Wednesday, 7 September 2022

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson

Yes, this is a novel, albeit one that uses its fictional elements as a loose (very loose) framework on which the author hangs a travelogue, and a lot of didactic and polemical asides. The unnamed narrator is bi-racial and grows up in Connecticut with his unmarried mother and believes he's White until one day at school he's outed by a teacher. He's something of a prodigy at the piano, as well as being an excellent student, but his skin colour quickly comes to dominate his thoughts and viewpoint. After graduating from high school he sets out to find his place in America. He travels to Atlanta to go to university, but after a cruel setback he goes on to Jacksonville and lives there for over a year working as a cigar roller. After Jacksonville he tries his luck in NYC, and eventually spends time in Paris and rural Georgia. After witnessing a brutal lynching in Georgia he makes the decision to live the rest of his life as a White man, even, for a time, keeping his race a secret from the White woman he falls in love with. She rejects him initially, but then eventually marries him. It's the last time he reveals his biracialism to anyone.

This book can't really be judged as a novel since it's clear that Johnson was only using the novel form as a vehicle to deliver what is essentially a State of the (Black) Nation speech. As such, it's fascinating. Johnson was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a U.S. diplomat, became the first Black professor at NYU, and held important positions in the NAACP. Johnson's thoughts and observations on the split personality forced on Blacks are particularly interesting. As he saw it, Blacks had to struggle to be both Black and American. Racist America didn't want Blacks except under strict conditions, but Blacks wanted to be fully American in terms of rights. They were aspiring to join a club that didn't want them, and that, in his view, produced a painful split in the Black personality. The narrator, who becomes a financial success, realizes he can't be both Black and American, and chooses the latter. That's not something Johnson ever did, but he was able to see the cruel choice forced on Black America.

Although Johnson takes a mildly optimistic view of the progress Blacks will make in the future, highlighting their role in creating ragtime music which was taking the world by storm, it's sobering that so many of the hot button issues and cruel social conditions he describes are still unresolved to this day. He even takes note of, to him, the problematic and plentiful use of the n-word by what he regarded as lower-class Blacks. Interestingly, Johnson is blind to his own racism as he twice says disparaging things about Native Americans. While as a novel it barely exists, as a snapshot of the Black experience it's invaluable.

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Book Review: The Fourth of June (1962) by David Benedictus

Before the libidinous suet pudding and Eton graduate known as Boris Johnson came along, Eton College was famous as an artisanal workshop crafting young white boys into assorted British PMs, cabinet ministers, as well as sundry leaders of UK culture and industry (look for the maker's mark on their bottoms). It was justifiably regarded as a bad thing that one academic institution, famed for its wealth and snobbery, should have an outsize influence on British society and culture. Cue the political arrival of Johnson, a man who read Animal Farm as a how-to guide for upper management, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, better known as the posh, but dim, ghost from that set-in-England episode of Scooby Doo, and the dialogue swerved from how anachronistic and elitist Eton was, to how toxic and omni-incompetent its graduates are. 

It turns out that a novel written sixty years ago had already hit the fire alarm on Eton. David Benedictus, an Eton graduate, wrote this incendiary portrait of life at the college less than six years after graduating. I know nothing about British libel law, but I'm shocked, given the time period, he wasn't sued into oblivion. The student body he describes is stuffed with viciously snobbish mediocrities with an appetite for sadism, psychological torture, the sexual coercion and harassment of younger boys, plus a side order of servility in the face of tradition. And the teachers aren't any better. It's as unflattering a picture as you could want in 1962 or 2022.

The main student character is Phillips, a boy with literary leanings who finds himself witness to a formal, sanctioned beating (Eton students could and did discipline each other) that puts a student in hospital for the trivial crime of being out of his room after hours. Initially, the severity of this incident threatens to lead to the expulsion of Phillips and three of his peers. Eton, however, hasn't lasted hundreds of years by not knowing how to sweep a scandal under the Aubusson. Strings are pulled, important voices raised, and, in one case, sexual favours are provided to a housemaster. The result is that the guilty go unpunished, and the culture of cruelty and moral cowardice that put a boy in hospital is allowed to continue. 

The Fourth of June doesn't rely on sensationalism to hold the reader's attention. Benedictus writes with wit and precision, showing how the weaknesses and vices of students and teachers are allowed to flourish in the hothouse atmosphere of Eton. Phillips is essentially a bright, average youth, but Eton's cult-like obsession with form, duty and tradition breaks down his moral barriers and makes him actually enjoy watching a fellow student savagely beaten, even as part of him recoils from it. The beaten boy, Scarfe, a junior God-botherer and most definitely not one of us, is the only who leaves the school, gently pushed out with the excuse that his delicate constitution isn't suitable for the rigors of Eton. He is, of course, psychologically damaged beyond repair by the time he leaves the college. And forty years later the same damage, and worse, is being inflicted upon Britain by another cohort of Etonians.

