Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book 125, Turks & Caicos Islands: "Food Plane Soup" by Ron-Luc Nickell

Once again, I've eschewed a domestically-written book: Charles Palmer's Living in the Turks & Caicos Islands: From Conchs [sic] to the Florida Lottery. Hard to access, and most indicators suggest that it's written very badly.

In its place, I've downloaded something from the Amazon Kindle shop: a memoir by a Texan guy who spent three months on the island in 2001. Sounds spurious? Perhaps so, but it's more than decent reading.

It's not unlike my own soon-to-be-published university memoir, Diary of a Stone Monkey. It's made up of a series of letters by a young Austin computer programmer who got retrenched in 2001, and ended up offering to be an assistant to a friend's retired dad on Grand Turk.

Nickell ended up staying on the island for three months. Rather than writing back about the pleasures of tropical living, he found himself gripped by culture shock. He was lonely, and hated the litter-filled streets and the noisy children and the bars and aerobics classes that played nothing but bad Jamaican remixes of 1980s American soft rock. He even got sick of the food - of course there was conch and coconut, but almost everything else had to be flown in on special market days, hence the title: food plane soup is the soup you make on the day the food plane arrives.

What makes this more than just a bag of whines is Nickell's writing style: a former film major, he's endlessly eloquent (and a little hysterical to the point of surrealism) in his acerbic descriptions of the world around him, And not in a neo-colonial way, either - he mocks himself, racked by flu and food poisoning and isolation, as much as he does the bad taste of Cockburn Town. And when 9/11 happens while he's off course, he's flabbergasted and disgusted at the US's draconian response (which would only get worse, over the course of the 2000s). Feels the tension in the air at immigration, when he finally checks back into the US, Greyhounding his way back home.

I'm still working on essays, so won't say much else. Brief and niche, but not a bad read at all, I'd say. His profile on Google+ suggests he's decent-looking, too, in a weird ageing hipster way.

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Representative quote: My oft-lamented misgivings concerning the state of Caribbean Popular Music continue to amaze and confound me. In a revelation that surprises even me, I've found that the Cher song doesn't even come close to the aneurysm-invoking potential of the ubiquitous "If Loving You Is Wrong" remake. In fact, I find that I will happily take ten of the Cher songs over one listen of this never-ending travesty. And here's why: the Cher song is only played at the rec center. I cannot, however, escape the latter monstrosity. It's as if my ears have been forced open with clamps and granny's hearing aid megaphones jammed into each canal, whereby I'm subjected to a sort of Ludwig van/ultraviolence sensory onslaught and sent staggering out into the streets with the appearance of a ram that sleepily put his horns on backward one morning. The song oozes and slithers from every window, doorway, car stereo and bar loudspeaker on the island, seeping into my every pore and distressing the jangling nerve endings of my largest organ. Indeed, I am the unwitting victim in a "Conchwork Orange" nightmare. In my peripheral vision I spy a horse by the side of the road. Is she merely involved in the mastication of grass, or do I swear I see her mouthing along with the words? Suddenly, I get the distinct feeling I may snuff it.

Next book: Wendy Coakley-Thompson's Triptych, from the Bahamas.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Book 124, Cayman Islands: "The Firm" by John Grisham

So yeah, I tried reading Dr. Florence Goring-Nozza's One and One Is Two: Caribbean Thriller. First off: it's not a thriller: it's a dreary little self-centred memoir talking about how the Caymans were oh so nice before they became a rich international banking centre with no taxes. Second: it's incredibly badly written. Run-on sentences galore. No sense of self-awareness. What an idiot this author is - the doctorate, believe it or not, is from the Yale School of Divinity. Yep, she's a preacher. Sigh.

Of course I do favour the practice of reading from the national literatures of the nations I'm surveying, but this project is also about filling my brain up with the best lit the world has to offer. So why not a nice American thriller instead?

