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Book Review: The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Young African man peaking around a door.Summary:
Dawit is a twenty year old Ethiopian refugee hiding out illegally in Paris and barely surviving.  One day he runs into the elderly, famous French writer, M., in a cafe.  Utterly charmed by him and how he reminds her of her long-lost lover she had growing up in Africa, she invites him to come live with her.  But Dawit is unable to give M. what she wants, leading to dangerous conflict between them.

Review:
This starts out with an interesting chance meeting in a cafe but proceeds to meander through horror without much of a point.

Although in the third person, we only get Dawit’s perspective, and although he is a sympathetic character, he sometimes seems not entirely well-rounded.  Through flashbacks we learn that he grew up as some sort of nobility (like a duke, as he explains to the Romans).  His family is killed and imprisoned, and he is eventually helped to escape by an ex-lover and makes it to Paris.  This is clearly a painful story, but something about Dawit in his current state keeps the reader from entirely empathizing with him.  He was raised noble and privileged, including boarding schools and learning many languages, but he looks down his nose at the French bourgeois, who, let’s be honest, are basically the equivalent of nobility.  He judges M. for spending all her money on him instead of sending it to Ethiopia to feed people, but he also accepts the lavish gifts and money himself.  Admittedly, he sends some to his friends, but he just seems a bit hypocritical throughout the whole thing.  He never really reflects on the toppling of the Emperor in Ethiopia or precisely how society should be ordered to be better.  He just essentially says, “Oh, the Emperor wasn’t all that bad, crazy rebels, by the way, M., why aren’t you donating this money to charity instead of spending it on me? But I will tooootally take that cashmere scarf.” Ugh.

That said, Dawit is still more sympathetic than M., who besides being a stuck-up, lazy, self-centered hack also repeatedly rapes Dawit.  Yeah. That happened. Quite a few times.  And while I get the point that Kohler is making (evil old colonialists raping Ethiopians), well, I suppose I just don’t think it was a very clever allegory.  I’d rather read about that actually happening.

In spite of being thoroughly disturbed and squicked out by everyone in the story, I kept reading because Kohler’s prose is so pretty, and I honestly couldn’t figure out how she’d manage to wrap everything up.  What point was she going to make?  Well, I got to the ending, and honestly the ending didn’t do it for me.  I found it a bit convenient and simplistic after the rest of the novel, and it left me kind of wondering what the heck I just spent my time reading.

So, clearly this book rubbed me the wrong way, except for the fact that certain passages are beautifully written.  Will it work for other readers?  Maybe.  Although the readers I know with a vested interest in the effects of colonialism would probably find the allegory as simplistic as I did.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Specific country? Ethiopia. South African author.

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Movie Review: Skin (2008) South Africa

February 15, 2012 2 comments

Young black woman with an afro.Summary:
Based on a true story, Sandra Laing was born black to two white parents.  Something that is an interesting anomaly of unacknowledged or unknown ancestors, but unfortunately for Sandra it was oh so much more than that.  Sandra was born in South Africa during Apartheid, and her white Afrikaner parents were members of the National Party.  This film chronicles her fascinating life from a young girl hidden from the sun in the hopes that her skin would lighten as she grew older to a young runaway marriage to striking out on her own with her children.

Review:
I know movie reviews have been scarce around here.  That’s mostly because since I joined the gym my evening free time is spent either there or reading.  This weekend though I had a cold and a bit of a fuzzy head from a fever so I randomly chose an interesting looking movie from my Netflix recommendations.  I had no idea when I chose it that Sandra Laing’s story is a true one.  I didn’t realize this bit of information until the end credits.  I thought it was one of those “what if” scenarios and knowing that this actually happened makes the whole thing incredibly painful.

We know that innate parental unconditional love is a myth.  And if there was ever a true story that should unequivocally dispel this myth once and for all, it’s Sandra’s.  Is there anything more abusive, more unloving than raising your child in a culture that hates her and doing, really, nothing about it?  Although her parents did fight to have her classified as white and not colored (so they could keep custody of her, because apparently children had to be raised by parents of the same race during Apartheid), they did little else to protect her.  Indeed, by her teen years her father was pressuring her to behave for white boys who were being verbally cruel at best or attempting to rape her at worst on dates.  It’s little wonder Sandra ran off to be with a black man she met.  Your role as a parent should be to protect your child and prepare her to take care of herself in the real world and advocate for herself.  But Sandra’s parents’ racism clouded everything so much that the most they did was attempt to hide her.

