I’m reading Congo: the Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck. I learned of it from this intriguing New York Times review, which opens with Maréchal Mobutu’s “both Pythonesque and distressing” foray into space exploration:
(The above uncharitably reminds me of the joke about the proposed subtitle for the film about Wernher von Braun, I Aim at the Stars: “But Sometimes I Hit London.”)
I was quite taken with Van Reybrouck’s insight about Congo’s struggles at independence:
As in theater, tragedy in history here was not a matter of the reasonable versus the unreasonable, of good versus bad, but of people whose lives crossed and who – each and every one of them – considered themselves good and reasonable… History is a gruesome meal prepared from the best of ingredients.
Jason Stearns reviews that gruesome meal in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: the Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. It is very readable, but relentlessly saddening, with passages I couldn’t finish. It is also highly informative, and I don’t say that casually. I watched the rebels take Bukavu in 1996 and didn’t really know what the hell was going on. Could have used this book then.
But don’t worry, gentle reader, we shall end on a high note! If you haven’t heard – or seen – this authentic Congolese ballad from the 1970s, well, get ready to rumble:
“Unimaginable,” like “incredible,” is an adjective that seems seldom employed accurately. This sentence gets it about right, though:
For nine unimaginable months he was one of a group of eighteen prisoners of whom nine were shot dead each morning and replaced by nine others.
It’s from Joseph O’Neill’s investigation of his grandfathers’ (completely unrelated) internments in World War II, Blood-Dark Track. The above probablility-defier is Frank Ryan, whose life is a testament to the, uh, complexities of history.
Also, until I poked around on Wikipedia, I would have thought it incredible that, during World War II, a US invasion of Ireland was imagined.
PS hitherto reading O’Neill’s book I’d only known of Frank Ryan from the Pogues’ The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn:
I mean, I don’t pick up, I wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers either. I’m not nuts. – Bill James
Last Sunday morning I pulled over to offer a guy a lift – there was a fierce rainstorm, and it was a long stretch of road. He shook his head with an emphaticalness I’ve not seen since my bachelor days and continued walking.
Recounting this to the wife, she said: “I’m sorry. He was a stranger? And this was with our child in the car?” etc & etc. I tried to explain that, as I learned from a Freakonomics podcast, hitchhiking isn’t especially dangerous, it’s just perceived as especially so. Her response could be diplomatically termed “unpersuaded.” (And if this is where you say “Actually, Peter, what you’re describing isn’t an incidence of hitchhiking, but rather one of you accosting a pedestrian,” OK, fair point.)
Coincidentally – to my mind, anyway – it was only a few days beforehand we’d read Roald Dahl’s excellent short story “The Hitchhiker” in class.
I always stopped for hitchhikers. I knew just how it used to feel to be standing on the side of a country road watching the cars go by. I hated the drivers for pretending they didn’t see me, especially the big empty cars with three empty seats. The large expensive cars seldom stopped. It was always the smaller ones that offered you a lift, or the rusty ones or the ones that were already crammed full of children and the driver would say, “I think we can squeeze in one more.”
Also: while assessing prior knowledge, as we say in the business, it turned out that only about half the kids knew what hitchhiking was.
Last week I did exit interviews with students about the best books they read this year. To model the behavior, as we say in the business, I stood before each class and interviewed myself about The Catcher in the Rye.
To describe its broad appeal, I mentioned an experience reading it for the first time. While I waited for the #34E in Dedham Square one autumn long ago, a passerby poked his head into the bus shelter: “That’s the best book you’re ever going to read!” he said, then walked away.
On Friday I was wearing the above t-shirt (such are my exertions to build a culture of literacy), and during break went out to get a coffee. As I passed a nearby construction site, a hardhatted gentleman stepped into my path.
“Catcher in the Rye,” he said, grinning. “You remember that scene where Holden sees [bad word] on the wall, when he’s with his sister?”
I replied that I did indeed.
“Once I had this supervisor giving me a hard time about graffiti on a site. I told him, there’s no way you could ever get rid of all the [bad words] in the world, even if you had a million years.”
Chuckles ensued, good days bade, the culture of literacy affirmed. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.
The other day I asked for a kiss and instead received a slap. Though only a toddler, my daughter’s got a mean open hand, and I see no reason to interpret this exchange as anything but portentous.
That very afternoon, coincidentally, I was passing out laptops for a reading level test, and asked a student of Haitian descent to help. He indulges my attempts to practice conversational French, so I said, “Tu peux m’aider…” and briefly blanked before coming up with “…distribuer?”
The exertion of retrieving “distribute” must have slapped some synapse that in turn recalled this article, about a student attacking a teacher in Bordeaux. What’s memorable to me is its use of “distribute” with “slaps”:
…il a croisé le professeur, l’a roué de coups et lui a distribué des gifles…
Voila l’élégance française!
PS slapping teachers is bad in any language. Please don’t.
I used to have the same problem with Richard Burton as with Francis Bacon: I knew about the guy who married Elizabeth Taylor twice, and about the funky painter, but I also knew, vaguely, there were other historic men with those same names.
So I appreciated this one page primer on Richard Burton, “Britain’s most flamboyant adventurer.” I’ve extracted for you three essential biographical details:
“the young Burton had brought his music lessons to an end by smashing a violin over the head of his teacher”
“he was eventually said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects”
he “turn[ed] out endless manuscripts (including A History of Farting)”
Forgive my unsolicited candor, but it’s entirely possible he led a more interesting life than you or I ever will.
As for the other guy (the one not known as “Ruffian Dick”):
It was forty years ago he and Ms. Taylor decided to heed hope instead of experience. In Botswana.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Joseph O’Neill’s novel The Dog, I decided to re-read Netherland.
This time round I was particularly smitten with the narrator’s description of his driver’s ed class. Let’s just say, at this point in the year, it’s hard to read without a certain wistfulness:
…a compassionate understanding tacitly arose among the students that we should do everything to assist this individual, an agreeable and no doubt clever man whose life had plainly come to some kind of ruin. Accordingly we were a well-behaved and reasonably responsive class and, an hour or so later, did our best to abide by his request not to sleep…
This sign inspired me to such witticisms as “Shouldn’t they block the road?” and “Ours was in a ballroom.” (Figuring you can’t go wrong with Wild Bill, I submitted this for Twitter’s consideration.) Then I thought: it’s like something you’d see on The Twilight Zone, but if the episode were directed by John Hughes.
The PARCC (as we in the business call the new state exam) is a multi-day testival*, so when the text-weary kiddos get to my Reading class, I’ve been showing them episodes of The Twilight Zone, e.g: