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review 2017-12-15 14:23
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood - Trevor Noah

I enjoyed this memoir, which is exactly what it says on the tin, a collection of stories about the author’s childhood and youth in South Africa. It’s a quick read, flows well and is often funny. The writing is clear and has a distinctive voice. It’s aimed at American readers and so tends to explain South Africa in terms of the U.S., which can be helpful if you are in fact an American reader; Noah takes the time to explain things and I learned from it. Despite the grim backdrop – at the time Noah was born, it was illegal for black and white people to have children together, and when out in public his mother would sometimes find a woman of a more similar skin tone to pretend to be his mother – it’s an enjoyable book, told with energy and personality. Ending on the 40-page chapter about the abusive stepfather who wound up shooting his mom (no spoilers, this is mentioned in the first chapter) was a downer though.

 

I don’t read a lot of celebrity memoirs, and, fairly or unfairly, tend to be more skeptical about them than about memoirs by otherwise unknown authors. Noah fuels my skepticism with a few inconsistencies: he tells a story about himself as a toddler chasing his father through a park calling “Daddy! Daddy!” and then later on tells us that he never called his father “Daddy” or anything else other than his first name because it was too dangerous. Meanwhile some of the other stories seem likely to be embellished versions of what really happened. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and think it is a good choice for those who enjoy memoirs or want to learn more about South Africa, as well as of course fans of Trevor Noah.

 

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text 2017-12-05 08:48
How To Choose The Best South Africa Trip Packages

 

Just deciding that you want to see South Africa this holiday is not going be enough, because if you really want to enjoy your holiday, you need to make sure that you put in some amount of research first. Go online and you will find innumerable holiday packages from South Africa, but how do you know which one is the right one for you! This is why, you need to make sure of two things – one you need to do your research and figure out what all it is that you want to do, when you are there, and more importantly, you need to make sure that you make all your holiday bookings through a recognised and authorised travel agent.

 

Now, when you start planning your holiday, before pouncing on the first South Africa packages that you come across, you need to learn a little more about what all this country has to offer. Consider who you will be travelling with – is it your family or are you on a holiday with your friends, will there be children with your or will it be only your boyfriend. All these will help you in choosing the cities that you should add to your list and the activities that you would want to indulge in. You also need to keep in mind your budget, because that will determine how many places you can include in your trip.

 

When you look at South Africa trip packages through an authorised and experienced travel agent, you can be sure of having the holiday of a lifetime!

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review 2017-11-29 20:32
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 10 - Pancha Ganapti - and Square 12 - Festivus
The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
Coffin Road - Peter May
Cronica de una muerte anunciada - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson,Bernadette Dunne
Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler,Elliott Gould
The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards
Call The Midwife: A True Story Of The East End In The 1950s - Jennifer Worth
Woza Shakespeare!: Titus Andronicus In South Africa - Gregory Doran,Antony Sher
Brother Cadfaels Herb Garden - Robin Whiteman,Rob Talbot
Shakespeare's Gardens - Andrew Lawson,Shakespeare Birthplace Trust,Jackie Bennett

Tasks for Pancha Ganapati: Post about your 5 favourite books this year and why you appreciated them so much.

 

Tasks for Festivus: [...] --OR-- Perform the Airing of Grievances: name 5 books you’ve read this year that have disappointed you - tell us in tongue-lashing detail why and how they failed to live up to expectations.

 

I decided to create a joint post for my most and least favorite reads of the year -- and I'm going to have to divide the "favorite" part into "fiction" and "nonfiction." There is no way I could whittle the list down even further than these 10 books or treat some of them as "honorable mentions."  That being said:

 

 

Favorite Books -- Fiction

... in reverse chronological order of reading:

 

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

A searing portrait of modern India, writ large on a colorful, chaotic, topsy-turvy and utterly depraved and amoral canvas, but told with a great sense of humor belying the distinctly perceptible underlying sense of urgency.

 

Audiobook splendidly narrated by Kerry Shale -- if ever someone deserved the title of "the man of 1000 voices," it's him.

 

Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada

The spine-chilling portrayal of an honor killing in a small Columbian seaside town and the events leading up to and following it, told in barely 100 pages and essentially in reverse chronological order, with the actual killing occurring on the last pages of the book: a brutal indictment of false morality, backwardness, cowardice and ineffectuality, both social and individual.

