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Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

We are (almost) at the end of January, and it has felt so long (and cold!). But as always, the books are helping me get through. Here’s what I have been reading:

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
I’ve been hearing about this novel for years and finally picked it up as part of my ongoing efforts to read more Black voices. It’s a powerful collection of linked stories tracing the different destinies of two half sisters, Effia and Esi, and their descendants in Ghana and the U.S. Heavy and thought-provoking.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, Sonali Dev
Trisha Raje is a brilliant neurosurgeon who has to tell Emma, an artist patient, that a lifesaving surgery will cause her to go blind. Emma’s brother, DJ Caine, is a talented chef who caters several events for Trisha’s wealthy, close-knit family. Trisha and DJ give each other all kinds of wrong impressions, but are forced to reexamine their assumptions. I loved the gender-swapped nods to Pride & Prejudice, the complex dynamics of Trisha’s family, and the fierce dedication to work and family displayed by all the main characters. Recommended by Vanessa.

March Sisters: On Life, Death and Little Women, Kate Bolick et al.
As a longtime fan of Little Women, I expected to enjoy these essays about the March sisters much more than I did. They were well written, but felt forced, and (except for Beth’s) seemed to focus on less significant aspects of each character.

Hope Rides Again, Andrew Shaffer
Joe Biden and Barack Obama are back chasing down criminals, this time on the mean streets of Chicago. When Obama’s BlackBerry is stolen, Joe tracks down the thief, but quickly realizes he might be in over his head. Funny and very meta; the mystery plot was thin, but I read this for the bromance and the laughs.

The Fixed Stars, Molly Wizenberg
I adore Wizenberg’s first foodie memoir, A Homemade Life, and enjoyed her second, Delancey. This one is quite different: an exploration of how her sexuality shifted and what that meant for her life and marriage. She’s an excellent writer, and the parts about her divorce and soul-searching are well done. But I agree with my pal Jaclyn – some other parts felt too personal, even voyeuristic. Complicated, but still worthwhile.

Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev
Chef Ashna Raje is struggling to keep her father’s restaurant afloat, when her cousin (Trisha – see above) convinces her to compete on a potentially lucrative reality show. The catch? Her celebrity partner on the show is her estranged first love, footballer Rico Silva – and they’ve got 12 years of secrets sitting between them. I really enjoyed this Persuasion retelling (and sequel-of-sorts to Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors), though there was a lot of trauma (especially for Ashna) that never quite got properly dealt with.

Links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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well read woman display strand bookstore

I can’t believe it’s already March – but I did read some great books in the last half of February. Here’s my latest roundup. (Display spotted at the Strand recently.)

The Gargoyle Hunters, John Freeman Gill
New York City is always reinventing itself: growing, pushing, regenerating – often at the cost of preserving its own past. Gill’s debut novel follows Griffin Watts, a teenager whose mercurial father is obsessed with saving and sometimes “liberating” – i.e. stealing – pieces of the city’s architectural history. A wonderfully imagined slice of New York history, a vivid portrait of the 1970s, a tender father-son story. Irreverent, well written and highly enjoyable. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

A Piece of the World, Christina Baker Kline
Immortalized in Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World, Christina Olson lived a quiet life on her family’s Maine farm. Baker Kline delves into Christina’s story – her razor-sharp mind, her stubborn family, her fierce pride, the degenerative disease that eventually stole her mobility. Luminous, lovely and nourishing, in the way good writing is. I also loved Baker Kline’s previous novel, Orphan Train. (I received an advance copy, but didn’t get to it in time for review.)

Take the Key and Lock Her Up, Ally Carter
On the run from a deadly secret society, Grace Blakely and her friends are trying to untangle the mystery that led to her mother’s death and may lead to Grace’s, if she’s not careful. The third book in Carter’s Embassy Row series never lets up. The plot gets a little muddled at times, but it’s a fun ride.

