Thursday, May 6, 2010

Long Walk to Freedom

Nelson Mandela - 630 pps.

Nelson Mandela and the Africa National Congress (ANC) had a huge effect on history. With Mandela’s release from prison, the supports of the racially divided apartheid government of South Africa began to crumble. In 1994 the development of a new South African constitution prompted the first free election in South African history, with Mandela emerging as victor. Mandela assumed the role of President and inherited problems ranging from insuring the economic stability of the county to protecting minority rights. Mandela published his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom,"during the first few years of his presidency, both for a greater understanding of his party and ideology and a way to quiet fears of a new black majority government in South Africa. The book, while informative, is biased, but can still be appreciated for its historical significance.

To understand the themes in the book and how it portrays the ANC, South Africa, and the racial tension under the apartheid government, one needs to understand the progression of events presented in the book and Mandela's ideological changes. Mandela was born in a small town in a central-eastern region of South Africa called Mvezo. He describes his idyllic childhood by remembering the sweeping landscape and flora of the region, and the peculiar customs of the Thembu dynasty. After being pulled into the royal family he was able to get an education and eventually wound up working as a lawyer in Johannesburg. There Mandela got his first taste of an ANC meeting, discussing politics and becoming one of the ANC's leading members. Even then Mandela had a strong sense of racial equality, calling for support from the Communist Party as well as political organizations for Coloureds and Indians. At this point in the story we see the ANC start to change, going from a peaceful protesting organization to the creation of the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe wing of the ANC, a group set on the sabotage of apartheid buildings and infrastructure. Mandela spends time underground avoiding authorities but eventually is caught, put on trial, and sentenced to life in prison. Mandela spends a great portion of his book describing his life at Robben Island, the relationships built and broken there, and his changing views on race. Under pressure from the rest of the world, the apartheid government under Frederik Willem de Klerk released Mandela and peacefully organized a ceasefire and a transitional government to favor universal suffrage and the abolishment of a white government. Core themes as presented in "Long Walk" became ever-present in Mandela’s career; the most significant being racial equality and ideological tolerance.

I have mentioned several times the extent to which Nelson Mandela promotes not only a black majority but equality for all races in South Africa. During his tenure as head of the ANC, Mandela promoted the acceptance of the Communist Party, Coloureds, and Indians. At first he was apprehensive of the role they would play in the ANC, stating in his memoirs “while I had made progress in terms of my opposition to communism, I still feared the influence of Indians.” Mandela progressed from this thinking toward a more universal ideology once these racial issues came up in constitutional revisions. The idea of racial equality was highly favored by the minorities in South Africa and the apartheid government. The assurance of safety and rights after a transfer of power is always a major worry, so reiterating it in interviews, speeches, and finally his published autobiography proved to be a successful public relations move. The move also eased the nerves of the international community by showing that a dictator or terrorist was not gaining control of the country, but the level-headed ANC.

The message of racial equality alone is good, but when looking at the audience of the book, some discrepancies arise. Mandela was worried that the new ANC-lead government would fail in its mission. For decades prior to the end of the apartheid sanctions and economic trouble has plagued the country. Foreign investment was leaving at an alarming rate as the racist government seemed doomed to fail, and the security of any investment went sour. Mandela catered his autobiography on the populations abroad in hopes of giving insight toward his policies. He saw that without new investors, getting the white minority to buy into the government, or other countries for that matter, his plan for South Africa would fail. A book has always been a great way to convey ideas and hopes in a subtle manner. Mandela’s book was successful in this regard because it brought skeptics on board with his new regime. Whether Mandela’s beliefs truly changed from his early leadership of the ANC or he was being the classic Machiavellian is unsure, but this book did much to help stabilize the early days of Mandella's presidency.

Mandela also took care in making sure that the ANC got credit for most of the policy changes while he remained a figurehead. In many cases in the book, Mandela downplays his significance stating that he was simply chosen due to his orating skills or his renown. He also made sure to downplay any talk of militant action by arguing it was his last recourse. When at an ANC meeting he finally argued that “the state had given us no alternative to violence…It was wrong to subject our people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative” few were surprised. Many foreign nationals were scared that the man coming to power was a former terrorist and saboteur. He downplayed the actions of the Umkhoto we Sizwe as minor, necessary, and with minimal human life loss. Evidently, his rhetoric was successful.

