Thursday, September 29, 2011

Are you out there readers?

I've been sending emails and updates from all over Africa and haven't heard from ANY one. Are you out there? Are you reading? We are heading for Nelspruit in the morning and may be incommunicado while out in Kruger Park. Is anyone listening? Am I writing into the wilderness? Hoping to hear from someone soon. This isn't easy, blogging at the end of a twelve hour day. Just let me know, OK?
Respondez-vous s'il  plais. Then I'll tell you about our fabulous meal at Rick's American Cafe tonight. Were we in Morocco? No, it just felt like it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Education, the Way up and out

We have been staying in a suburb of Johannesburg called Melville. Apparently at one time, this was an uppercrust white area, "up on the hill," but now is a bohemian gathering place for students from the nearby main campus of the University of Johannesburg. Used book stores abound along with plenty of wine bars. :-)

The interesting thing is that security is so very tight. One doesn't feel afraid or exposed walking around the area yet the houses are like armed fortresses. One can barely see or appreciate the beauty behind the walls. What this tells us, of course, is that the ever widening gap between the haves and have nots is alive and well. How to change this? Education is the answer. And so, we made our way to the university to walk the campus and talk with students and professors alike.

Naturally our first stop was the library where we announced ourselves at the reference desk and had a chat with Tyson, a master degreed librarian who did a search for Don who's looking for some books on pre-colonial Africa. Up to the sixth floor we went dodging students every step of the way. There was such a vibrant atmosphere there, every table and computer being used, but the books were is such sad condition, ancient, falling apart and falling over from use. We thought immediately of Better World Books and wished that we could designate some of our Florida discards to this school.

Grad students in the history department - a rainbow nation. These folks will stay in school as the job prospects are less than rosy, as in the states. They tutor and work on advanced degrees. They tell us that there is very little written about pre-colonial Africa as the students don't see the "relevance" to their current lives. We tell them that if they don't learn from the past they're bound to repeat it. I suddenly feel very old.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Johannesburg-Day 2

A day of rest today emotionally and physically as we ponder all that we've seen so far. Our South African guide, Linda, picked us up at 7:15 yesterday morning for our tour of Soweto, the Hector Peterson museum, Nelson Mandela home and the overwhelming - I'm using that word a lot lately - Apartheid Museum which I find very similar in set up and thought to the Holocaust museum in DC.

Linda was an extremely politically astute young man and seemed to feel free to talk with us openly about his thoughts on the past and the current climate in South Africa. We were the only ones with him and I'm sure Don's questions provoked him to open up.
He took us by his father's home in Soweto and, much to our surprise, especially Don's who was here in the '80's, his Soweto neighborhood was similar in value and appearance to my own Florida neighborhood. Not all is as you see on the news and we discussed at length how the  media has an agenda that not everyone has the ability to see through.

That's not to say that there isn't extreme poverty because there is. The government is doing its best to build new housing where once there were only corrugated iron roofs and cardboard sides. Water and electricity are slowly being brought to the worst areas so that the women won't have to walk with their jugs to the local fountain and carry the water back to their homes on their heads. This is still prevalent in many places,

Originally developed as migrant housing - sound familiar? - these worst areas of Soweto segregated males and females in long dormitory like areas where they were forced to sleep up to 12 to a room. They came to work in the gold mines for which Johannesburg is famous, for a salary of about 10 cents a day, or was it a week. Upon leaving the mines at night, they were stripped naked and searched to insure that they hadn't confiscated any small pieces.

Only minutes away is a booming city that could be New York or Chicago with high rise towers, hotels and world class restaurants. We are staying in an outlying area called Melville which is very young and hip, home to a branch of the U. of Johannesburg, where we'll be walking to this afternoon as, naturally, we must check out the library and the local bookstores.

It's truly mind boggling to think that it's only been less than twenty years since apartheid was the law of the land here in South Africa. The Apartheid Museum should probably be an all-day experience with a break for lunch. I had read that one would need a minimum of three hours to see and absorb it all. We were only halfway through in two.

When we got our tickets, I was given the non-white entrance and Don was given the whites only entrance ticket, a clever trope that tries to get you into a segregated state of mind. It wasn't quite horrific enough though. We met inside to begin the run up to the historical events that shaped the separation of the races in South Africa, a shame from which I'm not sure they can ever recover.
Truth and Reconciliation can only go so far when an entire people has been deliberately kept unemployed and uneducated. We asked our young guide how he saw the future for his generation of black South Africans and his reply echoed much of my same thoughts. Though one cannot exist in a constant state of negativity - he prefers to make lemons from lemonade - he does not believe that his generation has made enough progress. It is very disheartening.