The Splendid Outcast, Beryl Markham
I love Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, which I read in college (and I enjoyed Paula McLain’s novelization of Markham’s life, Circling the Sun). These short stories (which I found for $2 on the carts at the Strand) explore Markham’s passions: horses, aviation, Africa, romance. A little uneven, but I enjoyed them.

Yours Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy is slowly adjusting to life in Pumpkin Falls, N.H. – which is more exciting than it first seemed. When Truly discovers a Civil War-era diary hidden in her own home, and two local maple syrup producers find their sap lines cut, there’s plenty to keep her busy. A heartwarming middle-grade mystery. I love Truly’s big, happy family, her group of friends, and the bookstore dog, Miss Marple.

The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman
Irene is devoted to her work as a spy for the Library, which collects works of fiction from alternate worlds. But when she and her new assistant, Kai, jump to an alternate London, they find lots of chaos and serious dark magic at work. Lots of (sometimes confusing) world-building here, but I liked Irene, Kai and their Sherlock-esque acquaintance, Peregrine Vale.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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tbr table books march 2014

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
A fascinating compendium of the daily routines of dozens of writers, artists, composers and other creatives. So many addictions and lots of creative torment, but a surprising number of these folks found that day jobs kept them sane (and enabled them to eat). As a writer with a day job, I get that. Recommended by Anne.

Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers
I’ve seen the movie many times but finally decided to read the book after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. The book contains some familiar incidents (Uncle Albert, the Bird Lady, etc.), but Mary Poppins herself is quite different from Julie Andrews’ character. Fun, but I honestly prefer the film version.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read Adichie’s debut, Purple Hibiscus, in college and found it moving and troubling. Americanah is more sweeping, more powerful, sometimes wryly funny. It traces the journey of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who fall in love as teenagers, move abroad (Ifemelu to the U.S. and Obinze to England), then are reunited years later. It asks big questions about race, class and love. After Leigh, Heather and Christie mentioned it on Twitter in the same week, I couldn’t resist.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, Sheila Turnage
Mo LoBeau and her best friend Dale have a few new mysteries to solve: is there really a ghost at the ramshackle inn outside their town? What’s the new kid at school really up to? And can they scrape a passing grade on their history paper? Loved this story – hilarious and tender, just like Three Times Lucky.

My Accidental Jihad, Krista Bremer
A secular surfer girl from SoCal, Krista Bremer never imagined herself married to a devout Muslim. But then she met Ismail, a kind Libyan who captured her heart. Bremer recounts their love story and explores her discomfort with her husband’s culture in this memoir. Her writing is elegant, but I was astounded by her ignorance on certain issues. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 22).

Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
This slim food memoir combines Indian recipes with flashes of memory from the author’s childhood, spent in Kansas with occasional visits to her Indian relatives. A slow start, but beautiful writing, though I wished some of the reflections had gone further. (I received a copy of this book from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

Stay, Allie Larkin
When Savannah’s best friend marries the man she’s adored for years, she impulsively orders a dog off the Internet. Her new pup is cute, but he’s huge, and Van has to mend her broken heart while training her dog and dealing with grouchy neighbors and her newlywed friends. A fun novel about love, family, friendship and fresh starts. (Language warning.)

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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I grew up taking my education for granted.

Well, not entirely for granted – I always loved school, especially English class, and it was absolutely expected that I’d do well in high school (I did) and then go to college (I did, and loved that too). Thanks to my parents (and my status as a white, middle-class American), I managed all of the above with no financial sacrifice and certainly no social risk on my part. I went on to earn a master’s degree, with a little financial sacrifice – but nobody ever told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t get more education because I am a woman.

However – as you certainly know – there are millions of girls in the developing world who struggle for every single scrap of education they can get. Most of them are expected to marry young, or drop out of school to help their families. Many are at risk for sex trafficking, HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. And all of them would benefit immensely from education.

