I went because I had already bought the ticket (18 Euros). Plus, I was sure some people would have made me feel lousy if I didn’t. “You went to Amsterdam and didn’t visit the Van Gogh museum?!” You know how people can get dramatic. I don’t get boners over paintings. A friend in Tuscany sent me a picture of a framed Picasso and I thought it was underwhelming – like runny eggs.
But I love art. I love, even more, the tortured look of artists who paint. I like how colours remain lodged under their nails. I love how when they explain their abstract work it doesn’t make any sense at all to me. I like how they can sit for hours painting and their backs never hurt. I like how they can wear shorts and even if their legs don’t allow for it nobody can tell them anything because they are artists! I like how they wipe their hands on their aprons when they paint, and how they choose and look at their paint brushes lovingly, as if they are their children. I like how when an artist blue-ticks you on Whatsapp the world excuses him because he’s supposed to be moody or he’s in his element or he’s battling the ogres of creation and creativity. Try that as an accountant. Until only recently when I bought an oil painting in Zanzibar, I had never owned a painting.
But this was Van Gogh, right? Even though I tremendously enjoyed Amsterdam, I’m never going to go back- not on my account at least – because there are over 42 other countries in Europe waiting to be visited. And others in Africa and Asia. So it seemed fit that since I was there I might as well see what this Van Gogh guy was all about.
For another 5 Euros you get multimedia headphones which helps you navigate the storeyed modern museum. It is beautiful and organised. Everything is clean and polished. Upstairs in the gallery it is hushed, like in a camel’s colon. People shuffle about with grim, concentrated looks. It’s like a wake. It’s like Van Gogh will be upset with us if we speak loudly. On the walls are his body of work. A pair of shoes (most likely his.) Crab. (Definitely not his). Potato eaters. A Cottage. A self-portrait with a pipe dangling from his mouth. Sunflowers. The Bedroom. It goes on and on, about 200 paintings, 500 drawings and some letters that he wrote to his brother Theo.
I felt sorry for Van Gogh. He led a measly life, a tortured life, a life of artistic and personal conflict. He also led a catastrophic love life, a life of depression, falling in love with troubled women. He fell in love with his widowed cousin who fled him, repulsed by the very idea. He fell in love with an alcoholic prostitute called Hoornik. (Not that it would have been any better to fall in love with an alcoholic prostitute called Maria.) Hoornik left him. He got depressed. At some point he cut off his own ear. I don’t know if it was his right ear or his left ear, that information wasn’t in the audio, but he cut off his ear because of an argument, which I assumed he lost because you don’t cut off your ear over an argument you won. He ate paint. Yellow paint. He moved to an asylum in some village of France after the people of the city he was living in signed a petition that he was dangerous. Shunned and alone, in the gardens of the hospital, he painted his famous painting “Irises”, which I looked at for so long but couldn’t connect with, which sold for Kshs 5 trillion. Of course he didn’t get this money, or any money that his paintings fetched because for all his body of work he never made a cent. He eventually shot himself in the chest in attempted suicide (not for another lost argument). He didn’t die. At least not immediately. He died a few days later. Only then was he hailed as an artist, a genius and an icon, the greatest Dutch painter. The world stood up and bowed at Van Gogh. Boy, isn’t this a beautiful tragedy?
Nonetheless, after only 15 minutes in the museum I was bored of looking at his impressionist paintings. Completely bored. That sounds so wrong to say, doesn’t it? It’s like saying something bad about Madiba. Or sitting in a bus while a person with physical disability stands next to you. But I was bored. I trudged along painfully. From floor to floor. From painting to painting. Looking to see what others were seeing, trying to connect. All around, men peered at his work with fascination. I peered at the men with fascination. These are people who love museums. People who can’t wait to see the next museum. I don’t enjoy museums. I was fascinated that they truly enjoyed this process of walking, stopping, looking, walking, stopping, looking. Some took notes. Notes! Some conferred with their partners, deep hushed conversations, like they were deciding if it was time to put down their old dog.
