Epitaph of a Small Winner* by Machado de Assis

I’ve already read a book from Brazil for the Read The World challenge, but I really enjoyed this so I thought I’d add it to the blog-pile.

I can’t remember why I picked this up, but I *really* enjoyed it. It’s a C19th novel which is ‘surprisingly modern’ — in scare quotes because that seems to be the default description and I don’t disagree, but I’m slightly uneasy about using ‘modern’ as a term of praise or even description.

It’s ‘modern’ because it’s written from the perspective of a dead man who makes lots of authorial asides, in a generally light tone, broken up into very short chapters (mostly less than a page), with self-referential stuff and intertextual commentary. In other words, it plays with form more than most C19th novels. But rather than comparing it to the modernists and post-modernists, it seems just as natural to refer back; not just to the inevitable Tristram Shandy, but things like Tom Jones and Byron’s Don Juan, which both have ‘authorial’ asides and interjections.

Anyway, that kind of quibbling aside: the application of the style to a very solidly C19th plot, about the lives and loves of the upper-middle classes, worked brilliantly for me. It was apparently just what I needed.

*A note on the title: in Portuguese it’s actually called Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, and some English translations give it the same title: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. I can’t really see why they felt the need to change it for this translation†, and it’s also bloody annoying when you’re shopping for a copy until you realise that it’s all the same novel, but there you go.

†A 1950s one by William S Grossman, incidentally.

21 Immortals by Rozlan Mohd Noor and Ripples by Shih-Li Kow

These are a couple of books from Malaysia which I read for the Read The World challenge, both picked because I thought they would make a change compared to some of what I read for the challenge. For a start, they’re both contemporary works, rather than the 20, 30, 40 year old books I often end up reading. And 21 Immortals: Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders is a crime novel, while Ripples and other stories is, obviously, a books of short stories.

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21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Ripples is more my usual thing: more ‘literary’, anyway. The stories are interlinked, each picking up some detail or character from the story before, and they are surprisingly varied in style: some are low key stories about the details of everyday life, others have more overtly dramatic subjects or are fantastical tales. Not all of them are equally successful, but there was plenty here to keep me reading, at least. At least with short stories, if you don’t like one much, there’s always another one along in a minute. And if this review seems a bit vague and non-commital: well, the truth is that it has been a few days since I finished Ripples; and although I quite liked it while I was reading it, it didn’t leave a profound impression.

So, slightly underwhelming choices for Malaysia, but hey-ho, on to the next thing.

» ‘Summer Storm over Kuala Lumpur’ is © Trey Ratcliff and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

London Film Festival debrief, 2013

So, I saw five films this year. Some quick notes:

Story of my Death [Història de la meva mort].

The LFF said:

Albert Serra’s teasing period-piece sees Casanova and Dracula meeting as Enlightenment reason gives way to the dangerous passions of the Romantic era.

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Which sounded like it might be fun, if perhaps a bit silly. Maybe a trifle camp. In fact it was surprisingly boring.

I like the fact that artier films can allow themselves to be a bit slow-paced, and a use longer takes and longer shots: if nothing else it makes a change from the freneticness of commercial cinema. But allowing yourself to be leisurely, and give the characters room to breathe, doesn’t mean that every scene has to be like that, that every shot has to carry on for several seconds longer than necessary. And if you are going to make a film like that, and it ends up being nearly two and a half hours long, it starts to feel a little bit self-indulgent.

The director said in the Q&A afterwards that he’d never seen any genre films because he wasn’t interested in them, which explained why his handling of the Dracula scenes was so artless; artless mainly in a bad way.

On the positive side: it often looked good, and among the completely amateur Catalan cast, Casanova in particular was excellent.

Portrait of Jason

The LFF said:

Shirley Clarke’s cinéma-vérité masterpiece about a gay African-American cabaret performer and prostitute revealingly restored.

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This is a black and white documentary from 1967; Jason Holliday is interviewed in his apartment about his life as a house boy, prostitute, hustler and would-be cabaret performer as he gets steadily drunk and stoned. He is the only person we see; he replies to questions from off-camera and spins yarns which may or may not be strictly true. It’s very rough-looking; the restorer spent years looking for a good quality print before finding that what was marked as out-takes in the archive was in fact the edited film, which is complete with conversations between the director and the cameraman, moments when the screen goes black, shots out of focus and so on. But apparently there are pages and pages of editing notes to prove that this is a very carefully crafted version of roughness.

I enjoyed it, Jason is a fascinating, charming and rather tragic figure, and the style is interesting too.

My Fathers, My Mother and Me

Paul-Julien Robert’s quietly devastating documentary revisits the former residents of the experimental 1970s free-love commune in which he grew up.

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Paul-Julien Robert didn’t know who his biological father was until he was 12, in 1991, when the Friedrichshof commune was dissolved and as part of the fall-out the various children were given blood tests to determine paternity. In this documentary, he talks to his mother, to the various men who were potential fathers, and to the other children who lived there with him. It is fascinating stuff, especially because the leader of the commune, Otto Muehl, was obsessed with documenting the life there, so the interviews are intercut with lots and lots of footage of the commune in action.

