Kumukanda: Kayo Chingonyi

I’ve discovered new poets as part of the reading challenge, and two of them have blown me away. One is Kendall Hippolyte from St. Lucia, and the second is Kayo Chingonyi from Zambia.

In north-western Zambia, tribes have an initiation ritual for young boys called kumukunda. During the ritual, the boys live apart from the community and are taught skills that will help them in life. Chingonyi was born in Zambia but moved to the UK when he was six. This book is Chingonyi’s substitute for kumukunda. It packs so much in just 50 pages: what it means to grow up black in the UK, identity, racism, music, love and death. And it’s powerful stuff.

In “Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee”, Chingonyi writes affectionately of making mixed tapes as a boy, sneaking off with cassettes he hoped his mother wouldn’t miss. (Remember how big mixed tapes were before digital music and playlists came along?). He finds an unmarked TDK cassette and slips it in the player, only to hear his father’s voice asking him how old he was “in the slight twang of a lost tongue”.

Music is the magic that transports him, as it has done so many others, giving him a space that is his own, away from the store detectives that stalk him, away from the “the look of disgust / on the face of a boy too young to understand / why he hates but only that he must”. After a cricket match, a boy in the locker room asks him why “I’d stand here, when I could be there, with my kind”.

The poems follow Chingonyi as he goes to university and RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). Auditioning for roles, he gets tired of playing “lean dark men who may have guns”. He moves to his own place and “learns to walk in a grown man’s shoes”. But his mother falls ill and eventually dies.

On a grey ward, two months in to size elevens,
she speaks in my mother tongue, bids me trace
the steps of music, but the discord of two
languages keeps me from the truth I won’t hear.

She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum
become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.

He writes about Africa and colonialism. In “Kung’anda”, he contests the one-dimensional portrait of Africa in the media: the “broken man, holding / a dying child with flies around its mouth: / a story that didn’t tally with my mother’s / of childhood smiles on granddad’s farm / or the laughing dance across the hot soil / to the ice-cream stand”.

Chingonyi’s writing conveys strong, powerful emotions in brief snapshots. There is no hyperbole here or wordy sentences. For example, in “How to Cry”, which is my personal favourite:

I’m going to fold, as an overloaded trestle folds,
in the middle of Romsford Market and bawl
the way my small niece bawls for her mother
when she leaves the room. In spite
of our assurances, the little one knows
that those who leave might never come back.

I’m tired of this strength. Let me be bereft,
watching the white limousine as it drives away.

Get this book. You won’t regret it.

The Rosie Project: Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman, a geneticist at an Australian university, is not only intelligent and good-looking but a decent cook to boot. He decides that he needs a wife, which you would think shouldn’t be hard. But Don’s manner tends to put women off. He tends to take everything literally and is not good at picking up on non-verbal signals that are so much a part of how we communicate (a touch of Asperger’s syndrome?). For example, when someone says, “Tell me about it!”, he tries to do exactly that.

Don has his life figured out. He has a weekly timetable of meals which never changes, so he doesn’t have to think about food or what to buy. What he needs is a mate who won’t upset his perfectly organized routine. So, with some help from his friend Gene (his other friend is Gene’s wife), he devises a 16-page questionnaire that Gene helps him distribute to possible candidates.

But, as we all know, life never works out as planned. Rosie walks into Don’s office, and Don, assuming she has filled out his questionnaire, asks her for a date. Rosie hasn’t filled out the questionnaire—just as well because she would have failed abysmally: she smokes, is always late and doesn’t eat meat. She is actually there to ask Don to help her find her biological father. But she takes him up on the date, and so begins an unusual love story. The two may be unfathomable to the people around them, but they understand each other, and it is a treat watching the relationship develop.

The story is narrated by Don, whose manner made me realize just how much of our interaction relies on the unspoken and indirect communication. The book is funny, and Don and Rosie are both wonderful characters. Don has narrowed down the number of men who could be Rosie’s fathers, and there are hilarious situations when Don and Rosie try to get DNA samples from them—stealing cups, napkins, cigarette butts, toothbrushes—anything they can get their hands on.

