August has been Memoir Month. Not by design, by chance.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Diana Duff’s memoir, The Leaves of the Figtree, particularly the chapters about life in colonial East Africa. While I didn’t live in either Kenya or Tanganyika, I was born and brought up in neighbouring Nyasaland (now Malawi ) and I learned that our lives contained many similarities.
I read another memoir, this time from Alexandra Fuller, who is always at her best when writing about her larger than life family. I own and love her previous three books on the theme, and #4 was wonderful. She writes about her parents, and the Bush War in Rhodesia – so familiar to me, as I experienced that period, but in the South of Rhodesia /now Zimbabwe, and the Fullers were living in the North East.
The book opens with her father dying in Budapest Hospital, and her Mum being brave in her inimitable style. Later we learn much more about her parents nomadic farming lifestyle, and their final farm in the Zambezi Valley, situated in Zambia. What a colourful story, two energetic individuals dealing with life, no matter what. It’s a marvelous read, I loved every page. Even the sombre ending. The Kirkus Review said “ … Another elegant memoir from a talented storyteller.” Absolutely correct.
And then the eccentric artists: Christo and Jeanne-Claude – famous for many years for their landscape art projects, and wrapped buildings projects, all of which are logistical exercises of staggering size and complexity. I have never seen anything like their work and I guarantee, neither have you. The German publisher Taschen has given us a book with lavish photographs, a stunning cover, and informative text. But when all is said and done I find myself thinking : Yes, but is it art?
I couldn’t wait to read Emily St John Mandel’s newest novel, The Glass Hotel. Her previous novel, Station Eleven, was marvelous – inventive, original, speculative. But the latest one? Hmmm. I’m still trying to decide. Yes: the basic premise is original: a Ponzi scheme finally collapses, but this is not your typical Wall Street crime/business/sex novel. I suppose its an exploration of 21st century Canadians’ moral compasses. But, equally, I might say : it’s a sort-of-kinda- ghost story. And I could toss in: with overtones of speculative fiction. The time line and character focus jump around. Ultimately there’s a circularity to the story. ESJM offers a tangled tale of how some of the characters are connected, but often the connections are tenuous or fleeting. Frankly, I’m baffled. Maybe I just didn’t get it. I’d love to hear from other readers.
I was looking forward to the debut novel by Tommy Orange, a Native American (Indian), titled ‘There there.’ I found too many tragic and disturbing parallels to our own fractured South African society to make it an enjoyable read. A familiar story of broken families, absentee fathers, over worked and abused women, a people dependent on alcohol and drugs; young people unemployed and engaged in crime. The only difference were the exotic Indian names like Jacqui Red Feather, and the odd Indian cultural detail sprinkled here and there. The book received rave reviews in the USA and the UK, and I can see why. A dramatic read, but not an enjoyable one for me.
I did two more Re-Reads: the Beverly Rycroft novel, set in small town Eastern Cape. I enjoyed the book more this second time around, and realise how under-valued it is. If you can find a copy, read it for a story with humour, depth and vivid characters.
The other Re-Read was Matt Haig’s wonderful book The Humans. I think I enjoyed it more the second time around. Thinking it over: what does it mean to be human? A very good question indeed. Read the novel and see if you agree with the writer.
The Glass Hotel – Emily St John Mandel. An odd novel, original, but not what I was expecting. Try it and see how you feel about it – waiting for your verdict!
There there – Tommy Orange. A powerful debut novel telling the stories of urban Native Americans planning, and attending, a Pow-wow in Oakland, California. Rave reviews in the USA last year, and a Pulitzer finalist but can’t say I enjoyed the book over much.
The Zanzibar Wife – Deborah Rodrigues. An exotic story of Arabian magic, jins, Moslem polygamy, a chaste Omani romance, and a war weary American news photographer. I enjoyed the African/Arabian setting and the exotic ingredients of the story. Finally: something different!
A Slim Green Silence – Beverly Rycroft. The inter-twined lives, stories (and secrets) of a small town in the Eastern Cape. Despite the laid back, casual style, there’s plenty going on that results in tragedy, love, a baby and a boomslang. Highly recommended.
The Humans – Matt Haig. Funny, quirky, profound and not to be missed. I suppose I must classify it as Fantasy Genre, but don’t let this put you off.
The Leaves of the Figtree – Diana Duff. A charming colourful memoir from the author’s childhood in Ireland, and on to Kenya, Tanganyika and South Africa as her life unfolds. If you enjoyed Elspeth Huxley’s books, this is a book for you.
Travel Light, Move Fast – Alexandra Fuller. Fourth book in the unfolding of the Fuller family’s life. A wonderful memoir by a memorist at the top of her game. Not to be missed!
Christo and Jeanne-Claude – Jacob Baal Teshuva. Two avant garde landscape artists, great pics. Another lovely Taschen Art Book.