Book to Read, General

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Traditional Art of the Congo

Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken HeartBlood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“”A masterpiece,” famed novelist John Le Carre writes about Tim Butcher’s journalistic travel memoir and I agree. Prepare for your heart to be wrenched when you read Blood River, A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart. But you may not notice it in the excitement and danger of the ride. There’s the magnificent and ominous Congo River landscape, the present terror, the valor of the victimized native people, the greed of the exploiters of the river’s resources (native and colonizers alike) and the intrepid European explorers who struggled to tame the river.

In Blood River, Tim Butcher attempts to recreated Henry Morton Stanley’s journey of the 1870s. Sponsored by the New York Herald as an advertising stunt, Stanley is famous for having found the mythic Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, who went missing in Africa the late 1860s while looking for the origin of the Nile River. Stanley wanted to be the first to chart the Congo from its origin in the heart of Africa westward to the Atlantic and he ultimately–and at great cost–succeeded.

In 2004, Tim Butcher, likewise a professional journalist (Britain’s Daily Telegraph), is determined to take that same journey. After extensive, obsessive research, he set out from the Congo’s eastern border in a spirit of adventure and calculated misgivings, ignoring the fact that everyone he talked to told him he was crazy. He describes his travel by motorcycle, dug out canoe, steamboat, helicopter, plane and on foot with a precise, detail-rich journalist’s eye.
Through his research, Tim Butcher was well aware of Africa’s terrible legacy of slavery and exploitation of its riches, but he wasn’t prepared for the day-to-day fear, the terrorist attacks forcing the Congolese to flee to the bush as a way of life, a jungle that ate up the railroad tracks, thriving riverfront cities of the ’50s collapsed in corruption and decay, and a country–maybe the only country on the earth– going backwards and retreating from progress into the primitive where there is “no memory for justice”–all punctuated with cell phones, abundant ammunition, jets and extravagantly wealthy internationals in gated communities rising out of the rain forest.

Along with Butcher, the reader tries to make sense of his life-threatening encounters where he is saved by local Congolese, foreign missionaries, and UN workers. We learn much about how the Congo played a dominant role in the slave trade on the west coast by the Portuguese and even earlier on the east coast by the Arab traders, how the colonizers tried and failed to harness the huge river full of cataracts, how Joseph Conrad and Barbara Kingsolver memorialized the river’s heart of darkness, how Katherine Hepburn kept a journal during the filming of African Queen, and how the UN functioned in an ivory tower of antiseptic efficiency.

Tim Butcher writes about disease, murder, enslavement and the onslaught of the encroaching jungle. Ultimately his experience is “relentlessly punishing”. Traveling on the Blood River, the reader too experiences the breakdown of civilization, with human suffering beyond what we can imagine living our First World lives. Truly, this is a terrifying vision of the “Last World”, where no one can survive.

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Book to Read, General

To be or not to be: A writer in the world

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

You might think that a book about the most famous writer in the English language would be boring: trite, repetitious or full of pompous academic abstractions, especially if you researched and wrote your master’s thesis on “Murder and Honor in Hamlet and Othello” like I did at Hunter College. But you’d be wrong.

With impressive credentials and superior narrative ability, Stephen Greenblatt in Will in the World unearths and illuminates Shakespeare in the Elizabethan world in ways I could never before consider, especially given that facts about Shakespeare’s life are, according to the author, ”abundant but thin.”  I couldn’t put the book down. The thing is, I was learning so much about myself, how to be a writer in my world.

Greenblatt writes: “We know all about the property Shakespeare bought and sold, the taxes he paid, the theatrical companies he worked for. We have his baptismal record, his marriage license and his last will and testament. But what he felt in his heart, what dreams he nurtured, what beliefs he himself had…..”.

What lover of words isn’t fascinated by the mysterious, brilliant William Shakespeare, aka “Will”? Who was Shakespeare really? I was hooked when Greenblatt sets up Shakespeare, at 18, marrying Anne Hathaway, age 26, in Stratford six months before their first child was born. What, if anything, did it mean that soon after–the exact date is vague like so much else–Will left it all to spend the rest of his life in rented rooms in London, two days ride away? Did he love her? Was he forced to marry her? Did he marry her for her money? Did she love him (But he was Shakespeare. How could she not?!)

Greenblatt speculates how Shakespeare may have been wanted for deer poaching, a 17th century theory. Was Shakespeare down and out, stealing venison and rabbits for food? With many credible details, Greenblatt explores and then discards this possibility with great authority, while being cautious about claiming any other hypotheses as certain either.

I was impressed by how masterfully Greenblatt lays out Shakespeare’s world—and mine too. Maybe Shakespeare left Stratford for the same reason I left my hometown, Pittsburgh, PA, to seek my fortune in the big world.

The artistic, political and religious intrigue is both detailed and gruesome, with beheadings at the bequest of Queen Elizabeth as common as parking tickets today. The victims, many of whom were Roman Catholics, are believable and very sympathetic. Greenblatt explores the possibility that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic too. That could explain the secrecy around his life. After all, it was dangerous to be Catholic in Elizabethan England.

Then there’s the mystery of the love sonnets, seemingly addressed to a man, but who? And did Shakespeare actually write the sonnets? Ah, but Greenblatt shows us how we moderns no longer understand the game of sonnet-making, so popular in Shakespeare’s world, where the trick was to be naked while revealing nothing, and tell revealing secrets to only a few chosen intimates.

So much is speculation! Did Shakespeare even write those plays or was it Marlowe for that matter? Was he a fraud as the feature movie, Anonymous (2011), claims?  No, Stephen Greenblatt doesn’t buy that theory.

What really kept me reading Will in the World was that I felt supported and encouraged by Shakespeare as a writer in the world.  Greenblatt convinced me to identify with this ”amazing success story,” of a bright young man from the provinces who took on the hard, yet exciting game of writing great plays for a popular audience in a tumultuous, changing, exploding world.

I might have guessed that Shakespeare too had problems I have as a writer: daunting competition from establishment writers (e.g., Marlowe), lack of funds, absence of entitlement, spotty, non-existent publication, pressing family responsibilities, in fact, “an upstart crow” in the literary world as the contemporary playwright Robert Greene called him. But that’s beside the point as Will in the world pressed on—and succeeded. Not just for his time but for all time.

Greenblatt’s astute analysis of the playwright’s characters, so modern in their angst, confusion and daunting dreams, illuminates Shakespeare’s own evolving understanding of the world. Will in the World  challenges me to understand our world now, four hundred years later, through my writing.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became ShakespeareWill in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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