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review 2017-11-10 07:59
In my Top Ten list of History books
Africa: A Biography of the Continent - John Reader

This is a wonderful and highly readable book, but do not misunderstand what it is about. The subtitle is completely honest: this is not a book (entirely) about human history in Africa; this is a book about the African continent.  As such, it is divided into three approximately equal sections:

 

1) Natural History: 

This describes the formation of the African continent during the cooling phase of the Earth's crust. Africa is unusual among continents for being composed of just three giant cratons. A large portion is dedicated to the formation of the Bushveld Igneous Complex- the single largest and richest concentration of mineral wealth on the planet, and almost the sole accessible source of some strategic materials like chromium. 

 

This part progresses to the emergence of life, and the considerable evidence that humans find their origin in Africa, with our present form emerging somewhere between 2 and 4 million years ago, depending on what criteria you apply, and how you interpret the available evidence.

 

2) Anthropology:

Development of human civilization in Africa, and importantly- the co-evolution of other organisms with the human species in their land of origin.  This is a big deal, because all the evidence suggests that humans only left their mother continent about 120,000 years ago. We are an invading foreign species everywhere else on the globe, and like most introduced species, we had fewer natural predators and parasites outside of Africa. Malaria is the best example of an organism which co-developed in evolution, in Africa, alongside humans. Humans even adapted with rearrangements of hemoglobin, which can be beneficial in the hybrid SC form, but deadly in the SS homozygous form (i.e. Sickle Cell Anemia).  This, and other similar examples account for the comparatively slower growth rate of human communities within Africa, compared to without, and some of these issues continue to plague Africa today. 

 

"Expatriot" groups returning to Africa about 15,000 years ago transformed human development on the continent by introducing foreign species which had been domesticated in Asia. Most important of these were cattle. Skeletal remains have shown two different pathways that Africans took with this new resource:

a) cattle raising for meat (in which skeletal remains show an equal number of males and females in the herd). and

b) cattle raising for milk: (in which skeletal remains show most males in the herd were slaughtered) 

 

The two patterns have different land-use and social development implications, which were fascinating to read.

 

There is an entire section dedicated to exploring how conditions, particularly around present-day Nigeria, led to the development of acephalous social structures... some of the largest and most sophisticated examples of completely decentralized human communities with essentially no leaders. It was a development which fit the local environment well, at the time it developed, but made Africa in general extremely vulnerable to foreign attackers with heirarchical social systems concentrating,  commanding, and directing resources against them. This began in earnest with contact with Arab slavers on the East coast of the continent, beginning about 800 years ago, and really picked up pace with European contact in the 1500's.

 

...Which brings us to the subject of slavery. It is an indigenous African practice, which evolved from traditions of adoption and extended family (mutual) obligations. Going back to what I said about malaria and Africa's slow population growth... this created a demand for labor which was sometimes answered with warfare and enslavement of the vanquished, or with peaceful indentured servitude agreements (some coerced, some not; some for a lifetime, some for more limited terms).  The upshot of all this is that a well-established social acceptance of slavery, and a well-developed economic system of slave acquisition and trade was in place by the time Arab slavers arrived in the 1200's or so.  Later, beginning with the Portuguese, Europeans fed this system, and in a sense "addicted" the economies in present-day Congo and Angola to the slave trade. Outright slavery continued in Africa into the 20th century, and many of the proto-slavery practices (i.e. adoption of orphaned relatives, in exchange for limited periods of enforced servitude) continue today.  One interesting observation:  plantations in North America tried on several well-documented occasions to force Native Americans into slavery, but the enslaved never cooperated. They simply refused to work, even on pain of death. The reason is that slavery was a foreign concept to them. Slavery is not a useful institution to hunter-gatherer societies, which don't cultivate or hoard large amounts of food (or any other possessions). It is only in pastoral or agricultural civilizations that large amounts of manpower are needed to work the land.  Africans brought to North America as slaves were mainly from agricultural areas of Western Africa which unfortunately understood well the concept of slavery, and culturally accepted it sufficiently to participate in it, in a way that Native Americans did not.

