Saturday, December 31, 2016

Classics Club: Year I




Twenty-sixteen was my first full year in the Classics Club challenge, and I'm off to a good start. Virtually everything came from my American Lit and English Lit specials in April, June, and July, though.

2015:
Emma, Jane Austen (12/29/2015)

2016
2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke (2/12/16)
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (3/2/2016)
The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan (3/13/2016)
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (3/26/2016)
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (4/1/2016)
Lord of the Flies, William Golding (4/3/2016)
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather (6/27/2016)
White Fang, Jack London (6/29/2016)
O Pioneers!  Willa Cather (7/1/2016)
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane (7/6/2016)
Inferno, Dante (7/16/2016)
The Epic of Gilgamesh,  trans/ Danny P. Jackson (12/2/2016)
The Aeneid (prose trans. A.J. Church 12/4/2016, verse trans. Robert Fitzgerald pending)

I don't have a specific plan for 2017. While I'd like to proceed chronologically from this point (and I have The Histories checked out), in truth I will probably read randomly from my list. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Whistler

The Whistler
© 2015 John Grisham
384 pages



The offices of the Board of Judicial Conduct rarely see excitement.  Responsible for investigating claims of judicial abuse and defrocking offenders, their rowdiest target has been an old lech who forgot which bar  he was a member of and attempted to seduce various women in the courtroom. But now a disbarred lawyer who represents a shadowy chain of confidants claims to have information that might expose the most corrupt judge in American history.  According to the ex-lawyer, the mysterious robed one is in bed with a swamp gang, skimming millions from an Indian casino.    After a series of deaths and disappearances, lead character Lacey Stolz and the BJC are forced to call in the FBI to help bring the errant judge and the conspiracy to justice. (Which they do, rather quickly.)

Although I faithfully read the latest Grisham book every year,  I've been enormously disappointed in most of his recent works -- so much so that I didn't even look forward to trying this one, I merely cracked it open for tradition's sake. I'm happy to report that the book was not awful; it was even moderately enjoyable. Huzzah for mildness!   Execution-wise there's not a like to brag about: forgettable characters,  flat dialogue, and repetition. (Seriously, Lacy Stolz mentions how glad she is not to be married so many times that I hope Grisham's wife doesn't read this and think he's complaining vicariously.)  On the bright side, the Board of Judicial Review is fresh ground for Grisham, and the extensive time spent on an Indian reservation is new as well. (Grisham did poke into this area in Ford County, but that was only one story.)   Grisham also stays technologically relevant by having one character monitor a house break-in through an app on her phone.  Best of all, though, the characters are not the abysmally awful cretins of Rogue Lawyer.  They even have friends who like them.

The Whistler is a very vanilla sort of book; tasty enough not to put down, but not so compelling that it consumes the reader. It's genuine airplane/vacation reading, with a rushed ending in case boredom sets in.



"The covers are the same? ....make the new one red. They'll never know."




Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2017: The Discovery of Asia



For several years now I have dared myself to take on a formidable challenge:  Asia.  Prior to the 20th century, it is a historical black hole for me. I have caught glimpses of it from time to time, but have never considered it at length, in its own right. Its sheer size -- in geography, abundance of cultures and life -- are daunting. This is the year I'm taking my own dare; and, borrowing from Jawaharlal Nehru's book, The Discovery of India, I've dubbed this personal challenge The Discovery of Asia.

The plan: My minimum target is two books a month, alternating between India and China who will carry Korea and Mongolia in their wake.  I took a course in Japanese history while at uni, but it will still appear here.  While history will reign, I hope to find a good book on Asia's natural geography and intend on looking for at least one read into Chinese philosophies. Then I will attempt books on modern Asia. While I don't have a fixed list of books, I do have some possibilities posted in a public Worldcat list.

As with the 2014: Year of the Great War, I will review my progress every three or four months to see if I'm short-changing one area or the other.



Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Top Ten Reads, 2016

This week the Broke and the Bookish  invite readers to think about their top ten books for the year.

Twenty-sixteen started off with a bang: no less than five top-ten contenders appeared in January, and four of them survived to make the list. (Data and Goliath was edged out by a similar book.). These appear in the order of my reading them.



1. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming, Mike Brown (Science)

That book would have made this list just for the title, but here astronomer Mike Brown -- the man whose discovers of Kuiper Belt objects put Pluto into a new perspective, demoting it from the planetary society --  not only delivers a personal history of the discoveries, but demonstrates how the science is done.


2. Picking Up:  On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, Robin Nagle

Journalist follows and interviews sanitation workers in New York City, throwing light onto the constant work required to keep the Big Apple  from drowning in an ocean of Starbucks cups and hamburger wrappers -- or from being completely paralyzed by snow in the winter!




3. Future Crimes:  Everything is Connected, Everyone is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It, Marc Goodman

What a book this was: pick your terror: data collection,  credit card breaches, compromised items on home networks turning against their owners, war...it was an all-round eye-opener.


4. Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism, Bill Kauffman (Politics)

Here Bill Kauffman remembers the good old days, when opposing war and meddling abroad was the default American attitude.


5. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein (Science Fiction)

The American revolution in space, but an even more ambitious one!


6. All Other Nights, Dara Horn (Historical Fiction)

Civil War historical fiction + mystery + unrequited devotion  + Jewish communities of the South.


7. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (English Literature)

A sentimental novel about the passing of Old England before the Great War, and of a love higher than romance.


8. Sphere, Michael Crichton (Science Fiction)

Sci-fi meets horror in the depths of the ocean, where no light reaches and where sits a mystery: a ship from the far future, evidently built by humans.


