Monday, July 27, 2015

Before the Throne

Before the Throne: A Modern Arabic Novel
© 1982 Naguib Mafouz, trans. 2008 Raymond Stock
128 pages

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the souls of the dead were weighed before the gods. In Before the Throne, the dead pharaohs, generals, leaders, and dictator-presidents of Egypt process before the heavenly court, where the great lord of their ancestors, Osiris, sits waiting to judge them.  Even as Egypt is conquered and her people forget the gods, Osiris and his divine family maintain a watchful eye on the Land of the Nile, whose people are theirs.  Originally written in Arabic in the 1980s,   Before the Throne is a history of an ancient people, who have endured much but have finally regained independence, told through a fantastical trial.

Some sixty men and women are brought before Osiris's throne, and at first their judgments follow a fairly predictable formula:  Thoth, the court reporter, offers a brief recap of the individual's life, followed by the defendant asserting his merits. Osiris is rarely impressed, cross-examining to the point of grilling his mortal subject, while his sister-wife Isis plays the part of public defender, offering grounds for mercy. Most of the time the subject in question is allowed -- if grudgingly -- admittance to glory, while some are cast into purgatory and a rare few into Hell itself.  As more pharaohs pass muster, however, they become active spectators to successive trials; great pharaohs bemoan their descendants' stupidity in losing hard-won gains, or exult in their successors' steadfast defense of Egypt's people against a multitude of greater empires, fighting to their last.  The ranks of the judged include noble pharaohs and revolutionaries alike, and they bicker with one another and the defendants. Akhenaten, for instance, noted for turning away from Egyptian mythology in favor of a new monotheism, is written as  single-minded religious fanatic who is profoundly unhappy with every leader who follows until he sees in the rise of Islam the fulfillment of his own vision.  After the Persian conquest, when Egyptians endure many centuries of foreign rule,  individuals who fought for Egypt as Egypt are singled for scrutiny; the gods acknowledge limits to their sovereignty, as they begin wishing leaders success in their Christian and Islamic trials.  They are Egypt's gods, even if Egypt has become the domain of another  deity.

Translated from the Arabic,  this is a most curious book. There is virtually no awkwardness in the translation, although each rulers' time is so short that few have personality. The few who do (Akhenaten ) gain it only by complaining in every trial, least until Osiris demands that they behave. The fact that Mahfouz is writing for a predominately Muslim audience while wanting to connect to the gods of Egypt's past reveals itself in the complete lack of concern on the god's part about Akhenaten's revelation, and the fact that they acknowledge their children have become the wards of the Abrahamic faiths.  Judging by the book's conclusion, in which some of the major subjects implore Egyptians to learn the lessons of their lives -- lessons like the importance of justice, of fighting for Egypt as a thing itself distinct  from the Arab people or from global Islam, of revolution as a progressive force to realize the nation's potential --  Magfouz wrote to offer encouragement in a time when Egypt was struggling to find its place in the "modern" middle east, finally governing itself again and trying to contend against powers like the United States as unrest was sweeping the middle east. The book's published translation so soon after the Arab spring, in which again the land was given with chaos, is a most appropriate season for looking back at the leaders of the past, both noble monarchs and revolutionary leaders of the people, and examining where they failed and where they prospered.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Great Cities in History