It’s not just the love story that is enjoyable. Don’s narration is what makes the book different. He is unsentimental (but not unfeeling), and constantly analyses situations, trying to understand emotions. “As I handed the filled tube to Rosie to put in her handbag, I noticed her hands were shaking. I diagnosed anxiety, presumably related to the imminent confirmation of paternity.” Graeme Simsion uses him—or his point of view—to hold a mirror up to us, to how we engage with each other and the kind of games we play.

If you’re looking for a run-of-the-mill love story, this book is not for you. But if you’re looking for something light but intelligent, witty and heart-warming, then get this book.

The Man Who Loved Dogs: Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner

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“If the social dream and economic utopia supporting it had become corrupt to the core, what remained of the greatest experiment man had ever dreamed of?”

It is easy to forget today how seductive the idea of communism was for generations of intellectuals the world over. They were drawn to the idea of a utopia where everyone was equal although, unfortunately, in practice it often resulted in authoritarian regimes.

In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Cuban writer Leonardo Padura looks at these “corrupted utopias”, and at one of the most influential men behind communism. The book is about Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramón Mercader. We don’t know very much about Ramón Mercader, but Padura’s reconstruction of his story is very convincing.

There are three strands in this book, each following the three main characters: Trotsky, Ramón and Ivan, a failed Cuban writer who meets Ramón twenty years after the assassination of Trotsky. The book is ostensibly written by Ivan.

The book’s structure allows Padura to look at the ways in which people in power corrupt the idea of communism. In the Soviet Union, Stalin had put in place a regime of fear and repression; in the Spanish civil war, during which Ramón was recruited, Soviet agents were busy manipulating the Left for their own ends; and in Cuba, communism had resulted in deprivation and the stifling of talent.

Padura’s book follows Trotsky in his exile from the Soviet Union. Trotsky is being hounded by Stalin and knows that when Stalin no longer needs him for his propaganda purposes, he will have Trotsky killed. It is fascinating to see how the idealism of early communism morphed into a brutal dictatorship. Trotsky is haunted by the fact that his actions at the start of the Bolshevik regime had opened the door for someone like Stalin. “The proletarian dictatorship was meant to eliminate the exploiting classes, but should it also repress the workers?… [I]t was not possible to allow the expression of the people’s will since this would have reversed the process itself [ie, the dictatorship]. But the abolition of that will would deprive the Bolshevik government of its basic legitimacy: once the moment arrived when the masses ceased to believe, the need arose to make them believe by force.”

Meanwhile in Spain, Ramón, who is fighting against Franco, is being manipulated by his mother, Caridad (who has an agenda of her own) and Kirov, a Soviet spy who becomes his handler. Kirov puts Ramón through increasingly intensive training, breaking him down to reshape him (at one point, Kirov thinks of Ramón as “his creature”). Both men change their names constantly, and the author, by referring to them by their current names emphasizes their shape-shifting natures.

Ivan grows up in Cuba during the 1960s and 70s, at a time when Cubans were kept from knowing anything that would destroy their faith in the Revolution, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Similarly, any creativity that challenged the Revolution was discouraged. The short story Ivan submits to his university magazine is branded “almost counter-revolutionary” by the magazine’s director. And this is the insidious way in which fear can shape people: Ivan leaves the director’s office feeling fearful and confused but, most of all, grateful that no measures would be taken against him and determined to prove that he is worthy of the regime’s trust. But Ivan stops writing, and it is not until he meets “the man who loved dogs” that he thinks of picking up his pen again.

The man whom Ivan meets is, of course, Ramón. Ivan sees him walking on the beach in Havana and is fascinated by his two Borzois (as the title indicates, dogs—especially Borzois or Russian wolfhounds—form a common thread through the book: Trotsky is also fond of dogs). The two men get talking, and Ramón starts to confide in Ivan.

