Thursday, September 28, 2017

Wild Swans

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
© 1991 Chang Jung
525 pages

(My edition uses Chang's family name first, following the Chinese custom.)

Read the records of the 20th century totalitarian states, and the number of lives destroyed numbs the brain. Eleven million in Germany, twenty million in Russia -- such a mass of suffering is too large to grasp. Distill that suffering into three lives, however, and it is conveyed with intimate efficiency.  Wild Swans uses the family history of three women -- a concubine of a warlord, a young Communist, and an untrained doctor turned untrained electrician turned writer in exile -- to deliver a history of China's brutal 20th century.   Although a three-part biography, the real weight of of the book lays in the middle, in the lives of the author's mother and father. Through them -- both Communists from their teens on, who  resisted the Japanese and the Kuomintang, who advanced the Communist revolution -- we see the hopes of China turn to ashes as Mao commits everything that isn't worship of the Chairman to the flames.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century,  when a poor-but-pretty girl caught the eye of a warlord. Though her family's rank and wealth  disqualified her as a marriageable mate,  she was -- just barely -- acceptable as a concubine. Living alone in a gilded cage,  Chang Jung's grandmother had to face the hostility of the warlord's other concubines after she became pregnant. Her response was to escape, faking illness so she could smuggle her daughter and herself out.  Chang's grandmother married a Manchu doctor, a connection that came in handy after the Japanese invaded northern China and created a Manchurian puppet state.   Although the family had to live through the casual tyranny of the Empire and the food shortages of war,  the only fighting that ever threatened their village was between the Nationalists and the Communists guerillas.  Chang's mother, growing up in this environment, looked to the Communists as poor heroes against the imperial Japanese and the utterly corrupt Kuomintang.  As an adolescent, she smuggled in literature and helped the Communists gain intelligence inside the city for their covert actions,  aiding the cause.  Eventually she would meet and marry a young official, who was even more ardent than she. Together, they would witness the triumph of the war against the Kuomintang: the declaration of a People's Republic of China.

The dream would not last long. As this memoir-biography develops,  the faith of these two Communists is stressed, strained, and eventually crushed.  Chang's father was a New Communist Man through and through: he was effectively married to the Party, treating his wife as the other woman.  Devoted to the republic, he stood on principles absolutely, time and again choosing the party before his family.  He was assigned to another province?  Very well, his wife would have to wallk; her rank in the party didn't merit riding in a truck.  Was she pregnant? She would have to work until the delivery, because peasant women didn't have the luxury of taking it easy. Had he been given a ticket to a play for his daughter?  Yes, but she would need to trade it for an inferior ticket. It wouldn't do for a young girl to take a front seat just because her father was a senior official.   Chang's father was a hard man, but he believed that after centuries of imperial corruption, a new China needed to be built on the foundation of principled citizens.   As puritanical and cold as he could seem to his family, readers can only praise him after living through the Cultural Revolution via his family.

There's no shortage of brutality, inhumanity, and mass terror in this book: the Japanese and Kuomingtang give us a taste early on, and as soon as the Communists take control there are the murderous purges and the equally deadly incompetence-induced famine that killed millions.  As the biography develops, however, more and more of the problems have one man at their root: Mao,  who was creating a new imperial system around himself.    After a period of relative freedom of expression he suddenly purged those expressing themselves,  Mao claimed it was a premeditated act designed to draw out the traitors-in-waiting.  But with the cultural revolution, Mao would top himself. He would make Hitler the mean kid on the playground, make Stalin look like a common gangster. Mao, facing resistance from the Party itself, decided to destroy the party, destroy what institutions had been built upon since his victory, and destroy everything from China's past. He appealed to the first generation of children raised in the People's Republic to  rise against their teachers, their parents,  and the legacy of the past:  burn it all. Nothing could be great in China but Mao,  the man who praised poverty and lived in mansions,  who waged war against even the grass.  The Chinese would be set against one another and their own past, creating an atmosphere of constant abuse, paranoia, and savagery.

Chang herself was a student during the Cultural Revolution,  and through her we witness the complete breakdown of society.  Her father, a man of principle who stood on self-control and had reason to be confident in his solid Party Man reputation,  became the target of the "Rebels".  Both he and Chang's mother -- whose youthful devotion to the Party had fast waned thanks to the famine and her treatment during pregnancy --   were detained and tormented, After her parents took the bold step of appealing to Mao personally,  matters grew worst still.  Although many Rebels appreciated his principled defiance -- he refused to recant and declared he would stand against the cultural revolution even if  Mao had ordered it -- a key feature of the  rebel reign of terror is that it was unorganized chaos. At first was was merely bands of students harassing teachers, but their numbers grew and the Party was dumped from power in favor of the new student groups, they began fighting against one another.  Chang's father lost his sanity after one period of detention, and when he died it was a consequence of a long period of constant abuse. Chang could only wonder, as she witnessed her parents' emotional destruction at the hands of the regime -- if this was Paradise, what could hell be like?   The devotion she had for Mao perished in the orgy of murder and mayhem that he inaugurated.

