Quick reviews of latest chess purchases


For Christmas, I decided to buy myself a stack of chess books with my winnings from the recent Kenya National Chess Championships. It took a few weeks for the Amazon order to arrive. A portion of the bill went towards paying the KRA duty, something I was not happy with as it made no sense to me why duty is imposed on books. Anyways, once I had them in my hands it was a holiday season well spent with things I love most.

During my 7 month lay off from local competitive chess (May-Dec 2014), I took a good look at the chess reasons for my 2014 Olympiad qualifier debacle. My play in sharp positions was wanting, my endgame skills were pretty shitty and my general approach to playing was rather mechanical. So my choice of books was aimed at targeting these areas, with a couple chosen simply for entertainment value. Having lightly browsed through them over the last couple of weeks, these are my initial impressions:

KASPAROV ON KASPAROV – PARTS II & III (1985-1993 & 1993-2005)

kasparov 2

I had Part I of this trilogy (covering the period 1975-1985). Now my collection is complete. It’s the greatest player of all time explaining the intricacies of his play. And the politics and stories surrounding the various events he took part in. And some autobiographical sketches of life away from the chess board. Kasparov lets his emotions shine through, especially when he talks about his closest rivals. The passion with which he plays comes out in his annotations. The books are meaty.

But what I find most useful is the way Kasparov annotates and analyses. He explains the small and subtle GM moves…the reasoning behind them. The variations he selects to back up the verbal commentary (and there are tons of verbal commentary to the moves) are to the point and thorough. He is not afraid to point out his own bad moves. Whatsmore, it’s incredible to see the vast range of positions he can play. Kasparov has been stereotyped as an opening “Theory Henri” and a flamboyant attacking player. But the games in this trilogy also showcase his fantastic positional understanding, feel for prophylaxis (especially tactical prophylaxis) and endgame technique.

Some random excerpts:

Kasparov - Polgar, Wijk aan Zee, 2000. Position after 21...Bd7.

Kasparov – Polgar, Wijk aan Zee, 2000. Position after 21…Be6-d7.

Here is what Kasparov says at this point:

After this simple reply I came to my senses and began cursing myself: White has no useful moves and not even a hint of compensation for the pawn. I felt an almost irresistible desire to resign, and it was only with difficulty that I forced myself into the mood for a tenacious resistance…

Incidentally, when after the round the journalists asked Kramnik: “Why did you so quickly agree to a draw with Black?”, he replied: “But I could not imagine that Kasparov would play like that with White!”. And, indeed, in such an important game with Polgar, against whom before I had a 4-0 score in ‘classical’ games, a defeat seemed almost unimaginable.

The remainder of the game is an electrifying experience to play through, and an object lesson in the art of being resourceful in a bad position (from the diagrammed position, Kasparov continued 22.c3 with the idea of setting up a Bc2, Qd3 battery with something like Rxf6 in the offing), what with the interesting variations and notes. Kasparov managed to turn the tables and win.

Kasparov peppers his accounts with tidbits from other grandmasters and chess journalists. This gives his trilogy the effect of having been written in a frenzied post-mortem atmosphere, with many voices speaking out their thoughts and a dozen hands flying across the board. It adds to the drama. Here are Evegeny Bareev’s thoughts spliced in when Kasparov discusses the end of the 1999 Sarjevo tournament:

“The participants had the feeling that Kasparov was playing at roughly 25% of his desire. When it was needed, he would develop additional momentum. Eye-witnesses reckon that his mood here was very different from that in Linares and Wijk aan Zee. There he was an angry, hungry wolf, whereas here the wolf was good-natured, as in a cartoon film. But even so the good-natured wolf devoured quite a number of sheep.”

Different events are seperated into different sections, and before going onto the games, Kasparov lets us have a behind the scenes look at his preparation style. Here is a paragraph from the section where he talks about his preparations for the World Championship match versus Anand in 1995:

In July and August, I prepared intensively for the match on the Adriatic Sea, in blessed Croatia. It was a long time since I had felt so well, in the physical, as well as the chess and the psychological sense. I swam a great deal and went canoeing. I established my own personal record: I swam three and a half kilometers in the open sea in one hour, forty minutes. Almost every day I paddled up to seven kilometres in the canoe and at the chess board I spent two hundred and fifty hours.


Genna Ssonko

At the time Botvinik was the personification of chess in the Soviet Union – river: Volga, poet:Mayakovsky, goalkeeper:Yashin, chessplayer: Botvinik. And suddenly – a kid with a name as short as a gunshot: Tal!

Over the last decade or so, many important texts written by ex-Soviet era players, dealing with chess matters off the board, have come out. Busting many myths and stereotypes about chess life behind the Iron Curtain. The best of the bunch by far is Genna Sosonko. His books are a must have for any chess lover. “World Champions I Knew” is his latest offering.

The book has no chess diagrams. No chess analysis. It is pure prose. It has analysis of human behaviour – that of World Champions Genna Sosonko knew personally.

Botvinik, Smyslov, Petrosian and especially Tal, are talked about in depth. The life they lived. What sort of family men they were. How they dealt with the politics of Soviet sports. How they dealt with the KGB. Their personal weaknesses. What they did after games. How they related with other Soviet era players. Their thoughts on Bobby Fischer.

The chapter on Tal has to be one of the greatest chapters in Chess literature. It’s extraordinary. Not only is Tal shown in a way you have never seen him before, the style in which the prose is written is also breathtaking. Being a ficiton writer, I found this to be a stunning example of how to create a vivid character. I read the chapter thrice and I am sure I will be re-reading it many more times in the coming months.

And Tal went to Vnukovo at night for Vodka reinforcement.

And sat around more than once in the cabin gatherings with the captain and officers of a boat over bottles of rum and other drinks that were rarely seen at the time.

And Tal, usually in a tipsy condition, started stubbornly shaking his head and grinding his teeth.

And Tal often found himself without his internal passport.

