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Archive for March, 2012

A friend of ours recently announced that his family is moving to South Africa as part of his new job as COO of  Grassroot Soccer - a Norwich based organization that uses soccer to promote HIV/AIDS education in Africa, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.  His mother-in-law asked us for great reads that would tell her more about the African countries where Grassroot Soccer (GRS) works. (We are guessing she is already planning a trip to see her grandchildren.)

We thought this offered The Book Jam a great opportunity to talk about exceptional books about Africa and to mention the important work of GRS.  Unfortunately, there is simply too much information for one post.  So we’ve split it into two.  Part Two will take a closer look at AIDS and its impact through the lens of literature, and have more information about the work of GRS.  It will post in May to coincide with the publication of John Irving’s new novel – In One Person - which while about a lot is at some level about the impact of AIDS on 1980s America.

Africa (orthographic projection).svg

Until then, Part One — sixteen books (the number is an homage to March Madness we suppose) we can recommend that deal with the African continent in some form or fashion.  The first four have our usual review length, the rest are a list for those of you looking for more titles.

Kenya: West with the Night (1942, 1983) by Beryl Markham. This incredible book shows how an amazing woman lived, rode, flew, loved and laughed in Africa in the early part of the 20th century.  This book may start out in Kenya, telling of Markham’s first passion (horses) but it then lifts the reader up, up, away, and into Northern Africa as Markham prepares to fly to Britain, and then finally to set records crossing the Atlantic solo. A fantastic piece of literature. As Hemingway said of Markham, she “can write rings around the rest of us who consider ourselves writers…it really is a bloody wonderful book.” A GREAT read and a superb book club book. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

Kenya, Zimbabwe (and the former Rhodesia),and Zambia: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (2011) and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight  by Alexandra Fuller (2003). Alexandra Fuller is simply one of the best memoir writers around. The stories of her British/Scotch family’s life in Africa are so outlandish, funny, and tragic that they could only be true. But it takes a writer of tremendous talent to bring the damaged characters, the exotic landscape, and the complex, violent history of so many countries  so fully to life. “Cocktail Hour” is Fuller’s love letter to her heroic, larger than life mother who after living in, farming in, and losing so much in Africa for all of her adult life is still there, still loving the continent, and finishing out her final expatriate days on a thriving fish farm. “Don’t Let’s Go“, Fuller’s earlier book about growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s will take your breath away and make you marvel at the resilience and adventurous spirit of this very special family.  ~ Lisa Christie and Lisa Cadow for the 2003 book. Only Lisa Cadow has read the 2011 book

Rwanda: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (2012) – For me, this author’s amazing gift is that she makes a book about a country torn apart from genocide somehow hopeful, without flinching from the awful truths contained in Rwanda and in the world’s lack of response to the horrors there.  My theory of how she manages this is that you care for her hero, Jean Patrick, the Tutsi boy who anchors this narrative and his dream to run in the Olympics. And you care for all the unique characters he encounters while maturing from boy to young man, especially his girlfriend Bea and his room mate Daniel.  The story effectively illustrates the strong ties of family and friendship, and the love that can overcome hatred even as all hell breaks loose – even if ultimately, that love can not save everyone.  Since it is the second of the two winners of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction that I have truly enjoyed, I vow to add the annual winners to my annual reading lists. ~ Lisa Christie

Kenya: Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood by Elspeth Huxley (1959, 2000) This is a classic in the genre of white women with African childhoods, right up there with West With the Night and Out of Africa. I had never heard of it (really!) – surprising given that I’m a huge fan of this kind of literature – and, even though it is told from the perspective of a very young Elspeth, it was a joy to come to this tale in my 40’s. Elspeth’s voice is clear, amusing, innocent, and yet also somehow wise. She tells of her family’s moving to a remote area of Kenya to grow coffee in 1912 when she was just 5 years old. There are stories of snakes, the travails of building shelter in such a foreign land, and of her family’s encounters with the Masai, the Kikuyus, plus the various European and British “tribes” (the Scots, the Dutch) that struggled to settle in this unforgiving and forever challenging environment  ~ Lisa Cadow

BRIEFLY, More Titles to Enjoy

Bostwana: Number One Ladies Detective Agency Series by Alexander McCall Smith. You will fall in love with Mma Ramatswe’s common sense approach to life and to solving mysteries in an everyday Botswana setting.  ~ Lisa Cadow

Kenya: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (1927) – Yes, Meryl Streep comes to mind, but this is a powerful piece of literature set in colonial Kenya even without an academy award-winning movie.  ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

NigeriaTiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson (2011) and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives (2010) – One, a coming of age novel that examines the complex political and economic problems of oil-rich Niger and another that (often humorously) explores the complexities of polygamy. Please refer to our October 11, 2011 blog for a more detailed review. ~ Lisa Cadow

South Africa: Books by Booker and Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer, including July’s People (1982) or The Pickup (2001). Insight into Apartheid and often erroneous expectations and misunderstandings among blacks and whites. ~ Lisa Christie

Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind  by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (2012) -Two forms – one for kids and one for adults - of the remarkable story of William Kamkwamba, a boy from Malawi who dreamed of building a windmill to help his country. ~ Lisa Christie

Ethiopia: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – Gorgeous gorgeous writing and a story that spans years and continents.  Truly memorable.

