Said and read – February 2018

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Last month I wrote a little something about the books that had been essential, life-affirming, thought-provoking or somehow became lodged in my head or forced tears from my eyes. Affecting in one way or another. Because my reading hysteria has continued, despite my intention to calm down, I’ve completed a number of, once again, affecting books. (You can keep track of all my reading right along with me.)

What I am finding, overall, is that most books live somewhere in the middle of a scale, whether that scale is 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 (and I hate these kinds of arbitrary ratings). There are concepts or ideas that excite the brain, but the book is otherwise undercooked. There are passages that inflame the passions, making the heart beat faster and breathing shallow – or making tears literally explode from the eyes, or that animate the brain, starting processes of analysis or self-reflection. But even then, these are only passages in books that don’t stand up as a whole against the scrutiny required to call something great.

That said, I know that ‘great’ is entirely subjective. I can’t outright define what makes a “great book”. It is even subjective for one person on two different days. I found (as I often do) that I am a much harsher, less patient critic when I am tired and cranky, so for example, I was not at all interested in how Jonas Karlsson‘s book The Room turned out when I hit the halfway point just before going to sleep one February evening. Sleeping on it, though, I came back, finished the book and found some interesting concepts and connections. It was both annoying and intriguing at the same time. Mostly felt tedious except when the question is raised as to whether there can be a different reality for every person. Can one person see something that no one else sees, and be left undisturbed to experience it that way, even if it is a sign of mental illness?  The questions underscore bigger mysteries about the nature of reality and the ways we work best as individuals, illustrating what it’s like for the many who stumble through a world that looks different to them than to the majority. How do we make allowances for that in a world that operates like an assembly line, dependent on sameness, not questioning and uniformity in thinking and action? Nevertheless, as realistic as the depiction of the deluded, mentally ill, belligerent main character/narrator can be, the arrogant clinging to unfounded and unreasonable theories, self-confidence and sense of superiority reminds me so much of someone I used to know that it became hard to read. Which in a way is the mark of a good book (or at least a vital character)… but not a great one.

I also enjoy small coincidences – where one book randomly happens to mention something I did not expect, and that topic or place is mentioned – completely randomly – in the next book or in a film I watch the same day. For example, I read Leila Aboulela‘s book, The Translator, which was about a Sudanese woman. I didn’t know it was set in dear, beloved Scotland until I started reading. And to my delight (because it doesn’t take much), the very next book I read, Ryszard Kapuściński‘s The Shadow of the Sun, also had a whole passage that involved some young Glaswegians traveling around in West Africa. I expected the book to be about Kapuściński’s travels all over the African continent; I didn’t necessarily expect to be greeted by some young, naive Scots as well. Both engaging books – neither ‘great’.

Derek B. Miller‘s Norwegian by Night was a surprise – but still not ‘great’. I appreciated the details – the Oslo I know, up close, and references to little things like RV 23 and E18 make me think of my interminable slogs between Oslo and home in the Swedish woods. It feels close to home, and that can be comforting.

But the book itself feels too cramped, trying to stuff too much into one single novel: I mean, Holocaust, Judaism, American Jews and their identity and discrimination, Norwegians’ ignorance about Jews and Judaism, Korean War, Vietnam conflict, possible dementia, death, Kosovo, Serbia and the KLA, immigration issues in Norway, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Norwegian-Swedish cross-border issues, and a bunch of other stuff I am not even fitting into my few-sentence appraisal. I appreciated the effort, but it tried too hard. Don’t get me wrong – all of these topics are right up my alley, and in that way I loved reading this book. It was immensely enjoyable for all its flaws. Just much too ambitious in throwing too many ingredients into one dish.

