Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The Best Books I read in Africa

During my year in Angola I read a lot of books... so many books, in fact! Only a few were traditional print books, mostly borrowed from my neighbours. The majority of the books I read in Angola were ebooks; some I had bought and downloaded years ago in anticipation for my trip to Angola. From the vast list of books I read, here are the best books:
THE BEST FICTION
  1. The A. M. Burrage Classic Collection Vols. 1-10 I had enjoyed Burrage's stories "The Waxwork" and "Smee" but wondered what the rest of his work was like; well, I certainly know now; he wrote a lot of ghost stories and, having read them together, he hit a lot of themes and tones again and again. Some stories felt merely repetitive and at times he felt a bit too sincere about what he was writing about - that is, there was a hint of spiritualism in his writing - but in all, "The Case of Mr. Ryalstone" was a great discovery in its own and there were plenty of other great ghost stories in these books.
  2. Before the Fact by Frances Iles I read a number of novels which had been adapted into Alfred Hitchcock films; this is tough read because the protagonist is so unwilling to become dynamic but instead loses more and more agency until she finally willingly permits her husband to murder her.
  3. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler A fascinating look at a man who was among the leaders of the communist revolution in Russia finding himself imprisoned by the state and his gradual acceptance of his fate. Perhaps no passage is better than when he's communicating with the neighboring cell by tapping on the walls. When he gives his name to his neighbor the response is, "it serves you right."
  4. Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah Because Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in 2021 I thought I should check out his fiction - this is an interesting dramatic story about the upbringing of a young man from Zanzibar, his eventual move to England and then his difficulty in reconciling himself to his family.
  5. In Search of the Unknown by Robert W. Chambers I had no idea that the writer of the King in Yellow had also written a number of silly short stories about a man who goes searching for mythological beasts around the world. Utterly charming.
  6. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison At times I didn't know what I was reading because the narrative is a little unconventional at first, but this is a challenging text about a black man's rise through society and then his downfall; sort of a companion read to Nightmare Alley if you like (more likely, Native Son).
  7. Lusophone Africa Short Stories and Poetry After Independence A great anthology of stories and poems from all the old Portuguese colonies. Obviously I was mostly interested in the Angolan entries but I enjoyed quite a bit of the Mozambican and Cabo Verde stories as well.
  8. Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe An odd comedic novel set in Apartheid South Africa that saw the structure of their deliberately racist society as a great backdrop for an absurd farce.
  9. Round the Fire Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle This was a very strong collection of thrillers by Doyle. The best by far is "The Brazilian Cat," about two heirs and the feline who came between them.
  10. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad Another Hitchcock adaptation - this is about what I expected from Conrad; it's really not a thriller, although the final chapters are by far the most electrifying. It's a very strong book, I'm interested in seeing a more faithful adaptation than the one Hitchcock made.
  11. Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers A fun mystery story about a writer trying to find solitude at a hotel during the off-season, only to find himself in the midst of a complex mystery yarn. It doesn't take itself too seriously - good fun.
  12. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe The first fiction by Achebe that I've read. It's interesting to see an African perspective on their nation's pre-colonial history and to see that, in many respects, he judged the ways of the old culture harshly. Not what I expected - this is the mirror opposite to Gone with the Wind.
  13. To Catch a Thief by David Dodge This was one of the best Hitchcock-adapted works I read; it's a little different from the film as the protagonist wasn't meant to be quite as handsome as Cary Grant, but as well the relationship between the protagonist and his love interest is a bit more interesting in the book because she's less trusting in him and it remains an open question throughout the novel whether she'll help him or turn on him.
  14. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke I'm not really a fan of the movie but I had to read the book to research another project and I found that I liked it a lot - it really is the same story as the film, but somehow I connected better to the prose than I did Kubrick's pretty pictures.
  15. War with the Newts by Karel Capek The other great sci-fi novel by Capek (author of R.U.R.). Mankind discovers a rare creature who adapts very easily. First they enslave it, then the creatures rise up. It's mostly a satirical novel - very entertaining.
THE BEST NON-FICTION
  1. All the Marvels by Douglas Wolk Wolk shares a few of his impressions from reading every Marvel super-hero comic book published. He touched on a few subjects I'm especially keen on (such as Christopher Priest's Black Panther). I think this one is best for relatively new readers to Marvel as Wolk does a good job of running down the highlights of Marvel Comics and the different ways one might go about reading them.
