Monday, September 21, 2020

The City of Words

Continuing my current Massey Lecture reading spree, I picked up Alberto Manguel's 2007 Lecture City of Words from the library.  It's a fairly short book, so I thought I'd be able to breeze through it no problem.  But that wasn't really the case; I found myself mostly only able to read one chapter/lecture a night (with the exception of today where I pushed through both the fourth and fifth lectures).  

In his lectures, Manguel examines several texts from different cultures and time periods, looking to see what their creators say about the societies they live(d) in.  He further draws parallels from these texts to our modern day world.

The City of Words was the first Massey Lecture that I've read that honestly felt like a lecture, particularly in the first four chapters where Manguel primarily focuses on dissecting his chosen texts.  I was on board, especially in Chapter 2 when he was discussing The Epic of Gilgamesh (which I quite enjoyed as I read Gilgamesh for fun on my own; it was interesting to read someone else's take on it. Plus, fun fact: Manguel primarily used the same translation that I read back in 2013).  But because it felt more ponderous to read than other Massey Lectures, I found myself having to read carefully and really consider what was being said.  It also didn't help that at times I felt like Manguel made leaps within an individual lecture from one thought to another which were somewhat hard to follow.

But then it all seemed to come together beautifully in the final chapter/lecture.  This was the chapter where Manguel really started examining our modern culture and how everything is being degraded by commercialism, including stories and words.  He brought back topics from the first four chapters/lectures to really drive all of this home, showing how modern North America seems to be headed for a cultural dark age similar to the decline of Latin in the early Middle Ages, thanks to this degradation (and helped massively by our cultural obsession with advertisements and slogans).  While I've suspected this might be the case for some time now, it was shocking and somewhat upsetting to have it all laid out for me so clearly. 

While The City of Words is a somewhat difficult read, it is definitely important and worth reading.  I highly recommend it.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa

I picked up Stephen Lewis' Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa some time ago,finding it at a used book sale.  I was intrigued because it's a Massey Lecture, but I didn't know anything at all about it (or about Lewis).  It sat on my shelf for quite some time though; I only really became interested in reading it after watching Bohemian Rhapsody (thanks to the AIDS connection there).

Race Against Time is Lewis' look at how and why the world was failing at meeting the Millennium Development Goals the United Nations set in 2000 (which were supposed to be met by 2015).  The goals set by the UN included wanting to cut poverty in half by 2015.  Lewis argues that if the world continues to ignore the AIDS pandemic in Africa, there is no way to meet any of the goals by that date.  He also takes a look at how the developed world is failing the developing world: the rich countries keep setting lofty funding targets then almost immediately reneging on them, making it impossible to really stop this pandemic (or meet any of the other goals involving education and health).  He also looks at how the African continent came to be in such dire financial straits, especially the unfair strings that were attached to loans from the World Bank.

While the message in this Massey Lecture is infuriating and heartbreaking, I was not a fan of how it was delivered.  Lewis has been working with the UN in one form or another for many years and has incredible experiences with Africa and specifically the AIDS pandemic.  Unfortunately he seemed to draw solely from his experiences most of the time, and the first few lectures in particular felt like he was just name dropping.  One of my biggest pet-peeves when reading nonfiction is that feeling of name dropping, so I was not very happy while reading this.  This wasn't as bad as other books I've read (the really bad ones list people who were "there" for something, then those people are never mentioned again - I find it really confusing because you never know who you actually have to pay attention to in the narrative).  There also wasn't a note section, so again this Massey Lecture felt like it was completely drawn up from Lewis' experience without any other facts to back him up (I don't think this was actually the case because he quoted from some sources during the lectures, so I'm really not sure why they weren't included).

But I did discover a Glossary at the end which was quite helpful because Lewis uses a lot of acronyms, particularly for UN committees and stuff. It was hard to keep them straight while reading, so the glossary was very much appreciated.

While I had issues with the way the information was delivered, I do think this was an important book to read.  It is, unfortunately, somewhat dated; the Millennium Development Goals were supposed to be met by 2015, and he was criticizing them in 2005; I'm now reading this in 2020, five years after the deadline of the goals, so the UN is now working on the aftermath of the goals.  But even though that is the case, this was a good book to read for some background on the current state of Africa specifically in relation to the AIDS Pandemic, and definitely encourages further reading.  I just wish there had been a notes section to better point me in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Huntress

Both of my parents read The Huntress by Kate Quinn and recommended it to me, so for the long weekend I decided to finally give it a read. :)

The Huntress is told from three different perspectives: Jordan McBride, Ian Graham, and Nina Markova.  Jordan is the seventeen year old daughter of the widowed owner of an antique shop.  She is thrilled (yet admittedly somewhat jealous) when her father confides that he is seeing someone. Annaliese seems wonderful, but after Jordan captures a calculating expression with a chance snap of her Leica, Jordan is left wondering if there is more to Annaliese than meets the eye.

Ian Graham is a war correspondent who worked on the front lines of WWII.  After the war, he's sworn he will not write again, but instead has turned his attention to finding Nazis who have escaped justice with the help of his colleague and friend, Tony.  While they have been successful in their hunts, one person still eludes them: Die Jägerin (The Huntress), the woman who killed his brother.  But thanks to a new lead, and with the help of Ian's wife, Nina (a a Siberian woman who dreamed of flying. She made her way to Moscow and into the Night Witches, an all-female squadron of bombers. Ian married her during the war to keep his brother's promise and get her to England - they planned on divorcing but never got around to it), they're finally on Die Jägerin's tail.

I absolutely loved this book!  The characters were fascinating (and fun - I loved Nina!), and even though you know who Die Jägerin is, the story is riveting - how is she going to slip up?  How will everyone figure out who she is? What's also really neat was that a lot of this is historical fact, just dressed up in fiction...Nina herself was fiction, but a lot of her exploits as a Night Witch actually did happen.  I can't wait to read more from Quinn! :)