For teens

South Africa: The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay – A powerful (pun intended) tale of what one person can do in their own life to affect injustices. Last read years ago with young teens who loved it and the movie it inspired. ~ Lisa Christie

Two More for Kids

Malawi: Laugh with the Moon by Shana Burg (June 2012) – Clare is recovering (as much as one can) from her mother’s death when her father relocates them from Boston to Malawi. This kids’ book illustrates the power of friendship and cultural exchanges. ~ Lisa Christie

African continent: The Boy Who Biked the World: On the Road to Africa by Alastair Humphreys (2011) – The journal entries with drawings and “actual handwriting” in this are clever, and the moral that with hard work and enduring some tough situations you can reach your dreams is important.  ~ Lisa Christie

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As part of our mission to promote authors, the joy of reading, and to better understand the craft of writing, we’ve paired with the The Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont to present an ongoing series entitled “Three Questions”.  In it, we pose three questions to authors with upcoming visits to the bookstore. Their responses are posted on The Book Jam in the week leading up to their engagement. Our hope is that this exchange will offer insight into their work and will encourage readers to attend these special author events.

We are thrilled to welcome Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher. He hails from the state’s gorgeous Northeast Kingdom. A gorgeous part of this country where one of the Lisas from this Book Jam has placed some superb yurts to which she often travels to read uninterrupted.  So, we truly appreciate his sense of place. His latest – The Great Northern Express: A Writer’s Journey Home, chronicles a book tour taken shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.

HOWARD FRANK MOSHER is the author of ten novels and two memoirs. He was honored with the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts and is the recipient of the Literature Award bestowed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His novel A Stranger in the Kingdom won the New England Book Award for fiction and was later made into a movie, as were his novels Disappearances and Where the Rivers Flow North.

Mr. Mosher will be appearing at the Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday, March 28th at 7 pm.  Call (802) 649-1114 to reserve your chair, but hurry as always, because seating is limited and this one comes with a slide show so seats will fill faster than usual as there will be fewer seats available.

1. What three books have shaped you into the author you are today, and why?

Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations and To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love coming-of-age novels.  These are the three that have most influenced me because of their memorable characters. Though the main characters are somewhat older, I love Henry IV, Part One and Pride and Prejudice for the same reason.

2. What author, living or dead, would you most like to have a cup of coffee with and why?

Probably Mark Twain. He might tell me a story I could steal and use.

3. What books are currently on your bedside table?

I’m reading Robert Olmstead’s wonderful new novel, The Coldest Night (due April 2012) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  Just finished State of Wonder, The Art of Fielding, and Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespeare biography, Will in the World:How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.

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We’ve been thinking a lot lately about life  stages and who we become based on the roles we assume over the years: student, traveler, immigrant, refugee, employee, employer, single person, partner, mother, wife, mom of teens (an entirely different mom), person out of work, person searching for work, friend, friend to someone who is sick.  You get the picture.

And, as always, we turned to literature for deeper understanding.

In doing so, we found a cluster of books that center around the theme of reinventing oneself as a result of living in a certain place, mostly focused on the immigrant experience.  Our selections include two pieces of fiction: How to Become An American Housewife and  Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, as well as a book of interviews turned essays, Londoners, by Craig Taylor.

Read on to discover the connections. Pick up actual copies of the books to learn what it feels like to become someone new.

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons (2010). This is a fantastic novel. The story starts out in 1953 with German immigrant Jack Rosenblum deciding to leave behind the successful life he has created in London to build a world-class golf course in the countryside. Except for the fact that he’s never played golf, knows nothing about life in the country, and hasn’t told his wife of his plans, it sounds like a good idea. Jack desperately wants to become a proper Englishman – he’s been trying to figure it out ever since moving to England before World War II – and this seems just the way. I loved Solomon’s prose, her inclusion of food and recipes in the novel, and her gentle, insightful writing style that doesn’t shy away from addressing serious topics such as antisemitism, prejudice, and grief.  There is also the very funny “List of Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman” that Jack has been compiling since immigrating. Will he ever complete it or will he fit in by being himself? This book was an international bestseller after being published in 2010. It’s another one of those How did I miss this? titles. Fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand , this book is for you!~ Lisa Cadow