9. All the Shah's Men,  Stephen Kinzer (History/Geopolitics)

The history of night in 1956, when the United States began its first steps into becoming a noxious imperial power in the middle east.  It has yet to escape the Chinese finger trap of middle-east intervention, as one bit of manipulation leads to unforeseen consequences that are manipulated away to create unforeseen consequences that have to be manipulated away but create unforseen...*sigh*


10. The Porch and the Cross, Kevin Vost

Very accessible introduction to the Stoics, with generous quoting from not only the big two, but Seneca and Musonius Rufus as well.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Glimpses of World History

Glimpses of World History
© 1942 Jawaharlal Nehru
1192 pages



In 1930,  a man who would later become the first prime minister of India was thrown in jail for a period of two years. There, removed from his family and regretful that he was forcibly absent from his daughter Indira's life, Jawaharlal Nehru labored to impart what wisdom he could through a series of letters. Beginning in October 1930 and ending in August 1933, the letters -- written in a loving and erudite pen -- cover the whole of the human story, from prehistory 'til the "present day" of 1938.   Composed from memory, notes, love for his daughter, and fervent if beleaguered hope for humanity, Glimpses is an extraordinary collection.

Of course, their author was an extraordinary man.  I first encountered him some six years ago, when I watched the film Gandhi and found him such  a sympathetic figure that I read his biography and became utterly transfixed by him. Most striking was a story his biographer, Shashi Tharoor shared -- that Nehru was so unnerved by his support in office that he wrote an anonymous letter warning people to be more skeptical -- "Nehru has all the makings of a dictator...we want no Caesars" .  Having read Glimpses, having spent upwards of a month with Nehru, reading these intimate letters to his daughter,  I can more readily believe that he wrote such a thing.   Here was a man whose deep appreciation for human history allowed him to create from memory and notes, an epic history of the world without recourse to a library -- who would, in the progress of the letters, continually connect them to one another in one fabric of historical reflections.  He was as conversant with the weaknesses and pains of the human experience as the potential and glory. 

Glimpses reminded me much of H.G.Wells' Outline of History, and this is no accident; Nehru quotes it a few times, using it as one of his sources. While Wells and Nehru share a common worldview, however -- scientifically centered and politically progressive, the two combining in a ready belief that science was on the precipice of conquering politics and economics with state socialism --  Nehru writes more broadly of the world.  Not surprisingly, India and  Southeast Asia are at the book's heart. Even when writing on other topics, like Ireland's perennial fight with England,  allusions to India are common.. These connections are partially the result of him writing as teacher to his daughter, but as he admits the letters serve him as well, allowing him to reflect and inwardly digest the lessons of history. As an actor in India's ongoing drama for independence, no doubt there are lessons he hopes to apply in practice. He also draws out these lessons in contradiction, contrasting "priest-ridden" India with  China, which he views as more rationalistic even in antiquity.  (Again with Wells, Nehru is not a fan of organized religion,  largely viewing it as nothing more than elaborate conspiracy to keep people from thinking about being poor. He does not blame it for every ill of the world, however, referring to it often being used as the mere cover for more mundane conflicts.)

What does Glimpses offer the modern reader?  For starters, Nehru's history regularly visits India, southeast Asia, and the middle east in a way that westerners at least probably do not encounter. I have never read about India colonialism, for instance, and have only encountered Persian history post-Sassanids when I  sought it out deliberately.  There is the virtue of novelty, then, but Nehru makes this all the more valuable by relentlessly chronicling areas' histories in connection with one another; they're not disjointed. Even when Nehru is forced to make sudden jumps, he offers recaps and reviews to remind his daughter, of what we discussed previously. (Considering that there are nearly two hundred letters, this is especially helpful.)     There is also Nehru's teaching style to consider. This is not an academic history, but the counsel of a parent to a child, and it is therefore tender. When he devotes four chapters to the trade crisis and Great Depression, one suspects he is writing more for his own benefit, but Nehru frequently stops chronicling to reflect. It is here when he is musing on the lessons these recollections to have teach us that Nehru sounds most loving, most wise.  He is a pleasure to listen to, to spend time with, and this is an invaluable attribute for an author.  Even if a reader disagrees with a man, it is possible to listen to him, take him seriously, and earnestly reason together with him -- if he is a sympathetic author. If he is a boor bellowing in confrontation,  there is neither wisdom nor argument to find, only courage in one's prejudices. 

Nehru is no boor -- and neither is he a bore.  While Nehru was a political figure, his history does not limit itself to politics; he frequently dwells on literature, architecture, and poetry, frequently including verses for his daughter's consideration.  (He also includes tables of trade and population statistics, because fifteen year olds eat that stuff up.) Obviously, I prefer Gandhi's strident village anarchism to any sort of state-centered scheme, but Nehru isn't an extremist. He writes of science that humility goes hand in hand with knowledge, as every discovery only creates further questions. He exhibits that humility most of the time, frequently chronicling the unintended consequences of government actions and the chronic moral frailties of man. If Nehru has a blind spot, it  is authoritarian socialism, and particularly his enamored take on Stalin. While the author is happy to accept Roosevelt's tinkering with the American economy as a kind of socialism, he declares that Hitler's tinkering with the German economy had nothing at all to do with socialism despite its "National Socialism" name.  Both were using the state to 'buffer' the economy on behalf of :"Society", so -- what's the difference?  

The big difference between Nehru's writing on Stalinism and his writing in the hundreds of pages before is that with Stalin, he is writing on the present, without benefit of hindsight.  I imagine that if Nehru were to live in our own time, he would present a view of Stalinism -- and Maoism, and Pol Potism, and Juche, and the other variations which have killed and enslaved many millions in the 20th century --  that is more critical,  his being able to see the consequences from afar.  I do not believe his love for the common man would be diminished in the least, nor would his hope. This was a man who concluded his letters in the 1930s, when Japan and Germany stood astride the world, when the democracies were ailing and impotent, when India still languished under foreign domination -- and yet he urged his daughter to not take a dismal view of the world:

For history teaches us of growth and progress and of the possibility of an infinite advance for man; and life is rich and varied, and though it has many swamps and marshes and muddy places, it has also the great sea, and the mountains, and snow, and glaciers,  and wonderful starlight nights (especially in gaol!), and the love of family and friends and the comradeship of workers in common cause, and music, and books, and the empire of ideas. So that each of us may well say: -- 'Lord, though I lived on earth, the child of earth, Yet was I fathered by the starry sky''.

