Review: The Triangle

the triangle

The Triangle, Nakisanze Segawa. Middletown, DE: Mattville Publishing House, 2016.

Summary: Set in Buganda, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the novel narrates through the eyes of three figures intra-tribal struggles fed by competing colonial powers, weakening African rule, and ultimately leading to colonial rule under the British.

Nakisanze Segawa is a Ugandan writer and performance poet. She has contributed short stories to various anthologies, writes for the Daily Monitor and Global Press Journal. This is her first full-length novel.

The Triangle looks at the transition from tribal to colonial rule in Buganda (modern day Uganda) through three characters, each dependent in different ways upon the tribal chief or kabaka, Mwanga (Mwanga is an actual figure in Bugandan history). Nagawa is Mwanga’s second wife, hoping to bear a son who will eventually be kabaka, before one of the other co-wives. Kalinda is one of the kabaka’s pages, a servant in the royal court, and an intimate in several senses of the kabaka, who seems of late to have lost favor. Reverend Clement is a Church of England missionary, seeking to win converts, which means convincing people to leave the traditional ways, while yet courting the favor of the kabaka.

“Triangle” is a fitting image for the progression of this story, not only because of this particular set of three characters, but other triangles that run through the book. “Triangles” in relationships often reflect either three competing parties, or one party caught in a tension between two others. Such tensions run through the book. There are three wives all wanting to bear the future kabaka. Court pages, compete for the favor, including the sexual favors, wanted or forced, of the kabaka, who seems more interested in them than his wives, particular Nagawa. Sekitto, in particular has become the new favorite of the kabaka, supplanting Kalinda, and the increasingly disfavored Bukenya, a Catholic convert who has the temerity to plead for the life of a Bishop who did not take the approved but longer route to Buganda.

A religious triangle of Anglicans, Catholics, and Muslims, compete for the religious affections, and control of the kabaka-ship. Back of these religious interests are commercial and colonial interests of Muslims, French and English.  Mwanga has two brothers, who also are in line for the position of kabaka if Mwanga can be displaced.

As one may imagine, the noble aspirations, the commonplace longings for a peaceable existence, and the baser instincts of people clash. The kabaka and his premier recognize the encroaching threat of Christianity upon tribal ways and leadership, resulting at one point in Clement’s imprisonment, and his witness of the horrible martyrdom of both Anglican and Catholic converts. Brothers with Muslim allies succeed in deposing Mwanga who flees in exile, along with Christians who eventually become his allies. Kalinda aids in the overthrow, obtains high office, and then flees in turn when one brother eliminates the other, and Muslim control of tribal leadership becomes complete.

The latter part of the book chronicles Mwanga’s exile and plots to regain his position, bringing him increasingly under the sway of Reverend Clement and his British friends. Clement’s work becomes as much about guns as the gospel and we begin to see how the spiritually motivated missionary becomes entangled in imperial interests.

Segawa’s triangle of central characters around the embattled kabaka, Mwanga lead us into the competing and interlocking tensions that help us understand something of the dynamics of how an African kingdom might have been fatally undermined leading to British control under the British East Africa Company. Even as we root for Nagawa to conceive a child, for Kalinda to survive through the shifting alliances, we also see a ruler struggling to maintain a way of life during the colonial powers “Scramble for Africa.” We witness the nobility and courage of converts to Christianity as they are martyred, and the compromises with temporal power made by missions that undermined the spiritual power of their message. Segawa weaves all of this together in a powerful first novel.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: A World to Win (Lanny Budd #7)

A World to Win

A World to WinUpton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1946).

Summary: Presidential Agent 103, in the guise of an art dealer, embarks on a series of journeys, planned and unplanned, in which he gathers significant intelligence for the Allied cause in its fight against Nazism.

