A YEAR IN READING – RUNNING WITH CORA

A YEAR IN READING – RUNNING WITH CORA

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“Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”  – Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad is the last addition to my 2016 top 12 ensemble. Written by Colson Whitehead, the book narrates the travails of a young black girl Cora, in the bursting enclave of a cotton plantation in the early 19th century. The story kicks off with the rote of duty, the daily sun up to sun down laboring on the Randall plantation, the drudgery of slave life. The one respite that bears the slightest semblance to true ownership was the small patch of land left by Cora’s dead Grandma and that too was under threat from the hawkish eyes of the other slaves. Cora’s first hint of bravery reared in her reclamation of her grandmother’s parcel from a feared bully by the very force of her character. Later she would step in to defend another slave in an uncommon show of courage or maybe just crass audacity. This characterization helped the reader to forge an image of this girl, alone in the world and caught in an unfortunate situation.  Mothered by a slave, Cora didn’t have to wonder what her mother’s life was. Her uncertainty stemmed from the unknown fate to which her mother had escaped running away from the farm without any information about her where-about.

Impelled by another free-spirited lad Caesar, Cora made a run for it with the help of a White abolitionist whose life work was furtively dedicated to helping slave’s escape the terrors of their master through an underground railroad.

The nail-biting layered plots in this book is likely going to make you cringe and squirm with fear. It’s a cold cruel world and if anything Cora knows this. She’d lost her family at a very young age. Her companion with which she fled the plantation had disappeared unceremoniously; her friend who’d sneaked after them had met with her death in the cold hands of another brand of savages,  just as cruel as the masters from which she had fled.  As we experience every mile away from the brutal homestead of Cora’s slavehood, we are equally yoked with the determination with which her bounty hunter, viciously motivated is set upon his task. To feel that this innocent girl who has come so far, endured so long might have her small victory upended at the slimmest encounter with someone who would give her away without any compunction is a constant cause for engagement and trepidation.

With many close shaves as Cora trudged from one state to the other, each with its own form of subversive legislation. From the Fugitive state law to Forced sterilization in South Carolina, a devious bounty hunter close at her heels, several oppressive elements lurking in every street corner, Whitehead sucks the reader in for a ride that will have him all spent with adrenaline-jutting exhaustion by the time the book is done.

“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”
“Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.”

“see chains on another person and be glad they are not your own–such was the good fortune permitted colored people, defined by how much worse it could be at any moment.”

“The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always – the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes–believes with all its heart–that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

“Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

What makes this book tick for me is the texture of the narrative. The very jerky moments  at the beginning of the novel are skillfully laid with a soft cushioning of pathos that would make it feel less like you weren’t wading through some slow, awkward build of the story. Even though it started dully, the slow build is like the tedium of the plantation itself, like a automaton programmed for the backbreaking chores of the day. The good news is that it gets easier. Once the escape was set into motion your adrenaline starts to misbehave, your jaws clenched a bit too tightly.

Proudly endorsed by Obama and Oprah Winfrey, The Underground Railroad ascended quickly to the top of my list, and even when it wasn’t quick in captivating me, it held the promise of a great read right from the beginning form its jerky motions.

Colson Whitehead was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize once, the PEN/Hemingway award and has won many other awards.

A YEAR IN READING – MESSING UP THE POLITY

A YEAR IN READING – MESSING UP THE POLITY

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The political dust of the last general election in the U.S has yet to settle. Like all “diligent” citizens of the world, the 2016 U.S General Election was a nail-biting time for me. Nigeria has its dose of trouble but Nigeria has always, and to grieve for Nigeria all the time was a stale and a perennial affair. I could really use some time in the sun, so off to America I wandered; the land  of the free and the home of the brave. In the United States a Republican candidate for the leader of the free world was about to go into an election and he was shooting his mouth haphazardly like a broken faucet. That was a sight. It would have been laughable if it were just some comic actor in a sitcom ribbing us. This was a potential President of the United States! And as ludicrous as the whole affair was, I couldn’t help but notice a cloud gathering – one that had the stamping foot  and the screaming voices of legions of Americans threatening to kick out the old order in a discontented cacophony, one that was gangly soaking up the drivel of the burly, testy man on the campaign podium. How such a racist, sexist pedagogue created a platform that would become a rallying point for many U.S citizens was very worrying to say the least

Let me step back and do a full disclosure. I am with Hillary Clinton. See, I can’t even bring myself to dip that declaration in past tense. That’s how badly hurt I am by America. This pain hurts, I tell you. Abi no be America again.