Glimpses was a book, for me, six years in the waiting, and worth the waiting.  I hope to spend more time with Nehru in his Discovery of India



Saturday, December 24, 2016

LaForge Reads "The Night Before Christmas"


LeVar Burton, better known as Geordi LaForge of Star Trek TNG, reads The Night before Christmas.  Burton used to host a program called Reading Rainbow for children.  Here he reads a favorite in excellent style.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

And if you're celebrating the first night of Hanukkah, then...that, too!


And the great Menorah, for eight days it kept on burning
What a celebration -- a great return to Torah learning


And for extra laughs, check out "All bout that Neis". Yep, it's a Hanukkah song set to the tune of "All 'bout that Bass". 


Inside the Kingdom

Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia
432 pages
© 2009 Robert Lacey



When I first began paying attention to politics, the cozy relationship between Saudi Arabia and the DC power-caste  confused me to no end. The Saudi government aided  and advanced Islamic radicalism, its nationals composed the bulk of the 9/11 hijackers, and yet the Bushes treated them like they were old friends from Rotary.  Karen Elliot's On Saudi Arabia opened my eyes to the schizophrenic relationship the Saudi family has with Islamic fundamentalism, and Inside the Kingdom elaborates on that still further, and sheds light on why they and those in DC often walk hand in hand.

Inside the Kingdom considers the schizophrenic relationship the house of Saud maintains with hard-line Islam, using the author's many years living in Saudi Arabia and his contacts inside.  In the early 1980s, Lacey wrote a history of the house of Saud that was promptly barred by the monarchy; Inside the Kingdom is a sequel to that work.   The story begins with Juhayman, or "Angryface",  a terrorist who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and turned it into the source of a siege. Angryface and his supporters claimed to have the Messiah in their ranks, come to punish the Saudis for their western decadence.   Although the Saudis reclaimed the Mosque quickly enough, the 'guardians' of the holy cities of Islam had lost considerable face. You don't see the Swiss Guard letting crazy Jesuits turn the Vatican into arenas for firefights. (They have to be elected pope first.) With the example of the Shah before them, the Saudi family responded to the threat of religious violence by becoming the sort of Saudi Arabia that Angryface wanted them to be: a puritanical state.

Lacey indicates that for the Sauds, religious extremism is a matter of having the tiger by the tail.  The Sauds are Jibrils-come-lately, monarch-wise: they only established power in the 1930s, and need the religious establishment to sanction them and  impart legitimacy. That means maintaining an Islamic state that fundamentalists like the Wahhabis approve of,  with morality being policed not only by the civil law enforcement but by religious cops as well. But enthusiasts don't settle for backdroom deals, tit for tat: they want the Saudi government to support the Cause totally, and if the Saudis don't play ball explosions will follow.  And explosions did follow, in 2003, after radicals of bin laden's ilk decided to punish the Saudis for their American partnership by attacking several compounds in Riyadh.   The Saudis in response are pushing back against the domestic influence of radical groups, even though they still promote them from abroad: they are also deepening their bench of support by allowing democratic reform.

As far as the American-Saudi relationship goes, the two states are partially united through common enemies.  They worked together during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to funnel supplies to bands of mujaheddin who later became terror cells under the likes of bin Laden, and this alliance was aided by a mutual loathing of Iran, or rather the Islamic Republic thereof. As the Saudis and Iranian mullahs are the standard-bearers for the Sunni and Shiite schools respectively, their competition infused ethnic-cultural rivalry with holy war. The biggest fly in the ointment has been Israel, which the United States unflaggingly supports and which the Saudis detest. Still,  the two continue to make common cause together, crying over the defeat of ISIS-backed rebels in Syria and mourning the  'fall' of Aleppo to Assad and his allies as if the Nazis are rolling into Paris.  Although the president-elect hasn't had loving words for the Saudis, his words for the Iranians have been harsher, and he has privately invested in Saudi-land  since starting his campaign. Business as usual will presumably continue.  Indeed, the "dopey prince" who started a,,er, twitter war with the president-elect has evidently made nice with him.

Inside the Kingdom strikes me as useful for starting to understand one of DC's weirder allies.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

You Have the Right to Remain Innocent
© 2016 James Duane
152 pages

"One of the Fifth amendment's basic functions is to protect innocent men who otherwise might be ensared by ambigous circumstances." (Ohio v. Reiner)

"People are inherently honest, and that's their biggest downfall." - Officer George Bruch


It is perfectly possible for good and innocent people to lose decades of their lives languishing in prison because a stray word ensnared them in the criminal justice machine.  Like clothes and hair in a factory setting, both of which  must be securely fastened to avoid a nasty accident, words must be guarded in the presence of a police officer or a federal agent -- especially the latter.  In You Have the Right to Remain Innocent, legal professor and defense attorney  James Duane expands a captivating lecture he gave some years ago into a case for keeping mum.

