Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (book review)

I remember now why I don’t read mysteries. It’s like eating dessert without a meal, or ice-skating instead of walking—enjoyable, but it all goes by so fast, and you can’t help but race toward the end, at which point you feel almost cheated, realizing that you know little about the characters and care less—except insofar as they fulfill their roles as puzzle-pieces. That, and the fact that I have no mind for clues—though in this case, at least, I more or less guessed correctly who the murderer was, but my head continues to spin trying to follow Poirot’s elaborate reconstruction of events and motives.

On the other hand, I see now why Christie was so successful—she has a real genius for being at once so spare in detail and prose that even a slow reader finds himself turning pages with abandon while at the same time packing in an astonishing array of fine and subtle details, interesting both in building realism and, of course, in setting up the workings of the mystery.

I picked up Death on the Nile because The Lonely Planet describes the Bou El Mogdad as “like something out of Agatha Christie,” and that title, set on a boat in a different part of Africa, is as close as she came to my own trip down the Senegal River. My boat and hers may be similar, but customs sure have changed. Even the Americans, maids, and other less formal characters seem almost laughably stiff compared to my fellow passengers. My boat has no smoking room, or stewards ready to guard the dining room, or a doctor, colonel, heiress, or nobility. And Poirot himself is unimaginably fussy by today’s standards—but I’ve always taken him to be something of a self-caricature even in his own day.

This brings me to my big question. I’d read a few Christie novels before, and seen some dramatized on PBS as a boy. It never occurred to me then to question Poirot—that was just how storybook detectives were, I assumed. But now I wonder: where did Christie come up with this guy? Did she feel she had to have a male hero, because a woman would be too endangered, or perceived as insufficiently clever or bold? Why would an Englishwoman make a Frenchman the epitome of intelligence and good manners? Did she have to “earn” the right to create Miss Marple? Did she ever like her as well? Did anyone? I can’t remember reading any of the Miss Marple mysteries, though I’m sure I saw at least one on TV. Perhaps a female detective was revolutionary at the time, in which case I congratulate Christie for creating her. But it strikes me that without Poirot, there wouldn’t be much of a show. And this is what’s so vexing: he’s so stereotyped as to be laughable, yet just as irresistible for it. “C’mon, Poirot, do something ridiculously French again!” I kept thinking to myself as I read. “Be impossibly clever! Have superhuman hearing! Be everywhere at once!”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Floatin' down the river

Loyal readers may be wondering what's become of me for the last week-plus. Well, my placement in Gambia ended, I crossed back overland to Dakar (see previous post, "Overland from Dakar to Banjul" and turn it upside-down), and on to St. Louis, where I joined Le Bou El Mogdad, a vintage cruise ship that plies the Senegal River. It's a more luxurious excursion than I tend to go for, but it was described by the Lonely Planet as "like something out of an Agatha Christie novel," which was nearly all the hook I needed. A couple times before I'd made major plans based on a colorful sentence or two in the LP, and I'd never been disappointed. My luck held this time. There's a lot to say about a week-long cruise, but I'll start with some highlights:

Children—and adults—wave to us with great excitement from the shore. They do rhythmic clapping and chants, and chase after the boat along the shore. Not clear if they know the schedule (biweekly) or hear it coming, but they’re always there waiting for us, brimming with excitement. They seem not to mind, in some cases even to crave, being photographed. Once so far there were women wading topless in the river, seemingly apathetic to being stared at or photographed. It’s common for women to go bra-less, and rare but not unheard-of topless, but both are quite practical given how much time they spend nursing or washing or gathering water. Taking people pictures from the boat reminds me a bit uncomfortably of snapping animal shots on safari—this is the first time on this trip, and one of the only other times at all, that I’ve used the long lens. I try to wave, and await a reply, before raising the camera, in hopes this signifies approval, and makes them feel less like zoo creatures. A very small thing, but I think that most of these people are so isolated, and their lives so simple, that the passing of the boat, and waving and the pointing of cameras, is one of the most exciting things liable to happen.

By my standards, the boat is certainly luxurious. But the real luxuries are hidden. For starters, the food is French—those who've been to France will understand the significance of this, but in brief, it means strong coffee for breakfast, three perfectly balanced courses for lunch and dinner, scrupulously serving ladies first,... and, to add a Senegalese touch, they roasted a whole lamb on the back of the boat! The motion of the boat creates a breeze which goes a long way toward mitigating the horrific heat. This and/or being in the middle of the river means there are no mosquitoes—so I can actually gad about in shorts and sandals at night, and not slather my arms in DEET. We always drop anchor at night, though, so the lack of breeze just about balances out the cooler temps. As on the shore, it’s far cooler outside (in the shade, with the possibility of a breeze) than inside. Locals hardly ever go inside except to sleep—which is why traditional buildings are windowless, or nearly so.

