§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: May 2006

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter

I seem to be harder on this book than most readers, but the truth is that I found it very frustrating. Diane McWhorter, a journalist and regular contributor to the New York Times, is from Birmingham and furthermore her father and some of his friends and neighbors—some the fathers of Ms. McWhorter’s school friends—were “involved” in the story that she reports in this book. The Epilogue makes it clear—if it was not made clear before—that a big part of her motivation to write the book was her curiosity—and fear—to discover just how involved her father had been with those attempting to preserve separation of the races in Birmingham—at all costs.

There were several things that I did like about the book. (1) I liked the objective reporting, in incredible detail, which will make this book an important source for future historians. She traces the origins of Birmingham’s discontent in a far more sophisticated manner than most writers on the subject I’ve read. And she includes documented details and quotes. (2) I also liked the sheer accumulation detail that allowed the reader gradually to become more and more horrified at the real inhumanity that accompanied the white supremacist resistance to equal rights for Negroes. It was really a disgraceful period in American history and while I understand why large numbers of people didn't want their lives disrupted, I cannot even imagine their support of people who bombed buses and churches and private homes and targeted the opposition for assassination or murder.

What I didn’t like about Carry Me Home was that it was really two books—or should have been. One a history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham which culminated, in 1963, in attacks by the police on protesters—some school children--with police dogs and high pressure hoses, and in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church, killing four young girls. The other, the author’s search to discover how extensive was her own father’s involvement in the sometimes very violent opposition to racial integration, along with her probing to understand why. That more personal story would have made a better book. Writing both books at once was a mistake. I often ignored the personal stuff as a distraction to the main story and realized later that, taken all together, it amounted to what I would have found an interesting story on its own, without being coupled with an attempt to write an objective history too.

I also found the writer’s style very frustrating. Since it was essentially a book of discovery, the ideas and generalizations were few and far between and the reader was easily lost in the detail. The organic, discovery method she used would have worked for the personal story, but caused the reader interested in the history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham to end each chapter with no clear ideas of what she had just read.

The writing style, too, was faulty, though often brilliant by journalistic standards—full of specific, even compelling detail, with that wealth of direct quotes that future historians will appreciate. But reading an entire book of journalistic sentences, especially minus the generalizations one expects from good history is frustrating.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

This book was a real page turner. This afternoon I totally dodged work to finish it. Somehow I thought it would get old or anticlimactic, but it didn’t for me. Thoroughly enjoyable and though-provoking—the most compelling read so far this year.

The novel starts the with a fifteen-year old boy, who has named himself Kafka, preparing to run away from home and discussing his plans with “the boy named Crow”, obviously his alter ego. Chapter 2 switches to top secret documents of the US occupation forces about an incident during World War II where a class of school children on an outing in the country all fall into a coma, all except the teacher, that is. Eventually we learn that all the children woke up again in a few hours and were fine, but one child was in a coma for several days and when he woke up was never the same again. Neither the Japanese investigations at the time nor the American ones during the occupation period are able to explain what happened. The boy’s narrative in the present and the old documents alternate as the boy takes some money and a knife, flashlight, sunglasses and a picture from his father’s desk and hops a bus to Takamatsu where he’s made a reservation at a small business hotel. Chapter 6 introduces Mr. Nakata who talks to cats and ekes out a precarious living finding lost cats for his neighbors. He’s an endearing character who explains everything by saying, “Mr. Nakata is not very bright” and indeed his has problems negotiating the world he lives in since he can’t read. Relatively early on, we realize he is the little boy who was in the coma from the “accident” during the war. One day looking for lost cats he meet a bad man who calls himself Johnny Walker. Johnny Walker paralyzes cats and then slits their guts open and cuts off their heads. He says he has to “harvest their souls” in order to make a flute. He has 5 cats he is about to kill, among with is Mimi, a cat with whom Mr. Nakata is friendly, and Goma, the cat he’s currently commissioned to find. Johnny Walker explains that he’s tired of what he’s doing and he wants to be killed by Mr. Nakata. Then he begins killing the cats in the most cold-blooded manner possible. After the third cat, the mild-mannered Mr. Nakata is stirred to such a fury that he grabs the knife and kills Johnny Walker, saving Mimi and Goma. He says goodbye to Mimi and returns GOMA to her owners, and turns himself into the police—who, not surprisingly, think his story is nuts, write him off as a harmless, senile old man, and send him on his way. Shortly after that Mr. Nakata finds he’s lost his ability to talk to cats, but gained the ability to make it rain fish or leeches, and recognizes that he has a mission for which he must go West and cross a big bridge.