The Great Cities in History
© 2009 ed. John Julius Norwich
302 pages

            The Great Cities in History takes readers on a literary world tour, traveling through space and time to visit the greatest political bodies in history.  Civilization is nothing if not the ‘culture of cities, and here we experience its hotspots.  Historian John Julius Norwich and a host of other historians deliver celebratory treatments of cities within their realm of expertise, covering six continents and lauding every place from the ancient to the modern.  Here are the locus points of empires, world-spanning religions,  and prosperous commercial enterprises  This is a work of historical tourism; the authors are sharing each site and its community’s story with us in the way that a tour guide might. Most of the cities are still occupied in the present day, but the challenges mentioned are limited to environmental degradation.  The text is lavishly decorated with hundreds of illustrations, including full-page photographs, art reprints that show scenes of local culture, and photos of surviving artifacts (in the case of extinct cities).  The cities are organized on the basis of when they achieved their greatest historical impact, so we begin with Uruk and end with cities that appear to be leading the way into the future, like Shanghai and New York. Some cities merit multiple mentions; Constantinople reappears as Istanbul, Rome and London  pop up twice, and Mexico City questionably qualifies given its siting upon the also-covered Tenochtitlan.  The near east and the adjacent Mediterranean world predominate, of course.  The dozens of sections are organized by timeframe, but not linked together with a common narrative; some authors focus onl y on their city’s greatest moment, while others track to the current day. They make for fun reading, however, least for those with even the slightest appreciation for history. Modern readers accustomed to the world being divided up by nation states, drawing great boxes around swathes of earth and claiming them as their own,  should find a renewed appreciation here for the fact that human history has been dominated not by kings and abstract empires, but physical polities defined by stone walls.   Great Cities is a treasure to look at and makes for excellent light historical reading.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Space Between Us

The Space Between Us
© 2007 Thrity Umrigar
321 pages

"A hard land, yes, full of mountains, but toughness has its own beauty." p. 200

The Space Between Us is a modern Indian tragedy, told through the plight of two women who guide their families alone,  fighting despair and deceit.  Serabai and Bhima have spent much of their lives together, witnessing and consoling one another through crisis after crisis, but they remain alienated from the other by class -- for Bhima is Serabai's servant. Nothing illustrates their distance like the news that each is expecting a new grandchild; for Sera,  such a birth is a source of energy and excitement. For Bhima, it is the fount of despair.  Abandoned in life by her husband,  robbed of her children by disease, she has fallen from a modest apartment into the slums and sacrificed everything in the hope that her granddaughter Maya would succeed in college and go on to a comfortable life. Now that hope has fallen away,  and the aging grandmother must continue to bear the burden alone, caring for a pregnant college dropout.  As Bhima  struggles against physical exhaustion, poverty, and now a deep despair of the soul, Sera attempts to help her even while hindered by timidity in the face of customs of caste. This is not simply a story of the present, however, as much is delivered through the two women's reminiscences, stories from the past that add enormous meaning to their present struggles. As the past is unearthed, the reader who is drawn in by the enchanting prose is staggered by a final revelation that destroys what little hope and peace the characters have.  Umrigar has a talent for  throwing readers  not only into the desperate poverty of the Bombay slums, but into a dark night of the soul.  As past and present dance with one another, Bhima is steadily crushed, tortured as though she were thrown upon a medieval rack. The one consolation in this story is that she does not give up; her head is bloodied, but unbowed. It is a grim novel,  however, in which the high point is that the main character doesn't commit suicide.


  • A Man in Full,  Tom Wolfe, in which another impoverished parent is ground beneath the heel of life, pushed beyond endurance, and finds some inner strength. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Travelin' man

Hello again, dear readers! I've been on a mini-vacation this past weekend, staying with my sister's in-laws in Atlanta and watching the Atlanta Braves take on the Chicago Cubs.  The game itself was a sleepy affair, with little hitting and  only two accidental runs in the third and fourth innings.  It was a weekend of good company and zero responsibilities, however,  and not until the ride home did I retreat into reading.

 I knocked off Pandora's Lunchbox, a bit of food-journalism in the style of Fast Food Nation that documents how pervasively preservatives are used in our food, even food that seems pure and wholesome.  I may give it a more detailed review, but it's not on the level of Schlosser's aforementioned work or Salt, Sugar, Fat, a somewhat more recent work.  If you don't think much about food, it's certainly enough to make grocery aisles loom like a carnival of horrors.  Fans of Food Inc, Fast Food Nation, and related works will find the ground familiar.  Another book I finished before the mini-vacation was Kevin Gutzman's James Madison and the Making of America, a biography of Madison that focuses on his years as a member of the Constitutional congress and within the Executive branch.   Although Madison is known as the father of the Constitution, Gutzman work shows how every clause was the productive of multiplie personalities, all arguing with one another, and that the end result was a product Madison was reluctant to accept responsibility for. Despite his later alignment with the Republicans,  Madison began as a nationalist who wanted a stronger central union. It was enjoyable enough, but between lectures and books I overdid revolution and the Constitution.