The good news: there are many programs out there that work with young girls to keep them healthy, safe, unmarried and in school for as long as possible – ideally, until they’re adults who can decide for themselves when to marry and have children, and/or whether to have a career (and what kind). I’m writing this post as part of the 2011 Girl Effect blogging campaign, and the Girl Effect website has linked up with various programs supporting education for girls – but I’d also like to highlight two organizations close to my heart, because they are run by friends of mine: Eternal Threads and Sanctuary Home for Children.

Eternal Threads, founded by Linda Egle, works with women in developing countries, who use their handicraft skills to generate income for themselves, their children and their villages. Their partner in Nepal works with girls rescued from or at risk for sex trafficking, teaching them to knit and sew, and their partner in Thailand works with rescued girls and refugees, teaching them to make jewelry, so they can make a better life for themselves. They also work with women in India, Madagascar and Afghanistan – and they are starting new projects all the time. In just a decade, these projects have made an enormous difference for hundreds of women in the developing world. (And their products are beautiful – check out their online store.)

I’ve written before about my friend Amanda’s project, Sanctuary Home for Children – an orphanage in Tenali, India, which started in 2006 with 30 children and now houses nearly 100. Many of the children are orphans, and others have family members who can’t care for them. All of them are in dire straits financially, and in danger of having to live on the street when they come to SH. About half of them are girls who gain several years of safety, education and good health by living at SH. Several of the girls have now completed their secondary education, or received vocational training in sewing, and all of them have learned to read and had a safe place to live and enjoy their childhood – a rare thing for many girls in the developing world.

I may have taken my education for granted – but I can guarantee you that the girls helped by Sanctuary Home, Eternal Threads, and other like-minded organizations will never do so. Whether you buy products from Eternal Threads, donate to support the work of Sanctuary Home, or simply spread the word about supporting the education of girls, you will be making a real, tangible difference in these girls’ lives.

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I like to flatter myself that I’m pretty well-traveled. After all, I’ve been to 24 states and eight countries, and I lived abroad for three semesters (a semester in Oxford as an undergrad and then a year there as a grad student). But I tend to revisit – and read about – the same types of places over and over again. Oxford has my heart, but I adore the UK in general. I never, ever get tired of Paris memoirs; I love stories about Americans forging new lives in Europe because that’s a dream of mine; I drool over Little Brown Pen’s Paris pictures on a regular basis; and yes, I loved Eat, Pray, Love (but the Italy section was my favorite).

Recently, however, I read and reviewed two collections of travel essays – The Best American Travel Writing 2011, and the much more interestingly titled Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar – both of which were extensive tours of places I would never, ever choose to travel. (This is partly because several essays in the first collection, and all the essays in the second one, were set in war zones, where, frankly, I’ve never had any desire to go.) I think the locales in the Best American anthology – Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Moscow, Mumbai, Serbia – provide a clear portrait of where America’s eyes are focused these days (namely: the Middle East, the sites of natural disasters, and rapidly developing countries of all stripes). There was only one gentle European essay, about a man in pursuit of Monet, and while it was lovely, it sort of paled in comparison to the other, more vivid – and usually more shocking – stories.

The map of stories in Mud Crabs reads similarly, though of course conflict is overtly present in every single story, not just hiding behind the scenes. (And the conditions for war-zone journalists are worse than for travel writers in peacetime, however uneasy the peace.) But despite the fact that I would never choose most of these locales to visit (or, usually, to read about), I was totally swept up in the stories of these people, and their keen-eyed observations of cultures so totally different, so completely Other, than my own. It’s a testament, in part, to great travel writing, which evokes a place in a few well-chosen details and conversations. But perhaps it also represents a broadening of my own horizons.

I’m still not sure I want to go to Asia or Africa or the Middle East on my next trip – besides the concerns for safety in some of these places, I suspect I’ll always be an Anglophile at heart. But I’m learning to appreciate stories from all locales, however war-torn or foreign to me, and I think that’s got to count for something.

What places do you like to read about that you’d never choose to go?

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