Wednesday, December 5, 2012

December Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Hey, it's the festive holiday season! In the true spirit of the times, here's a nice fantasy about assassins. By January 2, we'll be right in the mood. 

Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews. And Happy Holidays! 

His Fair Assassins:
By Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

A disclaimer: Robin LaFevers is a fellow Inkie (a member of The Enchanted Inkpot blog) and wrote a blurb for SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS. But if this book hadn’t wowed me, I wouldn’t have written about it. So there. Also, I bought the book with my own hard-earned cash.

Robin LaFevers is a sly boots.* In a setting where women were chiefly marriage chattel and needlework aficionados, it’s not easy to create a kick-butt heroine without violating the spirit of the age. So what LaFevers does is fill a medieval convent with the daughters of Mortain, the god of death styled “St. Mortain” as a political bow to Christianity. These young women are trained to do their father’s will—in other words, they’re assassins. Upon graduation, off they go into the world of needlework, armed with shivs, miniature crossbows, and a working knowledge of poison.

GRAVE MERCY is a total hoot. We get to sympathize with the assassins because they kill only those that bear Mortain’s “marque”—a shadow indicating how the target will die, and that he or she deserves to. (A marque around the lips, for example, indicates death by poison.) Late in the book, LaFevers adds a lovely new dimension when her protagonist, Ismae, invokes Death’s merciful aspect, releasing tormented souls from broken bodies.

Ismae leaves the convent to become embroiled in the politics of Brittany, whose young duchess is under pressure from neighboring states—chiefly France—who are salivating over her lands. Anne must make the right marriage to secure her duchy, but first she must stay alive. While she spends the requisite hours in her solar plying her needle, she is far from chattel. She’s a wonderful character: courageous, smart, and well educated, and in circumstances that have given her a modicum of control over her fate.

Anne’s court is a political snakepit, and that, too, is highly entertaining. Ismae is in the thick of it, ferreting out who can be trusted and who’s been bought. One of those whose loyalty she questions is the mysterious Gavriel Duval, Anne’s bastard half-brother who is high on the list of this book’s guilty pleasures. You’ll have to read it to find out why.

One of my recent sorrows has been the death of Diana Norman, the British historian and journalist who wrote the splendid Mistress of the Art of Death series under the pen name Ariana Franklin. She, like LaFevers, managed to adjust her heroine’s circumstances so that she was a free agent in a reasonably truthful medieval society. Norman’s Adelia has a worthy (and possibly more believable) successor in Ismae and her sisters. I’m insanely eager for April and the publication of DARK TRIUMPH, the next volume in the His Fair Assassin series.

*Technical term for us literati.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

November Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Barely awake after election night, of course. But regardless of how we all feel about the vote, we can agree on one thing: IT'S OVER. And now, free of campaign commercials and phone calls from pollsters, we can get back to what's important: putting our feet up for a good read. Enjoy!

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The Likeness
By Tana French
Gotta love the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who also philosophized on art in general. He’s the one who coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief”—if a writer endows a fantastical tale with “human interest and a semblance of truth,” the reader will meet him halfway and suspend skepticism.

Tana French manages this feat in The Likeness, but only just. If you can overlook the implausibility of her premise, the characters and suspense in this book will reward you. If you can’t, you probably won’t make it past page fifty. 

Set in Ireland, The Likeness features a strong secondary character in French’s debut novel, In the Woods. In the first book, Cassie Maddox was part of a trio of young murder investigators who were drawn into a sinister web of deceit and barely made it out with souls intact. As this book begins, Cassie’s reaction has been to transfer to Domestic Violence and try to sublimate her thirst for perilous investigation.  

It all works fine until her boyfriend (also one of the original trio) calls her to a murder scene. Surprise number one is that the murder victim’s name—Lexie Madison—is the fake one Cassie had assumed in a long-ago undercover investigation of a drug ring. Surprise number two (disbelief alert) is that the victim looks exactly like Cassie.  

Cassie’s boss in the undercover operation, the charismatic oddball Frank Mackey, knows just how to push Cassie’s buttons. He persuades her to undertake an exceptionally risky deception, telling Lexie’s four housemates that she survived a brutal attack and will be home after a stay in the hospital. After an intense training session, aided by cell phone tapes and photos of Lexie’s life with her housemates, Cassie begins the deception. 

The five housemates, all graduate students, have a claustrophobically close relationship centered on their house, which was inherited by one of them, Daniel. They study together, eat together, carpool in to the university and home again, and spend blissful evenings together by the fireside.  Their one rule is “no pasts”—nobody gets to talk about anything that happened before they all met.  