I haven't watched the 1993 film version of The Firm - rather mind-boggling to realise Tom Cruise has been an action star for twenty years now - but I have read Grisham's later novel The Runaway Jury, which I thoroughly enjoyed while in a backpacker inn, maybe in Tel Aviv or Brazil, not sure where.

The similarities between the two are striking. Thorough knowledge of the legal profession and practice, of course, but both also have young, handsome male protagonists on outlaw missions; invisible but kickass dames on the side, and a healthy distrust of big corporations - Runaway Jury is about a guy rigging a jury to convict a tobacco consortium in a class action lawsuit; The Firm is about a Memphis-based law firm that works for the Mob and ices every associate or partner that they think might blab to the FBI. Big money all over the place, destined to be brought down hard. Some relevance to the contemporary economy (which of course TV producers have attempted to take advantage of).

Honestly, one does develop a soft spot for Mitch McDeere early on in the book - a tall, athletic 25 year-old, born into poverty and crime but with the drive (and insomnia) to put himself through Harvard Law School, working in a convenience store to pay the bills, offered the job of his dreams with a six-figure salary and then suddenly discovering how deep in shit he is, with the firm (Bendini, Lambert & Locke is its name) blackmailing and surveilling and threatening to murder him on one side, and the FBI tailing and tantalising him and telling him that if he doesn't bend, he'll eventually be caught out and jailed forever, on the other. Oh, and he's got a pretty wife, too. Raises the stakes.

Some words about the movie, which I've read up about on Wikipedia. Tom is very pretty indeed in there, but I can't take him seriously in there after all the silly Scientology. Also, what irks me is how the ending's been made really happy, with all loose ends tied up and Mitch still able to practise law, not having broken his vow of client confidentiality, etc. The book's all about him as an individual on the run, breaking free of the bounds and escaping to... you guessed it: the Cayman Islands.

Nothing much to say about the islands themselves, except their status as a tax shelter, the snorkelling and diving, and I guess a bit of random info about the population of British whites and comfortable blacks (the book uses "Negros" on occasion, surprisingly) and pretty mulatto women and Jamaican Red Stripe beer and roast shark. Oh yeah, and the bit about the only KFC on the island catering to Americans, since no-one on the island actually rears any chickens - that was fun.

Some storytelling devices which I wouldn't have recommended my students, but I suppose I'd better digest them. It's not a bad thing to be able to write a bestseller, after all.

And I'm back in the Western Hemisphere again. Not an awful return trip, I suppose.

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Representative quote: 
Avery wiped the sweat from his forehead. "This place has always attracted pirates. Once it was Blackbeard, now it's modern-day pirates who form corporations and hide their money here. Right, mon?"

"Right, mon," the driver replied.

Next book: Ron-Luc Nickell's Food Plane Soup: The Desert Island Letters, from the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Book 123, Kiribati: "A Pattern of Islands" by Arthur Grimble

So it turns out that if I hadn't already covered Robert Louis Stevenson for the British Virgin Islands, I could've spent this past week reading his travel memoir In the South Seas. Alas! Instead I'm covering yet another British colonial administrator's jottings.

But I'm being facetious - once you get past the early bits about the Oxonian old-boy system of the colonial administration, and about cutting his teeth as an eager young 20something official on Ocean Island, we actually get to something quite remarkable: a thoroughly British man who engaged with the native lore of the Gilbertese to a degree unprecedented among those who didn't actually marry into the tribes. Even got himself ritually initiated into the Karongoa tribe through ritual tattooing without anaesthetic: a serpent going up and down his arms, a 15 year-old virgin on each side of him to scream out on his behalf while he manfully said it did not hurt.

And such stories - shark hunts, cursed stoves, roofs collapsing in on the family during hurricanes, ghost sightings (of both the dead and the not yet dead), mediums who could foresee the end of Japanese tuna trade, barehanded octopus fishing (which was particularly hard on Grimble, aka Kurimbo, as he had a phobia of octopi), fearsome feuds between Catholic and Protestant converts including an island-wide millenarian uprising which resulted in several deaths...

