“The best advice I got (and ignored) is grow garlic that’s suited to your climate.” – Author Robin Cherry discusses Garlic, an Edible Biography

“Humans have been eating garlic for least 5,000 years. Three of the world’s oldest known recipes, written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped marks) on clay tablets, include garlic.”

WHAT: Garlic is the Lord Byron of produce, a lusty rogue that charms and seduces you but runs off before dawn, leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Called everything from rustic cure-all to Russian penicillin, Bronx vanilla and Italian perfume, garlic has been loved, worshipped, and despised throughout history. No writer has quite captured the epic, roving story of garlic—until now.

While this book does not claim that garlic saved civilization (though it might cure whatever ails you), it does take us on a grand tour of its fascinating role in history, medicine, literature, and art; its controversial role in bigotry, mythology, and superstition; and its indispensable contribution to the great cuisines of the world. And just to make sure your appetite isn’t slighted, Garlic offers over 100 recipes featuring the beloved ingredient.

WHO: Robin Cherry is a Cleveland-raised, Hudson Valley-based writer with a passion for Eastern Europe, undiscovered wine regions, and garlic. She has written for many publications including National Geographic Traveler, Afar, The Atlantic,and Wine Enthusiast. She is the author of Catalog: The History of Mail Order Shopping and Garlic: An Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World’s Most Pungent Food. After majoring in Russian history at Carleton College, she almost joined the CIA but she can’t keep a secret.

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Why garlic?

Initially, I was intrigued by how pervasive garlic was throughout history then I became fascinated by the dark side of garlic — how it was used to discriminate against Jews, Italians, and Koreans. My father was Jewish and the fact that Nazis issued buttons with pictures of garlic bulbs so wearers could broadcast their antisemitism staggered me. I was also intrigued by how many dictators liked garlic (largely because of where they grew up) — Stalin, Mussolini, and Slobodan Milosevic all loved garlic. When Milosevic was in prison, he felt a pain in his chest and asked his fellow inmate for a head of garlic as garlic is regarded as a natural healer in Serbia. Somewhat improbably, the inmate got the garlic but to no avail. Milosevic died the next morning.

How long have humans been eating garlic?

Humans have been eating garlic for least 5,000 years. Three of the world’s oldest known recipes, written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped marks) on clay tablets, include garlic.

Do any animals eat garlic?

I’ve read different things on this so I can’t answer definitively. Most people say garlic is toxic for dogs and cats; some say it isn’t. Most animals don’t seem to appreciate garlic’s many positive properties — leaving more for us.

Have you ever grown your own garlic? What are your top tips?

I have. The best advice I got (and ignored) is grow garlic that’s suited to your climate. I tried to grow a Creole variety in upstate New York and it was too cold. Since you grow garlic from individual cloves, pick the biggest, fattest ones you have. Buy good quality organic garlic from a professional grower; don’t try to grow grocery store garlic as it has often been treated to prevent sprouting. Plant garlic in the fall so the roots can form before the ground freezes and if growing hardneck garlic, cut off the scapes after they reach about ten inches long so the plant’s energy will go to increasing the size of the bulb. (Garlic scapes make a great, mild pesto). Most importantly, don’t be intimidated. Garlic is pretty forgiving and easy to grow.

There are many heirloom varieties of garlic. Which are your top 3?

I love hot food so I go for spicy varieties like Georgian Fire, and Pennsylvania Dutch (plus my grandmother was Pennsylvania Dutch). I also like Music — probably the most popular variety as it has good flavor, keeps well and its cloves are large and easy to peel. (Music isn’t named for its beauty — it’s named for Al Music, a Canadian garlic grower.)

You’ve ended up running the kitchen of an especially bad-tempered, omnipotent, but garlic-loving autocrat. They’ve ordered you to cook them garlic for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. What’s on each menu?

Great question. For breakfast, I’d prepare garlic bread avocado toast topped with a fried egg and garlic tea with honey and lemon.

For lunch, I’d make a steak sandwich with arugula, provolone cheese, and a garlic aioli served with curly garlic fries and garlic lemonade.

For dinner, I’d prepare Stalin’s favorite dish, Chicken Satsivi — chicken in a rich walnut-garlic sauce from his native Georgia and a strong martini garnished with garlic-stuffed olives so he’d nod off and I could get some rest.

What’s the one garlic accessory that no kitchen should be without?

