Want more escapism? Try A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, a hilarious memoir by a scientist who studied baboons in Kenya for decades. Like the book about Alaska I reviewed this week, this one contains the occasional rant against poachers, bad tour operators, inept tourists, and the endemic corruption of the place, but the rants are contained and always resolve into yet another fun fact about baboons, life with the Masai, and the self-deprecating adventures of the author, who has been attacked by fire ants, swindled, and kidnapped by a bizarre truck-driving crew as he explores his surroundings. But the best parts of the book are the descriptions of the baboons themselves, scheming, deceiving, politicking in a way that can make humans slightly envious.
I find spy novels ridiculous and, although American Spy is elaborately staged and includes a clever family and romantic back story, I did not enjoy the spying bits, of which they are many. But you might!
Alexandra Fuller, although quite young, has written several memoirs (Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, my favorite, and others here and here) borrowing heavily from per parents’ lives to be sure, and the latest, Travel Light, Move Fast, follows the same formula of plentiful flashbacks to her childhood and even before, this time to talk about the death of her father, and how difficult it was for her, her sister and her mother. She tells of her father’s restlessness, the strong partnership he had with her mother, and their ability to create homes throughout southern Africa. It’s a wonderful mix of grief, battles with airlines, and crocodiles that eat farmed fish.
Things Fall Apart stars a Nigerian warrior whose village and life is about to change forever with the arrival of missionaries and the British empire. The best parts of the story are the many details about pre-colonial mores and customs, and also the wonderful tone and style that the author conjures to evoke a different time and rhythm of life. It’s not the usual, cheap idea of using exotic words (although he does that) but more a cadence of words and sentences. Very skillfully done.
There Was a Country: A Memoir is both a personal memoir of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and the story of the Nigerian civil war of the 60s, which left millions dead from both slaughter and, especially, starvation. I found the personal part of the memoir to be especially successful, as it traces the life of a smart child growing up in colonial Nigeria, mostly in the demanding educational system brought by the British but with many familial links to traditional ways. The political memoir is interesting, although more guarded and even stilted at times. Achebe is never afraid of pointing out the weaknesses and especially the corruption of the post-colonial regime. Indeed, he seems to have a very pessimistic view of the future, even as Nigeria seems to be experiencing some strong growth.
The heroine of This Mournable Body is a no-longer-young woman who, having left a dead-en job, finds herself living precariously at the mercy of various landlords, would-be bosses, and family members. The book is a long rumination on how humiliated she is by everyone around her — and indeed how women are treated harshly throughout society. It’s depressing and without escape, and moves so slowly that I almost gave up finishing it.
Clemantine Wamariya was only 6 when the Rwandan genocide started, and she and her older sister took off on what would be an eight-country odyssey, eventually resettling int he United States after years of living in refugeee camps. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After alternates between the present and the past, with her older sister marrying an aid worker because she saw no other safe outcome for her and her sister (the man turned out to be a cad and a violent one at that), and constantly hustling for survival. Clemantine is ultimately adopted by a generous American family and attends a prestigious university, while her sister cleans hundreds of hotel room to feed her three children, and they both find it very difficult to reestablish a relationship with their parents, who turn out to have survived as well.
The story speaks eloquently of refugees and how we could (but don’t) help them, and even more sadly of the emotional consequences of conflict long after buildings have been rebuilt and prosperity restored.
Dance of the Jakaranda tells the story of three men, two white British settlers and one Indian emigrant, who live in what will become Kenya and initially build the railroad that connect the hinterland to the port of Mombasa. Their personal lives are linked in direct and indirect ways, and will play out through their descendants in the story, which takes us through the early days of independence. The plot is intricate and often has unexpected twists, and the author’s description of the land is affectionate and occasionally lyrical. The history lesson is a bonus.
Written by an anthropologist, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen tells the story of the people of the Kalahari, which many of us will think we know from a single movie, The Gods Must be Crazy, but of course the reality is infinitely more nuanced (although we do meet the star of the movie in this account). The book is surprisingly meandering and unstructured, which grated on me somewhat, but does a magnificent job of presenting real people and the essential quality of a culture so unlike the Western one: where life is lived day by day with no fretting or preparing for the future, and the idea of appearing superior to others is just impossible. The past and present exploitation of the Bushmen is clearly told, but the focus is on how they are making the transition to a new, still not completely defined way of life.
Something to Hide is an utterly unpretentious and fun story of four women whose fates are shown to intertwine after many twists and many secrets (most from one woman to the other). I was concerned at first that the four far-flung locations would be exploited with heavy descriptions of travel and local attractions, but they end up fitting completely into the story and giving it the mysteries it needs. Yes, it’s a madcap pace but the emotions of the women are real and well-rendered.