Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, the Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, is not the kind of book I could rate based on nothing more than how much I did or did not like it. The subject matter is much too deep for that and the dangers the author endured to write this phenomenal work far too real.
Jisheng's account as presented to us in the English-language edition of Tombstone is a single-volume 629-page condensed version of the original Chinese-language 1,200-page 2-volume set first published in Hong Kong a decade ago. There's no need to question what may or may not have been lost in translation because Jisheng provided so much fact-based data with which to work in the original publication.
Moreover, Tombstone is much more than just a triumph of historical writing. It represents in many ways the triumph of a movement to shed light on "the worst famine in human history." As an integral part of that movement: "Yang got people who experienced the famine to describe it in their own words. He found local journalists who'd witnessed and reported on murders and starvation and got them to write their memoirs. He located and interviewed local implementers of the fatal policies. He got surviving resisters to recount their experiences" (pp. X-XI).
Magnitude of the Horror
It took a while for me to adjust my brain to magnitude of the fact that the horror described actually occurred less than 70 years ago. In that hellish avoidable atrocity an estimated 30 to 45 million people died within a four-year period basically because of authoritarian arrogance and a total disregard for the freedom of individuals. Yet my shocked incredulity as a reader is nothing compared to the painful awakening Jisheng experienced as a member of the Communist Youth League proudly committed to promoting the policies of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" initiative only to discover those very policies in 1959 caused his father's death.
Ironically, it was while working in the late 1960s as an official journalist that he learned "how 'news' was manufactured, and how news organs served as the mouthpiece of political power." (Very different dynamics from what U.S. President Donald Trump's so often proclaims as "fake news.") However, it was not until the late 1970s that the awful deadly scope of the great famine became apparent:
"Now we knew that it was a man-made disaster that had caused tens of millions of people to starve to death... In my effort to shake off deception, I came to understand the social background of my father's death and to reflect more profoundly on his life..." (pp. 11-12).
That "deception" has remained hard for a lot of Chinese to shake off in part because of many official's refusal to acknowledge the famine for what it was and insist on referring to it in such euphemistic terms as "the three years of natural disaster," or "the years of difficulties." Another seems to be to avoid the appearance of discrediting the legacy of People's Republic of China founder Zedong.
Tombstone is not easy reading by any means. Where Jisheng narrates the actions leading up to the abuses of power, and fear of the same, which led up to the famine, he is straightforward and factually dense. That is a quality hardcore historians relish but average readers might find less entertaining. And in a way that is the point.
Jisheng's objective as a journalist is to share awareness of an event which it would seem impossible for the entire world not to know about already, but which it appears relatively few actually do. As a human being and the son of foster-parents who gave all they had to raise him and support his education goals, he is determined to honor those parents and the dozens of millions who lost their lives to the famine. Therefore, the title selected for the book: "A tombstone is a memory made concrete." (p. 3)
The result his investigative labors is indispensible documentation of officials' motives for allowing the tragedy to occur; and, how many hypocritically gorged themselves on the good life while entire villages literally starved to death. Yet such documentation is balanced with reports difficult to read for a very different reason. In short, Jisheng does not censor the stories of people describing acts of cannibalism which they either witnessed or committed themselves.
We learn about: people in villages who wait for strangers to come along so they can kill and eat them, an adolescent sister who kills and eats her younger brother after their parents have died, people who wait a few hours after funerals so they can dig up corpses and consume them. These and other actions seem too extreme to believe they really occurred in a civilized nation. But we are aware now that they did. Some people even describe which parts of the human body they found most delectable.
If you're a fan of the movie Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell, Lili Simmons, and Patrick Wilson, and you did not flinch watching the scene where "Troglodytes" split a man in half to eat him, then the above accounts of cannibalism might not bother you too much. Anyone who did flinch, throw up, scream, or faint, can empathize to some meaningful degree with those who survived the horror of the Great Famine and with Jisheng's determination to tell their collective story.
The Record of This Particular Memory
The importance of the history provided in Tombstone is evident enough in its own right, or at least it should be. "Human memory," the author tells us, "is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness" (p. 3).