 

 

Peter May: Coffin Road

Ostensibly a stand-alone, but actually more of an extension of May's Lewis Trilogy, featuring some of the same characters but chiefly told from the point of view of an amnesiac scientist and an Edinburgh teenager in search of her missing (presumed dead) father.  Starkly atmospheric and so gripping it made me overlook the fact that it contains not one but two elements I don't particularly care for: an amnesiac protagonist, and first person present tense narration of part of the story.  (Note to Ms. Allingham -- see below, Traitor's Purse: This is how you convincingly write an amnesiac protagonist in search of his own identity while making sense of a murder that he may or may not have committed himself.)

 

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

What can I say?  It's Shirley Jackson -- nobody does psychological horror like her; slowly and meticulously building from a slight initial sense of unease to full-blown terror.  I don't know how often I will actually revisit this book, but I do know that it, and the ladies in "the castle," will stay with me forever.

 

Also a great reading of the audio version by Bernadette Dunne.

 

Raymond Chandler: Farewell, My Lovely

Not quite on the level of The Big Sleep, but what a pleasure to revisit Chandler's version of 1940s Los Angeles.  His books are all essentially of a pattern, so I can't take too many of them back to back (or if so, it has to be in different formats; the way I revisited them for the Halloween bingo, with full cast audio adaptations mixed in), but it's hard to beat the gut-punch quality of his imagery and language, particularly when rendered as splendidly as in this audio narration by Elliott Gould.

 

 

Favorite Books -- Nonfiction

... again in reverse chronological order of reading:

 

Martin Edwards: The Golden Age of Murder

The early history of the Detection Club, told by its current president and first archivist.  Martin's knowledge of both Golden Age detective fiction and the lives of its writers is downright encyclopedic, and he tells a multi-faceted story very compellingly.  At times I had the feeling that he was taking his own conjecture a bit too far (I will, e.g., have to explore Anthony Berkeley's and E.M. Delafield's writing for myself before I wholly buy into his theory about their relationship, what they may have meant to each other, and how it is reflected in their novels), and there were things, chiefly relating to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, that I was already familiar with, but by and large, wow, what a read.

 

Not yet reviewed; status updates here:

Finished

210 of 528 pages

107 of 528 pages

67 of 528 pages

 

Jennifer Worth: Call the Midwife

Yes, I know, I know, I'm late to the party and there's been a whole TV series at this point.  And I'm sure the TV adaptation (which I've yet to watch) brings across the stories and the characters very nicely.  But there's both an unflinching straightforwardness and a genuine warmth to the original literary version of these tales of midwifery in London's mid-20th century East End that I wager will be hard to replicate in any screen adaptation -- particularly if read with as much empathy, sense of humor and tasteful restraint as by the incomparable Stephanie Cole (who I would sorely wish would narrate many more audiobooks!).

 

Review as yet to come.

 

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher: Woza Shakespeare -- Titus Andronicus in South Africa

Man, what a trip.  Titus Andronicus is not, and never will be my favorite play by William Shakespeare, but having read this book, I'd give anything to be able to watch a recording of this particular production.  In the 1980s (when Apartheid was still in full swing) Gregory Doran (later: Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and Antony Sher decided to take this most violent and controversial of all the bard's plays to Sher's homeland, from which he had emigrated some 20 years earlier, wowing never to return (and even dramatically burning his passport).  This book reproduces the salient parts of Doran's and Sher's diaries written during the project, from the moment the project was born to the play's actual run in Johannesburg and later, London and on tour.  Insightful, illuminating, dramatic and, particularly in the moments of greatest tragedy and misfortune, surprisingly and supremely funny -- this is definitely one of those books that will stay with me forever (and not only because I happen to own it).

 

(And yes, one of these days I may even write a proper review of this book, too.)

 

Robin Whiteman & Rob Talbot: Brother Cadfael's Herb Garden / Robin Whiteman: The Cadfael Companion - The World of Brother Cadfael

Shared honors for two simply gorgeously illustrated coffee table books full of facts and knowledge about medieval monastery life (Benedictine and otherwise), the healing arts of the medieval monks, and the plants they used.  Must-reads not only for fans of Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael series but for anyone interested in the Middle Ages, monastic history, social history in general, botany, medicine, and pharmacy.

 

Review as yet to come, too.

 

Incidentally, a third book by this pair of authors -- Cadfael Country: Shropshire & the Welsh Borders -- provided, together with Ellis Peters's own Strongholds and Sanctuaries: The Borderland of England and Wales, important information and stimuli for the "Welsh borderland" part of my trip to Britain in late July 2017, and will certainly be consulted again should I make good on my plan to spend some time in Wales proper next year.