So while I was admiring Clinton and staying with her, seething at Trump and smhing for him, I decided for balance to find dirt on my heroine, Hilary Clinton in the name of full disclosure. So from a list of anti-Hillary books that had suddenly find their way to the top of the bestseller’s list, I decided to go for the most venomous according to polls. I picked Gary J Brynes Crisis of Character. Bryne was a White House Secret Service Agent during the Bush administration and the better part of Bill Clinton’s.  He was a close observer of the operations of the White House in the early nineties. In his tell-it-all account, Brynes spared no details in tearing into the Clintons. He wrote of the sinister machinations, the sleaze, and the financial impropriety of the first family. He seized on Bill’s  widely publicized romance with Lewinsky, Hilary’s less known temper tantrums and manipulative style; just about any of the Clinton’s linen was starkly brought out for literary airing, and all in time before a historical election in the history of the United States, featuring its first female candidate in a major political party.

So with a Crisis of Character, I sought the truth from where it was likely to hurt the most to prepare my heart for any eventuality.  Hilary isn’t Miss Too Goody Shoe and now I know it like I have always suspected, but against a Trump, I would still had stood for her. My choice here was not a difficult one. I would take her over an undisciplined, unhinged racist, a bigot and an unruly character without discipline or any measure of Presidential decorum to say the least.

The book Crisis of Character is no way near the awesomeness of the dozens of books I have read this year. Placing it on this list is the gravest disservice I could have done to the multitude of titles here, and the others that didn’t make my top 12. But I also know that the things that make us grow and learn aren’t necessarily the things that appease our sensibilities .They are sometimes like the irascible elves that hold up their hands like a witness and share their discomfiting truth, with glee or with remorse.

I don’t know how much this books and others of the ilk helped in ensuring that Hilary Clinton does not become the first female president of the United States (and I don’t think it did much) but I ensured that if I had hitherto had any iota of blind worship for Hilary Clinton, this book disabused me of it, and created for me a level playing field from which to assess the two candidates.

So thank you Gary J. Bryne but there are no quotes from you.  Nonsense !

A YEAR IN READING – PROFUNDITY EXTRAVAGANZA

A YEAR IN READING – PROFUNDITY EXTRAVAGANZA

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“So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”  – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Give me a thinking man and I will sup at his table.  This is what reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me feels like. Coates’ words drip from a tube of nourishing reservoir bag, coursing evenly through the body in slow sipping motion, it’s hard to imagine ever thirsting again. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine. His book Between the World and Me released in 2015 won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates also received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2015.

In Between the World and Me, Coates meanders but not aimlessly on the issue of race in America, the place of the black man and the social order long imbued in the history of the most powerful country on the face of the planet. Like a jab at the heart of a man coding, Coates’ aim was a jolt from the delirium, a snap back to reality, a reality that nothing would be offered to the black man on a platter of equality or equity with his fellow white. This isn’t so much a rallying cry than it is a book of self introspection – the laying down of one’s own experience and ideas. Sometimes it feels like the laying down of a wreath, at other times it feels like the smashing of a gauntlet.  You’d have to decide for yourself.

Between the World and Me was one of those blockbusters everybody was talking about in 2015. President Obama had it on his summer reading list  that year too. Many a times blockbusters and intelligent books don’t reside in the same pod. This one’s a double whammy! It is written in the form of an epistolatory piece from father to son, which makes it the more poignant. It is confrontational in tone, addressing race in America. It touches on that almost-forbidden paternal love from a black ‘endangered’ American father trying to protect his son from a fate, even he really doesn’t have the remedy for. The father’s existence in itself is hung  thinly by a cultural thread that regards him as inferior to his fellow citizen. Coates in this book wrote on social justice, the civil right movements and sundry other topics. This mint size book (compared to many others on this list) is fascinating in its scope and sheer profundities, the beauty of the prose and the superbly crafted sentences that bring home a message that is a grim depiction of an America so polarized by a racial fissure deeply etched into its foundation.