Of course, the problem then became that Sandra was raised in a privileged background, and that’s all some of the black South Africans could see when they looked at her, including her own husband.  He says to her at one point, “You still think of yourself as white.”  I find it fascinating how people can become so wrapped up in their own problems resulting from inequality that they fail to see the pain inflicted by it on others, even others that they love.

The actress who plays the older Sandra does a great job showing her progression from a hopeful teen to a downtrodden factory worker at the end of Apartheid.  The trauma from a life where everyone judged her either on her own skin tone or that of her parents is abundantly evident on the actresses’ face.

That said, while the topic is incredibly important and the true life events heart-breaking, I don’t think the movie itself does the real story true justice.  The actors and actresses did a fine job with what they were given, but even basic googling shows that the story was cleaned up for a mainstream audience, which I think was a very poor decision on the part of the filmmakers.  Sandra’s life was actually more difficult than they even give her credit for.  For instance, she left home at only 15 (she seems much older in the film), her first husband already had a first wife, she actually had six children not two, etc….  (Essence, The Guardian, Women and Hollywood)

Personally, I view this movie as a gateway to the far more fascinating nitty gritty true story.  I’m adding the book by the journalist Judith Stone about her work with Sandra to attempt to figure out her past called When She Was White.  But.  If you don’t have the time to get into it in depth, the short biopic is definitely a better choice than say the latest romcom out of Hollywood.  It will push you to confront the tragedy of racism and the myth of parental love against all odds.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix Instant

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Africa Reading Challenge! (Hosted by Kinna Reads)

January 19, 2012 7 comments

Map of AfricaI’m super-excited to get to participate in a reading challenge this year that I heard rumblings about and was announced this week.  The Africa Reading Challenge!  Hosted by Kinna Reads.

According to Kinna, the rules are:

Challenge Period
January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012

Region
The entire African continent, including its island-states, which are often overlooked. Please refer to this Wikipedia “list of sovereign states and dependent territories in Africa”. Pre-colonial empires and regions are also included.

Reading Goal
5 books.  That’s it.  There will be no other levels.  Of course, participants are encouraged to read more than 5 books.  Eligible books include those which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues. Note that at least 3 books must be written by African writers.

Why this challenge?
Getting to know Kinna and Amy in 2011 connected me to African lit and showed me the uniqueness of it.  I enjoyed reading it, so of course I want to read more!  Plus, participating in this challenge will hopefully call attention to this whole other world of books that is so frequently ignored in the book blogging world.  Also, reading is how I travel, and I just love visiting Africa through a writer’s eyes.

My (tentative) reading list:

  1. Music and Dance Traditions of Ghana: History, Performance and Teaching by Paschal Yao Younge (current tbr pile) Ghana
  2. Yellow-Yellow by Kaine Agary (current tbr pile) Nigeria
  3. The Chicken Thief by Fiona Leonard (current tbr pile) Ghana
  4. The Rabbi’s Cat 2 by Joann Sfar (current tbr pile) Algeria
  5. His Treasure (Men of Valor) by Kiru Taye (current tbr pile) Nigeria
  6. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (wishlist) Sierra Leone
  7. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood by Robyn Scott (wishlist) South Africa and Zimbabwe
  8. Death of the Mantis: A Detective Kubu Mystery by Michael Stanley (wishlist) Botswana
  9. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (wishlist) Egypt
  10. The African American Odyssey of John Kizell: The Life and Times of a South Carolina Slave Who Returned to Fight the Slave Trade in His African Homeland by Kevin G. Lowther (wishlist) Sierra Leone
  11. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (wishlist) Nigeria
  12. King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village by Peggielene Bartels (wishlist) Ghana

I’m hoping to read all of these, but obviously the only ones set in stone are the ones I own.  Suggestions, both from my list and not, are welcome!  I’m excited by the new variety this challenge will bring to my blog and also for the camaraderie innate in reading challenges.  It’s gonna be a fun year. 🙂

Book Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

March 15, 2011 1 comment

African woman with sloth on her neck.Summary:
In the near future those who’ve committed a serious wrong for which most would feel guilty are given an animal by the spiritual world.  They are known as Zoos, and the animals attempt to guide them back to the straight and narrow as well as keeping the Undertow at bay.  Separation is painful and almost impossible.  If the animal dies, the Zoo dies.  Zinzi December of Johannesburg is one of these Zoos. Her animal is a sloth, and  her magical power is finding lost things.  Normally she sticks to everyday objects such as keys in the sewer, but when a music producer approaches her via his assistants for help in finding a missing teen Afropop star, she bends the rules.  She just may come to regret that decision.