Meanwhile, yes, I'm finding time to read and will report on books eventually. Meanwhile, stick with me as I continue my little travelogue of our eye-opening adventures in Africa. Everywhere we go we find wonderful, interesting folks to talk with. Last night, while looking for a quiet supper destination, we ended up exchanging cards with an art gallery owner from Ethiopia and getting book recommendations from a feminist performance art producer attending a local conference. Go figure!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Senegal, Initial Impressions

I don't have the time right now to do full justice to all that I'm thinking and feeling about my first days in Africa - Don and I are having wine and cheese in our room and talking about our day. Since over 90% of Senegalese are Muslim and do not drink, we will not dishonor our hostess, the proprietor of our bed and breakfast, by drinking in the common areas. She is preparing dinner as I type - and an excellent cook she is!

We have seen so much in just two days and I'm overwhelmed by how safe I feel, how lovely the smiles, how fascinating the people, not to mention educated. They may not have college degrees but we haven't met anyone who can't speak a minimum of three languages and smatterings of more. I'm ashamed that I can barely summon my high school French, the main language of Senegal, in which to communicate.

What struck me immediately was how much construction is going on here. If some of our unemployed contractors came over here they could likely make a fortune. New apt. buildings are going up all over where there has never been residential construction before.
On the other hand, in residential neighborhoods, all the streets are sand. Garbage pick up is free for all people but you must sign up and, since many don't, young boys in horse drawn carts, will go around and pick up trash for a few cfa - one u. s. dollar being 500 cfa. A half hour cab ride into the city runs under 5 bucks! The traffic though is mind boggling. We have swerved for goats in the capital city!

Today we went to Goree Island which some of my readers may not know about. That is a blog of its own and will come after I've percolated what I've seen, as my friend Andrea would say. It's the site of a holocaust that we don't study about in the history books - the site of the death of over 6 million Africans at the hands of the Europeans who had nothing on Hitler.

When we get to Johannesburg I will try to take a day to post some photos of our guides, Sineta George, the owner of the b and b, and some of the landmarks that we've seen. There are rolling black outs with the electricity and I want to recharge the batteries.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One More Before I Go

It seems as though I've been listening to this book forever, which means I've been slacking off on my exercising. However, after 11 discs, I'm finally completely enthralled by Julie Orringer's remarkably sophisticated debut novel The Invisible Bridge. I've read other reviews and have found that many agree with me that the first 100 pages or so were difficult to latch on to. I now know why.

Ms. Orringer had to lay out her plot with a perfectionist's detail in order for the rest of the novel to move forward. She needed to allow the reader to become totally invested in the characters before she brought down the full wrath of Hitler's army on them.

I've always been a bit of a fanatic about the World War II era, reading all that I could get my hands on. One faction of that time that I didn't have as much knowledge about was the Hungarian side of the equation. When Andras Levi manages to leave his family in Budapest for the famed Parisian  school of architecture, one would think that he had the world as his oyster. For a few years of poverty stricken student life, shared with a cadre of friends in equally straightened circumstances, he would earn a bright future.

But timing is everything. It's the 1930's and the sinister rumblings of war are everywhere. Andras and his friends are Jewish and argue daily about what that will mean to them in the future. Optimists like Andras fail to see the writing on the wall until it's almost too late. Others leave Paris for America, or back to Hungary, hoping to avoid a war that is inevitable.

Underlying the historical nature of this huge novel is a love story - or several love stories really - though the focus is on Andras and his Klara, an "older" woman, 32 years old, raising a headstrong teenage daughter. Klara Morganstern has a mysterious backstory that readers will guess at pretty easily but it serves as the final push when Klara is deciding whether or not she can trust Andras with her love and her future.

I'll admit to losing patience with Klara and Andras at first as the story revolved solely around their angst . I wanted to shake them and say, "look around you at what's happening. How can you think that your petty concerns can top what's happening in the world?" But then, of course, I realized that that's just the point, isn't it? And how perceptive of Orringer to get that. Even as our present world seems to be chaotically falling down around us, we continue on with our daily routines, our lives and loves, because what else can you do? How human we are!

