Hello Fellow Challenge Readers!
How did your reading go this month? Did you read something set in Africa that you enjoyed? Share in the comments!
“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
― Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
I read our main title: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This is a multigenerational saga that spans countries and centuries. Two half-sisters are born in eighteenth-century Ghana in different villages. The kicker: they don’t know the other exists. One sister, Effia, marries an English slave trader, moves into Cape Coast Castle, and lives a life of comfort and somewhat peace. She raises half-caste children with her white husband. The other sister, Esi, is captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, sold into slavery, and shipped off on a boat. She ends up in America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery.
This book follows Effia and Esi’s descendants through eight generations. It discusses slavery in the past all the way through to racism in the present. One thread loops through Ghana with Effia’s family. Another thread travels America with Esi’s family. Readers switch back and forth between each woman’s descendants to learn how past actions influence their futures.
Gyasi’s debut novel was absolutely breathtaking. I listened to the audiobook and wished that I would have had access to the family tree that was in the front of the print book. If you decide to give this book a listen, Knopf Double Day has a copy of the family tree online that you can use. As I was reading, I was amazed that this was the author’s debut novel! Homegoing was beautifully written and tore at my heart as it introduced characters with heartbreaking stories of loss, danger, and love. Gyasi does a wonderful job of telling the accounts of a family and how their bodies are affected by events/people/places out of their control, while also being sensitive to their souls.
In December, we’re headed to Cuba!
This month the Online Reading Challenge travels to Africa. Our Main title for November is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Here’s a quick summary from the publisher.
Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.
One of Oprah’s Best Books of the Year, Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.
This title is also available in large print, CD audiobook, and as a Libby eBook.
Looking for some other materials set in Africa? Try any of the following. As always, check each of our locations for displays with lots more titles to choose from!
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain had been sitting in my wish list in RiverShare OverDrive for a few months before I decided to give it a listen. The plot grabbed my interest, but every time I scrolled through my list to find a new book, I never picked it because the cover wasn’t appealing. Well, I finally decided to read it when I discovered that our Info Café Blog’s Online Reading Challenge had Kenya listed as the country for May. Circling the Sun takes place in Kenya! It was a win-win. Now that I’ve finished it though, I wish I had started reading this book a lot sooner.
Circling the Sun tells the story of Beryl Markham, a real-life record-setting aviator who lived a life of adventure full of strife and unconventional desires. She was born in England and then brought to Kenya by her parents because her father wanted to farm, despite the fact that he had no experience doing so. Her mother left her and her father in Kenya when Beryl was very young to move back to England. As a result, Beryl was raised in a very unconventional way by her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who worked on her father’s estate and lived close by. Growing up without what the English considered to be a ‘traditional’ female role model, Beryl because a bold young woman who was not afraid to share her opinions, to try new things, and who understood the balance of nature, something that her father passed down to her.
Once Beryl reached a certain age, her father decided that she needed to have a more traditional life and thus threw the cozy life Beryl is familiar with into utter chaos. Her relationships began to dissolve and she was left floundering and confused about what exactly she was supposed to do with her life. Taking the skills she learned from her father as a horse trainer, she decided to become the first woman horse trainer in Kenya, which of course proved to be a very tricky process. Her decision to become a horse trainer led her more deeply into the European Expat community in Africa where she met and became entangled in a messy love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixon, who was the author of the classic memoir Out of Africa. Their tangled relationship and Beryl’s continuous desire to try more, to do more, and to be able to fend for herself leads her to journey all over the world and to meet many remarkable people.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book, but I did find myself confused sometimes about who different characters were referring to. I know this was probably because I listened to the book and missed seeing the names in print, but I still was able to figure it out at the end. I also highly encourage you to listen to/read the epilogue where the author gives readers a glimpse into the real life of Beryl Markham and what happened to her, her friends, and family after the book ended.
The author also mentioned the book West with the Night that Beryl Markham actually wrote! She praised it highly and Ernest Hemingway even reviewed it with his quote directly on the cover. This book is on my to-be-read list and I can’t wait to read more about Beryl’s life from her own point of view.
This book is also available in the following formats:
How did your month in Kenya (or African country of your choice) go? Sadly, the quantity of books isn’t especially generous, but the quality of what is available helps make up for that.
This month I read A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicolas Drayson. This is not an actual bird guide, but a novel, although the birds and wildlife of Kenya make many appearances. Rather, it is about Mr Malik, a widower, who has attended the weekly bird walks of the East African Ornithological Society, which are lead by a certain Rose Mbikwa, for years. Mr Malik is desperately in love with Ms Mbikwa and, just as he’s nearly gotten up the courage to ask her to the annual society dance, a rival appears in the most horrible form – Harry Khan – brash, good-looking and flashy, the very opposite of Mr Malik.
A competition is cooked up by their fellow birders – whoever can identify the most species of birds in a week wins the right to ask Ms Mbikwa to the dance. What follows is a charming love story (think Alexander McCall Smith) set against the sweeping landscape of Kenya. I have always thought of Africa as dry and hot and empty and while some of this is partly true, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa also shows how gorgeous it must be, a land of wide open skies and teeming with birds and wildlife as well as people from all walks of life. Highly recommended.
Now it’s your turn – what did you read this month?
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?
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?
Maria 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.
A 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)
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 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).