Saturday, March 31, 2012

Life Ascending

Life Ascending: the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution
© 2009 Nick Lane
344 pages

For my money, few subjects are as impressive, beautiful, and awe-inspiring as biology and evolution. Is there a greater drama in the cosmos outside the long play of life, its actors emerging epoch by epoch -- many vanishing into the darkness once more, but not before leaving their mark upon those that follow them? The thought that the immense and varied mass of life on this earth, so rich as to beggar description, is ultimately unified by common ancestry still staggers me. Earth's history of life is a parade of 'endless forms most beautiful', and in Life Ascending Nick Lane revisits some of the most pivotal moments in evolution history: the origin of life, the development of DNA, and the rises of photosynthesis, complex cells, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death.

Though I've never heard of Lane, he apparently has a strong following in Britain. I can certainly see why. He is easily one of the clearest science communicators I've read, using lively examples to illustrate key points, like describing the two different kinds of chlorophyll (both vital parts of photosynthesis) as a grasping miser and a street hustler. One forces water to surrender an electron; the other forces carbon dioxide to accept the same. Lane's specialty is biochemistry, so he is strongest early on when writing on DNA and photosynthesis; his treatment of topics like consciousness is comparatively lighter, but still raises up interesting questions, and I appreciate an author far more for acknowledging his limitations than attempting to sound authoritative in spite of them. In any given chapter, Lane first explains the significance of a key invention, and then -- as current scientific knowledge allows -- delves into how it functions and its origins.  He does not necessarily devote equal time to all three sections; in the chapter on movement, for instance, he wastes little time explaining why being able to move is an asset, choosing to devote most of the chapter on how muscles function. Later on, when writing on consciousness, Lane concerns himself with the meaning of consciousness rather than the cause of it, which we don't fully understand. Lane is thorough in explaining how we came to our current understanding, often working through rival theories before arriving that which currently prevails, or is the most accurate in his view. What I appreciate most about Lane is his ability to break down a topic into its most basic parts, allowing lay readers to arrive at a basic understanding of the subject at hand without being overwhelmed by information -- but he's not so general as to leave us ignorant of the actual facts, beyond generalities that we can't explain. The weakest section of the book is that of death: Lane doesn't explain why it is a wonderful invention. He mentions that it is tied to sex, and is thus tangentially important for that reason, but the bulk of the chapter is written on our attempts to find out why we age, with an eye for 'curing' it. He doesn't mention the role that death plays in evolution, which is a curious omission.

The highest praise I can give Lane is that he takes me back to 2006, when I was just starting to realize how incredibly wonderful and interesting science could be. A keeper, certainly, and one to revisit in the future and enjoy again.

"Be Mine" (Creation, the Universe, and the Evolution of Life set to a Funky Beat). This is a YouTube song about the history of the universe that ends with an unexpected proposal;  the history of life section actually follows this book in part.
The Obamas
© 2012 Jodi Kantor
368 pages

In 2004, a young state senator from Illinois gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. His unusual name wasn't one anyone knew -- until that night. Barack Obama's address decried polarization as the work of pundits; he stressed the unity of the American people in their belief in  simple dreams, in certain ideals like justice and equality. He called for people to work together, and created a wave of popularity that sent him from obscurity to the White House in just four years. For all his inexperience in high-level politics, Obama had the gift of stirring people into believing in themselves and governance again. But today, the chanting crowds are gone; the radical changes people expected haven't transpired, and as we enter an election season people are considering Obama anew. The Obamas covers the first three years of the Obama administration, with a particular emphasis on how two people only marginally familiar with the world of D.C. and the trappings and burdens of office struggled to adapt to them, and how Obama's approach changed as the promises of his candidacy clashed with the realities of political administration.