Another interesting but much too overly ambitious book was Dexter Palmer‘s just slightly too-long Version Control. It offers unique perspectives on alternate realities/versions, online dating, big data and the way change and lack of communication, especially in relationships, can defy all our best intentions and promises. (No one, after all, goes into a relationship, full of hope and love, thinking they will fade into lesser and less vocal self-advocates or that they will stop interacting or showing those everyday moments of care that made them fall in love in the first place.) Sadly, for all its deft handling of some of these key emotional undercurrents – of the versions and version control of our emotional selves through the course of a relationship and through life – the book undermines itself with too wide a scope and too much … superfluity. With a tighter structure, this could be at least 100 pages shorter and, in my humble opinion, a much better book.

What I did find great, though, were the following:

  • The End of DaysJenny Erpenbeck (I wish I knew how to explain why I love Erpenbeck’s style so much. This was quite different, but no less engrossing, than her novel, Go, Went, Gone, which was one of my favorites last year.)
  • We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our FamiliesPhilip Gourevitch (Haunting, disturbing… how do things like the devastating Rwandan genocide happen? And how does a country move forward afterwards?)
  • An Unnecessary WomanRabih Alameddine (“Memory chooses to preserve what desire cannot hope to sustain.” Perhaps I loved this so much because I could relate to it in such a visceral way. I feel like I express myself, or at least think, like the antisocial loner old lady who is the center and narrator of this book. Her observations, her sentiments on books, obsession with Pessoa, her observations on translation and the imperfection of the art of translation. Perhaps it is also this connection to Lebanon, which I have been trying to dig into since I was in my early 20s, as much as possible. Everything one reads and hears about Lebanon has been so long tinged by the theme of its long civil war and general unrest that it is hard to find something more general, something that features the war only as a backdrop to life. Regular life continues as the war drags on for an entire generation. I felt something similar in watching the recent TV show Derry Girls, which shows life going on for a regular family with the Troubles in Northern Ireland only as a backdrop. A constant backdrop, but not the main story being told. This might not be for everyone, but I loved it.)
  • So You Want to Talk About RaceIjeoma Oluo (I actually read this in January, but had written about my January reading – stupidly – before January actually ended – and this was a phenomenal book and absolutely must be included.)

Honorable mentions (almost great or noteworthy for particular reasons):

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great MigrationIsabel Wilkerson
  • My Brilliant FriendElena Ferrante (I resisted reading this for a long time, more stubbornly the more I heard about its supposed merits. While I can’t rave at the level that would make me call this a ‘great’ book, I nevertheless found the precision with which the elusive Ferrante has depicted the fickle, painful, precarious back-and-forth-teeter-totter nature of female friendships.)
  • LoveStarAndri Snær Magnason (I appreciated the satirical take on our tech-saturated present and future – and the implication that everything can and probably will go haywire – very Black Mirror-esque. Who are we once we are completely defined by technology and incompetent without it? How do we define life and identity when you can erase your child’s existence and replace him/her with the spare copies you’ve made? Does life and experience matter when you have the opportunity to rewind and start again? What are the ethical considerations and consequences? And even more tellingly for today, when we are actively encouraged to quantify everything about ourselves and our existence – what does capturing every single thing do/mean? What happens when capturing absolutely everything becomes more of a prison than a choice – erasing the chance to make mistakes and learn from them? Andri Snær poses all these questions in an eminently readable and fascinating book, conceptually. It does not always flow as a work of fiction, as it seems to be distracted by throwing as many of these ethical and existential questions up for consideration. Always on the razor-edge of absurdity until you realize it’s so close to reality that it’s truly frightening.)
  • A Replacement LifeBoris Fishman (I could say much more about this novel, but what sticks with me in these times, fraught with fake news and denial of hard facts, is the theme of fact checking: ““Oh, I just hear you every day,” he said. “‘Mr. Maloney, is your bar made of pine or aspen? Can you call the manufacturer?’” “Yeah, I guess it sounds strange from the side.” “Mr. Maloney’s gone his whole life without knowing is it pine or aspen. When has anyone asked him what that bar’s made of?” “What’s your point?” “Does it really matter?” he said. “I guess,” she said, putting down her phone. “But think about it. Maloney’s is in New Jersey. Let’s say they don’t have aspens in New Jersey. I mean, they do—I checked. But let’s say. Somebody happens to know that, they see that wrong, they say, What else is wrong? They lose trust. You can’t give a reader a reason to lose trust.”” Well before now I had thought often of how a hapless error in an otherwise well-researched work can erode the reader’s confidence. Thinking back to my master’s studies, I remember being assigned a rather lengthy book, The System, which chronicled the early Clinton-era attempts to push through universal healthcare in America – and the massive failure that ended up being. Ultimately it seemed quite detailed, but somewhere deep within the book, the writers referred to Congressman Fred Grandy as having been a star in the TV show Gilligan’s Island, which he wasn’t. He was a star in the show The Love Boat. Getting this, such a basic and easily checked pop culture reference, wrong, made me doubt everything I had already read.)
  • The Plot Against America, A NovelPhilip Roth (Definitely one for these confusing, absurd, frightening times in Trump’s moving-toward-fascism America)