Nelson Mandela catered "Long Walk" too much to his audience. Mandela should have been more matter-of-fact, given the importance of his role in South Africa. The fact that nearly every statement in "Long Walk" was written to ease the minds of the people affected by the change in government, casts aspersions on whether or not the events in "Long Walk" are portrayed accurately or to give the ANC the best face. Mandela described the leaders of the ANC as moderate and continually showcased their peaceful demonstrations and peace talks. He carefully skirted around the fact that he brought a military regiment into the country to bomb buildings. He ignores his early ideas of a black South Africa. He only describes one white person as being despicable, and that was the despicable Suitcase. While the book gives historians a great piece of a puzzle of the death of the apartheid, there is still much that had reduced significance or was only referred to in a page. If Mandela had written this as a reflection piece today, the details of not-so-savory events would prove invaluable to the understanding of the outlawed political movements in South Africa. While serving his own purposes, Mandela leaves historians with much to desire.

Gripes aside, Long Walk to Freedom is a well-written, informative autobiography. The story of Mandela doing the seemingly impossible in bringing about a peaceful change in government while gaining support from outside nations and from the inside from the minority remnants of the government is undeniably compelling. Though biased and particularly tailored to naysayers, the book has significant historical importance and does a good job showing the political theory and actions of the ANC and their rise to power. Without it, the intimate knowledge of the individual situation would have been unseen or unappreciated and the opinions and ideas of a great political mind and leader would have gone unnoticed.

-Maj. Major Major Major

Friday, June 12, 2009

Arctic Drift

Clive and Dirk Cussler - 515 pps.

Not yet gone are the days of cheap action fiction that you can buy in airports, subways, and other kiosks around the world. Today you see new people trying to either bank on the success of The Davinci Code or the success of CSI. You do not see characters like Jack Reacher from the Lee Child books or Dirk Pitt written from Clive Cussler being woven into these action fictions anymore. Chivalrous, intelligent, and remnant from the days of knights, these characters tend to stick with you through the thick and thin the more you read them.

Interestingly enough, I first started reading about the adventures of Dirk Pitt and NUMA long ago with the first book of the series, The Mediterranean Caper written back in the hey day of the 1970's. Since then , Cussler has written dozens of books with Dirk Pitt and his sidekick Al Giordino saving the day, including the joint work of Cussler and his son Dirk Cussler in Artic Drift.

As other readers of the series know, when Dirk Cussler began to assist in the writing of the last three books, there was in the introduction of Pitt's long lost children Dirk and Summer. (If you are confused bout the all the Dirks, let me sum up. Dirk Cussler (Author), Dirk Pitt Sr (referred to as"Pitt" and Dirk Pitt Junior (referred to as "Dirk"), Hopefully that helps) Basically in my opinion, the write in of these two new characters that we were supposed to start loving from the get go was a shock and to this day I find myself skimming over the Dirk and Summer scenes to find out what Pitt has been up to.

Sadly I guess this is what is supposed to happen as Pitt has aged appropriately since the first novel in the 70s. I really hope that Pitt doesn't become a "Hey lets get Dad's help since he is too old to partake in our adventures" character but the way these stories are going I can't imagine it happening in any other way except maybe Pitt dying in a blaze of glory in a sword fight with a super villain after saving the world and being the hero he is to me. Now yes, that will never happen, but hey, I can wish can't I?

Overall if you are a fan of the series I would recommend this book. If you are starting out in the adventures of Pitt, then I suggest that you start with the earlier novels and read your way through them. Without having read Pitt's early adventures, I don't think I could fully appreciate the subtle humor and references to previous novels and how deep the Pitt character actually is. This novel continues the great line of stories being written by Clive Cussler and on a personal note continued the development of Dirk Pitt as I know him on the page.

PS. Heathcliff if you touch this post I will destroy you. Whore.

-Maj. MajorMajorMajor

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Painted Veil

W. Somerset Maugham - 289 pps.

You know what most men aren't good at? Figuring out what goes on inside the minds of women. You know what W. Somerset Maugham isn't good at?