And Tal might not leave a hotel room for days, with day flowing smoothly into night and again into day.

And Tal, after inhaling a few times, would put a cigarette out so that he could start a new one almost immediately.

And there were always all kinds of chess groupies and semi-bohemians kicking their heels around Tal, sometimes also openly dubious characters. And he was drawn to the dregs for inexplicable reasons, too.

And an ambulance came for Tal on more than one occasion, because “only an immediate injection could save him.”



Chess is a complicated sport, which has to be studied for many years. It is hard to imagine any other sport without coaches. (Is there a single atheletics club or football club that does not have a trainer?). This manual is intended for the many club players who unfortunately recieve no support in attempting to master our complicated sport. In this way it is intended as a substitute for a trainer for those that have none (and a support for trainers), but not an equal replacement for a trainer.

I stumbled across Stage 2 of this series back in October last year. I went through it Oct-Nov and I was damn impressed. I believe it helped me become National Champion. So I decided I had to buy the three volumes of Stage 3.

I think this might be the best training series ever published for the 1500-2300 range crowd. At first sight, it looks so bland. You open the page to a chapter and there is are a few simple examples followed by test positions. You ask yourself: “Why would I waste my money on this?” But as you go through the test positions and examples step by step, you gradually realise you are learning alot. A hell lot.

You might think you know the stuff the books go on about. But you start realizing how much you actually don’t know about the basics. This series gives you a thorough grounding in all the basics you need to know.

Stage 1 is geared to get 1500 guys up to 1800. Stage 2 is for the jump from 1800 to 2100 and Stage 3 2100 to 2300. Especially for a country like Kenya that does not have access to good coaches, this series is vital. Each stage has three volumes (Build, Boost and Evolve).

I will simply list the chapters in one of the volumes in Stage 3 so that you get an idea:

1. Desperadoes

2. Static advantages

3. The comparison method

4. Rook against two minor pieces

5. Open games

6. The minority attack

7. Complicated combinations

8. Fortresses

9. Complex positions

10. The transition to the middlegame

11. The bishop pair

12. Shutting out a piece

13. Playing against pieces

14. Principles of rook endings

15. Playing for traps

16. Castling opposite sides

17. Pawn chains

18. Transition from opening to ending

19. Exchanging queens – the transition to the ending

20. Outposts for knights

21. Having a plan

22. Pirc and Modern defences

23. Complex positions 2

24. Queen endings


positional play aagardcalculation aagard

These are workbooks. And they expect you to be a workhorse to get the most out of them. I haven’t used them much so far. Special time will have to be allocated for them. But the few examples and exercises I have gone through, it appears the books are quite direct and goes straight to the point. My positional play sucks and my calculations skills are primitive. I hope these two books help me out. It’s too early for me to say whether they are any good. I have gone on recommendations of various reviews on the big chess forums. So perhaps a real review from me laters.


mihail marin

I had read ‘Secrets of Attacking Chess’ by Marin. That was a very good book. Marin has a unique style of dissecting positions. He goes deep in and deliberately gets lost in the variations. You learn a lot by following him into no-mans land.

This book focuses on endgames. He picks on 6 outstanding exponents of this phase of the game (Rubinstein, Alekhine, Petrosian, Fischer, Karpov and Korchnoi) and highlights a specific area they are the best at. It doesn’t look at theoretical sort of endgames (that would be the Dvoretsky Endgame Manual book, for example) but at the practical aspects of endgame play. Certainly for Kenyan players like me, the endgame is still a big big mystery.

Marin is not interested in trotting out a large quantity of examples. Instead, he picks a few positions and does in-depth and quality analysis. To really show the reader what’s going on and what he can learn. Rook endgames are something I especially struggle with, especially the practical nature of them. The first chapter of the book (and the one I have gone through so far) is on Rubinstein’s handling of Rook Endgames. The annotations are simply superb and besides concrete variations, Marin also verbally explains at length what is going on. One goes through it slowly, sipping in Marin’s notes. And that’s a good way of learning. Marin makes one develop endgame skills rather than just absorbing knowledge.

To finish with a random example from the Rubinstein chapter:

Rubinstein - Del Turco, Merano 1924.

Rubinstein – Del Turco, Merano 1924. White to play.

This is just a snapshot from the endgame Marin analyses for over 11 pages. Rubinstein here played the dubious 38. Rxf6?! and this is what Marin says about it:

Rubinstein’s intuition seems to have betrayed him at this moment. He might have more or less foreseen the further evolution of the game but must have overlooked Black’s possibility on the 41st move.

However, attributing Akiba’s error to this excusable error of calculation would be rather simplistic description of the situation. In fact, his decision is in complete opposition to his usual way of thinking, something we are already familiar with. Maybe this was just not his best day.

Let us try to imagine how Rubinstein would have judged this position in the other nine times out of ten.

The ending with one pair of rooks is obviously better for white but no human would be able to foresee the  ultimate consequences. It certainly offers practical chances and would be an acceptable way to play for a win if there is no better alternative available.

However, it is not difficult to establish that keeping all the rooks on the board would increase White’s advantage. The fact is that Black does not have time to block the f-pawn with the king and so one of his rook will remain passive. At the same time the white rooks will display their habitual activity, due to White’s spatial advantage.

After 38. gxf6 play might have continued:

38…Rd4+ (38…Rff7 would lose the c-pawn since after 39.Rxc5 Rxf6? 40. Rc6+ white would win a rook.) 39.Kc3 Rd6 (39…Rd5 40.Rxd5 Kxd5 is just hopeless. Black will fall into succesive zugzwangs since the rook cannot move. For instance 41.f7 Ke6 42.Kc4 Kd6 43.Rf3 Kc6 44.Rf6+ Kd7 45.Kxc5 etc.) 40.f7 Rd7 41.R1f3 followed by Kc4 and Black can hardly resist.


