An incredibly insightful and stirring essay that richly combines cultural analysis and autobiography. Here is a representative passage that had partic...moreAn incredibly insightful and stirring essay that richly combines cultural analysis and autobiography. Here is a representative passage that had particular resonance with me:
"One of the things I remember well from my childhood is my grandmother's silver mirror. It was an antique mirror, ornamented on the reverse side with an elegant design of roses in bloom and singing nightingales. She would comb her long, chestnut hair, never moving her eyes from her reflection. Every mirror was a passage to another universe, she said, and when you peeked deep within something there peeked back into your soul, too. From time to time, Grandma would declare that it was time for this passage to shut down and rest a little bit. It wasn't healthy for human beings to stare at their reflections all the time, she would add by way of explanation. On such days, all the mirrors in the house would be turned back to front, and I would go to school without knowing what my hair looked like.
Years later, I cannot help but lament the loss of this age-old wisdom. Perhaps we gaze too much and too often at our own reflections, in the sense that we generally, if not solely, interact with people who think like us, vote like us, talk like us and are like us. If asked whether we have anything against those outside of our cultural cocoons, the chances are that we will firmly and sincerely say no. Of course, we are not biased. Of course, we have nothing against them. On the contrary, we relish some degree of multiethnic diversity. The Iranian grocery shop that is open on Sundays and sells high-quality saffron, the Turkish restaurant where they serve tea in small glasses, the travel agency around the corner that offers flights with Bangladeshi Airlines for a reasonable price...All of this enriches our environment. It's just that we don't socialize with them...
...As a storyteller I am less interested in generalization than in undertones and nuances. These may not be visible at first glance, but they are out there, lurking beneath the surface, durable and distinct." (less)
This is a voyeuristic look into the elite and secluded life of a Saudi princess. It's written in first person from the perspective of Princess "Sultan...moreThis is a voyeuristic look into the elite and secluded life of a Saudi princess. It's written in first person from the perspective of Princess "Sultana," a boisterous, bright and spirited Saudi royal who finds herself deeply dissatisfied with the culture of her homeland, particularly its poor treatment of women. The book is gripping, though, for me, somewhat problematic.
I listened to the audiobook version of Princess and nowhere included is a note from Jean Sasson, the Western journalist who wrote the book, explaining the process by which she crafted the narrative. This left me reading with nagging, unanswered questions. How did Sasson meet the princess? Aren't there risks involved for Sultana, living in such a secretive and repressive country? Why did Sasson choose first person from Sultana's perspective to relay the book's contents and not first person from her own perspective? Or maybe third person? To what extent did Sultana "write" the book? Did Sultana provide the stories, while Sasson massaged and synthesized them into a compelling narrative with rising and falling action and decent prose? If so, what did Sasson need to add or take away to accomplish that? If Sultana's stories appear in the book as she described them to Sasson, then is Sasson more of an editor or a scribe rather than an author? What the heck? How did this book get written?!?!
For me, this created some credibility concerns, and I felt like it all could have been resolved with a simple author's note of explanation, preferably at the book's beginning. Perhaps another edition has this? Mine definitely did not.
There is also an ethos problem with Sultana herself. She's a very interesting and complex individual, and this is part of what makes Princess so appealing. She's passionate, choleric, prideful, spoiled, obstinate, intelligent, reflective, violent at times, and...duplicitous. By her own admission, her life is punctuated by lies she told to achieve her ends. Lies told to her parents, her husband, her sisters, and her children. So, of course, I couldn't help but wonder, has she lied to her readers? She's not above scheming, arguably a necessary tactic for the oppressed in fighting their oppressors. If lies, though, are the means by which she obtains her end of women's liberation in Saudi Arabia, perhaps she finds no moral objection in lying to her Western readers to further that cause. This left me scratching my head, guessing where perhaps the truth ends and fabrication begins.
But, despite all this uncertainty, I could hardly put the book down. You can't help but root for Sultana, even when her behavior made me cringe just a little bit. I especially enjoyed her surreptitious attempts to undermine her oppressive and cruel brother, Ali, whom she describes as one "well-suited to a land who kept women at his feet" and one who "would be terrorized by a woman of strength and character."