Some of the appeal in a book like this is admittedly voyeuristic; like many Americans I've long been fascinated by the presidency, and the Obama experience is more likely to resonate with the average reader than any other presidency. Unlike the Bushes, Clintons, Reagans, and other families who preceded them, the Obamas had no experience living in the public spotlight, to being doted on by half the population and reviled by the other. The White House is both a residence and a state office, with blurry lines between work and home. Until the president's astonishingly quick rise to power, the Obamas were a thoroughly middle-class family living in an apartment in Chicago; no governor's mansion prepared them for the unique experience of state office. Learning the boundaries took time.  The dynamic between the Obamas themselves is a second theme; although Michelle's familiarity with corrupt Chicago politics had soured her on politics, as First Lady she was expected to take a role in his administration. She turns out to be delightfully strong-willed: if the president and his chief of staff want her to help in the work of the West Wing, it must be useful work, constructive work -- not simply filling in whenever they need someone to give a speech or smile for the cameras. Mrs. Obama is a fantastic counterpart to her husband. While she distrusts politics, her years working in the mayoral office of Chicago give her knowledge into how the game of politics is played. By contrast, the president believes in the power of public office but despises the conventions associated with it -- opportunistic speeches, glad-handing crowds, photo opportunities with strangers.  He wants to rise above these vulgarities, and comes across as aloof and elitist. The Tea Party is the absolute antithesis to his approach, and its popularity catches him by surprise. Not until the 2010 elections, when they sweep into office, does Obama begin to be schooled in politicking by his wife. Only November will tell if his new, more pragmatic approach will work.

I for one found the work heartening. I was one of those enthralled by Obama as candidate, and disappointed as he entered office. As we approach the 2012 elections, that disappointment has given way to a more moderate appreciation. I'm beginning to realize -- like he does, in this novel -- that one man can't change D.C. through sheer strength of will. Although cynicism is tempting, I think it ultimately unrewarding, and I see no reason to see Obama as anything other than a frustrated idealist.  An account like this, which follows the Obama as a couple of ordinary people thrust into the national office,  certainly erodes attempts to villainize him. Its best audience is disappointed Obama supporters: while Kantor doesn't defend, condemn, or endorse Obama's record, walking these past three years again in his shoes may ease some misplaced bitterness and grief.

Children of the Storm

Star Trek Voyager: Children of the Storm
© 2011 Kirsten Beyer
418 pages

In Unworthy, Kirsten Beyer launched the USS Voyager into the Delta Quadrant anew, this time at the head of a fleet of  ships. Their mission: to make sure that the Borg are truly gone, and to smooth over any rough patches Voyager left during its original trip through the quadrant. Thus far,  the mission hasn't gone as planned: betrayed by its leading admiral,  the fleet stumbled into its initial first contact scenario with disastrous results. Afsarah Eden,  formerly commanding Voyager, has now taken command of the fleet, giving a renewed Chakotay his old seat back. The Voyager crew is restored, their spirits on the mend -- but their greatest challenge is ahead of them.

Having blundered into contact with a race known as the Children of the Storm, who have proven a nemesis even to the Borg, Eden, Voyager, and the rest of the fleet must establish peaceful contact with these strange and noncoporeal creatures.  Three ships -- Quirinal, Planck,  and Demeter -- are soon separated from the rest of the fleet, entrapped by the Children. While their crews struggle to free themselves, Eden is left with a daunting choice: how to find, and if need be rescue, those three ships without risking the rest of her command to needless destruction.

With Children of the Storm, Beyer delivers yet another smashing success to the Voyager Relaunch, a series far superior in print than on television. Characterization remains a strong suite;  Chakotay and Seven are given far more depth than on the show, and Paris and Kim are being seasoned nicely. No longer plucky twenty-somethings barely out of the Academy, the two are accepting greater responsibilities within Starfleet and their own lives. Beyer, having only recently given birth before writing this novel, is clearly enjoying playing with the experience when addressing  Paris, Torres, and their daughter Miral.  Eden, though a comparative stranger,  carries much of the novel and is proving to be an intriguing personality.   However, another character -- Liam O'Donnell, the captain of Demeter -- completely surprised me. Introduced as a seemingly absent-minded intellectual who only commanded a ship because of its botanical focus,  O'Donnell proves to be a pivotal character in the crisis.

The Children are a baffling mystery: their "ships" are unlike anything the Federation has encountered, and though they can communicate with the Starfleet ships, the familiarity of words is lost in the alienness of their thoughts. Tension builds throughout the novel, and casualties are taken -- but the resolution is fantastic, reminding me a bit of the Destiny finale.  Beyer does not disappoint in the least.

Beyer's Voyager relaunch continues to be excellent, and I know I'm not alone in anticipating its continuation in The Eternal Tide, this summer.