Bao-Quin and Wang-Yu,  Chang's parents

Wild Swans is an incredible look into some of China's most horrible years, particularly given the way the Changs are put on the rack for being too faithful to the cause.  Anyone who has believed in something -- a politician, an ideology, a religion -- and truly loved it, only to have to abandon it because of mounting evidence that it is not what it promised to be -- will sympathize with the Changs' plight. They never changed; Mao did. In fact,  many people were punished throughout Mao's regime for following instructions, merely because the managing authorities had changed.  Reading this and witnessing the idealism of the Communists giving way immediately to nepotism and human nature makes me more aware of both the immutable frailty of human society,  and the treasure that is the rule of law which we in the west enjoyed for so long.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Classics Club, Year III

Two years have passed since I declared I was taking the Classics Club challenge, and posted my own list of fifty classics to read.  I've since read 20 classics, which means I am on schedule -- just. Most of that was from my first year, as this past year I've only read 5.3 entries for the list.  My reading plans for the rest of this year should speed up the pace: I'm currently halfway through Dracula and plan on tackling Frankenstein later in October, and a few others are hovering nearby. I have volume II of the Gulag Archipelago at the ready, for instance.

Looking back at the past year, with my paltry handful of books, there's little that can be said:  volume  one of the Gulag Archipelago stands out, but I'm happiest to have gotten Canterbury Tales finished. It was just as intimidating as the Russians!

  1. The Aeneid, Virgil
  2. The Histories, Herodotus
  3. The Conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Edward Gibbon
  5. One Thousand and One Nights, trans. Husain Haddawy
  6. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
  7. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
  8. The Prince, Machiavelli 
  9. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoeyesky
  10. The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David Wyss
  11. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  12. Dracula, Bram Stoker
  13. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom
  14. The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Vol I, Vol II, Vol III)
  15. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
  16. The Vicar of Wakefield,  Oliver Goldsmith
  17. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  18. Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain 
  19. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
  20. The Federalist Papers, various
  21. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
  22. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  23. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  24. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
  25. Moby-Dick,  Herman Melville
  26. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  27. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  28. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
  29. Love Among the Ruins, Walker Percy
  30. Invisible Man,  Ralph Ellison

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Spock Thoughts | Desiderata

Although I do not consume The News -- that is, the constantly changing, buzzing noise of whatever it is people are excited about for the present day and a half, soon to be abruptly replaced by something else --  occasionally it intrudes. On such occasions -- when my attempt to learn more about something of real importance, like the disasters in Mexico and Puerto Rico is intruded on by chatter about one overpaid lunatic exchanging tweets with another -- I find it useful to remember a prose poem I encountered some years ago through the unlikely venue of Leonard Nimoy's "Spock" cd.   I've posted this before, but it bears repeating.

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. 
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. 
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. 
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. 
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. The recording changes "cheerful" to "careful", because it would be odd for Spock to admonish us to be emotional.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Of China and Narnia

Late last week I finished China Wakes, the account of two  married American journalists in China during the 1980s and early 1990s.  They found China frustratingly difficult to judge; as much promise as its economic liberalization showed,  the political and economic structure seemed rotten to the core, with civil society barely existent.  The rule of whim and will ruled, not the rule of law; what counted was influence, whether social or monetary.  Nick Kristof arrived in China regarding the Communist takeover as a good thing that had gone wrong;  after extensive interviews with survivors of Mao's "golden age",  Nick's summation echoes Paul Dikotter's: the "liberation" was a bloodsoaked tragedy.  Women's lot was improved by the Communists,  his Chinese-American wife Sheryl admits, but now that the Chinese are growing wealthier,  women are prized less for being economic units and more for their social roles -- girlfriend decorations, or wives and mothers. What the Chinese of this book want -- whether they are the kleptocrats on top or the still-abused peasants at bottom -- is stability.  The wars, famines, and mad chaos of the cultural revolution are bloody specters haunting the imagination of those interviewed,  despite the Party's campaign to control the memory of history.