There are moments of levity, but most of it is bleak. Sultana has known several women who were made victims of honor killings, perverse attempts to mete out justice to a woman who, through some perceived or petty crime, has brought shame upon her family name. In hearing these stories of barbaric cruelty perpetrated against young girls, many of whom were not guilty but themselves the victims of sexual violence, my heart was seared with rage and sorrow. These are the moments when I indeed wished the entire book was one giant fabrication, but somehow I doubt that's the case.
And one last thought. To me, the book's most fascinating insight was regarding the unhappiness of Saudi men. Often when I think of a patriarchal culture like this one, I imagine that all the men are happy dancing on the oppressed souls of their women, relishing their power, privilege and satisfied appetites. But Sultana contends that the men of her land are miserable: "By treating women as slaves, as property, men made themselves as unhappy as the women they rule and have made love and true companionship unobtainable to both sexes." Of course this makes perfect sense. I don't believe the oppressor ever finds true joy or peace in his oppression. What a strange and sad irony and how broken is our world.
I felt predisposed to love this first-person account of a man's forays into European monastic life, since I'm very much interested in church history a...moreI felt predisposed to love this first-person account of a man's forays into European monastic life, since I'm very much interested in church history and Christian spirituality and have previously enjoyed travel memoirs written by uppity men. While I loved Fermor's descriptions of the carved-out cave monasteries of Cappadocia—"The scenery of early Christendom lay all around us" (87)—and found his analysis of Trappist ideology to be fascinating—"A Trappist career is a long-drawn-out atonement, a protracted imitation of the Wilderness, the Passion, the Agony in the Garden, the Way of the Cross, and the final sacrifice of Golgotha" (60)—Fermor's prose was something I felt I had to slog my way through—neither a joy nor a delight. Interestingly, one of the best parts is the introduction by Karen Armstrong: "The monastic life demands a kind of death—the death of the ego that we feed so voraciously in secular life...If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves—incrementally, slowly, and imperceptibly" (x).(less)
I found Disgrace irresistible for several reasons. It's the first book I've touched since a recent and major move imposed a month-long reading sabbati...moreI found Disgrace irresistible for several reasons. It's the first book I've touched since a recent and major move imposed a month-long reading sabbatical onto me. Having now found myself at the end of that drought, any book is happily embraced and soon devoured. I also found the themes appealing: the relationship between desire and death, the process of aging, morality in a post-Christian world, whether or not there is an ontological difference between man and beast, etc. I appreciated the literary-ness of this novel, its allegorical feel and witty allusions (many of which I sensed but didn't fully get) and, of course, loads of irony. I enjoy protagonists like David Lurie, the mostly despicable kind that maintain tiny shreds of dignity, causing readers to root for them despite all their awfulness. Every word of this novel felt perfectly in place. It's not hard to imagine a bearded Coetzee with handsome salt and peppered hair lovingly revisiting the manuscript again and again before publication. I love novels that feel polished and obsessed over. This is a novel one can respect.
I strongly suspect for some reason that Coetzee meant for this to be darkly comic. I don't think I'm clever enough to get the humor; to me it was moving and sad. And depressing.
All in all, the perfect book to help ingratiate me back into the reading world.
I enjoyed the novel's historical backdrop and its Ulster setting, but the drama and character development were a bit lacking. Definitely not worth 900...moreI enjoyed the novel's historical backdrop and its Ulster setting, but the drama and character development were a bit lacking. Definitely not worth 900 pages, especially during this time in my life when solitude and reading time are in short supply. And, I nearly laughed out loud at what was supposed to be one of the novel's most compelling moments. (view spoiler)[ I just could not accept the sudden murder and dismemberment of the lovely Shelley MacLeod at the hands of pious Presbyterian ladies. I think I've known too many nice pious Presbyterian ladies to find that even remotely believable. (view spoiler)[ (hide spoiler)](hide spoiler)](less)
If there's such a thing as a summer, non-fiction beach read, this is it. Weaving narrative non-fiction with "lite" science, this book explores why hum...moreIf there's such a thing as a summer, non-fiction beach read, this is it. Weaving narrative non-fiction with "lite" science, this book explores why human beings crave the experience of long-distance running and how we can get better at it. If you are able to look beyond the sometimes self-congratulatory tone combined with a few highly speculative scientific conclusions, there's much fun to be had here.
