What ya been reading ?


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What ya been reading ?

marraskuu 3, 2021, 2:04 pm

Alexandria by Edmund Richardson

Alexandria, a historical biography of amateur archeologist James Lewis, is a book I enjoyed very much. It succeeds to be interesting on multiple levels.

First of all, it is captivating read, at moments even a page - turner, with its many narrative surprises, fascinating characters and cliff-hanger-ending-chapters.
Edmund Richardson brings us a deeply researched biography of a James Lewis (1800–1853) a.k.a Charles Masson, a soldier with the British East India Company, who in 1827 deserts the Army and walks, on foot and with a single companion into the Thar desert in search of the mythical city known as "Alexandria under the Mountain". It is also known as "Alexandria in the Caucasus", a fabulous city created by Alexander himself.
This is the beginning of narrative worthy of all the best fictions you ever read. I will not divulge what Masson uncovers in his digs in Afghanistan, but he is the hero of the book and a few pieces he uncovers are still prized artifacts in the British museum.

Alexandria is also the kind of book that leaves the reader, more clever with the ways of the world, after turning the final page. There is the "Great Game" Geo-political for instance, the political climate in which Masson travels, does his research, his diggings and his discoveries. There is the increased meddling of the British into Afghan politics, culminating into the first Afghan - Anglo war. A conflict launched by a British invasion and legitimated by "fake news" ( The Russians meddling in Afghan politics ). On a more human level, there is the race and the competition for fame and wealth of a handful of adventurers and amateur archeologists. They fiercely grub in the Afghan soil searching for lost cities, treasures, gold and gems. It is a no-holds-barred fight and one cringes at the destructive methods that are used to uncover ancient tombs and price-less pieces of art. Kipling was inspired by these ruffians for his story "The Man who would be King". All of this is thoroughly researched. The notes at the end of the book total nearly 60 pages for a novel of 260 pages.

Finally, there is a post-modernist tang to this history book, in the sense that it skeptically and ironically reframes what we learned at school, the so-called common knowledge, the history we were brought up with.

Alexander the great ? Not always so great after reading this book, but what a convenient historical figure for 19th century politicians who endorse conquest "to bring civilization".

There was no hard frontier between east and west. The border towns, cities, civilizations merged the best of east and west and were therefore wealthy and striving. Afghanistan was Buddhist before the Arabs conquered the country. The destruction of the irreplaceable Buddha statues of the Bamiyan valley in March 2001, was just "mopping up", a last chapter in eradicating the remnants of a non Islamic culture.

Avarice, plunder and political opportunism will bring you further than mere intellectual curiosity. The famous Archeologists Schliemann and Evans were in fact destroyers and looters.
And men like Richardson are doomed to be forgotten.

Some British officers behaved like savages in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You are not likely to forget the civilizing works of Lieutenant Loveday.

In the end, the bullies win most of the time; the meek lose most of the time.

An excellent read.

marraskuu 6, 2021, 5:49 pm

>1 Macumbeira: Very interesting. The book seems to set out in some detail all that we suspected was going on in Afghanistan. One big treasure hunt. Interesting for me too as I saw the statues at Bamiyan in 1976. There was talk of trying to re-create those states, but the latest Taliban invasion has probably put a stop to that.

marraskuu 7, 2021, 10:46 pm

Thanks Bas. Must have been a nice trip to Afghanistan.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 23, 2022, 3:31 am

Lately I have been reading, enjoying and schooling myself with the 2400 year old "Anabasis" written by Xenophon.

The story relates the ordeal of the 14.000 Greek mercenaries who enter the Persian Empire in 401 BCE, commissioned by the Persian prince Cyrus (the Younger), in his attempt to dethrone his older brother King Artaxerxes.

But things do not go as planned and the mercenaries get themselves stranded a few kilometers from the city of Babylon (the actual Bagdad), deep into enemy territory and with all their senior commanders dead. The troops however are feared Hoplites and the army of Artaxerxes hesitates to launch a frontal attack, even at the moment when the Greeks are at their weakest. This gives these foreign phalanxes just the few days they need to reorganize and elect new leaders.

