• 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.

  • A Journey to the End of the Millennium by A.B. Yehoshua **** (of 4)

    The year is 999. European Christians are awaiting the return of the Messiah. Ben Attar a Jewish Moroccan trader packs a ship with his desert wares, his two wives, his Islamic business partner, and a Rabbi to confront his nephew in Paris. The nephew used to be the third member of the trading partnership, but his new Parisian wife cannot tolerate the notion her husband consorts with bigamist Jews and repudiates the partnership. It is Sephardic cosmopolitanism versus the Ashkenazim living in the swamps, ghettoes, and drizzly dark forests of Christian Europe. Ultimately the book wrestles the question of love: a nephew for his uncle and his new wife; Ben Attar for his two wives (is that really possible or practical in 999 or ever?). November 2008.

  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller *** (of 4)

    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

  • An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina *** (of 4)

    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.