HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS

BIANCA MARAIS

Set in Johannesburg, HUM centres on Beauty Mbali and 9-year-old Robin Conrad, each of whom is impacted by the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which white police officers opened fire on peacefully protesting black schoolchildren. Robin’s parents are killed in the backlash, while Beauty’s daughter, Nomsa, goes missing from her Soweto school after taking part in the uprising. Robin’s liberal aunt is an airline hostess so hires Beauty, an educated Xhosa, as a caretaker for Robin so she can remain in the city and continue her quest to find her daughter. This is a difficult transition for Robin who is used to staff having a separate living unit, not using family plates and utensils and certainly not being treated as part of the family. As she bonds with comes to love Beauty, Robin withholds information about her daughter, Nomsa for fear of losing Beauty. The only criticism I have is that Robin’s narration does not ring true for a nine-year-old girl.

I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right colour, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people: a world where hatred was the common language and bricks the only words.”

“She speaks Zulu, but I am able to understand her. All our languages overlay one another like blankets of mist on a mountaintop.”

“a river of blood in the streets and the children are floating in it… they are human debris swept along in a flood of destruction.” 

“Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room…. Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: ‘friend.’ “

THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE

LISA SEE

East meets west as the world impinges on the Akha hill tribe in Hunnun province in China. One of the most interesting themes is the exploration of the Akha culture. Young teens are encouraged to explore their sexuality but if a baby is born out of marriage it must be killed. Twins are considered to bring bad spirits so they must be killed as well.Elaborate cleansing ceremonies help protect the individuals, the families and the village. Li-yan falls in love with San-pa but San-pa is born on Tiger Day, while she is born on Pig Day, so their parents see them as an incompatible match. But their love overpowers tradition and taboo, resulting in Li-yan’s pregnancy.  Tradition is broken and the child is not killed. Li-yan is allowed to take her baby to an orphanage. When foreigners arrive from Hong Kong in search of a renowned, aged tea called Pu’er, Li-Yan is the only one who can translate. Girl is over melodramatic, the worst of the worst and the best of the best happen to Li-yan but the story of tea binds the narrative together and makes an interesting read.

BECOMING UNBECOMING

UNAurl

Una uses her own experiences with sexual assault and the background of the Yorkshire Ripper, in the 70’s to examine rape culture where women are made to feel guilty for being a victim. Through image and text Becoming, Unbecoming explores what it means to grow up in a culture where male violence goes unpunished and unquestioned. Una explores her experience, wonders if anything has really changed and challenges a global culture that demands that the victims of violence pay its cost. The police tried to justify the Ripper’s horrific crimes by publicly questioning why the women were out of their homes in the first place. Rather than following up on explicit physical descriptions and leads provided by one of the Ripper’s surviving victims, police instead chose to focus on gathering evidence that the murdered women were prostitutes or otherwise had “loose morals.”

This is a book all men and women should read.

THE ILLEGAL

arts_books1-1-72464fd7f6b3c94d                                                                                                         LAWRENCE HILL

THE ILLEGAL seems even more timely today, with the election of Trump and his executive order to start construction of the wall on the border of Mexico, than when it was first published. Illegal follows the story of Keita Ali and his family in the fictional country of Zantoroland. It’s populated by people whose ancestors, a century and a half ago, were the slaves whose labour built the third wealthiest economy on the planet, the nearby fictional country of Freedom State.  Keita Ali is running a marathon in Freedom State against a vicious opponent who is tormenting him with racial slurs. “Go Home N—–.” Keita is not just running a race, he’s on the run from the authorities who want to deport him. With his tormentor at his heels, the unflappable hero calmly ticks his pace up a notch and begins to sing as he surges up the hill: “Want to shatter your opponent’s confidence? Just when he starts to hurt, you sing.” Keita’s sister is captured by the Zantoroland’s military government and held for ransom so Keita must run and win every race so he can buy her freedom. Hill creates a trove of fascinating characters: a violent sports agent, a woman who runs a brothel and AfricTown (the black shantytown), a prime minister who is evil incarnate, and a schoolboy who films everything by hiding in various closets.