I've  been listening to the audio drama of Prince Caspian, produced by Focus on the Family Theater, on loan to me from a friend. I say audio drama deliberately, because the production doesn't limit itself to Paul Scofield simply reading the book aloud; instead,  different actors portray various characters, and background audio (music, other characters' reactions to dialogue, etc)  is employed for a full experience.   So far I have listened to two books in this series (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe being first) and have found both delightful.  Paul Scofield is a joy to listen to, though  Aslan's portayal sometimes borders on hammy.    The dwarves (Trumpkin and Nickabrik) were solid, too.    The world of Narnia (and that of Middle-Earth) has been a welcome relief from all the politics and death of this week,  in both the news (poor Mexico and Puerto Rico!) and in reading.   That's also why I've been cozying up with The Fellowship, a biography of four writers who were part of the Inklings literary circle, contributing to one another's imaginations and honing their craft together.  It's largely about Lewis and Tolkien, which is fine with me as the other two are rather strange.

Monday, September 18, 2017

A Burglar's Guide to the City

A Burglar's Guide to the City
© 2016 Geoff Manaugh
304 pages

There's really no resisting a title like that, is there?  Mind, it's not accurate;  this isn't a guide to how burglars read architecture, a catalog of vulnerabilities that homeowners and businesses can use to check their own weak spots.  The core message of the book, expressed repeatedly with great effusion, is that burglars see and use buildings differently from other people.  Manaugh goes into slight details, but his background as an art historian shows: he's more interested in the idea of burglars interpreting architecture than the details. Consequently, readers are given a great deal of entertainment as he delves into various cases, and even tries to learn skills himself (including lockpicking, from a cop),  but not much in the way of practical security information.

Burglary as defined requires architecture;   breaking and entering isn't possible with something to break into.   But burglars are connected to architecture at a deeper level, writes Manaugh; they are like the characters of The Matrix, who can read the lines of flowing green code and interpret vulnerabilties. They  are plugged into the Matrix of physical form and can manipulate it  at will -- and they do, using buildings in unexpected ways.  They will shimmy up rain gutters to access ledges, shove themselves through ventilation ducts,  take sliding doors off rails, or even carve through drywall to out-flank security alarms.  Some architectural manipulation can be quite elaborate, using the urban form itself.  Consider a case from Los Angeles in the 1980s: a group of  burglars with possible Public Works connections used that city's massive storm drainage system to tunnel into a bank and empty its vaults.   Few burglaries are so thought out, however; most are hasty and opportunistic. Even then, they can use buildings in ways they weren't intended: a massive oak door might be breached simply by breaking the glass windows framing it, then reaching in and opening the door.  Roofs hold back water; no one expects them to provide an entry for an thief.

A Burglar's Guide to the City abounds in interesting cases and general information. I had no idea that Los Angeles operates full time air patrols, for instance: I assumed police helicopters are so expensive by the hour that they're dispatched only in extreme situations, the kind that call for SWAT teams.  Easily the most interesting case for me was the story of Roofman, who used his study of McDonalds' basic building plan and operational policies to invade  and rob several dozen franchises. After being imprisoned, he escaped and took refuge in a Toys R Us, where he built a hiding place and carved into the empty building next door.   From there, surrounded by toys, he used stolen baby monitors from Toys R Us itself to observe employees and plan a  full heist. Fortunately for them, the random dropping-by of a sheriff's deputy foiled the Candy from a Baby stickup.

In short, this book was more fun than informative, but worth the time.

If you are interested in understanding your home from a security standpoint, I would suggest an ebook I read last year called "Kick Ass" Home Security, written by a retired police sergeant.  It's purely functional reading, like an instructional manual, but I found it helpful.  The essential lesson I remember, beyond any technical information, is that most burglaries are crimes of opportunity -- the less inviting you make your home to casual intrusion, the less likely you are to be burgled.

Friday, September 15, 2017

My Life with the Saints

My Life with the Saints
© 2007 James Martin, SJ
414 pages

The church I grew up in consistently referred to Rome as the whore of Babylon, so needless to say I didn't learn anything about saints. I knew Biblical personalities, sure, but was completely oblivious to the hundreds of men and women throughout the Christian era who served as outstanding examples, witnesses, or reproaches to the rest of us. I encountered a few in history books, like St. Augustine,  but they were more statuesque than human. The sole exception was Joan of Arc, who began as a figure from history but became (as I read various biographies) someone I felt an odd sense of affection for.  James Martin grew up Catholic, but his saintly education seems to have been almost as paltry as mine, discovering most of them as he attended seminary and trained to be a Jesuit. In the beginning, Martin notes that Catholics approach saints as both intercessors and companions; the latter approach inspiring most of this book.

