Monday, December 21, 2015

Books in 2015: A Personal Selection

 Ipanema, Dusk, December 2004  ©  Michael Deibert

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink by Juliana Barbassa

The Brazilian journalist has written a beautiful yet unflinching meditation on one of the world's great cities during a moment of profound change. Her book is a moving examination of the immense charms, staccato violence and unfulfilled promise of the marvelous city and of the heart of modern Brazil.

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest

Given recent events, this classic 1986 work by the great Anglo-American historian of Russia is a timely reminder that Ukraine was “the first independent Eastern European state to be successfully taken over by the Kremlin” and that a destruction of its national identity has been a priority for those who supported Russian expansionism for many generations. Lenin and later, more extensively, Stalin used an intentionally inflicted famine as a way to starve the very idea of Ukrainian nationhood (as they also did in Kazakhstan), with Grigory Zinoviev stating as early as 1918 that “we must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million Soviet Russian population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to then. They must be annihilated.”

Informed by a violent urban chauvinism against the rural poor, the Communist Party overseeing the atrocity “relied continually on a spurious doctrinal analysis to show it a supposed class enemy of a minority in the countryside, whereas in fact almost the entire peasantry was opposed to it and its policies,” policies that were devised. “not [by] a group of rational economists...(But by) a group which had accepted a millenarian doctrine”  As Communist officials dine in special restaurants and shop at “closed” stores, the famine rages and the bodies of dead children are dug up under suspicion that they might in fact be grain pits. The book is also, however, a testament to human resistance to the erasing effects of totalitarianism. But as it makes abundantly clear, the destruction of Ukrainian national identity wasn’t a byproduct of Stalin’s starvation politics, it was their point.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

A deeply affecting drama of a Haitian family both and home and in exile (the latter traumatically affected by the glacial indifference of United States immigration procedures) makes up for the sometimes shaky history.

Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by  Karen Dawisha

This scrupulously detailed account of Vladimir Putin’s rise and eventual omnipotence on the Russian political scene is a fascinating account of a vast mafia state being run under cover of patriotic nationalism. Killers, quislings, corrupt business dealers, former and current spooks and other assorted unsavory types make up the Russian leader’s extended political and financial family or, as the author puts it, “such is the quality of the group that Putin has gathered around him from his days in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office.” The combination of the author's own research and investigative reporting by outlets such as Novaya Gazeta quoted therein also leads the reader to the extraordinary conclusion that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), of which Putin was the former chief, likely orchestrated the 1999 Russia apartment bombings that killed 293 people and helped pave the way for the Second Chechen War [Putin was Prime Minister at the time and many who questioned the official version met with extraordinarily suspect deaths]. As Dawisha points out, to keen observers, Putin’s first inauguration was not “a celebration of a transition or of a democracy; this was an occasion designed to herald the the emergence of a single and indisputable leader of a renewed state.”

Miami by Joan Didion

I finally got around to reading this non-fiction book, one of those often bandied about when one is trying to decode the vagaries of the city I live in, and found it both meandering, never quite getting to the point and, to me, at least (someone who has lived in the city off and on over a period of almost 20 years), not terribly perceptive. The author basically repeats stories and allegories from the then-formidable Miami Herald and the writing of historian Arthur Schlesinger, and otherwise writes much as I imagine a drive-by would be composed by someone who spent a few days or weeks here. The Haitian community in Miami is invisible in this book, as are African-Americans, and there is no hint of the city’s physical beauty, nor that of the natural environment that surrounds it, no grasp even of the area’s mired history of corruption. Lines of supposed profundity - “soundings are hard to come by here” or “to spend time in Miami is to acquire certain fluency in cognitive dissonance” - struck me as insufferably pretentious rather than deep.

Dirty Havana Trilogy: A Novel in Stories by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

Filthy, very funny and ultimately a bit wrenching, the novel was originally published as Trilogía sucia de La Habana in 1998 and chronicles the devastating effect of the período especial on Cuba in early 1990s.  The author chronicles the myriad of ways Cubans try to survive, at one point concluding “the only way to live here is crazy, drunk or fast asleep.”