This is a complex book, not an easy read but well worth the effort. I loved the way Padura structures the book, with the action moving back and forth between the three stories. He plays with time: as Ramón gets closer to Trotsky, the timing of the chapters is a bit off. For example, you see Trotsky watering his plants for the last time, but the following chapter on Ramón takes place the day before. It is a little disconcerting but when the two timelines come together with Ramón assassinating Trotsky, it feels like a collision.

Every single one of the book’s characters comes alive. But Trotsky, most of all, jumps off the page as a larger-than-life character (as I suspect he was in reality). Like all people with a big idea, he is unable to see how his single-mindedness affects those around him, even though he knows that he and his family are in danger. This book is a dissection of the corrupting influence of politics. All the characters are affected, directly or indirectly, by Stalin’s campaign against Trotsky.

There are a few things that jar in the translation, like “gave an ear” instead of “lent an ear”, “two times” instead of “twice” and “could care less” instead of “couldn’t care less”. All of these detract from an otherwise excellent translation and could have been picked up by an editor.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this intricately plotted book and would recommend it without hesitation.

Life’s sentences

I have several books of poetry on my shelf…and now, on my Kindle. I leaf (or swipe) through them in the spaces between fiction, when I am recovering from an intense or troubling story or when the weather puts me in the mood for contemplation rather than escape. There are some I return to periodically, like making a phone call to an old friend, in an attempt to find those pools of quiet in my noisy life. Mary Oliver, A K Ramanujan, Elizabeth Bishop, and good old Eliot. A recent happy discovery has been Clive James, whom I first encountered on a New Yorker podcast reading his very popular “Japanese Maple”–which you can listen to here.

coverSince then, I have dipped into James’ poems often, and my most recent favorite is the collection Sentenced to Life (Picador, 2015), work written between 2011 and 2014, a period when he seems to be settling into a comfortable relationship with death. James is a memoirist, critic, television commentator and poet, and in each of these roles the gentle power of his words–and an underlying humor and empathy–is unmistakabl

Many of the 37 poems in this volume reflect a sense of sadness yet an eye for the beauty of small things, such as that Japanese maple in his backyard. So in “Driftwood Houses”, while he acknowledges that “Disintegration is appropriate” he remembers the driftwood houses that he built “…for our girls to roof/With towels so they could hide there in the shade/With ice creams that would melt more slowly.” Or, in the title poem: “My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool/With six fish, each a little finger long./I stand and watch them following their rule/Of never touching, never going wrong:/Trajectories as perfect as plain song.”

Reading through the poems is like spending a lazy Sunday looking at life in slow motion, stopping at moments that suddenly seem meaningful, telling you something about yourself, your vanities, your loves, and your frailties. Clive James recalls scenes from old movies (he is after all a film buff); in one we might suddenly encounter  Catherine Zeta-Jones and in another, Ava Gardner. At other times he unearths cultural trivia (remarking that Tolstoy makes “a midget of your [Napoleon’s] memory”), but refusing to take any of it too seriously.

“While you were reading this/Millions of stars moved closer/Towards their own extinction/So many years ago–/But let’s believe our eyes:/They say it’s all here now.”

Not all of it resonates, of course, and not all of it is lyrical, but there is enough in the slim volume to make dipping into it worthwhile, on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

 

The Long Way Home: Louise Penny

“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There’s power enough in Heaven to cure a sin-sick soul.”

On the surface, this seems like a regular whodunit. But it is more than that—a story about losing and finding yourself, about art and landscape, and escaping from your past.

Armand Gamache, the former Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Sureté du Quebec, has retired with his wife Reine-Marie to Three Pines, a village with other people like him—people who have left their pasts behind. There is Myrna, a psychologist who now runs a bookshop (and provides therapy to her friends), Clara, an artist, Ruth, a bad-tempered poet and her duck, Rosa (no one is sure whether it should be Ruth and her duck or Rosa and her human).

