Books I Read September 29, 2016

The temperature has finally started to drop. Pumpkin beer has been around for about 6 weeks but only a few days ago did it become appropriate to drink it. October will be a rough month, and I luxuriate in the interim, taking long walks to Bay Ridge and the Far Rockaways, swallowing the last of the summer sun

The Fortunes of Africa by Martin Meredith– I am that peculiar sort of person for whom a single-volume, political/military history of some fair swathe of the planet is about the most enjoyable form of literature. I LOVE these sorts of things, I could eat them up like candy. This is a very good example of the form, detailing African history from Ancient Egypt to the modern-age, with a primary focus on the exploitation of its resources, which essentially ends up being the interplay between 'foreign' and native African forces. At eight or nine hundred pages it is, of course, much too short for so vast a topic but still choc full of insight to any non-expert. The writing is skillful if not particularly memorable, but then again only a very small number of historians are capable of writing truly captivating prose in its own right (Barbara Tuchman and Simon Schama come to mind). All the same, Meredith excels in clearly ordering vast quantities of information into a coherent narrative, the most difficult and essential task in a book of this sort. Depressing, of course, as histories generally are, but you can hardly blame that on the author. Strong recommendation, if you share my affection for this sort of thing.

The Year 200 by Agustin de Rojas– Right. So, apparently de Rojas was sort of the grand old man of Cuban science-fiction, and this is regarded as his finest work – though I confess a quick Google search found scant information in English that was not put out by the publisher, so maybe this exaggerates his position, I have no idea. If any Cubans or Spanish speakers generally want to help clear up my ignorance in the comments, that would be much appreciated. In any event, this was more interesting than it was good. It reads a lot like a 60's American sci-fi novel, which if you have been following along you will know is not a swathe of the sub-genre for which I have much affection. On its own merits, as a future thriller about a swathe of (basically) evil Americans having their consciousness re-awoken several hundred years after the total victory of the communist world, it is at best modestly effective. Rojas has a predilection for large-scale info dumps, some of which never seem to become directly relevant, and there's a lot of deus ex machina style reveals, with sudden plot shifts that fall flat because they've never been signaled earlier in the narrative. As a work of, if you will, intellectual sci-fi, it is didactic and not altogether clever, that is to say I saw little useful echo of our own world in the future society Rojas has created. The characters themselves, as inevitably in these sorts of books, are utterly one dimensional, impossible to sympathize with. There are a few interesting bits here and there, but I confess to coming away disappointed. Avoid.

Love in a Foreign City by Eileen Chang – Hell, was this good. Chang was a wealthy socialite in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and these series of long short stories about the years before and during the Japanese Occupation, of a China developing rapidly in uncertain times, are fabulous. Chang has a subtle touch and an appreciation for the complexities of human motivation comparable to any of the great English masters of the period, and her insight into an upper crust of coastal, Chinese elite, is truly fascinating. Imagine Somerset Maugham if he had been going to cocktail parties overlooking Kowloon Bay and you'd have something of the flavor. Strong recommendation.

Dancing Aztecs by Donald Westlake – Ha! Ha! Boy, I liked this. I think the only other thing I read by Westlake was the Parker thing, which I admit left me a little flat, but this is far better, a blisteringly paced comedy about a cast of dozens chasing a MacGuffin. Actually the plot is fabulously detailed and deftly complex, but really what you're in it for is Westlake's insulting but affectionate take on New York City and its inhabitants, as well as an enormously enjoyable use of language. One feels a certain degree of compulsion, however, to admit that some of the politics of 1976 are not those of the current age, and although Westlake is reasonably even-handed in his abuse of New York's various social milieus, one would have to admit that (as in most things) the darker races get the worst of it. That said he had some Jew jokes in there that cracked me up, so who knows.