Review of Black Moses (Man Booker International)

What was it about?

On the Man Booker International longlist this year is Black Moses by the Congolese-French author Alain Mabanckou. Black Moses is about a Congolese orphan growing up during the socialist revolution. His orphanage goes from being an institution run by religious to an arm of the Marxist-Leninist regime. One day, Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko (also known as Little Pepper) runs away from the orphanage with two twins. The Director of the institution is corrupt and abusive; the boys want a better life. Unfortunately, Little Pepper’s best friend Bonaventure decides to remain in the orphanage, and the mayor of Pointe-Noire François Makélé vows to destroy Little Pepper’s new friends – the gang members and prostitutes in the city. Maman Fiat 500 is one of these prostitutes. Although she is the madam of a brothel, she also cares for our abandoned orphan. Throughout the novel, Little Pepper tries to find his place in a hostile society.

What did I think of it?

This is not the first time a work by Alain Mabanckou has been considered for the Man Booker International prize. The Lights of Pointe-Noire was a 2015 finalist. Today, the shortlist will be announced. When it does, I will update you on the status of Black Moses.

I personally was not very impressed by the book. Nothing really stuck with me. It was by no means a bad book, but the characters felt one-dimensional. I definitely preferred the last third of the book in which we learn about Little Pepper’s psychological state. In general, the author did an excellent job painting the social atmosphere of revolutionary Congo, but I didn’t feel an attachment to any of the characters. Little Pepper’s baptismal name Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko means “Let us thank God, the black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors” in Lingala, so I assumed that the protagonist would play a role in liberating his people, but the protagonist never gets involved in the revolution. If his name was supposed to be ironic, I missed the irony. I never understood the significance of his name.

Despite being less than impressed by its execution, Black Moses is definitely an important novel. It explores a revolution that many of us in the West know next to nothing about. I won’t be surprised if it is selected for the shortlist. Black Moses is translated from the French by Helen Stevenson. Its original title is Petit Piment.

Favorite Quote

“I talked to him about the adverbials I’d picked up in the street, but which weren’t the ones I was looking for.”


UpdateBlack Moses didn’t make the shortlist.

Thoughts on Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Image result for letters from a stoic senecaPenguin Classics has produced a collection of the selected letters of the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca. I was first introduced to Seneca in an introductory Latin course last year. My textbook included a highly dumbed-down version of a passage from Letter XII (known as De Senectute or On Old Age). In the letter, Seneca compares himself to his now dilapidated villa. His servant tells him that his house  is in need of repairs, but Seneca remembers when his villa was first built. How could he be so old? He can no longer recognize his childhood friend. The passage from Letter XII inspired me to read Seneca’s other letters.

Letters from a Stoic includes meditations on the body, death, liberal arts education, and slavery. A tutor to Nero, Seneca was a celebrated but controversial philosopher. In 65 C.E., Nero accused him of treason. Seneca was compelled to commit suicide. Seneca’s letters bear witness to the philosopher’s turbulent life. In more than one letter, he admits to having contemplated suicide. Obsession with suicide seems also to have been quite commonplace in Stoicism. The Stoics viewed the body as a prison of the soul. Consequently, the death of the body was the ultimate liberation. Seneca does not think his students should sorrow over death. Fate determines everything. The wise Stoic is indifferent to fame, riches, suffering, and even torture. Still, the Stoic is allowed to enjoy life:

And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them (Letter IX).

Not all of Seneca’s letters, however, deal with such unpleasant subjects. While he never pushes for the abolition of slavery, he condemns the mistreatment of slaves. Slaves are human too, so they should be allowed to eat with their masters. In general, people should make friends for self-less reasons to avoid becoming dependent on others and because there is freedom in living virtuously.

Seneca encourages his students to celebrate Truth wherever it may be found and to forge their own paths in life. In multiple letters, He positively cites his opponent Epicurus. The thought is always more important than the thinker. Seneca disapproves of cults of personality.

Ultimately, life is a play. No matter how long a person lives, he/she will eventually die. Viewed from eternity, all life is short, so live well:

Someone, though will say, ‘But I want to live because of all the worthy activities I’m engaged in. I’m performing life’s duties conscientiously and energetically and I’m reluctant to leave them undone.’ Come now, surly you know that dying is also one of life’s duties? You’re leaving no duty undone, for there’s no fixed number of duties laid down which you’re supposed to complete. Every life without exception is a short one. Looked at in relation to the universe even the lives of Nestor and Sattia were short. In Sattia, who ordered that her epitaph should record that she had lived to the age of ninety-nine, you have an example of someone actually boasting of a prolonged old age – had it so happened that she had lasted the hundredth year everybody, surely, would have found her quite insufferable! As it is with a play, so it is with life – what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will – only make sure you round it off with a good ending (Letter LXXVII).

This last quote reminds me of the following passage from Erasmus’ Praise of Folly: 

Now what else is the whole life of mortals, but a sort of comedy in which the various actors, disguised by various costumes and masks, walk on and play each ones part until the manager walks them off the stage?

Indeed, Erasmus and other Renaissance humanists were highly inspired by Seneca’s teachings.

Friday Reads

First, I would like to wish a happy Holy Week and Passover to anyone who is celebrating.

Now, on to the books.

I finished Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic last week. A review is forthcoming.

Because of my 2017 bookish resolution to read more contemporary works and more books on contemporary events, I purchased The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria by the war journalist Janine Di Giovanni.

Image result for the morning they came for us

I’ve only read the first chapter, but I hope to read it in a couple of sittings because I prefer to read disturbing books quickly.

