Monday, June 30, 2014

This week at the library: the Spirit of '76

Greetings, dear readers!

It's been a busy week for me, reading-wise, because work at the library has been slow. Oprah and Brad Pitt have been wandering around town filming for a movie,  and a lot of our usual patrons and traffic were diverted by a week of movie-making. I have had a great many hours to fill with nothing to fill with with, so I've been investigating the merits of on behalf of our patrons and doing some reading.   Most importantly, I  knocked off Good Natured, so that's another from the to-be-read list, which is getting smaller by the week.

Early on I finally managed whacking through The Last of the Mohicans, which stymied me several times as a child and theatened to do it again, but I was bound and determined to finish the darned thing. It's an early American frontier novel, the prototypical western, set in the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years War). Two young women have decided to join their father at the front, which is questionably wise, and have to get there by trucking through the wilderness, filled with natural hazards and malevolent Indian politics.  They are lead by a white man raised by Indians through various spots of peril  until finally they reach some safety, despite having lost half their party. I liked the action scenes, but the dialogue -- grief. The crushing, mysterious wilderness of the colonial frontier has nothing on the thicket of words Cooper throws at the reader -- the occasional conversations in French were more comprehensible than his English at times.

I also encountered but did not read fully in part White Trash, which turned out to be a collection of essays on race and class. Some of the articles were engaging and promising, and others absolutely odious. One was so execrable -- featuring a young researcher who decided to live as "White Trash Girl" as an art project, pretending that her acting as vulgar as possible was a celebration of the common man,.  One interesting note about this collection is that the authors ground themselves in the academic left; it's very odd to see the Frankfurt School brought out to bear on 'queer trailer culture'.   Jim Goad used class distinctions in his Redneck Manifesto, but his had an authentic edge to it while these authors are simply trying too hard to be serious.

This week I will be focusing on the remainder of my Independence Day reading,  and then at the weekend perhaps take on another of the TBR books.

"Yes, yes, I have heard that a young gentleman of vast riches, from one of the provinces far south, has got the place. He is over young, too, to hold such rank, and to be put above men whose heads are beginning to bleach; and yet they say he is a soldier in his knowledge, and a gallant gentleman!"
"Whatever he may be, or however he may be qualified for his rank, he now speaks to you and, of course, can be no enemy to dread."
The Last of the Mohicans

"Like the Biami, apes do not need reflective surfaces to gain self-awareness. They are used to watching themselves in the social mirror; the spectators' eyes."
p. 71, Good Natured

"A real patriot can seldom or ever speak popular language. A false one will never suffer himself to speak anything else."   Governor William Franklin, letter urging New Jersey legislature to seek reconciliation with Britain, 1776.
p. 23,  The American Tory.

The old moral order, however imperfect it may have een, at least moved toward the virtues by way of the passions. If men were self-concerned,  that order tried to expand the the scope of self-concern to include others, rather than commanding men to cease being concerned with themselves. To attempt the latter is both tyrannical and ineffective."
p. 129, The Closing of the American Mind

To Be Read Takedown Challenge

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)                                       
Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage
Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman
The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton
Earth, Richard Fortey
Good Natured, Frans de Waal (6/27/14)
Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
© 1845 Frederick Douglass
144 pages

Although modern readers take for granted the idea that slavery is "bad", its horrors can only be fully appreciated  by the shared experience of those who were subjected to it. No finer conveyor is available than Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became an abolitionist leader, who achieved such renown in his lifetime that he dined in the White House.  The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was penned by Douglass for the benefit of an abolitionist society to arouse sympathy in the north. Douglass later authored other biographies, but The Narrative is limited to his years in bondage, and - considering its intended purpose -- focuses on the evil slavery was in practice. The tale of constant beatings, of the culture of subservience, of the dehumanizing ways slaves were forced to live is surely enough to set anyone's blood on fire, though the modern mind may be numbed by the thought of the Holocaust, or the obscenities we subject ourselves to voluntarily through the daily news.  The antidote to rage and despair are joy and hope, both offered by Douglass' story. Cause for hope stems not from the fact that he escaped -- he is very coy about how he did it, so slaveholders cannot use his narrative to improve their security --  but the fact that he made himself a man.  Douglass' greatest triumph is not in escaping physical slavery, but escaping the enslavement of his mind and spirit. Given a start by a briefly sympathetic mistress, Douglass learned to read -- but even after she abandoned her kindness, her soul corrupted by the conceit of owning another man,  he pushed himself forward. In defiance of the slave-culture created by the plantation owners, Douglass pursued what he recognized as the sure route to liberty, and sought out every opportunity to make advances. He taught himself to write as well, enough to forge passes in an abortive escape attempt, and enough to write with a command of style that was doubtless a boon to the abolitionist cause. His strength of spirit would make him a free man even if his body were in chains.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter
©  1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne
180 pages          

         In 18th century Boston, a young woman stands upon the gallows in the center of town, facing down the contempt of the assembled mob. Having broken the laws of her adopted Puritan home, Hester Prynn must endure its punishment for her crime:  lifelong ignominy. Having conceived a child out of wedlock – and with a man not her absent husband – she will wear forever on her breast the  prominent letter “A”. The Scarlet Letter is a story of morality, persecution, and redemption;  an American classic whose readability belies its status as a classroom staple. 

