Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Reviewing ‘The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma’ by Thant Myint-U

It is good to see a new book being written about a country that in recent decades has been shrouded in mystery and beset with violence. This is a serious and interesting book with ample footnotes, based largely upon the author’s academic research.

The River of Lost Footsteps is an unusual book as it is written by someone who has grown up outside Burma. The author, Thant Myint-U, is the grandson of former UN Secretary-General, U Thant and as a boy he grew up in New York with his parents and grandparents and later studied at Cambridge and Harvard. His research has been enriched by listening to stories of influential people like his grandfather and his colleagues.

The writer admits that the book is ‘roughly chronological’, commencing in the 1880s and spanning to the early years of the twenty-first century. ‘Roughly chronological’ is an apt term as the author jumps frustratingly from decade to decade. While dealing with events in the early twentieth century he will pitch in a reference from a modern Lonely Planet Guide or allude to a visit he made to Burma in 1997. Structurally, the book is a disconcerting hotch-potch. Because of the author’s family lineage and special circumstances, The River of Lost Footsteps is a hybrid of research, family history and anecdotes that Thant Myint-U collected on his short visits to Burma.

The book is written “with an eye to what the past might say about the present” and the author is critical of many in the democratic reform movement whose analysis of the contemporary situation in Burma and response has been “singularly ahistorical.” He warns that “we fail to consider history at our own peril.” Having established this point the author tells his comprehensive story of Burma but the book is lacking in critical analysis, interpretive commentary and argued lines that are drawn from the historical account to an appropriate response in the way of activism and international diplomacy.

Thant Myint-U issues a controversial call to end the policies of isolation and trade sanctions towards Burma but his recommendations are neither constructed nor argued out of the long historical account.

While the author writes about the ethnic fighting in Burma since the Second World War there is a surprising and disappointing lack of information about the various people groups and the historical reasons for their hatred of the Burmese. The history of the Karen, one of the largest minority groups, is dealt with in a couple of pages and the Chin people are described in a footnote. Without such information it is impossible to understand the civil war that has been raging for decades. The author has neglected the histories of the minority peoples in Burma to his peril and the detriment of the book. He recognizes the expulsion by the military leadership of ethnic minorities from Burma but he does not convey the magnitude of the atrocities committed by the army, the ethnic cleansing and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

While The River of Lost Footsteps is subtitled ‘Histories of Burma’, it is in reality a history of Burma through the eyes of a Burmese author, looking from the outside. [Some of the book covers are subtitled: History of Burma—see the picture]. This volume would be a very different story if it was written by a member of one of the minority tribes.

Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (London: Faber and Faber, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 140.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of The River of Lost Footsteps.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Film Produced about 'On Chesil Beach' by Ian McEwan

Author Ian McEwan and Nan A. Talese of Doubleday imprint have teamed up with Powell’s Books and created a groundbreaking way to showcase the novel On Chesil Beach.

They’ve created a short film based on the novel that will tour to over 50 bookstores nationwide from June 13th - 19th.

The film was shot in both England and the United States, and contains an interview with Ian McEwan in London, on-location footage from Chesil beach, an original soundtrack, and commentary from peers and critics, including Nan Talese.

For more information and to watch the film trailer check this link:
Off the Shelf—Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach Movie Trailer and Screening Information.

Image: Ian McEwan.

Reviewing ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach is a book like Ian McEwan’s Saturday or Graham Swift’s Tomorrow, in the sense that it’s central focus spans a few hours, in this novel, only one evening.

There are other features to observe in the background and the frame but the miniature canvas highlights the exquisite description of ordinary actions, the concentrated attention on little details, the magnificent selection of words and the timing of silences that are both enjoyed and endured.

McEwan’s plot for this short novel involves two virgins on their wedding night staying in a hotel at Chesil Beach, Dorset, England, in the year 1962. After a brief account of the wedding in Oxford and their first meal alone as husband and wife the novel describes their movements and feelings from the dining table to the creaky, four-poster bed.

The relief of knowing that the wedding day went off without a hitch, the sound of waves and the scent of flowers, sets the stage for some warm and intense fellowship.

