Books of 2007

Monday, 7 January 2008

My 2007 reading list featured a number of books on Africa and that huge and troubled region in the centre, the once-upon-a-time Belgian Congo, later Zaire, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Congo-Zaire. I’ve been thinking about it as a contender for a place in Bad Lands II, if I get around to writing it. In alphabetical order some of 2007’s favourites:

Beyond the Blue HorizonBeyond the Blue HorizonAlexander Frater.  In the mid-1980s Frater set out to follow the route of the old Imperial Airways England-Australia flights from before WW II. Twenty years ago he could still encounter people who played a part in that long and adventurous route with its overnight stops and changes of aircraft and airlines. Curiously his travels already seem rather dated, the aircraft superseded, the airlines old school and there are curiosities like the amount of smoking that goes onboard the aircraft, in particular by Mr Frater.

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Blood River

Blood RiverTim Butcher.  It’s ‘down the Congo River’ in the tracks of Henry ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’ Stanley in 2004, soon after the long running Congo civil war ground to a semi-halt. It’s a good tale slightly spoilt by the author’s ‘oh this is so tough, so difficult, so dangerous’ tone of voice throughout.

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Chief of Station, Congo – Larry Devlin.  A revealing account of the author’s spell as the CIA chief in the Congo and his belief that he did his best to save the world from the evil empire by thwarting Soviet ambitions in the Congo. The flip side is that he helped to screw the country for the next half century (and counting), ensured Mobutu’s kleptocratic rule and set the stage for the civil war which killed four million people. Although, let’s face it, Mobutu has looked pretty good in comparison to the chaos that followed him. But then so has Saddam Hussein.

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Continental DrifterContinental Drifter
Tim Moore.  Thomas Coryate has been described as the first real tourist, in the late 1500s he kicked off the ‘grand tourist’ tradition with a France-Italy-Switzerland-Germany-Netherlands circuit, much of it on foot. Coryate was often penniless and his attempts to sponge off better off contacts was frequently doomed to ignominious failure. Tim Moore tries to follow his route in a modern ‘grand’ fashion, using a worn out and unreliable old Rolls-Royce.

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Facing the CongoJeffrey Tayler.  Another ‘down the Congo River’ tale, this one from almost 10 years earlier than Blood River, so it’s when Zaire is descending into utter chaos rather than climbing out of it. Tayler doesn’t try do go all the way down the river, but he does set out to do it by canoe. It’s a harrowing tale of hardship, discomfort and fear.

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Occupational HazardsOccupational Hazards (Prince of the Marshes)
Rory Stewart.  I loved Rory Stewart’s earlier book, The Places in Between, recounting his tough walk across Afghanistan. This time he’s trying, with very mixed success, to administer a region of Iraq for the British. The amazing thing about his part in this disastrous adventure is that it’s often laugh out loud funny.

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Spook CountrySpook CountryWilliam Gibson.  The latest novel from the guy who invented the term ‘cyberspace’ could be summed up as ‘good guys subverting some illicit Iraq-conflict profit taking by renegade Bushies’ and all the way it has the trademark Gibson oblique looks at our world and submergence in its culture and technology.

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The Zanzibar ChestThe Zanzibar Chest
Aidan Hartley.  From the Lonely Planet perspective the high point of this recounting of the veteran Reuter’s correspondents good and bad years in Africa is when he tells of the part our Africa on a Shoestring book played in the capture of Addis Ababa by the Ethiopian rebels who overthrew the Soviet backed dictator Mengistu.

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The Year of Magical ThinkingJoan Didion.  The American essayist’s luminous tale of memory and regret following her husband’s sudden death also includes a terrific note about the joys of looking out of airline windows: ‘the most beautiful things I had ever seen had all been seen from airplanes.’

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Travels in DictionarylandYemen – Travels in Dictionaryland –
 Tim Mackintosh-Smith.  (If there’s a single country which has been close to the top of my ‘must visit’ list for too many years it’s Yemen and reading this terrific book reminds me why it fascinates me so much and underlines why I really must get around to travelling there).

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Once upon a time Kurt Vonnegut Jr was one of my favourite authors and his death in 2007 prompted me to reread his ‘bombing of Dresden’ classic Slaughterhouse 5. It also reminded me that Cat’s Cradle is still a favourite book, a tragi-comedy set in an island dictatorship which could easily be Haiti and detailing the nastiest warning of the effects of extremely sudden climate change, due to the unleashing of ‘ice nine,’ you could ask for.