23 July 2008

Harold C Schonberg - The Lives of the Great Composers

I am a novice fan of classical music. I didn't grow up with it or learn an instrument, and I didn't appreciate more than the most obvious cliches until quite recently, and even now most of it is impenetrable to me. But since last year I've regularly attended concerts on the South Bank, starting with familiar pieces such as Mozart's Requiem and Beethoven Symphonies, trying to understand the appeal, or just to relax and appreciate the music for its own sake.

While, as with art appreciation, I was trying to divorce the emotional reaction to a piece from the intellectual knowledge of its creator, there comes a time when the most elemental knowledge, of chronology and influences, becomes useful for a better appreciation. This hefty overview of the history of classical music provides that.

Schonberg is an American music professor, and his approach is non-technical, aimed at the untrained amateur. There's far more about the lives of the composers, following the title, than the music. It's hardr for me to question the veracity of the contents, but there's an extensive bibliography which I may use to follow up on specific composers. Schonberg obviously has his biases, and he justifies a composers worth often on how much of his works survive in the modern repertory. This leads to contradictions - Rachmaninov, despite criticisms of his lack of rigour, is proven solely because he remains extremely popular, yet Charles Ives, plainly a particular interest to an American music professor, is a genius who is not yet fully appreciated. Schonberg is also a traditionalist - while he understands what modern music is trying to do, he doesn't necessarily agree that it's worthwhile or as profound as the composers and audiences claim.

This is a good introduction to the history of classical music, unpretentious and well-organised, although pretty huge - I read it two chapters at a time over about a month.


22 July 2008

Giles Bolton - Aid and other dirty business

There are many questions that arise when considering the state of foreign aid to the developing world. How is it that Africa is still so poor when the continent has received an estimated $300bn over the last 30 years? Can aid money actually be counterproductive to an economy? Is there any point in giving a country money if their government is so corrupt it won't reach those it's intended for? Giles Bolton addresses these questions and others in this highly readable introduction to the issues affecting foreign aid.

Bolton writes as a practitioner rather than an academic, although the book is adequately researched. He worked for DFID for a few years in Rwanda and Kenya, and draws on this experience, not least in his amusing anecdotes that occasionally help to illuminate the text. He's very good at showing the effect of aid policies on the ground in Africa, but is also capable of drawing back and showing the economic arguments and the political realities, having worked for the British government and been exposed to the debate at the highest level.

It was a particularly pertinent time to read this, as the latest World Economic Summit in the Doha round of the WTO was underway. This was a critical event - there are trade barriers and subsidies, including the infamous CAP in Europe, that are ruinous to the attempts by developing countries to access markets for their products. Bolton gives examples of specific markets that are rigged against developing countries - sugar is a notorious one - and shows how they have arisen - initially out of the post-war need for Europe to become self-sufficient in food - and how hard it is to remove the subsidies now. For the uninitiated, some of the facts of the debate will be startling - European taxpayers pay $2.5 per day for every cow in Europe, while there are 300 million Africans living on under $1 per day (Japanese cows are even more pampered, getting $7 per day)

Bolton deals with the various different sources of aid - individual donations to charities, which are mainly spent on small projects, direct aid from governments, which are mostly spent on larger projects, and assistance from the World Bank. He draws distinctions between the sources and applications of these funds, and their effectiveness on the ground. His tone is refreshingly unhysterical, despite the seriousness of the problem, and he has a talent for presenting complex issues in a simple way.

This is a very good primer to foreign aid. There wasn't a huge amount in it I didn't know from other sources (he cites in the bibliography a book I helped to edit), but it was useful to have all the major issues presented together in a straightforward manner. One drawback is that the book is exclusively about aid to Africa, because that's Bolton's prior experience, but the same arguments are relevant to developing countries elsewhere.


6 July 2008

Dinaw Mengestu - Children of the Revolution

Dinaw Mengestu is a 30 year old Ethiopian who immigrated to the United States at the age of two, following his father who was forced to flee the Red Terror of Mengistu Haile Mariam. His first novel is about an Ethiopian immigrant living in Washington DC, Sepha Stephanos, who came to the US at the age of nineteen, and after 17 years runs a small, unsuccessful general store. The novel is therefore a mixture of personal experience, of growing up as an immigrant, and a translation of observed and secondhand experiences of the Ethiopian diaspora.

Sepha has managed to extricate from the huddle of Ethiopians who have taken over a whole apartment block, and who have, to the best of their ability, replicated the village and family units they knew back in Addis. After a few menial jobs, he was encouraged to open a general store using a government business grant. But he doesn't have any entrepreneurial talent, nor any business ambition, and he struggles to break even. His closest friends are also African - Joseph, a Congolese waiter, and Kenneth, a Kenyan businessman - and their meetings are full of spurious nostalgia for Africa. Kenneth and Joseph encourage Sepha through his business troubles, and vicariously enjoy his romantic liaisons, fleeting as they are, but Joseph and Stephanos both regret the studies not pursued and the frustrations of lives not meeting expectations.

The liaison in the book is with his neighbour, Judith, a white academic single mother, whose daughter is the child of a Mauritanian academic, from whom Judith is separated. It emerges that she is looking for a father for her precocious daughter, but Sepha, in his well-meaning inexperience, eludes her obvious attempts at seduction and misses the chance he knows is there.

This is the most successful part of the book, Mengestu handles the relationship with sympathy and dexterity, such that the motivations of each character are clear and credible. He has a talent for emotional narrative, and this novel is engaging throughout. The main theme is of the illusion of the land of opportunity, but there are also currents of upheaval, integration and the volatile underclass of America. Mengestu's talent with this debut novel has already been recognised - it won the 2007 Guardian First Book Award.