Since returning from vacation I've started John Julius Norwich's Great Cities in History, which I love. It's a beautiful book,  covered in photos of art and of cityscapes,  delivering history from around the world. It's one of those pieces that people stop and admire if they spot it. Look for it soon. After that, the fun will continue!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Engines of War

Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways
368 pages
© 2010 Christian Wolmar

An army marches on its stomach, but for a hundred years it rode to victory only on the rails.  It was Napoleon who observed the importance of supplies the military,  and well he should know, for the nigh-twenty years of wars he raged on the European continent were the last major conflict prior to the advent of rails. In Engines of War, veteran railway historian Christian Wolmar addresses how trains transformed war,  allowing for greater conflicts to be sustained over a wider front, and often serving as the locus of conflicts themselves.  Although the American Civil War and the Great War feature most prominently, Wolmar also dwells on the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars, and includes many minor episodes which are fascinating. Who knew, for instance, the role of railroads in the Arab revolt from Ottoman rule?

The most important aspect of the railroads to war, of course, is logistics -- the transport of men and material to the battle, including food, ammunition, and forage. Mankind has waged war against itself since human history began, but not until the industrial age did he do it on so terrible a scale. Wars between ancient empires -- the Roman and Carthaginian, for instance -- might last decades, but these lengthy conflicts did not tax their nations they way they do now for most of the 20th century.  Battles were comparatively much smaller, and more seasonal. Invading armies relied on raiding hostile territory to supply themselves, and as professional armies were rare, generally consisting of private subjects whose labor was needed back at home.  Rail lines made projecting and sustaining a force in the field far easier -- as they did early in Crimea, allowing Britain to sustain a siege halfway across the world.  Or, take Sherman's famed march to the sea, for instance, his bloody chevauchée from Atlanta to the southeast coast of Georgia. Despite a reputation for feeding his troops off the land, his initial push was fueled by a rail-fed stockpile.. The incorporation of railroads allowed for intense strategic planning: the Schlieffen Plan, Germany's strategy for a quick resolution to the Great War,  was essentially a train timetable. Despite how quickly trains could deliver men to the front, however, Wolmar maintains that the rails favored defensive warfare more than the offensive. Any advance made by an invading army would take them into territory with sabotaged infrastructure, often incompatible with the invaders' systems.

The rail lines could also be used as weapons themselves; carrying artillery or serving as mobile gunships. Armored cars first appeared in the Boer war, and were used to suppress insurrection in vital areas.  The importance of defending the rails, even with trains themselves, is made obvious by the Arab revolt from Ottoman rule. The Ottomans created a rail line stretching down the Arabian peninsula to allow pilgrims on the hajj to more easily reach Mecca, but during the revolt it was subjected to such chronic attack that  the troops which depended on it for supplies were forced to surrender.  Other methods of attacking rails were less successful:  airplane-born bombs, for instance, were rarely accurate enough to touch down on so narrow a line drawn on the landscape.  Even  when lines were rendered inert, every military of the period created divisions which specialized in rail repair.  Germany was especially diligent about maintaining large stockpiles of extra rail supplies, to allow for nigh-instantaneous repair. Only when its entire war effort was failing did the rail lines finally collapse.  In his other works, Wolmar analyzes the comparative advantages of government and private management of rail systems; here the insistence on efficiency takes on a more awkward tone when it results in more prolonged wars and the horror of the holocaust.

Despite their importance for nearly a century,   so linked to the projection of power that their construction could spark wars (as between Russia and Japan in 1905), even a rail enthusaist like Wolmar has to admit the age of the train is past, militarily speaking.  The nature of war itself has changed.. We are as unlikely to see massed armies butchering each other with Maxims and artillery as we are to see cavalrymen running about with sabers in the next war.  This is the age of cruise missiles, drones, and small groups of soldiers deployed in surgical strikes by helicopters.  Even in larger operations, troop transports that can transverse alien territory are more efficient than building even the light strategic rail of the Second World War.