  2. As It Is in Heaven and...
  3. ...Surprised by Scripture by N. T. Wright I heard both of these as audiobooks; although they ran over a lot of the same material (the former book is a devotional which is partially assembled from the latter's text) and I certainly came to better understand Wright's philosophies on the Bible. Very strong, maybe a bit too scholarly for me.
  4. Breathing Space by Heidi Neumark A very good examination of a female priest who wrote about her experiences at an inner-city church and the slow changes which came about. Very practical, human, yet inspirational.
  5. A Casa: Diario de uma Missao by Hans Fuchs Fuchs wrote the translation of my book so it was only fair I read his book; I wish I had read this years ago as it contains details that would have been helpful for my book! A nice portrait of what Lubango was like around 1990, but also a strong biography about his family's struggles in Angola and Brazil.
  6. Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee An interesting book of journalism in which a famous environmentalist visits various developers on the lands they wish to transform and they openly and honestly air how they feel about the situation. A very even-handed book on environmentalism.
  7. Half the Way Home by Adam Hochschild I finished all of Hochschild's books while I was in Angola but I left this one for last - I wasn't even sure if I would be interested in his memoir. But this is a very heartfelt book about his difficult relationship with his father and his unusual upbringing among the wealthiest families in the USA.
  8. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell And for that matter, I owe to to Hochschild that I finally sat down and went through this book, which he brought up in Spain in Our Hearts. I only knew Orwell for his fiction before so this was eye-opening in terms of understanding the context of his later works.
  9. Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy by Kathryn Fuller-Seeley A very interesting series of essays that are not comprehensive in their examination of Benny's early career but extremely thorough in the subjects they do cover, most interesting to me being his falling out with his original head writer and the chapters about Rochester and how public opinion on his character changed over the years.
  10. Lessons from a Dark Time by Adams Hochschild An interesting set of essays by Hochschild on a variety of subjects, some of them about Africa, which I always appreciate.
  11. The Mirror at Midnight by Adam Hochschild And this is Hochschild's book about South Africa, set around the time of Mandela's liberation. A very strong snapshot of what the nation was like with interesting recordings of conversations Hochschild had.
  12. Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin I'd read Godwin's book The Fear already - this is his biography and helps explain some of what I'd read in the other work. Godwin grew up in Zimbabwe at the time the nation was resisting, then submitting to true independence. I didn't actually know anything about how Rhodesia became a "rogue colony" when they refused to comply with England. Godwin's transformation from a naive white kid to something of a police thug is a tough read - I appreciate that, having removed his mask, he didn't seem to hold back.
  13. Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren A very good book about the Order of Compline and the meaning it's brought to the author. This was helpful to me in Angola and for a time I performed Compline each night.
  14. The Pursuing God by Joshua Ryan Butler An interesting text which emphasizes how God is seeking after us; which is something that I knew, but Ryan sagely noted that we often don't seem to believe it - we talk about God as though He's the one who needs to be sought. Very thought-provoking, I've already written an essay on the subject.
  15. A Short History of Modern Angola by David Birmingham This is one of the best texts I've read on Angola's history - Birmingham summed it up very efficiently and taught me a lot that other books left out at the same time!
  16. Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot Although this book mostly examines issues particular to the author's home of Haiti, more broadly it considers how we think about history and what information is permitted to survive in historical accounts.
  17. Sub Rosa by Stewart Alsop A collection of stories about the O.S.S. during World War II; I read it primarily because one anecdote inspired an episode of the radio program Escape which I really enjoyed.
  18. War Child by Emmanuel Jal A biography about Emmanuel's childhood in the Sudan at the time of the civil war and the life he made later on. A very strong biography.
  19. When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat This book is concerned with how destructive personalities can wreck havoc in churches - a subject I became interested in after listening to the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It's a very good set of resoures and teaches lessons that I think everyone who considers themselves a church member needs to hear at least once in their life.
  20. Where the Light Fell by Philip Yancey This is the story of Yancey's relationship with his mother and how his mother and older brother's relationship became fractured. It's a rough ride and I did wonder at times how Yancey retained his faith considering his harsh upbringing - his other book, Soul Survivor, will tell me the answer to that one.
  21. The World and Africa by W. E. B. DuBois An excellent series of essays on Africa from DuBois' perspective. It was especially helpful for me to get a sense of how black Americans' attitudes toward Africa shifted within DuBois' lifetime.

