I believe I’ve mentioned a time or two (or three) that I spent nearly a month wading through a beast of a book. Now I have to write about said beast. Cripes. The good news (for me at least) is that despite the time spent on that book, I remain at book-a-week pace for the year.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul – Bob Shacochis
Well, what to write about this book? It zig-zags from 1990s Haiti, to post World War II Yugoslavia, to Cold War era Turkey, back to the 1990s and Haiti, with some guest appearances in the last section by some folks who came to dominate world affairs as we moved into the new millennium.
It’s about a girl and her dad. About the dad and his parents. About the girl, the dad, their religion, their country, and the meaning of family and commitment. About the men who love that girl, through different stages of her life. About the limits of the great, world powers when set up against entrenched, local customs and relationships. And about the limits of our individual influence over the people around us.
Parts of the book were brilliant. Others meandered and became a slog to get through. At the end, while I enjoyed the book, I wondered if it was all worth it. Could the book not have been pared down by 150–200 pages and ended up being an easier, clearer, more satisfying read? I loved most of the geo-political angles Shacochis included. However, there is a lot of sexual violence in the book. It all makes sense as part of the broader story, as a tool to set up why two characters in particular behave the way they behave. But I wondered if we really needed all the rapes.
I’d give the book a qualified endorsement. There’s more good than bad here. But if you need one book to read on a long weekend, or over the holidays, I think there are better choices.
Savage Harvest – Carl Hoffman
After that, I needed something lighter to cleanse my reading palate. So how about a book that begins with a rather graphic description of exactly how the native peoples of present day Indonesian Papua may have killed and eaten Michael Rockefeller in the early 1960s? Sounds like a breezy read to me!
Hoffman looks back at the disappearance of Rockefeller, son of the then governor of New York and future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, during his travels through then Netherlands New Guinea. The death was never solved, as his body was never found. While the Rockefeller family quickly decided that Michael drowned while attempting to swim to shore after his catamaran capsized, local legend long held that he made it to shore, was captured, killed, and most likely eaten by natives.
Hoffman tells his story three ways.
First, he details Rockefeller’s adventures through the Dutch colony searching for native art to bring back to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also provides a detailed look back at the situation in New Guinea at the time. Dutch and American missionaries were working hard to move the indigenous inhabitants of the region away from their traditional spiritual practices, which had long included cannibalism. Just before Rockefeller’s arrival, a Dutch colonial official had presided over a massacre of locals, which created a desire for revenge amongst the New Guineans. At the same time, Indonesia was making a claim on the territories before the United Nations, and the Dutch were working hard to suppress any evidence that they were not capable of governing the region.
Second, Hoffman dug deep into the historical records from the time of Rockefeller’s disappearance. He read Dutch documents that had never been examined during the initial search. He spoke to colonial and church officials who were in New Guinea in the early 1960s.
Biggest of all, Hoffman visited the region twice, traveling through the same areas where Rockefeller disappeared, meeting the inhabitants, attempting to understand their culture, and trying to get them to open up about their knowledge of Rockefeller’s death. While he never gets clear evidence that Rockefeller was killed rather than drowned, he does build a case that Rockefeller most likely died at the hands of the locals.
This is a really interesting book. It’s dark and frustrating, as Hoffman constantly runs into cultural barriers that keep him from every uncovering a definitive explanation for Rockefeller’s death. It’s a unique combination of investigative reporting and a traditional travel journal.