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.
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
Nigeria: Tiny 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.
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