My Life with the Saints mixes biography -- his, the saints, and others -- with spiritual reflection. In each chapter, Martin recounts his encounter with each personality, sharing how they shaped and informed his own spirituality while connecting their lives to people he has worked with through the years.  St. Francis,  "the fool for Christ", is revisited in the story of another 'fool', a priest who worked with gangs in Chicago and would try to disrupt fights by walking into the middle of the fracas, dressed in a blue-jean robe.  Martin mixes Biblical, medieval, and modern personalities, and includes a fair few people (notably Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day) who aren't "official" saints.   Although I purchased this hoping to meet a lot of obscure personalities, the mix meant only a handful were  completely new to me. Even so, I found Martin's meditations  refreshing, particularly the conclusion in which he remarked on the variety of the saints -- old, young, rural, urban, intellectual, hardy, mystical, rational -- and the hope that presents  to readers, that sainthood isn't limited to a superhero type.

The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day
The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton
The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Mark Twain

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Infrastructure: A Field Guide

Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape
© 1999, 2014 Brian Hayes
544 pages

Here at last is a book for those of us who constantly gaze out the car window at the fixtures on utility poles, or drums mounted in the sky above the telephone building, and wonder: what are those and what do they do?  Chris Hayes offers in his introduction that there are many books for understanding the various kinds of trees and birds we see around us; his hope is to help readers understand the built environment which can be beautiful in own right. Hayes'  field guide is not a dry catalog of pipes and antennae, organized alphabetically. Instead, he offers a narrative laced with humor that explores the built world, system by system -- beginning with mining raw resources and ending with waste disposal.  In between are covered farming, waterworks, power production, the power grid, telecommunications, roads, bridges, railroads,  aviation, and shipping.  Hayes' writing combines history and description,  allowing the reader to understand not only how things work,  but how they got that way. Photographs abound, most of which were taken by the author himself and include unusual shots.

The fact that this book has gone through three editions indicates it has been a success with readers, and I'm not surprised.  We live in the midst of and are sustained by systems built with human hands, but which few understand. There's enormous appeal in opening the hood on modernity  and gaining even a little knowledge as to how it all works, especially when systems link together. Although this is a guide to the 'industrial landscape',  Hayes' writing brings a strong humanistic touch. The book is about the world humans have created for ourselves, for our needs;  reading the built landscape  is an act not just of technical analysis, but of human interest.   Admittedly,  there are topics in the book harder to appreciate; mining, for instance, usually happens far from where we live.  The majority of this book, however, is the stuff of everyday: traffic lights, radio towers,  food, and highways.  Although I've  done a good bit of reading on infrastructure, Hayes' book was full of interesting facts and stories. For instance,  in the early 1980s a network of eight radio towers were set up to aide in global navigation: one of the stations was maintained by the US Coast Guard in the middle of Nevada. The system only lasted ten years before being supplanted  totally by GPS.

I referred to Kate Asher's The Works as a dream of a book, and I can only repeat the statement here:  it's a gorgeous and helpful piece of work.

Hey, look, it's the Very Large Array!

The Works: Anatomy of a City, Kate Ascher
On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work, Scott Huler
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum
The Grid: A Journey to the Heart of Our Electrified World, Phillip Schewe
Divided Highways: Building the Interstates, Transforming American Life, Tom Lewis

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Black Ice

The Black Ice
© 1993 Michael Connelly
336 pages

A body discovered in a sleazy motel on Christmas Eve connects a handful of otherwise dead cases, and sets Detective Harry Bosch against his own department, culminating in the pursuit of a half-chance to Mexico.  The case was never supposed to be Bosch's;  when a cop suspected being bent showed up missing his face, all the department wanted to do was sweep the victim quietly under the rug. But Harry Bosch was the detective on duty when the call came in, and damned if he's going to be kicked to the side.  As is usual, the solitary brooder -- Bosch opens this novel like seemingly every other, sitting by himself and listening to jazz --  can't stop the feeling that there's more to the story, can't stop looking even when everyone else is telling him to drop it.  Several unsolved cases, suddenly parts of a puzzle that he can see the outlines of as he digs, point to a drug lord in Mexico who is pushing a new product in Los Angeles. That's where Bosch ultimately goes, teaming up with a Mexican officer who is an outsider in his own apartment, and their joint investigation leads to fireworks in the Sonoran dark.  While I haven't read a Bosch novel since 201l,  the character is just as compelling as he first was:  a child of the street turned cop thereof,  forever butting heads with the politicos who run things as he pursues justice on nothing more than his gut instincts, black coffee, and the help of rare friends -- usually women.  Characterization is strong here, both as Connelly is developing Bosch (this is the 2nd Bosch novel) further, and giving him interesting enemies, allies, and hybrid creatures to wrangle with.  Interestingly, early on Bosch encounters Mickey Haller -- of Lincoln Lawyer fame, but not made a lead character until that novel's debut in 2005. 

