Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Book 9: King Leopold's Ghost

I actually bought this book for two reasons - I was reading Hochschild's book Bury the Chains and was very impressed by his prose and research, and I vaguely remembered a piece regarding Belgium and World War I from Pajiba Storytellers.  While I couldn't quite remember the name of the king during Word War I, I was curious to read about this dark period in Belgium's past after having read the rather glowing story of its actions during the Great War (for anyone that remembers that piece, Leopold II was Albert's predecessor and uncle).
As the book begins, Hochschild tells the story of how Africa had already been exploited by whites for many years due to the slave trade, but people still tended to have very few ideas about the rest of the continent, and developed crazy ideas about what lay within.  The mid to late 1800s marked a time of exploration, followed by exploitation.  Meanwhile, Leopold II comes to the throne of Belgium, and he is always rather disdainful of his crown and country.  The power of the monarchy has been much reduced from the past, and Leopold sees Belgium as small - from the first days of his reigns, he wants a colony so he can compete with the other European powers, and basically feel important.  After he realizes that most of the rest of the world has already been spoken for (sometimes by natives, most of the time by other European powers despite previously existing nations), he sets his sights on Africa, or more specifically the Congo region from which the Welsh/English/American explorer Henry Stanley (the truth and what Stanley told people didn't exactly match - he presented himself as American but was Welsh, and extremely pro-English) had recently made headlines.  His adventure stories about his journeys through Africa drew a large audience, though only very few would critique his harsh treatment of the Africans that he either used as porters and guides to explore this country, or the ones that were in villages that he came across and "fought" as he invaded their land in the name of exploration.
Somehow, Leopold managed to sell himself as a great humanitarian in the midst of all this, and convinced several countries to acknowledge and agree with his claim to the Congo, drawing up lines and divisions.  Leopold set up fake corporations and groups that led to him being in charge of the colony.  As a result, Belgium wasn't involved per se: the colony reported directly to Leopold, not to the King of Belgium or the country of Belgium (eventually Leopold would put a clause in his will making Belgium his heir to the colony, though this too was calculated, and there were a few changes to this before his death).  Leopold exploited the Congo and made the profit, though he would never set foot in his colony.
Hochschild describes the brutal ways Leopold's agents exploited the Africans of the Congon region, including enforced servitude as porters, the ivory trade, and finally the rubber trade.  To motivate villagers to search and harvest wild rubber vines, agents would take women and children hostage, and not feed or release them until the quotas had been met.  There were some rebellions but they proved unsuccessful.  While there were missionaries in the area, only a few spoke out.  Others would offer witness later after others had already gotten the ball rolling.  Some of the first men to speak out were two African-American men but they didn't receive much notice, especially the first one, due to their own skin color.
It would be E.D. Morel that would finally truly begin the crusade for human rights in the Congo.  He worked for a shipping company employed by Leopold, and he began noticing the disparity between what went to the Congo and what came out.  There was no way that the Congo would supply as much as it did for as little as it received without the use of forced labor, or slavery.  Using cold, hard facts, statistics and witness statements, he began a movement that would eventually gain world attention, and cause Leopold much grief.
One major flaw or complaint that Hochschild mentions regarding his own research is the fact that African voices weren't recorded.  For the most part, the only voices that have survived are those of white men talking about the area and its population.  Blacks simply weren't deemed important enough to tell their story.  In fact, not even Morel was actually advocating self-rule - he was simply calling for a gentler, more humane rule by whites, painting King Leopold as a villain.  Hochschild has no problem showing his heroes' flaws: Morel may have been committed to this cause, but he also turned a blind eye to other colonies, and believed that whites should rule in the colony.  Leopold, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities.  In addition to being a dictator and megalomaniac, he is a complete asshole to his family, and in Belgium.  In his conclusion, Hochschild also discusses why the Congo raised as much awareness as it did: other colonies were just as brutal on occasion, but it was the Congo that led to a huge campaign; partially this was due to the size of the area, but it also had to do with who the colonizer was.  King Leopold and Belgium weren't the superpowers that England and Germany were so they were rather safe targets in comparison to these other empires.  Basically, this was an amazing book.  Hochschild did a great job of painting the picture and portraying the horrific events that were happening in the Congo as well as explaining the politics in Africa and Europe so that it becomes clear how Leopold could gain all this control.  Hochschild also addresses the current situation a bit.  While he even states that not all of Africa's problems could be blamed on colonization, it certainly hasn't helped matters.  It's definitely worth the read, and his references to Heart of Darkness may put that piece into a whole different perspective for readers.  In a nutshell, people like Kurtz really existed in the Belgian Congo.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Book 8: Annie's Ghosts

