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Africa/Global: Recent Books Read & Recommended

AfricaFocus Bulletin
October 30, 2017 (171030)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

As with other publications largely focused on current events, AfricaFocus Bulletin is confronted with an exponentially increasing bombardment of daily news. My approach as the editor is to select a particular topic of interest, sometimes highlighted in the news and sometimes not, and try to put it into context for readers with excerpts from the most relevant sources. But I also find it essential to try to step back and refresh my understanding of the wider context. For that, I find I must turn to books.

The list below, which I decided to share with readers, is all non-fiction, but it is not restricted to books explicitly on "Africa." As readers are aware, AfricaFocus Bulletin centers Africa, but with the understanding that Africa is an integral part of and fundamentally affected by the wider global context, including developments in rich countries that still dominate the global order and disproportionately reap the rewards of a deeply tilted global political economy. In this critical time for the United States, my reading has also strongly concentrated on books providing context for understanding the situation in this country, where racial, class, and other divisions both parallel and help to mold global inequalities.

So, for your browsing and possible future reading, the lists below include books I have recently read and recommend to others who are interested in the topics ("recent" means in the last two years), as well as books I have noted that I would like to read. There are three categories: "Africa Past and Present," "Current Global Issues," and "USA Past and Present." The comments are very brief, my own in the case of books I have read and taken from publishers' descriptions in other cases.

I have also included links to Amazon listings, which often give access to a preview of the text and to Kindle editions, although I also encourage you to purchase from your own independent book store or from the publisher directly or suggest to your library to order, when those options are feasible.

The last AfricaFocus Bulletin including a substantial list of recommended books was in April, 2017: "African Feminism Past and Present" (

This AfricaFocus Bulletin is somewhat of an experiment, and I don't know how frequently I will post such book lists, either as part of a topical Bulletin or as a separate Bulletin like this one. I know I definitely won't be able to read all the books I would like to read! But if you find this of interest, and have additional titles to suggest to me for future inclusion, be sure to send me your feedback and recommendations by email at

Update: Additional books suggested by AfricaFocus subscribers

[Unless otherwise attributed, comments are from publishers' descriptions.]

Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. 2016.

"An extraordinary, moving story of a quiet—and successful—act of great bravery in the face of destructive fanaticism.” (Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost

Ernest Harsh, Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution. 2017.

"Smart, accessible, and essential reading for all who are interested in African politics. It provides new insight into Burkina Faso’s political history, from Sankara to the 2014 uprising.” - (Laura Seay, Colby College)

James Mittelman, Implausible Dream: The World-Class University and Repurposing Higher Education. 2017.

Drawing on his own groundbreaking fieldwork, he offers three case studies—the United States, which exemplifies market-oriented educational globalization; Finland, representative of the strong public sphere; and Uganda, a postcolonial country with a historically public but now increasingly private university system.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Africa Past and Present

Recently Read and Recommended

Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising. 2016
Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. 2013.
Howard W. French, China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire in Africa. 2014.
Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War. 2015.

The first three of these books, on topics often in the news, provide in-depth insights that go far beyond conventional reporting. Achcar's two books provide an analysis and overview, focusing first on the Arab Uprising and then on subsequent events highlighting the resilience of the old regimes. French provides a first-hand report based on extensive interviews, featuring not the most often discussed geopolitical role of China, but the diverse faces of Chinese migrants around the continent. Angola, rarely covered by Western media, is well served for both specialist and general readers by Soares de Oliveira, whose book is a well-informed and well-written account of Angola in the 21st century.

Nancy Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War. 2016.
Stephanie J. Urdang, Mapping My Way Home: Activism, Nostalgia, and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa. 2017.

Both books, Mitchell's an academic study weaving together interviews and archival data and Urdang's a personal and journalistic memoir based on a lifetime of engagement with African liberation, provide new insights even for those who were participants in or closely followed the events they describe. Mitchell's primary focus is the Washington policy scene, where she digs deeply into the debates within the Carter administration on how to respond to Africa, given U.S. political realities. Urdang's memoir ranges from South Africa to New York City to Guinea-Bissau to Mozambique, with reflections both on her personal experience and the complex contradictions of unfinished struggles for liberation.

Hope to Read Sometime

[Unless otherwise attributed, comments are from publishers' descriptions.]

Ibrahim Abdullah and Ismail Rashid, eds., Understanding West Africa's Ebola Epidemic: Towards a Political Economy. 2017.

While championing the heroic efforts of local communities and aid workers in halting the spread of the disease, the contributors also reveal deep structural problems in both the countries and humanitarian agencies involved, which hampered the efforts to contain the epidemic.

Kris Berwouts, Congo's Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle Since the Great African War. 2017.

"Berwouts is one of the very rare analysts who write what the population in eastern Congo thinks and feels." - Denis Mukwege, women's rights activist and gynecologist in eastern Congo

Mustafa Dhada, The Portuguese Massacre of Wiriyamu in Colonial Mozambique, 1964-2013. 2016.

