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O, Africa!

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A rollicking and ambitious novel that recalls Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime , O, Africa! follows two filmmakers on an unlikely journey, while exploring the complexities of race, class, sexuality, and success in early twentieth century America.
In the summer of 1928, twin brothers Micah and Izzy Grand are at the pinnacle of their movie-making careers. From their roots as sons of Brooklyn immigrants, they have risen to become kings of silent comedy – with the brash, bloviating Micah directing and calling the shots, while his retreating brother skillfully works behind the lens. But when Micah’s penchant for gambling, and his interracial affair with Rose, a sharp-witted, light-skinned black woman from Harlem, combine to threaten his livelihood and his life, he finds himself in need of a quick escape.
As the ascent of the talkies looms on the horizon, the brothers’ producer offers them an opportunity that couldn’t be better travel to Africa to compile stock footage of the exotic locales, as well as filming a new comedy in the jungle. Together with an unlikely crew of producers, stars and hangers-on, the Grands set out for Malwiki, where among the tribesmen they each discover unforeseen truths about themselves, their lovers, and the meaning of the movies.
Moving from the piers of Coney Island to Africa’s veld, and further to the glitter of early Hollywood, O, Africa! is an epic tale of self-discovery, the constraints of history and prejudice, and the stubborn resolve of family and friendship in the face of tragedy.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2014

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About the author

Andrew Lewis Conn

3 books10 followers
Andrew Lewis Conn is the author of P (Soft Skull Press, 2003) and O, AFRICA! (Hogarth/Crown 2014). He has written essays, short fiction, and reviews for The Believer, Film Comment, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and the Indiana Review, among others, and attended writers residencies at Yaddo and Ledig House in Hudson, NY. Conn’s debut novel, P, was chosen as a best book of the summer of 2003 by Salon, Time Out New York, The Oregonian, and Nerve; one of the best books of the year by the Village Voice and the Austin Chronicle; and long-listed as “one of the best books of the millennium (so far!)” by The Millions. A lifelong Brooklyner, Andrew lives in Park Slope with his wife, Kay, daughter, Alyth, and Marty the turtle.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 75 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
September 1, 2022
Point a camera at something, you change it.
Change is definitely in the air in the summer of 1928. With the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 the Grand brothers, silent-film director Micah, and his cameraman, partner and brother Izzy, might be feeling a bit of heat from the new kid on the block, the talkie. Their producer certainly is. Mired in debt and fearing for the future of his group’s stock in trade, he wants Micah and Iz to secure another foundation for their company. When he proposes that they go to Africa to create stock footage for sale to other companies, they are reluctant. But Micah has a bit of a problem with gambling, and really, really needs the money such a grand tour might generate.
The seed of the idea for O, Africa! came from an incident in the lives of the Korda brothers, who made several trips to Africa in the early period of moviemaking to create a vault of B-roll footage of the bush—an anecdote that immediately suggested to me a big, freewheeling book that could accommodate many of the themes that most interest me. - from KGB Bar interview
They do not get to Africa until about a hundred pages in, so there is a lot of local color to absorb. Historical figures, whether by reference or named overtly, are a large presence here. Babe Ruth pops by for a cameo in a film they are shooting in Coney Island. There are gangster sorts that seem lifted from the pages of Damon Runyon or Elmore Leonard. At least a few, such as Bumpy Johnson, and Stephanie St. Clair, are fictionalized versions of historical NYC baddies. The brothers’ leading man, Henry Till, is an avatar of silent film comedy star Harold Lloyd, complete with signature eyeglasses, and damaged hand.

Conn’s love for cinema shines through. O, Africa is a celebration of film-making and the characters involved, and includes a look at the first Oscars night. And while the characters may not always be the purest of the pure, they are certainly colorful. Micah, although married and a father, is a committed philanderer. But he is most heavily involved with a light-skinned black woman, Rose. Iz has complications of his own. He is so closeted that he makes his first appearance in O, Africa in a box. A dwarfs wrestles well beyond his stature, and a gangster has that most Hollywood of things to offer, a screenplay.

There is range in Conn’s tonality. There is a light touch in looking at the brothers’ lives in the beginning, but events take place that call for a much more serious approach, and the lightness floats away.
book cover
    Andrew Lewis Conn
Conn’s content (Conntent?) is considerable. He looks at a slew of minorities. Conn’s 1920s gangsters (with the trailing “er” intact) do not fit the usual image we have of tommy-gun-toting bank robbers and Prohibition-fueled thieves, killers and smugglers. These mobsters are black. And at least one member of that club has blasted away at the glass ceiling. He includes a dwarf director, a mixed race relationship and an adult gay virgin.
You have these different minority characters who are trying to find a way in, a way into the culture and, you know, it could be either through some sort of artistic endeavor or criminality. But the instinct is the same. It’s all trying to break through somehow. - from Momemt Mag interview
There is some powerful imagery. A dump site near the African village is particularly poignant. Subtlety does not always rule, however, as we are treated to a bludgeoning when it comes to interpreting a nightly film showing.

Sometimes, it seems that the author is trying too hard to sound substantive, and it comes across as stretching rather than insight. …heading west is an instinct, too. It has to do with mortality, catching the last light before it slips beyond the horizon. Such an impulse is as likely related to fleeing one’s creditors.

Conn’s eyes must need a rest after all the winking he does to the reader regarding references to future events. King Kong, black exploitation films, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Where’s Waldo, Cheech and Chong and the crash of 1929 stood out. There are doubtless many others. I found these to be distancing.

Occasionally, a bit of fact-checking or at least explanation seemed in order. An African village is reported to have a considerable number of bison horns on display. There are no bison in Africa. Ditto a reference to a local lemur. Lemurs exist in nature only in Madagascar and not on the African mainland.