 

Jackie Bennett, with photographs by Andrew Lawson: Shakespeare's Gardens 

A lavishly illustrated coffee table book-sized guide to the gardens Shakespeare knew (or might have known) both in Stratford / Warwickshire and in London, as well as an introduction to the gardens of the five Shakespeare-related houses in and around Stratford, with an introductory chapter on Tudor gardening in general.  The find of several great finds of my trip to [London, Oxford and] Stratford in mid-June of this year.  (And it's even an autographed copy ... as I only discovered when I unpacked the book back home!)

 

 

Least Favorite Books

... again in reverse chronological order of reading:

 

S.J. Parris: Heresy

This started well, but went downhill fast literally within a page of the first murder having been committed.  And I sincerely hope the real Giordano Bruno was not anything even remotely like the headless chicken that we're being presented with in this book in lieu of the incisively intelligent, street-smart -- indeed, supremely cunning -- philosopher-scientist and sometime spy that anybody who had spent even an hour reading about the real life Giordano Bruno would have expected.

 

Utterly predictable and unengaging, never mind the author's obvious amount of research into 16th century Oxford academic life.  Would she'd spent as much time thinking about her characters' personas and motivations ...

 

Margery Allingham: The Crime at Black Dudley / Traitor's Purse

 

Shared (dis-)honors for my two recent reads from Margery Allingham's Albert Campion mystery series.  Both of the spy / international conspiracy variety that none of the Golden Age witers really excelled in, and Allingham's plots (and characters) tend to be among the most ridiculous of the lot -- as certainly exhibited here.  Thank God her Campion series also contains some genuine jewels, such as Police at the Funeral, The Case of the Late Pig and, particularly, the downright devious Death of a Ghost.  I hope my next exposures to Mr. Campion's adventures will be decidedly more in the latter line again.

 

Val McDermid: Forensics

Possibly the disappointment of the year, even if I knew that McDermid's background is in journalism and crime writing, not in science.  But she's associated with a forensics program at Dundee University and her crime novels manage to transport forensic detail with what has so far sounded to me as a reasonable degree of accuracy, so, given that I like her crime writing in other respects, too, my anticipations for this book ran fairly high.  Alas, what I got was a frequently manipulative piece of investigative journalism and true crime writing, whose actual scientific contents was on the super-light side and entirely third-hand, with frequently not even a chance given to the reader to verify the precise source of a given statement or piece of information.  I do hope Ms. McDermid will turn to crime fiction again in her next literary ventures ... her crime novels show just how much better than this she can really be.

 

Simon Brett: An Amateur Corpse

 My first book by Simon Brett, and again, from a former president of the Detection Club I would have expected better.  This novel wears its 1970s setting like a stifling cloak; it hasn't aged well at all and, what's worse, I didn't take to the protagonist at all, either (an actor in the throes of a midlife crisis); neither as far as his attitude towards women nor as far as his attitude towards amateur theatre productions was concerned -- in short, he struck me as a mysogynistic snob.  I may give the series another chance at a later point, but it certainly won't be anytime soon.

 

Patrick O'Brian: The Final, Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey

I love O'Brian's Aubrey / Maturin series and raced through the whole 20 books at breakneck speed earlier this year, but by God, this particular  publication (I won't even call it a "book", because it isn't) has to be one of the most blatant exercises in the exploitation of an author's literary legacy under the sun.  Patrick O'Brian died when he wasn't even halfway into this story -- but instead of letting things rest, because this really is not anywhere near a completed novel, his publisher went and released the puny few initial chapters as a "book" in its own right.

 

My sincere advice to all newbie readers of the series: Spare yourselves the trouble of looking into this one; it's not worth it -- not for all the enjoyment of O'Brian's writing.  Blue at the Mizzen, O'Brian's last completed Aubrey / Maturin novel, has a very satisfying conclusion -- content yourselves with that and just take it as read that "they lived happily ever after."  Or, well, maybe not entirely happily as far as Stephen Maturin is concerned.  But then, he probably wouldn't know what to do with himself if ever he were entirely happy; he's just not that kind of person.  And Jack Aubrey couldn't possibly be any happier than he is at the end of Blue at the Mizzen.

 

Didn't review this and am not planning to.