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Book Review: Die a Stranger (2012) by Steve Hamilton

One of the things that distinguishes crime fiction from other genres is its frequent focus on creating a strong sense of place; in fact, this could almost be said to be the defining quality of the genre. From Raymond Chandler's L.A. to Val McDermid's Fife, Scotland, there are few crime writers who haven't tried, as William Faulkner said, to bring to life "their own little postage stamp of soil." Of course, this emphasis on a specific region or city is partly a natural byproduct of authors using the same detective/investigator who, in book after book, patrols the same turf. But it's not always the case that writers make the effort to drill down into their "postage stamp." Simenon's Maigret novels, for example, are often set in Paris, but they're not about Paris in the same way that Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee mysteries are about the vast Navajo reservation in New Mexico. With Simenon Paris is only a setting, while Hillerman makes his setting a character, one that has a significant influence over events and personalities. Some other notable writers who turn environments into characters include K.C. Constantine, Adrian McKinty, Giles Blunt, and Christopher Fowler. Add Steve Hamilton to the list.

Hamilton's investigator, Alex McKnight (featured in eleven books), lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a region defined by the bush, the Great Lakes, and Native American reservations. I've lived and worked in northern Canada, and Hamilton gets the atmosphere of this environment perfectly; in particular, he gives the reader a feel for the divide, and occasional tension, between Natives and the white community. As well, he captures the necessary interconnectedness of the people who live in these isolated, underpopulated areas, bound together by blood ties, friendship, and sometimes long-held grudges. It's a peculiar world that's largely the same on both sides of the border, and Hamilton clearly knows it well. 

In Die a Stranger McKnight becomes caught up in a cross-border drug smuggling operation that goes wrong and which also drags in one of his close friends. The plot mixes mystery and thriller elements, but it also takes time to build up a picture of life in the Upper Peninsula. I'd read several thrillers in a row prior to Stranger, so there was something pleasing about a story that wasn't trying to slap me across the face every second. I've no objection to pure thrillers, but they can become formulaic and predictable when you know that every chapter is going to end with some kind of twist or shock reveal. A crime novel such as this can actually be more surprising because it digresses, taking quick side trips to places that are new or foreign to us, e.g. a look at the impact of  Native-owned casinos on reservation life. And Hamilton puts equal emphasis on the personal relationships that bind his characters and often direct their actions. The finale, in fact, avoids the usual violent, climactic encounter or arrest, and instead has a father telling McKnight about a sacrifice he's going to make to save his son. It's an unexpected way to end a crime novel, and it's all the stronger for it. 

Friday, 13 May 2022

Book Review: Slow Horses (2010) and Real Tigers (2016) by Mick Herron

I haven't read any spy fiction in years, but at the urging of friends and relatives I decided to give Mick Herron's Slough House series of spy novels a try. Slough House is the name of a squalid London office block in which MI5 agents who've screwed-up royally are sent to perform menial security tasks under the supervision of Jackson Lamb, a one-time star of the service who insults and berates his staff in equal measure. Being sent to Slough House isn't a probationary move; the top brass at MI5 hope that the miscreants will simply quit rather than endure working lives of bureaucratic drudgery while being verbally abused by Lamb. Naturally enough, they end up falling into assorted adventures.

I was both delighted and mildly disappointed by the two I've read so far. The main annoyance for me is that neither novel features much spying, at least not the kind one associates with writers like Deighton and Le Carre. These are straight-up race against the clock thrillers, both, oddly enough, featuring kidnapping plots, and they have more in common with conspiracy thrillers than the world of furtive border crossings and sleeper agents.

While Horses and Tigers can't claim to be pure spy fiction, they are very entertaining. The pacing and prose is excellent, with the banter, always sharp and nasty, often funny, probably being the best feature of the series. Jackson Lamb is the star of the show. He's one part Falstaff, one part insult comic, and one part stroppy genius. He may be in command of a backwater, but his spycraft and acumen are still first-class. He's also rude, arrogant and has a dysfunctional relationship with personal hygiene. On the downside, Lamb also represents a cheat code for middle-aged white writers who want to say naughty, un-PC things without taking any heat. The trick is to create a white, middle-aged character who's larded with bad habits and gross appetites, so that when he tosses off a "witty" racial slur the author can say, well, what do you expect from someone as reprehensible as Lamb? The fact that Lamb is never outwitted, always gets the last laugh and the best lines, indicates that his visceral disreputableness is merely a way to sugarcoat his Jimmy Carr-isms. 