So, what to make of all this? It is pretty clear that the author has put in a considerable amount of work to create O, Africa. There is much to enjoy in this book, and a fair bit to learn. Conn offers a Kavalier and Klay-like portrait of an early time in a particular art-form and in an era that is interesting, lively and enjoyable. But the literary legerdemain on display here, like that which is often displayed on screens large and small, did not succeed in creating that necessary reader-character magical bond for me. There were moments, for sure, when this or that character seemed to breathe an actual breath, but I never felt truly engaged for more than a spurt here and there. O, Africa is definitely worth a few hours of your time, as long as you are looking for more of an intellectually than emotionally satisfying read.

I received a copy of O, Africa! from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.

Review first posted – 8/8/14
Publication date – 6/10/14

This review has also been posted at Cootsreviews.com

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews – KGB Bar Lit Magazine and Moment Magazine
Profile Image for Jeff Buddle.
267 reviews11 followers
July 29, 2014
Andrew Lewis Conn tries too hard. He pretends that this is a historical novel, but gets so much wrong. He summons flights of words that say next to nothing. He piles up so many similes that the reader is crushed by comparisons. Characters never come to life, they move around cardboard landscapes and use cardboard dialogue. The prose has no rhythmic drive, it jumps and sputters and lacks purpose, waxing poetic in places and waning crude in others.

All this and the book is borderline racist. Not racist in the way that scene in "Duck Soup" is racist, because that was a product of its time, but racist in the contemporary, you-should-know-better sense. Conn grants his many of his American Black characters broken, tin-eared dialects. A main character's girlfriend is rendered as part magic Negro, part manic pixie dream girl. An African chieftain is little more than a noble savage. Shit, shit and shit.

I didn't just dislike this book. I literally flipped it off at one point and screamed at a paragraph for being so fucking stupid. Is this the state of literary fiction in 2014 America? God help us if it is.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,535 reviews9 followers
September 3, 2016
With an in-your-face style, the author takes us to Africa for some movie-making in 1928. Such an ambitious endeavor had never been undertaken in film making. The movie makers are twin brothers, Micah and Izzy Grand, and the two of them couldn’t be more unlike. These characters were extremely well-drawn and formulated. Micah lives life to its fullest extent and takes tremendous risks. It’s his doing that the trip to Africa becomes necessary, in order to pay off a large gambling debt. Izzy is the quiet, reserved one; the thinker behind the camera. I couldn’t help feeling empathy for each of them. The trip is an adventure, to say the least, and exciting to experience secondhand. The events that transpire there are tragic and life changing for the brothers, their crew, and the tribe they lived with and filmed.

I had some difficulty staying interested as the book progressed. There were some obvious attempts at humor, but I found this more sad than funny. Some may find the sex scenes rather offensive.

I received this book for free through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers.
Profile Image for Chris Blocker.
698 reviews161 followers
February 10, 2014
I'm not funny and I don't find too many things funny. So when I got an advance copy of O, Africa! and read the praises of other authors, I was hesitant to go further. “Hilarious,” declares Gary Shteyngart. “A wise, irresistible comedy,” says Mary-Beth Hughes. “One of the funniest . . . books I've read,” echoes Paul La Farge. Even before I started reading, I knew that the little bit of humor I possessed wouldn't find the humor in this story. And what's funny is, that this was true, but I still loved the novel.

Truthfully, I didn't get what was so funny about O, Africa!. There were a few lines and witticisms that I found slightly humorous, but overall this novel didn't seem intended to be funny. Maybe I'm not supposed to say this, because clearly the publisher is targeting a different audience, but I thought the book was rather tragic and moving. It's more of a love story about the movie industry, a heartbreaking journey of self-discovery, than the slapstick comedy some readers may anticipate.

Andrew Lewis Conn shows great skill in this novel. The characters were fabulous and well-drawn. They're not necessarily likable, and some of their actions may lead more conscientious readers to toss the book into the trash, but they propel the story nicely. The story itself builds wonderful momentum and is paced perfectly until the final chapters—I found the end a bit rushed, but that is a common problem in novels, especially when the reader is engaged in the story and doesn't want it to end. There's also this whole pot-smoking, thugs-doing-an-impromptu-musical scene I didn't quite get, but it's a brief moment and my “not getting it” probably has more to do with my aforementioned lack of humor than with the writer's lack of discernment.

I won't be surprised to find O, Africa! on some of the best-of lists of 2014. It is intelligent, moving, and original. Some might say it's funny, and I won't argue with them, but for those like myself, it's much more than “a funny book.”
Profile Image for Carol.
1,636 reviews22 followers
January 13, 2014
Looks like I am the lone dissenter. I have read many reviews praising this book for its ingenious comedy. I started reading O, Africa by Andrew Lewis Coon yesterday. I gave it 100 pages and then started skimming it. It was so painful for me to read it word by word.

It is about two twin brothers, Micha and Izzy. Micha is a gambler, a liar, loves to be in the spotlight, and does very inappropriate things like masturbating at his own bar mitzvah. The list of shocking things that he does is endless and too graphic for me. He had no respect for women or people of different races. This is humor? I didn’t like this book.

His brother Izzy was an opposite of Micah. He likes to be behind the scenes, getting the best shots. Unlike Micha, he studied hard in school; he was responsible and never did anything to get into trouble. He spent his life worrying about his brother.

The two hated Charlie Chaplin and loved Henry Till. Henry Till is a thin disguise for one of my favorite silent movie comic actors. You know the one with the big dark farmed glasses and did stunts like hanging from the hands of a clock.