The rest of the story pretty much alternates between chapters narrated by Kafka and chapters which follow the adventures of Mr. Nakata and his friend Mr. Hoshima—a truck driver who gives him a ride and continues on with him to, not surprisingly, Takamatsu. The reader knows these two main characters are related, that the story will climax as they arrive in the same place, but during most of the book the connection is foggy at best. In the meantime we learn that Kafka’s father has been brutally murdered, at the same time as Kafka has an experience/dream in which he ends up covered with blood—which then vanishes without a trace. There’s another fantastic character called Colonel Sanders, a stone which Nakata finally realizes he is seeking which opens up an entrance into another world, a psycho-sexual drama that plays out for Kafka, a magic forest where two young soldiers who ran away from the Japanese army in WWII guard the entrance, and three unusual women—one a runaway herself, one a 50-year old librarian with a tragic past, and another living the life of a man in spite of his partially developed female body. Of yes, “Kafka on the Shore” is a popular song recorded by the librarian when she was young. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, May 18, 2006

American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips

The book with its subtitle is American Theocracy : The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury. I started itwith a great deal of enthusiasm but finished it with much less. I ended up feeling that this was an author with a harsh and bombastic voice, screaming to get his point made and not the quiet voice of a scholar researching historical parallels that have messages for the current time. I can’t blame Phillips in a way, because it’s well documented that lessons of past history rarely turn around current thinking, especially of politicians in power struggles. I don’t suppose that metaphorical yelling helps much though.

This book’s thesis concerns a threat to US hegemony by the Republican coalition that rules the US today, a coalition that Phillips sees as powerful, growing and dangerous. He discusses three facets of that coalition’s strength: (1) what he calls petro-imperialism, (2) fundamentalist religion focused on eschatology (“end times”) to the exclusion of the coming oil crisis, the deteriorating environment or the effect of debt on the US future and (3) the dominance of the financial sector today in the US. One assumes he considers the religious threat the most serious because of the title.

The book is developed by comparing three previous superpowers in their time: Spain with the wealth of its colonial empire in the Americas, followed by Holland which dominated the seas and built an Empire primarily in Asia, followed by Britain which used its coal, manufacturing capacity and sea power to dominate the world. He sees parallels to the situation of the US today in the situations that caused the fall of each of those superpowers. The historical part seems well researched, though he’s not nearly as comprehensive in his examination of the forces that cause downfalls as, say Jared Diamond, in Collapse, but then Phillips is not talking about civilizations that actually collapsed, only those that achieved world hegemony and then fell back into a lesser role. His discussions of fuel (wind and sail and coal before oil) are interesting, but except for Britain’s role in the Middle East when oil was first a factor in that region, not particularly powerful. His discussion of fundamentalist religion in the downfall of these powers seems relevant but not nearly as important as he makes it. However, his discussion of how civilizations in their “end stages” have been dominated by finance at the same time as their innovation in science and technology dwindled I found most enlightening.

I too find the role of fundamentalist religion in the US today worrisome, particularly when it causes people to believe that oil will be found because “God will provide” or to scorn environmental necessities because it’s near the Second Company anyway or when it encourages people to believe that Armageddon is right around the corner and will pit Christians against Muslims or something like that. I also dislike the President and, because I believe firmly in the separation of Church and State, am quite disturbed when he positions himself as doing what God has told him to do. But I don’t see the American people going for theocracy in the next election and I think Phillips relies pretty heavily on statements from fringe groups as scare tactics in this book. Which is not to say that I didn’t like the book and find much of his evidence compelling. It’s the metaphorical yelling that puts me off.

