April 10, 2009

The Jesse Review of Books

No matter how deeply enmeshed I become in life here, the reality remains that I am an outsider in this community. So no matter how much I try to do and how involved I become in life here, I still have loads of time to myself and end up using a lot of it for reading, in the hammock, on the couch, while eating, before bed, anywhere, really.

Someone once told me about a friend whose Christmas letter every year is an annotated list of books he’d read that year. It struck me as such a good idea I’ve adopted it as my own. Herewith, a partial list of some of the books I’ve read since arriving in South Africa. If it seems like I am mostly laudatory in my reviews, it’s because I cut out the ones I didn’t like.

Send me your feedback and especially your suggestions!

Books about Africa

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela - It looks intimidatingly long but once you get going, you are so swept into the story it goes quickly. Mandela is so modest at times you need to read other accounts of the time to get a full sense of the genius of his leadership.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller - Written by a graduate of my alma mater, Acadia University, this is a beautifully-written account of life in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe during the civil war there. I can’t think of many other descriptions of the life of white Africans that are as good as this. The life she describes is hard and tragic.

Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful by Alan Paton - A wandering, rambling, and occasionally hard-to-follow story that makes lots of good points about race relations in South Africa along the way. But not nearly as good as some of his other stuff.

The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley - An African-born foreign correspondent writes about his assignments and search for family history. I like the stories of his reporting the best, in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, and elsewhere. He doesn’t shy away from writing about how hard the events affected him.

Rabble-Rouser for Peace by John Allen - A biography of Desmond Tutu. Well-researched and good background for someone like me who didn’t know too much about Tutu beyond the obvious before arriving.

The Shackled Continet: Africa’s Past, Present and Future by Robert Guest - A somewhat depressing view of the future of Africa by a writer for The Economist. He’s done lots of great on-the-ground research, though, and writes well.

Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog - An account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa and what it was like for a white South African to report on them. It’s written in an unusual style that is either poetic or deliberately obscure or somewhere in between. Raises a lot of interesting questions once you get a handle on the writing style.

Swahili for the Broken-Hearted: Cape Town to Cairo by Any Means Possible by Peter Moore - A slapdash and humourous account of Moore’s travels. It reads quickly. I’ve been to some of the places he visited so I liked comparing notes.

Number Two to Tutu: A Memoir by Michael Nuttall - The memories of Tutu’s second-in-command bishop.

Three-Letter Plague: A Young Man’s Journey Through a Great Epidemic by Johnny Steinberg - I wrote about this when I read it. If you’re at all interested in the people I work with and how AIDS affects them, this is necessary reading. It’s called Sizwe’s Test in the U.S.

I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation by Michela Wrong - This is one of my all-time favourite books about Africa. It’s an account of the recent history of Eriteria, now known as “North Korea on the Red Sea” but at one time a promising country. The research and reporting is fantastic. I happened to be reading this while a friend was visiting and I got so engrossed in it she complained I didn't pay enough attention to her.

Tomorrow is Another Country by Allister Sparks - A short but definitive book on the democratic transition in South Africa written shortly after it happened. Fascinating. This is a great one to read with Long Walk to Freedom.

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch - Another all-time favourite book about Africa. Absolutely brilliant reporting about the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath that provides the necessary background to understand the ongoing conflict in the Great Lakes region.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Adichie is young and has already written two great books. This one is about the Biafran civil war. It’s a great story and makes an important point about who should be telling the stories of Africans. Hint: they don’t look like me.

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the brink of disaster in Mobutu’s Congo by Michela Wrong - Not as good as I Didn’t Do It For You but still some fascinating stories of the last days of Mobutu’s regime.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe - I had to read this in high-school and didn’t quite get it then. Re-reading it here, I think it should be required reading for anyone working with people who have lost their culture when white people showed up. When I got to the concluding scene, I all of a sudden understood suicide in Alaska a lot better. It was almost literally a lightbulb moment.

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux - Another trans-Africa trip but this time the writing is beautiful and the stories captivating. I especially like in Uganda how he goes from having drinks with the prostitutes to meeting with the prime minister.

The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda - A book about life in a Xhosa village, this one including the fascinating history of the Great Cattle Killing.

What is the What by Dave Eggers - Simply spectacular about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I am always interested in how Africans perceive Western culture and norms and this has a lot of information on that.


The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis - My least favourite Narnia book. What’s the point? There’s no plot!

Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck - Reading both of these put Steinbeck high on my list of favourite American authors. Classics, both, and hilarious.

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe - I got caught up in this but I’ve since tried to read other Wolfe and haven’t made it very far.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk - I never quite picked up the thread of this book. Pamuk’s won the Nobel but I think there’s something lost in translation from the Turkish.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan - McEwan is a genius author and I read him just because his writing is so beautiful.

