poetry & paintings #4

This will be the last edition of “poetry & paintings” until December, because my online classes don’t participate in this activity. I hope that anyone who has read these student-created poems has enjoyed them. I think it’s important to mention that the students don’t get a lot of time to think about their poems and polish their poetry: this exercise takes place on the last day of class and the students have about 15 minutes to select paintings and then compose their haiku. These poems came from my long semester on-campus Spring 2018 class. I hope you enjoy the haiku selected for inclusion here.


The Roses of Heliogabalus — Lawrence Alma-Tadena, 1888

alma-tadema - roses

“The Roses of Heliogabalus” by Madelyn Medina

What a royal meal!

Sweet roses fall on the guests,

For evil or bliss?


Seascape at Saintes-Maries — Vincent van Gogh, 1888

van gogh - seascape

“Seascape at Saintes-Maries” by Hannah Marshall

Spontaneous sea,

Pushing and pulling colors.

I am soft, yet harsh.


The Great Wave of Kanagawa — Katsushika Hokusai, c.1833

hokusai - wave

“The Journey” by Abraham Garcia

As we head to base,

The waves hit with a big roar!

Please, please God, no more.


A Wheatfield with Cypresses — Vincent van Gogh, 1889

van gogh - wheatfield

“A Pretty Day” by Jacob Gedde

The trees are swaying

While the wind is still playing.

So, are we staying?


Good Friday, Daisy Nook — Laurence Stephen Lowry, 1946

lowry - daisy nook

“Good Friday, Daisy Nook” by DJ House

Fun times at the fair!

But no one asked the question:

Is Waldo in there?


Golconda — René Magritte, 1953

magrette - golconda

“On Magritte’s Golconda” by Morgan Bandy

Observe, my dear son,

The grid of frozen people

dying in neckties.

  – – – – –

They and I and you

are inky punctuations,

shot through nothingness.

poetry & paintings #3

When learning how the various arts can interrelate, my FINE 1306 students have the opportunity to experience the concept of “interpretation,” in which an existing work of art inspires another artist to create something new.  Last Saturday, students chose a painting and then wrote a haiku inspired by their choice.


Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles — Vincent van Gogh, 1888

van gogh - bedroom

“Favorite Place,” by Suzan Issam

The bedroom is calm,

What a peaceful place to be!

Nights filled with sweet dreams.


Wild Poppies (Les Coquelicots) — Claude Monet, 1873

monet - poppies

“Wild Poppy Field,” by Morgan Eichler

Walking through the field;

Orange flowers scattered throughout,

Umbrellas in hand.


Sunflowers — Vincent van Gogh, 1888

van gogh - sunflowers

“Sunflowers,” by Jadee Hankins

Yellow, green, and brown,

Fragrant flowers in the pot;

Smells I once forgot.


Napoleon Leading His Troops over the Bridge at Arcole — Horace Vernet, 1826

vernet - Napoleon

“The March,” by Sam Ellis

“Onward!” Captain yelled

As the drums played on… tap-tap;

We marched on… tap-tap.


The Bear Dance — William Holbrook Beard, c. mid-1860s

beard - bear dance

“Bear Party,” by Emily Bannister

Community fun!

Chaos, disorder, and noise—

Harmless enjoyment.


Midsummer Eve — Edward Robert Hughes, 1908

hughes - midsummer

“Far Away Land,” by Amanda Bannister

Little wings, bright lights

In a land never journeyed.

Fairies welcome her.


Niagara Falls — William Morris Hunt, 1878

hunt - niagara

“The Falls,” by Abby Middleton

Cascades flowing down.

Sounds of thunder all around;

Hear the mighty roar!


Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X — Francis Bacon, 1953

bacon - pope

“A Pope’s Duty,” by Lori McDermett

The pain, I cry out:

Innocents’ confessions burn.

Oh Lord, hear me weep!

– – – – –

The burdens they bring—

I am the pain, suffering,

Waiting. Please save me!

poetry & paintings #2

Students in my Introduction to Fine Arts class experienced the ways in which various forms of art can interrelate by writing original poems based upon paintings they chose from a collection of available images. Their poems were written in the form of haikus, with a per-line syllable count of 5-7-5, but I did not enforce the rule about contradicting ideas or thoughts. As I’ve done before, I present to you a few of the outstanding efforts from the students in my Spring Break hybrid-mini class of 2018.

We’ll start with Brennan Claflin, who chose Seaport at Sunset by Claude Lorrain (1639).

lorrain - seaport at sunset

Seaport at Sunset

Ships come into port;

Sun sets in the western sky.

Freight is unloaded.


Next we have Delaney Gusdorff, who wrote two verses about Armand Guillaumin’s Sunset at Ivry (1873). I find it interesting that both of these paintings showcase the predominant transport industries of their times, although they were created 234 years apart.

guillaumin - setting sun at ivry

Sunset at Ivry

Overwhelming smoke,

Immense beauty in the sky.

Which do I see most?

– – – – – – – – – –

God made the nature;

Humans make pollution, but

We’re His creation.


Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891) inspired David Hairston to write his haiku.  Rousseau later changed the title of this work to Surprised! in order to submit the painting in an exhibit of independent artists that were challenging the status quo. David reflected the two titles in the two verses of his poem.

rousseau - tiger in a tropical storm

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)

Tiger prowls in grass,

Masked by the thunder and light.

Eyes open with fear.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tiger prowls in grass,

Surprised in the stormy night.

Floating over prey.


Quaker preacher Edward Hicks painted 62 versions of The Peaceable Kingdom. The version pictured here was completed in 1826 and now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Keara Walley‘s haiku is unique because, in addition to the 5-7-5 form, it also rhymes!

hicks - peaceable kingdom

The Peaceable Kingdom

Beasts of land and sea

Truly at peace we may be,

For God so loved we.


Melissa Mullen‘s gentle poem contains a clever internal rhyme. She was inspired by Mary Cassatt’s equally gentle painting, titled Summertime (1894).

cassatt - summertime

Summertime

Floating silently;

Cool breeze in the air, and not

A care in the world.


Finally, Evyn Seaman‘s haiku shares a thoughtful, theological interpretation of René Magritte’s The Son of Man (1946).

Ren? Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009  øðä îàâøéè, áðå ùì àãí, 1964, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009

The Son of Man

One bite, then came fall.

Always working, debt still tall—

He came, freed us all.


Thank you for reading. I’d like to thank the students named above for granting me permission to share their creations with you. I hope you enjoyed them!

thoughts on Psalm 51:10-12

I’ve known these words, this passage, since I was a teenager. In high school and college I learned a song based on this scripture. But today as I read these words from The Voice translation, several new ideas occurred to me that I want to think about and share.

Psalm 51, verses ten through twelve, says this:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God; restore within me a sense of being brand new.voice

“Do not throw me far away from Your presence, and do no remove Your Holy Spirit from me.

“Give back to me the deep delight of being saved by You; let Your willing Spirit sustain me.”

As I was copying out these familiar words, I focused on what they mean to me today, fifty years after I first learned them through a song.

First I wondered: how in the world could a 64-year-old woman ever again feel “brand new?” Consider a brand-new product—a toaster, for example. The new toaster is shiny, with no nicks or fingerprint smears. The inside is clean, free of burnt crumbs and singed sesame seeds. The cord is new and flexible, with no frayed wires or dust build-up. It’s so perfect, you almost hate to place it in your kitchen, where you know its beauty won’t last long. Forgive me for anthropomorphizing, but it’s almost like the toaster is eager to start toasting! It wants to do what it was created to do.

