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3 books

The Darling


3.76 rating

Comment 1: This might be a spoilerish review, better read after the book. As we meet Hannah Musgrave, she's an organic farmer in her fifties; a woman haunted by a past that she is finally willing to confront. In a first-person, confessional tone, Musgrave brings the reader along as she returns to Africa; revisiting the climax of her early life. Along the way, we learn that Musgrave was the privileged daughter of a semi-famous liberal activist father and a Junior League/charity works mother; a civil rights agitator in college; a fugitive member of the Weather Underground during the 70's; and after finding herself in Liberia, the wife of a mid-ranking minister in the corrupt government of William R. Tolbert, Jr. It is from that last pampered position that Musgrave has a front row seat to the coups and countercoups that led to the grisly Liberian Civil War of the 1980's. After visiting Liberia once again -- ostensibly to find traces of the three sons she left behind when she first fled the country (even though she had known at the time that they had become child soldiers in the revolution) -- Musgrave flies back to NYC on September 11, 2001. (I) made my way home to a nation terrorized and grieving on a scale that no American had imagined before, a nation whose entire history was being rapidly rewritten. In the months that followed, I saw that the story of my life could have no significance in the larger world. In the new history of America, mine was merely the story of an American darling, and had been from the beginning.Reading The Darling, I thought the book was about one thing (the life story of a former hippy and how her idealism had no practical effect in the real world), but by having the story end on 9/11, it became something different (a record of a time when people could be idealists and protest against their own government without violating the Patriot Act). This turnabout was so extreme that I needed to find out more about Russell Banks and his motivation, and after learning that this was his first post-9/11 book, I found this interview: For me the central theme, and it's one I've gone back to in other books in other ways, is the unintended consequences of good intentions. She is in many ways emblematic even of American foreign policy if you want. Today in other areas of the world, especially in a post-9/11 world, we are suddenly filled with good intentions and are killing people as a result and probably radically altering our society in the process in a very dangerous way. You can look at the history of Liberia for instance: the creation of Liberia. In its conception there were good intentions lying behind it. There was a nefarious and a dark side to those good intentions as there almost inevitably are because pure motives don't exist. The bloody civil war that started in 1980 is in fact the unintended consequence of good intentions, which started in the 1820s. Let's send them back to Africa, make the world safe and pretty, make it civilized and Christianized, and at the same time solve our race problem here in the United States with all those free blacks appearing in the streets of Philadelphia or New York. That to me is the central theme running through the book. I like to think of Hannah as emblematic of that; her life is that, the good intentions of the 1960s and 1970s, and the unintended consequences of it that she experiences very directly.If the good intentions (and their unintended consequences) of the 60's and 70's was the main point of The Darling, it's frustrating that the character of Hannah Musgrave is so unlikeable. Even though she has the full support of her parents, Musgrave is rather cruel and dismissive of them in her years underground; she is blasé about who might get hurt during her Weathermen years of making pipebombs and false passports; she's a sexual user who admits that her attraction to black men is probably a form of reverse racism; she is repulsed by the traditional-living Africans that she had a vague intention of helping; she's fine working in a medical lab that does experiments on chimps for the enrichment of some big American Pharmaceutical company; she feels no attachment to her husband and children; and she realises too late that during all of the years she spent as the wife of a health minister, she could have been improving the lives of the urban Liberians by teaching them hygiene, or reading, or other important life skills. Essentially, Musgrave is a narcissist, and every "good intention" has herself as the intended recipient, dismissing the whole hippy-movement thus: When you abandon and betray those with whom you empathize, you're not abandoning or betraying anyone or anything that's as real as yourself. Taken to its extreme, perhaps even pathological, form, empathy is narcissism. Despite not liking her, I did buy the character of Hannah Musgrave. It's not often that I find female protagonists as written by male authors believable, but Musgrave was plausible because she had so many masculine traits (sexual exploitation, a non-nurturing nature, swaggering self-confidence). And although it's meant to explain Musgrave's own diffidence, I think most young mothers have experienced the following to some degree (even if we're not supposed to admit it):First you think, This is what my life is now. This is who I am. My life is this endless grinding and thumping, being ground and thumped. Then you think, no, my life now will be spent floundering clumsily inside and around the thick waters of my own strangely misshapen body. No, it's shitting red-hot coals to give birth. Turning myself into an inverted volcano. Then you think, no, I'm the leaking person who gives her sore breasts over to another creature's sucking mouth, and when the baby is filled, cleans up its vomit, piss, and shit.Over and over, the same cycle, month after month. This is what my life is now, you think. This is who I am. And everyone, especially if she's a woman, assures you that you will love all the stages of this life, that each stage will make you feel for the first time increasingly like a fully realized woman, an expanded and deepened version of your old self.So, I did believe Hannah, was intrigued by the revelation of Liberia's sad history, and enjoyed the format of skipping back and forth through time (so that, as Hannah explains, we can get to know her and not judge her too harshly when we get to her major failings). I liked everything to do with the chimpanzee sanctuary that Musgrave oversaw (and could almost understand why she preferred her "dreamers" to actual people). But I don't know if I loved this book -- there may have been just too many things going on: too much about her parents; too much about chimps (that could have been its own book); too much about her life today; all of these could have been cut out without losing anything. And there were just too many coincidences (and these are really spoilers): Hannah finally reuniting with her parents a week before her father dies; dropping in on Carol and finding Zack living there; Zack having been in federal prison with Charles Taylor; Hannah acting as a useful dupe for the CIA when she jailbreaks Taylor; flying into NYC on 9/11. And, while I understand that part of the theme of this book is America's interventions abroad and their unintended consequences, there was something uncomfortable (more reverse racism?) about the fate of an entire African nation being affected by the naive actions of one white American.I can appreciate what went into The Darling: it's sweeping and smart and very well-constructed, but it totally lacked heart. I couldn't truly identify with or root for the narcissistic protagonist, and if she was supposed to represent the regretfully lost idealism of an earlier generation, it's not shown to be something to lament passing. It wasn't the hippies who led the Civil Rights Movement (although I'd imagine Black America appreciated what support they received); it wasn't the hippies who ended the Vietnam War; hippies never changed the world one bit; were they all darlings; dilettantes? In the end, hippies feel like they've done pretty well if they end up wearing silver ponytails and granny glasses on their organic farms in upstate New York (this is Banks' evaluation from the above interview), but I have to wonder if that was worth it (and especially for the Weathermen). I did not love this book but I'm giving it four stars because it's so much better than most of my three star reads.