Voyager Relaunch at TvTropes
Children of the Storm at Memory Alpha
Kirsten Beyer at Memory Alpha

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (27 March)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish event in which people share tidbits from their current reads. Play along at ShouldBerReading!

"Oh, lord, I am so many things! A scholar, a priest, an eater of cheese, and now I am chaplain to Lord Uhtred, the pagan who slaughters priests. That's what they tell me. I'd be eternally grateful if you refrained from slaughtering me. May I have a servant, please?"

p. 183, Death of Kings. Bernard Cornwell

All this energy, all our lives, boils down to the juxtaposition of two molecules totally out of equilibrium with one another, hydrogen and oxygen: two opposing bodies that conjoin in blissful molecular union, with a copious discharge of energy, leaving nothing but a small, hot puddle of water.

p. 14, Life Ascending: the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, Nick Lane

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Death of Kings

Death of Kings
© 2011 Bernard Cornwell
325 pages

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings...

(Richard II, William Shakespeare)

Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, lays on his deathbed. Aged and long infirm,  he has created a legacy to be proud of.  He has united most of the  Saxons under his kingdom, and for decades defended Britain against the expansion of the Danes. But his work is not yet complete; many still live within the realm of the Danish conquerors, and even what unity he has achieved may be destroyed upon his death, as Danish armies use it as an opportunity to resume their expansion. Alfred alone unites the Saxons, but if he dies the various petty kingdoms that Wessex consumed in its rise may break apart again.  Alfred's son Edward does not command their respect the way Alfred did, however grudgingly, and a weak heir  would threaten  to reverse all of Alfred's accomplishments. But the dying king has a hope: he has...Uhtred of Bebbanberg, a Saxon prince raised by Danes who nonetheless serves Alfred, a true lord of war whose might and wit have been been the tools with which Alfred created and defended his kingdom. Now, in Alfred's final hours, he dispatches a final message to Uhtred, calling him to serve his court one more time.  And so Uhtred is called to fight in what may be Wessex' darkest hour,  and his battle provides another solid contribution to the Saxon stories series.

Death of Kings begins on an unlikely note, with Uhtred being asked to negotiate a peace conference. A chance exists that a Saxon king allied to the Danes may be persuaded to change loyalties, or at the very least refrain from joining the Danes in war against Wessex, and Alfred's court believes only Uhtred is strong enough to ensure that the king sees reason. Even so, Uhtred is a questionable choice for diplomat; he once killed a priest for insulting his wife, and did so as casually with one blow as we might swat a fly. Tact is a word that Uhtred doesn't know the meaning of, in either his own Old English or in Danish. But as one might expect from Cornwell, peace is only the calm before the storm. Soon enough the king will die, and Edward will be forced to fight rebellion and outside invasion simultaneously. Worse yet, he may not find the courage to use his strong arm, Uhtred, given that the warlord is hated by the Christians of the royal court for his pride and irreverence. However much the court dislikes Uhtred, he's a fantastic narrator. That irreverence provides humor in spades, and he has a penchant for drama; his tradition of introducing himself with a speech is maintained in the Death of Kings.  Even more so than Richard Sharpe, Uhtred is earnest. He exults in the joy of life, even in battle.  He sees himself as an actor in a larger drama, but what that story is, he leaves to the fates. While he despises the piety of the priests who make his life at court miserable, Uhtred's own faith in destiny -- his motto, 'Fate is inexorable' -- give him courage to try fantastic feats in the face of overwhelming odds.   The result is a good read, often as funny as it is thrilling.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Founding Rivals

Founding Rivals | Madison vs. Monroe: the Bill of Rights and the Election that Saved a Nation
© 2011 Chris DeRose
336 pages

In these days of contentious politics, where adversaries rip into one another with all the grace of beasts,  Chris DeRose's Founding Rivals is downright heartening. It is the story of a friendship born of revolution and the struggle to create a more perfect union,  a friendship which helped define that union...and one which persevered even as the two friends found themselves running against one another for the same seat in the first Congress of the United States.