A big portion of this book is written in third person which I believe puts a lot of distance between the reader and the characters. But even worse, I felt offended over and over again.

What did I like about this book? The time period and the top of the silent movie makers are what attracted me in the first place. That is why I picked that book, that and it got good reviews for its comedy.
I will not recommend book but you may like. We may have different reactions.

I received this book as a win from Library Thing but that in no way influenced my thoughts or feelings expressed in my review.

202 reviews
October 13, 2015
Despite the prominently displayed acclaim for this novel, a project that in its pre-published manifestation had already achieved the lofty goal of recognition as a successful work of literary fiction as it were, I wasn't prepared for the freight train of quality Andrew Lewis Conn sent directly readers' way with this thing. Reading O Africa! has made a tremendous impact on me. Although I am no gambling woman and so will not make absolute predictions, I think I've probably read one of the best novels to be published in 2014 before the year has actually begun.

Superlative and all other comparisons aside, O Africa!: A Novel is nothing more and nothing less than a beautifully realized story of intellectual depth and palpable soul that includes as its central theme the challenging, multi-dimensional nature of perspective in the creation and interpretation of narrative art itself. This Andrew Lewis Conn guy is nothing if not ambitious!

A key element that distinguishes this novel as a great book is the light, easily digestible, yet richly evocative prose which is a unique enough pleasure in and of itself without the presence of other features which render this type of read a downright bizarre find in this novel, according to my mind. Firstly, given the aforementioned theme, one can expect some notable navelgazing of the artist protagonists in the substance of the story as well as various signs of the entanglement of the author's writing process with our experience as readers interpreting the text. I would expect this kind of work, if successful, to be very textually rich but inevitably somewhat unwieldy as a read with some stagnation at different points in the plot.

Instead, I found the narrative to be light, beautiful, effervescent, organic in its transitions and incorporation of various stylistic elements, innovatively engaged in reverent dialogue with a living literary tradition, steadily flowing and never stagnating. All in all, it was an oddly brisk (and briskly odd) read. I cannot recommend this book more highly -- enjoy!

Please be advised I received my copy of this book for free as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
Profile Image for Laurel.
443 reviews18 followers
July 9, 2014
Sometimes I think it’s a disservice when a new novel is compared in reviews to previous books that received high acclaim. I fear this is true of Andrew Lewis Conn’s O’ Africa! It’s been compared to E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Ragtime won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, was named one of the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and by Time Magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923-2005. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. I loved both of these books. That’s not to say, everyone did, but to say O, Africa is like these two titans is a pretty steep comparison to make.

Perhaps it was made because the book is peopled with real-life characters, such as the novels mentioned above. They all have similar time frames, the majority of the action in each book takes place in New York, ties to Eastern Europe or trips to other worlds, e.g. the North Pole, Antarctica, Africa, sexual identity crises, and racial discrimination are noticeable in all. They are all sweeping, historical novels of turbulent times.

But O, Africa disappoints. It could have been so much more. The story is there, but just on the surface. The beginning didn’t hold my interest, but there were some village scenes in Africa that gave some depth and character to the story. The characters of King Mishi, the guide Mtbi (although his part does get short shrift), and Rosa, I felt, had the most meaningful lines in the book. Early, Rosa’s brother, also could have been a better-developed character. The scene at the end, with him and Izzy, saddened me.

Finally, I found myself distracted by the author’s extensive use of metaphors. He particularly loves similes. About halfway through the book, I was tempted to get a highlighter to mark each one, but I feared it would have been a further distraction.

I wish O, Africa would have had more muntu.
Profile Image for Nancy.
315 reviews
March 14, 2014
Oh how I wish we could give 1/2 stars! This novel rates as 3 1/2 stars....not quite 4 but definitely better than a 3.

O, Africa is a historical fiction novel set during the final days of silent films. The author intertwines the story of Micah and Izzy Grand with real life celebrities from that era.

O, Africa has many complexities swirling around in its' narrative. Love, race, class, finding oneself, sacrifice, death, it's all in there told in prolific and sensual prose by author Andrew Lewis Conn. Mr. Conn brings to life Africa and and succinctly conveys the emotional upheavals experienced by the two brothers.

In addition to the deep and dramatic personas of Micah and Izzy you have Micha's mistress Rose who is of mixed heritage; various thugs and hoodlums, a King and a Prince. All characters are deftly portrayed and add to the erudite beauty of the novel.

An enjoyable novel. Not quite humorous as it is being touted but literary in its' language.

Profile Image for Reka Beezy.
883 reviews31 followers
January 5, 2015
**I received this ARC through a GoodReads contest**

One-Sentence Summary: Micah and Izzy Grand are high-rollers in the moviemaking business, but a series of mistakes—involving gangsters, mistresses, debt—lead them both to the last place either of them want to be: Africa.

Time/Setting: Late 1920s New York, California, and Congo, Africa

Review: From the book’s description I thought I was going to be reading a satirical comedy about Africa as seen through the eyes of two moviemaking brothers; this book wasn’t funny at all. I don’t think I laughed once. Ok, I may have let out a huff or two at a few sentences, but I hardly consider that to be any real sense of mirth, don’t you agree? I thought this book was sad, really. There were no real redeeming qualities in any of the characters. I thought Izzy was whiny, Micah was self-indulgent to the extreme; both of them was self-destructive, just on different levels. Izzy’s was in a quiet, pent up sort of way; Micah’s was loud, grandiose, and far reaching. Micah probably got on my nerves the most. His affair with Rose just sickened me. I hated the two of them together; no good could come of it, especially not for her. I didn’t appreciate the way the author wrote. I get it: he’s smart and he knows a lot of big words; I just don’t think it fit. I must also admit that I’m not a fan of bodily functions, and I swear every two pages he was talking was talking about excrements and other vile notions. It just made me sick to my stomach. I honestly don’t even know why I read it all the way to the end. I guess I wanted to see if they became better: they didn’t.

Favorite Character: Didn’t have one. I guess the most likeable character is Mtabi, but he was so secondary, does he even qualify? Oscar was ok.

Least Favorite Character: So many to choose from…I guess I hated Micah the most.

Favorite Quote: Finding a quote was hard, nothing seemed to appeal to me. Then Micah thought this about Rose and I don’t think a girl would mind being thought of as such: “She was the cool side of the pillow. The sugary milk left at the bottom of the cereal bowl.”

**Please note that this quote came from an uncorrected proof, and as such, the words and ideas contained within the final version may be altered.**

Recommend? No.

Re-read? Never.
Profile Image for Kim McGee.
3,042 reviews68 followers
July 12, 2014
What is a very original look at early filmmakers in Hollywood and New York is overshadowed by a strange romance between one brother and an African prince and the other brother and his mistress. Micah and Izzy Grand are filmmakers of the best silent comedies around until they must move their filming to Africa to run away from repaying gambling debts. Personalities such as Babe Ruth and Duke Ellington feature in this "Grand" adventure that takes the twins from the states to Malwiki to get actual African footage and shoot their next feature film. A spirited dwarf, Buster Keaton style actor, and crew join the twins in what turns out to be a more dangerous and enlightening experience than they bargained for.
You will run the full gambit of emotions as the brothers try to dodge gangsters, meddling movie producers, King Mishi and an irritated lion. Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy.
Profile Image for Joseph Longo.
223 reviews5 followers
November 17, 2014
I was looking forward to reading this book about a film crew that goes into Africa in the early years of the motion picture industry. But I couldn't really care about the characters, and I didn't like that plodding, seemingly self-conscious writing style. I abandoned the book less than halfway through it.
Profile Image for Susan.
812 reviews14 followers
April 1, 2014
No humor, shallow and unlikeable characters, it was hard to even make it to page 100 (which I had to skim a lot to get to). Cannot finish it, life is too short to read pretentious overly descriptive pages that go on and on with no end in sight.
213 reviews7 followers
July 14, 2015
It seems that this could of been a good book,had the author chose not to put in so much filth and filthy talking,very explictive in sexual nature,more like bad porn of nature talking and descriptions.This book did not need all of that.
155 reviews1 follower
November 8, 2014
I couln't read than seventyfive pages of this book. The words just didn't flow with any kind of rhythm. The author seems to be determined to constantly impress the reader by choosing words that demonstrate his large vocabulary.
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 13 books4 followers
October 20, 2014

Africa? Says Rose, lying naked on her side, the copper penny smell of semen flowering fragrant in the room. “What do you know about Africa?

O, AFRICA! is not a quick read. It is not a page-turner. Nor is it really an historical novel. What it is, is a fine book, an almost fully realized book.

To whom do I recommend O, AFRICA! First, Lovers of Lovers and doomed romances. Then, lovers of fiction, rich prose, and stylistic twists, turns and caresses. If you like magic tricks, trompe l’oeil, or are a Cinephile, a master or student of media, or if you believes the imagination should be allowed to run wild, go out today and order or pick up this book.

O, AFRICA! is a book that offers many gifts. Gifts such as an introduction to a dozen memorable, multidimensional characters. Gifts like a complex plot, which is sometimes as easy to follow as the path from the entrance to the exit of an amusement park, and, sometimes, when the mood shifts, to a depth of feeling that one experiences visiting hallowed ground. Gifts by a man who loves language, and who understands the connotative, denotative and unpredictable, unreliable, unfaithful meanings of words. Conn is as able to create fabulous Rube Goldberg fabrications with strings of sentences, as he can use words with the delicacy and precision of a surgeon, scalpel raised.

Flat as Nebraskan badlands, for miles and miles the dahtkam stretched. As Mtabi described, the territory is a trash heap, a repository, a junkyard, a world of things made, unmade, an underworld living on the very surface of the village. Scattered across this Whitman’s Sampler of things unloved and unnecessary are stacks of tablets with outmoded stories from yesteryear; idols usurped by shinier, more brilliant gods; broken brooms and unraveled mats; punctured water bottles and leaky pots; grubby furnishings, bedding, and birth mats; heaps of smashed and irregularly shaped beads and ornaments; cracked flutes, crushed drums, and busted string instruments that look like undiscovered letters of the alphabet.

In O, AFRICA! we meet the brothers Grand, Micah and Isidore (Izzy), twin sons of an indulgent, Eastern European Jewish Doctor, whose grip on the old world loosened along with his grip on his sons. Twins to the glancing eye, but as O, AFRICA! shows, the eye may be the least reliable of organs. Micah is east to Izzy’s west, wet to his brother’s dry, gut to Izzy’s eye. Think of the brothers as a Coney Island fun house reflections of each other.

Cinephiles since boyhood—struck by the beauties and horrors of BIRTH OF A NATION—the boys graduate into the silent film industry. Extroverted Micah, a wunderkind director, introverted Izzy, the ace cameraman. Taken in hand, mentored and fathered by massive Arthur Marblestone, President of Imperial Pictures, and described by Conn as “equal parts Falstaff and Shylock.” The boys have gone a long way from Brooklyn, but neither brother anticipates the distances they’ll travel, from “darkest Africa” to the dark night of the soul and then back again.