Great grandson’s Syokimau train ticket dated 2169 A.D



the SHAPE of nozzles

a housefly LANDING on my shoe


At the super subway trainport Syokimau fire in my pockets the downtown to Machakos late evening shuttle finally the arrival of two thousand downtown freaks I walk against them their current of movement for example this man wearing Mohanlal Naran tailored trousers black with split gap/no zip so that in this hot late December his dik can be airy but nobody can see that his pubic hair is dreadlocked and flowing down to his knees like flywhisk dyed cream.

The engines purring like hundred extinct lions mass graves excavated at laying of Beer Hunger Wine Hyena hotel & black-skinned writers only allowed foundation in former national park and the freaks talk in so many goddamned ways jango qawalis nusrat fateh onyango and my childbirth 2nd floor M.P. Shah then a two day old baby my implanted inner ear phones shoot out garbled Mozart allegro Jose Maria Pires soft and gloomy and sad twenty seventh concerto as I walk past all freaks and they were going home and I was going into the blooming cosmopolis cunt of lady Nairobi last trains moving in many underground tracks all blurry fast I can’t see interstellar matatus route Emba44 landing at JKIA and I love all the freaks I walk past she’s wearing streetwalker acacia thorn studded split open at chest blouse drool blue can’t touch her things because they are sharp.

I hate all this city has become like a crude oil in tetrapak in the SubwaY NaivaS underground 250ml and peach flavour with straw attached ready to drink fortified with vitamin C the fuel which set fire to my rape fantasies and sperms and condoms strewn on colonised Mogadishu beaches wide sandy and without seaweed christmas holidays highways from Mogadishu to Nairobi nuetron bomb tests passing by Chalbi Desert lit up with new years fireworks and Kilimani and Westlands and Kangemi III and new Umoja and Donholm with its great poet and sixteen grandchildren who never read Madman all playing in the December rain of light wet with electric because radioactive powerstation at Karen Naivasha the great suburb grown forever and ever lights now never go out, those Syokimau godowns I am leaving behind and the rare December rainfall this late afternoon almost evening and the atom bomb cauliflowered clouds in the sky I don’t see, I am underground.

The forty shilling train ticket I use as bookmark.

Favourite paragraphs III

They tell me to respect the way we do things here in literature and write about a character dictated by a list that’s been prepared for building bards. By the committee of the Writers’ Board of Kenya: streetkid, prostitute (with heart, perhaps, but victim), fat wabenzi, youth who’s no respect for those who’d cut her clit-bits off, and sundry other minor folk whose role it is to represent the mass (who’ve been betrayed, who only suffer) — and to do this in Gikuyu or Kikamba. Well, that’s fine, for I respect our great tradition of imprisoning our authors. — Stephen Derwent Partington

It is in captivity — ringed, haltered, chained to a drag. The bull is godlike. Unlike the cows, he lives alone, nozzles the sweet grass gingerly, to pass away the time. He kneels, lies down and, stretching out a foreleg, licks himself about the hoof. Then stay, with half-closed eyes, Olympian commentary on the bright passage of days. The round sun smooths his lacquer through the glossy pinetrees. His substance hard as ivory or glass — through which the wind yet plays. Milkless. He nods. The hair between his horns, and eyes matted with hyacinthine curls.  William Carlos Williams

His horses, hard of mouth, swerved suddenly and dashed against a Libyan army. From this single mishap there followed crash on crash. — Sophocles

The motion sun has this pure millimolar thing it does when it settles on the thin layer of dust on the block wood and even before those specks of dust trap the light and disappear into other regions of the air in my mouth-room. Two pairs of eyes in the room dart from object to object and never to each other. The arrangement of shapes and sizes in these rooms is something out of a set in a film written by directed by edited by scored by and produced by a young man in Nairobi with no education and a lot of love and kisses from his mother. Plastic teepee and Tupperware I got as a gift from an Italian man who comes to me in the late night hour, a man who looks at me with blank eyes and offers me his life savings if I can tell him why cold-blooded animals like the shade so much. He often says he loves the sun and he walks for kilometers without water or pauses. He’s third generation Italian-Gikuyu. Once he offered me a story for free. Emphasis on ‘free’. His father, after playing dead in the bloody fields of Wal Wal, 1934, bribed a merchant with silvers and gold to a southern border where he bribed a hunter with anal sex to take him to Marsabit. This man, he likes to spit in my garbage bags, I imagine those who like to spit are hydrated people and I spend nights and days thinking about this. I think about his bad breath and good intentions, his love for highlife benga and the many wrong histories he likes to offer me. I want to be like him, wrong in my convictions and happy as can be. In my garbage cans and in addition to spit are the remains of yesterday where I did things no one has ever done to a vegetable salad and later made that okay with a banana-strawberry-yoghurt splash. A lot of paper has been wasted printing recipes and turning them into manifestos for cats. — Clifton Gachagua

They both laughed the laughter of tipper trucks: it carried all the worry behind them and dumped it in some bola far away. The planets were the dancing hearts of vulnerable witches. Accra could harm the hearts of beings hundreds of feet up in the sky. Accra be sweet-ooooo; only avoid the history, avoid the gutters. When Adwoa Aude ended up finally at her house, she saw Aming standing at her door, waiting to enter with 1976. Her father had thrown her out. Adwoa took her in with her own tall puzzled look. Adwoa was completely exhausted and one had left Sally soon asleep suspended in the sky. — B. Kojo Laing

Wide sea, that one continuous murmur breeds along the pebbled shore of memory. — John Keats

He saw a vendor selling sugarcane from an open-sided van, mangoes in wooden crates and tall cane sheared with twine. Some things get better, Albert thought. A library, a play street, prods to his optimism, block by block. — DeLillo

When a clueless security guard locked up the library with us in it, we spent half the night in there, fucking on the stairs. You bit my lip until it bled and wrapped yourself around me as though the ground were a floe, breaking away from the continent, sending us over a waterfall and out to sea. With my tongue inside you I was licking the insides of a plump oyster. With your breath ragged in my ear I was listening to a shell from an ancient shore of an alien planet. Then, like wall geckos, we climbed out of the bay windows and ran, glittering with fucking, into town. — Nicholas Ochiel

I recall being told, when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew. I could see why. The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one awoke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf. The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called “earthquake weather”. My only neighbour would not come out of her house for days and there were no lights at night, and her husband roamed the place with a machete. One day he would tell me he had heard a tresspasser, the next a rattlesnake. — Joan Didion


Tusker & Fritz

300521_219943391395878_1622357992_nKQ-470 taxis, faces the runway.