        Though Nathaniel Hawthorne was writing in a setting a century before his, and including historic personalities like John Winthrope, The Scarlet Letter is less a gritty historical tale and more a legend – and, like all good myths, one with a point. Its heroine is a legend in her own time, a woman whose morality could not be contained by her community. Judged a sinner,  Prynn accepts the verdict of her community, knowing she has broken its rules. She wears the scarlet letter with quiet dignity, but her own skills as a seamstress and moral center give her a strength that carries her through the years, despite being an outcast.  She does not run away from her moral imperfections, nor their consequences, but embraces it,  making her life’s work the support of the poor and infirm -- combating passion with selflessness. Though she bears the titular mark of indiscretion, the piece’s true sinners are her husband and the local minister, both with secrets. The husband arrived in town just in time to see his near-abandoned wife on the scaffold. Perhaps it’s the months spent imprisoned by Indians, but hubby dear is a decidedly nasty sort who decides to adopt the false name Roger Chillingworth, and give himself the quest of finding out who cuckolded him and then destroying the man.   The Reverend John Dimmsdale, who – as you might guess is the third part of this little love triangle --  is equally responsible for Hester’s sin, but cowers from accepting it, fearful of the consequences. Though he professes an admirable concern for his congregation's welfare, his and Chillingsworth’s actions through the piece most decidedly are not, and by its end all actions have found their inevitable fruit. Prynn is redeemed, and the others…well, not so much.

        I expected dreariness of a novel set in the Puritan world, but Hawthorne's characters are highly spirited, especially Prynn and her little daughter, Pearl. Hawthorne writes in clear condemnation of the Puritans' severity, though  it is doubtful that he condemns their morality in general considering Prynn's decision to live in a spirit of penitence thereafter. Although the dialogue is purposely stilted (the Puritans seeming to take the KJV bible as their guide in speech), this is a novel filled with passion that roars along, with moral arguments along for the ride.  The Scarlet Letter is quite laudable. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

American Sphinx

American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson
© 1998 Joseph Ellis
464 pages

Principle author of the Declaration of Independence, partial broker of the Franco-American alliance,  third president --  there is no denying Thomas Jefferson's pivotal place within the revolution.  He is a constant presence in Joseph Ellis'  prior histories concerning the revolutionary period, cast as a complex character -- quixotic one moment, pragmatic the next.  American Sphinx shines a spotlight on his contradictory character, being a study in character by way of a biographical sketch.

Little is known of Jefferson's early life,  owing to his parents' appalling lack of foresight in not realizing future generations would want to know everything about their little scion, and to a fire that consumed what  little documentation of his early life existed. Jefferson would make up for that in his adult life, being a prolific author;  indeed, he is best known for his literary output, like the Declaration of Independence. No fiery orator like John Adams or Patrick Henry, he no less set fire to the world. In Ellis' account, Jefferson appears for the first time on the political stage, producing a series of works that make the patriotic case against British abuses in ever-sharper and ever-seeping language. Jefferson will continue to write on the themes developed in such works as A Summary View of the Rights of British America and the Declaration.  It is the tension between the values he defended, and the actions he committed, that most of the works concerns itself with.

Of all the founding fathers, it is Jefferson's spirit which is most invoked today, hailed by liberals for his commitment to equality and by conservatives for his deep distrust of centralized power.  Jefferson was in turns a liberal and a conservative;  his love affair with the French Revolution, even amid its violence, demonstrated that he had no aversion to destroying the old order completely; but such was his faith in the rationality of man that he believed justice would prevail once the old founts of inequality like monarchy and religion were destroyed.  Government must be kept at minimal levels, however, to ensure that the babe of equality was not smothered in its cradle by power-mad despots (Alexander Hamilton), military juntas (Alexander Hamilton)  and malicious big bankers (Alexander Hamilton*).    Thus he looked for conservative ends through liberal means.

Contradictions abounded elsewhere; though rightly lauded as the author of the Declaration, the words of which have been an ideal Americans have struggled to realize in full ever since -- "We hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal...."  -- he did, in fact, keep slaves. Ellis examines both the facts of Jefferson's plantation and his expressed thoughts;   despite his frequent cooing over the nobility of American yeoman farmers,  Jefferson devoted little care to his fields himself, taking an interest only at harvest time. The slaves he spent the most time around were his house servants, mulattoes who appeared to some visitors closer to white than black, and treated with intimate familiarity. They were a world apart from the grisly, bloody reality of most slavery. Even when Jefferson was around his field hands, it was only when he employed them in the farm-saving work of being apprenticing in his nail factory. Yes, Jefferson the agrarian only found solvency by creating a little workshop on the premises. By giving hands such marketable work, he reasoned that he was preparing them for the day when emancipation was possible.

These are only two instances of Jefferson almost being a man of two-minds, but such contradictions are the prevailing theme of the work.  Ellis isn't a sharp critic of Jefferson -- who could be? -- but the work reveals him at worst a romantic, a man who exalted farmers but took little real interest in his, who believe great things but did not take great stands lest they imperil his other dreams. At his best, however, Jefferson was an idealist who could be pragmatic when it counted, as the many compromises through his presidential career showed --  and as even his enemies admitted.  American Sphinx is as promised a fascinating look into Jefferson's mind, though  it's not quite a complete biography.

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Christopher Hitchens.
Alexander Hamilton, Rob Chernow. A look at the Jefferson-Hamilton ragefest from the other side..

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

No Time Like the Past

No Time Like the Past
© 2014 Greg Cox
400 pages

Question: why is the heroic, resolute-looking face of James T. Kirk carved Rushmore-like into a mountainside in the middle of the Delta Quadrant?  In search of an answer, Seven of Nine is thrown across space and time into the middle of a firefight, whereupon she rescues Kirk and company from Orion pirates and enlists his and the Enterprise's help in returning home  Her quest for home won't be easy, and is made even more difficult by a bureaucrat's big mouth; after the pirates learn there's a woman from the future among them, they badger the Enterprise relentlessly, turning a mystery novel into a running battle. No Time Like the Past is a TOS novel with a Voyager twist, a fantastic adventure novel rendered by veteran author Greg Cox.

