Deon Meyer is South Africa’s preeminent mystery/thriller writer and something of a wonder. His books have a richness and specificity that bring SouthDeon Meyer is South Africa’s preeminent mystery/thriller writer and something of a wonder. His books have a richness and specificity that bring South Africa (and crimes committed there) vividly to life. This installment of the Benny Greissel series braids several strands of mystery into a single blood-red cord of baling twine from the wine country of Stellenbosch.
Meyer often posts on his website photos of the locales, restaurants, buildings he uses in his novels, and he did in the case of Icarus as well. The site of the action is South Africa’s western Cape near Cape Town.
A large storm in December reveals the body of an internet entrepreneur buried in the sand of Blouberg Strand. Ernst Richter ran Alibi.com, a South African-based website based on the success of AshleyMadison.com, a company promising discretion when arranging infidelities. The manner of his death ties him firmly to the wine country in Stellenbosch, but in the weeks leading to the Christmas holidays, we are turned in many directions, often away from the truth.
Meyer often has several threads working at once in his novels, and this book is no exception. Deliciously, Meyer shares the personalities of the police and how their prejudices, weaknesses, and particular skills influence an investigation. Benny Griessel struggles with alcohol addiction and falls off the wagon when a colleague dies tragically. The description of his ever-present desire and of his failure is agonizingly real.
Griessel’s colleague, Jamie Keyter, will do just about anything to be in the limelight of newspaper reporting, even if it means selling his team down the river. Another colleague, Vaughn Cupido, falls hard for someone he questions during the murder investigation.
While the murder investigation plays itself out, we are treated to a plausible explanation of the unreasonably high subscription numbers of Alibi.com (and by association the AshleyMadison.com), and a realistic scenario for the sites’ growth and financial requirements. Finally, we also get a fascinating short history of wine production in South Africa.
Meyer keeps readers off-balance throughout the novel with rapid and abrupt shifts between strands: the quiet droning of a man relating his family’s genealogy; the drunken stumbling of Benny Griessel on the edge of losing everything; the start-stop of an investigation where so many have things they wish to hide.
If you haven’t already enjoyed Deon Meyer’s oeuvre, feel free to start here. It is often years between novels, and to discover a new Meyer book is an event. Add Meyer to your list and get a whole different outlook. This book will be published October 6, 2015 by Grove Atlantic, but I am telling you about it now because it is being offered as a giveaway currently on Goodreads. I definitely recommend you sign up. ...more
How many times has the story recounted in this classic novel about war been writ in the history of mankind? Ask our soldiers to find a way to save theHow many times has the story recounted in this classic novel about war been writ in the history of mankind? Ask our soldiers to find a way to save the nation and they do, only to be blamed for their actions in the end. The thing about violence is that it destroys the actor and the acted-upon. There is no safe place.
Penguin Classics has just reissued this title with a Foreword by Robert D. Kaplan, revised from a 2007 article in The Atlantic called "Rereading Vietnam." In his Foreword, Kaplan brings Lartéguy's work up-to-date, relating it to Iraq: "In...extreme and difficult situations like Iraq, cynics may actually serve a purpose... Lartéguy immortalizes such soldiers." The longest and most lavishly described section of the novel focuses on Vietnam and a group of paratroopers imprisoned there. We learn what makes up their natures just as they do, undergoing the hardships, failed escape attempts, sickness, and final release back to France.
We chart their crisscrossing and overlapping lives as they try to put themselves back together on home soil and lament with them the changes to their character that forbid surrender to their old pleasures. Called once again to perform in Algiers, the men reassemble and rely upon one another to build an unusual type of flattened, anti-hierarchical and discrete fighting structure that relies on adopting the guerrilla tactics of the enemy. Knowing each other so intimately allows each to play to their strengths, but every man is damaged in the course of their work.
In the end, the French paratroopers’ closeness with ordinary Algerians is both their strength and a sword that cuts them. Their very integration into a society rebelling French rule gives them access to information but also requires recognizing the humanity of those they strive to overcome. Later, their tactics are deniable by higher ups in the French military, leaving the soldiers to bear the brunt of saving Algiers' Kasbah.
”Let Rome beware the anger of the legions.”
Soldiers must relate to descriptions of the ways men can be torn from their moorings, to the bond between men harboring together in unbearable conditions, to the uncertainty and fear and the unexpected heroism. All soldiers returning to the home country must also experience the confusion and alienation, the regret for what they’d left behind, the familiarity with a country that had long imprisoned them. And they must feel also the loss of the constraints of discipline and danger.
A friend has remarked that a "key weakness [in the novel] is its understanding of women." It is true that Lartéguy does not develop the female characters—they are something "other." But I did not think it distracted from the reading, nor the verisimilitude of the novel. Men absorbed as they are in war and with fellow officers often do not see women as the whole people they undoubtedly are. Women are apart. Many times the reverse is also true. Men who return from war are something apart. Neither side can comprehend the other: the gulf is too wide. Lartéguy’s work therefore is a fair reflection of what is in these men’s minds. Their primary loyalty is with other men, whom they see with exceptional clarity and sympathy.
It is easy to see why this book is the classic it has become. It has a vivid relevance and feel even now. Initially published in 1960 in French, the English translation by Xan Fielding, himself a Special Operations executive for the British Army in Crete, France and the Far East, was published in Great Britain in 1961. Immediately it was hailed as a classic, a true example of the immediacy of classic status when a book carries with it such honesty and a sense of history in the making.
There was a film produced in 1965, released in 1967, called 'The Battle of Algiers'. It is a harrowing and almost unbearably lifelike reenactment of the scene when the paratroopers described in this book arrive in Algiers. The docudrama won awards in Venice, London, and Alcapulco immediately on release and even today is described as electrifying and eerily resonant. There was palpable excitement in the NYTimesreview of the premier of the film at the opening of the New York Film Festival at the Philharmonic in the fall of 1967. Zbigniew Brzezinski was quoted as saying "If you want to understand what’s happening right now in Iraq, I recommend 'The Battle of Algiers'."
A word or two about Lartéguy’s style: he is graceful and immersive. I loved the French-ness of the book, which did not at all distract from the universality of its message. This book is one of a trilogy, consisting of The Mercenaries (1954), The Centurions (1960), and The Praetorians (1961). Lartéguy died in 2011. ...more
London-born, Spain-based Parker Bilal is on my short list of great thriller writers writing today. His Makana Mystery series features a private investLondon-born, Spain-based Parker Bilal is on my short list of great thriller writers writing today. His Makana Mystery series features a private investigator originally from the Sudan and now working in Cairo. Bilal gives us all kinds of atmosphere, politically-relevant motive, morally-complex characters, and a beating heart. His writing is blessedly free from idiom and extraneous storylines—the exotic setting and complexity of his main character’s life is enough to keep us off balance and searching for familiar ground.
In this installment, U.S. government contractors have gone off the reservation in Iraq to pursue a former high-ranking military official from the old Iraq regime who appears to be profiting from his theft of Kuwaiti ‘war spoils’ which was the impetus for U.S. involvement in the First Gulf War. It is now 2004, and the Egyptian political scene is chaotic while private investigator Makana wends his way between bribe-takers, informants, and status-seekers, seeking justice.
We get a street view of Cairo’s neighborhoods as Makana does his rounds, and have the opportunity to see how Cairenes operate day-to-day. Best of all are characterizations of some of the less wealthy inhabitants of the city: we see where they live, how they live, what they think, and how they eat. Cairo has always been a cosmopolitan place. Its location in the heart of the Middle East give it a unique perspective, and the central character in this series, Makana, allows us to look at the region with an even further remove.
Parker Bilal is the pen name of Jamal Mahjoub, who publishes award-winning literary novels under his own name. ...more
Christie Watson’s intensely moving second novel Where Women Are Kings is so beautifully executed that one comes away with a sense of awe at her masterChristie Watson’s intensely moving second novel Where Women Are Kings is so beautifully executed that one comes away with a sense of awe at her mastery of imagination and writing skill. Watson gets inside the experience of being a Nigerian immigrant to London and illuminates a disconnect within the mind of a seven-year-old foster child.
Watson takes on an important, fraught, and difficult to understand human social issue—severe child abuse—and shares it with us with an intelligence and assuredness that gives us all grace. She is as careful with us, her readers, as a mother is with an at-risk child, talking us around the issue until we feel safe enough to look at it straight in the eye. We would not gravitate to this difficult subject were we led not there by a careful and steady guide.
Watson chooses a complex narrative structure with which to tell the story and in so doing, leads us to gradually comprehend how such hideous crimes might be committed by loving parents. There is a hard-won compassion everywhere apparent for all parties in this story, but not a hint of sentimentality. It is remarkable.
A seven-year-old boy of Nigerian descent has been kicking around the foster care system for some years before he is chosen by a biracial couple for adoption. He is considered at-risk because there is some question if he was involved in a fire set at his last foster home. The story is told partly from his point of view, and partly from that of his adoptive mother. Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters written to the boy, Elijah, from his birth mother. We sense the voice of the child Elijah and that of his birth mother are imaginative reconstructions, yet they have a compelling logic. The voice of the adoptive mother is so fiercely intelligent and defended that it feels positively lived.