For some reason, I have been spending more and more time in the biography and history sections of bookstores lately. While walking through Barnes and Noble Saturday night, this book caught my eye, and I can't say why. It wasn't shelved in a way to draw attention, I'd never heard of the title or the author, but after checking it out on my Amazon app, I ended up buying it. Its topic and set up reminded me of two very different books I read last year - The Lost which chronicles one man's search to discover what had happened to part of his family that had been in East Europe during the Holocaust (the family all knew they had died, but not how), and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which has a few scenes were the youngest daughter tries to track down information about an older sister that was placed in an asylum.
Steve and his siblings have always believed that their mother is an only child. When she is sick in the mid 90s, a caseworker asks about a younger sister that their mom mentions as part of her case history that had been institutionalized, but given the context, it sounded like this had happened when their mother Beth was around four. They never asked, and it wasn't until after their mother's death that the topic comes back up when one of the brothers gets a yearly notification about flowers for three graves (Beth's parents' and her sister's plots). However, this soon leads to the discovery that the sister died in 1972 at the age of 53, much later than they thought, and that she had been institutionalized at the age of 19, not 2. This gives Steve a whole different perspective on this mysterious sister - this wasn't a little girl that his mother vaguely knew about, this would have been someone that his mother grew up with and then kept hidden for most of her adult life.
The book chronicles Luxenberg's journey to explore what had happened, why his mother had kept this secret, and to find out who his aunt Annie was. Since many of the people that would have any knowledge are dead by this point, the author must rely on court records and medical documents to build a picture of Annie, though many of these records are out of his reach, or destroyed due to their age. He also discovers family members he never knew existed, and it puts many of his mother's comments and stories in a new perspective.
Luxenberg never does find all the answers: the records show when Annie lived but he has hard time figuring out much about what her life was like beyond generics from talking to psychiatric specilialists, and workers at the institute where she spent most of her life. Additionally, he can make guesses and assumptions of what drove his mother but will never have clear answers. Given some of the people he interacts with, he realizes that the shame she felt for her sister portrays her negatively but he doesn't shy away from telling this story to the world, or trying to reconcile his idea of a caring mother with the woman that left her sister behind. His research also leads him into the history of mental disorders in this country, and most of the experts assure him that based on what the case files say of Annie, her case would have been treated very differently today than it was then due to available medication, treatment and attitudes about free will and institutionalization. That isn't to say that everything is better now than it was - the comment is made repeatedly that "some portion of the homeless today are the mentally ill of yesterday" (315).
Overall, I quite liked the journey and the way Luxenberg portrayed exactly what routes he had available to him to discover information. One of his newly discovered cousins lost her family in the Holocaust, and as result, her take on Beth's actions are understandably harsh. After all, this woman had lost her family only to confront a cousin that hides her family. I compared it to The Lost earlier since both chroncile the author's search into family histories with very little to go on due to a lack of paper trail, and a lack of surviving witnesses. I would say, though, that this is more tightly written and focused than the other narrative. I admit, though, that some of the parts about Luxenberg's father's service in the military struck me in the wrong way though it shows more honesty on the author's part. He doesn't try to turn his father into a war hero, and while he tries to find a motive for his mother's actions, he doesn't try to justify them. I'm not sure what kind of audience this book was written for (genealogist? People interested in the history of mental illness in the US?), but I definitely enjoyed it.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Book 7: Thirteen Reasons Why

"My life happens to, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it.  Sometimes more than I can handle.  And it's not just mine.  Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own.  The beautiful ones.  The popular ones.  The guys that pick on you.  Everyone."  Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 3 "Earshot"
I picked this up after seeing several positive reviews on the Cannonball Read site (both III and IV).  While I can see where it might raise some good discussions about suicide for the teens, and understand why it would therefore be as praised as it is, overall, the book just didn't quite do it for me.  There was something about it that was just too shallow, and I actually quite disliked Hannah, the girl that killed herself.  I basically just wanted to point her to the above quote from Buffy and tell her that other people have pain too - in fact at least one of the people on her list of reasons why had reasons to be in more pain than Hannah yet Hannah blames that girl for her suicide.
Clay Jenson is the novel's narrator, and he receives a mysterious package one day when he gets home from school.  The package contains seven cassettes, and he soon discovers they contain recordings from Hannah Baker, a classmate who recently killed herself, detailing her reasons why.  As she explains there are thirteen reasons, and each person receiving these tapes is one of these thirteen.  The tapes will circulate in order, otherwise, a second copy of the cassettes will be passed to the public and reveal everyone's secrets.  Clay who worked with Hannah, and had a crush on her, naturally wonders what he may have done to be one those tapes, and the only thing he can really come up with is that he didn't reach out or speak to her enough.  He has to listen to the tapes to find out the reason, though.
Honestly, as Hannah even admits, the first few people targeted didn't even necessarily do anything that bad - however, their small actions led to rumors about her and left her with a certain reputation: the boy that kissed her, and exaggerated exactly what had happened to his friends; the boy that put her own a "who's hot, who's not" list, thus making the boys at school sexualize her, all things that added up to more.  While she describes some incidents about how this reputation hurt her (a guy that sexually harrassed her, another who assumed he might get some action on a date with her), I don't feel like the author quite convinced me that her life was that bad.  I understand that suicide isn't logical, and that teenagers will think things are worse than they are, but I felt like it would have worked better for me if Hannah had elaborated more on her reputation and how that affected how people treated her rather than just alluding to her reputation and how everything snowballed.  She at one pont mentions that there were over three dozen names of people that had wronged her, but only these thirteen were linked.  Maybe if she had alluded to incidents with these other twenty people, it would have felt like more of an explanation for her suicide rather than a revenge plot.
The book also didn't go where I expected it would given how Hannah spends the first half of the novel showing how boys treat her based on her perceived reputation.  While Hannah says that her life got so bad she couldn't think of any other solution, in the long run, it seems like her suicide was more about revenge against perceived and actual wrongs.  Hannah herself is not always likable, and the action that appears to be her breaking point wasn't actually anything that happened to her.  In fact, it was a case where she did exactly what she's accusing everyone else of doing to her: not being supportive, not thinking about how her small actions could affect others, being too self-involved to notice another individual's pain.
As much as I disliked Hannah and her choices, I understand that suicide is a big deal.  We have quarterly training on it where I work to ensure that people can recognize the warning signs.  We're given cards to carry around with the acronym ACE to remind us what to do when we run into someone that we suspect is suicidal (Ask, Care, Escort).  Basically, I'm glad if this opens up discussions for high schoolers, and I understand that the reasons why often might not make sense to outsiders; still, I wish I could have cared more for Hannah, and that Asher had made a flawed character towards whom I could have felt more empathy and sympathy than I did.