Irma a wash-out

From the St. Augustine Record -  Castillo de San Marcos

If I hadn't known that a tropical storm was passing by last night, I would not have guessed it.  I knew all of the excitement would be on the east side of the storm, but after sunset we received absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. A little wind, scattered showers...our ordinary low-pressure systems are more exciting.  Bizarrely, we experienced more wind and driving rain when the hurricane was near the Florida-Georgia-Alabama borders than we did when it was approaching us. The greatest effect was a dive in temperatures, and the fact that the rain smelled like seawater; our electrical service never blinked.  The city closed a lot of its services (schools, libraries, etc) yesterday, so I spent it reading either Michael Connelly's Black Ice, or Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape.

All's well that end's well, at least for the deep south. Florida and Cuba's Irma experience was altogether different!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Isaac's Storm

Isaac's Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
© 1999 Erik Larson
336 pages

First news from Galveston just received by train that could get no closer to the bay shore than 6 mi  where the prairie was strewn with debris and dead bodies. About 200 corpses counted from the train. Large steamship stranded 2 mi inland. Nothing could be seen of Galveston. Loss of life and property undoubtedly most appalling. Weather clear and bright here with gentle southeast wind.

On September 8th, 1900,  Galveston, Texas lost its bid to become the greatest city in Texas, the New York of the West. It became famous for another reason, however: the near-total destruction of the city and the deaths of at least six thousand of its people made the Galveston hurricane the deadliest to ever strike. It remains the United States' greatest natural disaster, despite challengers like Katrina and the San Francisco Fire of 1906. Isaac's Storm renders a history of the disaster, largely through the eyes of a Weather Bureau scientist who failed to predict it -- to his own tragedy. A mix of history and science, Isaac's Storm is narrative history that reminds readers of a more optimistic time -- and of the dangers of that optimism.

I first learned of the Galveston hurricane through a novel, strangely enough, a criminal thriller/western set in the city's seedy underbelly shortly before another hurricane struck the city.  The thought of a metropolis-in-the-making having its life snuffed out has stayed with me ever since, but the storm's anniversary -- coinciding with three hurricanes brewing in the Atlantic -- brought the event to mind recently. Isaac's Storm mixes all kinds of science and history together; Larson doesn't just stick with Isaac Cline, but in the opening chapters darts hither and yon across the hemispheres to tell stories that contributing to our understanding of tropical storms and hurricanes. Although Isaac Cline was a dedicated and intelligent scientist, he believed (based on studying reports from places like Bengal) that Galveston Bay was inimical to hurricane strikes, that the topography of the Texas coast discourage and dampened them.  Unfortunately for the residents of Galveston, a warning about the hurricane from Cuba was dismissed by American authorities, who regarded the Cubans as excitive and superstitious.  Larson regards the Weather Bureau of 1900 as overly confident in its own abilities to predict the weather with exactitude, despite its able use of a telegraphic warning system that was leaping the oceans.

There were portents during the day that something was in the offing. Although the barometer rose at times and the skies didn't have the "signature color" that preceded hurricanes (brickdust red, apparently), the rising swells that kept crashing into the beach were unusual. By the time night fell, those swells were ever-larger and wiping out the infrastructure build near the beach -- docks, gazebos, even a trolley trestle. Throughout the late afternoon and early evening,  rising water flooded the city, but the full fury didn't smash into Galveston until after dark.  Perhaps that contributed to the appalling death toll, making it harder for people to navigate through the sudden ruins of their city and avoid danger. A lot of deaths were caused by people being struck by debris, though building collapses were another factor -- as were drownings. Isaac and his children managed to escape, but his pregnant wife never emerged from the ruins of their house, nor did the dozens of other people who had taken shelter there.

Although the book is ultimately about a harrowing disaster, as narrative history Isaac's Storm is easy on the mind, and I appreciated the look into the beginnings of weather services in the United States...even if they weren't even aware of the Gulf Stream yet.

The shaded blocks were destroyed as storm surges swept in from north and south.  Even the few unshaded blocks in the center were heavily damaged, according to Larson.

