Last November, I asked for book recommendations from readers and commenters, and compiled a list of 24 books to read. This gave me an array of titles completely different from what I would have chosen myself. I am pleased to say I am now 13 books in! Since my last reviews in April, I’ve read 3 more. I delayed posting about them for a while because some of the bloggers are offline now – temporarily, I hope. They were all amazing, though, and I am eager to talk about the books!
Jamie Ray from A Boy and Her Dog recommended Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. It was published as a children’s book but has the broadest generational appeal I can imagine. It is a memoir. I fell in love with the author as I read it – her words, her voice, her style, and her real life. Brown Girl Dreaming has a strong storyline. Jackie returns to her mother’s hometown in Georgia with her family. We learn about the roots of the family on both sides, why they left and why they returned. Next, I was immersed in the hot summer nights of the south and her life with extended family. Jackie’s relationship with her grandfather, whom she called Daddy, moved me to tears. Family members go and come back from the north, and eventually Jackie’s family departs for NYC, where the streets are not “paved with gold” as expected. There are some very suspenseful passages as you worry for Jackie’s mother and wonder if Jackie will be betrayed by her best friend. Since it’s told through the eyes of a child, adults can read between the lines and figure out more of what happened than a child reader would. The book has many happy surprises in store as Ms. Woodson marches to the beat of her own drummer and comes out as a writer. The book filled me with hope and made me feel connected to my own past. Mature readers interested in genealogy would love this. It also places key events in civil rights history (1960s and 70s) into the everyday life of a child, making them very relatable. I give this book SIX stars.
Sunny from Life Is Full of Sunny Days recommended Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This was an incredibly ambitious first novel. Gyasi contains the entire history of the American slave trade and its continuing impact in one book. It has a clever structure. The story begins in Ghana in the 1700s as two sisters are separated by the slave trade, one captured and sold, the other remaining in her village. After that, each chapter tells the story of a descendent of each sister, one branch of the family in the US and the other in Ghana. It goes chronologically from the 1700s to the current day. Gyasi is a wonderful writer and I became completely caught up with the tale of each generation on both sides of the Atlantic. The drawback was that I would become invested in each character and would be disappointed when they were dropped in the next chapter and their child’s life was the focus. I had to shift my expectations and get pulled along by the arc of history. The book made vivid how the history of slavery still affects Blacks and whites in America today, in all aspects of life. I don’t know any other book of fiction to achieve that (there was Between the World and Me in nonfiction). Some may say this reads like a book of short stories; that is not a criticism. The subject matter has great emotional impact and it is therefore not an easy read, nor should it be – I don’t think the author should have changed anything to make it easier. It was actually very readable considering the horrific events that occurred. This can be read for its literary value or for its history. I look forward to more by the author. Recommended!
I was surprised when Fiona from Declutterer (currently offline) suggested that I read Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire. It is one of those books I knew I should read but I didn’t know if I wanted to – because it was about the 1990s genocide in Rwanda. Not pleasure reading. But several things drew me to it. Romeo Dallaire founded an organization called the Child Soldiers Initiative which is headquartered in my home town, and I had attended a lecture by its director, Shelly Whitman. I wanted to know more of the story.
Romeo Dallaire was the Canadian Lieutenant-General assigned to lead a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the end of 1993. A ceasefire was in effect and they were to oversee the peace accord and the transition to a new government. Since the 1960s, Canada has prided itself on providing peacekeepers. I wanted to hear about what went wrong.
In Shake Hands with the Devil, Gen. Dallaire provides a day-by-day, hour-by-hour account of the military and humanitarian mission he led. He detailed all his official actions, held himself fully accountable, named names, described the outcomes, and was utterly crushed by the lack of international response. Despite what you might think, I could hardly put it down. I know so little about the Canadian Armed Forces and what they actually do on the ground when they are on a mission. Learning about the strategy and how it was implemented was enthralling. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. If anyone is interested, do a Google search for “Rwanda Genocide Timeline” to get a quick summary.
So, the UN did not approve the requests for personnel, training, vehicles, equipment, or anything else. Essentially, they supported the effort “in principle” but were unable to muster any resources. They relied on member countries to volunteer troops and supplies, but they weren’t forthcoming. At one point during the massacres there were a laughable 270 UN troops in the country. They were unable to defend themselves against rebel factions and were ordered to withdraw, allowing the slaughter to escalate dramatically. Meanwhile, countries around the world airlifted their own citizens out.
One of the things that shocked me most was that the UN mission in Rwanda had almost no intelligence about what was happening among the warring factions. Meanwhile, the governing party that was responsible for the genocide had a seat on the UN Security Council and was feeding it distorted information.
You probably know that at least 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days and the UN resisted calling it a genocide until it was over. As you can imagine, the real reasons no one intervened in Rwanda were because it is a small landlocked country with few natural resources to extract, and no one was willing to risk white western lives for Black African lives, let alone pay the (financial) costs to do so.
Last month I attended another program by the Child Soldiers Initiative, at which Gen. Dallaire was featured. His work now is in policy and advocacy.
I felt I was missing the point of view of Rwandans and what they want for themselves and their country. I wonder how Rwandans feel now, almost 25 years later, about their abandonment by the rest of the world, and about their reconciliation and rebuilding process. I will need to search out more accounts to get some balance.
Shake Hands with the Devil requires an investment of time and emotional energy that goes beyond the norm. It gave the perspective of that particular mission in excruciating detail, which would limit the appeal for most people. But I am tremendously glad I read it because I learned so much and gained understanding.
Whew! This personalized book club is exhausting 😊 I love it. Eleven more books to read, and a good mix of content. Stay tuned!