Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, November 30, 2015

A History of Zimbabwe (2015) by Alois S. Mlambo

A map of Zimbabwe, formerly known as Southern Rhodesia

Book Review
A History of Zimbabwe (2015)
by Alois S. Mlambo

  Zimbabwe has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last decade as the sclerotic regime of Mugabe has systemically wrecked the Zimbabwean economy.  You wouldn't know it from the coverage but Zimbabwe didn't obtain majority rule until 1980, after a nearly 15 year long civil war fought between the minority rule state security forces and a variety of rebel groups.  Zimbabwe represents some of the worst excesses of racist minority-white rule with an extremely effective example of economic development and state building by that same terrible government. Zimbabwe was not colonized until 1890, when a literal column of white settlers funded by arch-imperalist Cecil Rhodes wagon trained into the territory that would become Southern Rhodesia and later Zimbabwe.  Many of the colonists were English south Africans who were fleeing what they felt was a South African administration that favored Dutch settlers.
For many years, European scholars refused to admit that the builders of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were white in rather than the ancestors of the African inhabitants of the area.

  Although the white settlers perpetuated the idea that the area was unsettled, Zimbabwe actually had a thousand year plus tradition of multi ethnic states, most notably the Great Zimbabwe from which the modern state would take its name.  Minority white rule manifested itself in most unsubtle fashion.  Africans were systematically pushed off the best land in favor of white owners, who would often let the land lie fallow as a speculative investment.  For years, educated Africans pleaded simply to be elevated to "white" status, only to be rebuffed.  Eventually, the refusal of the white rulers to contemplate incremental transition to majority rule led to Southern Rhodesia declaring independence unilaterally and being treated as a pariah state, even by the similarly racist regime in South Africa.

  Eventually, the minority rule regime saw the writing on the wall, and power was handed over to Mugabe in 1980.  What followed was hardly a model transition to democracy, with continued fighting among native groups for power and massacres of Independence minded ethnic minorities within Zimbabwe.   The related issues of what to do with the former guerrilla fighters and the existing Zimbabwe defense forces led to disproportionate spending on defense.  Fear of the new regime led to an exodus by white citizens and Mugabe developed into a serial violator of human rights.

   Well into the new millennium, the problem of land redistribution continued to plague Zimbabwe, with war veterans expropriating white farms, and those farmers fighting back in the court system.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Grass is Singing (1950 by Doris Lessing

Book Review
The Grass is Singing (1950)
 by Doris Lessing

  The story of European imperialism in Africa did not end after the post World War II independence movements. Most Americans are vaguely familiar with what happened in South Africa: the apartheid regime and the actions by the African National Congress, leading to relatively peaceful handing over of power following negotiations in 1990.   The story in the area north of South Africa, called Rhodesia, then Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia and then, after independence Zambia and Zimbabwe.   Zimbabwe became quasi-independent in the 1960s when a whites-only government was denied permission to form an avowedly racist post colonial state.  A two decade civil war followed, with the present regime taking power in 1980.  Most whites in Zimbabwe left at that point, and those that remained have faced sometimes violent attempts at land repatriation at the hands of the ruling party.

  Doris Lessing is FROM Zimbabwe and her experience was that of the poor white farmers of that place. There is nothing particularly problematic about her attitude, and it's impressive that a novel written by a white Rhodesian in the early 1950s has stood up so well over time.  I think the sexual undertones to the conflict between Mary Turner and her African murderer/house boy make this title less favored as a class room book (compared to Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.)   All three books represent a half-way point between a truly native African literature and the tourist colonialism of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and lesser literary lights.

 I was quite taken with her descriptions of the lonelness of the southern African savannah or "Veldt" as it is know by the Dutch settlers.  Midway through the book, she becomes obsessed with the incessant heat, almost to the point where you could argue the heat and stillness drive her mad. Lessing is aware of the physical environment of her novel in a way that is unusual for a book published in 1950.

Self-Condemned (1954) by Wyndham Lewis

Book Review
Self-Condemned (1954)
 by Wyndham Lewis

  You can make a strong case that Wyndham Lewis is a canonical artist of the 20th century.  He invented artistic movements(Vorticism, the only "avant garde" art movement to emerge in England in the early 20th century), wrote roman a clef type novels which continue to maintain audience and critical attention and had a strong reputation as a painter.  On the other hand, he is generally a hateful human being and flirted with Nazism prior to the outset of World War II, which he, essentially, fled.