Engines of War is an altogether fascinating book, revealing how  the vital necessity of rail lines during wars not only altered weapons and strategy, but changed both the role of the government and the behavior of the rail lines in peacetime.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Canticle for Leibowitz

 A Canticle for Leibowitz
 © 1960 Water M. Miller
320 pages

A thousand years ago, nuclear war swept the Earth,  rendering to ashes the civilizations which inaugurated it.  In the southwestern desert, however,  there lies an outpost of another civilization – one far older Just as an epoch earlier, when the monasteries of the Catholic Church preserved classical learning amid Gothic chaos, here the clerical orders dutifully safeguard what fragments of knowledge they can find.  Humanity is populated with genetic monsters and the landscape deadened by radiation, but in the monastery of the blessed Leibowitz there is hope. As the secular world begins to climb back to its feet, however, with new Charlemagne at the head, hope for a renaissance is mingled with anxious anticipation of what mankind will do to itself once it has recovered from the shock. Can we learn from our mistakes?
Maybe not, A Canticle for Leibowitz mournfully concludes. The story unfolds in three parts, appropriate for a novel in which the main characters are monks, and across several thousand years.  The first section is set a thousand years after the Deluge of Flame, wherein Earth was nearly sacrificed to its own bloodlust; this grim setting is made light traveling by a most inept adept – a young, bumbling monk who discovers the remains of a fallout shelter with scientific importance.  In the second section, humanity is in the midst of a rebirth, and in the third section, the wheel of destiny seems to turn again. Canticle grins skull-like even as its characters are in the midst of death.  A seemingly immortal and comic wanderer, having seen age past into age with his own eye, ties the stories together, plaguing but fascinating each sections’ characters, is a guide. Not that he narrates the story, nor ever sticks around for long, but he has seen enough of the human condition to know not to take it too seriously.
The Cold War era saw a variety of works written in obvious fear of what might happen if the bellicosity of the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in actual war: On the Beach, for instance, and Alas, Babylon.  Canticle is less concerned with immediate destruction, however, and more with how the human spirit may cope with it, what truths the disaster might bring to life. There’s an obvious exploration here of the tension between the culture-preserving aspects of religion, and the change-inducing inquiry of science, but I was impressed by how the monks sought to maintain dignity in everything they did, even in the face of despair.  One copies blueprints of a device from before the Flame, but pours hours – years, even – into adding lavish illustrative borders to it. The brothers fight against death;  death of the old culture and its knowledge and  the physical death of the survivors amid war and radiation poisoning. This makes them unpopular, because death sometimes seems like the easiest course of action. After the deluge, mobs killed scientists and other intellectuals for bringing down ruin on them; the monks survived this persecution only barely.  When civilization rebuilds and begins flirting with nuclear arms once more, leading to new outbreaks of radiation poisoning, some attempt to flee the pain by submitting themselves and their children to euthanasia camps. But the monks inveigh against this, urging the afflicted not to take their lives into their hands so cavalierly. Refuse to surrender to fear – live with dignity, trusting in God. It's a diffcult message, of course, but ensures that the novel remains relevant and even thorny in our own era, even though the terrors of the Cold War are over.

The novel's end is bittersweet, as mankind by and large repeats its mistakes. This is especially tragic given how long the humans of Canticle had lived with their ancestors' mistakes: they were the ones living with greatly heightened levels of serious genetic disorders, and a landscape ruined in part by the ravages. They were the ones forced to claw their way back from the stone age after reaction against technology inflicted a 'cultural revolution' of sorts. Yet they persisted in straying near the edge yet again.  There are reasons to be optimistic, however;  at novel's end, the church at least has realized a plan to prevent this from happening again, by sending out a colony mission. In our own lives, we survived decades of brinkmanship and incidents that could have turned deadly.. We'll never truly learn from our mistakes, but when the consequences are as forboding as immediate and wholesale destruction, there at least we may hesitate enough to save our lives.