Along the way Conn, investigates major themes of 20th-century America. In particular, the perceived and often necessary need to assimilate. He compares the relative ease with which Jews might cross into the mainstream with the impossibility of Blacks really passing, let alone being welcomed into society. He acknowledges the open and closed life of gay men, the irony of Izzy the eye, being invisible, with desires that can be satisfied only in the dark.

So secrets abound: from Izzy’s closeted existence and the mask-wearing, shape-shifting American Blacks, to Micah’s attempts not only to live in, but also dominate, parallel worlds—Fifth Avenue, Hollywood, Harlem. But Conn shows no secrets can be kept: Whether it’s Rose, Micah’s beautiful High Yellow lover, learning she can’t step out in the sun, or the fact that Micah and Izzy will die Grombatzs and not Grand. 1920s “America the Beautiful” is inching toward deserving that cognomen, but She “..has miles to go before She sleeps.”

In the book, true loves are thwarted, trains leave the station just as you arrive, champagne loses its pop, and the Brothers with one foot in the present and another in the past are punished for their sins of commission and sins of omission. Conns’ generosity is such they land on their feet, but not before he gives them a little taste of Hell.

A gambling debt to Harlem gangsters, occurring simultaneously with Marblestone’s order for the Brothers to shoot lions and tigers for B-Roll and stock photography, leads them to a God-forsaken village in Central Africa, which the boys, at first, think can be managed as easily as a studio back lot, and actors wearing black face. The boys and their crew include their comedic star, Henry Till, described by Conn whose passion for film rivals his love of fiction:

If Henry Till displayed neither the precision-instrument bearing of Keaton nor the poetic lyricism of Chaplin, neither could he be counted as one of the goons and grotesques supporting the comic pantheon’s second tier, baby beasts like Fatty Arbuckle and Harry Langdon. The secret of Till’s appeal was his very ordinariness.

Conn also uses O, AFRICA! to deliver a “Film 101” course to his readers. History, both in the form of a mockumentary, and in detailed descriptions of the camera, the lens, the mechanics and the men who use them to improve on or distort reality. Conn is conversant with Marshall McLuhan and Susan Sontag and a host of media and film theorists.

Other members of their party include: Oscar Spiros, a pugnacious dwarf brought up in a perverse Coney Island universe featuring an all-dwarf society, an alcoholic American scriptwriter/doctor, one real African—the thoughtful and reliable guide, Mtabi, who literally saves the show. They are aided and abetted in their adventures and misadventures by a gaggle of dubious entrepreneurs and cunning survivors.

Together they entered Africa and left death and devastation behind. Nothing was as they expected, nothing quite worked out, yet they found strength and wisdom in ill-fated King Mishi; love in his star-crossed son, Cri. They came to conquer and left vanquished. Compelled to return, they arrived broken and left reborn.

The novel is more complex than this, starting with the fact that O, AFRICA!, the book, takes its name from the title of a film conceived and written by two of Conn's Black gangsters. In payment for Micah's debt, they want the Brothers to make their film, which will tell the "true" history of African Americans. O, AFRICA is a lament, an exclamation, a moan that accompanies an orgasm, a cry that announces a birth. Told by Conn, it all comes together with no mere sleight of hand. The tale is the tale, and the tale is the thing. Whether Conn pulls his punches, or throws a roundhouse, they land.

Conn does miss on occasion; after all, he aims high. What he describes as “The first Academy Awards musical number,” featuring fearsome Harlem thugs, falls flat, while an unpleasant encounter with an unfortunate Colonel Blimp in London fails as either history or caricature. The scene yanks the Grand Brothers out of character. For a moment, Conn breaks the spell he cast.

But these are minor blips, found in the best novels and films. His instincts alert, Conn quickly puts the reader back on track, a track that continues to gain momentum until it touches the horizon and his story is told. Like the collective dream the Grand Brothers gave their audience, Conn promised and delivered a spectacular, if uncanny dream to his readers:

The three of them stand and watch the projector booth’s beam cleave the dark, light baptizing the audience, whirring machinery music, the sound of memory itself. … They would never grow tired of this processing of enchantment: a lightstorm of imagery flooding from behind that unearths the hidden and unimagined as from an archaeological dig.
Profile Image for Jackson Coppley.
Author 11 books49 followers
October 23, 2017
O, Africa! is a fine read for those who enjoy a light story propelled by an author’s adept word play. It compare’s well with one of my favorites, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. Both are historical fiction, perhaps playing it loose with the history, but tight on the clever wordsmithing.

The story is about making movies in the late ‘20s at the twilight of the silent era. The Grand brothers, Izzy the introspective cameraman, and Micah, the director and rogue, are making a comedy at Coney Island that landed a cameo from non other than Babe Ruth. While there, their studio head Marblestone lets the brothers know the studio is near financial ruin. His solution? Get the boys to deepest darkest Africa to shoot a sampler of natives, animals, and general background to sell to other studios to add authenticity to their movies unattainable in back lots.

As the boys buy into the idea, Micah is visited by Harlem mobsters to whom he owes sizable gambling debts. Just so happens one of these hoods wrote a screenplay called O Africa. The movie idea is a noble attempt to portray the struggle of the black man from Africa slavery to present America. Make this movie in Africa, give the hoods the proceeds from the final product, and the debt is forgiven. That some hoods wrote such a script and make this offer begins the suspension of disbelief you must have for this story. It borders on the surreal as you progress.

Andrew Lewis Conn wrote O Africa at a writer’s retreat. Some might say it shows. The metaphors make a stew of many ingredients, not to everyone’s taste. ‘Just how descriptive can I be?’ the author might think while reading the latest rendition to his writing colleagues. No matter. They all make me smile.
Profile Image for Tony Laplume.
Author 47 books34 followers
March 9, 2019
A minor window into early Hollywood, Conn's O, Africa! is at best undeveloped, at worst misguided, and generally a book version of a movie version of the times the author sought to explore. If that makes any sense.