 Self-Condemned is a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about a Lewis type figure who gives up his kushy job as a University Professor in England to move to a mid-size town in Canada, where he knows no one and has no prospects.  The first portion of the novel is set in England, where Rene announces his decision, much to the shock and disappointment of almost everyone in his immediate and extended family.

  Most significantly his wife, Hester(called Essie) who is that sort of 20th century woman who is hooked up with a male "intellectual" without herself being one. Upon arrival in North America, they are literally confined to a hotel room, where the interactions between husband and wife assume the proportions of a Samuel Beckett play- claustrophobic and hateful.

  All of Lewis' major novels concern the interactions between hateful intellectuals and wealthy English, but none maintains the kind of focus on a pair of characters like Self-Condemned.  By the end of the book I really hated Rene, and I really kind of hate Wyndham Lewis, and I say that after reading Tarr and Apes of Wrath- his books about pre-World War I Paris and post World War I London respectively. Maybe though it's Lewis' success at evoking this strong passion that marks him as a great novelist.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Seize the Day (1956) by Saul Bellow

Book Review
Seize the Day (1956)
by Saul Bellow

  In the foreward to the edition I read, critic Cynthia Ozick notes that Seize the Day, a slight novella spanning a single day in the life of failed actor (and human being) Tommy Adler nee Wilhelm, is dwarfed by coming after The Adventures of Augie March, also written by Bellow and published the year before.  Augie March was Bellow's big hit with the reading public, and its success set him up for a lifetime of critical and popular attention.   Bellow dominates American literary fiction in the 1950s and to a certain extent his vision of the 1950s masculinity is one the public has come to accept as "true."

   Tommy Adler, the protagonist in Seize the Day, is a pure Bellow male loser- a would-be Alpha heading down towards the bottom of Beta.  Although Seize the Day takes place in a single day, much of the text is devoted to various musings by Adler about his past mistakes and his present predicaments.  Even though I don't consider myself either a typical 50s style American male or an abject failure, I am old enough and wise enough to relate to  Adler/Wilhelm and his problems with a wife who won't divorce him (or fuck him) and a father who sees him as a loss to be cut off the balance sheet.  That isn't my reality, but it very well could be.

  Once again, I'm confronted with the fact that I very much relate to the most out-of-fashion, "white-male" centered titles in the 1001 Books project.  When I brought Bellow up to a gathering of high school classmates- all university educated white men on the cusp of their 40s, I found myself advocating for Bellow, "No, I know he has a dowdy reputation, but if you are a white guy dealing with mid life issues like family, jobs and kids, you really should check him out."

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945) by Carlo Levi

Christ Stopped at Eboli is a memoir of the author who was exiled in this remote region of Italy in the period before World War II

Book Review
Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945)
by Carlo Levi

  I bought Christ Stopped at Eboli on my Kindle months ago and there it has sat, waiting for the inspiration of a vacation to give the impetus to finish.  Christ Stopped is a memoir about the author's time in internal exile in this remote region in Southern Italy.   Compared to the horrors that would engulf Italy and the rest of Europe during World War II, Levi's bucolic existence in Eboli seems less like a prison sentence and more like a rural idyll.

  Modern readers will be most interested in Levi's description of southern Italian rural life prior to World War II.  He describes a mixed bag of characters: peasants, rural land owners, other exiled intellectuals/dissenters.   As a medical doctor, Levi has ample opportunity to get deeply involved in the lives of those around him and this experience produces a quiet, enjoyable read.

  There isn't much in the way of "action" in Christ Stopped at Eboli.  The terms of Levi's exile prohibit him from leaving the immediate environs of the small village he has been sent to, so almost of all of what happens happens inside the small village.  There is no romantic involvement, and Levi remains a spectator from beginning to end.