Tomorrow: Film

Friday, July 1, 2022

Non-Lubango Lubango Vlog 24: On Seeing

As a final vlog about my year in Lubango, here are some post-trip thoughts about the importance of seeing.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Radio Recap: The Unexpected

The Unexpected was a syndicated radio program from 1947-1948. It ran within a 15-minute slot and its stories were about as long as the Strange Dr. Weird. The show boasted that it featured Hollywood stars... usually that seemed to mean Barry Sullivan, who was the lead in more episodes than anyone.

What the Unexpected has that no other show has is a surprise ending. Okay, I should clarify... the Whistler had surprise endings; the Diary of Fate did too. But the Unexpected was not a genre program in the traditional sense. If "surprise ending" is a genre then that's where the Unexpected fits. Sometimes it was a crime/thriller show, other times a comedy program or even a romance show. Unlike the Chase, the lack of genre is not a detriment - far from it. Since every episode has a surprise ending, the climaxes land in a way other programs couldn't achieve.

To explain what I mean, I'll look at the climax of the episode "Birthday Present." All her life, a woman has been given the second-best things in life. For once she hopes her husband might give her the very best by buying her a gold bracelet, but once again she is disappointed - the gift is silver. She decides to exchange it and pay the difference to obtain the gold bracelet, only to learn the bracelet is actually platinum - her husband gave her something even more valuable than gold. She was not given second-best.

That's not an exceptional story, but it's atypical for radio. If that plot had appeared on the Whistler then it would have been much the same - except that the wife would have tried to kill or steal to get the gold bracelet, with the platinum an ironic reveal after her arrest. But the Unexpected has the most unexpected climaxes of all - happy endings! What a concept!

The Unexpected is not a very demanding program - it's short, fast-paced (certainly much better paced than the Strange Dr. Weird) and has an agreeable surprise at the end. It's unpretentious (unlike the very pretentious Diary of Fate). I like it - check it out if you like the Whistler.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Angola in the Comics #19: Alter Ego

Just before I leave Angola, I thought it was time I visited my blog feature "Angola in the Comics" one more time.

Alter Ego is a 2015 graphic album series which originated in Belgium and became available in English via Europe Comics. This review will be quite unlike my reviews of American comics about Angola; as I've noted before, European creators seem much better informed about Angola than the Americans.

The Europe Comics website states that the series Alter Ego is: "A series conceived in the American style by a team of European creators." Roughly, the series is driven by the idea that people possess a quasi-psychic link to someone else on the planet who was conceived around the same time as they; their lives are entwined and what befalls one may befall the other.

The first book in the series Camille (by Denis Lapière, Pierre-Paul Renders and Mathieu Reynès) is where Angola comes in. This album concerns one Camille Rochant whose mother has just died and left behind a cryptic message which leads her to Angola, seeking ze Texeira, a man who happens to be the same age as her mother; but he's never heard of her mother and has no answers for why she knew his name.