The seatbelt sign lights up.

Some of us had problems tying our shoelaces in kindergarten and now clicking the seatbelt tongue into the slot part looks tough. It’s like throwing one string of shoelace over the other, left brain over right brain, mixing up our logic.

The Rolls Royce engines thunder, it’s the sound of ten thousand atmospheres rushing past. The metal ends of the seatbelt vibrate in-sync with finger bones.

Without looking outside the window, those of us in the middle seats know KQ-470 is now floating because the tyres are no longer bumping over the runway tarmac; the vibration in our finger bones has stopped. Looking outside, those of us at the window seats watch Nairobi slope as KQ-470 banks right. And right, and right, until we have all turned one-eighty and are climbing, moving south, outbound to Maputo.

There are streaks of rat brown rust on the aileron at the edge of the right wing and the aileron flutters spasmodically in the face of powerful winds. That’s how we know KQ-470 is flying fast. We see the rusted part juxtaposed against a dropping Nairobi. Some of us think about what happened in Cameroon. (A nocturnal Cameroon jungle 5 kilometers south of Douala International Airport where KQ 507’s flight recorder is found. Analysis in Canada confirms KQ 507 banked too much that night and the pilots panicked and it fell out of the sky.) Some of us have a fear of heights.

Over Nairobi National Park now, carpets of bush and trees. Water surfaces like ponds, rivers, streams fracturing the landscape symmetry. Clouds outside our windows, their fluff, their shadows on the carpets, the landscape running into the horizon where its hazy because the clouds pack up over there under the pressure of perspective and all the far things look obscure except for the infinite blue sky. Sometimes the landscape symmetry is fractured by shining rooftops which may be isolated game warden posts or some safari lodge using solar panels. This is where some of us admit we have been brainwashed because we are looking for something more dramatic down there. Like an overwater marina trench gouging out some hallucinatory valley, or a Kilimanjaro rising high into outer space. But it’s boring outside their. Kilimanjaro to the left is some small stone burger with melted white cheese spread over it and all else is a flat plain stretching on and on, carpets upon carpets of trees and bush. Small looking hills here and there.

Fingers clasp the edge, the elastic edge, of the pouch that’s in front. It’s warm inside the pouch. Fingers of the other hand grasp the glossy in-flight magazine called msafiri. The name has no capital letters. The magazine is warm. It’s like the pouch is part of a living animal, warm blooded and soft inside. Possibly the body heat of the guy in front has seeped through his seat and now comes out from behind here. The elastic edge catapults back into position as fingers let go.

It shows four elephants walking on the banks of a lake shore at the golden hour. It could be either late dusk or very early dawn. Thick orange sky flaming around the top of page 36, around the elephants in the middle, around the lake water which reflects everything above and around it. The photographer has also employed contre jour technique; the four elephants and the thin strip of ground they walk on form the only darkness; elephant silhouette. They walk eastward, following one another, ready to walk out from the right edge on page 36. msafiri has no capital letters.

The air-hostess rolls the drinks trolley down the aisle. The drinks trolley is a tall steel box. The air hostess puts her hands inside the tall steel box and brings out a cold can of Coca-Cola. Fingers leave page 36 and curl around the cold can. Is it possible the guy in front sucks the heat out of all the Coca-Cola cans on KQ-470 and leaves them chilled? Because after a while the fingers curling around feel the cold fire. The fingers burn in the near freezing heat because they don’t want to let go. Then, on the lower spine, a soft push is felt. From the seat behind a hand has gone into the warm blooded animal and has pulled out a glossy magazine. This is what is felt on the lower spine. The air-hostess rolls the drinks trolley down the aisle and puts her hand inside.

It shows an aeroplane window. Outside, grocery shopping is in freefall. Clouds are sculpted carefully in the shape of cauliflowers. Millions of conjoined cauliflowers and no two have the same size or shape though they all have the same feel. The sky is the blue colour from our nursery school days, the blue that looks happy and carefree. Grocery is falling out of a brown paper bag. Bananas, loaf of bread, milk packet, leaves of lettuce, or is it cabbage, a box of eggs, eggs as white in shading as the cauliflower clouds, a packet of pasta. A slice of pizza seems to have docked away from the brown paper bag earlier and is in a more advanced state of freefall but the particles of mushroom, capsicum and green olives are clearly visible amidst the cheese of the pizza. This is on page 33. The advert for yayayaya does not have any capital letters.

On page 21 there is another aeroplane window. This one shows portion of an aeroplane wing where the Rolls Royce engine is. Colour of the aluminium is very clean. The wing edges and round Rolls Royce engine are like buttocks, thighs, breasts voluptuous curvaceous. This is aluminium pornography shot with a Carl Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 4/1700. An aeroplane wing and engine have never looked more beautiful. No rat brown rust. No clue that beyond the page the wing has an aileron fluttering spasmodically in the face of powerful winds. And looking past the boudoir photography, down on earth there is wildebeest migration (savannah, acacia, Mara River and stuff). On page 48: “It looks like it was assembled from spare parts – the forequarters could have come from an ox, the hindquarters from an antelope and the mane and tail from a horse. The antics of the territorial bulls during breeding season have earned them the name ‘clowns of the savanna’.” What does one of us recall? Which white guy said that in which documentary?