Published in 1925, The Painted Veil tells the story of Kitty Fane, a vapid British socialite. She moved with her new husband, Walter, to the British colony of Hong Kong, where he is a bacteriologist. But this is no honeymoon story. Kitty does not love Walter, who is socially awkward and aloof, but married him because she was getting too old to be single. He inexplicably adores her, even though she's vain and silly. Unfortunately for Walter, she falls head over heels for the charming, powerful, and married Charles Townsend and they begin a passionate affair. Eventually Walter catches on and she asks for a divorce. He says he will agree to it if Kitty can get Charles and Charles's wife to make written statements that promise that they will divorce and that he will marry Kitty. If they won't do that, Kitty will have to accompany Walter to his new post in a remote village where he will be treating a cholera epidemic. Charles won't do it, of course, because the scandal would ruin his career, and Kitty is devastated. Not only has her lover abandoned her, he's sent her off to certain death.

That's about the first hundred pages. It's a pretty big wind-up just to get to this little village, and even when we get there, nothing much happens. Or it does, but it's all inside Kitty's mind and heart. The problem with that is that the author is a man and he doesn't seem to understand women very well. Or even like them.

This is supposed to be the story of a woman finding herself, but all this woman finds is that she needs a man. Maugham paints most of the women as petty, vapid and needy, and Kitty is the worst of all of them. When she finally realizes how shallow she's been, she explains it to her husband in this awful self-deprecating way that not only demeans her, but all women. The only strong females are a group of French nuns who run a mission in the village.

I think the biggest failure of this novel is the underdevelopment of the setting. There are so many opportunities missed. We see almost nothing of Chinese culture. Kitty can't speak Chinese, so she only ever has conversations with white people. There is one scene where Kitty talks through a white translator to a Chinese woman, but it's brief and nothing is really established by it. There is no comment made on the imperialism, good or bad. These white people are getting carried everywhere in sedan chairs! Come on!

Maugham misses the game-winning pass

But I'm not being entirely fair. I didn't hate it. The novel has its good points. The writing is nice, detailed but not tedious, and it flows well. It's short and easy to read, especially because of the short chapters that give you the impression of progress and encourage you to keep reading. It could easily be finished in a day.

My favorite part of the novel was the dynamic between Kitty and Walter. Walter still cares for Kitty, but can't bring himself to trust her, or even tolerate her, again. Kitty is desperate for Walter to forgive her because his anger is running him into the ground. Also, she realizes Walter is the only person in the world who cares for her at all. Their dialogue is tense and revealing of both their characters. The relationship has a suspense built into it in that it could change at any moment.

The problem is it doesn't! It doesn't change, nobody changes, or really learns anything, if their actions are any indication. Kitty has a thousand little revelations on the nature of existence that ultimately lead to nothing. The only thing that noticeably changes about our heroine is that she is now able to see into the motivations of others. But this only leads to more philosophizing on Maugham's part about the selfish nature of relationships and how little people really mean to each other.

It was a really depressing book. It was so disappointing, mostly because it had so much potential to be great, and it missed the mark. The plot could have gone somewhere. The main character could have been less of a caricature. I could have come away a better person! But no, I just learned a lot about Maugham's issues with women.

I hear the recent movie adaptation with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts has a different ending and is, in general, a more worthwhile venture. So if I were you, I'd stick with the movie.

Edward Norton > W. Somerset Maugham

-Daisy Buchanan

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Sarah Waters - 582 pps.

Perhaps this isn't the most glorious debut for the GB Club, but...oh well. Let me start with a story: On my 20th birthday, my uncle Mike gave me a paperback. He said, "Happy birthday, Daisy! I think you'll really get into this." The cover art looked pretty spiffy, and I am a sucker for historical fiction, so I figured I'd give it a try. Besides, my uncle seemed to think that I'd really enjoy it.

The novel is immediately engrossing. The voice of the first narrator (there are two) is lively and enthralling. Sue Trinder introduces herself as a clumsy, but lovable fingersmith (read: pickpocket), a poor girl raised in a family of thieves in a dodgy part of London in the mid-19th century. At seventeen, she lives for the excitement of London and helping her adoptive parents with their petty scams. When a friend asks her to help him in an elaborate scheme to cheat a rich young lady at an isolated mansion in the countryside, she has no idea what she's getting into.

Dangerous countryside

So here I am, getting completely involved in this book that, while not high literature, is a great mystery/thriller/historical fiction piece. All I could focus on for days was figuring out what the twist was going to be. No joke, ask Heathcliff. Imagine my surprise as I keep reading and reading and I slowly start to realize...this is a lesbian book. I started doing my research then on the author, Sarah Waters, and it turns out that all her books are lesbian books. One of her novels, Tipping the Velvet, is even named after a Victorian-era term for cunnilingus.