In the course of sorting out the mystery, Seven and the TOS crew will revisit the battlegrounds of some of the original series’ odder episodes, including “The Apple”.  Although some premises stretch plausibility (the planet riven by race war between people who are black on the right side, and white on the left, or the reverse),  Cox succeeds in fleshing them out enough for readers to take seriously. Cox has an easier job handling the characters; a veteran Trek author,  his Spock/McCoy salvos are right on the mark.  The Voyager crew are in character as well.  The story is one of a mystery-turned-scavenger hunt punctuated by frequent battle scenes and an explosive finale as the frustrated Orions try to  board and seize the Enterprise itself.  All this makes for a story that moves speedily along, with plenty of action and time spent with beloved and familiar characters.  Their interactions with Seven provide even more to enjoyed.  As they have no idea of her backstory, her cybernetic modifications horrify the doctor, but her rational personality and strength impress Kirk and Spock.  The big TOS three and Seven have a lot of fun together, the many scenes of peril aside, and so too will the reader.

Monday, June 23, 2014

This week at the library: American colonies and apes

Dear readers:

Last week saw another entry struck from the To Be Read list, as well as the completion of The Odyssey. I've been meaning to read the full story properly for years.  I've mostly been reading the first entry in my annual Fourth of July set since,  Joseph Ellis' American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson.  In previous years I've read biographies of George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, so it's past the red-headed Virginian's turn.  The other two books in this year's set are The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of an Empire as well as The American Tory, a collection of first-hand dissenting arguments from the revolutionaries' contemporaries who had no interest in severing American bonds from the English homeland.  The fourth is still two weeks off, though, so they won't be immediate reads.  For the moment, I'm unsure as to where to go;  a weekend spent watching The Planet of the Apes (original), The Planet of the Apes (2001) and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) might see me read Good Natured, on the origins of morality in primates, but then too there's The Last of the Mohicans which I am trying to get into. We shall see!


"The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories. Just the other day I, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, [...] enjoying a chocolatey caffê mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of the Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hersey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much."

p. 42, The Party Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell

"Dogs! You have been saying all the time I never should return out of the land of Troy; and, therefore, you destroyed my home, outraged my women-servants, and --I alive -- covertly wooed my wife, fearing no gods that hold the open sky, nor that the indignation of mankind would fall on you hereafter. Now for you and all destruction's cords are knotted!"

p. 279, The Odyessy. Homer; translated by George Herbert Palmer 1884

"For him democracy was to politics as agrarianism was to the economy or health was to the human body. It could never be completely perfect, but the more of it, the better." 

p. 262, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Ellis

To Be Read Takedown Challenge

  1. Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  2. The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)                                       
  3. Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
  4. An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage
  5. Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman
  6. The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
  7. Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton
  8. Earth, Richard Fortey
  9. Good Natured, Frans de Waal
  10. Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Odyssey

The Odyssey
© 1884 trans. George Herbert Palmer, original author Homer
313 pages

Three years ago I read The Illiad, and intended to follow it shortly with The Odyssey. Like Odysseus, however, my own attention was blown of course. This is course a classic, second only to the aforementioned Homeric poem in terms of hallowedness. Virtually everyone knows the story;  a veteran of the war against Troy, the architect of its defeat, attempts to return home, only for a quick jaunt across the Aegean into a ten-year journey, full of monsters and the ill will of the gods. An early escape from the monster cyclops Polyphemus earns our hero Odysseus and his crew the enduring wrath of Poseidon, who throws every obstacle he can at them. Fortunately the clever hero is much-loved of Athena, goddess of craft, and she offers able assistance to both the hero and his young son.They'll need it, because while the master of the house is lost at sea, his manor is filled with suitors who want his wife Penelope to wed them. Literally eating him out of house and home, they intend to kill young Telemachus and force Penelope to wed.

I know the Odyssey as Odysseus' story, but his perilous adventures only occupy a fifth of the book. Instead the tale opens with the gods considering his plight, and Athena embarking on a mission to inspire young Telemachus to go searching for news of his father.  A third of the way in, the focus switches to Odysseus, who -- captive by a goddess who wants him to bed her --  makes his escape with a little help from his divine friends. After washing up on one island and massacring its inhabitants without so much as a cross word exchanged between them,  he is driven into the sea and finds refuge among an island of friendly folk who urge him to tell his story. Enter the cyclopes and the rest.  The book by and large consists of a great deal of dialogue, of people making speeches and delivering flourished stories to one another; Odysseus himself seems to use a different name, and invents a different backstory, every time he makes land.  Even after he's home safely, he spins a yarn for his father, seemingly for the pleasure of saying "Just kidding, it's me!"

Although the speeches and such aren't exactly scintillating reading, the language makes up for that a touch;  the Odyssey began as a oral tale, we know, and the expressive language and use of repetition bear that out. Athena is ever the grey-eyed, Odysseus lordly, the dawn rosy-fingered. (In one stance it is also fair-haired.)  The amount of names,  people and place, dropped here is staggering, putting even The Illiad to shame. I'm glad to have finally read the Odyssey, considering its place in western literature, and enjoyed much of it, but I think I have to count The Iliad my favorite of the two.

The World Until Yesterday

The World Until Yesterday
© 2012 Jared Diamond
481 pages

            Earth has been the province of mankind for hundreds of thousands of years, and for most of the time he has transversed it in small tribal groups, hunting and foraging, living a life on a knife-edge of danger. Several thousand years ago, however, cities and farms appeared, civilization flourished, and the human race filled the globe, teeming into the billions.  Despite that vast difference in accomplishment, however, Jared Diamond holds that traditional societies, for all their tribalism and perilous lives, have much to teach modern man. For despite centuries of technological and social evolution, our bodies are as they were eons ago, and the great horde of wisdom contained within old tradition has not lost use.  In The World Until Yesterday,  Diamond surveys the practices of traditional people throughout the globe, predominantly in Africa and southeast Asia, for what they may yet teach us.