Fingers have memory and they left something in the pouch. They left a touch. A plastic bag. The plastic bag is torn open. It’s a pair of headphones. Like a headband they go around the skull, the fingers adjust the earpads. The fingers of the other hand explore the sides of the armrest, trying to find the hole. The headphone jacks in. But it’s a dirty sonic. Sonofabitch aeroplane radio, can’t hear anything clearly. The earpads are farting poo booh. Stuff the headphones back into the pouch, crumple the torn plastic bag and drop it to the carpet. Some of us are susceptible to barotrauma at this stage when the cabin pressure levels to seventy six kilopascals; the internal headphones, in the head, start whining like hungry dogs under a full moon night. Some of us become aware the aeroplane is still very loud and we need to pee.

Walk down the aisle, handball team here, canoening team there, the black T-shirts, ‘KENYA’ in big capital letters blazing in white ink across everyone’s chests, boxing team here. Every team has its own physical dimension. Basketball team have bigger biceps, judo team have more pronounced deltoids. We are talking of each team having its own unique body size. Tennis ladies team have the best looking legs, steeple chase ladies are small, short, thin and hard as stone at the thighs.

Though we all wear the same black T-shirt, we are not coeval.

Every team has its own mental dimension. Boxing men don’t hear the very loud plane. They comport noise into silence. Focus goes into the hand. The coach is shouting outside the ring, the crowd is roaring in the stands. Hear only the hand hitting the others jaw, the sound of spit flying out from between teeth. The steeplechase ladies think of rhythm, how they will proportionately divide running strides every four hundred meters by how many jumps over the hurdles by how the wind velocity will keep harmony with the rest of the track variables.

As we stand on the pee line, the curvature of the earth cuts clean shapes outside the windows.

Everyone in front of us in the pee line is a federation official. Big stomach guys of Judo Kenya or National Basketball Federation. Skinny, too much lipstick, skinny lips, pee ugly Tennis Federation ladies.

Inside the cramped toilet there are stripes of faeces clinging onto the sides of the metallic toilet bowl. The officials always shitofy everything. The toilet paper is soggy. We are not sure whether it’s because of the alcoholic disinfectant they were doused with at factory level or because of the humidity inside here. We are even afraid to touch the taps because officials have touched them before us. We come back outside with raw, crotch grabbing fingers; squeezing past big stomach of Handball Federation, to enjoy the pleasant climate of the economy class. Ahead, big stomach of Judo Kenya is walking past curtain, the purdah behind which a seven course lunch is being served in Premier Class and we wonder why the big stomachs wants to use our toilets.

We are back outside, walking the aisles. Some of us get back to our seats next to colleagues and in that particular row we feel like one family because to the left is a chess player who specialises in the Najdorf and to the right is a chess player who specialises in the Grunfeld. In that row we speak the same language, Kasparov, and we fly over middle Africa together.

But some of us get back to our seats and feel estranged. To left and right are some of us who speak in incompatible languages, like how do we process a Minority Attack using Judo’s Ashi-Waza, foot and leg techniques? We feel alone. We are mixed up in this row over here.

Sections of mountain ranges and vast clouds gradually slide out of one window and reappear in the next one.

And then one of us will use the aloneness and pull out a laptop, have the air-hostess put a cold Tusker can on the fold out, slide out table, next to the laptop. The Tusker tab is then peeled away, froth foams out and slides down the can whilst Fritz is fired up and King’s Indian moves are put up for scrutiny under the infinite analysis function. That’s it; there are no other sportsmen like the chessplayers. We look like we were assembled from spare parts – the weak chest could have come from a malnourished parking boy fluttering in the face of powerful winds in urban streets like a rat brown rusty aileron, the big stomach from a sports official, and the sharp eyes of the brain from Carl Zeiss.

KQ 470 floats over Maputo. It banks sharply and we are pushed by gravity rightwards. The windows show white is the predominant colour in the city, white buildings sprawling across our field of vision. We are now like a satellite ready to drop to earth. We entered KQ 470 carrying Nairobi oxygen, we will walk out of it exhaling Maputo carbon dioxide. The seatbelt sign lights up.

Book hunting in downtown Nairobi

book sellers


A friend said “I know Mehul bought a bunch of Delany and so on. On the NBO streets.”

“Which streets?” another friend asked, “Pray tell, Mehul, where did you chance upon this treasure?”

I said:

It’s not so hard. Find a weekday. Pick a time around 5:30pm when rush hour starts to peak. Start from just outside Wakulima Market (the other side of it, the non-Haile side, the side where it seems you will end up on the railtracks). You might have to cross a stinky swamp just as you exit Wakulima (on the other side) to get here, especially in this rainy season. Regulars like me know which stones and wooden planks to step on when crossing the swamp waters. I suggest you wear gumboots on your first excursion. Here you will find about half a dozen book hawkers strewn across a length of about one hundred meters. It’s the cheapest place. They sell the books for 30/= each. My latest find here was a juicy 600+ page Herman Melville collection of ‘tales, poems & other writings’. You will find lotsa sci-fi. Largely because most sci-fi (all?) novels have the cheap paperback look. If you find 10-20 books you like, you could hustle a deal for all of them for a mere 200/=.

Next stop is inside Wakulima Market itself. The price goes up slightly. 30/= to 100/=. Usually, they have a boring collection here. Needless to say, I have never found anything worth it. But I still do check the place, simply out of book-hunting addiction.

Then you come out of Wakulima, now on the Haile-side, and you can fish around. There are a bunch of random book hawkers in the vicinity at this time of day. Sometimes you might get lucky with something good. Like ‘To Our Scattered Bodies Go.’