A chef’s knife and/or a microplane rasp. You don’t need any fancy gadgets and most chefs hate garlic presses as they say they bruise the garlic and make it bitter. Anthony Bourdain even said, “I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic.”

What’s the biggest thing happening in garlic right now?

I think the biggest thing happening in garlic right now is Fermented Garlic Honey which is quite popular. To make it, pour raw honey over lightly crushed garlic cloves in a jar — crushing the garlic will create allicin which helps in the fermentation. Seal the jar and leave it at room temperature for three days. After that, remove the lid and stir the garlic and let it ferment for at least a week (stirring every other day). The mixture can ferment for a month or longer and will become sweeter and mellower over time. Fermented Garlic Honey can be used in marinades, vinaigrettes, and sauces — and some swear that it’s great on pizza — or as an immunity booster during cold and flu season.

What variety of garlic do you think makes the best black garlic?

It doesn’t matter as they all taste the same — delicious — after they’ve been cooked at a low temperature for two to three weeks.

What are you currently working on?

A children’s travel book series that features my young niece, Eden. I’ve been lucky to travel to over 100 countries and the series will feature the places I’ve visited as if seen through her eyes. I’m still trying to come up with a new micro history idea so any suggestions are welcome!

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“Adolf Hitler is not dead. Echoes of his racism, anti-Semitism, and blinding nationalism are everywhere.” – Author James Longo discusses Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Fuhrer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals

“Franz Ferdinand was a firm believer in peace, religious tolerance, and European unity.”

WHAT: A stunning work of narrative history revealing how and why Adolf Hitler targeted the children of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, making the Archduke’s sons the first two Austrians deported to the Dachau concentration camp, and how the family fought back.

Five youthful years in Vienna. It was then and there that Adolf Hitler’s obsession with the Habsburg Imperial family became the catalyst for his vendetta against a vanished empire, a dead archduke, and his royal orphans. That hatred drove Hitler’s rise to power and led directly to the tragedy of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

The royal orphans of Archduke Franz Ferdinand-offspring of an upstairs-downstairs marriage that scandalized the tradition-bound Habsburg Empire-came to personify to Adolf Hitler, and others, all that was wrong about modernity, the twentieth century, and the Habsburg’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were outsiders in the greatest family of royal insiders in Europe, which put them on a collision course with Adolf Hitler.

As he rose to power Hitler’s hatred toward the Habsburgs and their diverse empire fixated on Franz Ferdinand’s sons, who became outspoken critics and opponents of the Nazi party and its racist ideology. When Germany seized Austria in 1938, they were the first two Austrians arrested by the Gestapo, deported to Germany, and sent to Dachau. Within hours they went from palace to prison. The women in the family, including the Archduke’s only daughter Princess Sophie Hohenberg, declared their own war on Hitler. Their tenacity and personal courage in the face of betrayal, treachery, torture, and starvation sustained the family during the war and in the traumatic years that followed.

Through a decade of research and interviews with the descendants of the royal Habsburgs, scholar James Longo explores the roots of Hitler’s determination to destroy the family of the dead Archduke. And he uncovers the family members’ courageous fight against the Führer.

WHO: James McMurtry Longo is a native of St. Louis, where he was educated and taught in public schools for over a decade. He graduated from the University of Missouri – St. Louis, then earned his Master’s degree from Webster University and his doctorate from Harvard University. He is an award-winning professor and chair of the Department of Education at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania.

As a Fulbright Scholar, James served as the Distinguished Chair of the University Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Studies at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt in Austria. He has taught in Austria, Brazil, and Costa Rica, and lectured at Harvard, Oxford, Napier University in Edinburgh, Zlin University in the Czech Republic, and throughout the United States.

James has written eight books. When not teaching or writing, he would rather be in a canoe than any other place on earth. He lives in Washington, Pennsylvania, and spends his summers in Suttons Bay, Michigan.

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Why Hitler and the Hapsburgs?

Adolf Hitler had an enemies list of over 7,000 names he wanted arrested when the German army entered Austria in March of 1938. At the top of that list were the two sons of Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose 1914 assassination triggered the First World War. The Archduke’s sons were the first two Austrians arrested by the Gestapo, imprisoned in Vienna, and deported to Dachau. Why? Hitler’s hatred of them, and what the Habsburgs represented to him fueled the escalating events that led to the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the death of millions. Hitler and the Habsburgs is one of the great untold stories of the twentieth century. It tells the story of Hitler’s obsession with one remarkable family and their struggle to survive.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria gets a very positive press in your narrative. Was he anything more than another uniformed aristo in a feathery hat?

