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.

About Time I Read It: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

When it comes to book recommendations, never underestimate the value of word of mouth. Had it not been for a friend’s recommendation, I might never have read great books like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Dark Money or The Lost Gutenberg. Not long ago a good friend of mine (and one of the smartest people I know) told me she was reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and had good things to say about it. While I was at the public library grabbing memoirs a few weeks ago I helped myself to a well-worn copy. Keep in mind I was doing all this based on my friend’s recommendation. I avoid celebrity memoirs like the plague. On top of that, haven’t watched The Daily Show in years, and not since Noah took over as host. After ignoring Noah’s book for about a week I gave it a try. My good friend did not steer me wrong. Thanks to Born a Crime I probably learned more about South Africa’s transition from white-minority rule to post-Apartheid democracy than anything I’ve read up to this point. And while doing so, thanks to Noah’s intelligent and irreverent wit, I laughed repeatedly.

Under South Africa’s old regime interracial liaisons were illegal, but human beings being what we are, nevertheless such couplings still happened. (Noah, reflecting on the absurdity of such a prohibition figured if the police ever caught an interracial couple in flagrante delicto the apprehending officer would just counsel the white male, “just go home, you’re drunk.”) With his mother a black Xhosa and his father a white Swiss expat, the biracial Noah was, and still is classified under South African law as coloured. Being biracial could be thought of as inhabiting two worlds at once. Perhaps this almost quantum state combined with his talent for mastering multiple languages (he speaks eight, including English, Xhosa and Afrikaans), wit and good natured charm allowed him to communicate with and relate well to most, if not all the South Africans he encountered throughout his young life regardless of their race or class. Alas, however as many a parent can tell you when a young man is blessed with wit, charm and ambition it’s tempting to be mischievous. It was these stories, the ones in which young Trevor not as much broke the rules, but, well, bended were my favorites.

The world knows Trevor Noah as a television star and a global celebrity. I’m amazed after reading his memoir the obstacles he overcame to get where he is today. If growing up coloured in South Africa wasn’t enough he had to endure crushing poverty, (at one point reduced to eating caterpillars) a murderously abusive stepfather, a religiously zealous hard-ass mother (Sundays she would drag Noah to not one, but three different churches), violent crime (the book begins with young Trevor and his mom having to bail out of a moving passenger van because they were in the process of being kidnapped) and oppressive South African police.

I enjoyed Born a Crime. It taught me a lot of South Africa and made me laugh. Can’t go wrong with that.

20 Books of Summer: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff

I’ve never read any Joseph Conrad, but like a lot of people I was unknowingly introduced to his writing thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. I was exposed to Heart of Darkness courtesy of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic. The sci-fi-fi movies Alien and Aliens served as preludes of sort to Conrad’s novel Nostromo, since the first film featured a spaceship of the same name while its sequel Aliens, stared a group of space marines from the U.S.S. Sulaco, named for the fictional Latin American town in the Conrad novel. But these cinematic borrowings never inspired me to read any Conrad, despite for years having a copy of Heart of Darkness a good friend gave me for my birthday.

About a year ago I came across several favorable reviews of a new biography of Conrad, namely The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff. The reviews mentioned he’d found literary success only later in life after he’d effectively retired as a merchant seaman. During those impressionable years at sea he not only visited countless exotic locales around the globe but did so during an era when the world experienced its first wave of globalization as foreign peoples were colonized, markets expanded and international trade exploded. Duly intrigued by what I’d read, I vowed to borrow a copy of The Dawn Watch from my public library. Who knows, maybe if I read it, I’d finally get off my butt and read some Conrad.

Last week my library obtained an e-book version of The Dawn Watch which I quickly borrowed. I have to say it’s quite good. And yes, it’s probably inspired me to finally read some Joseph Conrad.

The writer we know today as Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in what’s now Ukraine. His parents were minor Polish nobility and ardent Polish nationalists opposed to Russian subjugation of their homeland. As a young boy he was homeschooled in French, English as well as Polish romantic poetry. After losing both his parents to tuberculosis he was sent to live with his Francophile uncle. By the time Józef became conversant in French he’d also developed a yearning to sail the ocean. At the tender age of 16 at his uncle’s behalf he moved to Marseilles to sail on a French vessel. After a few years of sailing under a French flag he feared he’d be deported to Russia to serve in the Tsar’s army. To escape military conscription he signed on with British ship. In all he’d spend over two decades as a merchant seaman visiting every continent save Antarctica.