Long gone are the days when an individual's conscience was a good rule-of-thumb guide to ward one away from criminal behavior.  Assaulting people,  invading their homes destroying or stealing goods -- all these are moral norms that everyone  is aware of and can avoid transgressing.  Today, though, writes Duane, the US criminal code expands with such rapidity that not even defense attorneys who are paid to stay conversant with it can keep pace -- in part because not all criminal infractions are contained within the criminal code. Many are the spawn of regulatory agencies, who instead of merely fining citizens for  running afoul of a policy they had no idea even existed,  tar them with the same brush as a rapist or bank robber: criminal.     (Hence the title of a book edited in 2004 by Gene Healy: Go Directly to Jail: the Criminalization of Everything)

Innocent people can be hooked and booked for legitimate offenses they had no association with, only because they were too eager to share information with investigating officials who use every tidbit they can to try and fill in the blanks of a crime.   Duane cites many examples: , but  in one instance a man who was brought in denied being on a given street at a specified time. Of course, he added, he had a girlfriend on that street previously, but he wasn't OVER there.  That little detail, unsolicited and useless for him to share with the police, was used as part of case to damn him.  If a person attempting to remember facts makes a mistake,  innocent hiccoughs of memory will be spun as willful deceit.  Police interviewers may also unknowingly manipulate innocent people into confessing by strongly implying that they're doomed anyway, but a confession will ease the consequences. Detectives and judges can be perfectly conscientious -- utterly moral, veritable knights in shining Armani suits. -- and still make mistakes.  Even if a case is appealed, someone who is drawn into the system will lose years of their lives and considerable money.

Unfortunately, minimizing one's profile isn't as simple as pleading the Fifth, because the Gang of Nine, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that overtly invoking the Fifth Amendment can be used as evidence of guilt.  (Another marvelous bit of judicial wisdom: recently a court decreed that cops breaking and entering to execute a warrant can shoot the house dog if it 'barks or moves'.)  In response, Duane advises readers rely on other parts of the Bill of Rights: by all means, don't volunteer information and decline to answer questions beyond one's name -- but employing the Sixth amendment, the right to an attorney, is a more reliable shield against a black-robed inquisition.

This briefing in avoiding justice jihads is short, to the point, amply referenced, and.well organized   I watched his lecture in 2010 and have since viewed it several times, along with its companion talk by a seasoned detective, who shares the various ways well-meaning cops can elicit confessions from even the innocent. (One of his favorite tricks: bringing in a recorder into an interview room, and then visibly 'turning it off' to coax the suspect into being more forthcoming -- not knowing that there is no off the record, because the room has other recording equipment!)

A must-read for any American -- there's more to the Bill of Rights than the first two!

Related:

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Middle East Wrapup




Back in January I drew up a short list of five titles in early Islamic history, one which unexpectedly flared into a broader series on the middle east in general -- and one with a strong Persian/Iranian bent.

The original titles were:

My interest in this area, and especially Iran given its Designated Enemy status in D.C, hasn't abated in the slightest, and more books are on order.  Now comes competition, though! Having traveled to the outskirts of China and India with Lost Enlightenment, I hope in 2017 to gaze inside them -- via books, anyway.  Full details will follow a little closer to the New Year.


In the spirit of year-end reviews, let's pick a few favorite.

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, Stephen Kinzer. A lively history of a night in 1953, when American and British forces reinstalled an ousted monarch and smothered Iranian democracy.

Iran and the United States: An Insider's View, Seyyed Hossein Mousavian.   A history of the lost Iranian-American relationship, from the Iranian view.

Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, Stephen Kinzer.  An optimistic look at Turkey as it stands between democracy and paternalism, between west and east.  I read this right before the failed 'military coup' that smells like the Reichstag fire these days.

A review is pending for Inside the Kingdom, a history of modern Saudi Arabia by Robert Lacey.


The above book is Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran,  which mourned the fact that most memoirs westerners read about the middle east focus on negative aspects and reduce the people to masses who must be 'helped';  in rebuttal she tells readers about  the extraordinary and complicated lives of people in her Iran, and uses other Persian literature to explore the same.



Tuesday, December 20, 2016

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...



...at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Sunday  I went once again to view "A Christmas Carol" at the festival, delighting as usual in the music and the actors' playful interaction with the audience.  After the big finale -- Scrooge delighting in human fellowship on the streets on Christmas day, everyone singing and such before all the actors take their collective bow -- we in the audience emerged to a freezing cold rain. Amidist it, though, stood  a massive and beaming Christmas tree.  A friend of mine and I savored it as long as we could before taking off     As December 19th was the anniversary of the story's original publication, what better way to celebrate it?

I've been quiet this week, consumed with a thousand-page page history by a unique author.  Here's a clue: the history was written from prison in the 1930s. I'm almost on the outside, though. Strange to think that two weeks from now will be a  new year, and I have a big challenge in mind for 2017 



Friday, December 16, 2016

Local democracy and the State of Jefferson



mp3 


One of the local-democracy initiatives Bill Kauffman covered in his Bye, Bye, Miss American Empire was the 'state of Jefferson', an area of northern California (and bits of southern Oregon) that want to be free of their respective governments. Today, Tom Woods interviewed a man preparing to sue the state of California on behalf of twenty-one counties for 'lack of representation and dilution of the Vote'.   The movement is cultural, not merely political, as 'Jefferson' appears  in the names of businesses and such in the region.

It's an interesting and brief interview (19 mins), but below follow two quotes-in-paraphrase.

Guest, Mark Baird: "Northern California has no representation; one state senator in California has to represent a million people, and an assembly person represents half a million. There are eleven  counties in Jefferson that have one state senator between them. Los Angeles county has eleven state senators, and fifteen if you count the senators whose districts overlap with greater Los Angeles. 51% of the  state representation lies from the Los Angeles county line south to the Mexican border.

After explaining the problem of representation, Baird follows with concerns of how the economy of northern California has been smothered entirely by the dictums of a government nine hundred miles away. "There are four businesses through which every industry moves: timber and forest products, farming and livestock, energy production,  The last [escapes me at the moment]. We have all four of those businesses but have been denied their use by the political processes of the State of California. In other words, our counties are not poor; we have been impoverished by mob rule coming out of southern California."



