Nick Young’s bookshelf

Reviews of Books, Films and More


It’s all down to Africa

An abridged version of this review essay, also discussing Paul Collier’s new book The Plundered Planet, appears on the Nation Media Group (Kenya)’s Africa Review website.

‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa’
by Deborah Brautigam, OUP (2009), 397 pp

Part of the Western world’s emotional response to China’s ‘rise’ has been a general alarm lest the Yellow Peril swarm across Africa in search of loot. It is as if there were a kind of Monroe Doctrine etched upon Western European and American hearts and minds: Africa is the proper sphere of influence of the white-majority Powers, ours alone to lecture, structurally adjust and bless with charity. No sooner does a Chinaman appear upon the savannah (actually, they’ve been around for decades, but few Westerners noticed them before) than we conclude that his ‘insatiable appetite for resources’ has brought him to strip-mine the continent, encouraging dictatorship, rampant corruption and exploitation along the way. Despite its unpromising title—how much longer must we endure Dragon, Tiger and Great Wall clichés?—Deborah Brautigam’s book is a useful antidote to such hysteria, correcting not just inherent bias but gross factual errors circulated by a string of prestigious media houses, international financial institutions, private think tanks and NGOs.

Nice chap, shame about the book

‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’
by Richard Dowden, Portobello Books 2008, 376 pp

Richard Dowden has been in and out of Africa for nearly 40 years as, variously, a primary school English teacher, journalist (Times, Independent, Economist, Channel 4) and, latterly, Director of the UK’s Royal Africa Society. He clearly knows and cares a great deal about the continent, and this raises expectations of a work that boldly borrows Africa’s name for its main title. But what we get here is a kind of scrapbook: a blend of personal memoir (“Africa is different,” a chapter about teaching in Uganda in the early 1970s, is one of the most engaging), potted modern history and selective reportage on twelve individual countries, with rather little connecting thread or effort at synthesis. We end up clear about the author’s emotional commitment, his desire to see Africa prosper, his belief in its potential. We hear his opinions, often barbed, on numerous people, issues, places. Yet somehow this doesn’t add up to the coherent whole that the title seemed to promise.

The lost knack of knowing when to shut up

April 21, 2010 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

‘The Case for God: What Religion Really Means’
by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head 2009, 376 pp

Visiting the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence half a dozen years ago my daughter, whose eight years of life had been spent in China, asked her mother who the guy hanging on the cross was. To the brief explanation that followed Tian Tian reacted with the genuine shock of one from whose eyes the scales have fallen, revealing the banality of the world: “God was a man!!!???” We took this at the time as intuitive, pre-teen feminism (Why not a woman, an Earth Mother figure?) Recently recalling the event, Tian Tian clarified that, on the contrary, her remark was ungendered: what boggled her mind was the thought that God could begin to resemble, let alone be, anything so idiotic as a human being. Before she could read more than a handful of English sentences, she had grasped an essential thread of Karen Armstrong’s theology; and, as we shall see, that almost certainly had much to do with growing up in China—and not just because of the relative dearth of Christian icons there.

A more nuanced battle of the sexes

‘The Boys Are Back’ (Dir: Scott Hicks; Screnplay: Simon Carr, Allan Cubbit; Screen Australia, November 2009) Twenty years ago Adrian Lyne’s film Fatal Attraction (1987) offered a reminder of Eve’s role in the destruction of earthly paradise. Women, it warned us, prey on the natural innocence of men and if you don’t watch out they will bust your balls and boil your kid’s pet rabbit alive. Widely acclaimed as ‘slick’ and ‘classy’, this was the 1980s’ clearest cinematic expression of heterosexual male fear and resentment of the object of desire. The Boys Are Back is a more thoughtful and provocative piece by far—a study in male virtue not only overcoming emotional adversity but finding fulfilment beyond the civilizing grip of petticoats. Thrown in for good measure is the more predictable sub-theme that Australia is a less suffocating place than stuffy old England.

A world without bad guys

I come a decade late to the American political drama-soap, The West Wing, and regret taking so long to catch a show that is as captivating as Star Trek, which had me glued to the TV set 40 years ago.