Nightfall and Foundation, in which knowledge is preserved by religious institutions, though in a less straightfoward manner.

Surprised by Lewis

Earlier in the week I was reduced to laughing fits trying to read through C.S. Lewis' account of his early life in "Surprised by Joy". Somehow I knew what was coming and the anticipation made the ecstasy worse. 

[My father] relied wholly on his tongue as an instrument of domestic discipline. And here that fatal bent toward dramatization and rhetoric produced a pathetic yet comic result. When he opened his mouth to reprove us he no doubt intended a short well-chosen appeal to our common sense and conscience. But alas, he had been a public speaker long before he became a father. Words came to him and intoxicated him as they came. What actually happened was that a small boy who had walked on damp grass in his slippers or left the bathroom in a pickle found himself attacked with something like Cicero on Cataline, or Burke on Warren Hastings; simile piled on simile, rhetorical question on rhetorical question, the flash of an orator's eye and the thundercloud of an orator's brow, the gestures, the cadences, the pauses. [...] While he spoke, he forgot not only the offense, but the capacities of his audience. All the resources of his immense vocabulary were poured forth. I can still remember such words as 'abominable", "sophisticated", and "surreptitious". You will not get the full flavor unless you know an angry Irishman's energy in explosive consonants and the rich growl of his r's."

p. 22-23, Surprised by Joy, as collected in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Coming Attractions

This week will see a clearing-of-the-decks as far as the American Revolution books go as I start reading a more diverse batch of books. A few weeks ago I acquired five books I've been waiting for over a year to purchase (one of my rules for controlling purchasing binges) and have already read two.  The others:

  • Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations
  • Happy Cities: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design
  • and
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Bob Heinlein

Joining those will be some recent discoveries at my university library:

  • The Spice Route: A History, John Keay. This is to sample the author, who has short histories of India and China I'm interested in checking out.
  • The Great Cities, ed. John Julius Norwich (Author, A Short History of Byzantium)
  • Cod: A Biography, Mark KurlanskyFrom the author who brought us Salt! 
  • Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, ed. Hershel Shanks
  • The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. I had intended on reading this after My Experiments with Truth. 
  • A Vanished World: Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment, Christopher Lowney
  • Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, Melanie Warner

I had planned on getting some science books, but I lost my list, and if I stayed in the library any longer I would have come home with a frightening pile.  I did buy Frozen Planet, though, so I'm still getting my science fix, albiet in narration by David Attenborough.   I'll probably mix some novels in here as well.

Well, here's to a summer spent hiding inside from the scorching heat and humidity with fascinating reads!

Monday, July 6, 2015

We Could Not Fail

We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program
© 2015 Richard Paul, Steven Moss
312 pages

Between the murder of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and both political and racial riots throughout the United States, 1968 was a tumultuous year for the American nation. It closed, however, with the glimpse of a hopeful future -- a glimpse of the heavens, as three astronauts circled the Moon in low orbit in December. We Could Not Fail is a history of NASA's connection with the Civil Rights movement, revealing how its vision of the future threw light upon the dark legacy of the Jim Crow past.  The history unfolds in a series of miniature biographies,  though only one actually approaches the astronaut program.  Most of the people involved worked as NASA technicians or within industries that supplied it.   NASA shared its history with the Civil Rights program,  and not simply because the movement's most restive years coincided with the push for space, during the administrations of men who claimed (in JFK's case) or devoutly cared about fulfilling the promise of the American dream. The space ideal of NASA didn't just help inspire Americans, southerners included, to push beyond old limits -- it also  provided the means for uplifting the south. Johnson,  a Texan himself, believed that the greatest hindrance to the south growing beyond segregation was its economic despondency.  Create regional prosperity in the south, he figured, and inequality and the institutions that supported it would evaporate away.  Because NASA was the most highly visible arm of the Federal government during this years, it had a special responsibility to effect more equal hiring practices.  Despite the pressure of the Kennedy brothers and Johnson, NASA struggled, more for want of material than ideas. Most engineers and support staff were recruited from the south itself, and segregated communities ceded ground only grudgingly to what NASA administrator James Webb wanted to do. One struggle, for instance, was reforming local housing politics, as discrimination kept black employees from relocating near NASA's base of operations. Similarly, while there were black technical schools, NASA overlooked them: fortunately, men like Julius Montgomery,  a  black engineer, were advocating for the integration of places like Florida Tech.   We Could Not Fail documents well the struggle of LBJ and Webb  to make NASA's promise a reality, through the lives of the would-be astronauts, activists, engineers, teachers, and other ordinary heroes who endured oppression with moral dignity, persevering until their value both as human beings and pioneers in a new age of exploration were recognized.