I say good luck and godspeed.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Aeneid for Boys and Girls

The Aeneid for Boys and Girls
© 1908 Alfred J. Church
300 pages


What do I know of The Aeneid? It's the story of a survivor of Troy, who goes on to found the City of Rome after breaking the Queen of Carthage's heart.  That much I've retained from  -- strangely enough  -- a college music appreciation course that covered an opera about Aeneas and (Queen) Dido.  With that ignorance in mind, I decided to read The Aeneid for Boys and Girls by A.J. Church before trying the actual poem -- to make understanding the story easier, rather like I listened to an audio play of The Epic of Gilgamesh before reading it.

So, if you've never heard of The Aeneid except as something vaguely famous,  let's begin with the story of the Trojan War. The Greeks have, after an eleven-year siege, finally taken and sacked the high-walled city of Troy,  via the famed wooden horse doubling as a troop transport.  One young man, the daughter of the goddess of love, is given sight to see that this was Troy's tragic destiny, for even the gods are aiding in the city's destruction. Aeneas's own destiny is to sail towards the west,  to the land his people originally came from, and build a new city there.

Unfortunately  for him, Juno -- wife of Jupiter and the queen of heaven -- still has an axe to grind against the Trojans.  Oh, sure, they've lost their city, and well they deserved it. (Their ruler didn't think she was as pretty as that Spartan trollop, Helen! Obviously everyone had to pay.)  But now the Trojans are coming west, and if they do that they're destined to found a city that will destroy her pet city, Carthage. Carthago delenda est? Not on her watch!  So, like Ody- sorry, Ulysses --   Aeneas is driven hither and yon by  malignant winds on Juno's promptings, losing seven years of his life. He meets a woman - Dido -- and falls in love, until Jupiter sends down a little reminder to get with his Italian destiny, whereupon the now-abandoned Dido delivers an aria and stabs herself. (Okay, the aria came later.)

At long last the Trojans reach Italy, navigating to the city of the Latins, and there they are met in celebration.  Seers have prophesied that the king'd daughter would marry a stranger from overseas, and glory would be in the offing -- but naturally, Juno has to screw things up by poisoning hearts here and there. She is most successful in turning the warrior (former suitor of the king's daughter) Turnus into the organizer of an Italian alliance against the poor Trojans, who are forced to flee making allies among the Latin's other enemies.  Eventually, after much bloodshed -- at least three battles -- Jupiter orders Juno to stop  meddling.  After exacting a promise that the new city of the Trojans won't be called Troy, she relents, and everyone lives happily after after.

(Except for the Carthaginians.)

Church's adaptation of the Aeneid renders the story in much simpler prose, of course, yet -- given its publication date in 1906 -- still retains some formal beauty. In that vein, it frequently borrows Biblical  phrases:  "he who  gives his life will save it", "your people shall be as my people", "put away childish things", "pondered it in his heart".  The initial framing device -- copying that of The Odyssey, in which the beleaguered hero is asked to tell of his arduous journey -- is abandoned for a straightforward recap of the Trojan war, moving straightaway into Aeneas' escape and further adventures. Virgil's original text was itself  made constant allusion to the Odyssey, beginning with the muse invocation and continuing throughout.. At one point, one of  Odysseus'/Ulysses' own men is even rescued from the island of the Cyclopes, No doubt the poems will prove to have structural similarities, too, as I now attempt to read Robert Fitzgerald's verse translation.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Peace of Wild Things





When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

© Wendell Berry, from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry


Friday, December 9, 2016

Bye Bye Miss American Empire

Bye Bye Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and Underdog Crusades to Redraw America's Political Map
© 2010 Bill Kauffman



You say you want a devolution?
\
Far beyond the city across the river, this country is pregnant with happy auguries, with the delicious foretaste of sweet rebellion.
(Bill Kauffman, "Love is the Answer to Empire")


Americans everywhere are angry, disappointed, and frustrated by their government. Politicians demand much,  voters demand much, and much is attempted -- but nothing virtually positive actually happens.   Little wonder, when the scale of things is taken into account. The average member of the US House of Representatives now stands in for seven hundred thousand people, making him a representative in name only.  Having written many a book hailing the local and particular -- little America -- against the big and abstract, Kauffman now turns his pen to celebrate those who have attempted and are currently laboring to restore truly representative democracy at various levels. They lobby for more autonomy for, or from, their state government -- perhaps even the fission of cumbersome states into smaller, more responsive entities. Beneath the oil-glazed asphalt expanse of the Empire, hope is growing; dandelions are breaking through the crust -- and in chapters dwelling on New York, Vermont, the South, Califorina, and a few other places, Kauffman explores opportunities for resurrection. 

Bill Kauffman consistently refers to his home as Upstate New York, and heretofore I'd heard that as a direction -- rather like central Alabama, or southern Idaho.   But Upstate New York is more distinct than that, closer to "The South" -- a place, not a direction.  The rural folk of this region, particular the western rim of the state,  feel dominated by the beast below: New York City,  which has practically usurped the very name of New York. Who says those two words with the Adirondacks in mind?   The city itself, a fusion of five once-distinct places, has its own internal dissent,  boroughs that want their freedom back.  Upstate New York's resentment is shared by West Kansas, which cries exploitation at eastern Wichitia --and by northern California and 'upper Michigan', both of which feel ignored by their governments. The fault lines are reliably rural-urban splits, but there are special circumstances:  in its Spanish beginnings, California was organized as Alta and Baja California, and might have settled into the Union as two states were it not for the unpleasantness of the 1860s.   Even today ,there are persistent cries to subdivide the continent-sweeping state into more manageable polities.  In every case, the parties that want to create their own city or state feel abused or ignored by those with perpetual power over them: Staten Island is used as a city dump for the other boroughs, while western Kansas bankrolls the rest of the state at the expense of its own needed services. 

