A week in books

Hope (and hilarity) comes out of Africa
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The Independent Culture

As the media's erratic eye swings across sub-Saharan Africa, it lights on floods, famine, political murder and massacre, all against the lurid backdrop of a vast Aids pandemic. For the spectator, this makes for a toxic mix of prurience and despair. Two excellent new books - one enormously funny, the other fiull of soaring lyric poetry - provide an antidote. Both restore humanity and hope to a place where "people still give birth, fall in love, write, act, sing and trade".

As the media's erratic eye swings across sub-Saharan Africa, it lights on floods, famine, political murder and massacre, all against the lurid backdrop of a vast Aids pandemic. For the spectator, this makes for a toxic mix of prurience and despair. Two excellent new books - one enormously funny, the other fiull of soaring lyric poetry - provide an antidote. Both restore humanity and hope to a place where "people still give birth, fall in love, write, act, sing and trade".

That phrase comes from Fiona Sax Ledger's Mr Bigstuff and the Goddess of Charm (Picador, £12.99): not a travel book, but a beguiling collage of episodes rooted in the author's 20 African years as a journalist and BBC radio producer. Hopping between periods, moods and places (from Sierra Leone to South Africa), Sax Ledger mixes a gallery of lovingly-painted characters with historical insights and fragments of autobiography. Often, these elements memorably merge - as with a wonderful trip in search of the Perfect Plait up the east coast of a continent where "only mad people neglect their hair". The Goddess of Charm herself is one Amina Patel, who runs a multi-racial school of manners in Harare; but it's tempting to apply the phrase to the utterly endearing FSL.

Douglas Oliver's A Salvo for Africa (Bloodaxe, £7.95) offers another kind of hybrid: 30 poems prompted by the fate of countries from Egypt to Mozambique, each flanked by a short, fervent prose analysis. The effect recalls the mixed-media travelogues that Auden, Isherwood and MacNeice created in the Thirties, swinging between striking imagery, satire and thunderous prophecy. A Salvo for Africa, I believe, stands comparison with these great ancestors. One of its items will be our Weekly Poem next Tuesday, 25 April.

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