As I said I was most convinced by his analysis of the US financial position (debts public and private, dependence on the fact that oil trades in dollars which could change) and the growing power of the financial services sector of the economy. He talks about the credit card companies as holding millions of Americans in virtually “indentured servitude” particularly after the reform of bankruptcy laws which threaten to put creditors in thrall to the credit card companies for life. Next most convincing was his analysis of petro-imperialism, and weakest was the religious argument, though even there he had some statistics and demographics that caused me to sit up and take notice and many of his points were both well-documented and very troublesome. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

This is the second 900+ page novel this year. It's cutting down on the number of books I finish!

It’s an autobiographical novel by an Australian who, after divorce and descent into drug use and armed robbery to support the habit, broke out of a maximum security prison and ended up in Bombay. What’s unclear is how autobiographical the book is—I suspect vary. The author was eventually captured in Germany and returned to prison in Australia where he finished his term. He began writing the novel in prison. It’s a unique combination of violent adventure story and novel of personal learning and development.

The opening sentence draws the reader in and tells amazingly much about the book: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.” It’s a rip-roaring adventure tale, hard to put down, but unlike most such tomes, the violent character who goes from one adventure to another, in this case is always focusing on his emotional state: on the past loves and securities he has lost by his violent actions, on the loves and hates of his current life, and on the fate that he sees working itself out in his own life. Had he called the book Love and Fate, it might have been less attractive to readers but certainly would have highlighted the themes the narrative always comes back to.

Instead the novel’s name is taken from the name given to him by his friend Prabaker’s parents when he goes to live with them for six months in a small and primitive village in the state of Maharastria (which includes Bombay). Lin is the name he generally went by though, from the last name, Lindsey, on the fake New Zealand passport he used to enter India. Prabaker, with his generous nature and unique smile, was the tout who offered to help him find cheap lodging when he arrived and who eventually became a close friend. You know from the adventurer’s openness to Prabaker, whom fellow tourists take for a scam artist, that he is “open to Bombay” as few foreigners are ever open to foreign places.

Lin became the epitome of what we used to call “going native”. He not only came to love Bombay, but he learned to speak two of its languages fluently. After a robbery that wiped out the funds he’d come to India with, he moved into one of the illegal slums of Bombay where Prabaker lived and became the unofficial medical officer, based on first aid training he’d had in Australia and medicines acquired from the lepers who supported themselves selling contraband medical supplies. Early on he attracts the attention of Bombay mafia king, Abdul Khadar Khan, Khadarbai, as he’s known to his followers. A philosophical Afghan who runs frauds in the currency market and sells fake passports, visas and documents of all kinds, but refuses to trade in drugs or prostitution, Khadar becomes a father figure for Lin who is influenced by his unique theory of the universe. Joining Khadar’s mafia, Lin struggles to find a place for himself in the Bombay he’s come to love as well as, for want of a better phrase, “to become a better person”—an interesting ambition for a professional criminal in an organization whose motto is “truth and courage”. Posted by Picasa

Friday, May 05, 2006

If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino

If I had encountered this book earlier, when I was still pretending to be an academic, I’d have loved it because I’ve always been interested in readers and writers, especially their roles and expectations which Calvino discusses at length in this novel. I’ve also always been interested in self-reflexive novels, that is, those that make the reader aware of themselves as fiction, rather than trying to very hard to maintain the illusion of reality—and that too is what this novel is about.

The story—there is one amidst all the ideas—is of two readers, the first addressed as “you” right away to involve the reader, who begins reading a new novel by Italo Calvino called If on a winter’s night a traveler. Unfortunately, he discovers that the book is misprinted and he can’t finished it so he goes back to the bookstore where he bought it to exchange his copy. There he meets the second reader, Ludmilla, who has the same problem. The reader, however, soon discovers that the second book is not the same novel but one called Outside the town of Malbork by a totally different writer. Thereafter every other chapter is the beginning of a new novel (none of which does the reader get to finish, but all the titles of which, added together, make quite an interesting paragraph). The intervening numbered chapters follow the adventures of the readers and contain a great deal of discussion of roles of readers and writers, of the minutiae of the book publishing and marketing, of authorial intention and readers’ expectations, of such diverse topics as translation, pornography, beginnings and endings, fiction and reality, etc.

