Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Kruse's Keys 2018 Reading List:

You can see our lists from 2009201020112013201420152016 and 2017.  You can also see my Reading the African Continent List here.

Memoirs of a Porcupine

So this is a difficult novel from renowned author Alain Mabanckou. Hailing from the Republic of Congo (the good one--hint: if a country has the name "democratic" or "democracy " in it, it's probably not), ubiquitous writer Mabanckou has penned a pointed tale aimed at taking down the role of backwoods superstition amidst modernity--at least that's what really smart people say he was doing. I will admit I didn't really understand the point of this novel and had to do some research to come to this deeper aforementioned conclusion. As I finished the last pages of this story, I was pretty disappointed I hadn't picked a different Congolese novel for my Reading the Continent project. But in my research afterwards, I discovered the book was the 2006 Renaudot prize winner (given to the best original French language novel) and so in the aftermath, I've decided to give it a second chance--at least on an intellectual level.

*My full review is here.
**One of my "Reading Around the African Continent" books--the full list is here.

Sing Unburied Sing (*Audible)
Early on in "Sing, Unburied, Sing," the young son of a barely-there-back-country-voodoo-meth-addicted mother, makes the damning pronouncement that his mother Leonie "kills things." And indeed, death hangs heavy in this novel and a sense of dread is immediately present as the Ward reveals a forgotten place in the backwoods of the South where everything is upside down, where everything is in decay, and where death is not a permanent state but rather is transitory. I'd liken this novel to Daniel Woodrell's revelatory "Winter's Bone" in that it unveils a segment of America that is largely forgotten, ignored, and written off.

 Ostensibly, this is a fairly straight forward narrative. Single mother Leonie, her two children, and her junkie friend embark on a road trip to pick up Leonie's boyfriend when he gets out of jail. The story's depth emerges as Ward reveals that three of the characters can see certain wandering dead ghosts--ghosts that it turns out are looking for answers. Ward's literary mastery is evident, though, in the way in which this novel doesn't become a some supernatural story. She's able to do this because she's created characters with whom she so deeply empathizes that their visions don't seem fantastical but seem instead real and necessary as this family tries to come to grips with its past as they are mired down in a present quagmire.

My full review is here.

Beyond the Rice Fields
Malagasy author Naivo has crafting a heart-wrenching tale of love sets amidst one slave’s seemingly impossible yearning for success and upward mobility. Impressively, the author’s expansive piece of pre-colonial historical fiction doesn’t hold back in addressing some oft-considered taboo subjects in Madagascar such as slavery and the wholesale execution of Christians under Queen Ranavalona’s reign in the 19th century. The narrative centers on Tsito, a child whose family were “forest people” and captured, then sold into slavery by the ruling Merina highlanders (called amboalambos, i.e., pig-dogs by the atandroy or antakarana--it’s unclear which tribe the author refers to when he uses the denotation ‘forest people). He grows up with his master Rado’s family and develops a bond with Rado’s daughter Fara. The story unfolds through dueling narratives between these two characters.

The book reads as a mixture of hainteny (oral tale/poetry) and tantara (historical narrative) with a liberal dosing of Malagasy proverbs/adages (I counted 29 of them). One in particular proves emblematic as Fara ponders her destiny:

Love is like rice, when you transplant it, it grows, but never in the same way. It retains a bittersweet memory of its first soils. Every time it’s uprooted it dies a little; every time it’s replanted, it loses a piece of its soil. But it also bears fruit (188).

Naivo proves himself a skilled and brave writer in Beyond the Rice Fields. With the publication of his novel in English, he has illuminated a period of Malagasy history previously hidden from most of the world. Along the way, he has brought to life the rich traditions and deep culture of a country and people that are all too often wrongly associated solely with lemurs and coups by radio DJs.

*My full review is here.
**One of my "Reading Around the African Continent" books--the full list is here.

