Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Traveling Through A Liberian Childhood



I like to explore the world with books as much as I like to actually travel. A well-written narrative can transport you to places that you'd never experience with just superficial details like photos and descriptions. I've been interviewing writers about the criteria they use to select books for Summer reading and it made me think about my own general reading criteria. As a journalist, I'm really drawn to biographies, autobiographies and memoirs more than fiction. There's something about using the facts to entice readers into your world that gets me. It's no coincidence that some of my favorite writers--Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Zora Neale Hurston, Hemingway, started out as journalists. So when I glimpsed The House at Sugar Beach, at my local bookstore and saw it was a memoir written by a journalist, it was pretty much a done deal that I would buy it.

Now it wasn't only that the author Helene Cooper was a journalist, it was that she was a Liberian journalist chronicling her childhood as a member of the Liberian elite. Liberia is a country that claims an extremely complicated history. It was founded by American blacks in the 1820s and enjoyed generations of prosperity and peace. But discontent bubbled beneath the surface. Native Liberians resented the domination of the Americans and the 80s set off decades of civil wars and coups. I know all of this not because it's covered in the book but because my first college roommate was Rita Tolbert, niece of the President of Liberia and a member of the same elite group as Helene Cooper. President Tolbert was assassinated in 1980 and Rita alluded to threatened rapes, torture and lonely English boarding schools when she summed up her journey to the U.S. At the time, I only understood a little of the political situation on the African continent and I never asked Rita the probing questions that are typical for me.

So I devoured The House at Sugar Beach, eager to witness the details that had escaped me before. Helene Cooper totally delivers. From the rhythm and vernacular of Liberian English, to the cognac-colored couches that filled the 22-room, waterfront mansion where she lived, Cooper escorts her readers on a full tour of 1970s Liberia. We see the olive groves that surround their Summer house in Spain, the shacks that edge the elaborate estates of Congo people, (descendants of the American settlers) and we recognize the intensifying resentment of Native Liberians living in squalor. She also intersperses her accounts with the significant history of her family's involvement in settling Liberia and the political unrest that connects to it.

The House at Sugar Beach rivets you with the nuances of Cooper's childhood, like reading Barbara Cartland novels, eating fufu and pepper soup and telling "heartmen" stories, about men who cut the hearts out of people to sell them. The book also translates the horror of living through a coup 'd tat, where relatives were killed or raped, including Cooper's mother. Cooper, who now covers the White House for the New York Times, says the inspiration to write her story came when she realized that as a foreign correspondent, she had traveled through war zones and battle fields to record the stories of other countries, but never her own. But now Liberia has a richly defined account, that dives beyond the wars and struggles. I highly recommend The House at Sugar Beach.

21 comments:

Fly Girl said...

I think I read an except of this memoir in the New York Times a few months ago; gripping. I like the new design, but I'm having a little trouble with the orange text on the gold side bars. Or maybe I'm just going blind.

Fly Girl said...

I know what you mean. I did travel via books during my whole childhood/teenage and a bit up in the adult age too. (Now I only read other travel blogs :-)

Fabulous new blog layout! Love the red!

One wish though: to be able to leave my blog address along with my comment in a better way. I do not like openid and such things - and I'm not alone disliking openid, so you might lose some comments if you have it like this.

Cheers & good luck with your new blog :-)

Fly Girl said...

Even though it's a bit cool to add an avatar and other stuff too, I just wish it were visable direct and we didn't have to click to get it. You know, we're just soooo lazy when it comes to clicking.... *giggles*

Happy travels :-)

Fly Girl said...

...and there it came, the avatar! *giggles*

Now, it's just the linking to my blogname that doesn't appear right away. Well, maybe we can't have it all, but we're so d*rn used to have it that way :-)

Fly Girl said...

I must have read the same NYT magazine except Fly Brother did...and put this book on my "want list". It just arrived at my door yesterday as it was one of my selections for the book club I belong to! So, I'm looking forward to reading it.
Like you, I prefer non-fiction (mostly biographies, autobiographies, etc.)

Your blog design is very attractive, although I'd echo Fly Brother's concerns with the orange print and Life Cruiser's concerns with using OpenID (I've never been able to get OpenID to display without the long number for me...intensely frustrating). I even prefer using the Name/URL sign in option with TypePad blogs...

I do love the red, too!

http://www.midwestguest.com

Fly Girl said...

This is Ali. There was something not quite right with the js-kit. I had to leave a comment under FlyGirl to try to get it to work. Sorry for the inconvenience!

Fly Girl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ali said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fly Girl said...

Thanks for the feedback everybody. all your issues are being addressed.

Fly Girl said...

Thanks to Fly Brother, Life Cruiser and Dominque for their comments. I didn't do all of those comments but the template wouldn't re-load your names and sites so this is my personal shout out.

sparkzspot said...

Hi friend.. Interesting post.. Nice blog work.. keep it up..
will drop by your site often.. Do find time to visit my blog and post your comments..
Have a great day.. Cheers!!!

Tammie Dooley said...

just found you from Travelblogs and I'm so glad I did. Can't wait to read more!

Ebony Intuition said...

I love the new blog.

Fly Girl said...

Thanks for visiting Tammie and Sparkz. Nice to see you again, Ebony.

Yvonne said...

I love books like this so thank you so much for sharing. I'm currently reading Giants which chronicals the similiarities of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass. Irnonically, it also mentions how Lincoln wanted freed slave to go to Liberia to set up their own colony. Interesting indeed.

This will be the next book that I read. Thanks for the review

Fly Girl said...

Nice to see you again Yvonne. Yes, the push to colonize Liberia with newly emancipated black people started during Lincoln's administration and lasted through the early 1900s.

WendyB said...

My husband used to work with Helene. I'll ask him to pass your post along to her.

Fly Girl said...

Thanks for visiting Wendy! I'll visit yours soon.

Island pepperpot said...

Great blog I just found your blog. Very nicely laid out. Thanks for sharing.

Fly Girl said...

Thanks for visiting Pepperpot! I love your blog recipes!

Lynne Jordan said...

I discovered House..Sugar Beach via Elle Magazine and purchased it and read it immediately. Talk about a great read and an interesting life!!

I am all over your blog fly girl!!