Thursday, January 30, 2014

A LONG WAY GONE by Ishmael Beah ✰✰✰✰

When most Americans think about child soldiers in Africa, the first thing that generally comes to mind are the Lost Boys of Sudan.  Unfortunately, this is not a situation that is limited to Sudan, or even to Sierra Leone, the setting of this book by Ishmael Beah, who was forced to become a soldier, at the age of thirteen, for the army of his government.

It becomes clear, through sharing the author’s story, that for most of these boys becoming a child soldier is not a choice.  After running from their homes in an attempt to escape ravaging army or rebel factions, most are separated from family and even other adults as they flee into the jungle.  By banding together the boys manage to keep watch while others find shelter and sleep, but the necessity of food is what most often causes the boys to approach the villages, bringing them to the attention of armed factions who force them to either join them or be killed.  In a speech he later gave at the United Nations Beah said, “All this is because of starvation, the loss of our families, and the need to feel safe and be part of something when all else has broken down.”  Once under the control of the soldiers the boys are drugged with cocaine and marijuana, which impair their inhibitions and desensitize their consciences.

Beah fought for the Sierra Leone Army for almost three years, at which point a representative from UNICEF approached his commander and was allowed to take some of the youngest soldiers to a United Nations sponsored home in Freetown.  I have never had a very high opinion of the UN, but I was very impressed by the time and effort that Beah’s narrative clearly shows that UNICEF puts into assisting these traumatized children regain mental stability and recapture what remains of their childhood.

Clearly, the road back is both challenging and painful, coming to terms with the acts that they perpetrated against others and needing to learn to forgive themselves.  And nothing will ever fully eradicate the dreams and waking visions these traumatized boys experience.  One of Ishmael’s friends, in the midst of their trials, put it in heartbreaking terms:

“How many more times do we have to come to terms with death before we find safety?  Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death.  Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies.  Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you.  It will be quieter than I am.”

Perhaps the phrase that Beah used that implanted itself most indelibly in my brain was his belief in the “fragility of happiness”.  After loosing everyone he loved and everything that made his life normal, he has a problem accepting that happiness can ever again be permanent.  He expressed it thus at one point:

“I couldn’t bring myself to be completely happy.  It was much easier to be sad than to go back and forth between emotions, and this gave me the determination I needed to keep moving.  I was never disappointed, since I always expected the worst to happen.”

This book is a challenging read on a number of levels.  For some reason, it is listed as a young adult read, and I know that some schools use it in their curriculum, but I would hesitate having a student younger than high school read it, given the atrocities that are described.  Yes, these acts were committed by middle grade boys, but those boys are having to learn to live with the visions in their heads and the stain on their souls.  I see no reason to put the weight of that ugliness into the minds of other young people who haven’t been forced to endure it to survive.  This is a long way from being the most explicit rendering of the atrocities of war that I have read, but it is still in no way, in my opinion, appropriate for young readers.  Another aspect is far less weighty.  The book is written by Ishmael Beah himself, and so is clearly drafted by someone for whom English is a second language; as such, the writing style does take some adjusting to.  I think this simplicity of language might well be why it is often thought an approachable read for middle school students.

Sometimes the very simplicity of the language works to beautiful advantage, especially when the author reminisces about his unrecovered family.  During the many, many months that Ishmael spent keeping himself alive in hiding, prior to capture by the soldiers, he said this:

“When I was very little, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen.  If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’  I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going.  Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.”

To me, although at the time the quote is used in the book it is used in a literal sense, this quote is a metaphor for the entire arc of Ishmael Beah’s experience.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Author Alexandra Fuller grew up in what is now Zimbabwe, which is what drew me to this book.  Those of you who have followed my reviews for a while know that one of the most enthusiastic reviews I have ever written was after reading a galley for Peter Godwin’s sensational work of narrative nonfiction, The Fear.  While Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness has its moments, Ms. Fuller is simply nowhere near the writer that Mr. Godwin is. 

Despite the fact that I am giving this book a relatively low rating, let me say that I laughed more while reading this than I have in a very long time.  Sometimes a bit shamefacedly, because Nicola Fuller was clearly a bit unbalanced.  Cocktail Hour is part memoir of the author’s memories of her mother while she and her siblings were growing up but is for the most part a biography of her mother, otherwise known as Nicola Fuller of Central Africa.  Many, many sections of dialog are used, which is what lends the wonderful humor to the book.  You feel as if you are right there listening to their zany family interactions, not to mention her mother’s madcap advice to her children.  Growing up Nicola Fuller’s daughter was always an adventure.