Enters Xenophon. It is a bit unclear why this 30 year old, well-educated scion of a wealthy Athenian family, is among these fighters, but in this moment of confusion and chaos, he stands up as one of the new leaders. Their new objective: get the army of mercenaries out of Persia as fast as they can. A march of 1500 km through unknown and dangerous territory, surrounded by numerous hostile armies and tribes, awaits them.

It is no wonder that such a story still captivates the mind.

I have read Xenophon narration in the illustrious Robert Strassler's Landmark edition. This is a series of important historical texts, translated and annotated by numerous specialists in the field. Lavishly illustrated with maps, with detailed drawings of battle formations and with pictures of the actual sites, these books make a huge difference on the reading experience. If there is a proof that digital reading will never fully replace reading a paper-book, this is it.

Xenophon’s Anabasis (which basically means an "inland march") turns out to be a detailed report of the long retreat to get out of enemy territory. Its main attraction is that it is written on the level of the individual grunt; no great overarching strategic vistas. It is continuous "problem solving" on human level. Do we attack or negotiate? Do we cross the river or not? Shall we advance or wait? And this with the continuous concern to keep the vanguard and rearguard safe and the distance between them never dangerously overstretched.

Besides turning out to be a very capable and humble commander, Xenophon is also a perfect narrator. Even though he is an Athenian, he has strong and open sympathies for the Spartan lifestyle: resilience, perseverance, grit. No wonder he is banned from Athens. And he couldn't care less. Xenophon was an early student and follower of Socrates, and he was disgusted with the Athenian city for the condemnation of the famous philosopher. His Anabasis therefore can somehow be read as Socratian philosophy applied to a long survival situation.

Tough as steel in battle, proud when deserved but humble when in error.

A strong recommendation

tammikuu 23, 2022, 3:51 am

>4 Macumbeira: Wow! that sounds like a beautiful book to own. Your review says it all - a fascinating story.

Muokkaaja: tammikuu 31, 2022, 3:24 pm

Another one by our Rick : "Kramberger with Monkey"

There was such a man.

Three decades ago, there was, in far-away Slovenia, a self-made businessman with presidential ambitions, orating to his fellow-citizens with a monkey on his shoulder.
He was killed. Someone shot him down, just like the Kennedy's. They caught the suspect; a drunk. Intoxicated he confessed; sober he denied. But he went to prison all the same.
And the Monkey, asks the narrator, where was it when the fatal shot rung? Did it call in sick that day ?

So begins Rick Harsch's novel "Kramberger with Monkey", a wild and runaway exploration on political murders, rogue reporters, innocent scapegoats, invisible hitmen, murdering chimps, seedy politicians, ludicrous conspiracy theories, emerging democracies and coagulating autocracies.
In 44 dazzling funny chapters, and with a handful of devilishly selected scenes ( both true and fictional ), the author reminds us of the senselessness of the human comedy played out in an indifferent world.

As always with Harsch : dark entertainment shedding light.

tammikuu 31, 2022, 6:23 pm

Good to read a review of A Rick Harsch novel. Have you read them all now Mac?

tammikuu 31, 2022, 11:05 pm

Working on it : )

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 26, 2022, 2:57 am

The Twilight World by Werner Herzog

It is not really surprising that one grows trust - issues after fighting 5 years of intense war.

So when Hiroo Onada, a Japanese officer on an endless guerrilla mission on the island of Lubang in the Philippines, is informed that Japan has surrendered and the conflict is over, he does not believe it and creeps even deeper in the jungle to continue the fight. For thirty more years...

Initially consisting of four soldiers, over the years the squad is reduced to a single person. One soldier surrenders in the fifties and walks out of the jungle. Two others are killed by Philippine troops trying to oust them out of the forest. Only Onada keeps eluding all tentative of contact in the decades following the end of WW2.

Onoda will remain hidden until 21 February 1972, when Norio Suzuki, a young world-traveller, onto whom the soldier has stumbled in the forest, convinces the old man to come out of his hiding .

