Friday, October 30, 2009

Book review: West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Voi Kenya

Sunset on mountains in Kenya. (cc) Clairepants on Flickr.

"Ahead of me lies a land that is unknown to the rest of the world and only vaguely known to the African - a strange mixture of grasslands, scrub, desert sand like long waves of the southern ocean. Forest, still water, and age-old mountains, stark and grim like mountains of the moon. Salt lakes, and rivers that have no water. Swamps. Badlands. Land without life. Land teeming with life - all of the dusty past, all of the future.
The air takes me into its realm. Night envelopes me entirely, leaving me out of touch with the earth, leaving me within this small moving world, of my own, living in space with the stars. "

West with the Night is the autobiography by Beryl Markham (1902-1986) about her childhood in the early 1900s on a horse farm in Kenya among African hunters and cheetahs. She became a horse trainer (first female licensed one in the country), and she later learned to fly and became one of the first bush pilots in Kenay, a dangerous and lonely job. Karen Blixen's husband Baron von Blixen was an elephant safari organizer and hired her to scout ot where the elephants where, and she had an affair with him (but this is not mentioned in the book). She does talk about him as a tall Swede that wasn't afraid of anything. Later she flew to Europe and was the first woman that flew solo over the Atlantic from the east (Europe) to the west (North America) in 1936. Other had tried but died. All of these topics are spectacular, but what is even more spectacular is her writing. Gorgeous, detailed, emotional, like impressionist paintings but with words. It is one of the best books I have read in a long, long while. It wasn't published until 1942, and then forgotten and republished in 1983 to great acclaim. There is some question if she wrote the book by herself, but I choose to believe so, if nothing else because it feels like she telling her story in a way that only someone that experienced these amazing, scary, and intensive things could.

Ernest Hemingway liked her book too and said in a letter:
"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West With The Night? ...She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen."
He wasn't bad with words either. :)

She also has a crater (Markham) on Venus named after her, quite an honor. Just read this book. I loved it and know I will read it again later in my life.

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