African Kaiser (*Audible)
It quickly becomes apparent in the impressive tome, African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918that author Robert Gaudi is a bit of a von Lettow-Vorbeck fanboy. But this admiration is not without merit as the reader quickly learns the insurmountable odds faced by the German general fighting alone (i.e., without logistical support) and unafraid in German East Africa during World War I. While the general ends his four-year struggle in unconditional surrender at the hands of the British (after being ordered to following the actual Kaiser’s abdication), he completed his military service as a victor, having succeeded in his mission of pushing Great Britain to expend immense treasure and forces in its pursuit of his small army of guerrilla fighters.

Historian Edwin Palmer Hoyt described Lettow-Vorbeck’s campaign as “the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful." He did this largely by eschewing the traditional army tactics of the previous century and decentralizing his command in order to attack British supply chains and force them to commit greater and greater forces. His success did come at a high price, however, as his highly disciplined, nail-tough Askari forces (porters and soldiers) died in untallied numbers (although much less proportionately than their adversaries). There’s much evidence though that he was widely respected by his men as seen in a return trip to Tanzania later in his life as an 80 year old retiree in which he was greeted with cheers by again former soldiers and hoisted above their heads.

Despite this being Gaudi’s first book, this lengthy book (18 hours on Audible!) flies by on the strength of his story-telling and narrative prowess. The author also ties up Lettow-Vorbeck’s life story neatly with a well-researched retelling us his life-long quest for love and a notable distaste for Hitler which culminated in his telling Hitler to “go F*** himself” when the genocidal dictator offered him an ambassadorship.

*My full review is here.
**One of my "Reading Around the African Continent" books--the full list is here.

Turn the Ship Around
I first heard about “Turn the Ship Around” on college classmate Scott Macke’s Service Academy Business Mastermind podcast. In it, he interviewed the author, retired Captain David Marquet, and delved into both his writing process and his revolutionary leadership philosophy. I let the book rest dormant on my amazon wishlist for months, however, because of my unfair bias against submariners. Despite some of my best friends being bubbleheads, I just didn’t associate leadership with that community. I wasn’t even a chapter into the book when I realized how misguided my bias had been.

There’s one episode in particular that sold me on Marquet as a leader that I would follow. My emphasis is on ‘as a leader’ because really, someone can put together a snappy, clever, well-marketed leadership product but people don’t follow a product--they follow a person. About midway through the book, Marquet shares the story of a nighttime passage the the strait of Malacca. This is a high risk evolution that nearly resulted in a collision with a tugboat if not for the exemplary and timely actions of one of his petty officers. As soon as the sub was clear, Captain Marquet immediately awarded the petty officer a Navy Achievement Medal on the spot. This floored me because despite it being a recognition that any Commanding Officer can give, I’d never seen it awarded other than at the end of someone’s tour. I’d say with confidence that my personal observations are indicative of trends across the Navy. If anything, commanding officers today tend to be more worried about awards inflation (i.e., too many O-4s getting DSMS for example) than actually providing timely recognition. Beyond that, I’ve had to put myself up for every award I’ve even gotten and usually end of tour awards arrive a year after you’ve already PCS’d (i.e., moved to your next assignment for my civilian readers). So I appreciated that Marquet not only cut through the bureaucracy (he did the write up afterwards, but also that he quickly and publicly recognized exemplary conduct. Marquet also made sure to have family members present whenever possible for awards--something commands often overlook. My full review is here.

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work
Pastor Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor is not a beach read. It’s a hunker-down-with-a-highlighter-and-pen-philosophically-deep examination of what work means to God and what it should mean to anyone following God. Against a backdrop of much dense and completely thorough analysis, Keller seeks to lay out the Bible’s answer to three central questions:

Why do you want to work?
Why is it so hard to work?
How can the story of Jesus’ life lead us to find satisfaction in our work?

It’s in Keller’s examination of this last question that the reader will find the utility of this book. It’s evident from reading the New Testament that Jesus lived a life devoted to changing the culture he was in (i.e., one obsessed with a showy, outward following the letter of the law) through service and love. So in the example of his life’s “work” we see a template for how Christians must also approach work. And indeed, regardless of our station in life, we must seek out how we can serve others in our workplace.

