I read and enjoyed another book about African refugees - Alek: The Extraordinary Life of a Sudanese Refugee by Alek Wek, who was born in a village in South Sudan, yet became a famous supermodel. She tells the story of her childhood in a most unaffected, simple way, describing their small comforts and daily ritual with some pride, despite their poor circumstances. Her account of her family’s first flight across the arid countryside away from Wau, the small township where they lived, when rebel soldiers attacked, is most moving and a real eye-opener. She describes how her mother always boiled any water they were able to find before letting the children drink. Such discipline! No wonder they survived. Alek eventually managed to get on a flight to London, where her sister was already living, and her good life story eventually begins. Nothing was easy and, although she had modelling jobs, she still cleaned toilets at the BBC and worked in a salon washing old ladies’ hair. Her description of the ins and outs of modelling could be salutary for teenaged dreamers. This is an inspirational story and would be a good gift to young people – in fact it should be in every school library. Firstly to explain the story of refugees, and secondly to illustrate how beneficial hard work, discipline and tolerance can be. An intelligent, confident, strong voice comes through. Alek also mentions the very popular 1998 book Desert Flower by Ethiopian refugee Waris Dirie, another beautiful young woman with a different story to tell about escaping a forced marriage. You’ll find them both in biography.
Beneath the Darkening Sky brings to mind another book by a so-called uneducated person, A B Facey’s A Fortunate Life. Facey was born in 1894 and left school at eight, yet he produced an Australian classic, describing his working childhood on sheep farms, his experiences at Gallipoli and later raising a family during the Great Depression. I remember Nancy Keesing, who saw the original manuscript, telling me there was hardly an alteration made. There are Puffin editions of this book for younger readers and I believe an audio book will soon be available. Everyone should read this book!
This is a good moment to remind you we have a most interesting African History section, ranging from Nelson Mandela’s famous autobiography Long Walk to Freedom to Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi by Alison Pargeter or Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns, a long-time worker and researcher on Africa and a member of the UN Panel investigating Congolese rebel groups, which is a very topical subject. The New York Times recently described a leaderless group of mercenaries who were left behind in Somalia with plenty of weapons, but no purpose.
It was more fun to read the latest book by Emily Maguire, who turns out to be a writer worth following. I haven’t read any of her earlier books, but will make sure to read some now. The new book is called Fishing for Tigers and is set in the beautiful city of Hanoi. It seems there is something special about Hanoi. Many books have been set there and many writers seem to return there. In this novel, a thirtyish young woman - an Australian who left home as a teenager to marry an American (who turned out to be abusive) - is living alone and safe in Hanoi. Her friends are a group of hard-drinking expatriates. She finds herself sexually attracted to the half-Australian half-Vietnamese son of one of her friends who has come to visit his dad, and the young man admires her cool detachment. This is a good story, contrasting the young man’s idealism with her attempts to find peace and reason in a war-torn country. The denouement is quite satisfactory. I wondered about this. If you are suffering withdrawal from the erotic fiction of Fifty Shades of Grey, you may prefer to read this, which is so much better written!
Emily Maguire’s other books are Taming the Beast, in which the heroine is seduced by her English teacher, The Gospel According to Luke, which is about the conflicts between a religious sect and a sexual health counsellor among Sydney’s rebellious youth, and Smoke in the Room, about three idealistic activists holed up in a room in Newtown pondering life’s questions. She has also written two non-fiction books, Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power and Choice and Princesses and Pornstars. Here’s an intelligent writer with plenty to say and the ability to say it well. Seek out her books.
J K Rowling's latest book, the one that is not about Harry Potter, and is deemed by some people not to be suitable for children, is called The Casual Vacancy and is indeed a dark book following the lives of many people in a ‘typical’ English village, complete with run-down housing for the poor on the outskirts. There are many characters jostling for position on the Parish Council and none of them are especially likeable. The adolescents are most successfully depicted, unhappy lot that they are, and although there is a rape and a suicide, I don’t think reading about them would harm any contemporary reader. A very young reader would not bother. A long story, all neatly tied up at the end by a good story-teller.
Salman Rushdie’s autobiography Joseph Anton, dealing mostly with his life during the time of the fatwa that was placed upon him by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, is a very readable account. He has written it in the third person, which was an excellent idea. We would have got tired of I, I and I again! But as he refers to himself as “he”, he is able to express much more of his feelings and actions. Abbey’s gets a mention on page 170 as one of the bookshops throughout the world that was firebombed for continuing to sell The Satanic Verses, which I guess is one of those books, like A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, which many people bought, but did not finish! The name Joseph Anton is derived from the first names of two of Rushdie’s favourite authors – Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov – and of course you can buy all of their books here at Abbey’s, usually in the various classics series.
Keep well, Eve