March 29, 2010

West With the Night (Book #15)

Right after we graduated from college, some of my friends and I started this thing called The Book List. Basically we each came up with individual lists of great books that we had read and wanted each other to read, as well. I typed up all our recommendations together and it became The Book List, which was passed around (by postal mail - gasp!) and we added to it and edited it every so often. It seems a little archaic now, what with blogs and Shelfari and whatnot, but at the time (circa 1992-93) it was really fun and interesting to have a list of recommended books to refer to when looking for something new to read.

My favorite find from The Book List was West With the Night, by Beryl Markham. Markham was a British-born woman who lived in Kenya, hunted with her African neighbors, was nearly eaten by one or two wild animals, became a well-regarded hosre trainer and was a celebrated aviatrix - she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic east-to-west, and the first person ever to fly from England to North America nonstop (1936). West With the Night was published in 1942, enjoyed a brief run, and then fell into obscurity until 1982, when it was "rediscovered" and reprinted.

I loved West With the Night back in The Book List days but I had forgotten about it for a while, so when I came across it in my stacks a few days ago I decided a re-read would be necessary.

Oh, I do so love this book, still! Her description of a horse race literally brought me to tears, and the story of her stormy flight across the North Atlantic had me holding my breath in suspense.

In 1942, Ernest Hemingway had this to say about Beryl Markham (in a letter to Maxwell Perkins):

Did you read Beryl Markham's book "West With the Night"? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, 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 some times making an okay pig pen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. ... She omits some very fantastic stuff which I know about which would destroy much of the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing? I wish you would get it and read it because it really is a bloody wonderful book.
High praise from a man who sometimes did not have nice things to say about his colleagues. (Though he does call her a bitch, but who is Hemingway to be calling someone a bitch?) In fact, I find myself thinking of Hemingway when reading West With the Night. It could be the spare language plus the fact that it's Africa, and she's a contemporary of his.

Now I'm rambling. In sum, and to quote that great man himself, I wish you would get West With the Night and read it. It really is a bloody wonderful book.

1 comment:

khb said...

I read West With the Night in college and I loved it! Thanks for reminding me about it, I should find my copy and read it again.