Cassie, still raw from the events of the earlier book, finds herself attracted to the group’s closeness and sense of family. French is brilliant in tracing the slow unraveling of her defenses, to the point where she starts to “become” Lexie—who, you’ll recall, was a made-up person to begin with. It’s an absorbing and mostly satisfying process for the reader. 

The unlikeliness of the premise is a flaw in this book, but not a fatal one. I also felt that there were a few too many loose ends where the housemates were concerned, and never was satisfied that I understood why the dead girl chose the name of Cassie’s made-up alter ego. Nevertheless, this is a book you can sink into—so deeply that you forget there’s an election—and this fall that was worth a lot. 

I’m dying to read French’s next book, Broken Harbor, which follows the nut-job undercover boss, Frank Mackey.  

Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday. 


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Book Review Club: October

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Another month, another edition of the Book Review Club. The stakes are higher now, because fall's closing in and the woodstove's cranking up. Gotta line up those winter books! Here's a good one. Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews!
by Paul Doiron
St. Martin’s Press, 2010

Depictions of Maine range from the desperate poverty in THE BEANS OF EGYPT, MAINE to the desperately inaccurate Cabot Cove of the 1980s TV show “Murder She Wrote.”  Paul Doiron’s version is somewhere in the middle—there’s truth in THE POACHER’S SON, although we see a lot of it from the passenger seat of a pick-up truck rather than close-to.

Doiron is the editor of Down East: The Magazine of Maine, a gorgeous and highly readable publication whose scenery tends to the Cabot-Coveish.  He also is a Registered Maine Guide. An author’s note tells us that this book is rooted in a feature series he wrote for Down East, presumably on the Maine Warden Service, and Doiron’s depth of knowledge about the woods and their denizens serves the book well. He gives the wardens—trained law enforcement professionals whose mission is to uphold fish and game law and protect Maine wildlife—every bit of the respect they deserve while also rendering them human, a feat that made this book an Edgar Award finalist.

This is the first of three mysteries starring fledgling game warden Mike Bowditch, and word has it that more are on the way. I’m looking forward to catching up with ol’ Mike, and it’ll be fun to watch him get seasoned in his job. In this book, he’s a wide-eyed newbie with a shining career ahead of him, eager to confront both marauding bear and unlicensed fisherman.

But Mike has a deep, dark secret: his dad. Jack Bowditch is a man of the Maine woods, able to track and trap and find his way. He’s also a drunk, a womanizer, and a poacher, ravaged by Vietnam, incapable of maintaining a healthy relationship with a wife, a boss, or a son. Mike spent his early years in a series of depressing north woods shacks before his mother escaped with him to gentrified Southern Maine and a better marriage.  His contacts with his father have been nasty, brutish, and short.

Mike’s girlfriend has left him, unhappy about the gentle poverty and loneliness of a warden’s life. Still reeling from her departure, he’s in no shape to deal when he finds out a beloved young cop has been killed and the chief suspect is—you guessed it—dear old Dad. He reacts in a succession of increasingly foolhardy efforts to prove that his father’s innocence, risking career, love life, friendships, and, eventually, his life. As he blunders into the woods on his father’s trail, betrayal awaits behind every tree. But there’s also a new clarity about what—and who—matters most to him.

Doiron adds realism by setting his murder in the context of North Woods development, a hot point in Maine politics for the past two decades or more. Developers have bought up paper company land and want to oust those whom the old owners permitted to build camps there. He does not preach, simply uses the situation to wave red herrings under our noses. 

It’s all extremely satisfying. This is one of those mysteries that keeps you moaning, “Oh, no! Don’t do that!” and then turning the page. Higher praise does not exist.

Dear FCC: I got the next one for my birthday. I want another for Christmas. See to that, will you?


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

September Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Ooo, look. I'm blogging again. The Book Review Club took the summer off, and I, too, am using that as my excuse. But now it's fall and it's time to face the music. And what better way to start the countdown for Halloween than the first book of a scary series?

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By Robert Liparulo
Thomas Nelson, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, my little town’s tiny gem of a library—always on the alert to get kids addicted to books anytime, anyhow—got in all six books in Robert Diparulo’s Dreamhouse Kings series and displayed them prominently in its YA section.

The series has been moving like hotcakes, the librarian told me. Curious, I put my name on the waiting list for House of Dark Shadows, which starts the series. (And, yes, there was a movie of that name back in 1970, based on the 1960s horror soap “Dark Shadows.” Which spun off into yet another movie this year, starring Johnny Depp.) (Which wasn’t so hot, by all accounts.)

This House of Dark Shadows is definitely not great literature—it’s not even grammatical in places—but I can see the appeal. At thirteen, I would have been eating this up.