Hill is an excellent writer. The Illegal is not to be missed.

 

 

 

COUNTRY OF RED AZALEAS

DOMNICA azRADULESCA

Azaleas takes place during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), when Serbian soldiers practiced systematic genocide and raped an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian women in “rape camps.” In spite of the violence, Lara and Marija — a Serb and a Bosnian, respectively — remain closer than sisters, even in the face of separation and tragedy. The two meet when both are schoolgirls in Belgrade and become inseprable. As college students, they spend hours in cafés discussing politics and philosophy. When war breaks out, Lara leaves for the United States with her new American husband, Mark, while Marija returns to Sarajevo to become a war reporter behind Bosnian lines. Mark tries to help Lara adapt to American life. Some of the most amusing parts of an otherwise unsettling novel are Lara’s attempts to understand concepts such as stay-at-home mom and take-out food. After having a baby, Lara begins a doctorate at the university and throws herself into her studies. At a conference in Paris, Lara meets a handsome, North African named Karim, with whom she has an affair, leading to a devastating divorce. When Marija surfaces in California, Lara races to join her, but finds her vastly changed. Still gorgeous, wild, and irreverent, Marija now has a glass eye and a reconstructed face. Furthermore, she suffers moments of deep dejection and fits of sobbing. Marija presses Lara to help her find her child born from violent rape.

“When I looked at her,” says Lara, “I saw the full horror of that day in July 1995 displayed glaringly on her face. The gushing of blood, the obscene panting, the muffled screams, flesh, organs, guns, screams begging for death, sighing for death, screaming the sharpest scream across the black earth. It all passed for one second on Marija’s face like an apocalyptic cloud. The next second it was gone.”

Despite some horrific scenes, Country of Red Azaleas is an uplifting and optimistic novel. The strength and determination of both protagonists, their love for one another, and their yearning to create a better future for themselves and their children surpass the traumas they have suffered.

 

CLOUD

ERICK McCORMACK

cloud Harry Steen’s life is shadowed by two events that happened when he was younger. The first was a brief but passionate affair with an intriguing beauty in the uplands of Scotland where he was about to begin his career. She jilted him for her fiance and he left with a broken heart he believed would never heal.  The second was a few years later when he was a Canadian mining executive, on a business trip to Mexico, he discovered a rare 18th century tome. The Obsidian Cloud is an account of an unexplained, true phenomenon: a black cloud with uncannily reflective properties that stalled before dispersing itself in a rain of black hail over Scotland. But it’s less this bizarre event that captures Harry’s attention than the fact that it supposedly occurred in the obscure town where, at age 21, he met his one true and unrequited love. Back at home he send the book to a rare books curator in Glasgow to see what scholars can tell him about this unusual book. The novel tells his life story: working on boats to escape Scotland and the past, chance meetings with remarkable people, being groomed for a pomccormack-180sition in a mining company and the family as well. Cloud is well written but has a weak ending.

 

THE BOOK OF MEMORY

PETINA GAPPAHMemory

Memory starts with a bold thunder clap: in the first two sentences we learn that there has been an ugly death and that Memory was sold by her parents to a strange man, Lloyd. Immediately your mind wonders why a man is buying a child? Memory’s family was poor, “but everyone was poor so nobody knew they were poor.” Her skin would blister and burn because she was an albino. Her mother had little gentleness and kindness. The novel takes place in a Zimbabwean prison where Memory is serving a life sentence for murdering Lloyd.  In preparing for an appeal she is given a notebook and asked to write about her life. These musing make up the body of the book. A wonderful exploration of the themes of memory and forgiveness.

GHOST BOY

MARTIN PISTORIUS with Megan Loyd Davie

Locked in Syndrome must truly be a fate worse than death. Pistorius was a normal little boy until the age of 12 but by 14 both his brain and his body were paralysed. Eventually his brain woke up but his body never did. Nobody knew he was home until years later a care

martin-with-bookgiver at the day home tried to reach him after attending a workshop. Within 18 months he was communicating with a computer, working and going to school. He writes about how much pain his body was in sitting in a wheelchair all day. When he go older it was worse because sometimes he was put down so he was sitting on his testicles and he couldn’t move nor ask for assistance.