 

3) Human History:

This is the names and dates History that I had expected the entire book to be. There is little well-documented history before Arab contact.. the Great Zimbabwe, the Egyptian pharaoh dynasties, and the Biblical-era Ethiopians being the standout exceptions. Once Arabs entered the continent, with their written systems of recording, History as we think of it really takes off.  The book is necessarily superficial, covering an entire continent for about 800 years. As expected, there is a lot about colonialism, particularly the Dutch and British in South Africa, the Germans in Tanzania, and the British in Kenya and Egypt. The book follows through to the many independence movements in the 1950's and 60's, and ends ominously with the Rwandan genocide and the probable CIA assassination of Patrice Lumumba- first elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

Overall this is a definite Five Star book, and on my personal Top Ten History Books list.

 

Highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

 

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review 2017-09-02 16:27
The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett
The Last Continent (Discworld, #22) - Terry Pratchett

Series: Discworld #22

 

This is one of those Discworld books where my rating doesn't mean much because I've read it so many times that it's gained the status of an old friend. It's basically Rincewind in the Discworld's version of Australia, but it has some great Bursar moments as well general wizard shenanigans. Time travel is also an integral part of its plot, which may be why some people complain it doesn't have much plot. We're also treated to a few Death cameos.

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review 2017-04-28 20:21
Review: The Continent by Keira Drake (first ARC)
The Continent - Keira Drake

For those unaware of the controversy surrounding this book: This advanced reading copy was released late last year, and was immediately picked apart by reviewers that got their hands on it as being extremely racist and horribly insensitive. It blew up enough that Harlequin Teen has postponed the release of the finished novel, and Drake is (allegedly) reworking it. There's a question surrounding it if it can be "fixed," and I'll be throwing in my own two cents on the subject.

 

I got my hands on it more or less by coincidence: my sister went to the downtown branch of the library for a program and it happened to just be sitting there. Because she was aware of the controversy, she grabbed it for me. This was not a hate read for me. I don't hate read, I don't have the time or energy. But I also found it hugely important to expose myself to the content myself. I'm not going to be the last word on any of this; many people more informed and with more of a personal stake have written about it in depth, from Native American scholar Debbie Reese to author Zoraida Cordova.

 

First off: the book itself. It's impossible to separate it from its ideas and prejudices. It shocked me that almost every page was imbued with casual-to-very active racism, and some sexism and ableism, too! If it could be, the story-the story would simply be fine. The characters would be okay. If you read lots of YA, or even just a sampling, you've read this stuff before, especially with what passes for fantasy nowadays--meaning bland, simplistic and unimaginatively derivative. I hate the term world building now, because I see it being so overused in incorrect ways, but this... this ranges from boring and illogical to, as I will discuss, offensive.

 

The peaceful, superior Spirians are made up of four nations: East, west, North and South. We're told that the Southerners have "olive skin" (I cannot even go into why I dislike so much that recent YA authors have picked this up; they don't know what it is and use it as a catch all for white person who can be vaguely POC but is still white) and the Westerners have dark skin but also blue eyes so pale they could be white. First off, ew, how is that attractive and not actually frightening, but secondly can we please stop with the dark, dark skin with some typically white feature that makes them "remarkable?" And the first and most prominent Westerner throughout the novel is a servant, a groundskeeper at their fancy resort. I wanted to put that out, since people seem to think their inclusion somehow negates the rest of the racism in the book.

 

Only the most affluent Spirians tour the Continent, and sixteen year-old Vaela Sun's family is lucky enough to ensure her a visit for her birthday. We see the Spirians as spoiled and finicky, but generally good-natured, their fussy eccentricities smiled and laughed at.