Fifteen-year-old Xander King reluctantly moves with his family from L.A. to the tiny Northern California burg of Pineville, where his dad will be the high school principal. In spite of himself, he’s intrigued by the dream house the family moves into: a spooky old manse full of noise distortions, mysterious footprints and, you guessed it, dark shadows.

We already know the house is bad news, because we’ve been treated to a prologue in which a gigantic, sweaty guy carries a struggling woman down a long hallway, pursued by her young sons. Easily repelling their desperate attempts to rescue their mother, the man carries her through a door into a place full of bright light. The door slams behind them, “separating her from her family forever.”

Prologues, I’m told, should be used sparingly. But this one packs a punch: From chapter one on, you’re alternately waiting for the explanation and urging Xander and his younger brother to be much more careful as they explore the house.

Liparulo ups the ante early on, when Xander learns that the house has been unoccupied ever since the mother of the house disappeared thirty or forty years ago, followed by her husband and children. Town lore says the husband reacted to his wife’s disappearance by spiriting the kids away someplace, killing them, then taking his own life.

Xander and family do experience the house’s weird capabilities, and we do get the beginnings of an explanation for it all. But only the beginnings. One frustration of this book is that it is little more than a prologue itself, with a conclusion that barely justifies the term. This struck me as both cynical and lazy, to tell the truth.

Still, House of Dark Shadows is a page-turner, and probably a gem for reluctant readers. Although it’s classified as “young adult”—Amazon has it as age 13 and up—I didn’t see anything in here that would put it out of the reach of a middle-grade reader who could withstand the Goosebumps series.

I almost put this book down halfway, because the writing wasn’t that great and the characters were okay but not hugely compelling. It was the mystery of the house that kept me going, and may even get me into the next book.

Drat you, Robert Liparulo. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

June Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

I'm not even apologizing anymore for being a bad blogger. I yam what I yam. 

Speaking of yams, here's a book about bunnies. (Yes, I know that makes no sense. There's a reason I don't blog more.) Don't forget to click the icon for awesome reviews!

By Richard Adams
Macmillan, 1972

CHARLOTTE’S WEB is delightful, and I re-read THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY more than once in my far-off youth. On the whole, though, I’ve avoided animal books. In my view, any book that dresses a toad in a waistcoat is best used as a bookend.  (Yes, I do mean WIND IN THE WILLOWS.) (Not Pooh, though…he's a stuffed animal, which is A-OK with me.)

And so it happens that—even though it’s the favorite book of a wide variety of friends and relations (Yep. A Pooh joke)—I have only recently read WATERSHIP DOWN. Or, more accurately, listened to it on an MP3 player.

I always figured this was one of those charming books about bunnies nibbling clover under halcyon skies, raising their glossy heads only to spout a Zen koan.

I was wrong. As a result, I have spent forty forlorn years not knowing that hraka is Lapine for excrement, and that tharn is an economical synonym for that “deer in the headlights” look George W. Bush used to get when speaking to us from the Oval Office.

This is truly exquisite world-building. The rabbits of WATERSHIP DOWN have names and a language and culture. But theirs is a rabbit’s world, not a human one. It’s utterly true to itself —these rabbits know only what real rabbits would know, with nary a waistcoat in sight.

The book was born as a bedtime story for Richard Adams’s children, who eventually challenged him to write it down. While he was doing so, he watched rabbits and consulted an expert on rabbity behavior. He learned how wild rabbits react to weather, food, danger, and one another, how and why they build their warrens, how they treat their ills and communicate their needs.  From that knowledge, he built a society.

True, the rabbits talk to one another, using a language called Lapine. There’s also a halting common language that enables rabbits to communicate with birds and other animals.

And true, the story may be a bit less than lapinesque.  A prescient young rabbit named Fiver gets intimations of disaster, but cannot persuade his head rabbit to evacuate the warren. As a result, Fiver and his cousin Hazel—the book’s hero—lead a small band of exiles out of the burrow, following Fiver’s sixth sense to a new home. They fight off enemies, figure out how to float across rivers, and launch a quest for does to complete their new warren.

Their adventures take them to a couple of warrens that do not operate according to rabbits’ natural law. One is corrupted by the influence of men, and one is under the sway of a rabbit dictator—probably the most unlikely departure from reality.

But by the time we confront these anomalies, we’re so comfortable in the rabbit world that we accept the proceedings while understanding how very unnatural these deviant warrens are.

Having won our trust, Adams makes it believable when Hazel and others spring a pair of does from a rabbit hutch. It’s even okay (sort of) when Hazel launches something like a United Nations peace initiative with other species.

I know when I’m wrong. Now, on to THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Okay, so this isn't about Ghana. And yes, I have experienced an entire blog-free month. I've been writing, see, and ...