"The murdered inhabitants of Wiriyamu, casualties of brutal Portuguese refusal to relinquish imperial rule, now have the recognition they deserve. Mustafah Dhada's heroic work of historical reconstruction relocates these lost lives." - Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburg.

Helen Epstein, Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror. 2017.

Epstein chronicles how America's naïve dealings with African strongmen and singleminded focus on the War on Terror have themselves becomes sources of terror.

Helon Habila, The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria. 2016.

Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, who grew up in northern Nigeria, returned to Chibok and gained intimate access to the families of the kidnapped to offer a devastating account of this tragedy that stunned the world.

Godfrey Kanyenze et al., eds. Towards Democratic Developmental States in Southern Africa. 2017. Free download.

Kanyenze and his colleagues have assembled a distinguished team of writers to take the temperature of the regional political economy, and chart a path for its future development.

Seth M. Markle, A Motorcycle on Hell Run: Tanzania, Black Power, and the Uncertain Future of Pan-Africanism, 1964-1974. 2017.

A towering achievement in the burgeoning field of Black internationalism." - Komozi Woodard, Sarah Lawrence College.

Sisonke Msimang, Always Another Country. 2017.

In her much anticipated memoir, Sisonke Msimang writes about her exile childhood in Zambia and Kenya, young adulthood and college years in North America, and returning to South Africa in the euphoric 1990s. She reflects candidly on her discontent and disappointment with present-day South Africa but also on her experiences of family, romance, and motherhood.

Alexis Okeowo, A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women Fighting Extremism in Africa. 2017.

This debut book by one of America's most acclaimed young journalists illuminates the inner lives of ordinary people doing the extraordinary.

John S. Saul, On Building A Social Movement: The North American Campaign for Southern African Liberation. 2016.

"Saul challenges us to demystify the national liberation movements many of us worshiped in order to see not only their strengths and weaknesses, but in order to understand the forces that have ground many of them to a halt. What an outstanding piece of writing!" --Bill Fletcher, Jr.,

Nick Turse, Tomorrow's Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. 2015.

"A dogged and intrepid journalist who won't take 'no comment' for an answer, Nick Turse has done a fantastic job of exposing the U.S. military's expansion into Africa and the proliferation of its secret missions on the continent." - Craig Whitlock, Pentagon correspondent, Washington Post

Hendrik Van Vuuren, Apartheid Guns and Money. 2017.

This meticulously researched book lifts the lid on some of the darkest secrets of apartheid's economic crimes, weaving together material collected in over two-dozen archives in eight countries with an insight into tens of thousands of pages of newly declassified documents.

Current Global Issues

Recently Read and Recommended

Bill Browder, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice. 2015.
Justin Gest, The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. 2016.
Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. 2017.

These three books, in quite different ways, highlight the fact that the Trump election was the result not only of factors unique to the United States, but of global developments. Browder's first-person account sheds light on the transition of the Soviet Union into a kleptocratic state, and its links to a global financial system facilitating these trends, as well as to the motives behind Russian intervention in that election. Gest provides a detailed comparison of Youngtown, Ohio and East London, UK, based on both interviews and survey data, highlighting both economic decline and the targeting of resentment against both societal elites and racial outsiders. And Mishra offers an intellectual history of resentment by angry men adopting extremist ideologies across the religious and political spectrum, from 18th century Europe to present-day Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality. 2016.
Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. 2017.

These two books challenge and guide readers to think more deeply about current issues. Collins and Bilge provide a succinct and clear exposition of the concept of "intersectionality" as indispensable for analyzing society "not as shaped by any single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other." Tufekci provides a brilliant account of the complex effects and potential of social media drawing both on personal experience as an activist and keen scholarly insights.

Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. 2016.
Yanis Varoufakis, And the Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity, and the Threat to Global Stability. 2016.

Yes, these books are by economists and include statistics and tables. But they are also well written, address fundamental issues, and are worth extra effort by noneconomist readers. Milanovic is the leading scholar on changes in inequality in the modern world, both "within-nation" and "between-nation." Varoufakis is the former foreign minister of Greece who tried, but failed, to combat the destructive and myth-based austerity policies imposed by Germany and others on his country.

Hope to Read Sometime

[Unless otherwise attributed, comments are from publishers' descriptions.]

Andy Clarno, Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994. 2017.

After a decade of research in the Johannesburg and Jerusalem regions, Andy Clarno presents here a detailed ethnographic study of the precariousness of the poor in Alexandra township, the dynamics of colonization and enclosure in Bethlehem, the growth of fortress suburbs and private security in Johannesburg, and the regime of security coordination between the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Jeremy Leggett, The Test: Solar light for all: a defining challenge for humanity. 2017. Free download.

The conundrum of expensive and high-carbon kerosene vastly outselling inexpensive and zero-carbon solar is a defining test of humankind's instinct for collective survival, Jeremy Leggett argues. If we cannot quickly replace oil-for-lighting with solar lighting, he asks, given all the blindingly obvious economic and social imperatives for so doing, what chance do we have with all the many other global problems we face?

Sasha Polakow-Suransky, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy. 2017.

