Posted by: Matt | October 7, 2007

Making the List

After a couple of weeks off I am back again with the List. I’ve got an unintentional theme going this week and that theme is Africa. I’ve got two non-fiction books and a very unique sounding novel.

  • The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith – “The value of Meredith’s towering history of modern Africa rests not so much in its incisive analysis, or its original insights; it is the sheer readability of the project, combined with a notable lack of pedantry, that makes it one of the decade’s most important works on Africa. Spanning the entire continent, and covering the major upheavals more or less chronologically—from the promising era of independence to the most recent spate of infamies (Rwanda, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Sierra Leone)—Meredith (In the Name of Apartheid) brings us on a journey that is as illuminating as it is grueling. The best chapters, not surprisingly, deal with the countries that Meredith knows intimately: South Africa and Zimbabwe; he is less convincing when discussing the francophone West African states. Nowhere is Meredith more effective than when he gives free rein to his biographer’s instincts, carefully building up the heroic foundations of national monuments like Nasser, Nkrumah, and Haile Selassie—only to thoroughly demolish those selfsame mythical edifices in later chapters. In an early chapter dealing with Biafra and the Nigerian civil war, Meredith paints a truly horrifying picture, where opportunities are invariably squandered, and ethnically motivated killings and predatory opportunism combine to create an infernal downward spiral of suffering and mayhem (which Western intervention only serves to aggravate). His point is simply that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—which is why the rare exceptions to that rule (Senghor and Mandela chief among them) are all the more remarkable. Whether or not his pessimism about the continent’s future is fully warranted, Meredith’s history provides a gripping digest of the endemic woes confronting the cradle of humanity.” This one was recommended to me by Eva at A Striped Armchair after I commented on my interest in Africa.
  • God is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr. – “A bleak dystopian future is tempered with moments of possibility in story writer Currie’s debut novel, in which a sick and wounded Dinka woman arrives at a refugee camp in Darfur, searching for her lost brother. The woman is God, come to Earth in human form to make apologies to the Sudanese, over whose fate He is, “due to an implacable polytheistic bureaucracy, completely powerless.” When God is gunned down, news of His death spreads quickly around the globe and provides the jumping-off point for the subsequent short story–like chapters that reveal what happens in a post-God world: suicide rates skyrocket (especially among clergy members), riots and mass looting erupt and the pack of feral dogs that feasted on God’s corpse begin “speaking a mishmash of Greek and Hebrew” and inspiring worship among Africans. (Meanwhile, in America, the masses, seeking a deity to fill the void, begin worshipping children.)”
  • Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson – ” In An Army at Dawn,, a comprehensive look at the 1942-1943 Allied invasion of North Africa, author Rick Atkinson posits that the campaign was, along with the battles of Stalingrad and Midway, where the “Axis … forever lost the initiative” and the “fable of 3rd Reich invincibility was dissolved.” Additionally, it forestalled a premature and potentially disastrous cross-channel invasion of France and served as a grueling “testing ground” for an as-yet inexperienced American army. Lastly, by relegating Great Britain to what Atkinson calls the status of “junior partner” in the war effort, North Africa marked the beginning of American geopolitical hegemony. Although his prose is occasionally overwrought, Atkinson’s account is a superior one, an agile, well-informed mix of informed strategic overview and intimate battlefield-and-barracks anecdotes. (Tobacco-starved soldiers took to smoking cigarettes made of toilet paper and eucalyptus leaves.) Especially interesting are Atkinson’s straightforward accounts of the many “feuds, tiffs and spats” among British and American commanders, politicians, and strategists and his honest assessments of their–and their soldiers’–performance and behavior, for better and for worse. This is an engrossing, extremely accessible account of a grim and too-often overlooked military campaign.” It’s been awhile since I last read some World War II history and this might be just the book to get me back into it. This is the first of a planned trilogy. The second book, The Day of Battle, was just released this month.
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