Reading Report: March 2008

March was kind of a crazy month, and I didn’t do much reading, but here are books I’ve been reading…

This weekend, I’m reading The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper. Like Beyond the Mango Tree, this book is set in Liberia, where I lived from 1982-1984. I usually read books about Liberia when I find them, and I was particularly excited about this one since Helene Cooper and I are only about one link removed. (The book actually comes out in May, but I was able to track down an advance readers edition.)

Helene Cooper was gone by the time I moved to Monrovia, but she went to the same school as I did and refers to the gang of American Embassy kids that I would join shortly later… I expect a familiar name to pop up any second. It’s interesting to read a book that describes familiar territory from a different point of view, but even if I’d never set foot in Africa, I think I would find this book highly readable and poignant — my wife sure did; she picked it up before I did and finishing it in about two days.

There was a serious shift in the political stability of Liberia in 1980, with a military coup dispatching the old aristocracy of the original families of African Americans who colonized Liberia in the early 19th Century. Cooper’s family was part of that aristocracy and fled after the coup. I moved there two years later.

After I left, there was another coup, and another, and another… about 25 years of serious political unrest and civil war and inconceivable violence, most of which Cooper describes from afar as she finishes her education in the U.S. and becomes a journalist. I have a hard time recognizing the Liberia that I’ve seen on the news, but Cooper’s book describes more or less the Liberia I knew in the “good old days,” as many Liberians describe them now. (There’s a lot of Liberians in the Twin Cities, for some reason, so it’s not unusual to hear the familiar Liberian-accented English when I’m out and about and strike up a conversation with someone about their home country.)

I’ve also been making my way through Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, which is probably the best known vampire novel after that one by Bram Stoker. I think it might be his best novel, for the Sherwood Anderson-style approach of showing a wide range of characters in a small town, only instead of hanging on in quiet desperation they get their blood sucked.

These books are curiously similar, since we follow the minor plot-lines that surround the characters knowing that their fragile worlds are about to collapse. It just kind of makes me think that real-world horrors are bad enough that we don’t need to make up new ones. Heck, I’d take vampires over warlords.

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