I’ve had mixed experiences reading about Africa. I read Things Fall Apart in college and hated it, although I’d probably get more out of it now; I studied Out of Africa in my Lit & Film class, but since I was married and waitressing at the time, I remember very little about the book (and not much more of the movie, although that may have been because I started it at 1:30 in the morning and ended up focused on trying–unsuccessfully–to count the number of times Meryl Streep says “I had a fahm in A-fri-ca…”). I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Farmer’s A Girl Named Disaster, and while her The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm is not so much my thing, it was weirdly interesting. The Poisonwood Bible is moving and well done, but it’s still 500 pages of death, pain, abuse, injustice, and poverty in Africa, and DANG. (I stopped halfway through and read a romance novel before finishing it.) Left to Tell was unforgettable, with a bit of the same feel as a traditional Holocaust memoir. A Long Walk to Water was short but fabulous, and Home of the Brave, while technically about an African refugee in America, took my breath away.
Okay, I didn’t actually realize that I’d read that many books about Africa. I generally avoid hot places, even in literature (oddly enough).
The thing about Africa, though, is that much of what you read about it is painful in some way, and with good reason; it’s had more than its share of tragic history. (Once upon a time I was studying for a history final and parodied ‘Little Bunny Foo Foo.’ Few mnemonic devices have worked as well for me as singing “Little King Leopold, hopping through the Congo, picking up the Africans and bopping them on the head. Along came the European Powers, and THEY said–Little King Leopold, we don’t want to see you picking up the Africans and bopping them on the head…’) I love historical fiction, and so it is what it is, but it’s still a delight to read Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, because the feel of them is so different from anything else about Africa that I’ve read. It isn’t that he ignores the more difficult side of life, but the Botswana he presents is a more fortunate country than some of its neighbors, and his characters are delightful. Mma Ramotswe’s quiet strength and kindness is lovely; Mma Makutsi’s swings between prickliness and insight are shared by most of humanity; and the men in their lives are varied and interesting in their own ways.
The newest installment in the series, The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe, doesn’t disappoint. It has its moments of tangential philosophy (although McCall Smith’s variety of this is both down-to-earth and amusing), but there is also a case of a complicated nature, apprentice difficulty, and a new project of Mma Makutsi’s. I shan’t spoil it for you by giving away any more details, so if you haven’t read it yet, well–get going! And if you haven’t tried the series, give the first one a shot. It feels less like a mystery and more like a slice of culture very different from our usual fare; the series as a whole makes me laugh in a way that no other book set in Africa ever has.