Journey Without Maps


3.59 rating

Comment 1: Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps is a book about colonialism before it was fashionable to write books “about” colonialism. He is simply writing about the world as he sees it. He is not denouncing or advocating racism. His writing lacks the self-consciousness of modern writers setting their stories in the past so as to try and make a point. However, he doesn’t shy away from the distinction between white and black or the fact that he is an outsider. For him these are simply facts: white and bl Comment 2: At age 31, Greene traveled to Liberia for four weeks. He went with his cousin, who also wrote a book about this expedition. The journey across Liberia was vivid and interesting. It happened in 1930s, when Nazi was still growing. Liberia got its name because 'liberated' slaves from America emigrated here, and built the first sovereign state in Africa in 1847. However due to its remote location, there was less modern influence. White people were not common then. There were only two maps for this c Comment 3: Journey Without Maps is, quite frankly, a piece of travel writing that’s taken on historical significance, the true story of Graham Greene’s first ever journey outside of Europe, across the border of Sierra Leone and in to Africa. It was also first published in 1936, before even the outbreak of the Second World War – as you can imagine, white men were neither common nor welcome in Liberia and the neighbouring areas, and so Greene’s work makes for incredibly interesting reading.

Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge


3.75 rating

Comment 1: Through much of this book I couldn't escape what a douchebag this guy came off as. He repeats the mantra, "It's not sustainable. It creates dependancy." even regarding gifting a beanie baby, thinks of his servant as his slave, tries to introduce guine apigs as a source of meat, and wonders he just can't accept the Liberian way of being non-monogamous. He gives his shoes to the chief! His shoes! Why? But maybe that's his way of showing growth. Because he doesn't seem quite so terrible at the end. Comment 2: The author, William Powers, directed food distribution and ecological preservation for Catholic Relief Services in Liberia after the war and under the sanctions against Charles Taylor. His is an interesting story of the challenges and disappointments of those efforts. It gives one an idea of living and working in a third world country, the desperation of the lives there, and the difficulty of choosing between survival and preservation of the forest. He is a very good storyteller and the book is Comment 3: This was a very interesting book. The author writes about spending a coupe of years in Liberia while it was still somewhat dangerous (before Taylor was overthrown) and about how it was to work for an NGO in that environment. It changed his life in many ways and he is now in Bolivia apparently, still doing similar work. So it is both a memoir of his years in Liberia and the problems in working in a failed state and still trying to keep people from becoming totally dependent on the food suppliers