This is obviously easier said than done but it’s a lot easier when we have a true appreciation for God’s love. You see, God made us because he loved us and he even more importantly, he made us for eternal love. In the Bible we have the Trinity as an example of eternal love: that is, three persons who have loved one another from all eternity. We are created to share love and joy. Practically, understanding the magnitude of this should lead us to not discard work’s importance for that of our personal relationships and leisure, but instead it should drive us to make the most of our time at work. While at work it should cause us to pour ourselves into pursuits that help people give and receive more love.

Ultimately, Keller points out that how we approach work from a non-religious socio-cultural aspect can model the Bible’s version of of these things. That is, how we handle adversity, how we handle difficult decisions, how we incorporate our family, how we incorporate colleagues into our own family where possible, can point our coworkers towards Jesus’ examples. More than any marches, protests, online petitions, or Facebook rantings, our work is our greatest opportunity to shape culture. It’s Keller’s hope that readers of Every Good Endeavor will leave it understanding that “We must think persistently and deeply about the shape of work in our field and whether (in biblical terms) it accords as well as possible with human well-being and with justice.”  My full review is here.

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (Ethiopia)
Before Adichie was regaling the world with her story of a relatively privileged immigrant experience in her brilliant 2013 novel “Americanah” (I wrote about it here), Ethiopian author Dinaw Mengestu was pulling back the curtain on a much bleaker immigrant experience in his 2007 “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.” I came across his debut novel after reading his masterful “All Our Names”, a story that I dubbed the “Great African Novel” (you can read my review here).

It’s telling that Mengestu chooses to frame his brave, funny, and sad story under the auspices of a key line from Dante’s Inferno. In particular, the title comes from the closing lines of Dante’s Inferno, as Dante and Virgil emerge from their voyage through the 9 circles of hell on Easter morning. With a journey through purgatory and paradise still ahead, the travelers look up to the star-soaked heavens:

“Through a round aperture I saw appear/Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears/Where we came forth and once more saw the stars.”

It is this experience of capturing beauty following unspeakable evil and adversity that Mengestu likens to the immigrant experience for so many (Africans in the book’s case). In the case of the narrator Sepha and his friends, they have escaped the violence in their own country and arrived in America, “seeing the stars.” Only they soon discover that while their new life in the United States may not be hell, it will likely be much more like the penance of purgatory than that of paradiso. Sepha emphasizes the direction of this journey a la purgatory as he notes: “As it was, I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.”
*My full review is here.
**One of my "Reading Around the African Continent" books--the full list is here.

What the Day Owes the Night (Algeria)
What the Day Owes the Night is one of the saddest love stories you will ever read--in it you’ll witness the stillbirth of a romantic love and the lasting depth of a filial one. Khadra’s novel brings to mind the beautiful writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the melancholy sorrow of Neruda’s “Poem 20”, and the powerful narrative arc of Mahfouz’ The Cairo Trilogy. The height of the story’s narrative comes as the woman who should be the love of Younes’ life indicts him with the damning charge: Have you ever dared? And indeed, Younes’ sorry story is one of impotence as he never has dared and we bear witness to the slow disintegration of his life. In contrast, after centuries of subjugation, Algeria the country awakens and dares wildly, breaking its colonial chains, bloody link by bloody link. It’s in his ability to craft a story through these simultaneously ascending/descending narratives that Khadra displays true literary mastery.
*My full review is here.
**One of my "Reading Around the African Continent" books--the full list is here.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (*Audible) (DRC)

I listened to this lengthy journalistic endeavor by writer Jason Stearns while driving home from work to Annapolis during the month of June. In it Stearns attempts to unravel the most complicated conflict that the world never cared about: the two wars in the Congo as he notes: “generally we do not care about a strange war fought by black people somewhere in the middle of africa.” This stands in stark contrast to the conflict in, say Kosovo, by contrast (Ch 23: 21:10).

As Stearns digs deeper and deeper into the wars, however, you are quickly struck by the overwhelming intensity of violence. Eventually it starts to weigh down upon you as you hear tale after graphic tale of rape and murder by every side (and there are many). In particular, the sheer level of sexual violence in incomprehensible as there’s likely no one in the country of 64 million who doesn’t know someone who was raped or assaulted (this Guardian piece notes that 12% of women in the Congo have been raped at least once). The reality of this becomes readily apparent as Stearns cautiously queries a gathered mixed crowd in one village as to whether they know anyone who’s been raped. Their reply: “We’ve all been raped, every single one of us!” (Ch 19: 40:36) The women go on to explain that in most cases, the rapists still live in their community.