People wash everything in the river, starting with themselves. Women seem to bathe together, roughly if not strictly separated from the men, who are more likely to bathe alone. They sit on a rock, or a 5-gallon oil jug, stripped to the waist, and lather up. Only babies and toddlers get to go in the river naked. A couple times now we’ve seen a man bathing his horse, up to the withers in the river. Just now a boy stood on its bare back and waved as the boat passed. Reed mats, rugs, clothes, pots, everything short of houses gets dunked in the river, lathered up, and scrubbed down.

Since this is the low season, the boat is well under half-capacity. (The cruise director says they won't even run it at this time next year.) There’s one black family (mom from St. Louis, dad from Mauritania, pre-pubescent daughter), and one Swedish/Senegalese guy attached to a French lady. Everyone else is French, Swiss, or Belgian—or me. Apart from one French(?) cruise director, the crew is entirely black—including one older guy, the excursion director, who seems to speak practically every language on earth (Wolof, French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and more). This is pretty much how it always goes—whites vacation while blacks work. I wonder if there’s anywhere in the world you can go where the whites serve the blacks. For me the issue has been less race than language: I'm the only one on board who isn't a fluent French speaker. The others keep asking if this doesn't bother me, but I don't know how to explain that I've spent so much time in places where I don't speak the language that it hardly seems strange anymore. Meals are a bit awkward, as I get lost in a sea of strange accents and verbiage, but at other times I'm happy for some alone time to read and journal--and watch the river go by, a surprisingly engrossing activity.

(Yes, Virginia, that's a swimming pool on the boat, which more than made up for in coolness what it lacked in size!)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Snapshots of Gambian life

Banjo asked about one of my first posts this summer, What’s the difference between seeing these things in person vs. on TV? Here are some snapshots from daily life in The Gambia that will, I hope, give some sense of what falls between the cracks of mass media coverage. Every time I go to the developing world, I'm reminded that Americans just have no idea how the majority of the world’s population lives. We’ve seen the charity appeals and the documentaries and the travel shows on TV, maybe read the horror stories in the newspaper and grim statistics in the almanac, so we think we get it, but we don’t. You have to go to a developing country and let the poverty get under your own skin a bit before you can really begin to understand it.

Three weeks into the trip, my clothes have gotten dirty in a way from which they won’t recover, because my only recourse is to clean them in the bathroom sink with cold water and bath soap. I could almost certainly find a woman to pay for laundry service, but that would consist of her standing over two basins of water on the ground, one with detergent, and scrubbing and wringing the life out of the clothes. This would probably get the dirt out, but it pains me to watch these women bent over double, wrestling the clothes as if to death. It taxes me just to keep up with my own laundry; the average woman has to tend to her own clothes as well as her husband’s and children’s—including diapers and all the vomit- and snot- and food-infested clothes babies and toddlers generate. The prospect almost constitutes contraception by itself.

Yesterday I set off for the bank, forgetting it had rained earlier. The main street itself, being tarmac, was fine, but the shoulders, where pedestrians must go, had become a series of rivers and lakes with little precarious islands of grass, dirt, and concrete. I hadn’t had to jump this carefully from dry spot to dry spot since my last wilderness excursion. I was concerned about getting my sandals dirty, yet many locals wear gorgeous, perfectly polished dress shoes.

Over the last three weeks the electricity has been off almost as much as it’s been on, so that you must do a perpetual dance of plugging and unplugging anything that needs charging, lest the surge of the power coming back on fry the circuits. For this reason you can never leave anything plugged in overnight. There’s only one outlet in my hotel room, so it takes some real juggling to keep computer, phone, and Ipod all charged (another forgotten advantage of film cameras--they never need charging). Most of the time when there’s a power outage the staff fires up the generator, but sometimes it too fails, or they need to conserve fuel and so refuse to run it. Last night the power went out just after we’d ordered dinner, and the generator failed, which meant the kitchen staff had to prepare our food in the dark. Somehow they managed it. Even in the capital, many Gambians still have no electricity at all, and would probably love to have these problems.

