Litera-story

Above, evidence of the type of cultural history that is difficult to learn outside of literature. From Arundhati Roy’s “Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”

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Good Gore

Sometimes a story is so good it doesn’t matter how it’s told. The facts against a flat surface remain dense, flamboyant, no matter how simply they are thrown. Which is not to say that Paul French’s “Midnight in Peking” is a poorly told, simple read. Quite the contrary.

The Edgar Award-winning true-crime tale is the kind of book one stays up past midnight to finish. Indeed, creepy, quiet late night is the correct frame for French’s reconstruction of a young British girl’s vicious murder in 1937 Peking, a time when Beijing was barely still Peking. Barely because the Japanese had invaded the mainland and were fast approaching the as yet colonial city, barely because the Kuomintang was clumsily hunting the Red Army in caves, barely because the world was about to seize with war.

French solves the still-open murder mystery by being a better story-teller than the police were investigators. Hermaphrodites, brothels, opium, Russian oligarch refugees all play a part, tracked down by the author in relevant detail so fun one is tempted to forget the story’s sad end.

Fortunately , French doesn’t let us stray too far into Peking’s underworld. He leads the way out, back to the murdered girl’s home, where her father, in many ways the hero of the tale, is at his desk, stringing all the dim pieces for someone someday to tie.

Cosmic Communist Construction


Today I learned that Cosmic Communist Construction is a thing, or, at the very least, the very excellent title of a Taschen coffee table book.

Below is one of the hundreds of sculptural images found in the book, which features mostly Soviet government construction—as well as the occasional sanatorium.

Such galactic crush can in part be explained by the US/Soviet space race of the late 50s and 60s, which eventually culminated in the moon landing and, of course, The Jetsons. A world crushed by two world wars was eager to move forward, way forward, be it via the progress professed by Capitalism or the egalitarianism feigned by Communism.

Since Communism only works via Dictatorship, its construction is more aggressive, more repetitive, more dramatic. Local, mundane space is transformed into outer space by a power eager to present itself as an ideal worth building, by any means necessary.

In Russian, USSR translates to CCCP, an acronym put to good service by the author of this book. Had Cosmic Communism been the literal name of the regime perhaps it would have had a better hand at constructing real earth.

Suburbanization in Reverse

Last week’s Economist cover featured the death of the internal combustion engine via the electric car. The magazine contemplates a bright future where the air is clean, oil grabs become irrelevant, and people nap during their private commutes. Then, reverse suburbanisation as cities contract, converting now useless parking into homes, parks, offices. Efficient destinations everywhere.

The magazine does not mention the inventors of this great future, but that is whom the article left me thinking about: the few individuals who propelled electric cars forward. These incredible beings basically prevented planetary devastation by ending human dependence on dirty fuel.

Sadly, on the other side of the equation, you have the Zumas, Trumps, and Maduros of the world. Individuals who set entire nations back one year each time they open their traps. See the excerpt from the article below on Jacob Zuma’s reelection, which immediately followed the article on electric cars.

Thus, the equation keeps equal. Or as Fitzgerald might say, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Dora, the Dictadora


About to hop on a flight with this read on the women who loved the world’s worst men, written by Spanish uber journalist Rosa Montero, whom I saw speak at the Cartagena Hay Festival a few years back. 

In “Dictadoras,” Montero digs deep to pile new dirt on the wives and girlfriends who warmed the beds of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. 

If the book sounds gossip-y, it is because it is, as are most well-researched history books. 

In fact, I truly think that the reason why historical fiction has become such a popular genre is that it is a veiled form of juicy gossip.  

Maybe reading about Cleopatra’s lovers can teach us about strategy, perserverance, fragility, the timeless nature of tragic love. But, it also just teaches us about Cleopatra’s lovelife, which was scan-da-lous. Because Cleopatra is a historical headline, though, reading about her hot sex becomes a legitimate intellectual persuit.  
And, so, legitimately, I plan on enriching my intellect with the real-life, true story of Stalin’s numerous, illegitimate early mornings.