November 3, 2011

Joburg Expat's Book Recommendations

Like every writer, I'm first and foremost a reader, although my driver, cheerleader, house tidier, school clothes shopper, food shopper, lost and found checker, button re-attacher, cook, scheduler, pool cleaner, gardener, account manager, fixer-of-anything-broken, and social planner duties seem to eternally prevent me from really reading as much as I'd like. I can barely keep up with the news, and actual books seem to fade farther and farther away from the list of things I get to on a daily basis. When I do read, it's often other blogs!

However, I've been trying to read the occasional book with an Africa theme, because I find it fascinating and because there is still so much to learn. And because I'm always more motivated to do things that I can then share with you! So, even though it is far from perfect and still growing, I've started a list of books for you - Joburg Expat's picks - which you will find below. I'd love to hear your feedback and additional recommendations.

You can always find this list again - and please do check back occasionally for new additions - by clicking on the "Books" Tab at the top of the page. I've also added an Amazon widget on the right which you can't miss, as it is the only thing that "moves" on my blog. Please use those links, since (full disclosure) I am earning (teensy tiny) commissions if my links lead to any purchases, and I'm hoping that one day they'll pay for a bit more than the occasional cappuccino to get me through my midnight blogging sessions. In fact, I would be eternally grateful if you used my links to go to Amazon for anything you buy, whether I recommend it or not:-).You should also know that I only recommend something if I personally believe in it. So if you're ready to smack that Mandela-book, all 700+ pages of it, at the wall in frustration, you can totally blame me.

Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

A must-read for anyone with an interest in South Africa, its history, and its race relations. Set in a time before apartheid was conceived, it is about the culture clash between rural blacks and their counterparts in the cities, about the conflicts stemming from a lost way of life that cannot be replaced and the inevitable tragedy this loss of values brings about. What I most love about this book is the almost poetic style of the prose, incorporating the essence of the Zulu language very well even though it is written in English.

Kindle version: Cry, the Beloved Country 
(Oprah's Classics Book Club Selections)

West With The Night by Beryl Markham

This memoir is set in 1930s British East Africa (today's Kenya). I love this book for so many reasons. It's beautifully written, for one, and it describes Africa so accurately, even though it was written such a long time ago. A timeless classic. Read more...

The New Global Student by Maya Frost

This book has nothing to do with Africa per se but I consider it a must read for expats with children. It explores the virtues of an international education and diverging from the traditional or "old-school" path of learning. Read more...

Kindle version: The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, 
Save Thousands on Tuition, and 
Get a Truly International Education

The Power Of One by Bryce Courtenay

If you could only read one book about South Africa, then I would say read this one. It was also made into a movie with Morgan Freeman, but it’s not nearly as good as the book. It’s comparable to the Kite Runner, revealing key aspects of a country’s history and culture through a compelling story you won’t be able to put down until the end.

Movie: The Power of One

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

You have to be an ambitious reader to get through over 700 pages of this, but if you are, it is well worth the time to gain more insights into the anti-apartheid struggle and Nelson Mandela's life. I wonder if this would be a good book to get from the library as an audio book for your car.

Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane

This haunting memoir offers good insights about township life and what it was like for a black kid to grow up during the apartheid years. I feel a special connection to it because it is set in Alexandra and features a youth’s involvement in sports as the ticket to a better life.
Kindle version: Kaffir Boy: The True Story 
of a Black Youth's Coming of Age 
in Apartheid South Africa

Spud by John van de Ruit

I was made aware of this book by our two boys, who absolutely loved it. It’s actually a series of three books, all set in a South African boys’ boarding school shortly after the end of apartheid. It resembles the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and, apart from its hilarity, makes you understand not only boarding school life but coming of age in this country. This is actually a rare instance where I think the movie (starring John Cleese) is at least as good or even better than the book, although it seems to be impossible to find in the U.S.

Kindle version: Spud

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin

Another great read about growing up in Southern Africa. The setting for this excellent memoir is actually Rhodesia up until 1980, which of course is now Zimbabwe. But in those days Rhodesia and South Africa resembled each other in many ways and their history is intertwined. This book makes you sad about what was lost in Zimbabwe due to years of civil war and brutal crackdown, and hopeful that South Africa (so far, as some will fret) has chosen a different path.

