Paul Theroux is grumpy, but I don’t mind. I like his laconic style and astute observations. He is generally very well informed and has done the backgr...morePaul Theroux is grumpy, but I don’t mind. I like his laconic style and astute observations. He is generally very well informed and has done the background research for his travel books. And he writes well. In Dark Star Safari he returns to Africa where he used to live as a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher four decades earlier. He travels overland—on bus, truck, matatu, train, boat—from Cairo to Cape Town taking numerous detours en route. He encounters hardships, although he tends to make a bit too much of them dramatizing the dangers to his own wellbeing. Along the way he observers and talks to a variety of people, both African and foreign, ranging from shopkeepers, ship engine men on Lake Victoria and evicted white farmers in Zimbabwe to missionaries and aid workers (‘agents of virtue,’ he calls them disparagingly). He meets old friends from the 1960s, some of whom have become powerful, like a minister in the Ugandan government. He spends time with Nadine Gordimer, the courageous South African writer, and her husband.
Theroux paints a rather bleak picture of Africa. His general observation is that virtually everything has gotten worse in the decades since most of the countries became independent. Corruption is rampant virtually everywhere. Foreign aid has tended to make things worse, creating dependence on aid. Government to government aid supports the dictators and thieves in power. For charities and NGOs, aid is business and they do not even plan to exit. Theroux explains:
“It is for someone else, not me, to evaluate the success or failure of charitable efforts in Africa. Offhand, I would say the whole push has been misguided, because it has gone on for too long with negligible results. If anyone had asked me to explain, my reasoning would have been: Where are the Africans in all this?” (p. 272)
Christian missionaries get their share, too, and rightly so. Theroux doesn’t mince words, meeting a particularly dogmatic missionary on a train in Mozambique:
“Mozambicans were not sufficiently unhappy, not poor enough, not sick enough, not adequately deluded; they needed to feel worse, more blameworthy, more sinful, abused for merely having been born, for original sin was inescapable. And like other missionaries, Susanna was determined to bully Africans into abandoning their ancient pantheism, which had been inspired by the animals and flowers of the bush, by the seasons, and by their long-held hopes and fears.” (p. 433)
Theroux summarizes Africa as he sees it:
“It is so much worse for Africans. The most civilized ones I met never used the word ‘civilization.’ The wickedest believed themselves to be anointed leaders for life, and wouldn’t let go of their delusion. The worst of them stole from foreign donors and their own people, like the lowest thieves who rob the church’s poor boxes. The kindest Africans had not changed at all, and even after all these years the best of them are bare-assed.” (p. 472)
This edition of the book contains a postscript from when Paul Theroux returned to Africa in 2003, two years after his original trip. During the second trip he witnesses the brutal consequences of superstition in Malawi, the total collapse of rule of law and economy in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and the corruption in relatively stable Zambia. He summarizes his relationship with Africa as follows:
“I love the African bush—I missed it; but I hate African cities. I swore I would never return to the stinking buses, the city streets reeking of piss, the lying politicians, the schemers, the twaddlers, the crooks, the moneychangers taking advantage of weak currency and gullible people, the American God-botherers and evangelists demanding baptisms and screaming ‘Sinners!’—and forty years of virtue-industry CEOs faffing around with other people’s money and getting no results, except Africans asking for more.” (p.473)
Theroux’ Africa is not an optimistic place. Yet the book is full of humanity and Paul Theroux meets many good people on his travels trying to make the best of a bad situation. (less)
Trash. Obviously. Yet I read it with gusto. Like I had read Burdett's two previous books about the unlikely Bangkok detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, pr...moreTrash. Obviously. Yet I read it with gusto. Like I had read Burdett's two previous books about the unlikely Bangkok detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, presumably the only non-corrupt cop, who navigates the treacherous world of prostitution, murder and power in the City of Angels. The protagonist is hardly credible and his (or Burdett's) 'Buddhist' philosophy is highly annoying. But he does make some sweet points criticizing the West (and especially America) for its materialism, linear thinking and gender relations gone wrong. There is also an increasing amount of magic and mysticism that one needs to get used to. But Burdett writes a yarn that, with its fast pace, graphic sex and violence, pulls the reader along. And then there's Bangkok--and Isaan and Cambodia--where the action takes place. But I won't be tempted to reading the next one in the series that surely must be in the works. Unless I'm at an airport ahead of a long flight and I notice it while browsing in the bookstores.(less)
Edogawa Rampo (nom de plume of Hirai Taro, 1894-1965) was one of the first mystery writers in Japan. He took an early liking to Edgar Allan Poe (hence...moreEdogawa Rampo (nom de plume of Hirai Taro, 1894-1965) was one of the first mystery writers in Japan. He took an early liking to Edgar Allan Poe (hence the pseudonym: if you pronounce it fast, it sounds like the name of his idol—believe me!) and started writing detective stories with a gothic flavour. This book contains two of his famous novels, ‘The Black Lizard’ and ‘Beast in the Shadows.’ I didn’t read both in one go; rather there were a couple of weeks and at least one book in between.