I Am Forbidden

I Am Forbidden
© 2012 Anouk Markovits
302 pages

Darkness grips Eastern Europe in the 1940s as war devours millions and the hopes of generations. Jewish residents of Romania are especially hard-pressed; already viewing themselves as a people in exile, they are dispersed further afield as they flee persecution. I Am Forbidden follows the family of a Jewish scholar who rescues two orphans and raises them with his own children,  first in Paris and then in England. Sadly, not only war threatens their peace,  as two daughters growing up in an archly traditional sect of Judaism struggle to find their role within it. I Am Forbidden is a heartbreaking story of lives ruined by secrets and scrupulosity, of hardened hearts sinking any hopes for happiness.  In using  the coming-of-age of two friends (here sisters) to explore the tensions between Hasidim and modernity, I Am Forbidden is rather like The Chosen; but where the latter offered a hopeful conclusion,  this leaves the reader in despair.  There is interest here, of course, the insight given here about Hasidism -- but the utter absence of mercy makes it an artfully written but distressingly sad tale.

The Chosen, Chaim Potok

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Whiskey Rebels

The Whiskey Rebels
© 2008 David Liss
544 pages

"You have my word as a gentleman."
"You are no gentleman!"
"Then you have my word as a scoundrel, which, I know, opens up a rather confusing paradox that I have neither the time nor inclination to disentangle."

The Whiskey Rebels is a story of love, rage, and deceit set during the frontier days of the American republic. Two people, an amiable but disgraced spy and a border widow who was an aspiring author until she had to settle for instigating another revolution,  are drawn into collusion and conflict by a sinister scheme. Although the title brings to mind the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791,  David Liss' first foray into American  historical fiction is not simultaneously his first war novel. Whiskey Rebels is instead a mystery-business thriller in the vein of The Coffee Trader and A Conspiracy of Paper: at its heart is a complicated banking scheme one must either be a financier or an author to cook up, centering on the nascent Bank of America.

Rebels is unusual in having a split narrative, as Joan Maycott and Ethan Saunders take turns in telling their own individual stories that will converge in time  amid frantic chases and gunfire. Joan is a young society woman who is too clever and audacious for her era; after she and her husband were tricked into forfeiting his backpay as a Continental soldier to take up farming on the frontier (wild west Pennsylvania),  their lives were destroyed by greedy speculators despite having turned lead into gold through the whiskey trade. Her plight, which is set several years before Saunders', works forward to intersect with his back in Philadelphia, during the nation's first financial crisis.  Saunders is introduced, tellingly, at a bar where he is about to fight over a woman. It is another woman who will get him into real trouble, though; his old fiance, who he left after he was accused of being a traitor. She's married in the years since they parted ways, and now her husband is missing and her children's lives are threatened. Would he be so kind as to help?

