I was hoping to scan some covers and share impressions of my summer reading – but it’s past Labor Day (Americanized MayDay) so summer is being ushered out. Time to get started!:

Shah of Shahs – Ryszard Kapuscinski. This book – about social upheaval, large-scale repression and its lingering impact, wrong-footed modernity, individual heroics and weaknesses that stitch together society – is almost too beautiful. Every page radiates poetic lucidity, even – especially – as he covers some of the more horrible aspects of Iranian life under the Shah leading up through the subsequent revolution. Kapuscinski’s observations spill into now; I can’t imagine a time when this book will not be relevant.

An excerpt from the introduction:

What’s more, you are never sure who has locked you up, since no identifying marks differentiate the various representatives of violence whom you encounter, no uniforms or caps, no armbands or badges–these are simply armed civilians whose authority must be accepted unquestioningly if you care about your life. After a few days, though, we grow used to them and learn to tell them apart. This distinguished-looking man, in his well-made white shirt and carefully matched tie, walking down the street shouldering a rifle is certainly a militiaman in one of the ministries or central offices. On the other hand, this masked boy (a woolen stocking pulled over his head and holes cut out at eyes and mouth) is a local feyadeen no one’s supposed to know by sight or name. We can’t be sure about these people dressed in green U.S. Army fatigue jackets, rushing by in cars, barrels of guns pointed out the windows. They might be from the militia, but then again they might belong to one of the opposition combat groups (religious fantatics, anarchists, last remnants of Savak) hurrying with suicidal determination to carry out an act of sabotage or revenge.

But finally it’s not fun trying to predict just whose ambush is waiting you, whose trap you’ll fall into. People don’t like surprises, so they barricade themselves in their homes at night. My hotel is also locked (at this hour the sound of gunfire mingles with the creaking of shutters rolling down and the slamming shut of gates and doors). No friends will drop by; nothing like that will happen. I have no one to talk to. I’m sitting along looking through notes and pictures on the table, listening to taped conversations.


ok. more books soon!

18 thoughts on “SUMMER READING pt. 1”

  1. It’s a fascinating book. I thought one of his other books, The Emperor, about the collapse of the court of Haile Selassie, was also excellent. I felt it gave me some sense of what it might have been like at, say, the court of Elizabeth I: a completely poisonous atmosphere where all access to money and power derive from the whims of a single individual. And I think he had three completely separate secret police networks, so they couldn’t easily conspire against him.

  2. Kapuscinski is da bomb!!!! A major model for how to make journalism into literature. Thanks for the reminder — gotta pick up The Soccer War again…

  3. Ryszard Kapuscinski is my favorite ! It’s just too bad he died last year… Good book : HEBAN / Ebony.

  4. I got an amazon kindle this summer, and have been looking for new things to read. Unfortunately this book is not available for it. Two of the authors other books are The Shadow of the Sun and Another Day of Life, so maybe I will check those out.

    Looking forward to hear about more books. Right now I am bouncing between two history books. One on the Byzantine empire and another on Sikhs.

  5. Hmmn. This is an author I’ve never picked up, but I have heard a bit about him. What do you guys make of the controversies surrounding his books? There is pretty sizeable evidence that a good portion of his works (esp. the Emperor) are either entirely made up or heavily exaggerated.

  6. Ooh, I just finished reading The Shadow of the Sun recently myself. I love what I’ve read of Kapuscinski: he describes stuff with such vivid clarity, you can practically smell and taste it. He’s done more than perhaps any other write to make me question the biases I have in the way I view other parts of the world, especially countries in Africa.

    Alex: yes, there have been a lot of questions raised about accuracy. I don’t think Kapuscinski would win any prizes for journalistic fidelity, but I think you’d struggle to find another European who’s written more perceptively and evocatively about Africa. Seriously, just give him a try. Another Day of Life is a good (and pithy) place to start.

  7. Alex, i 2nd what Jrim says – Kapuscinski is evocative, its not history or even journalism in the conventional sense, and that is what gives it its power. It is ‘general’ in a literary way, the way a novel about one person’s very specific life can speak to yours..
    his style seems a welcome critique of the history as fact-memorization that (for example) US highschools seem to champion.

  8. Kapuscinski is surely missed. Imperium is probably my favourite book of his and Shah of Shah’s is actually on my bedroom table right now. Btw a few days ago I witnessed the brilliant motion picture version of cartoon Persepolis about living conditions in Iran. See it!

    Last winter I offered up some old ethiopian funk and soul and wrote a few words on Kapuscinski’s Emperor on my blog,

  9. Jace that may or may not be the problem with HS US History classes (I can think of more glaring problems, frankly)–the seemingly bigger issue here is with journalists (and editors–hello NY Times!) who seem intent on not letting facts get in the way of a good story. Kapuscinski is by all accounts a very good storyteller, but a good portion of the authority of these books resides in their supposed authenticity (he was there! he talked to the people! this is the inside dope!). His stuff isn’t being presented (or marketed or reviewed) as fiction so pretending that it should be read as such seems kind of disingenuous (I’ve been doing a little research and Kapuscinski seems to rail against journalistic fiction?!?!#$ oh irony of ironies.)

    That said I’ve always been intrigued so I will look around for his stuff.

  10. alex – i’m pretty new to Kapuscinski & the debate around his accuracy — if you’ve got any links handy, please post them in a comment.

    this seems like a good time to mention Tim O’Brien’s How To Tell A True War Story.

    or pdf:

    weirdly enough, i just noticed that both these online versions differ from each other and from my print version, entire sentences are gone or invented in each version…

  11. WOW – Binyavanga’s piece is skewering , amazing really. (he’s a great writer, agile brilliant hilarious and with teeth)

    anybody know where those insane Kapuscinski quotes about Africa are from?

  12. Ouch. That second Binyavanga piece is vicious. Anyway, thanks for the links – I’d realised that Kapuscinski wasn’t the most reliable of narrators, but I hadn’t been aware that he was taking so many liberties. I didn’t really get irked by those generalised “the African this… Africans that…” comments in The Shadow of the Sun because, in light of the preface, I was taking them all with a pinch of salt. Maybe that’s just me being too indulgent, though.

  13. Those quotes are definitely from Shadow of the Sun. I recently read it during a trip to Ghana. I have to admit, I loved the book from start to finish, but I can see it from Binyavanga’s perspective. The book generalizes constantly. It is actually rather hypocritical, as he also states repeatedly how incredibly diverse and varied the people and cultures of Africa are. Then a few pages later he’ll say something like “Africans eat only once a day”

    The book was completely absorbing, and insightful in many ways. Yet it didn’t always jive with what I was actually seeing around me in Accra. Still, I want to read more of his books. Travels with Herodotus is currently next in line on my readings list.

  14. While I agree with Binyavanga’s point, I do think there is a useful space for such writing. His work was recommended to me by two Ethiopian professors, who are themselves expat lefties with somewhat romantic conceptions of Africa who LOVED his work. He’s a great storyteller and like Jrim, I take those “in africa..” phrases with a grain of salt. Then again, I’m a fan of Kipling as well so I suppose I have a high tolerance for orientalist bullshit. TSOTS does come off as outdated.

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