A woman was crouched in the sand beside the street grilling stunted ears of corn over a tiny charcoal brazier which required constant, laborious machinations—including lots of blowing, which would probably include enough smoke inhalation to lead to asthma. The cooker was much too small, and she had barely any fuel. She would have hauled the corn in on her back from some distance, and had to spend most of the day tending it, all to make a few cents per ear, of which she might only sell a handful.

Almost any woman of childbearing age is liable to be carrying a baby on her back—so casually you don’t even notice from the front. Sometimes she has two babies swaddled up—both in back, or one in front. Chances are she’s also got a huge bowl or bundle or pile of firewood or water jug on her head. This is all very picturesque, but it turns out to be murder on your back to carry heavy loads on your head. The cleaning lady at my hotel walked around one morning with two babies swaddled on; she might well have cleaned the rooms without removing them. Babies often develop asthma, apparently, while their mothers are bent over cooking fires—the mothers position their own faces away from the smoke, but inadvertently plunge the babies right into it.

Pretty much anything that comes in a package is imported—including MinuteMaid orange juice, and pineapple, passionfruit, and other tropical flavors, derived from fruits that only grow in places like The Gambia, imported from the UK. It's sobering to note that while things produced locally, like raw fruit and veg., or handwoven clothing, hand-wrought metalwork, woodwork, etc., is usually vastly cheaper than in the US, anything imported--which is almost everything--is as expensive or more so than it would be in the US. Yet the locals, of course, have far, far less money to spend than Americans.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (book review)

This may well be the driest book I’ve ever read. Readers of McCarthy won’t find this too surprising: the guy can make Hemingway look flowery; put a piece of toast next to his book and it starts to seem juicy. What they may find surprising is how relatively un-dark this novel is. It’s supposed to be a sequel-of-sorts to All The Pretty Horses (even though none of the characters carries over), which was so bloody I felt like I needed to wear rubber gloves to read it, and in which just about everything that possibly could go wrong did. The Crossing is certainly not upbeat, but violence is more a seasoning here than a main ingredient, and chance actually smiles on the hero at least a couple times.

I doubt there’s any writer now alive (or perhaps even dead) who is as attuned to the subtleties of landscape and body language as McCarthy. At his best, he can say more in one sentence about the clouds, or the tipping of a hat, than most writers can in a whole chapter about anything. Heck, he can reveal more emotion in a horse’s ears than most can in a human’s whole body (yet there’s nothing Disney about it). This is his great strength, which allows him to indulge in what almost seems a dare at times of never discussing the internal machinations of anyone (yet he’s not averse to narrating dreams, oddly). Instead we get action, action, action, from the pulling on of a boot to the melee of a small-scale war on horseback. The trouble with The Crossing, in a nutshell, is that it’s too much of the former—tiny, inconsequential actions—and not enough of the latter—big, interpersonal actions. The novel is 400-some pages, which is long for McCarthy, and hardly a single damn thing happens. To be more strictly accurate, two or three major, not clearly connected things happen, and in between is a lot of interesting, exquisitely described, but ultimately trivial scenery.

I may harbor a slight bias against this novel insofar as it’s so much like a John Wayne movie. Not The Duke per se, really, but cowboys-and-Indians in a way that seems probably a bit outdated even for the 1930s, when it’s ostensibly set, to say nothing of the 2010s. I can’t help feeling it’s a bit of a cop-out for McCarthy to write about a world that’s so completely gone—if it ever really was—though his apparent expertise in horsemanship is certainly impressive. I liked him better in No Country for Old Men, which offered a glimpse into present-day problems, or The Road, which postulated a very, very dark future which must somehow have arisen out of present-day problems. I also liked him better in All the Pretty Horses, the “prequel” to The Crossing, simply because more happened, and there were more characters, two of whom were even women—quite a rarity in McCarthy.

I’ll certainly keep reading McCarthy, and anyone who hasn’t tried him should. But I still like The Road best (by far), followed by No Country for Old Men (almost better in movie form), followed by All the Pretty Horses, and finally, a bit distantly, The Crossing. I bought it new, which I hardly ever do, mainly so that I could move on to Cities of the Plain, the next volume in The Border Trilogy, which I bought used a year ago—I hope it proves worth the trouble.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Architectural yoga

My general strategy is to stay in the cheapest hotel I can stand, in the most central location, and spend as little time there as possible. I know there are many for whom where they stay is the most important factor in a vacation, but to me that’s anathema: travel is for streets and shops and restaurants and museums, not hotels. Nonetheless, about once per trip I stumble onto lodging so special that it forces me to upend my standard approach and enjoy where I’m staying for its own sake. Once a decade, perhaps, I come upon a place so outstanding that it becomes a highlight of the trip—indeed, a place that would be worth building an entire trip around. The last place I can think of to fulfill this claim was La Selva jungle lodge in Ecuador, which came as close as anyone is likely to come to being a seamless part of the jungle—while maintaining five-star standards.