Every morning, Armand sits on a bench overlooking the village with a book in his hand, The Balm of Gilead. Every morning Clara sits next to him but does not say much. Then one day she tells him that she is worried about her husband, Peter, who has disappeared. An established artist when Clara became famous, Peter had trouble dealing with her success. Upset at his lack of support, she suggested they take a year’s break from each other. Exactly a year later, Peter was supposed to come back, and they would see how they felt. However, Peter, normally very meticulous, did not show up on the appointed day, nor did he call or write.

Armand hates the thought of going back to the world he had left behind, but Clara is a friend. He asks his son-in-law, Jean-Guy, who used to be his second-in-command, for help, and the group of friends try to track Peter down.

The missing Peter is the centre of the book, and Louise Penny slowly and skilfully builds up a picture of the man. He grew up with a domineering, vicious mother, who stifled his creativity. He is obsessive about order and his paintings reflect this: they are controlled, detailed and essentially soulless. Unlike Clara’s, whose portraits are much less technically proficient but are windows into the soul of the sitter.

The friends start making enquiries, and find that Peter has been to see his old professor, Paul Massey, who taught Peter and Clara at the Ontario College of Canadian Arts. Professor Massey is well-liked by the students—he is a kindly man, known for being a mentor to young artists. Clara remembers a messianic young professor, Sébastien Norman—he believed in a tenth muse, the muse of painting (it’s odd, there isn’t a muse for painting among the nine). Massey thought Norman was unstable and fired him. Norman has disappeared—the only sign of him is a painting in the school yearbook of a crazed man. Is it a self-portrait?

Eventually, the child of Peter’s sister Marianna shows them paintings that turn out to be ones that Peter made during the year he was on his own. The paintings break every rule, are wild and not very good. It feels like he was going against everything that had been important to him. What was Peter trying to say? Were they are reflection of his mind, an indication that he has gone off the rails or was he trying to tap into something deep inside himself?

Clara, Myrna, Armand and Jean-Guy track Peter down to the mouth of the St. Lawrence river, a place that is so wild and inhospitable that the mariners called it the land God gave to Cain. There they find that Norman, calling himself No Man, had set up an arts community in the woods, and that Peter had followed him there. What happened in this wild place?

This is a slow-burning story. Unlike most whodunits, there is no body to kick things off. There is, instead, an exploration into identity and what lies beneath the surface. There is a “sin-sick soul” but it isn’t clear who that is until the end. I found this an absorbing and rewarding book. It’s one of a series Penny has written about Armand Ganache. I’m going to look for more of these.

A Parrot in the Pepper Tree: Chris Stewart

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Many of us dream of giving up the rat-race and living the simple life in a community far removed from the hustle of cities. These remain dreams for most of us, but not for Chris Stewart and his wife Ana. In 1988, they moved to Alpujarras in Andalucia, Spain, and bought a farm called El Valero without running water, electricity, telephone or an access road. And they are there still.

Stewart’s claim to fame before he became a well-known writer was that he was the drummer in Genesis when they first started out. He has since sailed a boat (and written about it), worked on a building site, was the drummer at a circus and sheared sheep before settling down in El Valero. The sheep shearing came in handy when he was at El Valero—Swedish farmers would pay for his services, money that kept the farm going. I doubt that he needs to do that any more—his books about living in Spain have, much to his surprise, been huge successes.

This is Stewart’s second book about life in El Valero with Ana and their daughter, Chloe, who was born there.[1] Like the others, it is laugh-out-loud funny. There are several wonderful moments: Stewart addressing a group of Swedish farmers about farming in England (about which he knows nothing) and leaving them with the impression of a country that produces two-ton cows and improbable crop yields. Walking home one day, he finds his neighbour Bernardo contemplating a fig tree. “I have a little problem.” The corpse of Bernardo’s dead Pekinese, Moffli, was stuck in the tree because of his attempt to hide the dog’s death from the kids (“I swung him round and round…and then I let him go…but I think I got the timing wrong”).

