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Ways for readers – of all ages – to understand the world around them are the focus of this month’s books.


A girls guide

Choices: a teenage girl’s practical workbook for career and personal planning
by Mandy Bingham, July Edmondson and Sandy Stryker.
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Girls Club of Santa Barbara Inc. (USA). Exley Publications Ltd (UK). £6.95
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As soon as my teenage daughter set eyes on this book she seized it and spent the rest of the evening engrossed. To see the book at all, I had to snatch it when she wasn’t looking.

The tone is light and personal, almost in the vein of the inconsequential self-assessment games found in girls’ magazines. There are subjects like ‘What sort of man do you go for?’ or ‘Are you romantic?’ But this book has meat. It aims to help a young girl grow up to take responsibility for the ordering of her own life and career - and avoid being swept along by convention or by other people.

Many of the illustrations are delicately painted by a Japanese artist, appealing to the most ‘feminine’, sensitive and artistic side of girl though there are others such as the Doonesbury strip below. The text is gentle and sensitive too, gradually drawing out the girl’s thought and self-awareness with questions and whimsical little games, pointing out some of the anomalies of being a woman in a man’s world.

This is my daughter’s opinion: ‘My first impression was that this was a book of fairy tales. But it definitely wasn’t. Life is no fairy tale that always comes out ‘happily ever after’, it is the decisions you make that create a happy ending. This book helps a teenage girl think seriously about the future and about the problems she will face - such as sex discrimination. It is a well-structured guide through adulthood, marriage, motherhood, retirement and old age: interesting and highly informative.

‘To me, the book is like a "fertilizer" to a rose. The girl grows and the "fertilizer" cherishes and aids the growth so that it becomes tall, strong and straight.’

I am glad that this book exists. There is a great need for this kind of social education. But though my daughter could grow up a ‘rose’ this book might make her a rather thorny one. It seems to advocate what Jung called ‘Individuation’ - growing into one’s own personality and inner promptings, and away from social pressures. There is little or nothing about learning to live with other people, in particular with a husband, about sharing, encouraging, supporting, or occasionally yielding a little for the sake of someone else.

Perhaps women already have so many of these qualities instilled into them that an antidote is needed. But pushing them too far in the opposite direction could result in the selfish attitudes which cause broken homes and neglected children. Still, increased self-awareness, consciousness of responsibility, and planning for life, should mean that much of the bitterness which leads to anti-social behaviour can be avoided.

The book does at any rate manage to achieve a realistic approach without entirely losing the magic of discovering what life is about or neglecting values like beauty, morality, kindness and family and friends, and this is a major achievement.

I should like to see a similarly attractive manual designed for boys to become more aware of themselves and their own prejudices pressures and personalities. This might conceivably help girls even more.

Harfiyah and Luzita Ball

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For confused Canadians

Getting started on social analysis in Canada
by Michael Czerny, S J and Jamie Swift
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Between the lines (pbk) $9.00
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427 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Canada
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‘There are too many facts to absorb and it’s like I’m drowning in a deluge of information.’ A familiar complaint, accompanied by a sick feeling of powerlessness and, perhaps, a touch of cynicism? You may be suffering mildly from social paralysis.

Take heart. This is the book for you:

Getting started on social analysis, a primer in the art of ‘questioning the world around us’, co-authored by Jamie Swift and Jesuit Michael Czerny. Divided into sections on unemployment, pollution, microtechnology, native issues, housing, health and foreign affairs, the book lays the groundwork for a critical social theory useful to the lay person living in an industrial society. The definite Canadian slant may restrict its readership but its technique has general applicability.

Modestly, Swift and Czerny make no naive proposals for structural change in pluralistic societies like Canada. They do, however, ask questions. Who profits when the Canadian Medical Association recommends the dismantling of government-sponsored health care and a return to free enterprise medicine? Who suffers? A list of educational resources, discussion questions and action tips concludes each section.

Some chapters, inevitably, are less helpful than others. ‘A home and native land’, dealing with Canada’s native Indians, is a bit disappointing. With extremely high rates of infant mortality, adolescent suicide and violent death, Canadian Indians and Metis (mixed blood) seem a race bent on implosion. Swift and Czerny advocate support of aboriginal land claims, but say little about Indian attempts to resurrect traditional forms of medicine, government, and religion.

The chapters on microtechnology and Canada’s role in the Americas are the strongest in the book. A recent United Auto Workers’ study reckons that eighty per cent of all manual jobs in North America will be eliminated through automation by 2000.

What is the ‘frontier’ that will absorb the techno-refugees tossed off the assembly line by robots? Getting started optimistically suggests that it is the vast world of unexploited leisure. It makes a brave attempt to sketch in a new understanding of work and remuneration.