Kauffman addresses Hawaii,  Alaska, and Puerto Rico from an altogether different perspective.  He describes himself as an American sentimentalist with a strong attachment to the 48, who would be saddened to part ways with a seceding state like Vermont or Texas.  But Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico have no geographic link to the rest of the United States;  they were seized as objects of empire, and disrupt the contiguous integrity of the rest. If Hawaii -- three thousand miles away from the rest of the country -- can be claimed as a state, why not any place? Why not Corsica,  the Canary Islands -- "all of Creation, U.S.A!" ?   Here Kauffman champions these places' independence movements, something touched on lightly before with Vermont and California but never too much encouraged.  

The South, of course, receives repeated mention -- in part because it was the South's failed war of independence that gave secession the odor of treason, its ruination used as an example anyone else who would dare break the Union asunder.  The group Kauffman spends time with doesn't champion secession, however, merely claims to defend Southern culture against the homogenizing force from without. That's right up Kauffman's alley, for as usual he's not just writing politics. Kauffman's books brim over with references to forgotten poetry and novels. Kauffman is forever the champion of local cultures, lionizing those who preserve, contribute, and spread their place's literature, its songs, its stories, its beer.   Bad enough that looking to the distant Capitol frustrates and alienates people;  still worse is that local identities are falling away, the citizens of the States becoming nothing but little bricks in the wall, living frustrating lives in a geography of nowhere. (James Howard Kunstler, another upstate New Yorker, makes a cameo here.) 

Kauffman's message here is one of hope, hope that comes through in the tone of his voice during speeches, and his playful wordsmithing here. He is not an ideologue; indeed, he scorns ideology. He does not give any voice to race-separatists, declaring that life is too short to waste words on assholes.   Although a ready fellow traveler of libertarians, Kauffman fires a shot across the bow at the Free State Project, which encourages libertarians to move to New Hampshire en masse so that it might be demographically converted into a haven.  What's important to Kauffman is local control, that people be allowed to live their own lives in peace, flourishing in their distinctiveness: let San Francisco be San Francisco, and Peoria, Peoria.  Kauffman's hope is connected not only to these political movements, moreover, but to other locally-oriented movements like community-supported agriculture and new urbanism.   

In Kauffman is found a passionate defender of humane living -- a man who breaks bread with leftists and reactionaries alike, who would be just at home at a punk rock club as in a bluegrass festival. His affection for little America,  the joy he takes in savoring it and conveying it, are always worth experiencing. 

"The camp guards of contemporary politics will tell you that secession is based in fear or isolation. I say it flows from love and from hopefulness, from the belief that ordinary people, living in cohesive communities, can govern themselves, without the heavy hand of distant experts and tank-and-bomb-wielding statesmen to guide their way. The secession of which I write with (sometimes qualified) admiration is Norman Mailer in love with Brooklyn, native Hawaiians hearing ancestral echoes, Vermonters who think Robert Frost and George Aiken are wiser men than Barack Obama and Joe Biden."

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
443 pages
© 2014  Yuval Noah Harari




In Sapiens, Yuval Harari presents a natural history of the human race from its flowering across Eurasia to a worried reflection on the prospects of of technohumanism. The book's ambition is enormous, its execution simultaneously intriguing and annoying.  Its broad strokes are fascinating; the author distills all of human history into a series of 'revolutions' and draws lessons from each. The details between all those strokes are the bothersome bit.  Harari begins with the Cognitive revolution, which is still mysterious but resulted in humans developing language and telling stories. He moves then to the Agricultural revolution, and then to the Scientific.   In the 21st century, we stand on the precipice of another -- one that may destroy us, either by physical force or by eroding every conception of what it means to be human.

After an opening chapter of strictly-factual anthropology, Harari shifts into broad-strokes historic commentary. He introduces the agricultural revolution as the worst deal man ever struck, trading as we did an active, independent lifestyle for sedentary control -- gaining the ability to sustain larger populations, but at the cost of health, happiness, and freedom. Agriculture gave rise to empires, which he does not scorn but views with marginal favor, seeing them as powerful forces that keep the peace and bring people together under common law and trade networks. A keystone of Harari's perception of mankind is that we are a mythic species, a story-telling species. The much-abused word myth is not a synonym for falsehood, but rather a story of meaning -- one which binds the people who tell it together, imparting a common understanding of the world.  The Declaration of Independence, for instance, constitutes a myth; not because it is a falsehood, but because the American "story",  the tale of colonists standing up for themselves and throwing off the yoke of arbitrary authority in the name of natural rights, is one that forms the basis of American identity, even after the Constitution which followed it is nothing but dirt caked inside the imperial boot.

More to the point, though, Harari asserts that natural rights, law, money, and other core concepts are likewise usual fictions with no material existence. So long as we all believe in them, acting as though they are real, they serve us well. Religions are the ultimate expression of this mythic power -- often being not merely an ideology, but an entire corpus of ideas and institutions that bind every part of human life together in the same story.  Interestingly, Harari uses a definition for religion -- a system of values and norms based on superhuman order --  which is broad enough to include liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism.   No doubt that tweaks a few noses.   Those ideologies' connection with the idea of mythos is certainly worth exploring in depth, if only so people realize that the power of ideas has a deeper source than we realize -- and care should be exercised.  The examples he uses are a mixed bag; some have obvious religious connections (classic liberalism has the underlying assumption of natural rights; communism has the historic dialectic), while others are more of a stretch, in part because definitions are up in the air.  He references capitalism, for instance, but with no definition  --  is he referring merely to the private ownership of goods,  or to belief in Adam Smith's invisible hand?

Harari manages to combine constant dismay at what humans have done to the world with an apparent hope that we'll keep doing more of it. That is, he's seemingly optimistic that economic globalization will create a world-empire that will do for the globe that Rome did for Europe, but constantly bewails  the effect we have on the world, chronicling extinctions and such. We have little positive to show for our time on Earth, he concludes miserably, and expects still worse from the future as we begin doping ourselves with soma to hide from the misery of existence.

