Undisturbed Reading…

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I returned from a three week trip to Cuba nine weeks back. I haven’t worked since and won’t start again until October. My working year gets shorter. Money is sometimes a problem, but I’ve enjoyed the time off. While in Havana, I read: A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and His Literary Circle 1805-1915 by Miranda Seymour (The circle here included Hart Crane, H.G. Wells, Ford Maddox Ford, Edith Wharton and James’s brother William); Americans in Paris: Life and Death under the Nazi Occupation 1940-1944 by Charles Glass; Eichmann and the Holocaust by Hannah Arendt, Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin; Conversations with Marilyn [Monroe] by W.J. Weatherby and You Talkin’ to Me: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith.

Quite a heavy selection, now I look at it, but I enjoyed every one. Possibly I wouldn’t have read all of those books at home – too distracted, but in Cuba I can read for hours undisturbed and with good concentration.

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In the nine weeks I’ve been home I’ve read: Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism by Greg Grandin; The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene by Marie Francoise Allain; Defying Hitler, a memoir by Sebastian Haffner; Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (the horrific tale of the chemical spill) by Dominique Lapierre & Javier Moro; Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we ended up greedy, narcissistic and unhappy by Rod Liddle; Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies; The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare by Peter Brook and Thirst by Kerry Hudson.

They appear, on reflection, quite heavy too, but they weren’t. And it’s taken me nine weeks to read them, mostly in bed; during the day there was little concentrated reading, being easily distracted.

I also noticed from one of my recent posts that I said I’d never read William Faulkner. The reason I’d never tried was just a few comments I’d read over the years. I remember Bill Bryson, ages ago, writing about a passage being three pages long “which would constitute one sentence for William Faulkner”; that and a few other remarks coloured my opinion of him. But having never read Faulkner, I became curious and, after all, he won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.

I decided to investigate Faulkner. I looked through his books on Amazon and settled on Light in August. The Spectator said that it:

Burns throughout with a fierce indignation against cruelty, stupidity and prejudice – a great book”

A comment from a reader said;

This a Faulkner’s major work which could be considered as one of the best American novels of the 1930s. This book represents the best introduction to Faulkner’s novels and to the history of the deep South. Anyone interested in American literature should read it.”

It has 384 pages. Surely ideal as an introduction to Faulkner. I enjoyed the first few chapters but found the style difficult. Faulkner describes everything, tells you everything. It is written in, what for the time, was a modernistic style. It is impressionistic. The following passage is fairly typical:

Then a cold hard wind seems to blow through him. It is at once violent and peaceful, blowing hard away like chaff or trash or dead leaves all the desire and despair and the hopelessness and the tragic and vain imagining too. With the very blast of it he seems to feel himself rush back and empty again, without anything in him now which had not been there two weeks ago, before he ever saw her. The desire of this moment is more than desire; it is conviction quiet and assured; before he is aware that his brain has telegraphed his hand he has turned the mule from the road and is galloping along the ridge which parallels the running man’s course when he entered the woods.

Beautiful writing. But essentially the man changes direction; that’s about all I wanted to know. Perhaps that makes me a moron; perhaps I have a short attention span, except there comes a stage where I just want to get on with the story – it seemed so slow, so stodgy. It is wonderfully written, but the whole book is like that: every action, every thought, everything surrounding that action and thought is described in detail. It was too much. I waited and waited for the story to move. I tried. I read 200 pages. I don’t mind that kind of description in moderation, but paragraph after paragraph, page after page – and I was never entirely sure what was going on. So I gave up. I don’t like abandoning books; I usually give a book ten to fifty pages; I really tried with this one. Ultimately I didn’t care.

Maybe I am a moron. If that is a good introduction to Faulkner, I won’t be reading any more. A wonderful writer. But not for me.

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This post would be too long for me to discuss the above books in any detail, assuming anybody wants me to. Although I would recommend them all, I would like to praise a few unreservedly. I enjoyed Thirst. Kerry Hudson writes with great insight about Alena, a girl in trouble, but I didn’t care for the male character – a shame. Hudson though is a good writer. She writes about ordinary people and their interesting and, in this case, dangerous lives. She is also genuinely working class. Not enough of those writers around (see Rod Liddle) and I’ll watch out for anything else she writes.

Peter Brook is always interesting. He writes clear prose and thinks originally. He writes very slim volumes though. This one I read in an hour-and-a-half, and I’m a slow reader. Stiff at £12.99, full-price. All his books seem to be that way. Recommended though.

Strong recommendations for:

Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin.

I knew nothing about Hannah Arendt but found myself agreeing with everything she said and everything she thought. I liked the way she lived her life, her courage and her stubbornness. I disliked Martin Heidegger. Stranger from Abroad is a superb read. I’d never heard of Daniel Maier-Katkin. He’s an academic, but also a good writer and meticulously fair-minded.

Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we ended up greedy, narcissistic and unhappy by Rod Liddle

Rod Liddle’s book is a bit of a rant, but all the better for it. He says things most people haven’t the courage to say and, for me, need saying. Our society has become rather silly and unfair. He says so, says why and names the guilty. Selfish Whining Monkeys indeed.

Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies.

Cracked is an exposure of the psychiatric industry; and it is an industry. It also reveals how drug companies are prescribing dangerous drugs worldwide, doing most of the published research themselves while burying negative reports. Very disturbing.

Despite appearances, all the above are easy reads with the exception of Light in August (for me). You Talkin’ to Me can be hard-going too.

Hope you weren’t bored.

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Writing Heroes – Ingrid Betancourt

book-001I read a book a few years ago called Even Silence Has an End by Ingrid Betancourt. I don’t remember much of the book, only impressions. One event in the book stayed with me though. I’ll never forget it. I’ll come to that later.

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Betancourt, forty one in 2002, and a presidential candidate, was abducted by FARC, a guerrilla organisation in Colombia. She had given up a life of comfort and safety to become a political leader. She spent six-and-a-half-years in the depths of the jungle, walked hundreds of miles, often chained, day and night. She tried to escape several times, often succeeding, only to be recaptured.

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I still have my impressions from the book. FARC were mostly stupid and brutal; they recruited from the very poorest and brainwashed them into hating their captors – very basic class warfare. The captors were moved often, always being hundreds of miles from safety. Any escape involved negotiating almost impossible, dangerous terrain through the jungle. She made friends and enemies along the way.

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She struck me as being a very determined, brave woman. There were times when she made herself unpopular with her fellow captors. I’m not sure why, although I can imagine she could be a dominant personality, constantly persuading her co-captors to action rather than lethargy and safety-first – a wait-and-see attitude.

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She and all the captives suffered a great deal. The FARC guerrillas were generally unintelligent and spiteful, not glamorous at all, and politically indoctrinated against any independent thought, even if they were capable of it. Few of them could read or write. There were decent people among them, but not many – much the same as society, I suppose.

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The book is a great read. I’m not sure how popular it became (it was published in 2010), but it certainly deserved popularity. Betancourt’s tells a story of suffering, courage and eventually triumph that is beyond the imagining of anybody who has not been in her situation.

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The event I referred to earlier occurred about half-way through the book. There were many captives of many nationalities; there was often tension between them: petty jealousies, getting upset over silly things, not knowing who to trust. According to Betancourt, she remained above it all, although I’m sure she could be forceful. Earlier one of the female captives had become pregnant by one of the guerrillas. She had escaped earlier with Betancourt but, as always, they had been re-captured. She was a strange woman. At the time of this incident the prisoners did not even know where she was; she had been taken away, presumably for medical treatment.

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One day some of the captors insisted that Betancourt be moved from their compound. It was sheer nastiness. I’m not sure why they behaved like that. Perhaps they objected to her positivity – I don’t know. There was constant bickering. She was moved to another area of the camp, the chicken run, where she found the pregnant woman, eight months gone, living alone. Later another captive joined them, also banished for sticking up for her.

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They lived quite well. The pregnant woman wanted Betancourt to be the baby’s godmother; the other captive loved the absence of tension away from the main compound,

“I can’t bear the thought of going back to that prison”

he said. Echoing his fear, a guard arrived:
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Your fellow prisoners have been complaining because one of the guards told them that you have better living conditions than they do. They want you back.
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Betancourt says that she felt she was entering the gates of hell when she was returned to the main compound.

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“You didn’t stay away long” hissed one of her companions. “I’m sure you missed us” replied Betancourt’s male friend, returned also, “maybe it was you who insisted we come back”. A man sniggered:

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Well, we too have some influence.

This was by far the most shocking incident of the book for me. Many awful things happened during the prisoners’ six-and-a-half years of captivity. None of us knows how we would react to the terrible and traumatic experiences without actually having to go through it. But to banish someone from the main compound is perhaps just silly. To then hear that they might be better off and insist that they be brought back defies belief. It is the height of malicious jealousy.

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I told a few people of the incident after reading it. The most popular response was “Well, we don’t know how we would react in those circumstances.” That’s true. There are many incidents in the book where I don’t know how I would react. I don’t know if I would have the courage to try to escape. I don’t know what attitude I would take to my captors, to my fellow prisoners. I would like to think that I would remain positive and make the best of whatever happened. But we just don’t know until we have suffered the same exhaustion, pain and trauma that all the captives did.

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But one thing I’m sure of. If Betancourt was moved and found herself better off, I’d merely have thought “Good luck to her”. To insist she be returned was madness, nothing to do with their general circumstances of captivity. It was spiteful, stupid, jealous and petty.

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I won’t reveal the nationality of the people who insisted she be returned. That would be unfair. There were three main culprits. In the event it was a minor incident for Betancourt, who was eventually rescued by the Colombian military. I’m sure that sort of captivity would bring out the worst in all of us, perhaps the best too. Hopefully, we will never know.

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One thing I’m sure of though: I would not have banished Betancourt in the first place, and I most definitely would not have insisted she be returned because I merely suspected that she might be happier wherever she was. Unbelievable.

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What do you think?

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