In school, we read a lot of fiction. We are instructed to look for similes and metaphors, to search for the hidden meaning in the text, to guess at what the author was really implying or thinking about. Because of this, even the captivating books can become stifling. The books that start out that way are almost unbearable. This is why I quickly stopped reading fiction after high school, instead preferring non-fiction that could teach me something about the world. That’s a shame though. As they say, non-fiction can teach you something about the world, and fiction can teach you something about yourself. Good fiction can do both. With that in mind, I make a conscious effort to read more fiction. This quarter, I read two great works of fiction, which prompted me to finally dig into my Africa-related stack of books that had been on my “to-read” list for years.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
In 1914, with two previous Antarctic expeditions under his belt, Ernest Shackleton, his hand-picked crew, and one stow-away, boarded the Endurance and set sail with hopes to make the first land cross of Antarctica. Upon arriving on the Antarctic coast, the Endurance was trapped in an ice floe for nearly nine months. Despite all efforts to free the ship, the ice eventually demolished her, leaving the men with the provisions they could salvage from the ship and three lifeboats. After a torturous march that yielded almost no progress, Shackleton decided the best course was to set up camp on the ice for three months until conditions improved. They didn’t. The ice they built the camp upon broke up, forcing their departure by lifeboat. The crew traveled to Elephant Island, a brutal piece of land that offered no shelter and no hope of rescue. Their only chance of survival was for someone to make the 800 mile journey over the most treacherous ocean on Earth in a 22.5 foot long lifeboat. From here, the story gets even better. Shackleton’s journey is one of the most insane feats of courage, endurance, navigation, and survival I’ve ever read. You simply could not be disappointed by this book.
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Holy shit. Tarzan is nothing like the Disney portrayal you’ve seen. Tarzan, orphaned son of an English Lord, is raised by an ape whose baby has just died. Tarzan’s ape mother protects him from the other apes in the tribe until her own brutal death, just as Tarzan begins to mature. Despite his comparative lack of strength, Tarzan’s intelligence eventually allows him to slay fearsome jungle predators and dominate his adopted ape family. When four Englishmen are stranded in Tarzan’s territory after their ship’s crew mutinies, Tarzan learns what it is to be human, helps them escape the jungle, and goes on additional adventures in French Africa, Europe, and America. Burrough’s work is not only compelling and shockingly almost believable, it is fascinating for its European portrayal of turn of the century Africa, its savages, and its colonizers.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A wildly ambitious novel that vividly portrays the Belgian Congo in 1959 due to Kingsolver’s own childhood experiences there. Told from the alternating perspectives of the wife and four daughters of an oppressive Baptist preacher, this book is absolutely incredible for several hundred pages. Every aspect of small-village life is explored, from the everyday patter of rain on tin and thatch roofs to the seasonal miles-long columns of driver ants that demolish everything in their path and ford rivers while villagers flee. Grinding poverty, corruption, and betrayal are juxtaposed with tenderness and generosity. You will experience the places, know the characters, and actually learn some history in this book. In contrast to a book like Tarzan, the African voices and experiences are deep and human.
While a good chunk of the book deals with just one year in the pre-revolutionary Belgian Congo, the second half of the book deals with life after the revolution and spreads the characters throughout the Congo, South Africa, and the U.S. Kingsolver gets a bit political towards the end, but it never takes away from the experience. The first few chapters are a bit slow, but its worth getting through them. This book was so good it forced me to finally dive into my pile of books about Africa.
King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
The perfect follow-up to The Poisonwood Bible, King Leopold’s Ghost explains how the Belgian Congo came into existence, what led to the 1960’s revolution, and how someone like Mobutu turned the richest section of land on the planet into one of the poorest and bloodiest. It’s a fascinating account of how Leopold transformed himself from an unlikable, petty ruler of a state whose independence was only really recognized to serve as a buffer between Germany and France, into a political force who did anything and everything to get his way. Obsessed with securing a colony, Leopold let England, France, Portugal, and Germany divvy up the coastal regions that were thought to be more valuable, securing for Belgium a huge swath of land rich in minerals, ivory, and most importantly in the short term, rubber. Leopold then convinced the Belgium government to turn over the Congo to him personally, making him the unchallenged owner and despot of one of the wealthiest regions on Earth at the time. His exploitation of the region produced fabulous personal wealth at the cost of millions of native lives, and forever changed the course central Africa. This is a must read for anyone interested in statecraft, war, 20th century politics and history, or Africa in general.
Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone by Martin Dugard
By the mid-1800’s, the oceans and the outlines of the continents had been mapped. The next great geographic mystery lay in the heart of Africa. This book recounts the expeditions of two of central Africa’s greatest explorers, David Livingstone, a missionary and anti-slavery crusader, and Henry Morton Stanley, an accomplished but ruthless explorer who eventually ended up as the man King Leopold II chose to open up his Congo empire to trade. Though in most ways the two men couldn’t be more different, they were both consummate explorers who exported a wealth of geographic information back to Europe, including the long-debated source of the Nile. Thoroughly researched, Dugard manages to make this book a page-turner, especially when detailing the almost incomprehensibly grueling travel across the dark continent.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The more I learn about Victorian-era central Africa, the more haunting Conrad’s most famous work becomes. Since I am clearly on an Africa kick, I decided to read Heart of Darkness again. Though technically fiction, it borrows heavily from Conrad’s experiences, and bases numerous characters (including the famous Kurtz) on officers in Leopold’s Congo. This is probably the most realistic, and damning, account of life as a trader in the Belgian Congo at that time.