Saunders isn't exactly a knight in shining armor, but he is the sentimental sort. He may dote on the bottle like it was mother's milk and lie with the ease of breathing, but there is one woman he loves and one cause for which he will be utterly true: hers. Finding her wayward husband means attracting the attention of many nasty men who do not want a disgraced drunk roaming through their business, and who have a lot of money to lose if he doesn't let sleeping dogs lie. Fortunately,  there are conspiracies within conspiracies here, and some parties see some use in steering Saunders to act in their interest to undermine the others. This is not a book for shoring up one's faith in human nature, as all of the tale's characters are busy lying to one another as they manipulate the others into doing their bidding, sometimes pursuing mutual goals. It's a you-lie-to-me, I-lie-to-you game that ends up in stabbings, hangings, shootings, fires, and one grenade.  The temporal split works to the novel's advantage, as the main plot is so exhaustively entangled that it takes five hundred pages for firearms and fisticuffs to break out.  The reader is allowed to work his way into the thick of things, given rest periods to read about Joan's misfortunes in the wilderness -- fire, Indian raids, and fighting violent revenuers.  Eventually her plight will drive her back to Philadelphia for revenge, only  now she's no society woman whose idea of mischief is inviting men to take her on unsupervised walks. She's been hardened by the west, determined to destroy a cabal and its government that has become an enemy of its people.

Hell has no fury as a woman scorned, but where is the road from the frontier to Philadelphia and Alexander Hamilton's new bank?  The capital for said bank was to be raised with a heavy excise on whiskey, a tax heavy enough to drive frontier settlers who were just getting by into ruin.  That will drive Joan in part, but there are other factors and malfactors involved, and by and by wretched connections to Hamilton's treasury department are discovered.  Liss handles the intersection of our two characters exceptionally well, as Joan appears as a dinner party attendee in Ethan's story, becoming increasingly important in his own tale as well as hers.  Saunders and Joan will emerge to have a mutual enemy, but conflicting goals; while Saunder's efforts put him in tense cahoots with Hamilton, attempting to prevent the government's new financial plan from being wrecked, Joan sees Hamilton as the Archfiend himself.  The merge  makes the reader root for two people simultaneously who will act at cross purposes; here we have a novel whose most sympathetic characters are the other's antagonist. Unfortunately after they meet the thicket of lies and confabulations becomes even denser. Mercifully, the jibber-jabber about stockjobbing and buying six-percents so the four-percents will float is tempered by an amiable and hilarious lead. Sure, the noble but charming rogue is something of a trope at this point, but even when he's deep in his cups and acting heinously, the reader is beguiled into supporting him all the same.  The authorship itself is playful, the fourth wall threadbare -- at one point Saunders apologizes to the reader for introducing so many women as the most beautiful in the world, but he can't help it. He is astonished to run into so many femme fatales, himself -- it's not his fault!

Although parts of The Whiskey Rebels were strained,  it has immense appeal in having Hamilton as a side character, with Washington and Jefferson in bits parts as well. The other characters are a mix of historical and fictional, with the mutual enemy -- the author of all this misery and drama -- being a factual speculator. Rebel's' exhausting plot twists are eased with humor; it wasn't the story I expected to read, but was well-done and entertaining all the same.

Alexander Hamilton, Rob Chernow
The Coffee Trader,  A Conspiracy of Paper; David Liss. Historical business thrillers involving speculation and beautiful women.  Hmm, I sense a pattern.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Asimov and Nimoy read

Since 2007, Isaac Asimov has been my favorite author, possibly because his devotion to the full spectrum of human creativity and knowledge -- science, history, language, name it and he's written about it -- is inspiring.  The retro feel of his SF and charming optimism about the future also help. Tonight I encountered a Boingboing article on facebook sharing clips of both Asimov and Leonard Nimoy reading one of the dear doctor's favorite stories, "The Last Question". 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Last Call

Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition 
© 2010 Daniel Okrent
480 pages

"Law and order should not ruin the lives of law-abidin' people! Like that stupid law of Prohibition they had in the old days. Gangsters had to go out there and open up speakeasies, so's  decent people could raise a glass." - Archie Bunker

Prohibition ranks as one of the strangest and most romanticized periods in American history, a period of over a decade in which Americans earnestly sought to deny themselves a pleasure enjoyed by mankind since the first hints of agriculture: alcohol.  In Last  Call, author Daniel Okrent takes the reader back into time to find out how it happened, what it was like, and how it mercifully ended.  A history of Prohibition could easily descend into mythologizing about the Mafia, but this is an account with considerable more body than that. Indeed, Okrent  connects the rise  and execution of Prohibition to deeper political forces that make the general politics of the time more comprehensible. 