Madison and Monroe's names stand tall throughout American history. Public servants for most of their lives, and eventually the fourth and fifth presidents respectively,  they began their careers in America's most exciting time. They agitated for independence and drilled for war: during the conflict, Madison became a statesman while Monroe served in the Continental army.  While Madison and his colleagues attempted to bring together the selfishly quarreling colonies together in a common cause, and put together a functioning government amidst the chaos of war, Monroe was nearly killed in combat and served faithfully throughout the war, seeking  a place in the battle even when he had the opportunity to remain safely behind the scenes. After York Town, Monroe joined Madison in public office and the two were introduced through a mutual friend, Thomas Jefferson.

Together they agonized about the limitations of the Articles of Confederation, and through their letters DeRose offers readers a look into the early years of the Republic, at a time when the legislature of Virginia held more power than the Congress of the confederacy. The states are united in name only: their collective government has little power and only marginal influence.  In these troubled years, debt increases, rebellion sweeps through the backwoods, and the powers of Europe smile at the fledgling nation's impotency. Spain, especially, sees America's faltering as a promising sign that it will maintain control of the Mississippi.

The letters between Madison and Monroe are a delight to read. They possess an elegance lost today, and reflect a serious-minded approach to governance that our current candidates would do well to emulate. In preparing for a constitutional convention, Madison engaged himself in an exhaustive study of confederacies throughout history,  adding that to an already impressive political education to guide him in finding an effective form of government for the new nation -- one which would be strong enough to defend against foreign foes and honor its debts, but not so strong as to crush the sovereignty of the people under one authority.  After an initial failure at Annapolis, Madison, Monroe, and others are finally successful in organizing a convention in Philadelphia. The two are never in Congress at the same time: when one is seated in the national council, the other is present in Virginia's house of delegates,  and they work together for the common cause.  In Philadelphia, however, after Madison presents his ideas -- a framework we know today as the US Constitution -- their collaboration ends.

The nation falls into two parties, Federalist and Antifederalist.  Federalists like Madison advocate for the immediate adoption of the Constitution,  while the Antifederalists oppose it. Some, like Patrick Henry, appear to vigorously oppose the Constitution just to delight in the sound of their own voice. Others are concerned about the lack of a Bill of Rights protecting the people against the government overstepping its authority. Monroe in particular is concerned about the amount of power the Constitution gives the central government,  seeing its ability to directly tax the people as problematic at best and inviting tyranny at worst.  DeRose covers the raucous debate in Virginia's House of Delegates, where the Constitution is just narrowly ratified. Virginia was arguably the most influential state in the union at this point, a fact lost to modern readers who are accustomed to the leadership of states like New York and California today.

Even though the Constitution is ratified, the Antifederalists are not content to accept defeat. Instead, they see the first congressional elections for the new state as an opportunity to put their men into office to maintain the status quo while they organize efforts to call for another constitutional convention -- a prospect that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison are united in seeing as patently dangerous.  To oppose Madison, the author of the Constitution and its most eloquent defenders, the Antifederalists choose Monroe...and in the book's penultimate chapter, the 'election that saved a nation' takes precedence.

DeRose may be over-stressing a point here -- the claim is certainly dramatic -- but the election is certainly worth considering. Having accomplished the great task of getting the Constitution ratified, Madison can now advocate for amending it with a bill of rights, to win over the two states which have not yet joined the union, and gain the support of those who accepted it only grudgingly, like New York and Virginia. DeRose sees the presence of Monroe as prompting this decision on Madison's part, the younger forcing Madison to temper his defense of the Constitution. It is quite possible, considering that earlier -- in Virginia -- Madison staunchly maintained that no bill of rights was necessary to tell the government what it could not do, because nothing in the Constitution gave the government the right to interfere with civil rights in the first place.

Even though I'm not necessarily convinced that the election of Madison to a particular seat in the house of Representatives saved the nation, Founding Rivals is excellent history. These two extraordinary gentlemen lived lives of distinction, lives worth noting. Madison's views on the hypocrisy of slavery are particularly impressive considering the time in which he lived.  DeRose's account follows the lives of these two admirable men through some of the most critical periods of American history, giving readers an education on what the government was like between Revolution and the Constitution.  Moreover, the relationship between these two men is a standing reproach to the narrowminded, vicious, petty, and pathetically partisan politics of today. Witness here a friendship that survived political combat, and be reminded of the principles of good government -- not just the rights we value through political philosophy, but our approach to people.  Though disagreeing on the Constitution, these two were united in their civil-mindedness, their tolerance of one another's opinions, and their sincere commitment to the common good.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This Week at the Library (14 March)