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By John Green
Dutton Books, 2006

This is my first John Green book, after hearing about him incessantly for the past couple of years. He’s got a new YA novel out, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, that’s being celebrated right and left. Before I sank my claws into it, I felt a compulsion to read one of his earlier efforts.

AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES won a 2007 Prinz Honor and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. It deserved the recognition. Green did everything right: Compelling protagonist with interesting afflictions; a sidekick who is a funny, endearing guy as well as an observant Muslim (five years after 9/11, this was a godsend, so to speak); an offbeat setting; and a love interest with problems of her own.

Plus, there’s the voice. No wonder the young world is overrun with Nerd Fighters, rabid fans of the vlogs Green issues twice a week with his brother, Hank. Green is funny in that  intelligent, geeky way that gets under the skin of black jeans wearers everywhere. You can almost see the narrator of this book pressing his glasses to the bridge of his nose and holding court at Starbucks.

On behalf of protagonist Colin Singleton—a child prodigy who just graduated from high school and fears the rest of the world is catching up with him—the narrator laments that one seldom sees a want ad like this:

Huge, megalithic corporation seeks a talented, ambitious prodigy to join our exciting, dynamic Prodigy Division for summer job. Requirements include at least fourteen years’ experience as a certified child prodigy, ability to anagram adeptly (and alliterate agilely). Fluency in eleven languages. Job duties include reading, remembering encyclopedias, novels, and poetry, and memorizing the first ninety-nine digits of pi.

That ad’s a fair description of Colin’s talents. What it does not say is that, starting in third grade, Colin has been dumped (more or less) by nineteen girls named Katherine. Our story begins just after Katherine XIX has followed precedent. With a summer to kill before college, Colin and his best friend, Hassan, set out from Chicago for a road trip. Hassan is a funny, “rather fat, hirsute guy of Lebanese descent” who never misses Judge Judy and isn’t sure he wants to exert the energy required to enroll in college.

They end up in Gutshot, Tennessee, whose major tourist attraction is the supposed final resting place of Archduke Ferdinand’s disinterred remains. They take up with Lindsey, whose supposedly wealthy mother owns the factory that has kept the town going for generations. Hired to do an oral history of the town’s inhabitants, they move in with Lindsey and her mother. The summer’s revelations include a boar hunt and fisticuffs with Lindsey’s football star boyfriend.

Throughout it all, fearing that he’s a failed prodigy who will never “matter,” Colin slaves to prove a mathematical theorem that explains every one of his Katherine experiences and, he hopes, predicts the future of any and all love affairs. (Hey, there’s a Game Theory, right?) His goal is a workable Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability. Lindsey helps in several ways. I’m not saying any more.

Although the novel is firmly footed in reality, some of its events drift deliciously close to magical realism. It has the polarized atmosphere you get with one of those lomography cameras—real, but slightly off.

I’m hooked.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review Club: April

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@Barrie Summy

We interrupt this steady stream of Ghana information (heh--just kidding) for this month's book review. Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews! Coming up next: Ghanaian children.

A Monster Calls
By Patrick Ness
Candlewick, 2011
Young adult fantasy

I can’t remember the last time I cried actual, dripping tears at the end of a book.

The last time before A MONSTER CALLS, I mean.

I am rapidly becoming a sniveling, snorting Patrick Ness fan-girl. (Maybe that should be “fan-granny.”) When I gushed about his Chaos Walking series a while ago, I noted what I thought were some flaws with the third book in the trilogy. This latest book, in my opinion, is perfect, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in England and I so desperately want it to win.

Ness says on the cover that the book was “inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd,” the celebrated author of BOG CHILD and THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, among others. Dowd had just started this book when she died of breast cancer in 2007. “I felt—and feel—as if I’ve been handed a baton,” Ness wrote in his preface, “like a particularly fine writer has given me her story and said, ‘Go. Run with it. Make trouble.’”

Did he ever. I’m not sure I can even express what it is that he accomplished.

Here’s the premise: In a British village, thirteen-year-old Conor is trying to hold his life together while his mother fights cancer. His father has moved to the U.S. with his new family. His mother’s mother periodically shows up to help, but she and Conor don’t see eye to eye. At school, Conor is either bullied or being coddled because of his mother’s illness, and he prefers the bullying. He is lashing out even at his best friend, Lily, the person who told everyone about his plight in the first place.

He has a recurring nightmare of wind and screaming and someone’s hands slipping out of his grasp. One midnight, he’s awakened from this dream by a house-sized monster who looks suspiciously like the yew tree in the back yard. The monster identifies himself as Hern or the Green Man or, in short, “this wild earth.” He intends to tell Conor three stories, after which “you will tell me a fourth, and it will be the truth.”