I am now completely invested in the future for these wonderful, fully realized characters. The only reason I'm not walking and listening this morning is that it's dreary and rainy here in Maryland and it's almost time  to jump in the shower and double check the suitcases. We leave for the airport at 1. As the plane wings its way to Africa I'll be back with Klara and Levi, feeling the pit in my stomach as they realize that the winds of war are upon them and that their lives will be forever marked by it.

Once again a novice writer has knocked it out of the ball park, Where do they come up with their ideas? How do they discipline themselves to sit and put these ideas to paper? How to take a subject as old as the hills and make it fresh and new? It's amazing! This novel would be an excellent companion piece to the non-fiction book about the run-up to war by Erik Larson and discussed at my library last week, In the Garden of Beasts.

Friday, September 16, 2011

An African Affair

No, I'm not quite there yet and no, I'm not having an affair. I did however, wake up at 5-something this morning to finish Nina Darnton's espionage novel set in Lagos, Nigeria. Years ago my friend Maryellen and I attended a session of the Sarasota Reading Festival at which we met a writer we'd not heard of previously. His name was John Darnton and he was touting a book called The Darwin Conspiracy. I bought it and kept my eyes open after that for anything by him. I'm sure I blogged about his second novel Black and White and Dead All Over, a wonderfully snarky take on the newspaper industry from which Mr. Darnton is retired.

Imagine my surprise to see a new book come up for purchase by his wife Nina. No slouch, Mrs. Darnton was also a contributor to the New York Times, Newsweek and The Post and lived in Africa for five years. Unfortunately, she knows whereof she writes and it isn't a pretty picture. In Africa, as all around the globe, corruption runs rampant at the highest levels of government.
Whenever you have a country that's ripe for exploitation, and we all know of Nigeria's ravaged oil fields, you have power grabs, tribal warfare and the ubiquitous presence of the CIA. Oh, and that's not to mention the aptly named mercenary organization Solutions, Inc. (better known to us as, let's see, Halliburton, KBR)

Of course, this all makes for great fiction. If only it wasn't so true. I suspect that our protaganist, Lindsay Cameron, is Ms. Darnton's alter-ego. In Lagos because she landed a coveted interview with President Olumide, a man who has promised his people free elections and a democratic society, Lindsay takes up with James, a slick, clever, cool customer who is ostensibly a dealer in African art.

Lindsay is passionate about her work as a journalist and Darnton does a decent job of getting the reader to understand what it's like to get that adrenaline rush when pursuing a story. But her best creation is the sinister James Duncan. I didn't trust him from the moment he was introduced so I had to wonder, why did Lindsay? He never made direct eye contact - don't you hate that? He never directly answered a question. He was always disappearing for days or weeks at a time and his cell phone was always mysteriously "out of range." Hmmmmm He was often sexually unavailable. Now THAT doesn't seem right.

After an inauspicious beginning, this thriller picks up big time. As assassinations pile up and Lindsay is twice attacked and warned off her stories, the reader has a more and more difficult time trying to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Perhaps that's because no one is really innocent of the blood shed in these countries where everyone has his own agenda and loyalty to tribe trumps loyalty to country. What Ms. Darnton, to her credit, won't let the reader forget is the "collateral damage," the children and families of those caught up in the struggle for a better, safer life, a life I'm afraid that we still take for granted here in America.

This will likely be my last blog post before I head off to Africa to learn about it for myself. I'm hoping for good Internet connections and will try to find time to write and post photos of this huge adventure. If I run out of things to say - laugh if you must - I'll write about our upcoming book discussions at my library. In the meantime, my latest book review, a very disappointed look at David Guterson's latest called Ed King, is on the Library Journal website for your perusal. It was difficult to believe that this was the same man who gave us Snow Falling on Cedars. You know the drill, scroll down to "G."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Addicted to Books!

What happens when a book addict goes on vacation? Suitcases are weighed, every ounce is precious, we must leave room for gifts, but what if you're halfway through the second week and you, horror or horrors, run out of books? The advent of e-readers has gone a long way to solving this dilemma but it's so annoying to be told one has to shut off one's "electrical" device during take off and landing. In the middle of a good story? I don't think so!

So, what have I done as I prepare for this three week sojourn on another continent? Well, yes, I've loaded the Nook with an eclectic assortment of titles that includes African mystery writer Deon Myer, about whom I've blogged before, Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and an old one I always thought I'd like to read "when I had the time," Pillars of the Earth.