 

When we get to the Continent, or rather above it, as they use "heli-planes" to conduct the actual tour (and here I thought that they, at one point, told me that it would break some sort of treaty if they set foot on the land, but it's never brought up again so... ???) I got a real Victorian "the Dark Continent" sort of vibe from all of this, the way we viewed Africa a hundred years ago as unexplored and wild. Vaela is an apprentice mapmaker, so her interest is almost strictly academic. They witness the horrendous violence of war--or, more accurately, of the Topi--and are disheartned and sickened that there can still be such savagery in the world.

 

Yes. The Topi. It's literally only one letter off of the Hopi, and make no mistake, despite what Drake has said later in her defense about them being based on the Uruk-hai on Tolkien's LOTR or, let's face it, Peter Jackson's. What the author describes of the Topi village is just Hopi cliff dwellings, their colors and "war paint" evocative directly of those people. And she uses every Native American stereotype perpetuated for hundreds of years! Ignoring the fact that Tolkien shouldn't be anyone's defense towards diversity, the Topi are described time and time again as only men, but as shown in the book, by example, we see brutal, animalistic, drunken non-humans who kill their enemies in the most viscous ways possible seemingly simply for the pleasure of it.

 

The people on the other side of the war are the Aven'ei. Despite the name just being nonsensical, these are basically the Japanese. With names like Keiji, Yuki, Takashi, Noro, it's not even disguised; these are not Japanese-inspired names, these are LITERALLY JAPANESE NAMES. And while we clearly see them as more human as the Topi, we do so by Western/"Spirian" standards. Save us from the fantasy world building that takes a real world people and simply takes what the author was interested in/what she knows from popular culture, and then fills in the rest with our western white standards. Their homes are very Western with tables and chairs and loveseats, they've adopted whatever common language the Spirians speak despite the fact that they have absolutely no contact with the Spirians (and, yes, I am aware that the author most likely did this to make communication between Noro and Vaela easier, but it's lazy and that's part of the larger problem), and they're all inexplicably over six feet tall.

 

So, Vaela lives with the Aven'ei after being rescued by Noro from Topi who attempt to rape her, settles into a life with them. Of course SHE'S not prejudiced and is SHOCKED that other people might be judging her simply on her differing appearance and that beautiful, shimmering golden hair which no one can stop themselves from commenting on. Because Spirians can't be racist! Even when we see them at the end of the book, when Vaela is begging them to intervene in the war, they're exposed as bureaucratic and stagnant, not at all racist!

 

And, yes, Vaela's solution to build a wall along the Topi/Aven'ai border is more than unfortunate. And I have to think about an editor, accepting that this was written before Trump's plan was unveiled, not going back to the text and thinking, Hmm... maybe we should change that a little?

 

Vaela impassioned plea on the Aven'ei behalf causes the Westerners to break from the Spire and show up in a fleet of their heli-planes to scare and chastise the tribal people into doing what they say. This is a actual line from the book:

 

"It is done now," I say, gesturing up at the heli-planes. "The West has come to ensure peace. You need never wear the shadow of the itzatsune again."

 

Rubs temples. But no, this isn't about white savioring at all.

 

So, what would generally be a mediocre book with nothing exceptional about it becomes a sort of racist opus. Can it be fixed? It would not only require a rewrite so massive, it'd essentially be a different book, but a true understanding on the behalf of the author, which she's proved she does not yet have.

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text 2017-04-27 18:28
Reading progress update: I've read 268 out of 312 pages.
The Continent - Keira Drake

Aaaand there it is, the great solution of our White Savior: Build a wall along the border to keep those rapist savages out.

 

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text 2017-04-19 17:30
Ohhh, look what I've gotten my grubby hands on...
The Continent - Keira Drake

Cracks knuckles...

 

First twenty pages... OH HEY Y'ALL! We can go home, these here rich white folk solved war! But apparently not racism. *sips wine slowly*

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