The Boy Is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General by Laura Lee P. Huttenbach

Laura Lee Huttenbach’s debut is a unique first-hand account of cultural lineage, revolutionary awakening and dogged perseverance told in the voice Japhlet Thambu, a man who seems to have fit several lifetimes into the span of one. It is an essential testimony to those seeking to understand modern-day Kenya.

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

The story of Macabéa, an impoverished, unwanted typist who migrates from Alagoas to Rio de Janeiro, this last novel by the Ukrainian-Brazilian author is an odd and rare bird, indeed, with some striking passages. I am still not even sure whether or not I entirely liked it, but I am intrigued enough to continue on exploring her work.

The Collected Poems by Czesław Miłosz

The work of the great Polish poet, here presented in luminous English-language translations, is some of the finest poetry of the second half of the 20th century. There are worlds of beauty to be discovered here.

Stray Poems by Alejandro Murguía

Of somewhat uneven quality, this book by San Francisco’s poet laureate still contains some wonderfully evocative sections.

Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden by Heberto Padilla

A shattering portrait of the moment when the great hope of the Cuban revolution disintegrated into tyranny by an author who suffered as much as any artist from the Castro regime’s curdling into dictatorship, this novel marks stark realization of the narrator that "a revolution is not simply the excited rush of plans, dreams, old longings for redemption and social justice that want to see the light of day which the revolution gushes at its beginning. It has its dark side, too, difficult, dirty almost...Repression, overzealous police vigilance, suspicion, summary verdicts, firing squads...” It is also a profound psychological portrait of despots themselves, with Padilla asking “Did tyrants love their countries...He thought they did, with the darkest, most jealous and constant love” and later concluding that “In every act of terror there is a desperate desire to persuade.”

Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Man’s wife dies. Man moves to decaying, canal-entwined Belgian city to brood. Man becomes convinced young dancer is the double of his dead spouse and becomes obsessed with her. You know, the usual. Having no idea who he was, I took a photo of Rodenbach’s extraordinary grave at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris during my first visit there in 1994 and only stumbled across this book during a reading I was giving in San Francisco last year. A very strange book by a very strange man, the novel nevertheless evokes Bruges in a certain aspect of saturnalia and morose lassitude, writing that it was a town

Where every day is like All Saints’ Day. A grey that seems to be made by mixing the white of the nuns’ head-dresses with the black of the priests’ cassocks, constantly passing here and pervasive...It is as if the frequent mists, the veiled light of the the northern skies, the granite of the quais, the incessant rain, the rhythm of the bells had combined to influence the colour of the air; and also, in this aged town, the dead ashes of time, the dust from the hourglass of the years spreading its silent deposit over everything.

A little-known book worth spending some time with.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

A youthful effort but one whose charm and power come from its very simplicity., this novel features a young father, a teenage daughter and a summer household in the south of France heading towards cataclysm.

The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy by Yanis Varoufakis

This book by Greece’s former finance minister posits, as a powerful symbol of Wall Street capitalism, a minotaur demanding tribute and fealty from all. It is a piercing criticism of a system where quack theories known by their acronyms - EMH, CEH, RBCT - were cocooned in “mathematical complexity [that] succeeded for too long in hiding their feebleness” and where a credit rating system existed as the purest nepotism. As Varoufakis trenchantly observes

The bankers paid the credit rating agencies...the regulatory authorities...accept these ratings as kosher; and the up and coming young men and women who had secured a badly paid job with one of the regulatory authorities soon began to plan a career move to Lehman Brothers or Moody's...Overseeing all of them was a host of treasury secretaries and finance minister who had either already served for years at Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns etc or were hoping to join that magic circle after leaving politics.

As it continues to be, Varoufakis writes that the rescue plan after the 2008 economic crisis it was not “never again” but rather “business as usual with public funds.”

Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris by Edmund White

A spirited and evocative (though at times gossipy and name-dropping) memoir of la ville lumière by the American writer who lived there from 1983 to 1990, the book made me heavily nostalgic for my own time in this most magical of cities. As White shows, no matter where one might go in afterwards, one who has lived there for any period of time will always have Paris.

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