And, I can't deny, this book did convince me to trade in my traditional running shoes for a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, which is something I thought would NEVER happen.(less)
My first exposure to the Chinese presence in Africa came through reading Paul Theroux’s most recent account of his travels through Namibia and Angola,...moreMy first exposure to the Chinese presence in Africa came through reading Paul Theroux’s most recent account of his travels through Namibia and Angola, The Last Train To Zona Verde, published in 2013. To Theroux’s readers, it should come as no surprise that I got the cynical view:
“Every time I encountered Chinese in the hinterland I felt I was seeing the future of Africa—not a happy future, and not a distant one, but the foreseeable future…Some Africa watchers and Western economists have observed that the Chinese presence in Africa—a sudden intrusion—is salutary and will result in greater development and more opportunities for Africans. Seeing Chinese digging into Africa, isolated in their enterprises, offhand with Africans to the point of rudeness, and deaf to any suggestion that they moderate their self-serving ways, I tend to regard this positive view as a crock. My own feeling is that like the other adventurers in Africa, the Chinese are exploiters…Theirs is a racket like those of all the previous colonizers, and it will end badly—maybe worse, because the Chinese are tenacious, richer, and heavily invested, and for them there is no going back. As they walked into Tibet and took over (with not a voice of protest raised by anyone in the West), they are walking into the continent and, outspending any other adventurer, subverting Africans, with a mission to plunder” (265).
I was no doubt captivated by this, so when I noticed Howard French’s new book China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, I knew I had to read it at once, if for nothing else than to serve as a counterpoint to the only other perspective I had heard on the relationship between China and Africa.
Not long ago, I read French’s earlier book A Continent for the Taking, a first-hand account of some of the major events that beleaguered Africa during the 1990’s. His compelling reportage and precise prose were enough to make me overlook its axe-grinding and alienating tone. I picked up China’s Second Continent, bracing myself for 300+ pages of vitriol against the Chinese, yet what I found was something far more interesting and nuanced.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone more qualified than French to untangle the complex relationship between Africa and China, given that he’s lived in both places for many years and speaks fluent Chinese, among other languages. He’s also very well-versed in African history and politics and possesses an obviously firm grasp of economic policy in Africa. It would be weird if he didn’t write this book, and I’m glad he beat everyone else to the punch because he does a fantastic job, both in terms of the ideas and data he possesses and the stunningly clear way he expresses them.
His journey to discover the implications of Chinese involvement in Africa begins in Mozambique and eventually takes him to Zambia, Liberia, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Ghana, Tanzania and Namibia. Along the way, he interviews a host of interesting individuals, including Chinese hotel managers, sex workers, farmers, shopkeepers, repairmen, project managers and restaurant entrepreneurs, as well as African politicians, intellectuals, civil servants and professionals.
Though he focuses much attention on the ambitions, experiences and attitudes of Chinese migrants, he does not neglect the African perspective. His ability to play devil’s advocate with both sides lends an air of nuance and objectivity to his reportage. For example, after spending time with a Chinese farmer in Mozambique who expressed what most of us would perceive as racist attitudes toward Africans, French writes this: “…though he had revealed some of the qualities of a monster, he had been more than generous with me” (Chapter 2; 1:15:35). His willingness to be open-minded in the face of off-putting statements makes him a very perceptive and trustworthy author.
Though China repeatedly stresses that its involvement in Africa is “win-win,” French unearths a number of disconcerting facts about its conduct in Africa. Some of these include China’s apparent lack of concern for human rights, the opacity with which China conducts business deals, the problematic union between Chinese businessmen and corrupt African politicians, the easy money China pours into Africa that many African intellectuals fear will foster an attitude of dependence, the depletion of African resources and land at the hands of voracious Chinese building projects, and the flood of cheap Chinese goods that forces African products from the marketplace, among other things.