             Elements of Until Yesterday have been given consideration by others; witness the primal movement and the more widespread paleo diet, which hold that since our bodies evolved for the small-village, hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, our minds will feel more at home, and function at their best, recreating that behavior. It's easy to agree to a point;  few would dispute that apples are better for you than AppleJacks, or that daily exercise is more healthy than spending all day in chairs or couches. Diamond's own approach is more nuanced and pragmatic rather than idealistic. Modern approaches are still new, very much wet-behind-the-ears. Traditional approaches are more seasoned, more mature, and their experience  can be used to temper our novel approaches, combing old wisdom with modern power.  One example of this Diamond uses is that of the legal structure;   western law has its place,  but something is lost from the old ways in which criminals were confronted by the victims in a court of those who knew them, and forced to make personal restitution -- instead of being tried, defended, and judged by strangers,   then thrown into a prison where their crimes lose all significance, lost in a sea of others.  The victim, meanwhile, is expected to be detached, surrendering their pain and lust for justice to the impersonal apparatus of the state. But the law cannot feel, it cannot bleed, it cannot flush with anger, and it cannot substitute impersonal punishment for personal crimes. 

       Until Yesterday quickly drives home the point made by other anthropologists that “humans have found many ways to be human”.  A tremendous variety of practices exists between traditional societies, even between those living close by as in on the island of New Guinean.  A grisly example is that of elder ‘care’; while some societies ritually kill the old, others simply abandon them. Yet in most, the aged are revered, not only because the stories and functional knowledge of the tribe are contained within their heads, but because their long practice makes them master craftsmen, and even when their physical bodies deteriorate they can still care for children, leaving adult parents to hunt and forage.  The book’s scope covers justice, war, childrearing,  gender roles,  the elderly, health. and more, but each category bears witness to the glorious diversity of mankind.  Some lessons are familiar, as with health. Some were forgotten by most, but live on in others, like educational approaches;   which is more productive, Diamond acts, sitting in chairs all day memorizing facts, or experiencing the world directly? Opponents of conventional schooling, especially the unschoolers, know how important tactile and immediately-relevant lessons learned are. Traditional children learn to make the tools they will need to live by, and study the animals and rhythms of nature that sill sustain them;  they absorb the stories of the past that inform them of the dangers to come.  Their tests are not academic exercises.  Still other lessons have been lost to us entirely;  in the developed world, living amid plenty in environments divested of all predators and woes, we have become so blind to the thought of a dangerous world that we cross streets with eyes locked on phones, texting and assuming traffic will stop around us. For traditional peoples, however, the world is alive with danger, from animals who can easily  eat your young, or tribal enemies who will do the same if you trespass.

      The World Until Yesterday has much to offer, even with Diamond's thesis aside. It is if nothing else a survey of over a dozen distinct tribal cultures, all providing a wealth of fascinating, living in climates as disparate as the frozen Arctic sea  and the equatorial jungles.  They display how utterly different the human experience can be from the global sameness of modern living; each tribe faces different challenges,  hunts different prey, makes different adaptations.   Diamond's idea does hold, however, that there are lessons to be learned here, that the way we do things presently is not necessarily the most productive or satisfying way. There's much about traditional living no sane person would invite back -- the constant threat of famine, the utter lack of medicine -- but these people are wily and strong, firmly connected one another and committed to their families in ways few moderns can rival.  At any rate, the book offers insight without prescription,  not preaching but demonstrating and leaving it to the reader to consider.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Power, Inc

Power, Inc: the Epic Rivalry between Government and Big Business
© 2013 David Rothkopf
448 pages


Historians of western civilization are used to viewing its late medieval and early modern period through the lens of a church versus state battle; the reformation owes as much to the desire for German princes to be free of the Roman pontiff’s command as it does belief  in theological purity.  Concurrent with the battle between Crown and cathedral, however, was another war; one between the crown and commerce. In Power, Inc, Alexander Rothkopft gives a history of the modern world, of the economic tides that eventually created polities greater than many states: corporations. The history, which covers economic entanglement in wars of the period as well as the evolution of Law, doubles as a plea for sharper control of corporations by the government. 

      Although Rothkopf draws on a variety of examples throughout the work, his anchor is the Stora corporation. Granted a charter in 1347, what began as a copper-mining operation turned Sweden into a power to be reckoned with during the Thirty Years War, but outlived its beneficiary by continuing to adapt to the modern world long after Sweden had been overshadowed once again by Germany, France, and England.  Although the economic forces unlocked by the scientific and industrial revolutions were initially used primarily for the benefit of the king,  governments soon lost control; the developing rule of law in modernizing country soon triumphed over the king's will, but instead of protecting all parties the law  in America eventually became the faithful servant of corporations. Granted fictional personhood, and all the rights (but none of the responsibilities) thereof,  corporations became 'super citizens' whose globetrotting power now rivals the majority of nations. Loyal to none and increasing free of legal restraints (courtesy of globalization),  their might has prompted nation-states to adopt their methods   But countries are not businesses, and if maximizing economic profitability becomes the standard for good governance we will be in a bad way, riven even more by inequality and utterly beholden to economic titans.

     Power is organized smartly,  linking a breadth of information;  this is a lesson in the rise of the rule of law from military might and kings as well as the tale of the global economy's transition from medieval marketplaces to fiendishly complex financial markets.  The golem-like creation of corporations delivers appropriate horror, but Rothkopf sees the battle between states and corporations as one sided, with corporations cast as the villains and governments diminished victims. Although he mentions the revolving door that sees corporate executives occupying seats within the government 'overseeing'  the businesses they once worked for, and will again when they are out of office,  the way government is used to increase the power of corporations -- through subsidies, or through legislation that smothers smaller businesses but leaves the big-business beasts intact --  are absent altogether. Sterner regulation, even when applied through global bodies, will only lead to more of the same. 

