About Time I Read It: The Troubled Heart of Africa by Robert B. Edgerton

Years ago one of the first reading challenged I joined was the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Ghanian book blogger Kinna on her blog Kinna Reads. She invited participants to read at least five books by “African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues”, with at least three of those books by African authors. She also suggested we read books representing at least two regions of the continent: North Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa and Central Africa. It was a fun challenge, inspiring me to read books set in, or about a number of African countries including Egypt, Djibouti, and Ivory Coast. Sadly though after Kinna stopped hosting the challenge I read fewer and fewer books about Africa.

Fast forward to the present and I found myself wanting to read about Africa. Not knowing where to start I recently borrowed a library copy of Robert B. Edgerton’s 2002 The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo, figuring it would also make a good follow-up read to Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. After finishing The Troubled Heart of Africa early yesterday morning I’m willing to say this book probably won’t go down as one of my favorite nonfiction works of 2023. But I’m pleased to day thanks to Edgerton I now know more about Congo.

A massive county the size of Western Europe, Congo boasts an embarrassment of riches. Despite its near landlocked status it nevertheless possesses a narrow accesses to the sea. While not completely navigable its namesake mighty river provides unfettered access to at least some of the country. But most of all, as far as natural resources go Congo is awash in diamonds, uranium, copper, cobalt and coltan and even boasts significant petroleum reserves. Upon achieving independence in 1960 the Central African nation was the second most industrialized nation on the continent after South Africa.

But being so blessed can also be a curse. For over 500 years powerful nations have coveted Congo’s wealth and taken what they’ve wanted. In the late 15th century Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese enslaved countless Congolese shipping them across the seas to Europe and later the Americas to toil as slaves. A few centuries later the Arabs were doing much the same thing, capturing Congolese from the eastern part of the country and selling them into slavery throughout the Muslim world.

But the worst was yet to come. Feeling his relatively small, newly independent Kingdom of Belgium needed a colony King Leopold cast his eyes towards Africa, ultimately choosing a barely explored interior section of continent still  uncolonized by any European power. Promising to bring Christianity and the glories of Western civilization to the benighted peoples of Central Africa Leopold utilized a mix of skillful diplomacy and centrifuge to stake his claim. For the next several decades he ruled the Congo like his private slave plantation, forcing the population to supply his murderous agents with ivory, and later rubber. The result was the deaths of millions of Congolese from overwork, malnutrition and murder. (Countless more were whipped, tortured and dismembered if deemed uncooperative.)  Only after a global crusade brought these atrocities to light was Leopold forced to transfer ownership of the Congo to Belgium.

Although Belgium granted Congo independence in 1960 because of a half century of Belgian misrule the young African nation was doomed to fail from the beginning. As a result of Belgium’s refusal to provide higher education opportunities to its Black colonial subjects there were no native Congolese doctors, engineers or veterinarians. Likewise, only white Belgians served as military officers or police chiefs. Of the native Congolese vying to lead the newly independent nation virtually none were college educated, the only schooling they received came from lackluster Catholic mission schools. On top of all of this Congo encompassed a bewildering number of diverse ethnic groups, with at least several of these having independence aspirations of their own. Naturally, this would frustrate any attempts to forge a cohesive nation, leading to decades of intermittent civil wars and foreign interventions.

Up to the present day Congo’s abundance of natural resources, far from enriching the country would lead to instability and strife. Vast uranium deposits in Katanga province would attract attention from the world’s powers, spark bloody separatist movements and with nations around the to taking different sides. With the country broken and impoverished after decades of Mubuto’s megalomaniacal misrule the cancer-addled dictator was finally overthrown by a Rwandan and Uganda led army of Congolese rebels. Sadly, instead of this being a promising opportunity for a fresh start a half dozen or so of Congo’s neighbors soon took advantage of the country’s weakened state to invade and pillage Congo’s diamonds and coltan.

In addition to the previously mentioned King Leopold’s Ghost, The Troubled Heart of Africa also makes a good follow-up read to Michela Wrong’s 2001 In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, not to mention Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 modern classic of a novel The Poisonwood Bible. I’d encourage you to give all four books a shot.