The Stewarts have a motley collection of animals, including the bad-tempered and misanthropic parrot of the title, Lorca, renamed Porca. Porca falls head over heels in love with Ana and won’t let her out of his sight. He hates everyone else (especially Stewart) because they are competition for the attentions of his beloved. Porca builds nests using whatever he can get his claws on—toothbrushes, bits of twig, cutlery. Once the nest is done, he tries to entice Ana in by emitting lovesick meeps.

All this sounds idyllic but Stewart doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of living the simple life. The family try to keep their vegetable patch safe from marauding sheep and badgers, he has to stop writing to deal with a bumper crop of potatoes, and making a phone call involves walking for hour, some of it through a fast-flowing river. The telephone belongs to a family who charge exorbitant rates. “Once inside the gloomy sitting room, she [the lady of the house] would click the meter back to nought and then stand beside it, arms folded, glaring at me. On a really bad day, other members of the family would gather and glare, too.” And all this while he is trying not to (and clearly failing) to drip river water onto the floor.

There is also the very serious threat hanging over their valley: if the planned dam in the area goes ahead, their valley would be flooded, and Stewart and his farmer neighbours would have to leave.

I love these books. The family have become part of the community and obviously love it there. Stewart’s affection for their neighbours and his love of the region comes through in the book. He writes lyrically about walking in the borreguiles, the high mountain meadows of the Sierra Nevada and seeing the Sierra Nevada gentians. “Common to them all is the perfect peace, the almost supernatural clarity of the water and the springiness of the deep green grass. … In early July…I walked up to the meadows… . As I clambered over the lip, I was struck dumb by what I saw. The grass was no longer green, it was a sheet of livid blue—a blue so dazzling that it seemed to come from outside the normal spectrum of perception.”

I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that the dam will not go ahead, and Chris Stewart will continue to be able to live in the place he loves and which he has made his home.

[1] I reviewed the first one, Driving over Lemons, for Women on the Road : it was my first review for the website. You can read it at the bottom of the page on Europe.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

AllthelightwecannotseeReview by Thomas Peak and Susanne Gjønnes

Set during the darkness of World War II, All the Light We Cannot See is a powerful and emotional novel. It follows a young boy and a girl caught up on each side of the whirlwind of Nazism and war. Werner, a poor orphan drafted into a special school for Nazi cadres and then the Wehrmacht and Marie-Laurie, a blind girl living in Paris with her father, whose life is turned upside down by the German invasion. The fates of Werner and Marie-Laurie slowly weave together over the course of their young lives, finally merging in the picturesque town of Sant-Malo during heavy bombardment.

Werner and his sister Jutta live in a cramped, impoverished and dirty home for orphans in a dead-end coal mining town in the Ruhr. Until his extraordinary scientific abilities and talent for mending radios attract attention, it seems that his life will follow the same predictable course of all poor boys in this town and that he will be broken – and like his father, possibly killed – in the coal mines. Werner seemingly escapes his fate by being sent to a special school for Nazi elites, where he is exposed to predictable cruelty, but also meets his best friend.

Marie-Laurie is the daughter of a locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Falling completely blind at an early age, she nevertheless develops a curiosity for the world akin to Werner’s, encouraged by her loving father and nurtured by a childhood spent exploring the museum. Following the Nazi invasion, Marie-Laurie and her father flee Paris and the museum. Before they leave, the locksmith is trusted with the greatest treasure in the museum, a perfect but cursed diamond, the ‘Sea of Flames’. The diamond must be protected from the roving Nazi hunters at all costs, and the museum disperses a number of fakes among its scattered staff.

A mysterious radio broadcast that captivated young Werner and Jutta, the bravery and the stubbornness of the ordinary children and women who risked everything in the resistance, and the relentless pursuit of Nazi treasure hunters whose shopping list for the Reich extends to all of the cultural wealth of Europe, these all meet in the story’s climax, under the heavy bombardment of allied war planes and artillery shells in Saint-Malo in 1944. All the light we cannot see is dramatic and engaging, the reader is swallowed into the book, and it is difficult to set aside.