Power, Inc doesn't quite live up to its name  in giving an account of people being pawns between government and business, but it does offer a look as to how corporations are becoming utterly lawless in the global era. 

No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, better anti-corporate books by Naomi Klein

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot
© 2003 Sarah Vowell
197 pages

          The Partly Cloudy Patriot sees cheeky Yank Sarah Vowell muse on history, politics, and American life in general through a series of essays written in 2001. Her familar mixture of absurd and melachoic humor is well on display; she's especially put out by the triumph of George W. Bush. Seperate essays hail the virtues of Clinton and Gore, the latter of whom she lionizes as a fellow nerd who should have run on his pocket-protector-abiding principles.  Every essay is a mixed bag; that piece on Clinton features her visiting the presidential shrines of Eisenhower, Nixon, LBJ, and Kennedy to study how each man's term in office was dealt with and presented for posterity, where she leaves with a grudging respect for Nixon and LBJ despite their deficiencies in office.  The meaning of American identity comes up a time or two; Vowell admits to being more American than she would like to believe,  embracing cowboy individualism even against the ideals of conforming, polite Canada which she otherwise admires. A more common subject is that of history, Vowell's reliable companion, filling her world with stories and creating meaning.  She takes her title from Thomas Paine's urging that the revolution is no time for seasonal soldiers and sunshine patriots; she is, for all her misgivings about  George Bush, the south, and heroes who don't live up to their hype, a devout American. 

The Great War at Sea

The Great War at Sea: History of Naval Action 1914-1918
© 1965 A.A. Hoehling
346 pages

            The Great War is not called the first world war for nothing, taking place as it did not only across the sprawling expanse of Eurasia and Africa, but in the skies above and in the great oceans girding the continents. The Great War at Sea  is a narrative history of the naval war between the United Kingdom, Germany, and to a lesser extent the United States.Written in 1965, it’s a work definitely keyed toward popular audiences; though the author mentions sinking and shipping statistics, he focuses on blow-by-blow retellings of ship battles for which there exists plenty of record, relying on both British and German accounts. The narrative which knits these battle-tales together will render a general understanding of how the naval war unfolded,  including the stresses placed on the British and German economies by their attempted blockades.   The heavy use of dialogue and lively storytelling make it a quick read,  most suitable for a lay audience who don’t want to sink too deeply into details. The maps and illustrations included, however, are superb and would complement even more scholarly works; the battle diagrams are even artful.  As might be expected from a work produced in 1965, The Great War at Sea has a patriotic spirit, though the incorporation of German accounts removes bias.  He takes the attitude that both English and German sailors did their bit for king and country, dying noble deaths deserving of praise. It's a 'nice' history, but on the light side.

Monday, June 16, 2014

This week: Strife at Sea

This has been a productive week in fiction, of the short kind at least.  On Saturday afternoon I finished Power, Inc,  and that's another one down from the to-be-read-list.  That list has altered a touch; I was using the wrong title for a Frans de Waal book I own. (In honesty, all of his hey-look-chimpanzees-have-moral-instincts-too books are blending together for me.) Reviews or comments for both Power, Inc and The World Until Yesterday will follow this week. What's next? The Great War at sea, that's what.   I've also got my annual Fourth of July reading all lined up, so the TBR challenge may get put on pause for a few weeks while I dive into the American Revolution.

All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness; and though he had seen many spectres in his time and had been more than once beset by Satan in divers shapes, in his lonely perambulations, yet daylight put an end to all these evils; and he would have passed a pleasant life of it, despite of the devil and his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was -- a woman.

p. 14, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Cressey was sinking fast, like a heavy oil drum which had been split in target practice. 'She carried far over', Wedigen continued, 'but all the while her men stayed at the guns, looking for their invisible foe. They were brave and true to their country's sea traditions.

p. 54, The Great War at Sea, A.A. Hoehling

"We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life, like what you call the blue mould -- all sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must be rid of it. By little and little, of course. Slowly we learn how. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body; learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation."
"I don't think that would be much fun," said Winter.

p. 173, That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis

To Be Read Takedown Challenge
Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)                                      
Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage
Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman
The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton
Earth, Richard Fortey
Good Natured, Frans de Waal
Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Thursday, June 12, 2014

That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown Ups
© 1945 C.S. Lewis
384 pages

Mark Studdock is a newly married sociologist who has been given the opportunity of a lifetime; the chance to work with a promising and ambitious new research institute setting up shop in his sleepy home of Edgestow. Mark likes to rub shoulders with the progressive element within the college, and the idea of working with people whose dream is to offer to the world rational solutions to social problems -- well!  That's too good an opportunity to pass. Alas for Mark, good intentions mask fouler ones.  The National Institute for Coordinated Experiments is set on making the world in its own very rational image, yes;  no more, they hold, should be a man be constrained by tradition, by illogical authorities, by the limitations of flesh and blood. It has a vision for a world, but Mark soon discovers that that vision is a paradise in which humankind is distilled into pure consciousness, and the tired Earth freed from its mounds of organic infestation to the point that it resembles N.I.C.E's view of a heavenly paradise, the Moon.  

Such a sinister dream isn't exactly what Mark would have expected from a research institute, but slowly and by degrees he is drawn deeper and deeper into the N.I.C.E's conspiracy against mankind; seduced by the very propaganda he is tasked with writing and cowed by their threats to undermine his prospects and imperil his life should he not give them his full devotion.  His increasing entrapment is a burden on an already strained marriage, and here enters the second star of the book, his wife Jane. The Mrs. is being visited by nightly visions that reveal evil at work, hidden behind archetype and the fog of sleep, and the N.I.C.E. wants her abilities in their corner.  Their ambition is nothing less than the creation of a new breed of man, rationally superior and free from of the body; they defy the natural order of the cosmos and promise brutality to any who interfere. Those who disagree with them are wrong, and in need of education; those who resist merit death.  Against this sinister plot, however, stands the literal heir of King Arthur, a traveler of the stars who calls himself the Pendragon. He is the leading man in a resistance of light, whose greatest hope is to find the resting place of the ancient wizard Merlin, and awake him so that he can channel the power of the angels of the solar system and defeat the Devil's work.