Watson writes fiction that doesn’t feel like fiction, and yet all the elements of great fiction are manifest. The characters are unique, complex, recognizable. The story never gets out of Watson’s grasp. Her skill in the presentation keeps us rapt to know if and how the life of a seven-year-old can be saved. We believe in the folks she introduces who spend their days (and nights) wrestling with these issues. She makes them heroes.
There are no extra pieces in this novel. Every word works to the goal of our understanding and the development of our compassion. The story of the biracial household with a really tough, almost insoluble, problem is told with a naturalness that allows us to focus on big issues like whether or not love is enough.
At a time when the importance and relevance of fiction is being questioned, along comes a writer of such skill that we cannot but put aside that challenge for another day. Kudos to Watson. ...more
I don’t recall ever reading anything by Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa before, so I can’t compare this historical novel and thinly-disguised biographI don’t recall ever reading anything by Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa before, so I can’t compare this historical novel and thinly-disguised biography to his other work, but the subject--the life of Sir Roger Casement--is one which interests me deeply. Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book of the Congo, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, introduced me to the unforgettable figure of Roger Casement and I see Vargas Llosa was similarly captured. Casement was a man who harbored within him enormous contradictions and who struggled to live a life of meaning. Despite being hung for a traitor, he was a man of honor who stood up for his convictions, and who died for them.
Roger Casement (1864-1916) was born just outside of Dublin, Ireland, in a seaside location given variously as Sandycove or Kingstown. Though baptized as a child, Casement considered himself Protestant most of his life and embraced his Catholicism only shortly before his death. Much of what we know about him comes from his own journals in which he recorded his work, thoughts, travels, and sexual encounters. Vargas Llosa’s first section detailing Casement’s life and work in the Congo tracked so closely with Hochschild’s account that I realized both must have used the same source materials.
It is the second section, called Amazonia, which held my attention most closely. After Casement works with Protestant missionaries and the journalist and human rights activist E.D. Morel in the Congo disclosing the atrocities committed in the push to harvest rubber, he is dispatched by the British government to Peru to do the same there. He was not a well man by this time, for a white man in the tropics often developed debilitating illnesses that recurred with alarming frequency. Returning to the hot, humid environment of the Amazonian jungle caused his health to further fray. A photograph of Casement in Peru takes one aback; in it Casement looks positively skeletal.
Casement (on left) w/ Representative of Peruvian Amazon Company
Vargas Llosa describes Casement’s life in Peru with a verisimilitude and authenticity that makes those passages come alive. Casement had a nasty assignment, travelling to remote and dangerous outposts to conduct interviews and write detailed reports on atrocities. He couldn’t wait to be shot of it. But he persevered until he had enough damning evidence, only to find that the business interests trumped human rights in the Amazon, as they often did in colonial possessions.
Gradually Casement came to realize that freedom is something one must seize for oneself:
"I have reached the absolute conviction that the only way the indigenous people of Putumayo can emerge from the miserable condition to which they have been reduced is by rising up in arms against their masters. It is an illusion devoid of all reality to believe…that this state will change when…there are authorities, judges, police to enforce the laws that have prohibited servitude and slavery in Peru since 1854…In this society the state is an inseparable part of the machinery of exploitation and extermination…If they want to be free they have to conquer their freedom with their arms and their courage…We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom. They will never give it to us. Why would the Empire that colonized us do that unless it felt an irresistible pressure that obliged it to do so? That pressure can only come from weapons."
Vargas Llosa also captures the beauty and pathos of Casement’s homosexual encounters, for Casement was a gay man in a world constrained by its own harsh and corrupted morality. By the time he lived in Peru, Casement was increasingly indiscreet in his encounters and his recording of them in his journals. Vargas Llosa makes the point that Casement must have keenly felt his solitary, unmarried life. When Casement leaves the Amazon and returns to Europe via New York, he encounters a handsome young Slav, Eivind, for whom he falls heavily, thinking he is finally enjoying a mutual and adult relationship. Eivind will be his undoing, for he sells Casement’s secrets, including his determination to work for Irish independence, to the British.
Casement had been knighted after his work in Africa. When, in a roiled and pre-WWI Europe, he made the decision to go to a militarizing Germany to get aid for Irish rebels, the British felt sufficiently betrayed to try him for treason. While in Germany, Casement apparently considered every possible means to weaken the hold of the British on her colonies wherever they might be, strengthening the case by the prosecution and ensuring he would never be granted clemency. He was hung in 1916, a mere three months after his dawn capture April 21 at McKenna’s Fort in Ireland.
The last section of Vargas Llosa’s novel details the confusion of Casement’s botched return to Ireland and the support for his case, or lack of it, by longtime friends and admirers. Many old friends, including E.D. Morel, considered Casement seriously off base in his collaboration with the German machine against England, and so never responded to his letters. Though his hangman called him "the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute," even his Irish compatriots could not hail him wholeheartedly as a nationalist because rumors of his homosexuality offended their sense of moral right.
In the Epilogue, Vargas Llosa celebrates the return of Casement to the popular imagination:
"With the revolution in customs, principally in the area of sexuality, in Ireland, the name of Casement gradually, though always with reluctance and prudery, began to clear a path to being accepted for what he was: one of the greatest anticolonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland. Slowly his compatriots became resigned to accepting that a hero and martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodó wrote, ‘is many men,’ which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality."
In 1965, Casement’s bones were repatriated and rest now in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery.
This book begins with the assertion of evil. It made me uneasy. I prefer to hear the facts and draw my own conclusions. But I felt far less willing toThis book begins with the assertion of evil. It made me uneasy. I prefer to hear the facts and draw my own conclusions. But I felt far less willing to grant King Leopold’s side another instant of attention after realizing that the facts had been obscured for a century or more by repression of documents relating to the case in Belgian state archives. Better that we finally uncover the ugly truth and take its lesson: unbridled greed may be the ugliest, most unforgivable, most unnecessary sin of all.
How can we not have known this horrible history? It happened only a hundred years ago. Though I am embarrassed I did not know the anguished history and perpetuation of evil in the Congo, I stand in good company. Hochschild tells us of a Belgian diplomat serving in the 1970’s Congo who learned of the atrocities by a chance remark from a chieftain recalling “the first time” of rubber collection. This diplomat-turned-historian, Jules Marchal, spent decades after his retirement from civil service investigating and documenting King Leopold’s personal fiefdom in the Congo and its long list of crimes there at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
What does become amply clear from Hochschild’s account is how it is possible to mount a resistance to a great evil. Resistance requires exceptional people willing to bear witness, but also organization and persistence. Edmund Dene Morel, the shipping clerk who recognized in the 1890’s what was happening in the Congo, immediately called out the injustices he saw there and never hesitated in his mission to publicize it in the years that followed. Fortunately, he was an articulate man with a convincing speaking style and he had enormous drive. He managed to gather like-minded folk to himself to voice a larger protest.
The life of Irishman Roger Casement, the gay man knighted by the Queen for his work as a diplomat and later hanged by Britain as a traitor to the crown for his work as an Irish patriot, stands as an example of the strange dissociation countries in power display when someone challenges their economic and political interests. I fell in love with him a little, Sir Roger Casement, as a man of great courage and vision: he saw what men are and did not despair, though one might say that, in the end, he died of it.
Black Americans who spent their adult lives speaking out against the horror happening in Africa, the Reverend William Henry Sheppard and George Washington Williams, have finally found their way back into history. Many Christian missionaries, though notably, not Catholic missionaries, did their part in publicizing crimes in pursuit of endless demand for rubber.
What I liked most about the book was the way Hochschild brought us past the period of the Congo revelations to the present day, telling us how we could have been ignorant of the time and the period. He followed the lives of Morel and Chapman to their ends, and introduced us to Ambassador Marchal of Belgium. He follows the Congo after Leopold through its Belgian colony status to the demand for self-rule and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first legally-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He tells us of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Congolese President who continued crimes against his country that Leopold had begun, this time with American support.
I began to realize that some of the surviving chiefs of Leopold’s crimes were sometimes collaborators. Their behaviors have been perpetuated over the generations until there is nothing but misery left in that place. Now I understand better how a country so rich in natural resources could be so socially impoverished. The crimes continue to the present. What can be the solution to this kind of moral destitution?
