Left to Tell

left to tell

I’ve read this one before, but I loved it so much I wanted to read it again for the “Reading the World” challenge: Left to Tell, by Immaculée Ilibagiza.

This is the autobiography of a woman who was caught in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A million people were killed in three months, most of them with machetes. Most of them by their neighbors. Some of them by their friends and family. Immaculée tells about the political and social climate that led to her ethnic group, the Tutsis, being hated and feared by the Hutus. After years of indoctrination, the ruling powers of Rwanda ordered the “extermination” of the Tutsi “cockroaches,” and people obediently went on a killing spree.

Immaculée survived this by hiding in a minister’s bathroom for 91 days with seven other women.

What I appreciate most about this book is that Ilibagiza tells how her experiences have strengthened her faith in God, and in humanity. She tells horrible, graphic, unthinkable things she has suffered, and then in the next breath, tells why she still has hope in the future, and why she still relies on God to help her. While most stories choose either to tell “good news” or “bad news,” Ilibagiza is dedicated to sharing truth—even hideous truth—and then giving you the courage to face it.

This book is not for children, obviously. But it’s a beautiful account of suffering and hope, and I would recommend it to anyone old enough to handle a brutal history. ♦

The Boys in the Boat

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Alright, so I was supposed to read this for book club.

Not only did I pick the Young Readers version, I still didn’t finish it in time for book club. And then I skipped book club to go home and sleep. It’s been a rough month.

But! Shortly after skipping book club, I did manage to finish the book. So here’s what I thought of it:

I think I should have read the full, unabridged version. It seemed like a good, potentially powerful story – but it just didn’t have the power it was supposed to. And a good deal of that might have been because the book kept explaining things like who Hitler was, and why Nazis were bad, and what The Dust Bowl and The Great Depression were. I majored in history. Can we move on?

Anyways. It probably would have been valuable explanation for an actual young reader, but for me, it was just a little condescending. I also didn’t end up as emotionally involved in the story as I should have been. Part of that might also be because I’ve been depressed this month. It’s a good book, but I didn’t get much out of it. Oh, well. ♦

The Killer Angels

 

the killer angelsI picked this one up because I’d read it once before, but couldn’t remember anything about it. It’s about the battle of Gettysburg, and it will both educate you and rip your heart out.

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, is possibly the only history book I’ve ever read that I would recommend to a non-history buff without hesitation. It reads like a novel, and it’s incredibly detailed and well-researched.

I would not recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want a sad ending (people die in war), or to anyone who isn’t remotely interested in any aspect of the American Civil War. But the entire thing really does read just as easily as any fantasy book I’ve ever read, the characters are very real (although they come at you fast), and Shaara’s descriptions make you feel like you’re really there. He also does an excellent job of describing the war in nonpartisan terms – or maybe dual-partisan terms. You feel the heart and soul of both Union and Confederate causes, and start to realize why it was so hard for anyone to see the other side of it, or so hard for some people to choose sides at all.

If you haven’t read it, I recommend you try the first 30 pages or so. If you like those pages, read the whole thing. ♦

Lara’s Shadow

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I won a copy of Lara’s Shadow from a GoodReads giveaway. The “First Reads” giveaways are built for authors who want to make sure people can read a review of the book when they first come out – they often give out first-edition copies to generate publicity for the book. Alan Fleishman sent me a book promptly, signed, with a note kindly asking for my feedback.

It’s hard to describe my reaction to this book. When I opened it, I read the back cover blurb and thought, “Oh, no – I thought I entered a contest for a history book, and I won a racy romance book.” I don’t even like innocent romance books, but racy romances are even worse – I have a good imagination. It would be awkward for me to sit in an author’s bedroom and eat popcorn while watching them have sex; it’s almost just as awkward to read their idea of good sex. My basic attitude toward writing sex is that it’s a bad idea. You don’t know what turns me on, writer. Don’t try.

But, you know, I know how to skim, and I know how to skip, and I did enter the contest. I also knew that the “about the book” blurb said the relationship would become much more love than sex. So I gave it a shot.  For about a hundred pages, I was still just giving it a shot. The main character was basically a mediocre, horny Jewish-American soldier with an obsession for one particular German woman and a general hatred of all Germans.

(To Fleishman’s credit, for those horny hundred pages, he kept this soldier’s comments or fantasies from getting graphic. I appreciated it.)

But then, he started to fall in love with the girl, and it got really good. Not because it was suddenly a great romance, but because it raised questions about guilt and hatred and racism and forgiveness and healing. And Fleishman handled all of those issues beautifully, with both devastating grief and fantastic optimism. He showed how a mediocre man who finds his strength from bitterness and spite can change into a wonderful man full of love, acceptance, forgiveness, and loyalty. I went from a “maybe I’ll give this 2 stars” to “good heavens, this is a fantastic book!”

And then the last section of the book crushed it. The couple broke up, stayed apart for 25 years, and the main character immediately regressed into a bitter, horny, mediocre guy again – this time, he just didn’t hate all Germans anymore. So he was a little less bitter. Then, after poisoning a marriage for 25 years, he finally pursued the German girl again, who has not-quite-but-kind-of picked up a lesbian partner, and some cussing and violent sex somehow just solves all their problems. I feel like he could have ended the book 60 pages earlier, and it would have been great.

I don’t know what to do with this. Fleishman writes his history immaculately, and his humanity beautifully. And he writes true love and forgiveness extremely well. And when he’s writing about true love and forgiveness, the sex becomes a part of that love and forgiveness. But every other time he brings sex into it, he cheapens his characters and loses my enchantment with the story. I would give the first part 2 stars, the middle part 5 stars, and the last part 1 star. Overall, I feel like I might be able to recommend Fleishman – but not Lara’s Shadow. ♦

Not Out of Africa

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I picked up a copy of Mary Lefkowitz’s Not Out of Africa on a whim, because it was on Pioneer Book’s “Top 100” shelf. It looked like the kind of book I would appreciate more than most people, because it’s a study of African history. I took the book upstairs in the bookstore and read the introduction, then decided it was worth buying and reading all the way through.

I’m glad I did. Not Out of Africa is basically a study of false history. The author is a professor of the classics, particularly Greek. She was concerned when she heard a colleague teaching that the Greeks had stolen all their philosophy from Egypt. As far as Lefkowitz knew, that wasn’t true. In the same lecture, the colleague argued that Socrates and Alexander the Great visited the Library of Alexandria together, took a bunch of ideas, and that’s why Socrates knew so much. When Lefkowitz raised her hand and commented that the Library of Alexandria was not compiled until after Socrates’s death, the lecturer dismissed her comment because he “didn’t like her tone,” and students afterward accused her of racism.

Lefkowitz does two things in this book: first, she takes some myths that have been taught as history and systematically debunks them. Then, she explains why these myths are allowed to be taught in universities across the nation: they make Africans look good. The argument is that the accuracy of the history doesn’t matter, so long as it builds the self-esteem of Black Americans, who need good role models. The problem is that history that’s based on emotion is not history; it’s propaganda. Lefkowitz also points out that the Afrocentrists who support this kind of “history” also focus almost exclusively on making Egypt look good, at the expense of the rest of the African continent. That means overlooking a great many real role models in favor of the African society that’s traditionally most popular with White Europeans. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid?

The introduction and epilogue are mostly about Lefkowitz’s reception with the public, who largely accused her of being bigoted and racist for writing the book or doing the research. If she hadn’t been White, people argued, would she have felt threatened by this kind of Afrocentrist history? Would she have questioned it? Doesn’t the underdog deserve a little credit? Lefkowitz points out that she didn’t question the history because it was about Black people; she questioned it because she was fairly confident it was unfounded. And as a Jew, she feels she has some idea what it feels like to be an underdog.

“The problem with saying that Aristotle stole his philosophy from Egypt,” she argues, “is not that modern Greeks and classicists will be offended; what’s wrong with the statement is that it is untrue.” [1]

I enjoyed this book, because I felt I could actually trust the author. The last third of the book is the “notes” section, and the entire book is extremely thorough in research. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Greek or African history. I would not, however, recommend it to anyone else. This is definitely much more patterned after a historical treatise than a novel, and if you’re not accustomed to reading long, historical papers, you may not make it through the whole thing. Being largely unacquainted with the ancient Greeks, I struggled through some of the sections. All in all, though, I think Lefkowitz is brave to tackle the subject, and she does it extremely well. ♦

[1] Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 174.

A Study in Scarlet

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Oh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!

What great adventures you write! What superb mystery! What excellent dialogue! What gripping narrative!

What historical inaccuracies!

Okay, okay. I’m just sore because the author of the great Sherlock Holmes spent thirty-some-odd pages describing my Mormon ancestors as shadowy, thieving, murderous, Illuminati whore-mongers. And for describing my home state as an uninhabitable wasteland, where even the hardy Indians couldn’t live before Brigham Young and his terrifying band. (My Native friends would probably find this funny, too.) But, I mean, come on! A little research, Mr. Doyle?

And then I sat and thought, “If I wrote a mystery novel set in London, how accurate would it be?” … Not. At all.

Alright, Sir Arthur. You’re highly inaccurate, but I’ll still give you two stars for effort. You just keep writing, and leave Utah alone from here on out, okay? Okay. ♦

Rosa Parks’s Mentor

Remember Luke Skywalker? No, not that one – you’re thinking of the Jedi Luke Skywalker. The one who defeated basically the entire Empire in only a few short hours of cinematic glory. I’m talking about Luke Skywalker, sniveling teenage brat. The pre-Yoda Luke Skywalker. Yoda may have been short, and he may have only had a few scenes, but he made a pretty significant difference.

Okay, back from Star Wars. Remember Rosa Parks? Now, I’m not about to say that Rosa Parks was ever as pathetic or snively as Luke Skywalker was. I’m sure she was a great woman all on her own. But she did have her own Yoda figure. That mentor was Septima Clark.

Septima Clark was a Civil Rights activist who worked in the background. I had always had some notion that Rosa Parks just spontaneously decided one day that she’d had it, and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Which is true – but not in the sense that she suddenly had one moment when she realized, “Hey, I’m sick of it!” and put her foot down. She’d been sick of it for a long time, and planning carefully how to put her foot down. A lot of people had.

And that’s where Miss Clark comes in. Septima  Clark taught civil rights workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. This school was specifically set up by black people, for black people, to help further the cause of black rights. This is where a lot of activists learned the value and principles of nonviolent resistance, and how to cool off their tempers so they wouldn’t fight back. It’s where they learned to make sure that the media caught pictures of the cruelty whites subjected them to. It’s where they learned how to take a defensive position, so they wouldn’t be literally beaten to death at a protest when the police force got violent.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School

Septima Clark taught a lot of the Civil Rights Movement’s leaders, and was called the “Mother of the Movement.” While she didn’t take the front page of the newspaper, she made a huge difference in the way events played out, and helped keep passive resistance an effective tool in seeking civil rights.