Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Texts of 2011: reconsidered champions and new landscapes

So much of my spare time in 2011 was spent on films and comic books that I don't believe I read as many books as I do in a typical year. However, a few things stand out:

I continued my fascination with author Sax Rohmer, reading his books the Sins of Sumuru, Return of Sumuru, Slaves of Sumuru, Dope, Fire-Tongue, the Orchard of Tears, Bimbashi Baruk of Egypt, the Sins of Severec Bablon (more about it here), Tales of Chinatown, the Haunting of Low Fennel and Wulfheim. I'm just about done with Rohmer - in two senses; first, I've read very nearly all of his books, which is no mean feat since when I first began hunting for him in second-hand bookstores circa 1999, his books were nowhere to be found; second, the more I read of his lesser-known works, the less respect I have for his fiction. I used to be quite the Rohmer apologist, but when I hit Fire-Tongue and found it racist even by his own culture's reckoning, it was a turning point for me in terms of how far I'm willing to defend him. Also, while working my way through the Fu Manchu books way back in 1998, I noted how by the 1940s, Fu Manchu had lost a lot of his exotic flavour, becoming what I felt was a more generic criminal mastermind. The more I read of Rohmer's 40s fiction, the more I see how generic his villains had become - his 40s Fu Manchu could've been swapped with any of them and the villains are usually the best part of his early novels. Indeed, the early novel Dope was one of the few highlights of last year's readings. Who knows, perhaps 2012 will be the year where I finish reading all of his novels and short stories?

The only other piece of fiction worth noting was John Buchan's Witch Wood, primarily because it was the last remaining work of Buchan's fiction I hadn't read. It didn't strike me as being quite as good as it was made out to be in Buchan fan circles, but it was an interesting book, very similar to the Blanket of the Dark.

The real winners for me in 2011 were two pieces of non-fiction I pulled from my uncle's home in Angola: King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild and the State of Africa by Martin Meredith. It may seem silly to you that I spent a portion of my time in Africa reading about Africa when I might've done it from home before I departed. It wasn't lost on me, to be sure, but feeling "better late than never" and being instantly fascinated with both books, I delved straight in; several of my nights in Angola were spent sitting up reading in the living room with family and guests, so why not spend the time learning a little more about the continent?

King Leopold's Ghost told the story of the Belgian Congo and the shrewd, underhanded means King Leopold used to seize a second kingdom for himself. I think like many, I was unaware of the early 1900s human rights campaign to end the sufferings of the Congo, which is exactly what drew Hochschild into unearthing the story for his book. What it really impressed upon me is that while slavery was supposedly abolished in the western world, colonial powers in Africa could run their territories as slave states, which was even worse than buying and trading human lives.

The State of Africa attempts to recount the stories of every African nation in chronological order as they obtained independence in the 20th century. Although it's a massive tome, the chronological order makes the "story" of Africa difficult to follow because so many major leaders are introduced, then disappear while others are added to the cast, sometimes leaving behind earlier characters at a "dramatic" episode (I was quite convinced Kwame Nkrumah died in Vietnam in 1966 when his story was abruptly cut short at the end of a chapter; perhaps a chapter later his story continued, much to my surprise). It's sprawling, but immensely rewarding. After reading this book, I had a much better picture in my mind of the continent, the major turning points in recent history. It also helped me to see many of the (sadly) recurring patterns in independent countries, which would seem to either descend straight into civil conflict or, if they were politically stable, drive their economy down so that civil conflict erupted about a decade later. Points of history which I knew of on a superficial level such as the Ethiopian famine were explained succinctly and memorably. Before leaving to Angola, my African geography was simply terrible - I could identify perhaps six nations without reading their names off a map. I'm much, much better now and that's partly due to this book for granting me a "big picture" view of the land.

Tomorrow: The bad side of comics books; when they hurt, I hurt.


Colin Smith said...

I've been reading your looks back at 2011 from computers all over the place as I catch with folks in the new year. It's always interesting to catch someone else's perspective, particularly when (a) they've obviously not been taking the stupid pills, and, (b) they're far more knowledgeable than me. (What I know even about contemporary film is 100% zilch to my shame.)

Great shoutout for King Leopold's Ghost. Terrific book, horrifying business. If that's your cup of tea, and I do of course recall you referring to Africa before in different contexts, then you might, in the longshot that you've not done so already, enjoy Tim Butcher's wonderful 'Blood River' & 'Chasing The Devil'. As good as 'King Leopold ..'? Shockingly, yes!

Michael Hoskin said...

Thank you for the comment, Colin! I will follow through on your recommendation - we have Chasing the Devil on campus. Since I'm planning to visit Sierra Leone this year, it might help me get a better sense of the history involved.

I doubt you're a dunce when it comes to the movies, Colin; there's no real advantage to being as well-versed as I am, since I'm not using it to further my education or my career. Whatever movies you do enjoy, keep at it - you need the odd release from comics blogging, I'll wager.

Colin Smith said...

A release from comics blogging? Is ... is that allowed?

I very much enjoyed your most recent piece on storytelling and comic books in 2011. I thought it'd look terrible to say so there, because you were generous in your reference to my blog there, but I did want to say so. And, in closing, I agree 100% about the Avengers Annual and the sequence you describe. The mainstream supuer-person omics, and particularly Marvel at the moment, just isn't going to listen, I fear. But who else but the rump could ever feel their money was well-invested in such a comic?

I look forward to your favs of 2011!

Michael Hoskin said...

Colin, the rump buy "build-up" issues because they expect the "payoff" issues to justify them in the final judgment. Thus, any "payoff" confirms the earlier investment.

As to referencing your blog - as I said there, quality wins out and yours is a quality blog, well worth recommending!