Franz Ferdinand is one of the most misunderstood, maligned, underrated men in history. Despite the Archduke’ prickly personality, Hungarian Bishop Joseph Lanyi described him as “the indispensable man, the catalyst for European peace and unity.” The remarkable group of diverse advisors and peace advocates he gathered around him as his advisors agreed.

So too did the English Duke of Portland who wrote of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination on the eve of the Second World War, “It was criminal and tragic in its senselessness. How desperately sad it is that England would never witness the ascension to the throne of this great Habsburg prince. Would it not have been an immense advantage today of there was an entire strong and peaceful power in the Danubian basin? This noble prince was also a true European and what we see now when it is too late – he saw at the time. In justice to his memory – one must admit how much would have been different had he lived.” Winston Churchill agreed. So too did Adolf Hitler. He saw the Archduke and the multi-cultural Habsburg empire he represented as the major roadblock to “Rassenkrieg” the apocalyptic race war pitting ethnic groups against each other he planned.

Would a great European and world conflict have happened had Franz Ferdinand lived?

Many historians today believe had Franz Ferdinand lived a great European and world conflict, especially in 1914, would never have happened. The Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph did not want war. His heir Franz Ferdinand, was even more determined to prevent war declaring, “External peace for us…that is my profession of faith, for which I will work and struggle as long as I live!” One court observer wrote at the time of his assassination, “Hardly was he in his coffin before all his protégés, all his creatures, friends, and officials were swept out of posts and office. The court cliques and military lords who had been continuously harassed by the Heir to the Throne saw to this being a clean sweep.” The death of the Archduke crushed the peace party. Austria’s war hawks wasted no time in using his assassination as an excuse to fight the war he spent his entire adult life trying to prevent.

You’ve got a time machine and a licence to alter one event in the period you cover. What are you changing and why?

If I could have altered one event in the historic period covered by my book it would have allowed Franz Ferdinand to succeed to the Habsburg throne. He was a firm believer in peace, religious tolerance, and European unity. Winston Churchill wrote the First World War and the fall of the Habsburg empire, “gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer onto the vacant thrones.”

What surprised you most during your research?

The biggest surprise in my research was the obsessive hatred Adolf Hitler had toward the Habsburgs and the nearly invisible, vital role the women in Franz Ferdinand’s family played in saving their husbands, brothers, and children. Their courage, resilience, religious faith, and remarkable sense of humor was inspiring.

Did you have any support or input from Franz Ferdinand’s family and descendants?

Franz Ferdinand’s great-granddaughters, great-grandson, and two of his grandsons generously spent many hours with me, sharing stories, family photos, and reminiscences most of which had never been shared with other authors. This was invaluable to me in my research and writing.

If you could ask Franz Ferdinand one question, what would it be?

If I could ask Franz Ferdinand one question it would his private thoughts about the mysterious death of his cousin Crown Prince Rudolph. But of course, the reticent Archduke wouldn’t discuss such thoughts with me, or anyone else.

Ignorant people like me are only familiar with Stefan Zweig from Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014). Where should we go next to learn more about his life and literary legacy?

I was happy Wes Anderson saluted Stefan Zweig in his movie ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel.’ Zweig was Austria’s most famous, best-selling novelist in the first part of the twentieth century, and as such was a contemporary of Franz Ferdinand and his family. His writing was popular throughout Central Europe, the United States, and South America. He was an astute observer of the imperial Habsburg capital of Vienna, and the unique role the Austro-Hungarian empire played in European society and culture. Zweig’s books provide a genuine sense of a vanished time and place and are worth a read. The World of Yesterday finished two days before his suicide, was written when Adolf Hitler’s power was at its zenith. It is a haunting testimony to Zweig’s life and legacy.

Historians are reluctant to draw overly close parallels between then and now, but what is the most important lesson you hope readers will take from your book?

Adolf Hitler is not dead. Echoes of his racism, anti-Semitism, and blinding nationalism are everywhere. Stefan Zweig’s prophetic words from The World of Yesterday are worth repeating. “Its red hue was really the firelight of the approaching conflagration.” We all have a responsibility to recognize the danger of extremism and speak out against it. As Sue Woolmans co-author of ‘The Assassination of the Archduke, Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder That Changed the World’ wrote of Hitler and the Habsburgs, “We need books like this one to remind us of the black hole of terror into which we can so easily plunge.”

