Mission Impossible

This Week’s Hot Reads: Feb. 24, 2014

Three nonfiction books: a look at missionary work in the Caribbean and Holland, an account of being a stringer in the Congo, and German espionage in the U.S. during World War I.

More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments

By Megan Hustad

In 1978, Megan Hustad’s father quit his job to become a missionary. On assignment with Trans World Radio—an evangelical broadcasting company with the motto “Speaking Hope to the World”—StanHustad decamped, his family in tow, from Minnesota to a small island in the Netherland Antilles called Bonaire. Missionary work would send the Hustad’s from Bonaire to Holland; after nine years abroad, they would return to the United States. More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments is Megan Hustad’s account of her upbringing in the missionary community—an upbringing that, come adulthood, she would rebel against by fleeing to the capital of the secular world, New York City. In New York, Hustad embraced secular life “with a vengeance,” dating furiously, acquiring snobberies and eventually passing as a lifelong Manhattanite. In one passage, Hustad describes her various strategies for defusing the awkwardness that invariably accompanied discussions of her childhood among people for whom missionary work was both quaint and insidious; “Mention the desire for passports,” she writes, or joke that its “an anachronistic career choice, I know.” Throughout More Than Conquerors Hustad captures the complexity of being raised with religion as an incontrovertible fact of life, only to discover that it need not be. Thankfully, More Than Conquerors is not a diatribe against organized religion; Hustad is a careful writer, and never offers any easy answers. Instead, she has written an honest and intimate account of her struggle to reconcile her worldview with that of her parents.

Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo

By Anjan Sundaram

Anjan Sundaram could have worked at Goldman Sachs or pursued his Ph.D. from Yale. Both offers had been extended to him. Instead, he went to the Congo—chosen because his bank teller was Congolese—to be a freelance journalist at a rate of 15 cents a word. A “stringer,” in the parlance of foreign correspondents, Sundaram sold stories to The New York Times and the Associated Press. His memoir, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, is the account of his time in Africa, documenting the ever-present violence and precarious existence that characterize life in the torturously and inaccurately named Democratic Republic of the Congo. Stringer depicts a country that is beset by complications of both past imperialism and current globalism. The constant guerrilla warfare in the Congo’s jungle, with nearly six million casualties to date, is fought with weapons a half-century old and noticed by few people outside of Africa; nevertheless, Sundaram writes, “the war ebbs and flows with global consumption…if it ended today it would probably incite a panic in the world’s financial markets.” Stringer is a remarkable debut, an eye-opening account of life in the third world that doubles as a fascinating story of a novice reporter earning his stripes in the most inhospitable environment imaginable.

Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America

By Howard Blum

That Howard Blum’s latest non-fiction thriller, Dark Invasion, has already been optioned by Hollywood comes as no surprise. Set against the backdrop of World War I, Blum’s account of a far-reaching plot by German agents to undermine the American industry, assassinate J.P. Morgan, Jr., and bomb the Capitol building is a spy thriller of the first order. Written in the propulsive, narrative style of Blum’s previous works, bestsellers like American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century and The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, Dark Invasion is another page-turner that is compelling to such a degree that one begins to doubt its veracity. Truth is stranger than fiction, however, and no one knows that more than Blum. He has a remarkable talent for both uncovering history’s most inexplicably forgotten stories—Eric Muenter, J.P. Morgan’s would-be assassin, is a character out of Hitchcock, a chameleon who assumed several different identities after poisoning his wife—and for writing non-fiction paced like a big-budget thriller. Dark Invasion is an utterly compelling story; with its investigation of homegrown and international terrorism, global politics, and national security, it is also remarkably relevant in this day and age.