Eye of the Storm

Eye of the Storm: Inside City Hall During Katrina
© 2007 Sally Forman
260 pages

Although Hurricane Katrina was not the biggest disaster to ever hit an American city, it was New Orleans' greatest crisis -- posing a near-existential threat to the city, and forcing unprecedented measures from its leadership.  Sally Forman was the Communications Director for Mayor Ray Nagin at the time of the storm, with duties that involving trying to steer him away from shooting his mouth off. During the storm, she became an unofficial aide de camp, working to keep members of city hall in touch with one another, and with the county, state, and federal officials who were moving to help New Orleans at varying glacial paces. Eye of the Storm is her memoir, one that portrays NOLA's City Hall doing the best it could under intense pressure with diminishing resources. Forman does not shy away from self-criticism, though her target is always herself and never the office of City Hall.  Civic leaders were proud to have evacuated 80% of the city given that such a general evacuation had never been ordered before, and in their prompt decision to declare martial law after reports began arriving about lootings, police shootings, and violence in the Superdome. Some failures of hurricane response owed to lack of foresight: no portable generator for the City Hall office,  buses not removed to ground high enough, and bus drivers not included in the evacuation exemption. Some owed to the murky jurisdictional disputes between city, state, and federal officials: Nagin expressed his frustrated at not knowing, really, who had ultimate authority since he'd declared martial law, but now FEMA and the National Guard were operating on their own.  Forman ends the memoir with a list of lessons learned.

This is not a full Katrina history by any means, but one of interest to those curious about how municipal governments can react during a crisis.  Unfortunately, Mayor Nagin seems to have acted better during the crisis weeks than during recovery, since he was indicted and made bankrupt by corruption charges.

Hurricane Katrina Through the Eyes of Storm Chasers, Jim Reed and Mike Theiss
Rescue Warriors, David Helvarg
Disaster 1906, Edward F. Dolan

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Circle

The Circle
2013 Dave Eggers
507 pages

Sharing is Caring.
Privacy is Theft.
Secrets are Lies.

Imagine an internet transformed by a company  so innovative and ambitious that it had swallowed Facebook, Google, etc. whole.  It began with TruYou, a common login that allowed people to use one login for virtually everything online, from their hobbyist forums to their bank accounts.  It ends....well, that's up to you and me. The Circle combines 1984 and The Social Network to present a dystopia-in-the-making,  one most users of internet service will recognize in their own habits. Funny and alarming,  it's easily the most riveting novel I've read this year.

The Circle as a novel begins with the arrival of Mae, a frustrated twenty-something to the customer service desk of the company. As the novel progresses, her willingness to adopt to the Circle culture and work hard to perpetuate it,  take her to the heights of power, to the company's own inner circle. Readers witness her transformation as she grows to ignore the concerns of her ex-boyfriend and her parents that something isn't right about the world the Circle wants to build.  At the center of the Circle are the Three Wise Men -- a reclusive young genius,  a charismatic public face, and an avaricious  financier.  Between the three of them, they want to bring about a techno-utopia by allowing for -- and even mandating -- total transparency.  The Circle isn't just a social network/search engine/marketplace on steroids, it's also an Apple-esque technology company that produces new tools -- tools like small, discrete cameras that allow for live-streaming from multiple locations. The network and its tools grow throughout the novel to allow for technocratic control of society:  child abductions are thwarted by chip implants,  politicians begin wearing bodycams to prove they aren't sitting in smoking rooms hatching conspiracies, and neighborhood watch programs alert residents every time a non-registered person enters their block. Mae's own ascent into the elite happens when  she leads a campaign to turn the Circle political, to make its platform a voting mechanism. When one person drives off a bridge to get away from the Circle, their response is to wistfully say that would have never happened if we could make everyone give up automobiles that aren't self-driving.

The Circle is both warning and dark comedy, mocking compulsive users of social networks while building a threat that is more ominous than hilarious. In an early scene, Mae is called into her supervisor's office to resolve a serious dispute between her and another coworker -- one she has never met, but who invited her to a party for kindred hobbyists, and one who was deeply hurt when she never responded, not even to say "Sorry, no can do".  The world of the Circle demands constant interaction, constant attention, constant sharing.  It's not enough to go to after-work parties: there have to be pictures, shares, tags, likes, and tweets about the party. Mae first approaches her position like a nine to five job; she does her work, she goes home or goes kayaking, she returns. This is not the Circle way. The Circle's social demands  are such that some people simply live on campus, and even when they leave, the idea that they've left the Circle is almost blasphemous. Mae went herself? She didn't tell everyone she was going so they could send her Smiles, and worst of all...she didn't record anything. No one can benefit from her experience except from Mae!  What selfishness.