I mean, I'm cool with lesbians. I'm progressive. But my uncle did say he thought that I'd really like it. Hmm...Whatever, but finding that out definitely made me read the title in a different way.

Double entendre

Anyways, the story is excellent. The plot is very tight; it's masterfully constructed. It's filled with twists and turns, each one as surprising and satisfying as the last. Despite the expert storytelling, the novel reads as a sort of guilty pleasure, and not because of the lesbian romance. There's something more salacious than a little fingersmithin' going on here. The romance itself is very well done. It's not too sudden or too maudlin, and it's genuinely touching. The characters are compelling and odd, especially the females. Women play a much more prominent role than the men, so it's just a touch feminist. That's not to say that the males are demonized or flat, because they're just as interesting as the women except with less to say.

The only real complaint I had with Fingersmith was the change of narrator for the middle section of the book. The book is divided into three parts and the first part is told charmingly by Sue Trinder in the first person. The second part switches to the first-person perspective of Maud Lilly, the wealthy heiress Sue and her friend are trying to rob. Maud's voice is much more educated than Sue's. Because of this, Maud's voice is unfortunately also more sterile and less endearing. Maud is infinitely less likable than Sue and this section of the book drags because of it. I don't argue that the perspective change was unnecessary, but the way it's done leaves something to be desired.

It's a great book. It doesn't have much to say about life, or even really about love, but it's a fun read. The atmosphere of 19th century England is captured in an engrossing way and all the sex, lies and turnabouts keep the pages turning.

In summary: Fingersmith is no Grapes of Wrath, but it's definitely worth a read. Also my uncle thinks I'm gay. Sorry, Heathcliff.

-Daisy Buchanan

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger - 214 pps.

Holden Caulfield, our troubled protagonist, is a disillusioned American youth whose distaste for the aristocratic status quo defines him. Holden, in my humble opinion, is ahead of his time. He is a young, confused, progressive trying to put the pieces of life together. He precipitates the ideals of the counterculture movement, and though his disdain for the wealthy and the phony is oftentimes unwarranted or misguided, it is always passionate. His biggest struggle is that he perceivecs a lack of support for his ideals from the society that surrounds him. Though the academics in his life see his potential, without an effective and formal education, he is just a lone wolf with a problem and no cause.

Caulfield is a likeable guy because he embodies so many different characteristics and elements. In one sense, he's a smaller, slightly more intelligent, Lenny from Of Mice and Men. His lack of a complete formal education causes him to make broad generalizations in his rather folksy voice. Other times though, Holden, although unadmittingly, tries to become a figure like Jay Gatsby. His strong hatred for the phony hides his secret reverence for fakeness and the power "fake" people obtain. He hates the lifestyle of the phony, but envies how much women want to be part of such a lifestyle. The idea of an aristocrat who hates the rich that is, "pretty people with problems," originates from this novel. This book adds new ideas to the American cultural consciousness; no longer are the themes of poverty, class struggle, and a rise to the top the sole foundations of the American dream. This novel opens presents the cultural and social struggles of the outsider who has all of life's necessities and who, on the surface, should be happy.

Holden's hat looks much better on Phoebe

I would say that the overriding theme of this novel is man's struggle to find a purpose and a calling that makes him happy. When the world seems fake and empty, and you're an outcast all on your own, there's not much to keep you going, except whatever that source of happiness is.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Watchmen and Others

Well I had a sexy post, but Heathcliff is completely fail with internet and editing and life, so it was deleted.

I'm currently reading a really fun novel by Clive Cussler whom I love dearly, so shortly that will be up, and Langerhans and I have something special prepared for a book coming soon.

Keep Reading!

-Maj. Major Major Major

Monday, January 26, 2009

A quick note...

It has been too long since my last post! Thankfully, Heathcliff has come to my rescue. I have two important updates for our readers:

1) William Easterly, author of The White Man's Burden (the review of which you may remember), has recently joined the Economics blogosphere. His blog, aptly named "Aid Watch" can be found at

2) I recently finished reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I am currently reading The House of Mirth, so expect some fresh new book reviews in the next few days.

Thanks to all of our readers. We wouldn't be where we are today if it weren't for your loyal support!

-F. Darcy