It starts out seeming fun and quirky; slightly bonkers, but free-spirited, well-meaning and optimistic as well. But it gets steadily darker, as it gradually becomes clear that a free-love commune built on the eradication of the nuclear family is not in fact a great environment for raising children. Not, at least, if it is being run by a controlling egomaniac.

It’s fascinating on all sorts of levels, not least the disconnect between the adults’ experience of the commune and the children’s. Apparently it was only really when making the film that he felt able to talk openly about his childhood, and there are some particularly painful conversations with his mother.

Grigris

A Chadian street photographer’s romantic interest in a would-be model lands him in a murky criminal underworld in this smart thriller.

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To be pedantic about it, he’s not actually a ‘street photographer’ as I would understand it; he’s not taking candid shots of urban life. He takes photos for ID cards and the like. He’s also a nightclub dancer with a withered leg.

The thriller-y bits could have been edited a bit more snappily, perhaps, but basically I enjoyed this. It usually looks good, it has plenty of plot, which is sometimes a bit lacking at the kind of films I tend to go to at the festival, and the central performances are good. And a pretty girl and some good dance sequences.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas [Η Αιώνια Επιστροφή Του Αντώνη Παρασκευά]

A dark satire on current Greek woes that sees a failing TV personality stage his own kidnapping, only to start to unravel as he holds himself hostage.

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This is an almost silent film. Paraskevas is holed up in an empty hotel alone while the world thinks he has been kidnapped, and for most of the film the only dialogue is from the TV news and videos he is watching. He is already perhaps a little unstable to have thought this was a good idea, but the solitude pushes him further over the edge and the initially comic tone turns darker.

It’s genuinely funny in the funny bits, and the turn to the dark works as well. There are perhaps a couple of mis-steps along the way, but generally I really liked it. Christos Stergioglou is great in the central role; there’s an almost Buster Keaton quality to the way he manages to be silently expressive with a mournful and impassive face.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

This is a grim but fascinating book. Obviously I knew that black people in the southern states of the US had a pretty rough time of it in the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, what with disenfranchisement and segregation and lynching. But I didn’t appreciate that slavery re-emerged and continued right up to the 1940s.

How it worked was this: a black man would be arrested and charged with some minor offence like vagrancy or carrying a concealed weapon, and ordered to pay a fine plus costs, which would be more than they could afford. Their debt would then be paid off by a company or an individual, and the black man would be sent to work off the money he ‘owed’.

And even that legal process was a complete sham, so the effect was that any black man could, at any time, be picked up off the streets and sold into forced labour on plantations or in coal mines or whatever, where they would be shackled, kept in appalling conditions, thrashed regularly, and if they tried to escape they would be hunted down with dogs. And if they had nominally worked off the debt they owed, their ‘masters’ could always claim they had incurred costs and extend their time at will — not that anyone seems to have been checking the paperwork anyway.

I suppose what I found so shocking is that this isn’t just analogous to slavery: it’s the full slavery experience. There’s even an argument that these men were treated even worse than antebellum slaves, because at least those slaves were valuable assets that their owners could sell or use as collateral for loans. The debt slaves were effectively rented rather than owned, and it was no particular financial loss to their renters if they died. And die they did, particularly in the mines, by their dozens.

There were many thousands of African Americans living in these kinds of explicit forced labour; and that is on top of the much larger number living as sharecroppers and similar exploitative arrangements.

It makes for interesting, depressing reading. And it provokes all kinds of thoughts about power and race and America and so on, but one broad conclusion I would pick out is this: major societal change is hard and slow. Perhaps the situation could have changed faster, with more political will from the North and the federal government, but there was no enthusiasm for another huge internal conflict on the subject of race, and the one serious attempt to crack down on forced labour petered out as the scale of the problem became clear.

But even with all the political will in the world, it would surely have taken decades to normalise the situation of black people in the south as full citizens. Which is something we should bear in mind when we blithely talk about intervening in other countries with enormously entrenched social problems.

Another thought that occurs to me: it’s kind of interesting that Washington DC has a holocaust museum rather than a slavery museum. There’s nothing wrong with a holocaust museum — they could have both! — but it does seem like it might be easier to confront the horrors of a a great sin and a great tragedy when they happen in another country rather than your own.

And that in turn provokes a line of thought about my own country’s history, and to what extent the British have come to terms with the murkier implications of having been an empire. But that will have to wait for another day, I think.

Para Vasco: poemas da Guiné-Bissau / For Vasco: poems from Guinea-Bissau

This is my book from Guinea-Bissau for the Read The World challenge. Although ‘book’ is almost overselling it; it’s a pamphlet really. A total of twelve poems by nine poets, and even with an introduction, acknowledgements and the poems in both English and Portuguese, it’s only 44 pages.

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But the choices were limited; the only real alternative was a book of the collected speeches and writings of Amílcar Cabral, the politician and guerrilla leader who campaigned for independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Which probably would have been interesting, but I took the cheaper, lazier option and bought this instead.

There are some strong thematic threads running through the poems: the forest, freedom fighters, saudade, eroticised women, slavery, nationalism. If I had been told they were all written by the same poet over a long period, that wouldn’t surprise me; although there may be stylistic differences that are flattened out in translation.