Canoeing the Congo by Phil Harwood
Surprisingly, no one had canoed the length of the Congo, more than 3,000 miles, before Phil Harwood did it in 2008. The retelling of the journey is fast-paced, interesting, and replete with wildlife, scenery, hardship, and even cannibals. It gives a great sense of just how little has changed in many parts of the Congo in the last 150 years.
Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel
Paul Du Chaillu, like Stanley, was typical of many 19th century African explorers: unknown background, missing father, poor, and a desire to make something out of himself. While the west coast of Africa was well explored by the mid 1800’s, Du Chaillu was one of the first westerners to venture into the West African interior. Du Chaillu gained fame for bringing back the first intact gorilla specimens, which had been little more than myth before. This book is a bit uneven, devoting as much time to the political squabbling within the Royal Geographic Society about Du Chaillu’s accomplishments as to the actual accomplishments. Despite this, it’s a good overview of not only some very interesting African exploration, but the European side of the exploration business.
Burton by Byron Farwell
Sir Richard Francis Burton is one of the most interesting people who ever lived. He was a poet, a swordsman, a troublemaker, a linguist, a diplomat, and, above all, a traveler. I say “traveler” rather than “explorer” because he wasn’t a scientist at heart, though he did make important geographic discoveries, such as the great Lake Tanganyika in central Africa. Burton didn’t take detailed measurements and copious notes about everything he came across, like Barth did. Instead, he learned dozens of languages, ingratiated himself with natives, traveled in disguise for months, and saw sights that no westerner had seen before, like Mecca and Medina. He also made the first complete translation of The Arabian Nights and The Kama Sutra. Though never as successful as he should of been due to his stubbornness and his refusal to play by society’s rules, he lived a hell of a life.
A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa by Steve Kemper
Heinrich Barth is surely the greatest African explorer you’ve never heard of. Like Burton, Barth was hardy man who could handle the physical challenges of African travel and was proficient in numerous African and Arab dialects. Unlike Burton, Barth was a scholar, fascinated by just about everything. He kept such detailed records that his volumes are considered indispensable by modern scholars. This book follows Barth on his journey into the Sahara. As members of his small expedition succumb to death one by one, Barth continues on, covering more than 10,000 miles and reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu.
It’s almost shocking what a young state South Africa is. Less than two hundred years ago, it was a hodgepodge of British and Boer colonies and African chiefdoms. Other than having farmable land and being centrally located on the voyage from India to Europe, nobody paid it much attention. Then a farmer discovered diamonds. Then gold. Soon, the region became the richest and most fought over piece of land in centuries. Diamonds, Gold, and War gives a great overview of the complicated history, and gives enough attention to Cecil Rhodes and his partners that you could read just a third of the book and consider it a good biography. But the book goes far beyond Rhodes, touching on all sides of the conflicts, spanning decades, and helps the reader understand how the groundwork was laid for apartheid and modern South Africa.
The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens
Greitens spent his teens and college years volunteering around the world. While pursuing his Rhodes scholarship and continuing to do humanitarian work, he finally got frustrated enough at his inability to create lasting change. So, like loads of other Rhodes scholars, he of course decided to become a Navy SEAL. Greitens takes us along on his ride, from his travels around the world through his grueling SEAL training. It’s an inspiring memoir that leaves you understanding why Greitens concluded that sometimes you need to be strong to do good.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
In The Heart and the Fist, Navy Seal Eric Greitens gives specific examples of why America’s foreign policy is failing to win friends, despite the money we throw at those we want as allies, and how we could do better. Chandrasekaran’s account of life inside Iraq’s Green Zone shows that nobody in power is listening to people like Greitens. This is one of the most frustrating reads I’ve come across because it makes it so clear that things could have been done so much better. Chandrasekaran’s analysis is basically a blueprint for how not to rebuild a country after invading it.
In April 1862, a spy/smuggler who sold to both sides led 20 Union soldiers behind Confederate lines in an attempt to steal a locomotive called the General and destroy a critical Confederate supply line. The plan was mostly a failure: almost the entire party was caught, half were executed, some made daring escapes, and some received America’s First Medal of Honor. This book reads like a novel, and its amazing that this story isn’t known widely known.
I got in some fun fiction during a ski trip in January, including the highly entertaining Blood Work by Michael Connelly, Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye, a very well done modern mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, an interesting take on dystopia, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and a very fun thriller called Brilliance by Marcus Sakey.
I hope you enjoy one or more of these books and that you’ll learn as much as I did. You’re welcome to email me questions or raise issues for discussion. If you know of a good book on a related topic, please pass it along. If one of these books comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.