An Exploration of the Last African Wilderness, by Peter Stark, Grade: A

Peter Stark’s account of a trip kayaking down Mozambique’s Lugenda River is an amazing tale. The previously uncharted 750-kilometer route is filled with rapids, waterfalls, crocodiles, hippos. And throughout the river adventure, he recounts the tales of historic explorers and wanderers throughout history. “Why are humans compelled to explore?” he wonders.

As I was raised on the European version of world events, it’s always fun to find yourself seeing the other side of the story. Hearing about Stanley and other explorers as a child, watching cartoons, Tarzan movies, and reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, I always thought that the Africans and their menagerie of beasts were the most dangerous things to encounter in Africa. Now that I’m older and have learned more, the most deadly thing to meet up with in Africa was probably the European unless you had a load of gold, rubber, or diamonds to give to them.

Stark recounts from da Gama’s visit:

The local king offered da Gama a ransom of gold plus the delivery of the Muslims whom he alleged were responsible for the grievously mistaken attack on the Portuguese trading post. Da Gama would have none of it. Instead, he captured eight or ten trading vessels coming into Calicut that did not realize the Portuguese fleet was anchored there; ordered his men to chop off the hands, ears, and noses of their crews; and sent the body parts in a boat to the King of Calicut, telling him to make a curry of the cargo. Da Gama had the still-living handless, noseless, and earless victims bound by their feet and their teeth knocked down their throats so they couldn’t untie the knots with their mouths; he had them piled in another boat, set it afire, and sent it ashore, too. When three members of one late-arriving Muslim crew pleaded that they wished to convert to Christianity before they were killed, da Gama showed them the mercy of having them baptized and strangled before they were hauled aloft and shot full of arrows like their fellow crewmen. Finally, the King of Calicut sent a large fleet against the Portuguese. Da Gama’s artillery blew that to splinters, too.

“No wonder the people we had just passed fled into the trees.

There is also in this book a great pair of river guides who embody every white South African macho archetype. These two are the only ones with the knowledge, skill, and physical ability to make the trip a success, and the author’s attempts to reconcile his own personality to theirs is well written with honesty and candor. His attempts to spend more time with actual Africans that they pass on the river is usually met with derision by the others in the group, who see little to learn from the locals and their often primitive ways.

Stark:

“We don’t have a word in our language for ‘wilderness,'” a native Mozambican villager would later tell me. “What you might call ‘wilderness’ we call ‘the place where no one lives and you are free to gather things.'”

What more can I say? Great book, A.

Though it won’t be published for another eight months, you’ve got to check out the preview to photographer Andrew Faulkner’s book, Midnight Train to Warsaw.

Night, Elie Wiesel, Grade: A

“If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one.”

This new translation of Wiesel’s Night is a masterpiece in 120 pages. I know my holocaust books, and this is one of the most chilling I’ve read. This story of the young Elie being taken from a Hungarian ghetto to Auschwitz and Buchenwald is full of despair and horror. And as events unfold, unspeakable events, Wiesel recounts the death of his faith in the God he was raised to believe in.

I’ve been to Buchenwald and Auschwitz. There is a feeling there that cannot be described in words. The rare book like Night imparts a little of it, just enough to break your heart.

Remind me to send this book to the guy who made sure to tell me that Jews owned Werther’s Toffee company. He needs to read it and suck on some hard candy.

State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration, by James Risen, Grade: A

Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who broke the Bush domestic spying scandal, this book is amazing. Filled with secret details about the mismanagment of the war on terror, the distraction of Iraq, the complete lack of WMD intel. Wow, this is how we’re going to look back on this era of American history, provided we open our eyes. Read it.

One thought has come to mind as to why the Bush administration refuses to go through the FISA courts. I wonder if they are monitoring way too many communications to get a warrant for every call/e-mail collected by NSA computers. Can’t wait to see what this is all about, once the secrets come out.

Read a lot this month, eh? Must be winter in Utah.

Ghost. Truly dreadful. If you want to read about a guy who rescues women from being raped to death by terrorists and then rapes a girl before saving the Pope from being nuked by Al Qaeda (I am NOT making this up), you will love hating this book. F

Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq. What can I say, it’s another look at the life of a soldier in Iraq. Why are all the books about Iraq post-invasion written by soldiers and all the books about the actual invasion written by journalists? The author of this one is another blogger, like Colby, who gets busted for having a blog. Also like Colby, he got busted in high school for publishing an underground newspaper. Wonder why Colby thinks he’s a dick? The book bogs down after a while, but it’s got its moments. B


The UN Gang. Is this the bitchiest political book I’ve read in a while? Yeah. Hilarious. Pedro Sanjuan comes across as this grumpy old man, and the funnest parts of the book are when he’s snapping back at some incompetent UN official. He certainly doesn’t suffer fools. Still, would need more bitchiness and less oh-my-gosh can you believe it? to score higher. C


Mandela, Mobutu, and Me. Love it. Great stuff about some of my favorite places: Congo and South Africa and some others. Lynne Duke provides some great insights and behind-the-scenes descriptions to some of the world’s momentous, though ignored, people, places, and events. B



Talking Back. Unfortunately, this book fails as both a primer of recent White House history and an insider’s look at the same. While there are some interesting insights into the Reagan presidency and the Clintons, it’s not enough to sustain interest. C



My War. Colby, you pulled it off! This book is a great read, putting you into the life of a soldier in Iraq. This book is what I assumed Jarhead, C, would be. Colby has a real eye for detail and irony, and this is a hard book to put down. And it’s so nice to see another suburban punk actually create something that will last. Ranks with some of the best combat writers of the past ten years. A


A Dirty War. Wow. Russia fights this horrendous war with a ruthless spirit and total disregard for collateral damage, and you’ve got Anna Politkovskaya (the author) running around writing stories about Russia losing its soul due to the unbelievably cruel disregard for the Chechen (Russian) population. Imagine Aunt Bea writing scolding articles calling George W. Bush to account for the continuous missteps in his Iraq policy. That’s this book for the second Chechen war. Highly recommended for Chechnya/Russia/War junkies. A



Chechnya Diary. A great look at Thomas Goltz’s trips to cover the war in Chechnya, and the unintended consequences of his friendship to the Chechens he met. It’s close to an A, but I’ll reserve that for a couple other Chechnya books that I’ll list in the blog. B



The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia. This is a chilling book, and should be required reading for all. The atrocities committed in Bosnia should be studied and understood. We must figure out how to put an end to the violence of mankind. A



A Sniper’s Journey: The Truth About the Man Behind the Rifle. A cool read, tailored more to the issues of dealing with unspeakable acts you’ve committed that you just can’t tell your friends about. I can relate. C



Nuclear Showdown, North Korea Takes on the World. This book, on the crazy-weird North Korea, is so scatter-brained I couldn’t take it. I quit on page 194. D