But I’m not a new toaster. I’m the old familiar toaster, the one that’s about to be replaced. I’m a bit beat-up, and some of my settings don’t work so well anymore. I’m covered with the grime of use and age, and my insides are littered with the crumbs of previous years – the successes and failures, trials and adventures of a long and active life. Maybe it’s time to be cast aside for a newer model.

But if the toaster in this analogy had belonged to my dad, it would not end up in the garbage. My dad’s motto was “why replace it when you can fix it?” He would have taken the toaster apart, cleaned out its interior, disposed of the crumbs and debris, re-wired the control buttons, and put it all back together with a new electric cord and a freshly polished exterior. Back on the countertop, the toaster would be ready to perform its duties faithfully for many more years to come.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this! You might think that it’s self-centered of me to use my dad in this comparison as an analog for God. Please know that it’s not my intention to be disrespectful or blasphemous. But I can imagine God our Father hearing my plea: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; restore within me a sense of being brand new!” I know that my Father can clean me up, take me apart and empty out the messes left over from the difficulties and hardships I have faced in the past. Although the scrubbing may be uncomfortable, He is able to scrape off the layers of fear, loneliness, pride, and laziness that have collected on me over the years. He can rid me of the bitterness I may still entertain, the grudges I hold, the disappointments that left me wary and suspicious and closed off. He can fix my broken connections, with people and institutions, and best of all, he can replace my worn-out cord and plug, restore the connection I need to tap in to His power, the power of the Holy Spirit.

When repaired and restored, I can once again feel the “deep delight” of fulfilling my purpose, even if I don’t completely understand what it is. As long as I stay plugged in, the Power will be available when I need it, for whatever task the Father assigns.

#23: The Grapes of Wrath

grapes of wrathThe Grapes of Wrath, 1940.  Directed by John Ford, and starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine.  Based on the novel by John Steinbeck.

At #23 on the AFI Top 100 list, The Grapes of Wrath was yet another film that I was familiar with, but had never actually seen.  Set in the midst of the Great Depression, the film tells the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers from Oklahoma who lose their land and then set off with thousands of others for the promised land of California.  Along the way, they experience the kindness and the cruelty of the American people, and discover the harshness and the beauty of the American landscape.  The Joad family’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs represent the shared experiences of the people of America’s heartland during the terrible drought known as the Dust Bowl days.

This is an important film for these reasons.  Americans should never forget the events of that time, events that shaped the way our country developed through the mid-twentieth century.  Although the style of the film is a bit dated, especially in the way the actors tend to speachify occasionally, the message itself is timeless, and the film contains some great moments of cinematography, directing, and acting.  Director John Ford took full advantage of the bleakness possible through black-and-white film to give the movie an almost visceral feel of dust, dirt, grime, and despair.  One especially intriguing moment comes early in the film, when the Joads’ neighbor, Muley, describes for Fonda’s character, Tom, the destruction of people’s homes, and the community in general, by what he calls the “cats” – the Caterpillar tractors used by the landowners to clear the land for large-scale, machine-enabled farming.  Ford uses a montage of clips of tractors, usually shot from below to make them seem larger and more threatening.  The montage is overlaid on footage of the ever-rolling track belt of a tractor’s wheel assembly, which imparts a sense of encroaching and inevitable doom.  When Muley describes the actual annihilation of his own home, the camera focuses on the imprints of the track belt’s ridges left behind in the dirt of his now-destroyed front yard.  The implication of man’s powerlessness in the wake of the machine is clear and lasting.