According to Jasanoff it was these travels that provided Conrad with the material for his books. Working on a steamship in SE Asia served as the inspiration for Lord Jim. The horrors he witnessed while chugging up the Congo in Belgian-held central Africa provided him the template for Heart of Darkness. A story about a stolen shipment of silver he heard during a brief foray into the Gulf of Mexico would eventually form the nucleus for Nostromo. Lastly, his experiences living in London living among the city’s huge Polish expat community would greatly shape The Secret Agent.

I walked away from The Dawn Watch feeling Conrad’s life was bookended by transition. When he began his maritime career, sail was gradually being phased out in favor of steam. The British led the world in this arena thanks to their then state of the art coal-powered steamships and extensive network of coaling stations spread throughout their empire. Later in his life, as an English-language writer living in his adopted country of England, he witnessed the rise of the United States as a world power, made evident by its continental expansion, acquisition of foreign territories like Guam and the Philippines, increasing economic might and blistering industrialization. Meanwhile, closer to home fear abounded that Great Britain was slipping into decline. As America’s stature rose, British assertiveness in Western Hemisphere became a thing of the past. A surprisingly costly Boer War and a rapidly growing German navy challenged the once universal belief the British Empire was invincible.

The Dawn Watch is a great book. It reads with ease and is well-researched. Don’t be surprised if it make my year-end list for Best Nonfiction.

About Time I Read It: Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

The President of the United States is an uncouth, unhinged bigot prone to late night diatribes against the media, minorities and political rivals. In the wake of his recent electoral victory, rumors are emerging members of his inner circle engaged in illegal activity against his challenger. Unbeknownst to all, he’s secretly engaged in top-level negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign nation. As result, America is a divided nation when it comes to the President. Many, like those in rural areas and especially the South see him as a straight-shooting, law and order savior who upholds time-honored values against unchecked liberalism and East Coast elitism. Others, see him as a despot and lout, and therefore a disgrace to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, things aren’t much better as Prime Ministers come and go, scandals rear their ugly heads and the general consensus being the country’s best years are well behind it. Internationally, the proliferation of terrorist organizations has the world on edge. Headlines and newscasts are dominated by reports of bombings, assassinations, and mass killings. Try as they may, Western leaders are powerless to stop the carnage. Lastly, from Africa to Latin America brutal dictators rule with iron fists tolerating no dissent and committing countless human rights violations.

While this might well sum up the current state of the world it also describes an era from our not so distant past. Welcome to the 1970s as described by British journalist Francis Wheen in his 2010 book Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia. Yet again another decent book I never knew existed until I stumbled across it at the public library.

Of course, to be realistic while similarities abound so do the differences when one compares today’s world to that of the 70s. While Nixon hated the media as much as Trump does, in Nixon’s day there was no Twitter. Therefore late at night when Tricky Dick spouted off against newspapers, Jews and everyone else he hated, he did so within the confines of the White House, ironically usually in the presence of his Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Instead of Russian computer hacking, Watergate was an old-fashioned burglary. And it was the People’s Republic of China, not Russia the President secretly reached out to, not to help win an election but enlist as a geopolitical ally against the Russian-dominated USSR. Looking back even terrorism was different in the 70s. 40 years ago it wasn’t Islamic-oriented organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda grabbing headlines but more secular groups like the PLO or IRA, or the dozen or so now forgotten Marxist-inspired revolutionary cells active throughout Europe, Latin America and America.

Someday, if you end up reading Strange Days Indeed I’d strongly encourage you to follow it up with Rick Perlstein’s outstanding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan as well as Bryan Burrough’s equally outstanding Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Perhaps, after reading Strange Days plus one, or both of these recommended books it might look like history repeats itself, or to paraphrase the authors of How Democracies Dies at least possess familiar echoes. Just like the ancient author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes you too might conclude there’s nothing new under the sun.

Books About Books: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the  Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.

But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.

One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.

Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.

