Africa Reading

My friend and colleague Chris is headed to Africa next week for a long, well-deserved vacation. I was trying to think of what reading I could recommend on Africa — good vacation reading, good travel reading — and realized how little I have read about the continent of my birth. I immediately thought of Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, a stunning novel about going to Africa, although not particularly African. It is an astonishing ode to Living and strikes me as fine vacation reading.

I only recently read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Walker; it is a very different book from Henderson the Rain King — a memoir about growing up in Rhodesia / ZImbabwe. It is a very dark book in some ways — but she is such a terrific writer that it is unstoppable. The smells and sounds, the very feeling of the tropics comes through with enormous intensity.

The final two books were not Africa related but were good reading for a long traveling vacation. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters by Annie Dillard is serious, thoughful, artful, and just plain beautiful. The first thing you should do is read the chapter “Living like Weasels”. Nothing else in the book matters. I’m not even sure I can remember anything else in the book – but that one essay burns brightly in my memory, and I return to it often. It is rocket fuel – perfect for rejuvenating the mind and the spirit while away from home.

Finally, all travel requires poems. Still Life with Waterfall: Poems by Eamon Grennan is my regular companion. This book has my favorite all-time break-up poem and my favorite all-time love poem. The break up poem is called “To Grasp the Nettle” and it is on page 20. The Love poem is called “White Water” and it is on page 42. Fantods are butterflies in the stomach.

I made one small request of Chris. I asked him to find one night in Africa when the moon is high and full and brilliant. Step outside and read out loud, speaking to the sky, the poem “Full Moon” on page 54 of “Still Life with Waterfall”… “and start breathing.”

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