Although I have my doubts about how effectively this novel could happen (the NSA has problems with storage and cooling, and it's not coping with hundreds of thousands of simultaneous camera feeds),  Eggers' novel makes obvious two dangers of the growing social network apparatus. First, there are people whose histrionic obsession with social media make them not far removed from Circlers. Two, the role that some companies have as web infrastructure -- principally Google,  with its search engine, browser, cloud storage, email, control of YouTube and blogger --  poses a threat to free communication. Google is not a neutral actor; it has an agenda and does not brook dissent, either external or internal.  Facebook is no less threating to privacy; the reclusive genius used in The Circle is a transparent clone of Zuckerberg, complete with hoody.   The greatest problem shown by The Circle is what happens when these two factors combine -- the needy child-mob on social networks, and the infrastructural control they rely on and enabled.

For what it's worth: I maintain a Wordpress copy of this website in case Google ever gets really nefarious.

4 Alternatives to Google

Quick note

One week  I can remember like no other is the week after Hurricane Ivan roared through central Alabama. By the time the storm had waded through two hundred miles of pine forests to reach central Alabama,  it had lost its Hurricane status -- but even so, it felled trees and disrupted power for just over a week.  That said, Hurricane Irma, with winds even stronger than Ivan's or Katrina's, is now approaching the Deep South. My county is presently just outside the direct line of fire, but this storm is so large and keeps wandering westerly that I fully expect some disruption.  It's entirely possible that I will go offline for a few days, or even a week.  I hope that this won't be a storm I'll remember vividly thirteen years from now (Ivan struck September 16, 2004), but who can say?  Time to batten the hatches!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Republic of Imagination

The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
Other edition subtitle: A Case for Fiction
© 2014 Azar Nafisi
352 pages

When Azar Nafisi taught literature in Iran, she dreamed of America. Not the United States, the government of which had been making itself decidedly unpopular in Iran, but "America" -- an idea, a dream, where people were free to pursue their own lives, to grow and flourish without a shah or a thought-police militia's interference.  She discovered and explored this America via its literature,  an experience which is partially shared in her Reading Lolita in Tehran.  When she came to the United States to teach literature, another Iranian immigrant disgustedly told her that these people were not what she was looking for. Americans weren't passionate about literature the way Iranians were -- not even their own.   Although Nafisi rejected his resignation,  the fate of the humanities - literature, particularly --  weighs on her in writing this, and the experiences that she and others have had wrestling with American literature are offered here as proof of what serious engagement with literature can provide.

Nafisi's subtitle, America in Three Books, takes reader through Huckleberry Finn,   Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt, and Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  Nafisi describes all of these as subversive, and links them as Individualist experiences --  the individual against conformity, consumerism, and their own lonely anguish.  My own experience with American literature has been so paltry that I haven't read two of the three books mentioned,  but Nafisi's strikes me as a fair take on Huckleberry Finn -- both because he resists being 'sivilized' and shut up in doors, and because his instinctive human sympathy for a friend of his outweighs the dictum of the day that his friend is a slave who should be punished for escaping.   Nafisi's intent is to connect themes in literature with our lives, so amid the literary discussion are events from Nafisi's life, and conversations (or arguments) she has had with Americans and Iranians. Those who have read Lolita in Tehran will remember the style from that book. Nafisi's deep love of literature puts her slightly at odds with the political currents she is otherwise sympathetic to: she abhors the knee-jerk reaction the academy has to classics, of automatically dismissing them because they are old and by the wrong people.  Literary criticism has missed the point altogether; instead of embracing works like a friend or lover to relate with, the books are beaten to death and the corpses picked at..  (To borrow from Douglas Adams:  “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.")  Similarly, she is not a friend of the 'common core', and its sterile treatment of education as nothing more than mounds of Gradgrind facts to memorize.

When I first heard this title, it resonated with me, making me think of both the Greek cosmopolis -- an ideal republic admitting all with reason as citizens -- and another republic, one that absorbing a tradition makes us a member of, allowing us to learn and fight with a lecture from Cicero, or an argument from Aquinas or de Montaigne. Nafisi's conviction that literature unites people across political boundaries led me on, however, as her republic of the imagination is a little more ethereal. It's a place where people escape to -- a place where people can find connection even if they live in a dehumanizing state. But it's not merely a place of escape; in her epilogue, Nafisi admonishes those who demand trigger warnings on books and cry out for safe places. The world is not a safe space.  Even if you live in a perfectly bland place, a Pleasantview right out of 1950s television, you may fall in love or lose a parent or find yourself facing some other emotional storm. Literature, Nafisi argues, prepares us for these storms: it fixes our feet, steels our spine, clears our mind.   We must embrace its challenges, not shrivel away from them.