How to Become An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (2011). Funnily enough, this book is also organized around a list of instructions, these ones in a book explaining to Japanese war brides how to assimilate, to cook spaghetti and meat balls, and to be a good housewife in 1950’s America. Main character Shoko turns to this book for guidance when she moves to California as the bride of an American soldier and starts her life over. The story begins with an older, very sick Shoko remembering her life and aching for her American-born daughter to understand more about her history. I really enjoyed this take on the immigrant experience (actually written by the daughter of a Japanese woman) and was transported to some unexpected places: to what it meant to be a Japanese “untouchable,” what it was like to live through a nuclear holocaust, and to grow up during wartime in a struggling, Asian nation with very different customs. And, it’s always interesting to see one’s own culture mirrored back through new, foreign eyes. It is about mothers and daughters, lost love, family feuds, and leaving everything behind to sail into the unknown and start over.  ~ Lisa Cadow

Londoners: the Days and Nights of London Now – as told by those who love it hate it live it left it and long for it  by Craig Taylor (2012). OK, as someone who truly LOVES London, I admit the first set of interviews collected by Mr. Taylor really depressed me. Most of those interviewed spoke about why they left London, or how awful London is for those who live there, or why you should never live there.  However, I then rethought my own life as a dweller in many big US cities, and remembered how hard city life often is and I understood.  So, I chose to keep reading and was amply rewarded when I arrived at the next section in this collection.  These interviewees include a woman writing about being chosen as the voice of the London Underground – the one who says “mind the gap” and announces train delays and other important bits of information, and a cab driver speaking about “The Knowledge”  – a test Cabbies must pass before receiving their license. Subsequent sections include a hackney driver, a city planner, a dominatrix, a rapper, the lost property manager for London’s transport system, a hedge fund manager, homeless folks, a member of the Queen’s Guard to name a few.  Get this book and read it in one sitting if you can. Alternatively, parcel out the views of London living piece by piece and savor each perspective.  You will learn a lot about Londoners – and about living. ~ Lisa Christie

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As part of our mission to promote authors, the joy of reading, and to better understand the craft of writing, we’ve paired with the The Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont to present an ongoing series entitled “Three Questions”.  In it, we pose three questions to authors with upcoming visits to the bookstore. Their responses are posted on The Book Jam in the week leading up to their engagement. Our hope is that this exchange will offer insight into their work and will encourage readers to attend these special author events.

We are thrilled to welcome Scottish-born writer Margot Livesey to the Book Jam. She is the best selling author of six books, including Eva Moves the FurnitureThe House on Fortune Street and her newest, a “retelling” of Jane Eyre,  The Flight of Gemma Hardy (2012) which is set between Scotland and Iceland in the 1960’s.  Ms. Livesey is also the current Fiction Editor at Ploughshares, a renowned literary journal, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. She has taught writing at many institutions such as Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, WIlliams College, Tufts University, and The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For more information about her reading on Wednesday, March 14th or to reserve a seat, please contact The Norwich Bookstore at (802) 649-1114. This promises to be a very special event.

1) What three books have shaped you into the author you are today, and why?

The terrible novel I wrote while travelling round Europe and North Africa at the age of twenty-one, because it made me realise that I’d entirely failed to be influenced by all the wonderful novels I’d read.  Jane Eyre because it is such a wonderful example of a passionate first person narrator and it made me think about how to create a heroine rather than a woman character.  It’s also a fabulous example of the importance of setting in a novel.

2.What author (living or dead) would you most like to have a cup of coffee with and why?

George Eliot.  In its scope, ambition and accomplishment Middlemarch is one of the great novels.  I don’t think Eliot would be a particularly easy person to have coffee with – I can imagine awkward silences and then rather long rants – but I do think she’d have something interesting to say about almost everything.

3.What books are currently on your bedside table?

Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Alan Shapiro’s wonderful debut novel Broadway Baby, Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints - another debut novel that recreates the 80s with amazing vividness, and Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal which is set in an all girls school and is so beautifully and intelligently written.

From Lisa Christie: While we often do not have the chance to read the latest work by an author before their visits to the Norwich Bookstore, I was able to read Ms. Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy in time for this “Three Questions” post.  Set in Scotland and then Iceland in the 1960s, this book provides an homage to Jane Eyre, while still remaining its own novel.  As a huge fan of both Scotland and Iceland, I truly enjoyed the sense of place she created — I could feel the wind of the moors and the sea and … Basically, this novel is a just a fun read – think of it as a beach read for March, and I think fans of Jane Eyre will be especially intrigued, or maybe annoyed or… So please join the two Lisas of The Book Jam in Norwich on Wednesday, March 14th at 7 pm for Ms. Livesey’s reading and discussion at the Norwich Bookstore.  But, call 802-649-1114 soon to reserve your seat because, as always, seating is limited.

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