This is a very peculiar piece of fiction, the finale of a "Space Trilogy" that sounds like science fiction but is inspired more by fantasy, British mythology, and Christianity. The Christian worldview undergirds the virtuous characters, and their conversations often turn to moral philosophy, not because the heroes are absent minded but because the villains are wrong at a fundamental level. They see man as perfectible and the body loathsome, when in truth (says Lewis),  it is not the body that is corrupt but the human soul, having fallen into sin, and it is by no means perfectible except by grace. The Cosmos is likewise good in itself, declared as such by God, and it is beyond man's ability to improve it or create himself in his own image.   It is not the human body that is corrupt, but the soul within it that has fallen into sin. The actual plot and characterization freely mixes elements of SF and fantasy, so that cosmic allies awaiting Merlin's offering are not just angels, not just Greek deities, but ethereal space-beings waging for an opportunity to triumph over one of their own who is now rebellious. It's the Lucifer myth for a new age, and one that. links itself to the West's classical heritage,  a heritage defended here as the moral champions insist on the reality of natural law that the N.I.C.E. is attempting to overthrow.

It's an interesting combination of theology and fantasy-fiction; Lewis' background in Renaissance and medieval literature is on full display here as he steeps the narrative in mythic importance. Considering the horrors the 20th century had already endured in the name of science -- Nazi eugenics and Soviet-style "scientific socialism" -- little wonder Lewis regarded its elevation with skepticism. The tale is a sustained criticism of modernity, from its belief in technocracy to the increasingly triumphant  spirit of moral relativism taking root. Lewis' heroes are an embattled minority, a pocket of grace in an England that has lost its way, and presumably he felt the same of himself and other Christian apologists. He makes the same arguments in The Abolition of Man, in which he writes that, having divorced himself from natural law,  having declared that all things are subjective,  all that is good and worthy within man has been cast way, abandoning himself to follow every vain and self-destructive impulse. The villains here are men without chests, literally speaking*, all head and no soul;  their concern is with ideological visions, so much so that they can view the wasteland of the Moon as a paradise, and the bounteous Earth as a fetid horror.  Undoubtedly Lewis,  taking in the atmosphere of the 21st century, would say the same of us; we, who cover meadows alternatively with parking lots and frankenfoods,  whose every ambition seems to be fixated on losing ourselves in the world of the screen, whose appreciation of morality is as such that presidents who order the remote-controlled destruction of neighborhoods in undeclared wars are lauded with a medal for peace.  The hideous strength has grown no less obscene nor less potent in the decades since this work's publication.

Confusing, but thought-provoking.

The Vikings

The Vikings: A History
© 2010 Robert Ferguson
464 pages
UK title: The Hammer and the Cross: A History of the Vikings

            VIKINGS!  For students of western civilization, the word has quite the mystique. Invaders from the frozen north, flying across the seas on dragons-head ships, wreaking havoc on seaboards and penetrating deep into Europe’s heartland to cause even more. Kings and priests feared them;  behind them, cities were cast into smoke. For decades they were the unholy dread of Christendom, but theirs is a history not limited to battle and chaos. The Vikings is a history of the turn of the second millennium in Europe, of not only the northern clans but of the civilizations they altered; the English, Russian, Norman, Italian, and even Arabic.  As the last of Europe’s pagans roamed far and side, from Constantinople to North America, so to does Ferguson explore not only their military and political strivings, but their religious culture as well.  Although Vikings is a weighty work, dense with information, it's presented as-such; there's no  overall idea to  tie each section together, and because their wanderings were so broad the reader is thrown from place to place in every other chapter. There's no want of detail;  Carolingian politics, variations in the Heathen religion, and even home sites at archaeological digs are given extensive consideration.  For those interested in the Vikings, and their impact on European history at this time, The Vikings will be a worthy source of information; for the  only slightly curious, however, its density may be intimidating. 

Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England , Sally Crawford

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
© 1820 Washington Iriving; illustrations 1966, Leonard Fisher
58 pages

Long ago in a quiet part of the north country near Hudson Bay lived a superstitious and gangly schoolteacher whose amorous affections for a local heiress threw him headlong into trouble. The man's name? Ichabod Crane, and if that name sounds familar to you, so might the Tale of the Headless Horseman. Though I've been familar with Crane, the Horseman, and name "Sleepy Hollow" since childhood, I have never read the story.  It's a short story, a fantasy-horror tale with a comic main character in a barely independent America. While I initially peeked into the petite volume to learn where the tale went (ending in dread mystery),  surely it was worth reading for the language alone. Irving's prose is ornate, yet highly readable, like the rare piece of cursive writing that is rendered artfully without slowing down communication.  The work has the added appeal of painting a picture of an America still very much wet behind the ears;  America is still more a colony than a Nation, and the Dutch population of Sleepy Hollow have not yet been ironed out of existence by the forces of cultural homogenization.  It is thus not only an elegantly-told short story perfect for occasions such as Halloween, but a charming piece of early Americana.  Another example of such is the story of Rip Van Winkle, also laden with Dutch characters though much shorter.  I trust the name and story are singularly familiar to most;  the tale of a happy-go-lucky farmer who has a lie-down under a nap and wakes up twenty years later to find  his wife dead, his country a republic, and his town burgeoning is also captivating.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Global Weirdness

Global Weirdness: Severe Storms, Deadly Heat Waves, Relentless Drought, Rising Seas, and the Weather of the Future
© 2013 Climate Central
224 pages