The stories—and the harrowing experiences of Conor’s daily life as his mother’s condition nosedives—are entertaining, excoriating, draining, and wildly fulfilling. We are right with Conor as he seeks out and confronts the truth of his feelings about his mother and his life. When he finds it and acts on it … well, I was a mess.

This is the single most effective celebration of humanity, death, and loss that I have ever read. And I do mean to link “celebration” and “death.” It’s not morbid or preachy or any of the other bad things it could have been in less insightful hands. It’s a portrait of us and our weird, pointless, gorgeous existence.

I’m making A MONSTER CALLS sound like JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, and I don’t mean to. This is a good yarn, a page-turner with real living characters and weird stuff happening. The monster is absolutely not Yoda. But also the book sings.

The cover and illustrations by Jim Kay beautifully evoke what’s going on in the story. They go right to the heart of things, but good luck trying to describe them.

God, I hope this book wins the Carnegie.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Disaster" doesn't just mean floods

My friend Lisa and I got home from Ghana two months ago, and still I  feel I'm supposed to be there rather than here. We were in Ghana less than three weeks, for heaven’s sake, but I guess that’s the nature of intense experiences.

At the time, I didn’t realize it was intense . That's partly because of the easy-going guys at Disaster Volunteers of Ghana, the nonprofit organization that sponsored us for a week in the village of Abutia Agodeke in the Volta Region, near the city of Ho. (Please follow the link to check out the huge variety of projects they sponsor.) We connected with them through GlobeAware, a US-based organization that arranges "voluntourism" projects all over the world.

DiVOG has been active since 2002, although Richard Yinkah came up with the idea in 1997. The “disaster” in the title is not flood or earthquake, or even famine. It’s a kid going without an education, a village without drinking water, an orphanage without enough food or beds.  What an amazing concept.

The DiVOG guys outside their office in Ho: from left, Robert Tornu, Richard Yinkah, Bright (whose last name I never caught), and Mypa Buckner, who's in charge of PR and administration.  DJ Ankah was off on another project when the photo was taken.
Richard’s theory was that tourists who chose to visit Ghana most likely would aspire to more than sight-seeing, and would want to be of some use. He established DiVOG to match tourists with villages and orphanages that needed infrastructure (schools, clean water, sanitary facilities) or volunteers (teachers, medical staff, whatever).

Rather than swooping in with a bunch of white people to build something, smile brightly, and leave, DiVOG requires that a village provide materials, work alongside the visitors, house them, feed them, and generally welcome them in. It’s a remarkable idea, and it works: According to the organization’s web site, some 700 volunteers have helped to build 12 schools, 12 orphanage latrines, and 20 school latrines, and have been placed in classrooms, orphanages, and even medical clinics. (A complete list of achievements is here.)

One reason it works is that Richard found staff members just as committed to community development as he is. Our chief contact was Robert Tornu, director of project and volunteer management, and he pretty much blew our socks off. We had these amazing dinnertime chats--neither Lisa nor I has ever had so much fun talking political science. We were humbled at how much he knew about the US, and fascinated by what he could tell us about Ghana, its politics, and it struggles.

The product of a village himself, Robert lives and breathes activism and empowerment, to the detriment of his personal life. He never turns it off—escorting us back in Accra (the capital city) after our week in Agodeke, he sat in the front seat of our taxi so he could debate presidential politics with the driver. When he was in the village, he was constantly surrounded by a group of young men, delivering a pep talk.

Our team of guardian angels also included DJ, who is in charge of building construction but also drove us and escorted us on our various excursions away from the village. (We went to a waterfall, a market, and a kente weaving village.) DJ is a talented stand-up comedian in the local language of Ewe, apparently--he had 'em rolling in the aisles during our introductory meeting with the village. I'd give my eye teeth to know what he said--probably "you would not believe how long it took these old yavoos to get the name of this village right. Don't expect much."

"Yavoo" is the Ewe word for those of us of European descent. Literally, it means "tricky dog." Courtly Ghanaians will either deny that that's the literal meaning, or will explain earnestly that having a smart dog is a very good thing.  Right.

Our third compadre was Bright, a barber by trade who has been seduced by the siren song of community development.  He superintended our work project--to our amusement and, briefly, dismay, this turned out to be painting pictures on the interior walls of Agodeke’s new school, which had been built by volunteers and villagers over the autumn and early winter. (“You do know we’re word people, right?” Lisa kept saying.) (Lisa is a philosophy professor at Gustavus-Adolphus College.)