Book Beginnings: The Troubled Heart of Africa by Robert B. Edgerton

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”


Why should the Congo’s past interest anyone today? An obvious reason is to try to understand the seemingly endless suffering and endurance of its people. The history of the Congo is one of unremitting evil on the part of its leaders, whether Europeans or Congolese, yet at every stage of this history ordinary people refused to surrender their compassion for one another, their quest for happiness, and their hope for a better future.

Last week I featured Stieg Larsson’s 2008 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Before that it was Josh Hanagarne’s 2013 The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family. This week it’s Robert B. Edgerton’s 2002 The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo

I’ve been reading a lot of books about Europe. In past years my focus seemed to be on the Middle East. But reading-wise I kinda ignored Africa. That’s a shame because the world’s second largest continent sounds like a fascinating place. So this year I vowed to read more books about Africa, starting with this one I grabbed not long ago at the library. Here’s what Amazon has to say about The Troubled Heart of Africa

Written over a century ago, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness continues to dominate our vision of the Congo, unlikely as it might seem that a late-Victorian novella could encapsulate a country roughly equal in size to the United States east of the Mississippi. Conrad’s Congo is hell itself, a place where civilization won’t take, where literal and metaphor darknesses converge, and where human conduct, unmoored from social (Western, in other words) norms, turns barbaric. As Robert Edgerton shows in this crisply narrated yet sweeping work of history, the Congo is still trying to awaken from the nightmare of its past, struggling to pull free from the grip of the “heart of darkness” cliche.

2022 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed  just 10 books. This year I’m happy to report I doubled my output with 20. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany to tiny ones like Vatican City

  1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Sweden) 
  2. True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Kati Marton (Hungary) 
  3. Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island by Lawrence Durrell (Cyprus) 
  4. The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine (Greece) 
  5. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Portugal) 
  6. The Sacrament by Ólafur Ólafsson (Iceland) 
  7. The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples by David Gilmour (Italy) 
  8. Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 by Adam Hochschild (Spain) 
  9. Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II by Frank Blaichman (Poland) 
  10. Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Albania) 
  11. I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys (Romania) 
  12. God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic by Karlheinz Deschner (Vatican City) 
  13. The Son and Heir by Alexander Münninghoff (The Netherlands)
  14. The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach (Belarus) 
  15. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen (Russia) 
  16. Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively (United Kingdom) 
  17. On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe (Belgium) 
  18. A Hero of France by Alan Furst (France) 
  19. Here in Berlin by Cristina García (Germany) 
  20. Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches From Kiev by Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine) 

Just like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction. Five of these are translated works. Two were originally published in Dutch, and one each from German, Russian and Swedish. A number of these books also made my 2022 Favorite Nonfiction or 2022 Favorite Fiction lists

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: Haben by Haben Girma

I don’t think anyone can resist a memoir by the first deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Even though I was up to my eyeballs in library books I didn’t resist it either, grabbing a copy of Haben Girma’s 2019 Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law during one of my weekend library visits. A light read but far from a piece of fluff, I whipped through it quickly. I walked away from Haben with both an admiration for its author, but also a new perspective on what it’s like to live with different abilities. 

As one might guess from the book’s subtitle Girma is a pretty remarkable person. The American-born daughter of Eritrean immigrants she was born legally blind and deaf. As a child she might walk into a room and see a person sitting on a couch as a shadowy blur. But by the time she was a young adult her sense of sight had deteriorated to the point “walking into a room is like stepping into an abstract painting of fuzzy formations and colorful smashes.” Born with low frequency hearing but not high, over the years she would lose even that modest ability. But to her credit she bravely battled on, refusing to let those sensory restrictions prevent her from living an accomplished life. 