Ultimately, it is the absence of justice that marks the conflicts in Congo as distinct from those elsewhere in Africa. There have been no truth and reconciliations commissions or gacaca courts to salve the deep wounds of most in the country. When one couples this festering infection with the lack of any effective state institutions, one is left without much hope. As Stearns observes, with no real state or effective governance, people default to ethnic identification which in turn only amplifies instability and further conflict (Ch 16: 44:31). The book does not end on a hopeful note but this was never the author’s mission. Rather Stearns has sought to reveal an incredibly complex issue that will hopefully inspire action and understanding. As the renowned Congolese singer Koffi Olomide notes in one of his songs: “Lies come up in the elevator, the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually” *My full review is here.
**One of my "Reading Around the African Continent" books--the full list is here.

The Memory of Love (Sierra Leone)

“We all were happy here once” reminisces Kai, the local Freetown surgeon, after the death of his last link to the time before. In “The Memory of Love”, with beautiful, striking prose author Aminattah Forna reveals the soul of a nation where nearly everyone is stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the time after. And while PTSD may be the official western diagnosis, as one local notes: “You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.” The life that the reader discovers is one of contradictions as buddinglove constantly collides with the memory of pain. On one hand, Forna expertly frames the bittersweet nature of love as character Elias Cole remarks: “People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss.” On the other hand, Cole’s daughter Mamakay shares with her British lover Adrian why she and her friend slipped on jeans when they rebels broached the city: ‘Have you ever tried to get a pair of tight jeans off in a hurry? It was the only thing we could think of to do. To stop them raping us. Well, to make it harder.’ 

This painful history of sexual violence plays a prominent role as British tourist-psychologist Adrian tries to unpack a the mystery of one wondering, perhaps-possessed patient, a budding friendship with Kai, and the story of a dying man named Elias Cole. In this journey Forna examines what it means to love and to survive in Sierra Leone. And the author does not give in to easy storylines about the courage of the war’s survivors as Mamakay notes: “Courage is not what it took to survive. Quite the opposite! You had to be a coward to survive. To make sure you never raised your head above the parapet, never questioned, never said anything that might get you into trouble.” So how does a society, how does a nation go on with this twisted corporate history of incestuous betrayal and violence? How do a people wake up each day? It is Kai who reveals Forna’s central thesis: “And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.” It is the memory of Sierra Leone’s before, that is what gives people their strength to slowly put their lives together again. Ultimately, Forna rejects any pitying outsider’s assessment of her nation: “People think war is the worst this country has ever seen: they have no idea what peace is like. The courage it takes simply to endure.”

*My full review is here.
**One of my "Reading Around the African Continent" books--the full list is here.

The Gunny Sack (Tanzania)
Currently reading.
*My full review will be here.
**One of my "Reading Around the African Continent" books--the full list is here.

American War: A Novel (*Audible)

Egyptian-Canadian (by way of Qatar) journalist-turned-author Omar El Akkad has penned a tale of what I’d call “future-historical fiction(ish).” We are dropped into a world 40 years in the future where America has erupted into a chaotic conflict over the federal government’s outlawing of fossil fuels. This north-south split is aggravated by accelerated global warming and rising ocean levels that are swallowing up coastlines everywhere. 10 years ago this type of novel might have seem far-fetched but a casual perusal of today’s headlines place in squarely in the realm of scary-enough-it-just-could-happen-maybe.

Amidst these cataclysmic events, we witness the tragic arc of Sarat, a young girl whose life is quickly thrown into chaos as the violence of war encroaches and overwhelms her family’s life. Sarat quickly becomes a hardened women-turned sniper-turned prisoner of war-turned mass murderer.

The staying power of this novel comes from Akkad’s mastering in capturing the ways that media and political rhetoric can distort reality and inflame the populace. It’s also a good lesson on why it’s important for students to learn to evaluate events (past and present) from a diversity of viewpoints and sources.

*My full review is here.

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