Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review - Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
Published by: Random House
Publication Date: 1937
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition then one reviewed)

"Okay, moment of slight cattiness here. Before I’d started researching The Ashford Affair, I knew Dinesen only through her own writings and, of course, the extremely sympathetic portrayal in the movie, Out of Africa. It was fascinating—like being let in on someone’s gossip circle—to read the reactions of others in that Happy Valley crowd, and then go back to Dinesen’s writing, knowing that many of her neighbors found her a bit of a pill. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to look at Out of Africa quite the same way again…." - Lauren Willig

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Karen Blixen, writing under the nom de plume, Isak Dinesen, lived in Africa for many years, till she finally had to give up her coffee plantation and head home to Denmark, were she became a famous writer for her memoirs of her time in Kenya. The non linear vignettes of life on her farm capture a time and place that she knew, even at the time, would soon be gone. From her connection to young Kikuyus and a menagerie of animals, to the luminaries of the Happy Valley passing through her door, she captures this world of long ago.

I will fully admit that my reaction to finally finishing Out of Africa was not the most mature, seeing as it involved me yelling "suck it Dinesen" and then thinking about her getting an STD (which she had by the way) as justice for me having to read this book. If it hadn't been so late at night, I'm sure there might have even been a victory dance... but as it was late and I was giddy, it was best to leave well enough alone. But I shall warn you now, this is going to be a ranty review because this book is designated a "Classic." Capitol "C" and all. WHY!?! I mean, really, WTF people, it took me YEARS to get through this book, and I'm not talking metaphorically or figuratively but in all honesty, literally.

Let us now segue into the past and my history with Out of Africa. My love of Africa, the country, never to be confused with this book, I think has to be somewhat hereditary, because I take after my mom. She loves Africa. Quite a few years back she went on a reading safari and picked up all the great books from the Kenyan Happy Valley Days. Beryl Markham, Isak Dinesen, Elspeth Huxley, they all came into our house and became common names, which was very handy when I was looking for copies of their books for Ashford April. During this time was when I first saw the movie Out of Africa, watching the whole movie with my mother ranting about how Robert Redford was in NO WAY like Denys Finch-Hatton. But she did concede that Isak's husband Bror was perfectly cast as was Isak, or should I call her by her real name, Karen Blixen?

I will warn you now, watching the movie gives you no sense of what the book is like. The movie is a romanticized version of Karen Blixen's life, not a translation of the life she wrote about in her book which is more vignettes then an autobiography. A little after first seeing the movie, Random House came out with a facsimile 1st edition to celebrate their 75th anniversary. I am a sucker for beautiful books, and seeing as my mom loved this book (which she is now taking back because of my harsh questioning) I bought it and tried to read it. Tried is the optimum word, because I didn't even get more then half way through before I abandoned it. Now, several years later with the book languishing I vowed to finish reading it for Ashford April. In fact, I kind of put it on the reading list, not because of any real connection to Lauren Willig's wonderful book, but because I was daring myself to finish it. Well, I finished it... she says dubiously.

So now we all get to the "meat" of the review. Why did I hate this book so much that I envisioned hurling it out a window or engulfing it in flames? Firstly, she can't write. Isak Dinesen can not form a coherent sentence to save her soul. Therefore my earliest fantasies regarding this book involved me traveling in time to beat her to death with a grammar book. She has sentences that make no sense, commas randomly inserted into the oddest of places and a narrative the jumps so much it's like she has ADD. Now she claimed that her Syphilis was fully cured... one must wonder though if it hadn't maybe rotted out her brain, just because rarely have a seen a published book so badly written. Sure I've read my fair share of bad books, but at least those people could write a sentence. It might have been a dull or boring or insipid sentence, but it was a sentence at least.

Yet her inability to write, while a hurdle, is not the main problem I had. I just couldn't stand her as a person. Now I'm sure you have a friend or an acquaintance who is so self absorbed and obsessed that they see everything in the world through themselves. I'm not talking about seeing everything through their eyes, but that they actually see everything in the world in relation to themselves and how it affects them. You might be having a conversation with them and if the topic doesn't effect them in anyway, they randomly interject to change the topic to one that interests them, mainly, themselves. They can never be objective and they live in their own little world, one where I imagine a statue of themselves at the center and then lots of roller coasters, like in the episode of Red Dwarf where Kryten makes the Rimmer Experience using Arnold's own diaries. The world is their own, and that is how Isak sees it. She can't talk about a Ngoba without going on about how it's in her honor. She can't talk about at trip into Nairobi, unless it's about her selflessness helping people at the hospital with rides round the country in her car. I can see why everyone thought her an insufferable twat. It was all "me, me, me" and this book bears it out. Can you imagine actually being her "friend?" I personally would leave Africa to get away from her...

I'm sure that right about now there are several people going, "but this is my favorite book" and "how could you say those things about this Classic of literature." Well, because I'm telling it as I see it. This book is a very polarizing book, you either love it or you hate it. I am firmly in the hate camp. Why did she have to keep comparing everything to the sea in very awkward metaphors? It's not just that the book is racist, which it is, but you have to make allowances for the eras Imperialist mentality, it's that it's badly written by a narcissist. Even in Isak's life she was polarizing, there were those who loved and hated her. Hemingway loved her, but I have a feeling this has more to do with that she killed things then her prose, whereas the artist Owen Gromme, who was a friend of my families, thought she was a self absorbed snob. Personally, this book made me realize that I should raise every other book I've ever read on Africa a full star and that you're better off reading any other book on Africa then this self proselytising memoir. I'd even read The Bolter again... and yes, I'm being serious.


I always wanted to read this book, but, being badly written and by a narcissist nonetheless, now I think it's not really my cup of tea. Thank you for your honest review, Eliza!

Yeah, it was punishing finishing this book. I'm glad I can say I read it and now I never have to read it again!

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