Conn's sensibilities range from religious (the art of filmmaking) to inauthentic (his attempts to capture any of the relationships he explores), so you can begin to see where his knowledge and abilities rest. The end result is one of those beasts you can't imagine really slipped by all those people authors like to thank at the end of such books. Either they were being overly generous with a friend, or Conn chose all the wrong consultants (or both). Either way, most of this could've been fixed, could've grasped what it so desperately wanted to be (some sort of distant mirror, as Barbara Tuchman would have it). Instead the results read like an undercooked attempt to talk about the present while dithering about the past. It is neither artistic in style nor insightful in its winking nods at things to come (Conn's biggest gamble is attempting to frame everything as a kind of precursor to King Kong, which itself, if ever truly conceived as such, is equally problematic in allegory), and tiresome in commenting on things we know about what was to come (the dawn of "talkies," the Academy Awards). If Conn had bothered for a moment to acknowledge what he instead endlessly suggested, without distinction, both the story and the reader would've been better satisfied.

Instead, O, Africa is just another self-satisfied piece of fluff, and all the poorer for it. If you want to revisit Kong, read David Maine's Monster, 1959. If you want a true master of revisiting the past in this fashion, read Jerome Charyn.
Profile Image for Valerie.
898 reviews20 followers
March 10, 2018
I read this book for the 2018 ATY Challenge Week 12: A book set in South America or Africa.

In reading what others said about this book, I was not hopeful about finding any enjoyment. However, once I decided that this was a man's book as opposed to chick-lit, I found much about it to enjoy. Those who had a hard time with the blatant sexual descriptions in the book were women. We women like our sexual description to be more subtle and titillating and not so graphic and crass. But for a men's book, I think what is described is what has been lived and imagined by men. However, the book does not turn on the sex, in fact, it could be left out completely. The book turns on wonderful phrases and descriptions of life in the early days of the movies, of life in the 1920s, and of the life of two young men in the film industry. Mr. Conn is a master of the language. One example that caught my eye toward the end of the book: The muscles in his sleeveless t-shirt are better defined yet also show the atrophy and indifference of having settled into repetitive, dull work, of belonging to a body that's prematurely resigned itself to failure. Such pictures he paints. The best are of the filming in Africa of the beginnings of the enslavement of African people before they are brought to America. Its a book with many stories, mostly from the point of view of Micah, but also from Izzy's perspective. It is about times of their lives from within their hearts.
Profile Image for Danielle.
296 reviews2 followers
August 22, 2017
I won this several years ago as part of Goodreads Giveaway and am sorry it took so long to get around to it. I found the prose conmplemented the story and characters quite well. I enjoyed the journey very much so. :)
Profile Image for Patty Simpson.
269 reviews3 followers
September 18, 2017
It's really 2.5 stars, not 3. He uses language well, but doesn't ensure that it serves his story. The book tries to be more than it is, in the end. I have hope that the writer will hone his skills and eventually write something really good.
Profile Image for Bob.
446 reviews13 followers
October 1, 2017
After quitting on this book after 35 pages, I went to read the reviews and was amazed at the people who gave it 100 pages or more before giving up on it. For them to stay with this jumble of off-on-many-tangents bit of writing was heroic. Wish I could have given no stars.
Profile Image for Ellen Coppley.
7 reviews1 follower
October 4, 2017
I loved this book. Yes, it is full of metaphors, big words and lengthy descriptions, but I enjoyed the pictures they portrayed and the extraordinary writing. A grand adventure with a number of important messages.
Profile Image for Scott.
401 reviews4 followers
January 31, 2015
Andrew Lewis Conn's "O, Africa!" will be adored by many, as it is a whimsical, lilting comedy set in the pell-mell movie world of the late 1920s. Two brothers, Micah and Izzy, collaborate as filmmakers for a famous-but-soon-to-be-bankrupt studio, and they are sent to Africa to engage in some profit-seeking on-location shooting. Through a twist of fate, their African excursion is high-jacked by a Harlem crime lord who gives them an additional script to shoot while there. That movie is "O, Africa!" - the story of America's rape of the African people.

It must be said that Conn writes beautifully - his sentences are spinning, lilting affairs. If this were an audio book, you could find no better narrator than the late, great William Powell of "The Thin Man" movies and "My Man Godfrey." Conn is in love with words, uses them well, and yet keeps his sentences under control. He's also got a good ear for a joke, as the book is stuffed with them - although I did find some obvious pillaging Conn has made of other sources - he shamelessly repurposes Humphrey Bogart's classic joke from "Casablanca" when he explains that he came to Casablanca for the waters and "I was misinformed." Conn also lifts jokes from the reader's familiarity with the King Kong story and several other obvious sources - he's still funny, but at times he's willing to use others' humor in place of his own.

Conn's characters are a crazy bunch, each given a full set of goals, ambitions, talents and flaws. If this book were to have a title song, it would be "As We Stumble Along" from "The Drowsy Chaperone." This is a bunch of relatively decent people, each good in their own way, hardly trying to create problems for others and yet causing havoc nearly everywhere they go. This is not slapstick a slapstick comedy (except in a couple of key parts), but instead a very human comedy that explores what it means to be transgressive. Harlem crime lords just want to be filmmakers, while filmmakers aren't afraid to be criminals. Love is transgressive - Micah is married but gives his heart to an African-American employee at the film studio at a time when Jews and African-Americans could not hold hands in public. Izzy is a "twist," in his brother's parlance, whose life of tortured solitude finds glorious release at the hands of an African prince. And an African king - a classic archetype of the Noble Savage - turns out to be a more cosmopolitan, worldly man than any of the Westerners who want to film in his country.