The people of Agodeke were polite about our artistic skills. They fed us incredible food, danced with us, tried to teach us to drum and cook and carry water on our heads, hugged us, and laughed with us. I can’t say enough about them, so I’ll resort to pictures:

This is our welcoming parade. Drummers and dancers came to our house to escort us to the opening ceremony for our week. Village elders told us we were part of the village now, and we should be sure to let them know if anyone was rude, which seemed unlikely even then.

DJ does his stand-up routine, while Lisa and I try to look cheerful and attentive even though we had no idea what everyone was laughing at.  I think Bright was supposed to be translating for us but he was busy taking pictures, which would have been my choice, too.  Ewe, by the way is the Volta Region's language, although Ghana conducts official business in English. Most people speak two languages at least, often three or five. Twi--the language of the Ashanti--is the most common "bridge" language. We often heard conversations that switched back and forth between English and Ghanaian languages, often in mid-sentence. 

Then there was dancing, and to our astonishment the main event proved to be us. A peculiarity about dancing in Ghanaian villages, we discovered, is that it's more of a performance than a personal indulgence. Rather than everyone getting up and gyrating around, the way we do it, one or two people--three or four at most--dance in front of everyone else. It's a bit off-putting even to villagers, I think--it would take a lot of courage to get up there in front of all your friends and family. (We had the advantage of not knowing anyone.) But once you crossed the Rubicon you'd be golden. Wisha (sp?), the little kid dancing with me on the left, was the best dancer among the younger set, and you could not keep her down once the drums started.

Clapping games are popular among the kids. There always seemed to be a clutch of kids hanging out on the porch outside our room, and we spent a lot of time trying to master the intricacies.

Here's the old school, which used to shut down during the rains. There are two rainy seasons: April to July, and September through November.  You can see the new school in the background.

Here's the new school, which DiVOG volunteers built and painted last fall. I think the last group of volunteers before us painted the designs on the outside in December.

Lisa and I try our hands at a palm tree and a monkey. Definitely word people, but Robert explained tactfully that it was instructive for villagers to see people cheerfully making fools of themselves in public.  Below, I copy a lizard from a classroom textbook. This was pretty much my best effort. The next day I created a leopard whose front legs were longer than his back legs. I justified this as this an attempt at perspective.

We did some teaching every day, although I had a hard time figuring out what everyone knew. The younger class, whom I was teaching, seemed to range in age from five to eight, maybe even ten.

Our second day in Agodeke happened to coincide with a funeral in the next village. Funerals are weekend-long affairs, often held quite a while after the death to give everyone time to return to the village. From what I gather, they start out solemn and ceremonial and become increasingly jolly as the weekend goes on. This was Sunday, so everyone was convivial and ready to dance. Above, the dancing gets going to the sound of gourd rattles. The black-and-white fabric of the women's dresses is typical funeral attire.

Yet again, the yavoo makes a fool of herself.

Funerals bring in neighbors and villagers from afar. One lovely thing about Ghanaian tradition is that, wherever you decide to live, the village is always your home. Even if you were born in the city, there's a village somewhere that's yours, where they know you and welcome you home. The guy on the left is an Abutia native who spent years in Denmark working for a corporation, and now is living and working in Mali with his Danish wife and their kids. He has a fancy house in the neighborhood--a relative lives there when he's not around. The guy sitting between Lisa and me is our village's "stool father" (that means he appoints the chief), who also lives elsewhere. We were staying in a room in his Agodeke house. One of the village's two teachers had the room next door.

They tried really hard to teach us stuff. At left, Lisa tries out the double bells during a drumming lesson. The photo at right speaks for itself. More yavoo foolishness.

ETA: More Agodeke pix are now in a picasa album.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Book Review Club: March

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@Barrie Summy

I'm just finishing a revision (yay!) and then, I swear, will get back to telling you all about Ghana. (God. I'm such a loser.) In the meantime, I have been working my way through my Christmas books, and I've fallen in love once again with the verbal stylings of Sir Terry Pratchett. So, here's his latest book.

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By Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins, 2011

It took me a long time to cotton to Terry Pratchett, and now I have catching up to do.

Especially when it comes to Samuel Vimes, who commands the City Watch in Ankh-Morpork, the starring city-state in Pratchett’s Discworld. There are around forty Discworld novels. I’ve read six or seven, mostly the ones for kids, and this is the first involving Commander Vimes.

My trouble with Pratchett early on was that, although I loved his style, I couldn’t get comfy with his characters. I can’t put my finger on why: Maybe they were too foreign or not sympathetic enough, or maybe I wasn’t in the right mood. Then I met Tiffany Aching, the apprentice witch of the four middle-grade Wee Free Men novels, and I pretty much wanted to adopt her and/or be her best friend.

