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February 15-21, 2006

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Book Box

Book

The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold
The most amazing thing about the British colonization of Africa isn't that the Empire succeeded so ruthlessly but, rather, that the early explorers didn't strangle each other in snit fits along the way. Frank T. Kryza's fascinating retelling of the 19th-century race to be the first European to see fabled Timbuktu at the apex of the Niger River features a cast of squabbling, egomaniacal, opportunistic bushwhackers and backstabbers. Luckily, in addition to enduring disease, starvation, attacks by desert brigands and accusations of behavior unbecoming an officer by their countrymen, the explorers also wrote copious letters and managed to get them delivered to the Royal Geographical Society, so that historians have plenty of primary source material to work with. Kryza begins with the perfectly named Mungo Park, who, "tired of his sedentary family life as a country doctor in Peebles, Scotland," headed into the heart of West Africa in 1805 and ... simply disappeared. But Kryza's real focus is on Maj. Alexander Gordon Laing, who romanced the daughter of a British consul in Tripoli before heading south through the trackless Sahara in 1825; at the same time, another expedition, led by the contentious Hugh Clapperton, was headed for the same goal from the west, a shorter but swampier route. While their sponsors back in London hoped that the two explorers would join forces somewhere in the anvil-hot wilds, Laing and Clapperton sniped at each other in testy letters. "Each man," Kryza notes drily, regarded "the other as an unwelcome interloper." Both men eventually met unhappy fates far from home, and ironically, Timbuktu turned out to be centuries past its golden prime when the Euros finally got there. Unfortunately, that disappointment didn't stop the English, French and Dutch from looking for other African territories to rule and despoil. (By Frank T. Kryza; Ecco; 322 pages; $25.95 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant


Book

Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945
No army in history suffered casualties in numbers quite like the Red Army. More than 8 million of its soldiers died during World War II, and in Ivan's War, a profoundly empathetic work of history, Catherine Merridale gets to the bottom of why they were so willing to do so. As we well know, it wasn't always an issue of volition. According to Stalin's order, issued the day after 100,000 troops surrendered in the Ukrainian town of Unman, "Any officer or political officer who removed his distinguishing marks in battle, retreated to the rear, or gave himself up as a prisoner would count as a malicious deserter. Officers who tried to desert could be shot in the field by their superiors." In other words, it was victory or death, and the Germans didn't help matters be treating POWs so poorly. Red soldiers were routinely tortured or frozen or starved to death, until the Germans realized around 1942 that they were squandering a source of future slave labor. Knowledge of this fate and the brotherhood which forms out of mutual suffering made the Red Army fight with what Morrisdale describes as "sheer rage combined with something very close to love." Drawing on letters, diaries and formerly sealed archives, Ivan's War bears out this emotion in the words of the men who felt it, giving a face and a voice to the 30 million soldiers who bore the burden of bringing the German war machine to its knees, then running out from beneath it as it fell. (By Catherine Merridale; Metropolitan Books; 462 pages; $30 cloth)
—John Freeman



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