The star ship Enterprise spent the Cold War zipping about the universe fighting evil, but it was not that which made it compelling so much as the informal camaraderie of its egalitarian and inclusive crew—a Russian, a Japanese, a Scotsman, a black woman with long legs, and a cute alien with pointy ears—all, of course, under American captaincy. It offered a brilliant, if distinctly narcissistic, vision of what American world leadership would be like. The BBC’s best home-grown rival offering at the time was Doctor Who—still going strong—about an old bloke who travels round the universe with a young woman assistant in a 1960s police box. It was a post-imperial eccentricity that would not sell well beyond Dover.

West Wing, I now see, boldly went where TV seldom went before: into a universe where audiences are presumed to include intelligent life.

Africa bites back

‘Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa’ by Dambisa Moyo, 2009 Allen Lane, London, 188 pp.

‘Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror’ by Mahmood Mamdani, 2009 Verso, London, 398 pp.

Dead Aid contains little original thinking but it is new and refreshing to find aid scepticism synthesised by an African woman with a big brain and a voice that is loud and clear: “Aid has become a cultural commodity. Millions march for it. Governments are judged by it. But has more than US$ 1 trillion in development assistance over the last several decades made African people better off? No.”

Fat-middle elites, civil society and the nation state

‘Africa Since Independence: A Comparative History’
Paul Nugent
2004, Palgrave Macmillan (Basingtoke and New York) 620 pp.

It takes a brave historian to write about the recent past and an ambitious one to span an entire continent. (This portrait is in fact confined to sub-Saharan Africa but that still encompasses vast environmental and cultural diversity.) Paul Nugent, a Reader in African History at the University of Edinburgh, marches on boldly—for the sake, he says, of “the student and the general reader” (p. 5)—and gives us an impressively compendious work, packed with process-specific case studies from numerous countries.

It is not long, however, before he stumbles into pitfalls that he himself flags at the outset. One problem is that, compared to the breadth of the title, the approach is rather narrow. This is principally a work of political history, the story of the struggle for and practice of power. Within a few score pages the reader is hard put to cope with the growing cast of named actors—individuals, political parties, movements—across the continent. Yet we get less feel for the varied and changing social and cultural life lying behind the names and organisational forms, or for the ways in which power in Africa is understood and legitimated, although these are among the under-the-skin complexities that a non-African student or general reader may well find the hardest to grasp.

Catholic fundamentalism is institutionally rational

This review has been reprinted (June 2010) on the inter-faith Patheos website.

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley
Miramax Films, 2008

Pope Benedict’s remarks to the Curia at the end of 2008 deploring the tendency of social gender theories to promote “emancipation of man from creation and the creator” drew predictable scorn from secular liberals and disappointment from Catholics who would like to see the Roman church remade in a 21st century image. (Benedict did not, actually, say that homosexuality was as great a threat to humanity as global warming, but that tabloidification of his message is what appears to have stuck.)

More cunning than gorgeous or shocking

‘Marrying Buddha’
(Zhou) Wei Hui
2005 Constable and Robinson (London) 248 pp.

Trivial, narcissistic trash. I picked up a copy of this because I had been too busy to catch the author’s 2000 international bestseller, ‘Shanghai Baby’ (six million copies sold in 34 languages according to Wikipedia) and was curious to see what all the fuss had been about; but I couldn’t get past page 23 of this, it is so awful.

Teen girl power comes of age

October 6, 2008 - 12:00am -- Nick Young

Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Fox Searchlight, 2007

Teen girl power has grown up with this film. Before, American TV had given us shows like ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003) in which teenage girls assumed dynamic, leadership roles and knew stuff that adults didn’t. The grown-ups were the innocents whilst the youngsters inhabited the ‘real’ world; yet the daft plot-lines made it all, well, puerile. Still, Buffy and other teen TV and film protagonists were emotionally and linguistically adult, clearly sexual although not yet having sex; and this was a lot edgier than, say, the 1980s Walt Disney universe of girls rehearsing for human relationships by becoming besotted with animals.


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