Global Weirdness is a climate briefing for the civic body; short, well-organized, and to the point.  Produced by Climate Central,  the book is divided into three parts; the first reviews the science of climate change, considering not just greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor, but contributors from Earth itself.  A second section examines what effects of climate change we are currently witnessing, and the final part makes tentative guesses about what changes we might see in the future.  Weirdness, despite its playful title, is a serious and cautious work.  The authors’ essential point is that we on Earth are in the midst of a climate change, a gradual heating; the trend is long term, and not defied by the vagaries of daily weather.  The trick is that the Earth is a massive place, and its climate enormously complicated; the chaos-wheel set in motion by one factor has consequences we cannot predict. What is clear is that the Earth as a whole is getting warmer, and its weather more unstable;  increased stress is inevitable for both humans and especially the global ecosystem.  More disturbingly, there’s not a great deal we can do about it; even if the global civilization suddenly stopped emitting greenhouse gases on an industrial scale, the planet would still continue to heat for a hundred years thereafter because of delayed actions. There exists presently no silver bullet; none of the alternative energy sources are particularly attractive.   Weirdness is a call to awareness that we are in for a rough century. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

This week: POWER! unLIMITED POWER!!!!!!

Dear readers:

First, of literary interest, last night I discovered a "Classic Tales" podcast that features readings of classic stories. I haven't figured out how to access their archives prior to February, but just on the front page are performances of Around the World in 80 Days and Shakespeare's Coriolanus.  I'm going to try my first tonight.

This last has been a relaxing week, filled with mostly fiction and the steady working-through of The Vikings.  After discovering a free Kindle book, I read my first Ayn Rand in Anthem and found it largely engaging save a bit of preaching at the end. It's hard to mess up a good man vs state story, though. The Danes were successfully taken on, and that's another victory over the mighty To-Be-Read list.

  1. Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  2. The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)                                         
  3. Power, Inc; David Rothkopf
  4. An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage
  5. Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman
  6. The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
  7. Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton
  8. Earth, Richard Fortey
  9. Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal
  10. Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Power, Inc may be next.  It's going to have competition, though, because yesterday I made my usual library raid and brought home a small pile. I went in with a focus on working out a series of American Revolution readings, though, so they won't surface until closer to the end of the month.  Closer to the fore will be Jihad vs. McWorld, by Benjmain Barber, and White Trash: Race and Class in America,  ed. Matt Wray and Annalee Newtiz.


We stood together for a long time. And we were frightened that we had lived for twenty -one years and had never known what joy is possible to men.
I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity . I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.

Rand, Ayn . Anthem

Well, until next week -- may your characters engage, your plot twists thrill, and your claims be thoroughly footnoted!  Happy reading.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


© 1938 Ayn Rand
128 pages

In a dark future, the triumph of collectivism has created a global society deteriorating to near-medieval conditions.  Man is utterly broken by the state, dominated by institutions from birth onward. Raised in cohorts in government offices, not by families,  children come of age at fifteen and are assigned their lot in life by the governing authorities.  They toil as drones for the next thirty years before being consigned the House for the Useless, where if they are lucky they will find some meager pleasure in the social programs before being execution as a burden to society.  The state and society are all, so triumphant that even the pronoun "I" has been extinguished.  The human spirit, however, is irrepressible.

Equality 2521 is a sinner in the hands of a suffocating state, a young man who yearns to study the ways of the world and perhaps even to become a scholar, but who is consigned to be a street-sweeper. After stumbling into an abandoned subway tunnel, Equality finds himself for the first time alone, and there in the dark with just his thoughts for company, a psychological journey begins. The tunnel, which he and a couple of sympathetic friends keep hidden from everyone else, becomes their sanctuary, a place for Equality to read books and experiment with the things he finds in the rubbish, a place where he eventually discovers that there are things not written in the Global We's philosophy. There is Electricity, and if he can realize its power he can make the world a better place. Breathlessly he takes his findings to the convention of Scholars, who promptly imprison him for many manifold presumptions (among them, threatening to put candle-makers out of work). Happily for him they are incompetent at incarceration, since so few people have ever rebelled against them, and soon he's escaped to make his fortunes elsewhere.

Anthem is a short work, a novella of no more than 90 pages; I read it chiefly because it was available for free on Amazon, and the delicious irony of something of Rand's being offered for free was too good to pass put. Altogether it's the tale of an individual's self-realization, his struggle for consciousness. Eventually he does, and as in 1984 his rebellion is urged onward by forbidden love for Liberty 5-3000, and given safe harbor by the wild;  the rugged forests outside the bleak We-ruled cities are teeming with life and energy. But among the wild are grown-over homes, and inside them books which reveal how much was lost.  Ultimately Equality and Liberty shed their old identities and emerge as Individuals, and  here the book descends into preaching.  All of the lost passion of twenty years comes bubbling up into Equality's realization that the individual is sovereign, the individual makes the world, and so carried away by it is he that when Liberty professes, "I love you," he replies with a half-page speech about the importance of names and the individual.

I have never Rand before, and will own a bias against her, one I've had since listening to a radio interview with her years ago. Even so, I enjoyed this work for the most part; any tale of man versus the state, of  the natural vs. the contrived, is sure to win me over despite the overweening pronunciations of the last few pages  Considering  that the union of the happy couple results in a pregnancy, there is hope that the book's heroes will learn what the childless Rand never did, that people are born into society as surely as fish are born into the ocean. It is a society of the family, however, a natural one, where we are reared by the bone of our bone and the flesh of our flesh, not an artificial and imposed "Global We".    Even so, this is a fascinating little book, well worth the time spent reading it; regardless of my animosity toward Rand's praise of selfishness, hers was a quick and artful pen.  The similarities between this and 1984 make it a beacon of hope after Orwell's singularly depressing work about the triumph of the state.