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James

The attempted assassination of Bob Marley by CIA bankrolled gangsters is the central plot point in A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

Book Review
A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)
 by Marlon James

  Bringing A Brief History of Seven Killings on vacation with me in Jamaica was like wearing a band t-shirt to the same band's concert.   Recent winner of the Man Booker prize,  A Brief History of Seven Killings is a blood-soaked retelling of an alleged CIA sponsored plot to assassinate Bob Marley and the subsequent move of Jamaican organized crime syndicates into the crack trade in New York City. The attempted murder of Bob Marley is a matter of historical record, and the alleged CIA involvement is an old story- after finishing the book I googled the subject and found the exact plot of the book laid out in a news story from 2010.

  The story is told through a multiplicity of different voices. The afterward by the author cites William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as a direct inspiration, but given the rock and roll milieu it reminded me more of a Spin magazine oral history.   The lack of a central narrator or introduction to the back story of Jamaican politics makes the first hundred pages or so difficult to understand.  Basically, Jamaica has two political parties, the People's National Party and the Jamaican Labor Party.  The People's National Party was the part of independence, and at the time of the book (1979) they were firmly socialist and heading farther to the left.  The Jamaican Labor Party was the conservative opposition and supported on the down low by the United States government.

  Both parties used Kingston street gangs to control the vote in elections, and the 1980 election was the bloodiest of all time, with over 700 people losing their lives during the campaign.  None of this information is given directly in the narrative.  Instead you have the voices of the gang leaders, the American operatives and ordinary Jamaicans with various levels of involvement in the shenanigans.   Eventually these shenanigans lead to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (only called "the singer" in the book) by gang members affiliated with the Jamaican Labor Party and bankrolled by United States operatives, most notably a Colombian explosives expert called "Dr. Love."

  Love is also the bridge between the Jamaican Posse-gangs and the Cali Cartel, and after the failed assassination attempt, the Jamaican Shower Posse (called the "Storm Posse" ) in the book moves into the crack trade in New York City.   James does a remarkable job giving full life into the type of characters that typically only exist as crude stereotypes in American art and popular culture- his portrayal of gay/bisexual Posse members is particularly memorable.

  After finishing the book I quickly checked to see who had bought the tv/film rights and was excited to learn that HBO has purchased the rights, and that the author himself was working on the adaptation. Can't wait for that tv show!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (1958) by Paul Gallico

Book Review
Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (1958)
by Paul Gallico

  Paul Gallico is another American author I'd never heard of before the 1001 Books project started.  He came up as a sports journalist, and his greatest hits make him sound like an early exponent of the "new journalism" where the writer became the story.  He broke into the national consciousness when he interviewed Jack Dempsey and described the feeling of being knocked out by Jack Dempsey.

 By the 1930s, he moved into fiction and struck commercial gold with The Snow Goose, which is a story about a man who nurses a Snow Goose back to life in a light house.  Sentimental, maudlin, a tearjerker, those are the ways that The Snow Goose was described by audiences.  He also wrote a book called The Silent Miaow, about cats, and another book of poetry about cats.   Paul Gallico was what you call "middlebrow." How then, do we account for his presence in the 1001 Books project?

 I would chalk it up to a popular American author writing a believable English character, and a working class English character at that- which is a difficult achievement even for native English authors.  His 'Mrs. 'Arris is a London char woman with a tony Kenishington area clientele.  One day she comes face to face with a Dior dress, which launches her on a multi-year quest to acquire a Dior dress.

  Her adventures are the kind of adventures you would expect from a 50s Hollywood film.  Not surprising- today Gallico is best remembered for writing the underlying story that the disaster film Poseidon Adventure was based upon.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Justine (1957) by Lawrence Durrell

Book Review
Justine (1957)
by Lawrence Durrell

  Lawrence Durrell is one of those quintessentially 20th century figures who criss-crossed the globe in the service of the increasingly decrepit British Empire.  He was born in India to English parents, briefly attended school in England and then spent the rest of his life hop-scotching between various locations in the Mediterannean, notably Alexandria, the location for Justine and the three related novels which followed it.  He also lived in Corfu, Cyprus, Yugoslavia and Argentina, mostly working on behalf of the UK government as a "press attache."  His most famous literary associate was Henry Miller.  Durrell famously cavorted with Miller and Anais Nin when the latter lived in Paris.

  His primary literary achievement is the Alexandria Quartet, and Justine is the first book in the series.  Durrell squarely occupies the literary space of "Englishman abroad," where an English protagonist butts heads with lovers and locals in some exotic locale, most often Mexico but also anywhere else in the entire world as well.

