Big Fat Book: Done!
I finished David Van Reybrouck’s Congo in just under three weeks–nothing like a library deadline for motivation. The second half, covering 1990 on, was much harder to read emotionally. I had not realized the extent to which the Democratic Republic of Congo was and continues to be caught up in the ethnic violence of Rwanda. Outright war, massacre of refugees, ongoing conflict among various militias, endemic rape, forced servitude in mines–these chapters were very bleak.
Van Reybrouck argues convincingly that the history of the Congo is interwoven with world history rather than being an unimportant byway. Why, then, don’t Westerners know more about it? One reason is provided in this timely (for me) piece by Anjam Sundaram, who worked as an AP stringer in the DRC: “We’re Missing the Story: The Media’s Retreat from Foreign Reporting.” (I added his book, Stringer, to my library wishlist).
It’s hard to say whether Congo ends on a hopeful note (the author depicts himself as confused at book’s end). Van Reybrouck documents China’s involvement in Congo, which is bringing infrastructure development and economic opportunity in exchange for natural resources. But China has no regard for human rights, and its long-term strategy for involvement in Africa isn’t entirely positive–from a Western point of view, and perhaps not from an African one. It’s hard not to sound like a colonizer saying “they should be civilizing the savages!” but China is not interested in encouraging good governance or civil society (the deals Chinese industries cut were done behind closed doors, without involving Congo’s rather ineffectual Parliament).
One of the most interesting arguments in this section of the book was Van Reybrouck’s criticism of Western democracies’ fundamentalist view of free elections (which they supported in Congo to the tune of millions of dollars). He believes that national elections should not be the starting point of democracy but something to work towards, in part by building competence and trust via local elections first. When Western nations start by insisting on national elections, they cut themselves out of diplomatic involvement in a troubled state (the new head of state can simply dismiss them with “I’m democratically elected, butt out”). Van Reybrouck’s view is undoubtedly controversial, but he’s got a point.
For work, I just sent off the complete draft of a revised Grade Appeal Policy that I’ve had on my plate for wayyyy too long. It’s got some big changes from the way we do things now, so I expect there will be further work before we’re all done, but it’s a load off my mind. After all this hard writing and reading, and with my summer travel coming up in a week, I’m ready for some light reading and listening.
Congo has eaten all my reading time for the last couple of weeks. I returned my other library books unread. But I have been listening, both to old favorites like Heyer and Austen and to Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. I read it when it first came out, and picked up the audiobook when it was a daily deal awhile back. What prompted me to listen now was this NPR piece on Landline, which is wrong in so many ways (No meet-cutes in Rowell? Attachments is basically one long meet-cute, and what else is sharing a seat on the bus in Eleanor & Park?). The biggest factual error is saying Landline is Rowell’s first book for adults.
Or is it an error? Listening to Attachments, I’m struck by how Young Adult it sometimes feels–perhaps in part because of narrator Laura Hamilton’s rather girlish style. (The Globe and Mail review of Landline finds the same YA feel there). Yes, it’s set mostly at the newspaper where the characters work; yes, they’re in their late 20s; yes, Jennifer is pondering whether to have a baby while Beth wonders if her boyfriend will ever marry her. But it’s essentially a coming-of-age novel, and the characters’ insecurities feel very young to me. Except that I often felt that young and insecure in my late 20s, even when I was employed, married, and planning to have a baby. I think Rowell is great at emotional story-telling, and particularly at tapping into those “young adult” emotions that are still somewhere inside many of us. Are we ever really done coming of age?
There’s a strong vein of nostalgia in both Rowell books I’ve read, as there often is in children’s and young adult fiction, which is, after all, written by adults. Eleanor & Park is set in the 80s, Attachments around the turn of the millenium (Y2K fears play a role). In the NPR piece linked above, Rowell expresses nostalgia for corded phones–without appearing to realize how romantic attachment to the materiality of the cord is particular to her own memories. The strong emotional appeal of her stories, like nostalgia, can obscure weaknesses; I was embarrassed that I didn’t notice any problems with Eleanor & Park‘s depiction of race while I was reading, for example.
I’m having the same experience of more moderated enjoyment watching The West Wing again, which I’ve been doing while I work out. There’s strong emotional storytelling here, too (that Christmas episode where Toby arranges a funeral for a homeless vet! no, that’s just sweat in my eyes, I swear). But there are also problems I didn’t notice the first time I watched. What’s with killing the African American army doctor with the new baby so President Bartlet can man up and learn to be Commander in Chief? And how condescending is “The Crackpots and These Women,” where, as Wikipedia says, “In a private conversation, the President, Leo and Josh marvel at the extraordinary strength and integrity of the women in their lives” (who are almost all their assistants).
When I finish a book like Congo, I can’t decide what to pick up next. Maybe I just need a breather for a day or two. I read a chapter of Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground, which I started on my May trip but then set aside, and I think it will suck me in to finish. Faced with choosing from a huge TBR, buy a new book! So I downloaded Lia Silver’s Prisoner: recommended by readers as different as Dear Author’s Jane and Victoria Janssen, good banter, and some people complained there wasn’t enough sex? Sounds promising.