 

 

Least Favorite Books - Honorable Mentions

Chris Bohjalian: The Sandcastle Girls

Not an entirely bad book, but boy, this could have been so much more. Ostensibly, it deals with the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey in the middle of WWI.  What we really get is -- at least chiefly -- the love story of an American volunteer nurse trainee who has accompanied her father on a humanitarian mission to Syria and an Armenian refugee who, having concluded that his beloved wife is one of the 10,000s of victims of the death march through the Syrian desert to which the Turks exposed their Armenian women and children captives, falls head over heels in love with the aforementioned Western nurse trainee.  Oh, sure, there are bits about the genocide as well (and Gallipoli, too, for good measure), but for many of these parts the reader isn't even right there with the characters but learns about them second-hand and in hindsight; and the ending is incredibly soppy -- and while it's obviously intended as a happy ending, a look beneath its shallow surface reveals that some characters' happiness comes at the greatest of all costs to another ... and at least one of those living happily ever after even knows about this, and nevertheless doesn't do anything about it (and if I hadn't stopped caring about that person long before I reached the end, that bit alone would have been the absolutely last straw for me.)

 

Georgette Heyer: Death in the Stocks

Georgette Heyer's books are hit and miss for me; this was definitely the most "miss" of the miss books to date.  It's got a nicely-drawn atmospheric beginning, but that doesn't last  for more than a few pages, and I didn't take to any of the characters; certainly not the "bright young things" and "good old chaps" at the center of the story -- nor even really Inspector Hanasyde, who is being introduced here.  Also, the "who" in whodunnit has a likely candidate from early on, even though the "how" is a bit out of left field.

 

I'm not planning to read the entire Hanasyde series, just one or two more (those that have the most direct ties to the subsequent Inspector Hemingway books, which overall I prefer); and -- but for the odd stand-alone -- I think that'll conclude my foray into Heyer's crime writing.

 

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review 2017-11-26 19:05
Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya
Singing Away The Hunger: Life In Lesotho - Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya

“I dream that this book will go far, and tell people about the Basotho, how it is with us, how poor we are and how we go on with life anyway.”

This is an unusual memoir, consisting of the stories of a poor woman from Lesotho, matriarch of a large family, who works as a cleaning lady to feed her many children and grandchildren. Though she speaks seven or eight languages and attended some school as a teenager, she spent all of her adult life busy with manual labor and raising children and is essentially illiterate. She “wrote” this book in collaboration with an American professor, by telling her stories orally, having them read back to her and dictating changes.

It’s a fascinating book in that it offers a window on a sort of life rarely encountered even in books: not only the lives of a ordinary African woman and her family, but the lives of people so poor they often go hungry or inadequately clothed, and may not even have a home large enough for the entire household to sleep on the floor. When you do encounter characters living so hand-to-mouth, they populate a book that ends in triumph, usually through education. But the lives of Nthunya and her family always feel precarious, even when they’re doing well, working in South Africa or farming in the Maluti Mountains. This isn’t a relentlessly depressing book – life always goes on – but it isn’t a feel-good story either.

Nthunya’s isn’t simply a story of poverty, though. Born in 1930, she remembers a Lesotho that has largely disappeared, with customs that might surprise many readers. She describes what we would call an open relationship with her husband; both were comfortable with the other having outside sexual relationships, and this appears to have been normal. She also talks about what seems to be a romantic friendship with another woman, which is celebrated by the community through multiple feasts. Meanwhile Christianity mixes easily with traditional beliefs, including several episodes of visiting sangomas (traditional healers) for “sickness which is not from God,” usually involving a curse from a jealous relative or neighbor.

Overall, I found this short memoir very engaging. Nthunya’s way of speaking is distinctive, and I’m not entirely convinced that having her tell her stories in English was the best choice. She makes several references to being much more comfortable in her native tongue, and her English grammar is idiosyncratic. The book contains a somewhat defensive afterward by the professor who turned these stories into a book (I got the impression that zealously ideological social-justice-oriented acquaintances gave her a hard time for being involved at all), in which she explains that they tried having a bilingual friend take down Nthunya’s stories in Sesotho and translate them, but that this translation was “much less powerful” than Nthunya’s English. Maybe they just needed a better translator? But regardless, the stories flow well and offer a great window into a world rarely seen in print. This is the sort of experience I’m always looking for in my world books challenge, and I’m glad to have read it.

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review 2017-11-10 07:59
In my Top Ten list of History books
Africa: A Biography of the Continent - John Reader

This is a wonderful and highly readable book, but do not misunderstand what it is about. The subtitle is completely honest: this is not a book (entirely) about human history in Africa; this is a book about the African continent.  As such, it is divided into three approximately equal sections:

 

1) Natural History: 

This describes the formation of the African continent during the cooling phase of the Earth's crust. Africa is unusual among continents for being composed of just three giant cratons. A large portion is dedicated to the formation of the Bushveld Igneous Complex- the single largest and richest concentration of mineral wealth on the planet, and almost the sole accessible source of some strategic materials like chromium. 

