The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.

Hannibal, by Patrick N. Hunt***

HannibalHannibal was the first general to defeat the forces of Rome, and Hunt is the man qualified to tell us about it. I read my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. This book becomes available to the public July 11, 2017.

Early history has never been my area of concentration, but since retirement, I push myself out of my usual comfort zone, often to excellent result. This time it proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Hunt is unquestionably qualified to discuss this topic. He is an historian of renown and has dedicated years to the study of Hannibal, even embarking on an expedition across the Alps in order to see what Hannibal experienced—or the closest proximity to it in modern times. On the other hand, I confess I was in it for two things: military strategy and history, which does interest me, and of course, the elephants.

Imagine riding into battle on the back of an elephant. Not only is an elephant massive, it is also impervious to most of the weaponry available at this time. Spears and javelins would just bounce off its hide. War elephants had their tusks sharpened, and being charged by such a force had to be terrifying. And in reading this history it occurred to me that Hannibal’s men would have been bemused indeed if they had known that elephants would be regarded by many of us, in future days, with great sentimentality. They would never have believed the elephant might become endangered. Who could kill elephants? But these are my musings, not Hunt’s.

Hunt is meticulous in demonstrating what Hannibal did and why he did it. He starts with his family background, in particular that he was the son of the great general Hamilcar, who took him to a temple, made him stand at the altar where the live sacrifice had been made, and swear lifelong hatred of Rome, whose government and military made war against Carthage and caused a lot of suffering. Hunt carefully separates what actually happened, from what probably happened, from what maybe happened, but the speculative language—may have, would have, almost certainly—slows me down, because each time the narrative picks up and I immerse myself in the text, I see the modifiers and draw back. I go back and reread in order to find out what is actually known, mentally removing all of the guesses and educated guesses, and then I am left with what is known. And although I appreciate that there are not vast treasure-troves of primary documents sitting around for Hunt to access, given the antiquity of the subject, I wish there were some way to read only the known facts. At the 70% mark I became frustrated and bailed.

Hunt quotes often from Livy and Polybius, both of whom I read many years ago as an undergraduate, and which still grace my shelves. My initial impression was that it might be more useful to go dig up those books, reread them, and give this one a miss. However, what Hunt does is sift through their information and provide an analysis that is deeper and more objective than theirs. Livy was, after all, a Roman; he is renowned as a scholar, but not necessarily objective.

And so those that have a serious interest in the history of Northern Africa and/or Southern Europe, or an interest in military history, can count this as a strong title to add to their historical libraries. To put it another way, what it lacks in terms of easy flowing narrative, it makes up for in accuracy and analysis.

Recommended to those that have a serious interest in world history or military history.

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri**

thefamishedroadI surrender! Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Media, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for an honest review; however, try though I have, I cannot push past the molasses-like allegory and other figurative language to locate a plot. After painfully forcing my way through the first 20% of the book, I went to Goodreads to see what other reviewers had to say about it. Some felt as I did, but others swore that if the reader could endure the first two-thirds of the story, the last third would not only be so amazing, it would also enlighten us as to why the earlier part was necessary. Seeing this, I vowed to persevere. By the 25% mark, I found I was avoiding this DRC, because just about every other galley in my possession was either more enjoyable to read, or more rewarding, or both.

Tonight I decided it was time to put up or shut up. Maybe this is one of those rare occasions when one should read a book out of sequence. I skipped to the 70% mark and found it was pretty much more of the same. The allegory pointed toward the horrific debt load that cripples African nations, but I already knew that, and if that is actually where this story is supposed to lead me–because really, I am still not sure–then it’s a disappointment. I already knew about the impact of colonial overlords on African nations, and this did nothing to improve either my knowledge or my appreciation for that, or for literature.

I will add, however, that I have also never liked magical realism. Either write fiction or nonfiction, don’t try to do both at once. Even the work of literary goddess Isabel Allende makes me crazy this way: we are in the midst of what feels like a genuine memoir, and then someone turns bottle-green and levitates. No, no, and no.