The Black Lizard is a well-known story in Japan and was made into a movie in the 1960s. When reading it, I did think it had plenty of cinematic potential. The story is not much of a mystery, per se. Rather it describes a battle of wits between a master detective and an (almost) equally brilliant criminal. The fact that the criminal happens to be a stunningly beautiful woman—and an exhibitionist at that, getting naked at any conceivable opportunity—seems to have been sensational in Japan of the past (I haven’t been able to verify when the novel was first published). I didn’t really like the novel and found the style of narration annoying (it is not a matter of the fluent translation of Ian Hughes, as he adheres closely to the original Japanese text). Yet, the gothic story has stayed with me for these several weeks since I read it.
Beast in the Shadows was, to me, a much better and suspenseful story. It had its twists that provided some surprises. Published originally in 1928, the piece was surprisingly modern. Like the story of the Black Lizard, this one too had a strong erotic charge. One cannot help detecting a certain misogynistic tendency in Edogawa Rampo’s writing, though.
Both novels in the book are worth reading for people who are either fans of the history of detective writing or Japan itself. (less)
This classic travel adventure recounts a 1983 trip into, well, the heart of Borneo by the author, Redmond O’Hanlon, his friend the poet James Fenton,...moreThis classic travel adventure recounts a 1983 trip into, well, the heart of Borneo by the author, Redmond O’Hanlon, his friend the poet James Fenton, and three local Iban guides. The purpose of the trip is, ostensibly, to try to rediscover the Borneo Rhinoceros that is believed to be extinct. The story evolves around the unlikely party’s boat trip upriver from Kuching on South China Sea to Mt. Batu Tiban. The trip is at times dangerous, as they traverse rapids and face other natural challenges en route. Along the way the troupe comes across other ethnic groups—some of whom bear generations old grudges against the Iban—and engage in riotous celebrations with them. The book includes much interesting information about the people who live in inland Borneo. Redmond O’Hanlon is a naturalist by training (Oxford) and was for years the natural history editor for the Times Literary Supplement, so inevitably the book contains frequent passages describing the nature—especially bird life—that they encounter. The sympathetic Iban will have many a good laugh on account of the two clumsy Britons. In the end they confess that they never believed they’d be able to complete the trip, O’Hanlon being too fat and Fenton immensely old. O’Hanlon observes the world around him with a keen eye for detail and writes it all down in fabulously engaging prose. His sense of humour and self-depreciating style, as well as openness and empathy guarantee that this travel memoir is a definite winner.(less)
This is a very interesting and passionate book about lesser known internal conflicts in Southeast Asia. The author is a young Canadian journalist who...moreThis is a very interesting and passionate book about lesser known internal conflicts in Southeast Asia. The author is a young Canadian journalist who has spent a lot of time in the region, learning its history and languages, and studying the conflicts which he is strongly drawn to. The book has four main chapters each covering a different sub-region and conflict. The first gives an account of Cambodia and the ‘death of the Khmer Rouge’ as it is aptly subtitled. This was the first of the conflicts covered by Rand, in 1998, when he was just 23 years old. It is one of the best parts of the book, and contains an excellent and concise (just 13 pages) history of the Cambodian conflict. The second chapter of the book stems from 2000 when the author documented the conflict between the Burmese military government and ethnic Karen guerrillas. He made several trips to the Karen-held area across the border from Thailand and accompanied the guerrilla into battle. The description is lively and highly sympathetic to the cause of the guerrillas. The third chapter stems from 2004 and concerns with two unprivileged