By far, the most riveting performance was that of Jane Darwell, in the role of Ma Joad.  Darwell’s careworn yet tender face imparts infinite depths of feeling, suffering, insight, and wisdom.  Her loving acceptance of Tom’s (Fonda’s) past is balanced by her determination to remain decent, kind, and forgiving in the face of incredible suffering.  She worries that Tom’s experiences in prison have made him hard and mean, yet her love and devotion are clearly present in her every interaction with him.  It’s obvious, even before any mention of the fact is made, that she is the one who is holding the family together, through her own strength of character, persistence, and stubborn dignity.  At the end of the film, it is Ma’s character who makes the closing speech, rather than Tom or any of the other male characters.   The speech is almost like a soliloquy, because she seems to be addressing a larger audience than her husband and son who ride with her in the front seat of the truck.  She muses on the hard days they have survived, and confesses that there were many times when she thought all was lost.  However, she concludes by expressing hope for her family’s future.  She reiterates the family’s close ties to the land and unbreakable bonds with each other.  But it’s not just her words that infuse the viewer with optimism — it’s her face, and especially her eyes.  You can see the light of hope and determination in her expression, and you begin to share her vision for a better future.  This must have been very inspiring to the audiences of 1940, who had themselves suffered, to one extent or another, the kinds of deprivations and humiliations depicted onscreen.  Ma Joad’s vision for tomorrow did not just encompass herself, or even her own family, but the entire country as well.  She spoke hope for all Americans.

(author’s note: I wrote this a few years ago, when my plan was to review all of the films on the AFI’s Top 100 American Films list. I recently rediscovered this post, which was ready to publish when I lost track of it.)

paintings & poetry

On their last day of class, I asked my students to choose a painting from a large collection of reproductions that I brought to class. Then they were charged with the task of writing a haiku about the painting of their choice. I was very pleased with the results. Most of the students took their poetry with them, but here are three who shared their work with me.

Michael McAndrew chose Rouen Port Unloading Wood by Camille Pissaro (1898).  Here is the painting:

Image result for rouen port unloading wood

Here is his haiku:

Cold steel in cold sea

Men rise early in morning

Labor for fam’ly

 

Kyler Luckey chose La Place Valhubert by Armand Guillaumin (1875):

Image result for la place valhubert

Here is Kyler’s two-verse haiku:

Cold air and warm hearts

Hand in hand down the river

Boats pass like moments.

———-

Time is fleeting by 

Like a small flame flickering

Cold air bites our hands.

 

Finally, Adam Cowart chose the painting Napoleon Leading His Troops Over the Bridge at Arcole, by Horace Vernet (1826).

Image result for napoleon leading his troops over the bridge at arcole

And here is Adam’s haiku:

As the soldiers fought

“What is this all for?” they thought

Nor war, but for peace.

———-

Our Fine Arts textbook talks about ways in which the various arts can interrelate with one another. This would be an example of interpretation, where one art form already exists and then another artist draws upon that work for inspiration in creating something new, usually using different media.  I really appreciate these three students who were willing to share their work with me — and now, with you, too.

review of “Not a Scientist”

Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan

not a scientistI don’t remember how I came to know about this book; perhaps Amazon recommended it to me or I read about it in the Brain Pickings blog. Whatever the initial impetus was, however, I am very glad to have read this book. Levitan’s premise is that politicians engage in various rhetorical errors when discussing scientific topics. Whether those errors are intentional or accidental is difficult to determine with certainty, although some repeat offenders, like former Texas governor and current U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, have strong and obvious ties to oil and gas interests in their respective states.

The title of the book refers to a speech made by Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he was running for the presidency against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Reagan said, “I have flown twice over Mount St. Helens out on our West Coast. I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I just have a suspicion that that one little mountain out there has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.” Levitan goes on to explain that the eruption of Mount St. Helens ultimately released about 1.5 million tons of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) into the atmosphere—a prodigious amount. But the output of the past ten years (at that time) of human activity—automobiles, power plants, and factories—was estimated to equal over 200 million tons from the United States alone. (Levitan, 2) Reagan’s “suspicion” was off by a mere 99.25%!

