Month: February 2020

A Mystical Journey to Find the Lost Bushman

Let me ask you a question–if I told you that I’ve read a book written by a British South African of Afrikaner descent born in 1906 about the indigenous race of the southern tip of Africa, what would you think?

If you think it would be some kind of racist, supremacist screed, you need to check your prejudices at the door.

It turns out that Laurens Van der Post is a very different kind of man, and the book, The Lost World of the Kalahari, is a very different kind of book.

Lost World of the Kalahari - Laurens Van der Post

But that’s not what I was thinking when I picked up my copy.  I actually was thinking it would be a typical “white man enters the savage wastes and tells people about it” story.  I like those stories because they not only evoke simpler times that I never experienced, but also because, despite ignorance, the actual descriptions of places and people that no longer exist are usually very well done.  A good case in point is the book on the White Nile I read a while back.

This one, as I said, is different.  Mainly because the author is different.  Van der Post was, apparently, a hippie before hippies were a thing (the book is from 1958, and he was 52 at the time).  The trip into the heart of the Kalahari is a mystical experience as much as it is a geographical and anthropological one.

It makes for a weird read.  He does the basic job of telling us about the Bushmen (a nearly-extinct race of lighter-skinned Africans who were the original inhabitants of the southern part of Africa before darker-skinned people immigrating from the north and Europeans settling in the south squeezed them nearly to extinction.  About 100,000 of them still survive today), but he also goes mystical on you every couple of chapters, giving great significance to omens and spirits.

Normally, this would be a huge turnoff for me, but, for this book, it works.  The primal nature of the African wilderness suits itself to magical thinking in ways that few other places do, and this unexpected mystical side makes Van der Post himself appear more human than just another macho explorer trekking through the veldt and hunting to eat.

Most of all, though, the author comes across as a man who utterly loves his subject, especially the Bushmen themselves, of whom he’s heard since childhood but never actually seen until the expedition.  For those who might be curious, the expedition also filmed a documentary for the BBC, parts of which are on YouTube, here.

It’s a touching book, and one that is a strange departure from that genre’s more usual fare.  I certainly wouldn’t want every exploration book to be like this one, but it was an interesting change of pace.  The spice of life and all that.

Recommended, and I don’t even have to apply my usual disclaimer that anyone who is offended because people in the past had a different attitude about indigenous people than we do should avoid it.  Anyone can read this one without being offended by it.  So go ahead!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina who, like Van der Post, is fascinated by cultures other than the usual Western fare.  His book Off the Beaten Path is a collection of short science fiction and fantasy stories set in non-typical places and cultures.  He thingks you’ll love it, and urges you to buy it here.

Dickens Drudgery

I normally view Charles Dickens as a treat, something that will be a long read and certainly more involved than the more usual light fare, but absolutely worth it.  Anyone who’s ever read David Copperfield will know what I mean, and I was coming off an absolute blast in the form of The Pickwick Papers.

CharlesDickens - Barnaby Rudge

The next one that popped up in my to-be-read pile was Barnaby Rudge, and the edition I had in hand was an old Collins hardcover in a format that is smaller than the mass-market paperbacks of today.  It seemed innocent enough until, on closer inspection, I realized that it was 600 pages long, the thin paper making it look much shorter.

Well, most Dickens books are long, so I wasn’t particularly worried…

Unfortunately, this one is at least 300 pages too long (when reading, I would have said 400 pages too long, but I’m feeling more generous now).

The problem is that old Charles indulges a little too passionately in his love for drawing characters and gives un a first section of the book in which nothing too interesting happens, and what does occur does so at a snail’s pace.  That makes it… difficult to get through.

Which is a pity, because the final 200 pages are among the best in Dickens.  The mess of character threads that had been lying loosely all over the place suddenly tauten and turn into a story… and a thrilling one at that.

