Ilivetolearn's Blog

January 31, 2012

your sons are WHERE?

Filed under: books/authors,on the road — ilivetolearn @ 10:25 pm

I think I’m the only person in the world whose computer dashboard gives me the time of day in Philadelphia, Ouagadougou, and Maputo. This is because in April Elliot left for his first State Department post, in Mozambique, and in June Evan left for his 27-month Peace Corps assignment, in Burkina Faso. “Oh,” a friend said, “they’re both in Africa. So they’re not far from each other.”   Well, I could have responded (except I had to go home and look up the distance), only 3,400 miles apart. So I have embarked on an informal reading program about what, in my non-PC way, I still think of as The Dark Continent. It’s mysterious to me, in any case, as I’ve only traveled in the uppermost reaches of it–I’ve been in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Considering that the continent of Africa can encompass the whole of the China, Europe, and the USA (including Alaska) with a few square miles to spare, I have only scratched the tiniest surface of it.

So among the 68 books I read in 2011, 5 were about Africa: 4 non-fiction, one fiction. Here’s the round-up.

First, perhaps my least favorite:

I was very excited when I learned of this title (Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World), as I had so enjoyed Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, which I read years ago. Alas, this one is not as erudite or well-written. So while I learned a lot about the author’s desultory travels in Ghana and (yes!) Burkina Faso, I did not get an all-encompassing social and chemical history, or a true feel for why a certain textile and its color is of such great importance. Plus, I had to wade through sentences like this one, searching for its meaning:

“Before us at the Ghana customs station was a long line of women in blue-black funeral cloth, Ghana’s very singular weekend ubiquity, that appeared like a refuge.” (p. 163)

Where was the editor??

For one of my book clubs, I read this:

It concerns a Nigerian girl who has been through the horrors of war and a British couple she has met. Everyone in the club (including me) liked it very much, but later as I looked back on it I began to feel that I had been manipulated into caring so much by the heavy-handed use of foreshadowing (much as I felt when I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy).

The other book club I’m in considered, and then rejected (too long!) this one:

I listened to it on CD in the car and really got a lot out of it, though I think I will have to get the print version and spend more (undistracted) time with it to feel that I actually have learned the history so expertly presented. I really admire people who can make hundreds of years and thousands of facts fall into line and make sense.

And for a very different, very much more personal history:

I had read her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight, and preferred it to this one, though I found the two covered a lot of the same ground. This is supposed to be more about the author’s mother Nicola, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Kenya, but a lot of it is about the peripatetic life of Nicola and her husband as they try to continue the lives of Happy Valley-era Brits in sub-Saharan Africa during the years when one after the other of the countries they inhabit blows up. You end up thinking, “How could they have felt so entitled and self-justified??”

And last but very much not least (in fact, the biggest and the best):

This is an incredible compilation of ALL the history of Africa, way back to when it was Pangaea. The author does a masterful job of marshaling facts and making them readable. I have recommended this so many times we finally bought a few copies of it to lend people (we had tortured the library copy for months on end). The amount of paleontology, archeology, anthropology, political science, and every other social science you can think of in this volume is staggering. I am in awe.

And now, before we go off to Mozambique this summer, I have to expand the reading program into specifics about colonization such as King Leopold’s Ghost, which has been on my to-read list for ages. A cram course in modern African history coming up!


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