This Week’s Reads

I finished 2 books earlier this week, that at first glance seem completely unrelated, but after a closer look have a few similarities. The first, a novel that takes place during the American invasion of Haiti in 1994, follows 3 characters whose lives are connected. The second, a memoir from a NYT correspondent about his decades spent in Africa.
You don’t discover the sex of the main character Tory Harris aka Jersey in Voodoo Lounge, which was written by Christian Bauman, until the end of the prologue, and it’s only mentioned in passing. She’s a newly pinned sergeant on board a ship about to land in Haiti. The other 2 main characters are Marc Hall, a half-Haitian captain that she meets on a mission, and Junior Davis, Jersey’s ex-lover. Davis and Jersey’s relationship is visited through flashbacks and you don’t realize the impact it has on the story until towards the end of the novel. I found Bauman’s exploration of what people do under pressure particularly interesting. When Marc Hall contemplates what it means to be part Haitian and also a member of the occupation, we see the internal conflict; And when a group of soldiers are caught in a standoff with some Haitian soldiers, we see what people are capable of when placed in fraught situations.

What does Voodoo Lounge have in common with the other book A Continent for the Taking by Howard French? Both books show the debilitating and often absurd effects American arrogance can have on another society. French spent years traveling all over Africa and came across all kinds of greed, waste, and hypocrisy from all directions. His book really opened my eyes to the devastation that the West has had on Africa. I knew, or supposed I knew what the world has done to that continent. But his experiences show both the small and the big picture of life in Africa. Not everyone is bad of course, but not many come off as good human beings. Like our “aiding” of Haiti, the United States often sets out on misguided efforts to help nations. But more often than not, the government backs whomever will help us the most, be it a dictator known to have perpetrated war crimes or an “elected” official who’s been known to use whatever means necessary to win an election.

Bauman’s rich novel reads quickly, but still has depth and power. French’s book is not only informative but also emotional, capturing both the human and historical angles of the story. I enjoyed reading them both.