The record of this particular memory is a significant indicator of the dangers that can befall populations which opt for authoritarian rule by a single individual, or small group of individuals, versus government by a robust engaged citizenry exercising some form of democracy. Even more than pitting one political ideology against another, it is about accepting some share of communal responsibility that automatically comes with living in any society hoping to make great strides forward, or just to maintain for its citizens peace, security, and decently-stocked refrigerators.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
To fully appreciate reading former Savannah mayor Otis S. Johnson's From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor, Experiencing the American Dream, you might want to note some important clues he shares at the book's beginning. The first is his identification of himself as a "scholar activist." Take that for exactly what it sounds like: he has long been devoted to the cultivation of knowledge within himself and others, as well as to the reversal of heinous social and political injustices.
A second shared hint is his struggle over whether to spell out the word "nigger" in this book's title or employ the more politically-accepted abbreviation. Following his publisher's suggestion, he chose the latter but felt the original more "symbolic of my struggle as a black male in American society." With that in mind, the book in general, he states, "documents my struggle to achieve the American Dream while having to confront the vicissitudes of being black in a racist society" (p. 11)
A Timeline of Powerful History
The above words may sound, to some, like little more than sensationalistic jargon employed to grab attention. It would be more accurate to describe them as precise when considering Johnson was born in 1942 and, from the beginning until the present era, his experience of the American dream has unfolded along a timeline of powerful history-shaping events on personal, national, and international levels.
For its precisely-balanced combination of social history and personal memoir, Johnson's book under any title is one of the most valuable written in recent years by an African-American man, and one of the most important for any time by a native of Savannah, Georgia. Being the former dean of Savannah State University's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and current Scholar in Residence and Professor Emeritus that he is, Dr. Johnson's text often reflects the language of his intellectual leanings. That allows him to place his life and his times within an analytical context similar to important works by some of his scholarly heroes, like Harlem Renaissance strategist W.E.B. Du Bois and political scientist Hanes Walton Jr.
Yet, at the same time, he is a very down-to-earth writer who engages readers with stories of his family's Gullah culture heritage, what it meant to lose his father at an early age, learning about racism for the first time, falling in love and getting his heart broken, discovering the world as a young sailor, and confronting the challenges of leadership within a demographically-evolving community.
The city of Savannah and the state of Georgia as Johnson experienced them while growing into maturity during the 1960s were much like America at that time as a whole. African Americans with many White Americans alongside them were calling for an end to Jim Crow apartheid and battling against the system by staging public sit-ins, conducting protest marches, and targeting racial barriers ripe for breaking.
Of his position in this history, Johnson writes, "My life has been full of being in places where I shocked non-blacks with my presence" (p. 88). One such place was on the campus of Armstrong State College (now Atlantic University) where in 1963 he famously became the first African American to enroll in the school. Another was the campus of the University of Georgia, Athens, where he was the first Black from Savannah to attend that institution. At UGA, he walked out of one class after a white professor discussing the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision proclaimed the only reason African-Americans wanted to integrate schools in Georgia was to marry white women.
Most of the kind of anti-racism activism Johnson chronicles is to be expected given the time-frame. In his chronicling, however, he provides important snapshots of black leaders in Savannah, like Wesley Wallace "W.W." Law and Hosea Williams, in political action. But his reportage goes beyond the dynamics of blackness clashing with whiteness.
Through his account of how segregation laws prevented Whites from attending the historically black Savannah State College, founded some 45 years prior to the establishment of Armstrong (as a junior college) in 1935, he demonstrates how racism has caused grievous injury on both sides of the color line. It has also been extremely absurd when considering that in order for him to become the first African-American to integrate Armstrong in 1963 for sake of racial progress in the name of democracy, he had to switch from Savannah State's senior college program curriculum to Armstrong's junior college curriculum.
Navigating Major Changes
Early in From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor (2016, Donning Company Publishers) Johnson discusses three types of black leadership attributed to sociologist Daniel C. Thompson (author of Sociology of the Black Experience) and with which many readers of African-American literature are familiar: "...the Uncle Tom...racial diplomat...and race advocate" (p. 48). He places himself closer to the third category but more as a "human rights advocate" who believes the following: "'We are all God's children,' but I live in an institutional and structural racist society. 'Self-preservation is the first law of nature'" (p. 49).
