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AIDS & Literature (Plus More Details about Grassroot Soccer and Its Work to Eliminate HIV/AIDS)

Our earlier post, “Africa: Part One,” was inspired by Grassroot Soccer (GRS) and listed important, memorable books set in Africa.  GRS uses the game of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize communities to stop the spread of HIV and create an AIDS free generation, focusing most of its work in Africa.

Now, in an attempt to better understand the AIDS epidemic which has so effected that continent, we recommend two books that angle in on this devastating disease.  Please note that in the titles we’ve paired below, AIDS is depicted as an illness afflicting homosexual white men and both are set (or begin) several decades ago in the United States.

The typical HIV/AIDS patient today is very different.  According to the GRS web site (2008 report by UNAIDS):

  • Worldwide, 33 million men, women, and children are infected with HIV.
  • 2.7 million became newly infected in 2007 (roughly 7400 every day)
  • 45% of all new infections occur among 15-24 year-olds.
  • Less than 40% of young people have comprehensive HIV/AIDS knowledge.
  • 67% of people living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa.

But no matter who HIV/AIDS afflicts and no matter where they live, the disease and its effects on sufferers and their families remains the same. We believe the following selections will help the reader better understand AIDS and the history of the epidemic through though the lens of literature.

In One Person by John Irving (May 2012) – There are books that you read that are just great stories and keep you turning pages because it is important to discover what happens next.  There are books that while you are reading them remind you of places you have been and people you have encountered.  There are books that remind you people can be amazing, and that progress in improving the way humans treat one another is possible.  There are books that inspire you to ponder what you can do to help the world be a better place.  There are books that illustrate the power of literature to make one think.  This book did all of these things for me.

The story of William/Bill Abbot/Dean, a boy growing up in a rural Vermont town housing an all-boys academy, having “crushes on all the wrong people” is a novel at its best.  Narrated by a 70-ish year old Bill, as he reflects upon his life, the plot covers his life from his early teens to present day.  You watch him navigate high school, live as an adult, and learn about the mysteries surrounding his birth.  Warning –the mysteries about and the coincidences surrounding his father are among the weaker plot points in the novel; so please breeze by them in order not to miss the power of this book.

I enjoyed most of the characters populating this novel, even those of a less savory nature.  I smiled at the fact that great literature (i.e., Madame Bovary, The Tempest, works by James Baldwin and the Bronte sisters) is an important aspect of the plot.  And yes, because of Bill’s bi-sexual identity and his multiple partners, and the span the novel encompasses, you know from the first page that AIDS will impact his life as an adult in the 1980s. That knowledge does not ruin the plot and the pages dealing with that epidemic are among the most powerful in this book.  To say much more would give too much away.  Please read it an enjoy. ~ Lisa Christie

And the Band Played On: Politics, people and the AIDS epidemic by Randy Shilts (1987) – When first published, this book dramatically changed and framed how AIDS was discussed.   Shilts’ expose revealed why AIDS was allowed to spread unchecked while most institutions ignored or denied the threat, and he is often harsh in his reporting.  While the data and the portraits of the AIDS epidemic differ tremendously today (e.g, infected women; the epidemic on the African continent), this powerful story of AIDS when it became part of the US conversation about sexually transmitted diseases, remains important.  A 20th anniversary edition (2007) is available, and a movie based upon the book can be viewed on DVD. ~ Lisa Christie

BONUS PICK: For those readers looking for insight into the epidemic today, our friend Rob Adams at Grassroot Soccer also recommends Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin. This book discusses how Africa became the epicenter of this disease and why the implications for the world are vast. Neither Lisa has yet finished his recommendation, but we are grateful we have started this important book.

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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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LISTEN NOW to “Books That Make Us Laugh”  or download the podcast at http://www.box.net/shared/gxbfpuiysy

A very funny walk

In the “Books That Make Us Laugh” jamcast Lisa and Lisa share some books that make us chuckle, or at least smile, every time. However, we each interpret this topic a bit differently. Lisa LC chose books that made her smile, not necessarily laugh out loud. J Lisa C chose the laugh-out-loud types. Our choices are:

Lisa LC – The Family Man  by Elinor Lipman,  A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson, and  The Dud Avocado a little known work by Elaine Dundy.

J Lisa C – Anything recorded byDavid SedarisA Walk in the Woods
 and Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town in America
by Bill Bryson, Frindle, The Landry News
and No Talking all by Andrew Clements, also good as audio books. 

Recorded January 2010.

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