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a memoir of a remarkable woman peacemaker.

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“I liked the man.” – Author Niccolo Capponi discusses An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Niccolo Machiavelli

“…there is always the suspicion that Machiavelli is seldom completely serious when he writes – the Florentine jocular, caustic, irreverent spirit too strong in him.”

WHAT: Acclaimed scholar Niccolo Capponi – a direct descendant of Machiavelli – analyses the famous political theorist in the context of his own times, revealing the many sides of the man behind the political genius and explaining his inability to capitalise on his own theories. In his compelling new biography – the first comprehensive one in English in more than forty years – historian Niccolo Capponi frees Machiavelli (1469-1527) from centuries of misinterpretation.

Exploring the Renaissance city of Florence where Machiavelli lived, Capponi reveals the man behind the legends, and a complex portrait of Machiavelli emerges – he was at once a brilliantly skillful diplomat and woefully inept liar; a sharp thinker and an impractical dreamer; a hard-nosed power broker and a risk-taking gambler; a calculating propagandist and an imprudent jokester. Capponi’s intimate portrait of Machiavelli shows how Machiavelli’s behavior was utterly un-Machiavellian, and how his vision of the world was limited by his very provincial outlook. In the end, frustrated by his own political failures and always writing with Florence in mind and for a Florentine audience, Machiavelli was baffled by the international success of “The Prince”.

WHO: Niccolò Capponi is the author of the highly acclaimed “Victory of the West” and a former fellow of the Medici Project. A direct descendant of Machiavelli, he lives in Florence, Italy.

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Why Nicolo Machiavelli?

I liked the man, I liked the subject. Obliquely, it was also a way of getting even with Ol’ Nick, after being forced to go through his impenetrable prose.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the real-life Machiavelli is how poorly he navigated the currents and slipstreams of his own political landscape. Why was Machiavelli so bad a being a politician?

Machiavelli was a theorist, and had never had a chance – unlike some of his contemporaries – to experience a hands-on approach to politics before he entered the Florentine Chancery. Like most theorists, he ended up losing himself up his own posterior orifice – something that his friend Francesco Guicciardini underscored more than once.

You say that Machiavelli’s most significant literary achievements were his plays. What did it mean to be a playwright in Machiavelli’s Florence? Were there permanent theatres, companies, well-known actors and authors? Where did Machiavelli fit into that picture?

Machiavelli wrote his plays for his own benefit or for that of a specific actress if she happened to be his girlfriend at the time. In early 16th century Florence, there was no such thing as a ”playwright” in the modern sense; simply, some literati who enjoyed writing plays. Not being any permanent theatre at the time, plays were set up ad hoc: gardens, private houses, churches… However, theatrical companies did exist and some leading performers justly famous.

Have you ever seen one of Machiavelli’s plays performed live? Are they any good?

Machiavelli’s plays are good, and La Mandragola an absolute masterpiece. I’ve seen it performed various times – the Clizia once – and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

If you could ask Machiavelli one question what would it be, but also when in his career would you ask it?

I would ask him late in his life, how was it that his vaunted militia, that he believed filled with the virtues of the ancients, took to its heels at Prato when pitted against professional soldiers – the mercenaries Niccolò so despised (that would be a good example of Florentine malice, on my part).

If you could own one object associated with Machiavelli what would it be?

I think the now believed-to-be-lost play Le Maschere.

Were the women in Machiavelli’s life anything more than dalliances and distractions? Did they impact his work?

Some were dalliances, some were serious. Certainly, his relationship with La Barbera (Barbara Raffacani Salutati), a renowned actress and singer, did impact his work, since he wrote La Clizia with her in mind.

You argue that the archetypical cold fish, buttoned-lipped reptilian Machiavelli is a modern myth not born out by the exuberant, salacious, occasionally coarse personality that emerges from his private papers. So which actor would you get to play him?

Jeremy Irons; at least as the older Machiavelli

Did Machiavelli really sit there of a night, wearing his robes of state, having imaginary conversations with the great and the good of times past – a kind of crankish thing to do? Or was he pulling our leg with a wry smile?

Knowing Ol’ Nick one can well believe that he sought the company of his intellectual equals – even if deceased. On the other hand, there is always the suspicion that Machiavelli is seldom completely serious when he writes – the Florentine jocular, caustic, irreverent spirit too strong in him.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve got a number of projects, mostly non-fiction. A book on the Battle of Castagnaro, written with Kelly DeVries, is coming out this July. Maybe I tackle Galileo next, just to ruffle a few more feathers.