My dear one gave me SNUFF, the latest dispatch from Discworld, for Christmas. Now I would like to have several beers with Sam Vimes, except he doesn’t drink alcohol so he’ll have to have beetroot beer with chili peppers and celery seed. I’m happy to report that he turns out to have appeared in at least a dozen books, usually as the star, so I have more blissful encounters in store.

Discworld, in case you don’t know, is a flat world supported by four elephants balanced on the back of a turtle. Humans, a few of them wizards and witches, live there in varying degrees of harmony with every fantasy creature you can name, including vampires, werewolves, dwarves, trolls and goblins. Some of the humans and creatures are very nice. Others are utterly the opposite. Their city is a festering den of iniquity. Daily life is a dangerous undertaking.

Also hysterical. On the first page of SNUFF, we learn that goblins have a cult of Unggue, “a remarkably complex resurrection-based religion founded on the sanctity of bodily secretions.” Every goblin makes gorgeous ritual containers for earwax, nail clippings, and snot. Fortunately, water and food are viewed as passing though the body without becoming part of it.

Unggue containers play an important role in the mayhem to follow.

Sam Vimes grew up in the back streets of Ankh-Morpork. Now, after many years as a copper, he is Duke of Ankh and the Commander of the City Watch, as well as a former blackboard monitor. He is married to Lady Sybil, the richest woman in the city. Their six-year-old son, Young Sam, is obsessed with poo.

In this installment of the Vimes saga, the commander is being dragged from the city to his wife’s ancestral home, ostensibly for a forced vacation. He has barely adjusted to the absence of city noise when a goblin girl is murdered and it becomes apparent that the countryside is rife with intrigue and evil-doing. Vimes solves the case with help from a goblin, a local policeman, a bartender, and his trusty valet, Willikins, a handy man with a cross-bow and brass knuckles.

I won’t tell you what happens next, partly because I don’t want to spoil the book for you but mostly because I couldn’t possibly do it. One peculiarity of the Discworld books is that the plots are so convoluted you’d need a computer to keep track of them. This is not a criticism—I loved every minute. But it is peculiar.

What I will tell you is that there’s a serious undercurrent about the treatment of goblins, who are underestimated to the point of enslavement. And Sam Vimes is a serious undercurrent all by himself, convinced as he is that a moment’s inattention and the right combination of circumstances will unleash The Beast in him. He’s a total sweetheart: A loving father, cheerily downtrodden by his wife, with a good eye for the hidden diamond in other people’s souls. But he also fights dirty, and he’s worried that he might lose control.

My next act will be to forget I ever read this book and get my hands on GUARDS! GUARDS!, Vimes’ debut novel. Can’t wait to start at the beginning and get to know this guy.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Ghana?

I'm chipping away at a Picasa album about my trip to Ghana, but the way I operate, that'll take us through July at least. So I figured I'd throw a few of my favorite pictures at you as a place-holder. They're all of people: My traveling companion, Lisa, and I decided early on that, given a choice, we wanted to meet people more than we wanted to see monkeys and hippos. And, boy, did we ever.

I've heard it said that you go to East Africa for the landscape and West Africa for the people. Unlike most of what you hear about Africa, this turns out to be true, if Ghana's any example. I hope we'd be as welcoming to a well-meaning but clumsy visitor to the U.S. , but I'm not 100 percent confident.

Addo Dombo (striped shirt) and family, our primary hosts for all but our first week, when we were volunteering in a village in the Volta region. Addo is a government official and his wife, Eunice, (far right) is a teacher. They head a lively household in Accra that at the moment includes three daughters, a niece, a nephew, three grandchildren, and a daughter's friend. Addo sent us (guided by his cousin, Odette) all over Ghana in his car and driver, giving us unparalleled access to places we'd never have seen otherwise.

Here's a smattering of other folks we met, starting in "our" village, Abutia Agodeke, and moving on through the cities of Accra, Kumasi, and Wa in the far north, plus towns and villages in between.

Agodeke kids, on the porch outside Lisa's and my room.

Robert Tornu, director of project and volunteer management for Disaster Volunteers of Ghana (DIVOG), the organization that placed us (and took care of us) in Agodeke. "Disaster" in this case means a child going without an education. More about DIVOG in my next post. He's in a "tro-tro"-- the vans that are the backbone of the public transportation system-- as we headed back to Accra after our week in Agodeke. (Actually, this was an upper level of tro-tro, with air conditioning and comfortable seating. This level of transport is known locally as "a ford. "Take that, Chevy.)

This is in the far north, in the village our host family calls home.

In the northern city of Wa, these ladies were making pito, the local beer brewed from millet. It has a bit of a kick.