Sandele Eco-Lodge (, in Kartong, is such a place. The rightfully proud proprietors—technically not owners, they hasten to point out, since all land and facilities will revert to the local people in twenty-five years—Geri and Maurice, wax fulsome over the various eco-friendly features of the facility, but in some ways what’s most impressive about Sandele is everything it lacks. This starts with the physical: no power lines (wind and solar on site); no flush toilets (a tiled-in composting toilet with a calabash full of sawdust adorns each lodge. "Composting toilets really separate the men from the boys in terms of low-impact living," Geri says. But they're actually quieter, simpler, and barely smellier than flush toilets). But it continues with almost anything not directly in harmony with the native environment: there are a few elegant lodges tucked among the trees, a tiny swimming pool between each pair, an open-air restaurant, a palm-frond hut down by the beach. . . and that’s it. If you came seeking any traditional beach or spa glitz, you’ll be disappointed. Sandele is where humans come to meet the ocean and the forest on an even footing, where everything other than surf and sand and birds and verdant foliage has been painstakingly tuned out. Sure, there’s excellent food and service, but that’s almost beside the point.
NB: Geri and Maurice are also the proprietors of the Safari Garden, (http://www.safarig where I've been staying for the last three weeks in Fajara, a suburb of Banjul, the Gambian capital.

The great riddle is whether it’s the overall drama—the sound of the sea just down the hill, the spacious airiness of each lodge—or the breathtaking attention to detail—the concentric circle insignia imprinted in doorjambs, cast into drape-clips, echoed by the domes—that makes the place at once so peaceful and so invigorating. Of course it’s both. Everything at Sandele conspires to get out of the way of nature just as everything at Sandele contrives to remind you how powerfully human intention can register on a place, and thus on a person. While most buildings are a hackle-raising hodge-podge of warring priorities and awkward happenstance, at Sandele everything is the way it is because someone has given it a lot of thought. Anyone who doubts that you can hear the luthier’s care in a violin, or taste the love in grandma’s bread, might become convinced by Sandele that bricks can convey compassion. The bricks are made from local sand and lime yielded by burning oyster shells, mixed with water and sun-dried, resulting in earthy gold rectangles that bypass all the high energy intake and toxic output of conventional concrete, or the forest depletion of wood.

Sandele is architectural yoga. On entering the domed lodge you feel a great sense of ease, as if your mind can suddenly stretch the way it normally only can outdoors. Here are all the protection and comfort of a building without any of the constraint. The domed space looks a bit like a temple, and there is something undeniably spiritual about the place. It’s dark inside but for eight glass blocks around the perimeter of the base of the dome, about twelve feet up, each of which casts a diffuse white light. Additionally, the peak of the dome is cut out and topped with a “lantern” of red, blue, and clear glass, which casts a bigger pool of light that moves along the interior of the dome echoing the sun’s journey. Most light, though, comes from the eight doorways cut into half of the circular walls, which let onto an outer ring, six feet farther out, composed almost entirely of French windows (which demur from lining up with the doorways). Geri admits this double ring was accidental: according to the original plans, the outer wall would have been open, but she feared the resulting room would be too small. Sometimes serendipity yields the most elegant solutions.

There’s more: the trinity of steepled bathroom areas (toilet, shower and sink, closet), the spiral staircase to the roof, the balcony running round the dome. . . but Sandele is, after all, a product of its location, and the major feature of that location is the Atlantic Ocean. “Have you ever been on a beach so unspoiled?” Geri asked me. “I think I have,” I said. “Chile comes to mind, maybe somewhere else.” The beach is extraordinarily secluded, and, no less important, extremely close: I woke shortly after dawn and, rather than shower, walked five minutes through the forest down to the water, where I bathed in waves so warm I might have only dreamed them. At the end of the day I repeated the ritual; the equilibrium in temperature between air and water, and the distance between the lodge and the surf, was so slight, I took nothing but my bathing suit. Both times I was alone save for two fisherman, half a dozen stray dogs, and a dozen cattle.

