Online Reading Challenge – Halfway Through May

Hello Fellow Traveling Readers!

How is Kenya treating you this month? Because the selection of books about or set in Kenya is pretty slim, probably the hardest part of this challenge is finding a book that interests you. Don’t give up – there are some excellent ones that are well worth the search! (see this post for some suggestions)

Of course, because of the lack of Library Police, there is no rule that says you can’t read a book set in a different African country. Or different country from anywhere for that matter. However, if you’d like to stick with the African continent, there are some amazing books.

Travel to Botswana with any of the titles in the delightful No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. These fun and charming books follow Mma Precious Ramotswe as she untangles the various problems of her clients with wisdom and humor. Her love of Botswana and its people shines throughout. There’s also a beautifully done television series which originally ran on HBO.

The Congo, with it’s dark history, has inspired some outstanding books including The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a journey into the African wilderness and the human heart. I would also recommend The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver about a fire-and-brimstone preacher who brings his family to the Congo to be a missionary. The book is elegant and thoughtful and absolutely devastating.

If you want to explore South Africa, there is no better place to start than with Nelson Mandela. Look in the Biography section alphabetical under Mandela for books about this man’s remarkable life. For a classic, try Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton about a black man’s country under white man’s law, written with dignity, courage and love. Or check out the Tannie Maria mysteries by Sally Andrews, set in rural South Africa. The first in the series, Recipes for Love and Murder, is filled with humor, romance and recipes (and a murder!)

What about you? What have you read this month?

Now Departing for: Kenya

Welcome to the May edition of the Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re headed for Kenya!

When I think of Kenya (a country I’ve never visited) I think of large expanses of open savannah grasslands, wide skies and lots of wildlife. I’m afraid I know very little of the people who live there or much about it’s history – but that’s what this year’s Reading Challenge is all about, isn’t it? Exploring new places!

You have a variety of titles to choose from. Try The Constant Gardener by John LeCarre, about the dark side of capitalism and the long-reaching effects of corruption and political intrigue (and it’s also a movie) Suzanne Arruda has written mysteries set in 1920s Kenya including The Leopard’s Prey and Treasure of the Golden Cheetah.  Love, Life and Elephants: an African Love Story is a memoir by Daphne Sheldrick about her lifelong work with the elephants and wildlife of Kenya. Circling the Sun by Paula McLain follows the remarkable story of an independent woman, Beryl Markam (author of West with the Night)

For movies you can’t beat Out of Africa, an adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s time spent in Africa trying to establish a plantation. Starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, it is both sweeping and intimate and incredibly beautiful. Or search out The Flame Trees of Thika, a gorgeous, heartbreaking story of an English girl growing up in Kenya and starring Hayley Mills.

Unfortunately, the number of books and movies that we have available that are set in Kenya is pretty slim, and the majority of them view the country through the eyes of white settlers. Because of this, I think it’s fine to read a book set in another African country this month if you’d prefer (remember, no Library Police!) It is a disservice and rude to imply that all of Africa is the same when in fact it is made up of a diverse range of nations and cultures with unique (often ancient) histories.  But if you’re having difficulty finding a book set in Kenya that interests you, feel free to explore a different African country.

I am planning to read A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicolas Drayson. It’s fiction, not an actual bird guide and reviews describe it as “charming” in the same vein as Alexander McCall Smith’s books. “Charming” is always a good idea.

What about you – what are you going to read this month?

 

Africa’s Child by Maria Nhambu

africa's childMaria Nhambu’s memoir of growing up in an orphanage tucked remotely in the Usambara mountains of Tanzania is not for the faint of heart.  She is not shy about sharing candid details of what she remembers from her childhood as a half-caste girl (a descendant of an African mother and a European father) with no parents to claim as her own.