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“His life offers a prism through which we can examine important threads in African history.” – Author Stuart Laing discusses Tippu Tip: Ivory, Slavery and Discovery in the Scramble for Africa

“…he was an intriguing character, combining traits that we admire and some that we don’t. On the negative side he was violent and ruthless, and yet he clearly had a sense of humour and was good company.”

WHAT: Tippu Tip was chiefly an ivory trader, who pioneered for new sources through present-day Tanzania into the Congo basin. Slavery is part of his story, because Arab traders of the time used slaves as porters and sold slaves through the market in Zanzibar to work locally in plantations and beyond in the Gulf and Persia. He was a pioneer of discovery, both in Arab terms and because this was the great period of European exploration in East and Central Africa: he assisted most of the famous explorers, including Livingstone and Stanley, when it served his interests.

He can be seen as an Afro-Arab exponent of empire, as his commercial ambitions could only be realized by means of Arab territorial control and colonization. His colourful life culminated in his engagement as governor of a province in the ‘Congo Free State’ of the Belgian King Leopold, and in his involvement in Stanley’s astonishing expedition to relieve Emin Pasha, governor of the Egyptian southern province of Equatoria. Uniquely among Arabs and Africans of this era, Tippu Tip wrote an autobiography.

Stuart Laing draws on this and other contemporary sources to give a graphic account of the life and times of this energetic, resourceful, ruthless but often humorous operator. We watch him as he accumulates wealth and power, but then has to stand by helplessly as the British and German colonial machine carves up the territory of his friend and protector, the Omani Sultan of Zanzibar, and as the Belgian empire in the Congo drives the Arabs out of the trading areas of influence they had established west of Lake Tanganyika. This book is the first thorough investigation in English of this significant figure. The lucid narrative unfolds against the political and economic backdrop of European and American commercial aims, while allowing the reader to see the period through African and Arab eyes. The fascinating figures who strutted the 19th-century African stage, and their hardly believable exploits, give this book an appeal reaching beyond the African specialist to the general reader.

WHO: Stuart Laing graduated from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1970 having read Classics. In the same year, Stuart joined the diplomatic service beginning a career in which he held the posts of Deputy Ambassador in both the Czech Republic (1989-92) and Saudi Arabia (1992-95), that of High Commissioner to Brunei (1998-2002), as well as of Abassador to both Oman (2002-05) and Kuwait (2005-08).

Between 2008-18 Stuart returned to Corpus as the College’s Master. He continues to research and write on Arab and East African history. His previous writing projects include a book on the history of Britain’s relationship with Oman – co-authored with a fellow former Ambassador to the Sultanate, Robert Alston.

Stuart is a keen amateur musician; he plays keyboard instruments and the oboe. His other recreations are desert travel and hill-walking. He is married to Sibella (herself a graduate in History of Newnham College, Cambridge) and has a son and two daughters.

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Why Tippu Tip?

Two reasons. One personal, and the other from a historical perspective. The personal one is that he was an intriguing character, combining traits that we admire and some that we don’t. On the negative side he was violent and ruthless, and yet he clearly had a sense of humour and was good company; and he was unusual in having a wide interest in the world outside his own. The historical reason is that his life offers a prism through which we can examine important threads in African history of the period – the ivory and slave trades, the world of the explorers, and of course the Scramble for Africa. And all of these threads have resonance today.

Tippu Tip’s memoirs provide a uniquely African voice. Why did he write them?

Well, it’s an Arab-African voice, even a Swahili voice. And I find it impressive that his memoirs, recalling events decades earlier, are vivid and accurate – accurate in the sense that, when he reports encounters with European travellers or others (eg colonialists), his accounts tally closely with those made by people keeping careful records at the time. Why did he write them? He was persuaded to do so by a far-sighted German consular official, Heinrich Brode, whom he met in Zanzibar.

Tippu Tip made his fortunes trading in people held as slaves. Did he ever express a view as to the morality of slavery?