Insightful children move this novel – Marie-Laurie is beautiful, the simplicity of her goodness stands out, and the reader really wishes to discover what will happen to her; Werner, an undersized, but brilliant and caring child who must face his own crimes; Jutta, Werner’s sister who sees through Nazism from the beginning; and Frederick, Werner’s pure and unbending friend at the Nazi school – they would all be at home in one of Roald Dahl’s stories. Together they create a tension that carries the reader along the short, energetic, chapters.

Much of the beauty stems from the flickering of candles of humanity that could not be blown out by the winds of war. But, whilst not clichéd exactly, the mise en scène becomes somewhat transparent at points. The ritual evils lurking in the special school, a place which makes the dim reality of the mine shafts shine brightly by comparison, the flatness of some of the characterisations, a slightly mono-tone and unchallenging depiction of the failed Nazi dream. But these notwithstanding, it is an emotionally engaging tale. The war is described in a way that makes the reader feel the hunger, the brutality and the desperation of war, reminding us of the terrible suffering in large parts of the world today.

Saying goodbye to an iconic bookshop: Imran Ali Khan

The Strand Book Stall in Mumbai has been an icon for readers. Books of all sorts piled everywhere, where readers were encouraged to browse and get into conversations with like-minded people. It was one of my favourite places: a trip to Bombay (as it was called then) was incomplete unless I had been to Strand. There is a sign in Foyle’s, London, that says “Welcome, reader. You are among friends.” It reminded me of Strand–that was exactly the sort of atmosphere that its owner, TN Shanbagh aimed for.

But the bookshop is going the way of too many others and is closing its doors. Imran Ali Khan , a writer (and a contibutor to this blog) and a longtime customer of the Strand, he bids farewell to a place which gave him some of the books that have become a part of him.

“When I was five my parents took me to visit Bombay, as it was still called. For the time we were in the city, we lived in one of its great towers, the likes of which I had never seen before. In an attempt to make me feel right at home my parents took me to a bookshop. Tucked away in the by-lanes of this vast city, it was the only bookshop I had seen in my life other than Manney’s in Pune, where we lived at the time. Great towers, this time of books, rose before me, names and titles stacked one over the other. A narrow, seemingly endless staircase led to the children’s section. My parents bought me a children’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

“A few years later when we moved to the city, the great towers had names that I would remember, and the streets that coiled around them like giant serpents did too. I knew how to navigate the giant serpents, I knew that when I left the sea behind me and saw Flora Fountain and the Four Seasons I wasn’t far from Strand Book Stall. I went back to Strand, climbed the deep, narrow stairs and read. As time passed, Strand became integral to my survival, my escape from the confusions of chemistry and the madness of mathematics. I no longer needed to climb the stairs to the children’s section because the looming towers of books on the ground floor began to make sense. I had met some of the books before, some were introduced to me, and others I bumped into without meaning to.”

Read the full article on Scroll.in.

Photo: huppypie via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Catching Thunder: The True Story of the World’s Longest Sea Chase, by Eskil Engdal & Kjetil Sæter

9781925322224This true-life crime novel, ‘Catching Thunder: The Story of the World’s Longest Sea Chase’, is the dramatic account of Sea Shepherd’s 110-day long international pursuit of the pirate fishing vessel Thunder.

Sea Shepherd is a group of activists committed to fighting illegal fishing led by the Swedish-American captain, Peter Hammarstedt. Their ship Bob Barker is trawling around for the ‘Bandit 6’, a list of six vessels fishing illegally in the Southern Ocean. At the start of their adventure, they come across Thunder, a vessel with an INTERPOL purple notice, and wanted by several governments around the world. This is the start of the ever-longest chase at sea, lasting 110 days, and crossing three oceans. Behind the scenes, INTERPOL and various countries’ fisheries management watch the chase, collaborating with Sea Shepherd in unconventional ways behind closed doors.