By the time Dr. Johnson took office in 2004 as the sixty-fourth mayor of Savannah, and its second consecutive black mayor (after the late Floyd Adams), the city was well on its way to navigating major changes in its multicultural and economic make-up. His determination to meet that challenge at every level resulted in 2006 in a major heart attack experienced while attending the National Conference of Black Mayors in Memphis, Tennessee. Consequently, he writes, "How I approached the job of being mayor during the period before and the period after my heart attack were two very different periods" (p. 291).
As it pertained to his labors as mayor, Johnson's professed sense of racial "self-preservation" took a back seat to his role as a servant leader committed to advocating "for improving conditions that impact people of all races and classes" (p. 261). In the wake of the Great Recession that would create chaos in American cities during his second term, he worked with city council members to help Savannah avoid the kind of disastrous lay-offs and cancellation of services which occurred in cities like Atlanta and Camden. As he points out:
"In 2011, we were still in the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. We had to find a way to continue providing all of the services to citizens with about $8 million less than we had in 2010...while the 2011 budget was extremely difficult, it was balanced with minimal impact to our citizens and without an increase in property taxes. That was due to strong leadership, clear priorities, and tough resolve by this council, which chose not to spend wildly when times were good" (p. 325).
Candidates lining up for the 2020 presidential race in America could take a few helpful lessons from this former mayor's playbook. One might be committing to running a campaign based on proven abilities and a strategic comprehensive vision rather than one based on negative personal attacks. In fact, though he won his first election to mayor before former U.S. President Barack H. Obama won his first election to the White House, their campaign styles bore striking similarities. (The president and mayor met when Mr. Obama visited Savannah in 2010.)
At times, From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor reads a bit too much like a college paper, or lecture, as Johnson parenthetically informs readers where he will continue the thread of a particular subject or on which page he has already discussed it. This is easy enough to overlook, and even smile about, when remembering these pages are coming to us from a master scholar at whose literary feet we are fortunate indeed to sit and learn as much as possible.
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
The same reasons that convinced me to give PT Armstrong's Looking Back and Dreaming Forward a four-star rating might prompt others to give it five. Some might settle for three. But here's the way I see it: the first three stars are for the rarity of the book's content. This isn't just another memoir. It's more like a flesh and blood time capsule filled with reports from America's past about issues the country (and the world) is dealing with in 2019, like the challenges of adjusting to increasing diverse populations and managing the awkwardness of inter-generational interactions in various venues.
The fourth star is for the fact that Mr. Armstrong was 91 years young when he released this book at the end of 2018 and is currently looking forward to turning 92 years old on St. Patrick's Day, 2019. What the age factor means in this case is that as an African-American man born in rural Texas in 1927, the military veteran had to survive quite a bit before he could even think about publishing a book, his third, at the age of 91. A lot of the memories through which he had to navigate to tell his stories are the kind many Black men his age, he tells us, do not enjoy recalling or discussing.
Powerful Authorial Voice
One of the most fascinating things about the five stories in Armstrong's volume is his authorial voice. The author realizes he is addressing a digital-age audience which might not immediately, necessarily, understand him as someone whose worldview and mindset were forged during a very different era. Bearing that in mind, he kicks off this unusual collection with the controversially-titled essay, "When I Was A Negro." In it, he explains, "I hope it will be clear that I am not writing out of anger but sharing the truth as I have lived it." He further acknowledges, "There are a lot of books out now about what people are calling 'the New Jim Crow.' Well I grew up during the old Jim Crow in a segregated society that was very strict so I have some perspectives and insights people might find useful." In other words, as the title of his book indicates, he is more interested in learning from past mistakes in order to help fellow citizens move forward than he is in dwelling on past injustices for the sake of wallowing in self-pity or stirring up feelings of guilt.
Moreover, his meditations are surprisingly much more inclusive than many might assume. As with classic autobiographies and memoirs by such authors as Maya Angelou and James Weldon Johnson, Armstrong does make some hard unflinching observations when it comes to topics like the history of slavery, racial segregation in Texas and his adopted home of Savannah, Georgia, and the historic bias against interracial relationships. However, he goes a big step further in "Bloodlines: Interview with Miss Pilgrim Cottonwood."
An actual interview, "Bloodlines" tells the story of a Native American Hopi woman whose tri-racial ancestry included Natives, Whites, and Blacks. It is a rare authentic document of its kind. Constructed from an interview which Armstrong conducted in 1966 when his subject was 66 years old, the author presents her dialect as she spoke it. Cottonwood is candid about both her struggles to survive and the heartbreak over losing the love of her life. Particularly significant is her account of relationships between African Americans and members of her tribe during and after slavery.