At home his father was his main care giver. Mom found it too difficult. “My mother looked at me, her eyes filled with tears. I wished that I could reassure her, stand up from my wheelchair and leave behind this shell of a body that had caused so much pain. ‘You must die,’ she said slowly. ‘You have to die.’ The rest of the world felt so far away when she said those words. She got up and left me in the silent room. I wanted to do as she bid me that day. I longed to leave my life. As time passed, however, I gradually learned to understand my mother’s desperation and to forgive her. Little by little I learned why it was so hard for my mother to live with such a cruel parody of the once healthy child she had loved so much. Every time she looked at me she could see only the ghost boy he’d left behind.”

“However much I tried to beg and plead, shout and scream, I couldn’t make them notice me. My mind was trapped inside a useless body, my arms and legs weren’t mine to control and my voice was mute. I couldn’t make a sign or a sound to let anyone know I’d become aware again. I was invisible – the ghost boy. My father’s faith in me was stretched almost to breaking point – I don’t think it ever disappeared completely. Each day Dad, a mechanical engineer, washed and fed me, dressed and lifted me. A bear of a man with a huge beard like Father Christmas, his hands were always gentle. I would try to get him to understand I had returned, willing my arm to work. ‘Dad! I’m here! Can’t you see?’ But he didn’t notice me.

BOY is an easy read and quite a page turner. Highly recommended.

CUTTING FOR STONE

cutting-for-stone220ABRAHAM VERGHESE

Marion and Shiva Stone are born one sultry day in 1954 in Addis Ababa, the same day their mother — a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise — dies of complications from her hidden pregnancy. The boys are conjoined at the skull, separated at birth, still they feel an amazing connection. The twins are raised by Dr. Kalpana Hemlatha, a strong willed woman known as Hema, and Dr. Abhi Ghosh, both immigrants from Madras and both doctors at the hospital where the boys’ natural parents also worked. Missing Hospital, it’s called: “Missing was really Mission Hospital, a word that on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like ‘Missing.’ ” They grow up amid the political turmoil of Ethiopia. They both learn medicine beside their parents, Marion along side his surgeon father, Shiva with his gynecologyst mother. In 1979 Marion flees, first to Nairobi and finally to New York, where he qualifies as a surgeon. Shiva, too, goes into medicine, specializing in treating vaginal fistula, for which work he is acclaimed. In New York Marion finds his long lost father the famous transplant surgeon Thomas Stone, who fled at their birth and the death of his lover Sister Mary Joseph Praise.

“How beautiful and horrible life is, Hema thought; too horrible to simply call tragic. Life is worse than tragic.”

“My father, for whose skills as a surgeon I have the deepest respect, says, “The operation with the best outcome is the one you decide not to do.” Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for the assistance of a surgeon of my father’s caliber–that kind of talent, that kind of “brilliance,” goes unheralded.”

Stone is a great read. You learn a lot about Ethiopia and medicine.

A HOUSE IN THE SKY

houseAMANDA LINDHOUT & SARA CORBETT

In 2008, when she decided to go to Somalia, Lindhout was an aspiring journalist. She had travelled the Americas, Asia and Africa. She had spent seven months in Baghdad working for Iran’s Press TV, sending freelance files to France 24, six months in Afghanistan as her first and unsuccessful correspondent bid, and had a column in her small hometown newspaper, the Red Deer Advocate, all funded by tips saved from her Calgary job as a waitress.

amandaTwo days after flying to Mogadishu with Australian fellow adventurer and photographer Nigel Brennan, the former couple were kidnapped. Their kidnappers confessed that they hadn’t even been their target. They had been after the National Geographic team who were staying at the same hotel as Lindhout and Brennan. The kidnapping was based completely on money. The captors wanted $2 million for their release. But neither family had much money.  Amanda quickly took lead of the two captives, appeasing the kidnappers as much as possible. At her urging they both converted to Islam and began to pray and study the Koran. But as time wore on patience failed also. There is a passage in the Koran that says it is alright for men to use women who are captive in times of war. But there were other forms of abuse that Lindhout was subjected to that Brennan wasn’t. While she was being kept in a totally dark cell she notice that Brennen was sitting in sunlight and reading in his cell.