How on Earth did the American nation come to deny itself the pleasures of the bottle?  Excess didn’t help: prior to widespread sanitation systems, beer,  wine, and other kindred spirits were the safest source of water, and because they were also fun to drink, they were easily abused, and especially after distillation made chronic inebriation cheap. Various groups within the nation – worried wives, Progressive moralists, guardians of the family – all advocated for temperance, but attempts to convey this into political action were undermined by the fact that their associations tended to pick up other political causes as well, atrophying by distraction. When Prohibition passed as a Constitutional amendment, ratified by the majority of state congresses, it triumphed because of its skillful management at the hands of the Anti-Saloon League.  The ASL, hereafter referred to as the League, combined various groups into one coalition, focusing them all on one common goal and steadfastly ignoring any other social issue.

 Other social issues were at play, however.  The coalition included nativist groups like the KKK, for instance, which saw the increasing population of Jewish and Catholic immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe as a threat to both Protestant religion and the American way of life. The League, as its full name indicates, had an especial grievance against saloons, which were not merely watering holes but the nucleus of immigrant communities. 70% of saloons were owned by first-generation Americans, and their halls were host to political organizations that gave new citizens a stronger voice in the public arena.   Prohibition’s rise is even more interesting, however, connected as it was with both the women’s suffrage movement and a landmark step in the growth of the Federal government, the income tax-establishing 16th amendment.  The amount of female leadership within temperance and prohibition movements gave many suffragists their first experience in political organization and agitation, and the income tax amendment was a necessary first step for the war against booze. Without taxes on potable beverages, even the relatively small national government of the belle époque couldn’t fund its services. Soaking the rich, which politicized mobs liked the idea of, would provide enough revenue to only compensate for the decline in liquor taxation, but allow the government to reduce its tariffs to boot -- a boon for the working man. Prohibition was thus a cocktail of political causes. 

The execution of Prohibition itself, of course, is a legendary failure.  Had the brewers and distillers realized that the League was a serious threat, they may have rallied to stop it. But what massive business could be seriously threatened by some locals running around in bedsheets, or a crowd of campaigning women?  Despite its passage, Prohibition trimmed off at most a third of the overall consumption of alcohol. Individuals were subverting the law from the moment it went on the books., moving alcohol into the states from outside by plane, train, automobile, and a flotilla of rum-running speedboats.  Consumer markets quickly created products that would allow people to produce homemade alcoholic beverages --  a kind of grape concentrate, for instance, that if were supplemented with yeast, sugar, and a few weeks of peaceful darkness, would turn into wine.  Beer kits were also available, and completely legal within the law.  The amendment depended on enforcement by the states, but making a law isn’t quite as easy as enforcing it.  The fact that so many people were willing to blow raspberries at the law made widespread investigation and arrests prohibitively expensive, and some states never bothered.  Those which did  were undermined by networks of corruption that kept police wallets and the speakeasies full. Even when corruption wasn’t a problem,  the amount of people being hauled into court was.  Rather than wasting an enormous amount of time plodding through a trial, judges simply levied fines – and the bootleggers absorbed them, just as they would a tax had alcohol been legal. They even managed to buy their cars and speedboats back if they had been seized by the state.  None of the presidents at the time were strict enforcers – Harding was wishy-washy, Coolidge had no interest in meddling in other people’s business, and Hoover was slow to spend money. By the time the Federal government did begin intervening, the new sanctions proved to be too much, too late.  Tipplers were outraged by the fact that the government had abruptly decided to take the issue seriously, and as the Great Depression loomed, popular support saw the wisdom in creating more jobs and generating more revenue by uncorking alcohol once again.

The Last Call finishes as a superb history of the period; the author’s emphasis on political and social movements provides insight into the period in general, understanding that would have been missed had he simply dwelt gratuitously on the Mafia.  There’s a great deal to learn here, not only about the era but about the absurdity of the government attempting to manage people’s lives, including their spending habits.  Say what you will about the human race, we're an adaptable species that knows the truth of "where there's a will, there's a way".