On Sept. 19, 1993, John Slaughter killed a robber who had invaded his Baltimore home. He was so shaken by the experience that he took a mental-health break in the form of a trip to East Africa, which he describes in Brother in the Bush: An African American's Search for Self in East Africa (Agate; paperback, $12.95). This travel memoir, written in what Slaughter calls "freestyle," can be hard to follow as it "weaves and bounces from present moments to events that happened years before." Slaughter was born in 1959 and grew up in an upper-middle-class black family in Seattle. He moved to Maryland when his father became chancellor of the University of Maryland. After graduate school, he worked as a stockbroker at Morgan Stanley and lived in the gentrified neighborhood of Ridgely's Delight in Baltimore, where, as others perceived it, he "rid the earth of a predator." Slaughter viewed it differently: He had killed a man, and as a result he suffered from insomnia, nightmares, involuntary twitching and sweats. What would have happened, he wondered, if the intruder were white?
Contemplating his life in Africa, Slaughter decided to make a radical career change: He is now a professional photographer and a safari leader. As he remembers his frustrating or funny experiences, he freely acknowledges his mistakes, such as when he complained about insensitive Americans even as he was photographing Maasai people, who dislike being photographed. Or there's the time when he approached African natives with fear born of the same prejudices that he condemned in white neighbors back home.
John Mortimer offers advice that he rightfully calls "sexist, politically incorrect [and] oversimplified" in a book of autobiographical essays entitled Where There's a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life (Viking, $24.95). Supposedly part of his last will and testament, the book is as witty as we'd expect from the British author of the Rumpole series.
Born in 1923 to a barrister father and an artist mother, Mortimer is a successful barrister who published his first book in his twenties and was knighted in 1998. All of which suggests the scope of these essays, which are organized so loosely that it's a stretch to say it has a story line. Mortimer covers everything: little-known British laws, the value of listening, the inanity of political correctness, the insanity of war, the challenge of a writer's life and the question of God's existence.
Although he reveals only tidbits of his personal life, these are the warmest moments of the book: There's Mortimer in high school writing poetry while perched atop Lord Byron's grave at Harrow (both studied at the prestigious boys' school). There's Mortimer borrowing dialogue from his wife's diatribes for Hilda Rumpole's arguments with her fictional husband, Horace. There are even a few moments when the man behind the book is visible, as when Mortimer tries to explain the mystery of his creative processes: "Writing pulls down writing in a way that plans and treatments and synopses can never manage. . . . With any luck you may have the surprising pleasure of writing something which seemed unimportant at the time but turns out to be the very point, the axle on which the story turns."
An Old Joke
After he lost his job writing jokes for the David Letterman show, 28-year-old Rodney Rothman moved to Boca Raton, Fla., ostensibly to retire early but actually to write Early Bird (Simon & Schuster, $23), a record of his six months at the retirement community of Century Village. Chronicling everything from the history of Florida to the sleep habits of seniors, Rothman profiles several of his neighbors as he interweaves facts about aging, retirement communities and retirement lifestyles. Before the 20th century, Florida was hot, infested with mosquitoes and had few residents other than Native Americans. Then came Social Security in 1935, to be followed several years later by affordable home air conditioners and bug sprays. Beginning in the 1950s, retirees came to Florida at the rate of 1,000 per week for almost 30 years.
With its statistics and laugh-out-loud humor, the book feels more like a stand-up comedy routine with a sociological edge than a memoir. Rothman's seniors are gutsy, feisty, frugal and sometimes irritating, as when they awaken at 6 a.m. to begin waxing and washing their cars. (It isn't that the elderly need less sleep; it's that they have decreased levels of sleep hormones.) They also take advantage of the early-bird specials and eat dinner at 5 p.m. at restaurants like Bountiful Buffet. Some "potty mouth" retirees have a propensity for swearing; some are sexy -- even in their 80s; some, like his roommate, Margaret, break the rules (she has several cats and parrots in the condominium despite an ordinance against pets); some smoke pot (one is even a retired drug dealer); and some told Rothman this book was moronic.
Saved by Poetry
For Edmund Keeley, the award-winning translator of modern Greek poetry, World War II began in 1936 when he was 9 years old and a student in the German school in Salonika, Greece. As an American of German descent, Keeley was allowed to attend the prestigious school but not allowed to join the local Hitler Youth group. This, according to his coming-of-age memoir, Borderlines (White Pine, $18), was the first of Keeley's many lessons in being an outsider. Recounting his boyhood years as the son of the American consul, Keeley writes thoughtfully about crossing borders and trying to fit into a society that seemed foreign to him. No wonder he felt a kinship with Pip, the hero of Great Expectations.
Keeley moved from Greece to the United States, back to Greece and then to England, as World War II -- the Battle of the Bulge, V-E Day, the bombing of Hiroshima and V-J Day -- provided a backdrop. Spending his adolescence in Washington, D.C., he had his own personal struggles. He was assaulted by a gang and later was arrested for stealing and underage drinking. What ultimately saved him was his love for literature and romantic poetry. Those interests, which sprouted during Keeley's youth in Greece, were furthered at Princeton University and later Oxford, where Keeley studied contemporary Greek poetry. Keeley often takes too long to get to the point, but when he puts his youthful indiscretions into an adult perspective, he gives them depth and significance.
In Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe (Atlantic Monthly, $24), Andrew Meldrum goes to Zimbabwe to chronicle the growth of a newly formed democracy -- only to find himself fighting for his life. The story sounds like an adventure novel, but it isn't. Based on the news stories that Meldrum filed first as a freelance journalist, then as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian, the book is a gripping first-person account of life in Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2003.
Much of its sharp political edge is directed against Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, who wrested the country from Ian Smith and his white, British-backed regime. Mugabe tried to right the wrongs perpetrated by the earlier government, but as this book aptly shows, he did not succeed. His mismanagement, corruption and need to control caused critical shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies. Fearing he could not hold his power against his political foes, he turned the country into a police state. He brutally punished those who opposed him, including journalists who tried to tell the world what was happening, and that meant Meldrum.
Meldrum provides names, faces and photographs of the players involved, as well as some alarming statistics: As of 2000, Zimbabwe was tied with Botswana for the world's highest HIV-infection rate -- 35 percent of adults. But there was more. Inflation was running over 200 percent a year. Thousands living in rural areas were slaughtered. Thousands more starved, partly through neglect and partly because the government had seized and destroyed white-owned corporate farms. Ironically, Mugabe accomplished all this while promulgating the notion that his country was the model democracy for all of Africa. Meldrum was jailed and later expelled as an enemy of the state. His firsthand experience of the horrors adds a chilling authenticity to this account. *
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University and is editing an anthology of memoirs for the Helen Keller Foundation.