His is the story told in The Twilight World, the latest book by famous cinematographer Werner Herzog. Herzog has a penchant for exceptional characters, especially so if they are hidden, lost or trapped in the jungle. Suffice to remember his movies or documentaries featuring Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Dieter Dengler and Juliane Koepcke. And now with his recent novel, the Twilight World, he has added to these Hiroo Onoda.

The title of the book sounds even more dramatic in the original German: "Das Dämmern der Welt, like in the operatic word "Götterdammerung", a slow darkening, a closing out of the light, a creeping darkness preceding a full black-out.

When on tour in Tokyo in 1997, Herzog shocks his hosts, by preferring a meeting with the jungle rescapee instead of with their Emperor. According to the German, He and Onoda, both jungle - aficionados, connect easily and have long discussions. The soldier tells his story and the 100-page novel is Herzog interpretation of it. While clearly irenic in intention, the author sides with the loner; the point of view in the narrative is the one of the warrior. The peaceful inhabitants of the island, who fear the ghost in the forest are rarely mentioned, their perspective is omitted.

One can either mock or pity Onada for wasting away 30 years in the jungle. But the truth is more complex. Over the decades American war planes and warships kept flying over or passing the island. Unbeknownst to him, they are enroute to the next battlefields, the Korean and then the Vietnamese. Refusing to surrender, the old Japanese remains a danger for the isolated local civilians he encounters on the fringe of the jungle. And it is rather unfair from Herzog that he tells about the death of the two companions of Onada, killed in ambushes by Philippine soldiers and not about the 30 farmers the Japanese officer kills over the years, stealing their food and destroying their crops.

As long as one of the belligerent parties decides to continue the fight, and there is always one who does, the fight continues.

That is also Onoda's statement in a sentence that might be a blurb for a book on Human History.

"The truth is that War is never over. Only the locations of the battlefields change"


toukokuu 27, 2022, 8:19 am

>9 Macumbeira: Interesting story. Aguirre, the Wrath of God one of my favourite films. I also liked Fitzcarraldo. I had not made the connection between Werner Herzog and the jungle until you pointed it out. Perhaps he should have directed Apocalypse Now.

toukokuu 29, 2022, 1:03 pm

Herzog is one of a kind.
If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend :
Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed by Paul Cronin

kesäkuu 5, 2022, 3:37 pm

"How to tell a Story, An ancient Guide to the Art of Storytelling for Writers and Readers"

"How to tell a Story, An ancient Guide to the Art of Storytelling for Writers and Readers" is nothing less than Aristotle's classic masterwork "The Poetics", translated, rearranged and introduced by Philip Freeman.
Freeman is a university professor in Malibu California (yes, some guys just have it all) and to reassure his readers that he has not tinkered with the text while rearranging, the book is printed with the original Greek text on the left-hand side and the English translation on the right.

Aristotle's "Poetics" is of course THE seminal text in literary theory which cannot be absent from your library. It's a thin book with a huge content and reading it you are reminded of all these concepts and idea's which we take for granted nowadays but which were posited and explained first by the great Aristole: there is the Mimesis (imitation ) of Auerbach's fame, the Catharsis ( purification ), the apò mēkhanês ( Deus ex Machina ) and even the Homeric Anagnorisis ( Recognition ).

Reading the Poetics invariably comes with this sad awareness that writings, these repositories of narratives and knowledge, are fragile and fleeting. Throughout his book, Aristotle illustrates his literary concepts with numerous examples of texts and authors, most of which have been lost. Lost, , probably forever, altough they were once written down and numerous copies existed. The Margites, a comic epic by Homer Himself for instance, gone...The Antheus by Agathon disappeared, the Lynceus by Theodectes, lost; the Cresphontes by Euripides and the treatise "On Poets" by Aristotle forgotten...

This sad feeling culminates when the book frustratingly ends with chapter two "on Comedy" followed by white pages. The second part of the "Poetics" is lost too.

a most interesting read.