I listened to the Random House Audio of this title, read by Geoffrey Howard. ...more
I read this when it came out, around 2007, so didn't think I would ever write a review. But this book has stayed with me over the past 8 years primariI read this when it came out, around 2007, so didn't think I would ever write a review. But this book has stayed with me over the past 8 years primarily because of the description of what it really means to be a forest ranger(a description I could never have predicted), and because the author sadly and tragically contracted Lyme Disease as a result of his work. It was the first time I had ever heard of such devastating symptoms. Sadly, it is not the last time I heard of such a thing....more
This very unusual and intimate portrait of Zelda la Grange’s time with Nelson Mandela as his personal secretary is as heartbreaking as it is memorableThis very unusual and intimate portrait of Zelda la Grange’s time with Nelson Mandela as his personal secretary is as heartbreaking as it is memorable. Zeldina, as Madiba chose to call her, was applying for a typist job in the new ANC government in 1994 when word came that the President’s office needed a typist. A young, white Afrikaner, Zelda became the youngest of the rainbow staff that served the President. In time, she grew to manage his schedule and accompany him on trips abroad.
This book does tell us about Mandela, what he was like in person, and what he liked. But it is mostly about Zelda and how she managed Mandela’s hectic schedule during and after his presidency. She seems an exceptional person: focused, persistent, caring. Mandela came to rely on her to organize his life and to cater for his needs. It is nice to know there was someone willing and able to take that role for a man who had given so much to the world. “Professional co-dependency” is the phrase la Grange uses to describe their relationship.
Mandela comes across as a disciplined but gentle man, nevertheless with strong opinions and beliefs. Some lessons Mandela imparted to those he worked with I hope stay with me: “Remember, the way you approach someone will determine how that person reacts to you” and “a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.” Willing to acknowledge his own errors, he forgave them in others, but he was also able and willing to cut off from his life those whom he felt did not have his interests at heart. Zelda comes across as a well-meaning, capable administrator and caregiver who had an immersive, full-on style. Madiba was her life and work.
One thing that has stayed with me long after reading this book is that la Grange often felt it necessary to explain to people what her job was--what she did all day. It was not hard for me to imagine the amount of energy, drive, intelligence, hutzpa, charm, and brazen bullishness it would require to make a famous person feel their international travel experiences were as seamless, smooth, and productive as possible. Her job is a perfect example of what I would use to demonstrate the incongruity of wage disparity in a country like the United States. The head of a corporation (or country, in this case) is only as good as the secretary organizing his schedule, travel plans, and obligations. Let's face it, we'd all look pretty good with a Zelda at our backs. But we're no Mandela.
La Grange was circumspect with what she revealed, but we do get a sense of great division and confusion at the end of Mandela’s life, for which we feel sorry. Despite his ‘great man’ status, Mandela could only keep the divisions among races and personalities in his sphere manageable while he was well and circulating regularly. As he became older, it sounds as though his lessons about forgiveness and generosity of spirit were lost on those he hoped to influence. Mandela was kind. Let’s hope his legacy is not completely lost for all time.
Viking Penguin offered me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review....more
Clinton sets herself up to be compared with Dean Acheson by recalling his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at the outset. But her title echoes Cyrus Vance,Clinton sets herself up to be compared with Dean Acheson by recalling his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at the outset. But her title echoes Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State during the Carter administration. What she is doing is tracing the thread of American foreign policy through the administrations of Democratic presidents to show the continuity of political thinking and foreign involvment. One must remember that Acheson wrote at a time when faith in government was at an all-time high, and many folks read his memoir before criticizing it. I am not at all sure the same could be said for Clinton’s comprehensive memoir about her four-year (2009-2013) term as Secretary of State for the Obama Administration.
I come away thinking there is perhaps no person with better credentials to be president. She could handle the job, certainly. But we would have to decide if she is the person we want to lead our country and the world into the future. She would be an activist president for sure, clearly convinced that American leadership is all we should or could consider. Clinton blasts critics who proclaimed Obama “led from behind” on Libya, and said his leadership was in fact critical to the success of that international involvement.
Clinton’s time as senator from New York was good preparation for the prodding, jockeying, and cajoling that is done in international forums and with government heads of state. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense while Clinton was Secretary of State, expressed a vast admiration for Clinton’s intelligence, experience, restraint, and pragmatism in his own memoir,Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Both longtime Washington insiders, Gates and Clinton shared a sense of service, a clear-eyed realism, and a healthy skepticism. I believe they also shared a mutual distrust of Vladimir Putin and both sought to marginalize, where possible, his inputs.
A lot happens in four years when the world is the stage, as Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her time as Secretary reminds us. Clinton logged nearly a million miles in her role as Chief Diplomat, though like all managers, spends more time dealing with and talking about trouble areas than about countries whose troubles were not catastrophic.
Most revealing and interesting for me were her discussions about Syria, Iran, Gaza, Libya, Russia, and Afghanistan, including the Bin Laden raid and Benghazi. She was remarkably open about the steps that led to backdoor talks with Iran, and the calculations she had to make when considering deteriorating situations in Syria, Libya, and Gaza.
The Syria section reveals the calculus around the support for rebels. The Iran talks were equally revealing—Clinton is remarkably frank about her assessment of country rulers and their personal ‘styles.’ It almost reads like a Wikileaks cache in this section and perhaps she is willing to talk it about because of those leaks. When it comes to Gaza, Clinton hauls out the (surely tattered by now) “strong support for Israel” that we have come to expect, but tempers it with unenthusiastic observations about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political history, party backing, and current positions. She managed to avoid the wider invasion of Gaza that we are experiencing now, but consistently reiterated the increasingly critical need and strong support for a two-state solution.
The Edward Snowdon leaks in May 2013 came after Clinton resigned in February 2013. Clinton must have been aware of and not in opposition to the information collected during her tenure…perhaps even using it in fact. It would have been interesting to hear what she would say to Angela Merkel about the taps on Merkel’s personal phone, when Clinton makes the observation that she and Merkel are often considered two of a kind and expresses admiration for what Merkel has been able to do while she has been in office.
Clinton had areas of concern that she championed wherever she went: women’s rights and human rights. She is a tough negotiator and gave plenty of government leaders some restless nights with those “hard choices” she talks about. Clinton recognized and harnessed the power of the connected world, and the tendency of the world to shrink as telecommunications, cell phone connection, and social media improved. Fortunately, she is not afraid of changes in the status of women, LGBT citizens, and minority voices, and instead welcomes them.
She recognizes that all talent will be needed in a 21st Century world facing climate change, shifts in energy dependencies, and the economic upheavals that will bring. We cannot afford to shun anyone with a good idea and had better take advantage of all the skills our citizens can bring. It’s a question of making sure they are all able to grasp opportunity when it presents itself. I like this concept a lot, and think her insistence on human and economic and political rights for all citizens may be her longest legacy.
Clinton felt so strongly about energy policy, economics, and the interdependencies of trade that her role as a wide-view activist Secretary of State surely encroached on the roles of other cabinet-level officials. In her memoir she sounds positively Presidential in making decisions, deciding directions, and in the scope and definition of her role. Obama had much on his plate in handling domestic intransigence so he was probably pleased to have someone with Clinton’s understanding, reach, and clout. She says they worked well together, and I’m sure it worked about as well as any team with high stakes and powerful players.
What struck me as I listened to Clinton’s memoir is the number of times familiar names were recycled again and again in different jobs, some from much earlier administrations, as though they are the only ones who could handle the work. I suppose it is true that experience counts, but isn’t that one reason Obama was elected to office…that he actually didn’t have all the experience (and all the baggage)? Foreign countries trying to keep tabs on who is doing what in the American government must be pleased they don't have to research the background of anyone new. There simply has to be some transfer of responsibilities to new players: a requirement of top-level posts should be finding and training their own replacements. Sometimes it just sounded like a closed system though I can appreciate the time constraints in finding someone able to handle a task effectively and with grace. If anyone is interested in trying to solve the intractable problems involved with government work, they should make their wishes known, and be known, because it is who you know that counts.
I do not think there is any certainty about Hillary Clinton taking on another campaign for President, though there is probably no person better equipped to handle her activist agenda, despite her age. She is both revered and feared at home and abroad. Enormously motivated, she believes she has and can still make a difference in people’s lives. I feel confident that this seasoned political actor wants to see what American voters decide in November. [Biden says he is doing the same.] If the attitudes and will of the American people were to significantly change the balance of power in the Congress in favor of Republicans, she may be swayed one way or the other. On the other side of the equation, the Democrats must find and field another credible candidate for Clinton to relax her sense of responsibility. In many ways, we'd be lucky to have her--she is a dogged American proponent. She can't be the only person able to take this on, though we have seen what lack of leadership has done for other countries, the Middle East in particular. That wouldn't happen on Clinton's watch.
Readers who lived through this period may feel they’ve “heard all that” Clinton has to say, but I don’t think anyone can say they’ve heard it all until they hear it from the woman who did the driving. It was a tumultuous period in world history and it was completely enlightening to hear what our Chief Diplomat had to say about it. Hillary Clinton remains something of a marvel.
Clinton only narrated the introduction and the epilogue, but Kathleen Chalfant had a voice that recreated Clinton’s accents and speaking style so completely, I was unsure sometimes who was narrating. Chalfant did a fantastic job with the place and personal names and the pacing. Simon & Schuster Audio provided a copy of this to me for review.