I’m also 30% into Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, which is on the 2017 Man Booker International longlist. It is about a young Congolese orphan during the Marxist-Leninist Revolution in the 1970s.

Image result for black moses alain

The shortlist will be coming out soon, so we’ll see if the book makes it to the next stage.

Let’s Talk: Book Buying, Book Tastes, and Academia

I don’t think I buy too many books, but I do feel that I have too many books in my apartment.

When I began blogging a few years ago, I rarely bought books. I preferred borrowing from public and research libraries. Unsurprisingly, book blogs and booktube inspired me to buy more books. To limit my buying habits, I purchased a Kindle. Since I prefer reading Classics, I thought buying a Kindle would save me a lot of money. It did. However, I soon discovered Half Price Books (the second-hand bookstore in my region where all books are half off the original price), and my purchasing increased exponentially. I realized that I prefer to own physical books. I really don’t care what condition they are in, but I want to have my own personal library of books that I have read and enjoyed.

My TBR is larger than I would like. Although I want to keep a personal library, I don’t want to have too many unread books. I worry that owning too many unread books means that I am just a pretentious reader, keeping books that I have never read to feign my erudition. However, I do read a lot. I prefer to read works that are rich in philosophy and intertextuality. I actually enjoy reading the kinds of books that make one sound like a snob.

I blame this on Academia. It’s really hard to avoid reading obscure, difficult books while in a humanities graduate program. Academia teaches us to have very niche interests and to set ourselves apart from the general reading public. I am currently writing a term paper on the influence of materialistic determinism on Diderot’s Le Fils Naturel. All of our paper topics are as complicated and niche as this one. So inevitably (pun intended), the books I read are not the kinds of books the general public reads.

This only heightens the anxiety I have over my TBR. I feel a greater pressure to read the books that I’ve purchased because if I don’t, I come across as pretentious. I have a lot of difficulty determining which books I should review on this blog and which books I should read without reviewing. Will anyone care that I read this study on Diderot? Maybe I should review Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, but how many viewers care enough about Biblical scholarship to read the Art of Biblical Narrative (a fantastic book by the way)?

I have not found a perfect solution to my dilemma, but I have decided to do something to minimize my discomfort. I have decided to limit my book buying and read more of the books on my TBR even if they are inappropriate for this blog. Today, I am giving away a stack of “read” books to the local public library. I don’t want to keep books I know I won’t revisit even if I enjoyed reading them the first time. Finally, I have decided to review less and make more frequent “reading update” posts.

What have you done to address your TBR problems (if you have any)?

Review of A Tale of a Tub

I haven’t reviewed a book in a while, so let’s do it!

Image result for a tale of a tub jonathan swiftWhat was it about?

It is near impossible to answer this question. It is mostly an allegory on the Reformation and an implied defense of the Church of England. However, every other chapter is a digression (A Digression Concerning Critics, A Digression in the Modern Kind, A Digression in Praise of Digressions, and A Digression Concerning Madness). The digression chapters are supposed to infuriate the reader because they have nothing to do with the story and often aren’t about anything at all. There are also a couple of prefaces at the start of the work. Finally, Swift loves insert random Latin quotes into his works. I believe that some of the quotes in this satire were in fake Latin. Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub is both a satire on religion and on the literary and political movements of seventeenth-century England.

What did I think of it?

I have taken two graduate courses on seventeenth-century French literature, so I have a basic understanding of the literary movements of the period. I also have more than a little obsession with Christian history. But even with that background I had difficulty following A Tale of a Tub. The religious satire was clearly a defense of the the Church of England. A coat given by a father to three of his sons represents the Apostolic faith. The three sons are named Peter, Martin, and Jack. I’ll let you guess who the three sons represent. The religious satire was OK. It was a bit too obvious for my liking. Oddly enough, I preferred the digression chapters even though they infuriated me. While I had difficulty understanding them (which I believe is the point) I noticed that Swift was ridiculing contemporary publishing and the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns. In fact, the companion work (which I reviewed in 2015) is called The Battle of the Books. He also made a reference to Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. I love it when I am able to recognize intertextuality. I would like to revisit the digressions at some point because I’m sure I missed a lot the first time around. But again, I’m not sure if I was supposed to read them carefully.

A Tale of a Tub was brilliant in its construction even if the religious satire fell a bit flat. It reminded me of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, which I definitely will be reviewing soon. Swift is a difficult satirist to read because he addresses seventeenth-century English society. But that is also why I enjoy reading Swift. He encourages me to work for my humor. I hope than in a few years I will be able to appreciate A Tale of a Tub more.

Favorite Quote

“Having thus paid my due deference and acknowledgment to an established custom of our newest authors, by a long digression unsought for, and a universal censure unprovoked; by forcing into the light, with much pains and dexterity, my own excellencies and other men’s defaults, with great justice to myself and candour to them, I now happily resume my subject, to an infinite satisfaction both of the reader and the author.”

Amazon Fraud

I made a short video to talk about something that sellers have been allowed to get away with on Amazon. This is fraud! I ordered the two books mentioned in the video by ISBN number so I could get the editions my professor wanted us to order. Instead I got editions that are nothing like the ones most of my classmates received. While the words are more or less the same (there are sentences missing) the paragraphs aren’t. There are also no spaces between paragraphs, so it takes me a good 15 min to find a passage.

Apologies for the portrait layout of the video.

Look at one of the images in the book. You see the thing beneath it? The image must be a screen shot!