And as before, told with a considerable degree of respect towards the Gilbertese themselves; a condemnation of the heavy-handed missionaries who attempted to destroy their culture, dancing upon the shards of their ancestors' skulls; a trust that colonialism had improved things on the whole (they'd caused the land wars to cease, and Grimble quotes from a 94 year-old lady who is joyful that her great-granddaughters can travel the island without fear of robbery or rape), and that really, all shall be well, all shall be well.

There's also a clear message that colonial life wasn't a bed of roses - out in the islands, there was no fresh food; they had to subsist on breadfruit and tinned beetroot and the native cooks (only men were allowed to serve as cooks) were pretty awful, burning the rack of lamb the Governor brought specially, and making Grimble's wife Olivia weep. And having to build a house from scratch on Beru, when the previous Resident had made off with not only the furniture and the beds but even the verandah itself, and having the roof cave in on them and their three kids during a hurricane... There's even a wistful sonnet about the delights of the tropical sunset not being surpassed by the comforts of England, which is quite lovely.

Of course, this is all describing a fairly early stage of colonisation: during the 1910s, the Great War passing them by at a distance, rubbing shoulders with actual tribal kings and administrators that Robert Louis Stevenson met (he was a particular inspiration, and is referred to simply as RLS). Grimble went on to St Vincent, the Windward Islands and the Seychelles before going back to the UK and becoming a celebrated author and radio presenter, which was in the 1950s, when the empire was in an ineluctable stage of decline.

Given all those shifts of geography and fortune, how can we trust this text as anything genuine? But that's the point of non-fiction as literature, I suppose - the thing isn't the fact but the style, the voice, the way we use language to make things beautiful.

On another topic: one thing that isn't beautiful is my map. I miscalculated the location of my Kiribati marker (the country covers a huge swathe of ocean) so I'm criss-crossing myself, going northwards and westwards on my journey to the east.

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But no matter - next week we'll be doing a big jump across the rest of the Pacific Ocean to the Americas. Toodle-pip, Oceania! It's been a blast!

Representative quote: So Tanoata had learned an age-old spell called 'The Spoiling of the Oven'. She had been finishing the third performance when I stumbled upon her. Here is a translation of the words she muttered:

I stab them north, I stab them west,
I stab them south, I stab them east,
The ashes of the oven of Mareve,
Spirits of fire, spirits of stone,
I stab, I confuse, I overturn.
Bring stinking, bring anger.
Be sick at the stomach, you Biribo, Birbo! Be enraged!
For the food of Mareve stinks and stinks:
It is tiiki - tiki - tiki

Next book: Dr Florence Goring-Nozza's One and One Is Two: Caribbean Thriller from the Cayman Islands.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

I think I'm turning Japanese!

I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so...

Not really. But I've been on an odd little Japanese kick recently. Reading these two volumes, both for work purposes:

Ihara Saikaku's The Great Mirror of Male Love is research material for the new pan-Asian gay men's magazine Element. I'm including it in a list of gay Asian classic books, and it's really awesome for the purpose: it's a series of 40 short stories, all celebrating male-male romance/sex, published in 1687 by a landmark author of erotica, proof that there was an age when Asians weren't squeamish at all about homosexuality; when it was actually institutionalised, to an extent. (Not sure how I'll treat the fact that the "bottoms" were usually boys under the age of 16, and that a lot of the stories end in ritual seppuku.)

Ben Hills's Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne is the real-life tale of a modern-day Japanese lady who became a princess and did not live happily ever after; pressured by the imperial staff into a state of terrible depression. I'm reading it for an article for What's Up: News For Kids - I've been asked to write about how the princess has just been seen at her first overseas trip in 10 years, and I realised this volume would give me the background story more efficiently than snooping around on the web. (Quite a tinge of cultural imperialism in the authorial voice, imho.)

As such, my progress on my Kiribati book has been slow. Stay tuned!