I eventually gave up and sat on one of the chairs against the wall and just observed people walking by. Young people. Old people. People in hats. People without hats. People with hair on their legs, people with hair on their necks. People with children. People like children. Then I started doing something that might or might not have been racist; I started waiting to see how many black people would pass by (five in total). Then I started feeling like I wasn’t cultured enough, because here I was in a Van Gogh Museum yet I was bored out of my cranium. Then I said, screw it, museums are not for me, I will go eat a cupcake. So I stood up and as I walked downstairs I heard someone say, “This is truly heaven.”
As I stepped out of the museum, still thinking about the very idea of heaven I wondered if we will be allowed to carry our Kindles to heaven. I know people with hard copies won’t be able to carry all their favourite books into heaven because of the weight limit. Surely there must be a weight limit, otherwise some people might just decide to drag their pianos up, which makes no sense at all given there are harps up there. I think at the pearly gates someone will check the kind of literature you are bringing into heaven. I don’t think they will be too fussy though. To mean an angel tasked with that duty will look at your list and open a book and read out loudly – a passage from the book – for everybody in the queue to hear.
“‘“Hands on your head,” he commands through gritted teeth as he kneels up, forcing my legs wider…We don’t have long. This will be quick, and it’s for me, not you. Do you understand?”’…”
You will squirm uncomfortably as people in the queue chuckle judgmentally; a knot of Catholics and some familiar faces from Parklands Baptist, those who always insisted on sitting in the front pews of church.
“Please …don’t,” you will protest.
He will look up at you and say, “Fifty Shades of Grey is not going to get into heaven, darling. Neither will this – The Story of O, by Pauline Reage.”
“It’s your heaven,” you will say staring at your feet.
I want to carry my Kindle to heaven if they allow me to. Here are some of the books I have read lately in it that I wonder if might be allowed in.
The Storied Life of A.J Fikry
By Gabrielle Zevin
I kept seeing this book on the New York Times best seller list for months. That time I was in an unexciting relationship with another book called Line in The Sand; Collected Journalism by AA Gill. I wasn’t exactly sad, I just felt like I deserved better. But I stuck to Gill and his collection because he’s Gill and I have known him for ages and he has always come through, until now. Kinda. Eventually, half-way through, I told Gill, “Gill, this is not what we signed up for. You have always been great, but this one is not floating my boat and I have tried, haven’t I?” He nodded soberly as I picked my cane and my hat to leave. Then I got into this book and it started slowly like they all do but then it picked, but not enough to make you dizzy. It’s a book about books. Rather a man who sells books in the only bookshop in an island. There is a girl. There is always a girl. There is also a baby, which could refer to the girl but in this case isn’t the girl but a real baby, with diapers and all. The baby grows and the girl and the man grow until stuff happens. Things happen swiftly. Some bad, most good. But it leaves you feeling many feelings, sadness which floats to the surface for you. But then again I read it at a time when I wasn’t very happy.
Lines in The Sand: Collected Journalism
By Adrian Gill
If you have attended my writing masterclass I must have mentioned this man. I’ve read pretty much everything he has written. He was one of the best paid journalists in the UK, writing for the Times UK until he suddenly died of cancer last year. I was devastated. I felt like I knew him, foolish, I know. I felt like he was my buddy. He was the best restaurant critic in the UK, had such beautiful turns of phrase and cheek in his writing. His mind was a whirlwind. He wrote things like, “Everybody I’ve met along the way who’s been doing excessive, obsessive things to ingredients, making restaurants, working kitchens, writing books, they are not happy. One of the great misconceptions about dinner is that nice people make good food. But it’s almost exactly the opposite.”
“Pasta is eaten by happy smiley people having fun with people they love or fancy. Noodles are eaten by people who have no friends.”