I couldn’t help thinking how universal truth is and how it can be deployed here in Nigeria. Instead of us trying to bury the past, that has refused to stay buried, shouldn’t we just un-clutter the dark basement of our history once and for all and see what direction we find.

This is not a book to talk too much about. The book talks plenty about things in its small fist punch. Here:

“I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.”

“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

“One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”

“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean.”

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”  – this quote left me reeling.

“Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.”

“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.”

 

A YEAR IN READING – NO, YOUR HEAD IS NOT CORRECT

A YEAR IN READING – NO, YOUR HEAD IS NOT CORRECT

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“The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

You would think that reading this book with all its expositions would make for a lifestyle change, or at least slow down internet surfers, you would be wrong.  I don’t figure the author set out to do any of that other than to lay bare the facts; a mission he accomplished convincingly. Affected as I am by this book, I still wake up in the morning scouring for tidbits of what happened in the interval that I was dead to the world. I’m constantly flitting between twitter and Instagram and blogs and the many apps on my phone trying to keep up with what’s trending.  But in all of these, I’m now acutely aware of the overpowering influence that has taken hold of me. This fact, as exculpatory as it may sound is not, the knowledge of it offers a path for amendment. Like learning a new language or dieting or exercising, the speech zones and the body system and the calf muscles can no longer be unaware, they all have been drafted into that campaign of self–improvement. A relapse isn’t a dead end  as there is a clear conscious path to recovery. Win or lose, these charted courses have been sensitized to their own abilities.  While sci-fi pictures like AI, I, Robot, tend to portray an apocalyptic order of a machine age, The Shallow seeks to remind us of the obtrusive, meandering influence of the internet on our brain, which does as much as a gully for the patterns of our thoughts rivaling the deft power of our will mostly to guide us to safety and well-being. What we choose may not be as simple as foregoing one for the other but in asking ourselves truthfully of what has been eroded in the way we process information.

“We become, neurologically, what we think.”

“Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.”

“In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

“Culture is sustained in our synapses…It’s more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.”

“Even though the World Wide Web has made hypertext commonplace, indeed ubiquitous, research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.”

“The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.”

“Everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.”

I wasn’t so enthused about reading the The Shallows at first. The sub-title threw me off. I didn’t think the internet was doing anything to my brain, so what could the writer be yammering about. I mean, if something was happening to my brain, wouldn’t I know? It has to be Carr’s brain that is doing skoin-skoin. My own head correct!

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Frankly, I picked up this book as a cynic hoping to do a cynic’s work. I sought to tear down its high-faluting theories, because I thought I knew. To my surprise there were no theories there; just historical bits built block by block to espouse the facts . Many of these facts I know and can see.Suffice to say, my highly-held opinion fell flat and lost its premise.

This is not to say that everything in the book is absolute but I know I will not be loud in the defense of the integrity of my ‘ internet-surfing’ brain if that argument comes up in the future. For example, I can attest to how short my memory is these days. It never was like this in the past. While age itself diminishes capacity, I can’t shake the feeling that my lack of attentiveness- something akin to ADD (which should be the forte of aging) is likely fallout of my internet-addled brain. And there’s that noisome pestilence that has gripped a population of social media users; barreling their way through arguments with little or no substance, that lends credence to many of the things Carr talked about.

Frankly, this book has thought me so much about open-mindedness, and it isn’t even a book on that subject.  There’s a whole story behind how this book made the list (I won’t go into it now). For we men of study, we like to think that we know and that what we do not know we can extrapolate from what we do know. Half of the time we are wrong, as not all knowledge are deductive. There is this saying that when men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken and to state one argument, is not necessarily to be deaf to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.

True. true. true. This is all very true.

With the advent of a new technology, the old order often has to give way eventually. But with the digital readers in all of its flat scrolling variants, the place of the book is still very relevant. How long this would be, remains to be seen. The story of e-book vs. real book might one day be animated for all the gizmo-lovers and the traditional book lovers to battle it out, and this battle would be fought in the arena of the brain. If Nicholas Carr’s words prove true, then we may want to keep our shelves and those beautiful book nooks when designing our twenty-first century edifices.