While I suspect anyone reading a book subtitled America in Three Books would already regard fiction as important,  for me this was a welcome exposure to a couple of books I've only heard a little about,  an encouraging reminder about the universality of good literature.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi
Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran, Fatehmeh Keshavarz

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Devil's Chaplain

A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love
© 2003 Richard Dawkins
263 pages

Charles Darwin mused that a devil's chaplain might write quite a book on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low, and horridly cruel works of nature.  A Devil's Chaplain is not quite that book, however, though it does include a mention of fantastically inefficient bio-planning on nature's part, as well as a paragraph or two on parasitic wasps.   Dawkins uses the title to collect various articles, prefaces, and reviews he has written, all pooling in either biology or skepticism. Those familiar with Dawkins will find no surprises: he writes on the role of wonder in science,  champions skepticism and evidence-based thinking, addresses religion with teeth bared in the wake of 9/11, and expands on his notion of cultural ideas being transmitted like genes, as "memes" -- an originally serious word that is now applied to pictures with words on them, from captioned cats desirous of cheeseburgers to political commentary.  There's also a considerable section dedicated to the then recently-late Stephen Jay Gould,  with whom Dawkins had professional disputes. (Dawkins defends their relationship as more professional than adversarial.)   Because the collection is so varied, it's rather hard to rate;  here's a chapter on genes and wasps, there's an appraisal of a novel set in Botswana.  Most of the book is on biology and critical thinking, and there he had me;  when he moves to morals and culture, however, I found him wanting.

I raised my first eye when Dawkins praised Peter Singer, who sees no reason to value a room of babies over a room of puppies,  and asserts that religion only sustains itself by having its adherents instill the beliefs in their children.  Of course, religions like any other cultural element are maintained through that kind of transmission -- language, for instance. They also sustain themselves, however, by providing something people need or want: meaning at the individual level, and tribal cohesion and (in some cases) some degree of public morality at the social level.   Dawkins' understanding of religion as expressed here is simplistic, but part of his argument is fair: material facts should be believed on the basis of evidence, not desire or authority. Dawkins writes at the beginning that one bit of an advice a devil's chaplain can provide, looking at the spectre of nature red in tooth and claw, is that while we are composed of selfish genes, we are not limited by them. Our intelligence gives us the ability to overcome the amoral logic of the jungle (or the savannah, no less savage). On the whole, however, amoral logic seems to have the edge; if a man can't favor a room of babies over a room of animals,  there's something vital missing.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Back from a country retreat

For the past few weeks I've been house and dog sitting deep in the country, enjoying a screened-in back porch with a view of a pecan orchard. I thought I'd be getting a lot of reading done, but it turns out that novels are hard to take on when a playful and energetic terrier is demanding attention.   But I'm back to regularly scheduled programming,  with some interesting books in the post. I'm starting this week with Azar Nafisi's Republic of the Imagination: America in Three Books,  and continuing with My Life with the Saints, one man writing about personalities through the ages who have inspired him in his vocation as a Jesuit priest working with the poor.  I was hoping to learn about obscure medieval personalities, but most of the figures are well-known and many are 20th-century figures like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and John Paul II. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Wonder That Was India

The Wonder That Was India
© 1959 Arthur Llewellyn Basham
586 pages

For the past few weeks I’ve been enjoying The Wonder That Was India, a Will Durant-like survey of Indian history and culture prior to the Mughal invasion.  Its opening section covers political history, from the first hints of settled human life through several empires and many periods of fragmentation.  In sections that follow, Basham focuses on society, daily life, economics, art, literature,  religion, philosophy, and metaphysics.  Evolution is a recurring theme; the flowering of languages and religions being the most obvious examples of institutions' varied growth through time. He notes, for instance, that the intermix of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism produced strains of Buddhist thought that looked for a future Buddha, one who would be greater even than Siddhartha Gautama. Basham writes in earnest admiration of Indian civilization, which managed get by without having institutionalized mass slavery – unlike the Roman empire, for instance. The author's pen has a warm elegance that made the sheer amount of information easy to contemplate, and his commentary shed a good bit of light on various subjects for me. For instance, he commented that one reason histories are generally so sketchy about India before Ashoka is that there's little written surviving history to work with.  His own sources for the period were limited; one history applied only to Kashmir, and another was more religious than historical.