The goldmines are on Tom Mboya Street, but you may want to take a detour to the Bridge Over Railways. That’s the one just past Kenya Poly towards the tracks. Just at the foot of the bridge you will find a bunch of book-kiosks/hawkers (or whatever they are). Mostly it’s school books. But if you talk to the book hawker fellows nicely, they will take you into the backdoor areas of the kiosks where their ‘godowns’ are. I found some Delany here. You might meet an old fellow, who looks like he’s in his sixties now, I don’t know his name, I just know how he looks. A head full of grey hair, no balding, square face with a grey moustache. He should probably be considered a legend in Kenyan literature. Because I think he may be the first book hawker in Nairobi. He has been in operation at this same spot since the early 1990’s. My dad used to take me to this place on Saturday afternoons when I was a kiddo and he would buy me a bunch of DC comics and hardcover illustrated science books and so on. I bought my first DeLillos from here in the mid 1990’s (End Zone, White Noise and Ratner’s Star…apparently I thought they were sci-fi novels, and on reading them I did think I had read sci-fi) These invisible Kenyans make life tick. Go to some litfest-hayfest and you find a bunch of yuppie-like literati who have got to be good looking. Back at the Bridge Over Railways the guys are so hard to see but that’s where the books come together.

Then you can take some further detours along Haile and Moi Avenue. At the ‘Agip’ petrol station. Adjacent the Central Bank. The collection here is mostly girly pulp fiction. Nora Roberts and such hairstyles. But sometimes you get wonderful stuff. Last year I managed to pick up a bunch of Philip K. Dicks.

Outside the Tusky’s (the one next to Bomb Blast) you will find one of the more popular book hawker spots. But this one is no longer as good as it once was. There appear to be some turf wars going on between the book hawkers. For a couple of years (2010-2012) the book hawkers at this spot were different guys. And their collection was generally kick-ass. I bought over a hundred books in those couple of years from just this spot. The news guys seem to have liased with City Council askaris and had the good fellows kicked out. The bad guys have now taken over. Their collection is crap. So is there customer service. Plus they have hiked the prices to over 200/=. Stuff they have is mostly these big hardcover things about cookers, sewing, modelling, Ferrari cars, organic chemistry, Princess Diana and so on. Boring things. They have killed it for this particular spot. When it was good, the place was jam packed by book enthusiasts and we used to block off this section of the pavement completely.

Further down, are some other book hawkers. Again nothing much that interests me. Just after Kenya Cinema there is this gulley. This spot also used to be good. There was another old fellow who used to have some very interesting books. Then his sons came in and took over and fucked it all up. The old guy is no longer there and the sons now sell DVDs instead of books.

You can then cross over to the other side of Moi Avenue and find three other book hawking spots. These ones are good. Lots of Philip K Dick here if you want. Philip K Ubik is alive and roaming in downtown Nairobi and as long as he is read and used as directed, is absolutely safe.

Now onto Tom Mboya. Several spots here. You can also try these stalls inside the buildings. But the sci-fi motherload is at the spot just after the Tusky’s (the one diagonally opposite National Archives). The dude who runs this spot has got everything you would want when it comes to sci-fi. I found six Delany novels here. And there is a whole range of other sci-fi writers. Sometimes you have to be patient (this is a general rule), come in day after day, because these fellows like to sell out one lot before they replenish. But this dude always has something worth buying. Last week I picked up a book because it had a nice cover, metallic look with the word “LIGHT” creeping through. By M. John Harrison. Had never heard of him. Was a wonderful wonderful read.

The other fine spot is the one next to the other tusky’s (the one at the short road that connects Tom Mboya with Moi Avenue). Here, there is an excellent selection of the more literary sort of fiction. I have bought Beckett, Pynchon, DFW, Doriss Lessing, and even Soyinka’s “The Interpreters” from here (I have NEVER seen “The Interepreters” in any formal Kenyan bookshop. And it’s one hell of a novel). It’s like these two bookhawkers know what their clients want and therefore they seem to specialize. But I suspect they are not conscious of it. Instead, there seems to be some strange kind of natural selection going on.

If you have a Kindle, some of the electronic shops on Tom Mboya can hook you up with cheap and pirate .mobi format books. You give them a list of 50-100 books, pay them like 1000/= and they will hunt them down. You collect after a few days.

There are other spots I have not mentioned, downtown Nairobi is a rich book place. There are those fellows around French Cultural Center, on Kenyatta Avenue, on Ronald Ngala and so on. Over Easter, I was playing in the National Chess Championships at Kenyatta University. So I got to pass by Githurai every morning for four days. Just at the round-about next to the highway there are a bunch of book hawkers there too. Most of them sell pulp fiction but I didn’t have time to explore for long. And who knows what is happening in Mombasa and Kisumu and Nakuru and so on. People are reading. Don’t think the only Women of the Aeroplanes are those you see within the established literary circles.

Jalada Girl & other weak stories written in the Friday jam


A yellow flame burning the tip of Anne’s cigarette.

Smoke. Glowing yellow tobacco embers. Paper slowly burning. The transparent flame. See right through it. The dog is flat dead on the road.

The cigarette leaves her lips. Anne blows out such small clouds. From her mouth. Nostrils. The Cigarette Dragon.

The dog’s head lies on the road part. Rest of the body on the footpath. The dog was looking at traffic in the Mlolongo night. Now the dog can see through the dark. Better than Anne. She imagined him looking at the headlights. No night now. And some car comes and knocks him on the head and he goes flat dead on the road.

Look left, look right but don’t look into the headlights.

She puts out the lighter.

Her breathing is shallow. Snakes of cigarette vapour rising lazily in the stale car air. Lips sucking kissing the cigarette. Her cheeks dimple, go inward and touch her teeth. The molars.


Nisha is taking off her earrings. She is about to put them in the drawer when suddenly she stops. Her lips are curving into a smile, and we see in her eyes she has come up with an idea. She looks at her earrings.


In the garden, Richard hears a shout.

“Richard! Can you come in here!”


 Nisha is standing in front of Richard. Her fingers are twining around each other. She is obviously nervous. She comes closer to Richard.

“Can you go get my earrings from top?”

“Yes, Memsahib.”

Richard goes up the stairs. Nisha looks at how his trousers bring out the shape of his buttocks. She waits for Richard to come back down. She is biting her nails. Richard comes down the stairs.