A.A Gill, always cheeky and irreverent and unconventional. I read in the Sunday Times that he died on a Sunday morning. Then I started discovering some of his work that I hadn’t read and I ate it all up without chewing, wide-eyed with grief. Lines in the Sand is a collection of some of his travel pieces in The Times. The beauty is that you can always skip some if you want. They have his voice, all right, but his descriptions can sometimes tire you out. It’s a good read, this book, even though I left it sitting there to read something else because I felt it was sacrilegious to give up on his book. And that’s the thing with books, sometimes it’s a mood and moment thing. There are books you read during certain periods or moments of your life. Have a go at this.
Dreams from Bunker Hill
By John Fante
I like very simple writing. Simple small sentences. Smaller than a Panadol tablet. I love writers who don’t use words like “puissant.” Do you know what “puissant” means? It means strong, powerful. Why on earth can’t you just write: He went to become a powerful man. Instead you write: he went to become a puissant man. Why would you want to confuse us with a word so close to poussin? Why would you want to make us stop to google a word? I love writers who use very simple words and make deceptively simple, beautiful sentences with these simple words yet create such magic with them. John Fante in this book is that man. It’s a story set in the 1940s, about ayoung man who craves recognition as a writer, and commercial and artistic success. It’s a sexy book. In case you are wondering, a sexy book is a book that you think about all day when you are in the office and can’t wait to go back to at the end of the day.
The Book of Negroes
By Lawrence Hill
Senegal is on my Bucket List of countries to visit. I want to sit in their bars that play their wounding music, yes, but I also want to go see the Door of No Return, where slaves were shipped through. This book isn’t about Senegal but it’s about slavery and freedom and perseverance in between. I haven’t read it. I bought it because Amazon does this thing where it recommends books you might love based on the last purchase. So I bought it because I first loved the title. The word “Negro” leapt at me like a naked madman. Plus the whole slavery thing has always intrigued me. How people can come to your land, grab you, chain you, separate you from your children, from your people, from your heritage, put you in a ship, sail you for months while chained like a dog with rabies and take you to this strange land where they strip you of your identity and dignity and culture and use you as you would use a broom. I’m yet to read this but I’m working towards it. It’s sitting there in my Kindle, waiting to make me grit my teeth and take deep breaths.
Between The World And Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is the book I bought that prompted Amazon to recommend the Book of Negroes. In the opening scene of the movie The Equalizer-2, if you are keen, you will see Denzel Washington’s character read this book in that train rattling towards Istanbul, Turkey. It’s subtle placement and I hope people pick it out and look for the book. I hate to be those guys who say this is a book every black person should read. So I won’t. But you should. Even if you are an African from Subukia. I read it for the message but also for the language, which is rich, impassioned and fluid. It’s about race in America. About what it means to be a black man in the US. It’s about the history of a black man in America. It’s also a letter, of sorts, from Ta-Nehisi to his son. Ta-Nehisi writes things in a way that makes me stop and go back to read them again, then stop there and listen to my breath.
“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
“Race is the child of racism, not the father.”
“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”
“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”
One last one.
““America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”
Read it. Even if you aren’t black. Read it to know.
Born A Crime
Everything you’ve heard about this book is true. It’s also true that it will be worth your while. White father, black mother, apartheid and post-apartheid area. It’s tragicomedy. To mean, he manages to make you laugh at his tumultuous childhood.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
By Lola Shoneyin
A friend of mine who loves reading books like Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike and Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Sirleaf Johnson (I read a sample, it’s brilliant. My next read) always urged me to read this book. She was always going Baba Segi this, Baba Segi that. She swore it was funny and she loved it even though she isn’t big on fiction. I postponed it for so long and she kept asking “Have you read it? Have you read it?” until I said “Oh, eff it, let me read it.” Then I read it. Sort of.
I have this theory about life that I also apply on books; I won’t struggle with something that I don’t enjoy. If a party sucks I will leave. If I don’t like a meal in a restaurant I will send it back. If I don’t want to do a favour I will say it. If I’ve had enough in a bar and it might seem rude to leave everybody else there, I will leave. I will be where I want to be, doing what I want to do. So a quarter-way through this book I stopped reading it. Because I wasn’t enjoying it and life is short. It’s about a polygamous man with a number of women, one who is educated and seems to be rocking the status quo in his home. I was promised that it would be “hilarious” but when I was giving it up I hadn’t chuckled.
