Monthly Archives: December 2015

Book review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

By Claire North

[Warning: some spoilers]

Wow… It took me three days to open this book on the first page and close it on the last. Even halfway through the story I didn’t know exactly where it was headed or what the end was gearing up to be. Even though the introduction starts with the same phrases as the last chapter (and of course makes much more sense by then) and Chapter 1 already sets out the main plot focus, it is not a strictly linear narrative (heehee – inside joke to those who’ve already read it).

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August really only has two main characters, one of which is the narrator, and a handful minor characters who provide delicious context and support the plot. Naturally Harry is the sane, rational protagonist with whom we can relate and through whom we can live various exciting, well-meaning lives. (Spoiler) Vincent is the “other”, the antagonist, perpetually and consistently who we come to suspect halfway through and who we come to hate at about two thirds. I’ll say no more about them.

Time travel and multiple universes are approached very differently in this book than I’ve seen in other places. There is much more order and cohesion here. It is immortality through an infinite looping of the same reel, albeit through a forward progression of loops. Of course people who spend centuries experiencing the same looping of time over and over again get bored or go insane (imagine living from birth to your deathbed, aging like all people to, dying like all people do, but doing it twice, ten times, a hundred times). Others… try to change the world in ways that not only affect themselves, but the future, in irrevocable, catastrophic ways. This is where our protagonist faces his enemy, his nemesis, with suitably complex relationships and motivations thrown into the diabolical mix.

 

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Book review: Bodies, Pleasures and Passions

A book by Richard G Parkerbodies pleasures passions

I’ve been living in São Paulo, Brazil for about 18 months now and decided it was as good a time as any to read something with an anthropological bent and what could be more interesting and exciting than reading about something that plays a big part in shaping Brazilian identity: sex. That is not exactly what I was combing the Internet for, but when I saw a mention of this book it was immediately on my list. I have finally finished reading it, so here’s what I think…

It’s a great mix between academic paper and historical narrative; it doesn’t really feel like a linear narrative, even though it follows the evolution of Brazilian culture (especially with regards to sexual life and sexuality) in a chronological way. However, it’s not as dense (read “impenetrable”) as an academic paper. It’s like I’m talking to the author about his research results, which to me is incredibly interesting. Richard Parker weaves a coherent and consolidated picture with both qualitative research and anecdotal inserts. The anecdotes don’t necessarily give a scientific basis, but they give colorful illustrations and explanations for what he found in his studies.

Of course Parker starts from the era where the first written records can be found – the explorers who initially arrived in Brazil. They wrote reports and diary entries about meeting the local people, about their shameless promiscuity in dress and behaviour. What they don’t mention in their reports, but what the author makes clear, is how that influenced the explorers’ behaviour and how the sexual expression of the native Brazilians not only impressed the explorers themselves but also the repressed European society they came from and shared information with.

Then he jumps to the colonization period, with land owners and their slaves (involuntary concubines?) and of course this had a profound and lasting impact on modern sexual attitudes. There is an interesting mix between European and Brazilian sexual attitudes, however the European model being the “correct” one at that time, dominated sex and society for a very long time. I would argue it is still very much present in contemporary Brazil.

Besides the historical side of sexuality, the book explores eroticism and present day socialization / initiation into sexual life, along with specific Portuguese terms and expressions full of sexual ambivalence. Though he mentions specific cases of erotic socialization to illustrate a segment of Brazilian culture, I’m not sure how representative that is of all Brazilians from all walks of life. The religious, medical and hedonistic perspectives which all helped shape sexuality and how people talk about sexuality are very interesting beyond the Brazilian model. I think many of those conclusions are valid for my own culture as well.

Last but not least, Parker scrutinizes the spirit and debauchery of carnaval and where that fits into the sexual identity of the modern Brazilian. This is an interesting chapter, because to me it seems like carnaval is a big contradiction… People say they are very conservative Catholic (even though they rarely put that into practice); however, during carnaval there are near-naked bodies not only plastered on every television, advertisement or poster, but it’s celebrated by young and old alike. As he says: “[Carnival] has become a metaphor for Brazil itself – or at the very least, for those qualities that are taken as most essentially Brazilian, as the truest expression of Brazilianness”

A book worth reading!

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Book review: Basque History of the World

Basque-History-of-the-World-The-Mark-Kurlansky

The first and (for now) only in-depth text I’ve read about the Basque people, but it will certainly not be the last! I had heard about a mysterious people somewhere in northern Spain who maintain their solidarity, their culture and their strange language. Now Mark Kurlansky has introduced me to unusual and exciting dishes, traditions and a history both extensive and incredibly active. It sounds wonderful and magical – even the original roots of the Basque people are contested… some theories put them in Basqueland even before the Indo-Europeans. For a culture as young as post-colonial South Africa this seems like a depth and richness of history that we have not yet reached.

Probably Kurlansky writes with some bias, even if he tries to be absolutely objective, because from his tone it seems that he admires the Basques, even their quarrelsome , ethnocentric nature. Even so, Basqueland (and on reflection, Catalonia) have moved way up my ever expanding list of “places to visit asap”. Since food features very heavily in how I experience other countries & cultures, Kurlansky’s recipe inserts and their context in history left my mouth watering and with more than a little curiosity – baby eels or fish cooked in only oil, garlic and peppers… Oh my gosh… and the creamy gateau de basco. What on earth could go wrong?

Of course, the people are what make them Basque – their language, their expression of their culture and what makes them feel distinctly Basque; these are things touched on in a Basque History, because I am sure that this is how the author experienced their culture and their identity. However, no amount of writing or reading about this can be a suitable substitute for the original! It is in talking to people and spending time in their space that you would get to know their reality and maybe also a little bit of what shaped these people and their identity. This reminds me of an acquaintance who went to Basqueland and asked someone to “please say something in Euskera”, to which he got the angry reply “I’m not a monkey, repeating little phrases to tourists!” So… there’s a way to go about it and a way not to. 🙂

As to the language, as Kurlansky writes, it seems like Euskera is one of the vital parts of Basque identity (as Afrikaans is to descendants of Dutch colonists in contemporary SA – I just mention this again because this is my frame of reference). It seems completely out of context in the sea of romance languages (Spanish and French), but it continues to flourish through education, cultural socialization and literary production. Kurlansky writes that they even require their leaders and elected officials to be fluent in Euskera.

In conclusion, this book was engaging, interesting and so well researched, from the mysterious roots of the Basque people, through the age of the Visigoths, the Vikings and the Roman Empire. In terms of modern history, their fight against and suffering under Francisco Franco is also examined in detail. It is a failure of my historical and geographical education that I always thought Guernica is a city in Spain… Another world has opened up to me and I intend to explore it!

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