Presumably that thematic similarity is at least partially an artefact of the selection process. But apparently the country’s intellectual tradition grew out of politics: the book is dedicated to Vasco Cabral* ‘who has been called the first Guinean intellectual’ and who, as well as being a poet, was freedom fighter, political prisoner and then government minister of the independent Guinea-Bissau. And in the forty years since independence (almost exactly: the anniversary is the Tuesday after next) there has been a civil war, so the theme of political violence hasn’t lost its relevance.

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As always with parallel texts, it was interesting to see some of the translation decisions, even without knowing any Portuguese. For example, one poem was broken up at different points in the English from the original — i.e. the white space appeared a couple of lines later in the translation — which seems weirdly arbitrary, but it would be fascinating to hear the reasoning behind it.

Anyway, it was worth reading, I think; some of the poems worked better than others, in translation at least, with Hélder Proença the pick of the bunch.

*no relation to Amílcar, as far as I can tell.

» The top image is of the Buba river in Guinea-Bissau. It’s from the US Geological Survey and therefore public domain. The second is of Vasco Cabral at the UN-OAU Oslo conference on Southern Africa (i.e. on apartheid), in his role as Administrative Secretary of the African Party for the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), six months before independence in 1973. It is © the UN and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

Mirabella and the Pearl of Chulothe by Laila Al Bellucci

This is my book from Oman for the Read The World challenge. It’s a YA fantasy novel set in an English boarding school, so it’s a slightly odd choice for my purposes; but there weren’t many good alternatives, and it was cheap on kindle, so I thought I might as well read it.

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It’s not very good. For a start it’s unoriginal; that isn’t a disaster in itself, but the book’s other weaknesses are its prose style, plotting, characterisation, world-building, atmosphere, and dialogue. It’s even very badly edited.

Yes, (Saudi) Minister! A Life in Administration by Ghazi Algosaibi

This is my book from Saudi Arabia for the Read The World challenge. I was looking for Saudi novels, and found Algosaibi because, as well as being a government minister and then ambassador, he wrote poetry and novels; one of which, An Apartment Called Freedom, was translated into English. What intrigued me enough to buy this memoir is that some of his books were banned in Saudi Arabia, including An Apartment Called Freedom — which was published while he was the Saudi ambassador to the UK and Ireland, a post he continued in for another 8 years.

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That’s a weird situation, right? I guess it’s not necessarily actively hypocritical to keep serving a government which has banned one of your books, but there is certainly a tension there. So, that was intriguing, as I say.

And I just thought it might be interesting to read an insiders’ view of what is after all a very unusual country: one of the last full-blown monarchies, a virtual theocracy, a regional superpower, a brutally oppressive state given unswerving support by the US, the home of the holiest places in one of the world’s great religions, a sparsely populated desert state that became wealthy very quickly by an accident of geology.

Unfortunately, this book was written with his civil servant/diplomat hat on, and it is a very civil, very diplomatic memoir which confines itself strictly to his professional life and fastidiously avoids anything too controversial. Many of the aspects of Saudi society that seem intriguing to an outsider are completely ignored: the treatment of women, for example. And he doesn’t even mention the banning of his own books. I suspect the bans were more symbolic than real for the kind of elite circles he moved in: any of his chums who wanted to read them could just pick up a copy when they were out of the country. But even that symbolism is interesting, and it would have been interesting to read what he had to say about it.

Still, it was about as readable and interesting as one could hope for from the professional memoir of a technocrat. It’s written in a lively manner with plenty of (suitably tame) anecdotes, and although it comes across as slightly self-serving, I can believe he was a genuinely effective administrator: hard-working and pragmatic, keen to be well-informed, careful to keep in contact with the end users of whichever project he was running, whether railways or electrification or the health service.

Not everything I hoped for, then, but quite interesting.

» ‘Suspension Bridge, Wadi Laban, Riyadh’ is © KhanSaqib and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène

This is a novel from 1960 about the railway workers’ strike on the Niger-Dakar railway 13 years earlier.

When I said in my Read The World challenge status update that I’d read 16½ books this year, this was the half book; it has taken me rather a long time to finish. Mainly I think that’s because it is written in rather a high style. Elaborate descriptions, speechifying and a general tone of Serious Business.

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I’m always wary of commenting on prose style for books read in translation, but it reads like a conscious attempt to present the strike as an epic struggle — which indeed it is, featuring a large cast of characters in a many month confrontation with the company and the colonial power, involving a riot, speeches, a trial, a protest march, police brutality, starvation, trickery, and murder, all in a serious cause which is at its root the assertion of the human dignity of the African workers. So the style is not inappropriate; but it’s not particularly to my taste.

Still, it’s an interesting and impressive novel, even if I wasn’t always grabbed by it. Perhaps i’ve just read too much post-colonial fiction recently.

There are certainly lots of good things about it; it’s often vivid and atmospheric, for a start. I liked the prominence of female characters who are not just defined by their relationships to men, but take an active role in the strike. I think it probably deserves a more enthusiastic response than I’m giving it; but hey-ho.