“I cannot find them.”

“They are right on my bed!”

“I looked everywhere. You may have put them in the drawer.”

Nisha begins expressing herself with quick, sharp hand movements.

“How do you know I keep them in the drawer?”

Richard’s eyes are showing confusion. His eyelids are blinking.

“I don’t know madam, I am just saying…”

Nisha puts one hand on her hip, leans forwards slightly and sharply points an index finger at him with the other. She shouts.

“You know because you have been spying on me! You have STOLEN my earrings.”

“Nuh..noh..I..I dee..deednoh.”

Nisha grabs Richard by the shirt. She gives an impression of a lion having a rabbit in its paws.


Richard, in a moment of desperation finds some energy to say –

“No, no! Memsahib. I am not a thief.”

Nisha throws her head back like an operatic heroine in the middle of a poignant aria.


Then just as dramatically brings her head back into normal position.

“Let me check your pockets.”

Nisha quickly puts her hands into Richard’s pockets. She moves her hand deep inside it. She takes her hand out. We see a pair of gold earrings in her palms.

“Memsahib…it can’t be.”

“It can be. IT IS!”

Nisha grabs Richard by the crotch. Richard is frozen in his posture. An extreme confusion has come over him. She leans in.

“You know, I can report you to the police.”

“But I didn’t do anything.”

Nisha now has her whole body leaning on Richard. Her eyes now look dreamy and her lips are pouting. Her bosom, nestled on Richard’s chest, is heaving rapidly from quick breathing. She says in a lusty, low voice –

“I will make you a deal.”


A certain human tribe living deep in the heart of the Sahara Desert, a tribe that has never had contact with other humans before (or after), never seen a camel or oasis, who hydrate themselves by simply imagining what water is and water becomes real inside their throats. When one day a boy asks his mom why the world is only sand. The mom tells him why. That God was once a boy like him. And God lived in a world where he had imagined fantastic things – solar panels, fast Subarus, buildings and cities, headphones, 3D movie theaters, Sarakasi Dome rock concerts, heartbreak in Konza city, Maputo Maporomoko, billions of humans walking this world – and so these things were real for God. But God went crazy in this world. He lost his own soul in a dream one night when he found out he could never fall asleep because the lights would never go out. He lost himself in his own mind during the wakeful nights. And then he dreamed with eyes open one night. In his dream he started collecting the furies and angers and hatreds of all the billions of people. A girl would get angry with the ice-cream man because he gave her a smaller Choco-ice than her friend. A small anger to collect. A boss got angry at his accountant. A Robben Island inmate hated Mandela for fifteen seconds because Mandela farted inside a crowded room on Robben Island. God collected the smell and hatred of that fart. God mined the memories of the billions of people for these things. When he had collected these from everyone, he woke up. Our God is an angry God. In that instant he realized he didn’t want all those things to exist so all the anger and hatred and bitterness and furies he had collected were put together to create one uncontainable emotion. And the whole world blew up. All the rockets in the silos were launched. A man would look at a woman he hated and she would vaporize. All of Liberia was mobilized for Civil War. Cannibals and open heart surgery in Monrovia. The hutus came back from Congo to finish the job. The jews herded the Arabs into the gas chambers of Tripoli. The locks at Mathare Hospital were picked and all the madmen set on fire. Fire everywhere. Uhuru slept with Ruto in an affirmation of gay rights and televised the porno live on NTV. The jews who watched this porno on the 172 inch LCD screens at Artcaffe whilst munching croissants. The Kalenjin and Kikuyu going to war. Wrestling in bed as Eldoret goes supernova. Kissing beards as the parents bring the baby with the football size head, born free of charge at pumwani, back home to radioactive Kiambu. And a virile boy like God sees a Makueni girl, short hair and defrocked, the ambitious girl lying supine in bed, she waits for the boy, her body is ready, God wants it, the carpet bombing of Kethi Kilonzo. The missiles went to and fro like shuttle cocks over the Rift Valley. Uhuru and Ruto were macheted in their room at State House Mombasa. Mandela is pregnant with North Africa at Pumwani Hospital. The hens inside their prisons at Kenchic warehouses went mad and gave birth to live chicks who pecked their mothers in the cunts and ass. Libraries of Ginsberg were set ablaze. Boy and Girl love affairs died in the bonfires. The trees and grass and leaves and all the plants crackled in the heat. The stones atop Mt. Kenya glowed red. Bipolar bible men on the Aga Khan Walk became sane and saw the world in its crystal clear horror. That was the end of God. Live life simple son. Imagine water and food. The rest is sand and mirage and heat and sun and history.


Nisha and Kunali are seated by the coffee table on the porch. Richard is pouring tea into their cups from a silver kettle.

“Richard. You are leaving for home soon?” asks Nisha.

“As soon as you finish your tea, Memsahib,” replies Richard.

“Hmm..,” hums Nisha.

“That’s a nice aftershave you have on, Richard,” says Kunali.

Nisha giggles.

“Well…umm..,” hums Richard.

Richard looks to the driveway. He sees Boniface waving to him. Nisha and Kunali also look toward the driveway.

“I see your friend has come. Guess you want to go home now,” says Nisha.

“As soon as you finish your tea and I clear up, Memsahib.”

“I tell you what. Why don’t you invite your friend over and you two join us two for tea?”

Richard’s eye become big. Nisha is biting her tongue. A blush comes over her face.

Richard calls Boniface over. Boniface walks over.

“Have a sit you two.”

Nisha turns to Kunali.

“Kunali, you said you were in need of some house help,” says Nisha.

“Yeaahhh,” says Kunali.

Nisha turns to Boniface.

“Boni right?”

“Rrrr…Right,” says Boniface.

“You think you could help Kunali out?”

Boniface looks at Richard then at Nisha.


Kunali is looking at Boniface. A smile is forming on her lips.