The lavishly talented poet, novelist, playwright, and publisher Chris Abani began his writing career in Nigeria at sixteen with a satirical politicalThe lavishly talented poet, novelist, playwright, and publisher Chris Abani began his writing career in Nigeria at sixteen with a satirical political novel, Masters of the Board, and followed up with political plays meant to be performed on the street. He was jailed in Nigeria three times in the 1980s, then moved to England and onward to the United States. He continues to accumulate awards for his edgy poetry and prose, publishes The Black Goat Poetry Series, an imprint of Akashic Press, and teaches English at Northwestern University. Abani was raised Roman Catholic and while a teen studied in the seminary.
Abani’s latest novel is about betrayal and illusion, and how sometimes they might be the same thing. Humans betray all the time, intentionally or not, and we recognize the guilt or pain the characters confront as they examine large and small betrayals in their own lives. Sunil is a mixed-race South African transplant to Las Vegas where he works in a government lab, the Desert Palms Institute, as a scientist and co-director of a research project.
“Now Sunil thought of Las Vegas as home. That’s the thing about having always been a displaced person; home was not a physical space but rather an internal landscape…[though] Vegas is really an African city…a grandiose tomb to itself…Just like in every major city across Africa, from Cairo to his hometown of Johannesburg, the palatial exteriors of the city architecture barely screen the seething poverty, the homelessness, and the despair that spread in townships and shantytowns as far as the eye could see.”
Sunil knows something about a body dump just outside Vegas city limits near Lake Mead. Soon-to-retire Detective Salazar wants to solve the miserable case of multiple murders that has stretched on for years and, when he comes upon a possibly sociopathic pair of conjoined twins near the site, he calls Sunil for help.
It is here that Abani shows his particular sensitivity and skill in recognizing and representing the lives of outsiders. He parallels Sunil’s story as a Black Indian growing up in South Africa (doubly estranged from powerful White society under apartheid) with the conjoined twins who are part of The Downwinder Nation, a group committed to the eradication of dangerous military research in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Many of the Downwinders feel betrayed by their government because they are victims of that research, manifesting mutations as a result of being improperly protected from nuclear testing.
Illusion is another theme that runs through the narrative, and the conjoined twins, as freaks in the sideshow of a circus, understand and exploit this aspect of Las Vegas. Sunil himself has photos on the wall of his office that show zebu, the cattle of his childhood, so uniquely marked with spots that from a distance they look like flocks of birds resting on hillside, a spotted Rubik’s Cube, or a tarot deck. The Desert Palms Institute, supposedly working for the good of mankind, may actually be harming it.
Abani writes a dark story about the underside of glittery Las Vegas but ultimately the story is redemptive. Eskia trails Sunil from South Africa with a vendetta of his own, and Brewster, Sunil’s boss, rules the lab with an unethical expediency. Neither escape the traps they have set for others.
Sunil has more than one woman in love with him, and he is capable of loving each. Sheila is a woman who works with him, and Asia is a prostitute. Sunil has ambiguous feelings about Asia’s work, but resolves it by explaining to Asia that “’prostitute’ comes from the Latin verb prostituere”. As a verb, it could mean that one is a prostitute only while having sex for money, rather than all the time as when the word is used as a noun. Sunil is not granted resolution in the matter of the women so that we wonder at the end if these folks will reappear in a novel yet to come.
Abani’s great skill--what sets his work apart from many others--is rooted in his use of language, and his deep and abiding humanity in view of great inhumanity. ...more
How can it be that Ladinsky's translation captures such a feel of contemporaneity? Or perhaps I should say that we Americans are more familiar with WaHow can it be that Ladinsky's translation captures such a feel of contemporaneity? Or perhaps I should say that we Americans are more familiar with Wahhabi Islam so that we don't realize the mystical, playful, spiritual side of Islam may derive from Sufism, or Sufi Islam which this gorgeous book of poems by the Sufi Master Hafiz (c. 1320-1389) captures.
It is difficult to even reproduce my favorite poems here because of their unusual form, sometimes just one word in a line. The poems have a shape as well as a meaning.
It seems to me we all need Hafiz in our lives. Every preacher certainly does, to revitalize their thinking and refresh their spirit, and the spirit of those to whom they preach. This is what it is all about....more
So what makes a good fishing tale? Perhaps it is a little like real estate: location, location, location (or, as the Australians like to say, “positioSo what makes a good fishing tale? Perhaps it is a little like real estate: location, location, location (or, as the Australians like to say, “position, position, position...”) But it is more than that: it is the temperament of the fisherman, the poles, the flies, the weather, the obstacles to success…as well as the size of the catch. There also has to be a little time for contemplation, and ruminations about the state of the world, both personally and globally. All this is here for the taking in this first self-published novel by Graham Spence, co-author of several nonfiction titles about the African bush with the fabled conservationist Lawrence Anthony, who died in 2012.
I read this story in a day because Spence made this fiction absolutely propulsive. The central character, Chris, sells advertising for a small newspaper in Queens, New York and is bored with his life. He is middle-aged, divorced, and barely speaks to his wife or daughter anymore. After experiencing a “heart incident” in a meeting one day at work, he decides to go ahead and live before he dies. He wants to fish the wild places where fish have never seen a human. This is the tale.
He first chooses South Africa. The narrative shifts between moments of sunny calm with great, satisfying catches and moments of breath-catching, death-defying horror. The absolute best part of this narrative (who really trusts a fisherman/storyteller anyway?) are the details and keen insights that convince us that this is the real thing, the actual location, the true situation. It is fascinating. But Chris doesn’t end there.
The next location is Colombia, South America of all places. Chris thinks that no one in their right mind would go to Colombia with all the FARC activity and kidnappings, so he won't have any competition. He researches locations and decides fishing along the coastline beaches and away from the jungle would probably be safe. His Colombia section just reminds us just what a fisherman (tall tales) Chris really is. But he is so good at storytelling and fishing, we find it hard to put the book down. He survives (!) his travels in Africa and South America and we move on. But I don’t want to give away all his secrets. This is something you need to discover for yourselves. I thought it was a blast.
So I discovered this title when I began researching the authors of The Elephant Whisperer, an exceptionally well-written nonfiction about game conservation and elephant killings in Africa. Graham Spence has a low-key website on which he introduces his two self-published fiction titles, including this one. I really enjoyed Spence's work with Lawrence Anthony so thought, for the princely fee of $1.99/each on Amazon or bn.com, I would like to try his first attempts at fiction. I am so happy I did. I can think of a number of people who would love to read this…if I can only get them to work with an eReader or iPad.
Do yourself a favor. I can guarantee you will have an unusual (and terrific!) day’s reading ahead with a natural raconteur, especially if you like fly fishing stories.
Anthony does a magnificent job of sharing his story of settling a herd of seven wild elephants on his 5,000 acres of bush in Zululand, South Africa. IAnthony does a magnificent job of sharing his story of settling a herd of seven wild elephants on his 5,000 acres of bush in Zululand, South Africa. I respect his decision to try to extend the reserve to include the neighboring tribal land so that a greater number of wild animals might live comfortably without interference. The elephants get the credit they deserve for being remarkably intelligent and resilient, despite extremely harsh treatment and bad memories early on. It is a source of great happiness that there are such people working tirelessly to create an environment of inclusion in a world that increasingly seems focused on self-aggrandizement.
Nana becomes the troubled herd’s defacto matriarch after the herd’s real matriarch is shot and killed just prior to the herd’s transfer to Thula Thula, Anthony’s game reserve, in 1999. Nana had learned many tricks about escaping from electrified enclosures from her earlier mentor and the herd often worked in concert to outwit their captors. Happily, Anthony seemed to understand that a calming presence and personal connection with the lead elephant could make a difference to the herd’s peace of mind. Slowly, over a period of weeks, he managed to make Nana understand that their new home could be a place of comfort and peace. They stayed and thrived, becoming important members of the reserve’s wildlife bounty.
Anthony shares his experiences in words and photos, and tells of difficulties with poachers, local tribal courts, unruly bushrangers, and with the wild elephants themselves. When money gets tight, he is forced to open a tourist lodge to host foreign guests, but does it with customary goodwill and bonhomie.
Late in the book, Anthony tells us he and one of his rangers went to Baghdad during the early part of the Iraq War to help save the zoo animals, and wrote a book about the experience called Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo. His ranger then went on to Kabul, Afghanistan, to do the same thing there. The experience of living in the bush with these resourceful folks and animals over the period of time it takes to read the book is wonderfully energizing and one hates to leave their company at the end. One feels quite as though one is losing a friend. Anthony is not simply an elephant whisperer, but fortunately a man who spoke to us, too.