ethnic minorities that both sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War: the Hmong in northern Laos and the Montagnards in Vietnam. Both received ample support from CIA and played an important role as American allies against the communists. Both were later abandoned by the Americans and left to cope with the new regimes to the best of their ability—which has been an uphill struggle for both groups that have continued the war through all these years. Especially the Hmong’s fight against the Laotian army has been quite pathetic. This ‘betrayal’ by the Americans outrages Nelson Rand who rails on behalf of the wretched guerrillas. The final chapter of the book is contemporary and describes events in 2008 in southern Thailand when the author was embedded with the Thai army battling the Islamic insurgents. Again, although this is the thinnest part of the book, the historical explanation and the description of the current situation are rather balanced, acknowledging the human rights violations by the Thai government while condemning the terrorist activities by the Islamic fundamentalists. The fact that Nelson Rand is so excited about his topic is what makes the book very engaging. He feels strongly about the subject and the often quixotic struggles of the people. He mixes his personal exploits and feelings with the travails of the victims of the conflicts in a way that can’t leave the reader cold. He also makes an effort at putting each of the conflicts into a broader context. At the same time, one can’t sometimes help feeling a bit queasy about his enthusiasm, for the particular struggles, the heroism of the guerrillas, and the thrill of jungle warfare in general. The text flows fast and well, but tends to be somewhat breathless and contain hyperbole and occasional repetitiveness as Rand raves about the injustices he encounters. His sympathy for the downtrodden is such that he even calls the hilltribes of northern Laos and Vietnam a ‘race,’ which obviously is not accurate. Despite these gripes, Nelson Rand has done us a favour by writing the book informing us of the long-running conflicts that are seldom remembered by the outside world.(less)
The stories in this collection have one theme in common: foreigness or being a foreigner. They were written between 1993 and 2002. Geographically, the...moreThe stories in this collection have one theme in common: foreigness or being a foreigner. They were written between 1993 and 2002. Geographically, they span the globe. Some are highly personal, others focus on famous people Iyer meets (Dalai Lama, Leonard Cohen), a couple are basically literary criticism, one or two vaguely exciting, even humorous. All in all, the collection finds Iyer in a pensive mood. Many of the stories are rather inward looking, slow reading, melancholy.(less)
A work of fiction, this interesting novel follows the real-life Japanese star Yoshiko Yamaguchi through the eyes of three men who are all captivated b...moreA work of fiction, this interesting novel follows the real-life Japanese star Yoshiko Yamaguchi through the eyes of three men who are all captivated by her. The first part of the book takes place in China during the Japanese occupation before and during the Pacific War. Born in 1920 in the Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo, Yamaguchi is fluent in both her native language and Chinese. Blessed with exotic beauty and a lovely singing voice, she is soon to be used by the Japanese military propaganda machinery as a singer and actor in movies propagating the benevolence of the occupation to the occupied lands. By design of her militaristic masters she is required to hide her Japanese origins and ends up playing the part of a Chinese woman falling in love with handsome and good Japanese officers over and over again. Her rising star and success in Mukden and Shanghai under the name Ri Koran is witnessed by a kindly Japanese man working as producer in the film industry who knows her real identity. Highly critical of his militaristic compatriots, Mr. Sato’s fortunes wax and wane in the treacherous wartime China but he remains always protective of Ri Koran who herself grows used to her own power over men of many walks of life.
