Friday, December 29, 2017

Books in 2017: A Personal Selection

 Mohammad Mohiedine Anis, 70, smokes his pipe as he sits in his destroyed bedroom listening to music on his vinyl player in Aleppo's formerly rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood.(AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos
One of the most important - but in many ways least remembered - Spanish-language poets of the 20th century, whose words translate seamlessly into English in this bilingual collection, Julia de Burgos was the often-anguished and sometimes dizzyingly sensual voice of Puerto Rico who died at 39 in New York City in 1953. In her poetry, recurring images - the sea, the stars - lighten to a degree what can often be the bleak inner life of her writing, and, as a committed political militant and passionate anti-fascist, one of her greatest poems, a tribute to the Rio Grande de Loíza remains, years later, a defiant call to an island and a people battered by catastrophes both natural and man-made:

¡Río Grande de Loíza!... Río grande. Llanto grande.
El más grande de todos nuestros llantos isleños,
si no fuera más grande el que de mi se sale
por los ojos del alma para mi esclavo pueblo.

Rio Grande de Loiza! . . . Great river. Great flood of tears.
The greatest of all our island's tears
save those greater that come from the eyes
up of my soul for my enslaved people.

Holy Legionary Youth: Fascist Activism in Interwar Romania Book by Roland Clark
This all-too-relevant book looks at the foundations and growth of Romania’s indigenous fascist movements, especially Corneliu Zelea Codreanu’s Iron Guard, also known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael or, simply, as the Legionnaire movement. Facing a crumbling state whose moral equivocations finally eroded its authority, the Romanian fascists blended a wild, faux-mystical antisemitic violence with religious and folk-historical symbolism, including appearing in isolated rural villages dressed as haiduc, outlaws who had fought local oppressors in the 19th century. It is no coincidence that Codreanu’s image appeared on t-shirts worn by some of the far-right protesters who ran amok in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer. In addition to assassinations and street violence, the Legionnaires also defined themselves through art – they sold handmade crosses with the words “by sacrificing our lives we will escape from thieves” inscribed beneath them - and by long marches in between Romanian towns that “alerted onlookers that there was something distinctive about the Legion, showing that legionnaires valued hierarchy, order, discipline and physical fitness.” Though not a time in European history that attracts a great deal of attention today, this interwar period in Romania certainly holds a cautionary tale for our present moment.

Los Zetas Inc: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in Mexico by Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera
Though there have been a surfeit of books detailing the garish violence of Mexico’s drug cartels – organizations whose lifeblood depends on both the ravenous appetite for narcotics and current policies of the United States – no book has delved in such nuts-and-bolts detail into the financial hierarchies and dynamics that inform the running of one of these organizations as does Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera’s tome on Los Zetas. Highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the inner working of organized crime and how it integrates itself into the legitimate economy.
Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad
The majesty of one of Iran’s greatest poets – who combines a world and once modern and antique and who writes as frankly and elegantly about female desire as anyone ever has – calls out from the page and evokes a forgotten glory of a national literary tradition that, while perhaps dormant at the moment, waits to be born again.
Family Portrait With Fidel: A Memoir by Carlos Franqui
A memoir of disillusionment and disenchantment with a revolution he once risked his life to support, this memoir by Carlos Franqui, an anti-Batista author and rebel who became editor of the important newspaper Revolución after the dictator’s fall, Franqui’s book shows the betrayal of the Cuban people by the Castro brothers and their allies and the subsuming of hard-fought victories and dreams of progress to totalitarianism. “We carried out all kinds of executions,” Franqui writes at one point. “Real, moral and symbolic.”

Everybody Leaves by Wendy Guerra
A moving elegy to the vanished youth of a Cuban girl’s conflicted and adventurous early life growing up in Cienfuegos and Havana.

Ghost Stories by M. R. James

Classic English ghost stories from one of the masters of the genre, including such gems as “Casting the Runes” and “After Dark in the Playing Fields.” A most enjoyable diversion.
Paradiso by  José Lezama Lima
A complicated, allusive novel of Cuba in the early part of the 20th century, Lezama’s key work remains one of the greatest achievements of Latin American fiction of his era, and his erotic, poetic prose (“They looked each other over with long pauses of insatiation and a carnality of symphonic progression”) couldn’t be further away from the square, macho military culture of today’s “official” Cuba. A sleeping giant, waiting be discovered.
The End of Eddy: A Novel by Édouard Louis
A beautifully rendered and occasionally brutal and disturbing memoir of growing up poor and gay in  northern France, this book captures the simultaneous ache and occasional truces in difficult, dysfunctional families with great clarity and speaks to anyone who ever felt like a misfit who had to break away into the great unknown.

Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea by Shiraz Maher
A vitally important work in decoding the ideology (cosmology might be a better term) of salafi-Jihadism, this book by a noted British academic (and former radical himself) lays out in minute detail the current jihadi interpretation of such concepts as tatarrus (roughly a theological construct relating to human shields but also expanding into targeting civilians) and their roots in various schismatic schools of Islamic thought.

Mephisto by Klaus Manm
The story of an actor’s seduction by the rewards offered by proximity to power in Nazi Germany, the great German author’s 1936 novel has unnerving parables to the situation here in the contemporary United States, and one wonders how many in the orbit of the current U.S. president and his minions have - or will - mentally echo the performer Höfgen thoughts when, as Mephisto, he meets Herman Goering: ”Now I have contaminated myself…Now there is a stain on my hand that I can never wash off…Now I have sold myself…Now I am marked for life.”

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction by Elaine Frantz Parsons
The garishly theatrical nature of the early Ku Klux Klan, where elements of minstrelsy combined with brutal violence, is here chronicled in a book that is often revelatory. Formed in Pulaski, Tennessee in May or June 1866 (and not, as is often claimed, by former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, who only attached to himself to the Klan later), the Klan were defined from the beginning by a relentless repetition of “the portrayal of black people as failed citizens and of white attackers as the people” and sought to destroy black associations and kill their white allies, and to actively and deliberately to destroy familial bonds among freepeople. A vital and important part of U.S. history to be understood.

 Impossible Revolution by Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Perhaps the pinnacle of Syrian dissident literature from a man who spent 16 years in the prisons of the tyrant Hafez al-Assad only to be released and watch the dictator’s son, Bashar al-Assad, take over and level the country, Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s book is a cri de cœur that leaves few unscathed.
Writing that, by early 2012 it was “increasingly clear that the unimaginable situation we had discussed privately - the regime would be willing to destroy the country for the sake of staying in power - was its only political agenda, and that it was already being implemented,” Saleh chronicles massacres in Damascus, Homs and elsewhere and illuminates such critical moments as the July 2012 killing of various Syrian security officers (and the subsequent escalation of the use of barrel bombs) as the moment Iran began taking control of the regime’s defenses.
Saleh scathingly critiques “a neo-bourgeois during the years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, a class that owes everything to the regime and has a lot to lose were the revolution to emerge victorious” who in turn serve a government who views its people “with contempt and disdain, in a manner no different from a colonizing power’s view of the colonized; this justifies the use of violence against the “backward” masses and cheapens the value of the lives, so much so that killing them is a matter of no great concern.” Saleh sees his hometown of Raqqa slide under control of the jihadists, noting bitterly that he was “unable to walk around the city where I had spent years of my adolescence, where most of my brothers lived, and where my parents had lived until their deaths, while some religiously-obsessed, enraged Tunisians, Saudis, Egyptians and Europeans roamed freely, unable to engage in anything other than murder.” Detailing the depredations of the regime’s muscle-bound, murderous shock troops, known as shabiha (many with roots in the seaside city of Latakia), Saleh quotes the Syrian-British writer Rana Kabbani describing pro-regime Western writers - especially Robert Fisk - as "shabiha of the pen." Nor does former U.S. President Barack Obama – whose inaction in the wake of Assad’s August 2013 Ghouta must be seen as a turning point of the war escape critique, cited for his “treacherous and dastardly” deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Syria shortly thereafter.
“Those who had appointed themselves the guardians of international law were reassuring a murderer that they might be compelled to punish him for violating international law,” Saleh writes of the toothless response to the attack. “But without affecting his ability to kill people and with no reference to his other crimes…The international community decided mass slaughter of Syrians by regime wasn’t a crime, but the weapon used was.”
The government in Syria, Saleh writes, only ever offered “a cosmetic modernity…without any emancipatory privileges,” whose “real identity” consisted of “ the combination of an obsolete, inhumane political apparatus with a glamorous material façade.”
Today, seven years after Syria’s war began, the international community’s abandonment of the people of Syria has never seemed more complete.

Foreign Correspondent by Robert St. Johh

An extraordinary first hand account of Europe’s slide into fascism, this memoir contains, among other details, chilling eyewitness accounts of the rise (and fall) of Romania’s fascist Iron Guard and of the destruction of Belgrade by the Nazis. A searing and timely reminder of how quickly a society that thought of itself as civilized can descend into madness.

Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada by Zoé Valdés

A novel of a rebel voice living through the hundred daily humiliations of life in an ossifying tyranny, this book sets out to chronicle “the island that in wanting to build a paradise has created a hell,” and in doing so skewers many hoary myths of Cuba.

“There are those who maintain that people throw themselves into the sea over insignificant economic deprivations - can’t get any blue jeans, can’t find any chewing gum - but anyone who says that simply doesn’t know Cuba,” Valdés writes. “Doesn’t know the terror and hunger the Cuban people have known; people who say that are those whose knowledge of the country is limited to the luxury hotels and the government."

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