According to Levitan, Reagan’s speech ushered in an era of misrepresentation and misuse of scientific data for political purposes. By using various rhetorical devices, politicians have been able to bend scientific facts to non-scientific purposes. The types of rhetorical foul play Levitan describes include such common occurrences as oversimplification, cherry-picking, demonizing, ridicule, and fabrication. But he has also crafted some clever names for other common instances: “Blame the Blogger,” the “Certain Uncertainty,” the “Credit Snatch,” and “Lost in Translation,” among others. He provides a chapter on each of these rhetorical snares, with plenty of examples from recent political history, as well as the real scientific facts and explanations that correct these errors.

Levitan builds his cases with unimpeachable sources from the U.S. government and worldwide scientific organizations. His bibliography of sources and notes extends to 34 pages of small print. The author comes to this topic with solid credentials. He has been working as a freelance journalist covering scientific topics for the last ten years, and has been published in Scientific American, Slate, Discover, and the Guardian, among others. His focus in this book is not just about politicians playing fast and loose with scientific facts; he also discusses the policies that have resulted from these errors and the medical and environmental impacts they have had on society.

The main scientific issues that Levitan addresses are global warming, vaccinations, marijuana use, and abortion. He doesn’t try using the scientific data to promote his own political beliefs or agenda; instead, he demonstrates the ways in which scientific facts have been misrepresented in order to persuade voters and lawmakers toward erroneous conclusions and unwise policies. While other issues are represented, his main focus is upon climate change and the foolhardy policies that have been adopted over the last forty or so years because of the intentional misuse of scientific data, findings, and facts.

Like almost all scientists and others who are scientifically informed and aware, Levitan is alarmed by the evidence of global warming and the obvious role that human activity plays in advancing climate change. So political conservatives and climate change deniers will not enjoy this book (and would probably not choose to read it, anyway). But those who do read this book will come away with a deepened appreciation for the complexity of scientific inquiry and the difficulties of passing along that type of information to the general public. However, the book itself is not difficult to understand. Levitan has a knack for explaining the complexities and vagaries of scientific inquiry in a way that is easy to understand but is not over-simplified. He does not talk down to the scientifically ignorant, but instead patiently explains the types of data currently available, the procedures for collecting that data, and the principles of nature involved with the particular issues at hand.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has been confused by proclamations made about scientific topics in the news media, as well as to anyone interested in public policy and rhetoric. I’m very glad that I took the time to read this book, and I feel sure that I will find it to be a useful reference tool in the future.

review of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”

harold fryThe author of this novel, Rachel Joyce, has had a successful career writing over thirty “afternoon plays” for BBC Radio. These include both adaptations and original stories. I mention this fact because Joyce has a gift for narrative flow and gripping storytelling that is in full evidence in this, her first novel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and received many accolades when it first appeared in 2012.  I vaguely remember seeing it on various recommendation lists, but the story of a retired man finding himself wasn’t very attractive to me. However, a few weeks ago my friend Les Schroeder asked me if I had read it, because he had just finished it and wanted to talk about it. That was enough recommendation for me! I eagerly started reading this book as soon as I had finished The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu (see my previous post for a review).  I was ready for something completely different, and that’s what I got.

As a character, Harold Fry is an everyman and yet totally unique. As the story begins, we find him sitting at the breakfast table in his nondescript home, watching his wife obsessively vacuum and clean while he wonders what he should be doing. He has recently retired from an unremarkable job at an unremarkable firm, and the despair of inactivity settles on him like volcanic ash. How many times can he mow the lawn? Then a letter arrives for him, opening a door to both his past and his future.

The letter is from Queenie Hennesey, a former co-worker whom Harold has not seen or spoken to in twenty years. She has written to Harold to tell him goodbye, explaining that she has an inoperable cancerous tumor and that she is now living in hospice care, waiting to die. The return address is Berwick-on-Tweed, a small village on the far northeast coast of England. This comes as a surprise since Harold and Queenie worked together in a town on the southwest coast, where he and his wife Maureen still live. Harold decides that he must respond to the letter, but he can’t settle on exactly what he should say. In spite of resentful and derisive comments from his wife, he determines to take his reply to the nearest mailbox so that it will be posted that very day. Setting off for the corner mailbox, he begins to experience a sense of purpose and freedom that has long been missing from his life.

