What am I up to now?
December 1, 2023
I’m back in Oxford, with the academic year all set to start next week. I spent most of September in:
The Gambia is an oddly shaped country, looking like some British colonial officer used the QGIS buffer tool 10mi above and below the Gambia river.There’s a fun, but apocryphal, story, that the British sailed a warship up the Gambia and fired its guns out both sides. Where the cannon shot landed, they drew the border, as that was the furthest they could project power. The only urban area to speak of grew up around Banjul, the island capital at the mouth of the river to the Atlantic. The island is not even five square miles, and the metropolitan area spilled over the causeway, eventually encompassing most of the attached peninsula.
I was working in the offices of the Kanifing Municipal Council on two connected research projects: improving property tax collection and implementing a solid waste collection service. Both projects are going really well, though we’re in a holding pattern while waiting for funding for implementation. More importantly, I got to fulfill someone’s childhood dream of throwing trash into the back of a compactor truck — Alpha, the driver, even let me push the button which did the compacting.
I can recommend Matt Lakeman’s “Notes on The Gambia”. Matt does a good job of presenting the “generally surprising&interesting” bits of a country; most of my interesting observations were relative to my experience in Sierra Leone. The sex tourism was noticeable and initially disconcerting. The food was excellent — I had the “world’s best” jollof rice; chef Bojang’s maafe was even better, and it remains my favorite west African dish. Gambian Muslims are remarkably observant — relative to other Muslim cities I’ve lived in or visited, prayer is relatively more noticeable and less of a social activity. While I was there, three police officers were shot, which apparently hadn’t happened in years; it occupied the news for the next two weeks.
It’s a fascinating country, and I learned a lot. I hope to return as our research projects move forward.
I lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone for all of 2021 — and I finished something close to 200 books that year. It’s the slow, expensive internet that does it. I lucked out again this time — there was no wifi in my hotel in Kanifing, and I had the best reading week of 2023, coinciding with the most productive workweek of the year. Some of the highlights are below.
Till We Have Faces — C.S. Lewis
This was Lewis’ last book, and he considered it his best. It’s also the first book I’ve read by an Inkling with a well-written — a remarkably well-written — female protagonist. The book is told from the deathbed of the queen of Glome, the invented sister of Psyche. Lewis’ narrative argues with the theology he dedicated most of his works to: how to live in a world with beings beyond our understanding, whether or not you call them divine.
The Narnia books are sometimes teased for being heavy-handed with Christian imagery.I for one just thought Aslan was just a cool lion. But I was like seven years old, and we hadn’t gotten to the Gospel yet in Hebrew school. Critics juxtapose the Narnia books to Lewis’ later writings, which are more detached from his beliefs — sure it’s about spirituality, but in the abstract! gods, not God. I think this is wrong. First, the Narnia books were for children — Faces wasn’t. Second, it’s not that there’s now Chestertonian subtlety or trickery; Lewis is just a better writer. The title comes from a passage close to the end of the book, when the queen comes to present her complain to a tribunal of maybe-gods: She asks herself, “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” This is exactly Lewis’ conception of Christian prayer.My thoughts here are taken from Mere Christianity. I’m not a theologian. He thought the act of understanding oneself and opening one’s bare face and desires to God, whether those desires are good or bad, is the betterment expected of prayer.Think about how non-Catholic this is. Tolkien must have hated it.
The Histories — Herodotus
Lots of fun. The chapter I’ve heard most discussed — online, among undergraduate classics students, among random nerdy friends — is chapter two, about the Egyptians. It really is a shocker of a chapter. The through line of the histories is the Greco-Persian Wars. Chapter one jumps right in with the rise of Cyrus and the culture of the Persians; chapters three through nine detail battles and conspiracies and seductions and the clash of civilizations. Chapter two is about how cool crocodiles are. Also, the Egyptians are mentioned literally twice more in the entire book after chapter two, it’s a good thing no one had invented the copy editor yet.
Travels with Herodotus — Kapuściński
I wrote about Kapuściński’s collection The Shadow of the Sun last month, and after finishing The Histories I picked up this one. The writing is almost as good, the topics are much more varied.
Herodotus and Kapuściński have similar attitudes to sources, but coming from different professional directions: Herodotus was a historian who made history by citing his sources; Kapuściński was a journalist who wrote news by avoiding sources entirely. Herodotus is notable, among other reasons, for being the first historian to cite his sources. Specifically, I found three cited sources in the 800 page book. Kapuściński’s collection of journalism contains about as many. He once said:
There are so many complaints: Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events. All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid. If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need: the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.
HHhH — Laurent Binet
Entirely lives up to the hype. A limpid and engaging work of… autofiction? historical fiction? memoir? I’m not sure. Apparently, boyfriends all over the world are thinking about the Roman empire at an alarmingly high rate. HHhH is about being a boyfriend who think about a single May morning in Prague way too much.
The Book of Strange New Things — Michel Faber
Great story, but underwhelming characters. I had read, years ago, James Blish’s classic A Case of Conscience about a Jesuit clerk on a mission to an alien planet.I’ve also previously read Lem’s Fiasco, with a similar premise — it’s good, but I wouldn’t recommend it over Solaris. See also Clarke award winner The Sparrow. The crown of the priest-meets-aliens genre is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star. Faber writes a priest sent by a corporation to an alien planet at the request of the local population. The reason the local species wants a Christian priest is treated as the big reveal, but falls a bit flat. Faber can’t seem to decide how much sci-fi belongs in his book
While I read a lot more when I don’t have wifi, I listen to a lot less new music. The only shockingly good new thing I heard was Betty Benedeadly’s “At the Institute of Mentalphysics.” Weird and fun.