The book takes us from the once state of the art fishing vessel’s birth in 1969 in Ulsteinvik, Norway, across the oceans, and to Galicia, Spain, where unscrupulous mafias have specialised in the illegal fishing and whitewashing of Patagonian tooth fish, a lucrative species of cod icefish also named the “white gold of the ocean”. A criminal business extending across several jurisdictions, and including a web of tax havens, insurance companies, and ship registries, facilitates this lucrative poaching.

The product of a three year investigation taking them to four continents, the Norwegian investigative journalists Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter, have produced a book which is both a page-turner and a highly impressive documentary account of their work.

Chilling in places, with many situations hovering on the edge of extreme danger, one admires Sea Shepherd but also yells at them for the reckless peril they subject themselves to. Hammarstedt knows that the world and their donors are watching, and giving up is no option. This is both bravery and stupidity, but in the end a deep passion for protecting the oceans wins through, one that is hard to disagree with.

The book depicts how the international system fighting illegal fishing still has a long way to go if it effectively wants to get rid of the mafias out there, who are exploiting valuable ocean resources. In a really exciting fashion, the book highlights the problem of illegal fishing that has profound impact on communities across the world, but is largely unknown to the majority of people.

The takeaway is that combating environmental crime requires greater international cooperation than is the case today, and meanwhile, environmental NGOs are filling the enforcement vacuum left by inadequate government action. They take great risks to do so, risks that should not be required.

Catching Thunder will be out in English in March this year.

Aya of Yop City: written by Marguerite Abouet, drawn by Clément Oubrerie

The three young women in Aya of Yop City, the first in a series of graphic novels, have boys, parties, marriage and future careers on their mind. They rebel against their parents, pick unsuitable boyfriends and try to figure out their place in the world. The three friends—Aya, Adjoua and Bintou—live in Youpougon (known as Yop City in slang), a neighbourhood of Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire.

The central character, Aya, is a hard-working and ambitious young woman who wants to become a doctor. Adjoua and Bintou, on the other hand, are interested in the “three c’s”: “coiffure, couture et chasse au mari” (hairstyles, clothes and the hunt for a husband, preferably a rich one). It’s a conventional role for a woman, and something that Aya’s parents want for her too. But she has other plans and is determined to see them through.

Aya’s parents set up a meeting with Moussa, the spoiled and none-too-bright son of Aya’s father’s boss. Aya is not at all interested, but her friends are. Moussa has money to spend, and takes Bintou partying. Meanwhile, he is also seeing Adjoua. The relationship has gone beyond partying, with the inevitable outcome—she becomes pregnant.

The family is central, and the girls’ families are very much part of the story. In the first few panels, the reader is introduced to all of them. When Adjoua becomes pregnant, she goes to see Aya’s mother, Fanta, who is a healer. The mother and daughter are the core of this community—both, in their own ways, provide succour and level-headedness.

Aya of Yop City is, in many ways, a universal story, and young women (or those of us who were once young!) will identify with it. But it is also a glimpse into life in Yopougon. Young people go to the maquis, open-air restaurants that are informal and cheaper than proper restaurants. And once the maquis close, it is where lovers meet at night. At the end of the book, there is a recipe for sauce arachide, the peanut sauce that is typical of the region. And that is what is so great about this series—this mix of the familiar and the new. (An aside about the familiar: as a young woman living in my hometown, I had to put up with visits from so-called eligible bachelors living abroad who were scouting around for a nice Indian wife! So Aya’s visit to Moussa’s family resonated with me.)

The book combines humour and social critique with believable characters. I felt like I’ve met some of these people, and I want to know what happens to them.

The book is beautifully drawn by Clément Oubrerie and captures the vibrancy of both the place and characters. Although it is not autobiographical, it is based on Marguerite Abouet’s experiences growing up in the Côte d’Ivoire. Like many Africans, she was fed up of the media’s focus on the wars, famines and poverty, and wanted to present the day-to-day life of ordinary Africans. She has succeeded with this very enjoyable series.

(The series has been translated from the French into English by Drawn and Quarterly.)