(The photo on the right

shows Amanda and Nigel on the day of their release in Somalia.)ama2

A positive ending, Lindhout has set up a foundation to enhance the lives of Somalian women through education. It is a difficult read but worth the time. The book is uneven: the first half needs quite a bit of skimming, while the second half is page turning.

CHE: A Graphic Biography

cheSPAIN RODREGUEZ

Everyone is familiar with the iconic photo of Che (Esterno Guevara). It is on t-shirts, posters, movie marquees and the list goes on. It is known all over the world. But while most people recognize his picture they don’t understand his background and why he is famous. Most don’t really understand what his picture represents because it means different concepts to different people. Rodreques graphic bio is a great way to fill in those blanks.

Che wasn’t Cuban thought it was in Cuba that he was a revolutionary leader and later a government leader in health and education. He was born in August, 1928 in the Argentine city of Rosario to an educated and middle class family. In medical school he took special interest in leprosy and allergies, the later because he was asthmatic. When he was dumped by a woman from a wealthy family he took a much celebrated motorcycle trip through much of South America where he learned much about racial and class inequality. He published a book che4

Che is an easy read and good history. Well worth the time to catch up on some of the history of South America and the U S involvement.

THE NO-NONSENSE GUIDE TO THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

CHRIS BRAZIERhist2 history

The magazine New Internationalist publishes No-Nonsense guides on multiple topics. They are all brief, concise and easy to read. Brazier does an excellent job of summarizing the history of the world in 150 pages. And he covers the world’s history not just the western hemisphere’s.He has some interesting analysis I found this of particular interest: the Russian “revolution was highjacked by the ruthless dictator Stalin – blow from which the Left worldwide has still not recovered.”

It is a good quick read. It reminds me of

A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn.

DARWIN’S GHOST: The Origin of the Species Updated

charles-darwinSTEVE JONES

Charles Darwin’s masterpiece, The Origin of Species, is probably the best-known, least-read book. Unquestionably one of the most important achievements of the millennium, its publication in 1859 caused a sensation, because it forced mankind to see itself as part of the animal world–a notion that hundreds of millions still deny. Darwin’s theory of common descent did for biology what Galileo did for astronomy: made it into a single science rather than a collection of unrelated facts. Those facts, however, are now a century and a half old, as are The Origin‘s illustrative examples and Victorian prose style. Writing as “Darwin’s ghost,” the well-known geneticist Steve Jones has drawn on our ever-expanding scientific knowledge and the brilliant logic set out in The Origin to restate evolution’s case for the twenty-first century.

Jones has been called “the British Carl Sagan” because of his prominence as a popularizer of science. Using contemporary examples–the AIDS virus, the rules of the American Kennel Club, the sheep who never forget a face and the garbage that floats in the Pacific–he shows the power and immediacy of Darwin’s great argument. Filled with anecdotes, humor and the very latest research, Darwin’s Ghost is a popular, readable and comprehensive account of the science that makes life make sense.

For anyone interested in biology and evolution Darwin’s Ghost is a must read and very readable.

I borrowed this review from BookBrowes.

419

419WILL FERGUSON

419 is set in Calgary and Lagos and concerned with 419 scams where unsuspecting victims are promised riches for accepting a huge amount of money temporarily. When they agree there are suddenly multiple service charges that must be paid in order for the deal to go through. The victim here is a retired schoolteacher who trusted the scammers, lost everything and committed suicide. He left his wife and family nothing; even the family home was lost. The police are powerless in this situation. More interesting are the men on the other end of the emails, the insiders who work the fraud machine. Another character, Nnamdi, has the most exciting part of the book. We see the whole history of the Niger Delta play out through Nnamdi, with con after con laid on the land by slave traders, Shell Oil men, rampaging generals and corrupt officials. The entire area dying from the massive pollution of the oil industry.

A terrific read.