When Harold arrives at the corner, he finds that he can’t bear to drop the letter in and return home. Walking a little further won’t hurt him, he figures. He walks on to the next box, and when the same reluctance to turn back occurs again, he keeps walking. He’ll go on to the town’s central post office, to make sure it gets posted, he rationalizes. But once at the post office, he still can’t let go of the letter. So he keeps walking. As he approaches the far edge of his town, he is gripped with the irrational notion that if he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living.

Harold calls his wife, who scoffs at his foolishness, of course. Then he calls the hospice to let Queenie know that he is on his way, insisting that she must continue living until he gets there. Without supplies, appropriate clothing, or even his cell phone, Harold embarks upon a remarkable journey, determined to walk across England to deliver his letter, in person, to his friend.

Along the way, Harold alternates between despair and hope, between despondency and faith. Every time he is ready to call it off and go back home, someone comes into his life to encourage him and restore his resolve. He begins to understand the generosity of receiving, the paradoxical knowledge that allowing others to help him will help them, as well.  As he walks, he discovers lost memories, reconsiders his past, and learns to appreciate each present moment. Facing occasional pain, hunger, and bad weather, he discovers that not all dangers approach from the outside; some memories have more potential for damage than the trials of nature.

I don’t want to spoil the plot further for anyone who may choose to read this delightful book. But I do want to mention the narrative technique that the author employs because I think this is what sets the book apart from many other novels. Joyce very carefully rations out the facts of Harold’s life so that the reader is always discovering something new, not only in the current story of his pilgrimage but also in the backstory of the intertwining lives of Harold, Maureen, and Queenie. The narrative point of view revolves mostly around Harold, but occasionally switches to his wife Maureen, whose experiences of loss and confusion in her husband’s absence elicit her own memories and revelations.

The author uses Harold’s story to poke holes in the mythical fabric of the traditional, quiet English life, a life of social conventions and propriety. It seems that those heavy expectations are what Harold must throw off in order to find meaning in his life, and his walking pilgrimage serves to liberate not only Harold, Maureen, and Queenie, but also the many people with whom they come into contact.  In fact, England herself becomes a character in the book – her geography, her weather, her people, and their idiosyncrasies.  Anglophiles, like myself, will love it, as will those who enjoy tales of personal adventure and redemption.

review of “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu”

bada libraransI just finished reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, by Joshua Hammer.  Hammer is an accomplished journalist who has written for the likes of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and the New York Review of Books, among others. At the time this book was published, he was a contributing editor at Smithsonian magazine.  So the man knows his stuff, and this book is based on at least a decade of deep research and personal experiences in Timbuktu and other parts of Mali and Saharan North Africa. This is a major strength of the book, but it also can be a weakness. Hammer goes into so much depth and discusses so many details that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who is who and what is going on. To compound the matter, Hammer tends to move forward and back in time, so that just when you think you understand what has happened, he reveals something from a time past that changes your perception. So that’s the biggest negative I have to share in what will, overall, be a very positive review.

However, I would like to challenge the assumptions made in the book’s title and subtitle.  For one thing, while the manuscripts that were in danger are indeed precious and rare, I’m not sure they would qualify as MORE rare than, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls or a fifth-century copy of Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana or even one of the six surviving Shakespeare signatures.  And I’m sure there are equally rare and precious Asian manuscripts that deserve careful preservation. So my first quarrel is only with the term “Most Precious” in referencing the manuscripts in question. I might also challenge the term “Librarians.” Technically speaking, the people who were involved in saving the manuscripts were either the owners of the documents, or their relatives. These people had never done the kind of work we associate with traditional librarianship: the manuscripts had not been listed, categorized, or even counted until the rescue operation was under way. The man whose story begins and ends the book, Abdel Kader Haidara, obtained and collected manuscripts for the Ahmed Baba collection, and raised the funds to house and restore them. He also built a library containing his family’s personal collection of manuscripts, the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu. None of these documents have ever been catalogued in the common sense of the term.  Some of them were on public display until their evacuation, and restoration work had been started. So, in my opinion, Haidara and his colleagues were collectors and curators, but not really librarians, unless your definition of a librarian is anyone who owns books. Many of the people who actually rescued the manuscripts were concerned friends and neighbors, and in some cases, simply unemployed young men who needed cash and were willing to put themselves at risk for it. Were these people courageous and daring? Yes, so they could definitely be called “bad-ass” in my opinion. But were they really librarians? No. It makes a great book title, though.