Lawrence Anthony died March 2, 2012 at the age of sixty-one. His obituary in The Telegraph of Britain is here. Graham Spence is a journalist and native Zimbabwean who co-wrote three books with Lawrence Anthony. He also writes fiction. A short bio is here....more
This picaresque bildungsroman, spiked with folktales, horrors, and gorgons aplenty, features a young man seeking his fortune in an un-fortun-ate worldThis picaresque bildungsroman, spiked with folktales, horrors, and gorgons aplenty, features a young man seeking his fortune in an un-fortun-ate world. The young man discovers instead his own base nature. To be honest, I thought this was going to be a funny, light-hearted read. I have grown accustomed to comic novels that harbor hideous truths. But Ndibe does something entirely different with this fiction. He uses a nineteenth or early twentieth-century sensibility and style in this novel with some success, and creates a tragi-comic naïf for whom we reserve a special pity. Only the time frame of the novel and its actual language are modern: the rest is as old as man himself.
Ike (pronounced Ee-kay) is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States. Although he attended a fancy New England college and graduated magna cum laude in economics, his thick Nigerian accent bars him from landing a job in his field. He struggles to find paying employment, finally landing a job as a taxicab driver. At the same time he searches for a wife to give him the infamous green card legal status he requires for higher paying low-level jobs for which he is (over)qualified.
This lacerating novel peels back the veneer to uncover the reality of immigrant life in the United States and in the home country for an educated man. Ike struggles mightily to rustle up the needed cash to return home in response to repeated requests by his family, but he also uses his visit to Nigeria to steal the effigy of a deity from his native village to sell on the New York art market. He plans to vanish his financial woes and make his fortune this way.
Whirled about and confused in the maelstrom of humanity on two continents, Ike resembles a modern Don Quixote, though he seeks the good life promised by America rather than the chivalry, human goodness, and true love sought by Quixote. Like Quixote, Ike comes to his senses occasionally, only to sink back into a feverish belief that his dreams will come true. Comic elements abound (two bribe-taking customs sessions, a visit to a corrupt politician’s home, and an interview with a Christian pastor), and although we are ready to laugh through much of the book, we come to realize this horrible dream is really true, and Ike is desperately spiraling out of control into the black hole of penury and despair.
Foreign Gods reads like a big short story, partly because of the ending, and partly because the time frame was short. We have character development but not resolution. We grow to like, if not admire, the character of Ike. He is more acted upon than actor, since he can’t seem to come to grips with the world in which he lives. He is perhaps not very clever, despite his degree, for he is guilty of the basest naiveté when it comes to his get-rich-quick plan. He is a good man at heart, but we onlookers know that will not be enough to get him through.
This book was sent to me by Soho Crime in return for an honest review. ...more
Where was I when this came out in 2007? When I discovered this title recently in someone else’s TBR list, I immediately added to my own. The novel isWhere was I when this came out in 2007? When I discovered this title recently in someone else’s TBR list, I immediately added to my own. The novel is an absurdist romp with a heart of gold (and romance). I belly-laughed through the first bits, looked askance at the portion where the Prime Minister’s aide imagines a quiz show in Pakistan, and couldn’t wait to find out the result of the ridiculous, bound-to-fail salmon fishery in Yemen. I wanted to believe, as the sheik says.
This worthy novel has already been made into a Golden Globe-nominated film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt which was released in 2011. I look forward to seeing what Director Lasse Hallström has done with the absurdist concepts, poking fun at government spending on dubious projects which serve only to keep current officials election-worthy. Torday captures the dueling-memo mentality of government bureaucracies competing for limited funds, and the stilted, unsexy email correspondences of working spouses.
And yet, there is more than mere farce in the developing faith our fisheries expert has in the doomed project, and in his blossoming love for his “estate agent” colleague. I listened to the 2007 Orion production of the audiobook supported by a full cast including Downton Abbey star Samantha Bond (you’ll recognize her voice immediately) along with John Sessions, Andrew Sachs, Andrew Marr and many more. The audiobook is a brilliant success as each character is enunciated by actors with great skills. This audiobook production ranks among the best I have heard in recent years and is well worth seeking out.
I look forward also to seeking out more of Torday’s titles. And I adore the covers for his books. I note the publisher remains an imprint of George Weidenfeld & Nicholson throughout his list. These exceptionally fine covers could be done in-house at the publishers, but more likely they are created by a friend. What a great gift to the author, and to us, to see two artistic talents melded. Kudos Torday, et al! ...more
Marciano writes with such naturalness and lack of artifice in each of these carefully composed and engrossing stories of women on the cusp that the reMarciano writes with such naturalness and lack of artifice in each of these carefully composed and engrossing stories of women on the cusp that the reader is convinced the stories are about the author herself. By the fourth intimate portrait we bow to the skill and craft that brought these stories to life. We are privy to an entrancing fragility surrounding each central character as she faces choices and events that will shape her future. Her confusion and uncertainty is something we know very well indeed.
This sophisticated, sexy, adult collection about women not quite at ease in the world brings us to Italy, Africa, New York, and India. We feel no dislocation because we are privy to the intimate thoughts of our protagonist who carries her sensibility with her. The characters range from city to country and beyond but we never lose our vision of the internal.
Marciano’s characters are friends, charming friends, beautiful friends, who have our sympathy. They are vulnerable, capable, and sexual in ways we recognize. And perhaps they are a little deluded. In “An Indian Soirée,” “his wife” and “her husband” shrugged off their old lives as easily as old clothes only to discover they’d been together and away from the world too long. Moments of revelation are peeled so carefully, they are manifest in a look, or in a comment exchanged.
In “In the Presence of Men,” the richest and widest of the offerings, we see truths about a youngish divorcée, a small-town matron harboring an undervalued and unmatched skill, and an American filmmaker seemingly so sure of his attractiveness he disregards those that prop him up. When Lara’s high-profile guests leave her new house in the country, we see Lara standing at the kitchen counter eating a non-fat yogurt for dinner as she contemplates a full refrigerator, vegetables neatly stacked by color. The sadness, despair, even desolation that creeps over her afflicts us as well.
Stella and Andrea lie to one another, just a little, when they meet after many years in “Big Island, Small Island.” And Elsa lies to herself, just a little, in “Roman Romance.” But these lies are necessary. These infidelities we recognize but ordinarily cannot articulate, and we forgive them. We would have done the same.
A favorite among these bittersweet stories is “Chanel,” in which Caterina and Pascal try on designer clothes in fancy boutiques as a spirit-lifter and self-actualizing experience. Years pass, but the friendship, experience, and the dress (!) linger.
Best of all, in “Quantum Theory,” a man and a woman acknowledge a strong bond between them and do not act on it. The memorable visual in that story, the two reclining on parallel benches but holding hands, will stay with me a very long time.
This magnificent collection is a map to the hidden treasure of the female mind, each story adding to our delight and understanding and wonder. Marciano charts the inner landscape as intimately as a close friend fingering our sore spots, and we accept, rejoice, despair with her discoveries. I know now the tiny but scarring humiliations left from relationships are not mine alone to bear. We made a mess; Marciano made art. Even the cover rocks! ...more
”…I had no idea God and the Devil live so close together. They’re neighbors, in fact, their houses are right beside each other, and sometimes when the
”…I had no idea God and the Devil live so close together. They’re neighbors, in fact, their houses are right beside each other, and sometimes when they’re sitting around with nothing to do they play cards, just as a way to pass the time. But they never wager money—what good is money to them? No, it only souls they’re interested in…[Che Guevara]”
Che Guevara never actually makes an appearance in these stories—just sightings of him—but his philosophy gets a workout. Sometimes events just have a way of confounding even a well-thought-out life, where every step is taken with good intentions toward some worthy goal.
Moral dilemmas face us in each of the eight stories and Fountain does not make it easy for us. The characters may decide to do something morally questionable, but their conflict is not resolved sufficiently to finish the task without second-thinking and regret. There is always another, starker moral dilemma right around the corner as a result of their first choice.
This first collection of stories won Fountain a heap of attention in 2007 when it came out, as did his first published novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2012). His writing is clear and free of flourish, though his locations are richly imagined. In this collection he spans the globe, though he pays special attention to Haiti, a place that allowed him to explore in microcosm “power and money and history and race and the most brutal sort of blood-politics.”¹ The Haiti stories make me the most uncomfortable in this collection, yet it is the one place he’d visited and so arguably knows most about.
The stories highlight displaced persons confronting the world’s troubles: a woman is forced to share her soldier husband with his dreams; a captured American doctoral student in Colombia manages to continue his ground-breaking study of birds of the Central Cordillera; a peacekeeper in Haiti finds a way to save a piece of Haiti’s cultural heritage; an aid worker in Sierra Leone tries to finance her sideline sewing co-op.
A word might be said about the final story in the collection, which moves us back to the nineteenth-early twentieth centuries. The story is about a Jewish prodigy in Vienna facing racial taunts as she develops her extraordinary repertoire over a period of years. The tone of this story is so sharply different from the others in the collection that we must ask ourselves why it was included. The language is reminiscent of George DuMaurier’s story of Svengali and his creation, the beautiful songstress Trilby O’Ferall. This story would not have been out of place in a Maupassant collection. It may give us an insight into the author’s opinions on the dilemmas he poses in the previous stories. In all the interviews he’s given, I’ve not seen a question about the inclusion of that story addressed, though I might rest easier if I had.