Sembène was also a film director, and while trying to sort out what his name was (the edition I read had ‘Sembène Ousmane’ but everywhere else seems to use Ousmane Sembène’) I found there was a book of interviews with him about film, which might have made a more interesting choice for Senegal for the Read The World challenge. Or not, of course.

» The photo is of people playing football in front of the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar; it’s © Jeff Attaway and used under a CC attribution licence.

Read The World challenge: status report, 2013

As of August 1st, I’ve been reading my way round the world for five years and I’m at 135 countries accounted for — or 99 books read since I started (99½, actually). You can check the map here.

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Which means I’ve read 16 (and a half!) this year. Which is down from the rate I managed at first — 53 in the first two years — but about in line with what I’ve done since. So at least I haven’t slowed down even more. Or stopped altogether.

None of those 16 were absolutely stand-out classics, but there are several I can recommend if they sound like the kind of thing that would interest you:

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is well-written, interesting and informative. It’s becoming ever less topical as the situation in Syria moves on; but as long as we have dictatorships, the subject of life as a dissident in a (wobbling, unstable) police state is still going to have relevance.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner is a book that tells a remarkable story, of a man who survived the Khmer Rouge and ended up winning an Oscar for his performance in a film about it.

Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi is yet another book about dictatorship, this time a dark, strange, poetic novel which I thought was very worth reading.

And not recommendations exactly, but a few books which stand out in my memory because of their subject matter rather than their literary qualities: 88 Days (Somali piracy), The Chronicles of Dathra (Kuwaiti chick-lit, sort of), and African Philosophy (African philosophy).

» Cupid Shooting Arrows at the World Globe is attributed to Otto van Veen and apparently 1608ish. From the Met.

African Philosophy: Myth & Reality by Paulin J. Hountondji

This is my book from Benin for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it because I fancied a change from post-colonial fiction, and then regretted it almost immediately; I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about philosophy as a discipline.

Actually, though, I found it interesting and it really did make a nice change. It was first published, as Sur la “philosophie africaine”, in 1976, and is largely framed as a response to earlier works in the field. So it provides an interesting window into a discussion I knew nothing about.

Obviously it’s a narrow window, entirely shaped by Hountondji’s framing, and I don’t have the knowledge to judge how fair and accurate his presentation is. But it still offers an insight into something that would otherwise have passed me by.

The tradition he is arguing with is a kind of ethnological idea of philosophy, where for example, Bantu cultural ideas about death and morality and what have you were investigated, arranged into a system, and then presented as ‘Bantu philosophy’. Hountondji argues that this is not only a misapplication of the word ‘philosophy’ but a damaging one. Rather, ‘African philosophy’ should refer to philosophical works written by Africans; the same thing, in fact, as philosophy from anywhere else.

I was very much predisposed to agree with this argument: so much so that I felt the need to step back every so often and play devil’s advocate. Not because I had any long-standing opinions about African philosophy, of which I was completely ignorant, but because I have a long-standing peeve about the vague, hand-wavy way people use the word ‘philosophy’. It’s rather like ‘poetry’ in that respect.

Still, you can understand the impulse that led people to things like ‘Bantu philosophy’. Given the context of colonialism, there is/was a value in any assertion that Africans are capable of interesting thought that is distinct from that brought by colonialists and worthy of study in its own right.

Whereas if you insist on the narrow definition of philosophy, then there is almost no African philosophical tradition; certainly very little ‘authentically African’ philosophy that precedes or is separate from the stuff brought over by Europeans. That’s just an artefact of an oral society. It’s perfectly possible to do philosophy without writing it down — it was good enough for Socrates — but it doesn’t survive; we only know about Socrates because of Plato.

But things like ‘Bantu philosophy’ are a bad solution to that problem. Firstly, because it perpetuates the idea that Africa is so exotic/primitive/whatever that all our approach to it must be through an ethnographic lens, just as African sculptures end up in a different museum to the Picassos and Modiglianis that they inspired.

One result of that is that it strips away any sense of individual creativity: those African sculptures get labelled with a tribe and a place, and not the name of the individual sculptor. Similarly, ‘folktales’ get stripped down to a simple one-page version based on what the researcher thinks is the kernel, and both the name and the creativity of the individual storyteller get lost. Which of course is pretty much the opposite of how we treat poets, artists and philosophers in our own culture, where if anything we are overly obsessed with the idea of individual genius.

And lastly, the very process of taking a lot of different sources — traditional stories, received opinion, religious ideas — and systematising them into a coherent philosophy is itself pretty dubious. Hountondji argues, I think correctly, that the systematiser is imposing his own ideas far more than he is revealing something which is there already.

All this stuff is no doubt old news to people in the field, but I found it interesting to read about.

In the second half of the book, Hountondji looks at some case studies. I have to admit, I skipped over most of the stuff about Anton-Wilhelm Amo: he’s an interesting figure, an African from what is now Ghana who somehow ended up teaching philosophy in German universities in the 1730s, but his surviving dissertations are minor contributions to the debate between the vitalists and the mechanists; I have no idea what that means, and frankly I don’t care enough about C18th philosophy to try to make sense of it.