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje - I hope when the current horrific violence in Sri Lanka finally ends, Ondaatje can memorialize it as well as he did earlier violence with this book.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison - Justifiably a classic.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - Not McEwan’s best but again, great writing.

Development / Foreign Aid

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins - Absolutely horrendous. I’d probably have been sympathetic to the argument but his writing and argument lack any kind of rigour that it is easy to conclude the opposite.

Banker to the Poor: The Story of the Grameen Bank by Muhammad Yunus - Disappointing. I’d hoped for more detail and less chest-puffing from Yunus.

Christian Microenterprise Develoment by David Bussau and Russell Mask - Really disappointing.

Religious Books

The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton - Fantastic. Read this book.

A Wing and a Prayer: A Message of Faith and Hope by Katharine Jefferts Schori - Obviously put together quickly following her election as Presiding Bishop and so disappointing. The ideas are interesting enough but the overall package of the book makes them a bit repetitive and anodyne. I hope she has time to write a fuller account of her faith sometime because I’d be interested in that.

William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience by Warren Goldstein - Good biography of an interesting guy.

Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life by Paul F.M. Zahl - Zahl is all about grace but I think he lets himself use more law than he realizes. I didn’t agree with the entire argument but it was an arresting read and one that I still think about quite frequently.

Crossing the Jordan: Meditiations on Vocation by Sam Portaro - Portaro, my former chaplain at the University of Chicago, uses Jesus’ life as a model for our vocational discernment.

The Dignity of Difference by Jonathan Sacks - I liked the Jewish perspective on globalization and related issues but the book is already a little dated. I also think that because Judaism doesn’t have a conversion impulse (like Christianity or Islam), it’s easier for a Jew to call for tolerance.

A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren - McLaren ranges widely and tries to incorporate a wide variety of religious traditions into his orthodoxy. Some of his chapters, especially the one on how to use the Bible, are really good. Others, less so. I appreciate the emphasis on generosity.


Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler - This is a dense account of how languages developed and evolved. Interesting but again, dense. It makes for quite the slog.

In the Deep Heart’s Core by Michael Johnston - I’ve read this book before but just like reading about the author’s time teaching in the Mississippi Delta. He tells his stories well.

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder - Another one I’ve read in the past and just like to re-read. Compared to Three Cups of Tea, which I found indigestible and couldn’t finish, I appreciate that Kidder takes a somewhat critical eye of Farmer at times. Kidder asks similar questions that I find myself asking here.

Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism by Daniel Schorr - It seems like all of Schorr’s reporting was done at diplomatic cocktail parties.

The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick - What’s remarkable is that this book came out before Vietnam, basically predicted how America could lose the war, and America still did everything it said not to. I’m pleased to report my “Ugly American” self-assessment for Americans living overseas is quite good.

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George - I’m never too old for bathroom humour but this is about some really serious issues that we see in Itipini. (Does it still count as bathroom humour if people don’t have bathrooms?) I would have liked to know more about sanitation in the developing world than the developed but her explorations of sewers are interesting.

Night by Elie Wiesel - I lay down in the hammock one afternoon, started this book, and didn’t get up until I had finished.

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan - I’d read some of Pollan’s articles in the past but never his books. I liked this book, though I was probably disposed to agree with most of it before I even started.

The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken by Terry Teachout - I found this for less than a dollar in Addis Ababa when I was desperate for something to read. The research and writing are great but I didn’t come away with many warm feelings for Mencken.

Currently Reading

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander

AIDS and the Ecology of Poverty by Eileen Stillwaggon

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis


Heidi said...

I'm reading "Three Cups of Tea" about Greg Mortenson. He grew up in Tanzania, went to Asia to climb K2, but ended up building schools out there, in the forgotten mountain towns. It's addictive and mind-opening. Have you read Isak Dinesen, "Out of Africa"? She's very colonial in her outlook, but a beautiful writer. And she loved living in Africa.

Heidi said...

Oh, you hated Three Cups!!! I should read more carefully. An interested contrast in our tastes, I suppose.

I find reading about Africa painful. This is selfish and naive, but I always get angry at God and humanity. I found some hope in Mortensen, I guess.

Judi said...

Hi Jesse--Quite the list of books! I'm not sure if I told you, but I re-read Three Letter Plague when I got back from visiting you, and it was like reading it for the first time. After having been in the Eastern Cape with you, I could see the hills and terrain, the houses and villages, the spaza shops, the city of Lusikisiki, etc. where Sizwe's story takes place, was able to grasp so much better the challenges of living with HIV/AIDS in southern Africa and the difficult decisions around treatment.


Anna Dummer said...

Holy crap that's a lot of books! You and Julia put me to shame...
I think someone said that you were coming up for Liz's wedding? If you have a layover in ANC lemme know and you can crash at my house if you want.