In "A Place for Old Black Men" Armstrong writes with moving poignancy about the paradoxes of aging in a society that continues to advance technologically but appears to regress when it comes to issues of social justice. At the same time, in "Back to My Roots" and "My Trip to Africa" he rejoices in the discovery of his cultural inheritance and celebrates the potential which he believes the future holds for everyone.
Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle continues to win acclaim for a number of reasons: one is the author’s insightful blend of world cultures to create a single tapestry of world-class literature. Another is his seemingly
seamless fusion of classic genres such as Gothic, erotica, and horror to create something new beneath the literary sun. And a third is his invention of two of
the most compelling characters in modern literature.
The role played by the defining power of character throughout The Gargoyle becomes evident in its first horrific opening pages as our nameless anti-hero drinks and drives his way to a life-altering crash. The detailed account of the inferno that engulfs and permanently disfigures him is as lucidly terrifying as it is mesmerizingly precise. It’s not the kind of thing that most people survive but this man does, albeit with severe anatomical damage and loss: “I could hear the bubbling of my skin as the flames kissed it.” In fact, as a man and former porn star, he suffers the loss
of the one appendage with which he had earned his living.
During the course of his hospital recovery, the narrator battles thoughts of suicide, a growing addiction to morphine, and the excruciating pain of cultivating the growth of brand new skin. Enter Marianne Engel––“She appeared in the burn ward door dressed in a light green hospital gown, with those unsolvable eyes and that riotously entangled hair”––a former psychiatric patient and artist famed for sculpting gargoyles. She is convinced that she and the once-upon-a-time porn star have shared at least one major previous lifetime together when she was a German nun and he was a mercenary soldier. Even more odd, however, is Engel’s claim to have never died at all while waiting some seven centuries to reconnect with her once-beloved. She is comfortable enough with this belief that she strips naked in her new/old friend’s hospital room to reveal a body covered with a luxury of tattoos: a
beaded rosary and cross, a snake coiling up her leg to her sex, a Sacred Heart
on her left breast, a pair of angel wings upon her back, and more.
Whereas we might expect the irony to be painful, it is instead profoundly daring. Engel stands before her friend painted with beautiful symbols while the man once accustomed to being paid for his beauty is now something more akin to her gargoyle sculptures. To a degree, it would seem that his extreme disfigurements make him into the “Gargoyle” of the book’s title. But herein may lie a central aspect of author Davidson’s literary art. Is his anti-hero a gargoyle now because of how he looks, or was he in fact more of a gargoyle because of the cynicism and self-absorption that dominated his personality before his life-transforming accident? And does the ensuing journey to emotional and spiritual recovery make actually make him more beautiful than he ever was in the past?
Marianne seems at first to be a hyper eccentric teller of tales whose stories simultaneously puzzle, captivate, and motivate her friend. It turns out, however,
that these stories––in such diverse settings as France, Japan,Germany, and
Iceland––have a much greater function than simply passing the time while recuperating. Davidson’s skill at evoking the passions and dilemmas of characters in different cultures and historical eras is truly admirable. Likewise, his Dickensian talent for the creation of a cast of supporting characters who, against the odds, lend credible depth, substance, and color to the narrator’s and Marianne’s fantastic story.
Maniacal or not (or more precisely, “schizophrenic or not,”as our narrator suspects) Marianne becomes much like the angel indicated by the tattooed wings on her back as she moves our narrator into her home. There, she alternately nurses him, tells one amazing story after another, and works herself into frenzied bloody exhaustion to complete a final series of gargoyle sculptures, with the very last being of you-know-who. As one grows weaker and the other grows stronger, their original roles reverse and readers find themselves rethinking the plausibility of Marianne’s extraordinary claims.
Interwoven masterfully throughout The Gargoyle are deeply embedded allusions to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno that not only tell the history of the book itself, but that in some ways re-write the masterpiece and present it in modern form as The Gargoyle. To fully understand such a notion, one has to read and actually
experience Davidson’s triumphant first novel. A number of readers have suggested
that taking on The Inferno (for those of us who did not get to it in high school or college) either after or before reading The Gargoyle, doubly enhances the pleasure of delving into this exceptional work of new millennium fiction.