Though the story was hard for me to read at times, it was also impossible for me to put down. I found it painful to read about the emotional, physical, and sexual abuses rained down on her and her contemporaries. Yet, Nhambu’s indomitable spirit and unwavering focus on her goal of getting an education makes hers one of the most uplifting books I have read in a long time.

Though Nhambu now has over seventy years of experience in this world and has earned every bit of wisdom she possesses, the child self she shares with her readers was one bearing a wisdom way beyond her years. Her story reflects her heart: rare, strong, lovable…compelling. Please read Nhambu’s memoir and if you feel, like I did, that Africa’s Child will forever be a part of you then perhaps this world will become a better place to live, one heart at a time.

 

The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux

last trainA decade ago, Paul Theroux’s best-selling Dark Star Safari chronicled his epic overland voyage from Cairo to Cape Town, providing an insider’s look at modern Africa. Now, with The Last Train to Zona Verde, he returns to discover how Africa and he have changed in the ensuing years. On this trip, Theroux is journeying through West Africa for the first time. From Cape Town, South Africa, to Namibia to Botswana, he covers nearly 2,500 miles before he is forced to give up what is to be his final foreign trip, a decision he chronicles in a delightfully curmudgeonly and unsparing chapter titled “What Am I Doing Here.”

Vivid, witty, and beautifully evocative, The Last Train to Zona Verde is a fitting final African adventure from the writer whose gimlet eye and effortless prose have brought the world to generations of readers. (description from publisher)

Serengeti Spy by Anup Shah

In these spectacular photographs taken in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara Natural Reserve in Kenya, Anup Shah reveals African wildlife as never before, through the use of remote hidden cameras planted across the plains in Serengeti Spy.

Organized by season from January through December, here is life on the plains in all its dynamism and vitality. Readers find themselves literally face-to-face with hyenas and cheetahs as they feed on a kill; elephants communing at a watering hole; playful lion cubs; wildebeests hauling themselves out of a river; a leopard growling a warning; and inquisitive monkeys gazing at their reflections in the camera lens. Many of these animals have noticed the camera, to them an odd device that makes a strange clicking sound. Captions tell the story of the daily ebb and flow of life on the African plains.

These stunning photographs bring armchair travel to new level of up-close-and-personal in marvelous fashion.(description from publisher)

 

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee offers a lot to talk about, but without a lot of substance. It exhibits a weird tension between visceral and twee, with its pretty cover, gimmicky blurb, Dickensian coincidences, and gritty portrayal of humanitarian crises in western Africa. It’s a book that doesn’t make you decide between ‘drama of unimaginable cruelty and violence’ and ‘saga of suburban ennui and infidelity’ – it just has both, and by virtue of that uniqueness, it’s already worthy of discussion. Additionally, the sadness of the subject matter and its real-life inspiration make this a heart wrenching book that will absolutely give book clubs fodder for great discussion.

There’s a lot of good in Little Bee; it’s snappy and readable, even beautiful in its language at times. Its setting contrasts the familiarity of London with the unknown of its asylum-seekers and Nigeria’s oil conflict in a surprisingly effective way. But there are lots of negatives too: the plot has turns so contrived you’ll wince, and Little Bee herself is so perfectly perfect that her nobility can be tiresome. Few of the characters are memorable and even fewer are sympathetic.

It also suffers from the plight of Changed Title Syndrome, wherein the publishers change the original title in an attempt to appeal to American audiences (this also famously happened with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – because presumably, American kids would never stoop to read something with a word as dull as ‘philosopher’ in the title). In this case, the wonderfully apt and evocative title “The Other Hand” was rewritten to the rather plain and accessible “Little Bee.” Rather than calling attention to the central metaphor and most vivid scene of the book, the new title simply names the main character, and it’s rather banal by comparison.

“Little Bee” is an unusual, readable book that, while imperfect, would make a great choice for book clubs (provided all members are comfortable with some gritty, violent scenes).