200 pages; © 2012

A family of four sits at a table in a nice restaurant, heads bowed. But they're not pausing for reflection or prayer; they're in the middle of a meal, and all attempting to check their email discretely. So much for family time. In Is It Just Me? actor and comedian Whoopie Goldberg takes on our age of declining social graces, where -- self-absorbed by our gadgets -- we give little thought to those around us. Goldberg writes conversationally; aside from the self-quizzes, where she invites readers to reflect on their own behavior, the text could very well be  collection of comedy sketches.Like all good comedy, Goldberg entertains us by pointing out the absurdity of it all...but behind the laughs, there's a genuine point. Though addressing topics as diverse as dining and parenting, the common theme of responsibility and respect prevails. As someone who is very grumpy about the obnoxious ever-presence of cellphones, whose whines seem to fill the air everywhere (even in libraries...), and keen on manners in general, I'm the ideal audience for this kind of grousing..but there's more substance here than I'd expected, especially in the section on parenting. Goldberg advocates treating children and teenagers with respect, instead of simply talking at them, but she's not a fan of the "parent as friend" approach. Someone has to be the adult. I would have also never considered how big a nuisance the ever-connected world is to celebrities. If she decides to visit a local store, someone will tweet her about her presence, and within minutes a crowd has arrived. Privacy, the simple act of respect in giving people their personal space, is gone altogether.  Is It Just Me is fun and pointed.

Currently Reading: Founding Rivals, Madison vs. Monroe: The Bill of Rights and the Election that Saved a Nation; Chris DeRose; A People's History of the Supreme Court, Peter Irons

Potentials: Murder in Vein, Sue Ann Jaffarian; as heard of on the Paralegal Voice. A...vampire mystery, but one which promises to be amusing based on the interview I listened to.

"I have discovered the secret of the philosopher's stone," [Law] wrote to a friend. "It is to make gold out of paper."

- The Ascent of Money

The ceremony then moved into the Senate chamber, where Washington would deliver the first inaugural address. He spoke quietly from prepared remarks, reading nervously. [...] Madison had to act interested and surprised while listening to a speech he himself had written. He had Washington's confidence -- an honor many men aspired to, but few had secured. Ironically, Madison was later asked by Congress to prepare a response to the president's address. Washington, in turn, asked him to draft his reply to the response. Madison's understated sense of humor was on full display in that reply, which included the line: "Your very affectionate address produces emotions which I know not how to express." The first formal communications between the president and Congress were essentially Madison talking to himself.

xi-xii, Founding Rivals.

The Ascent of Money

432 pages; © 2008 Niall Ferguson

Money makes the world go 'round. In today's globalized economy, this is a statement that's never been more true. Considering the importance of trade in human history, writing a financial history of the world seems like a staggering challenge, especially considering how dense and complex the language of high finance is. How many average people can read the newspaper coverage of the financal crash in 2008, or of the crisis in Europe, and really understand it? Niall Ferguson attempts to address average obliviousness by focusing on five pillars of the global economy: the birth and evolution of currency, from coins to cards;  the bond market, through which governments finance large projects and wars;  stock exchanges, real estate, and globalization. The book is smartly organized, but while it makes plain the influence finance has played on human history, the execution is not quite as thorough as I had expected. The origins of each concept are easy to grasp, but as they become more integral parts of human history, the complexity intensifies. Ferguson describes what happens, but doesn't necessarily explain it, leaving the uninitiated no better off except for knowing the fundamentals. For instance, he refers to a given government buying bonds to inject liquidity into the market. I could figure this out -- the government is redeeming the loan it took out, paying the bond owner back in full, leaving the owner with more cash to spend -- but that's only because I happened to be familar with the concept of liquidity. I'm not confident that I'm understanding the sentence correctly, however.  Though I didn't take in all the author attempted to communicate through the book, it is a foundation for further reading.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

This Week at the Library (7 March)

