It is a great idea for research that is long overdue. Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways. Think about it. Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home. In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could. In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide. Twitty is fascinating just by himself: black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie. Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots. By themselves, each story is a fine thread. Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.
Almost from the day he was born into privilege, Winston Churchill was ambitious. Searching for an opportunity to demonstrate his talents and value to the wider British empire, Churchill enlisted in Great Britain’s army in India, ran for parliament (and lost), and finally, still in his early twenties, shipped off to South Africa as a journalist to cover the Boer War. The Boer War was fought between two colonial powers, the white descendants of Dutch settlers and the British with obvious disregard and disrespect for the continent’s natives. During a skirmish when an English train of soldiers was ambushed by Boer fighters, Churchill-the-embedded-reporter, demonstrated extraordinary leadership and selfless heroism before being captured. Then, despite overwhelming odds, he managed a solo escape from a military prison across enemy territory and many hundreds of miles of African desert to earn his freedom. Immediately he enlisted in the army and continued to fight for England. The traits on display in his younger years reappear some three decades later when Churchill’s self-assurance and stubborn belief in the ability of England to fend off an enemy would make him the hero that stood up to Hitler’s Germany. And yet in this post-Obama era of Trump, even an historical account of excessive self-confidence scratches up against the border of narcissism that is so intolerable in a nation’s leader.
Gyasi uses her own experience as a Ghanaian American to create an original tale of history. We are asked to follow the descendants of one family member captured in northern Ghana, sold to the British, imprisoned in the Cape Coast Castle and shipped to the United States as enslaved chattel. The other continues residence in Ghana under the curse of the ancestors. While the raw brutality of enslavement is on full display, the remaining lives in Ghana are not to be envied. Over the centuries, Ghanaians capture neighbors and sell them, they fight off British overlords, barely, and are trapped by superstition and custom. Alas, Gyasi, a very young writer, has bitten off more than she can regurgitate in such a short novel. Trying to cover two continents and all the generations encumbered by nearly three centuries means the recounting of too many stories that feel just a bit familiar: an aborted ride on the underground railroad, a slave whose back is scarred beyond recognition by whippings, the Middle Passage is inhumanely sickening. The stories from Ghana are of course newer for us, but their brevity makes many of them too shallow to appreciate.
I was so disappointed. The book is billed as the great retelling of the Igbo battle for their independent state of Biafra separate from the oppressive, corrupt, military regime of 1960s Nigeria. Maybe the book finally gets to it, but first there are more than 150 pages of love story to establish stock characters: a wealthy, educated Nigerian princess in love with a firebrand African nationalist, her elusive business woman, twin sister in love with an impotent Brit (get it?, impotent British boyfriend in love with Nigeria, but incapble of acting appropriately beyond being in love with business opportunities), and a poor servant boy. After 200 something pages I gave up because the characters seemed drawn up for a graduate writing class and I didn’t really care enough about them to find out how the war would impact their love lives. The book has won awards and received amazing reviews; many others like it a lot more than I did. June 2007.
I didn’t see the movie, but listened to a recorded book expertly narrated by Mirron Willis. The reason to read this is for Foden’s probing insight into the mind of one of the original African megalomaniacs. Amin’s charisma is alive on the page (or at least in the voice of narrator Mirron Willis.) Violence and gore hover in the background as it must have in the lives of many Ugandans, yet rarely appears in the book, except when necessary for the plot. My complaints are comparatively trivial: loose ends tie up a little too neatly and the doctor central to telling the story, Nicholas Garrigan, never quite satisfies me when he stays on in Uganda long after he should have gotten out. Nevertheless, the author’s attention to the small details and the big picture, his story telling and thorough research, make it a worthwhile read. July 2007.
It’s hard to comprehend how anyone survives what Valentino had to in escaping Arab militiamen in southern Sudan and comes away only with excrutiating headaches. Moreover, Eggers is brilliant in retelling Valentino’s story as a novel that treads the line between despair and hope, being neither too depressing, nor too optimistic. I’m told that Valentino (who came to Allegheny for a semester) and Eggers went with the novel because the true story is even more difficult than what is printed here and because so many people were involved that the two of them figured it was easier to combine a few stories rather than ask readers to keep a surfeit of characters straight. Like a novel it’s a page turner, but in the back of every reader’s mind is the knowledge that the story of thousands of young boys walking for weeks across Sudan’s deserts chased by lions, bandits, militiamen, and hunger is all to true. July 2007.
A painfully clear explanation of the genocide that overtook Rwanda as seen through the eyes of a man who survived and simultaneously saved the lives of another 1,200 people. Not as gruesome as you might think it would be, nor as overtly political in its approach. The lasting message is that despite WWII’s horrors, people the world over are still susceptible to messages of hatred and dehumanization of the other. Fortunately, there are also still righteous individuals like the author.
This book is the Angela’s Ashes of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Fuller is utterly forthcoming about growing up the child of white, racist, ex-pat, British, drunken parents during the final days of the last outpost of white supremacist colonialism. The stories are so personal that when Fuller’s siblings die as children it is nearly unbearable to keep reading, but simultaneously so perfectly depicted the book is hard to put down. Fuller is a master of description: smells are palpable, humidity wafts from the pages, African night sounds stay with you after you turn off the light. She never condemns her family, yet you feel subconciously the destructive power of racism on every page. July 2006
Very thorough review of 50 years of his dispatches from sub-Saharan Africa. He’s a Polish journalist who’s seen it all in Africa and captures the good and the bad.