§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: February 2008

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I seem to have a dissenting opinion on this one. I know a number of people who listed it as their best book of the year. I bought it for my 13-year-old granddaughter for Christmas but didn’t have time to read it myself first so I was grateful when a friend offered to send me a copy.

I thought it was definitely a book written for my granddaughter and her generation, for people who didn’t know much about the Holocaust and who would be able to see it as a tragedy that involved, on the inside, people who were good, were bad and most who had elements of both, not just the one-sided story it’s been for so long (i.e., all Germans bad).

I didn’t dislike it but I found it tedious. It bothered me a bit that the author felt the need to summarize the main points in bold print. It suggests to me that fiction, like nonfiction with its numerous headings and sidebars and other ways to graphically break up and summarize the text, has now found it necessary to predigest ideas for readers who either don’t get ideas from continuous text all that well or don’t want to take the time to do so. On the other hand, of course, there’s nothing wrong with experimentation and pitching one’s fiction at a particular audience. I’m just not that audience in this case.

I wasn’t all that keen on "death" being the narrator either. I didn’t dislike it particularly and I do see where it provided a personal narrative of sorts when the author obviously wanted a more overarching view than could be provided by any of the characters. I did rather appreciate the narrator’s tendency to preview the plot and thereby take suspense out of the equation. In a book that has more serious intentions than mystery I think that’s a good thing to do. But ultimately I found Death as narrator just a gimmick, with no particular consequence added to it, not even a moral point of view, or not much of one. I can see that the ubiquitous nature of Death was advantageous, but not sure it was "better" than the anonymous ubiquitous implied narrator of most fiction. One couldn't help but be distracted wondering about 'death" and his role.

That said I liked the story of Liesel who was brave and loyal and loving—and believable. I appreciated that Zusak didn’t get himself tied up in politics, but focused on people and their treatment of each other. I did expect to find out more about Liesel’s real mother, but I can’t say that was really a flaw. As readers we knew as much as she did. I suppose Death could have told us more had he felt so inclined.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Consequences by Penelope Lively

I liked this novel. I always enjoy a Penelope Lively novel. This one is superbly written. The tone of the novel is soft and thoughtful, with little that jars. Considering the fact that two of the three heroines in the novels die prematurely, as does the man who's the center focus of the novel, that's an achievement. Lively has a way of muting the traumatic by focusing on ancillary things. The way one gets through periods of great sorrow or stress by cleaning the bathtub as it's never been cleaned before--or some other task that's inconsequential in the face of one’s feelings. Several parts of the book begin after a death has occurred and the reader picks up the basic fact and the details bit by bit. Each new part indicates the passage of some years and a new focus; there are no chapters, just informal breaks which indicate smaller gaps in the action. I liked that technique. It avoids "scenes" in a way that's not covering up emotion (the way my mother discouraged "scenes") but enhancing it.

It's the story of three generations of women, mothers and daughters, starting in the 1930ies, and their small, odd, unconventional family where the women are always at the center. The three women are distinctly different characters without being terribly different in their basic sensibilities and approaches to life. They could so easily just have been reincarnations of the same character.

There might be a problem, I'm thinking though, in moving as quickly as Lively does from one main character to another and depending on a dead artist (who died in WWII at the end of the first section) to unify the book. The conventional generational novel is longer, with a broader focus, more events, more characters so there's more closure when one moves from one generation to the next. This novel is much sparser and can't really be compared with a generational novel. It is a bit artificial to kill off two of the women; it needs to happen for the novel to work though.

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards

I was at first disappointed in this book because it wasn’t more about the gold rush and less about California politics in the early years before and right after statehood. I guess I should have read the reviews first. Still it’s was enjoyable.

