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Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
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A-The House at Sugar BeachThe diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times shares an intimate and painful account of a childhood and a way of life torn apart by civil war.

The Topic: Helene Cooper was born in 1966 into a life of extraordinary luxury and privilege as the daughter of a wealthy, influential Liberian family that traced its roots back to the founder of that small African nation. Growing up in a 22-room seaside mansion, Cooper was too young and sheltered to understand the tribal tensions and economic disparities leading up to the riots of 1979 and Samuel Doe’s coup d’état in 1980. But her idyllic childhood was shattered when Doe’s guerillas invaded her home and gang-raped her mother while Cooper hid in an upstairs bedroom. She left behind her poorer best friend and fled to the United States, where she experienced poverty and racism for the first time. However, she also embraced her new home and nurtured a gift for writing in school. Eventually, she became a successful journalist and reunited with her friend in her homeland. Now she tells her story.
Simon & Schuster. 368 pages. $25. ISBN: 0743266242

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Cooper’s memories both horrify and engage. … The result is an engrossing dual portrait of family and country that allows us to feel both the pangs of Cooper’s nostalgia and the ache of her regret." Marjorie Kehe

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"To understand what happened in Liberia is to understand what has happened in much of Africa, and Cooper tells it not like a seasoned journalist—which is what she is—but like a poet." Tina Jordan

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Her book is a remarkable, human account that brings her country to life—the smells, the people, the lyrical way they use language. Seen through her eyes, Liberia is not just a dangerous, far-off country, but a vibrant and fascinating place." Laurie Hertzel

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"At its heart, The House at Sugar Beach is a coming-of-age story told with unremitting honesty. … While Cooper’s memoir is mesmerizing in its portrayal of a Liberia rarely witnessed, its description of the psychological devastation—and coping mechanisms—brought on by profound loss is equally captivating." Caroline Elkins

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"In this shimmering, lyrical, conversational saga of her life and family, disastrously uprooted by wars and crazed militias led by Samuel Doe in 1980 and the infamous Charles Taylor in 1989, Cooper explores her childhood. … Her images, details, smells and scenes enrich this stunning memoir and create a visceral impact you won’t soon forget." Sam Coale

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"While it deals with terror, guilt and exile, it’s really a family story, sometimes humorous, about the bonds of love between mothers, daughters and sisters." Deirdre Donahue

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cooper is tongue-in-cheek about Congo excesses but sometimes skimpy on context. … Also, her often-confessed tendency to fasten on minutiae (‘papering over a seismic moment in my life by focusing on the superficial,’ she calls it) works against narrative drive." Wendy Kann

Critical Summary

In her warm, conversational tone, Helene Cooper vividly evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of Liberia for readers as she describes the customs, history, and culture of her native land. Indeed, she has a great deal of background information to convey to Western readers unfamiliar with the country, but she folds this material masterfully into the narrative. An accomplished storyteller, Cooper relates the arrogance and excesses of her family during her early years without losing her readers’ sympathy, and she likewise depicts the joys of friendship and the horrors of war without becoming melodramatic or maudlin. Like the best nonfiction—and journalism—Cooper’s gripping coming-of-age story enlightens and inspires, often reading like a novel. In sum, it is a very personal and honest memoir from a gifted writer.