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Armchair Travelling: Africa

I am a keen traveller in normal times, and am missing the freedom in planning trips, and exploring new places with my boyfriend. At present, like almost everyone else around the world, my only travelling is occurring through books, and watching foreign language films and Scandi-crime dramas on Netflix.

I created the first of the posts in this new series in February, alerting you to eight books set in Korea which I am keen to read, or which I count amongst my favourites. For my second post, I have selected three African countries, merely because I could not find a great deal of books set in each location. My birthday trip to Morocco was cancelled last year, and we could not go ahead with our planned safari to The Gambia and Senegal either; therefore, these are my choices.

The Gambia

Four Guineas by Elspeth Huxley

‘This account of Elspeth Huxley’s travels in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria gilds the Dark Continent–not because the author romanticizes it, but because she clarifies it…its history, superstitions and tribal ways, its beauty and power, its great contrasts and complexities. But this is no postcard and Huxley is not diverted by the exotic scenery and colorful natives. Instead, she pictures a region striving to maintain its heritage while finding a future. It’s like going ahead with one foot on the brake.’

A Season in Sinji by J.L. Carr

A Season in Sinji recreates life on a wartime RAF flying boat station in an African backwater. The dialogue evokes a wide range of characters, and in the bizarre cricket match which acts as a catharsis to the novel’s mounting passions, human dramas and irony are portrayed.’

Senegal

Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

‘Hailed by Chinua Achebe as one of the greatest African novels ever written, this long-unavailable classic tells the tale of young Samba Diallo, a devout pupil in a Koranic school in Senegal whose parents send him to Paris to study philosophy. But unknown to Samba, it is a desperate attempt by his parents to better understand the French colonial forces transforming their traditional way of life. Instead, for Samba, it seems an exciting adventure, and once in France he excels at his new studies and is delighted by his new “marvelous comprehension and total communion” with the Western world. Soon, though, he finds himself torn between the materialistic secularism and isolation of French civilization and the deeper spiritual influences of his homeland. As Samba puts it: “I have become the two.” Written in an elegant, lyrical prose, Ambiguous Adventure is a masterful expression of the immigrant experience and the repercussions of colonialism, and a great work of literature about the uneasy relationship between Islamic Africa and the West—a relationship more important today than ever before.’

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

‘In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful. This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight. With lyrical intensity, Marie NDiaye masterfully evokes the relentless denial of dignity, to say nothing of happiness, in these lives caught between Africa and Europe. We see with stunning emotional exactitude how ordinary women discover unimagined reserves of strength, even as their humanity is chipped away. Three Strong Women admits us to an immigrant experience rarely if ever examined in fiction, but even more into the depths of the suffering heart.’

Morocco

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits evokes the grit and enduring grace that is modern Morocco. As four Moroccans illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat headed for Spain, author Laila Lalami asks, What has driven them to risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger? There’s Murad, a gentle, unemployed man who’s been reduced to hustling tourists around Tangier; Halima, who’s fleeing her drunken husband and the slums of Casablanca; Aziz, who must leave behind his devoted wife in hope of securing work in Spain; and Faten, a student and religious fanatic whose faith is at odds with an influential man determined to destroy her future. Sensitively written with beauty and boldness, this is a gripping book about what propels people to risk their lives in search of a better future.’

A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

‘The Medina — the Old City — of Fez is the best-preserved, medieval walled city in the world. Inside this vibrant Moroccan community, internet cafes and mobile phones coexist with a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, thousand-year-old sewer systems, and Arab-style houses, gorgeous with intricate, if often shabby, mosaic work. While vacationing in Morocco, Suzanna Clarke and her husband, Sandy, are inspired to buy a dilapidated, centuries-old riad in Fez with the aim of restoring it to its original splendor, using only traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So begins a remarkable adventure that is bewildering, at times hilarious, and ultimately immensely rewarding. A House in Fez chronicles their meticulous restoration, but it is also a journey into Moroccan customs and lore and a window into the lives of its people as friendships blossom. When the riad is finally returned to its former glory, Suzanna finds she has not just restored an old house, but also her soul.’

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

‘In Agatha Christie’s gripping international thriller Destination Unknown, a woman at the end of her rope chooses a more exciting way to die when she embarks upon an almost certain suicide mission to find a missing scientist. When a number of leading scientists disappear without a trace, concern grows within the international intelligence community. And the one woman who appears to hold the key to the mystery is dying from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Meanwhile, in a Casablanca hotel room, Hilary Craven prepares to take her own life. But her suicide attempt is about to be interrupted by a man who will offer her an altogether more thrilling way to die…’

Have you read any of these books? Where have you been travelling to through literature lately? If you have any countries which you’re itching to travel to, and wish me to include in this series, please just let me know!

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Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

Part three of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase is, again, made up of some quite diverse books which I feel deserve a wider readership.

1. Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser 16057098.jpg
As a young reporter in 1936, Muriel Rukeyser traveled to Barcelona to witness the first days of the Spanish Civil War. She turned this experience into an autobiographical novel so forward thinking for its time that it was never published. Recently discovered in her archive, this lyrical work charts her political and sexual awakening as she witnesses the popular front resistance to the fascist coup and falls in love with a German political exile who joins the first international brigade.  Rukeyser’s narrative is a modernist investigation into the psychology of violence, activism, and desire; a documentary text detailing the start of the war; and a testimony to those who fought and died for freedom and justice during the first major battle against European fascism.

 

2. The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837–1915), Victorian England’s bestselling woman writer, blends Dickensian humor with chilling suspense in this “exuberantly campy” (Kirkus Reviews) mystery. The novel features Jabez North, a manipulative orphan who becomes a ruthless killer; Valerie de Cevennes, a stunning heiress who falls into North’s diabolical trap; and Mr. Peters, a mute detective who communicates his brilliant reasoning through sign language.’