Richards’ discussion of the effect of the gold rush is fascinating. How so many people rushed to the gold fields that San Francisco was, for awhile, a ghost town. How ships would come into the harbor and find hundreds of other ships—from China and Peru and Australia as well as the US and Europe—deserted by their crews. How the resulting gold increased the world’s supply of gold by a significant factor. How California gold helped finance the Civil War and how stopping the ships from California to Washington, usually carrying at least a million dollar’s worth of gold, was a Confederate priority. I don’t remember reading that in my Civil War history books, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

Among the people who came to California for the gold rush were many who had been politicians, even elected officials, in the States they left back East. A significant number of them were from the South. At that time, the southern wing of the Democratic Party was the strongest. The Whig party was fading, and the Republican Party (Lincoln would be its first President) was just beginning. California came into the union as a free state—and that was the basis of the political battles because a significant number of the powerful politicians in California at the time were Southerners. The fights in California—and they were fights, with duels and even murder as tacticswere between the southern wing of the Democratic party, represented primarily by William Gwin of Mississippi and David Broderick of New York, representing the northern (Stephen Douglas) wing of the party.

They battled over changing the constitution to ban slaves. Southerners argued that if ever there was appropriate work for black men it was gold mining. Northerners argued that the wealth from California gold should go to hardworking white Americans. There was talk of dividing California into two states, with Southern California entering the Union as a slave state called Colorado. There was talk of California seceeding in 1861, not to join the Confederacy, but to declare a separate country—which seems scarily realistic considering how far it was from the contiguous states at that time. They battled over the route of the transcontinental railway—Southerners wanted a southern route ending in Southern California, arguing that the weather was better and there were no mountains.

The book has interested me in that 10-15 year period before the beginning of the Civil War when the US was expanding westward and Southerners, many with exhausted plantations in the East, sought to extend their way of life West, as of course did Northerners. There’s a sense in which the “battle for hearts and minds” over slavery occurred during those years primarily in the West, where there were few abolitionists.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee

Michael is poor and born with a harelip. There's no father and his mother puts him in an orphanage, possibly because he's a bit slow. The book isn't narrated by him but much of it is seen from his point of view. He's inexperienced and unworldly but I'm not entirely sure he's unintelligent. The action takes during the civil war in South Africa when Michael K is an adult working as a gardener in a public park. His mother, who's been a maid for a rich family, is existing in a single room; she's clearly too ill to work. There is no politics in this book and the "real" world exists for the reader in the nebulous cloud it seems to be for Michael K. In fact the book reminds me a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road with the character moving though a nightmare environment which bears some resemblance (but not much) to the real world. This is not a world of ashes, but Michael knows only what touches him directly and has no clue what the war is about, what side he is on or even what his place in the world should be. He tries to follow the rules in a chaotic environment. His mother wants to return to the country village where she grew up and he fashions a crude cart to attach to his bicycle and pull her. Their journey is made horrid by the weather and by the people they meet along the way—soldiers, others escaping the city, some preying on the travelers. The mother dies in a hospital on the way, is cremated and the ashes given to Michael. With his mother's death, Michael loses his last touch with the world around him and becomes so isolated that he digs a hole in the ground to live in while cultivating pumpkins on an abandoned farm that may or may not be the one where his mother grew up. He has visions of his mother in flames and eventually remembers her death as "They burned her up". He's found in his hole by the authorities and assumed to be a supporter of the rebels who refuses to talk when actually he has no clue what his interrogators are talking about. He is shunted to a hospital where a medical officer tries and fails to "save" him. He escapes initially by refusing to talk and then, cleverly, manages to walk out.

One cannot help but think there's a way in which Michael K is "saner" and "brighter" than those around him who engage, one way or another, in a destructive and inhumane war. The reader to some extent shares the frustration of the medical officer who tries to "save" Michael. But save him from what and to what?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

FDR by Jean Edward Smith

Excellent biography for the general reader. There have been many books on Roosevelt recently, several about his relationship with Churchill specifically, but not a complete biography. Smith sees Roosevelt as, with Washington and Lincoln, in the top echelon of influential American presidents and her book is intended to show why. But she is also sensitive to his faults and doesn’t hesitate to condemn a number of his actions and attitudes, not the least of which was his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court by mandating another justice for every justice who turned 70. The reader has a sense of a factual and balanced view of an extraordinary man.