Even with these choices though, I still want to throw a couple of paperbacks in my carry-on. Decisions, decisions! Meanwhile, I just received a wonderful title from Library Journal to be read and reviewed before I head out. It's a new release - next January - by Thrity Umrigar who is going to join us at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival next March.
How perfect is that! Several years ago I hosted a book discussion on her novel The Space Between Us and it was simply wonderful. Now I'll likely get to meet her. Don't I have the best job in the world?

Product DetailsIn the meantime I'm finishing up a little gem that I spotted on our donations shelf - another great perk. The cover caught my attention, then the authors, and then, best of all, the memoir takes place in Greece. Traveling with Pomegranates; A Mother and Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey and France has been a lovely surprise. You'll remember Sue Monk Kidd from The Secret Life of Bees, beautiful novel, great movie adaptation.

This memoir details a trip that Sue took with her daughter Ann, a gift for Ann's college graduation and a gift for Sue as she faced a mid-life decision about the direction that she wanted her life to take, that is, to become a full-time novelist. It's also a deep, thoughtful look at the empowerment of women  from a historical perspective but also in the here and now. While Ann contemplates the virgin queen Athena, Sue becomes fixated on the virgin Mary. While Ann suffers from a lack of confidence because she was rejected by her first choice for graduate school, Sue tells her husband that she needs to move from their life long home in order to be in a space conducive to her writing. Wow, if it were only that easy!

I'm really enjoying these two gals and hope that I can finish this book AND the LJ book before I leave. Everything else that I have checked out will have to go - including Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope that I had planned to finish before flying. Maybe that would be a good one to buy - I'll bet a classic like that will go for 99 cents. How sad is that?

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Lantern Shines on Provence

Location, location, location is not just the mantra for real estate brokers - though I was one in a former incarnation - it is a major appeal factor for novel readers the world over. Harper Collins has been touting Deborah Lawrenson's The Lantern as one of their under the radar new releases this Fall and I decided to take a chance. Full disclosure, I had to override the sacred rule of fifty, hanging in there for about 100 pages before I was hooked, but then I was - hooked, that is.

Advertised as a modern take on the Daphne duMaurier classic gothic romance Rebecca, The Lantern especially glows in its description of southern France's exquisite Luberon region where the mas Les Genevriers holds the secrets of the Lincel family. This is the area of Provence where, five years ago, Don and I huffed and puffed our way from inn to inn on bicycles through the most glorious vineyards and lavender fields you could imagine. Lawrenson's obvious love of the region exudes from every page. I could practically smell the air all over again.

In alternating chapters, a tad confusing at first until you begin to get what she's about, Ms. Lawrenson slowly unveils the past, tying it to the present, through two narrators, the original owner of Les Genevriers, Benedicte Lincel, and the current residents, Eve and Dom.

Readers learn of the multiple tragedies that befell the Lincels, the suicide of the father, the struggles of Benedicte and her mother as they tried to work the family farm with help from transient tenants, the madness of the wayward brother Pierre, and the encroaching blindness of sister Marthe, a disability that she was able to parlay into an asset in the local perfumerie using her heightened sense of smell.

Eve and Dom meet in a cafe in Switzerland. Succumbing to "love at first sight," and, against her better nature, Eve throws off her work, family and friends, to follow Dom to the mas Les Genevriers, set in the lavender fields outside Avignon, where he will write music and she will pursue her reading and writing. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? But, of course, if this is a gothic romance, we must throw in strange happenings at the mas, noises in the night, lights that come and go in the fields, odors that waft through the kitchen even when nothing is in the oven, and a mysterious neighbor bent on planting suspicion in Eve's over imaginative mind.

Their languid summer of lovemaking and exploration gives way to the autumn mistral. If you've ever seen the film Chocolat, you'll get a sense of the mystery of the winds that haunt the Provencal area as a precursor to winter's gloom. Eve, finally awakened from her reverie of infatuation, begins to question this man that she's thrown her lot in with. What happened to his first wife?  Why won't he open up about his past? And, of course, as human nature is wont to do, the more she prods, the more he dissembles.

When a messy construction project to repair the swimming pool reveals the bones of not one, but two women, Eve believes that her worst suspicions have been realized. Want to know more? It's on the shelf at your local library, downloadable, and available to purchase! Now, will someone please tell me why I was up at 4:30 this morning - on my day off - finishing this book?