Ann Patchett’s last book has already received excellent reviews and they are well deserved. In State of Wonder, she takes you on an adventure to the Amazon, to find out how a scientist from the Vogel Pharmaceutical company has died. The main character is Marina Singh, herself a pharmacologist and a close colleague of Anders Eckman, the dead man. She takes on this task with great reluctance, given how little she knows about what is going on with the research project in South America. But she knows that she has to do it – Anders’ widow, who needs to know the truth of what happened, has asked her and Marina can’t say no.
What she encounters in Brazil is described in such detail, that you can feel the heat and sweat of that area of the Amazon. She describes the environment that has such an impact on those who live there and those who don’t really belong. Marina encounters people and scientists who are living an almost surreal existence. And in searching for what has happened to Anders, her friend, she learns the secrets of the research that is really being done deep in the jungle.
This is generally a slow paced book, mainly because the environment dictates it. The heat, the muddy waters, the slow moving river – there’s a thickness to the air. The cast of characters is wonderful, from the deaf native child, Easter, to the members of the Lakashi tribe and to the complex and determined chief scientist, Annick Svensen. I learned a lot from the details of the flora and fauna – and one thing for sure – you don’t ever want to be in the Amazon jungle alone. The story has some unpredictable twists and turns. It is, as billed, a wonderful story.
Mardi Gras season is here again! This year, Shrove Tuesday actually fell on February 21, but the festivities generally run for longer, starting just after Epiphany (January 6) and going until the beginning of Lent which shifts on the calendar from year to year. It may be too late to plan a trip to the Big Easy for the festival, but you can still be there in spirit with help from a couple of books about New Orleans. The first, Ned Sublette’s The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square is a virtual gumbo of Crescent City history. The Spanish, French and African traditions which make up New Orleans’s social and cultural landscape are examined. Sublette’s book covers from the early French colonial period in the 1600s, through the Spanish period in the 1700s, through the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Civil War, the birth of jazz and other forms of music, and into the twenty-first century with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
William Faulkner Rushton’s 1979 book, The Cajuns: From Acadia to Louisiana is a concise history of a people’s determination to adapt to a new environment (from France to Acadia to Louisiana) bringing their rich musical heritage along with them. Rushton’s book is rich in detail and makes a good compliment to Sublette’s book.
Mardi Gras musical accompaniment can be had by some of the Cajun and Zydeco CDs in the library’s collection including Cajun Dance Party: Fais Do Do a collection of vintage 1920s recordings from Cajun musical pioneers Amédé Adroin, Dewey Segura and les Breaux Frères. Two selections of music from Buckwheat Zydeco are Menagerie: The Essential Zydeco Collection and Choo Choo Boogaloo.
Let the good times roll, once again!
The history of Canadians of African descent is fairly well documented in a number of books (and more than a few non-print resources), most focusing on a specific, local area (eg. Halifax, southern Ontario, Montreal, Salt Spring Island, BC). Definitive, Canada-wide histories are harder to come by which makes the late Robin Winks’ 2003 Blacks in Canada: A History (second edition) all the more necessary. Winks’ exhaustive, scholarly work was first published in 1971 by Yale University Press (Winks was a Randolph W. Townsend Professor of History at Yale) and as such the content includes some rather dated terminology; Winks himself explains this in his preface to the second edition (published by McGill-Queen’s University Press). This and the book ending in 1970 are its main weaknesses, however, that said, this 496 page tome is worth reading at the very least for its nationwide breadth and scope. One hopes that, in the wake of Winks’ passing, this work will become the basis for a more modernized, expanded one in the near future.
Very little has been written on the history of African-Canadians in western Canada. In addition to the history of the black communities in the Hogan’s Alley neighbourhood of Vancouver, Victoria and Salt Spring Island, and the identity of the Colony of British Columbia’s first Governor James Douglas, there are the few histories of black pioneers moving ever westward to settle the prairies, the Rockies, and the interior of British Columbia. Colin Thomson’s Blacks in Deep Snow: Black Pioneers in Canada (1979) pieces together the disparate histories of black pioneer settlements throughout Canada, but mostly, even uniquely, focusses on Western Canada. Again, we are much in need of a new edition of this book.
Comments on the above are welcome.
Alexandra Fuller’s 2001 autobiography Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, was both poignant and funny. She recorded her childhood in Central Africa, growing up in an eccentric Anglo-African family. Fuller’s parents were true adventurers, spurning the easy English life to farm in the least habitable parts of East Africa. From frightening encounters with insects and snakes, Rhodesia’s war of independence and her mother’s mental illness, it is amazing that Fuller lived to tell this story, let alone make us laugh along with her.
Now she has rewritten the story from her mother’s point of view in her new book Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Her mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa,” was not amused at her portrayal in the earlier “awful book,” so Fuller interviewed her to set the record straight. Nicola’s passion for Africa shines through in their talks about the past, as do her pain at losing three children and her bouts of mental suffering. It is wonderful to meet the indomitable Nicola again, and to discover her and Tim finally settled and happy on their banana and fish farm.
I was out of town recently, far too long to borrow a library book without paying a fine. One thing I did, that has already been recommended here, was listen to an audiobook I downloaded from Library-To-Go (American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, by H. W. Brands; a good book!)
There’s another option I want to pass along, for those of you who use a computer, are sometimes away from the library, and don’t mind reading (mainly older) out-of-copyright books. The Internet Archive, http://www.archive.com, is an amazing resource. Aside from offering access to more than three million free books and other documents, it also gives you totally free access to a huge range of film, video, music and other audio recordings.
Here is a cross-section of ebooks books I have downloaded, and that I keep on hand for reading on my netbook when I travel. Willam James’ Principles of Psychology (1891); Michael J. Heath’s Rabelais (1996); Emile Zola’s Germinal (1885), a novel about the social conditions of miners in 19th century France; Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons, 1861-1901 (1934), about the lives of the super-rich in America at the dawn of modern capitalism; Edmond D. Morel’s King Leopold’s Rule in Africa (1904), documents the horrific abuses associated with 19th century Imperial Europe; C. D. Yonge’s translation of Diogenes Laertius’ second century work The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (1853); W. D. Westervelt’s Legends of Maui a Demi-God of Maui (1910); H. L. Mencken’s The Philosophy of Nietzsche (1913); William Henry Foote’s sad history of The Huguenots (1870); and Delia Goetz & S. G. Morley’s 1954 translation of The Popul Vuh, a sacred text of pre-contact Peruvians.
There’s nothing here I would feel awful about having missed but, at the same time, they are all darned interesting! Just the thing, in other words, for when you are in transit or otherwise stuck on idle while away from home. If these books don’t interest you, you may still find the other three million worth a look! You’ll be surprised what you might find.