Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons

Kate Beckinsale played Flora Poste in the successful film version of Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibson

      Book Review
Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
by Stella Gibbons

   In an era of literature saturated with satire, Cold Comfort Farm is a parody.  Gibbons was a professional journalist tasked with summarizing prior episodes from a Mary Webb serial in the periodical that was serializing Webbs work.  Webb was like the last representative of the gloomy Victorian romance typified by Thomas Hardy.  By Webb's time, the formula of the sad rural romance was popular enough to support both Webb and a parody- Cold Comfort Farm was an immediate popular success and its commercial popularity essentially ruined Gibbons later attempts to establish herself as a "serious" novelist.

  Although Mary Webb may have been the immediate target of Gibbons parody, any contemporary reader will be more reminded of Thomas Hardy- since no one reads Mary Webb today.  D.H. Lawrence, or rather his fans, are also a target but he is restricted to influencing one of the characters. Flora Poste herself and the basic structure of the plot reference the popular romantic rural genre of the time, but probably will remind the modern reader of Emma by Jane Austen, with Poste in the same vein of the self satisfied officious meddler in human affairs.

  Probably the most famous line in the entire book is Aunt Ada Dooms famous line, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."  That phrase has entered English as a generic idiom for a hideous secret memory, though for the record the reader never learns what Aunt Doom actually saw in the woodshed, nor what terrible famous secret makes Flora's Aunt Judith feel compelled to host her after the untimely death of Poste's parents at the beginning of the novel.

  Unlike much of the satire from the early part of the 20th century, Cold Comfort Farm is genuinely funny, whether or not you have familiarity with the works being parodied.  The fact that it has survived even as the underlying books have faded from memory is the strongest argument in favor of Cold Comfort Farm  belonging in the 1001 Books Project/literary canon.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Muslim Conquest of Central Asia

This Map shows the path of the Muslim invasion of Central Asia.  The Muslim armies were led by Arabs and had Persian officer corps.  The state-lets of Central Asia had mostly Turkish overlords and Iranian related populations. The Muslim histories tend to discuss it as Arabs vs. Turks, but it was really mixed Arab/Persians vs. Turk/Iranians

The Muslim Conquest of Central Asia

Book Review
The Arab Conquests of Central Asia
by H.A.R. Gibb
originally published 1923
reprint by AMS Press 1970

   The Muslim invasion of Central Asia basically lasted from 645 A.D to 711 A.D.  The invading armies were led by Arabs from the Saudi peninsula but used officers and regular soldiers from Persia.  The situation in Central Asia prior to the invasion was muddled: basically a set of independent city state/oasis type polities who were being invaded and conquered by Turks prior to the invasion.  Some of the city states had maintained their Iranian leadership, but may have used Turkish mercenaries.  To the East, the Chinese were pressing north of the Central Asian city states, but they effectively cut off any potential help from Turks from the North.

  The invading Muslim armies gave people the basic, "Submit or die" pitch. The various city states resisted with various degrees of success.  The first phase of invasion was led by Qutayba, the Arab general from Medina.  Qutayba's conquests are summarized by Gibb:

1.  705 AD: The recovery o Lower Turkestan(Tukharistan in the text)
2.  From 706 AD- 709 AD: The conquest of Bukhara.
3.  From 710 to 712: Consolidation of Arab authority in the Oxus valley and its extension into Sughd.
4.  From 713 to 715: Expeditions into the Jaxarates provinces.

    Qutayba was killed by his own troops after he had an overly confident reaction to a change in power at the heart of Umayyad Empire.  It's fair to say that due to his roots in the movement (he was there at Medina) he thought he was bigger than the Empire at the End, and that was his downfall.  After his death there was a twenty five year period of retrenchment and counter attack from the Turkish princes of the area.

  The Turks went down eventually, then China lost interest in funding rebellion against the Arabs, and the situation settled down to the status quo that would be encountered by Genghis Khan and his invading armies almost 500 years later.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda Last in a film version of A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

Book Review
A Handful of Dust (1934)
 by Evelyn Waugh

  A Handful of Dust is the third book by Evelyn Waugh in the 1001 Books Project, and the only one I would recommend to someone else to read. Neither Decline and Fall (1928) nor Vile Bodies (1930) made much of an impression on me.  In fact, prior to reading A Handful of Dust I had to go back and look at the wikipedia entries for both books so I could remember the plot details of each work.