This isn’t a biography with startlingly new information. I’ve read a lot of books about Roosevelt and a lot of histories in which Roosevelt figures prominently and was surprised by nothing but still delighted with the book because of Smith's ability to analyze Roosevelt’s attitudes and actions in detail, free of political and popular bias. The one section of the book that seemed to me particularly good was her analysis of the build up to the attack on Pearl Harbor which revisionist historians recently have construed to suggest that Roosevelt deliberately allowed to happen in order to have an excuse for the US to enter the war. Certainly Roosevelt saw that necessity before the country as a whole was willing to abandon its isolationism, but after reading Smith’s account I’m convinced that the revisionist’s were wrong about Roosevelt. One particularly interesting facet was the attempt of Ambassador Joseph C. Grew to broker a rapprochement with Japan through the Japanese prime minister who did not want war but who was facing an ever-more-militant party within the government. Grew cabled the prime minister’s offer of talks to Roosevelt, but Roosevelt was in Placentia Bay at the time meeting with Churchill and drafting what became the Atlantic Charter. Evidently Grew’s cable was dealt with by more militant and anti-Japanese elements within the State Department.

Smith devoted more attention to the New Deal, both its successes and its failures, than to WWII which seemed odd to me, but after all, those years constituted a larger proportion of FDR’s presidency and the war years have been covered so thoroughly in the recent spate of books on WWII and Roosevelt’s role and influence. I was particularly convinced of Roosevelt’s power as a politician and leader when Smith showed how his positive attitude and ability to communicate with all Americans appealed to the people who had heard nothing but doom and gloom from Hoover who was not an inspiring communicator. In fact, with the US facing a Presidential choice at this time, it reminds me that sometimes the ability to communicate a vision is the most important job of a national leader.

Oh yes, I was surprised by one thing. There was an assassination attempt on Roosevelt before his first inauguration. In Feb of 1933 he had been on a yacht with Harvard friends (last vacation before taking up his duties). They put in at Miami because Roosevelt was supposed to address a rally/convention of the American Legion in a park. After his talk which he gave from the back of the car, 5 shots came in rapid succession. One hit the mayor of Chicago who was talking to Roosevelt. Then as afterwards became clear, the last shot, evidently intended for Roosevelt, went wide when a woman in the crowd hit the assassin's arm with her handbag. At least two other people were hit but not killed. Roosevelt overrode the Secret Service and got Cermak (Chicago mayor) into the car and took him to the hospital. He didn't die right away but when he did, the assassin, an unemployed bricklayer of Italian extraction was tried, and sentenced to death.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Being Dead by Jim Crace

I avoided this book when it came out. Morbid. Icky. Or so the reviews I read suggested. But when it was chosen for a book group I belong to I bought it. This one is not to be missed.

A couple in their 50ies, both with academic degrees in zoology take a Tuesday off to drive to an isolated beach which happens to be the place where they first met 30 years before. He wants to make love on the beach. She’s less motivated but warms to his interest. Then they’re attacked by an unknown assailant who bashes them with a piece of granite, robs them and makes off with their car. The book is not a murder mystery and the reader never focuses on the search for the killer. Rather the focus is on the dead, on how they die and how long it takes and what happens to their bodies in the 6 days before they are found.

There’s also the backstory: how Joseph and Celice met at a “study house” on that beach with 4 other graduate students. They were the odd ones out. Three of the four men went immediately to a bar to look for women; after flirting unsuccessfully with the other woman who was very pretty. Celice is too tall and too forward to be “conventionally attractive”. Joseph is too short and too shy. We see glimpses of their subsequent life, not fairy tale happy but a good life.

The daughter, Syl, consciously unacademic and striving to be different from her parents, is responsible finally for finding the bodies. She quits her waitress job in a distant city, goes home expecting a simple explanation but, increasingly numb, goes through the motions of contacting hospitals, morgues, the police.

Part of the backstory, though, is of the beach, how it’s changed since their student days (and how change is part of the natural order), how it’s shortly going to be fenced off as part of a private high end development, how the grass and sand and bugs and birds react to the bodies. It’s a paean to the biological principles that have guided Joseph and Celice’s lives.

The image of Joseph reaching for Celice's foot as he dies is a powerful one. It affects even their daughter who is rebellious and skeptical about human relationships and ultimately as the bodies are moved (into coffins that don't fit because the powers that be assumed a man's body needed a longer one and a woman a shorter one), it's sad that conventional treatment of the dead separates them and takes them out of the realm of nature which had been their lives.