Review:
Beukes excels at world-building, setting a vivid example of how to use showing not telling to its best, fullest extent.  I was instantly swept into this fantastical version of a nation I’ve never been to, yet somehow was able to quickly decipher which elements were pure fantasy and which based on the realities of modern South Africa.  The reader comes to understand how Zoos first showed up and why they exist without even really realizing she is acquiring this information.

Similarly, the character of Zinzi was a refreshing change from the typical urban fantasy female lead.  While she is clever and fairly fit, she is neither abnormally strong not incapable of making bad decisions.  She is a three-dimensional character with both positive and negative qualities.  She is not simply the put-upon dark heroine.  Her struggles are real and current, not simply in the past.  At first it appears that Beukes is going to fall into the completely redeemed heroine trope, but instead Zinzi still has demons to face.  She must repeatedly fall and get back up, something that rings as far more real than one epic fall followed by heroine perfection.

The one draw-back is that the plot is a bit confusing.  I had to re-read the climax to fully understand exactly what had been revealed as the big secret Zinzi was discovering.  Part of that was due to a couple of elements of the plot that seemed not to mesh well with the rest of it.  Some of the important fantasy parts of the plot should have, perhaps, had a bit more explanation.  There is a lot going on in this novel and sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming for the reader who is new not only to the fantastical elements of the tale, but to the South African cultural elements as well.  Although the plot is ultimately decipherable, it is not immediately easy to follow.

Overall this is a creative, unique piece of urban fantasy that simultaneously presents a truly flawed heroine and takes the genre into a city many modern readers are not familiar with.  I recommend it to fans of urban fantasy as well as fans of African literature.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Movie Review: District 9 (2009) South Africa

February 2, 2010 6 comments

Alien spaceship over "no humans allowed" poster.Summary:
In this alternate history, 20 years ago an alien spaceship came to a stop over South Africa.  It appears that they broke down over Earth.  They appeared sickly and malnourished, so the South African government set up a shanty town for them just outside of Johannesburg.  Now tensions are increasing between the South Africans and the aliens who they call Prawns.  The government hires a corporation called Multi-National United to come in and forcibly move them 25 kilometers from Johannesburg.  The leader of the project soon discovers the Prawns aren’t exactly what the media has laid them out to be……and neither is Multi-National United.

Review:
I knew as I was watching it that I was going to really like this mockumentary.  Having an alien landing that is neither hostile nor a diplomatic mission from a more advanced species is really creative, as is having the humans hem and haw over what exactly to do with the aliens.  The aliens wind up in no-man’s land, stuck due to red tape and a general lack of consensus.

I also enjoyed that the movie doesn’t establish certain groups as all evil or all good.  There are individuals within the South Africans, the Prawns, and the MNU who are good or evil, just as it actually is in real life.  The main characters are complex, trying to do their best when facing tough decisions.

Now, as for the movie elements, the special effects are amazing.  I kept forgetting that the Prawns were CGI and not actors.  The Prawns’ weapons are exactly what you want out of a scifi film–based on real world weapons, but decidedly more awesome.

There were a few pieces of loose plot that bothered me.  A non-spoiler example is the fact that the Prawns and the humans understand each other, and it’s not explained how that came about or how difficult it might be.  It almost seems as if just anyone can understand the Prawns’ clicking.  Another example is it’s never explained if there are female Prawns or if they are hermaphrodites or what.

A lot of people say that this is about race relations.  I disagree.  While it’s easy to draw out comparisons, I don’t think that’s the main issue in the film.  I think District 9 is more about how groups of people affiliated by nationality interact, and how people do the best they can given the circumstances.

I highly recommend District 9 to scifi and non-scifi lovers alike.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Redbox

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