It turns out that I discovered I have read this collection before, when it came out in 2007. At the time I was not recording or writing about my reading and so did not wrestle as thoroughly with the questions it poses. It stands up very well to a second reading (and more!) so I recommend the collection for packing the punch of a novel without all the words. Besides, this man’s moral compass spins in a world that challenges the best of our well-thought-out and perfectly inadequate solutions.
¹”A Conversation with Ben Fountain”, reprinted in the Ecco paperback edition of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, P.S., p.3 ...more
This book would be a perfect semester-long study for young bucks with an interest in foreign affairs and a willingness to test themselves with knottyThis book would be a perfect semester-long study for young bucks with an interest in foreign affairs and a willingness to test themselves with knotty problems and harsh realities. Coming into the information with clear eyes and no prior understanding of the histories we have undergone in the past one hundred years, youths that imagine patterning themselves on the legendary stoic T.E. Lawrence will have an education.
Anderson had much primary material at his disposal to create this dense wartime history of The Middle East full of schemes and counter-schemes, spies and double agents, treachery unbound and heroism unheralded. There might be just too much information for me here: I am Swift’s Gulliver, on my back, securely bound with threads of information, unblinkingly staring at the sky and wondering still about Lawrence. In this way, the subtitle of the book is perhaps a truer picture of the contents than the title, and the two could be reversed.
Anderson does a masterly job of marshaling the material and propelling the narrative with quotes from the players themselves. One becomes familiar with the skill and treachery of many men besides that of the enigmatic Lawrence. Lawrence is a device: a way into the material and circumscribing it fore and aft. Lawrence had been used before for such ends and at one time he would have been interested to read this many-faceted story of the times in which he lived and how it played out.
Anderson writes: “Since late 1916, Lawrence had waged a quiet war against his own government, and now he had lost. What would soon become clear, however, was that he intended to continue that fight off the battlefield, in the conference halls and meeting rooms of peacetime Paris. He may have asked to leave Damascus out of exhaustion, but it was also to prepare for the next round in the struggle for Arab independence.”
If Lawrence had been given more credence at the Paris Peace Conference instead of stripped of his credentials, things may have been different in the present-day Middle East, though perhaps not much better. Lawrence worked out an agreement for the administration of an Arab-Jewish state in Palestine with then Prince Faisal ibn-Hussein of Syria and British Zionist Chaim Weizmann but the plan was scuttled by the British and French, who had earlier agreed to split the Middle East between them. “…Great Britain and France had taken the discredited Sykes-Picot Agreement and fashioned something even worse; how much worse was evidenced by the myriad fires that had spread across the region almost immediately.”
An alternative history with Lawrence’s involvement after the war, had he not suffered from PTSD, changed his name (twice), retreated to a lonely Indian outpost as a low-ranking British army private, and then died from a motorcycle accident in 1935, would be most interesting. But the Lawrence of the First World War had died shortly after that war, though the man himself lived another seventeen years:
Anderson: ”In Arabia, Lawrence had exerted life-and-death control over thousands, and had cobbled together a cause and an army as he went along. All the while, he had been tormented by a sense of his own fraudulence, the awareness that the men who fought and died at his side were almost certain to be betrayed in the end. As he would suggest in Seven Pillars, and state quote explicitly in letters to friends, after Arabia he never wanted to be in a position of responsibility again: ’The Arabs are like a page I have turned over, and sequels are rotten things.’
The 1962 David Lean/Peter O’Toole movie is surprisingly thorough and captured many key events featuring Lawrence recounted here, though emphases and characterizations were tailored to the screen and the sensibilities of the time. With Anderson’s help, we understand the larger context of competing national interests and how the shaping of the Middle East had less to do with T.E. Lawrence, Curt Prüfer, Aaron Aaronsohn, Chaim Weizmann, and William Yale than with Mark Sykes, François Georges-Picot, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau. The whole globe was watching the unfolding events in the Middle East and everyone had different desires. The event-makers, in the end, did not have the effect of those who watched. ...more
This astonishingly good story by Maksik tests our empathy levels. We live beside a homeless woman on a Greek volcanic island in the Mediterranean. JacThis astonishingly good story by Maksik tests our empathy levels. We live beside a homeless woman on a Greek volcanic island in the Mediterranean. Jacqueline her name is, named after Kennedy’s wife. It is hope, I think, that makes her parents name her this, for how can they know what she will become, how she will look, how she will act?
But Jacqueline lives up to the dignity of her name, living as she does in an ocean cave, or in parks under old cypress trees, or in abandoned buildings overlooking the sea. We walk with her when she buys almonds, or a peach and a tomato. We are with her when she sleeps on concrete that gets cold at night, awaking bruised and aching in the morning. She does not think overmuch, but remembers in puffs, like smoke: the voice of her mother curling around her, smelling strongly of gin and lime but fading off into the air, leaving her bereft with lingering memories.
”Nostalgia, her father said, is from the Greek. Nostros, to return home. Algos, pain. Nostalgia, her father had once told her at lunch, is homesickness.”
This is the story of Jacqueline, who leaves Liberia during the civil war, who escapes her life but not her memories of that life. There is an almost unbearable tension in this novel, despite the languid, sunny days and lack of action. We recognize something in this lost woman, and in the kindnesses of strangers who see something broken in her that needs tending. We are drawn into this story and we walk the rest of the way on our own volition, much like Jacqueline does, not sure where she is going. It is very powerful writing.
Maksik and Marra have done something that is not advised in writing programs: they write about what they do not know, have not experienced. That both brilliantly succeeded in this puts paid to that advice, with the caveat that the skills required here are extraordinary. Maksik wrote his story in the voice of a young black woman from an African country torn with strife. And he reminds us, just as Sonali Deraniyagala does in her eviscerating memoir Wave, that the way to rediscover ourselves after loss is to remember, not to forget.
It makes me hopeful, this work. The painful, jagged, soul-destroying story of Liberia at war, in the hands of Maksik, reminds us of what is possible when there are people like him holding up mirrors. ...more
NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel has just been added to the long list for the 2013 Booker Prize. A short story of hers called “Hitting Budapest” won thNoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel has just been added to the long list for the 2013 Booker Prize. A short story of hers called “Hitting Budapest” won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Literature and became the first of several astounding chapters in …New Names. The work feels brave and completely fresh--raw even. The perspective, voice, and language held me spellbound.
“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”
It seems an appropriate quote for someone who has taken such liberties with language and point of view.
Narration begins in the voice of ten-year-old Darling, whose father is away, whose school is closed, whose friends (Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Stina, and Chipo) scream-sing with her as they run riot through the neighborhoods in search of guavas to steal. Bulawayo’s Darling tells us what they find besides guavas, and it is her words, reactions, and attention that feels real and tells us what we have always wondered: how does a child grow up in a world like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? What does the world look like and from where do these children acquire knowledge of concepts like “justice,” “fairness,” and “freedom”? Do these concepts include any notion of personal responsibility?
Very quickly in this novel one senses the danger in child’s play. The world is life-threatening, and the children know it. Their play, their home-life, their worship--it all has an edge that makes them brave and vulnerable at the same time. They rely on one another. The chapter “We Need New Names” was another breathtaking high-wire act that left my heart in my mouth. From this point I did not relax my guard with Bulawayo’s book in my hands. It felt explosive.
In “Shhh,” Darling hides the fact that her father has come home and is very ill. When her friends find out, they push their way into Darling’s shack, immediately intuiting that Darling’s father is dying of AIDS. Even Darling hadn’t grasped that—she was angry with her father for having left, and angrier still that he came home with a sickness. But the children face the man lying on the bed and talk openly about death and heaven and then they begin to sing:
"When Godknows starts singing Jobho, Sbho joins in and we listen to them sing it for a while and then we’re all scratching our bodies and singing it because Jobho is a song that leaves you with no choice but to scratch your body the way that sick man Job did in the Bible, lying there scratching his itching wounds when God was busy torturing him just to play with him to see if he had faith. Jobho makes you call out to heaven even though you know God is occupied with better things and will not even look your way. Jobho makes you point your forefinger to the sky and sing at the top of your voice. We itch and we scratch and we point and we itch again and we fill the shack with song. Then Stina reaches and takes Father’s hand and start moving it to the song, and Bastard moves the other hand. I reach out and touch him too because I have never really touched him ever since he came and this is what I must do now because how will it look when everybody is touching him and I am not? We all look at one another and smile-sing because we are touching him, just touching him all over like he is a beautiful plaything we have just rescued from the trash. He feels like dry wood in my hands, but there is a strange light in his sunken eyes, like he has swallowed the sun.”
That passage ripped my heart out.
Every once in a while Darling will break into our attention with “This is real” or ”Is this even real?” She captures that sense of incredulity we experience when life starts to feel a little ludicrous and outside our control. In the last half of the novel she is a teenaged high-schooler in Detroit, Michigan (Destroyedmichigan). Her outsider status gives her the requisite distance for maximum observation but she retains her need for community. She is continually questioned about, and always questioning, “home.”
