Sunday, February 25, 2007

3 More Books

Just finished No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds
by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris. Emphasis on the "Tragic." Good book to read though. Not as well written as the material demands but as background for what's happening in Iraq now, an important book.
On the CBC-AM radio show Writers and Company, I learned that the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinki had died, and heard several interviews with him. I had read short selections of his journalism in magazines over the years but not his books. Luckily my North Van library had Imperium and Shah of Shahs. Both are very well written. Shah is about the downfall of Iran's last monarch, and goes a long way to explaining how and why he was evicted from his throne. A good couple of books to read along with Shah are Marjane Satrapi's 2 volume graphic novel of growing up during the Iranian Revolution called Persepolis 1 + 2. Here in North Van, Persians have flooded in, making this a kind of Little Tehran. Always good news for a foodie like me, but Shah offers perhaps more insight than a foodie would care for about why so many Iranians left their country and settled here to open these restaurants. A visit to a Kurdish restaurant near our hotel at the Gare de Lyon in Paris 4 years ago kept swimming up in memory as I read the Kurdish history. Even more historical memory/allusion is summoned in Ryszard's trek around the imploding Soviet empire. My mother's parents are from Ukraine. Happily they escaped before Stalin came to power and starved 10 million of their friends and relatives to death, as is described in this book. My father's father was from St.Petersburg. All that borscht in my family history. Ryszard buys into the myth that Russia is a "special" country, different from others. Of course, the same could be said of all countries. My decades in Japan (as well as in or next door to the US) have made me more more than a little tired of the idea that some countries are more special than others. But he does know Imperial Russia better than most non-Russians. His description of how to avoid the police in various Russian republics by posing as someone from a different part of the Imperium, speaking Russian with a Latvian accent for example to get out of sticky situations, is not the sort of reporting I'd get from a Russian reporter, much less someone lacking Ryszard's linguistic gifts.
What is enjoyable in Ryszard's writing is in how much time he spends giving you the background of what he's reporting, including wonderful interviews, not with the usual suspects at the top of the pyramids but the oppressed workers doing all the heavy lifting to keep those Pharaohs in their imaginary heavens. The Kurdish book could have used his writerly skills. Now that he's dead, where will be find another writer as good?
"Samarkand is inspired, abstract, lofty, and beautiful; it is a city of concentration and reflection; it is a musical note and a painting; it is turned towards the stars. Erkin told me that one must look at Samarkand on a moonlit night, during a full moon. The ground remains dark; the walls and the towers catch all the light; the city starts to shimmer, then it floats upward, like a lantern."
Imperium. p.77

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