 

This part progresses to the emergence of life, and the considerable evidence that humans find their origin in Africa, with our present form emerging somewhere between 2 and 4 million years ago, depending on what criteria you apply, and how you interpret the available evidence.

 

2) Anthropology:

Development of human civilization in Africa, and importantly- the co-evolution of other organisms with the human species in their land of origin.  This is a big deal, because all the evidence suggests that humans only left their mother continent about 120,000 years ago. We are an invading foreign species everywhere else on the globe, and like most introduced species, we had fewer natural predators and parasites outside of Africa. Malaria is the best example of an organism which co-developed in evolution, in Africa, alongside humans. Humans even adapted with rearrangements of hemoglobin, which can be beneficial in the hybrid SC form, but deadly in the SS homozygous form (i.e. Sickle Cell Anemia).  This, and other similar examples account for the comparatively slower growth rate of human communities within Africa, compared to without, and some of these issues continue to plague Africa today. 

 

"Expatriot" groups returning to Africa about 15,000 years ago transformed human development on the continent by introducing foreign species which had been domesticated in Asia. Most important of these were cattle. Skeletal remains have shown two different pathways that Africans took with this new resource:

a) cattle raising for meat (in which skeletal remains show an equal number of males and females in the herd). and

b) cattle raising for milk: (in which skeletal remains show most males in the herd were slaughtered) 

 

The two patterns have different land-use and social development implications, which were fascinating to read.

 

There is an entire section dedicated to exploring how conditions, particularly around present-day Nigeria, led to the development of acephalous social structures... some of the largest and most sophisticated examples of completely decentralized human communities with essentially no leaders. It was a development which fit the local environment well, at the time it developed, but made Africa in general extremely vulnerable to foreign attackers with heirarchical social systems concentrating,  commanding, and directing resources against them. This began in earnest with contact with Arab slavers on the East coast of the continent, beginning about 800 years ago, and really picked up pace with European contact in the 1500's.

 

...Which brings us to the subject of slavery. It is an indigenous African practice, which evolved from traditions of adoption and extended family (mutual) obligations. Going back to what I said about malaria and Africa's slow population growth... this created a demand for labor which was sometimes answered with warfare and enslavement of the vanquished, or with peaceful indentured servitude agreements (some coerced, some not; some for a lifetime, some for more limited terms).  The upshot of all this is that a well-established social acceptance of slavery, and a well-developed economic system of slave acquisition and trade was in place by the time Arab slavers arrived in the 1200's or so.  Later, beginning with the Portuguese, Europeans fed this system, and in a sense "addicted" the economies in present-day Congo and Angola to the slave trade. Outright slavery continued in Africa into the 20th century, and many of the proto-slavery practices (i.e. adoption of orphaned relatives, in exchange for limited periods of enforced servitude) continue today.  One interesting observation:  plantations in North America tried on several well-documented occasions to force Native Americans into slavery, but the enslaved never cooperated. They simply refused to work, even on pain of death. The reason is that slavery was a foreign concept to them. Slavery is not a useful institution to hunter-gatherer societies, which don't cultivate or hoard large amounts of food (or any other possessions). It is only in pastoral or agricultural civilizations that large amounts of manpower are needed to work the land.  Africans brought to North America as slaves were mainly from agricultural areas of Western Africa which unfortunately understood well the concept of slavery, and culturally accepted it sufficiently to participate in it, in a way that Native Americans did not.

 

3) Human History:

This is the names and dates History that I had expected the entire book to be. There is little well-documented history before Arab contact.. the Great Zimbabwe, the Egyptian pharaoh dynasties, and the Biblical-era Ethiopians being the standout exceptions. Once Arabs entered the continent, with their written systems of recording, History as we think of it really takes off.  The book is necessarily superficial, covering an entire continent for about 800 years. As expected, there is a lot about colonialism, particularly the Dutch and British in South Africa, the Germans in Tanzania, and the British in Kenya and Egypt. The book follows through to the many independence movements in the 1950's and 60's, and ends ominously with the Rwandan genocide and the probable CIA assassination of Patrice Lumumba- first elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

Overall this is a definite Five Star book, and on my personal Top Ten History Books list.

 

Highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

 

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