The other key member of the team is River Cartwright, a young, up and coming agent unjustly accused of fouling up a major training exercise and now marooned at Slough House for his sins. If Lamb provides the brains and wit, River takes care of the legwork and action elements. Other disgraced agents round out the team, all of whom are solidly crafted. Except for Roddy Ho. Every team in a modern spy thriller needs a computer whiz so here the job has to go Asian. And because he's Asian and into computers he has to be nerdy, anti-social, and terrible with women. Ho is a parade of cliches that were getting stale 20 years ago. There are two recurring villains: Diana Taverner, the number two person at MI5 and a ruthless careerist with the bedside manner of a solicitous cobra. The other is Peter Judd, a transparent parody of pre-Downing St Boris Johnson. In both books Judd is angling for political gain through dirty tricks. They make a fine pair of baddies. 

Herron's plotting is clear and finely structured, although there is an overreliance on Ho using his magical computer//hacker skills to solve problems. This is a common fault in so many thrillers; the hero or the team face an apparently insuperable barrier or mystery until the resident keyboard jockey taps a few keys, et voila! Problem solved. It's an example of lazy writing and it shows no signs of going away soon. One odd thing I noticed: the style, tone, and even the sense of humour on offer in the Slough House books is remarkably similar to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. You could even see the crew of Slough House as real world doubles for the Watch of Ankh-Morpork. 

So while both Lamb and Ho, particularly the latter, aren't entirely successful characters (the TV adaptation of Slow Horses has largely fixed this problem), the books are an excellent mix of wit and tension-building plots. And any novel that pillories Boris Johnson deserves bonus marks

Friday, 21 January 2022

The Republic of False Truths (2020) by Alaa Al Aswany

One of the surest indications of the quality of this novel about the popular revolt in Egypt in 2011, is that the author is no longer welcome in his native Egypt and the book is banned there. The Republic of False Truths is turbocharged with anger and outrage at how the Egyptian state and its ruling classes reacted to the mass protests in Tahrir Square with violence and a vicious, hysterical propaganda campaign. 

Al Aswany tells his story through the eyes and voices of the protestors and their oppressors. On one side are the poor and educated twentysomethings who have finally had enough of the corruption, brutality and spectacular hypocrisy of the state and Egyptian society. On the other side are those who benefit from the status quo: businessmen, high officials in politics and state institutions, and careerists in religion and the media who seek to further their ambitions by siding with whomever is in power. When the state cracks down they do so with massacres, torture, sexual violence against female protestors, and an egregious media campaign that tries to paint the protestors as paid accomplices of the CIA and Israel. 

The novel's dozen or so characters range from the head of Egypt's security service to a maid. In general, Al Aswany isn't subtle with his characters; the good ones (protestors) are pure in their intentions, while the bad ones are implacable in their desire to bring harm to the other side. I'm not qualified to say whether the situation was that black and white in Egypt (I suspect it was), but the stark divide between the two groups of characters occasionally gives the novel a melodramatic flavour. 

Two characters, Nourhan and Ashraf, stand out because they're given more interesting shadings. Ashraf is a middle-aged, well-off, barely employed actor, who spends his days smoking hash and conducting an affair with his maid. He and his wife are barely on speaking terms. He witnesses the first massacre in Tahrir Square in which hundreds of protestors were shot by the police and instantly becomes radicalized, throwing in his lot wholeheartedly with the student protestors. Ashraf's Damascene conversion is, perhaps, too abrupt and complete, but he's at least a character who's given a chance to change. Nourhan is the star of the novel, and Al Aswany uses her to paint a picture of Egypt's toxic levels of hypocrisy. She's a popular and beautiful talking head on one of the country's official TV channels, as well as exceedingly and loudly pious. That doesn't prevent her from using Islamic divorce laws to essentially sleep her way to the top, and, once there, as the face of a private TV channel, become the Tucker Carlson/Sean Hannity of Egypt as she spouts officially written and approved propaganda. She's a monster who thinks she's a saint. 

If there's an overriding theme to the novel it's the pernicious role of religion in Egyptian society. The ruling classes use it as a goad, a weapon, and a one-size-fits-all excuse for their worst crimes. And as shown through Nourhan and a religious leader named Sheik Shamel, piety can also be monetized. Although there's nothing subtle about Al Aswany's approach to his subject (not surprisingly, he took part in the Tahrir Square protests), his anger and his clinical descriptions of state-sponsored violence give the novel tremendous energy. And this isn't just a novel for people interested in the Middle East. A lot of what takes place in the novel has an eerie similarity to the recent BLM protests, the fall of Trump, and the Fox News-led backlash against both events. After all, when it comes minting money from religion and manufactured outrage, America leads the world.