But, unlike Theroux, French also mentions the good the Chinese are doing in Africa, the roads, bridges, airports and hospitals they are building, as well as the reality that many Africans, appreciative of the Chinese and their contributions, continue to wave them in.
The question that remains is, what kind of legacy is China leaving in Africa, and will it prosper not only wealthy dictators but everyday African people?
“For all of China’s denials that its overseas ambitions can be compared to those of Europeans or Americans, for all of its insistence that its actions are driven by fraternal solidarity with Africans, its fellow victims of colonization, its fellow travelers on the path to development, what I was witnessing in Africa was the higgledy-piggledy cobbling together of a new Chinese realm of interest. Here were the beginnings of a new empire, a haphazard empire, perhaps, but an empire nonetheless” (Chapter 8; 1:13:22).(less)
Paul Bowles’s novel Let it Come Down struck me as the novelization of Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, his protagonist, Nelson Dyar, a test subj...morePaul Bowles’s novel Let it Come Down struck me as the novelization of Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, his protagonist, Nelson Dyar, a test subject for Sartrean ideals. In crafting Dyar’s quest for psychological freedom, it almost seemed like Bowles was exploring the implications of Sartrean existentialism taken to its logical conclusions.. What happens when a man “realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values,” that he “is nothing other than is own project…nothing more than his life,” and that he “exists only to the extent that he realizes himself”? (quotes taken from Existentialism Is a Humanism.)
Dissatisfied with his life in New York City, young Nelson Dyer travels to Tangier to forge a new path for himself, one entirely of his own making. In the novel’s beginning, he strikes the reader as an insolent dolt—not exactly the reflective and thoughtful protagonist one expects to find in an existential novel. While I was initially put off by this, I came to see it as a manifestation of Bowles’s genius. The way he charts the changing contours of Dyar’s inner world is this book’s shining and most irresistible attribute.
In Existentialism Is a Humanism Sartre explains the concept of “existence precedes essence” as follows: man “materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterwards defines himself.” He goes on to say that “the first effect of existentialism is to make every man conscious of what he is, and to make him solely responsible for his own existence.”
As the novel progresses, a transformation takes place in Dyar as he experiences a sort of Sartrean awakening:
“Although he was not given to analyzing his states of mind, since he never had been conscious of possessing any sort of apparatus with which to do so, recently he had felt, like a faint tickling in an inaccessible region of his being, an undefined need to let his mind dwell on himself. There were no forumated thoughts, he did not even daydream, nor did he push matters so far as to ask himself questions like: ‘What am I doing here?’ or ‘What do I want?’ At the same time, he was vaguely aware of having arrived at the edge of a new period in his existence, an unexplored territory of himself through which he was going to have to pass…The fact kept repeating itself to him: ‘Here I am’” (116).
Later in the novel, when Dyar’s transformation is near-complete, he reflects on his determination to “lead the procession of his life, as the locomotive heads the train, no longer to be a helpless incidental object somewhere in the middle of the line of events, drawn one way and another, without the possibility or even the need of knowing the direction in which he was heading” (230).
What follows is a man’s embrace of nihilism, an intriguing and sometimes very gripping plot set against a vibrant Moroccan desert landscape, impressively well-drawn characters, and the inclusion of very rich, very keenly observed details.
And while I loved trying to connect the dots between Sartre and this novel, I also couldn’t help but notice the points of departure between the two. The world Bowles creates is much bleaker and much more absurd. While Sartre argues that “man is nothing else but the sum of his actions,” Bowles’s Dyar reflects that “the whole of life does not equal the sum of its parts; there is no sum” (183). While Sartre assures us that “there is no determinism—man is free, man is freedom”, Dyar’s character shows us that existential freedom is very hard to come by and comes at great personal cost to oneself and others, and while Sartre promises that “by constantly seeking a goal outside of himself in the form of liberation…man will realize himself as truly human,” Dyar’s decent into nihilism strips him of his human attributes, rendering him an animal who has no need for personal relationships and who is unable to see the inherent dignity and humanity of others.