Kindle version: Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin

I actually haven't read this book yet, but put it on my list after reading the reviews, which all agree that the book is much more powerful than the movie (which I did see and liked). The story of the Rugby World Cup is just a thread linking various characters in this account of how South Africa managed to emerge intact from the dangerous years after the end of apartheid to become what it is today. I imagine reading it will further enhance (if that is even possible) my enormous respect for Nelson Mandela and his power not only to forgive but to convince others to do the same and come together as one nation.

Kindle version: Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the 
Game That Made a Nation
Movie: Invictus

The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich

Again a book I'm only recommending based on the excellent movie I've seen. There is no better way to understand what South Africa went through in the early 1990s after Nelson Mandela's release before elections were held. Where Invictus shows the "good" side of that process, this book shows the "bad" side of it, through the eyes of a group of photographers who chronicled the violence. It's a haunting story.

Kindle version: The Bang-Bang Club, movie tie-in: 
Snapshots From a Hidden War
Movie: The Bang Bang Club

The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson

Hauntingly beautiful, this story pretty much picks up where Cry the Beloved Country left off, when racial segregation is formalized into the policy of apartheid. It shows the struggle of someone who is trying to do good while working for an evil regime, becoming more and more conflicted about its morality and his own role in it. Read more...


Jenna said...

The Power of One is my all time favorite book - it is so good!

And Spud is just plain hilarious :)


Jozie Days said...

Great list Sine! Three I would like to add.

1) Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott. This is a lovely memoir of growing up in Botswana, a book I really enjoyed.

2) The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg. This book resonates with me as it is about growing up in Rhodesia in the 1970's. It is an easy light read.

3) When a crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Goodwin. A very good book about Zimbabwe (it also rang true as my grandmother died shortly after I read the book and we all trekked home to bid her farewell. They had to take her body over 300kms away to be cremated as there was no gas in Harare). One of the best passages in the book is when Peter is in NY during 9/11 when the planes hit the towers he writes "In Africa you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue. You feel perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal. Maybe that is why you seem to live more vividly in Africa. The drama of life there is amplified by its constant proximity to death. That's what infuses it with tension. It is the essence of tragedy too. People love harder there. Love is the way that life forgets that it is terminal. Love is life's alibi in the face of death.'

I have all 3 if you would like to borrow them let me know.


Stephanie said...

All those books are wonderful -- though I haven't read Long Walk to Freedom yet. Two that I would add and recommend are My Traitor's Heart by Rian Milan -- another apartheid era one that is partially set in rural KZN near where my husband grew up so it was kind of personal for me. Another good African read and an interesting take on Africa and NGO involvement in Africa is Dark Star Safari. Happy Reading!

Namrata singh said...

Hey Sine, just reading these now..."Cry..." is one of my favorites...have you read Rian Malan's "My Traitor's Heart?" If not, I highly recommend it and there is also a documentary that he did for the BBC that is available on YouTube, just google it, it's from 2009 so a bit dated but still really illuminating.

Sine said...

Thanks everyone for the great additions!

Jozie Days - I've already added the other Peter Godwin book to my list, as I loved Mukiwa. The passage you included just shows his excellent writing and insight. The other two sound great too.

Stephanie/Namrata - I've had My Traitor's Heart in my hands, but somehow read some reviews that made it sound less authentic than I imagined it, so I left it. Will definitely have to go back to Scoobs to get it based on your recommendation - I don't think it's available on Amazon if I correctly remember. I'll definitely look for that documentary as well.

Sine said...

One book I forgot was "Don't let's go to the dogs tonight", also about Rhodesia, but I found it a bit too quirky as that girl's family sounded kind of crazy. Still, good childhood images of that time.

Dance with a poor man's daughter is also on my list, has anyone read that?

And Jozie Days - would love to borrow those three books, we'll have to finally meet!

cat said...

Please read "Country of my skull" By Antjie Krog - about the TRC etc. Realy a must read. And I also wanted to add "My traitors heart. And for some entertainment african reading one can not beat the No1 Ladies detective agency books. The BBC tv series was stunning. And I do agree the Spud movie is a great version of the book.

cat said...

Oh yes, and for great South African travel writing get "On the back roads" by Dana Snyman - he writes about very real people he encounters on his travels in such a great human way. A total must read.

Sine said...

cat, thanks for he additions! I can already see I have to do a lot of reading to catch up. "Business reading" so to speak. Glad you mentioned Nr 1 Ladies Detective Agency - a very cute series, with many lovable tidbits about African culture. I only read one of them and it was in German, so I didn't think of reviewing it here.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I would add Ian Smith's book to the list just so people could a different perspective that very hard to find.