And yet, for me, "O, Africa!" is less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it is because Micah and Izzy are poor protagonists. Micah is so self-centered that I really never cared what happened to him, and while Izzy has his charms and is extremely sympathetic, he is such a second fiddle to his brother than he cannot drive the story - I admit that I was happy for Izzy to find himself in Africa, but I can't say that Izzy's story captivated me all that much). Oh well - this is probably just me not appreciating something that is actually very good. Sometimes this happens - I confess that I never understood all the praise that Jack Lemmon got as an actor, but film professionals rave about him. (The only movie where I enjoyed his performance was "Grumpy Old Men," which is hardly at the top of his body of work according to the critics.)

Perhaps I shouldn't be reading a light comedy like this during the dreary winter months of the Pacific Northwest. I'll give this another shot this summer and see if the more cheerful weather makes this a better read.
Profile Image for Terri.
291 reviews2 followers
September 22, 2014
I received an advance copy of O, Africa in a LibraryThing giveaway.

Do you ever read a book and feel like maybe you're not getting it, or it's just not for you, or you're reading it at the wrong time and maybe if you read it some other time you'd like it more? I felt that way quite a lot as I read O, Africa!

Marketing for the book describes it thus: "Moving from the piers of Coney Island to Africa’s veldt, and further to the glitter of early Hollywood, O, AFRICA! is an epic tale of self-discovery, the constraints of history and prejudice, and the stubborn resolve of family and friendship in the face of tragedy." Quotes on the back cover call it a comedy.

What to make of this book? As I read it, I felt like the tone kept shifting. One minute it was stylized nostalgia (a bit fluffy and cartoonish), the next it was raw and dark, then it was a sort of ugly and off-putting comedy, and then it was pulling away to make bigger philosophical statements—some more profound than others. It certainly is, as the marketing promises, an ambitious novel, and I can see it engendering good conversation among readers. Still, I can't quite say that I enjoyed it.

That the brothers' fascination with movie making is sparked by D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is huge. You could say that they are in some ways trapped by the views of their time, and the book ends with the statement that the brothers "try to forgive themselves at last for being in concord with their era," but the sexism and racism in the book still make me uncomfortable. I have read plenty of books in which characters experience sexism and racism. I think the problem here is that the author's own voice paints characters and situations in sexist and racist ways.

A lot can be forgiven when a book has great characters. Unfortunately, I couldn't really like any of the characters in O, Africa! Maybe I would like them more if they were drawn with greater depth and subtlety. Even the most appealing among them, like King Mishi, aren't quite successful because they feel like caricatures. Intimate relationships among characters are developed mostly in terms of sex and power, and the reader doesn't see much beyond that.

Admittedly, some bits (for example: Micah raving that he’s been “subjected to a hot shave,” or thugs busting out in what is essentially a song and dance number) are funny—if sometimes ludicrous and/or offensive. But when one character says, "When audiences laugh, it's never wrong,” I have a feeling the author is acknowledging that sometimes maybe it IS wrong.

The book does make some fine if not earth-shattering comments on the dangers of cultural imposition and the expanded reach of powerful media and new technologies. I appreciate the points about the nature of film and time, and despite one plot element that I found hokey, I was satisfied with the ending.

So, final analysis? There’s a lot to chew on, but it doesn't always taste very good.
Profile Image for Hilary.
133 reviews34 followers
June 9, 2014
Copy received through Goodreads’ First Reads program.

The most notable upside of this book - its intoxicating energy and ebullience - also makes it nearly impossible to define or describe, as it takes on more concepts and themes than you can shake a stick at, even if you’re pretty well known in your community for your stick-shaking skills. The basic story follows the travails of Micah and Izzy Grand, two moderately successful silent moviemakers beginning in 1928, as their careers are threatened on numerous fronts: by that damned Jolson and his talking picture, The Jazz Singer, the dire financial straits of their studio, and Micah’s massive gambling debts owed to local gangsters. A potential solution to the latter problems arises in the form of a trip to Africa, where the Grands can shoot random footage and b-roll of the continent to sell to other movies, work on another picture of their own, and a second picture written by the men Micah owes money to. Like many last-ditch efforts to pay off massive debts, the trip goes awry, with huge implications for everyone involved.

This would be more than enough for a novel by itself, as Conn’s descriptions of early Hollywood are fascinating, beginning with a scene on location at Coney Island with a Babe Ruth cameo and an actor named Henry Till, a thinly fictionalized version of my favorite silent film actor, Harold Lloyd. (To name but a few obvious parallels, Till is famed for his “glasses” character, had part of his hand blown off by a smoke bomb, and famously hung from a clock in a movie). Allying the Grands with a fictional Harold Lloyd made me love this book immediately, and Conn’s prose, which is ornate without losing any clarity, kept me hooked. (A sample sentence: “Home: that warmest, most sentimental, most commodious of words, but not one without its broken windows, damp cellars, busted boilers, creepy attics, and dead cats.”) It had the kind of plot I wanted to race through to find out what happens next (particularly in the second half of the novel, which I found quite unputdownable or at least I-can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-this-able) combined with the kind of prose I had to read slowly enough to savor it properly.