Bowles’s Saraha is not Michael Palin’s Sahara. It’s not a happy place. But because of his expert writing and interesting philosophical reflections, I have a feeling I’ll be returning to it soon. (less)
That's That is a coming-of-age memoir set against the backdrop of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. I read it more for the latter than the former.
A...moreThat's That is a coming-of-age memoir set against the backdrop of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. I read it more for the latter than the former.
Although the book is very conventional in its form as a memoir (a blissful childhood, followed by a somewhat sudden sexual awakening and tempestuous adolescence, then spiritual and familial disillusionment, etc.,) it's still pretty enjoyable. Broderick as a boy was quite endearing and funny, and his childhood is surrounded by hilarious, quirky characters. ("The Vampiro" is my favorite.) Although there's no denying Broderick's obvious personal magnetism, I liked him less the older he got, especially when his surreptitious attempts at demonstrating his sexual awesomeness to his reader became a little too transparent. Apparently, every girl in the six counties of Northern Ireland, a few in the Republic of Ireland, and maybe a small handful in England, took one look at him and went mad, even though he describes his teenage self as lanky and "with spots."
The book is educational in the way it offers a slice of life in Northern Ireland during "The Troubles." It also helped me more fully understand the nature of the tension there between Protestants and Catholics.
One final comment: I listened to the audio version of That's That, narrated by Gerard Doyle, who did a fantastic job. It's difficult for me to know if I would have even enjoyed this book, were it not for Doyle's wonderful acting and expert rendering of the various UK accents. Yet again, I had to appreciate just how much a talented narrator can bring to, and draw out of, a book, especially when humor is involved.(less)
This is necessary reading for those who appreciate both the literary merit and the theological richness of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. Most of her re...moreThis is necessary reading for those who appreciate both the literary merit and the theological richness of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. Most of her readers are already aware of the intimate relationship between her religious convictions and her work. Before reading her prayer journal, however, I was unaware of the extent to which her passionate faith and desire to know God intimately were the driving forces behind her creativity: “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine” (11).
Every time I discuss an O’Connor story with students in the classroom, someone always ends up referring to her as a “he”. This might be because it’s not obvious to them that “Flannery” is a woman’s name, but I think it also reflects something deeper about the nature of her work. At the risk of being accused of gender normativity, there is indeed a hard, somewhat masculine edge to her writing. I say all this because this is very much unlike the voice of her journal. Here, it’s very easy to imagine that the author is a young woman, somewhat insecure and self-conscious, but simmering with artistic and spiritual zeal.
A few interesting threads run through this journal—O’Connor’s fear of mediocrity (both in the Christian and the writing life), her disdain for “stinking” romanticism, and her hunger for God. I’m confident that these themes will be fascinating to all of her fans, but there is something particularly special here for the believing reader. And, I couldn’t help but notice that her prayers are indeed answered.
“Dear God, please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You” (29). (less)
I will make two clichéd statements about this book.
The first is that "it is more about the journey than the destination" -- a cheesy comment that is...moreI will make two clichéd statements about this book.
The first is that "it is more about the journey than the destination" -- a cheesy comment that is very true of The Psychopath Test. The book doesn't offer too much in the way of useful information or well-argued conclusions. In the hands of a less talented author, it would have likely been a tedious, meandering, without-a-point mess. But Jon Ronson makes the manic-pinball-journey fun. There were many times when I felt like I was blindly giving him my hand so I could be led hither and thither. Normally it annoys me when I don't see where a non-fiction book is taking me, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself here. And that leads me to my second cliché: Ronson is British, and his sense of humor is wonderfully understated and dry, with equal parts self-deprecation and aloofness. I laughed a lot while listening to this audiobook, especially since Ronson narrates it himself.
And while this book is often amusing, it still manages to raise a few important concerns about the modern-day psychiatric movement. Highly recommended, especially as an audiobook. (less)