Those that have a great love of magical realism and thirst for African fiction may find joy here. This book has won prestigious awards, and I had anticipated that reading it would be rewarding. Just because it didn’t happen for me doesn’t mean it won’t happen for you; but if you come to feast at Okri’s table, bring a high literacy level with you, or you’ll find yourself leaving it still hungry.

This title is available for purchase now.

The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

thewomanwhowalkedThe first week or two after Christmas is a sumptuous period for me as a reader. Nearly every book I read these days, fiction or non-, is a DRC, or Direct Reader’s Copy sent to me digitally by publishers via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.  However, each year there are invariably half a dozen titles, sometimes more, that I really want to read and haven’t been able to obtain free of charge. Sometimes I discover a book after it’s already been published some time ago, and sometimes it’s a book that I couldn’t get as a DRC. These books land on my wish list, and my family is faithful in purchasing them and placing them, clad in pretty paper and ribbon, beneath our Christmas tree. By Christmas night, I’m snuggled deep beneath a pile of fluffy covers, my spouse and hound dog snoring sonorously while I immerse myself in the books I am just about guaranteed to love, bathed in a soft yellow bedside light. This ritual is as significant to me as the more widespread traditions of feasting, wrapping gifts, and hanging stockings. I can’t recall a Christmas without it.

This year we had our gift exchange on Christmas Eve, and by bedtime I was snuggled up in flannel and reading this paperback book, the 16th in the series. The series, for those unfamiliar, is of the cozy variety rather than the pulse-pounding thrillers that absorb a good portion of my reading life. Precious Romotswe is the owner and founder of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency, and a good portion of those that read this book will already be familiar, as I am, with the main characters and their stories. Mma (Ms.) Ramotswe is married to JLB Matekone, who owns and runs the automobile repair shop adjacent to the detective agency; Mma Makutsi , Mma Ramotswe’s eccentric but capable assistant, believes that it’s time for her mentor to take a vacation. And indeed, Precious has never gone on holiday before; it’s about time, isn’t it?

Mma Ramotswe is reluctant. She hates to leave her business in anyone else’s hands; then too, she’s disconcerted when she learns that her husband, his employees, and her own assistants have discussed her need for time off when she wasn’t present. Is it a conspiracy, or is it loving concern?

The mysteries to be solved include the problem on which the temporary assistant hired on for the duration of Mma Ramotswe’s holiday stumbles; an additional situation involving a child named Samuel, an orphan who’s been trained to shake down drivers for coins in exchange for not damaging their cars; and a new school bearing her signature “#1 Ladies” logo, which appears to be not only misappropriating her trademark, but shady in other ways as well. Yet much of the story is dedicated to character development and the personal lives of the main characters, and it’s this that keeps me coming back.

Ultimately, the story is about trust, kindness, and learning to let go sometimes.

It occurred to me for the first time that I don’t know how the majority of Botswana feels about this series. McCall is a native-born Botswanan with Scottish predecessors. Are these characters true to the way the people of color in Botswana see themselves and their people?

Yet another part of me recalls that we are in the land of fiction. Unless I see some sign that the series is objectionable or offensive to those it represents, it will continue to be a happy retreat for me.

Highly recommended to those that love a cozy mystery and an opportunity to drop their blood pressure; the mesmerizing cadence here is better for us than any bottle of pills, and far cheaper than therapy.

The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Cafe, by Alexander McCall Smith *****

thehandsomemansWithin the genre of the cozy mystery, this long-running series by Alexander McCall Smith reigns supreme. The magic is as much due to the cast of engaging secondary characters as it is to Precious Ramotswe herself. The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Cafe is no exception. It comes out October 28; thanks to the publisher and edelweiss books for the chance to read and review it.

On the very first page, Mr. JLB Matekoni entered and I smiled. I don’t mean inwardly; I mean my face broadened into the kind of contented crease that lowers our blood pressure and would, were we cats and not people, cause us to purr. I snuggled deeper into my blankets and got ready for a splendid evening. And another. And another.