Of course I haven’t told her that I didn’t enjoy this book, but now she will know after reading this and she will feel disappointed because people get disappointed when you don’t enjoy the books they enjoyed and they thought you would enjoy too. It’s almost like a personal failure for them. They look at you like they don’t know you anymore.
It wasn’t the book though, it was me. Because it has rave reviews and enjoyed some critical success. It’s just not the kind of animal that I could climb.
By Norman Mailer
He is touted as one of the most powerful writers of the 20th century. Together with chaps like Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe he was considered the innovator of a genre of writing that I employ here called Creative Non-fiction, which uses the style of literary fiction in fact-based journalism. I discovered him in Esquire magazine years ago. I bought this book when Mohammed Ali died. It’s a book about the legendary Rumble In The Jungle fight in Kinshasa between Ali and Foreman. The book, like an old steam engine, chugs along in some parts, is a bit verbose in others, but is overall a good read. Mailer reveals the devil in the details, the minutiae of it all. Mailer is good with the art of observation and description. He delves into character. It’s also not a very long read.
I Can’t Make This Up
By Kevin Hart
Because it’s Kevin Hart. Because when you read it you read it in his voice and dramatics. Because when you read it you have to sit down, to be at his height. Because it’s a funny read. It’s a Kevin Hart read.
No Country For Old Men
There are people who read The Road and found it lacking. These are the same people you give your phone to look at ONE picture and they start scrolling. I loved The Road. Maybe it’s because I’m a father, maybe it’s because I’m adventist, but I loved it. It was desolate and despairing, hurtling towards this big black void of nothingness. Then I learnt that the movie No Country For Old Men was actually based on another book by Cormac, so I bought it. It’s a book about a psychotic killer who hunts down a man across Texas because the hunted man has something that belongs to some bad drug dealers. (There are no good drug dealers). It’s written very well. It’s written in a Cormac way. Incredible book.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
By Gail Honeymoon
New York Times bestseller. Number 20 most sold on Amazon. If you go on holiday and plan to spend a lot of time ignoring all your emails and work phone calls and lie comatose by the swimming pool only opening your eyes a slit to tell the waiter standing in your sun, “Another daiquiri, please. Thanks, Martin,” then roll over and get unconscious, then this is the book to carry with you there. Or if you are on maternity leave and you are lucky to have gotten those babies who sleep constantly. Or if you are on paternity leave but you feel lost in the house, roaming around your cage, eating everything in the fridge, liking formula milk…this is your book. It’s funny. It’s refreshing. It’s also a bit quirky.
Let The World Spin
I started it and then stopped after five chapters. Then I started it again and stopped after two chapters. Tell me how it ends.
The Most Beautiful Woman in Town
If you are a feminist don’t read it (unless you are Wendy). His stories are mostly set around alcohol and sex in bars and dingy apartments. He wrote at a time when the conversation about gender was tens of years away. Most of his characters are struggling, slightly towards the bottom rung. He obviously battled with alcohol and sex addiction. He often fought. He calls himself “ugly”, with “a face only a mother would love”. His work is desperate and astonishing. His sentences make me grin. I also bought three of his other books that I intend to read soon; Post Office, Hollywood and Love is a Dog From Hell, which is a collection of his poetry. He has published 45 books of poetry.
There is a lady called Nora Ephron. She died. She was a writer and filmmaker. She wrote a movie called Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. She’s funny as hell. An astonishing writer. Read ALL her books because they are all good; cheeky, witty, funny and revealing. Start with Heartburn. But before you do that, check out some of her stories below to see if her style is your cup of tea.
So, what have you read lately that shook your pants?
PS: Final call for registration of the Writing Masterclass. Email [email protected] for details.