Most of us know Upton Sinclair as the author of The Jungle, an expose’ of conditions in Chicago meat packing plants at the beginning of the twentieth century. I was unaware that he was author of the Lanny Budd series of eleven novels, named after the primary character, the son of an American arms dealer, a gentleman of tact and insight who moves among the major figures of the first half of the twentieth century, and eventually becomes Presidential Agent 103, using the cover of a fine art dealer to travel into occupied France and Germany to gather intelligence against the Nazis critical to the allied threat. The third book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Novel. The series went out of print for years only to recently be resurrected by Open Road Media.

Some of you may remember The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. The main character of that book “Pug” Henry was also an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and met with a number of world leaders. Reading A World to Win, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wouk had drawn his inspiration, consciously or not, from this work, published 25 years earlier. In the course of this novel, Budd meets with Marshal Petain, Hermann Goering, Rudolph Hess, Adolph Hitler, alludes to meetings with Churchill, hobnobs with William Randolph Hearst, is entertained by the widow of Sun Yat-sen, meets Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), and finally, at the end of the novel, Joseph Stalin.

After each of his forays, including a kidnapping by underground forces who suspected him of Nazi ties when he was actually on their side, escapes from Luftwaffe bombings, and other perils including a near fatal plane crash, he has late evening meetings in the bedroom of Franklin Roosevelt where P. A. 103 is debriefed. During one of these, he even gives Roosevelt the words, “the arsenal of democracy,” that Roosevelt used in one of his famous speeches! This incident underscores Budd’s singular ability to endear himself to whoever he is with, even those he inwardly despises, like Hitler, and keep them persuaded that he is nothing other than a disinterested art dealer.

At the same time, Budd’s endearing qualities draw him into affairs of the heart with two women. Lizbeth is the young daughter of a Baltimore industrialist, beautiful but incapable of anything beyond conventional conversation on conventional subjects. Laurel Creston, her cousin is a socialist-leaning anti-Nazi journalist who Lanny helped escape from the Gestapo, and easily his intellectual equal. While on his “missions” for the president, he refuses to consider either, given his dangerous lifestyle. But when “furloughed” after the plane crash, which also destroyed his “cover,” he finds himself in a different place.

Things get even more interesting when Lanny gets invited on a cruise to Hong Kong (where a psychic had predicted Lanny would die) by Lizbeth’s father. Laurel also manages an invitation, leading to an interesting predicament. Who he ends up with, how they escape the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, and how they end up meeting Mao and Stalin, I will leave you to discover.

One detects in the book Sinclair’s life and interests–Baltimore where he grew up, interests in psychics and spiritualism, and socialist leanings, which characterize Laurel, and in a more chastened form, Lanny himself, despite his loyalty to Roosevelt and to his arms manufacturer father.

While the idea stretches credulity that Budd could somehow manage to meet all these great personages in one novel, and end up traveling around the world, the journey is rip-roaring good fun. The closest this seemed to me to get to a plot was the recurring allusions to Budd’s death in Hong Kong, fantastic at best, until Hong Kong becomes a cruise destination and we realize that his arrival date coincides with the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s invasion. At the same time, there are seasons of reading when one does not particularly care as long as the book keeps your attention.

I should say that I started this series with this book which is number seven, which happened to be available at a discount in e-book form. It was definitely good enough that I want to go back and read the series from the beginning. If that sounds interesting to you, Open Road has a page showing all eleven novels in their proper sequence, and other Sinclair works, with links to purchase them in different e-formats.

Teddy’s Rules

I knew that Teddy Roosevelt was a bookworm.  I knew he read at least a book a day and sometimes more (I average about one every three to four days which people think kind of freaky). And he was the President of the United States while doing this!  Bookriot recently posted Teddy Roosevelt’s 10 Rules for Reading. Here they are without the commentary, courtesy of the Bookriot post:

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1. “The room for choice is so limitless that to my mind it seems absurd to try to make catalogues which shall be supposed to appeal to all the best thinkers. This is why I have no sympathy whatever with writing lists of the One Hundred Best Books, or the Five-Foot Library. It is all right for a man to amuse himself by composing a list of a hundred very good books… But there is no such thing as a hundred books that are best for all men, or for the majority of men, or for one man at all times.”

