Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Zambia

Author: The Old Drift
Title: Namwali Serpell 
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This is an epic novel that attempts to depict the history of Zambia through the fictional stories of several generations of a few interrelated families.  The characters are a mix of Black African people native to the region that would become Zambia as well as European colonizers and expatriates.  The novel begins with explorer David Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time.  This is ironic since later in the novel a character says that when telling stories to white people you need to always start with a white person “discovering” something. The novel ends in a near future time when biotechnology has become commonplace.

The stories in this novel draw on the traditions of magical realism.  For example a woman’s hair grows so fast so as to constantly cover her entire body.  Her daughters, on the other hand, have fast growing hair on their heads that they are able to profit from by selling for wigs.  Some parts of the story seem ludicrous but are drawn from actual Zambian history, such as the plan for a Zambian space program in the 1960s to send a woman to Mars with several cats.  This may or may not have been a joke in real life.

The novel is sprawling and it includes a large cast of characters and I found it hard to remember who is who. The novel is also written in a style more akin to history than a literary narrative which made it hard for me to hold my attention.  I would chalk this up as a reader issue than a flaw of the book, though.

Overall, this is a weird and wonderful work of fiction.  Serpell is a young contemporary author and it will be interesting to see what she produces next.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 17


Best of the Left :: Our Democracy is Filibusted, Time to Kill the Filibuster

The filibuster is a tool of white supremacy and it must be eliminated to allow the United States to pursue freedom and equality for all.

99% Invisible ::  Welcome to Jurassic Art Redux

The best way most people have to understand how extinct animals like the dinosaurs lived is through art.  Over the years, paleoart has transitioned from maintaining outdated ideas, to illustrating new understandings of dinosaurs, to entirely speculative art of different possibilities of how dinosaurs looked and acted.

Throughline :: The Real Black Panthers

If your understanding of the Black Panther Party is informed by depictions like Forrest Gump of a group of radical Blacks who hate white people, it’s worth listening to this podcast to learn what they actually understood.  In reality, the Black Panthers were seen as a threat by the FBI, and others, due to their radical vision of cross-racial activism.

The Story Collider :: Stories of COVID-19: Teachers

Teachers have dealt with a lot during the pandemic, from the brunt of redesigning education for remote learning on a moment’s notice to being the target of anger from parents and politicians.  Here are some of their stories.

Unf*cking the Republic :: AOC & the Lying Men Hydra

New York congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the target of rage from Republicans, establishment Democrats, and Leftists alike.  This podcast explains what they have in common.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 10


99% Invisible :: The Real Book

How a book of pirated sheet music became a must have for students in jazz music programs.

Throughline :: Policing in America

A history of police in America and how it has served the purposes of white supremacy.

Unf*cking the Republic :: Mass Incarceration: The War on Drugs

A  profanity-laden summary of the work Michelle Alexander and others have done to detail how increased policing and imprisonment is being used to infringe the rights of Black Americans.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 3


Fresh Air :: The High Stakes Of Amazon’s ‘One-Click America’

The vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama and what that means for labor in America.

Planet Money ::  Socialism 101

A primer on a widely misunderstood economic theory.

Radio Boston ::  New Study Supports Suffolk DA Rollins’ Focus More On Serious, Violent Crimes

Rachael Rollins ran for and was elected as Suffolk County District Attorney promising not to prosecute many nonviolent offenses and focus on more serious crimes.  Newly released data is proving her approach to be correct.

Radiolab :: What Up, Holmes?

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes originated a metaphor for free speech as “the marketplace of ideas,” but is there a better way to conceptualize freedom of speech?

This Day in Esoteric Political History :: Three Mile Meltdown

A partial nuclear meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was apparently not as bad as it is always made out to be.

Throughline :: Our Own People

The story of a social justice activist I’ve never heard of before, Yuri Kochiyama. A Japanese-American woman who fought for Asian American equality, Kochiyama allied herself with numerous liberation movements. She was friends was Malcolm X and held him as he died.

What Next :: Can a Highway Be Racist?

There’s a long history in the United States of working class BIPOC communities being leveled to build and enlarge highways.  The freeway revolt against this practice continues in Houston.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Two Weeks Ending March 27


Best of the Left :: Democracy Under Siege

Republicans are attacking the right to vote in order to retain power and maintain white supremacist fascism.

Code Switch :: Lonnie Bunch And The ‘Museum Of No’

An interview with the first Black Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution focusing on his work in bringing the National Museum of African American History and Culture to fruition.

Have You Heard? ::  What They’ve Lost

Boston Public Schools students talk about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and not being able to attend school in person. Also includes a good discussion of why the focus on “learning loss” only adds to the trauma rather than addressing students’ real problems.

Hub History :: Disaster at Bussey Bridge

134 years ago, corporate malfeasance lead to the death and dismemberment of several railway commuters at a site not far from where I live today.

Planet Money :: The Even More Minimum Wage

The history of the tipped minimum wage and how it maintains inequality. I was particularly stunned by how tipped employment is often the first jobs for young women and that it conditions them to accept sexual harassment in order to get tips.

Seizing Freedom :: Interview: Rhiannon Giddens

For the second POTW post in a row I’ve found a fascinating podcast about the banjo in Black music, this time an interview with the contemporary folk musician Rhiannon Giddens.

