A book I forgot to review in my last post was Jostein Gaarder’s “A Christmas Mystery”. This is a children’s book, by the author of ‘Sophie’s World’, structured in 24 chapters and based round the revelations behind the doors of a mysterious advent calendar. It is a number of stories within a story – there is the story of Joachim, the boy who has the advent calendar, and his parents; there is the story revealed by the calendar of a journey back through time of a bunch of pilgrims as they travel towards Bethlehem in time for the birth of Christ; and there is a mystery story entwined between the two stories. I thought it was a lovely book, and is one I’d happily read again each Christmas. I did though (much like ‘Sophie’s World’) think that the mystery aspect was the weakest bit of the book, and it left me with more questions despite being written as though the mystery was totally wrapped up in the final chapter. In both books I liked the history/philosophy aspect and appreciated the story that was used to frame that aspect of it, but as I say the mystery didn’t quite work for me, in both. Don’t be put off though, I thought this was a lovely story and is perfect Advent reading.
The other book that I started over Christmas, and finally finished today on the train, was “The Innocent Anthropologist” by Nigel Barley. I can’t remember who it was that recommended it but I’m so pleased they did, I enjoyed this. It’s quite an old book, it was originally published in 1983 so the fieldwork on which it is based must have been done probably in the late 1970s. It details Barley’s fieldwork in northern Cameroon among the Dowayo people, and (unlike most anthropological tomes of the time) is a very real look at the realities of life as the anthropologist ‘in the field’. As he identifies, most gloss over a lot of the realities (bureaucratic nightmares, illnesses, inconveniences, misunderstandings, long periods of boredom) but here he describes it all, fully acknowledging that it is usually he that is the butt of the joke. I really enjoyed it, and quite often laughed out loud at passages – when I wasn’t cringing, such as the passage where he has to go to the dentist (some of his reflections on his resulting dentures did make me laugh kind of nervously, I guess that must be a hang-over from my hospital nursing days, where it was false teeth more than anything else that would be guaranteed to turn my stomach). I did stop and think about given the year it was published, the work will have been done before AIDS was identified in Africa, and wonder how the Dowayo people have fared in the intervening years. I liked his observations about the position of the anthropologist ‘in the field’, his respect and affection for the people among whom he was living (including the local Protestant mission – which I thought was interesting given anthropology’s traditional hostility to missionary work/missionaries), and his accounts of gradually gaining the trust of the people. He didn’t come across in the slightest as the colonial studying the primitives – always a danger with these books. Recommended.