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Nicholas Carr in The Shallows dug into the genesis of literacy,  the history of books, writing, alphabets and the impact of technology on the way we read and our cognitive capacity. He propped up the brain – that center of human consciousness-  and put it on the spot, mapping neuronal circuits in the traditional  and the internet age, observing the re-ordering of pre-synaptic patterns by habits and the closed loop by which these actions are reinforced in a rut of internet addictions with a myriad of consequences, many of which are all apparent in our world (lives) today.  This is not a proposition of a return to the pre-technology era. Carr acknowledges the good the internet has brought to us, but like a fastidious researchers he lays it all on the table, flipping the subject up and down, left and right for all sides to be caught in the gleam of reality.

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The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr is an education, a well-rounded one. You may or may not agree with it but you can’t ignore the facts. Take a dig into this marshmallow of science, history, psychology, sociology, neurology, technology and let the juice work its magic on you. What’s more, you don’t have to be a geek (or a foodie) to enjoy it.

 

A YEAR IN READING – A MILLION GEMS FOR A GOLDFINCH

A YEAR IN READING – A MILLION GEMS FOR A GOLDFINCH

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“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”  – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch.

Reading The Goldfinch this year was a belated catch-up really. With the number of incredible books released every year there is a possibility that a great number of them would be hidden in plain sight – passed over again and again. Between catching up on the recent years’, rereading old classics, keeping up with the contemporaries, very many good titles get lost in the shuffle. I read The Goldfinch roughly three months ago. It’s been idling away on my TBR for a while. So when September came and things slowed down on the fiction- reading front I decided at last to see to it.

 The Goldfinch is another book that reviewers are adorning with stars, sometimes too sparsely at other times flamboyantly. In some way, I can understand why. The first few pages of this book were a bore. A lot of time I’m thinking, ‘there are a gazillion books in the wings that you wouldn’t get to finish if you are blessed with a thousand life times, why do you like to punish yourself thus?’. But when you are a serial reader you are a survivor in ways many ways many would never understand. You’ll be able to sniff water by the very sight of a cactus in a desert. I knew there was something to this book and I just couldn’t give it up when I sense I could stumble on that something any time. And  boy, did my patience pay off or what!

The denouement was fa-bu-lous. Some stories hook you from the beginning with a scented bait and drag you through the slimy mud of plot into the bottom of the ocean, others offer nothing but the faintest ray of light, pulls you out of the mud to the fresh clean air of a bespectacled shore. The Goldfinch belongs to the latter.

In the midst of the desolation there were characters who made me laugh, and more importantly there were tons of quotes for my scrap book. What’s even more amazing is how you can generate a mammoth story from a speck.  But I suppose in the order of things in literature there are no specks to be dusted away; there are segues of subplots and back stories and spin-offs from that tiny grain of an idea that holds the writer by the gut, that just can  not be washed down by a shot of whiskey. Only a pen poised over a blank paper or the mad tapping at the computer would do. From these atomic situations, a cosmo of words is birthed – the big bang that produces the thousand words of essays, a few pages of novellas, and many hundreds of novels. There is nothing to be toyed with in the handling of an idea that has found a foothold in your guts.

Theo Dekker, with his mother broke into the pages of this book in an art gallery that would soon have him motherless, lost and alone (except for a painting). Feverishly antsy for something he had done, the traumatized thirteen-year old had to deal with an innocent mistake that would define the course of his life forever. Becoming a globe-trotting art enthusiast with an insidious history, his life goal became both a personal and a philosophical one of naming the un-named, in his search for a lost treasure in the seedy world of European art dealership.

The Goldfinch dramatizes that wanton, helpless, shameless pride we have for things we are passionate about.

When a book touches you so like The Goldfinch did me, when it touches on something you feel deeply in your soul the way Tartt digs into it, you just know it has to make your list, and only because we don’t all feel just as strongly as other people feel about their passions, I’ll excuse anyone who wants to take a pass on this one. But it’ll be good if you’ll read it if not for the story itself but for the abundance of freshly distilled wisdom contained therein. This book re-emphasizes for me what all great work of art is –philosophy. And you know me, I love anything that tinkers with my brain. This one tickled it.

Donna Tartt was exquisite. I didn’t think I was going to say this when I started this book but here I am.

But yeah, sometimes you have to dig for the gem.

And here are some gems for you:

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

“Because–isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

“Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is a catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.”

“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”

“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

How can anyone resist such beautiful prose? You sef look am now!

 

A YEAR IN READING – EXPLORING A CAVEAT

A YEAR IN READING – EXPLORING A CAVEAT

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From the Navy Regulations;

Article 184.

UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES.

It is conceivable that most unusual and extraordinary circumstances may arise in which the relief from duty of a commanding officer by a subordinate becomes necessary, either by placing him under arrest or on the sick list; but such action shall never be taken without the approval of the Navy Department or other appropriate higher authority, except when reference to such higher authority is undoubtedly impracticable because of the delay involved or for other clearly obvious reason. Such reference must set forth all facts in the case, and the reasons for the recommendation, with particular regard to the degree of urgency involved.

Article 185.

CONDITIONS TO FULFILL.

In order that a subordinate officer, acting upon his own initiative, may be vindicated for relieving a commanding officer from duty, the situation must be obvious and clear, and must admit of the single conclusion that the retention of command by such commanding officer will seriously and irretrievably prejudice the public interests. The subordinate officer so acting must be next in lawful succession to command; must be unable to refer the matter to a common superior for one of the reasons set down in Article 184; must be certain that the prejudicial actions of his commanding officer are not caused by secret instructions unknown to the subordinate; must have given the matter such careful consideration, and must have made such exhaustive investigation of all the circumstances, as may be practicable; and finally must be thoroughly convinced that the conclusion to relieve his commanding officer is one which a reasonable, prudent, and experienced officer would regard as a necessary consequence from the facts thus determined to exist.

Article 186.

RESPONSIBILITY.

Intelligently fearless initiative is an important trait of military character, and it is not the purpose to discourage its employment in cases of this nature. However, as the action of relieving a superior from command involves most serious possibilities, a decision so to do or so to recommend should be based upon facts established by substantial evidence, and upon the official views of others in a position to form valuable opinions, particularly of a technical character. An officer relieving his commanding officer or recommending such action, together with all others who so counsel, must bear the legitimate responsibility for, and must be prepared to justify, such action.

“This life is slow suicide, unless you read.” – Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny started with a caveat, like a loose seam in a parchment of rigid rules. If you were straining for the main gist in the book with a psychic’s lens, you’d have it right there on the first page without a hassle. But really, you’d be selling yourself short on an incredible novel if you think this book is all about Naval Regulations and bureaucratic rules.

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And you can take that to the bank!

As the author tried to explain himself, “It was not a mutiny in the old-time sense, of course, with flashing of cutlasses, a captain in chains, and desperate sailors turning outlaws. After all, it happened in 1944 in the United States Navy. But the court of inquiry recommended trial for mutiny, and the episode became known as “the Caine mutiny” throughout the service.The story begins with Willie Keith because the event turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.

Before I fell under the spell of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, it was The Caine Mutiny that first had me, and still has me for an entirely different reason. Herman Wouk won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1952. The book has since then be adapted into a broad-way play written by the author and into a successful feature length movie starring the iconic Humphrey Bogart. The successes of these adaptations are so popular that they are often mistaken as parallel originals when it all started with this brilliant book.

So how about we start with the source, the real McCoy.

In The Caine Mutiny, there were bold, well rounded characters that really made this novel fly. There was the sadistically rabid Captain Queeg; Commander of the navy minesweeper, the impressionable swashbuckling second-officer, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk; and the narrator through whose eyes the story is told, Willis Keith. Other supporting characters prop these centerpieces to such glowing plaudits. The story reached a climax when Stephen Maryk upset the chain of command by challenging the sanity of the Commanding Officer on the USS Caine at a very critical moment. Through the participation of the other members of the crew, Maryk was able to oust his Commanding Officer in a clever ploy that was soon to explode in all their faces. In the aftermath of the attending Court Marshall, all judgments pronounced, the rest was left to every single witness in this grand spectacle of calumny to re-examine the veracity of their earlier claims and to carefully examine the roles they played in the final analysis.

Beyond reasonable doubt is a powerful phrase, and reason in the rigid structure of naval discipline had always been a contentious one, thorny for Willis, and especially unwarranted for Maryk in the context of military leadership. How then could reason hold forte with such a shaky foreground in the trial of a contemptible superior, with an arm- long log of patterned exhibit?

“The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. If you are not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one. All the shortcuts and economies and common-sense changes that your native intelligence suggests to you are mistakes. Learn to quash them. Constantly ask yourself, “How would I do this if I were a fool?” Throttle down your mind to a crawl. Then you will never go wrong.”