 

The Informationist by Taylor Stevens

Have you zipped through Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series? Are you looking for a heroine as tough and scarred as  Lisbeth Salander? Well, look no further.

The titular Informationist, Munroe (aka Michael and Victoria) is a very high-priced gun-for-hire. Because of her facility with languages and insight into the politics and economics of other countries, she acts as a quasi-spy/private eye for governments and corporations.  She grew up in Cameroon, the daughter of missionaries, and rebelled against their religion and neglectful parenting, by going to work for a local cartel of criminals. There she learns many survival skills, useful in her current line of work.

The most interesting aspect of the book are the settings of Equatorial  Guinea and Cameroon. Munroe and her minder navigate the bureaucracy, politics and culture of these countries trying to find the daughter of a billionaire oilman.

Her job as an “informationist,” is to get the information her employer requests. In this case, whether the missing girl, Emily, is dead or alive. Such a remote part of the world is fascinatingly revealed – the climate, history, and customs are incorporated naturally into the story. The pages nearly drip with the heat and humidity.

The author herself grew up  very non-traditionally, in a “communal apocalyptic cult,” as she says. It wasn’t till she was in her twenties that she escaped. The cult traveled all over the world, including West Central Africa, which accounts for her gifted depiction of this area.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a series of Victoria Munroe books in the near future.

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

submitted by Georgann

MoralityI have thoroughly enjoyed these mild-mannered detective stories from the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, set in the country of Botswana, Africa. The characters are engaging, coming from a world-view different from my own, and a society with a somewhat different set of mores. Still, it is easy to identify with them and a delight to read about their adventures. The characters struggle with a rapidly changing Africa, and with changes that are good and not-so-good. Their cases are interesting, often solved with intuition and plenty of footwork. In Morality for Beautiful Girls, detective Precious Ramotswe investigates an alleged poisoning, and checks the moral character of the four finalists of the Miss Beauty and Integrity Contest.

For me, the best part of the books is the philosophizing, of which there is plenty, for a detective must understand human nature. How often it makes me smile or even laugh out loud. With 10 books in the series, I expect to be entertained for some time!

Don’t Miss Your Chance!

Hey Blog Readers! Don’t forget to comment on last Friday’s blog for a chance to win two free tickets to the Putnam Museum and IMAX Theater movie, Kilamanjaro: to the Roof of Africa. This breathtakingly beautiful movie will transport you to the exotic world of Africa as it follows a group of seven people who are climbing the largest free-standing mountain in the world. All that beauty and adventure can be yours – and you won’t even have to pack a bag or buy an airplane ticket!

To enter, simply tell us about your favorite local vacation spot – anyplace within a day’s drive (round trip) of the Quad Cities that is a favorite with you and your family. Maybe a mountain climbing excursion on a far continent isn’t in your budget, but a day’s getaway at a less exotic – but still fun – location could be just the ticket. (Also, less chance of getting eaten by a lion)

Be sure to leave your comment by midnight tonight. We’ll announce the winner on Tuesday, August 25.

Good luck!

The New African-American Kitchen by Angela Shelf Medearis

new-african-american-kitchenFocusing on the various cultural traditions that have influenced modern African-American cuisine, Angela Shelf Medearis’ The New African-American Kitchen will have you heading for the kitchen in no time. Known as “The Kitchen Diva” on her PBS cooking show, Medearis sprinkles historical information and quotes throughout the book, making it as entertaining to read as it is to cook from.

Recipes begin in Africa, then travel to the Caribbean and then to slave kitchens where the ingenuity and skill forged by the hardships and conditions of each situation have help create the unique dishes of modern African-American dishes.

Medearis also includes a chapter on healthy eating, aimed at providing delicious recipes for diabetics (more than 3 million African-Americans have some type of diabetes) and one with recipes for African-American holidays such as Juneteenth and Kwanzaa. Emphasis throughout is on healthy, organic ingredients, simple preparation techniques and the joy of sharing good food with family and friends.