The amount of detail given to the Angola sequences in Camille is excellent - many believable depictions of Angolan buildings and landscapes. It's set primarily in N'Dalatando in Cuanza Norte, but there are also scenes in Luanda at the Hospital Maria Pia. Texeira's background is also steeped in Angolan history - he recounts how he was beaten by the Portuguese in colonial times, then at age 13 went to fight for Savimbi until at age 21 he lost an arm and a leg to a landmine.

I haven't read all of Alter Ego but it's a very dense web - each story features different protagonists entrapped by the same conspiracy and gradually exposing the connective tissue. There may even be more of Angola in other volumes - I hope eventually I get around to reading them!

Monday, June 27, 2022

Lubango Vlog: Exit

My 1 year in Lubango has reached its end; here are thoughts as I head back to Canada.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Radio Recap: The Philip Morris Playhouse

The Philip Morris Playhouse was a series that ran between 1941 and 1953, but for the purposes of this blog entry I'm looking at the 1948-1949 version. Essentially, the moniker "Philip Morris Playhouse" meant it was a program sponsored by the cigarette company - but the show itself was very different during its run. It first ran in 1941-44 on CBS as a dramatic program like Lux Radio Theater which presented adaptations of popular films, often with the original stars. Then it disappeared until the 1948-49 run on CBS. Finally it ran in 1951-53 on both NBC and CBS as a program centered on adapting Broadway plays.

But the 1948-49 run was different and well worth listening to. Why? Because that season was produced and directed by William Spier. Yes, the same man who made Suspense (also on CBS) one of the absolute finest programs in all of old-time radio produced another program which was very much like Suspense.

Like Suspense, the series featured well-known stars in stories of suspense and danger. In fact, many of the episodes used scripts from Suspense! The Philip Morris Playhouse is basically a trove of lost Suspense episodes... but, sadly, a very small trove. There are only 6 episodes which have definitely survived:

  • "Leona's Room" (February 25, 1949) starring Vincent Price
  • "The Lady from the Sea" (March 11, 1949) starring Marlene Dietrich
  • "Apology" (March 1, 1949) starring Elliot Lewis
  • "Murder Needs an Artist" (May 6, 1949) starring Vincent Price
  • "Four Hours to Kill" (May 13, 1949) starring Howard Duff
  • "The Iron Man" (July 29, 1949) starring Sidney Miller

No doubt "Four Hours to Kill" is familiar to Suspense fans just as "The Lady from the Sea" is a familiar episode of the Whistler. For that matter, "Leona's Room" is the same script as the Suspense episode "Pass to Berlin." But among the many lost episodes there are scores of familiar Suspense titles: "The Silver Frame"; "Angel Face"; "The One Millionth Joe"; "The Search for Isabel"; "Banquo's Chair"; "Night Man"; "August Heat"; "The Diary of Sophronia Winters."

The program sounds terrific - it seems to have been blessed with a budget similar to that of Suspense. In addition to the lead stars (drawn from the same talent pool as Suspense) there were plenty of supporting roles for familiar CBS performers like Cathy Lewis. The only aspect in which the Philip Morris Playhouse is inferior to Suspense is in its titular sponsor. The opening theme is unremarkable and the commercials with the shrill "bellboy" Johnny screeching "call for Philip Morrrrrrr-isssss!" grate on one's nerves.

Of the six episodes, Vincent Price was great in both of his and I think they're the highlights of the run - "Leona's Room" is especially good. From the others, "Apology" is a bit offbeat with Elliot Lewis portraying a comedic character in a very grim crime drama. I don't think it's a successful drama but it is interesting to listen to, especially the ending. "The Iron Man" on the other hand is a complete farce, told in a Damon Runyon-esque patter.

I hope more of the Philip Morris Playhouse is discovered in the future - it would be great to hear the rest, especially the scripts that were never repeated on Suspense or the Whistler.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Lubango vlog: Final junk food video!

One last junk food video before I leave Angola -- and this one is the longest by far!