Although I found a few ideas here very intriguing on the whole I was not particularly impressed. Let's take extinctions, for instance: he blames every extinction since the dinosaurs at the hand of man, but doesn't connect these to other parts of his own narrative -- for example , what if people began farming because they had few other choices,   competition having exhausted hunting and foraging opportunities?  The natural world is not some garden, a static thing to  be taken care of; it teems with life and death.  Harari speaks with absolute confidence on a great many subjects, crossing disciplines as deep and broad as the Pacific in the same breath.  I can only think of Will and Ariel Durant, who -- after fourteen thousand pages dwelling on human history, religion, music,  and philosophy -- wrote only in humble awareness of how little they knew.  Sapiens is replete with confidently announced facts with no footnote as reference -- and no reference in reality, sometimes. To use one particularly pungent example: Harari asserts that in 1860, a majority of Americans agreed that enslaved blacks were persons who should be citizens, and that a bloody civil war was required to get the South to agree.  That laughably bad reference to the Civil War is not merely inaccurate in its simplistic nature: it is inaccurate in every respect.  When did they have this national argument about slaves and citizens? Surely Harari isn't referencing the 1860 election, in which Lincoln  -- the inspiration for South Carolina's secession --  maintained he had no interest whatsoever in  forcefully eliminating slavery where it existed.  The extension of the franchise came later, as a part of Reconstruction in an effort to keep the old elite from voting itself back into power.  

The most interesting aspect of Sapiens for me is Harari's emphasis on man as a creature who lives in myths, but that discussion needed more nuance. To refer to everything not material as fictitious is absurd: one might as well say that society doesn't exist, because it's a relationship between people and not a tangible thing in itself.  The relationship exists in our minds, as memories -- it is not mere fiction. Harari recognizes the importance of our mental reality, I think, but his language intimates that we're all living in agreed-upon lies -- a spectre no less dispiriting than his fearful forecast,  a world wherein people no longer resist death and discouragement by creating beautiful things together, but instead dope themselves with soma and drowsily acquiesce.

In short,  Sapiens has moments of interest as a polemic; in terms of historical substance, it is far more superficial than Guns, Germs, and Steels to which it is often compared.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Danger Heavy Goods

Danger Heavy Goods: Driving the Toughest, Most Dangerous Roads in the World
Also known as: Juggernaut: Trucking to Saudi Arabia
© 1988 Robert Hutchinson
288 pages

"Makes Smokey and the Bandit Look Like Smokey and the Boy Scouts"


When is a lorry not a lorry? When it's leaving the country, according to the British drivers here. A continental trip makes a lorry a bonafide truck, and the run covered here puts even American transcontinental trips to shame. In Danger: Heavy Goods,  Robert Author recalls a run from England to Saudi Arabia he participated in in the early 1980s, at a time when Arabian ports were so overcrowded that ships sat at sea for weeks waiting for their turn to unload.  He takes readers through a string of countries which no longer exist, across the Bosporus Bridge, and down to Ar'ar by way of  Iraq -- which is invading Iran. Well, golly.

Where to start with this book?  It is a snapshot of Europe in the early 1980s, where Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the DDR were still destinations and  Gorbachev is trying to reform the Soviet Union by banning alcohol. It is a road trip of epic proportions and epic aggravation. Time and again the drivers that Hutchinson partnered predict that the middle east run is doomed. The pre-EU customs inspections of Europe -- the frequent scrutiny of their records, the endless paperwork -- was bad enough, but the middle east is a bonafide nightmare. From Turkey to Saudi Arabia, every official from customs agents to parking attendants wants their cut,  a little bit to grease the palm The preferred bribe is cigarettes, and every country has its most-favored denomination: Turkey is Marlboro country,  Syria swears by Gitanes, and Rothmans rule in Saudi Arabia.   Bureaucratic delays are endless, some of them lasting as long as a week, and once the cigarettes are exhausted anything else is up for grabs. English newspapers, catalogs, canned food?  The amount of aggravation drivers throughout Eurasia receive at the hands of customs officials in Iraq and Saudi Arabia  amaze the author: it's like they don't want goods.

If one can get by the customs agents without being arrested for mysterious circumstances, there's still everything else to contend with. Take your pick -- roads that turn into bobsled runs as soon as they're wet,  or threaten to throw trucks into rig-destroying quagmire if they stray from the beaten path. And which is more dangerous, Turkish prostitutes or the fact that Iran and Iraq are bombing one another? Tough call.  There are plenty of surprises which far friendlier, though. Although drivers on the mid-east run are technically in competition with one another, there's a mild level of camaraderie in the face of a common enemy, customs. In one chapter, the British drivers warn a drunken Turk of a heavy police presence despite Turks being the main rival of British firms for transeuropean traffic. (They warn him in German, while in Czechoslovakia.  German is also used as a go-between language in Ar'ar,  Saudi Arabia.)

Danger is a most interesting 'memoir', delivered by a guide who has an honest interest in every country he visits, frequently regaling readers with historical background on the places he and his coworkers are passing through in their two trucks.  Virtually every aspect of the run has been overtaken by history, though. I haven't been able to find any stats on truck traffic to Saudi Arabia from western Europe, but with a few decades of oil money sunk into the ports I doubt it's as thick as it was when featured here

Related:
Truck this For a Living: Tales of a UK Lorry Driver, Gary Mottram

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh
© 1997 verse translation by Danny P. Jackson
116 pages