Sandele isn’t a cheap place to stay—to say nothing of getting there—which begs the question: what do you do there? If I’m shelling out top dollar on a “retreat,” I expect some activities. They do offer a an erratic rotation of pursuits, from yoga to djembe drumming to village tours. But really, like few other spots, Sandele is a place just to be. You’ll definitely want a book or two, maybe an Ipod, but the real highlight is simply lying on the bed and soaking in the world—finding endless facets of green in the leaves, deciphering bird songs and frog calls, uncoiling the long recursive symphony of the surf, feeling that your thumb has at last found the pulse of the universe.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (book review)

Most authors only have one novel in them, and it’s usually their first. The mark of a real “giant” is not so much his ability to tell many different stories, or even a particularly important story, but to tell whatever his one story is so well that it compels reading multiple times. Faulkner epitomizes this. He basically wrote the same novel over and over again, and it wasn’t about a whole heck of a lot to begin with, but he did it so incredibly well, with such focus and vividness, that he managed to repeat the trick a dozen times, and, most amazingly, the story got better and better in the re-telling, until The Sound and the Fury emerged, and there was nowhere else to go but sideways. Legion are the lesser writers who’ve failed in the same attempt—or tried futilely to do better: Ken Kesey offered a brilliant “breakout” novel in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and then produced nothing else except Sometimes a Great Notion, which fell embarrassingly short of the “original.” Ralph Ellison churned out Invisible Man and then unsuccessfully fought writer’s block the rest of his life.

Philip Roth has been failing for the last half-century to recapture the magic of Goodbye, Columbus. I can imagine his frustration: Goodbye, Columbus isn’t even a novel, so if that is to be his defining work, how can he avoid being considered second-rate? (The Great Gatsby isn’t a novel either, but that’s never stopped anyone from lauding Fitzgerald as one of the century’s greatest writers.) But Goodbye, Columbus is one of the greatest works of fiction to come out of the Fifties, and one of the tidiest, most lyrical, urgent, and vivid works of fiction of the last half-century at least. Reading Roth’s more recent works, one senses that he’s forgotten—or is resisting—what made Goodbye, Columbus great.

The only other Roth I’ve read besides Goodbye, Columbus is The Breast, which is nearly as embarrassing as the title suggests. People are always pushing this or that Roth in my direction, insisting “this one’s good” (as if they share, on some level, my skepticism). I’d certainly like to believe them; I’m in Roth’s corner. But my esteem has to be earned, and American Pastoral falls short, mainly because Roth wastes so much time and energy getting in the way of his own story. The characters are compelling, for the most part, even if they do bear an awkward similarity to those in his other novels. But the story is told in a cyclical, quasi-stream-of-consciousness fashion that is much more irritating and bloated than innovative or insight-giving (Faulker did this better almost 100 years ago). Imagery that doesn’t directly connect with the narrative comes so fast and furious that one wonders if Roth has been reading too much Whitman. And one realizes suddenly why epic poetry was invented—to prevent, through the discipline of meter, just such a logjam of tangents, irrelevancies, and stylistic grandstanding. It doesn’t help that much of this imagery constitutes rather trite, bootless sentimentalizing over the American dream—or “American pastoral.” Actually, the cyclical hyper-imagery doesn’t begin until about 100 pages in, at which point the first-person narrator, himself an awkward contrivance, abruptly disappears.

I nearly quit on American Pastoral after fifty pages—had I not been away from home, with few alternative forms of entertainment, I would have. I guess I’m glad I persisted: the novel ended better than it began. But the whole was far less than the sum of a few really good parts. I chose American Pastoral in part because it won a Pulitzer, and boasts a litany of gushing reviews. I can only assume this prize was awarded as a kind of lifetime achievement award for Roth, because American Pastoral, in and of itself, is so far from Pulitzer material that it makes a mockery of the prize. The reviews seem to have been written by people who either didn’t read the book or have forgotten how a real novel works.

I’ll give Roth another chance, because even in such a sloppy work as American Pastoral, his gifts for colloquial dialogue, lyrical description, and probing characterization are undeniable. I’m not aware of anyone else even attempting to capture the Jewish vernacular, or New Jersey provincialism, the way Roth does, apart from whatever else he may or may not manage. But much as I’d like to be convinced otherwise, I’m forced to stick with my original verdict: Roth has written a lot of mediocre novels and one outstanding novella. Read Goodbye, Columbus, and forget the rest.