From Europe to the United States, opportunistic politicians have exploited the economic crisis, terrorist attacks, and an unprecedented influx of refugees to bring hateful and reactionary views from the margins of political discourse into the mainstream. In this deeply reported account, Sasha Polakow-Suransky provides a frontrow seat to the anger, desperation, and dissent that are driving some voters into the arms of the far right and stirring others to resist.

Adam Rutherford, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes. 2017.

Who are our ancestors? Where did they come from? Geneticists have suddenly become historians, and the hard evidence in our DNA has blown the lid off what we thought we knew. Acclaimed science writer Adam Rutherford explains exactly how genomics is completely rewriting the human story—from 100,000 years ago to the present.

USA Past and Present

Recently Read and Recommended

Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. 2016.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. 2016.
Michael Tesler, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era. 2016.

These works by three scholars writing for the public as well as other scholars, all written before the Trump election, are complementary. Anderson provides the clearest succinct account I am aware of the history of white backlash to Black advancement, from Reconstruction through Obama. Tesler presents survey data highlighting "modern" (coded) racism as compared to old-fashioned racism through the Obama years. And Taylor highlights the role of "black faces in high places" in the uneven advance of Black liberation from the civil rights movement through the rise of #BlackLivesMatter.

William J. Barber II, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. 2016.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. 2016.

Superficially, these two books, one on the imperative of a new civil rights movement today and the other on the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, might seem contradictory. But they both have a deeper understanding of U.S. history, looking back to Reconstruction and based on personal experience of engagement on the front lines of struggle, than a simplistic contrast of non-violence and violence. Nonviolent protest and political organizing, whether in the days of Reconstruction, the 20th century, or the 21st century, depend on some force that can defend those engaged in peaceful organizing.

Ari Berman, Give us the ballot : the modern struggle for voting rights in America. 2016.
Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits. 2016.

These two books by journalists, although different in style (Palast is a gonzo journalist in the style of Michael Moore), both provide well-documented accounts on the decades-long and successful Republican campaign to remove voters from the voters' rolls, which continues to be a fundamental and potentially decisive feature of U.S. elections.

Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. 2016.
Jamie Longazel, Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. 2016.

These two books by scholars are well-researched and well-written case studies, making use of both quantitative data and extensive personal interviews. Each explores in depth the views of a constituency that was critical in the 2016 Trump victory, going beyond stereotypes of "the Trump voter." Cramer focuses on small-town Wisconsin. Longazel on his home town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. 2017.
Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. 2016.

These are two fundamental books on the money and the minds behind the rise of the radical right in American politics and culture. Historian MacLean provides an in-depth analysis, based on archival sources, on the wide-ranging influence of "libertarian" economist James McGill Buchanan and the role of the billionaire Koch brothers in boosting his influence both in the academic and public policy arenas. Investigative journalist Mayer includes the Koch family, but also stresses that they are only one of a larger group of right-wing billionaires pushing the view that "liberty" means freedom of wealth from any public responsibilities.

Wall Street's Think Tank

Mark Landler, Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power. 2016.
Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street's Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014. 2015.

These two books on the shaping of U.S. foreign policy into the 21st century take two very different approaches. Landler is a careful but conventional account focused on the inside story of the distinctive policies of President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Shoup provides a much deeper and historically rooted analysis of the molding of foreign policy consensus on fundamental issues, which lies behind and constricts the debates over specific policy decisions. [Personal note: I was the co-author with Shoup of Imperial Brain Trust (1977), the early predecessor to this comprehensive second volume on the role of the Council of Foreign Relations, which takes the story from 1976 to 2014. Unlike Shoup, I have not followed up with our early research on this topic. I applaud the fact that he persevered and highly recommend this book to anyone trying to understand today's foreign policy.]

Hope to Read Sometime

[Unless otherwise attributed, comments are from publishers' descriptions.]

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened. 2017.

"What Happened is not one book, but many. It is a candid and blackly funny account of her mood in the direct aftermath of losing to Donald J. Trump. It is a post-mortem, in which she is both coroner and corpse. It is a feminist manifesto. It is a scoresettling jubilee…. It is worth reading." - The New York Times

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power. 2017.

"We were eight years in power" was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. In this sweeping collection of new and selected essays, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time.

E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported. 2017.

"If someone had hibernated through the 2016 election, woke up early this year and logged onto Twitter or turned on cable news and wondered, what the hell happened?, this would be the book to read" - The New York Times Book Review

Joshua Green, Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. 2017.

Any study of Trump's rise to the presidency is unavoidably a study of Bannon. Devil's Bargain is a tour-de-force telling of the remarkable confluence of circumstances that decided the election.

Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America's Long War. 2017.

Singh argues that the United States' pursuit of war since the September 11 terrorist attacks has reanimated a longer history of imperial statecraft that segregated and eliminated enemies both within and overseas.

Charles Sykes, How The Right Lost Its Mind. 2017.

Once at the center of the American conservative movement, bestselling author and radio host Charles Sykes is a fierce opponent of Donald Trump and the right-wing media that enabled his rise.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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