Smith creates each new entry in his series by either adding a new setting to Gabarone, where our protagonist lives and works, or by bringing in new people, and often, as here, he does both. And often he sets up two different problems, one a professional challenge for the #1 Ladies Detective Agency, and another a personal crisis for someone among the regular cast of characters. Sometimes the two dovetail neatly at the end, but he doesn’t do this all the time, lest the result become formulaic and lose its magic. And in this instance, having become momentarily guarded by a silly story that was a little over the top rather than charming (the lion story), I was therefore watching to see whether the problem regarding Mma Makutsi’s cafe would be resolved within the amnesia-client’s family.

But our writer didn’t do that. And this is why the series is so successful.

One more skillful and enjoyable protocol of Smith’s is that he introduces recurring characters very briefly, and it never jars the faithful reader who has gone through the entire series into wanting to say, “Oh, come on, come on, I know this already.” Rather, he injects it naturally into the narrative so that the familiar reader will nod happily and think, ‘Oh yes, I do remember. So dear Mma Potokwane is still at it, isn’t she? And it’s true. She does have a remarkable work ethic.’

Violet is in danger of becoming too great a stereotypic anti-hero, but it hasn’t happened yet. The author could just choose to drop her, but his habit is to continually point to the common humanity of all, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Violet were to have perhaps just one decent moment before being returned to her regular place as the exception-to-basic-goodness-among-us-all. But that is conjecture.

I read 6 to 8 books at a go, and yet, having quickly absorbed this delightful mystery, I am already anticipating the next in the series. This, ultimately, is the mark of entertaining literature.

My thanks to edelweiss review copies for the opportunity to advance-read and review this delightful story.

A Dancer in the Dust: A Novel, by Thomas H. Cook *****

a dancer in the dustA Dancer in the Dust is a multifaceted novel. It is a love story, the doomed love of Ray Campbell, a risk assessor from the United States for Martine Aubert, an African woman of Belgian descent. Martine lives in, and loves, the country of her birth, a fictitiously independent nation called Lubanda. And it is a story of paternalism, and of how much easier it is to place someone else in a risky position rather than oneself. It is also a story that raises thought-provoking social issues.
My thanks go to the publisher and the first reads program for the chance to read this free. It is beautifully written, but it is also one that starts with a man grieving, and by chance it arrived in the mail when I was grieving a younger family member who died very unexpectedly. Every time I picked the book up, the clouds formed, and so I took what I would generally consider to be an unconscionably long time reading it. For awhile, the words just couldn’t sink in.
When I got my wits about me, it occurred to me that I ought to find out whether Lubanda was a real place or not, lest I make an ass of myself while reviewing it. Sure enough, Lubanda, though not really an independent nation, exists in east-central Africa as a subsection of Tanzania. Cook makes it larger and more populous than it is in real life for the purpose of his fictional vehicle. And when you are as painterly and skillful with words as Cook is, you can pretty much do what you need to in order to tell your story.
So we rejoin Campbell as he sets out on his return trip to Lubanda. He left there after Martine was killed, returned to New York City, but the death of a man known to both Ray and Martine sets his wheels back in motion. Seso, whom Campbell considered a friend, has turned up dead, murdered, in New York City. Campbell has weighed risks and taken the safer course all of his life, and in turn, he has been left with nothing and no one. He is finally ready to toss all of his chips on the table in hopes of at least winning redemption, and so he sets out in search of Seso’s killer.
“Actually, we have plenty of opportunities to do the right thing…It’s taking back the wrong thing we can’t do.”
Martine had died because she would not do what the Western aid providers think she should do, a program the government bought into lock, stock and barrel. She had tried to explain in logical terms why their plan for her country was wrong, but no one was listening. Nation after nation had become a “funhouse mirror into hell” because of Western policies: Uganda, Kenya, Congo, and the list continues. Patrice Lumumba embraced modern ideas and methods, but ultimately died when he defied his keepers.
In setting out to find out what happened to Seso and why, Campbell is looking to trace back the thread. Cook’s account is brutal and searing, but it is too well told, too compelling, and raises too many thorny social issues that bear examining to be set aside. Read it for Africa; read it for the mystery it unravels; or read it for social justice. But get the book, and read it now!