But most modern readers aren’t going to get that far.  They’ll drop off in the middle for something more immediately rewarding (pickwick, perhaps), so maybe that this book isn’t among the author’s better-known works is not so bad.  After all, we wouldn’t want people to be turned off Dickens because of one bad beginning, would we?

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books do not begin slowly.  They tend to start in the middle of the action and go on from there (except for one which leads off with a sex scene).  His literary fiction can be sampled in Love and Death–buy it here!

Standard Oil’s Louisiana Docu Drama

People who’ve been following along for more than a decade (I know there are still some of you around from the LiveJournal days), will remember that I reviewed a couple of Robert Flaherty’s documentaries there, particularly Nanook of the North during our 1001 Films viewing.

I’ve never really been a fan of documentaries with scripted action.  For my money show me footage from the era, if it existed, or artifacts, but dressing characters up and having them play a role which might or might not be true to reality is just silly.

Louisiana Story Film Poster

Within this context, Louisiana Story has one thing going for it: it was filmed during the era it attempts to portray, which makes many of the background images, at least, realistic.

I assume costumes, customs and creole are also true to life because Flaherty never used professional actors, but let locals play roles as themselves.

So watching the lazy life on the water take place is a balm, as is seeing the inside of a Cajun house.  The film is very much softened–none of the real issues that Cajuns faced, and none of the consequences of extreme poverty are shown–but perhaps all the better for it.  Watching it in 2020, there is no real harm in idealizing a lifestyle that has all but disappeared today, and it makes the .

On the other hand, the money to make the film came, at least in part, from Standard Oil, which is a mixed blessing.  I’m pretty sure no oil rig ever was as clean, peaceful and unobtrusive as the one portrayed, but I’m also delighted to have seen how a 1940s rig functioned.  Some of the most fascinating scenes in the movie are the ones where drill is being fed into a hole.  Talk about tense moments.

Anyway, I enjoyed watching this one as a document of an era, but it needs to be taken with several grains of salt.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist who writes across several genres and lengths.  His latest novel is Ice Station: Death which, as the title implies, is a horror book set in Antarctica.  You can check it out here.

A Wonderfully Sordid Little Piece

I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to the books I grab off random bookstore shelves, but apart from classics I’d been meaning to read for ages, the stuff I’m most likely to grab are thrillers from the golden age of crime fiction (I have a pretty wide definition of when the golden age of crime was, but I’d generally say it starts somewhere in the 20’s and ends in either the late sixties or early seventies.  Your mileage may vary depending on taste, but that’s my wheelhouse.

The problem, of course, is that I’m no expert on the genre–I read it because I like it, so people like Lawrence Block are subject to curiosity (for those, like me before reading that one, who don’t know, he was a major figure in the crime genre).

Another one I had no idea about was John Creasey.  The Cover of my old Pan paperback copy of his book A Case for Inspector West claimed that his sales (in 1961) exceeded 20 million… but I hadn’t read a single word he wrote.

I will likely not commit that error again.  A Case for Inspector West is one of those books that goes so quickly and pleasantly that you end up wondering where the heck it went.  It’s short, but not that short; the speed is because it’s a fun, well-written work.

A Case for Inspector West - John Creasey

Fun, in this case, is a relative term.  You need to like to have people murdered in cold blood, front and center (no cozy-mystery off-camera murders for Mr. Creasey) to enjoy this one, and you also need to be rooting for the death penalty.  This one was written in England in a time where murderers were hung.

If you’re OK with all that, then yeah, this one is a blast.  It has everything you could want of a nice, ugly case of betrayal and counter-betrayal with a very satisfying body count.

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that it’s one of the few instances in 21st century life in which you’re allowed to applaud violence and depravity without being criticized for it.

So yeah, Creasey gets two thumbs up from this former Creasey virgin, and I will be on the lookout for his stuff in the future.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose thriller Timeless is not lost in early sixties England, but is bang up-to-date and global in scope.  Also, you can get an ebook, so there’s no need to hunt down an old Pan paperback.  You can check it out here.