 While still in the vein of light satire that he established as the overriding tone in the first two books, A Handful of Dust packs a heavier wallop, with a plot that includes infidelity, divorce, the tragic death of a young child, and protagonist Tony Last finding himself held captive in the Amazon rain forest by a deranged settler who forces him to endlessly re-read Charles Dickens out loud.  Last is an English country gentleman, married to the feckless Brenda.  In the early chapters of the book, Brenda embarks on a reckless affair with "idle parasite" John Beavers.  Like all of Waughs works so far, sympathetic characters are hard to find.

  Tony Last behaves as a passive non entity from first to...last.  His wife is inexplicably motivated to pursue a young man who seems to barely tolerate her.  Her young son, also named John, is killed by a kick to the head from a horse while she is away from their country home.  When she is told by a friend, her first thought is to thank god that it is her son, and not her lover, who is deceased.  AND THAT is all you need to know about the character of Brenda Last.

  After Brenda announces she is done with their marriage, Tony duly goes through the necessary arrangements that precede a divorce in post-World War I England, then backs out when he is informed that Brenda intends to ask for thousands a month in alimony.  He decamps for the Amazon on a whim with a professor who is searching for a lost city.  The trip is a nightmare, his companion dies, and he ends up essentially imprisoned by a deranged settler of English background.

  Brenda is left to her own devices and ends up both poor and apparently single, as the repulsive Beavers is unwilling to wed her without her ex husbands money.  It's a sad ending, and a sad novel. Unlike his first two books, A Handful of Dust is more directly based on his personal experience- his young wife left him, and he himself went to the Amazon, and I think that personal experience gives A Handful of Dust some depth compared to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies.

Monday, December 08, 2014

New Release: The Struggle for Pakistan by Ayesha Jalal

This map shows the provinces of Pakistan: Punjab and Sindh are the big ones, and of course the Azad Kashmir area is controlled by India, not Pakistan,  Balochistan, Kyyber and the tribal zones (FATA) are the hinterlands.

New Release: Book Review
 The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics
 by Ayesha Jalal
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Published September 16th, 2014

   Educated Americans probably know a few things about Pakistan: that it's a Muslim state, located in Asia, next to India, Bin Laden was hiding there.  If you are one of the few Americans who takes an active interest in South Asia, you might know a name or too: Bhutto, Musharraf, Zia.  You might know that they have nuclear weapons or that they've been engaged in a protracted border dispute with India over Kashmir for the past half century plus.  Beyond that...maybe some of the history behind the British partition of the sub-continent that led to the creation of Pakistan itself.  Beyond that, I'd bet nothing, unless you either trace your ancestry back to south Asia or have some kind of formal education about the region in your background.

 Considering the amount of tax dollars that we spend on Pakistan, and of course taking into account the proximity of Pakistan to Afghanistan, it seems like a succinct and critical history of Pakistan would be easy to find, but not so.   The Struggle for Pakistan is a readable 300 page history of Pakistan, written by a tenured American professor of history of Pakistani origin.  I'm assuming from her source material that she speaks Urdu.   And while The Struggle for Pakistan isn't a magisterial thousand page opus, it is readable and comprehensible to anyone with an interest and familiarity with the field of twentieth century history.

  It's clear that Ayesha Jalal has the perspective of a Western trained history professor but the background of someone who comes from Pakistan (and perhaps has ties to the liberal/intelligentsia class of the urban areas of Pakistan via friends and family?)  The main irony of Pakistan's existence, as Jalal renders perfectly clear (without being over judgmental) is that Pakistan was created as an explicitly Muslim state by liberal internationalists who were both Western educated and less religiously Muslim than culturally Muslim.  For these founders, Islam was a tool to be utilized to control an ill-educated, unruly, divided country with no other national tradition.

  The weakness of Islam as the organizing principle for a state that originally comprised today's Pakistan (West Pakistan) and Bangladesh (East Pakistan) is best illustrated by the succession of East Pakistan from West Pakistan in 1971.  This humiliating episode saw the Bengali speaking Muslims of East Pakistan simply walk away from West Pakistan with hardly a shot fired in anger. As told by Jalal, the period between 1947 and 1971 was anything but a nation of united Muslims singing kum ba ya around the campfire, rather the elites of Western Pakistan saw East Pakistan as a region of 'blacks' who needed to be controlled and brought to heel (despite East Pakistan having a larger population than West Pakistan.)