This American Life :: The Campus Tour Has Been Cancelled

Many colleges and universities have suspended using the SATs and other standardized tests for admissions because of the COVID pandemic. Tests like these have a gatekeeping effect and this podcast explores how their absence can open up college opportunities for poor, BIPOC, and first-generation applicants.

Throughline :: Chaos

Stories of humanity and chaos, including the real life The Lord of the Flies.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: 20th Century Fox

The composition and history of the deceptively simple 20th Century Fox fanfare.

The War on Cars :: Jamelle Bouie Has Seen the Future of Transportation

Journalist Jamelle Bouie talks about his experience using an electric bike in Charlottesville, VA and the future of transportation and housing in the United States.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Movie Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)


Title: The Passion of Joan of Arc
Release Date: April 21, 1928
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company:  Société Générale des Films
Summary/Review:

This is a movie about faces. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, in her only film role, stars as the French heroine of the Hundred Years War who thinks she’s 19.  This is a silent film, for her eyes express her fear, wonder, and faith. Meanwhile, her judges’ faces are often shot from below, appearing grotesque, deceitful, and cruel.

The movie begins in an archives showing the actual trial records of Joan of Arc that the movie is based upon.  Joan is interrogated, tortured, deceived, and ultimately put to death by an ecclesiastical court of French clergy loyal to the English invaders.  Joan of Arc is notably burned at the stake, and that is shockingly depicted on film, but outside that gratuitous detail this is a personal, intimate depiction of the great woman’s final hours.

By the way, I only just learned a fascinating historical tidbit: Joan of Arc was only canonized as a saint in 1920, just a few years before this movie was made.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 13


Sidedoor :: Reservation Math: Navigating Love in Native America

The story of “blood quantum,” a concept used to define Native American identity from it’s colonialist origins to the personal impact is has on indigenous peoples today.

Throughline :: ‘Black Moses’ Lives On: How Marcus Garvey’s Vision Still Resonates

The history of Marcus Garvey and his vision of pan-Africanism and the Black Star Line.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Sound 101

The science of sound with Bill Nye.

 

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 6


Politically Re-Active :: Nikki Giovanni

An interview with the legendary poet Nikki Giovanni.  If you listen to only one podcast this week, make it this one

Hub History :: Literal Nazis

Before and during World War II, a group called the Christian Front operated in Boston and carried out anti-Semitic violence in the city.  While I’m not particularly surprised by this dark stain on Boston’s history, I nevertheless had never heard of these Nazis operating in the city..

Throughline :: What Happened After Civilization Collapsed

A history of the ancient Bronze Age and what caused those civilizations to collapse, and what we can learn from that today.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Classic Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)


Title: The Battle of Algiers
Release Date: September 8, 1966
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Production Company: Igor Film | Casbah Film
Summary/Review:

I’ve meant to watch this movie for quite some time but never felt I’d be “in the mood” for a grim depiction of guerilla warfare and the horrors of colonialism.  While my assumptions of the movie are correct, I also found it to be a gripping drama that tells a very familiar story. Set in the Algerian capital during the early years of the Algerian War for Independence, 1954-1957, it depicts the  atrocities committed by insurgents and the police and military in an escalating series of reprisals in neorealist newsreel style. The movie reminded me of films of conflicts in Ireland, such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Bloody Sunday. But it’s also familiar from just watching the news from Iraq in recent decades.

The movie focuses on Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a real life figure who is recruited and rises to a leadership position in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The role of counterinsurgency is taken by Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the movie), a fictionalized character based on the leaders of the French paratroopers who are called in to suppress the revolution.  But by and large, this is an ensemble film with hundreds of non-professional actors, many of whom were veterans of the war.

The Battle of Algiers begins and ends in 1957 with Mathieu victorious, with the rest of the film being an extended flashback.  But an epilogue shows the a revived and unified movement for independence beginning in 1960, which eventually lead to Algeria winning independence in 1962.  I find it stunning that this movie was made just a decade after the events depicted, shot on location with so many people who lived through the war in the cast.  It must have been so raw for them, but it also adds to the feeling of documentary-style authenticity.

This movie is not easy to watch with its unflinching depiction of mob violence, shootings, terrorist bombings, and torture. But it is an important movie to watch as it is a document not just of the Algerian War for Independence but of the repeating pattern of colonized and oppressed people rising up for their freedom, meeting harsh reprisals, and expanding into guerilla warfare.

Rating: ****1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 30


Have You Heard? ::  Reopening a Can of Worms

A deep dive into the debate over sending children back to school during the pandemic.

Lost Massachusetts :: The Lost Corner: AKA Hells Acre, The Oblong, Etc.

I’ve always been fascinated with “The Oblong” on the CT-NY border but had not known of the lawless settlement that once was in the corner of Massachusetts.

The Memory Palace :: The Stone

Long before the fears of a “9/11 Mosque” were stoked by prejudiced Americans, another fear of an outsiders’ religion manifested in protests and violence over a stone for the Washington Monument.

Radiolab :: Smile My Ass

Candid Camera created “reality television” by redefining how we viewed reality itself.

What Next :: Did the Media Fail the Trump Years?

Yes.

 

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021