The themes of fluidity and stiffness are captured well by McEwan in this description of the hotel meal:

“The altered breeze carried through the parted French windows an enticement, a salty scent of oxygen and open space that seemed at odds with the starched table linen, the corn-flour-stiffened gravy, and the heavy polished silver they were taking in their hands.”

The author sketches the way that “the times held them”, with the sexual mores of the pre-Pill 1960s, the shaping power of their parents and the one thousand “unacknowledged rules that applied when two people were alone.”

One of the many amusing incidents involves the bridegroom battling with the terror of ‘arriving too soon’ and hitting on the steadying technique of concentrating his mind upon Prime Minister Harold McMillan, “who was everything that was not sex and ideal for the purpose.”

The book identifies the apprehension and anxieties in an evolving relationship, and the often conflicting dynamics of curiosity and coyness, fantasies and fears and nakedness and concealment. It is about the challenge of people in a relationship to patiently learn the language needed to name the unnamable and muster the courage to share true feelings. While the book revolves around a marriage relationship, it provides a useful catalyst to conversation for people in other types of relationships and implicitly stresses the need for communication and negotiation.

On Chesil Beach is about the power of words spoken and left unspoken, not only those that are solemnly expressed in wedding services but the decisions that are made on beds and beaches which then determine the course of people’s lives.

Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007), is available in the United Arab Emirates from Magrudy’s bookshops at a cost of Dh72.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of On Chesil Beach.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Reviewing The Lost Diary of Don Juan by Douglas Abrams

The Lost Diary of Don Juan is a novel which purports to have found the diary of the shameless Spanish seducer of women. The diarist is thirty-six years of age and his entries record his exploits in ‘sensual Sevilla’, a city that is rocking and throbbing with passion at the end of the sixteenth century.

Californian author, Douglas Carlton Abrams has in this book sought to recreate history furnishing the diary with insights into Spain’s burgeoning empire, its growing stocks of gold, the power of the Catholic Church with its Inquisition and the bloody action in the bullring.

The Lost Diary can be read simply as a gripping story about the legendary and lusty libertine who renders a service to lonely and neglected women by skillfully moving from bed to bed. At another level the diary can be understood as a historical thriller focusing on a Spanish Robin Hood who eludes the authorities in the knick of time but amidst such pressure is able to enter into sexual touch and intimacy with the impressive composure and patience of a master guitarist.

For readers who want to think further Douglas Abrams puts into focus the dynamics of lust and love, to reveal, without being moralistic, the ingredients that go into a relationship that is mutually satisfying for partners.

A central question that is raised by Don Juan’s experience and by the author is how one stays passionately married to a partner ‘until death do us part’. In countries like the United Arab Emirates, where up to multiple marriage partners are permitted, Abrams might extend the question and ask how a person might stay passionately in love and loyalty with four marriage partners.

The book presents an old, universal story with freshness as it teases out strands that are pertinent to modern day loving. These issues include the caged and cloistered existence of many women, the preoccupation with virginity, the obsession of many fathers and brothers to maintain the purity and honor of the family and the seductive power of masks and veils. Setting the sexual encounters against the background of the Spanish conquest, religious tyranny and the amassing of treasure raises the question about the relationship of power to seduction.

The Lost Diary is a rich banquet of dancing and dueling, kisses and communion, convents and brothels, fighting and fiestas and pain and pleasure. Like its subject the book begins slowly and sometimes there is fumbling and faltering but it picks up the pace until it reaches its heart-thumping climax.

Douglas Carlton Abrams, The Lost Diary of Don Juan (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), 2007 is available in the United Arab Emirates from Magrudy’s bookshops at a cost of Dh66.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of The Lost Diary.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reviewing ‘North Face of Soho,’ by Clive James

North Face of Soho is the fourth of possibly five volumes in Clive James’ autobiographical series, Unreliable Memoirs.

This book is marked throughout by a self-deprecating style and is, according to its author, a further “instalment in a serial confession of how I learned to do the right thing only by doing all the wrong things first.”

Without much reserve James writes of his problems with alcohol (especially when he is seeking to perform on stage with clarity and precision), his inability to manage people, his difficulty in writing lines for anyone but himself and his default position of running away from conflict and disagreement.

