her flight across the Atlantic, it would have been way more boring than the book she actually wrote. An advantage of writing it the way that she did was that it was believable when she wrote so nonchalantly about the trans-Atlantic flight because it matched the way she did everything else. 

I'll cover another incident involving the only woman I knew by name who I remembered from a different bookclub. She had been waiting to bring up her point, because at this book club, everyone talks, and you have to fight to get your piece in. It's Madison-- everyone is smart, and everyone has thoughts they want to share. So, my friend finally got her turn and brought up the issue of Markham being a really cold person because of the way she wrote about the people she was close to. I disagreed, citing the passages when she has to say goodbye to important people or when people that she is really close to die. She always used distancing language in those passages because I think she didn't know what else to do with her emotions. There is a really powerful passage when her, well, I won't spoil it in case you read it. Then, my friend brought up another passage where Markham wrote about a destitute woman, and my friend gave a really pointed accusation that the author was cold-hearted and there was tension in the air, and then about two seconds later, another character on the opposite end of the table started talking about something completely different that didn't answer the question at all. My friend got an expression of anger mixed with disbelief mixed with scorn on her face-- that look you get when you throw your hands up in the air and say "ugh! I can't believe that!" It was not a good moment, but I seemed to be the only one who noticed. Again, I laughed, because it was a ridiculous moment. I talked to her about it afterwards, and she had an interesting theory about why certain people liked the book and others didn't. She thought it was about projections, and the people who wanted to have adventures like Markham's liked the book, and those who didn't want to didn't like the book. That fit with me because I would love to have had half the adventures she had. 

Some people thought there were too many animals in the book: elephants, dogs, horses, parrots, zebras, wild hogs, ants, giraffes, and more. They reasoned that she liked animals so much because she couldn't connect with people. How could anyone write about Africa in the early 1900's without writing about animals? It turned out at the end that the woman who wanted the book to be all about flying was a pilot herself, and that's why she was disappointed. After that information was revealed, the book club turned into flying club and everyone asked her questions about flying and where she took lessons and where she flies to and what it's like and had she ever flown at night, etc. Coupled with this, Jane, who was by far the funniest, kept asking us questions like, "Have any of you ever been to Africa?" We said no. She said, "Well, one time I went to Kenya and this and this happened..." Or, "Have any of you ridden in a helicopter?... Well, I have and it was like this..." Or, "Have any of you ever been in a hot air balloon?... Well, I have..." It was a great time and I left feeling happy, very amused, and shocked that there was so much disagreement about a book that I loved. 

Before I left, I checked out the movie Out of Africa with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. This movie takes place in the same community as West with the Night, and watching it was like seeing the world I had read about. I was talking to Caleb the whole time we watched it, "Well, there should be telegraph lines running alongside the railroad because she talks about all the animals getting tangled up in them." Later in the movie, it showed them installing the wires. "He's in the book! He turns out to be one of the most legendary hunters in British East Africa." It was such a sad, sad story, but the Africa was the same. I wish I could do Meryl Streep's Dutch accent. She was fabulous. I looked her up afterwards, and it turns out we have the same birthday!

I must mention that I was surprised to learn how racy the society was during this time. You didn't get any of that from the book, but the discussion leader mentioned several things about it, as did another man who found a biography on Markham. The movie did a better job at revealing how the values of the society played out in relationships, and that's part of why it's so sad.

Today, I just finished reading Roald Dahl's book Boy, and it turns out that he also went to British East Africa around the same time. I want to see if he has written any books about it and if he knew any of the same people. I have discovered a new world, and now I want to learn everything about it. 

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