The story, however, goes far beyond the time of the author’s reckoning and gives a full history of Nicola’s life, beginning as the daughter of a landed, if impoverished, Scotsman, through her move to Africa with all its adventures in the many countries that she lived in there.  While the beginning of the book is full of humor, the book deepens as it develops and Nicola’s life becomes difficult and psychologically more unbalanced.

More than anything, I loved how Alexandra Fuller showed her mother’s personal evolution, both mentally and physically, throughout the course of her life.  Nicola Fuller, for all her appearance of being a giddy woman, is a woman of great courage and fortitude, and by the end of the book I found myself admiring her a great deal.  What brought down my rating of the book was that I would like to have far more descriptive writing about the countries and their people, their way of life, and better background on the various conflicts.  Because I read a fair number of books on Africa, I could visualize, but I am not so certain that a reader picking this up as their first visit to Africa would be able to keep up.

If you want a story of a woman who has lived what is by any account an amazing life, this is probably a four star book, but I docked it a star for not giving me more of the pivotal supporting information about those events and people that must have shaped Nicola into the woman worth writing about.

One of my favorite quotes about Nicola Fuller:

“What my mother won’t say--lost in all her talk of chemicals and pills--is that she knows not only the route grief takes through blood but also the route it takes through the heart’s cracks.  What she won’t tell me is that recovering from the madness of grief wasn’t just a matter of prescriptions, but of willpower. [...]she took a different route and she regained herself and that had very little to do with the very talented psychiatrist and everything to do with forgiveness: she forgave the world and her mind returned.  She gave herself amnesty and her soul had a home again.  The forgiveness took years and it took this farm and it took the Tree of Forgetfulness.  It took all of that, but above all it took the one thing grief could never steal from my mother: her courage.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


What happens when you are at a major crossroad in your life and you make a radical decision to have one last wild hare event before making a commitment?  For author Julian Smith, the crossroads was finally deciding to marry his girlfriend, and the wild hare was to go to Africa and retrace the route of late 19th century adventurer Ewart Grogan from the Cape to Cairo.

Grogan made his trek in the final two years of the century in order to gain the approval of his beloved Gertrude’s step-father and his blessing on their becoming engaged to be married.  Prior to his journey through the Dark Continent, Grogan was nothing more than a Cambridge drop-out of humble parentage, while Gertrude’s family was one of New Zealand’s most prominent.  In the era in which they lived, becoming the first white man to cross Africa from south to north would bring Ewart fame, social standing (always of import to those colonial Brits), and open doors to enable him to make his fortune in the world.  So, after telling Gertrude that he would not contact her until he set foot in Cairo, having successfully completed his venture, Ewart Grogan set out to carve his place in history.
Author Julian Smith had read Grogan’s story and was amazed that unlike David Livingston and Henry Morton Stanley, Grogan is not remembered among the pantheon of great African explorers.  A freelance writer in a seven-plus-year relationship with his girlfriend, Laura, Smith felt a certain affinity for Grogan’s quest to find himself in the wilds of Africa, and so he decides to spend the final months before his marriage following the path that Grogan forged.

The book is essentially three tales: Grogan’s exploration story, Julian’s travel adventure, and Julian and Laura’s relationship.  My relatively low rating of the book is owed to the unevenness of the writing between the two adventure tales and the questionable necessity of the complete play-by-play of the modern couple’s path to a marriage proposal.

Let me begin with what I loved.  Julian Smith’s admiration of Ewart Grogan absolutely shines, and this passion feeds his writing about the explorer.  If he had written a straight biography of Grogan, I would have given the book five stars.  Unfortunately, Smith made the book part memoir as well.

After every section on the earlier adventurer, Smith tells his corresponding tale of traversing the same territory.  For the first half of the book it reads like one long whine fest, going from one mode of transport to the next, giving the reader very little compare/contrast info about the continent or its inhabitants between his time and Grogan’s.  Smith needed to get off the bus/boat/bike long enough to experience the journey.  To his credit, the second half of the book does show significant improvement in the telling of the author’s own story-that saved the book from a two star rating from me.