Well, I think this assessment need modifying. He made his fortune from trading in ivory; but undoubtedly he used slave labour, as well as free men, to carry his goods. So we must assume that he bought and sold slaves, but this was not his primary business. Yes, he does talk about the morality of slavery, for example in a long interview recorded by the Belgian explorer and colonial official Jerome Becker. He says, “A domestic is free and leaves his master when he feels like it. My slaves wouldn’t think of leaving me – they’re too content with what they have”, and more in the same vein. We have to remember too that Arab Muslims of the time were convinced that slavery was permitted by the Qur’an, and that all their religion required them to do was to treat their slaves well. Not all of them did, however.

The Europeans missionaries and explorers learned much from their contact with Tippu Tip. What did he learn from them?

Interesting question. With the missionaries and explorers Tippu Tip enjoyed discourse about the world outside Africa, some of which (I mean news of the growing interest in European expansion and acquisition inside Africa) he would have found alarming. With Europeans more generally, of course, he benefitted materially from his contact with European traders, for example in buying barter goods and firearms, and in selling ivory. I don’t think that he or his East African contemporaries had much to learn from them in commercial or banking practices – these were quite well developed (notably by the Indian immigrant communities) in Zanzibar, Mombasa and elsewhere, at that time.

The period you narrate is one in which the dice are yet to fully reveal a predominantly Arab, African, or European outcome. What ultimately tipped the balance?

If by that you mean the shift towards Africa for the Africans, I suppose we can say that the preamble to the Scramble resulted in the Arab presence in East Africa diminishing markedly, and the era of European imperial control lasting 70-80 years from roughly came to an end with the “Wind of Change” and independence for British and others’ possessions in the 1960s. But we mustn’t forget that, under a Protectorate arrangement, an Arab Sultan sat on the throne in Zanzibar until 1964.

If you could have accompanied Tippu Tip on one of his journies (from start to finish) which would it have been?

Difficult choice! I guess his second, since this was in new territory, south of Lake Tanganyika, and it would also have given me the opportunity to meet David Livingstone, who joined up with Tippu Tip for a few weeks in 1867. Closely after that would have been chance to meet and travel with Stanley, but that would have been Tippu Tip’s third journey, which was 12 years, and too long for me!

You yourself have travelled extensively in the region. What’s the best advice you can give to a potential follower in Tippu Tip’s footsteps?

Learn a bit of Swahili. Be flexible about plans changing. Remember “hakuna matata” – “Don’t worry, be happy!”

What’s your favourite recipe for cloves?

Regrettably, I’d have to say mulled wine! But also don’t forget your cloves when cooking ham. And of course delicious with apple pie or strudel. In the past, they used cloves for the relief of toothache, but I believe that’s not recommended nowadays.

A historical marker locates Tippu Tip’s house in Zanzibar. Are his life and times still well known in his region?

Yes, quite well, but I hope my book will widen the knowledge. I’m delighted that Medina Publishing have done a deal with a publisher in Dar as-Salaam, and a cheaper edition of my book, in paper-back, is available on the local market there. And a team of German film-makers are currently working a documentary about Tippu Tip.

What will be your next big writing project?

I’m starting to write about the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in East Africa and the Indian Ocean. Lots has been written about the transatlantic trade, but “the other” slave trade is less well known, though in fact just as important. It’s of course a sad, often tragic, story, but one that must be heard.

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EIFF: “Driven”

“Charming style and notable ambition.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Here is a film with charming style and notable ambition, if a few roughshod elements, which fits together well and features some seriously impressive acting. Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Driven takes its time building up to the central intrigue, and it it time well spent. Director Nick Hamm makes good use of his excellent cast, including the endlessly charismatic Jason Sudeikis, an amusingly dour Corey Stoll, a very game-faced Judy Greer, and the standout Lee Pace, who turns in a masterful performance as the legendary figure John DeLorean.

As a fictional piece, this film might face some criticism that its plot is busy and potentially too odd for its own good. But as writer Colin Bateman’s script is based on a series of very real, yet hard-to-believe events, Driven ends up earning an air of true-crime intrigue that holds the audience’s interest well. We follow James Hoffman (Sudeikis), a pilot and family man who may or may not have engaged in drug smuggling in Bolivia as the film begins; he is nabbed by a stone-faced special agent, played by Stoll, who sets up a deal with Hoffman to bring down some big-name drug lords in exchange for a cushy life in California. By chance, the house to which the Hoffmans are relocated is across the street from the man, the myth, the legend John DeLorean, so smoothly masculine that he easily charms all he meets. Hoffman quickly grows close to DeLorean, a relationship which the car designer appreciates more and more as his ambitious dream of crafting “the perfect car” becomes less and less straightforward. There are many winking references to how well-known his DeLorean design would eventually become, but the film regularly reminds us that DeLorean himself endured some serious difficulty in getting it completed. Indeed, though functional as a charming throwback to 70s-style crime thriller stories of intrigue and duplicity, Driven also serves as an intriguing biography of a man who faced remarkably disparate reputations, as both a gifted businessman and possibly a criminal. If story of DeLorean’s mired reputation is news to you, as it was to me, then check this film out if only for the fascinating story behind this stranger-than-fiction series of events. 