It’s a very clever book, but somewhat less interesting to me now than it would have been when I first started reading postmodern novels, all of which speculate on these same issues in various sorts of ways. It takes me back to my first interest in the roles of readers and writers which came from Father Walter J. Ong’s essay, “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction”, published in PMLA.

[Ong, Walter J., S.J. "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction." PMLA 90 (January 1975): 9–21. Writers project audiences for their work by imagining the presumptive audiences of other pieces of writing. Readers seem willing to be fictionalized in this way—to be the audience projected by the writer—as long as the reader's role is familiar or the writer creates a new role persuasively. Thus, the writer's style or voice is a way of addressing an imagined audience that will respond in the desired way.] –from a bibliography I found on the web.

Ong's speciality, like Marshall MacLuhan's (they were friends and colleagues before the latter went to Canada), was really the difference between oral and written language. But that turned out to be a precursor to discussions of how written language really "worked" which led scholars to semiotics and deconstructionalism and writers to postmodernism. Huge generalization I know...

So all I can say is it’s a shame I didn’t read this novel earlier. It would have fit right in with my interests and ideas. Now it seems a bit dated since I’ve read so many postmodern novels and speculated myself about so many of the ideas Calvino raises. Had I read it soon after its publication, it would have seemed marvelously fresh and brilliant. Posted by Picasa

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Seems like I haven’t posted any books here in ages and that’s because I’ve been reading two 900+ page novels simultaneously. This is the first one I finished. I read all of Dostoyevsky’s other novels when I was much younger and was much taken with them, much affected emotionally. A few years ago I tried to reread The Devils (also translated as The Possessed), which affected me profoundly when I first read it, but this time I gave up about 2/3 of the way through, bored with the constant editorializing about revolutionaries. The weak point of 19th century Russian novels, IMHO, is the lengthy philosophizing—something I obviously had more tolerance for in my youth. A recent reread of War and Peace left me frustrated for the same reason, though I have reread Anna Karenina and that novel continues to stand up for me and to be one of my all-time favorite novels. It, though, focuses more on people than ideas.

The Brothers Karamazov is the story of a family—really a father and three sons (the mothers are sort of irrelevant and so, in the end, are the various woman around them). The father is not a very lovable character—mean-spirited and ungenerous and a womanizer, he neglected his children after their mothers died. The eldest was Dmitri (Mitya) whose mother died shortly after his birth. His father went off and left him with a servant to be raised as best he and his wife could do. A similar fate awaited the two sons of a later marriage, Ivan and Alexei (Alyosha). Mitya becomes an officer who has to leave the Army because of a duel. He’s a lot like his father—motivated it seems primarily by his own pleasure—drinking and women. He believes his father has cheated him of his inheritance from his mother. Ivan was educated in Moscow but is also pretty dedicated to selfishness. Alyosha on the other had has always lived near the village and at the opening of the novel is an acolyte of the hermit priest of a neighboring monastery. He is gentle and unselfish and forgiving. When the Father Zossima, his patron, nears death he tells Alyosha that his calling is outside the monastery. Once the characters of the four Karamazovs are delineated, the main action of the novel is the murder of Fyodor, the father. Mitya, who was there that night and who had threatened to murder his father, is arrested for murder and the last half of the novel follows his trial, the reader’s near certainty that he is innocent, and sentence to Siberia.

There’s an important religious element in the novel, though not as coherent as one might like. When Father Zossima—who’s teaching seems indeed wise—dies, his corpse begins to stink within the first 24 hours and that is interpreted as a sign from God that he was not as holy as he seemed. Even Aloysha, who nevertheless believes in Father Zossima, is affected. At the end of the novel, a disadvantaged child, Ilusha, dies and his young friends, with Aloysha, note specifically that his corpse does not stink. No editorializing in the text, but the parallel seems to me particularly interesting. Possibly Dostoyevsky sees hope in the "younger generation", Ilusha who died and Kolya and his other friends who look to Aloysha as their mentor.

I enjoyed the novel without being really taken by it. If it had been the first 19th century Russian novel I’d read, I’d have found it interesting as a picture of a Russia heading for the disaster that overtook it in the early 20th century. But it’s not the first I read, but one I read because it was a famous one which I hadn’t read before. Posted by Picasa