Once the war is over, the heroine returns to Japan with dreams of hitting the big time in USA. She reinvents herself as Shirley Yamaguchi, playing the role of a beautiful Japanese woman this time falling in love with American soldiers in the movies. Her transformation is observed by a young homosexual fan from Ohio serving in the film censorship department of General MacArthur’s occupation forces. He watches Shirley’s debut on the Ed Sullivan show in a New York apartment in a party where the famous Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is present. In real life, Noguchi and Yamaguchi fell for each other and were married in 1951. The second part of the book circles around Yamaguchi’s American ambitions, her tumultuous marriage with Noguchi in the coastal former capital of Kamakura, and the decadent world of occupation Tokyo where the often moronic American officers try to change the country’s culture in their own moralistic ways (one can’t help noting a certain resemblance to later doomed projects to democraticise Iraq and the rest of the Middle East).
In the third and final part of the book, Yoshiko Yamaguchi has again transformed herself. Having married an up-and-coming diplomat, Yamaguchi renewed her commitment to the plight of the developing countries and oppressed people around the world turning herself into a popular TV journalist. Her intentions as pure as always and her heart in the right place, she again naively allowed powerful men to manipulate herself. She was charmed by men like Yasser Arafat, Kim Il Sung, Colonel Gaddafi, even Idi Amin, whom she met through her wide travels as a journalist. This time her story is related through a Japanese Red Army member lingering in a Lebanese jail.
Ian Buruma, a professor at New York’s Bard College and a renowned scholar of Japanese and Chinese cultural history, has crafted a very interesting story that weaves fact and fiction into a seamless whole. He manages to relate the story to the big historical narrative of Japan from the 1930s to the 1970s, incorporating much of fascinating detail and real-life events (the iconic Noguchi comes across as a self-centred idealist). One of the themes of the book relates to movies, a topic that Buruma knows intimately. Apart from the protagonist being an actress in her first career, all three men whose stories the fiction part of the book tells are movie buffs. Each one of them makes clever cameo appearances in the section that follows their story, but never again do they meet with Yamaguchi: she is done with them by that time. The book also has a constant erotic overtone, without ever becoming overtly explicit (well, not too crudely explicit at least).
Yoshiko Yamaguchi’s life has been a long and eventful one. She reinvented herself several times, from a Chinese singer and actress to a Japanese-American one, to a TV journalist and, finally, to a national politician in Japan. In 1974 she ran successfully for the Japanese Diet, where she was initially sponsored by the notoriously corrupt prime minister and money politician Kakuei Tanaka. The question whether she was indeed always manipulated by powerful men or whether she used them for her own purposes is probably moot. Most likely, both are true. She is still alive and living in Tokyo at the age of 89. (less)
An excellent mystery/thriller set in North Korea. The author apparently used to be an intelligent officer in Asia. Apart from the interesting and rath...moreAn excellent mystery/thriller set in North Korea. The author apparently used to be an intelligent officer in Asia. Apart from the interesting and rather complex story, the book has distinct literary values. The way it describes the gorgeous landscape, the oppressive atmosphere and the paranoid society is first class. (less)
This is not a new book. It was published in 1994 and describes events that took place between 1967 and 1993. I was vaguely aware of the book and picke...moreThis is not a new book. It was published in 1994 and describes events that took place between 1967 and 1993. I was vaguely aware of the book and picked it up when I happened upon it while browsing through my father's bookshelf. It couldn't be more timely now that concerns about various exotic viruses-bird flu, swine flu etc.-are such a current concern.