Biggest disappointment:

  • Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders (I have no doubt that this was a labor of love, of toil, and as evidence of what can only be termed an original, ambitious and laborious creation, this qualifies. But as a pleasurable read? Not really.)

Worst book:

  • The Lesser BohemiansEimear McBride (I am someone who fights the urge to give up on books because I feel committed once I start, but it was all I could do not to stop reading this shit. I hated it. As you can see above, I usually find something – some angle – in every work that I can relate to, can cite, can appreciate. But this? Fuck no.)

African Ramblings: Putting a Human Face on Distant Lands of News Stories

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That “Africa”, nebulous netherworld and neverland that it is in my imagination, is comprised of little, uninformed portraits, characters and blurbs on the news (usually about something horrible), is little wonder. I have written before about how Africa is something massive, which – even if trying to absorb the idea and place systematically – would take time and only be possible in increments.

Africa is an idea more than a reality to me. Not just because I have not been anywhere on this vast and ridiculously diverse continent but also because “Africa” as a concept is kind of an idea. One giant landmass it may be but this very vastness and diversity makes it impossible to categorize or talk about as one giant entity. People may refer to themselves as “African” but can there be an “African” identity in the same way there is an American one? It strikes me as more like trying to convince Europeans to identify as “Europeans” before their nationalities. It is not that one never identifies as “African” or “European” but neither label tells an observer much of anything.

As usual I am consuming Africa-related matters in small bites, like geographical, cultural, historical amuse-bouche. Not always a tasty sampling.

Today’s thoughts inevitably turn to the most newsworthy of Africa’s countries.

Rwanda

The 20-year mark since the genocide in Rwanda has sparked a virtually endless flow of news and related content, ranging from reconciliation (and photography projects chronicling that complex and painful process) to the “miracle” of modern Rwanda, from the firm and perhaps dictatorial hand of President Paul Kagame, to the growing power of women (who are the majority of Rwanda’s population once the massacre ended), from restoration, reconciliation and commemoration in societies torn apart by this kind of catastrophic human damage as well as individual stories about personal conscience, reminiscent of World War II-era stories of people who took in and hid Jews at considerable personal risk to themselves (and how those stories often came to late quite a long while after the war).

“It’s now 20 years after genocide,” Kamuronsi says. “And in every commemoration, every movie, we see stories of survivors, we see stories of perpetrators. We see less stories of rescuers.”

Those stories are particularly important, he says, for the more than half of the country’s population born after the genocide, to see that not every Rwandan played their ethnically assigned role of killer or victim.

Yet most of Rwanda’s rescuers are not officially recognized. A government program to give rescuers an official “thank you” was put on hold after canvassing just 20 percent of the country and identifying fewer than 300 of them. In comparison, Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial and research center — was seeking out the stories of German rescuers, the “righteous among nations,” by the 1950s — less than 10 years after the war.” (From NPR)

Before the genocide (and the film, Hotel Rwanda, which chronicled the 100 days of horror that ensued – and of which the first ten minutes were ruined when I saw it at a cinema in Iceland because the idiot projectionist let some horrible George Michael music play right over the top of the film and its soundtrack. Iceland: home of the world’s worst film projectionists – you heard it here first), all Rwanda was to me was mountain gorillas at Karisoke Research Center, Dian Fossey and a brief story an election-monitor colleague, Randall, had told me about being in Rwanda and how the air there – and in every African city – always smelled like diesel fuel.