“With the smoke of the dead sailor’s cigar wreathing around him, Willie passed to thinking about death and life and luck and God. Philosophers are at home with such thoughts, perhaps, but for other people it is actual torture when these concepts–not the words, the realities–break through the crust of daily occurrences and grip the soul. A half hour of such racking meditation can change the ways of a lifetime.”

“Remember this, if you can–there is nothing, nothing more precious than time. You probably feel you have a measureless supply of it, but you haven’t. Wasted hours destroy your life just as surely at the beginning as at the end–only in the end it becomes more obvious.”

“Money is a very pleasant thing, Willie, and I think you can trade almost anything for it wisely except the work you really want to do. If you sell out your time for a comfortable life, and give up your natural work, I think you lose the exchange. There remains an inner uneasiness that spoils the comforts.”

“You can’t understand command till you’ve had it. It’s the loneliest, most oppressive job in the whole world. It’s a nightmare, unless you’re an ox. You’re forever teetering along a tiny path of correct decisions and good luck that meanders through an infinite gloom of possible mistakes.”

The Caine Mutiny is a book that explores the grey zone between motive and propriety, opportunistic intent and ambition, the burden of military leadership and by extension every form of leadership. This tale is a turntable that positions you on all sides of the table like a revolving table.

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Word!

The Caine Mutiny explores the legal conundrum in a Catch-22 situation with the storied fleck of quintessential characters. Within the natural span of this book you are offered another side of the kaleidoscope that you might not have considered. And now you’re sitting down thinking, “What the heck!”

For me, give me a bit of law fiction and you will have me nibbling from your palm. Throw in fine prose, and you’ll have a dog to a bone. The Caine Mutiny is not like any of the books I’ve earlier reviewed in this series. If you thought there was a pattern to my selections (and I can’t tell you there is), then this is clearly a break from the norm. So cleanly tangential, it would have you mesmerized with freshness.

Being a sucker for court-room dramas, I must say that this is not one of John Grisham’s legalistic tropes.  Yes, the story bears strongly on establishing facts, recounting tales and analyzing characters.  But beyond all of these is an enthralling book that isn’t bogged down by the bombastic techiness of first-hand experience (the author actually served on a ship during WWII) nor is it a floundering recount of America’s history. It is also about honour, truth, loyalty, class, group politics, naval life and love (you didn’t think this was a buffy, testosterone-muted tale, did you?).  It offers a stark image of the conflicts that do arise in the regular prosecution of military jobs – bureaucratic minefields in the military, courage in the face of peril, the corruption of intelligence e.t.c. This is a very intelligent book I assure you.

 

Living in Gidi : Something of a Review

Living in Gidi : Something of a Review

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I’ve got my copy of Isaac Newtøn Akah’s ‘Living in Gidi’.

Here Isaac looks through a tiny pin-hole at Lasgidi in all of its maddening chaos and intemperate glory. He humorously captures the strifes of a hustler in this maniacal city, from the weekend-ly owambes to the resourceful conductor we love, from the save-by-the-bell story of a night that could have gone awry to the very humane Lagos that offers a free ride, no rituals involved.

You can process these tales in your dark imagination as a non-initiate; I-can-never-live in Lagos-if you-offer-me-ten-billion type or you can stand unabashedly in the glow of Isaac’s flash like a resident Lagos model whose story is being told through the narrative lens of a creative writer. Either way you will be alright, as we say in Lagos.

And yes there are cracks of humanity too to help you see that this writer, for all of his ‘Smart Aleckiness’ does bleed too. He might be cloaked in humour, but his heart sometimes slips down his sleeve. (I see you bruh !)

The ‘palmitic’ Pope Itodo Samuel Anthony is not left out of this tale. He makes an appearance too: ditched his gourd for a moment (or did he) and opened each episode with lines thrown from up the towering height of the Palm tree (for who does not know that that is where great wisdom resides next to the bottom of a gourd). Here we are offered a view into the picturesque Lagos of Isaac’s- crazy and all from this overlooking height.

Living in Gidi is replete with the tales we do not all have the words for. Tales that softens the edge of our roguish Lagos core with a perspective and an abiding message.

These are light-hearted stories for your reading pleasure.

Available on Amazon and Okadabooks