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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Out of Africa (and) Shadows on the Grass

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass
by Isak Dinesen
462 pages

*** About the Books ***

Both books are collections of short stories and character studies based on Karen Blixen's (aka Isak Dinesen's) life in British East Africa between 1914-1931. The two books were released approximately 25 years apart but seem to belong together, hence the reason they were republished as one book. They give a glimpse into the life of a wealthy Danish woman who truly loved the land and the people of Kenya, and who didn't always fit in with the prevailing British society of the time.

*** Why I Read It ***

I've always loved the movie Out of Africa and have wanted to read the book for quite a while. I recently listened to a biography of Isak Dinesen and that spurred me on to start this book. My copy came from the library.

*** My Thoughts ***

This is a beautifully written book that sucked me in from the beginning and didn't let me go until the end. However, if I had read this book without first listening to Dinesen's biography I would have been greatly disappointed. Let me explain ...

I wanted to read this book because I expected that it would give me more details than I got from the movie - that's what books usually do, right? They are supposed to fill in the blanks left by the movie. I especially wanted to know about the author's love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (played in the movie by Robert Redford).

In fact Denys is hardly mentioned at all in OUT OF AFRICA, and when he is it is not apparent to the reader that he is anything more than a close friend. This didn't matter to me in the end because I'd already learned everything about their relationship from Karen's biography.

The book also makes little or no mention of Karen's husband, Baron Bror Blixen, or how she contracted and lived with syphilis, or how hard she struggled to keep her farm going. All those details that I wanted after seeing the movie are not to be found in OUT OF AFRICA ... but they are to be found in her biography. With those details already in mind, I was able to enjoy this book for what it is.

And what, exactly, is it? It is a collection of anecdotes about the people and places that made an enormous impression on Karen Blixen. It is her love song to Africa, to the people of her farm, to the farm itself, and to the beauty of the land surrounding her.

The author of her biography related the following story: When friends asked why Karen didn't write about Africa immediately after her return to Denmark, she replied that one cannot write about a beloved child the day after it has died.

That is how Karen viewed her farm, as her precious child, and the lost of it broke her heart. This book is a look back at all the things she loved so much, but it is told from such a lofty vantage that the pain and the struggles are difficult to see. The beauty is all that remains.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the inherent racism in this book. It is, after all, the British colony in Africa where the stories take place - racism abounded there as it did just about everywhere during this time period. However Karen truly loved the African people that she knew, and greatly respected Farah, the Somali servant who managed her house and money. In her later life (as I know from her biography) she had African-American friends and upbraided her white friends for their racist remarks. Karen wasn't exactly unprejudiced, but she was much more fair-minded than many of her contemporaries.

*** About the Movie ***

As I said, I truly love this movie. For those who haven't seen it, here's a trailer for you to check out:

What I realized after reading this book and listening to Dinesen's biography is that the movie is really an amalgamation of the two. The storyline of the movie is Karen's life, and that comes from her biography. But the characters, the land, and the love Karen had for them comes straight from OUT OF AFRICA.

*** Your Thoughts ***

Have you read this book? Seen the movie? Do you love it like I do, or were you not so impressed? Have you read any of Isak Dinesen's other stories? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Rebecca Reid said...

I haven't read this but it's on my list. Too bad it didn't meet your expectations compared to the movie, but it still sounds like one I should read. I love idea of her connection to the land. Too bad, of course, for the inherent racism too.

Anyway, thanks for this review.

Lenore said...

This is pratically required reading for me after having been to East Africa so recently.

bermudaonion said...

I had no idea that this was a book of short stories. I haven't seen the movie or read the book, I'm sad to say.

OpheliaZepp said...

I must read this!!!

Heather J. said...

Rebecca - It didn't meet my expectations, but I loved it for different reasons.

Lenore - Yes, it is!

bermudaonion - OOH you must watch the movie ... it is wonderful.

OpheliaZepp - You'd LOVE this. :)

Aarti said...

Oh, interesting. I suppose it makes sense to first read either the bio or this book and then read the other to get the full story?

Heather J. said...

Aarti - If you've seen the movie, then I'd say read her bio then read OUT OF AFRICA. But if you haven't seen the movie then you could read the books in any order. At least that's MY opinion. :)

Lisa said...

I might have to read this book again or read the bio first. I was expecting the fuller version of the movie and was so disappointed. Now, knowing that's not what I'm getting, I might be better able to enjoy the stories for what they are.

Heather J. said...

Lisa - I would have felt exactly as you did had I not listened to the biography first. You should definitely give it a shot, then read this book again - it will make so much more sense that way!

ANovelMenagerie said...

I did see the movie and, of course, loved it.

Alyce said...

I haven't seen the movie, and it sounds like I've really been missing out, so I'll have to add that one to the netflix queue.

Heather J. said...

ANovelMenagerie - I would expect nothing else. ;)

Alyce - YAY! Please let me know what you think of it after you watch it!

Beth F said...

I really, really loved the book, which I read right after the movie came out. That time period in Kenya became very popular back then (White Mischief, West with the Night, and other books and movies regained popularity).

I have read one biography of Blixen, but not the audio you listened to. I think I'll add that to my list and listen to it for Women Unbound.

Heather J. said...

Beth F - So glad to find someone else who loved this one!

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