I recently finished Superfreakonomics and A Brief History of Thought, neither of which generated enough mental chatter to merit a full review. Suffice it to say, Superfreakonomics is simply an addition in the same vein as Freakonomics: the authors use economic principles like incentives to understand issues not normally considered matters of economics. The result is that the reader is entertained with unexpected answers to odd questions (Why are prostitutes like shopping mall Santas?) while accidentally learning about economics. For instance, in the section on global warming solutions, the author explains the concept of externalities -- consequences of our actions that other people end up paying for (or benefiting from). For instance, if a large shopping complex decides to set up shop on a given highway and becomes popular, traffic on that highway increases and so to does the wear and tear on the highway.The local government then has to address the consequences of the complex's setting up shop. Recently after reading the book I listened to an interview between two economists, and one mentioned the role of the government in "pricing in externalities", and so help me if I didn't understand what he meant. To follow up on my example, the government 'prices in the externality' by imposing an impact fee on the shopping complex. The fee goes to pay for the increased wear and tear on the road.  The book was thus diverting and mildly informative.

I also read a new release, Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, which sounded wildly attractive to a philosophically-inclined guy like myself. Ferry holds a PhD in philosophy and is concerned with the fact that philosophy has become an irrelevant subject of academia instead of a way of understanding and responding to the world, but I don't know that his book will do much to change that. It starts out badly, with Ferry introducing philosophy as a way of obtaining salvation without God. Although Ferry professes no religious worldview, his stance seems rooted in a religious worldview, biased in favor of itself.  Not all religions are concerned with death, and certainly not all of them seek to unite people with their loved ones after death the way Ferry generalizes that they do. I'm stunned that someone with a doctorate in philosophy would reduce it to something so trivial.  He uses Stoicism to demonstrate how expansive and cohesive philosophical worldviews used to be, and while not not a practicioner of Stoicism he nontheless admires it. Later chapters address why in the west, religion prevailed over philosophy only to lose ground to it again in the Enlightenment. Again, Ferry's conclusion is simple: philosophy and reason didn't offer an escape from death, and Christianity did. The chapter on the rebirth of philosophy and humanism in the Enlightenment is a bit better, but I began losing interest with post modernism and by the time I'd reached his last chapter on "Post-Deconstructionism",  even I was bored with the subject. Philosophy became less about life and practice, and more about ideas and abstract understanding with seemingly little relevance to modern life. Socrates Cafe, on philosophical inquiry, and Plato's Podcasts are far superior advocates for philosophy in general, and A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy on one particular philosophy's value to everyday living.

Pending Reviews: If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley. I also re-read a couple of Grisham novels recently, though I'm not sure if I'll review them or not. They were A Time to Kill and Runaway Jury.

Currently Reading: The Age of Voltaire, Will Durant.

Potentials: Recently I've gotten interested in understanding finance and law, so I'm starting The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson and A People's History of the Supreme Court by one Peter Irons.  I've heard that Ferguson is an advocate of imperialism, so he may prove amusing.


What the conquistadors failed to understand is that money is a matter of belief, even faith; belief in the person paying us, belief in the person issuing the money he uses or the institution that honours his cheques or transfers. Money is not metal. It is trust inscribed.

p. 39, The Ascent of Money. Niall Ferguson.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder
© 1958 Robert Traver
448 pages

A woman is raped at the gates of her neighborhood, but her cries for help register too late. By the time her husband, one Lieutenant Frederic Manion of the US Army, realizes what has transpired, the rapist has fled for the safety of the local bar...a bar which he owns.  Undeterred, the Lieutenant enters the bar, calmly empties his Luger pistol into the man's chest, and leaves to deliver himself into the hands of the closest deputy-sheriff.  Paul Biegler is a former prosecuting attorney with congressional ambitions and a struggling practice. While Biegler is a potent lawyer, a more bombastic rival in town attracts most of the criminal defense work. A call from Manion seems like a dread godsend: while a victory could establish and spread his reputation, a defeat might make him a laughingstock. The prosecuting attorney is a man who has already defeated Biegler once at the polls, and who has an eye on the same congressional seat as Biegler.   This seems like a simple case: a decorated war hero killed the man who raped his wife. But it isn't enough that a jury might sympathize with Manion morally:  how can he be defended legally?