This story is well-told, with the various strands of details and developments never confusing and often entertaining. Sudeikis does well portraying Hoffman’s increasingly scattershot decisions, as the pressure mounts from the FBI and his friendship with DeLorean grows more complicated. Greer is good as Hoffman’s wife Ellen, and Stoll turns in some very enjoyable mugging and long-arm-of-the-law self-importance into his special agent role. But it is Pace, who, ahem, outpaces everyone else by far, and imbues his DeLorean with a deeply engaging mixture of performance, ambition, self-doubt, and force of will. Perhaps it is the result of that well-documented tendency for actors performing as real people to seem especially gifted, but Pace nevertheless earns his accolades in this part. It is truly an outstanding performance.

Certain elements of the direction could use more liveliness in a number of scenes, and a few punchlines could certainly use more work. Bateman’s script is very funny in places, but noticeably off the mark comedy-wise in others. However, the story has enough straight dramatic elements that are compelling and engaging that the comedic burnouts do not stick in the mind very long. 

What does come to mind often, especially towards the end, is the striking similarity between the structure of this story and of David O. Russell’s American Hustle. That film, the superior mainly for its richer story, more daring direction, and truly outstanding cast, strikes similar notes in plot, setting, and tone. The 70s glamor, intrigue and distrust between friends and confidantes, manipulative authority figures and comedic undertones all match, but thankfully Driven has enough of its own charms that it feels more like an homage and a partner project than a derivative spin-off. 

Much of this charm, of course, comes from the real-life gravity of it all, and the genuinely fascinating performance by Pace. This is an oddly grounded film at times, which both shows its maturity and keeps it from feeling truly outstanding. But the story is very interesting, the style rather entertainingly retro, and the performances collectively very good. A well-done film, and a good selection by the EIFF. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “The Art of Self-Defense”

“A delightfully sharp comedy.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Here is the funniest film of the festival so far, by a significant margin. In an absurdly deadpan style, with dashes of Jody Hill and Wes Anderson, twisted up with a delightfully uncomfortable cruelty reminiscent of Armando Iannucci, Jeremy Saulnier, and Yorgos Lanthimos, Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is a comedic gem, which is sure to develop a cult following if found and appreciated by the right crowd. 

This is a comedy that fires on all cylinders, but with a refreshingly subtle style. As a film, everything works; its camerawork is impressive and enjoyable, its script is clever and tight, and its performances are perfectly attuned to the material and tone. As a slice of comedy, it truly shines, with laugh-out-loud turns of phrase and amusingly absurd details coming at you constantly. 

We follow Casey, played by a clearly comfortable Jesse Eisenberg, as he reaches the lamentable conclusion that he is just too weak and pathetic at everything. He is disrespected at work and in day-to-day life, finding solace only in the silent support of his minuscule, adorable dachshund (the EIFF has yet to establish an award like Cannes’ Palme Dog, but if it did, this little fella would be a serious frontrunner). It takes a brutal mugging, where a gang of masked assailants on motorbikes attack Casey for no good reason in the street, to spur him into action. Initially, in a hilarious scene that promises extensive rewatch value, Casey attempts to buy a gun — Stearns does not seem to have much political intention with most of this film, but he does not hold back from offering a few sharp and playful jabs at how unbelievably inadvisable gun ownership can often be. Finding little of use there, Casey instead seeks out his local karate dojo, meets the inscrutable Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and signs up to learn some self-defense. Things only get better from there. 

As he spends more and more time at the dojo, Casey grows closer to Sensei and learns the intricacies of karate and its disciples. There are the eleven rules each member must invariably follow; there are rituals and secret classes that Sensei rules over with an iron fist; and there’s the mystifying and stoic Anna, played incredibly well by Imogen Poots (in one of two performances beside Eisenberg this year, the other being Kenneth Lonergan’s Vivarium, which I saw at Cannes and liked; these two have excellent chemistry in both). The film really excels as Sensei takes Casey under his wing, and offers sidesplittingly bone-headed advice for making everything in Casey’s life “as masculine as possible.” He dismisses Casey’s interest in France, sensitive music, and small dogs, leading Casey to grow unnaturally tough in a series of terribly funny scenes in which Eisenberg puts his all into embodying unearned confidence and unbridled machismo — all the while letting Stearns hilariously depict the most absurd understandings of manliness you’ll see this side of the Republican National Convention. 