Now to address the actual contents of the book. The author, Joshua Hammer,begins by teasing the story of Haidara’s dilemma and how he resolved it. Priceless manuscripts were in danger of destruction when Islamic jihadists and Tuareg rebels combined forces with Saharan smugglers and drug-runners to overthrow the government of Mali. The Tuaregs wanted to establish their own homeland nation; the jihadists wanted to establish a caliphate based on strict Shariah law; and the criminals just wanted to destabilize the region to facilitate their own nefarious activities. Timbuktu sits at the edge of the Sahara, at the northern end of Mali, and was a logical entry point for their invasion.

But before going on with that story, Hammer provides background, surveying and summarizing the social and political history of the regions of north-central Africa containing Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Libya, and Burkina-Faso, primarily. I found this portion of the book extremely interesting. Like most Westerners, especially Americans, I had no idea of the high level of scholarship that flourished in that region during the early Middle Ages and again during the later Renaissance.  Some of the manuscripts in Timbuktu’s collections were a thousand years old or even older. They contained treatises on mathematics, astronomy, physics, and medicine, as well as copies of the Quran and commentaries on Koranic passages, Islamic law, and the life of the Prophet Mohammad.

Hammer also spends a good deal of time explaining the various factions in the region, their histories of conflict and conquest, and the complex political realities of that part of the world. These passages were often difficult to follow and, to me, quite mind-boggling. He references the effects of French colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as Muammar al-Qaddafi’s revolution and rule in Libya in the recent 20th century. (I say “recent” because I remember it!)  One thing that has become increasingly clear to me over the last several years is that periodic American, European, and Russian interference in places like northern Africa and Afghanistan have done nothing except serve to arm and expedite the goals of terrorists and rebels in those regions. The attackers in this case were able to gain access to abandoned armaments and military supplies left behind by Western intervention in previous conflicts.

Another fact that became frighteningly clear to me from reading this account is the absolute mayhem and devastation intentionally caused by jihadist militants. Once they gained control in Timbuktu and other towns, successful businesses closed their doors, people lost their incomes and means of support, and even basic utilities were stopped. Unmarried men and women caught together, even if they were just holding hands or talking, were executed on the spot, sometimes by stoning. People accused of resisting were shot, and those accused of thievery had various limbs chopped off, without benefit of trial or defense. Westerners were frequently taken hostage, and many were killed, while the fates of others remain unknown. After reading about the horrors of Timbuktu’s occupation, I have a new sympathy for the people of Syria and other places where ISIS remains in control.

So as you can see, it takes the author a long time to get back to the story of the manuscript rescue operation. Those who were involved in the actual packing and removal of the documents were tireless in their efforts to preserve these precious artifacts. They had to work under the cover of darkness and with the constant threat of exposure and capture. Discovery would almost certainly have meant death. The extent of the operation was much larger than I would have expected. The manuscripts had to be packed into footlockers and other large containers, then transported almost 600 miles south, through rough and often unpaved terrain, to the capital city of Bamako, which was still safely in the hands of the Malian government. Thousands of crates were transported via trucks over land, but that became more difficult to achieve as the invaders flooded the region. A final operation was devised which involved transporting thousands of footlockers via donkey carts to the Niger River, where they would then be placed on boats and floated downstream for over 220 miles to government-held territory, where they were then off-loaded into trucks, cars, and taxis for the remaining 330 miles to Bamako. This part of the book is thrilling, although the author’s style of storytelling sometimes left me confused.