  Jalal is not a disciple of "bottom up" history and The Struggle for Pakistan is classic high political history.  With its roughly alternating periods of military dictatorship and civilian rule (with the Bhutto family making multiple and multi-generational appearances in the narrative) the history of Pakistan is admirably suited for this type of history, and by the end you will have a familiarity with all the leaders of Pakistan.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah is the George Washington of Pakistan, and is also like, more English than the English themselves.

  Mohammad Ali Jinnah plays the role of George Washington. He was Western oriented, a secularist, but totally instrumental in the creation of Pakistan itself.  Jalal makes the point that the decision to pursue a separate state meant that Jinnah strategically abandoned the close to half a billion Muslims who would be living inside the partitioned India.  This choice led to a great deal of heartache (and murder) in the days, weeks and months after the partition.
Ayub Khan was the first of several Pakistani military dictators. It's important to understand that the people of Pakistan had a dissprortiantely large role in the army of the Indian English state, and when Pakistan split they had a disproportionately large number of English trained, English educated military personnel.  Pakistan's identity as a military state came from that inherited English tradition, and manifested itself in a quasi-colonial attitude towards the Bengals in East Pakistan (Bangladesh.)

  The first military coup in Pakistan was in 1958 with Ayub Khan assuming control until 1969.  Ayub was succeeded by Yahya Khan, a Shia Muslim in a Sunni country, and Yahya Khan was deposed in 1971 after the dramatic military collapse in Eastern Pakistan.  He was succeeded by Zulifkar Ali Bhutto, a civilian, and a Western educated, socialist/liberal who also saw the political benefit in espousing adherence to Islamic principles as a way of generating popularity among the electorate.

  Bhutto was deposed in 1977 by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.  "Zia" as he was known, ruled until he died in a plane crash in 1988.  Like Bhutto, he was Western leaning and cognizant of the importance of using Sunni Islam as a unifying force in a fractious country.  Unlike Bhutto he was not a socialist, and more firmly oriented towards the West and used the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to cement Pakistan's status as a staunch Cold War ally of the United States.

  During the 70s and 80s, the Saudis exported their strict Wahhabi brand of Islam.  Strapped for cash, and welcoming foreign investment (and foreign aid), the Pakistani military allowed Saudi sponsored schools to take root inside Pakistan.  These schools trained the core of what would, in time, become both the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

  Jalal emphasizes points of continuity between the alternating civilian and military governments: Whichever elite that is in control has benefited financially from their time at the top.  There has been a near constant solicitation of foreign favor, whether it be from the West, the Middle East or China because of high expenditures of defense and low rates of effective tax collection.  Constantly being a position of weakness has the effect of creating a culture of belligerence within Pakistan, and this belligerence is cultivated by whichever elite is in power to distract people from its own incompetence.

  After Zia died, Pakistan flipped back to civilian control, with Nawar Sharif running the country as Prime Minister until 2001, when Pervez Musharraf led another military coup and stayed in power until 2008.  Since then it has been all democratic.  I was left with the distinct impression that the Government- military and civilian has done little but maintain a world class-ish military and enrich itself through graft for the last half century.  If they have done anything besides that, Jalal did not bring it up.  There is no discussion of infrastructure projects or economic development schemes.

 I couldn't tell you what Pakistan's largest important is, or what the second largest sector of their economy is after agriculture.  I know that they have one port city- Karachi- which sounds like a fun place to hang out.  The main provinces are Punjab and Sindh, with Baluchistan and Khyber as the hinterland and the North West territories being a lawless badlands.   The internal dynamic of Pakistan is Punjab as the "center" in terms of population and influence, Sindh as a junior partner and the rest of the territory as populations to be managed.  Baluchistan has been in a more or less constant state of rebellion since the beginning of Pakistan itself, and it is the case today. And the Northwest territories are probably the part that most Americans are familiar with because of the presence of the Taliban.

  Thus, Jalal's book will give you the central narrative of Pakistan's political history, but not much of  a take on the people or culture- the bottom so to speak.  Still, the omission of that material is what makes The Struggle for Pakistan interesting to a general audience, so it's hard to quibble.

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