When I threw in with the Classics Club, I knew the Epic of Gilgamesh had to be  on there. The oldest known recorded story? How could it be missed?  I've had intentions of reading it since encountering an excerpt of its Flood narrative in high school world literature, and have even listened to recitations of the drama. For those who have never encountered it: Gilgamesh is a king whose subjects behold him in fear and trembling. So potent is he that he gets away with nicking people's wives on their wedding night. It's good to be the king, no? The people of Uruk plea to the gods for relief from the king, and in response they send him...a bro.  A wild man named Enkidu, who alone is Gilgamesh's match for sheer manliness. He is utterly untamed, in tune with the animals and such, until a priestess seduces him with her feminine wiles (and by this translation, she literally jumps him). Abandoned by his  four-legged friends in the forest, Enkidu goes to meet Gilgamesh, whose reputation precedes him. After a good brawl to shake hands with,  these two men of power start taking down monsters and cutting down trees. They attract the rage of some of the gods -- especially that of Ishtar, who attempts to seduce Gilgamesh but is forcefully refused by him delivering a list of all the men she's  used and destroyed --   and Enkidu dies, deflating Gilgamesh's sails. Having previously been blithe about death, Gilgamesh is now hit with its reality, and goes to seek out the only man who cheated death, Utnapishtim, he who survived the Great Flood.  Utnapishtim attempts to dissuade him from the immortality quest, but then clues him in on a secret plant -- one which is promptly stolen by a snake. Gilgamesh resigns himself to making the best of life that he can, and that's' that. (Unless you count the last chapter, which involves Enkidu and a brief visit to the Netherworld.)

Anyone who has read Genesis will see shared aspects and perhaps dimly remember that Abraham originally hailed from the city of Ur, just down the river from the site of Uruk. Most obvious is the Flood story, of course, but so is the snake costing man the secret of immortal life. I found it interesting when I first heard this story that Enkidu's knowledge of woman immediately ruptured his 'one with nature' status.  In Genesis, Adam and Eve aren't said to 'know' each other until they've been severed from their own natural paradise and put to work as farmers, but there's still a tenuous link between sexuality and alienation from the natural world.   I faintly remember reading that  the agricultural Sumerian religious rites involved sex (see the priestess as a reminder), so perhaps that's the connection: he who would control nature cannot be at home in it, and Enkidu does start learning about farming from the priestess after they leave.   Other, more distant similarities can be found between Gilgamesh and other ancient stories:  Gilgamesh's refusal of a divine seducer, for instance, brings to mind Circe and Odysseus.

Not included in this translation are the 20 new lines discovered a couple of years ago in Iraq, which add a bit to the Enkidu and Gilgamesh adventures. Apparently they meet monkeys in the forest, and the wild beast Humbaba is presented a forest-king who is entertained. That might explain why Humbaba appears like a man in so much Sumerian art, though that could be laziness or something else.  I'm glad this is the translation of Gilgamesh my library has:  it's rendered in verse in approachable English, and features 20 illustrations that invoke woodcuts.

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Friday, December 2, 2016

The Flame Bearer

The Flame Bearer
© 2016  Bernard Cornwell
304 pages


The Scots were my enemies.
The West Saxons were my enemies.
Bebbanburg’s garrison was my enemy.
Ieremias was my enemy.
Einar the White was my enemy.

So fate had better be my friend.


When the library received this book, I mimicked Johnny Carson's character "Carnac" and held it to my head, intoning thus: "Uhtred of Bebbanburg is on the verge of recapturing his family fortress, stolen from him decades ago. But then comes a rider with news that a friend is in peril and needs help!  Torn between his lifelong ambition and keeping troth with his friends, Uhtred reluctantly rides away and sees his opportunity fade away yet again."

Page twenty, folks. I'm a bonafide psychic. Of course, I mock with love. I have read a ludicrous amount of Bernard Cornwell, and the Saxon Stories is responsible.  But there are ten books in this series, and lately I've been wondering when Uhtred is going to capture his old castle so he can die in peace already. He's had his foot in the door -- the castle and death's -- a few times before, and every time something  happens off in Northumbria or Wessex or some other heartily-named place. A woman is usually involved, and off he goes to rescue his friends. But now, with The Flame Bearer, the reign of teasing is over. This time the torturedly complex politics of Britain -- Saxons fighting over who should rule the free kingdoms of Wessex and Northumbria, those same kingdoms plotting against one another and their mutual enemies the Danes and Scots --  will bring Uhtred back to the gates of Bebbanberg, that fortress of few gates and mighty ramparts.

One of the greatest pleasures of the Saxon Stories series has been Cornwell's flitations with oratory. Perhaps inspired by Danish warrior lore,  Uhtred often chants his accomplishments to frighten his enemies. He is Uhtred who killed Ubba by the sea, who now as a greybeard  has a reputation that quivers bowels across an island.  Cornwell's flair for dramatic narration is unmatched, especially while ruminating on the horrors -- and joys -- of battle. I'm not sure how he does it, since I'm tolerably certain that Cornwell has not in fact fought in a shield wall.  But this is a story that needs a few passages of Epic Narration, because here Uhtred is finally doing what he has yearned to do since he was a boy, and it will require equal parts deception and epic kickassery.  (Pardon my ├ćnglis.)

The Flame Bearer also exhibits Cornwell's usual gift for funny dialogue, though not quite as much of it.  Uhtred is too old to take many people seriously;  he has killed too many great men to have any use for the young pups strutting and pretending on the stage. A paragraph of my view for Warriors of the Storm stands:

Need I give the usual praise? Dramatic prose of thunder flashing as armies trudge through the mud to meet destiny,  quick wits amusing each other in conversation, bombastic speeches and a few sly jokes.  All the usual Cornwell strengths are here, though it's a quick book so they're over more quickly. The twists and turns aren't as sharp here, possibly because once the reader has marched with Uhtred for so long, one gets used to his sudden bolts of inspiration [...]. 

That ended with "Next Stop: Bebbanburg!", but Cornwell mentions in his historic note that the series isn't over.  This is the story of England's beginning, and now that the spectre of his father has been quietened, now Uhtred of Bebbanburg has reclaimed his legacy, I look forward to seeing his role in fulfilling Alfred's  vision of a united kingdom.