I’ve finished almost 10 books since I got here 2 months ago. Well, most of them weren’t real books, since I read them on my Kindle. About the Kindle: I’m not completely sold, and I don’t think I’ll use much once I get home. But, for it’s purpose here, it’s about the most brilliant product ever. I was able to bring over 30 books with me without paying for two extra suitcases, and I can constantly update my “library” by just buying anything I want on Amazon, and having it download automatically.
But back to the books. Right now I am reading The Art of Not Being Governed by one of my favorite political scientists (James Scott). He writes about the “hills people” of Asia, and argues that they do not represent some living “history”, reflecting how people from the lowlands used to live before they were “civilized.” Instead, according to Scott, these people have actively avoided being incorporated in the state. In essence, he argues that their “backwardness” is a strategic choice. So far, so good.
I finished reading the following, and here’s what I thought:
Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
This book was amazing, and made me really interested in Haiti. The story follows many characters – whites, free coloreds, and black slaves – living in Haiti and Louisiana at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century. It is beautifully written, and the story portrays the experience of slavery from the point of view of slaves, but also from the vantage point of slave-owning whites. Allende did an amazing job showing both the evil of slavery, but also how such an evil system was justified among people that themselves were not evil. I was left intrigued by the degree of resistance to slavery that was seen in Haiti – and ultimately the revolt – as compared the situation in other areas of the new world. I highly recommend this book!
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
This is one of those books I’d always heard of, but never gotten around to reading. It’s a slightly quirky story written about WWII, particularly the bombing of Dresden. It was a an entertaining book, but nothing that left any deep lasting impressions.
Mukiwa by Peter Godwin
A memoir of Peter Godwin, a white boy growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. While I prefer his other book (When a Crocodile Swallows the Sun) which has a lot of the same stories/material, I always enjoy anything Godwin writes. White Africans fascinate me, especially in terms of how they think about their own identity. Godwin tells an honest story of what it is like to live a society so divided by race, and the struggle of coming to terms with your own racism.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
A collection of short stories, mostly focused on people living between two worlds – one in the West, and one in India While I liked each individual story in the collection well enough, there was not enough of a congruent story to leave me satisfied (although, I guess the guys that give out the Pulitzer Prize would beg to differ). I prefer her novel The Namesake.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Read this book. Just read it. Even if you hate fiction, or have no interest in Africa. This novel is amazing, both for its portrayal of Africans that are middle-class intellectuals, and for all that I learned about the Biafara War in Nigeria. Again, just read it – you’ll thank me later.
The Civilized World by Susi Wyss
Another collection of short stories, although here there is quite a bit of overlap, with characters from one story making cameo appearances in other stories. The central theme tying all the stories together is the experience of whites in Africa, and African perceptions of said whites. I really enjoyed all of the stories, and, of course, it was quite a timely read for me. I would recommend this – especially if you’ve spent time in Africa, as you will no doubt see yourself in some of the characters.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
An enjoyable enough read, but pretty predictable story with all the standard parts of any bestseller. Good book for the beach.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Maybe my expectations were too high, but I did not love this book as much as I thought I would. It came highly recommended from people whose opinions I trust, but I struggled to get through it. Perhaps you should read it, and make up your own mind, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Another fun and easy read, even if much of the story seemed superficial and contrived. I hear they’ve made it into a movie. If I had to do over again, I’d probably just watch the movie. Although I do love stories about the South…
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
This book is told from the perspective of a Malawian kid that decides to build a windmill to supply electricity to his family. I have to recommend this book, if only because it is about Malawi, and is written about an area very near to where I am doing my research here. It is an easy read, and the first half has a lot of fun info about Malawi and Malawian culture (the second half is, in my opinion, too heavy on the details of the engineering of the windmill). However, I don’t really like the two main takeaways: first that it is a miracle whenever an African does anything inventive or out of the ordinary, and second that Africans can only really make anything out of themselves by being “discovered” by international individuals or NGOs.
The Inheritance of Loss, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Anna Karenina.