Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm is the amazing story of Paul Du Chaillu, the son of a French merchant marine and a carefully concealed and conveniently dead mother from the Reunion island, raised by an American missionary in Gabon, who discovered a new species of primates, the gorilla, to be feted at first but them doubted and ostracized by the scientific community.
The best parts of the book for me are the ones set in Gabon, during du Chaillu’s treks to find the gorillas. (He had to go back to gather tangible proofs of his initial discovery.) It’s hot and dangerous and the killing is tremendous, along with fevers, tribal jealousies, and assorted disasters. The British scientific community’s disputes and intrigues pale in comparison.
Continuing a solid series books I liked (how lucky!), here’s a magical one: Serengeti: A scientist in paradise in which the author, a British biologist who has worked in the Serengeti area since the early 60′s, tells of his studies of wildebeest and other animals and his many adventures trying to escape hyenas and lions, and especially the follies of the local dictators. There are three countries that share the ownership of the Serengeti area and their political upheavals have killed more rare animals than drought or climate change.
Between the magic of the place and the self-deprecating sense of humor of the author, this book is a joy to read — and be warned, you will start checking out travel opportunities in the area soon after reading it.
Yes, Chef: A Memoir, by the Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson is a sweeping personal story of an ambitious young man who knows he must leave his adopted country of Sweden to fulfill his ambition of becoming a chef on the international stage. Along the way are some casualties, most sadly a daughter conceived when he was but a teenager and left behind, but they are told straightforwardly and serve to emphasize the tough life of a apprentices in high-end kitchens. The best part of the book for me was the author’s ever-present curiosity about food, ingredients, and techniques, wherever he finds himself in the world.
May all failed soccer stars have as much talent as resolve as Samuelsson.
With a stunning first chapter, in which the hero divests himself of his wife, his family’s menswear store, and his comfortable life in an American suburb to go back to the Malawi of his Peace Corps youth, The Lower River held much promise, Alas, when he arrives to the village for which he holds fond memories it’s not paradise lost that greets him but a harsh, thuggish dictatorship and corrupt shakedowns, deviously encouraged by help organizations that seem to care more about metrics than actually helping people, and for me the book became not the nightmarish account of a deluded adventure but instead a surprisingly racist depiction of locals utterly unable to govern themselves.
Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It unfolds a thoughtful story of how the AIDS epidemic in Africa benefited at critical times from societal features, from how it moved from chimps to humans under the cruel leadership of King Leopold, that forced destitute workers to eat more bushmeat, to its devastating spread under misguided programs that tried to use the methods of rich countries with barely organized health care systems. Contrary to the fiery subtitle, the book is not a blind attack on the West, although it does not coddle the ravages of colonialists and missionaries. Instead, it presents a rational, almost clinically scientific analysis of the spread of AIDS that is not afraid to proclaim the strides that Zimbabwe made in fighting AIDS (it’s heart-warming to see that a so-called failed country can do something right) contrasted with the woes of Botswana, a darling of the West that has not been able to make significant changes in a sexual culture that facilitates spreading the virus.
At times the book reminded me of Dead Aid in its condemnation of unenlightened foreign aid (and it quotes it at one point) and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind in how an understanding of local culture is so essential to progress. And it’s also a great demonstration of how good scientists can find it very challenging to properly analyze causation when faced with a problem with multiple variables.
Having loved Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, the author’s memoir of growing up white in what was then called Rhodesia, I was looking forward to Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, which focuses on her mother. This book takes a while to get started. It seems to be terribly polite and stiff upper-lipped for the entire first half, disappointing the reader (but perhaps providing the best description of her mother’s cold upbringing, during which much of what she loves is taken away. The story gets more interesting starting with her marriage and the start of her husband’s and her wanderings in search of a farm, with no money, independence wars all around, and awful personal losses. It’s very inspiring to see them at the end in their Zambian farm, having reinvented themselves one more time as fish and banana farmers, and, it seems, content.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the true story of a teenager growing up in rural Malawi, unable to go to school because his family cannot pay the required fees, starving because of drought and a bad harvest, who borrows old books from the local library and scavenges part to build a windmill that brings electricity and some prosperity (and, happiness, a chance for him to resume his education). Each chapter starts with a hand-drawn sketch by the author of the windmill in progress.
A great description of how engineers can change the world — and how local engineers can think of ideas that are much better adapted to the local needs than the ones thought up in the rich world.
I thought that Oprah’s Book Club selections were supposed to be uplifting. This one is not. Say You’re One of Them is a collection of stories about African children that include starvation, selling of children, religious persecutions, throat cutting, and rape. Certainly it’s worth knowing that such horrors exist but a documentary approach would work better than these fictional stories in which the supposed children’s voices all sound just a little “off”. Thumbs down from me.
The author of Dead Aid, a Zambian-born woman with several advanced degrees in economics,starkly stakes that traditional, government-to-government aid, simply serves to line the pockets of corrupt leaders and chokes the economies of the receiving countries. She makes a very strong argument that fostering economic growth in very poor countries and there’s a good to-to list for governments, starting with eliminating quotas and import taxes, as well as plenty of action items for all of us: aid seems to work quite well both for emergencies and when delivered outside government channels. So there is plenty of work to do both for governments, staring with removing quotas and export duties, as well as for all of us since aid seems to work well for emergencies and when delivered outside the formal government channels (Kiva, here we come!)
Installment #3 in the Sad Book Series: Strength in What Remains tells the story of a Burundi man (Burundian?) who flees his country after brutal ethnic violence erupts and arrives in New York City with $200, no English, but plenty of smarts, persistence, half of a medical degree, and the wonderful first name of DeoGratias (god be thanked) or Deo for short. So it’s not a completely sad story, especially because the author wisely chooses to describe Deo’s struggle to make a life in the US before plunging back into the description of the civil war, which is as gruesome as they come.
The heartwarming part of the story is the long list of people who help him along the way, from the baggage handler at JFK who spots him on arrival and takes him “home” to his squatter’s quarters, to the ex-nun who finagles introductions for the reluctant Deo to potential helpers, to the couple who shepherds him through university applications and immigration lawyers, as well as Deo’s amazing determination to survive and ultimately return to Burundi to build a hospital in his home town.
OK, so maybe this book is not so sad after all — minus the horrific genocide stories.