After the genocide, unfortunately, genocide is almost all Rwanda is in the collective public memory. But it should and could be so much more. How does a country referred to as “nonviable” become a “success story” (despite the dark side of that success)?

“During Kagame’s two-decade rule, Rwanda has made spectacular progress. A country famously deemed “nonviable” in the mid-1990s has become one of Africa’s best-run, most orderly, least corrupt, and safest states, with a booming economy (Rwanda’s GDP has grown by an average of eight percent in recent years). But Rwanda’s success has come with a darker side: opposition politicians have been jailed or killed under mysterious circumstances, journalists complain of harassment, and Kigali has been regularly criticized for meddling in neighboring Congo’s long-running civil war.” (From Foreign Affairs)

“Kagame is said to admire the limited democratic models of Singapore and South Korea, where economic competence is valued over political liberty. As the world observes and judges Rwanda, they will find a country tenuously balancing its need for stability and growth against the virtues of open democracy.” (From Harvard Politics)

Maybe this autocracy is good enough for the population for now – certainly craving stability, growth, opportunity and tranquility over “personal freedom”.

UGANDA

Uganda often comes up – whether because of its own problems with dictatorship (a story also told in the film The Last King of Scotland), conflict and disease (both positive and negative – Uganda had considerable success in controlling the spread of HIV but this appears to be moving backwards now; it is one of the countries in Africa to have had an Ebola outbreak as front-page news; or because of issues like Uganda’s notables (such as Joseph Kony) or issues (homosexuality is illegal and can carry a maximum life sentence in prison).

I sometimes joked that I would, if given the chance, exile people to Uganda. And that was (apart from a few of the aforementioned highlights) the sum total of my Uganda-related knowledge.

Recently, though, I saw a report on Al Jazeera about pain management and the world shortage of morphine – and what role Uganda plays in this. It is not really an issue I would have considered – I had no idea that there was any shortage of morphine or that this is in large part due to the ill-conceived and long-running “war on drugs” waged mostly by the United States. Likewise, I had no idea that there was some kind of stigma attached to its use.

“Red tape and misinformation are to blame for the world’s unequal distribution of medical morphine, and it is patients in the developing world who are losing out.

But Uganda has become the first country in Africa to allow nurses to prescribe morphine to patients.” From AJE)

It is hard to imagine that palliative care, particularly in Africa, where the disease burden is so high, in the form of pain management would be such a difficult matter. The Pain Project has documented this struggle.

“The International Reporting Program traveled to Ukraine, Uganda and India to find out, and to document the human toll of this hidden human rights crisis. It turns out a combination of bureaucratic hurdles and the chilling effect of the global war on drugs are largely to blame, leaving humanitarians scrambling to work outside the law — or change the law — to bring relief to suffering patients all over the world.

The Pain Project has produced documentaries on this issue for CBS Sunday Morning, Al Jazeera People & Power, and Global 16×9, reaching millions of people and gaining international media attention.” (From The International Reporting Program)

GUINEA

Finally, there’s Guinea – frankly not a country I thought about at all (other than an occasional mention of it, and a follow-up question in the form of, “Are you sure you don’t mean Guyana?” Not even the same continent! Even Wikipedia has to caution the reader not to confuse Guinea with Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea or – seriously! – Papua New Guinea!) until it appeared in recent news reports about its Ebola outbreak and attacks on treatment centers and universal airport screening for Ebola upon departure from Guinea. In Guinea, the death toll has topped 100, and worries about its spread are on the rise.