2. “A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time.”

3. “Personally, the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.”

4. “The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”

5. “He must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.”

6. “Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

7. “Now and then I am asked as to ‘what books a statesman should read,’ and my answer is, poetry and novels – including short stories under the head of novels.”

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8. “Ours is in no sense a collector’s library. Each book was procured because some one of the family wished to read it. We could never afford to take overmuch thought for the outsides of books; we were too much interested in their insides.”

9. “[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”

10. “Books are all very well in their way, and we love them at Sagamore Hill; but children are better than books.”

What this all boils down to it seems to me is to read what you love, don’t read what you don’t like, and don’t worry about what others think.  It is interesting to me to see his preference for poetry, and especially novels, which many might deprecate as not serious enough for presidential material, yet I think he is spot on in recognizing how critical an understanding of human nature is to leadership. To gain that insight through an enjoyable diversion seems all the better!

I’m not sure I would be as hard on reading lists as Roosevelt is–I just use them as starters in getting ideas of what to read. I would also add that often books lead to books. One book refers to another author, whose book I am then intrigued to read, or to a subject or person or place I’d like to learn about. What I value in Roosevelt’s list is its absolute unpretentiousness! Snobby readers strike me as the greatest hindrance to aspiring readers who don’t share their tastes.

My wife is an artist and we are members of a local art league that has a plein air painters group. My wife loves doing this and I love going with her and sketching (doodling might be more accurate). But I share my work along with the rest and I am so grateful for the unpretentiousness of this group toward one who knows very little about drawing. They seem glad that I would try my hand at this and are kind to this rank beginner.

Perhaps we booklovers need to learn a lesson from my artist friends, and from Teddy Roosevelt. Actually, I suspect the danger for both booklovers and artists is to get caught up in matters of current tastes and styles and other sorts of things to the point that we no longer read or draw or paint for the love of it – but somehow to be “with” it – whatever “it” is. And because we no longer act like we are loving it, those with any sense (particularly the children who matter even more!) will think there is nothing in books worth loving. But to share a book one loves that is appropriate for the age of the child can be magic for both!

Barnaby Rudge–Not the First Dickens I Would Read

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If you are new to Charles Dickens, this is not the book to start with! I found this to be the ‘darkest’ Dickens I’ve read. I also wasn’t always sure that this novel was ‘working’. Dickens mixes a mystery (who killed Emma Haredale’s father and the gardener Rudge, Barnaby’s father?) and an exploration of the dangers of the mob in the Lord George Gordon riots of 1780 (these really occurred and Dickens account follows the actual course of events quite closely). The title character, who is mentally impaired, gets caught up in these riots despite his mother’s efforts, and is imprisoned and sentenced to the gibbet.

The account of the riots, instigated as a result of newly granted rights for Catholics in England, chronicle what can happen when rhetoric gets out of hand and fuels the discontents of a mob. Not only were many homes and chapels burned, but many of the rioters themselves died, not only at the hands of soldiers but even from fire and alcoholic poisoning. The novel is a warning of the dangers of incendiary rhetoric.

Of course, we have the delightful mix of Dickens characters and secondary plots around quarrels, romances and the like. We have salt-of-the-earth Gabriel Varden, his shrewish wife and maid, their spoiled daughter Dolly, the slow and steady innkeeper John Willet and his son Joe who shakes off the father’s control to go to be a soldier. There is the abandoned figure of Hugh, the threatening centaur, who like Samson lives by his appetites. There is the stalwart Haredale and his rival in love Chester. And there is the ridiculous Simon Tappertit, Varden’s apprentice and self-styled revolutionary.

So I would conclude, Dickens fans will enjoy this book but this is not the book that will result in one becoming a fan of Dickens. I would encourage beginning instead with Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, or Nicholas Nickleby.