Too Close to the Sun by Sara Wheeler: Karen Blixon herself set into the motion our obsession with Denys Finch Hatton when she immortalized their relationship in Out of Africa. But each of us knows there is more to the man and to their story than what she has given us, even if we aren't sure we want to know. Beryl Markham's West with the Night gives us only a glimpse of Denys as well, and not the truth that this gutsy female aviator ever shared him with Karen. You get the strong feeling that Too Close to the Sun finally gives us the real Denys. It is a sympathetic and sensitive portrayal without disguising what women will certainly recognize as a man with a fear of commitment. Perhaps it is too sympathetic a portrait: I periodically found myself exasperated with Karen Blixon. Handsome and charismatic as Denys was, another woman may have been the one to give him the heave-ho. Too close to the Sun isn't just about Denys and Karen however, but about the early days of white settlers in Kenya and the First World War, the history of which truly makes it a great read. Too Close to the Sun is colonial East Africa without the rosy tinted glasses.
Brazza, A Life For Africa by Maria Petringa: As the author points out in her preface, newly independent countries were quick to change their names or those of their important cities if they reflected their previous colonial masters. Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, which used to be a French colony, has not. In downtown Brazzaville today there is a museum and memorial to the 19th century Italian-born de Brazza who is credited with Brazzaville's founding for France as well as establishing French sovereignty over much of west central Africa. His remains as well as those of his wife and children were moved there to commemorate its opening a few years ago. Brazza's competitor, just across the Congo River from Brazzaville, was Henry Morton Stanley, who worked for claiming everything for King Leopold of Belgium, which is why the two Congos today (the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo) have different histories. Stanley and Brazza couldn't have been more different as well. Stanley took by force while Brazza used diplomacy. Ultimately, however, Brazza failed to unite development and prosperity for Africans in French Africa with colonial policy. He was summoned home in disgrace, and not three years after his departure, the abuse of natives on rubber concessions by French businessmen was as bad as it was in King Leopold's Congo colony across the river. (Read King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild for more on this horror.) Returning to French Congo to investigate these accusations may have cost Brazza his life. His wife always contended that he had been poisoned. There is so little written in English about the Republic of Congo's early history (Petringa's is the only biography of de Brazza in English) that I consider this book one of my best finds this year.