Sometimes I would be sitting on the chair and get a hard-on which refused to go. Not because I was aroused but because my dick rubbed against my trousers. Or maybe half my blood got trapped at the barrier where my buttocks pressed on the hard chair. I had to hold my breathe and pray hard that nobody in class ever figured out what I was going through. The blood would get blocked below my buttocks and create a dam in my dick and it would be such a solid hard-on that I’d think it was going to be a hard-on forever. The worst times were when this would happen during English. The English teacher who was young and had some Somali blood in her, a Mrs. Abdi, and she was very cute. On certain days, when she was in the mood, she’d wear this really loose top and when she bent down at our desks to look at our books we would see her small breasts. She knew we were looking. Yet she would walk to the front of the class and smile at us all. She would come to the side of my table and lean or bend down, look at my English sentences, and I just wouldn’t know what to do.


“Coco’s? It’s in my slum.”

“Yes, Coco’s”


We are outside Coco’s Bar at night. A Mercedes parks. Richard comes out. All eyes are on him. He goes over to Nisha’s door and opens it for her.

Richard walks into Coco’s Bar with Nisha. He is dressed in an immaculate black suit. He could easily be mistaken for a big businessman. Nisha is wearing an Issey Miyake, there are diamond teardrops hanging from her earlobes.

The waiters, sensing VIPs, clear a table for them.

Nisha orders two bottles of Tusker Premium. She puts her legs on the table and crosses them, relaxed, showing off her legs and thighs.

“You could almost be mistaken for a regular here!”

Deepal laughs heartily.

Fimbo enters, wearing a suit.

Nisha takes her legs of the table and stands up.

Fimbo goes to Nisha and hugs her, gives her a peck on each cheek. Richard is taken by surprise.

“My lady, great to see you hear. Absolutely excellent,” says Fimbo.

Nisha adjusts Fimbo’s tie.

“It’s great that you made it. Thanks for the ride.”

Nisha turns to Richard.

“Richard, the car keys.”

Richard gives her the car keys. He is confused and his face shows it. His nose is flaring more than usual. He seems to have been confronted by a puzzling equation.

“Fimbo, as you can see, I was chauffered!”

“An excellent touch!” says Fimbo.

Nisha throws the keys to Fimbo. He catches them mid-air.

Richard is shifting uneasily in his sit. He feels out of place. Nisha takes a quick look at him and senses his unease.

“Oh by the way, Do you know Richard?”

Jaws, Zadok and the art of how to begin a novel

On Saturday, I bought JAWS by Peter Benchley for 30/= from a book-hawker. The first four pages introduced one of the main characters, ‘the great fish’ (shark), by showing how it attacked, killed and ate a young woman who had gone for a night swim in the cold ocean after a boozy date.

A hundred yards offshore, the fish sensed a change in the sea’s rhythm. It did not see the woman, nor yet did it smell her. Running within the length of its body were a series of thin canals, filled with mucus and dotted with nerve endings, and these nerves detected vibrations and signaled the brain. The fish turned towards shore.

Peter Benchley shows the shark as a character without any self-doubt. This contrasts to the woman character who feels fear etc. The shark attacks and kills without psychological motive. The writer does not give it human characteristics (yet it is not a machine) and this helps make the shark vs woman contest a gripping affair.

At first the woman thought she had snagged her leg on a rock or a piece of floating wood. There was no initial pain, only one violent tug on her right leg. She reached down to touch her foot, treading water with her left leg to keep her head up, feeling in the blackness with her left hand. She could not find her foot. She reached higher on her leg, and then she was overcome by a rush of nausea and dizziness. Her groping fingers had found a nub of bone and tattered flesh. She knew that the warm, pulsing flow over her fingers in the chill water was her own blood.

Pain and panic struck together. The woman threw her head back and screamed a guttural cry of terror.

The fish had moved away. It swallowed the woman’s limb without chewing. Bones and meat passed down the massive gullet in a single spasm. Now the fish turned again, homing on a stream of blood flushing from the woman’s femoral artery, a beacon as clear and true as a lighthouse on a cloudless night.

A wonderful first four pages.


Today, I received a personally autographed copy of SISTER SISTER written by the South African author, Rachel Zadok.  I will quote the entire prologue of this novel. You’ll want to read more:

sister sister

The woman dreams she approached KwaNogqaza Falls, just as she did on the night of her initiation ceremony, twenty five years before. She reaches the pool at the bottom of the waterfall and sinks to her knees to pray, but the sandy bank collapses and she slips into the water. The Inkanyamba swirls around her, dragging her down to the river bed where weeds dance with creatures half snake, half fish, and long-bodied crabs watch from crevices in the rocks, eyes like jelly-berries on silver stalks.

“Dig,” Inkanyama tells her. She buries her arm up to the elbow. Sand clouds the water, enveloping her in a storm of glittering grains. Her fingers close around two small stones.

The serpent-god takes her into his mouth and spits her out at the surface. She is no longer in the forest. A beach stretches out before her. The woman walks along the sand with the pebbles in her hand. Before long, she comes across a dead gull lying just above the tidemark. Two white chiks sit on the bird, picking maggots from its feathers. As she watches, the water subsides until there is a single blue on the horizon. Where there was ocean, there is only sand. The dune grasses shrivel. The trees in the coastal forest sicken, dropping leaves until they are nothing more than splintered grey trunk and branch. The world dies as the chicks grow fat on their dinner of maggots.

There is a searing pain in her hand. She opens her palm and looks at the pebbles, perfect white ovals, identical save for a scab that discolours the purity of one. She picks at the scab with her nail. Blood wells from the pebble and a sound like that of a mewling baby fills the air. The stone shudders and rolls away from her prying finger towards its twin. They merge, becoming one. She contemplates the single stone in her hand, but before she can glean meaning, it splits in two and her palm begins to bleed.

Someone shakes her. The woman opens her eyes and sees Sizane leaning over her.

“It’s time, Mama,” she says. “The baby is coming.”