The book traces deadly viruses-Marburg and a number of varieties of Ebola-to their origins in the tropical rain forest region in Central Africa and a place called Kitum Cave high on Mount Elgon in northern Kenya. It describes a 1989 Ebola outbreak amongst monkeys imported from the Philippines for research purposes in Reston, Virginia, just outside of the United States capital. The outbreak was a close call and resulted in a full mobilization of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases as well as the Centers for Disease Control and other civilian authorities who managed to keep the dicey situation largely under wraps. Four workers in the monkey house were infected, but luckily this particular previously unknown variety of Ebola did not cause serious harm to humans, although it burned quickly through the monkeys wiping out the entire population. "Did we dodge a bullet?" asks the author RIchard Preston. "I don't think we did. The bullet hit us. We were just lucky that the bullet we took was a rubber bullet from a twenty-two rather than a dumdum bullet from a forty-five," responds Peter Jahrling, the Army's top scientist, adding that he fears that this incident could induce false confidence.
Richard Preston links the rise of these exotic viruses-including HIV-to the human-induced ruin of the tropical biosphere. As larger and larger numbers of people encroach into the forests and come into closer contact-through hunting, eating, etc.-with more and more animals, which all carry viruses, the chances of human outbreaks have increased exponentially. He convincingly posits that the paving of the Kinshasa Highway that crosses Africa from west coast to the east in the 1970s and 1980s was one of the most determining acts influencing human future, as the paving of the road allowed for the rapid movement of people-and consequently viruses like HIV, which spread mostly through long-haul truckers via prostitutes along the highway-between the formerly isolated rain forest areas and the rest of Africa and the world.
He speculates that the "earth is mounting an immune response against the human species. It is starting to react to the human parasite, the flooding infection of people, the dead spots of concrete all over the planet, the cancerous rot-outs in Europe, Japan, and the United States, thick with replicating primates, the colonies enlarging and spreading and threatening to shock the biosphere with mass extinctions." This ecological analogy harking back to the Gaia hypothesis is attractive.
What Preston does not say explicitly-but what is evident from his description of the events-is that the spread of these viruses is inextricably linked to human greed. The monkey suppliers from Uganda to the Philippines want to hide the diseases in their monkey colonies set for export; the inspectors and customs agents are easily bribed; the private companies in the USA and elsewhere do not want to cull their valuable specimens despite evidence of clear danger. A similar conclusion could be deduced from another book-A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky-that I read recently. There, in Kenya, a major tuberculosis outbreak in the baboon colony could be traced back to a game lodge that was serving contaminated meat bought from the local Masai at discount prices as their cows were getting sick. It is complete fiction-in this context and much more widely-that the private sector would regulate itself!
Apart from the important and scary topic and thorough research, Richard Preston writes absolutely beautifully. He never exaggerates, but creates an enormous tension by just writing the facts. The first chapter, Something in the Forest, is so intense and suspenseful that it is impossible to put the book down. Moreover, his descriptions of the African nature, the drive through the Rift Valley and up the slopes of Mount Elgon, the smells of charcoal smoke, the approaching thunder, etc., are incredibly evocative.(less)
A superb memoir of a primate researcher--and primate himself--Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor of biology and neurology who has spent decades stu...moreA superb memoir of a primate researcher--and primate himself--Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor of biology and neurology who has spent decades studying baboons in East Africa. These cousins of ours play a lead role in this informed and highly entertaining book. But not only the baboons: Sapolsky provides extensive commentary on the humans, their (our) nature and society, and humanity itself. Oh, and some people might complain about the anthropomorphism and how Sapolsky describes the baboon in his (!) troop. But to an observer it is clear that these primates are very close to us, live in a fairly complex society, and have highly individualistic characters. All in all, a wonderful book.(less)
This is historical fiction following a couple of Jewish families from Granada to Salonica to Izmir from the time Queen Isabel expelled the jews from S...moreThis is historical fiction following a couple of Jewish families from Granada to Salonica to Izmir from the time Queen Isabel expelled the jews from Spain in 1492 until World War II. It is a warm-hearted book and, despite the rather heavy topic and lengthy historical passages, an easy read. I learned a lot about things I knew little of, including the various splits in the community and conversions to Islam. Some of the best parts of the book are the descriptions of the vibrant life in the Mediterranean cities in the 16th and 17th centuries.(less)