I think this book could be the basis for a great movie, but a lot of re-working and compressing of the story would have to take place in order for it to work. A similar project was accomplished with the story of the Monuments Men. I read the original book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Dallasite Robert M. Edsel. The book was well-researched and fun to read, but because it was based on real-life events, the narrative was fractured and contained too many different people and incidents to make a successful film. So George Clooney’s cinematic version of the book takes liberties with the truth, combining individuals and events into a more cohesive story line that captures the essence of the recovery effort in a way that could be realized theatrically. The same kind of process could be taken with the story of the “Bad-Ass Librarians,” and I think it would make a compelling and dramatic movie in the same vein as The Monuments Men and Argo.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy non-fiction, history, and geopolitics.

 

 

 

 

review of “Missing, Presumed”

missing-presumedI just finished reading Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner (Random House, 2016).  This is a complex suspense story told with skill and insight. The author is a journalist and featured writer for The Guardian, and she takes advantage of her experiences in the press to subtly critique the devastating effects that media exposure can have on individuals caught up in a criminal investigation.  The story centers around two weary police officers, bored with their night-shift responsibilities,  who eagerly grab the chance to take the lead on a missing persons case.  Manon and Davy fulfill many of the typical buddy-cop tropes: Manon is female, late thirties, and jaded by the job and her disastrous love life; Davy is male, twenty-something, optimistic and upbeat, and happily occupied with his steady girlfriend and his volunteer work with underprivileged youth.

The missing person is Edith Hind, the beautiful and accomplished daughter of a wealthy and well-connected doctor, Sir Ian Hind, and his wife, Miriam.  Edith and her live-in boyfriend, Will Carter, are post-grad students at Cambridge.  It’s Will who discovers that Edith is missing and reports her disappearance to the police.  Evidence found in Edith’s house lead the police to conclude that foul play might be involved, and that the “misper,” Edith, might be in danger.  The investigation also reveals the fact that Edith was last seen in the company of her best friend, Helena.

So far, this may seem to be a common, trite, and derivative story, one that we’ve seen on TV and in movies dozens of times.  What sets this story apart from others is the author’s skillful use of point-of-view.  Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of one of the main characters–detectives Manon and Davy, mother Miriam, and friend Helena.  It’s Manon’s viewpoint that dominates the narrative, however, and therefore it is her character that is the most completely developed.  There is humor to be found in the way she sees herself versus the way the other character view her.  We discover that her acerbic wit and grouchy misanthropy form a protective shell around a heart that has been hurt and disappointed too many times.  Again, this may seem like a standard, worn-out character type, but Steiner’s honest portrayal of Manon’s grudges, self-doubts, failures, and suspicions, as well as her genuine sympathy and dogged determination to solve the case help us to care deeply about Manon.

The same holds true for the other characters.  We glimpse into the heart of a mother who can’t accept the possibility that her daughter might be gone forever.  We agonize with the friend whose private life is painfully exposed to the public just because of her association with the missing girl.  We marvel at the resilient idealism of a young man whose earnest desire is to do good in the face of frustrating obstacles.  Finally, we peek into the insatiable greed for salacious gossip and sensational headlines that has become the hallmark of the modern-day press.

An unexpected plunge into romance, a seemingly unrelated murder, and a heart-breaking look into the complexities involved in helping at-risk urban youth round out this satisfying police-procedural novel.  I have only one caveat: because the story takes place in England, the author employs acronyms and other terminology that may be difficult for the American reader to decode.  Having said that, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will highly recommend it.  The story is engaging and features enough revelations and plot twists to satisfy a mystery-lover like myself. Manon and the other characters will stay with me for a long time.