  Here, the locale is Alexandria, Egypt, historically a cross-roads of the Mediterranean where Egyptians share space with Greeks, Christians and Jews.  The Irish narrator goes unnamed in this first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, but the book largely concerns itself with the affair between the narrator and the married Justine, a beautiful and highly "exotic" Sephardi Jewess who is married to a rich Arab.

  Justine is written as a work of high modernist fiction.  There are no time cues and Durrell frequently shifts the action backwards and forwards in time without cueing the audience.  This technique turns the city itself into the main character, and its likely that any contemporary reader will be left with a greater feeling for the city than the characters themselves.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Baltic: A History (2011) by Michael North

The "Baltic" as used in this book refers to the area that today encompasses the present states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the states of northern Germany. Norway is also discussed because of it's historic links as part of Denmark and Sweden.

The Baltic: A History (2011//2015)
by Michael North
Translated from German by Kenneth Kronenberg

  A newly translated German language history of the Baltic region?  YES PLEASE!!!!  I actually snatched this volume from the "new titles" section of the San Diego Central Public Library.  I've noticed the San Diego Central Public Library is quick to acquire general histories of unusual places.  It probably has something to do with the fact that the general histories of less unusual places have all been written long ago.

 For the purposes of this book, the main reference point is The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World by Fernaud Braudel, published in 1949.  Braudel was the dean of the "annales" school of history, which eschewed the "big man" theory of history in favor of a bottoms up approach that emphasized the material life of the largest part of the population.  Braudel was also a pioneer at looking across national and ethnic borders to write broader histories of larger areas.   Thus, the idea of a book like "The Baltic" to mirror "The Mediterranean" is one that is more than a half century old by now.

   The first fact to keep in mind about "the Baltic" is that it encompasses most of coastal Northern Europe, from German and Denmark in the west to Russia and Finland in the east, and including the Polish coast and a variety of states and statelets that occupied present day Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.   Those last three are interesting because they were among the last pagan hold outs in Europe.  The most interesting chapters, and probably the only subject that I would pursue further, is this conquest and conversion of these peoples by a grab back of German, Danish, Dutch and Swedish knights, priests and kings.

  North devotes a chapter to each historical period, and the basic fact to understand is that the cultural area of the Baltic was German speaking until the 20th century, despite the rise of Sweden, Russia and the Baltic states themselves.  This German heritage has been occluded by a number of forces- you have groups like the Swedish and Russians who are interested in establishing their own cultural bonafides on the world stage and the Baltic states themselves, where the tides of 20th century history forcibly removed the German influence.

  On a grand scale, the 15th and 16th centuries were relative times of peace (but plague filled) and the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were incredibly bloody and destructive.  Cultural currents were large and slow moving, and you can talk about Baltic Romanticism and Baltic Folk-Nationalism but not much else.  One surprise that emerges is the absence of direct French, English, Italian or Spanish influence.  These are the major players in almost any broad history of Europe, and it is a shock to read about an area where their influence was almost entirely filtered through Dutch, German and Scandinavian influences.  Thus, when you talk about a "Baltic Renaissance" you are talking about the Dutch Renaissance.   Modernist ideas come from Scandinavian architecture and furniture making.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Speedy (1928) d. Ted Wilde

Speedy (1928), Harold Lloyd's last silent film.

Movie Review
Speedy (1928)
 d. Ted Wilde
Criterion Collection #788
DVD release 12/8/15

   This was the last silent Harold Lloyd film, and it is his love letter to New York City.  Speedy is a typical New Yorker, trying to make his way up the ladder of success through a series of low paying jobs that he can't keep for more than a day.  Lloyd's "glasses" character was as American as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp was global, and his presence in New York City makes engaging viewing.  Speedy is also helped by a digital 4k restoration and a newish soundtrack from 1992.

   If ever there was a service where I would pay for a stand alone source of entertainment, it would be for a subscription to the Criterion Collection.  It seems like the audience for that service would positively dwarf the audience for the DVD's.  It is very clear why Criterion chooses to withhold so many titles from the Hulu channel- either they don't have the streaming rights, or they don't want to compromise sales.  Personally, I'd like to see them leave the DVD's behind, and act as a subscription streaming channel.

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