Thursday, June 5, 2014


© 2011 Veronica Roth
487 pages

Every major city has problems with organized gangs, but the Chicago of Divergent’s future has nothing else. The entire society is organized in five factions devoted to an ideal;  Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudition, Amity, and Candor. These five subcultures prescribe virtually every aspect of life; occupation, manners, dress, and living quarters.  Every year, on their sixteenth birthday, young people submit to a test that informs them which faction best suits their personality. A rare few defy this sorting serum, however;  they are Divergent, and their very existence is taboo. Such is the premise of Divergent, a young adult sci-fi thriller that succeeds in  thrilling despite some problems.

 Our lead character and hero is Beatrice, soon to be called Tris. Tris has been raised by the  semi-religious Abnegation, who strive for selflessness and are trusted with the governance of society. Beatrice, soon to be called Tris, loves her family’s ways but can’t help but feel she doesn't  belong there. When her inconclusive test results giver her the option of choosing, she bolts factions and becomes Dauntless. Her new faction, the society’s warriors and guards, place a premium on battle skills and ferocity.  Most of the book is taken up with Tris training for initiation; if she fails, she will be homeless.  Considering that the training involves teenagers violently sparring with one another (with the occasional knife thrown),  and the  plot eventually ends in rebellion against an establishment reigning with the machinery of the state,  little wonder it has been compared to The Hunger Games.

 Unlike The Hunger Games,  the insurrection is not one of the oppressed against an oppressor, but of one sect against another, manipulating  others to do its bidding. The Erudite, who are less wise  here than presumptive elites,  think little about society being run by simpering religious folk. They intend to seize power through sinister technocracy,  and Tris soon finds her allies as against her as everyone else.  Though she prevents catastrophic defeat, her victory is necessarily minor given that there are two more books in the series. Divergent is a touch more risqué than The Hunger Games, and not nearly as violent (yet).  The premise is contrived, especially when the primary danger of being Divergent is that such individuals pose a danger to the exact technology and plot used by the Erudite to start their coup.  Either the Erudite have been scheming this for a very long time,  Divergency is dangerous for other reasons, or that was a boo-boo.  The entire intellectuals vs. virtuous religious angle is obnoxious,  and the villains are more flatly Eeeeeeevil than one would expect for a teen audience. The ever-sympathetic challenges of a young person being removed from the safety of childhood and having to adapt to a new environment and new people provide a familiar story with plenty of excitement, with some exploring of moral horizons thrown in.  In my view Divergent’s best virtue is the value placed on family; while its society urges that Faction comes before family,  Tris  uses the lessons learned from her parents to help guide her transition into her own brave new world, and later relies on their help in the coup. 

Problematic but fun, Divergent is best for older tweens and teens.

  • "Profession", Isaac Asimov.  In a future society where people's professions are assigned to them by a testing computer, one man finds himself at a loss when he is declared un-assignable. 
  • The Hunger Games, obviously.

The Smoke at Dawn

The Smoke at Dawn
© 2014 Jeff Shaara
528 pages

The bells of the South in 1863 rang death knells, not peals of joyous victory. In July, on the same day that Lee's army suffered a staggering loss at Gettysburg,  General Grant of the Union army took possession of Vicksburg, and within it gained complete command of the Mississippi river. The South fractured and its strength wasted, the Confederates needed a fresh triumph. In November, General Braxton Bragg commanding rebel forces in Tennessee thought he might be the man to deliver it. After routing a Union army, he cornered them in Chattanooga, where he hoped a quick siege would see their surrender and regain the South its lost momentum.  The Smoke at Dawn is the story of the Chattanooga Campaign, of armies stumbling in the night through battlefields that soar into the sky.  It's also the tale of commanding personalities, of men set at odds even against their comrades. The third book in Shaara's new Civil War series is a third triumph for the author -- and General Grant. 

Like Shaara's other works, The Smoke at Dawn is a swiftly-moving narrative composed largely of the thoughts and conversations of generals commanding the battle. This combined with more conventional narration is highly effective at putting the reader into the generals' position without being rambling.  Many of the characters are familiar names; Grant, Longstreet, and Sherman among them.  The greatest maneuvers and best battlefield performances, however, are put on by generals who fame has ignored.  The focus on the generals from across the field give the reader a strategic understanding of what is happening, allowing witness of the way the armies wrangled around one another, attempting to control supply lines or use the river to land by stealth and deliver devastating stealth attacks. The river puts the generals in the curious place of sometimes being closer to their foes than their friends;   Generals Thomas and Grant, commanding, can view Burnside's own headquarters  from their own positions.   

As in his more recent work, Shaara also employs a few infantrymen to deliver combat scenes; the most notable here is Fritz Bauer, a Wisconsin orphan who would be alone in the world were it not for his best friend Willis. When Willis leaves the volunteers for the regular army, Bauer follows suit, and their course through the campaign gives not only plentiful action scenes, but the realization that soldiers often fought not for ideals but for their comrades. The book as a whole is steeped in the power of human relationships;  the obstinate and autocratic Braxton Bragg's contemptuous attitude toward his subordinates withers away his own army's effectiveness.  He earns no one's trust save Jefferson Davis', spending the entire battle fighting with his own officers and  once sending an entire corps away just to be delivered from a potential threat to his authority. Between Bauer's devotion and Bragg's contempt is the happy medium of rivalry,  most prominently Sherman's running duel with his equally highly effective Confederate counterpart. Despite Sherman's reputation and Grant's high esteem of him,  Sherman can't seem to best Patrick Cleburne.  For all of Bragg's discipline and Sherman's speed, however, ultimately the battle's upset is decided by unpredictable forces -- like a diversionary force that advances further than planned, attempting to avoid being slaughtered by artillery, and results in routing  an entire army. 

Readers of Civil War fiction will find The Smoke at Dawn most attractive. The fourth book in Shaara's series will concern the Fall of Atlanta.