But I did read Hountondji’s analyses of Kwame Nkrumah’s thought, which was rather more interesting, not least for some second-hand insight into another set of arguments about which I was ignorant: about class, colonialism, capitalism, Africanism and so on.

» The videos are because, well, I don’t have many immediate associations with Benin, and  pictures of bronze plaques from the British Museum felt a bit inappropriate given the subject, so the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou seemed like as good a choice as any. Although do check those plaques out, if you’ve never seen them.

The Blue Sky: A Novel by Galsan Tschinag

A book from the perspective of the youngest child of a family of nomadic Tuvan sheep herders in Mongolia. Apparently it’s the first book of an autobiographical trilogy,* along with The Gray Earth and The White Mountain.

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It’s set in the communist Mongolia of the 40s, although the politics is something remote in this book: both because the family is literally remote from the centres of power, and because it is seen through the eyes of a child, for whom it is much less important than the day to day life with the sheep. Still, the influence hangs over them: the father has been assigned quotas he has to meet, in wool and wolf hides and other things, that interfere with the proper management of the herd; the older siblings are taken away to be educated in town; and even the idea of becoming a prosperous farmer is dangerous because it risks being labelled a kulak.

Apparently the conflict between communism and the traditional way of life features more directly in the next volume, when the boy goes to school. Which actually sounds like a more interesting subject to me, so perhaps I’ll pick up a copy at some point.

Most of the book is from the very narrow perspective of a small child: his world is barely wider than his extended family and their cluster of yurts. So the book is about family dynamics: the tension between his father and uncles, the boy’s relationship with his parents, his grandmother and his dog; and about the details of daily life: the food, the sheep, the landscape, the weather.

All of which is interesting in a cultural/ethnographical sort of way; more importantly, it’s well written and evocative.

The Blue Sky was translated from the original German by Katharina Rout. It is my book from Mongolia for the Read The World challenge.

* That’s the author’s own description. But the book is also described as a ‘novel’. So I don’t know what the balance of autobiography and fiction is.

» The photo, ‘typical summer day’, is © Kit Seeborg and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

iTunes 11 for Mac running at 100% CPU when just playing music

Just in case this saves anyone else a few minutes of boring googling: the solution was to log out of the iTunes store and log back in again.

Details:

iTunes on Mountain Lion was being very unresponsive and beachballing, despite not apparently doing anything except playing music, and Activity Monitor said it was using 100% of one of the CPUs.

The CPU activity would drop right down when I stopped the music and jump up again when I restarted it. After searching around on the Apple support forums, I saw the suggestion to log out of my iTunes Store account; it seemed unlikely to work, since I didn’t have the store open… but it did. And I was able to log in again without the problem returning (yet! *crosses fingers*). Hope this helps someone.

The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait by Danderma

Part of the point of the Read the World challenge was to read things that would never have found normally. The Chronicles of Dathra certainly fits that description; it is self-published Kuwaiti chick-lit. According to the blurb:

Dathra is the story of a kind hearted pretty girl from Kuwait whose qualities are hidden beneath her excessive layers of fat and shabby fashion sense. Dathra, like everyone else, is trying to live her life to the fullest and find love. Only her insatiable appetite and irresistible cravings are getting in her way and subjecting her to the scrutiny of a society where looks are everything.

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It feels like it’s aiming to be Bridget Jones’s Diary; but Bridget Jones is a basically healthy woman who wants to be a bit thinner but doesn’t have the commitment to diet properly, whereas Dathra is dangerously overweight and has an unhealthy psychological relationship with food. She lies to leave work early because she has a food craving; she eats enormous amounts when she’s upset; she has aggressive public tantrums when she can’t get the food she wants; she breaks up an engagement because of a disagreement over food; she puts herself into hospital by overeating.

So there’s some tonal weirdness going on, as the book comes across as darker and stranger than I think it means to. The book seems to have the same lack of self-awareness that it makes fun of in Dathra; neither of them are quite coming across in the way they intend. Or perhaps I’ve misjudged the author’s intentions completely.

It made an interesting change, anyway. Presumably there is an enormous variety of fiction being published all around the world all the time: thrillers, romances, sci-fi, chick-lit, and for that matter all kinds of literary fiction. But the tiny sliver of it that ever makes it into English translation — and few countries even have one book translated per decade — tends to all be much the same: serious, important, highbrow, and almost always political. Which is frustrating. This at least is a book written in the last few years about everyday life for wealthy but otherwise ordinary Kuwaitis.

» The photo, ‘McDonald’s Drive Thru – Surra, Kuwait’, is © Samira/Mink and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi

This is my book from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the Read The World challenge (which was still the Belgian Congo when Sony Lab’ou Tansi was born and was Zaire when he died).

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It is yet another book about dictatorship — a sequence of dictatorships in this case, each as violent and capricious as the one before. From the very first scene, in which a man refuses to die even as his body is hacked into ever smaller pieces in front of his family, it is unremittingly brutal and full of impossible things. It is, um, mythic? symbolic? surreal? I suppose you could call it magical realism, except I don’t think it fits in the realist tradition at all.