About Time I Read It: Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

Why oh why did I wait so long to read Black Hawk Down? Published in 1999, Mark Bowden’s book received critical praise and was a commercial success, in addition to inspiring a 2001 motion picture adaptation that was highly successful in its own right, winning two Oscars and performing robustly at the box office. Hitting a literary home run with Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War,  Bowden built on his success with a parade of well-received nonfiction offerings like Killing Pablo, Guests of the Ayatollah and Worm. Yet, despite all of this, I never read his 15-year-old book until just recently.

By now, I’m sure most of you are familiar with what the book is about. In 1993 an elite American military team invaded a hostile Somali neighborhood in hopes of capturing agents of a local warlord who’d been coordinating attacks on the international peacekeeping forces assigned to the area. After encountering surprisingly strong and well-coordinated resistance from local Somali fighters several American helicopters were shot down.  (Assisted in no small part by al-Qaeda operatives well-versed in the art of bringing down helicopters thanks to their years of experience fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.) Pinned down by hostile fire and surrounded by enemy forces, the numbers of American dead and wounded began to climb rapidly. What started as a quick, surgical “snatch mission” soon degenerated into a bloody fight for survival.

This book did not disappoint. Like many readers, I enjoyed Bowden’s ability to vividly describe events on the ground as they unfolded, especially from the perspectives of both US and opposing Somali forces. I also enjoyed the Bowden’s account of how the international peacekeeping forces went from being seen by many Somalis as benevolent humanitarians to hated occupiers, thanks to the peacekeepers’ political missteps and heavy-handedness. Probably the biggest surprise for me anyway was the degree of rivalry and animosity between Delta Force and Rangers. During their time in Somalia the more elite Delta Force soldiers saw the Rangers as inferior fighters, lacking in ambition, intelligence and ability. On the other hand, the Rangers saw their Delta Force compatriots as arrogant and over privileged. Of course, once the bullets began to fly and the blood flowed, these bitter frenemies would have no choice but to depend upon each other for survival.

I’ve heard Black Hawk Down is *the* book to read when it comes to modern urban combat in a developing country. After finally getting around to reading it, I could not agree more.

Africa Reading Challenge: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the SunA few years ago, Kinna hosted the Africa Reading Challenge. As one would probably guess, its purpose was to inspire people to read books about Africa, set in Africa and or by African authors. Knowing a good reading challenge when I see one, I happily signed up. Over the course of that year I read a number of qualifying books. Per the challenge’s guidelines I chose a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, representing or dealing with in some way nations from across the continent. And many, both fiction and nonfiction were by African-born writers. Looking back, I’d have to say it was rewarding experience and I had fun participating.

After the challenge took a brief hiatus, Kinna resurrected it at the beginning of this year. Once I heard the good news I eagerly signed up. Then, just like I do with so many other challenges, promptly forgot about it. So much for me knowing a good reading challenge when I see one.

But fear not, all is not forgotten. Let me present my first contribution to the Africa Reading Challenge. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun recalls the four decades he spent crisscrossing the continent as a foreign correspondent. Because of his insistence in engaging Africa on its own terms – that is traveling by crowded bus, staying in spartan accommodations and venturing where most Westerners would fear to tread – we are treated to visions of Africa not seen in travel magazines or the evening news.

We when we think of foreign correspondents, we usually envision an intrepid American or British fellow hopping from one global hotspot to another.  Not so with Kapuscinski. He was a Pole. When he started his journalistic career back in the 50s, his employer was Poland’s Soviet-aligned  Communist government. (A few years ago speculation was ripe he collaborated to some degree with Poland’s intelligence services.) But according to Kapuscinski, no matter where he went in Africa, because of his skin color Africans assumed he was a wealthy European, regardless of his nation’s ruling ideology.

Partly because Kapuscinski’s Communist employers paid him very little and partly because of his a habit of living and traveling like a local, Kapuscinski experienced more than his share of hair-raising adventures. He battled malaria, had his travel documents held hostage by hostile warlords, risked thirst and exposure after being stranded in the desert, watched his modest living quarters burglarized on a nightly basis and narrowly escaped being bitten be a deadly cobra. But in spite of all the dangers he survived and wrote about the continent’s coups, civil wars, corrupt officials and diverse cultures. And most of all, because he lived and traveled like a local, he also wrote about Africa’s everyday people.

