Monthly Archives: February 2014

Stringer, by Anjan Sundaram


Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo

By Anjan Sundaram

Doubleday, 2014

288 pages

This well-crafted debut memoir chronicles Sundaram’s life in the Congo, where he moves to become a journalist.

In 2005, Sundaram turns down the opportunity to get a PhD in Math or a high paid finance job, and moves to the Congo to write. Inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski, he wants to capture the stories that are not being told in the West. He chooses the Congo because he knows a bank teller in New Haven from there, and he moves in with her family. He has no job offer or salary, instead he seeks out work as a stringer for the large news agencies; a career move that is unpredictable at best. This memoir recounts his early days in Kinshasa, when he struggles to place articles and make any money, to when he finally breaks stories with major US papers. It recounts the prevalent poverty and violence in the Congo (his phone is stolen and he is robbed early on), and his transformation as he leaves Kinshasa to travel up the Congo, where he writes about smaller communities, reports from the war zone in Northeastern Congo, and later is one of the only Western journalist in Kinshasa after the 2006 elections results come in.

Sundaram has a very strong narrative voice. He is a gifted storyteller who can turn an ordinary situation into an intriguing story. And he, as he set out to do, witnesses people and events that are rarely depicted in Western media. After his phone is stolen, he tries to recover it and ends up spending an evening with three young reckless teenagers, giving voice to their lives and struggles. Life is not easy for Sundaram, nor for anyone he meets, but he has a gracefulness with which he approaches the challenges and is able to persist, despite compounding obstacles. I found this book to be a page-turner, as I kept wondering—how does he make it? What will be the turning point for his career? And the ending delivers. For anyone interested in Africa, this book is a window into lives that you will not usually read about.

Sundaram lived in Rwanda after the Congo. He recently spoke about the book and his experiences on the John Stewart Show.

I received an e-book copy of this book via NetGalley.

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African Debuts

The shortlist for the Etisalat Prize came out. Founded in 2013, this prize celebrates debut novelists of African citizenship. The winner will be announced later this month and all three books on the shortlist were written by female authors.

Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso

Set in South Africa, about a boy who stalks and steals as a way to connect with others. It is noted for, its “complex narrative written with a sensitive understanding of both the smallness and magnitude of a single life.”

Finding Soutbek by Karen Jennings

Also set in South Africa, this book tells the story of a divided town, focusing on the life of the first black mayor and his wife.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

This book has been up for a lot of prizes, including the Booker. It’s a remarkable debut and one I will write about in more detail later this month. It’s a voice driven story of a Zimbabwean girl.

It’s wonderful to see this prize and to celebrate writers from Africa. It is also a way for those of us in the US to learn more about voices we might not read about in other venues.

The next two books I review are set in Africa…Stringer, by Anjan Sundaram, is a memoir about a young man who moves to the Congo to be a journalist. And then I will write about NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.



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My Foreign Cities: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Scarboro


My Foreign Cities: A Memoir

By Elizabeth Scarboro

Liveright, 2013

304 pages

This debut memoir is a moving love story—chronicling a young woman in love with a man who has a chronic, life-threatening disease.

Liz and Stephen date in high school, where the book begins, but they go off to different parts of the country for college. Their connection perseveres, and although Liz dreams of living overseas after college, instead she moves to San Francisco to be with Stephen. Stephen has cystic fibrosis (CF); chances are slim he will live past 35. If she does not move towards him at this point in her life, she might not get another chance. Travel will be there later. And so they grow up together, in the Bay Area and Boston, and Scarboro does a masterful job chronicling both their love and the challenges of living with, and loving someone, with CF. Although Stephen lives a fairly “normal” life, he struggles with his health and shortly after Liz moves to San Francisco both of his lungs collapse. She deftly recounts Stephen’s stays in the hospital, consultations with doctors and what it means to consider a lung transplant. Together they go through the ups and downs of his disease, and even when life is stable, Stephen is in so much pain that he eventually becomes addicted to painkillers. Through it all, they make a life together.

This is sad story, but Scarboro beckons the reader into her life and heart in such an open way that by the end of the book I felt like she and Stephen were my friends, and I fought back the tears as I knew his end was near. This story is also a window into human hope, the resiliency of the human heart, and what we will do to stay alive, and keep our loved ones alive. And although this is at times a difficult read, and possibly not for those who have any kind of medical anxiety, I was completely drawn in to this beautiful book.

Scarboro has published novels for children and continues to live in the Bay Area. Library Journal listed My Foreign Cities as one of the best memoirs of 2013 and the SF Chronicle put it on their top 100 list for 2013. She recently published an essay in the Huffington Post about being a widow.

I downloaded this book and read it on my Kindle. Thanks to JW for telling me about this amazing memoir!





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