Not content with this ample framework, however, Conn branches out, incorporating insights on America, race, class, love, homosexuality, sex, Judaism, the role of popular culture and the effect it has on other cultures, and numerous other topics, which are more interesting to read about than they sound in that sentence. It is, as the promotional description above states, both rollicking and ambitious, and well-crafted, original, and damned exciting to boot.
Profile Image for Leila.
278 reviews
May 13, 2014
Andrew Lewis Conn’s “O Africa! A Novel,” to be released on June 10, 2014, is an unusual book, by turns fascinating and frustrating. Marketed as a rollicking comic adventure, it veers from slapstick humor to deep tragedy. At times, this seemed a book uncertain of its own identity.

Twin movie-making brothers Micah and Izzy Grand are masters of silent era comedies at a time when “talkie” movies threaten to revolutionize the business. We meet the Brothers Grand in the summer of 1928, filming a typical slapstick comedy on Coney Island. After a rather implausible set of circumstances involving a debt to Harlem gamblers, the brothers and their motley crew of associates embark on a trip to Africa to film several projects, including a silly farce and a serious movie on the history of slavery meant as an answer to the racist “Birth of a Nation.” As Conn writes, “Here they were, a gallery of misfits—a black kid, a Jew fairy, and a circus freak—halfway around the world, pulling levers on the American culture machine.” During their life-changing experiences among an isolated African tribe, Micah and Izzy discover things about themselves, and learn lessons about the power of movies and, most importantly, the power of love.

“O Africa!” is often entertaining and proves oddly moving at its conclusion. Throughout, Conn demonstrates great affection for the era of silent movies, and the novel comes fully alive during scenes about film-making, both as an art form and a business. I especially enjoyed the clever set piece about the first Academy Awards, which even includes an amusing story about the origin of the trophy’s nickname as an “Oscar.”

The plot is absurd, outlandishly so at times. I’m always willing to suspend my disbelief as a reader—up to a point--but this was perhaps too over-the-top. The novel shifts in tone rather abruptly from a madcap romp to a much darker, sometimes even raw and disturbing, tale. This felt disconcerting and left me struggling to understand the author’s ultimate intent. Some characters in this novel are fully drawn, while others seem merely caricature, even cartoonish.

The premise for the novel seemed very intriguing and attractive, but I don’t think this book quite lives up to its promise. Overall, “O Africa!” is an uneven read.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Arlena.
3,232 reviews1 follower
March 22, 2014
Title: O, Africa!
Author: Andrew Lewis Conn
Publisher: Hogarth
Reviewed By: Arlena Dean
Rating: 4

"O, Africa" by Andrew Lewis Conn was really some historical read that brought it all out in one way or the other...being 'offensive, a little bit funny and oh so very heart breaking' at times. Now, you may ask yourself how can one book do all of that? We find from the read two twin brothers ..Izzy and Micah Grand who were prominent filmmakers and definitely opposites in the 1920's where we can see from the read that this author will intertwine the twins story with real life celebrities of that time. We find Micah is a gambler, liar and loves the spotlight and Izzy is a behind the scene kind of guy, studied hard in school and was responsible and never getting into trouble unlike his twin.

"This story was of two filmmakers who go from immigrants living in Brooklyn to being the kings of silent comedies in the summer of 1928, the height of their film making careers. Micah is the producer/director of their films, while Izzy is the master of the camera who always gets the good shots. When Micah gets into some trouble, the brothers agree to go to Africa to film there."

Be ready for a read of 'love, race, class, finding oneself, sacrifice and death' that will even convey some 'emotional upheavals' that these twins will face. This author will take the Grand's from 'Coney Island' to Africa and back giving us a real long epic story with many complexities that will give the reader a true roller coaster ride through this adventure. I wasn't to sure I like how the sexism and racism was handled in the read, for this definitely made me a little uncomfortable. As for the characters most were well drawn and developed but their were a few I definitely didn't care for at all. In the end "O, Africa" seemed a bit rushed but oh well it had been a long read and had to come to an end sometime.

If you are looking for a novel of self discovery of various relationships then this historical read "O Africa" would definitely be recommended to you.
Profile Image for Sandie.
1,460 reviews19 followers
November 3, 2014
The year is 1928, and the Grand brothers are at the peak of their movie-making careers in silent films, although there is trouble on the horizon with the ever-increasing number of talkies being made. Micah is the idea man; extroverted, full of vision, always looking to cut a deal. He serves as the movies' director. His twin, Izzy, is his opposite. He works behind the scenes, cutting and splicing the scenes together to use film to create a story. He is shy, socially awkward and gay, none of which encourages him to move into the limelight.

Their producer, outside of insisting talkies are just a fad, has other business failings and soon the company is on the verge of collapse. The producer, Marblestone, has an idea. He'll send the Grand brothers to Africa to film their latest silent comedy and while they are there, they can shoot film stock he can sell to other companies to avoid bankruptcy. The brothers aren't interested, but when Micah gets himself into trouble trying to bamboozle a set of Harlem gambling crime lords, they decide maybe Africa is the place to be.

The brothers discover many things about themselves in Africa. In addition to the silent comedy, they shoot footage of a script given to them by the gamblers that shows the capture and migration of Africans to be slaves in America. Micah is drawn to the king of the village they go to, and spends his time learning from him. Izzy falls in love and is loved back, a stupendous discovery that is life-altering. Their idyll is ended with a tragedy, and the brothers are left to return to America and attempt to pick back up the pieces of their lives.

Andrew Lewis Conn has written a sprawling novel that explores the worlds of silent film-making, the heady, early days of Hollywood, the issues of racial prejudice, the validity of marriage and love relationships, gender inequality, the lives of Africans in the time period and how they differed from African Americans as well as the messages we learn about ourselves while viewing films. The characters are interesting and unique and the reader turns the last page with much to ponder. This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.
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