Who is Clive James? It is difficult for the reader to hit this moving target who appears in the early pages with hairy sideboards, velvet jackets, flared trousers and paisley cravats but who becomes an actor in the theatre, a reviewer of books, plays and television, an author, travel writer, poet, song writer and television performer.

True to form James says “he is an ordinary person” who hates being over-billed and always feels that he “has not achieved anything substantial.”

Clive James has often been called an entertainer but he does not want to claim this title. He says, “Though the desire to entertain is not to be despised… the best an entertainer can hope to do is to be instructive.” Clive fulfils this role admirably. While this book is awash with witty one-liners that are sometimes showy or offered just for a belly laugh, most of his witticisms are intended to teach, provoke or prick a bubble of illusion. For instance, when writing about the lure of taking drugs James says, “Vice always finds it easy to make virtue look na├»ve.”

While this volume offers fascinating insights into the events of his life and his hopes and dreads, there is little light shed on Clive James the husband and father. He intentionally leaves his wife and two daughters in the background for fear that they “would combine to lynch me if I went into detail about their virtues.” He continues, “All three women in my immediate family are united in the belief that private life and publicity are incompatible, and I agree with them.”

The lack of family detail is compensated by the ample insights into the literary contemporaries of Clive James, including Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Spike Milligan. Many celebrities that James encounters are described in the way a cartoonist exaggerates a certain characteristic. For example, after interviewing Burt Lancaster James wrote, “His teeth looked like tombstones any way, and when he bared them in a smile it looked like a carnival in a graveyard.”

Readers of this book will be treated to many tips on the difficult art of writing well. He says that his own style “works by packing stuff in, not stretching it out, and there is always a danger of trying to say too much at once.” He writes about his struggles with writing and speaks of the way that different editors have helped him. His sentences are substantial and never slack, colourful images abound and his stories are told with relish and gusto. James is often cited as the person with the gift of an apt phrase and this book contains many examples.

North of Soho is a treasure chest of information about writing humorously, becoming a good interviewer, seeking an agent and the knack of getting published.

Clive James admits he is getting better at learning from his mistakes. But, he says, “Without those big mistakes I would never have learned anything in the first place. The graph of your increasing profit from your own errors is the only authentic measure of progress.” It is this down-to-earth honesty, penetrating wisdom and ability to see the constructive contribution of failure that makes this book so valuable, especially for readers who crave the culture of success.

Clive James, North of Soho, Unreliable Memoirs Vol. IV (London: Picador, 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 126.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of North of Soho.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Reviewing ‘The Penguin History of New Zealand’ by Michael King.

The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King is the best entry point for people wanting to understand the story of Aotearoa-New Zealand and its peoples.

Although it is a general history it is comprehensive (500 pages) and is immensely readable. Not only has it updated the earlier, standard history of New Zealand by Keith Sinclair but it has given a more extensive treatment to the prehistoric period and a more balanced and integrated appreciation of the history of the indigenous peoples of the country.

Earlier histories were typified by the statement of a geographer who said that “a people with no land came to a land with no people.” As a result the Maori were invisible and ignored in many of the earlier historical accounts. Michael King, however, with his extensive knowledge of Maoritanga (Maori culture and language), has done an able job in writing about the robust interaction of the Maori with those with European ancestry who settled later.

King, who sadly was killed in 2004, shows a remarkable ability to synthesize a huge body of research and present it in a coherent form. His chapter on the Treaty of Waitangi demonstrates his skill at taking a complex event and issue and showing how the treaty has been both constructive and confusing to race relationships.

The author has provided a list of books and articles for those wanting to go deeper. The most disappointing feature of this volume is the lack of footnotes to help readers pinpoint the origin of many fascinating quotations.

King interweaves the various strands of his nation’s development from flightless birds to its citizens who have taken flight and from a strong tie to the Motherland to a nation struggling to discover self-expression and the things that a basic to kiwi culture.

Readers from New Zealand and other countries will come to a better understanding of what makes this nation tick. The Penguin History of New Zealand offers insights into this small and vibrant nation that has produced the All Blacks, many middle-distance runners, the first man to climb the highest mountain of the world, yachting heroes, Kiri Te Kanawa, kiwifruit, movie directors, a nuclear free nation, poets and painters and a cluster of women who have served in the top leadership positions of the country.

Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2003).

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Penguin History of New Zealand.