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.
Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard *** (of 4)
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.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi *** (of 5)
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.
An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson **** (of 4)
The year is 1942. Axis powers have taken control of Europe, east Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, and are threatening to consume Russia. Britain, the last western power, is teetering and the U.S. is slowly engaging its war machinery. The first direct contact between inexperienced American forces and the German Army is the battle for North Africa, which rages for two years back and forth across the inhospitable deserts of Tunisia and Algeria. What makes Rick Atkinson such a brilliant commander of storytelling is his ability to focus on individual bullets splintering rocks just above foxholes and at the same time understand and describe the huge wheeling actions of whole armies across seas, continents, months, and years. When the Germans are finally defeated in Tunisia it marks their first major loss and a coming of age for American forces, who (in Atkinson’s second book, The Day of Battle) are now prepared to leap the Mediterranean to invade Sicily and face the Wehrmacht head-on in the battle up the Italian boot toward the German homeland.
We Need New Names by Noviolet Buluwayo *** (of 4)
A young girl growing up in the disintegrating country of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe escapes by moving in with her aunt in Detroit, Michigan. Her account is covered in this two-part, highly autobiographical novel of life in two cultures. Part one is the joy and hunger of growing up with your friends on the streets in Zimbabwe. Darling, the main character, and her friends play outside all day long. They steal guavas from rich people to squelch their gnawing stomachs. Their clothes are torn, dirty donations. Their elders are away in South Africa searching for income or contracting HIV. Even as children, they are not nearly so ignorant of the world as we Westerners perceive: they know how to play the aid organizations, how deceptively palliative the churches are, and with surprising accuracy what opportunities exist in the U.S. Part two in some ways is more predictable. Life in America is hard for immigrants torn from the tastes, aromas, dust, and relatives back home. Darling finds American culture confined to computers, texting, shopping malls, school exams, cars, and cable. Coming of age is hard; doing so in a foreign country is harder; forsaking your homeland, even in search of opportunity, is always wrenching. The contribution of this book is its contemporary view of the experience.
1493 by Charles Mann *** (of 4)
Prior to Columbus’s blundering into the Caribbean, there was negligible interchange of plants, animals, or humans between continents. Shortly thereafter the onset of large-scale globalization was underway. Spain brought silver, Indians, new vegetables, and Spaniards from South America to the Philippines and China. Potatoes, tobacco, and corn from the Americasbecame main staples in Europe and Africa. The forced importation of Africans to the New World became one of the largest human transplantations in history. At many times, and in most places, the number of Africans in the Americas outnumbered whites by more than four to one, making the real history of the Americas a story of the interplay of Africans and Indians, rather than just a story of developing European supremacy. After reading 1493 and Mann’s first book, 1491, I’m more convinced than ever that the history I was taught — white, male, Eurocentric — overlooked 90 percent of what was important.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese *** (of 4)
This is a half-century story of Marion Stone, born in the late 1950s as the twin son of a British physician and a nun (oops). Both his parents vanish at his birth leaving him to be raised in a medical outpost in Addis Ababa by two Indian doctors, where he learns medicine first hand before becoming a surgeon, like his father, later in life. The characters are lovingly drawn and Ethiopian poverty and politics provide the continuing backdrop, the most interesting character in the book is medicine. I’ve never cared a great deal about the science and art of medicine, but Verghese, a practicing surgeon, lays it out in such graphic detail I was riveted by the myriad details, diagnoses, and decisions trauma surgeons must master.
Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux **** (of 4)
Fresh out of college in the mid 1960s, just before he became famous as one of the great travel writers of a generation, Paul Theroux worked as a Peace Corps volunteer and then teacher in East Africa. Forty years later, nearing the age of 60, wiser, crankier, and more critical Theroux returned to Africa to travel by land from Cairo to Cape Town. He recounts a series of countries worse off politically, environmentally, socially, and economically than they were when he worked there. He makes no bones about the fact that fault lies with aid agencies that have created an industry of fostering dependence and Africans unwilling to help themselves. Missionaries, too, receive a hammering for their self-righteous self-assuredness and their adding a level of misery to hardened lives by calling so many Africans sinners to their faces. While I don’t agree with all of his assessments — his level of political acumen seems shallow — his willingness to call it as he sees it and the unflinching accuracy with which he brings us to Africa make this book a must read.
The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold ** (of 4)
Griswold travels the around the globe hanging out approximately 10 degrees north of the equator. In Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines it’s the abrasion zone between Muslims who have spread from the north and Christians arriving by boat from the coasts and the south. In some aspects Griswold makes more of a religious conflict than probably really exists; she simplifies culture to unidimensional religious identification when most people carry ethnic, tribal, historic, and family identities, too. She focuses on the cities where conflict is most pronounced, sidestepping communities where coexistence and intermarriage are prevalent. What does jump out, however, is how tenacious and aggressive American-born, Christian missionaries are in their drive to save souls from damnation. It is easy to see how Muslim people and governments perceive American intervention (say in Iraq or Afghanistan) as a continuation of a long history of western, Christian, first British and now American, colonial domination. Anyone who has ever confronted a Christian missionary knows how unrelenting and self-confident they can be. Unfortunately, the book isn’t an easy read. Somehow Griswold makes history and conflict more complicated rather than less. By mentioning every actor from local to national with a relationship to a particular zone she confused me. My mind wandered and eventually I could hang on no longer.
Made someone’s Must-Read list. Newsweek, I think.