Some of these moments do have some lightly questionable implications as we see eventful shifts in Casey’s attitude at home, at work, and in the dojo, but Stearns deftly stops short of making anything too serious to be an issue. The result of all the silliness also means some developments later on feel rather odd, and don’t always make sense, but the rest of it is so genuinely funny that these cannot be too harshly judged. And Stearns does, to his credit, build up to a genuinely exciting climax that I enjoyed more than anything else at the festival so far. Eisenberg and Poots having already turned in wonderful comedic performances in their time, it is Nivola whose comedic talent surprises as he delivers a genuinely great performance as Sensei. This trio is excellently matched.

If you want a delightfully sharp comedy, with enough laughs to be enjoyable and enough brutality to be engaging and surprising, then seek this out. I wager this will be a very successful streaming title; it’s the perfect type of give-it-a-try movie that will likely make many a curious viewer laugh all the way through their late night streaming session. I know I will watch it again as soon as I am able. 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

“Bright moments.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

“STATURE, JOHN! STATURE!”

Pardon me. While this We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a slight, rather limp feature that leaves little impact, the way Crispin Glover delivers this line during one of this film’s emotional outbursts may be the most quotable moment of the festival for me. So that is definitely a plus.

Directed by Stacie Passon, from a script by Mark Kruger based off Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, this film earnestly attempts to capture the eerie Gothic aesthetics of big-empty-house-filled-with-tragic-memories stories, but comes up with not much exciting or original to do with it. Sisters Constance and Merricat Blackwood (Alexandra Daddario and Taissa Farmiga), and their uncle Julian (Glover) live in the ominous Blackwood manor, near a small town filled with citizens who hate their guts. The film never really clarifies why the animosity has arisen, except general resentment of their wealth and oddness. To be fair, as Daddario, Farmiga and Glover play them, the Blackwoods are certainly wealthy and undoubtedly odd.

Constance is rarely found without an unnaturally wide smile and a disingenuously kind word for everything, though past tragedy seems to have instilled in her a crippling fear of leaving the manor (a fear which is conspicuously unexplored beyond a passing reference). Daddario plays Constance with a certain recognizable glint of 1950s maddened-housewife mania, which suggests some truly sinister effects of their upbringing, but is also cloyingly one-note. Farmiga is much more irritating as Merricat, who glowers and stomps around leaving bizarre mystical offerings and trinkets around, believing herself a kind of sorceress able to protect the house and her sister with hexes and magic. Julian, his mind gone after the same tragedy that took the sisters’ parents’ lives, is mostly portrayed as an annoyance, though Glover does well to conjure a level of pathos to his sad situation. 

The result of these characterizations is mainly a simple dispassion for whatever happens next. Each character is thinly developed, quirky often to the point of being aggravating, and generally just an uninteresting figure. The most interesting character, then, becomes Sebastian Stan’s intrusive Cousin Charles, who appears suddenly and suspiciously in their lives to “help,” and presumably collect a share of their fortune. Passon’s direction almost immediately clarifies that he is bad! and not to be trusted!, which is initially fun, but continues with so little nuance that one can essentially predict every development between the family members from then on. Charles manipulates the soft Constance, antagonizes the more suspicious Merricat, and disrespects the puzzled Julian, particularly when Julian mistakes Charles for his brother, the girls’ father, and yells at him about “STATURE!” This moment really makes the film.

Stan is impressive, and the standout performer, though that may be unfair given how thinly the other characters are written. Charles does not ever quite have a clear goal or intention, but the predatory way he installs himself in the family and imitates the archetypal patriarch are fun to watch, and he is certainly made fun to hate. If only Passon had made more in this film as fun to watch, it might feel less hollow. But as it stands, We Have Always Lived in the Castle cannot maintain its occasionally bright moments of weirdness and character conflict, instead listing into drab, predictable tales of male aggression, female weakness, and societal disquietude. There are richer, scarier, more engaging tales of a similar aesthetic to be found elsewhere. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller