In My Hands Today…

King Leopold’s Ghost – Adam Hochschild

In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River.

Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million—all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian.

Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century, in which everyone from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury participated. King Leopold’s Ghost is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust.

Adam Hochschild brings this largely untold story alive with the wit and skill of a Barbara Tuchman. Like her, he knows that history often provides a far richer cast of characters than any novelist could invent. Chief among them is Edmund Morel, a young British shipping agent who went on to lead the international crusade against Leopold. Another hero of this tale, the Irish patriot Roger Casement, ended his life on a London gallows. Two courageous black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, risked much to bring evidence of the Congo atrocities to the outside world. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young Congo River steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming above them all, the duplicitous billionaire King Leopold II. With great power and compassion, King Leopold’s Ghost will brand the tragedy of the Congo—too long forgotten—onto the conscience of the West.

In My Hands Today…

Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War – Mark Bowden

On October 3, 1993, about a hundred U.S. soldiers were dropped by helicopter into a teeming market in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia, to abduct two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord.

The action was supposed to take an hour. Instead, they spent a long and terrible night fighting thousands of armed Somalis. By morning, eighteen Americans were dead, and more than seventy badly injured.

Mark Bowden’s gripping narrative is one of the most exciting accounts of modern war ever written–a riveting story that captures the heroism, courage and brutality of battle.

In My Hands Today…

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa – Peter Godwin

After his father’s heart attack in 1984, Peter Godwin began a series of pilgrimages back to Zimbabwe, the land of his birth, from Manhattan, where he now lives.

On these frequent visits to check on his elderly parents, he bore witness to Zimbabwe’s dramatic spiral downwards into thejaws of violent chaos, presided over by an increasingly enraged dictator.

And yet long after their comfortable lifestyle had been shattered and millions were fleeing, his parents refuse to leave, steadfast in their allegiance to the failed state that has been their adopted home for 50 years.

Then Godwin discovered a shocking family secret that helped explain their loyalty. Africa was his father’s sanctuary from another identity, another world.

In My Hands Today…

The House at Sugar Beach – Helene Cooper

Journalist Helene Cooper examines the violent past of her home country Liberia and the effects of its 1980 military coup in this deeply personal memoir and finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties — traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee. When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child—a common custom among the Liberian elite. Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became known as “Mrs. Cooper’s daughter.”

For years the Cooper daughters — Helene, her sister Marlene, and Eunice — blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage. But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove. And on April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America. They left Eunice behind.

A world away, Helene tried to assimilate as an American teenager. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she found her passion in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She reported from every part of the globe — except Africa — as Liberia descended into war-torn, third-world hell.

In 2003, a near-death experience in Iraq convinced Helene that Liberia — and Eunice — could wait no longer. At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor’s gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.

In My Hands Today…

No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo – Redmond O’Hanlon

Redmond O’Hanlon has journeyed among headhunters in deepest Borneo with the poet James Fenton, and amid the most reticent, imperilled and violent tribe in the Amazon Basin with a night-club manager. This, however, is his boldest journey yet.

Accompanied by Lary Shaffer – an American friend and animal behaviorist, a man of imperfect health and brave decency – he enters the unmapped swamp-forests of the People’s Republic of the Congo, in search of a dinosaur rumored to have survived in a remote prehistoric lake.

The flora and fauna of the Congo are unrivalled, and with matchless passion O’Hanlon describes scores of rare and fascinating animals: eagles and parrots, gorillas and chimpanzees, swamp antelope and forest elephants. But as he was repeatedly warned, the night belongs to Africa, and threats both natural (cobras, crocodiles, lethal insects) and supernatural (from all-powerful sorcerers to Samale, a beast whose three-clawed hands rip you across the back) make this a saga of much fear and trembling. Omni-present too are ecological depredations, political and tribal brutality, terrible illness and unnecessary suffering among the forest pygmies, and an appalling waste of human life throughout this little-explored region.