With ‘Canada and the Americas’, Swift and Czerny step out of the national focus of their book. Canada’s weak protest against the US invasion of Grenada, together with the new Mulroney government’s eagerness to tighten ideological and economic ties with the Reagan administration, seriously undermine the country’s treasured self-image as a non-imperialist middle power, ready to intervene in international disputes with fairness. ‘To remain trapped in a sort of psycho-political dependence on the United States betrays Canada’s global and domestic interests.’ Indeed. Central America and the Caribbean may prove to be the flashpoint in the East-West nuclear confrontation. At the very least, vigorous Canadian support for the Contadora group would help reduce tensions in the area.

Getting started is a valuable tool to empower the confused in Canada and elsewhere. It can be read for personal edification or be used to animate church and neighbourhood discussion groups. The alternative to learning from a book like this is to remain on the surface of political life, ‘to consume not only goods and services, but also the slogans, meanings, and values of society’.

Tim Lilburn


Out of Africa
...being the book that shows what
colonialism could have been like.

There's a suburb of Nairobi named ’Karen’ in honour of a Danish baroness - all that is left of one woman’s remarkable and distinctive experience with another culture.

Karen Blixen married her aristocratic cousin and they went to Kenya to plant coffee. But the venture was not a success. The land was too high, the coffee never did well and the Baron’s rakish career ended in his squandering their capital..

After their divorce in 1921 she was left to cope alone in a strange country. She remained an aristocrat (‘The Prince of Wales did me the great honour...’) and was nothing if not colonial. But being both Danish and free-spirited she identified only hesitantly with the ruling powers - and indeed often acted as an intermediary between the mutually incomprehending British and Kikuyu.

Following their financial failure she wanted to take the almost unprecedented step of granting some of the land to the local people - who were classified as ‘squatters’. She spent long hours in government offices coaxing the officials. And she succeeded. It was a move of rare sensitivity - too rare as Mau-Mau was to prove.

‘The squatters are Natives who with their families hold a few acres on a white man’s farm and in return have to work a certain number of days in the year.

‘My squatters, I think, saw the relationship in a different light, for many of them were born on the farm and their fathers before them and they regarded me as a sort of superior squatter on their estates.

The interface between the lives of Baroness and Native grew acutely tender. ‘The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world.’ But without glib claims to understand. ‘When I came to our station, one of my people would be there to meet me with a mule to ride home on. When I asked how they had known I was coming down they looked away and seemed uneasy, as if frightened or bored, such as we should be if a deaf person insisted on getting an explanation of a symphony from us.’

She presents Africa and its interlocked cultures without pleading; its value must be self-evident if its nature is revealed. Whatever impinged upon her received her attention. She had a passionate eye for difference without prejudice, and extraordinary people came by -- a High Priest from India, an old Danish sailor who tried to save her fortune with charcoal burning, Somali virgins and Maasai warriors, an unkempt renegade Swedish barman fleeing on foot to Tanganyika.

Always she let people speak for themselves. She persuaded an English doctor to save the life of a Kikuyu woman in labour:

‘Afterwards he wrote that although he had for once, on my appeal, treated a Native, I must understand that he could not let that sort of thing happen again. He had, before now, practised to the elite of Bournemouth.’

She revelled in the entangling of her life with the Kikuyus and spoke her mind to them, especially of their justice.

"You old men", I said, "are fining the young men in order that it shall be impossible for them to collect any money for themselves. The young men cannot move for you and then you buy up all the girls yourselves." The old men listened attentively, the small black eyes in their dry and wrinkled faces glittered, their thin lips moved gently as if they were repeating my words: they were pleased to hear, for once, an excellent principle put into speech.’

A Kikuyu named Kitosch enraged the whites by exercising his ‘firm will to die’ after a mere beating from his English master, thus throwing the law off-balance and leaving the Europeans perplexed to evaluate motives and guilt.

‘By this strong sense of what is right and decorous, the figure of Kitosch stands out with a beauty of its own,’ Blixen wrote. ‘The country is his native land and, whatever you do to him, when he goes he goes of his free will because he does not want to stay.

She laughed at herself often. A Danish missionary taught her Swahili but could not bring himself to pronounce their ‘nine’ because ‘it has a dubious ring in Danish’ - so she was persuaded that Swahili does without the number ‘nine’ altogether. She wrote of Kikuyu pride, ideas of history, God, poetry, cooking and death, and then of locusts, giraffes, iguanas and bush fire with a poised intensity, a heady sense of the felt presence of Africa.

‘The little springhares were out on the roads, moving in their own way, sitting down suddenly and jumping along to a rhythm, like miniature kangaroos. The cicadas sing an endless song in the long grass, smells run along the earth and falling stars run over the sky, like tears over a cheek.’

A settler mentality; but interminable developmentalists have seldom, with all their doctrines, matched her openness to Africa.

Out of Africa
by Karen Blixen
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Penguin Modern Classics
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