As I say, it is about a sequence of dictators, and one of the striking aspects of the book is the sense of violence just spawning more violence. So in the first few chapters it is focussed on a handful of protagonists and it seems like it is about violence, politics and revenge on that personal level. But then they die and the focus moves on to the next generation, but it still seems like a family story; then it moves on again, and again, and everything that seemed specific and personal — all the particular details and motivations — increasingly just seem to be part of the pattern.

It’s dark, poetic and certainly worth reading.

» The photo, of ‘President Mobutu at a parade of the “Corps des Volontaires de la République,” Kinshasa, Zaire, 1967’ was taken by Eliot Elisofon and is from the Smithsonian. I’ve cropped it to fit in the post; I think it’s worth checking out the full version, though.

The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó

Albert Salvadó is an Andorran novelist; The Teacher of Cheops is the only one of his books to be translated into English, and it is, unsurprisingly, my book from Andorra for the Read The World challenge.

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It is, as the title suggests, a historical novel set in ancient Egypt. It tells the story of a slave, Sedum, who gains his freedom and rises through the 4th Dynasty equivalent of the Civil Service; along the way he is tutor to the young Pharaoh-to-be, Cheops.

It was OK. I can’t get very excited about it, but apart from a rather self-indulgent plot twist at the end, it was fairly inoffensive.

» The photo is from the British Museum: ‘view of a road lined by trees, with a river next to it (the Nile), leading to the pyramids, Khafre, Khufu [i.e. Cheops] and Menkaura, which are visible in the background; Giza, Egypt, 1920s’.

Code-switching warblers and birch sap bingers

It’s a lovely time of year to be out and about, now that the horrible weather has lifted: all the summer migrants are just arriving, some a bit late because of the weather, and the countryside is absolutely ful of birdsong: I went to the Lee Valley yesterday, and there seemed to be a whitethroat behind every leaf.

But for once I have a couple of natural history observations, rather than just a list of birds seen, both from Bookham Common a few days ago.

The first was birds feeding on birch sap. Birch trees sometimes produce enormous amounts of sap in spring; I was once in Richmond Park and was puzzled that I could apparently hear a tap dripping: it turned out to be a birch tree. Traditionally people used to collect the sap to make wine.

Anyway, at Bookham there was a silver birch with sap trickling down the trunk in various places where branches had broken off, and I saw first a male blackcap, then a blue tit, then a female blackcap, all coming to drink the sap. Which was neat.

It’s not a behaviour I can remember hearing about before, but it’s not surprising, really, birds are pretty adaptable. Google throws up a reference to it in British Birds from the 50s.

My other curious sighting was a warbler that was singing two songs, switching between chiffchaff and willow warbler.

Right at the beginning and the end (1.31) you can hear what it was doing when I first heard it, a combined song with a few notes of chiffchaff mixing straight into willow warbler; most of the rest is basic chiffchaff, with a burst of stand-alone willow warbler at 1.18.

This is apparently a reasonably common phenomenon, I found several discussions of it online: Birding Frontiers, Gwent Birding, and a whole thread on Surfbirds.

I did wonder if it was the result of hybridisation, but the general consensus seems to be that it is some kind of error or mimicry. I’m not sure if mine was a chiffy pretending to be a willow warbler or vice-versa, because I was focussed on trying to get a recording of it and TBH I’m not entirely confident of my ability to accurately split them by sight anyway.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner

Survival in the Killing Fields is my book from Cambodia for the Read The World challenge. Haing Ngor was a doctor in pre-revolutionary Phnom Penh. That alone was enough to make him a target for the Khmer Rouge, but he managed to survive their regime through lies, determination, judgement and blind luck. Later he made it to America, was cast in the film The Killing Fields, and won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

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Which is a remarkable story, and superficially one of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity; except that really, even an Academy Award is no kind of compensation for forced labour, torture, exile, and the death of most of your family. And in the Epilogue written for this edition, 15 years after the original publication, we learn that Ngor had a pretty rough time of it in the US — which I guess you have to say is not surprising, given all he’d been through, that he was living as a refugee with limited English, and that frankly he seems to have been a somewhat difficult man even before the psychological scarring of the Khmer Rouge years. The final tragic twist is that he was shot dead outside his home in Los Angeles in what was probably but not definitely a normal, non-political robbery.

So it’s a dark book. It would be difficult to read except that the matter-of-fact way that it’s told keeps it from being as harrowing as it might be.

In some ways I would have liked to read a non-Khmer Rouge book for Cambodia, because it seems a pity to always see these countries through the lens of their most spectacular historical traumas. But I’m glad I read this, even so. In some ways all these political atrocities start to blur together, all endless variations on a theme — torture, paranoia, propaganda, casual violence — but somehow they all have their own distinctive local flavour. The Khmer Rouge see to have been characterised by a particularly nasty combination of anti-intellectualism, viciousness and incompetence.

» The photo is a shot from the film.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod

This is the novelised true story of Elisabeth Samson, a freeborn black woman in C18th Suriname, when it was a Dutch colony built on slave labour. She became one of the richest landowners in the colony and fought a legal battle for the right to marry a white man, successfully arguing that Dutch law superseded the colonial law against it.