The American Bar Association includes the dramatization of this book on their list of "25 Greatest Legal Movies", and that list drew my attention to the book in the first place. While I've been reading legal thrillers by John Grisham for the last fifteen years, I'd never heard of this 1950s-era novel.  Despite the dramatic start, Anatomy isn't a 'thriller'; it strikes me as a more mature novel. The author was a practicing attorney and a judge, and wrote the novel based on one of his own cases. The judge's lifetime of of experience is on full display here, talking with the reader through Biegler's conversations with Manion and others about the nature of law itself: its uses, its shortcomings. Anatomy is thus a philosophical novel, and I for one found the musing just as provocative as any nonfiction read. The trial remains an interesting mystery throughout, as there proves to be more to the story than a hotel owner deciding to attack Mrs. Manion. Traver (John D. Voelker's pen-name)'s best talent lies with dialogue. The aforementioned philosophical conversations are fascinating, of course,  but the on-going banter between Biegler and his law partner never failed to delight.  In short, Anatomy of a Murder is a richer legal novel than any I've read, and I wish my library carried more by the author. I also intend on watching the movie, but that's a given considering it stars James Stewart.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America
© 2004 Philip Roth
400 pages

Mister Charlie Lindbergh, he flew to old Berlin,
Got 'im a big Iron Cross, and he flew right back again
To Washington, Washington. 

Misses Charlie Lindbergh, she come dressed in red,
Said: "I'd like to sleep in that pretty White House bed
In Washington, Washington."
("Lindbergh", Woody Guthrie)

The normal proceedings of the 1940 Republican Presidential Convention were interrupted when Charles Lindbergh, the heroic aviator adored by millions for his pioneer solo flight across the Atlantic, arrived at the last moment and swept the convention, winning the Republican candidacy for president. As Britain continued to struggle to hold its own against Hitler's Luftwaffe, Lindbergh denounced President Roosevelt as a warmonger influenced by Jews,  and won a staggering victory; the course of history changed. The Plot Against America is an alternate history novel about the Jewish experience during the Nazi-friendly Lindbergh administration. While grimly fascinating at first,  the novel goes off the rails of plausibility 4/5ths of the way in and doesn't so much as conclude as simply comes to a stop.

Roth makes the usual move of writing himself and his family into the plot: a young Phillip Roth is the viewpoint character, and the novel is presented as a memoir of his coming of age in a dark time for his family. Roth's alternate tale concerns social and cultural change, chiefly; the war in Europe plays only a background role, and judging by the novel's ending, comes to the same end as it did in reality. Where Roth succeeds is in believably portraying the slow growth of fascism in an American context. Lindbergh doesn't swap his suit and tie for a colonel's uniform and turn the United States into a slightly different version of an Evil Empire; he works instead on a more insidious level -- concealing fascism perfectly behind the flag and cross. While Jews in the United States are understandably alarmed by his election, there seems to be a genius behind Lindbergh's machinations. Rather than making overt moves against them,  he waits for their sustained agitation to cause them to lose sympathy among the Christian majority..and then ever so-subtly fans the flames.  It reminds me of the tactics of anti-labor politicians in the Gilded Age, who would manipulate strikers into taking forceful action and then send in the troops to brutally put down the uprest. The middle class then blamed the strikers for being violent against the state. More fascinating than this is the psychological tole the subtle war takes on the Jewish community. This is very much the heart of The Plot Against America. Not only are members of the Roth family turned against one another, but they begin to doubt themselves, and their love of country is slowly battered by the increasing climate of fear in which they must live.

Unfortunately, the novel's end doesn't do it justice. As the horror  seems as if it can't get any worse, Roth writes that "just like that, it was over" -- and then quickly tells what happened in brief. Here he teases readers with a revelation that puts Lindbergh's entire political career into a more understandable context, but the revelation rather beggars belief. This would seem an appropriate time for a conclusion, but the faux memoir continues for almost another hundred pages, with seemingly no little point other than to tuck in a minor thread. The effort is appreciated, but seems out of proportion.

Probably worth your while if the alternate social history catches your attention: that story is definitely moving, but the ending is problematic.

"Lindbergh"/"America First" by Woody Guthrie, in which Guthrie decries isolationist Lindbergh's America First organization.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies, Harry Turtledove. (Here the US also doesn't enter WW2.)

The ultimate premise of the plot against America is that Hitler kidnapped Lindbergh's baby in 1932 and raised him in Germany as a hostage; in exchange for his continued safety, the Lindberghs had to enter public office. Hitler  thus engineers his entire political career and turns Lindbergh into a puppet for his own ambitions.