This is an exceptional debut and NoViolet Bulawayo has created a fictional world that stuns as it captivates. I remember thinking that Bulawayo and Jesmyn Ward are sisters of the pen, for both have the ability to flay open the skin to get to the “real.” This is a bravura performance. I do wonder, however, if such a performance can be replicated. ...more
Alice Walker is an old radical. Just when you thought the U.S. government under Obama must indeed be “liberal” because the Republicans keep telling usAlice Walker is an old radical. Just when you thought the U.S. government under Obama must indeed be “liberal” because the Republicans keep telling us so Walker comes along to say, no, Obama’s policies are a long way from liberal. Reading Walker, we can see what “liberal” really means.
It is refreshing to me to have someone thoughtful (but not a political consultant) give a considered opinion on anything these days. Walker surprises me with the range of her concerns and the vehemence with which she addresses them. She has so much generosity, respect, and righteous anger built in to her worldview that one wonders how such a person would govern. A Daoist, perhaps: “Let the forces rule.” But really, Walker is a spiritualist of every sort. She is animist, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim. She believes in the basic tenets common across religions: Be thoughtful. Be kind. Be generous. Enough is as good as a feast.
This is a book of essays, letters, articles she has written for publication, diary notes, or sometimes transcripts of lectures she has given. It gives us Walker’s thinking, the things she has struggled with, the things she struggles with still. More importantly, it gives us some idea of how to approach our own thinking about problems that plague us.
Take, for instance, the question of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning was the young man who allegedly gave government secrets to Julian Assange to publish. How should we deal with this question in an enlightened way? What is the best solution? I guarantee Walker will make you question again things you thought you’d already decided.
One of the pieces in the book that I liked best was “12 Questions: Korean Women’s Soul Questions.” South Korean women, confused about how to live fulfilled in the strict patriarchy of South Korean society, asked Walker and a prominent South Korean feminist, Hyun Kyung Chung for their opinions. Some of the questions are ones we have heard before, e.g., Can women and men be friends? and Should women change their bodies to interest men? But Walker’s responses are always interesting and get right to the heart of this old radical’s worldview, encompassing all her deepest themes. This is a woman who has studied oppression of one kind or another her entire life and knows whereof she speaks.
Anyway, Walker’s articles in this book are a short sharp shot of something strong and fiery. It goes right to the bloodstream and jumpstarts the brain. Of course, it can only be taken in small doses, but you may find you develop a taste for a woman with opinions, and crave to hear what a bright, thoughtful human might say on the state of our affairs. Her point of view adds depth and richness to the human response sent into the universe when negotiating the maelstrom that is life.
"Mother Nature presents a very different kind of army than the ones we are used to fighting: the armies of poverty, colonization, weapons of all kinds, media doublespeak, that keeps us confused. In fact, what is so chilling about Mother Nature is how indifferent She can be to who should be punished for the crimes committed against her. We are all being punished. And this is because we have forgotten one of the most basic of the things that made us beautiful: that we must never fail to have respect for her. And we must cease, at once, taking more than she is willing to give.”
One cannot help but be curious about the author of this politically astute, perceptive, and atmospheric thrillerpolice procedural mystery set in CairOne cannot help but be curious about the author of this politically astute, perceptive, and atmospheric thrillerpolice procedural mystery set in Cairo. One actually wants to shade one’s eyes from the sun, and spit the sand from one’s tongue. Parker Bilal, pseudonym for Britain-born Jamal Mahjoub, has written several novels before this popular series, among them Travelling with Djinns ( Viajando con djinns) and The Drift Latitudes as well as historical novels about major moments in political or scientific upheaval. He is not a lightweight. There is depth in his portrayal of a Sudanese national in Egypt as the key character for this series.
"The light sand swirled across the bare tarmac like smoke, as if the wind were intent on swallowing up the road, wiping away man’s futile endeavors to tame nature and return this place to the wilderness it was meant to be.”
This quote comes in Chapter 33, but in some way it carries with it the sense of the whole novel.
“Off to their right was evidence of what the future held in store for the city as it expanded, growing like some unsightly tumor into the unblemished desert. Clusters of buildings scattered along the roadside provided housing for workers employed in the isolated industrial complexes build by the government to relieve pressure on the capital. Eventually all these dots would be joined up into one big sprawl…the warm desert air blew through the open windows, bringing with it the scent of lost kingdoms…”
A luxury housing complex was being built in the desert, meant to be self-sufficient with golf courses, and swimming pools, surrounded by perimeter fences and security guards, but “The wind had picked up and sand had built into drifts that covered the road almost completely in places...the ochre landscape featured windblown and withered palms with fronds snapping in the air like switches, and the barbed wire hummed in the air as if charged with electricity.” Sounds a little like the uncompleted basement tombs that crater previously undeveloped Irish seaside vistas described by Tana French in Broken Harbor. Overbuilding and underthinking: two common characteristics of unreasonably optimistic real estate financiers around the world in the last decades, even in Cairo.
The not-improbable mystery is two-fold and appears connected. A British woman is tortured and murdered, and a famous soccer star goes missing. Various moneyed factions are warring for turf, the Islamists are seeking control over the more secular police force, and the foreigner is the daughter of a member of Britain’s House of Lords. Bilal uses a big canvas and paints Cairo as the international city it is. Asking around yields tiny clues that finally add up.
If I had any complaint, it would be that there were too many words. But I liked the view we get of modern Egypt and its stressors, the food, the desert. I look forward to more of Parker Bilal. He writes with sophistication, assurance, and deep sense about living on earth. ...more
March 24, 2014 I am recycling this review because I adore this cookbook. It's been a couple years since I started with it, and it is consistently fabulMarch 24, 2014 I am recycling this review because I adore this cookbook. It's been a couple years since I started with it, and it is consistently fabulous: tasty, pretty, simple to follow. I have too many favorites to choose just a couple, and each time I try something it becomes a new favorite. I am amazed at its depth, now, after a couple years. There is always something new to thrill me.
Make yourself Preserved Lemons, folks. What a game-changer!
------------------------- Dec 15, 2012 So, I am not a new vegan, nor is this my first encounter with the extraordinary skills of Ms. Romero. But this is one of the most exciting and completely Braveheart recipe collections I have ever seen. And Romero never left Queens! How is it possible?
Romero reimagines cuisines of the world from a vegan viewpoint, something I had almost thought impossible. But she captures the flavor, color, and sense of the original with flair and originality and for the first time I have been able to wholeheartedly enjoy the world’s diverse bounty.
I was able to enjoy Pumpkin Kibbe even though I did not have a food processor to grind the pumpkin and bulgur together. I used a 100-year-old old-fashioned hand-crank meat grinder and the result was sublime. I especially enjoyed the Yogurt Cashew sauce, and the recommended very hot harissa chile paste that accompanied the recipe. Both added immeasurably to the authentic taste.
One thing I was familiar with in years gone by were Chinese BBQ Char Siu steamed “bao” and I was thrilled to be able to recreate the wondrous experience of eating them again. The recipe is flawless in terms of taste, though I can’t imagine any Chinese person using several pans to prepare the filling. The cornstarch dissolved in water can be stirred into the roasted seitan hot from the oven.
I get wild cravings for good Ma-Po Tofu and Romero has included a brilliant recipe that works beautifully. I sprinkle on a few toasted Sichuan peppercorns for garnish because its distinct aroma makes the dish taste and smell authentic. I used a new-to-me tofu made from besan, or chick-pea flour. The recipe can be found in Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid.
Romero's Thai dishes are superb as well. The famous Tom Yum soup does not miss it's shrimp and the Grilled Seitan Noodle Salad made me feel quite as though I had just spent the day lounging seaside in the sun. A bottle of organic lime juice does wonders in making the dishes taste authentic.
Romero reprised a few of the indipensable Latin dishes she introduced to us in Viva Vegan!: 200 Authentic and Fabulous Recipes for Latin Food Lovers but that book is filled with other wonders you won't want to miss. It is worth it's weight in gold for finding a way to make meat in Latin recipes totally irrelevant and it has recipes North Americans might find closer to home.
Romero has done aspiring vegans a huge service by providing recipes from around the world. She has added diversity and color, flavor and interest to our menu and these dishes can be served with panache and joy to those curious onlookers to a vegan lifestyle. ...more
It is difficult to imagine someone admitting to being in the leadership of an organization that allowed, with or without intervention, the major atrocIt is difficult to imagine someone admitting to being in the leadership of an organization that allowed, with or without intervention, the major atrocities of the last decade of the 20th century. I may be a person who would have gone home spent and embittered with the taste of iron on my tongue. But Kofi Annan did not walk away, nor did he turn his eyes from the terrible events his leadership at the helm of the United Nations was unable to prevent.
Kofi Annan did not shrink from the responsibilities of his office as Secretary General of the United Nations. He does not apologize now for having watched over some of the most horrendous events in the history of that body. He does try to explain how it happened that the world stood by while Rwanda ran with blood.