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The introduction explains that it is the result of twelve years of historical research, and I think that’s a strength and a weakness: the best thing about the book is the amount of interesting historical detail, but it does feel a bit like a novel written by a historian. It is solid but unremarkable as literature.

And perhaps because the personal stuff — the dialogue and the characters’ inner lives — is relatively weak compared to the background information which has obviously been so carefully grounded in research, I found myself always second-guessing her portrayal of Elisabeth’s opinions and motivations. Especially since there is a tendency for racial/social issues to be explored in a rather unsubtle way by being put in the mouths of the characters; they sometimes slip into talking in long paragraphs, as though they were newspaper editorials.

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There are of course plenty of issues to explore. So for example, Elisabeth is presented somewhat as a heroic figure, standing up against the racial attitudes of the time, but she also kept slaves herself. And her battle for the right to marry a white man, and establish herself finally as a fully respectable member of colonial society, hardly makes her a fighter for the rights of black people more generally. Cynthia Mc Leod generally presents her as right-thinking but constrained by her time; she was after all in a vulnerable position. But a less sympathetic interpretation might also be possible.

But history is messy that way; and she would still be a remarkable figure whatever she was like as a person.

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I found it engaging and enjoyable, although I was engaged more by the history than the fiction, so I wonder whether it might have been even better as straight biography. Maybe not.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod (trans. Brian Doyle) is my book from Suriname for the Read The World challenge.

» All three images are from the British Museum. The toucan and the caiman are from an album entitled Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects &c, ca. 1701-1705; the toucan is by Maria Sibylla Merian, the caiman is attributed to her daughter Dorothea Graff. The engraving ‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave‘ was engraved by William Blake in 1793 for the first volume of J.G. Stedman’s Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the revolted slaves of Surinam, after an illustration by Stedman.

The Diesel by Thani Al-Suwaidi

I actually finished this about a week ago, but I’ve been busy doing other things: hacking, snorting, waking up in the night with my lungs apparently trying to invert themselves.

But this morning I feel much more human, so: this is my book from the United Arab Emirates for the Read The World challenge. It’s a short novella written from the point of view of a transgender singer, and I was excited to find it, because the few books I’d found from the UAE looked frankly pretty terrible; and gender issues in a rapidly-changing Islamic monarchy… that’s got to be an interesting subject, right?

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It didn’t quite live up to my hopes in that respect. I think that what has been happening in the Gulf states recently is really interesting: most spectacularly represented by the building of the Burj Khalifa, the World Cup being awarded to Qatar, the money being pumped into Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. But the Arabic version of this book (al-Dizil) was published in 1994, and given the speed the Gulf states have been changing, that’s a long 19 years.

And the style is so literary that I’m not sure I would have been completely confident that it was about someone who was transgender if it didn’t say as much in the introduction — though I expect it would be more obvious if you were familiar with the cultural context. The references are clear enough, but there is so much other stuff which is apparently magical or symbolic or poetic — non-literal, anyway — that I wouldn’t have known to take it them at face value.

Which is fine — I (often) like prose which tends to the poetic — but it doesn’t leave me feeling any better informed about social/sexual/gender/political issues in the Gulf. Still, my expectations aside, it should be judged on its own terms as a poetic narrative. And it is interesting, often effective, sometimes striking, sometimes annoyingly opaque.

During the Read The World challenge I have rarely felt that books were too foreign for me (though perhaps that just means I’m missing a lot). But in this case, with the combination of an allusive style and a sensitive subject matter, I feel more strongly than usual that I’m probably missing something.

» Burj Khalifa , Dubai is © Ahmad Al Zarouni and used under a CC by-nc licence. The photo doesn’t have much to do with the book, really, but hey-ho.

Bird of the Year 2012

Starting with my garden, the most surprising record was a woodcock. Sadly not tickable, because it looked like this:

Presumably the fox got it. Which is a pity, although if it hadn’t I never would have known the woodcock had visited.

The other notable bird, also nocturnal and also slightly frustrating, was a little owl. I knew they were breeding nearby: I still haven’t seen one, but I did hear one calling when were eating in the garden this summer. So that’s one for the garden list.

Widening out a bit, I had my first local wheatear, in Crystal Palace Park, and great views of a firecrest in Dulwich Woods.

I suppose strictly speaking my ‘best’ London bird last year was probably a pair of common scoter, on the river at Rainham Marshes. Other nice London sightings: tawny owl in Kensington Gardens, a big flock of yellow wagtails at Barnes, green sandpiper at Crayford Marshes.

And, not-in-London-by-any-sensible-definition-but-within-the-London-Natural-History-Society-Recording-Area: I started off the year by finally managing to track down a lesser-spotted woodpecker at Bookham Common, after many attempts, and then a couple of weeks later also managed to see hawfinch there.

A fulmar at Oare Creek, brought down by bad weather, was an unexpected bonus.

My rarest bird of the year, and a spectacular species, was this:

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I know, isn’t that just the most amazing… oh hang on a minute, let me zoom that in a bit for you:

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It’s the one on the left, a red-breasted goose, one of the most beautiful birds in the world. And actually I had a better view of it than the photo would suggest: the iPhone/binocular combo doesn’t really do it justice.

