Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City by Jonny Steinberg

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Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City by Jonny Steinberg

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: This is a true story about two very different Liberian men. Part history, part interview-style, Steinberg goes right back to their roots in a troubled country and tries to get to grips with why they are both now living in New York City.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224085663

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South African Steinberg has won awards with previous non-fiction books and after reading the praise from various sources (New York Times, J M Coetzee) I came to the conclusion that I was in for a serious and thought-provoking read.

The preface tells us that the two Liberian men - Rufus and the younger Jacob left Liberian soil in vastly different circumstances and for different reasons. But as they meet up years later and thousands of miles away from their homeland, their Little Liberia in New York City has a tall order: to contain and accommodate their big personalities and to a certain extent, their big egos. Can it cope?

The book is neatly set out with each man getting his own chapter which charts parts of his past life. They usually alternate so that both get 'equal billing' and no one dominates the book. Steinberg is an accommodating and thoughtful writer. And as Steinberg meets up with the two men (separately) all three appear to bond and have a respectful working relationship. Perhaps it helps that Steinberg is South African. As Jacob says right at the very beginning of his story on meeting the writer for the very first time My African brother. My white, South African brother. They meet up in an African Refuge Center (sic) in bustling, crowded New York. Jacob is a visible presence in the local community and never seems to have a spare minute to call his own. Right at the outset, you can see that he's not afraid to speak his mind, eg ... his distaste for Jacob Zuma, the man who would soon be South Africa's president. And although funding is scratchy for the local project, as you might expect, Jacob works tirelessly with these limited and frustrating resources.

He concentrates on mainly victims of trauma as well as trying to lift youngsters out of poverty and into a better life. And as the reader travels back in time to both Jacob's and Rufus's turbulent past lives, we see that both have had their own share of trauma and poverty. And although there is no doubt that Steinberg is a consummate professional with a sympathetic ear, not all of this questions will be answered. And I appreciated his honesty here. He could easily have chosen to leave out these parts and make his question-and-answer sessions flow beautifully.

I was expecting, however, that the whole book would be based in New York as the title suggests (An African Odyssey in New York City) but quite a substantial chunk is based in war-torn Liberia: the troubles leading up to civil war, who was involved, what the political/economic outcomes would be etc. So, if you're expecting 'all things urban' you may be a little disappointed. While I fully appreciate that the author travels back in time to try to get the essence of the two men, a lot of this results in perhaps rather dry and dense historical/political narrative. It's also not that easy to just dip in and out, or even perhaps read a chapter or two, as you'll miss the flow and the story proper.

That said, this book, although powerful in its content, is written with sensitivity. Episodes of brutality and violence are covered because they are central to the story. Ultimately, this book shows what courage, vision and energy can do - against the odds. I felt humbled and privileged to have read these personal accounts. Recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family by Peter Firstbrook. We've some advice if you're looking to rent a car in New York. You might also appreciate Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg.

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Buy Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City by Jonny Steinberg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City by Jonny Steinberg at Amazon.com.

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