Kofi Annan became head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in the U.N. in March of 1993 and received the rank of under-secretary-general. The Battle of Mogadishu, also known to Americans as “Black Hawk Down,” took place on October 3rd and 4th, 1993.
It was in the immediate aftermath of that devastating event that Force Commander Romeo Dallaire, stationed in Kigali in early 1994, sent an urgent request to raid the arms cache of the ruling Hutu political party, having received intelligence that the group was considering exterminating Tutsis, and including killing Belgian U.N. peacekeepers in an effort to force a pull out. No government was willing to sacrifice domestic troops to “messy entanglements in a civil war.” So Dallaire was ordered to stand down.
Kofi Annan became the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations January 1, 1997 and left that role December 31, 2006. After his election to Secretary-General in 1997, Annan began to institute a new overarching policy: The responsibility to protect and intervention as a duty of care. The NATO bombing of Serbian troops in Kosovo in 1999 began without Security Council agreement. “There are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.”
This personal history is readable. There are times in our lives when we follow world events with half an eye. With the disintegration of newspaper coverage in recent years and the change in news delivery to online blurbs, radio, or TV newscasters, all using the same quotes from leaders and spinning them as they will, it is difficult to get a real grasp of how diplomacy works, or if it does at all.
Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, and what a bitter irony it must have seemed to him then. At his acceptance speech in December 2001, he observed that the world had entered the third millennium “through a gate of fire.” But what I was able to understand from this book is why Annan won the Peace Prize in the first place. He outlines the changes he had proposed to the goals of the U.N. and was able to usher in those changes to a great extent, despite using an imperfect and frustrating organization with competing interests among the players. As the Nobel committee commented at the time: the U.N. redefined sovereignty as a responsibility as much as a right and that sovereignty cannot be a shield behind which member states conceal their violations.
One comes to admire Annan’s strength of purpose and purity of intent throughout his years as Secretary General, and we begin to perceive the outline of U.S. interests in dominating the stage. “One of the great ironies of [the 2003-04 U.N. reform] was the manner in which the United States—which had done more than any other country to establish the U.N.—found itself in the position of being the main obstacle to reforming it.” Annan has nothing good to say about how Israel’s leaders continually shirked their moral and political duty to deal with their occupation of disputed territory, and is equally forthright about Arab states in the region: “decades of misrule heaped on centuries of decline.”
But he tells of his successes, too: putting the individual, rather than states, at the center of the U.N. focus, developing the Millenium Development Goals, bringing to justice noted war criminals, working with businesses and governments to deal with HIV/Aids, averting escalations of aggressions in the Middle East. After leaving office, and using the skills and knowledge he learned there, Annan helped to create a leadership-sharing government in Kenya at the time of the disputed election in 2008. It may be the accomplishment he is most proud of:
My role in mediating the violent 2008 Kenyan political crisis, backed by a remarkable international and African support network, was one for which, in some ways, I had spent my entire decade-long tenure as secretary-general preparing. It was perhaps the hardest, most intensive, and enduring of all my interventions in the affairs of another country, and a deal that required me to draw on every aspect of my experience of diplomacy and energy for peacemaking—this time at the heart of my own continent.”
At the end of the book, Annan discusses the decisions which brought war to Iraq. As a diplomat, Annan felt the decision to go to war was a failure on the part of the U.S. leadership which brought only shame, death, and destruction in its wake. He addresses the Oil-for-Food Programme which became a painful reminder that greed and self-interest often parades as generosity when countries seek their own interests at the expense of another.
What we should give him credit for is that, despite the outrageous challenges an international body faces in light of bruising collisions between member states, such a man would spend his time struggling for gains that make a difference to the poorest and most disenfranchised among us.
This is first in a series about Detective Darko Dawson of Accra in Ghana. I have wanted to read this book ever since I saw it in a bookstore a coupleThis is first in a series about Detective Darko Dawson of Accra in Ghana. I have wanted to read this book ever since I saw it in a bookstore a couple of years ago and I was thrilled to be able to dip into it when I came across the audio version this summer.
I don’t mind telling you that when I first listened to it, I was interrupted three-quarters of the way in and had to set the book aside. I didn’t really mind because midway through the novel I found myself wondering if I should trust Darko Dawson: he turned out to be a a less disciplined police officer than I liked and used physical force in a truly unsettling way—so that I thought he was unreliable and unsympathetic.
Later, I realized I couldn’t write a review. I was unhappy with the novel, but had taken no quotes to buttress my reaction, so I reread the hardcover, paying especial attention to those areas I thought the central character out of line. Shortly after the point at which I put the book down the first time, I discovered the main character’s activities were likewise disparaged by his boss, who also happened to be “the authorities.” Darko was suspended from work, and censored. That soothed my ruffled feathers and sense of justice, and I finished the book thinking it was a prime example of intercultural learning: the author had written a western-style police procedural set in Ghana, a country with very different cultural mores and habits. I thought it a great success.
The story is as follows: A female AIDS-worker who walks between villages is found strangled in the jungle. Suspected are young men who have shown interest in her single status, AIDS carriers who deny their own status, a local herbalist who suspects she seeks to steal his secrets. Life in Ghana is different, very different, from western life-styles, but murder has the usual suspects: greed, jealousy, sex, money, and resentment or vengeance.
One thing that surprised me was the shock and dismay of a Ghanaian discovering someone was having sex in the jungle. I would have thought that would be a logical place to go if one couldn’t use one’s own home. But no:
”Intimacy in the forest was all right with the gods provided it took place under a roof of some kind.”
Consequently, four poles and a tarp kept everyone happy.
When reading mystery novels set in countries other than one’s own, the reader may enjoy many details of everyday life that bring an unfamiliar region to life. Quartey was successful in introducing us to life in Ghana, but his writing had neither the gentle philosophical guidance of an author like Alexander McCall-Smith (writing about Botswana), nor the furious pace and insistent characterizations of an author like Deon Meyer (writing about South Africa). However, the cultural detail here is fascinating and authentic-sounding and I think the author has broken new ground. When one is not merely copying someone else’s style, one may legitimately be called “an original.”
The audio version of this novel was narrated by Simon Prebble. Simon Prebble is a five-star audiobook reader and I think he did a fabulous job reading the Dick Francis novels, my first real foray into audiobooks. For a long time afterward I only wanted books he read. However, in the case of this book, I didn’t think his plummy voice suited the characters of this novel, and wished the audio publishers had made a greater effort to find someone with an appropriate accent for the region. ...more
I have just realized I have never reviewed any of Alexander McCall Smith's series, though I have read from each one. McCall Smith's series are primersI have just realized I have never reviewed any of Alexander McCall Smith's series, though I have read from each one. McCall Smith's series are primers in "how to be kind." He calmly and rationally helps us to negotiate everyday conundrums that plague us and make us anxious and bitter. The thoughtful reactions he puts in the voice of Mma Ramotswe are kind and comforting, her solutions sensitive and gracious.
If blue shoes can bring happiness, it may be worth owning them even if they are too small. And, there is evil in the world, but most people want to do the right thing. It’s just that people are weak. One should recognize one’s weaknesses: if they are inconsequential or will make your life (or the lives of those around you) a misery to change, it may be better to just live with it.
Mma Ramotswe is a forgiving woman. She doesn’t chide her assistant for small failings, like purchasing blue shoes that are too small, nor does she agonize over her own “traditionally-built” size. She knows she should diet, but if she wants (and deserves!) cake, is it so very wrong to have a small piece?
Every book in this series is a little vacation for the mind. We are given time to consider problems that many of us face, and see how elegant solutions can be found that satisfy. The voice of Lisette Lecat defines the series. Her voice is such a perfect vehicle for the writing that I prefer to listen to these books published as downloadable files by Recorded Books.
In the early part of the 20th century many foreign interests intersected in the Middle East. Barry Unsworth sketches with preternatural skill a BritisIn the early part of the 20th century many foreign interests intersected in the Middle East. Barry Unsworth sketches with preternatural skill a British archeologist fruitlessly toiling for years over a dig he finds it increasingly difficult to sustain financially. The stresses added by German railroad and American petroleum contractors encroaching on his stake which he is desperate to believe will yield results shortly is too real for comfort.
The years leading up to the Great War in Europe were prime for many men of industry, particularly for those in petroleum prospecting. Unsworth shares stories of how those times might have looked, using historical events to bracket his imaginings. It is his characterizations of personalities that ring so true—Lord Rampling, the British industrialist who tramples truth “for the glory of the British empire” while being out-deceived by a loping and sun-bleached American engineer who plays representatives from all countries against his own company’s interests.
The tension builds to the last pages, when we learn WWI has begun in Europe, and when that storm has passed, the land we’d seen as a large fragment of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire has become something quite new—a vast new country called Iraq, which had never before been home to a single nation.
Erudite, stimulating, large in scope and small in detail, this is a novel to restore one’s interest, should it ever flag, in fiction. ...more