The third, lesser, tale of the book, the sojourn through the history of Julian and Laura’s relationship, felt completely irrelevant to the story.  Literally.  Everything the reader needs to know about their liaison is in the segments of Julian’s trip.  It was even more annoying because it seemed like every time the adventure story was at a cliff-hanger point it came to an abrupt pause in order to shift to another commonplace event from their rather ordinary (if you discount the author’s-admitted-inability to commit) life together.  The only thing I can say in the author’s defense is that the subtitle of the book, An Odyssey of Love and Adventure, does give the reader a heads-up that it isn’t all about being chased by rhinos while flagging from a malarial fever.

My advice to readers would be one of two things.  If you choose to read this book for its strong sections, skim or skip completely the relationship sections (unless you are really interested in that type of memoir, on its own merits).  Another thought might be to just give this book a complete miss and read Ewart Grogan’s own account of his journey, entitled From the Cape to Cairo.  Smith quotes extensively from Grogan’s work, and Ewart comes across as expressive and full of that wonderfully dry British wit and ability to find humor in just about any situation.  As I have not read Grogan’s work in full, I cannot compare the two and only offer the idea as a possible suggestion.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

BLOOD DIAMONDS by Greg Campbell ✰✰✰✰

In Blood Diamonds author Greg Campbell has a dual purpose: to tell the story of an African civil war that is based on economics as opposed to ethnicity or religion and to bring to light the dark genesis of conflict diamonds.  He is successful on both fronts.  Right from the first pages the reader is swept into the horror of life for noncombatants under the control of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel group fighting for dominion over the diamond trade.  A warning for the squeamish-like most books on modern African history, this one is very graphic.  However, Campbell’s no-holds-barred approach definitely prevents the reader from shying away from the agonizing reality that was life for even the most innocent of bystanders during Sierra Leone’s tragic civil war.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Sierra Leone’s conflict, which raged from 1991 until 2002, is that unlike most civil wars this one had nothing to do with religious or ethnic power plays. This was a complex blood for diamonds tapestry, motivated by the basest of all reasons: greed.  Because of this, foreign powers were extremely reluctant to commit troops and help end the conflict.  The United States was especially reticent as in 1999, when the war reached its pinnacle, the horrific memory of Mogadishu was still very much on the minds of the American public, making even attempts at diplomacy career suicide for politicians and diplomats. The problem simply felt insurmountable; at the time most Americans had no concept of just how exactly diamonds were being used in international black commerce.  Diamonds pack a huge value into a tiny, highly portable stone, and as such they have become the currency of choice for everyone from African dictators to Hezbollah, a source of funding that can never become a bank account bound asset frozen by foreign governments.  Campbell also lays out a very convincing trail of evidence linking the Al Qaeda attacks of September 2001 to conflict diamond financing.  

As you read this account of the outrages committed to convert these diamonds into the pretty baubles that western consumer societies desire, especially the United States, where 80% of all the world’s diamonds find their market, you cannot help but wonder how one can tell if the rock in their engagement ring originated in the blood bath of Sierra Leone.  The sad truth is that once a raw diamond has been cut and polished it is impossible to tell where the stone was mined, and certificates are virtually worthless, as the stones pass through literally dozens of middlemen, many of which are legitimate and could fabricate the certificate downstream of the conflict.  Britain and Switzerland even have an agreement to process each other’s stones and then claim the other as country of provenance.

Greg Campbell does an excellent job tracing the history of diamond mining and worldwide sales, giving a riveting depiction of the world famous DeBeers company, from its inception to its current place in the market.  This was absolutely my favorite aspect of the book.  I was blown away by how the power of marketing can so directly influence not only the economics, but the politics and even daily life of people in so many different economic strata around the world.

The audio, which is well narrated by Tim Weiner, clocks in at a short seven hours.  Admittedly, I did look up a map of west Africa, as I needed a clear picture in my head of the geography of the area (I cannot say whether the book provides maps), but that was simple and there is no other reason not to do this one in audio format.  Weiner’s performance hits just the right tenor for the subject matter; it would have been easy to become overly dramatic in parts, but he ably avoids that trap, lending dignity and substantive emotion to a narration that is in turns informative  and affecting.  Overall a tightly edited work of fine narrative nonfiction, which gets four stars from me and the final thought that this is one of those subjects about which we can all use educating.