About A Continent for the Taking

Africa first captivated New York Times journalist Howard W. French more than twenty-five years ago, but his knowledge of and passion for the continent has the depth of a lifetime association. His experiences there awakened him as nothing before to the selfishness and shortsightedness of the rich, the suffering and dignity of the poor and the uses and abuses of power. And in this powerfully written, profoundly felt book, he gives us an unstinting account of the disastrous consequences of the fateful, centuries-old encounter between Africa and the West.
French delineates the betrayal and greed of the West�often aided and abetted by Africa�s own leaders�that have given rise to the increasing exploitation of Africa�s natural resources and its human beings. Coarse self-interest and outright greed once generated a need for the continent�s rubber, cotton, gold and diamonds, not to mention slaves; now the attractions include offshore oil reserves and minerals like coltan, which powers cellular phones.
He takes us inside Nigeria, Liberia, Mali and the Congo, examining with unusual insight the legacy of colonization in the lives of contemporary Africans. He looks at the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic, the Ebola outbreak and the genocide that resulted in millions of deaths in Rwanda and the Congo. He makes clear the systematic failure of Western political leaders�the nurturers of tyrants such as Mobuto Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila, whose stories are told here in full detail�and the brutal excesses of the CIA.
In helping us to better understand the continent, and indeed Africans themselves, French helps us see as well the hope and possibility that lie in the myriad cultural strengths of Africa.
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The San Francisco Chronicle and the St. Louis Post Dispatch each named “Continent” one of the best books of 2004. Here’s what they had to say:
The year’s finest
In a year of conflict, the sublime rises to the surface
– Oscar Villalon, Chronicle Book Editor
Sunday, December 12, 2004
It was all so grubby.
Looking back on the books of 2004, it couldn’t be clearer that we were in a presidential election year, one in which the descriptions “high stakes” and “fever pitch” would serve as understatements. Name your partisan stance, and there were at least a couple of dozen books out there that told you what you wanted to hear.
That’s not to say that much wasn’t at risk this year, nor that these books were slight and hollow (though many were). It’s just that as 2004 comes to a close, the dirty cloud kicked up by all the head-butting and eye-gouging — the thumping bar brawl that crashed into the shelves of bookstores — has left a film of ash on the tongue.
But as our Best Books of 2004 list shows, there was so much more out there, works of restrained passion and eloquent intelligence that got lost behind the giant dustup. Engrossing entertainments you could use a dose of, what with all the general ugliness of the times. More exciting work by local authors — Marc Bojanowski’s The Dog Fighter, Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Daydreaming Boy, to name only a few of many; further proof that the Bay Area rivals New York City as the country’s true literary center.
There were books that breathed sweetness into life. Think of the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Collections, that the Library of America put out in three volumes. Think of Gary Snyder’s bracing new collection of poetry, Danger on Peaks. And a batch of exquisite novels such as Snow and The Swallows of Kabul — works rooted in the grim quotidian, yet elevating our predicaments beyond the gum-spattered, sole-scuffed floor of politics and into the realm of something finer and true.
And, yes, there are books here that could be called political (even Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America could, if you really wanted to), but they’re far from clumsy and self-righteous. (One worthy book that immediately comes to mind happens to be on a topic far from most Americans’ minds, but of sobering importance just the same: Howard French’s A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.)
What we present in this issue is a list that will perhaps remind you of all the stuff that ignites the mind and flutters the heart. Titles that offer respite — such as the prose found in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and Julian Barnes’ The Lemon Table — and may help you slough off the grime of the past year.
E-mail Oscar Villalon at ovillalon@sfchronicle.com.
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