As the disease has traveled, neighboring Liberia has reported 21 cases, Mali reported a few, and bordering Senegal closed access to and from Guinea, citing outbreak fears.

Incidentally it is through these kinds of stories that I learn other things about these countries – under the siege of an infectious disease outbreak or a civil war or a massacre/genocide, the human face of these countries comes to light.

And while the human face is exactly what I want to strive to see, I did come across this map that should help with rethinking Africa in some ways – I have seen it before but came across it again just as I was writing and decided to share it again.

Erudite Google Doodles

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In high school I was one of those nerds who enthusiastically volunteered to take part in stuff like Academic Decathlon and Knowledge Bowl. One year we had to study Dian Fossey and her work with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. My friends and I actually found a plastic toy gorilla on the ground in one of the schools where one of our competitions took place, and we named him “Digit” after one of the gorillas in Fossey’s group at Karisoke Research Center and who figured prominently in the film, Gorillas in the Mist. We took that toy gorilla everywhere (from places near, such as all over the state for our competitions, to places far, such as Japan and Germany) until one of those in our group irresponsibly lost him. I somehow hope he is still traveling and having adventures as we had always hoped for him, wherever he is. (Assigning human traits and adventures to inanimate objects is nothing new to me.)

Google Doodle for Dian Fossey

Google Doodle for Dian Fossey

I was thrilled when I opened Google today and say this creative, evocative Google Doodle on the screen, celebrating Dian Fossey’s 82nd birthday. (She was murdered in 1985.) Lately the Doodles have been fabulous – with one recently marking the 123rd birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, the difficult writer who was a star of the Harlem Renaissance movement and whose work, particularly the seminal Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a staple of American high school and college reading lists.

The same can be said for the recent Google Doodle of French writer Simone de Beauvoir. Much cooler than my words can convey.

I don’t know if these semi-obscure Google Doodles raise awareness or not – but I love that they exist and maybe make a few people dig into things they would not otherwise have been exposed to.

Baking ambitions – Almost reached! Sweets for Oslo on Thursday

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Oslo folks, so deprived all summer, will welcome the return of my obsession with baking. Probably. 🙂

I did not get as far as I wanted with my baking plans. It amazes me, though, that I got as far as I did. I really did not have that much time but still managed some of the plan. The final list is below with my wishful-thinking plans crossed out (undoubtedly to be baked sometime soon).

My ambitious baking plan included:

Shortbread
Carrot-sandwich cookies
Anzac biscuits
Cranberry-pistachio biscotti (altered: Cranberry-blueberry-cashew biscotti)
Tart cherry, blueberry and toasted pine nut biscotti
Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies (altered: Oreo-stuffed peanut butter cookies, recipe provided in another post)
Smil-filled chocolate cookies (Rolos really would be better! But it is yet another thing unavailable to me in Sweden! How can I do my biggest, best bakes without Rolos? Without endless waterfalls of chocolate chips?)
Samoa cookies
Nanaimo bars
Mini cheesecakes with Oreo crust
Oatmeal lemon cream bars*
Caramel apple crumble bars*
Kahlua coffee cupcakes*
Malted milk chocolate cupcakes*
Brown sugar cupcakes with maple frosting and candied bacon*
Carrot pineapple spice cupcakes*

Added after the fact: Peanut butter cup-stuffed M&M cookies! (I used the linked recipe but used M&Ms instead of chocolate chips since I can’t easily get chocolate chips here in Sweden; used Reese’s peanut butter cups instead of brownies as the stuffing.)

*recipe, photos and taste-test verdicts to follow

Oh and how Canadian of me to have both Nanaimo bars and maple frosting!

Watching Al Jazeera English program Witness: Truth on Trial about an international war crimes tribunal, prosecuting a Rwandan priest for allegedly perpetrating acts of genocide.

Sometimes when I watch things like this or think about things like what happened in Rwanda – and things that happen all over the world all the time, I wonder how it is I can bother with baking or care about some of the petty things I bother with.