 

16057518.jpg3. Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain
When Mark Twain wrote the sparky short story “Advice to Little Girls” in 1865, he probably didn’t mean for it to be shown to them. Or maybe he did, since we all know Twain was a rascal. Now, author and illustrator Vladimir Radunsky has created a picture book based on Twain’s text that adds all the right outlandish touches.

 

4. All My Friends by Marie NDiaye
A moody and beautiful reflection on relationships, and how our idea of the world too often fails to match reality, All My Friends delivers five stories that probe the boundaries between individuals to mediate on how well we really know anybody, including ourselves. Written in hypnotic prose with characters both fully fleshed and unfathomable, All My Friends opens with the fraught love story of a man who has fallen for his housekeeper, his student of many years ago. Losing his grip as he feels his own family turning against him, he plots romance between the housekeeper and an old friend, whom he thinks is perfect for her. Later NDiaye gives us the harsh tale of a young boy longing to escape his life of poverty by becoming a sex slave—just like the beautiful young man that lived next door. And when a woman takes her mentally challenged son on a bus ride to the city, they both know that she’ll return, but he won’t. Chilling, provocative, and touching, this is an unflinching look at the personal horrors we fight every day to suppress—but in All My Friends they’re allowed to roam free.

 

2533255. Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time by A.S. Byatt
Unruly Times is a superlative portrait of the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, and a fascinating exploration of the Romantic Movement and the dramatic events that shaped it. With a novelist’s insight and eye for detail, A. S. Byatt brings alive this tumultuous period and shows a deep understanding of the effects upon the minds of Wordsworth, Coleridge and their contemporaries – de Quincey, Lamb, Hazlitt, Byron and Keats.

 

6. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess by Hannah Arendt
She was, Hannah Arendt wrote, “my closest friend, though she has been dead for some hundred years.” Born in Berlin in 1771 as the daughter of a Jewish merchant, Rahel Varnhagen would come to host one of the most prominent salons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Arendt discovered her writings some time in the mid-1920s, and soon began to reimagine Rahel’s inner life and write her biography. Long unavailable and never before published as Arendt intended, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess returns to print in an extraordinary new edition.  Arendt draws a lively and complex portrait of a woman during the period of the Napoleonic wars and the early emancipation of the Jews, a figure who met and corresponded with some of the most celebrated authors, artists, and politicians of her time. She documents Rahel’s attempts to earn legitimacy as a writer and gain access to the highest aristocratic circles, to assert for herself a position in German culture in spite of her gender and religion.

 

7. Happy Moscow by Andrei Platonov 13533706
Moscow Chestnova is a bold and glamorous girl, a beautiful parachutist who grew up with the Revolution. As an orphan, she knew tough times—but things are changing now. Comrade Stalin has proclaimed that “Life has become better! Life has become merrier!” and Moscow herself is poised to join the Soviet elite. But her ambitions are thwarted when a freak accident propels her flaming from the sky. A new, stranger life begins. Moscow drifts from man to man, through dance halls, all-night diners, and laboratories in which the secret of immortality is actively being investigated, exploring the endless avenues and vacant spaces of the great city whose name she bears, looking for happiness, somewhere, still.’

 

8. In the Year of the Long Division by Dawn Raffel
Dawn Raffel’s debut delivers us to the wild spaces of a youth in the Midwest and to the blank terrors of the heart. There is a cold wind blowing through these stories, whose sentences come to us as a rebuke to anything felt. In her flight from sentiment, Raffel masterfully reifies the new will to absence that marks the moral and emotional bearing of her generation. The result is not just an acknowledgment of all our long divisions – the divide between impulse and the means to apprehend it, between desire and entrapment – but of the final sweet concession that we must each of us make to the futility of even the smallest mending. In the Year of Long Division gives us the triumph of craft over the obstinance of expression and the installation of a writer certain to be cited in the continuing reinvention of the American short story.

 

17574841.jpg9. Laziness in the Fertile Valley by Albert Cossery
Laziness in the Fertile Valley is Albert Cossery’s biting social satire about a father, his three sons, and their uncle — slackers one and all. One brother has been sleeping for almost seven years, waking only to use the bathroom and eat a meal. Another savagely defends the household from women. Serag, the youngest, is the only member of the family interested in getting a job. But even he — try as he might — has a hard time resisting the call of laziness.

 

10. Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard
A fresh take on climate change by a renowned journalist driven to protect his daughter, your kids, and the next generation who’ll inherit the problem.  For twenty years, Mark Hertsgaard has investigated global warming for outlets including the New Yorker, NPR, Time, Vanity Fair, and The Nation. But the full truth did not hit home until he became a father and, soon thereafter, learned that climate change had already arrived―a century earlier than forecast―with impacts bound to worsen for decades to come. Hertsgaard’s daughter Chiara, now five yea rs old, is part of what he has dubbed “Generation Hot”–the two billion young people worldwide who will spend the rest of their lives coping with mounting climate disruption.  HOT is a father’s cry against climate change, but most of the book focuses on s olutions, offering a deeply reported blueprint for how all of us―as parents, communities, companies and countries―can navigate this unavoidable new era. Combining reporting from across the nation and around the world with personal reflections on his daugh ter’s future, Hertsgaard provides “pictures” of what is expected over the next fifty years: Chicago’s climate transformed to resemble Houston’s; dwindling water supplies and crop yields at home and abroad; the redesign of New York and other cities against mega-storms and sea-level rise. Above all, he shows who is taking wise, creative precautions. For in the end, HOT is a book about how we’ll survive.

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