Anyone first introduced to the impassioned prose of Carlos Ruiz Zafón through his international bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind, will find it difficult to avoid comparing it to any follow-up to the novel. Where Zafón’s The Angel’s Game is concerned, that is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. It is also inevitable because page by page and chapter by chapter, we come to realize there’s a reason the novel is set in the same city, Barcelona, as The Shadow of the Wind, but an entire two decades ahead of it. That reason does not become completely clear until you are able to compare some very specific details on page one of The Shadow of the Wind with corresponding details toward the end of The Angel’s Game (the results of which readers can discover for themselves). If all this sounds slyly amorphous and irresistibly intriguing, that’s because Zafón specializes in literary puzzles and mazes, and The Angel’s Game is an exceptional one.
It’s easy to see the many ways that The Angel’s Game extends the author’s masterful use of the labyrinth as a symbolic metaphor but at the same time the novel is a very different one that abandons the kind of tightly constructed plot line applied in the previous book. Whereas the beginning of The Shadow of the Wind introduces readers to what is clearly an historical mystery in the classic mode that teases and beguiles with every new development, The Angel’s Game starts out more like a literary memoir: “A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story.” Such an observation will invite many writers to nod in agreement, and prompt readers to sigh with romantic notions about what it means to be a writer. It hardly seems like a strong enough foundation upon which to build a serious novel of nearly 500 pages. However, it soon enough becomes clear that The Angel’s Game is indeed a kind of mystery that dissects the life and career of one David Martin, steering readers through the turbulence of his youth, the precariousness of his creative genius, and the uncertain motives of the people who populate his life.
A survivor of childhood trauma and abandonment, David grows up as the ward of a newspaper called The Voice of Industry; and, as the chosen protégé of a philanthropist named Pedro Vidal. He receives his “first crack at glory” when the newspaper is on its way to press and the editor discovers he’s short of an entire page of copy, providing David the opportunity to produce his first published story on the spot and launch his literary career in dramatic fashion. The launch successfully establishes David as the writer of a newspaper fiction series called The Mysteries of Barcelona, then later as the author of a series of “penny dreadfuls” (once known in the U.S. as “dimestore novels”) called City of the Damned. For the latter, he is required to write under the name “Ignatius B. Samson,” which he considers “a small price to pay for being able to make a living from the profession I had always dreamed of practicing.”
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Of all the shifting benevolent and sinister characters in The Angel’s Game, none are more baffling than the mysterious Andreas Corelli, “a gentleman with black, shining eyes that seemed too big for his face,” and who inspires both hope and fear. Ostensibly, Corelli appears to be an eccentric publisher and philanthropist out to entice David to write a masterpiece of religious fiction called Lux Aeterna. But he is clearly much more than that. David’s first communication with him comes in the form of an invitation to accept “a little surprise” that turns out to be a sexual encounter with a ghost rather than an actual meeting with Corelli. Eventually the two do meet and enter into an agreement that changes, or possibly confirms, the course of David’s life.
The big question, however, is exactly who and what is Andreas Corelli? Is he the angel of the novel’s title who has come to liberate David from the soul-numbing agony of writing books he doesn’t believe in for the sake of earning money to stay alive? Or is he something closer to a demon intent on corrupting David’s talent for some malevolent purpose? Could it even be that he is neither of these but a manifestation of David’s own madness creating the kind of exalted literary intrigue and drama that he has not been allowed to publish as a would-be serious author? From David’s love for Christina to his obsession with the mystery surrounding the reported death of prominent Barcelona lawyer Don Diego Marlasca, all roads seem to twist and turn and lead back to Corelli.
The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. It is, like its predecessor, a major homage to books and at the same time a mesmerizing metaphysical mystery. Just how deeply passionate Zafón is about books and what they have contributed to civilization over the centuries may be summed up in this passage from the eulogy for the owner of the Sempere and Sons bookshop: “Seňor Sempere believed that God lives, to a smaller or greater extent, in books, and this is why he devoted his life to sharing them, to protecting them and making sure their pages, like our memories and our desires, are never lost. He believed, and he made me believe it too, that as long as there is one person left in the world who is capable of reading them and experiencing them, a small piece of God, or of life, will remain.”