Through a combination of laziness last week and being super busy this week I haven’t caught you up on what I’ve been reading over the past month.
Black Leopard Red Wolf – Marlon James
This book arrived with massive hype. James’ last novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings captured nearly every major book award and was one of my favorites of recent years. For his next effort, James decided to take the classic elements of fantasy writing and incorporate African folklore, history, and themes into them.
Or at least that’s how this book was presented to the masses. And all of that is true. I found it very interesting, though, that James made another adjustment to the “traditional” genre that didn’t get nearly as much hype: moving a story that is filled with sex from a heterosexual world to a (mostly) gay world. There’s no getting around it: there is a lot of sex in this book. And almost all of it is between men, and the book’s main character is a horny-ass gay dude.
Which isn’t a big deal. I just found it interesting how that received very little publicity where the African angle got played up so much.
So, a book that will be shelved in the Fantasy section but takes place in an Africa of an earlier, mythical age filled with gay sex. Different, for sure. How does it read?
Well, it is a bit of a tough, meandering, occasionally unfocused read. And other times it is straight-up confusing. But James has such a gift of taking sprawling stories and finding a way to pull you back in just when your attention begins to wain. Knowing those moments are coming keeps you plowing through the parts that may not make much sense or stretch on too long. If you manage to get through the entire book – and it’s not that difficult, I shouldn’t overstate it – the final chapter is a glorious, massive, emotional payoff.
To me this does not come anywhere near A Brief History. It is the first of a promised trilogy, and I’m not convinced I will stick with it. But it does solidify James as one of the most daring and brave authors in the game right now.
Don’t Go There – Adam Fletcher
I have no memory of buying/obtaining this book. But there it was, on my Kindle as I charged it up for spring break. So I read it. Fletcher is a British ex-pat living with his girlfriend in Berlin who spends his time mostly lying about the house as the websites he runs bring in a decent income. After his girlfriend challenges him for being boring and lazy, they jet off to Turkey and find themselves in the midst of anti-government protests. The adrenaline of the moment inspires him and sets him off on a series of trips to places that aren’t your typical tourist jaunts. Remote parts of China, Ghana, Chernobyl, disputed territories in Eastern Europe, and the mother of all forbidden travel spots, North Korea.
His writing is irreverent and light. But the book itself felt lacking compared to other travel works I’ve read over the years. I wanted to learn more about the places he visited. I guess those stories will be left to other authors.
Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo to Cape Town – Paul Theroux
My second spring break book was another travel work, this by the author of one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve read Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania at least five times over the past 15 years. Every travel book I read gets compared to it, and they generally fall short of its brilliance. Theroux is a legendary travel writer, but for some reason I’ve never read any of his other books. Until this one.
In 2001–02, as his 60th birthday approached, Theroux set off on another of his lengthy trips. This time he wanted to travel the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, by road as often as possible. He faced bureaucratic hang ups in Sudan, Somalia bandits who shot at his vehicle in Kenya, and countless infrastructure issues throughout the continent.
But, as always, his natural cynicism and crankiness was conquered by the wonderful people who helped him along the way.
One powerful section of the book is when he returns to Malawi, where he served in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s, but was eventually expelled because he gave an anti-government politician a car ride. He is dismayed to see how the promise of those days right around independence from Britain died and education, something he was helping to bring to the country, has withered and nearly died.
He is also savage in his critique of western aid. He points out how after 40 years so many organizations have spent so much money without really affecting change in Africa. In his view, the organizations are both too willing to work with corrupt governments and are often more interested in perpetuating their mission rather than solving the problems that brought them there. I wonder what his view would be if he travelled through Africa again now, a decade later.
Joe Peta’s Tour Guide Presents A 2019 Masters Preview – Joe Peta
Peta was a guest on one of the golf podcasts I listen to, The Shotgun Start, and after listening I immediately bought the Kindle version of this book, which was a perfect, quick read right before the Masters.
Peta is on the forefront of bringing advanced statistics to golf, although his focus is generally to use that data to make bets rather than just breaking the game down. His primary stat is Strokes Gained. With that stat, he argues that a player like Jim Furyk, who never won a Masters, actually is a better golfer on that course than Nick Faldo, who has three Green Jackets. Faldo, he suggests, benefited from playing well three times when there were epic failures by others, where Furyk always played the course very well but was just unlucky that someone else always played a little better. The better bet, in his eyes, would always be Furyk over Faldo.
As this is a bit of a preview of a longer work he will publish down the road, he slices and dices his methods to their basics to then offer both a breakdown of every hole at Augusta and give his predictions for this year’s tournament. He didn’t do too bad: he picked Tiger third and Tony Finau to win. But he also had Justin Rose fourth. As is usual with sports, you never know.
The Big Miss – Hank Haney
Finally, I’ve had this book for close to two months, renewed a couple times, but never got around to opening up. Masters week seemed like the time to get on it, and fortunately it was a quick read so it synced up nicely to what was happening in Augusta.
Haney was Tiger Woods’ coach for nearly six years, from the mid-‘00s through 2011, meaning he was in for the back half of Tiger’s dominance, the beginning of his body falling apart, the dissolution of his marriage, and his first comeback. The book ends just before the 2012 season, so it misses arguably the most dramatic part of that story, when Tiger’s back betrayed him and no one expected him to play again.
This reads about as you would expect: it is equal parts revealing and self-serving. But I think it probably presents a pretty fair picture of Tiger and his relationship with Haney. Tiger is shown as a little aloof, certainly living a life that no one else can understand. He’s difficult to connect with and keeps relationships on his terms. Although he calls Haney his friend publicly, he never does much to express that friendship directly to his coach and confidant.
Much of the book is devoted to their long hours working together to remake Tiger’s swing. Haney explains why they remade those changed, the process they went through, and then argues the results do not deserve the criticism that he received for it. Again, self-serving but the numbers are indeed far better than common opinion would suggest.
I don’t know how much anyone can ever know about Tiger because of the walls he’s always put around himself. I was, in fact, reluctant to read this because I figured the benefits are fairly small because of those limitations. But it fit the moment and it was quick, so not a total waste.