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the Complete Review
the complete review - non/fiction / anthology / travel

A Basket of Leaves

Geoff Wisner

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To purchase A Basket of Leaves

Title: A Basket of Leaves
Author: Geoff Wisner
Genre: Anthology
Written: (2007)
Length: 275 pages
Original in: various
Availability: A Basket of Leaves - US
A Basket of Leaves - UK
A Basket of Leaves - Canada
  • 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa
  • With an appendix of Suggestions for further reading

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Our Assessment:

(-) : appealing anthology, good introduction to Africa

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The clever and simple idea behind Geoff Wisner's A Basket of Leaves is to give readers a sense of Africa by introducing them to 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa. Wisner introduces each book with some remarks about it (and the author, and the country covered in it), and then offers a brief excerpt. The excerpts are generally a page or less -- just a very small taste -- and the prefatory remarks usually a bit longer, and it's all stuffed comfortably into less than three hundred pages.
       Wisner proceeds through Africa alphabetically, with at least one entry for each of fifty-four nations (among which he counts the Western Sahara). (Somewhat disappointingly, there is no map to help identify the locations of the presumably not that familiar countries.) Several countries are represented by more than one text -- Nigeria leads the way with nine -- and he tries to offer a variety of books: non-fiction as well as fiction, and both contemporary and historical works. The books are, for the most part, not too obscure (though quite a few are out of print); the authors range from western travelers such as Richard Burton and Ryszard Kapuscinski to Graham Greene and Nelson Mandela, as well as a who's-who of the major twentieth-century African novelists.
       Wisner tries to use texts that help introduce the countries, which limits his options, especially with regards to local writing: there just aren't that many available novels by authors from ... say, Equatorial Guinea. Naturally, also, there's a strong temptation to rely on travelers' tales, since those tend to offer the information and foreign insights that might appeal to (armchair-)travelers. Wisner does, indeed, rely on a variety of these (sometimes out of sheer necessity), but admirably tries to seek out local perspectives as well. There's also a decent variety in the kinds of outsider-reports, from Maya Angelou's personal account of travelling to Ghana to William Travis' "quest for the Green Snail among the outer islands of the Seychelles archipelago" to Charles Nicoll on Rimbaud in Africa.
       Trying to present both contemporary and historical Africa is the greatest hurdle Wisner faces. The modern map of Africa, and its division -- like the book's -- into fifty four countries imposes limitations, and since Wisner does use a fair number of texts that deal with earlier periods of African history not all the countries, regions, and cultures are covered in anywhere near the same depth.
       While the ninety-nine books Wisner presents makes for a useful list, the very brief excerpts only give an impression of most of them; far more useful and interesting, in fact, are Wisner's introductory remarks to each, which also allows him to slip in information about the countries. He does a very good job, and it is what he writes in A Basket of Leaves -- and not the ninety-nine excerpts he offers -- that make this a good and useful overview of and introduction to Africa. (Usefully, he also provides a list of several hundred additional titles in an appendix of Suggestions for further reading -- though, alas, eight countries go empty here; a few titles about imaginary African countries is a nice addition, but doesn't quite make up for that.)
       Wisner suggests ninety-nine is: "an open-ended number", and A Basket of Leaves is certainly only a starting point -- but a fairly useful one. It is no best-of compilation, but for a continental overview Wisner's selection is fairly solid and certainly well thought-through, especially where there are multiple works for a nation. Some of the obscurer corners are more difficult to deal with -- and several come close to defeating him; for tiny São Tomé and Príncipe he has to resort to The Heinemann Book of African Women's Poetry. Neverthless, he packs an enormous amount of variety and information into such a manageable book.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 June 2009

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Geoff Wisner: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Geoff Wisner lives in New York.

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