This is a pretty good book for anyone who wants to learn about Africa, but might not know where to start. Although he ignores almost all of North Africa and all of South Africa, the rest of the continent gets a pretty in-depth treatment. I guess my only complaint with The Shadow of the Sun is sometimes Kapuscinski can be a bit long-winded with his commentary. Some readers might also take issue with his particular take on local politics and cultures, accusing him of Western bias. But that’s an issue I’ll let more astute bloggers tackle.

With The Shadow of the Sun under my belt, I hope to read a few more Africa related books. Kinna’s African Reading Challenge is a great one. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

There is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan

After decades of civil war, the small African nation of South Sudan finally achieved independence in July of 2011. One would think that a nation so young could not inspire a literary anthology. Well, guess again. Last week during one of my library visits what did I find while rummaging through the newly arrived works of international fiction but a copy of There Is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan. Realizing that such a book is a rare find indeed, I quickly grabbed it and headed to the check-out machines. After letting the short anthology sit on my self for just a day, I picked it up one afternoon and started reading it. Since it’s a shade under 100 pages understandably I breezed through it in only two sittings. Much to my relief, I didn’t dislike this anthology. Since almost all collections tend to be uneven in some way or another, some of these stories I liked and some I did not. Some, like Victor Lugala’s “Port Sudan Journal” and Edward Eremugo Luka’s “Escape” I enjoyed quite a bit. Another particularly good piece, David Lukudo’s “Holy Warrior” I liked because of its sympathetic portrayal of a Sudanese soldier battling against the South Sudanese. (It takes a lot of courage to humanize your nation’s enemies. Kudos to Lukudo for doing so.) The rest of the pieces I found OK, but not outstanding. The closing piece of poetry did nothing for me.

But even though South Sudan is a young country, There Is a Country does not feel like a rush job. Nor does it feel slapped together. I found the collection of fiction small, modest and passionate – just like the newly created nation it represents.

Cousin K by Yasmina Khadra

As we all know, the Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he prefers Dos Equis. Therefore, in keeping with that spirit of singular exception, I don’t always read fiction, but when I do, I prefer stuff by international authors. Fortunately for me, the Central Branch of my county library has a prominently displayed shelf of recently published works of international fiction for me to choose from. A few days ago while rummaging through this shelf I realized I hadn’t read much international fiction of late. After a bit more rummaging, before I knew it I was walking out the door with a handful of fictional works by authors from Morocco, Algeria, Syria and Greece. Later that evening, as I looked over at my desk and saw my recent literary acquisitions sitting there waiting to be read I felt happy, inspired and eager to begin.

Yesterday morning while slamming down coffee at my neighborhood coffee shop in vain hopes of trying to revive myself after a late night out drinking beer with friends I began reading one of those books. Of the four pieces of fiction I the one a chose to read first was the novella Cousin K by Algerian Yasmina Khadra . (The author’s actual name is Mohammed Moulessehoul, who adopted the feminine pen name to avoid censorship at the hands of  Algeria’s military rulers.) Due to the work’s shortness I was able to read it in only two settings. After finishing it yesterday afternoon, I asked myself what I thought of Cousin K. While I really didn’t like it, I really didn’t dislike it either. I did however find Cousin K to be a bit, well, odd.

It’s the story, told in first person, of a young man living in Algeria with his dominating and capricious mother. Entering the story at various intervals are his older brother (an up and coming army officer whom he idolizes and his mother loves with almost incestuous fervor) a young female cousin he both hates and loves and an unnamed young woman he rescues from an attack only to later imprison in his family’s home. All of this is told from the narrator’s perspective. While the novella contains a lot of powerful lines that have the power stand alone with poetic intensity, as a whole Cousin K feels a bit chaotic. I’m not really sold on the idea that its sum is greater than its individual parts, no matter how good some of those parts might be.

Being the first person narrator comes across as both a tortured soul and one who has a great deal of contempt for the world around him, Cousin K reminded me a lot of Camus’ The Stranger (interestingly, both Camus and Khadra/Moulessehoul were born in Algeria) and Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone.

But even though Cousin K wasn’t a huge hit with me, I’m happy because it counts towards a number of reading challenges. With Algeria being in North Africa, I can apply it to both the Middle East Reading Challenge and the Global Reading Challenge. Since it was translated from the French, it also counts as part of the Books in Translation Reading Challenge. Lastly, since it came from the public library, I can also apply it to the Library Books Reading Challenge.  I love it when a book counts towards so many reading challenges.