The digital camera is your passport to anywhere: Everyone wanted their pictures taken and shown to them afterwards. That's Lisa's hand at left, vainly groping for her camera as these Wa market vendors yuck it up.
More coming soon!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Book Review Club: February

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@Barrie Summy

I'm back from Ghana, and almost back to reality after a stunning three-week trip. I have 1,033 photos on my camera, which I'm trying to edit before getting them online somehow. In the meantime, with the fervor of the recently returned, I've chosen for this month's review a Ghanaian book I read on my Kindle while I was away.

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Tail of the Blue Bird
Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Flipped Eye Publishing, 2011
(Originally: Jonathan Cape, London, 2009)

There's something magical about engrossing yourself in a murder mystery set in an African village not that far from your very own mosquito net. But this book, written by a poet, would be magical wherever you  read it.

Last month, spending a week in Abutia Agodeke, a tiny village in Ghana's Volta Region, I uncorked the Kindle and started reading this book. The room I shared with my travel companion, Lisa, was in a simple, modern brick house that belonged to a village elder. I didn't really need the mosquito net provided for me--the windows had screens, and it was dry season so we'd seen maybe one mosquito. But I was far from home and liked feeling tented in, the only light from my Kindle and Lisa's headlamp across the room.

Outside my window was a world of tidy mud houses with thatched roofs, much like those Nii Ayikwei Parkes describes in TAIL OF THE BLUE BIRD. Every now and then a sleepy goat would bleat. Otherwise, it was just me and Opanyin Poku, the village hunter who narrates most of Parke's debut novel.

It's Opanyin Poku who describes the day when a minister's short-skirted girlfriend, "the one whose eyes would not lie still," follows a blue-headed bird and her nose into Kofi Atta's hut, and starts shrieking "like a grasscutter in a trap." (A grasscutter is a ginormous hamsterish rodent whose meat is a delicacy.) The girlfriend has discovered something repulsive on Kofi Atta's bed--a fetus? Afterbirth? Whatever it is, it's alive with maggots and stinks to high heaven.

Because of whose girlfriend she is, the horrifying report gets back to Accra, Ghana's capital city. A police inspector on the make strong-arms Kayo, a lab doctor who got forensic training in England, into taking on the case. Regardless of the facts, the inspector wants a "full CSI-style report" that will create a high visibility incident he can use for a power-grab. Failure to deliver such a report means imprisonment or worse.

Abutia Agodeke, from my front porch
 Kayo and his sidekick, Constable Garba, set up a methodical scientific investigation, although they also endear themselves to Opanyin Poku by observing the niceties of village protocol. As it turns out, there's nothing methodical about this situation. The repulsive object, rapidly decaying, proves to be human but not a fetus. At the behest of the village medicine man, the policemen burn it in the woods. The task transforms into a mystical experience, and the book transforms from procedural to fable.

This is a surprise at first, although it probably shouldn't have been. The narration in the first part of the book shifts back and forth from Opanyin Poku in first person to a third-person narrator with Kayo's viewpoint: from traditional to scientific, from rural to urban, and the two worlds don't meld. It's clear that Kayo is a good guy because he observes village courtesies, but it's also clear that he's a technical man, married to his ALS goggles and fluid samples.

The burning ceremony shakes him to his core. It begins his journey--and ours--toward the real truth of what happened in Kofi Atta's hut. Forensic science gives way to magic and storytelling in an exceptionally satisfying way.

According to his Amazon bio, Nii Ayikwei Parkes divides his time between Ghana and the U.K., with occasional visits to the U.S. for readings. Ghana has honored him for his poetry and literary advocacy, and this book was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He writes children's stories as K.P. Kojo, notably about Ananse, the trickster god.

Judging from his YouTube videos, he's got his school visit techniques down cold. Here he is telling one of his Ananse stories:

Now I'm dying to read K.P. Kojo!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Off to Ghana

Yup. Starting way, way too early tomorrow morning, I'm going here:

Everybody asks, "Why Ghana?" I have to admit, Ghana specifically was not my idea. I had a vague notion that I wanted to go someplace in West Africa, and my friend Lisa has wanted to visit Ghana for years. The more I've learned about the country the happier I am at the choice. It's a country rich in crafts and history, a stable democracy that has done all it can to support its fellow African nations. Judging from my minimal contacts so far, Ghanaians are astonishingly generous: We have been offered help and hospitality in an open-handed fashion makes me ashamed of our Western reserve.

Lisa and I will spend a week in a village in the Volta region through a "voluntourism" organization called GlobeAware, working with local school children and being ferried around to various sites and sights, among them weaving. We'll then spend ten days traveling around the rest of the country.

Speaking of weaving, just LOOK at this cloth:

I won't be participating in this month's round of the Book Review Club. But if you want to read some great reviews, click this icon:

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@Barrie Summy

See you on the flip side!