But it’s not my bird of the year, because firstly, there’s every chance it’s not a wild bird; they are common in ornamental wildfowl collections so it’s possible it’s an escape. It was consorting with a huge flock of wild Brent Geese who had come in from Siberia, so that is in its favour, but who knows.

Also, because they are common in collections, I have seen many of them before, even if I haven’t seen wild ones. Also taken with my phone, no need for binoculars:

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And I went to twitch it, which is never quite as exciting as finding something for yourself.

No, I think my bird of the year ought to be the one which I was actually most excited by, which was: turtle dove.

Turtle doves have been in horrendous decline, down over 95% in the UK since 1970, and when I found one at Oare I was just thrilled. It was just completely unexpected — although when I pointed it out to a local birder they were totally unimpressed, so perhaps I should have been expecting it. But that would have made it less fun.

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And they are just lovely birds.

That’s not my picture, sadly; Tórtola común 30 de junio de 2011 is © Paco Gómez and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Bird of the Year 2012: best performances in a supporting role

I guess I should post this before the end of January. Not a lot of outstanding sightings to report, though.

Best Plant

I was quite tickled to see some Marsh Mallow plants down in Kent. Because, yes, they are the original stuff that marshmallows were made from.

Best Insect

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This Poplar Hawkmoth was a pleasing find, and my most unexpected sighting was probably a Marbled White just across the road — are they breeding somewhere nearby? was it lost? — but insect of the year might as well be Swollen-thighed Beetle, Oedemera nobilis:

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Because it’s a fun-looking thing, because it has a great name, and because I posted a picture of it on Twitter and the Natural History Museum popped up to tell me what it was. I took that picture when I was out birding, although I later found more of them in the garden, so its clearly a common enough critter. Fun though.

Best Reptile

I went on a twitch to see the Baillon’s Crake which was at Rainham Marshes for a few days. I didn’t see the crake, but while I sat for about three hours in a packed hide staring at the fringes of the water, I did at least see a grass snake. Which was a nice treat.

Best Mammal

There are various places I regularly go which supposedly have water voles, but you hardly ever actually see them; or if you do it’s just a brown nose swimming across a channel from one reedbed to another. But on the same abortive crake twitch, I did find a couple of voles, sitting calm as you like just about eight feet from the path, chewing away at some iris leaves.  In fact if I hadn’t stopped to watch them for a while, I might conceivably have seen the crake, which showed not long before I got there… but it was still nice to see the voles.

Best Invertebrate (other), Best Fish, Best Amphibian, Best Ecosystem

I got nothin’.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2013

This year’s list:

robin × 3
blackbird × 2
dunnock × 2

great tit × 2
blue tit × 4
coal tit

chaffinch × 3
siskin × 3

carrion crow

ring-necked parakeet × 2
starling × 2

pigeon × 4
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Which is pretty terrible, frankly. The siskins were a pleasant surprise, but I’m missing long-tailed tit, goldfinch, magpie, jay, song thrush, both woodpeckers, wren, nuthatch… even the numbers are a bit disappointing. But there you go.

The Republic of San Marino by Charles de Bruc

… or to give him his full Ruritanian title, ‘Comte Charles de Bruc, Chargé d’Affaires de la République de St Marin à Paris, Grand Croix de l’Ordre Équestre de Saint Marin, Officier de l’Ordre des SS. Maurice et Lazare, etc.’ Although I guess even that’s not his full title, because it ends with ‘etc’. This book was translated in 1880 from the French*, which is presumably why his title isn’t given in the more obvious choices of either English or Italian.

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The fact that a Sammarinese diplomat should write a self-serving history of the country isn’t really a surprise;  it’s perhaps more surprising that an American writer should feel the need to translate it. I mean, it’s interesting that an independent republican city-state should survive, independent, all the way through the middle ages, the Renaissance and the unification of Italy into the modern age; but this book is not a particularly riveting account of how it happened. It doesn’t help that it tends to flatter itself; here’s an especially unsubtle example:

Their perseverance in good works, their energy in adversity, their manly love of liberty, the scrupulous loyalty with which they had kept their engagements, their immovable fidelity to their obligations, their tenacity, and their valor inspired the respect and esteem even of their enemies.

The whole book makes it sound like they managed to preserve their independence through the sheer force of their courage and virtue; presumably it was actually because they were inaccessible, strategically unimportant and just lucky.

Reading the Wikipedia article, it sounds like potentially the most interesting period of their history occurred after this book was published. The country had a fascist government from 1923, and was a single-party state from 1926, but still chose to remain neutral during WWII; then from 1945-57 they had the first elected communist government in Europe, which in turn fell in a constitutional crisis/revolution. There must be some good stories to be told about that lot.

However, I can’t be too grumpy about this book, because it was never going to be easy to find a book from San Marino for the Read The World challenge, and this was available, short, and downloaded for free from these guys. Cheap at the price.

* Saint-Marin : Ses Institutions, Son Histoire. Comte Charles de Bruc blah blah blah, Paris, 1876. The translation is by William Warren Tucker.

» San Marino is © Trent Strohm and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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