And what an accomplished life so far. In high school, Girma successfully lobbied her parents to let her to spend a summer in the African nation of Mali doing relief work. Later, instead of sticking safely close to home in the Bay Area with premier colleges Stanford and UC Berkeley in her own backyard she opted to attend Lewis and Clark in my former town of Portland, Oregon. (It’s fun to imagine I might have passed her on the street during one of her forays off campus.) Later, after graduating from Harvard Law School she would go on to serve as a disability rights lawyer and play an instrumental role in winning a landmark ADA-related case. For her successful efforts as an attorney and disabilities advocate she earned a trip to the White House to be honored by both Vice President Biden and President Obama.

Much like it’s author, this memoir is direct, passionate and a much needed challenge to our long-held assumptions of people with different abilties. 

Book Beginnings: Haben by Haben Girma

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”


I’m deafblind. Because I can’t see faces or recognize voices,
every conversation needs to start with a name. My friends begin conversations like this: “It’s Cam,” “It’s Gordon,” or if someone is drinking, “It’s me.”

Last week I featured the 2016 novel This House Is Mine by German writer and linguist Dörte Hansen. The week before it was the 2016 biography True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Hungarian-American writer Kati Marton. This week it’s the 2019 memoir Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Eritrean-American lawyer and disability rights advocate Haben Girma.

Haben is one of several books over the last month or so that’s intrigued me as I’ve walked by it on the shelf during my weekend trips to the public library. The true story of a death and blind woman who was able to graduate from Harvard Law School was simply too hard to resist. I was also pleased to learn she did her undergraduate studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, a city where I lived my entire life until just a few years ago. Instead of me blathering on, here’s what the book’s page on Amazon has to say:

Haben defines disability as an opportunity for innovation. She learned non-visual techniques for everything from dancing salsa to handling an electric saw. She developed a text-to-braille communication system that created an exciting new way to connect with people. Haben pioneered her way through obstacles, graduated from Harvard Law, and now uses her talents to advocate for people with disabilities.


Library Loot

After returning a small stack of books to the public library I was ready for more. In recent Library Loots I’ve been featuring a lot of fiction, much of it by authors from outside the US. This week I’ve returned to my old ways with a nice selection of nonfiction. But much like before, two of these authors are from outside the US. Helen Rappaport is from the United Kingdom while Gianni Guadalupi hails from Italy. With the exception of Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution these books were published over 10 years ago. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

About Time I Read It: On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe

It’s not everyday you discover a novel by a Nigerian writer, translated from Dutch and set in Antwerp, Belgium. Lucky for me, the good people at my public library felt the same way. Prominently displayed as to catch the eye of even the most unobservant patron like myself Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street is the sad yet skillfully crafted story of four African women, who through a combination of bad luck, poor choices and evil machinations of a Nigerian pimp have been forced to work as prostitutes in the city’s red-light district.

Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce all had dreams, be it a successful career, marital bliss or happy motherhood. But somewhere along the way they encountered significant setbacks. During these most vulnerable moments they encountered Dele. Charming and wealthy, he lavished the young women with flattery and attention, promising they’d make big money working respectable jobs in Europe’s most glamorous cities. Offering to arrange everything, once they accepted one by one Dele flew them to Antwerp, where upon arrival it was made clear they were now prostitutes expected to stand night after night in the windows of the red-light district offering their bodies to passing men. Thrown together in this unenviable predicament, over time the four women form a tight bond, sharing their respective backstories of how they wound up as reluctant sex workers and what they’d like to do once they escaped.

Unigwe’s 2011 novel is a tragic tale told vividly and beautifully. But most of all told as only an African could, employing distinctive cadence and vernacular. Just like Bruce Riedel’s Kings and Presidents, Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai and Cristina García Here in Berlin On Black Sisters Street is shaping up to be one of this year’s pleasant surprises.

About Time I Read It: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa until recently is one many highly praised books sitting in my personal library ignored and unread for years. Even though I’d included it in several TBR reading challenges over the years I never made an effort to read it. Then last week for some inexplicable reason I picked up my copy of King Leopold’s Ghost and gave it a shot. Like so many other great books in my personal library that went unread so long I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Until the 1998 publication of King Leopold’s Ghost the death of as many as 10 million Congolese at the hands of their Belgian colonial overlords and agents was a forgotten genocide, at most an obscure historical footnote. Mining the historical record of first hand accounts, newspaper articles, letters and the like Hochschild has bequeathed  to a new generation a detailed and accessible history of the horrors that were inflicted upon the innocent peoples of of late 19th century Central Africa. Hochschild also recalls the forgotten stories of those crusading individuals who frequently faced impossible odds to bring such atrocities to light. Called by many as a history book that reads like a novel, King Leopold’s Ghost is a vivid testimony to both the evil that men do and those committed to fighting it.