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochchild *****

Just as Europeans once looked upon the Americas as land that was unclaimed and waiting to be discovered, explored, and claimed by Caucasian Christian civilizations, so too was Africa, referred to as “The Dark Continent”, ripe for exploitation when the Europeans arrived.

Initially, through their own caste system, tribal chiefs were absolutely delighted to trade away the Africans they themselves kept in bondage for the wonderful new munitions, cloth, and other goods that were offered. But their satisfaction turned to horror when they learned that where Black folks are concerned, Europeans just don’t play by the rules. King Affonso of the Congo sat down and wrote a letter to the ruler of Portugal, explaining that he had sent his son to Europe to attend school, and he was never heard from again. Now he has learned that his own family members were being rounded up by slave traders! There must surely be some sort of mistake.

African missionary, explorer, and British emissary Dr. David Livingstone traveled to Africa and was the first known (at the time) European to cross Africa from coast to coast. He returned to England to be feted and celebrated, and then plunged back into Africa…and stayed there. He was happy. Why go home?

Henry Morton Stanley was a journalist of uncertain origins (see the book) who went in search of Livingstone and found him, uttering the famous quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Meanwhile, a royal in Belgium grew restless. Leopold had delusions of grandeur, and why not? If France, England, and Spain could enjoy colonialism, why not Belgium as well? Leopold thirsted for power. He wanted to become a king. As African territory was snapped up piecemeal, he leapt in and grabbed a slice through the middle, in what would for a time be known as the “Belgian Congo”.

By now, slavery had been declared illegal in Britain, and so Leopold strode in to civilize and Christianize dark-skinned people whom he was certain could not do so for themselves. A great road was built there…and it went straight in from the ocean, and straight back out again. Leopold had learned of the ivory to be obtained through the wholesale slaughter of elephants. He offered prizes to locals who brought these forward, and assured them they would be protected from the aggression of any other European powers. What a deal. Leopold sponsored Stanley and gave him the royal seal of approval when he went in to further explore the area. In the end, Leopold claimed all of the Congo, an area, says the author, the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Many different tribes and cultures, some peaceful, some not, were brought under his ruthless leadership.

Leopold himself was almost a perfect villain, obsessed with power and obnoxious even to other Europeans of his time and station. When Prince Albert visited the new palace Leopold was having built, he believed he was complimenting the man when he said it would be like “a little Versailles”. Leopold took offense instead. “Little?”

But as amusing as anecdotes like this one are, the brutal fact is that tens of millions of Africans were killed under European colonialism. When Belgium was more or less forced to grant sovereignty to the people of the Congo, he sabotaged the new government of Patrice Lumumba, a popularly elected leader, by refusing to let go of the mines where the remaining mineral riches of the nation were located. The United States helped him crucify this man and was party to the manipulation of tribal rivals. Wholesale slaughter of unimaginable cruelty ensued. Multinational corporations were “also in on the take”.

Though this is a painstakingly written and riveting account, and the research undeniably fastidious, well documented, and scholarly, I would differ with the lame conclusions drawn at the end, namely that the United Nations should have sent in a peacekeeping force during the transition. Who is in the United Nations? Britain and the US, for starters? What a pitiful conclusion to an otherwise brilliant book. I know that if Malcolm X were here, he’d say this was “like leaving the fox to guard the hen house.” For this reason, I considered giving four stars. It’s just too well done otherwise to deny it all five, with this caveat: those final two pages of conclusions should cause any reader who makes it this far down in my review to understand I really mean, four and a half stars.

I say the only way the Congo or any other African nation can rule itself is for colonial powers to get out. Go home. There is nothing there that they own anymore; it’s over. Africans can rule Africa, as long as colonialists let go of the entire pie.