As the nations of Europe carved up Africa in search of colonies one monarch from the relatively small kingdom of Belgium sought the biggest prize of all. For the first third or so of his adult life King Leopold was seen by his royal peers as a shallow bore, nothing more than a petty monarch of a minor realm. Tired of being out-shadowed by grander heads of state like his first cousin Queen Victoria of Great Britain Leopold wanted a piece of colonial real estate he could call his own. Playing imperial powers like England and France against each other and enlisting the assistance of the upstart United States while also crafting a wily public relations game he was able to place a huge swath of Central Africa under his control, in effect making it his own personal territory to exploit as he saw fit.

Wealth first flowed from Congo into Leopold’s private purse in the form of Ivory. Before advances in field of petrochemicals ivory was the plastics of the 19th century, used in everything from billiard balls to false teeth. Elephants were slaughtered mercilessly for their tusks to keep up with demand. Later, advances in technology sparked a need for rubber and before long Leopold’s agents were transforming Congo into one, massive rubber plantation. But these extractive industries came a horrible price. Perversely billed as an African “Free State” Congo was little more than a nation of slaves. To enrich Leopold its inhabitants were beaten, mutilated, starved and murdered into submission.

This is a great book that succeeds in telling a grim story. I highly recommend you read it and if you do, I strongly suggest you go with the newer 2020 edition. Barbara Kingsolver, in her foreward recalls the impact the book had on her 20 years earlier around the time her novel The Poisonwood Bible was published. The book concludes with a personal afterword by Hochschild in which he looks back on the two decades since the King Leopold’s Ghost’s publication and how some, but not all in the West, including Belgium have come to grips with the genocide. In the half century following the nation’s independence from Belgium Congo has been plagued by civil wars, poverty and oppression. Almost like Leopold’s murderous ghost still haunts the tortured land.

About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Some staff member at my favorite local library must be a fan of Richard Dawkins because for weeks a copy of the esteemed scientist’s  2013 memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist had been prominently displayed in the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section. One Saturday my curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to borrow it. Once the memoir was in my possession I slowly made my way through it, finishing mere days before it was due back at the library. Perhaps like most books, there as things about it I liked and things I didn’t.

This is the second book I’ve read by the renowned British evolutionary biologist, science writer and “New Atheist.” Over a decade ago I read his much talked about 2006 book The God Delusion. (Not long afterwards I followed it up with Alister McGrath and Joanna McGrath’s Christian response,The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.) Written as the first volume of a two volume set, the book covers the lives of his parents, his childhood and his early career as a scientist, ending with the publication of his first book The Selfish Gene.

Before reading Appetite for Wonder I would have assumed even though I wasn’t an expert on Dawkins I probably knew more about him than the average person. After reading this book I learned quite quickly how ignorant I really was. For instance, I had no idea he was born in Africa. (His father had been working as an agricultural civil servant in what is now Malawi when he was drafted into the military. A few years later, after his father was posted to nearby Kenya Dawkins was born.) Likewise, I had no idea one of the world’s most prominent atheists was a devout Anglican in his youth, albeit for a short period. I also wasn’t aware he spent time at UC Berkeley as an assistant professor of zoology during the tumultuous late 60s and took part in anti-war protests. Lastly, I had no idea he was a pioneer in the field of computer programing.

My least favorite passages of the book are the ones where Dawkins goes on and on about early computer programming. I also didn’t enjoy some of the science-related stuff, but his thoughts on evolution towards the end of the book were pretty good. Overall, it’s a decent book and it’s left me thinking I might read more of his stuff down the road.